“Try to relax your wrist a little more; your lines will get better if you don’t force it.”
The scratching sound of pen on paper grated on Hamelin’s nerves, as he fought the hardest fight of his life.
“See, that’s much better. Now, just repeat that movement another hundred time.”
Torture. There was no other word for it that an unbearable and unbelievable torture of both the mind and the body. How had the vexen never come upon this device of unspeakable horror?
“You’re doing well, Hamelin. I told you we would find something you could be good at!”
With heavy bags underneath his eyes, Hamelin looked up at Mosel, who smiled ever so sweetly back. “Brother, how much more?” he said, desperate to get out of his current hellhole.
“Just a bit more, don’t worry.”
You’ve been saying that for the past half hour! Hamelin scowled, but acquiesced. He had already tried to excuse himself, but Mosel was determined to see this through. Sighing, he took up the pen again, dipped it in ink, and imitated the strokes that he had been shown.
While he could read just fine, Hamelin had avoided learning how to write properly until now.
Writing, to the vexen, was a matter of scratches and simple lines, because simple was always better. The only advanced language Hamelin had indulged in was that of mathematics, which was necessary for the complicated machinery that the vexen could bring to bear.
However, the writing that Mosel was now introducing him to was both intricate and delicate; the kind that required softness of both mind and hand, neither of which Hamelin was suited for.
“What are you two doing?” Hamelin looked up to see Heston approach with a practice sword in hand and sweating like a mule. Most likely, he had been going through his sword routines.
“Oh, Heston,” Mosel said, perking up with a bright smile, “I’m teaching Hamelin how to write.”
“You think that idiot is going to be able to—” Heston paused and looked at the writings that Hamelin had been doing, “Wait, why are you teaching him Indric?”
Indric? Hamelin looked at the letters once again. At first glance, they appeared the same as the ones found in the library’s books, but the way they combined into words was completely different. He had been so focused on the individual letters that he had not yet put it together.
“I think it suits him,” Mosel said, nodding at Hamelin’s scribbles, “And this way, as long as he gets good at it, there won’t be many to compete against.”
Heston sighed and put a hand to his forehead. “What’s Indric, Brother?” Hamelin asked, looking up at Mosel.
“It’s a dead language,” Heston said, interrupting Mosel, “Utterly and completely useless, just like you.”
With those words, Heston turned and walked away, swatting his practice sword back and forth as if venting.
“Brother?” Hamelin looked to Mosel, who sighed and nodded. “It’s true. The part about it being dead, at least. No one speaks it natively any longer. It’s not useless, though, it just doesn’t have much practical use.”
“Then what good is it?”
“It’s aesthetically pleasing,” Mosel said, raising a finger, “And many noble houses make a point out of having at least one sign written in Indric in order to boast about their descent. There are not many who write in Indric for a living, since it’s not exactly prestigious, so if you devote yourself wholeheartedly to the practice, there will be some who would want your services.”
“You want me to be an artist?”
“That’s the best choice. The alternative would be the priesthood, but I don’t think that life would suit you very well.”
Flinching at the thought, Hamelin suddenly found the wicked letters before him a lot more inviting. Of course, if he was forced into it, he would just find an excuse to disappear and focus on building up the underground force he had just managed to gather.
But that would mean I can never return to here. He felt a surprising sadness at the thought, and bit his lip with frustration. At his chest, the glass marble that Mosel had given him seemed to burn against his skin.
Now that all three crime families in Tremon were under his command, he had no more need to stay here. He could disappear any time he wanted, instead of wasting time here.
Looking up at Mosel again, who faced him with an earnest stare full of expectation, Hamelin finally sighed and began practicing again. Becoming human had made him weak, and yet he did not want to give up this peaceful part of his life up just yet.
Perhaps it was time he showed himself as something else than an idiot. The thought was tempting, even as it meant belying the existence that had protected him until now. If he showed some of his capabilities, the family would have to acknowledge him, and perhaps even support him.
While he was thinking over his options, a commotion nearby caught his and Mosel’s attention. Moment before, a worker had passed by where they sat in the courtyard, and now two servants came out of the house, moving hastily toward the kitchens.
“What’s going on?” Mosel called to them. One of the workers turned and gave a short bow with his head as he said, “Lord Mosel, word has come from town that the rat catcher has returned. We were asked to prepare the pantry.”
“Oh, is that so? Thank you,” Mosel said, dismissing the servant and turning to Hamelin, “Do you want to see the rat catcher at work, Hamelin? I’ve heard that there are some who are quite spectacular to watch.”
Hamelin was just about to ask what the point of that was, when he thought about how he had found Wither. The little rat had been in the pantry, and so perhaps the critters that remained were like him.
Smiling, he said, “Sure, brother, let’s go watch.”
They stood up to go wait for the rat catcher, when a strange man walked into the courtyard, wearing mismatching clothes in colors that clashed against one another so violently it almost burned the eyes.
In one hand, he carried a small wooden flute, while the other held a sack over his shoulder.
Since they were nearby, they heard the man say, “Ahh… What a glorious day this will be.”
“Are you perhaps the rat catcher we have heard about,” Mosel said, walking up to the man.
The man turned to look at them with a wild gaze. Unconsciously, Mosel stepped back from the man. Very quickly, the man’s eyes turned toward Hamelin, who could not help but notice the inkling of a smile on the man’s face. Trying to smile, Mosel tried again, “Uhm, Sir? Are you the rat catcher?”
“Ahh… yes, of course,” the man laughed and gave a deep and elegant bow, “I do indeed catch rats — one might even say it is a passion of mine— My Lord. I am known as Piper.”
“Piper?” Mosel frowned and put a hand to his chin.
“Oh yes, may I ask you fine names, my lords?”
“Of course, I didn’t mean to offend. Your name is just very descriptive, master Piper. I am Mosel and this is Hamelin, both of the House of Whitter.”
“Indeed, I thought as much from your elegant bearings, lord Mosel,” the man said and laughed, then turned his attention on Hamelin. “And this is young lord Hamelin? I do say, you look like a strong lad.”
Hamelin faced the man’s gaze with increasing discomfort. There was something hidden within this Piper’s eyes that he did not fully trust. At the same time, there was something very familiar about this strange and peculiar man.
Mosel laughed a little awkwardly and stepped up in front of Hamelin, “I’m sorry, Master Piper, but my brother is not exactly used to strangers. We would like to observe your skills, is that alright?”
“Of course lord Mosel,” the man laughed and winked at Hamelin, “I am here to serve. Where would I find this pantry of yours?”
“This way, master Piper,” Mosel said, and took Hamelin by the hand as they led the strange rat catcher. They arrived in the kitchen just as the servants had finished preparing the pantry, by clearing out most of the inventory.
“Ahh, excellent,” Piper said and put his hands together with excitement. “Tell me, Goodman,” he said, turning to one of the servants, “Might there be a pond or something similar in the vicinity? Preferably one from which you do not draw water.”
“There is wetland not far into the forest,” one of the servants said, scratching his head, “But what do you want with—”
“That will do,” Piper cut him off before he could say any more, and put the sack onto the ground. “Could you hold this open for me?” He asked, turning to the other servant. After receiving a nod from his partner, the servant stepped up and held the sack.
Nodding, Piper stepped down into the pantry. He was not down there for long, and soon stepped back out to say, “I’ll begin now. Whatever happens, keep the sack completely open, understood?”
The servant swallowed nervously and nodded. “Good, let’s see what we’ve got.” Piper put the flute to his mouth, holding it in a transverse position, and then began playing. Surprised at the display, Hamelin listened closely to the melody, finding it strangely hypnotic.
It felt like Piper was inviting him to a dance, with an alluring sound that made him want to approach. He almost took a step forward before he caught hold of himself, eyes widening with shock. The stranger man had almost defeated his mental defenses.
Looking up, he stared directly into the Piper’s eyes, which were bent like new moons, smiling even as he held the tune in perfect step. Inside his tunic, he sensed Wither rummage, as he had brought the rat with him today. It stirred, as it was also entranced by the music.
Forcefully, he imposed his will on their mental connection, forcing Wither to immediately come back to its senses. He felt its confusion, growing to anger and then concern for its master. Meanwhile, Hamelin stood perfectly still, resisting the tunes with all of his determination.
“By the gods,” one of the servants suddenly said, pointing in the direction of the pantry, “They’re coming out!”
They really were. Ordinary rats, with dark fur and beady eyes, came waltzing up the stairs, as if they were engaged in an elaborately choreographed ballet performance. Spinning around themselves, jumping up on two legs, and even making somersaults, the rats appeared wholly unaware of how exposed they were to their surroundings.
In a fit of collective madness, the creatures danced their way directly into the sack, still held up by a dumbstruck servant. Mosel also stood completely slack-jawed, watching the display. Though it felt like it went on forever, in reality, it took less than a minute before the rats had all willingly jumped into the sack.
With a final crescendo, Piper ended his performance, quickly grabbing the sack from the servant and closing it up. With string, he bound the opening tight, wounding it around several times before he was satisfied. Finally, he returned the sack to the servant and said, “Throw this into the wetlands. That should get rid of them.”
“Y-Yes,” the servant stammered and quickly escaped outside, holding a squirming sack of rats that had just woken up to find themselves confined.
“I-I’ll go tell father,” Mosel said, excitement clear on his face, “I’m certain he will be very pleased!” He ran out of there quicker than anyone could stop him, probably wanting to make their father keep the man here so that he could ask more questions.
The last servant bowed awkwardly and began reorganizing the pantry, leaving Hamelin alone with Piper.
“Well, well,” Piper said, smiling and stepping closer to Hamelin, looming over him with a dangerous gleam in his eyes, “It seems we can finally talk in quiet, Hamelin… Or should I call you Halifax, the thousand faced rat king?”