I counted the turns and twists as I followed the stream of rats. Three twists, seven turns, another twist and a drop and then I was back where I had started the day before. The enormous green doors hung before me and I stayed back in the shadows of the hallway, watching carefully as the doors opened and a group of rats in human form gracefully entered to the cheers of many.
“I thought I asked you to stay in your rooms?” An even voice behind me was Gnar, but I absently waved at him as my eyes were stuck on the figures greeting the rats in the doorway.
Finally seeing the prince in human form was overwhelming and at once my heart was captured. Auburn hair was trimmed neatly against healthy olive tanned skin. He was surrounded by darkly tanned men and woman, their dark coloring giving them a rather menacing look and letting him stand out all the more in his bright white suit and fine leather shoes. It only took a moment before he caught me watching his entrance, his dark eyes shone with a curiosity equal to my own. With a quick stride forward he closed the distance between us in an instant and suddenly his beautiful face was too near. I stumbled back but strong arms caught me close. He had to duck down to match his eyes with my own, a strange flipflop and the humor didn’t escape him from what I could tell of his smile.
I didn’t resist as he pulled me even closer, warm lips just a whisper brushing against my own and my heart skipped a beat; however before they pressed he had pulled away. I imagine my bewildered expression must have been quite amusing since both the prince and Gnar began chuckling, the latter laughing into a curved hand before casually brushing it back through his hair.
“Did you kiss me?” I asked naively. His eyes widened and so did his smile.
“Would you like me to?” The prince asked, strangely turning to Gnar as if asking permission.
I suddenly remembered then that the almost kiss was familiar, I had seen the other rats do it the day before in greeting, was that all it was? My face flushed but my response was cut off.
“Bosha-mi!” A trilling voice rang from the doorway and in popped a beautiful slender woman with long stark white hair. For half a moment I mistook her for the ice princess since her height and stature was just as lovely as my friend; but when her eyes turned towards me I knew she could not be. They were a disturbingly ruby red color that made it look as if she were crying blood. I caught myself from gasping, but the expression on my face must have shown my shock quite well enough.
“Is this her?” The ruby eyes woman asked excitedly and both the prince and Gnar nodded once with a strange grimace.
“Chuh.” She said, stepping towards me and nodding once. My mind raced for an appropriate response.
“Chuh.” I finally replied and the room became still at once. I looked around, heart throbbing in my ears as I tried to figure out what I had done wrong, everyone’s eyes were cast down at their feet except for the female, who glared at me for some untold reason. I shuddered and stepped away from her, she hesitated and bit at her bottom lip as if trying to reason out what should be done with me.
Gnar was the first to break the sudden awkward silence.
“Easy Bosha.” He said to the female. “She is still only a pi-mi-lo.” The female only glared and him as he turned back to me. “When greeting one of higher rank we must reply Che.” He corrected and I nodded quickly. Turning back to the beautiful woman I took a deep breath and whispered, “Che” and all at once the tenseness left the ruby eyed woman’s body and again she was smiling.
“You are a quick learner!” She said to me, and then turning to the prince as if I had left the room, “She is most wonderfully rustic, nothing like the Bosha girl.”
My face blushed even deeper until I was sure my face was as deeply red as her eyes, but no one seemed to notice.
“Let me introduce the lady Calladonna,” Gnar said gesturing towards the woman. “She is the Bosha-mi’s fiancé.”
My eyes shot to prince rat and he was smiling, proud by the announcement. A tiny hope died inside of me and I nodded. He and I were only friends after all.
“Prince rat, why did you bring me here?” I asked when most of the crowd had left the room.
He quickly brushed lips with the female and then without a word of goodbye she strode off back to the hallway.
“I thought that you would like to see where I am from.” He answered simply.
“Well I do.” I was. I was enjoying myself seeing his world, but at the same time I couldn’t help wonder why the rats would have gone to such trouble to bring me here when it seemed like the Mischief was meant to be kept a secret from non rats. Call me distrustful if you will, but at the time I was a little confused about which way was up and who was friend or foe. The rats certainly brought a ray of hope into my crumbling life, but I had to wonder why me?
“I am sorry.” The prince said. I looked up and found him much too close again.
“It seems you find me frightening in this form.”
I didn’t really, did I? I shook my head and he chuckled.
“Perhaps you would let me ride on your shoulder for a bit? I am extremely worn from my trip.”
Before I could answer he was gone from my sight. I looked all around me but found him very much gone. It wasn’t until I felt the weight on my foot that I understood that he had changed back into a rat. Out of habit I picked him up, body fat and squishy like a water bottle, and rested him on my shoulder. A warm nose prodded at my ear and whiskers tickled my cheek. He was right, it was easier like this. The prince rat took me off castle grounds into the lush forests of the Mischief. It was greener than I had expected and twice as blue. Always Gnar walked a step behind us, drifting silently like a ghost and translating everything the prince cared to say to me never adding a word of his own.
“You threw away my prize that day by the river.” Gnar’s voice said from behind me.
“The bird?” I asked looking to the little copper creature on my shoulder who glared at me reproachfully around a mouthful of my sweatshirt.
“Yes, you threw it away, it took me much effort to pull it from its perch, I’d like an explanation.”
That threw me a little, for I always assumed the bird had been dead when prince rat found him. Had he been hunting for birds that day? And if so, where had he kept his hounds?
“Birds carry disease, I didn’t want you to get sick.” I replied.
“Pimilo, I am centuries older than you, I have led wars and forged peace, I have married and had families of innumerable size. I am ageless and you thought I would succumb to a bird disease?”
I blushed crimson and Gnar hesitated behind us, pulling his silver comb through his hair twice before continuing.
“But you are a kind Pimilo, its why you interest me so.”
We walked the rest of the way in relative silence. The prince rat said nothing of my return home and a single seed of worry rested in my chest as my mind turned to doubt. Exactly why had they brought me here. Surely the prince had other human friends?
When we reached the edge of the green we stopped. Gnar pointed out over a sandy expanse. Silver glittered in a netted pattern under the sands.
“Pimilo please never venture further than this green, past it is no longer sanctuary, the sands hold traps that will snap a body in half with one step.”
I shuddered, wondering if the words were my prince’s or Gnar’s own this time.
“I’ve seen snap traps before, back home. My family’s barns had a mouse problem so my father set them out. Snapped the poor little guy’s head clean off.”
Gnar nodded grimly.
“We borrow much from the other worlds, both good and bad.”
As we walked back towards the rooms the seed of doubt began to shudder. Watered by the realization that my father shouldn’t have barns, because my father was a banker, the worry began to sprout.
In my room I was quick to find my photo book. A snack of chocolate puff cookies and warmed milk awaited me on the bedstand and as I gobbled it down I started flipping through the photos. First was my favorite, me and my parents on the day I was born, purple ribbon making me special from the others. The next page was me with my brother’s making pies out of mud in the backyard. I still remember my mother’s wildcat howls of anger as my father only laughed and shot the photo.
“I miss them.” I sighed to myself. My father’s laughter, the smell of my mother’s cooking. I had so many wonderful memories of my childhood, but slowly they were becoming cloudy in my mind.
Flipping to the third page I found something entirely abnormal. Where there should have lain a photo of my father and I at the city zoo, instead I found my uncle holding me when I was maybe three or four. He stood beside a creekbed, a line of three big green river fish proudly held in his free hand. My fingers flipped back and forth, searching for the proper photo, but there was no doubt it had been replaced. A stab of anger shot through me when I imagined my aunt and uncle touching my precious album. Stealing my precious memories and replacing them with lies. Well at least here my photos were safe. Ripping the lie from the book roughly I tore it in fourths and tossed it from the room. Let the rats use it for their nests, memories like those were nothing to me.
A strange vibration at my foot as whiskers brushed over my slippers. Looking down under the breakfast table I found a small unfamiliar gray rat, black beady eyes pleading for a morsel or two. I handed him a piece of muffin which he promptly crammed into his mouth and then looked back up at me as if conveniently forgetting that I had already given him what he wanted. One purple hand reached up at me, waving back and forth as if saying “its ok, look I can carry more.” Rolling my eyes I ripped off another piece and he took it greedily and then hesitated again. It was becoming a little ridiculous.
“Off with you, you can’t even carry anymore!” I scolded, waving him away. The little fellow hopped off with some difficulty, the food occupying his front hands.
I turned my attention back to the plate of food, mouth watering and belly rumbling. The previous day’s walk had worn me out in more ways than one. I picked up a forkful of fluffy golden eggs and that when I felt the next tug on my sock.
“Again?” I growled, looking down to find it a cinnamon colored Oh-bo looking up at me as if he were starving and I his only hope at surviving the day.
“They’ll steal the food right from your mouth if you let them.” The ice princess warned with a smirk. The moment her back turned I slipped a sliver of the bread into the little desperate creature’s grabbing hands and the pudgy fellow darted off without even a squeak of thanks. I could hardly blame the rats however, their culture was different from that of a human. I was quite certain that a thank you had never kept a hungry cat at bay or kept the miller’s traps from snapping, and so I smiled to myself as I watched the little tail disappear around the corner, and slipped a couple more buns into my pockets for later.
With the third tug I was finally exasperated.
“Why do they even bother feeding us if they are gonna steal it all back?” I shouted, banging my fists on the table this newest beggar scampered off, defeated by my anger.
The princess laughed and then tipped her head to me.
“You are starting to learn Oh-bo.”
Jamming a forkful of eggs and onions into my mouth my mind replayed the previous day. There was so much I wanted to ask the ice princess, but I really didn’t know where to start.
“What’s a pi-mi-lo?” I settled on.
She raised her brows and nodded. “Your pronunciation is improving already.”
I was happy for the compliment, but impatient for the answer.
“I suppose the most proper translation for pi-mi would be little one or child. The pinks are their children because as everyone knows rats are born pink and hairless. Mi of course you know already.”
“So… little child or little one.” It sounded friendly to me, almost loving and so I couldn’t stop smiling. If nothing else, at least prince rat still found me as a friend.
“The lo part means something not of this world. They call me the Bosha-lo because I’m royalty that doesn’t belong here. Similarly you are some kid from another world.” She said.
I wondered with a wry smile if my school would accept Mischeif-ese as my foreign language credit next year.
“Do you have family back home?” The princess asked around a spoonful of crème soup, her eyes not on me but sleepily half closed.
“I do.” I said, but it worried me that in my heart I had my doubts if that was still true.
“Perhaps its best to forget them.” She said
The seed within me grew a whole inch and blooming a sharp dagger like leaf it cut me inside and the pain was too much to bear. Silently, I finished my eggs and picked at the remains until the afternoon chime sounded.
Gnar found me after breakfast, a small smile curled on his lips.
“The Bosha-mi requests your presence if you would be so kind as to accompany me?” Today Gnar’s clothes were crimson and indigo, they set off his dark features well although I still preferred the green suit from the first day of our meeting.
As we set forth through the halls it seemed that Gnar walked at double the pace he usually did and I had to jog to keep up with his long strides. The waves of copper and agouti and brown and gray streaming down the hallways seemed more frantic than usual and I wondered if there was a reason for the rush.
“Come now Pimilo,” Gnar urged when I stopped to watch a couple of rats squabbling over running space. They both stood on their hind legs and swatted at eachother like how young girls fight.
“Are we in a hurry?” I asked innocently from where I stooped over the quarreling pair and Gnar turned away, “Of sorts.” He replied and then led me in an ever changing pattern down the hallways, almost as if we were trying to avoid someone.
As a narrow passageway turned into one of the four great halls Gnar suddenly stopped and my nose crashed straight into his back. I looked up and followed his gaze to a tiny form walking down the hallway. I had to strain my eyes to see. It was a very fat rat walking on his hind legs and wearing a tiny rat sized shirt.
Pleasantly round and full of cheer, I didn’t want to admit it but he was even cuter than prince rat and I almost couldn’t stop myself to running to pick up and hug the unfamiliar form tight against my chest. He looked like some sort of clown at a small town circus, fat white belly barely covered by a primly tailored white top. On two legs like a human, the rat waddled side to side with every step, exerting all his effort to move his sizable paunch. I didn’t even need to ask Gnar this time, because if ever there were a proper Bosha-bo, certainly this was him. The streams of color all stopped and nodded as the fat rat king passed them by. I giggled when he tripped on his own tail and hundreds of pairs of black beady eyes turned to stare at me. The king rat’s whiskers twitched once and then he nodded in our direction. Then with a skip and a hop he had turned around the corner and disappeared. I jumped forward to follow, but a warm hand settled upon my shoulder and I found that Gnar was watching me with a strange expression.
“That was the king?” I asked, nearly out of breath from the encounter. Gnar nodded.
“The current Bosha-bo has ruled for countless centuries. He is our most precious friend.”
I couldn’t stop smiling as he led me to the prince’s rooms, I didn’t even notice as every now and again several out of the streams of color racing around the floorboards would stop and turn to peer at me, as if something had changed, as if there was something they were waiting for.
In his rooms the prince was relaxing on a long green couch. Little bits of the fabric and wood were cut away as if it had been chewed. When we entered he looked up over a large open book and smiled.
“Pimilo welcome!” He patted the couch beside him. “I was wondering if I could ask you about your world today. We like to be informed you see about everything and while I was with you there was a lot that I couldn’t quite sort out.”
“Like the bird?” I asked and the prince nodded.
“Like the bird.” He agreed.
“Bosha-mi che-ku?” Gnar asked the prince in their language. When the prince nodded, Gnar swiftly left the room, so I could only assume that he asked to leave.
“I hear from the Bosha-lo that you are quick with our language.” The prince said.
“Would you care to learn from our scholars?” His confident smile said it all, just how long were the rats planning to keep me here?
“Prince rat I appreciate you showing me your world, but I have to get back to school and..”
“Nonsense.” He said, waving a hand at me. “We can manipulate the time when it comes time for you to return. If you want I can even send you back a week before that horrid test you failed.”
He was right. I had failed geography the month before and received quite a swap on my knuckles for it. Surely I had no reason to fear staying here as long as I cared to, but something about committing to this world still made me uneasy. Delly’s words rang through my memory, Perhaps its best to forget them. No, I couldn’t afford to forget my family, because if I did then I really would have no hope of getting things back to where they belonged.
“Can’t I go back to get my things?” I asked with a nervous laugh.
“That's what the Mi-oh are for.” He said, “Anything you want you only need ask.”
With that he turned towards the book, grabbing a pen in one hand, I could tell from his expression that he felt the matter most entirely closed.
And so the days were spent. My mornings I would eat with the ice princess as she taught me of the rat’s language and in the afternoons I was to educate prince rat in the ways of my world. I was quite taken with the seriousness with which he regarded me. It didn't seem to matter that I was a pi-mi-lo, I still had knowledge within me which he called wisdom. One day I asked the prince,
“Why is knowledge so important to the Mischief?” and he regarded me with sad eyes.
“In all the kingdoms in all the world we have sat and watched for centuries as royalty rises and falls, all the coup d’états and great plagues and Trojan horses. Through all of it we have watched and we have learned from it that it doesn’t matter how great a kingdom is, or how strong or how rich, but only how much knowledge of the world it has and its willingness to change its ways to suit the world. Our world changes with our hearts and our hearts are full of the world’s knowledge. As long as we never stop learning more, our world will never fail.”
He showed me a photo of a great man. His bright green and yellow suit made me giggle and the great emblem of a fire fox on his lapel was unfamiliar to me.
“This is Gregor of Tirrin. At one time he was the greatest ruler in all of his world, but with one single cold he was destroyed. His healers were set in their ways and when a helpful dealer of magic offered his services he was quickly,” He made a slash over his neck with two fingers, “ beheaded. Magic was banned you see and the healers couldn’t look past their own fears to heal their king and thus he died. As you can imagine, shortly after the kingdom fell to complete ruin.”
A sad story. I frowned and the prince brushed his fingertips under my chin until I was looking up at him.
“Its what our kingdom hopes to avoid. Knowledge is the key to self preservation, and if along the way we can share our information, then all the better right?”
I nodded dully, my mind still stuck on Gregor dying in his bed and his healers worked with their herbs and the magic dealer beheaded.
“Do rats have a religion?” I asked, an old question I figured I might as well have answered. The prince regarded me for a long moment.
“Of sorts, not the kind of which you think of. No churches or gods or goblets of wine. We do believe though, that there must be something for our fallen comrades. I think the idea of heaven is a necessity if one desires to keep their sanity.”
“Do you let mice come here?” I asked and he scoffed like I was an idiot.
“Sadly the little fellows look much like our forms and have therefore been hated for an eternity, but they follow us in looks alone. It would be a punishment to bring them along here where they couldn’t understand our customs, where they would be blamed for soiling the fineries. Mice belong in their own worlds, let them snap the traps meant for the followers of the Mischief, their lives are short anyways.”
“Prince!” I glared and readied myself to scold him for such harsh words but in an instant he was pressed against me, pushing my back into the couch as his lips brushed my own. I had gotten the answer to that on the second day, not a kiss but a sniff. With one smell a rat could tell a lot about one’s mood, but it was disconcerting nonetheless.
“Stop that!” I growled and he backed off with a smile.
“You have asked me two questions now so let me ask you some. You called me a pirate once.” He said accusingly and I froze. He cocked his head to the side and narrowed his dark eyes.
“What is a pirate?”
And so our lessons went. By the first week I had learned much more of the Mischief than I felt I knew of my own world, but always there would be questions and I was surprised at the simplicity of what the rats couldn’t understand. Why did humans hold hands before dinner? What were the little white folds of fabric by our dishes? Why did we allow one man to run our kingdom when he wasn’t the most round?
Some of the questions made me laugh, some made me angry and just a few reminded me that this wasn't my world and it was after those lessons that I would return to my room and flip to the first page of my photobook. I couldn’t afford to loose myself here, even if its where I had always belonged. I rarely saw the prince’s fiancé and when I did she only smiled at me, ruby eyes bleeding a welcome, I couldn’t bring myself to speak with her a second time. Something about her was terribly frightening.
It was on my second week that I flipped past my first page of my photobook and screamed. The page which once held the photo of my brothers and I, now was a photo of me dressed in near rags, milking my father’s dairy cows. No, not my father’s my uncle’s. Dropping to my knees the book fell half from my hands. My borrowed room was already filled with my possessions from my home. The Mi-oh made quick work of collecting them and now I grabbed my beloved terrier dog into my arms as I threw the horrid book away. A swift knock came at the door and I didn’t even have to look to know it was Gnar. Was the footman guarding me always?
“Pimilo? What’s wrong?” He asked, breathless for it seemed he had run to the screams. I pointed to the book like it were a ghost.
“Someone has stolen my photos.” I whispered. Gnar walked to the book and picked it up.
I thought they would be safe here in the Mischeif. My mind shouted, My memories are fading so quickly I’ll never find it on my own.
Flipping through the pages of the book, Gnar murmured now and again before looking back at me with a worried expression. “They are all there pimilo, every page is filled.” He held the book up and flipped through it for me. The first photo thankfully was the same as ever, the second me with the cows, the third me and uncle by the river bank. From there on every photo was how it shouldn’t be. Dozens of photos of me looking ragged and bone skinny sitting with my head hanging low by my uncle’s side. In the early photos there was also a shadow of a woman hanging by his side. I couldn’t quite make it out but this was what scared me the most. I couldn’t take it anymore and knocked the book to the ground from Gnar’s hands. As always he reacted calmly, stooping to pick up the book and slide it back onto its place on the shelf by my bed.
“Someone has been stealing from me!” I shouted, mind unable to accept anything else.
“It must be the Mi-oh! They are the only ones who can take from my world and slip in so unnoticed.”
Gnar had a hand to my lips before I could utter another sound. It was the first time he had touched me and I shuddered under his light embrace.
“Say no more pimilo. It is treason to accuse the Mi-oh. They support us all.”
I glared at him when he pulled away, but it was perhaps the first time that I had seen him look so worried and so I stayed quiet as the day progressed. The moment breakfast was done I excused myself from the ice princess and rushed back to my rooms. The photobook was the same as before, but I couldn’t risk loosing any more of my precious memories. So with a quick tug I pulled my baby photo from the book and tucked it into my pockets.
That day something terrible happened. While with the prince in our lessons I heard a scream. When I asked the prince,
“What was that?” He only replied, “I heard nothing.” But I knew what I had heard and so I jumped from the room and ran to the sound, quickly wishing that I had listened to instinct and stayed away. Bound my hands, feet and tail a tiny gray fellow was being read his rights by a legion of Mi-oh. I hadn’t noticed them before, blending in so well to the shadows in their dark forms, but now in human form I recognized a strange thing, every one of the Mi-oh with their olive skin and dark hair and eyes could have been a twin of Gnar.
“For sacrificing the honor of the Mischeif by making assumptions about the Mi-oh which are wholly untrue. Daniel Pi-bo is being sentenced to death.”
My jaw dropped but before I could step forward they had killed him. It was no grand affair. Bound in the form of a rat, it only took one quick snap of the wrist and then his spirit soared with god. A hand settled on my shoulder, it was the prince.
“Pimilo you shouldn’t watch such things.” He murmured, running a hand over my hair twice gently.
“Why was he killed prince?” Prince rat shook his head. “The Mi-oh have strict rules, surely he broke one of them.”
I was annoyed by his indifference. “Daniel pi-bo” the pudgy rat had been just a baby and they killed him. Perhaps they had a population problem at the Mischeif, but that was still no reason for any life to be given such a low status.
In irritation, for the rest of the day for each question he asked my every answer was a falsity and I didn’t care if he knew it. Sticking my hand into my pockets my fingers curled over my photo, I couldn’t forget who I was.
When I left the lessons, as always Gnar was there to greet me. I glared at him.
“You are a Mi-oh?” I asked and he looked surprised. “I was in my younger days.” He said, “The travel and the trouble gets to you with time, so now I am meerly the Bosha-mi’s servant.”
I wasn’t satisfied.
“You know they killed someone today. A young rat by the name of Daniel?” I was fuming and Gnar stepped in front of me blocking my path. Getting down on one knee he nodded to me once.
“Pimilo, things in the Mischief that are necessary will seem strange to you, but they are for the good of the people. Please avoid speaking poorly about the Mi-oh.” The way he knelt made it seem as though he were begging me and I finally turned away.
“Fine Gnar, but killing a little kid is never ok.”
I stalked off without him to my rooms.
“Stupid rats.” I grumbled. “Think they are so great, what about the black plague?” I shouted kicking a boot at the door.
“The Mi-oh are just stashers and thieves.” I growled, frustrated by the day and how everyone just seemed to accept it all. I kicked off my other boot and when it struck my side table I heard a squeak. I froze in my bed and waited. For several moments there was nothing, and then suddenly the sound of skittering feet. I turned my head to the side just in time to see a small black form dashing out my door, cracked open although I had been certain to secure it.
“No!” I shouted, but the little creature was gone. As dark as he was, there was no doubt in my mind that it was one of the Mi-oh’s spies. Well, I hadn’t said anything terrible, just the rantings of a pimilo. I fell back into bed with a long sigh. My hand rested on my chest but I couldn’t get comfortable. I turned this way and that and then remembered the photo. I would curse myself if it had crumbled. Shooting a hand into my pockets I found nothing and the seed inside of me grew a sharp edged leaf.
“Where is it?” I whispered. Searching frantically now, tossing over pillows and digging my hands through the covers. It had to be somewhere. I searched my path from the doorway and back again. I found nothing in my boots nor my long socks. It was then that I remembered the little black rat racing out in such a hurry, had he stolen it? My final precious memory?
As fast as my tiny feet could take me I ran to the prince’s rooms and flung open the door. He wasn’t in the sitting room where I took the lessons, but I heard voices coming from further back in the chambers. I hesitated to call out, instead I crept forward and cocked my ear towards the words.
“The little oh-bo has no sense of time does she?” a feminine voice twittered.
“Its been ages and she thinks it days. She seems rather lost in this world, isn’t it cruel to keep her as a pet?”
“She is quite willing to talk Calla. You should hear the wild stories she knows about the humans of her world.” This voice was the prince I knew him well enough. I supposed it shouldn’t be strange to me that his fiancé be with him in his rooms, but somehow I felt a sense of betrayal. Did he always meet with her after our lessons?
“What of the photo then?” The blood eyes female’s voice cracked in amusement and I froze completely, unable to even breathe.
“Well that was quite a funny story really.” The prince said, “When we met she showed it to me, saying that it was her most precious memory. Fool thing is that the memory was never hers to begin with.”
The laughter that followed was enough to swallow up my fear whole. Bursting through the door with all my strength I scared the pair right back into their true forms. Before they recovered themselves I took back what lay on the bed: My photo, and jammed it into my pockets.
“Prince rat you are terrible!” I shouted, stabbing a finger at his surprised face. His ears rolled back on his head and his tiny tail curled. The female hissed and I hissed back.
“How could you?” I tried to fling all my fury at them, but it too soon turned to tears. I settled for tossing pillows and then I fled into the hallway, rushing back to my rooms, trying to escape my sadness. Only, when I rounded the final corner I found the legion of Mi-oh standing before my door and in front of them all, the great Bosha-bo himself.
Hands and feet bound they dragged me along the hallways. I hoped for a moment that they were taking me home, but then I knew all too well that the third hall led to the killing wall. The smell of acrid blood filled the air. I had never recognized this scent before but now I understood why Gnar had always avoided this hallway on our walks.
When we reached the wall the legion stopped and the great king, less than a foot high in his true form, stood witness as a dark haired man stepped forward.
“For the crime of conspiracy against the Mischief. For the crime of bringing up our sad history and for the crime of bemusement at the great king’s expense, we sentence you to death.”
A shallow bolt of fear ran along my spine. Back and forth it stung me as I struggled in my bindings. Where was the prince rat? Where was Gnar? This couldn’t be real and yet I could hear the cheers around me, I could feel the coolness of the hall on my cheeks and sense the dripping of blood from where I struggled against my bindings. I had never realized how much I feared death until that moment.
I wondered if they would kill me like Daniel. If they would snap my neck in a quick way or if I would be punished greater? When had I ever been bemused at the Bosha-bo’s misfourtune? When he tripped? Was that why everyone had watched me so?
“Stop.” A voice shot over the cheering. It was the ice princess. She stood with her hands on her hips and glared at the Mi-oh that held me secured. Never once did her eyes stray to the Bosha-bo.
“The girl is a pimilo.” She argued. “Our world isn’t as strict as the one here, she didn’t know.”
“She was warned.” The dark man holding me growled. “I heard it with my own ears as did my comrades.” A handful of the dark men nodded in sequence and the princess’ shoulders dropped.
“Just send her back then. She dosen’t belong here.”
“Bosha-lo.” The Bosha-bo’s voice was unmistakable. Deep and pure, it was a shame my bindings held me so tight that I could not even turn my head to see his human form.
“Bosha-lo you speak for the girl?” The ice princess froze and her voice rose to desperation. “She is learning your ways quickly, she is only a child and cannot be expected to follow the same path as your other Ob-bos here.” Still the princess spoke only to the Mi-oh holding me, as if the king hadn’t spoken at all.
“But do you speak for her?” The Bosha-bo’s voice was demanding now and it shook the hall so hard that bits of scrabble and grit fell all around.
The princess hesitated.
“I speak for her.” Gnar’s green boots stepped before my eyes. My heard pounding in my chest I didn’t dare to move, but he knelt down and gently ran his fingers through my hair three times. Several moments of silence followed and then I was released. Rubbing my wrists I found them raw from the pulling and I jumped to Gnar’s side. The Bosha-bo was gone and the Mi-oh looked conflicted.
“That was a stupid move Gnar.” Said one of the female Mi-oh so similar that she could have been his sister. He nodded back at her and then turned to smile at me.
“You may return to your rooms now.” He said.
“No pimilo, I must stay here now. You go and rest, all is well now. Please follow the rules in the future.”
I hesitated for a moment and the ice princess appeared beside me. A long look passed between her and Gnar and then with a frown she tugged at my arm.
“Lets go Oh-bo.” She growled, “Before they change their minds.”
Our pace was breakneck back to my rooms. The princess’s face was as worried as I ever remembered having seen it before.
When we slammed inside she was crying and I put a hand to her arm only to have it swatted away.
“You idiot child!” She snarled. “Now what will become of Gnar because of your stupidity?”
I stared blankly at her fury. Gnar? What of Gnar?
“They are watching at every moment you idiot. The Mi-oh cannot be tricked, they are omnipresent. If you forget again it will be your neck!””
As she reached for the door I grabbed the knob and stopped her.
“What will happen to Gnar? What did he mean by speaking for me?”
“They’ll cut off his tail!”
I dropped to my knees in horror. What had I done? Was there still time?
“It's the same as death. The tail holds the Mi-oh’s power. Without it he can only hope to age and die like his fellows. Two years on average. Oh you stupid stupid oh-bo-lo.”
She shoved me to the side and pushed out of the door. Leaving me on my own I began to cry. I tugged at the knob but found it thoroughly locked. Moments later the whole castle shook right down to its roots and the door swung open. But I didn’t try to escape, because I knew now it was too late to save Gnar from the fate I prescribed him.
By habit my fingers grabbed for my photobook. When I flipped it open I found the first page had its photo properly in place. When had prince rat snuck this back in? My fingers danced over the glossy page. The lighting was the same, but when I looked closer something about the smiles was slightly off.
A scream tore from my lips and I dropped the album. The brown book lay at my feet, mercilessly opened at the very photo that I had always cherished so. Where a father once held me now was my uncle, where my mother had smiled was an unfamiliar woman, the shadow in my other fakes and most certainly the true woman who had bore me. Worst of all my bow, my special, special purple bow, was now such a common pink. There was no doubt now, everything that I had ever known was a lie.
“No~!” I screamed as I tore out through the hallways, colors scattering as rats scurried out of my way. Squeaks of pain stabbed at me as some were too slow to react. Had I killed them? I couldn’t know. I knew where the doors were, I had counted the twists and turns. I couldn’t allow this reality. With all my strength I pushed open the outer doors to the room with the big green doors and stopped short when a familiar form stepped before me. Gnar.
“Let me go!” I screeched at him. The dark rat sighed and his shoulders dropped.
“Its not safe there.” He said, A hand reached towards me and I shrugged away. “Its safe here in the Mischief. We would all like for you to stay.”
My blood boiled with fury.
“This place is a lie! You said I could have my wishes, that you would fix everything, well everything is completely wrong!”
He looked at his feet, mouth twitching as if whiskers really were attached. I became impatient awaiting a response and stepped forward, but my guide stuck out his arm to block me.
“I have already granted your first wish. On our first meeting when I gave you my name I granted you what you most desired in the world.”
“What I most desired?”
His dark eyes raised to meet my own and their seriousness made me shiver. When we first met? A coldness wrapped around my chest, crushingly oppressive as my breathing slowed.
“What wish?” I demanded, but in my heart I knew.
“You wished for the happiness that you had seen but never known. You wished for a happy family like the happiness that you saw in your uncle the banker’s large family. You wished to be a part of that family instead of the one that brought you such misery and that's exactly what I granted you.”
“Sadly,” He continued, “The effects seem to have worn off after several years, the system is yet to be perfected and now without my tail every wish that I have granted in my lifetime will have come completely undone.”
So my happy childhood was never real. My father’s laughter, my mother’s delicious breakfasts. The terrible sewing lessons and picking fruit from my brother’s shoulders. None of it.
“That's why my photo changed?” I asked shakily and his dark eyes focused clearly on my own which were already filled with tears ready to drop.
“Pimilo there are always three wishes, always.”
It was too much to take. I hated him, hated the prince rat, hated the ice princess, hated the Mi-oh, hated it all. With a hop and a dash I was to the gigantic doors and through them before Gnar could even squeak a warning.
Dropping back into my world was more painful than I could have ever imagined. Brightness so white that it burned my nails and a darkness so empty that it froze me down to my bones and grayed my hair. A patterned net tore as me as I dropped through it. Again and again it ripped at my flesh and mangled my features, pushing my skin so tight that it wrinkled and pressing my joints until they creaked. Last was the water, I sunk into it so deep that kicking for the surface was useless, when I could no longer control myself I gasped for air and its wetness burned my insides, weakening my lungs, my bowels and my heart. Just when I closed my eyes, accepting my fate, I found myself standing before a bronze mirror eyes wide open.
A crone stood where a child should be and the pain of age wracked my body like a disease. Wrinkled hands groped at sagging skin and a face covered by liver spots and sores. Reddened eyes were wet with perpetual tears and an unfamiliar groan escaped enemy red lips as a tear flew to my feet. I had lost a lifetime in one wide step and all that stood before me now was death.
In India at the Karni Mata Rat Temple it is said that when rats die they become human. Perhaps the Mischief know this too? If they can manipulate time then certainly death is no challenge. I see no other logic for their successful manipulation of the human form. At this temple it is also said that when human beings die they are reincarnated as rats. I don’t have much time left in this life so when I do pass I hope that I can return to the Mischief. While I am still owed two wishes, perhaps if god is willing I will obtain the happiness which has eluded me since I awoke to this reality.