Rats and Cats

Phillip A. Ellis

They say, to catch a thief you must
   Another thief to catch them,
But if you need to catch a rat
   You need a cat to snatch ‘em.

The exceedingly late winter sunlight streamed through the open window of the palazzo, into the airy chamber where a tableau presented itself. Sitting within a large patch of sunlight was the Lady Cartha, and nearby, accompanying himself on a lute, was the poet, Guilan. Wrapped in a cocoon of black velvet, more a muffled box than anything else, the painter Nerval adjusted the thick lens from within, and passed on abrupt commandments: lift this, shift that, and so on. Then he would proceed to paint, the confines of the box serving to both distance himself and to make sharp the image that he was seeking.

Guilan was singing: indeed, he had spent most of this afternoon singing to amuse and placate Cartha, and to keep her from getting too restive. At the moment, he was singing about some love-sick poet, complaining about something or other (he was somewhat abstracted and bored), when Lord Bren, Cartha’s husband, entered suddenly. He looked at the three, absorbed in their tasks, then said: “Painter, poet, we have no need for you now. You may depart while we talk.”

He had clapped his hands thrice before saying this, for attention.

At this, Cartha went livid, stamped her foot, stood, and crossly said: “Husband, how can you say that. As you well now, Guilan is a trusted adviser, and it does well to listen to poets’ advice.” Guilan stopped playing and singing during this, putting down his lute, and rising to go. “Look at him: you drive him out because of what—misplaced pride? He is discreet, as poets must be, and may have some wisdom for us to profit by.”

Lord Bren looked at his wife, then Guilan, then back at his wife: “Very well, if you so desire it. He may stay and give advice if he can. But others are not to hear from it; I’m sure he understands what will happen if words are exchanged. But the painter must go.”

At this point, Nerval poked his head out from his box, and complained: “The light fails anyway. I shall continue and complete another day.” With that, he withdrew from the chamber, bowing to his employers, and swiftly seeking the sanctuary of his rooms.

With Nerval gone, Bren strode to a seat. Taking it, he sat, then said: “I had occasion to look within the coffers this morning. I needed gold, to pay for victuals for the forthcoming spring feast. Anyway, looking within I found quantities of gold missing.”

“Missing? But how?” replied Cartha.

“Stolen, no doubt. The only man who has access to the coffers is Jyr, the chamberlain. No doubt some persuasion would help get the truth from him.”

“Torture him? But why? Has he any gold on him?”

“No… I checked, and searched his quarters, but found none. he must have hidden it elsewhere.”

“Has he been splashing his wealth around?”

“From inquiries no; but he must be biding his time, or else he is a canny man.”

“Has he had reason to steal? And why now?”

“No, he hasn’t. As to now, who can say why?”

“Then, husband of mine, you must consider that he is not the thief at all. He has served your family faithfully for over 35 years, and this, this suspicion is his reward? It is clearly another.”

“But, my dear, who would be the thief?”

The three sat silently, until Guilan spoke.

“Give me a week,” he said, “to find out. If I fail by then, then you may consider the chamberlain.”

Bren looked at him solemnly, then nodded: “Very well. Make whatever arrangements are necessary.”

“I shall need access to the coffers, for evidence”

“Very well; I shall accompany you.

With that, Bren and Guilan rose, and passed out of the room. They made their way to the strongroom, which Guilan inspected cursorily. Then he observed the coffers themselves, oaken chests of impressive solidity. He noticed, but did not draw attention to, a hole in several of the coffers, down by the floor, and similarly sized holes in several of the bags. He then sat back, thinking, and got to his feet.

“There is enough here for the present.”

Then, making his way from the palazzo, he went from tavern to tavern, making the same inquiries everywhere. Had someone from the palazzo been in lately? Did they have wealth? Had anyone come into sudden wealth? And the answers were almost uniformly negative. Only now and then had he gained somewhat of a positive reply. A servant here, a hireling there, but all with no real wealth, only copper and bronze coins, as befitted the lowly-paid and the humble.

Retracing his steps to the palazzo, in the lateness of the day, Guilan was tired but not weary. Despite the absence of positive answers, he had still learnt much.

The next day, he rose early, and entered the city once more. Life proceeded apace around him. Everyone was ignorant of the mystery of the missing gold. Yet Guilan wanted some more answers. This was why he found himself at the local wise woman, seeking to use her knowledge of scrying and similar arts. The hut itself was shabby, poor; clearly, business paid not well for certain practitioners of the arts, whilst for others, such as Guilan, such could supplement neatly his other skills. Presently, the wise woman appeared.

She was in her late middle age, and appeared tired by the vicissitudes of her poor existence. “Good day, sire,” she said, “what may I assist you with?”

“I need help with an inquiry,” Guilan replied. Then he noticed something: “Those holes in the walls—there—what made them?”

“They are rat holes. I must suffer from their presence, since charms and the such are too much for me to afford.”

“Rats, eh? I have an answer to a question of mine, but still more continue.” He paused, tapping hi fingers while he thought. “Can you catch me one tonight. Come tomorrow with one to the Palazzo Bren, and ask for me, Guilan the poet.”

So the holes in the coffers and bags were made by rats; but why? Rats ate not gold. Nor were rats giant ants, in the habit of mining the precious substance. But could they be trained to retrieve, and by whom?

Guilan returned to the Palazzo, and spent the evening cogitating, and making notes. He spent some time in the strongroom again, and found, for certain, rat holes cunningly hidden, and in the walls.

The next day, the wise woman called with a lean, healthy-looking rat, which Guilan bought. This he took to his room, where, from behind locked doors, could be heard cantrips of various sorts attempted and devised, and where the sound of a tinkling thing could be heard.

That night was spring’s eve, and Guilan seemed relaxed and happy. he played several songs, then retired, looking in once more at the strongroom, veiling his actions with uncommon secrecy. But before retiring, he sought out Bren, asking him: “I have need of a favour. Tomorrow is the first day of spring, as we both know. May I proceed from room to room, playing a little tune to welcome the spring? All I need is my whistle, which you see I have, and it will bring you much good fortune.”

Bren thought on this for a moment, then shrugged. “I can’t see why not. It would make a change from the usual routines. How go your inquiries?”

Guilan merely smiled, saying: “They proceed, and an answer shall be had soon enough.”

He slept soundly that night, then rose early.

>From room to room he travelled, trailing his employers, various servants, and other sundry people. His tune was light, yet merry, and the general mood was of gaiety, and happiness at the return of spring. As he proceeded along the upper chambers, Guilan eventually came to a certain bedchamber. Here he played as before, but lo, from a hidden hole there danced a lean but healthy rat, a tinkling bell tied to its tail. It jerked and hopped inexpertly, but its sight amazed the audience. The servants twittered and ran from the room; Lady Cartha seemed entranced, and Lord Bren seemed angered that there was vermin in his palazzo. Only Nerval seemed dumbstruck: his face was white, and he swallowed instead of spoke.

Guilan stopped, said: “Behold I have the thief. It is Nerval: search the room and you shall find your gold.”

Lord Bren summoned some men, saying “Search the room.” He then turned to Guilan, and said: “How do you know this thing?”

“Simple. I noticed rat holes in  both the coffers and bags. This meant that no man had stolen the gold, but rats, uncommon rats. They do not want gold—they can neither eat it nor use it—but they are able to be bewitched into getting it.

“Therefore, the question was not why rats wanted gold, but who would have training and want gold too. I know from my earlier questions that no outsider had come into wealth, and that no base servant had either. Therefore, it would require someone educated, and able to both use sleights (in order to train the rats) and to wait. He had to have patience.

“So I suspected; but was I right?

"They say that you should set a thief to catch a thief: set a rat to follow a rat. I took a rat and charmed it to follow others bearing gold. But, it was not to come out into the open, but to hide until the spring tune was played. Then it was to come out dancing. And all I had to do was go from room to room, to find the culprit.”

Bren was mystified; he looked sternly at Nerval, who, by this time, had recovered somewhat of his colour. “But why? he asked.

“Why?” screeched Nerval, “Why? Why must I ever toil in poverty? Why must I, from palazzo to palazzo, depend upon spoilt Lords for a pittance, while my best work is wasted, squandered, on vain and vacuous wives? Why can I not have the chance to be rich, for once, and to make for myself a name, instead of forever toiling on thankless commissions and forgotten paintings?”

“Why?” asked Guilan, incensed at last, “At least you and I make a living, and lack the woes of being Lords and Ladies, and at least your paintings last, and your name is preserved, whilst poems and poets alike get forgotten. Why? because this is your life, your calling, and you have betrayed the trust of those who would otherwise give you bread, board, and some wealth for your energies. You have shamed us both, and you deserve the worst that can be brought against you.”

With these words, there was a clinking noise; the gold had been found at last, hidden behind the wainscoting.

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