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The Rat King

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They call him Everyman first. It makes the Outsider laugh, as much as anything does. The prayers know where to go, even if the name is wrong – they never will get it right, even as Corvo’s mortality fades from memory and he becomes something more than he was – and Corvo’s head rattles with pleas for everyman everyman everyman. It sets his teeth on edge.

The Void starts to fill with rats. That amuses the Outsider too. There is little that fails to amuse him.

It’s that first, fledgling name that sets all else in motion, wrong as it is. Even when Corvo’s worshipped name changes, that first misbelief stays.

 

(one)

 

It’s dangerous to talk about the King openly. Him and the Leviathan – Lessa kisses the back of her hand at just thinking about that beast – are both, well, unpopular these days. But they’re the only real gods around, popular or not. Her friends might shun her if they found out she was faithful, but at least she’s not spending her devotion in front of any false idols.

Only rats for her. Well, she’d seen it hadn’t she? Clear as day. Swarm of rats, hundred strong, up from the gutters and down the street, and if that wasn’t a sign of the Rat King then Lessa didn’t know what was. She’d had a look after, down in the gutter, and she’d been able to see a little slice of whalebone hidden down there – awful stuff to look at. Made her sick thinking about it, that awful thing lurking beneath the sea.

But the King keeps her safe, and she prays to him nightly. Burns incense and kisses her hand for luck, like they all say to. She even has a shrine, only a little thing, decorated with a handful of rat teeth – not in the house, of course, because that wouldn’t be proper. But there was a rotted old cellar three doors down that old Maid Goran certainly never got down to any longer, with proper storm doors leading straight outside. If it was ever found, the guard would only think old Maid Goran had made it, the old bat.

Lessa makes sure to leave plenty of offerings out for the King. Bread and cheese, usually, and any scraps left over from meals. There are always lots of rats in the cellar. The King is probably very pleased with Lessa’s offerings. He’s probably very pleased with Lessa.

So she makes sure to keep up the offerings and prayers. Can’t fall out of favour, because if she did – Lessa shudders to think of it.

If she did, the Outsider might get her.

She kisses her hand thrice for luck just for thinking his name.

 

(two)

 

“... and the Outsider raised the Pretender up to godhood,” Pavel spits, crushing a rat skull underfoot, “and how was he repaid?”

His congregation cry out, “Betrayal!”

Pavel smiles. He has always had a cruel smile. “Yes,” he says. “He was betrayed, by one whom he treasured. One whom he marked.” A shudder ripples through his congregation. The horror is palpable. “And through his stolen godhood, the Pretender declared war upon the Outsider; he stole the faithful,” and here his people hiss, “and he stole his marked,” and they cry out, as if injured, “but he had already stolen that which the Outsider valued most! For he had taken the Outsider’s trust and he had shattered it,” and they wail before Pavel, reaching out hands to touch his purple finery.

“We must fight back!” calls one brave soul. “Destroy the Pretender’s shrines! Kill his vermin!”

The smile on Pavel’s face deepens. “My friends,” he says, reaching back out to them, brushing reverent hands. “My friends,” he repeats, “you have the right of it.”

 

(three)

 

A sad man comes in Isobel’s dreams. He has half a face and a black crown over his brow, and Isobel knows he’s Mama’s god. He has rats a lot, but they’re not like the rats Isobel sees outside – skinny things that the cats hunt down and kill, at least until Mama throws sticks and stones at them. The sad man’s rats are big and fat, with pretty bright eyes and soft fur. He lets them climb all over her, and they curl up in her lap and make contented chirrups.

Sometimes he talks about a person he used to know. He says Isobel reminds him of her, but he doesn’t say why. He cried once, when Isobel asked what happened to her, and the tears from the normal side of his face had been clear and glittery, but the tears from his skull face had been blue and black and strange. When Isobel had stood up to wipe them away, they’d turned her fingers funny colours.

Isobel tells him about the bad man sometimes. Mama likes talking about the bad man. He’s not really a man, Mama says, but the sad man in Isobel’s dreams will keep them safe from the bad man.

The sad man is a lot less sad when Isobel talks about the bad man. He tells her if she ever sees him, she should call him a bad man. Isobel is pretty sure this means the bad man is really really bad, because Mama said that even if you think someone is mean you shouldn’t say that to them, because then you’re just as bad as they are.

The sad man stops visiting Isobel’s dreams as she grows up, but Isobel never forgets him.

 

(four)

 

There is war over it. In far flung places, out where Bastian’s never set eyes. Whenever they make port, it’s all everyone ever talks about. War. War is thrumming through the veins of every city up and down the coast.

It seems a bit of nonsense to him.

The Outsider’s always seen them home again. Everyone shipboard knows that, believes in him like they believe in their own mothers. Not a one of them goes to sea without a bone charm woven into their clothes – Bastian’s is a proper old one, handed down father to daughter, mother to son for more years than his mother could say. The mark on it is almost worn away. It still sings to him at night anyhow, soft and sweet. Whalesong has ever been a comfort to him, and ever been a reason why he could never join one of the whaler crews.

No, it’d been fisherman or nothing for Bastian.

He’d watched once, when they’d brought a whale in. They’re not dead when they’re brought into the slaughterhouses. They’re strung up, still alive, and the butchers go at them with axe and cleaver and say prayers over the blue, blue oil that spills from their flesh.

And then the rats come.

This is always the way. The slaughterhouses are boarded up, and poison and traps are laid down. Anything and everything is done to deter the vermin, to stamp out the monsters.

But as soon as a whale starts to bleed, the rats come bursting up from gutters and scurrying down from the rafters, like a swarming tide. The butchers set their blades to them, spill red rat blood across the slaughterhouse floor – their blades have to be sanctified again, after, and the blood scrubbed and scrubbed away – but nothing can stop the rats.

They can kill a whale in seconds.

Bastian’s sure they do it for the damn pleasure of it.

He might never be able to do what the butchers do, what the whalers do – and they make proper rites over the oil, proper apologies to the Outsider for taking from his beloved children – but it was the rats that really sent Bastian from the slaughterhouse to be sick.

So yes, the war seems a bit of nonsense, but only because it makes no sense.

He can’t imagine anyone wanting to worship anything as horrible as the Rat King.

 

(+ one)

 

Corvo comes into himself slowly; he is first aware of the chains around his wrists, and for one wretched, horrifying moment, imagines he is back in Coldridge – his mind yawns, vast with the possibility that all this has been just an extravagant and horrific dream. But then more of him settles, and he can feel rats at his feet, and the Mark burning on his hand. Someone’s... angry.

Corvo raises his head. It hurts. That seems very wrong. There is something very wrong here. Every inch of him is screaming at the wrongness of it; he is aching in ways he had forgotten he could. Reality seesaws around him, pitching and swaying like he’s out at sea again. There’s a music box playing, the same sickening music the Overseer’s used to play, but someone’s also playing whalesong. Corvo’s head throbs.

Someone touches his face. Corvo flinches. Their hand is too hot against his skin, feels like burning. They’re almost gentle as they brush the hair from Corvo’s face. But then their nails slide along the divide between flesh and mask, and then they pull, and some terrible noise wrenches its way from Corvo’s throat.

Half his face clatters to the floor before him. Corvo feels raw all the way through, shattered. Someone is talking to him, using that ridiculous name – King, they say, as if he ever wanted to be king of anything or anyone.

Corvo peers up at them, through his hanging hair. There are several people gathered. Purple and gold robes, and oh, isn’t he going to be furious?

One of them, twitchy fingered and with a face like Hiram Burrows, pulls Corvo’s head back by his hair. In his other hand, he holds a wickedly curved blade.

“In your name, gentle Outsider,” he says, “we will destroy your enemy.”

They shouldn’t have said his name, Corvo thinks.

Corvo hasn’t seen the Outsider genuinely angry for... no. Ever? He doesn’t get angry. Irritated, displeased, and they argue sometimes but this? This is fury.

He’s very cold. The Void creeps in around the edges of the room, blue and shadowed. The music boxes crack, one by one, as the windows and doors warp into strange and painful shapes. The worshippers stumble together, save for the one still holding Corvo still, and he seems frozen in terror.

A whale moans in the deep, and a cold, quiet voice says, from just behind Corvo, “Let him go.”

The man who looks like Hiram Burrows all but soils himself in his haste to get away. He trips over his feet, drops his dagger, falls into the other worshippers. They’re all staring up at the Outsider like... well, like he’s their god.

He is.

The Outsider cups Corvo’s face, his hands icy and wonderful on Corvo’s skin. His thumb brushes over Corvo’s new bared cheekbone, and he murmurs, “You never fail to entertain, Corvo.”

Corvo manages a smile. Perhaps it’s more a grimace. “I try.”

The chains come loose at the Outsider’s touch, and he urges Corvo to his feet again. Strength returns to Corvo in fits and starts; his rats huddle round his feet and swarm up and over his shoulders briefly, like a cloak, before dropping to the floor again. Whatever the Outsider’s worshippers did, they did it well.

The Outsider bends, and scoops Corvo’s mask-face from the floor. He brushes the dirt from it, fondly, and raises gentle hands to fit it back over Corvo’s face. Some little more of the tension eases from Corvo’s spine.

“A moment longer,” the Outsider says, lifting Corvo’s hand and brushing his lips over his Mark – his followers groan, as if struck bodily. The Outsider has never been a benevolent god. He turns his black, ocean-dark eyes to them, and steals the words from Corvo’s ears.

He says something, but all Corvo hears is whalesong. Corvo tugs his arm, hisses, “I hate it when you do that,” and the Outsider looks at him, all soft and gracious delight, and Corvo knows what he’s going to do the moment before he does it.

One hand cups his jaw, the other on his hip, and the Outsider tastes of salt and sea-air and Void, and Corvo could lose himself in him a thousand times over.

“My dear Corvo,” the Outsider murmurs, and in that moment, the Void swallows them both.