It was with no small sense of satisfaction that Ambrose watched the rats getting torn limb from limb by his terriers. He barked out orders at his crew, as well as the hired help, and swiped at his brow, heavy with sweat. The scene was a pure rush of frenetic energy, of squealing rats, shouting men, and his small terriers growling and barking viciously as they ripped the rats apart. The excitement and visceral pleasure of the ratting temporarily making him forget his intense discomfort, brought upon by the manure scented and suffocatingly hot summer air of the Maribore Isles.
With great displeasure he saw one plump brown rat, fattened upon the crops no doubt, trying to make a break for it, temporarily unseen by his three dogs. Two of them were chasing the other, Gimlet, who had a rat in his mouth, as they tried to steal his kill. He barked at the dogs, and rapped at Gunther and Max, not hard enough to injure, but enough to get their attention, and frantically pointed towards the chubby vermin escaping.
The two immediately responded, bounding after the evil creature, and in a second they were upon it. Their bodies temporarily blocked his view, but he heard the unmistakable high pitched squeals of fear and pain from the rat. He glanced back to the manure patch the hired help were shifting around, making sure no other rats were escaping.
When he was sure there were no others, for now, he turned back around and was rewarded with the site of the rat being pulled in half. Gunther had his jaws tightly around its head, his teeth no doubt puncturing into its skull, while Max had sunk his fangs deep into its belly from the side. Adding to his grim pleasure, the rat was still clearly alive, frantically moving its little arms around in a vain attempt to prolong the inevitable. Little more than a few seconds later it was torn apart in a gory spray and flung aside by Gunthers thrashing head.
Ratting never got old for Ambrose. He was a young man, but he had been ratting for years. And yet, no matter how many years he had done this, the process of finding the rats, looking for all the places and things they had deigned to shit upon, and any other evidence of their tracks, never failed to renew his hatred for them. It was the smell, more than anything else although their grey-brown fur, hairless tails, yellowed teeth and tiny claws evoked some sort of primal disgust response in him. If anything, it was merely his fear of the vermin that was desensitized with time, not his bloodlust.
All of which was a good thing in his line of work. It wasn’t work to get rich off, and the lords who hired him were insufferable. He was lucky that his hatred of the diseased brown monsters outweighed his hatred for the so-called nobility of Antis, as it gave him the motivation he needed to work long hard days in the brutal and unforgiving summer heat. It allowed him to gain some small measure of enjoyment from the nasty work.
Ambrose turned his attention back to the small pile of dirt and manure the crew was shifting about as he again wiped the sweat from his brow. The temporary rush of adrenaline from the death of the two rats was fading, and he was once again reminded of how uncomfortable he was, with his leather gloves full of sweat, and his shirt soaked through. His crew, which consisted of Branden, his assistant, and three hired helpers, whose names he kept forgetting, could go shirtless, but the duke had demanded that he, as the manager, be “dressed properly at all times,” an order he remembered with some hatred.
“All right, that’ll be enough,” he said to Branden, who was somewhat half-heartedly stabbing at the filth pile. Branden straightened out, then stabbed his pitchfork into the earth before resting on it and breathing out. As he did so Ambrose turned to address the three others. Two of the men were sitting down, the shovels that they had used to dig the mass grave for the rodents still in their hands. The other was lying completely down on the ground in the shade of Ambrose’s workcart, although there wasn’t much shade to be had at this time of day.
“Ged, Cyrus, and… what was it again.”
Ambrose nodded, “it’s time for me to count them up.”
With some small groaning and grunted complaining the three men began the painfully slow process of coming to their feet. As they did so Ambrose looked down the hill, away from the opulent villa of Duke Orsel, and to the large but drab town some hundred feet below and perhaps a mile in front. He couldn’t make out exactly what was happening in the town square, but it was known both to him and these men that the army was “recruiting”.
“Better ratting than dying in Styria eh boys?”
It was halfway between a real threat and a prank. The army was known for having a very creative definition for loitering, and men without work were sure to be snatched up by “recruiters.” That was doubly true in times like these. Although, as he glanced back at the decidedly criminal-looking help, he couldn’t help but wonder if they had ulterior motivation for not wanting to be found by law.
As the men stood up, he cast his eyes around at the happy little atrocity that his terriers had committed. Rat carcasses were strewn all over the lawn, with some viscera, extra limbs, and tufts of hair in an assortment of random places. He even saw the severed head of one of the monsters looking back at him.
With some pride, he glanced back at his dogs, with Gunther and Max fighting over some corpse, and Gimlet lying flat on his back, his paws up in the air and tongue hanging out as he too suffered in the heat. Ambrose walked over to the two fighting dogs, rapping them sharply with his staff. Max let go immediately, the heat seeming to take the rest of the fight out of him, but Ambrose was forced to physically pick the rat up, with Gunther being picked up through his unwillingness to let go of the rat. With some patience he started shaking the rat, now happy for his leather gloves, as he glanced out to the sea in the distance.
He was treated to a privileged view from the elevation of Duke Orsel’s estate. The sky appeared as one perfectly blue bowl, with only some perfectly white, wispy clouds off in the distance. And the sun shone brightly on the deep blue Caispar Sea, with light green-blue waters in closer to shore. The thought came into his mind that it was a beautiful sight, although ruined by his immense discomfort as he sweat through his clothes, and smelt the faint but unmistakeable stench of rat.
A sudden lessening of weight signalled that Gunther had finally given up, and he turned back to the killing fields, before sizing up the size of the grave the men had dug.
“That’s not deep enough,” he said, shaking his head. He got only a groan in response. He had no illusions about these men, with them looking more normal in a dungeon, but they got to digging, groaning or not.
Ambrose looked around once again at the field of rat corpses, too uncomfortable to have much sympathy for the slacking men. If they tried to shove all those rats in that hole they would overfill it and create a bulge, and the Duke was not the kind of man to take lightly to a bulge of dead rats ruining any part of his fantastic estate. After all, Ambrose thought, what’s the point of having all these statues, gardens, stone walkways, hedgerows, fountains, arches, and everything else if you’ve also got big mounds of dead rats everywhere.
The thought made him briefly snort as he ordered two of the men to dig a wider and deeper grave. Branden and the other he ordered to start collecting the rats in a tighter pile. And with that, he took one brief deep breath, a moment of respite, before he set to work counting the rats one by one.
“Six hundred and fifty four,” he said out loud when finished, having been counting out loud the entire time, before repeating a few times for his memories sake.
“Sir, is this it?” his young assistant Branden said to him.
Ambrose merely nodded as he stood up and breathed out, once again rubbing the sweat off his forehead with the back of his glove somewhat absentmindedly.
“That’s it,” he said flatly, their week long work at the Orsel Estate coming to an end. “Get the bag and take the staff,” he said, giving Branden his staff and keeping his hand held out for the coinbag.
And with that he set off, walking slowly from one side of the palatial estate to the other. Past the long courtyard, around the seemingly endless gardens, down the windy and artful stone paths, through arches, around buildings. He had spent the past week ratting for the Duke, and knew the place fairly well, although he had never walked outside in the midday heat before. Up until today, he had been allowed to work early in the morning, spend the midday inside a shared servants shed with Branden and the hired guns and come out again, working until the night.
Duke Orsel had instead decided that they would be spending the day working, something none of them were particularly happy about. It was something about needing to be gone and out of site before some important people came over, although at this very minute Ambrose was uncomfortable and agitated enough to slap whatever “important people,” would or would not be at the Duke’s Estate this afternoon. Or at least tell himself he would.
“Six hundred and fifty four,” he repeated as he walked. At one copper for every ten rats it was a decent day, although on a salary like that he would never be able to purchase a single one of the Duke’s magnificent statues. Or for that matter one of his fountains. Or even the archways with some minor carvings on them. Hell, he wasn’t sure he had the spare money for some of the flowers that littered the gardens.
“Six hundred and fifty four,” he repeated under his breath, as looked around an empty plaza. He hated admitting it, but the Estate was utterly gorgeous. But the beauty if anything made him more angry. Every polished white stepping stone, tastefully decorated fountain, unnecessary garden that almost no one would ever see, intricately ornamented bench, pillared roofs, made him more angry with the grandiosity of it.
“And how exactly does the water come out of that naked babies mouth anyway,” he muttered to himself as he passed yet another fountain. “It doesn’t make sense, water doesn’t flow upwards.” He continued on, getting ever more angry with each step, the fountain serving as the catalyst for his simmering resentment of the duke.
“All those merchant dealings or whatever. All that banking. All that taxes. And he spends his money shooting water out of a fucking obscenity.” Ambrose’s voice raised as he talked to himself. “While men breath their last in Styria, Duke Orsel and the important perverts enjoy boywhores and fresh fruits while statues of naked children piss all over them.” His hands, balled up into fists, were beginning to get in on the action. “Help out the war effort, of course not. Spend some money on the poor, of course not. Don’t make the unimportant people work under the sweltering midday sun, of course not.”
Ambrose continued forwards some more steps, his face stuck in an expression of rage, his eyes looking forward to nothing more than the next stepping stone of the winding path in front of him. And then he stopped all at once, as his brain finally registered the noises in front of him as the murmuring of voices. And more importantly, as the voices of the important people he was supposed to be avoiding.
He made a move to a different path instinctually, but then stopped himself. “No,” he thought, “no, I think I’ll accidentally let myself be seen by these cunts.” And he took one small step forwards, down the very same path he had been going down. And then another. And as he took each step his anger changed slowly into a sort of giddy curiosity.
Worst comes to worst, I can simply pretend that I got lost and took the wrong path. He walked forwards slower now, and the voices got louder as he came around the bend of the ten foot tall hedgerow. And then he was in yet another of the Duke’s plaza’s, with the important cunts within site of him.
It was some sort of party they were having, with plenty of servants dressed in White, maybe even more than the Duke always had scurrying about. At the far end of the plaza, an armed guard, dressed in the Duke’s black and gold, and armed with a spear guarded the entry on the other end. This almost gave him cause to leave, but something made him stay, and observe closer.
Covering almost the entire plaza was a very high raised tarp, offering the cunts the shade that he and his men had been denied as they ratted for them. He supposed he should be used to it, but the indignity of it galled him.
So Ambrose watched, temporarily shaded by one side of the hedgerow lining the path. A full half of the people there had these stupid half-mask things on. The important male cunts were dressed in some ridiculous black suit things. The women in colourful dresses. The longer he watched, the less intimidating the scene became, and the absurd they looked to him. It was like watching a collection of monkeys making too much noise. It was almost as if they were trying their hardest to be as loud and obnoxious as possible, with their shrill laughter being audible even over the sound of some minstrel faggots playing something.
But he had to admit to himself, which he did with a wry grin, he appreciated the view of the women. I wonder who the most… elegant woman is, he thought to himself, cocking an eyebrow as he enjoyed his forbidden voyerism. But as he cast his leering eye around the plaza, it wasn’t long before the smile fell from his face.
There was one young woman sitting on a bench in the shade, all by her lonesome. Ambrose couldn’t explain exactly what it was about her that captivated him so much. Well, she’s easy on the eyes, he thought to himself, but soon realized it was something else. Sure, she had a pleasing figure, and, at least from the side, a very pleasing face, but there was something else about her.
Maybe it was because she was alone. Maybe it was the way she was pensively watching the crowd. Maybe it was absolutely nothing at all. But before he could figure out, as if on cue, she turned her head to the side and looked directly at him.
But for some reason Ambrose didn’t feel the urge to move away, and instead, holding her gaze for a long moment, he raised his hand at her ever so slightly and waved. And when he did that he noticed her waving back to him, and she broke out in a grin that flashed her bright white teeth. It was a grin that he found himself matching as he found himself unable to take his eyes off her.
Before conscious thought he found himself moving towards her, some fifty steps away. As he did so, her mouth unconsciously parted, her chest slowly rising and falling as she sat there, watching him, a look on her face that could almost be construed as longing.
The spell she had cast on him lasted only a few moments, broken by a sharp double tap of a spear on the ground. Ambrose looked to his left, seeing another guard, a soldier really, blocking the entrance on this side. The guard, dressed in his heavy gear, sweating like crazy, forced to hold the uncomfortable position he was in, gave him an almost imperceptible shake of the head.
It was enough to bring Ambrose to his senses, and he gave a quick nod to the guard, pivoted on his heel, and started on a different path, with a different set of hedgerows. As he went, he looked back at the girl, still looking right at him, now with her lips pressed together, and she weakly raised her hand to wave at him. He tried not to, but found himself smiling at her as he walked away, a moment that was over almost before it began, as she was forever blocked from his site by the hedgerows.
As the dying of the rats had distracted his thoughts from his physical discomfort, so to had the girl. What did it mean? Was she simply bored, and looking for someone to entertain her, or did she want something more, intimate.
As is often the case, upon separation from the moment his thoughts towards the girl took a decidedly dirtier nature. He walked without seeing, his mind pre-occupied with imagining her, those lips still parted, biting her lip as she slowly slipped the dress off herself. He imagined what her voice sounded like as she said his name. And then he imagined what she would sound like while breathing it into his ear.
A dopey smile broke out over his face, and he quickly looked around while getting control of himself. The Duke wouldn’t want to have a ratter walking around at full staff in front of the important cunts, a thought that made him laugh to himself.
But just as the pleasure of ratting had faded, so to did this. And as he thought more and more about the girl he realized that it didn’t matter what she thought of him. She could have thrown herself at him, and ripped off all her clothes, and all that would have happened was the guards restraining the both of them, and the two of them being punished.
The pleasure of his fantasies with the girl was replaced quickly with a sort of lonely emptiness, and then something else, something far more dark and brooding. The guard hadn’t been violent, or even rude with him, and yet the message he had sent had been crystal clear. That there was a place for two types of men in the world, the men who were allowed to be at that party, and the men who struggled all day in the burning hot sun so that none of the former category would have to see a single rodent while drunkenly flirting with all the pretty women there.
He soon rounded another corner, and re-oriented himself, having joined a more familiar walkway, as his mood turned blacker and sourer, his back starting to hurt as he once again rubbed sweat out of his eyes with the back of his wrist.
His eyes set sight on the servant building, where he was set to meet with Ibis, the head servant, and collect his pay. His face turned into a snarl as he looked upon the relatively unkempt building, no ornamentation, no artwork. Small and economical, unlike every other part of the palatial estate, with rust immediately obvious on the exposed metal. The one part of the estate that wasn’t immaculate gaudiness.
“The part not designed for the important people,” he said to himself out loud.
And indeed, it was crawling with the activity of the unimportant, with the white robed servants scurrying about at the pleasure of the plaza crowd. He wondered the sheer expense of the plaza party, and compared that with what he was to be getting paid. Shaking his head in disgust, he repeated to himself “six hundred and fifty four.”
And then he stopped, as a terrible idea began growing in his mind. “Six hundred and fifty four,” he repeated again. But what if I say seven hundred flat. He took a few slow steps forward again. Or what if I say eight hundred.
Cheating the Duke was something he would never consider, or was it? As the servants corridors grew closer, he began to wonder, how would they ever know?
The very first day Ibis, the head servant, had followed him out, and verified the rats that they had caught, making them recount in front of him. Every other day he had simply trusted the count. And yet, Ambrose had been too honest and afraid of the Duke to even think about exaggerating.
But as he stood there, in the part of the estate with no flowers, arches, or statues, sweltering in the heat, watching the servants almost dying of heatstroke, and thinking of the way he had been blocked from even talking to the girl, a new thought entered his head.
“Fuck the Duke,” he said, loud enough to surprise even him, although still far too quiet for anyone else to hear. And with that he set off, his rage turning into determination as he got closer to the shed. He rounded the back, expecting to go inside and meet Ibis there, but the short and red faced head servant was busy talking to some other servant carrying a plate of some dessert Ambrose had never tasted, and never would.
He simply stood there in front of Ibis.
“And?” Ibis snapped at him.
“Well,” Ambrose started, some small part of him still screaming at him to tell Ibis the truth. To simply say “six hundred and fifty four,” collect his money, and leave.
“I don’t have all day ratter.”
And Ambrose looked Ibis in the eye as he found himself saying, almost without meaning to.
“Eight hundred and fifty four.”
There was a moment of silence as Ibis looked at him. “I’m sorry, eight hundred and fifty four?”
And Ambrose looked back, deadpan, and with only the slightest nod of confirmation he repeated, “eight hundred and fifty four.”
There was a moments pause as Ibis looked at him. Cheating the Duke was a great way to get excecuted, and yet he found himself weirdly calm.
“You mean to tell me that you caught eight hundred and fifty four rats today in the south-west garden.”
“Eight hundred and fifty four.”
Ibis shook his head and looked to the sky. “I swear to god there will be no end to these rats,” and with that, he disappeared into the building, only to re-emerge seconds later with a coin purse, magicked out of nowhere, and began counting the coppers into Ambrose’s coin sack one by one in front of him, at lightning speed.
“Eighty five. I rounded down, I hope you can live with that,” Ibis added, in a smarmy tone that conveyed there was to be no argumentation. And there wasn’t, with Ambrose merely nodding his head in agreement, his determination turning into a sort of amusing confusement.
With that Ibis turned away, before turning back almost immediately.
“Oh and by the way ratter, tell those men you hired that Duke has work for them. We can always use more muscle around here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
Ambrose could only nod, being in a sort of stupor, but Ibis had already turned away once again and disappeared into the house. With that he was gone, leaving Ambrose with a sort of weird, surreal feeling. He had just officially stolen from the most powerful man in the Maribore Isles, and no one cared at all.
The thought left him with a funny feeling that pursued him as he walked what felt like miles back across to the other side of the estate. No urge to run, no panic, in fact he took a very leisurely gate through the estate, and back down to the south west gardens, with his extra twenty stolen coppers in his bag.
Before he knew it he was back in front of Branden, Ray, Ged, Cyrus, his terriers Gunther, Max, and Gimlet, and donkey attached to his workcart, Steve. He was reminded of the heat only by the site of the men, all lying in the shadows afforded by the trees on the edge of the property. And with that, he plunked the coinsack down, noticing with some hesitation the eagerness with which the three hired guns viewed the sack.
“Ged, Cyrus, and uh… what was it again?”
“Right.” Ambrose began handing each of them their ten coppers promised for the day. “The Duke told me to tell you that he could use some hired help around here. I’d suggest that you men go and talk with him.” Ambrose raised his hand to stop Ray from speaking. “But make sure to take the easternmost path, there are some important people that the Duke would rather not suffer your good looks.”
With that the three men laughed, as much from the good news as his joke, and they turned up the path as one.
“One more thing,” he said, causing them to turn around. “Have another one from me for all the good work.” And with that he tossed each of them another coin, and watched as they walked up the hill, suddenly untroubled by the midday sun.
“Are you crazy?”
Ambrose turned to his side to see Branden staring at him.
“Crazy?” he responded cheerfully.
“An extra copper, for them? We need more poison, and,” Branden waved his arms for effect as he realized he couldn’t inventory the requirements for the business, “everything else.”
Ambrose turned back to the men as he watched them walk away. The sudden thought that they were now working for the guy who he just cheated potentially being a disaster waiting to happen surfaced, and was immediately pushed down again. “There’s more where that came from Branden.” And as he said it he angled his hand, allowing Branden to see the contents of the coin sack.
Ambrose waited a moment, before turning to Branden, and being rewarded with a confused look on the young mans face. “I don’t get it,” he said, simply continuing to look confused.
With that Ambrose grabbed the sack again, pulling on the straps so as to close it, and he went over to the cart and shoved it in.
Branden got into the cart as Ambrose signalled to the terriers to join him, and helped them into the back. With that he took up the reigns and started the donkey down the path, into the town where they would wait the night at, before continuing on to find work elsewhere. They continued down the path, Ambrose enjoying the increasing consternation and decreasing patience in Branden, who finally forced the issue.
“Well, how do you have so much coin?”
Ambrose sighed for a second, thinking for a second about the girl, and about the palatial estate they were leaving.
“Well Branden it’s really quite simple. You can’t change the entire world all in one go.” And with that Ambrose trailed off, a happy smile on his face. For the next few moments the only noise was the rumbling of the wagon.
“You say that like it means something.”
Ambrose sighed, “sometimes you’ve just got to accept that all you can do is kill some rats and get a few coins more for the good guys.”
Ambrose was once again treated to the sounds of the wagons and the silence of Branden.
“So, did the Duke give you a bonus then?”
A slight smile played out over Ambrose’s face.
“Oh good, I thought you had stolen something,” Branden said breathing a sigh of relief.
Ambrose said nothing, continuing on slowly down the path. But his thoughts turned back to the girl and the guard, back to the marbled statues, back to the palatial mansion that, no doubt, had artworks inside worth far more that he wasn’t even allowed to see, and back to the mask wearing dipshits at the plaza party. The people whose comfort was most definitely more important than his.
He stuck his head out the window and looked back at the estate of Duke Orsel. In a flash of rage, he promised himself that there would come a day when he would make those worthless cunts spend their day in the hot sun shifting through manure and counting rats. But today was destined to be the day where he stole 20 coins from the most powerful man in the Maribore Isles and killed a lot of rats. And for today, he decided, he would be happy with that.