'A note? But that's important!'

'It said “19 pints and a Strawberry Yoghurt”,' said Keith. 'Ah. Not helpful, then,' said Malicia. 'Why nineteen pints of milk?'

'It was the Guild of Musicians,' said Keith. 'Quite a large place. I don't know about the strawberry yoghurt.'

'Abandoned orphan is good,' said Malicia. 'After all, a prince can only grow up to be a king but a mysterious orphan could be anybody. Were you beaten and starved and locked in a cellar?'

'I don't think so,' said Keith, giving her a funny look. 'Everyone at the Guild was very kind. They were mostly nice people. They taught me a lot.'

'We've got Guilds here,' said Malicia. 'They teach boys to be carpenters and stonemasons and things like that.'

'The Guild taught me music,' said Keith. 'I'm a musician. I'm good at it, too. I've been earning my own living since I was six.'

'Aha! Mysterious orphan, strange talent, distressed upbringing… it's all shaping up,' said Malicia. 'The strawberry yoghurt is probably not important. Would your life have been different if it had been banana-flavoured? Who can say? What kinds of music do you play?'

'Kinds? There aren't any kinds. There's just music,' said Keith. 'There's always music, if you listen.' Malicia looked at Maurice. 'Is he always like this?' she demanded. 'This is the most I've ever heard him say,' said the cat. 'I expect you're very keen to know all about me,' said Malicia. 'I expect you're just too polite to ask.'

'Gosh, yes,' said Maurice. 'Well, you probably won't be surprised to know that I've got two dreadful step-sisters,' said Malicia. 'And I have to do all the chores!'

'Gosh, really,' said Maurice, wondering if there were any more fish-heads and, if there were any more fish-heads, whether they were worth all this. 'Well, most of the chores,' said Malicia, as if revealing an unfortunate fact. 'Some of them, definitely. I have to clean up my own room, you know! And it's extremely untidy!'

'Gosh, really.'

'And it's very nearly the smallest bedroom. There're practically no cupboards and I'm running out of bookshelf space!'

'Gosh, really.'

'And people are incredibly cruel to me. You will note that we're here in a kitchen. And I'm the mayor's daughter. Should the daughter of a mayor be expected to wash up at least once a week? I think not!'

'Gosh, really.'

'And will you just look at these torn and bedraggled clothes I have to wear?' Maurice looked. He wasn't good on clothes. Fur was enough for him. As far as he could tell, Malicia's dress was pretty much like any other dress. It seemed to be all there. There weren't any holes, except where the arms and head poked through. 'Here, just here,' said Malicia, pointing to a place on the hem which, to Maurice, looked no different from the rest of the dress. 'I had to sew that back myself, you know?'

'Gosh, re-' Maurice stopped. From here he could see the bare shelves. More importantly, he could see Sardines abseiling down from a crack in the ancient ceiling. He had a knapsack on his back. 'And on top of this I'm the one who has to queue for the bread and sausages every day-' Malicia continued, but Maurice was listening even less than he had been before. It had to be Sardines, he thought. Idiot! He always goes ahead of the trap squad! Of all the kitchens in all the town he could turn up in, he's turned up in this one. Any minute she's going to turn round and scream. Sardines would probably treat it as applause, too. He lived life as if it was a performance. Other rats just ran around squeaking and messing up things, and that was quite good enough to convince humans there was a plague. But, oh, no, Sardines always had to go further. Sardines and his yowoorll song and dance act! '-and the rats take everything,' Malicia was saying. 'What they don't take, they spoil. It's been terrible! The council have been buying in food from other towns, but no-one has very much to spare. We have to buy corn and stuff from the traders that sail up the river. That's why bread is so expensive.'

'Expensive, eh?' said Maurice. 'We've tried traps and dogs and cats and poison and still the rats keep coming,' said the girl. 'They've learned to be really sneaky, too. They hardly ever end up in our traps any more. Huh! I only ever got 50p for one tail. What's the good of the rat-catchers offering us 50p a tail if the rats are so cunning? The rat-catchers have to use all kinds of tricks to get them, they say.' Behind her, Sardines looked carefully around the room and then signalled to the rats in the ceiling to pull the rope up. 'Don't you think this would be a good time to go away!' said Maurice. 'Why are you making faces like that?' said Malicia, staring at him. 'Oh… well, you know that kind of cat that grins all time? Heard of that? Well, I'm the kind that makes, you know, weird faces,' said Maurice desperately. 'And sometimes I just burst out and say things get away get away, see, I did it again. It is an affliction. I probably need counselling oh no don't do that this is not the time to do that whoops, there I go again…' Sardines had pulled his straw hat out of his knapsack. He was holding a small walking-stick. It was a good routine, even Maurice had to admit. Some towns had advertised for a rat piper the very first time he'd done it. People could tolerate rats in the cream, and rats in the roof, and rats in the teapot, but they drew the line at tap-dancing. If you saw tap-dancing rats, you were in big trouble. Maurice had reckoned that if only the rats could play an accordion as well they could do two towns a day. He'd stared for too long. Malicia turned and her mouth opened in shock and horror as Sardines went into his routine. The cat saw her hand reach out for a pan that was on the table. She threw it, very accurately. But Sardines was a good pot-dodger. The rats were used to having things thrown at them. He was already running when the pan was halfway across the room, and then he leapt onto the chair and then he jumped onto the floor and then he dodged behind the dresser and then there was a sharp, final, metallic… snap. 'Hah!' said Malicia, and Maurice and Keith stared at the dresser. 'That's one rat less, at any rate. I really hate them…'

'It was Sardines,' said Keith. 'No, it was definitely a rat,' said Malicia. 'Sardines hardly ever invade a kitchen. I expect you're thinking about the plague of lobsters over in-'

'He just called himself Sardines because he saw the name on a rusty old tin and thought it sounded stylish,' said Maurice. He wondered if he dared look behind the dresser. 'He was a good rat,' said Keith. 'He used to steal books for me when they were teaching me to read.'

'Excuse me, are you mad?' said Malicia. 'It was a rat. The only good rat is a dead rat!'

'Hello?' said a little voice. It came from behind the dresser. 'It can't be alive! It's a huge trap!' said Malicia. 'It's got teeth!'

'Anyone there? Only the stick is bending…' said the voice. The dresser was massive, the wood so old that time had turned it black and it had become as solid and heavy as stone. 'That's not a rat talking, is it?' said Malicia. 'Please tell me rats can't talk!'

'In fact it's bending quite a bit now,' said the voice, which was slightly muffled. Maurice squinted into the space behind the dresser. 'I can see him,' he said. 'He wedged the stick in the jaws as they closed! Wotcha, Sardines, how're you doing?'

'Fine, boss,' said Sardines, in the gloom. 'If it wasn't for this trap I'd say everything was perfect. Did I mention the stick is bending?'

'Yes, you said.'

'It's bent some more since then, boss.' Keith grabbed one end of the dresser and grunted as he tried to move it. 'It's like a rock!' he said. 'It's full of crockery,' said Malicia, now quite bewildered. 'But rats don't really talk, do they?'

'Get out of the way!' shouted Keith. He grabbed the back edge of the dresser with both hands, and braced one foot against the wall, and heaved. Slowly, like a mighty forest tree, the dresser pitched forward. The crockery started to fall out as it tipped, plate slipping off plate like one glorious chaotic deal from a very expensive pack of cards. Even so, some of them survived the fall onto the floor, and so did some of the cups and saucers as the cupboard opened and added to the fun, but that didn't make any difference because then the huge, heavy woodwork thundered down on top of them. One miraculously whole plate rolled past Keith, spinning round and round and getting lower on the floor with the groiyuoiyoiyooooinnnnggg sound you always get in these distressing circumstances. Keith reached down to the trap and grabbed Sardines. As he pulled the rat up the stick gave way and the trap snapped shut. A bit of the stick spun away through the air. 'Are you all right?' Keith asked. 'Well, boss, all I can say is it's a good job rats don't wear underwear… Thanks, boss,' said Sardines. He was quite plump for a rat, but when his feet were dancing he could float across the floor like a balloon. There was the sound of a tapping foot. Malicia, with arms folded and an expression like a thunderstorm, looked at Sardines, and then at Maurice, and then at the stupid-looking Keith, and then at the wreckage on the floor. 'Er… sorry about the mess,' said Keith. 'But he was-' She waved this away. 'OK,' she said, as if she'd been thinking deeply. 'It goes like this, I think. The rat is a magical rat. I bet he's not the only one. Something happened to him, or them, and now they're really quite intelligent, despite the tap-dancing. And… they're friends with the cat. So… why would rats and a cat be friends? And it goes… there's some kind of an arrangement, right? I know! Don't tell me, don't tell me…'

'Huh?' said Keith. 'I shouldn't think anyone ever has to tell you anything,' said Maurice. '… it's something to do with plagues of rats, right? All those towns we've heard about… well, you heard about them too, and so you got together with thingy here-'

'Keith,' said Keith. '… yes… and so you go from town to town pretending to be a plague of rats, and thingy-'


'… yes… pretends to be a rat piper and you all follow him out. Right? It's all a big swindle, yes?' Sardines looked up at Maurice. 'She's got us bang to rights, boss,' he said. 'So now you've got to give me a good reason why I don't call the Watch out on you,' said Malicia triumphantly. I don't have to, Maurice thought, because you won't. Gosh, humans are so easy. He rubbed up against Malicia's legs and gave her a smirk. 'If you do, you'll never find out how the story ends,' he said. 'Ah, it'll end with you going to prison,' said Malicia, but Maurice saw her staring at the stupid-looking Keith and at Sardines. Sardines still had his little straw hat on. When it comes to attracting attention, that sort of thing counts for a lot. When he saw her frowning at him Sardines hastily removed his straw hat and held it in front of him, by the brim. 'There's something I'd like to find out, boss,' he said, 'if we're finding out things.' Malicia raised an eyebrow. 'Well?' she said. 'And don't call me boss!'

'I'd like to find out why there's no rats in this city, guv,' said Sardines. He tap-danced a few steps, nervously. Malicia could glare better than a cat. 'What do you mean, no rats?' she said. 'There's a plague of rats! And you're a rat, anyway!'

'There's rat runs all over the place and there's a few dead rats but we haven't found a living rat anywhere, guv.' Malicia leaned down. 'But you are a rat,' she said. 'Yes, guv. But we only arrived this morning.' Sardines grinned nervously as Malicia gave him another long stare. 'Would you like some cheese?' she said. 'I'm afraid it's only mousetrap.'

'I don't think so, thank you very much all the same,' said Sardines, very carefully and politely.

'It's no use, I think it really is time to tell the truth,' said Keith. 'Nonononononono,' said Maurice, who hated that kind of thing. 'It's all because-'