Julian's Plan

by Charles Matthias

February 14, 708 CR

Lidaman enjoyed being a grandfather. Of all the roles he’d had in his long life at Metamor, from moneylender and merchant to soldier and statesman, none provided him the sheer pleasure that came with holding his first grandchild in his lap and listening to him coo. Born only last month, the young boy would soon have a cousin as his second son’s wife was due for her first in a few months. His youngest son was hard at work to produce yet another heir to their father’s fortune.

And then there was his son-in-law who seemed more interested in expanding that fortune. Not that Lidaman found it surprising. Being a son-in-law and not a son he would always feel the need to demonstrate his worth. Nor was there any question that Gadfrey would diligently take care of his daughter Elsie and provide her with a good life. He even loved her which was more than could be said for many newlyweds this soon after their arranged marriages.

But Lidaman did wish that Gadfrey would allow him just a bit more time with his grandchildren before bringing him another worthy investment idea — which most of them were. Generally, Lidaman knew of them already and had been making plans to back whatever ventures seemed prudent. Every now and then his exuberant son-in-law did find something novel, but the great moneylender who’d saved Metamor from financial ruin after the Battle of Three Gates was far more interested in the myriad things to which his first grandchild’s eyes would wander.

“Ah, Gadfrey, come in,” the fifty-year old man trapped in the body of a fourteen year old boy said to the twenty-year old similarly cursed now standing in his reading room doorway. The latest snow storm, and hopefully last of the winter, had finally stopped the day before leaving Metamor a shining city in white. The sun had just crested the mountains and his grandson Cecil gazed with joyous delight at the sparkling lights through the narrow panes of glass separating the warmth of Lidaman’s reading room from the cold outside. The light particularly glistened on the few stone streets freed from the snow. All who ventured on business about the city this day would do so on foot.

“Good morning, Father,” Gadfrey said with a respectful nod of his head. His son-in-law was dressed in warm woolen tunic and breeches with firm leather boots and a colourful belt. He fingered an expensive felt hat in his hands. “I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you.”

“Nonsense,” Lidaman replied, though he did return his attention to Cecil who gazed goggle-eyed at the city outside. In another month or two once it was warm enough he would get his first tour. “How is my daughter?”

“Enjoying her morning biscuits and tea. Fresh from Gregor’s. I just returned from there and heard of an opportunity I think you’ll want to see, Father.”

The corner of Lidaman’s lip turned up in a smile. The opportunity. He hoped one day Gadfrey learned that it was not only permissible but desirable for him to call on his father-in-law from time to time without a business proposal in hand. “Is Gregor hoping to expand his shop? I have offered to help him in the past but he’s never been much interested.”

“I wish he would too,” Gadfrey admitted with a boyish delight he couldn’t hide. Lidaman’s smile widened at the sound. It meant Gadfrey was beginning to feel more comfortable in his presence. He was a good young man and would make an admirable husband for Elsie. Lidaman just hoped one day he could be a son too instead of just a son-in-law.

But the moment was short-lived and Gadfrey regained control of his curse-begotten childish impulses. “But that’s not what I heard. The rats are holding a demonstration out in the tourney fields today. They’ve a plan to change the way merchants do business in the Valley.”

“How very ambitious of them,” Lidaman said, his smile fading. Cecil cooed at a mule drawn cart passing by in the street below. His smile returned immediately. “The rats... the ones who live in the cellars right? I heard that Matthias returned to Metamor a few days ago and there was a funeral requiem for Habakkuk of the Writer’s Guild yesterday, but I’m sure that’s not who you mean.”

Gadfrey nodded, his enthusiasm welling. He fidgeted with his tunic. “I’m told Matthias will be there as well, but yes, it’s the rats from the cellars. I spoke to one of them, Elliot, this morning at Gregor’s, and he specifically asked for you, Father.”

“Well,” Lidaman admitted in a slow sigh, “if he asked for me, then I suppose I must come see what they’ve put together. I confess, their names have been on many lips these past few months. Nobody has been quite sure what they’ve been up to, but it seems they have many friends.” Lidaman turned to look at his son-in-law who did his best to meet the fellow fourteen year old’s gaze and failed. Gadfrey’s eyes fell to the floor and he shuffled his boots a trifle guiltily. “I’m not surprised you’re one of them, Gadfrey. Very well, when shall we gather to see what your friends want to do?”

Gadfrey blushed for a moment and then straightened his tunic so firmly he nearly ripped the seams at his shoulder. In a stiff voice he replied, “They said they’d be ready to begin around eleven o’clock.”

Lidaman’s smile was genuine. “Excellent. That will give me more time with Cecil before we have to go. See to our carriages... and check on the roads. It may be a long ride to the tourney fields today.”

“Of course, Father. I will have everything ready by ten o’clock.”

“And ask Elsie to see to a lunch for each of us. I’m sure she’ll be interested as well.”

Gadfrey’s eyes widened, a lovesick smile crept over his lips, and his cheeks reddened with the blush of a warm fire. He stuttered once and then stumbled away to do as his father-in-law asked. Lidaman laughed. Even little Cecil gurgled in delight.

Falkirk Urseil smiled approvingly at his eldest son. Though Falkirk had been made a child, his son was a strange mix of man and an odd little beast known as a pangolin. Utterly unknown in the northern lands of Galendor, it was sometimes seen far to the south. Covered in a thick hide of scaly plates, bearing strong digging claws, and featuring a narrow snout with a tongue that stretched longer than his body, his son made an odd impression even on many Keepers. Yet his enthusiasm and warmth endeared him to all who knew him.

And now his son Kendrick had brought him news of an opportunity to improve the profits for the Urseil family business. It was a good sign that his son was learning more of the trade than just the different types of fabrics and what sort of prices they fetched. He just hoped it was worth their time.

“What sort of opportunity is it, Kendrick?” Falkirk asked as he finished his morning toast and sausage. “And where did you hear of it?”

“Well,” Kendrick lowered his triangular head and almost blushed, “I actually knew they were planning something for a while. My friends the rats that is.” Falkirk lifted one eyebrow curiously. He knew his son had long felt an outsider because of his unusual form and had made some friends in places that a respectable merchant would not go. He’d cautioned him about being too trusting with others, but Kendrick had never disappointed him before.

Would he now? Falkirk brushed his lips on a napkin and set it down next to his plate. “From the cellars?” Mavis, his wife, sensed the sudden change and quietly began collecting her husband’s dishes.

“They don’t want to hide down there anymore, Father,” Kendrick replied firmly. “And they have a good idea that could really save us and many others a good bit of money in the years ahead. They might even be able to help us open up new markets, perhaps even north of the Dike.”

Falkirk pursed his lips. Even though he was forever trapped in a child’s body, the head of the Urseil merchant family had to remind himself that he was once as young as his son and eager to make friends with everyone he met. The Curses of Metamor changed many things, including notions of class.

And as they were merchants, it wasn’t that long ago that his great-grandfather was struggling to get out of the dirty streets of Ellcaran to find a warm place to sleep for the night. How could he hold the cellars against the rats?

“And you say they are holding a demonstration today?”

Kendrick relaxed visibly, his spines along his back lowering and his eyes softening. “At eleven o’clock in the tourney fields. I think we should go and see what they have to offer.”

Falkirk smiled and leaned back in his seat. “I agree. Ask Barrick and Brigitt to come too. Mother will take care of the girls here. It’s much too cold for all of us to go.”

Kendrick beamed at that, his tail curling up beneath him. “Thank you, Father! I know you won’t be disappointed!”

“I’ll decide that,” he reminded his son gently. “Now see to our carriage and something for each of us to eat. It may take a long time to reach the tourney fields with all this snow!”

“And that’s why I know you won’t be disappointed!” Kendrick said with a mischievous grin and darted out of their sitting room before Falkirk could learn what he meant.

Falkirk and Mavis exchanged glances and then sighed. “He is your son.”

“He’s our son,” he reminded his wife.

Mavis shook her head, leaned over, and tapped his nose. His fourteen-year-old body couldn’t help but feel a thrill every time his fourteen-year-old wife’s body came so close. But her arch expression chilled that nascent desire. “You were just the same way when we first wed. He’s your son!”

Falkirk blinked, recalled how he behaved those many years ago, and then laughed. “Aye, aye, Kendrick is indeed my son.”

The tourney fields were situated in the Killing Fields which made it a long hard ride for most. Metamor’s civil crews had cleared the main road to the gates enough to allow passage but they left no guarantees at how pleasant or punctual a passage it would be.

A year past the Killing Fields had been filled with salvaged supplies from the many parts of town torn down after the assault. Now they were stocked with supplies awaiting those portions of the city in need of repairs or rebuilding. It would be years before the city was fully rebuilt, and so what was usually only used at festival occasions now became a supply depot for the civil engineering crews and those able to afford their services.

And this day, it became the site of a demonstration by a trio of rats who’d been planning and looking forward to it with excitement and trepidation. While they would not know whether their venture would be a success for many months, what happened today could alter their fortunes in ways unforeseeable. They could become powerful merchants in their own right or they could inspire another to do what they sought only better. But without today they would never be more than cellar rats.

To prepare, they’d had a large oval area cleared of snow. The wide ends were framed by wooden structures used to hold supplies. On one a row of covered pastries and mugs of fresh cider steaming in the air were spread. Before the other a large something or other was covered with heavy sackcloth. About this the three rats hovered, gesturing for all who’d come to attend to refresh themselves with food and drink.

“I apologize,” Julian said to several of their invited guests, “about the weather. To help keep everyone warm, we’ve arranged a fresh supply of pastries from Gregor’s ovens, and some good fresh cider from both the Shoeshine Inn and the Jolly Collie.” The latter was Misha Brightleaf’s doing. The fox had settled on a larger warmer form for the day, and all four of his legs were settled by the wooden platform near one half of the cider. He never failed to mention it was from the Collie to all who received a mug of the delectably steaming brew.

On either long end of the oval numerous carriages stopped, horses, mules, and donkeys being tended with fresh water, sweet oats, and even a carrot or two after dragging their charges through snowy streets. From those carriages emerged many of the more important merchant families of Metamor. By the time eleven o’clock arrived, so too had many of the wealthiest in Metamor.

All total there were perhaps fifty Keepers present, not including real children who added another dozen to the total. Many motherly eyes were drawn to the four rat children of Charles and Kimberly Matthias who if not for the watchful eyes of their mother and their nurse and the firm grip of their father would have burrowed into the nearby snowbank in search of adventure. All dressed warmly, even those Keepers with fur suited for the winter, with heavy mittens, thick woolen coats, and many a hat. With sweet food to eat, and rich brew to drink, the atmosphere warmed between the many merchants and the handful of warriors who’d come to see what the rats had to show.

Julian stood in the middle of the large object covered in sackcloth. It was long and taller than he and of roughly rectangular shape. The sackcloth touched the ground which kept it invisible. The white-furred rat smiled, his red eyes glistened in the winter sunlight.

“Thank you all for braving the winter today. My friends Elliot and Goldmark are here with me today to announce the beginning of a new business in Metamor Valley that will, I hope, prove profitable for everyone living here at Metamor. I know it was difficult for everyone to leave their houses and make it here. Can you imagine how difficult it must be if you needed to journey to Lorland? Or to the Iron Mines? Or how about Lake Barnhardt? Glen Avery? And can you imagine trying to reach Hareford in this?” He shuddered, whiskers vibrating so quickly they glowed in the mid-morning light.

“But only two days ago,” Julian continued, waving two fingers in the air to emphasize his point, “many of us here today did just that. The journey from the Keep to the woodland demesnes of Glen Avery takes five hours by wagon over a road that rolls through hills and passes through the forests in the north. Though the soldiers and scouts of Metamor and the Glen do their best to keep the road safe from Lutins, they cannot keep it safe from the elements. Two days ago, I and many others here made that journey. In the past, it would have taken eight to ten hours in such conditions. We did it in a little less than six.”

Several merchants lifted their eyes in surprise, while those like Misha and Charles who had been on that journey grinned, admiring how much Julian seemed to enjoy his little secret.

Julian held up his paws and shook his head. “Now I know what many of you are thinking. Magic can see one across many a danger, it is true. But there was no magic to our journey. Only ingenuity. So how did we manage such a feat? Let us show you.”

At this, Elliot and Goldmark went around back and lifted the corners of sackcloth tossing them on top of the surprise. They both went behind the surprise and pushed the middle end of the sackcloth up over the side until the back was uncovered. Then, circling around to the sides, they took the corners and pulled them forward. With them came the sackcloth, until the whole fell around Julian’s feet and tail. From beneath was revealed a long wagon whose four wheels did not touch the ground. Long iron skis held the wagon aloft, sleek and powerful with wide base to both keep the wagon steady and on top of the snow.

Several in the crowd applauded but there were no gasps of shock. Sleighs were not unknown in Metamor Valley, but this was the first time anyone had seriously attached them to a wagon with wheels.

Julian smiled and bowed to both Elliot and Goldmark who returned the gesture. He then turned his gaze back on the audience and said, “With these skis, we were able to stay on top of the snowfall which gave our horses a much easier time of it. No longer were they having to drag the wagons through snow. The only thing slowing them down was their own steps. I know many of you have ridden in sleighs, so you know how they work. But these wagons, of which we currently have three, can serve as both wagons in summer and sleighs in winter. The skis can be removed and stored for when they are needed. Should snowfall overtake any travelling in our wagons, they can pause for no more than ten to fifteen minutes before they have assembled the skis and may continue on their way.”

“Pardon me, Master Julian,” a youthful boy named Falkirk Urseil asked with a studious frown. “But surely you intend these for more than mere travelling conveniences.”

The rat nodded to the boy, his smile widening. “Indeed I do. One of the difficulties we experience in a Metamor winter is the lack of fresh supplies from the south. With these wagons, I and those in my employ will be able to bring in fresh supplies from the south or deliver goods to the north when other wagons cannot even manage to escape the gates. And even when the roads are clear in the winter months, I will sell space in our wagons to foreign merchants reluctant to risk bad weather for fear of being trapped in lands beneath Metamor’s curse. With more supplies in the winter, it will lover prices for everyone and provide more opportunities for all of you, my friends, to sell your own wares in other markets.

“Nor do I intend to use these wonderful wagons only in winter. I will offer to anyone, Metamorian or not, the chance to buy space in our wagons for transport and sale all over the Valley.”

A large burly human woman crossed her arms and shouted, “I have my own men to deliver my goods. Why would I need you?”

Julian bowed, long tail lifting behind him. “You may not. I do not ask anyone to use our service who does not think they need it. But we will be available and it is our intent to run our wagons from one end of this valley to the other and to every city and village therein at least once each week if not two. You may find a day when your wagons are not available and yet you need to send goods to a far off village. We shall be there for you on that day.”

“That’s rather ambitious,” a rather modestly dressed fourteen year-old surmised. Lidaman never dressed ostentatiously nor showed off his wealth. He chose his garments as carefully as his words. “Three wagons or sleighs alone cannot do this. How many do you intend to own to make this possible?”

Julian smiled very graciously to the financier and lowered his head respectfully. “Master Lidaman, that is a very astute question. No less than a dozen would be required, and at that they would be taxing themselves. Our goal is to have two dozen in circulation before the end of the year.”

“Also ambitious,” Lidaman replied with an admiring smile.

Misha lifted one paw, his expression faintly disturbed. “It sounds like you’re trying to start a delivery service. We have folks like Stealth here at Metamor who do that already. He’s a very good friend and I don’t want to see his business flounder.”

Julian nodded and made a fist with one paw, his expression grave and sympathetic. “We have no intention of competing with people like Stealth. If you have a small parcel, he and any other who may follow in his paw-prints will always be able to deliver it faster and more conveniently to your needs. That isn’t what we are trying to do. But you would not send bushels of potatoes on the poor cheetah’s back. You would use us.”

“If you’re dependable,” squawked a bright red-feathered fellow of wide girth. His splotchy rooster comb jiggled back and forth on top of his head. His beady yellow eyes regarded the many mammals gathered together dubiously. “Our wagons have soldiers to protect them. And Stealth can outrun them. What do you have?”

Julian’s whiskers drooped for a few seconds as many others in the crowd nodded their heads. But the rat’s voice lacked none of his usual defiant confidence. “Our maiden journey this last week was accompanied by many soldiers and scouts. We rats held the reins. But for the future, we too shall hire soldiers to drive them and protect them. They will be as safe as any wagon of your own and defended by Keepers so none of them need fear the curses. I know many of you have holdings to the south and your caravans are manned by those not yet touched by the curses. When dangerous times loom, you can transfer those cargos to our wagons at the southern edge of the valley and not put your men at risk of a permanent stay. They’ll be happier, and you’ll have your goods for far less. Happier soldiers tell tales and that can only encourage more business for you. And if you must spend less, the people of Metamor will have to spend less, and they will be able to afford more of your wares. Everyone will profit.”

The rooster crowed in amusement. “You do seem to think we will all use your wagons. But I won’t believe you can do what you say until you can prove it.”

Julian bowed with a sharp smile. “And I do hope you’ll give us the opportunity to do so. We have three wagon sleighs to start, enough soldiers to protect them, and now all we need is something to ship and a place to ship them too.”

The silence that followed was not so much a stillness as it was a mass of muttering and pondering by the many assembled as they quietly whispered to their neighbours, not a one of them willing to be the first to speak. Some wished not to speak because they had no interest in using the rat’s wagons but did not want to discourage others. Some stayed quiet because they were not in the business of shipping goods around the valley at all. The rest fidgeted their tongues because they wanted to suggest something but didn’t want to be the first.

Elliot and Goldmark’s bright eyes began to dim and they cast furtive glances at Julian who kept up his hopeful façade far longer than they. But even his confidence started to wane, whiskers drooping at their ends as the crowd continued in its disquieted confusion. Julian’s red eyes swept over the assembled merchants faster and faster, but few would meet the plea in his gaze.

Through the fog of embarrassed chatter one voice sounded clear and with a pleased chitter. “I would be honoured to have you deliver my family back to Glen Avery tomorrow.” Charles smiled and sat tall on one of the many boxes scattered about the yard. His children sat fidgeting between him, his wife, and nursemaid. “You brought my friends to the Glen safely a few days past and you delivered us to Metamor swiftly. This time I will pay for those services and gladly!”

Julian, Elliot, and Goldmark all beamed and stood a little taller on their toes at the words of their fellow rat. The white-furred rat shook his head, a blush creeping into his ears. “We could never accept payment from you, Charles. If not for your efforts all these years, we’d never have had the courage to try this at all. We owe you a debt that cannot be repaid.”

Now it was Charles’s turn to shake his head. “Seeing you here and now out of the cellars is all the repayment I need. I will not accept charity for this. You will accept my payment and accept it at full price. And if you won’t do it, I’ll just have to hire somebody else to take us home!”

Julian laughed and held his paws up in surrender. “Very well, very well, you win. Tomorrow we will deliver you and your family back to Glen Avery. That will leave quite a bit of room in our wagon. Does anyone else have anything they wish us to deliver to the Glen?”

Master Lidaman lifted one hand and said in a clear voice, “If I may interject. There is one thing about your remarkable service that you have not disclosed.” All ears, especially those of the rat trio, turned toward the financier. “Your rates. How much will you be charging for your service?”

Julian’s ears blushed again and he laughed. “How silly of me! You’re right. The charges depend on the destination, but we intend to charge roughly one bronze crescent per square foot of space in our wagons per hour of the journey. To travel to the Glen, for a square foot of space it will cost five crescents. This will pay to feed our horses and to recompense our drivers and soldiers.”

The hushed whispering started anew. Many gaped in astonishment at the price. Those who did not have their own men were used to paying more to have their items delivered. And those with their own wagons knew just how little profit the rats could expect if they did not fill their wagons for every trip.

Still, with such a low price, it was inevitable that some would give them a chance. A badger standing in the middle of the crowd put his paws to either cheek and shouted. “I’ll send a bushel of onions to the Glen and to Lake Barnhardt on your wagons, Master Julian!”

“Thank you, Master Derygan!” Julian pipped, standing on his very tip toes, snout lifted into the air as if he were sniffing a particularly tasty morsel. “I will see to it that they find their ways into the hands of grocers and innkeepers and whatever price they bring back into your paws.”

Falkirk Urseil waved his hand, and his pangolin son beside him beamed, “I’ll have sample bolts of cloth sent on your wagon to the tailors in both Glen Avery and Lake Barnhardt. I’ll include instructions if they wish to order anything more from me.”

Julian thanked him and then turned as yet another merchant sought to sample their services. The rats eagerly listened and assured their newest customers that they would deliver. No one was willing to commit to a large shipment, but most of them had something to offer. By the time the bells of Metamor chimed the noon hour, all three rats were busy scribbling down agreements from various merchants on how much to deliver, where, and making estimates on how much it would cost.

Many went back and had more cider and pastries until that supply was exhausted. And then, one by one, the merchants began to disperse back into Metamor. The roads were still clogged with snow, and even the new ones the civil crews had cleared were often beset by foot traffic as Keepers went about to find something to satisfy their hungry bellies. Many returned to their homes with ideas on how to improve their wagons. Others plotted ways to offer better services than the rats. And a few hoped that the rats succeeded.

One of the last to leave, Master Lidaman, approached Julian and shook his paw. He stood only a little taller than the rat, and smiled a grandfatherly smile. “I am not yet going to invest in your venture, Master Julian. But I may yet. Let us say that I will be keeping a close eye on you three.”

Julian shook his hand with genuine appreciation. “I do hope you change your mind, Master Lidaman.”

The teenager nodded and patted the rat on the shoulder. “At the very least, I wish you luck. If your plan works, it will do all that you say. As well as make you three very wealthy.”

Julian’s red eyes fixed on the financier and with an equal firmness replied, “And anyone who invests in us. One thing we rats pride ourselves on is loyalty.”

“And wisely choosing your friends too I’ve noticed.” This last was said with a knowing wink. Before Julian could stammer a response, Lidaman turned back to his waiting daughter and son-in-law, climbed into his carriage and departed.

Charles and a quartet of little rats were at his side a moment later. Julian looked at the brown rat and sighed gratefully. “Thank you, Charles. If not for you I fear we would have been investing in firewood and scrap metal.”

The two rats exchanged a quick brotherly hug and then Charles chuckled. “That’s what it looked like. I don’t have the kind of money Lidaman does but I’ll be delighted to invest in your wagons. We can discuss details this afternoon...” His eyes wandered down to his sides, and then up to something just out of Julian’s range of vision. Julian turned, and saw the four children climbing onto Goldmark’s taur-back while the other rat laughed and waved his long tail back and forth. Little Erick was jumping on all fours back and forth over the end of the tail. Kimberly and Baerle watched them with stern eye.

“They move fast,” Julian said with a pleasant laugh. “This afternoon is a wonderful time to discuss things. We’re still operating out of the cellars, but we hope to buy a place in Keeptowne once we have enough saved up.”

“Good. Good.” Charles gripped Julian’s shoulder firmly and stared at his friend with admiration. “I’m proud of you three. Now there’s not a rat in hiding in all of Metamor. I’ve waited so many years for this. Thank you.”

Julian took a deep breath and let his red eyes gaze up into the clear blue sky. “It’s good to be out of hiding. We may still live in the cellars for now but we’re never going to be cellar rats again. Not a one of us.”

Together, the two rats hugged and then turned to watch the children at play, their voices a boisterous chorus of chittering squeaks that knew nothing of the shame of rodents.

After the day’s excitement was well passed and the clear sky gave way to a brilliant panoply of stars, the trio of rats gathered in the secret basement beneath Master Derygan’s onion shop. A quartet of Keeper’s joined them one by one as the night wore on. Each approached silently and through the shadows, knocking carefully and precisely on the hidden door when the Watch wasn’t watching.

But once they were in the hidden room beneath the shop, they were all smiles and laughter. A trio of rats and the four they had invited into greater knowledge. Julian hugged both Elliot and Goldmark and almost did the same to the rest. Kendrick was delighted with their success, but kept a small secret hope buried in his heart. Gadfrey looked immensely relieved but also eager to return to his wife’s side. Davine’s delight was sober but true. Timmins seemed the least enthused of them all.

Julian waved them all to silence and did not bother to hide his joy. “I first want to thank you all for the hard work you’ve done that has brought us here this day. You brought your families to hear what we had to say, and they responded even better than I expected. How much do we have to haul tomorrow?”

Ellliot’s nose twitched as he scanned over the numbers in the little folds of parchment he carried. “Almost two wagon’s full. We may have to bring the third in case the little ones get rambunctious.”

“Two will be fine. We may need to send the third down south thanks to Misha’s order for the Collie,” Julian replied. “I had hoped to fill one wagon, but to almost fill two is remarkable. To need all three is tremendous!”

“Praise Eli for Master Matthias,” Kendrick said as his tongue stuck out a few inches. “If not for him jumping in I don’t think anybody would have spoken up.”

Julian nodded and hooked a thumb to the roof. “Derygan was always going to pitch in, but he had to wait for somebody else to go first.”

“It might have raised suspicions otherwise,” Goldmark added as he stretched four rat legs and two arms. “And now we need to scale back our nightly activities to avoid any more unseemly suspicions.”

Timmins’s ears backed unhappily. The stoat grimaced and churred in the back of his throat. “Do you mean we won’t be stealing from foreigners anymore?” Kendrick suspected the paper merchant’s youngest son was stealing from more than just foreigners when he could get away with it but didn’t offer that opinion.

Julian’s whiskers drooped thoughtfully, red eyes appraising his four non-rat thieves. Even so his answer was swift. “Of course we will continue. But we won’t have to do it as much. And it won’t be as safe for some of us.” He turned first to Gadfrey. The teenager had his hands folded and was tapping his thumbs together. “We’ve already discussed your situation, Gadfrey. A husband takes too many risks being a thief.”

Gadfrey took a deep breath and nodded. “I’ll do what I can to convince Master Lidaman to finance you three.”

“We know,” Julian replied with a warm smile. His eyes shifted to Davine. The young woman, once a boy, smiled back at him all dimples and brown curls. “Davine, how does your family feel about our venture?”

“Curious,” she replied with a toss of her head. “They import all their goods, so they’ll be keeping a close eye on you. If you can really deliver everything safely, on time, and at your price, they’ll shift much of their merchandise to you. I know it.”

“Good,” Julian rubbed his paws together. “I’m not going to ask you to continue thieving either. You’ll be of far more use convincing your family and overseeing their merchandise. I trust this does not upset you.”

She shrugged, her smile vanishing only for a moment. “It was fun while it lasted.”

Julian then turned to Timmins, and Kendrick felt his gut tighten. The rat was leaving him for last deliberately, he knew it! But the stoat’s gaze was perhaps the most intense of any of them. And even before the white rat could speak, Timmins made known what he wanted. “I am my father’s third and youngest son, Julian. He plans to make me a clerk and find some girl for me to marry, maybe even ship me off to another village in the Valley. I’m not going to be able to help you much with him. I want to be a thief.”

“And that is what I want you to be,” Julian replied. “But you need to moderate yourself. Only steal what I we ask you.”

Timmins stood taller, offended. “I can steal far more than you ask and not get caught!”

“Aye, you can at that. But we’re not here just to steal. We’re here to make ourselves and Metamor wealthy. We can do the former by stealing, but not the latter.” Julian paused, glanced at Elliot and Goldmark, and then smiled. “We’ll do what we can to provide you plenty of opportunity to answer the call of your true vocation, Timmins. Have no fear of that.”

“Good,” Timmins said with a short churr. He crossed his arms and sat down, eyeing the others with a haughty delight.

Finally Julian’s eyes turned to Kendrick. There was a sternness to the rat’s gaze, but the pangolin tried to meet it with an unperturbed calm. “As much as I would like to keep you on as a thief, Kendrick, you are the heir to the Urseil family trade. If not for that you would stay a thief. You are too gifted in both worlds. It almost seems a shame. But after tonight neither you, nor Davine, nor Gadfrey, will ever need return here again.”

Kendrick felt a surge of elation rush through his chest. His heart beat faster. Somewhere hidden in this room were his thieving tools. Never more would he ever need set his eyes upon them. No more would he sneak into his house and go to bed with a guilty conscience. He wasn’t a thief anymore! He could not hide the smile from his triangular snout. “Thank you, Julian! I will do what I can to bring you more business from my family.”

“Good!” Julian beamed, patted him on the shoulder, and then turned his eyes from Elliot to Goldmark. “Well my friends, I’m off to the cellars again to enjoy some well earned rest. We three have a long journey tomorrow, the first of many more. Leave one by one as always. Goldmark, can you tend the lights on your way out?”

The six-limbed rat chittered and grinned. “It would be a pleasure.”

Julian smiled, waved to them one last time, and then left, whistling a soft tune as he disappeared into the dark tunnels that led to various alleys and hidden holes about Keeptowne. A moment later and even that little noise was gone. Timmins followed him a minute later, and then Gadfrey after him. Kendrick watched them each go, one eye drifting toward the young woman idly wrapping a curl of hair around a slender finger. Elliot glanced at them briefly before taking his leave. Goldmark excused himself a moment later to make sure that the back entrance was securely shut.

Kendrick turned toward Davine and tried to smile. “Well, I guess we aren’t thieves anymore.”

“No,” she said with a dimpled smile. His heart flushed and his paws curled more tightly around his winter coat. “No more late night assignations to pilfer a purloined profit from a persnickety pillager of poor Keeper’s purses!” She laughed at her own wit and then lowered her eyes. “All right. I’ve been thinking bout that one for a few minutes.”

Kendrick laughed at that, and noted that she was sitting a lot closer to him than she had been when Julian had left. He swallowed, long tongue bunching up at the back of his throat. “Well um, now that we’re no longer thieves, and we don’t have to worry about, well, you know, being seen in the, um, um, same...”

Davine smiled and leaned forward. “I’d love to.”

Kendrick started leaning back, tail curling up tight. “L... l... love to what?”

Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Whatever it was you were going to ask. So long as it’s just the two of us.” And then she kissed him on the end of his nose. “I’ll see you again soon.”

And with that she stood and waltzed down the dark tunnels and out of sight. Kendrick gasped for breath and stared after her. Despite the cold air in the cellar the pangolin felt as if he were roasting in his coat.

A chuckling chitter from behind him made him turn. Goldmark was at the edge of the stairs shaking his head. “Ah, Kendrick. I wish I had your problem!”

The poor confused pangolin still didn’t get any sleep that night.