The alchemasters apprent.., p.5
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.5

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘That’s because I’m a Crat, not a cat.’

  ‘You see!’ called another Leathermouse. ‘I knew there was something fishy about him right away!’

  ‘There’s nothing fishy about me,’ Echo retorted boldly. ‘I’m not a cat, that’s all. I’m a Crat - I can speak to any living creature in its own language.’

  ‘Really? You can really speak anyone’s language?’

  Echo took a deep breath. The conversation was under way. He’d whetted the vampires’ curiosity. Now he had to keep up the good work.

  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve certainly managed to talk to all the creatures I’ve ever met.’

  ‘Even mice?’

  ‘I don’t talk to mice.’

  ‘No?’

  ‘I could if I wanted to, but I don’t.’

  ‘Why not?’

  Echo hesitated. He’d never considered the matter before. This certainly wasn’t the appropriate moment to emphasise his hostility to mice. He tried to change the subject by asking a question of his own.

  ‘What exactly do you and Ghoolion do for each other?’

  ‘He gives us the run of this loft, so we have somewhere nice and dark to sleep - we’d be smoked out otherwise. In return, we give the local inhabitants a hard time.’

  ‘We drink their blood.’

  ‘Piss in their wells.’

  ‘Crap down their chimneys.’

  One or two vampires tittered malevolently.

  ‘We infect them with diseases to keep them weak and prevent them from rebelling against Ghoolion. That’s our part of the bargain.’

  ‘We’re experts at bacterial warfare.’

  ‘We’re viral virtuosi.’

  ‘We’re genuine pests.’

  Another concerted hiss of assent.

  Echo had an idea. The Leathermice seemed really proud of their vile activities. Perhaps he could trade on that fact.

  ‘You seem to be full of bright ideas when it comes to representing Ghoolion’s interests,’ he said.

  ‘You can say that again!’ a Leathermouse exclaimed. ‘We clean our teeth with toadshit before we go bloodsucking.’

  ‘We drink from graveyard puddles before we piss in their wells.’

  ‘We bite cows’ udders and contaminate their milk.’

  ‘Now I understand why Ghoolion respects you so much,’ said Echo. ‘He’d be only half as powerful without your help. But …’ He broke off.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Nothing. It’s a really practical partnership of yours - everyone gets something out of it. The only thing is …’ He hesitated again.

  ‘Come on, spit it out!’

  ‘Yes, what is it?’

  Echo cleared his throat. ‘Well, it’s great the way you spread all these diseases and put the wind up people, et cetera. Very ingenious and effective, but I wonder … Can it really be right to help a tyrant oppress the population of an entire town? Might it even be wrong?’

  A long silence ensued.

  ‘Bingo!’ thought Echo. ‘They’re like children who have to be taught that even they possess such a thing as a conscience. No wonder, when nobody ever talks to them.’

  One of the Leathermice gave a dry little cough.

  ‘You want to know about right and wrong, my friend? Listen and we’ll tell you.’

  ‘Yes,’ said another. ‘We sleep by day and live at night, drink blood instead of water and see with our ears.’

  ‘Up is down and down is up,’ several vampires chanted in unison.

  ‘People think we’re ugly, we think we’re good-looking. You think you’re good-looking, we think you’re ugly.’

  As though handing on the baton in a relay race, one Leathermouse chimed in after another.

  ‘Are you really surprised we have a different idea of right and wrong?’

  ‘Of good and evil?’

  ‘Of correct and incorrect?’

  ‘We’re vampires, my friend!’

  ‘Nobody understands us Leathermice!’

  ‘Nobody!’

  ‘Nobody!’

  ‘Nobody!’

  ‘Wrong is right and ugly is beautiful!’ they chorused.

  ‘People hate us - they’re frightened of the way we look.’

  ‘They smoke us out whenever they can.’

  ‘They put up nets and beat us to death with sticks when we get caught in them.’

  ‘That’s what we call wrong!’

  ‘Nobody understands us Leathermice!’

  ‘Nobody!’

  ‘Nobody!’

  ‘Nobody!’

  The hisses of assent rose and fell.

  ‘Ghoolion doesn’t hate us.’

  ‘He isn’t afraid of us.’

  ‘He gives us a place to sleep.’

  ‘He ensures our survival.’

  ‘What’s so bad about him?’

  ‘He cooks animals!’ Echo protested.

  ‘Well? Who doesn’t?’

  ‘I don’t!’ Echo said firmly.

  ‘Don’t you? Are you a vegetarian?’

  ‘No, I’m not, but I don’t cook animals!’

  ‘You eat them, though.’

  ‘Well, yes, but …’

  ‘Did somebody own you before Ghoolion?’

  ‘An old woman. She died.’

  ‘Too bad, but didn’t she sometimes cook an animal for your supper? A salmon, maybe, or a chicken?’

  Echo hung his head. ‘Yes, she did.’

  ‘Well, does that make your former owner a bad person in your eyes?’

  ‘No,’ Echo was forced to concede.

  ‘What about you? Did you eat these cooked animals?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Does that make you a bad person in your own eyes?’

  ‘I’ve never thought about it.’

  ‘Thinking doesn’t seem to be your strong point.’

  ‘Have you ever eaten a Leathermouse?’

  ‘Never!’ Echo insisted.

  ‘How about a mouse?’

  ‘A mouse? Yes, of course, but not a Leathermouse.’

  ‘So what about: “Mice, Leathermice - what’s the difference?”’

  The loft rang with indignant snarls and Echo realised that pursuing this conversation would only make his predicament worse. Mice of this kind were no fools. It seemed they intended to humiliate him for fun before killing him and that he could do without. If he had to die, he preferred to get it over quickly.

  ‘Now listen, all of you,’ he cried. He abandoned his crouching stance and boldly raised his head. ‘I apologise for my behaviour when I came in. I was scared and tried to disguise the fact. I thought I’d made a deal with Ghoolion, but it seems I was wrong. I’ve done you no harm, so I don’t see why you’re putting me on trial here. It’s time you stopped grilling me like a criminal. If you’re hell-bent on killing me, so be it, but I warn you: I shall sell my life as dearly as I can and take as many of you with me as I can catch. There may be a lot of you, and you may be able to fly and suck blood, but - pardon me for saying so - you’re still only mice when all is said and done.’

  A good farewell speech, thought Echo. He particularly liked the final sentence.

  ‘You made a deal with the Alchemaster?’ one of the Leathermice asked after a long pause.

  ‘He drew up a contract,’ said Echo.

  ‘A contract? That’s serious.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘I mean you definitely have an agreement with him - as you’d very soon find out if you tried to break it.’

  ‘What form did the contract take?’ demanded another Leathermouse.

  ‘He wants to buy some fat from me.’

  ‘You deal in fat?’

  ‘Just body fat. My own.’

  ‘That’s a barefaced lie. You don’t have an ounce of body fat.’

  ‘No, not yet. Ghoolion plans to fatten me up by the next full moon. Then he’ll slit my throat and render me down.’

  The loft fell silent once more. Not a Leathermouse st
irred. Echo heard the wind whistling outside and rattling the tiles. Somewhere a crow cawed. He’d completely forgotten the existence of anything apart from the loft’s gloomy interior.

  ‘In that case,’ a Leathermouse whispered, ‘you’ve no time to lose. Get out on the roof.’

  Echo thought he’d misheard. Was he free to leave? The Leathermice were absolutely silent now.

  ‘You’ll let me go out on the roof?’

  ‘Of course. That was never in doubt.’

  ‘You don’t intend to kill me any longer?’

  ‘We never did. It was you that encouraged us to pull your leg a little. We’d never harm anyone who uses the secret door. It means he’s Ghoolion’s guest.’

  ‘Besides, you’re inedible.’

  ‘Inedible?’ Echo was feeling utterly bewildered. ‘Why?’

  ‘We can smell you are.’

  ‘Your vital juices are no use to us.’

  ‘Too clean.’

  ‘Not enough adipose fluid.’

  ‘You must have two livers, or something.’

  ‘By the way,’ said the Leathermouse who had initiated the conversation, ‘what’s your name?’

  ‘Echo.’

  ‘That’s a very nice name.’

  Promptly, the others all chimed in :

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!’

  Echo was at a loss for words, he was still so utterly baffled by the sudden turn of events.

  ‘Thank you,’ he said eventually. ‘And, er, what should I call you?’

  A Leathermouse cleared its throat and announced solemnly: ‘My name is Vlad the First.’

  ‘My name is Vlad the Second,’ called the one beside it.

  ‘My name is Vlad the Third,’ squeaked another.

  ‘My name is Vlad the Fourth.’

  ‘My name is Vlad the Fifth.’

  ‘My name is Vlad the Sixth.’

  ‘My name is Vlad the Seventh.’

  ‘My name is Vlad the Eighth.’

  ‘My name is Vlad the Ninth.’

  ‘My name is Vlad the Tenth.’

  Echo didn’t realise his mistake until Vlad the Eleventh had introduced himself. Every last one of the Leathermice insisted on calling out its name. It wasn’t until Vlad the Two Thousand Four Hundred and Thirty-Eighth had made himself known, by which time Echo was almost dying of hunger, that the creatures showed him the secret route to the roof.

  The Mother of All Roofs

  When Echo came out on the roof, he felt he had entered a new and far bigger world. The wind was so strong, it ruffled his fur and nearly blew him over. He had never been so high up before and the view was breathtaking. Ghoolion’s castle served as a monumental observation tower. The whole of Malaisea lay spread out below. What had looked to Echo at ground level like a gigantic labyrinth flanked by insurmountable walls dwindled at this altitude to the size of a miniature plaything, a disorderly jumble of dolls’ houses and building bricks traversed by tiny carriages and horse-drawn wagons, and inhabited by creatures that scuttled around like the busy inmates of an anthill.

  All at once Echo realised how pathetically little he knew of the world in which he lived. He experienced a fierce desire to explore the regions beyond the horizon above which the sun was shining so brightly. The countryside between the town and the distant Blue Mountains on the skyline was a hundred shades of green, a patchwork quilt of woods, fields and meadows that would certainly have taken him months to reconnoitre in every detail. Possibly years. Possibly a lifetime.

  And that was when Echo’s woes caught up with him again. Months? Years? A lifetime? He had only a week or two left. Thirty days - no, only twenty-nine now. He looked up at the ghostly, waning moon. Horrified to think that it would hover up there for a month like a portent of his approaching death, he banished the dismal thought - shook it off as though ridding his fur of raindrops - and proceeded to explore the roof.

  It was indeed the mother of all roofs, an architectural marvel that tapered to a point and consisted of gables of varying sizes, stone walls and stairways that served no obvious purpose.

  Although it wasn’t the first roof Echo had climbed around on, it was certainly the biggest, the highest and the most dramatically complex. Dozens of chimneys jutted from it like stone mushrooms with metal caps. Most of the tiles were as correctly laid as any tiler could have wished, but elsewhere they stuck out awry like huge, neglected teeth, buffeted and dislodged by centuries of wind. Where one or more were missing, having been washed away by the rain, the gaps were occupied by little wild gardens of thistles, buttercups and daisies.

  The tiles themselves looked almost indestructible, being composed of an iron-hard slate that had defied the passage of time. The fine cracks and cavities in their rough exterior provided Echo’s paws with excellent footholds. One false step, one slip, one trip, and he would have fallen like a stone, down past the windows of Ghoolion’s abode and ever onwards, down and down, until his bones shattered into a thousand splinters on the castle forecourt below. It wouldn’t matter which way up he landed because his flexible bone structure and padded paws would never be proof against a fall from such a height.

  The stairways had also suffered from the wind and weather, having cracked and crumbled away in places, and Echo was often obliged to leap boldly across the gaps. But it was the sheer danger that generated much of the thrill it gave him to tiptoe from tile to tile and leap from gable to gable. He burnt with ambition to gauge each step with the utmost care, adjust his position accordingly and find his point of balance. This was the essence of Cratdom; he and his kind might have been created solely for this one purpose: to roam across roofs with feline grace. Echo had progressed in this manner throughout his life, whether along wide streets or narrow walls: as if balancing on a tight-rope above a chasm miles deep. He now felt it had all been a preparation for this moment. The roof of Ghoolion’s castle was a masterpiece of the roofer’s art, as perfect as if it had been constructed by some fanatical Crat lover of long ago and left to weather picturesquely, just so that Echo could promenade across it. Now and then he cautiously trod on a tile to check its stability. If it creaked or gave way he stopped short, memorised the spot and looked for another route; if it seemed to offer a firm foothold, he would walk on with resolute tread. Sometimes he would risk a little leap, then stand motionless with his ears pricked, listening intently and sniffing the air. Hey, just a moment - could that be Cratmint? He took another sniff. Yes, no doubt about it, that was the captivating scent of Cratmint, the finest herb in the world! Echo promptly lost his head and cast caution to the winds. He went bounding up the roof to the narrow ridge, where he paused and peered down at the flight of steps on the far side. Sure enough, perched on a landing halfway down them was a big clay flowerpot containing a luxuriant Cratmint bush in full bloom, with bumblebees buzzing all round it.

  It is still one of Zamonian biology’s unsolved mysteries that Crats should be so enraptured by Cratmint that they become transformed, from one moment to the next, into purring bundles of bliss. At all events, Echo displayed the behaviour typical of his breed when confronted by that miraculous herb: he slithered lithely down the slope and circled the flowerpot
with head erect and nostrils quivering. Then he leapt into the Cratmint, burrowed deep into its foliage and ecstatically sniffed every stem, leaf and flower, purring like a humming top. Next, he miaowed at the plant for minutes on end as if singing it a love song. Finally, feeling refreshed and inspired, he strode proudly on, his movements more balletic than ever, his tail contorting itself into a series of elegant curlicues.

  So the Alchemaster hadn’t been lying to him. This roof harboured delicacies other than that glorious mint. Echo not only guessed at their presence; he could actually smell them: roast pigeons and honey-flavoured milk! An invisible but lavishly provided banqueting table came wafting through the air towards him. The mint had been merely an olfactory appetiser; the edible delicacies awaited him elsewhere. But where? He continued to climb, higher and higher, until he came to a mossy terrace. Dozens of tiles must have slid off like toboggans hurtling down a mountainside, and someone, presumably Ghoolion, had installed a garden in their place. It was a regular little wilderness extending deep into the roof space, with tall grasses and weeds sprouting from a lush, mossy floor. Echo picked his way silently through the undergrowth at a crouch, every inch a hunter stalking his quarry. The two predominant scents were those of milk and honey.

  Thistles barred his path like levelled lances, but he brushed them aside with his claws extended. Nothing could keep him from his prey, which must now be very near. He parted a luxuriant clump of yellow grass with both paws, and then he saw it for the first time: a snow-white expanse gently ruffled by the wind - a lake of milk! Floating on it were some little boats woven of reeds, and the passengers in them were crisply roasted pigeons and grilled trout. They were sitting up dressed in dolls’ clothes and were equipped with little paper parasols. Echo was entranced.

  He crawled to the edge of the milky pool and proceeded to lap some up with his nimble tongue. Sure enough, it was laced with honey! He drank his fill, then fished a roast pigeon out of one of the boats with his paw, stripped off its doll’s attire and devoured the whole bird, crisp skin and all. Having eaten the breast, drumsticks and wings, he licked off every last shred of meat with his rough little tongue until nothing was left but bare bones.

 

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