They dragged Joshua and his friends back to the throne room and threw them to the floor. Dina kept the kitten close to her chest and under her coat. Joshua wrapped his arms around her to give them both cover.
His heart raced. What was going to happen to them? His imagination ran wild with all kinds of terrors. He looked at the others and saw the same fear in their faces, fear made worse by the unknown. He looked at Benjamin who lay on the floor near convulsions, unable to move as he blubbered uncontrollably.
He knows what’s going to happen to us!
The Rat King appeared from behind the black curtain. He stomped towards them.
“What’s this?” he bellowed.
The huge man focused on Benjamin and plucked him out of the pack as if her were a pup. Benjamin shrank up into a ball in the Rat King’s grip.
“When I found you, you were a miserable heap of nothingness. I spared you. More than spared, I raised you up to be among my wolves. I could have made you a sheep!”
Benjamin weakly mumbled an apology.
The Rat King threw him down with a thud.
“Please sir, we meant no harm,” Joshua said.
“No harm? You tried to run away!”
“It’s not that sir. We- we-“
Sophie spoke up, “It’s the cage. We’re not used to being locked up. We’re street urchins. Up there we were free to go wherever. Like birds, sir. Now you’ve caught us and we are yours. But it takes us a while to break our old habits.”
The Rat King stood over her. Sophie shrieked and curled up into a tiny ball. He could have crushed her with a single step.
“You were running away!” he shouted.
He was like a volcano erupting with pure hatred. Joshua knew he had to calm him somehow.
You know how, said the voice inside him.
Could he really do this? It was now their only hope. But first he had to get back to the kitchen.
His stomach churned with fear. Every one of his limbs was numb. He could only get himself to stand up through sheer will.
He pleaded, “No, sir. We were preparing the feast. In fact it’s almost ready, sir. Honest.”
The Rat King looked down at him but didn’t say anything. He rubbed his jutting chin. His tongue licked his grey lips.
Joshua said, “It will be the most amazing meal you’ve ever had, sir. I promise. Roasted meet, sweet corn mush, candied vegetables.”
The Rat King jerked his head towards the tunnel.
Joshua brought Dina up with him.
“She stays,” the Rat King said.
Joshua complained, “I need her. You’ve got my entire staff. She’s my sous.”
He looked down at his other friends still prostrate on the ground. He wanted to apologize. He could only take one of them and he didn’t want Dina’s kitten discovered. He could see on their faces that they all understood.
It’s all right. Go on, they told him without speaking.
Joshua walked with Dina towards the tunnel. No one moved to stop them. Two rag men followed them.
Joshua hurried with Dina and the unseen kitten back towards their prison cell. The pair rag men were just a few steps behind.
He glanced down at Dina. The kitten was still bundled inside her jacket. It hadn’t let out a peep as if sensing the danger. It looked back up at Joshua with great green eyes not unlike Dina’s own.
“Keep him out of sight,” Joshua warned.
“It’s a girl.”
“Keep her out of sight.”
They ducked into the cell. The rag men waited for them outside. Joshua hoped his food somehow wasn’t burnt to a crisp.
Joshua checked on the cracked corn which stewed in the pot. The corn had simmered the whole time. It was thick as pudding. The corn pieces had absorbed all the water and many of them had burst into a sweet mush. Joshua stirred the mixture and felt it stick on the bottom. He didn’t mind. He had planned to let it burn a little on the bottom to give a toasted flavor to the rest of the mush. He checked on the meat roasting over the braziers. The long cooking had rendered them crisp and tender with a smoky flavor that went well with the mush. The vegetables had been slightly off the fire. They were fine. Even better their juices had cooked down into syrup. It was perfect.
Perfect for eating. But could it really set them free?
Joshua calmed himself. He remembered the words in Lazlo’s book.
“Food is a direct connection to the soul.”
If his soul wasn’t calm, this wouldn’t work.
He dumped the mush, the meat and the vegetables into large pans.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on the feast. He could picture the food. He pictured the Rat King and his underlings eating it. He pictured what he wanted the food to do once it was in their stomachs.
He waved to the rag men and they came inside. One grabbed the pot of corn, one the pan of roasted meat. Joshua picked up the pot of vegetables. They left the kitchen and headed back to the throne room.
Nothing had changed since they’d left. The guards still stood in a circle around the others. Lucinda, the Twins, Heathcliff, Sophie, and Benjamin, they were all still there cowering on the floor.
Joshua and the two minions set the pots before the towering Rat King.
“Here sir. Here is the feast for you and your men,” Joshua said.
The Rat King dug in with his bare hands. He scooped up the piping hot mush without feeling any pain. He moved on to the meat. He picked up a whole roasted rat and lowered into his great gaping maw. He bit down and ate the whole thing, bones and all. He picked up a few glazed carrots and tossed them into his mouth. He licked his hands clean then started again. Another handful of corn, another whole beast bones and all, a few candied vegetables at the end. After he’d eaten nearly half the feast his minions came and took their share. Joshua kept his eyes closed and concentrated. He pictured in his head what was happening.
The food travels down to their stomachs. There it sits.
The Rat King patted his belly.
“You have pleased me boy. I won’t punish you.”
He seized Benjamin by the scruff of the neck.
“This one however!”
He tossed Benjamin towards the black curtain.
“No!” Joshua yelled.
The Rat King whirled back on him. His promise of mercy forgotten.
“No?” the Rat King Bellowed. “You dare say ‘no’ to me? Maybe you need another lesson.”
He pointed at Sophie.
“The silver tongue. Bring her as well.”