K.S. Trenten © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Chapter One: The Dream
Some say a mouse king has seven heads with seven crowns. In a way, this is true. A mouse prince must play seven tricks before the twelve days of Christmas are over. If he doesn’t, he cannot claim his throne.
“You must prove your worth before I acknowledge you as my heir,” Madam Mousenip said to me in the shadow of the enormous ticking tower. “Only by succeeding at seven tricks will you possess what you desire.”
She herself had become our sovereign through seven capers of her own, earning the name Mousenip for delivering tiny bites, which left cheese looking unscathed and humans whimpering. She’d nipped a human princess once. The bite turned the girl’s face into something so beautiful her people fainted at the sight of her. That was Madam Mousenip. Kind even to hideous giants.
I flicked my whiskers in humble acknowledgement of the Mouse Queen’s words.
In truth, winning the throne was what she desired, not I. What I wished for was a bit more romantic and complicated.
I’d had a dream involving our coming Christmas, but it wasn’t of me ascending the throne, oh no. I’d dreamed of an endless supply of tissue, scattered about the giant shrubbery humans insisted on covering with baubles.
Not that the shredded paper was what I desired, although there was enough for all my subjects, saving the king-size portion for myself.
No, what I wanted was the exquisite creature standing half in and half out of a giant box left open on the floor.
Wooden was he, keeping his arms and legs stiff and motionless in his bright red coat and green trousers. Wispy white hair stuck out of the crown on his head and square chin.
Ah, he had to be a prince of some sort. Perhaps a prince of the wooden dolls? Some of the humans kept such poppets as toys or slaves. Not much of a royal title.
The beauty bared his teeth at me in a seductive show of defiance. Never had I seen such an enormous, toothy jaw. The scent of roasted nuts wafted from his mouth, making my nostrils flare with hunger.
I crept up to this still, defiant beauty.
He didn’t move, or acknowledge me, even when I was a paw away from his face. The strange prince just stood there and grinned.
This infuriated me. Who was he grinning at, if not myself? Was he mocking me?
I nudged him with my snout.
He rocked on his stiff wooden legs but didn’t budge. The creature stood like a human being, but no human possessed so broad and beautiful a mouth as he. Nor did they smell so deliciously of roasted nuts.
“Maybe you’re a giant nut yourself,” I said in the way of mice, which sounds like chittering to anyone without the talent to understand our speech. “Do you taste as good as you smell?”
I sank my teeth into his hard shoulder.
His head turned very slowly. He regarded me with wide hungry eyes. The strange prince dropped his jaw, only to close it on my snout.
In a moment of intimacy, we bit each other.
I awoke with the taste of bitter sawdust in my mouth, mixed with the salty residue of nuts.
The taste of him slowly disappeared from my tongue, like the dream it had been.
No, he couldn’t be a dream. I had to find him.
I sniffed wildly around the familiar shreds of my nest.
A small white mouse crouched in front of me. He stood on his hind legs and stared at me with wide, solemn eyes.
Pellets. I must have looked extraordinarily foolish with my tongue hanging out over a silly dream.
I smoothed my whiskers and gathered my dignity.
“One so young wouldn’t understand,” I said with the gravity expected of a royal rodent.
I marched past him, tail curled in elegant disdain.
Foolish dream or not, I’d just seen my ultimate ideal. If I ever met the beautiful creature with the magnificent jaw, I’d make him mine.
However, I had a crown to win and a queen not to disappoint.
My desires would have to wait.
First, I had to come up with my first trick.
I’d already decided I was going to cheat the humans out of something. They had so much bounty, which they scattered and wasted.
Most mice didn’t dare to get too close to them, for they were huge. Huge enough to step on us or crush us underfoot. Huge enough to hide in the shadows at their feet if you dared. The crumbs of all sorts of treats fell carelessly from their hands into your waiting mouth.
Madam Mousenip and I stole out from behind the wooden tower.
It began to chime in an ominous, deep grumble.
I started and bared my teeth.
“Relax, it’s just a grandfather clock.” My queen sniffed with disdain. “Just another ostentatious piece of human contrivance meant to control the uncontrollable.” She stalked away from the “grandfather clock,” ignoring its ponderous groans. “Such as time.”
“Exactly whose grandfather is that supposed to be?” I muttered uneasily, but I followed in my queen’s wake. “And how could he possibly control time? It moves forward for everyone.”
“Grandfather Clock” let out a low bong as Madam Mousenip and I wandered far away from our comfortable escape hole. I got the distinct impression he was laughing at me.
Holding my muzzle and tail high, I chased after my queen into one of the most dangerous, yet rewarding spots within human territory. The kitchen. This was the heart of all sweetmeats and treats. Alas, it was seldom unguarded by the giants who regarded them as exclusively theirs.
Sure enough, there was a group of them, sitting around a table. A platter of perfectly good sausages, grain, and best of all cheese was piled high on its surface.
Oh, I yearned to scamper above and snatch some of that bounty. To do this, I needed to distract the humans first.
My eyesight isn’t very keen, but what I saw of the creatures almost made me pity them. They were so ugly.
“Do you wish to understand the speech of humans?” Madam Mousenip chittered in my ear. “’Tis a strange chatter, but it can be useful.”
“You can speak to these giants?” I asked, awed and a little afraid. “What does a mouse possibly have to say to a human?”
“Less than you can imagine and far more than you’d ever want to hear,” she said with a wry twitch. “However, if you listen, you can discover when they’re leaving, where they’re storing food, and plan accordingly.”
She leaned close and nipped on my neck.
I squeaked in dismay at the pain.
“What’s that?” one of the humans asked. Its voice was low, almost pleasant. “I thought I heard someone speak.”
“’Twas only a mouse,” another human said with great disdain. “There’s no escaping the vermin hiding in our walls. They’re everywhere.”
“Nay, sweet maiden.” Madam Mousenip used a fawning tone I’d never heard before.
She scampered away from me, up the table leg.
I froze in terror. My queen was right in the reach of the humans, where they could easily pick her up or squash her.
Not that this cowed her.
“I’m not mere vermin.” my sovereign said with justifiable pride. “I’m the queen of all mice.”
“Oh, a queen, eh?” a third human huffed with great disdain. “Well, you’ll get no scraps from this table.”
I trembled at the arrogant malice of these creatures. My lady had more courage in revealing herself than I cared to ever show.
It didn’t matter. I couldn’t let Madam Mousenip go where I wouldn’t follow. After all, I was a mouse prince. Not to mention a future king.
Swallowing my trepidation, I scurried up the table leg to join her at the top.
Ah, to be close to so much cheese. The scowling faces of the humans made me hesitate. They were even uglier up close.
“Eww, here’s another one.” I’d never seen a more hideous monster than the human who spoke. Although its long yellow hair bore a pleasing resemblance to straw, it had no snout or jaw. When the creature opened its mouth, it revealed ridiculously dull teeth. “Where do these beasts come from?”
“From the shadows and spots hidden,” Madam Mousenip said with a mysterious flick of a whisker. “We’ve learned secrets humans never hear where we scamper.”
“Do you?” the first human asked, the one with the pleasant voice. It looked at me with his abnormally huge eyes. “What exactly have you learned?”
“That despite having all this food in front of you, you are hungry,” Madam Mousenip said. She stood on her hind legs and waved a paw at the platter. “Why don’t you eat?”
“If you know so much, you should know the answer,” the second human said. It was as ugly as the others, but it had a very large head. A crown of braids perched upon the top of it, with flowers and sparkly ornaments sticking out of the mess of hair. The crown would have made a very comfortable nest. “This food is for my husband. We’re not to have any until he arrives.”
“Here.” The first human reached out with its enormous paws, which were hairless and pink to break off a tiny amount of cheese. It offered a little bit to me.
“Cracktooth,” the third human said sharply. “Why are you feeding these creatures?”
“I’m not entirely sure.” The first human’s strange snoutless mouth moved. I realized it was smiling at me. “I just felt like offering him a little cheese. It was fairly brave of these mice to come up here and face us.”
“Yes, and we don’t want to encourage such behavior.” the human with the crown retorted. Its mouth twisted in a very different expression than the first. “Allowing them onto our dinner table. Who knows what diseases they might be carrying.”
“Ah, but we’re not carrying diseases,” Madam Mousenip said. “We’re carrying messages, if you’re wise enough to listen to them.”
“As if you have anything to say to us,” the third person sniffed. “Cracktooth might be perfectly happy chatting with vermin, but Mother and I are ladies. We don’t associate with commoners, let alone ugly creatures who crawl on all fours.”
Considering her face, this human might want to reconsider what she called ugly.
“Now, Prissipat, one of these mice claims to be a queen,” the third human with the enormous head said. She attempted one of the human smiles Cracktooth had been wearing, but her mouth twisted in the same fashion as her daughter’s. “Let’s hear what Her Majesty has to say.”
“Ah, it’s actually this young prince who has something to say.” Madam Mousenip gestured to me. “He has a message for you all.” Her whiskers twitched expectantly.
This was my chance to perform the first trick. This Prissipat and her mother had been very rude and disrespectful to my sovereign. To rob them out of their food seemed like retribution.
Only the one called Cracktooth had offered me a little cheese. It seemed cruel to include him in whatever prank I’d inflict upon this group.
What a beautiful name—Cracktooth. If only he had a face to match the name, like the one I’d seen in my dreams. If only he wasn’t a giant ugly human.
That’s what they all were. Huge and hideous, no matter how hard they tried to pretend otherwise. They deserved whatever I did to them.
“Actually, the message is from your husband.” I stood up on my hind legs, drawing myself up with dignity. “He asked you to go ahead and eat the sausage. You’re to give us the cheese as a present for carrying this message.”
“He asked you to do all that?” Prissipat’s mother asked. A couple of massive hairy caterpillars at the top of her face came together. I realized those fuzzy crescents were part of her fur. Why did humans have it in all the wrong places? “I find it strange that my husband should entrust such a message to a pair of mice.”
“Oh, who cares, Mother?” Prissipat said with a petulant flick of a thick lock of yellow hair. “I’m hungry and tired of waiting.”
“Besides, we really don’t need the cheese, when we’re eating the sausages.” Cracktooth’s voice was so kind, it made my whiskers sag a little. “Go ahead and take it, Your Highnesses.”
We couldn’t carry very much cheese, but we managed to gnaw off a fair amount of it.
Our mouths were too full to thank the humans, so we scampered down the table leg, carrying our prizes.
Madam Mousenip and I almost didn’t fit into our hole with our stuffed cheeks. Once we were deep in our burrows, we set down our precious cargo.
“Not bad for your first trick,” Madam Mousenip muttered in approval, between nibbles. “Only I got the impression you liked that smooth-talking Cracktooth a little too much.” She shook her head vigorously. “Don’t. He’s the nephew of a terrible magician, who designs wooden traps for our people.”
“Don’t worry.” I flicked my tail in disdain. “He’s only a human. I don’t like him that much.”