By the end of the evening, Falastur had heard the whole story. 'You will have a hard time changing people's minds about black cats, Beruthiel. It has been ingrained in tradition down through the ages that black animals in general and cats in particular are bad luck.'
'I realize that. I don't really care if they think they are bad luck, I just want them to stop hurting them for being black. Will you issue the edict as I asked? It may help at least a little.'
'Somehow I doubt it, Beruthiel and it may make it worse. The people might resent it and go out of their way to cause more harm,' he said, 'but I will do it if you wish. I think perhaps you may regret it in the end.'
Beruthiel wanted to cry in frustration, but she listened to his words. He had ruled for many years and understood the common folk far better than she. 'Very well, but I want a free hand to punish anyone caught being cruel to an animal.'
'Agreed, but again I warn you to temper your judgments. Only those who are intentionally cruel merit the worst sentence.'
'I know, I know. I have learned that in the Ladies' Court if nothing else. I am always amazed at the messes women can get themselves into through stupidity or carelessness rather than actual intentions.' Beruthiel learned something new every time she held a session.
'I am happy to hear you have continued with the court, my dear. Some feared you would grow bored and give it up,' Falastur told her.
'Bored? Frustrated, yes but never bored. I only wish that it was easier to determine who is right and who is wrong. I am certain that at times I have made the wrong decision and it pains me,' Beruthiel admitted.
'As long as you try your best, no one can ask any more than that. I myself have made mistakes, only don't let anyone ever know!' he said with a wink. 'Now let's go meet the rest of your herd.'
With Falastur in residence, the life of the court revived. Beruthiel had done her best to discourage it in his absence, but now the courtiers poured back to curry favor from their king. Even her ladies-in-waiting tried to reinsert themselves into her chambers.
'Out!' Beruthiel shouted at the first to appear. 'You could not abide me when the king was gone and nothing has changed.' Mithril hissed from her shoulder and the woman slunk away.
'Sh, sh, don't let her upset you, my pet. I will get rid of any others who come.' And she did, one after the other.
'Are you sure you don't need any ladies?' Falastur asked her one day. 'You might like a companion or two when I am gone.'
Beruthiel laughed. 'They would never be companions; only interfering busybodies. Remember how they treated me before? I have no need of them. Besides, I have Uldis and the kittens. Well, they are really cats now, but anyway, I have them for entertainment. Don't worry, Falastur, I have never cared much for people and I am used to being alone. I prefer solitude to insincere friendship.'
'As long as you are content, I will say no more.' He thought she seemed happy but felt the need to verify his feeling.
'Actually, I am more content than I have ever been. I like watching the world pass by rather than being caught up in the chaos of living. It has always been that way.'
Falastur cleared his throat. 'And the fact that you will have no child? That still does not bother you?' He had made several attempts with her since his return but without success.
'The only trouble about that is the mean comments I sometimes hear from the people, but personally I feel no loss, Falastur. I mean it when I say that. A child would add nothing to my days,' Beruthiel said. She always cringed slightly when she saw the way children clung and whined around their parents. Patience with cats was one thing, patience with a whining child? She had none.
'That is good to hear. I said it before: I would not like you to be discontented.'
'I am more than content, Falastur. Had you been able, I would have borne your children, but I feel no lack. I sorrow more for you than myself.' Beruthiel knew he felt that he failed his people with his trouble.
'Ah, I realized long ago that it was unlikely to happen. Earnil will be a fine heir. He shows more promise with each passing year.' He shrugged his shoulders as if to rid himself of unpleasant thoughts. 'Now, I will be leaving again next week, but I would like you to come to Pelargir again for while, if you are willing? I can teach you to sail!'
Beruthiel smiled, 'That sounds like fun. Do you mind if Mithril comes along? I do not wish to leave him behind.'
'Of course, every ship needs a cat or two. We can teach him how to sail also!' He was pleased that his queen was so amenable. They sat and planned their adventure for the rest of the afternoon.
Beruthiel enjoyed their time in Pelargir. Mithril took to the water as if he were a duck. He became a familiar sight at the bow of any boat he was on and explored the docks from end to end. The town folk commented frequently on the queen and her cat.
Falastur taught her the basics of sailing and said she was quite good at it. 'You have a natural talent. Perhaps you will come while I am gone and work on your skills. I will leave orders for you to have any help that you require.'
'I may do that. How long will you be gone this time?'
Falastur stared out over the sea before he answered. 'Probably quite some time; I want to explore far to the south past Umbar. No one has ever recorded much about those regions and I would like to learn more. The Steward will see that your needs are met,' he told her.
'I'm not worried about that, Falastur. I would not like to see anything happen to you.' He might not be her true love, but she cared for the man who stood by her side.
'I will be fine. My heart lies with the sea truth be told. If I were not king, I would never leave it.' He sighed. 'I have one last gift for you before I leave.' He took her arm and led her further down the dock until they reached a small but elegant boat. 'If you do decide to further your education, I had this readied for you. It is easily managed by two or three people, but in a pinch even one person can sail her.'
Beruthiel looked at the little craft. 'I love it!' Mithril jumped from her shoulder and scampered up the gangplank. He looked back at her and then ran aboard. 'Well, it's official, Falastur! Mithril approves.'
He showed her all the ins and outs of the boat and they took it for a short sail around the harbor. On the way back, he let her do all the work of sailing the vessel. 'See, I told you. Easy enough for even one to sail, but I would prefer that you not go out alone. One can never be too careful around the water. Too many accidents can happen to even the most skilled.'
'I will teach Uldis to sail and we can bring the whole clowder!' Beruthiel laughed. 'That would really set the town talking!'
After her return to Osgiliath, Beruthiel's life resumed its previous track. She ejected those courtiers that she found useless or annoying. Uldis and the cats were her constant companions at home or around town. On her trips to the Ladies' Court, Mithril was always with her and frequently several of the other cats tagged along.
The townsfolk were no friendlier about the animals, but they did seem to grow used to the appearance of the queen and her companions. They were certainly smart enough to muffle their comments in range of her hearing.
The Ladies' Court was becoming more of a problem for Beruthiel. There had always been cases that troubled her, and she had foisted them off on others. Now however, she got the impression that the other judges' decisions were no more informed than her guesses would have been and frequently seemed worse.
'I wish there was some way to know!' she complained again to Uldis. 'There was a woman today that I think was lying to me, but I couldn't come out and say it in the court! Even a queen should not say such things without proof.'
'Was there no one else to ask?' Uldis wanted to know.
'Not in the short time I have. I suppose if it was a more important case, I could delay and try to find out, but it really was a rather minor matter. But some of them are more serious. If only I could read minds, everything would be clear, wouldn't it Mithril?' She rubbed her cat's ears and stared into his beautiful eyes.
He blinked at her slowly and seemed to agree. 'The cats could figure it all out I am sure,' she continued. 'They seem to be able to get into the smallest spaces. Just imagine an army of cat spies!' Beruthiel said.
'I hate to think how the people would react to that!' Uldis exclaimed. She set aside her sewing. 'I need to check with the kitchen about dinner. Do you need anything?'
'No, I'm fine, Uldis. Thank you,' Beruthiel replied.
After Uldis' departure, Beruthiel continued to stroke and talk with her friend Mithril. She laughed to herself. 'Just imagine, Mithril; my own secret source of information. It would be much easier to judge all these silly arguments that I have to listen to. Right?'
Beruthiel's eyes widened and she looked up from the cat. She shook her head and commented, 'Maybe I do spend too much time alone. I am starting to hear things.'
Now her eyes focused on Mithril. 'You really are speaking, Mithril?'
The cat stared into her eyes. 'Yes, Mistress.'
'But why now? You have been here for months and I talk to you all the time!'
'It never seemed important before, but now you have a task that we can fulfill. We will watch and tell you what we see.'
'Can all of you talk?' She realized that she heard the voice in her head rather than with her ears. 'Can anyone else hear you?'
'We all can talk. All animals can, but only a few people choose to hear us. Uldis could, but unless there is a need we try to refrain from it. It can lead to problems.' The cat did not elaborate.
'And you are willing to help me by watching the town folk and letting me know what they are up to?'
'Yes. You saved us. We would do anything for you, Mistress,' Mithril said with a purr. 'The folk pay us no mind unless it is to chase us away. We hear many things that no one else does.'
The new system worked surprisingly well. Beruthiel would tell Mithril the names of the people in the next court case or two and Mithril would send out the black cats to check on their stories. Sometimes they couldn't help, but usually the folk talked their heads off about their appearance before the queen. 'Whether they are at home or at the inns, they speak the truth,' Mithril said. 'No one thinks anything of speaking in front of a cat, and often they do not even know we are there.' If one of the blacks couldn't get into a particular house, there was usually another cat around willing to fill in the blanks.
For the most part the cases continued to be easy, but the knowledge the cats relayed to Beruthiel gave her confidence that her decisions were right most of the time. A most interesting case came down a few weeks after the cat network was in place. A landlady hauled her tenant before the queen and claimed he had not paid his rent. 'He owes me for thirty-five days of room and board, Your majesty, but he refuses to pay!' the woman complained.
Beruthiel looked over at the woman. Now middle-aged, she probably had been a beauty when she was younger but she had begun to fade a bit. This was one case that the cats had not yet reported on. Expecting Mithril at any time, she stalled and asked a few questions of the tenant. 'Did you agree to take a room from this lady?'
The man bowed low and replied, 'Yes, Your majesty, but I did not agree to pay with money.'
Beruthiel raised her eyebrow. 'What were the terms then?
'I am an artist, and she agreed to take a painting in exchange. She knew I had no ready coin.' For some reason, he blushed a deep red. He held up a rolled canvas. 'I have it here. She wanted a portrait.'
Beruthiel motioned to her bailiff. 'Let me see it.' She noted the blush. There was more to this story she was sure.
The bailiff took the canvas and unrolled it on a nearby table. The queen walked over and stared down at it. It was a painting of the landlady staring into the fire with a patient dog resting its head on her knee. 'This is a wonderful portrait, madam. What seems to be the problem?'
The landlady shook her head. 'It doesn't look anything like me, and I want the money instead!'
Beruthiel bit her lips to keep from saying it looked exactly like the woman. Before she could reply, Mithril walked into the room and jumped up beside her. Beruthiel patted his head but refrained from looking at him. 'The woman is angry that the artist does not see her as young as she would like to think she is.'
'Is that all?' Beruthiel thought back. She knew that Mithril could hear her thoughts as easily as she heard his.
'No, Mistress, she also hoped that he would attend to her physical needs, but he refused.'
Beruthiel once again bit her lips, but this time to keep from smiling. She had wondered if that had not been the case. The artist was a very attractive man. 'You cannot afford to pay her in coin?' she asked the artist.
The man sighed. 'No, Your majesty. I have sold nothing lately, and this painting is all I have.'
'And you want nothing to do with it?' she asked the landlady.
The woman shook her head vehemently. 'Absolutely not!'
Beruthiel pondered the pair. 'I award the landlady thirty-five days of room and board, minus five days for lying.'
'Lying! I never lied!' the woman protested.
'You said you would take a portrait but now you will not.' Beruthiel motioned her forward and then whispered, 'I would accept my offer unless you would like me to announce to the court the other 'rent' you really wanted. This gentleman has been polite enough not to mention it, but I can tell by his blushes what it was.'
Now it was the landlady's turn to redden. She quickly ducked her head and said, 'Agreed.'
'But your majesty,' the artist protested, 'I have no way of paying her at least not one I will agree to.' He blushed yet again.
'No, you do not, but I do. I will buy your painting for an amount equal to the thirty days as long as you then agree to come to the King's House and paint for me. Bailiff, pay the lady.' Beruthiel proclaimed. The court rustled in astonishment. Paint for the queen? Everyone knew Beruthiel kept mostly to herself. The court was deserted if Falastur was not in residence.
The artist was astounded. 'You wish me to paint for you, Your majesty? I would be most honored.'
'Why, of course you would. Present yourself before the end of tomorrow. Court dismissed.' Without waiting for further reply, Beruthiel stood and walked out of the room trailed by Mithril.
The audience whispered furiously about this last decision. Many were putting the pieces together and sly looks were sent the landlady's way. She quickly collected the money owed from the bailiff and pushed her way through the crowd. How on earth had the queen known about her secret desire? She was certain the artist had not spoken of it. Surely blushes were not proof!
A footman ushered the artist into Beruthiel's salon. 'The artist Aledin to see you, your majesty.' He bowed low and waited wondering how long the artist would last. The queen was not known to tolerate many unless they were cats.
'Ah, Aledin, was it? Good of you to come,' Beruthiel looked over from where she and Uldis were brushing some of the clowder. 'Uldis, this is the artist I mentioned. He is here to paint the cats.'
'Cats, your majesty?' Aledin said tentatively. He had assumed he would be painting courtiers or even the queen but cats?
'Yes, cats. Surely you have been in Osgiliath long enough to hear of the queen's hated cats!' she exclaimed.
'Well, yes, of course, your majesty. I have heard of the cats. Not about them being hated or anything,' he stumbled. It had been one of the first things he had heard after the warning not to hurt a cat and the reason for such a silly rule.
Beruthiel laughed but not in a pleasant way. 'Two things, artist: my lady is much preferred over your majesty, and do not lie to me. I will always know.' She picked up Mithril. 'Won't I, my dear?'
The cat rubbed its head over her cheek and stared at the newcomer. He saw a taller than average man with rather long dark hair and expressive green eyes. 'Special,' he purred to Beruthiel. Keeping her features straight and continuing to gaze at Aledin, Beruthiel thought, 'Special, how? What do you mean, Mithril?'
'I only know that he is special,' the cat said again, 'I can say no more.' He jumped from her arms, walked up to the artist and rubbed his head against his knee. The man stared for a moment, leaned down and briefly stroked the white head.
'Well, Mithril approves and that is enough for now. You will start with the cats. If I am pleased, there will be other work, you can be certain of that. Aledin, this is Uldis. She will show you to your quarters. Let her know anything that you need and it will be supplied.' She turned back to the cats in dismissal.
Uldis rose from her chair and led him out of the room. 'This way, sir; rooms have been prepared. I am Uldis,' she said with a shy smile repeating the queen's introduction.
'A pleasure to meet you, Uldis. How many cats are there and is the queen serious about portraits of them?' Aledin asked.
Uldis stopped in the middle of the corridor. 'Very serious, Aledin. Never underestimate her love for those cats. They come before all other things in her heart. Please her with these paintings and doors will open, displease her and you will regret it! She can be a hard mistress if angered.' Uldis had only aggravated Beruthiel one time and that had been more than enough.
'Then she is as cruel as they say?' Aledin asked. 'The town folk do not speak well of her. They say she is a witch.'
Uldis snorted. 'They do not speak well of her because they cannot fool her, and she has no patience with them. Someday I will tell you the story of the cats and then you may begin to understand. But no, she is not unnecessarily cruel nor is she a witch. Keep such words to yourself, however. She can be sensitive and she hears everything eventually.' Uldis had seen one of the cats disappear around the corner and knew that Beruthiel would hear about this conversation.
Aledin nodded and wondered what he had gotten into. 'I will do my best, but as I said, I have never painted cats.'
'She liked what you did with the dog and your landlady. She said it showed an honest heart to not try and flatter someone you owed a debt to.' Uldis was also privy to Aledin's dilemma, but she didn't let him know that.
Now it was his turn to snort. 'I suppose I will have to be grateful to that old biddy. Without her complaint I would not be here now!'
Uldis led him up two floors and opened a pair of doors. 'The queen thought this suite may fit your purpose. Please let me know if it does not; I can show you others.'
Aledin stood in the door and stared. The room was huge with tall windows lining one wall. The sun shone in with a pleasant golden light. 'I have lived in many places, Uldis, but never anything like this. It will be fine.'
He was even more amazed when she told him that there was also a bedroom and private bath. 'All this for a lowly artist?'
'If the queen asks you to stay in the King's House, you are hardly lowly. No guests are ever here without the king in residence,' Uldis explained.
'Ah, the king. And what will he think of my presence in such exalted chambers? Or even my presence at all?' he asked.
'King Falastur is rarely home these days. He has many responsibilities at sea. But even if he returned, he would take no issue. He wishes the queen to be happy and has given her free rein to do as she sees fit,' Uldis said. 'Now, I have the queen's permission to pay for any supplies you may need. Do you have anything to bring from your lodgings?'
'A few paints and sketchbooks, but that is all. I used the last of my supplies on the landlady's portrait.'
'You have not sold anything in Osgiliath? The queen said your painting was wonderful.'
'My connections with those who can afford such a work have been limited. I suppose if the queen approves, I may make some now. Do you really think she will promote me?' Aledin asked.
'I hope you did not think she would do so, Aledin. The queen does not socialize with the town folk, be they high or low. She means that she will keep you in residence painting for her and her alone.' She saw the shock on his face. 'Oh, she will not forbid you from painting for others, but you will make few if any connections through her,' Uldis said.
Aledin's high spirits plummeted. 'I cannot only paint cats, Uldis! I mean, there is nothing wrong with them, but really? Cats?' he complained. 'They are so flighty and aloof.'
Uldis smiled a tiny smile. 'Again, Aledin, I warn you. Do not voice any criticisms of the cats. The walls have ears and the queen will not tolerate it. And besides, if that is your opinion of cats, it is only because you have not been around them enough.'
He sighed. 'I will try. I really have only ever seen them slinking around the towns where I have lived. I've never had anything to do with them before; there has been no reason for me to.'
'Well, now you get to meet an entire clowder of cats. Soon you will know as much as anyone in Osgiliath save the queen and me!'
'What is a clowder?' the puzzled artist asked.
'A clowder is a group of cats and a kindle is a group of kittens,' Uldis explained.
'Well, you learn something new every day!' Aledin commented. 'What about you, Uldis? How did you end up a slave of cats?'
Uldis raised an eyebrow at the artist and frowned. 'I am Mistress of the Cats!' she huffed. 'A far better position than the baker's apprentice I was when the queen appointed me.'
'Pardon me,' he said with a rueful smile. 'Let me rephrase my question. Are you ever lonely here if no one visits?'
'Lonely? Why? Being a baker allowed little time for anything. If I wasn't making bread I was trying to sleep so I could get up to make bread! This life is more than I ever dreamed of, Aledin. The cats have been a blessing since the day I met them!'
'I only hope I end up feeling the same way, Uldis. Perhaps familiarity will lead me to change my mind.'
Uldis smiled. 'I am sure it will.'