Over the next few days Aledin and Uldis gathered the supplies he needed to furnish his new studio.When they were not shopping, the artist did his best to get acquainted with the cats.
'There are ten altogether,' Uldis explained. 'Nine black and one white. Mithril is the white cat and the queen's favorite.' She rattled off the names of the others but Aledin stopped listening around number four. Like Beruthiel, he began to think of them as Black One, Black Two, etc.
'I will never be able to tell them apart, Uldis. Will you keep track of who has been painted and who has not?'
She laughed. 'I will, but I think as you watch them you will be able to identify a few of them. Sometimes I get them confused even now unless I get a really good look at them.'
Aledin also learned more about cat behavior than he ever dreamed of knowing. Uldis told him that the best time to paint them would probably be in the afternoon. 'Most of them are usually around then taking naps or socializing with each other.'
'Where are they at other times?' he asked. He thought perhaps he should observe them outside the King's House also.
The usually chatty Uldis grew quiet. 'They have their routines in the town.' She said no more and he did not ask. He had begun to suspect there was some secret about these animals but it was too early to try and ferret it out especially with the warnings Uldis had given about the sensitivity of Beruthiel.
For their part, the cats were fascinated with Aledin. They swarmed him anytime he appeared. 'Why do they do this? I know I need to observe them, but this is ridiculous!' he cried one day. He had four or five cats fighting to be on his lap and one or two behind him on the bench he occupied.
Uldis laughed. 'They like you. Either that or they sense you do not really like them. For some reason, cats are drawn to those who prefer they stay away.'
Aledin moved a tail or two out of his face. 'I don't dislike them, but they are a bit overwhelming.' He spit out a tuft of hair, stood up and moved over to a window where the light was better and had no cats.
Beruthiel entered the room with Mithril who made a beeline for Aledin's legs. The cat rubbed against him and stared up into his eyes. The artist reluctantly bent down and scratched his ears. 'I see you are like all the others, Mithril.'
The queen watched the little scene. She was rather jealous of the attention Mithril gave Aledin. She didn't care about the other nine, but Mithril was her special cat. Sharing him with another was not to her taste. 'Mithril, leave him be,' she commanded abruptly.
'Yes, Mistress, but he is special,' the cat said yet again.
'Yes, yes, very special. I wish you would explain that someday. Even so, leave him be.' Slowly the white cat left the artist's side and returned to Beruthiel.
'When do you begin painting, Aledin?' He had spent the last few days sitting with Uldis and the cats.
'I have begun some sketches, my lady, but it is more difficult than I thought it would be. The cats are always in motion or right in my face.' Even as he spoke, one of the blacks made a leap to his shoulder and stuck its nose in his ear. Aledin tried to shake it off, but it clung to his coat.
'Mithril, control them, please! He will never be able to work if they are all over him like this!' the queen thought.
Although no word was spoken aloud, suddenly all the cats retreated as one to the benches and chairs about the room. Aledin stared. It was as though they had been ordered! He looked up to see the queen smiling wryly at him.
'There, that's better. You should have much better luck in the future. If not, let me know.' Beruthiel nodded to Uldis and swept back out of the room.
'Sometimes I think she can talk to them!' Aledin exclaimed.
'Wouldn't that be something?' Uldis said with a knowing smile.
'Mistress,' Mithril purred, 'the town folk are upset.'
'Now what is the problem?' Beruthiel complained. 'They always seem to be in a tizzy about something. If it isn't their miserable little lives what else can it be?'
'The artist; they do not like him living here.' The thoughts stopped for a most pregnant pause. 'They think he pleasures you.' If it was possible for a cat to blush, Mithril did. At the very least, he squirmed on the table where he sat with the queen.
'What!' Beruthiel shouted out loud. 'They think what?'
The cat hung his head. 'They think you are lovers. They expect Falastur to punish you both when he returns.'
Beruthiel shook her head in disgust. 'How petty of them. Just because he is a man and I am alone they assume the worst. Thank you, Mithril. I will have Uldis investigate a bit more. Let me know if you hear anything else.'
The cat touched his nose to hers. 'Yes, Mistress.' He jumped down quickly, glad the uncomfortable interview was over. He never knew with Beruthiel. Sometimes bad news was rewarded with angry words or very rarely something thrown with great accuracy.
Beruthiel watched the cat's speedy retreat. She always tried to control her temper, but sometimes it got away from her even around her beloved Mithril. The next time Uldis appeared she said, 'Uldis, I need you to go into the town. It has been quite some time since you had a day off.'
Uldis looked surprised. 'Well, yes, I suppose, but there is nothing I need.'
'You are too much alone here and never take any time for yourself. Do you not wish to meet others on occasion?'
'Not really. This is so much easier than baking and I would have had little free time if I still worked for Mirda,' Uldis said.
'You do not wish to marry? Have a family some day?' the queen asked curiously. She had never thought to ask such things before.
Uldis laughed. 'No, that seems like so much more work than tending to the cats! I have watched girls only a little older than I turn into old women overnight caring for a pack of children. Besides, there is no one who interests me.'
Beruthiel gazed at her. 'Not even Aledin?' He really was a very attractive man.
Uldis laughed, 'He sees nothing beyond his paints and canvas.'
Beruthiel moved on. 'Never mind. I need you to listen to the town folk and find out what they are saying about me these days. I sense that they are unhappy.' She did not go into further details.
'Mithril?' Uldis ventured.
'You know?' Beruthiel asked only somewhat surprised.
'I can hear him occasionally,' Uldis finally admitted. 'I didn't want to say anything in case it was meant to be a secret.'
'A secret only to outsiders, Uldis. You are the Mistress of the Cats. Mithril said he thought you could probably understand him, but I did not say anything in case you thought me insane.' In a way it was a relief to finally admit that she had a talking cat. Uldis would understand.
'But if the cats are spying for you, why do you need me?' she asked.
'Mithril tells me that the people believe that Aledin and I are lovers. For some reason, the cat is uncomfortable with this,' she laughed at the concept. Cats were far more randy than most people and certainly more so than she! 'Also, there are nuances to this that they will be unable to pick up on. They are very good at repeating what they hear but not much good at interpreting hidden meanings.'
Uldis nodded. 'I understand. Market day is tomorrow. It will be an ideal time to blend with the crowd. If I go to the other side of Osgiliath, no one will recognize me.'
'You should wear a disguise of some sort, Uldis. I am sure there are a few gossips that may know who you are. They won't think anything of you being at the market, but they will guard their tongues,' Beruthiel advised.
Uldis thought for a moment. 'I still have a dress from my bakery days. It was my best dress and will look perfect for the market. Just another working girl given a free day by her doting mistress!' She laughed and smiled at the look on the queen's face. She knew Beruthiel never thought of herself as doting.
'Do as you think best, Uldis. You know far more of these matters than I.' Beruthiel had never been to a market in her life nor mingled with the common folk outside of the Ladies' Court.
Vaguely excited by the thought of a day out, Uldis ran off to plan her adventure.
Uldis started out early the next morning. She hadn't been to a market day in ages and intended to make the most of it. A few of the black cats tried to follow but she shooed them away. 'I'm sorry, sweeties, but you will only rile the locals.' They sat at the gate and watched her go.
She did all the usual things a young lady would do on market day. After visits to many of the booths and a few small purchases, she stopped at a table outside one of the inns for refreshment and a bit of gossip. It was only mid-morning so there was almost no one there yet.
'What can I get for you, dear? Already tired out?' the innkeeper asked.
'I will have some tea, please,' Uldis said. 'I twisted my ankle on the cobblestones and decided it would be better to rest for a bit.'
'Tsk, those stones. My husband is always asking that they be reset. We must get two people a week in here with the same complaint. I'll be right back with the tea.'
Uldis watched the crowd wander by. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. It was hard to be grumpy on such a lovely day. The sky was blue and the sun was warm. She really ought to get out more.
'Here you go; a nice cup of tea will set you right,' the woman said.
She paused and Uldis boldly asked, 'Why don't you join me? It is such a beautiful day, but I do not know anyone in Osgiliath to visit with.'
The innkeeper had wanted to do just that. She would be run off her feet later and knew to take any break that offered itself. 'How kind! Don't mind if I do. Market day is wonderful for business but terrible for feet. You twist your ankle and I can rarely sit down. My name is Deela by the way.'
'Mira,' Uldis said. 'A pleasure to meet you. I live on a farm so this is exciting for me. My parents have never allowed me to come alone before.' She did her best impression of the country innocent.
For the next few minutes they exchanged opinions on the weather, the price of eggs, and other mindless minutiae. Then Uldis worked her way around to the task of the day. 'What is it like to live here? Have you ever met the king and queen?'
Deela's face lost a little of its cheer. 'No, I've never met either one, nor would I want to. You have to be careful around that sort.' Her eyes darted from side to side, and her voice became quiet.
Uldis frowned. 'What do you mean?'
Deela leaned close to Uldis. 'Falastur is almost never here anymore, but Beruthiel, the queen, there's something not right there.'
'I don't understand. I hear she is very striking.'
'Aye, so they say but only on the outside. Some say she is a witch.' The woman leaned in even closer. 'Watch out for the cats. Some say they spy for the queen and tell her everything we do because she torments them.' She leaned back and waited for the country mouse's response to such a claim.
'Cats?!' Uldis exclaimed. 'I have never heard anything so silly. How can cats…And why would she torment them?'
Deela put her hand on Uldis'. 'Keep your voice down. I know it sounds crazy, but Beruthiel knows things. They say that when she first held the Ladies' Court, she often made mistakes. Oh, nothing serious, but on any given day the town folk knew a few of the decisions were wrong.'
'And now?' Uldis asked.
'Ever since those cats showed up, she has been spot on. I had a friend with a case not that long ago. She was sure she would lose because it was mostly her word against another's. The queen asked a few questions that she didn't answer very well, mostly because she was so nervous. But the queen sat and looked at both of them and then decided in my friend's favor. Said she knew who spoke the truth and who didn't and she didn't believe in lying. The entire time that white cat of hers sat at her side and watched.'
'Well, cats do that all the time. Watch I mean. My brother always loses the staring contests with the barn cats,' Uldis said with a laugh.
'True, but it isn't just the cats. Now they say she has taken a lover with the king away!'
'What? Do you believe that? Does everyone?' Uldis exclaimed.
Deela checked for cats but saw none. 'Not everyone. Mostly the men. We woman tend to favor her more. She may be cold and distant like her cats, but she has done wonders with the Ladies' Court. When a man heard the cases, he usually decided for the prettiest woman or the man if one was involved, regardless of the facts. Now we feel that we have a voice and someone on our side.'
'And the men?' Uldis asked. 'What do they think?'
'Oh, the honest ones appreciate her efforts, but the sly and lazy ones? They resent a strong woman. Call her uppity and snobbish. They are the ones ready to think the worst. After all, just because a man lives in the palace doesn't mean they are lovers. Plenty of women lived in the palace before the king remarried and no one thought ill of it. I think it is because she is smarter than they are!' Deela exclaimed. 'They want us women to be seen and not heard like good little girls.' She snorted with laughter. 'Can't stand it when we outshine them.'
'Is there anything else about her that they do not like?'
Deela once again checked to see that there were no cats around. 'She has no children,' she said. 'Of course the woman is always to blame. They seem to forget that Falastur was married before and the first queen didn't bear any children. Why can the man never be the source of the problem?'
Uldis merely nodded in agreement. This innkeeper was a gold mine of information. Deela once more leaned in close to Uldis and all but whispered, 'There have been rumors for a long time about the king's performance, or should I say lack?'
Uldis pretended to be shocked. While it was not common knowledge, she too had heard the rumors of Falastur's impotency from the household staff. Beruthiel had never said a word. 'What do you mean? Does he not like women?'
'No, nothing like that. He is never seen with anyone male or female. As far as I know, he has no mistress other than the sea.'
'Then why does the queen get blamed?' Uldis asked.
'Probably because of the other reasons: The suspicion of witchcraft, cruelty and the cats. It makes people nervous. They have to hold on to something. And it is easier to blame her than the king. He has ruled for many years and everyone likes him. Beruthiel comes from outside and is mostly unknown.' Deela shook her head. 'That is the way of the world, Mira. Women bear the burden whether they should or not.'
People had begun to sit at the other tables. Deela stood. 'It was nice to meet you, Mira. Please stay as long as you like, but I must be getting back to work. And don't forget what I told you about the cats!'
'Thank you, Deela. Don't work too hard!' Uldis said. She sat awhile longer and watched as the crowd grew. There was no talk of the king or queen. Everyone was too busy enjoying a cold drink and boasting of their bargains found at the market. She was just about to leave when a commotion arose at the edge of the area. The crowd fell silent and many stood and began pushing toward Uldis. She craned her neck and asked, 'What's the matter?'
A sturdy red-cheeked woman at the next table said, 'Looks like it's a black cat.'
'A cat? Why all this fuss over a cat?' She said it louder than necessary because she wanted others to hear.
The woman's companion frowned at her. 'You are obviously a stranger here, miss. No one wants to be around a strange cat in Osgiliath if they can help it!'
Just then a lean black cat walked down the aisle formed as the crowd parted before it. Uldis heard the man say, 'And it's a black one. Those are the worst.' He pulled his wife to her feet and dragged her away from the inn.
Uldis looked at the cat. It looked familiar but most black cats were hard to tell apart at first glance. 'Sable?' she thought as the cat neared.
'Yes, Mistress,' the cat thought back.
'What are you doing here? I told you all to stay home!' The town folk edged away from Uldis and the cat and glared at her.
'You gone so long,' the cat complained, 'miss you.'
'Stay where you are, Sable and ignore me! Now is not the time,' Uldis commanded. She rose to her feet and pretended to react like the others. She began to hear 'Queen's cat, be careful,' and other things not so nice.
The cat sat and stared at her for a moment then it began to wash its paw.
'We should stone it,' she heard a young boy say.
'Hush, Willem. If it is one of the queen's cats, the penalty is death,' his mother grabbed his arm before he could act.
Willem tried to pull away. 'It's just a plain old ratty cat, mum. Why are you all so afraid?'
Sable turned his attention to Willem. He stood, walked over and sat in front of him before the lad's mother could yank him away. 'Never say such things, boy! You will curse us all!' his mother exclaimed. 'Besides, there are too many. If one disappeared, She would find out who did it.' The woman finally succeeded in dragging her protesting offspring away.
The cat rose and wandered away from the cringing crowd. 'Please no longer, Mistress. It dinner time.' Uldis heard as the black figure melted away.
After a few moments, the people sat back in their chairs but did not relax. Instead they all leaned in and whispered furiously to each other about the cat and the queen. From what she could overhear, Uldis knew the innkeeper had been telling the truth. Beruthiel, her cats and the artist were hot topics of gossip.
Uldis gave her report late that afternoon. Her face was flushed with pleasure and nervousness. She had spent the rest of the day experiencing the market and had enjoyed it tremendously but now she had to deliver her report. 'My lady, what the cats said is true. The town folk believe you are a witch and are acting inappropriately with Aledin.' If her face hadn't already been red, it would have been now. How did one tell a queen she was an adulterer in the public's eye?
'Is that all?' Beruthiel asked as if that weren't enough.
'They despise and fear the cats, they think you torture them, and they call you barren,' Uldis managed to squeak out. She tried to make herself as small as possible. Who knew what reaction this would cause? Fortunately, there was nothing throwable near the queen. The cats also made themselves scarce, even Mithril.
Rather than exploding in anger, Beruthiel could only stare. She sighed. 'Well, I am barren and they have reason to fear the cats, but to think I torture them is beyond belief. It is good to know where I stand. They hate me.'
'Not all of them, my lady. The innkeeper thought very highly of you and said many of the women felt the same. It seems to be the men who have more of a problem.'
'Well, that is some consolation,' she sneered. 'Thank you, Uldis; I appreciate all you do for me although I seldom say it.' Without another word, Beruthiel turned and left the room.
Her heart beat in frustration and anger. What did the people want from her? True, she kept her distance, but that was all she knew to do. Her parents had isolated her from the world. 'You must only associate with your equals, Beruthiel. The lower orders have nothing to offer us.' Even now she could hear her mother's instructions. The fact that she was queen did not make it easy had she been so inclined, but in truth she didn't want to. She did not like people in general and the great unwashed had nothing she needed or wanted.
She made it to her room before the tears began. Frustrated and saddened at her failure as queen, Beruthiel threw herself on her bed and cried more than she had in years. Mithril crawled out from under the bed to offer her a head bunt of comfort. 'What am I supposed to do, Mithril? I was not trained to be a queen. I was to be some rich lord's wife and have children. Falastur gives me no guidance, no child and I am all alone!'
'You will always have me, Mistress,' Mithril said.
Beruthiel smiled sadly through her tears. 'You know that isn't true, Mithril. Even the longest lived cat can only last so long.'
'I will be with you always, Mistress,' he said again. 'I will not fail you. Trust me.'
Once again Beruthiel got the feeling there was more to her cat then she knew but did not pursue the matter. 'I will be forever grateful for that, Mithril. In the end, you and Uldis are all I have.' She hugged the white cat close and kissed him between the ears. 'How could they think I would ever hurt any of you?'