Of Cats and Kings
In all my nine lives, I have never seen a boy so dim as Victor. Absent-minded as a kitten, and less than half as clever. True, he could bumble his way through a day well enough - if he had someone checking up on him and yelling loud enough when his mind began to wander. But he was never suited to be a miller.
Not that I pay much attention to humans. They certainly paid little attention to me. I was just the mill's cat. Nothing more than 'Puss' if they bothered with a name at all. Except Victor. He spent some time attempting to craft a name for me.
'Tom' was the most dignified, if lacking in creativity. And he always had a moment to scratch my ears or pull burrs from my fur. I shan't tell you his more creative efforts at names. They were all simply mortifying.
But I clearly digress. Victor had a family of moderate size; which for humans, I suppose, is large enough. He had sisters to dower and two elder brothers and only one father - who did his utmost to see them hale and hearty.
The ways of humans mystify me, sometimes. Us cats have things sorted out in a far more efficient manner.
The sisters, alas, weren't that important. Only the fact of their dowries matters, since they wanted good husbands. And since they wanted good husbands, they needed good money. This kept my good miller working his every waking hour... And the holdings of the family very modest indeed.
I am very certain that the old man died from overwork. I never once spied him napping in a sunbeam. It would have done him a power of good. Why do you think cats have nine lives in the first place?
The eldest brother took the mill, as was his birthright - another befuddling human custom - and the second-eldest took the donkey and cart. He set himself up as a delivery man, with the permanent task of delivering grain to the mill, and flour to the contractors. The other relatives took what little was left over, leaving Victor with his personal belongings... And me.
With his scant belongings in a sack and the clothes on his back, he vowed he was going on an adventure, and hoisted me up onto his shoulder. He had no idea about adventuring, having not been trusted further away from home than the sight of it. So, when he set foot beyond where he'd ever been before, Victor announced, "What a grand adventure, we're having, eh, Tom?"
Some adventure. I'd roamed further than this whilst hunting birds! But out of love for the boy, I kept my peace and let him enjoy himself.
Allow me to take a moment to tell all you would-be adventurers, out there, a little something about adventuring. It's not easy. It only sounds easy in all those tales that put glimmer into eager eyes and foolish ideas into young heads. When you get out there, you discover all the things that the tales leave out, like - always pack a tent. Or sleeping under the stars is full of bugs that see you as a windfall feast. Or, as my Victor was discovering, wooden clogs were never meant to be travelling boots for a reason. He was also discovering that new roads, despite being strange to him, often lead somewhere domestic. Worse, to his tale-addled heart, everyone knew him from the mill.
He put a brave face on and told all who asked that he was seeking his fortune. He even asked a few where he might begin finding one. Or a bed for the night. Or a temporary job so he could afford a bed for the night.
Since they all knew him, it didn't go terribly well.
It didn't go so terribly well in the next town. Even though they didn't know him there, he soon earned a reputation; even with me sinking my claws into his shoulder every time his mind wandered.
He had enough food for a few days, a handful of copper groats, and a steadily sinking heart. It was the blisters on his feet that proved to be the last straw. So he sat, with his feet in the stream and his belongings on his lap and tears in his eyes.
I could see that it would take more than a good washing to cheer him up.
"What am I to do, Tom?" he said as he scratched my ears for me. "I've got nowt to bargain with, no talent and no skills. A man, last village, he said I'd get a crown for your hide. And I don't want to sell your skin, Tom. I like it lots better on you."
Sold for fur! I had no desire for that, either. "Good," I said. "I like my skin where it is, too."
Victor's eyes went wide and he stared open-mouthed at me as if I'd just grown another head. "You talk?"
"I've never had much to say to people who call me 'Puss'," I told him. "And since nearly everyone does, I've never had much to say."
"Can you do tricks, too?" he asked. "Because I reckon we can go further with a talking cat than just my wits."
"I think I may find you somewhere to belong," I told him. A plan was forming in my mind. "When we get to the next town, sell everything you have, but keep the sack. Then buy me a pair of boots. I'll take it from there."
"Boots, Tom? Why boots?"
"My plan requires a little flair. Here and now, I'm just a cat. Clothing makes the difference."
Victor stared sadly into the sack that held everything he owned. "But what will I wear?"
"I'll take care of that," I purred. "Just do as I say, and you'll never have a worry in your life."
Dear, stupid Victor. He trusted me and did everything he was told. Such an innocent, honest soul. He may have heard the old axiom against talking animals, but he didn't believe it.
All because I was his trusted cat. He'd lived with me all his life. He had no idea what I was planning.
I was about to make a poor fool into royalty. Just to prove a personal point.
What, I ask you, is the difference between a royal fool and a poor one? In essence, it's the very fact that lots of people believe that the royal fool is entitled to his wealth. And many a royal fool with less talent than my Victor has somehow wound up with more than his fair share.
Nevertheless, I got my boots and sack, and spent the next few days hunting partridges and hares until the sack was full. Victor wanted to sell them at the next town.
"Trust me," I purred. "I will trade them for something far greater."
"The fair reputation of the Marquis de Carabass, of course."
Stupid boy... "That would be you, Victor. In the fullness of time." I left him to trade the poorest of my catch for a meal and hurried myself to the nearest royal palace. Believe me, nothing on this earth can hurry like a cat who knows a little magic. Once there, I presented the finest and fattest of my catch as a gift from the Marquis de Carabass. I may have mentioned his plans to visit the King's fair and beauteous kingdom. His majesty and daughter were so flattered, and conveyed their thanks and greetings through me, to him.
Honestly. Show some people a talking cat and they're apt to believe anything.
I took their thanks - and a few small gifts of course - and some observations on the court back to my human. There, in the dingy hostels, and musty barns, I began what no human could get into Victor - an education.
It went on for months. Swans, hares, rabbits, partridges by the brace, pheasants and at least one terribly unlucky peacock... all went to their flattered Majesties as gifts from the Marquis de Carabass. And the other way, to my victor, went lesson after lesson in etiquitte, courtly speech, and manners. I even got some knowledge of writing into him.
I kept him active, of course. Humans never teach their young to hunt. Of course, under my tutelage, dear stupid Victor became lean and fit as a fiddle. It was the running away from bees or bears that did it, I'm certain. And the swimming after fish. And I was very gracious in sharing those fish with him.
In our wanderings, we came across some cursed ground. A few conversations with the locals revealed things. Not only were they glad to offer Victor lodgings in their loft in exchange for some honest labor, but we learned that the lands were owned by a greedy Mage. He was allegedly warped and twisted by his misdeeds. A Mage who sucked all the health and vigour from the land to add to the glamour of his personal castle. And, I found out, something of a shapeshifter.
Rats have better character. At least they're plainly selfish. I resolved to be rid of the old rogue that day, and announced to that very village that their freedom would arrive courtesy of the benevolence of the Marquis de Carabass.
I left Victor fixing what he could... those poor souls were so desperate that even Victor's bumbling and forgetful efforts were a blessing.
It was no trouble at all to find the Mage's castle. A glorified confection of glittering towers and a baffling array of human-sized grotesques in the estates. They looked like the average kind of hero. Swords drawn. Shields up. But all their faces were frozen in a rictus of sheer terror.
Of course this idiot had piles of bones outside the doorway. Leavings from his table to intimidate any rubes. I could smell the filth of the place from miles away. He was just too lazy to clean.
I knocked on the door, and soon came face-to-knee with a terrified sprite of a human who shivered constantly.
"Good day, Madame," I said, laying on a courtly bow. "Are you the Lady of the house?"
She shook her head. "There is no lady of the house," she squeaked. "I just does th' food."
"Then is the Master in? I would speak with him, at his pleasure."
"...'e gave instructions not t' be disturbed..."
"Ah, well," I sighed, absently washing a paw. "It can't be helped. The next time your Master is disturbed by vermin, you can tell him I had dropped by. I can give you directions to my current residence. You can't miss it. Down the winding road, left at the well, right at the dovecote--"
"Did you say 'vermin'?"
I pretended I wasn't planning for this. "Indeed I did, Madame. I am but a humble exterminator. Doing my part to eliminate society's woes," I winked at her. "One rat at a time."
She let me in. I knew she would. Most people balk at 'you can't miss it' directions. Especially with everyday landmarks.
She took me to the most palatial study I had ever seen. The man himself lounged in the middle of a veritable nest of old scrolls, mouldy books, soiled dishes and sundry refuse. And he was twice as ugly as the townsfolk made him out to be.
Cockroaches scurried from piles of filthy dishes. Mice and rats sported in his scrolls. I wondered briefly why his walls and hangings were beset with scorch marks... until he loosed a small fireball at something scuttling by and missed by yards.
The maidservant ran away. Leaving me to introduce myself. "Perhaps I may be of service?
He glared at me. "Who let you in?"
"Nobody of import," I smoothed. Who knew what this sort would do to that girl if he knew it was her? "I am but a humble exterminator, plying my trade where needed. And I sense that I am needed greatly in your magnificent abode. Someone of your striking visage should not be forced to share his table with rats."
Flattery will get one anywhere. He preened and even helped another trembling servant tidy some of his work away. And, at my behest, he sent for a fiddler to set music to the scene.
He was the sort to find great amusement in cruelty, and nothing is crueller than a cat with a kill. I had the old despot laughing so hard that he could hardly breathe. And even though I was playing, not one rodent nor insect escaped my claws. There was quite the sizable heap of them when I was done.
"As you see, my lord," I panted. "There is quite the mountain to overcome. Every room in your palace must be scurrying with these foul creatures. By your leave, I would take appointments to dispense with them."
"Of course, of course. And you shall have music to dance to, O valiant hunter of filth. I haven't laughed so hard in all my life."
Easy to believe.
So, on alternating days I went to either the King or the Mage. To one, extravagant gifts of my hunting prowess. To the other, a dance of death and a hillock of vermin to show for it.
I took Sundays off, since humans put store by that kind of thing. And it was on one such Sunday that I discovered that Victor had been doing something amazing.
He'd been taking initiative.
"Hope you don't mind," he said as we settled down, that night. "I bought myself a book and a pencil."
"Oh?" I stretched the kinks out as I changed position. It had been a long day's worth of napping. "And what would you be doing with those?"
"Well it started with practising my letters, like you taught. But I started thinking about all the people around here. All them poor folks farming mud or less. So I started writing down what needed fixing."
"Thoughtful," I allowed.
"And when they asked me why I was writing, I told them it was so the Marquis de Carabass would know how to help 'em out."
"Good human," I purred, grooming him. "Very good human."
The Marquis de Carabass was going to have an excellent reputation when we were through. Time for the third part of my plan to move forward.
The Mage and I usually fell to chatting during breaks in my pest control. So I started bringing up his favourite topic. Himself.
"I must confess I am astounded," I said as I lapped my drink. "Apart from a few servants, there aren't many people about. How ever do you keep your castle and lands so pristine? So... artistic?"
"Magic," confided he. "The land maintains the grounds and the castle. The more land, the better the castle. The grander the grounds, and so on."
"Yes, I couldn't help but notice your -ah- statuary."
"Ha! They're all heroes who tried and failed to unseat me." He grinned and showed off too many yellowed and blackened teeth. "Just a sprinkle of my special powders and they're nothing but pigeon roosts."
Another day, another rest break, and I asked about the powders. I had to be clever about it, of course.
"I've heard talk of some hero coming to attack you. It must be so burdensome to cart around sufficient magic powder all the time."
"Not at all. I -uh- inherited an enchanted pot from the last owner of this castle. Tricked him into stone and then smashed him into gravel. I could show you."
"Ah! I still wish to kill for your entertainment. Don't turn me into stone..."
"I thought nothing of the sort," he lied airily. "Look at the rat behind my chair and watch this." The Mage cleared his throat. "Little pot, magic pot, turn into stone the rat beneath my chair. Sprinkle your powder over there."
A small brown pot flew obediently off the shelves, dusted the rat and flew back to its resting place. The rat didn't even have time to sneeze.
"Aw," I cooed in disappointment. "And I was saving him for later."
"It's not permanent if you don't wish it. The problem with the pot is, it only responds to rhyme. I have to see the attack coming and tell the pot where to fly. Dreadfully inconvenient but it keeps the mind active."
"Well. Since I am adequately rested, perhaps you can revive the poor thing."
He cleared his throat again, the fool, and recited, "Little pot, magic pot, return to flesh the rat beneath my chair. Bring to life the rat over there."
And once it did, my dance renewed. I put on the best dance I could, just to make that fool forget he had divulged one of his best secrets.
Another trip to gift the King with promises of the Marquis de Carabass. Nobody at court knew that the Mage's gold was purchasing trinkets for the Princess. They were better off, really.
And another trip to kill vermin for the Mage. In which I coaxed another secret out of him.
"Time for truth, my lord," I said, sharpening my claws. "You don't really need me, do you?"
"What makes you say that, cat?"
"I heard you can transform into anything that takes your fancy. You could blink or wink your way into being a glorious feline and do away with these beasts in a heartbeat."
He laughed so hard he spilled wine down his stained robe. "Ha! Never so easy! I might make myself look like a cat. I could walk and slink and stalk like a cat. Or seem like a cat to other cats... but I'd still be a man who doesn't know how to use claws. It's why I love to be huge monsters. Ogres or giants or tigers or dragons... beasts where the skill matters not."
"I see," I said, and set up a dance to make him laugh until he forgot what he'd said.
One, final trip to gift the King and his daughter. And then I put the last part of my plan into action that very night. Beginning with instructions for my Victor. The dear, innocent, stupid boy.
"Tomorrow is the day," I told him, purring in his ear. "I'm going to need you to pick a fight."
"Preferably in the afternoon. I should be done with the Mage by then."
"Done... with? Tom, you're not going to do anything... horrible, are you? You aren't going to... murder... that Mage?"
"Just a little pest control. I promise."
I helped him compose an invitation to their Majesties, inviting both King and Princess to visit the Mage's castle. And made certain that the directions took them past a certain lake. A lake with some nice, concealing rocks and shrubbery by its shores.
"That detail is important," I told Victor. "That is where we shall meet them."
Now he grew bashful. "And me in these rags?"
"Don't you worry about a thing," I purred. "Trust me, and I will take care of everything."
That next day is still famous in song and story, so I hear. Though most gloss over my weeks of preparation in the plan. While dear simple Victor was hiring a runner with the invitation, I was dashing as fast as a cat could dash to the Mage's castle. I had a vermin control appointment to keep.
The Mage was waiting with wine and sweetmeats to feast on while he watched the slaughter. And I set to the fray as if everything was normal. At the appointed time, I took my breath and a bowl of water... and my chance.
"Do you ever challenge yourself with your shapeshifting?"
Dear goodness, why must all idiots repeat your words at you? "For exercise, or sport. You know... to keep yourself so fit."
Note, dear audience, how much flattery can pay for. The Mage flexed and posed his jaundiced body with its scrawny limbs and fat paunch as if he were the finest specimen of the human species. "A little, now and then."
"I knew it," I purred. "How do you test yourself?"
"Bigger and nastier creatures, of course. The bigger and meaner and more terrifying, the better."
"Ah," I said, seeming crestfallen. "Is that all."
"Is that all? I can become a giant who almost dwarfs the nearest mountains!"
"Yes, of course you can. But it's hardly a challenge, is it?"
Now his mirth was gone. "Explain yourself, cat."
"Anybody can blow up a bladder," I said, grooming myself as if I wasn't at all threatened by fireballs. "The challenge is to put it in isinglass."
"I bet you today's gold sovereign in payment that you can't be something small. Like a newt or a cockroach... or even something as big as a mouse."
"And you won't be tempted to hunt me down and eat me?" he countered.
"My word as a feline." Which, you may note, is not worth the paper it isn't printed on.
He concentrated, and shrank in on himself. Grew fur, and emerged from his filthy robes as... a rat. Appropriate.
I did tell him true, after all. I was not at all tempted to hunt him, nor kill him.
I was obliged.
For all that fine, rare food he ate, he certainly left a rotten taste in my mouth. I had no time to chase it away, for it was almost time to go and meet Victor. I bade the little pot return all the stone heroes to life, of course. Told them that their liberty came care of the Marquis de Carabass. And dropped more than a few hints that gratitude would well be manifested in making the castle and grounds look nice for his arrival, that afternoon.
Then, once certain there was no-one to watch me at it, I ran pell-mell for that dratted lake.
Victor was waiting for me, bruised and cut and bashed about. And dancing around in anxiety as if he so very much had to pee.
"Tom, you look awful," he fretted. "What do I do? They're coming!"
"Just something I ate," I soothed. "Hide all your clothes in the shrubbery and go for a swim."
"Trust me," I purred.
I made sure his clothes would never be found before I ran for the procession. Thank the forces of foolery that Royalty never travels light.
"Help," I shouted. "Please help! My lord the Marquis of Carabass was set upon by bandits! And he's drowning! Help!"
The courtiers recognised the cat who had been so generous with the Marquis' gifts. And Victor yelped and splashed convincingly enough.
There was a hulaballoo, of course. Courtiers don't normally stop for drowning, naked men. But my word was better than gold for them. The entire procession was upset like an anthill. Rushing this way and that for branches and rope, and then robes and clothing fit for a Marquis. Liberated from the high courts' assorted luggage.
What is the difference between royalty and any poor fool? Forget all that nonsense about mattresses and peas. It's three things. Clothing, title, and people prone to believe in it.
Victor, once clean, dressed in borrowed finery and introduced formally as the Marquis... passed just as well as any other well-to-do fool. He introduced the Mage's castle as his own, and I made sure to announce the Marquis to the grateful and cheering populace. Without the Mage and his spell, the blight had almost faded to nothing. Life was positively blooming all over the lands.
Victor doesn't have to work, any more. And just as well. He goes back to daydreaming at the drop of a hat. The Princess doesn't seem to mind, and neither do the people who her laws and decrees protect. But my dear idiot human did write one law. He rather insisted on it.
"No man should ever be made so poor that he must sell his cat for fur."
The Princess was the one to add the parts about not skinning cats at all.
Good humans. I think I'll keep them.