Just like I promised, the story I’ve been holding out on you with.
Every now and then I have to have a go at some fairy tales. This is one of the ones I actually finished.
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 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. 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, 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 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, setting 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 within sight of the mill. So, when he set foot beyond where he’d 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 traveling 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 very 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, and 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.
“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 royal, and therefore 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 partridge 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 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 as a gift of the Maquis de Carabass, who was planning on visiting his fair and beauteous kingdom. His majesty and his daughter, so flattered, 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, here and there - and my observations on courtly behaviour back to my human to teach him how best to behave. It went on that way for months. Swans, hares, rabbits, partridges by the brace, pheasants and at least one terribly unlucky peacock… all went to the palace as gifts from the Maquis de Carabass. And the other way, to my Victor, went lesson upon lesson in etiquette and courtly speech. Victor, living spare on my leftovers, was forced to become fit and active, climbing trees after fruits or honey, running away from bees or bears, swimming after fish… that sort of thing. Of course I was grateful enough for his efforts that I graciously shared the fish with him. And kept the more interesting night predators from his sleeping self.
In our wanderings, we came across some cursed ground. A few conversations with the locals revealed that, not only were they glad to offer Victor lodgings in their loft in exchange for some honest labor, but the grounds themselves were cursed by a greedy Mage, made ugly by his misdeeds. He was a master of both black magics and more than something of a shapeshifter. He sucked the very life out of the land to make his palace larger and richer than it had been when he’d betrayed it’s old master.
Rats have better character. At least they’re just plainly selfish. I resolved to be rid of the old rogue, and announced to that village, that day, that their freedom would arrive care of the beneficence of the Marquis de Carabass.
I left Victor fixing what he could and sought the Mage myself. The entire grounds, an oasis of beauty amidst all the lands of ruin, were covered in hideous statues. All heroes, frozen in their last moment of heroics. And there was the usual pile of bones outside the doors. I knocked as best I could and found myself facing a terrified little sprite of a woman who shivered constantly.
“Good day to you, Madame,” I said. “Are you the Lady of the house?”
She shook her head. “There is no lady of the house,” she squeaked.
“Then is the Master in? I would speak with him at his pleasure.”
“He gave instructions not to be disturbed…”
“Ah, well,” I sighed. “It can’t be helped, I suppose. The next time your master is disturbed by vermin, 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’?”
“Indeed I did, Madame, for I am but a humble exterminator. Doing my small part to eliminate societies woes,” I winked at her, “one rat at a time.”
She let me in. I knew she would. Most people baulk at 'you can’t miss it’ directions. Especially with everyday landmarks.
She took me to a palatial study where the man himself was attempting to study. Cockroaches scurried from piles of filthy dishes. Mice and rats sported in his scrolls. I wondered briefly why the walls and hangings were beset with scorch marks, until he loosed a small fireball at something and missed completely.
The maid hid. I announced myself. “Perhaps I may be of service?”
He glared at me. “Who let you in?”
“Nobody of import,” I smoothed. “I am but a humble exterminator, plying my trade where needed… And I sense I am greatly needed in this magnificent abode.”
Flattery will get one anywhere. He preened and even helped the terrified maid tidy away his work and, at my behest, sent for a fiddler to set music to the scene.
He was the sort to find great amusement in cruelty, and nothing is crueler than a cat with a kill. I had the old despot laughing so hard he could hardly breathe, and even though I was playing, not one rodent nor insect escaped my claws. There was quite the sizeable 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.”
So, on alternating days - I told the Mage I had other appointments - I went either to the King or the Mage. To one, fine game, to the other, entertainment.
And one night I discovered my Victor was doing something amazing.
“Hope you don’t mind,” he said one night as we rested in the local inn. “I bought myself a book and a pencil.”
I stared at him. “Whatever would you be doing with those?”
“Well it started with practicing my letters, like you taught me, and then I started thinking about all those poor people farming mud on these lands… And I started writing down what needed fixing.”
“Thoughtful,” I said.
“And when they asked me why I was writing, I told them it was so the Maquis de Carabass would know how to help 'em out.”
“Good human,” I purred, grooming him. “Very good human.”
He laughed and hugged me. Such a simple boy. He had no idea how much he was helping me.
The Marquis de Carabass was going to have an excellent reputation when we were through. Time for the third part of my evolving plan.
The Mage and I usually fell to chatting during my… pest control, so the next few days I began bringing up his favourite subject - himself.
“I must confess, I am astounded,” I said, lapping my drink. “Apart from your maid, I haven’t seen many servants, here.”
“Magic,” he said. “The land maintains the grounds and the castle. The more land, the better the castle. The grander the grounds, and so forth.”
“Yes, I couldn’t help but notice your interesting statues.”
“Ha. Would-be heroes who tried to unseat me from my throne.” He grinned. “Just a sprinkle of my special powders and they’re nothing but pigeon roosts.”
“Must be tough to carry around the powder all the time.”
“Not at all. All I need is one magic pot. I just call for it and tell it to dust my enemy, and - poof. No more enemy.”
“Simply marvellous,” I said.
“Of course it is,” he preened. “I could show you.”
“Don’t turn me into stone,” I said. “You still need me for your pests.”
He laughed. “Of course. I see a rat you missed. Allow me.” He took a breath. “Little pot, magic pot, turn to stone the rat beneath my chair, sprinkle your powder over there.”
A little brow pot flew into the room and shook a measure of its contents on the rat. It was pure stone before the last mote fell.
“It has to rhyme,” said the Mage. “Terrible nuisance, but it keeps the mind active."
"Astonishing. Can you change it back? I’ve quite regained my breath and would have sport with him.”
“Certainly. Little pot, magic pot, return to flesh the rat beneath my chair. Return to flesh the rat over there.”
Again, the little pot flew in and shook its powder, and revived the poor rat, which took off in a panic. I had him in my claws in seconds, and the Mage laughed to see us dance. A mountain of dead vermin and mirth to the wicked Mage, and a fat sack of game for the king. All the while, my Victor was spreading the hope of the Marquis de Carabass among the people.
On my next visit, taking lunch between my exterminator duties, I found out about his shapeshifting.
“Now is a time for honesty, my lord,” I told him. “You don’t, in truth, need me here at all, do you?”
“What makes you say that, Tom?”
“I heard you can transform yourself into anything that takes your fancy. You could easily make yourself into a cat and deal with all these pests yourself."
"I have none of your skill,” the Mage confessed. “I can look like a cat, meow like a cat, and seem like a cat to another man, but… I have none of your instincts, nor skill. It’s why I prefer huge things, like giants or terrible reptiles. Dragons and lions or bears…”
“Oh my,” I said, and went straight back to killing vermin with no further mention of the issue.
Another trip to favour the heart of the king with another sack of fine game, and another journey back to my Victor. The dear, innocent, stupid boy.
“Tomorrow is the day,” I told him, purring in his ear. “I am 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 aren’t 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, both king and princess, to visit the Mage’s castle, and made sure the directions took them past a lake by a large stone.
“That detail is important,” I told my Victor. “That is where we shall meet them.”
“And me in these rags?”
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” I purred. “Trust me, and I will take care of everything.”
It’s the next day that’s famous in song and story, though most gloss over my days 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 munch on while he watched me slaughter. And I set to the fray as if everything was normal. At lunchtime, I took a break to chat with the Mage.
“Do you ever challenge yourself with your shapeshifting?”
“For exercise, or something. You know, to keep yourself so fit.”
Note, my dear readers, how much flattery can pay for. The Mage was jaundiced and possessed a fine pot belly, but he preened at my words as if they were the gospel truth. “A little, now and then.”
“Ah, I knew it. How do you stretch yourself?”
“Bigger and nastier creatures, of course. The bigger and meaner and more terrifying, the better.”
“That’s hardly a challenge, is it?”
“Challenge enough for those who try to fight,” he laughed.
I laughed politely, of course. “Any idiot can blow up a balloon,” I said, “but the challenge is to put it in isinglass.”
“I bet you today’s gold sovereign in payment you can’t become something small, like a newt or a cockroach… or even a mouse.”
“And you won’t be tempted to hunt me down nor eat me.”
“My word as a feline.” Which is worth less than the paper it isn’t printed on.
He concentrated, and shrank in upon himself. Grew fur, and emerged from his stained robes as… a rat. Appropriate.
I did tell him true. I wasn’t tempted to hunt him, nor kill him.
I was obliged.
For all that rare, fine 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 to return to life all the statues it had made, and told the freed peoples to spread the word that liberty had come care of the Maquis de Carabass. And, after I politely asked the staff to help make the castle look nice for the Maquis, the Princess and the King, I ran pell-mell for the stone to meet Victor.
“Tom, you look awful,” he said.
“Something I ate. Quickly now. Off with those clothes and into the water.”
He knew better than to argue, by then, and did as he was told. Just in time, as I could see the royal cortège coming up the road. I scuffed myself up in a thorn bush and ran into the thick of them. “Help! Please help! My lord the Marquis de Carabass is drowning!”
Victor, splashing about in the water, heard me and yelped. Or he found a fish who liked the taste of him a mite too much.
There was a hullabaloo, naturally, as branches and ropes were tossed and the whole procession of upper class were set to disorder. A robe was fetched, because at least one page noticed Victor’s nudity, and spare clothing was unpacked from various muckety-mucks’ luggage.
What is the difference between royalty and common folk? Forget all that nonsense about mattresses and peas. It’s three things. Clothing, title, and people who believe that they’re royal.
Victor, clean, dressed in borrowed finery, and introduced as the Maquis… Could well pass for one. He introduced the Mage’s castle as his own, and I made sure to announce the Maquis to a grateful and cheering populace. Without the Mage to uphold it, the spell of blight was fading rapidly. Life was flowing back into the lands.
Dear stupid Victor played court to the Princess, who thankfully had brains enough for the both of them, and the two of them got along well enough. Humans. They can’t even sing or fight to win their mates, but they seem to manage it well enough.