The day August Miller died was cold and bright. His three sons gathered at his bedside to hold the withered hands and hear the aged voice speak one last time.
"Harold," said the patriarch, and his eldest stepped closer. This was August's heir in every way, the only one of his three sons to inherit the skill and the vision. "You shall have the house, with the workshop." Harold nodded, pressed the fragile fingers to his mouth, and stepped back. In the corner, the clockwork scribe scribbled out his barely legible notes.
"Richard," and the middle son, taller than his brothers by far, and stronger, too, came forward. "You shall have the Horse."
The Horse was one of August's earliest creations. Rough around the edges, with none of the clean, sleek lines that characterized August's later work, it was nonetheless sturdy, and utterly dependable. Richard, who would be heading back to his regiment after the funeral, nodded, looking pleased. The Horse would be an asset in battle. It was a fine and worthy gift.
Frowning, the youngest stepped to the bedside, not waiting for his father to summon him. Marcus, the youngest of the three, and the least likely to accept less than what he felt was his due. "And what for me, father?"
"Ah," sighed August, a trace of the old devilish twinkle in his eye. "You shall have Puss."
"Puss?" Marcus cried in disgust. "That batty old rat catcher? What good is that to me?"
"I have spoken," said August, and he closed his eyes and breathed his last. The tiny nightingale, a flash of gems over silver springs and gears, the constant companion of August's final days, tilted its head, and fell silent. Harold stepped back from the bed as automatons moved in to gather the bedding and the body, and bear their creator away to his well crafted coffin.
"This is madness!" cried Marcus. Richard cuffed him upside the head.
"Show some respect, boy! Our father is dead!" Glaring, Marcus subsided into seething resentment, but held his tongue.
The funeral was a widely attended affair, for August Miller had been well thought of by his friends and neighbors, for his extraordinary skills with wires and bolts. More than any other artificer, August was famed for his delicate creations, automatons of every size and description, every shape and voice a person could desire. Now Harold was in charge of that marvelous workshop, and even as they mourned the passing of the father, many thought of what fresh wonders would come from the son.
The next day, under a cloud filled sky, Richard mounted the Horse and carefully keyed in the coordinates for his regiment's last position. The Horse gave a cough and began to vibrate, eager to be off, steam billowing from the huge tank in its stomach. "Farewell!" Richard called to his brothers, and released the braking clamps. The Horse strode smoothly forward and soon carried him out of sight, its gait as swift as a falcon. Marcus watched until his brother vanished, a sick feeling of loss in his stomach.
He would have to leave soon as well. The house was Harold's now, and Harold had long been engaged to a young lady of good birth from the town nearby. Marcus was sure now that Harold was master of his own fate, a wedding would soon be in the offing. And Marcus would only be in the way for that.
But to have been bequeathed nothing but Puss! It was an outrage! And yet it was very like August, for having finished Puss nearly the same moment Marcus was born, he had considered them twins, of a sort. Marcus disliked the jest, for Puss was nothing like him, an automaton in the shape of a sleek black cat, wearing, though it be unlikely in a live feline, boots. Fine crafted red boots, tooled to look like leather, though they were but the metal encasing his joints. And he spoke, too, his voice clear and yet catlike.
And Puss could think, as well. August considered him his masterpiece, the exquisitely rendered form and the marvelous whirring brain. Only a few artificers ever managed to give their creations thought. After Puss, August had never done it again, instead creating the fine, obedient servants which were what most people used. To give the automatons thought was to make them too alive, to play god. It had sat ill in August's soul.
But now Puss belonged to Marcus, and Marcus had no idea what to do with him.
Puss, however, had a few ideas.
* * *
In a great house not too far from where Marcus and Puss had started their weary journey on foot, a door slammed on the second floor. Elspeth King looked down at the untidy collection of gears and wires before her, and sighed. If father was on a rampage, and the slamming door indicated he was, she would get no more work done today. And she was very close to finishing the central pump she was working on, the heart of the machine if one wanted to be poetical.
There were other options, of course. Perhaps her father had slammed the door merely because he, too, was in a rush to get to his projects in the workshop.
“Elly,” her father shouted, and Elspeth set down her tools, holding in another sigh. Not in a hurry, then. Not to work, in any case. She took her time tidying away her project and cleaning her hands, then made her way up the basement stairs to the dining room. Cookie was just stumbling its way back to the kitchen. Elspeth looked at the old knee joints in concern. The jerking in the once smooth gait of the automaton was beginning to be a real problem. Soon she should sit down with Cookie’s knees and replace the worn out gears that were catching oddly.
“Elly!” her father boomed again, and Elspeth turned her attention to him. He looked significantly at the chair across the table from him, and Elspeth sank gracefully into it, picking up a triangle of hot buttered toast to give her something to do with her hands. “Elly, we need to talk about your marriage.”
Oh, for the great Creator’s sake. Elspeth took a tiny bite, chewed and swallowed. The toaster attachment in Cookie’s arms needed mending as well. The toast was burnt on one side and too light on the other. “Father, I have asked you repeatedly not to call me Elly,” she said finally. Her father gave her a stern look. Elspeth resisted the urge to pout like a tiny child denied its demand for candy. “I don’t want to get married,” she said. “I want to make automatons and other things in the workshop with you.” Like I have since mother died, she did not say. Reginald King did not like to be reminded of his beloved deceased wife
“It’s not a proper occupation for a young lady,” Reginald said, pointing a thick finger smeared with butter at her. “You’re my heiress, and will get all my fortune on my death, and you need a good strong man to keep you safe.”
It was really quite a ridiculous statement, Elspeth thought, as she was perfectly capable of creating at least ten things to keep herself safe, from a steam powered gun that spat out poisoned or exploding darts, to an automaton with knives for hands. This was not that first time they had run over this same ground, however, and she could by now recite her father’s arguments as well as her own. They fought over it, and they parted, going to separate sections of the spacious workshop to bang away their frustrations on various bits of metal and wire and glass. Elspeth had made some of her more amazing pieces in these last few months they had been arguing over who she should wed. Elspeth was holding out for someone she could like, if not love. Reginald wanted someone strong, or failing that, someone rich. They were both hoping for an artificer, but neither regarded it as an absolute necessity.
“I’m only seventeen,” Elspeth tried. Her father snorted. “I know mother was married when she was sixteen, but times have changed, Father.”
“They haven’t changed as much as you seem to think, Elly.” Elspeth frowned at him. He sighed. “Elspeth. You still need a husband. What about children?”
Not this again! Elspeth felt a headache beginning to twinge behind her eyes. They had to stop having this fight everyday, even if it had done wonderful things for her creativity.
* * *
“Well, I can’t say this has been my favorite day of travelling,” Marcus grumped as he followed Puss down the long, dusty road. Normally when the Millers left their home, they had either the Horse to ride, or one of the many steam powered carriages August had excelled in. But Harold had not offered one to Marcus, and Puss was built to walk on his hind legs, so they walked.
“You don’t travel enough,” Puss mewed. It wasn’t so much that he sounded like a cat when he spoke, it was the way he said things that made Marcus think of meowing and yowling. Even a mechanical cat was still a cat, August had found. It may have been part of the reason he never again gave an automaton the ability to think.
“You don’t travel either,” Marcus said, before biting his lip. He was fighting with a creation. Again. It was a bad habit to get into, not that he ever managed to stop himself. “It’s getting late, Puss. I’m hungry.”
Puss pointed to a barn not far off the road. Marcus could hear some cows lowing in a nearby field, so it was a good bet this barn still had hay, instead of having been cleared out for automaton storage, as so many people had done recently. “You can stay in there. Hide yourself in the hayloft,” he instructed. Grumbling a little, Marcus obeyed, happy to be finally sitting down. His legs and feet and back were all killing him. How could he have known what bad shape he was in?
While Marcus rested, Puss ventured into the forest off the path a little ways back from the barn. He caught without too much difficulty a brace of young rabbits. One went into the cold storage compartment in his stomach. One he cleaned, skinned and seared using the heat from his firestarter, then brought the cooked meal back to Marcus, wrapped in a broad leaf.
Marcus took the food with a grudging thanks. Puss gave him a cock-headed look that told Marcus exactly what the cat thought of him. “Don’t fall over yourself to thank me,” he mewed, tail lashing lightly.
“You didn’t have to. Thanks,” Marcus said, and if his tone was dull, at least the words were there. Puss wiped his paws clean and examined his claws.
“No, I didn’t. Now eat, go to sleep, and I’ll meet you back here in the morning.” Automatons, even ones who could think, did not sleep.
“Where are you going?” Marcus asked, somewhat suspicious. His father had given Puss a cat’s independence and wanderlust, but as much as Marcus might complain about him, he didn’t truly want to lose Puss.
“Never you mind,” Puss said airily, and jumped from the hayloft into a large mound of hay directly below. “Eat! Sleep! Be ready to go when I come for you!” And then he was gone, tail in the air as he purred to himself, gears in his head substituting for the rumble in most cats’ chests. Marcus sighed and did as he was told, after a swift trip out to the water pump for a long cool drink and a quick wash. He refilled his depleted canteen and hid himself again in the hayloft. When the farm’s automatons brought the animals in for the night, he was already asleep, and the noises of the animals covered his quiet snores. He was not found.
* * *
Elspeth was just finishing her dinner when the scratching came at the door. Her father looked up in annoyance, gravy dripping from his fork onto his shirt. At least they were both still dressed in their work clothes. “Jarvis!” her father yelled, and the butler creaked its way to the door. Elspeth frowned. She had spent the day after she escaped from her father’s ridiculous demands mending and updating Cookie, and it showed in the magnificent dinner Cookie had made for them. Now she saw she would have to check the other workers and oil and repair as needed. Her father was slipping, if he no longer kept them in as fine repair as he had while her mother lived. And she had been so distracted with the constant bickering, she too had failed them. She swore to herself to make amends.
Jarvis returned, a beautiful creature in its wake. For a moment, dazzled by the black of his ‘fur’, the gold of his eyes, and the red of his boots, Elspeth thought him a real cat. Then he bowed, elaborately, and she could see the riveting down his spine. It was the most amazing creation she had ever seen. Better, by far, than her father’s sad attempts at pets when she was little. “This is Puzzzzzzzzzzzzzz,” Jarvis buzzed. Elspeth made a mental note to check its voice tape.
“Puss?” her father echoed.
“Puss in Boots,” the automaton said. His voice was somehow delightfully catlike. Elspeth was frantic with the need to examine how he was made. “I bring you greetings from my creator, who also bade me bring you a gift.” From somewhere in his abdomen, he produced a fine young rabbit. Elspeth could see in a glance Cookie would be able to make a fine stew or perhaps a small roast from it. Though she was sated from the food she had just finished, Elspeth could feel her mouth water. She loved rabbit, but their hunters were in sad disrepair and mostly brought back branches and occasional armfuls of mushrooms or wild garlic. More work for her to do, and a better way to escape her father’s endless nagging about getting married.
Jarvis took the rabbit to Cookie, and Elspeth knelt to look closer at Puss. “How finely crafted you are!” she said, unable to keep from touching his neck.
Puss recoiled, just as a real cat would, sniffed delicately at her hand, then moved so she could, with a small stretch, be able to reach him again. “My creator calls me his masterpiece.”
“I can see why,” Elspeth said, stroking her hand lightly over his ear and cheek. He wasn’t covered in fur, though there was a fur like texture etched into the metal, but his coating was soft and supple just the same, a pleasure to touch. “I’ve never seen such detail. Might I see your heart?”
A panel on the front of Puss’s chest opened, higher than the cold storage one. Inside whirred his intricate clockwork heart. Elspeth studied what she could of the moving parts, deeply impressed with the level of detail and care it had taken. “This must have taken him a month to build,” she said absently.
“A month and a half,” Puss told her, closing the compartment back up. “He had already completed my brain and eyes, and so I watched him make it.”
“How extraordinary,” Elspeth said. Puss was in perfect condition, all joints and gears oiled and moving smoothly together. It made her even more aware of her own failings as a caretaker. “Tell your creator thanks for the gift, and I hope he will let you come to see us again soon.” First, she would have to get the automatons that served her and her father back in proper shape, running like new. Then, and only then, could she start trying to recreate a version of Puss, though the level of complexity might be beyond her small skills.
Elspeth relished the idea of the challenge.
“It’s late,” said her father, and Elspeth was struck by the greedy light in his eyes. She was not, it seemed, the only one enamoured by Puss’s construction. “You must stay here with us for the night, and return to your creator in the morning.”
Puss tilted his head, somehow managing to convey regret despite not having been provided the facial mobility to show it. “Alas, kind sir, I cannot. I must obey my master’s command and return to him at once, now that my mission is complete.” He bowed again to Elspeth and her father, winked swiftly at just her, and was out the door again.
Her dinner was now cold, but Elspeth finished what was on her plate and sipped thoughtfully at her lemonade, cold and just sweet enough. His creator had sent him, almost like the creator was trying to court her.
Elspeth decided that if all suitors sent lovely gifts of game and intriguing puzzles in the forms of cats, she might let her father win their argument after all.
* * *
When Marcus woke, Puss was back, sunning himself in the pale light of dawn. “How did you sleep?” he asked Marcus, and gave him a handful of nuts and berries to eat.
“It was fine. Thank you,” Marcus said, slightly less grudgingly today. Perhaps August had known what he was doing when he gave Puss to Marcus. He was certainly not going to starve with the cat along. “Where did you go?”
“Just setting up some things for the future,” Puss said, and jumped down again from the loft. “We should be on our way before the farm wakes up.”
And so they were, heading along the path before the first of the workers arrived to milk the cows. Marcus found the long sleep had helped refresh him greatly, though before noon he was sure he was getting a blister. He sipped from his water and followed Puss, wondering that he was so willing to let a glorified creation lead him.
But Puss seemed to have a plan, and Marcus knew he didn’t. He went where he was led, and he thought about his father, and he thought about the rabbit from last night. He should have saved some of it, for now he was hungry again.
The third time his stomach rumbled, loud enough to be heard, Puss turned to him and pointed to a nearby stream. “Sit,” he meowed, and Marcus sat, gratefully, pulling off his boots to examine his blisters. Puss gathered firewood and started a fire, then disappeared for half an hour or so and returned with three partridges. Two went into the cold storage box, and one was plucked and spitted over the fire for Marcus’s lunch. Marcus looked at the cat, wishing not for the first time that August had not given Puss quite so many of a real cat’s traits. He couldn’t even begin to guess what Puss was thinking.
After lunch, they traveled until nearly sundown. This time Puss had found an abandoned cottage, slightly run down but with enough of a roof to keep Marcus dry. Once again, Puss provided dinner, and admonished Marcus to sleep. If he hadn’t been so exhausted, Marcus would have followed Puss off, just to see where he was going. Somehow, he was convinced that the brace of partridges Puss had caught but not fed him had something to do with Puss’s nebulous “plans for the future.”
But they day had been long and the ferns Marcus had gathered for a bed were soft and smelled of sweet growing things. Before Puss was very far from the hut, Marcus was deeply asleep.
* * *
Elspeth was impatient. Her mending had gone well: all of the hunters had brought back something to add to the rabbit stew; wild onions and parsnips and tubers of some kind that Cookie swore were safe to eat, and a handful of spotted mushrooms that with one look it was determined they were poisonous and were thrown out. Jarvis glided near silently from room to room, practically purring as it made its rounds. The farm hands had weeded the entire garden and half of the corn field before her father had to set them to replanting the corn they’d pulled in their enthusiasm. In retrospect, Elspeth might have some more work to do in making sure they could properly identify weeds. It had been a full, busy day, and her father hadn’t brought up the idea of her getting married even once.
But Puss hadn’t returned yet, either. Despite the pleasant exhaustion and the warm feeling of having done some real work that mattered, Elspeth was impatient to see the cat again. She wanted to hear his rough voice and see the startling intelligent eyes flicker over everything.
And her father was also lurking in wait, across the parlour, his face hidden behind a book he was pretending to read, for he hadn’t turned the pages in nearly twenty minutes. Also, it was upside down, and written in Estonian, his worst language. Not a book he would truly have chosen to read for pleasure.
Elspeth was determined that her father was not going to get his hands on Puss. Unlike her, Reginald did not have the purest motives. Elspeth wanted to recreate the incredibly detailed heart and other organs hosted in Puss's carapace. Reginald just wanted to take him to pieces, and Elspeth knew neither she nor her father would be able to put Puss back together again afterwards. If her father took Puss apart, it would, in effect, mean his death
Elspeth was adamant she was not going to allow that to happen. She would rather never see the amazing creature again than allow her father to destroy it-him- through his clumsiness.
A soft, polite rapping came on the door. Jarvis made its way to the door, and in swept Puss, a brace of partridges in his paw. Elspeth clasped her hands together in delight, but managed to keep herself from squealing like a pleased child. It was a close thing, however, as she had last had partridge many years before, and it remained one of her favorites. As it had been her mother's.
"Oh, Puss, how delightful to see you again!" Her father, much to Elspeth's surprise, was having no concerns over acting like a giddy schoolboy. Elspeth suppressed a smile as the automaton gave a graceful bow and handed the partridges to her father.
"Mr. King, my creator sends further greetings and these fine birds to grace your table,” Puss purred. Reginald's smile wobbled a touch at the reminder of his deceased wife, but he managed to recover himself. By that time, however, Puss has already turned his attention to Elspeth. "And Miss King, how lovely you look tonight. I see by Jarvis's gait you spent a productive day of mending?"
With some surprise, Elspeth admitted she had, indeed, spent the day mending the automatons around their estate. Puss nodded, conveying his pleasure somehow in the way he held his tail. He drew forth from a small pocket in his boots a small square of paper and offered it to her.
Most unusually, the paper unfolded into very thin and yet highly detailed blueprints. Designs, Elspeth realized with a flush of excitement, for Puss himself. She gasped, and her father took the paper from her hastily, letting out a pleased bark of laughter. "My creator bade me give you these, the least and meanest of his designs for me. He hopes they will meet with your approval, and convince you to let him one day visit you in your lovely home."
"Oh, Puss, you needn’t give us such a gift to come visit us!" Reginald cried. Elspeth despaired of getting the plans away from him. Unseen by her father, Puss produced a second copy of the prints, and pressed them into Elspeth's hand.
"I must return to my creator," Puss stated, and bowed over Elspeth's hand. Reginald waved a hand absently, not looking up for even a moment. Elspeth smothered a giggle and pressed her copy of the plans against her chest.
"Will you bring your creator next time?" she asked. To her disappointment, Puss shook his head.
"Perhaps the day after tomorrow," Puss offered. Elspeth started to nod eagerly, then frowned. The day after tomorrow was the day she and her father went to the large university, to register their creations and designs.
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Puss. On Thursday we go to Kingston, to the university."
"Then perhaps we will see you there," Puss replied. "My creator will also be traveling to Kingston."
"We could ride together," Elspeth suggested, but Puss shook his head.
"I fear my creator would not find it appropriate, my dear lady. And now I must return to him. Adieu." He bowed gracefully once more and was gone.
Still engrossed in the plans, Reginald waved a hand. "Close the door, Jarvis, there's a draft."
* * *
The next day, Puss hurried Marcus along more quickly. "Are we late for something?" Marcus panted, trotting along the dusty road in Puss's wake. "I'm ready to drop! I need a rest."
Puss made an annoyed clicking sound as his tail flicked back and forth. "We can stop up ahead," he replied, pointing to a small, cool looking grove some distance ahead. Marcus squared his shoulders and kept moving. It wasn't that far. He could make it.
The grove was farther than Marcus had thought, and he collapsed gratefully under the biggest tree and panted heavily for a few moments before he could gather the strength to drain the last few drops from his canteen. When he was done, Puss took the bottle and vanished away, deeper into the little grove. Marcus laid back and looked up at the leaves against the sky, grateful for their shade.
He closed his eyes, intending to rest them for just a moment. When he opened them again, Puss had returned, and the shadows were growing long. “You let me sleep?” Marcus asked. Puss shrugged and stretched, a decidedly cat like action that was completely unnecessary.
“We’re nearly there, and I pushed hard this morning.” Puss stood and looked down at Marcus. “But enough dawdling. Come on.”
Groaning, Marcus stood and stretched, then drank deeply from his refilled canteen. "Are you ever going to let me in on your plan?"
"When it's time, I'll tell you the plan." Puss started back down the path. Marcus sighed and followed the cat again.
This time, Puss led him to the grand highway, the main road to Kingston. Here he perched on a log and stared at Marcus until he sat down. "Now what?"
"Now we wait." Marcus got comfortable and held in a sigh. Eventually he would understand.
* * *
By and by, Marcus fell asleep. As this was part of Puss's plan, the cat didn't wake him. He regarded his human twin in silence, broken only by the well oiled purr of his metallic brain.
August's human children were not the only ones that a legacy had been granted to. Puss had been given instructions from his creator, days before the sons had gathered.
"When I am gone, Puss, you must help Marcus. He is the only one who will truly need you." And Puss, always obedient, in his own cat like fashion, had agreed.
But what to do with Marcus? Puss's great mind had been whirring away at the problem ever since. A young man needed a family of his own, and a calling to give him pride. And so, Puss hatched his plans.
First, a wife. That was the easier part. Elspeth and Marcus were well suited, being of similar height, interests and ages. A job; now that had given Puss more trouble.
The whole family knew that only Harold had inherited the skill, the artificers' vision, from August. They had all agreed on that. Only Puss knew of the scribbles Marcus did in secret, then crumpled up to throw away. They were a bit simplistic, lacking as he was in formal education, but Puss could see in Marcus’s drawings the same genius that had created him.
With a little practice, Puss was sure Marcus could do more, go further, than even his father had. Play god, as August had once, creating a cat with the mind of a man, and boots on his hind feet. And so, again, in Elspeth, Marcus would have a partner. But they would need a lab of their own, for Puss could tell Elspeth’s annoyance in sharing space with her father was growing.
And that was part of the plan, as well.
Puss purred, and watched Marcus sleep, waiting.
* * *
Elspeth had rather been enjoying the trip to Kingston in the clockwork carriage, even if she was sharing it with her father. The carriage was large and comfortable, still one of Reginald’s finest creations. The interior was filled with cushions and well sprung, while the exterior was patterned after the horse-drawn carriages of the previous age, though the animals had been replaced by a steam powered motor, cleverly concealed under the driver’s seat. Jarvis was driving, and his orders were not to stop unless there was an emergency.
She was therefore rather startled when only a few miles into the trip, the carriage began to slow before gliding to a smooth stop in the middle of the road. This, Elspeth knew for certain, was not yet Kingston.
“Jarvis!” her father called out the window. “Jarvis, why have we stopped?”
“Puss,” Jarvis replied, and Elspeth leapt out of the carriage with a most unladylike haste.
Then she paused, abashed, for this time Puss was not alone. A handsome young man was sitting on the log next to the cat, and as far as Elspeth could tell, the young man was around her age. He seemed nearly as gobsmacked to see her as she had been to notice him, for his finely molded mouth hung open just a touch.
"Miss Elspeth King," Puss said smoothly, the faintest of purrs in his voice, "I make known to you my creator, Mister Marcus Miller."
"Oh, I'm not-" the man started, then Puss made a hssting noise, and he fell silent. Elspeth pressed her lips together to hold in her smile. He was not Puss's creator, she was sure of that. But for some reason, Puss wanted her to think he was.
Or no, not her. Elspeth had the feeling Puss knew precisely how intelligent she was. More likely, the automaton cat wanted Reginald to believe Marcus had created him. And her father, dazzled by gifts of game and the blueprints for Puss' mind, would not be terribly difficult to fool.
Reginald finally thrust his head out the window, frowning around until he spotted her. "Elly, tell Puss he can certainly ride with us, but we need to go now." Then he noticed Marcus. "Who are you?"
“Mr. Reginald King, my creator, Marcus Miller.” Again, Puss gave the lie. Marcus bowed, looking vaguely ashamed of the story his cat was telling about him. Reginald’s eyes lit up.
“My boy!” he cried, and flung the door open again. “Come in, come in, how lovely to meet you at last!” With a glance at Puss, and then one at her, Marcus approached the carriage. Elspeth’s father dragged him inside, already firing questions at him, and Elspeth turned to Puss.
“Miller. He would be August Miller’s son?”
Puss tilted his head, then nodded. “The youngest.”
“August Miller made you.” It wasn’t a question, and Puss replied only with a slow swish of his tail. “I’ll help him fool father, if that’s what you want, but you shouldn’t have put the poor boy on the spot like that. He looked terrified.”
Another slow flick of the tail, and a long blink, then Puss handed her a small stack of papers. Elspeth took them, seeing the faint lines that indicated they had been crumpled up before being unfolded and carefully smoothed out. “Will you do me the favor of giving those to my creator?” Puss asked. “He forgot them when we set out this morning, and I would hate for him to not have them in Kingston.”
“Won’t you be riding with us?” Puss shook his head and bowed. “Well. Where does your creator live, so we can bring him home after the journey?”
Puss pointed down the road, toward a large estate Elspeth had seen many times. “We have recently moved in over there,” Puss said, and his tail once again swished from side to side.
Elspeth looked at the cat, then in the direction he indicated. “How recently?”
“Elly!” Her father was hanging out the window again, and he looked impatient. “We must continue! Get back in the carriage!”
Puss gave a purring chuckle and bowed over her hand once again. “Adieu, Miss King. I will see you when you and my creator return.”
“I’m coming!” she snapped, and curtsied to Puss. “Until then, Master Puss,” she said, and climbed into the carriage, letting Marcus take her hand to help her inside. Her father rapped on the roof, and Jarvis set the carriage in motion again.
* * *
Alone again, Puss headed down the indicated fork at his top speed. Elspeth had asked how recently he and Marcus had moved into the estate, and in that, she was wiser than most. To be frank, they hadn’t quite finished the move yet.
There was a current tenant Puss was going to have to deal with first.
Tillers in the field look up as Puss approached them, then back to their work. He moved among them until he found the overseer machine, the one who gave the orders to the others in the absence of human instructions. A few screws loosened, and Puss held the brain of the overseer in his paw. Delicately, he imprinted a new message, and replaced the organ, putting the panel back onto the automaton’s skull. “Who do you work for?” he asked.
The gears ground for a moment, then the overseer croaked, “Master Marcus Miller.”
“Excellent,” purred Puss, and moved on, performing the same reprogramming upon the overseer of the orchards, and the overseer of the stables. Finally, he turned to the manor itself.
It was a fine, large house, with an attached workshop that put even August Miller’s to shame. Once, many years ago, it had been home to the finest artificer's institute in the country, perhaps the world. But the master artificer had played god, as August Miller once had, and had given his creations thought.
And one of those creations had destroyed him.
It had been called Ogre, for he had made it in the likeness of a children’s storybook villain, tall and broad, with sharp teeth and heavy hands. And then it had been given thought, and it had learned hate.
The institute was abandoned upon the death of the master artificer, and Ogre ruled the estate without challenge. It had destroyed its fellow thinking automatons, and created new ones without minds to work the fields and orchards and stables, for it liked to style itself a wealthy man. And hating most of all the shell in which it had been trapped, it had created new ones, more pleasing to its eye, to wear when it went abroad. In its own place, however, it still wore at times the form it had first been created for.
This, then, was the foe Puss faced. He brushed off the dust from his travel and rapped boldly on the door.
Ogre came and opened the door, for it disliked butlers. “A cat?” it boomed, one razor like nail scraping horribly across its head in a parody of a thoughtful head scratch. “I don’t have a mechanical cat.”
“I am Puss, oh great Ogre,” Puss said, and if there was more of a growl in his tone than usual, there was no one to remark upon it. “I have been traveling, and have much admired your estate, and hoped that I could find respite here.”
“A thinking mechanical cat,” Ogre roared, and it laughed, like thunder splitting the sky. “Come in, oh thinking cat! Let me show you my home.” It stepped aside, and Puss strode confidently in, his boots making little click-clack sounds on the fine wooden floor.
Amused, Ogre showed Puss the house, and ended the tour in the workshop, near the long row of alternate bodies Ogre used outside of its house. “And here, of course, is my birthplace.” Its attention turned to Puss, a terrible grin crossing the hideous face. “And where is your birthplace, thinking cat? What hand dared build you?”
“A dead man built me,” Puss said, and Ogre barked out another horrible laugh.
“And I! He looked so frightened when I killed him. But see, here, I have improved upon his design.” And it took the box that was its brain and its heart, and it placed it in another body, this patterned after a vicious Lion, which walked, as Puss did, upon its hind legs. “He made me a monster, and yet, I have made myself more monstrous by far!” the newly mobile Lion roared.
Puss looked over the two bodies, and gave a slow, thoughtful nod. “Your creation is very impressive. Yet I wonder, did you also learn delicacy? How fine a body can you inhabit?”
Ogre removed its center from the lion and put itself in a mouse. “This fine, oh thinking cat!” it squeaked.
“Perfect,” said Puss, and smashed the mouse body flat with a great scattering of gears and springs. Ogre gave a howl as it realized the trick, made tiny by the small size it was in. Puss struck again and again until the voice stilled, and all that remained of Ogre were its empty shells and the pile of scraps that was once a mouse.
* * *
By the time the Kings’ carriage pulled up out front, Puss had made a few changes within the house. The monstrous shells of Ogre were gone, and a cook was busily creating dinner in the spacious kitchen, only lately returned to a high polish after many years of disuse. A butler with mud on its tread opened the door to them, and Puss stood in the hall, tail high in delight. “Welcome home, creator,” he said, and Marcus, more than a little overwhelmed, mumbled a greeting in reply. “Miss King, may I take your coat?”
The meal was sumptuous, and Reginald was in raptures during the tour after. “How extraordinary!” he kept exclaiming, and Elspeth rolled her eyes and leaned a little closer as she walked on Marcus’ arm.
“If you’re not careful, he’ll move right in,” she said, and Marcus shook his head violently.
“Oh, no, that would be bad,” he said. “You see, I’m not really-”
“If you say you’re not really an artificer one more time, I shall thump you,” Elspeth said. “I saw your drawings. The university officials saw your drawings. They’re a little rough, and you really need to finish them, but they’re amazing. I can’t wait to see the finished frog, for one.”
Marcus blushed, and looked ahead, away from her eyes. “I was eight when I drew that. I can’t believe Puss kept them all.”
“I think,” she said, smiling at his profile, “Puss takes very good care of you.”
“He does,” Marcus said, and sounded ashamed. Elspeth gave a light questioning squeeze of his arm. “I haven’t always appreciated it.”
“Start now, and I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”
Marcus looked at her then, and smiled, and Elspeth smiled back, for after many hours together, she felt like they were becoming friends, and that one day perhaps, she would be happy for it to be more. “You must be sure to remind me,” he said, and Elspeth nodded.
And so Puss’s plan was fulfilled, and his final charge from his Master laid to rest. So should we all have so loyal a servant, with such a stylish carapace!