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A Cat May Look at a King

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The cat slid around the corner of the building, drawn by the scent of fish. Her black and orange fur caught in the rough bricks, marking them. She had a name, of course—a secret name she never told—but everywhere she went they called her something different. It didn’t matter; she never came when summoned, except, and only sometimes, when there was food.

On this day, however, she was disappointed. When she entered the cobbled courtyard, padded feet soundless on the stones, the fish scraps were long gone. Instead, she found a tall man in a black coat squatting on the stones, the children of the place crowding around him.

“Do it again,” a little girl squealed. (The cat understood human speech; she had been full-grown for a year before she realized that not all cats could do the same).

“Hush,” said the girl’s brother, an older boy, almost ready to begin working in the hostelry attached to the inn with the rest of his family.

But the man just laughed, and waved his hand again over a wooden board spread at his feet. The silver buttons on his sleeve caught the light. Without quite meaning to, the cat edged closer; it would be such fun to catch those with her quick paws. The man’s colors drew her, too—the black coat topped with auburn hair. The combination was familiar; it was her own.

Suddenly, though, the cat arrested her approach, surprised by what she was seeing. Although the man made no further movement, things began to rise from the board: first, a fine swirl of dirt, a miniature vortex; next, a bubble of water, glinting with light; and finally a tiny flame, rising to nestle in the man’s palm.

Ooo,” breathed the girl, while her brother stuffed his fist in his mouth and widened his eyes. The cat crouched, and pulled her paws beneath her. The urge to pounce on the tantalizing objects was strong, but she couldn’t tell if they would sting or bite back.

She was only able to restrain herself, however, until a piece of bone rose from the board to join the merry dance. Prey, her instincts shouted, though her other senses could tell this wasn’t food. She leapt.

“Oh, Puss,” the girl exclaimed, as all the objects clattered back onto the board. The cat scrabbled at them, but now that they’d returned to their places, they seemed immovable. The boy raised a hand to cuff her, but she just hissed at him, refusing to give up her rightful prize.

“Who’s this, then?” the man asked, sounding more amused than angry.

“Uncle John calls her Cleopatra,” the boy said, his hand still raised. “Because he says she’s an alley cat that acts like a queen.”

“She’s a champion mouser, and we’re not allowed to hurt her,” his sister added. “Though she’s often very naughty.”

“Hmm.” Without warning, the tall man reached down and grabbed the cat. She hissed again, and tried to rake him with her claws, but he somehow immobilized her by tucking her under his arm, and then scratched her under the chin in the one place she couldn’t resist. Involuntarily, she purred, and rubbed her head against his chest. This close, he smelled of flowers.

It was blissful, for a moment, to be held and caressed, and the cat forgot all about the strange wooden box. Then the man took her face between his fingers and tilted it up. “Hang on,” he said. “What’s this?”

“It’s her witch eye,” the girl volunteered, happy to have such important information. “It’s how she’s able to catch all them mice. Gran says it’s the mark of the devil, but she’d take Satan’s own help to get rid of the mice, so don’t tell Reverend Poole. Oh.” Her mouth closed and then opened again. “It’s just like yours.”

Both children looked uneasily from the cat’s face to the man’s and back again, not sure what this unexpected kinship portended.

“Now how did that happen?” The man mused, still fondling her ears. “How did magic end up in bit of tortoiseshell fluff like you? What can you do with that eye, eh?”

The bit of bone rose from the board again until it hung right under the cat’s nose, tucked as she was under the man’s arm. She swatted at it. It darted away from her, like a tiny bird. Was the man controlling it? She swung at it again, and it zipped away. “Ah, well,” said the man, in a disappointed tone. But then, as she did with mice, the cat reached out to it with her other sense, the one no other cat she knew possessed. And, just as the mice did, the bit of bone came towards her, as if on an invisible string. She smacked it hard, and it fell to the stones with a clack.

“Oh,” said the man. The children’s eyes were huge.

The cat readied herself for escape; the frolic here seemed over. Before she could do so, however, the man himself stiffened. His face paled, and she could see beads of sweat break out on his brow. “Oh,” he said again, in an entirely different voice, retrieving the bit of bone, scooping up his wooden board and closing it with a clap. “Show’s over. Run along now, your mother will be wanting you.”

Not needing to be told twice, the children scampered away. But the cat, precipitously released from the man’s grasp, remained curious. Finding a convenient shadow, she watched as the man took a knife from his sleeve and slashed quickly at the back of his forearm. The smell of human blood made the cat wrinkle her nose, as, unsure of what she was seeing, she saw the man touch his fingers to the cut, then to the brick wall, drawing a circle there with a line through it.

He spoke a few words she didn’t recognize. Then, he disappeared.

The cat had great faith in her senses, all six of them, and so she found this event hard to accept. Cautiously, she approached the place where the man had last stood. She pawed at it, to make sure he hadn’t simply gone underground: nothing. She sniffed the air: the scent of flowers and blood was fading away. She rose on her hind legs and stretched to reach the symbol he had drawn. The still-damp blood was tacky against the pads of her feet. She smeared it experimentally, and mewed softly—then nearly yowled as the brick melted beneath her and she tumbled into a different world.


Being a cat, she landed on her feet, and without a sound.

In any case, the two men in the room with her were too caught up in their argument to notice her arrival. The man from the courtyard was perched on the edge of a bed covered in luxurious silks, in which another man was lying. They were speaking quickly and intensely, but the cat’s senses were so overwhelmed by this new place that she couldn’t at first make out what they were saying.

She felt as if she’d fallen into a sea of red—the very air seemed suffused with color, compared to the grey courtyard she had left. After a moment, she realized that some of the effect was due to the richly colored hangings that covered every wall in silky crimson, orange and blue. And yet, even accounting for that, there was something different about the air. Although she could see none in the room, it smelled of flowers, lilacs and lilies and others less familiar. And beyond that, something even more different. It made her whiskers twitch, as if she were about to run into things she couldn’t see.

Gradually, though, the sensory riot diminished as she grew used to her surroundings. As she did, the voices on the bed got clearer.

“Honestly, Kell,” said the man lying in the bed. “You can’t come running back here every time I stub my toe.”

“It’s not like that, Rhy,” the man from the courtyard—Kell—answered. “Your pain—it draws me to you. I—I guess I’m not very good at judging its severity.” He laughed a little, as embarrassed as a kitten who’d wrestled a handkerchief, thinking it a mouse.

“Draws you even from your other worlds?” Rhy didn’t sound angry now, just awestruck.

Kell smiled sheepishly. “Seemingly so.”

He got no smile in return. “Let me see it,” Rhy said.

Kell didn’t do anything for a moment. The he unbuttoned his coat, and peeled away the shirt beneath it. The cat craned her neck until she could see his bare chest: an intricate design of black concentric circles marked the skin over his heart. Slowly, almost tentatively, Rhy reached up a hand to touch it. Kell made a sound like a breath being released. With one hand, he covered Rhy’s, and with the other, he drew away the bedclothes and the loose shirt Rhy wore, uncovering a mark that mirrored his own. He pressed his palm against it.

The two men stayed in this position so long the cat might have thought them frozen there, if she hadn’t been able to see their ribs rising and falling with their breath. They were like two cats who know each other by day, but meet at night. Suddenly everything is strange, and they cannot decide whether to fight, or greet each other in kindness, or simply pass by.

Rhy broke away first. He withdrew his hand, and pushed himself up further against the pillows. “Well, you needn’t have bothered this time. A minor setback, due to overexertion. Soon mended. Or so Tieren tells me.”

“I expect Tieren will be surprised to see the varieties of overexertion you’re capable of.” Heeding the cue to return to levity, Kell stood and began to button his shirt and coat. “Don’t shock the old man.”

Rhy laughed. “I doubt he’s as easily shocked as you think.”

“Well. If you’re sure you’re all right.” Kell fidgeted a little, seemingly ready to be gone.

“I am.”

“Then I have business to attend to with your parents.” With that, Kell left the room, but through the ordinary door, not the mysterious one that led back to her grey courtyard.

The cat considered her options. Kell had closed the door behind him, and the door he had made in the wall had disappeared. She could wait in the shadows until she could escape. Or…

She landed softly on the silk coverings of Rhy’s bed. She spent most of her time in alleys and stables, stalking mice and other creatures, but she knew how to make herself appealing when she needed to. She sat demurely on her haunches, wrapping her multicolored tail around her paws.

Rhy, to his credit startled only briefly with surprise. “Hello there, my beauty.” He stroked her fur, his touch light and confident. “Where did you come from, I wonder? I haven’t seen you here before.” His breath caught a bit as he, too, noticed her eye. He looked from the cat to the space in the wall where Kell’s door had been, and he swore softly. “I thought he’d promised to stop doing that.”

The cat had no idea what he was talking about, and no interest either. She purred, and butted her head gently against his shoulder. Rhy’s face cleared, and he laughed. “Hungry, are you?” He leaned over the table next to the bed and found a round of bread spread with some kind of creamy cheese. He offered it to her.

Pleased to be treated with such respect, the cat lapped daintily at the cheese, leaving the bread in Rhy’s hand. He was a more relaxed presence than his friend Kell, looser, more sensuous. More catlike. Kell, in the cat’s brief acquaintance with him, had reminded her of a highbred hound, purposeful, dangerous, and relentless. Rhy smelled of medicine but not of illness, and of the flowers that bloom at night. He seemed built for dalliance.

"Now what will I do with a magic cat," he mused, rubbing behind her ears.

Having had her fill of the cheese, the cat arranged herself comfortably at Rhy’s side. She thought she might like this new world.