Ah, yes, they’ve all been duped by a cat. But haven’t we all been, at one time or another?
It was during the wedding feast, when the air was heavy with roast goose and red wine, that Mirabella realized they’d all been duped by a cat.
Her new husband, the Marquis of Carabas, was sitting to her right, his teeth tearing goose flesh, grease coating his lips. She shuddered and pushed away thoughts of the marriage bed. Her father, the king, was well into his cups and tore at his food as if to mimic his new son-in-law. He slapped the marquis on the back and praised heaven that—at long last—Mirabella had found herself a husband.
At long last, indeed.
Near the end of the table, the cat was lounging, booted hind legs crossed. With a paw, he wiped goose fat from his whiskers. Mirabella fixed her gaze on him until he raised his yellow eyes and took in her full measure.
Then, the creature winked.
She sat back, a flush heating her cheeks, traveling her neck, and ending somewhere near her décolletage. She sighed, not in the mood for wine, song, or her new husband. True, the marquis was handsome. A point in his favor, to be sure. A goose leg slipped through his fingers, and he stopped its descent with one meaty hand. Mirabella cringed and again shoved thoughts of the marriage bed from her mind.
She turned to her new husband and asked, “More wine?”
Without waiting for an answer, she filled his goblet to the rim. He’d barely spoken since they’d exchanged I do. Come to think of it, the lad—for he was hardly older than she—seldom spoke more than a word or two at a time. Mirabella leaned forward and, once again, trained her gaze on the cat. This time when he winked, she didn’t flinch.
Oh, there was no Marquis of Carabas. She’s stake her somewhat tarnished reputation on it. Certainly, if this lad were nobility, he would’ve curried her father’s favor long before now. Not only that, but he was untouched by palace gossip, which was rife with rumors about her improper relationship with her tutor. In her defense, the relationship hadn’t been at all improper.
Well, maybe a little bit improper.
But thanks to some rumors and a fast-talking cat, her father was now praising the heavens and had shoved this lad into her arms and her bed. Would he care to know the truth about the marquis? Of course not. A married daughter was one less burden, especially a daughter with a somewhat tarnished reputation.
The splash of wine against her chest forced a gasp from her. The red liquid soaked into the bodice of her gown, the spot resembling a sword wound. Her new husband stared at his empty goblet as if the wine had sprung forth of its own accord. Her father pounded the marquis on the back, his hearty laugh filling the banquet hall. And, at the end of the table, that damn cat winked.
* * *
Her new husband’s snores filled the bedchamber. From her vantage point on the balcony, Mirabella could see the outline of his form on the duvet. Make no mistake, it was a fine form, despite the drool.
“You admire my master, then, Princess?”
Ah, that damn cat.
“There is more to admire in a man than form or face, Master Cat.”
The cat trod along the balcony’s edge, feet whisper-soft against the stone, even with the boots.
“What is it you wish?” he said.
“I fear my wishes matter not to man or cat.”
“I did not ask that.”
Mirabella glanced into the bedchamber. Yes, assuredly, her new husband would not wake until noon, if then. “Tonight’s wish has already been granted.”
Could cats grin? Well, this one could, and did, twirling long whiskers with a paw. “And tomorrow’s wish?”
Yes, the crux of the matter.
“I cannot simply un-marry, Master Cat, and I doubt my new husband will appreciate his rival.” She gestured toward the telescope at the balcony’s far end. She had yet to peer at the night sky this evening—or rather, morning. Of course, at this moment, the only view was of a cat’s tail, which was swishing in front of the lens.
Still, the urge to lean over the telescope remained. For a few hours, she could pretend that Sebastian was still at her side, imagine his fingers lighting on the back of her neck, hear his ardent whisper. “Do you see it?”
The night spent with her tutor fueled court gossip even now. That the two of them had gazed at the stars and not into each other’s eyes was of little matter. As she ran a hand along the telescope, the skies were clear, but her mind was clouded with thoughts of the upcoming tour of the kingdom. The grand celebration of her marriage meant visiting people she didn’t much care for and receiving gifts she certainly didn’t need. But the real question was: pack the telescope or leave it behind?
“You’ll be traveling light,” the cat said.
“Unlikely, Master Cat. Have you never seen a royal entourage take to the roads?”
“I have, Princess. It’s all part of the plan.”
“What plan is that?”
“Do you not wish to see your Sebastian again?”
Her hand stilled on the telescope, her fingers ice. Damn palace gossip, and damn that cat besides. How could he know her heart?
“You keep a great many unsent letters beneath your bed.”
Oh. That was how.
“Would you like to be free? Study with your tutor in peace?”
Mouth dry, Mirabella nodded.
“Then, trust me.”
“I shall do no such thing, Master Cat.”
“But what if you could un-marry, Princess?” the cat asked. “Would you trust me then?”
“What God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” Mirabella replied. “Even cats know this.”
Ah, yes, cats could grin. “Oh, Princess, have you not noticed? I am certainly no man.”
* * *
The carriage bumped over never-ending ruts. A week on the road, and the only sign of the cat had been this morning when he had slipped a wineskin into Mirabella’s hands.
“Hold it beneath your cloak,” he said. “Just so.”
Only thoughts of her studies, of Sebastian, compelled her to comply. She cradled her burden and settled in for another long day.
A cry rose up outside the carriage.
“Brigands!” a guard shouted.
Swords clanked, and then the carriage door flew open. The cat sprang past her, a single claw piercing the wineskin. Red bloomed beneath her hand, the wine soaking her gown. The marquis took one look at the stain spreading across her bodice and crashed to the carriage floor, face-first. Never mind that she reeked of her father’s finest vintage (come to think of it, so did the marquis); she was, in everyone’s view, fatally wounded.
And with death came freedom. Un-marry, indeed.
Before she could leap from the carriage, a paw tugged on her sleeve.
“You’ll need this, Princess.” The cat proffered a dusty cloak, ragged along the hem. He dropped a small canvas sack at her feet. “And, of course, you’ll need these.” He pulled the boots from his hind legs.
He crouched, then sprang through the carriage window, and Mirabella swore his final sentence was more caterwaul than words. She pulled on the boots, the leather kissing her legs, the soles cupping her feet. She held one leg extended, turning it to study the boot. How was this possible?
No matter. They fit. She jumped from the carriage. The boots carried her through sword clashes and rearing horses. No one called out. No one stopped her. Except for a cat that wove between her ankles.
His tail twitched, and he blinked slowly, but that was all.
She nestled him in her arms, the cloak shielding them both, and took to the road.
That night, she tugged the boots from her feet and placed them far enough from her campfire that no spark would reach them.
“Master Cat, would you like to take a turn in your boots?”
Within moments, the cat was standing before her in all his booted glory. He surveyed their surroundings.
“Seems safe enough,” he said. “I shall fetch dinner and return shortly.”
Mirabella pointed to the pot simmering over the fire. “I have dinner.”
“I shall fetch us a decent dinner, then.”
She huffed but couldn’t argue. Her skills with a telescope far surpassed anything she could manage with a cook pot.
“I shall almost regret finding Sebastian,” she said to him later, over stew and a loaf of hard-crusted bread from a nearby village. “I will miss these marvelous boots.”
“Why not commission another pair?” the cat asked, strutting about, the leather boots glowing warmly in the light of the fire.
“How will I do that, Master Cat? I will be a scholar and a somewhat impoverished one at that.”
“Haven’t you guessed, Princess? Who do you think gave me these boots to begin with?”
“Not the marquis?”
“Princess, you know their creator. Intimately, if I dare say so.”
“But … Sebastian is a scholar. He studies—”
“The mysteries of our world—and he has mastered a few.”
Mirabella sucked in a breath and blew out a stream of air rather than harsh words. After all, what was there to say?
With a paw, the cat twirled his whiskers, and then strode off into the night. So, it had been Sebastian all along.
And, of course, that damn cat.
A Most Marvelous Pair of Boots was first published in Timeless Tales, January 2014.