The stripped bed was empty. I had been foolish. I would not stare at it. I would not. I turned back to the closed door. I dared myself and walked to it. I put my hand on the door handle. It was cold. Colder than was natural? Would her ghost linger where we had unwittingly abandoned her? I pushed down on the latch and then dragged the door open. The draft from the little room nearly sucked the flame from my candle. I stood still until it steadied and peered in.
It was emptier than when I had last seen it. The old stand and ewer remained there. And the heavy bed frame was still pushed tight against my secret entrance. Somehow tonight the idle furniture crouched and the empty ewer rebuked me. I spoke to her ghost. “If I had known you were still here, I would have taken better care of you. I thought you were gone.” I felt no change in the hovering darkness, but felt a bit braver that I had dared to speak to her directly.
It was harder to pull the bed frame away from the concealed entrance while holding my candle, but I managed. I clambered over it to trigger the lever, and then climbed back to go inside. I dribbled wax on the passage floor and stuck my candle in it before dragging the bed frame back into place and pushing the door shut. In my hidden labyrinth, I felt better immediately. I held my candle steady and followed the marks I scarcely needed anymore until I came to my little lair. Just outside it I stopped suddenly, puzzled. Something was different. A scent? A slight warmth in the air? I studied the little room carefully, but saw nothing amiss. Cautiously I stepped forward, tripped, and measured my length on the floor. My candle jumped from my hand, rolled in a half-circle, and only by the greatest good fortune remained lit. By bad fortune, it fetched up against a coiled scroll I had left on the floor. The edge had just begun to smolder with a stink of burning leather when I scrabbled to my knees and seized the candle. I set it upright in the holder and turned to see what had tripped me. It had felt like a mound of fabric. Warm fabric.
I felt a moment of dizziness as the floor wavered before my gaze. Then a small, scowling cat face emerged from nothing. He rose slowly out of the floor, stretched, and gave me a rebuking Wowr. Only the barest edge of rolled butterfly wing betrayed the cloak in a heap on the floor. I pounced on it and snatched it up, holding it to my chest. It was warm and smelled of black cat. “What were you doing?” I demanded of him.
Sleeping. Was warm.
“This is mine. You’re not to take things off my shelf.” I saw now that the plate I’d put on top of my bowl of hard bread had been pushed aside. With the bundled cloak under my arm, I made a quick inspection of my supplies. The bread had been chewed at the edge and rejected. I’d had half a sausage up there. Only a few scraps of casing remained. “You ate my food! And slept on my cloak.”
Not yours. Hers.
I paused in mid-breath. “Well, it’s mine now. She’s dead.”
She is. So it’s mine. It was promised to me.
I stared at him. My memories of that day had an overlay of haze, not for the evening events but those from the morning. I could not remember why I had gone walking to that part of the estate grounds. They were shady and chill, uninviting during the gray and wet days. I could scarcely remember seeing the butterfly wing on the ground; I could not tell if it was a memory from that day, or a memory of my dream. But I did recall that as my father had approached, he had given a shout of surprise. And something had raced away into the brush. Something black and furry.
Yes. I was there.
“That doesn’t mean the cloak belongs to you.”
He sat up very straight and wrapped his black tail neatly around his white feet. He had yellow eyes, I noticed, and the candlelight danced in them as he declared. She gave it to me. It was a fair trade.
“For what? What does a cat have to trade?”
A gold glitter came into those yellow eyes, and I knew I had insulted him. I’d insulted a cat. Just a cat. So why did a little shiver of dread go down my back? I remembered that my mother had told me to never be afraid to apologize when I was wrong. She had said it would have saved her and my father a great deal of trouble if they had only followed that rule. Then she had sighed, and added that I must never think that an apology could completely erase what I had done or said. Still, it was worth trying.
“I beg your pardon,” I said sincerely. “I do not know much of cats, having never had one of my own. I think I have misspoken to you.”
Yes. You have. Twice. The idea that a human could “have a cat of her own” is equally insulting. Abruptly, he lifted one of his hind legs, pointed his foot toward the ceiling and began to groom his bottom. I knew I was being insulted. I chose to bear it in silence. He carried on for a ridiculously long time. I began to be chilly. I surreptitiously picked up an edge of the cloak and draped it around my shoulders.