When he had finally finished, he focused his round, unblinking eyes on me again. I gave her dreams. I lay down beside her and purred through the long cold night. She was badly hurt. Dying. She knew it. Her dreams were dark with sharp edges, full of faces of those she had failed. She dreamed of the creatures that were inside her, chewing their way through her guts. I came into her dreams and in them I was the Cat of Cats, powerful beyond imagining. I chased and slew those who had hurt her. I embraced them with my claws and tore their entrails from their bodies. Toward dawn, when the frost was coldest, I promised I would bring you to her, and she would be discovered and her message delivered. She thanked me, and I told her I had enjoyed the warmth of the cloak. That was when she said I might have it when she was gone.
His story rang with truth. Right up until his last statement. I knew he was lying. He knew that I knew he was lying. He smiled lazily without moving his mouth at all. It was something in the set of his ears, perhaps. He was daring me to dispute his story. Deep in my heart Wolf-Father growled, a low rumbling. He did not like this cat, but his growl was to warn me as much as the feline.
“Very well. I will leave the cloak here at night for you to use.”
Trade, he suggested.
Aha. I tipped my head at him. “What do I have that a cat could possibly want?”
His eyes narrowed. The cat who is allowed to sleep by the kitchen hearth has a basket with a soft blanket in it. And herbs …
“Catmint. And fleabane.” I knew about that. My mother had begun that tradition.
I want the same. And if you see them chase me with a broom, you must shriek and fuss and slap them so that they never dare do so again.
“I can do that.”
And you must bring me delicious things. In a clean dish. Every day.
Somehow he had come closer to me. Slowly he stepped up into my lap and arranged himself. “I can do that,” I agreed.
And when I wish to be stroked, you must stroke me. But only if I wish it. He had become a black circle of cat in my lap. He lifted one front paw, extended long and very sharp white claws, and began to tug and groom them.
“Very well.” Very carefully, I put my hands on him. My fingers sank into lush black fur. He was so warm! I moved one hand carefully down his side. I found two tiny burs and a nest of thorns. I combed them out with my fingers. The end of his tail became alive and lifted to wrap around my wrist. It was utterly charming. I put my fingers under his chin and gently scratched there. He lifted his face and a strange transparent eyelid lifted to cover his half-closed eyes. I moved my hand to rub his ears. His purr deepened. His eyes became slits. For a time, we sat together. Then slowly, he began to melt onto his side. I smoothed burs from his belly fur.
Abruptly as a snake striking, he wrapped his front paws around my forearm. He delivered three vicious, clawed kicks to my arm and then streaked off down the passage into darkness. Not even the ghost of a thought hung to explain why he had done it. I clutched my bleeding wrist to my chest and rocked forward, enduring the stinging pain silently. Tears stung my eyes. In my heart, Wolf-Father rumbled his assent. Cats are cursed creatures, never to be trusted, talking to everyone and anyone. I hope you have learned something.
I had, but I was not sure what. I stood slowly, suddenly anxious about how much time had passed. I gathered my cloak and folded it hastily. I restored it to its place on my shelf, and put the lid back on my bread bowl. Little sneaking thief.
I could learn from him.
In the morning, unbidden, Careful came to help me rise, wash, groom my wayward hair, and then dress. It was all very trying for me. No one save my mother had ever done such things, and she had done them with merry chatter and shared plans for the day. Careful, I decided, would have been better named Hasty. Or perhaps Tart, for her mouth today was pursed as if every item in my wardrobe put a sour taste in her mouth. She tugged my smock over my head and almost before it had settled on my shoulders, she was layering my tunic over it. She pulled my sleeves even and then, without asking, reached up under my tunic and pulled my smock down smooth. She asked me for things I had never possessed, such as pins for my hair or at least a pomade to hold it down. She asked where my earrings were and was shocked that I had not even holes in my ears for such adornments. She exclaimed in loud dismay over the state of my stockings and found a heavier pair and said that my shoes were a disgrace to the household.
Perhaps she intended such things to express outrage she supposed I shared. In reality they only made me feel shabby and shy. I could find no words to defend myself or my clothing. I put on my belt with my mother’s knife, for courage. Careful gave a disapproving snort, and knelt before me. “That’s not how you wear that,” she told me. I kept my silence as she took my belt and hastily bored a new hole in it with her own little knife, and then put it on me so that it rode at my waist instead of sitting on my hips.