John pulled a stool up to the table, squeezed into the small spot between his brothers George and Ritchie, and looked at the magistrate with a plaintive expression. "Sorry I'm late," he apologized. "The cat just threw up by the door. I wanted to clean the mess before someone stepped in it."
The magistrate nodded at him. "Thanks. Now let's get down to business. Your father's will…"
Ritchie choked back a sob. "Oh, poor, poor Daddy…I loved him so!"
George rolled his eyes. "Please excuse my brother's histrionics, sir, and just read the damned will."
"Very well," the magistrate replied. He cleared his throat and started reciting the lines from the page of parchment. "I, George the Miller of Carabas, being of sound mind and body, do solemnly declare…"
"Right, right, right," George interrupted. "Skip with the pleasantries and cut to the meat of the document, would you? I haven't got all day. There's five bags of wheat and three bags of barley waiting to be ground at the mill."
"Is that all you can think about at a time like this?" Ritchie chided his brother. "Daddy's dead! I'm too aggrieved to even contemplate laboring over the gristmill."
John scooted his stool away from the table so that his brothers could argue with each other without shouting in his ear.
The magistrate sighed. "In the interests of brevity, I shall comply with George's request. He is the first-born son, after all." He skimmed through the document until he found the passage outlining the miller's bequests. "To my eldest son and namesake, George, I leave all of my landed property, including my house, my mill, and the furniture and possessions found therein."
George smiled smugly. "I've got the run of the mill," he whispered under his breath.
"To my second son, Richard," the magistrate continued, "I bequeath my mules."
George's smile faded. "Fuck, how am I supposed to carry the grain to market without the pack mules?"
Ritchie threw him the stink eye. "You could carry the bloody bags on your back, I suppose."
The magistrate cleared his throat loudly to call the brothers to order. "And to my youngest son, John, who spends his days dreaming and doodling and singing whilst his older brothers labor at the mill, I bequeath my cat, Timótheus, who is the only creature in this entire kingdom that is lazier than John."
John grinned. "Good ol' Dad. He knew me well."
The magistrate stood up from his chair, turned towards the window, and noted the darkening summer sky. "As the June light turns to moonlight, I'll be on my way."
Ritchie sobbed into his handkerchief while he waited for the magistrate to gather his belongings and leave. Then he stood up and threw the cloth on the table with a grand flourish. "That's me off then," he declared as he walked to the wardrobe to fetch his mantle. "I'll collect the mules and bid you all farewell."
"Like hell you will!" George shouted at him. "You can't leave me in the lurch like this!"
The two brothers began to argue and quickly fell into fisticuffs. John slinked away from the scuffle, gathered his meager possessions into a rucksack, and called to the cat. "C'mon, Tim. Let's go find us a hovel in the woods where we can set up shop."
The ginger tabby sleeping by the hearth looked up bleary-eyed at John, arched his back, licked his paws, then trotted off behind his new master out the front door.
John inspected the abandoned hut by the riverside with a weary eye. "Well, the roof'll need mending, and there's a large hole in the window pane. But perhaps that's a good thing. The rain that leaks inside will wash the floor clean, and the wind seeping through the glass might blow away the dust." He threw his rucksack on the ground and flopped onto the mattress in the corner stuffed with corncobs. "Ouch," he groused. "I'll have to use my last three coins to buy a proper bed."
"No you won't," said Tim. "You're going to use them to buy me some clothes."
John turned towards the cat with alarm. "Damn, I shouldn't have eaten those mushrooms I picked while we were walking through the forest. I must be hallucinating."
Tim stood up on his hind legs and approached the bed. "No you're not."
John's eyes grew wide with trepidation. "Like hell I am! Christ! What was in those 'shrooms?"
"You aren't hallucinating," Tim assured John. "Now sit up and listen to me. I have a plan."
John did as commanded. "How is it you can talk? And walk on your hind legs?"
"There's a lot about me you don't know," Tim replied. "You've spent an awful lot of time sketching portraits of me, but you never really observed me carefully. I am a walking, talking cat. I just never had the occasion to use my gifts in your father's house. I led a contented life there."
"Oh, alright then," John replied with a shrug. "Can you do anything else, besides walk and talk?"
"I just told you, I have a plan to get us out of this mess," Tim said. "I don't fancy spending the rest of my days in this damp and dirty cottage. Now pull out your sketchbook."
John stared at Tim for several long seconds, then climbed off the bed and pulled his sketchbook out of his rucksack. He offered it to Tim.
"Rest it on the mattress, you pillock," chided Tim. "My hind legs are strong enough for walking. But I can't hold a bloody book with my front paws."
John placed the book on the mattress. Tim jumped on the bed, then started flipping through the pages until he found a fanciful sketch John had drawn of a ginger tabby outfitted in fine highland dress.
"Take this sketch to the town seamstress, and have her make me this outfit," he commanded John. "But never mind the Ghillie Brogues, kilt hose and garter flashes. I want a pair of boots instead. I'm sure the local cordwainer could whip up a pair for me in no time. My feet aren't very large."
John scowled at the cat. "I can't do that! They'll think I'm mental, spending all my money on a ridiculous outfit for my cat."
"I need nice clothes if I'm going to impress the king," Tim countered.
"King James Paul the Second?" John laughed. "How are you going to impress the likes of him?"
"Have you ever seen or heard a walking, talking cat before?" Tim challenged.
"No," John admitted.
"Well, neither has the king," Tim insisted. "I assure you, I am very impressive. Now, promise me you'll go along with my plan, and I'll run to the river and catch some salmon for our dinner tonight. Otherwise, I'll just hunt a mouse for myself, and you're on your own for supper."
John's stomach rumbled. The thought of a tasty meal of salmon set his mouth watering.
"Right," John agreed. "A hunting you will go. I'll see if I can get a fire going in that hearth in the corner."
"Best clean the ashes out first," Tim suggested. "And brush the flue as well."
John nodded and watched the cat leap off the bed and run out the door. Then he turned his eyes towards the fifthly hearth.
"Hhmm," he said to himself. "If I clean the fireplace and find a pot for boiling water, then we could dine on poached fish tonight. But I prefer my salmon smoked." He smiled to himself, then lay back down on the lumpy mattress and closed his eyes for a nap.
"Get a dose of you in jack boots and kilt!" John exclaimed as Tim sashayed around the hut, showing off his new Scottish Highlander garb.
"I'm killer-diller when I'm dressed to the hilt," Tim agreed. "I can just feel my hunting skills flowing through my talons!" He bared his claws and admired their sharp points. "I think I shall catch a pheasant for the king today."
"Great!" John laughed. "Hunt one for me as well. I rather fancy a bite of bird."
Tim walked to the door, then looked over his shoulder. "Clean the hearth first," he admonished his roommate. "Otherwise, I'll just bring you back another vole."
Tim stepped out of the hut, then dashed into the forest. It wasn't long before he had caught and killed a fine pheasant. He plucked out the most colorful tail feather and poked it through the felt of his miniature Black Balmoral cap. Then he grasped the dead bird in his teeth and took off towards the castle of King James Paul II.
When he reached the palace gate, he dropped the bird at his feet and called to the guards. "I am an emissary from the Marquis of Carabas. I have brought this pheasant as a gift for the king."
The sentries stared at Tim in wonder. Tim stared back at them and repeated his introduction.
The shorter guard nudged the taller guard. "Bullocks, did that cat just talk to us?"
"I couldn't tell you," his partner replied. "I was too bedazzled by his clothes to listen to him."
"That creature is a thing of wonder," the first guard said.
"I agree," Tim huffed. "Now please step out of my way so I might bring this bird to the king." Without waiting for a reply, Tim grabbed the pheasant in his teeth, and ran into the castle and down the long marble hallway that led to the throne room. King James Paul II was sitting on his throne, finishing a cucumber-tomato-and-watercress-on-whole-wheat sandwich.
Tim approached with his head bowed low, and lay the bird at the king's feet. Then he looked up. "A gift for Your Majesty, from the Marquis of Carabas."
The king scowled. "Get that dead thing away from me! Doesn't the Marquis know that I have renounced eating meat?"
Tim flinched, but quickly recovered his composure. "Of course, sir. The Marquis is well away of your dietary habits. He just wished to demonstrate that he has joined you in banning hunting on his grounds. Some poachers killed this magnificent bird on his property, but he caught them red-handed and punished them severely. He wanted you to see that he too would not feast upon this carcass."
"Well, good for him," the king replied. "Glad to know there's another bloke in this area who is following my lead. Pity about the bird, though."
"Yes," said the king's daughter, Princess Prudence. She stepped into the room from a side entrance and gazed longingly at the pheasant. "Pity, indeed." She turned her attention to the cat and furrowed her brow. "I say, did I just hear you speak, noble cat?"
"You did, Your Highness," Tim agreed. He doffed his cap and bowed to her, surreptitiously plucking the feather out of his hat and resting it beside the dead bird. "I am, indeed, a talking cat."
The king laughed. "Hell, the next thing you know, you're going to tell me that your bird can sing!"
The princess frowned at her father. "But Papa, that would hardly be worth noting. All birds can sing."
"Not this one," Tim pointed out. "It's quite dead."
The king stood up and approached Tim. He picked up the bird and started stroking its feathers. "Lovely plumage," he noted. "And it's still warm to the touch. Perhaps it's not truly dead. Just pining for its flock." He stretched out the pheasant's limp wings and made them flap.
Tim exchanged worried looks with Princess Prudence. She lifted her finger to her ear and twirled it in a circular motion as she darted her eyes towards her father, then looked back at Tim with a frustrated expression.
Tim cleared his throat. "I admire Your Majesty's optimistic appraisal. But I must insist upon this point. This pheasant is not pining. It has passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn't stretched out its wing, it'd be pushing up the daisies. Its metabolic processes are now history. It's off the twig. It's kicked the bucket. It's shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleeding choir invisible. It's fuckin' snuffed it. This is an ex-pheasant!"
The king continued flapping the dead bird's wings a few more times, then rested the carcass gently upon the floor. "Oh, bother, I suppose you're right. I'll call my servants and have them bury it in the churchyard, along with the dead boar that the Duchess of Kircaldy sent me. And the dead steer that the King of Marigold gave me. And the caviar that Admiral Halsey presented me for my birthday." He looked up at Tim and sighed. "Oh, I know, some who eschew meat think eating fish doesn't count. But I refuse to eat any dead animals, or animal byproducts."
Princess Prudence picked up the pheasant. "I'll take care of this, Papa."
"Thank you, girl," the king replied.
Prudence winked at Tim as she left and whispered, "Cook'll know what to do with it."
Tim nodded at her, then watched the king climb back on his throne and finish his lunch.
"Pity about the mill falling on such hard times," the king said as he munched on his bread crusts. "Ever since the late miller's second son ran off with the mules, his older brother has had a hard time keeping up with his work. Though, truth be told, I rather like this bread my cook made from the coarsely ground wheat. Tastes healthier to me than the loaves he used to make from that over-refined flour."
"Indeed," Tim said. He looked up at the king with a curious expression. "So pray tell me, Your Majesty. What sort of gifts would impress you?"
The king smiled. "I don't need any gifts. I've got a bloody palace already! And I don't care too much for money. Money can't buy me love. What I like is a good song. If one of my subjects could come up with some truly original music and perform it for me in concert, well, I might just consider giving him my daughter's hand in marriage."
"I see," said Tim. He bowed to the king, then started walking backwards out of the room as gracefully as he could on his small leather boots. "I shall inform the Marquis of Carabas immediately."
"So you're telling me that daft king just threw the fuckin' pheasant away?" John shouted at Tim. "Christ, you should have grabbed that bloody bird by the neck and brought it back to me! I would have eaten it!"
"I think Princess Prudence gave it to the kitchen staff, despite her father's directives," Tim replied. "She didn't appear too keen on her father's vegetarian diet."
John sighed. "Well, I'm glad somebody enjoyed it. So what did you catch for our dinner tonight? Please tell me it's not vole again."
"I've brought you some quail," Tim said. "Though I have some work for you as well. The king says he will give his daughter's hand in marriage to anyone who can write and perform an original song that pleases his ear. So I think it's time you sang for your supper."
"Hell, that's bloody easy," John said. "I've got a whole notebook full of lyrics that I've written, and the melodies are all stored in my head. All I need is a lute, and I can play them for the royal family."
Tim thought for a moment. "I heard some lute music coming out of the ogre's chateau on my way back from the castle. Perhaps you could borrow an instrument from there. Or nick one."
"Like hell I will!" John replied. "I'm not going anywhere near that mean Mr. Mustard. Why, the last time he was seen in public, he shouted something obscene at the Queen. The shock of it bloody killed her! He's such a dirty old man."
Tim unsheathed his claws and started tapping the table. "Fine. Leave Mr. Mustard to me. But if you want to impress the princess, you'll need to take a bath. Go to the river and wash up, why don't you?"
John lifted his elbows and smelled his armpits, then made a sour-looking face. "Right. I'll do that tomorrow morning, I promise. But first, let's cook up that quail. I'm feeling a bit peckish."
Tim stepped into the hut, carrying a dead mouse in his teeth. Hearing John's loud snores, he dropped the mouse on the floor, jumped on the mattress, and started clawing John's chest with his front paws.
"Ouch! Shit! Stop that!" cried John, pushing the cat away. "Leave me where I am. I'm only sleeping."
Tim smacked John across the chin with his right paw. "Please listen! You don't know what you're missing! The world is at your command!"
"No, it's not," John grumbled. "I'm just a poor orphan, shacking up in a hovel by the riverside. Now go away and let me sleep."
"You need to bathe," Tim reminded him. "You promised yesterday that you would."
"Ah, yesterday," John sighed. "All my troubles seemed so far away…" A cloud passed in front of the sun, casting a shadow upon John through the broken window. He sprang upright and opened his eyes wide. "Hell, that's a catchy line, and it just came to me, like in a dream! Hand me my quill and parchment, would you? I want to write that down. Maybe I can work it into a song."
"You seriously want me to play fetch?" Tim replied. "Do I look like a dog to you?"
John leaned back against the wall and smiled apologetically. "No, silly, you're one-hundred-percent feline. Except for the funky clothes, of course. Hey, did you put some mirrored hobnails on your boots? They look shinier than usual."
"I polished them this morning before I went to the castle," Tim replied.
"You've been to the castle already?" John asked. "Why?"
"To invite the King and Princess to tea, of course."
John frowned. "What – you invited the royal family to come to this dirty hovel?"
"Of course not," Tim harrumphed. "I invited them to meet us at the ogre's chateau."
"But won't the ogre mind?" John challenged.
"I don't suppose so," Tim laughed. He jumped off the mattress, grabbed the dead mouse off the floor, and brought it to John.
"Bullocks, that's manky," John muttered. "What's that yellow matter custard dripping from its eye?"
"It's not custard, it's mustard," Tim answered. "Mean Mister Mustard, to be precise."
"What, are you trying to say…?" John asked hesitantly.
"Yes!" Tim exclaimed. "This dead rodent is the ogre."
Noticing the confused look on John's face, Tim dropped the mouse back on the floor, then returned to his master's side. "After I left the castle, I stopped by the chateau to visit our ill-tempered neighbor. I scared the shit out of the poor bugger when I walked into his parlor all dressed up like this and talking up a storm. Literally. It stank most foul. But then, after cursing my magic, he decided to show off his own magic powers, and turned himself into a lion. So I started dancing a highland fling, and challenged him to turn himself into something smaller so he could match my graceful footwork. So he turned himself into a mouse. And I killed the stupid wanker in seconds flat."
Tim purred and started butting his head against John's hand, begging for a pet.
John smiled and scratched between Tim's ears. "There's my good boy. Tricking that mean old man and executing him. You're so clever!"
"And you're so filthy," Tim replied. He grabbed John's nightshirt with his teeth and started pulling it.
"Alright, alright," John laughed. He stood up and yawned, then stretched his arms up high. "I'll wash, already. But I'm so tired. I might just crawl off and sleep in the bath, you know."
John threw off his nightshirt, then ran buck naked into the cool river that flowed beside his hut. He scrubbed the dirt off his skin with a piece of dried moss, then looked up at the sky and watched the sun break out from behind its cover of cloud.
"Here comes the sun king!" he cried out joyfully. Then he rolled onto his back and started stringing together a chorus of Spanish and Italian words, relishing the warmth of the rays on his naked skin: "Quando para mucho mi amore de felice corazón!"
So blissed out was the miller's youngest son, that he didn't hear the approach of the earthly king as the royal carriage made its way down the road by the hut.
"I say, good Sir Timótheus, is that you?" the king called out from his carriage.
"Indeed it is," replied Tim. He scurried up to the roadside. "And it's a good thing you stopped by, Your Majesty. I've just come upon the Marquis of Carabas, and discovered he was robbed of his clothes by miscreants as he was bathing in the river. Could you, perchance, lend him your coachman's fine cloak?"
"I can do better than that," the king replied. "I've brought along two sets of clothes, because I wasn't sure how casual the Marquis' tea party would be. He can borrow my extra garments."
"I'm sure he will be most grateful," Tim replied. "If you will allow me to take them to him, he can dress before your daughter sees…"
Before Tim could finish his sentence, Princess Prudence leapt from the carriage and ran to the river bank.
John stood up with his back to the princess and continued singing his merry song, extolling the lovely day. "The sun is up. The sky is blue. It's beautiful…"
"And so are you!" called back the princess.
John turned with a start to see her Serene Highness staring at him.
The princess covered her mouth to stifle her giggles, but kept her eyes wide open.
John gazed at her in wonder, awestruck by her beauty, and felt a stirring in his loins.
"Hey!" shouted King James Paul II from the carriage. He ran to his daughter's side and covered her eyes with his left hand while he held out his spare set of clothing with his right. His eyes fell squarely upon John's rising erection. "I said 'Hey!' You've got to hide your love away!"
"Sorry," John apologized. He cupped his hands over his genitals, then walked out of the river, shook himself dry, and put on the king's fine outfit.
"Thanks for the gear threads," John said appreciatively. "We wear the same size."
"Indeed," James Paul II agreed. After John had buttoned up his breeches, the king released his grip over his daughter's eyes.
Princess Prudence and John stared at each other for a good, long moment, then broke into smiles.
"Would you believe in a love at first sight?" he sang.
"Yes, I'm certain that it happens all the time," she replied giddily.
"That was a very catchy tune you were warbling in the water," the king interrupted. "What's it called?"
John gazed into the princess's eyes and blushed. "It's called, 'Dear Prudence'."
"Fancy that," the king replied. "My daughter's name is Prudence. What a coincidence!"
"Indeed," agreed Tim. "So, shall we ride onto the Marquis' chateau? I asked the cook to have a feast prepared by midday."
"A jolly good idea," the king agreed. "Follow me." He took his daughter's hand, and led the procession back to the carriage.
John picked up Tim and whispered in his ear. "Are you having me on? You told the ogre's cook to have a tea set for us this afternoon?"
"Indeed I did!" Tim replied. "After the ogre's staff watched me kill their master, they all swore their undying fealty to me. I made them promise they would say the chateau and all the land that surrounds it belongs to the Marquis of Carabas. Which is your new name, by the way. And the cook agreed to prepare a vegetarian feast that should rival any meal the king's own chef could make."
"Great," said John. He stroked Tim's ears as he continued walking towards the carriage. "But there's one thing I just don't get. What's in this for you?"
"A warm hearth to sleep upon in your new chateau," Tim replied. "As soon as we're done wooing this princess and presenting your concert for the king, I intend to curl up by the fireside and sleep for a month."
He opened his mouth wide, revealing his razor sharp teeth, and yawned. "I'm so tired. My mind is on the blink." Then he curled up against John's chest, purred loudly, and closed his eyes.
Based on the old European fairy tale "Puss in Boots," originally transcribed by Giovanni Francesco Straparola in his collection of stories entitled "Le piacevoli notti," published between 1550 and 1555.