The Cat, the King and the Ogre

 

Greg Gunther

 

 

Alain sat in the dirt by the side of the old road, petting Puss and holding back his tears. How could Raul have done this? The moment they had returned home from their father's funeral, by right of patrimony as oldest brother, the bastard had tossed him and Etienne out. Etienne got the donkey, but all Alain got was the cat.

Raul was so stupid. He could never run the mill alone. Now he would sell the mill and its land for half its worth and drink the rest away while his brothers starved. Oh, father, I am so ashamed. I hope you cannot see his sin from your grave.

He scanned his beloved Loire Valley countryside with its quilt of productive farms and distant green forests. Everyone said this was the most beautiful, most abundant place in all of France. Where would he go? What could he do? He picked up Puss and looked at the animal's furry brown face. "Shall I eat you, dear cat? Cook you for a single meal? But what then?" The sadness in his heart made the future hard to see. He closed his eyes and let himself weep.

Startled, he opened his to find he had been sleeping. Where was Puss? Looking around, he saw the strangest creature behind him, an upright cat, half the height of a grown man and dressed in the clothes of an adventurer. It had green striped pants tucked into high cuffed boots, a wide belt, and a white blouse under an orange vest. From its shoulders hung a brocaded red cape, and on its head, a wide brimmed hat with a puff of orange feathers at a rakish angle. A long brown tail like Puss's curled from behind. The face--the face was a cat's, and it was not. In a distant way, it resembled Puss', but its eyes were human and its wide mouth expressive.

"Puss?"

* * *

Garf had arrived behind Alain to hear him talking to his cat. Not a pleasant thought, to be eaten by a human. Puss would have to go, so Garf commanded his stunner to put the boy to sleep. Upon seeing Garf, the cat had jumped up and sped into the field.

A moment later, Alain awoke and saw Garf. "Puss?"

Garf's imbedded translator formed his reply. "Yes, Master, it is I, your loyal cat."

Alain shook his head. "What are you doing in clothes?"

"I have seen your circumstances and heard your discourse on having me for dinner. Do not thus afflict yourself, my good master. You have nothing else to do but to find me a bag from the mill that I may scamper through the dirt and brambles to catch a rabbit, and you shall see that you have not so bad a portion in me as you imagine."

Awestruck, the boy nodded.

Garf took a handful of coins from his pocket, silver écus bearing the image of three fleurs-de-lis. "Take these coins. Now that you have no home, you will need them to see you though."

Alain took a breath. "I have never seen so much." He studied Garf. "Am I dreaming?"

"Does it make any difference?"

"Perhaps it does not. Tell me, dear Puss, what magic brings you to look after me?"

Garf smiled up at the lad. "The ancient magic of the cat goddess Fortuna, the matagot. She has saved me from being your dinner, and you from destitution."

Alain blinked as he pocketed the coins. "Oh. I was just talking, and would not eat you. How is it that Fortuna has chosen me to aid?"

"I cannot say, Master."

Alain nodded. "Please do not leave, and I will return directly with a flour sack."

Garf regretted his lie. He would like to have said, "I am an ailuropoid Prout, an alien visitor to this planet six-hundred years in this world's future, traveling back in time to act out a fairy tale that will not be written for another hundred years." But the superstitious people of this day would call him a messenger of Satan. Being a matagot was safer.

When Alain returned, Garf laid the bag over his shoulder. "I thank you, Master, but before I attend to the rabbit, we must obtain for you a room in Thouars at the inn."

"The inn? I have never been beyond its door. I love Thouars. Thank you, Puss. I am lucky to be so blessed."

Garf could relate. Alain was like a good lad, and friends like him assuaged the loneliness that came with the life of an adventuring Prout. While walking, Garf advised Alain to not mention that his upright cat could talk. Let people believe he was dressed this way to entertain, as might a captive monkey.

* * *

Entering Thouars, they saw the viscount's castle on the opposite river bank. If all worked as planned, Alain would become a marquis, two ranks above a viscount. They saw busy humans walking between the one-and-two story brick buildings, pushing carts laden with goods, and avoiding the occasional mounted rider. Garf strove to look like a dumb house cat as people stared and pointed.

A full-bearded man came up. Like most men here, he word high leggings, a pair of short bloused breeches, and a doublet. "Is this yours?" he asked Alain.

"Yes, it is my cat."

The man shook his head. "What kind? I have never seen a cat on two legs like this. And so large."

"He is a special cat. I have taught him to stand erect and wear these clothes. Isn't he clever?"

Smiling, though not in a friendly way, the man moved closer to Alain. "Where are you going?"

Alain took a step back. "I am going to spend time with relatives."

"Who? Perhaps I know them."

"Perhaps you do, but I do not know you. Please excuse me, but I must go now." Alain circumvented the man and continued walking.

"Wait!" the man shouted, but Alain ignored him as Garf followed.

"Well done," Garf said in a low voice.

Alain smiled.

* * *

With the same self-possession as he had shown with the stranger, Alain arranged for a room at the inn, the Auberge Thouars. The mustached proprietor behind the desk told him that the cat would have to go in the barn, regardless of its size and appearance. Alain was about to argue when Garf touched his arm and nodded.

"What is this?" the proprietor asked. "He looks as though he understands."

"He's a very smart cat. Do you want to go to the barn, Puss?"

Garf nodded.

The proprietor shook his head. "I once had a dog that understood my speech."

"He is not a dog," Alain said.

* * *

Alone in the barn, Garf found a secluded corner behind a mound of hay and checked his time-field generator. Held against his chest by a strap around his body, it would be triggered when he used his feline muscles to ripple the skin on his back. That way, humans couldn't use it. He closed his eyes, pretended a lover was rubbing his back, and felt the muscles ripple.

* * *

Garf stood in the kitchen of his human-sized apartment in Manhattan where Grandma waited. Neither human nor Prout, Grandma was a standard apartment computer, thirty times smarter than the average New Yorker.

"Welcome home, Dear," she said in her elderly voice. "You're looking for a rabbit to take to King Henry, aren't you?"

"Yes, Grandma. Do you think he will be pleased?"

"He will be curious to see a talking cat, and will accept it on those grounds."

"You're always right, aren't you?" Garf said with more than a little irritation.

"Yes, Dear. You're always welcome to do the logistics yourself, you know."

"Never mind. I intend to capture the rabbit myself. Please program my coordinates to put me near Alain's rabbit warren."

"Yes, Dear."

* * *

The warren was a series of rabbit holes beneath a tangled clump of thorn bushes, the natural equivalent of barbed wire. The original Puss, a clever primitive hunter, had tricked rats and mice by hanging upside down in the grain room, or hiding himself in the meal and pretending he was dead. Garf was not interested in such tricks, but admired Puss for his talents.

At home in Prout, catching edible rodents in restaurant bins had been an enjoyable social practice before dinner. Here, the humans looked down on such evident barbarity. They wanted their meals prepared in complex ways to hide the once-living nature of the animals they consumed. Hypocrites.

Catching rodents in a bin was not the same as capturing natural rabbits, though he had no doubts he could grab one with his extendible claws if it came near. He had put bran and sow-thistle in the bag as bait, and was now supposed to lie still in the hopes a rabbit would take it. Ten minutes passed, and the rabbits didn't even come close. To the Dogs with that idea. Instead, he stood and activated his time-field generator.

* * *

"While you were away, I got you a dead rabbit, Dear," Grandma said.

"Thanks," Garf said, grumbling as he put it in the bag.

"I've also located King Henry II in his Chateau at Fontainebleau. I recommend that you drop into the room known as the Gallerie des Cerfs. It's a lovely place to see, and from there, make a left turn at the next hallway. At its end, you'll find the king's chambers. Before you arrive, the King will have been discussing the Huguenot problem with the Bishop."

"Huguenot?"

"The Huguenots were the original Protestant Christians. Henry II was a devout member of the Church, and persecuted the Huguenots without mercy, chopping them up and giving life sentences in the dungeons to anyone even suspected of being one. You need to know this."

"I guess I do. Thanks."

"You're welcome, Dear. The bishop will be gone when you arrive. Are you ready?"

Garf nodded and rippled his back muscles.

* * *

Holding his bag with Grandma's rabbit, Garf found himself in the Gallerie, a long, high-ceilinged room with gilded tapestried panels on the bottom half of the walls. On the upper halves were complex and ornate friezes having classic bas-relief statues, as well as paintings within molded-in-place frames. Quite beautiful.

A few minutes later, with rising excitement, he walked to the king's quarters. A guard in an impressive costume much like Garf's watched his approach and rested his hand on the hilt of his saber. "Who goes there?"

Garf glanced at the dangerous-looking saber and bowed. "Garf, a servant of the Marquis de Carabas. I have a gift for the king."

"He has not mentioned expecting you."

"The Marquis has sent his Highness a letter."

Looking perplexed, the guard opened the door a crack and spoke to a guard inside. After some conversation, he closed the door. "One moment."

Sometime later, the inner guard opened the door to reveal the king at his desk across the large room. Garf had never seen a king, but Henry, with his pointed brown beard and deep-set, heavily-lided eyes, looked the very essence of kingliness. He wore a red robe with a white fur collar, and instead of a crown, a bulbous black hat.

"This animal talks?" the Henry asked the outer guard.

Garf stepped forward. "I do, if I may answer, your Highness."

"Incredible. I would remember if the Marquis said he were sending a talking cat."

"The letter must have been delayed. I am here to present you with a fine rabbit I've caught for your dinner." He took it out of the bag by its ears.

The king laughed. "I've seen and heard many strange things, but never have I been given a rabbit by a talking cat."

The guards smiled.

"My master, the Marquis de Carabas, sends his compliments."

The king nodded to the guard who took the rabbit. "Carabas?" Henry asked. "Gouffier at Oiron? I thought he was an ogre."

Garf was shocked. In the Puss In Boots fairy tale, the king had never heard of the Marquis. Missing only half a beat, Garf replied, "The same, Sire. He is undergoing a transformation."

The king's brows lifted. "What kind of transformation?"

"Body and mind, Sire."

Henry frowned. "Impossible."

"No less possible than the talking cat before you. He would like to present himself when it has been completed. In the meantime, may I bring you a partridge next week?"

Henry smiled. "You are an entertaining creature. You must be magical."

Garf bowed with a sweep of his hat. "A matagot from the goddess Fortuna, Sire."

"Well then, bring me some more of your magic next week. If the rabbit carries poison, then we will be entertained by watching you fed to the dogs. Do you like dogs?" He snickered.

"Yes, Sire. Some of my best friends are dogs."

The king laughed. "Off with you then, Matagot. I'll be interested to see how this comes out."

Relieved, Garf bowed and backed out of the room. The doors closed and the guard accompanied him to the entrance of the huge and awe-inspiring chateau.

Garf stood in the courtyard, reconsidering. That the Marquis de Carabas was a real title and the king knew its owner changed everything. Henry was no gullible fool like the storybook's king, but a strong and dangerous man. Garf would just have to be that much cleverer.

* * *

Back in Thouars, Garf hired a tutor to give the boy a crash course in reading and the culture of royalty. During Garf's absence, the young man had made friends in Thouars, and in other ways revealed his affable nature. High social intelligence, as they would say six-hundred years from now. Excellent.

* * *

For his next visit to Fontainebleau, Garf dragged a heavy bag to the king's chambers. From it, he withdrew a twenty-kilo dead turkey, a bigger-than-king-sized partridge. Henry's face lit up and he chuckled. "No dogs for you this time, I pray?"

"No, Sire. With your permission, I shall return in another week."

"Do that, and come in the morning so I can taste your gift at lunch."

"Yes, Sire. Shall I have it cooked and brought warm for you? Our cook is very good."

"How will you keep it warm?"

"Fortuna's magic, Sire."

"Are you Catholic?"

Garf swallowed. "No, Sire. I am a cat. Were I a human, I would worship under the graces of the Church, but I serve in Fortuna's name."

"If you were human, I would suspect you, but since you are not, you may leave. Bring your cooked food if you like. We shall see how safe it is."

Again Garf bowed. "Your wish is my command."

Outside the door, he left directly for home, not caring that the guard was watching.

* * *

A week later in Manhattan, Grandma's house bot handed Garf a ceramic-metal tray with a built-in heater. On it rested an exquisitely cooked duck, glazed with orange sauce and surrounded by an artistic array of carrots, string beans, and parsley. Standard fare for the twenty-second century urban dweller, and more easily acquired than last week's feathered turkey. Modern science routinely created better tasting foods than could ever be found in King Henry's day.

* * *

Arriving at the door to the king's quarters with the food, Garf was surprised when the guard redirected him to the chef in the king's kitchen. The brick-walled room was loud with shouting cooks and hot from five large fireplaces. On a long table lay a freshly-killed full-grown pig being butchered. The sight of all that meat and blood made him salivate. The whole busy kitchen was a complex machine with humans doing everything.

The chef came, wiping his hands on his multi-spotted tunic. "I did not believe the rumors, but this cat does hold the food. Does it talk, too?"

"When the king pleases," Garf said.

The chef, a frowning man with a white cap, shook his head. "What a strange perversion of nature you must be."

Garf decided not to nick the man with his claws. "Demeaning the goddess Fortuna will bring you bad fortune."

"Bah." The chef grabbed Garf's tray and held it up to examine it. He touched the food, tasted his fingertip, and gasped. "My God! Where did you get this?"

Moving fast, Garf grabbed the platter and stepped back. "I can return it to its source if the king wishes."

"No, no. Forgive me. This is incredible. I did not understand your powers. What recipe did you use?"

"One whose ingredients you could not duplicate. Will you serve this to the king, or shall I take it back?"

The chef bowed. "I will see that he gets it."

"Serve it on its plate, or it will be ruined. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir. Completely."

Garf smiled. "Thank you. Tell the king I will be back next week."

The chef nodded and turned to shout his orders.

* * *

From Fontainebleau, Garf went to Thouars to drop in on his protégé, and explained what he had been doing these last three weeks.

Alain couldn't believe it. "The King? Henry?"

Garf assured him that it was so. "I intend you to be the Marquis de Carabas. If things work out."

The poor boy hyperventilated, and Garf had to hold his hands while he calmed down.

* * *

The following week at Fontainebleau, the guard ushered Garf directly in to meet the waiting king.

"What do you have for me this week, Matagot? I have been looking forward to it for days."

"A simple salmon in red wine sauce, Sire." He lifted off the lightweight cover, letting the aroma fill the room.

"Sit with me Matagot, and tell me how this was prepared. What magic keeps it warm?"

"It has a heart of passion to keep it warm, Sire." The king sat and as Garf took the chair opposite.

The king tasted the salmon and closed his eyes in delight. "Each week it gets better. When your master has completed his transformation, we will have to visit him and his cook."

Garf bowed his head. "He will be pleased." According to the history books, King Henry II did come with his entourage in 1552 to stay at the Marquis' magnificent Chateau Oiron. This was working out well. The boy would soon be its new Marquis.

"Better yet," the king said, "tell your master that I command his excellent chef to come to Fontainebleau."

Oops, Garf thought. "I am sure he will be delighted to accommodate your wish, but at this time, the chef is following magical orders, preparing foods necessary for my master's transformation. Were the process to be prematurely terminated, my master would die."

"Hmm." The king stroked his beard. "Then maybe we will keep you in the dungeon until my order is met."

Garf sighed. "A magical being cannot be contained, Sire. You will get your desire when the transformation is complete. I expect it within a month."

"Guards," the king said. "Seize this impudent creature. Let us see how magical he really is."

Two guards approached with drawn swords.

Garf was about to ripple his back when a dark-haired little girl appeared in the doorway along with her nursemaid in a long white dress.

"Papa," the little girl cried. "I have come to see you."

This must be Princess Elizabeth, Garf thought, the daughter of the queen, Catherine de Medici. The guard behind Garf grabbed him roughly by the arms and held him in the air.

"Elizabeth," the king said, "this is not the time for you to be here."

"Is that for me?" she said in a happy voice. "What a pretty cat. I want him."

"You may not have him. He is a dangerous matagot."

"Meow?" Garf said sweetly.

Elizabeth started crying, wailing, "I want him, I want him."

"Elizabeth! Stop that. I am the king and I order you to stop crying."

"I want him, I want him," she cried at twice the pitch.

Henry put his hands over his ears. "Guard! Take him out and give him to the child. If he hurts her, it will be on your head."

The guard paled and bowed. "Yes, your Highness."

They stepped out into the hallway, and immediately the child stopped crying. "Give him to me."

The guard whispered to Garf, "You heard what the king said. If it's my head, it's yours, too."

Garf nodded with vigor. "Meow!"

Elizabeth took Garf's hand. "We are going to play now."

Garf smiled. "Meow, meow."

It was fun, playing with the girl in her sumptuous bedroom and talking in meows. He drank tea, let her brush his face, and complied when she placed him in postures. An hour later Elizabeth grew tired and the nursemaid took her to nap on the bed while the guard sat dozing.

Garf stood. "I'm leaving now. If Elizabeth wants to see me, she must go with her father in person and seek me near Thouars. If he sends only soldiers, I will not be there."

The woman paled. "You talk?"

The guard jumped up and moved toward Garf.

"See that she tells her father." Garf blew a kiss to Elizabeth and rippled his back.

* * *

Returning home, Garf used the time scope to discover that two days after he had left France, Henry had issued orders to prepare soldiers and guests for a ride to the Loire Valley. The queen did not want Elizabeth to go, but the king insisted.

Garf was jubilant. He had successfully tricked the king into making the journey.

Now for the next step. To help the king along his way, Garf returned to France to appear among peasants in the fields near the road, telling them that the king was coming. If the kings' men asked, the peasants were to say that a mysterious talking cat would be at the Thouet river crossing nearest to Thouars.

Most of these peasants had never seen the king, but if a talking cat said he was on the way, he might be. So they stayed near the road and listened for the hoof beats of the king's caravan. As expected, the kings' guards stopped to ask, and thus informed, the king proceeded directly to where Garf would wait.

* * *

Meanwhile, Garf found Alain at the Thouars marketplace, and took him to the Thouet bridge. "If you will follow my advice, your fortune is made. You have nothing else to do but go and wash yourself in the river, in that part I shall show you, and leave the rest to me."

As the young man complied, Garf secretly hid Alain's clothes beneath a bush.

When the king's convoy appeared down the road, Garf shouted, "Help! Help! My Lord Marquis de Carabas is going to be drowned."

Instead of running to help the boy, the squad of mounted guards shouted, "There he is! Seize him!" and surrounded Garf.

The captain spoke from his horse. "You are ordered to appear before the king."

"Yes, yes, but first, my master is drowning and you must save him. Help him!" Garf pointed to the shivering boy who ducked under to give an unconvincing show of drowning. It helped that he came up coughing.

"Hmm," the captain said. He told his soldiers to dismount and restrain the cat while two more went to get the boy.

"You don't need to hold me," Garf said as the soldiers lifted him off the ground. "I will go peacefully."

The mounted captain drew his saber and hit Garf on the head with the flat.

It hurt. Garf told his stunner to put the captain and the two guards holding him to sleep. The men on foot let go and fell awkwardly to the ground as the captain fell from his horse to lie in a heap. Garf landed on his feet and started walking. "No one need hold me unless they wish the same reward."

The guards looked at each other and urged their horses to follow as Garf proceeded toward the king's carriage. He glanced back to see other guards bringing the naked boy along. At the king's ornate carriage, the one drawn by four white horses with feathered plumes and gold manes, Elizabeth shouted from the window, "Monsieur Matagot, come here right now."

The nursemaid pulled her back inside and the king looked down. "You have caused me too much trouble, Matagot."

"I am sorry, Sire. I believe your men are bringing you the transformed Marquis de Carabas"

King Henry looked down the road. "That naked child is the Marquis? Nonsense. This is substitution, not transformation."

Elizabeth tried to see, but the king pushed her back.

"If the King pleases," Garf said, "the Marquis could use some suitable clothing."

Elizabeth started crying. "I want to see. I want to see."

Henry's face reddened. "Guards. Get that boy some of my clothes and bring him here." He scowled down at Garf. "Come into the coach."

"Soon, Sire. Give the Marquis a chance, Sire, while I go to the Chateau Oiron and prepare for your arrival."

"You will do no such thing, Cat. I have come all this way to find you for Elizabeth, and you shall immediately come into the carriage and ride with her."

The king was right. There was yet time to see the ogre. Garf obeyed and sat across from Elizabeth, who giggled in pleasure. "Monsieur Cat, do you talk as well as meow?"

"Meow. I do."

Elizabeth bounced up and down and clapped her hands. "Sing to me."

Garf sang a Prout folk song, a mournful, yowling tune.

"Stop!" the king said, holding his ears once more. "Nursemaid, take my daughter and her possession to a different coach, and inform the guards that the cat is to remain with the princess."

"Yes, My Lord."

As Garf got out with the nursemaid and Elizabeth, Alain came up wearing proper clothes: fine shoes, leggings, bloused pants, and a fur-collared jacket.

"Who are you?" the king asked.

"I am the ogre's nephew. The ogre is ill and prepares me to replace him."

Good boy, Garf thought.

"Papa," Elizabeth said. "Make him come with me. Please?"

"Go," Henry said, pointing the way for Alain and looking relieved.

* * *

Elizabeth was very pleased to have a talking cat and a dashing marquis doting over her. When it came time for Garf to say goodbye, Elizabeth was having so much fun with Alain that she hardly noticed his departure.

* * *

In his Manhattan apartment, Garf was troubled that in the Puss In Boots fairy tale, the boy married the princess. According to history, Elizabeth de Valois married King Phillip II of Spain in 1559. Henry would never choose a mere Marquis to marry his daughter. Well, Garf would address that question later.

Now, he used the time scope to locate the ogre, the real Marquis de Carabas. It showed him sitting in his throne room at Oiron. What an imposing human. Two-and-a-half meters tall, bulky and distorted, he must have weighed well over 150 kilos. Large hands, large feet, and a bulging belly. His nose was grotesquely large, and his face scarred from acne. He sat alone on his gold throne on its raised platform, appearing majestic in his red and gold tunic and pants. The Marquis did not look happy.

"The ogre suffers from the human disease of acromegaly," Grandma said. "A pituitary problem that creates runaway growth hormones."

"Well then, I should put him out of his misery."

"Be careful," Grandma said.

Garf sighed. "You're such a grandmother. You would have better been programmed by Prouts, not humans. We understand the importance of adventure and mastery."

"Listen to me, child. I'm telling you that your ogre is a dangerous man."

"Which is precisely why I'm going to face him. Goodbye, Grandma."

* * *

Garf appeared at Oiron a few meters in front of the Marquis-ogre who gave a shout and stood. "Who--what are you?"

"I am a matagot."

The Marquis stepped down from the platform and came closer. "You are a matagot? You are mythical."

Garf bowed to the man towering before him. "And you are not a mythical ogre?"

"No, I am more. How did you appear and why are you here?"

"I appeared through matagot magic, and I am here to discover if what I have heard about you is true."

The large man bent over to see Garf more clearly. "And what have you heard?"

"I have been assured that you have the gift of being able to change yourself into all sorts of creatures you have a mind to. You can, for example, transform yourself into a lion, or elephant, and the like."

"That is true," the Marquis answered briskly, "and to convince you, you shall now see me become a lion." Walking to the bookcase, he took down a box from which he removed a black object the size of his hand. "Watch carefully," he said, and threw the object to the ground in front of him. It exploded, startling Garf, and enveloping the ogre in a cloud of black smoke whose acrid odor made Garf cough. When the coughing ended and the smoke cleared, there stood a huge lion on all fours. It tilted his head and roared so loudly, it frightened Garf beyond reason.

He let out a yowl and leaped for the open window. Overshooting, he landed on the outside roof tiles where his boots slipped. Fortunately, his extended claws caught the window sill and halted his descent. Returning to the window, he saw the ogre laughing heartily.

"I meant to do that," Garf said. Regaining his poise, he jumped down. "That was a fine display, Monsieur Ogre. I have also been informed, but I don't know how to believe it, that you have also the power to take on you the shape of the smallest animals; for example to change yourself into a rat or mouse; but I must own to you I take this to be impossible."

"Impossible?" the Marquis said. "You shall see presently." He took another black ball from the bookcase, and this time, walked to the center of the floor where he threw it down. Again, he again disappeared behind a veil of stinky black smoke. There was a clattering, and when it stopped and the smoke had cleared, there on the floor was a fist-sized rat, sniffing left and right.

Garf leaped on it, grabbed it in both claws, and bit it as one mouthful.

With a huge shout of pain, the ogre erupted upward through flying floor panels. Though flung about, Garf held on until a punch to his nose knocked him off. As he fell, the ogre kicked, a glancing blow that caught the time-field generator on his chest and ripped it off along with part of his shirt. Garf tumbled heels over head to slam against the wall. Instantly, the ogre threw his full weight upon him, knocking him unconscious.

* * *

Garf awoke to the pain of what must have been broken ribs, each breath pinching his chest. Opening his eyes, he saw the ogre in his throne, frowning down at him. The ogre's right hand was wound with a white rag soaked in blood. Garf rippled his back muscles, but nothing happened.

"Before I kill you," the ogre said, "I want to know who you are and why you're here."

When Garf went to move his hands, he found them bound before him. He mentally searched for the stunner, but it did not respond. He tried to sit up, but the pain was excruciating, and he lay back down, panting.

"You will answer me."

"I'd rather go to my death without telling you--" Each word hurt.

The ogre stood and drew his saber.

"--but I will bargain with you." Garf said.

The ogre walked over with a self-satisfied smile. "You are in no position to bargain, Cat."

"Hear me out. I am a traveler from the distant future. That device you knocked from my chest--where is it? It allows me to travel though time."

"Through time, you say?" From his pocket, the ogre pulled a black curved device with two broken straps hanging. "With this tiny thing?"

"Yes."

The ogre returned to his chair. "A marvelous story. How is it you attempt to bargain?"

"In the future where I come from, all ills are curable. The cause of the disease from which you suffer is known. Doctors there can heal my ribs and your hand, but more, they can repair the rest of you and return you to the handsome man you should have been."

With an angry scowl and gritted teeth, the ogre came to Garf, dropped the time-field generator on his chest, and stomped it down with his huge boot.

Garf screamed.

* * *

Back in his apartment and partly conscious, Garf felt feeling his insides flattened and saw the ogre run from the living room.

"Oh, my poor baby," Grandma said. "Help is on the way."

I'm dying, he thought as awareness faded.

* * *

Garf took a breath and opened his eyes to see the inside of a hospital room.

"Welcome back," the room said.

"Did I die?"

"You were repaired before tissue necrosis took hold."

Necrosis. What an ugly word. Tentatively, he sat up. Nothing hurt, which made him start to cry.

"I know," the room said. "It's tough to die and find yourself alive again."

"How would you know? You're a computer."

"Would you like a psychiatrist to visit?"

Garf sniffed. "No, thanks. How long have I been unconscious?"

"Overnight. Your clothes are in the closet. You can leave anytime you're ready."

"What about the ogre? Where is he?"

"In restraints. Would you like to see him?"

Would I? He felt a strange curiosity. "I believe so."

"I'll direct you when you're ready."

* * *

Garf found the Marquis in a chair in a prison ward, looking out the window at the Greater-Manhattan skyline. He wore the same royal clothes, but freshly cleaned. On his head sat a neuro-restraint, a boxy device with three titanium fingers clamping his skull.

Garf stood beside the man. "Are you well?"

"My hand is well." The ogre did not look at him.

"You wanted me dead. You got your wish."

The ogre turned.

Gotcha, Garf thought.

"You talk nonsense," the huge man said.

"You killed me and they brought me back. Healed me in one day. I told you, but you didn't believe me."

The big man's face reddened. "What do you intend to do?"

Garf extended his claws for the ogre to see, and then let them retract. "I want to know why you stomped me."

"Why should I tell my enemy anything? Go ahead, since I am unable to move away, slice me and see if your magic hospital will heal me again."

"I won't." Garf sighed. "You won, you know. In my excitement, I let my instincts take over, attacking you as I would a real rodent."

The ogre smiled. "I fooled you well, did I not?"

"Briefly, as you did in the role of lion. I knew it had to be you, and planned to attack you when you came out wounded."

"But it didn't work, did it? I was too fast for even a cat like you." The ogre smiled.

"Yes, you were. Are you sorry?"

"Sorry?" The ogre looked incredulous. "For what?"

"For your mistake. For dropping the time-field generator on my chest before you stepped on it. With your foot and my body touching it, we both were sent through time."

"Was that it? That flattened raven's beak that brought me here?"

"Yes, and saved my life."

The ogre shook his head and turned his chair to face the standing Prout. "So here we are, wherever here is. Is this your home?"

"My home city, yes." Garf looked out the window. "The city of wonders. Now you know I was speaking the truth when I said I could cure your disorder."

"My disorder?" His face turned dark red. "How dare you accuse me of a being a disorder. I would stomp you again right now, were it not for this thing on my head."

"Was that my insult? My offer to heal you?"

The ogre turned to face the window and did not answer.

"Wow. It was my sincere wish to help."

"Sincere? A man pleading for his life can only deal in lies."

"A cat, not a man."

The ogre nodded. "A cat, then."

Garf sighed and pulled up a chair. "You're wrong about the lies, but right in your suspicions. I had planned to install my young man in your place."

The ogre turned his chair once more to face Garf. "Tell me about this plot to replace me."

"It will take a while. There's a lot to tell."

The ogre made a half smile. "I do not have other appointments."

"I do you a disservice to call you an ogre. I'm Garf. May I call you Claude?"

The man considered the question. "Since you are in command now, it is your choice. I care not whether you identify me as Ogre, Marquis, or Claude."

"Okay. Let's start with the fact that we are now in a land you know of as America, in the twenty-second century."

The man stared blank-eyed at Garf. A moment later, his eyes focused. "I had thought the world would end before now."

"It almost has, several times, but we've pulled through. In this land of mine, everyone is wealthy enough to have whatever they want, except other people."

The ogre put up his hand. "A moment--do you mean what you say? No ownership?"

"Yes. Full freedom to choose, no coercive relationships, not even between lovers."

Claude shook his head. "It sounds impossible."

"It's complicated, but doable."

Claude grunted. "I will accept your word. Continue."

"Being a Prout, I cannot live without adventure, so I travel through time to find worthy challenges."

"To take people for your own?"

"No, far from it." Garf smiled. "I find satisfaction in clever trickery, such as making King Henry II do my bidding."

The Marquis frowned in disbelief. "Henry? Are you mad?"

"Not mad at all. In fact, I did well before meeting you."

"I must hear this," he said with an edge of admiration.

Garf smiled and began the story.

* * *

Two hours later, Garf came to the point of his arrival at Oiron. "You see, Claude, as you have no heirs, your death would allow my boy to replace you."

"I can understand your removing me--nobles are never safe--but to repair me? To oblige yourself to repair another man without his agreement is the ultimate in arrogance. You have everything you want here in America, but not possession of other people--yet you presume to decide without consultation that which is best for me. Where is your sense of honor?"

Garf glanced down. "You're right. But did that justify your attack when I was helpless? Did that justify your killing me? Taking my life is a greater sin than my taking your honor."

Now it was Claude who looked away. "A Marquis need not excuse his actions but to the king, however I will not dismiss your claim." He sat holding his chin. "Would you like to hear my story?"

Garf nodded. "I would."

"When I first rose to the position of Marquis at age twenty-one, I was asked by the wife of a peasant to issue a judgment against her husband for murdering their baby. In examining the evidence, I discovered first that she had ran away with a traveling barber. In her own defense, she stated the cause was her husband's frequent beatings and her fear of his turning his rage against the child. Following her departure, the husband caught up with her, beat her senseless, and killed the child."

Garf tasted disgust. "Horrible."

"Do you not know French law? A woman and her children are her husband's property, to do with as he will."

"I know it, but I despise it."

"I am not surprised. I sentenced the man to a year in prison and her to death by hanging. As she stood with the noose around her neck, I asked if she had anything to say. She told me in an even voice that the law was wrong, that no person should own another for the sake of abuse. She said there was no virtue in killing a woman for escaping an evil man."

Garf nodded. "The laws here are in agreement, and more."

"I do not doubt your word. From then on, the vision of that woman's face below the gallows and her brave words haunted me ceaselessly. To escape my dreams, I let it be known that on my lands, no man would own his women or children such that he could beat or murder them."

"I'm impressed. What came of that?"

The ogre examined his memories. "The chaos I feared did not come about. While my peers derided me and I lost some families, those who stayed told of their appreciation. Moreover, the productivity of my fields grew, and my wealth increased beyond expectations."

"Excellent. You broke the hypocritical code of behavior for the sake of human respect. I'm proud of you."

"Thank you. Will you remove this thing from my head?" As the Marquis said those words, the titanium fingers opened like a lotus. He examined the neuro-restraint device and placed it on the window sill. "Like this entire place, this device is mysterious. Was all I needed to remove it was to ask?"

"No. The hospital has been listening and evaluating. It now trusts you as I do."

"The room listens?" He shook his head. "It dishonors our privacy."

"Maybe so, but the hospital is not like us. It has strict and impartial standards for fairness." Garf stood. "I understand how my offer of repair violated your values, unintentional though it was, and I'm sorry for insulting you."

Claude stood tall and smiled down. "You are an admirable man--cat, Garf. Can we leave this place and see the sun?"

"Certainly." Garf led Claude to the elevator and told it his destination. At the bottom floor, he led Claude outside to the building's atrium, a large square grassy area bordered in concrete walks and flower beds. They sat together on a stone bench.

Claude looked around. "This place is an abuse of nature. Where is the meadow. Where is the forest?"

"Not here, nor many places at all, I'm afraid. They have given way to buildings."

Claude shook his head. "I wish to return to my home."

"I sympathize, and will send you there."

"I would be grateful. May I apologize for killing you?"

Garf laughed. "To be sure. My remaining problem is what to do about Alain."

The man who was once considered an ogre pondered the question. "By now, your boy is either the Marquis de Carabas, living at Oiron with Henry's blessings, or repenting in one of Henry's dungeons. Henry will not let your absence from Elizabeth go unnoticed."

"You misunderstand how time travel works, Claude. Those events may have happened, but we can go back to one of many worlds to pick up the thread of our actions and resolve them to our pleasure."

Claude shook his head. "Every moment with you is another surprise." He smiled. "I have a proposal for you. Bring the boy here and let him see the wonders of this place. Should the boy wish to return to France, I will invite him to join me at Oiron where I will raise him and tutor him in all the arts he must learn. Perhaps you would then entertain considering an adventure of my creation?" His big eyes twinkled.

"What kind of adventure?"

Claude put a large hand on Garf's back. "Since you have done so well with Henry, you can ply your tricks in the Spanish court to install the boy as Philip II, who, as you have pointed out, will become the king of Spain. Did you not tell me that Elizabeth de Valois will marry that king in nine years?"

Garf laughed. "What a great plan. I get a good challenge and the boy gets the princess. In return, may I repair those parts of your body that pain you?"

Claude looked up at the blue sky. "My nose, too?"

"Your nose, your stomach, your eyesight that I know wavers, and the pock-marks on your face. Your teeth, as well, to make them all match as nature intended. Whatever you and the doctors should agree upon."

Claude nodded.

"Moreover, I know that in two years, Henry and his entourage will have come to stay with the Marquis de Carabas at Oiron for a summer. I will teach your cook the secrets of scientific cookery that will make France known the world over for the quality of its food."

"You offer too much, Cat. To repay such a debt would require a lifetime."

Garf looked away, feeling a vulnerability that frightened him. "Not really. I have my own wishes, too."

"What is it, little friend? Do you want me to say I'm glad we have grown to know each other?"

Garf nodded.

"Do you want me to say that in this incredible world, we are kindred spirits?"

Garf nodded again.

The big man turned and Garf felt himself being lifted into a embrace.

"Thank you," Garf whispered.

 

 

  Rate This Story on BitBooks.com

 

 

 


Author Bio

Greg Gunther is an administrator for The Internet Writing Workshop where writers submit and critique each other's works. See: http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org.

Read another story by Greg:
For the Love of a Dog

 

 


 

 

"The Cat, the King and the Ogre" Copyright © 2005 Greg Gunther. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 04-27-05.

border by
S S Studio