(c) 1999 T. Susman
"Marcel," he said urgently, "they are at the gate."
I turned immediately from the window, leaving a damp spot where my nose had been pressed, and padded across the dusty floor to my lord’s side. The bedroom was in a sad state. What decorations were left on the walls were covered with a fine layer of dust, one week’s neglect enough to take the shine and sparkle out of them. By the huge window, the desk stood bare. All the scrolls and books were gone with the more valuable decorations. The bed was rumpled despite my attempts to straighten the sheets.
If the state of the bedroom was depressing, the view from the window was even more so. Where once the town had bustled with activity all around the castle, it now stood dark and still below. The buildings that had once flickered with a thousand lights were dark; the only lights now visible were the campfires of the besieging army. Our army was scattered, the moat had been bridged, and the magic my lord had served so faithfully had abandoned him. Not suddenly, like the soldiers or the citizens, but subtly, insidiously, over the years. Now he could sense the invaders at the gate. A year ago he might have kept them out. Five years ago he could have destroyed them.
For a long time, I think I was the only one who knew for sure that he was losing his strength. He told everyone that he was deeply occupied in searching for a powerful amulet, but I never saw him do anything of the sort. I asked him once if he was sick. He smiled at me and shook his head, and told me not to worry, that it was only his age catching up to him. I didn’t believe him, but it was not my place to question. I thought that maybe he was fighting a magical war that was not for my eyes or ears. If so, it had been going on for a long time—nearly five years since I’d first noticed something was wrong, and probably for some time before that. And yet, until recently, he had kept the country running smoothly, and he looked like the same fearsome warlock he’d always been.
Now, though, his plight was apparent. His raven-black hair was unkempt; the silver circlet that usually restrained it lay on the floor, unimportant now. Lines softened the familiar contours of the face that had once been respected, feared, and worshipped throughout the land. Even his deep brown eyes seemed faded and tired. Six months before, when the country had celebrated his forty-ninth year, he had not looked a day past thirty. Now he looked every year of his forty-nine, and more.
Seven times seven was supposed to be a lucky birthday, but the celebration had been the beginning of the end. It was his first public appearance in months, and the rumors that his powers were declining had been spreading. At the midnight feast, after the rest of the day had gone so well, a group of drunken citizens taunted his guards and threw fruit at them. It was a direct affront to his power, and he could not meet it. Where once he would have disposed of them with a flick of his wrist, he could do no more than have them arrested and fed to the dragons. One month later, the border guards began deserting, and the invasion began.
When I reached his side, he put a hand on my shoulder and looked down at me. "My black cat," he said softly.
I tried to keep my ears from laying back in dismay as my green eyes met his tired gaze. "Yes, my lord?"
"I want you to leave."
I shook my head.
"Marcel, if they find you here with me, they will kill you. If you are found elsewhere, if they don’t know…they may spare your life."
Again, I shook my head.
"You silly cat," he hissed. "I order you to leave!"
At that, I just smiled and kissed his hand. The anger washed out of his face; he looked startled for a moment and then he smiled back, remembering. I met his gaze and remembered with him:
None of us slaves knew what happened when one was summoned to the Master’s chambers—except that you were never seen again. Only one had ever returned, a human, and his eyes and tongue had been burned out by magic.
I stood exactly five feet at the time, tall for a tomcat of sixteen, but he had towered over me as he did over most humans. I had never seen him before the day I was summoned, so I was surprised to find that fire did not literally burn in his eyes, as some of the slaves had said. He looked me up and down, nodded, and then said, "Come."
His chambers—oh, his chambers! Jewels glittered wherever I looked, and the floor was plush with carpeting under my tired paws. An alcove larger than my chambers held a desk and a pile of scrolls, upon which the moon shone through a window of crystal, fragmented into designs I would come to know well but never understand. Tapestries lined the walls, and shelves held mysterious and beautiful objects, but the most beautiful and mysterious of all was the man who stood next to the bed. The Master’s face was young and handsome, his body lean and fit, and the robe that showed off his frame was swirled with bewitching patterns and designs. Yet the beauty of his face was also hard and terrible. His mouth was set in a cruel sneer, and his eyes were dark and foreboding. He beckoned me to the bed, but I was frozen, trembling, with my ears back and tail between my legs and fur standing on end.
I barely even saw his hand gesture; or it is possible that I didn’t see it at all, and that I am simply placing it in the memory because I know it so well now. He can move things around quite easily, and with that gesture, it was as if a great wind had picked me up and deposited me neatly on the bed. I landed on all fours—yes, like our little cousins, we retain some measure of agility. I felt his hand land on the small of my back and gather up the fabric of my robe. The knot in the sash slipped loose and the robe came off in his hand like the skin of a snake. I heard a rustle as he removed his robe, too.
That night was my first experience of intimacy. He was rough, and I believe I was bleeding before it was over. When he’d spent his seed in me, he slipped his robe back on and flipped me over on my back. My heart was still pounding in fear, and I didn’t think I could move. He walked around to the side of the bed, and then I saw that there was a dagger in his hand, a glittering obsidian thing. Its point came to rest in the center of my chest, hard black in my soft black fur.
"Now, beg me to spare your life," he said.
Oddly, I felt more relaxed, I think because this was it. A little painful sex, and then a quick death. Better than dying of asphyxiation in the mines. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
The point pressed harder, drawing blood. "I order you to beg me!"
I opened my mouth to obey, but I looked up at his face before I did, and stopped in surprise. He didn’t look thrilled, or eager, or satisfied; he looked bored. It struck me all of a sudden that he must do this every time, with every slave, and that maybe he’d enjoyed it once, but now it was just a ritual, like we slaves waking up at the same time every morning. We had jobs to do, though; he didn’t have any orders to obey or a master to blame for his boredom. I thought, ‘I’m going to die, but I never thought I’d have anything more. He has the whole country, and yet he has nothing.’ I felt overwhelmingly sorry for him. On impulse, I lifted my head and softly kissed the hand that held the dagger, then lay back and closed my eyes, waiting for death.
For the span of several heartbeats, the dagger rested on my chest, then it lifted and I heard a soft thump as it hit the floor. I let several more heartbeats pass before I opened my eyes. I was alone.
The door to the outside, when I tried it, was locked. I curled up on the floor to wait for his return, intending to stay awake. Fatigue finally got the better of me as the sun brightened the room, and I fell asleep.
I woke to a kick. "Get up."
It was night again, I noticed as I clambered up onto the bed. Once again, he took me, and it was less painful, perhaps because I was getting used to it, or perhaps he was gentler. Again, he flipped me over and ordered me to beg for my life, at daggerpoint, but this time, his eyes were uncertain. As I had the previous night, I kissed his hand, and this time I watched him drop the dagger to the floor and fade into the shadows.
The following night, he stayed.
He returned from the memory quickly, still smiling. "I should know better than to order you, Marcel. Well, then, I can change your appearance. I have that much magic left. You could lose yourself among the slaves."
I shook my head and put my arms around him. "My lord, I will not leave your side. Can you not change your own appearance?"
"I could, but Mith would not be fooled. He can’t work magic within these walls until he reconsecrates the shrine, but that takes only a few hours, and it will be the first thing he does if he can’t find me."
His finger rested on my lips. "Shh. I have searched for a way, believe me. Mith may be less powerful than I was, but he is not stupid. He has drawn his net tightly around me." He sighed and drew me close to him. "Marcel, I wish there could be another ending for us."
I rested my head against his shoulder. "I am content with this ending," I said softly. "Do you remember what I said to you when the roses died?"
The roses were blooming in the early summer, and we were walking through them. He had never understood my fascination with flowers, but for my sake he had lined the walls of the castle with roses after our fifth year together. Now, three years after that, they were dying and only a few remained. The soil or the air or the water was not quite right.
"I can make them live again," he said to me on that day.
"As you wish, my lord," I said, "but I am content to have seen their blooms, and to let them fade to a well-deserved rest."
"Their passing does not sadden you?"
"No, lord. They go to where they are meant to be."
We walked in silence for a bit longer, and then he said. "I wish I knew where I was meant to be." We stopped and looked out at the expanse of the town beneath us. I thought it an odd thing to say, for where else would he belong but here? He didn’t dwell on the thought. "Where are you meant to be, Marcel?"
I squeezed his hand in my paw. "With you, my lord."
He smiled at me, one of those smiles without even a trace of malice. I was the only living creature privileged to see that expression, and it made me feel gloriously warm inside.
"You know it can’t last forever," he said.
"Nothing does," I said. "But however it ends, I will be content to have lived through its blossoming."
"You know," he said quietly, "I begin to see what you see in these flowers."
"How could I forget?" His lips brushed one of my ears.
I purred softly and rested against him. We stood like that for several minutes, in a quiet rapport. He had once told me that nobody said as much to him in words as I did with a touch. I knew that nobody else was as close to him as I was. Most only knew Lord Aladar, the ruler of the most prosperous land in the known world. They respected him because he kept invaders from their lands, because he kept order within their lands, and because no one ever went hungry while he sat on the throne. He encouraged learning, but forbade the study of magic; he wanted no rivals. There had been no other magicians in the country for as long as I could remember. Twice a year, he showed off his magic to amuse and entertain the entire town and a good portion of the country at festivals. Wine and nectar flowed freely; musicians played all through the night, and the feast table was never empty. One glorious year, the year we took the walk among the dying roses, the feast table completely encircled the castle. Torches and dragonfire lit the night, and I am told the glow could be seen from fifty miles hence. It was such a sight as had never been seen before, and likely never shall again. For from that time on, the feast table and his magic display grew smaller every year, and there had not been a festival at all the last two years.
His magic was not always festive, of course. It was also the intimidating force that kept order in the land, and the reason that the people feared him. His temper was short and his hand was swift and powerful. Dragons that had skulked in caves now sat brazenly at the castle gates as his servants. Among the slaves, I heard it whispered that those who served in the army had lost their will and were no more than puppets, though I didn’t know whether that was true. They did desert as his power declined, but they might simply have lost confidence in him. It was true that he was swift to kill. I had seen him kill hundreds of men and cats over the years, sometimes for as trivial an offense as dropping a tray of food (though that was only in the first few years I was with him).
However fearful he was to others, he never touched me in anger or hatred. After the first week, he never even touched me roughly. The first time he tried to pleasure me with his hand, he stopped and admitted he didn’t know what I would like—and then his eyes flashed fire, as if daring me to laugh at him or take advantage of his moment of weakness. Over the following weeks, he came to realize I would never do either. He opened up to me like a rose, and I found myself opening up to him as well, as my awe and fear gave way to trust. Our talks helped me reconcile the gentle man I knew with the dark warlock who ruled his people with black magic and terror. I know he did terrible things, but he never did them to me, not in all the fifteen years I was at his side.
When his grip on me tightened, I knew our time was short. We stood together beside the bed, holding each other and watching the door to the bedroom; locked, for all the good that would do. A few moments later, I heard noises in the corridor, then in the room outside, and then the door was tried. Muffled words sounded outside, then a dull impact against the door. After another, the wood splintered, and the door swung slowly open.
A short, stocky shape peered around the door, then pushed it further open. "He’s here!" the dwarf yelled in a deep, booming voice. Another followed him into the room. Both held oversized arbalests, armed with quarrels whose tips glinted dully with rare iron, magic-resistant. Behind the dwarves, a tall human stepped into the room. His robes were as white as my lord’s were black, and his hair was a bright red. His eyes glittered green in the light from the window.
"So, Aladar," he said. His voice was restrained, but I could sense the glee behind it, and it set my ears back.
"Mith," my lord said evenly.
They looked at each other for several tense, quiet seconds. Then Mith shrugged. "I suppose there is not much to say. Well—"
"Do what you will with me." My lord’s baritone overwhelmed Mith’s lighter voice. "Spare this one. He is harmless and has done no wrong." He rested a hand between my ears.
"Lord," I protested, but he silenced me.
"Oh, we have no intention of harming him." Mith laughed, a cruel laugh for a white magician, I thought. "He may be a black cat, but he’s been uncommonly lucky—at least, for me."
"I’ve done nothing for you," I spat at him, before my lord’s hand brushed my mouth again.
Mith seemed amused at my outburst. "Oh, you haven’t told him, have you, Aladar?" My lord glowered at him. "My feline friend, it is thanks to you that I am here today."
"Me? How?" I felt a creeping fear slide over me. What had I done? Surely my lord would have told me if I were doing something to hurt him. My tail thrashed and my heart beat faster, fearful for the first time in years—not of what he might do to me, but because of what I might have done. I looked up at my lord’s face. It was regal, beautiful, and terrible, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was glaring at Mith, and I knew that if he had a tenth of his power back, the wizard-king would have been reduced to a rattling skeleton.
"It’s not true, Marcel. He’s just trying to hurt you." He spoke roughly and with conviction, but one does not live with a man for fifteen years without knowing when he is lying.
"Oh, tell the truth for once, Blackheart," Mith said.
I didn’t want to know, but I had to. My claws flexed automatically, snagging his robe and then retracting. My eyes, wide and questioning, met his, and I mewed softly.
His composure cracked, and he looked down. "The Black Arts…require a dedication of the spirit. A singular focus." I frowned, not understanding, though tears were coming to my eyes. "Marcel," he said in a whisper, "they have no room for love."
That word had never passed between us, though the emotion had been there for years and years. The tears came in a rush as understanding dawned; they ran down my fur and tickled my whiskers. "You mean…?"
"Yes. The more I grew to care for you, the more they grew…inaccessible to me."
I pressed my head into his black silk robe. "Why didn’t you tell me? Send me away?"
His hand cradled the back of my head. "If I’d told you, you would have left, wouldn’t you?" I paused, then nodded. "I didn’t want you to go. I would not trade one day with you for thirty years without." His arms held me fiercely.
"But I doomed you," I whispered.
He smiled—the last time I saw him smile—and whispered back, "No. You saved me."
"How very touching," Mith said mockingly. "However, I’m growing bored."
My lord’s arms tightened, then he pushed me away and lifted one hand in a quick motion. I saw Mith and his dwarves scrambling in alarm, but I was moving before them. I knew that gesture, knew what he was going to do, and I would not let him. My lord was very quick, but he was no cat. I had my arms around him, clinging tightly to him before the first breath of his power ruffled my fur and tried to throw me across the room, out of harm’s way. I dragged him with me as his spell pushed me toward the window; with the added weight, we only got about halfway there, but at least we remained together.
My back was to Mith, but I heard him yell something, heard the deep thrum of the arbalest, and heard a quarrel fly through the air a few feet to our left. My relief was short-lived; the other arbalest thrummed with a similar note, and it felt like someone kicked me very hard between my shoulder blades. My lord and I fell together to the bed. I could see his face very clearly, though everything around it was blurred.
It seemed to me then that we were in bed fifteen years ago, and I felt his first clumsy attempt at gentleness. The scenes shifted: he was furious and the muscles in his back stood out in knots. Blood streaked his hands. I washed his hands clean and rubbed his back until he relaxed into sleep. We were at a feast in the honor of his thirty-fifth year, and he held my paw in his hand in public for the first time. We stood amidst the roses and listened to the silence. We watched his magic destroy an entire city block below us, and he held me until I stopped trembling. We stood together in an empty castle and waited for death.
We stood on a parapet of the highest tower, under a silver moon, and looked down at the country spread below us. A cool nighttime breeze brushed my fur. He reached out and took me into his arms, and I held him back. I heard him whisper, "Marcel," and as I whispered back, "my lord Aladar," I noticed that his lips were a bright, bright red. The breeze became chilly, then cold, seeping through my fur, and the moon faded from the sky. Then there was blackness and nothing more.