15. Secrets and Lies.
And, Sly Begins To Craft A Response To A Tricky Situation.
“Looking good, my friend, looking good. The cut a bit, ah, regional – wouldn’t knock ’em dead in London – but first-class fabrication and workmanship. But then, you never were a style icon, unlike me-self.” The cat has emerged from under a footstool. He had crept into Dee’s bedchamber as Fritz showed the tailor in, and had lain low, giving no hint of his attendance.
“Huh! Look what the cat drug in!” is Dee’s good natured response. “No, I was no fancy-pants, that’s for damn sure. I had to pay for my duds, you’ll recall. I kept it low-key. You were furnished your snappy ensembles. After all, you were the apple of her eye.”1
“Where are my things? I’d love to suit up, have a good long gander at myself in that magnificent tall glass, as I never got to do. I’d be laced into this or that number, delivered to this or that locale, and put on display. I was run ragged. The lady got her money’s worth out of me. I earned those outfits. She had no call to set the hounds on you over the purloin. What did your thiever manage to withdraw? You never told me.”
“He grabbed the cream and black you wore at the ball in honor of Laski’s visit. It was being worked on, being cleansed of wine stains. He coaxed a few hats off hat stands. Ruffs, also. You’ll be pleased about this: several pairs of boots.”
“Fabulous! Dig them out, let’s see what we got. God, I hope he grabbed the ones with the catmint tooling.”
“I have your star robe and slippers with us. The rest I sent on to Krakow.”
“You what? I gave no permission for that. On the contrary, I indicated – clearly, don’t try to deny it – my reluctance to follow you to Laski-land. I have no good feeling about that. It will not end well for you.”
“It’s a salary,” snaps Dee, “much superior to what I got back home.”
“Adalbert Laski is a fraud! How’s that for a crystal vision? By the way, Kelley concurred in that opinion.”
“The Count’s was the only offer on the table. My days of being awarded fat professorships are done. I am a pariah in serious circles.”
“Yah, whose fault is that?”
“It’s been a long, slow slide, one bad decision after another.”
“Know why we landed at Emden? Laski put the touch on a brother-in-law there. He’d overspent in London, easy to do, as we know. Say,” – the animal fights the impulse to arch his back in huffy disapproval – “am I one of those bad decisions?”
“The verdict’s not in on that yet. You certainly misled me. No, mislead doesn’t capture it. You betrayed me. I trusted you, and you betrayed me.”
Sly is horrified by this reading of his small charade. “I did not betray you. That was not my intention. I was desperate to pry you away from Crazy-Ears. I hoped, a period apart, you might come to your senses. Or, a nice sum in your poke, you would have the courage to lay off the whimsy and return to solid science. So I peered into your damn-blasted globe and foresaw triumph awaiting you in Hameln.”
“It worked. I’m here. But without Uriel on tap, I despair.”
“Cheer up, hey? I’m no cunning man,2 but I am a cunning cat.”
“My cunning man is at it right now, seducing my wife. He’s been eyeing her since the night we met.”
“An oily hustler and a nag to end all nags. Good riddance to the both of them.”
“I need him. He’s the most talented scryer I ever ran into.”
“He’s a slick.”
“Of course he is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”3
“Hand her off and welcome, they deserve each other.”
“I worship her, you ass.”
Sly is thunderstruck. He’d had no inkling. “You sure had me fooled. All I see is, she makes you miserable.”
“She claims to despise him. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. The turd has his charm. Females fall for him right and left.”
“Huh! But for his wife, poor thing.”4
“In this life we place our bets and take our chances. She made her bed.”
“Your bet, on Uriel, that ain’t going so well neither.”
“That’s on you, you little creep. I thought I had an alternative receptive, on the cheap. When money’s to be had, friendship be dammed, Ears squeezes every taller out of me he can. That reward on the table, he’d really have put the screws to me.”
“You don’t need Uriel. and you certainly don’t need Kelley. Me, I’ll pull this off for you.”
“Ya gotta give me time to think.”
“Don’t bother. Heinzie and I have hatched a plan.”
“He’s another hustler. You attract them like flies.”
“I believe I can work with him.”
“You’re a bigger fool than I thought.”
“Me a fool! You had a good thing going in London. The lap of luxury, not a care in the world. And you blew it.”
“I did,” mutters the cat. “On purpose, got it? On purpose!”
“On purpose? That’s rich. You were in your glory.”
“I gave it my all, as I do with everything. It took a toll on me, being on all the time. I have my lowdown moods, same as anyone.”
“Ya, tell me about it!”
“You were packing for Poland. I was in a tizzy, having panic attacks at the thought of losing you.”
“I begged you to go!”
“I would have, in the end, except I learned of the Hameln opportunity at the reception for the Danish ambassador and I said to myself, Ha! Here’s the answer. You lukewarm to the idea, I conjured up Uriel to promote it. Now, Her Majesty wasn’t going to let go of me willingly. Sha-Sha5 and me, we were the stars of every ball, doing our dips and twirls move-for-move with the expert steppers. And, you’re right, I loved being the center of attention. But Sha began to wear on me. I thought I had a soul-mate. I opened up to her, spilled my guts, my dreams, my fears, the whole ball of yarn. It slowly came to me, her attitude of loving concern was a pose. She was a coquette, her role at court, to please. When I finally got that straight in my noggin, I was heartbroken. I began my campaign to render myself unfit for nice company, expecting to be handed back to you. You had introduced me into court, after all.”
“Can you blame me for assuming the potty accidents at Mortlake were your doing? When you eliminated on Dudley’s beaver hat, all hell broke loose.”
“That, my friend, was a spur of the moment decision. But from then on I made it a point to insult any article of his left unattended. I would have double satisfaction of it: he, a laughingstock – the animal despises you, Leicester, what can you have you done to annoy him so? – and one-gone-rogue dismissed likkety-split. Unfortunately, I was given the heave-ho in the crudest possible way, seized by guards who tried to throttle me. I escaped by the hairs on my chiny-chin-chin, stripped of my gemstone collar, naked as the day I was born. When I learned you’d managed to extract a few of my items from the clutches of the ladies of The Wardrobe . . . well! I could have cried for joy.”
“I put Kelley on it. He’d way back ingratiated himself with the Queen’s tirewomen,6 a merry-bubbling font of the closest-held dirt. He flirted, an old bat eating it up, while he beguiled what he could into a sack. I had specified, boots above all else. I figured your boots – and the eight hundred books I’d packed – would do to compel you to Krakow. Listen, I know Laski’s broke. I pretend not. The salary, that’s my cover story. I proceed to Poland under protest. I was threatened with incarceration unless I took a certain assignment.”
“You must excuse me,” is Sly’s chilly reaction. “I have places to go and things to do. Dru expects me. She’ll be banging on your door any time now.”
Dee is a magnet for trouble. The cat is sick to death of looking after him.
The door is cracked, but Sly lingers in the corridor.
He’s trying to talk himself into a better frame of mind.
He doesn’t want to burden Dru with his sour mood.
In terms of regret, Dee is only the tip of the iceberg. Grinding on him right now is that he hadn’t gotten up to Cumbria to see his old mum – he’d chosen to stick with the Magus of Mortlake, blinded to right thinking by the man’s renown.
Where has that gotten him? Dee, Laski, Walshingham pulling the strings, another boondoggle. And he has other problems. Reisig, what lies ahead for him? Mag and Dag aren’t thrilled to have him on their hands. Rosetta, aged out of crazy-cute, will she be cut loose without the survival skills that would have been instilled by a loving family sharing critical life lessons?
“Where does my allegiance belong?” he asks. “Not to Dru, and not to Dee. Surely to the vulnerable.” Feeling a bit better about himself, he puts on a happy face and dances through the door.
Why is he dancing? He hears music. He recognizes a melody from his childhood. “Tom Scarlett!” he cries. “I love that tune!”
“Shush,” warns Dru. “You’ii scare the babies. Tom Scarlett? Never heard of it. I’m playing Es Kommit Ein Schiff, Geladen.”
“You play flute!”
“I was decent at it once. Let me take a turn.” She hands over the pipe. She’s done doubting him.
“Here we go, Tom Scarlett.”
Sly was decent on the pipe, at one time. (For a cat.) He’d played many a concert to the chickens in his Cumbrian barnyard. He’d been younger then, his digits more nimble, and he’d had a miniature instrument, specially made for the young daughter of a music teacher, that he’d managed to usurp. But his Tom Scarlett is no worse than Dru’s Schiff. She’s impressed.
“What’s to eat?” he asks. The table is set, and there is a covered tureen.
“We have a beef and mushroom stew. You’ll probably want to avoid the mushrooms. Rosetta enjoyed them. She had also some beef broth and, for desert, a slice of apple. I fed her early, lest your entrance destroy her appetite. She and I had a lovely afternoon getting to know each other. I played for her – she enjoys music extremely.”
“Where is she?”
“I have her safe. I don’t dare house her in the other room with my frogs. She would be held in her own pen of course, but the experience of such a neighbor would not be a pleasant one. Frogs swallow whole, they don’t chew. Rosetta is borderline the right size, though she is feisty enough to put up a good fight. Her three companions would be goners, if they didn’t die of heart failure first. That would save them. Frogs don’t eat what doesn’t move.”
“Heart failure would be a blessing. Of all the ways to die, I imagine digested to death would be among the worst. Where are they?”
Sly rotates. Behind him sits an enormous, elaborate birdcage. He’d noted it the previous evening but, no bird within, had paid it no mind.
“Is this another of your mother’s designs?”
“No, this was Papa. In addition to dogs, he kept birds, many varieties, that owned the Conservatory. The racket, and the droppings – he insisted on allowing them to fly free – made the space unusable for anyone else. When he was on his deathbed Mama ran down, took a broom, and swatted them out the door. She would have taken an axe to this lovely piece but for I threw a fit, demanded it be moved to my apartment.”
The birdcage is no run-of-the-mill enclosure. Five feet wide and six feet tall, it is a wonder of miniature architecture, the front a painted wooden facade of open arched columns, and a working double door overlooking a grand stair. There is a thin front yard dotted with faux greenery, in front of a base painted to look like a brick foundation. It sits on a table built to hold it.
“I intended to repopulate it, though I didn’t dare say so at the time. I announced I would turn it into a doll house. The wire rear opens wide. All I have to do is install flooring and walls to have a several storied mansion. Mama pretended to be annoyed but I think she was pleased. I am not girly enough for her, and a doll house is a step in the right direction.
“I began fashioning walls, painting wallpaper, that pleased her also, me showing a flair for artistry. But the doll house was going to be such a lot of work. I put it aside., my time belongs to my frogs. Did you ever notice how they close their eyes when they eat? Their eyes sink through the skull to help push food down their throat.”
“I see a correlation here, you and your frogs, your Papa and his birds. Were you close?”
“I am close to no one. And I like it that way.”
“You have friends.”
“There are ones I’m forced to spend time with. I’m happier alone. I’m not good with people.”
“You’re good with me. You’re a delightful companion.”
“You’re not people. You’re a cat.
“True enough,” says Sly quietly, though the remark has cut him. He’s always felt he exists in a space of his own, at least equal to, most certainly not less than, human. He stands on his hind legs, front feet planted against the table’s lip, peering through wire mesh. He sees perches, hanging swings, a rope ladder with bells attached, but no rats. “Where are they then?” he asks.
“There’s a basement area. I can get at them through the rear, if you want.”
“Let them be for now. First we talk. No, fetch Rosetta forth. I want her in on this conversation.”
- Queen Elizabeth doted on him. He and her beloved capuchin monkey, dressed to kill, made a charming couple.
- A scryer, in street parlance, was known as a cunning man.
- Scryers were expected to be odd, it was the source of their gift.
- Kelley was paid to marry her by the aristocrat who had fathered her two children, to legitimize them.
- Sha, in case I haven’t mentioned it, is Queen Elizabeth’s adored pet monkey, her mini-me, dressed in over-the-top finery to rival her own. We meet A’iesha in book two, The Rogue Cavorts.
- Tire: an archaic form of attire.