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6

A PUSS, IN BOOTS!
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Finally, right?

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LET ME FILL YOU IN on the tenor of the times. Status was paramount, and it was jealously guarded and zealously maintained. Your station in society dictated what length of sleeve you might wear and what fabric it might be cut from, where you sat at table and who was served first. Those of birth had an obligation to affirm their rank with a display that was regulated by a complex protocol.

The wealth of more fortunate courts, Burgundy, for instance, supported unrivaled magnificence. In this isolated enclave the nobility was, in comparison, highly disadvantaged. Dress continued to be policed with a commitment long discarded elsewhere. A cat, indulged to an outrageous degree – it ought to have been no more than a laughing matter – was reckoned an infuriating sleight.

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The cat earned his keep. He was a friend. He was an advisor, offering sage counsel. And he had social obligations which were part and parcel of his position: to show himself, to be admired, to honor his patron by enthralling all who clapped eyes on him with his charismatic personality and his physical magnificence, his feline grace. He took care to present the attitude of a dandy, arranging himself with studied carelessness, whenever possible crawling up his monarch’s leg as if to gain his attention, but actually to display a taut muscularity, a performance conveying the message: Am I not a handsome devil?

He had good reason to believe that his remarkable advancement should be accepted. The rigid parameters of the feudal class system were crumbling.1 Brains and pluck gained even the base-born appointments of honor and influence with expectations of prosperity and privilege. Sly viewed his unprecedented rise as solid proof of his innate superiority. He felt himself an example of the survival of the fittest, though he wouldn’t have used those words. It would be two hundred years before the phrase was coined.

When Jakome inhabited the throne, the cat lolloped at his side on a miniature couch. He wore silk collars edged with pearls and sucked on catmint-laced pate. As it went for the king, his food was sampled by an individual selected at random from the convened officials, a prudent move, and a sign of the esteem in which he was held. He was addressed Monsieur. The usage, first applied to him by a French diplomat, had been–joyfully–universally adopted.

Draped over his shoulder on especially grand occasions was the crimson and green sash of The King’s Archers, the smartly dressed cadre of household guards which in earlier centuries had performed a vital protective service, but which, after the introduction of firearms, became primarily ornamental. Garbed in the full costume of feathered cap, scalloped bolero, jaunty capelet, striped girdle, and cuffed boots, the cat cut a remarkable figure.

Sadly, the boots pinched. Shod, he could not saunter. He hobbled. Or shambled. But he looked so handsome in them that he ordered a dozen pairs in a range of colors and wore them often. He could stand in them, or he could prance for a few paces. When, sporting the full regalia, he arrived with the king at a banquet or assembly and had to traverse long galleries acknowledging crowds of well-wishers, he was carried on a litter, like an eastern vizier, through the throng. It suited him. Lounging at shoulder level on a tufted divan, alternately, seated in a miniature replica of the king’s grand carriage, he was able to wink at a pal or spit straight into the eye of an enemy.

He was forced to use the litter more and more. His critics were bent on doing him harm. The scoundrels stumbled as they passed him in the halls, and, in the effort to recover their balance, booted him in the ribs or the backside. This was invariably followed by frenzied remonstrance: Oaf! You’ve injured Monsieur! Come, small sir! Let me see to your boo-boos! And he’d be hoisted and poked, his ears would be pinched and his whiskers yanked, until he managed to claw free. He traveled solo less and less. It was safer to ride, toted by porter-protectors.

The hostility increased until the cat insisted to be guarded round the clock. Jakome appointed two small sons of the head of the Archers to be Sly’s body servants. Standing attention during a review of the regiment, he had formerly leaned on a pike to steady himself. This was no longer necessary. Igon and Eder held held him up. And they were excellent companions, glad to ruffle feathers and keen to cavort.

Before long, the trio came to be known as The Three Brats, or The Three Thugs. Or, simply, The Three. The boys flanked him in their miniature uniforms, identical in every respect to official Archer issue, except that they bore an additional patch on the sleeve proclaiming, Special Attendant to the Steward of the Forest Royal. Sly, you see, had been made supervisor of a property, and he would eventually receive a title, which is the prerogative of a King and no cause for fits among your courtiers. The man had rewarded a cat, rather than an unsavory romantic affiliation, as others tended to do. In the grand scheme of things, to indulge a beloved animal with an honorary post was a supportable affliction.

The trouble was, the cat did not see the office as a pro forma assignment. He disapproved of the way the parcel had been managed. He meant to reshape policy. The Forest Royal was not a forest, it was a hunting park, a concept offensive to the critter despite his own blood lust. It was a different order of magnitude, mounted men with advanced technology killing for sport in a restricted area the prey could not escape verses an elemental urge.

When Jakome created him ‘Grand Duke of the Forest Royal’, and ‘First Gentleman of the Bed-Chamber’, which required obeisance by those of lesser rank, when he ceded to his friend the royal hunting park as the foundation of a fortune and ended the ‘Grace and Favor’ tradition of free use by his nobles, the mood among the hereditary peers turned black indeed. Some saw this ridiculous situation as solid proof of the king’s decline. Others were equally sure that the king feigned lunacy in order to humiliate his troublesome courtiers. Neither circumstance was a good one.

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When his boys, having heard it from their father, reported a proposal to retire the king to a cell at San Fermin, Sly demanded to be allowed to withdraw from the public eye, arguing that a show of level-headedness on Jakome’s part, in the form of a staged epiphany, resulting in an explosive banishment, would salvage the situation. He proposed he jaunt to the collection of small states that we today call Italy, to visit an old friend. Jakome nixed that idea. Way too far.

“Across the border,” countered the cat. “Into France. Great food. Vineyard snails in butter. Heaven.”

“You’ll never come back,” shrieked the king. On that basis, he rejected a number of excursions that the animal would have enjoyed to take.

Watching Jak worry his rosary, he fingered it frantically in times of stress, an idea birthed itself. “The Monastery of San Fermin,”2 urged the cat. Not far, wretched food – Bittor was known to dump his culinary failures on those uncomplaining men, who looked upon its consumption as a penance. Rather than offer it to the needy for a pittance–the prestige of the item must be maintained–it was unloaded on the religious community.

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Sly was a resolute nonbeliever, Jakome, his polar opposite. The king had tried to set the animal on the right path. They’d had many a confrontation concerning his immortal soul, the existence of which the critter disputed vehemently.

Jakome was pleased with the latest idea. Away from the bawdy atmosphere of the court, surrounded by godly companions, the snot might be inspired to rethink his disturbing stance. The king had long hoped to have the critter baptized. Loony, I know. Animals are not baptized. But they are often blessed. Same thing almost, right?

Uh, oh. Cause for excommunication, I’m reading. Animals were not created in the Almighty’s image. They have not the intellect, able to receive and to understand and, above all, to choose to obey, or not, the teachings of the church. That bit of dogma Jakome rejected from personal experience. Sly was proof of the fallacy of that particular belief. He had as much brain as anyone. Therefore, he could and should be given the opportunity to weasel his way into heaven, if ever he found faith.

What if? That’s what the man asked himself. What if the scamp, shyster, a sinner, aren’t we all, but of good heart, knowing right from wrong and able to articulate his views better than most, what if he perished without having been sprinkled with the holy water, condemned to hellfire on a technicality?

The man’s determination to have the cat baptized can surely be attributed to the fact that Sly had never been given even an inferior Anglican ceremony. Spiritually, he was as vulnerable as could be. The king considered wrapping the critter in swaddling, a shaved forehead exposed, and passing him off as a babe in arms to a priest with poor eyesight. A tight wrap would prevent a clawing, but eyes shooting daggers and, instead of gurgles, unnatural hisses, might result in a scheduled baptism being replaced by an impromptu exorcism.

The cat would not stand for it, of course. He had made his position abundantly clear. The sacrament would have to be administered with the critter unaware of the ritual splash and accompanying prayer. The baptismal font would be a dead giveaway. A presiding religious, same deal. If a lay person dared do the job, would the act be valid?

It occurred to the king that he might pass an edict naming himself the head of a nationalized church, as Henry Tudor had done, awarding himself the authority to perform certain ecclesiastical offices in the bargain. In the end, he dismissed that incendiary idea. He’d consult a professional, the particulars as vague as possible. The term cat could not figure in the conversation. Down the hill, the animal would not be hovering, or lurking. Jakome sent a runner to the Cathedral of the Holy Shepard with a note:

My dear Zag,

I shall attend you this evening. I am in the mood for your jovial company,
and in dire need of your wise counsel.

J.
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  1. More so in Britain than on the continent, but having been born and raised in England, he expected the same open-mindedness wherever he went.
  2. San Fermin: A Basque saint, the first Bishop of Pamplona. It is said that he met his death by being dragged through the streets by bulls.