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5

WORSE AND WORSE
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GOOD NEWS, KIDS. Bittor’s sitting up, responding to questions. Excellent, excellent. I believe we can move forward, assuming, of course, that he doesn’t have another incident. Is he prone to such attacks? Honestly, I have no idea. We’ll have to wait and see.

Uh-oh. He just grunted, You two are batshit. Let me outta here. (Or somesuch. I apprehend this to be the gist of his message.) His speech is thick. He’s groggy, maybe from the green. That there’s strong stuff. He’s not built up a tolerance to it as the others have. Is he about to bolt? Is the evening a bust?

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“Here now, this doesn’t do, you know,” coaxes the Archbishop. “You are upset, that’s only natural. It is an extreme idea. And Gusto certainly made a bad, bad mistake in the council. You are flummoxed, understandably so. You gave Gus quite a fright with your fainting spell, but I explained to him that you are high-strung, that you frequently need time to digest a revolutionary concept, but that you are an adventurous spirit and will come to terms with a radical solution, as you have done with your cheese. I would go so far as to say it was you who set this ball rolling. Any success we have of it–I expect a success, I am willing to stake my future on it–will be due to your brilliant example. If you need a more solid proof of my steadfast support, well, I have something to tell you that I guarantee you will want to hear.”

Bittor doesn’t feel able to exit steady on his feet, his dignity intact; he grips the arms of his chair. He is eventually cajoled into allowing himself to be guided into the library, where the three sink, many a sigh between them–the evening has been taxing for all of them–into supremely comfortable seating.

Boxy wooden chairs, a thinish pad to park your rear on, are the norm even in the wealthiest establishment, even up in Paris. D’Ollot is a visionary in more ways than one. He’s designed and had constructed sprawling, deeply upholstered . . . burrows, almost . . . easy chairs, we call them today. Fat cushions . . . arm rests . . . neck rolls, unknown at the time. There’s not a salon in the city that, compared to this space, wouldn’t appear cheerless and forbidding. Gus pampers himself in every possible way, having had so little pampering from other sources. He and Zagi have made good use of those seats, and that carafe, there is a carafe at hand, naturally, of the green gargle. Let’s have a gargle, they are prone to advising each other. Good for what ails ya.

“Bitts,” Zagi says, “I’ve lied to you. That signed approval is as much for me as for Gus. I have enemies also, first and foremost, Zamanthe. Your mother despises me.”

“I know it.”

“Do you wonder why?”

“Isn’t it obvious? You have been promoted over her brother at every turn.”

“That’s true, of course. But it’s more. I would have decamped long time gone, but for you. Me flown, to whom do you look for guidance? Your father? Your uncle Tancredo, on your mother’s side at all times? I have tried to fill a father role. I must stick until I see you settled into life. Ametza at your side, there’s a start. If I can improve your financial prospects, and I believe I can, I will sleep easy up to Paris.”

“What about my cheese? You praise it to high heaven. You don’t believe in it after all?”

“Your Highness, your cheese is, thus far, no more than a happy hobby. It may go, it may not. It may take years to turn a profit. I can’t wait that long. You have a job of work ahead of you. You must make the case for your product against jealously protected regional manufactures. The farther afield, due to the issues we’ve mentioned and others, the more difficult it will be to compete. As Gus says, cash and carry, you can’t beat it. But retailing to our home folk won’t suffice. Buttonholing diplomats, praying they recommend you to their countrymen, that’s a nice daydream. Happily, the solution sits on our very doorstep. The pilgrim path along the coast, drawing from all Europe, we must tap into that tributary. A fraction of that flood will do us beautifully. I tell you, this thing will work if, a big if, if we handle it well.”

“You might as well sign on,” mutters d’Ollot. “Follow the money is the standard way to determine culpability. You, Highness, will be the major winner, willing participant or not. It may take some time for this fact to sink in, but it will, eventually. Best give it your all. Frankly, you have nothing to lose.”

“Shush with that talk,” warns Zagi. Gus glowers at him. “Bitts, listen to me. I feel a responsibility to look after you, as I have tried to look after your father. Almost from infancy I was put in charge of him. I kept him focused on his schoolwork and calmed his anxieties, of which he has many, as you know. Come now, have you heard no ugliness about me?”

“Constantly. People call you a nervy bastard, and worse.”

“That nibbles at it, but skirts the core calamity. I can hardly believe that someone hasn’t shoved it in your face by now, but we are all in terror of your mother, aren’t we? She wants something buried, buried it is. Jakome’s father was my father. I am his half-brother, yes, your half-uncle. Your mother loathes me for it, and would be overjoyed to destroy me. Our naughtiness exposed, she could hound me tooth and nail and no one would wonder at it.

“Your Grandpa bought my Mama into the Convent at Pau with the dowry of a countess. That rankled your grandmother, and it irks our current queen equally. Money that should have come to her was thrown away on a flirt housemaid who was, incidentally, beloved. That figures into the animus in a powerful way. As bad or worse, my sharp wit is in stark contrast to the lesser capacity of your poor papa. Zamanthe wishes me to Hell every time she sets eyes on me.”

“I suppose it may be true,” whispers Bittor. “You and father look so alike.”

“My Mama,” says Zagi, “is advanced to sub-abbess at Pau, having shown herself to be a remarkable administrator. I contacted her once, in an official capacity. We exchange letters. She has followed my progress. So you see, I had an influential figure helping me along even after the old king passed on.

“I promised never to speak of our consanguinity. I have betrayed her. I am your blood relative, my prince, committed to your cause. I have the brain of my clever mother, the very twin of our Ametza, as I imagine her to have been at that age.” He jumps up and does a little dance. “I like your little girl, by God I do!” Bittor smiles his first sincere smile since he’d walked through the front door. Zagi drops to one knee in theatrical fealty, and places his hand over his heart. “Whatever happens, nephew, trust that I can deal with it.”

“For your sake, uncle, yours alone, I may consent to sign your document. But I insist to learn why I was as good as announced your confederate on no basis whatsoever. I was reluctant. I believe I made that clear. You begged me to sleep on it, and I agreed to do so. This fool, taking for granted that I would come around, found it useful to advertise the plan, and to link me to it. I find M. d’Ollot’s claim to sound practices ludicrous. Let him convince me otherwise, if he can.”

“Speak up, big mouth,” directs Zagi.

“Sir!” cries Gus. “I beg you to consider the circumstances.”

“You have made me out a thorough-going scoundrel, Monsieur.”

“Look on the bright side. Better a scoundrel than a fool.”

“A scoundrel and a fool, you ass, one eager to profit from an insane obscenity.”

“Sir, may I paint a fuller picture? Any insult to Your Highness was unintentional. Whatever statement I may have made was due to my violent temper.”

Bittor, a bundle of nerves, grabs at his mid-section. “I think I’m about to puke.”

“My medicinal will fix you up,” cries Gus, glad of a chance to be of service. “Calms the stomach. All round pick-me-up. I could use another splash myself.” Three goblets are filled, and emptied. “I was sure this would be my year,” he moans. “So damn sure. Zagi, you thought so yourself.”

“I did, I’m afraid,” Zagi confirms. “Bittor, you declared it done.”

“I reported what was conveyed to me.”

“It’s my own fault,” gasps Gus. “I considered myself a Ram, short the formalities. If, in the weeks leading up to the vote, I greeted members joyfully, that’s on me. I was something less than hat-in-hand, me, a tax court clerk. Did I provoke a revolt in the Ram with my conduct? No, I was set up, I see it now. How could I have fallen for it? I’m sharper than that.” It’s Gusto’s turn to stare at the ceiling. “Me, the level head, working the odds, failed to follow my own rules of engagement. I heard what I wanted to hear, failed to ask the right questions. I had invitations to dinner every night of the week, and assurances that the path to membership was finally clear for me, the last of the old guard, my worst foes, finally among the dreadful departed. After years of disappointment, I had a positive response. I lost my head.”

“A calculated insult, I should have been alert to it,” says Zagi. “On you, for obvious reasons. On Bittor, for a mean joke. On me, for thinking I could influence the process.”

“Here’s how it went that day,” says Gus. “The list of those newly elevated to the Rams had just been posted in the Great Hall. I was stunned to find my name missing. I took a slug of the green–I carry it always–to steady myself prior to facing the council, members all. I settled into my spot, a big smile on my face, ignoring the winks. I managed to get through my report. Did I call the King a moron? I had the word in my head, I had the shape of it in my mouth. Did I spit it out? I made my speech, the balance sheet, etcetera. I pleaded for the king to face reality, as usual. His Majesty responded with his same witless reply. I’ve heard it a hundred times.

“I lost all patience. We’ll have a new king one day, I raged. A pragmatic man with a strategy for solving the kingdom’s money woes, his derided cheese venture. You chuckle over it, but who of you has a better idea? I boasted, damn me, don’t I always? I hinted at big things ahead. Trust in the Lord, indeed! Has no one a better plan? So happens, I spat, I do! Prince Bittor sees merit in it. I ducked out to the hall for another nip of the restorative. I crept back, to observe the reaction. They were roaring, positively roaring, over my rejection from the Rams, congratulating themselves on having made a monkey of me again. That’s when I really blew my top, citing you, sir, as an example of the bold leadership this kingdom is in desperate need of.”

“Nothing worth doing ever-ever came easy,” Zagi lectures the royal. “My ancestor, yours also, the Friar of Carcassonne, was put to death for decrying the corruption of the church. I place the commonweal over my own interests. It is an imperative for me, part of my faith. No one will keep me from practicing my faith as I think proper. And I think this plan very proper, as proper as anything I’ve ever done.”

Bittor has relaxed. He may be coming around. But he still has one big objection. “Why does it have to be Virgin Mary? Cannot we make do with some lesser light?”

“Bitts,” pleads his uncle, “the Virgin Mary would be all for this. Is she not pure, perfect compassion? She of all people would gladly sacrifice her dignity so the downtrodden may raise up. Compostella is a major draw. It will take an outrageous event to compete. Even our sire of Carcassonne would not be sufficient enticement. The Holy Mother is the right choice. Holy Mother it must be.” Bittor has shrunk down into a slouch, body language indicating continued hesitation.

“Do me this kindness,” implores the Bishop. “Our Za-Za, talk it over with her.” He turns to his co-conspirator. “What say we offer her the monopoly on breads and cakes? I don’t know about you, but with her on board I might be willing to proceed without His Highness. The dumpling will go for it. She’ll not pass up the chance of a lifetime.”

“Yes,” agrees d’Ollot. “We’ll give her the cheese franchise as well. She’ll subcontract it out to you, sir,” he glances at Bittor. “You keep your hands clean, at a price. I don’t doubt she drives a mean bargain.”

ZaZa despises Bittor’s timidity. Dreading another of her lectures, he shrieks, “Where’s that paper? I’ll sign, by God I will!” He drains his amusingly shaped goblet (just refilled, they do not let it stand dry) and hurls the blown glass sea-monster, its bulge-eyed, curled-lipped visage so like his mama’s sourpuss, into the hearth. “I’ll show both of them,” he fumes, decorating the document shoved under his nose with a swirl of signature. “Tell me again, where do you mean to stage your carnival?”

“On the Pamplona Road,” explains d’Ollot, “there is that gentle stretch. The rock-face above is magnificent, and it has an additional advantage. This is what gave me the idea. My boys call it the Neskata, the young lady. The claim is that in late afternoon, the sun just so, one sees a woman’s face on the cliff. I’ve tried to apprehend it. I can’t. But I suppose if you stare at a formation long enough you can see anything.”

“On the Pamplona Road! A tillable field, instead of the ledge that is our only natural wealth?”

“A fine spot. I have leased it. I send my boys gathering there.”

“You’ve leased it!”

“I play, you see, with herbs. This spirit is my own recipe. I plan to set up in business with rejuvenators, relaxing tonics. That parcel, full of fennel, wormwood, mint, many good things, supplies my vital ingredients.”

“That’s my fennel!” howls Bittor. “I graze my sheep on that patch.1 I’ve had that land seeded, tended.”

“You should have looked before you leaped,” spits d’Ollot. “The ownership of that parcel is under litigation. I am a careful man, you know that. I was not appointed Minister of Finance for being a cheese-head. I lease that land from the Probate Court, with the approval of the family, though it was not required–the judge has the only yea or nay–my possession to endure until the matter is settled. And I have the pull to retard a judgment for a good long time.”

“Cheese-head! He calls me a cheese-head! The son of a felon calls me a cheese-head!”

“I know a cheese-head when I see one. I am a hard-nosed businessman. Take me as a partner on your piddling venture and it will prosper beyond your wildest dreams.”

“I have a partner.”

“Ah! Who might that be?”

“My Ametza.”

“The little shop girl! It gets better and better. A sweet treat, I’m sure. Her smart is between her legs, is my opinion.”

“Watch your mouth, blackguard. I cherish that young lady.”

“We all cherish her, especially when we joggle after her down the street. Some hot cross buns there.”

“No more of this! No more! You are despicable. That business with Aguillera, shameful. For such behaviors are you branded felon, son of a felon, probably grandson, nephew, cousin of felons! Criminality, in the bloodline.”

“As is idiocy, in your family.”

Zagi winces at this. It’s too close to reality.

D’Ollot has gotten the son of a felon remark shoved in his face all his life. Now, a note signed, he dares to retaliate. “My father was a thief, but at least he had something between his ears besides ricotta. If you had brains, you would have demanded a lease.”

“I do have a lease, damn your eyes.”

“Do you! With who?”

“With the Zambranos, with Mama Agurtzane.”

“I hold my lease from the court. Yours, if you have one, is an ass-wipe.”

“I rescind my involvement in this wretched business for good and all,” shouts Bittor. “What in heaven’s name was I thinking?”

“Too late. Your signatory locks you in.”

“Come now, friends,” Zagi pleads. “We’ve all had too much of this tasty spirit, which inflames the emotions. Let me study the problem. M. d’Ollot, do you trust me?”

“Indeed I do,” says d’Ollot, glaring at the prince. To himself he adds, in a pig’s eye.

Zagi takes Bittor’s hand. “Dear boy, will you give me a chance to solve this unpleasantness?”

Bittor avoids hot-headed confrontation. Clashes with his Mama have taught him he cannot win at hand-to-hand. His tactic is always passive resistance. “I am willing to be reasonable,” he grunts. He allows himself to be helped into his pasture-prancing greatcoat, head-to-toe oilcloth, with a capelet swinging about his shoulders, capable of serving as a hood in a downpour. The effect is something akin to a towering ship of the line under full sail. He starts toward the exit but, thinking it best not to end the evening on a sour note, he whips around to bid a polite farewell.

His father’s sullen functionary hasn’t the courtesy to rise. Bittor ignores the lapse and extends a hand. The heavy hanging cuff of his sleeve accosts the third goblet, propelling it across the table and over the edge. Shards of sea-dragon litter the floor in every direction.

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I know you’re saying to yourself, what gives here? You’ve got weird history, odd characters. Where’s that cat, who’s supposed to be the star of this raree-show? One wise-acre cat, coming right up. A puss with a taste for boots, in boots from time to time (on special occasions).
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  1. According to the annual report of the Pennsylvania State College for 1904-05, fennel increases milk yield and possesses antiseptic and tonic properties.

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