For once I know better than you.
You’ve not heard of the divine right of kings?
– King Jakome of Haute-Navarre
THE KING’S PRIVATE APARTMENT is not cozy . . . castles are not cozy, not now, and certainly not four hundred years ago. The stone structure is chilly in the half-hearted high-sierra summer. The furnishings are nothing one might sink into, much less sprawl across. Can you imagine? Nowhere to veg out after a rich meal? The only inviting area is the hearth. A fire is jumping. Wine is at hand. This is as much comfort as anyone of that time and place might reasonably expect.
* * *.
“WHAT’S THE FOOL UP TO?” demands Jakome. “You’ve made yourself damn scarce the last few days. What have you learned?”
The valet hovering, the cat had eaten his meal in silence. Zado dismissed, the coast is clear. Sly grins as wide as he’s ever grinned. “Do I have a tale to tell! This should perk you up.”
Jakome scowls. “Skip the cute. Spit it out, damn you.”
“My opinion is Gusto’s eruption in the Council was nothing but hot air. Look, I see you’re out of sorts still. Let’s turn in, eh? I’ll save my full report for tomorrow.”
Jakome sighs. “Pray continue.”
“Your wish is my command, sire.”
“About time you admitted it. That solves our other problem for us, doesn’t it?”
“Except in areas of bedrock belief.”
“Huh! You and your bedrock beliefs.”
Sly ignores him. “D’Ollot was led to believe he was a shoo-in for the Rams this year.”
“He’s got better sense than that.”
“Zagi brokered it.1 But the deal fell through. D’Ollot learned he’d been snubbed anew just before he had to face your ministers, Rams to a man. Every door on the street but his–the cat emits a deep-throated half purr, half chuckle–has a ram’s head attached to it, one slap in the face after another the length of the plaza. As of Tuesday, his door sports one too.”
“How? He’s shut out again.”
“This is good,” squeals the cat. “This is really good. That bunch–every blasted one of them–had him to dinner. He’d never gotten that treatment in all his years of trying. He was thrilled. A soul-crushing fall to earth was, of course, the goal. His eyes were opened to the wholly unexpected turn-down just prior to the council meeting.
“He was devastated, naturally. He exploded, crept home, probably cried, then rebounded–he’s a fighter. He had bid on Portofino’s effects–some nice porcelain there, I understand–but had been turned away: too soon, the man hardly in his grave. He knew Porto’s items had to include his Ram-head door-knock. He confronted the daughter, upped his offer–tripled it–warned her, take it or leave it, here, now, or my offer is off the table.
“He needed to get his hands on the item before the Society clawed it back. The things are exclusive to members, not to be treated as part of an estate, not to be passed on. They’d held off from approaching the heir out of compassion for her loss. The woman, apparently unaware of the protocol, capitulated. She couldn’t let that kind of money slip away. Handed a key, Gusto headed straight to the apartment, cleaned it out that same afternoon. The Ram-Head hangs on his own entry, a bold-face fuck you to the world. The Rams will sue him for it, of course, but that will take years. He’s a master at manipulating the legal system.”
“Nasty nobody,” sniffed the King. “No background, his father a functionary in Burgundy. Probably the grandson of a stable-keeper.”
“The grandson of a stable-keeper would have a way with a horse.”
“That’s the clue right there. He’s rejected any link to his shameful origins–generations of stable-scuts mucking out stalls.”
Sly’s more than a little put out by this remark. “Sire, I am able to inform you that stable-scuts, as you call them, are fine fellows, good-hearted, fair-minded, and open-handed with the cream. D’Ollot can’t sit a horse without making a fool of himself? It’s not the worst thing. Give the creep his due. He has brains.”
Jakome spits, “Brains are useful, but what really matters is bloodline. The aristocracy has a grasp on how the world needs to operate. It’s an instinct, we are born to it. We are thoroughbreds. That one’s a heavy,3 no grace, esteemed only by knackers.4 Brains or no, he is a nonentity to the people who matter.”
Sly had pulled himself up by his boot straps. He’d been abused for his ambition every step of the way. “Let me get this straight,” he whispers. “I was a farm brat. I was raised in a stable. Do you despise me also?”
“Don’t be silly,” snorts Jakome. “You’re a cat. You’re another country altogether.”
“A cat, yes, absolutely. So I don’t need to be baptized, do I?”
“You’re a cat in terms of social standing. Something more than a cat otherwise, though I can’t say just what. Be that as it may, if you have only a tenth of a chance to meet me in Paradise, I want you to have it.”
“I’m a cat or I’m not a cat. You can’t have it both ways.”
“Yes I can.”
“We know you’re deficient with logic. No-you-can’t.”
Jakome smirks. “You with your logic, for once I know better than you. You’ve heard of the divine right of kings?
“Certainly I’ve heard of it.”
“Means I’m always right.”
“Who fed you that crap?”
“I came to the realization by myself.”
“Under the guidance of Father Tancredo.”
“Figures.” They lobbed the ball back and forth with increasing rancor.
“Yah, you don’t like him much.”
“You’re awfully chummy with that dolt.”
“Family is golden in these parts, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“He’s an idiot.”
“He advises me.”
“None of your goddamn business.”
“Tancredo is not, I repeat, is not your friend. Take care, lest you find yourself shipped off to San Fermin.”
“I’d enjoy that!” hisses the king. “The contemplative life, peace of mind.”
“You don’t go on like this with Credo, do you?”
“What if I do?”
“I give up,” moans Sly. “Majesty, listen to me. Tancredo is not your friend.”
Jakome mumbles, “Lord, deliver me from this vipers nest.”
“You’ll be delivered all right. To San Fermin, yes. To the lunatic wing!”
They’ve quarreled a good bit recently, but without getting nasty. Tonight crosses a line. We maybe could excuse Jakome, unable to rise above his time and place. Damn few dare to defy, or even to question the approved parameters of being. Sly, more astute, gets no pass.
Pushing against the armrests of his chair, the king propels himself upright, stands unsteadily, his knees stiff from sitting, and withdraws without issuing his usual amiable: Shall we to bed, sir?
Sly sinks his nose into his outstretched forelimbs.
* * *
THE KING HAS BEEN ON HIS BACK–I’ve hinted the geezer is off his rocker, here’s the proof–demanding he allow himself to be baptized. All he hopes for, insists Jak, is the possibility that they might meet up in Paradise. He honestly believes Sly–no lower form of life, he knows that to be a fact, no crown-of-creation type either, something in-between, but certainly closer to crown than critter–has the potential to get into heaven if only he be baptized. That’s church doctrine.
Many a one approaching end-of-life embraces religion with new fervor. Sly’s free-thinking ways have always troubled the old man, but he’s managed to live with them without making too much of a fuss. Ever since the cat announced his determination to return to England, the man has pushed the rite, won’t drop the matter. A years-long friendship has begun to fray.
* * * * * * * * *.
- Zagi is Archbishop of Haute-Navarre.
- A draft horse, born to serve the needs of a master.
- Knacker: one who buys past-their-prime horses at auction and takes them to be slaughtered.