Princess cat

Princess cat,  audiobook. ISDN68929206

Natalie Yacobson

Genre:humor and satire



Publisher:Izdatelskie resheniya

Publication date:02.03.2023


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Princess cat
Natalie Yacobson
Brendan ran away from his royal uncle and pretended to be a wandering minstrel. Already at the beginning of his journey, frivolous fairies had predicted him that he would marry a monster. Brendan wandered into an enchanted castle, home to a scratched beauty and an elegant but clawed princess, who for some reason hides her face under a veil.

Princess cat

Natalie Yacobson

Translator Natalia Lilienthal

© Natalie Yacobson, 2023

© Natalia Lilienthal, translation, 2023

ISBN 978-5-0059-6992-7

Created with Ridero smart publishing system

Jewels and claws
This castle is incredibly difficult to get into. But is it easy to escape from here? Tobias glanced at the rope ladder thrown down from the window of the not-too-high tower. The end of it was less than five meters from the ground. Yes, he was in trouble! He would have to use the normal entrance instead of the window. Fortunately there were no guards except the statues. He would have been arrested with a sack of stolen jewels, and they would have quartered him for sure.

Tobias tried to shove the diamond tiara he had just noticed into the bag as well. It wouldn’t fit anymore. The sack was already filled to overflowing with jewelry, and his pockets were stuffed with gold coins minted from the Kingdom of Cats. At least that’s what Tobias himself had called the country. In the old days it had been called something else. Now it was called Grapevine-land, because the country was covered with grapes and roses. A pretty maid told Tobias that a cook had once tried to sneak away with a basket of stolen oranges. Vines supposedly caught the boy in a net and tore him to pieces.

«The road to Cat’s Castle is paved with the bones of those who have tried to come here, and soaked in the blood of all those who have been invited and escaped from us,» confided the pretty former chaperone of the local princess at dinner. «If you go out into the wasteland behind the castle and look closely, the sand there is mixed with human skulls and body remains. You’ve come to a dangerous place. Only supernatural beings are welcome here, but you’re an ambassador. Ambassadors have to be let in.»

Tobias remembered waiting under the gate for nearly three days and three nights before they took pity on him and let him through. The gate itself resembled the mouth of a mythical beast. On the chains of the winch lived mischievous leprechauns that taunted anyone who wished to enter. A strange whisper seemed to emanate from the vines on the ramparts. Or so he thought from the long wait. What were the castle dwellers thinking? He could, after all, get sunstroke or die of dehydration. The only well near the castle was rotten, and some water creature had taken up residence in it and filled the ambassador with riddles. It was she who first called the kingdom the Cat Kingdom. Tobias understood why only when he met the scratched beauty who had been acting as both steward of the castle and maid to the princess.

«It’s a dangerous place; deserted, saturated with magic,» she explained, studying the royal seal on the message Tobias had delivered.

«So why don’t you move to my suzerain’s court?»

Tobias liked the pretty brunette much, despite the scratches on her shoulders and neck.

«I wish it were that easy to leave,» she sighed as if the horses and carriage house were never in the castle.

Tobias at first mistook her for a harmless lunatic who’d read fairy tales, but in time he realized that it wasn’t that simple. It was as if the devil himself had taken up residence in the castle. Feline portraits of the ruling dynasty were interspersed with human portraits. The tapestries were torn apart by claws. But the royal coffers were full of jewels. And it was not Tobias’ fault that he decided to rob the castle. Here he had been treated in a way that could not have been done otherwise.

He shoved the sumptuous tiara into his tunic. The caftan swelled with it. It was hard to breathe. The diamonds chilled his chest as if his heart were frozen in ice.

No matter how hard one tried to take all the treasure with him, he could not take it all with him. There were too many treasures piled in chests and forged chests. And there were many more glittering crowns on velvet pads in the depths of the treasury. Tobias looked at them with great regret. He had more than he could carry.

That’s it, it’s time to get out of here, and the royal regiments should be brought here to put all the cats on leashes.

Tobias grinned at his plan. Maybe it wouldn’t turn out so easily. But the troops would deal with the local population far better than he would alone. There would be no peace.

The greedy ambassador reached for the glittering ruby crown. Why didn’t he think of putting it on his head and throwing away his inexpensive beret? With what he could get for the cat’s jewelry, he’d buy up all the velvet of Aluar instead. Tobias’s fingers were on the verge of reaching for the coveted crown when nimble, hard claws scraped across them. And how sharp they were! Tobias howled in pain. His little finger and middle finger had been replaced by ragged stumps.

Cats didn’t scratch like that. It wasn’t a cat, either. Cats’ claws weren’t the size of human fingers, and they didn’t wear sleeves with lace cuffs.

Finding out who had maimed him was as inappropriate as protesting. He was the thief here, not the assailant. Tobias dashed away, dropping rings and bracelets from his overstuffed bag along the way.

It was a good thing he had spotted the marble staircase that spiraled down into the garden from the parapet of the tower where the treasure was kept. It was as if it had been specially made for thieves. The architect here was excellent. He planned everything for the benefit of burglars.

The steps led up into the night garden, into a thicket of lavender and balsam. The smell of the flowers was suffocating. But there were no guards in the garden. But the gardener’s gate must be there somewhere.

The jewels fell out of the sack as often as if holes had been made in it. Tobias stepped on a dropped ring, lost his balance, and fell. He fell, and his foot was sorely stabbed, as if by knives or claws.

The bag fell out, its glittering contents scattered in the flower bed. He couldn’t get all that expensive things together fast enough. And time was running out. Tobias couldn’t see the pursuit, but he could sense that something was moving behind him. Only the vines that braided the wall had changed position. It happens! Suddenly they looked like snakes.

Several vines were wrapped around his legs and arms. This was no joke. The vines twisted his limbs like ropes. There was blood on the skin beneath them. Maybe the myths about plants eating fugitives weren’t fiction.

«The claws of masters wound thieves to death!» There was a lady in an opaque veil, and she was already standing there, as if she had sprung up from the ground.

«No, I am not a thief. I am an ambassador,» Tobias hissed, and felt the vines sink deep into his meat.

«Silence,» the lady held a hand mirror up to his face. In it, Tobias could see how badly his cheekbones, nose, and chin were scratched. That’s why it hurt so much.

He would have liked to see the lady’s face, but instead of a face she showed her claws. These claws would have cut him to death. They are as long as a stiletto blade.

«Thieves find death here,» the stranger almost chanted.

Tobias believed her eagerly. Especially when the white, sharp claws, somewhat reminiscent of a cat’s, darted toward his throat. The crown had long since fallen from his forehead, but the message from the local princess to the king was still in his pocket, rolled up like a tube. It looked as if it would remain undelivered.

The Wandering Minstrel
«That’s it! I’ve had enough! I’ll live by myself! To wander the roads and earn my living by playing the lute!» With pathos proclaimed Brendan.

The cat inside the crown purred and rolled onto its side. It became his favorite pastime to curl up inside the large royal crown. He was like a king who sleeps inside a symbol of his power.

It was a pity to leave the Bastard. But here he would be taken care of. All his antics are tolerated, because he is a cat of a very rare breed. He’s also the cat of the king himself.

«Come on, let’s say goodbye, kitty!» Brendan reached out to stroke him, and he did so in vain. The proud cat awoke only to scratch his mate’s palm with all five claws.

«Oh, you… they don’t call you Scoundrel for nothing,» Brendan blew on his palm, but the pain didn’t subside.

What was it the royal wigmaker used to say? Royal property must not be touched without asking. But the white fluffy Aluar’s cat named Scoundrel is also, after all, royal property. They even put a cot for him in the king’s study.

Brendan himself had sneaked in today just to get the locket with the portrait of his parents on it. He should have taken the money with him, but that would have been stealing. He could earn his own keep. If minstrels were in demand even at the royal court, music was not so difficult to make a living from. Brendan learned a variety of songs, changed his clothes to the simplest, and prepared for the challenges ahead. Better to wander the dusty country roads than to marry a capricious widow from a neighboring kingdom with which the uncle-king had decided to form an alliance. The influential relatives can get into their heads all sorts of things. So it’s better to do without them. One is more comfortable.

What is it about marriage? Brendan had no intention of getting married anytime soon. There were too many beautiful girls around. To choose a particular one as a lifelong burden would be to be completely out of love.

In Aluar, they could drive you mad, too. There was a mysterious old lady in his uncle’s court named Effigenia, who dressed exclusively in black and was reputed to be a master of spells. She boasted that she had worked magic on several impertinent young men so that they jumped off the tower and crashed to their deaths out of unrequited love.

This is another excuse to flee his uncle’s kingdom. Otherwise he too will be bewitched to some toothless gray-haired widow.

Brendan was delighted to find that no one would recognize him in the noisy corridors of the castle. All he had to do was dress poorly, and you were no longer the king’s nephew. He had also learned the secret passages behind the sliding panels of the walls, and could get in everywhere without opening a door. Here he was, all alone in the locked royal chambers, and outside he could hear outside conversations.

«More and more danger was coming from the east, and even Lady Ephigenia could do nothing more.»

«How can you send a witch doctor against danger when there are troops?»

«And how can you send troops not against men, but against the black mist.»

«They say it will be resolved soon, and if not, we will have to fight all the same.»

«Is it weapons or magic?»

«All means are good in a fight.»

«Or maybe we should just turn a blind eye to what’s going on until we are directly approached with an ultimatum?»

It sounds like the voices of counselors! Brendan was immediately disappointed in them. The wisest men in the kingdom were so drunk they were talking nonsense. Soon they would begin to shy away from their own shadows, suspecting that something magical had settled within them. What had Uncle King done to them that made them drink themselves to death? Usually they walked around the castle puffed up like peacocks, making puffed-up speeches. That was when Brendan saw them. Now all he could hear were frightened voices. It was a good thing he himself did not drink, even after fierce quarrels with the king over his future and even in moments when his uncle, enraged by his behavior, threatened to execute him.

«If it hadn’t been for the good memory of your humble mother, your head would be on a pole by now,» his uncle liked to say.

Brendan had long ago stopped believing him, so often he had heard such empty threats. In fact, his uncle took pity on him and would not have him executed even in the case of high treason. For it is always possible both to protect the guilty and to execute the innocent. There was much injustice in the kingdom, and the black magic of Ephigenia sometimes seemed to slip through the keyholes, inspiring a melancholy that made one want to howl.

Suddenly it seemed to Brendon that his shadow had become some kind of mythical horned creature, dancing on the floor no matter what its master did.

That’s enough! It is enough illusions, optical deceptions, compulsions and reproaches of his uncle. Better to be free than noble and rich. Brendan had made his choice. The main thing was that no one would stop him from getting away. A chase would be a nuisance, too, so Brendon cleverly disguised himself, even smeared his skin with grated chocolate powder to simulate a tan. Now he looks like a hobo.

«Sleep well in captivity, Bastard. I don’t let the guardian get to me again!» Brendan slung his bag over his shoulder, grabbed his lute, and was off.

Fairies and fortune tellers
He was free! At last! The guards at the drawbridge didn’t even recognize him. Brendan felt like a hero until he spotted a group of pretty gypsy girls in the market square. Before, pretty fortune-tellers in colorful dresses would have mobbed him and started promising all sorts of prophecies. Well, he used to be a duke. They naturally didn’t pay any attention to the beggar minstrel.

But the three graceful winged ladies swooped down on him. Brendan was taken aback. They were fairies! Real fairies with colorful wings behind them! He had only heard of fairies, but had never seen them up close, except for one of his uncle’s favorites, who was occasionally received at court, but she always delicately hid her wings, folding them behind her back in the form of a cloak. But these three beauties proudly unfurled their wings and waved them as if they were huge fans. Two of the fairies were brunettes and one was a blonde with violets growing in her curls. What wonders! And such creatures walk through the marketplace! And how many wonders were in the woods outside the city? He shouldn’t have stayed at home so long. He should have gone on his journey much earlier. Too bad he hadn’t been wearing well-worn boots when he’d barely set foot outside the castle. He would have been surprised if someone hadn’t noticed he was wearing new boots. He was playing the beggar, after all. Brendan glanced warily at the drawbridge.

«Oh, you’re cute,» the fairies were already combing through his hair. «You are as pretty as a summer’s day. We are lonesome.»

«Play for us!» The blond suggested she see the lute dangling from a leather strap over his shoulder.

«Shall we coin first?» Brendan was reminded that he had a part to play, not to gawk at any curiosity that came his way. «I don’t play for free. I only play for money, or for the broth.»

That’s it! He spoke with an expression like an actor on the stage of a traveling theater. Travelling actors were often invited to perform at royal feasts, so he had someone to learn from.

«Wouldn’t you like it in exchange for the fulfillment of a wish?» The blond fairy smiled slyly.

Brendan hesitated. She looked very sly, Brendan thought.

«Play, or we’ll curse you!» One of the brunettes snapped. She was beautiful, and obviously not used to being rejected by boys.

The fairies whirled over Brendan’s head in a hurricane of color, even ripping off his beret and throwing it into a puddle. Not fairies, but hooligans. And why had he left the castle? Or were they henchmen of his guardian who wouldn’t let him out into the open world? They must be in cahoots with the old king.

«Leave me alone!» Brendan was already wishing he’d played them right away. It was better not to bargain with witches. Luckily, a group of gypsies was passing by.

«That’s who I came with,» Brendan lied to get away from the fairies. «They can curse you just as badly as you can curse me if you don’t let up.»

Strangely enough the fairies believed him and left him alone. Scary ones! And behaved like bullies! But communication with the gypsies was much easier and more pleasant. They didn’t even look at his lute.

«Would you like a prediction, my dear?»

One of the fortune-tellers at once asked for a coin. At least they were fairer than fairies. He had a coin in his pocket. It was all he had left of his royal allowance. From now on, he would have to make his own living.

The young gypsy with the piercing black eyes studied his palm for a long time, and then suddenly spat on the ground with disgust.

«Is something wrong? Did I not pay enough? Or am I going to die early? Or am I cursed?»

«The latter was more likely.»

«What do you mean?» Brendan was taken aback.

«You’re marrying a monster!» The fortuneteller paused theatrically.

And it was worth paying for!

«How’s it? Are you sure?»

«I’m sure!»

And for such a prophecy he was left without lunch.

To live his whole life with a monster! It wasn’t worth running away from his guardian for that. Though, perhaps, if he were caught and brought back, the king would just marry him off to some old hag with a big dowry, and thus the prophecy would come true. The ugly woman and the monster are essentially the same thing. The fortune teller might have used a metaphor. If only she knew what it was. And if she did not know it, she was guided only by a secret vision. Are Gypsy women as good at fortune-telling as they are said to be? Should they be trusted unconditionally?

Brendan had such a sad look on his face that passersby looked at him with pity.

:So they predicted happiness for me, too!» The wretched cripple at the bridge muttered. «But it didn’t come true.»

«Well, maybe it won’t come true for me, either!» Brendan rejoiced.

He was relieved. He would have thrown a coin into the cripple’s pewter mug, but he had none left. He’d given his last for a prediction.

Marry the beast! What fortune-tellers are they! They think because he’s young, he’s stupid. He’ll believe anything you tell them.

The gypsies were beckoning with their tambourines, but Brendan was already in a hurry to avoid them.

Sleeping Fields
A cavalcade of knights dashed down the dusty road. Brendan hastily ducked into the bushes so they would not see him. Their crests indicated that they were no vassals of his uncle. Somehow the stately knights resembled elves in silvery armor. There was even one lady among them, a blond beauty on a snow-white horse. He would have married such a woman and would not have run away from the wedding, but alas, no one offered him one.

Brendan would have composed an ode in her honor, but there was not enough time. The cavalcade rushed past quickly. Only clouds of dust remained on the road.

He had chosen the road at random, by the way. He probably should have swiped a map from his uncle’s office. He didn’t even know where he was going, or if there was any settlement ahead. Or is there nothing but woods for miles ahead?

Come on, Brendan consoled himself. The world is full of different kingdoms and principalities. If you persist, you’ll eventually reach a kingdom or two.

By nightfall, the wilderness was replaced by a wilderness that seemed to have no end. Or was it fields, not wasteland? Brendan remembered stepping on dry, cracked ground, and now the rye was flattened beneath his soles. It had barely sprouted yet, and in the distance tall ears were already growing. How can it be? Weren’t all the stubble fields sown at the same time?

This was suspicious, but he didn’t want to turn back. Brendan wandered on. The birds flying around the fields were strange, with angry red eyes. Brendan hummed a merry song to cheer him up. The lyrics were humorous, but for some reason it sounded gloomy in the fields, like a funeral hymn. Was it something wrong with his voice, or was it the witchy echo of which Lady Ephigenia had spoken so much? It usually taunts people who have wandered into forbidden and enchanted territory.

Nonsense! Fields cannot be enchanted.

«Hey, are you minstrel?»

Brendan looked around for the person who had called out to him. There was no one around except a straw scarecrow, which for some reason was wearing a fancy jester’s coat and a motley hat with bells on instead of the usual old shirt.

Even the scarecrows look luxurious in this field. And the rye seems cast from solid gold. Brendan bent down and plucked one straw. Both the grains and the chaff in it were cold and golden. He was so astonished that he almost dropped the expensive item. Surely it was Fortune himself who had led him to these fields. If you pick such rye, you can buy your own estate.

«You rejoice too soon!»

Another haunting voice from nowhere! There is only a scarecrow nearby. And scarecrows, as everyone knows, are not alive and do not speak. Unless the leprechauns live underground and tease him. They are usually the ones who keep treasures. The field of golden rye might be their joke. Surely they are waiting for him to pick it greedily. Then you can laugh at the fool who will throw all the stuff out of the bundle to put rye in there, which will turn from gold to ordinary stalks in the morning.

«Get out of here!»

This time it was clear that the muffled hoarse voice was definitely coming from the scarecrow. Brandon stopped in front of it, looking up at its face. There was no mouth to be seen beneath the bells of the hat. But the scarecrow itself, on a pole, somehow resembled a man crucified in a field.

«Where must I go?» Brendan wondered. «There are fields all around. Everywhere you go, there are fields ahead.»

«There is a castle up ahead.»

«I don’t see any castle.»

«Just because you don’t see one doesn’t mean there isn’t one.»

Brendan was so amazed that the stuffed jester spoke to him that he didn’t think much about the meaning of his words.

«I was like you, coming here to make fun of an ugly princess who had her beauty taken away from her by some wizard for her stubborn character. I could joke, but look what my jokes have done to me!»

«But I’m not going to make jokes about anyone.»

«Then why do you have a lute, if not to accompany frivolous songs?»

«I sing only good songs,» said Brendan indignantly. «And I write my own songs. Would you like to hear them?»

Stop! Scarecrow wouldn’t pay him to play. Why did he take out his lute so readily? Has the creature on the pole bewitched him? What if it was alive? Brendan touched the leg of the scarecrow. There was straw under his caftan. So it’s not alive after all, but it’s certainly magical.

«Don’t play!» It warned.

«Didn’t the rulers there forbid music?» Brendan snapped. He wasn’t going to play for free either, but if he was forbidden to play, that was a professional insult.

«Loud noises would wake them up.»

«What do you mean?»

«They are under the field. They come in all kinds: small and large, like giants, ugly and statuesque beauties, but step into their circle and you’re lost. It’s the same if you steal something here. They can’t stand thieves.»

Brendan quickly threw away the golden spike, though it’s a waste, but if someone is watching him from under the ground, it’s best not to steal. The scarecrow might have lied. But it’s a good idea to double-check. He has no royal retinue with him now. If he gets into trouble, he will have to defend himself.

«Who are they? Do they have a name? Do you say they live underground, like the leprechauns?»

But the scarecrow was already silent. But his posture had suddenly changed. One hand pointed in the direction from which Brendan had come.

So it’s trying to get him to turn back. All this must be Lady Ephigenia’s magic tricks. Surely hys uncle had already noticed his nephew’s absence and told his witch to track him down. Where the guards were powerless, Ephigenia acted. But he was no match for this one. He’s already gone far enough away from Aluar that the king’s witch’s charms won’t catch up with him.

We need to keep moving. The farther he went, the more her magic would weaken. Brendan went forward, against the scarecrow’s advice. And if there really was a castle up ahead, he would have lodging and supper. In feudal castles, itinerant actors and minstrels were free to roam. Bored hosts usually expect entertainment and are willing to provide both dinner and shelter for them.

«Don’t go! Don’t go!» Some buzzing insects tried to fly into his ears. Brendan pushed them away with difficulty.

The ground vibrated slightly beneath his feet. The fields suddenly seemed alive and breathing, as if a giant were slumbering beneath the rye, but Brendan would be swept away like a gnat as soon as he got up. Maybe we really shouldn’t have come in here.

Yeah, what was wrong with him? Didn’t he think he was the bravest when he made jokes about uncle’s ministers?

«Silly fellow, you don’t even know who sleeps under the field!»

There was no scarecrow around this time. So the voice came either from the void or from a large black bird that was circling over the fields.

It’s all Ephigenia’s jokes, Brendan consoled himself again. Though she remains in the king’s castle, her evil power extends far beyond it. We must hurry. The more miles he walked, the weaker her sorcery would become. My uncle had the misfortune to tangle with a witch! If Brendan could find a wizard along the way, he would ask him, just for the fun of it, to bewitch his uncle the King with Ephigenia. In this way he would settle his debts and grievances. The uncle would find himself forcibly married to a witch, and he would think nothing of meddling in other people’s private lives in the future.

Although, they say, magic is not so simple. You can’t always make a magical plan work the way you thought it would. Sometimes things go wrong. And magical failures can even lead to the destruction of the world, according to the words of the wise men.

Brendan noticed that the spikes in the fields were regular to the touch instead of golden. He must have done well not to pluck anything. Sometimes it pays to listen to warnings.

He didn’t listen to the last warning, since he’s wandering around looking for a castle. Well, the castle is not the fields. You can’t conjure up strange vegetation underfoot like that. The field was changing. First there was wheat and rye, now barley and beanstalks, on which live creepy biting bugs. These bugs also shine brighter than fireflies. And up ahead are vineyards and cornfields. Had someone conjured this place up by mixing all the plant crops?

Brendan picked one cob of corn because his empty stomach was already rumbling with hunger. Instead of corn kernels, real gold coins spilled from the cob. They tinkled and fell right under his feet. More and more of them, as if the earth had bred them.

No, he wouldn’t fall for that. Pick them up, and the coins would be yellow grains again. Maybe he should pick some up after all. He has no money on him, and he has a long way to go.

Brendan leaned over and picked up a handful of coins. These are the real ones! Only the coinage was unfamiliar. The tails have a feline profile, and there’s a claw print instead of a coat of arms. Good thing gold is valuable anyway, no matter whose mint the coats of arms were minted from. Brendan slipped the coins into his pocket and felt the fields beneath his feet as if they sighed and twitched. Something moved beneath the ground, as if an army of monsters were rising from there.

Where to run to now? Brendan felt something like a tourniquet wrap around his wrist and begin to squeeze. It was a living vine! It clung so tightly that it nearly tore his arm off. As soon as he was free of it, many other vines crawled toward him like hissing snakes.

Brendan jumped from his seat and ran. The swift vines darted after him, trying to grab his legs. Coins fell from the corn again, but there was no time to pick them up. The vines were determined to trap the fugitive. Brendan barely dodged their grip, and they hissed grudgingly. Here he passed corn fields, and fields of peas. Ahead of him was an empty, unseeded field. As he ran into it, the vines suddenly retreated, hiding in the shade.

Were they afraid of the uncultivated land? Brendan looked back at the fields. The ground there was trembling, as if whole armies of monsters were already climbing out of it, but there were no monsters in sight.

Brendan waited a moment. No dangerous plants were climbing the uncultivated ground to chase him. Here, then, was the place to take a break. In the sky, the moon was just shining, framed by a scattering of stars. Brendan only now realized how tired he was. He had no pillow or blanket, but he did have a bundle of belongings. Brendan put it under his head instead of a pillow.

«We’ll get you, you impudent thief!» hissed the vines from a distant field, or were they women’s voices? Through the haze of sleep Brendan saw beautiful embittered girls in wreaths of leaves and grapes. And there were a variety of monsters, small and large, galloping haphazardly across the fields. It was like a coven and a preparation for a war of infernal creatures against all mankind.

There were vague threats, like, «We’ll get you, boy!» to the sleeping Brendan.

«You’d better be quiet. I like silence at night,» he wanted to reply, but his tongue couldn’t roll with the fatigue. He was exhausted from running through the magical fields.

He had a strange dream: both frightening and pleasant. In the dream, the evil creatures were talking about something in the fields, pointing at him with their claws. Against the background of the monsters a marvelous image flashed across his mind: a girl with braids the color of ripe wheat and azure eyes. Just like the one he had seen in the cavalcade with the knights. This time she was alone, not counting the living vines behind her. She leaned over him, rustling her luxurious brocade gown, and tugged at his shoulder as if to awaken him. But if he woke up, he would never see her again. She exists only in dreams. Yes, she is too beautiful to be true.

«Rachelina! My name is Rachelina,» she repeated several times.

When Brendan awoke, there were scratches on his shoulder. A wild cat must have scratched it.

The Green Well
Barely a crack of dawn came when the rough activity in the fields came to a halt. Maybe if the sun rises, the bad things in the fields go to sleep. Brendan awoke the next morning convinced that what had happened to him that night was a joke of the devil. They say it often frightens travelers in deserted places. There are even tales of wandering fires that lure lonely travelers into swamps or precipices.

One must be more careful in the future, that is, travel during the day and not at night. He was in such a hurry to get as far away from Aluar as possible, that he did not calculate his own strength or time. His tired body ached as if it had been beaten.

Good thing there were no more fields ahead. Otherwise, the sight of rye and wheat was already making him sick. It was a nervous reaction! The green meadows didn’t look like magic, yet Brendan stepped very carefully through them. There might be a hole under the grass, and if you fell into it, you’d go straight to the underworld, where the creepy creatures lived.

A few miles of the road passed in complete tranquility. The sun warmed his skin pleasantly, but by noon it was getting too hot. Brendan was thirsty, looked for a flask of wine in his bundle, and found it was gone. He must have dropped it while running through the enchanted fields at night. Or perhaps a drinking fiend had stolen it.

The devil had done him a great disservice. His throat was dry, and there was nowhere to get water. He wondered how far to walk to the nearest village, where there is a well?

As soon as he thought of a well, it suddenly appeared in the meadow, as if from under the ground.

As Brendan approached the well, he noticed that the entire well was covered in mud. Even the bucket had turned green from the mud.

Brendan wanted to pass by, but a scaly green tentacle suddenly deftly coiled itself around his neck and drew him to the well.

Who would have thought the serpent on the blockhouse would be alive!

«Excuse me, I didn’t mean to touch anything!» Brendan hoped that the well guard, like the scarecrow in the field, understood human speech. Though at the sight of someone hissing and dragon-faced, there was little hope of that. «I am not a thief by any means! I had no ill intentions toward your well, that is, the house in which you reside. I was only curious to take a look.»

Brendan justified himself as best he could, hoping the creature would understand him. He might as well have hoped that the well serpent had an excellent grasp of the sciences and court etiquette.

«I was only passing through.»

«Are you passing?» The serpent squinted. His tail, which had already half strangled Brendan, suddenly loosened its grip.

«No one passes my well without guessing the riddle.»

In the snake’s hiss, human speech was barely audible.

Brendan could barely catch his breath when the serpent let him go. A necklace of bruises was left on his neck. But the poisonous saliva of the serpent, which dripped on his skin, gave him burns.

– If I don’t guess the riddle, will you eat me or burn me? – Brendan grimaced. He was no good at guessing riddles.

«If you guess it, I’ll let you go ahead,» he hissed with a sly tone. «But it will be better for you if you don’t. Then I have the right to keep you out of the castle.»

«There isn’t a castle,» Brendan said indignantly. «It’s an empty horizon.»

Even if the serpent didn’t eat him, going back to the enchanted fields was worse than going to hell. The mystery of the serpent would have to be solved.

«Well, let’s get to it! Or will you buy me a nice glass of Aluar wine before the riddle? Do you have any clean water left in your well?»

The serpent was clearly offended. He’d obviously thought the well, overgrown with slime, was very clean. Now it was clear that the green traces on the well, is poisonous saliva of the snake. It turned the whole well green. The snake’s skin was the same color, bright emerald. You’d think he himself had crawled out of some fabulous treasure trove, not a rotten well.

«Listen carefully, boy! I will not say it again!» The serpent’s bright yellow eyes flashed slyly. Their gaze was slightly hypnotizing. A powerful emerald tail tightly enveloped the log of the well.

«She is beautiful and delicate, like the rose of May, and she is the same, prickly as the thorns of a rose. When you see her, you almost fall in love. It is almost, but not quite. It is because there is one small obstacle to falling in love completely. If you touch her, you’ll immediately hurt yourself, like you hurt yourself on the rose thorns. Who is she? Tell me her name!»

«Is it her name? I am not acquainted with such a lady.»

«You may not call her by name, but by her title.»

Brendan scratched at the back of his head. A dead end! It was just as he supposed. He was no good at riddles.

«Do I have an hour to think about it?»

«You’re such a slowcoach!» The serpent was almost triumphant, feeling his victory.

«I’m not a magical creature like you. I can’t think instantly,» Brendan snapped at him.

«You people are all so weak and feeble and stupid,» the serpent chided him triumphantly. «Well, at least you’re not rude, unlike the rest of the strangers. So I’ll give you five minutes.»

«That’s not enough!»

At least give me 24 hours. Then you could have hoped for help from a good fairy, or at least evil, if such flies over the fields, and in exchange for the soul will help with the decision. But there were no helpers around. He was alone with the serpent.

«Do you have a watch?» Brendan tried to confuse the snake. «You can’t tell the time without a watch. I could run to the nearest town and get it. You said there was a castle near here.»

«Don’t bother!» The serpent pulled a sandglass, overgrown with mud, from the well, with the tip of his tail. What a bastard! He’s got everything! He’s probably got a torture machine ready for anyone who can’t solve the riddle.

He could try to escape from him, but Brendan already knew that a snake’s tail catches faster than a lasso.

The hourglass was green from the mud, but it worked fine. The serpent flipped it over with the tip of its tail, and the sand spilled down.

Along with the sand, his life was running out. Something had to be done. It is useless to puzzle over a riddle.

«Let me play for you!» Brendan took out his lute. He has exactly five minutes. He can spend it on whatever he likes. He has little choice: he can either beg for mercy, which would be of no use, or he can utter a curse, which would only have a bad result, causing the serpent to attack him. Choose music, the most harmless solution.

Once drowning, so with a pleasant melody!

«Just don’t sing any slow ballads. I do not stand them,» almost resentfully hissed snake. He wanted to bury his ears in his tail, but the problem was that he only had one tail, and two winged ears. One was left free to hear Brendan play.

The music made the snake relax. Could it have a hypnotic effect on him? Then it was not for nothing that he did not want to listen to it. Five minutes passed, and Brendan kept striking the strings of the lute, playing melodious sounds. The serpent did not think of interrupting him. On the contrary, he wagged his tail awkwardly and broke the clock, which he himself had set on the edge of the well. The sand in it was green. It hissed as the glass shattered, but the serpent paid no attention. He began mumbling something sleepily to the music.

«Living vines! Dry vines! The whispering of fairies! A spell! She should never have turned him down. The groom was good. And now there’s magic everywhere. Grapes and roses are about to drive me out. They are as aggressive as the magically gifted matchmaker.»

It must be another mystery. Maybe the serpent forgot that he hadn’t guessed the first one either. It’s a clear overdose. Brendan’s riddles and problems immediately gave him a headache. As his uncle the king had often told him, he was stupid. He hadn’t even mastered swordsmanship. But he did learn music. It was more useful with the serpent. With one sword he would have been strangled here long ago.

«What a wonderful sound!» The serpent stretched and yawned sleepily. «It’s a long time since my mistress played for me like that.»

«And you even have a mistress! May I see her?»

Maybe, at least, she’ll tell him do not to terrorize travelers.

«It is all right! Come on in!» grumbled the serpent. «I only let you in because I have a weakness for musicians.»

Brendan rejoiced. He had told his uncle he had talent! And the old king didn’t believe him. And he shouldn’t have. Music doesn’t need an army to put a dragon to sleep. Still, Brendan had a guilty conscience after all.

«I will try to solve your riddle on the way back,» he promised.

«Is it on the way back?» The serpent grinned sarcastically, letting out a puff of green smoke as he fell asleep. «He is an optimist! He hopes there will be a way back from here.»

Another man would have been alarmed, but Brendan decided to let the well-dweller mutter all he wanted. In his half-asleep state, the serpent resembled a drunk. And drunks, as everyone knows, don’t know what they’re saying. The music probably had the same effect on him as alcohol does on people. Even the green vapor he exhaled folded into hearts and notes. Who would have thought the well dragon would turn out to be such a music lover. Brendon rejoiced in his good fortune and moved on. Strangely enough, as soon as he passed the well, the silhouette of a beautiful white-stone castle twined with vines loomed up in the distance. He had not seen it a moment before.

Cat’s Castle
The green creature on the well was sleeping peacefully. Brendan kept turning around, fearing that the serpent might blow green fire at him. He said «pass,» as if his mistress were hiding just ahead. But there was no one around.

Brendan tripped over something and swore. It felt as if his boot had been bitten right through. Was there another snake hiding in the grass? No, it was just a skull underfoot. It was an unusual one. He was neither animal nor human. It looks like the skull of a supernatural creature, with several eye sockets, a mouth with fangs, a shell-shaped skull, and curved horns, also made of bone. He wondered what such a creature was called while it was alive.

«Don’t go!»

Well, what’s the matter! Why does everybody keep telling him, «Don’t go»? Is that where the devil is waiting ahead?

«You won’t come back like me, you fool!» warned the skull as Brendan gently stepped over it and went on.

If everyone warned not to go ahead, then there’s a fabulous treasure waiting there, Brendan thought.

The white stone castle loomed in the distance, against the blue skies. Its towers had the color of puffy clouds floating above them. The fortress wall was also white.

It would take an hour to reach it, Brendan estimated in his mind, but he did not reach it until late afternoon. The torches on the parapet were already blazing, illuminating the bizarre architecture of the walls.

Up close, the castle was even more beautiful than he could have imagined. Vines stretched along the walls like a luxurious net. The walls themselves abounded with stucco decorations and alabaster statues.

The gates were open, as if they were already waiting for a guest. The caryatid winked at him. Or was it just a dream?

Outside the gate was a beautiful garden of roses, jasmines, magnolias, and exotic plants.

The avenue of rosebushes leading to the open castle doors was empty. No guests but Brendan himself, no guards.

There are also bas-reliefs of graceful cats engraved on the doors that open. And inside you can see tapestries depicting a cat’s hunt for mice and birds. The interior of the castle was decorated either by a great humorist or an avid feline.

Brendan whistled when he noticed a fountain inside the spacious hallway, with wine pouring out instead of water. And he wanted to drink from the well! Of course there was no bucket or glass beside the fountain, but if he was thirsty he could always take a scoop of wine with his hand. It was sweet and invigorating, of the highest grade for sure! It was not until he was thirsty that Brendon remembered that the wine might be bewitched, or worse, poisoned.

«Look who’s here!»

A pleasant girl’s voice came from the top of the stairs. Brendon looked up and saw two slender ladies. One of them, a brunette in a blue dress with bows, was an incomparable beauty. The second was dressed even more splendidly, but for some reason she hid her face under a veil. Was she a sorceress, perhaps? Effigenia also liked to throw a black veil over her head from time to time. She was rumored to enhance her connection to the spirits that way. Someone more realistic asserted that she was hiding age-related wrinkles. Since she used the veil most often in bright daylight, the second is more likely. What about the mistress of this castle? Brendan was sure it was the lady under the veil who was the mistress, because only a princess could afford such an expensive outfit, embroidered with gold thread and pearls. Is she hiding her face because she has made some elaborate vow to the gods? Or is it because she is ugly?

In any case, Brendan was more attracted to the first girl. She had black sable eyebrows, violet eyes, a chiseled profile, and soft dark hair that cascaded down her bare shoulders. In a word – beautiful! Except that her plump pink lips pouted dismissively at the sight of a mere minstrel. Perhaps she was waiting for a prince. A mere musician showed up. And he was in his dusty clothes. If only she knew how difficult it was to run through the magic fields without tearing his clothes.

«It is another guest!» She blurted out phlegmatically, as if Brendan were a disappointment to her.

«I am not a guest. I am an employee,» he immediately tried to prove his usefulness and showed her the lute. «I am a minstrel.»

It was as if the beauty had not heard him.

«We’ve had many guests before, and they’ve all disappointed us. Maybe we’ll have better luck with this one.»

What’s she talking about? And what’s with the way she talks about him like he’s a piece of furniture? Either he’s being deliberately mocked, or he’s misunderstood something.

«If I’m not welcome here, I’ll be going,» Brendan was reluctant to leave, but he turned around defiantly.

«You’re not going anywhere,» the pretty girl said arrogantly. «We don’t let our guests leave so quickly.»

Would she go down the stairs to the hall to greet him as usual, or should he ignore decorum and go up himself? There are no guards around, so you can behave however you want.

Brendan brazenly went up himself, though no one invited him. The flight of stairs was even more chic than the one below. And the brunette was even prettier up close. Except that in the light of the sconces you could see the deep scratches on her neck and shoulders.

«A cat scratched you, too!» Brendan wanted to roll up his sleeve and show her the scratches, but she snorted angrily.

«What makes you think it’s a cat?»

«I just thought…»

He thought he’d found a comrade in grief.

«I know from experience that pampered palace cats are not always affectionate to the lords’ minions.

«Watch your tongue. You insult us.»

«Whom do you mean? Are they you, her, the cats? Or are they the minions of noble lords?» Brendan realized that if the beautiful woman was the mistress’ companion, then the word «hangers-on» might have been applied to her before he had. Then no wonder she was so angry. It was not clear why her mistress suddenly felt so unwell. The lady under the veil almost fainted.

Brendan could only now see how splendid her attire was. The corset was embroidered with tiny diamonds, the sleeves were decorated with sapphires, and the layered skirts were made of the most expensive Aluar’s brocade. Only kings could afford such. The lady herself, judging by her graceful figure, is worthy of the costume. Her waist is as narrow as a hornet’s waist. Her movements are supple. Her posture is haughty. What is her face like, he wondered? It can’t be an ugly face in such a graceful lady! Her voice is very pleasant.

«Do not be offended, Rebecca. He meant no harm,» said the veiled lady to her companion, or lady’s confidante, or servant.

«You are an angel of mercy! You know what I mean!» Brendan encouraged his hostess. «By the way, I am a very talented minstrel. My music makes people, and even snakes, feel as euphoric as if they had gone to heaven.»

Well, if you don’t praise yourself, no one will know how good you are! Rebecca looked at Brendan with great doubt. He wasn’t lying. She was the only one who was a liar. The scratches on her skin were obviously cat’s scratches. Only a cat could have made such marks on her shoulders, her neck, part of her cheek, even her arms. Brendan only now considered how serious the damage was. Maybe that’s what made her so angry. He couldn’t handle the Bastard himself, so he endured the pain of the scratches. It was impossible to negotiate peace and friendship with the royal cat. Thankfully, Rebecca’s thin scratches on her cheek didn’t spoil her at all. They were fresh. You could still see blood on them. But when they healed, there might not be any scars left. Brendan himself had hardly any scars from the Bastard’s claws.

«Cats, when they scratch, they just play,» he whispered to Rebecca. «Next time you don’t play with the pet with your bare hands, you’d better take the ribbon.»

Rebecca herself almost hissed with anger at the friendly advice, like a real cat.

«Idiot!» She muttered to herself under her breath.

«He us so handsome and so stupid,» her veiled companion said thoughtfully.

«What’s that?» Brendan couldn’t help it.

«It’s all right.»

«You need your rest. We have a bedroom for guests,» said Rebecca, who had taken a candle from the ornamental table, though there was enough light from the sconces on the walls.

«You must have hundreds of bedrooms here,» Brendan followed the ladies inside the castle, marveling at the lavish surroundings. True, there were too many locked rooms. But the gilded doors gave the impression of wealth and luxury.

«Are you the mistress of the castle?» Brendan wished he could see the mysterious lady’s face under a layer of silk. The beige veil with lace trim was, alas, opaque.

«She’s the local princess,» Rebecca snapped. «She owns all the land and everything in it.»

«Then she’s magic, because there’s a lot of magic in the lands around your castle,» Brendan blurted out, and then bit his tongue. If she really did make all that magic he’d escaped from in the night, she could hardly be expected to cast a spell on him. Turn him into a toad, for instance. He is being disrespectful. You have to agree with witches, or you’ll be in a lot of trouble.

«Am I a sorceress?» The lady gave a very theatrical show of amazement. «That’s the first I’ve heard. I have been called many things-beautiful, a heartbreaker, a rival, a senseless person who sends knights to their doom-but never a sorceress.»

Her train, like a tail, whipped Brendan to his feet. It was certainly not done on purpose, but somehow he was still embarrassed. It was as if he’d been put in his place.

«You’ll play for me tomorrow night at dinner,» the princess decided.

Why not tonight? It’s suppertime-unless they’ve decided to skimp on the minstrel’s food tonight.

«They’ll bring your supper to your chambers. You are tired. Tonight you will rest and eat, and tomorrow you will entertain us.»

Now that’s noble. He thought he’d be exploited at once.

«Thank you!»

But the princess had already slipped behind one of the closed doors, and Rebecca led him down the corridor. There was no flirting with her. The beauty was very serious.

«Do not think that if you are allowed to stay, you can do anything,» she warned.

«Can I see the cat that scratched you so? Does it live in the Princess’s apartments?»

The Bastard always slept and ate in the King’s apartments. It must be the same here. He wondered what the local cat’s name is. «Is it the Sadist? Is it Lady Scratchy? Or is it just Rival?» Rebecca was definitely hurt by it, so to her the princess’s cat was no other than a rival.

«If you were smarter, you wouldn’t ask so many questions.»

«You sound like a schoolteacher. Where are we going, by the way?» Brendan quipped. Rebecca’s coldness hurt him. It’s not nice when a pretty girl pretends she’s not interested in you. Nothing! After listening to him play, she’ll be kinder. All girls love to hear minstrels.

At the end of the corridor was a winding spiral staircase.

«It’s the way to the tower,» Rebecca explained.

«Is my bedroom is in the tower?»

«Yes, it is.»

«I feel like a prisoner.»

«Don’t be so dramatic. You’re a guest, of course.»

The lock on the door was strong. Rebecca opened it with a key from a large bundle she carried with her. Behind the door, however, it was so luxurious that Brendan dismissed the notion of a dungeon. The silk-covered walls, the paintings on the ceilings, and the abundance of upholstered furniture created aristocratic comfort. The bed under a lush canopy was the size of an entire tent, and there were vases of flowers on the cherry wood tables. A tray of supper was already waiting here. He wondered who had brought it. Brendan did not notice the servants. They must have learned to sneak around like shadows. With Rebecca’s nervousness, it was no wonder they’d been trained that way.

Who would have thought that a wandering minstrel would be treated like a nobleman? Something’s not right after all. Either they suspected he wasn’t who he said he was. Or his uncle has sent out messengers with news that he’s wanted. He must be on his guard. Brendan locked the door with a latch and prepared in advance a rope from a torn sheet to escape through the window in case of capture. It was very high up here, but there were bushes of vines twisting below the tower. Their vines braided the window vault. It was a pity they were not so strong that they could be climbed down at once.

Brendan’s entire dinner consisted of fruit. Not a crust of bread. He wasn’t used to this kind of diet, but it was better than nothing. A pitcher of fine ale supplemented his diet. The ale was unaccustomedly strong. The first sip made him insufferably sleepy. Brendan hoped he might dream again about the blonde called Rashelina.

Prisoner’s Dream
The vines whispered something and reached out to choke him, like living snakes or dryad hands. Brendan now understood the warning of the whisper that hovered over the fields. The whispers might be a warning to the vines coming to life. They were whispering about his fate.

«Would he survive, would he not survive? Will he love – will he not love?»

Their whispering was like a little counting rhyme.

«Would the same thing happen to him that happened to everyone else? Or was he the only one who would make it?»

«He looked like a smart guy!»

Brendan fluttered his eyelids open sleepily. Could the vines really be whispering, zigzagging above his bed? He was dreaming! He’d have to be out of his mind to believe they were reaching out the window like living hands.

«Look! He’s got a handkerchief with the King’s crest on it!»

«He must have stolen it!»

The voices were still whispering, and the tip of the grapevine slid down his neck. Brendan pushed it away with his hand and sat down. When he had entered this bedroom, the vines had only hung around the high arched window, but now they lay imposingly across the rug and even draped a border around the bottom of the four-poster. What the devil is this? Or had he not looked carefully the first time?

To one of the vines was indeed clung his new handkerchief, with an Aluar’s crown embroidered in the corner. It was a gift from his uncle! He certainly hadn’t stolen it. But could one of the mischievous vines have stolen it right out of his pocket?

It’s worth a walk. There’s something wrong with this room. Perhaps insidious Rebecca had deliberately put him in a haunted tower. Everything is to be expected of that proud girl. Unlike the princess, she doesn’t like visitors. Perhaps that’s why the castle is so quiet and there are no servants to be seen at all. Rebecca has driven everyone out of here. But he can’t be handled that easily. He was used to his uncle’s mentoring, he would get used to Rebecca’s whims.

Brendan was sure the door was locked from the outside, but he was wrong. It gave way easily. He strode down the empty corridors of the castle. All the rooms looked uninhabitable, but luxurious. There was lots of feline molding all around. But the cats themselves were nowhere to be seen.

Brendan touched the gilded symbols embossed on the walls and columns. The patterns are amusing, as if a wizard had painted the marble with witchcraft symbols. It’s definitely an imitation of magical writings! It was well done. Even Ephigenia couldn’t do it. And it also glows in the dark!

His fingers ached to touch the murals and his eyes felt as if a sheath had been taken off his eyes. Brendan only now noticed the hideous, deep scratches on the furniture, the sculptures, and even the walls. They certainly weren’t cat’s claw’s prints. They were more like tiger’s or a cheetah’s. Or maybe they were something bigger. Suddenly the dreadful legends of woodland werewolves sprang to mind.

Brendan felt sick to his stomach. But why should he be so nervous? It was a field, not a wilderness. But in those fields he had encountered more evil creatures than he could count in hell, much less in the woods. What if one of those things got into the palace?

«Hey! Somebody! Help me!» A desperate voice came from somewhere on the lower floors. It was barely audible, but Brendan broke out in a cold sweat.

A trellis just caught his eye, completely torn apart by someone’s claws. And on the mantel screen he could see the furrows from five large claws.

«Where are you?» Brendan climbed down the stairs, trying to determine which side the voice was coming from.

«Go this way! Quick! It is before they come back!»

The voice was clearer now. How much anguish there was in it! It was as if the unfortunate man had been tortured.

Brendan had seen the executions of traitors and rebels in Aluar, but he had never heard such despair in anyone’s voice.

Trying to find the victim, he went deep into the cellars. It was damp and cold. Cobwebs laced the walls. Instead of the customary cellars with wine and food supplies, there were cells with bars. The floor was flooded. Clamps bolted to the walls where chains had been fastened. Where had he gone?! Maybe he should turn back, but Brendan heard another call for help. How could he not help? No good fellow would leave a man in trouble. And Brendan was very kindhearted. This time it was on his own head. Because the prisoner discovered in the dungeon was definitely insane.

At any rate, his eyes gleamed madly in his pale, feverish face. His neck was crushed by an iron collar from a chain embedded in the wall. That’s the kind they usually put on crazy people. Brendan would have turned back if he hadn’t noticed the deep scratches from the paws of an unknown animal on the prisoner’s body. The same scratches as on the walls upstairs!

«Who are you?» Brendan came up to the bars. «I’m from Aluar myself, and…»

«It doesn’t matter who you are! It doesn’t matter who I am! We’ve got to get out of here…»

If it hadn’t been for the bars separating them, the mad prisoner would have clung to Brendan’s collar.

«Come on, let’s go!»

«But how could we escape?» Brendan was taken aback. «Where are the keys to your um… fetters?»

It was as if the prisoner only now realized that he was shackled and frustrated.

«That’s right. You are the only one who can escape. Run to Aluar! Get help! Tell them it’s urgent! I’m the ambassador from there myself.»

«I never saw you there,» Brendan said, scrutinizing the pale face as if he did not recognize the prisoner as anyone he had met at Court.

«Don’t go into details!» The prisoner pressed himself against the bars, as if he could walk through them. «Get out of here! You will thank me later for my advice.»

He does not think so! He is comfortable here too! Unlike the prisoner, he does not sleep in chains, but in a comfortable bed. Except that the vines have become restless. Perhaps the prisoner had such hallucinations too, which is why he is sitting here now.

Again there was a bad suspicion that Rebecca deliberately put him in the tower, which is haunted, driving everyone who sleeps there crazy.

«You didn’t happen to sleep in the tower before you got here?»

«You’re out of your mind, boy!» The prisoner sounded like Brendan’s own thoughts. Their opinions about each other seemed to be mutual. Each suspected the other of losing his mind.

«You have to get out of here and tell them it’s time to attack the castle, or they will attack Aluar.»

«Who is it? There’s no one here but pampered women and a couple of servants, I suppose.

«There are cats,» the prisoner whispered fearfully.

«Only plaster and marble ones. I haven’t seen any real ones.»

Brendan would have been more likely to believe that there were werewolves, clawing at the furniture, if the man had told him there were.

«It is peaceful here,» he tried to reassure the poor creature, but he found the man was in a feeding frenzy, uttering one absurdity after another.

«Cats leash people up in here,» he finally blurted out.

«What is it? Are you serious?»

«Get out of here!» It sounded like an order.

«Okay, I’ll really go,» Brendan hurried toward the exit.

«And get some help!»

«Yes, yes… of course… don’t worry…»

Where would one come from? The prisoner must be out of his mind. Two exquisite noblewomen live in the palace. Not even guards at the door, and no sentries in the towers. What’s there to worry about? Why hasn’t a physician been called to this madman? Perhaps the physician lives too far away. Even at the royal court, there’s only one physician.

There’s a reasonable explanation for everything, if you think about it. Brendan returned to the tower and went back to sleep, forgetting all about the night walk into the dungeons. And in the morning he decided that he had only dreamed it all.

Vines of grape
Early in the morning Rebecca herself knocked on his door, but she did not bring the tray with the light breakfast (again, of only fruit). Somehow it had ended up on the bedside table. Who had put it there? Had not the living vines slipped the tray through the window?

«Good morning to you!» Rebecca said hello, but she did not look friendly.

Rebecca clearly didn’t want to get along with him. To hell with her! Let her be arrogant.

Brendan quickly devoured his breakfast, which consisted only of orange and pineapple slices. They should have brought a ham sandwich or at least a cheese sandwich! Has the feudal estate become so impoverished that there is nothing but fruit from the garden to feed the guest?

He could ask Rebecca about it directly, but she is so prickly that it is better not to annoy her with unnecessary questions, or else she will give an angry tirade. Brendan didn’t like confrontation. It was better to keep quiet so as not to argue.

There must be no bread in the castle because of the evil creatures that occupied the fields and drove all the peasants somewhere. After all, to get bread, someone must work the land, sow, plow, and then take the harvest to the mill.

«Where did all those things come from in the fields? Brendan couldn’t stand it any longer.

Rebecca struck him again with a wave of icy contempt.

«You are dreaming!» She muttered.

Tonight she wore a beautiful light outfit with pink ruffles. She was crumpling a bowed hat in her hands.

«Let’s go for a walk in the garden!» She commanded rather than suggested.

«Am I not supposed to play for the princess?»

«Her Highness does not wake so early,» replied Rebecca in a stern tone.

How capricious princesses are! Does she sleep till afternoon or evening?

«My uncle,» said Brendan, «always wakes up with the rooster.»

«Is your uncle a prince or a king?» Brendan sarcastically snickered.

«Actually…» Brendan realized he’d almost blurted out whose nephew he was. He’s traveling incognito.

«Shut up!» Rebecca took his hesitation as a guilty pleasure at the awkward joke. «You don’t know the etiquette of nobles.»

«What’s up, noble persons!» Brendan muttered to himself. «They are sleeping until dusk, like werewolves.»

At just the right time he was reminded of the tortured man who had been chained up like a werewolf caught in the woods. What if…? Brendan was taken aback by his own hunch. Why were there so few people in the castle? He followed Rebecca through sumptuous enfilades of halls that were empty. There were no servants, not even the steward. Even if his attendants were confined to a discrete wing, the steward was sure to intrude.

«Where is everyone?» Brendan asked Rebecca as she led him into the fragrant garden, with its many fountains and pergolas.

«Who is everybody?» She made a puzzled expression.

«Well… the other inhabitants of the castle.»

«Am I not enough for you? Would you prefer the company of a noble lady to noisy drunken company?»

«No. I’m sorry! I meant no offence.»

«But you have!» Rebecca opened the fan with a bang, the slats of which again bore a scene of kittens playing with a ball. The sight of those kittens was somehow frightening. It looked like you were about to be in their claws instead of a ball of fur.

Brendan was distracted by the beauty of the garden. There were such rare flowers blooming here that he didn’t know the names of them. But mostly roses dominated. Their wattles stretched across arbors, steps, columns, gazebo roofs, even the ground. Only the water they did not reach. The lily ponds seemed abandoned without ducks or drakes. Just wait for the webbed paw of a waterman to poke out of them.

«Where’s the gardener?» It seemed to Brendan that the boxwood bushes had not been pruned in a long time. And the gladiolus bushes were neglected. Some black stems sprouted between the flowers, like weeds.

«We don’t need it!» Rebecca whistled melodically, and the vine, suddenly detached from the arbor on which it twisted like a living snake. It put her arm around Rebecca’s waist and helped her climb up the rose-covered stairs that led to the large, round fountain.

«So they really are alive!» Brendan watched in horror as the long vines separated from the walls, and as if his hands were pulling apart the bushes blocking the passage, even finding a basket and scissors so that Rebecca could cut the roses.

«Why do you think there are no guards in the castle? If it weren’t for them,» she gently stroked one naughty vine that was trying to pull her hat off, «we’d have an army to protect Her Highness’s domain.»

«I’ve never seen anything like it!» Brendan whistled, and one vine nearly strangled him.

«Don’t whistle in their presence!» Rebecca snapped at him. «And don’t make any sudden moves! Otherwise they’ll think you’re a thief.»

«It is all right!» Brendan gradually became accustomed to treating the vines courteously, like living beings.

As luck would have it, there were just as many grapes in the garden as there were roses. They twisted along the walls and towers, stretched along the parapets of the fortress wall, even wrapped around the roof. If it’s all alive, it’s no wonder the castle hasn’t been occupied by invaders yet.

«Are the berries alive, too?»

«No, you can pick the berries. But you try to prune them, and they’ll strangle you,» said Rebecca, looking triumphant, as if Brendan had walked into a trap.

«If you’d known it was so risky, you wouldn’t have come to us at any price,» she said, her gaze informing him.

«Are you picking roses for the princess?» Brendan guessed.

Rebecca nodded haughtily.

«Does she like roses? There are plenty of more harmless flowers. I don’t like roses myself, because I’ve often pricked myself on their thorns. But honestly, you’re prettier than roses. They just stabbed you!»

«What do you mean?» Rebecca didn’t even frown upon him for his impertinence. «I pick roses with gloves on. I’ve never been pricked.»

«I mean the scratches on your shoulders! They’re so deep! They don’t hurt!»

«Is it scratches?» She was amazed. «You imagined it.»

You were dreaming! You imagined it! What kind of game is she playing with him? He could see the marks of the five claws on her arms, her shoulders, even her cheekbone.

«You’re like the bride of a werewolf who flirts with him at night and hides her dangerous affair by day.»

«You’ve read too many fairy tales!» Rebecca barked at him.

«I do not read them at all!»

«Then how do you know about werewolves? Have you ever seen one?»

Yeah, Brendan almost said it, the one on a chain in your dungeons. But it was better to keep quiet about the nightmare. Rebecca would have laughed at him.

«Tell me honestly, do you have a werewolf beau?» Brendan was getting bolder with his theories.

«No!» she retorted. «I don’t have a beau.»

«Probably it is because of your prickly disposition, but frankly, your wicked tongue aside, you’re as pretty as a rose.»

Rebecca was about to scold him, but softened when she heard the compliment. All women adore compliments. Here she is no exception. It’s worth continuing to flirt with her.

«You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life,» Brendan admitted honestly. «Well, it is except for the one pretty girl I just dreamed about.»

You have to be honest to the end. The blonde named Rashelina, who flashed in his witchy dream, was far more beautiful than the graceful brunette Rebecca.

«Don’t believe in dreams!» Rebecca said. «Don’t believe in werewolves, either. It’s all nonsense, invented by the local plowmen.»

«Where do you see any plowmen? The fields are empty!» Brendan peered through a peep-hole in the vine-clad wall. He saw black silhouettes in the fields. Then they vanished.

«You’ll get sunstroke if you don’t get out of the shade!» Rebecca quipped again.

Brendan obediently stepped back, and glanced casually at the castle window. He must have thought he saw a large, clawed paw pull the curtain back. He wondered if a werewolf could live in a palatial castle. They usually nested in the thicket of the forest. And they do exist. Word once came to the Court of Aluar of a pack of werewolves. They terrorized the Northern. The King took it seriously and sent a band of knights to help. Brendan himself had seen no werewolves, but the scratches on Rebecca’s shoulders worried him. She’s definitely having an affair with a young werewolf boy who peeks into the castle at night. That’s why she’s so unkind to the other guys. After all, werewolves have a knack for flipping beauties and seducing women in such a way that they no longer want to see ordinary men.

How to make it clear to Rebecca that she was caught in a web of enchantment, not true love. She was just whistling some dark ballad about a queen who fell in love with a demon. Such frightening tales even Brendan had never heard before.

The sun-drenched garden grew darker with the song. There was no longer a whisper from the vines, but a grunt of dissatisfaction.

«Would you like me to play lute?» Brendan politely suggested to Rebecca.

«No!» she declined.

«Don’t you like the sound of the lute?»

«I don’t like music in general, and I don’t like yours in particular!»

«But you yourself hum about demons.»

«You have auditory hallucinations!»

There she goes again. Secrecy! Cunning! Insubordination! Insolence! What kind of behavior? Rebecca was clearly in love with some werewolf and hiding all evidence of a connection with him. Brendan hadn’t even considered the possibility that she, for example, might be a werewolf herself. She didn’t scratch herself.

Candlelight Feast
By evening there were no more people in the castle. Brendan kept expecting to see servants who were not there. He even got a little creepy. Only plaster seals squinted at him from all sides. There were caryatids and bookends and stucco decorations on the walls. Even the candelabras are not the typical cupids, but pussycats.

He wished he’d met one living cat. Brendan had long dreamed of a cat of his own with it they would have mutual love. The Bastard, as luck would have it, preferred Uncle King and purred exclusively for him. He wished he had a personal furry friend of his own.

«No more lazing about!» Rebecca caught him looking at the murals. «Her Highness wants to see you in the feast hall!»

«Where’s that?»

«I’ll show you out. Don’t forget to bring your lute.»

«Are there any other guests there besides me?»

«What difference does it make to you whether to play for one princess or an audience?»

«Don’t sulk! Let’s be friends!»

«We’re already friends!» Rebecca responded indifferently.

And you call that friendship?! What, then, was her enmity and hatred? Brendan was even frightened.

Rebecca acted like a stern nun, but she was dressed even vulgarly. The morning dress had been replaced by a provocative evening gown with a plunging neckline and train. The dress was so bright pink it made her eyes water. Brendan never saw whether Rebecca was holding the candelabra in her hand or whether it was flying ahead of her through the enfilade of the hall.

In the evening, the castle was lit by countless candles in chandeliers and sconces. Who lights them all when there are no servants around? There was something like a low whisper from the flames:

«It is danger!»

Did he hear the warning or was he imagining it? It wasn’t Rebecca who was dangerous! Brendan even glanced around, wondering if some monster was following them down the corridor, but it was quiet and comfortable and unoccupied. Only the candles flickered like the Milky Way.

The feast-room was as opulent as could be. She could have held a whole army, but the princess sat proudly alone at the head of the long table. The usual opaque veil covered her face.

«Take your seat anywhere you like!» She politely offered.

It seemed to Brendan that the velvet covered chairs were occupied. But they were all empty. He thought for a moment and decided to sit at the farthest end of the table. He put the lute beside him and was greatly surprised when the strings jerked. The music began to flow. Didn’t he even have to work? It all worked itself out.

Rebecca walked noiselessly away. Why can’t she stay for dinner? Or does she have some urgent business to attend to? Is it at bedtime? Brendan’s mind was once again filled with thoughts of the werewolf with whom the beautiful girl goes on dates.

«Here you are.» The princess suggested it. She hadn’t touched anything herself. Or had she already eaten?

Contrary to Brendan’s expectations, there were only meat dishes on the table, and not much fruit – only one small vase. And they grow in abundance in the garden. Why save them so much? Grapes, of course, can also be used to make wine. But pears, peaches, plums, if they’re too ripe, they’ll just rot. Maybe they’re used to make juices here.

A mouse sniffed across the table. Brendan shuddered, and suddenly claws peeked out from under the lady’s wide sleeve and clawed at the mouse quite catlike. Was he dreaming? Brendan even pinched himself. Couldn’t a finely dressed lady have slipped a mouse under her veil and eaten it, could she? That’s absurd! The veil was opaque, but there seemed to be blood flowing from underneath. Or was it wine?

«Would you care to show your face?» He asked.

«Why should I?» The princess had a beautiful voice. A pure soprano!

«Well, it would be much more comfortable to eat and drink without the veil.»

«I am comfortable as it is.»

There was an awkward pause. Brendan himself fidgeted in his chair like a frying pan. He felt uncomfortable here for some reason.

«I’ve heard of hot eastern countries where women aren’t supposed to reveal their faces. Your ancestors are probably from such a country.»

«No, I’m from here. I am from this castle.»

«Is it a cat’s castle?»

«Do you say a cat’s castle?» She was astonished.

«Are there many cats here? I haven’t noticed any.»

«There aren’t even many mice.»

«Are they considered a delicacy?» Brendan bit his tongue as the awkward pause lingered again.

«It’s a wilderness,» the princess finally said. «But we’re in the castle, the center of civilization. So you’re lucky not to spend the night in the fields.»

«Does anyone live in the fields? You can’t see the settlements from the tower.»

«They’re camouflaged.»

«Why is that?»

«There are raids from the mountains. Wild tribes live there.»

«And the castle can withstand the onslaughts?»

«We have a treaty with the savages. They don’t come here.»

«I haven’t embarrassed you too much. I have noticed that the castle is not very fond of receiving guests,» was a subtle hint of Rebecca’s unkindness.

«I am glad to have guests,» the princess protested.

«So why don’t you show your face?»

«Why is it so important to you? Do you think you can judge a lady by her beauty alone?»

«I prefer intelligence,» Brendan admitted honestly. «I’ve already met empty-headed beauties.»

«Good! So it doesn’t matter what I look like to you.»

«You’re not pretty, are you? Or is your face covered with a rash? Or is it smallpox?»

«Are you a healer, too?»

«It is not at all.»

«Then don’t ask.»

«Forgive me for not being delicate.»

Her tone overwhelmed him, so playful and yet so commanding. She was about to put him on a leash like a tame cat.

«You’re good-looking,» the princess remarked playfully. «Handsome fellows usually prefer the ugly ones. Opposites, as we all know, mutually attract.»

«Honesty is for honesty! I liked your companion Rebecca, though she was not amiable.»

«Yes, she can’t give hospitality.»

«But at least she set the table.»

«That’s not her.»

«Who is it?»

«They are the servants.»

«But I haven’t seen any servants here.»

«You don’t have to.»

«Are they all covering their faces, too?»

Have they got some kind of epidemic here? It’s time to run away! But Rebecca doesn’t seem to have leprosy.

«It’s embarrassing that I still don’t even know your name.»

«I am Rashelina,» said the princess.

«Are you Rashelina?» Brendan almost fell out of his chair. The same name as the fairytale beauty in his dream! Could he be so lucky to see her in real life, too? His heart fluttered. He was so in love with the girl from the dream that it was time to call him insane and put him on a chain. Barely had the chance to look at her again, he himself was ready to violate etiquette and violently rip the veil from the mistress of the castle.

«I’ll play you on the condition that you show me your face,» he delivered his ultimatum, as if he were the castle’s invader, not a beggar.

«But tonight is not a moonlit night.»

– What has a moonlit night to do with it?

That’s absurd! What does a moonlit night have to do with her veil?

«I usually only take my veil off on a moonlit night.»

«Why do you say that?»

Rashelina hesitated.

«Daylight, like candlelight, is not friendly to me.»

That sounds like a riddle. Brendan didn’t like riddles because he didn’t know how to solve them.

«I thought you’d taken some stupid vow, like a vow of silence or a vow of celibacy.»

But is there any vow that requires one to cover one’s face with a veil?

The lute played itself. Brendan was taken aback by the sight of the strings, as if they were being plucked by invisible fingers.

– I want to dance,» said Rachelina, fretting. – And there is no one to dance with but you.

«Take off your veil and I’ll dance with you!»

«It is very well!» Rashelina gave in and threw back the sliding piece of opaque silk from her face. Brendan was stunned.

Well, there you have it! Such a face was worth seeing. Or was it better not to see it?

And he brought up the subject of beauty. Rashelina was the prettiest she had ever been. But she was a cat! Who could have a cuter face than a pretty, fluffy cat? Except that he had expected to see the girl from his dream, not a human-sized cat dressed in a lavish ball gown.

«Would you prefer an ordinary lady?? Rashelina guessed.

«It is not at all,» Brendan mumbled. «I love cats!»

He would not have insulted the lady of the castle by dreaming that he had seen in her place the beauty of the dream. She was also called Rachelina. Alas, he was faced with a very different Rashelina. Perhaps the first was just a dream spirit, a moon fairy or something like that. Anyway, one could only meet her again in a dream. And now it is not a dream. Rashelina, impatiently waiting for him in reality, is just a regal cat. There is nowhere to go. He led her in a dance.

Invisible guests
The cat’s paw lay on top of his palm very gently, trying not to run her claws over his skin. And lace cuffs froth over the cat’s paw. Brendan had never before in his life seen precious rings even on the paws of a well-groomed Bastard. But the feline princess was wearing many rings: rubies, sapphires, and topazes. The cat’s kingdom is obviously very rich.

Stop! Why did he think it was a cat’s kingdom? After all, Rebecca is not a cat. And he hadn’t noticed any other feline subjects here yet, either. The creepy monsters in the fields were definitely not of feline stock. Which meant the cat was only a princess. Was her pretty, fluffy face a mask? Brendan dismissed the notion at once. The cat lady in front of him was definitely a natural, not a masquerade. Even the tone of her voice reverberated with a purr or a rumbling.

After the dance, the floor was covered in scratches. Apparently, the claws on the princess’s feet had left marks on the parquet.

«You weren’t as surprised as my other guests,» said Rachelina. «Have you seen anyone like me before?»

«I’ve seen a lot of things in my life,» Brendan brushed them aside.

«You’re too young to be a seasoned traveler. You’ve been a vagabond since you were a boy, haven’t you?»

Well, the cat princess had caught him in a lie. What should he do now? He could not tell her that he had only seen the world through Ephigenia’s crystal ball, but that he had been locked up in his uncle’s castle.

«To be honest, I adore cats,» Brendan twisted. «And your feline beauty is beyond all praise.»

«You are flatterer!» Of course, she didn’t blush like a human, but she looked embarrassed.

«I’m not a ladies’ man,» Brendan hastened to object. «I’ve never been a ladies’ man, but cats, in my opinion, are the loveliest creatures on earth. And you are the most extraordinary and delightful cat I have ever met.»

What other words to describe that he was struck by the sight of a cat in a gorgeous lady’s dress and with a tiara between its pointy ears.

«Was that a compliment?» Rashelina guessed.

«It is indeed!»

The cat princess looked strangely at the empty rows of chairs at the banquet table, as if she were waiting for approval from someone. But from whom is it? After all, there were no guests at the table. At least, there were none in sight. Brendan felt sick at the thought that there might be ghosts in the hall. One goblet suddenly tumbled and rolled between the dishes, as if someone had pushed it. And it wasn’t a mouse at all!

«Nearly all the mice in the place must have been captured,» Brendan suggested, just to say something.

«You’re right! There used to be lots of them, but now there are hardly any left. You can never have too many mice.»

She touched Brendan’s fingers inadvertently with her claw.

«Oh, I am sorry!»

«It’s all right.»

Really, it’s nothing. It wasn’t the scratch that bothered Brendan, but the way the princess licked her face predatorily at the mention of mice. She might one day set her sights on the minstrel, too. She is, after all, a cat in human size. So she must have bigger game, too. Now it was clear who had scratched Rebecca. It was no werewolf suitor, by all accounts, and no sign of him. But there was a Mistress with claws. It must be hard to serve under a mistress like that. Anything at all, she’ll scratch you.

«So you said you liked me a lot?» purred or uttered the cat lady.

Is he just hearing things? Or is she asking for more compliments?

«I don’t think so!» Brendan confessed honestly. «Rendezvous with a cat is the nicest thing that’s happened to me in days.»

«Is it with the princess,» said Rashelina, with a matter-of-fact tone.

«You’re the sweetest thing that’s happened to me in days.»

«And you think I’m the loveliest creature you’ve ever seen in your life?»

Yes, it was except for the girl in the dream and the beautiful lady in charge of the cavalcade of elves. But Brendan didn’t want to upset the kitty. She might cut him with her claws, like poor Rebecca.

«Yes!» he nodded. He thought to himself how hard it was for Rebecca to be with such a mistress. She has every claw the size of a knife. No wonder Rebecca was all twitchy and nervous, always on pins and needles.

But the waltz with the cat princess was like a sweet dream. Not counting the claws, Rashelina was so gentle and fluffy. And her muzzle, covered with white-golden wool, was so pleasant to look at. And her eyes were multi-colored, as if some wizard had sharpened a rainbow inside her pupils.

«You’re the prettiest cat in the universe,» Brendan flattered her once again.

«Would you like to stay here with me forever?»

Rashelina’s tone became mellifluous. Brendan had no idea her question was a tricky one.

«Of course there was!»

The lute was instantly silenced, as if a ghost playing the strings had stopped upon hearing his answer. Suddenly laughter erupted at the table, as if dozens of guests had been seated there. Brendan turned around. No one was there. All the chairs were empty. And there seemed to be more candles in the room. And some of them are floating right up above the dance floor.

«The round has begun!» Rashelina proclaimed.

«Do you mean the next dance?»

«No, it is not at all.»

There’s something not quite right. Rashelina looked at him with slightly squinting eyes, as if she’d snatched a bird.

«Is there something I don’t understand?»

«It’s all right,» the feline princess winked at him. «You must wait until the tournament begins.»

«What tournament is it? Is it the music tournament?»

Rashelina laughed a pleasant purr.

«You have a beautiful voice,» Brendan remarked. «I can play for you and you can sing along with my lute, if you like. Or I’ll sing for you.»

«Sing for them,» she turned him toward the empty table.

Who’s there to sing for? Not one chair is occupied. But if the princess wants to fool around, why not play along. Brendan has become accustomed to the Bastard’s caprices: give him a sleeve ribbon, bring him a ball of wool, part with a pearl button he wants to roll across the floor like a ball.

Rashelina has so far behaved far more decently than the Aluar cats. So why not please her?

Brendan picked up his lute and began to recall the notes of one rhapsody. As he tried to sit down in his chair, he was shaken by ice and pushed from his seat. Brendan was taken aback. There really was someone in the empty chair. He seemed to make out vague translucent silhouettes at the table in all the seats except the chair at the head of the table.

«Play the lute!» Rachelina spurred him on. «Everyone here loves music.»

Now Brendan didn’t ask who everyone was. They were there, he just couldn’t see them.

«Your eyesight is poor,» said Rachelina as he peered around the corner of the table, but you have a good ear.

Brendan heard the clinking of glasses before he noticed that the goblets and cups were indeed hovering a millimeter above the table, as if someone invisible were lifting them.

There was nowhere to go. Brendan played just to keep from going crazy. Music always cheered him up.

The invisible guests of Rachelina’s continued to feast, moving dishes around the table. Was there a whole crowd of them or just a few? He could hear them laughing, but he could not see them. He did not see them until he heard the rustling of their clothes. Some of the guests had evidently begun to dance. Brendan realized how difficult it was to play blind. Someone had elbowed him, and he couldn’t even see who it was. The invisibles started pinching and teasing him.

«Play it cool!» Rashelina noticed that the minstrel was nervous.

«How is it? They turn me on?» Brendan snapped when someone shoved him so he couldn’t stand on his feet.

«They’re just jealous,» the cat princess explained. «They sense competition.»

Brendan didn’t understand her again.

«Dinner costs too much here if I have to play for those who want to torture me.»

«It is all right!» Rashelina clapped her hands together. The guests seemed to be gone in a flash. Only the sighs were audible.

«So you can get them out of here?» Brendan opened his mouth in amazement. «I mean, isn’t anyone capable of controlling invisible people?»

«I am, after all, a princess!» The little pussycat lady said.

«And I have to play every night for the invisible?»

«No, after the wedding, you yourself will be the prince here, and you no longer have to earn your bread playing.»

«Is it a wedding?» Clement had a cold sweat on his forehead. Whose wedding is it?»

It was not without reason that he suspected something amiss. Rashelina’s feline face was already a smiling face, but she looked sly all of a sudden.

«You asked me to marry you,» she explained, «because you wished to remain here forever, and by the rules of the realm you proposed to me.»

«I didn’t know there were such rules.»

«But you can’t go back on your word.»

«Even if I turn out to be an imbecile who didn’t know what he was talking about?» Brendan clutched the lute as if it were a shield against misfortune.

«I should be glad to let you go,» she understood his hesitation, «but there is no way to transgress the law of the land. Magic won’t allow it.»

Brendan knew there was magic here, but even he was shocked at the magic laws. Even Ephigenia hadn’t warned him about that.

«My Lady, that is, your feline highness…» Brendan staggered toward the exit. «You are very kind to me, but…»

«But you don’t want to marry a cat,» she prompted.

How aptly put! He couldn’t have put it more accurately. Brendan liked her. He liked her a lot. To look at a cat trained in social manners was a delight to the soul, but to marry her was nonsense! It was as if he had fallen into a nightmare.

«Will you give me a night to think about it?«He said to the princess, or her unseen subjects.

Rashelina merely nodded.

She nodded. «If you refuse, you will be summarily executed,» she warned him in a sorrowful tone.

Brendan did not specify who would execute him. But somehow he had no doubt that there would be invisible executioners. They might be invisible, but they knew how to inflict pain. While he was playing, he was pushed and plucked like a victim. Apparently, they saw him as a victim in the beginning.

Had he known how his visit to the cat’s castle would have ended, he would never have come here. Now all he had to do was escape. In one night he could get far away. He might even be able to take Rebecca with him.

Rebecca could not be found. She, too, is a victim. She must be saved! Otherwise the princess will scratch her to death. And even if she didn’t kill her, she would claw her to death.

Clement scolded himself for thinking Rebecca was a mean girl. You should never sulk at a man for being stern until you know what provoked his sternness. Showing herself a bitch and a prude, Rebecca only wanted to drive him out of the castle, because she knew the danger that threatens him here. And now he can’t even pay her back.

There are so many rooms and locked doors in the castle. Which one could be Rebecca’s bedroom? Clement jerked one handle and burned himself. The metal was red-hot. Another door knob, shaped like a lion’s head, bit him. A third doorknob, shaped like a bear’s mouth, laughed at him.

That’s it! That’s enough! Let Rebecca save herself. And he should take advantage of the forfeit he had struck out. In one night he’ll have time to leave the confines of the kingdom if he runs fast.

And what, in fact, is he running from? A gentle cat’s face and clawed paws? Ridiculous, really! But marriage to a cat is also ridiculous and silly. Not even his uncle would approve of It. Is it possible to call a marriage to the princess a mesalliance?

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