Matt had let a small torrent of people in. One of them, a middle aged woman with a nice smile, said something appreciative in German that sounded like some version of “Ooh, look at the pretty kitty,” and I preened myself up to my full height and came over to say hello.
“Ach du lieber, nein!” snapped a monster of a Lion. He was the biggest human I had ever seen—as tall as near-seven-foot Meeze and built like Dante wearing a Crucio for a suit. Some of it might have been fat, but I wouldn’t be the one to bring the topic up. He interposed himself between me and the rest of the party. My admirer blushed and mouthed something that I took for “I’m sorry!” at me.
“It’s all right, Rudolf,” said a soft-voiced man from somewhere down near his elbow. “I have taken my pills.”
By this time, my daddies had come down behind me and Sasha was glowering up at the cat hater, who said something very fast and nasty-sounding in German.
“Das wird genug sein, Rudolf!” The short man’s voice was no longer soft. Rudolf subsided, glaring at me.
The Kaiser (who else could it be?) extended his hand to Terry and then to Sasha. “My apologies for Lion Hofmann. I have a little allergy to the kittycats. Nothing life-threatening, I assure you, and I have taken my antihistamines. I am Wilhelm von Falkenrath and this is my wife Steffi. We are the Kaiser and Kaiserin of Todeschlag. And you are?” I noticed he didn’t introduce the other four people, but that was okay, because they were all biggish Lions who looked like they wanted to understudy for Schwarzenegger or Van Damme. One was indeed also giving off sorcerer vibes–these were the security Meeze had complained of the prior evening. They made Terry’s “staff” of slender six-foot twenty-year-olds look like a joke. I was almost sorry we didn’t have Privy Councillor Dante on hand to bulk up our impressiveness.
“Terence Riverly, Archimago of Nova Terra, and my Grail Consort, Alexei John, N’vai’tt Van der Linden.” N’vai’tts were the Grails and humani in the Order; Sasha very rarely went by the title, unless it was required by fancy Th’nashi party rules, like this.
Sasha added, “And this is Eureka. We’re sorry; we weren’t told you were allergic. Come on, girlfriend. Basement for you.” This was the usual drill in cases like this. He gathered me up against the Kaiserin’s protests.
Not good enough for Rudolf. “But the air, the air is the same, yes?”
“We’ve just vacuumed,” said Terry, waving a hand about the place in a vague manner.
“We are accustomed to people asking about permission for their animals,” said Rudolf, adding “sir,” at a glare from the Kaiser. “I cannot see why the animal cannot be put outside for the evening.”
Before Sasha could begin an adequate reply to “permission,” let alone the rest of it, the sorcerer Lion broke in.
“If you will have your animal, then we will have ours.” He went back outside and came back with what had to be the hugest Doberman on the planet.
“This is our little Hans. He will be only too delighted to spend the party with us, and play together with your enchanting cat.” He smiled, flashing needle-like fangs which seemed nastier than any I’d seen so far–sure, Meeze had the cobra-like Todeschlagi fangs, and yeah, he used them as occasional punctuation–all the Fangs did–but this was the first hint of Boris Karloff I’d gotten. I shivered.
For reasons known only to Bast, most dogs bred to guard are big, sloppy puppykins when not in immediate kill mode, and Hans was no exception. After a fast sniff to catalog my daddies and Matt, who was still hovering, Hans stepped forward and got a big slobbery inhale of myself. I didn’t say any of the things that came first to mind, like “Get one drop of your saliva on me and your nose will need a slipcover,” because in Cat all that stuff comes out in hisses, and I didn’t want to give the Toadies the satisfaction. Instead, I gave him a feather-light tap on the nose, letting my paw linger for a moment, and said sotto voce, “Note the velvet? It’s deliberate. You play nice, I’ll play nice.” None of the humans detected anything other than the playful kitty batting at the puppy, which was my plan.
“Alles es gut!” he panted. “I only chase the cats to amuse my humans. It gives me little pleasure to frighten somebody so much smaller than myself. It is too much, how you say, like playing cat and mouse.” He sat back and his eyes twinkled. A smartass. Could be worse. Much worse.
“Touché,” I admitted. “That said, if you want to put the fear of all the gods into any of our mice, feel free. I’ve been under the weather for the last couple of days.”
He cocked his head. “I am sorry to hear it, Fraulein.” Very polite, very sincere. Put the Kaiser and his Lions on the miles-long list of people who should take lessons from their dogs. I did wonder whose foot had come down and kept him from being a bully, though, and then I caught Hans giving the Kaiserin an adoring look and figured it out.
Sasha put me down with slow, deliberate care. I went up to Hans and sniffed noses. “Let’s not give your men the show they want, hmm? Your mistress-lady seems a very good sort indeed.”
“She is the sun, the moon, and the Hunter, and I am the star at her heel,” he panted. “Would you let her caress you? She would love a cat beyond all things.” He sounded sad at not being as big a universe to her as she was to him.
I went up and gave the big love to the Kaiserin’s ankles and she laughed like a happy little child. But, “Steffi, liebschen, if you touch the cat you will have to wash your hands with the special soap,” hummed her husband; and so she just stood there with shining eyes.
“He’s a treat and a half,” I remarked to Hans. We strolled into the living room, him sniffing for all he was worth and chuckling at the faces of a few of Terry’s Councillors and other Th’nashi Beautiful People, all of whom were invited as camouflage for what was really no more than a high-level butt sniff.
“Ugh! Do not get me started. I don’t know why she married him. She gave up her cat to her roommates, but cried so at night that they got her a puppy. Me, obviously. I am four now, but I feel as if I were fifteen.”
“They mistreat you?” I gasped.
He shrugged with his big nose. “I cannot say mistreat. But there is a love of power. They expect me to play Big Mean Dog. It gets tiring. Wilhelm, he’s maybe not so bad in and of himself. The cat allergy is really pretty severe–say, before we leave, would you be so kind as to roll all over me? If they were stupid enough to try a play like this, it would only serve them right. They will have to give me a bath.”
I choked with laughter. “You’ve got yourself a deal. But you were saying?”
“It’s not so much Wilhelm as the structure of the House. You know that Todeschlag had allied itself with the Nazis, yes?”
“I’d heard something about that somewhere. And that something dreadful was done after the War to punish them, but I don’t know the details.”
He chortled without humor, a low woof that made some of the humans uneasy. “Chatte’d’garcon set up the world’s biggest spay/neuter clinic. For humans. And hanged people by mouthfuls. It set out to eradicate the House. To punish genocide, Contract committed genocide itself.”
I gasped. This didn’t sound like the bumbling Contract I knew. Or thought I knew.
He nodded. “By the time they figured out what I must say was an obvious moral issue, it was almost too late. Today there are less than 300 Todeschlagi left, and that number has grown–almost everybody in the House who survived the onslaught intact bred in a frenzy. It’s a good thing that the genes tend to be dominant. The only House more or less sure of taking the litter away from us is the Chatties themselves.”
Hence Rita, I thought. Aloud, I said, “I would think this would make Todeschlag a little less ready to offend.”
He laughed again. “Ah, but you see, you are thinking in terms of ‘lessons learned.’ The lesson learned was not that ‘You have perpetrated a horror,’ but ‘we are all monsters, it’s just that you got caught at it.’ Or something to that effect. The result is that the House is very defensive, very back-to-back, and they play up the Nazi kitsch purely because it pisses people off. Unfortunately, nice liberal American Th’nashi by and large feel much guilt over what their parents did to the poor Toadies, so the Kaiser is making hay while the sun shines, I heard someone say once. This is just one more night to try to make a little political capital.
“It helps that very few Th’nashi are Jewish,” he ended, with another humorless little bark.
I realized that I was enjoying myself hugely, having a real conversation with another thinking being. It was my first one since meeting the Crucio. I saw that I had an opportunity to myself answer the question that burned in all our heads.
“What about the Grail slavery?” I asked. “Or is that just fluffed up to sound scary?”
He looked sad. “Nein, Fraulein. It is very real. My mistress is one of only fifteen Gralen known to the House. The rest–and there are less than fifty–are all men. She has an invisible leash.”
“But he’s a Grail himself!” I cried. “What does he need her for?”
“Prestige,” he said. “Your two men, do they love each other?”
I didn’t know how to answer that, partly because I didn’t know what the answer was. I opted to return truth for truth. “Sort of. I don’t know. They’ve been together on and off since they were kittens. I know they would die for each other without thinking about it,” I said, realizing that that was truth. “So maybe they do. But I’ll tell you what, Sasha isn’t property. Not even close.”
“Then he is lucky.” His cruel-cut ears twitched. “Steffi wants me. I will do my party tricks now, with a canape on my nose.” He sighed. “What we will not do for love, eh?” He cocked his head. “Pardon me, Fraulein, but I have never had such an edifying conversation with a cat. Do your people love as well?”
Oy. “We do; we’re just . . . different. We also don’t have good places to put canapes,” I added. He laughed, this time from the belly, and trotted off to his mistress. I went to watch. It was quite the thing. He turned into a dog of stone, sitting there for over fifteen boring minutes trying not to look cross-eyed at a piece of garlic sausage that had the poor fellow drooling on the rug. Then he also fell over dead when shot and shook paws with everybody who was brave enough. As dogs go, he was really quite beautiful, and the Kaiserin got many compliments.
He managed to slip away right before they left, though, and true to my word I rolled all over him, even letting him tickle my belly with that huge snout until I giggled.
“He will be sneezing for days now,” Hans said with satisfaction. “He won’t dare to touch her. She will be able to sleep alone.” A dark chill wafted off his outer soul that made me shiver.
“Hans, do you have any humans to talk to?” I asked. I wanted to trust him. He shook his head, looking at me as if I were nuts.
“I’ve taught a nosy sorcerer about a dozen words of Cat,” I explained. Leave the Crucio out of it, I figured. “Anyway, not that I could get it across, but I was wondering: We have found one of your Grails. She’s older than your Steffi, raised among the humani. My people are afraid she’ll go mad if she is brought home. What do you think?”
“Hide her like a bone,” he said with dismal promptitude. “She is a woman. That makes her valuable. Does her father live?”
“I don’t know.”
“He would only be consulted for politeness anyhow. She would belong wholly to Wilhelm. No, she does now–home or not. Is she beautiful? Most of our people are good-looking.”
“I’m bad at that, but I like her face. She has had a hard life, but her outer soul speaks of benevolence.”
He looked sad. “Hide her like a bone.”
“But why? What would Wilhelm do to her? Beat her? She has dark skin; does that matter to your people?”
He wrinkled his muzzle no. “Well, perhaps some of the older people. Not Wilhelm; he’s a controlling bastard, but I have never pinged any racism in him. No, he will not beat her, but he will sell–no, a better word is rent–rent her to one of his Fang lords. For politics. And because he can.”
“You mean he’d just pick this woman out of her life here in America?”
“What is that clever thing you Americans say? In a New York minute. She would be lucky to see the outside of some great house again.”
Steffi von Falkenrath came up and put her hand on his collar and he sprang to attention. She looked over her shoulder and bent down next to me. She buried her hands in my fur and scritched me all over, kissing the top of my head, which for once I didn’t mind. Then she clucked at Hans, who mimicked her kiss with a playful lick, which I didn’t mind as much as I thought I would.
And they all left, first the Todeschlagi, and then the rest of the guests. At last it was the Tarragon conspiracy: Sasha, Terry, Meeze, and Pharaoh. They muttered half-words at each other and all filed down into the basement, stripping out of their tuxes willy-nilly. They all got into the tub and stared at each other through the steam. Then:
“Other than the Cat Hitler guy, they weren’t so bad, I guess,” ventured Terry. There were noises.
Pharaoh said, “And he’s a Grail himself, which might give him some insight. I can’t say that I’ve met any others to ask about. Is the Kaiserin also a Grail, or is she humani, Meeze? I didn’t feel right poking hard.”
“Grail. I’m saying conspicuous consumption there. I’m not Mr. Touchy Feely”–there was a general snort–”but I don’t think there’s any love lost between those two.”
“I concur,” said Pharaoh, when it was clear that the other three were looking at him as being the one with the social observation skills. He turned to me. “Eureka, I certainly hope the poor lady got you alone and got some kitty petting in.” I flirted my ears forward in a yes, and he beamed to himself while the other men laughed at the thought.
He continued. “Beautiful dog, though. Also the Kaiserin’s, note. Now the Big Bad was a devoted dog owner himself, but I get an overall sense of gentleness from her. I think that if things were left up to her, we’d have no worries. But they’re not. Moreover, I also picked up on some unhappiness, and it might not be purely personal, if you follow me.”
“I wish you’d let me bring Sean into this,” complained Meeze for the jillionth time.
“Maybe later,” Terry said with finality.
To my relief, they decided to keep the Tarragon situation tabled for now. Not as “buried like a bone” as Hans might like, but better than waltzing her up to the von Falkenraths with her pedigree clenched in her teeth and a bow on her head.
We all staggered up to bed far later than I liked. Possibly inspired by the unhappy marriage they had seen, Terry and Sasha did the love-making thing that night. Pharaoh had given me the delicate addendum to Sasha’s story that the criminals had left him enough nerves to be able to enjoy such. Sometimes humans have all the luck. I waited until they were done, then crawled into the spot above Sasha’s pillow where he liked to be able to brush against my purr, and we all fell asleep. I dreamed of being chased by Hans and presented to Steffi as if I were a mouse.