Meeyoo had been missing for days, and King Bewilliam found it difficult to get through the day without her.
The king’s dilemma would likely surprise anyone else. Meeyoo was an ordinary stray cat possessing no magical powers or exotic pedigree.
To King Bewilliam, however, she was special. She had befriended him when she was just a kitten and he was at his life’s lowest point. He had not been king then, just Robin, a penniless vagabond estranged from his kingdom. At the end of a grueling day of hard labor just to keep body and soul together, he would at last bed down for the night. Meeyoo would curl up on his chest and give him comfort.
Now restored to his throne, King Bewilliam held court with Meeyoo by his side. She had her own “throne,” a quarter of a barrel lined with a cushion and placed discreetly behind his grand seat on the king’s dais. Although no one said as much, some might consider it inappropriate or even disturbing that a cat rather than a queen sat next to the king.
There had been a queen. No one spoke of her, not King Bewilliam or his sons or his knights or subjects, her betrayal had been that profound.
A queen had once warmed King Bewilliam’s bed, too. These days, Robin indulged in the occasional dalliance, but if it weren't for Meeyoo he would sleep alone. A king’s pampered pet, Meeyoo had grown big and heavy. While she no longer slept curled up on his chest, but instead on the pillow beside his head, Robin found it difficult to fall asleep without her purred lullaby.
Where was Meeyoo? These last few days holding court Robin would cast a hopeful sideways glance only to see her little throne vacant. Had some harm befallen her? Robin could not imagine what that could be. Bell Castle was a strong fortress, a solid defense against predators both animal and human. Certainly no one here meant her ill. Everyone liked Meeyoo, especially the carpenter who had crafted her throne and the baker who made special treats for her.
Meeyoo must have been enjoying those treats more than usual lately because when Robin had last seen her she looked especially fat and sassy.
He hoped that she had crept into the bedchamber during the night. He called her name but she didn’t answer which was odd. She was a vocal cat. When just a kitten she had spoken to him, told him that they were destined to be companions. “Me. You,” she said. “Me. You.” So he had named her Meeyoo.
Maybe the stubborn feline was playing a game, hiding under the bed. Robin lit a candle to brighten the predawn-dark bedchamber and was disappointed not to find Meeyoo under the commodious bed or snuggled in the fluffy wool blankets heaped at its foot. The extra coverings were an unnecessary precautionary measure. On a winter’s night, a sudden blast from the north could indeed sweep across the Chalklands and make a cold night even colder. However, the windows’ sturdy shutters and bed’s heavy drapes kept all but the strongest drafts at bay.
Meeyoo wasn’t in his ornately carved clothes chest where she liked to burrow if he left the lid open, or on his desk, although if he were there she usually was too. What was it about a cat and documents? It seemed to Robin that the very scroll or parchment on which he worked or book he read was the one on which Meeyoo wanted to sit. Nor was she in his chair. Normally he needed to vacate it only for a minute to find her furry bulk filling the seat on his return.
She wasn’t nosing around the breakfast tray either. Along with the king’s food, the cook always prepared a dish of morsels for Meeyoo: small chunks of fowl or beef, sometimes bits of cheese or fish. As it had the last few mornings, Meeyoo’s meal sat untouched.
Robin nibbled at his own repast, a little smoked fish and some watered wine that was just enough food to stave off hunger throughout a busy morning and keep him sated until dinner. He caught himself eating mindlessly and chided himself. It wasn’t that long ago when vagabond Robin’s morning meal consisted of water and a dried crust of trencher.
Breakfast eaten, he returned to the matter of the errant cat. Meeyoo had to be somewhere in Bell Castle. No more worrying and hoping she’d show up. Today, he would make a concerted effort to find her, conduct a thorough search. The sooner he started looking, the sooner he'd locate her.
Robin rinsed his face and hair but avoided his reflection in the polished brass mirror for fear of finding a new wrinkle near his eye, more gray in his red hair. Yes, maybe he was getting older. Well, of course he was aging but it was beginning to show in his face. Odd. He didn’t feel old; he was as strong and quick-witted as he had ever been. Perhaps a bit portly these days but it behooved a king to look well fed. It spoke reassuringly to the subjects of the kingdom’s prosperity. True, some mornings his joints ached on rising and after a long day of sitting on the throne. After exertion his breathing was a bit belabored. Alright, he reluctantly admitted, he was getting older.
He bid his waiting page to enter, and went about the business of getting dressed. The page shaved Robin’s stubbly cheeks, helped with his many layers of clothing, and adjusted the ermine-trimmed red velvet cloak so that it would drape just right and show the heraldic crest embroidered on the back to its best advantage. Robin was fussy about that. There was a time not so long ago that he had to keep his royal blood a secret. He had removed the ermine trim and stitch by painful stitch plucked out the barry waves, the red shield of the warrior, the orange chevron of ambition, the white bull, and the falcon, transforming what had been a king’s robe into a simple cloak.
Robin began a room-by-room search of Bell Castle’s keep. Once the main defensive structure, the keep now housed royal bedchambers, a private dining hall, storerooms, and below ground, the dungeon.
He started with his sons’ bedchambers. His inspection of his eldest son’s room was cursory. For the most part the room remained closed off since Conrad no longer slept here. Having taken a vow of poverty he eschewed the luxury of royal accommodations and slept on a humble pallet in Bell Castle’s house of worship.
Robin shook his head. Where did young people get these notions? When he was a prince he had no such inclinations. Instead he considered it his highest priority to attain the knowledge and master the skills that would serve him when he took the crown. He had taken eagerly to lessons in martial arts, in diplomacy and negotiation, in military strategy.
Conrad, now Brother Thaddeus, spoke of a desire to serve people. Why couldn’t he see how much good he could do and the multitude of people that he could serve as Prince and ultimately as King of the Chalklands?
Just as problematic was Conrad’s vow of chastity.
Robin sighed, closed the door, and moved on to the bedchamber of Conrad’s younger brother, Zachary. Meeyoo was primarily Robin’s pet but she had taken a liking to Zachary. She sometimes kept him company.
The door stood slightly ajar and Robin could see that the bed was occupied. Flung across the foot of the bed was a handsome gown, yesterday’s garb of the day. The dawn light fell across Zachary’s fair complexion and cast shadows on his cheekbones under dark lashes. Long strands of mahogany hair curled around Zachary’s face. The shading along his jaw could be a trick of the light or whiskers that Robin knew his son would go to great pains to remove before leaving his bedchamber. In the dim illumination, Zachary presented an optical illusion. Was the figure in the bed a young man with delicate features or a tall and robust young woman?
Robin felt a pang and ground his teeth in frustration. Zachary’s insistence on living as a female, on being called Princess Dale, caused Robin pain that never quite subsided. His advisors told him in as gentle and respectful terms as possible that Prince Zachary was becoming a laughingstock.
As a child, Zachary had shown a predilection for play-acting. No one took it seriously and everyone assumed he would grow out of it. Now not only did the adult Zachary pretend to be someone else, he asserted that he wasn’t acting and that Princess Dale was his true self.
Like any parent, Robin wanted to see his children happy, their wishes fulfilled, but he couldn’t believe that this fantasy of Zachary’s was genuine. Like his brother Conrad, Zachary’s personal goals removed him from the line of succession. Robin fervently hoped that Zachary could be brought to adopt the role of Prince of the Chalklands with as much enthusiasm as he embraced the part of Princess Dale. Perhaps in the light of Conrad’s ecclesiastical mission, Zachary saw himself slated to inherit the throne. Maybe he found the prospect intimidating and thought to avoid the responsibilities by assuming another identity. Robin would have to show the young man that he could and probably would someday be king. He would be best served by preparing to rule rather than trying to avoid it.
Not finding Meeyoo anywhere else in the keep, Robin started down the stair tower steps. The lightening winter sky was a dull white. Against the background of unbroken cloud cover flew a single bird so huge it had to be an eagle or perhaps a vulture. It circled over the bailey and then flew off to the woods beyond the castle walls.
Robin descended the keep’s motte and crossed the moat to the bailey. To his right, appetizing aromas and warmth radiated from the kitchen. He fully expected to find Meeyoo there but the kitchen staff said that she hadn’t been seen that morning. “We haven’t seen her for several days, Sire,” said the baker. His furrowed brow spoke of his concern. “We thought that she was with you, was perhaps ill and under your care.”
Robin reassured him that Meeyoo was probably fine, just hiding in a new secret place.
Robin set out for the barracks. He doubted that he would find Meeyoo there; the soldiers’ quarters were noisy and busy and not a place that Meeyoo typically frequented. His gaze scoured the leafless winter shrubbery and trees for anything brown, fluffy, and frisky but all he saw was the occasional crow or sparrow taking flight. He scanned the wall walks and parapets. Guards in numbers representative of a peacetime defense paraded along the top of the curtain walls but no cats accompanied them.
As Robin crossed the bailey, the frost-covered grass crunching under his boots, he noticed the light glowing behind the expensive glass windows in Bell Castle's house of worship. It had once been a simple wooden chapel, small and drafty with dreary unpainted walls. Robin had sometimes wondered if the intent was to make the preacher’s words all the more interesting by contrast.
Brother Thaddeus had enlarged the building and brightened the interior with pale yellow paint, pots of flowering plants in season, and pleasantly scented herbs which even in winter gave the room a warm and inviting ambience. Despite the morning’s chill, the door stood ajar. That was another of Brother Thaddeus’s innovations. “We don’t want anyone to hesitate to enter because of a closed door,” he had said. “We want everyone to know that they can come in any time.”
Robin suspected that Brother Thaddeus would appreciate the monarch stopping by this morning, or any morning for that matter. If Robin attended church at all it had nothing to do with duty to God and everything to do with Brother Thaddeus. Under the pretense of worship, Robin would take the measure of Conrad’s involvement with this inconvenient new vocation, hoping for the day when his son would come to his senses. Robin had yet to see signs of Conrad’s commitment waning and was running out of patience waiting for the young man to behave like the prince he was.
Robin would be the first to admit he lacked devotion to God and he wouldn’t apologize for it, either. His support of enlarging Bell Castle’s chapel was not owed to religious fervor. Rather it was to satisfy a pledge he had made to entice Conrad away from Mathus Abbey, bring him back to Bell Castle and, Robin hoped, into the royal fold. The latter half of that plan had hit a snag but Robin hadn’t given up on it. It was just going to take more time and time was on his side.
Conrad had no particular affection for Meeyoo but she liked the warmth of the church and could sometimes be found there. Robin slipped into the chapel. Under the guise of being engaged in prayer he looked for the cat to no avail. He headed for the door and had just about made his escape when he heard “Good morning, Your Majesty. How wonderful that you would start your day here in God’s house.”
Robin sighed and turned to face Brother Thaddeus or, as Robin preferred to think of him, Prince Conrad, firstborn son and successor to the throne.
Conrad made a quick and economical bow. He smiled and his normally impassive face was alight with excitement. “We are so glad to see you, Sire. We have exciting news.”
“And we are delighted to hear it.” Robin looked about. Did the “good news” have to do with yet another improvement that Conrad—Brother Thaddeus—had made to the church building?
Robin would be proud of the enhancements which Brother Thaddeus had made with efficiency and frugality were it not for their implications. Every sprig of lavender, every new plank in the floor, every fresh coat of varnish on the settles signified Conrad’s mounting involvement with the church and his growing distance from fulfilling his destiny as heir to the throne. Conrad had spoken of his intention to abdicate his position in the line of succession in order to pursue his vocation. Robin hadn’t taken it seriously, chalking it up to youthful rebelliousness and the young man’s desire to express his individuality before shouldering the responsibilities of serving a kingdom. Robin was certain that with time Conrad would lose interest in a career with the church and reconcile himself to a future at the head of the kingdom of the Chalklands.
“Before we hear of your news, we have a question,” Robin said.
“Yes, Sire?” Conrad was almost breathless with excitement, anticipating perhaps that the king meant to inquire about a spiritual matter.
“Have you seen Meeyoo?”
Conrad was for a moment taken aback. He composed his expression and said, “Not in several days.”
“Nor have we. As we make our rounds today we are also looking for her. If you see her, please bring her to us or at least send word of her whereabouts.”
“Now, your news?”
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