Suddenly, sniffing the air, he was drawn by the aroma of food cooking – to be honest, it smelt more like it was burning, but his empty stomach grumbled in response and he set off in that direction, his quivering snout raised, following the scent like a bloodhound on the trail of its prey. Spotting an open doorway through which clouds of steam, or more likely smoke, were billowing, he slipped inside. Crikey, he could barely see where he was going!
Stifling a cough, and with the smoke stinging his eyes, he moved cautiously forward, still drawn hungrily towards the food, however incinerated it might be. He was halfway across the room when an infuriated bellow stopped him in his tracks.
‘Pestis! Furcifer! – Pest! Scoundrel! – Get out of here at once!’
Max turned to face the source of the shouting, quaking as he saw an extremely plump man, leaping up and down, waving a wooden spoon, his face puce with anger and his lively black curls bouncing in all directions like the snakes on the head of Medusa.
But as the large cat revolved to face this scary apparition, he was alarmed to hear a scream burst from the man’s lips and Max watched, bemused, as the cook sprinted out of the room.
‘Help! Help! There’s a lion in the kitchen!’ yelled the cook, running this way and that, clearly in a state of panic.
A lion? thought Max. Crikey, I don’t fancy bumping into one of those – that dog outside was bad enough! Peering through the smoke, he made a dash for a table in the corner and took refuge beneath it, his heart beating fast. He hoped the lion hadn’t spotted him.
Then his ears pricked up. Surely that was a voice he recognised?
‘What’s wrong, Grassus?’
‘Oh no, Gemina. Don’t go in there. It’s too dangerous,’ wailed the cook, still hopping about in the corridor, eyes wide in panic.
‘But the mistress has sent me down to ask you for a plate of fruit,’ said Jemima.
‘I’m s-sorry, you can’t go into the kitchen and nor can I. There’s a l-l-lion in there and it’s … ENORMOUS! Go and fetch help right away. Find Sabinus – he’ll know what to do.’
Jemima stared at the cook in disbelief. ‘A lion? Don’t be silly! How could a lion get inside this house?’
‘It might have escaped from the amphitheatre…’
‘I think you must be imagining things, Grassus,’ said Jemima, wondering if he’d been at the cooking wine.
‘B-but I saw it,’ insisted the cook. ‘Huge and pale-coloured. It suddenly loomed up out of the smoke and was about to spring on me. I thought I was a goner. It was obviously sizing me up as its next meal.’
Hmm, thought Jemima. Grassus would probably have enough meat on him to provide several meals … even for a hungry lion. And she started to giggle.
‘It’s no laughing matter,’ he continued, his voice quavering.
‘Calm down, Grassus. I have an idea,’ she replied thoughtfully. The unexpected presence of a huge, pale-coloured feline in the kitchen had set her thinking. Maybe, just maybe … ‘Wait there. I’m going to take a quick look at this lion of yours.’
‘Are you mad?’ he squawked, grabbing her arm to hold her back. ‘It’ll have you – and you’re just a slip of a thing, no more than a snack. Once it’s tasted human flesh, it’ll come out looking for me.’
‘I promise you I’ll be fine, Grassus. I think I may have come across this particular “lion” before.’ The cook stared at her, incomprehension and disbelief mingling with the expression of panic on his face. Before he could say anything else she slipped from his grasp and stepped cautiously through the doorway. The smoke made it difficult to see anything, so she called out quietly, ‘Are you in here, Max? Where are you?’
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