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Panda Books Australia Sydney — New York — Tokyo — Berlin

CONTENTS Title Page Licence Notes Some Relevant Links Important Note Doovenism Opening Chapter Excerpt From The Unabridged Book Thank You About the author

LICENCE NOTE This book is an abridged version. The complete book is available at, and all manner of online distributers. Written in Australian English. Thank you for downloading this free eBook. You are welcome to share it with your friends, or even force it upon them if they’re not interested. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, or even printed out to then write shopping lists on, provided the book remains in its complete original form, which implies a lot of shopping. If you enjoyed this book, consider reading the complete edition, which has some great scenes involving buns. If you didn’t enjoy it, then I suggest you re-read it, paying closer attention. Copyright 2016 Thomas Corfield

SOME RELEVANT LINKS The Velvet Paw of Asquith Novels are representative of the emerging New Fable fiction genre. Consider visiting the following links to find out more about both. 1. Chosen Chapters from the Velvet Paw of Asquith Novels on Youtube:

2. Hotel Scenes from the Velvet Paw of Asquith Novels on Youtube:

3. Writing Wrongly – The Middle Bits, a book about writing the Dooven Books, on Youtube: (contains adult themes)

4. The Velvet Paw of Asquith Facebook page: 5. A bit about the author: 6. Dooven Muzak is music written exclusively for the Velvet Paw of Asquith Novels, the books referred to in this one. Listen to some here: 7. The Dooven Books are available as Cinematic Audiobooks all over the place:

IMPORTANT NOTE This publication contains 3 intentional typographical errors. Readers astute enough to identify them are eligible to receive a delightful ‘Certificate of Astuteness’ and a paw-written letter of congratulation from Oscar Teabag-Dooven. Moreover, readers who post a review of this book anywhere—even on their fridge—whether favourable or otherwise (the review, not their fridge), will receive a ‘Certificate of Indebtedness’ for doing so. These two certificates, along with the one received upon successful completion of the book’s quiz, add up to a veritable swathe of credentials which would improve the appearance of any wall, providing it would look good draped in certificates. Visit VELVETPAWOFASQUITH.COM to take the quiz. Alternatively, don’t.

DOOVENISM The Velvet Paw of Asquith novels, aka the Dooven Books, are complemented with additional media to enhance the reader’s experience. Visit VELVETPAWOFASQUITH.COM to learn more about these additional components of the Dooven Books:

DEDICATION For Oliver and Jeremy, Tabitha and Natalie

1 ____________________ “Courage: a modesty born from fear, and any animal who boasts of bravery knows the meaning of neither.” – The Loud Purr of Asquith.

OSCAR drummed his paws on the reception desk. “I think I’m about to be expelled,” he said. The receptionist looked up at him. “I’m sorry?” “I think,” said Oscar, “that I’ve been summoned here to be expelled.” “Expelled?” “Yes.” She frowned. “What on earth makes you think that, Mister Dooven?” “The last five weeks, for a start.” “But you’ve been on holiday for four of them.” “I sat in my living room with the blinds drawn.” “That doesn’t sound like much of a holiday.” “Well, it was,” said Oscar, “considering the week prior to it.” “I’m sure you’re not about to be expelled, Mister Dooven. The notion’s quite ridiculous.” “Then why do I feel as though I want to bring up my breakfast?” “Was it a particularly bad breakfast, perhaps?” “I haven’t had any breakfast,” said Oscar. “That’s the problem; I couldn’t eat on account of my concerns about being expelled.”

“Well, maybe you should have breakfast,” the receptionist said. “I can have some buns sent up if you like. The Loud Purr hasn’t arrived yet. You might be waiting for some time.” “No thank you,” said Oscar. “I couldn’t eat a thing.” “What about a hot-fin?” “No. I fear I’d vomit it all over his carpet.” “I could ask them to include a bucket?” “It’s very kind of you,” said Oscar, “but I think it’s best if my stomach remains just as bereft of hope as the rest of me.” She frowned again. “I must say, Mister Dooven, your concern is surprising. I would have thought you’d be encouraged to be summoned to the Lair under the circumstances.” “Circumstances?” “Yes,” she said. “The ones revolving around you having just saved the world.” Oscar looked at his paws. “The problem with saving the world is that I may have broken most of it in the process.” She leant forward and smiled. “Mister Dooven, the Loud Purr has summoned you to the Lair for reasons far from expulsion, I am quite certain.” “Then why do I feel like vomiting?” “Certainly the Loud Purr has that effect on Velvet Paws. He can be most intimidating.” Oscar stared at the desk and wished he was back in bed with the blinds drawn. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can get you, Mister Dooven?” “I might have that bucket, after all,” he said. When the receptionist reached for a phone, Oscar left the desk to wait for both the bucket and the Loud Purr in the Lair. He pushed through large bronze doors, and stood in the high room of the Catacombs. It was circular, walled by aged oak and draped in burgundy curtains. At its centre was a broad desk with two telephones, one brown and one an assertive red. Behind the desk waited a high-backed chair, and behind this was a tall, narrow window with velvet drapes drawn.Oscar wandered to the chair and pondered sitting in it. Being a chair, this wasn’t an unusual thought, but because it belonged to the Loud Purr, it was a decidedly dangerous one.

But if he was about to be expelled, it hardly mattered. He sat. The chair swivelled and he played his paws across the Loud Purr’s desk, revelling in a rush of authority. “Did I ask you to speak?” he growled at an empty one opposite. “I am the Loud Purr! You will speak when spoken to—and only then when I tell you what to say—” The Lair’s doors opened, and in panic, Oscar threw himself from the desk—inadvertently taking a telephone with him, which clattered to the floor in a peal of strangled rings. With a curse, he fought to untangle himself as the refined paws of a battle-hardened Velvet Paw approached. Unable to, he stood to attention, leaving the telephone to unwind and clatter to the floor of its own accord. The Loud Purr ignored him, walked to his desk and sat authoritatively. Oscar closed his eyes and hoped the Loud Purr had forgotten how many telephones used to be upon it. When he opened them, the cat was staring at the broken one on the floor. Oscar glanced at it also. “Are you looking for this perhaps, Your Great Amazingliness?” he asked, winding the phone up via its cord. “I think I might have inadvertently tripped over it while I was nowhere near your desk. I’m certain it still works.” It rang in surrender and a bell fell off. “Although it might need mending.” The Loud Purr stared at him and then the phone. Oscar put the pieces back on the desk, trying to arrange them to resemble the one that remained. It didn’t. Instead, the two resembled a dreadful before-and-after scene. After blinking at both, the Loud Purr gestured for him to sit. Oscar did so, and tucked his tail across his lap and into the seat. A bit like a seatbelt. The large cat asked, “Did you have a nice rest, Pantaloons?” “I spent most of it in my living room, Your Great Loudness,” Oscar said. “With the blinds drawn, as you might imagine.” The Loud Purr humphed. “Tell me, Pantaloons, have you ever been to the city of Ruen?” Oscar’s whiskers twitched. “Well, it’s a place I’ve certainly heard of. I believe it’s a wealthy and exclusive city, south of Milos, renowned for having no crime. But I’ve never visited on account of never having

travelled anywhere. At least, not before a month ago.” The large cat stood, wandered to the tall window and moved its drapes aside. “Perhaps it is appropriate for you to do so, Pantaloons,” he said, peering at the view, “considering you have spent the past month indoors?” Oscar was about to say something, but didn’t. The question would be rhetorical. The Loud Purr told animals what to do, he didn’t ask. And if he did, it was only to emphasise the answer he’d then give. But when the large cat whirled around and glared, it seemed he wanted one after all. “Well,” said Oscar, “that is to say, I’m not certain if—” “Have you gotten over that problem with your head, Pantaloons?” Mortified, Oscar placed his paws upon it. Six weeks on, it still felt wrong; all bumpy and gristly amidst his beautiful crowning fur. “It doesn’t actually look that bad,” said the Loud Purr. Oscar remained silent and removed his paws from where ears once stood. He wouldn’t say anything, even if the Loud Purr expected acceptance that losing them was part of curiosa. Because it wasn’t. He had no ears. And how can a cat be taken seriously if it has no ears? He needed them. And he missed them. Both of them. Oscar had little vanity, but as a white cat, with thick, triple-layered fur, he knew he was a beautiful animal. Or at least he had been. “Fortunately, my ears still work, Your Enormous Purriness,” Oscar said. “They just look, well, smaller.” The Loud Purr peered at him. “Actually, you can hardly tell,” he said. “Really, your fur hides things rather well.” He moved his paws up and down, in a descriptive manner. “Perhaps you could sort of spike your fur over the gaps and make it look sort of pointy.” It was a ridiculous suggestion, but Oscar tried a smile. The Loud Purr peered at the view again. “Still, we digress. Tell me; how many Velvet Paws of Asquith are there?” Oscar shrugged. “Twenty?” “And who has been the newest recruit, Pantaloons?” “Well, me, I believe, Your Big Loudness.”

The Loud Purr nodded in more uncharacteristic introspection. “And they are all fine Velvet Paws, having passed their training brilliantly. Indeed, they leave the Velvet Paws of Asquith to be entirely revered.” Oscar cringed. Emphasising his colleagues’ brilliance could only highlight his lack of the same. And criticism seemed most unfair considering his recent curiosa had him saving the world by foiling a villainous cat named the Tremblees. Paws behind his back, the Loud Purr reverted to his more familiar role of lecturer. “The Velvet Paws of Asquith are all clinicians,” he said. “They are sharp of method, taut of whisker, and merciless in pursuit of curiosa. Whereas you, Pantaloons, have other talents. You are a quite different animal.” “Well, that’s putting it mildly.” “In as much as you approach things differently.” “Yes,” Oscar agreed. “My colleagues are a bit like that telephone,” and he pointed to the intact one, “whereas I’m more like the other one.” He would have pointed to it also, but didn’t for fear of more bits falling off it. “Pantaloons, I would suggest that it’s actually the other way around.” Oscar stared at him. It sounded like a compliment. Clearly he should have pointed at the second one after all. “The Catacombs need animals like you.” “Like me?” Oscar scoffed. “What as? Coasters?” “No. As Velvet Paws.” “What—so you’re not expelling me, Your Diesel-Poweredliness?” There was a surprised pause and the large cat glared at him. “Expelling you? Of course not! What on earth gave you that idea?” Oscar re-tucked his tail into the chair, as its fluffiness often had it springing from wherever it was inserted. “Well, for a start, I’m not the same as the other Velvet Paws. I don’t get along with them. Frankly, I don’t like them very much.” “You don’t need to like them, Pantaloons. They’re colleagues. They do not have to be friends. Goodness me, this isn’t school, this is the real world, and it’s considerably more complicated than most animals can fathom. And anyway, I find being friendly with animals

only adds to such complication.” He glowered at Oscar. “Do you know why you don’t get along with them, Pantaloons?” Oscar shrugged. “Because I’m a bit wet?” The Loud Purr shook his head. “No. It’s because you’re not a soldier.” He brought his paws together and leant back in his authoritative chair to stare authoritatively. “We have enough soldiers, Pantaloons. We have enough robots, if you will. What we need are Velvet Paws more thoughtful in the field, Velvet Paws with a gentler approach. Velvet Paws like you, Pantaloons. For you are intuitive rather than logistical, and creative rather than methodical. You are innately curious rather than simply obedient.” With a deep breath he leant forward upon his desk. “You have talents others do not, Pantaloons. You have a mind that is your own and, most importantly, you have discretion which can be exercised discreetly.” And then came words that surprised Oscar entirely. “And that is why I need your help.” Oscar blinked at him. “You shall travel to Ruen on curiosa and use your intuition discreetly. And you will tread very, very carefully.” He said nothing more. “Your Enormous Thunderiness,” said Oscar, “could I at least have a clue as to why? I cannot go in blind. Soldier or not, I’m still a Velvet Paw, and curiosa demands some idea of what you require from me.” The large cat sank as though holding a weight he tired of. “Pantaloons, all I can say is that this is personal.” And with that, it was clear there was nothing more to be said. ——o0o—— The cat slunk through night-drenched streets. Past the midnight hour, for the most part, Ruen slept. It was an hour quiet and still, and left the city at its most vulnerable. Nimble in pace, she edged along cold walls and darted across laneways. Beneath moonlight, she hurried from one pavement to crouch upon the other, searching shadows for anything that oughtn’t to be in them. Police, for example. Or large, empty garbage bins she might stumble over. She was cautious, but not afraid; being the Police Chief’s daughter afforded considerable resilience.

Pulling her black coat tighter, she clutched a large, full bucket and headed for part of the city that the echelon of Ruen’s wealthy residents frequented; animals who cared for nothing other than their aged selves. “Age should breed withdom,” the Dervy often mused to those who fought alongside her in their headquarters, a dance hall named Furballs. “It should breed toleranceth and acceptance and underthtanding. Not this appalling Martial Law of Oppresthion againtht animalth such as ourselveth!” Although the Dervy had an extraordinary lisp, it wasn’t as extraordinary as the rebellious things she said with it, most of which were damp and left her colleagues, known as the Ranks, cowering beneath umbrellas. But as rousing as she was, the Dervy let few accompany her on raids such as this. Mind you, her colleagues were reluctant to tag along on the grounds they’d prefer to sleep rather than scarper across rooftops at night to graffiti dissent with buckets of manure. This didn’t bother the Dervy, however. She was quite content to do it on their behalf. Moreover, the fewer who knew of her raids, the less likely she’d be caught. If she was caught it would be disastrous for the Ranks. Were they exposed, the Ruling Council’s intolerance of crime would not only have Furballs closed down immediately, but her colleagues expelled from Ruen altogether. And although being arrested would be bad for the Dervy, for her father, it would be far worse. But stealth and resolve were not the Dervy’s most celebrated traits. She had another talent for which she was far more renowned. It was a talent that made her a most frightening adversary to the Ruling Council; a talent that even frightened her. And instead of protesting by slopping pawfuls of manure over Ruen’s brickwork, she was seriously considering unleashing it as she had last autumn. Especially since manure–strewn brickwork wasn’t riling the Ruling Council as much as it used to. She heard something then. Perhaps a street away. A paw upon pavement. With a purr, she melted into shadow and listened, wary of any animal wandering streets at this hour. Certainly, it wouldn’t be a cantankerous resident. They remained tucked up in their expensive beds, in their expensive abodes, dreaming up means of repressing animals such as her.

She heard paws again. An animal prowled. Slinking back against the wall, she retraced her steps to continue via a different route, wondering who it might be. Well might she wonder, for Ruen harboured, this night, a Velvet Paw of Asquith. A rather unconventional Velvet Paw of Asquith. One who rather liked composing imagist poetry. ——o0o—— In Hotel d’Ruen, Oscar unpacked, bounced on the bed and looked at some towels. Admiring both the window frame and the view through it, he revelled in that strange lull a traveller finds after arrival. On the street below, animals strolled toward the sea, which hissed and roared in evening shadow. The air was salt-laden and cold, and strings of lights, tied between old lamp posts, bobbed with the same frivolity they illuminated beneath. Laughter glanced up from windows below, hinting at untold stories. Beneath earth’s growing shadow, he felt that tickle of imagist poetry. He refused its call, still puzzled as to why he’d been assigned here. It had been more through request than order, which was odd considering how clinical the Loud Purr was in assigning Velvet Paws to curiosa. Later that evening, unable to sleep, Oscar decided to go for a walk. He wandered through cobbled streets, passing three-storey abodes, their plastered stone tinged blue. On their balconies, washing aired in the crisp night. Shutters were thrown wide to allow rooms to do the same. Above, the sky was scribed by moonlight-edged roofs and seemed brighter than any sun-drenched day. Reflective steps, he thought. That is how it always began; words meaningless until others arrived. The verse arose and then dispersed like breath, already forgotten. It didn’t bother him. To steal such lines with pen seemed predatory. To acknowledge with voice was enough. In reflective steps I peruse your lines, And pace your rectangular ground, With narrow walls in shades of blue, And cast silvered light around.

Beyond these whitewashed walls I feel, A curious edge to me, The deepest call of timeless shore, I heed that sound of sea. When returning to Hotel d’Ruen, Oscar turned a corner and stopped to stare in surprise. On the pavement opposite, a cat painted frantically on the wall, her paws flailing between brickwork and a bucket like a pair of ladles. Her graffiti was messy and sloppy, and where application had been too liberal, lumps splattered to the pavement. She used her bare paws, too, and the smell suggested her medium was raw sewerage. None of this gave credence to her words. Nor did her lack of grammar. “There ought to be a comma after alone,” Oscar said, stepping from the pavement and pointing at her error. “And I think you’ll find bugger is spelt with two Gs.” Whirling around, the Dervy inadvertently flung faeces across his beautifully night-aired pantaloons. This left him with only marginally less surprise than she. As a result, both cats stared. The Dervy recovered first. With her ears flat, she hissed and flung manure at him again, before bounding away. Oscar stared after her, still pointing at the word ‘buger’ strewn across the wall. ——o0o—— After a night of fervent scrubbing, Oscar awoke to find that he still smelt dreadful, as though he’d been marinated in manure before being hung out to dry in the rain. Although not the most encouraging of encounters, stumbling across a cat graffiti-ing with faeces in the dead of night was, to say the least, curious. Fluffing his smelly pantaloons, he hurried from his hotel room and headed downstairs to see again what had been written. Outside the hotel, a considerable audience had gathered to muse over the manure-strewn wall. According to a sign, the wall belonged to a restaurant offering traditional Ruen cuisine—the distraught owner of

which was being consoled by two police dogs beneath it. Pushing his way through the throng, Oscar stared at the manure. It read: BUGER OFF AND LEAVE UTH ALONE YOU OLD FARTTHs —with the final S interrupted and unfinished. It was hardly Edwardian in its eloquence, but would get the point across—providing, of course, one knew the author’s grievance in the first place. Turning to a smart young dog wearing trendy sunglasses, he asked what on earth it might mean. “I don’t know,” the dog said. “But apparently, it’s written in pooh!” Oscar frowned and stared at the wall again. Considering Ruen’s intolerance of crime, the cat responsible had shown remarkable courage. Graffiti was one thing, but using excrement suggested she had grievances far beyond words—or was quite insane-of-the-mind. The latter would at least explain her choice of medium. Paint would have been less lumpy and its preparation required less effort. Perhaps then she might have found time to focus on her spelling. A disappointed roar went up from spectators then, when a fire-engine arrived to hose the words of rhetoric away. Puzzled, Oscar turned back to the hotel and hurried up its steps, amazed at how indiscreet manure-spreading coupled with bad spelling could be. It was not as indiscreet as bowling head-first into hotel patrons, however. Something he then did spectacularly. At the stop of the steps, he ploughed into a fur coat that stank of mothballs. Despite his flailing, its owner did nothing to help free him. Indeed, there were screams of fury and swiping paws instead. After pulling himself free, he looked up at quite the cruellest face he’d ever seen. She was old and thin and tall, and yet surprisingly unyielding. A cat as grey in her own fur as the coat wrapped around her. Her eyes were a pale, heartless wash of grey, and her whiskers were sharp on her narrow, pointed chin. Snarling, thin lips curled back to reveal delicate

yellow fangs, which gave the only colour to her otherwise pallored hue. “How dare you!” she hissed. “I—I’m terribly sorry!” Alarmed, Oscar retreated and tripped over his tail. Others gathered beside her: old dogs with monocles and gold teeth, and cats grey with age, who glared down at him as though he were something best avoided on a pavement. The old crone bent close. “Do you know who I am?” she hissed, her breath so ghastly, it entailed all the meals she’d ever eaten, without having bothered to swallow any of them. Oscar shook his head and scrabbled away from her. The old cat followed. Others did the same, towering above him like an avalanche teetering mountain.

2 ____________________

THE cat raised a withered paw and pointed with a shiny claw back toward the crowd outside. “I am She who ensures the likes of you never, ever wins what you seek. Read well those letters, cat, for they are scrawled in irony!” Oscar gawked. With a snarl, she added, “That’s right, you horrid little animal. You and your snotty kind will regret such resistance.” She moved her pointy face closer. “Make no mistake, cat; the irony of such revenge!” Oscar tried an apology, but it came out all squirty. “What did you say?” she hissed. He got up, having already forgotten. “How dare you!” she said, pushing at him. “How dare you even begin to address me!” “I didn’t mean—” “Ooh! Addressing me again, are you?” She slapped a paw across his face. “Perhaps that will teach your place!” He staggered backwards, a paw to his cheek, haemorrhaging disbelief. “One way or another,” she hissed, “you will learn your place amongst us! One way, or another!” Turning to her lackeys, she pulled her grey coat tighter, posing like a model whose time had not only been, but was on pretty shaky ground even when present. She asked those around her, “Do you not think I am beautiful?” Oscar stifled a snort of laughter. He did not care for meanness, or animals considering themselves to be above others. He’d enough of this nasty old crone’s theatrics, and was determined to return her to the litter box from whence she came. Bereft of entertainment, the audience milled back into the foyer. Amongst them, the dog with trendy

sunglasses stopped to watch, delighted at further cabaret not mentioned in any of Ruen’s holiday brochures. While the audience grew, Oscar put a paw to his whiskers in pretence, and said, “I do not know who you are, madam, though you have made one thing abundantly clear—” The old cat snarled, daring him to find reprisal. “—that you are, without a doubt, the rudest, least tolerant animal it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. And I suggest you be a little more forgiving of others’ shortcomings.” He fluffed his pantaloons. “What’s more, madam, I do not think you are beautiful. I’d be surprised if you ever were.” With whiskers raised, he turned and strode away. The crowd, impressed by his eloquence, moved aside. But then came words that humiliated and hurt. The withered old crone, supported by a chuckle from her cabinet, said, “No doubt that is valid from an animal as ugly as you—tell me, young cat, were you born with such a hideous head? Or was it a consequence of your mother having loved an owl?” Across the foyer, a shocked silence fell. Despite their sympathetic gaze, Oscar crumbled inside. The Loud Purr had been right; he was not a soldier, but how on earth could a Velvet Paw be anything else? Amidst amused congratulation from her minions, the old bag turned to leave. The audience stared at Oscar, hoping he might find some inspired retort to reclaim dignity.His indignation grew. He may not be a soldier, but he had eloquence. So he turned to her. “I haven’t finished,” he growled. “In fact, I haven’t even started.” The old cat halted and turned with a sneer. He continued, “Firstly, madam, I was not fortunate enough to know either of my parents, so I can’t enlighten you on matters of paternalism. Secondly, I lost my ears only months ago trying to save a cat from the clutches of the worst kind of villain.” She was about to say something, but he held up a paw. “But I can assure you of one thing, you quite hideous old crone; the only thing that might find you beautiful is another corpse, which—” and he peered at her jostling pawns, “—I see you have already surrounded yourself with,

liberally.” The audience gave an impressed gasp. Confidence returning, he added, “And if I may hazard a guess as to who you might be, I’d find no position more credible than you being ‘Miss Cantankerous Old Fart, 1901’—though I hasten to add that the title is unlikely, because she may still be alive to this day. And by the look of you, my dear, you died a terribly long time ago.” A round of applause erupted from his audience, who moved forward to envelope him in congratulatory embrace, which rather closed the matter on the stunned animals opposite. ——o0o—— Later that evening, Oscar sat at a table in Hotel d’Ruen’s dining room. It was busy, vibrant and full of wonderful smells and conversation. Cutlery chinked and drinks poured, and patrons smiled at him in recognition of his earlier rhetoric. Oscar wasn’t comfortable with silver table service. It seemed ridiculous to have one animal subservient to another; patrons convinced of their staged position above waiters, while waiters remained convinced that such roles were beneath them. It was all rather silly, and Oscar considered the world would be a far better place if they discarded such pretence and simply ate off the floor. In time, his meal arrived. It was fish, with a siding of crispy scales and a glass of chilled hotfin. He tasted the latter first. It was excellent. Tucking a napkin into his collar, he took a bite of crispy scale and found himself more content than he’d been for months. “I, too, must congratulate you on your performance this morning.” Oscar looked up to see an old, austere and monocled dog—an animal who’d accompanied that horrid cat earlier. But his face was far from malicious. Indeed, he smiled. “Is that so?” Oscar said, returning to his meal. “I assume you know who that cat was?” After this morning’s performance, indifference seemed prudent, so Oscar shrugged. “No, not at all,” he said. “And frankly, I’m not terribly interested.” The dog nodded. “Nevertheless, there was no excuse for her

behaviour and I, at least, would like to apologise.” Having not expected civility, Oscar was relieved. Were a further altercation to erupt, he was unconvinced he’d find his prior fluency. “I have suffered similar injury,” the dog said, pointing at his monocle. “The loss of an appendage is a hard thing to accept.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a card which he then offered. “Should you wish to speak to an animal who’s been through the same, you’re more than welcome to call by.” “A doctor?” Oscar asked, looking up from the card. “Once. A long time ago.” He pointed again to his affliction. “Alas, this rendered my practice quite impossible.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” Oscar said, looking back at the card. “And I accept your apology.” “Good.” He adjusted the monocle. “Young cat, Ruen is a delightful place to visit, but I urge you, in the light of this morning, to please be careful. Things in Ruen are not always as pleasant as they might appear.” “First impressions have been less than encouraging.” The dog humphed in agreement. Being on curiosa, the dog’s words intrigued him, so Oscar introduced himself. In reply, the dog said his name was Horace Humple-Henke. Oscar pointed to a chair at his table. “Would you care to join me?” The dog hesitated, but then did so, and Oscar ordered two more chilled hot-fins. “What do you mean by suggesting Ruen is not as pleasant as it might seem?” Oscar asked. The dog looked at him thoughtfully. “I must say, I’m intrigued by your earlier audacity, and by your having confronted the worst kind of villain.” Oscar waved a paw dismissively. “That was no more than words, Horace. A rhetoric necessary under the circumstances.” The dog nodded. “Of course. I understand.” But his thoughtfulness remained. “Tell me, Oscar, what brings you to Ruen?” After another sip of chilled hot-fin, Oscar said, “An aeroplane and curiosity. Although not necessarily in that order.” The dog smiled at such ambiguity. “And that cat you challenged

this morning, do you really have no idea who she is?” Continuing his enthusiastic involvement with fish, Oscar shook his head. “It was the Pyjami. Ruen’s Chief Councillor.” “Well, she’s still jolly rude. One would think those in high places would be a little more tolerant of others—or courteous at least.” Horace nodded and frowned. “Tell me, Oscar, what sorts of curiosities interest you?” “Particularly curious ones,” he said, dabbing his whiskers with a napkin and asking a passing waiter for two more chilled hot-fins. “I’m a cat. Curiosity is my thing.” “I see, but why Ruen, in particular? Surely there are far more curious places upon this earth than our quiet seaside city?” “Well, you said it yourself; things are not always as they appear.” After a discreet burp, he added, “I cannot think of anything more curious than that.” Horace smiled. “Yes, but I mentioned that only a moment ago. What gave you reason to imagine the same before arriving?” “Why are things not as they appear?” Oscar asked, wishing to return to the offensive. Horace took a deep breath, upsetting his monocle, which he dapped at with a handkerchief. “Ruen is a city that has undergone immense change over recent years, Oscar. Change that has challenged her traditions. Unfortunately, Ruen is also a city uncomfortable with change.” “It would appear to me that Ruen has resisted change admirably.” “To a degree, perhaps, but such defiance comes at a price.” “But, surely, Ruen is wealthy enough to afford any price?” “Oscar, the price to which I refer to is not monetary.” “You mean a price of sufferance?” The dog looked at him but did not reply. “Are you telling me something is brewing in Ruen?” Oscar asked. “Something that could mean trouble?” “I am telling you nothing, young cat, other than to be careful after this morning’s encounter.” “Am I in some kind of danger?” “I suspect that we are all in danger.” He stood then, having said

enough, though added, “Traditions come and traditions go, my dear Oscar Teabag-Dooven. They change and weave with tides of age, and are far from being set in stone.” He shrugged. “I suspect some of us realise this more than others.” With that, and a respectful bow, he left, leaving Oscar confused and staring at two chilled hot-fins getting warm. ——o0o—— The following evening, after making about as much progress in curiosa as a limp cabbage in a croquet competition, Oscar returned to Hotel d’Ruen to find police had cordoned the place off entirely. Which was most disappointing. After such an unproductive day, he’d been looking forward to a repeat of last night’s meal to compensate. Police cars blocked each end of the street and flashed importantly, while uniformed cats and dogs milled in and out of Hotel d’Ruen, escorting patrons from its vicinity. And although it looked like a bizarre crime scene bereft of any crime, it was only when a motorcade of black saloons with red plates pulled up at the hotel that Oscar realised why there were cordons at all. In a squeak of brakes the cars stopped, doors opened and from them spilled Ruen’s Ruling Council. When Oscar spied Horace, he waved. While other councillors struggled from plush interiors, Horace shuffled over to Oscar, who remained behind a poorly constructed cordon of police animals. Their arrangement was far from protective, however, and instead resembled a badly-rehearsed scene from What the Hell are We Doing? The Musical. “My dear Oscar Teabag-Dooven,” Horace said, moving several police officers aside. “How delightful to see you again—although your scarf suggests you are perhaps dining elsewhere tonight?” Oscar nodded. “Indeed, for it appears Hotel d’Ruen is this evening reserved exclusively for your exclusivity.” And he looked past the dog to see whether the old crone had removed her saggy, grey carcass from the motorcade. “Regardless, I suspect my presence would not be conducive to a pleasant evening of dining.” Horace smiled in understanding. “The Pyjami is not with us this evening.”

“Oh.” “We have a dinner celebrating the Council’s tenth anniversary. But it appears we shall be doing so without the pleasure of her company. That is perhaps fortunate, as it will provide opportunity to discuss matters with my colleagues a little less formally—not that it will make the slightest bit of difference.” Oscar tried similar elusiveness. “What difference had you in mind?” The dog looked at him carefully. “A rolling stone, young cat, gathers no moss.” “Unless it’s a sort of porous stone rolling through some very thick moss.” “True.” “And then it might gather quite a bit of moss, I should think. Especially if it were early morning and the ground was all damp and dewy.” “What I mean is, sometimes when the wheels are in motion, things cannot be stopped.” “Unless one uses brakes,” Oscar said. “Or better still, a wall.” There was an annoyed noise from one of the cars then, and both turned to watch a struggling councillor get his walking stick caught in a police dog’s trouser belt. “Tell me, Horace, why are Ruen’s councillors all so terribly old?” The dog humphed in amusement, both at Oscar’s observation and the consequence of the belt breaking and trousers falling. “That, my dear cat, is entirely the problem.” Oscar looked at him. “Problem?” Horace’s amusement faded when his colleague regained dignity and threw both of them a disapproving look. “Blood,” he said, “if left to grow old, becomes hard and black. And nothing can live on blood such as this. I am hopeful tonight might offer opportunity to find some resolve with far less suspicion if she is absent.” He looked at Oscar then. “If you are visiting Ruen for curiosity alone, my young friend, then be terribly careful, for Ruen is on the brink of turning upside down—I am certain of it. If, however, you are here for reasons more subversive, then understand that in any battle each army considers itself righteous.”

And with that he hurried to join those tottering up the hotel’s steps, leaving Oscar bewildered. “Why can’t animals just say what they mean?” he wondered. He needed to think, and for that he required dinner. Which was not going to be here. With a sigh, he tightened his smart blue scarf and fluffed his pantaloons. Turning, he then froze, astonished to see the dissenting cat from the other night staring at him. This time, Oscar broke the stalemate by yelling, “Hey!” at her. Flattening her ears, the Dervy hissed and spat, before turning to scarper through cordons, police and onlookers, leaving Oscar to stare after her, even more bewildered.

3 ____________________

UPON his return to Hotel d’Ruen, after finding supper at a restaurant nearby, Oscar noticed the air smelt like stale cabbage. Three streets from the hotel, the smell worsened, and animals wandered around dazed and confused. A street closer, and the pungency of stale cabbage became thickened with a strangely textured sick. Animals no longer wandered dazed, but coughed and spluttered instead. Some crawled along the pavement gasping, others sobbed in the gutter. Oscar stared at them, bewildered, until he rounded a final corner and was physically assaulted by stench. An oily, turgid mixture of vomit and rancid manure, sautéed in cabbage water bore into him. It prised out his moist bits, boiled them into a leathery, black crusting grease before reinserting them backwards. Collapsing against a wall, he heaved through a throat refusing to be involved. While it burnt, his eyes watered—and then his throat watered and his eyes burnt. Choking, he fought to stop his dinner returning to the outside world, but failed and returned it in several helpings. He tore off his scarf and bound his face in an attempt to filter the stench, which only filtered some more sick. Blinking through a sea of tears, he squinted at the smoking ruin of hotel. Near its steps, a police cat struggled to heave a large, unconscious dog away from the place. She couldn’t manage, however, and sank to the ground in a fit of wheeze. Hurrying through the haze, Oscar unbound his scarf and wrapped it around her nose. With a nod that she could cope, they dragged the dog away from the hotel. Upon reaching the opposite pavement, however, they collapsed in a chorus of retching, which was followed by an encore in the gutter. When an ambulance pulled up nearby, Oscar rolled the dog toward it, after which he doubled over and heaved again.

The police cat removed the scarf and wrung it out. “Are you okay?” she asked, even though the answer was clinically obvious to every animal for the next three streets. “Fine, thank you.” Oscar gagged, before wiping some sick from his chin. “And thank you for asking.” “Well, thank you for helping me.” Oscar struggled to his paws, took the sodden scarf and wiped his streaming eyes. Noticing hers wept also, he offered it again. Grateful, she dabbed her eyes a second time before returning it—a ritual repeated until both realised its sogginess was actually making things worse. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I appear to have vomited in your scarf.” Oscar nodded. “That’s quite all right. I did the same earlier.” He blinked at it for a moment, before adding, “In a strange way, we’ve made a sort of sandwich.” Police cars and ambulances were parked at all angles—and not conventional ones either. Amongst them, animals struggled upon limbs refusing to cooperate. Most participated in a communal sobbing, while others wandered dazed, howling occasionally and falling into gutters— though not necessarily in that order. From the hotel’s entrance, a green haze billowed down its steps and poured from shattered windows, dispersing into the night like a reluctantly exorcised spectre. “What in the name of fluff has happened here?” Oscar asked, stunned. “I don’t know,” she said, after a fit of coughing. “This happened once before, though not nearly so dreadful. We were adding a third cordon in the foyer when there was a terrific bursting noise, followed by lots of shouting from the dining room, and then animals were running everywhere.” She grabbed Oscar with a remarkable force of recollection. “And then the smell,” she said. “Oh, my heavens, the smell! It was so awful! It was like having my innards as outards. It was like being at an international Show Your Fridge Convention and everybody opening their door at the same time!” Oscar unhooked her. “It’s quite all right,” he said. “You’re safe now.” But then she began to cry and buried her face in his fur. With a paw upon her, he looked around to see who might be in charge. There was a police dog in a white hat a distance away being pestered by

everyone. And, because he wasn’t hysterical, Oscar started toward him. “Did you say this has happened before?” he asked, helping the cat stay upright. “During autumn last year,” she said between sniffs. “There was a similar episode of fumigation in a café not far from here. Just up the road, in fact.” And she pointed back the way they’d come. “But nothing like this. Nothing nearly so dreadful. And here it is a second time, but oh, so much worse!” “The Second Autumn,” Oscar mused. Arriving at the animal in charge, they pushed their way through the sobbing throng surrounding him. When noticing his officer struggling to remain vertical, the Chief of Police flailed his paws at those pestering him and turned to her. “Officer Pente-Lente-Trudle,” he said, “are you quite all right?” It was, of course, a silly question, as the answer was still clinically obvious to every animal for the next three streets. “She was amazingly brave, Police Chief,” Oscar said. “But she collapsed when trying to help another animal. Perhaps it would be wise to let an attendant have a look at her.” “Yes, of course.” And he bent down to be certain, still ignoring the pestering. “Are you feeling a little better?” “Yes, chief,” she nodded. “This cat’s been most kind.” The Police Chief pointed to some ambulances further upwind and advised her to stay there until she was feeling better. She nodded and did so, but not before giving Oscar a hug. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Oscar asked. The Chief sighed. Never had he endured an evening like this. Animals kept pestering him for instruction. In the end he’d just made stuff up. So far, he’d been successful—if one could call this unmitigated disaster a success. “I don’t suppose you have a magic wand?” he asked, taking off his hat and running a paw through sweatmatted fur. When Oscar shook his head, the Chief nodded, unsurprised. When more officers arrived and asked whether they should do a bit more cordoning, the Chief suggested it was probably unnecessary, considering the whole area stank like a foetid turd engine. “Have you any idea what happened?” Oscar asked, during a lull in

pestering. The Chief shook his head, bewildered. “We performed several sweeps of the area hours beforehand,” he said. “And we had more cordons in place than a cordon-testing facility in the Cordonian city of Cordon, and yet—” And he gestured toward the hotel and the sobbing animals slipping on sick around them. Only then did Oscar remember who’d been dining at Hotel d’Ruen. “Horace!” And turning to the Chief, he asked, “The Council! Where are they? Was any animal hurt?” “Hurt? Only their pride, no doubt. No, they ensured that they were the first to be whisked away. They didn’t let any animal receive attention before themselves.” “Where would they have been taken?” “Home, in all likelihood. They don’t like hospitals very much. Probably because they’re so old they’re about to need them. They don’t care for anything except their own well-being.” Oscar frowned. “I thought the Council did a wonderful job looking after Ruen’s exclusiveness.” “Ha! I think you mean their exclusiveness.” But the Chief was then inundated by a further torrent of requests. Glancing at the devastated hotel, Oscar worried how Horace fared within such a rancid sarcophagus. Retrieving the doctor’s card, he sought the animal’s address and bounded from the bedlam to find a means of getting him there. ——o0o—— It was nearing eleven when the taxi dropped Oscar off outside Horace’s house. Cypress trees stood black and tall between walls overgrown with creepers, and the air was heavy with cold and salt and closed flowers. Uncomfortable at disturbing any animal at such an hour, Oscar pulled at a bell beside the front door. Above him, light from a window pierced the night, and a thudding arose within as an animal descended stairs. A click, a latch shifted and the door opened to reveal Horace in posh night attire. Understandably, he was surprised to see the little cat upon his doorstep.

“I am sorry to disturb you, Horace,” Oscar said. “But I wanted to see how you were.” The dog blinked sleepily and rubbed one eye, before adjusting his monocle over the other. “Well, no worse than earlier this evening, young cat. What on earth brings you here at this time of night?” Oscar frowned. The animal looked fine and smelt nothing like cabbage. “You were at the hotel?” he asked. Horace nodded. “And yet you are fine?” Then it was Horace’s turn to frown. “Perfectly, thank you. Although I didn’t stay long.” After a sigh of relief, Oscar asked, “Have you not heard?” “About what? Look, young cat, if something is bothering you, you’d better come in. You’ll catch your death otherwise.” But when Oscar did so, Horace gagged. “What on earth is that smell?” “Oh, yes,” Oscar realised. “Sorry about that. It’s just been one of those nights, really.” Holding his breath, Horace gestured to a doorway in the hall and ushered Oscar into a sitting room. It was most pleasant, with ceilinghigh bookcases stuffed with volumes, and two armchairs with accompanying reading lights. There was a writing desk in one corner and an antique telescope standing in another, and between them was a window with curtains drawn. Removing his scarf, Oscar draped it over the telescope, hoping it would be the article of furniture least likely to absorb its aroma. When Horace then gestured to an armchair, Oscar sat—then regretted it, convinced his stink would infuse the chair for years to come. After Horace had opened the window and chosen a chair as far from him as possible, Oscar recounted the evening’s events. While he did so, the dog sank into his chair. On completion of his tale, Horace seemed a crumpled, lost shadow of his prior self. “I don’t believe it,” he whispered. There was a creak upstairs, followed by a squeak of door and then a soft pad of paws down the stairs in the hall. “Hory?” a voice called. “Is everything quite all right?” Horace recovered a little and stood when another animal entered

the room. Oscar did the same, and was introduced to the doctor’s wife, Bremble. She was pleasant and round and appeared not to mind the stench of wet sick Oscar had soaked her sitting room with. Indeed, she beamed. “Well,” she said, turning to her husband, “we haven’t had visitors at this hour since you were practising!” Horace remained distracted and humphed. She asked Oscar whether he was hungry, and if not, would he like a nice mug of hot-fin? “Please,” said Oscar, “I don’t want to trouble you.” “Oh, don’t be silly!” Bremble quashed, delighted at opportunity to fuss. Horace sank back into his chair and stared at the floor while his wife busied herself with hospitality. She said, “When we were first married and Hory was practising, we would barely get one night without disturbance; animals calling by with ailments or us having to attend some poor soul’s plight.” She bustled from the room toward a kitchen and Oscar followed reluctantly, wishing to keep an eye on Horace. “Admittedly, most were ailments of the old and infirm,” she continued. “Though occasionally, we had litters to attend. That was most exciting! I was his nurse, you see. And for years it seemed we did as much at night as we did during day.” She paused to watch hot-fin warm upon a stove. “I miss it terribly, though, and Hory’s been a different animal since his practice was taken from him.” Oscar relinquished his attentions on her husband and joined her. “But he enjoys his work with the Council?” he asked. Bremble looked at him. “He did. Once. It offered some sense of giving. But not for a long time now. I think he merely tolerates it these days, perhaps as something to keep him occupied. Are you a member of the Council also?” Oscar almost laughed. “Goodness me, no!” She stirred the hot-fin thoughtfully. “No, I didn’t think so. You’re far too young.” “Yes, they certainly seem to be in their latter years of life.” Bremble found some mugs and began to distil the hot beverage, saying, “I think that’s where the problem lies, really.” The mugs upon a tray, Oscar offered to take it and she obliged

with a smile. Returning to the sitting room, both animals looked at the despondent dog brooding in his chair. “That’s why he left dinner early this evening, actually,” Bremble said. “He came home furious with his colleagues’ inflexibility. I think Hory’s had a gutful of the whole Council charade.” They spoke quietly while Horace rose and paced, before he left the room to make some phonecalls. Oscar took his drink and sipped, before asking, “I understand he had an accident that forced him to stop practising?” Bremble put her mug down and checked the doorway to make certain her husband was elsewhere. “There was an accident many years ago,” she said. “A really quite bizarre one, actually. A trauma patient who’d been brought in to the hospital inadvertently stabbed Hory in the eye with a sharpened tube of worming ointment.” “How dreadful!” “Isn’t it? But more than that, it’s such a loss for Ruen. Never has there been a more caring doctor—the very reason I married him, in fact. I know he has tried to give the same care through his work as a councillor, but I feel that it’s been an uphill battle and frustrates him most dreadfully.” She glanced at the doorway again. “It was the Pyjami who eventually persuaded him to join the Council, because she has, after all, known him her entire life. But up until the accident, he’d been far too busy with his medicine to heed her call.” She sipped her hot-fin. “I’ve met the Pyjami only once—during one of many lavish balls upon her luxury yacht, and I didn’t take to her at all. Nevertheless, her timing was most auspicious, because Hory struggled to come to terms with relinquishing medicine, and her recommending him to the Council gave him some sense of direction.” Sighing, she pondered her mug for a moment. “Even so, the Council could never be a substitute for his lost passion, and he’s certainly seemed gloomier these past several months. I suspect he’s had things on his mind that he hasn’t mentioned to me. Are you a friend of his?” “I’d like to think so. Although I met him only recently. I’m not from Ruen, you see.” She nodded. “Yes, I gathered that. There aren’t many young

animals left in Ruen now, I’m afraid.” She smiled. “Forgive me. I don’t mean to babble so, but it’s rather nice to have a young animal in company.” Her smile faded. “Rather like old times, really.” He raised his paw to dismiss her apology, before offering one of his own for visiting at such an hour. She looked away and said, “So, Hory was right after all.” Before he could ask what she meant, her husband returned. Falling into a chair, he looked as though he hadn’t slept for days. “The entire Council,” he whispered. “What, dead?” cried Bremble. Horace shook his head. “No, my dear. Not dead. Quite alive. All of them, fortunately.” He stared at Oscar then. “But they may never have whiskers again.” There was silence from all three, before Oscar said, “I think I saw the animal responsible for this.” They looked at him in surprise. “It was the same animal responsible for the writing on the wall outside the hotel on the morning I first met you.” Horace frowned while Oscar explained, “I bumped into her during the early hours while she was smearing bricks with manure. I’d been out for a walk, you see.” “Who is she?” asked Bremble. Oscar shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s a young cat and pretty brazen, obviously.” “What makes you believe she’s responsible for this evening?” Horace asked. “I saw her leave the hotel, just after we spoke upon the steps. It seems a rather extraordinary coincidence considering the faecal theme.” “Did she see you?” “Yes, indeed, and I think she was rather surprised.” “And she was young, you say?” Oscar nodded. Horace stood then. “I told you. Both of you. I told you something like this was going to happen!” He began pacing. “It sounds like a similar incident that happened last autumn.” “That’s right!” said Oscar. “A police cat said this was rather similar, just on a far more horrendous scale.”

Horace turned to him. “Oscar Teabag-Dooven, I do not believe you are here for a holiday seeking curiosities, and it’s not my place to interrogate you as to your real purpose. But I ask you, in whatever capacity you’re here, for your help. Because I fear that without it, the Council’s retaliation for this evening will be substantial.”

4 ____________________

THRILLED that Horace sensed he might be more than tourist, Oscar said, “I ought to go to the police and see if they can identify her from a description.” Horace began pacing again. “No, I do not think that wise. Firstly, I think you’ve witnessed enough of Ruen’s policing to realise it leaves much to be desired. And secondly, despite what you saw, I do not believe that animal was responsible.” “Why not?” “I have a suspicion that the extent of devastation was not at all her intention.” “But she was involved?” Bremble asked. “Yes, certainly,” said Horace. “But it is not as clear-cut as you might think. I have been on the Council ten years and have witnessed the increasing frustration young residents feel beneath the Pyjami. Indeed, I suspect it’s almost a game for her. Of cat and mouse, if you will.” Adjusting his monocle, he dabbed his eye. “I believe the animal you suspect might have been coerced into organising this evening’s horror. I do not imagine she meant such severity, as prior protests have caused no more than irritation.” He looked at them both. “Something evil has inserted its claws. And I suspect this entire conflict has become something of a one-sided battle. Though you are right, young cat. We do need to find her.” Glancing at his wife, he asked when the next new moon might be. Unsurprised by such request, she went to check a calendar. “Tomorrow, actually,” she said. “What are you suggesting?” asked Oscar, imagining some sort of midnight covert operation. “I’m not suggesting anything, young cat,” said Horace. “You said

you were interested in curiosities. Well, you shall have dinner here tomorrow evening, after which I shall show you something very curious indeed. Something that might offer a clue as to how we might end this madness. Because I fear, if we do not, then this madness shall end us all.” ——o0o—— The following morning, Horace dropped Oscar by the police station in the centre of town, before he went to visit suffering colleagues. Intending to offer himself as a witness, Oscar imagined the police’s incompetence would haemorrhage answers. For a city harbouring no crime, their ineptitude was absurd. Although it might explain last night. No wonder the Pyjami had been so horrid; clearly such protests touched several raw nerves. Oscar wondered again who that brazen young cat was and how he might find her. Then she arrived at the Police Station at the same time as he. In fact, they almost touched paws. For a third time, they gaped at each other—until the Dervy hissed and spat. She whirled around, seeking a means of escape. He stared at her, then cried, “Hey!” She ignored him and ran to purloin a parked moped. With paws frantic, she fiddled with its starter until the thing fired into life. Without a glance at traffic, she bounced into its current. Cars hooted and one screeched to a stop, the driver leaping from it and shouting profanities that left Oscar regretting Ruen’s language wasn’t as foreign as the place was. Shocked, Oscar advised him that there was never excuse for such language, particularly in that tone, before taking his car. Glancing over her shoulder, the Dervy watched the car weaving in pursuit. With curses of her own, she tucked her tail into the seat, a bit like a seatbelt, and revved the thing. She zipped through traffic and buzzed through intersections, her red scarf flittering as though wanting nothing more to do with her. Stabbing his paws at the car’s pedals, Oscar bore down upon her, weaving between pedestrians and cars, both moving and stationary, before ploughing through some parcels of cheese launched in her wake. He swore too, it being difficult enough negotiating Ruen’s

maze of streets without having to dodge the contents of a supermarket as well. When things got particularly difficult, he closed his eyes and put his paw down, convinced things would be more capable of dodging him than he was dodging them. The Dervy took a sharp right, which would have been fine were it an intersection. But it was not, and left her screaming at pedestrians silly enough to believe the pavement was theirs alone. Amid shrieks and yells, she tore through tables and chairs—spilling bacon, launching buns and splattering hot-fins everywhere. Oscar, certain her unorthodox use of pavement left the animals upon it as primed as they’d ever be should he follow, promptly did so. With one paw parping upon horn, the other battled the steering wheel as tyres grappled for grip. Sprawling through her wake, he yelled apologies at those hysterical, and ploughed after her. Her moped screaming, the Dervy zipped down an alley and raced out the other side. Bouncing through a break in traffic, she wobbled onto pavement again before disappearing into a laneway. Over cobbles and through gutters, bumping over bricks and fallen plaster, the Dervy raced her one-geared steed. Skidding out of the laneway, she took a hard left, and then another and then a hard right—in fact, at this speed, they were all difficult. Whirring along pavement, she glanced over her shoulder, relieved to see nothing of the lurching car. With a wobble, she pulled back into traffic that headed toward Ruen’s outskirts—though did so directly in front of Oscar. Having lost her several streets earlier, Oscar was bereft of ideas, and driving a stolen car wasn’t helping foster any new ones. When the Dervy re-appeared in front of him, he resorted to leaning from the window and yelling “hey!”at her again. Startled, she wobbled all over the place, before tearing away between opposing lanes of traffic. Grinding the car into another gear, Oscar followed. The car required considerably more room than the moped. Which he didn’t get. At least not initially. And when he did it was amidst a chorus of horns and expletives only marginally more offensive than those of the car’s owner. Beyond the city’s walls, the road snaked toward the towering ranges and wound between huge crags of granite. When the Dervy overtook a truck, Oscar had to wait for it to struggle uphill before

managing the same, suspecting the car’s highest speed was reverse— and then only with a headwind. While the moped swallowed corners easily, the car choked on them and the Dervy soon increased her lead. Swinging around escarpments, Oscar struggled to see anything of her ahead. When the road turned toward the coast and untangled, he barrelled along its straight. Around another corner he spied her dust. With a growl, he threw the car into a gear it didn’t know existed, and plunged his paw onto the accelerator. With the road now gravel, tyres clamoured for grip and the moped slid all over the place, bouncing as though its wheels were square. When the road tightened suddenly, the Dervy shredded its corner with a balance bordering on lost and disappeared around a bend in a flurry of pebbles. Oscar braked heavily, cursing both her bravery and insanity. When he rounded the same corner, the moped was nowhere to be seen. He slammed on the brakes and tore to a halt in a hail of dust and gravel. The engine stalled, spluttered and died. He wrenched open the door, jumped out and looked around. There was no sign of the animal, or of the moped. Nothing other than the low thunder of waves pounding cliff. Coughing through dust, he ran ahead to see through clearer air. Nothing. No moped. And no distant buzzing. Then he realised. He edged toward the cliff and his collapsible field-survival tummy almost collapsed itself when he saw how far down the sea was. Upon all fours, he peered over its edge and whispered expletives he hadn’t a hope of spelling. The twisted mess of moped remained caught in a tangle of roots jutting from the cliff-face, and clinging to one end of a scarf while the other remained caught in its chain, swung the Dervy. “Oh, no,” he whispered, before yelling, “HOLD ON!” This, he immediately regretted, and not only because she was left less than impressed. “Oh? Really?” she shouted. “I mean, are you sure? I was conthidering my optionth here for a while, and was toying with the idea of trying thomethng a bit different, becausethe tho far, holding on

hathn’t improved my thituation noticeably!” “Clearly-insane-of-the-mind, after all,” Oscar growled, hurrying back to the car to find something with which to retrieve her. The boot surrendered a first aid box, which contained a halfchewed aspirin and three used plasters, a jump lead, a broken corkscrew, a road hazard sign (which was broken and covered in tyre marks) and an unopened packet of crispy scales. There was nothing to aid the rescue of a dangling animal. He ran back to the cliff to see how she was managing. “How are you managing?” he called down. “Can you see any way of getting up?” Her voice was faint over the thunder below, though her tone was quite apparent. “Yeth, actually. Fortunately, there’th a rather convenient flight of thtairs that hath been thoughtfully placed nearby. But I’ve refrained from uthing them, preferring to wait until you’d thuggested it!” Oscar said nothing. Under the circumstances, her elocution was admirable. She then screamed, “GET ME UP FROM HERE!” Indignant at her insinuation this was in some way his fault, Oscar was nevertheless at a loss. He frowned. Being a Velvet Paw of Asquith does afford certain advantages over other animals in a similar quandary, and he opened his collapsible tummy to exploit one of them. From it, he took out two fluff-grenades and unscrewed their caps very carefully. He removed from each a coiled thickness of ExtraFluff™ and laid them on his pantaloons. Grasping a pawful of his fluffy tummy fur, he pulled, winced and placed it next to the ExtraFluff™. After three more pawfulls, he took his fluff and the ExtraFluff™ and began kneading them together. From the beyond the cliff, a voice arose. “Hello? Are you thtill there?” Indignant, Oscar ignored her. With further pawfulls of his luxurious fluffy fur, he kneaded the fluff into a growing sausage of thick fluffiness. When the consistency was right, he began rolling it between his paws. As the rope lengthened, he twisted and plaited its strands into a remarkable length. The Dervy continued to curse, which left him relieved. While she had strength to hurl abuse, she’d have

strength enough to cling. After tying a stone to one end, he wound the rope up and threw it over his shoulder. He scrambled to the cliff’s edge, and yelled down a brief summary of his knitting and what he intended to do with it. After lowering the rope, he readied to swing it towards her. “How close is it?” he yelled. “Not clothe enough!” He let it down further, surprised she hadn’t call halt when there was no more to offer. “It needth another twenty more pawth or tho!” she shouted. “I can’t reach it from here!” Cursing, Oscar peered over the edge. She was quite right. Although she’d dragged herself up the scarf, the wind bowed the rope, rendering it too short. Winding it up, he scrambled from the edge and ran back to the car for another search. The jump-lead wasn’t nearly long enough, and there were nothing resembling a vine either in the boot or on the roadside. It was all shrub and rock. At a loss, he began treddling, unable to think of anything other than attempting to climb down himself. The notion made his tummy do unsocial things, which would only compromise their eventual acquaintance. He returned to the cliff and peered down. Still she clung, though her abuse lessened as strength withered. After more curses, he yelled down a second summary of intention, though with less conviction than the first. Crouching, he turned and poked a hind paw over the edge, his fluffy pantaloons flailing at the empty space beyond. Feeling nothing beneath upon which to lodge a paw, he swore through his scarf—which he then stared at. It was forgivable that he hadn’t considered his scarf earlier. Velvet Paw training doesn’t mention scarves when it comes to improvising rope from fluff grenades and collapsible tummy fur—presumably because scarves would have been blindingly obvious in the first place. While he struggled to drag himself back from the edge, he swore to make certain it would from now on. He then cursed his fluffy pantaloons, which did nothing to help him grip the roadside, and he fought for traction before eventually managing to scramble to his paws. He ripped off his scarf, tied it to the length of rope and hurled it back over the cliff. Yelling at her again, he did some emergency rope

swinging. When the cat made no reply, he despaired she was lost. Despair was quickly evicted, however, when the rope was pulled. Surging with hope, he called out, “Have you got it?” “Yeth, but it will never hold me! It’th far too thin!” Oscar swore with relief. “Don’t worry, it will! Just tell me when you’re ready!” She did, and with all his might, he scrabbled back toward the car, pulling until the cat rose into view. Grabbing at the cliff herself, she struggled over its edge until able to collapse upon it. Oscar did the same against the car, with both focussing on pants, coughs and relief for some time, with neither having the strength of words for either. Eventually, flopping a paw onto her dusty tummy, she said, “Thank you.” Oscar glanced at the boot and asked whether she fancied a packet of crispy scales. While she answered through a swathe of coughs, he staggered over to her and offered a paw, which she stared at before taking. Her eyes were bright amber and would have matched her orange tabby stripes marvellously had she not been covered in dust, engine oil and more grass than a spring meadow carpeted in the stuff. He returned to the car, retrieved the packet of crispy scales and offered her the bag. She eyed him warily, took the bag and began stuffing pawfuls of scales into her mouth. “Are you going to arretht me?” she asked when room for words returned briefly. “What?” She didn’t repeat herself, and continued stuffing her face instead. “No,” said Oscar. “I am not going to arrest you. I’m not a police officer, but I would really appreciate some idea of what in fluff is going on here.” She munched but offered nothing. Sighing, Oscar turned to the battered car, its appearance complementing theirs rather well. Clapping his dusty paws together, he said, “Well, I’d better try and get this muppet of a thing to start, otherwise we’ll be walking back.” Sitting in the car, he tried to start it. The car coughed and spluttered, implying that like them, it had just about enough for one day. He tried again, but still nothing except a whirr, a cough and an obscene swearing of engine. While she continued to stare, he ignored

her, pretending that not only was he accustomed to this sort of thing, but that this time he’d make things a little more interesting by pretending he had no idea about cars.

5 ____________________

HE got out, brushed himself down, shook some dirt from his ear holes and rounded the front of the car. The bonnet was stuck, and he wrestled with it for some minutes before the Dervy popped it open from inside the cabin. “The engine,” Oscar said when she joined him. “I think it’s broken. And I think it should be shinier.” “The dithtributer ith all duthty,” she said, through a mouthful of crispy scales. “I’m sorry?” She pointed at bits of engine. “The dithtributer ith all duthty.” Oscar still didn’t understand. Her lisp was bad enough but, when forced through a half-chewed mouthful of crispy scales, she made about as much sense as the animal who first decided to eat blue cheese. “Perhaps,” he said. “But I’m certain it should be shinier. I’ll find a cloth.” The Dervy shoved the bag of half-devoured crispy scales into his paws and thrust hers into the tangle of engine. With a wrench and a spit, a curse and a twist, she removed something and wiped grease from it. With another spit, she then put it back and suggested he try again. Oscar returned to the car, wondering how spitting soggy crispy scale into an internal combustion engine could be considered constructive— especially when doing so only detracted from its shininess. But when he turned the key, the car coughed, spluttered and pulled itself together into a rattling rhythm of waiting. Oscar sat back, impressed. Having secured the bonnet, the Dervy offered an oily paw through the window. “The Dervy,” she said. “My friendth call me the Dervy.” Oscar took her paw and returned it as was the custom. “Oscar Teabag-Dooven,” he said, and hesitated before admitting, “and I don’t

really have any friends.” She blinked at him, before limping to where his scarf lay on the road. She untied it and brought it back. “Well, Othcar Teabag-Dooven, thaving an animal’th life is a jolly good way to thtart.” Realising he had indeed done this, he stared at her. Maybe his incessant self-doubt could spend some time doubting itself for a change. The Dervy hobbled to the passenger side, saying, “If you don’t mind, I think it might be betht if you drive.” Although agreeing unreservedly, Oscar needed to relieve himself before any return journey. Under the circumstances, it was remarkable that he hadn’t already. Leaving the car rattling quietly, he made his way up an embankment to find a suitable place. He squatted, sighed and waited in that order. Breeze, scented with grasses and sea, played across his earless openings, and he wondered whether in a strong wind, his head might play a tune. Warm sun brought everything beneath to simmer in spring headiness, and despite its recurring Autumns and insane residents, he realised how beautiful this part of the world was. But he then noticed something that he hadn’t seen during the panic of rescue. And so surprised was he, that he almost ended proceedings with an inadvertent clench. Towering high above him, upon a pinnacle of rock, was a castle. It struck at the sky as though having been belted from the earth, and soared above land and sea. Its walls teetered upon a precipice that left little room for anything other than wizened and daring points of tree. Its parapets were as sharp as thorn, having whittled the mountain down to an immense point of needle, and above it, flocks of birds wheeled, leaving it to be a crown upon a crown. Its perilous stance left Oscar in awe, and in a shower of dust and stone, he scrabbled down the embankment and back to the car in a manner suggesting things had not gone according to plan. “Did thingth not go according to plan?” the Dervy asked. Ignoring her, he pointed up at the fortress, and asked, “What on earth is that?” She followed his stabbing paw. “That ith the Cathtle of Ruen.” Against high sun, Oscar sought its heights again. “It’s beautiful. Who lives there?” “No one, thilly! It’th a ruin and hath been for centurieth.”

“There must be some animal living there.” “What could posthibly make you think tho?” “Look at all the birds circling above it. Surely there aren’t that many birds around a deserted ruin?” The Dervy shrugged. “Well, it’th quite imposthible to get to,” she said. “The cliffth are almost vertical all the way around. There may have been a bridge or a thtaircase of thome thort once, but not any longer. And certainly no animal resideth there now.” “Then why all the birds?” “I don’t know. They’ve got to netht thomewhere, and I thuspect it’th convenient.” She nodded toward the mountains. “Perhapth the rangeth are jutht too pointy?” Oscar found the suggestion so ridiculous that silence seemed prudent. She got into the car and Oscar followed, and finding a gear that still worked, he used it to perform a thirty-seven point turn, such was his dislike of cliffs. ——o0o—— Having nursed their car back to Ruen, Oscar pulled up at a bar neither knew. In it, he ordered an assortment of beverages to lessen the odds of receiving a dreadful one. Oscar didn’t like bars. He quite liked the music, providing it was quiet jazz. But he didn’t like their smell; unfamiliar confidence with a strange hint of plead. He avoided bars religiously, which was odd considering he liked cafés. And he spent a moment pondering the difference, which he concluded was due to the former having stools. He didn’t like stools. They were either tables trying to be chairs or chairs trying to be tables, and their indecision left him uneasy. When the Dervy planted herself on one, Oscar climbed upon another, holding the bar for stability. He’d have preferred to write poetry and browse libraries than talk to strange animals in strange bars, and he wasn’t convinced that talking to an animal as peculiar as the Dervy would help any more than visiting cafés had the day before. Especially when surrounded by stools. “You’re a peculiar animal, aren’t you?” he said. The Dervy watched him gripping the bar. “What do you mean by

that?” He shrugged, as it was pretty obvious smearing faeces on walls and trying to take out an entire city’s council before hurling oneself off a cliff was hardly normal behaviour for any animal. So he said as much. She scoffed. “I have my reathonth. And anyway, I didn’t hurl mythelf off the cliff—my braketh failed.” “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t realise that. It certainly explains a great deal—though I slowed down when it became obvious you were going too fast.” “Well, now you know why.” Oscar nodded. Even so, it wasn’t he who went around mis-spelling words with appalling grammar in his own manure. So why had she been at the Police Station? Their drinks arrived. He took a sip of hot-fin. It was revolting and he tried not to gag. “You were turning yourself in this morning,” he said, wiping his chin. “I jolly well wath not!” And because she didn’t ask what he meant, Oscar could have had no clearer confession. This animal was responsible for the Second Autumn. “Why in fluff would you do something like that?” he asked. She looked at him, before tenacity crumbled. After burying her face upon the bar, she began to cry. Oscar glanced around uncomfortably, not knowing what to do, and the animal behind the bar offered little more than indifference. He nudged his hot-fin toward her. “You can have my drink,” he said. “It’s really quite revolting.” But she shook her head, before burying it deeper. “Honestly. You’re most welcome to it. It’s like eating soggy soap off a plug-hole.” Her shoulders jumped. After some deep breaths, she looked up, wiped her whiskers and took a napkin he offered. “And you thought I was thtrange?” she said. “Then we perhaps have something in common.” The Dervy looked away and took a sip of her drink, which seemed agreeable. “What happened to your earth?” she asked. With a familiar plummeting of self, Oscar was then the one needing to hide. A paw rose to where his ears once perched. “It’s a long

story,” he said, wishing to leave it there. “Why? Did they come off thlowly?” “No, they did not,” he said. “It happened very fast, very painfully and I don’t want to talk about it.” Taking a swig of hot-fin to make the point, he forgot how revolting it was, and sprayed it across the bar. The animal behind it produced a cloth and mopped it up with such lethargy, Oscar was left wondering whether having concoctions heaved back at him was an all too frequent occurrence. “Were you being brave again?” the Dervy asked. “No, not really. I just didn’t realise it was the same drink.” “No, I meant when you lotht your earth.” Oscar sighed. “Look, I was trying to help another animal and it got complicated.” “Tho you were being brave.” “I was just doing my job.” “What iith your job?” “Well—” But he stopped then, preferring to ask the questions. “Look,” he said. “I want to help you, the Dervy. Really, I do. But I need to know why you felt it necessary to do what you did last night. What in fluffiness pushed you to such an extreme?” The Dervy’s eyes went from a glow to blackness then, and he realised he had to offer more. “I know of animals who sympathise with your frustration and are eager to help you before more animals get hurt.” She scoffed. “I have plenty of friendth like that.” “Perhaps, but I doubt they are members of Ruen’s Ruling Council.” She fell silent then, though her expression remained defiant, wanting to believe him, but suddenly weary of this fight. “Who are you?” she asked. He took a deep breath before admitting, “I am Oscar TeabagDooven, a Velvet Paw of Asquith, on curiosa here in Ruen.” “You’re not!” she cried, pushing him in amazement. Expecting surprise, but certainly not assault, Oscar flailed upon his stool. He teetered, toppled backwards and fell, lunging at drinks on the way down. He crashed to the floor where he remained sprawled for

some time, soaking up beverages like a conveniently placed sponge. With a paw over mouth in dismay, the Dervy leapt from her stool and joined him. Apologising profusely, she removed the receptacles adorning him, admonished her clumsiness, raved about his prowess and finished with an excellent dissertation on the fundamental flaws of stool design. With her help, Oscar scrabbled to his paws. Offered a cloth by the bartender, he dabbed at himself, before realising it was the same cloth used to mop up his recent hurl. With a sigh, he stood in surrender, wet cloth in one paw, empty glass in the other, while the Dervy picked off bits of wet grass and a slice of lemon from his fur. There’s no nobility in admitting to being a Velvet Paw if it’s followed by toppling from stools. Such admission requires a certain dignity. “Are you hurt?” she asked. “Only my pride.” “I’m thorry, but I was a little over excthited. I knew there wath thomething different about you.” “Indeed?” said Oscar, trying to recover decorum through diction. Taking the slice of lemon from her, he left it pointedly upon the bar, along with the little ball of grass she’d found in his fluff. He also left the cloth, but not before wringing it out pointedly also. “Ith it really true? You’re really a Velvet Paw?” “Of Asquith, yes.” That she had little trouble accepting the fact pleased Oscar, and went some way to negating his acrobatics. Their composures and stools restored, the Dervy said, “I want it to be true, goodnesth knowth, Ruen needs your help. To be quite honetht I’ve had rather enough of thith unrelenting thtruggle.” She took a deep breath and began. “Up until five yearth ago, thingth were tolerable for animalth thuch as me. Ruen has alwayth had rethtrictions about when and where young animalth might congregate, but over time it has became quite ridiculouth.” She looked at him, but he said nothing and waited. “After Ruen’th rise in popularity came a wave of animalth of all ageth. I think it was thimply too much for Ruen, too quickly. The Ruling Council was dethperate to find a thtrategy to maintain Ruen’th quiet theasithide character.”

“You seem quite understanding of such predicament.” “Of courthe. To be honetht, I agree with them. I have lived here all my life and I would hate to thee Ruen thuccumb to common mediocrity. But there are wayth to pretherve character. Wayth that are not so maddeningly dithcriminatory.” “So you’re saying the Ruling Council has become too harsh?” She nodded, partly in answer and party to dislodge some grass still caught in the fluffy bits around her ears. “And too harsh to certain animals, in particular?” Oscar asked further. “Yeth. To any animal younger than they. In recent yearth, they’ve made a point of clothing down all venueth for young animals. And two yearth ago, they implemented a curfew permitting no young animal to be out after nine!” Oscar frowned. “You don’t feel, by any chance, that your acts of resistance have exacerbated the disparity?” “Posthibly. But I cannot thit by and thee my friendth deported without protetht! And anyway, our protethts have only ever been about inconvenienceth and dithruption, rather than intentional harm.” “The Dervy, your fumigation last night was rather more devastating than smearing pooh on a wall.” Her face fell and she looked away. “That horror wath never what I intended.” Oscar nodded, realising Horace was right. “Then what in fluffiness made you perform such an act?” Her eyes were wet when she met his again, their glistening amber full of plead. “One of uth wath so certain such theverity was warranted. He compelled uth to build that which wath unleashed.” Her gaze fell. “I fear a thtep hath been taken that can never be retraced. Up until last night, we toyed with their temperth. Now, I thuthpect there’th nothing left to toy with.” Oscar reached for her paw and patted it. “You have been incredibly naughty, the Dervy. But fortunately, other than singed whiskers, stripped sinuses and an astronomical cleaning bill, no animals lost their lives.” But her gaze remained on the floor. “I can help cease this attrition, the Dervy. And I think you know

more than any animal that this needs to end now.” Remembering the Pyjami’s viciousness, he added, “It must end now. Before all bedlam breaks loose.” She looked up, grateful but concerned, with both suspecting that bedlam had already arrived and was wandering around the place making itself familiar; finding good cafés, working out bus routes and generally getting its act together. ——o0o—— Oscar needed to restock his collapsible tummy with supplies from his hotel room—if they’d survived the horror, while the Dervy wished to witness the aftermath of the Second Autumn as a sort of selfchastisement. So behind the wheel again, the cats headed for Hotel d’Ruen. Whenever they turned left, the Dervy stuck her paw out the window, which Oscar found increasingly annoying as it was his window. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked. “Indicating.” Which only had him asking again. She said, “You need to indicate which direction you want to go in.” “I thought that’s what the steering wheel was for.” She looked at him in disbelief. “Have you ever actually driven a car before?” “Of course!” “When?” Shrugging, he said, “Well, this morning.” A horn blared at them, and an animal yelled obscenities in their wake. While the Dervy waved apology, she asked how he’d managed not to have had an accident. To which he replied he was quite happy leaving such things to her, as she’d already proved herself amazingly capable. Arriving at hotel d’Ruen, Oscar pulled up in a squeak of tired brakes and cut the engine. Spluttering in relief, it died, its days of conveyance now well and truly over—which left Oscar relieved; of the

three of them, the car could easily have been the lone survivor. The hotel was in a terrible state and they watched a horde of luggage-laden animals flee sobbing down its steps. “Don’t worry,” Oscar reassured her, imagining how she must feel. “We’ll get this mess sorted out.” Despite the Second Autumn, he sensed a goodness in the Dervy. Especially when compared to the Pyjami.

6 ____________________

INSIDE the hotel, both cats realised the Second Autumn would not be forgotten in a hurry. Paws over their noses, they stared in disbelief at the mess. The foyer smelt like greasy cheese mixed with sweetened sick. From its ceiling, chunks of plaster fell in response to patrons’ frantic retrieval of luggage upstairs. Wallpaper peeled, congealing in thick, soggy lumps and looking like a sneeze from something large and infectious. Pot plants were little more than singed sticks in withered soil, and furnishings looked as though they’d been gone over with a blow torch and blunted cutlery. Remnants of tattered cordon hung from the ceiling like streamers designed to celebrate nothing, while other bits remained glued across the walls like toilet paper besieged. Picking their way across a floor that could only be described as highly flammable, they edged toward the dining room. With his scarf positioned as it had been the night before, Oscar made his way with morbid fascination, while the Dervy followed in chokes of untold disbelief. Peering within, they saw it had fared even worse than the foyer. With muffled obscenities, Oscar pushed the dining room door, which fell from what remained of hinge and splattered to the floor, before sinking. He tried to say something, but gagged. Lost for words, the Dervy did the same. The table, having broken in two, appeared to have been cast in plaster—albeit brown and lumpy. Singed wallpaper peeled in curls around crusting lumps of splattered manure. Chairs lay scattered across the room, thrown when diners fled across a sick-soaked floor. Paw marks streaked through oily, sludge splattered tables, and a mound of pooh steamed near the doorway, presumably deposited while slippery paws grappled with dining room doors.

The guilt was all too much for the Dervy and she turned to retch, hoicking up a mouthful of sick, which she dribbled onto similar excretions congealed upon the floor. “Can I help you?” a voice asked pleasantly. Both cats turned, the Dervy pretending she’d been putting something in, rather than letting something out of her mouth. A little dog in a neat Hotel d’Ruen waistcoat, with a name tag saying Percival S. Minton looked at them, eager to offer assistance. “Would you like a room?” he asked in a manner unbefitting the state of venue. “I beg your pardon?” said Oscar, noticing the dog’s paws were covered in excrement, something that didn’t appear to perturb the animal. “A room. Would you like one?” Oscar and the Dervy looked at each other and then at the dog, who clearly wished to make their stay as pleasant as possible. But before Oscar could reply, the lift on the foyer’s far side pinged. From it tumbled several sobbing animals clutching half-packed suitcases. Dashing for the exit, one screamed at another who lost a sock to, “Leave it! Leave it! For goodness’ sake, just blooming well leave it!” before flinging themselves from the hotel. “It’s just we have some vacancies at the moment,” the little dog continued, turning back to the cats. The Dervy, overwhelmed with guilt, groaned at such unjust courtesy. “Are you in charge here?” Oscar asked. The little dog nodded, having been given a promotion he was not in the least expecting. “I am a Hospitality Patron Logistical Support Assistant.” They blinked at him. “I collect bags.” he explained. “Moreover, I am currently the only member of staff present, as all the others are either crying, mute or in hospital. Which is quite all right, because so far I’ve only had to manage patrons checking out—and doing so hasn’t involved any bookwork per se, and more my ability to catch flying keys.” In convenient illustration, one of the escapees returned and hurled a key across the foyer, which landed beside Percival in some drying

lumps of sick. Picking it up, he waved a pleasant thank you to the already absconded patron. He wiped it on his paw and wandered to a reception desk. Oscar and the Dervy followed. “You can’t seriously think animals will want rooms here after all this?” Oscar said. Percival placed the key upon a full rack of others and turned to them. “Why not?” Lost for words, Oscar raised his paws at the congealing filth around them. Blinking at it, the little dog said, “It’s ambience.” While Oscar stared, Percival smiled, waiting for the next round of pleasant conversation. “This isn’t ambience! This is disgusting!” Oscar cried. “You can’t offer rooms while the hotel’s in this sort of state! This is the single most revolting state of affairs I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing!” He turned to the Dervy. “No offence.” But she shrugged, quite agreeing with him. The little dog leant upon his desk. “When one has been in the hotel game for as long as I have, one learns to take advantage of changing circumstance. You see, I don’t believe in misfortune, only missed fortune.” “Missed fortune,” Oscar repeated, flatly. Percival nodded. “In this business, nothing is more invigorating than change—getting the pot stirred, if you will. Such change needs to be embraced. One needs to work with it and evolve the management model. One needs to seize opportunity and move forward in order to stay ahead of competition.” He winked at the two cats. “Moving forward is the best way to get closure.” Appalled at such a stupid choice of words, Oscar asked with a patience forced, “Does your business model take into account that no other hotel in Ruen currently has their interior draped in thick curtains of erupted faeces?” The little dog winked again. “Ambience.” And reaching for an appointment book, he said, “Apparently it’s all about seeing things differently, which is the best way of getting closure.” “Please don’t say that.”

The little dog looked up. “Say what?” “That stupid expression: getting closure.” “Why not?” “Because it makes you sound like a door.” The animal shrugged before offering him the appointment book with a pen. “What’s this?” Oscar asked, not believing he was being offered a room after all. “I thought you wanted a room.” “No, Percival. I do not want a room.” “Oh.” Crestfallen, the little dog retracted the pen and slumped behind his desk. Eyes misty, he sighed in a sort of generic surrender. Oscar glanced at the Dervy, who indicated she was not getting involved, having done quite enough already. With a sigh, he turned back to the bereft animal, who was either dreadfully naive, or so inexperienced that he’d resorted to some appalling textbook on hotel management as a means to cope. “Look,” Oscar said, “I don’t need a room here because I already have one.” “You do?” Oscar nodded. Percival held out his paw for yet another return of key. “But I don’t want to return my key,” Oscar assured him, “because my room is nice, it has a nice view and even the window frame is nice. In fact, I would like to keep my room and indeed go to it now.” “You wish to stay?” Percival whispered, astonished. Oscar nodded again. The little dog, thrilled beyond remark, agreed wholeheartedly about the window frame in particular. With a flurry through the appointment book, he insisted that not only would Oscar be Hotel d’Ruen’s Guest of Honour, but would apparently be the hotel’s only guest. “Would you like room service?” Percival asked, following them across the sticky floor toward the lifts. “Er, no.” “Are you quite certain? I can easily get the kitchen fired up, wipe

down a few saucepans and maybe wash a couple of mugs?” “Thank you, but that won’t be at all necessary,” Oscar said, pressing at the lift call button hesitantly, certain it was also coated in a film of pooh. “And I’d be extremely cautious about firing anything up in that kitchen, if I were you. Unless you’re planning on demolishing the place and starting again from scratch.” When the lift opened, they were surprised to see another group of sobbing animals who also clutched hastily packed luggage. Embarrassed, their sobbing ceased and they found an intrigue with their suitcases they ought to have found when packing the things. Sidling past the cats, they mumbled awkwardly and hurried across the foyer— but not before hurling a key at Percival. ——o0o—— Once in his room, Oscar demanded explanation for the devastation downstairs. Appalled herself, the Dervy was grateful for the opportunity. “What in the name of all things fluffy did you do, the Dervy?” he cried. “Never have I seen anything so disgusting—with the possible exception of my bathtub on Wednesdays.” “Thix canithterth of what we call Powder-Popth,” she said, in a peculiar mixture of relief and pride. “A deviceth uthed to liberally dithtribute fermenting contentth via a timed pressure theal. I have a talent for mixing thpecial turgid ingredientth, you thee, which when confined produce enormouth pressure from fermentation, the consequnceth of which ith rapid depressurisation that dithintigrateth the canithter and flings their liquefied contentth before rapidly tholidifying again.” “A physical chemist then,” Oscar said sourly. “Hardly, though it’th thomething I’ve always found fathcinating. But I’ve already told you, my protethts have never been thith devastating—and had opportunity not been so rushed I would cthertainly have anticipated its theverity and never have agreed.” Oscar was becoming accustomed to the rain of spittle the more impassioned she became. Opening the window, he hoped the breeze might steer her lisp from him.

Should she become more ardent, he might require a hat. “Don’t you thee?” she implored. “Such ingredientth are not for effect alone, but instead thymbolic! For there is method to thith madnesth!” “Method?” he scoffed. “Are you quite certain of that?” She took a step closer, her expression fervent—a double whammy as far as Oscar was concerned. And he took two steps backwards to compensate. “What ith the one thing uniting us and them?” she urged. “The one thing animalth of all ageth have in common?” Fortunately, there were not too many Ss toward the end of her question and, although he needed answers, Oscar was reluctant to encourage any in such a confined space. He took a step sideways and met a chair. “We all need to go to the loo!” she answered for him. “We all need to pooh! Thuch actth of graffiti or Powder-Popth are thimply means to prove that there is nothing that elevates the Ruling Council from uth!” “Now wait a minute,” said Oscar, waving his paw to defend against spittle. “Don’t include me in this, the Dervy. I’m just visiting, remember?” He slid the chair further along the wall as an excuse to move out of range. “No, you’re not,” she said, turning to follow. “You’re here on curiotha, remember? You’ve been ordered to help thort this mesth out.” She tried to sound commanding, but both knew it was plead. “I may have been, but ridding Ruen of the lead troublemaker would manage precisely that—the very animal I have isolated here in this room, in fact. How do you know I haven’t already contacted the police, and they’re not on their way here now?” It almost sounded plausible. Folding his paws, he pretended this had been his plan all along. The Dervy watched him, her eyes narrow in consideration. “What maketh you think I would let you?” His stance wasn’t fooling either of them, so he gave up and sat on the bed instead. “Well, I don’t think it would make any difference anyway,” he said, “as Ruen’s police are the most incompetent I’ve ever seen. Frankly, they’re about as much use as a bell on a Rottweiler.” The Dervy said nothing.

“I mean, I have never, in all my days of abundant fluffiness, witnessed such a blatant lack of skill! Your police chief, the Dervy, is the single most useless animal I have met!” He poked at himself with a paw, adding, “Even I would be better at sorting out that mess! And you have no idea what that is suggesting!” “The Police Chief is my father.” “—though he does have a very nice hat—very white, actually. Goodness, it’s white. He must keep it well brushed, I imagine. Does he have some sort of hat-brushing kit at home? When the whiteness becomes, well, not quite so white?” The Dervy glared for a moment, but then sat on the bed beside him. “No, you’re quite right,” she said with a sigh. “He’th about as competent as your driving.” Oscar humphed, and then thought for a time. “So that’s why you were at the police station this morning?” he realised. “Not turning yourself in, so much as needing his comfort, without knowing how to tell him what you’d done?” She nodded and looked at the floor. “He was promoted to chief ten yearth ago,” she said. “And at the same time Ruen’th crime rate, although alwayth low, thuddenly dithappeared.” She shook her head. “I could never underthtand it, mythelf.” “Who on earth would promote him if he’s so hopeless?” “Well, the Ruling Council, of course.” Oscar stood then, paced and fluffed his deflated pantaloons. “Actually, that makes a great deal of sense, the Dervy, and may explain why Ruen has such a low crime rate despite having incompetent police.” “Criminalth are not tolerated in Ruen,” she said. “It’th as thimple as that.” “Yes, my point entirely; how can that be if the police are hopeless? And further, why are you still tolerated if the Ruling Council is so set against your protests? If they can eradicate crime, they should certainly be able to eradicate you.” The Dervy shrugged. “I’d suggest you’re permitted to continue your fight, the Dervy, because your father is being controlled by the Council.” “What—you mean blackmail?” She stood—but then doubled over

in pain. “What’s wrong?” Oscar asked, helping her back to the bed. “My paw,” she grimaced. “I think it’th broken.” “What? When?” “Oh, I don’t know! Let me think; perhapth when I threw mythelf off a cliff?!” “You didn’t say anything before,” Oscar said, noticing her hind paw was indeed swollen. “It hurt, but I could thtill thtand on it. But not now.” “We need to get you to a hospital.” “No!” she cried, grabbing his collar. “Not a hothpital!” The last word, containing an S and uttered in desperation, left him quite drenched. “The Dervy,” he said damply, wiping himself with a paw, “you can’t leave your paw like this. It needs to be treated.” “If I go to hothpital, my father would cthertainly be informed. And he mustn’t know of my crimeth today!” It was true. Both needed to avoid advertising their spree of carnage and theft. “I have a better idea,” Oscar said, and looked around to find some towels. “Clean yourself up.” “Why?” “Because I have been invited to dinner this evening by a retired doctor who will certainly know what to do. Moreover, he wishes to show me something curious. Something which, under the circumstances, I suspect will probably interest you as well.” “Which doctor?” she asked, taking a towel he threw on the bed. Oscar smiled and said, “He is a doctor who I think you’ll be both appalled and delighted to meet.” ——o0o—— It was already dark when they arrived at Horace’s house. Having dragged the Dervy to the door, Oscar rang the bell. When Horace answered, the Dervy collapsed into his hallway, dragging Oscar in after her, which resulted in a far less dignified arrival than he’d intended. At the end of the hallway, Bremble appeared, drying her paws upon a dishcloth. Her smile of welcome soon dissolved to concern, however,

and she hurried to the cats. “I’m terribly sorry to trouble you,” Oscar said, picking himself up. “But this is my friend, the Dervy, who has I fear, broken her paw.” While Horace blinked, Bremble held no such hesitation. “You poor animal,” she said. “Don’t put any weight on it, my dear, and let us carry you.” The three animals picked her up and shuffled in an awkward scaffold down the hall and into the sitting room. “Take her other paw, Hory. And Oscar, if you would be so kind, perhaps you could pile some cushions in front of the green chair.” Oscar did so, and Horace and Bremble lowered the cat into it. After raising her hind paw upon the cushions, Bremble left to find some bandages, “She had a fall earlier today, Horace,” Oscar said, “but she didn’t mention her discomfort until sometime later.” “Does it hurt here, my dear?” Horace asked, pressing at her paw. “A little.” “And here?” “Yeth!” Horace stood. “It is swollen, yes. But fortunately, it is not broken.”

7 ____________________

BREMBLE returned with an old bag which surrendered an assortment of bandages and medicines. From them, Horace made a selection. “It is a nasty strain, nevertheless,” he said. “However, any pain is from acute tendonitis rather than fractured bone.” “That ith good, then?” the Dervy asked, keen to ensure no handicap under the circumstance. “If any injury is ever good, then it is so,” he said, stepping back to permit Bremble’s strapping of paw with an expertise not lost despite the years passed. “It needs merely good support for the joint and rest for the next three weeks.” “But I can walk on it?” Horace smiled. “I very much doubt it, the discomfort will be considerable.” “But if I need to?” “My dear cat, I would suggest you refrain from putting any weight on it for at least three weeks. That is my advice, but you do as you must.” Bremble finished securing the bandage. It was beautifully done and the Dervy said it felt much better and rather like comfortable concrete. “I quite enjoyed that,” Bremble said, getting up and dusting herself down. “It was rather like old times, do you not think, Hory?” The dog smiled reflectively and nodded. “How on earth did you manage such a sprain?” he asked, settling himself into a comfortable chair and gesturing for Oscar to do the same. “I drove off a cliff,” the Dervy said. Intrigued with bookshelves, Oscar perused its titles instead, saying, “It’s actually not as strange as it sounds, Horace, because I was chasing

her at the time.” With a frown, Horace nodded, to complement the acceptance his guests seemed content with. “And is that something you do on a regular basis, the Dervy?” “No, not at all. This was the firtht time, actually.” “I see.” He turned to Oscar then. “And were you chasing her for any particular reason, young cat?” “Indeed I was, yes. For this is the animal you suggested I seek last night.” Horace’s eyes widened and his monocle fell. “And this,” Oscar advised the Dervy, “is Doctor Horace HumpleHenke. A member of the Ruling Council of Ruen.” While each stared at the other, Oscar returned to the bookshelves. Frankly, if either lunged in spite, they could do so by themselves, because he’d had enough of lunging for one day. Any pouncing or swiping could sort itself out while he looked at books. But there was no growl of vengeance or hiss of reprisal. There was no furniture thrown or lamp smashed. Nor any crashing bookshelves or hurled paper weight. There was no hitting of bandaged limb or poking of remaining eye, nor any vulgar adjective countered by some obscene label of noun. Their silence was more disconcerting. Worried, Oscar turned back to them. But the Dervy and Horace remained as they had been; staring at each other. “Thank you for bandaging my paw,” the Dervy said. “You are most welcome, my dear,” Horace replied. ——o0o—— Relieved to discover a councillor had been spared her wrath, the Dervy ate her dinner with the sort of fervour that left Oscar concerned it would reappear faster than conventional courtesy dictates. Bremble, however, held no such misgivings, and heaped food upon the Dervy’s plate as quickly as the cat shovelled it into her face. And because Horace remained convinced the Dervy had been coerced into the previous night’s horror, dinner was a delightful affair and left Oscar

convinced he was with friends he’d known for years, which was odd, considering he hadn’t any. Glancing at a clock, Horace pushed his chair from the table and stood. “It is nearly time, young cats, for me to show you something curious.” Gesturing that they follow, he led them into the hallway, where he gave each a coat. Climbing the stairs, he then stopped, remembering the Dervy’s paw. But she had no such hesitation, and took the first few with little complaint and successive ones with even less. Horace led them upstairs until stopping at a little door. When he opened it, they entered an attic. The room was clearly Horace’s alone, as there was no evidence of Bremble’s tidiness. Indeed, the cats stared at a cluttered mess of books and astronomy apparatus. Old telescopes leant against walls, sextants lay upon dusty shelving and a desk strained beneath an archaeology of papers. Charts, drawings and maps spread in a clutter, and mobiles of stars and constellations hung from the low roof, bobbing in air smelling of musty wood and well-polished brass. So intrigued was Oscar, that he didn’t notice Horace and the Dervy disappear through a second door until cold sea air stabbed through the mustiness. Pulling the coat on over his beautiful coat, he followed. Upon an expanse of flat roof, they were as high as any might hope to reach upon the headland. To the north, the coastline melted into black, while to the south, Ruen sparkled beside its dark bite of harbour. Night stretched in a blanket across a thick oil of sea, and devoid of moon, starlight upon its corrugations left the world both vast and compressed. Oscar took a deep breath of salt and sea, realising that by the light of day, this place would be a most beautiful vantage to watch Earth turn against sky. Pulling his coat tighter, he turned to Horace, who’d retrieved one of the telescopes and was setting it up on the roof. He looked up at the sky, wondering what could be of relevance to their predicament up there. Horace adjusted the tripod and tightened its screw. “It is quite true, young cat; there is little of relevance in the heavens to our circumstance beneath. And it’s fair to say that for all the years I have been upon this Earth, I have yet to find any answers up there, anyway.” He paused

then, and looked up as well. “Although in all honesty, I feel answers would only detract from its majesty.” He winked at the cats. “Perhaps I much prefer the need to question, than to know.” Oscar smiled. “Have you always been interested in astronomy?” Horace let the Dervy support the telescope while he adjusted its legs. “I must confess that my interests were initially far from noble, as my first telescope was used for observing practical jokes from afar when I was a puppy.” “That doethn’t theem like you at all,” the Dervy said, giving the weight of telescope back to the dog. He set it securely upon the roof. “I think, the Dervy, with age comes reflection. I soon tired of a rapscallion nature and turned my eyes upon the heavens, rather than victims.” Oscar watched the animals. It seemed ludicrous their being enemies. For here they were, side by side, playing with telescopes beneath stars. And he wondered whether any of it was true: the Pyjami’s vicious cruelty, the Dervy’s fermented manure-spreading and Horace’s certainty something dreadful was imminent. The telescope ready, Horace ushered them back into the cosy attic where Bremble had left a nice jug of steaming hot-fin. “What happenth now?” “We wait,” said Horace, pouring the hot-fin. “We wait until there is something curious to see.” “Which is?” Oscar asked. Horace smiled and offered him a mug. “That is what I want you to help me answer, young cat.” They waited in silence for a time. “I need to thay,” the Dervy began, “I had no intention of cauthing thuch disthtresth ath latht night, and I can only apologithe for thuch recklesthnesth.” Horace glared at her until she dared acknowledge his stare. When she did, the dog’s growl was benevolent despite the small confines of room. “I think, the Dervy, you have little to apologise for. Indeed, it is I who should do so, because if the increased repression of the Ruling Council.” She blinked at him, having not expected anything of the sort.

“For I do not believe you were responsible for such mayhem,” Horace continued. “Your protests have always been inconvenient and embarrassing to the Council, albeit with very bad spelling, and far from anything as vicious as last night. Moreover, I believe you have every reason to protest against the manner in which you, and animals of your generation, have been treated.” The Dervy stared at him open-mouthed. And then at Oscar, who pointed at his so she might close hers. Not expecting such leniency, she was lost for words. “Perhaps that can be the end of the matter?” Oscar said, hoping this might be an official reconciliation, and he could return to Asquith without losing any more appendages. “No,” Horace said. “Not at all. For I believe what occurred last night was forced by the Council to legitimise some sort of severe retribution.” “What do you mean?” asked the Dervy, heavy with relief. “It must involve an animal in your ranks,” Oscar said to her. “You remember, you admitted as much in my hotel room. He put down his steaming mug. “Who was it, the Dervy?” “No,” she whispered. “Not him.” She shook her head, convinced. “Who, the Dervy. Who insisted on such horror.” “He inthithted only becauthe we hadn’t much time to prepare. Not becausethe he is in anyway deceitful! Just like mythelf, he wath caught up in the urgencthy of opportunity!” “Yes, but who?” She sank back then and said, as though the name tore at the soft flesh of her throat, “Thedervitz Tappen-Noo.” The name meant nothing to Oscar, and he looked at Horace, who shrugged. “Were you not suspicious of his age?” Oscar asked. “He ith no older than you or I!” “If that is the case,” said Horace, “if he is a young animal, then he isn’t part of the Ruling Council, I can assure you of that. The Pyjami wouldn’t tolerate any animal much younger than she.” Oscar frowned. Although it made sense the Second Autumn might be an inflammatory sabotage of sorts, why it involved an animal not part of the Ruling Council only raised further questions.

“What does this animal look like?” Horace asked. The Dervy thought for a moment. “He is a cat large and black,” she said. “With a white tummy and thockth.” Her voice became dreamy then, and for the rest of her description she didn’t lisp once. “He has wonderful fur, and a black patch over one eye that makes him look like a pirate. He’s acutely intelligent, very debonair and a rather brilliant schematician. He’s brave too, and—well—altogether rather magnificent, really.” Oscar glanced at Horace, doubtful of her impartiality if Sedervitz had this effect on her. While the Dervy continued to swoon, Oscar asked him, “If this Sedervitz character is not part of the Ruling Council, it seems absurd to think he might be manipulating them for his own agenda.” Horace thought for a moment. “I agree. I think it’s extremely unlikely. The Pyjami is obsessively controlling, and I suspect there is nothing she isn’t aware of regarding Ruen.” He growled then. “She is indeed, ulterior.” “So why would either she, or this Sedervitz character, wish to maim the Council?” But Horace could only shrug. Oscar asked, “If the Pyjami is aware of all that occurs in Ruen, why has the Dervy been allowed to continue her acts of embarrassment?” “I would have thought that was obvious. Her activities give credence to the Council’s calls for cumulative retribution.” “So we must assume Sedervitz is somehow involved with the Ruling Council?” “It is a fair assumption perhaps, though I do not believe he is. I suspect instead that your prior assumption is correct: this Sedervitz animal is not working for the Ruling Council, but instead for a very private agenda.” “Whose?” “Well, the Pyjami’s, of course.” “What, you mean without the rest of the Council’s knowledge? Indeed, without your knowledge?” “Frankly, this Sedervitz animal rings no bells with me. And you must remember, the Ruling Council—and indeed the majority of the

original residents of Ruen—are not interested in details of governance, provided Ruen’s tradition is maintained. They have lived their life of responsibility, and are tired and wealthy and content to turn a blind eye to those who maintain tradition.” “Is it really as simple as that?” Oscar asked. “Is that what this all comes down to? Maintaining a tradition? Keeping Ruen only for those old, wealthy and retired?” Reluctantly, Horace nodded. “What about the blackmail?” whispered the Dervy. Oscar nodded. “And the Chief of Police? Is he on the Council’s payroll?” “All civil services are on the Council’s payroll.” “No, I mean, was he appointed because he’s so utterly incompetent?” And he looked at the Dervy in apology. Horace frowned. “I’m certain any Chief of Police would be appointed on merit.” “But he’s so hopeless!” “My dear Oscar, Ruen has an almost non-existent crime rate. How can that be anything other than a reflection of competence?” Oscar frowned too. If the Dervy’s father was being blackmailed without the Council’s knowledge, it suggested the Pyjami had a personal agenda after all. “I don’t like the Pyjami at all,” he growled. Securing his monocle, Horace hurried to the door and peered into the night. When he bounded from the attic, the cats glanced at each other before scrambling to follow. Horace fiddled with the telescope and peered down to the sea. With coats pulled tight, they waited. After squinting through the eyepiece for a time, he cried in triumph before offering the view to Oscar. Peering through the lense, Oscar saw nothing at first and said as much. Horace told him to wait for a moment and not move the telescope. And then, across dark of sea, something appeared. A large black craft eased into view, heaving across darkness with disconcerting stealth. “It’s a vessel of some sort,” Oscar realised, looking up and peering across the sea. He stood aside for the Dervy. “A craft that size with no navigation lights is certainly curious. And also terribly dangerous, I would have thought.” He turned to Horace. “Where’s it from?”

The dog shrugged. “Where’s it going?” Another shrug. He turned back to the sea. Peering through the telescope, the Dervy said, “I can’t thee anything.” Oscar took the instrument and found it for her again. After a moment or two, she swivelled the thing in frustration. “I thtill can’t thee anything.” Again he found it, with Horace suggesting he aim where the craft had not yet passed, so it might appear for her as it had for him.“It’th a barge of thome thort,” she then advised triumphantly. “And a rather large one, I would thay.” Horace then offered all he knew. “I have seen it every new moon for the past six months. It passes out to sea there, and then three hours later it returns.” “Thmugglerth?” the Dervy asked, looking up, and leaving Oscar grateful to be downwind from a word beginning and ending with S— and wondering whether she’d just spat on herself as a consequence. Horace shrugged. “I very much doubt it. As I told you, the Ruling Council knows everything going on around this coast.” “You mean, the Pyjami,” Oscar said. And Horace looked at him, reluctantly.

8 ____________________

“WHAT is south of here?” Oscar asked, taking the telescope and training it in that direction. “Nothing particularly,” Horace said. “A lot of rocky coast, and the same north, really.” “What, no other structures at all?” Horace adjusted his monocle and thought. “Well, there’s an old industrial port south of Ruen. But it’s much farther around the coast and you can’t see it from here. The only structure to the north is the Castle of Ruen.” When he mentioned the place, Oscar’s fur stood on end. “Does any animal live there?” “In the castle? No, not for centuries.” “How can you be sure?” Horace smiled. “The castle is impregnable, Oscar. It has been deserted ever since I have known of it. And I am old. Though I understand that scholars believe there was a ridge of stair or stone scaffolding that wound up its pedestal once upon a time, but it crumbled centuries ago and it’s now quite impossible to reach.” “I find that very hard to believe,” Oscar said. “A castle like that would be a challenge for any animal keen on mountain climbing, at the very least. Or accessed from the air by one of Ruen’s wealthy retirees. How can you be certain it’s never been done?” “Because the Ruling Council would never allow it.” Oscar felt like an advert for static electricity. “We need to find out where that barge is going,” he said. Back in the attic, Horace found a small collapsible telescope, which Oscar furtively placed in his collapsible tummy. Horace noticed. “A collapsible tummy!” he cried, pointing at it.

“Yes,” said Oscar. “I knew there was something special about you!” he said, waggling a paw. “He’th a Velvet Paw of Athquith!” the Dervy said, showering Horace in spittle from yet another word with lisps at both ends. The dog beamed at such revelation, before wiping his face discreetly. Encouraged, Oscar said, “I need a car, Horace. Ideally a fast one.” “Then you shall have one!” the dog said, turning to lead them back downstairs. Determined not to be left out, the Dervy called after him, “Can I take thomething too?” “Of course, my dear,” Horace called up from stairs he and Oscar were already halfway down. “Take whatever you might require.” Searching through clutter she took a dividing compass, a pair of pliers and a torch. Hearing animals thump downstairs, Bremble asked what was going on. But before her husband could reply, there was a clattering from upstairs and the Dervy tumbled past them and came to a halt beside Bremble. While she helped her up, the Dervy apologised, blaming such acrobatics on having one hind paw currently heavier than the other. The four hurried down the hallway and out the front door, and Horace led them around the house to a garage. Inside, he flicked on a light before pulling a dust sheet from something large in the middle of it. The Dervy gasped, as did Oscar, though knowing less about cars, wasn’t sure why. Before them stood a splendid green 1345 Muppet Fin ZR twoseater, with twin persplex Zircov shaders. “This,” Horace said, “is my pride and joy—after my Bremble, of course. But I am far too old to drive it now, and it has been sitting here for nearly ten years.” He traced a fluffy paw lovingly along its lines. “You, Oscar Teabag-Dooven, are welcome to use it to sort out this mess. I ask only that you treat it with the same respect as I did in my younger days.” Oscar stared at the thing. “Horace, honestly, this is not at all necessary,” he said. “The one you gave me a lift in yesterday would be

fine, really.” “That won’t do more than thirty speed.” Horace said. “This 1345, on the other paw, will do two hundred and thirty speed.” The Dervy was already all over it, admiring its shape from various angles. “Will it start?” Bremble asked. Horace lifted a side panel. While the Dervy offered advice, he fiddled within it. After a moment, he returned to Oscar and offered him a key. “Try it,” he said. Oscar took it. “For the sake of Ruen, then.” The dog nodded. “For all our sakes.” ——o0o—— Ten minutes later, with the Dervy strapped in beside him, Oscar screamed the Muppet Fin ZR down the tight curves of the headland’s exclusive residential streets. With teeth gritted, he was determined to get the thing heading south before losing sight of the barge. The Dervy had insisted on accompanying him, and despite the arduous circumstance, Oscar agreed. After all, she knew Ruen far better than he. The car’s tyres tore at bitumen when Oscar barrelled the thing around as many bends as possible without spreading them liberally across roadway. This wasn’t easy, it being only the second time he’d been behind the wheel. Lack of traffic made things easier, however, as did the lack of pedestrians. When reaching the bottom of Ruen’s headland, he took a final corner with a bounce that had the Dervy swear sideways. In a scream of tyre, the car leapt onto a main road and Oscar stabbed his paw at the floor to unleash the engine’s impatience, leaving the night caked in dust and pebbles and burnt red by tail lights. Heading south upon the coastal road, Oscar settled them into just under two hundred speed, which the car seemed to appreciate. The road soon edged closer to cliffs and when they barrelled over hills, the Dervy watched for the black sea to appear between them. “How far to the industrial port?” Oscar asked, his paws gripping the wheel as the needle nudged two hundred speed. She looked at the dials. “At thith rate, fifteen minuteth. Do you

think that’th where it’th headed?” He spurred the car on a little more. “Apparently, it’s the only place it can be headed.” They shot along the road, with their wake screaming red and their headlights opening up the straight ahead, both slicing the dark like a green scalpel through blackest hide. ——o0o—— “There!” the Dervy cried, pointing. “Down there!” In a final scream of tyre and gravel, Oscar slid to a stop upon a crest of hill, inadvertently leaving them to face the way they’d just come. “It’th down there,” the Dervy said. He killed the engine and lights and got out. It was cold, and he wished he’d kept the coat Horace provided. The Dervy limped from the car. “There!” she hissed, “Thee? The port!” At the bottom of the hill lay a small bay with a length of darkness spearing into the sea. It appeared abandoned, as black as shadow and easily missed in the dark. “Can you thee the barge?” she asked, looking across the sea. Retrieving the telescope from his collapsible tummy, Oscar trained it on the black shapes below. “There doesn’t appear to be much down there at all,” he said. But then recognised the same shape spied earlier. “Goodness, I was right! The barge is there! It’s already berthed.” “Show me!” she said, taking the telescope and looking for herself. “They must be unloading something,” Oscar said. The Dervy looked at him. “Do you think they’re real thmugglerth?” He shrugged. “I don’t know, the Dervy. But there’s one way to find out.” He hoped she might volunteer to climb down and have a look herself. But she didn’t, and instead waited expectantly. “Wait for me here,” he said with a sigh. “I shan’t be long.” Creeping over the crest of hill, he slunk through grass. “And what if you are?” she called after him. He raised his head. “Then return to Ruen and tell the police,” he said, before rethinking the idea. “No, better not. Perhaps tell Horace.”

Though he didn’t think that would achieve much, either. “Oh, I don’t know. Just—come and get me.” The Dervy swallowed and nodded as he slunk back into grass. At the bottom of the hill, he crept toward outlying buildings, before darting across an expanse of ground and finding refuge against a wall. He tried recalling some Covert Night Manoeuvre training, but couldn’t, having had a tendency to compose imagist verse rather than listen to the screams of instructors. Nevertheless, he did recall its fundamental rule. After all, he’d had to write it out several hundred times for not listening. “Don’t get caught, don’t get caught, don’t get—” But he froze then. Mid-mantra. Across the way, parked against a crumbling wall, was a black saloon with red plates. It glinted in the night, more out of place against the dilapidated warehouses than petrol in a bakery. He crept toward it, wondering whether he should try and stop it leaving. If he shoved some dirt into the dithtributer thing he might buy them some time—which seemed prudent, considering Horace’s certainty Ruen was running out of the stuff. There was a noise then. A clattering; pebbles rolling down a roof. His breath caught and then tore. He glanced around wildly, but could see nothing other than derelict buildings and a great deal of abandonment. But something felt wrong and he was again keen to flee back up the hill and insist Horace and the Dervy sort all this out for themselves, while he packed his bags, threw a key at Percival and took the next flight home. He’d done his bit. It was up to them to do theirs. He slunk back, hoping it was no more than the sound of industrial decay. The barge was here, and the car proved a link to the Ruling Council. It was enough to help fathom their next move. But Oscar didn’t realise his next move was already decided. When gravel again rolled across a roof, he remained distracted enough for a cat to club him across the back of the head and send him to a land of dreams—a land that might be a welcome reprieve from the

nightmare just beginning. ——o0o—— The first thing he noticed was his missing pantaloons. The second thing he noticed was that they were on his head. The third thing he wondered was how they’d got there, while his fourth realisation was he couldn’t remove them when he tried. His paws were tied. Together. With the rest of him secured to a chair. And his head hurt as though he’d been hit with a brick. The room was large. It reminded him of the Lair, and Oscar wondered if that’s where he was. Though it was unlikely, principally because he was tied to a chair with pantaloons on his head. He blinked and looked around. It didn’t seem the sort of place one might expect for an interrogation, which was the fifth thing he had a bit of a mull over. It was a large terracotta room with an enormous window along one wall. Dawn flooded everything, its light hurting his head only marginally less than bricks clubbing it. He winced, struggling with a headache so large it required scaffolding. There was a coffee table by the window, upon which was a bottle and a glass. Beside it was a tall, comfortable chair. In it an animal stirred. It rose, picked up the bottle and poured its contents into the glass. With the glass in paw, the cat pondered Oscar for a time, before drinking deliberately. After a refreshed sigh, it returned to the chair, put the glass down and sat. “Who are you?” it asked in a velvety purr. Oscar blinked. The cat oozed a confidence he had little of— especially when trussed up like a turkey with pantaloons on his head. Convinced his reply would be little more than a mew of angst, he refused to answer. The cat stood again, approached and bent close. With a purr warning against playing games, it asked the question a second time, leaving Oscar to wilt beneath the cat’s magnificent, emerald eyes. Sedervitz returned to his chair, but did not sit. “Do you know why

you wear pantaloons on your head?” he asked, staring out the window. Oscar said nothing. “Because you are quite hideously ugly.” The words winded and Oscar doubled over in shame. “I despise inadequacy,” Sedervitz said, “and I detest incompetence. Which leaves our meeting most unfortunate, considering the degree to which you are both.” He returned to observe Oscar as though he were a spilt cup of sick on the floor. “Interestingly, I am left wondering how an animal as incompetent and ugly as you might manage to remain upright. Frankly, your appearance makes a mockery of my breed.” His bottom lip quivering, Oscar remained stoic. “I shall ask you again, and you shall answer me unless you wish me to lose my temper. And you do not want me to lose my temper.” Despite his predicament, Oscar’s resentment flared; this cat was not only responsible for the Second Autumn, but had rendered the Dervy as a scapegoat. He pulled at the restraints, fuming at the animal’s arrogance, and wondering how volatile the cat’s vanity was. “And why is that, Sedervitz Tappen-Noo?” Oscar growled. “Are you worried you may not find it again? Does that ridiculous eye-patch of yours make it hard to see properly?” Sedervitz’s eyes flashed in a blaze of green. Oscar stared back, determined to topple the conceited creature from the pedestal he clearly claimed appropriate.

9 ____________________

“IS that why you stand before me so closely, Sedervitz?” Oscar asked. “Forcing me to accommodate your appallingly fishy breath because only one of your eyes works properly?” Raising his whiskers in question, he inadvertently dislodged his pantaloons, which slipped to cover an eye, rendering him in the same predicament as the accused—which he hoped was seen as unflattering caricature, rather than unfortunate punctuation. Sedervitz glared at him, before striding to the window and peering from it. “Who are you?” Oscar scoffed. “Will you be asking the same question ad nauseaum, Sedervitz? I heard you the first time. And the fact that I didn’t answer suggests I’m unlikely to oblige, regardless of how often you might ask. Is that not obvious? Or are you thick as well as blind?” “I admire to a degree your prowess, cat,” Sedervitz said, turning to him with composure unruffled. “But although you may know my name, it is clear you know nothing of me. Were it otherwise, you would certainly not attempt such foolish banter.” “Oh, please! Stop contradicting yourself you silly animal. Either I am incompetent or I have prowess. I can hardly have both.” He smirked from beneath half a pair of pantaloons. “Unless, of course, you do not know the meaning of either.” The smirk was unfortunate, because the pantaloons shifted to cover both eyes. Feeling ridiculous, Oscar hoped the more comical he appeared, the more courageous his retort might seem. But Sedervitz would not be drawn, though he chuckled, as though amused by a kitten trying to be scary. “I shall ask you again,” he said. “And if you do not answer, I shall retrieve one, literally, by clinically inverting you.”

To this, Oscar swallowed. “Who are you?” Sedervitz asked. “I am a poet.” “A poet?” Oscar’s pantaloon-draped head shifted in nod. “And what possible reason might a poet have for sneaking around deserted industrial ports in the middle of the night, pray?” Oscar shrugged. “Inspiration.” Sedervitz fell silent. “It’s a certain ambience I seek,” Oscar said, “in the deserted abandon of places bereft of day.” “Prove it.” “I beg your pardon?” “Prove you are a poet.” “How?” “Make up a poem now.” “About what?” “About me.” “You?” “Yes.” “I’ll need a drink of water first.” Sedervitz hesitated, then returned to the table and poured some water from the bottle. When Oscar felt the glass at his mouth, he drank messily. “And I’ll need my sight back.” Sedervitz lifted the pantaloons from his eyes. “Well?” “These things can’t be rushed, you know, I need time for inspiration.” Sedervitz smashed the glass onto the floor. “If you are a poet, you will compose a verse about me now!” So Oscar began. There was a young cat named Sedervitz, Who was ugly and seething with arrogance, Despite being one-eyed, He was always despised, Because he could only converse through his bottom bits.

Considering his duress, Oscar thought it rather good and decided that should he survive this curiosa, he might suggest lecturing on ‘Spontaneous Poetry Composition under Pressure of Interrogation.’ Sedervitz’s eyes narrowed while he mulled the verse over. “Actually, that’s quite good.” “You’re an expert are you?” “I dabble.” “Well, that’s your lot,” Oscar said, waggling his restraints. “Now let me go or I’ll get cross.” “No. I don’t think so. A poet you may be, but I do not know who you are, or how much you know of me.” “Oh, come now!” Oscar said. “Surely that much is obvious? You’re Sedervitz Tappen-Noo! Every animal in Ruen knows of you!” “I do not believe you. Were it so, you would demonstrate awe rather than inflammation. What is your name?” “Oscar.” “Your full name.” “Oscar Teabag-Dooven.” “Good,” purred Sedervitz. “Now we are getting somewhere, and I shall ask you again: how do you know who I am?” “Look,” said Oscar, his patience wearing thin—unlike his restraints. “I’ve already told you. But if that’s unacceptable, then I shall lie until we come across an explanation you find more fitting.” “I believe you are lying now.” “Well, I believe in natural yogurt, but it’s not going to make a great deal of difference to anything, is it?” “Fine. Then you shall stay here until I deem otherwise.” “Fine.” “Fine.” Realising the time, Sedervitz cursed and made to leave. “Where are you going?” Oscar asked. “Aren’t you going to torture me at all?” Sedervitz turned and stared. “Torture?” he said. “What do you think I am? Some sort of animal? Why on earth would I torture you?” Oscar shrugged. “I don’t know, to get to the truth?” “I thought you just told me the truth.” “I did.”

“So why would I need to torture you?” “Well, you said you didn’t believe me.” “I don’t.” Oscar was confused. “I just assumed that’s why I was trussed up like this.” “Do you want to be tortured?” “No, of course not!” “Then just shut up about it will you?” “How can tell me to shut up when you’ve just spent the morning demanding I do quite the opposite?” “What is wrong with you?” Sedervitz growled. “Why are you trying to rile me so? Ever since you came round you’ve been having a go at me!” Oscar laughed. “Me, rile you? I’m the one trussed up like a turkey! You’re the one who’s supposed to be in control and all smug and great!” “Well, I’m clearly better than you at the moment.” “Oh, you think so, do you?” Oscar swore, itching to lay one on the animal. “Come over here and say that! I’d like to see you being all toffee-nosed when my paws are free!” “Yeah? Well, I’d rather have a toffee nose than a lack of ears!” To this, Oscar wrestled his chair so aggressively that it toppled over, rendering him in a posture that afforded no further comment credible. “Oh dear, oh dear,” smirked Sedervitz, while donning a pair of leather driving gloves. “Clearly I shall have to add clumsy to your list of inadequacies. Though I haven’t the time to do so, as it would be such a dreadfully long list. I am very busy today, with more on my paws than you could possibly imagine.” Oscar growled in a muffled sort of way. “I have solid work ahead of me,” Sedervitz said, “and simply don’t have time to go around doing bits of torture for those disturbed enough to desire it.” Oscar blinked up at him from his position on the floor, implying such a move had been intentional, but looking about as awkward as an animal can when trussed to a collapsed chair. “If you are who you say you are,” Sedervitz continued wearily,

“then fine—whatever. And if you are not, then whatever as well, because I am no longer interested. You shall stay here for the next two days. No one knows you are here, and no one need ever see you leave.” He turned and strode across the room. “You can’t just leave me here!” “I jolly well can.” “But what about water and food?” Sedervitz pointed at the bottle on the table. “Drink that.” “How on earth am I supposed to manage?” Oscar cried, waggling his restrained paws. “I have no idea. If it’s all too hard, then I suggest you write a poem about it instead.” And with that, he strode magnificently across the room and through a door which was then closed with a clack of lock and slide of bolt. ——o0o—— In a corridor, the Dervy placed an ear against its doors and listened. From one arose a scrabbling and annoyed sort of noise. Using her dividing compass, she picked its lock. She slid a bolt, lifted its latch and peered within. The room was huge and had a long window spanning one wall. Although sparsely furnished, it did contain a small, struggling cat intent on giving a lift to a chair. In a veritable swathe of expletives, the Dervy limped toward him. Exhausted, Oscar peered at her for a moment, before surrendering to the floor. She skittled to his side, ridding him of binding and attached furniture. When free, he indicated the bottle he’d been grappling toward. Her squall of commentary unabated, she brought it to him, sweeping glass from where he lay and raising his head so he could drink. After the night he’d had, Oscar found her spittle akin to a freshness of summer rain. “You theem to have rather a habit of thith,” she said at her squall’s conclusion. “Of what exactly?” “Falling off chairth.” But he was too tired to defend himself.

Once she’d helped him upright, Oscar looked around, wondering where he was and asked how she’d found him. The Dervy shrugged. “You thaid I wath to come and get you.” “Yes, but how did you know where I was?” She retrieved his pantaloons which had detached themselves during his scrabbling. “I followed you with the telethcope,” she said, offering them. “But I lotht you behind thome buildingth. When a car then left quite dramatically, I asthumed you’d been stolen.” She brushed the remaining glass away and checked him carefully, discovering a nasty bump on his head that had him wincing. “What made you think I’d been stolen?” he asked. “How did you know I hadn’t taken the car myself?” “Because it wath driven rather well.” He blinked at her. “I wath pretty worried I can tell you,” she said, offering him the bottle again, before having a sip herself. “When the car tore patht me, I jutht followed.” “And you weren’t seen?” She shook her head. “I kept the headlightth off.” Oscar was impressed and said so. The Dervy didn’t smile, however. In fact, she looked rather worried. “It wath very difficult actually,” she said. “The ZR is an awful lot fathter than that thaloon, and I didn’t know where I wath going.” “Well done, the Dervy. And where’s Horace’s car now? Outside? Did you see Sedervitz leave?” Her face went dark with a deeply scribed bitterness at the mention of that cat. She had seen him indeed, and it would take some time for her to accept his involvement with the Council. She had trusted that animal. “Yeth, I thaw him leave,” she said, sourly. Oscar said nothing, knowing well the hurt of betrayal. “Where on earth are we?” he asked, approaching the window which now bathed the room in day. “The Thett,” she said. “The theat of the Ruling Councthil, perched high upon the rangeth above the cithty.” The view accosted Oscar with vertigo. Were it not for the Dervy’s lunge, he would have gained a second bump to keep the first company.

After assuring her he was all right, he said, “If you drove here, the Dervy, then you can drive us back to Horace’s. Something is definitely brewing. And it seems we have at the most two days to find out what it might be.” “Thomething’th going to happen?” He nodded and headed for the door. “I’ll explain on the way.” But the Dervy was hesitant to follow. “There’th one slight technical hitch.” He stopped and turned. “Technical hitch?” “We may have to walk back..” And she limped to remind him that she was already wounded. “Why?” he asked.” Where’s the car?” “Um, I parked it.” “Where?” She didn’t answer. Which left him with a horrid, sinking feeling. “Where did you park Horace’s pristine 1345 Muppet Fin ZR, the Dervy?” She nodded when the truth dawned. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “Please—don’t tell me—not again?” “I couldn’t help it!” she cried. “I’ve got an ankle all bandaged— and I had to try and keep up—and the edgeth were all thteep—and I hadn’t any headlightth—” “Not another cliff?” She nodded, biting her lip in punishment. “But only a bit of it. At least initially. Only a thmall one. And not off it exactly, more thort of, well, into it, really.” Oscar stared at her. “I thought it wathn’t too bad at firtht. Tho I got out to have a look. But it was dark. And then the car thtarted to roll backwardth before— well—disappearing over the edge.” Oscar sagged to the floor amidst a veritable swathe of blinks, and revelled in a good, healthy dose of despair. She had rescued him, certainly—something the Dervy pointed out repeatedly thereafter. But without transport back to Ruen, they’d lose valuable time. Time they could not begin to afford. Which was particularly unfortunate, because according to Horace, the price of time was going to sky-rocket shortly.

——o0o—— Hotel d’Ruen still stank like sweaty cheese, though its throatstripping serrations had blunted somewhat. Nevertheless, while Oscar hurried across its foyer to the lift, he tried not to breathe. He pressed its button and wiped his paw. The doors pinged and clunked open, revealling Percival S. Minton. Delighted at Oscar’s presence, Percival stood aside, deciding a return journey was well worth the detour. Oscar groaned. During a brief reprieve at Furballs, where phonecalls were made, Horace had left for an extraordinary Council meeting, and the Dervy had gone to brief her father. But having piggy-backed the Dervy down the side of a mountain after being strapped to a chair arguing about poetry, Oscar was left with little tolerance for anything other than a sleep so unbelievably long, it might be better described as a coma. Stepping into the lift, Oscar hoped it might crash through to the basement and put them both out of their misery. “Mister Dooven, what a delight to see you again!” Oscar tried a smile, but nothing happened. “Are you enjoying your stay?” the little dog asked, nodding enthusiastically for him. “No.” “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?” Oscar looked at him in a manner suggesting there was indeed, but that it would be followed by admission to intensive care. “Look Percival,” he said, “I am terribly tired, and would just like to have a little sleep.” “Ah—” the dog began, implying doing so might be a little awkward. “Doing that may be a little awkward, as I have spent the morning removing the beds.” “Removing them,” Oscar repeated, in a peculiar blend of curiosity and fatigue. Percival nodded. “I pushed them out the window, you see. Upon your floor, and the one above.”

10 ____________________

SHAKING his manure encrusted paws, Percival flung little bits of pooh around the lift. “I am just going to have a little rest, and then do the two lower floors,” he said. “Out the window,” Oscar repeated, disbelief momentarily winning against exhaustion. “Yes, indeed. I thought about what we discussed yesterday, and realised patrons probably wouldn’t want to sleep on smelly beds. So I decided it might be best to remove them.” Against an overwhelming desire not to, Oscar asked, “And where will they sleep then, Percival S. Minton?” “Well, to be quite honest, I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.” “Percival,” Oscar said, patiently, “two things spring to mind. Firstly, I would have thought that washing and airing the sheets would have sufficed. And secondly, preoccupation with the state of the lobby ought to take priority, as it is impossible to offer visitors a bed if they’re already gagging over the desk downstairs.” The lift went ping, its doors opened and Oscar stepped from it. Percival, however, did not. Instead, he stared vacantly at the floor, oblivious to the second ping and subsequent closing of doors. With a weary sigh, Oscar stabbed at buttons again. When the lift reopened, Percival looked up, and Oscar gestured that he follow. In his room, Oscar was relieved to find his luggage undisturbed. Unlike the bed, which was indeed nowhere to be seen. Evidence of its eviction was apparent, however, in the broken window frame, its design having not anticipated bed insertion. Which was a pity, as it had been a nice window frame. He went to it and peered at the street below.

Sure enough, upon the pavement was a jumble of artistically stacked wire-framed beds, like a sculpture exploring the more extreme mechanics of slumber. Around them, curious pedestrians had gathered to debate its themes—at least, those who hadn’t been hit by them. He turned to Percival, who forlornly fluffed a lone pillow. “You really have no idea, do you?” With a quivering lip, Percival dropped the pillow and wiped at tearing eyes. Shaking his head, he admitted to having about as much idea as the animal who ordered floral arrangements for an Asthmatics’’ Convention. Between sniffles, he explained he’d received a telephone call from the hotel’s owners, who’d fled to Par Beguine shortly after the whole pooh-thing. So traumatised had they been, they wished nothing more to do with the place and bequeathed it to him. Oscar sighed and shook his head. The little dog couldn’t keep his own fur free of pooh, let alone a hotel covered in the stuff. If whatever was to befall Ruen could be thwarted, preventing Percival shoving furniture out of three-storey windows in an attempt at running a hotel would be simple. Moreover, if thwarting failed, pavements covered in beds and manure-streaked interiors would be the least of Ruen’s concerns. “Look, Percival,” he said, putting a paw upon the dog’s poohy shoulder. “I promise that in a few days’ time, I shall help you get this hotel in some sort of order.” Percival nodded at the floor while paws wiped at eyes. “But first, it appears I might need your help.” The little dog beamed through tears. “Anything, Mister Dooven!” Oscar grappled with his luggage and heaved one of the suitcases into the middle of the floor. He opened it and took out pieces of equipment only Velvet Paws were permitted to see. ——o0o—— The three animals arrived at Horace’s at roughly the same time. When Bremble opened the door to the Dervy, Oscar tumbled from a second taxi, clutching luggage. After they’d been ushered inside, Horace returned from his council meeting, leaving Bremble to usher him in after them. So enthusiastic was the Dervy that she began

describing her adventure before Horace had stepped through the doorway. She showered him in a rain of recount she’d only just showered upon Oscar. While Oscar dried himself, the Dervy followed Horace down the hall and into his sitting room, where he listened with some difficulty, as her lisp’s severity was proportional to eagerness. They sat then, as they had two nights before, with Horace trying to bridle the Dervy’s fervour. He had to: it was either restrain or drown. When she’d finished, he said to Oscar, “I am glad to see you safe young cat, and I am sorry you suffered at the paws of those I’ve only ever done my best to serve.” Oscar shook his head. “Not at all. I am a Velvet Paw of Asquith, and am trained for such things.” “I rethcued him,” the Dervy said, proudly. Their ordeal had left the cats hungry, so Bremble organised a tray piled high with sausages and crispy scales, alongside a large jug of chilled hot-fin. “We haven’t eaten thince the night before latht,” the Dervy said, stuffing herself with most of it. “Nor have we thlept.” Her words were staunched then, when physics forced her to retch some of it back up after only a passing glance at her stomach. Horace asked the Dervy to start again. Not with her food, obviously, but with what she’d been keen to share. So she explained again that Oscar had been right about the barge and the port, and described his capture by Sedervitz Tappen-Noo and her brave attempt at rescue. She stopped short, however, of mentioning the fate of his beloved Muppet ZR. Horace listened with a frown, before admitting the extraordinary Council meeting he’d attended had been entirely that: extraordinary, in that the Pyjami had ranted on about beautiful ironies, and that tides were imminent in turn. More importantly, he realised that two days coincided with another of the Pyjami’s grand balls aboard her yacht. “Are they always held there?” Oscar asked. Horace nodded. “They’re rather lavish affairs, with only the most exclusive of guests.” “I have never attended one,” Bremble said, her distain for the Pyjami obvious. “And I never will on principle.” “How many will attend?” Horace shrugged. “A hundred or more.”

“And Council members are always invited?” “Certainly. Although beside the dozen or so making up the Ruling Council, they include the elite of Ruen: those content to ignore politics, having no interest in questioning the Council’s policies provided their city remains as they desire it.” “Yes,” Oscar growled. “And at any cost apparently.” “It is clear that the Pyjami has orchestrated whatever is imminent without the Council’s involvement,” Horace said. “And for some reason, included this young Sedervitz animal rather than my colleagues. I cannot imagine why. The Pyjami is calculating and cruel, and abhors any animal younger than she, yet tonight she appeared thrilled in a manner that leaves me deeply concerned.” “But we thtill don’t know what ith going to happen,” the Dervy reminded them. “Or where.” “Indeed,” Horace agreed. “Therefore, our knowing when means little.” Frowning, Oscar said, “Actually, I have a suspicion as to the latter. But as far as what it might be, well, we’ll just have to work that out when we get there.” The Dervy and Horace stared at him. “Get there?” the Dervy said. “Get where?” “The castle. I am convinced that’s where everything’s brewing.” While Horace stared, the Dervy nodded. “That could make thense,” she said. “It might explain where the barge came from.” “What was the port originally used for?” Oscar asked. “It certainly hasn’t been used for years,” Horace said. “I thought it was abandoned and was rather surprised when your suspicions turned out to be correct. It was used for industrial things, I believe, and receiving goods before roads linked Ruen to places further down the coast.” He looked at Oscar thoughtfully. “There is one thing lying within the port’s vicinity, although it is hardly of significance, surely.” The cats waited. “Ruen’s sewage outfall.” None of them said anything for a time, until the Dervy gasped. “Oh, my goodnesth,” she whispered. “The irony of thuch revenge.” On shaky paws, she stood. “Don’t you thee? That’th what all thith is about!” And she hit her head in having been betrayed a second time by

the same animal. “What on earth do you mean?” Oscar asked. She turned to him, her eyes flaring from black to brilliant amber. “That cat!” she cried. “That double-crossing, arrogant animal hath jilted me all along!” She began pacing the room as much as her limp allowed, while Oscar and Horace looked at each other. “I am rethponsible for all of thith!” Horace shook his head. “Not at all, my dear. Think nothing of the sort. You did what you felt necessary, and with protests never more than inconvenient.” “You don’t underthtand!” she cried. “He thtudied my chemistry for yearth! But not for the Thecond Autumn alone! Oh no! That ith not the limit of hith dithgraceful deviance!” When she began trembling, Bremble went to calm her. “Don’t you thee?” she pleaded. “I should have known! Why didn’t I thee though him? I should have never truthted that cat! I thwear from this day forth, I shall never trutht another animal again!” Bremble squeezed her shoulders. “What are you suggesting?” asked Oscar, having never seen her so distraught. “He planth to vanquish us by the thame meanth as we have inconveniencethed them!” She stared at Horace, repeating his words, “The irony of thuch revenge!” Although Oscar didn’t understand, Horace seemed caught in her current. “The beauty is in the irony of the revenge,” he realised, as detail fell into place. When he stood and stared, he lost his monocle, leaving Bremble not knowing which animal deserved more consolation. Appalled, Horace and the Dervy stared at each other. “I taught him about Powder-Popth.” “It’s not a party, it’s an evacuation!” “They could have been filling that barge for monthth!” “They mean to purge Ruen!” A nervous swallow squelched from the Dervy. “I drove your car off a cliff.”

Horace nodded. “I suspected as much. It seems to be something of a habit.” Oscar was indignant. “Would one of you please enlighten me? I feel to be thinking almost entirely in Braille.” Horace looked at him with difficulty. Falling back into his chair, he dabbed his eyes. “Young cat,” he said, no better for sitting, “your efforts have permitted us to see all too clearly. I fear you are right: there are plans to unleash upon Ruen devastation far beyond our imagining. A purging via means most foul, that intends to wipe out the entire population save for those safe aboard the Spicy Cabanari.” With slow nods of certainty, he added, “And perhaps the only place such a horror could be unleashed is indeed from a lair such as the Castle of Ruen.” “But how?” Oscar demanded. “You said yourself the castle is impregnable, yet if we’re right then there must be some means of access—and some way of hiding that barge.” Horace and the Dervy stared, unable to offer anything further. When Oscar banged a paw upon his chair, his glass of hot-fin toppled. He grabbed it—and then stared. Blinking, he then had a bit of a think about it. “Of course!” he whispered. “That’s it! What an extraordinary coincidence they have discovered! For the barge emerging during a new moon is not only for reasons of stealth!” Horace asked what he meant. “What happens during the times you have seen the barge?” Oscar asked eagerly. Horace thought. “Well, it’s dark, of course—” “Yes, but besides that. What does the lack of moon influence?” “The tides?” “Exactly!” The Dervy blinked at him. “You think the tideth affect the castle?” Oscar shook his head. “No, but I will bet you when the tide is low, an entrance to the castle is revealed in the cliffs beneath!” Horace’s eyes widened. “My goodness! I never thought of that! It’s certainly plausible.” “And I’d wager further that’s how they’ve managed to pull this whole thing off so secretly.” “What do you mean?” asked the Dervy.

“Well, unless it’s a new moon, the castle would be a veritable island. Do you think the Pyjami and Sedervitz could orchestrate something so monumental with their four paws alone? I mean, where do you think the animals we saw at the port reside when they’re not upon the barge?” He waited for them to catch up. “I told you there was activity at that castle!” The Dervy stared at the floor. “And my father—it might offer explanation as to why Ruen has tho little crime after all.” She looked at them both. “The Pyjami could have recruited an army of criminalth to work on this whole purging thing without any other animal being aware!” “It would certainly explain a great deal,” agreed Oscar. The Dervy flopped back into her chair, dumbfounded. Horace wondered the same. “If animals were indeed taken there, they could remain hidden indefinitely. After all, the castle was designed for siege, and they would have no choice but to do her bidding.” “There could be a hundred of them!” Oscar realised. “But if there were, they could certainly overwhelm a scraggy old bag like the Pyjami and that stooge, Sedervitz. Why on earth would they not revolt?” “Against what?” Horace asked. “Having their sentence annulled? Perhaps a place in the new world? Who knows what incentive the Pyjami would offer for their loyalty. Regardless, it is a gilded cage, the most beautiful of prisons.” He nodded to himself. “That wicked cat would offer any incentive to win favour. In the end, however, she would have no scruples in honouring not a word of it.” Horace and Oscar looked at each other. “We have to get to the castle,” Oscar said. Although Horace agreed, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, but you are both at the end of your tethers, and I can see them fraying. Neither of you are going anywhere until you’ve had some proper rest.” But his suggestion was unnecessary. For the decision was already made. Whether it was exhaustion, or having a full tummy while Bremble stroked her fur, the Dervy was already sound asleep upon the chair. ——o0o——

The next morning, the Dervy wrote a letter to her father explaining their suspicions, which Bremble agreed to deliver later that evening. The plan agreed to was simple. Horace remained convinced the Pyjami would demand an audience for her purging, which suggested the yacht would sail for the castle. Horace would attend the ball as invited, while Oscar and the Dervy would follow in a small boat of his, from which they’d hope to see how entry was gained. Once in the castle, they’d infiltrate proceedings and foil any act of purge. While Horace left to ensure his boat was ready, Oscar and the Dervy organised various things in his sitting room, amply catered for by Bremble through an inexhaustible supply of hot-fin. The Dervy was particularly interested in the contents of Oscar’s special suitcase, as they were clearly for the eyes of Velvet Paws alone.

11 ___________________

“WE have to cover all eventualities,” Oscar said, priming his collapsible tummy with two fluff grenades and a bed sheet. The Dervy frowned. “A bed sheet?” He held it up. “Courtesy of our friend Percival S. Minton,” he said, before fiddling with cords threaded through holes in its edge. “What on earth would you need a bed sheet for?” Oscar stopped his tummy packing and looked at her. “Have you considered what we should do if we manage to thwart this purging?” She shrugged. “We leave?” “Yes, the Dervy, but how? How do you escape a castle with only one entry or exit?” She frowned, admitting that did complicate matters. “In my experience,” he continued, returning to his sheet-threading, “the best means of escape are often the simplest. In the heat of trouble, there is little time for thought, because fear permits instinct only. And as I’m terrified of cliffs, my instinct suggests taking bedsheets.” “Are you frightened?” she asked. He stopped fiddling and looked at her. “Absolutely terrified.” “Do you believe we can do thith?” “Honestly, the Dervy, I suspect there’s a good chance we will be captured within minutes of finding the entrance. She sighed. “Good. For a moment I thought you might lie to me.” “Never to you, the Dervy. Don’t let that arrogant cat Sedervitz breed a bitterness in you, for you are worth infinitely more than that.” He placed a paw upon her shoulder. “Whatever hurt of betrayal you feel, remember that there are animals, such as myself, for whom trust is unwavering.” She nodded, and then asked, “And if any guardth are on the

lookout for a white, earlesth cat?” Indicating this was not something he’d overlooked, he pulled out a small bag and a hat from his suitcase. “Courtesy of Percival S. Minton also,” he said. The bag contained crumbled coal from the hotel’s boiler, and when Bremble arrived with yet more hot-fin, Oscar asked if she had a bucket of warm water and some baking soda. Certainly she did, and hurried off to fetch them. When the Dervy looked puzzled, he said, “I thought the same as you regarding appearance. One of the advantages of having completely white fur is to treat oneself as a blank canvas.” When Bremble returned, Oscar poured the coal and soda into the water. After stirring it, he began combing the mixture through his fur, transforming himself into a grey tabby cat. The Dervy was impressed, doubly so when he topped it off with a splendid hat, and said he looked most debonair. She then offered him Horace’s telescope, which she’d refrained from throwing off a cliff, and retrieved a pair of paw cuffs she’d stolen from her father. “Here,” she said. “I managed to take a few thingth from the policeth that I thought might be utheful.” He looked at them for a moment, before saying, “That you have successfully stolen things from the police, leaves me both disturbed yet confident of our suspicions.” He took the paw-cuffs and secured them in his collapsible tummy. She also offered a flare that she’d stolen, and said that the letter advised her father that if launched, it signalled their suspicions were correct. He nodded also before explaining how to deal with fluff grenades. “Cover all available orifices,” he said, demonstrating with his paws. “Hold your breath and throw yourself from the fluff cloud.” She copied him. “And if I don’t?” “Then you’ll cough terribly, splutter and get the worst case of worms you can possibly imagine.” “Goodnesth. That’th pretty bad.” Oscar humphed. “If you thought you knew your bottom before a fluff grenade, you certainly won’t afterwards.” The front door banged upon Horace’s return. When he arrived in the sitting room, he looked tired and troubled. His demeanour

improved, however, upon seeing Oscar’s disguise. Much to the Dervy’s surprise, he gave the boat keys to her. “Here,” he said, jangling them. “You know these waters better than Oscar. I shall leave it up to you to navigate in the Spicy Cabanari’s wake.” She took them hesitantly, before glancing at Oscar—and then at Bremble. “Are you quite certain Horace?” she said. “I mean after your beloved Fin ZR—” “Quite certain, the Dervy. Such loss means little in the light of your rescuing Oscar. And regardless, this boat will be at considerably less risk than any car, surely. For it shall remain at the base of cliff, rather than perched precariously at the top of one.” Grateful beyond words, she lunged at him in embrace. Oscar smiled. After Sedervitz’s horrid betrayal, to show the Dervy such trust was invaluable. ——o0o—— Later that evening, Bremble drove the three animals through Ruen toward the harbour. None spoke and Oscar regretted not sending a postcard to the Loud Purr with a pre-emptive apology for his pending unadulterated failure. When they turned into the harbour, the Spicy Cabanari appeared anchored out to sea. Strung in lights, the yacht glittered across the water, shining brighter than stars beginning to spill across sky. On the esplanade, they passed an enthusiastic crowd waiting to be ferried to the thing. Adorned in sumptuous gowns and velvet suits, the animals cavorted with a pomposity that left Oscar relieved not to be among them, as any attempts to feign merriment under such circumstance would render him more obvious than a pink bow in a steaming litter tray. At the harbour’s far end, they pulled up at an old wooden jetty. The cats and Horace alighted. The wharf smelt of seaweed and brine, and its waterlogged wood was black with green. Sea slapped at stone and brown salted poles, and boats moored upon it bobbed in the swell, bumping against each other, their ropes slapping masts like muted dinner gongs. Far removed from the pomposity at the harbour’s other end, Oscar wished he could sit on its steps for about a week and have nothing to do with any of them. While Bremble waited

in the car, Horace led the cats to his boat. It had a small cabin that could berth two, and sprouted a mast to permit, should the mood arise, a voyage more peaceful than one rattled by engine. It was modest compared to Horace’s 1345 Muppet Fin ZR, and seemed more befitting the animal, leaving Oscar to plead with the Dervy that she avoid slamming it into anything much harder than a wave. After solemn hugs goodbye, Horace returned to the car, which trundled away to render him a very pink bow, indeed. The cats watched him disappear and then trod down steps splashed with sea to board the boat. While the Dervy fiddled with its starter, Oscar cast ropes ashore. In a flare of diesel rattle, she chugged the thing from the jetty, slopping across waves until they were far from shore. They waited then, the Dervy peering through the telescope while Oscar paced the stern. She counted a hundred guests shuttled to the yacht by the time none remained on shore. When the Spicy Cabanari finally weighed anchor, she swore in relief, admitting she’d held concerns it might have remained. Oscar swore also, but only because he wished it had. She thrust the telescope at him and bounded to the wheel, increasing the engine’s chugs to follow. Oscar watched the wharf recede, desiring more than ever to remain upon it. Having cleared the headland, the Dervy kept them close to the cliffs, battling a swell intent on throwing them into the things. There was no moon, and the sea was thick and black like oil, leaving them to ride the yacht’s glittering arrow of wake like fish chasing well-baited line. Oscar lay in the stern, watching the silver-lined shadow of cliffs loom above. The world swayed hypnotically, and he thought about the Lair and the Loud Purr and his bathtub. “What are you thinking, Othcar Teabag-Dooven?” Her voice glinted like amber in the dark. He sat up, surprised he hadn’t been brooding over their fate. Her silhouette against the wheelhouse was as black as the cliffs, and he realised she’d been watching him for some time. “That the cliffs seem rather beautiful from beneath,” he said. “Foreboding perhaps, but at the same time, rather wise in their age.” “I’m rather relieved your concernth lie elsewhere.” “It’s simply denial, the Dervy. Something I’ve had a great deal of

practice in.” “You are a peculiar animal.” “Peculiar? In what way?” “Well, you theem rather more sensitive than I’d imagine a Velvet Paw to be. I feel thomething more lieth beneath such title.” He sighed. “The truth is that although I might be a Velvet Paw of Asquith, that is not what I am.” He listened to the waves smacking hull. “I feel a peculiarity to the world,” he said. “As though I’m aware of its slow breath and feel something far more splendid lies beneath the noise that warrants curiosa.” He thought for a time. “I feel a depth in quiet like this. Depth that makes that—” He gestured toward the sparkling yacht, “seem painfully shallow. A depth that renders those pompous animals onboard strangely fragile.” “Perhapth thome animalth require fire and brimthtone,” she said, “while others require no more than the roll of waves?” Oscar blinked at her. “That is very succinctly put, the Dervy.” “Perhapth that ith your peculiarity; that although you might be the latter, you are forced to deal with the former.” She pondered this contradiction, and then asked, “What on earth made you become a Velvet Paw then? I would have thought contemplation rather than excthitement would have been more your calling.” He humphed. “I wonder that often enough myself,” he said. “I have failed so often in my training that I’ve received in total three times the tuition of any other Velvet Paw of Asquith. And although this should make me three times greater, all it’s done is treble my certainty to be something else entirely. What’s even more ridiculous is the Catacombs retaining me despite my failings—and despite my attempts at expulsion.” “You tried to get expelled?” “I think so, yes. Not intentionally, perhaps. But I often felt the Catacomb’s training was misguided. It’s too clinical, you see. Too technical. Curiosa arises from animals’ behaviour, which is more important to consider, I feel, than their detail of plot. But certain teachers disagreed with me. And the animals I trained with were terribly conceited, which didn’t help either.” He sighed. “I suppose I’m indignant that a Velvet Paw faces dangers arising from others’ greed. It makes me cross. It riles me when one creature believes itself to be

above another. Like that Sedervitz animal; his arrogance made me furious. I am not a violent animal, but I was itching to lay one on that creature.” “I can underthtand that!” Cradled in the boat’s stern, he listened to the sea pounding black cliffs, and the dark made confession easier. “Perhaps that’s why I’m a Velvet Paw,” he wondered. “Because I stubbornly refute others’ selfishness. After all, curiosa is about ensuring affability, and the creatures Velvet Paws deal with are interested in nothing of the sort.” “It thoundth ath though you thimply thee thingth differently.” “Possibly. But unfortunately, I had a habit of telling them.” “Your teacherth?” He nodded. “And yet they kept you?” Another nod. “You mutht have shown certain talentth.” “No. Not at all. I am no mercenary, and I’m far from being a soldier. I happened to stumble through my first curiosa with great swathes of luck, which left the Catacombs under the impression I have ability. They even suggest I have talents others do not. Which is ridiculous considering the only talents I’ve demonstrated are losing appendages, shredding taxis and inverting cathedrals.” He fell silent again, before adding, “Most Velvet Paws are notoriously conceited, and I must admit to wishing I had something of their courage. For curiosa requires masses of both and I have little of either.” The Dervy stared at him. “I can’t believe you have such misgivings! You thaved my life! And the life of another. You thacrificed you earth for ath much! I have never known an animal more courageouth! Animals like Sedervitz deserve such reproach. Not you.” He humphed. Perhaps that’s why Sedervitz riled him so; being as arrogant as those he’d trained with and as selfish as those he reviled. An animal needing to be taken down so many pegs, he’d end up buried. “Nevertheless,” he said, “I wish I had some of their confidence. I suspect Velvet Paws never question themselves. Certainly they’re never plagued with doubt.” The Dervy’s voice was soft then, and if she had been closer, she’d have given him a hug. “The day you do not question yourself, Othcar, is

the day you take such muthings to heart. I may not know much about being a Velvet Paw, but I know the Catacombth of Athquith thent you here for a reathon. Certainly they thee in you what you fail to thee yourself.” The thought of the Loud Purr’s faith encouraged him a little. “Even so,” he said, “sometimes I wonder how on earth I manage.” “And yet you do manage.” Neither said anything for a time, cocooned in the rattling boat upon swollen sea. “I feel to have one talent, dare I call it that,” he said. “Which ith?” “I am a poet. Words and intuition are my forte, though hardly useful on curiosa.” “A poet,” she whispered. “A poet. That is all. Nothing more. Although I never write my poems down. To steal verse with pen seems predatory. I find acknowledging them with voice is enough.” They were silent again, until the Dervy asked what he hoped she would. And so he began. Like blackened fingers pointing twixt, The dark of sea and star of sky, I float beneath these jagged cliffs, And humbly pass their mass thrown high. Although they tower and wrench while still, And froth in ancient blackened stone, My boat ’pon water will safely drift, And in their presence, I shan’t drift alone. Following then by light of stars, A path measured by their line of crest, A journey taking hours and hours, Is covered in merely one out-breath. And castles built upon such height,

May harbour those who insist on yield, And play games with those who believe by right, The delusion that fate is theirs to wield. The Dervy looked away, blinking at salt of sea and tear, with both cats hoping his spontaneity arose from a quiet truth, far beyond the noise about to deafen them. ——o0o—— Nearing the castle, the sea became rough. It slashed at cliff and threw their boat toward serrated shore. When the Spicy Cabanari slowed and plunged its anchor into sea, the Dervy manoeuvred them closer. While their boat pitched and yawed, the yacht remained immovable upon the rolling sea. Laughter and music tinkled from high decks, its opulence leaving the cats in awe, and squeezing their intentions of subterfuge into little more than impossibility. Oscar scoured the cliff, hoping the entrance might appear lit in lights of occasion, but he could see nothing of the sort. The surging water didn’t help either. “This is hopeless!” he yelled, as spray rained down. “It’s impossible to see anything! And we’re far too close to this rock!” The Dervy nodded and increased the throttle, slapping the boat through waves to where the sea surged less. Above them, the Castle of Ruen appeared, shattering their concerns about fancy yachts and hidden entrances, and leaving them to stare at its sheer grey walls glistening beneath stars. The castle’s huge thorn clawed at the sky, looming above the world as though owning most of it. From their yawing boat, it was garish and distorted, and made the bright frivolity of ball suddenly very appealling. Only when cliffs crept upon it, did Oscar realise the sea was driving them back to shore, and he yelled at the Dervy. She cursed, turned the wheel and flared the engine. “Can you see anywhere to moor?” he yelled. “Not without any lightth! And even then it would be terribly rithky!” He turned back to the yacht, hoping a launch might appear and

head toward the blasted entrance. And then a thought struck. “What about the barge?” “What about it?” “There must be some large opening somewhere, big enough for the barge to remain hidden!” The Dervy turned to look for herself. “Not here. Perhapth further along?” He nodded. Wincing at their chugs, the Dervy eased them beneath the Spicy Cabanari’s stern. Between cliffs, yacht and castle, the cats saw nothing resembling an opening or cave that might permit landfall. “No little low tide beach?” Oscar asked. She shook her head, concerned. It was like treading water. “There must be something!” he cried, and moved to a better view across the bow. The Dervy guided the craft around a finger of rock jutting out of the sea. “What about that,” asked Oscar, pointing. “Could we possibly berth there?”

12 ____________________

“WE’D have only one chance at it,” the Dervy said. “And even if we managed—” And a wave exploded across the stone to illustrate her point, “—we’d be thwept off pretty jolly quickly, I shouldn’t wonder.” But in debating the matter, opportunity passed. To find it again meant turning the boat around. That would throw them closer to the cliffs, unless they moved further out first, which risked their being seen. The Dervy cried, “Or we could try that!” Oscar stared at where she pointed, but saw nothing. When she changed direction, however, a particularly dark part of the cliff appeared even darker. The Dervy raised their chugs and barrelled the boat closer—which had Oscar concerned that they now hurtled toward the very rocks they’d spent the night trying to avoid. The sea swelled as they approached, and burst across rock. Oscar braced himself to suffer the same. But there was no need. Because the waves then lessened, and from open air they chugged into a vast cavern. From dark night into a hollow far darker still. ——o0o—— It was high, deep and black within, and only when the Dervy lunged at the wheel did they avoid hitting the barge. Slipping along its flank, the two cats felt, rather than saw its mass. The telescope had hinted at its size, but beside it now, they found the thing was enormous. Neither dared breathe; this den rendered it a monster asleep, the sea giving it a roll of slumbered breath that their own might wake. The engine reduced to little more than idle, they drifted past it until bumping against a rocky ledge of shore. Without a word, they alighted, grateful to find ground again

despite it being the most adverse territory. Beneath their paws, stone was slate-like and cold, and slimy in a way that leaves one unusually grateful for darkness. Ahead, a faint light flickered, and upon slippery paws, they crept toward it to find a tunnel leading upwards in a narrow shaft. After their night of dark its light was encouraging and they clambered into it, having to crouch in places, which the Dervy found awkward with her bandaged paw. It opened into a far larger tunnel, almost vertical and hewn with narrow steps. The flickering scattered shadows up its height like bats. Noises were apparent, too. Mutterings and scrabbling came from below, with the odd flick of yelp. As the sounds grew, Oscar slunk back into the tunnel, but the Dervy peered down, purring eagerly until he pulled her out of sight. Flaming torches appeared, held by two large dogs. And behind them, the Pyjami rose into view. She led an assortment of animals in suits and ball gowns, and trod with a haughtiness that left Oscar wanting to punch her in the face and the Dervy to pooh all over it. Her guests hadn’t anticipated having to clamber up narrow, slippery steps in their best attire, and complained bitterly. When their dissent reached a crescendo, the Pyjami stopped, turned and hissed that if they didn’t shut up, she’d have no hesitation in pushing them all back down again. There were some indignant murmurs, before all continued after her. Behind them, a forlorn and weary Horace followed, struggling up the steps as though allergic to them. And behind him, Sedervitz appeared, climbing magnificently. The cats shrank back, the Dervy growled, and Oscar placed a paw upon her. When the troupe had passed, the cats edged from the passageway to follow. In time, the steps became wider as the tunnel levelled into a chamber. At its end was an opening through which the entourage disappeared. Left in darkness, Oscar and the Dervy hurried after them, stopping at the opening to peer from it. The troupe crossed a vast, circular hall, dawdling in amazement like a tour group in a museum. Upon reaching its far side, they were herded through a doorway. Alone then, Oscar and the Dervy crept from the tunnel to gaze with an astonishment of their own. The hall was vast. So big, that it could readily accommodate several standard-sized halls with souvenir shops that sold halls. It was empty, other than a sweep of torches around its

walls, which struggled to illuminate broad stone arches lost in shadowy heights. The castle was indeed inhabited. “I’m thorry I doubted you,” the Dervy whispered. “Not at all,” Oscar said, staring in awe. “I doubt myself all the time.” After hurrying across the hall to the door, the Dervy looked at Oscar for a plan. He frowned to give the illusion of making one, but couldn’t think of anything other than running away and possibly writing a poem about it. “Whatever happens,” he said, “they mustn’t see you. They’d recognise you immediately.” She nodded. He fluffed his charcoaled coat and straightened his hat. “However, I might manage to get closer without being noticed.” He looked at the door. “We have no idea how this whole purging thing is to be played, but we’re fortunate the Pyjami has invited so many. It might allow me to infiltrate the dinner itself.” Again she nodded. With a paw upon the door, he pushed. Nothing moved. He pushed harder. Still nothing. The Dervy indicated one of its handles then, saying, “Doorth really aren’t one of your thtrong pointth either, are they?” Oscar said nothing and watched as she turned the handle. Before she had a chance to push, the door was wrenched from her. A large guard dog glowered down at them in a manner suggesting this was his door and he didn’t like sharing. Instinctively, Oscar waved. The dog did not wave back. “Right,” Oscar said, blinking up at him. “Sorry, but we got distracted by the hall’s splendour, and hadn’t realised the others had already left.” Although the glower remained, the dog stood aside. With a glance at each other, Oscar and the Dervy trotted past him to find themselves in a corridor. In it, stench assaulted them in a manner akin to pleurisy.

With paws shoved across their faces, the two cats retched. “Was that you?” Oscar swore, But she didn’t reply, convinced her throat now had holes in it. At the corridor’s far end was another door, which they hurried toward before their eyes stopped working. When they collapsed against it, they heard muffled murmurs of conversation beyond, suggesting air far better than the sweaty cheese they breathed. Holding their breath— which was a bit like not swallowing cheese—they pushed through it and spilled into an enormous dining hall. Unlike the hall they’d arrived in, this one was not dark, bare stone, but instead an impressive and grand statement. Upon its walls hung tapestries and rugs that cascaded across the floor in quite unnecessary opulence. A huge fire burnt in a hearth only marginally larger than the flames it contained, which, along with torches around its perimeter, bathed the place in a most agreeable amber warmth. At the hall’s centre was an extraordinary expanse of polished table, around which the entourage settled in tall chairs. Oscar indicated a door a distance away, and the Dervy darted around the table to disappear through it. Squeezing himself in amongst those jostling, Oscar muttered about things he imagined any austere resident of Ruen would need to. Manure on walls, for example. And the state of Ruen’s hotels. He peered at them from beneath his brim. Their mood had improved, to some degree at least, finding this hall more befitting their status and attire than the climb getting to it. All that is, except one. Some chairs away, Horace sat. Having lost his monocle, he stared gloomily, ignoring his neighbours’ frivolities. But before Oscar could offer any hope, he spied that horrid, grey and ancient animal at the table’s far end. Both horrid animals, actually, because sitting beside the Pyjami was Sedervitz Tappen-Noo, who smiled at his audience with a smugness complementing hers of conceit. It was clear then; the two animals were in collusion. The Pyjami stood and clapped her paws once. The door that the Dervy had disappeared through opened, and from it a chef strode. He was followed by a train of waiters, struggling beneath piles of steaming dishes. With a clumsiness bordering on farce, the meals of food were distributed around the table in a manner

suggesting their being waiters was an intentional play on words. Several plates ended up on the floor, accompanied by expletives from those responsible—one of whom tried for reprieve by suggesting that’s how castle feasts were traditionally conducted, with tables being a more recent invention. No guest believed him, though one gave him a smattering of applause for trying. Several more meals of food ended up on the floor when subsequent waiters tripped over the first lot. And when the Pyjami hissed at the chef that obviously more meals were required, waiters left to fetch them, along with some sponges and sticking plaster. To distract from the farce, the Pyjami addressed her guests. “My friends,” she began, “You are the first animals to dine within this splendid hall for over a thousand years. This is a privilege I ask you to reflect upon in the light of what I shall shortly reveal.” A large dog with big lips raised a paw when a dish was placed before him. “Er, I don’t like fish.” “It’s not fish, it’s chicken,” the Pyjami said. “Are you certain? It looks like fish to me.” “You know what? In lieu of what I’m about to reveal, I really don’t care. Either eat it, or don’t eat it. Regardless, I’m not interested.” The dog peered at his neighbour’s meal. “Is that fish?” The animal slurped, shook his head and advised it was chicken. The dog with big lips thought for a moment, before asking, “Do you like fish?” His neighbour shrugged that he wasn’t fussed. “Do you want my fish?” the big-lipped dog asked. His neighbour took the dog’s plate and scraped it onto his, after which he continued in a sort of double-barrelled slurping. The biglipped dog stared at him, before advising that there’d been a misunderstanding. His enquiry was based on exchange rather than addition. But because his neighbour was about as interested as the Pyjami, the slurping continued. The big-lipped dog fumed. His neighbour now had two meals; chicken and fish. Had he known things were going to work out this way, he’d probably have had the fish. So he asked of any who might care, “Is there any more chicken?” And after a moment added, “Or any fish?” “ENOUGH!” screamed the Pyjami.

Every animal jumped and a plate smashed in the kitchen. There was silence then, but for the roaring fire, which seemed to emanate from her. She glared at them. Having waited years for this moment, she decided to dispense with rehearsed choreography. Her genius deserved a certain spontaneity. With several breaths, the Pyjami forced herself calm. She intended to savour this moment. This razored edge. After this, Ruen would return to what it once was; theirs. A city not shared, because there were no young animals to share it with. She wanted Ruen back. She wanted her time again. This wasn’t political. Oh, no. This was personal. She hated every last one of those young, carefree animals, for the simple reason that she was no longer one. It was envy. Nothing more. Nothing less. Oh, and perhaps a bit of greed. But nothing else. Although one couldn’t discount her sociopathic bitterness. – or indeed, her narcissism. – or her conceit, vanity and pathological acrimony, for that matter. Nevertheless, envy was her main motivator. “My fellow inhabitants of Ruen,” she said, raising her withered arms in communal embrace. “For too long have we struggled under the turgid weight of creatures wishing to break Ruen. For too long have we stood by to watch our beloved city be dragged from its quiet beauty into a CESSPIT OF STINKING HELL!” Her audience blinked, having no idea what she was on about. None of them dared ask. Nor did they dare move. Except to swallow a bit of chicken or fish, which was done cautiously. “However,” she continued, basking in a misconstrued solidarity, “I have brought you all here to witness a means to turn back time. A means to return our beloved city to the way it once was; free of those pesky little runts!”

There were uncomfortable looks exchanged between many. “A means to purge their slow, cancerous invasion of our walls!” And the odd unintentional squelch of swallow. “Never again my dear, dear friends, will we have to resist the impudent, insolent and disrespectful filth so liberally cast upon our walls! Or indeed, detonated in our streets—” Such a farce became too much for Horace, who stood and yelled, “You sir, may indeed have my fish!” The Pyjami, stunned, stopped. Complete silence fell. Even the fire burned uncomfortably. “You sir, may have my fish,” he said again, pushing his plate in the animal’s direction. The big-lipped dog looked at Horace, then at the Pyjami and then Horace again. Opening his mouth to speak, he thought better of it as verbalising gratitude did not seem wise just at this moment. In fact, the only thing that seemed wise about the entire evening was not turning up in the first place. The Pyjami glared at Horace. He ignored her, and instead glowered at tapestries to suggest they held far more credence. But the Pyjami could not digress. Admonishment would only dilute her rhetoric. She tore her glare from Horace. “There are times,” she continued, “when situations become so dire, that one must do away with consultation. There are times when only the genius of a single mind will suffice.” She put a paw to her chest to prove her humility. “At such a dire hour one must travel far from the corruptive mediocrity of others, to a place where solitude can give birth to brilliance, because genius can only ever be realised alone.” While the Pyjami was engrossed in her theatrical rubbish, Oscar tried for Horace’s attention by blinking violently at him. But the dog remained unawares, his indignation mounting with every self-infatuated syllable spewed. The Pyjami gestured to Sedervitz, who stood and moved to one side of the fireplace where he waited magnificently. “This night,” she said, “Ruen shall be purged of such contamination. For in this castle’s courtyard wait thirteen superbly crafted catapults—each loaded with fifteen thousand cubic paws of the most caustic and revolting disinfectant ever made—a disinfectant brewed here, in the depths of this castle’s volcanic bowels!” She threw

her paws high and flexed her claws in razored show. “When launched, they will cause those skulking in our city’s walls to be eradicated by their very own medicine!” Sedervitz tore a tapestry from the wall. Beneath it, a panel of levers was revealled—including a particularly large one that was almost certainly labelled PURGE. A collective gasp rushed around the table, which Oscar added to with several extra syllables—none of them designed for polite dinner parties. Surprised, his neighbours turned to him. Including Horace, who, having been convinced the cats had perished at sea, staunched a guffaw of explosive relief. With his prior despondency blossoming into unfaltering resolve, Horace stood and threw his chair aside. Addressing the big-lipped dog across the table, he yelled, “My dear sir! I ask you again; would you like to have my fish?” There was no deathly silence this time, however. Instead, a worried murmur arose as animals sank into their chairs, hoping to dodge the verbal grenade’s shrapnel. Horace wasn’t interested in an answer, and turned to the Pyjami. The greater a distraction he could muster, the greater was Oscar’s chance of thwarting this lunacy. The Pyjami stared at him, her pointy mouth open and eyes huge, her paws still raised, but withering like dying vines. “I would applaud your plan, the Pyjami,” Horace said. “Were it was not so ridiculous. I have never heard anything so silly. It’s no more than a bad joke told badly!” He addressed them all then, while pointing at Sedervitz. “This plan is about as clever as that cat organising the horror that befell Hotel d’Ruen recently!” There was another gasp from the table at the sheer audacity of such accusation. The Pyjami’s disbelief gave birth to torrid rage. “How dare you!” she screamed. “How dare you even begin to fathom what I have undertaken here! How dare you make such accusa—” “Oh, come now,” Horace said. “Surely you don’t think I would blame such stupidity on you alone, the Pyjami?” And he glowered at Sedervitz.

13 ____________________

“FOR I am certain that useless animal must have contributed just as much idiocy to this plan as you,” Horace said. “Is that not so, Sedervitz Tappen-Noo?” Sedervitz smiled at him. The Pyjami’s boiling rage dissipated. “Oh?” she said, while indicating Sedervitz. “So you know this animal, do you?” Horace’s brow crumpled, wondering if he did indeed. “Does his face ring a bell?” she asked, fascinated. Horace continued to stare. He had seen this cat before, he did know this animal in some distant and uneasy way. “Yes,” she urged. “Think, Hory. Think! Where have you seen Sedervitz before, hmm?” Oscar glanced around the table, wondering if this was his opportunity to get to the lever. But it was impossible. He needed distraction beyond this inflammatory tease. He needed some chaos. And it appeared Horace’s brave attempt at making some had been staunched. “Where have I seen you?” Horace whispered. “Where?” “I shall give you a clue, Hory,” the Pyjami said. “It was ten years ago. Does that perhaps help?” Sedervitz’s smile grew. “I am hurt,” he said. “I thought you’d remember all your patients. Especially those concealing sharpened tubes of worming ointment!” Stunned, Horace staggered backwards and covered an eye in reflex. “No!” he cried. “No, it cannot be!” But the Pyjami was bored now that the quiz was over. “It can be,

Hory, and was indeed so. I had to get you on the Council somehow. Your being caught up in your medical practice left me little choice but to intervene. Don’t look so surprised; you of all animals know I do not take kindly to refusal.” “No!” Horace cried, stumbling over his chair. “No!’ “Oh, will you stop saying that! Surely I need only explain it once?” But no amount of explanation would suffice. Horace was so distressed, he’d have been better off returning to chapter one. The Pyjami was insane-of-the-mind. Indeed, both animals were. And pointing a shaking paw at Sedervitz, he said as much. “Insane?” Sedervitz said. “Possibly. Though I’d argue that insanity is merely the rationale of a visionary.” Stunned, Horace gaped at him, before turning to the Pyjami. “You once had honour!” he cried. “But you’ve changed, the Pyjami! Oh, how you’ve changed!” She smiled also. “My dear Hory, you could never begin to understand. Change is merely a new way of looking at things.” “No! That is delusion! And I shall have no part in this madness!” “Indeed? And what are you going to do about it? Flee perhaps?” He stared at her while clamouring past animals frozen to their chairs. “I shall not flee!” he cried. “I am not as cowardly as you might imagine, the Pyjami!” He staggered toward the corridor. “I may not have battled you in argument over these years, but that’s only because I knew your pig-headedness would respond by hastening this sort of madness!” At its entrance, he stopped to glare. “I would have expected more,” he growled. “Particularly from my own sister!” With that, he pushed at the door and strode through it, hoping guards might be called and a vicious struggle ensue, buying Oscar some time he could not otherwise begin to afford. Oscar stared. Sister? He looked at the Pyjami. Horace’s sister? But the withered old crone did not yell for guards. Nor did she scream for him to be seized. Instead, she moved toward her wall of levers and rested a paw

upon one of them. Turning, she watched Horace shuffle along the corridor, and then pulled at it. Beneath the dining hall, there was a clunk, followed by a muffled clanking of chain. From the corridor arose a rumble, then a grating sound when a flagstone collapsed, leaving Horace to utter a strangled cry of surprise when he fell through the floor after it. With a cry, animals stood—and Oscar ran to the doorway. “SIT!” screamed the Pyjami. They froze, mid-stance. “Any animal who offers similar resistance will disappear just as dreadfully!” She indicated the assortment of levers like a game show host might a prize of gilded cutlery. They sat. Quietly. And scared. Leaving the big-lipped dog to ask, “Does that mean I can have his fish?” ——o0o—— Unaware of the drama unfolding next door, the Dervy remained in the kitchen. She piled masses of crockery upon her paws, before dropping some of it to blend in with the waiters doing the same. She didn’t sob, though, despite several of them being hysterical. By the door, a little dog sat on a stool and peered anxiously at a bell upon the wall. It was a rather ordinary bell, the Dervy thought, and did little to warrant such attention. Unless the dog had a fear of them. In which case he ought to sit elsewhere. More concerned for Oscar than a bellophobe, the Dervy asked him to open the door for her. After another reluctant glance at the bell, the little dog did so. Hidden well by her teetering meals of food, she stepped past him and entered the dining hall. When doing so, she halted. The hall had none of the convivial dinner conversation she’d anticipated, and was instead frozen with the sort of discomfort one might expect in a play so dreadful, even the actors encourage their audience to leave. Moreover, she was astonished to see Oscar starring in it. “What have you done?” he cried, turning to the Pyjami.

Rattling, the Dervy turned also. The Pyjami did not answer. Instead, she squinted at Oscar in the same manner Horace had at Sedervitz. Her eyes narrowed. She had seen this cat before. She did know this animal in some uncomfortable way. “Who are you?” she asked. “Oh, don’t you start,” Oscar swore, his prior concerns hammered by a need for revenge. He was livid, and didn’t care who knew it. Edging around the table, Sedervitz whispered in disbelief, “Well, well. What have we here?” “Who is he?” the Pyjami growled. “Take off your hat!” Sedervitz demanded, ignoring the Pyjami as realisation dawned. “I’d listen to you about as much as I would a broken radio!” Oscar said, eager for the cat to get closer. He’d lay one on him this time all right; for trussing him up like a turkey, for betraying the Dervy, for destroying Horace’s career—and destroying Horace, for that matter. Indeed, now seemed a good opportunity to have a go at the old bag as well, and have her guests realise what a truly ghastly creature she was—although cold-blooded murder of her brother probably sufficed. The Pyjami, reaching the end of her tether, screamed, “WHO ARE YOU?” Oscar levelled his gaze at her. “I’m the offspring of a prairie dog, remember?” he said. “Or was it an owl—oh, no, sorry, I forgot how old you are, and you’d be hard pressed to remember anything. Especially considering the rubbish you’ve just spewed proves you have nothing resembling a brain.” With a curse, Sedervitz lunged for Oscar’s hat. But Oscar ducked from his paw and with a sweep of his own, clobbered him hard on the nose. When the cat staggered backwards, the Dervy couldn’t help but cheer, which surrendered her concealment and had the Pyjami turn to her. While Sedervitz reeled from assault, Oscar said to him, “The fundamental problem with stupid animals, Sedervitz, is that they’re stupid.” With that, he dealt him a swift uppercut, which laid the cat out on the floor. In a scream of revenge, the Pyjami lunged at the Dervy, who

panicked and threw her mountain of crockery at the animal. Porcelain avalanched the cat and shattered across the floor, leaving guests to scatter from its shards. While the Pyjami stumbled and screamed for guards, Oscar yelled at the Dervy to break the levers. The Dervy turned to the wall and threw herself at them—but their number left her overwhelmed. “Which one?” she yelled back. “The big one!” While the Pyjami thrashed through mess, guards spilled into the dining hall’s far side. Oscar, being closest to them, seized upon opportunity. “Arrest that one,” he ordered, pointing at Sedervitz upon the floor. “Those three,” and he pointed at a random assortment of guests, “and those two,” indicating the big-lipped dog and his neighbour. When guards moved to do so, guests yelled at Oscar, and then each other, and then at the guards—the big-lipped dog warning that if they laid a claw upon him, he’d gladly use them as cutlery. They hesitated in arresting Sedervitz, however, suspecting something wasn’t right, which was confirmed when the Pyjami screamed at them with the sort of unadulterated fury that the phrase had originally been invented for. But Oscar wasn’t concerned about the Pyjami’s screams as much as her lunges at the Dervy, and he leapt onto the table and bolted across it to do some lunging of his own. Once Sedervitz had been helped upright, the guards found their proper chain of command. With a paw against his jaw, Sedervitz indicated those requiring restraint. When the guards hurried away to obey, he swore at the growing chaos, and in particular, the cat hurtling through the middle of it. With a growl, he turned and left, unfazed and unhurried. In the kitchen, the little dog in charge of bells had disappeared. So had the chefs and waiters. Sedervitz wasn’t surprised; the Pyjami’s screams would have implied things were not going as planned—and no animal wished to be in her vicinity even when things were going to plan. Rummaging through drawers, he searched for some scissors, throwing drawers devoid of any across the kitchen. By the time he’d found a pair, the floor had been rendered unfit to be called one, and instead looked like an enormous drawer that contained, amongst other

things, broken drawers. He snapped the scissors together, imagining Oscar’s tail between them, and hurried from the kitchen toward the courtyard. The Dervy’s paws hesitated over the levers, her panic leaving her unconvinced breaking them would help matters. But when a piece of plate smashed into the wall beside her, she flinched and pulled at them regardless. The Pyjami screamed at the guards to get her ‘the freak away from my levers,’ while hurling crockery at her. With a yelp, the Dervy ducked and whirled around to Oscar. The sight of him hurtling across the table filled her with resolve, and she wrenched the levers further— Beneath the dining hall, a rumbling began. More crockery smashed into the wall, and with another yelp, she flailed even harder— And then began a clunking. “The big lever!” Oscar yelled. “Break off the big lever!” With guards almost upon her, the Dervy resorted to bashing them generically— A muffled boom rose from somewhere deep. Oscar slid into some meals of food. Grabbing one, he hurled it at some guards. One was struck squarely and fell, leaving another to stumble over him. When Oscar did the same to those on the table’s other side, his flung chicken missed. With a curse, he retrieved from his collapsible tummy a fluff grenade. With a prime and a count, he threw it at the guards. There was a flash, a bang and then a veritable world of fluff. Animals collapsed in a fit of coughs and splutters, and got a dreadful dose of worms. He winced at the number of guests inadvertently included, which left him wondering whether he ought to apologise. There was then a cry from the Dervy. The Pyjami, having freed herself, lunged at her with as many claws as she could muster. With a lunge of his own, Oscar threw himself at another meal of food. Fumbling through its sauce, he got a grip and flung the thing. It slapped the Pyjami in the back of the head. Stunned, she staggered sideways and swayed, before slipping on something wet and nasty. In the reprieve afforded, the Dervy flailed at levers as she’d never flailed before— And the floor began to shake.

With inconsolable rage, the Pyjami wrenched bits of fish and plate from her fur. Brandishing them as evidence, she screamed at guards— who were busy scratching their bottoms—that they arrest those responsible, a request embellished with expletives so anatomically outrageous, that even the Dervy stopped to look at her. The floor began to heave. In the corridor, flagstones lifted and fell to an abyss. No longer supported, its walls split and shifted, dragging the ceiling down in a collapse of stone. With a burst of rock and dust, the corridor fell apart and plunged after its flagstones. Rising from hidden depths, a billowing green fog massed and crept into the hall. When it enveloped animals closest, they gagged and threw themselves from its stench, sick squirting between their paws when dinner proved even more eager to flee than they. Their scarpering was hampered when the floor shook harder and shifted sideways. The hall’s walls cracked like split earth and ceiling began to rain, the whole thing clearly keen to follow the corridor’s example. In a final slide, Oscar launched himself from the table, landed on the increasingly inaccurately named floor and grabbed the Dervy’s paw. They stumbled through debris towards the kitchen, until he also noticed the Pyjami’s hysteria. He stopped, dropped the Dervy’s paw and turned. Beneath tortured structure, the Pyjami screamed at them. With eyes wider than the plates she’d been hit with, she waved a paw at the levers as though claiming some bizarre victory. “Ha! See? It is done!” Despite the Dervy’s pleas that they just leave, Oscar trod over mounds of increasingly accurately named ceiling, picked up a chicken leg from amongst it and stood before the Pyjami. She was covered in dirt, dust and food, and had a preposterous edge of plate stuck to her head like some strangely fashionable hat. Her eyes were lit with a crazed and bizarre denial, and she stared at him obscenely, though finally bereft of words. Oscar said to her, “The only thing done around here, you decrepit old bag, is you.” Whereupon he pulled her beard, fluffed her cheeks and stuffed the chicken leg into her mouth. Beneath raining stone, he growled, “You need to know that not only was this the worst dinner party I’ve ever attended, but that I wasn’t even invited. So stick that in

your catapult and fling it.” She attempted something through her chicken leg. But Oscar scoffed. “Head councillor, indeed,” he sneered. “More like senile old cow.” Her eyes widened, but he didn’t care, far more concerned at how much longer the dining hall might remain resembling one. Bounding back through the mess, he grabbed the Dervy and pulled her towards the kitchen. “The courtyard,” he said. “We need to get to the castle’s courtyard.” “What about Horaceth?” she cried. “Where ith he?” Oscar’s tummy knotted, firing him with determination. “He’s already left, the Dervy.” The castle shook in a manner befitting something industrially designed to, thunder chasing them like a monster scraping claws beneath floor. They fled through the kitchen, saucepans spilled across their path and cupboards emptied in their wake. Oscar was left deafened, so the Dervy took the lead and dragged him through the mess clattering across the floor. When they banged through a door, they found themselves in a corridor—and considering corridors’ tendencies in this place, neither were keen to remain in it. Wrenching a flaming torch from the wall, Oscar muttered something incredulous, grabbed her paw and hurried its length. After some more thuds and a very disconcerting fizzing noise that Oscar suspected might have been him, they spilled into a room that had a stairwell leading upwards. He ran to the stairs and peered up into a parapet. “This is unlikely to lead to any courtyard,” he said, holding the torch high. “More likely the battlements.” The Dervy nodded. “Tho we continue on?” Before he could reply, the air shifted in thump. They froze, convinced that should either move, things would tip toward further fragility. When a muffled crack shook the floor, they fled nevertheless. Barrelling through a maze of castle, they rounded a corner to find the path ended. They skittled to a stop and threw themselves at the deadend as though its illusion might be proved. When it wasn't, they pounded at the stone, frantically trying to make it one.

14 ____________________

“THIS doethn’t make thense!” the Dervy cried, pushing the wall while coughing at fumes. “How can thith pasthage jutht end?” “This is a castle, the Dervy,” Oscar said, examining the junction of wall and floor. “It’s all about defence, designed with sliding walls and dead ends to confuse and disorientate invaders.” “But we’re not invaderth!” she cried. “We’re quite the oppothite! We want to leave!” He took a deep breath of fetid air which he immediately regretted. No longing caring about autumns or councils or yachts, he just wanted to get out of the place and go home. Retching, he wiped some spittle from his chin. When the Dervy doubled over in a fit of coughs, Oscar struggled to refrain from the same. “What on earth is that stench?” he growled. The fumes physically clawed their insides. It reminded him of the Second Autumn. He would not survive a third. With the Dervy pleading as she had when dangling from her moped, Oscar found a sudden resolve; they had survived that ordeal, so he’d ensure they survived this. They needed air. And quite a lot of it. The torch in one paw, he grabbed the Dervy with the other and pulled her back toward the stairs. But with throat raw, she managed no more than a paw before succumbing. When she collapsed, Oscar pulled at her frantically, though she responded with little more than wet, gurgling noises. With his lungs feeling like hessian bags full of gravel, he dragged her back toward the parapet. To haul her up its steps, he had

to surrender the torch. It skittled across flagstones, shed embers and died. Plunged into a thick black, the stench overwhelmed and ripped his lungs with every intention of evicting them. With curses he wasn’t even aware of, he heaved her up another step, after which he tried a rolling manoeuvre using the curved wall as a ramp. Half a turn of spiral higher and the Dervy roused enough to clamber herself. With each stair higher, the air became less rancid and the stone tinged a silver-blue. When they burst from the parapet and collapsed onto battlement, they lay for a time, panting beneath stars and grateful for the cold air. Oscar struggled to his paws and staggered to the battlement’s edge. Remaining where she was, the Dervy asked, “Where are all the animalth? I would have thought an undertaking such as thith would have the place teeming. Don’t you wonder where they all are?” Staring into the courtyard, Oscar said, “Not anymore.” Scrabbling to her paws, she hurried to join him, and the sight below had her heave again. The courtyard was bathed in amber, and in it stood thirteen enormous, heavily-tensioned catapults. Their arched wood and bent boughs were tight with rigging, and their carved lines held a pure, mathematical elegance that glistened beneath starlight like freshly cut soapstone. Upon each, their sludge of fermented liquid manure steamed in vaults, ready to make the Second Autumn look like a dandelioncovered meadow beneath summer-scented sky. Black treacle oozed from them, and slopped to the ground in puddles of grease so revolting, that even the word grease wanted nothing to do with them. There was a throb to the things—an eagerness to unleash—and a startling fragility despite their size. The Dervy was beside herself, horrified, but stunned at the extent her talents had been extrapolated. Despite their grievous monstrosity, she found them breath-taking, and muttered things along these lines— most of which were founded in expletives. But Oscar didn’t hear a word, wondering how they could possibly stop the things doing some very serious flinging indeed. Animals fled across the courtyard, abandoning the castle’s keep, and wove between the catapults as though they’d become sculptures all too familiar. “There must be a main trigger rope,” Oscar said. “If confusion

reigns down there, we can use that to our advantage.” When the battlements shook, the Dervy broke her stare from the weapons. “Do you think the castle will collapthe?” “I shouldn’t think so. It’s no doubt suffered over its thousands of years. But it’s still standing to this day, which is answer enough.” When the rumbling flared again, he added, “Though I’d like to point out I am not an expert on such matters. Or indeed on anything, particularly.” A muffled split thundered from the keep and they cringed. “What happened in there, Oscar?” He shrugged. “I can only assume that whatever preparations the Pyjami had for this madness have rendered the foundations of the place unstable.” “Tho what do we do now?” He looked further along the wall. A distance away, scaffolding reached from their battlement to the courtyard below. “Climb down,” he said, the suggestion even more ludicrous than any of the madness they’d already come across. “Upon that?” the Dervy said, her gaze following his. “We’ll never manage in this light.” Oscar peered down at those fleeing, but could see nothing resembling a trigger. They hurried along battlement toward scaffolding. Retrieving a flare from his collapsible tummy, he said, “By the light of this we’ll descend, which will also advise your father to get a move on.” He peered further over the edge and felt sick. “Once we’re down there, we’ll split up. I’ll go that way, you go over there.” He pointed either side of the courtyard. “If you see anything resembling a trigger, just—I don’t know—yell or something.” The Dervy swallowed some sick of her own. “I don’t know whether I can do thith.” He fiddled with the flare. It sizzled and shot high into the air, displacing the night with an amber hue. “Don’t worry,” he said, climbing over the battlement and putting a tentative paw onto scaffold. “Neither do I.” From the courtyard’s edge,he crept toward one of the catapults. It towered above him and hummed with an eagerness to release the strain upon its frame. Its congealing puddle of filth made the air wilt, and the

container above spat and boiled like a vat of heated fat. The whole thing teetered in a ghastly, half-finished monumental work of crochet, and he faltered beneath it, mortified at such extrapolation of the Dervy’s talent. From the payload, a heavy plait of rope plunged into the ground, disappearing though a hole bored through the flagstone. Glancing at the other weapons, he saw they, too, were strung the same way. He turned to scour the courtyard’s rear, realising their ropes had to converge there. With the place now deserted, he bolted into its shadows and hurried along its perimeter until coming across a cage. In it was a massive weight of bound rope, as thick as a tree. It rose from a chasm to anchor heavily into the battlement wall. Above the mass, an assembly of string wove through an elaborate pulley arrangement. It sang with tension and begged to be cut. He rattled the cage. Its door was locked, and there was no means of getting in. Not that it mattered; locating the trigger was one thing, but doing something about it was quite another. His concerns then became academic, when more rumbling had flakes of stone splitting from its anchoring. He stared in horror. The trigger no longer mattered. It wasn’t the wall holding back the catapults, so much as the catapults pulling down the wall. It seemed that the Purging of Ruen would be unleashed regardless. There was no stopping the inevitable after all. Behind him, a velvety voice arose. “Fate has a way of weeding out those undeserving.” Oscar closed his eyes and swore. Turning, he faced Sedervitz Tappen-Noo, unconvinced he could battle wits with vanity again—especially with bits of wall shedding all over the place. “How’s your jaw?” Oscar asked, dryly. Sedervitz laughed, but did not permit even a single point of score. “My jaw is magnificent, Oscar Teabag-Dooven. Just like the rest of me, in fact. My allowing your limp-pawed swipe was merely part of a ruse, I’m afraid; an excuse for my leaving proceedings in order to perform a certain imperative task of string-snipping.” He threatened Oscar with a shiny pair of scissors. “The thing about brilliance is that it stems not from complexity so much as simplicity.” The castle thudded and a dull boom ricocheted though the

courtyard, leaving the wall to shed chunks of stone, rather than just flakes of the stuff. “The problem with stupid animals,” Sedervitz continued, “is not so much that they’re stupid as you suggested, but rather their conviction otherwise.” “That’s what I meant, you stupid animal.” “Do you honestly think your garbled attempt at foiling this brilliance has the slightest hope of stopping it? Years, this has taken us, Dooven; years of scheme and plot. Do not imagine your improvised interference has impaired it in the slightest!” A muffled thump highlighted his ridiculous claim, and both cats cringed. “Are you seriously suggesting this mess is all part of your plan, Sedervitz?” “Not at all. Only that brilliance stems from simplicity, and simplicity has a certain robustness about it.” He snipped his scissors again. “Regardless of any mess, I merely need to cut a string, and everything will proceed as planned.” There was a clap of thunder and violent shake of courtyard. “The place is falling APART!” Oscar cried. “Perhaps, but do not believe for a moment it was due to luck or skill on your part. The corridor was rigged so all flagstones would collapse if the necessity arose.” “The necessity?” “Indeed. Lest guests displayed displeasure and decided to leave. This anticipation was in the end, quite warranted, it seems.” Oscar was lost for words. “The Castle of Ruen is ancient,” Sedervitz said. “And as robust as its design might be, age brings fragility. It is unfortunate that in the end, so many flagstones were triggered simultaneously, as the foundations have clearly not held.” He leant closer and hissed, “So do not think it any ingenuity on your part, cat.” Spluttering through dust, Oscar was bereft of words—until the Dervy appeared uncertainly from the shadows. With a surge of hope, he tried for distraction so she could approach. “Your breath really is appallingly fishy, Sedervitz,” he said. “What do you floss with? Used fishing line?”

The cat’s eyes narrowed. “Your attempts at riling me hardly matter, Dooven. What will be, will be, because nothing can shake the paw of fate.” The phrase sounded silly, and Oscar scoffed. “Shouldn’t that be stave?” “What?” “I think you’ll find the expression is stave the paw of fate. Not shake it. That just sounds silly, uneducated and pretentious.” “You dare defy me?” “That would imply there was something in you worthy of defying. I find you amusing, Sedervitz. Nothing more. And your ranting is only curious because of its stupidity.” “Stupidity? Have you seen what I have created?” Oscar blinked at him. “What—mess? And yes, you are stupid. Quite abysmally so. Why in fluff would you be shaking fate’s paw, anyway? Are you fate’s friend or something?” “Actually, I am—and more than you could ever know. I understand fate to underpin the inevitable. As a consequence, I am free of the shackles binding those who look to others for validity. I am my own master.” “That sounds like clever rubbish to me.” “You wouldn’t understand what I know to be true.” “That’s because I am not stupid,” said Oscar. “Anyway, a fat lot of good it’s done you, because it appears your little operation of Purge has all but fallen apart. One would hope you’d have thought things through a little better. But you’re stupid. I’m surprised you got this far, frankly.” With a whirl, Sedervitz grabbed Oscar’s paw, twisted it and pointed the scissors at his throat. “In a second I could render you pawless, you dishevelled little runt,” he snarled. “How dare you hit me! How dare you interfere with the turning arc of fate! I should have finished you when I had the chance!” Struggling for breath, Oscar gurgled something about a misunderstanding. “I shall crush your paws,” Sedervitz growled. “And then insert them into your head to return some balance to your ridiculous shape. Oh, the nausea of your hideous form!” With a strangled mew, Oscar struggled to gape at the Dervy. But

when she stepped from the shadows, it was deliberate, and made no attempt to take advantage of surprise. In fact, she sidled up to Sedervitz as though he were holding an empty paper bag that had contained nothing more than another bag. “Did you create this?” she whispered, staring at the weapons. Surprised, Sedervitz turned to her. Still besotted by the scale of engineering, she said, “Never would I have conceived of such scale. Such extrapolation of fermentation. This is quite extraordinary! This is quite brilliant!” Sedervitz dropped Oscar like a used tissue containing something nasty. “Did my work lead to this?” she asked. He raised his whiskers and nodded. “What insight you have, Sedervitz! What genius must have been implemented to calculate even the pressure scaling of canisters such as these!” To Oscar’s astonishment, she began skipping around the one beside them and pointing at it. “Despite everything, Sedervitz—despite it all—this is beautiful!” Because she didn’t lisp once, Oscar lost all will. Surrendering, he slumped to the ground, uttered an apology to the Loud Purr and waited for the end. Sedervitz glanced at him. “Just so we’re clear, my ignoring you is pointed insult rather than careless distraction. She may have betrayed me, but I know well that the Dervy recognises brilliance.” “How, Sedervitz?” she cried, bounding to him and taking his paw as a younger sister might her elder brother. “How did you manage? Where did you start?” He spoke then to her only. Had his paws been dirty, the only attention he’d have given Oscar would be as something to wipe them on. “Is it not obvious? I simply extrapolated your mechanics of Constrained Fermentation.” “But how, Sedervitz. And where upon this scale?”

15 ____________________

SEDERVITZ smiled, pitying her attempts at comprehending his genius. “The bowels of this castle are heated pits of hardened lava,” he said. “A perfect cauldron in which to brew.” He pointed at the steaming canister above. “These are simply double-conduited four-chambered Pari-berths fitted with barometric timers in Siscon Field couplets.” “Four-chambered?” said the Dervy. “Don’t you have to be terribly careful with asymmetrical turbulence induction?” With a scoff, he said, “The chambers are not quadrants, the Dervy. They are in centred thirds, with the fourth being an epi-pressured circumferential chamber housing one half the pressure. Its stability renders turbulence induction highly symmetrical.” Part of the keep’s roof collapsed in a shudder of explosion. The Dervy ignored it, her gaze dulled in calculation. “But that’s brilliant,” she whispered, and moved closer. “Sedervitz, will you show me the consequence of such work?” When Oscar groaned, Sedervitz glanced at him again. “Not that there’ll be a next time,” he said, “but don’t try playing the hero again. Instead, leave it to animals as magnificent as me. Animals worthy.” He sneered. “Look on the bright side; at least animals will no longer need to shy from your disgusting appearance.” When he moved to unlock the cage, the Dervy smiled at Sedervitz, and said, “Now might be a rather good time to use a fluff grenade, I shouldn’t wonder.” Sedervitz turned to her. “Use a what?” Jolted from despondence, Oscar stared at her while trying to remember whether he had one, and where he’d put it. Fiddling with his collapsible tummy, he retrieved the remaining grenade and waved it at her triumphantly. With a flick of his paw, he primed the thing and

lobbed it at Sedervitz. The cat spun around and stared at Oscar’s tummy. “A collapsible tummy!” he cried. In the three seconds remaining, Oscar raised his whiskers, and said, “Where’s your sharpened tube of worming ointment now Sedervitz—” But the cat just gaped at him. “—because you’re going to jolly well need it, matey!” There was a flash and a bang, and then a veritable world of fluff. The Dervy leapt sideways and covered all available orifices. While Sedervitz hoiked and wheezed, Oscar retrieved the pawcuffs and lashed him to the cage. “Knocked out and pawcuffed in one evening!” the Dervy said. “Lookth like Othcar ith conthiderably more worthy after all!” But before anything further was said, there was a tremendous explosion from the keep. The air shuddered and stone spat through it, as the wall groaned and began to divide in two. With a splitting beneath them, the courtyard shifted and lifted sickeningly. Scaffolding collapsed. Catapults growled and slipped from tethers, their ropes screaming at breaking point. Then, like whips slicing air, rigging tore to lash from high points of knot like some tentacled monster gone mad. In the distance, the keep ignited and slid downward in a thundering plume of smoke. Its boom shifted castle grounds further and ruptured rock from battlement above. In the cage, the massive knot of rope began to tear and unwind as shifting catapults bore upon it. In despair, the Dervy threw herself at Oscar. He grasped a rope swinging like a python from the catapult and wrapped it around his paw, while the other pulled her closer. Amidst the noise of tilting world, Sedervitz glared at him and pulled at the cuffs. “I hope you realise, Dooven,” he said, hitting the cuffs, “that this is all part of my ruse.” As the cage began to twist, Oscar glared back. “A word of advice, Sedervitz,” he said, when their world turned sideways and began to invert. “You really ought to fail more often, you arrogant animal, asit suits you rather well.” The wall shattered, anchoring was lost and thirteen catapults slid across the courtyard in a laborious lunge of dance. They buckled, split and groaned, their payloads bursting like rotten fruit and swamping

everything beneath in a nightmare of fetid minestrone soup. Above, the massive arm of catapult screamed in release, slamming tight the rope Oscar held. With a pull immeasurable, the cats were launched up and away in a monumental volley of throw. As they rocketed into the sky, the ground beneath burst and splayed, returning the castle back to considerably less than the sum of its parts. Soaring through the air, the Dervy screamed into Oscar’s fur. And tearing though cold night, he found that yes, his head could indeed play a tune. When their ascent slowed, the wind’s roar lessened—although the Dervy’s screams did not. Suspended, Oscar scrabbled frantically in his collapsible tummy for the bedsheet, before latching his paws into its threaded cords. When decent began, he threw the sheet upwards, where it whipped and whirled while he struggled with the cord. After a jolt, the sheet snapped open, slowing their descent. The Dervy did not stop screaming, however, until Oscar assured her the worst was probably over. She ceased dousing his fur in warm dribble and removed herself from his coat. Together, they watched the view. Beneath them, the Castle of Ruen boiled in cloud. Beyond it, the Spicy Cabanari waited in splendid indifference upon a black oil of sea. Upon the coastal road, a strobing line of blue flashing lights crept closer. And in the distance, scribed beneath silvered starlight, lay Ruen, sleeping in its cradle of shore, unaware of how close it had come to a most dreadful awakening. “Ith it over?” she asked, the cold wind pulling at their whiskers while they clutched each other. He smiled. “So you haven’t lost your lisp?” She shook her head. “It wath all an act.” “And a rather good one it would seem.” “But is it really over?” “Almost,” he said. “Almotht?” “I’m rather afraid we have to land first.” She smiled and clutched him tighter as they sailed across the sky. “Then I am glad you are driving,” “Yes,” he agreed. “Although there is perhaps one concern I have.” She looked at him while he watched a cliff edge approach. “I think I’m about to land,” he said, “in precisely the same manner you tend to park.”

And indeed they did so. Snagged on the side of the cliff, neither was concerned, for this time, not only had they plenty of rope, but an entourage of police cars above. ——o0o—— With his coat thick and fluffy, and sporting a fresh pair of pantaloons, Oscar Teabag-Dooven waited in the Lair of the Catacombs upon a nice, comfortable chair. He tucked his tail in beside him, a bit like a seatbelt, which was a restraint necessary considering the excellent news he’d received on arrival. There was a click of door followed by a soft padding of paw when the Loud Purr arrived. Oscar stood, remembering to un-tuck his tail first, as previous occasions of forgetting had made standing unnecessarily complicated. The Loud Purr frowned, his attention on the Catacomb’s collated dossier of Oscar’s curiosa. Sitting at his authoritative desk, the large cat remained absorbed in the report. “Pantaloons,” he then said sourly, and without looking up. “I see you exercised the utmost discretion by spectacularly destroying the majority of Ruen's unique archaeological heritage.” Oscar remained silent, quite thrilled. The Loud Purr waved for him to sit, and he did so, securing himself appropriately. “And according to this, you also appear to have committed several counts of theft, one of vandalism, multiple assaults—” he flicked over the page, “—as well as damage to properties,” he emphasised the plural, “considerable trespass and one count of unauthorised chicken insertion.” Oscar remained indifferent. Considering the news, such detail hardly mattered. The Loud Purr glowered at him, before passing a paper from the dossier. Oscar took it. It was an arrest warrant issued by Ruen’s Police Chief listing the aforementioned crimes, with a large ‘full unrequited pardon’ stamped across it. This was followed by, ‘Dear Oscar TeabagDooven, thank you ever so much for all your help,’ scrawled beneath, and signed by the chief. He smiled; such accolade only contributed to

his thrill. “Isn’t it extraordinary though, Your Stern-Pawiness?” Oscar said. “I mean, what are the chances of such fortune?” The large cat glowered then at the report. “Really,” he continued, “all that collapsed castle and fermented manure—not to mention that ghastly green fog—and all those explosions and smoke and imploding mountain and probably molten lava—” He stared at the Loud Purr in disbelief. “And yet not one animal trapped within perished!” The Loud Purr nodded as he flicked through the dossier. “So it would seem.” “Quite extraordinary,” Oscar said. “One would surely think such outcomes are reserved for ridiculous works of fiction, rather than anything resembling real life.” The Loud Purr humphed while flicking through further pages. “And Horace Humple-Henke?” Oscar asked. “In Ruen’s hospital,” the Loud Purr read. “Evidently treating himself for bruises.” He turned over the page. “Before treating the other one hundred and fifty-seven animals trapped similarly.” He looked up with a confused frown, adding, “With considerable help from his wife, apparently.” Oscar smiled. “And Sedervitz Tappen-Noo?” The large cat perused the document again. “Although there is mention of a Sedervitz,” he said, “it’s only in relation to him not being found.” Oscar frowned. If there was to be a casualty, that animal was perhaps most deserving—although he felt a peculiar tug of regret at the thought. “And the Pyjami?” At her mention, the Loud Purr pummelled him with a glare, leaving Oscar to feel as though he’d trodden in something nasty that was unlikely to be removed with a discreet wipe. The large cat sank, his glare withering into reflection. “The Pyjami,” he said, “is now in a maximum security nursing home in Milos, along with the majority of the Ruling Council, in fact.” He looked at Oscar carefully. “What was your impression of the Pyjami, Pantaloons?” Oscar sensed he ought to tread very carefully. “Well, clearly she is

quite mad, Your Excessive Fluffiness. She’s also spectacularly bitter, extraordinarily rude and smells quite a lot like mothballs.” The Loud Purr nodded, and his gaze fell away. “She was once very different, Pantaloons. Determined and idealistic, perhaps, but steadfastly loyal nonetheless.” “You knew her?” Oscar whispered, astonished. “Yes. For quite some time I did. Although it was a long time ago.” He stood and went to his tall window, which he peered through for a time. “Animals change, Pantaloons. It is true of us all. But I fear that bitterness, once sown never dies. Bitterness is perhaps, its own nourishment.” Unable to imagine the Loud Purr knew a creature as twisted as she, Oscar stared. Nor had he seen the cat so despondent. He leant forward. “Perhaps in the end, Your Extensible Tail-liness, such bitterness consumes only itself.” The Loud Purr nodded gravely. “So it would seem.” With a sigh he added, “You understand now why I was ambiguous; that this curiosa was personal.” Oscar did indeed. Had he been aware of their acquaintance, confusion over loyalty might have ended in disaster for Ruen. “Your intuition, Pantaloons, has served you well, for I did not know which of the two animals was more to blame.” “The two animals?” Oscar asked, having been under the impression the Loud Purr had not heard of Sedervitz. “Yes, Pantaloons. Family can be terribly complicated sometimes.” “Family?” “Indeed. Those two animals are as bad as each other. Tell me, Pantaloons, what was your impression of the Dervy?” Again Oscar stared, and then blinked in a veritable swathe of the things. He cleared his throat and glanced around for a bucket. “Well,” he began, swallowing instead, “the Dervy is quite a different animal altogether, Your Overtly Deafeningly-ness. She is clever and resourceful. She’s determined and idealistic and steadfastly loyal and— ” But he stopped when realising his words echoed the Loud Purr’s description of the Pyjami, the corollary of which left him flabbergasted. “I thank you for averting such horror,” the Loud Purr said, in a return to both his usual gruffness and his desk. “In truth, I had no idea

things had become so precarious, and knew only that one day the two animals would come to quarrel.” He sat, and after a pause, added, “You have done splendidly, Pantaloons. Your intuition has served you well, and I appreciate your discretion, despite your destroying almost everything.” “Well, I must say, were it not for the Dervy and indeed Horace, I fear I would have gotten nowhere. It was fortune and chance alone that permitted reprieve, rather than any skill or ability on my part.” The Loud Purr gave him a withering glare. “And what’s more,” he continued, oblivious to it, “the Dervy and I cut it remarkably fine. In the end, I could have done little to avert disaster; the collapsing castle saved Ruen, rather than me.” Noticing his glare, Oscar stopped, worried he appeared to seek further praise. The Loud Purr leant forward to offer words echoing those of the Dervy beneath the black cliffs. “Some Velvet Paws may require fire and brimstone, Pantaloons. But others are of a calibre requiring no such bolstering. You, more than you can ever know, are a Velvet Paw of Asquith most deserving.” They were interrupted by a knock at the door, and a cat entered with an envelope. Apologising for the intrusion, he said, “This arrived merely moments ago, Loud Purr.” Crossing the Lair, he offered Oscar a small, padded envelope. It was from Hotel d’Ruen. He opened it. Inside was a key with a label that had the number seven crossed out, and ‘Oscar’s Room’ scribbled beneath. There was also a note attached that read: ‘For whenever you are passing through,’ which was signed Percival S. Minton. Additionally, there was a piece of paper in a familiar paw scrawl. He smiled; it seemed despite her role as Ruen’s new Head Councillor, the Dervy had already found time to help Percival organise his hotel after all, just as she had promised Oscar. He read her writing with a lisp. It was a poem. I have a friend of whom I met, From far acrosth the thea.

A noble cat and clever poet, Who twice did rethcue me. He’s a Velvet Paw of Asquith, Being a title quite detherving. And if he doubts his worth of such, He need think only of the Dervyth. And although he’s thoftly spoken, And jolly good with wordth, He has a heart as beautiful, As his abundant fluffy furth. And yeth, it’s true he’s earless, But on this one needn’t dwell, For if an “F’ is put before it, He ith truly that as well. Deeply touched, Oscar dared not look up lest the Loud Purr noticed. Folding the poem, he cleared his throat politely and wished he had some ears to twitch beneath the Loud Purr’s gaze. But having none, he stared instead at the folded paper. Curious then, he unfolded it and raised it gingerly to his nose, relieved she’d used ink rather than her more traditional choice of media. He placed the poem carefully back in the envelope. He’d get it framed perhaps, and put it on his mantelpiece. It seemed some poems ought to be written down, after all. The End.


“OH, these seats!” Archibald growled. “Why must they be so plush? Every time we go around a corner I change sides!” “Then use your walking stick as a wedge,” the Pyjami snapped, pushing him away when he slid into her again. “I wouldn’t need to if you weren’t so obsessed with polishing everything!” Evening fell across the harbour. Clouds turned pink and sky darkened. Beneath it, the black saloon crunched along a wharf and pulled up beside a berthed launch. Dressed in a blue suit and chauffeur’s cap, Sedervitz Tappen-Noo alighted and opened the door for his passengers. The Pyjami got out, but Archibald struggled to follow. “Oh, this is quite ridiculous!” Archibald growled. “This car is too low and its seats are too high.” When his complaints degraded into curse, the Pyjami demanded Sedervitz lend a paw. Amused, he did so, with Archibald smacking it away, before trying again. “Perhaps you might consider a second walking stick, Archie,” Sedervitz said, when the animal eventually conceded, “if you find one inadequate?” Archibald snatched his paws free. “If I had a second one, cat, I’d beat you with it!” Sedervitz laughed. When all three had boarded the launch in a sort of reverse fiasco, Sedervitz replaced his chauffeur’s hat with a captain’s cap and started its engine. With a roar, he churned them from the wharf, spray sweeping their wake as the boat swung around. Archibald was sent careering to its stern, where his veritable swathe of obscenities was

drowned beneath throbbing engine. Being one of Ruen’s wealthiest residents, the Pyjami owned an enormous yacht which was often moored off the northern headland. The Spicy Cabanari was spectacular in appearance, displacement and luxury. It boasted three galleys, thirty-thousand bedrooms and a carport. It had four small dining halls—each with its own polished table—a shopping centre’s worth of escalators, one shopping centre and a bath. On it, the Pyjami held spectacular balls, her guests being the elite of the elite. So elite, that it ought to be spelt with a capital. The galas were not given to entertain, so much as remind them who was in charge. When they rounded the headland, the Spicy Cabanari appeared. Lit in a trellis of lights, its white slate shimmered across water like an early rising moon. Thumping through waves, Sedervitz approached its stern, before slowing with a flare of engine to bump them alongside. A rope was thrown from the deck above, which he used to secure the launch. The boat pitched and rolled, and when it teetered in their favour, the Pyjami and Archibald stumbled aboard a platform, before Sedervitz followed magnificently. While the platform ascended to the height of deck, Archibald shivered, his fur wet from sea. “I’d rather be back in the car,” he grumbled. “At least it was warm. And why does there have to be so much water? All this splashing makes me want to go to the toilet.” “Perhaps you ought to have gone before we left the Sett,” Sedervitz said, amused. “I did, confound it!” “And yet you suffer still?” “Unfortunately, my bladder is not what it once was.” “Is that because it used to be your brain?” When Archibald exploded with rage, the Pyjami said, “Sedervitz. That is quite enough. Hold your tongue, or I shall hold it for you.” Smirking, Sedervitz gazed across water coloured purple by evening. The cats stepped from the hoist while waiting animals stood to attention. Sedervitz strode past them and demanded the chef be sent for immediately. When they hurried away to oblige, he marched magnificently across the deck, while the Pyjami helped Archibald hobble after him.

“What is he doing here, anyway?” Archibald hissed, fuming at the cat’s magnificent strides. “Sedervitz is a fine animal,” the Pyjami said, “and a considerable asset to what we’ve been discussing.” “Rubbish. He is nothing of the sort. The cat is insolent and arrogant. He’s probably one of those pesky little runts himself. To trust an animal of that age with what you have prepared is ludicrous!” “On the contrary, my dear Archie. Sedervitz Tappen-Noo is more devoted than you realise. I have absolute faith in him.” Archibald snatched his paw from her. “Why?” he growled. “Tell me. And I warn you that my support might be less than forthcoming should you refuse.” “I have reasons you do not need to know!” she snapped. “I trust him implicitly. Indeed, I trust him more than I do you!” He muttered, knowing well her brilliance. With a humph, he accepted her paw again and they struggled to a doorway. Through it, a luxurious room waited. Cream leather seating lined its perimeter, with a plushness suggesting any who sat on it might not re-emerge for days. Portholes lined a wall painted a burnt orange, and although the ceiling was low, it glowed from hidden lighting. At the room’s centre was a polished table, upon which was a small granite box brimming with crispy scales. The Pyjami led Archibald to the seating, where he prodded its upholstery warily. “He complains a great deal,” Sedervitz said, when she arrived beside him. “He is old.” “You are old, and you don’t whine like he does.” “Not out loud, perhaps,” said the Pyjami. “Do not forget, Sedervitz, that we need his co-operation. We will not manage without another councillor included. I expect the very best behaviour from you. No more riling. Is that understood?” Sedervitz took a large crispy scale, which he munched indignantly, while the Pyjami helped Archibald to a chair when he refused to drown in upholstery. The chef arrived, and Sedervitz ordered a remarkable quantity of food and a bottle of sparkling water. The chef left, Archibald sat and the Pyjami indicated it was time.

Sedervitz pressed a button beside a picture on the wall. “My dear Archie,” the Pyjami said, “there comes a time when leaders must make decisions based not on common agreement, but rather the common good.” A panel slid aside to reveal a safe, which Sedervitz fiddled with. After a click, he opened its door and removed a large roll of paper and four shiny stones. After closing the safe, he returned to the table. The Pyjami continued, “Sometimes the opinions of several encumber foresight. At such times, it is imperative to remain focussed and peer past opinion to ensure the right course of action is not veered from.” “Too many chefs, perhaps?” “Indeed. And for the good of Ruen, I have taken such a liberty, for I have conceived a plan to purge Ruen of those pesky little runts via means so brilliant, that some nights I am still unable to sleep. So secret are these plans, Archie, that currently only Sedervitz and I are aware of them.” Archibald glowered at Sedervitz, who returned it with a smile. “However,” she continued, “during more practical aspects of this scheme’s implementation, some councillors will undoubtedly question the activities necessary in bringing it to fruition. In as much, the success of said purging pivots upon there being another councillor to help quell their concerns.” Archibald said nothing and waited. He’d seen Ruen’s regress beneath the young animals marauding about the place. That a plan existed to end such blasphemy was encouraging. Had Sedervitz not been present, he might have shown enthusiasm. Intrigued, he asked, “And what, pray, does this scheme entail?” With a nod from the Pyjami, Sedervitz unrolled the paper across the table and weighted its corners with stone. Struggling from his chair, Archibald stood and peered at the schematics drawn upon it. When realisation dawned, his curiosity exploded into astonishment, and he bent closer to be certain. After some mutterings of calculation, he looked up at them. “But this is over five thousand paws long!” The Pyjami raised her whiskers and Sedervitz’s twitched proudly. He returned his gaze to the paper, passing a furry paw from one

end to the other, hoping the caress might reveal something far more sensible beneath. “You can’t be serious!” Silence. “I mean, what will it use?” “Ah,” whispered the Pyjami, her smile cleaving her face into two distinct pieces, “that is where the true genius arises!” Archibald waited for an answer, but it wasn’t forthcoming. “Very much a need to know basis only, old chap,” Sedervitz said. “Though this isn’t the half of it, I can assure you.” Confusion left Archibald oblivious to the cat’s conceit. “What do you mean?” he asked. Sedervitz looked at the Pyjami who nodded permission. Indicating the schematics, he said, “My dear Archie, there are thirteen of these masterpieces!” To this, Archibald reeled backwards as astonishment indulged in something of an encore. He teetered upon his stick, his gaze elsewhere, wandered to the perimeter seating and sank into it. The Pyjami ground her teeth, concerned he hadn’t exploded in congratulation. If she’d underestimated him, the cat would not be permitted to return to shore. After a time, he whispered, “But thirteen? Where can you have thirteen of these things?” Sedervitz was about to speak, but the Pyjami held up a paw. “There are ways and means, my dear Archie,” she said. “Ways and means.” “And what is it specifically you require of me?” His question pleased her, being an acceptance of sorts: he wasn’t debating involvement, so much as battling astonishment. Which was understandable. “For two reasons,” she said. “Firstly, because the resources involved in fabricating thirteen of these things will not go unnoticed, and I require another councillor to pacify any dissent. And secondly, these will result in immeasurable chaos across the city, and it would be impossible to weave authority upon my own amidst such turmoil. I need another beside me, Archie; an animal as committed as I am to preserve Ruen’s ways. Indeed, to return its ways.” She narrowed her eyes. “I need an animal to share the burden of Ruen’s glorious return; a co-signatory to implement policies that will ensure such contamination never occurs again.”

He stared at her. “But surely, after this, there would be mutiny? You can’t seriously imagine there’d be no revolt against the Council following such devastation?” The Pyjami smiled. “I think that were you made aware of further detail, you’d realise no animal could cast aspersion upon Ruen’s Ruling Council.” “How so?” Sedervitz smirked. “As the Pyjami has already said, that is where the true genius lies!” Still he stared. “It does take a certain genius,” the Pyjami agreed, “to find means of removing those pesky little runts from our city without breaking a single brick of its walls.” Echoing her sentiments, Sedervitz added, “Just like the Pied Piper, Archie, but with such a beautiful irony, that not a single thread will lie loose!” “A purging there shall be,” the Pyjami purred. “In seven days’ time, a purging there shall be!” Chapter 11, The Purging Of Ruen.

THANK YOU If you liked this adventure, then consider visiting to answer a quiz about it. If answered correctly, you will receive a beautiful framed ‘Certificate of Achievement’ for having read a Dooven book without it having killed you. Except that it’s not framed. Or particularly beautiful, for that matter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Thomas Corfield was born in London several years ago, definitely before last Thursday. This was a good year for all concerned, and for him in particular, because without it, later years would mean little. He owes a lot to that first year, and now lives because of it in undisclosed locations after having successfully absconded from probation. Although he finds making friends difficult, this is only because no one likes him. Including his mother, who didn’t bother giving him a name until he was nine. His solicitor describes him as having an allergy to apostrophes and an aversion to punctuation that borders on pathological. This makes the popularity of his books all the more remarkable. At least it would if there was any. But there isn't. So it doesn't. He was recently interviewed in Joomag's Meals of Food magazine, which didn't help anyone. ####

The Purging Of Ruen - Abridged  

Consider a world inhabited with only cats and dogs: a society recognizable as our own, but with its eccentricities being the norm, rather th...

The Purging Of Ruen - Abridged  

Consider a world inhabited with only cats and dogs: a society recognizable as our own, but with its eccentricities being the norm, rather th...