'There you are!'

“Aha! Aha! There you are!”

Ralf stopped short with one heel off the floor, paralyzed with the bone-​chilling fear of The Law that is common to all men, however upstanding.

Then he recalled why Saeward was most likely looking for the two of them, and he hurried on ahead.

“Sorry! Are they waiting for us?”

“Are who? I was looking for you!”

“We’re late for dinner!” Ralf ducked beneath Saeward’s arm and squeezed past him. “We told Sigefrith we’d be late!”

Saeward pointed at the floor and shouted, “Stop right there!”

Ralf stopped and, after a moment’s hesitation, even shuffled back, scrupulously positioning himself over that invisible spot Saeward had indicated with his finger.

“Are we obstructing culinary justice?” Aldwin asked, laughing. “Beware all ye who come between this man and his mutton!”

'Beware all ye who come between this man and his mutton!'

“Not you!” Saeward said. “It’s him I want. You—” He reached around behind Aldwin and scooted him past Ralf with his arm. “You go see to your mutton. And you—” He lifted his head until his beard pointed at Ralf. “—are coming with me.”

Again that instinctive fear held Ralf in its grip. He summoned up all his deep-​voiced dignity and asked, “Why?”

Saeward lowered his beard and pointed his piercing gaze at Ralf instead. “I think you know why.”

Saeward had a look that could make men confess things they had never done. Ralf feverishly thought back over the past days and weeks for something worth confessing. Had he forgotten to hand over some part of the rent he had collected on Quarter Day? Had there been a suspicious error in his accounting?

Had there been a suspicious error in his accounting?

Aldwin asked, “Is he under arrest?”

“He has not, to my knowledge, done anything against the law,” Saeward said. “But he sorely tempts me to do so myself.”

Ralf gasped, “What?”

“Good day.” Saeward nodded politely at Aldwin. “Enjoy your dinner!”

Aldwin grinned and saluted him. “Thanks!”

Saeward glared at Ralf and pointed down the hall. “March!”

Ralf turned the corner and started back down the corridor, instinctively obedient to the voice of The Law, and somewhat muddled by Aldwin’s blithe defection. But after a few steps reason began to assert itself.

“Are you on the King’s business?” he asked suspiciously.

'Are you on the King's business?'

“I am on my business, and at the moment you are in it!”

“Then—just hold on, then!” Ralf stopped walking and turned to block Saeward’s path. “If you’re not on the King’s business, then you have no right to be ordering me around!”

Saeward slitted his eyes and smiled. “Then go eat your dinner, sir. Bon appétit. I only thought you might like to clean up the aftermath of your little prank yourself. I doubt you will like how I shall dispose of your… ah, materials.” Saeward winked.

“What prank? What are you talking about? I never played a prank on you!”

“Didn’t you?”

“Well… it wasn’t my idea. My role was solely to serve as a distraction.”

Saeward’s smile soured. “Not that one. I’m talking about today.”

“I never did anything to you today!”

“Somebody did!”

“What makes you think it was I?”

'What makes you think it was I?'

Saeward sighed and shook his head, smiling insolently again. “My dear Ralf. Only you could have had the idea or the wherewithal to pull off such a stunt as this.”

“I should like to see this stunt!”

“Indeed you shall, if only you will walk this way with me, as I asked.” Saeward gestured gracefully towards the stairs.

Ralf huffed and turned. “Asked me, my Auntie! Where are we going?”

“To my room.”

Although annoyed at Saeward’s manners, Ralf was curious to see what prank had most recently been visited upon the beleaguered reeve. It was almost certainly the handiwork of the Royal Guard, but if they were implicating Ralf then it was a sort of prank on himself as well, and he wanted to be informed.

Moreover, he rather liked Saeward. He had even offered him one of Aelia’s kittens from her latest litter—even knowing that the offer would be curtly refused, as Saeward refused nearly every attempt at kindness. Ralf could scarcely pay a higher compliment than this. And he still believed that what Saeward really needed was a cat.

Saeward stopped in the middle of his room and tossed his head impatiently.

“Well, come in, come in.”

'Well, come in, come in.'

His fair cheeks had flushed a mottled red, and his entire stance was anything but inviting, in spite of his words. Ralf hesitated in the doorway.

He had already seen Saeward’s room through the open door, but he had never stepped inside. He did not believe anyone had, aside from the maids who swept it and fetched the laundry. Saeward was no Eadred.

“Come in already!” Saeward smiled a mocking smile. “I promise I won’t try to seduce you, but if it makes you feel better you may leave the door ajar.”

“It isn’t that,” Ralf hastened to say. “It’s just… I don’t see anything amiss.”

Saeward pointed at the floor near the far wall. “It’s over here. Come in.”

Ralf stepped inside.

Ralf stepped inside.

It was only an ordinary room—a man’s room, smelling of shaving soap and tansy; furnished with a bed, chair, washstand, and wardrobe; and scrupulously neat. Even the furniture aligned precisely with the awkward angles of the stone walls. It was just the sort of room a cat would like, if a cat became a man.

And then Ralf looked down into the laundry basket beneath the window, and he saw a bundle of velvety, dappled gray fur beside the neatly-​folded woolen blankets, as if Saeward’s cat suit were just coming back from the wash.

And then Ralf looked down into the laundry basket beneath the window.

“Why—Saeward! You got a cat!”

“I—what?” Saeward spluttered. “I did not get a cat!got a cat just as one gets lice!

Ralf chuckled softly and squatted down before the basket. “It looks like—”

Ralf chuckled softly and squatted down before the basket.

The cat woke suddenly and lifted her head to meow. Ralf recognized her at once. Moreover, he recognized the nature of the fat, furry little lumps that had been tucked away beneath her chin, and he broke into a broad smile.

“Why, it’s Littlefoot! And she’s had kittens! Hallo, little mama. What do we have here?”

Ralf scratched the sleepy mother beneath her chin and snuck a tiny kitten into his palm. The wee white thing was fuzzy and dry, but its wizened newborn face was still flushed pink from the blood suffusing the translucent skin.

“They can’t be more than a few hours old,” Ralf said softly. “How many have you here, little mama?”

“Wait—wait,” Saeward said. “Isn’t that your cat?”

'Isn't that your cat?'

“What? What nonsense! Aelia is a calico. And her kittens are almost weaned. This is Littlefoot. Eh, little mama? Don’t you recognize her? She’s one of the best ratters in the castle.”

“I do not… notice the cats in this castle.”


Ralf stroked the cat’s furry gray flanks and tried to count the jumbled kittens by their skinny tails.

“Five or six, I think.”

He gave Littlefoot a last pat, brushed the fur off his hands, and stood. Suddenly shoulder-​to-​shoulder with Saeward, he remembered how he had come to be there.

“You didn’t think I dumped a litter of kittens into your laundry basket as a prank, did you?”

'You didn't think I dumped a litter of kittens into your laundry basket as a prank, did you?'


Ralf laughed. “What an idea! That would be too cruel.”

“I thought so, too.”

“Ah… to the cat, I mean.”

Saeward snorted and turned his face away.

Ralf chuckled. The situation was rather funny, but the tenderness he felt for the kittens radiated as far as Saeward, and he was not inclined to laugh at him outright.

“I assumed it was you,” Saeward said, “since you asked me once, twice, and three times to take one of your kittens, and you’d be—”

“I did not ask you three times,” Ralf said, interrupting gently. “I asked you once, and I asked you a second time in case you regretted saying no. But I never ask three times.” He sighed. “Alas! But a man has his pride.”

'But a man has his pride.'

“His kitten-​related pride,” Saeward muttered. “Well, how do I get rid of them? Should I tell Ninian, or whom? I shall send them out with my laundry!”

“Oh! Don’t tell Ninian, Saeward, please. He drowns them. And I think he likes it.”

Ralf braced himself for the usual protest that they ought to be—that the world would soon be overrun with cats if unwanted kittens were not promptly drowned. But Saeward’s mind operated along other lines, it seemed.

“Then who will take them? You take them, if you’re so fond of cats!”

“Ah!” Ralf smiled down onto the bundle of silky gray fur. “I wish I could. But the girls would never allow it.”

“What girls?”

“My cats, I mean.”

“Your cats wouldn’t allow it? Who’s master at your house, again?”

Ralf smiled at him. “Care to guess?”

Saeward’s mouth twisted into a frown of faint disgust. Ralf was not offended. He only felt sorry for Saeward, who could never have known that sort of love.

'I suppose it's a little silly of me...'

“I call them my girls,” Ralf said fondly. “One must get accustomed to that with me. Perhaps I shall feel differently if I ever marry and become a father, but for now they seem almost like my children. I suppose it’s a little silly of me…”

“It’s revolting! It’s revolting, is what it is!”

Ralf stiffened and drew back, startled by the savagery of Saeward’s tone. As the meaning of the words dawned on him, he was hurt, too.

“If there is one thing that I cannot stomach,” Saeward said, “it is people who treat dumb animals like their children, when there are real, living children out there who are treated like animals! You—and the Queen with that dog of hers! My oldest baby!” he simpered, mocking the Queen. “With what she gives that dog every day, in treats and good steak, she could feed two or three hungry children!”

Saeward was shaking with outrage. Ralf was petrified.

Saeward rarely took his meals in the hall with the King, but there was a standing order, backed by royal authority, obliging the kitchen staff to give the food he would have eaten to a beggar. Until this moment, this was all Ralf had known of the extent of Saeward’s charitable impulses.

But the Lord had commanded men not to sound a trumpet when they gave to the poor, but even to prevent their own left hands from knowing what their right hands gave. Perhaps Saeward was possessed of a deeper Christian charity than anyone could know.

'Her Majesty does much charity in this kingdom.'

Ralf protested weakly, “Her Majesty does much charity in this kingdom, and feeds many hungry children.”

“The ones she sees! But for every beggar child on the side of the road, there are five whom no one ever sees! And you—you with that enormous house of yours, and no one living in it but a couple of old maid servants and a lot of cats! Your children you call them—and you hold them in your lap—when there are real orphan children out there, whom nobody loves!”

Saeward’s voice was so shrill, his body so tense, that Littlefoot lifted her head and mewed to comfort him. Ralf could not even do that.

“I… perhaps when I find a wife…”

“You don’t need a wife! Children turn out just fine if they’re raised with good fathers.”

Ralf blinked back tears. The man was right, in a way, and at that moment it was as if he had shone a light on Ralf’s Christian alms and daily prayers and shown him that it was all dross—all empty gestures serving only to comfort him with the thought that he had done his duty. He could not argue with a man who was telling him he should be more like Christ.

And yet somehow it did not seem fair to expect so much of him. He was no saint. He was only a shy, quiet man. And he did not like being made to feel that his love for his cats was a crime against children.

But Ralf could find no words to express any of this, so he defended himself with excuses.

'It isn't just that children need a mother.'

“It isn’t just that children need a mother—though I think they do. But I’m a busy man… I work all day. I’m scarcely ever home…”

“Even if you come in late and give them one kiss on their foreheads as they’re sleeping, that’s one more kiss than they’re getting now. And one more bed.”

Saeward stared at him, defying him to protest again.

Instead, Ralf stared back, trying to remember how they had come to this, and trying to understand. Saeward had reacted violently to the idea of loving animals like children—lashed out like a cat when one strokes a wound hidden beneath the fur. Ralf recalled that no one knew anything about Saeward’s past.

“Saeward,” Ralf asked softly, “are you an orphan?”

Not even by the flutter of an eyelash did Saeward’s stony expression change. Only the sudden coolness of his voice proved that something had been touched—but it was something that had immediately snapped closed.

“I suppose,” he said, “that at our age we all are. Now what do you suggest I do with these cats?”

“Don’t hurt them, please…”

Saeward rolled his eyes. “I won’t hurt them! I have heard that I am rumored to enjoy chomping kittens for breakfast, but I assure you I have no appetite for the things. I only want to be rid of them.”



Ralf looked down into the basket. The little green-​eyed mother was staring up at Saeward between licks to a kitten she held between her forepaws. He could not tell whether she was frightened for her safety, or whether her tenderness for her kittens simply radiated as far as Saeward.

“I think you should keep them.”

Saeward sighed. “I knew you would say that. Go eat your dinner.”

He slipped past Ralf to sit heavily on a low stool beside the basket, and his head fell into his hands.

His head fell into his hands.

Ralf began, “You see…” He twisted his hands together and hesitated, fearing the reaction if he touched that wound again, and fearing how his own heart would again be wounded.

Saeward ran his hands back over his skull, and his hair fluttered out between his fingers. Ralf felt sorry for that head, bowed over a lap which had never known the comfort of a cat.

“You see,” Ralf said, “I don’t keep cats because it’s good for the cats. I keep cats because it’s good for me.”

“Go eat your dinner, Ralf. I hear you’re late.”

“You coming?”