Here you go, the third part of “Blanchefleur.” I don’t have much typed beyond when Ivan gets to Professor Owl’s house, so next week I’m going to have to start drafting. I already know this whole story. It’s just a matter of getting the details right.
“Then you shall set out tomorrow morning,” said the Lady. “Tonight you shall join us in our feast. Are the preparations ready, Marmalade?”
“Almost, my Lady,” said the orange cat.
“How will I find this Professor Own?” asked Ivan.
“Blanchefleur will take you,” said the Lady.
“You can’t be serious!” said Blanchefleur. “He’s an idiot, and he stinks like a pigsty.”
“Then show him the bathroom, where he can draw himself a bath,” said the Lady. “And give him a suit of clothes to wear. Those are too ragged even for Professor Owl, I think.”
“Come on, you,” said Blanchefleur, clearly disgusted. He followed her out of the room and up a flight of stairs, to a bathroom with a large tub on four clawed legs. He had never seen anything quite like it before. At the mill, he had often washed under the kitchen spigot. After she had left, he filled it with hot water that came out of a tap and slipped into it until the water was up to his chin.
What a strange day it had been. Three days ago he had left his father’s house and the life he had always lived, a life that required almost nothing of him: no thought, no effort. And now here he was, in a castle filled with talking cats. And tomorrow he would start for another place, one that might be even stranger. When Blanchefleur had taunted him by telling the Lady that he had nothing to say for himself, he had wanted to say – what? Something that would have made her less disdainful. But what could he say for himself, after all?
With the piece of soap that he found in a porcelain dish, he washed himself more carefully than he had ever before in his life. She has said that he smelled like a pigsty, and he had spent the night before last sleeping on a haystack that was, indeed, near a pen where several pigs had grunted in their dreams. Last night, he had slept in the forest, but he supposed that the smell still lingered – particularly to a cat’s nose. For the first time in years, he felt a sense of shame.
He dried himself and put on the suit of clothes she had told him to wear: gray trousers and a linen tunic embroidered in red at the collar and cuffs, with a black leather belt and a pair of tall black boots. He went back down the stairs, toward the sound of music and laughter, and found his way to the great hall. It was lit with torches, and sitting at the two long tables were cats of all shapes and colors: black and brindled and tortoiseshell and piebald, with short hair and long, and even one with no hair at all. Sitting on the dais were the Lady, with Blanchefleur beside her, and a large yellow and brown cat who was striped like a tiger. He stood in the doorway, feeling self-conscious and a bit shy.
The Lady saw him across the room and motioned for him to come over. He walked to the dais and bowed before it, because that seemed the appropriate thing to do. She said, “That was courteous, nephew. Now come sit with us. Tailchaser, you will not mind giving your seat to Ivan, will you?”
“Of course not, my Lady,” said the yellow and brown cat in a tone that indicated he did indeed mind, very much.
Ivan took his place, and Marmalade brought him a bowl filled with a stew of various meats – a bird of some sort, and what he very much hoped was a hare rather than a mouse. It was good, although relatively flavorless. The cats, evidently, did not use salt in their cooking. Beside it was a dish of fresh grass, which Ivan decided not to eat, although he noticed that Blanchefleur was chewing on hers. He hoped that leaving it would not offend anyone. Halfway through the feast, he was startled to realize that the cats were eating with silver spoons, just as he was. They were conversing with one another and nodding politely, as though they were a roomful of ordinary people. He was probably the only silent one in the entire room. Several times he noticed Blanchefleur giving him exasperated looks.
When he had finished eating, the Lady said, “I think it’s time to dance.” She clapped her hands, and suddenly Ivan heard music. He wondered where it was coming from, then noticed that, at the far end of the room, a group of cats were playing, more skillfully than he had supposed possible, a fife, a viol, a tabor, and other instruments he could not identify, one of which curved like a long snake. The cats that had been sitting at the long tables moved them to the sides of the room, then formed two lines in the center. He had seen a line dance before, at one of the village fairs, but he had never seen one danced as gracefully as it was by the cats. They wove in and out, each line breaking and then reforming in intricate patterns.
“Aren’t you going to ask your cousin to dance?” said the Lady, leaning over to him.
“What? Oh,” he said, feeling foolish. How could he dance with a cat? But the Lady was looking at him, waiting. “Would you like to dance?” he asked Blanchefleur.
“Not particularly,” she said, looking at him with disdain. “Oh, all right, Mother! You don’t have to pull my tail.”
He wiped his mouth and hands on a linen napkin, then followed Blanchefleur to the dance floor and joined at the end of the line, feeling large and clumsy, trying to follow the steps and not tread on any paws. It did not help that, just when he was beginning to feel as though he was learning the steps, he saw Tailchaser glaring at him from across the room. Although he danced several times, once with Blanchefleur, once with Mrs Pebbles, who must have taken pity on him, and once with Fluff, who told him that it was a pleasure to dance with such a handsome young man and seemed to mean it, he only stepped on one set of paws, belonging to a tabby tomcat who said, “Do that again, Sir, and I’ll send you my second in the morning,” but was mollified when Ivan apologized sincerely and at length. After that, he insisted on sitting down until the feast was over and he could go to bed.
The next morning, he woke and wondered if it was all a dream, but no – there he was, lying in the most comfortable bed he had ever slept in, on a feather pillow and under a comforter stuffed with feathers, in the Lady’s castle. And there was Blanchefleur, sitting in a nearby chair, saying, “About time you woke up. We need to get started if we’re going to make the Eastern Waste by nightfall.”
Ivan got out of bed, vaguely embarrassed to be seen in his drawers, then reminded himself that she was just a cat. He put on the trousers and tunic from last night, then found his satchel on a dresser. All of his old clothes were gone, replaced by new ones. In the satchel he also found a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a flask of wine, and a shiny new knife with a horn handle.
“I should thank the Lady for all these things,” he said.
“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since you got here,” said Blanchefleur. “But she’s gone to see my father, and won’t be back for three days. And we have to get going. So hurry up already!”