Longshanks signalled for his guard to wait and then walked on alone to meet Zara. His mood, given he was about to attend a meeting, was quite bright. Indeed his mood had been quite bright in general since Izabel had fled the rooftops. Although at first furious, for he had been contradicted in a matter of the utmost importance, it soon occurred to him that it was not after all a reason to be upset, but a reason to be cheerful. He could not refuse Izabel to Mr Respectable, and could not encourage her to refuse him either. He had to keep Mr Respectable on side until he was ready to strike the decisive blow. However, he had not done these things, and was so clearly genuinely angry on first hearing of her escape that Mr Respectable had no reason to doubt his intentions. Izabel meanwhile had shown the quality of their family. She had thwarted Mr Respectable herself, in her own small way, and this pleased him to no end.
It made him feel too that at last things were moving. Finally the things that haunted him, those risks and threats that for so long had danced in the shadows beyond his reach, were coming out into the open. It was just a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, but it was enough to lift Longshanks' mood well above its normal pitch.
The life of Longshanks, the world's supreme ruler, could be divided into two lots. The majority of his time, the first lot, was that he spent alone. Here he fought against doubt, and when successful maintained his mood in the assumption of mastery, imagining thus that all life in Istanbul behaved as he thought it should. His vision of the future, an open definition of victory, saw his reign pass beyond this latest mischief from the alley cats and the humans. The minority of his time, the other lot, was that he spent in meetings. In meetings, representatives from across the world of cats came to update him on life out there in his kingdom, and more often that not the information imparted contradicted those wishes he had projected in his solitary broodings. His vision of the kingdom was frequently disturbed, and he was left with a fresh set of worries to wrestle away.
This meeting with Zara was not like a meeting with the alley cats, or the lords and ladies, or a captain of his knights. It was Zara, he had known her all his life and he trusted her. Zara was one of the few cats trying to help. Yet more, that she was back so soon from her quest to obtain the prophecy meant that something had happened.
That she would lead a team from the gutters to find the prophecy had been agreed upon between them, a week before the raid and the great conference that followed it. Their only question had been what would happen, and clearly something had. The wheels here too were moving.
Zara as always looked calm, but Longshanks knew her too well, he could see that her features were charged with displeasure, and this amused him. It was a nice change, that she should be the one to have lost her temper.
'And so where are we now?' he asked her in not unfriendly tones. 'I had expected Mr Security to drag you before me in chains' he said jokingly, 'but this pitfall at least you seem to have avoided. Did my guards at Karendir send you away with empty paws?'
Zara glared at him.
'The alleys cats did not send Mr Security to arrest me. Mr Caring however did present himself on our way out of Istanbul to make us an offer of assistance. Apparently they have decided that ours is the more righteous cause. Anyway, this is not the point. Something much more serious has happened.'
In an instant Longshanks had lost his temper.
'How dare they? What do you mean this is not the point. This is blatant treason!'
'Please wait… let me explain…' pleaded Zara. 'You see, I did not make it to Karendir, and neither did the Arap parents. The kittens I cannot speak for. We were separated from them, deliberately. I was set up and I did not see it. I decided that we should sail but there was a storm while we were at sea. The ship began moving oddly, as if it was not being piloted at all, and I went to see what was happening. I found the captain alone, just stood staring into space, apparently witless. I thought to take control of the ship and so brought back the Arap parents to help me. As soon as we had succeeded, the crate with the kittens in was pushed overboard. It cannot have been an accident but I could not see who did it for the scene around the crate was covered in darkness. Worse, as we watched the crate float away, we found ourselves suddenly confronted by a team of humans, all in black uniform, with weapons. They took back control of the ship, as we were greatly outnumbered, and then steered us around in the direction of Istanbul. The storm passed as quickly as it had arrived and this morning we were back here, where we started, minus the kittens.'
'What to make of it all then?' Longshanks asked her, eyeing her beadily. 'Are we expecting two kittens to lead the gutters to war?'
'Of course not' replied Zara, 'but let us come on to that' she added hastily, for in truth she could not see what would now happen to Ahmet and Fatma. 'The first point is that we have learnt something of our enemies, as we intended. The surprise storm, the spellbound captain, the team of security guards, all of it points to the same thing. It is as we feared. The alley cats must be in league with the humans. And the humans it seems have access to some new dark power - I would have said it was magic if I didn't know the humans as well as I do - it must be some sort of technology, although what I cannot say, for I have heard no mention of such a thing at the palace. I must find out what it is, and I must find the humans that are responsible for it. These men on the ship, they were not the Sultan's men, and all this is not of the Sultan's doing, so then who are they? I think it likely they are from another country, but then who would dare? I have many questions Longshanks. I fear this latest threat from the humans is of great danger to our civilisation. If you had seen the captain - what force might it be that can leave an otherwise decent man incapable - you would understand we are dealing with something already advanced. And what worries me so is the nature of the set-up. It was a complicated trick to pull off. It had several elements to it, all of which needed to go as planned or none of it would have worked. I can only assume that they intended to cause a storm around our ship, that they knew they could render the captain witless, that they were relying on me leaving the kittens and then getting the Arap parents and then having someone in place to push off the crate. In some ways it is a ridiculous thing to attempt, I can scarce believe that they did it. But what matters to me is that they are confident enough now to try and succeed with a level of mischief that we are unused to. I am worried that this story around the prophecy is the same and that we have not even begun to understand what really they are plotting. Here too we do not know how deeply the humans are involved. Have they planned the whole thing? There is much to find out Longshanks and my how now I fear for the time.'
'You must make haste then Zara', replied Longshanks. 'How long has it been since you've been to see the Sultan? Had he no insight on these humans you speak of, or this new technology they have? When will you see him next?'
'I should have seen him at the beginning of the year but he was in bed sick, and it was impossible to get a moment with him alone. A nurse sat with him at all times and outside his door stood his guard. I cannot say that there was anything explicitly wrong with the court, the palace was rather quiet, but in hindsight I wish I had checked a little further, for the atmosphere too seemed sick, and now, having seen the captain last night, I am suspicious that the Sultan has also been under attack from the same technology, and the same group of humans. My gut is sure it is so.'
'You might check in on him today?' asked Longshanks, meaning of course in asking that he had now ordered it to be so.
'Yes of course' said Zara.
'You are after all the interface with the human world. What should we do with these people, that insist on trying to undermine my authority, as you say, by backing the alley cats, and indeed that dare to try our civilisation?'
'I don't know yet' replied Zara, sadly. 'I suppose we must help the Sultan defend himself, we must have order in the human world, we must have peace if we are to rest.'
'Think then Zara - I agree that we haven't much time - we are surprised by the capabilities of our enemies. Their trap, whatever it is, has long been in development, and we do not even know who they are yet…'
Longshanks paused to consider the points of difficulty that now sprang up painfully all about his mind.
'When we spoke last, we said that the prophecy, the legend of Izmir, the aggression of the alley cats - all these things we said were a trap. We said that the design of the trap had to include inspiring the gutters towards an uprising. We said it was obvious that the prophecy was being used to generate hope for some dramatic upturn. We said that it would be best to burst this bubble. Are we not now in a situation where two kittens are lost to this plot, and at the centre of this bubble, that is inflating the desire of the gutters to go to war?'
'Yes, I suppose we are' replied Zara.
'And?' asked Longshanks, his voice rising.
'I have put out a message through the elder network, if they appear in any town we will hear of it. I have sent a cat I trust from the gutters to look for them at Trabzon. I fear it will be of no use. The alley cats are sure to see that the kittens are caught up in their scheme. I suppose they will not surface again until the alley cats think fit to present them back to us.'
'If they reach Karendir they can be arrested. Surely you don't have any expectation that they can succeed?' he asked.
'Why would it be so simple? But you're right, you should try to stop them now if you can. Please see that they are treated well, really they are the most innocent kittens I could find.'
'I don't care about your kittens Zara' replied Longshanks, 'we will return them to you safely, just make sure they understand that this prophecy nonsense is over for them.'
He paused and reflected on the possibilities of the plot.
'But why did you pick them?' he asked. 'Why them and not some others?'
Zara stopped. Why had she picked them? It was an interesting question, the answer to which she had not well articulated in her mind. 'Because they were prepared to go on an adventure' she said. 'Finding gutter cats to chase after prophecies is no easy task.'
'And?' asked Longshanks. 'Who are they?'
'Ahmet and Fatma. Just two talented gutter kittens - Ahmet is athletic and Fatma smart. Fatma has an interest in the human world. What of it?'
'I don't like it' said Longshanks. 'You must ask yourself what value they might have for the alley cats and try to anticipate their next move. Now Mr Caring, tell me what happened.'
'It was nothing really. He jumped out on us on our way towards the docks and said that they would help us.'
Zara stopped. She had not spared the incident a thought, but now, revisiting the scene in her mind, summoning that hated face of Mr Caring, she remembered what he had said.
'He said that we might get separated, and that if the kittens needed help, all they had to do was ask and he would rush to help them, whatever and wherever they needed. In fact, I remember now he openly admitted that they were deceiving you, in helping you. He said they were obliged to keep a paw in both camps, so that they might share in your "darkest designs"'.
'"Darkest designs"? The scoundrel. I shall have him thrown in the sea! But Zara, don't you understand? This is far more interesting than the humans and the storm, this is what we have been waiting for. The alley cats are in open rebellion.'
'As you say, you have a bird-under-paw. Arrest Mr Caring, interrogate him, and summon Mr Respectable. It might be enough.'
'Yes' agreed Longshanks. 'Mr Respectable and Mr Caring will have to explain themselves.'
'I must be going, I'm sorry, but I must see if there is any news of the kittens before I go to the palace. I will return as soon as I can and update you. Goodbye Longshanks.'
Zara turned and left Longshanks alone on the rooftops. His mind, post-meeting, was stressed. His empire of concern had grown enormously. Two kittens were on their way to find the prophecy. Mr Caring had openly betrayed him. The alliance between the alleys and the humans was certain. The humans had some strange new power.
It all had to be linked. His mind drifted back to that morning. Zara had said something about the captain - "Leave an otherwise decent man incapable". If they could do that to a human, could they do it to him too? Was that what had happened that night, the night when someone had set him up with the crown, the poison and the photo? What did it mean for the alley cats? Was this new power being used on them? Had the humans forced Mr Respectable into submission or was he just some sort of zombie? He had always assumed that it was a relationship of mutual convenience, but perhaps he had been wrong. The thought, that a cat might take orders from a human, made him shudder.
Looking out across the rooftops, he took in his kingdom with fresh eyes. He vowed once more, he would get them, one day, somehow.