It was the most stunning message Longshanks had ever read.
"Attack last night on mountain fortress. Two kittens and large black cat called Izmir. Fire in treasure room. Twenty-one guard seriously wounded or dead. Prophecy stolen. Search in progress. Request for orders."
For some minutes he could no more than pass his eyes back and forth over the lines. Their contents, only a few simple words, the ordinary meanings quite clear, had so much significance for his brain that his consciousness quite lost grasp on articulated reasoning. It was as if his head had been struck by lightning, the blow cleaving a dead space between his ears across which thought would not pass, the only response then the expression on his face: a crumpled, confused, confounded look that, although silent, spoke loudly of portent-now-changed.
The shock eventually passed through his mind and found its way into his throat. He screamed, indeed he screamed so loudly, and with such a depth of rage, that much of Istanbul was disturbed at breakfast, the cats in the gutter eating mackerel glancing up towards the rooftops in horror, the humans in the houses eating bread and eggs slamming shut their windows in irritation.
At last words began to emerge from the fury. The howls separated into distinct complaints; sentences formed from the swirling clouds of implication; the units of grievance and culprit connected together, for a moment then presenting Longshanks with a clear count of the offences committed against his rule. Confronting the full scale of the crime for the first time, his brain again exploded. He threw himself across the rooftops and began rolling around on the floor.
When he came to there was only one thought in his mind. Get Mr Respectable. And so he did. Both he and Mr Caring were summoned to attend him. The order issued, Longshanks sat down and began to prepare himself for the meeting, immediately cursing that now he had so little time to prepare for this reckoning he had so long anticipated.
In fact, Longshanks had barely stopped thinking about this meeting to come since his last with Zara. At first he had considered the prospect as the most golden of gifts. Mr Caring had betrayed him. All he had to do was summon him, interrogate him, arrest him and then have him tried for treason. With any luck it might be enough to take down Mr Respectable as well. For hours he had done nothing but stare through his imagination at scenarios of success. He would have one of his lawyers do the talking, whereas he himself would just sit there, side by side with the other lords and ladies, to all the world looking as if the matter was no more personal to him than the average theft, but in reality inside his spirits would be blazing. Victory at last. How the alley cats would squirm. Blatant treason! In broad daylight! An obvious attempt to ignite revolution! Let them be drowned without delay!
Of course, it had not gone as he wished. Morning turned to afternoon and then to evening. Longshanks grew bored of imagining the downfall of the alleys and noticed he was hungry. Awakening from his visions, he realised too that Zara had not returned from the palace. Surely she would have come to see him immediately after finishing with the Sultan, and there was no way she could still be there. So what then could have happened to her?
Suddenly he felt lonely. First Izabel had deserted him and now Zara. He had been left alone to hold out against a world of evil. What was he to do? Over dinner he changed his mind completely. It would be better to have a quiet chat with Mr Respectable, straighten it all out. He couldn't possibly take the risk that they would bring up the photo in front of the lords and ladies. It was out of the question really. He had no idea what he'd been thinking of.
That morning the message had come from Karendir and he had lost his temper. He had no idea of how he would manage Caring and Respectable when they arrived but at that point he was unable to reflect on the impulse. In indignation he had found so much righteousness that he was sure he could not lose.
He caught sight of Mr Respectable rushing across the rooftops, and some distance behind him, Mr Caring, too making his way forwards but in a manner that seemed almost deferential. Immediately he was taken aback. Mr Respectable did not look like he was anticipating the same meeting. Instead, he looked extremely hopeful, excited even.
'Izabel' he called, 'Izabel! Good sir, please tell me you've found her!'
For a second Longshanks paused. Izabel? What on earth did she have to do with this? He almost replied that in fact he wanted to talk about something else but then stopped. Damn them, he was being tricked, he was sure of it. Arghh! Once more his composure vanished and rage gushed forth.
'Mr Respectable!' he cried, 'you beast of hell, how dare you? You must be Satan's hound himself to dare pretend that you're innocent. Come on, out with it! I've caught you now! You and Caring are traitors! Tell me everything now and I may yet let you live.'
Mr Respectable could barely suppress his smile.
'Dear cat, what can be the matter with you? Have you been sleeping enough? Have you not eaten? Are you sick? The very idea that you would speak to me in such a way...'
Longshanks sighed. Of course he should have expected this. He decided to read them the message.
'Listen. "Attack last night on mountain fortress. Two kittens and large black cat called Izmir. Fire in treasure room. Twenty-one guard seriously wounded or dead. Prophecy stolen."'
Mr Respectable's face fell. 'My…' he murmured.
Longshanks glared, his eyes shining with incandescence.
'I am informed that you, Mr Caring, offered to help these kittens on their quest. I am told that you have decided theirs is the more righteous cause. Indeed, I hear that you openly admit to betraying me. What do you have to say for yourself?'
'Ah…' replied Mr Caring, looking only a little concerned, 'how unfortunate. One never expects to face such accusations, and I must say I find myself quite unprepared to defend myself. I don't quite know what to tell you, except that it wasn't me. Let us see… what might have happened to make you think such a thing? It could have been someone else perhaps? Do you think it might have been one of my predecessors? We have had such trouble with the role. The last Mr Caring was a bit slippery it's true. He had the notion to experiment with altruism and I must say the results were often distressing. It must be something like that. I will get to the bottom of this don't you worry. Let us talk to your informer and no doubt they'll be able to tell you it was the other one, or someone else entirely of course.'
Longshanks sighed again. It was typical. It just didn't matter, whatever grip on them you thought you had, they would find a way to wriggle out of it.
'And what about you Mr Respectable?' said Longshanks, changing the subject that he might think for a moment, 'What have you to say for yourself? You said that Mr Security would stop them leaving. Why can I ask did this not happen? This is utter incompetence at the very least, if not open treason.'
'But I just don't understand' said Mr Respectable, 'Mr Security told me that he had been to see you immediately, as soon as he realised that he had missed them. He said that you said you understood, and were unconcerned, as you expected to have them arrested at Karendir. I must ask him. I shall call him immediately. But now, this business about Mr Caring. We can't have cats such as this slandered senselessly, and I find myself obliged to protest the insult to myself. Really, it is quite out of the question that this is allowed to stand. How do you know your informer isn't simply making it up? You have to let us talk to him. And anyway can I say how surprised I am that you are spying on us. It makes me feel that, well… how to put it, that you don't quite understand the nature of our alliance.'
Mr Respectable then gave Longshanks a knowing look, a look that carried much weight, for it was deliberately charged with an idea, the idea that Longshanks was beholden to him through blackmail: Mr Respectable "knew" that Longshanks had killed King Richard.
Longshanks of course understood the thought conveyed to him. He coughed.
'Not spying on you, no, not at all, members of the public actually, the Arap parents, who were with the kittens at the time.'
His answer was improvised but anyway, as it fell out of his mouth, he found it relatively pleasing. The point was that he could not reveal his relationship with Zara. The Arap parents, even though he had never met them before, and had not warned them of this need to testify against the alley cats, would have to do.
'Guard!' he called. 'Fetch the gutter cats Mother and Father Arap.'
Now at the point of no return he found himself suddenly ecstatic. The moment had arrived. This time he was going to catch them. There was no way out of it. He could barely wait to see their faces. Oh the joy!
When the Araps arrived Longshanks was yet more delighted to see that Mr Caring had turned his face away. Ha! As if that was going to save him.
The Arap parents however were in a state of great upset. They had barely slept since the night on the ship, when the crate had been pushed overboard, and without news of Ahmet or Fatma, Mother Arap had been unable to prevent herself imagining the worst. The crying just would not stop. Father Arap didn't know what to do. Would things ever be the same again? Then suddenly to be summoned to see Longshanks… What to make of it? There had to be news, but what was it? Had they been captured? Were they alive? These moments were almost too much for Mother Arap, and once stood before Longshanks it was all she could do to stop herself from shaking.
It suddenly dawned on Longshanks that Mother and Father Arap were not just witnesses to the crimes of Mr Caring, they were also the parents of Ahmet Arap, one of the two gutter kittens that had just raided Karendir and made away with the prophecy, apparently in toe with Izmir, saviour of the cats to be. How much there was to think about! But still he reasoned, what did the prophecy matter compared to the bird-under-paw? All that nonsense would just disappear if he could end it here and now.
He was just about to start speaking when Father Arap, unable to contain the urge, interrupted him.
'Ahmet and Fatma, have you found them? Have you news? We've been so worried.'
Longshanks was again wrong-footed.
'Hmm… Yes…' he said, at first hesitating but again seeing no choice but to plough forwards, 'Yes… In fact I received a report this morning. It seems they were involved in a raid on Karendir, with Izmir indeed, and they have the prophecy. We are still searching for them. But now…'
He stopped in his tracks, startled by the display of reactions before him.
Mr Respectable gazed at him with pleading eyes and said, 'Dear sir, do you really…'.
Mr Caring muttered under his breath, 'All the gutters will know now…'.
Father Arap stifled a cheer by looking down at the floor.
Mother Arap gasped, only punctuating her state of shock with the briefest of pauses.
It was true reflected Longshanks, he probably should have thought more before announcing that the kittens and Izmir had obtained the prophecy. Anyway, it still held true that such things would prove inconsequential once Caring and Respectable had been dealt with.
'Now' he said, 'wait there a moment. Of course I don't approve of raids on my fortresses, and we must speak to Ahmet and Fatma about this once we have captured them, but that is not why you are here. Actually, you are here to confirm your statement about the appearance of Mr Caring whilst on your way to the docks. I here accuse Mr Caring of treason, on the grounds that he offered to help you obtain the prophecy, and that he admitted to betraying the rooftops. Will you confirm this to be the case?'
Mother and Father Arap could not have been more surprised. So swept up in emotion were they on arriving that they hadn't noticed Mr Caring. But anyway was there not something strange about all this? Longshanks seemed to be perfectly relaxed about the raid on Karendir itself, but Mr Caring on the other paw was accused of treason for offering only to help them on their way. It didn't make any sense. They hadn't made any statement about Mr Caring, and anyway if he was guilty of treason then were they not too guilty? Was it a trap? Was Longshanks looking to them to drop Ahmet and Fatma in it? Did he think they were stupid?
'I'm so sorry' said Father Arap, suddenly sure of the way forwards, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'
'Don't dare deny it. Don't you dare. Mr Caring turn around this instant. Look at that cat. Deny that this cat approached you on the way to the docks. Deny that this cat is a traitor!'
Mr Caring turned around. To Longshanks' astonishment it seemed that Mr Caring's face had changed. Whereas before it had seemed soft, fresh and empathetic, now it seemed old and tired. Too he seemed much thinner, and he was almost prepared to think that his fur had changed colour. It was almost brown now, certainly a good shade lighter than the typical alley cat black.
Father Arap was delighted. Ha! It wasn't even him.
'With all my heart I swear it, I have never seen this cat before.'
Longshanks lifted his head and screamed silently at the gods. How could life do this to him? Oh the cruelty! What demons the alley cats were!
Mr Respectable wasted no time finishing off his victim.
'That's enough now thank you. Father Arap, Mother Arap, you can go.'
They left, their worlds changed, lifted to the heights of happiness. Ahmet and Fatma were alive, they had found the prophecy, they had found Izmir.
'Have you lost your mind Longshanks?' asked Mr Respectable derisively. 'There isn't any evidence at all to suggest that we are traitors. On the other hand there seems to be plenty of evidence against you. The latest, you seem to be imagining things. What a shame. It is sad to see a king so blighted. Not only this, it seems you just gave the prophecy your royal endorsement. Why on earth tell the Arap parents that? The gutters will be delighted. Really I don't know Longshanks, for some reason you just don't appear to get it. Don't you see that things have fallen beyond your control? I think it might be time to think about your succession, don't you?'
With that Mr Caring and Mr Respectable turned around and departed.
Longshanks screwed up his face. Oh god, he thought, oh god.