The Emperor’s Cat

The Emperor's Cat: short story

(1100 word short fiction)

On her one hundred and eighteenth attempt, Illenka was granted audience with His Imperial Majesty Emperor Tavian of Avance. She dressed in her finest gown, the one you could tell had once been blue, and tied the ribbons of her least tattered visiting hat under her chin.

Today was the day. Afterwards, everything would be different.

Illenka clutched her gilded token as if it were a diamond and climbed the long road to the Imperial Palace. For the first time, she felt she belonged on this broad avenue among the perfumed gentlefolk with their white gloves, face paint that hid the shadows under their eyes, and leashed bunnies.

Father should have been with her, but men said the emperor was more likely to grant the request of a pretty girl than of an ageing alchemist. And one of them had to stand in line for bread. Illenka might not have been beautiful, but surely the emperor would grant her petition. He had a big heart—from his own pocket he’d funded a rescue centre for the homeless rabbits of the city.

Illenka stepped over a sharply dressed merchant sleeping in the centre of the avenue and politely averted her eyes from a silk-frocked young woman trying determinedly to open a solid stone wall.

At last, the doors of the Imperial Palace towered over Illenka. She inhaled the sweet scent of the jasmine that grew in great draping vines in the emperor’s garden. Yes, everything would be different after today. The emperor was leaving the city tomorrow, but not before she convinced him to help her father. With the emperor’s help, her father would free the city from the plague of sprites and everyone would able to sleep.

Outside the doors, a uniformed official stood as still as a wax dummy. Either he was looking down or his eyes were closed.

“Excuse me,” Illenka said.

The official snored softly.

“Excuse me, I’m here to see the emperor.”

The official blinked. “Do you have a token?”

She held out her treasure. He pocketed it and ushered her into an antechamber. Petitioners clustered on the marble benches like butterflies. All wore their finest garments, but their belts couldn’t hide the patches in their clothes, nor their sleeves the dirt under their nails.

“Wait here,” the official said. “You’ll be summoned when it’s time.”

Illenka’s wooden clogs thrumped on the polished stone floor. She stared at her feet and sank onto the nearest empty bench. The ceiling was as high as the heavens, trimmed in gold and painted with winged sprites—not the clawed creatures congealed from ash and despair that plagued the city each night, but creatures spun out of sunlight and dewdrops. The gods themselves might have dwelled under the dome.

The young woman beside Illenka peeped at her from the corner of her eye and smiled shyly.

“It’s very grand, isn’t it?” Illenka gestured at the ceiling.

The young woman’s face split into a smile and tears gathered in her eyes. “I can’t believe I’m actually here. I’ve tried every day for two years.”

Illenka smiled encouragingly. “But today we really are here.”

“I’m Kitasha,” the young woman said. Her visiting hat was little more than a rag, and her hair snaked in a peasant braid over her shoulder. “Daughter of Arbrush the Mason. My friends call me Kit.”

“Illenka, daughter of Pasterphon the Alchemist.”

Kit covered her mouth with one hand. “The alchemist?”

Illenka shrank into her shoulders and nodded. She had to divert the conversation. “What’s your petition, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“It’s my brother. He needs permission to come into the city. Things are bad here, but they’re so much worse in the countryside.” She shuddered.

“I’m sorry. I hope the emperor lets him in.” Illenka dangled her clogs from her toes.

“How about you? What would The Alchemist’s daughter need from the emperor?”

Illenka glanced around, but none of the other petitioners seemed to be listening. Someone let out a damp snore. Today was the day. “My father’s discovered how to make a shield.”

“You mean against the…”

“Yes. He can keep the sprites out of the whole city, all he needs is the ingredients.”

Kit’s face grew pale and her eyes bright. “Thank the gods. The emperor has to give them to him.”

“I hope you’re right, but Father’s going to need a lot of dewdust, and men in the marketplace say the imperial treasury’s nearly empty.”

Kit clasped her hands together. “He has to, whatever it costs.”

Illenka’s toes lost their grip on her left clog and it clattered to the floor, smashing the hush of the opulent chamber. The petitioners jerked their heads around to stare, and heat rose in Illenka’s face. She didn’t look up until the faces had turned away.

“They haven’t called anyone yet,” Kit said. “What do you think’s taking so long?”

“I hope everything’s all right.”

The minutes bled into hours, the bench beneath Illenka grew hard, and the butterflies ceased to flit. From time to time, a petitioner fell asleep and toppled off his bench with a thump. Still no one was called.

Footsteps sounded outside and the grand double doors opened. Illenka’s heart shuddered. There wasn’t enough afternoon left for the emperor to hear all the petitioners in the antechamber.

An immaculately dressed man stood in the doorway. “Thank you for your patience. Unfortunately, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Tavian of Avance will not be seeing any petitioners today. He sends his regrets and his best wishes to you and your families.”

The muttering of the petitioners was as soft as the whispering of cattails. Illenka’s stomach plummeted, and she and Kit exchanged a strangled look.

“This is your only chance,” Kit said. “You have to try.”

As the other petitioners filed out, Illenka confronted the immaculate man. “Please, sir, I have to see His Imperial Majesty.”

The immaculate man started. His eyes were bloodshot. “I’m afraid that can’t be done.”

“It’s vitally important. My father can keep the sprites out of the city.”

“Who is your father?” he asked.

“Pasterphon the Alchemist.”

The immaculate man pressed his lips together. “I’m sorry. It’s not possible, not even for The Alchemist’s daughter.”

Illenka felt a heaviness in her throat. “What’s more important than stopping the sprites?”

“Emperor Tavian cannot leave his dressing room.”

“But the future of the whole city depends on it.”

“Irrelevant. His Imperial Majesty’s cat is sitting on his lap and won’t be disturbed.”

Illenka clutched the frayed ends of her hat’s ribbons to her heart. The city was doomed.



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