The royal children were pestering Matt and Alisande when the call came.
"Mama, need another kitty!" Princess Alice said, pouting.
"She has the right of it, Mama," Prince Kaprin maintained with the magisterial weight of his six years. "Balkis was a great deal of fun, but she went away!"
"Good cuddle, too." Alice was still pouting.
The family was gathered in the solar for a few precious minutes before the queen began her arduous day. Breakfast leftovers cluttered the sideboard, and the table bore the scraps of a good breakfast. Both the notion of a well-balanced meal and the china on which it was served were the suggestions of the Lady Jimena Mantrell, the royal grandmother. She had imported them from her own universe with her husband, who sat back watching his grandchildren fondly and his daughter-in-law the queen with admiration. Jimena glanced at her son, the Lord Wizard and Prince Consort, and was pleased to see that his attention was all for his family.
It was just a quiet family morning, only the two children, one mother, one father, two grandparents, one governess, one nursemaid, a butler, and two guards at the door. There had been a footman and two servers, but they had disappeared back into the kitchen.
The richly grained wood of the table, the chairs, and the sideboard glowed with the light of the morning sun streaming in through the tall clerestory windows. It brought out the highlights in the Oriental carpet and made the figures on the tapestries seem to quiver with life. The fire on the hearth had died to coals--both fireplace and chimney were the Lord Wizard's addition from his own universe, and his father had contrived to add a fire screen when the little prince started crawling.
"There's nothing quite like a cat curled up and purring to give a room a feeling of contentment," Matt admitted.
Queen Alisande sighed. "I will readily admit that another cat would be a pleasant companion, but we could never find one like Balkis."
That was an understatement. Balkis, after all, had been a human teenager with the uncanny knack of changing herself into a cat whenever she wanted. She had entered the castle under false pretenses, presenting herself as a mouser and playmate. Actually, she had come to eavesdrop on Matt and learn his magic; she already knew a great deal, but had been hungry for more.
"Want Balkis back!" Alice progressed from pouting to a trembling chin.
Alisande sighed and gathered the three-year-old into her lap. "You know she could not stay with us, dear heart. She was a veritable princess of a cat, and had to go back to her people in their need."
In fact, Balkis had helped Matt free her enslaved people--but she hadn't known they were her people until after she and Matt helped Prester John lead them in reconquering Maracanda from the barbarians who had overrun it. Then they discovered that Prester John was her uncle, and that Fortune had led her home. Matt had dropped by Fortune's cave to thank her on the way back to Merovence. Balkis, under the circumstances, had decided to stay in Maracanda and reclaim her mother's title: Princess of the Eastern Gate.
"Her people needed her," Matt explained.
"So did I!" Alice's trembling chin firmed, lower lip jutting.
"I know that no other kitty could ever be Balkis," Kaprin said, with an air of precocious wisdom, "but we could have another for playmate."
That, of course, was the rub--that royal children were notoriously short on playmates. Alisande winced, remembering the loneliness of her own childhood, and Matt tried to hide his smile as her shoulders slumped in capitulation.
A loud pop saved her from having to answer.
Actually, it was more of a small bang than a loud pop. Alice cried out and hid her face in her mother's bosom. Kaprin shouted and ducked behind Alisande. The sentries' halberds flashed down to guard. Alisande and Matt both tensed to
fight, his hand going to his dagger, her left arm tightening around little Alice as her right hand dropped to the dirk sheathed in her kirtle. Her gaze was already on the source of the noise.
So was Matt's. They saw a scroll suspended in midair, spinning around and around for a moment before it fell to the floor.
Three Days Earlier and Thousands of Miles Away
The King of the Gilded Earth ladled soup into Prester John's bowl, as he did on the first day of each week. Five other kings and one queen took turns with him, a different one on each day. They did not serve Prince Tashih, Princess Balkis, or the clergy, of course; that office was left to mere dukes
and counts, who took the duty in rotation--sixty-two dukes and 365 counts, a different nobleman-server for each day of the year. Other aristocrats were assigned to other duties.
The talk passed about, lively and spiced with wit, an archbishop replying to the observations of a protopapas with quotations from Aristotle and Confucius while the prince countered the witticisms of a patriarch with sallies of his own. Amidst the good cheer, though, Balkis sat wan and dispirited, poking at her food with her chopsticks but not really eating.
If the others noticed, they said nothing. Prester John asked with kind concern, "What troubles you, my dear?"
Balkis looked up, startled, then gave him an apologetic smile. "Nothing, truly, Uncle. I am only a little cast down by thoughts of ho--of Allustria."
Prince Tashih looked up, but Prester John's concern only deepened. "We must lift your spirits, then. Perhaps coming to know the people of this land would make you feel more at home."
Balkis looked out over the sea of courtiers. "I have met many, and they do seem to be kind and generous people."
"I speak not of these gilded nobles alone, but also of the common folk. There are differences among them, though--each district has its own customs and styles. Perhaps a journey would cheer you, a tour of the provinces--with a full entourage and armed escort, of course. It would help you come to know the land of your birth."
Balkis gave her great-uncle a gentle smile, touched by his concern. "I am truly quite happy here in my native land, Majesty--I have had no other home since my foster parents died."
"But tonight you are not happy," he objected.
Balkis stirred impatiently. "Oh, there will always be homesickness for my grand and awe-inspiring Allustrian forest, Uncle--but I have no home there now, and do have here. I daresay I shall grow out of this melancholy in time."