Read A Tale of Two Castles Online

Authors: Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles (3 page)

No, I wasn't. The cat mewed, probably agreeing with me.

I abandoned the accent. “Will there be enough left over to buy my luncheon?”

“I will give you back five tins, young mistress.”

In Lahnt five tins would buy two meals at least.

The second rule on Mother's list warned me not to be impetuous.

Mother, I'm not. I need a cap! “My coin is hidden.” I half turned from the mending mistress and hunched over, so she wouldn't see, as if my purse held jewels.

When I straightened, I held out the copper. The cat leaped up. Its paw batted the coin from my hand.

Chapter Four

I
dived after the coin, but the cat took it in its teeth and scampered into the crowd. I shoved people aside and gave chase. A streaking cat with a coin in its mouth should be easy to spot.

But there was no streaking cat.

I stood still in the middle of the street and looked about. A cat sunned itself on a windowsill, its mouth empty. A cat crossed an awning pole, its mouth empty. A cat washed itself in a doorway. I wished I'd noted the robber cat's markings when I'd had the chance.

I returned to the mending mistress.

“Did you get it?”

“No, mistress.” I took a deep breath for courage. I had never spoken to an adult as I was about to. “Your cat owes me a copper.” Another breath. “Or you do.”

“The cat wasn't mine.” She entered the shop behind her.

Parley ended?

But she returned with a fat cat in her arms, all black except for a white patch on its back. “I'm sorry, young mistress.”

She could have ten cats. But I could prove nothing against her. Still, I wanted someone to blame. “What kind of cats live in Two Castles?”

“Here we have thieves of every sort. You should have been more careful.”

More careful? My ears grew hot. It was my fault? More careful than bent over, hiding my purse? No one had warned me of animal robbers.

“I can't give you a cap.”

My ears were going to catch fire. I untied the cap, dropped it back on the table, and walked to the next stall, a tallow candlemaker's. Now I had no money for food.

“Honey! Girl! Wait for Dess.”

I turned.

Master Dess and his beasts had progressed as far as the shoemaker's stall. He waved to me. “Too bad. I saw the cat. Terrible bad.” He toiled upward, his cows at his side, his donkey lagging. “Come, honey.”

“You saw?” I said as he reached me. We hadn't exchanged a word on the cog, but in this town of strangers he felt like family.

“What a shame.” Letting go of his animals, who didn't budge, and putting down his kitten basket, he opened his cloth purse. “The goodwife gave me three tins for your kitten. Here they are, maybe not the same three tins.” He took my hand and put the coins in it. “I have your kitten again. It's an even exchange.”

“Thank you!” The exchange wasn't even. I hadn't returned the kitten or paid the tins. “You're very kind.”

He hefted his basket and opened it. Only three kittens remained, one with a white ear. It extended a paw at me. “She knows you.”

I touched the pink nose.

“You should have her. Everyone has a cat. I'll give her to you.”

“I have no way to feed her.”

“Too bad! Cats must eat.” He closed the basket and resumed his upward trek.

People must eat, too. If I were one of Master Dess's animals, I would have no worries.

I started back downhill, hoping to question the cat teachers. But when I reached the corner, the two of them were gone. I wondered if they might have sent a cat to rob me and left when they had my coin. On the wharf, the young man had also departed.

Had they all been in league? Perhaps they'd noticed my capless self and singled me out as easy prey.

But my thieving cat had been under the table when I arrived.

I looked out at the strait, where cloud reflections moved across the water. White fishing boat sails bit into the bottom of the sky.

No more dallying. First food, whatever three tins would buy, then the mansioners. I headed uphill again. A grand lady outstripped me on a palfrey. I saw her and her mount only from behind: the lady's straight back, her bright green kirtle, the dark hair spilling from her cap down her shoulders, the horse's dappled rump, and its tail braided with scarlet ribbons.

How lovely it would be to ride, especially to ride to a castle or a burgher's house, where a big meal was laid out for me.

I wished this were a food vendors' street. Nothing sold along Daycart Way was edible.

Behind me, coming from farther down the hill, a bass drum of a voice boomed, “Make way! Make way!”

The crowd fell silent. Was King Grenville passing by?

The throng closed around me and pushed me until my back pressed against a vendor's table. A woman and I were separated by her five young children, who leaned into her skirt and mine. Because the children were shorter than I, my view wasn't completely blocked by the adults surrounding them.

“Make way.”

My neighbor, the mother, whispered, “Turn into a mouse.”

The ogre! My breath stuck in my throat. If he plucked me for his cauldron, what could I do?

“Very thin here,” I squeaked. “Not worth the trouble.”

The voice roared, “I want no broken bones or flattened heads.”

Flattened heads! Had that happened?

“Ogre coming. Dog coming.”

I heard the full, echoing bark of a big dog.

Count Jonty Um's voice gentled to a rumble. “Hush, Nesspa.”

He smelled like a clean ogre, perfumed with cinnamon and cloves, pounds of them. As he climbed farther up the hill, I began to see him. First came a thatch of black hair, cut so haphazardly that his barber was blind or couldn't keep his hands from shaking. Like me, the ogre wore no cap. Next came an ear as big as a slice of bread. He turned his head my way.

He was a young man ogre! Shrunk down, he could have been anyone. But as himself, he was eleven feet tall or more, puffed up as a pudding. His face might have been pleasant if it hadn't been so red with anger or blushing. He had round cheeks, level eyebrows, a square chin, brown eyes, and freckles across the bridge of his nose.

“Freckles,” I murmured. I wanted to yell to Mother and Father across the strait. Freckles on an ogre!

Sweat lines streaked his forehead and cheeks. “Make way!”

An angry voice rang out. “We're crushed, Count Jonty Um.” The voice paused. “Begging your pardon.”

The crowd squeezed closer. Behind us, the table fell over. The ogre drew almost even with me so I could see down to his chest. Of course his dog remained out of sight.

His tunic, dyed a wealthy deep scarlet, was silk. A silver pendant on a gold chain hung around his neck. The pendant and chain together probably weighed ten pounds and would be worth a hundred apprenticeships.

He passed on. People spaced themselves apart again. Someone complained that Count Jonty Um strolled only at the busiest time of day.

Behind me a familiar voice spit out, “Monster!”

The mending mistress's table lay on its side. Piles of clothing had slid to the ground. I righted the table and began to pick up garments.

She took a tunic and attempted to brush it clean while making a sound of disgust in her throat.

I tried the accent again. “What a pity!” I folded hose for her.

“Don't think you can pretend to help and make off with a cap.”

I raised my empty hands. My voice rose, and my attempt at an accent vanished. “As if I would! Lambs and calves! The ogre has more manners than you!” I moved away.

Her indignant voice followed me. “You compare me to an ogre? How is that for manners?”

I felt my face turn as red as Count Jonty Um's had been. People gave me a wide berth.

One could speak however one liked to an unknown young person with no coppers in her purse. In a mansioner's play, the impoverished unknown woman was often a goddess in disguise. If this were a play, the goddess (me) would transform the mending mistress into stone or into a deer. I grew more cheerful.

The ogre could actually shape-shift into a deer. How curious that he went about the town in his own form. If he turned himself into a cat, everyone would love him.

Might he have done so earlier? Could he have been the one to take my coin? Might his wealth be cat plunder?

Noon bells rang from the direction of the king's castle, joined in a moment by more distant ringing. Then other bells tolled closer by, sounding from somewhere in town, likely the Justice Hall. Last came the harbor bells, chiming out across the strait.

I stopped my climb to listen—bass bells, tenor bells, bright soprano bells, all in harmony—pealing and pealing, calling to anyone with ears, but saying to only me,
Two Castles, king's town, big town, thief town, stay, Lahnt girl, stay.

Or maybe they said,
Starve, Lahnt girl, starve
.

The bells faded. I continued on my way.

Chapter Five

A
market square opened before me, more crammed with stalls and people than the street had been. The odors of sweat and spoiled eggs hung over all, but they were redeemed by the aroma of baking bread, roast meat, and the faint but heady fragrance of marchpane—sugared almond candy.

What would three tins buy?

Nothing, it seemed. A muffin cost four tins, and I couldn't wheedle down the price. My nose drew me to a man frying meat patties over a brazier. Though he had no customers, he still wouldn't sell me a quarter patty.

The marchpane perfume grew stronger. An old woman walked by, carrying a tray of the candies.

I hurried after her and tried again to speak with the heavy consonants and dragged vowels of a Two Castler. “May I see, Grandmother?”

“What's that?”

I repeated myself without the accent.

“Looking's free.” She held the tray out.

Each candy was cunningly fashioned as a fruit or a flower, the tulip looking just like a fresh bloom, the pear green but for a hint of pink. The tiniest candy, a strawberry one, would probably cost more than a copper.

I had tasted marchpane once. I'd found a marchpane peach on the ground at the Lahnt market. It was grimy and partially flattened where a shoe had trod. Father saw me pick it up. He took it, brushed off the dirt, kept the flattened part for himself, and gave the rest to me.

“Don't tell your mother,” he'd said, and I wasn't sure if he thought she'd disapprove or if he didn't want to share three ways.

The marchpane mistress moved away. I followed as if on a string. Perhaps I would have died of starvation in the marchpane mistress's shadow if I hadn't tripped over a cat, who
mrrow
ed in protest. Jolted out of my reverie, I looked about and saw, just a few yards away, an enormous reptile's huge belly and front leg.

A dragon!

I skittered backward. People filled in between IT and me. Conversations continued. The smell of rotten eggs all but overpowered me.

If others weren't afraid, neither was I, despite the tingle at the nape of my neck and my breath huffing in and out. I sidled closer.

A little clearing surrounded the dragon. I hovered on the border, as close as I dared, midway between head and tail. ITs long, flat head faced forward, so I felt free to inspect. IT stood on stumpy legs. The tip of ITs tail, which was as long as the rest of it, curled under a dye maker's table.

Poor creature, to be so hard to gaze upon. Imagine being covered in brown-and-orange scales except for a wrinkled brown belly that hung almost to the ground. ITs spine crested at half the height of a cottage, and ITs claws ended in long, gray talons. The wing facing me was folded, but judging from the rest, that was probably hideous, too.

ITs head thrust aggressively forward, hardly higher than my own. The head thrust seemed masculine. Was IT a
he
?

Wisps of white smoke rose from ITs half-closed mouth and ITs nostril holes. A pointed yellow tooth hung over ITs orange lip. ITs long head rounded at the snout. The skin about ITs eyes puffed out.

The cat between me and IT licked a paw.

At my elbow a goodwife said, “My achy knee augurs rain.”

Her goodman laughed. “Your achy knee sees clouds.”

IT turned ITs head and stared at me. ITs eye, flat as a coin, glowed emerald green. I felt IT take stock of me, from my overwide, too-short kirtle and round-toed shoes to my bare head and my smile, which I maintained with
good dragon, nice dragon
thoughts. IT faced away again. I resumed breathing.

A line of men and women stretched away from IT, waiting their turn for something. Two baskets rested by ITs right front leg, one basket half full of coins, the other holding wooden skewers threaded with chunks of bread and cheese.

Third in the line was Master Thiel, the handsome cat teacher from the wharf. Draped around his neck, a cat lolled, as relaxed as a rag. Might this cat have robbed me, taught by his cat teacher?

The cat had a black spot above his left eye. Three big spots dotted his back. His legs were black to the knees, as if he wore boots. The rest of him was snowy white. Copper-colored eyes, the hue of my stolen coin, examined me examining him.

Barely opening ITs mouth, the dragon spoke in a nasal and hoarse voice. “Step up, Corm.”

A stoop-shouldered man at the head of the line dropped coins into the coin basket and took a skewer, which he held out boldly. “I've waited long enough, Meenore.”

IT had a name, Meenore, a nasal name. Sir Meenore? Lady? Sirlady? Master? Mistress? Masteress?

“Everyone savors my skewers.” IT opened ITs mouth into a singer's round O and blew a band of flame, which engulfed the food.

The man danced backward. “Toasted, not cindered, if you please.”

Enh enh enh.

Dragon laughter! The corner of ITs mouth curled up in a grin that reminded me of our dog Hoont at home, when I pulled her lips back toward her ears.

The flame shortened and lightened from red to orange. The fat in the cheese spit and crackled. How rich it smelled!

After a minute Meenore swallowed ITs flame, revealing the bread and cheese, toasted golden brown, beautiful.

Master Corm blew to cool his meal. I licked my lips. He put the skewer to his mouth and pulled off the first morsel with his teeth. Oh! Even untasted it tasted good.

Next, a boy tugged his mother toward the basket. The mother took two skewers.

“Can I, Mother?”

She gave him the coins, and he dropped them one by one into the coin basket. Ten
clink
s. Five tins for a skewer. Too bad for me.

Although he begged, the mother wouldn't let her son toast his own skewer. When the food was cooked, the two moved off.

A fine drizzle began to fall. The cat teacher stepped up.

I wanted to ask him if cats were ever taught to steal, but my tongue turned to wood, a doubly timid tongue: afraid to draw ITs attention again and bashful about addressing this perfect young man.

Clink clink clink clink.
Only four tins! Maybe I could get by with three.

Meenore swallowed ITs flame. “The price is
five
tins, Thiel. Pay up or leave the coins as tribute.”
Enh enh enh
.

The cat purred.

Master Thiel bowed with a dancer's grace. “Apologies. My fingers miscounted.” His voice was as gentle as a gems-horn, the shepherd's horn that calms stampeding sheep.

Four coins, five, an easy mistake. His purse jingled as he pulled out another tin. Lambs and calves! Bare feet, hollow cheeks or no, he was far richer than I.

“Make way!” Count Jonty Um emerged from a side street into the square.

Silence fell. The crowd parted. I backed away. The waiting line spread out. Only Meenore remained motionless. The cat on Master Thiel's shoulders stood up, back arched.

The count's dog, a Lepai long-haired mountain hound, pranced along, taking no notice of the cat but frequently looking up at his master. Though big as a wolf, his head came only to Count Jonty Um's knees. He was a beauty, with a coat of golden silk and a regally large head matched by a big black nose.

The count approached IT. “Three skewers, if you please.”

What about everyone on line? That was no true
If you please
. Clearly an ogre did what he liked, no matter the inconvenience to small folk.

“It isn't fair!” burst out of me.

The silence seemed to crystallize.

Enh enh enh
, IT laughed, possibly in anticipation of seeing me squeezed to death in one enormous hand.

Count Jonty Um turned and lowered his gaze until he found me. “I am unfair?”

I attempted a Two Castles accent again. Perhaps he wouldn't hurt me if he thought I had parents here. “
It
isn't fair.” Not you.

“Meenore unfair?” he roared.

I was still alive. “Not IT.” I gestured at Meenore. The accent came and went. “It.”

Enh enh enh
.

The ogre looked puzzled.

“Er . . . ,” I said. “Others were ahead of you.”

“Oh. I apologize. Thank you for telling me.” How stiff he was. There was no feeling of gratitude in his voice, but he stepped back, three giant steps. “Proceed.”

In continued silence, the people in line eased back into their places, the man who had been at the end treading on the heels of the fellow in front of him to avoid closeness to the ogre. I realized that everyone would have preferred Count Jonty Um to go first and leave.

People resumed their strolling and buying, while giving the ogre a wide berth. At the head of the line, Master Thiel took his skewer from the basket.

Meenore said, “Young Master Thiel, I commiserate with you on the death of the miller.”

Count Jonty Um boomed in, “I am sorry for your loss.”

A polite ogre.

“Thank you.” Master Thiel nodded at the dragon but not at the ogre. “My father will be missed. He had many . . .”

His father, dead? How he must be grieving. I thought of Father, and my eyes smarted.

“Missed by you most of all.”
Enh enh enh
.

How could IT laugh? What a churlish dragon!

Master Thiel answered with dignity. “Masteress, my good father had confidence in my abilities.”

Ah. A masteress.

Master Thiel continued. “My father believed—”

His cat jumped from his shoulder and strolled off. “Pardine!”

The cat didn't return. I knew I should leave, too. The sooner I found the mansioners, the sooner I might eat. But so much drama was passing here and the food smelled so tasty that I remained rooted in place.

Master Thiel held his skewer out. In a moment it was done. He stepped aside to eat. Masteress Meenore swallowed ITs fire and turned my way, which brought that smoking snout uncomfortably close.

I stood my ground.

“I commiserate with your loss, too, girl from the island of Lahnt.”

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