Kezia shuddered, he looked so awful. “Do hush,” she said, turning her head slightly. She was looking for help. “I'm not listening to anything you have to say.”
Where is Abishag? She's killed more rats than I have. How hard do I strike him? And where, exactly?
“But it's jewelry,” Asmodeus said. “Jewels to match your eyes.”
I've heard human males say that to females
Let us see if it works on conceited cats.
The young cat turned toward him again. “What about my eyes?”
“They are akin to grand jewels, lovely one. Wouldn't you desire something that would make them sparkle like a star?”
Kezia put her entire weight on her paw, keeping Asmodeus pinned to the dirt floor of the storehouse.
“No, I assure you I am not.”
“Yes, you must be. You're a liar and a thief. You've been eating the grain and other foodstuffs stored in the compound. What you don't eat, you ruin with your nasty castings.” Kezia drew back her other paw again.
“Stay your paw! I shall bring you a bracelet of topaz stones. It belongs to one of the camp followers and she will not dare to say it is missing,” Asmodeus insisted.
“What would I do with a woman's bracelet? And what is a camp follower?”
“You have led far too sheltered a life; but that does not concern me now. You are so fine boned, do you not realize a woman's bracelet would easily clasp about your neck, to serve as a collar fit for a queen?”
“Fine boned?” Kezia tilted her head. “WellâI am, compared to Abishag, at least.” She giggled. “Abishag's legs look like mushroom stems, or little stumps.”
Asmodeus saw his escape dawning. “Exactly. Someone of your refinement deserves jewelry for her neck, to set off her richly colored fur. Show the world what a fine lady cat you are.”
“What are topaz stones?”
“They have the same golden hints and hues within their depths as your own eyes, my beautiful young cat. Everyone would remark on the resemblance.” Asmodeus finished talking and lay quietly, watching Kezia think.
“But wouldn't that also be stealing?”
“Not from a detested camp follower, foolish one. They're wicked, lewd women. No one regards them with anything more than a sneer.”
“Do you promise not to destroy any more grain?” she asked the rat sternly, shifting her weight again.
“Cease the ponderous movements of your feet.” Asmodeus grunted. “Your true aggregate weight is cloaked by your fur.”
“I'll cease dining on Roman grain,” he said, keeping his good eye trained on a knothole in the wooden wall of the granary.
I believe that will serve my purpose. I can surely contort myself enough to squeeze through that opening.
The bracelet sounds so pretty; I've never had pretty things. Ptolemy always said they would only make me vain, but just this one time I should like to appear as a fine lady cat.
“If I let you go, will youâwill you bring me the bracelet?”
“Yes!” Asmodeus leaped free of Kezia's paw and dashed for the knothole before she changed her mind. “I'll bring it to you tonight,” he called back through the knothole, smirking at the tabby. “And you may reward me with a kiss.” He laughed crudely and vanished.
Kezia shivered and went to find water in which to wash her paw. It stunk so of Asmodeus, she didn't want to put her tongue on it to wash it.
Very late that night, Kezia slipped out of Gracus's quarters, leaving Ira and Abishag asleep in their basket. She had lain awake, excitedly trying to picture in her mind the promised topaz stones.
But he's not coming,
she told herself after half an hour had passed. The only sound was the sentinel, walking his regular round inside the barricaded walls.
I let him go because of his promise and he's made a fool of me. I hope the others never find out that I had him pinned and yet let him go.
Just then she heard a muted clinking sound to her left. Emerging from the shadows was the large rat, dragging something that glittered as the last rays of the setting moon struck it.
Kezia ran to Asmodeus, meeting him in the middle of the hard-packed dirt in front of the legionnaires' barracks.
“Asmodeus! You brought my bracelet! I meanâyou brought my collar!”
“Quiet!” he snapped. “I risked my life to bring this bauble to you, and you announce it to the entire barracks? Where are your wits? Have you none?”
Kezia narrowed her eyes. “I could catch you againâand not turn you loose this time,” she threatened.
“Nonsense,” Asmodeus muttered, tugging at the clasp with his broken tooth and forepaws. “ThereâI have the clasp open. Turn your back to me and I shall fasten it about your neck.”
A cold fear fluttered in Kezia's stomach. “No, you may fasten it under my chin, while you stand between my paws,” she told him. She stepped in front of the rat. “Now you can't bite me and sever my spinal cord from behind. If you try to put an end to me by biting my throat, my claws will still mortally wound you even as I die.”
For a long moment they faced each other
Asmodeus weighed his odds.
I had no idea she was that intelligent. She can add up facts and infer plans from them. Hmm. Well, let her have her silly treasure. I can yet turn this situation to my advantage.
Standing on his hind feet, he pushed one end of the bracelet over the back of Kezia's neck, then bent under her throat and pulled the clasp and ring of the bracelet together. As he bit the clasp to close it, he snarled, “There! Are you satisfied, you conceited little harpy?” And Asmodeus scuttled into the shadows once again.
Ignorant of what a harpy was, Kezia raised her head high.
My, it's heavy. It must be real gold! I will look at myself in the puddles by the stream once the sun comes up.
A few short hours later, Kezia was admiring herself in a wide puddle by the little stream that flowed through the permanent Roman camp.
He told the truth. My eyes do match the topaz stones.
She leaned farther over the puddle.
I hope he fastened the clasp completely. I wouldn't want toâOh! The mud! The mud's slick because of the stream!
With cries rendered inaudible by the splash that followed them, Kezia fell headfirst into the swiftly flowing water. She tried to fight her way up to the surface, flailing her paws and choking on the water rushing into her mouth and nose during her futile efforts to yowl for help.
I'm going to drown! No one knows where I am. They will only find my body after I'm dead!
Suddenly a sharp jerk on the bracelet stopped her tumble downstream, and she glimpsed Abishag's sturdy little legs through the swirls of water and foaming bubbles.
Abishag's mouth hurt, and her neck and shoulders ached from the strain of holding Kezia's body against the force of the water.
Oh, my, Kezia's heavy
I don't know if I can hold her for longâI can't pull her to the bank as I thought I could. And what has she around her neck? I tried to catch her by the scruffâbut something metallic tasting is in the way. What do I do?
Then, with joy, she heard Citus running behind her, his sandals slapping the ground. Strong arms reached over her head and the servant's hands grasped the tabby cat.
Abishag turned loose her hold on Kezia and half swam, half waded over to the bank. Citus pulled Kezia into his arms, then turned her upside down and slapped her back. Kezia coughed, and a small amount of water ran out her nose and mouth. More water streamed from her fur after Citus set her back on the ground. “There, young one. The gods have smiled upon you and misfortune has not taken you early to meet them!”
Abishag touched her nose to Kezia's. “How did you fall into the stream?” The tabby cat's fur was so wet and matted, Abishag failed to see the heavy gold and topaz bracelet around her neck. Kezia shook herself hard, soaking her first rescuer's fur. Then the little black cat saw the gleam of jewels. “That's what I caught in my mouth! Where did you get that beautiful collar?”
“None of your business!” Kezia hissed, and she ran as fast as her wobbly legs would carry her to a patch of grass and sunlight, where she licked herself dry and into contentment once again.
When the several companies assembled for their midday meal, Kezia proudly walked along the line of strong legs, brushing against the men she favored and arching her back to be patted. Most of the soldiers made admiring comments, telling the tabby how fine she looked in her new collar. She preened and strutted until she wound herself around the camp commander's anklesâand was seized by hands that felt like bands of metal.
“Why is this creature wearing my Polla's bracelet?” The legatus's voice bellowed the question not two inches from Kezia's ears. She wiggled and tried to escape his grasp, but he held her by the scruff of her neck until she quit struggling and hung limply from his hand.
GRACUS HAD NO idea why he had been summoned from his meal to the commander's private quarters. But the uneasy feeling within his chest grew as he hurried through the open door and saw his tabby cat, crouched in a leather box with the lid partly covering the opening.
“What is wrong, Legatus?” The commander's slave woman, Polla, silently stood behind her master's chair.
“Why is your catâfor I am told it is your catâwearing my slave's bracelet about its neck? Is it a tasteless prank?”
Inwardly Gracus sighed. No matter if someone in his company's ranks had done this as a joke, it still had fallen upon his head. “I do not know, sir. If you would permit me, I will remove the bracelet and return it to its rightful owner at once. And I shall question my men.”
The commander raised one eyebrow and his patrician upper lip in a sneer. “You have not placed her bracelet upon the animal?”
“No, sir. I had not even heard of the thoughtless prank until this moment.”
The slave Polla, beautiful and tall, whose thick blond braid hung down her back, hesitantly stepped forward and stood at her master's side.
“I am one who did thisâprank?âyou speak of,” her voice was guttural, her Latin rough and uneducated.
The commander twisted his head to stare up at her. “Why? Did you think I give you baubles as playthings for vermin catchers? Or that the bracelet, which cost me three hundred sesterces, was worthless?”
“No, master. I grieve for my home. There I had cat, since I was little girl; young. I put bracelet on cat and admire cat; cat run away. It was a stupid thing. I am sorry.”
The commander returned his stare to Gracus. “Obviously all women are foolish beings, who think only of playing and gossiping. Gracus, strip that cat of the bracelet and I will hear no more of this.” He stood and strode from the room.