“Are you still hurting?” Abishag asked. “Can we help by licking it for you?”
Kezia showed her two closest friends a woebegone face.
“I am now hideous,” she said to them and whimpered. “My appearance is no longer comely, and I am ashamed. I was a beautiful kitten, a lovely youngster, and a graceful lady cat. Now I am as uglyâas ugly as poor Alexos.”
“You need never be ashamed of your looks when you have saved a friend's life,” Ira said stoutly. But secretly he wondered whether his foster sister was being punished for her immense vanity.
“What have they tied about your head?” Abishag asked.
“Alexos said it would make my ear heal faster, but I do not think so. It hurts and burns, Abishag. Please do something!” Kezia cried.
The patient Abishag finally worked the bandage off Kezia's head, then she licked her torn ear until Kezia fell asleep.
“Will she be all right?” Ira asked Abishag as they left Gracus's cabin to go claim their usual fish for dinner.
“I think she will be just fine,” Abishag said. “And if the cut becomes infected, Polla will tend to her ear, for she loves Kezia, too.”
I wish someone cared for me as Alexos does Kezia,
Abishag thought sadly.
He was trying to defend her from the snake, rather than killing the serpent because of the threat to himself. And Gracus and Polla dearly love Ira, their “little soldier.” I wish someone loved me. I miss Ptolemy, and even the old astronomer. I wish our journey was over. I want to go home . . .
That night Gracus had another dream of the cats. He had gone to his bunk in the cabin thinking about Alexos and the snake.
He is astonishingly afraid of serpents,
I wonder what has happened in the past to make him fear them so.
In his dream, he saw past events repeated: Ira, hurt and lying in the dusty road; Kezia, half drowned when Citus rescued her after Abishag had clung valiantly to her to prevent the tabby from being swept away in the current; and now Kezia again, rescuing Alexos from sure death by snakebite. Then it seemed he entered a path or a corridorâhe saw the three cats walking away from him. When he called them, they ran from him, not stopping to look at him or even turning their heads. A long, long time passed in his dream, and yet he still searched, looking at each small black cat when he saw another one, searching for Ira with his crooked leg. He woke after a restless night and lay there sweating.
The gods obviously want them to stay together. But then why would I search for only the one? My heart knows that I am fondest of my “little soldier,” true, but I would not separate the three from one another.
YRE AT LAST! The seamen cheered as their ship sailed into the mouth of the harbor, and each man insisted on touching all three cats before disembarking. The two seamen who had muttered about having the cats aboard presented the felines with a wooden cage, whittled from a small cask, filled with crickets as a delicacy for them.
“Where to now, Alexos?” Gracus asked the captain as they stood for a moment on the deck.
“Well, I am notâby the gods! That ship! Look, Gracus! It is a ship of my countrymenâit is from Athens. But who sails upon it?”
A great, graceful ship was highlighted by the rays of the morning sun.
“It must indeed be Kaspar!” cried Alexos. “Come, Gracusâcome with me and meet a man unlike any other you have met.”
Gracus shrugged. “Well, why not? I assume you will be in harbor for a day or so, at least until you have met with your grain merchant and settled accounts. May we all stay aboard with you until I report to my new commander?”
“Yes, of course you shall stay with me aboard ship! Remember, I was to ask a reader of entrails or an oracle if your little tabby, who saved my life, might be safely parted from her companions and remain with me.” Alexos paused for a moment. “In truth, we received our answer when the storm quieted upon the three's appearance. But I shall send word to Kaspar, who is also my kinsman, and ask him to dine with us this evening. You shall be amazed at the stories he has to tell us. He is revered as a wise man in my native land.”
Gracus nodded. “I must speak to this man also. I have had yet another dream about the cats and confess I am puzzled as to its meaning.”
“Then be certain to relate it to Kaspar this night. He will divine what it foretells.”
That night everyone dined very well, as Alexos had hired three cooks from neighboring vessels to produce a feast “fit for a king,” as he told them, and sent men to the markets for supplies. Kezia, Abishag, and Ira were clustered close together in their basket, trying not to fall asleep after their own miniature feast.
Over cups of fragrant hot wine laced with spices, Gracus told Kaspar of his first and then his latest dream about the cats, all of whom woke abruptly when they realized he was speaking of them. Ira began to scramble out of the basket.
He reached Gracus's caligae just as the centurion said quietly, “If it would not offend the gods, I would be greatly tempted to keep my âlittle soldier,' as I call him. See, he comes to me to be petted”âhere he leaned down and gently caressed Ira's sleek sidesâ“and seems to respond to my very thoughts about him. It is almost as if he speaks Latin.”
Kaspar nodded. “You have had the protective harness he wears made for him.”
“My servant, Citus, crafted it for him, and he wears it as proudly as any plume or badge of honor.”
“There are two more, you said?”
“Come, cats!” Gracus called, and Kezia and Abishag jumped out of the basket and ran to Gracus. They all sat at the centurion's feet to watch faces and listen.
“I do not wish to alarm you,” Kaspar began, speaking slowly, “but somehow these are cats about which many dreams are being cast.”
Alexos turned to face his kinsman with his good eye. “What do you mean?”
“For months now, I have watched the heavens. There are signs and portents of great events about to occur; a magnificent star is in the east and nightly grows brighter.”
Abishag caught her breath.
The star! The star Ptolemy spoke ofâhe was right! I thought it was getting bigger!
“I await two companions: Melchior from Alexandria and Balthazar from Antioch. They are to meet me here in the harbor and then we shall purchase camels and set off on the last leg of our journey.”
Alexos waved a hired servant over to fill the wine cups again. “Where are you going? And why have you said there is something significant concerning these three cats?”
“As for the cats specifically, I know not. I only know that I have dreamed of them accompanying us as we travel to find the Messiah.”
In the stunned silence that followed his words, the cats' eyes were as wide and round as any ocean pearls.
Abishag nearly wept. “We are to go with them,” she whispered to Kezia and Ira. “Did you hear? We shall be taken with them as they search for the King of Kings. Just as Ptolemy said.”
Gracus swallowed hard. “The Messiah?”
“Yes, He is soon to be born Who shall rule the world.”
The centurion could not grasp the staggering implications all at once. “He is then the next emperor?”
“I do not think He will necessarily rule upon this earth. But I do know that myself and my companions have been chosen by the One God to complete this journey and then tell others of what we have learned. Look.”
Kaspar held out his left hand to Gracus and Polla. Alexos retreated to the shadows as the other two gazed at Kaspar's strong, open hand. Upon the lined palm a star was emblazoned clearly.
“Melchior and Balthazar also have this mark upon their palms. None of us would have known about this common star were it not for my kinsman hereâcome, do not try to fold yourself within the darkness, Alexos!”
Alexos leaned across the table, his face within the glow of candlelight once again. “It but serves to show how a garrulous seaman can spread tales, my Kaspar.”
Kaspar laughed. “He has denied any part of being an agent to speed the old prophecies to fruition. But to return to other signs: Melchior brings three doves, which were sent to him in the middle of an unusually violent storm in Alexandria, and about which he had dreamed the night beforehand. Balthazar brings three ringsâone of wood, one of stone, and one of metalâwhich he directed a servant to dig up from the roots of an old cedar tree after having dreamed of the treasure beneath it.”
Ira felt the skin along his backbone ripple in a shiver.
This is almost scaring me,
Surely the old cat at home couldn't have known of all of this. Or if he did, he would have told Abishag, for she was the one, of all of us, Ptolemy loved most. I wonder if she's ever realized that.
The tabby cat was lost in daydreams of splendor
. This man, this wise man, as the humans have called him, also says we go to discover the King of Kings. I am going to live in a palace after all! I shall have silk pillows to sleep upon and jeweled collars by the dozen.
“And my dream was very simple: I saw three catsâtwo black and one tabbyâtraveling with us, in search of the place where the star will come to rest.”
Soon the dinner participants separated. Kaspar promised he would return for the cats as soon as his other companions were ready to set forth. “I shall have baskets crafted for them, so they may ride upon camels and move swiftly through the desert night.”
Gracus chuckled at the thought. “You must see that the little soldier's basket has lower sides, then. For he does want to see where he is going; I think he plans his campaign ahead of need. And he marched many miles with my men as I trained them. He may wish to walk at times.”
Asmodeus, crouched in the thickest shadows, spat and curled his lip.
“He may wish to walk at times.” My stomach heaves at the simper! Curse them! I must plan carefully so I may also ride and not walk. I would dwell most happily in only one of those palaces that continually are promised to these undeserving, juvenile upstarts. Prophecies! Bah!
Once back in their cabin, Gracus soon fell fast asleep. Moving quietly so as not to disturb him, Polla sat on the floor and held Ira and Kezia in her lap while Abishag leaned against her knee. “Miss you I shall, most painfully,” she told them softly. “Were I not but an ignorant slave, I could add my own predictions for you, as I know them in my heart. I dare not speak them aloud, lest I give you hopes or fears of a future that may not come to pass. At least you will see wonders.”
She turned to Abishag and spoke into her ear. “You will return to love someday. Keep my words and let them guide you when you despair.” She placed her hands upon her abdomen and smiled at the black cat. “My home country says women who grow heavy with child see things other women do not. I will have a child in seven months, and in my thoughts, I have seen five fat kittens tumbling and playing about your paws. Their fur is strangely marked, but they will bring you great joy.”