Story for the Day: The Cat and the Wizard
Mr Vostibbens, the teahouse cat, has many acquaintances, but his most pressing call is the one he makes to Haryld, one of the last wizards of Marridon:
The milkman’s cart rattled along the cobbles, the rag and bone man brought his bags in to be sorted, the sharpener took his bell down from the jaunty, and through the davering gaits of laymen andlabourers leaving their stations, Mr Vostibbens tittupped across the main square toward the fountain. He stopped to drink and glean the commendations from passing ladies about his cravat, and once he was amused enough, he pranced across to the wizard’s row, where the old men and their apprentices were storing their wares and taking down their tables for the day. A sharp look from a raven and a gawp from an owl was the worst censure he endured as he passed, but companions nowadays were not the same as they once were—a noble position, one to be revered and respected, not one to be filled up by the dregs of animal life -- and Mr Votibbens ignored the glaring condescension of the inferior ranks, pitying them for their mistaken sense of ascendancy when they had done nothing to deserve their situation. He had always been a companion, and though his first master had gone, he should be a companion still; he must carry himself and act as though his master were not far off, and while he disregarded the envious stares and would consciously remember to forget them, he held his tail and head high, honoured to reflect the office he had so long held and pleased to show those who could never earn or love the position how a wizard’s companion ought to behave.
He went to the last house in the row, and there, crambling around his table and putting his potions away was an old wizard, who was noggling about with the aid of a particular staff. He miffled to himself, riffling through his various trinkets with an air of confusion, and glanced down at the gold pommel of his staff momentarily, to catch his reflection looking back at him.
“I think I have polished you too much,” said the wizard, scrutinizing his staff. “You make me look at myself, and I have not been interested in appearances these many years. I suppose I should be glad you are come back to me, and let you reflect me all you like, even to my dismay. I’m an old man anyhow, and very soon nobody shall mind what I look like. Where did I put that charisma potion? Ah, here it is. They do work, of course-- I should know, I made them— and yet I have never been tempted to them, nor has anyone come to buy them since I put them out. I cannot understand why. I have seen many faces that could use one-- oh, hello,” glancing down to the cat at his feet. “Come to make your call, have you? Well, look what’s just come back to me this very day,” giving his staff a flourish. “Yes, you guessed right. The captain brought it back to me, just as I said he would do,” and then, in a more serious hue, “My Lady watch over him and his crew,” raising his eyes and holding the staff to his heart. “May his deeds be justly rewarded,” and then, rallying himself and returning to his usual conviviality, “So, are you come to join me for dinner?”
The cat looked expectant and licked its lips.
“Well, you are dressed for it, certainly. I had not meant it to be a dinner party, but if you will treat it as a formal dinner, I shall not stop you. And how lovely your cravat is, Mr Vostibbens,” the wizard proclaimed, reaching down and touching the starched cloth. “Did the haberdasher do it up for you, or was it the tailor? It is very well made.”
There was a pause, and the cat pawed the wizard’s leg.
“Yes, I agree. I think Beldynn would approve it. It does look very well on you, but finery always did. All the nice things that Beldynn used to put on you. What? Do not look to me as though Beldynn’s going off was my doing. I will not be held accountable for his having gone so far. If he wanted you dressed every day, he should have taken you with him, but you know him. He is eccentric and odd as any of us. Me? Well, I certainly was not going to dress you once he’d gone. Tabytha is much better suited to cosset you. She is rather an ostentatious sort of woman, but she is a very compassionate and good one, upon the whole. Do not glare at me, Mr Vostibbens. I meant no disparagement to Tabytha when I said ostentatious. She is a lady after all, and ladies generally know what is best.” He paused and focused on the cat,and after receiving some intelligence, he continued, “Oh, you saw them, did you? Well, that’s your own doing. Who told you to be so absolutely curious? Beldynn never taught you to be such a prying-tom, but he never did bring home anybody to skulk away with himself.”
A meow succeeded here, and the wizard’s wooly brows arched.
“How is Beldynn? Oh, he is pretty well, I daresay—as well is anyone can be in such a frigid country. Why did he have to chose Frewyn, of all places? There was no need for him to cross the sea. He only need go across the country, if he wanted to escape from this house. He knows I will never visit him there. The snows are enough to kill any man. What honourable country has snow for seven months of the year? I know you may like it, but it is unnatural for snow to fall in droves. A light blanket dusting the countryside is all anybody should ask for. I am not as young as I once was. The cold whips through my bones—the heat, too, bothers me. I have no idea how you suffer it with such a thick coat. It is uncommonly warm today,” looking suspiciously at the sky. “No, I do not think Jenkynn had anything to do with it. At least, not this time. He is doing well, though I know you did not ask. I’m telling you anyway.”
The cat licked its paw and rubbed it over its ears, and the old man gowled and looked offended.
“Yes, well,” said the wizard cooly, “you might not care about Jenkynn, but I’m proud of both my sons, so let me proud of them equally, and that is all. They are both highly accomplished and good boys. Beldynn has got his students now, and Jenkynn has got his first companion.” He paused and looked mindful. “No, I should not worry, if I were you. I do not think Beldynn shall have another companion again while he is away. I know I certainly could not have more than one companion at a time. Ms Byra never would have allowed it.” He stopped and quirked a brow. “What do you mean, she was a fusspot? Well, yes, she was officious, but she was my companion, and she was excellent company to me after Hettie passed on. She was a little nattish betimes, I grant you, but she was a somebody to talk to. You cannot blame a wizard for wanting a companion, Mr Vostibbens, just as you cannot blame an old man for being lonely.”
And he was lonely, more lonely than a heart so deserted by those he loved would dare confess. Solitudinary habits and fearful isolation was a wizard’s sufferance; their work required all the quietude that a study and an endless stack of ancient tomes admitted. Vellum and inkstands spoke more than words and voices did in a day, and where staves and the secrets of the Old Kingdom reigned, the centuries of suppression must follow. The wizard spent the chief of his day with his beakers and books, rapt in rumination over the mysteries of Mlys, whilst idle patrons treated those in his profession as a national curiosity, and with his sons, his wife, and his companion gone, there was little more for the wizard to do but wait for a pilferer or a caller, whichever came first, and send letters to his sons, who returned the correspondence sparingly now that they were on their own. A new apprentice should keep him well engaged and make the day more lively, but animation was never recommended for his time of life, and though he would teach anyone who wished to learn the Olde Ways, too few had any interest. The captain was right: in a country that prided itself on commerce and economy, there was little time for the arcane, and though the wizard’s residence was hardly in dilapidation, it was not what a man of business would occupy.