Six Lives of Fankle the Cat

Six Lives of Fankle the Cat by George Mackay Brown

Book: Six Lives of Fankle the Cat by George Mackay Brown Read Free Book Online
Authors: George Mackay Brown
table, the Minister of Commerce sat at the foot. A hundred lords and ladies ate and drank. Stylish words were spoken across the table. It was as if an intricate web of wit and delight was being woven.
    In the middle of the third course – young eaglets soused in strawberry wine – grains of spice got into the Emperor’s nostril. He sniffed, he grew rigid, there was no breath left in the royal nasal passages for a full half-minute. The idle elegant chatter around the board ceased. Mouths gaped. The minister made agitated signs to one of the flunkeys. The flunkey picked up a silk napkin from the sideboard and rushed with it to the Emperor and thrust it into his hand. It was not a moment too soon. The Emperor’s head shattered, twice. His royal nose exploded into the silk napkin.
    Then all around the light laughter and chatter broke out again. The minister called on the musicians to play a piece of music to unleash the digestive juices.
    â€œYou keep pungent spices in your kitchen,” said General Wo, the Emperor’s aide-de-camp.
    Little fountains of laughter leapt up here and there around the table. The next course, pears and apricots chilled in mountain ice, was announced.
    Why was the Emperor so preoccupied? Ever since his sneezes, he had been gazing at the crumpled silk in his hand. He said at last, “How comes it, minister, that you have a better silk-weaver in your house here than I have in the Imperial Palace?”
    â€œIt is a matter of chance, your majesty,” said the minister.
    â€œI have never handled silk like this,” said the Emperor, “of such purity and softness, of such incomparable artistry. What is the name of your silk-weaver?”
    â€œShe is called Girl of Tulips,” said the Minister of Commerce, and bit his lip.
    â€œI wish to see this silk-weaver,” said the Emperor.
    â€œAlas,” said the minister, “Girl of Tulips is not here. Girl of Tulips has been sent away. Girl of Tulips has woven her last silk.” The Emperor drew his brows together. It was as if a thundercloud had settled there.
    â€œWhere is she?” he said. “Tell me where this girl is. I will send out horsemen. She must be brought here as soon as possible. I delight in fine silk.”
    The Minister of Commerce began to stammer. “Majesty ... The truth is ... This Girl of Tulips is a very common person. Her true name is Bat-ye, which means ‘poor river girl’ ... That is exactly what this person is. When I first saw her she was in rags, she was smelling of brine ... She is nothing ... I would not have your eyes insulted ... Her behaviour is as common as her appearance ... She is ignorant, impudent ... For certain things she did recently here in this house, I got rid of her ... Think no more of Bat-ye, that common, filth, your majesty.”
    The musicians hung breathless upon their flutes.
    â€œI want the girl for my looms,” said the Emperor at last. “Minister, you will produce the girl, wherever she is, within a week. Otherwise, there will be a certain rearrangement of personnel within my council of state.”
    The household had never seen such woe begone looks on the face of their master – not even on the morning of his wife’s death.
    At last he crooked a finger at the chief flunkey, and whispered in his ear. He pointed downwards, through the floor, into the darkness under the foundation stone.
    The next course was announced: sharks’ fins and honey sauce. The minister ate nothing.
    ***
    Girl of Tulips was free! There was a sudden torrent of light and fresh air into her cell. At first she thought they had come to summon her to the stake.
    It was not the ferocious guards. It was her two handmaidens who stood, smiling, on each side of the door. They drew her along a corridor that rang like an evil bell, and up iron stairs smelling of rust and pain and blood, and out at last into the garden. (The garden was a miracle of light

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