He sat on a throne made of empty space and ruled over a kingdom of endless time. That is what things are like in the deep night, you see: endless and empty. Night is the deep breath. Night is the place between, and the only things that can exist there are figments and wonderings, the half-formed, the shadowed.
Now it came to pass that King Night had a daughter, though he had no queen. Why was there no queen? Sebille always wanted to know that, too. But that is not part of this story.
The Darkling Princess was the daughter of King Night; she was beautiful, as only a princess can be beautiful. Yet she was sorrowful, as only a motherless daughter can be sorrowful, and she came but rarely to the court of King Night.
King Night did not care. He was not cruel - though he could be strange and savage - but his heart was cloaked in darkness, and he was blind to the suffering of his only daughter. This made her more sorrowful than ever.
When the Darkling Princess was old enough to realise that her father was blind to her suffering, she wept.
“He has no heart!” she complained to her cat, Midnight. “He couldn’t care if I lived or died!”
Midnight had white fur and green eyes, and she was the only bright thing in King Night’s realm.
“That is not true, my lady,” purred Midnight. “Your father cares much for you, in his own way.”
“If he cares for me, why does he not comfort me?” she asked.“I have no mother to dance with me, no mother to kiss my brow, no mother to hold me and tell me things will be well.”
Midnight was sorrowful then, too, for it was true. All daughters deserve to be held.
“It is not in King Night’s nature to comprehend sorrow,” said Midnight, weaving against her mistress’s legs. “His heart is thick with darkness, and strange tides move him.”
“I know he is not a bad man,” said the Darkling Princess, and it was true. “He gives comfort to strangers. Many pilgrims seek his realm to rest awhile. The darkness gives them solace. Why not me?”
“I do not know,” said Midnight.
And if the cat was silent after that, she thought hard, and kept her counsel.
At last, she walked away, for her head was clearest when she was alone.
“The problem is the darkness,” Midnight said to herself. “King Night’s heart is thick with the stuff. Perhaps I could steal some?”
And Midnight thought on how she might sneak in, not just within King Night’s throne room, but into his very heart. It might be possible. She was a most lithe and subtle creature.
“But then, my coat is so very white,” she reflected. “King Night would never miss me. His eyes are sharp as shadows, and he would be wrath. And then, even were I to manage it, wherever could the darkness be hidden?”
For King Night knew his darkness, knew every inch of it, and wherever it went, he went also. His realm was wide and passed through many worlds.
“No, it cannot be done!” Midnight decided sadly. “Why, King Night hasn’t lost an ounce of his darkness in an age. Not since…”
And then she cut off, because an idea had just occurred to her.
Her eyes glowed like emeralds and she played with the idea as if she were frisking a mouse. She turned and tumbled it, looked it over every which way, pondered on how it might run, let it scuttle and scurry and then, with a sly grin, she pounced.“Yes,” she said. “Yes, that might do. It just might.”So off Midnight went, choosing her path with care. She walked by crook and hollow, taking many turns which others would not see, and came through at last to that secret place which others do not know.
“Who goes there?” challenged Aubrey, the keeper of the gate. “And what is your business?”
“Midnight,” said Midnight. “My business is my own.”
Aubrey nodded, for this is the correct answer, as all true cats know.
“Enter then,” he said, and stepped aside.
Midnight strolled in, a spring in her step, for the Court of Cats knows no king and knows no queen, and all cats are lords there.
She looked about, passing from haunt to haunt, but she could not find the one she sought.
“He must be here, though,” she told herself, and kept looking.
The Court of Cats is a strange place. It was made by cats for cats in an earlier time, and the rules there are different. No rooms are too hot and no rooms are too cold - and certainly no rooms are wet - and there are always mice to catch, but beyond that it cannot be understood. Cats, after all, keep their own counsel.
But no matter how far into the Court of Cats she passed, Midnight could not find the one she sought.
She walked under the earth and over the earth and fell through air and landed soft and splendid. The hunting was good, and she had blood on her teeth and on her paws.
And then Midnight sat on her haunches and licked her paws and waited - for cats, more than any other creatures, understand patience - and then a certain door opened and a wind blew, and in walked the one she sought.
“Hello my freshling,” said the big black cat, padding softly over to crouch by her side.
Midnight inclined her head the slightest degree.
“Hello, Torquemada,” said Midnight lazily. “How is your Mistress?”
“Oh, as hungry as ever,” said Torquemada, for he was in the employ of a most infamous and most feared Mistress, which Midnight knew well. “And how is yours?”
“My mistress is as beautiful as ever,” said Midnight. “And her father still mourns for the secrecy of your Mistress. Will they ever be friends again, do you think?”
Torquemada’s Mistress and King Night had once been intimate, though not for many years and many again.
“Oh, I think not,” said Torquemada. “After all, my Mistress loves her portion of darkness; and King Night is jealous of any darkness he cannot see.”
It was true: Torquemada’s Mistress kept a steep darkness tight around her - as all the storytellers know - and no-one was ever the same, if once they stepped inside - if they ever came out at all - not even King Night.
“What a shame,” said Midnight. She made a show of licking the blood from her paw.
Torquemada chuckled to himself.
“What a pretty red paw,” mocked Torquemada. “How very well it suits you.”
Midnight let her head hang.
“It’s this cursed white fur of mine,” she mewed. “All colours stick to it! How I wish I had a lovely black coat, like yours! It is so beautiful.”
“Do you like it?” he said. “Yes, it is rather wonderful, isn’t it? One of my best features, my Mistress is always telling me so.”
“Oh, I love it,” said Midnight. “In fact…no, you wouldn’t be interested…”
And she turned her head away and seemed shy.
“What?” demanded Torquemada. “What wouldn’t interest me?”
“Well…I was just thinking,” said Midnight. “You wouldn’t want to sell it, would you?”
Torquemada went very still.
“What,” he said coldly, “could you possibly offer me of equal value?”
Midnight met his eye for a moment, then looked away.
“No, you’re right,” she said. “A most stupid idea. I know you wouldn’t possibly.”
“No I would not!” said Torquemada.
“A very silly idea,” went on Midnight.
“Most silly,” agreed Torquemada, somewhat mollified.
“After all,” said Midnight carefully, “without that beautiful black coat, how would you possibly ever get up to any works of slyness?”
There was a long, heavy pause.
“What do you mean?” asked Torquemada.
“Oh, you know,” said Midnight, “we all know you’re a most subtle mover, a clever-creeper; that you slip about wherever you want, and no one ever stops you. But then, most of that is surely down to that dark coat of yours. No one can see you in it. If I had your coat, I’m sure I’d be just as sneaksome as you.”
At that, Torquemada was sitting up straight.
“Fiddlesticks!” he hissed. “My subtleties are mine alone, and not the work of this coat, as beautiful as it is. I’m twice as sly as you.”
Midnight stretched and yawned.
“Prove it,” she said.
Torquemada opened and closed his mouth.
“Prove it?” he said. “Of course I shall! I can beat you at any act of subtlety. Name the challenge: you will lose.”
“Pah,” said Midnight. “What challenge would be fair? With that dark coat of yours, you’ll always win.”
“Hah!” said Torquemada. “Then we will go to the one place where darkness is no help.”
“Wherever might that be?” asked Midnight innocently.
“Why, the realm of your mistress, of course!” said Torquemada. “King Night sees inside every darkness. To him, darkness is lightness. In his realm, my coat will give me no advantage.”
Midnight pretended to think on this.
“Hmm,” she said doubtfully, “I suppose you might be right. Very well, if that is what you wish, we will have the contest there, in King Night’s realm.”
And so off they went, passing out of the Court of Cats, and back by breeze and by moonlight, they came to King Night’s realm. And Midnight led them to his very throne room, and watched him from afar.
“There is the master,” said Midnight. “Now watch, for I will show you how sneaking is done!”
And off she crept, padding on silent feet. She weaved and tickled her way across the throne room, past winds made of shadows, a stealthy, brightening thing. And delicate and beautiful she shimmied up to King Night himself - and though he looked outwards, she felt his awareness on her, none the less. Then she leant forward and - placing one paw on his chest - she nuzzled in to his flesh and licked the darkness that ringed his heart.
“What are you doing, little cat?” King Night asked.
“Master,” Midnight whispered so only King Night could hear. “I have brought with me Torquemada, an embassy of the Mistress of the Wagon, who you must well remember.”
“Remember her I do,” said King Night, and the air was cold.
“Master, this boastful cat has been telling of how his Mistress has the finest darkness that was ever known,” said Midnight.
“It is not so,” said King Night. “I remember her darkness. It is deep; mine is deeper.”
“True,” said Midnight. “Thus have I brought him, to see with his own eyes. Only permit him to walk as close to you as I am now, and he will skulk back to his Mistress and tell her true, and boast no longer.”
“Bring him then,” said King Night.
“Master, I will,” said Midnight. “But hear me, if it please you: he is a most timid and cowardly cat. If you even look at him, if you only speak one word - he will surely flee. And then the matter will never be rightly settled.”
“I hear you, little cat,” said King Night. “I will not look on him. I will not speak to him. Bring him.”
Midnight sauntered back to Torquemada, her eyes blazing green.
“You see?” she said, showing off the freckling of tiny shadows that coated her whiskers. “I went to the very borders of his heart and tasted the shadows that spin there! You cannot do better; I have surely won.”
“Pah!” said Torquemada. “You think that is subtle? You say that is sly? Watch me, then.”
And off he trotted, across the room of dancing shadows, into the deep swirls of night that hung around the King. King Night felt the cat come close, but he did not look, and he did not speak, and he was still and all around the shadows raged.
Then Torquemada leant forward, closer, closer, until his face was next to the very heart of King Night. King Night felt the whiskers tickle his heart, but he had loved the Mistress, once, and he was proud, and he would not have it said that her shadows were deeper than his.
Midnight watched on, and if she was caught on the very tip of concern that her plan would fail, she did not show it, for cats - as has been said - keep their own counsel.
Then Torquemada leant just a little closer, and nuzzled just a little deeper…and inhaled.
King Night’s eyes snapped open, for it was as if a cold, clear wind had blown into his soul, and a little of the shadow there was shifted. He shook, and his great dark arms trembled, and his hands reached for the cat on his chest; but Torquemada was gone.
“See?” said Torquemada triumphantly. His dark coat was covered now in a thicker darkness, for he had done just what Midnight had determined must be done, and which she herself could never do: he had stolen a portion of King Night’s darkness. “I snuck the closer! I am the better at padding and plotting! I am the most subtle.”
King Night was coming to his feet. His eyes were cold as diamonds, for if the night sometimes gives refuge, it does so without granting forgiveness.
“Alas, it is true,” sighed Midnight. “You are the most skilled. Well, you win. Why don’t you give King Night back his darkness and be on your way?”
Torquemada looked at King Night, drifting across the throne room towards them, face as black as thunderclouds. The cat’s smile faltered.
“He will…understand, won’t he?” Torquemada asked. “I mean, he must see it was a game…a type of bet…”
Midnight looked thoughtful.
“He isn’t fond of games,” she said. “Perhaps it would be better if you just go. Quickly.”
“But…but I will never get this wretched stuff off in time!” said Torquemada, plucking at the shadows. They clung to his fur. They would not shift.
“That’s a shame,” said Midnight. “King Night owns every shadow. You’ll never escape him with those stuck to you.”
For an instant, Torquemada looked panicked. Then relief washed over him.
“You forget who I am,” he said. “And who my Mistress is. No, I know just where to take this darkness. I will add it to her darkness, and King Night will never find me. Yes, that is what I will do.”
King Night was very close now. The bulk of him seemed to fill the whole world.
“Be quick then, my friend,” said Midnight. “You run! Don’t worry. I will take the blame. I will keep him busy.”
Torquemada smiled, a sly, sneaky smile.
“I told you I was the more subtle,” he said. Then he was gone.
“Indeed you did,” said Midnight, and she smiled too.
At that moment, King Night stepped close and his voice was empty and awful.
“I have been tricked,” he said. “My darkness has been stolen. Even now, it is being taken where I cannot follow. You brought him here. It is your fault.”
“That is true,” said Midnight. “Your heart has lost a darkness. I am to blame.”
“Little cat, then you must die,” said King Night.
He reached out a hand, as thick as the shadow of mountains. He wrapped it around Midnight, and then he began to crush.
Midnight felt the life squeezing out of her. There was no pain, just a stifling of breath, a slowing, a fading. The world wavered, and Midnight prepared to sleep.
But at that moment there was a cry.
“Oh, stop!” came the voice of the Darkling Princess. “Father, stop, please!”
The hand loosened a little but did not let Midnight go.
“My daughter,” said King Night. “I cannot let go. Your pet has betrayed me. She has let shadows be stolen from my heart. Justice must be done.”
And with that the fist started to tighten once more.
Then came the sound of weeping - terrible, disconsolate weeping, for the Darkling Princess loved Midnight very dearly…and once again the fist stopped its squeezing.
There was a long, long pause.
“Do…do not cry,” came a voice, so thick with grief and strange that it took Midnight a moment to realise it was King Night. His words came shakily; his hand shook too.
“Do not punish Midnight,” pleaded the Darkling Princess. “She was only trying to help me: and look! Is it possible it has worked?”
Then the fist loosened some more, and all at once Midnight was dropping gently to the floor. Above her, King Night stooped, and his shoulders sagged, and great black tears rolled down his face; for his heart was full of shadow no longer, and he could see the misery of his daughter, and his heart was broken.
“I am sorry,” said King Night. “For all of it. I have been blind. I am so, so sorry.”
Then they embraced, father and daughter, and Midnight was warm, because she knew that if daughters need to be held, fathers need it too.
The Darkling Princess looked at Midnight over her father’s shoulder, and, “Thank you,” she said.
Midnight purred and looked at her mistress with her emerald eyes. Then she turned away,
“A job well done,” she told herself, as off she slinked. And though she had done what she set out to, still there was a sadness on her. For now that King Night had room in his heart for his daughter, the Darkling Princess would need Midnight less keenly. Which was as things should be; still, the way things should be is not always the happiest way.
She went once more by crook and moonlight, sliding through darkness and secret paths. In time she came again to the one who kept watch.
“Who goes there?” challenged Aubrey, the keeper of the gate. “And what is your business?”
“Midnight,” said Midnight, and she said no more.
Aubrey regarded her with sharp eyes.
“And of your business?” he asked again.
“I have done myself out of it,” she said. “Though if I had it still, it would be mine alone,” she added after a pause, and Aubrey relaxed.
They stood together in companionable silence.
“To lose one’s business is a strange lightness,” said Aubrey at length.
Midnight gave him a slow look.
“Indeed,” she said.
“We fight and we struggle and sacrifice,” he went on. “And after all that - if we win - our stories go on without us, and we are left behind.”
“I would not be so crass,” Midnight said at length, “to ask what business brought you here, O keeper of the gate.”
Aubrey twitched a whisker. It was nowhere near a smile; still, a warmth settled over the two of them. They drew a little closer.
“I would not be so crass as to tell a story to one who did not wish to hear it,” said Aubrey.
“Oh, I always like to hear a good story,” said Midnight. “I always have time for that.”
Aubrey stretched his paws.
“Listen, then, to my story. It is called...