Once upon a time (so the story goes), a cat lived east of the sun and west of the moon.
He was not the largest of cats, nor the most powerful or even the bravest, but he was very clever, and so he survived in the part of the world that always remains in flux, where one day is high summer and the next is vibrant spring and the day after is the dead of winter.
Sometimes he pretended to be a man, and made potions and glass trinkets to sell to the tiny villages that lived in the shadow of the Sun-Queen’s palace. One particular village had only animals pretending to be people, and there the cat decided to stay, at least until the wind changed and he found something better.
One day in the summer, as he was drying out the straw mats he used for his work, someone came to his door and knocked.
“Cat!” cried his visitor. “Oh Cat, are you in?”
And the clever cat came out and found his neighbor, the crane, standing there. This so surprised him (for the crane and he did not get along very well, as cats and birds do not), that he did not immediately try to snap for Crane’s long neck.
“What?” he said. “I’m very busy, and you’re interrupting.”
Crane bobbed his head and made apologetic noises. “Cat,” he said, “oh Cat, have you seen my sister?”
Cat put his head to one side, then the other. He knew Younger Crane briefly but no more than that, because Younger Crane liked to hover near Cat’s house, always watching but never speaking. Sometimes she would come in to buy things, but she would always speak in short clipped sentences and leave to go back to her stalking. She was very bad at it, nowhere near as clever as a cat could be. Perhaps with some teaching she could at least be subtle about it, but Cat could never get close enough to Younger Crane to try.
“I haven’t,” Cat said. “I do not like your sister any more than I like you.” And he would have ended the conversation at that, but when he turned Crane reached out and caught hold of his sleeve. This also surprised Cat, for birds do not like to touch predators unless it is absolutely necessary.
“Please,” said Crane. “You are the only one who can help me! I fear something terrible has happened.”
“Well,” said Cat. “Why haven’t you tried Wolf? Or Bear? They’re honorable sorts, and they’d be happy to help someone in need.” He shook his arm a little, trying to make Crane let go. Crane, however, grabbed on with both hands.
“Wolf is brave and Bear is strong,” said Crane. “And they are both very honorable, but neither are as clever as Cat, and I fear my sister has been lost in the Moon-King’s domain.”
For a moment Cat’s illusion almost slipped: for even though he pretended to be a man, he was still a cat. “Are you mad?” he said. “Or is she? Why would she go to the Moon-King’s domain? Only Wolf is allowed there, and only when summoned
“My sister fancies herself an adventurer,” said Crane. He still did not let go of Cat’s sleeve. “She became determined to retrieve a dragon’s pearl, though dragons do not live here in the Crossroads. But in the Moon-King’s domain…”
“She is insane,” said Cat. “I won’t have any of that. If she wants to hunt dragons in their own territory, she’s welcome to it!” He pulled his hand free and turned around. “I’m going back to work. You should ask Wolf, I’m sure you’ll have better luck.”
“I’ll reward you!” Crane cried.
Cat paused. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “There is no reward that’s enough to make me risk my neck. Especially there! I don’t intend to die when I am this young, and the Moon-King will only make me wish I’m dead, if he catches me sneaking around!”
“Every dragon keeps two pearls,” said Crane. “My sister only requires one.” He reached out and took Cat’s arm again, less grasping and friendlier now. “I will make sure that she gives the second to you.”
Cat turned his head and looked down at Crane, and this was his best disbelieving look, heavy-eyed and disdainful. In his man’s form he did not have a tail to twitch in dismissal, but Crane still looked worried without that. “What would I need with a dragon’s pearl?” he said. “I am neither an alchemist, nor a magician. I have no need for such things.”
“Dragon’s pearls are very rare,” said Crane. “Even humans covet them. You could sell one for a handsome price.”
“Hm,” said Cat, unimpressed.
“Please,” said Crane. “Only you are clever enough to do this, Cat! Only you are clever enough to get past the Moon-King’s defenses and find my sister! Please say you’ll help me.” When Cat just blinked, he went on: “In all the lands east of the sun and west of the moon, they say that no one is cleverer than Cat. Even Fox is not as wise. They say you stole the Sun-Queen’s jeweled headdress back from the Shadow, that you brought fire from her palace to the rest of the world. Surely the stories are true!”
“Of course they’re true,” said Cat, and puffed himself up. “Are you doubting them?”
“Oh, no,” said Crane. He shook his head. “I just think that the great Cat who performed all these deeds would be able to retrieve my sister without any effort, and earn himself a handsome dragon’s pearl in the bargain! I am only a weak crane, I could not make it half as far–”
“Oh, fine, fine,” Cat said irritably. He was not, in fact, the cat in the stories, but he was certain that he was just as clever. He came from a long line of clever eccentric cats: his grandfather liked to wear human boots, and had once tricked an ogre to its death to won an estate and a pretty bride for his human master. In his youth, Cat often thought it would be a good trick to beat, and now he had his chance. “I’ll save your sister. But I get the second dragon’s pearl!”
“Of course,” Crane said.
“And you will pay me one hundred gold pieces.” Cat wrinkled his nose. “Fifty now, and fifty when I return.”
Crane made a sad whooping noise, but he nodded. “Please bring my sister home safely,” he said, and right there in the cold bright sun he paid out fifty gold pieces exactly, dropping each piece into Cat’s opened money purse.
“Well,” said Cat, and rolled up his straw mats. They would have to wait until he returned home. “Here I go, then.”
On his journey, Cat packed these things:
His grandfather’s rapier, still sharp and keen after so many years; a ball of his grandmother’s yarn, so cleverly spun that it never ran out, and could only be cut by its master; his mother’s best pieces of flint and tinder, which never failed to light a fire; and some of the best potions and baubles he’d ever made, the prettiest and flashiest of his collection.
He also brought food, wrapped in a cloth that he tucked into his coat pocket, and thus he went out. He did not lock his door, but he did leave a notice: there was a nasty curse on his estate, so of course anyone who tried to enter – or worse yet, steal things – would be struck down.
For three days and three nights Cat walked. Around him the world shifted, and the further he went from the opposing magics of the Sun-Queen, the more the days became uniformly cold and dark, until he found himself in the land of eternal night, where the stars shone brightly enough to show the way. On the third night, he reached a giant pair of gates, one of transparent horn and one of polished ivory. In front of each of these gates, two guards were posted, one human and one raven.
“Cat,” said the raven standing guard at the gate of ivory. “You are not dead, nor do you smell of this kingdom. Why have you come?” She leaned forward, and Cat peered back without blinking.
“I didn’t think only the dead who could come here,” said Cat, and he pulled out his potions, showing them off. Even in the starlight, their jeweled bottles flashed and winked, and even the raven standing at the gate of horn looked over. “I am a merchant, see, and I wish to peddle my wares. I go where my travels take me.”
The ivory gate’s raven just tilted her head. “You won’t find much of an audience here,” she said. “The Moon-King has little need for the healing herbs of the daytime world, and the dragons would rather suck the marrow from your bones, little cat.”
Cat picked up a red glass bottle. It cast rounded shadows on his hand when he held it up. “Ah, but these are special potions,” he said. “I am a wizard of cats and a cat of wizards, and even the cold world of the Moon-King might benefit from what I have.” He passed it back and forth, so the ravens watched it, and the humans watched the ravens. “Would you like to see what I can do?”
The ivory gate’s human snorted. “Dance if you want, little cat,” he said. “You don’t seem so impressive.”
Cat frowned at the human. “In this red bottle, I have distilled the essence of a peculiar plant,” he said. “It grows only in the center of the Sun-Queen’s palace, and it is called the phoenix berry. It’s so potent that they say any exposure to outside air will cause it to burst into flames.”
“That’s not so impressive,” said the horn gate’s raven. “Everything from that kingdom bursts into flames, they say. I don’t believe it.”
Cat’s eyes gleamed green, for he was a proud cat and disliked being called a liar even when telling a story. He put the red bottle into his pocket and pulled out a small red glass bead filled with black powder. He put his other hand into his pocket and palmed the flint from his mother.
“It is dangerous to disbelieve what people tell you,” he said. “I will show you the truth.”
He threw the glass marble to the ground, so that it shattered and its contents billowed up in a great cloud, and as the humans and ravens cried out, he struck the flint that never failed to set a fire, and a pillar of flames flowered upwards. Cat stared at them through the flames.
“See!” he cried as they gathered themselves. “A phoenix berry is a true thing! Now do you believe what I say?”
“We believe,” cried the ivory gate’s raven. “We believe, we believe!”
“We believe,” croaked the horn gate’s raven. “I am sorry for my words!”
“Then,” said Cat, and took the red bottle from his pocket again. As the flames died down he struck a dramatic pose and held the bottle aloft. “This is liquor distilled from the essence of the phoenix berry! Normally, it would be very dangerous.
“But I am Cat, and I am clever. I have found a way to make the phoenix berry essence safe to drink.” With his nail he popped the cork, and as the humans and ravens gaped, he pretended to take a drink, for the potion inside was actually a very potent sleeping-drought. He turned his head and coughed, and as he did struck more sparks, so it seemed he was spitting fire upon the sand.
“Oh,” said the ivory gate’s raven. Her eyes were very bright. “Oh cat, clever cat, won’t you let us have this marvelous drink?”
“Yes,” said her partner, the human. “Clever cat, won’t you give that to us?”
Cat pretended to consider this. “It is a very rare drink,” he said. “And a very difficult one to make. Every tree only bears three phoenix berries a year, and the Sun-Queen guards them well. She does not part with them easily. My own grandfather gave half of his estate to earn just one berry.”
“There are tolls and dues that must be paid to enter the Moon-King’s realm,” said the horn gate’s raven. “Clever cat, we will let you pass through freely if you’ll give that to us. It will be your payment.”
“Is that true?” said Cat. “I am but a humble cat, and I do not have very much money. My family lost everything in the making of this potion.”
“Let us have that drink, clever cat,” said the horn gate’s raven again. “And we will tell you the way to the Moon-King’s castle.”
“I would much rather know where the dragons sleep,” said Cat.
“We will tell you that as well,” said the horn gate’s human. “But you must be warned, clever cat, the dragons are mean and hungry when they are disturbed from their rest.”
“I will deal with the dragons when I find them,” said Cat. “Tell me where they lie.”
The horn gate’s raven pointed. “Beyond the moon’s waning, there are dragons,” he said. “In the caves of silver lotuses and gilded waters.”
Cat thought about this, for he knew that the gatekeepers of the moon kingdom would either always tell the truth or always tell lies. “All right,” he said. “But it is best to let it sit for a while. Since I have opened it, it has been exposed to air and lost some potency. If you are patient, it will be much better. Understand?”
“We understand,” said the horn gate’s raven.
“We will let it sit,” said the horn gate’s human.
“We won’t touch it,” said the ivory gate’s raven.
“Not until the night has passed again,” said the ivory gate’s human.
Cat considered again, before he handed his bottle to the horn gate’s raven. He watched, and the raven put the bottle inside of his coat, ignoring the cries of the ivory gate’s guards. And he realized that the horn gate’s raven was telling the truth, so he smiled and he put the flint away in his pocket again and started to walk towards the caves beyond the moon’s waning.
For another two days and two nights he walked, and as he did he thought of the many extra things he could add to his price when he returned with Crane’s sister. Perhaps, he thought, he would ask for both dragon’s pearls; it was only fair, because Crane’s sister was foolish enough to come, and Crane too weak to follow.
Finally he reached the caves and stopped. They were wide and vast, and he looked upon them with irritation more than despair, for they were very large and he was very small, and it would take a long time indeed to search them all.
As he thought, he began to move, trying to find a good place to begin his search. Then he stumbled over a long skeleton and heard a scratching noise beneath it. He crouched down and found a rabbit trapped beneath, with snow-white fur and eyes the same color of red as his bottle. She looked back at him without fear, sitting very still.
“You are not of the dead,” she said at last. “Nor do you smell of someone who belongs to this kingdom. Why have you come?”
Cat tilted his head. “I am here because my neighbor is weak and his sister is stupid,” he said. “One sibling came, but the other was too cowardly to follow. He would not leave me alone, so here I am instead.”
“You must be careful,” said Rabbit. “The dragons here aren’t very friendly to outsiders. If they don’t recognize your smell, you’ll be torn apart.”
“That’s a problem, then,” said Cat. He looked at the caves again. “The sister came here looking for a dragon’s pearl. I have to bring her back, so I need to go looking.”
“Ah,” said Rabbit. “My family is well-used to those caves. If you set me free, I will have them go look for you.”
Cat looked at her. “All I need to do is set you free?” he said.
“I am here because an ogre trapped me,” said Rabbit. “But he is saving me to eat later. If you set me free, my family’s gratitude will be endless.”
“Very well,” said Cat. “But I won’t deal with the ogre for you. You’ll have to find someone else for that.” And he took the curved ribcage of the skeleton and lifted it. The Rabbit emerged, sniffed the night air, then thumped her foot hard against the ground in a long pattern. Cat could not understand what she said, but then she looked at him.
“My family will search,” she said. “But if she is trapped by a dragon for daring to try and steal its pearl, we will not handle it for you.”
Cat sniffed in disdain, but he nodded. “All right,” he said. “Find the idiot-sister for me, and I will take care of the rest.”
He sat down and Rabbit sat next to him, the two of them watching the stars. Some time later, though, Rabbit sat up and her ears went forward. “They’ve found the crane,” she said. “She is in the cavern with the Yellow Dragon.” She pointed. “There at the end of the valley, beyond a tree broken by lightning. The Yellow Dragon does not sleep, but the crane is alive for now.” She looked at Cat. “Our debt is repaid.”
“Before that,” said Cat, who got to his feet, “when the ogre comes to look for you, give him this.” He took a clear bottle full of red liquid from his pocket and gave it to her. She took it and cradled it in both paws, looking at him. “Make a stuffed creature that looks like you, and put this inside. I’ll be very surprised if he bothers you again.”
Rabbit looked surprised, but she bowed her head. “My gratitude,” she said.
“I’ll ask for payment later,” said Cat. “Run away before the ogre finds you.”
Rabbit nodded and took off in a silvery flash with the bottle in her teeth. Cat turned and began to walk again, making his way down into the labyrinth of caves. Before entering, he took his grandmother’s yarn and tied it to the end of a tree and let it unwind behind him, marking his trail. He walked without disturbing any rocks or leaving any footprints, for he did not want to alert the other dragons, sleeping in their caves around him, to his presence yet.
When he reached the Yellow Dragon’s cave, he looked inside and found it brightly lit with fires that reflected off the dragon’s scales, which were the same color as polished gold. And such a dragon it was! It looked young and slim and irritated, and thick smoke came from its nostrils every time it exhaled. On the far side of the cave was a crane that looked very sorry for itself.
Cat looked at the scene and thought with regret that his grandfather’s sword would be of little use here: a young dragon’s scales were said to be hard as diamonds. Instead he took out a bottle of blue glass and let go his human illusion, walking into the cave with the bottle in his mouth.
The Yellow Dragon lifted its head and looked down at him. “You are not dead, nor do you smell of someone who belongs to this kingdom,” it intoned. “Like the crane, you have no business here.”
Cat put the bottle down and sat before the Yellow Dragon. “I do have business here,” he said. “I am a merchant, and I’ve come to sell you things, O Yellow Dragon.”
“Hah!” The Yellow Dragon belched hot smoke. “What could a tiny creature like you sell to a grand one like me?” Its tail came down with a metallic ring, over the piles of gold coins scattered around its cave. “I have riches beyond what your little mind could ever comprehend! What more do I need that I cannot take?”
“Ah,” said Cat. “This is something that loses its power if you steal it.” He pushed the bottle forward with his paw. “But if it is willingly given, then it has a magic that even a dragon might find interesting.”
The Yellow Dragon’s head waved on its long neck. “Little cat,” he said. “I grow tired of your babbling.”
Cat sniffed. “Look for yourself, then,” he said, and pushed the bottle over. It rolled in a half-circle, and as it did, a handful of small rubies came rolling out, as well as two pearls, which changed into multicolored butterflies that flitted to the roof of the ceiling and vanished.
The Yellow Dragon snorted again. “Parlor tricks!” it said. “How on world is this supposed to impress me?”
“Watch,” said Cat, and nudged the bottle again. This time, emeralds and two small bluebirds appeared. “See, it gets bigger every time.”
“I still fail to be impressed, little cat,” said the Yellow Dragon. It opened its mouth wide, to show off its many rows of sharp teeth. “You irritate me more than the crane did. I think I shall eat you now, rather than keep you for later.”
And Cat did not like this, for he was a predator as well – if there was going to be eating, he thought he would be the one doing it! However, being a clever cat, he held his tongue and only rolled the bottle again, and out came diamonds and two large crows. “I have many other things,” he said. “I am a merchant, and I go where my travels take me.”
“Then it is a pity you were led here,” said the Yellow Dragon, and it leaned its head down. “For I will eat you in one bite, and your travels shall end.”
The bottle rolled a fourth time and out came no jewels – but a miniature dragon, perfectly formed. It lifted itself up into the air and hovered eye-to-eye with the Yellow Dragon for a moment before it flapped its wings and flew away, out of the cave and into the darkness. The Yellow Dragon lifted its head and stared after it.
“I have many other wonderful things,” said Cat. “I will show them to you if you give me the time.”
“Hm,” said the Yellow Dragon. “So you merely intend to peddle your little entertainments?”
“Even a dragon must find some way to pass the time,” said Cat. “And they are not little, they simply require the correct frame of mind to enjoy them.” He patted the bottle with his paw. Out came another dragon, this one larger than the first, which also rose up and flew away once it was free. “See?”
The Yellow Dragon said, “Show me your other self.”
Cat looked up. “Ah,” he said. “But it’s not fair that I’m the only one.”
Down came the Yellow Dragon’s tail, crashing against the piles of its metallic wealth. “You’ve managed to catch my attention, little cat,” it said. “If what I see pleases me, I will make a decision then.”
And Cat thought about this, his clever brain turning over the ideas. He nodded. “As you wish, O Yellow Dragon,” he said, and bowed his head. With effort he pulled together the most beautiful form he could picture: one that resembled a handsome prince he saw long ago, as a cat sitting on a window-sill. He let the illusion form around him, so that he looked up at the Yellow Dragon with new human eyes.
The Yellow Dragon’s tail flipped. “That is not your other self, little cat,” it said. “Show me the truth.”
So Cat let the illusion go and reshaped it, to his usual form that he deceived humans with: small and wiry as his cat-self, not the biggest nor the most powerful of creatures, but very clever. And because the Yellow Dragon was looking so intently, Cat looked right back, in the best insolent manner of his kind.
“Here I am,” he said. “As you asked, Yellow Dragon.”
And the Yellow Dragon nodded its great head, leaning down. Its head was as wide as Cat was tall, and up close its scales were not a single shade of gold, but a thousand different shades blending together. Its eyes were the color of spilled blood, and the slit pupil in the center was white instead of black.
“Ah,” it said. “Ahhhhh. This is how you look, little cat?”
“Even if I am little,” said Cat, “I would not go down so easily. If you tried to eat me, I would stick in your throat and fight the whole way.”
The Yellow Dragon’s eye blinked, and then it threw its head back and laughed. Bits of stone and dust fell from the cave’s ceiling from the rumbling noise, and in her cage on the far side of the cave, the trapped crane fluttered her wings and cried out.
“Very good!” said the Yellow Dragon. “Very good, little cat. You’re without fear, aren’t you?”
“Oh,” said Cat, “I’m not what you would call brave. But I dislike the idea of being eaten. My own pride won’t allow for that.”
Again the Yellow Dragon chuckled. “Your pride,” it said. “Ah, even the small creatures of the world have things they won’t betray! If I tried to eat you now, you would fight me?”
“I’d fight you even as a cat,” said Cat. “I don’t intend to die this way.”
On its long neck, the Yellow Dragon’s head moved, and then as Cat watched its long serpentine body simply vanished, and he found himself face-to-face with a yellow-haired red-eyed man, dressed in a thousand different shades of gold. And the man smiled as he walked down towards Cat, with his hands tucked into his long sleeves.
“And if I tried to eat you now,” he said, “would you fight me, little cat?”
“You are no longer that much bigger than me,” said Cat. “Of course I would.”
The man who was a dragon touched Cat’s face. His fingers were as cold and hard as the coins he slept upon. “Then, little cat, I suppose we must fight,” he said. His eyes opened very wide, the pupil narrowed to tiny blood-dark pinpricks of color. “For I intend to eat you right now.”
“Oh,” said Cat, and then, “Oh,” and though he twisted – for he was a small cat and therefore very nimble – the Yellow Dragon caught him in strong arms and then Cat found himself on his back amongst the hard metal coins, looking up into the Yellow Dragon’s face over his own. He looked very hungry.
“Little cat,” said the Yellow Dragon. “Will you still fight me, little cat?”
And Cat threw himself to the side so they rolled, and as they did the Yellow Dragon tried to reach the fastenings of Cat’s shirt and Cat reached for the roll of his grandmother’s yarn, for even as a man, the dragon’s skin would be too difficult to pierce with a rapier. And the Yellow Dragon managed to get his face against Cat’s throat and bite down, so that pain thrilled through him and he felt hot blood move down his own neck.
“Little cat,” said Yellow Dragon, and Cat saw that its mouth was stained red. “Little cat.”
“Don’t write me off as small just yet, I said,” Cat told it, and found the ball of yarn in his coat-pocket. And he caught one of the Yellow Dragon’s hands, looping the yarn around it. When the Yellow Dragon tried to pull back, Cat caught its other wrist and did the same, so that the Yellow Dragon’s human hands were bound together.
“See!” said Cat. “Even you couldn’t break that.” He sat back.
The Yellow Dragon struggled and fought, but the more he did, the tighter the yarn pulled itself. He looked up with his face twisted into a mask of fury. “You–”
Cat got up and sketched a half-bow. “My grandmother’s best,” he said. “And as for payment, I think I will take back what belongs to me.” And he ran to where the crane was kept, and finally he was able to pull out his grandfather’s rapier, using it to cut through the bamboo lining of the cage. Out stepped the crane-sister, light of foot and wide of eye.
“Run,” Cat told her, and grabbed her wrist.
As they ran out of the cave, the Yellow Dragon roared again, and Cat glanced behind in time to see the human change back into the dragon, its forearms still bound together by his grandmother’s clever yarn. It lunged after them, but because it was now so large, its shoulder rammed into the edge of the cave, and together Cat and his charge ran outside, back into the eternal night.
“We cannot outrun it,” said Younger Crane. “If he gets out of the cave, even if his arms are tied, he will catch up to us.”
“We can try, at least,” said Cat, and so they kept running.
Out of the valley they ran, following the trail Cat had set earlier away from the caves, ducking past dragons who were alerted by the Yellow Dragon’s cries, up through brambles and long tall grass, to the ridge where Cat had first looked down upon the glimmering caves. And there at the top stood Rabbit, sleek and shining in the moonlight. She beckoned to them, and cried, “This way!”
Younger Crane hesitated but Cat ran on, chasing after her as she turned and disappeared down a nearly-hidden hole in the ground. Here no light reached, but Rabbit’s long hair and robes glowed silver, and this was enough to follow her by.
“The ogre is dead,” Rabbit told Cat as they ran. “It gobbled up the stuffed straw we put in my place, and then its belly simply swelled up and burst.”
“Of course,” said Cat. “And this is your thanks?”
“There are shortcuts,” said Rabbit. “My family has always known them. Above ground is a crude way to travel.”
“I walked for many days to reach here,” said Cat. “The Yellow Dragon will beat us to the gates if we take that long.”
Rabbit glanced back and she smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said. “This way.”
And through the maze they continued to follow her. Younger Crane was panting loudly, but she did not protest. At last they reached what appeared to be a dead end, where light shone down from a hole above and thick tree roots tangled down, providing a way out.
“Here you are,” said Rabbit. “This will take you straight to the gate. Once you’re past them, the Yellow Dragon’s strength will be lessened.” She leaned up to kiss Cat’s cheek and did not even flinch at the predator-smell. She smiled. “Now our debt is truly repaid.”
“Until I think of something else,” said Cat, but he smiled too before he caught the tree roots and climbed up, with Younger Crane behind him. Once they were out, Cat took Younger Crane’s hand again, and they ran to the gates of horn and ivory.
The guards snored loudly as they passed, and the contents of the red bottle lay half-spilled upon the ground. Cat bent and snatched it up as they ran past.
And thus they escaped from the Moon-King’s domain (so the story says), out first into twilight, and then into ever-changing days as they approached the halfway point to the Sun-Queen’s palace, and the Crossroads between.
As they drew near to home, however, Younger Crane stopped running, then stopped walking, and then stood still. Cat turned around and frowned at her.
“What’s wrong now?” he said. “You’re free. Go back to your whining brother and tell him you’re all right.”
Younger Crane shook her head. “Master Cat,” she said. “I don’t want to go back to my brother.”
“You don’t?” Cat frowned. “Ah, don’t tell me you want to go back to the Dragon.”
“No!” said Younger Crane. “No, of course not. But I don’t want to go back to my brother.”
“Then,” Cat said, “what do you want?”
And from her sleeve, Younger Crane produced both of the Yellow Dragon’s pearls. In the flickering sunlight they were the same shade of gold as the Yellow Dragon himself had been, but also with the rainbow sheen of opal, and deep within both jewels gleamed with a beauty that was very nearly alive.
“I would like to stay with you, Master Cat,” she said. “If you’ll have me.”
Cat stared, and for once his very clever brain could come up with nothing at all.
“I didn’t do anything in the Yellow Dragon’s cave,” said Younger Crane softly. “And I did go there in the first place because I thought you could be enticed with something from there. But I find that facing your near-certain death makes a lot of other things much less frightening.”
Cat’s mouth opened and closed and opened again.
“And,” said Younger Crane, smiling faintly, “I’m quite happy to let you eat me up.”
“Oh,” said Cat. He shook his head. “That is very…”
“I like you very much, Master Cat,” said Younger Crane. She put her hands together and she bowed low, and her long hair parted just so that Cat could see her exposed neck. Her skin had a faint pearlescent gleam of its own, and was very white under the Sun-Queen’s eye. “Please accept my humble gifts.”
And finally Cat’s clever brain kicked in, and he took the pearls from Younger Crane, tucking them into the crook of one arm, and took Younger Crane in the other.
“I’m hungry,” he said, and smiled.
Once upon a time (so the story goes), a clever cat rescued a trapped crane from a dragon’s lair and brought this crane back to the crossroads that lie east of the sun and west of the moon. Perhaps the crane’s brother was unhappy when the crane decided to remain with the cat rather than return home; perhaps the dragon found its way out of its lair and devoured the cat for its impudence. Perhaps the cat simply grew bored of his playmate, as sometimes cats do, and wandered on to the next village, leaving nothing behind but his stripped house and a mourning crane.
Or perhaps they stayed together and the crane learned the art of making potions and lovely pieces of colored glass, and the cat learned small magics and at least learned to stop snapping at the crane’s brother whenever he came to visit. And if they are not dead, then they are living happily together still.