Squirrel never expected to be anything other than a slave: the last animal slave in Bimmau. That is, until he is invited to a high profile wedding and takes a sip of the forbidden ceremonial wine, unlocking a mysterious riddle. The riddle reveals that there is a key which has the power to grant Squirrel his freedom (and a name!), but also could enslave anyone in Bimmau. Disastrous if it falls into the wrong hands! Squirrel and his friends find themselves in a race to find Brittle’s Key before the army of crows gets to him…and before the mysterious Colonel finds the key first.
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The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel
A Catty Society
Mrs. Sox should have kept her big mouth shut. But, alas, she had not.
Perhaps this is why the fat Persian cat had her face stuck to the window, her yellow eyes darting from the sky to the steps below. Her tail twitched. He was late.
Mrs. Sox snarled. A Pedipurr cat should never have to wait. Especially not for the PetPost slave.
Yet, Mrs. Sox did wait. The fat gray cat did not budge from the window, even though the room was getting crowded and sweaty. With her sausage of a tail she whacked two kittens—who were trying to claw in on her spot—out of the way. Her claws itched, and a splinter of worry pulsed on her flat forehead.
“If that lazy lump of a Squirrel has run off with Smitten’s wedding invitations, I’ll catch him, stick him on a skewer, and eat him for dinner,” she muttered to herself.
The problem was that Mrs. Sox was scared. She knew that the PetPost Squirrel was delivering Smitten’s wedding invitations today, and she had the teeniest fear that she would not be invited.
Indeed, when Mrs. Sox had first heard that the bachelor Smitten, a wealthy Pedipurr cat, had chosen to marry the female dog Cheska, she had bad-mouthed Smitten’s choice of bride to every cat she could find. Now, as she waited for the wedding invitations, Mrs. Sox wondered if she had said too much.
But no. The fat gray cat jiggled her head, knocking the shards of regret straight out of her brain. “How can Smitten marry a dog, let alone that smutty, penniless Cheska?” she said to herself loudly. “And if for some doggone reason, dogs really do tickle his tail, he should have chosen a lady from the Pawshine Club, not a tramp from the Wagamutt! At least the Pawshine pups try to be like us at the Pedipurr. The Wagamutt, though! Those dogs are just plain uncivilized.”
Mrs. Sox paused just long enough to snarl. “I, for one, won’t talk to any of those disgusting mutts at the wedding.” Her eyes darkened to the color of cheddar cheese. “I can’t associate with those raggedy dogs. I’ll catch fleas or worse . . .”
Right then, a sudden movement on the steps below grabbed her attention. Through the window she saw a stuffed, lumpy sack stagger up the stone stairs of the Pedipurr mansion. When the sack reached the landing, Mrs. Sox saw a bushy red tail flail under the bag’s weight.
Her wait was over. The PetPost Squirrel had finally arrived.
“Just . . . one . . . more . . . step,” wheezed Squirrel, the PetPost slave, as he heaved the sack up the last stair. For a moment, he just stood on top of the steps, swaying. He dumped the bag on the ground and crumpled to his knees like a floppy puppet. He could have lain on the cool stone landing forever, but a flicker of cheddar yellow in the window upstairs jerked him to his senses.
Get a grip, Squirrel scolded himself. As it is, he was late today—for the very first time. On top of that, if the hoity-toity Pedipurr cats caught him panting like an old toad on a ventilator after carrying just one bag up a flight of stairs, they would mock him till morning. So Squirrel pulled himself up, breathed deeply, swung his sack onto his narrow shoulders, and scurried toward the Pedipurr Society.
The Pedipurr was unlike any country club young Squirrel had ever seen. It stood on the only finger of coastline that strayed into the ocean, so that the gray rock building seemed to swell up from the middle of the sea. The mansion stretched sideways and arched upward; and, as beams of twilight filtered into the belly of the building, the gray rock glistened like quicksilver.
Squirrel had always thought the building looked smooth and graceful and alive—almost like a giant, jumping dolphin. But today he had barely any time to admire the Pedipurr, or its tall, ribbed towers, or the bone filigree on its “Members Only” door. He ran straight toward his destination—a half-hidden doorway tucked into the corner of the building.
He was so worried about being late that he did not notice a big black bird crouched in the shadows of the east tower, watching his every step.
The “Outsiders’ Entrance” of the Pedipurr was always manned by Olfisse, a grumpy old security cat. Today, however, Olfisse was nowhere in sight.
Squirrel was surprised. Since he was five, he had delivered the mail in Bimmau. And, in those eight seasons, he had never found the Pedipurr unguarded. Not sure what to do, he signed his name on the leaf register, glanced at the sky, and read the time from the streaks of pink in the clouds. Squirrel bit his lip. He was really late.
He was just about to rush into the Pedipurr’s Grand Hall when he caught sight of the mica mirror. “I’m late. At least I better make sure I look all right,” Squirrel mumbled, giving himself a quick once-over.
He frowned. He was a head shorter than he would have liked to have been at the age of thirteen. His red fur was groomed neatly enough, but it was not glossy like the fur of the Pedipurr cats. He hated his shoulders, which curled slightly inward, and he thought his head was shaped a bit too much like a squashed acorn.
Squirrel knew that he could not really complain about his features. He had nice eyebrows, dimples, and a pleasant buttonlike nose. He had a strong jaw that had luckily escaped the Curse of Buckteeth, and his eyes were a clear, crystal turquoise—a playful blue that twinkled in any light.
As he looked at himself, Squirrel rearranged his burnt-red hair to cover the shape of his head and adjusted his faded PetPost uniform to hide the awful S branded into his forearm. The S was not for “Squirrel.” The S was for “Slave.”
“Well, this is as good as I’m going to look,” he said, and with a sigh the slave Squirrel let himself into the Grand Hall of the Pedipurr Society.
Shock was the first thing that hit Squirrel’s pupils.
The Grand Hall was destroyed. Slaughtered cushions and torn yarn were stuck to the checkered marble floor, the busts of the Founding Cats were splattered with brown gunk, teak chairs balanced on hinges like seesaws, and the grandfather clock hung sideways, refusing to tick. Instead time was kept by droplets of milk dripping onto the keys of the piano from a shelf of toppled milk bottles.
“What’s going on?” whispered Squirrel, turning right, then left, then right again, spinning on his heel like a malfunctioning robot. “What’s happen—OUCH!”
Pain shot from his foot to his brain. A whopping crack echoed through the hall. Squirrel looked down. He had just stepped on, and shattered, a fish-bone saucer.
Not sure what to do, Squirrel dashed toward the door. But he was too late.
The door at the end of the hall swung open; something came pelting toward him—and before Squirrel could make out face or form, he was pinned to the floor by something really heavy, something really orange, something really tickly.
Squirrel looked up. The orange face of a cat called Brosher hung above him like a burned, furry sun.
“Sorry about that, Squirrel—I got a little carried away,” said the orange cat, pulling Squirrel up.
“Sir, what’s going on?” asked Squirrel, rubbing his shoulder. “What happened to this place?”
“Don’t worry about this. We were so antsy waiting for you to bring the invitations that a few cat-fights broke out—that’s all. All sorted now. But tell me, you have the invitations, don’t ya?”
“What invitations?” asked Squirrel, who was as confused as a bumper car.
“The invitations to Smitten’s wedding, of course, Squirrel. They’re supposed to arrive today! We’ve been pulling the fur out of our hides waiting for you. But enough yakking. Everyone’s waiting in the Tiger’s Tooth. Let’s go,” said Brosher, grabbing Squirrel and jostling him and his sack toward the bar on the far end of the hall.
No place had been more aptly named than the Tiger’s Tooth. The walls rumbled with purrs and meows. Darkness and dampness filled the room, with sweaty cats crushed against every inch of the window. A single sliver of light cracked the blackness.
Groping his way toward the bar counter in the center of the room, Squirrel felt hundreds of eyes on him. The beat of the ocean against the Pedipurr’s walls made his pulse quicken. Everyone was watching him. Waiting for him.
Shaking, Squirrel scrambled onto the bar platform and untied his sack. His paws fumbled. He had never gotten so much attention, and the little red PetPost slave could not help feeling very nervous. He half choked, half coughed, and said, “Sirs, madams, sh-should I begin?”
The room roared yes so loudly that Squirrel almost fell off the counter. Hurriedly he emptied the sack on the platform. Instead of a stack of leaf-envelopes, out came big, rectangular parcels. Each was wrapped in lilac wax paper emblazoned with the letter M. Squirrel recognized the M with awe: the paper itself had come all the way from Mellifera, the walled city of bees.
Reverently Squirrel picked up a package. It had a tiny card on it. Scribbled on the card was the name of each invitee to Smitten’s wedding.
Squirrel cleared his throat and called out, “Mrs. . . . Mrs. Falguny.”
The room shook as cats started elbowing one another out of the way to catch a glimpse of the recently widowed Mrs. Falguny. Squirrel saw Olfisse, the Pedipurr’s security cat, amongst the crowd, craning her neck.
From the pit of fur, a frail little cat with salt-and-pepper hair came shyly forward. The other cats moved aside; the first invitee had been announced.
“For you, ma’am,” said Squirrel, handing the package to Mrs. Falguny.
“Thank you, Squirrel. I just wish my husband could’ve been here,” she said quietly before dragging her parcel away. Squirrel waited until she had hobbled back to her spot before announcing the next invitee.
“The next package is for . . . Lady Blouse,” said Squirrel. He heard a purr, and then saw a sleek, black Bombay cat with twinkling hazel eyes shimmy up to him.
“Ah buhlieve that’s me, dahling,” she drawled, and winked at Squirrel. As Squirrel handed her the parcel, his heart hammered in his eardrums. He blushed. He had always been very fond of pretty Lady Blouse.
Squirrel pulled out another parcel. He smiled. “Mr. Brosher.”
Brosher ran up to Squirrel, bowed, and said, “Good Squirrel and friend of mine, rip open my gift and let it shine, let us all see if it’s fine, and I shall stop this rhyme, ’cos I can think of no other line . . .”
And, with that poetic attempt, Brosher signaled Squirrel to open his package onstage. Every curious cat in the room began to clap.
Squirrel was so nervous he could barely remove the soft, lilac wrapper. With clammy paws he opened the box. Inside, on a bed of pink satin, lay an ivory collar. The name “Brosher” was embossed on it.
Squirrel picked up the milky collar. His arms trembled as he held it up in the air.
The effect was perfect. The cats oohed and aaahed and purred and panted. Then, just when Squirrel thought he should read out the name of the next invitee, Brosher pointed to a note that came with the collar. “Read it aloud, Squirrel.”
Squirrel’s knees turned to putty. He could not imagine reading aloud, especially in front of this crowd. Then again, he could not disobey a Pedipurr cat.
So, trying to keep his vocal cords from splitting like hairs, Squirrel gulped and began to read.
We would be honored if you would join us as we celebrate our wedding. The event will be held on the first full moon after the spring equinox. The venue is a surprise. Please come to the rosewood jetty beside the Pedipurr, and we will have ferries to transport you. We also ask that you wear this collar, so that if you get lost, our ushers can help you find your way to the wedding. We look forward to seeing you there.
Cheska and Smitten
When Squirrel finished reading the letter, he realized that the mood in the dark Tiger’s Tooth had lightened considerably. The cats seemed to have realized that there were enough parcels for everybody, and they began to relax and wait for their names to be called out. One by one, they whisked up to the stage to get their invitations from Squirrel. Soon all the cats had collars fastened around their necks. All except one. Only Mrs. Sox had not received her invite. Luckily for her, there were still two parcels left in the sack.
With her belly sagging on the floor and a scowl sagging on her face, Mrs. Sox lugged herself over to the bar where Squirrel stood.
As Squirrel reached for the parcel with her name on it, she snatched it out of his paw. “You could not have been any slower, could you? I bet you thought it’d be funny to leave my parcel till the very end? Enjoyed making me squirm, you shriveled squirt?”
Squirrel, who was used to Mrs. Sox’s sharp words, said, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Sox; I didn’t mean anything by it. Please don’t mind me, I’m nobody . . .”
Mrs. Sox did not listen. She simply turned around and stalked off, her parcel tucked safely between the folds of her fat.
But Mrs. Sox’s jibe was enough to bring Squirrel out of his pretend play. For the last few moments he had felt important, like he was someone worth knowing. A room full of cats had focused only on him, and they were the cats of the Pedipurr, no less. He knew he was only getting such attention because he was delivering Smitten’s wedding invitations, but he had enjoyed it all the same.
Flushing with embarrassment, Squirrel stuffed the last parcel into his sack as quickly as he could. How could he have been naive enough to pretend that he could fit in with the Pedipurr cats? How could he have been so stupid . . .
A sickening peal rattled the room. Squirrel dropped his sack on the floor. He turned around.
A note shook in Mrs. Sox’s paw; an angry vein throbbed on her flat forehead. Her empty parcel lay on the floor, torn open. There was not an inch of ivory in sight.
“What’s goin’ on?” said Squirrel. No one heard him. All eyes in the room were fixed on the snarling Mrs. Sox.
The fat Persian cat meowed again and pounced on the sack that Squirrel had just dropped. She dragged out the only remaining package and ripped it open. Slowly she picked up the ivory collar, her eyes fixed on the name embossed on it.
Suddenly she chucked the collar at Squirrel, almost knocking him off the counter. She dropped the note from her hand and marched out of the room.
Brosher got to the note first. “I wonder what made Sox the Ox so mad,” he said, and began to read it aloud.
We heard that you strongly object to our commitment to each other. We would not want you to betray your beliefs by attending our wedding, and hence, we will not burden you with an invitation. Instead we are thrilled to give your place to Squirrel, the friendly PetPost slave, who has faithfully delivered this and many other messages to both you and us for many seasons. We trust this message will be welcome to him. We hope that we have spared you the hassle of declining our invitation.
Cheska and Smitten
As he finished reading the note, Brosher burst into a flurry of giggles. The rest of the cats were shaking too. Some with laughter. Others with shock.
Squirrel, who was tracing the words “PetPost Squirrel” on the ivory collar that Mrs. Sox had hurled at him, spoke first. “This collar is mine? I don’t understand. I’m a slave . . . I’ve never . . . How’s this possible? What do I do?”
Lady Blouse came up to him, a pretty, lopsided smile on her lips. She purred, “Dahling, all you need to do is find sumthin’ to wear.”