For the longest time, the cat and the rat simply stared at each other. Neither of them said a word.
“Why?” the cat asked finally. “My God, why?”
“He had it coming,” the rat said.
“For being successful?”
“For being lucky,” the rat said. “For being favored by his father.”
“Favored by his father?” the cat said. “The eldest son got the lands, the farm, the mill. Your owner got the mules. He got…”
“Don’t say he got nothing, Puss… you of all creatures know that for the lie it is,” the rat said. “The oldest brother got their father’s fortune. The youngest one got the means by which their father had won that. There’s never anything grand in store for the second born, the middle child. They never have great destinies. They never come to an impressive end. Nobody gave him a clever companion to make his way in the world for him. He found me in the barn.”
“Your master could have made a respectable living with those mules.”
“Made a living,” the rat spat. “While his older brother played lord of the manor and his younger brother became lord of the manor… land is respected, Puss. Titles are respected. A man who works for a living? With his hands? With a train of sweaty, stinking mules? Oh, and he has worked. He has worked so long and so hard. He’s crossed the country a dozen times in each direction, each time making just enough money that he can keep on doing it some more. And in that same time, what has his older brother done? What has his younger brother done?”
“Nothing!” the rat said. “He just sat back and let you win false praise and steal treasures and castles and love for him.”
“Well, that’s over now, isn’t it?” the cat said. “I suppose your master put you up to this.”
“No,” the rat said. “He doesn’t even know. Who is the Marquis de Carabas to him? We’ll have to flee, of course… leaving the mules behind. He’ll be devastated at the loss of his livelihood, and the land he thinks of as home… but once there’s a hundred leagues between us and this place I can start to build a better life for him, and he’ll see how his stubborn insistence in clinging on to his inheritance has held him back. I urged him to sell the mules. He could have had a fat purse to finance his ventures, ventures I would have guided but honest ones. Unlike your sainted master, mine would have been able to account for everything he had honestly.”
“Save the mules that got the purse that paid for it all,” the cat said. “Those were given to him. It’s easy to make money honestly when you have a pile of it to begin with.”
“Well! That’s all gone now,” the rat said. “This is where we part, Puss… I to my master and you to your mourning.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Well, I think that mourning is hungry work,” the cat said, and he smiled.
The rat gulped.
A second later, the cat did, too.
He emerged from the thicket where he’d met the rat, alone. The scene at the crossroads was just as dismal before: the twisted and battered wreck of the once-fine carriage in the center of it, the confused and frightened mules wandering around beyond it. It was the angry red teeth marks scored on the lead mule’s flank that had given the rat’s presence away.
“Captain!” the cat called to the head of the Marquis’s personal guard. “If you search a bit up the cross road, you should find the muleskinner who is responsible for this outrage. I’m sure the king, my poor master’s father-in-law, would like to speak to him.”
The men snapped to it, and the cat smiled, in spite of the tragedy. He had an idea about the second son’s ultimate destiny, and he wasn’t sure his ending would be quite as unremarkable as the rat had feared.