Breaking off bits of the bread her guard provided with her meal, Princess Sophia threw the crumbs at the crows who visited her tower.
That one has a toe missing, she thought. The other two didn’t have any distinguishing marks to tell them apart, but the missing toe would help her identify at least one. That’s how she’d know if the bread was poisoned.
She was almost certain she was being poisoned, just not exactly how.
It could be the bread, but it might also be the meat. Or even the water. She hoped it wasn’t the water.
It was a slow death her enemies had planned for her. She was almost sure of it. If she could get some grasp of the nature of the poison, she might be able to avoid the worst of it.
The ache in her bones was real, and so was the heavy weariness that she carried through the day.
Then again, after a sleepless night she wondered if it was coming from her head instead of an outside poison.
The night hours stretched like a table that she set with many fantastical ideas and imaginations. She could have convinced herself into the weariness and pain.
She tried to use the nights to devise a plan to test her situation.
The birds would get the bread. And the rats that found their way up the walls would taste her meat.
They couldn’t eat as much of it and get as much of the poison as she did, but they were smaller. If one of them died, it would tell her something.
And it was nice to pay attention to the animals, even though she knew they were all moving further down their poisoned path.
As with the crows, she tried to find a way to recognize each rat. Was it really the same one coming every day?
And were either of these creatures showing the sort of symptoms she was feeling?
She tried to engage them, to get them to stay with her so she could observe them. Spending time with them was also something to do.
The crows were more willing. She ended up giving almost all her bread to them to keep them near.
Her rat was far more cautious. She would lay out the scrap and watch for him. But he might sneak and get it when she was turned away or sleeping.
One day, the scrap remained. Her heart beat faster. This must be the proof that her meat was the source of the poison. Her mind raced. She had been giving most of her bread away to the crows, but eating most of the meat. Had she been hastening her poisoning. She looked out the window to see how her crow friends were doing. Were they showing signs?
How could she know the right thing to do? Could she balance out her food and avoid her fate?
And her rat friend—he was gone. She felt so alone. And guilty. She had killed him.
“I’m sorry!” she said out the window.
She swiveled her head toward the sound. A striped gray cat stretched along the wall. She had never seen him before.
“What makes you sorry?” he asked as he sat back and cleaned his face.
“How did you get here?” she said. “I’ve never seen you before. And I’m sorry because my rat is gone…probably dead and probably my fault.”
“Ah,” said the cat. “I was brought in to handle the rat problem. Looks like it is solved.”
“Did you kill my rat?” Then maybe it wasn’t the princess’s fault. But the end was the same, no more rat. The conversational cat did not reply.
Her habit of engaging the animals reasserted itself. “That rat got bits of my meat. I’m afraid I’m being poisoned. And now I have no one to test with.”
The cat got up again. “I will eat your meat for you.” He pondered the distance and made an astonishing jump to her window. It took the Princess’s breath away.
She gave him a bit of the meat to reward him, then realized she might not be doing him any favors with poisoned meat. He had already eaten it, though, so she petted his fur and explained to him the situation. It took quite a while.
“…you see, I’m sorry.”
The cat, well-satisfied, sat back on his haunches and observed her for some moments.
“You are a princess and know many things. But I can see in the dark better than you can. I know there are many possibilities that you don’t expect. Hope comes in unforeseen ways. That’s how I have faith to leap the way I do.”
Sophie stared in disbelief. She breathed out with impatience. “Hope? I am alone with nothing but the anticipation of poisons. Nothing has changed for me for months.”
“Something has changed. I am here”
How like a cat, Sophia thought.
The next day, instead of food the Minister opened the doors of her cell and brought her the news that her uncle, the enemy who had locked he in the tower, had been over thrown by her friends.
The Minister knew it the change was coming, even though he couldn’t let her know. He apologized and said, “The best I could do to care for you while keeping the secret was release a cat clean your prison cell of the vermin.”