Rumpelstiltskin III and the Prince of the Gutter by Kevin Kauffmann
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Rumpelstiltskin let out a loud snore as he looked up at the clouds drifting lazily above him. He had no reason to—he was completely awake—but the sound of his snoring just appealed to him. Every time he breathed in, he made sure to make as much noise as possible, his diaphragm sputtering and his throat warbling as the air forced its way out of his mouth. It was a game to him, snoring as he laid in the gutter of some main street of some dirty city. He was the only player—thus, the victor—and Rumpelstiltskin enjoyed his easy victories almost as much as the others.

Then something snarled back at him.

Turning over quickly—so much so that he ended up upside down again because of his momentum—Rumpelstiltskin looked around to see who had dared to come between him and his crown as the Town Snorer, but none of the villagers or merchants had come close, or even given him the slightest bit of attention. All Rumpelstiltskin could see was a cat whose grey fur was just barely visible beneath the dirt covering his body, a rickety shanty right behind him.

Rumpelstiltskin was about to put the snarl down to his imagination before the cat hissed and pawed the ground between them, letting out another raspy snarl as his ears flattened against his skull.

“Oh, you think you’re good enough to challenge me?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, turning over and leaning back on his knees to judge his new opponent. The cat sniffed the air before shaking his head and walking to a nearby post, which was apparently one of the only things holding the shanty together. The cat almost slammed his head against the post and rubbed his cheek against the wood, the awning of the shanty swaying back and forth and threatening to collapse. Then the cat returned to the place he had been sitting, looking at the imp through narrowed eyes.

At once, Rumpelstiltskin understood. The cat was not challenging him to a snoring contest.

Rumpelstiltskin had trespassed on this noble creature’s territory.

“My apologies, my good sir. If only I had known, I never would have deigned to speak to you in such a way,” the imp said, bowing at the creature while still kneeling in the dirt. The cat seemed to appreciate the turn for a moment, closing its eyes slowly, but then it started to lick the front of its paw, a soft purr escaping from its throat.

“Oh, I see. Thank you for entertaining me, noble prince,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he bowed again and then cleared his throat. Since he did not understand what purring was, the imp just figured that this was the cat’s version of a snore. After breathing in deeply—his chest swelling far past his normal limits—Rumpelstiltskin let out the air in a loud, ostentatious snore that would have woken up any sleeping neighbors.

Luckily, since it was the middle of the day, all it did was draw a few annoyed stares.

Once he expended all the air in his lungs, Rumpelstiltskin started to breathe in again and found that the cat was not amused, flicking its tail lazily at his opponent’s antics. Resolving to impress this creature of the gutter, Rumpelstiltskin smiled as he realized his secret weapon. Letting the new air flicker and flutter along his throat, the imp managed to snore as he was breathing in, his nose sounding clogged as if yet another mouse had found its way into his nasal canal. As his head started to feel fuzzy, the imp could see the cats’ eyes widen, its black pupils clearly showing alarm and respect.

“Stop it!”

Rumpelstiltskin at first fell down—he had to recover from all the not-breathing he was doing—but when he finally looked at the source of the command, he found a large woman with red blemishes on half her face, one of her front teeth askew and forcing Rumpelstiltskin to stare straight at it.

“Stop what?” he asked the front tooth, which only made the woman angrier.

“That foul racket! What are you, some donkey? You’re a grown… whatever you are, and I don’t need to hear you braying and making my ears bleed!” she shrieked, clearly lacking perspective on what pain her own voice could cause. After shoving his pinky into his ear and picking out a pillbug—which Rumpelstiltskin did not remember putting there—the imp pushed himself to his feet and patted off the dirt from his tunic.

“I’m merely entertaining this prince, here. We have been having a snoring contest, you see,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he grabbed his collar with both hands and tried to pull himself into the air. He had seen a few important men doing just the same, and imagined that this was a common practice. However, the woman was not entertained in the slightest and instead pointed at the cat, who was staring at both of them like they were peasants.

“This pest? I don’t care what kind of contest you think you’re having, but that thing is only useful for killing rats and not much else. Seven Hells, I have half a mind to kill it right here and now,” she said as she picked up a broom and stepped forward, causing the cat to stand up and arch its back before hissing.

“What behavior is this?” Rumpelstiltskin shouted before jumping between the woman and the cat, completely unafraid of her skill with a broomstick. “You dare attack a member of royalty?”

“Royalty my fat, pockmarked arse,” the woman said before spitting to the right, almost hitting the post and toppling the nearby shanty. “That creature yowls and yelps and mates at all times of the day, and frankly I’m sick of putting up with it! At this point, I’m sure he’d make a good dinner.”

“Back off!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted, surprising even himself. When the woman started to back away, the imp retreated to the cat’s side and knelt down. After a quick wink at the cat, Rumpelstiltskin scooped up the animal and held it close to his chest, disregarding the pain the cat caused when it raked its claws against his tunic. “I will not allow you to attack the prince like this!”

“Prince? Why do you…” the woman started, but then she sighed and shook her head. “Alright, this is just a waste of my time. You want to keep that mangy hellion, you be my guest. You monsters deserve each other.”

“This is no monster,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, sniffing as a tear ran down his wrinkled face without his knowledge. “I know monsters, and I know what kind of fear and pain they bring. This little prince doesn’t scare me.”

“You…” the woman said, her gaze softening and even some of her blemishes fading once she saw Rumpelstiltskin’s face. “You do whatever you want, imp. Just don’t do it near me.”

“But, wait, aren’t we friends? I thought since we were talking so long—” Rumpelstiltskin argued, but he was interrupted by the cat finally escaping from his arms and bounding off into the back alley. All thoughts were abandoned once his prince left his custody, and so the imp ran off after him, leaving the woman holding a broomstick in the middle of the street.

“Rotten world, this,” the woman said before turning back to her errands, only hearing one or two yelps from Rumpelstiltskin as he departed from earshot.

“Come back, sir, I did not mean to offend!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted as he skipped through the back alley, only catching sight of the end of the cat’s tail as it skirted around a corner. Even though Rumpelstiltskin was worried that his prince would be in danger without the imp to protect him, a grin stretched Rumpelstiltskin’s face throughout the entire pursuit.

When he turned the corner and found the cat looking at a dead-end in a panic, Rumpelstiltskin was almost sad the chase was over. The cat was clearly looking for some escape route, but there was no small space to crawl into, no niche to avoid the imp for any longer. Even the ledges of the building were unsuitable, as the cat discovered once it tried to jump up and tumbled to the ground along with a couple rotten planks of wood. Once it turned around and gave up on escape, it again arched its back and flattened his ears back along his head before letting out another vicious snarl.

“Ah, I see. We’re in your throne room, Mr. Prince,” Rumpelstiltskin said, coming to the obvious conclusion. Breathing in deeply and accepting the prince’s challenge, Rumpelstiltskin let out another obnoxious snore before breathing in and trying to repeat his past glory. This time, he was unable to remain standing halfway through the attempt, and instead fell onto his belly. When he looked back at the cat, who had lowered his back and looked at Rumpelstiltskin with a tilted head, the imp realized that he had lost.

After all, the prince had the home-field advantage.

“You have bested me, Mr. Prince,” the imp said, knowing truly the cat’s name could be nothing else. Stretching out his arms in front of him, Rumpelstiltskin knelt and prostrated himself before the animal, hoping that he would avoid some sort of ceremonial execution, but then he felt something surprising.

Lifting his gaze from the ground, Rumpelstiltskin found that the cat had come forward and licked the knuckle of his right index finger, a soft purr coming from the imp’s lord. When he lifted himself off the ground and sat back on his knees, the cat came forward and heat-butted Rumpelstiltskin’s leg, rubbing its cheek along the rough material of the imp’s tunic. After purring louder and in a higher pitch, the cat continued to Rumpelstiltskin’s other side and ran his other cheek along the imp’s belly, which was exposed by a hole in the material. After sniffing and investigating the torn clothing, the cat stood by Rumpelstiltskin’s side and looked up, blinking slowly as he stared into the imp’s eyes.

“Thank you, my lord,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he lowered his hand to the cat’s scalp, running his fingernails behind its ears and underneath its jaw, which only caused the cat to purr louder. As Rumpelstiltskin brought his other hand around to stroke the hair along the cat’s back, the creature only stood closer and leaned against Rumpelstiltskin’s side, allowing the imp to feel the vibrations from the cat’s purring throughout his entire body.

“You spoil me, Mr. Prince,” Rumpelstiltskin said softly as he picked up the cat and settled himself against the dead-end that had previously meant terror to his royal friend. Once he found a comfortable spot against the poorly-maintained carpentry—only one exposed nail sticking into his bac—Rumpelstiltskin placed the prince in his lap and was surprised to see his friend curl into a ball of fluff and close his eyes. And even though it was the middle of the day, Rumpelstiltskin did not have the heart to deny a prince his naptime.

“Goodnight, Mr. Prince. May your dreams give you the world you deserve,” Rumpelstiltskin said as his own eyelids started to droop. Sir Death always said the same thing to Rumpelstiltskin whenever he lulled the imp to sleep—he wasn’t sure what it meant—but it seemed like the best thing to say to his new friend.

It seemed like such a nice thing to wish for.

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