“Stop complaining, Mr. Prince,” Rumpelstiltskin said, turning down to the grey cat at his feet. Mr. Prince yowled again, his teeth showing, but the imp just shook his head and waved away his lord’s annoyance before lifting himself up and staring over the crate of something or other. It smelled rotten, but Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t be bothered with smells at this point in his life, especially after he and Mr. Prince had wandered through the Bog of Putrescence only a few weeks ago. In fact, that was the only reason Mr. Prince was remotely clean, since they had to scrub the odors off of him after their misadventure.
Now that he thought about it, Rumpelstiltskin realized the rotten smell might be coming from him.
He shook the thought away from his head like it was a pesky botfly and instead focused on the task at hand. The audacious, corpulent, downright silly-looking merchant was strolling through the road next to the pier, gesturing toward ships and stalls for the women hanging on his arm, waving his hands this way and that like he owned the place.
It was because he owned the place.
However, Rumpelstiltskin had no such need for ownerships or deeds or supposed rules of conduct. What he needed was inside the coin purse of that merchant, swaying loosely from his belt; only a golden cord keeping it from falling to the ground. Rumpelstiltskin salivated at the sight—though that was more because of some nearby hot rolls, the scent of which overpowered whatever had been clogging his nose—and he kept the knife tight in his grip.
Now, don’t be worried; Rumpelstiltskin had no concept of what a knife could actually do, especially in a back alley or dark and divey tavern. He just thought knives were meant for cutting rope, which was exactly what he intended.
“Alright, Mr. Prince, go!” Rumpelstiltskin urged, keeping his voice just above a whisper and hoping his pet finally understood him, but the grey cat yowled and licked his paw before settling back on his haunches.
“Please, Mr. Prince, I need you!” Rumpelstiltskin whispered again, but the cat just closed its eyes and yawned, kneading the ground in front of him before laying down and rolling onto his belly. Rumpelstiltskin glowered for a moment at this betrayal, but eventually rubbed his hand along the cat’s belly before jumping out in front of the merchant and his entourage. Although he had not noticed beforehand, there was a pair of intimidating men standing a few feet to the merchant’s side, and Rumpelstiltskin felt it was pretty unfair of them to appear out of nowhere.
“Uh…” the imp said, remembering the knife in his hand and looking down at it—only drawing the attention of the bodyguards as a result—and realized that he was out of his depth. Dropping the knife, which clattered into and down a crack between the boards of the pier, Rumpelstiltskin decided to play a whole new game.
“Welcome, my good and gentle lord, to today’s distraction!” he shouted, bouncing from foot to foot and twirling in place, seeing the merchant’s reaction turn from confused to bewildered, a slight smile forming on his fat lips. Once the imp saw the women on the man’s arms cover their mouths in surprise, Rumpelstiltskin knew he had their attention.
“Now what is this?” the merchant asked, but one of the bodyguards—a stocky man with thin hair that was only just losing the fight against his hereditary baldness—stepped forward and stood over Rumpelstiltskin.
“Street urchin, sir. Thought I saw a knife come out his hand,” he said, but Rumpelstiltskin jumped back in shock and alarm, or least playing at shock and alarm.
“What use have I for a knife? I am a mere spinster and vagrant!” he claimed, clearly misunderstanding the titles he had given himself while spinning in place—dizziness momentarily destroying his balance by the third revolution—after which he stumbled forward and had to support himself on the edge of the rotten crate. “I’m just here… for a good time.”
“Have a good time somewhere else,” the bodyguard said, not fooled for a second, but the merchant cleared his throat and waved fat fingers at the men responsible for his safety.
“Now, now, I cannot ignore a minstrel and fool on my own doorstep. Now, vagrant—as you call yourself—what you have to offer in distractions?” the merchant asked, standing back and partially leaning on his female escorts. Their shoulders sagged under his weight, but they knew where their next meals were coming from. Upon seeing his first distraction had worked, Rumpelstiltskin decided to try for a second.
“Well, sir, I have quite a few up my sleeve,” he said, drawing out his left arm and running gnarled fingers along its length. He was wearing a shiny thing he had found in a chest belonging to some noblewoman, which he, of course, did not know was meant for women. Once he was able to approach the merchant, he pulled the frivolous garment off him by the sleeve. It was obviously too large for him, but the merchant hadn’t known that, and he also did not expect Rumpelstiltskin to jump up and use the man’s belly as a stepping stone so he could throw the garment over the merchant’s head like a burlap sack.
Once he jumped off the merchant’s chest, Rumpelstiltskin immediately tugged on the golden cord and hoped he did not need the knife he had already lost. Fortunately, the knot came undone instantaneously—the merchant had never had the patience to learn how to make a functional knot—and Rumpelstiltskin had his prize before the bodyguards had a chance to stop him.
“Come here, you runt,” the stocky bodyguard said as he knelt down to grab Rumpelstiltskin in a bear hug, but the imp rolled underneath the merchant’s fat legs and hit the back of his knees in the process, unintentionally but to great effect. The merchant fell to the ground in surprise—Rumpelstiltskin’s dress coming off his head at the same time—and he turned back to the imp, clearly offended.
“Why you…” he started, but Rumpelstiltskin was already stumbling away, tripping on the first plank of the pier before turning back to his new friends.
Well, that’s what he thought they were, anyway. Anybody who bothered to speak with Rumpelstiltskin could be a new friend.
“Now, Mr. Prince!” Rumpelstiltskin commanded, surprised once a grey blur jumped out from behind the crate and then came to a stop between him and the merchant, letting out a hiss and arching his back.
“What the devil?” the merchant said as he fell onto his rear, but Rumpelstiltskin and Mr. Prince were already running away and into the seaside alleys they knew so well. The first few turns were a little stressful, since Rumpelstiltskin had to jump over a stand of somewhat-fresh fish while Mr. Prince ran beneath it; the taller bodyguard just slammed into it and sent the fish tumbling to the disgusting soil below. After crawling under the upturned hull of a rowboat and escaping the stockier bodyguard’s fingers by just a few inches, Rumpelstiltskin and Mr. Prince ran for another few minutes before deciding that they were safe.
“Thanks for the end, there, Mr. Prince, but you gotta stick to plans better,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he hunkered himself down on a poorly-constructed box. Even through the weathered skin of his hands, he could feel that the carpenter had not bothered to sand the planks. This was most obvious from the splinters it left behind.
The cat yowled, and Rumpelstiltskin looked up from his new injuries to see the grey creature looking at him expectantly. Sighing, Rumpelstiltskin brought his free hand to the cat’s head and rubbed him behind the ears, a loud purr filling their hideout soon afterward.
“Only because you’re royalty, Mr. Prince. You’re lucky you have such a loyal subject,” Rumpelstiltskin said before sitting back on his box, which collapsed under his weight, but the imp was only momentarily shocked before making himself comfortable on the uncomfortable, jagged edges and corners. Instead of focusing on his pain and annoyance, Rumpelstiltskin just opened the coin purse and turned it out inside his hand. He was greeted by the sight of ten golden coins, four pieces of silver, and a few other assorted currencies.
“Success, Mr. Prince! We have four, four, pieces of silver! That’s… two more than the sailor said we needed!” Rumpelstiltskin exclaimed, rubbing his fingers up and down Mr. Prince’s back, which the cat did not seem to appreciate and, unfortunately, the imp did not notice. “We can go off to far-away places now, Mr. Prince! We can have adventures any and everywhere!”
The cat meowed before rubbing up against Rumpelstiltskin’s foot.
“Yep! I’m happy, too, Mr. Prince. Though I don’t think we need to keep the rest of this junk,” the imp said before taking the gold and other coins and throwing them into the corner of their hideout. Where they were going, Rumpelstiltskin was sure he wouldn’t want to carry the useless things.
The imp did not quite know the value of money, yet.
“C’mon, my lord!” Rumpelstiltskin said as he jumped up and stretched his stubby, little arms to the grey sky above. “Remember how fun it was to go up against the Burping Badger? Or how we had fun with the Singing Salamander? That was just in England, Mr. Prince! Imagine what it will be like when we get to see new places.”
The cat sighed heavily before stretching his legs in front of him, looking condescendingly at Rumpelstiltskin once he settled back on his haunches.
“Oh, hush, there will be plenty of food on the ship. And I know, Mr. Prince, I know. I’ll taste all the food for you in case someone wants to poison you,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he started over to the small crawlspace that would eventually lead to the piers on the other side of the building. He didn’t know why he and Mr. Prince were the only ones who ever used the crawlspace, but he assumed it had something to do with the bugs and worms they usually encountered.
Rumpelstiltskin didn’t really mind. It was a good place for a snack, usually.
Once he and Mr. Prince got to the other side, Rumpelstiltskin wiped off the dirt from the front of his tunic and starting hopping from one plank to the next, steadily making his way down the pier and to the modest ship anchored there. Just a few days ago, the imp had run into one of the sailors on the crew, who talked about some of the most fantastic things. Rumpelstiltskin remembered all the stories and knew that he just had to try some out for himself.
“Only a little longer, Mr. Prince. Just a little longer, and then this world is going to get a lot bigger,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he finally landed on the first, shaky plank of the pier leading to his new freedom. At that point, the game was up, so the imp stopped hopping around and made his way to the ship in a leisurely stride.
He felt it important to give these sailors the impression that he had already gone on plenty of adventures.
“Hold, man, hold!” a gruff voice brought him out of his fantasies, and Rumpelstiltskin looked up to see a man with healthy cheeks, a rotund belly almost disguised by a loose shirt, a long, dark leather jacket shrouding the rest of his frame, and, most importantly to a creature like Rumpelstiltskin, awful teeth.
He looked like a great new friend to have.
“’Ello there, my seafaring scalliwag,” Rumpelstiltskin said, putting on airs he knew nothing about. “My liege Mr. Prince and I would like to board your ship to places known and unknown.”
“Yer liege? You mean the stinkin’ cat?” the man said, clearly the captain of this ship. “Why on the name of my dead wives would I bring an insane circus freak and his mangy pet onto my ship?”
“You’ll have a reward, ser, I promise you. My lord pays handsomely,” Rumpelstiltskin said before drawing out the four pieces of silver from his makeshift pocket. At the sight of the glinting metal, the captain stood to the side and propped his foot against the edge of his ship. “I was told that two pieces would buy me passage. I could go as high as three, captain, but that’s as far as I’d go.”
“Two pieces of silver? To go to a hellhole like Portugal?” the captain asked, raising an eyebrow in confusion, but after a moment, he let out a hearty laugh and shook his head. “Don’t know who was playing you, boy, but two pieces of silver wouldn’t buy you nothin’ on this ship.”
“But I was told—”
“On the other hand, imp, I like you. You make me laugh,” the captain said before standing up and holding the lapels of his jacket like he was someone important. “You work on my ship and play the fool, I’ll let you come to Portugal with us. My boys and I need some entertainment. I’ll even give you some food, if you’re entertaining enough.”
“That… that I can definitely do, Cap’n!” Rumpelstiltskin said in joy, jumping from one foot to another in a happy, little dance. Then he remembered the royalty waiting by his side. “Oh, but what about Mr. Prince?”
“Eh, less inclined for that bugger, but you clean him up and make sure he don’t bring no fleas, he can stay to kill the mice,” he replied, but Rumpelstiltskin breathed in deep at the suggestion.
“Clean him? But… he doesn’t like water…”
“And I don’t like cats. Don’t bother me none not to bring him with us,” the captain said, stepping back and motioning to his crew. “Better make your decision now, imp. We’re pushing off as we speak.”
“Uh, I… well,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he looked from Mr. Prince to the ship and back to his pet. Nodding, he turned back to the captain and did his best to give him a sailor’s salute, maiming it horribly. “Say hello to your newest crew member, Cap’n.”
“Stone, imp. Captain Stone, to you,” he said before drawing back and beckoning Rumpelstiltskin to come aboard. The imp swiftly accepted the invitation and ran across the plank leading to the ship, turning around to find that Mr. Prince was lying down in the midday sun.
“Mr. Prince! Come on, now!” he urged, but the cat rolled over and stretched, falling into a light nap as the sea caused the ship to rise a foot into the air.
“Now what’s this?” Captain Stone asked, and Rumpelstiltskin looked from Mr. Prince and back to the seaside town, finding that the two bodyguards from earlier were pointing at them and starting to run to the ship. “You leaving some friends behind, imp?”
“Oh, I just took their boss’ silver, earlier,” Rumpelstiltskin said, not bothering to look at the oncoming threat and instead making childish noises at Mr. Prince, who noticed but was pretending to ignore him.
“Hah, looks like you’ll be a treat in more ways than one, imp, but I won’t be held up in port another minute. We got people looking after us, too,” Stone said before motioning to a crewmember nearby, who walked over to the plank connecting the ship to the pier and grabbed hold.
“No! Mr. Prince has to come with us!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted in a panic—almost jumping off the ship in order to rejoin his friend—but strong arms wrapped around his belly and drew him back from the edge of the ship.
“Fraid not, imp, the cat’s made his choice. And from the looks of those guards, I don’t want you anywhere near them. You don’t deserve to lose no fingers,” Captain Stone said, and Rumpelstiltskin looked down to find that the man only had the thumb and first two fingers on his left hand.
“No, I need to take care of Mr. Prince!” Rumpelstiltskin screamed, struggling against the captain’s hold as the ship departed from the docks, but he just did not have the strength.
“Mr. Prince will be just fine, imp, you believe that. A cat in this town can’t take care of himself ain’t worth loving. You gotta start taking care of yourself, especially the older you get,” Captain Stone said, his voice as heavy as his name. “People like me only look out for people like you for so long.”
“I can’t leave him, Cap’n,” Rumpelstiltskin whimpered, watching as Mr. Prince picked himself up and strolled to the edge of the peer, yowling and crying at him.
“You have to. You go back, those thugs will take care of you, and Mr. Prince wouldn’t want that. You can always come back, imp. I’m sure Mr. Prince will be waiting.”
“You think so, Cap’n?” Rumpelstiltskin said as he turned to look at the captain’s face; tears freely falling down the imp’s face, a single one falling from the captain’s pale, left eye.
“Cat like that? That’s royalty if I ever seen it. You’ll see him again, imp,” the Captain said before releasing his hold and walking over to the door of his cabin. He departed without another word, slamming the door behind him and leaving Rumpelstiltskin to turn back and see Mr. Prince lying down at the end of the pier.
“Yeah, I’ll see you again, Mr. Prince. I’ll tell you all about my adventures, and you can tell me all about yours,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he jumped onto the edge of the ship and wrapped his fingers around one of the nearby ropes. As he smiled with tears in his eyes, he waved goodbye to his royal friend.
“Goodbye, Mr. Prince! I’ll come back soon!”
And he would, but their next meeting would not be the reunion he expected.
Click here for the final act in the Mr. Prince series.