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Halfway between nowhere and the back of beyond, there was an inn. A small inn, one with very few points of note to recommend itself to the majority of travellers, but an inn, nonetheless. If a casual traveller walked in, he'd be greeted by a tall, lanky, dour man behind the bar, silently washing tankards, or polishing the dark wood of the bar itself. The traveller might purchase a drink, or a meal and the food and drink would be supplied. Reasonable quality, sure enough, but nothing to write home to the family about. A small, unremarkable inn in a quiet place.

Of course, should the right traveller enter and speak the right words to the man behind the bar, the right traveller might see something different...

It had been a long night's work. Strangers arriving from all over, all either on a quest, or between fights, or looking for a job to start out their career on. All thirsty, all hungry, all seeking a place to sit and drink, maybe a room for the night. The man behind the bar drew in a breath, looking about him at the full taproom. Some of them, of course, were regulars. The tall, dark-haired one over in the back corner, for example, smoking a pipe and looking over the assembled company; he'd been in a few times. The pale-blond woman and the one-eyed old bear of a mercenary who travelled with her were another regular pair; so were the two female mercs in the booth next to them. But most of the company this night was fairly new - not many recognisable faces among them. The barmaids plied the crowd, although at this stage of the night, most of their work was in collecting empties.

He gave a half-smile. Takings would be good, although varied, as usual. A mixture of coinages and currencies, with probably a couple of gems thrown in for good measure. He reached behind him and rang the bell that hung upon the wall.

"Last orders, everyone. We have to shut up shop soon," he called.

A few of the assorted company got up from their tables, making their way toward the bar. Most, however, made their way either outward to the main door, or inward to the narrow stair up to the bedchambers. The barmaids started shaking awake those who had drunk their fill, supporting them through to the door, or their bedchambers, as required, while the bartender served the last drinks of the night.

Another half an hour and the company of the tap would be gone. The girls could go to their beds, or to the beds of those guests they'd been flirting with for the evening. The tap would be deserted, the bartender gone to his bed also. Well, nearly deserted. For one small figure would still be in the taproom, huddled in its corner by the fire, purring. A large calico cat, one eyed, but otherwise unremarkable save only for one small peculiarity. The purring of the cat was soft, musical. Almost, it sounded as though the animal was singing.

As far as the guests and regulars of the inn knew, the cat had no name. Or at least, none the girls knew. Possibly the barman knew it, but he was closemouthed about all matters save the price of drink or the cost of the rooms sold nightly. So it was called "the cat", "the mog", "puss", or "that bloody animal" in moments where it had coiled around someone's ankles while they were bearing a tray of drink. This never, of course, stopped the girls from patting the animal, stroking its soft fur and delighting in the musical purring. It never stopped them from feeding the cat the occasional morsel from a plate, or inviting a customer to do so. However, they didn't worry enough about the cat to wish to share a room with it. So the cat slept in the taproom, by the fire which burned there summer and winter.

Nobody at the tavern, save possibly the barman, knew where the cat had come from. Nobody knew where it disappeared to during the day. Nobody knew much about the cat at all. The one-eyed calico cat with the musical purr was as regular a part of the tap each night as the barman himself. The cat knew, of course, but it seemed unlikely the animal would share this with anyone at the tavern.

The cat moved quietly through the tavern after lights out. It seemed almost proprietorial in its actions at times, walking behind the bar, inspecting the various cauldrons in the kitchens, checking along the corridors of the accommodation area. Once all the inn was checked over, it made its way to the staff quarters. A light still shone beneath a door, a door which the cat made its way up to and butted imperatively with its head.

The door was opened by the barman. The cat slowly stepped inside, rubbing against his ankles, then leapt lightly up onto the bed. There, it batted at a small item on the bedside table, something which looked like a small switch, although there appeared to be nothing that it could be connected to.

"Well?" The query was from the barman.

"The kitchen needs cleaning up. The takings are down. Too many of the girls are taking the customers to bed in their own rooms. You're running low on ale. What the blue blazes do you think you're doing with the place?" The voice appeared to be coming from the cat. A low, purring voice, with female undertones.

"It's a slow time of the year," the barman replied, apparently seeing nothing strange in holding the conversation with a talking cat. "We can't be responsible for the fact that other places are doing a good trade."

"Bollocks," the cat replied. "This time last year we were turning the newcomers away at the door. It's not a slow time of the year, it's that this place is going to the dogs. Almost literally. Was that a werewolf you were thinking of hiring last week?"

The barman shrugged. "I wouldn't know. I don't have your nose. She looked human enough to me, and we could have used another blonde around the place. Anyway, can you come up with some better suggestions for boosting trade? I'm all out."

There was a sniff from the cat. "I'd say getting some slightly less promiscuous help would probably be a start. I started this place as a tavern, not a brothel. If I'd wanted a cathouse, I'd have bought one. So, lets get back to core business. Sell them ale, sell them rooms, and make sure the girls don't sell anything on the side. That includes the daft one from Terra who sells 'Amway' (whatever that is), by the way. What in the names of the nine demons of the nine hells does she think she's doing? Does she have any idea what kind of trouble we can get into by having her do that? Sack her. And that's a direct order."

The barman looked a little dubious about it. "Are you sure? She's good at her job, aside from a minor eccentricity. Certainly none of the customers have objected."

"None of the customers have objected because they've none of them been back. Sack her, and see whether we can get the customers back instead. Just remember, you're as replaceable as the rest of them. So do it."

After delivering the ultimatum, the cat stalked out of the room. The barman looked after the animal impassively, then moved across to the bedside table, tapping the switch.

The next day, there were changes announced to the staff of the tavern. The first of these was their services as bedwarmers were no longer to be sold. Those who didn't like the idea could leave. The girl who sold Amway was told her services were no longer required. The kitchen was cleaned, the ale was restocked, and the tavern opened for business with the cat purring loudly and musically on the hearth.

This work is copyright Meg Thornton 2003 - 2005. All rights reserved

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