Time for the sixth story in the Herc Tom, Champion of the Empire series.
“Cats Out of the Bag” combined the final return of the Lost Baastards (the routed fleet from “Nipped in the Butt”), the escape of the exiled Empress Isabella, and the return of The Lynx with the introduction a new and powerful adversary. It is a rare Herc Tom tale – one that doesn’t end with our hero purring in self-satisfaction.
Here’s the Blurb
Champion of the Empire Herc Tom longs for more interesting times. His wish is fulfilled with the return of the Lost Basstards, a couple of prison breaks, the kidnapping of a Prince, the reappearance of an assassin, an alien invasion, and fifteen different kinds of treachery. Maybe life wasn’t all that boring after all.
“Cats Out of the Bag” is a speculative fiction novelette, and is the sixth of the “Herc Tom, Champion of the Empire” stories, following “Purr Mission”, “Nipped in the Butt”, “Cat and Mouse”, “Baastards’ Revenge”, and “Imperial Purrogative.”
And Here’s This Week’s Excerpt
I studied the Prince as we strolled down the path to the lake.
“Is something wrong, My Prince?” I asked astutely.
“Has Mother had any unauthorized visits?” he asked.
“Certainly not,” I said confidently.
Isabella’s exile was not common knowledge. It had been spread about that the Empress needed some time in seclusion, and so was overseeing the construction of the Imperial palace on Lamia; this had been completed some time ago but had not been publicized. The Quartz sector itself was off-limits – except with Imperial approval – for “the greater security of the Ramses Empire” as the sector was properly surveilled and surveyed. Plans for actual colonization were in place, but the Emperor first needed to ascertain that Baast would keep to their now peaceful intentions.
“No contact at all?” he asked.
I wasn’t insulted by his uncertainty – well, not really. Throughout my storied career, I had gained a reputation as one cat for whom the rules and regulations were something to be overcome rather than obeyed. Not that I was a total rebel, mind you. There was a place and time for blind obedience; it was just that my circumstances more often found those rules athwart what needed to be done. I landed on my feet more often than the usual feline, and my succession of successes gave testimony to the rightness of my attitude.
Still, as I said, my more interesting talents were wasted here as Sector Administrator – a position that demanded adherence to those same rules, but I had been a stickler about them since I had taken over, and even if I hadn’t been, I had confidence that the collection of OCD underlings in my command – like Lieutenant Mial – would brook no violations of order. At least not without my hearing of it.
“The Quartz sector is not a tourist hot-spot, My Prince. We’ve had some business tours so that our captains of industry could plan for future development, but those have been strictly supervised. No one from the outside sees the Empress except the Imperial Guards entrusted with her. And you, of course.”
The sound of the skiff’s engine deepened as it slowed its approach.
“I am certain that you have done what you can, Cousin. I will need to question Mother,” Octavio said. “I do not believe that even you realize how devious she can be.”
That was unlikely – she had tried to have me killed, after all. I would have asked the reason for his queries, but the skiff was sliding into the dock, and it was obvious that Octavio hadn’t wanted to discuss whatever it was openly; else he would have told me already. Years of dealing with the Imperials had given me a feel for these things.
Commander Marquand seemed young for his rank; that was often the case with the officers of the Imperial Guard, many of whom had been appointed to the honor from the aristocracy, but I knew Marquand had served with distinction under the Admiral on Sabertooth during the Nipper War. He pounced from the skiff to the dock a bit too briskly for my taste. He still had some of that energy of youth that makes us think nothing can happen to us, but then with his responsibilities here he’d become more familiar with the water than I would ever wish to. The skiff’s pilot glanced around uneasily from his seat, his ears flat – a little more my speed.
“My Prince!” Marquand said, as he extended a deep, formal bow. “It is an honor to see you here once again.”
“Thank you, Commander,” Octavio said curtly.
“Colonel,” Marquand said, saluting me more as an afterthought. Military protocol takes a back seat to acknowledgement of nobility, even if I was a Champion of the Empire.
“Commander,” I said as I returned the salute. “I –“
“If we may get on our way,” Octavio said.
“Certainly, My Prince,” Marquand said.
He led us to the skiff and bounded carelessly aboard. Octavio and I joined him in a bit more reasonably cautious fashion; the Prince would never show it, of course, but I believe we were both more at ease once seated. The skiff turned away from the dock and bounced toward the palace and its island.
“Is the Empress aware of our presence?” Octavio asked over the roar of the skiff’s engine.
His agitation was not abating. I was certain that the jerking about on the water was not helping his mood, what with the spray that was hitting our faces. It brought to mind the couple of times I’d been tortured on Baast. I really don’t like water.
“She has not been officially notified, My Prince,” Marquand said.
“That does not matter – she should be expecting me, in any event,” Octavio said.
“Well, she does have a view of the shore, and she doesn’t receive many visitors. She has probably surmised that it is you,” Marquand said.
“What other visitors has she received?”
“Since the completion of construction two months ago, only you, My Prince,” Marquand said.
Thankfully, we pulled up to the compound’s dock at this point and were able to set our paws on dry land once more. We followed Marquand up the path to the compound’s main gate and checked in at the guard station.
“Weapons, sirs,” Marquand said.
The Prince removed his mouser from the holster on his right hip, and the telescoping utility sword on his left. I only had my mouser – swords are something I have used on occasion, but they don’t occupy my psyche the way they do with less nouveau nobility. We turned our pieces over and were admitted through the gate.
One of the Empress’ servants was waiting for us on the other side, an older grey-hair I recognized as a butler from the palace on Ramses – Nigel was his name. As with the rest of the servants who had been sent to attend the Empress, his loyalty to Ramses and the Emperor was beyond question. Isabella’s only allies here were the ladies Nina and Francesca, and her cousin Lord Du Claw, who were all serving exile alongside her for their roles in her nefarious schemes.
Nigel executed a sweeping bow which was quite impressive for his age. This was more obviously intended for Octavio than for me.
“How have you been, Nigel?” Octavio asked.
Nigel straightened slowly, the bow having taken more effort than it had at first appeared. “I cannot complain, My Prince,” he said, and then, cupping his paw over his mouth almost conspiratorially he added, “You know your mother – she would have my fur if I did complain.”
“You have my sympathy,” Octavio said.
“The Empress is expecting you, My Prince. If you will follow me, please,” he said.
“Lead on,” Octavio said.
We accompanied Nigel along the walkway, through colorful gardens full of transplanted Ramses flora, up the front stairs and into the main residence. Although the entirety of the compound was a pale reflection of the Imperial Palace on Ramses, the residence was a replica of the Imperial quarters that Isabella had been exiled from – to help remind her of what she had lost.
The vestibule led into a large atrium with a stairway that swept upwards along the wall to the left. There were a dozen egresses from the chamber; on Ramses these had led to the private quarters of the various Imperial ladies and their progeny. Naturally, most of these would be empty; as I said, only Nina and Francesca had accompanied the Empress here, since they were her ladies rather than Emperor Maxamillian’s, and were complicit in her schemes. Their own handful of cubs, mostly grown, were not exiled along with them.
The two ladies were playing cards at a table in the center of the chamber when Nigel led us into the atrium.
“Good to see you, Octavio,” Francesca said without even looking up from her hand.
“That would more properly be ‘Prince Octavio’, or ‘My Prince’,” Nigel remonstrated.
“You impertinent little – ,” Francesca said.
“How dare you speak to – ,” Nina said.
Their joint condemnation of Nigel was interrupted as they looked beyond him, and their pupils widened as they saw that I was with the Prince. Their excitement was palpable. Of course, being cooped up here with Isabella, and only Lord Du Claw for companionship may have had some small bearing on their interest, but the truth is, I still have it.
“Hercules,” Nina said, her voice a little high before she got it under control for a lower and more sultry, “Tom.”
“We were not expecting you,” Francesca said.
“But you were expecting the Prince?” I asked. I notice things like that.
“They sent word from the gate about him,” Francesca said.
“Won’t you please sit here with us?” Nina said, running her paw down the side of a third chair at the table.
“It’s been so long,” Francesca purred.
They only had eyes for me, of course, but if those two wanted me to stay with them, then that was ample reason to go with Octavio. Besides –
“You’re with me, Colonel,” Octavio said.
“Yes, My Prince. Ladies,” I said tilting my head.
I followed Nigel and Octavio up the stairs as the two watched; they both looked so sorely disappointed, I almost felt pity for those conniving mollies. I have such an effect on the ladies.
Nigel led us along past the receiving room on the right, and to the door at the end of the hall where the private quarters were. He knocked, and once we heard “Enter” from within, he opened the door, and we did.
We walked right into Empress Isabella’s bedroom. I admit that I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more to it – I had expected a more elaborate layout – perhaps a sitting room, a den, a whole suite of rooms. But there appeared to be just the one room. I should have paid more attention to the floorplans, but I was the sector commander, not the Empress’ warden.
Isabella stood by a balcony that overlooked the gardens below. She had always been an attractive female – as far as fur-deep went – and much of her rise to power had relied on those looks coupled with her plotting and stalking talents. I was used to seeing her in eye-catching, seductive outfits that distracted her prey, which made the Admiral’s dalliance with her all those years ago something almost understandable; I was surprised by her choice of a plain white jumpsuit that made her look more her age. Rather frumpy, in fact.
Of course, considering that she had only been expecting her son, it would have been a bit strange to try influencing him by putting on something… manipulative. If she’d known I was coming, she might have dressed herself to the nines; that’s what most of the ladies do when they’re expecting me.
Her hackles went up briefly when she saw me, ready for a fight. She obviously still believed I would be better off dead, but then she did what she could to regain her composure for what was sure to be another series of deceits.
“My dear son, so good of you to come! I had hoped you would make it on time,” Isabella said.
“Hoped? You practically demanded that I be here,” Octavio said.
“Oh, that was not at all how I meant for that to come out,” Isabella pouted. “It was merely intended as a suggestion.”
“Accompanied by a threat against Mirabelle by an agent whom I was aware could very well carry it out. How did you get word out to the Lynx?”
That explained why Octavio was hiding Mirabelle. The Lynx was a dangerous adversary who, in the service of the Empress, had assassinated a couple of Isabella’s political rivals, a couple of Octavio’s more noteworthy half-brothers, and had attempted to dispose of me for her by delivering me to the Rotter Dame. But this was all before the Empress’ exile; she should not have had any way to contact him.
Still, if anyone could have gotten around our security measures in the Quartz Sector, it was the Lynx.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Isabella said, employing those big, innocent eyes that looked like an invitation to either rub her down or be dinner. “I would never want harm to befall our dear Mirabelle. She’s carrying your firstborn, after all.”
“Do not lie, Mother,” Octavio growled.
“And don’t you get hissy with me in front of commoners,” she said, as much to put me in my place as to curtail his criticism.
“You had words with him, Cousin?” I asked, to remind Isabella of our familial relationship.
“No – he was too clever to expose himself directly. It was a courier, but the threat and the source were obvious,” Octavio said.
“What exactly did he say?” I asked.
“That if I did not come to see the Empress on her birthday, one I love would be gone from my life forever,” he said.
“Where are my manners? Happy birthday, your Imperial Highness,” I said with a sweeping bow that was almost to protocol.
“And you brought me a gift – how sweet, but you really should have just sent him on ahead. This is one party you should have skipped,” she sneered.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for…”
I paused my witty repartee as a hot downdraft enveloped the room, and something large blotted out the sunlight that had been streaming through the window.
“Ahh, the other invitees have arrived,” Isabella said gayly.
I heard small weapons fire outside, but this was followed by a brilliant electrical arching. The firing ceased, and at the same time I heard a loud pop in my commlink to Shadow. I ran out onto the balcony to find out what was happening, but I couldn’t see beyond the compound’s walls, so I turned my attention to the sky, where a half-dozen Baastian fighters circled the palace. Those Spitzes would be easy enough to handle with Shadow, but directly above us was a larger ship. I recognized the Squaller, a carrier from the Lost Baastards’ invasion fleet; it shouldn’t have been this close to the surface – carriers weren’t designed for ground assaults, and certainly not for hovering the way this one was. I needed to reach Shadow – or bring her to me.
“Shadow -,” I began, but then I was distracted by a thud behind me. I turned just in time to see the Prince lying crumpled on the floor, with Lord Du Claw standing over him. My turn wasn’t quite in time to stop Isabella, Nina and Francesca from shoving me over the balcony railing.
“Die, you meddling fool!” Nina snarled in a rather unladylike manner.
That wasn’t likely to happen; it was only one story to the ground, and with some intervening shrubbery to help break my fall, I landed on my feet, as usual. I smiled up at the Empress and her two ladies in exile, having foiled their attempt once again. She glared down at me from the window.
“Your Imperial Majesty should know by now –,” I said.
But she did not appear to be listening; none of them did. Instead, they froze in place, went all sparkly, and then they disappeared from the balcony. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, and that they had stepped back into the room.
A Ramses’ fighter – an unmarked Pincer III – flashed past the fighters on a strafing run on the Squaller, but its pulse cannons didn’t reach the ship’s hull. Blue lightning arched from the ship and struck the Pincer, and it careened out of sight. The Spitzes flew into the Squaller’s launch tubes, and the carrier rocketed uncharacteristically away into the stratosphere.
“Secure the perimeter,” Marquand spoke into his com, then tapped his ear a couple of times before declaring, “It’s fried.”
“It’s too late for that – the Empress and the others have escaped,” I said. “And they’ve taken the Prince!”
What is that devious Isabella up to with Baast? Where have they taken Prince Octavio? Will Herc Tom be able to stop them? I think you know how to find out…
“Cats Out of the Bag” is a novelette, available at many online retailers, including, but not limited to:
The story is also available in the collection Cats of War II, which is again available at – and still not limited to – the following retailers:
Smashwords (at 50% off using coupon MY43S): https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/988666?ref=NoTimeToThink
As a reminder, “Purr Mission” (the first Herc Tom story) is available for FREE everywhere – you can find links on my Current Book Promotion page. Within the pages of “Purr Mission” lurks a link for a FREE copy of “Nipped in the Butt” (the second story in the series.) Enjoy!
Honest ratings and reviews are, as always, appreciated. Just saying…
Current Book Promotions
For information on my current promotions (including the FREE Presale and reduced price preorders for Cats of War III, my participating books in the 14th Annual Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale, as well as FREE starter eBooks for my Herc Tom, Champion of the Empire series and my Detective Jimmy Delaney series), look HERE on my CURRENT BOOK PROMOTIONS page.
William Mangieri’s writing has been published on Daily Science Fiction and The Arcanist. His ninety or so short stories and related collections can be found at several online retailers, including, but not limited to:
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