On a plaza at the edge of downtown San Francisco, Oz and Drew—Crown Princess of Pacifica and Crown Prince of Midlam—find Finn as he steps out of a broken down, burned-out egg-shaped ship cloaked in the recesses of a portal. With no memory of who or from which When he is, Finn is a puzzle that time-traveler Oz wants to solve—with the help of Drew, a cat named Wick, and the extremely touch-phobic Emperor.
As they come closer to assembling the puzzle, Oz realizes that the picture isn't of who Finn might be or which When he's from, but of the Emperor she's known all her life. As a teenager, he saved the life of six-year-old Crown Price Jackson, but King Jackson is now forty-three and the Emperor a year younger, and no one knows where he came from or why he refuses to be touched—or even his name.
Oz describes him as an icon of the city and protector of all, but she's beginning to wonder: who is the Emperor, really? With all of time at her beck and call, she's determined to find out.
Max Thompson, with an assist from his person, K.A. Thompson starts a series that features aliens and time travel and all sorts of things—all told from the cat's point of view, of course. The Emperor of San Francisco is the first book in one of K.A. Thompson's—Max Thompson's?—most popular series. Finish this one, and you'll have a lot more cat fiction ahead of you. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"One needs not be a feline aficionado to fall into the pages of Wick's narrative; by the time you close the book, you'll want a Wick of your own whether you liked cats before or not. 'The Emperor of San Francisco' is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and will prod a few tears. It is an engaging read that will leave you searching for the next book in the series."– Ian Murphy – author of “Murphy’s World”
"Wow! What starts off as an engaging, witty, time travel, 'who is the Emperor?' mystery evolves into a complex commentary on humanity and our current society. It's a page turner - funny, sweet, sad, poignant, altruistic, hopeful."– Devaah – Amazon reviewer
"In a vastly different literary offering, Thompson's launch of a fiction series is nothing less than a treat. But don't expect anything less than 2 ugly cries, so best read in private. The sense of Story is actually enhanced by cat-as-narrator, rather than detracting from it, and we can't wait for the second in this remarkable new series."– V. Henderson – Amazon reviewer
I watch the people. It's practically my job: I follow them around while they attend to the minutiae of their lives, observe and pass silent judgment, and interfere when the need or the whim strikes me. Their need for supervision cuts into some prime napping time, but it's part of the package. They feed me, provide treats both crunchy and meaty; they give me a warm place to live and dozens of beds to choose from, attention whether I want it or not, finger-scratches just behind my ears where I like it most and under my collar where I like it second most, and in turn I run along behind or beside them, paying attention to the minutiae of their lives.
(Okay, they usually carry me, but that's not the point.)
(Sometimes I ride on their shoulders. I haven't fallen yet.)
This has been my life for longer than anyone can remember. I was there when the King was a baby, I was there when the Emperor saved his princely six-year-old asterisk from the side of the bridge, I was there when he became King, there when he spawned—which was frankly kind of disturbing—and I'm still here. I know I was alive for a long time before any of them were born, but I've forgotten most of what came before.
The details sometimes come to me in wisps formed from faded pictures tucked into the back of my head, but I can never just sit back and think them forward in my brain.
No one really questions why I'm still here; the princess once asked how old I was, but the King told her—quietly, I don't know why, it's not as if my hearing was worse than any of theirs—that my age was something about which we do not ask, lest we jinx the ancient but still active kitty.
I was here before him, I know that much.
I may live forever.
I hate the water; I hate being out on the pier, where there are birds of every imaginable level of rudeness and where the water often behaves badly and laps up onto the wood, splattering on my fur. Oz—the Crown Princess of Pacifica, though I've never seen her wear a hat, much less a crown—on the other hand, loves to sit on one of the old, creaky benches at the end of the pier so that she can watch those rude feathery rats fly over the water, and wave at the ferries that come and go. When she gets tired of that, she turns around and watches the city, though I haven't figured out why.
It never changes; every day it's the same skyline, and has been for all of my memory. It used to be significantly dirtier and the city was quite a bit louder, but the views are all the same. The Ferry Building, the fountain on the Plaza, the jutting of buildings into the sky, often shrouded in thick, gray fog. The Embarcadero always runs along the water; Market Street always stretches out as far as I can see. It's the same thing, day in and day out, and has been that way for hundreds of years; the people worked hard to keep it that way.
Oz liked looking at it. I didn't get it, but understanding her wasn't my job.
She wanted to sit out there on a bench facing the bridge, so there I was, too, mostly minding my own business as I avoided droplets of ocean pinging off me. I wasn't too sure about the guy she was with, Prince Andrew of Midlam, but only because he was tall and loud and smelled like dog, and the last time I'd seen him he was tall and loud and smelled like cheese. I like cheese; dogs, not so much. I wedged myself between them—there was nothing in the rulebook that said I couldn't act as the royal supervisor right along with being the watcher—and stole the warmth that leeched off their legs.
"You know what I've noticed this summer?" she asked him. "No more uncomfortable looking dress slacks and starched shirts and perfect haircuts. You don't look regal at all these days. You look…normal."
He didn't; Andrew Van Hoff—Drew—looked anything but regal. He wore faded jeans that were worn to thin white threads in spots and beat up running shoes, his sweatshirt was frayed in spots at the hem, and his overly-blond hair was a jumbled mess of spikes and hair product; I'm pretty sure it was groomed every morning by that dog I could smell on him.
"You're not exactly princess-y yourself, sunshine," he countered.
She wasn't, either. The Crown Princess of Pacifica was tall, but not as tall as Drew; she favored jeans and t-shirts, she had short, black hair that was prone to odds and ends sticking out here and there—I may or may not help with that while she sleeps every night—and she'd spent her life playing against stereotypes that had held on for centuries and all the things people expected from her. While other little girls played house, she played racquetball against the Emperor and she trained in the martial arts; while they took ballet lessons, she hosted tournaments where the end goal was to hit other people until they either cried or a referee told her to stop.
I don't think she knew it, but that was almost by design. She had been a fiercely independent and stubborn toddler and her parents didn't want her to lose that innate toughness. The other kids her age were free to embrace or reject the old stereotypes, and to change their minds from day to day; they knew—peppered by reminders from the Emperor—what she was headed for, and knew she needed to be stronger than most to handle it.
I don't think she even owned a dress, and if she did, it had a thick layer of dust as it languished in the back of the closet and was probably ten sizes too small.
Oh yeah, I avoided the closet. Something in there made a horrible buzzing sound, and I didn't trust it to not be alive and hungry.
Oz and Drew had known each other since they were short, sticky people. Their kingdoms were strong allies; Midlam relied on Pacifica for military aid where their forces were thin, and Pacifica relied on Midlam for food staples that didn't grow well here but thrived there. They traded cattle for grain and wine for technology; they had a mutual goal of sustaining their people in comfort and safety, and the border between the two countries was left open.
The King of Pacifica and Queen of Midlam had been friends their entire lives, and the families met several times a year simply to spend time together. There were annual official meetings where business was conducted and deals were struck, but more often than that the Van Hoffs of Midlam spent a week or two visiting San Francisco, and the Blackshears of Pacifica took their spawn to Chicago.
The friendship they maintained rolled over to their kids. When the Van Hoffs were visiting, Drew and his older brother Carter played on the grass-lawn roof of the royal house with Oz and her younger brother Zed, and I stayed a comfortable distance away, keeping an eye on them. When they were older, maybe eleven or twelve—outgrowing the sticky stage but still loud and not-thinking a lot of the time—Oz and Zed spent part of the summer in Chicago with Drew, and then brought him back until school started.
Carter was older and not interested in spending much time with them. I rarely saw him, even when he was staying in the guest room next to Zed's, and knew nothing about him other than he was not as tall and did not have blond hair like Drew's, and he did not know how to walk quietly through the hallways.
I was familiar with Drew, but that didn't mean I fully trusted him as a person. He'd never done anything mean to me and had even tried to be friends, offering me bits and bites of food, but he was loud and not as gentle as I preferred. I kept my distance until he showed up at the start of summer without his family and moved into one of the guest rooms down the hall from Oz and Zed.
Even with the dog-smell, it was time to get to know him. He had been talking to Oz online and on the phone for years; they used video chat to see each other when they weren't visiting, and if she liked him enough to keep in touch with him that closely, I figured I might as well risk it. He wasn't as loud anymore—though he did have a deep voice that sounded like a shot going off if he raised it—and he patiently waited for me to come to him.
There was also the bigger picture that made me want to pay closer attention to him. When they were just starting to turn from little sticky things into medium-sized clumsy people, the King and the Prince Consort of Midlam joked that one day they would agree on a dowry and marry them off to each other, uniting the kingdoms into one. It was just a joke, something said to make the kids squirm and protest (and it did; Drew swore he would never get married, because, girls) but a year or two later Drew brought it up to Oz: "What if we really thought about that? I'm supposed to be King someday but I really don't want to, and you're supposed to be Queen and you're okay with that, and then we really could make Pacifica and Midlam one big country. We could bring back the United States."
She wasn't opposed to the idea. They made a pact to talk at least three times a week and to never keep secrets, and no matter what, to stay friends.
Drew was blunt, too. "Face it, your dad makes more decisions for Midlam than my mom does. If she didn't have him to advise her, we probably would have surrendered to Canada five years into her taking the throne. And Canada has never been a threat."
Oz thought that Drew's mother was a reasonable ruler, but he argued that she was kind, and kindness did not mean she was also any good at it. "I don't think I will be, either."
He wanted to study history—something she could show him personally, taking him on trips through the portals, going back in time—and he wanted to dabble in political science. That surprised her, because he was mostly interested in reading science fiction, and he was extremely excited about new stories where people traveled in space and shot each other with laser beams.
After Oz finished high school, he moved to San Francisco to finish his university studies. They'd told their parents that an education truly was the major reason he wanted to live in San Francisco, but no one was fooled. Midlam had some of the best universities in the world. The truth was that they both knew Oz didn't want to leave San Francisco, and if they were going to get to know each other well enough to someday make a commitment, he needed to move.
So there he was, sitting next to Oz on a bench near the water, and I was in between them, doing my job. Watching. Listening. Keeping them six inches apart.
"That bridge," Drew said. "The Bay Bridge. I'm ninety per cent sure it's called something else in Midlam's history books."
"If you're old school it's still the Bay Bridge. Most of us call it the Emperor's Bridge. It's had a dozen names over the four or five times it's been rebuilt, but that's the favorite."
"Cripes, the Emperor. Crazy old dude, still makes me nervous. He always scared the crap out of me when I was little. It was like every time I was sneaking off to do something I wasn't supposed to, he was there, growling at me."
"Beloved crazy dude, not old. And he's not even that crazy. He's just particular and maybe a little strict with kids. For everyone else? He's an icon of the city, protector of us all."
"I stand corrected. Okay, it's the Emperor's Bridge. It'll take you to Treasure Island, where there is, to my understanding, no treasure."
"There's wine," she said. "And possible radioactive waste. But we put concrete over that part, so it should be fairly nontoxic."
"Well, I certainly feel safer now, thanks. How long does it take to walk to the probably-safe radioactive waste site, if one feels compelled to visit?"
"An hour or so on foot. Fifteen minutes on an air bike. I recommend the bike, since there's no place to stop and pee if you need to."
He shrugged. "I could just pee off the side of the bridge."
"You're just a classy prince, aren't you?"
"Oz, if you want class, you need to find another prince. Not having to be stuffy and pretentious is one reason I was so eager to come here. You have normal schools with normal people, your family is super normal and they've liked me since I was born. Everything I know about you says you're a lot like me, but better suited to the whole being in charge thing. I snap to judgment too quickly when I shouldn't and I'm slow to make up my mind when I need to be quick."
"So I won't need to poison you in your sleep in order to grab the crown if we merge Pacifica and Midlam."
"There might be other things you want to kill me for, but it won't be because I want the crown. I'm perfectly happy with the idea of being a kept man—as long as the one keeping me is my wife. I'm not, like, you know…my brother."
"Yeah, sure," Oz snickered. "I know all about the six girls you were stringing along your last year of high school and the ten others your first two years in college."
"My fantasy life doesn't count."
"And you're just fine with being the guy standing just to the right of the throne while I point at our loyal subjects and bark 'off with his head!' at random people. It won't bother you?"
Hey, I want to see that. I bet you would even wear the crown.
"As long as I get to keep my head. Besides, it makes sense for you to rule. Midlam's army is small and not especially well armed. Pacifica's military is much bigger and has all the cool war toys. I'm a science fiction geek who spends all his free time with his nose in books, and you're far more rounded. Plus, you can hurt people." He crossed his legs. "I've seen you kick."
"I didn't ask if it made sense. I asked if it would bother you."
Drew leaned back, snaking his arm behind her on the bench; I glared at him, a warning to keep his sticky boy-fingers to himself.
He must have felt the wrath of my glare, because his hand stayed right where it was supposed to, on the top rail of the bench, fingers resting on the back side, a good two inches from her back. "Midlam is traditionally a matriarchy, you know that. The only reason I'm next in line is because I don't have a sister and because my older brother would rather run naked through a blizzard than rule over anything more than a chess tournament. I was raised believing that women are better suited to head the state. So, no, it doesn't bother me. It means I can go about my business, indulge in my passions, and leave the country in more capable hands. Besides…you have that whole tripping through time thing going for you. You can access things I'll never be able to."
She doesn't trip, dude. She just walks right into the portal.
"That's actually an argument for me not being the head of state, if I want to keep doing that," she mused. "Once I take the throne, I'm basically stuck here."
"Doesn't your father still pop through time every now and then?"
"Rarely. It's not worth the risk. The last time he did, the Emperor—" she stopped and turned toward the sound that cut through my head like a tiny surgical blade. In unison we turned to look down the Embarcadero, almost like we'd practiced it; there was the shimmering of a portal, one that had never been there before.
If I could see it, Oz could see it; portal-blind Drew would just have to take her word.
She popped him on the arm several times in her excitement. "Look, look, look, look, look. Holy cow, I think a new portal is opening. And there's something in it, just beyond the opening."
Drew stood up, leaving my entire left side cold.
We need to discuss your manners, dog boy.
"Let's go, then. I've never seen someone come through one before."