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When I awoke, the Pharaoh was sitting next to me, curled up tailor-fashion, knitting.

“Ooh!” I said, and headed for the dancing string from sheer reflex. He gave a little mock scream and bounced the ball out onto the floor for me to fully enjoy. Long before I was done, however, he scooped me out of the yarn.

“I knew you needed a nap, poor sweetie, but the Crucio has about a shadow of a minute and has consented to have an audience with you. Boyhood friend, but don’t tell him I told you so,” he added. “Now this will feel a little odd–”

It did. Everything went all cold and tingly, but in a pleasant sort of way. I wondered if this would be what snow felt like. I could have sworn I heard the Song of Bast somewhere, and then it was over. I opened my eyes, only then realizing that I had burrowed myself in the Pharaoh’s sweater for all I was worth. My ears flushed as I retracted my claws. “Sorry,” I muttered, even though he couldn’t understand me. I hoped he wouldn’t notice the strand that I’d pulled fuzzy.

He sighed, and did some more sorcery that fixed it (so much for the not noticing) and rubbed my ears, radiating sincere affection. “We’re here, little lady.”

I gasped and went stiff. It was snow–lots and lots of it. On mountains. Was it a window? Or just the world’s biggest TV? I wriggled down to get a closer look. There wasn’t any snow on the ground–we were inside–but the black marble was so shiny I could see myself. I didn’t do myself any credit, but it didn’t seem like the time and place to wash. I continued to the window/TV, which took up one whole curving wall of the huge round room, and hopped up onto the seat. Window, I decided. But wow! Where in the Discovery Channel were we? Mountains for days! And the moon was full!

Then I jumped a foot and spat, dashing back to the Pharaoh and hiding behind him. There was a . . . ghost or something. A tall man in black, the biggest one I’d seen yet, was sitting on the window seat. I hadn’t noticed him because he had no outer soul at all. It wasn’t like when Mrs. Roaman died, because I could see him breathe. The Pharaoh wasn’t upset at all, though. He bent down and picked me back up.

“For the love of God, My Lord, drop the damned spells. You’ve frightened her out of her wee wits. It’s all right, Eureka. This is the Crucio. You can talk with him. I promise you he won’t hurt you.”

“And I’m not a supernatural being. Well, on most days.” The huge man got up and walked over to me. Up close, I put him at a shade shorter than Terry, but about three times his bulk. And none of it fat. He had pale gray eyes that crinkled when he smiled, and suddenly I wasn’t frightened, especially as he turned his outer soul on. (Even the Pharaoh relaxed just a tiny bit when he did so, boyhood pal or not.)

“Football?” I mewed. I had a bad habit of saying snarky things to humans which Fred had only encouraged. Most people have no idea what’s coming out of our mouths.

But, “Sheep,” he said. In Cat. Almost perfect Cat, albeit with a weird accent. The Pharaoh cracked up. He had to put me down while he pulled up a comfortable looking chair.

“I’m so sorry, My Lord. I’d just . . . ha ho . . . never heard you  . . .  *snort* . . . meow before.”

The Crucio ignored him. “I grew up on a farm hauling about huge sheep. Puts one in condition like nothing else. Nowadays, I mostly have to work out like anybody else, or I’ll go to seed. Runs in my family.” He put up a hand to one of his small human ears and flirted it around a little, to make “family” mean my-blood-line and not the-people-I-live-with. I was impressed.

“I didn’t mean to be rude. Well, I sort of did. I usually am. I’m sorry.” I wanted this guy to like me. Or at least not make me into kibble, which I somehow knew he could. “If you’ll pardon me, sir, how do you come to speak our language?”

“It comes with the anointing into the Cruciate. An old, old spell. Some ancient Crucio was a linguist who loved his cats, and part of the sorceries that have now been literally threaded into my skin–you can go now, Pharaoh,” he added in English, frowning.

My British friend was by now in tears, showing that he couldn’t understand a word, since nothing funny had been said. He nodded, making little moaning noises. He pulled a sky-colored robe out of nowhere and put it on, then headed for the door in the opposite wall, still sounding as if he were going to be sick on the rug.

“You’re just jealous!” the Crucio called after him.

“True, true.” He left, still snickering.

The Crucio sighed. “Pharaoh is a linguist himself. He speaks over a dozen human languages, and if he only could hear and reproduce the proper frequencies, would put me to shame. The fact that the Crucio or Crucia can talk to cats is a secret, but he wormed it out of an old Crucia when he suspected her of doing it. I’m sure he’s been just dying to see me at it.”

“Is he really Pharaoh of Egypt, or is it some sort of Th’nashi title like His Grace’s? And yours?” I asked, with all the manners I had.

The Crucio laughed. “Oh my, no. It’s the poor bastard’s given name. Although I shouldn’t poke fun, seeing what I got handed myself. But that’s one of the perqs of the office–you give up your name. I’m just ‘the Crucio’ or ‘My Lordship’ now, and that suits me. Besides, nobody dares laugh. Big creepy bald guy can turn them into peanut butter.” His eyes twinkled as he ran a hand over his shaved head.

“Anyway, I’ve got a meeting with the Archimago of Water in half an hour, so this must be fast. Put your listening ears on, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

It was quite the half hour, and if I weren’t really sitting there looking out at the nighttime of what I learned were the Himalayas, when minutes before I’d been in a Boston afternoon, I would only have believed half of it. But . . . Maybe you had to be there, but that window was the realest thing I’ve ever seen. Despite its thickness, it was like ice to my pads when I put my paws up against it. The room was jutting out on a spur in the very middle of the mountains–Everest over there, looking just like any of the rest of them, K2 over here looking a bit prettier from the angle we had of the moonlight. The Crucio had to stroke me with one massive finger to get my attention back, but he laughed and said that if the window hadn’t had that effect, it meant there was something wrong with me.

I asked a lot of stupid questions, and wasted five minutes doing the pee wiggle before he very nicely sent a servant for a litter pan for me. (It was black plastic, presumably to match the rest of the decor.) But the upshot of it all was this:

The Th’nashi were descended from aliens who dumped them off 5000 years ago presumably to fail at taking over the Earth. They interbred with the humans–excuse me, the humani–which is why they can’t be told apart at first or even second glance. But for cultural reasons, the alien scientists who did the genesmushing didn’t get rid of the blood thing: 90% of the Th’nashi can’t make their own blood without a goose from humani blood. Or that of one of the other 10%. They’re called Grails, and Sasha is one. Terry is a Fang. (Duh, even the Crucio admitted they weren’t verbally creative, but we all live on a planet called Dirt so what can you do?)

There aren’t all that many Th’nashi, but they have their own little bloodsucking culture, which they call Contract. They’re divvied up into Districts. “Water” is all the little islands in the Pacific. Great Britain, where the Crucio grew up with Pharaoh and the sheep is “Albion,” and my own Terry is the Archimago heading up “Nova Terra,” meaning the Northeastern Seaboard of the U.S. (Apparently the Privy Councillors aren’t the bosses after all, but from Dante’s tone of outer soul, I don’t think he got the memo.)

There are Th’nashi cops, called the Order of the Lions of Mercy. One of the things they do is patrol the great Hunts of the new and full moons, when the Th’nashi sneak about pouncing on humani. (Dai’yaht was the full moon one and was just over; that’s how Sasha happened to be on call that night and saved me: The moon was full, and the usual guy was a Lion and off working it. Go figure. Although I’d like to think he might have saved me too. I don’t like thinking about the alternatives where I don’t get saved.)

And then there were the sorcerers. I’d already seen Pharaoh do the basic stuff: get glasses, towel, and me from Point A to Point B; and the Crucio’s Cat accent (which he said was Tibetan from the locals) was still sharp enough to convince me.

The Lions and the sorcerers spent most of their energy keeping the humani from finding out about the Th’nashi, although the pouncing was helped along by them secreting special venoms that erased about ten minutes of the poor bastards’ memories and healed the wounds super-quick. (That was why Sasha’s neck smelled funny but didn’t have any holes.) And the fangs themselves hid up behind the normal teeth and were retractable. The Crucio very nicely bounced his in and out, even letting me peer up into his mouth to see where they fit.

All Th’nashi could communicate after a fashion using their more flexible outer souls, which they called their g’nah. Thus the handless petting which I was already getting used to. And that’s about it. We could have kept going, but the Crucio’s secretary poked his head in and made eyebrows twice. So he did this wicked cool spell and gave me a glowy dragonfly to follow all the way down the hallways to find Pharaoh, who met me halfway, following a dragonfly of his own.

I was a little disturbed inside by something the Crucio had said in passing, though. He’d told the secretary at the first set of eyebrow-making that talking to the cat of the most annoying archimago he had to supervise had political benefit. I wondered if he wanted me to spy on Terry, but figured that I had a good read on his outer soul, once he turned it on, and it mostly seemed that he was considering it a sort of break from work—the sigh when he conjured up my dragonfly was genuine. I think being Crucio is possibly not much fun. Poor guy. Maybe Pharaoh would let me visit again, although I’d hate it if he tried to Officially Debrief me or something.

And then we were back in Terry’s office. Pharaoh put me back on the windowseat and went off to work (he’s the District Sorcerer, which I gather is some kind of important) and I passed out cold. You would too, if you’d been to the Himalayas and back in an hour.