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The brick of the sidewalk felt odd under my pads, and after about a block I began to notice it. It was somewhere at the boundary between uncomfortable and annoying, and I told myself I needed to toughen up after Sasha’s Auntie Rosa’s lovely carpets and gleaming hardwood. I knew deep down inside that this was somewhat untrue; I didn’t need to toughen up because it wasn’t as if I was going to be out here for very long. Right?

My outer soul kept brushing Ned’s, which was panicking. He didn’t know me super well, so it was hard for him to get a reliable fix on me. Every time he did, I would shrug it off, going underneath cars so the metal would run fingers through the college kid’s g’nah and confuse him. He stayed with me, though, or at least was trying to. Right now I sympathized with Terry wholeheartedly.

Every so often the archimago would slip out in the middle of the night for a couple of unbothered hours. He would come back smelling of other people’s expensive cars and a great deal of smugness. Of their cars, mind you, not of them; bizarre as it seemed I was pretty sure he was stealing them. Or at least moving them; a last hurrah? A practical joke? Sticking it to the man on several levels? Whichever, ducking a persistent Lion, even a 20-something cub, took moxie and talent. Me, I was fine on moxie, but my native talent kept being distracted by the turmoil in my nether regions.

It had been a block and a half, and I was almost there. There was a construction site in the area, where some lucky nouveau riche would someday have a stately home. I couldn’t detect Ned anymore, so I slowed down. Something timid inside me told me he might get into trouble through my intransigence, but I told it to shut up. I wanted to listen.

Duke was sitting on a stack of plywood sheets turned on their edges, eyes half shut as he sang his song. I’m not a singer or a poet, and I don’t have a head for lyrics–if I were human, I’d need a karaoke machine and a map to get me through my favorite song–so I can only give you the gist. It was about it being a marvelous night for a moondance, with the stars up above in my eyes–and he opened his and looked right into mine. I got shivers.

Then he started singing about romance, and his eyes got bigger and bigger. I edged closer. He smirked, and asked if he could have just one more moondance with me–

“My love?” He sounded both wistful and sarcastic. I purred. I wanted to dance. Maybe a moondance would turn off that alarm clock south of my ribs. The moon itself had set, but the streetlight over the abandoned yard could be made to do, couldn’t it? I sashayed forward, stretching out my forepaws and raising my hips as high as they would go.

“And scene!” It was Terry. Where the hell had he come from?

Before I could so much as straighten out, the yard erupted in Th’nashi and sorcery. Poor Duke evaporated, his tail stringing along behind him in the streetlight like that cat Links on Joel’s PC.

“And good riddance!” called Devon. He was a nice boy from Ohio, the senior of the cubs, Terry’s man-at-arms, and the “daddyest” of them all in terms of not letting me have any unscheduled fun–for at least a week, I had suspected the Th’nashi of some sort of puppet-mastering and that Sasha pulled the young man’s strings as far as cats were concerned.  But he was fond of me. Still intoxicated on the catnip and song and whatnot, I leaned against him and purred loudly. Maybe if I could talk everybody into a moondance, nobody would get into trouble.

Devon knelt down and started scritching my back, ending up at a spot right before my tail I swear I didn’t know I had. I raised my butt by reflex, my own purr drowning my ears.

“Yeahhhh?” I asked, rolling at his feet and looking at him upside down. Devon was cracking up.

“Looks like we got here just in the nick of time.” He reached down and did that long smooth ears-to-tail petting thing, aiding and abetting it with his outer soul. Ooh baby!

“OK, farm boy, quit seducing Sasha’s cat.” Terry was laughing himself. “Um, we were in the nick of time, weren’t we, Pharaoh?”

The sorcerer stepped forward, pushing his glasses up on his nose. He was wearing nothing but a wife-beater, ragged sweats, and flip-flops, and smelled as if he had recently gated. I realized that Ned had probably called him and gotten him out of bed. His outer soul had that ruffled feeling, although the Lions all seemed to wake up as quickly as their cat namesakes.

“Let’s see.” He picked me up and muttered a moment or two under his breath. A slight sting tingled my business parts. “No, no other DNA but hers. This time. Maybe Sasha will listen to reason now.”

“He was all about ‘operative risk’ and ‘kittens aren’t the worst thing’,” volunteered Terry, sounding resigned.

“Yes, well, maybe now that his princess took off like dammit out of hell following her bliss, he’ll think twice,” groused Pharaoh. “I can’t believe you had the forethought to grab your damned video box, but maybe seeing will be believing.”

The archimago heh’d. “What will the Order do to poor Ned? Seeing as he was fighting biology on this one?”

Devon laughed. “If you’re not upset at our rousting you for advice, Your Grace, then it’s all good. No harm done, thank God.”

“Wouldn’t have missed it,” said Terry with great cheer. He was a morning person.

Sasha was just finished shaving when we all got back, and so hadn’t noticed anything yet; it was clear that this in itself annoyed him no end.

“Didn’t want to worry you, sir,” said Devon, not quite making eye contact and pretending that he hadn’t made the call to wake the Archimago of Nova Terra and the District Sorcerer before the cat’s actual owner, just because of who was scariest.

“But no harm was done?” Sasha said, echoing Devon in a firm voice, cocking an eyebrow at Terry in accusation.

“Got it all right here,” said Terry, sitting down with his laptop and plugging in the memory card from his camera.

I had come down by now, although I still wanted my tail rubbed some more, and the five minutes of infamy that followed was humiliating.

“For some reason I want to set it to Van Morrison. Can’t think why,” Terry mused. I couldn’t recall whether I knew enough Van Morrison to have an opinion, but I did know that if Terry sacrificed his own cat–his own loving little Eureka!–to the voracious mocking pit of the Internet, that I would never speak to the heartless bastard ever again.

Sasha was of apparent agreement. “You aren’t setting it to anything other than ‘erase.’” He reached over, but Terry caught his wrist.

“Are we getting her fixed?”

“I’ll think about it. It’s my say.”

“Then you have no say in what I do with my creative license.” Terry spoke with the smooth firmness of moral rectitude–he was right, and we all knew it. Sasha relaxed, and Terry wobbled. Terry was a Lion-type himself; I guess the struggle for that delete key had been more than it looked.

“Hiroshi will be happy to do it for nothing,” Pharaoh volunteered. Hiroshi was his twin, who was a vet for the zoo. At “nothing” Sasha wavered. He himself was a member of the Order–a few Grails and even humani were–and was living on their measly poverty-level stipend: Despite Auntie’s house and his wealthy boyfriend, the doctor managed on it alone, handing his professional salary over to the Order with becoming meekness.

“Would he let me scrub in?”

“Um, no-oo,” said Pharaoh, looking distressed at the thought. “You’re welcome to ask him, though.” There was a brief silence in the room. I was the only one there who didn’t know the mysterious Hiroshi, but I immediately realized from the breaths held in anticipation that such a conversation would be one of those meetings between unstoppable force and immoveable object that sells tickets. This guy was Sasha’s match, and that scared me.

“Right, then.” Sasha threw up his hands. “It’s all on you, missie. Can’t have you being the neighborhood floozie and getting hit by a car. Pharaoh, could you work that all out for me?” The rare note of honest human appeal in his voice touched me, until I realized that it was occasioned by somebody who was going to knock me unconscious and cut open my tummy. I crept under the bed and sulked myself to sleep.

For the next four days, I was treated like a wild animal when in the vicinity of any open doors–and probably for the best, as random notes from Duke’s song, and that of another couple of talented toms, would penetrate the house and make me drool a little, clicking my lower jaw as if trying not to spook a bird. But it gradually faded, and I thought the topic had been forgotten.

Then one morning I awoke to no breakfast–not even water. This was triggering, as one might imagine, and I went for the john in Terry’s office, just to make sure I could flush it as Fred had done, but Sasha scooped me up and tucked me into the bowling ball bag. Or tried to.

“Lordy, but you’re all grown up, Eureka! Damn it.” He called Pharaoh, and after a few minutes, Pharaoh showed up at the gate point in the office, carrying a beat up carrier that smelled of at least five species of animal, with the strongest being snake.

“Are you kidding me?” I appealed to him. He gave a shrug.

“Best I can do on the moment. You probably won’t need it to come home in; you’ll be too woozy.”

Sasha unnecessarily helped him tuck me in. “You know, I find it a little annoying when you talk to her like that. Like it’s condescending, coming from you.” This was sheer hypocrisy, coming from him–he had given me a terrifying slice-by-slice account of the surgery the night before, just to talk out his own nerves–and I waited to see what Pharaoh would say with a little anxiety.

But the Brit didn’t take the bait. “Can’t help it. Habit. Cats are good listeners.” Then, “You should try it some time.” A chill silence, and Pharaoh chuckled.

“Would you like me to gate you both in to Chattie?” Chatte’d’garcon was appropriately named in this instance, but it was really the Th’nashi scientific House, and had extensive offices downtown in the Poplar-Bricklight Building, where local Contract lurked, unbeknownst to the humani, who just had a vague something-or-other that the other tenants were a little weird.

“No,” said Sasha. “I’m driving to work afterwards. Thank you, though. Ready, princess?” He hoisted me and out we went, Outdoors smells being rather spoiled by the zoo. I kept expecting one of those snakes to gate in from somewhere and eat me. At least it was a nice carrier–cage, really–with openwork sides and top. Not the best carrier for the average cat–we prefer caves–but for me going on an adventure, I gave it good marks. I want to see stuff on my way to doom!

Instead of giving Sasha a non-stop cussing out, or succumbing to fatalistic misery in a heap, I found that if I sat up, I could see out of the windshield and thus was able to enjoy Boston in the dawn as we crossed the Charles River. Once we were away from Pharaoh, Sasha slipped back into being his ordinary just-the-two-of-us self, and when he noticed my interest, he gestured with his coffee cup at the various buildings.

“And that beauty over there is Poplar-Bricklight, right next to the Prudential but not quite as tall. Most expensive real-estate Contract owns. Sits on top of a three ley-confluence and is held up by a team of sixty-odd sorcerers because of bad engineering. Your pal Meeze de Medici bosses that operation. I agree with Meeze that turning the fix into straight physics and getting the hardhats in is the thing to do–hell, so does Terry. But the Nova Terra Nesh’vai doesn’t agree. And you think Congress gives the President a hard time!” He went on, but my eyes began to glaze whenever Sasha went on to politics, which he did on a regular basis, blowing off spousal steam, because the Nesh’vai basically made Terry fetch their sticks as a rule.

Instead, I looked around in the other cars, wondering if anybody else was doing the same and noticing that in ours a small blond man was haranguing his cat. No other pets except a chihuahua looking out of the window of a beat-up Honda in the next lane.

“Tsk-tsk-buena-suerte!” he called to me, which his outer soul conveyed meant “good luck.” I meowed a thanks, then we were gone, my kind fellow quadruped being scolded for barking at the kitty.

All too soon, we were sucked into a tunnel leading into a deep parking lot, with an adult Lion as the attendant letting us card our way in. His outer soul said “sorcerer,” which made sense, the Th’nashi being serious about their security. When we reached the bottom, there was just dreary parking lot and an elevator. Sash got on and pushed the 48th floor. I could feel his being nervous. His patients were pre-anesthetized, and he had no worries about them not waking up, that being why they were there and all.

We came out into hospital smells and a weird ambience that finally helped me grasp why the Th’nashi called outer souls/g’nah ping: I felt as if my sonar had been turned off. There was nothing to get hold of. Even to a humani, I expect it would have felt wrong. Maybe extra quiet, or something. I mewed a question at Sasha, hoping he’d pick up on context and explain things.

He did. “Chattie is ping-baffled, Eureka. I know it feels weird, but it’s for confidentiality. And practical considerations. You don’t want to be going down a hall and run smack into the whole group g’naiet of a lady in heavy labor and her family, trust me. The average hospital walls are just too damn thin to keep something like that in one place.

“But, no heavy labor for you, and tell the truth, after reading up on those possible complications, I’m getting more and more okay with that. ‘fact, I’d forgotten that my very first dissection back in school was a mama cat who’d died still with four kittens aboard.” Okay, Sasha, you can stop now. I usually had an endless ghoulish delight in his stories, but not today.

I could tell that Pharaoh was in the next room. No, not Pharaoh. I was stumped for a minute, then as we came in and I got a look, a little more stumped. This man pinged like Pharaoh’s twin, and sort of looked like him, but he was streaked, that’s the only way I can describe it. Unlike Pharaoh’s green-eyed Asian, this guy was a brown-eyed Asian–except that one eye was actually blue and it lived in a streak of pale skin, which fell down his face from a stripe of ginger hair. Humans being what they were, I suspected that this lovely decoration had probably been heralded as a deformity. He raised an eyebrow at Sasha, but grinned at me, his outer soul holding out its arms.

“Hello, Hiroshi. This is Eureka.” Sasha put my cage on a table.

“Good day, mate! Hello, Eureka.” Hiroshi unlatched things. “This looks quite familiar. Young lady have any words to say on its previously been full of rock python?”

“No, she’s been good as gold,” said Sasha, mendaciously covering my prior complaint.

“Or scared silly by it. Brother’s an ass. If he’d asked me, I could have come up with something better. We’ll see what she’s up to after she comes out of it. You waiting?” There was a fillip of you-better-not-be there.

“Actually, I was going to scrub in and observe, if you’d grant me the professional courtesy,” Sasha said, somehow making his bland statement a you-better-let-me.

Hiroshi clearly didn’t like this, but wasn’t too surprised. “Do you have a theatre, so you’re not breathing down my bleeding neck?” I thought to myself that Sash would have to stand on tiptoe to do that, and giggled at my own bad joke, born of nerves.

Most humans can’t detect cat laughter, but not only did Hiroshi, I swear he got the joke. He looked down at Sasha; although a Grail himself, he was about as tall as his twin at the Order’s minimum six feet. “Or maybe that’s not a worry, eh, Eureka?” He laughed at Sasha’s scowl, then relented.

“Stay out of my way, see? And no bleeding backseat surgering.” He scooped me up with firm, gentle hands, and we went into a small room filled with shiny things and an alcohol-like smell. Hiroshi was giving off a vibe of safe-as-houses, though, and I clung to the thought that, if he were the head vet of the Franklin Zoo, he must be cleared on a simple domestic cat spay. Am I right?

A cheerful lady with “red” hair that was dyed the color of a traffic light told me what a beautiful darling I was, and asked me to hold still. She had a razor in one hand.

“Watch her nipples!” barked Sasha. The redhead sniffed.

“Got some myself, Dr. Van der Linden. I do this all day long, and I haven’t bruised an animal yet.” Even as she spoke, the buzzy thing had zipped itself down my middle, indeed missing my nipples, but not by very much. I felt a pinch, but by the time I was up to working out exactly where it was, I wasn’t there anymore.