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Other than Tuesdays, Pharaoh would only pop by on occasional evenings once or twice a week, primarily for the huge tub. He and his brother had a little one in their flat, but it wasn’t the same. The Th’nashi were big on the hot tub thing, actually using them to bathe in with each other, which I approved of as being sensible and not wasteful, although a lot of humani thought it was disgusting. When he was there, he would chat to me a bit, and it was nice, if one-sided. But he wasn’t anything like thoroughly underfoot, which meant at the bottom line that the majority of my days were spent with the staff.

Such as they were. By “staff” I mean the little team of 18-to-22-year-old Lion cubs who were responsible for keeping up the beautiful house Sasha’s aunt had left him, and for trying their failing best to keep tabs on Terry. Terry was pretty well protected by the archimagisterial scientific and sorcerous anointings in terms of being poison and bullet-proof, and his own life as a thug had made him more streetwise than the college kids who were assigned to keep him out of trouble. Thus, he more or less ignored the protective detail, weathering Dante’s wrath and Sasha’s glowering with a sunny oblivious smile. Everywhere he went he was supposed to have at least one of them with him, and there was always at least one assigned to the house itself, which was a far more cooperative client.

Dante was the only cat-hater who annoyed my existence, so I got along well enough with the boys, most of whom missed their own pets and “adopted” me. It took me a little while, but I soon learned that their outer souls, while far from fluent in Cat, understood such basic concepts as “pet me,” “feed me,” and “play with me.” I didn’t always get takers, the damned Playstation being heady competition, but I had to admit it was better than I’d gotten at Mrs. Roaman’s.

But I missed Fred, in a way–not, I assure you, the bullying and the pedigreed mockery. Just . . . having somebody to talk to. It wasn’t as if I would be seeing the Crucio any time soon. If ever. I began to ask myself if I wanted them to get another cat, seeing as I was going so well. However, the chances were too good that I’d wind up with somebody whose stupidity or meanness had been camouflaged by a fuzzy tail and a fetching purr. I decided that sufficient unto the day, etc., and did my best to enjoy being queen of a six-bedroom mansion, although I wasn’t allowed out into the garden–one of the cubs had almost melted under the Wrath of Sasha when that had happened for one glorious afternoon, most of which I frittered away in the fresh catnip bed they had laid out. (I don’t remember most of the afternoon, to be honest. Shameful, but worth it.)

The summer passed without any real event, and then the fall thing started to happen. There were many trees in the garden and on the street, and when the green canopy of Outdoors began to shift into paler and duller shades, it was downright eerie. I’d been prepped for this through TV, but not well enough. Most TV happens in California, after all, and the occasional gush spot on New England fall color left me cold—apparently humans see colors far more intensely than we do. But it was different when it was on top of you–and starting to fall down.

Why, oh why, didn’t they let me go Outdoors? I knew the reasons, because Pharaoh and I had a tiffy about it, in which I took advantage of his not-understanding and vented my frustration by yelling at him one afternoon, using pieces of vocabulary that were really disgraceful. Cars. Theft. Birds. (“But I am a predator! That’s what they’re for!” I didn’t give a damn about the statistics about how we could clean a neighborhood of songbirds–what we mostly had were sparrows, anyway.)

“And Boy Cats of Evil Intent. You’re not . . . old enough yet. Maybe. Hmm. All things considered, maybe it’s time that topic needs to be brought up with Sasha.” He tried to buy me off with a cat treat, but I stalked off in disgust. Boy Cats, indeed. As if they’d have a chance. We had a few in the neighborhood, and it was maddening to watch them saunter through what was MY yard. The house was air-conditioned, so the opportunities for hurling insults through the screens had been limited all summer, but I knew their names, and resented their sneers, both because I was a poor widdle indoor kitty–and because I lived with the alien freaks.

This unfortunately wasn’t improved one afternoon, when the AC had been switched off and the windows opened so that we could all enjoy a Cambridge thundershower, with an onslaught afterward of every good smell in the neighborhood, all fresh and clean. Except for Duke.

Duke was of old New England stock, as proud of his freakish paddle-paws with their seven toes as he was of the missing chunk of one of his scarred ears, and absolutely livid that my innocuous little Russian Blue crossbreed self had the nerve to sass him about crossing a yard which he had long considered part of his own territory.

He had a low, gloating voice, even for a cat, and had no problem coming up and taunting me through the open windows, going so far as to take a leisured and unburied crap in the rhododendrons outside Terry’s study. This drove me around the bend and I ran from window to window, screaming and cursing until I had to take breaks to pant.

One of Terry’s friends was visiting, and he took pity on me, finding Duke’s present the outside of enough himself. Meeze de Medici was the freakest of the freaks, in some ways–a tailsbreadth under seven feet tall and possessed of strawberry blond hair so long that it came down to his ankles when not braided up. He had won my approval by letting me use the braid as a toy, and all in all we had a fairly satisfactory cat/human friend relationship. But Meeze was both an engineer and a sorcerer, with a sotto voce purr to his outer soul that almost scared me with its power, and he believed in solving problems directly.

“No problemo, pusscat. I gotcha Evil Kitty spell right here. A bunch of them, in fact.” Meeze sauntered out to Duke and zorched his deposit right in front of him, shriveling it to nothingness in a puff of bad-smelling smoke. Duke’s eyes widened and he hunkered down for a second, poised between fight or flight. Fight won–Meeze may have been big, but those seven-clawed weapons of destruction were enough to daunt the most magnificent of souls. And indeed, Meeze reached into his hip pocket and put on his work gloves.

“Oh please. You’ll need a suit of mail to protect yourself against me,” snarled Duke, standing his ground. He poised, awaiting the scruff. From the study window, I whimpered and did a little dance of miserable anticipation. Joel, the cub on duty, didn’t seem to realize that our team was about to be scored against–literally, but was watching beside me with a relish I found inappropriate.

Meeze scruffed. With a scream of raging exultation, Duke tried to fling his weight around to break the hold or at least shred Meeze’s forearms with his back claws. But he twisted in vain. His body slammed against what appeared to be empty air, no matter how he whirled or sunfished. Being a mature tom with no fat, he didn’t have much of a scruff, and after a moment he was able to break Meeze’s hold–at least, he wrenched his neck out of Meeze’s hand. But this just left him hovering in midair, and he began screaming in terror. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

Meeze floated him out to the property line, keeping his hand in the general locale so that any humani observer would think he was seeing a masterful scruff job in the more ordinary sense. He dropped him on the other side of the hedge, and Duke dangercatted out at Mach Four. Meeze then brushed off the fur in the glove, hovering that too, and all of a sudden a network of fine-threaded fire spouted forth from them. It leapt up and bounced against an invisible barrier, hovering in the air about Meeze’s head.

“Damn,” the redhead said cheerfully. He came back inside.

“What happened?” asked Joel. “What was that last spell?”

“Plan was that whenever Mr. Kitty’s DNA touches our grounds, he’ll get a little zap through his feet. Sort of like an invisible fence. But our other defensive spells won’t let me piggyback onto them without Pharaoh’s password. Still, I’d say I put the fear o’ weird on him. Teach him to crap in our yard. No, Eureka’s yard!” He ruffled my neck, and I meowed in gratitude. It was the thought that counted.

Joel thought a bit. “Wouldn’t that spell possibly hurt him, though? What if he landed in the middle of our yard from a tree branch, and got zapped? But in every direction he ran, he still got zapped? And had a heart attack from fear or something? Isn’t that why you’re not supposed to whack sorcery around in the first place?”

Meeze sighed, and I did too. Whose side was this kid on? But Meeze said, “Yeah, that’s why ‘you’re not supposed to whack sorcery around in the first place’. But it’s a calculated risk. I’m betting it would take a helluva lot to stop that battleaxe’s heart. That’s why it’s a tailor-made spell. Still, if Pharaoh consents, I’ll put the overhanging trees in too. Just to suit you. Okay?” Joel nodded, and I sighed again.

Then I caught myself being a diva. I belonged to a pathologist with alien DNA, who lived with the Archimago of Nova Terra in a house which was protected by the District Sorcerer’s spells. And I was getting huffy because some yahoo made a litter pan out of a piece of ground I might never touch with my own paws.

Well, yes. Yes, I was. I sniffed. Lese majeste, indeed!

But time passed, and something inside of me changed. One early October morning, I awoke from the only safe spot on the boys’ bed (up above Sasha’s pillow) feeling the queerest sort of vibration, which I couldn’t quite place. I went down and used the pan, which felt a little different, as if something was swollen inside of me. Not painful, really, just . . . different. I poked and licked and padded afterwards, but whatever was amiss wasn’t going to be tweaked like an errant lock of fur. I told myself that I was being a hypochondriac, and went to the kitchen for a nibble.

It was 5:30, and the cubs were changing shifts. They had had pizza last night–hmm, maybe my internal unrest had to do with that large chunk of cheese and piece of sausage? Nah, it was a regular thing of habit by now. Ned Carlos, who was new to the team, was taking out the boxes through the back door, and (I knew this was naughty, but each cat for herself) I slipped out behind him into the wonder that was the Cambridge dawn.

I only had a few seconds before Ned came back from the trash and his outer soul spotted me far faster than a humani’s eyes would have in the shadows, so I made the most of it, having a roll in the catnip bed, unfrightened by the warning spells Pharaoh and Meeze had set up to ward away the neighborhood competition. I could only stand the shivers they were sending through me for so long, though, and I bounced up to the garden wall, surveying the deserted street outside and soaking in the sight of all those mysterious houses and cars, each a puzzle to be solved: Whose were they? What lives did they live?

And that’s when I heard the singing. Loud and proud, it was Duke! Of all people! An answering tingle in my belly told me that that was what had awoken me in the first place. Without thinking twice–well, without thinking once, I leapt over the wall and went in pursuit, a newmade fangirl in my fascination. I felt Ned’s consternation and didn’t care. I’d be back later. Yup, later.