Bay was discovering the advantages to her new form, as well as the strange disadvantages. Shoes no longer fit comfortably, but her walking was getting smoother and easier. She liked the claws; always a small woman, she had learned early to fight dirty, and liked the added advantage of a hidden weapon. She liked the teeth, too, although they took some getting used to, to talk around, to eat with. But the vibrissae, as their handlers insisted on calling them… those took more than a little adjustment. They felt as if the whole world was pulling on her face with every move. And, while they gave her a sense of body space that was new, and windflow, she wasn’t sure they were worth the drawbacks.
She had discovered, while experimenting with this form, that her sense of smell was a lot sharper, and her hearing clearer and more directional. She could swivel her new ears to find secrets whispered behind corners, and smell out strange and new things.
In the deep-underground facility where the Agency was training them, there shouldn’t have been much to smell out. Most of their confined world smelled very carefully neutral; as if anticipating their noses being sensitive, the slaves who cleaned this area used very mellow chemicals, and their handlers did not wear perfume or cologne. Nothing was there to distract and offend their noses, nothing but dinner… and the people themselves.
After she’d gotten her nose bapped once by a handler, Bay had stopped sniffing the royals and free-citizens who trained them, but they didn’t seem to mind if the cats sniffed each other, and her nose was un-attacked when she started sniffing the slaves who took care of them. People smelled fascinating, each one a new bouquet of hormones and sweats and the food they’d had for dinner the day before. The tall one with green eyes and red hair liked her food very spicy. The one with the short-cropped black hair and blue eyes was fond of mint – and was dressed as a boy.
Bay waited to get her alone, which took some doing, and cornered her in a room, barely resisting the urge to pin her to the wall. “Why?” she demanded.
“I told Em you wouldn’t like the curry,” she grumbled. “Sorry, it won’t happen again. You can tell the kitchen staff yourself, you know.”
Bay shook her head impatiently. “Not that.” Three weeks in, and she was still fighting to make her new mouth use words properly. “You’re a girl.”
“You’re mistaken.” The slave shook her head. “No. I’m Jas, and I’m a boy.” Now, she stank of panic, as well as the underlying smell of girl. Bay curled up on the bed, still between “Jas” and the door, but trying to look less threatening.
“This nose can tell,” she explained, or tried to, pointing at her face with one hand-paw. “You’re close, but you still smell like a girl. Why’d you want to be a boy, anyway?” Bad enough, being a girl slave. Why downgrade even further?
Jas sat down, looking pale. “You won’t tell anyone?”
“Handlers won’t get it. Dunno about slaves. The other cats…” she tapped her nose again. “The smell will tell them. Why?”
“It’s… it’s complicated,” she said weakly. “But the Lords at my former Mistress’ House…”
“Ah.” Bay understood that. Some of the high-bred men would leave you alone. Some made it the Lady’s blessing, and it was lovely, and proper. Some were just ham-handed and mean. “But you’re not there anymore.”
“No.” She shook her head slowly. “I’m not. You think I can mask my scent?”
“May-ay-be. The curry covers everything. And then some. But this place… there’s no Lords, not like that.” There were always Lords and Ladies, but the Agency tried to stay outside the hierarchies.
“No,” Jas admitted, “but I got to like it. I feel more at home as a boy than I ever did as a girl.”
“We..e..el,” Bay pondered. “You’re not the only one down here pretending. And if they can turn us into cats..”
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