There was a sand-cat in Malina’s lap, and he was purring.
Weirder things had happened by far; if anything, the fact that there was a purring cat in her lap was made even stranger by how normal it was, compared to everything else that had happened to Malina in the last few hours.
The fact that he was sitting there, purring, while she sat in the Queen’s chambers of an abandoned castle in the middle of the desert, just after telling her that she would learn to do magic, that made it even odder.
What Malina chose to focus on, however, was not the oddness of the purring or the strangeness of the location or the weird juxtaposition of the two. Instead, it was something the cat had said almost as a throw-away comment.
“You said,” she repeated carefully, trying to hold all the words in her head at once, “that I’d done the hard part, ‘simply being me.’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
The cat looked at her with one eye. “It’s not supposed to mean anything. It has a meaning, as do many things. As do you,” the cat added, looking smug and content. He went back to purring as if he’d answered everything.
“Then what does it mean?” Malina asked. She did not sound frustrated, she was fairly sure. Her sister had given her quite a bit of practice in not sounding frustrated. “If you would be so kind as to tell me.” It was possible she might sound a little frustrated, perhaps. Maybe.
The cat did not answer for a moment. When it did, it was looking away. “You said it yourself. You have skills you are inclined to. And then you have what you are born to. Things may have changed a great deal since the time of the Final Treaty — I know only what I know, and what I know comes from what was known by sandcats when the Final Treaty was signed. But what I know says that children become students who become apprentices who reach a trade, and every step of this is guided by their inclinations. But you, every step is guided unnaturally by who you were born to. And,”
The cat ducked his head. “Who you were born to.”
“Repeating the same words twice only makes you clever if there’s a shared understanding in the dual meaning,” Malina informed the cat. She was vexed now, and was not sure she cared who knew it.
It might have helped that the only one here to see it was a cat, and while this cat was both not a housecat and prone to speaking, she had grown used to speaking to housecats quite frankly a rather long time ago.
“You were born to your parents,” the cat explained, or perhaps didn’t. “And you were born to Dominika, to Serafina, Anastazja and Naveed and, of course, to Malina. You were born to everyone whose ancestry and whose blessing graced you. That has steered your life in ways that the ordinary child who grows up understanding the way string is supposed to lie is not steered. I imagine it’s been difficult.” The cat rolled over in her lap, showing his belly. “I imagine it will only continue to grow more difficult.”
“I am once again not very reassured,” Malina told the cat.
The cat, in turn, purred loudly. “I cannot reassure you. That is not what I am here for. I’m a guide and something of an explainer, and that is all. That is what we are for,” he added. He rolled back onto his back, facing away from her.
Malina began to rake her nails lightly through his fur, more to soothe herself than him. “We? You and I? You and the mustang? Sand-cats?”
“My family. My family of cats within the greater kingdom of cats within the broad reaches of the deserts and the border-lands.”
The cat took a moment again to purr and not say anything, and then spoke much more quietly. “We were tasked. We never thought it would be so long, though. We never thought time would actually pass.” The cat arched up into Malina’s hand. “We never thought – we never thought that everyone would forget so much, that everything would change.” The cat ducked his head. “We. They. That part is not clear. But the cats, the sand-cat people, my people, we expected years, perhaps a generation.” The cat turned to look Malina in the eyes, his ears raking backwards. “It has been so much longer.”
“I have,” Malina murmured, “I have so many questions.” She stifled a yawn. “I have so many questions, and I feel so tired,” she added ruefully.
“It has been a very long day for you, and then longer in some other ways as well, and longer still in others.” The cat stood, stretched, and butted his head against Malina’s hand. “I will explain one thing, and then you must sleep, Malina of the Dominika, of the Serafina, Anastazja and Naveed. One thing.”
“How -” So many questions. She looked at the cat, who also looked tired. “How can it be unclear if it was you or your ancestors?”
“Ah.” The cat groomed a spot on his flank for a moment. “Yes. Because we are those who will explain, and because we are sand cats, and because we are – because we were the ones who were there.” The cat ducked his head again. “I was not there, no, sand cats do not live that long, even us. A sand cat who is, ah, many of the sand cats will live to be ten years old, maybe fifteen. We live to be twenty to forty years old. I was not there, my ancestors were. But to hold the truths, to hold the Final Treaty, and to be here to explain when Dominika came back, we passed along one to the next the memories. The cats who were there passed their memories of the time, of the Treaty, of the event, to all of the next generation, and so on.” The cat’s ears went back. “One hundred and seven elder cats shared their memories with me. They are all there; I remember everything of the Treaty and the times of the signing, but the memories can be… jumbled. I remember them as if I was there and as if I was watching someone else.” The cat jumped down off Malina’s lap abruptly. “Sleep, Malina Princess. There is enough to be worried about in the morning.”Want more?