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“Where are my mausers?” cried Gloriana Avid, dressed in seven layers of floating white and gray muslin. “Ullimus Wong draws near! We must prepare the defenses of the orbital ladder in his honor, or against him. Come, mausers.”
She peered into the great overgrown garden of her father’s house. Few human people off Harvest knew this word mauser, which was an ancient name for a weapon held in the hand and directed to the killing of other humans. Fewer still recognized, with an irritated sigh, that this name, too, hid one yet older.
The war cats who stood guard over the rich treasures of Harvest were mausers, true, but mousers as well. Their ancestors, back on fabled Homeland, had been small, fleet creatures with small, fleet minds. Those cats lived and dreamed the hunt for their prey: feathered birds, tracked with furtive slow patient grace until the leap, murderous; and rodents even smaller than themselves, the mouses, for which they, the gray and white and black and tabby and striped mousers, were a mortal terror poised at the wainscoting. So it was with the descendents, the frightful augmented people, the war cats of Harvest.
“Come, my pretties, my lordly hunters, my avengers,” cried mad Ms. Avid. Her words creaked out into the pungent air of the Harvest world, where, beyond the tangled brambles of the house, a hundred fruits still gleamed under an actinic star, where the cereal crops flourished in wind-flowing oceans of gold and royal purple.
“It is time to hunt,” called Glory to her noble cats, and they came. Not to her bidding, for they were proud and walked alone, but in free recognition of her fiefdom. “Come along, Resolution, Triumphant, Defiant. And wait, now, who are you?” This cat was lean, with a head like a blade. Electricity danced and pranced in his pale blue eyes. She had never seen him before. All cats walk alone, as she knew, but this one seemed destined for some singular isolation. “Your name, sir, I say!”
“My name is Daisy,” said the cat, standing very still in the midst of his brothers. Did they shun him? They did not turn their backs upon him, nor withdraw their heads, and they did not, either, turn in a mass of furious, shrieking repugnance to tear, beat or bite him until his corpse lay bleeding and huddled. That they would have done to a sport, a castback, a cat whose deoxyribonucleic acid was even one codon more seriously warped than Daisy’s. This forbearance, or minimal respect, did not mean they loved him, nor admired his solitude. The mausers put up with him at the margins of their number because he was a son of Courageous and Precious Blue Silk, was sworn, as were they all, to the defense of Harvest and the house.
Gloriana Avid gave one sniggering bark of laughter to hear that name, and smothered her mouth in billowing sleeves.
“And where are your . . . sisters?” Every mauser heard the absent words, the missing words, the masked words: your brothers’ other sisters. But a word unspoken yields no clear offense. The ears of the wiry cat went back for an instant only, the deep snarl in his throat chopped off at a cough.
“Come forth, sisters,” he cried in a piercing voice. “The mistress would see you, even though the time is not fitting, her mausers, your brothers, being gathered here together.”
“Oh, no, no,” cried Glory in her shrill, disappointed, wary tones, “that is not what I—”
But here came cat females, from the hard shadows of the star’s brilliant daylight, slinky and sinuous. Here was Summery Justice and Winter Kills, here was Autumn Falls and Spring Healer, lightly springing, falling like shaded leaves.
The air reeked abruptly, with lawless pheromones. Everyone except Avid fell into attitudes of alert pugnacity, thrilling with improper desires.
“Go back at once,” cried Boundless Courage, stepping to the fore. “Ignore this one, this fool,” and he cuffed Daisy across the side of the face, hard, claws scrupulously retracted. “Return to your fastness, sisters. This is not the time. This is not the place.” With exquisite attention, Boundless monitored his brother’s stance. Daisy did nothing. His breathing did not quicken, nor his whiskers draw back. (Each mauser could hear the pulse and breath of every cat in the clearing, and more besides.) His teeth set in a baleful grin. In silence he watched his sisters slink back into the shadows, casting glances over their shoulders. Their long lovely vibrissae gleamed in the sunlight, then were gone.
“Bad kitty,” said Glory Avid, all a-twitter.