For a moment, Daisy and Boundless Courage regarded each other. Daisy slipped forward, then, and dropped to his knees, rolled upon his back into supplicant posture, as once, very long ago, his ancestral foe the dog might have rolled in obeisance to an overmastering superior, belly bared. To his own ancestors, as only disdained Daisy knew, this posture held a very different meaning. It blocked an enemy’s approach from behind, while freeing all four muscular limbs and lethal claws to rake and rip.
Boundless nodded, a civilized being in an almost civilized time and place, and raised one foot to deposit it in ceremonial warning and acknowledgment on the defenseless bowels. And Daisy was no longer there. Snarling, he snapped upward, lunging at the senior brother. He tore with his unleashed claws the fabric from Boundless’s loins, sank his sharp teeth instantly into the mauser’s befurred groin, twisted, keening a battle cry between his clenched teeth, and ripped away all the gristle and flesh and tight double sac.
Blood sprayed. Boundless Courage shrieked, clutching at himself. Aghast, confused, mausers flailed, struck at each other, crying, “Unsporting!” and “How vile, sir!” and “You are no gentleman!” Blood and fear and fury reeked, vibrissae quivering beneath their nostrils.
“No!” sobbed Gloriana Avid. She drew back, seeing droplets of red flung upon her white and gray muslin. “Cats, stop! This must not be!”
But she was wrong. It had to be. It was the first public declaration of inevitable war between the Worlds and the detestable cat, the abominable cat, the cat who one day would lay waste the Homeland world itself, after the Death-ferried tattered man had come down to Harvest, the Landgrave who would mend Ms. Avid’s heart at such cost.
* * *
While the Lords and Ladies of the World sustained a complacent belief in their own superlative knowledge and power, they had not foreseen Daisy’s destiny. His label name was given him by their unwatched machines, which made slips of this kind only one time in ten billion—and yet, when those errors did occur, a blight roared down, nearly always, like a curse upon their World.
Later, the poets singsonged it up:
Here is the caïque Death rowed in the morn,
That ferried the man all tattered and torn,
Who kissed the maiden all foresworn,
Who engendered the cat with the crumpled horn,
The detestable cat,
The abominable cat,
That tore down the Worlds the Lords built.
Some of the ditty has it right, but some is spiteful or misleading gossip. No permanent harm ever came to Daisy’s manly horn; afterward, he sired litter upon litter of bold war cats who took his patronymic haughtily, spitting in the eye of the world. (Not of the Homeland World; that was gone and done, so sorry.) It was not truly Death that fetched the frozen man, Landgrave Ullimus Wong, to the Harvest planet, where he met and wooed Ms. Avid (the gravid Landgravine, as history would dub her), that wronged woman cruelly betrayed not once but thrice.
They made it
as the cats now howl in their own jamborees.
Daisy’s siblings, his brothers in arms from the litter fathered by Courageous upon their dam, Precious Blue Silk, were fighters all: ruined Boundless Courage, first born of the litter, and Invincible, dark-pelted Dominant, sturdy Renown, Defiant, Resolution, and Triumphant. His own fate was sealed in the twist of deoxyribonucleic acid that spelled his demeaning name. A word may be altered, taken back, guarded behind shuttered lips, masked; a genome was forever, inviolate, or mere anarchy might be loosed upon the Worlds.
As it was, even so.
* * *
“This Landgrave, is he handsome?” asked Summery idly. Flaming virga streamers of high cirrus caught the setting sun and their ice burned the sky.
“And besides, what is a Landgrave?” Autumn was pettish. She could consult the Know but found it beneath her dignity. Ms. Falls was a most particular augmented cat, a professional of disdain. She preened her gleaming whiskers, fire-tinted from the sky.
“A human of high degree,” Spring informed her. She had investigated the matter. “You should learn all this, if you mean to escape our confinement and find a suitable mate in the stars.” It was said of Spring Healing that she knew all the songs of all the heartsick greeting programs men and women sent each other on days and nights of special ardent, amorous import. Sitting by a bay window in their high tower, she looked in the opposite direction from her sister Summery, across fields of produce brazed in the late afternoon glow, and hummed, then sang one of her own:
Oh my darling, oh his darling,
Oh your darling, Healing Spring!
All is lost and gone forever
Nothing lingers, Missy Spring.
Light she was and late he found her,
And her toes were clad in fur,
Healing boxes, curing poxes,
All too late for Glory, her.
“A Landgrave,” Winter Kills told them, gravely, “governs in his own right under the sway of a Lord Emperor. But the Lords and Ladies of the Worlds do not admit the authority of an Emperor above them, nor of a Count, and certainly no Landgraf. And the Harvest planet is never his landgraviate, this jumped-up imposter, whatever patents of nobility he might brandish. Should he do so,” she added, fanning her pale, pale face with a waved hand, claws tucked away within gold thimble gloves, “and I confess to having no familiarity at all with this, nor any considerable interest in pursuing the matter. I am hungry. It is time to dine.”
None of them mentioned the abomination of their eldest brother’s gelding.
Nobody knew what to make of it, nor of the detestable Daisy, who had withdrawn and was not to be found.
But they were all frightened. And these were not timid mausers.