The tomcat watched the pair as they left, the old queen and the young half-grown kitten, their silhouettes fading away into the darkness. He felt a small pang as he remembered his first hunt, and he hoped Miao would be kind to Southpaw.
The night was humid, the air scented with raat ki rani and mogra blossoms. There was a half moon, partly obscured by clouds. As they slipped away, Southpaw felt his fur tremble with excitement. “Miao, where are we-?”
The older cat turned sinuously and cuffed him, her claws out just enough to leave a thin red line on his neck. “The first rule,” she said. “No mewing. No whisker linking unless I say so, because your prey is small enough to pick it up. And smart enough to make a run for it.” She cuffed him again, this time slamming his head to the right and holding it down so that he could see a frightened gray musk shrew scutter away, into the safety of the lantana bushes.
Southpaw’s flanks were heaving from the pain, but more than that, the kitten was in shock. Miao had washed him every day from as far back as he could remember, her tongue gentle as she teased out the tangles in his fur.
She had brought him his first piece of mouse, which tasted heavenly, and fed it to him herself. She had let him play with her tail and pounce on it, only lifting him gently away when he nipped too hard. The older cat had never rolled him on the ground, as Hulo did when he exasperated the tom, or smacked his belly, as Katar often did, or so much as nipped his neck in warning.
For a while he followed her in miserable silence, his head still ringing from the blows. The earth was cool under his paws, and when they crossed the stone path, he followed Miao’s example, retracting his claws.
Gradually, his mind cleared and he began to watch Miao more closely. She appeared to glide swiftly over the ground, and he realized that she set her paws down as lightly as she could, often switching pace in mid-stride in order to avoid stepping on leaves, twigs, slippery mud, paper bags or anything that might make a sound. Twice, she froze in mid-glide, once to allow an unknown stray dog to trot past—luckily, he didn’t even see them—and once for no reason that Southpaw could tell. She listened, the second time, with her head to one side, her whiskers stretched tight, and whatever she heard appeared to satisfy her, for they continued along the hedge, following its curved path all the way to the empty lot that stood in between and yet away from the Bigfeet’s houses.
Southpaw’s tail, which had been dragging sadly on the ground, began to rise ever so slightly. The empty lot was on the edge of the wide stretch of scrubland that lay between Nizamuddin and the next set of buildings. It was a kind of no-cat’s-land, as wild as the grounds of the Shuttered House but much less threatening. The real badlands lay just beyond, where lantana and keekar had grown into a bristling tangle, and where the whippy branches of untamed raat ki rani creepers wound their way around the frame of a Bigfeet building, abandoned half-way.
The kitten had only been here once, briefly, when he had followed Katar furtively as he prowled the long grass in search of prey. This was at the outer limit of the territory of the Nizamuddin cats—beyond this, and they ceded ground to the canal pigs.
They were moving into clumps of tall Sarkanda grass, its purple plumes transformed by the dimness of the light into nodding shadows waving far above Southpaw’s head. Miao suddenly stopped, taking cover behind a pile of wood chips, paper and plastic bags and other Bigfeet detritus. She signaled to Southpaw that he should listen, and he could see from the way the fine, tiny hairs in the inside of her ears rippled and stood up again that she was excited about what she could hear.
He concentrated, but the sounds that came to him were the ordinary sounds of the night. The far-off clamour of car horns from the road, the cheerful chirruping chorus of the locusts, the occasional rustle in the dry grass. From above, the owls called at random intervals, their soft solemn cries breaking the silence and rippling into the night. Miao radiated a deep quietness as she settled in to wait. She was almost invisible against the long grass, and once, a moth settled on the top of her head, fluttering away in alarm when the older cat twitched a whisker.
A rough map of the place began to form in Southpaw’s head. There were many rats here, or had been: he could sense their runways, and was startled at how orderly and widespread their lanes seemed to be. Many of the trails led to the very back of the lot, and when he closed his eyes and inhaled, it seemed to the kitten that he could smell the odour of old droppings. Some of the holes smelled different, though, and were away from the rat runways, with a more oily set of rubmarks.
The scent was tantalizingly familiar and yet alien: it took a few seconds before the kitten placed it, allowing his night vision to expand enough to let him see the holes more clearly. They were almost snout-shaped, and the odour was—he’d got it! Bandicoots lived here, too, but then Nizamuddin was home to many varieties of animals aside from the Bigfeet. And there was something else that the kitten couldn’t place: a dark scent, powerful but not evil, sending warning drumbeats out into the air.
Miao sent out a quick warning, and then the older cat was crouching, her belly flat on the ground, hindquarters waggling, claws out and ears pricked. Southpaw found his teeth chattering like hers in excitement, and dropped to the ground himself—just in time to see a bush rat shoot across the path, its tiny black eyes panicked.
Miao’s paw moved so fast that Southpaw didn’t see the action. Nor did the luckless rat, its body flying up and landing with a small thump on their right. Southpaw forgot his manners and bounded towards the rat’s body, driven by an urgent need to get his teeth into its flesh. There was a hiss, and then Miao swatted him, right across his tender nose.
“Never do that!” she said. “Always check that your prey is dead, not just stunned.” Moving warily forward, she watched the rat for a few seconds. Then her paw shot out and she flipped her prey through the air. It came down on Southpaw’s flank.
Miao held back. When Southpaw looked at her for direction, she said nothing, and her eyes were opaque. “Your kill,” he said politely. “Owwwwwwww!”
The rat had sunk its yellow teeth into his rump, and it was trying to scurry away.
“It’s nobody’s kill until it’s dead, Southpaw,” Miao said.
He looked at the rat, and the rat looked back at him. Its eyes held terror and anger in equal measure, and the kitten hesitated. His instincts urged him to kill, and he could feel the saliva at the edge of his mouth at the thought of tasting its blood and its flesh. But the rat was bigger than he’d imagined, and its teeth were sharp; the blood he could smell in the air was not just the rat’s.
Southpaw put his whiskers out and almost lost one more as the rat ran towards him instead of away, against all expectation. Its eyes were glazing from the loss of blood, but it nipped as hard as it could at his face, and skittered past his left flank. The kitten wheeled; the rat wheeled too, staying near Southpaw’s back paw. The kitten twitched his tail out of the way just in time to prevent himself from being bitten again.
The pads of his paws were sweating. He could no longer see Miao, and he was not aware of the path, the runways, the rat holes, the lantana bushes or the grass. All he could see was the rat, its body tensed as it prepared to circle around, behind him—and he swung around in a sinuous arc, catching the rat by surprise, his paw connecting with its body, his claws out.
The rat flew through the air again, but this time, the body was limp and still. Southpaw wasn’t taking any chances. He batted the corpse twice, thrice, before he was sure it was dead, and then, though his mouth was salivating in anticipation, he exerted a great effort and turned to Miao.
“Your kill,” he said.
Miao came up and examined the body. She patted it twice, too, to make sure it was dead. Then she carefully tore out the throat, considered a delicacy. Southpaw looked away; only young kittens would drool, he told himself, trying very hard not to drool at the prospect of a tender, fresh-killed rat dinner.
“Yours, I think,” said Miao. She dropped the morsel of flesh from the throat in front of him, and when Southpaw did nothing, she pushed the kitten’s mouth gently downwards. He needed no further bidding, and they ate companionably, Miao feeding from the rich stomach, Southpaw relishing the back and the tail.
“It was a good kill, for the first time,” said Miao when they were done. “Room for improvement, could’ve been better, but not bad, young Southpaw.”
Southpaw rubbed his face against hers gratefully, purring his thanks. Miao allowed him to take the next two kills—a mouse and a shrew, both easy once he’d got the hang of swatting with claws extended. Each time, the kitten was scared: even the smallest prey could cause damage, especially when it knew it would be fighting for its life. But Miao watched him face down his insecurities, and she thought to herself that this one would make a good warrior. In her experience, it was never the bulk of the cat that counted or even the speed of the paw, the sharpness of the claw, as much as it was the ability to conquer one’s fear.
They began to stroll back home; the moon was passing behind clouds and its light was touched with purple and yellow, like an old bruise. They had almost reached the road to the canal when Southpaw felt all his fur stand up at once, Miao whirled, and the air filled with the thick aroma of damp fur and cedar. Behind that was the powerful, warning, dark scent he’d smelled before, drumming through Southpaw’s head.
He turned, not wanting to see whatever was there. Miao had hunched her shoulders up, her face was down, her teeth bared, and she was growling in a low, deep voice. But Miao was to his left and a little behind him. Whatever it was that had spooked Miao, he would face it first.
The first thing the kitten noticed was the creature’s eyes: inquiring, intelligent, assessing. Its face was neat, the fur beautifully combed in bristles of brown and silver, the whiskers black and questioning. The ears were round and made it look almost cute; but the creature was nearly their size, it rippled with muscles, and Southpaw gulped as he noticed the claws. They were thin, like curved stilettos, and he sensed they would be razor sharp.
“Don’t even think about touching the kitten,” Miao said, moving up to stand beside him. “Whoever you are, you’ll have to get past me.”
The creature cocked its head to one side and considered her with some amusement.
“I could rip both your throats out, cat,” it said, speaking in Junglee, the common patois that all animals used, like her. “But I have made my kills for the night and the bloodlust has dimmed. As it has for your kitten, I see. One kill or two, boy?”
“Three! And it’s my first hunt!” said Southpaw, forgetting for a second to be afraid.
The creature’s eyes crinkled. It turned to Miao.
“It is good to be young and out on your first kill,” it said. “I’m Kirri, of the Clan Mungusi. Perhaps we can find a way to end this evening that does not involve bloodletting, perhaps we can’t. What do you say, O Cat?”
Miao had stopped growling, though her fur was still spiky in warning.
“Hail, Mongoose,” she said pleasantly. “I am Miao, and it has been many years since I met one of your kind. Are the snakes back in Nizamuddin, then?”
Kirri gave her a long considering look.
“Not here,” she said. “But over there, where the Bigfeet were building yet another of their warrens, I met an old Nagini—old in years, not too old to fight—and how we danced! She had me pinned, but I wriggled free; I had my teeth at her throat, but she threw me off balance with her tail. It was a dance such as I haven’t danced in months. She is dead and I have dipped my muzzle in her blood, but she was a worthy warrior.”
“I have no doubt,” said Miao, “that you have killed many snakes, and been a mighty warrior yourself.”
It was just common politeness, but the mongoose looked pleased.
“So I have, Miao. You may not be of Clan Mungusi, but you are indisputably a huntress yourself, a member of Clan Scar. You and the boy may pass unmolested this night, and because I have killed well and so has this young warrior, he may ask me a question.”
Miao turned, and nodded at Southpaw. From the set of her shoulders, he picked up her anxiety: the mongoose, so relaxed now, might be quick to anger, and the kitten knew without being told that he must get the question right. Should he ask Kirri how one killed a snake? Should he ask her for advice, what the best killing moves were?
To his horror, Southpaw found himself asking none of these questions. Instead, he said: “If you please, Madam Mongoose, might I look at your mind?”
The mongoose’s eyes went black. She stretched and stood up on her hind paws, letting the scimitars of her claws show.
“You ask to link with my mind? A kitten asks this? Of me?”
Barely twitching her whiskers, so quietly that Southpaw was almost sure Kirri hadn’t heard, Miao said: “If she attacks, run. I’ll take care of her. Run the moment you see her move, don’t wait.” Every muscle in her body was tense, and looking down, Southpaw saw the ground near her paws go dark from the sweat.
The kitten took in the mongoose. Everything about the creature terrified him; the patches of blood on Kirri’s fur near her mouth, the wicked claws, the body that was all muscle, no fat. But he straightened his whiskers and said: “You had one kill today, Madam Mongoose. I had three, and one of them was my first. I beg pardon if what I said was wrong, but I just wanted to know what a true hunter’s mind looked like.”
The mongoose stood down, and her black eyes looked deep into the kitten’s blue ones.
Southpaw shivered, but he held his ground.
The mongoose showed her teeth, and said: “So you want to know what a hunter’s mind is like, kitten? Come. Come inside, little one.” She fixed her stare on the kitten, and Southpaw found himself looking back into her intense black eyes.
The first impression was of hardness and sharpness, like standing in the middle of an obsidian plain; the mind of the mongoose was smooth and opaque, like black glass, and the kitten felt as though hidden claws combed his fur very, very lightly, as the mongoose let him link.
Kirri’s memories were carefully organized. The kitten found himself looking at receding images of snakes, and rats, and smaller prey—first images of the living, caught in mid-battle, then of the dead, often bloodied, often snarling. Another set of memories filed away battle plans: how to twist in mid-air, how to stalk one’s prey from behind, how to dance with a cobra.
“Southpaw, that’s enough.”
He ignored Miao’s voice, and moved a step forwards, fascinated.
There was something in the centre of the plain that the kitten was drawn towards.
“Come,” said a voice softly in his head, and the kitten looked deeper into Kirri’s black eyes. “Come closer, little one. See what you want to see.”
“Get back, Southpaw!”
It pulsed, reflected back in the black glass; Southpaw sensed the predator’s arrowhead mind, the singleminded focus on making a clean, good kill. The link between them was strong; he wanted to move closer, to see more.
A sharp pain in his flank made him howl. He leapt backwards, and felt the mongoose’s teeth—so close, far too close!—snap shut on one of his whiskers. Southpaw yelped and backed, feeling the whisker tear. A paw slashed at his ear, but the curved claws just missed him; and then Miao was there, calmly smacking at the mongoose’s belly. For a second, there was a blur of brown fur and white fur—and then there was nothing.
Miao blinked. Southpaw blinked. Kirri had vanished, melting away into the whispering grasses.