It blinked and Jaska, who had been about to sit on it, nearly jumped through her skin. The thing in the chair blinked its brown eyes again, lazily, and turned its head. Its fur was so thick it seemed as if it had simply rotated around, a white and brown fluffed dome set into a brown fluffed cushion.
Jaska stared while the rest of her party skirted the table to claim their – empty – seats.
“What is that?” she demanded.
Captain Akiva tried to hide her smile as she slipped into her chair. She set her elbows on the table and folded her hands in front of her face. Behind her, one of the taproom’s boys craned his neck to see what had startled her.
“I’m sorry,” he said politely. He touched shoulders and elbows in the crowd to gently nudge his way around to Jaska, then gave her a low, apologetic smile. “It’s just Polliver.” Bending over the chair, he collected the thing. It looked at him, then away again, bored, and limply let him lift it up, revealing four legs in the long hair and a tail like a long, frayed flag.
“That’s a pet?” Jaska asked.
“He’s a mouser,” the boy said. He turned so that the thing was looking at her over his elbow. It blinked again. Then it yawned, showing sharp teeth and suddenly showing off whiskers in the lamplight.
“That’s a cat?” Jaska demanded. Nothing with teeth and claws like that had a right to look so much like a wind-combed cloud.
Tael and Kendison laughed, while the others around the table managed snickers and coughs. Jaska glanced at them, but didn’t much care with the fluffy thing still hanging in the boy’s arms. He glanced at the table too, and turned back to Jaska more slowly.
“You’ve never seen a cat before?” he asked, hesitantly.
“I’ve seen cats!” Jaska said. “But they’re usually…” She was staring again, and she wasn’t sure when she gave up on her sentence, but she just moved her hands together in front of her, leaving a narrow space between them.
Captain Akiva smiled over her hands. “Where we come from cats don’t grow hair like that. They’re all slick little things,” she told the boy. “Long, lean, sharp as… Well, the old stories say that the first cats were just knives that got tired of being used, so they started ignoring their masters and biting on their own.”
The boy smiled uncertainly at the idea. He seemed to note the leather wrapped around Akiva’s wrist, then the identical wristband on Jaska’s hand, and satisfied himself that they really weren’t from around there. Then he smiled a little wider. Hefting Polliver higher in his arms, he shrugged.
“His claws cut plenty deep,” he said. “But I don’t think he was ever a knife. Maybe a hat.”
“Maybe,” Captain Akiva said.
Jaska tried to stop staring.
With one last smile, the boy moved away through the crowd, disappearing with Polliver still calmly dangling from his arms. Jaska watched them go, slowly leaning over the table.
“They let cats inside here?” she murmured to the Captain.
Akiva snorted, dragging Jaska’s attention back to the table. “Sit down before you fall over.”