As Rel described what she was looking for, she watched the man arrive at the ungentle conclusion that she was still a little girl afraid of the dark. Rel didn’t mind. She was tall enough not to be bothered by the first assumption – had been since she was fourteen – and the second was oddly pleasant compared to him understanding her real fears. Weaknesses were dangerous. Known weaknesses were knives in other people’s hands.
So she went on speaking as if his eyes weren’t narrowing in a silent laugh, his lips were curling up at the corners, he hadn’t relaxed, leaning back against the table behind him.
It didn’t take him long to realize he was going to lose his composure eventually. He waved her to a stop. “You want an animal, small, fierce, night-prowler that you can train to love you.”
“Doesn’t have to be love,” Rel said. “I’d settled This is MY human and I’m the only one who gets to bite it.”
He did laugh then, because she had given him an excuse, but she knew her joke hadn’t been that funny.
“Come back in a week,” he said and nodded her toward the door. “After sundown.”
She hesitated, caught on her heels by his instructions. But she slipped out without a word, and followed his instructions to the letter. She stepped back through the door of his shop just after sundown, when the sky was gray and the stars were still shy. Rel didn’t care if she looked eager, or if she looked cheeky. She had a long hike back to where she was sleeping tonight and she wanted to be tucked into it long before midnight.
He smiled at her from the back of the show room.
“Come on in,” he said. “Throw the latch. I don’t need other folk seeing this.” Then he disappeared into the back room.
Rel, cautiously, decided to be hopeful. Locking the door behind her, she crossed the room in slow steps. Then, she waited by the front counter, wondering if she had been meant to follow him farther inside.
A count of ten and he spun back out, carrying something against his chest that wriggled and half-climbed up to his shoulder. He dropped it straight into her hands, all warmth under thin fur with its weight on small paws that pressed into her hands and stomach.
It was thin, long-bodied with a thin, fuzzy tail that whipped and curled lazily behind it. It sniffed at her shirt with a triangular nose, flicked round ears to catch her surprise. And it stared up at her with dark, domed eyes that turned milky-blue when it turned sideways to look at something on the wall.
Those eyes were made for the dark. For that reason alone, she understood why she was holding it.
But it also looked like the delighted child of a ferret and a mouse.
Rel looked up at the man with a dry glare. “I didn’t ask you for something cute,” she said. “I’m not looking for something to keep me company in the dark.”
Arms crossed over his chest, he blinked at her, slowly.
She continued to glare.
“Do you want to see Momma?” he asked.
Rel glanced at the thing in her hands. It didn’t take long to see what she should have seen before: paws too big for its legs, ears too big for its skull, bones too close to the skin, and fur too fine. A curious infant already equipped with the silence of a predator.
“Yes,” Rel said.
The man smiled. Then he led her into the back room.
“Momma” laid in a cage, sprawled sleepily on the floor with her head lifted like a cat’s to blink balefully at the two of them as they stepped inside. Her body was almost the length of Rel’s arm. Her tail doubled her.
There was a lot of cat in her: elegant legs; narrow chest with the fur pointing up to her chin in a dark tinted V; a rounded, twitching tail. Her skull was wider than the baby’s, all the bones of it thicker and heavier and blunter. A blade of a head, balanced for striking.
Rel looked at the baby still in her arms, and then at the mother. Grudgingly, she allowed herself to be impressed by the course of nature.
“The kit’s about twelve weeks old,” the man said. “I’ve been promised it’s safe enough to take him away from Momma, but still early enough to train him to be anything you want him to be.” He smiled again, satisfied with himself. “Did I deliver?”
He knew he had. Rel didn’t bother nodding, or even looking him in the eye. Everything had she asked for was packaged up in fur and teeth, in a warm ten pounds in her hands. She could feel the kit breathing, feel a too-quick heartbeat if she rubbed her thumb over its chest.
And she carefully instructed herself that she could trust this one, even if every other living thing seemed like losing gambles.
“How much do I owe you?” she asked.