The children’s shrill shouts echoed between the walls as they raced into the alley not a breath before he squeezed behind the bin. Huddling, the cat felt the hard wood and the bricks press against him. His claws curled out and gripped the cracks between the stones. One of the red and beige brick near his face was missing a corner and others were pitted as if someone had thrown rocks hard against the wall. He tucked his tail, not wanting it to betray him to the children. His lungs hurt, his limbs hurt, and now his head hurt. The steps slowed. Paused. Like all children they constantly fidgeted, rocking on both feet. They couldn’t keep quiet either. They giggled through their panting. Tymoss tried to breathe slower, but his breath only shuddered and sounded louder, echoing within his hiding spot.
“Where kitty?” asked one boy.
Don’t look here, don’t look here.
“Mabee he got ’way,” replied a girl. “Mabee climbed da wall.”
“Yeah, I see marks. Well if he did, we’ll never get him now. We better get out o’ here,” urged another boy, obviously older and the leader of the children. “Dad’ll be lookin’ for me.”
Their feet padded off in disappointed shuffles. Tymoss sighed with relief. He was safe for now. He rested, but not long after the children left claws scratched against the wooden bin. Tymoss looked up into the yellow eyes of a mostly-white calico. The jumble of patterns that colored the fur of her short limbs abruptly halted when it reached her body. He hadn’t seen anything like it before. He stared at her. He hadn’t heard her approach, as though she walked on air. Now his ears twitched at every catch of her claws in the waste bin’s curved side.
At his glance, the cobby cat lowered her paw and sheathed her claws. An uneasy feeling twisted his gut. Had he trespassed in her territory? She wasn’t going to fight him was she? He didn’t think he could win a fight. Other challenges had ended with him fleeing, not willing to tussle and suffer an injury. She wasn’t behaving aggressively like a territorial cat. Her ears and whiskers jutted forward, full of interest.
“Many catches, Puss,” she greeted, using the formal title for an unknown cat. “You all right?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “You look terrible. Those children are always chasing us; they don’t mean harm though. You run pretty well. I’m Claire by the way. Follow me. I know a safe place.” With a flick of her tail the cat jumped out of sight.
Tymoss’s ears rose slowly during her long-winded speech. She would help him, a stranger? Why? He padded from the narrow space behind the bin but the cobby calico wasn’t in the alleyway. Her scent took him to the street. He turned the corner and almost bumped into her. Claire’s eyes glittered in the sunlight. Her well-groomed fur gleamed like strands of a dew-drenched spider web. What a fragile beauty! Despite her appearance, he doubted she was fragile. No delicate cat could survive long past-threshold without a scar. Her fur was carefully licked into perfect order, her ears un-notched, and her whiskers whole. He could only think how drab he looked in comparison: gaunt, ruffled fur dulled by dust, nose and ears battered. Hadn’t she said he looked terrible?
“Where are you taking me?” he asked.
“To a safe place.”
“You look like you need it. And cats need to help each other. Come.” She flicked her tail again and padded away. She kept to the narrow strip of cobblestone beside the awning-covered storefront windows. This strip rose above the street traffic, separated from the human legs and wheels of hand-pulled and horse-drawn carts by an odd, water-stained ditch. On this lifted road, benches lined building sides and slower walkers roamed, flitting into and out of shops.
Tymoss held back a heartbeat longer as Claire padded away. The female cat seemed sincere but he was confused by such a friendly gesture. No one had shown him kindness since—Tymoss shook his head. That was unimportant. She was the only one offering now and he wasn’t about to turn that down.
As he followed the she-cat, a delicious smell wafted to Tymoss’s scarred nose. He sniffed, his gaunt middle aching. Tymoss turned his head to keep the aroma in his nostrils. Humans sat behind a short fence-line. Their utensils clicked against plates, audible above the creaking carts and swishing skirts. Whatever these diners ate, it smelled delicious. He paused and sniffed, face pressed against the wrought iron fence. Noticing his distraction, the she-cat came back.
“I’ll take you to a tea room later,” she promised. “Follow, follow.” Claire picked up her pace as if to keep them from further interruption. She led him beside bustling streets and through laundry-lined alleyways and once above the streets via a strange brick archway. Sometimes the buildings were built into the side of the towering rock wall and Tymoss’s was almost convinced they’d entered the canyon again. By this time Tymoss was thoroughly lost not sure where he’d entered the city nor where the children had started chasing him. He didn’t think he could find the trade road again. Suddenly Claire darted across the street. People sidestepped and laughed while others yelled, shaking their fists or swearing. She sat down outside of a store and peered back at Tymoss. He stood frozen on the other side.
The brick building (everything was brick in the city) was a pale color. Flower ledges hung on the outside of the upper floor windows. Herbs draped over the ledges’ edge. The store front had wide, glass-filled windows on either side of an open door. The glass was clearer than any Tymoss had ever seen. A wooden board hung above the entry. Letters, painted red, were carved deep into the dark wood.
“You coming?” He could barely make out Claire’s voice over the clopping of horse hooves, creaking of wheels, and the constant drone of voices. Tymoss swallowed, his tail flicking as he watched a large group of humans striding past. He thought he saw a gap in the flow and he prepared to dash. He didn’t want to get caught under any wheels or hooves. When he finally ran, it was easier than he thought. No one tripped over him and his tail wasn’t stepped on. No one seemed to notice him at all. He leapt over the water-stained ditch and onto the raised walk. He stopped, panting hard as he glanced over his shoulder where the traffic continued on in both directions.
The calico smiled at him: her whiskers forward, her mouth hanging opened in a gap. “You’re fast. You’d make an excellent ratter.” Without another word, she headed for the doorway.
A compliment? Tymoss wondered if she wanted him to catch rats. Perhaps that was how he was to pay her back for her help. Twitching the thought to his ears, he glanced up at the storefront windows. Why was this store was so interesting to her? It didn’t smell anything like food. His thoughts went back to the ‘tea room’ until the heady scents billowing from the dark interior of the storefront hit his muzzle. The scents were enough to make his head spin. Colored sticks hung on strings draped across the glass storefront like laundry on lines. The shelves had narrow, tail-long trays designed in bright colors. They weren’t just trays either. Different animal shapes lined the shelves, the colored sticks protruding from mouths or backs. There were crouching frogs, running horses, arched cats, and prancing unicorns. There were trays round like suns, and instead of sticks, squat cones sat in the center.
Claire didn’t seem to mind the overpowering scents. She strolled into the shop past a pair of old women who carried cloth bags and chattered like birds. The door was propped open by a large stone painted red with black spots. The calico went inside and Tymoss quickly slipped in after. The shop was silent compared to the bustling street and now there were too many competing scents for him to get his bearings. A cat who can’t smell is at a disadvantage. He didn’t know whose territory he was in or what dangers lurked inside.
“Is it safe here?” he asked. Trying not to breathe distorted his voice.
The calico flicked her ears. It was a surprised reaction, a rapid twitch as if she sought to pinpoint faint scratches. “Very safe.”
Tymoss wasn’t sure he believed her, but her body spoke confidence. Above, coils swung from the ceiling twirling in and out. Fortunately they were not lit and no ash sprinkled from above. The tom slunk along the ground, his ears twisted flat against his head, warily watching the humans he and the calico passed. Wouldn’t two cats be chased out? He didn’t know these people, didn’t want to get to know them, and he didn’t understand why she had led him here. He glanced at Claire, but she offered no word as she padded onward, ignoring everyone as they browsed the aisles of incense.
The two cats reached the far end of the store. Shelves hid the large windows of the storefront and only candles illuminated the dim aisles of the interior. The small flames revealed a door nestled between the thin wooden shelves. A cat-sized hole had been bored through the wooden paneling. The calico padded through the hole. Her mottled tail curled over the edge before it disappeared.
Tymoss slunk in after the she-cat. Just why there was a hole in the door the perfect size for cats, Tymoss couldn’t imagine. They entered a dark chamber. No windows nor candles lit their entry. His eyes quickly adjusted, taking in the small, uncluttered room. Shelves soared up to the ceiling. Boxes rested on the slats. This had to be a storage chamber full of stock. The smell of the incense leaked through the boxes and assaulted Tymoss’s nose.
Claire yowled over his sneezes, “Bell, I found a puss in the city. I want you to meet him.”
Something large and furry moved on a soft-cushioned settee in the corner of the chamber. The head lifted, revealing an old, pure gray tom-cat. “Bell” yawn and uncurled. He didn’t bother to lick his fur flat, but he did stretch before he leapt to the floor. Tymoss could hear the joints of his paws pop. Even though they were on his territory, the gray tom’s body was loose and relax, not a lifted lip or lowered ears. Bell sauntered to Tymoss with a confident step, his claws ticking on the stone floor. The cats touched noses in greeting. Even though the incense was strong, Tymoss could faintly catch a whiff of the tom cat’s scent. It spoke of good meals and a long life and maybe a family or two.
“Thank you, Claire. What is your name, Puss?”
The question was surprisingly blunt. Not too long ago Tymoss had learned bluntness frequently meant challenge, but this tom didn’t seem challenging.
“My name is Tymossenia, Sir,” Tymoss meowed, using his long-name.
“Tim-os-en-yah?” Claire tried, stumbling.
“No. Ti-mo-ss-en-E-yah.” He said it slower for them, putting emphasis on the sound made by the first two letters. “That’s my full name, but you can call me by my short-name—Tymoss.”
“Ti-mo-ss. Is that correct?” Bell confirmed. When Tymoss nodded, the gray cat meowed, “That’s an interesting name. Like a lord’s name.”
Tymoss acknowledged with an ear flick.
“Is your owner a poet?”
Tymoss shook his head. “Why am I here?”
“It is customary for new cats to be brought to me. I’m here to offer you assistance if you need it.”
“Oh.” He had a feeling Bell didn’t only offer help to cats, but made sure those passing through wouldn’t cause trouble. Maybe more than one cat shared the territory and Bell was first in the hierarchy. Perhaps instead of forcing cats out, he temporarily welcomed strangers. Although for what purpose?
“You haven’t eaten yet, have you?” Bell asked. “Would you like to join us for mid-meal?” One of his ears was dipped. Tymoss could refuse if he wanted.
“Sure.” He didn’t have anywhere else to go, that was certain. And he was very hungry.“Do not be alarmed if we go to humans. They feed us,” Bell meowed. “Also, you will meet other cats on our walk. Do not be wary of them. There is more you could learn of this city if you stay with us.”