“Some kittens are born into holiness,” his mother once told Pamiu, between one purr and the next while he nursed. “The holiness of vast temples in a sea of ever-shifting sands, beneath the gaze of a great stone feline with a human face. And then some kittens have to fight fang and claw to reach the holiness they deserve, like you, my little runt,” she mewed and licked his muzzle.
Pamiu gawked and purred and stumbled and blinked, and still his mother’s words made no sense. What was this holiness his mother purred of? Surely, whatever it was, the bowels of a pirate Phoenician ship had little of it, but had rats and roaches aplenty. Holiness could wait. Pamiu wanted to be a fierce killer like his mother and gut hordes of rats and dismember whole swarms of roaches. Or, at least, manage to be as cute and agile as his sisters, and make the urine-reeking, sweat-stinking sailors feed him their meals, and play with him.
Everyone aboard loved his mother and sisters. And then they were gone.
The hairy human the others called Captain had them taken away when the ship docked, shortly after Pamiu’s third full moon. He gripped Pamiu from the scruff of his neck and held him up, measuring him from hissing muzzle to short, thin limbs, bloated belly and air-clawing feet. Pamiu coughed and gagged and choked at the stench of garlic, aimed his claws at the scarred face, and missed.
“A runt,” he scoffed. “Useless. Can’t sell it, can’t use it.” He motioned to one of his equally foul-smelling goons. “Get rid of it. We’ll snatch better cats when we return to Canopus, at the Nile Delta.”
The goon opened a cloth sack and reached for Pamiu, who now howled with every breath he could draw. Mama! Mama! Where are you? Help me, Mama!
A desperate howl answered him from up-deck, a cry that grew more desperate and distant by the heartbeat.
Mama! Please! Not in the sack! Not in there! Please, no!
“Captain? Could I?” Mousy footsteps, mousy voice, and a toothless sailor with a crooked spine stepped out from the shadows. He held out both hands, as if requesting mercy. “Please? I’ll train him. I’ll make sure he earns his stay.”
Captain glared at the crooked man, then at Pamiu, then back at the man. Now Captain measured the man from matted head to bare feet.
“Fine. For old times’ sake. Have it. But make sure it does.”
The crooked man’s arms smelled like onions and garlic and stale bread, and they were rough and clumsy on his fur. Pamiu curled against the hairy chest. This human’s heartbeat didn’t sing like his mother’s purr with the tunes of an ever-stretching desert. His heart echoed a distant drum’s beat from rocky islands with brittle soil and scrawny goats licking salty pebbles at the shores. Another place, another home.
His home now, and his family.
Pamiu soon learned that his savior answered to the name Yidin. He lived below deck, and earned his stay by preparing the other sailors’ meals. Pamiu made sure never to leave his side, and made an effort to acknowledge the crude name Yidin gave him: Stoumpos. It meant “dwarfish” in Yidin’s mother’s tongue. And it made the others cackle every time Yidin said it and Pamiu pretended to obey and come running, stumbling and tripping on his unstable legs. That earned him a few scraps of food from the amused crew. Just as well, because his hunting skills wouldn’t earn him a meal—yet.
Sometimes, Yidin braved the narrow steps up-deck with Pamiu in one arm and his walking stick in his other hand.
“He needs sunlight to grow,” Yidin would tell Captain when he’d glare at them, and they’d settle on coils of rope to sun skin and fur. Pamiu then dared a nap on Yidin’s lap, and ventured in the old cook’s dreams, treading gracefully as a non-runt kitten would. In those dreams, Yidin stood tall and proud at the helm of another ship, his long hair in black oiled curls, his beard lice-free. People in the sidelines of the dreams called him Captain. Others, mere shadows and echoes, called him Murderer. And a lone shadow, with no face and no name, with eyes like ever-flowing springs, called him Son.
Crooked though he appeared, Yidin was hardly useless with his walking stick. The foolish rats who dared to venture out of the shadows and near him never saw the blow coming. Yidin left them there to rot until Captain came down below, and Pamiu learned that when he did, it was his turn to move in and claim them as his kill. Captain would scowl, Pamiu would feast, and Yidin would toss the leftover remains into the Captain’s personal pot—his secret ingredient, as he liked to call it. And Yidin often added crushed seashells in Pamiu’s food, and smelly herbs that the old cook swore would help him grow. Pamiu doubted that, but food was food.
And life was life, even life below deck.
And then there was death.
Pamiu soon learned that death came when the drummer picked up the beat, when the sailors manned the oars and grabbed their weapons. Then Yidin huddled amidst the barrels of water and the sacks of dates and flatbread, and Pamiu followed. The rats remained in the shadows, watching with beady, unblinking eyes, holding their breaths. Even the cockroaches lined the cracks, totally still in the gloom but for their waving antennas.
When death came, sometimes it took the form of blood dripping through the planks of the upper deck. Sometimes as the stench of fire and excrement. Sometimes, it had the glassy eyes of a corpse falling head down on the narrow steps leading up, gawking at that far-off place beyond life and light that Pamiu couldn’t yet see—and didn’t really want to. And sometimes, death came in the forms of ghosts, gliding below deck on feet of mist, their out-reaching hands crooked as claws, their jaws stretching too wide, locked in an eternal, silent howl. And Pamiu cowered by Yidin’s side, in the company of rats and roaches, praying to the Great Stone Feline of the Sands that death would pass them by just this once.
And when death did pass them by, he’d curl at the feet of his human and dream of pawmarks at the riverbank of eternal waters, and the roar echoing over the ever-shifting sands.
One evening after his ninth full moon, Pamiu managed his first kill while their ship had docked for provisions. The sailors had left to eat and drink and plant litters in the bellies of the local females. Pamiu and Yidin remained onboard to lounge on the upper deck and count the stars of a moonless night. While his human sipped a foul-smelling beverage from a clay mug, Pamiu explored the upper deck. The cockroach that crawled from under the coils of rope at the prow dragged one leg behind it. Perhaps it was old or injured or just a runt too. It was also crunchy and a little bitter and scraped his throat when he bit off its belly and gulped it down. Then he picked up its upper half, antennas still waving as if it didn’t know it was half-eaten, and he trotted back to his human, purring as loudly as he could, to show him his catch.
Yidin was no longer alone. Captain had returned carrying something bundled in a cloth sack, in the company of a few of his goons, armed and carrying oil lamps. He parted the cloth, flashing his ugly teeth, to show the colorful decorations—gold and blue and red—painted on the wooden surface to Yidin. It seemed like some sort of a container, hardly the length of a human’s arm. Captain was quick to wrap it back up.
“I told you it was a foolish thing to do, and you did it anyway,” Yidin told Captain. “Some things just cannot be stolen, you fool.”
“It’s not ‘stealing,’ Yidin. Think this more as ‘kidnapping.’ Wealthy people in these parts value their dead children as much as their living. They’ll pay good coin for the sarcophagus’ safe return, the idiots.” He spat on the deck. “And your days of giving orders are long gone. Remember your place.” His gaze fell on Pamiu, who just stood there watching with half a cockroach still in his jaws. “Be more like your runt. He knows where his place is.” His eyes narrowed. “Has your runt grown taller?” Then he scoffed and shrugged and turned his back on them to go and secure his loot.
Pamiu would counter that his place was on Yidin’s lap, a perfectly fine place to nap despite the flatulence and the never-washed garments, but he didn’t want to let go of his first catch. Captain wouldn’t dine on roach leftovers—at least not knowingly—but what about that thing latched onto Captain’s back? It looked like a human infant, if infants had blackened, claw-like hands, eyes like burning coals and bloodstained mouths with rodents’ teeth. How did Captain not know that thing had grappled onto his flesh, riding him as he’d seen humans ride donkeys? Perhaps because the creature was not of flesh, but of swirling smoke and golden sand that reflected starlight and oozed darkness in equal parts. What would that dine on?
Not my catch. Pamiu lowered his head, locked his gaze onto the burning holes on the shadowy face, and let out a low growl. I caught this. It’s mine.
“You’ve killed us all,” slurred Yidin between sips, as Captain and his rider climbed below deck with their loot. “Now he will come for us, and there’s no deity left to pray to. We’ve offended them all.”
Pamiu settled beside Yidin, matching the slow sips of his human with nibbles of roach parts, savoring his kill. After he was done, Pamiu settled his head on his forepaws and dreamed of the Great Stone Feline calling him home.
When they sailed off at dawn, all the rats had abandoned ship.
Two days later, while in open seas, Yidin proved to be right: he had tracked them down. Another ship followed them, gaining on them even against the wind—a strange wind, an ill wind, reeking of disease and death and things that shouldn’t exist in daylight. No one aboard dared to as much as whisper the name of their pursuer. Yidin should know.
But Yidin emptied one jug of wine after another, then moved on to some anise-reeking beverage, until his words made no sense and he lay snoring amidst sacks and barrels. Pamiu nestled atop his chest, mimicking the Great Stone Feline of his dreams. No rats to nibble on his slumbering human’s ears or toes, and the roaches now kept their distance. It should be safe, down here, if Captain hadn’t hidden his loot behind crates of provisions. Pamiu dared to paw the sackcloth, but the mere proximity to the damned fabric awoke memories of dread and loss in his chest, and he retreated back to his safe spot atop Yidin’s chest.
The infant’s ghost kept its distance. Its form had shifted to that of a normal infant that sat suckling its thumb. Unfocused gaze, drool dripping down its chin, head that had curves and indentations Pamiu hadn’t seen on other humans. Sometimes it giggled, sometimes it whimpered, and once or twice it gurgled a word like “mama.”
Just behind his twitched ears, brushing against his whiskers, the Great Stone Feline’s breath showed him another kind of holiness: the human essence and its many forms. Sometimes bird-like, sometimes human-like, translucent and ethereal and flickering like distant stars, and sometimes dark and malformed when lost or angered. Fear not this lost child, brave little cat, purred the Great Stone Feline. She’s just confused, and misses her mama. Be a great cat, be a holy cat, and help her find her way home.
Pamiu didn’t understand the divine words. How could he help anyone? He was just a runt and wouldn’t quite believe that the ghost wasn’t a threat. So he didn’t abandon his guard. Not even when the sound of stomping feet rattled the planks of the upper deck, scattering the roaches. Not even when the shouts and the yells and the curses trickled down the steps and made the fur along his spine stand up. Metal on metal, metal on wood, wood on flesh and bone and blood dripping down from cracks and corners. And still Pamiu held his spot, teeth bared, growling at everything and nothing. Then Captain came stumbling down the steps, kicked slumbering Yidin between the ribs and hid behind the barrels, bloody hatchet in hand. Yidin groaned and sat up. Pamiu hissed and air-clawed a warning towards the pale, sandalled feet that appeared at the steps and began their slow descent.
Tall, thin, hairless and deathly pale, clad in white linen and wielding a staff with a green stone figurehead, their persecutor surveyed the area with equally pale eyes. Pamiu retreated closer to Yidin, gulping down his growls. He’d seen one of the pale man’s kind before: a rat, totally white with eyes glowing red that kept its distance from the other vermin. His mother had advised him to leave such creatures alone, for the pale-ones carried the favor of the greater spirits that roamed land and sea and sky. So humans had pale-ones too?
Yidin coughed, scratched his head, scratched his crotch and coughed again to clear his throat. “Lord Embalmer Ankhu. It’s been a while.”
Ankhu propped on his staff. “Captain Yidin. Indeed, it has. Since you abandoned your smuggling and trading of Egypt’s sacred animals, I believe.” He fingered a tiny scar on his left cheek. “I remember your sword.”
“And I remember your staff,” Yidin groaned and rubbed the crooked part of his spine. “Are you here to finish the job?”
Ankhu’s grip tightened around the staff and Pamiu darted forward, hissing and spitting.
The pale eyes measured Pamiu from extended claws to twitching tail and the grip seemed to relax.
“Far be it from the High Priest to question divine judgment. If the gods have blessed the faithless hide of a pirate captain such as yourself, Yidin, with such a guard, I can only bow to their wisdom.” He slightly lowered his head, then his voice hardened. “No, today I come for him.” He kicked the nearest barrel that toppled over and knocked down more barrels and crates.
Captain crouched in the shadows over his loot, his face twisted, hefting his hatchet. “You can try,” he growled. His gaze darted about. “Or you can just pay the ransom and we can go our separate ways. With a little something for your troubles? A donation to the temple, perhaps?” He licked his lips and nodded, answering his own question.
“This is not how such matters are handled. Hand over that which you have stolen, and perhaps you may still live,” Ankhu said.
Captain slammed his palm on the sarcophagus in the cloth sack. The infant’s spirit screamed, and Pamiu hissed and retreated to near Yidin’s thigh.
“By the Sacred Bull’s balls, it’s just a child’s corpse! A runt’s corpse who didn’t live past its first sunrise! Why would the High Priest care? Why would anyone but its mother care? Just pay the gold and get it over with!”
Ankhu leaned forward, his voice softer and yet more chilling than his howl. “I, too, was a runt once.” Shadows formed from each word, shades of disembodied hands and disembodied paws around his waist and on his shoulders. “And here I stand now, and my patience wanes the longer I do. The child, be it stillborn or be it a runt, is still of royal blood. Divine blood, little man. But I’d be coming after you even if you’d abducted the dead offspring of a slave. No child should be parted from its mother, in this or any life.”
Captain sprang to his feet with a strangled sound, like the cry of the rats who knew they were about to be slaughtered when Pamiu’s mother pounced on them. He hefted the little coffin in the sackcloth with one hand and raised the hatchet with the other. “I’ll smash it to pieces! I swear I will!”
The infant screamed again, and this time her terror formed words Pamiu knew all too well.
Mama! Help me, Mama! It’s dark in this sack, and I’m scared! Help me, Mama!
The cry clenched Pamiu’s chest. The sack. The dark. The loss. He remembered. He’d never forget. Never. And, for as long as he’d have claws and fangs, he’d make sure that no other child missed its mother. Not on his watch. Paw after paw, belly close to the planks, he crawled near his prey. One sprint, one leap, one pounce, and his teeth dug into a briny ankle.
Captain howled, and kicked Pamiu against a barrel. The impact pushed the air out of Pamiu’s chest and he lay down on his side, panting and unfocused. Through the blur, he saw Yidin’s fingers close around his discarded walking stick. With the same mastery that had downed many a rat, Yidin whirled his stick as a staff and managed a blow at the back of Captain’s knees. Captain screamed and dropped on all fours, releasing his loot and his hatchet. As Ankhu darted forward to snatch the coffin and Pamiu forced himself back up, Captain reached into his belt. He pulled out a narrow dagger, rolled around and plunged it between Yidin’s ribs. Yidin’s eyes widened, and rosy froth colored his beard. Not one sound left his lips. Not one prayer, not one plea, not one curse. His hand darted and gripped Captain’s wrist in a white-knuckled hold, as if urging him to push the blade deeper.
Yidin’s gaze sought Pamiu in the shadows. Eyes locked. A nod so slight it might have never been. And the shove of a great stone muzzle in Pamiu’s rear, urging him on for his first kill in the service of the gods.
Be my Wrath. Be my Vengeance.
Pamiu charged. From floor to crate, from crate atop a barrel, through the air and latched onto Captain’s shoulder. Sweaty skin on his tongue. Frantic pulse beneath his fangs. Jaw locked around the pumping arteries of a body that writhed and wriggled and shook to dislodge him, but in vain. Fur soaked with blood, until even the memories of other smells perished, until the thud of the body falling rattled his bones and sent him panting on his side, until the great tongue of the sacred feline scraped his body for a taste, and promised it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste human blood.
Careful hands scooped him up—Ankhu’s hands. Captain lay in a pool of blood. Yidin still clutched the dagger jutting out from his ribs, breathing hard. And over there, in the shadows, the spirit of the dead child shifted forms from infant to bird with glorious feathers of multicolored light. No more a runt—never a runt.
Ankhu knelt by Yidin, who lay pale in his blood-soaked rags. Pamiu jumped off from Ankhu’s hands and climbed atop his friend’s chest, and settled down like the Great Stone Feline. He was a big cat now. He wouldn’t whimper. He wouldn’t.
But he did, and Ankhu scooped him up again, a little more firmly on his chest this time.
“Have you named him?”
Yidin nodded. “Stoumpos,” he said, his voice a wet whisper.
A soft chuckle. “I think he’s outgrown that. He’s earned his real name.” Ankhu raised him to eye-level, as if counting the spots on his fur and weighing the blood on his fur. Then he clutched him back on his chest with a deep inhalation. “I shall call him Nedjem.”
Yidin burst to a gurgling laughter. “You’ll call him ‘Sweet One?’ Bless you, Lord Embalmer Ankhu, for seeing me off to my final judgment laughing. Yes, I’m sure he’ll live up to his name.”
Yidin’s laughter followed Ankhu and once-Pamiu-now-Nedjem-never-Stoumpos upwards, into the light. Until it didn’t. A painful void nestled into Nedjem’s chest, until he glanced at the horizon. The Great Feline of the Sands beckoned him across the shifting dunes, and he rested his head on his new human’s shoulder.
Upwards, onwards, outwards, in the service of the gods. As long as they kept him fed.
|Christine Lucas is a former Air Force officer from Greece, and mostly self-taught in English. Her work has appeared in several online and print publications, including Daily Science Fiction, Pseudopod and Strange Horizons. She was a finalist for the 2017 WSFA award.|