“Your selection seems a little limited,” I say, walking down the aisle of cages. They are crudely stacked, one level on top of the other. Some of these young cats barely have enough room to turn around. It's been many years since I've visited such a place and I'd forgotten how cruel it is.
“The games have been particularly violent and popular lately, so sales have been up,” the manager replies cheerfully, chewing on a stick of catnip, his eyes glossed over. This cat is the most well-known Sanga trader in the county, and his collection is known for being genuine and well-bred.
My Sanga, Haru, was tragically killed in my last match—I was unable to protect him, and I was devastated. I haven’t fought in over a month, recovering from my grief as well as the loss of my right eye. I would have liked to retire, but my funds are running dry and I have no other marketable skills. I need another Sanga to compete, but I don’t have much to spend.
“I can’t keep them in stock. And with your limited budget, well, your choices are limited. However, with your experience, I do have one with an excellent pedigree I might be able to recommend. I wouldn't recommend him to someone who hasn't paired with a Sanga before, though. But you, Rai—I'm sure you could handle him. He's a return.”
“A return? Why was he returned?” I ask. I didn't even know returns were possible. Further, why would a Touga even want to return his Sanga? Doesn't that just mean they haven't bonded properly yet?
“He wouldn’t sing. He refused to perform for his master—at least, that’s what I heard from his owner.”
“Which one? Show me.” I'm interested. A Sanga would won’t sing? The idea is absurd. They need to sing—not only because that is what they are bred to do but also because refusing to sing goes against their nature and is bad for their health. I’ve never heard of a Sanga risking his health to rebel against his owner.
“It’s this one.” He gestures to a small cat—no, a kitten, really—a pile of skin, bones, and fur, curled up in the cage at my feet. He looks a mess, and he is in bad shape. He must be ill, and he has obviously been isolated from the other cats in the warehouse.
“Gods." I can't help myself. He hasn't been grooming his fur and he hasn't been permitted to bathe. It doesn't look like he has been eating, either. "Is he sick?” I crouch down and take a closer look. The kitten is shivering, his fur bristled and unkempt—matted, knotted, and grayish brown but the color is hard to determine due to the filth covering him. He’s naked, or at least his torso is—his lower half covered in ratty clothing, his tail is wrapped around his body protectively. I hear his teeth chattering, despite the warm temperature in the room.
As I’m standing in front of the cage, I put my hand out, trying to touch even a small part of this cat—just to see if we might be at least partly compatible. Before I can even approach, however, he lifts up his head, bares his fangs, which are small put perfectly straight and white, and hisses.
His eyes are striking, like molten gold. They are gorgeous. The rest of him may be a disaster, but he has beautiful eyes. Right then and there, I’m smitten. My heart flutters in my chest, even more than the first time I laid eyes on Haru, in fact. I smile softly at him, holding his gaze. He looks surprised by my reaction, watching me warily. I see him examining me, nervously, especially my eyepatch.
“When a Sanga is returned to us, it is a ding against the house's reputation, so I try to keep it quiet. As you well know, I am personally involved in training our cats, and this one—well, he was pretty young when we sold him, but he was such a natural—he’s a genuine Sanga, I guarantee that. I don’t know why he wouldn’t sing, but he simply refused. He may have been mistreated by his first handler, but even if he was, it’s no excuse not to sing and he should have known better. Even if it was just for the sake of his own health! And he's changed since he's been back here the past two weeks, too. He won't sing for us anymore, either. He won't respond to discipline. I'm quite at the end of my rope and will give you a great deal.”
I feel sick when I hear his words. They've probably been beating him and mistreating him, despite his illness. It makes more sense to treat a magical being well, I think, if your fate in the arena lies in his hands. He is much more likely to perform well for his Touga (or any owner) if he is well treated. Even more so if he is ill. Plus, he won't improve his health if he doesn't sing.
As I think these thoughts, the kitten glances up at me again, blinking his long, dark lashes—almost as if he read my mind. Haru could hear my thoughts if they were laced with emotion, but he was with me for over five years. This kitten's formerly fierce expression softens as he stares at me, continuing to search my face curiously.
“What are you asking for him?” I ask, unable to take my eyes off of him. He's sweet, and I can feel the power flowing from him, without even having to hear his voice.
“He’s within your budget. You’ll have some left over, too—for new clothes, for example, and food. And probably some extra, since you will probably want to train with him before diving right back into the arena. I heard your injury was substantial.”
“You’ll sing for me, won’t you?” I ask the kitten in a soft murmur.
I watch as his ears flatten, and a fearful look washes over his face. Singing is his purpose. Doesn't he realize? Why is he so afraid?
“I’ll protect you with everything I have. I promise you that.” I have sworn I will never lose a Sanga again. I would sooner sacrifice my own life than go through that grief. I reach my hand out to the cage, pushing my fingers in between the bars without forcing myself on him.
Hesitating another moment, he gives a barely perceptible nod, and his hand reaches out to mine, brushing my fingertips softly. I feel an electric current flow through my hand and up my arm into my shoulder and down my spine, sparking first like static electricity but then growing into a stronger current. This shows excellent compatibility as a fighting pair. It’s strong, despite his current state poor health. I’m pleased.
“Will you honor me with your voice?” I urge softly. “My name is Rai. What’s your name?”
“He won’t speak. He’s very stubborn,” the manager says. “We haven’t been feeding him since he won’t even talk.”
“You’re just afraid, aren’t you?” I press. “You don’t need to be afraid anymore. You are coming home with me. I will take care of you."
“Konoe,” he says quietly, in a soft, beautiful voice that sounds like honey seeping into my ears. “I’m Konoe.”
Even from that few words, I know he’s the real thing—and he’s the one I want. His voice sets something inside my soul ablaze, and I smile warmly at him.
“I’ll take him,” I say, getting back to my feet.
Who is this cat? This Rai?
I mean, I know he must be another Touga, but he’s different from anyone I’ve met before. He has a kind, calm voice, and that pale blue eye—it looked at me with kindness, not a demand to perform. He made me feel safe.
I haven’t felt safe in a long, long time.
My heart rate picks up when I watch his black boots walk away from my cage, feeling a sense of anxiety and nervousness when he leaves—though I can’t say I’m sorry to watch the manager depart. He is a cruel man and has only become crueler since I was returned by my original owner. He has beaten me—or subjected me to daily beatings—since I have been back, as though it was my fault I was returned! But he doesn’t understand what I have been through. He also won’t feed me what little food the other Sangas are being fed.
That other horrible Touga was a large cat with short gray hair, gray fur, and cruel green eyes. He called himself Sin but I was to call him Master. He frightened me. He said that he required my obedience in everything. I was made to kneel in his presence and I was punished for meeting his gaze, and I tried my best to obey his every command. But I feared him so much I couldn’t sing for him. I found my body didn’t want to sing for him. I wished for his death, not for his protection. Therefore, I didn’t earn my keep—I couldn’t earn my keep. He treated me cruelly, though he abused me in ways I didn’t know were possible. It makes me shudder to think about it, and so I don't except in my nightmares. I was relieved when he returned me.
The manager, however, was not pleased to see me again. He threatened to beat me if I disobeyed him, telling me I knew better than to disobey my master. He gave me another chance to sing for Sin, and I couldn’t. I could only tremble and cower in fear. The manager was appalled at my behavior and embarrassed that one of the Sangas he had trained had failed to perform. But I didn't know how to force myself to sing! I suffered daily beatings and starvation instead.
My former master chose another Sanga instead, and I was left in a cage as spoiled goods. The manager explained that Tougas like Sangas to be perfect and pristine, not used like I was. I would probably die here. And that is what I feared. While I didn’t suffer the same abuse as I did in Sin's household, I was still afraid.
Then—the silver Touga arrived. Rai seems different. He seems sad and wounded. And he spoke to me as though I were a cat, as though I had feelings. He may not be as kind as I think he is, but certainly, he will be better than my last master. I will try to be a good Sanga for him. I will do my best.
I watched him walk away and it hurt my heart. I find that I want to go with him. And I felt a connection when I touched his fingers. Maybe he will feed me and care for me like those thoughts I read in his heart?
Within a few minutes, the manager returns and unlocks the door to my cage. I can’t keep myself from cowering from him. It's a natural reaction, based on what has been done to me while I've been here.
“Come on, kitten. No point in trying to get away. You’re leaving with that guy. You've been given a second chance. Get yourself together and let’s go.”
My bones feel like they are creaking, and I slowly unwind my tail from where it’s wrapped around my body. Bruises cover my back and shoulders, and my body is tender and sore. Yet the moment I expose my arm, I am roughly yanked out of the cage.
I keep my lips closed, and I don’t allow even a small sound to escape, however. I simply glare at the manager.
“Glare all you want, but I know as well as you do that you’ll be back here within two weeks. And you’ll get your comeuppance when you do, kitten—and then some. You know you won’t be able to satisfy that customer either, even as pretty as he looks on the outside. He’s vicious.”
My fur bristles and my claws draw reflexively in response to his cruel words. I’m sure the manager knows that Touga much better than I do, but I know what I felt from him was kindness—much more than anything I ever felt from my last owner.
“You’re doomed to a life of a slave. You’d best get used to it, kitten.”
He drags me down the hallway, and I try my best to keep up, still not making a sound. I don’t fight him, either, because I sure as hell don’t want to stay here.
I’m brought to another room, where my new owner is waiting. I know what is next won’t be pleasant. This is part of the sale, too. It’s an inspection, and it’s a complete indignity for me, but it's necessary for my new master to see what he is purchasing. I keep my eyes fixed on the ground.
“Take off your clothes, kitten,” the manager says, and I can't move at first. I’m too exhausted, first of all. My hands slowly start to obey, but I hear him sighing in exasperation.
“Look, I’m going to tell you now, he was trained well when he left here originally. But now—he’s in need of strict discipline. We’ve tried everything, but it’s as if he has nothing to live for,” the manager says, as though I’m not even in the room.
I’m fucking doing as he asks, for gods’ sake! What more does he want?
“It's fine. He’s obeying,” the silver Touga says. “He’s probably ill and exhausted. What has he been eating since he’s been here?”
“Well, um, let's see. He’s been refusing food,” the manager lies. To this, I raise my face. I’m shocked he would lie about such a thing. But I don’t speak.
“I can see he hasn’t been eating. I can see his ribs. He looks… starved. How long has it been since you’ve eaten, little one?” The silver cat uses a gentle tone when he speaks to me—like he is being kind to me. I am tempted to answer, and my mouth opens and then closes, almost like it wants to respond. But I don’t want to speak out in front of the manager and tell this cat that I haven’t been offered anything but water in the past week.
I slip off my ratty trousers after untying the waist. They slide over my hips—which have always been wider than the rest of my body, leaving me in my underwear.
“Keep going,” the manager growls at me, making my ears lower and my tail droop in shame. I haven’t been allowed a bath since I’ve been here, and I’m filthy after being beaten as well. I haven't groomed myself, either. I'm just too filthy. Then he speaks to the silver cat again. “You can see the results of his training, I’m sure.”
I flinch when I feel a hand brushing against the bruising on my back, but I continue getting undressed. How humiliating.
“How old is he?”
“I don’t believe he’s had his first heat yet. He found his song early, however. He is sixteen cycles and was bred to be a Sanga. He’s never known any other life.”
That is a lie, too. Two years ago, I was taken from my home in Karou—where I lived peacefully and alone and free—when someone heard me singing to myself and reported me to some slave trading hunters. My land was coveted by my neighbors, and I had no protector. I am of age, I think—but still, I have no family, and the traders came and collected me. I was overwhelmed by their numbers. Surely, there is no home for me in Karou anymore.
The silver cat doesn’t touch me, much to my surprise. I’d been told to expect a lot of touching during this initial exam since Tougas expect to “bond” with their Sanga physically as well as emotionally. I wonder if I physically disgust him since I haven’t bathed in so long. I hope I do not completely disgust him because he is attractive—especially compared to the last cat who owned me.
The thought terrifies me, however. And the fact that I am thinking of bonding with any cat terrifies me. A rush of fear flows through my body when I remember all those times I was held down by the grey cat and he forced himself on me.
“Open your mouth, kitten,” the manager says.
I keep my eyes focused on the ground, feeling tears burn, and I open my mouth obediently. Rai looks at my teeth and tongue, humming slightly. He sounds slightly concerned.
“I’m going to touch your ears, your face, and your neck,” the silver cat says to me, very softly. “I will try not to hurt you.”
I nod shortly, keeping my face low, and I try to hold back fear along with my tears.
His touch is soft—and there’s a singeing burst of electrical current that surprises me once again when his fingers connect with my skin. It doesn’t feel bad, but it surprises me. That never happened with my last owner. It’s almost as if this cat is magic. I jerk excessively and fearfully, but I remain obedient and still. I am afraid, however, and the tears I try to keep from falling leak from the corners of my eyes.
The silver cat touches below my eyes, behind my jaw, my throat, and my shoulders, all of which are very sore. He also touches my ears, which I haven’t groomed in a long, long time. His hands feel cool, and I find I am pressing my head into the gentle touch. My chin is nudged slightly, and it startles me enough to make me look up just briefly.
I accidentally make eye contact. He only has one eye. His right eye is covered by a black eye patch. But the left eye looking at me is a beautiful icy blue, framed with long, thick eyelashes. His ears are rounded rather than pointed, and he is so tall. And he smells really nice.
“Don’t cry. But you are sore, aren’t you?”
My head gives another brief nod.
"And your throat hurts, too?"
I nod again.
“I think you may have an infection. It feels like you may have a fever, too. We can treat it, and you will feel better soon, all right?”
“Okay.” I’m shocked to hear my own voice responding, and so is the manager.
“Do you have any decent clothes for him? Something that isn’t so worn?” The silver cat hands me the clothes I have removed, allowing me to cover myself with something other than my tail. I appreciate the gesture more than I can say, a few more tears spilling from my eyes.
“Huh. I’ve never had a request for clothes, honestly. Most new owners just take their pets home naked. I can look, but he’s such a small breed.”
“I realize that, but I’m not most owners. I’m also not a new owner. Please look.”
The manager sighs and leaves.
“You’re going to be all right. You will be safe with me, and you will get well again. I will expect you to bond with me and fight for me, once you are well. Are you willing to do that?”
“Yes. Thank you,” I murmur softly. “You are very kind.”
“Not at all. I’m a Touga, and I need your support to make a living. It’s the logical way of things,” he says smoothly.
Within a few minutes, the manager returns with a shirt and a pair of trousers. I slip them on, leaving the rags behind. While I get dressed, I watch as the silver cat pays for me with many silver coins. In exchange, he receives a certificate—probably my papers—and a collar. I dread that collar. He looks at me, noticing the moment I shrink from it.
“I’m sorry. It’s the law when we go out in public.”
The collar is black leather and buckles around my neck, and there’s a leash that he wears attached to his wrist. But instead of dragging me behind him, he scoops me up in his arms, which surprises me.
“You know if you do that all the time, you will spoil him. He is already undisciplined,” the manager warns.
“He is ill,” the silver cat growls. “You can't spoil a sick kitten. But thanks for your advice.”
“Ah. And thank you for your business.”
I’m carried out of the trader’s warehouse—glad to be gone from there—into a new life. Whatever it may be, it really can’t be worse than where I have already been, can it?