Shining Path


Chapter 17

There is a story told to humanoid kittens as part of their cultural education. The story is called a fairy tail. Fairies are like mahou shoujo, but imaginary. There are no fairies mentioned in this fairy tail, and fairies do not even have tails, so the story is poorly named. Mew.

The story begins by describing a town severely infested with rats. The story is often set specifically in the town of Hamerin, in Germany, in Kouan 7, more than 750 years ago. The town is visited by what is referred to as a "paaido piper." Not many humanoids know what it means anymore, but paaido is an obsolete word for one with black and white fur; and a piper in this context is a recorder player. The piper contracts to destroy the rats. The piper destroys the rats by playing a melody on the recorder which causes all the rats to run after her; then she leads them out of the town and magically causes them to jump in the nearby river, where they drown.

The citizens of the town refuse to pay the piper for her services. The piper retaliates by leading away their kittens in the same way she led away the rats. Mew. The story ends, and is supposed to be instructive. The lesson a kitten is supposed to learn from the story of the paaido piper has to do with honoring the terms of contracts.

The story of the paaido piper would be more instructive if it were more realistic. Nobody wastes perfectly good rats by drowning them in a river. Drowning rats is not easy because they swim. Contractors always negotiate the highest prices they can, but one given the task of destroying rats would not normally expect to also be paid with money. For that matter, taking away the kittens is a strange punishment in itself; kittens are cute, but easily replaceable and seldom in short supply. Maybe there are important parts missing from the story as the humanoids tell it. Maybe the original version of the story teaches a different lesson.

It is the year that the humanoids call Shoumei 15. Eleventh Queen is leader of all joneko. Her reign is a quiet and peaceful one, if not especially prosperous. Nobody, humanoid or joneko, has been especially prosperous since the Keika Era. Eleventh Queen keeps her claws out of the business of her people, letting them make what progress they can. Eleventh Queen was animated in the Heisei Era, in a style now long out of fashion. She has green fur on her body, white ears with pink lining, a white tail, bare arms and legs, and puffs of white fur around her hands and feet that look like gloves and boots. She remembers the world before the Deconstruction. Most joneko alive today do not remember that. On 17-day 6-month, Eleventh Queen names her successor, and abdicates.

Twelfth Queen is pure white except for a spot of black below her nose, long-haired with kitten-blue eyes, and very young. Twelfth Queen was animated in Shoumei 5. If she were not a Queen, the leader of all joneko, then she might not even be recognized as a queen, an adult, at all, though she is old enough to go into heat and that is the ultimate definition. Eleventh Queen asks too much by asking her daughters to follow such a one. Mew! But the joneko who was Eleventh Queen is no longer Queen and can no longer be held responsible. There is a clowder with much yowling among the members of the Queen's pride, her assistants and advisors. Eventually, by common consent, a gray joneko with black socks assumes the position of Regent. Twelfth Queen is carefully raised to be ready to serve and guide all joneko when she reaches an appropriate level of experience. In the mean time, the nation under the guidance of the Regent follows the wise precedent of keeping the claws sheathed, as was done by Eleventh Queen. All joneko live so well under this policy that some suggest the time for Queens in general may have passed. Perhaps Twelfth Queen should be the Last Queen, and from now on joneko can live better with just a Regent. Perhaps Eleventh Queen was wise enough to foresee that and set up this lesson for her daughters.

It is the humanoid year Shoumei 17. It is Fall, and there is snow in the air. Twelfth Queen, the Regent, and two bodyguards are in a black royal car making a tour of the Quarter. Twelfth Queen shows a great deal of interest in viewing her territory recently. There is some concern, carefully unstated, that she may be discontent with the current scope of her duties. There is some discussion, carefully out of earshot of the throne room, of what might be done if she attempts to change the wise precedent of keeping the claws sheathed. Mew. As long as Twelfth Queen is only watching, however, there should be no problem with letting her watch the world through car windows.

The car is traveling down a back street so narrow that humanoids would be afraid to drive a vehicle there at all. The joneko royal car has scored-fiber sensory whiskers sticking out to either side from the front bumper. Its computer can detect exactly how much clearance may be available, and squeeze the car into alleys that have only millimeters to spare, with no danger of scratching the paint. The car's turbine engine is almost completely silent, but the transmission is deliberately detuned a little to produce a low vibration that the occupants find soothing. It sounds like a joneko's purr.

It is late evening, the moon has set, and the street is illuminated by cheap sulfur point-source lamps high on the building walls. This is a back street. It must be lit for practical reasons, but this street does not need to be pretty to please a humanoid eye. Everything touched by the sulfur light looks hard and shiny, and the shadows have knife edges.

One of those shadows cuts across an open space to one side of the street, where a building has a cut-out section to accommodate a pile of garbage bags. Every few days a robot comes down here to pick up the bags. Over the years other purposes have intruded on the space, so it now also contains a network node, a public hydrant, and a kibble dispenser, which is vandalized and out of service. Tonight it also contains a scruffy young Siamese and a middle-aged humanoid salaryman.

The Siamese is dangerously thin. She looks a year or two older than Twelfth Queen, which means, given how fast joneko age in her profession, that she is probably in fact a year or two younger. She is half-reclining on the pile of garbage bags, with one foot on the ground and the other braced against a drain pipe, the knee level with her uppermost breasts. One hand is on the salaryman's shoulder, the claws caught in the fabric of his jacket, and the other arm hangs limp. There are sections of fur missing on that arm, revealing hairline scars on the outlines below. An informed observer, not Twelfth Queen, would recognize those as where the Siamese slid knives in between the layers of cellulose acetate to get drugs into her body. Seru, lacking an organic-style circulatory system, do not use needles. The remaining fur is thin and poorly groomed, especially on the Siamese's flanks and near her tail. She is naked, as is usual for joneko, and the salaryman is partly so, which is less usual for his species. He is trying hard to get his money's worth. She is neither resisting nor cooperating nor doing much else.

Persons outside the car cannot see into it at all because of nonlinear optical devices embedded for that purpose in the windows. Such privacy is highly valued by a species who communicate much of their language in visible body gestures. Twelfth Queen's eyes cannot truly meet those of the Siamese. But Twelfth Queen stares at, if not into, the other joneko's eyes as the car passes. They are dilated inappropriately for the harsh sulfur light, and they do not quite point in the same direction. Both are effects of 5-chlorodihydronepetalactone poisoning from her use of a badly-purified grade of its less-toxic unsaturated analog. As the car purrs by and the man shoves and grunts, the Siamese seems not to really notice car or man. Whatever part of her is still truly alive is not behind those eyes but far away. It is because of her strange eyes that Twelfth Queen sees fit to ask the Regent about the Siamese. The Regent dismisses the question with a vague comment about how all joneko know that sometimes one needs a man.

Twelfth Queen does know. All queens know that by definition. Twelfth Queen and the Regent both deal with the same family of private contractors who have served joneko royalty since the Heisei Era. They are highly skilled and very discreet. But the Siamese had not looked like she needed such a service tonight. She seemed indifferent at best. Twelfth Queen presses the question further. The Regent says that perhaps the man has needs of his own and the Siamese is helping him.

There is silence for a time and the Regent hopes that will be the end of the matter. Then Twelfth Queen asks if such things happen often. The Regent considers her options, and notes that both bodyguards have their ears pricked up. Now is not a good time to play kitten games with exactly what per-capita rate of prostitution might or might not qualify as "often." She answers in the affirmative. Just as the Regent feared, Twelfth Queen wants to know why joneko would do such a thing. The Regent says that sometimes joneko must do whatever it takes to earn money because they have no meat.

Twelfth Queen is aware of the existence of money, but thinks it is an exclusively humanoid bit of foolishness and does not understand why joneko would care about it. Twelfth Queen suggests that if these joneko have no meat, perhaps instead of seeking inedible money, let them eat fish.

That is, of course, a reasonable solution and worthy of a wise Queen. The bodyguards mew quietly to each other and fall silent. The Regent points out a passing network routing airship, barely visible as a pattern of flashing lights in the sky far above them. Twelfth Queen looks at the airship, but does not comment further at this time.