26 – Cat’s Cradle

Bonnie was glad to have her coat back. The dress wasn’t a bad change, but she felt better in hunter’s garb than in any gown. That kind of life wasn’t meant for her.

The cat’s lounge wasn’t anything special. Chairs and couches were sat around round tables marked by green cloth. Guests here played games of chance, gambling with what they had. Some bet cash, some bet clothes, some bet emotions, some bet bodies. Deeds changed hands, experiences lost and gained when they weren’t stolen outright.

And they could be stolen. Cheating and theft were perfectly fine. One could pluck the organs from a living man if they so desired. The only rule was not to get caught. In that case, the stolen goods would be confiscated, and recompense would be taken. Two eyes for one eye, lungs for a lung, the entire rib cage for a heart, disproportionate retribution was the rule.

The cat had eyes too, though not nearly as many as the peacock. She had no stage for performances, nor a bar for service. No buffet brought food to the hungry, there was no place to dance, and the decor was hardly inspired. 

Yet there was a lure here all the same as the fair and foul bet what they had. There were knives and pliers at the table, in case. 

Bonnie watched as one man in a bird’s mask pulled a tooth from his mouth and demanded another round of cards from a cat-masked dealer. Another took a knife to her own eye. Anything to stay in the game.

It was not a place of greed, but one of resentment. The winners only wanted more from their opponents, and the losers hated the winners for their victory. The servers chafed under their servitude, for all of them were once the guests they were now forced to serve. And the cat who owned it all basked in that righteous jealousy, her emerald eyes glittering as she regarded the hunter in her midst.

Bonnie, for her part, nodded to the cat, and asked if she wanted anything for playing host.

The cat laughed. “That isn’t how things work, dear. I don’t accept tribute, nor gifts. Give me something if you’re so desperate to, but know I’ll discard it as soon as it is received.”

Bonnie tossed the cat a glove. Then the second, because receiving one glove was useless as far as presents went.

Not that the cat could do much with gloves regardless, though Bonnie did succeed in making the cat laugh again.

“A point made and accepted. You really are a curious beast.”

The cat could not cure Bonnie’s condition. She aided curses, she did not fix them. To ask that of her was as foolish as asking fire to fix a burn or a wasp to heal a sting. 

She liked the hunter though, in as much as she could like anyone. She had fondness for her siblings, though she hated them just the same. Adoration was followed by jealousy, love by hate, appreciation by resentment. Even now, she despised the hunter for her boons and regarded her banes as nothing worth concern. Such was the nature of the cat whose jade statues lined her hall in rough copy of the peacock’s shining presence.

A hundred eyes to adore, and two to despise.

The cat was also a hunter. Not the same as the human’s, not quite, though their nature’s were not dissimilar. It was in a cat’s nature to prowl, to stalk, to play, to kill. Birds, bugs, rodents. Vermin of various types, or even just those small enough. 

It was natural, and the cat had quite a time acting the hunter in the past, in times of Plague and Rats, when filth held the land and the flagellants whipped their backs bloody. Tainted blood, torn out by barbed whips, could not soothe the corruption that bubbled up in earthly boils. 

Rats filled the world then, in swarms and waves. Kings with their tails bound in sticky pitch, conquering with fleas and ticks. It was easy to rule over the sick when their own bodies bulged with pus. Swollen tongues could not pray for mercy and the rats ate readily, chewing through cheeks and squirming into sockets to feast on brains. 

Monsters, one and all, mothered by pestilence and famine, feasting readily amidst the bloated and leaking. They ate without reservation, cruel and consumptive, and the cat took her own bites all the same.

Rot, rats, a feast of sickness for the vicious. King Rat was a fat prize for a cunning cat. 

She ate well of monsters, yet no hero was she. The cat saved those who would suffer. She sought pain, those would hate her for their rescue. Any she saved would despise her all the more for it as she took payment harsher than any could reasonably pay while their bodies were withered and worn. 

A man will not thank a savior that eats his finger. Cruelty rewarded perseverance. 

The cat was not a savior. She was lucky and happy. It was a world of ruin, one where she could indulge as gluttonously as though she were born a hog. She was fond of the pig, in her own way, because he lorded over those flies that ate among the shit.

In times of monsters, hunters eat quite well. Some would even ask boons of the predator in the dark, aiming to become as powerful, as skilled, as cunning, as lethal.

And the cat would allow it out of amusement. There would always be a debt. She did not give kindness freely, for she did not want to be regarded fondly. Never would she allow any to think of her as a creature of kindness.

Yet a favor was owed, and a reward must be given.

The cat regarded the hunter with one eye, letting the other close for the moment, at least in appearance. She knew of the Enchantress, the one the hunter sought.

Bonnie stood straighter. Her eyes gleamed gold. And the cat smiled.

It was not in her nature to give freely, not as a reward, not as a charity, not even as recompense. She must always cause pain with what was given. She would not give without hurting, would not take without tearing, would not act without suffering. Every action must cause harm, for that was what it meant to resent. To never see kindness, only cruelty and pity.

So a gift was instead made into a choice.

“I’ll tell you where to find that which you seek. But I’ll only tell you one. The Hound, or the Enchantress. Pick which you desire more.”

Guilt lay with the Enchantress, the feeling of giving up a friend’s request for selfish desire.

Resentment lay with the Hound, the feeling of giving up a desire for a friend’s demand.

A fork in the road, a pair of choices given, yet Bonnie answered without hesitation and the cat felt her eyes widen in faint surprise.

“…The Hound it is then. How very curious~.”

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