Harlequin

One

Mark was bored.

He’d wanted to go back to Sun ‘n’ Surf, but no, they’d already been on this holiday, so they had to go where his younger sister wanted to go: the island of Umnikai. His face had fallen when Julia had piped without hesitation that she wanted to see the ‘kitty people’. He’d begged to stay back and go to the theme park, take surfing lessons, even just stay at the hotel; anything while the rest of the family had fun with the freaky people crossed with cats. He’d even volunteered to pay for everything he did there with his own money, something he was sure would make his parents consider leaving him behind.

And yet, despite what he thought were convincing arguments, here he was, slouched at the back of a speedboat on the way to Umnikai. He made every effort to look as bored as humanly possible. Maybe they would at least let him stay in the boat while they traipsed through kilometre upon kilometre of sticky, humid rainforest, fighting off mozzies the size of vampire bats.

He ran his fingers through his crew-cut ginger hair and cast his blue-grey eyes back over the wake the boat left, longing to just turn around and go back to the mainland. He sighed dejectedly. An hour it would take them to get there. He looked at his watch. They’d only been travelling for ten minutes. He yawned into the back of his hand. This wasn’t his idea of a tropical holiday.

“You could at least try to look interested,” his mother shouted over the sound of the motor, then sat next to him on the bench.

“Kinda hard to look interested in something this boring,” Mark retorted. “Why do I have to be here?”

Her voice was one of strained tolerance. “Like Dad said, it’s a family holiday, and you’re part of it. Lighten up, you might have fun.”

Mark raised an eyebrow. “That’ll be happening,” he said, putting as much sarcasm in his voice as he could.

His mother sighed and forced the digital camera into his hands. “Here, get some good photos.”

“Get Julia to do it. Or Dad.”

“I thought you liked using that camera.”

“Only when there’s something worth taking photos of.”

“Just do it.” She was obviously determined to get him to participate somehow.

“Whatever,” Mark sighed. He took the camera and stared back at the wake. Still another forty-five minutes.

The ocelot crept silently through the trees, her translucent umber eyes fixed on the drab brown-feathered body of the female peacock. She slid smoothly over the leaf litter, her sleek form like water over the dead leaves. When she was not three meters from the bird, oblivious to her being there, she sprang forward and flew at her prey, clamping her deadly sharp claws on its flimsy body, then breaking its fragile neck with a quick flick of her head and snap of her jaws.

She dropped the peacock at her feet and sat elegantly beside it. Slowly, the ocelot’s fur shrunk back into her skin, leaving her bare but for a few fine hairs. Her limbs, tail and whiskers grew longer, her body and ears larger. Finally, a pair of opals formed on her cheek, glittering in the watery dawn sunlight.

Without warning, an arrow flew from the trees and delved into the cat girl’s shoulder blade. She cried out in pain and threw her shoulders back in a vain effort to push herself away from the arrow. She screamed again as a second arrow drove into her upper arm, then a third in her other shoulder.

Only humans used bows and arrows; cat people all carried their swords to use as weapons. Before she was able to stand up and run from the people who had shot her, they were on her. One grabbed her wrists and pulled them agonisingly behind her, making her again scream out, then tied them tightly with a strong rope made from coconut husks. She was hauled to her feet and the arrows were torn painfully from her flesh, but this time she clenched her teeth together to prevent herself from showing any weakness to the humans.

She was numbly aware of the blood now dripping down her arm and back. No longer blocked by the arrowheads, the wounds were left to run freely, the warm crimson liquid seeping out of the three piercings in her skin. She could hear the metallic shing that told her her sword had been unsheathed, and was then shoved roughly in her back.

She almost lost her footing, but the cat girl stumbled on, waves of pain washing over her with every step. What are they going to do to me?

She was led, or rather pushed, to a small settlement of the dark-skinned humans. The men took her to the communal fireplace that lay at the centre of the village, where two of them stood facing her, their arrows pointed at her face. The man carrying her sword spoke roughly to her in a jumble of words she had never heard before, obviously expecting her to say something in reply.

She blinked and opened her mouth, but closed it again after she realised that no matter what she said, these people would have no idea what she was trying to tell them, and so thought it best to remain silent.

The man pointed her sword threateningly at her and said something else, then turned to go. The ocelot girl closed her eyes and sighed. She longed to call out for help, whether it was from other cat people or other ocelots, she didn’t care, but she wasn’t stupid. The second she called out the first syllable, she would have two arrows embedded in her skull. Not even a healer could bring someone back to life.

The man returned with another man at his side, obviously the head of the settlement. While his modest clothing consisted of the same strategically placed clump of dried grass tied around his waist that all men seemed to wear, his thick black hair had been decorated with three bright blue feathers, which stood proudly at the back of his head.

He stood in front of her, his hands behind his back and with an obvious air of authority about him. He gave her a fast-paced speech then stood silently, waiting for her to respond. When she still didn’t say a word, he shouted a few more words at her, making her jump.

The girl shook her head. “I have no idea what you just said,” she said, just to humour the man, “And I’m sure you’ve got no idea what I’m saying either.”

The man glared at her, then produced her sword and poked the wound on her arm, babbling some more at her. She cringed as the new wave of pain shot through her and throbbed again in her arm. The man waved her sword carelessly in the air and spoke to the two men who still guarded her with their bows, and the third who stood behind him.

The men nodded to show they had understood, then grabbed the cat girl and forced her to the edge of the clearing with her back against a sturdy tree. Another strong rope was wound around her waist, tying her firmly to the tree, and for a few seconds her hands were untied, but only for the time it took to pull them around the tree, where they were again bound together.

The man who had disarmed her spoke rapidly to her again, then left, the other two closely behind him. She was alone, but she somehow knew that no matter how close any means of help was, they weren’t as close as the arrow points of the human tribe.

She tried taking on her ocelot shape, but stopped midway when she realised quickly that a cat’s limbs weren’t meant to bend behind their backs. She sighed and looked at her feet. She didn’t know what these people were planning to do to her, but if it involved tying her to a tree it couldn’t be good.

“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Umnikai!” The tour guide was annoyingly chirpy. Didn’t he ever get bored of making the same trip, day in, day out?

“’Bout bloody time,” Mark muttered, his arms folded as he slouched against a tree. He swatted at a mosquito, but missed.

“Now, as I told you before we left, none of the people on the island speak English except for Inumo, the chief of the village we’ll be taking you to. If we’re lucky, we might even see a cat person while we’re walking there. Right, off we go then!”

Mark raised his eyebrows and pushed himself back from the tree, swatting at another mozzie. “We’re going to an island famous for magic cat people and go to see a village with people living in it,” he mumbled, “Whoop-de-freaking-do.” At least he’d managed to force the photo taking onto Dad.

For hours they trudged through the rainforest. Mark found it ludicrous at how the general populous of their group of twelve got excited over spotting animals they could just as easily see in the zoo. Easier even. It didn’t take an hour-long boat ride to get to the zoo, and there weren’t swarms of mozzies to contend with either. Every few minutes he looked at his watch, working out what TV shows he was missing.

It was midday by the time they had reached the tiny village, where the chief greeted them with a bow. Mark raised his eyebrows at the man’s attire, wondering why he even bothered with what he had.

“Everyone,” the tour guide began, “this is Inumo, the chief of this tribe.”

“Never would have guessed,” Mark said sarcastically, earning a jab from his mother.

The tour guide either didn’t hear or chose to ignore his comment. “He’ll show you around the village, then leave you to do your own thing for ten minutes or so. Right, over to you, Inumo,” he said slowly to the man.

Mark sighed and slouched along at the tail end of the group, making a point of his boredom. They had just been walking through the jungle for two hours, and a tour of a group of grass huts was the last thing he wanted to do right now. He wanted lunch, whatever that was going to be. Probably ‘authentic island cuisine’. Joy.

The tour ended at a clearing where the tour guide told them the tribe had ceremonial dances every full moon. As he yawned, not for the first time on their trek, he noticed a movement from behind the man at the far end of the clearing. There stood a girl about his age, leaning with her back against a tree, her hands behind her back and… were those cat ears? He blinked at the girl, and as if to confirm his suspicions, she flicked one of them at a mozzie.

Her short, dirty-blond hair was streaked with black, and Mark was sure he could see something glittering on her cheek. She was staring straight at him, a quizzical expression on her face.

The tour group suddenly started mumbling and dissipating, and Mark realised that the guide had stopped talking, leaving the group to ‘do their own thing’.

“So when are we meeting back?” he asked Mum.

She sighed. “Back here at one,” she said irritably, “don’t be late.”

“Yeah right,” Mark answered, “The sooner we leave, the better.”

“Mummy, look, it’s a kitty person!” Julia tugged on her mother’s shirt, pointing at the girl tied to the tree. “Mummy, I want to see the kitty person, can we go see the kitty person now, please?”

Her mother smiled and took the young girl’s hand. “Of course, honey, but don’t get too close, okay?”

Mark looked over to the cat girl. She was still staring at him, looking more puzzled than ever. He shifted uncomfortably and looked at the ground. Why was she staring at him like that? Figuring there was nothing else to do, he wandered after his mother and younger sister. They weren’t technically his mother and sister; he’d been adopted when he was five. They seemed to treat him like he was a blood relation, but there were times when he felt that they favoured Julia over him. Like now.

He stepped closer, glad to see the cat girl had been distracted by camera flashes and his squealing sister. When he stopped walking and stood behind his family, a few meters from the cat girl, her ears pricked up, and a look of sudden realisation dawned on her face.

Her eyes jerked back up to him, forcing him to look away. “Can you help me out here?” she asked.

“What did she say, Mummy?” Julia asked, bouncing at her mother’s side.

“I don’t know, sweetie, I don’t speak her language,” she answered.

Mark blinked and looked back up again. He could have sworn the girl had just asked for his help, but apparently nobody else could understand her.

“Please?” the girl asked again, her voice slightly pleading.

Mark blinked again and looked around the small group that had assembled around the cat girl. None seemed to show any sign of having understood her.

“Come on, I know you can understand me, just undo the ropes before they come back.” She cast a glance over his shoulder.

This is too weird, Mark thought to himself, then turned on his heel.

“No! Don’t go! Please! I don’t know what they plan on doing to me, but it can’t be good. Please could you untie me?”

He tried to ignore her as he walked back to the other end of the clearing and sat on a log there, looking at his watch again to see how long it would be until lunch. Half an hour at least. He couldn’t just sit there and do nothing while the cat girl stared at him with pleading eyes.

Something was obviously not right here. According to the other people in the tour group, the girl was speaking an unknown language, but he could understand her as easily as if she were speaking in plain English. She had a bit of an accent, but it was still dead easy to understand her.

Gradually, the group lost interest in the cat girl, and left to look around the village and stick their cameras in the faces of the local people. He was alone in the clearing with the cat girl.

They stared silently at each other for a while, then Mark finally gave in and ambled over to her, making it clear that he was not pleased. A thankful grin spread over the cat girl’s face, but he could also see a slight ‘took your time’ expression behind the smile.

“Thanks,” she said as he rounded the tree and fiddled with the ropes that tied her wrists together. “I’m Llaeka, by the way.”

“Just… don’t say anything to me, kay?” Mark told her, giving up on trying to untie the ropes and just hacking at them with his pocket knife.

The girl took her hands away and rubbed her wrists. “Why not? What’s wrong with me thanking the guy who’s just untied me?”

“It’s just… freaky that I can understand you, that’s all.”

“Why shouldn’t you be able to?”

He angrily sliced through the lengths of rope around her waist. “’Cos no-one else can.”

She turned to face him, that same puzzled expression on her face again. “You don’t know?” she asked, slightly sarcastically.

“Know what?”

“You’re a cat person,” she told him simply.

Mark took a step back, holding his hands up. “O-kay, this is gettin’ weird…”

The cat girl raised her eyebrows. “Why’s it so hard to believe?” she asked, “You can understand me, right?”

“What the hell makes you think I’m a cat person?” He was almost shouting now, but lowered his voice when he realised he must be speaking her language. He held a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes.

“Look, I can sense your magic, what more do you need?”

“Oh great, I’ve got magic now,” he said sarcastically.

“Well duh, you always have, you just don’t know it. It’s the same as mine… sorta. Kinda hard to explain right now.”

Mark shook his head. “Then don’t even bother trying. Look, I dunno what you’re thinking, but I’m human, got it? Hu-man,” he said slowly, “See? No ears, no tail, no whiskers and no freaking diamond-jewel-thingo. Now if you would leave me alone that would be nice. I got you what you wanted, now piss off.” He turned and walked back to the log to continue waiting until one o’clock.

“Don’t you want to find out about your magic?” Her tone was obviously meant to make him feel as though he was missing out on something.

“I don’t have any!” he yelled back, not turning around.

“What’s going on?” Mark smacked his forehead at the voice of the tour guide.

“Nothing,” he said, taking his seat on the log.

The man stood behind him. “It’s great that you’re finally taking an interest in the trip, but you really shouldn’t interfere.”

“Huh?”

“The cat girl was probably tied up for a reason, probably invaded their territory or something.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Why was he feeling like this? If she was just a cat he wouldn’t have a second thought about the girl. She wasn’t a person; she was an animal. Either that or a freak. He didn’t even like cats. But for some reason he couldn’t imagine her being hurt in any way.

Llaeka had walked over to the log, but stood a few meters from him. “Sure you don’t wanna come? I mean,” she smirked slightly, “you’d be pretty cute with a set of whiskers.”

Mark raised an eyebrow and mouthed the words ‘piss off’ at her, careful not to let the guide see he had understood her.

She shrugged. “Whatever. I’ll just get my sword and be off then. Seeya whenever.”

Mark blinked. She had a sword?

“What was that about?” the guide asked.

He was snapped out of his thoughts, and gave a shrug to show he had registered what the man had said. “You tell me, you’re s’posed to be the expert on these things.”

“’Fraid I can’t tell you. They’re like any other animal, impossible to understand what they’re saying. May sound vaguely like a human language of sorts, but it’s just not possible to learn.” He gave a short laugh. “Half the reason’s probably because they’re just so vicious. May as well try to talk to a tiger, you know what I mean?”

Mark gave a forced laugh and pretended to be overly bored, though inside he was feeling slightly worried. There was no chance that he could be a cat person, but there was something less than ordinary about what was going on. He was glad to see the tail end of the cat girl.

Two