His strength was incredible.  Her muscle ached and screamed at her.  Her wrist bonds were tight around his neck.  He was about to pull her shackled wrist between the bars.  She shifted one torn and bleeding foot further up on the thorny bars and gave a last final push.  The beast’s head slapped hard into the bars, and she heard an audible snap.  The massive wolf suddenly went slack, and his dead weight dragged her down to the floor.  Exhausted, she pushed one arm through the wall of iron thorns and slipped her chain from his crushed and broken neck.  The creature’s head lolled, and his wide glassy eyes stared blindly up at her.  They were blue on the edges of his dilated black pupils.

She sat up suddenly, the covers dropping to gather around her waist.  She breathed in a quick breath.  Her stomach churned and threatened to rise.  She swallowed hard as she tried to forget the image of the dead Ōkaminingen.  She felt a soft paw on her back.

Nonna rose up next to her and reached around her to hold her.  A choking sob escaped Kaniko, and she turned a little into her cousin’s embrace.  Nonna moved one paw up and gently stroked the younger feline’s ear flat.  She whispered, “Hey, you’re okay. I’ve got you. You’re okay now.”

In a quiet, shaky voice, “He had blue eyes.”

“Who, honey? Tell me about it.”

In a broken voice, Kaniko said, “The Ōkaminingen, I killed.”

“I’m sorry Kan. I know it hurts, but you were trying to protect Mathias.  You had to try.”

“He was a slave, and he was an addict to a drug that was forced on him. He wasn’t in control of his actions.” She shuddered. “He had blue human eyes once.”

Nonna pushed her cousin away from herself and made her look at her. “Listen, Kan. I know the guilt you are feeling. I’ve been there.”

Kaniko sniffed hard and stated, “You killing the Keeper is different.”

“No Kan, I’m not talking about the Keeper.  He deserved what I gave him.  I don’t feel guilty for killing him.  I would do it again to save those girls from the life I had.”

Kaniko was taken aback with the woman’s resolve.  She asked instead, “Then who is it you feel guilty about?”

She closed her eyes and sighed. “My former master Robert Polonius bought a playmate for me.  But the boy understood the world we lived in better than I did, he was a little older than me at the time.  He knew that he needed to win our master’s favor if he wished to be more than my plaything.  He would not stand for the idea that he was a slave to a slave.”

Kaniko interrupted, “You have never spoken of this before.”

“Because I’m ashamed of what happened.”

“You were not in control of your life then.  Why would you be ashamed?”

Nonna opened her green eyes and looked at the young feline woman. “Because I allowed myself to fall into the same trap that the boy was caught in.  As a slave, you have nothing, and you own nothing. Not even your own pride or life.  At a whim of your master, humiliation waited for you at the drop of a command. Death in most cases would have been preferred.  But the power of death was in the hands of your master or your master’s enemies. Death was often considered a blessing for a slave.”  She paused, and Kaniko could see the deep pain hidden in her eyes as the woman’s memories played in her mind.  Nonna blinked and focused on the younger woman. “Lucius, the boy, after a few weeks of getting his bearings and realizing that Pol only slept with me, contrived to take my master’s favor from me.”

Her attention wrapped in her cousin’s words, Kaniko prompted, “What happen?”

“He had taken to exploring the compound that was our master’s home.  On one particular day, he was gone for a very long time.  Partly out of curiosity and my own boredom, I went in search of him. I found a garden that Robert kept.” She smiled. “Kan, it was a beautiful, peaceful place. I suppose it was a counterpoint to the kind of daily life that Robert lived.”  She paused seeming to think about something else.  She continued, “Within this garden was a greenhouse. A special greenhouse for raising orchids. I saw the door into the arboretum was open, and I thought maybe Lucius was inside.” She sighed. “Point, in fact, he had been. He had gone in a wrecked the place. Instead of leaving, I went to clean it up, in hopes of keeping the boy out of trouble. I never thought that the kid was going to frame me for it. In short, Robert at the moment of discovery might have briefly believed that I had actually done the damage to his orchids.  But it didn’t matter, Lucius had thrown down his challenge, and a line had been drawn in the dirt.” Nonna went silent.  Her vision was distant.  Kaniko waited her out.

Nonna focused on her cousin again and continued, “I was forced to challenge the boy in a one on one fight. He easily was taller and stronger than I was, but I had the favor of my owner first, and I had Danica. For two months I trained, and I simply avoided the boy when he was at the house.  Danica trained me how to use the katana and wakizashi.” Her eyes seemed to look off into space behind Kaniko. “I was so calm that afternoon at the fighting arena. I was well prepared, but the boy nearly killed me. It was only the skills Danica had taught me and my desire to live that kept me from losing that day. I lost my right arm and left leg that day. The pain was terrible, but the damage I did to Lucius was worse.” She focused on her cousin. “I cut his chest open, Kan. I still can see it clearly. I remember the look in his eyes when he realized he was going to die, and I had won.”

Kaniko said, “You didn’t have a choice either.”

One side of Nonna’s mouth turned up, and she tilted her head just a little. “We always have a choice, Kan. But whether we take the opportunities given us is another matter. I didn’t want to die, just like you didn’t want to die or for Mathias to die. At least, your choice wasn’t entirely selfish.”

“Nonna, I don’t think you have anything any reason to feel ashamed.”

Nonna smiled at her cousin. “Then certainly, neither do you.”

They hugged each other and Nonna pat Kaniko gently on the back.  She said, “I guess we should wake the boys and get a move on.”



“Thanks,” Kaniko murmured.

“For what?”

“Staying with me. It’s been hard to sleep alone.”

Nonna smiled and slyly suggested, “You have two fine males who would love to share your bed.”

“Nonna!” Kaniko pushed at her cousin playfully.

Nonna fell over laughing and rolled off the bed.

Kaniko peered over the side at her.  She innocently asked, “So what’s the deal with you and the cat from the Anikawi clan?”

For a moment, Nonna looked up at her cousin in puzzlement. “Oh! You mean Róngmáo dòu!” She waved a hand of dismissal at the younger cat’s question. “He’s just any old friend. There’s nothing going on.”

In a disappointed tone, “Oh.”

Nonna sat up from the floor and leaned against the bed with her head next to Kaniko’s. She looked out the curtained window that the morning sun was starting to break through.  She sighed and said in a solemn voice, “It’s hard Kan. It hard to love again, to open your heart when one man still holds it, even though he also broke it.”

Kaniko touched the black cat’s shoulder. “How long has it been, fifteen years?”

“Ya, at least.”

Silence fell between them for a few minutes, and Kaniko asked, “Is it because of him that you never mated?”

Nonna blew a quick breath of air through her nose. “No, not him. I’ve had lovers, just never found anyone I was willing to spend my life with. Besides, I have my bows and leather work to do. I don’t have time for children.”

Kaniko pried, “So has Róngmáo dòu been one of your lovers?”

She barked a laugh. “Heavens no.” She turned so she could see the younger, golden-furred Otokononeko. “He used to be my cat, Fluffbucket. Besides, he has a mate. I believe her name is Xiǎowěibā. Now enough with the questions about my love life. I’m hungry.”

In the common room, Mathias and Tomiroc were watching the vidwall.  Kaniko walked up behind them on the couch. “What’s this?”

Tomiroc answered, “Something to do with Dominic and Laira Marshall’s return.  They’re supposed to be getting off the space elevator in a few minutes.  I’m pretty sure I saw the Dohi Aleutsi and Uncle James in one of the dromecam sweeps.”

In the 3D image, they saw three black aerocars land.  Security poured out of two of the cars and formed a parameter.  Small silvery flybots sprung from several of the soldier’s shoulders and dispersed out of the dronecam’s view.  The side entrance of the middle aerocar slid open.  Governor Leakey climbed out.  With her was Lieutenant Geiger.  He stood behind her left shoulder.  Next to him the woman looked small.  The governor briefly made eye contact with the dromecam and turned her head to her lieutenant.  The officer made eye contact and the image on the 3D vidwall went blank.

“What? That was rude!” barked Tomiroc a little too loud.

“Humph! I guess Lynn doesn’t want media coverage.” Nonna commented dryly.

Kaniko offered, “I could ask Uncle James or Aunt Lacey to be our eyes.” She looked at Nonna and the two males.

Tomiroc was still looking at the blank vidwall. “Well, I’d like to know what’s going on.”

Nonna and Mathias shrugged their acceptance of the idea.  Kaniko reached out to her aunt and uncle.  What she discovered, surprised her.  She focused on her friends. “We’re out of luck, I think. The network around Heaven’s Gate is blocked or something. I can’t make a connection to anyone or even servers in the area.”

Mathias asked, “I take it. This is bad then?”

Tomiroc looked at his wolf friend. Nodding, he answered, “Yes. I think so.”

Kaniko asked Nonna, “Do you think Keelee would know what’s going on?”

“I just asked her, and no she doesn’t. She is worried I think.”

Kaniko sighed, “Well, whatever it is all about, we won’t find anything out sitting here.”

Nonna said, “I put a VS watch out for anything that might be related. We should get breakfast and get on the way.”

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