Not Kitten Around
This short story takes place during the events of Tropical Bartender Bear, but doesn’t particularly spoil anything…though it does hint at many of the secrets of the island. New to the series? Start with the Shifting Sands Resort Omnibus edition – four volumes with bonus stories and novellas in my preferred reading order! You can also get signed and sketched hardcovers!
“How long have you been there, kitten?”
Gizelle looked up at Travis’ exclamation to find the lynx handyman staring down at her over the back of the couch. “Time is arbitrary,” she said. “The moon sometimes looks like a clock, but it doesn’t tick, so I can’t count how many seconds have passed. And I’m not a kitten, I’m a gazelle.”
Travis’ face was joined by Graham’s, Bastian’s, and Breck’s.
“Have you been listening to our entire conversation?” Breck wanted to know, looking dismayed. They had been speaking very frankly about things that Gizelle only barely grasped.
“You’ve scarred her, Breck,” Bastian chuckled.
“I didn’t say anything all of us weren’t thinking,” Breck said with a shrug. “And she’s not a child.”
Graham wouldn’t say anything. He never did unless it was necessary, which was one of the things that Gizelle liked about him. Words were sometimes hard. Words that meant very different things sounded exactly the same. Homonyms, they were called. Sometimes they were used with both meanings to be a joke that Gizelle didn’t always get.
“There are too many voices outside,” Gizelle said simply.
They all made noises of understanding, even Graham.
“You want to come out and watch the show with us?” Travis offered kindly. “Shove over, Graham, give her some room.”
Gizelle crept out and took a cautious perch on the far arm of the furniture, well away from the others. It felt safer behind the couch than on it, but she couldn’t see the mesmerizing television from there. She toyed with a lock of tangled white hair.
Shifting Sands Resort was as busy as she’d ever seen it, in the few months since she had been released from the shifters zoo that she had no memories of. Usually, it was a lazy, quiet place, with guests who wanted to be lazy and quiet enjoying the sunshine and saltwater. But this week, there were so many people and everything was a frenzy of activity.
It was even on the television right now, all the muscly shifter men in slow motion being judged for their beauty and cleverness. Gizelle hoped that she was never judged for her beauty and cleverness, because she was sure she would never be beautiful, and she was too far behind to be clever.
At first, the bachelors clearly felt inhibited by her presence, their bawdy conversation curbed from dirty jokes to observations about how fine the resort looked on television, and how smart the contestants were…or weren’t.
It was particularly odd to watch the television and see the familiar places in sunlight, and then to glance outside at the darkness of the soft, velvet night. The moon was half-full that night.
“Sweet tea, that swimsuit doesn’t leave much to the imagination,” Breck said, fanning himself.
“Sweet tea? You’ve been hanging out with Tex too much,” Travis teased him.
“What do you think of these guys, Gizelle? Should Mr. India take the swimsuit prize?” Bastian asked.
“He is very shiny,” Gizelle said skeptically. “I don’t know what criteria to apply.”
“If they are judging strictly by size—” Breck started.
Travis punched him in the arm. “There’s a lady present.”
“I know what hung like a horse means,” Gizelle said with a sly sideways smile.
“What have you been teaching her, Breck?” Bastian wanted to know with a groan.
“She should know the vernacular,” Breck said loftily.
“Don’t listen to that filthy man, kitten,” Travis warned her.
“I’m not a kitten,” Gizelle reminded him. “But I do have a kitten.”
That earned her very confused looks. “You don’t have a kitten,” Breck said slowly.
Maybe they didn’t remember that she had a kitten. Maybe she would have a kitten. Words were hard.
“Why aren’t there any children here?” Gizelle asked, thinking about baby cats.
Travis was the one who answered. “Well, that’s a little complicated. It’s not really safe for children here, because they might fall in the pool or get lost in the jungle.”
“There’s also all the alcohol and nudity,” Bastian added dryly.
“Legal liability,” Breck guessed.
“Maybe she just doesn’t like them?” Travis suggested.
“I think it’s because Scarlet is afraid of children,” Gizelle announced. Scarlet was the woman who owned the resort. She was very powerful, and often angry.
Silence was never actually silent. There were always whispering voices, memories of the future, the sound of feathers rustling together, and right now the low drone of the television, which was showing a competition that involved a lot of boring speeches. This was a particularly poised silence, as the bachelors all thought about her statement and asked their animals what she meant.
“She’s like me,” Gizelle explained, because they didn’t understand. “She was always a woman and never a child. People are afraid of what they haven’t been.”
“Scarlet was never a child?” Breck asked avidly. “Like, literally? Gizelle, do you know what Scarlet is?”
“Scarlet is my friend,” Gizelle said confidently.
“No, I mean, what kind of shifter is Scarlet?”
Gizelle looked back at their curious stares and blinked. Sometimes Scarlet had a very loud voice, but it was never quite as clear as other shifters what she was. Gizelle shrugged.
“I should start a betting pool,” Breck said. “Everyone’s dying to know what she is.”
“Add gambling to your list of vices, why don’t you?” Bastian said, rolling his eyes.
“I’m sure you’ve got something in your hoard that you could throw into the pot.”
Bastian bristled, like he always did when someone talked to him about being a dragon or mentioned his hoard. Bastian didn’t think he was a good dragon. Gizelle didn’t think she was very good at being a person yet, so she sympathized with him.
“Maybe she hatched fully grown,” Travis speculated. “You’re a dragon, Bastian. Were you hatched from an egg?”
Bastian touched his forehead like he was trying to find patience there. “No, I did not hatch from an egg.”
“Sorry,” Travis said, yawning. “They didn’t cover dragon procreation in middle school health classes. Anyway, good luck with that betting pool. I am headed for bed because there are going to be a dozen drains to unclog in the morning, if the septic system doesn’t entirely collapse due to overload.”
He staggered away, pausing to toss his beer bottle in the recycle bin.
The rest of them watched the Mr. Shifter contest in a different feeling kind of silence for a while.
“Are you serious about that betting pool?” Bastian finally asked.
“Could be that I am,” Breck said. “Though it might be a long time before it pays out. Scarlet’s pretty tight with her secrets.”
“What’s a betting pool?” Gizelle asked. Was it like the saltwater pool? She had swum there a few times. It felt better than the ocean, less wild.
“We all guess what Scarlet is, and pledge something of value into a pot, a pool. Whoever is right about it gets everything.”
“I’ve got a theory,” Bastian said. “I have a gold choker I could put in the kitty.”
Breck rubbed his hands in glee. “We’re on. Graham, are you in?”
Graham looked like someone had suddenly put him in a spotlight. “Got no money,” he growled.
“We can do chore IOUs,” Breck said graciously. “Services of all kinds count.”
“You can’t use sex for your chips,” Bastian scoffed. “You keep trying to offer that for free.”
Breck sighed. “Fine, fine. I’ll put in doing your bedding and laundry for a week, starching included.”
Gizelle thought about things with value. She couldn’t do an IOU because they barely let her do any work as it was. She felt bad about breaking things, but sometimes she trembled more than she realized. And she didn’t have anything of value…except…oh, she couldn’t gamble with the lock from Neal’s cage. Neal had named her. If words were hard, names were even harder.
Names made you a person.
Then she touched her pocket. “I have something to bet,” she said in joy.
Graham and Bastian both made a noise of disapproval.
“You don’t have to bet something,” Bastian assured her. “We’re just kidding around, kitten.”
“I’m not a kitten, and I’m not kitten around,” Gizelle insisted. “I have a flower!”
Bastian and Breck both gave Graham a quick look. He was very firm about enforcing the rules about not picking flowers at the resort.
“It fell off,” she assured them, and she showed them her wilted treasure.
“It’s lovely,” Breck said, a little too swiftly. “I’ll find a box to get us started. Bastian, your choker?”
Breck returned from his room with not only a small box, but also a notebook. Bastian brought down an ornate gold circlet with shiny jewels set in it.
Gizelle thought that it was much prettier than her contribution, but hers smelled better.
“What’s your guess, Bastian?” Breck asked, making mysterious marks on the paper. Gizelle sighed with envy. Some day, she hoped to learn to write.
“I think she’s a selkie with no skin,” he said. “You never see her shift, and she’s sometimes got a longing look at the sea, even though she never goes to the beach.”
Graham and Breck both looked impressed by the guess. “Wish I’d thought of that,” Breck said. “I’m down for some kind of big cat. She’s got my cat-like grace. How about you, Gizelle?”
Gizelle wrapped a tangled lock of hair around her finger and tugged at it thoughtfully. “An angel,” she finally said. “Lydia has a picture of one with wings and Scarlet sounds a little like feathers.”
“Is that even—?” Bastian started skeptically.
“Sounds perfect,” Breck said, writing it down. “How about you, tall, blond, and silent?”
Graham looked like he would rather be anywhere else, and they all jumped when there was a sudden knock on the door. Gizelle bolted behind the couch, but remembered not to shift.
“Come in!” Breck called.
Gizelle knew that it was Scarlet just a moment before the door opened, and everyone else went weird and quiet and guilty and Breck turned his paper over and closed the box a little too hastily. Did they not want Scarlet to know about the betting pool? Would she be angry? Everything felt very tense and the whispers were very loud. Gizelle shivered.
“I saw the lights on and wanted to check in and see if there had been any problems today that I can resolve.” Scarlet’s voice was always very firm, but Gizelle thought that she seemed particularly stressed out now. Maybe she’d gotten a letter from the lawyer that always made her feel prickly. Maybe it was because someone had tried to kill Tex’s mate.
“No problems,” Bastian assured her. “Beyond the very ordinary hassles of a busy resort.”
“Then I’m sure that you will be wanting to turn in so that you are all refreshed for the morning.” Scarlet made it sound like it wasn’t so much a suggestion as a direct order.
“We were just watching some of the events before turning in,” Breck said, gesturing to the television as he moved a magazine over the box with his other hand. Even Gizelle, who was not very good at recognizing these things, could tell that he was uncomfortable that Scarlet had caught them.
“Tomorrow is the final full day of contests,” the resort owner reminded them unnecessarily. “I need everyone at their absolute best.” She gave the beer bottles a scathing look.
“Yes, ma’am,” Bastian agreed.
Scarlet looked like she wanted to say something soft, but then frowned. “Don’t leave any unnecessary lights on. We’re already using far more power than we usually do.”
Then she swept away into the night and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Gizelle crept out from behind the couch, ready to run back at any moment. Behind the couch was not as good as having a long way to run, but it would do.
Breck uncovered the box. “How does she always show up at the absolute worst time?” he wanted to know. He tossed Graham a strip of paper. “For your IOU. What’s your guess?”
Graham scrawled magical words on the paper for his IOU like it was no big deal and tapped his chin with the pen. Then he grinned and passed the pen back to Breck. “Harpy!”
Breck and Bastian both burst out laughing.
“Another solid guess,” Breck said, writing it down.
“You realize that it will be your ass in a sling if she ever finds this, right?” Bastian said, looking over the list. Breck gathered up the dishes and bottles from the common area and Graham turned off the television.
Gizelle was pleased to find that her guess that Scarlet wouldn’t like the betting pool was right, and a little worried because she didn’t want to do something that made Scarlet feel bad.
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take on for the good of the community,” Breck said expansively. “Now, I’m not kidding. It’s time that we were in bed. We’ll all have asses in slings if we’re dragging on the job tomorrow. Gizelle, have you got a place to sleep?”
Gizelle opened her mouth to protest that she didn’t need to sleep, but a yawn crept out instead. “I can sleep behind the couch,” she said. “Or on the lawn.” The lawn was even better. There were no doors at all there.
“You know you can have a bed,” Breck said kindly. “Scarlet would get you a whole cottage if you wanted it.”
What would she do with a cottage? This room was big enough, at least, and the doors to the porch were wide open so she could run out if she had to. No, Gizelle liked being inside as little as possible, and grass made the very best bed.
“I guess she’s leaving now?” Bastian’s voice was far behind her and Gizelle realized that she’d wandered out without replying to Breck, answering the call of the moon that didn’t tell time.