Aurora spread her arms over her head and stretched, savoring the shadow cast by the stone archway. The construction stretched across the skies above and blocked the intense sun of the arid plains of Jahaara. The priestess undid the gray turban that covered her head and face, and shook the sweat of her curly brown hair. I must look just like my partner when he shakes after coming out of the water. She thought.
Aurora had never seen the tiger-man behave as he did now. Standing in front of the gate of his homeland, Jamaal was a different, more upright, more powerful creature – and she had never imagined a situation were 200 pounds of tiger might seem more powerful than usual.
The feline stood with his back straight, his black-and-orange striped arms crossed over the chest that bore the same pattern. He usually walked with a slight crook, at times even on all fours, and his face rarely showed any emotion as perceivable by any human being. Here and now, he smiled a smile of a thousand sharp fangs, his whiskers taunt.
The priestess was about to ask him if anyone was going to open the door for them – if anyone would even come out and ask them who they were – when she heard the stone roar. Slowly, the colossal stone gate began to open.
On the other side waited three tiger-men, also with their arms folded. They wore nothing but gray thongs, and belts where they had sheathed the characteristic curved swords of Sala’hadan. It was not the first time that Aurora noticed the influence of the desert people in feline culture.
The guards remained immobile, mimicking Jamaal’s position. Aurora smiled and waved.
From behind them came a middle-aged man, rotund as a particularly cherubic baby. Of course, almost all human males looked short when next to the tiger-men, but the top of this one’s head, even accounting for the green turban, barely reached the height of Aurora’s chin.
The man half walked, half rolled in her direction. He stepped up to her, stopped, and pulled a dirty monocle from a pouch of his earth-green tunic, which he promptly wiped on a sleeve, before thrusting it between his eye and the priestess’s smile.
“I was not expecting to see a man from Garm here. You’re far from home, my friend!” Said Aurora.
The man almost fell back, and the only thing that prevented the monocle from shattering on the floor was the silver chain that found it to the pocket.
“A thousand pardons, my lady.” Said the man from Garm. “I’ve been here for many years, and as I lose the habit of speaking our language, I find my manners dwindling.”
He offered his hand to Aurora. “Oskar Hoffritz, at your service, my lady. Manufacturer of hourglasses. “
The priestess offered her hand back. “Aurora. Enchanted. “
With the air of one who remembered something important, the little man straightened, and resumed his inspection, monocle in hand.
“Can I help you, good man?”
“I beg your pardon, Miss Aurora. It’s mere protocol. “And with that, the man turned to the three guards and made a noise that, to Aurora, sounded like the sound of a person with shallow breath trying to snuff our a huge birthday cake’s candles; a series of short, breathless puffs: “Fufufu, fufufu.”
“What is he saying, Jamaal?” Her companion wiggled his whiskers slightly, and nothing more.
The guards moved sideways, visibly more relaxed. Jamaal spoke for the first time since they had arrived at the gate.
“Aurora-gh’tar, we were talking. Winning entry. “
“Oh? I did not hear much. “
“Smell, small movements, occasional noises,” Oskar replied. “I studied the vocal part, and that alone makes me sort of an ambassador.”
The priestess laughed. “So all these years, that smell… Were you trying to communicate, Jamaal?”
The tiger man rolled his eyes, and advanced to cross the gate.
“Gh’tar, if you could smell yourself the way I do, you’d spend every day scrubbing.”
Aurora followed behind him, her mischievous smile beaming. Oskar trailed close behind.
Finally, she was going to witness the city hidden behind the thousand-year-old wall of the cat people.