The bazaar was a whirlwind of smells and sounds, but Jamaal was used to it. Years of living with humans had drilled in him the ability to focus his keen senses and block what was not important. The sweet smell of ripe peaches. The slight squeezing sound of the knife that cuts a slice of wet watermelon. The screeches of caged monkeys, and the alcoholic smell of fermented strawberry liquor. All this and more was a mere backdrop to what was capturing his attention, the smell he had been smelling for since the previous day, that singular, individual mark that every being had.
It would have been easier in the Holy Kingdom of Lohan, where the only cats were house cats. Here, among the cat-people, his people – the smells were much harder to parse, and the tiger-man found himself losing track of the trail several times.
The hunter closed his eyes, and inhaled. It was like drinking a mug of soup and trying to guess the ingredients for the fullness of the taste. A trace of this, a drop of that, a little pinch of something else. And finally … there!
The hunter stumbled past a counter full of sunset-coloured pumpkins, and a bench with dried figs exposed for the inspection of the shopping masses. He squeezed between tunic and turban-wearing tigers, panthers, and lions, and entered a dark space between two buildings, so narrow that he had to move sideways.
It was almost stifling, the tightness. The day was heating up, and the walls were getting closer. The heat distorted the air, and it seemed impossible that the sun was making its way into such a narrow space. And yet it was. Maybe it was a good time to stop, lean against the wall, rest …
Jamaal gritted his teeth. It was close. He had to continue. For Aurora.
The walls continued to narrow, like the jaws of an alligator trying to catch him. The tiger-man did not stop moving, put one arm against each wall – the brick that should have been cool to the touch was boiling! Jamaal felt his arms burn, he smelled the smell of burning fur.
No, he thought. It’s impossible. Just a little bit further.
With a roar, the hunter pushed the walls away, and strode forward to the end of the corridor. The further he advanced, the farther seemed the exit, the street extending, stretching into the horizon.
“Stop this foolishness!” He roared. “Reveal yourself!”
In front of him materialised a wall where there had been none, its bricks alive with viscous movement and hissing sounds. Snakes the size of his arm slithered over it, facing the tiger with their reptilian gold eyes and glittering fangs.
Jamaal closed his eyes, covered his face, took a deep breath, and with two long strides, jumped forth into the wall.
The bricks and snakes scattered in pieces of glass. His feet landed on fresh stone, and the scent of burnt fur fell away from his body. A feeling of freshness invaded him. Jamaal opened his eyes.
He stood in a sunny courtyard holding a large fountain, which spat out of its five blue spouts five streams of crystal clear water. The citizens of Jahaara, busy with their affairs, passed by as if nothing had happened. No one touched him, none seemed to notice his presence – they wandered past him as if gently pushed by the wind. Their eyes seems to be drawn away from him.
In front of him, lying on its belly on the fountain’s parapet, with a black paw hanging to the side in a relaxed manner, was a common-looking black cat, the Seeing Cat.
“What could a being like you possibly fear?” Jamaal asked in his native language. “Who scares you so much, that you refuse to answer me?”
Fear. Not someone – what. Pictures of the cat surged in Jamaal’s mind. Darkness. A word was fixed on Jamaal’s head: Name. More images: the room where the crime took place, the Three sitting, their eyes severe. The doors of the golden closet opened. Empty. One word: Name. An emotion: Fear.
Jamaal’s mouth dropped open. “But in that closet, it’s where they keep …”
Fear. Death. Suffering.
“We can not let him escape! Help me. Help me, and bring him to justice! “
One word: Name. One emotion: Sadness.
Jamaal lowered his ears, and frowned. “Again with the name. He knows your name… And this is why, you cannot help? Does your name give him power? “
Despair, and then acceptance.
Jamaal folded his arms. He could not persuade the Cat to help him. The magical being, it seemed, would only be controlled by the knowing of its name.
Curses! They had been so close. If only he knew who was trying to frame Aurora…
A new image appeared in his mind: once again, the tower room.
“The one who is to blame, is he there?”
For the second time, Jamaal’s jaw dropped to the floor, and there it remained until he moved again. The tiger-man looked the black cat straight in the eye, made a quick bow, and turned, running down the street. There was no time to lose.