NOTE: This story is being updated in segments every Tuesday and Thursday until it’s done, around 1,500 words a segment. If you get to the end and it seems unfinished, that’s why. You can follow me on Twitter (@KyellGold) or Facebook (Kyell Gold) to receive an update every time a new segment is posted, or follow me on FurAffinity (user/kyell) to see the new segments posted individually. But this page has slightly better formatting (accented characters work here, not on FA).
Author’s Note (Foreword)
Sometimes stories just come out of nowhere. I had a vague idea that nagged at me because of a conversation I had at Confuzzled in which I inadvertently insulted white tigers in front of a fan of mine who is a white tiger.
(Actually, what happened was that I passed along something someone else said about white tigers, which was not particularly flattering but also did not specifically insult that particular fan. All my white tiger fans are wonderful people and are certainly not crazy like the white tigers in zoos.)
Anyway, I started thinking about a white tiger character and then a predicament he might have gotten himself into, and I thought, that’ll make a cute quick story to post online and then I can make it an apology to white tigers everywhere. So I started writing it and it started going down a path. And then the path veered slightly. And then it veered a lot. Seriously, you will probably think you know where it’s going in the first couple pages, and that’s because that’s where I thought it was going, and then I decided that was boring. And my brain gave me something WAY different to do.
So the story got long and now I honestly have no idea where it’s going to end up. As I’m writing this, I have about ten thousand words down. The final story might end up being three, four, or five times that—forty thousand would be a good bet, as I’ve written two stories of that length this year already and it seems to be a comfortable length. It’s already gotten strange and it could get stranger.
But this also seems like a good opportunity to share the creative process with you guys. So I will post the story in segments a little bit ahead of where I’m actually writing, so I will be doing a little bit of editing before posting. But there will maybe be parts where I say “okay, pretend that I told you this bit of info back when X happened…” I will figure out a way to signal that if I need to do it. Maybe like a [RETCON] tag or something.
So here you go. Look for updates on Tuesdays and Thursdays! Hope you enjoy the ride. 🙂
[RETCON: See, I should have told you somewhere in the author’s note that “for reasons that will quickly become obvious, the story takes place in 2008.” And then I would talk a bit about how the world of only five years ago is still really different from the world today: Twitter was around but nobody was using it except Guy Kawasaki, and Facebook was just starting to be for people other than college students, and the iPhone was just coming out and changing the way we think about phones… but really, the key bit of info is that the story takes place in 2008. Sorry. That should have been in there.]
[Warning: This story contains adult language, concepts, situations, and details. If you are not allowed/equipped to handle such things, please stop now.]
The first Danilo heard of it was from big Cobb the elk, palling around with Georg the black wolf like he always did, the two of them looking for girls or trouble, not necessarily in that order. “Hey, Danny,” Cobb called across the student common hall in his booming deep voice, “you a homo like your cousin?”
And wow, did that ever stop the conversations. Every muzzle and pair of eyes in the large warm room looked up from their books and bagels and stared at the white tiger, sitting alone (because of course he would have to be alone when this happened, Anita and Fernand in class and Orwin in their room nursing a cold and Taye—well, maybe being alone wasn’t the worst thing right now). Danilo looked up at the elk and wolf marching toward him and his first thought was “I have a gay cousin?”
And then he remembered which cousin Cobb and Georg knew about, the one whose picture was on the folded newspaper the wolf was holding up as they walked through the tables, showing it off to everyone beneath the old arched ceiling. Danilo recognized the red-and-gold uniform before he recognized the face of the tiger on it, smiling with half a dozen other football players behind him. Devlin Miski of the Chevali Firebirds, the younger son of his mother’s older brother, professional football player.
Danilo had only hazy memories of Devlin, from when his mother had taken them to the States and they’d played in a forest, shouting through piles of golden leaves. Devlin and his older brother…the name slid away now…they’d teased Danilo about his white fur, but Devlin, younger and possibly used to being picked on by his brother, later said he thought Danilo looked neat. Devlin and—Gregory, that was his name—had looked right at home among the leaves, while Danilo’d covered himself in them and still his white fur shone out. So together they’d rubbed dirt and leaves into it until he was as invisible as they were.
Here, in the largest indoor common area at the private Université Catholique d’Ysengrin, a spotlight might as well have been shining on him. Danilo felt that his fur was glowing hot under his lilac collared shirt, the radiance of hundreds of eyes swiveling from him to the newspaper as Georg displayed it around. His tail curled tightly around the leg of his chair, his calculus homework forgotten on the table in front of him. He couldn’t get up and run, couldn’t ignore them, couldn’t form words as the elk’s seven-foot frame loomed over him and the Siberian black wolf came around the other side of the table. To avoid looking at them, he stared at the newspaper Georg was thrusting in front of him.
HE’S GAY, the headline screamed, and below the picture of a young tiger smiling at a press conference, in only slightly smaller type, RUMORS ‘TRUE,’ FOOTBALL PLAYER CONFIRMS. Danilo stared at the words and then at the picture. It had been a long time since he’d seen Devlin; his cousin had grown up big and strong. Of course, if he were to be a States football player, he’d have to. Danilo hunched his shoulders and stared at the picture more. Devlin looked happy, strong, and tough. Nobody would dare pick on him, even if he were announcing to the world that he liked—
“You can suck my dick if you want,” Cobb announced, as if he were offering to loan Danilo money.
The tiger just kept staring at the paper. Around him, the stares of the other students seared into his fur. He knew some of them didn’t speak Anglic well enough to understand what Cobb was saying, but some of them did, and even the ones who didn’t were understanding the tone. He hoped Cobb would just leave it at that and go away, but then Georg started in, his Anglic only slightly accented.
“Perhaps he does not want a big nasty deer dick,” he said. “Perhaps he wants big Siberian wolf dick, yes?”
“I think if he’s as big a homo as his cousin, maybe he wants both,” Cobb said. He pulled the newspaper away and leaned in, grass breath tickling Danilo’s whiskers. “What about it, whitey? You want to suck both our dicks? I bet you had more’n that in your mouth back in Chellingham. On the cricket field.”
He said the name of the town with an exaggerated States accent, nasal E, broad, flat A, and he pronounced the last syllable like it was a piece of meat. Danilo flicked his ears and wet his lips, trying to think of something to say besides telling him it was called a cricket “pitch,” but his heart was pounding and his skin felt afire and every word he came up with felt paper-thin, weak and inadequate against Cobb’s brick-wall physique.
“Oh, look.” Georg pointed. “He wants to suck dick right here.”
“Wow.” Cobb leaned in still closer, his muzzle right at Danilo’s ear. “I was gonna take you back to our room, but you’re just a big dick-sucking homo, aren’t you? Can’t wait to get my meat in your mouth. Well, just say the word, Danny. Just ask me.”
His thick-fingered hand came down on the paw Danilo had incautiously left on the table, hard weight crushing the bones. The tiger tried to pull back, but Cobb leaned down harder. “All you gotta do is ask, Danny. I’m not sayin’ I’ll whip it out right here…”
The elk had hard brown eyes that danced with glee as Danilo’s met them. “I don’t,” the tiger started, and Georg cut him off.
“He doesn’t want to wait, Cobb,” the wolf said. “What you think of that? He wants to get started right now.”
“I don’t want to suh—” Danilo couldn’t make himself say the words. His brain, rather than helping him figure out what to say, conjured nightmare after nightmare: trapped here forever, forced to perform acts upon Cobb and Georg, his paw shattering, the whole student body laughing and watching—and why, why was nobody interfering? “I don’t want to do that.”
“Do what, Danny? Wait?”
“I’m not,” he protested.
“If you’re not, you can just move my hand, can’t you?” Cobb ground his palm against Danilo’s fingers. “Just move my hand, or else ask me if you can suck my dick.”
Still, he had no words that would help him. He jerked at his paw and shifted it very slightly. Desperate, Danilo wrenched his paw away from the elk. He held it in the other one and pushed his chair back, standing up. “Leave me alone,” he said, fingers throbbing.
“Oh, sure, if that’s what you want.” Cobb straightened. At his full height, he was a foot taller than Danilo and Georg, who were nearly the same five-foot-nine. But Georg had at least six inches across the shoulders on the tiger, and Cobb’s chest was probably as big around as the tiger’s and wolf’s combined. “I mean, you’re the one who kept bragging about your cousin. I thought you wanted to talk about him. Now we know why.”
Georg picked up his newspaper. “See you back at the dorm, whitey,” he said, and his long tongue hung past his teeth, then curled up across his nose and whiskers before he snapped his jaw shut.
“Don’t suck anyone else’s dick,” Cobb said. “We get first dibs.”
Then they were walking away, and Danilo was standing by himself at the table watching them leave, while slowly, around him, students went back to their conversations. Nobody came up to offer support. Nobody even said anything. Most of them were Gallic, and Danilo had felt their distance before. Not all the Anglophone students were disliked or even ignored, but Cobb had made it clear that if he could not speak Anglic with someone, he had only one very physical alternate language. So he was left alone, and anyone pulled into his orbit was given the same treatment for as long as the encounter lasted.
“C’est dommage,” Danilo overheard a chamois say to her companion, an attractive hare. The hare replied in quick Gallic that he didn’t quite catch, and the chamois nodded. She looked at Danilo and then away again when she saw that he was looking at her. Only a few other students met his eyes as he looked around the three hundred year-old hall, but from the walls, twelve portraits of Jesus in all his species incarnations stared at him, sadly judging.
Danilo gathered up his calculus book, threw it into his bag, and walked out quickly by the opposite exit from the one Cobb and Georg had taken. The river walk hadn’t entered into his thoughts—very little had beyond putting as much distance between him and his tormentors as possible—but as he pushed the glass doors apart and the chill air blew rain against his muzzle, it occurred to him that there would be fewer students there than anywhere else, and the rain wasn’t all that bad. Anyway, he was from Chellingham. If there was one thing he knew, it was rain.
The soft dampness comforted him as he walked down Boulevard D’Augustin away from the main campus and into the heart of Tigue city. Most of the residents were as used to rain as he was, tails curled up to keep them off the wet ground, although umbrellas bloomed all around him and he preferred to remain exposed to the sprinkles of moisture.
Tigue, like many Gallic cities, contained many identities within her borders. The Université Catholique lay on the edge of one of the newer parts of the city, a small suburb that had been built up twenty years ago. The old photos of the Université’s stately limestone buildings with their red clay roofs over grey-white arches showed forests and fields modestly surrounding them; now as Danilo dodged eye-level umbrella spines along the sidewalk, ancient limestone stood shoulder-to-shoulder with sleek glass and elegant steel, modern cars honking along the rain-slick street, the babble of suited professionals overriding the small pockets of casually-dressed students. Danilo lost himself in their flood, until he reached the banks of the Saone, and then he ducked down the worn stone stairs without holding the railing, scattering sea birds and pigeons, and landed alone on the mossy path beside the wide, brown river.
He’d discovered this walk a month before, and marveled that with all the activity above, so few people cared to descend to the peace and quiet of the river. On a sunny day, the walk might be crowded with picnickers and strolling couples. In the misting rain, gulls and pigeons—and the occasional homeless person wrapped in blankets, today a ragged rat apparently asleep under the bridge support—were Danilo’s only company.
Here, finally, the knot in his chest loosened. His tail unwound, heedless of the damp stone, and he breathed in the cool damp of the river. Beside him, the Saone flowed on serenely, and Danilo paced it, trying to clear his thoughts.
His phone buzzed, making him jump. But none of the friends who had his phone number had been in the student common, and even if they had, they would have texted him right away. Though it was possible that one of them had shown up just after he’d left and had heard about the incident from one of the students around the table. Fernand, the rabbit from Arguent in Unterpaas, would have been done with his theology class around that time and might have come looking for Danilo. Anita was in the same class but also had medieval studies just after (Danilo also had that class, but he was currently walking very quickly away from it). Usually she and Danilo and Orwin, and maybe Fernand if he was free, would get together for dinner. And in the last couple weeks, Taye had been joining them too.
Maybe it was Taye messaging him. Danilo growled inwardly. Sometimes the mouse didn’t know when to leave him alone, and now was definitely not the time to send him one of those texts he always did. But no, if Taye messaged him now, Danilo would have to think that Cobb had arranged something with him, and that strained credibility. Taye was not exactly a low-profile guy, but his Anglic was just broken enough in public to render him invisible to Cobb.
If Danilo had thought, if he’d known, he might have tried the same. Only his Gallic wasn’t good enough to pass for native, not by a long shot, and the only other language he knew was some broken Siberian he’d learned from his grandmother during the three years she’d lived with them. Anita, Fernand, Taye, and even Orwin were fluent in at least two languages, and one of Danilo’s goals at University had been to improve his Gallic and learn a third language (Siberian, probably). He’d been sure he could handle it in addition to his psychology workload.
But no, Taye wouldn’t be messaging him; he was in classes now, too. Some specialized branch of economics, Danilo thought. The mouse was a year ahead of him and the others and so they had no overlap in classes. So if it wasn’t Taye, and it probably wasn’t Anita or Fernand, who was texting him? Orwin to ask him to pick up more tissues maybe. Yes, that was most likely. Nothing for him to be worried about. He sighed, reached into his pocket, and pulled out his phone just as it vibrated again.
The name on the front of his phone wasn’t that of any of his friends. He stared at it, wondering why Lena would be texting him, and then it hit him that of course his sister would have heard the news and would want to talk to him about it. He put the phone back in his pocket. As far as she knew, he was in class and couldn’t talk—that’s why she’d texted rather than just calling. And he didn’t want to talk about his cousin right now, because the only question he would have is “why now?” and he was at least aware that that was not really the right question to ask.
He could drop out of college altogether, he supposed. Cobb would certainly not leave him alone now. He could make up some excuse for his parents—the religious aspect of the school had gotten too much for him despite his assurances to them that the psychology program was worth it, the exotic foreign adventure wasn’t exactly working out. Perhaps he could plead homesickness, although that would mean returning to Anglia for university, and Danilo hadn’t really liked any of the universities at home.
And besides, that would waste a year of schooling. No, he would have to stick it out here in Tigue, somehow. Maybe he could just keep to his room, not go to any of the public places anymore. Cobb and Georg would likely forget about him in a few weeks or a month.
Or maybe not. It wasn’t as though the commonality of language was going to go away, not unless some other student came to join them mid-year. Besides, they lived two doors down from him. He wouldn’t be able to avoid them. And would they just force their way into his room? Orwin was a nice guy, but he was no more athletic than Danilo. He was just more self-assured, had bowed out of the Anglic Pride footer team without having to back up his decision with a famous cousin.
Gah, this was going to drive Danilo crazy. All because some cousin he’d only met a couple times decided to make his sexual preference public. Who did that, anyway? There was a question he could ask: why would you do that, declare that you’re gay in a big spectacle for everyone to see? Nobody needed to know. Maybe when you were a big football star, you lost sight of the fact that not everyone cares about your private life. Maybe you didn’t stop to think about the other people who would be affected by your actions, like your cousin across the ocean who had used you as a shield because he couldn’t play the version of football they played over here, and nobody in this country wanted to play cricket.
Not that Danilo particularly wanted to play cricket, but at least he was reasonably good at it. He liked the gentility of it, and the languid pace punctuated by bursts of activity. Here, all the sports played seemed frenetic, over-energetic to him. The problem was that he was a tiger, and despite his ten-stone scrawny frame, everyone expected tigers to be big, burly fellows who would bowl you over at rugby or shoulder-check you to get the football by you. And Danilo just wasn’t interested in any of those games.
Of course, probably this whole mess was his own damn fault anyway. He could’ve just said he wasn’t interested. It was because Danilo was a tiger, and perhaps because of his accent or his white fur, which made people think he was aristocratic and not very physical, that he’d felt compelled to tell Cobb that he’d played football with his cousin who was now a professional. And when the elk didn’t believe him, he’d brought out the pictures, had shown off the newsletter from his aunt and uncle, had basked in the reflected prowess of his famous (or partly-famous; they had to go look him up on the Internet because Cobb had never heard of him) cousin. It had worked, too. Cobb had ignored him with some deference for the last couple months, saving only a couple barbs about tigers who wouldn’t play sport.
And now all that fame had turned bitter, and Danilo was walking along the Saone instead of studying in the Union. He kicked at a stone. If only he’d been a white hare, or even an orange tiger, or a tiger who was more interested in sport, or been sent to a place where language didn’t isolate him to a small community of friends and enemies…
This stretch of the Saone curved around to the right; bridge after bridge rose above it, creating the illusion of a tunnel that Danilo stood at the entrance to. He walked forward, under one bridge, out into the rain, back under the next bridge. This had all seemed like such a wonderful adventure a few months ago. New country, new language, modern town with a history, a place where he could go exploring. And then he’d found that all the Anglophones were housed on the same floors of the same dorm, to make their transition easier. He’d decided to make friends with them first, telling himself he’d make more friends when he’d improved his Gallic.
His phone vibrated again, and this time he picked it up. He would talk to his sister and ask her why their cousin was making such a spectacle of himself.
But it wasn’t Lena’s name on the phone; it was Anita. He was already flipping the phone open as he noticed, and then he hesitated and withdrew his thumb, and it clicked shut, hanging up on her.
He cursed and opened it, found Recent Calls, and dialed Anita. The zorro picked up quickly. “Danilo?”
“Sorry about that,” he said.
“You are not in class.” Anita spoke excellent Anglic, even though she was in the Iberian dorm. She was actually a New World zorro, fluent in Iberian, Anglic, Gallic, and Roman on top of that.
“I had a bad afternoon,” he said. “Can you take notes for me?”
“Of course. Are you sick with what Orwin has? I will bring over some sopa de pollo after class for you. Have you the right drugs?”
“I’m fine, I’m just—I need to walk around for a bit.” He passed under another bridge. Above the walls of the riverbank, glass and steel gave way to limestone and brick. A cathedral that he and Orwin had explored their first week, five hundred years old, rose ahead of him. To his right, an eddy of garbage swirled, suspended in the river’s currents. Danilo walked past them both.
Anita said she hoped he’d feel better, and he said something about settling his stomach, which was actually not far from the truth. Maybe it was just the smell of the garbage, but Danilo felt near to vomiting.
When he’d hung up with her, he called his sister. “I missed your call,” he said. “Phone didn’t ring.”
“Oh, Danilo.” She was in her gushingly-excited mode. “You remember our cousin Devlin?”
“Of course.” It would be easier to let her tell him the news, but then he would have to fake a reaction, and he wasn’t up to that. “I saw—”
“He’s the first professional athlete to come out. He’s a homosexual. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“So he’s a—so he’s gay. What’s wonderful about that?”
“Danilo, really! He’s famous! All the people in the office are talking about it and asking if I can get an autograph and I told them, I haven’t even spoken to him in years, I’m not sure I have his number, but of course our family is quite brave and forthright and it doesn’t surprise me at all that a Miski would be the noble paragon of—”
“It’s all very selfish,” Danilo interrupted. Into the shocked silence, he went on. “Really, Lena. He holds a press conference just to tell people he likes males. What if I were to hold a press conference to tell people I like—I like hazelnut spread. How is that noble?”
“Well, I’m sure I don’t know.” Her voice grew tart. “Might you be expelled from your sport club for liking hazelnut spread?”
“I just don’t understand it. I mean, I don’t understand why it’s so much of a fuss.”
“Don’t be stupid, Danilo. I’m going to find his number and call and wish him congratulations. I’ll send it on to you when I get it. I know you’re busy with classes.”
“Why would I want to talk to him?” His heart sped up slightly. “I don’t need to talk to him. He made this announcement without talking to me, he doesn’t need to hear from me now. I don’t think he even remembers me.”
“How you do go on! Of course he remembers you, and I’m certain he’d appreciate a kind word from his relatives.”
“Fine. You call him, just leave me out of it.”
She said she would, but he knew Lena and knew that within a day she would have sent him his cousin’s phone number anyway. And before he could hang up with her, his phone rang again, and this time it was Taye.
Danilo stopped under a bridge. He inhaled the ancient stone and mossy scent, felt the cool dampness working its way into his fur. His phone showed the call waiting number, bright in the shadowy darkness. “I have to go, Lena,” he said. “I have another call.”
“All right. Ta,” she said.
He hung up her call and then closed his phone. Outside his shelter, the rain hissed down more loudly, a squall coming through. Good, he thought, an excuse to just stay here. He leaned back against a lichen-covered stone post and closed his eyes. Under the bridge, in the rain, he was hidden from anyone walking above, and even someone on the river bank itself would have to look twice to see his pale fur in the shadows.
The sense of isolation calmed him, gave him a distanced perspective on his predicament. This wasn’t going to kill him. He could survive. He would just have to maybe stop seeing so much of Taye. Certainly he wasn’t going to encourage the mouse any further. If he didn’t do anything, then Cobb and Georg could never find anything out, and this whole business with Devlin would blow over.
His phone buzzed with a text message. Taye, and the first word was “Tiguey,” which was the mouse’s pet name for him. He’d only known Taye a month and already he had a pet name.
Danilo put the phone back in his pocket, but felt as though the message were pulsing against his hip. He sighed and took it out again, and read the whole thing.
Tiguey, I heard about stupid elk. I am sorry. Hugs.
What could he say to that? “Yeah, me too.” And hugs weren’t going to make things any better. Anyway, it wasn’t like he and Taye were even dating, and they certainly weren’t boyfriends. It was only a week ago that they’d stayed up ‘til 3 am and Taye had told Danilo that he liked him in that way, and Danilo had said truthfully that he’d never thought about having a relationship with another male, leaving out the dreams and fantasies he’d had that were not about relationships at all. But he’d said he wasn’t opposed to it; this was 2008 and those kinds of things happened and if Taye would be patient then Danilo would see how it went.
Secretly he had been hoping to have a fling with Anita, but the zorro was clearly in another dating class from him. She had both exotic beauty and colorful, quirky fashion sense, and if they hadn’t been assigned to be study partners in their medieval studies class, Danilo doubted she would even have spoken to him. But she was smart as a whip, and kind to boot, and she reminded him of a fox from his prep school who had deserved far better than the louts she dated.
And besides, Taye had felt naturally close to Danilo in a way nobody else had, not in prep school, not at Université. They’d run into each other at a party for the international students where Danilo had resolved to talk to five different people for at least fifteen minutes each. He met Taye second and spent the rest of the night talking to the mouse about their families, their upbringings, their musical tastes. Taye’s family, a Romany clan, had lived in three different countries during his childhood; he had seen the toppling of one autocratic regime from his bedroom window and had fled one city, his family pursued as thieves. Danilo’s quiet life in Chellingham felt as dull as the Saone’s sluggish brown water compared to the quick, lively mouse’s tales, but Taye kept asking him questions about boarding school, about cricket, about Anglic pop music and the wonders of Londinium, and when the party was over they went to Taye’s dorm room where he made coffee and they stayed up another two hours.
And now, thanks to a cousin he hadn’t seen in years and an elk he wished he’d never see again, he was going to have to stop hanging out with Taye. He couldn’t just be friends because, to be perfectly honest, Danilo was intensely curious about what would come next if he did decide to act on his urges. Partly, he rationalized, it was the comfortable feeling he had with Taye. Partly it was just that someone was interested in him that way. It had been three years since someone had been interested in him, and he had held paws with her and kissed her twice, and that had been all.
Partly, too, it was that he was interested in Taye. The mouse was warm, lively, and Danilo just wanted to be near him. No; he was happy when he was near Taye, or at least happier, and had spent so much time with him that Orwin had commented just two days ago that he felt like he had lost a roommate.
And partly it was the memories of stories he’d read online, of brief role-playing sessions he’d had over the last couple years. He’d long since admitted to himself that he might be bi, which was okay because as long as he didn’t act gay, he could hide it, and he’d never have to act on it with anyone.
Danilo looked down at his phone again and sighed. He texted back: I’ll be fine. Thanks.
The phone was growing slick with the moisture in the air. He lowered his paw to his pocket, but before he could slide the damp phone into it, it buzzed in his paw.
Taye’s name again, and the words “Want to come…”
The tiger sighed, his sense of peace fading. He extended a claw and read the whole message: Want to come over after class?
The words shone in the dim twilight under the bridge, with the rain hissing onto stone, crackling into water, all around him. He stabbed at the button to reply and typed out: I don’t think I should see you for a while.
They looked like words someone else had written. He paced forward, back, forward. His thumb hesitated over Send, and then stabbed down with grim resolve.
His paw slipped. He fumbled, clutched at the phone, but it shot out of his paw as though yanked by a wire. There was a sharp crack as it hit the stones, and that was bad enough, but it kept going, sliding toward the river.
“Oh, no.” Danilo’s feet felt rooted to the ground. He pulled them forward in slow motion as the phone slid ahead of him, toward the churning brown water of the river. He leapt as it slowed, lunged with fingers outstretched…
And his fingers closed over the phone. A brief flash of triumph warmed him, even as the warm metal slid against his pads and the phone squirted free.
Lying prone on the bank, he watched it hop once, twice, and then vanish over the edge. He didn’t even hear the splash as it was swallowed by the water.
His elbow and hip ached where he’d fallen on them, and he’d banged his jaw, too. But the shame and anger overwhelmed all of that. On top of everything else, he’d lost his mobile and he would have to get a new one. He might have enough money. Probably he would have to ask his parents for help.
Balefully, he stared at the river. If only it had been a little farther, or if he hadn’t taken one more step. If only the surface of the water were rubber, so that the phone would bounce…
And then he noticed another raft of debris, two sticks and a sodden mass of paper floating just beyond the stone edge he could see. Heart beating, he crawled forward. The floating garbage island revealed itself to him: more paper, a cardboard box lid, three crushed cans. And as his head slid over the side, there, incredibly, rested his phone. Half-submerged, probably ruined, but—but no, it was still glowing.
Danilo stretched a paw out, but the phone was a good foot beyond where he could reach. He stared at it, willing it closer, but the slow swirl of the current was carrying it away, not closer. There was nothing he could reach to pull it to him, and he worried that it was so delicately balanced that if he disturbed the mass, his phone would sink into the Saone, gone forever as he’d feared just seconds before.
Without taking his eyes from the glow, he rose to his feet. No sticks or branches lay on the bank—curse Tigue’s effective public cleanliness. He eyed the murky water again. Well, he was already somewhat damp. Getting a little more wet to get his phone back wouldn’t be such a tragedy.
He stepped back to jump in, and then his eye caught the cuff of his lilac shirt. He wouldn’t want to get that dirty in the water. And there was nobody watching, nobody above or below. Even in a teeming city like Tigue, the rain had driven everyone to shelter. So he stripped off the shirt, tried not to think about how his scrawny frame would look when wet, and then paused again. He started to take out his wallet, and then thought about the wallet just lying there. Sprinting thieves, black-furred and hiding in the shadows, waiting for the moment he dove to snatch his wallet and run off, crossed his imagination. He growled and put his wallet back in his pocket. He could just take off his pants. He wore boxers that were close enough to swim trunks, and besides, he would be in and out of the water in a minute.
Taking one more long look to either side, he slid his pants down and bundled them with his shirt in a pile at the base of the old stone pylon he’d been leaning against. They almost disappeared into the shadows themselves.
Danilo looked down at his white fur, black-striped, and the white boxers with the pink-stitched fox icon on them, now the only bit of color on his body. He brushed it and then glanced back at his clothes, and around the river bank again. A shadow seemed to move, but when he stared at it, it held still. He crossed his arms over his chest and walked to the edge, looking down at his phone. He would have to jump in beside it and grab it—no, maybe just diving in headfirst, paw outstretched, because if he dove beside it, the swell would take the phone elsewhere. But then what if he just pushed the phone under the water? No, maybe he should lower himself into the water gently and then come up under the phone.
His clothes were still there. The shadow wasn’t moving. The rain slackened, and the small island of debris rotated slowly before him. He took a breath and rubbed the fur along his arms, and then crouched down at the edge.
It would be easy, just like the swimming pool back at Chellingham Academy. He pressed his paws to the stone and was distracted for a moment by a worn groove in the large stone under his fingers: a number three. Beside it, three more numbers, so faint he could only see them from this angle and up close, the sheen of water accenting the lines of the numbers: 1503. A year? The stones could be that old, for sure.
He sighed. Stop procrastinating, he told himself. He lowered one foot to the water, lower and lower, waiting for the chill lap at his toes. It didn’t come. He stretched his foot down farther and still didn’t feel the water.
Maybe the air was chill enough that it was the same temperature. But he ought to have felt the water before now. He tried to turn his head to look while extending his leg to its full length.
The water was there, just an inch below his toe. He slid his other foot off the stone, but one of his claws snagged on the edge of the stone. Muscles pulled against unexpected resistance, overcompensated, and Danilo scrabbled at the lichen-slick surface, claws scoring ridges in the grey and green patterns, but finding no purchase solid enough to stop his body toppling backwards. He twisted, trying to catch sight of his phone as he sucked in a quick, desperate breath. A flash of glowing blue, and then the water hit him, closed over him, and he shut his eyes and fell into cold darkness.
His arms and legs thrashed, trying to bring himself back to balance, and for a moment he swam disoriented, unsure which way was up. Relax, he reminded himself. You know gravity, buoyancy.
After a moment of calming his limbs, he opened his eyes. The darkness to his right seemed deeper than to his left, so he rotated his body until the dark was down and the light was up, and indeed, when he let his body float, it moved toward the light. His breath was running out. Water rushed past him, pressure on his ears eased, and then he burst up into the air again.
His phone had been—over there? He turned around and around. The water looked different from this angle, the choppy rain churning its brown surface into foam. The little raft of debris was nowhere to be seen.
Terrific. Just splendid. He’d no doubt sunk it when he fell gracelessly into the water, and the paper and sticks and cardboard and phone were all drifting to the bottom of the Saone. Danilo treaded water and stared through the murky brown. He couldn’t see past his waist, much less track a small clump of garbage. But his phone had been glowing blue; maybe if he dove, he would be able to find it. He was wet already, so there’d be no harm in one more dive.
Five minutes and three dives later, Danilo clung to the rough stone at the river bank and stared up at the dark underside of the bridge. The hiss of rain drowned out everything else, and water streamed down between his ears, along his muzzle and down his bare shoulders. There was no glow of blue, no matter where he looked. The surface of the river hid currents he could not track, and though the phone had most likely gone directly to the bottom, it could have drifted in any direction. The battery had probably shorted out, and there was no way he would find it. He was lost. He was lost, and now he was soaked on top of it all.
The stone bank seemed higher than he remembered, but by bobbing in the water and wedging his fingers into cracks in the stone, he was able to throw a paw over the top. Then he just had to pull himself up.
He had assumed that would be the easy part, but even with the water’s buoyancy helping, he struggled to pull himself up. His paw slipped, and he just stayed plastered to the wall, fur sticking to the stone, breathing hard and fast. This was going to be okay. He was not going to be stuck in the river. He could always float downstream; there were places where the river wall wasn’t quite as high. But not being able to pull himself out felt like a justification of everything Cobb and Georg would tease him about: weakling, wimp.
He growled inwardly, and lunged upward again, fingers clawing at the stone. And then he heard a voice, the first sound he’d heard over the rain in a quarter of an hour.
“Strewth! There’s someone in the Saone!”
Footsteps, and then a face appeared over the edge, an otter’s whiskered muzzle. He extended a thick paw down, fingers wiggling. “Can you take hold of my paw?”
Danilo nodded and grasped it gratefully, using the otter’s strength and his other paw’s grip on the stone to pull him up. He wrapped his arms around himself and shivered. His fur was not only soaked, it was filthy. Even in the half-light under the rainstorm, he could tell that the water had stained him a light brown.
Water pooled on the stone beneath him, running into the 1503 he remembered. The numbers were clearer now, much clearer. The light must have improved, or the angle.
“However did you manage to fall into the river?”
The otter crouched beside him, smiling. He wore a loose white shirt, fastened with a leather tie around the collar, and both the shirt and his slick brown fur were damp with rain. Just inside the collar of the shirt, he wore a tan scarf of some sort.
“I…jumped in.” Danilo paused, not sure how to tell the rest of the story in a way that would not make him sound like an idiot.
“Luc,” a high voice said from behind the otter, “we haven’t time for this. He’s out of the water; send him on his way.”
The voice rang familiar in Danilo’s ears. He looked up and saw a grey figure in a similar white shirt, with a similar touch of beige beneath the collar, but where the otter wore dirty grey pants with ragged cuffs, this figure’s pants were the same color and oddly loose fit as his shirt. He stepped forward, out of the deeper shadow, and Danilo gasped.
“Taye? What are you doing here?”
The otter’s eyes widened. He jumped backwards and to his feet, a paw coming out into the air between Danilo and the mouse. It was only as Danilo stood that he saw the thin silvery blade the otter’s paw was clasping. He took a step back and then felt the edge of the stone below his feet. “Whoa,” he said. “Hold on. Let’s not get crazy.”
The otter remained guarded. “What is this?”
The mouse’s eyes, too, were wide, his ears back. “Sir, how come you to know my name?”
Danilo stared. “Taye, it’s me, Danilo. From the Université? You just sent me a message…”
Taye—if it was him—shook his head slowly. “You are mistaken.”
“But—your name is Taye.”
“Théodore, yes. But I do not know any ‘Danilo.’ Are you Etruscan?”
“No, I’m Anglic—look, I just talked to you…” Danilo trailed off, for the first time taking in the clothes they were wearing. “Are you doing some kind of costume thing?”
“An Anglic tiger?” Théodore laughed sharply. “I have heard that there were tigers in Etrusca, yes, even in the south of our own country, but none from so far north as Anglia.”
“You do not speak with the harshness of an Anglian.” The otter’s voice was gentler, but still wary.
“With the sound of—” Danilo shook his head. “What do you think we’re speaking…now?”
Both otter and mouse stared at him, and he became aware that the words he was speaking were not Anglic words. He understood them as though they were, but his mouth was forming other words and speaking them fluently.
“The water’s addled his mind,” the otter said. “We’d best leave him for the garde. Anyway, if he’s from Etrusca, and alone, he’s probably diseased.”
“What the hell is going on?” Danilo demanded.
“He shows no signs of disease.” Théodore waved a pink, hairless paw. Danilo remembered the touch of those fingers on his arm, his side. “Look at him. He’s frightened, he’s cold; that is all.”
“That is no problem of ours,” Luc snapped. “There are hundreds like him up there.”
“And yet he recognized me, somehow.” The mouse rubbed his whiskers.
“Perhaps he’s one of Cobb’s spies.”
“He would hardly let my name slip so easily if that were the case. But it might be best to make sure.”
“Cobb?” Danilo stepped forward. “No, no. I came down here to get away from Cobb.” He still had no idea what was going on, how this language was spilling from his lips, and any thread of familiarity had to be seized as though he were still flailing in the water.
Again, otter and mouse turned to him with wide eyes. The otter lowered his paw, and put his knife away. “That is just what one of Cobb’s might say, trapped between a knife and the water.”
“I’m not!” Danilo gestured down his body. “Just let me get my clothes, and I’ll go. I won’t bother you any longer.”
“Where are your clothes, then?” Luc stepped back.
“They’re right…” He walked between otter and mouse, to the stone pylon. It gleamed in the grey light, free of lichen, its edges sharp and fresh. Around its base, clean stone glistened, and nowhere did Danilo see a purple shirt and khaki pants. He rounded on the others. “They were here. Did you take them?”
Théodore scoffed. “And put them where?” He showed both his empty paws. “We saw no clothes.”
“Then why did you come down here?” The breeze was chilly. Danilo hugged himself, rubbing his arms again, and glared at the two.
They exchanged looks. “I tell you, we should leave him,” the otter said.
“I don’t think we should leave him.” Théodore rubbed his whiskers. “Unless you mean ‘in the Saone.’”
A chill breeze rose from the river, or perhaps the chill ran the other way, down Danilo’s back. His tail curled around his legs, and the gulf of water behind him yawned like a bottomless pit. “Whatever you’re playing,” he began, and then stopped and looked, really looked, around him.
The stone pylon, free of lichen. The ‘1503’ carved freshly in the stone on the river bank. The grey-white stone of the bridge that rose above him was streaked with dark stains from water, nothing more; no moss, no painted graffiti. No skyscrapers shone before him, no Bellman’s Spire where the Université
(should have been)
was, and, as he turned slowly, only a row of brown-roofed buildings on the other side of the river surrounded the familiar cathedral where he was certain there had been big blocks of apartments and office buildings. And no more bridges lay between him and the curve of the Saone.
What’s more, the air was different; he didn’t have Anita’s sense of smell, but there was a raw earthiness, damp from the rain, that permeated everything. No smell of automobile exhaust, no sewage—well, no processed sewage. He could smell some waste, but it was the smell of a backed-up toilet or a stable, not of a septic tank. A smoky haze hung in the air, like the trace of a fire that had been quenched by the rain.
The sensation he’d had in the river, of being trapped and never able to escape, returned with such force that he staggered back, his heel landing on the edge of the stone. “What’s going on?” he whimpered. “Where am I?”
“Stay calm.” Luc looked alarmed, and reached out to grasp Danilo’s arm. “You’re in Tigue.”
“No,” Danilo said. “This isn’t Tigue—it’s not the Tigue I know—it’s—”
Pressure in his chest squeezed his heart like a vise. He sucked in a breath against it, and exhaled it in a loud sob. His legs buckled, but the otter caught him before he could fall. Don’t cry, don’t cry, he told himself, clamping his mouth shut and sealing his throat against the sobs that wanted to come out.
“City has changed.” Luc sounded more patient now. “Maybe that’s it, Théodore. He must have been here years ago. Maybe he knew you then.”
“I’m not the same as I was years ago.”
Luc ignored that comment, and Danilo hung on his words. “If it’s been ten years since you were here, well. This stonework all went in about five years ago, and the market’s burned down and been rebuilt, too. I wouldn’t recognize.”
“Five years ago?” Danilo looked down at the carved numbers in the stone. “What…what year is it?”
“Tis the year of our lord fifteen hundred and eight.” The otter responded promptly.
“Fifteen…oh eight?” Danilo shook his head. “Oh, then I’m dreaming. That’s what’s happening.”
Luc’s grasp on his arm loosened. “He is delirious.”
“It seems clear he’s no spy.” Théodore looked around. “I suppose it’s no use staying around here. Well, bring him if you like.”
The mouse began to walk down the river bank, away from where Danilo thought the Université should be. Luc patted his shoulder. “If you’re ill and would like to warm up, we can get you a cup of broth and perhaps a blanket, though I wouldn’t vouch for the quality of it.”
“Don’t leave me alone.” The chill was working its way into Danilo’s skin, and the pressure in his chest felt perilously close to exploding in another sob. “Please.”
“All right, all right. Come along, then.” And Luc’s paw propelled him along, behind the mouse’s long pink tail, out into the rain.
By the time they had walked up a flight of stone stairs and down two streets, around a corner and through a narrow alley, Danilo was thoroughly soaked and dispirited. Whatever dream he was having was so immersive as to be dizzyingly disorienting. The buildings they walked past were all grey stone, with ancient arched architecture and reliefs, but they shone like new. The cathedral, which rose above the river behind them, gleamed even in the rainy half-light. Danilo remembered there had been decrepit buildings on this side of the river, preserved between convenience stores and bookshops, but when they walked through that area, there were no stores; the old stone buildings were intact and inhabited, with roofs and windows out of which hung shirts and pants.
Luc held aside a stout wooden door for him and let it swing shut, admitting them to a warm, smoky room. In the far corner burned a merry fire, and all around the room, folk sat at tables talking. Danilo saw badgers and wolves, foxes and rabbits, dressed much as Luc and Théodore were, in loose ivory-white tunics and various colors of pants. He became acutely aware then that he was wearing nothing but his soaked boxer shorts.
As he curled his tail up between his legs, a stout badger wearing a filthy apron stormed up to them shaking a paw. “No no no,” he said. “No more halfies in here. I have a respectable establishment, and the church has already been here three times in the last month.”
“It’s just for a night,” Théodore said with some irritation. “Don’t give us your preaching just because your tavern now lies in the shadow of Sainte-Jean.”
“My restaurant has always been a model of respectability,” the badger thundered, “except when my soft heart allows rabble like you into it.”
“Your heart is about as soft as a piece of coal.” Théodore sneered. “They say, ‘at Bertrand’s, the plates are always full unless they are copper.’”
Danilo didn’t understand that, but it infuriated the badger. “I’ll tell you one more plate that will remain empty,” he cried, and the paw that had been hidden from Danilo came into view, brandishing a butcher knife that gleamed in the firelight.
Strangely, only a few of the patrons were even paying attention to the confrontation. Most of the room remained cheerfully immersed in conversation, either oblivious or uncaring, even when Théodore brought a dagger of his own out of his belt and said, “I’ve seen you butcher meat, grey-coat. I’m hardly in awe of you.” His sarcastic wit reminded Danilo of Taye, only his Taye rarely made remarks without a gleam of humor, and certainly never with a blade as long as his forearm that had a discoloration along its tip.
“You would draw a knife on me in my own house?” The badger shook his own knife.
“If you draw one on me, certainly.”
Danilo mewed, having no idea if a fight were actually going to break out, if Théodore was going to be slashed or hurt someone else just on his behalf. “I can go,” he said quietly.
Luc was the only one who heard him. The otter patted his arm. “No, no, you’ll stay,” he said, and took a step forward.
“Bertrand,” he said. “If you are so devoted to charity, then simply look on this poor soul. We fished him from the river, and he has no friends, no relations in Tigue to care for him. He’s soaked to the bone and needs warmth inside and out.”
“I—” Danilo began, but Luc waved him quiet.
“It will be for one night only. Then Théodore will take him to Bas-Colline and show him the road north.”
Both Danilo and Théodore started at that, but Luc’s eyes remained calmly on Bertrand. The badger didn’t lower his knife. “Can he work in the kitchen?”
“Well—” Again, Danilo was cut off by the otter’s paw.
“Of course,” Luc said pleasantly.
The knife point dipped. The badger’s expression had become greedy, calculating. “And you?”
“No,” Théodore said sharply.
“It’s all right,” Luc said. “Yes, if you require it.”
“Hmph.” The knife flashed, then vanished. “He stays in your room.”
“And starts work immediately you find him some clothes.”
Luc smiled. “Surely we can feed him first?”
Bertrand made a rasping snort of disgust. “He can eat from the kitchen as he works. He’s bound to do it anyway. I need him now. My kitchen boy hasn’t come in.”
“Church took him, did they?” That was Théodore, his voice sharp as the dagger he still held out.
The badger pointed at him. “You, out. Unless you want to pay your way like the others.”
Théodore gave him a long look and then sheathed his dagger. “I’d pierce your heart with this, only I’ve no confidence even my paw could find a target so small.” He turned to Luc. “Tomorrow, then?”
The otter nodded, with a smile. “Aye.”
They held each other’s eyes for a long moment, and then the mouse swept out of the room without another word.
Danilo reached out and grabbed the rough cotton of Luc’s shirt. “Don’t leave me,” he said, with just enough self-control to keep his voice low. Most of the people who had paid any attention to the fight had turned back to their meals or conversations. Only a slender weasel continued to watch him, eyes glittering with reflected firelight.
Everyone here had knives and nobody had phones and Danilo didn’t know anyone, even the people he thought he knew. Taye was Théodore and Cobb was someone here also, somehow, someone Taye—Théodore—didn’t like either. And it was 1508, four hundred and eighty-two years before Danilo had been born.
He followed Luc through the room and to a door at the back. The smell of piss and shit grew stronger as they walked through the door into a short hallway, and just as Luc took him to the left, up a stair, someone came in at the end of the hallway, and Danilo glimpsed a small wooden building outside. An outhouse, he told himself as he marched up the stairs, thick wooden boards that felt solid as stone under his paws. That was an outhouse.
With that realization came the realization that he needed to relieve himself as well. He supposed he could go once Luc had shown him to the room, but now that he was aware of it, the urge grew quickly. He clenched his muscles and trotted up, following the otter’s thick tail.
“You can stay in my room tonight,” Luc said, coming out into a long hallway with doors on the right and windows looking out over the outhouse and neighboring buildings on the left. “It’s around the corner, third one on that side. Not too big, but cozy enough for two.”
“You live here?” Danilo said. Some of the doors were open, but only shadows were visible within, so he kept his head turned to the right to look out the windows, where red clay roofs spread in a jagged checkerboard to the river and along the other side. From here he could see the Rhône as well, flowing down to meet the Saone at the heart of the city, both rivers looking freer than in his time, less encumbered with bridges and buildings.
“For now.” They walked past four doors to the corner of the building. Luc caught Danilo’s eye as he turned the corner, and flashed a whiskered smile. “Bernard lets me stay here until I can rebuild my shop.”
“What happened to your shop?”
Luc glanced out the windows, which now looked out onto the immense bulk of the cathedral, across the river. “Here we are,” he said, pushing open the third door. “Please, come inside.”
Danilo took a moment to stare at the cathedral. In 2008, it had been impressive, but as a relic. Taller buildings surrounded it on all sides, a wide plaza had spread out in front of it, reminding Danilo of his great-grandfather, who had once been a captain in the Siberian army and who, before he died, had shrunk in stature and presence.
Here before him, the cathedral rose in its prime. One square tower stood behind its twin, and to their right, the length of the cathedral extended on and on, five times longer than the largest other building Danilo could see. No, wait; that part on the end of the cathedral was something else, something older, where the stone did not gleam as brightly. But the cathedral itself still towered over the town, reaching high into the sky, and Danilo’s paws trembled with a visceral thrill and fear of it.
“For those who have known Tigue,” Luc said quietly, “it has always been there. My father helped lay the marble in the nave; my grandfather lay some of the stones in that tower—the far one, not the near one.”
Danilo’s eyes slid up to the hill overlooking the city for the first time since this adventure had started. He was used to seeing the gleaming white spires of the Basilica there, as it was often pictured with the cathedral from this angle, but the hill was bare save only for some grey stone shapes—the old Roman forum. For a moment, he felt a flash of excitement at being able to see the Roman ruins for himself—in his time only a few remained, the rest cleared away to make way for the basilica—but then the magnitude of the five hundred years between now and then crashed back upon him. He returned his attention to the cathedral, and nodded. “It’s magnificent,” he said, and held his paws one in the other, trying to understand why they were shaking.
“It is indeed.” Luc smiled. “Best not to stare at it too long.” He took the tiger’s arm and pulled him gently into the dark room.
He left the door open, allowing light to filter into the room, and after a moment, Danilo’s eyes adjusted.
If he spread his arms from side to side, he would be able to nearly touch both walls. Luc, though shorter, also looked crowded into the small space. The straw cot that began near the door ended at the back wall, and looked just long enough for Danilo to lie down in. There was little else in the room but for a large clay pot in the back, which looked like something a small ficus tree might have been planted in at one time.
“Excuse me,” Luc said, stepping toward Danilo. He gestured toward the tiger’s midsection. “I need to get in there.”
The tiger stared down at his dripping boxers, the outline of his sheath easily visible through them. He cleared his throat. “Ah, if I owe you for…um…”
“We can talk of debt later,” the otter said. “But I think it would be best for you to remove those wet clothes, don’t you agree?”
Danilo’s heart pounded. This was a porn story, that’s what he’d gotten himself into. Caught in the rain, seeking shelter from a handsome guy (Luc was pretty good-looking apart from the ratty clothing), the stripping off of wet clothes and wouldn’t you like to get out of those wet things and into a warm otter? He backed against the wall and gave a nervous giggle. “Ah ha, well, er…”
“They must be uncomfortable.” The otter moved closer.
“They’ll dry!” Danilo slid farther into the room, away from the door.
Luc reached up to scratch his whiskers. “I suppose,” he said. “But still, would you not rather have a tunic to wear over them?”
And then Danilo saw what the otter was moving toward: a rectangular chest in the corner of the room behind the door. “You—you mean to give me clothes.” The flush of danger was replaced by one of shame at what he’d suspected the otter of.
Luc opened the chest and dug through it. “I would not say ‘give,’ but ‘loan.’ Here. I fear everything I have will be short on you, but try this one.”
He brought out a pile of the same raw cotton-colored cloth, picked one tunic from the pile, and held it out to Danilo. The tiger reached for it. “Thank you,” he said.
“You’ll need pants as well.” Another bundle of cloth, another shy thanks from Danilo. “And I’m going to change my tunic.”
The otter lowered the chest lid and swung the door partly closed, enough to block their view of the corridor outside while still letting some light into the windowless room. Without preamble, he pulled his wet tunic over his head and draped it over the chest. His torso, thick and powerful in the shadow, held Danilo’s attention as the otter lifted the sopping beige scarf from around his neck. He let it drape over his paw for a moment and met Danilo’s eyes, then turned away from the tiger and lay the cloth over the wet tunic.
Luc pulled the dry tunic over his head, turning it to settle the collar in front, and smoothed his paws down the fabric with a smile. “That’s better.” He raised his eyebrows, seeing Danilo still holding the tunic and pants in his paws. “Are the clothes not to your liking? I suppose you may be used to finer things, coming from Etrusca. Especially if you’re Firenzan or Venetian. We have had their merchants come through on occasion, and, well.” He smoothed back his whiskers with a wider smile. “I confess, I purchased a shirt from them. I can show it to you if you like.”
He moved toward the chest. The tiger shook his head. “Maybe later. Why aren’t you wearing it?”
“Ah, it is for happier times, and shall be saved for them.” The otter looked up and down Danilo’s frame again. “I am sorry I have nothing finer to offer.”
“No, no.” Danilo sorted the tunic from the pants, and yanked it over his head. He’d been hoping for a towel, but was only just realizing that everything the otter owned was in this room right now. He wasn’t in a guest house where towels and sheets (the sheets on the straw pallet looked rougher even than the tunic) were magically brought out of hidden closets, or even staying at a friend’s house where they were happily provided. This was fifteen oh-eight, he reminded himself. Did they even have towels? Did they have baths?
Of course they had baths. The Romans had baths, and that had been over a thousand years ago. Surely bath…technology…wouldn’t be lost so easily. He pulled the tunic down and tried to smooth it out, and Luc laughed, coming toward him.
“Oh, tiger…I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
“It’s Danilo.” He looked down at himself. “What?”
“You’ve put it on backwards.” Strong paws lifted the cloth of the tunic. Danilo lifted his arms, feeling about six years old. “Kneel down, I am too short to get it over your head.”
He knelt obediently and let Luc lift the shirt off his head and then settle it down. “There, see? The fastener sits in front. You can pull the collar shut if you like, although you have a nice chest. I would leave it open.”
The pants were easier to navigate. Though Danilo’s boxers were still soaked, he clung to them as tightly as they clung to him, the pink-stitched fox and elastic waistband the only assurance that he had really once lived in another time. Besides, he didn’t know what Luc would make of them, given a chance to inspect them more closely. If this were just a dream, it wouldn’t matter, but it felt real enough to Danilo that he did not want to take the chance.
“There.” Luc stepped back and opened the door to let more light in. “You look quite presentable now.”
Danilo looked down at himself, at the pale white shirt loosely draped around his torso that, as Luc had warned, ended just at his waist, where the otter’s tunic hung to mid-thigh. Below that, dark brown pants covered the tiger’s legs to just below his knees, below which his dirty white fur and black stripes were visible again. His feet were filthy, but not as bad as he’d feared; the rain had washed the tops clean, and though he could feel grit on the pads beneath, he wasn’t sure if that was on his pads or if the wooden floor was just dirty. All the floors here were probably dirty. He tugged the tunic down farther. “I look like I’m wearing hand-me-downs,” he said.
The otter frowned. “There are worse things than wearing church clothes.”
Danilo began to object. “Church clothes? No, hand-me-downs are…” He stopped, confused. The two terms were different in his mind, but sounded the same when he spoke them. Luc still looked confused, and Danilo realized that he was wearing someone else’s clothes and was complaining about how he looked. What must Luc think of him? Vain white tiger, consumed with appearances… “Thank you for the clothes,” he said. “I very much appreciate it and I will pay you back.”
Luc laughed. “You can begin by telling me your story. I admit that I have been consumed by curiosity, but courtesy forbad me questioning a bedraggled, barely-clothed tiger.”
“Thank you,” Danilo murmured again. His claws extended and retracted, tension spinning slowly in his stomach. He had no idea how he was going to answer all the questions Luc might ask him. To someone in 2008, he could say “I come from the future” and at least the person would have a context in which to understand that. But here, Luc had never seen “Back to the Future” or “Star Trek” or any of it and time travel was more likely the domain of sorcery than science. And there would be fewer things more dangerous in 1508 than being regarded as a sorcerer, especially with the grand bulk of the cathedral looming over as a reminder of the power of the Church.
“How did you come to fall into the Saone?”
That was an easy one. Danilo exhaled. “I jumped in.”
“Into the river?” Luc’s brow creased. “Oh, Danilo, what could have driven you to that?”
“I—oh, no, I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I…”
He trailed off. At those words, the otter’s eyes had widened, and he brought a paw to his muzzle. “Do not speak so casually of ending your life,” he said, his voice sharp and low. “Such thoughts are unworthy, even if…even if you think there may be no other alternative.”
His expression relaxed as he spoke, and though his eyes didn’t leave Danilo’s, the tiger had the impression that Luc was looking past him, or through him, or at some memory. “No, no,” he said hurriedly. “I said I wasn’t. I just jumped in because I lost my, uh.” There wasn’t even a word for “phone,” he realized, because even though he’d stopped himself from trying to say it, his brain refused to process the image he could see in his mind into a word he could speak. Disoriented, he stammered, “Uh. Something valuable.”
“What could be so valuable to risk your life?”
“The river isn’t that dangerous. And there are always people…” In his day, there would always be people around, although there hadn’t been any at the time. But even as he’d made sure nobody was watching him strip to his boxers, he’d felt in the back of his mind the assurance that if he needed help, it would be nearby. Nobody would drown in a river in the middle of a city of a couple million people.
Here—now—though, there were not a couple million. There were perhaps a couple hundred thousand, and who knew how many of them could swim, or would be inclined to risk their lives to save a stranger?
Luc’s mind ran along similar paths. “You have greater faith in God and people than I would be inclined to,” he said with a smile. “But what was so valuable? An heirloom?” When Danilo didn’t answer, Luc tapped the side of his muzzle. “Your purse. Well, if it contained gold, it is likely lost in the mud.”
“Yes,” Danilo said quickly. “It was given me by…by my father. He was sending me to Tigue for…”
Desperate for an idea, he looked away from Luc, out the door and window. What did people send children away for in the fifteen hundreds? His medieval studies classes had focused on lords and countries and power structures, on the sweeping political and religious events that had shaped the countries from the nomadic tribes through the Roman Empire to the Renaissance and the present-day. He could tell Luc volumes about the principles that had founded the Holy Roman Empire some twelve hundred—er, seven hundred—years ago, and could tell him why Tigue and its surrounding kingdom no longer belonged to that Empire; he could not predict much more of the future, because the class had covered Tigue’s history from A.D. 500 through about, well, now, and was just about to move on to events in the surrounding countries. At the time, he had thought that his class would jive well with his psychology degree, because the study of history was, after all, the study of human behavior. But his classes had taught him nothing about the everyday life of the people who lived under those grand empires and kings and popes, the people whose lives passed from birth to death in shadow, who vanished from the world and left little trace behind.
Fortunately, the talkative otter interpreted his look for him. “To become reacquainted with the principles of the church?”
“Yes,” Danilo said quickly, relieved.
Luc smiled wryly. “You’re not the only one here, I may assure you of that. May I ask your age?”
“Nineteen!” The otter examined him. “Strewth. Have you had a marriage fail, then?”
“What? No, I was just…my father wanted me to get an education…” He trailed off again. There were universities in the Middle Ages, or Renaissance, weren’t there? He was almost sure there were.
“A scholar by nature, unmarried, coming to Tigue to be reacquainted with the church.” Luc relaxed, examined Danilo again, and chuckled. “You fell in with the right company, I’ll say.”
“See?” Danilo tried to relax and joke as well. “God looked after me.”
It was, for some reason, the wrong thing to say. Luc’s smile faltered, though it didn’t die, and the otter nodded. “May He continue to do so.”
Danilo curled his tail around his ankles. The light from the window seemed to be growing richer and brighter. He lowered his head and saw the glow of the sun, about to dip below the rainclouds. The cathedral had receded into ominous shadow, backlit by the coppery afternoon sky. “So, I’m to work in the kitchen here?”
“For tonight.” Luc followed his gaze again. “Perhaps tomorrow. I can take you to the Church of Saint-Nizier in the morning, before my work begins.”
“I don’t want to trouble you any further,” Danilo said out of reflex, and then was seized with a moment of panic: what if Luc agreed? What if he were left to his own devices? He couldn’t even hold a conversation without inadvertently saying the wrong thing. At least, he thought, he was limited to saying stupid things in a common language. He couldn’t say “phone” or “airplane” or “Internet.”
Fortunately, even as he started to panic again, Luc smiled and reached up to scratch behind an ear. “Théodore would say I have too soft a heart. No, you may stay here tonight, and tomorrow we will go to St. Nizier, and you may see about more appropriate lodgings. I do not know whether the church will provide a way for students to earn wages. My understanding is that the church expects payment for the privilege of an education. And your payment now lies at the bottom of the Saone.”
Danilo stared down at the floor, caught between the small triumph of his cover story working (with a sizable amount of help from Luc to explain it) and the much larger fear of how the hell he was going to survive in this world.
The first half hour in the kitchen was the worst. After his nose and eyes had been permanently numbed by the horribly acrid wood smoke and his paws scorched by the hot metal of the stove and pans, Danilo found his tasks fairly easy. There were no potholders, and when he asked the cook if he had to handle the metal pans with his bare paws, the large black bear pointed at a long wooden stick leaning against the wall.
He didn’t get the hang of the stick until the bear took it from him. “I will handle fowl. You peel roots,” he rumbled. Danilo watched him agilely snag a corner of the pan and apply torque to swing it around, then insert the stick into the roasted fowl to lift it onto the counter. “There,” the cook grunted, and put the end of the stick that had just been touching the food they were about to serve people to eat onto the filthy kitchen floor.
Danilo swallowed his disgust, adjusted the apron they’d given him, and addressed the mound of potatoes. This was another chore that was hardest the first four or five times, because he didn’t have a rubber-grip vegetable peeler; he had a kitchen knife that was dull enough to require a good amount of force to go through a potato skin, but slid easily through tiger skin. Danilo stopped to suck his finger without realizing what he was doing until he tasted dirt and blood mingled on his tongue, and then he withdrew his finger hastily. Probably the cook would not mind if he spat on the floor, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do that, so he collected the dirt and blood taste in a mouthful of saliva and wiped it off on the back of his forearm. He definitely would have to ask Luc about a bath, after this.
The otter did stick his head in the back door to see how Danilo was doing, but the bear growled and shook an immense paw at him, and Danilo only had time to make a quick thumbs-up. Luc’s brow creased, as Danilo cursed himself for the anachronistic gesture, but then Luc smiled and gave him a thumbs-up back, and it was all right.
Even the stubbornly thick-skinned potatoes and carrots fell into line when he got the hang of scraping the knife across the peels. The cook came over, glared at his pile of peelings, and held up a thick one. “Peel skin, not potato,” he said, and tossed the dirty peel into his mouth, crunching it.
Considering he’d only learned how to do this an hour ago, Danilo thought he was doing rather well. But he swallowed his response and just said, “Yes, sir.” Then he tried to keep the peels thinner and that took more time, so that he ran out of potatoes when the cook wanted more and the bear yelled at him, and so in a panic he peeled as fast as he could, hacking off chunks of potato along with the skin.
When finally the potatoes and carrots were all done, the cook set him to watching the boiled vegetables. He’d boiled potatoes at home, so he felt somewhat comfortable, though he didn’t know at first what to do when they were done; there was no gas to turn down, no colander to drain the pot into, and the pot was as large as his chest, so he couldn’t have lifted it even if there had been a sink to pour the water out into. The cook had filled the pot from a pump out back, behind the kitchen, not too far from the outhouse. But then he spotted a wooden spoon with holes in it sitting beside the stove, and that proved adequate to remove the potatoes without burning his paws further.
He grew hungrier as the hours ticked by, and as he lifted potatoes gingerly out of the boiling water, the temptation to take a bit out of one grew. “Do I get dinner?” he asked the cook timidly as the hundredth bowl of potatoes and fowl disappeared out the doors into the restaurant.
“After,” the bear said, lifting his head from the fowls he was chopping to pieces. Very deliberately, he lifted a drumstick and put the whole thing into his mouth, sucked the meat from it, and dropped the bone to the floor. “This is for the customers.” He tore a piece off the end of one of the many baguettes that sat in a wooden crate and ate that as well.
Danilo licked his lips and swallowed. Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow he would go and find a better job, and he wouldn’t have to endure this again. He must have some skill that nobody in this time had. He knew algebra and geometry, and science. Well, geometry was from ancient times, right? Periclean or something, Aristotle or Archimedes or some such, one of those old sun-bleached wolves who’d written plays and discovered math. But science, acids and bases, and physics, and astronomy…
Well, maybe not astronomy, as it was around this time that that one weasel who said the Earth revolved around the Sun had been executed or excommunicated or something. He would have to remember that. But physics and chemistry…
Of course, all he knew about physics and chemistry was equations on paper. He could calculate the volume of a solid object and he knew the Ideal Gas Law and he could quote the laws of thermodynamics. And all of that would do absolutely nothing to impress anyone who didn’t already know enough to care. All of his knowledge of chemistry gave him exactly zero advantage in this kitchen over the cook who knew how all the tools and foods behaved from experience.
So what could he do? What use could he be in this age, other than quoting books that hadn’t been written yet and describing events that would take place three to five hundred years in the future? Maybe he could deposit a penny in a bank and then claim the interest-fattened balance when he got back to 2008.
When? How about “if”?
Bertrand came in to discuss the number of fowl required with the cook. As the evening wore on, they began calculating how much fowl was required on each plate. “You can make these last,” Bertrand said. “Put a little less on each.”
When he’d gone, the bear grumbled. “Less on each. He gives the order and the cook gets the blame.” But Danilo saw him put one and a half pieces down from then on, rather than the two he had been portioning out previously. The potatoes would not run out, so he added more of those, and Bertrand did not complain about that.
By the time the badger came in to say, “We’re closed,” Danilo was panting, his clothes almost as damp from the heat and exertion as if it had rained in the kitchen. The hunger in his stomach had become a consuming need, his restraint around the food in the kitchen taking its own physical toll on him. He had discovered that visiting the outhouse’s foul stench, whether he needed to go or not, killed his hunger for a short time, but the bear snapped at him when he went for the fourth time, and after that, Danilo hadn’t dared go at all. Fortunately, not having eaten or drunk anything, he didn’t have to.
“Well,” the bear said, removing his apron, “I suppose you were better than nobody at all.”
Danilo swallowed and pressed a paw to his stomach. “Dinner?”
The cook pointed at the pile of carrot and potato peels. “Pick your dinner out of that,” he said. “Throw the rest in the outhouse. Then clean pans.”
“Wh—” Danilo stared at the—garbage, it was garbage, wasn’t it? “I have to eat that?”
“In there.” The large stewpot, now empty of potato and carrot save for the smell, still steamed on the stove. “Boil it with that.” He extended a claw toward the cutting board where he’d been working to chop apart the fowls, where a pile of bone and fat stood heaped. “Share with the others. Take what bread is left.” As he said that, he reached into the wooden crate and pulled out an entire baguette, as long as one of Danilo’s legs.
“What others?” Danilo asked, but the cook was already out the back door, chewing on the end of his bread.
Alone in the kitchen, he swallowed and stared at the peels. Well, he’d eaten potato peels before. He would wash them, and boil them, and throw in the chicken fat. It wouldn’t be too bad.
He carried them in his apron, holding up the corners of it, just as he’d seen in some old movie, and knelt by the pump, too tired to care that his tail was lying in the mud. He reached up to pull the handle down, but after five or ten minutes, no water had come out. He was just looking up at the clouds wishing for the rain to come back when a presence came up behind him.
“You have not pumped water before?” a light, amused voice said.
He turned to see a rabbit, soft brown fur damp with exertion, in a plain dress with a blue apron over it. “Not—not in a long time,” he said.
“How lucky for you. Here, you must pump it hard. See?” She walked around him. With a strength he would not have expected from her thin frame, she thrust down on the handle. A spray of water gushed from the pump, soaking his apron and the potato peels he carried in it.
“Thank you!” He scrambled to clean off the peels, aware that the dirt was being trapped in his apron but not caring. They were cleaner than they had been, and that was mostly what he cared about.
“Ah, you are not like Gauchon. You wash your dinner. Very good.”
“Yes.” He smiled back at her, and her manner and sympathy relaxed him. “I am new in Tigue. I wondered if perhaps it was the custom here to eat dirt.”
She laughed and patted his shoulder. “Only if you are a bear from the Black Forest. No, we prefer our meals clean. But look, let us not spend the water. It is clean now.”
He would happily have spent another five minutes rinsing the peels, but it was easier and more comfortable to agree with her, to let her guide him through custom. If this was clean enough for her, it would be clean enough for him. “My name’s Danilo,” he said.
“I am Seline,” she said, and her ears kept their long, graceful curve as she bowed. “I clean the rooms and tend the tables. And I must say, it is unusual to see a tiger here, especially working as a kitchen-servant. Did you come from Turkiya just to peel potatoes?”
“No, from—not that far.” He couldn’t decide whether to say Anglia or Etrusca, and in the end said neither. “I’m—a scholar,” he said. “But I have lost my money.”
“Ah.” Sympathy filled her eyes and muzzle. “Lost to a thieving merchant?”
“Er.” He straightened, holding the apron full of potato peelings out. His tail flicked mud against his legs, and he felt foolish. “I dropped it in the Saone.”
Sympathy met confusion, and then a tender smile. “I will not ask how that came to pass.”
“It’s a really complicated story,” he said.
“Come.” She gestured him into the kitchen. “Maria and I are hungry, and you must be as well.”
His stomach growled in answer, and she laughed.
The soup-stew turned out to be enough to satisfy him. There was a whole baguette and a half left over, and he, Seline, and Maria, a wolf who did not appear to want for food, shared out the bread. Maria had brought in piles of used plates, and before Danilo could object, she took uneaten pieces of fowl and vegetable from them and threw them into the soup. He opened his mouth, and then he looked at the stick resting on the floor that had been used to pick up hot fowl, at the dirt clinging to the apron he’d just taken off, and he closed his mouth again. Nobody else was objecting, and while Danilo’s twenty-first century knowledge of hygeine might be superior to that of this time, the only thing it was likely to gain him here was an empty stomach.
Besides, he thought, these people did know enough not to eat dirt, and that diseases could be spread. The leavings were going into boiling water, and the two female servants chatted merrily about the customers at dinner, the various merchants and church figures who’d been seen eating, while Danilo kind of spaced out, sniffing the pot.
“I think it is ready,” Maria said. “The poor boy. No money, no lunch?”
“No.” Danilo shook his head. He had had lunch, but it was forever ago. He’d missed his afternoon snack, and was used to dining around seven or seven-thirty. “No food since…” He suppressed a hysterical giggle. No food since five hundred years from now. “Er, what time is it?”
“Oh, you should see the clock in the church.” Seline smiled. “It tells so much! But here, it is past nine, I think?”
“I heard the clock strike nine.” Maria nodded and ladled out a pile of potato peels and chicken parts onto a plate. She gave it to Danilo, who looked around for utensils while Maria gave a plate to Seline, taking more care with it. The rabbit picked up a piece of potato with her fingers and ate it.
“Oh.” Danilo picked up a scrap of fowl and held it, looked at it, then put it on his tongue. It tasted—good. Hunger might be the best sauce, but this chicken was also spiced and tender. He picked up potato peels two, three at a time, and shoveled them into his mouth.
“Oh?” Seline gave him a teasing look as the plump wolf prepared her own plate.
“I was just wondering, uh…” He searched for something to ask about that wouldn’t be as anachronistic as asking for a fork. His eyes lit on a large piece of fowl on his plate. “Uh, most rabbits I know don’t like vegetables cooked with meat.”
Seline’s nose wrinkled. Her ears did droop, but she kept her smile. “It is bearable. Better than no food, and it is free.”
“You, mister scholar,” Maria said, picking up a large gobbet of flesh and fat, “you should know the value of free food.”
“Oh, yes.” Danilo talked with his mouth full, because they were too, and because his stomach kept demanding that he push more food down.
“What are you studying?”
Seline had asked the question casually, and Danilo, caught off guard, said, “Psychology” around a mouthful of potato peel.
The wolf and rabbit both looked curiously at him. “I did not quite understand,” Seline said. “Repeat, please?”
Danilo froze, then chewed deliberately. He’d said the word, so it must have existed, must have some meaning. He swallowed. “Er. Behavior. Um. Why people act the way they do.”
“Oh, a philosopher.” Maria laughed heartily. “Well, I can tell you why men act as they do. To fill an urge, or because someone powerful compels them. That is all.”
“Now, now,” Seline said. “Let the scholar tell us what he has learned.”
Danilo found a piece of carrot and ate it, savoring the sweetness while Maria went to the bread bin. “Well, let us see what old Gauchon has left us. Ah, some bread remains!” She broke the whole baguette in half and gave a piece each to Maria and Danilo.
Seline still looked expectantly at him, so Danilo swallowed his mouthful. His stomach’s demands were starting to lose their urgency. “Er,” he said, trying to figure out how to distill Freud and Jung and Skinner into sixteenth-century talk. “People behave as they do because they have needs, but also we are brought up from children to believe that we should act a certain way, and a lot of our upbringing as children affects how we perceive the world as adults.”
The rabbit’s large eyes held his. “And where is God’s hand in this?”
“Oh,” he said, and the weight of the cathedral, even though he couldn’t see it, bunched the muscles in his shoulders. “God has a plan for us, but we don’t always know the plan…and so what I meant was that if we are raised in God’s way from childhood, then we follow God’s path as adults.”
He was babbling, but it seemed to satisfy her. Maria, who had finished her plate and was fishing out more from the pot, scoffed. “God has a plan for some.”
“He has a plan for you, too,” Seline said, so amiably that Danilo could tell it was a familiar conversation, even with only the scant attention he was sparing from his own terror over saying the wrong thing.
“Oh, I know His plan.” Maria devoured her meal with gusto. “It’s to keep me flat on my back in Bertrand’s bed until a handsome wolf rides through Tigue to carry me away.”
“Your wolf will come one day.” Seline licked her fingers and set her plate down.
“Yes, the black wolf, and he’ll take me to God’s kingdom, and that is the plan.” Maria put a paw to her muzzle, and then set her plate down and leaned against the kitchen wall with a satisfied exhalation.
Danilo was pleased enough to be a spectator to the conversation. His stomach was settling nicely, and when he took a bite of the bread, his eyes widened. It was delicious, still warm, with a crackling crust and a fluffy interior that was as good as any he’d had in his own time. He set about devouring it, not even wanting to sop up the liquid on his plate as Seline and Maria had done because the bread tasted so good on its own.
Meanwhile, Seline just shook her head and sighed, and collected the dirty plates. “I’ll do those,” Maria said. She pushed herself away from the wall, took one more plate, and collected what Danilo supposed was the last of the vegetables from the pot.
“You need to wash up for Bertrand.”
The rabbit stopped. “Oh?”
Maria picked her teeth with a claw. “A rare night off. Perhaps he is feeling his age. But never mind. You do the dishes every night.”
“I’m supposed to do the roasting pans.” Danilo indicated them.
“Then it will be a small party,” Maria said. “Come, Seline, take the dishes, and Danilo and I will carry the pot, yes? Big tiger, so strong.”
Danilo had no doubt that Maria could flatten him if she wished, but he grasped one side of the pot and she took the other. It was still quite warm, but nothing to what his paws had been handling all night, and in ten seconds they had it out the door. Seline held the outhouse door open and in went the remains of their soup.
“It will at least improve the smell.” Maria smiled as she guided Danilo to the pump. They filled the pot halfway to the top with water and then brought it back to the stove. As the water heated, Seline and Maria dipped the plates into it, rubbing them cursorily with a wet cloth and then handing them to Danilo to pass over with a dry cloth. Seline said she would sweep the floor, and Maria guided Danilo out the back.
The sun had set completely, but the clouds remained. Still, the blackness was so absolute that Danilo stopped, disoriented, even though firelight glowed faintly from the restaurant and surrounding buildings. Maria paused with him, her muzzle nearly six inches below his, but close. “So, scholar,” she said softly, one strong paw on his arm. “Have you taken vows of chastity?”
“No,” he said, startled away from his contemplation of the deep lightless night.
“Well, we have a little space of time while Seline sweeps the floors before she comes back to her room. Unless you have a room to yourself.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t, but…”
“Not married, are you? No wife would allow you to go out dressed like that. Did you steal those clothes? Oh, no, one moment.” She pressed her nose to the side of his chest, right into the fabric. “Ah, those are Luc’s clothes.”
“Yes. He loaned them to me. Mine were—lost.”
“So…you and Luc?” Her voice lowered; her eyes studied his.
“Me and…no, no.” Panic flared again. He wasn’t sure what it meant to be gay here, but he was pretty sure it would be worse than five hundred years from now. Was it that obvious? Was there a scent he exuded that told people he might be interested in males? His tail, upon which mud had dried and crusted, whipped tight around his bare calf.
“Settle down, boy. I’m not the Church. I just want to know if you know how to show a lady some pleasure.”
“I, er…” He glanced back at the kitchen. “I thought you and Bertrand…”
“Yes, well.” Her lip curled, and her ears flattened. “It’s all very well for him.”
“I don’t know…” He licked his lips nervously.
Maria’s hazel eyes gleamed in the darkness. “Can you follow orders?”
Fangs showed in her smile. “Good. Come along, then.”
Her paw tightened around his upper arm. He allowed himself to be pulled to the back entrance of the restaurant, but not up the stairs; a smaller door led behind it to a close, dark space that was nevertheless as clean as his room upstairs. It smelled strongly of rabbit and wolf—Seline and Maria, specifically—and of a smell that made him think of the ocean, until he realized it was simply salt.
When Maria closed the door behind them, she wasted no time pulling him down to one side, onto a straw pallet. His eyes still hadn’t adjusted, and so he dropped hard to one knee and then half-fell onto his side next to her. He saw nothing, and then she moved her head and her eyes flashed at him.
“You stink.” Her teeth shone white in the dark room, enough for him to make out her smile. “Mud and filth, not just the kitchen.”
“I haven’t had a chance to wash.” He felt acutely conscious now of the grit in his fur, the smell that his poor nose had been subjected to for so many hours that it had simply refused at this point to acknowledge it. Maria’s observation brought it back.
“You needn’t worry,” she said softly. “I’ll hold my breath.”
His whiskers tingled as she moved closer to him and put a paw on his shoulder. “Wait.” This was not at all how he’d envisioned losing his virginity.
Her tone held tolerance, but a little disbelief as well. “If you want to go, you may go.”
It occurred to him that if he were giving off some kind of signal that he might be gay, sleeping with a female would be one way to counter that. At least Maria would vouch for him then. And really, how had he imagined losing his virginity? A romantic night, a girlfriend (or boyfriend) of many weeks?
He took a breath. “No. I just was thinking about…about what you said about people acting on urges.”
She chuckled, deep and throaty, and reached out to take his paw. He let her guide it to what turned out to be her naked breast. “We can satisfy some urges together,” she said, and leaned forward to lick his nose. “Welcome to Tigue.”
Despite the awkwardness, it was probably the best half-hour Danilo had spent in 1508 thus far. Maria was not at all shy about telling him how to pinch her nipples. “Not so hard. Roll between your fingers. And keep those claws in!” He found that he enjoyed her exhalations and her arm around him. And when she said, “You can touch more” (which was more a command than permission), he did let his paws roam over the ample curves of her body, soft under the fur. The only objectionable part was the smell of her breath, which carried a faint perfume of decay with it, but if he kept his nose pointed to her fur, all he smelled was her musk and, faintly, some kind of floral scent.
He kept stroking along her stomach, over and over, until she breathed frustration onto his muzzle and grasped his paw, moving it between her legs. “It won’t bite,” she growled. “There, keep it there. And I’ll attend to you in a…” He started rubbing at the folds of skin he felt through the fur there. “Ohh. In a moment.”
Danilo didn’t need much tending to. His erection strained at his boxers, and he was already rubbing it against her thigh. How had she gotten all her clothes off so quickly?
Maria asked the opposite question of him when her paw dropped to his chest. “You’re still wearing your shirt.”
“Um,” he said softly, and lifted his paw from her vagina (he was pretty sure that was where it was, and the musky smell on his fingers when he drew them back confirmed it).
“All right, then, get it off.” She waited while he struggled out of the shirt, and then she found the cloth strips that tied his pants shut and undid the knot. Her paws dove inside, following his fur from his stomach down inside his boxers, and closed around his aching shaft.
Danilo jumped and made a noise. Maria laughed softly, and slid her fingers up him. “Am I more forward than the girls back home?”
“Y-yes,” he breathed. Nobody else had ever touched him there, and now here was this wolf, her fingers rubbing, and his tail lashed against the ground and his body felt consumed by sparks. He had gotten his shirt off by this time, the air cool on his fur, and so she placed his paw back between her legs again.
“It feels to me like you were wasted on them.” She pushed his boxers down, exposing him to the air, and cupped his sac with her other paw.
“Nnn…” Danilo swallowed, his breath coming faster, aware that his body was overloading, lighting up all over, and he tried to scramble up to his knees.
“What is it—oh, take your time, youngster. You—”
But she kept rubbing, and then Danilo was far gone, his whole body shaking, and the tension and fear and anticipation burst in a throaty gasp from his throat as his hips flailed forward and he felt himself come all over her paw and arm. Maria made a surprised noise but kept rubbing, reaching up to steady him as he shook and moaned.
“Well,” she said when he was done, “you should have told me it was your first time, dear.”
The excitement of sex had left him, and all he felt was a crushing shame. He couldn’t even have sex properly, and he was pretty sure that hadn’t changed in five hundred years. There was no chance that spurting all over the paw of a female who wanted you inside her was somehow viewed as noble and good, not unless he was the kind of lover he dimly gathered Bertrand was. “I’m sorry,” he moaned, and slumped down beside her, nose buried in the crook of his arm, where he was treated to the smell of river dirt.
With difficulty, she extricated her paw from beneath him. “The only reason you’ll have to be sorry is if you stop now,” she said in a voice that was gentle and also firm.
His eyes had adjusted well enough that when he turned, he could see her expression, a smile stretched over her long muzzle. “You’re young,” she went on, “and I won’t ask how you got to this age without knowing a female touch. But I wager you’ll be ready again in a short time, and until that time, you’re going to make sure I’m good and ready for you when you are.”
“What about Seline?” he whispered.
“Oh, if she comes in, she’ll see us and go back out. Also, she will likely understand what happened because we both disappeared quickly. Seline is quick.”
He propped himself up on his elbows. He could smell his own come now, thick and musky next to Maria’s smell. “The room smells.”
“Yes,” she said. “You will help me clean it and then we will both wash off in the back.”
So there was a bath. That small piece of news afforded him some relief; his sticky fur and the empty sensation in his groin lessened. “All right.” His voice remained small. “Tell me what to do.”
And she did, returning him to her breast and clitoris (he realized this when his fingers touched it again), and with his own urgency faded, he could appreciate the noises she made, could work at following her instructions as best he could.
It was likely no more than ten minutes before her paw reached down between his legs and found him hard again, and when she asked, “You’re ready?” it was not entirely (nor even mostly) a question.
So Danilo found himself atop a female wolf, thrusting into her as her paws held him and his tail lashed over his bare rear, his pants still around his ankles. Again, he felt his climax approaching, but slower; somehow this felt less exciting to him than her paw had. He inhaled her musk, felt the grip of her slick passage on him, and although it took him longer, he came while she was still gasping and arching below him.
“Don’t you…stop,” she ordered him, and so even though his erection had begun to feel sore and sensitive, he kept thrusting until she squeezed a long, low moan out through clenched teeth, and her body shook below him.
Then her arms closed around his back and she buried her muzzle into his shoulder. “Ah,” she breathed. “Ah. Ah. Yes.”
“Did I do okay?” He rested his cheek against hers, their whiskers tickling each other.
“Yes.” She breathed hard, and then rolled him gently over, sliding him out of her. “Quite okay. It is easy for one to forget, lying under that badger, that God intended lovemaking to be pleasurable.”
A profusion of scents assaulted his nose, but fatigue overwhelmed him, pulling his eyelids down. “I’m glad,” he murmured.
Her paw slapped his stomach, jolting him awake. “You’re not to sleep here! Come, we will take a quick wash.”
He didn’t want to pull his boxers up over his messy sheath and erection, but he didn’t want to get Luc’s clothes dirty and he didn’t want to walk out the door with his junk hanging out, so reluctantly, he pulled his boxers up while Maria slid the robe over her head. “Your underthings,” she said, “they feel unusual. And very fine. You must have lost a good deal of money.”
His paw closed around the elastic waistband. “Er, it—they are made specially near where I live.”
“I hope to see merchants here offering them soon.” She smiled and helped him pull his pants up. “And I hope to have enough coin to buy some.”
Her comment about the elastic had jolted him back to the realization that he was five hundred years before his time. It had been easy to submerge in the sex, to just be a male with a female, losing himself in, as Maria had said, his urges. But now the elastic hugged his hips, reminding him that it did not belong here and neither did he, and his tail hung limp as he stood and reminded himself that he was likely not going to a hot bath in a gleaming porcelain bathroom with fluffy towels to dry off afterwards.
He pulled his pants on over the boxers and picked up his shirt from the floor, while Maria picked up a bucket that sat just inside the door and carried it with her. They met Seline in the back corridor, rubbing her paws on a small towel.
“Oh, you’re finished?” The rabbit’s tone held a little disdain, or maybe Danilo was imagining it. He couldn’t see her expression clearly in the shadowy corridor.
“Just going to wash up,” Maria said cheerfully. She walked on, and Danilo paused to glance at Seline, but the rabbit didn’t look at him as she went back into the room she and Maria shared.
Had he done something wrong? His body still tingled with the physical memory of his first time (his first time) and Maria’s and his scents still mingled pleasantly enough in his nose that he found himself purring without realizing it. But Seline had not approved; perhaps Maria was a ‘loose’ type and she’d thought Danilo was better than that, or perhaps she’d hoped she could have the tiger for herself?
Danilo shook his head, following Maria’s lazily wagging tail out into the back yard. He should just enjoy the moment and stop worrying about it so much.
“Is something wrong with Seline?” he asked Maria when the wolf set the bucket down next to the pump.
“Wrong with? No, she’s lovely and healthy.” Maria eyed him. “And she’s quite proper, so even if you were an ordinary rabbit instead of an exotic tiger, she wouldn’t have anything to do with you without a long period of courting.”
“There’s nothing wrong with not being proper,” Danilo said hurriedly, afraid now that he’d offended Maria by asking about another female so soon after they’d made love.
“I’m proper enough.” Maria pumped ferociously. “I’ll be asking the Lord’s forgiveness for this come Sunday.”
“Forgiveness?” Danilo faltered. “But…thank you, I mean, it was a really nice thing.”
She stopped pumping, placed the bucket under the spout, and rested her paws on her wide hips, her tail still wagging. “Bless you, youngster, but is this the first time you’ve crept out from under your family’s roof in your life?”
“No!” He lashed his tail. “I came to school on my own, and I’ve had plenty of experience…”
“In books,” she murmured, and shoved the pump handle down again, filling the bucket with water.
Danilo looked up at the thick layer of clouds, faintly glowing with moonlight. The sky was still darker than any he’d remembered seeing in a city. But the air wasn’t as clean as it had been out in the country when he’d seen a million stars; it smelled of people and brick and dirt and the outhouse standing ten feet away. He inhaled and then looked back at Maria, as the wolf stopped pumping. “It just seemed like Seline might have been upset,” he said, more calmly.
The wolf lifted her shirt off, revealing the breasts Danilo had touched but never seen properly. Her nipples shone light grey and pink against the soft whiteness of her fur, and the rounded curves matched up well to the memory that made his fingers twitch. “She believes I should not be so free with my affections.”
Danilo jerked around, staring back at the building, and then turned again to Maria. “You’re…” He gestured to her naked breasts. “Anyone could—what if someone comes out?”
She reached into the bucket, picked up a dripping cloth, and worked it through her stomach fur. “Then they see the body God gave me.”
“But isn’t that—I mean, people don’t walk around—” He stopped, confused. Maybe female breasts weren’t as big a deal now as they were in his time? That seemed backwards somehow, but there was a lot he didn’t know about life here, apparently.
“Dear,” she said, “I’ve lived twenty-six years and learned that there are many more things to trouble your mind about than what people have seen of your fur.” She dipped the cloth into the bucket again and rubbed it along the wrist he’d spurted across, then lowered her pants and rubbed the cloth between her legs, at which point Danilo looked away and then realized that the quick glance he’d seen had shown nothing but a thick brush of ivory-white fur. He looked back in time to see her pull her pants up. “And you’d best learn that lesson quickly, too.”
She dipped the cloth back in the bucket, agitated it, and then threw it to him. “M-me?” he stammered, catching the cloth. Cold water splashed up his wrist, and his claws, involuntarily extended, snagged the fabric. “Oh, no, I can’t—”
“You can wash off here,” she said, tugging her shirt back over her head, “or you can go into the kitchen and do it. Or you could go to my room and wash off in front of Seline. Or your room, and wash in front of Luc. Although guests are discouraged from bringing water up into the rooms.”
“Isn’t there a—” He tried to say ‘bathroom,’ and it came out as “outhouse,” so he tried again. “A room in which guests may bathe?”
She laughed. “In the palace of your tiger family, certainly. We had many public baths, my mother said, until the plague came back, but they’ve not been open in my lifetime. Here, you may use the back yard.” When he still hesitated, she said, “Oh, come now. You haven’t anything I haven’t had my paw around, and certainly you boys have thick enough fur down there to keep modest when you’re not in the presence of a lady.”
“I am in the presence of a lady,” Danilo pointed out.
“Seline would argue that point.” Marie grinned a wide lupine grin, her fangs showing. “But regardless, the only ‘lady’ here is one who has already known you, so you have nothing to hide from her.”
Danilo took a breath. He’d never actually been naked in front of anyone in recent memory, even his parents. But a tiger who was no longer a virgin didn’t have to worry so much about being naked, especially in front of a wolf he’d slept with (he had slept with her, he’d been inside her).
Remembering the sex stirred his groin, and so before he got himself into a less presentable state, he turned toward the kitchen, shoved his pants down, and rubbed the washcloth through the fur around his sheath and balls until it dripped. For good measure, he reached around to wash his rear as well, and when he did, a paw took the washcloth from him.
“Oh, let me do that,” Maria said, and rubbed vigorously under his tail and around his hips. Before he could stop her, she’d pushed his pants the rest of the way down.
“Hey,” he said.
“I don’t know what you’ve been in,” she said, “but you want that out of your fur.” And she proceeded to refresh the washcloth and rub it all up and down the fur of his legs, by which time he was very distinctly not modest any longer.
“You don’t have to,” he protested, but she scoffed.
“For certain I don’t, but it is not every day I get to run my paws over a nice young body. If I’m to confess my sins this Sunday, I might as well have enough to confess to.” She chuckled, and as she brought the washcloth up his inner thigh, her paw cupped his balls. He jumped, and then her paw was around his front and rubbing the washcloth over his shaft.
Danilo had to shift his feet, his tail finding her leg and curling against it. “I—uh—”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said softly. “Not going to do anything more out here. Tempting though it is.” She moved the washcloth up to his stomach and then around to his back, then dropped it in the bucket with a soft splash. He felt her movement and then the tug of fabric along his wet legs as she pulled his boxers and pants up.
“This is interesting fabric,” she murmured
Danilo panicked and grabbed the boxers away from her, yanking them up along his legs. “I can do the rest,” he said, turning and bending to get the washcloth from the bucket.
Maria watched him clean his tail and chest, even though by this point the washcloth smelled dirtier than he did. When his fur was dripping and he was rubbing his shoulders, she peered close. “By the Lord,” she said. “You’re white.”
He froze, washcloth dripping over his fingers. There really wasn’t any denying it; even in the moonlight, his fur shone palely now that the Saone water and mud had been cleaned out of it. What puzzled him more was that she hadn’t noticed until now. He’d been walking around in the daylight, in the kitchen…true, Maria hadn’t seen him until it was dark. “Yes…” he said.
“I didn’t realize. You were dirty from the river, and I thought you were just pale orange. I’ve only seen two or three tigers and that was from a distance. But they were all orange.”
The way she said it, the way she looked at him, he got an inkling of why she had been so keen to bed him. In a way, it felt cheap. It hadn’t been his personality or the way he acted or anything like that that had gotten the wolf excited. He was like a spot on a scavenger hunt, a rare type she could claim to have bedded. In another way, though, fuck it, he’d slept with her and had done okay enough that she was happy to help him wash up afterwards. So right now he’d take advantage of it.
“White tigers aren’t common,” he said, which was true, but also made him seem more exotic. He left out all the stuff about being a recessive gene paired with another recessive gene, and about the disease screenings his parents had had to do with him until he was fourteen to make sure he didn’t have any other recessive-gene traits that were less innocuous than white fur. He’d never met another white tiger in person, but in Siberia, he knew, a lot of them had died early in life, before modern hospitals.
“No tigers are common here.” Her muzzle curved into a smile. “Despite the name.”
He tried to remember the name of the restaurant, and couldn’t. “I don’t know what this place is called.”
She laughed. “Tigue? The city you’re in?”
“Oh.” He felt stupid, and folded his ears down. To cover his embarrassment, he picked up his shirt and slid it over his head. “Well, you know, ‘Tigue’ comes from the old Latin word for ‘tail,’ tægl, probably because the way the rivers meet makes the central part here look like a tail, with the pointed tip…or there’s a legend that the Roman general Severus lost his tail in a battle here and buried it up on Fourvière Hill…” He stopped talking at her amused look. “What is it?”
“You’re a scholar indeed,” she said. “And I’m a cleaning-bitch who has not much time to sleep before the sun’s up.”
“Sorry,” he said, ducking his head.
“Get on with you,” Maria said, and reached up to pat his ear. “But let me give you a lesson as well.”
He couldn’t help grinning. “Another one?”
She laughed. “Less complicated. The lesson is—don’t tie your fortunes to Luc.”
Startled, he drew back and frowned. “He’s really nice.”
“He’s got not very much money, doesn’t have much in the way of prospects for more, and his friends are…” She wrinkled her nose. “Let’s say that if you’re going to study at the Church, they aren’t the sort you’d be running into.”
He thought of Théodore, the violent mouse with the confident, smooth manner. “I suppose…”
“I thought you might be one of them, wearing his clothes and all. Also.” She leaned close. “Bertrand tolerates him, but would be pleased to be rid of him.”
“Why doesn’t he just go somewhere else?”
“Oh.” Maria waved a paw. “Some matter between them, that Bertrand allows him to stay for free. But he does not like Luc’s friends and he does not like losing a room that might bring in money. I would advise that you find rooms at your school with all haste.”
“All right,” Danilo said. “Thank you.”
“Thanking me! You do make a wench feel like a lady.” She winked at him, and then dumped her bucket out and carried it back inside. He watched her tail swing behind her into the shadows, and she was gone.
Danilo took one more look around, preparing to go inside, and then steps sounded in the kitchen. Danilo’s reflexes took him down the muddy path to the door Maria had disappeared through before he’d consciously processed the movement. Curiosity caught him just inside the door, though, and he turned, hoping he was hidden enough in the shadows to see who it was.
The stocky badger, Bertrand, wandered out from the kitchen and applied his weight to the pump, grunting. Unlike Danilo, he apparently had very little shame or modesty, because he carried his pants loosely over one arm, and from the bottom of his tunic to the ground, nothing but his black and white fur covered him. Before Danilo could look away, Bertrand had dipped a paw into the water and lifted the bottom of his tunic with the arm holding his pants, giving Danilo an excellent moonlit view of the badger’s half-erect penis.
He did look away then, ducking back into the hallway. The splash of water continued, along with some satisfied grunts, and Danilo left them behind, retracting his claws to pad up the stairs as silently as possible.
All the doors in the upstairs hallway were closed now, but he remembered which one was Luc’s, and a sniff of the door handle confirmed it. The otter’s oily scent pervaded the room, but Luc himself was absent, which Danilo found strange at first, and then wondered if it was strange. He stripped off Luc’s tunic and, after a moment’s hesitation, Luc’s pants, and lowered himself to the bed that smelled less of otter.
After all, what did he know about how Luc spent his time? Perhaps the otter had a night job, or liked to wander the streets. Maybe he went to church at night, although the cathedral had been silent for the half-day Danilo had lived here.
He lay on his back and stared up through the blackness at the ceiling. Perhaps 1508 wouldn’t be so bad. He’d already had more sex in the sixteenth century than he’d had in the twenty-first. Sure, that wasn’t the only measure of success in life, but he was taller and had more general knowledge of how the world worked, he could probably get a berth as a scholar. He might have to work some more horrible nights in kitchens, and he probably would never feel completely clean again, but at least he wouldn’t have to worry about Cobb and Georg.
His paw scratched at his side. The air around him was oppressively silent. Even Chellingham had had its share of urban noise, cars and people and trains, airplanes overhead. Here, of course, there were no cars, and there would be no trains for four hundred years, no cars for four hundred thirty, no planes for four hundred sixty or so. Four hundred years. He would be dead and no more than a skeleton by the time the first car rolled through Tigue.
The blackness of the ceiling felt as massive and heavy as a starless sky. Danilo closed his eyes, but could still feel it, the silence all around him, the smell of otter in the room and the smell of straw, which made him think of playing in the barn as a cub, throwing bales of hay back and forth with one of the neighbors. But outside that barn, there had been a car; he and the neighbor, a red deer who tried to get him to eat the straw, had been wearing jeans and t-shirts. That was what was missing, he realized: the faint, pervasive background odor of chemical dyes and fabrics, of laundry detergent and car exhaust and cigarette smoke and a thousand other small smells he had gotten so used to, he only noticed their absence, and that only when given time to think about it.
(Though it was true that he’d spent most of the evening in a smelly kitchen full of other odors.)
His side itched again, and he scratched it. He remembered his last conversation with Lena, now, there on the riverbank, the text message to Taye that he’d never sent. What would they think when he vanished? Probably that he’d fallen in the Saone and drowned. His clothes were right there, after all. They would think him dead, and they wouldn’t be too far off. To them, he might as well be.
Perhaps this was all a dream. He felt the weight of the blackness above him again, and wondered if he were drowning. Was this all a sort of Owl Creek Bridge hallucination? His paw scratched a little lower down on his hip. There was no way he would see any of his family or friends again, either way. One way he would be dead and floating in the Saone in 2008; the other way he would be dead and buried sometime in the early sixteenth century. If this were really happening, and he would never in a million years have believed it if it weren’t so minutely real to him, then he had no idea how it had happened, no jump point to return to that would get him back to his time, no pylon nor TARDIS nor transporter beam. He could jump in the Saone again, but what if he surfaced in 1008 this time? Or, more than likely, what if he just remained in 1508?
The itch came again at his side, and this time when he scratched, he felt something move against his paw. For a moment he lay there, and then the word ‘fleas’ moved across his mind, and he thought, well, if this is a dream, it’s a really shitty one, because I’m dreaming I have fleas.
And that indignity brought the weight above him crashing down. His chest tightened and he found it hard to breathe, and then his breath came in hard, gulping sobs. He would never see a computer again, or a wristwatch, or eat a pizza or a hamburger or go to a movie. He would never see that new James Bond movie, or the Batman one that had been getting such good reviews in the States. He would never talk to his friends or his family again. He wished he’d said something more to Lena, that he hadn’t hung up on her in a huff.
The sobs came harder now, and he turned onto his stomach. There was no pillow, but he gathered up the discarded pants and tunic and pressed his muzzle to them, tears leaking out. He was lost, completely lost, in a strange world and time, and his chest felt as though he really were drowning, constricted on all sides, each breath coming at a cost. He drew his arms beneath him, starting to curl up, and moaned into the fabric. Once he started crying, it was difficult to stop; each pause brought another image, a word he regretted or a promise left undone. He’d said he would help Anita research monasteries, and that he would pick up cold medicine for Orwin, and that he would have dinner with Taye…
The click of the door latch registered, but though he tried to muffle his sobs, Luc came to his side immediately. “What is it?” he asked.
His concern, his paw light between Danilo’s shoulders, just set the tiger off again. This simple expression of caring from someone he barely knew touched him, and at the same time reminded him of how inadequate it was. His best friend was someone he’d known for seven hours.
“I, I, I want to go home,” Danilo gulped out. He pulled his arms in toward his chest and pressed his nose into the clothes. He could feel and smell his own tears now, but he still could not stop.
Luc’s paw continued to rub between his shaking shoulders. “Tigue is a long way for you, and you’ve lost your money. It’s no wonder you’re feeling nervous.”
His voice was calm, but it only reminded Danilo that he’d only known Luc for seven or eight hours, and yet the otter was the closest thing to a friend he had, unless he counted Maria, but he’d only known her for two hours. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
“Well…” Luc rubbed his shoulder and paused. “You could write your father. Tell him you lost your money. In two or three months, you might have more.”
“I, I can’t,” Danilo wailed, and tightened his grip on his own chest at the thought of his father, the tall gruff tiger with the warm smile. His father had always been patient with him, had encouraged his studies and not worried about sport, and had told him that The Université Catholique would be a great adventure. He hadn’t talked to his father in the last week while he had been worried about Taye and what to do about his feelings, but only because he’d wanted to sort things out for himself. He’d always thought he would be able to talk to his father when he needed to.
Only now he wouldn’t be able to.
“All right,” Luc said. “It’s going to be fine. Did your family spend all their money to send you here? Is your father still alive?”
Still alive? He won’t be born for… “No,” Danilo said. “I…I can’t go back to my family. I can’t get any more money from them. I have to stay here. If I can’t live here, I’ll die here.”
“You’re not going to die,” Luc said immediately, and his paw reached around Danilo’s shoulders to pull the tiger toward him. Danilo resisted at first, but Luc insisted, and the tiger gave in and let the otter hold him. Luc’s short, powerful arms couldn’t reach all the way around even Danilo’s skinny chest, but they reached far enough. “I pulled you out of the water,” Luc said. “I’m responsible for you now. We’ll go to the church school tomorrow. They should have your papers, and you can work for your lodging there. If you’re a scholar, they will take care of you. God’s charity extends at least that far.”
Danilo didn’t believe any of that, but his breathing eased anyway. He slipped down onto his side and squirmed one of his arms out to reach around the otter’s chest and hug him back. “I don’t belong here,” he managed to murmur out against Luc’s tunic.
“Shhh.” Luc held him and drew claws through his fur down his back. The otter settled down on his side facing Danilo, on the floor next to the small pallet. His breath ruffled the fur between the tiger’s eyes, and his warmth pressed up against the tiger’s trembling form, and slowly, Danilo’s shaking slowed and eased.
Up close, Luc’s scent filled Danilo’s nostrils. Awkwardly, he found his body responding to the close embrace with arousal, even though Luc had his hips politely angled away from Danilo’s. Great, that would be all he needed, for his only friend to find out he was turned on by males. Probably in 1508 he could get killed for that.
He angled his own hips down, his tail flicking away over his own legs. Luc didn’t say anything, just kept holding him, and although the arousal didn’t diminish, Danilo stopped worrying so much about it.
Luc murmured something more to him, something that sounded like a prayer. Danilo didn’t focus on the words, but the low tone of the voice lulled him to sleep.
He woke in the dark, needing to use the bathroom. He stumbled off his futon, which was oddly low to the floor. For some reason, his room smelled like a barn. He found the door, much sooner than he expected, and swung it open.
In the hallway outside, there was a window where there should not be one, and outside the window, the clouds had cleared and the immense cathedral glowed by the light of the moon.
Danilo stopped to stare at it. Right. Tigue, 1508, Luc. He had not magically awoken back in his room in his present time, which he now realized subconsciously he had been hoping would happen.
But no, the cathedral and the restaurant were as real as the pressure on his bladder. He hurried out and down the stairs to the outhouse, used it, and came slowly back up. He didn’t look at the cathedral.
When he entered the room, Luc stirred. “There’s a chamber pot,” he said with some amusement.
“Oh.” Danilo didn’t know what to say. “Okay.”
He lay down again on the straw bed, pulled the sheet over him, and stared at the ceiling.
“You may think,” Luc said quietly, “that God has abandoned you. But if He had, would He have sent me to pull you from the river?”
No, Danilo thought, God wouldn’t have sent me to your river in the first place. But the expectant silence weighed on him, and he said, “Thank you.”
He might have dozed off after that. He remembered anxiety gnawing at him, trying to imagine how the next day might go, scratching at fleas and wondering if he could ask Luc how to get rid of them. The otter’s breathing had settled into regularity and Danilo thought he might be asleep. So he just scratched and then recalled what Maria had said about the plague. That drove him into a panic during which he very nearly hyperventilated enough to pass out. The fear passed along with the wandering flea. He tried to convince himself that during a time of plague, no reputable establishment would allow fleas, and returned to imagining ever less plausible scenarios for the next day.
In the darkness, in the solitude, his mind ran along fatalistic lines. He tried to rein it in. If he were trapped here, then how could he make the best of it? That was what his father would say—had said, when Danilo had called him homesick from Tigue. “Make the best of it, otherwise it’s a wasted experience.” Well, all right; at least here was a chance for him to start over. His main worry as he’d plunged into the river had been being outed as gay, but here, nobody had heard of his cousin, and nobody would come after him if he just minded his business and stuck to vaginas (his paw crept down to fondle himself as he thought this). He had a few friends, he had worked a night for his keep, and as unpleasant as the world was compared to what he was used to, well…he could survive. He clung to that thought.
(Then Luc snored, and the tiger pulled his paw back to his side, worried Luc would think he was masturbating, which, yeah, he sort of had been.)
And eventually, time moved on, as it usually (usually) did, and grey dawn became visible through the cracks in the door.
Luc stirred. Danilo looked over and saw one dark eye looking at him. “You are awake?”
He nodded. “Having trouble sleeping.”
“It is understandable. Yesterday, after all, was a very strange day for you.”
Yeah. He stretched. “What time should we go over to the school?”
“The bells should be ringing the Lauds soon enough, and then we will make our way over.”
“Will we have something to eat?” Danilo’s stomach, used to an energy bar or bowl of cereal at this time of morning, growled.
Luc paused. “Until you resolve the question of your money, you should expect to eat once a day.”
“Once a day? Nobody can live on that.”
The slowly-brightening room fell silent. Danilo felt immediately stupid, even before Luc said, “I have, for many months now.”
“I’m sorry,” the tiger said immediately. “I’m used to—I didn’t know—”
“I am sorry that you have to learn.” Luc’s voice held no rancor. “It is not easy, but at least I have a roof over my head, and that one meal, and good friends. Many lack all three of those.”
Remembering Maria’s words, Danilo said, “Are you going to live here for very much longer?”
“I hope not to.” The otter breathed a sigh. “Bertrand honors the debt he owes my father, but I feel that he now views it as more than repaid. With just one more month…perhaps two…before the winter sets in, definitely…” His voice slipped away into his ruminations, as his mind built futures out of the darkness that Danilo could not see. And then he came back, sharply, as though scolding himself. “But that is none of your concern. We will get you out from Bertrand’s roof today.”
In the short time before the bells rang, Danilo asked Luc more about his shop and business, but the otter would not be drawn out, saying only that the loss of his shop was his own fault, and that he was striving to mend it. Not wishing to pry, Danilo let it go, only to find himself on the receiving end of similar questions about his home. He evaded them as best he could, retelling the story that his family had used all their money to send him here and that he had then lost it. Luc thought this odd, that a family would spend their last sous (his word, a new one Danilo filed away) for a scholar, but Danilo said that scholars were much respected in Etrusca, and Luc accepted that.
When the bells did come, they were not as loud as Danilo had thought. “Oh, I heard them last night,” he said.
“Compline,” Luc said, getting up. “Vespers also rang while we were returning.”
Danilo rose slowly. In the dim light, he saw Luc’s tunic and pants, and also saw that the otter was lying on the floor. “Oh, no,” he said. “I forgot there was only one bed. I’m so sorry.”
“You needed it more.” Luc smiled. “I’ll have my bed back tomorrow, never fear.”
They dressed, Danilo getting the tunic on properly this time, and Luc dressing simply, without the beige scarf. Out in the hall, in the dim morning light, other residents were stirring as well, yawning and making their way to the outhouse, or already gone, their rooms empty. The rain had stopped, but smoke hung thickly in the air, and Danilo rubbed his nose. It was like standing in last night’s kitchen again, only without the smells of food.
In the main body of the restaurant, Bertrand was serving bread from a large platter. At the sight of Luc, he slid the platter behind him and narrowed his eyes. “He’s out today, you said.”
“Good morning to you, too, Bertrand. Yes, yes, Danilo will find another bed tonight.” Luc kept walking.
“He’d better! I’ve told you, I won’t have this place become some halfie meeting house. I’ll have the church here myself!” The badger called it loudly as they left, enough that the few patrons eating bread and honey (it looked sooooo good) looked up.
Danilo still didn’t know what the word meant, but it was clearly an insult. Luc’s little ears didn’t go down the way an upset tiger’s would, but he lowered his head and lost his cheerful manner. Danilo followed him out, wishing he could tell what to say.
A few clouds still dotted the sky, but the sun shone brightly on the wood and brick of the town. The streets were already crowded, and down here, Danilo heard more of the bustle of Tigue. If he closed his eyes, it was not so different from that last busy afternoon: people spoke to each other rather than into phones, and they dressed in tunics rather than collared shirts, but the sense of purpose was the same, the press of the crowd and the smell of the people—well, all right, the smell was a little more rank. But there were no more public baths, and they all bathed by washing off at pumps. Of course it wasn’t going to be as clean as high-pressure showers with shampoo.
But these were people, after all, and Danilo focused on the similarities of this world. The buildings were old, but still looked like houses and shops. Shopkeepers called out in front of their stores, their cries of “bread, fresh bread,” and “cheese, well ripe,” and “finest clothings,” rising above the crowd to a rhythm that Danilo quickly grew accustomed to. As they passed the bakery, a small store with “Boulangerie” written in script over the door, the smell of freshly-baked bread overwhelmed him and actually slowed his steps.
Right. No money. He patted his unhappy stomach through the rough cotton tunic, and hurried to keep up with Luc.
One thing that was unusual here was the amount of attention Danilo drew. He was as tall as the tallest person in the streets, for one thing, and for another, the population here was devoid of any other tigers. Foxes, badgers, deer, mice, rats, squirrels, and wolves passed him by and stared a moment longer than they stared at anyone else. Danilo avoided their glances as best he could, feeling in each one the reminder that he did not belong on this street.
Those glances he was growing more confident in handling. But when Luc turned at a corner with a smile, and said, “I am sorry for my silence—” and then stared at Danilo in the same way, the tiger felt his heart turn icy.
“What is it? Luc?” People pushed around them, and for a moment Danilo was sure he’d done something wrong, something terrible that even Luc’s kind heart could not forgive.
“You are white.” The otter reached out to touch his paw, then drew back. “I’m sorry, I did not realize.”
“You didn’t notice yesterday?” The Saone must be even filthier in 1508 than it was in 2008.
Luc shook his head. “The mud of the river water, the rain, the tunic over your fur…I am sorry. I had thought you a pale orange. Well, this is a good thing. Come along, Danilo.”
“A good thing?” Danilo walked quickly around to the otter’s side. “Just because I’m white?”
“Perhaps it is not the same in Etrusca. Your family, many of them may have been white?”
Danilo shook his head. “I’m the only one.”
“Well, white fur in Tigue—in Gallia—is quite rare. White-furred people are said to be pure, to be touched by God. And so you will be more welcome in the church than…well, than if you were not white, we will leave it there.” Luc lowered his voice.
“I thought the Church opened its doors to all.” Danilo matched the otter’s low tone.
“God opens his doors to all.” Luc did not have to continue the comparison, and the way he closed his mouth after saying it told Danilo not to pursue the subject.
Congratulating himself on his perspicacity, the tiger followed the otter through narrow streets until they reached a small square. To their left stood a small church, two and a half stories tall, above which a simple steeple rose. On the front, a carved Lion Christ hung from a cross, his eyes turned up to the heavens. It could have been the same Lion Christ that hung on any old church in his time, the mane shorn, the golden eyes beseeching the heavens; this one was gruesomely detailed, with blood dripping from the nails in the tawny paws and feet, blood from the ring of cuts left from the shearing of the mane, the wound in his side.
Only as he looked down at his own white paw did Danilo remember that in the story of Jesus rising from the grave, his fur was said to have turned completely white. He looked away from the crucifix and around the small plaza he’d followed Luc into.
Carts of fish and vegetables ringed the open area, and here the din of the merchants calling their wares was deafening. As they entered the square, Danilo and Luc were beseeched on all sides.
“Blessed white sir, come see my flowers—”
“Freshest of carrots—”
“Lettuce, fresh picked lettuce!”
“The square will be quieter once the harvest is past,” Luc said, guiding Danilo through the carts. In the center of the square, a statue of a wolf in robes with her head bowed faced the church. All around the square, two-story row houses stood, with brick foundations and wooden walls, and people loitered around them talking. Many of them wore more ragged clothes than Luc and Danilo, and more than one leaned on a crutch, but they talked with a bright, animated spirit regardless.
Luc made directly for the church, where Danilo now saw a sign proclaiming it the “Eglise de Saint-Nizier de Tigue.” He tried to repeat those words, but they came out as, “Saint Nizier’s Church?”
“Aye.” Luc turned. “The school is down the way a bit, but Sister Colquez will be here in the morning.”
“Wait,” Danilo said, following the otter in through the doors into a cool, airy space. Pillars rose in front of them; Luc hurried around one to the right side of the church as Danilo said, “Colquez?”
“She administers the school,” Luc said. “I was her student for many years.”
Danilo barely saw the stained glass windows he was passing, or the small alcoves and their mysterious contents, caskets and statues, small bowls and layers of cloth. A figure at the back of the church, bent to extinguish a row of candles, held his eye. Even in the multi-colored reflections of the stained glass, there was no mistaking her long, russet, white-tipped tail.
“Anita?” he blurted out.
The vixen turned toward them, her muzzle set in a smile that turned to confusion. “Sir, you have the advantage of me.” A moment later, she spotted Luc, and her expression relaxed. “Ah, you have learned my name from Monsieur Romain here. But he has not done me the courtesy of telling me yours.”
“Danilo.” He swallowed. It was Anita, the narrow muzzle with the large coal-dust patch, the spot of white amid the red fur over each eye, the darker reddish-brown between her ears, and the Iberian accent to her words. “I—”
He couldn’t go on. Luc, who had been looking back and forth between them in confusion, cleared his throat. “Danilo is a young tiger come to us from Etrusca. He was to continue his education here, but he had the misfortune of losing his family’s purse on the journey. Danilo, this is Sister Vasquez.”
Anita looked at him as his Anita in her time never had, and yet still not the way he’d hoped, or had thought he’d hoped. Her interest was not sexual (that would’ve been a little weird in a church) but it was a deep fascination. “Tell me, blessed Danilo, what education you sought here in Tigue.”
He tried to remember what Luc had said the previous day. “Psych—why people do the things they—Philosophy. That’s what it was.”
“We do have some of the foremost scholars on interpreting the mind of God.” She turned her russet muzzle to catch the light. Danilo caught his breath and almost missed her next words. “But alas, the building of Sainte-Jean has cost the Church dearly, and we have been instructed that we are no longer to offer the charity. If you cannot pay the school, we cannot provide an education.”
Luc stepped forward and gestured back at the tiger. “But see? He is white!”
“I see that.” Anita sighed. “If he were not a foreigner…”
“Is there nothing you can do?” Luc lowered his voice and entreated her. “For me?”
“You are not what I would call a great friend to the Church.” She said it mildly, but firmly.
Luc lowered his head. “Then for my father?”
The vixen’s ears lowered. She looked down at the candles and extinguished the last one with a small copper implement. At last, she said, “I will speak to the Bishop and see if there is something that may be done. If blessed Danilo is willing to work in the service of the Church.”
“Yes, yes,” Danilo said eagerly before he could think, spurred on by his desire to have a job and a place in this city and time. As he spoke, he was aware of the tension in his shoulders and knew that if he allowed himself, he would wonder what work the Church would ask him to perform, and he would think about his own struggles with religion, especially around his sexuality (but was he really attracted to Taye now that he’d slept with a female? Was he attracted to Luc? To Anita?). Then he would think about Maria’s words and Théodore’s, and he would fit the pieces together in his head and calculate a transitive equation of friendship that would question whether Luc, no friend to the Church, would continue to be his friend if he worked for the Church, and that question would cause him a greater pang than he expected.
And then he wondered all of that anyway as the conversation progressed, but by then it was too late. Anita was asking where he was staying, and he didn’t know what to say.
“At the Repos de la Sainte,” Luc said.
Anita frowned. “Saint’s Rest?”
Luc was quiet for a moment. “It used to be the Trois Fleches Dorees.”
She fixed Luc with a stern gaze. “Bertrand’s place. You are still there?” When he nodded, she sighed. “You must leave.”
“To go where? Live in the square with those people?” He waved a paw toward the door. “Bertrand is rough, yes, but he is not a brute.”
“No? Well, perhaps miracles do arrive.”
Danilo’s thoughts, now worrying about Luc and Bertrand, skipped at that word and jumped to a completely different track. “Anita—Sister Vasquez—what do you know about miracles?”
She frowned, and her ears flicked to the sides in exactly the way his Anita’s did when she was trying to solve a problem. “Our Lord performed miracles to inspire people’s faith. He fed the poor, turned water to wine…”
“We could use some of those miracles these days.” Luc looked past her to the stained glass, which sparkled in muted green and blue.
“But I mean, were there signs when they happened? The people all knew that it was God performing a miracle, right? They weren’t just drinking wine and all of a sudden it was—I mean, water, and it suddenly turned into—God told them while the miracle was happening, right?”
Anita’s dark eyes studied him. “Do you believe you have experienced a miracle?”
“Maybe?” Danilo breathed in the stillness and felt the weight of stone and age upon him. To claim to be the subject of a miracle in this house of God now felt like the height of hubris to him. “I mean, something strange happened—when I lost my money—but nobody appeared and said ‘this is a miracle.’ Are miracles—do miracles always make something good happen?”
“You would want to talk to the Bishop,” she said. “He is far more learned in the gospels and histories of Our Lord than am I. He would be the authority on what constitutes a miracle.”
“Not the Archbishop?” Luc’s tone was sour. “He proclaimed the completion of Sainte-Jean a miracle.”
“Nobody sees the Archbishop. I mean, none of us do.” Anita looked shocked that Luc would even suggest such a thing.
“I know some people who do.” Luc muttered it very low.
Though Anita’s ears perked, she appeared to understand that the words were not meant for her, and she did not respond to them. Instead she turned to Danilo. “Blessed Danilo, if you would return tomorrow at this time, I will hope to have good news for you.”
“All right. I mean, thank you, Sister Vasquez.” It was still unsettling for him to see Anita in a religious habit, speaking to him so formally, so he was not entirely unhappy to take his leave of her. Still, as he walked out of the church and back into the square, he had the sensation of leaving behind a link, however tenuous, to his own time. He turned to look at her, but standing in the bright sunlight, Anita’s form inside the darker church was no more than a shadow.
“She is lovely.” Luc smiled up at him. “I know at least two young foxes who were sorely disappointed by her choice to serve the Church.”
“Yeah,” Danilo said, thinking of Anita helping him with his medieval studies homework. “She’s—she’s great.”
The otter stopped at a stall, looked longingly at the food, and then walked on. “Well, you must stay with me for one more night. You may go back to Bertrand’s if you like. I have an appointment to keep.” He tilted his head upward, squinted at the sun. “I should leave at Terce, I think.”
Bells had begun to ring from St. Nizier, echoed elsewhere around the city. Luc pointed a finger upward. “That is Prime. Terce is the next you will hear.”
Danilo walked beside him, eyes flicking from side to side to take in the city. So many people and so much to see. “Do you think I could just walk around the city while you are away?”
“You needn’t ask my permission.” Luc smiled and swiveled his pointing finger downward, away from the sun. “You should visit the Cathedral. For all that we complain about what it has brought to Tigue, it is a miraculous sight. And the clock it contains is a true wonder. It tells the time and the date, and shows the position of the sun, moon, and stars around the Earth. If you leave at Terce, I believe my appointment will be done by the time you return.”
“All right.” And Danilo walked with Luc to the end of the street, where the otter said his appointment was the other way. He left Danilo with another admonition to see the Cathedral and to stay out of trouble, and Danilo promised to do his best.
Walking through the streets, he looked around at all the shops, the market stalls, the people hurrying along in their duties, and although his alienation was diminishing somewhat—after all, even though they stared and parted ways for him, even though he was taller than the tallest of them, he was of their world—his loneliness without Luc had grown even greater, as had the rumbling in his stomach. If he had money, at least he could go into a shop and buy a loaf of the incredible-smelling bread, or a lump of cheese or meat (he passed a store with hams hanging in the windows and stood just staring at it for a moment). But there was nothing he could do save walk hungrily back along the street.
He did once see a small fox clutching a bread roll, running toward him as angry shouts followed. But the fox cub was gone before Danilo could move to stop him, and nobody else moved to intercept him (or her). The baker, when Danilo reached his store, was an older wolf who did not seem particularly upset, as though it was his job to yell and carry on when the cub stole a piece of his bread.
The rolls were just sitting by the door, and Danilo was tempted, but the wolf did stand right beside them, and even though Danilo thought he could outrun the old baker, how many white tigers were there in Tigue? He would be spotted blocks away. So he pressed a paw over his stomach and walked on.
Presently he came to the street he’d walked down behind Luc and Théodore a day ago. The river and the bridge to the Cathedral lay to the left, but Danilo’s frustration at his poverty led him to look the other way. Perhaps Maria would be free, and perhaps she would want to take him back to her room again. That appetite, at least, he could sate for free, and would take a little time—more time than last time, he hoped.
His body appeared to approve of the idea, so he glanced at the cathedral, now gleaming in the noonday sun, and turned his back to it to hurry back to Bertrand’s. The idea of sex with the plump wolf had become a full-blown fantasy by the time he arrived back at the restaurant, a daydream in which Maria swooned to see him, fell into his arms, and proceeded to yip and howl with pleasure as he made love to her like none other had ever done. The dream was so powerful that he even forgot his current troubles as he burst through the front door of the restaurant and looked around, expecting Maria to be there waiting.
Only a crowd of patrons turned to look as he stood there in the doorway. Many stared; others, who’d likely seen him the night before, turned back to their meals almost immediately. Bertrand himself looked up from a table where he’d just deposited a tray of bread and cheese, and his thick black brow lowered over the white-striped muzzle. “No! No no no! No more halfies, I told him. You are to be gone.”
Now people were looking up again, and Danilo’s awkwardness returned with the force of a spring thunderstorm. He curled his tail around his leg. “I’m just going to get my things,” he said. “Where’s Maria? I—I gave her something I need back.”
“You can’t put that back in, youngster,” someone at a table called, and the room erupted in laughter. Bertrand did not join in, but looked positively murderous.
“Out with you!” he roared. “One brings in many, like fleas, they say, and how am I repaid for my kindness? With this infestation! First the other, then you—no, no, no! Out!”
“I have to get my things!” Danilo cried, and when Bertrand did not object immediately, Danilo, ears back, fled upstairs.
Few of the patrons were about, and none in the hallway as Danilo ran along it, frantic to get his things and get out, Maria forgotten. Only when he was standing in the room he’d shared with Luc did he realize that he didn’t have any things to get. Everything he owned in this world was one pair of boxer shorts, which he was wearing.
Well, he would wait here until he felt a little calmer. Already his breath was coming back and his tail was uncurling. Glancing down at the chest, he saw Luc’s beige scarf resting there. He could wear it, if Luc was not; after all, everything else he wore belonged to the otter.
He picked up the cloth and draped it about his neck. Of course, there were no mirrors in the room, but he hoped it gave him a jaunty, confident look as it had Luc. And he would be back here tonight—he would sleep on the floor this time—and Luc would make it right with Bertrand somehow. Danilo just had to avoid the badger until then.
He slipped out the back, again hoping to see Maria, again disappointed. Seline was working in one of the rooms he passed, though. “Hello,” he said.
The rabbit looked up. “Good day.” He couldn’t even tell whether she recognized him. She held a ragged broom, with which she swept around a floor that looked identical to the one in Luc’s room: wooden boards littered with a straw bed, a chest, and a chamber pot.
Danilo cleared his throat. “Do you know where Maria is?”
Seline stopped sweeping and raised an eyebrow. “She works at the rag-merchant mending clothes in the mornings. Is there something you require?”
Require, no. Danilo swallowed, and Seline shook her head. “Do not grow attached to Maria. I can assure you that she has not grown attached to you.”
“I didn’t—I mean, I wasn’t—”
Seline chuckled, but without smiling, and thrust the broom at him. “Here. Hold this while I carry the chamber pot.”
Only as they reached the base of the stairs did it occur to Danilo that the gallant thing would have been to carry the reeking pot for her. But Seline emptied it in the outhouse with professional efficiency, where Danilo was sure he would have spilled it all over his paws, which would be a disaster without any antibacterial soap. Seline rinsed out the pot under the pump and then took the broom back from him. “Did you wish to follow me in my work all afternoon?”
“Er…no, I guess…” He lowered his head. “I’m waiting to see if I can have a job with the Church.”
“Whatever you do, work vigorously, as for the Lord. I wish you luck.” She turned away.
“Seline?” He didn’t know why he wanted to prolong the conversation, but her companionship had been comforting; maybe that was all. When she turned, her large ears facing him, he said, “How would I get to the Cathedral?”
She raised her eyebrows higher, and her mouth parted to show her large front incisors before she spoke even a word. “You keep it always in your sight and you walk toward it. When you come to the river, go to the bridge.”
“Uh. Thank you.”
This seemed to disconcert her; she turned and walked inside without another word.
Danilo scratched behind his ear, confused, and then looked around the back. He had assumed that he would be able to slip out a back door in the fence, but as he scanned it, no gaps appeared to his eyes. He eyed the restaurant door and the kitchen door, and then went back in through the restaurant.
Some of the diners turned to look at him, but Bertrand, though he growled, did not say anything, probably because Danilo was moving quickly toward the exit. He got to the door and out into the street, where the cathedral rose up before him, far beyond the wooden houses and red clay roofs of the city around him. He took a breath and began walking toward it.
With the sun higher, the city streets warmed below his paws, and the smells of the city assaulted him with renewed vigor. Down one street, piles of refuse created a miasma that everyone avoided; down another, the smells of fresh cheese competed with the tinge of rancid milk; in a crowd of people, Danilo was acutely aware of how uncommon bathing was in this time. But he watched the clothing around him, listened to how people talked and what they talked about, and at least tried to apply what little he’d actually studied of psychology.
When people talked to each other, most often he heard about the weather, food, or health, and always God was a part of it. “God’s sent us a fine day,” a rabbit said to her companion. “God willing the wheat hasn’t soured,” a fox carrying a sack over his shoulder said to another fox he met in the street—a brother, perhaps. “God keep you,” he heard upon many partings.
Danilo practiced some of the phrases to himself, repeating them over and over. He wasn’t used to mentioning God at all, let alone every other sentence, and Luc and Théodore had used the Lord’s name sparingly as well, but if he were to be working with the Church, this might be a useful habit to acquire. He murmured to himself, “God willing,” and “God grant it,” and “thanks to God,” and looked up to find himself at the edge of a busy street, where horses pulled carts in both directions and people scampered between them. And on the other side of the street lay the Saone. Danilo made his way over to the riverbank and looked down.
In the daylight, the water still appeared a murky, ugly brown. As he watched, a weasel lugged a sack to the edge and emptied its contents into the river—garbage, not a body, Danilo was relieved to see. The weasel hurried back and out of sight, but his or her actions were being repeated at several points along the bank.
The only bridge visible spanned the river about a half kilometer to Danilo’s left—quarter mile, he chided himself. They didn’t have the metric system in 1508. Between here and there, stairs led down to the bank: the stairs he’d climbed with Luc and Théodore yesterday. (Was it only yesterday?) He walked slowly toward them, keeping an eye on the river, as if perhaps someone else from his time might emerge from it.
That, he thought, would be the second-best thing to actually going back to 2008. To have company, someone else as bewildered as he was to whom he could serve as guide, someone else who might have an idea of how to get back to the year they belonged in. But though he kept close watch, nobody else emerged gasping from the thick brown sludge of the river.
The stones of the bridge looked old, which Danilo accepted as natural until he remembered, again, that he was five hundred years in the past. How old must this bridge be? A hundred years? Two hundred? He walked across, wondering how skilled ancient bridge-builders were, but the bridge held. Partway across, he stopped and stared down. If he were to jump in, would he drown? Would he re-emerge in 2008?
He would have to try it sometime. It was his only clue to how this had happened, and apart from asking the Bishop about miracles, he had no other ideas about how to get back. But he would not jump in broad daylight, and not from the height of a bridge. As if to underscore this decision, the cathedral bells tolled, drawing his attention back to the shining colossus. He left off looking down and made his way to the opposite bank.
Here, fewer buildings blocked the view of the cathedral, which in consequence looked even more magnificent. It towered over the city, gleaming white in the sun with gold atop the decorative spires that topped it, the immense building stretching behind the two towers toward the river.
The street he walked led to a large plaza in front of the cathedral, and as he came around its side and the front came into view, Danilo stopped to stare.
What had appeared to be two towers from the back were integrated into one broad, solid face at the front of the building. Between the towers, a triangular section of the wall rose to a point topped by a cross, and below that, the cathedral’s stained-glass rosette spread. From the bottom of the rosette, the triangular pattern was repeated, spreading to encompass the layered arches over the wide front doors. To either side of the front doors, smaller triangles topped smaller doors. The main archway reminded him of the one at St. Nizier’s, but everything else about the Cathedral was at least twice as large, and St. Nizier’s was not a small church.
Danilo had visited the cathedral in his century, or at least he had walked around it with Taye. This cathedral, though the structure was the same, felt so different that they might not have been the same building. Leaving aside the neighboring buildings, the way people walked around the cathedral here showed much more reverence and awe. In his time, to gawk at the cathedral was the province of tourists, while locals and jaded college students admired it with a much more world-weary air: this is lovely, of course, but have you seen the cathedral at Cartes-Belles? And of course there is Notre-Dame de Lutèce, and then Beckett’s and the Abbey in Anglia…
Here in 1508, probably none of the people here had seen another building this majestic in their lives, and their reverence showed even when they weren’t looking at it. People entering the plaza often crossed themselves, and walked more slowly than they did on the other streets of Tigue. Danilo, caught in the crowd, matched their pace, and much as forcing a smile can make you a little happier, slowing his pace instilled in him some of the awe the people around him felt.
Only the large front doors were open, and only a small amount. There might be services going on inside; Danilo couldn’t tell, because the plaza outside the church was filled with small carts and beggars, calling out loudly. Paws reached out as he walked past them, much as the people outside the Church of St. Nizier had. Danilo edged away, copying the example of the other people who walked by without acknowledging them. Still, he’d thought homeless people in 2008 were bad; here in the sixteenth century, the homeless were not merely unwashed. Here a fox stared up out of a single milky-white eye, a gruesome scar where the other had been, his fur greying, one ear little more than a nubbly mass of scar tissue; there a deer sat reaching out with his one arm, one leg curled under him, dirty cloths wrapped around the stumps of the other arm and leg and a crutch beside him; farther along, a pair of weasels sat on a filthy cloth, their fur falling out in patches, dried blood showing on the white throats and chest of both.
Danilo averted his eyes from the horrible sights, and at that moment the doors of the Cathedral opened. A small group of people—two wolves, a sheep, a mouse, and a weasel walked out, talking quietly among themselves. The wolves crossed themselves as they left.
More people began to stream out, so Danilo thought it would be all right to go in and look around. A plainly-dressed rat walked in past the exiting crowd, and Danilo followed his lead. He slid through the doors, stepped forward, and looked up.
The ceiling rose up above him, impossibly high, gothic arches rising to meet above the entrance and continuing on down the nave to the crossing and the transept. Near midday, the sun lit both east and west faces, so the apse and small rosette Danilo faced, far at the eastern end, shone almost as brightly as the rosette over his head. Stained-glass saints looked down on him, tiger and fox, wolf and deer, sheep and otter. On the lower story of the cathedral, the stained glass sparkled in kaleidoscope patterns.
Before him, rows of polished oak pews stretched, many still occupied with kneeling figures. Around them, people gathered in small groups, conversing. As Danilo stood, blinking his eyes in the surprisingly bright cathedral, the people nearest him fell silent. They watched him walk around to one side of the church, and then their conversation resumed in his wake. He was certain they were talking about him, that somehow he had made a mistake that showed he didn’t belong here.
Yesterday that would have sent him into a crippling spiral of anxiety. Today he walked off the discomfort, told himself it was merely that he was an unusual color and species, and lost himself in the grandeur of the cathedral. Coming from the simple buildings outside, Danilo couldn’t stop himself from touching the marble and marveling at its smoothness. Because the cathedral looked almost the same as it had in 2008 (only much newer), if Danilo looked only at the walls, the glass, the reliefs, he could imagine that he was back in his own time, strolling through the cathedral, that the people around him held cameras instead of rosaries, that the smoky smell in the air was from a nearby fire rather than the candles lit all around, that the strong smells of the people around him were simply tourists who hadn’t bathed. He barely noticed the roughness of the tunic on his fur now; it might be just a cheap shirt he’d bought on sale.
The one place where the knot of people did not disperse drew him, because towering over the people at a height of maybe ten meters was the clock.
Above the crowd of people, the clock faces showed fifteen minutes to noon. Elaborate sculptures rose above the clock, figures standing around and below a carved archway on each side of the column. High above, as though it were a real tower made for two-foot-high people, a bronze cupola rose, and atop that, a smaller cupola.
He took a step toward it and then looked toward the front of the church, twenty meters away. There the priest stood, a slow-moving fox in black robes with a stole around his neck. He was speaking to two people and then gestured behind him, where a figure in white robes emerged from the shadows to stand in the light of the rosette.
Danilo’s breath caught in his chest. The white-robed figure towered over the fox, and the white of the robe caught the light, so the black-furred muzzle was still difficult to distinguish. But his black tail was a wolf’s tail, and then a cloud went over the sun and the light on his robe dimmed just as he turned and met Danilo’s eyes across the church.
The wolf looked down again almost immediately. His paw landed on the priest’s shoulder, and he laughed, as demurely as befitted a member of the clergy. Danilo stared at him a moment longer and then stepped backwards, or tried to; the crowd around the clock was growing thicker, and people were moving toward it. He struggled and managed to move around behind the clock, telling himself he was being stupid. It wasn’t Georg. There must be a hundred black wolves; he’d seen one on the way here, he remembered, and that one hadn’t been Georg. This one was far away; that was all.
But perhaps just seeing a maybe-familiar muzzle in a church brought back his worries from the morning and his conversation with Anita. He tried to push his way backwards, and a rabbit elbowed him. “Leaving before noon? Come, stay, it’s a marvel.”
Of course the clock would do something special at noon. Danilo vaguely recalled it from his tour of the city, one of those “we’ll have to come back at the right time later” kind of things. But here it would be something truly special—perhaps miraculous.
Five minutes to go. While waiting, he studied the sculptures. An angel, a fox or wolf with wings and a kindly expression, held an hourglass. A rabbit and a deer, above that angel, stood near bells, and a third angel around the front held a small wand. High above, in the cupola, Danilo thought there might be other figures, but the shadows hid them from his gaze.
Around him, people talked amongst themselves, and sometimes his ears caught words like “white tiger,” but the conversations ebbed and flowed, and when someone said, “a disgrace,” he didn’t know if it was about him any more than the person who said, “a wonder,” or “inspired by God.” Though that person was most likely talking about the clock.
Danilo wished he had someone to talk to. Taye, or Orwin, or his sister…but that road threatened to remind him of his past—his future—and undermine his calm. So he looked around, smiled politely at the people who met his eye, and then stared ahead with everyone else as the clock whirred and the cathedral fell silent.
The angel holding the hourglass moved, turned the glass over in its paws. The angel around the front, a badger, waved its wand, and the rabbit and deer angels began to strike the bells. A carol, not one Danilo recognized, but he was entranced by the display. After just a day cut off from modern technologies, the whirring automatons on the clock felt marvelous to him.
A panel opened, and another angel emerged, waving to the crowd. Someone next to Danilo pointed up, and he lifted his head to the cupolas. From the topmost, a dove descended along a track, and the fact that he could see the track didn’t make it any less magical. And the cupola below it opened to reveal a bed of clouds and a leonine figure in white robes blessing the people below Him.
The opening was toward the front of the clock, around the side from where Danilo was. Craning his neck to see it, along with those around him, he noticed the white-robed black wolf, watching the clock as intently as everyone else. The tiger ducked back, watching the automatons move and then fall still as the carol ended and the twelve chimes of noon began.
They came from the clock, echoed by the cathedral bells above. A fox next to Danilo flattened her ears; her cub put paws over his. The sound of each toll reverberated through his bones, and he could think of nothing but counting to make sure there were twelve of them. His tail curled and uncurled and he lifted his head to the clock, which had stopped moving. God remained with his paws outstretched, the dove remained below, and the crowd held its breath through the twelve strokes. Here was a moment that Danilo felt was frozen in time, and stronger than ever was the feeling that if he shut his eyes, let the bells fill him, he might open his eyes again and find himself surrounded by cameras, designer clothes, electronic wiring.
But when he opened his eyes, there was no guardrail to keep people away from the clock, and the people around him smelled just as bad pressed together, and the marble and limestone in the church still gleamed brightly. The clouds had moved away from the sun, so both rosettes glowed above the stained glass.
Many people around him were crossing themselves, so Danilo did the same and shuffled out with them, keeping an eye over his shoulder for the wolf. The last he saw, the white-robed figure was on his way back to the altar, black tail held still and arched behind him.
Outside in the plaza, the beggars and merchants and low wooden buildings surrounded him again, and he looked up the hill to where the basilica stood in his day. Only low grey stone topped the hill, but it looked close and there were now two paths he could see to the top. Better yet, there were no people up there. Maybe this would be a good time to go up and investigate the ruins, get away from the tantalizing smells of the food he couldn’t have, away from the people who reminded him of his peculiar situation, and just look around. Maybe, he thought as he set out, he could find some old Roman coins and trade for a loaf of bread to bring back to Luc. That would make him feel useful. That would be something he could—
An arm seized his. He turned and saw a weasel, a foot shorter than him, staring up with sharp eyes and teeth bared. “You think I didn’t see you leaving the church?” he said.
Danilo tried to pull away, but the other held fast. “What?”
“You came out of Saint-Jean.” The weasel pushed him back toward one of the wooden buildings. The smell of lye tickled Danilo’s nose. “Don’t try to deny it.”
“I’m not. I was looking at the clock. I was—” He lifted his head to the passing crowd, trying to meet someone’s eyes. Nobody came to his aid. The people who did raise their heads looked away again quickly.
“Aye.” The weasel’s paw shot toward Danilo’s neck. The tiger flinched, but the paw grabbed only Luc’s scarf. “That’s why you wear this.” The weasel pulled it free and brandished it, snarling to show off a row of yellowed, blackened, and missing teeth. His sour breath assaulted Danilo’s nose.
Danilo gaped. “That?”
“Not yours, is it? Where did you get it? From Coumier?” The weasel brought the scarf to his nose and his eyes narrowed. “Otter. Who is it, church bastard?”
“Luc?” A pressure at Danilo’s stomach; he looked down to see a short blade in the weasel’s other paw, its point snagging his tunic. His voice rose an octave. “Luc’s a friend of mine, he, he gave it to me.”
Now the point pressed in farther, against his skin. He retreated and found himself against a house, the smell of lye growing stronger. His eyes traveled up past the weasel to the cathedral. Was it possible that people were killed here in the shadow of God’s miracle?
“ ‘Gave it,’ hah.” The weasel stepped forward again. “Just get yourself back in that alley and we’ll have the truth of it. You’ve taken this ‘Luc,’ have you?”
“Taken? I don’t know—” Danilo stepped backwards under the force of the weasel’s blade and then realized that if he stepped out of public view, that would be the end of things pretty quickly.
The end of things. He would die. If this were just a hallucination, that might mean he could wake up in his own time. But…if he weren’t hallucinating or dreaming, or even if he were, he might really die. The blade, the weasel’s presence and his foul breath, all this felt very real. He wasn’t willing to wager his life on a maybe, and he certainly wasn’t giving up enough to let himself die.
Along with this realization came the dawning understanding that he outweighed the weasel by at least fifty pounds, and even if he weren’t the most athletic of tigers—of any kind of people—he could probably shove a weasel down and run away.
The knife point tore through the tunic, poked into his flesh with a sharp, galvanizing pain. “Go on,” the weasel hissed.
Danilo took one more desperate look around. Nobody was paying him any attention. He had nowhere to turn for help but inside.
Instead of stepping backwards, he lurched forward, trying to go around the knife. Pressure stopped him, as though he’d snagged his tunic; a moment later he felt a sear of pain. Still, the weasel was taken by surprise and staggered back, and Danilo helped him all the way to the ground with a shove to his shoulder. A moment later, he was sprinting across the plaza, heart pounding, fists clenched, his side burning.
Go and explore the city, indeed! What had he been thinking? He shouldn’t have taken Luc’s scarf, but how was he to know it was something special? And what was that weasel going on about, with the church and everything? It was all too confusing, and as he ran, now people took notice of him, with calls of “Ho, slow down there,” and “what’s on your tail, son?”
He slowed but didn’t stop, not all the way back to the bridge, where he hurried to the middle and stayed there, watching the end. He could see the weasel coming from here, and he would know if he were being chased any farther.
Of course, he remembered as he saw his paws on the railing, there weren’t many white tigers in Tigue. The weasel was going to find him again whether he waited here on the bridge or walked up to the ruins or went back to the Repos. Hell, he stood half a foot taller than most people here anyway—stupid twenty-first century food and medicine.
As the minutes passed and no weasel appeared at the end of the bridge (at least, none brandishing a beige scarf), Danilo’s breathing evened. He spared glances again for the Saone below him and the cathedral, and as he gazed across the cathedral’s majestic walls, stained glass, and towers, a thought came to him. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, now that panic and adrenaline were ebbing, so much so that his paws shook and he had to grip the railing. Only hunger, he told himself, only hunger, because if he had a panic attack here in the middle of Tigue, he wasn’t sure he would be able to recover from it. He needed to get food, somehow. He could work in another kitchen to pay for a meal; did someone just walk in and offer to work for food?
Wait. There was someone in this city who was well-disposed toward him, and he knew where she was.
The story continues in part 2.