Here are two of my favourite characters so far, perhaps even as much as Bucket. I'm not sure how the hardass skycourier and the little feline shamus figure into the wider story yet, but they're great to write. They bicker so beautifully, I could listen to them for hours.
Thorn White was gritty and greasy inside her flying suit. Koskant's subtropical climate meant that unless you were high up in the air, it was uncomfortably hot – but if you were high up in the air, you wanted the suit, all right. Her traditional Montanusi vest, sheepskin with the wool on the inside, was worn backwards for flying, so the fastenings were where she couldn't easily reach them while leading her skyhorse, The Zephyr, back to his stable. She paused, though, to unhook at least the top toggle. There was a wind, and it kept whipping the white scarf attached to the back of her helmet which protected her face while in flight. It bashed annoyingly against her hand as she fumbled with the fastening.
The Zephyr whickered, and stretched out his nose towards a nearby shadow, and Thorn noticed a small black cat sitting neatly on its haunches in the shade cast by the corner of a wall.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” replied the cat, and she started and almost dropped the reins.
“You're a talking cat,” she said.
“That's very good,” said the cat. “I'm a cat, I'm talking – I must be a talking cat. You humans. No getting anything past you.”
“Sarcastic wee beastie,” she muttered.
“I heard that. We have very good hearing,” said the cat.
Thorn had heard of the talking cats of Joria, but she had never expected to find one in Koskant. “So what's your name?” she asked.
“Midnight,” the cat replied. “Skyport Midnight, they call me. I know yours. You're Thorn White.”
“Oh, I'm well-known in the talking cat community, am I?”
“Now who's being sarcastic? No, but you're well-known at the skyport, and I make it my business to know what there is to know around here.”
“Oh, do you. Well, pleased as I am to meet you, Mister Cat, I have to get The Zephyr stabled and washed down and fed before he chills.” She tugged on the reins to get the skyhorse moving again, and he stirred his now-folded white wings a little and followed meekly, glancing sideways at the cat. The white skyhorses of Montanus are incurably curious. Like cats, thought Thorn.
“I'll come with you,” remarked Midnight, uncurling his tail from around his feet, and stalked after them uninvited.
He jumped up on the side of The Zephyr's stall and watched owlishly while Thorn fed the horse, wiped him down and brushed his brilliant white coat.
“I hear you were in a fight last night,” Midnight remarked suddenly.
“You hear that, do you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And from whom might you have heard it?”
“Oh, just around and about,” said the cat airily. “I hear you won.”
“That's one interpretation,” muttered the sky-courier.
“Come now, all opponents down and not a mark on you? Sounds like winning,” said the cat.
“Not having the fight in the first place would have been winning,” she said. “I don't like to use my stun-beamer. I especially don't like to use it in my favourite bar.”
“Well, but two out-of-control elves, what were you going to do?”
“You're remarkably well-informed.”
“Yes, well. I might have met those elves earlier in the evening.”
“Might you just.”
“Yes, it was probably them. Tall one and a medium one, at least, medium for elves? Tall one had a dark tabard, couldn't tell in the twilight if it was blue or green.”
“It was blue. Where did you see them?”
“Here at the skyport. They were looking for a place to eat.”
“How do you know?”
“I heard them harassing old Brook. Talking Elvish to him. Now, of course, Brook no more knows Elvish than he does higher mathematics, so they weren't getting far.”
“I'll bet. It can be slow going when you talk to him in Tenus.”
“That's true. But he feeds me sometimes, and towards people who feed me I feel a certain...” he paused, trying to find the right word.
“Affection?” she suggested. He eyed her with a hint of contempt. “Loyalty? Oh, silly me, you're a cat.”
“A certain interest. So I wandered over.”
“Did you now.”
“Yes, and by this time they were talking pidgin House-Elvish, slowly and loudly. 'We want eat. You boy show where?' Didn't make any difference, of course.”
“You understood them?”
“Part of the talking cat spell. I understand everyone.”
“How convenient. So what happened next?” She was going over the skyhorse's wings now, checking for loose primaries.
“Well, they started getting abusive, calling him a 'stupid wog', and I thought they might hit him, so I decided to play with them a little. I whispered to Brook in Tenus, 'Back into the shadows a bit'. Didn't want them to see his mouth wasn't moving. And then I gave them directions to Thunder's.”
“You sent two aggressive elves into my favourite bar? Do you know about Thunder's obsession?”
“The whole elves-sacrificed-my-ancestor thing? It seemed appropriate at the time.”
She glared at him. “I wanted a quiet drink.”
“You got free drinks.”
“I can pay for my drinks. I like them quiet.”
“I can't help your preferences,” the cat said unconcernedly. “They had it coming to them, in my opinion. And thanks to you, they ended up with well-deserved headaches, no permanent damage, and Thunder didn't kill anyone with that club of his that he keeps behind the bar.”
“Were you watching?” she accused.
“I may have strolled in that direction.”
“By pure coincidence, of course. Do you know how scathing the portmaster was to me this morning? You nearly caused a diplomatic incident.”
“No, the elves nearly caused a diplomatic incident. You averted one. I was just an interested bystander.”
“Wretched little beast,” she said, but without much real heat. It sounded like the elves had had it coming, after all. She hadn't understood their demands to be served, of course, and nor had Thunder, but he'd picked up on the tone. She fingered her stunbeamer, a dwarfmade device of brass and crystal with a handle and trigger at one end and a polished opal at the other, which amplified her relatively minor magical talent of Domination and enabled her to knock out anyone who tried to interfere with her courier duties. She wasn't supposed to use it off-duty in a bar fight.
The little cat had made a lot of trouble for her, and was obviously unrepentant, but in the larger picture it was probably the best outcome there was going to be in a scenario that started with two elves with a bad attitude coming off their skyship and wandering intoGulfport.
The skyship had moved on this morning, anyway, headed south, so that was all right.
Midnight started washing himself and purring. She wouldn't ever tell him, of course, but he was a cute wee beastie and she couldn't stay angry with him.
She noticed how sleek he was, and the roundness of his belly as he washed it. “So, it looks like the talking cat hustle is going pretty well, Mr Fat Cat. Must be your charming personality. A lot of people feed you besides old Brook, do they?”
“Actually,” said the cat with dignity, “I’m self-supporting.”
Thorn laughed out loud. “Doing what?”
He stopped washing and looked her in the eye. “I play the harp in a street band,” he said, straight-faced.
“You support yourself with your comedy act?”
“No, in all seriousness, I’m a private inquiry agent.”
“You’re a cat!”
“Which makes me ideally suited to be a private inquiry agent. Especially,” he pointed out, “at night.”
“Wait on though. How do you handle money?”
“I don’t. I have an arrangement.”
“What kind of an arrangement?”
The cat sighed. “There’s an honest fishmonger two streets away, all right? He runs an account for me. My clients pay into it.”
“You charge in fish?”
“I charge in silver, same as you. But I get fish. Since fish is what I want, everyone’s happy.”
“Including your clients?”
“Especially my clients. I have an enviable reputation. Internationally,” he added.
“Meaning you used to run the same scam in Joria?”
“No scam. But yes, I did. Came here on a case, actually, and decided to stay after it was wrapped up. See, in Joria everyone expects a cat to talk, so they watch what they say around you. Here, it’s easier.”
“And you’re all in favour of easier, right?”
“Of course. I’m a cat.”
Thorn had to admit – to herself – that it made sense. The little cat was about ten inches tall at the shoulder, jet black all over and had silent feet, which were pretty good qualifications for a stealthy investigator. He could understand what anyone said, too, which had to help.
“So, you working on anything at the moment?”
“My clients expect, and receive, confidential service.”
“You’ve practiced that one, haven’t you? Hey, am I under investigation?”
“I’d hardly tell you if you were.”
After a brief moment of paranoid introspection, Thorn decided that the cat was just messing with her.
“Dangerous business to interfere with a Montanusi courier captain,” she said. Two could play at that game.
Midnight just stared at her briefly and expressionlessly, and went back to washing his paw.