June 18-19, 2006

Disclaimer: not endorsed by the Pegasus SPCA. Written for thefourthvine, prompt: variety pack. Beta by Arduinna and Mary Crawford. Do not archive without permission.

Suburban consumption rituals

It had been a very strenuous day at work, and ar-Prezk felt quite proud of himself for remembering he had to swing past the pet market before he drove through the toll station. He parked at the riverside corner, as near to ar-Muktu's pens as he could get. Stepping out of his floater, he sneezed four times, and had to use his tail to steady himself against the floater. ar-Prezk looked around quickly, but no one appeared to have noticed him do it. The smell from the river got worse every thaw-season. Projecting a resolute air of I meant to do that, he went to find ar-Muktu.

Most of the pens and cages were empty, so ar-Muktu must have had a good day. He came hurrying up to greet ar-Prezk, looking self-satisfied and not too badly groomed for someone who'd been in a dusty marketplace all day.

"Honored magistrate! What can my humble establishment offer you on this auspicious day?"

ar-Prezk twitched his whiskers. "Knock it off," he said. "I've had a long day. I need something for my daughter's birthday, and I want something different this time; when I gave her those flossy-maned ponies last year, she complained for days because everyone had those already."

"Aah." ar-Muktu twitched his whiskers right back. "Well, you're in luck — I've got something at the back here that you don't see every day."

ar-Prezk followed ar-Muktu past a pen of sleek black longhorns and a few cages of birds so calm they had to be overdrugged. "And nothing too high-maintenance," he added. "Those star-skinned lizards two years ago completely refused to eat the pet food you sent along unless we mixed it with raw egg yolks."

"Here!" ar-Muktu gestured at the last cage in the row. "Completely unique — your daughter will be the envy of all her friends with these pets."

ar-Prezk leaned closer. "They're bald!" He flattened his ears. "Are you trying to sell me pets so sick their fur is falling out?"

"Of course not," ar-Muktu said, and ar-Prezk saw a tiny twitch of his tail-tip. "You said you wanted something different. They're supposed to be mostly bald, except for those patches on their heads and around the genitals. Really, you could say that one," he pointed, "is so hairy he's practically non-standard for the breed — not that he's not still a valuable specimen of his kind," he added quickly.

"They aren't moving. Are they asleep?" ar-Prezk tapped the bars of the cage. "Or sick."

"A little tired out from the heat," ar-Muktu said. He pushed a lever on the side of the cage, and fresh water poured into the water trough. All four stirred, looked at ar-Muktu and ar-Prezk for a moment, and made a few noises to each other before going over to drink.

The noises were quite pleasant, ar-Prezk thought. At least these pets didn't scream like hysterical birds. He reached in through the bars to pet the one with the most well-groomed head-fur, and the largest one instantly lifted its head from the water trough and pushed its way in front, sending a spray of water drops over ar-Prezk's paw.

He pulled his paw back and shook the water off it. "Why is that one showing its teeth? Is that a sign of aggression with this species? I'm not giving my daughter anything that might bite her, who knows what kind of filthy disease she might pick up from these—"

"No, no." ar-Muktu shifted his weight and drooped his ears for a moment. "It merely wants to be petted, too. They show their teeth in submission and friendship. It's in the user's handbook," he added, holding up a flimsy leaflet. "Look, do you want them or not? I'm closing up now, there's a night hunt out at Crooked Tree Hill."

ar-Prezk looked them over. The sleekest and most well-groomed one was the smallest, clearly the runt of the litter. The biggest, sturdiest one was also the most unkempt, its fur hanging in odd clumps, and he still wasn't sure that teeth-baring gesture meant submission. The one that came closest to having decent fur didn't seem to take good care of it, and was rather too scrawny besides; the one with a bit of meat on its bones, making the most noise, was also the baldest of the lot, and all that pale naked skin was off-putting.

"Do I get a better price if I take all four?"

"Of course you understand that rare pets like these aren't cheap," ar-Muktu said. "Your daughter will be the envy of her friends!"

"No one else has bought them, and you want to close up and leave." ar-Prezk swivelled one ear pointedly. The noise of the marketplace was far from its mid-day din.

ar-Muktu's whiskers drooped. "If you buy three, you'll get the fourth one free. Only because it's you, mind. That would make it eighteen foils."



"They aren't toxic, are they? When the star-skinned lizards died, we couldn't even eat them."

"No, no. Absolutely not toxic. In fact, they're said to be delicious if you barbecue them. Sixteen, and I'll throw in a recipe and some garlic and chow-nut sauce."

ar-Prezk ear-twitched his agreement. He was extremely fond of chow-nut sauce.

With the help of ar-Muktu's staff, ar-Prezk got the cage loaded on the back of his floater and securely strapped down. He dropped a little fruit in through the bars to keep the pets happy in transit, and took off. Out of the city, the air was cooler, and he set the floater to autopilot and drank a bit of water and groomed himself. By the time the floater slowed down at his exit, he felt much more comfortable.

si-Aram and ar-Dzip were waiting at the garage, playing in the branches of the balf tree. si-Aram dropped down as soon as the floater came to a halt. "Daddy! Welcome home, daddy!"

ar-Prezk licked her ear affectionately. "Who's my pretty girl? I brought you something for your birthday!"

ar-Dzip was already standing by the back of the floater. "They're bald," he said. "Gross."

"It's the very latest thing," ar-Prezk said, swatting his son on the back of the head. "You'll have to take very good care of them, now, si-Aram, because your mother and I won't feed them for you, and remember to clean out the cage!"

si-Aram bounced over to the cage. "Aw, they're so cute! Look at that little one, it's so adorable I could scream!"

"They aren't that cool," ar-Dzip said, tapping on the bars of the cage. "You think they eat jinja beans?" He tossed a few into the cage. The pets scrambled to pick them up, and started making noises.

"They're wonderful, daddy," si-Aram said. She reached in through the bars and tried petting the nearest one, the one with the most fur, and that made the noises louder. "Aw, I think this one likes having its tummy scritched."

ar-Prezk left his children playing with the pets, and went into the house to find si-Malkaya and something cool to drink. She was in a playful, welcoming mood, and they chased each other out the back of the house and around the garden for a little while, and then stopped under the loggia so he could groom the flower petals from her fur.

Just when she was biting the back of his neck, the house-door screeched open. "Daddy!" ar-Dzip whined. "Daddy, I'm hungry. And Rammie says—"

"Daddy!" si-Aram was right behing him. "Daddy, Zippy says he's going to eat one of my pets!"

ar-Prezk flicked the tip of his tail, just enough that his children saw it. "Those are si-Aram's pets. You can't eat them unless she says you may."

Next to him, si-Malkaya stretched and gave him a secret, wait-till-later glance. "I think we'll have dinner here in the garden. Rammie sweetie, if you help me get the food out, I'm sure ar-Dzip and your father will bring the pet cage here, and you can feed them the leftovers after we've finished eating."

si-Aram bounded up to her mother. She looked so sleek and trim and happy, ar-Prezk couldn't help but cuff her affectionately before he collected his son and took the outside path back to the front of the house. "I'll get a grav-pallet," ar-Dzip said, and together they got the cage onto the pallet and towed it slowly along the garden wall and through the back gate. Three of the pets sat in the center of the cage together, making quiet noises, but the littlest one came up to the bars and looked outside, as if it were studying ar-Dzip and ar-Prezk and the garden. It was really quite precious, ar-Prezk thought, and tossed it another jinja bean, which it caught in one paw. Perhaps they could be trained to do all kinds of little tricks.

They put the cage under a tree and went to have dinner. si-Malkaya served up all of si-Aram's favorite crunchy delicacies as well as the last of the frozen pony meat, and for dessert, she brought out a tray of marinated whickermice, still alive, their twitching noses and tails sticking out of the tiny marinade-packs. si-Aram hissed with delight and ripped her pack open, and started chasing her whickermouse through the garden.

"I know it's a little messy," si-Malkaya said, "but she is so very fond of them."

"And yours are always delicious," ar-Prezk said, tearing his own pack open. "You'll clean the sauce out of my fur later, won't you, dearest?"

ar-Dzip chased his mouse round and round the pet cage, until it ran into the cage and caused a bit of an uproar among the pets. Eventually, just as ar-Dzip had started to tug at the latch on the cage, the furriest pet managed to catch the mouse and push it out through the bars, and ar-Dzip pounced on it.

After finishing his own mouse, ar-Prezk sauntered over to the cage. The pets were making a lot of noise again, a quite harmonious rising and falling sound. They were standing by the water trough, and to ar-Prezk's surprise, they took water from the trough with their paws and put it on themselves, washing away the streaks of marinade the mouse had left on them. "What an odd way of grooming."

"I saw that one lick the one behind it, before," si-Aram said, bouncing next to him. "At least, I think so. But they have such tiny tongues, maybe it's hard for them. Daddy, may I take them out and play with them now?"

"Yes, as long as you keep the garden gate closed. Maybe you shouldn't take more than one or two out of the cage at a time — they could be faster than they look."

ar-Prezk went to sit on the steps to the loggia with si-Malkaya and watched as si-Aram brought the pets out. She started with the biggest one, and it did run a lot faster than its build suggested, although si-Aram was careful to catch it before it could go too far and get lost in the bushes. ar-Dzip joined in the game, too, popping up from around a tree or inside a clump of flowers to startle the pet and make it stumble and change its course. When the pet started to look overheated, si-Aram took it by the scruff of the neck and dipped it in the fountain to cool it off before dropping it back inside the cage.

The smallest pet didn't run quite so fast, but it was very agile, and quick to climb and hide. si-Aram stalked it twice across the garden, her tail twitching with delight, and ar-Prezk watched and tried to decide what was so odd about it all, but it was si-Malkaya who said, "Oh, how adorable — it's mimicking her and pretending to stalk her right back!"

si-Aram was beside herself with joy, and nuzzled the little pet thoroughly before dipping it, too, in the fountain. "This one's my favorite, daddy," she said. "Isn't it clever?"

ar-Dzip looked sulky. "I want to play, too."

"Maybe I'm bored now," si-Aram said, but she reached into the cage and brought out the two last pets at the same time, the pale, bald, noisy one and the furriest one.

The baldest one didn't run; instead it stood where si-Aram put it down, and tipped its head back, and made noise, on and on and on. si-Aram curled up in the grass and listened, and poked it a little with her paw when it seemed to grow quiet, and nosed at it, and finally licked it in sheer delight, which made it even noisier. Meanwhile, ar-Dzip chased the furry one, and it ran away from him, and then it stopped and turned around and ran straight at him, and he pretended to run away, and then stopped and turned around, and so on. When he grew bored, he took two long bounds and caught the pet, and dropped it in front of si-Aram next to the baldest one. It touched the baldest one quickly, with one paw, and then walked right up to si-Aram where she lay on the grass, and tucked its head under her jaw.

"Sweetie," si-Malkaya called from where she was draped over ar-Prezk, "it isn't biting you, is it?"

"I think it likes me," si-Aram said. "It's making noises, too." The baldest one took a few steps closer to si-Aram, waving its paws in the air and making more and more noise.

ar-Dzip dropped down behind the baldest one. "Maybe this one's sick and that's why it won't run."

si-Aram hissed at him. "Maybe it likes me. This one likes me." She nuzzled the furry one, which was pressed up close and seemed to be grooming her fur with its paws.

"Children." si-Malkaya stretched and rubbed herself subtly against ar-Prezk. "It's time for you to sleep."

They both objected, but si-Malkaya was firm, and si-Aram dipped her pets in the fountain even though one of them hadn't played chase at all, and dropped them back inside the cage. "Thank you, daddy," she said. "They're wonderful."

ar-Dzip hung over the cage. "They're all huddled together now, those two. You think they're going to mate?"

"Even if they are, you can't stay up and watch it," ar-Prezk said.

"Oh, I think that one just licked the bald one," si-Aram said. "Maybe they are going to mate."

"I think they're just wet and cold." si-Malkaya rose and padded over to the house door. "I'll bring them something to curl up in for the night."

ar-Dzip poked at the big unkempt one through the bars to make it move, and it swatted back at him with its silly little paws. The fourth or fifth time, he suddenly yanked his paw back out of the cage. "It scratched me! It scratched me with its claws!"

"Don't be absurd," ar-Prezk said. "It barely has any claws, just those little ornamental ones, and they can't possibly reach through your fur."

"It stings," ar-Dzip said, licking himself.

"You probably caught your paw on the jinja bean shells on the floor," si-Aram said. "Daddy, can I bring the cage into my room overnight? Please, daddy?"

"No, I don't think so," ar-Prezk said. "There's no room for it, not unless you move the bark-pillars out. We'll just leave it in the garden."

si-Aram's whiskers drooped, but she didn't argue. si-Malkaya came out with an old polishing rag and dropped it into the cage, and the pets immediately vanished into it, wrapping themselves up until all that was visible was a paw here and a tuft of hair there. "See, they know it's sleeptime," si-Malkaya said, and twined her tail winsomely around ar-Prezk's. "Let's go inside."

* * *

The next morning, ar-Prezk was woken by a yowl from outside the open window. He ran into the garden and found si-Aram by the pet cage. "Daddy!" she wailed. "Daddy, they're gone!"

The door to the pet cage was open; there was a long strip of cloth around the latch, a piece of the polishing rag, looped over one of the bars in the roof of the cage to give better leverage. "I'm sorry, sweetie," ar-Prezk said. "We'll hunt for them — I'll take the day off."

ar-Dzip chose to stay home and play with a friend, but ar-Prezk and si-Aram and si-Malkaya followed the scent of the pets for most of the day. It was amazing, really, how far they'd managed to come.

The scent-trail stopped in the woods, in a little glen, right by a patch of flattened grass about the size of a very large pet cage. "Rammie, sweetheart," si-Malkaya said, "I think someone else might have taken them."

si-Aram whined. "But I liked them so much!"

"Perhaps ar-Muktu will get some more like them," ar-Prezk said, nosing his daughter's ear.

But ar-Muktu never had any pets like that for sale again. The year after, si-Aram got paarpa cubs for her birthday instead, and she liked them even better than the bald pets; it was a whole week until she got bored enough to eat them.

* * *

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