Story (c) 2000 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. All other characters are (c) Hikaru Katayamma.  This story contains adult situations and language. By reading it the viewer agrees not to hold this or any other person responsible for any content they may find objectionable. If you don't like it, don't read it.

Identity Crisis
Act II
Chapter 11

In search of a good bath.

  I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. Sheila slept next to me, spooning me, his arm wrapped around my body. I tried to think of how many times we'd slept like this, our positions reversed, but I failed. I remembered my past, but it was like watching a film. You knew the events happened. You knew you were there. Some how they just didn't connect.

  My eyes wandered over to look out the windows. It was getting late in the afternoon by the look of the shadows outside. As I watched the clouds floating by I thought about what had happened. Like I told Sheila, I had been reborn. All of the pain, anger, hatred, anguish. It was all gone. Washed away. I no longer had a past that concerned me; only a future.

  I remembered Bjorn, and what he had done for me. He would always have a special place in my heart. Of all the people I had lost over the years, he was the one who came looking for me after I had died. I smiled as I thought about him. He would wait for us. I knew he would.

  Unable to sleep, I gently climbed out from under Sheila's arm and slid off the bed. My legs were weak and unsteady, but they were still able to support me. I held onto the bedpost holding up the canopy and looked around at the lavish decorations in the room. There was a large fireplace in the wall past the end of the bed, but since it was not yet winter, it sat unused. A ladies dressing table sat in one corner. A large, silvered mirror sat prominently above it, various combs and brushes adorning its surface. Tucked into a corner by the windows was a small desk with quill pens, inkpot and some type of stationary sitting at the ready. On the wall opposite the windows, by the door, was a large dresser and armoire.

  As I made my way over to the dressing table, I looked at myself in the mirror. My fur was a mess. Matted and, in places, stuck to the skin, I looked like I had been dragged through a ditch. I was, simply put, a mess. I resembled Sheila after one of Zig Zag's shoots. Correction, I was Sheila after one of Zig Zag's shoots.

  Inwardly groaning, I walked around the bed and over towards the armoire, only to pause at what I saw. Sheila's Tanto lay on the floor where I had knocked it out of his hand. Carefully bending over to pick up the dagger I felt the muscles in my back protest that they weren't fully healed. As I held it up to the light I saw that there was dried blood still on it. My blood. I paused for a moment to search my emotions, but I found myself strangely neutral. I looked at the blood I had spilled trying to kill myself, and I felt nothing. That disturbed me.

  Suddenly desiring to take proper care of the weapon, I looked around for the scabbard. Searching in the pile of clothes that Sheila had discarded on the floor I found the sheath and placed the dagger within. I would clean it next time I got near some water.

  Opening the armoire I saw that all of my dresses were there except the one they cut away when I was captured. There were several other comfortable looking dresses and what appeared to be a housecoat. Removing the housecoat, I examined it and saw that it hadn't been modified for me. That was all right, I could just keep my tail down.

  I donned the housecoat and tied it shut with the attached cloth strap. Satisfied that I wasn't going to give anyone a major heart attack, I picked up the Tanto and headed for the door.

  I opened the door slowly, trying to be quiet so as not to awaken Sheila. As I backed out of the room, pulling the door closed behind me, I was startled. "Beg your pardon, m'lady, but should you be up?" a deep voice asked. Not expecting this, I let out a small yip of surprise

  "Don't you know better than to scare a lady like that?" I asked breathlessly, paw held to my chest as my heart pounded. The man addressing me was an easy six-foot-four, muscular but with the beginnings of a slight paunch. He wore some type of uniform with cured leather armor under it, a long sword hanging at his side in a scabbard. Looking at his face I saw two piercing blue eyes that reminded me of the water off the coast of Acapulco. He was clean-shaven, his face framed with curly brown hair. The only thing to mar his appearance was the rippling of skin on the left side of his face where he had been burned at some time in the past.

  "I'm sorry, m'lady. It wasn't my intention to startle you," he said with a small bow. "Just what were you doing, skulking around my chambers anyway?" I asked, trying not to be put off by his prim and proper countenance. "I was assigned to guard you're door, m'lady. The Duchess ordered that you weren't to be disturbed," he explained.

  Well, if the Duchess ordered it I supposed I could let him off the hook. "I see. My apologies are in order then," I admitted, nodding my head. He held up his hand, shaking his head. "That's quite all right, m'lady. After what you have been through, it is expected that you would be a bit jumpy," he stated, refusing my apology. "However, I must say again that you should not be out of bed yet, m'lady. The healer has not given permission yet." I mumbled something under my breath about what the healer could do with his permission. I guess I muttered louder than I thought because I saw his brows go up slightly.

  "I'll tell you what I really need right now... Um... What's your name?" I asked, not remembering if he had told me. "Theolin, m'lady" he said by way of introduction. "Ah. Well, Theolin, in case they didn't tell you, I'm Arden, and I could really go for a bath right about now. Do you know where I can clean up?" I asked, my ears perked in anticipation as I eagerly awaited his answer.

  He started to reply, wanting to deny my request, but stopped. After thinking about it for a few seconds, he nodded. "Yes, m'lady. There are some hot springs under the castle, in the basement, "he finally admitted. "They are rather popular for people who wish to relax and clean up." Smiling, I stepped up beside him and snaked my arm around his. "Well, since you're supposed to be making sure nobody bothers me, how about showing me where these pools are?" I said with a wink.

  He looked at me for a second, totally unsure what to do with himself. Arching my brow, I batted my eyes at him, smiling. He rolled his eyes to the heavens, letting out a sigh. "As you wish, m'lady," he said, surrendering with grace.

  The walk down to the basement was a pleasant one. We descended down four flights of stairs, exiting in a large, well-decorated room. Tiles adorned the floor, walls and ceiling, reflecting the light from the mirrored lamps. The warmth and humidity caressed my fur as a breeze momentarily blew through the room. I could hear people talking and laughing as they bathed in the waters.

  "This way, m'lady," he said, leading me along a hanging cloth partition. About half way across the room we came to an opening. "If you will follow this to the left, m'lady, you'll come to the women's section of the baths. There should be towels in there as well as refreshments. You will find a servant who should be able to provide for any needs," he explained.

  "Thank you very much. Will you be hanging around here, Theo, or will you be going back to you're post?" I asked. He had to think about that for a second. "I had best check in with the commander of the watch. I will return afterwards, m'lady," he said, bowing to me. I gave him a smile and returned the bow before walking towards the women's side of the pools.

  Reaching the end of the cloth corridor I came around the corner to spot a large area with five pools. One huge central pool, easily capable of holding at least twenty bathers, was surrounded by four smaller ones, each more intimately-sized to hold about a half-dozen. Running from each of the pools was a trough that trickled water. Each pool was apparently filled by a submerged source, the overflow drained by a shallow trough that disappeared through an opening in the far wall.

  In the larger pool I saw five women who had been chatting. Their conversation ended with my appearance as all eyes turned my way. I put what I hopped was a pleasant smile on my face and walked over to where they were soaking.

  "Pardon me ladies, but may I join you?" I asked politely. Wide-eyed looks all around as they exchanged glances. The eldest of them, a pleasantly plump matron in her early forties, was the first to break the silence. "We would be honored for you to join us," she said pleasantly. A quick glance confirmed that two of the other four were scandalized by the invitation.

  I removed my Tanto, placing it on the ground followed as I took the housecoat off. I was about to fold it up when I felt a touch on my arm. It was one of the cats, the usual large metal collar around its neck. Never taking its eyes off of mine, it reached out and took the cloth from my hands.

  The spell was broken as the matronly woman clapped her hands. "That's quiet enough. Back to your station," she ordered. The cat immediately flattened its ears, bowing as it backed away.

  "Please don't mind them," she said. "Beasts really, they barely make reasonable servants." The shock of what she said stung. These people had been my friends. They were intelligent creatures and I didn't appreciate it.

  Closing my eyes for a second, I pushed the emotion down so it wouldn't ruin the mood. Slavery existed here and I would just have to deal with it. I don't think the Duke and Duchess would appreciate it if I started slaughtering their staff.

  Picking up the Tanto I stepped into the water, walking along the edge until I was at a point where I could see all of them, then I sat down, placing the Tanto nearby. I closed my eyes, enjoying the sensation of heat seeping into my muscles as I sank into the water. If I had been a cat, I would have purred.

  "I do think she likes it," I heard one of the young ones say, her giggling soon followed by the others. "Oh yah," I moaned loudly. "You can say that again. I haven't had a decent hot bath in quite a while," I admitted without reservation as I sank below the water. My ears twitched as the water quickly rose up to the tips, tickling them on the way up. Floating free in the water, my tail supporting me against the bottom, I heard the muffled voices of the women as they excitedly talked about me. From their conversation I could tell they didn't know I had once been human.

  After a minute or so, I felt myself becoming short of breath. With a small shove of my paws against the floor of the pool, I bounced up to the surface and floated back to the edge where I had sat. The women had stopped talking when I surfaced and showed no indication of resuming their discussion.

  Although thirsty from the heat, I decided against drinking the water in the bath and looked around for the cat that had taken my coat. She was squatting in the corner next to a table loaded with towels, drinking cups and a pitcher, our housecoats hanging on a tree. I thought about the words that RRRRan'eee had taught me and figured I'd give them a try.

  "Female" I said, "water bring." Her head popped up, ears at attention as she heard what I said. "Water bring," I said again, trying to make sure I got the inflection right. She had a look of amazement as I spoke to her. I was probably the first person not of her species ever to talk in her language.

  "What was that?" the youngest of the group asked. She was a petite girl about sixteen in age with short black hair and oriental looking eyes. "I asked her for water," I said returning my gaze to the cat. The cat confirmed what I had said with what English she knew, she stood and poured a cup of water. Careful not to spill it, she walked quickly over to the side of the pool and knelt, handing me the cup.

  As I took the cup I tried to remember if there was a word or phrase for "thank you" but failed. The only thing I could think of was that the cats used to rock their heads side to side when they accepted something from someone. Imitating that motion, I smiled as her eyes lit up. She was about to say something when she glanced at the others and decided not to. With a deep bow, she turned and walked back to her position in the corner, watching me intently.

  "Where did you learn to speak that... that... noise?" This came from one of the women I had tagged as "the opposition" before getting into the water. "I had the opportunity to learn their language while I was held in the mews," I stated slightly annoyed.

  "That's not a proper language," she stated in a matter of fact manner. "Learned scholars have tried to teach them the proper way to speak, but they're little more than dumb animals. Sure, they can recognize a few words, but even a dog can do that. They're just primitive, uncivilized beasts. We did them a favor taking them from the jungle and giving them good homes."

  The elderly matron got a concerned look in her eyes as my ears went back. "Uncivilized? Let's compare them to humans, shall we?" I asked as a rhetorical question. "I was captured by your stable master even though he knew I could speak and was no simple animal. Stripped of my clothes, bound and gagged, I was carried to the mews where I was shackled, muzzled and tossed in a small cell. That is, of course, after I had been whipped for not moving fast enough while hobbled."

  "They need the lash to learn, "she said, defending them. "They never use them to cause harm, just as a lesson." I ignored her and continued. "I was then taken from my cell to what can only be described as a bedroom; there my arms were chained to my throat and my legs freed. Then I was led over to the bed where I was forced, upon the threat of my lord's death, to submit to being raped," I stated, the last a snarl. As I watched they looked at me in disbelief. My opponent started to argue, but I cut her off. "Afterwards, I was kicked and my arm broken, then I was beaten unconscious. When I woke up my knees were tied to my elbows to prevent me from moving. My tail was pulled up over my back and lashed to my collar, and then I was raped by every man in the mews, some repeatedly."

  "I don't believe it," she declared. "Believe it!" I growled. "And when they were done with me they tossed me, still bound and unable to move, into a cell full of male cats which they fully expected would rape me!" I was pissed. My body half way out of the water, I found that I had moved towards the women. "But those uncivilized animals in the cage didn't rape me. They removed the ropes and chains that bound me. They cared for me. Tended to my wounds. And when the guards came to take me away, they fought to the death to keep them from me!" I was now yelling, my fangs exposed.

  My snarling face only inches from the now terrified woman who was the target of my wrath, I spoke in a dangerously low voice. "So tell me, human. If you were me, who would you say was the more civilized race? The human animals that beat and raped me, or the cats that tended my wounds and tried to protect me?"

  The woman sat frozen, her eyes wide with fear as I glared at her. "ENOUGH!" I heard yelled across the room. It was the Duchess, standing by the corner. The command in her voice combined with the look of anger she gave me was enough to break the moment and allow me to get control over my emotions. With a deep breath, I stood up and counted to ten, forcing my anger down. Now again in control, I forced my ears up and hackles down.

  "I apologize for disrupting the harmony of your home," I said formally, bowing deeply. I had allowed my anger to control me. The Duchess walked purposefully over to the pool, her maid following. "We understand your anger, and we feel it is well justified. However we cannot permit such uncontrolled outbursts. If you must discuss this, you must try to remain calm," she directed.

  The Duchess removed her robe, handed it to the maid and began to climb in. Reaching out, I gave her a hand in, ensuring that she wouldn't fall. "I understand, my lady. I won't allow it to happen again," I said, again bowing. As I turned to walk over to where I had sat, I heard a gasp from a couple of the women behind me.

  "My god, what happened to your back?" I heard the youngest ask. I ignored the question until I sat down. As I saw at the horrified look on my opposition's face I realized that she finally understood that what had happened to me was real. Even after the fur grew back to cover the whip-wounds on my back, I knew they would leave visible crisscross patterns, marks of my defiance that I would carry until I left this world.

  "That..." I said unenthusiastically, trying to find the words. "That is an example of just how civilized humans are when it comes to treating their slaves." My piece spoken, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, trying to release the anger their ignorance had evoked from within me.

Chapter 12