Art Pact 70

I had rarely seen an animal so finely bred as that catite. Although the distribution of limbs still looked strange to my Earth-attuned sensibilities, it was hard to think of it as anything other than a beauty. The long stretch of the spine, softly covered in the grey signaling down, curved to a gentle degree that (had it been part of a human's back) would have been undoubtedly erotic. Indeed, in (I must stress) a non-sexual way I did feel the stirrings of passion in my abdomen.

On either side of the creature's back three legs stretched out, packed with slender muscle and admitting of no fat, although I had no doubt that it had packed somewhere in its body a prodigal store of energy that would permit the four hours of running which the vendor promised. As was common to the thoroughbred lines the right flank was the sparse one: two legs at the front of the creature, one at the rear. The left flank was the compact flank, bearing three legs grouped together in the middle. The enter left limb was the coddling leg, with which a wild catite would once have born its child to its belly one an extended journey. But the breeding process had so stretched and elasticated the animal's spine that there was plenty of room for the leg to be used in running, giving the creature 20% more traction than its wild relatives, a grand advantage for the olden-days hunters who rode these beasts on the chase.

Each leg (save the coddling leg) was padded. A wide band of leathery flesh covered the centre of the feet, sitting just behind the claw folders, the unique joints that allowed the creatures to remove the delicate points of their talons from any chance of touching the ground where they might at best be dulled - or, at worst, painfully shattered. The pads corresponded to the ends of the heavy forelimb bones, thick piles of cartilage beneath them shielding the exquisite honeycomb structure of those hidden supports from the forces involved in running. The limbs were upholstered in a brown velvet, darker than the grey down on the creature's torso and so soft to the touch that many a dead catite's leg-pelts were in use in the camp around me for swaddling children or for those most sensitive garments of the camp's womenfolk. I was only persuaded myself from reaching out to stroke the animal's hide by the firm warnings from the vendor that such rash behaviour before we had been properly introduced might well result in the loss of my arm to the animal's mistrust.

The coddling leg, more delicate in the manner of a monkey's paw, and with no claw folders to protect the stubby (but still deadly sharp) talons that bedecked it, had no natural pad (although comparison of the bred and wild versions of catites, I was told, would show that the running surface was far more resilient in the thoroughbred than in his natural cousin), and so was shod in a heavy leather bag, stuffed with dried hay and sealed firmly so that it would not break (I was assured) until at least a month's hard riding had occurred. (I was at the time skeptical about such claims, although I am pleased to report that my pessimism was unfounded, and indeed I did not have to refit the animal's shoe until my return to the capital, which was three months later by the moon).

At the rear of the animal was the turned-under tail of a desert catite, perhaps the one visible sign of that strain's ancestry in the modern creature. Elsewhere it looked like a plain animal (save for the stretched torso), but the tail was pure desert: short and with the bone plates just visible under the skin when it tucked it below its body. In the old days, the salesman told me in his unctuous manner, the tail plates had been held up by the harness, a tendon or two having been severed behind the rear right leg to allow it to be held behind the rider as a shield against arrows. I found it hard to believe that such cruelty could have been commonplace, but the sheer brutality of the concept of arrows sufficed to convince me that in those days different rules applied.

Finally, at the head end, the noble long face of the creature contained the two enormous eyes with their multitude of different lids and lenses that constantly flicked in and out of place, trying to assess me more thoroughly as I was assessing it. It showed me its teeth - needle-sharp and as long as my little finger - but made no attempt to growl any displeasure at the sight of me. I was pleased that the animal was not only as well-bred physically as it appeared, but well-endowed with that perspicacity that would allow it to recognised my own breeding as equal to its own.

"I'll take it," I informed the salesman.


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