Snow trickles into the barn, blown by winds grown suddenly gentle after gusting all night. You can hear the sound of festivities from the castle: the humans are preparing to welcome in another year with dances and great spreads of food and drink and embraces when the clock strikes twelve. There's no clock in the barn, but you'll know exactly when the year slips over: the sense of potential will build as the minutes tick down and then be gone again until next year.
You turn away from the cold, feeling it despite the lushness of your fur. Your joints ache as you move and you want nothing more than to go up to the castle and lie in front of the kitchen stove, but you're expected down here. Kittens and half-grown cats circle around you, their tails up in the universal cat-sign of friendliness, their hopeful faces beaming silent messages of: "Choose me. Choose me."
It's New Year's Eve, the night you can choose to change, and there are more candidates than last year even with the storm.
They look so appealing--they feel even more so with their spirits strong and their energy high. You can barely remember your first incarnation, when you jumped at the least sound, your back arched, your tail like the sword you're known for carrying.
You don't carry it anymore--and you think that disappoints the clowder. They know your body is worn and scarred and that it's time.
Truth to tell, it's long past.
Lilac meets your eyes and her look is knowing as she glances at one young cat in particular--a lithe buff tabby with stunning turquoise eyes. Tulip is her son. She has prepared him despite the cost to her and her bloodline.
To be the vessel of "the Puss" is an honor, after all.
Your boots hang with your sword, just above the shelf you like to sleep on, the one that gets sun no matter the season. It's been so long since you last wore them, when you fooled an ogre and a king and made your person rich and loved. A favor he never forgot nor did his heirs--the care of the estate cats is written into every will. You'll always have a home here even if the latest marquis doesn't know it's really the famous "Puss" in this old gray body.
You were a brown tabby when you wore the boots. You've been so many other colors before and since: a longhaired white, a black and white shorthair, solid black, silver striped, even once the seal brown and tan of a cat from the exotic east. In the early days you preferred to be striped, to mimic the wildcat and take advantage of its natural camouflage when you went into battle. It's been some time since you battled anything more dangerous than a rat. But you could fight again, if you choose the change. Your body wears out, but your soul--your gift of language and cunning--does not. All your experiences comes with you when you jump to a new vessel.
You have no idea how it works. It just does. Probably a fairy somewhere was behind it. Everything seems to happen because of them.
The kittens dance and mock-fight with each other, and they raise dust that makes you sneeze.
"Bless you, great one." Tulip walks over, his stance assured. He knows he's the most likely choice to be your new vessel. He will consider it an honor to die for you.
"Walk with me," you say, and he stays close, his head bumping against yours in a way few who know you ever dare.
You love this cat. Have loved him since he threw himself between you and a garden snake, his kitten body puffed, his half-saber tail up in perfect battle-cat form. Neither you nor Lilac had the heart to tell him the snake wasn't venomous. Let him think he saved you.
This is his last year to be eligible. You only take the youngest, those under two. Before life has begun to mean too much, before they get attached to other cats and people and even dogs and horses and other mean creatures. It's a rule you've made for yourself: if you must steal bodies to fulfill whatever strange destiny demands you remain on this Earth, you will do so with as little damage as possible.
The cats whose bodies you take move on and get another chance, or so you assume. You cannot bear the thought that you've robbed them completely of life. None have ever come back to tell you it is or is not so, but perhaps they incarnate somewhere else, far from their old bodies.
"I stand ready," Tulip says, and his voice doesn't shake as some of the other candidates' have over the years.
You cannot in all fairness deny him. If you choose, you must choose him. If you refuse him, he will challenge whomever you do choose, and you don't think any can stand against him.
But you don't have to choose. You should have changed last New Years, mere months after he "saved" you from the snake. But you couldn't bear to. Even if everything in you said it was time, that your current body was nearly useless to you. Even then Tulip was the best candidate, young and green though he was.
You walk without talking, and he keeps up easily, not hanging back the customary head length. You always seek him out when you visit the barn, and all the other cats know he's your friend, and with that title comes great honor.
You know he considers you a friend, too. You have not, over the lifetime, had many of those. Loss is a hard thing if you can never escape the cycle of the seasons, so you've learned to keep to yourself.
Lilac managed to creep past your defenses; it's little wonder her son has too.
"I can last another year," you murmur. Normally there is no discussion. You choose or you do not.
"You can't last." Tulip's voice is strong, his faith resolute. He thinks he wants this.
You imagine the kittens he will father, Fine, strong, and brave. Beautiful like he is. Cunning like his mother. You, in his body, could never replicate that.
You're a terrible father. You've learned this over the lifetimes. But is it heartless to not want to get too close to a kitten you may eventually kill? Even if it's for destiny's sake? You've stopped fathering litters on the estate and go far afield for that sort of pleasure. Or did--your wandering days are over for now.
"I'm not dead yet," you mutter and Tulip sniffs, derision clear.
He's never been afraid to speak plainly.
"What is there to fight anymore--to be strong for?" you ask. "There's peace in the land and our human is respected and treats us well. I can afford to wait another year."
"So that you don't have to take me?" He slaps at you, and you would push him under your paw and hold his head to the straw as the Puss should any cat who dares offer such disrespect, but you lack the strength.
You do stop walking. You turn and glare, fixing him with the stony expression that's made more than one tom roll and show his belly.
Tulip only looks angrier. "What happens to you if your body wears out? You can only make the change on this night."
You've considered this. "Then I will die. As maybe I'm meant to."
"You're not meant to. You're the Puss." Tulip sits and stares at the ground. "I am the right choice."
"I know. That doesn't mean I will choose you." You turn and leave him, walking to the door and staring out at the snow that's drifted up against the side of the barn. In a young body, you would bound through the white fluff up to the banquet hall to steal food from the great table. In this body, you will feel the cold like fire on your paws if you try to make the walk tonight.
You feel a presence at your side and can smell Lilac, her sweet scent filling your nose. "Are you going to lecture me, too?" you ask her, sounding as surly as any ancient tom.
"No. It's possible I knew you would do this." She digs daintily at the snow. "The time draws close."
You can hear the candidates muttering. You should have announced your choice--even if it was no choice--by now.
You nuzzle her gently, then turn to them. In your best voice you say, "I will keep this body another year."
You see relief on the faces of some of the cats who will cycle out of eligibility. You see confusion and disappointment and maybe gratitude for more time on the faces of the others.
On Tulip's face, you see only anger. He stalks to you, hissing at the others until they scatter to the far reaches of the barn and only Lilac remains. "You will die. And everything you are, everything you mean, will be lost."
You dip your head down and rest it under his chin. It's a sign of appeasement, the only one you can give him.
Because he's right. Everything you are might be lost. But it occurs to you that undergoing change after change may have robbed you of what all these others live with daily.
The beautiful uncertainty of life.
Tulip presses his chin down and you can feel his purr--but it isn't a sound of happiness; it's one of self soothing. He's upset. With you, with a future he did not expect to have, possibly with himself for not being more convincing.
"Stay with me," you whisper. "Learn from me. If I die before the next change, you will be my replacement and will pass on what I know to others. If I last till next year, then after the change you'll still be my friend, and we can chase each other through the snow." It's the one thing you wish you could do tonight.
Play. Be young. Be strong.
You're giving that up and you feel the sense of destiny hammering at you, but you ignore it.
Not this time. Not this one.
The kittens hover at the edges of the barn, as if you might change your mind. Tulip stays close, too, but you see resignation in his eyes.
Lilac however, lies down in the deep straw and folds her paws underneath her. She gives you a long, deep eye-blink of love--and gratitude, you think--as the New Year dawns around you.
Bio: Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. She has work published by: Nature, Flame Tree Press’s Murder Mayhem and Dystopia Utopia anthologies, Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Grimdark, and others. She recently caught the editing bug and has just finished ing her third anthology for an independent press. See more at http://www.gerrileen.com.