For a thing like a crypsid, thirteen years is longer than it seems. Thirteen years, thirteen winters of bitter cold, one famine, one fire and three floods. And five emperors - five Golden Dragons with crimson claws, absolute rulers corrupted absolutely, and each one lesser than the one before him, down to the newest and youngest and most terrible, he of the dreadful name and the cloth of red that no one else is allowed to wear. One hundred and eighteen days into his reign, seventy six new edicts have been issued, and twenty two of them carry penalties of death or worse, and human tongues whisper condemnations more forceful and more hushed by the day. But none of these laws mean anything to a crypsid.

Laws are for humans and other things close to human hearts. Laws are for pets, for houses, for townships. Calico is none of those things. She is not even part of the crypsid world. She lives in a society of three, an impenetrable trinity. Everyone and everything else is outside forever.

There is her, and Whisper, and Hush. There was one other before Hush came along, but Jezi was old and frail, and now he is dead. There were only two of them for a long time, Calico and Whisper slipping in and out of shadows in the Ruined Quarter, finding things that had been lost or abandoned (or left unguarded, which was much the same thing to them) and selling them for whatever they could get from Suriya, the only fence who would deal with their kind. It was a lonely time, harder than most, and not only for Calico and Whisper but for all of Shaltan, for it was a time of famine.

And one day Whisper found someone even more alone than them, a rat child living in a ruined house on crumbs and ferocity. And something passed between them, some moment of private understanding linking cat to rat forever.

And Calico came back to find what had happened to Whisper, and found him talking quietly to the little ratling.

Whisper looked up with pitiful expectation in his face, and said with whiskers trembling, “he’s got nowhere to go, Cali.”

And she saw immediately how it was between the two of them, and said only, “that little thing? He’ll slow us down. He’s not Jezi, you know.”

“I know he’s not Jezi, Cali. Don’t be stupid.”

He had never called her stupid before. No one had ever called her stupid before. People had called Whisper stupid, and worse, and she had made every one of them pay for insulting the cat who thought he was her brother. She looked at him, and considered, and said, “he’d better pull his own weight. I’m not slowing down for him, or making any allowances.”

And that was Hush. The name was Whisper’s idea, of course, a derivation of his own epithet. Calico knew that the ratling had another name, but he understood Whisper better than any outsider ever had, and he took the name with pride and love. And soon she found that her worries had been unfounded, for Hush was as quick as a candle flame and as quiet as a shadow, and he had a nose for valuable artifacts. He was a natural thief, and if he had known about the underground society they lived on the outskirts of, he would never have needed their help to survive. But he did need them for one thing - one rare treasure, lesser imitations of which were often traded as a commodity but were never worth half as much as the genuine article. He needed them for love.

Whisper’s love was as important to him as food and warmth. He had a need for it that only those who have been utterly unloved could understand. And Whisper gave it to him unconditionally, endlessly, and in every other manner perfectly, so he stayed with them even after he had made the contacts and learned the rendezvous points and the going rates for trinkets and luxuries.

And their trinity was complete once more, and no outsider could ever infiltrate it, nor did any want to.

Until Charcoal came.