In the hours of early morning, before the sun’s peak began skimming the horizon, Khaasta awakened from her gentle doze and went to prowl the perimeter of their family home. She stalked the neighbouring grassland and planted steppes, searching for anything that might interest and serve as an early morning meal. It was her usual time for being alone; the early hours provided her with the voer she required for hunting, and the want of any other predators in the immediate region left her as an unchallenged predator. There was no one else about: the whole of Mhavaledhran was still lying under the governance of its nightly sloom. The famers, though possibly awake, still kept to their beds and homes before sunrise, the other hunters who could have ruined her sport were still dormant in their tents, all the Mivaari and Themari who were usually the first to obey the summons of morning hymns were still in their temples. A few gentle cries emanated from the nurseries, where cradles trembled at the sounds of their masters calling their caretakers toward them, Ankhimari began managing about their infirmaries, the traders sat in their homes waiting for the first of the morning frigates to come in, and while the skies were still dark and the stars still glimmerous under the early hour’s obfuscation, Khaasta crept down the principle walk and surveyed her surroundings.
Though large cats of the islands often hunted together at night, Khaasta had learned at a young age to hunt alone the morning; her attachment to Leraa and the desire to always be with him kept her away from the forests in the evenings. Abandoned by her family when only a cub and left to the mercy of the Endari, she had long since learned to relinquish those instincts which her species cherished, and ever since Rautu first removed her from the hunter’s trap, and ever since she had been given over to Leraa’s care, she delighted more in spending the chief of the day at Leraa’s side than she did skulking about the forests alone. She followed him as he made his rounds, walked with him everywhere, ate with him at communal meals, played with him and the Mivaari on his visits to the temples, and when they ended their day and spent time at home, she sat at his feet or lay at his side, her head resting on his lap, her tail coiled around his arm. She slept when Leraa slept and remained at his side throughout the night, until intuition roused her and called her to inspect the front step or sit in the path, to glory in the soft glow of the moon and relish the coruscating stars hovering overhead. She knew what they were—any light hanging pendulously was enough to interest her—but she still observed them with marked curiosity, wondering if they should ever come down and allow themselves to be caught. All her happiness was in and around their home, and with Leraa safe within and the purlieu without quiet and unreserved, Khaasta padded toward the forest, pleased at any rate to have the wilderness all to herself.
The seclusion and uncertainty of the dense vegetation under the power of crowded canopies and limited light was everything to tempt Khaasta out of her learned timidity and into her predatory aspect. She melded into the underbrush and stalked her quarries, crouching under broad succulent leaves, watching her murine prey, and loping after those that were sensible enough to avoid her path. She caught a few mallomys, and when she was satisfied, she left the forest for the neighbouring steppes, settling the high grass and perching over a ledge, preparing to attack her prey below. Field mice and ground squirrels swarmed the steppes, and after a few minutes spent stalking through the blades, she sprang down, smashing a few heads as she descended. She batted her kills between her paws, giving in to that playful sense of cruelty that often accompanies the animal realm, and once she was satisfied with herself, she ate what she caught and turned back toward the house. She returned to the front path when a sound suddenly caught her ear: someone was moving about the house. Her limbs straightened, her head turned, and her ears flicked back and forth, following familiar footfalls. Leraa was awake, he was walking about the front room, gathering the basin and some water for a short bath, preparing for his daily walk round the islands. They always patrolled the animal sanctuaries together before moving on with the more pressing duties of the day; governing his people was all very well, but animals were very much part of Leraa’s his life and part of the islands, and the peaceable agreement between the two species inhabiting a restricted space must be kept: the Haanta must remain confined to certain areas, and the animals must be given their due consideration and rights as first inhabitants, and Leraa as Hasaan Omaa must set them the example. The protected animals of the islands were forever in his heart, and when everyone saw him walking through the capital with Khaasta at his side, no one could question where his allegiances lay.
The skies soon relinquished their evening habits, giving way to the studied luminescence of morning, the empyreal expanse improving with the first intimations of sunlight, and all the noctivagant inhabitants of the islands began returning to their homes: young grass serpents divigated toward their warrens, colonies of bats glided to their caves, sedges of night bitterns hastened back to their nests, husks of grassland hares hopped toward their burrows, eels wambled into the algae beds, and as the morning rays penetrated the eastern skies, Khaasta went down to the water, to wait for her companion and watch the continual recession of the tide. She sat at the shoreline, resting her haunches on the wet sand, looking out at a varying scene: the schools of small loaches swimming against the pull of the waves, the clouds of nearby gnats dissipating as the warmth of morning arrived, the vibrant blur of caribs fluttering down from high boughs, the brilliant blooms unfurling their petals and bowing to the dawn. The clouds retreated from view as the sun invaded, the brume of a humid clime grazed the horizon, and the ebb of the seas drew the barm ashore, pooling between Khaasta’s toes. Aurora arrived at last, bringing with it clear skies and aurulent hues, the celestial gradient that the islands were used to see every morning this time of the year. Khaasta bellowed and yawned and shook her head, her ears clapping against her in a series of quick flaps, and her tongue hung languidly out the side of her mouth as she watched a flock of swallow-tailed mews kite after one another overhead. She purred happily to herself, spying the red crabs scuttling across the sand with sanguine interest, patting at the clam holes beneath her, and lapping up the algae that washed ashore. It was a lovely prospect everywhere she looked, and Leraa coming to join her, the presence of her doting companion, was all that was wanting to make the morning perfect. Presently she heard a sound from the house, but while her ears detected the thump of familiar steps approaching, she did not look round; she was staring at the sea, her eyes wide with fervent curiosity, her attention claimed by the gentle rote of the waves, the broad hem of the sea, the vacancy and infinity of the horizon.