Two tigers guard the City of Ananias at night.
The city of Ananias was bathed in the lilac of a coming dawn, casting the stone buildings in an ethereal glow. Balthazar padded slowly along the cobbled road with Imma beside him. It was only a few more streets until the two tigers would reach the barracks and be able to pass on their duties to the next set of guards. Balthazar was more than ready for rest.
“Hey!” A small voice called from behind them.
The tigers dipped her agile shoulders as they turned to look at the rat scuttling towards them.
“Zechariah, what are you doing up at this time?” Balthazar asked.
Zechariah stood up on his back feet and wrung his little pink hands.
“It is quite awful Sir Balthazar.”
They waited for him to continue, but his black pinprick eyes only stared. Balthazar cast an amber eye to Imma willing her to suggest they keep walking on, but her pursed black lips and the shaking tufts of white fur on her chin betrayed her repressed giggles.
“Yes?” Balthazar asked, “What is it?”
“Someone thought it funny to block my pantry with a rock. I can’t get to my cheese.”
Zechariah’s whiskered nose twitched in response.
“This can wait.” Balthazar said, continuing his path to bed. For every leisurely step he took Zechariah took a frantic dozen.
“Please Balthazar!” He panted, “I need a snack.”
Imma brushed up against Balthazar. “Come on, Bal,” She said, “It will only take a moment.”
“Fine.” He growled.
And so the trio trotted back the same path they had just come.
It wasn’t that Balthazar didn’t like the night shift. In fact it was his favourite time to guard Ananias. He liked how the deep purple and navy sky studded with constellations set the backdrop to the blackened spires and golden clocks of the city, which were set aglow by the orange fires of the streetlights. Every evening the monkeys would climb the metal poles with matchboxes strapped to their backs, fling open the glass lanterns, strike a match and light the oil within. Opposable thumbs had their uses in a city built for humans.
The rat and the tigers came to the doorless cottage and stepped in. When the last of the humans had either left or murdered each other to extinction all the animals had gathered to discuss how to run the city now it belonged to them. One of the first things they had decided was the bulls would charge down all the doors. It wasn’t fair to keep them when only a few animals could use them.
This cottage itself only partly belonged to Zechariah. A family of deer were the main inhabitants, but most animals allowed rats and mice and other small creatures to live in the floorboards and between the walls. As such, Balthazar stepped on rugs where he could. He didn’t want the clipping of his claws on the hardwood floors to wake the sleepers.
They came to a point in the hallway where indeed there was a rock pressed up against a hole in the wall, one too big for a rat to deal with. Balthazar lifted a heavy paw and flicked it away like it was a ball of string.
“Is that all?”
“Yes, Sir Balthazar! Thank you, Sir Balthazar!” Zechariah repeatedly bowed so deeply his whiskers brushed the floor, “Thank you, Lady Imma!”
The tigers declined offers of camembert and returned to the streets to continue their journey to the barracks.
“We could’ve been home already.” Balthazar said.
“It’s been an uneventful night anyway,” Imma smiled. “Might as well do some good.”
“I like uneventful.”
She laughed. “No you don’t! You miss when vampires used to attack.”
Vampires lived in the gnarled woodlands beyond the city walls alongside the witches and other monsters. They’d stopped attacking the city once they’d realised there were no humans left. Animal blood didn’t serve their tastes. Balthazar often wondered if the humans who had abandoned the city had survived the wilds.
They were coming close to the barracks and Balthazar could almost smell his linen bedsheets, but a large figure loomed.
“Late night or early morning?” Imma called out.
The elephant Jezebel dipped her trunk into a glass pipe that bubbled away.
“Time is an illusion” She said with a puff of smoke.
Jezebel sat outside the stable she called home on plush patterned rugs surrounded by candlesticks drizzling wax. The candlelight twinkled in the earrings that studded her drooping ears.
“How goes it?” Jezebel’s deep voice crooned slowly.
Imma chatted away. Balthazar never understood how she could still be so bubbly having worked all night. This could take a while, so he lay on the pavement. Just as his eyes started to flutter closed foxes came running into the square, tripping over themselves. The stag gang charged behind them with steel points on the tips of their antlers. Balthazar jumped up on his feet and Imma was close behind. They pounced over the foxes and as Balthazar landed he roared. Imma squealed as an antler dug into her side. Balthazar swiped at a stag and watched as his paws painted red streaks in the matted brown hide. He tackled the stag down and bit into his leg – only to maim, not kill. The square filled with other guards, including their captain the bear Lazarus. Together they made quick work of the gang.
The square was filled with injured bodies but the fight was over. Imma lay panting, a deep hole in her stripped fur. “How’s that for uneventful?” She said, blood dripping from her smile.
Lazarus approached Balthazar. “Good work,” He said, “I’ll get Imma to the medics. Consider yourself off duty.”
It was the words Balthazar had been wanting to hear the last two hours, but he looked down at his blood-soaked fur and knew a visit to the marble bathhouse with its milky steam was needed before he could rest at last. Those clean linen sheets would have to wait.