The first humans he could remember coming upon were the mad Lurlinists. Brrr spied on them from behind screens of bracken. They dabbled in heathen rituals. Smoke and incense, singing in minor thirds. That sort of thing. He'd deduced language from them, language of a sort: an orotund pitch derived from religious prosody. Somewhat off—putting, as it turned out. It hadn't helped him to act the part of an alley cat later on, when he'd wanted to flee into the demimonde.
But he had loved the contrapuntality of discussion even before he quite understood that words possessed dedicated meanings. Eavesdropping on two travelers arguing over which way to go: savory plum nectar to him, blanket and kisses and mother's milk to him. The lilt of human voices in conversation, the nasal sonority, the fermata silences—he learned to hold himself very still in dappled shadows for the reward of it. Rhythm and tempo came first, vocabulary followed—but he never practiced, except to himself in secret bowers. As a young Cat he was still larger than a human, and if he spoke stupidly he might identify himself as nothing but a big lummox.
How had he survived his early years? He'd eaten nothing but forest turnips, shallots, the pinker of the edible fungus. He'd stalked human travelers and eavesdropped on their campfire chats to try to pick up anything that approximated street smarts, though he didn't even know what streets were yet. Watching occasional romantic exercises in the firelight, he'd learned more. Not that he'd been able to put theory into practice very often. More's the pity.
"Your childhood," said Yackle coaxingly, as if she could smell his thoughts. As if she could sniff out those passages he hadn't chosen to retail at drinks parties.
Her words lulled him. The past, even a bitter past, is usually more pungent than the present, or at least better organized in the mind.