All characters are mine and not to be used without my explicit permission. All comments may be sent to conor0191@aol.com.

Kassan Must Die

 

Father

 

            Hanra laughed with glee as he counted the little cheetah cubs in front of him, all of their bodies limp. “Twelve, thirteen, fourteen little cubbies!” He looked up at his smiling partners, one a hyena like him, the other a lion. “I expect some cheetahs are going to be very unhappy tomorrow.”

            The lion, Nuj, was smiling as well. “Isn’t it a crying shame?”

            The other hyena, Plik, laughed stupidly. He was just barely smart enough to walk and talk at the same time, and even messed that up sometimes.  “Poor little cheetahs,” he said stupidly. “Dead, dead, dead!”

            “Oh, I just wish I could hear those mothers wailing in the morning,” said Nuj, barely able to keep from laughing with mirth at the thought. He saw a shadow suddenly appear across Hanra’s back and all happiness disappeared from his face. “Uh, Hanra? I think you should turn around niiiiice and slow and see what’s right behind you on that hill.”

            Hanra turned around, completely ignoring the nice and slow part. There, on the hill overlooking them, was the silhouette of a feline creature, the moon framing him perfectly. Then suddenly, the Shadow disappeared. “Nuj, take Plik and check it out.”

            “Course.” Nuj disappeared into the grass with Plik following behind him, Nuj’s claws sliding out. They really didn’t need this. It may have just been someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, or it could be someone spying on them. Either way, innocent or not, they had to die. Hanra felt shame about that. There was no need for non-cheetahs to die.

            Then, suddenly, he heard Plik’s laugh, cut short suddenly that sounded very much like someone having their throat slashed. He heard Nuj’s shout of “Plik? Plik!” Hanra felt his claws dig into the ground. He was scared. He wasn’t a fighter, despite what the little pile of lifeless forms behind him said. He was a coward. And he was scared. He slowly began to turn around, looking around the clearing he was in for anything that was coming for him. A flock of birds suddenly rose into the sky, Hanra turning to them. He heard a grunt from Nuj, then a sudden scream, cut off by a long, throaty, gasping sound.

            “Nuj?”

            Nuj’s body was propelled into the clearing. He had a slash across his face, and, from the bite marks in his throat, was quite obviously dead. Hanra began turning again, very, very scared. His heart beat in his chest. Every sound of the world seemed amplified. His breath came in short spurts. He didn’t want to die.

            A paw suddenly wrapped around him from behind, the Shadow pulling Hanra close by his neck. Hanra gasped. “Taka,” the Shadow whispered. He drew his claws swiftly across Hanra’s throat and let him fall to the ground, dead.

            The Shadow stayed there for a moment, breathing heavily, before his eyes settled on the cubs. It was even worse than he’d thought. The cubnappers hadn’t even had the decency to kill them quickly. They had played with them, torturing them. He lowered his eyes to the ground, feeling them fill with tears. It wasn’t right. None of them needed to die.

            A rustle in the grass was heard. The Shadow looked up suddenly. A cheetah cub stepped into the clearing. He was small, obviously scared. He looked up at the Shadow and gasped with fear. The Shadow looked at him with pity. “It’s alright. Come here.” He held up a foreleg in acceptance. The cub stepped toward him hesitantly, then, reassured by the Shadow’s smile, he walked over to him, weeping.

            “They were my sisters,” he cried.

            “I know,” said the Shadow sadly. “I know.”

            The two of them wept, the cub crying himself to sleep. He woke up slowly the next morning. The first thing he noticed was that the cubs were gone, and in their place were fourteen small markers. Then, suddenly, his eyes flicked to where the grass was rustling. A black tail was leaving the clearing. The Shadow was gone.

 

 

 

            Makini yawned. He’d changed since he’d left the Pridelands, the only physical changes being the dozens of small scars one got as a rogue. But in his head, he’d realized the world wasn’t as good of a place as he’d thought it to be. He so many animals were hurt, for no reason. He’d vowed to do something. He had done some things. But the world was a big place.

            Mataka stepped into the clearing with a carcass. He dropped it on the ground by Makini, just far enough away for him to have to get up for it. It was his little incentive. Mataka let out a huge yawn. “What a night. You should have been there. Couple of us almost got killed.”

            Makini smiled. “I thought you said that it was just negotiating for the job.”

            “Touchy negotiations.” Mataka took a bite out of the carcass and swallowed. “Why didn’t you come again?”

            “Had a late night. You know, other plans.”

            Mataka grinned with a personal joke. “Was there any loss of life or damage to property?”

            “Define life.”

            Mataka laughed. “Alright, fine, how about loss of innocence?”

            “Yes. Definitely.”

            “So, what was she like and can I expect to meet her any time soon?”

            “Who said I was talking about a she?”

            “Okay, I’m just gonna let that drop.”

            Makini smiled, knowing how his statement would disturb Mataka. “I was talking about a cub.”

            Mataka looked at him in disgust. “Too much information.” He shook his head, trying to get rid of the disturbing images. “Anyway, I found your hero. He’s here.”

            Makini looked up from the carcass he’d just walked over to happily. “Nasiha’s here?”

            “No, Gimpy.”

            Makini groaned. “I—do—not—gimp.”

            “Okay, it’s gotten a lot better. But you do limp. Just a little. So until that’s gone, ‘Gimpy.’”

            “Who is here?”

            “Kass.”

            Makini looked up from his bite in surprise. “Eezeer?”

            “Okay, I discovered a long time ago that it helps if you chew, swallow, and then talk.”

            Makini chewed, swallowed, and talked. “He’s here?”

            “Yes, he’s here. And last time I checked, the negotiations were still going. We’ve been at it all night, and they asked me to bring you. Only way I got here.”

            Makini stood up. “Let’s go.” They left the carcass almost untouched.

 

 

 

            Janja flicked his tail. He was waiting, as was Zoma. The only difference was that he was patient about it, and on his stomach. “I told you we shouldn’t have let him go,” said Zoma. “You know that Mataka will take his sweet time getting back.”

            “I trust Mataka. As do you.”

            “Yeah, but does Mataka trust us?”

            “Most likely.”

            “Most likely what? I mean, that could be yes, or that could be no. I mean, that—”

            Mataka emerged into the clearing. “Sorry we took so long. We had to wait a few minutes listening to your wonderful conversation.”

            “See?” said Zoma. “No trust at all.” Makini emerged into the clearing. “Hey there, pretty boy.” It was not said affectionately; it was said scornfully. “Took your time getting here, didn’t you?”

            “I—I’m sorry,” said Makini. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

            Zoma flipped over. “Just come when you’re called for, Blackie, and there won’t be a problem.” He walked into the grass. “I’ll get Kassan.”

            Makini turned to Mataka. “‘Blackie’? ‘Pretty boy’?”

            Janja laughed in his low, deep voice. “It is just Zoma’s way. I expect it is rather annoying.”

            “And you are—Janja, right?”

            “That is right,” said the large cheetah in his slow voice. It was obvious that he respected Makini. Janja respected everyone unless they gave him a reason not to.

            Zoma emerged from the grass, a leopard and a lion in tow. Makini drew himself up unconsciously. It wasn’t the lion, who, according to Mataka, was Darau, that Makini drew himself up for, or the cheetah Zoma. It was the leopard, Kassan. Kassan carried himself with sleek authority, his perfect body shaming all others there. As soon as he walked in, everyone seemed to take in a gasp of air. A flicker of love crossed Mataka’s face. That is, if love is hate-filled and vengeful. Then it was gone. Mataka walked over to him. “I brought him.”

            “Good,” said Kassan.

            Mataka lead him over to Makini. “Makini, this is Kassan. Kassan, Makini.” He didn’t notice Makini’s jaw slowly dropping open. “Oh, and Darau, and Zoma,” he said, gesturing toward the other two. He looked back at Makini. “Makini?”

            Makini was stunned. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Kassan smiled. Makini stared at him in disbelief. “Where the hell have you been?” he whispered.

            “I’m sorry?” said Kassan, his brow creasing.

            Makini took a step back, staring at the ground. “I can’t believe it.” He looked back up at Kassan. “You’re dead.”

            “I’m alive. Last time I checked, anyway.”

            Mataka finally noticed the similarity between the two, and kicked himself for not noticing it before. The same black pelt, the same eyes, the same elegant face, yet subtly different. “Dad?” asked Makini. Kassan didn’t say anything, just staring. Makini’s eyes slowly filled with realization.

            Makini clubbed Kassan across the face.

            Kassan took it, barely turning his head with the blow. “You left her!” Makini yelled. “You left Mom, you left me! Why the hell did you have to go and do that?!”

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Kassan quietly.

            “Like hell! You left us! Do you even know that Mom is dead?! You could have saved her!”

            “Makini, I think you don’t know what you’re—”

            Makini hit Kassan across the face again, not bothering to keep in his claws. “You left me! Do you have any idea how hard that was for me?! You said you loved me! You said you loved your son more than anything! How could you lie to me like that?!!” Makini stopped, his chest heaving with emotion. “I need to think. I need to think someplace quiet.” He disappeared into the grass.

            All of them looked at Kassan. Kassan stared where Makini had gone for a moment, then looked at Mataka. “Uh, I’m gonna go talk to him,” said Mataka. He disappeared into the grass. He followed a straight line, finally coming up behind Makini at a waterhole. Makini was simply staring at the water. “Is this a bad time?”

            Makini turned to look at Mataka. “Yes. This is a very bad time. Come here.” Mataka walked and sat next to him, staring into the water as well. He couldn’t imagine how much of a shock it was.

            “Want to talk about it?” he finally asked.

            It was all Makini had been waiting for. “How could he have done that? How the hell could have he just gone and done that?”

            Mataka thought it over. “I really don’t know. Do you?”

            “Don’t be stupid, Mataka. I know how he did it. But why? WHY, DAMN IT, WHY?!”

            “How did he do it?” Mataka finally asked quietly.

            Makini laughed bitterly. “It wasn’t anything special.” He turned to look Mataka straight in the face. “All we ever found of my father was a piece of his fur, on top of a skinned carcass. I didn’t even notice that the head, legs and tail were gone, and everything was the wrong proportions. I was just a cub. But you look the bastard over; you’ll find a bald spot. But, no, I was sure he was dead. I loved my father so much I didn’t eat for two days. I couldn’t.” He took in a long, shuddering breath and looked back down at the water. “I didn’t want to believe Sudi. He told me about Kassan’s stupid impulses. Do you have any idea what I am to him?” He didn’t bother to let Mataka respond. “I’m just some quick fix for him, some poor cub that got stuck with that bastard for a father. He doesn’t love me. He never loved me. And he never loved my mother. All he did was sleep with her, get her nice and pregnant, stayed a little, and then left. Gods, I hate him. Just imagine how many others there are like me.”

            “Are you sure he’s your father? There are a lot of leopards.”

            Makini turned to Mataka to stare at him again. “There was no one I idolized more than my father. I loved him completely. And—and he said he loved me. I loved him so much, Mataka. I know every bit of fur on his entire body; I have it etched in my head. It was all I had to remember him by. And now . . . now I find out that he’s been doing this.” Makini stared back down at the water, his eyes adding a little to the pool. “You have no idea how much it hurts.”

            There was a long pause. “Is there anything I can do?” Mataka asked gently.

            “No. I just want to see Nasiha again. I just want to go home. Now. I just need to know there’s something that son of a bitch hasn’t ruined completely.”

            Mataka nodded. “Alright. As soon as we can. As soon as we’re done here. I promise.”

 

 

 

            Mataka walked back to the group. They were talking about the job. It was a standard job, the kind that they usually were asked to do: kill someone. But just because it was a usual job didn’t make it easy. Mataka remembered a time he had been on a job for a whole month to overthrow a little kingdom. He had nearly left the job several times through impatience. Hopefully this one wouldn’t take so long. Besides, there were some of the best rogues here. The job would be taken care of quickly and efficiently. If they came up with a plan.

            The conversation stopped as Mataka walked into the clearing, all of them looking up at him. “What?” he asked.

            “Well?” asked Kassan. “How is he?”

            “Understandably pissed. Roll over.”

            “I beg your pardon?”

            “Roll over. Onto your back.”

            “Why?”

            “Just to see something.” Kassan did so slowly, staring at Mataka in confusion. Mataka looked over his stomach. There was no fur missing. “Well, it could have grown back,” he mused.

            “What could have?”

            “Fur.”

            “Yes, Mataka, fur can grow back. Now that you’ve learned that wonderful life lesson, may I please turn back over?”

            “Sure.”

            Kassan turned over. “Will he be alright?”

            “Oh, he’s just got this huge load of mental baggage. He’ll be fine.”

            “Do you really think so?”

            “Yeah.” Mataka lied down. “He’ll pull through.”

            “Will he be fine for the job, I mean.”

            All heads snapped to Kassan. Mataka couldn’t believe the callousness of the statement. “He’s your son, and you’re worried if he’ll be ready to do a job? He’s just had you shatter your entire figure. You were a god to him, Kass.”

            “He—is—not—my—son.”

            “And how would you know? You’ve mated with just about every animal on the planet, Kass. I can’t even begin to imagine how many animals you’ve made pregnant.”

            “He isn’t my son. I may be love-happy—” Mataka made a noise of disgust—“but that doesn’t mean I’m a horrible animal. If I did find someone to settle down with, I wouldn’t leave them. If I felt strongly enough about an animal to stay, I wouldn’t just leave.”

            “Oh, so it’s okay to leave dozens of cubs without a father, but not to leave someone if you feel like it? Plenty of those animals thought you would stay, Kass.”

            “Now is not the time to discuss my habits, Mataka. We—”

            “Now is a perfect time.”

            “We can discuss this alone,” said Kassan, glaring angrily. There was a bitter silence, the other animals staring at Kassan and Mataka.

            “I think we should just let it drop for now,” said Janja. “Don’t you agree, Darau?”

            “Oh, definitely,” said Darau. “Just leave it for later. We are on a bit of a schedule.”

            “Schedule?” asked Mataka. “The prince didn’t say anything about a schedule. I don’t do schedules.”

            “None of us do schedules,” said Zoma. “But apparently the prince’s accomplices think that we do. They’re getting—what was that phrase he used again?”

            “‘Rather annoyed,’” said Darau with a smile.

            “How much did you guys talk after I left to get Makini?” asked Mataka.

            “Oh, not too long,” said Janja. “But I think that the prince is frightened of someone.”

            “He’s scared of something?” asked Kassan skeptically. “He didn’t show—”

            “Kassan, I have told you, you do not look for the right things. You miss details. It is one of the fine distinctions between you and me.” Zoma smiled at the statement. He’d learned long ago not to try to match Janja when it came to details.

            “Well then, great Janja, what did I miss?”

            “The most obvious was how he kept looking at you. He was nervous around you. His tail kept flicking apprehensively; it did not have a smooth pattern. But most importantly was how his voice wavered. Just slightly. He has good control.”

            “So based on a few twitches, you think that he’s scared?”

            “Yes.”

            “Janja, he’s planning a revolution. Against his own father,” said Darau. “Don’t you think that’d be a bit scary? He makes his dad sound like a monster.”

            “It is possible that I am wrong,” said Janja humbly. “But I do not believe so.”

            “This schedule,” interrupted Mataka. “What about it?”

            “They want it done within the week,” said Zoma. “Or else they’ll think that we’re just trying to learn more to tip off the king.”

            “It’s a revolution,” said Mataka. “You don’t start those overnight.”

            “The prince did say he’d try to talk them out of it,” said Kassan.

            “Great. Just great. Do we know who the mysterious they are?”

            “Nope,” said Zoma.

            “I believe they are hyenas,” said Janja. Everyone stared at him.

            “Care to explain?” asked Darau.

            “He often had a note of derision when speaking about them. Royals do not like hyenas.” There was silence. Janja smiled. “Would you like to put my dinner up for a bet?”

            “Why not?” asked Darau.

            “Very well. I would prefer gazelle.”

            “Getting a little ahead of yourself, aren’t you?”

            “Not at all.”

            “Where’s Aisha?” interrupted Mataka.

            “She’s still on guard duty,” said Zoma. He stretched his body. “Want me to go replace her?” he asked Mataka with a grin.

            No.”

            “I’m sure she’d like to be with you.”

            “So do I. Now what’s the plan?”

            “Well, so far we just know that we’re supposed to wait until sunset,” said Darau. “Then we meet the prince again. He just gave us a time and a place. Said it came from them.”

            “Oh, goodie.” The animals looked at each other.

            “Well, I guess we’ll just meet back here near sunset,” said Kassan.

            “Yeah.”

            “Sounds good.”

            The group disbanded, Zoma with Janja, the rest of them going off on their own, Darau being the only one who remembered to tell Aisha she could stop standing watch.

 

 

 

Six Months Earlier

 

            Moyo sighed. He looked around Sheria. It was his home. His lands. Or rather, his father’s lands. Prince of Sheria. And possibly the most miserable animal in the lands. He didn’t walk as a prince should, with his head back and his body proud. He stood with his head hung in defeat. His whole life was a defeat. He may have been prince, but there was nothing that he could do in the kingdom to make a difference. His father ruled, not him. He was royalty only in title, a living disappointment to his father. He was expected to be strong, powerful, a firm leader, at least by his father’s standards. But Moyo didn’t have the heart to rule as he did. Such harsh punishments, such ruthless enforcement of the laws. Moyo was expected to live up to his father’s expectations: to rule with nothing else in mind.

            But he couldn’t.

            He wanted to make a difference, he wanted to rule, but not with the harsh, unforgiving rule his father imposed. His father loved justice, lived by justice, swore by justice. Moyo just wanted him to be fair. “But I am fair, Son,” he had said. “I rule by being fair.”

            “But what about mercy?” Moyo had asked. “Doesn’t a kingdom need that?”

            “Moyo, there are laws for a reason. They are not simple rules. They must not be bent or broken. They are justice.”

            “But Father—”

            “Son, I have explained this to you many times, yet you still believe there is a demand for mercy. The unjust will receive their punishment, and no less. Why do you want differently?”

            Moyo had bit his lip and looked away, finally leaving the den, looking back to see the king shaking his head, his great, proud, red mane waving with it. Moyo couldn’t stand up to him. He couldn’t tell him that he wanted him to show mercy for the one animal that he still had in the world that he considered family: his sister.

            She would have been beautiful, Moyo was sure, if it hadn’t been for her malady. For the lack of intelligence she possessed. The lionesses accepted her, but grudgingly. Moyo loved her, knowing she couldn’t help how she acted, how she spoke. It was something that had been there since birth, and wouldn’t go away any time soon. He spent hours with her, making her squeal in delight, telling her the simple stories that she would understand, feeling her gratitude.

            But he did nothing when his father hit her for her incompetence, for her utter lack of usefulness. She didn’t deserve to be treated that way, just for her stupidity. Just because she lacked intelligence didn’t mean that she should be the one that the king’s anger landed on. He was his daughter of all things, the princess.

            Moyo would go to her after his father had beaten her and would take her to the secluded waterhole, where he would treat her wounds, washing the blood off if it had been drawn, applying the soothing plants to where she had been hit. And he would make her laugh, make her smile, and she would say that she loved him in her small, childish voice: “I love Moyo.”

            There were times like this where he had to be alone. Times where he couldn’t take the stress that he lived under, the stress of being a failure to his father, of being the one who was responsible for his mother’s death in childbirth; the stress of loving his sister unconditionally, of taking care of her no matter what she did; the stress of having so many emotions pent up inside of him, the rage which he would never use, the sorrow which continually haunted him, the disappointment that his father projected from himself onto Moyo. Moyo couldn’t take it all. There were times like these where he had to be alone, or else he felt he would burst, times where he would go out into the savannah and have a good, long cry, half wishing that someone would find him and share his sorrow, the other half wanting to be alone with his agony.

            He was walking back to the den. His eyes still showed the signs of his weeping, being red-rimmed, slightly bloodshot from the long hours he spent awake, staring at the ceiling of the den, trying to find some way to make life better, hearing his sister’s breathing next to him. He didn’t want to go back to all of that. He felt as if his life was a nightmare from which he couldn’t escape, something he’d never wake up from.

            “You’re alone,” said a voice. He kept walking, smiling grimly. Now he was talking to himself. Yes, he was alone. Completely alone, in every sense of the term.

            “I want to help you.” Yes, that’d be nice. A chance to escape from life. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t thought of suicide. But he couldn’t leave his sister. She needed him so much.

            “Why do you keep walking?” Why do I? he thought bitterly. I’m going back to something I can never change, something that will never change.

            “Can’t you hear me?” Moyo smiled bitterly. Yes, he could hear the voice. After all, he was talking back, wasn’t he?

            “We can help each other. You’re taking that opportunity away with each step you take.” Moyo looked up, stopping. The savannah was clear, the night sky overhead just as clear as the savannah, the stars winking down at him from a moonless sky.

            “Is someone there?” he asked.

            There was a slight chuckle of laughter. “Yes. I am here.” Moyo looked around. He could see no one.

            “I’m talking to myself,” he muttered.

            “No. You’re talking to me. And I want to help you. I’m real.”

            “Then why can’t I see you?” demanded Moyo.

            “I hide very, very well.”

            “Show yourself!”

            There was a pause. “Well, I suppose there must be some trust involved. To your left.” Moyo turned to see a pair of eyes glinting in the light. “Yes. That’s me.”

            “What do you want?”

            “I said I want to help you. I’ve watched you so long. I’d dare say you’re in just as much agony as me.”

            “You’ve—watched me?”

            “Yes. And I admire you. You’re selfless. I can help you get what you want. A chance to rule. A chance to change things. I can help you get rid of your father—”

            “I don’t want to kill him. I just—I want to make him see things—my way.”

            A pause. “I imagine that that is possible. Removing him from the throne, and not killing him. But you would need allies. You can’t do this by yourself.”

            “Allies? Who?”

            “Others that are downtrodden like yourself. You already have me by your side. I can help you. I can get you aid from outside the kingdom.”

            “Why?”

            “I truly do want to ease your suffering. But I want to be honest with you, too. I think you can help me. You may not want someone dead, but I do. A filthy rogue.”

            “Who?”

            “His name is Kassan. And he took everything from me. He threw my whole life away with a job he accepted. There is nothing more that I want than to see him dead at my paws.” The animal spoke with vibrant passion.

            “You—you want me to kill him?”

            “No. But I can kill two gazelles with one leap. I can bring him here, and I will make sure that you are lifted up to the throne. The only price for my services is this: Kassan must die.”

            Moyo hesitated. He was being involved with murder if he did this. But the animal was so sincere, so eager to help him. He, too, suffered. They could help each other. They would help each other. “Alright,” said Moyo. “Tell me what to do.”

 

 

 

            Makini walked through the grass, reflecting on how conspicuously he stood out. A dot of black on a sea of gold. The grass was high enough around him to camouflage his stealthy movement from other land-based animals, but birds would pick him off far too easily. It was no wonder he preferred night work.

            He had gotten over most of the emotion that he had felt from the shock of discovering who his father was. He no longer needed to cry. It still hurt, though. He knew the hurt would never go away. He would be unable to forget how his father had told him he loved him, then snuck away. But Makini would cope with it. He still loved Kassan, however forced it might be. He was, after all, his father.

            Makini walked into the clearing that Mataka had told him to go to. It was near sunset. The animals should be coming back at any time. But so far, there was only Mataka in the clearing, alone with a lioness. Most lions would have relished being with a lioness that was that beautiful. Makini smiled. He knew how Mataka hated it.

            “Oh, look who it is,” said Mataka in the voice of an animal that was just looking for a change of subject. “Aisha, this is Makini. Makini, this is the devil.”

            Makini looked over Aisha. It was the first time he had actually seen her. She wasn’t the prettiest lioness, but she was close. Her lithe figure was padded with sinewy muscle. She had a smile on her face. Makini remembered all the things that Mataka had said about her. How she was annoying as hell, twice as ugly as she was annoying, and an idiot who couldn’t do anything without being told fourteen times. He could see that it obviously was not true. He stopped, staring at her. Her smile seemed to hit him with—something.

            She amiably pushed Mataka. “Like hell,” she said in a beautiful, ringing voice.

            “Exactly,” agreed Mataka. “You’re just like hell.”

            Aisha cuffed Mataka on the shoulder. “Don’t make me show you just how much like hell I can be.” She turned to look at Makini, studying him. “And you’re telling me you never saw any of Kass in him?”

            “Well . . .”

            “I mean, it’s bad enough that you didn’t notice the recessive pelt, but the eyes, and the height, and the ears—”

            “Alright! Enough!” yelled Mataka.

            Aisha laughed. She glanced over at Makini. “See, this is why he hates me. All because he can annoy anyone, but I can annoy him.”

            “It’s a dirty, filthy lie, Makini. Don’t believe a word of it.”

            “Dirty, filthy lie indeed.”

            “Mataka,” said Makini, “where are the others? They should have been here by now. What if they—”

            “Makini,” said Aisha, “chillax. There’s no point in getting worked up about anything.” She lied down on the ground again, her lazy attitude showing through.

            “But—”

            “You’re at an eleven. I need you at about a five.” Aisha smiled. “Seriously, there’s nothing to worry about. The rogues here are some of the best.”

            “Now this is one of the few times she’s right,” said Mataka. He shied away from a halfhearted swipe from Aisha.

            “But doesn’t it make you wonder how the prince got all of us here in the same place?” asked Makini.

            “Not really,” said Aisha.

            “Do you even bother to wonder about anything?” asked Mataka. The halfhearted swipe didn’t miss that time. “Ouch!”

            “Plenty of things. Such as what made you so reluctant to be with me all of a sudden.”

            “I’ve never liked you.”

            “That’s not what you said when I got you alone at night.” Aisha smiled evilly. “Wouldn’t you love to just do that again? I would.”

            “No. That is a final, flat no.”

            “And you still won’t tell me why not,” she mock-pouted.

            “You want fun, go to Darau.”

            “That’s no answer.”

            “No, it isn’t.”

            “Come on, Mataka. You didn’t use to care. Why now?”

            “That’s my own reason.”

            “Mataka,” interrupted Makini, “don’t you think it’d be best to just get her off your back once and for all? Tell her everything?”

            “And never get a moment’s peace? I don’t think so.”

            “Mataka,” said Aisha, “if it’s any consolation, you’re sure as hell not going to get any peace now.”

            “What a wonderful thing to know,” grumbled Mataka.

            Aisha got up and lied down next to him, leaning into him. “So what is it?”

            “What’s what?”

            “Oh, come on, Mataka. You know what. You used to have plenty of fun. I’m almost surprised it was you chewing out Kass.”

            “How caustic can you get? Makini’s right there.”

            “Oh, no, I’m enjoying this,” said Makini with a smile.

            Mataka shook his head. “Great. Now I’ve got you enjoying yourself at my expense, too. Wonderful.”

            “We wouldn’t be doing this if you’d just tell me,” said Aisha sweetly. Mataka mumbled something. “What was that?”

            “I said you’d give me even more hell.”

            “Oh, then it has to be good.”

            Mataka was silent, obviously arguing with himself. “You can’t tell anyone,” he finally said quietly.

            “Maybe,” taunted Aisha.

            “I mean this, Aisha. No one.”

            “Fine,” she sighed. “I promise.”

            “I’ve got a mate.”

            “What?” Aisha’s head perked up. “Did I hear you correctly?”

            “I have a mate. So I’m not going to be any fun for you anymore.”

            “Mataka . . . well, I wasn’t expecting this.” She shrugged and rolled onto her back. “Oh, well.”

            “‘Oh well?!’” burst out Mataka. “I just told you that, and you just tell me ‘oh well?!’”

            “Well, it explains why you were so ticked at Kassan today.”

            “You’re not going to chew me out? Not even poke me here and there?”

            “Nope. I understand.”

            “You do?” asked Makini and Mataka simultaneously.

            “Yes,” said Aisha, feigning offense. “What do you think I am, heartless? I’ve had parents, I know what marriage is like. If you want to be loyal to this lioness—fictional or real—”

            “Hey!”

            “—then you should do it. One of these days I’m going to get stuck with a litter and that’ll put me out of the game. Whereupon I will be looking for a home, as there are at least twenty kingdoms that want my head—yours, too, Mataka—”

            “More than that.”

            “And when I’m forced to settle down, I just hope that I actually have someone there to care for me. You’re actually a pretty sweet guy, Mataka.”

            “Thanks.”

            “So I’m guessing you just got her pregnant and felt guilty?”

            “And now you sink in the claws,” Mataka muttered. “No, I met her long before I got her pregnant.”

            “So you do have a cub. Oh, Kass is going to raise hell over this.”

            “Not if Kass doesn’t know. And we aren’t going to tell anyone, are we?”

            “Oh, Kass would freak. You know how he hates to have animals that can have things hung over their heads working with him.”

            “And there are very few animals that even know about either of them.”

            “That know about who?” The three of them turned to see Janja and Zoma walking toward them.

            “About no one,” said Mataka hurriedly.

            “Sure doesn’t sound like—” began Zoma.

            “Zoma,” said Janja curtly. “Respect privacy.”

            “Yes, Janja,” said the smaller cheetah subserviently.

            “Whose privacy?” The group turned to see Kassan sitting, simply as if he had been there all the time.

            “Yours,” said Mataka.

            “Ha, ha. Where’s Darau?”

            “He will be here,” said Janja. “I believe he is following the prince.”

            “Yeah, where is the royal, anyway?” asked Zoma, lying down.

            “Typical royal, always late,” muttered Mataka.

            “He has his father watching him,” said Makini. “I imagine he’s having to work to keep all this secret.”

            There were some laughs around the group. “Blackie,” asked Zoma, “didn’t you ever try to sneak out from your parents?”

            “I don’t know what you mean. You think I’d try to overthrow my aunt from her evil reign of tyranny and oppression?” Mataka noticed how Makini carefully skirted away from the words “father” and “mother.”

            “Oh, come on, pretty boy. Are you telling me that you’ve never snuck out to be with some friends, or tried to go meet some leopardess late at night?”

            “I never did that. My aunt trusted me. There wasn’t too much she didn’t allow me to do.”

            “So you went out and did that stuff with her knowing about it?”

            “Um . . . no . . .”

            “Have you done anything that was normal?” asked Mataka incredulously. For all the times that the two of them had talked, he couldn’t remember this topic ever coming up, for some odd reason.

            “Well . . . there was that time that me and Tiifu went and put this load of balba in the cheetah pit.”

            Mataka threw his head back, roaring with laughter along with Aisha, Janja chuckling. “Balba?” asked Zoma.

            “It’s itchy root,” explained Kassan. He shook his head in amusement.

            “Wait, you put itchy root in the cheetah pit? That must have taken a lot of roots. How’d you manage to not get any on yourself?”

            Makini looked down, embarrassed. “We did get it on ourselves. Both of us were itching for a whole week after it.” Mataka burst into still more laughter.

            “What’s so funny?” asked a lion, stepping into the group. Makini didn’t recognize the prince. Moyo stared at the group.

            “Well it about time you got here,” said Zoma impatiently.

            “Am I really that late?” asked Moyo timidly.

            “Not at all,” said Janja.

            “But you need to learn how to hide better.” Darau walked past Moyo, Moyo staring at him in surprise. “You track easier than a bleeding warthog.”

            “You followed me?” said Moyo. “Don’t I get any privacy?”

            “It was for your safety, prince,” said Darau. “And I think you’ll need all the safety you can get. Exiles are not pretty scenes.”

            “And neither are executions,” said Kassan. “So don’t make me witness yours.”

            “I—I don’t think my father would do anything that bad—”

            “Prince,” said Zoma, “if your father found out what you were doing, he’d hang you from a tree and have your stomach slashed open, if he was nice. No king enjoys rebellions, especially from their own son.”

            Moyo was silent. “Second thoughts?” asked Mataka.

            “No.”

            “Great. Now get us to meet your ‘associates,’” said Darau. “The more you move, the safer you feel.”

            “Alright. Follow me.” Moyo led the rogues off toward the meeting.

 

 

 

            The silence among the rogues amazed Moyo as soon as he said that they were getting close. As soon as he spoke the words, immediate silence fell among the group, the conversations that he wasn’t involved in being silenced. They had made it obvious to him that he wasn’t one of them, and that he wasn’t going to be mistaken for one.

            As the group got closer to the site, they began to fan out instead of clumping together, Moyo sticking close to another lion. Darau, that was the lion’s name. The group came upon a depression in the ground, a basin dipping slightly to go toward a cave that rose up for a small distance in the sky. Where the depression leveled out, there was a hyena standing, looking around the scenery, obviously guarding.

            “Shit for sentries,” muttered Mataka. “Makini,” he hissed.

            Makini looked toward Mataka and watched Mataka sweep his foreleg down toward the hyena. Makini nodded and began down toward the hyena, staying low in the grass. The oncoming night hid his normally conspicuous body. He crept low to the ground, going closer to the hyena.

            To Moyo, who had been unable to hear anything, it looked as though Makini had simply looked at Mataka without any signal, then immediately began to advance down at the wave of a leg. He marveled at the coordination the rogues possessed. He was amazed still further as he watched Makini take the hyena by surprise. Makini waited until the hyena had his head turned to the side. He rushed the hyena, pushing his head further toward the way it was turned as he reached a foreleg toward the animal’s throat, all in one fluid motion. Makini wrapped the leg around the hyena’s throat and pulled it close to his body.

            “Move and you’re dead,” he whispered. The hyena immediately stiffened. “Good boy. Walk with me.” Makini began to drag it back with him to where the grass started, finally being camouflaged by the grass. The hyena was still silent and still, kept so by fear. He turned his head slightly to see the other rogues come toward him in the grass.

            Janja put his head close to the hyena, being careful to show all of his massive jaws as he spoke. “Who are you guarding?”

            “Ka—Katili. Please, don’t kill me. I don’t know anything,” the hyena begged.

            “What is in that cave?”

            “Just more hyenas. Nothing going on in there, really. Don’t bother yourself.”

            “How many hyenas?”

            “Uh, not too many. Twenty? Yeah, twenty’s good.”

            Janja smiled with the rest of them. The hyena was telling them more than he knew. “Now you are to answer this honestly, or I will kill you. Were you expecting anyone?”

            The hyena paused, obviously not knowing what to say. “Yes,” he finally whispered.

            “Rogues?”

            “. . . Yes.”

            Janja leaned back. “Good. Take us inside.”

            “But—but they’ll kill me if they see you with me.”

            The hyena obviously hadn’t been put on guard duty for his brains. He should have figured out who they were long ago. “We’re the rogues you’re looking for,” said Makini, releasing the hyena.

            “You—what—”

            “Well, come on,” said Mataka. “Get us inside. Our time may not be important, but what about the prince’s?”

            The hyena turned to look at Moyo, seeing him properly for the first time. “Sire?” The hyena drew himself up, and began to lead them toward the cave. He seemed to take a few seconds to realize what was going on completely before saying “Right this way” in a much more arrogant voice than the one that had been shaking with fear moments ago. Zoma snickered derisively as the hyena strutted back to the cave. They were all thinking what he was. Such a fool.

            The rogues followed the hyena toward the cave, several other hyenas running to intercept the rogues. “Don’t worry, guys, I’ve got this,” said the hyena that was leading them cockily.

            “These are all the guards you have?” asked Kassan as they continued on their way.

            “Uh, well, you see . . . we don’t exactly have the number to sustain what you would probably consider a maximum guard,” said the hyena, his cockiness faltering for a moment.

            The others looked at each other. There was no problem with having too few guards right now. The problem was that there was too many. The chances of any of them being spotted were great. There only needed to be a few guards at precise locations. It was obvious that the hyenas were amateurs.

            Then again, thought Makini as they walked into the cave, it isn’t like they can’t spare some. The cave was packed with hyenas. The cave might not have had much height, but it was extremely deep. Hyenas were everywhere. On the ledges, on the floor, in recesses in the walls. There was no end to them, it seemed.

            Janja nudged Darau in the shoulder with his head. “You can get me the gazelle tomorrow.” Zoma snickered appreciatively.

            “Shut up, Zoma,” muttered Darau.

            Makini looked around the dark area. The area was lit only by the last rays of the sun coming in through a hole in the roof. It was going to get dark in here very soon, and the last place any self-respecting rogue wanted to be was in a dark cave with a massive group of animals that could very easily be enemies. A flare caught Makini’s attention, and he jumped slightly. He stared in disbelief.

            One of the walls was on fire.

            No, it wasn’t. There was a small pile of sticks in a nook in the wall, and somehow they had been lit on fire. Then another flared up, and a small distance away from the second one, a third. Makini spotted something swishing in the darkness, something that seemed like moving fire. He managed to look right where the next fire flared up by luck. A monkey was hanging on a vine, swinging with a lit branch around the cave, setting fire to piles of sticks and branches that were already in place inside the cave.

            “Makini! Come on!” hissed Mataka impatiently. Makini followed hurriedly. He hadn’t been through too many jobs. A few over ten, the number varying depending on whether or not you wanted to count an “incident.” That time, Makini had begun to realize just how many enemies Mataka had, and how likely it was that he’d fall out of grace with that many animals.

            But it wouldn’t do to see him lagging behind the others, staring at the pyro-monkey. He had the rogue image to keep up. True, “civilization” was beginning to take hold in some kingdoms; pride leaders were keeping their sons in their pride, and actually naming them heirs. But there were some kingdoms that declared that to be “softness,” and would live by the law of the rogue, of having the leader decided by whichever lion moved in and killed the pride leader and kicking out sons when they came of age.

            Makini, though not a lion, still depended on the law. All rogues did. If there was a unanimous end put to the exile of males when they reached adolescence, there would be an end put to rogues of every species as well. There were few other species that had actual rogues as lions did, but there were plenty of animals who proudly wore the title of rogue, though a better title might have been mercenary. If lions kept their sons, all rogues would be branded criminals. There would be no more jobs, or at least not on the same scale.

            Makini had grown up in a new age kingdom—one that kept its sons—had actually bothered to talk with the shaman about the change. The old mandrill had records that went back much farther than Makini had ever expected to find. The change from “barbarism” as the mandrill put it—the age when rogues were the only thing and when bloodlines were hopelessly mixed—to “civilization”—the abolishment of the rogue system by lions who had grown close with their sons and could not bear to force them to leave, or willingly accepted rogues into their pride—had been going on for hundreds of years, and total change, if it happened at all, would take even longer.

            Makini and the others prayed that it would take much, much longer. “Civilization” was sucking all the fun out of life.

            Makini and the others were led down a steep slope. None of them liked where they were being taken. A huge pit with extremely thick sides and possible enemies everywhere? No, thank you, I’ll take the next home. But this was where they were being taken, and unless the prince was more of an idiot than it seemed, it was a safer place to be than anywhere else in the kingdom. All of them were wondering how he had come up with so many allies.

            And if Moyo was wrong, they had the consolation that he would die with them.

            A very large hyena looked up as the rogues walked down into the center. She was almost as large as small Zoma. Makini looked up, seeing a picturesque scene of a large, circular cavern, fire staving off darkness in many places. Hyenas lined the walls of the cavern, talking amongst themselves or staring down at the rogues. The hyena that had noticed their approach wandered away from a small group of other hyenas. “Are these the rogues you said would arrive, your highness?” she asked the prince.

            “Yes,” said Moyo. “I brought them here to—”

            “Yes, we know. But before we even begin on the terms of the job, don’t you think it would be courteous to offer our good guests food?” The hyena nodded toward the other hyenas she had been with. There were a few legs that were sticking out of the group, legs that had hoofed feet.

            Mataka smiled. He knew what was going on. It was standard negotiation procedure. Indulge the negotiator, then hit them with what you want. Of course, just because he knew what was going on didn’t mean it didn’t work.

            “We’d be honored to, ma’am,” said Kassan. Mataka felt a twinge of annoyance. Kassan was assuming leadership of the group, as he always did. It was normally the best thing to do, as Kassan was usually the most experienced rogue. But someone had managed to get all of these specific rogues together, all of them well-seasoned and experienced. There was no need for a leader, and no wish for one either, by any of them. A leader would only cripple the operation, not help it. Mataka would have to sort that out with Kassan later.

            The hyenas shifted out of the way as the leader motioned them to. Behind them were three carcasses for the rogues. Three carcasses for eight animals, if you included the prince. Fortunately, the prince hung back, Darau and Aisha taking one carcass, Zoma and Janja taking another, and leaving the last one to Kassan, Makini, and Mataka.

            All of them had eaten before this, but Mataka wasn’t sure about Makini. The poor kid probably hadn’t eaten anything since a few mouthfuls at breakfast. Mataka nudged Kassan’s head, making him look up, and then nodded toward Makini. Kassan chewed his food for a little longer than normal, staring at Mataka, then seemed to take the hint.

            Mataka swallowed and buried his worries in eating. He didn’t know what was going to happen with Makini and Kassan once this was over. Makini had been traveling with Mataka ever since his first job. Whether he admitted it too much or not, Mataka enjoyed the company. It would be different for everyone if Makini went with his newfound father. If Kassan actually managed to measure up to be a decent father, that was.

            The rogues finished their meal and turned to the group of hyenas. The leader had been talking with the prince in a low voice. She just seemed to be talking about the state of the kingdom. Small talk, if anything. She turned to the rogues as she noticed them finishing. “I assume that I should introduce myself. I am Katili, akida of this clan.” She paused, waiting for the rogues to introduce themselves. None of them offered anything. “I—suppose we should come to terms with each other on what we are going to do to achieve our goals.”

            “Maybe you should just state what you want first,” said Aisha, lying down. The rest remained sitting.

            “We have been promised a position of power in the kingdom.”

            There was a moment of silence before Zoma said, “Princey . . .”

            “It’s true,” said Moyo. “I did promise that.”

            “And in return we will help him overthrow his father,” said Katili.

            The rogues looked at each other. Alliances between small groups of animals and larger ones never worked out well. The small group, usually in the position of power, would either give the larger group the power and be unable to control the larger group once they were given the power, or they would refuse giving the larger group the power once everything was said and done and would be overthrown by the larger group. Either way, the chances of what was happening here working out smoothly were too small for comfort.

            “What kind of power?” asked Darau.

            “Freedom to live inside the kingdom, as well as the right to hunt, so long as we behave ourselves and do not over-exercise our rights.”

            “As well as a voice in the animal council,” added Moyo.

            “Animal council?” asked Makini.

            “It was set up by my grandfather. It’s just a group of animals that can talk to the king directly. Give him their advice on issues.”

            “All of this for a throne?” asked Janja.

            “You don’t seem to understand the level they’re living at,” said Moyo. “They have next to no rights at all. I’m just doing the right thing.”

            “So were the Askari,” noted Mataka grimly. Bitter chuckles went around the rogues. The entire group of warriors, all of them trained to kill proficiently, some of them even since birth, had been slaughtered in the Elridge Pass. It had happened years ago, but no one forgot the sacrifice they had made, giving their own lives so that the royal family had time to escape.

            The reference was lost on the prince and the hyenas. “We realize there is a degree of trust to be involved,” said Katili. “But I would like to think that we are honorable.”

            “We really don’t need to be bothered with the details of what happens afterward,” said Kassan. “We were only curious.” The prince could save his own skin. “Now the difficult part is how to actually get to the king. After we get there, killing him is only a matter of force.”

            “He’s not to be killed,” said Moyo quickly.

            “What?”

            “I don’t want my father killed.”

            “Kid, let me explain something to you,” said Mataka. “If we go in there, teeth bared and claws out, someone is going to die. Kings fight to the death for their throne if they’re decent, and from what you’ve told us, it doesn’t sound like he’d run away any time soon. The moment he sees me or Darau, he’ll order us both dead, because he’ll know we’re there for the throne, even if he doesn’t know it’s for you.”

            “We don’t need to kill him,” insisted Moyo. “Just . . . just talk to him. Ask him to step down. If we show we’ve got more power than he does . . .” There was doubt in the prince’s voice.

            “Sire,” said Janja, “to do what you suggest, we would have to subdue your father. We would need to make sure he is physically incapable of harming anyone. Lionesses would be injured, if not killed, if they truly would die for him. There is no way to simply go to him and negotiate.”

            “I—I know it’ll be harder,” said Moyo. “But I can’t kill my father. I just can’t. That would be . . . awful.”

            “That’s what you brought us here for,” said Zoma. “If you really wanted, we could just send Blackie here up to the den,” he said, nodding toward Makini. “One quick sneak in, one quick slash on the throat, one quick sneak out, and you all wake up and find him dead.”

            Moyo looked horrified at the idea. His eyes flicked upward, seemingly toward the hyenas, and he said firmly, “You are not to kill my father.”

            “Do you really think the den—”

            “We don’t have a den.”

            “Fine, the pride,” altered Zoma, “would have that much of a problem with seeing him dead? He’s a monster, you said it yourself.”

            “I never said that,” said Moyo furiously.

            “He sentenced a cheetah, a pregnant one at that, to death! You don’t call that a monster?” The hyenas stirred uneasily at the mention of the execution. They had never known this.

            “The law forbade murder. He only followed the law—”

            “But don’t you—”

            “Zoma, quiet,” said Janja.

            Zoma sighed. “Yes, Janja,” he said submissively.

            There was a short silence. “Look,” said Makini reasonably, “the reason we’re here isn’t to discuss whether or not to kill the king, but how to. And the prince,” he said to Katili, “says that we also need to know when to.”

            The hyena’s face looked blank. “When?”

            “We want it done within the week,” said a large hyena. He might have been the dominant male in the clan, but most definitely not the dominant hyena. Katili was larger than any of them, it seemed. Most likely this one was her main mate.

            “And that’s not possible,” growled Kassan.

            “How do we know you’re not going to expose us to the king?” asked Katili. “How do you know we won’t sell us all out, that you’re not working for him right now?”

            “And how do we know that you don’t plan to have us all murdered right here?” asked Darau.  “There is no way for us to escape from this pit that you’ve put us in. There are hyenas everywhere. I’m fairly sure we could all be dead in less than a minute.”

            “Twenty seconds,” stated a hyena in the group behind Katili.

            “I’d rather not test that,” said Mataka.

            “The point,” said Janja, “is that there must be trust involved.”

            “We can’t afford to trust you,” said the large male again. “You could be plotting to betray us all!”

            “And we still could be, right up to the job itself,” said Zoma.

            “We need this done quickly,” said Katili. “I’ve given you a week, which is far more than my clan has wanted to. If you refuse to accept this, then we’ll find a new set of rogues.”

            “And do what with us?” asked Aisha calmly.

            “We will—dispose of you. We have little meat, there’s no sense in wasting any.”

            None of the rogues seemed surprised by this, or too worried, either. Mataka actually sat back with a smile. “So that’s it, is it? A week?”

            “One week,” said Katili.

            Mataka nodded as if understanding. “Janja, remember Nyota?”

            “The job?” Janja asked. “Or the leopardess?”

            “Job.”

            “I do.”

            Mataka kept nodding. “How about you, Aisha? Remember Nyota?”

            “Mm.”

            “Zoma?”

            “Oh, yeah.”

            “And the rest of you weren’t there, but I’m sure you remember it, right?” The rogues were smiling, some more than others. Darau was actually grinning. “Right?”

            “The one with the—the—” said Makini.

            “With the ancestral power struggle,” said Kassan.

            “Yeah. That.”

            Mataka nodded again and said, “That one. And, my friends, how long did that take?”

            There were annoyed sighs before Aisha said, uncharacteristically bitter, “Two months, three weeks, and five flea-bitten days. In the slime. With the horseflies.”

            “And weren’t those horseflies just the worst part of it? That and the smell?” asked Darau with a grin.

            “Shut up,” growled Zoma, Aisha, and Mataka, while Janja rumbled, “You were not there.”

            “I still don’t feel clean,” complained Zoma.

            “But what were we there for?”

            “To get our butts out of that stupid godforsaken place,” muttered Zoma.

            “Okay, discounting the little screw-up we had, what were we doing?”

            “Starting a revolution,” said Janja.

            “And that,” said Mataka, turning back to the hyenas, “was in a kingdom that was incredibly shaky in the first place. The entire kingdom hated the rulers, and if we did anything, there wouldn’t be any spies to report on us. We could have marched right around the den, looking for weak spots, and could have been fine. That job took nearly three months. I don’t think we’ll have it that easy here.”

            “If it’s going to take you more than three months to do this,” said Katili, “then we don’t want you. We want this done now. We’ll find better rogues.”

            “We’re the best,” said Kassan coldly. “You aren’t going to find any rogues better than we are. We’ve worked for years at this kind of thing. You have no idea how much effort we have to put into this.”

            “Then we’ll find out and do it ourselves,” said Katili. The hyenas seemed very ready to kill the rogues.

            “Look, all we’re saying is that we need time to do this,” said Makini reasonably. “You don’t start a rebellion overnight.”

            “How are we supposed to trust you?” asked Katili. “I am akida of this clan, and I am responsible for the welfare of every hyena in it, from the oldest dog to the youngest pup.”

            “And doesn’t it suck?” asked Mataka, grinning. Darau hit him.

            “They need me,” said Katili firmly. “I wouldn’t expect a rogue to understand that,” she said bitingly.

            “I’m a prince,” said Mataka. “And I got out of the whole thing because I did understand it.”

            “Mataka, shut up,” muttered Darau.

            “Just give us the time we need to do our job,” said Makini. He seemed to be the voice of reason for the group on both sides. “The prince will get his kingdom, and you’ll get your status, and everyone will be happy. But just give us time.”

            Katili frowned for a moment before she turned back to her little council. They talked quietly, so that the rogues couldn’t hear. The rogues immediately began looking around. “Anyone see any escape routes?” muttered Zoma.

            “Looks like we’re just as trapped as we said we were,” said Darau, just as quietly. The group continued looking around for any hope of escape. There simply was no way that they could be anywhere without being surrounded by hyenas, all of them loyal to Katili. Moyo was shifting uneasily, even though he was in no apparent danger.

            “Alright.” All of the rogues turned back to Katili. She said, “You have a week. No more. And there will be no change.”

            “If it is any consolation, madam,” said Janja, “we will do our best to complete the task as quickly as possible.”

            “We were counting on it,” said Katili, her air obviously dismissing the matter, despite the rogues’ obvious frustration. “Sire, do you have anything you want to tell them?”

            “I—I need to get home,” said Moyo, still shifting somewhat. “My father might get suspicious.”

            “Then get,” said Mataka. “Last thing we need is an angry king.”

            “It would be better if you weren’t here for this anyway, sire,” said Janja.

            “Thank you,” said Moyo, bowing his head quickly before turning to leave.

            “We’ll get you, you don’t get us,” called Zoma.

            “And now for the other parts,” said Kassan.

            “What else do we have to discuss?” asked Katili. “This job is your responsibility—”

            “—and we expect to be able to have your clan at our disposal,” said Kassan. “We need all the information we can get about the surrounding area, the locals, everything. And we expect your help in planning.”

            “We may get to that tomorrow,” said Katili. “I need to send out my hunting parties. We are very short on meat. You may rest here tonight. If you don’t have any words to share with the clan, I would get some sleep.”

            “We’d prefer to sleep in our own places,” said Darau. “Kind of a safety thing.”

            “Very well,” said Katili. The rogues turned to go.

            “You said we could speak?” asked Makini, just a few seconds after the rogues turned to go.

            “Yes,” said Katili, mildly surprised. “If you have anything to share with the clan about this, we will listen.”

            “Kid, what do you have to say?” asked Mataka.

            “Just let me try,” said Makini.

            “Very well,” said Katili. She turned around and let out an enormous howl. The pit fell silent in seconds. “My clan! Hear me! We will soon be free of the tyranny of this king, and by the paws of these rogues! Listen to them as they speak.” She turned to Makini expectantly.

            Makini stepped forward hesitantly, away from the rogues, obviously nervous. He said, in a voice that was barely loud enough for all to hear in the silent pit, “I—I’m not used to doing this at all. I’ve never spoken to anyone like this.”

            “What is he doing?” Kassan muttered to Mataka.

            “I have no idea.”

            “I—I guess all I wanted to tell you was that I—understand the situation that you’re in. Your pain. I know that sounds strange, but I know hyenas. I’ve worked with them, and . . . well, they’ve been the most honest animals that I’ve met so far.” The rogues gave small signs of assent. Yes, hyenas always did tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. Just not all of it, and not in quite the way it happened. “I just want to say that I, at least, trust you. I want to help you. That’s what we’re here to do. Help you.

            “I know it sounds a little strange, but I—care for you, I guess is the word. Animals that are kind of just—cast aside, animals that never did get what they deserve. I’ve already seen what cruelty this kingdom has here. You’ve been discarded. You’ve been starved. You’ve been pushed to the boundaries.

            “This is not right.

            “And not just you, but others. So many animals in this kingdom, who are just . . . in the most helpless positions . . .” Makini’s head bowed to the ground as he muttered again, “It’s not right.” He looked up. “It’s not! I know this! You know this! There are times when you have been trodden upon, but this is not one! I swear to you, I will help you. On my soul, this kingdom will be free.”

            The last word echoed around the den. There was silence at first, then a few howls, and then, suddenly, almost as one, the pit threw its head back and let loose a monstrous howl. Makini stared at the group, unsure of the feelings he felt washing over him. He felt—stronger, just being with them. He almost wanted to howl with the clan.

            “Kid, can we go now?” asked Mataka.

            “Uh . . . right.” Makini hurriedly began to follow the other rogues out of the pit. He finally caught up to Mataka. Mataka kept glancing at Makini as they walked. “What?” Makini finally asked.

            “That was . . . good, kid,” said Mataka. “It was good.”

            “Uh . . . thanks,” said Makini.

            The rogues reached the top of the pit and walked out of the cave. “Where we met the first time,” muttered Darau. “Tomorrow, before the sun gets too high.” The other rogues nodded their agreement. Zoma went off with Janja, Darau left trailing Aisha, and Mataka left, accompanied by Makini.

            Kassan started after his son, but stopped as he heard “Kassan” come from the den. He turned around to see Katili walking toward him, alone.

            “Yes?” he asked.

            “Watch your back,” the hyena said simply.

            “Why?”

            “Someone has it out for you. I don’t know who. But things have been happening here that I don’t like.”

            “Like what?”

            “Ever hear of the Shadow?”

            “No.”

            “It’s been around here for months now. And it’s been killing animals.”

            “It?”

            “If you find out the gender, share. Until then, ‘it.’”

            “There’s an animal that’s murdering others around here?”

            “Yes. It got two hyenas just last night.”

            Kassan felt fear grip him slightly. “You don’t think . . .”

            “I don’t know who did it. They weren’t from my clan, anyway. But they were killed, and they were behind something that I don’t even like to think about. Cub-killing.”

            “It sounds like vigilante justice, if anything.”

            “Vigilante justice that’s been going on for months. And it’s not always what you might consider ‘just.’”

            “And? What should we care? Are you worried he or she might come after us because of our plans?”

            Katili smiled. “Oh, no, Kass. I pretty sure he’s after you. All I know is that I don’t like him. I’m almost certain there are hyenas in my clan that know about him. And I have heard nothing. I don’t like it when my clan keeps secrets, not from me.”

            “Are you sure he’s after me?” asked Kassan.

            “That’s one thing I do know. I just hope he doesn’t get the jump on you. It’d be a shame to lose you.”

            Kassan smiled. “So now your debt from Daima’s paid?”

            “No more debt.” Katili turned back to the cave. “Just stay alive, Kass.”

            Kass watched her go and turned back to go into the grass. Makini and Mataka were gone, and he didn’t feel like tracking them. He walked off in his own direction. Of course he’d stay alive. It was a full-time job for him.

 

 

 

            Moyo walked up the side of the hyena pit, exiting for the night. He heard the conversation between the rogues and the hyenas carry on. The sudden flicker of a tail caught his attention, a tail that definitely wasn’t a hyena’s, a tail that he welcomed. He headed toward it.

            He found the Shadow waiting for him in a small area of the pit, one that was almost completely shielded from prying eyes. The only places to see into it were a hole that you could see the floor of the pit through, and the entrance that Moyo walked through. It resembled a small den in the way it walled in from all directions but one.

            The Shadow was peering through the hole toward the rogues. Moyo went and sat next to him. “I was wondering if you would notice me,” said the Shadow, still looking out at the rogues.

            “I almost walked right past you,” admitted Moyo.

            The Shadow smiled. “It’s good that you’re honest.” He continued to stare for a few more moments before looking up at Moyo for the first time. “What do you think of him?”

            “Who?”

            “Kassan.”

            “He’s . . .” Moyo didn’t know what to say about the self-assuredness the leopard seemed to have and the awe that he inspired in others. His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a howl. All of the hyenas went silent, and he heard Katili ask for their ears. “I—” began Moyo, but immediately the Shadow pressed a paw against Moyo’s mouth, the universal sign for quiet.

            Moyo listened in silence to Makini’s speech. It seemed short, and definitely spur-of-the-moment. The pit seemed to shake with the howls of the hyenas once he was finished. “Well,” said the Shadow, once everything had quieted down enough to talk again, “that was somewhat inspiring. Who is he?”

            “He’s . . .” Moyo suddenly realized he didn’t know Makini’s name. “I don’t know.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I don’t know is name.”

            “I don’t think I invited him,” said the Shadow quietly, staring as the rogues left the pit, Moyo staring also. “Have any idea who he is?”

            “I think he’s Kassan’s son.”

            The Shadow stared intently at Makini’s back as he left. “And so young, too. . . It’s a pity he’ll have to die.”

            “What?” asked Moyo in surprise, turning his head quickly back to the Shadow.

            “I will not have anyone Kassan holds dear left alive,” said the Shadow, his voice quietly violent. “I am going to make sure he suffers just as much pain as I have.”

            “But he—”

            “It’s unfortunate for his son. He may actually be decent. But probably half of what he said down there was nothing but lies.”

            “This was never part of the agreement,” said Moyo.

            “This was never foreseen,” said the Shadow simply.

            “I don’t want any more bloodshed than there has to be—”

            “This has to be done. Kassan took away my life. He took the life of my mate, he took the life of my cub, he drove me from my home. He is going to pay for that.”

            “Please,” asked Moyo, “what did his son ever do to you?”

            “It’s enough that he exists,” snarled the Shadow. Moyo knew that tone. The Shadow was prone to bursts of rage, things where he might do anything out of anger towards Kassan. From his story, Moyo wasn’t quite so surprised to see him this way, especially now, as he had just seen Kassan walk into his paws and had been able to do nothing but wait. It was amazing how much patience the Shadow seemed to possess.

            “I know how you feel—”

            “You know nothing,” growled the Shadow, fixing Moyo with an icy glare.

            “You’ve told me—”

            “I have been waiting years to finally have my revenge. I will not leave Kassan any hope. None.”

            Moyo shook his head sadly. “Even though Kassan is—”

            “Kassan is nothing to me.”

            Moyo sighed. He could have backed out long before now. He might have, too, if it hadn’t been for the fact that he knew the Shadow would stay by him, no matter what the risk. He’d shown that multiple times, and nearly risked exposing himself for Moyo. Moyo knew the Shadow would do whatever he asked, save anything involving Kassan. He had Moyo’s complete trust, and deserved it.

            “If . . . if it’s worth anything,” said Moyo, “his son seems nice.”

            “I bet,” said the Shadow, turning back to his view-hole. He was silent for a few moments before saying, “But things have been getting out of control. Did you know that I killed two hyenas and a lion last night?”

            “You did what?” hissed Moyo angrily. “I told you, do not spill blood—”

            “—unless asking you first.”

            “This is my kingdom,” said Moyo sternly. “I will not tolerate that kind of behavior.”

            “I didn’t even know I killed anyone until today,” said the Shadow.

            “What?”

            “Either I sleepwalk, or someone is killing and making it look like me. Granted, those animals were on my hit list, and I was going to ask you about them soon, but I figured you had your paws full dealing with the rogues.”

            “What were they doing?” asked Moyo.

            “Killing cheetah cubs. Taka.”

            “And you didn’t touch them?” asked Moyo, a hint of doubt in his voice.

            “Sire,” said the Shadow, his tone honestly hurt, “do you think I would lie to you?

            Moyo was surprised to find that the question was actually honest. “You—you make me wonder, sometimes,” Moyo admitted.

            The Shadow looked unhappy. “I . . . I suppose I have been getting a little out of control recently. But please, sire, believe me. I would never kill without asking your permission first. Never.”

            “I know. But it’s almost getting to the point that my father wants to make you an enemy of the lands.”

            “How? He doesn’t even know my name, much less what I look like.”

            “I’ve pointed that out to him,” said Moyo, smiling slightly at the ridiculousness of the thought of actually hunting down the Shadow.

            “I hope you’ll advise me when he does decide to come after me.”

            “Of course.”

            “That’s good to know.” The Shadow got up and headed toward the exit of his little haven inside the hyena pit. “Tell your sister good night from me.”

            “Sure,” said Moyo.

            The Shadow paused before leaving the little den. “And sire . . . if I find the imposter . . .”

            Moyo bit his lip unhappily. “If you feel you have to,” he finally said.

            “Thank you, sire.” Moyo watched as the Shadow slipped out into the pit, and then slowly out of it unnoticed. Moyo left himself a few minutes later, following the Shadow’s footsteps.