Preparations

 

            The rogues met about mid-morning. They seemed to bond into pairs; Mataka with Makini, Darau with Aisha, and Janja with Zoma. Kassan came in alone. Makini stared at Kassan, thoughts flooding his mind of memories when that would never have happened, when his father always stood next to someone he said he loved, when they would nuzzle lovingly as they watched him scurry happily about.

            Everything was fine then.

            “Ideas?” Kassan asked, looking around at the others.

            The group shook their head, save Zoma. “I got some,” he said.

            “You do?” asked Darau in surprise.

            “Yeah. This used to be my home. Till I left, at least.”

            “Know the lands?” asked Mataka.

            “Not too well,” said Zoma. He scratched his left ear hard. “But I wouldn’t doubt that I could pick up my bearings again pretty fast. Just need to get out and around.”

            “Do it,” said Janja.

            “Alright. Mind if I take pretty boy along with me?”

            Makini grimaced slightly at the name. “He’s all yours,” said Mataka.

            “Don’t I get a say?” asked Makini.

            “Sure,” said Mataka. “What do you want for dinner when you get back?”

            “That wasn’t what I meant.”

            “Makini,” said Darau, “just do it. We’re going to be stuck here a long time—”

            “One week my ass,” muttered Zoma.

            “—and tensions are going to get pretty high. You’re the most inexperienced, so just buckle down and do it.”

            “Alright,” said Makini. “You don’t need to get that way about it.”

            “Great,” said Mataka. “Me and Darau have to hide out; don’t want any lions running around and being seen. Same for Aisha.”

            “I do not think that anything may be accomplished until we have sufficiently scouted the area,” said Janja. The others made small nods of agreement.

            “Fine,” said Kassan. “I guess we’re going to have to pay our hyena friends a visit to see how much they know about the kingdom. Alright, Makini, go with Zoma, dig up what you can, and we’ll be back at that pit.”

            “Great,” said Zoma. “Come on, Blackie.” He headed out into the savannah, Makini following him. The other rogues turned for the pit, making idle conversation.

 

 

 

            Makini followed Zoma closely, keeping hidden as well as possible. If any animal saw him, they would undoubtedly remember him. Pitch-black leopards were the extreme rarity, most leopards being spotted. Makini’s kind had nearly died out. It was like a lion coming into a kingdom; it was an event that would stand out easily.

            “Zoma, we shouldn’t be this close to the pride,” hissed Makini. “If we’re seen—”

            “If you’re seen, Blackie,” said Zoma in an equally low voice. “I’ve got plenty of memories coming back; I could blend right in. Maybe not a perfect job, but it’d work. You, however, pretty boy, you—”

            “Would you stop calling me that?”

            Zoma crouched low next to a boulder. Makini pressed himself as close to the boulder as he could; it was a comforting dot of grey in a nearly all-yellow savannah. “Oh, come on, pretty boy,” said Zoma. “You know you like it.”

            “No, I don’t.”

            “I bet you spend so long on prettying yourself up in the morning, getting all of those ruffles out of your fur, grooming yourself for the females, just like Daddy does—” Zoma was cut short by a hard, unfriendly blow to the back of his head. “Ow!” He turned to Makini, his eyes plainly showing his anger. “What the hell was that for?”

            “Shut up,” said Makini, his voice controlled too well to be normal. “Just shut up. Don’t say that.”

            “Alright, alright,” grumbled Zoma, realizing he had gone too far. He turned back to look at the den. He was silent a few seconds before his nature prompted him to say, “Okay, maybe not grooming for the females.”

            “My father,” said Makini firmly, his voice shaking slightly, “is the best animal that I know. Don’t you dare say that about him again.”

            Zoma turned to look at Makini with an annoyed look. “Okay, pretty . . . Look, Makini. Your daddy has slept with more animals on the gods’ yellow earth than I could if I lived thirty times over. Ten to one, last night he made some female very happy, too. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t have a problem with Kass. But you’ve got to accept that he’s not perfect. You lived with Kass for what, a few months as a cub? I’ve known him for years. You have no idea who he is. He most definitely isn’t that idol that you’ve built him up as.”

            “I realize that he’s not perfect—”

            “Great, problem solved,” said Zoma, turning back around.

            “—but I doubt he’s the rogue you think he is. I know that my father is a great animal.”

            “Oxymoron.”

            “What?”

            “‘Great animal.’ It’s an oxymoron.”

            Makini sighed as he shook his head in disbelief. “Great. A cheetah that knows language. Great. Really helps. What else have you got?”

            “Look, I’m sorry about what I said, okay? I just didn’t realize you’d be . . .”

            “What?” asked Makini. “Touchy?”

            “Touchy.” Makini shook his head, staring at the ground. A moment later he slowly made his way to the top of the boulder, pressing himself flat as he did so. “Look,” said Zoma, “I realize you’re going through a lot now. Just . . . if you need someone to talk to—”

            “Go to you. I know—”

            “Oh, hell no. Not me. Go to Janja. He can sit and listen for hours. He might even give you advice, if you ask real nicely.”

            “You seem to know him pretty well.”

            Very well.”

            “Are you . . . brothers?”

            “. . . In a way.” Zoma began to move toward the area where the pride was. He held his paw at head height, then moved it down slowly. Stay low.

            Makini slid carefully off the rock. “How’d you meet him?”

            “Janja? Just at a job.”

            “Where?”

            “Sheria.”

            “You met him here?

            “Yeah.”

            “And you’ve been traveling with him ever since?”

            “Yeah, that’s what mates do, right? Stay here.”

            Mates?!  Makini looked at Zoma in utmost shock as he stood up and proceeded casually toward the pride. Shock changed to horror as Makini realized what Zoma was doing.

            “Can we help you?” a lioness called from the group.

            “I was just looking for the king,” said Zoma.

            “He’s out on his rounds around the kingdom. Is it something urgent?”

            “No, I’ll just come back later if it doesn’t sort itself out. Family, eh, dispute I think would be a nice way of putting it.”

            “The king doesn’t really need any more little problems like that. Shouldn’t you have just asked Shuma to take care of it?”

            “Shuma? I—I don’t think she would understand. Besides, she’s got so much other stuff on her mind—”

            “Shuma’s male,” said the lioness, suspicion entering her voice.

            “Uh . . . Well, he sure fools me. Pansy.”

            “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before . . .”

            “You sure? Tere’s son?”

            “She doesn’t have a son,” said the lioness suspiciously. “And she doesn’t have that accent, either—”

            “She hasn’t told you about me? Lovable Zoma?”

            Makini thought that was taking it too far, and apparently the lioness thought so, too. Whether she recognized Zoma’s name or was just acting on suspicion, she suddenly screamed out, “Killer! Killer in the pride!”

            Zoma immediately turned and ran, yelling, “Blackie, time to go!” Lionesses began to run after him.

            Makini sprang up from the grass and ran after Zoma. Though Zoma was small for a cheetah, he obviously had speed. Makini couldn’t catch up to him. The lionesses were almost on his tail as it was, but were slowly losing ground. Very slowly. He suddenly saw Zoma turn and head toward a large rock face that loomed over the den and slowly sloped down to normal height. The two of them had gone around it when they came down to the pride.

            Zoma was running straight at it.

            Zoma ran for the rock face, then jumped and landed on a ledge that stuck out of it. Now that he was closer, Makini could see that it wasn’t smooth; there was a series of ledges that went up the side. Zoma pulled himself fully up onto the ledge, then held down a paw for Makini.

            Makini knew this was going to hurt. He jumped for the paw and almost missed it. The two dug their claws into each other’s forelegs as Zoma used Makini’s inertia to swing him up to the next ledge, Makini landing flat on his stomach as Zoma let go, feeling the wind knocked out of him.

            “Come on, pretty boy, get up,” said Zoma hurriedly. The lionesses were at the foot of the rock face. Several were trying to secure holds on the ledge, a couple pulling themselves up slowly.

            Makini slowly got up and put the foreleg that hadn’t just been used out. He felt Zoma dig his claws into his foreleg again as he swung him up, Makini feeling as though his leg was going to rip straight out of its socket. He was sure Zoma wasn’t enjoying this either. His forelegs were getting dug into quite as well as Makini’s.

            Makini looked down at the lionesses and saw that a few had managed to pull themselves up onto the ledge below him. He looked up to see Zoma extending a slightly bloody foreleg. Makini winced. He thought he hadn’t cut that deep. He caught the foreleg again and felt a paw on a hind leg. Makini let out a hiss of pain as he dropped back down slightly, Zoma’s claws not letting him sink all the way. Makini looked back down at the lioness that had his leg and kicked her square in the face with his other leg. She let go, falling back down to the ground, knocking another lioness down with her.

            “Come on, Blackie,” said Zoma, his voice pained. Makini jumped again, making sure to aim out and not up. He was swung up to the ledge above Zoma, feeling the wind knocked out of him with his landing again. He got up as quickly as he could and held out his paw again. Zoma jumped and let down a paw for him.

            The lionesses were getting nowhere, only one of them having actually reached the second level. One of them on the ground shouted, “Around to the top!” The ones on the ground ran to try their luck going the long way up to the top. The ones on the ledges started to make their way back down to the ground.

            “Blackie, we don’t have all day,” said Zoma. “Move!”

            Makini jumped again, continuing the painful process of jumping and swinging, the top coming ever closer. He knew that this was the fastest way up and that speed was what they needed right now, not ease like the lionesses did. Knowing that didn’t ease the pain, though. When they did reach the top, Makini found himself almost unable to sit up. His forelegs were a bloody mess. He let down a paw one last time for Zoma, who landed next to him, breathing heavily.

            “Come on,” Zoma said. “I know where we can hide.”

            “I can’t walk on these,” said Makini, panting himself.

            “Neither can I,” said Zoma, collapsing. “Just two seconds. That’s all we need. Just two seconds rest.”

            The two seconds were extended multiple times. Zoma stood up finally. “Okay, kid, let’s go.” He began to slowly limp away. He turned as he heard yells. The lionesses had almost made their way up the rocky terrain. Makini stood up, groaning with pain, and began to limp hurriedly after Zoma.

            “Where are we going?” he asked.

            “Mama’s.”

 

 

 

            Cheetahs stared as they watched one of their own limp into the enclave where most of them lived. They didn’t know who he was. He was followed by a black leopard. Both of them were heading towards Tere’s place. The cheetahs shook their head. Everyone knew better than to disturb Tere when she didn’t want to be. There was no telling what would happen now. All they could guess that it wouldn’t be good for those two.

            Makini followed Zoma back to where three leopards laid. All of them looked up as Zoma approached. One of them stood up as Zoma came in, her face stunned. Zoma held out a bloody foreleg for a hug. “Mama.”

            The cheetah that had stood up walked over to Zoma quickly and slapped him across the face. Royal poured out of her mouth. Makini, who had only heard it used for cursing, assumed that she had quite a bit to say about Zoma. Then, to his surprise, he heard Zoma interrupt her in Royal. They were actually carrying on a conversation in it. The other two cheetahs that were lying on the ground were staring at Zoma with expressions of disgust.

            Makini didn’t quite know when he realized that it wasn’t quite a conversation, but more of an argument. It could have been when the voices got louder, the gesticulating fiercer, or maybe it could have been when both of the cheetahs on the ground started snarling unconsciously. Makini didn’t understand a word of it; all he knew was that the cheetah arguing with Zoma must have said something extraordinary, as Zoma suddenly shut up and took two steps back, a stunned look on his face.

            Makini watched as Zoma stared at his mother, then quietly said, “Mama, please, I just—just—I need your help, Mama.”

            Tere took a step closer to Zoma and spit in his face, Zoma wincing. “I will have nothing to do with you. You are no son of mine.” She looked at Makini. “I’ll treat him, but may the gods strike me down the moment I do anything to help you.”

            Zoma began to nod his head faintly, the nodding growing stronger. “Makini,” he finally said, and added something Makini couldn’t understand at all. He began to walk away, and finally turned around and said to Makini, “I said come on!” Makini followed Zoma, taking one last look at the cheetahs before he left. The three were staring at Zoma with a negative emotion that Makini couldn’t quite describe.

            “Where are we going?” asked Makini quietly.

            “The shaman,” said Zoma.

            “Isn’t that dangerous? What if he sells us out—”

            “She won’t. She’s always been good to me. If she hasn’t died.”

            “Died?”

            “She’s old. Come on, she’ll fix us up.”

            Makini didn’t say another word as he was led to the shaman’s den. To his surprise, she was a hyena, and obviously quite old. Her breath rattled as she drew it in and out of her body, as if protesting. “Zoma?” she asked. “Is that you? Gods, I thought you were dead by now . . . Come in, what can I do?”

            Zoma silently held up a bloody foreleg.

            “My word . . . here, I’ll get the herbs, and Mbulu can tie some bandages. Mbulu!” she called. A younger monkey came out of the den. He looked at Zoma and stared at Makini. “Mbulu, get r’laka. And get some leaves to cover the wounds, as well.”

            “He needs it too,” said Zoma quietly. The shaman nodded and the monkey went to collect herbs for the both of them. “Don’t tell anyone we were here,” Zoma said. “Not even the king.”

            “Especially not the king,” said Makini.

            “Stirring up trouble again?” asked the hyena with a grin that showed about a third of her teeth to be missing.

            “Yes,” said Zoma in the same quiet voice.

            “Been to see your mother?”

            “I don’t want to talk about it.”

            The hyena’s grin slid off her face. “You knew this would happen, Zoma. That was why you left.”

            “I thought that maybe she changed.”

            Mbulu came back carrying leaves and thin vines. “She does not understand your choice. I don’t either, but I believe that you do. Hold out your leg.” Zoma did so, and the monkey began to dress his leg. “I trust you Zoma. You have conviction about your beliefs. I let it all happen because I knew you wouldn’t just give up.”

            “I haven’t.”

            “And I’m very proud of you for that. Other leg.”

            Zoma was quiet for the rest of the visit, not speaking while he was being doctored to, or while Makini got the same. In the end, both of them had their legs wrapped in r’laka leaves, the thin vines that the leopard had brought holding the leaves tightly against their legs.

            “Alright, you aren’t to take those off for three days,” said the shaman. “If you do, you’ll have me to answer to.”

            “Thank you,” said Zoma. He and Makini began to head out of the den.

            “And Zoma?”

            “Yeah?” Zoma turned around to see the hyena just behind him.

            “Give this to Janja from me,” said the hyena, holding up her foreleg for a hug. “I’m sure he won’t mind.”

            Zoma held the hyena tightly against his body, tighter than Makini expected. Makini noticed tears in Zoma’s eyes and heard what sounded uncomfortably like “Shh” from the hyena. He looked away in embarrassment. Finally he heard, perfectly levelly, “Let’s go, kid.” Makini followed Zoma back to the rogues’ meeting place.

 

 

 

            Makini followed Zoma back, working up the nerve to ask Zoma what exactly had happened. “Zoma?” he finally asked quietly.

            “What?” asked Zoma, slight irritation in his voice.

            “Well . . . uh . . . when you said—about you and Janja being—mates—did you mean—married?”

            “No, I meant mates as in friends, asshole,” said Zoma sarcastically. “Of course I meant married. Why?” He looked back at Makini. “Mataka didn’t tell you, did he?”

            “No,” said Makini, looking at the ground.

            “Am I going to get the freak treatment from you, too?” Zoma asked, anger entering his voice.

            “I didn’t mean it like that—”

            “I’ve met plenty of animals like you, pretty boy! And if you’re just going to tell me off, then you might as well save it, or I’ll cram those words right back down your throat!” Zoma turned angrily into the grass.

            “Zoma, I didn’t mean it like that—Zoma!” Makini headed after Zoma. He stopped as he came to a clearing, seeing Zoma in it with his face hidden in Janja’s neck, Janja rubbing Zoma’s back. Makini stayed just outside the clearing, thinly veiled in the grass.

            “Zoma, was it your mother?” Janja asked quietly.

            “Yes,” said Zoma, sounding very much like he was crying.

            “Zoma, you knew what she thought—”

            “She called me a half-carcass whore! And the things she called you . . . Gods, Janja, she’s my mother!”

            “Zoma, just forget about it,” said Janja. “They are just words.”

            “They hurt, Janja.”

            “Just forget.” Janja gave Zoma a kiss on the back of his head. “Just forget.” Janja looked straight at Makini. Makini felt a shock go through him. He didn’t expect Janja to realize he was there. He embarrassedly walked the rest of the way into the clearing.

            “Yes, Makini?” asked Janja.

            “I—I just wanted to explain to Zoma . . .”

            “It is not your fault.” Janja turned his head to look at Zoma. “Would you be alright if I talked to him outside?” Zoma nodded. Janja stood up and left him in the clearing, telling Makini “Come.” Makini followed Janja until Janja sat down. “Let me explain, so that you understand,” he said.

            “You don’t need to—”

            “Makini, I do not want you thinking what I know you do. Listen to me. Zoma was exiled from his home because of the way that he feels. He is bisexual. His mother could not accept a son that had feelings for other males. Her decision caused him more grief that I thought he could bear. He loved his mother very, very much.”

            “She kicked him out because he was gay?” asked Makini incredulously.

            “That is a way of putting it,” said Janja in his slow way of talking. “Sex is a very strong thing in our society, and to think that she made a mistake in raising her son to tell which sex to love . . . she pushed him away, hoping to distance herself from her ‘failure.’ Zoma does enjoy females, something I do not understand, and I in turn enjoy some other species, which he does not understand. But we are married. I allow him leniency and a few others if he pleases, and he does the same for me. But if either one of made it clear that we did not want that to continue, we would both stop. We love each other very much, Makini.”

            “I . . . I guess I just don’t understand your tastes.”

            “That is not surprising. You have been taught that it is wrong to love other males, something that I had to help Zoma break free of. But it is understandable. But you must understand this, Makini. Zoma is no different than when you met him. He is the same cheetah. He was bisexual before you met him, and he still is now. He is still the same—asshole—that he was before,” said Janja with a smile. “You know he means it all in fun, do you not?”

            “Yeah. I kind of figured that out. But Janja . . . what if you decide you want a cub? Like a—” Makini hesitated to say it.

            “Like a normal married couple?”

            “Yes.”

            “We would adopt. There are many cubs in the wild with no parents. We would raise him—or her—to the best of our ability. The cub would not lack.”

            “But—I know this sounds harsh, but wouldn’t it be best if it wasn’t raised by animals who were, you know—gay?”

            “Makini, this is one of the many problems that I have had with animals. You think we are second-class.”

            “No, that’s not it at all—”

            “It is. Perhaps second-class is not the best word, but it is what it amounts to. Because we are different, you want to deny us certain privileges. There are those that would not even let us be together, let alone marry.”

            “Janja, I didn’t mean it like that—”

            “Really?”

            Makini fell silent. “No,” he finally said. “I meant that. I—I just—I didn’t think what was right for the cub would be that.”

            “You believe that a cub should be raised in a ‘normal’ environment, and then be allowed to choose whether or not to pursue the same sex.”

            “Yeah. I mean, is that so wrong?”

            “It is not wrong. But it is not right, either. You were raised knowing that it was wrong to show too much affection toward any other males. It is the same for females. All cubs would believe that. But if they were raised my way, they would be no different, only opposite. Makini, to let a cub truly know what they would prefer, you should teach tolerance toward hetero- and homosexuals. But society is not ready for that, and may never be.”

            “If you put it that way . . . it does seem different.”

            Janja smiled, and then the smile faded as he argued with himself silently. “Makini,” he said, “I know this is a bad time to say this, but there is not a good time, and this time is better than any I can imagine.”

            “Shoot.”

            “If . . . well, if you would consider looking into our lifestyle a little more . . .”

            “Janja . . . Janja, that’s . . . big. Really big. I’m not sure I could do that.”

            “If you ever change your mind, I am here. It is not as bad as you believe.” Janja smiled guiltily. “But I will not push you. I will be with Zoma, if you need me.”

            “Where’s Kassan?”

            “Your father? I believe he is with Mataka and the others. He will be back soon.” Janja’s eyes drifted down to the leaves on Makini’s forelegs. “And he will want to know all about your little . . . trip.”

            Makini swallowed. He didn’t quite know how Kassan would react, but Mataka would not be happy.

 

 

 

            “Do you have any idea what you’ve done? You could have exposed us all. We are no longer safe.” Somehow, the quiet tones of anger were worse than screaming. “We could have an entire kingdom’s wrath on us any second now. If either of you were seen coming back here, or betrayed, Zoma, by your mother, we could be dead in a matter of minutes.”

            “We weren’t seen—” began Makini.

            “And on top of that, you were injured. How can we possibly expect to finish this even remotely close to a week? The hyenas have already told us that they will not extend the deadline, and they mean it. They want this done now. And those wounds will not close in one week. What were you thinking?”

            “Run,” said Zoma.

            “What?”

            “We were thinking ‘run.’ You know, for our lives.”

            “This isn’t the time for jokes—”

            “Kass, relax,” said Mataka. “Mistakes happen. For all we know, we could be running for our lives in a few days’ time.”

            “Mataka, that is not the point,” said Kassan. “They did their job foolishly, recklessly—”

            “Yeah, but what do you expect from Zoma?”

            “I thought that Makini would at least show some self-control!”

            “And what do you expect from a guy trained by me and Nasiha? Kass, I know this sounds like She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but relax. There’s no point in getting worked up about it. Look, we sent Janja back early to meet them if they got back before we did, and from what it sounds like, they found a lot more stuff out than they would have if they were just slow and cautious.”

            “That is no excuse—”

            “You want to chew ‘em out? Fine. You take one, I’ll take one.”

            “Zoma, come with me,” said Kassan.

            “No, Zoma, come with me,” said Mataka. “I know I don’t critique that well. We should save the one with the most problems for the more—experienced.”

            “Mataka, I know what you’re doing,” said Kassan.

            “And hey, it’s still working. Come on, Zoma.” Mataka disappeared into the savannah, Zoma following him with what almost sounded like quiet laughter.

            Kassan turned to Makini. Makini was staring at him with an utterly blank face, sitting straight up on his forelegs, the leaves around them having turned red on the edges from blood. Kassan took a deep breath and began to pace in front of Makini. “You behaved recklessly. You could have exposed us all.”

            “I was following Zoma’s lead—”

            “You knew that Zoma was unstable! He has a tendency to do stupid things without thinking at all! You knew this!”

            “Unstable?” asked Makini, disgust in his voice.

            “Unstable. He is a danger at best—”

            “Then why does Mataka think he’s one of the best rogues there are? If you haven’t noticed, just about all of ‘the best’ have been gathered here.”

            “Mataka’s reasoning and mine are different. Mataka does not know caution.”

            “Mataka knows courage!” said Makini angrily. “He knows that you have to do something to get a job accomplished—”

            “And look what it’s done for him. A long succession of jobs with an injury on almost every one of them—”

            “We’re asked to kill animals! You think they’re just going to stand there and go quietly?”

            “We are not killing anyone. That was almost what ruined him with that cubnapping; Mataka does not know patience.”

            “He knows plenty of damn patience; he just knows when to use it! If you haven’t noticed, we have to get this job done in five days because today’s pretty much shot!”

            “All the more reason for doing it carefully—”

            “All the more reason for getting it done and over with! Mataka has the right idea! Those hyenas are going to get more and more tense the closer the deadline comes! We can’t use them; all they’ll be is a flaw when it comes down to actually doing the job! We don’t need a clan of angry hyenas on our back!”

            “We can extend the deadline if we have to.”

            “You just said we couldn’t!”

            “We’ll find a way.”

            “A way,” said Makini skeptically. “Alright, sense you’ve got all the answers, what’s my problem, Daddy?

            Kassan stopped dead. He swallowed.

            “Well, Daddy? What’re all my problems, Daddy?

            “Don’t call me that.”

            “What’s the matter, Daddy?

            Kassan turned toward Makini. “You can call me Father, you can call me Dad, you can call me Kass, you can call me You Goddamn Son of a Bitch. Not Daddy.”

            “Why? You used to love that name, Daddy. You used to love everything I did.”

            “Makini, you’ve grown up—”

            “I’m your son!”

            “I haven’t seen you in years—”

            “Do you really think that makes a difference?!” yelled Makini, standing up. “You loved Mom, you loved me! We were a family until you decided to run off!”

            “Makini, you don’t understand—”

            “Then explain it to me!”

            “I—I can’t stay. Not me. I wanted more.”

            “More than us?! More than all the love we could give you?! Mom cried for weeks after you left! The only reason she stopped was because she got a horn through her gut!”

            “Makini, please, I do regret your mother’s death—”

            “Bullshit! You could have stopped it! If you hadn’t left, it never would have happened!”

            “There was nothing I could do. Makini, your mother had a price on her head.”

            “You expect me to believe that?!”

            “It’s true. She was marked for death.” Kassan paused. “It was because I was with her, and because of you. You were evidence of what I did with her. She used to be quite the . . . She slept with a great deal of leopards. When one of her former lovers discovered that she was with me, he wanted her killed.”

            “I can’t believe that,” said Makini. “Do you really expect me to believe that my mother—the one who loved me unconditionally, and at least stayed with me—was as much of a whore as you?”

            “Makini, I left for her safety. I was much more of a distinctive leopard than she was; they’d be looking for me. I had to leave. They wouldn’t know who she was on her own. She would have been safe. If it hadn’t been for that hunting accident . . .”

            “So you left to save her, is that it?”

            “Yes.”

            “I don’t know whether I’ve heard more bullshit in my life,” said Makini. “You could have stayed. You could have fought. Look at what you can do! You’re a rogue, Father, and one of the best! Maybe even the best! And you say that there was nothing that you could’ve done to save her?”

            “Makini, I am . . . not proud of what I did. I was a coward the day I left your mother.”

            “Damn right you were.”

            Kassan looked away, embarrassed. “Makini,” he said, “I want to make it up to you. I really do. You had every chance of a normal life stolen from you. I want to change that.”

            “Do you really think you can make my life normal now? Now, when I’m a rogue? You took that chance away from me, Father. I’m never going to be normal.”

            Kassan wasn’t ready for the bluntness. “I—I can see how you would think that—”

            “It’s true, and you know it.”

            “I . . . don’t want it to be true.”

            “And you expect me to believe that? You left me like you left so many other cubs.”

            “Makini . . . I was wrong to do that. I’m not going to say that I don’t enjoy my lifestyle. I do. But I—I killed your mother with what I did. And I am sorry. And I really, truly, and honestly want to make it up to you.”

            Makini stared at Kassan. Finally he shook his head. “By the gods, you’re a wonderful liar.”

            “Makini, you have to believe me. Please. I don’t want to have you turn away from me. You’re all the family I have.”

            “You expect me to believe you just had a sudden change of heart?”

            “No. But I want to try to be a good father. I really do. Please, trust me.”

            Makini was quiet. “I want to believe you,” he said. “I really do.”

            “Makini, I’m being honest. I want to be the best father I can to you. It’s the least I can do for all I’ve put you through. Please.”

            Makini hesitated, then wrapped a foreleg around his father, pulling him close. Kassan gasped slightly, surprised by the action, then slowly placed a foreleg around Makini, feeling his tears on his shoulder.

            “I love you, Dad.”

            Kassan swallowed, then smiled and rubbed Makini’s back. “I know.” Maybe he could be a decent father.

 

 

 

            “So, I hear the Shadow killed three more,” said the king as he looked down at the carcass the lionesses had brought him. He looked up at Moyo.

            “Did he?” asked Moyo.

            “Yes. Along with several cheetah cubs.”

            Moyo gagged on the bit of meat he had in his mouth. The king looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Cubs?” Moyo finally said.

            “Yes. Cubs.”

            “How . . . horrible.”

            “I’ve been pestered all of today to do something about it. Apparently the incident happened two nights ago.”

            “Hmm.” Moyo looked down at his sister, Chuma, who was eating off the carcass now, taking her slow, careful bites.

            “We need to put a stop to it.”

            Moyo looked up at the plural. “We?”

            The king smiled. “Of course. You don’t expect me to leave you the kingdom without any actual experience in ruling, do you?”

            “I . . . I don’t know what to say, Father.”

            “Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’ll have any power beyond what I give you. I want you to remember that. That is one of the most important lessons a king should know. He must not overextend himself. His power is there, but that does not necessarily mean that it must be used. Choose when to exercise it.” The king smiled. “Starting with the Shadow.”

            “Father . . . are you sure that’s really the best thing?”

            “Catching a criminal like him? Of course! Vigilante ‘justice’ is one thing I will not stand for in my kingdom.”

            “But I—I’d heard that the number of—well, of crimes has gone down since . . .”

            “You aren’t suggesting he’s helping, are you?”

            “Father, I—yes, I am,” said Moyo.

            “He has just killed innocent cubs. He has gone too far with that.”

            “But you don’t know he’s done that—”

            The king smiled. “I know how you seem to believe that he is a hero, and a large part of the kingdom does, too. But he is committing crimes, Moyo, crimes. It doesn’t matter if he seems to be a decent animal; if he is doing something that is wrong, then he must be punished. That is justice.”

            “I know, Father, but what if . . . what if you let an animal off once in a while?”

            “Let him off? That sets a precedent—”

            “But what about that cheetah, Father? The pregnant one?”

            “She killed a leopard!”

            “But Father, she said it was self-defense. Couldn’t you have believed her?”

            “She had no evidence for her actions,” said the king.

            “But—”

            “And neither does the Shadow. If you can prove to me that every single murder he has made—and that’s what they are, murders—if you can prove they all are for the greater good, then maybe I’ll reconsider my punishment. But until then, I want his head. And I want it from you.”

            “But Father—how can you catch a shadow?”

            “That is precisely the thing that I did not want to hear! He has made himself into some kind of legend, and that inspires fear! He is an ordinary animal, nothing more. He bleeds, just like all of us.”

            “But Father, if no one’s even seen him, how am I supposed to know what I’m looking for?”

            Try. That’s all you have to—” He was interrupted by a gagging sound. Moyo looked down at his sister, Chuma, to see her choking on something. “Idiot girl!” said the king. He hit Chuma across the face.

            “Here,” said Moyo gently, bringing his sister’s head up. He reached inside her mouth and carefully pulled out the bit of meat that had a bone stuck in it.

            “I don’t know why we even keep her here,” said the king. “If only your mother had borne a half-way intelligent daughter . . .”

            Moyo wiped his paw off on his coat, then kissed his sister gently. “There,” he said. “Better?” Chuma nodded, and began to go slowly out of the den, away from her quickly-angered father.

            “Of all the unfortunate things,” said the king. “Why do we even keep her?” he repeated.

            Moyo looked up at his father, pity for his sister burning in him. “Because it’s just.”

 

 

 

            “Alright,” said Mataka, “based on what we’ve got, it’s definitely going to be an inside job.”

            “And?” asked Katili. The clan leader had insisted that she, or at least one hyena, be included in every meeting the rogues had. The rogues had felt that it was best to indulge her. After tonight, they only had five days left to work their magic.

            “And that means that the pride needs to trust someone. Meaning that Aisha makes herself cute and adorable. As opposed to the hellish bitch she usually is.”

            “Hey!”

            “Sorry if the truth stings a little, Aisha.”

            “I’ll show you stinging.”

            “One of these days.”

            “In the meantime,” said Kassan, “the rest of us will be watching the pride. Boring, routine stuff as we try to find a pattern of how they work, how they move, and try to determine the best points of attack. Of course, if we could have longer than a week, we could do a much more thorough—”

            “It’s out of the question,” said Katili. “If you’re just watching the pride for weaknesses, five days should be more than enough.”

            “Katili,” said Janja in his slow, rolling voice, “let me try to explain. We are working with something that is completely and absolutely fluid. A pride without a den moves every day, even if it is just a hundred yards. They spread out when they sleep. If we were working with a den, we would be more than able to assault it in five days. A den makes a set area. But a pride without a den changes every day. We will have to note each lioness and her actions, and note them perfectly, or else there will only be a perfect mess. If we were killing, that would be different. But the prince wants no casualties unless absolutely necessary. We try to fulfill the requirements of our job exactly. We will assault that pride in five days if you force us to, but it would be very likely that animals would get hurt, and it would probably be one of us first.”

            “I see what you’re saying, but what you are saying is that someone will get hurt. You are the best, or so you tell me. If that’s true, you shouldn’t have any problem getting to the king. I don’t care if you kill anyone on the way there; that’s the prince’s obsession. I just want the king gone. And if one or more of you die, then I could honestly care less.”

            There were low, suppressed snarls. “I do not believe you quite comprehend what you just said,” said Janja.

            “I could care less about what happens to rogue filth. That’s what I said.”

             “You filthy hyena,” said Zoma, his rage open and obvious.

            “At least I have a home!”

            “You’re lower than vermin!”

            “And you aren’t? You’re lower than us! Look at yourselves, thinking that you can go where you like and do whatever you please to whomever you want—”

            “Because we can,” said Darau. “We actually go out and explore, while all you other animals stay in your kingdom and cower.”

            “Is that right? Because from what I know, rogues are nothing more than exiled criminals!”

            Darau suddenly launched himself onto Katili. There were yells of “Hey!” from the rogues, and Kassan and Janja hurriedly put their forelegs around Darau’s, trying to drag him off her.

            “Listen, you bitch,” said Darau angrily, “I had no reason to leave! I did nothing! I grew up; is that a crime now? Is it?!”

            “Darau, she didn’t know,” said Kassan.

            “Goddamn filthy bitch—”

            Aisha went in front of him. “Darau—Darau, easy. Just forget about.” She put her paw on his face.

            Darau hung his head and relaxed. Kassan, Janja, and Aisha backed away. Darau looked up at Katili again. “You’re lucky they’re here. You have no idea.” He turned away toward the edge of the clearing they were in. “Filthy bitch.”

            “Look,” said Kassan as the others eyed Darau carefully, “we just want more than a week. Someone’s going to get hurt. They always do. But not if we have longer.”

            “One week,” said Katili. “No longer.”

            Kassan sighed. “Fine,” said Mataka. “You wanted regular updates, you got ’em. All we got for you. We have nothing, and all we’re going to be doing is watching, and reporting to someone every night for five more days. Is that right?”

            “Yes,” said Katili. “But how you do the job is your business.”

            Mataka shook his head. “Alright,” he said, “we walk.”

            “What?” came from the other rogues.

            “We’ve done it before. We’ll do it again. She’s not giving us what we need, and all we’re asking for is a little more time. We should walk. Right now.”

            “Mataka, that’s not an option,” said Kassan.

            “And why not? Or maybe you’d like to be the one that dies?”

            “No one is going to die.”

            “Says you.”

            “Says me.”

            “Mataka, we can do the job,” said Janja. “We will simply have to be careful.”

            “I mean, we’re the best, right?” said Makini. “We can do it.”

            Mataka blew out a long stream of air. “Fine,” he said, getting up and walking away. “Fine, great, we’ll do it, and if you find me at the bottom of the waterhole tomorrow, don’t bother getting me out.”

            Zoma turned to Katili. “His way of saying ‘good night.’ Come on, Janja.” Zoma walked out of the clearing. Janja nodded to Katili, then followed. Darau marched moodily out of the clearing, not saying a word. Katili left, and then Aisha, then Makini, looking back at his father. Kassan looked at Makini, then said, “Go ahead. Mataka’ll want you.” Makini left. Kassan sighed and headed after Katili. He found her drinking at a waterhole. He walked up next to her.

            Katili stopped drinking as she saw Kassan’s reflection in the pond. “Yes?”

            “We just want a little more time,” Kassan said. “That’s all.”

            “I want to believe you, I really do,” said Katili.

            “You trusted me before.”

            “But I have a clan to think of now. I have to think of others besides myself.”

            “I’m sure you do. But you’re the akida. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

            “It means responsibility. I’m not going to risk all of their lives.”

            “Why would I betray you? Why would any of us?”

            “I don’t trust rogues.”

            “You trusted me.

            “I let you get close to me. You’re different, Kass, you were orphaned.”

            “Doesn’t that mean I’m more of a rogue than any of them?”

            Katili smiled. “Twisting my words.” She sighed. “Mother would be proud of you.”

            “Katili, please. Just a little longer.”

            Katili smiled again. She leaned up and licked him under the jaw. “Persuasion is a good thing.”

            “Katili, I—I’m trying to stop this.”

            Katili drew her head back in surprise. “What?”

            “I—I’m trying to be a good father to Makini.”

            Katili smiled. “And you think this is being a bad example?”

            “I—well, isn’t it?”

            Katili kissed him again, and rubbed against his leg. “Makini’s not here.” She felt Kassan shudder. “You weren’t meant to reform, Kass. Just let me trust you again.”

            Kassan looked down at her. “Why not?” he whispered into her ear. He drew her head close and kissed her passionately. “You can’t cure everything at once.”

 

 

 

            Moyo nuzzled Chuma lovingly, then applied another r’laka leaf to her shoulder. Chuma moaned in pain slightly, but didn’t try to shy away. She trusted Moyo, and far more than she trusted anyone else.

            “What happened?”

            Moyo jumped, exclaiming “Aiheu!” He turned to see a black leopard behind him. Kassan’s son. “Don’t ever do that again,” he breathed.

            “Sure,” said Makini. His mouth twitched in what was most likely a smile.

            “And what do you want?”

            “To talk to you. Am I interrupting anything?”

            “Just—just helping Chuma here.”

            “Can I trust her?”

            “Why?”

            “Because I’ll have to kill her otherwise.”

            “No!” said Moyo, shocked. “Of course you can trust her; she wouldn’t betray anyone, she’s my sister for Mano’s sake.” He shook his head as he pressed the r’laka more firmly against Chuma’s shoulder.

            “What?” asked Makini.

            “You’re just as bad as he said you were. You’re just like your father, aren’t you?”

            “As bad as who said I was?”

            Moyo stopped rubbing the leaf suddenly. He swallowed nervously. “No one. I—I just—”

            “Who are you talking about?” pressed Makini. “None of us like backstabbing, prince.”

            “It’s—no one, really. He said he didn’t want you to know.”

            “I’m not joking, prince,” said Makini coldly. “We’ve got enough problems with the hyenas. We aren’t going to be betrayed by you.”

            “It—it was that lion, okay? The one with you.”

            “Mataka?”

            “Maybe that’s his name. I don’t know.”

            “You should have just said it was one of us. We aren’t going to look away from any backstabbing, prince. We were given everything wrong about this job.”

            “I—needed you. Is that so bad?”

            Makini stared at Moyo. For all the world, he looked just like a lion who was tending another’s wounds. Moyo was a gentle creature. For him to actually be plotting a rebellion . . . it was almost unbelievable. It was desperate.

            “Look,” said Makini in a gentler voice than he had been using, “we’re here to help you. That’s what we do. At least, that’s what I do. But you’ve got us worried; this whole job has all of us worried. Everything’s being rushed, nothing’s as we were told . . . sire, someone’s going to die. That’s inevitable. And it could be your sister, your mother, your cousin . . . even your father. If push comes to shove, we’ll be fighting, and we won’t be showing mercy. We want to live, prince.”

            “My mother’s dead,” said Moyo quietly. “You won’t have to worry about her.”

            “Oh . . . I’m sorry. . . . How did it happen?”

            “Birthing me.”

            “I know how you feel, a little. My mother’s dead, too.”

            “How?”

            “Hunting accident. All I have is Dad now.”

            “The only one?”

            “Well, there’s my aunt, but I can’t exactly go home now. Not without facing all of those rumors. Just in and out now.”

            “Rumors?”

            “Kidnapped a lion cub. Very first job I had. That was almost a year ago, I think.”

            “Oh.” That was all Moyo could think to say.

            “I came here to ask you for something.”

            “What?”

            “About sunset, if you go out around the southern part of the kingdom, you’ll find a lioness. We need you to take her back with you. Make her comfortable. Accepted, if you get my drift.”

            “You want to sneak that lioness that was with you into our pride?”

            “And you have something against that?”

            “It’s—mating season.”

            “And?” asked Makini.

            “What if she decides that she—that she wants to . . .”

            “Then she’ll make it known, and we’ll expect you to act normally. You just found her, you’ve never seen her before, but you believe her story.”

            “You actually expect me to—”

            “Yeah,” said Makini. “If that’s what you’d do.”

            “But—but she won’t actually . . .”

            “Ey-Aye . . . she’s—playful.”

            “Please tell me this is a joke. That this is all a really bad joke.”

            Makini finally grinned, unable to keep a straight face any longer. “She’ll promise to behave. You aren’t her type anyway.”

            “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

            “Damned if I know,” said Makini, getting up and beginning to leave. “That’s just what Mataka said. Don’t forget, sire. Sundown tonight.”

            Moyo watched him disappear into the grass completely, then turned to Chuma. “Well,” he said quietly, “looks like we’re going to have a friend staying here for a little while.”

            “Who?” asked Chuma in her still-not-grown voice.

            “Oh, just another lioness. Her name’s Ey-Aye.”

            “Ey-Aye?”

            “That’s right, Ey-Aye. She’s just coming here to visit for a while . . .”

 

 

 

            Aisha wandered in a straight line toward where the pride was supposed to be sleeping. If the prince didn’t show for some reason, she should be fine anyway. She could probably make her way into the pride, but it would be so much easier with Moyo to vouch for her. And then she saw him, walking toward her from the left.

            “I thought I was going to have to do this without you,” she said as Moyo caught up to her.

            “I know the danger you’re in,” said Moyo. “My father doesn’t just let animals stroll through your kingdom.”

            “From what I hear, that hasn’t stopped that Shadow guy.”

            “No, it hasn’t. And now he wants me to track him down.”

            “You?” Aisha laughed. “Of all the animals, he sends someone like you?

            “What?”

            “Sire, you aren’t a killer. You wouldn’t hurt a fly. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great quality sometimes. But if he expects you to get this guy . . .” Aisha shook her head. “The king obviously has a lot more faith in you than we do.”

            “Fathers are like that.”

            “Yeah, when they aren’t busy taking acuyle.”

            “Taking what?”

            “Acuyle. It’s a plant. Makes you see things.”

            “Why would he . . . oh.”

            “Yeah. Course, sometimes the things you see aren’t the best. It can get pretty scary.”

            “He—he gave some to you?”

            “Nah, he’d never give it to me. I took it myself. Stopped it completely after I had a really bad time. Thought worms were coming out of my teeth. Tried to pull ‘em out. The teeth, that is. Got three out before Mom stopped me. She was clean, at least right then.”

            “How . . . well, why . . . never mind—”

            “You want to know what happened to my life.”

            “Yes. But if you don’t want—”

            “Sire, I don’t give a damn. After four days, I’m never going to see you again. So I don’t mind telling you.”

            “I—I’d never really looked at it that way.”

            “It was all fine at the beginning, really. Mom was happy, Dad was happy, I was happy. And then when I was about one, one and a half, things began to go downhill. See, Dad wanted a pride, and he only had me and Mom, and Mom wasn’t the happiest either; marriage just wasn’t working out for them. So Dad started using, and Mom, and me. Course, I stuck to acuyle; Dad stockpiled it, wasn’t too hard to get at. If he got any of the better stuff, like gyuja or klain, that was gone as soon as he got it. Same for Mom. I wasn’t that stupid; I saw what it did to them, and I tried some of the harder stuff, vajedu, and I didn’t like it too much, and I really didn’t like how wasted I got after it. So I just stuck to acuyle. Had to keep using more of it, wouldn’t get the same effect with the same amount. Until the whole teeth thing.

            “But even with that, it still couldn’t take all the pain away. I don’t know of any plant that does, except fanu, and that knocks you out, so it doesn’t really count. And I tried to kill myself. I’ve tried six times. Even after I left, I still tried. Because I knew that they’d just being doing all the hard stuff they could get they’re paws on, anything and everything, and my leaving . . . that didn’t help. Going back wasn’t an option, killing myself was the only way I saw. I had a miserable life.

            “But, like I said, I just finally decided to leave them one day. I was tired of hearing all the fighting and never being able to talk to them ’cause they were washed out. Just joined a pride when I was three and a half, four years old, and they helped me kick it completely. Helped me over a lot of issues. Mataka did the rest of them. He put up with me pretty well.”

            “You know, my life really doesn’t seem all that bad,” said Moyo quietly.

            “Oh, it’s probably just as bad as mine, just in another way. Lot of rogues come from broken lives. Zoma’s mom threw him out, Kass is a war orphan, Darau was run out from one of those prides that don’t let their males grow up, Makini lost his mom in a stampede, Mataka got exiled. Janja . . . he’s been okay, though. Course, we’ve all learned to just chillax. Take life as it comes. You have to out there. Just one job to the next.”

            “I don’t think I could live that way.”

            “Yeah, a lot of them are miserable. They aren’t real rogues. They just leave home, then move somewhere else, settle down, be happy.” Moyo was silent. “And I almost forgot to tell you everything. Okay, my name is Aisha, I’m coming here because my pride was taken over and I had to leave to survive, and I’m just looking for a place to stay.”

            “You’re just going to be a lovable stray?”

            “One of the things I do best. That and kill animals. Anything I should know about?”

            “Not that I know.”

            “Anything I should say?”

            “Say?”

            “To impress?”

            “Father never was one for flattery.”

            “Of course, he’s never met me,” said Aisha with a smile. They walked a little further in silence before she stopped, Moyo going ahead a few paces before stopping. “Hit me,” said Aisha.

            “What?”

            “Right here, across the face, as hard as you can. Claws out.”

            “What?”

            “Just do it.”

            Moyo stared at her, then swiped at her.

            “I said hit me, not tap me. Come on, as hard as you can.”

            Feeling that he was going to regret this, Moyo brought his paw back and swung at Aisha. She fell to the ground, her cheek bleeding freely. “Are you okay?” asked Moyo hurriedly.

            “Ow . . . Okay, now the stomach. Hit me in the gut. Like you were attacking me.”

            “Are you sure?”

            “Come on, do it!”

            Moyo hit her, then did it again and again as she requested it, making it look as if she really had been beaten, and quite helpless to do anything about it. It was a little sickening to know that he was the one who had done it.

            “Alright, that’s good,” Aisha finally said. She got up and began to head toward the pride again with a limp that wasn’t entirely faked. She stopped and turned back to Moyo. “You coming?”

            “You look awful.”

            “Gee, thanks. Come on.”

            Moyo trotted to catch up to her and began leading her to the pride. When they got there, the lionesses predictably stared at Aisha. Aisha just looked around at them, feigning nervousness. She was silently observing them behind her mask, looking for the ones that would pose the most threat and would need to be taken care of first.

            “And that’s my father, the king,” said Moyo quietly to her. Aisha looked at the lion they were heading to. The king was sitting up to receive Aisha.

            “Yes, Moyo? Who is this?”

            “This—this is Aisha, Father. I found her in the kingdom. I thought maybe we could . . . you know, let her stay with us.”

            “For how long?”

            “Well . . . for life, Father.”

            “That’s an awful lot to ask for a stranger, Moyo,” said the king.

            “But please, Father, she just wants our help.”

            “So far I haven’t heard her ask for a thing.”

            Moyo turned to Aisha, a worried look on his face. She didn’t know if he was faking it, or if he realized that if the king saw her for who she was, everything would fall through. The king could know everything, including his involvement. Torture always worked. It just took time.

            “I—I need a home, sire,” said Aisha pitifully. “I don’t have anywhere to go. My pride was attacked and they—they took over it, and Mother did her best to protect me from them, I know she did. But I don’t have a home, sire, and I’ve been looking for so long, and I just wanted . . . wanted to . . .”

            There were flaws in her act, Moyo could see that immediately. She hesitated too long, she didn’t sound quite like someone who regretted their losses so much. In short, it seemed like she wasn’t quite acting the part correctly. But these rogues were supposed to be the best, Moyo reminded himself. They were supposed to be the ones that could do anything.

            The thoughts didn’t take away his worries.

            “Why here?” asked the king.

            “Sire, I just need a home.”

            “Why not another pride?”

            “I’ve tried, sire. But they don’t want me. They call me a rogue, and they—they don’t want me.”

            “Then why should we?”

            “But sire, please, I’m not any trouble, really, I’m not. I just want a home, and I can do my share of hunting and nursing and cubsitting—really sire, I can help,” said Aisha earnestly.

            The king was silent as he stared at her. He finally said, “You may stay here tonight.”

            “Oh, thank you, sire! You won’t regret—”

            “I’ll think on it tonight. You will know whether or not you can stay in the morning. Moyo, if you would be so kind as to show her a place to sleep . . .”

            “Yes, Father.” Moyo turned to Aisha. “Follow me.”

            Moyo led Aisha over to where his sister was sleeping. Aisha felt slightly disgusted as she looked at the retarded lioness, Chuma’s eyes lacking intelligence.

            “This is Chuma,” said Moyo. “My sister.” Moyo draped a foreleg around her shoulders and gave her a gentle squeeze, and received a shy kiss in return. “If you don’t mind sleeping with her tonight . . .”

            “Is she going to kill me in my sleep?”

            “Chuma wouldn’t hurt anyone,” said Moyo, taking Aisha’s statement the wrong way.

            “Then I’m fine,” said Aisha, lying down.

            “Aisha, my sister is still a lioness, no matter what you might think—”

            Easy. I’m not trying to say anything,” said Aisha. “It was meant to be funny. At least I thought it was.”

            “Sorry,” said Moyo. “I just thought . . .”

            “That I was making some kind of slur?”

            “Yeah. Look, if you could just keep her company tonight, until I come back, that’d be great.”

            “And where are you going, prince?”

            “I think I’ve found someone who knows where the Shadow is. I need to check it out, don’t I?”

            “If that’s normal.”

            “I’m in charge of hunting him down,” said Moyo, as if to explain himself.

            “Then don’t let me stop you.”

            “Thank you,” said Moyo. He began to head off toward his father to tell him where he’d be going.

            Aisha turned back to Chuma, who was staring at her with her vacant stare. Chuma’s paw hesitatingly crept forward, then leapt forward to tap one of Aisha’s forepaws before retreating quickly, Chuma giggling, though Aisha couldn’t make out whether it was humor or nervousness. Aisha sighed. She might as well start making herself trusted here.

 

 

 

            Moyo crept slowly through the grass under the moonless night sky. He suddenly found himself tackled to the ground. He couldn’t see his attacker in the dark. They hissed, “One of these days, making all that noise is going to kill you.” The attacker got off. “You’d better hope I’m there to save your sorry behind.”

            Moyo looked up at the Shadow indignantly. “I thought I was quiet.”

            “It’s better,” admitted the Shadow. He turned around and began to walk away, Moyo following him. “Care for a midnight snack?”

            “What?”

            “I do have to eat you know. Otherwise I might just waste away to being a—shadow.” The Shadow chuckled at his little joke. “I just can’t afford to hunt during the day, you know that. Too many animals that could see me.”

            “You won’t have to keep up this act much longer,” said Moyo, as way of apology. He watched as the Shadow suddenly stopped over a dark lump on the ground, then reached down toward it with his jaws. He flung his head backward, swallowing meat from the carcass on the ground. “What is it?” Moyo asked.

            “Zebra.”

            “Well, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of your meal—”

            “I know it’s your favorite, sire,” said the Shadow, turning back around to Moyo with a smile that was barely visible in the dark night.

            “Maybe a little,” said Moyo with a grin. He walked around to the other side of the carcass. The two ate for a while in silence before Moyo spoke again. “You know, I’m supposed to hunt you down,” said Moyo.

            “Really?”

            “Yeah.”

            “So the king’s coming after me?”

            “Well, I am at least.”

            “Oh, no. Whatever will I do?” The Shadow took another bite and swallowed. “So, what are you going to do?”

            “Isn’t it obvious?” asked Moyo. He swiped at the Shadow’s throat, slowly and without claws, missing by a calculated span. “Swipe. You’re dead.”

            “Daddy doesn’t have any idea about us?” asked the Shadow.

            “No. It’s impossible to hunt you down. At least, that’s what he thinks I think.”

            “I’m more worried about the rogues finding out than him. I don’t want Kassan to know until I kill him.”

            Moyo didn’t say anything.

            “Mbulu finished the . . . I don’t really know what you’d call it,” said the Shadow. “Killer, I guess. He finished it today. I owe that monkey a great debt.”

            “Are you sure it will work?”

            “It will fit. If anything, it might be a little tight for Kassan. He won’t escape. Not with the knots Mbulu ties.”

            “That’s—good,” forced out Moyo.

            “You still don’t approve, do you?” remarked the Shadow.

            “It’s not that,” said Moyo.

            “Yes, it is. You believe killing is wrong.”

            “Isn’t it?”

            “It merely depends on the one killing and the one being killed. If it is right, then they should be killed. And Kassan, of all animals, deserves to die, and not just by my paw, I’m sure.”

            “If you say so.”

            The Shadow looked at Moyo as if checking him for illness. He finally reached up a paw to pat Moyo on the back of his maned neck. “It’ll be okay. It’ll all turn out alright. Trust me.”