Meeting in a diner.
Mhumhi curled up with Kebero that night.
He let Kutta speak to Sacha, far downstairs, when she demanded to know why they had gotten back so late. In his cowardly way, he had slunk right by and up the stairs as Kutta started to talk, mixing the lies with the new truth that they had learned.
He hadn’t said a word to Kebero, he’d just gotten on the bed and curled up around the sleepy puppy. Kebero had seemed groggy but happy about it.
Bii was in the corner, hunting a cockroach. He hadn’t spared Mhumhi more than a glance since he came up. He was crouched by a little crack in the floorboards, big ears trained downwards, full of furious predatory intensity.
Mhumhi watched him with a strange curiosity. He had not thought about it, but Bii was a killer. Even the little bugs had lives, after all. Bii consumed those lives. And the rats and mice that other dogs ate were alive too, and even had blood.
He licked Kebero’s head, thinking. Kebero had a pulse, and blood, and underneath his skin there was meat. Just like the little hulker children. But Mhumhi had never considered eating Kebero. He licked him again, to apologize for even thinking that.
Mhumhi had always know, in a vague way, that the meat he ate had been something alive once. He could not remember that it had actually been explained or described to him, but it must have, mustn’t it?
What living creatures had all that meat come from?
So much meat- meat to feed a hundred hundred thousand dogs- where had it all come from?
Bii suddenly lunged forward and stuck his nose in the little crack. A second later he drew away, squirming cockroach caught in his jaws, and crunched downwards.
Mhumhi watched him eat it, the evident pleasure he took in consuming it, even as the cockroach’s legs still slowly rotated as he did so.
Kutta came dashing up the stairs and threw herself on the bed.
“What, what is it?” Mhumhi said, startled, as she crawled up next to him, whimpering. He licked her ear, feeling the dried blood encrusted on it.
“Sacha just went outside,” she said. “I don’t know where she went, I don’t know what she’s going to do… I thought she wouldn’t be upset!”
Mhumhi pressed close to her, whining softly, trying to comfort her as she lay there and shuddered. Kebero twisted and pressed against his stomach.
“Where’s Sacha going? Why did she leave?”
His voice went shriller, up to a puppyish yap.
“Is she leaving like Mother did?”
“No, Kebero, of course not,” said Mhumhi, though the words sparked some alarm in him. Sacha could not leave, could she?
“She won’t leave,” said Kutta, or more moaned. “She has nowhere else to go.”
Her words made Mhumhi swallow, and he turned back to pay more attention to her ear, gently picking at the dried blood with his tongue.
“She’ll be back,” he said, between his ministrations. “She needs her time. You know how she is. She’ll be all right.”
Kutta said nothing, just closed her eyes and let him tend to her ear. Mhumhi felt Bii’s eyes on them from across the room.
“We have to tell her,” he said.
Beside him Kutta went stiff.
“No… no, we can’t…”
“We have to,” he insisted. “We can’t possibly go on keeping such a big secret from her, not if we want to… you know. She needs to be part of it. She’s our family, Kutta.”
Kutta was silent for a long while. Finally she said, “But she’ll be so mean and- and bossy about it once she knows.”
Mhumhi lifted his lips in a smile and nuzzled his sister, his cheek bumping against hers.
“It’ll be better anyway. She’ll know what to do. She always does, right?”
Kutta gave a soft sigh and leaned back against him. Their breath comingled. Mhumhi felt the close warmth of his sister, like the pressing weight of the hulker’s arms around his neck, the strange and gentle effect of body against body.
He found himself worried, somewhat, for Kutta had not eaten anything that day for herself. They’d missed the second dispensary time since they had come back so late. Mhumhi hoped that Sacha at least had gone and eaten. None of them could really afford to skip a day right now, not with the meat being spread so thin.
He fell asleep with this sense of unease within him, curled with Kutta and Kebero. Sacha did not return to join them for the rest of the night. Nor, for that matter, did Bii.
The next morning he woke up abruptly, jerking his head up. There was a great deal of noise and barking coming from outside, and sunlight was filtering brightly through the curtains and onto the floor.
“What’s going on?” Kutta asked sleepily, her eyes still tightly shut. “Is it another fight?”
Mhumhi recalled the fight that had occurred in the street a few days ago, with the golden jackal and the blue-eyed domestic. It seemed like an eternity had passed since then.
He got to his feet, gently dislodging a sleepy Kebero, and jumped off the bed. Behind him Kutta whined softly.
Mhumhi went downstairs and was startled to see Sacha there, standing by the door with her nose pressed to the crack and her short tail quivering. As he walked closer she spared him a brief glance.
“Something’s going on outside,” she said. “I think it’s the police. It’s got the foxes all riled up out there. I don’t dare even open the door.”
“Did you sleep down here last night?” Mhumhi asked, glancing at the tattered couch.
Sacha’s response was somewhat clipped, as if she didn’t approve of him broaching the subject. “Yes. I came back late. Didn’t want to wake anyone up.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, and he went over to try and lick her chin. She tolerated it, he thought, better than usual.
They heard Kutta coming down the stairs behind them. Her footsteps faltered. “Sacha?”
“Hush, I’m trying to listen,” said Sacha, very stiffly. Kutta came up and stood close beside Mhumhi, looking up at him.
“The police are outside,” he murmured to her, and her ears went back.
“For who?” she asked. “For what?”
“Hush!” said Sacha, and then she suddenly jumped back from the door as someone scratched it loudly.
“This is the police!” the dog outside shouted. “You must open up! We’re conducting a search!”
“A search for what?” Sacha growled, rearing up to balance her small weight on the door, as if that would be enough of a deterrent. “Who gives you the right?”
“Open up,” the voice repeated.
“Come on, Sacha, let’s not cause trouble,” said Kutta, swallowing nervously. Sacha growled and jumped up to tug down the door handle. The dog outside pushed in at once- it was a big painted dog.
“Is this all the dogs that live here?” he asked, rudely pushing by them to prowl through their kitchen and living room.
“We’ve a fox upstairs, recovering from an injury,” said Sacha. “Though I bet you woke him up with all that noise. What’s going on? What’s this about?”
The painted dog paused in his prowling and sniffing long enough to give her an annoyed look, but luckily didn’t seem to find her questioning too out of line. His response was dry and tired, as if he’d repeated it several times.
“We’re searching for all the domestics,” he said. “This just came down from the top. They’re to be arrested and questioned.”
“All the domestics?” That was Kutta, bewildered. “Why all the domestics? What have they done?”
“It’s not what they’ve done,” said the painted dog. “It’s their nature. We have reason to believe that most of them have helped or are harboring hulkers.”
Mhumhi knew that Kutta would be trying to catch his eye now, but he kept his gaze on the painted dog. “Why go after them all of the sudden like this?”
“Oh,” the painted dog sighed, “it’s because they’ve got some new information, up top. There’s been tampering with some of the dispensaries. You know about the closure of the Zoo Park, West Big Park, and Center Road dispensaries, don’t you?”
“The Center Road?” exclaimed Sacha, and the dog put his ears back.
“Err, forget that one. The point is, the issues are probably due to hulkers batting around with the machines. So we’ve got to locate all the rest of them now. There can’t be more than a hundred or so left, anyway, so we can finally sweep them out and get rid of them once and for all.”
He seemed pleased as he said it, as if this were news that would delight everybody. Mhumhi had to admit to himself that just a few days ago it would have delighted him.
“What are you doing with the domestic dogs that you catch?” That was Sacha, her gaze, as ever, very sharp.
“We take them in for questioning,” said the painted dog. He turned around to face the door. “This house is clear. You can carry on. Oh, and don’t expect to go to the dispensary until this afternoon.”
“What?!” exclaimed Sacha. “Are you saying our dispensary isn’t working either?”
“Oh, no,” said the painted dog, a trifle wearily. “Didn’t you hear the announcement? They’re splitting up the times. The Zoo Park and the Center Road dogs go in the morning, and the Oldtown dogs go at night. It makes things easier for everyone and there’s less fighting.”
He flicked his eyes around at the lot of them and trotted out of the house with a heavy sigh.
“I don’t believe this,” Sacha growled, as soon as his painted back had disappeared outside. “Splitting up the times! And they’re expecting to feed even more dogs from our dispensary! I’ve already heard that some dogs waited so long they didn’t get fed yesterday!”
“What are we going to do?” Kutta said. “We’re already trying to keep a low profile, and now this… We have no choice but to go all together now.”
“I know,” said Sacha. “Though it may work in our favor if there’s some confusion, at least. The police will be busy breaking up fights from the two different districts in the morning, I’ll bet. They’ll be tireder when it comes to us.” Her eyes got small and crafty. “Perhaps… perhaps we could even sneak in Kebero.”
“Really?” Mhumhi burst out, tail wagging. “We can start taking him?”
“He’s not really big enough,” said Sacha, “but at this rate no one’ll be behind to watch him. He’s small, he can pass for a big fox if the police are tired. There aren’t many Simien wolves around anyway; I doubt they’ll be that familiar with them.”
“He’ll be excited,” said Kutta, smiling.
“Don’t let him get too excited,” Sacha replied, tail stiff. “If he acts like a puppy, he’ll ruin it. Impress that upon him, would you?”
“I will do my best,” said Kutta. “I bet he’ll listen better if Bii tells him, though.”
“Well, tell Bii,” said Sacha. “Where is he, anyway? Hiding out upstairs?”
Mhumhi and Kutta exchanged a look, and Kutta said, in a worried way, “We haven’t seen him since last night.”
“He must be out hunting in the sewers, then,” Sacha said. “He told me his leg was feeling all right again. Though why he’d choose this morning… We’ll have to explain it to him when he gets back.” Her eyes narrowed with annoyance. “If he’s decided to take off…”
“I don’t think he’d leave Kebero like that, you know he’s fond of him,” Mhumhi said quickly.
“True. Not that I’d be sorry to see the fluffy back of him.” Sacha snorted. “You two had better not go running off on any more excursions today, by the way. The police are out in force. In fact, why don’t the two of you come with me?” Her little eyes suddenly took on a glitter. “I’ve been investigating something around Oldtown anyway.”
“What have you been investigating?” Mhumhi asked, wagging his tail a little. “Found any more sources of meat?”
“If only. No, I’ve been looking into our neighbors,” said Sacha. “The little foxes have been muttering away, you know. They’re less pleased about this whole situation than we are. They’re the ones getting the chewed end of the stick, and they know it.”
“It is strange how they took so many to eat down here,” said Kutta. “It’s a long walk from Center Road, isn’t it? To go both ways in one day?”
“It is,” said Sacha. “Which is exactly why they aren’t doing it, or so I’ve heard. I wasn’t sure until that dumb brute said it earlier, but the little foxes were saying last night that a dispensary had closed down and that the police were going to shift all of them here during the day.”
“Shift them here?” Mhumhi repeated, dumbstruck.
“How?” demanded Kutta. “How many dogs is that…? Is it all of them? Where are they going to stay?”
“I don’t know if they’re splitting them up, like they did with the Zoo Park dogs- some of them did go to the other side, to the South Big Park dispensary, you know, so we don’t have all of the stupid deadweights down here. But the foxes say that they’re just going to evict everyone from the houses nearest the dispensary and just put them there.”
“That’s-!” Kutta seemed at a loss for words. “I can’t believe they’d do that! How do they think they’ll get away with it?”
“Center Street is a big, rough lot,” said Sacha. “I imagine they’ll do it quite easily. At least at first.”
“What do you mean, at first?” Mhumhi asked. Sacha grunted.
“Let’s go have a look. I’ll show the two of you. Kutta, fetch Kebero.”
“He’s going to go out tonight anyway, so we might as well take him for a practice stretch. It might be safer for him outside the house today.” Sacha turned and put her nose against the crack underneath the door again. “We can sneak him out when no one’s around.”
Kutta gave Mhumhi a bewildered look, then trotted up the stairs. Sacha sat by the door and growled softly to herself.
“That stinking Bii had better be back by tonight…”
“Sacha,” said Mhumhi, rather timidly, coming to stand next to her. “Kutta and I- we’ve got something we need to tell you.”
Sacha sat down and turned her head back, giving him the full benefit of her little bear’s face over her shoulder. “You’re going to include me in your little secret now?”
“Well- I- we- yes,” Mhumhi stammered, tucking his tail. “I’m sorry, Sacha.”
“It’s all right,” said Sacha, turning back away. “I’m fairly certain it was mostly Kutta’s fault.”
Mhumhi felt that it would have probably been appropriate for him to jump to his sister’s defense then, but then again Sacha was absolutely correct.
“Can your secret wait until later?” Sacha glanced back at him today. “I’d rather pry it out of Kutta myself anyway, and I don’t want to get into a squabble right now. Especially not in front of Kebero.”
“I guess,” said Mhumhi, feeling rather guilty for the eventual browbeating that Kutta was going to receive, and also wondering if he couldn’t spirit himself away before it happened.
Kutta returned then, trotting down the stairs with Kebero in tow. He pushed ahead of her and fell into a play-bow, wagging eagerly.
“Are we going to go outside now? Am I really going to come?”
“The only little puppies who get to come outside are the quiet ones,” said Sacha. “The loud and disobedient ones go straight back inside. Understand?”
Kebero yapped and ran up to whine and lick under her chin. Mhumhi swooped in from the other side and did the same, nearly lifting Sacha off her feet with one overeager nudge of his nose. Kutta half-lunged as if she meant to do it too, but then pulled herself back, perhaps taking pity on her oldest and littlest sister, who was squalling and squirming in outrage.
They got themselves sorted out, finally, and Kebero positioned in the line between Sacha and Kutta so he could be under the sharpest scrutiny the whole time. Mhumhi was rather amused by this, as it meant that they had inadvertently organized themselves from smallest to largest. So much for not drawing attention to themselves; they’d make the strangest train Oldtown had ever seen.
“Come on,” Sacha said, her nose pressed to the door. “There aren’t any police just now. Follow me, and be quick.”
She nudged the door open with her nose and paw and they did so, all single file. Kebero was a mess of floppy limbs and excitement, and Kutta kept having to gently tug his tail to keep him in line, but at least the only ones around were their neighbor foxes. They didn’t spare them more than a glance or two, Mhumhi was relived to see. It seemed the mood of the neighborhood was rather low.
Sacha hugged the line of buildings, leading them through a narrow alley with cobblestones down onto Food Strip Street and down, farther south towards where the city started to get really faded and dusty. Mhumhi noticed that there were more foxes in the area than he was accustomed to seeing; perhaps Sacha was right, and they were already starting to be pushed out of their homes.
Sacha lead them across the street to a large shop building with a faded blue awning. Mhumhi saw that the bottom pane of glass in the door had been broken. It smelled like there were a great number of dogs inside.
Sacha went purposefully towards the opening in the glass, but before she could, a large red fox emerged from a turned-over trashcan that had been lying under the awning. Mhumhi could see more movement within.
The fox was walking towards them somewhat stiffly, but then she spotted Sacha and his bushy tail wagged.
“You brought your pack this time, did you?”
“I said I would,” said Sacha. She glanced back at the rest of them. “This is Lisica. If you’re polite to her, she may let us in.”
“Oh, small-ears, I’d let you in anyway,” said Lisica, and then she gave a huge yawn, showing all her teeth. “Pardon me. The rabble has kept me up all night with their barking and head-butting, I’m afraid.”
“Is it about the Center Road dogs?” asked Kutta, and Lisica gave her a startled glance.
“Oh, some of it is,” she said, with a short laugh. “But that’s the shed fur of a much larger beast. Speaking of which…” She looked at Mhumhi, sniffing in his direction. “Better keep your head down in there, Dapples.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about with Mhumhi,” Sacha said, stepping forward a little, as if she could shield him from view. “He’s not police.”
“I know that,” said Lisica. “Just… don’t talk in there, big fellow, all right? It’ll be better off for you.”
She went back into the trash can. Mhumhi could hear soft yipping and rustling from the darkened interior and a bright-eyed fox puppy peeped out at them for a moment before vanishing back inside.
Sacha redirected their attention with a grunt and carefully stepped through the broken glass into the shop. Kutta picked up Kebero by his scruff and squeezed after her, the puppy’s dangling legs just brushing the lower edge. Mhumhi went last, sucking in his belly as he stepped through.
Inside the shop it was very dim and smelly, and crowded with growling, whining, yapping small dogs. There were a great number of booths and tables, as well as a long counter, and the dogs covered these and the floor in a confusing mass of shifting furry forms, leaping up and down from surfaces, getting into minor squabbles, searching for family members that had gotten separated into the mix.
Sacha lead them to a booth with dark leather seats. There was a pair of chillas already sitting on top of the table alongside a crab-eating fox, but they gave Mhumhi a startled look and hastily hopped down, one after the other. The crab-eating fox looked uncomfortable, but stayed, shifting aside to make room as Sacha hopped up onto the booth and then on the table. Kebero followed her, getting a bit of assistance from Kutta as his clumsy paws slipped on the leather.
Kutta hopped into the booth but deigned to sit on the table; Mhumhi decided to follow her example when he tried to jump onto the table and bumped his head against a low-hanging lamp with a stained-glass shade. The thing swung wildly for a moment, casting colored shadows every which way and attracting a great deal of attention. Mhumhi backed back into the booth and tried to make himself look like a fox.
The stares receded when Lisica entered, along with a male fox and three puppies. Mhumhi surmised that they’d all been crammed into the trash can together. Behind Lisica there walked a female golden jackal.
Sacha gave a soft growl of surprise and looked back at Mhumhi from her seat on the table. Mhumhi sunk further down into the leather seat, resting his chin on the table. It was the jackal he’d stopped from fighting with the blue-eyed domestic.
The jackal herself was panting, flicking her gaze between the great mass of foxes; it did not seem to fall on their table in the back.
Lisica jumped up onto the high counter and then again to sit upon a derelict soda fountain, affording herself the highest vantage point, and gave a screaming bark for silence.
“I’ve brought Sundu here to speak to you tonight,” she said, looking down at the jackal- a large space had cleared around her on the floor. “But first, I’ll tell you the news: we’ve now got a few hundred squatters by the front of Oldtown. I’ll tell you the streets…” She listed them, and the growling and muttering got louder with each name.
“Piss in their water supply!” shouted someone, and a heavy-headed short-eared dog leapt up onto the table alongside Sacha. “We ought to drive off the scum!”
The others around her roused in a brief rabble of yaps and growls of agreement until Lisica gave her chilling bark again.
“Be quiet for a minute. We still need to hear from Sundu. This relates to our primary concern.” Lisica’s sharp eyes scanned the crowd. Mhumhi thought they lingered on their table, but perhaps it was to admonish the short-eared dog, who was panting and smiling.
“I see that some of you haven’t been here before,” Lisica went on. “But I’m sure you’ve ben hearing that there have been disappearances lately. Mostly puppies and young dogs.”
The crowd got quieter at this. Mhumhi saw Lisica’s mate nosing at their three pups.
“There’s been no help from police, but of course, we’re used to that,” said Lisica, to the murmured agreement of the crowd. “But now we have evidence that these thieves and murderers aren’t just attacking the smaller dogs and the foxes. Sundu, tell the others what you have to say, please.”
Lisica jumped down from the soda fountain, and Sundu the golden jackal cast around a bit before leaping up onto a nearby table.
“I don’t come from Oldtown,” she growled. “I come from the far edge of Brick-and-Stone, which is on the other side of your dispensary here. That neighborhood’s mostly jackals and coyotes and red wolves. We don’t mix around with any of your fox business.” She hesitated. “What I mean to say was, it was never any of my concern, or my partner’s. I had heard a few rumors about disappearances, but never much cared for them- we had a litter of pups.”
She paused a moment.
“I came back from the dispensary one morning, back to our home. The door was open and I could see my partner there. Well- I- I won’t jump around it. She was dead. Not just dead. Most of her was gone. Just her- her head, bits of her pelt, some bones…”
Sundu trailed off. Mhumhi could smell the scent of fear rising in the room. He looked worriedly over at Kebero, but the puppy had fallen asleep some time ago, curled up beside Sacha. He noticed that Sacha had put one foot on him.
“There was no other way to look at it,” said Sundu. “There were teethmarks on her bones. Something had eaten her. She was a full-grown jackal, like me. Would take a large dog to pull her down like that…”
“A dog?” That was the short-eared dog again. “D’you know for sure it was a dog? What about one of them- you know- hulkers?”
“No,” said Sundu. “No flat tooth made those marks. And a hulker always takes away what it kills. This… whatever it was… whoever it was… it ate her up right there.”
“You said you had puppies,” called someone else from the crowd. “What about them?”
Lisica spoke up. “Sundu has asked that we not discuss the puppies.”
A brief blanket of silence fell over the crowd. Mhumhi saw all their staring eyes, wide and frightened, showing white.
“We have,” Lisica said, after a moment, “what seems to be a dog- likely several dogs- that have been going around killing and eating other dogs. Again, the police do nothing. I know it’s been put forth by several that the killers are in fact the police-”
“Muck-coated killers!” bawled out the short-eared dog. Lisica ignored her.
“-and there are some who think it’s been done by the domestics. Which brings us to today. The police are hunting out all domestics in this part of the city. I don’t know about others, but it seems likely that it’ll start happening everywhere.”
“Finally,” growled Sundu. There were a few murmurs of agreement, though there were also several derisive hisses.
“Most of us have had our homes searched,” said Lisica. “Not to mention that many of us and our families have now been displaced thanks to the Center Road dispensary getting shut down. It’s obvious that the police are far from caring about what happens to us.”
“Nor anyone else,” said Sundu.
“But the rate of killing has been increasing,” said Lisica. “We’ve been hearing about deaths every day- not just pups that are left alone- individuals leave to hunt in the subway and never come back. Dogs vanish down dark alleys. Bigand small. If we want to protect our families, we’ve got to figure out who’s responsible on our own.”
“So what? Get to the point!” barked the short-eared dog, and now even Sacha shot her an irritated look.
“The point,” said Lisica, “is that it’s between the police, and the domestics. We know both are capable of killing. The police already hunt live hulkers in Big Park; it’s no stretch to imagine they would turn on their fellow dogs. After all, the hulkers are running out.”
Lisica stopped to glance at Sundu, then said, “But there are some that think it is the domestic dogs, taking meat to the hulkers that they serve. The evidence that supporters of this theory have pointed out is the half-breed cull.”
This seemed to carry a lot of meaning throughout the shop; looks were exchanged, lips raised. Mhumhi poked Sacha with his nose.
“What’s that?” he whispered.
“Hush!” said Sacha. “Remember what she said. Don’t talk.”
“Domestics are killers,” snarled Sundu. “We’ve known that for a long time. They’d have the city cleared of dogs so that their precious hulkers are free to rut and breed again-”
“Sundu,” said Lisica, and Sundu shut her jaws tightly, though her teeth still showed.
“We’ve got to take action,” said Lisica, “but the problem is that we don’t know who our real enemy is. Before we do anything, we’ve got to get more information on who’s behind these killings. So if anybody has anything, now is the time to step forward.”
With this she hopped down from the counter. At once the crowd burst into a frenzy of loud barking and yapping as all the other dogs tried to collaborate at once. The crab-eating fox at their table turned eagerly to the short-eared dog.
“The arrest of the domestics- it’s a cover-up, isn’t it? By the police? We know they’re the ones really behind it.”
“Of course they are,” said the short-eared dog. “Domestics are too stupid to know a dog’s throat from his asshole- half-breed cull, what rubbish-”
“I’ve heard enough,” Sacha muttered to Kutta and Mhumhi, nudging the still-sleeping Kebero with her foot. “We won’t be getting any more useful information out of this mess. Let’s sneak out.”
Mhumhi was fairly ready to go himself, and he slid down off the booth underneath the table, letting his rear legs come last. The chillas, which had apparently taken refuge down there, yipped in a startled way and huddled closer together. Mhumhi glanced at them and tried to give them a friendly tail wave, but it was hard since he was already forced to crouch.
In front of him Sacha hit the leather with a thud and then hopped down to the carpeted floor. Kutta followed her off the bench with a great deal more grace than Mhumhi had, especially considering she was carrying the heavy, groggy Kebero by the scruff.
The other dogs gave them a wide berth, many looking at Mhumhi’s coat, but recognizing him underneath it, he hoped. They were almost to the door when Lisica stopped them.
“Do you know anything, Sacha?” she asked, suddenly materializing beside her. “You’ve been wandering lately, haven’t you? And your mother-”
“Pariah’s dead,” said Sacha. “For weeks. We just got confirmation. So there’s no need to pester us about her any more.”
In Kutta’s jaws, Kebero gave a startled whimper. Mhumhi went to lick him, rather shocked himself by Sacha’s harsh admission.
“I’m very sorry,” said Lisica, though her tone was somewhat bland. “How…?”
“I don’t believe it’s your business,” said Sacha. “But she’s dead. So if you were hoping to get at her by inviting us to your little meeting- well, I’m sure that wasn’t it, was it?”
Lisica drew back, the fur on her back rising a little. “That was never-“
“Don’t listen to those domestic-sympathizers,” said Sundu, pushing through the crowd to stand behind her. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were hiding her somewhere.”
Sacha laughed, showing her teeth. “You’re welcome to search for her, if you think that’ll make your puppies come back to life.”
Sundu gave a terrible snarl and lunged at her. Kutta dropped Kebero and leapt forward, arresting the golden jackal with a sharp bite on the muzzle. The two of them reared up, snapping, until Sacha gave a sharp squeal.
Kutta backed off, giving Sundu a hard stare. Sundu still snarled.
“Sorry,” said Sacha, looking up at Sundu. “Shouldn’t have said that. I’m a bit tired of people ragging on my dead mother, that’s all.”
“Sundu, let it go,” Lisica urged, from underneath a table- she’d darted there, out of the fray. “Sacha wouldn’t lie.”
“You’re made of a lie,” Sundu said, glaring at Sacha. “You suckled from the teats of a killer.”
Sacha snorted. “Let me tell you something, jackal,” she said. “Were some of your friends and family killed during the half-breed cull? Well, so were our mothers’ puppies. Her original puppies.”
“Your mother was barren,” snarled Sundu. “A barren, filthy domestic thief!”
Sacha’s eyes thinned, and for a tense moment it looked like she might start the fight up again, but then she looked back and Mhumhi and Kutta and said, “Let’s go. I need to get the stench of scat out of my lungs.”
Sundu rumbled, but the crowd of little dogs around her was starting to press in closer, many of them looking angry, and she seemed hesitant to make another move. Sacha turned, her short tail poking straight up, and hopped through the broken door. Kutta followed, shooting a final dark look at the jackal, and Mhumhi, his tail tucked tight under his belly, picked up Kebero and went last.
They retreated a good ways from the shop, turning several street corners, and then Kutta said, “Sacha, you owe us an explanation.”
Mhumhi put down Kebero. The puppy was trembling and whining, and Mhumhi wasn’t much better off himself, panting and drooling.
Sacha turned around to look at her. “I don’t know that I do.”
“You never told us about- about her puppies! And what’s the half-breed cull? And how did you get invited to such a meeting? They were talking about going against the police!”
“Keep your voice down,” said Sacha. “And as for the last one, that’s easy. The little dogs have always thought of me as one of them. And Lisica- she wanted to use me, of course, for our connection to Pariah. I thought I made all of that clear in there.”
“In there!” exclaimed Kutta, her tail rising in her anger. “Yes, in there, when you spoke about our mother being-” She stopped and looked at Kebero.
“Sorry,” Sacha said. “I thought you two would’ve told him.” Her tone was cool as she looked up at Kutta. “Apparently you did not. Well,.” She turned to look at Kebero. “Our mother’s dead.”
Kebero whined and put his ears back. Kutta actually growled.
“He needed to be told,” said Sacha. “He’s told. I don’t know how pretty and pleasant you wanted it to be, but her being dead isn’t either. Let him cry for her. You should have let him cry for her a long time ago.” She looked at Kutta again. “You should have let Mhumhi cry for her. You are the one who dragged this out. You are the one that lied, Kutta.”
“I didn’t lie!” said Kutta. “She could have been- she could have been alive!”
“She could have been,” Sacha agreed. “She could have abandoned us. Those were your choices! Death, or abandonment! But you lied to our little brothers!”
“Sacha,” Mhumhi whined, unable to keep quiet. She ignored him, advancing on the trembling Kutta.
“I know you’ve been hiding something from me,” she said. “I know you’ve been putting Mhumhi in danger. For a mother you should have known didn’t exist! You let him believe she might come back! Whatever it is you’ve been doing- I don’t care what your excuses are- you used him. Your little brother. You should be protecting him!”
“I was protecting him!” Kutta snarled. “I was trying to-!”
“Don’t you dare ever growl at me again,” said Sacha.
It got deathly quiet. On the ground, Kebero shook, pressing himself against Mhumhi’s forelegs.
“Sacha,” said Mhumhi, “it isn’t her-”
“It’s very well her fault.”
“No it isn’t!” Mhumhi tensed, suddenly feeling a burst of anger. “You talk as if I would be too stupid to see on my own, that I wouldn’t realize- I’m not a puppy! I believed what I wanted to believe!”
“Fine,” said Sacha. “Fine! Then you should have known better too. Dragging this out for Kebero-”
“Don’t you mean, dragging it out for you?” Mhumhi said. Sacha went stiff. He felt the urge to back off, to lie down for her, but he quelled it.
“Stop pretending she didn’t mean anything to you.”
Sacha stared at him a moment, then lowered her tail, and laughed.
“I will, when you stop pretending we meant anything to her.”
“Let’s take Kebero home,” she said, turning around. “He’s had enough. We can talk more later.”
Mhumhi opened his mouth to reply, but a sudden whine from Kutta stopped him. She was looking at Kebero, and with a glance at Mhumhi, went to pick him up by the scruff again.
Mhumhi had little choice but to follow his sisters back to the house. The walk was near-silent, aside from Kebero’s occasional whimpers.
When they got to the doorway, Bii met them. The bat-eared fox was panting hard, blood dripping from his tongue.
“You’re back!” he said. “I’ve been looking for you- the police keep coming by- I thought you’d all been dragged before the tribunal.”
Kebero kicked and squirmed, twisting from Kutta’s grip so that he dropped to the ground. He ran to huddle and lick at Bii, whining.
“What happened to you, Bii?” Kutta asked, licking her chops.
“What happened to him?” asked Bii, in a worried way, for Kebero was near-knocking him over in his attempts to get as close as he could. “Oh- and I only bit my tongue while I was running around.”
“He needs some comforting,” Sacha said. “Take care of him a minute, while I talk to my siblings. When we return, you can discuss where you were this morning.”
“I was afraid to come back in with all the police!” Bii protested, putting his paws over Kebero’s back. “I didn’t know what to do, so I went to lie low somewhere else…”
“We’ll discuss it,” said Sacha, putting her small ears back. Bii pressed his jaws together, but seemed to take the hint. He got off Kebero and coaxed him into the house.
“Let’s go,” said Sacha, and Mhumhi and Kutta now exchanged a confused look.
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere far away from his bat-ears,” said Sacha. “I’ll tell you what you want to know, though I expect it’ll only make things worse.”
“You were off on me for not being honest,” muttered Kutta, falling in step behind her.
“I wasn’t doing it to lead anybody through sewer muck,” said Sacha cooly, and Kutta got quiet. Mhumhi put his ears back, though he was also somewhat impressed. He wondered how much they really had left to tell her.
There were a great number of new dogs, evicted from their homes, starting to wander around their street and along the normally deserted food strip street, so Sacha had to lead them far to find a quiet area. Eventually she stopped in a quiet alley with nothing but a series of blue dumpsters.
Mhumhi was chilled, for he recognized the place, but there was no reason for him to feel frightened- he hoped- as there was no hulker here now.
Sacha sat down on the warm asphalt with a great sigh.
“All right. I’ll tell you about our mother.”