“I do not understand,” Mhumhi stammered.
“Of course you understand,” said Hlolwa.
She was right. He understood perfectly what her words meant: they have been attacking for the last hour. Attacking for the last hour. The last hour…
Which meant, from the time Bii had returned to them and told them that it was safe to return to the surface, all through their betrayal, capture, trolley ride, separation, and conversation at the dome, the bouda had been under siege.
“No,” he said, his mind racing, “no, that can’t be possible- it took us so long to reach you, how could you have known and given orders so-“
“For your information,” said Imbwa, raising his head, “we are not stupid. We have known about the underground hulkers and their hyenas for some time. Even killed quite a few, and trapped some others when they go for that building with the yellow stripes. Some of ‘em are still in the cages-”
“What my brother means,” said Hlolwa, smoothly cutting across him, “is that we have had this underground encampment marked for some time as a good potential source of meat. The only question was getting inside successfully. The fox’s information about the hidden tunnel entrance and the white cards was invaluable. When he told Liduma, she knew she would not have to go through me; she authorized the packs to mobilize at once. Really, the information only reached us at the dome some time after the attack had begun, soon before Nzui brought you into our custody.”
“So- so-” Mhumhi stammered, his tail tucked between his legs. “So what is your plan?”
“What makes you think you have the right to know?” Imbwa snapped, the fur on his back bristling.
“The plan is simple,” said Hlolwa, as if he had not spoken. “We will disarm the hulkers and kill most of their hyenas now; then we will find and block the exits.”
“Just block them? But the hulkers-”
“Hlolwa,” said Imbwa, sounding as puzzled as Mhumhi felt. “Why are you-”
“The hulkers will live and feed as they are accustomed to down there,” said Hlolwa. “Until we need them. It is, I think, a most humane solution. It should shut up those white-tailed mongrels who keep complaining about the hunts.”
There was a sudden, startling vehemence in her tone at the last, and her white teeth gleamed a little. Then her face drew back into its usual laconic expression.
“So you see,” she said, “this will serve us better, and if we can get them breeding down there, we can have a permanent supply of food.”
Mhumhi let these words sink in, counterpart to the cloying scent of plant life; he felt dully sick and heavy-headed. But he was cognizant enough to have a swift spark of a realization strike him: breeding, she said. She wanted to kill the hyenas and breed the hulkers down there.
She did not know the true nature of the bouda, then. He seized this thought, held on to it for the moment.
And of course there was another quick thought, following: if they did not want to kill the hulkers, then the two he was most concerned with in particular were not in immediate danger.
This caused a great feeling of relief to wash over him, and the tension building inside his body ever since Bii’s betrayal seemed to rush out of him, so swiftly that he sagged a little where he stood, his legs splaying.
Both Imbwa and Hlolwa seemed to notice this- the former gave him an odd look, confusion flickering in his eyes, and the latter raised her head up higher from where she still lay on the ground.
“What is it, Mhumhi?”
“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head a little, trying to clear it further. There was a possibility- just a possibility- that he could make it all work again. He felt that he had the necessary pieces to make things all right.
But he was nearly afraid to touch the idea forming in his mind just yet, because it would be a dangerous gamble, and a cruel one besides- though he was not sure to whom it would be the most cruel. Maha and Tareq would not be killed, so he felt safe leaving them for just a moment, turning the conversation again to avoid the inevitable.
“What you were saying before all this,” he began, waving his tail a little, “about my- my real parents. You know, I would like to meet them, I think.”
Imbwa and Hlolwa exchanged a look; he did not think Hlolwa was quite convinced that the change in conversation had been as natural as he had tried to make it seem. Still, she answered him.
“I’m sure they will be glad to hear it. That can be arranged as soon as they return to the city center.”
“And- where are they now? If I might know.”
Imbwa gave a little bark of a laugh. “You idiot. Of course they are among those raiding the underground hulker nest.”
That made Mhumhi’s tail droop and tremble a little bit. Imbwa moved closer to his sister, his gaze raking across Mhumhi. Hlolwa was observing him too, and she turned to catch her brother’s eye, but for once he did not meet it. He was staring fixedly at Mhumhi.
Mhumhi did not really catch her expression in response to this, for he was thinking too hard about his parents, his biological parents, attacking the bouda. How- how frightful it would be, then, if their teeth somehow found their way to Maha and Tareq! He suppressed a shudder.
But there was another fact: the painted dogs were actually underestimating the bouda quite severely. Perhaps at their own great cost. Regardless of how much they knew about the white cards, it would not help if they did not have one, and furthermore the bouda had many more tricks than the dogs could possibly imagine- those poles, the flying nets, and the strange prick that had made him fall into a deep slumber. No, the dogs might be completely outmatched- he could always hope for that possibility.
He stopped himself from giving another shudder at the strange realization that he cared far more about the fate of the two hulker children than the fate of the dogs that bore his own flesh and blood. What would Danai have called it? Hisgenes.
He felt sorry for the bouda, and sorry for the dogs that were or would soon be starving- particularly himself. In truth if Maha and Tareq were removed from the situation altogether he knew which side he would most want to win, as unpleasant as it was: he had more allegiance to the dogs of the city than those underground hyena-humans. Starvation was a terrible way to die, and he would not wish it on anybody: better to die swiftly by the tooth.
With this in mind, he spoke again.
“You must have heard from Bii that I spent some time in the underground hulker nest.”
“Not directly from him,” said Hlolwa, “but the information did make its way to me, yes. I understand that you are the one we have to thank for this wonderful opportunity.”
He was certain she had put it that way to unnerve him, so he purposefully kept his voice calm when responding.
“Yes, that’s right. So you must believe me when I say that I have more information. Information that tells me that your plan will not work. You won’t be able to breed the hulkers down there. They’re different from the ones up here, you see.”
“Oh?” said Hlolwa. In her half-closed eyes there was only a sense of polite disinterest, but she also pushed herself up, her paws sliding a bit on the leaves, and sat back on her haunches next to Imbwa. “How so are they different?”
Mhumhi licked his lips.
“There’s something I want.” Two somethings.
“Isn’t that the way,” Hlolwa said, her eyes widening enough for her to look sarcastic. Beside her Imbwa snorted.
“You really have spent some time around Bii, haven’t you? Been taking lessons from him?”
Mhumhi chose to ignore this. “Once I have what I want, the information is yours, and I’ll tell you every detail that I know about the inside of the bouda nest as well, which should also be helpful.”
“It should,” said Hlolwa, slowly, and paused a long moment before speaking again. “What is this ‘something’ that you want?”
She’s interested, Mhumhi thought to himself, feeling a rare sense of euphoria. I can make it work after all…
“In the underground bouda nest,” he said, “there are two hulker children. I want them left with me, alive and untouched, and I want assurance that no dog will ever try to harm them again.”
He had not expected this to go over as easily as scat dropping, and indeed they both stared at him for a long moment. Even the attendants behind them had sat up to stare. Hlolwa actually seemed mystified; beside her Imbwa was flat-eyed with sheer bewilderment.
“So,” he said, seeming to recover a little with a shake of his head, his one notched ear flopping to and fro. “The rumors are true, aren’t they? Those little foxes we interrogated weren’t lying. Your white-tail pack took in hulker puppies!”
“Yes, it is true,” said Mhumhi. “You say my mother was trying to make a mixed pack, and she succeeded a lot more than you thought- didn’t she?”
Imbwa seemed unable to think of a think to say in response to this, going glazed again, and so Hlolwa picked up the thread.
“Pariah certainly outdid herself,” she acknowledged. “You consider these hulker offspring your family?”
“My little brother and sister,” said Mhumhi, raising his tail and sticking out his chest a bit; he had decided to refuse to be anything but proud of the fact any more.
Imbwa wrinkled his lips and nose, looking disgusted, but Hlolwa kept her own reaction hidden, if she even had one.
“And you still consider them that way- even knowing that the domestic manipulated it all?”
“I’ve always known that we weren’t Mother’s natural children,” Mhumhi pointed out. “I’m not stupid either. I even knew that she stole us. And maybe if she were still alive, I might have questions for her… But how can that change how I feel about my siblings, dog and hulker and what-have-you? They didn’t ask for it either- we are all we have for a family!”
“But you’re not family,” said Hlolwa. “None of you are remotely related by blood, and neither will your pack’s puppies ever be related to one another… Do you not realize how false your family is?”
“No!” snapped Mhumhi, shaking his head from side to side. “It is not false! I don’t care if we’re not related, we grew up like siblings and we feel like siblings and we are siblings! My love for them is not false- that’s stupid! Why- you two aren’t related, but you grew up in this dome pack together- isn’t it the same thing?”
They did not respond to this, merely exchanged a peculiar look with one another. Hlolwa flicked her notched ear, and Imbwa mirrored the motion a second later.
“I understand your feelings now, Mhumhi,” said Hlolwa, turning to look at him again. “But let me be sure. You said you wanted to meet your parents- but you do not have any desire to join their pack, do you?”
Mhumhi hesitated for only a moment.
“No,” he said. “I want to stay with Kutta and the puppies. They are my pack.”
“Naturally,” said Hlolwa, her amber eyes taking on a kind of gleam. “Well, that is more or less what I have wanted to know from the beginning. One more question. These hulker children you call your siblings- they are not from the underground nest, correct? They are wild hulkers from aboveground in this city?”
“That’s right,” said Mhumhi. “They were born up here.”
“Hm. And how should we identify them?”
Mhumhi couldn’t help but wag his tail a little. “That’s easy. There won’t be any other puppies down there. They’re the only ones who aren’t adults. The little female- Maha- she is-“
“That should be enough to go on,” said Hlolwa, cutting him off, and then issued a swift, sharp whine. “Nzui!”
There was a pause, and the bird that Mhumhi had nearly forgotten about burst into loud, startled flight above them.
Nzui appeared through the foliage after a great deal of rustling. She was panting as she trotted up to wag her tail low before Hlolwa and Imbwa.
“I want a message passed down to the fighters,” said Hlolwa. “After they have secured the exits, I want them to search among the captive hulkers for two juveniles. They should be the youngest and smallest there. Have them brought back here.”
“But don’t hurt them!” Mhumhi couldn’t help bursting out. Nzui jumped and gave Hlolwa a confused look.
Hlolwa blinked slowly. “Be sure that they stay alive, Nzui.”
“Yes, Madame,” said Nzui, licking her lips. “Shall I bring them to the cages?”
“That would be best,” said Hlolwa. “Near where you took the red dog and the hyena. Oh, and one more thing.”
“Take this one there too.”
“What!” cried Mhumhi, springing to his feet. “Why are you having us kept in the cages?”
Hlolwa turned slowly to look at him again. In her amber eyes he could see a bit of low, heavy emotion, a sort of depth he had not noticed before.
“I would hope,” she said, “that it would help you cool your head, and make you think properly, little white-tail. You want me to bribe you into giving out information? With two hulkers?”
He realized what the emotion was: it was anger, rising anger.
“You seem to care little,” she said, “about the fate of the dogs in this city- which of course is my responsibility. And you would risk all of their lives for those of hulkers. Hulkers! It is incredibly selfish, Mhumhi, and quite frankly I find you disgusting.”
He was taken aback by her words, by the intensity with which she spoke them, as it contradicted everything he had gathered about her manner so far. He could only try to stammer a response.
“Like I said, they’re my-”
“I know what you consider them to be,” said Hlolwa. “Which I also find quite foul, to be honest. But if you would take their lives over those of your kind, so be it. You can await them in captivity, and see how much you like them then.”
Mhumhi felt a bit of his own anger flare up, even as he tried to ignore the way his stomach was squirming from her accusations- maybe she was right, maybe she was right, he was selfish- he was disgusting- but how could he- how could he possibly have so much power over the lives of so many dogs just then? How could that really be true?
Oh, how he wished he could leave this garden; the humid stench made him feel so foul.
“I’ll go to the cages,” he said. “I’ll wait to see them. And then when you let us all go, I’ll tell you what you want to know. It costs you next to nothing!”
Hlolwa did not say anything back to him, merely looked at Nzui, and turned away as her servant began leading Mhumhi back down the leaf-littered path.