Kutta was working herself into a fine state of annoyance, though she wouldn’t admit it.
“I’m not angry,” she had snapped, when Mhumhi had posed a tentative question. Then she had glared over at Mini and walked to the opposite side of the metal room and sat down with her head to the wall.
Mini herself had fallen into a kind of semi-sleep, her head down and the tip of her tongue sticking out between her jaws. The screamers were all still hovering around her, leaning close and making sniffing noises. It was a bit creepy.
Vimbo was lying on his side underneath the table, a dark mass.
Mhumhi saw Kutta, still with her nose towards the wall, shiver a little. He went to sit close beside her, leaning against her shoulder.
“It’s cold in here,” she said, stiffly. “I don’t like this room.”
“Me neither,” said Mhumhi.
“I think it’s the room where they…”
“At least Mini’s all right.”
Kutta turned an ear back towards him. She lowered her voice.
“She’s not really ‘all right.’”
Mhumhi swallowed. “She’s alive, though, and that’s better-”
Kutta gave a soft little grunt. “For how long? And in what state?”
“Are you saying she’d be better off dead?”
“Of course not! I-” She hesitated, seeming to realize that her voice had pitched louder on the last statement. Vimbo’s head had come up under the table, his eyes taking on a yellowish gleam in the gloom. Kutta spoke more softly again.
“This yes-no, alive-dead business, that’s what I don’t like. She’s alive, fine. We’ve already grieved, and now we’re going to have to do it again.”
Mhumhi laid back his ears. “That’s a bit selfish, isn’t it?”
“I don’t care,” said Kutta. “I’ve done so much grieving. I’m allowed frustration when I have to do it double.”
“I thought you didn’t even like Mini that much.”
Kutta turned her head and gave him a sharp nip on the cheek. He flinched.
“You know exactly what I mean, and you’re playing dumb.”
Mhumhi gave her a sour look, lowering his head so he could rub at his sore cheek with his wrist. Kutta eyed him.
“We already went through this with Mother…”
Mhumhi’s head snapped up.
“Don’t compare her and Mother!”
Kutta gave a sharp huff through her nose, but they had to suspend their conversation then, for a heavy, moist breath fell across their backs.
It was Vimbo, standing behind them, staring blackly. Mhumhi turned around slowly.
“What do you want, Vimbo? Mini-”
He hesitated, for Mini was still sleeping, and he got the sense it’d be best not to wake her. Vimbo followed his gaze and gave a kind of grunt-whine.
“What are we going to do with him?” Kutta said. “We can’t even speak to him without her, and if he wants to stick around here…”
“The hulkers upstairs should be able to talk to him,” Mhumhi pointed out.
“Oh, I nearly forgot about them,” Kutta said, glancing at the ceiling, as if O and Henli would suddenly fall through. “Henli doesn’t like hyenas. She said she’d kill him.”
“How, though?” Mhumhi felt half-amused, imagining the hyena and the human going tooth-to-tooth.
“With an object. That’s what they do,” Kutta reminded him. “That loud noise metal thing. It made a hole in the ceiling above us. D’you think it would be funny to have it do that to your head?”
Mhumhi’s tail tucked itself. “All right, that’s true. But I don’t think he’d try to attack them.”
Kutta wrinkled her brow, looking at Vimbo.
“I don’t think he would either, but he’s not always… predictable.”
Mhumhi couldn’t help but feel in uneasy agreement with this. He eyed Vimbo again and noticed for the first time that there was a small amount of crusty dried blood matting the fur around his lips. And when had that got there?
Vimbo seemed eager to have his full attention again, and turned his head sharply to look back at the stairs.
“I think he wants to go up,” said Kutta.”We might as well.”
“And leave Mini here?”
“There’s no point in trying to move her,” Kutta pointed out, and Mhumhi got the sense that she would be quite happy to leave the domestic behind for the time being. “She’s better off being tended to here.”
“Yes, leave the invalid here,” came Mini’s thin, pitiable voice. Kutta sent a furious look in the direction of the table.
“Will you stop pretending!”
“I’ve got a deceitful nature,” said Mini, squinting at them, “but it’s in exchange for good looks. Go ahead and leave. I want to get a second nap in.”
“Don’t nap too deeply,” said Mhumhi, and she gave a dry little whuff.
They followed Vimbo back up the stairs to the first floor, leaving Mini lying on the table in the cold room, with all the screamers surrounding her- all but one. The female they had taken with them from the third floor had followed them, and now sprang ahead to hold open the door to the hall for them, giving them the benefit of a broad, gap-toothed grin.
Kutta waved her tail at the sight of it, and Vimbo, his paws on the next set of stairs, turned his head back.
“She’s cute,” said Kutta, as an aside to Mhumhi. “She’s got sweet eyes, doesn’t she?”
Mhumhi examined the screamer’s black eyes and felt more dubious in this respect, but there was an empty sweetness to her.
“Maybe we ought to give her a name,” said Kutta, in half-jesting way, except she was looking up at the screamer’s face with her head half-tilted and her eyes soft.
“Don’t get attached,” said Mhumhi, nudging her with his shoulder. “We’re not adopting any more things into the family.”
“Oh, it’s not like that,” said Kutta. “She’s not a- you know, she can’t talk or anything. She’s an animal. A cute one.”
Vimbo gave a grunt, and for a half-second Mhumhi thought he was indignant over the description before he recalled that Vimbo had no idea what they were saying. The hyena was jerking his head impatiently up the stairs.
“Vimbo wants us to go,” said Mhumhi.
“I don’t recall him being the leader of this expedition,” said Kutta. She went over to the screamer, tail wagging, and into the hallway. The door swung shut behind them.
Vimbo and Mhumhi exchanged a glance, and then Mhumhi swished his tail and went after his sister, pushing the door open again with his forepaws.
Predictably, Kutta was already in the midst of a massive hug from the screamer, which was crouching and making cooing noises of appreciation, but this time Kutta was reciprocating, licking the screamer’s forehead the way she would have for Tareq’s.
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi, going a little stiff.
“We should give her a name,” Kutta insisted, and extracted herself from the screamer’s grip, wagging. She put her forepaws on the screamer’s shoulders and rubbed her forehead against its face.
“Is this why you wanted to bring it with us?” Mhumhi challenged, not sure whether he ought to feel amused or irritated.
“I did think they were sort of sweet,” Kutta admitted, getting back down. The screamer put her hand up to rub at the spot where Kutta had touched her. “But look at her, Mhumhi. She hasn’t got a care in the world, and she just loves everybody she meets. You can’t not like her.”
Mhumhi gave a snort of dissent, stepping closer. The screamer reached for him, smiling, her palm raised and flat. Mhumhi studied the leathery skin on it, then looked back at the hulker’s face. On the brown skin under her eyes were tiny darker marks that gave her a peppered appearance. Mhumhi felt a sort of squirm in his gut, because they were a little bit charming.
“Dot,” said Kutta. Mhumhi pulled his gaze away from the screamer’s marks to look at her.
“Her name would be Dot,” said Kutta, “if I were to give her a name. In theory.”
Mhumhi sighed through her nose. The possibly-named Dot stretched out her hand as far as it would go, teetering on her ankles, and gave his muzzle a little pat.
The door behind them came open with a clatter, and Vimbo pushed his head out. He gave a low whoop.
“What’s he so urgent about?” said Kutta, winding herself against Dot, so that the screamer obligingly scratched at her ears. “What does he think is up there?”
“Maybe he smells the dead cow,” said Mhumhi, and saw Kutta go a little stiff. Apparently she had forgotten it.
“He’s welcome to go on his own and eat it,” she said.
“I think he wants us to go with him.”
“Yes, but why?” Kutta rotated her ears around, then gave Mhumhi a sharp look. “And why are you so ready to follow him? Earlier you wanted to tear him to pieces. What are you thinking?”
Mhumhi dropped his head so that he wouldn’t have to meet her gaze directly. All of his earlier animosity towards Vimbo had indeed evaporated, and he’d be hard-pressed to say exactly why.
“He’s not really harming anyone,” he said, weakly.
“We probably should follow him,” said Kutta. “Before he decides to go ahead on his own, I guess. Henli might kill him on sight.”
“That’s true,” said Mhumhi, his tail lowering. “If he goes that way, we should get ahead of him.”
“Hmph,” grunted Kutta. “I almost wonder if she wouldn’t try to kill us… She did before, do you realize? When we first met her, she was pointing that noisy metal thing right at us.”
“Well, we were standing over O’s body,” said Mhumhi. “And we don’t really know that that object is a weapon…”
“Tareq knows,” said Kutta. “What was it he said- ‘don’t shoot my dogs!’”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, raising his tail to give a small wag. “You know, I doubt your little Dot would ever say something like that.”
Kutta shot him a dirty look. “Let’s follow the hyena.”
Vimbo gave a bounce and a grunt when they started approaching him, and vanished back behind the door. Dot got back up onto her hind legs and ran to hold it open again, her face blank and happy, as if it were her life’s ambition to please them.
“That’s very good, Dot,” Kutta informed her, as they passed, and Dot gave her kind of a wet, adoring gaze. Mhumhi felt alarmed by the speed with which such gestures were starting to look endearing to him.
They followed Vimbo, who was walking up the stairs with a definite sense of purpose; he did not so much as stop and sniff when they passed the floor with the dead cow, nor when they passed the hall where the screamers had been residing. He kept going upwards, stumping with his heavy paws. Mhumhi watched his spotted back and felt a trickle of anxiety.
“Do you think he knows something?” he asked Kutta.
“I don’t know,” admitted Mhumhi. “Something we don’t.”
“We don’t know anything about what he knows, really,” said Kutta, which did not comfort him.
Vimbo stopped and looked back at him, his clownish broad nose and his round eyes telling them nothing, as usual. He had stopped in front of the door to the floor where O and Henli had been.
“I guess he thinks we should go ahead,” said Kutta, turning her ears back and looking at Mhumhi.
Mhumhi began to step forward, then paused as Dot went by at lightning speed to open the door again. Vimbo’s head followed her.
“Thank you, Dot,” said Kutta, and hastened to bound the rest of the way around Vimbo and up to the landing. “Come on, Mhumhi, let’s check to be sure the coast is clear…”
Mhumhi went after her, making a wide berth around Vimbo, who had lowered his head, mouth slightly open.
As soon as he stepped onto the dull brown carpet in the hallway, his sense of unease worsened. He pricked his ears forward, trying to gauge what was wrong, and then he realized it was what he wasn’t sensing that was bothering him. They had left O and Henli and the rest of the screamers out in the hall, and now they had all vanished somewhere.
Kutta stepped forward, lowering her head to sniff a little. Mhumhi sniffed too, at the air, and swallowed.
“Do you smell it?”
Kutta brought her head up slowly. The metallic tang was filling Mhumhi’s nostrils.
“Blood,” she said.
“Hulker blood,” said Mhumhi, and quivered a little. Behind them, Vimbo gave a soft giggle.
“It’s not-” began Kutta, and then swallowed. Mhumhi gave her a swift glance.
“It doesn’t smell like Tareq’s.”
“No,” she agreed, but her expression did not change for the better. “Let’s go- let’s go and find him, quickly…”
Mhumhi trotted after her, for she had sprung ahead at a lope, turning her head from side to side as she passed each door. His own worry was beating against his breastbone, but surely… Surely Tareq had been all right. Surely he had not made another terrible mistake.
Vimbo’s paws pounded behind them, but Mhumhi had more or less shed his reservations abut the hyena. Perhaps it was as Kutta had said: he had never actively tried to do them any harm…
Dot was following behind them all, taking long strides, her expression still calm and blissful.
Kutta stopped in front of a room- it was the room with the couches, in fact, where Henli had invited them for a meal- and pawed the door open.
“Oh,” said O, rising to her feet at the sight of them. Apparently she had been sitting on the couch, alone.
“Where’s Tareq?” asked Kutta at once, casting all around. The bowls and the box of strange gelatinous cubes were still on the table.
“He’s sleeping,” said O, in her dizzy way, putting a hand up in the air beside her face. “Do you want me to wake him back up?”
“Where is he?” said Mhumhi. “Where are the screamers- and Henli?”
O seemed to waver on her feet, staring at them.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter,” said Mhumhi, making her eyes widen a bit more. Kutta hastened to add, “We just want to check on our brother, that’s all.”
“Oh,” said O, and then, “Oh, my. That’s a hyena, isn’t it?”
She was looking behind them at Vimbo, who was standing in the doorway. His head was very low, and his ears back, as he stared at her.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Kutta. “He won’t harm you. Take us to Tareq.”
“I don’t think it should be here,” said O, still gazing at Vimbo. “It might bring others.”
“There are no others,” said Mhumhi. She looked down at him.
“I mean,” he said, “there are, in the city… but they’re no friends of his.”
O gave him a vague smile.
“If one hyena shows up, it usually brings more behind it…”
“Where’s Tareq?” said Kutta, her teeth flashing.
O hesitated, then turned slightly to point at a door in the back of the room. It was the one Henli had come through with the box of cubes.
“I’ve got to tell you something, first.”
She paused, looking at Vimbo in what seemed to be a slightly nervous way.
“Tell us after we’ve seen Tareq,” snapped Kutta, raising her tail.
“Mm, I should probably tell you first,” said O, watching as Mhumhi walked around the couch towards the door, his tail sticking straight back. The metallic scent of blood- he know sense that it was coming from behind that door.
It had a handle on it, like their old front door in Oldtown. He pulled down and tugged with his paws. The blood smell got stronger.
Behind the door was Henli, lying motionless on the floor. Blood was seeping from her scalp and into the carpet.
“What happened?” exclaimed Kutta, all her fur rising. “What-”
“I had to tell you,” said O. “I was killing Henli. I want to save you.”
She looked around the room at them, eyes wide with a kind of new conviction, and touched the side of her face. Dark liquid smeared on her cheek from her fingertips.