Deception laid bare.
“Not many left,” rasped the bird.
It was sitting on a high branch, in one of the trees stretching far above, near the top of the dome. The branches pressed up against the glass in places, as if straining to push it away.
Far below, Mhumhi heard a faint hiss, and looked up just as a gentle mist began to waft down. The heated air filled with water, intensifying the cloying smell of plant matter, flush and rotten.
Three of Hlolwa’s attendants had come back through the foliage with things in their mouths. They laid them down at Hlolwa’s feet and retreated.
“Come here, Mhumhi,” said Hlolwa, raising a paw slightly. She had laid down on her side again on the dense bed of leaves, her head erect and regal, with her tail curled over one of her hind legs.
Mhumhi stared at her, still tense and frightened. From behind him there came a great deal of crashing and crunching, and Imbwa emerged from the bushes at the base of his tree, shaking himself.
“Go on, you,” he told Mhumhi, giving a snap in his direction, and Mhumhi skulked forward towards Hlolwa, far closer than he would have liked. Imbwa pushed past him and rolled one of the round things at Imbwa’s feet towards himself with his paw. Mhumhi saw that it was a sort of round and flushed thing, bleeding bright yellow in the places where the attendant’s teeth had pierced it. It smelled sickeningly sweet.
Imbwa pounced upon it and tore a chunk of the soft flesh loose.
“Have you eaten fruit before, Mhumhi?” Hlolwa asked, her clear eyes catching his. It took Mhumhi a moment to answer. The humid air and the perfumed atmosphere were making him feel sick and dizzy.
“Yes,” he said, taking small pleasure in the brief way she seemed surprised. But it was only for a moment; then she crossed her forepaws and lowered her head a little to smile at him, showing the teeth in the side of her mouth.
“Where have you gotten the chance to do that?”
Mhumhi rocked a bit on his paws, trying to keep his head clear. He had a sense that it would not be good to discuss what had happened within the boudas’ lair with these dogs.
After he was silent for a moment, Hlolwa spoke again.
“Well, wherever you ate it before, I think you’ll find that this sort is quite better. Try it.”
She rolled one of the fruits towards him with her nose. He looked down at the way its papery skin had been crumpled back in places.
“I don’t like fruit,” he said.
“Oh, shut up and eat it,” said Imbwa, raising his head. His jowls were coated with pulp and nectar, and he licked them sloppily. “D’you think you’ll get a chance like this again? You’re being afforded an honor.”
“If he doesn’t want to eat it, that’s fine,” said Hlolwa, her eyes half-lidded.
Mhumhi took a breath and bent his head down over the fruit. His lips grazed it- it was soft, plump shape covered in a light coating of down. He opened his jaws and took a wary bite, and in they went, sickeningly easily, swiftly cleaving it. He was surprised and a little appalled to find that he did indeed like the taste better than that of the disintegrating preserves Danai had once given him.
“Eat up now, skinny,” sneered Imbwa. He had eaten his own fruit down to the hard brown pit, and this he now took into his jaws, cracking it loudly. Mhumhi kept his head down. He was uncomfortably aware of how much larger and well-nourished the other dogs here looked compared to him.
“Tell me,” said Hlolwa, commanding his attention again. “What did Pariah say to you about us?”
“She said nothing,” said Mhumhi. “If that’s what you’re worried about. She never said a thing about you- you or any other painted dogs.”
Hlolwa blinked at him, then exchanged a look with Imbwa, who seemed on the verge of laughter.
“Not one thing?” she intoned. “And you never asked her?”
“About what,” Hlolwa repeated, in a slow drawl. Now Imbwa really did laugh.
“That’s funny! You’re stupid.”
“Imbwa,” said Hlolwa, letting her tail give a single beat against her hind legs. “Don’t be cruel. Mhumhi, did you never think to ask- ask about your mother and father?”
Mhumhi laid back his ears.
“She was my mother!”
This sparked scattered laughter from the attendants lounging behind them, many of them looking at Hlolwa as if she wasn’t letting them in on the joke.
“Interesting,” said Hlolwa. “So you think that you are… a domestic?”
“No!” snapped Mhumhi, over their hot sniggers. “Obviously not! But she’s my-”
“Your mother,” said Hlolwa, cutting over him, “would be quite insulted to hear you say that. I suppose it’s to be expected, given your upbringing, though.”
Mhumhi opened his jaws and shut them again, his heart pounding. His mother? His… other mother?
“That got your attention,” Hlolwa noted. “She is alive, if quite busy at the moment. She mentioned that she’d like to see you. Your father, too.”
“My…” Mhumhi hesitated, feeling like he was reeling.
“Poor creature,” said Imbwa. His scornful look had rather rapidly changed to one of pity, though whether it was sham or not Mhumhi couldn’t say. “What tale did the domestic feed you? Did she say she found you, or something? Because, you know, that’s not how it-”
“I know what happened,” Mhumhi snapped, his lip curling back. “I know how she s-stole me. You don’t have to explain that part.”
“No?” said Hlolwa. “But that makes me wonder- why do you still call her ‘mother’?”
“Because-” Mhumhi stopped, and uttered an angry little snarl. They were all staring at him now.
“Oh, he can’t help it, Hlolwa,” said Imbwa. “I mean, what choice did he have! She probably made him call her ‘mother’.”
“She did not,” said Mhumhi, through his teeth.
“I don’t believe she would, in that sort of manner, anyway,” said Hlolwa. “She was not vicious, the way some of those domestics can get. Very- hm- vapid, instead. At least before the cull.”
“Well, you didn’t know her, you were only a puppy then,” said Imbwa. “Hidden darkness within these domestics, I say, hidden darkness…”
“How did you know her?” Mhumhi demanded, cutting in. Imbwa looked affronted, but Hlolwa raised her head to answer him.
“She lived here in the city. Pariah, I mean. She was an attendant for a dog called- hm- Eeyeyi. A white-tail.”
“What’s a- a white-tail?” The term confused Mhumhi, for he could remember both Imbwa and one of Nzui’s pack members hurling at him.
“Sorry, I should have explained better. Eeyeyi was a painted dog. The white-tails were a sort of group. Sort of a peace-advocating group.”
“What sort of peace?” Mhumhi asked, wondering why a term for a peace-loving group had sounded like an insult.
“They wanted us to stop eating the hulkers,” said Hlolwa. “Among other things.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi.
“Your mother was right at the shoulder,” said Imbwa. “Unusual for a domestic, right, Hlolwa?”
“Yes,” said Hlolwa. “She was surprising in some regards. Our mother was quite fond of her, wasn’t she, Imbwa?”
“Yes,” said Imbwa, wrinkling his lips. “Even after she disappeared- Mother liked to talk about her.”
“Why did she disappear?” asked Mhumhi.
Hlolwa gave a small yawn.
“It’s quite complicated,” she said, the smooth black skin rimming her eyes pressing together as she blinked. “Oh… how to explain… Obviously our pack did not like the white-tails… you are familiar with our pack, aren’t you, Mhumhi?”
She looked critically at Mhumhi, and he was forced to stammer out a half-guilty “No.”
“Oh,” said Imbwa, and he let himself flop dramatically down into the leaves.
“I don’t see what this has to do with anything,” Mhumhi said, bristling.
“Our pack,” said Hlolwa, “the pack that lives in the dome- we command the lower packs. Every painted dog in this city owes allegiance to me.”
She paused, tilting her ears this way and that.
“No- well, except you, Mhumhi, I suppose. As you don’t even have a pack.”
“I have a pack!” snapped Mhumhi. He cast an angry eye over Hlolwa; he didn’t see why she deserved to have any such allegiance.
“What pack? With the domestic?” Imbwa’s tail beat against the leaves with amusement. “Or- or do you include the red dog and the short dog? The fox? The hyena? Don’t tell me you consider that hyena part of your pack!”
“Don’t laugh,” said Hlolwa. She was smiling herself, and now she lifted a paw and placed it upon the fruit she had yet to touch. “Don’t you see? Pariah did it. She did what she set out to do.”
That shut Imbwa up rather abruptly, and he turned and looked at Mhumhi in a flurry of leaves, expression startled.
“What did she set out to do?” asked Mhumhi, though he was beginning to get an uneasy idea.
Hlolwa rolled the fruit from side to side under her paw.
“To make a mixed pack, of course. And she has obviously succeeded. So much so that I nearly respect her.”
They were all silent a moment, and the sound of fluttering wings in the upper branches became more audible. Hlolwa’s attendants all looked very round-eyed at her words.
“The white-tails attempted it,” said Hlolwa, after a moment. “A mixed pack. Because their goal was not just to get us to stop eating the hulkers, you see. They feared- hm- a rift between different sorts of dogs.”
Imbwa gave another of his little snorts, and Hlolwa sent him a swift, urgent look, rather unlike her usual languid demeanor.
“They attempted to pack together,” Hlolwa continued, voice so calm that Mhumhi wondered if he had just imagined what he’d thought he’d seen. “Of course it went awry. Too many different types… too many different paces, honestly, to start with. Regardless of their similar political viewpoints, and even their willingness to work together, a pack falls apart at a certain point. Do you know what that is, Mhumhi?”
Mhumhi stared at her blankly, wondering what ‘political’ meant.
Hlolwa seemed perfectly content to answer her own question, anyway. “It is at the future. If there are no puppies, there is no pack. If there is no breeding pair- further, even if there is, if the others are not related to the breeding pair- you understand how that breeds resentment. The mixed pack was doomed to last a single generation, and dissolve through infighting.”
“Like that ridiculous pack of foxes in Oldtown,” Imbwa put in, grinning sharply. “They scattered quick, didn’t they, Hlolwa?”
“Hm,” said Hlolwa. “So the white-tails tried to prove a point, and ended up proving ours. Regardless of good will, there are inalienable differences between types of dogs. Not to mention dogs and hulkers.”
“Dogs and hyenas, too,” said Imbwa, giving Mhumhi a severe look, as if he needed reeducating.
“Well,” said Mhumhi, shifting a bit, “Domestics and wolves can breed, can’t they? And- and domestics and golden jackals, as well?”
“Ah, and it’s worked out so well for them, hasn’t it?” Imbwa huffed through his nose.
“Painted dogs only breed with painted dogs,” said Hlolwa. “Which, naturally, is the concern of our own type. But, as I said, the white-tails were falling apart already before the half-breed cull.”
“The- the half-breed cull?”
“I’m glad you’ve heard of that, at least,” said Hlolwa. “I’m sure it was well-known in a place like Oldtown. But anyway, that put a stop to the white-tails for good.”
“But why should it have-” Mhumhi stopped himself.
“You already figured it out, didn’t you…? The white-tails were the ones encouraging interbreeding, which of course those fanatics among the domestics didn’t like…”
“But I thought the white-tails were trying to convince everyone not to kill the hulkers anymore! Shouldn’t that align more with their goal? To have the hulker population increase?”
“Of course it doesn’t,” said Imbwa. “Have you ever spoken to one of those idiots? They didn’t have the same goal as the white-tails at all. To have their precious hulkers treated like a kind of dog? Try making the comparison in their earshot; you’ll get your head bitten off.”
“The half-blood cull was to quiet the white-tails as much as get rid of the mixed blood,” said Hlolwa. “As they had managed to seduce a lot of domestics over to their side. And it was quite an effective program.”
“And my mother’s puppies… They were sacrificed?”
“Which mother? Oh, you mean the domestic. Yes, I heard she lost them. More’s the pity.”
Mhumhi was skeptical of this sudden show of sympathy, and his suspicions were confirmed when Hlolwa went on.
“If she hadn’t, I doubt she would have done what she did next. And it nearly ruined my mother.”
“She stole a puppy…?”
“Pariah,” said Hlolwa, tail twitching, “was clever in her own way. She was a much-bred dog- you understand that domestics do not bond with their mates the normal way, and breed twice as fast besides. She was always nursing. She had already been in the habit of helping other allies of the white-tails nurse their pups when their litters were too big.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi.
“Oh, indeed. And there was another thing. Pariah got the idea from us, from the pack under the dome.”
“What- what idea?”
“The white-tail pack did not work,” said Hlolwa, crossing her paws again, “and she must have known the reason why. But the pack under the dome has always had a certain way of enforcing its seniority over the others, even if they are not closely related by blood.”
She glanced briefly at Imbwa, who had curled to lick at his haunch.
“The madame,” she said, “the breeding female of the pack under the dome- the other packs give her tribute. She nurses one puppy from every litter of painted dogs in this city. And those puppies become part of the pack under the dome, and it is for their benefit that their blood kin obey the madame. Because if they do well, their tribute offspring may get a chance to be the next madame or her breeding male.”
“I…” said Mhumhi. “I can see so many ways that might go wrong!”
Hlolwa and Imbwa exchanged an amused glance, and Mhumhi got a sudden little shock.
“You two… you two said that you are brother and sister! Are you…?”
“Raised in the same litter,” said Hlolwa.
“But not related by blood!” cried Imbwa, his tail wagging, as if he were quite proud of this fact.
“It’s quite an effective uniting strategy,” said Hlolwa. “So naturally, your mother stole it from us. How do we determine our blood relations, after all, if not by who we nurse with? She has tricked you, and the red dog, and the short dog- all of you have been tricked!”
“We know we’re not really related!” cried Mhumhi, flattening his ears.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Imbwa. “Still feels like it, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, but…” Mhumhi stopped and stared at him for a moment. Imbwa bristled a bit under his gaze, raising his nose.
“So you are a pack,” said Hlolwa. “No, a family. A false family.” She gave a soft laugh. “You poor confused creature, Mhumhi.”
“A false…! It wasn’t false! It was never false!” Mhumhi was panting, and he rose to his feet. “It was real. It felt- it feels real!”
“Calm down,” said Hlolwa, and she rose to her feet as well, and much to Mhumhi’s surprise she stepped closer and licked his ear. He went stock-still.
“I brought you here,” she said, stepping away, “because I wanted to see the puppy that Pariah stole, and see what she made of him. My mother’s praise for her was not unwarranted.”
She sat back on her haunches, surveying Mhumhi from under half-lidded eyes.
“So now that you understand what she is- what you called mother- are you still willing to play her charade? Understand, Mhumhi, that you were used. You were not much more than a cruel experiment to her, I think.”
Mhumhi said nothing. Above him there came a rustling, and the bird poked its head out, looking down at the assembled dogs with its beady black eyes.
“Your real mother and father are alive,” said Hlolwa, “and when they come back from their task, they will want to see you. Would you like to meet them?”
Mhumhi stared at the leaves on the ground. His half-eaten piece of fruit was still lying there, its dark pit bared.
“Go on and answer, skinny,” said Imbwa. “Aren’t you tired of living off scraps in Oldtown like fox? Wouldn’t you like to have family- real family? That look like you, and all?”
Mhumhi opened his mouth, and Hlolwa cut him off.
“Don’t forget,” she urged. “Before you answer, don’t forget how Pariah manipulated you. What you feel is a product of her plan!”
“And-” Mhumhi’s head snapped up. “And what was her plan, then? What did she hope to accomplish with this?!”
“To prove a point, obviously,” said Imbwa. “Fanatical as any other domestic, if you ask me.”
“I suppose she wanted to accomplish the original goals of the white-tails,” said Hlolwa. “Which, as noble as they sound, would doom us all.”
Mhumhi drew back, looking at her from under his brow. “Doom us all? Just because the members of a pack couldn’t breed with one another?”
“No, stupid, it’s the idea of dog-hulker solidarity in the first place,” said Imbwa. “If dogs and hulkers agreed to have a truce, then the stupid hulkers would breed like rats, wouldn’t they? And eat like rats, too. Eat, eat, eat. What do you think, Mhumhi? Do you want to starve for a stupid hulker?”
“Is there really not enough food?” said Mhumhi, though a tremor came through him at the thought of the meat. “If we both agreed not to breed too much-”
“You don’t understand,” said Hlolwa. “It is not that we ought not to breed any more. It’s far too late for that.”
“What do you mean?” But Mhumhi knew, and his tail tucked low, under his belly.
“I mean,” said Hlolwa, “that five out of eight dispensaries in the city are no longer giving any meat, and there is no longer enough food to feed everyone. I mean, Mhumhi, that two-thirds of the dogs in this city are simply going tostarve. And unless we suddenly come across a vast quantity of meat, there is simply nothing we can do about it.”
The words hit Mhumhi like sharp bites, one after the other, gnawing the heart out of him.
“Yes,” said Imbwa. “I told you to enjoy your fruit.”
Mhumhi was breathing hard, his belly sucking in with each breath, and he raised his head skyward. Two-thirds? Two-thirds? How was such a number even possible? How many dogs would that be? He couldn’t even imagine it… Oldtown was just a corner of the city, and there were so many living there!
The bird looked down at him from the branch above and made a harsh rasping sound.
No, he thought, no… it was like Lamya had predicted, not enough food, not enough for everyone… Would the dogs fight in the streets, too? Would they try to kill and eat one another, like animals, like- like- humans?
A horrid thought suddenly occurred to him.
He knew where there was a great deal of meat.
Under the city.
And it was not dog.
He froze his thoughts there, feeling as though he were teetering on the brink of a precipice- just one false step in either direction- morals- meat- morals- meat-
“Mhumhi,” called Hlolwa, perhaps not for the first time, and he snapped out of his reverie, shivering. Hlolwa had raised her head and gazing down at him through amber slivers.
“You’re thinking about that nest of hulkers and hyena underneath the city, aren’t you?”
He swung his head up to stare at her, stunned, and Imbwa behind her was laughing, and the attendants were laughing. Hlolwa did not laugh, she merely gave that smile, turning her head, letting her teeth show on one side.
“Don’t worry about telling us,” she said. “The little fox did already, in exchange for his pet wolf. We mobilized our troops that very minute, at both entrances. They have been attacking for the last hour, Mhumhi.”
“Aren’t you tired of living off scraps in Oldtown like fox?” like a fox? like the foxes?
“Hlolwa had raised her head and gazing down at him” was gazing