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Announcing the release of the fifth Running With the Pack story, Noon!

Running With The Pack: Noon

Red took a long swig of water from his flask and looked across the landscape. He could see that in just a few minutes’ walk, the last of the bushy grassland would finally yield to the wet arboreal terrain of the Jungle. Turning back for a moment, he could see the Canal behind him, and before him he beheld the vastness of the rain forest.

“We’re here,” he said solemnly to his companion, the tigress Luna. She stood at his right side, raised to her full height, an imposing seven and a half feet. “We’re not done yet, Red.”, she replied quietly. “We’re at the Jungle, aren’t we?” “We’re at the edge of the Jungle. Once we get to the real Jungle, we’ll have to find the people in charge, and then we’ve got our work cut out for us convincing them to help. So don’t get too excited just yet.”

“You are such a killjoy,” said Red vaguely, but he calmed down a bit after that. “Let’s get going then.”

Red and Luna walked toward the edge of the Jungle, observing as they went the kinds of trees they saw and the lack of activity around them. However, as they traveled deeper into the rain forest, they found it very much alive; far more alive than the desert, and certainly more alive than any forest farther north.

It was not long before they came to what appeared to be some kind of a road, running perpendicular to their previous direction of motion; that is, the road ran east-west. Red turned to Luna. “Which way do we go?” “I haven’t the foggiest idea,” Luna replied. She then stepped into the road, looking to the right, and to the left.

When she had looked to the left, she put her forepaw up to her forehead to keep the sun out of her eyes; a somewhat unnecessary gesture with the thick canopy above her; and squinted. “Look,” said she, “Someone’s coming.” “What?” Red stepped out into the road himself.

Sure enough, someone–or something–was headed in their direction. As it came closer, Red could see that it was a rickety old cart. Driving it was a medium-sized mutt with a straw hat. Pulling it were two horses. It seemed to bounce up and down incompetently as its unconcerned rider was jostled about like a potato sack.

Red waited nervously for a few moments as the cart approached. It came closer and closer, until Red could swear the driver was intentionally ignoring them. But how could he? They were standing right in his path, in the middle of the road.

Finally, when it seemed like he might well be blind, he called out, “Hoa, Bessie!” The cart sort of bumped to an unsteady halt. “Well, I’ll be! What in the name of Jehoshaphat have we here?” He spoke with a thick farmer’s drawl. “Now just who might you be? You look lost, and not many people get lost on the road to Hebrosh!” “The road to where?”, demanded Red, staring at the farmer. “You really aren’t from here, are you?”, asked the older dog.

“No, we’re not.”, said Red warily. “Just what is ‘Hebrosh?’?”

The older dog sputtered and nearly fell off his cart. “Did you jest say ‘What is Hebrosh?’?”, he asked. “Yes…”, Red replied slowly. “Well,” said the mutt, “Hebrosh is only about the biggest city in the Northern Province!” “Really?”, asked Red. “Is there an alpha there?”

The farmer dog rolled his eyes. “Here in the Jungle, we don’t have packs or alphas. We’re all one group, and we’re ruled by Oligarchs.” Then, to himself, he added, “What do they teach ‘em at these schools?”

“Forgive my companion,” said Luna. “We’re from a little bit farther north. The education in his village is lacking regarding distant regions, especially the Jungle.” “Weeel, I tell you what.”, said the farmer. “I don’t know who ya be, or what yer doin here, but whatever it is, you’ll be able to do it better in Hebrosh than ya can here. Howsabouts I take ye down there? I’m goin that way anyhoo!”

Red was about to speak, but Luna preempted him. “We would appreciate that, if it’s not too much trouble, that is.” “No trouble at all,” replied the farmer mutt. “Just get on m’cart. Say, what’all are you young ‘uns’ names?”

Red and Luna introduced themselves appropriately. “Well, Ah’m Jebusiah Nordin. Out here, you see, we gots two names ‘stead a namin’ oh’selves after a town!”

Red and Luna did get on the cart. “Now hold on tight!”, yelled the farmer, pulling down his straw hat to better cover his face and cracking his whip. The horses immediately began to pull, but the added weight slowed down their progress.

They were not moving too quickly, but Red didn’t complain. It was better than walking by far.

After a few minutes, the road seemed to smooth out somewhat, and Red laid himself down against one of the hay bales. Luna remained sitting up.

The trip to Hebrosh took about half an hour, all told. At the edge of the city were high stone walls that looked more decorative than functional. Not a scratch was to be seen in the intricate designs carved all across the bulwarks, and the sentries, both cats and dogs mingled as if that were perfectly normal, seemed lax.

Jebusiah hopped off his cart and nonchalantly approached the sentries, two enormous black jaguars. Though imposing in their own right, Red thought they would have been a little bit more intimidating to potential intruders had they been armed with more than a skinny court sword.

“Howdy theer, Ayzize!”, shouted Jebusiah. “Greetings, Jebusiah.”, came the rumbling deep voice of the panther in answer. “What is your business in Hebrosh?” “Well, Rooty-doo! What in the name of all the gods d’ya think my busyness is? I’s heer to sell hay! What’all d’I usually do?” “There is no need to be rude, Jebusiah. I am required to ask all visitors their business. Who are your companions?” “I theenk dey speek fer themselvs!”

“Well,” said the panther in his deep, low voice, “Who be ye?” Red looked around. No one was wearing the silver spear. But here, perhaps, everyone shared Underground sentiments, so there was no Underground. But then again, perhaps here, the Underground wouldn’t be welcome.

But if they lied and said they weren’t from the Underground, but from somewhere else, then they would undoubtedly be in far worse trouble later on. Red looked at Luna uncertainly.

Immediately she took the floor. Skillfully she avoided lying, while at the same time not revealing the truth. “We are a delegation from the Northern Lands, here to request the aid of your Oligarchs.”

The panther’s eyes narrowed. “You wish to see the Oligarch of Hebrosh?” “Yes.”, said Luna. “No one sees the Oligarch without an appointment. And he has no openings for a long time. Jungle Folk make the list before foreigners.”

Red was just about to give up hope of entering the city legally, when Jebusiah took Ayzize aside. They walked a short distance so that Red could not hear what they were saying or see in any detail what they were doing. When they came back, Ayzize ordered the gates opened. “Welcome, honored guests! The Oligarch will be pleased to have such fine visitors.”

As Red walked into the city, he was awed. Massive marble buildings; domes and arches; wooden longhouses; bizarre styles of architecture Red had never seen; ziggurats, pyramids. It looked as though architectural styles from all over the inhabited world had been collected into one conurbation. And, indeed, that was quite likely just what had happened.

Cats and dogs from all over the Great Western Continent, disgusted with endless war, and seeking refuge from their peoples and their violent ways, came down here. The journey was not an easy one, as Red and Luna had discovered. It would no doubt be harder carrying a great deal of supplies and bringing children in tow. Nevertheless, many had done it, and they had built cities like these, upon which Red now gazed with awe.

He turned to Jebusiah as they walked down the main road. “Jebusiah,” he said, “How did you convince that guard to let us in?” “Well,” said the farmer, notably speaking without his twang for the first time, “a deep purse is sometimes–no, usually–stronger than a law written on tablets.”

His sudden change in accent was not lost on Red, who gazed back at him suspiciously. “Why did you go so far out of your way to help a pair of strangers?” “I noticed your spears.”, he said gravely. “That makes you enemies of Graywolf Pack, does it not?” “It does.” “That’s all the reason I need.”

*******

Luna smiled as she looked over her room at the Grand Table Inn. Thanks to a generous and entirely mysterious donation by Jebusiah, Red and Luna had enough money to live much more comfortably than they had heretofore. The oddity of the farmer having such a large sum to give away to complete strangers was not lost on the tigress, but she chose not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Her room here was far nicer than the simple domiciles she had stayed in during the brief times when she had stayed anywhere on this journey. The wealthy, affluent people of the Jungle apparently could well afford to construct and maintain luxurious hotels.

The walls of the room were cedar, inlaid with gold and with rich designs carved into them. Some were abstract, some represented famous battles and tournaments, some feasts, holidays and celebrations. All were intricate and minute.

The room would have been quite spacious had the bed been a lot smaller. As it was, Luna barely had room to squeeze past the thin and apparently purely ornamental curtains behind which nothing could be concealed and slip her few supplies under the bed where they would be inconspicuously located.

From there, she could just barely squeeze out past the bed and back to the door, beyond which the relative openness of the hall was a welcome change from her room, dominated as it was by a single piece of furniture.

Down the hallway and to the left was the magnificent spiral staircase that led down to the common room where Red had agreed to meet her when he was done looking over his own room and putting away his things.

As he was not in the hall, Luna decided to go downstairs and wait for him, if he was not already there, or meet him if he was. As she walked down the hall, Luna again noticed how absurdly luxurious the place was. Given her somewhat Spartan upbringing, it unsettled her a little to see so much useless ornamentation.

Take the carpet, for instance. Were not marble stairs beautiful and expensive enough, without adding to them a red silk carpet? And why did the banisters require gilded balls sitting on podiums at the top and at the bottom?

Why must there be some battle or likeness carved into every wall? It was enough to drive a person mad.

*******

Red sat in a comfortable dining chair at a round mahogany table. He looked around and observed the luxury surrounding him. I could live here no problem. He sat back and waited for Luna.

After a moment, he began to wonder if his arrival had been noticed. His question was answered when he was approached by a young female Chocolate Labrador. Red couldn’t help noticing that she was quite pretty.

In a gentle, sweet voice, she asked, “You alone?” This question had so many possible shades of meaning Red was not quite sure how to answer it immediately. At least, that’s how he would explain his inarticulateness later.

The question was rephrased with less potential for misinterpretation. “Are you waiting for someone?” This time Red could answer. “Yes.” “Can I get you something in the meantime?”

Red tried to snap himself back to his senses. “Yes.”, he said. “Do you have a special for the day?” “We do.” “Bring me some of that,” said Red, “and whatever wine happens to go best with it.”

The Lab turned on her heel and left. The further she went from him, the more he regained control of his wits. But despite that, he really wished she wouldn’t go too far.

By the time the waitress returned, Luna had arrived. Was it Red’s imagination, or was she just a little but relieved to see that Red was not out with another dog? No. It must be my imagination.

“What can I get for you?” , the waitress asked Luna. “Hmmm,”, said Luna, looking over a menu board on the wall, “I’ll have a beefsteak.” “Anything to drink?” “Some ale, perhaps.” “All right.”

The Labrador again walked off, and Luna addressed Red promptly. “Now,” she said, “down to business.” “What business?”, asked Red distractedly. Luna rolled her eyes. “What business?”, she asked herself sarcastically. “The business for which we were sent here. We must find out how to get an audience with this ‘Oligarch’.”

Red glanced behind him, looking desperately for some sign of their server, in a way that was certainly not brought on by any anxiety about getting his food on time. “Oh, will you concentrate?”, demanded Luna angrily. “Sorry,” said Red, attempting to snap out of it.

“Anyway,” said Luna with a touch of exasperation, “as I was saying—” And here the waitress returned, carrying Red’s wine and Luna’s ale. “Sorry this took so long. We had a backlog.” “Quite all right,” said Red. Luna simply nodded.

“Anyway”, said Luna with far more than a touch of exasperation, “we have to find out what it takes to see an Oligarch.” “I rather think,” said Red, “that Jebusiah may be able to help us there.” Luna looked skeptical. “Where is Jebusiah? Do you have the faintest idea? Because I don’t.”

“Perhaps I should rephrase that,” answered Red, sipping his wine. Hmm. A little sweet for my taste, but very good nonetheless. “I rather think Jebusiah has already helped us significantly with that.” Luna cocked her head. “I don’t understand.” Red rubbed his thumb and middle finger together. Luna nodded. “Ah.”

“Still,” said Luna, “perhaps we should try the honest route to begin with.” “The honest route?”, asked Red. “Yes,” said Luna. “It may be that we can get an audience with the Oligarch simply by asking for it.”

Red smiled. “You really think that? Look around you, Luna. This is a mercantile culture. We are unlikely to get anything done without a proper application of gold.” “However,” said Luna, “we should try it, for appearances’ sake.” “Perhaps you are right.” “And besides,” said Luna, “they are likely to be ideologically aligned with our hope for peace.” “Perhaps they are, at least nominally,” replied Red, “but the Oligarch is very busy, is he not? Surely he must put his own people before strangers, must he not? And thus we are ignored. Unless we know how to…persuade them.”

“All right,” said Luna, “I see your point. I suppose, then, that the matter is settled?” “Not really,” replied Red, “for we must still determine where the Oligarch lives. But that shouldn’t be hard. Tomorrow we can arrange to be shown around the city.”

There were a few moments of silence, after which Red attempted to revive the conversation by asking about life in the Felid Kingdoms. It worked. Luna started talking and there was no stopping her. “Well,” she began, “It depends where you live. Now we tigers have somewhat hermitish tendencies, but we’re rather unusual in that regard…”

*******

“….We are raised by our mothers. Male tigers don’t have quite the nurturing instinct that some Folk have. In fact, I must say we generally aren’t that social at all. We have few customs and little culture to speak of. Most tigers live by themselves and only see each other during the mating season.”

Luna placed one hand on her chin. “And yet,” she mused, “Tigers have a kind of brotherhood. We live alone, we avoid social contact, but when push comes to shove, one tiger will always protect another.”

For not having much culture to speak of, she sure talked a long time about it.

“What is far more interesting,” said Luna, “than us tigers ourselves, is the culture among the other felid races as regards tigers. We are actually rather feared by most. On the rare occasions when one of us shows up, our words are always heeded. We could do a far better job of governance, I think,” she said, with a touch of pride, “than those silly lions. Why, if tigers ran the Kingdoms, there might not even be a war.”

“Then why don’t you?” “I suppose most of us aren’t particularly inclined to try to control others.” “Hmmm,” said Red, “and yet for the sake of ending such a pointless and destructive war…”

“Well,” said Luna hesitantly, “perhaps I should rephrase my earlier statement. If tigers had been running the Kingdoms, there probably wouldn’t have been a war. I don’t think a tigerish takeover now could put a stop to it. At least, not unilaterally.”

“Ah.”, said Red. “The people must be convinced…on both sides of the river.”, said Luna.

As the night wore on, the course of the discussion wandered, as courses of discussion tend to do. Red revealed his occupation as the owner of the newest carpenter’s shop in Dramstad, which he had established immediately before moving into his current residence, and his real lifelong ambition to be a professional Shatruff player.

Luna, in turn, told of her brief experience with the game of strategy, popular among felines, known as Chianzho. Though tigers had little occasion to play it, nevertheless some basic introduction to the game was mandatory in every cat’s education. The complications and intricacies of the rules and strategies Luna described set Red’s head spinning.

Then the conversation meandered about rather aimlessly, until it reached the subject of pack structure among various canids. Red explained how among wolves, the rules of behavior within the pack followed quite a strict pecking order, with only the alpha pair allowed to breed. Wolf packs never lived in cities, although individual wolves were known to if the city was close enough to the pack’s meeting rock. Red also explained how the continual battles for dominance within the packs kept death rates high.

He then proceeded down the line, explaining how packs of dogs were far looser in organization. Occasionally, there were battles for dominance within the older, more conservative packs; the newer ones tended to adopt a more democratic system based on voting blocs, and how the foxes in general tended not to organize in packs at all, but rather group themselves into very loose confederations called clans.

Luna remarked on the barbaric nature of the wolf pack, and Red was quick to explain that the dominance battles common there were not, in theory, fought to the death, but that they often ended up that way, when some adrenaline-crazed wolf refused to surrender when beaten. This did not significantly impact Luna’s opinion of wolf packs.

After all this had been discussed, Red noticed that it was getting quite late; the sun had set some time ago, and the dining room was almost empty. He paid the waitress for their meal, taking care to tip her well. She counted the money, winked at him, and left. There are some parts of this trip I won’t recount to certain individuals when I get home.

With the meal over, there was little reason for Red and Luna to remain in the dining room. Both got up, ascended the spiral staircase, and returned to their rooms. Red bade Luna goodnight, and then dropped into bed, where he fell asleep almost immediately.

*******

Red awoke to the sunlight gently streaming in through his window. Must be about six o’clock. There was no point in trying to sleep in; his curtains could not keep the sun at bay enough for that. Besides, Luna would probably think he had slept late enough already.

So instead, he got up and looked in the mirror. His fur was slightly ruffled, and he noticed he had allowed it to grow long. I’ll have to get that cut when I get home. Meantime, he decided it wasn’t bad enough to be worth doing anything about, and went downstairs.

There he found Luna, waiting patiently at their table. He sat down. “How long have you been here?” “Not long, maybe fifteen minutes. I suppose today we’ll attempt to arrange an audience with the Oligarch?” “Yes, I suppose we will,” said Red distractedly. He wasn’t paying much attention to Luna. Rather, he was looking around for the Chocolate Lab who had waited this table the night before. She was nowhere to be seen. That stands to reason. She probably comes in later. It’s only about six-fifteen. Still, he was disappointed.

Instead of the undeniably pretty server he had had last night, Red was this morning greeted by a rather aloof male Mastiff. In a dry, monotonous manner he asked, “What can I get for you today, sir and madam?” He sounds as if someone put a knife to his throat and told him to be polite.

Luna ordered first. An obligate carnivore, she requested a glass of ale and a dish of perch. Red was more varied in his diet. He ordered ale as well, but where food was concerned, he decided to go with an old standard. Toast and pavender, followed by ham and bacon.

Breakfast progressed uneventfully, and soon the pair were ready to leave the hotel and look around the city.

*******

Luna and Red, having finished breakfast, left their table and walked leisurely in the direction of the front desk. There Luna found, to her pleasant surprise, a tiger working the booth. He wasn’t bad-looking, either.

Luna walked over to the desk, leaned forward, and said “Excuse me.” “Oh,”, said the clerk, “Greetings.” “Could you tell me the name of a good guide who might show me and my friend around this city? We’re visitors, and we’d like to see the sights.”

“Well, actually,” he said, “I get off in about fifteen minutes myself. You’re unlikely to find a better guide in this town, and, well, my price is right.”, he said, smiling at Luna. She smiled slightly in return and nodded, then looked around. While she had been talking, Red had wandered off.

Where could he have gone? It couldn’t have been too far. She decided to look outside. Each side of the double door was carved from a single piece of solid mahogany. “Wretched excess” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Luna, large and strong as she was, had to lean her weight against the door before she could open it. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she could see the clerk starting to get up, but before he could, she had pushed the door open.

Thankfully, the door was designed to close on its own, so Luna didn’t have to shut it behind her. The hotel was situated on a wide, busy street. Cats and dogs bustled up and down on the edges, while in the middle, horse-drawn carts and horses and riders moved at a moderate pace.

Red was sitting on a bench to Luna’s right, waving at a Pomeranian as she passed by on the near side of the road. Luna sat down. “I got us a guide,” she said. “Who?”, asked Red. “The clerk at the desk.” “Oooh.”, said Red with a knowing smile and a telling nod.

“Oh, hush,” said Luna, “his price was right.” “I’m sure your reasons were purely economic, Luna.” Luna lifted one finger and extended a claw. “Shutting up,” said Red.

*******

Fifteen minutes later, Red and Luna were sitting in the lobby, reading. They had each picked up a book from the vast library situated next to the dining room. A tall, long-haired Collie came in and relieved the tiger who had been working the booth, and he walked over to where Red and Luna were.

Luna closed her book and stood up. Red followed suit, so to speak. “Red,”, said Luna, “this is our guide.” Red looked up. Then up more. Then a little higher. Ah, there’s his face. He’s a tall fellow. Red was a veritable master of understatement.

The tiger that stood before Red was far taller than he had previously noticed. Taller even than Luna, Red estimated him to be perhaps eight feet in height. Red extended a forepaw. “Pardon me,” he said, “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.”

Their prospective guide looked at Red, somewhat confused. Here Luna jumped in . “He means you haven’t been introduced.” “Oh,” said the tiger, smiling. “Well, now that you mention it, I think there has been a failure of introductions all around. My name is Jun.” “Fitting,” said Luna absently. “What?”, asked Jun. “Never mind.”, said Luna. “And you are?”, asked Jun. “I am Luna,” said Luna. “I come from the Felid Kingdoms, about as far north as tigers go.” “Ah,” said Jun. “And how come you to travel with the dog…” “Red. Well, it’s rather a long story.”, said Red. “I’ve got time.”, said Jun.

Red looked at Luna. “We’ll tell you,” she said, “while you show us around the city.” Jun scratched his chin thoughtfully for a moment. “All right,” he said. “I’ll give you a little tour.”

So out the door they went. Jun led, and Red and Luna followed. They walked down the street and to the right. “We’ll begin the tour when we get to our first important landmark,” said Jun, “but first, I want to hear your story.” Red wasn’t particularly interested in telling his story, so he looked at Luna, gesturing expectantly. She gestured back at him. He gestured back at her. She sighed, and began the story.

“Well, as you no doubt are aware, Jun, cats and dogs have been at war since time out of mind.” “Of course,” said their guide. “That’s why I find it so curious.”

“Well,” continued Luna, “there is a growing movement among both peoples that seeks to end this pointless and unnecessary conflict. It is called the Underground, and the name fits. When necessary, it acts covertly, blocking the war effort on both sides. When possible, it sways the opinions of magistrates, alphas and other leaders to try to initiate negotiations. We came here in hopes of persuading the Jungle Folk to act as mediators. We were hoping to get an audience with this town’s Oligarch.”

“I may be able to help with that,” said Jun. “Underground, eh?”, he asked. “Yes,” said Luna. “Tell me,” he said, “that necklace you both wear, does it have something to do with this group?” “Why, yes,” said Red. “It is the very symbol by which we know each other.”

“Well, how about that?”, asked Jun. “What do you mean?”, asked Luna. “Well,” said Jun, “let me tell you a little story. I was born in a litter of five cubs. We were very close to the litter my mother had had two years before, our brothers and sisters. They hadn’t spread out very far, fairly uncommon for the male tigers, and we’d often bump into each other. When my mother decided to move down here, she did so at the urging of my older brother, a tiger named Sheng. He wore a necklace like that.”

“Really?”, asked Luna. “Yes. He said he wanted us–and her–to escape the endless war. He never would tell us why he wouldn’t move himself. I never found out what happened to him.”

Jun seemed rather distracted, but he was focused enough to have stopped, at least. “Why are we stopping?”, asked Red. “Hmmm?”, asked Jun. “Oh, this is our first important landmark.” Red looked up. “What is it?”, he asked. “This,” said Jun proudly, “is the Monument of the Founders. Step back, you’ll see it better.”

Red did as he was told, and stepped back. Although the sun was in his eyes, he could still make out the object in question. It was bizarrely shaped. Made apparently of metal, it rose high into the sky. It was not much wider than an obelisk, but rather than a solid block of metal, it seemed to be an abstract piece of art. Curving sheets of metal, balls of steel seemingly suspended in midair. “Wow.” It was all Red could say.

“Yeah,” said Jun. “It’s incredible, isn’t it? I know it amazed me when I first moved out here. But we should be going.” Indeed, there was much more to see. Recounting the whole tour would take far too long, but some highlights must be shared.

Red later on had trouble deciding which part of the tour was his favorite, barring the Monument of the Founders. It would, however, have had to be one of the following three: the Oligarch’s palace, the Mechanists’ Guildhouse, and the Turning Gardens.

We shall begin with the Turning Gardens. They were the next really interesting sight, as far as Red was concerned. A few other buildings had been shown them, but Red didn’t find them all that memorable.

The Gardens, however, were a different story. They were like nothing Red had ever seen. They were, first of all, enclosed. That alone set them apart from any gardens where Red was from. But it was far more than that.

To enter the Turning Gardens, one had to travel through a long, narrow passage. But one did not walk through the passage; rather, one stepped into it, onto a smooth golden plate. There was a series of these same plates going throughout the tunnel.

When the plate was stepped on, it would turn, then suddenly stop. The plates were very slippery, so the passenger would slide forward onto the next plate, which would repeat the process turning in the opposite direction.

It was difficult for Red to get used to at first, and he almost fell over a few times. Once, Luna actually did fall over. It was quite funny to watch, as she laid across several plates, all rotating in different directions, and desperately struggled to get up. Red later told himself, though it may or may not have been true, that he would have helped her had he not been having such a hard time staying balanced himself. Finally, Jun, the only one who really seemed to be able to navigate the plates, maneuvered over and helped Luna get up.

But if Red thought the entry was strange, it was nothing compared to the inside. There were more golden plates there, but they were gigantic ones. Furthermore, they each had an inner plate, which held various plants, and an outer ring, which visitors walked on. The outer ring moved in the opposite direction of the inner plate, allowing one to stand in one place and view the plants from all angles.

But that wasn’t all. Some of the plates were positioned higher than others. Some were, in fact, quite near to the ceiling. To travel between them, there were ladders affixed to the outer rings. One would climb the ladder, then wait for the ring to come into position. There would be a short pause in the motion of both plates to allow the person to step to the other one, and then motion would continue.

As you neared the top, the plants simply became more and more spectacular. And spectacular they were, even from the beginning. Flowers and bushes and trees arranged in ways that defy description.

Red was utterly captivated. When it came time to leave, he felt like he had only been there a few minutes. But what he saw next quite nearly made him forget all about the gardens.

It was not quite next, but Red soon forgot the things he saw in between the Gardens and the Mechanists’ Guild, so it may as well have been next.

The Guildhouse was not much to look at from the outside. In fact, when he first saw it, Red’s comment was “This is a major landmark?” “Wait till you get into the place,” Jun had answered.

And he was right. Though it was little more than a dilapidated brick building on the outside, and the facade was almost as small as Red’s house, inside it was an amazing place. An emporium of machines and inventions, where the floor seemed to slope slightly downward, and after a while there were no windows. It took a while to dawn on Red that he was underground.

They hadn’t gone far when they were greeted by a short long-haired dachshund with matted, oily fur and half-moon glasses. He peered down over the top of said spectacles, and in a gruff voice said, “Visitors?” “Yes,” said Red nervously. “D’ye have permission cards?”, he asked. “Um…” Then Jun stepped forward. “Relax, Gramps. They’re with me.” “Well, Jun!”, said the old dog. “You were hiding from me, you old rascal! You know how nearsighted I am! Well, have fun!” The dog glanced over at Luna, then winked at Jun.

“Gramps?”, asked Luna curiously, looking at Jun. “Well, he’s no blood relation,” answered the other, “but he is an old friend. I’ve known him about since we moved out here. Was a time I wanted to become a mechanist myself.”

“Why didn’t you?”, asked Luna gently. “Just never had the required skills,” answered Jun. “Grew up in the somewhat primitive Great Western Continent. I was always fascinated by the machines here, but somehow wasn’t very good at remembering whether to touch the blue magnet to the red wire or weld the yellow rod to the green cable. Poor Gramps. He always believed in me. He still tries to convince me to give it another shot, but I’ve accepted it. I’ll never be a Mechanist. I love to visit this place, though.”

Red looked around. Mechanical parts were strewn everywhere in ways only their creators could understand. “What is all this?”, he asked. Red had never before seen electric devices, though some legends of them had reached him through hearsay and in books.

“This,” said Jun, “is a Workbench. One of the more organized ones, if you can believe that. Still, I have no idea what most of this stuff is or where it belongs. Let’s walk a little further and check out the museum. That I can explain to you.”

So they walked a little further. The path made two sharp ninety-degree turns, one to the left and one to the right. On the right side was a sign hanging from the ceiling. It read “Living Quarters”. To the left was a similar sign reading “Museum.” Jun lead them to the left.

At the end of the hall was a set of glass double doors with golden handles. Jun walked forward and opened the door for Red and Luna to follow. Beyond the door lay what struck Red as an uncharacteristically neat island in a sea of slovenliness. It was organized into rows rather like a library. Along each row were glass cases, inside of which were various mechanical devices and strange inventions.

There was the Chu Ko Nu, a crossbow with a wooden box called a “magazine” attached to the bottom to hold extra bolts. Jun told them it had been invented by a tiger who moved down here a long time ago, one of the founding members of the Mechanists’ Guild.

There was Talos Micron, a tiny mechanical Dachshund who seemed very much alive, however much the plaque below his case might insist he was only a machine. There was the hammer of Lathor, named for the ancestral deity of the Dachshund breed, which had a head that moved back and forth of its own accord to aid in close-quarters fighting.

There was a sword whose blade collapsed into the hilt for easy concealment. There was a bizarre ball that could be operated by buttons on the side and would solve simple math problems.

But, most fascinating of all, from Red’s perspective at least, was the “copter”! Jun explained that it was rather a primitive model, and he was surprised they didn’t have a newer one on display, but Red hardly heard him. He was too busy examining the machine. It had a single seat, and the top was open. It was just large enough to comfortably accommodate a single small dog. Red himself would have been a tight squeeze.

Above the seat, just beyond where Red’s head would have been had he sat there, were four sharp blades, arranged at right angles. Behind the seat, a long pole extended, and at its end were four more, smaller blades, placed perpendicular to the aforesaid. Beneath the seat were wooden skids, on which the whole device rested, and before it a stick, which looked as if it were used to control the machine.

Curious, Red began to read the plaque underneath it. Apparently, one installed something called a “battery”, then pressed a red button to the right of the stick. From there, one would use the stick to steer by orienting the blades on the top, which Red learned were collectively called a “rotor”, as they spun to keep the device aloft. Wait, thought Red, They spin? I’m not sure I like how low they are. Hopefully this was designed for shorter dogs. Talk about a headache.

There were a few more items in the museum, but most of them were overshadowed in Red’s mind by these. Therefore, I will now roll back the clock a short ways, and revisit the trip through the museum from a rather different perspective.

*******

Luna entered the glass double doors after Red and Jun. She walked down the rows of glass cases, looking at the various devices that surrounded her. Some were interesting; others were not. Among the more interesting, was, of course, the flying machine known as the copter, as well as the mechanical Dachshund, Talos Micron.

Those two she and Red would later agree to be quite fascinating. But here the tigress’s tastes diverged from the Retriever’s. She did not find the ball that did math problems at all interesting; even she could solve such simple arithmetic questions, and quite a bit faster than the ball too.

Among the things that Luna did find interesting, however, were such items as the Historacle. Shaped to look like the head of a black panther, it sat atop a glass case, silent and unmoving. Luna was looking at the other side of the aisle, and would have walked past it without noticing had it not greeted her as she passed by.

“Greetings!”, it said, in an unnaturally high and perky voice. Luna jumped and turned around. “Who said that?” Red suppressed a giggle. “I am sorry to have frightened you,” said the panther head. “My name is the Historacle, but you may call me Histie if you like.”

“Ok, Histie,” said Luna, “What do you want?” “It’s not what I want,” said Histie, “but what I thought you might want.” “Well then,” said Luna, “what did you think I might want?”

“I thought you might have some questions about history.” “I’m fairly well-educated in history,” said Luna. “What kind of history do you know about?” “All kinds,” answered Histie with no emotion whatsoever. “Well, all right,” said Luna. “Tell me about the history of this place.”

“Very well,” said Histie. “By ‘this place’, do you mean the Mechanists’ Guildhouse, the city of Hebrosh, or the Jungle Refuge?” “The city of Hebrosh,” answered Luna.

“Very well,” said Histie. “The city of Hebrosh was one of the founding Seven Cities of the Refuge. In the decades surrounding the year 10 Before Refuge Era, henceforth to be referred to as 10 B.R.E., seven different groups of disgruntled cats and dogs, tired of the war, migrated down into this area. Each of them formed their own city, and one of those cities, founded by a clan of Dachshunds, was called Hebrosh. Originally, the Seven Cities were independent, but as time wore on, they realized their sovereignty would not be left unchallenged by their brothers to the north.”

“So, in the year 0 B.R.E, the kings of all Seven Cities met together, here.” Here Luna interposed a question. “In this very building?” “No,” answered the head coolly, “but in this city.”

“Together, the kings decided, monumentally, to renounce their titles as kings and rename themselves Oligarchs. Furthermore, each of the Oligarchs agreed to submit to the decisions of the High Council, which consists of all the Oligarchs.”

“How does the High Council make decisions?”, asked Luna. “The High Council of Oligarchs, formed in the year 0 B.R.E, consists of the Oligarchs from all seven cities, as well as the Pro-Oligarchs from the various Provinces and Cities added later on.”, answered Histie. “It is governed by a Charter, which lays out certain rights for the citizen, the Oligarch, and the assembly as a whole. The Council has three main spheres of power: It can pass legislation, it acts as a court, and it is the only body which can legitimize the use of armed force by any Oligarch or set of Oligarchs against foes outside their own cities.”

“What rights does an individual have under the Charter?”, asked Luna. “The Charter, as a document,” answered Histie, “has changed twice over the course of its existence. In the original draft of the document, it made no provisions whatsoever for individual rights, leaving that up to the charters, constitutions, and traditions of each particular city. However, it came to the attention of the Council that the Oligarch of the southernmost city, Gallia, was abusing his powers and unrest was spreading among the people.”

“Historians and propagandists continue to debate whether the Council was motivated by altruistic concern for the welfare of the common folk or by fear of losing their own power should there be a popular insurrection. In any case, in the year 37 B.R.E, a Bill of Rights was added to the charter, granting rights to the citizens of the Seven Cities that heretofore had only been officially recognized by the Council as belonging to the Oligarch.”

“These rights included the right to life; no individual may be killed except in self-defense in an emergency or by due process of law, the right to liberty; with the exception of conscription, no individual may be forced to labor for another against his will, the right to property; with the exception of legitimate taxes, no individual may be deprived of his property without due process of law, the right to appeal the judicial decisions of the local Oligarch to the Council, and the right to appeal oppressive legislation by the Oligarch to the Council.”

“And this quieted the mob?”, asked Luna. “For a time,” answered Histie. “But in the year 73 B.R.E, the people of the recently-formed Provinces and Extraseptal Cities began agitating to have their rights recognized under the charter. So in the sixth month of that year, the Bill of Rights was extended to all cities and Provinces of the Jungle Refuge.”

“The Oligarchs had, under the original Charter, all the rights now recognized as belonging to each individual, as well as being guaranteed each a single vote in the High Council, all of which they still possess today. However, as the new cities and Provinces were added, their Pro-Oligarchs and various provincial rulers also got votes.”

“There was, in the year 85 B.R.E., an enormous debate in the High Council as to whether the Pro-Oligarchs of the Provinces ought to have equal representation with the Seven Oligarchs of the Seven Cities. At this point there were no independent extraseptal cities; all were under provincial control. Finally, a compromise won out, but one that left the Pro-Oligarchs in almost as strong a position as the Oligarchs proper. The compromise was this: Pro-Oligarchs, like Oligarchs, would have a single vote each in council, but were not eligible to stand for high magistracies, such as president, tribune, or, in the rare instances in which one is required, dictator.”

The Historacle went on for some time. I wish I could relate to you all the fascinating things he related to Luna. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the space to tell of all the things which the Historacle said. Suffice to say, Luna left far more knowledgeable in matters of history than she entered.

There were, however, two other inventions which interested the tigress and which I feel are important to mention.

The first was the Ring of Truth. It was a small, unpretentious-looking ring at first glance, but it caught Luna’s eye, so she read the plaque beneath it. It said that the ring had been created some twenty years ago, and could detect whether the person wearing it was lying or not.

Luna was somewhat disappointed to discover that the suspected liar had to be wearing the ring, but it still seemed like a useful device. According to the plaque, it detected subtle changes in body temperature, causing the ring to expand or contract. As the ring expanded and contracted, it would extend or retract the gem set into the ring. Thus, when a person switched from telling the truth to lying or vice versa, the stone would move.

The second was a small mechanical bird called a Gold Pigeon. It wandered back and forth inside its open-topped glass case. According to the description on its plaque, it would fly back to whomever had had it last when given the command “Go.” Luna decided to try it out.

Jun took the bird, then handed it to Luna, who walked across the room. Luna looked at the bird, and enunciated clearly: “Go!” The bird looked back at her, and said in a metallic voice, “I have no message. Are you sure you want to send me without a message?”

Luna answered, “Yes. I would just like to see you fly back to Jun.” “All right,” answered the bird, “but I would like to go on the record as saying that I think it’s a waste of my talents–”. Here Luna clapped her paw around its beak. With a muffled mechanical squawk, it flew off toward Jun, who patted it gently on the head and put it back in its case.

*******

But far more interesting than anything the trio had seen thus far was the Oligarch’s palace. When Red left the Mechanists’ Guildhouse, he was surprised to find that he had been inside several hours. The change in lighting from when he went in was slightly disorienting for a moment.

Once he adjusted, he found himself lagging behind Jun and Luna as they walked down the street, in the direction of the Oligarch’s Palace. He ran for a moment to catch up, then slowed down to walk with them. They were moving at a leisurely pace, and Red had time to admire the architecture of the buildings they passed.

With the inventions and technology of the Mechanists’ Guildhouse fresh in his mind, Red wondered what brilliant advances his people were missing due to their singleminded obsession with the extermination of their ancient enemies, the cats.

Soon they arrived. The Oligarch’s Palace made the hotel they had stayed in look like a tiny shack somewhere in the countryside near Dramstad. “Enormous” doesn’t begin to describe it. Red’s entire hometown would have fit easily inside it with room to spare. It was four stories tall, not counting perhaps whatever might be underground.

It was surrounded by a yard with perhaps four times its own footprint, and a tall fence. The fence was there not so much to protect the place from invaders as to impress onlookers. The gates in the fence were made of a shining yellow metal. “Solid gold,” said Jun, pointing to them.

Before the gate stood a pair of large tigers holding halberds. Jun stepped to the front of the group. Turning to Luna and Red, he said, “We’re in luck. That one on the right is my brother.”

Jun walked up to the guard on the right. “Hey, Shing!” The guard stared back in confusion. “Who are you?” “What do you mean, who am I? It’s your brother, Jun!”

The guard stared at Jun with a bizarre look on his face. “I don’t have any brother named Jun.” Then he snapped his fingers. “I know who you are,” he said with a smile. “You’re a friend of Leon’s, aren’t you? He sent you over here as some kind of surreal practical joke, didn’t he?”

Jun looked caught off-guard for a moment, then laughed and said, “Yes. That’s exactly who I am. Gotcha!” The guard laughed too, for a moment. Then Jun said, “Hey, I didn’t come over here just to prank you, though. My friends and I would like to arrange an audience with the Oligarch.”

The guard covered his mouth with his hand to suppress a laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you don’t just walk up to the gate, ask to see the Oligarch, and expect to be let in.” Jun stepped a little closer. “Actually,” he said in a low voice, reaching into a satchel he wore over his shoulder and pulling out a few gold pieces, which he deftly slipped into the guard’s hand, “I do.”

I never noticed that satchel before, Red thought. I’ve got to be more observant. I’m getting sloppy.

The guard smiled and nodded affirmatively. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Jun walked back to where Red and Luna were, a little distance away from the guards. “I could have sworn that was my brother.”, he said. “He does work here. In any case, we’ve done all we can do for now. Let’s get back to the hotel. We’ll come back tomorrow and see what that guard’s done for us.”


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