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Today, I release to you the sixth Running With The Pack story, entitled Hope. Here it is:

Running With The Pack: Hope

Red, the Golden Retriever, lay on his back in a vast green meadow, looking up at the clouds and trying to pick out familiar shapes from among them. It was a wonderfully peaceful sunny summer day.

He should have known better than to think it would last. Suddenly a dark shadow fell upon the meadow. An enormous black bird, much like a crow, but about a hundred times bigger, seemed to fill the sky.

It was as if a total eclipse of the sun had taken place instantly. As Red stood up to get away, the enormous crow folded its wings and descended toward the meadow.

Red began desperately trying to run away, but his feet were stuck in place. He couldn’t run. He tried to scream for help, but his voice made no sound. He couldn’t yell. He couldn’t escape.

And suddenly, he shot up ramrod-straight in bed, breathing heavily and sweating all over. A dream. It was only a dream.

Slowly he gathered his wits around him and remembered where he was. He was in a grand hotel in the city of Hebrosh in the Southern Jungle. He was here with his tigress friend, Luna, on a mission for the Underground to try and get the rulers of the rain forest to act as mediators between his people and hers.

Red looked out the window. It was still dark outside. The moon was on the wane, and had shriveled down to a glimmering silver crescent. Red rolled around uncomfortably in the huge bed. He couldn’t get to sleep no matter what he tried.

He rolled from side to side. He counted sheep. He lay on his side, his stomach, his back. He moved the pillows to the other side of the bed and tried sleeping that way. Nothing worked. Finally he got up. The moonlight streaming through the window provided enough light for him to see how disheveled he looked in the mirror.

Groggily, he stared at his tousled, matted, sweaty fur. He ran his paws through it hastily in an attempt to give it some semblance of neatness. But Red’s fur was quite stubborn, and it refused to be ruled.

He gave up using his paws, and tried the brush sitting beside his bed, on the nighttable. It took a while, but he was able to get his fur looking, well, no worse than it did in the daytime, at least.

As quietly as he could, which wasn’t very quietly, Red turned the creaky old doorknob and opened his room’s creaky old door. Out he stepped into the hallway onto the creaky floorboards, where he slowly began to pace up and down.

He had paced over to the far stairs on the right, and then back to the near stairs to the left side of his room. It was there, in the corner of his eye. A shadowy dark shape, pressed against the side of the spiral staircase. Red thought about freezing in place, but realized in time that that would give him away. So instead, he decided not to break step, or even stop moving his head.

After swinging past the mysterious figure, Red decided to investigate, and nonchalantly began to walk down the marble staircase with the red silk carpet.

Red swung his head casually from side to side. When he looked to his right and down, the shape was no longer there. For one instant, our hero panicked. He looked about him wildly. Then his reason returned, and he decided the shape he had seen was probably a figment of his imagination.

And then again, maybe not. As Red turned his gaze back down the stairs, he saw an enormous brown-and-black German Shepherd creeping up the stairs. Immediately, Red assumed a defensive position.

The Shepherd charged toward Red on all fours. Red leaned forward and pulled back his right forepaw. He was about to slam it into the massive dog charging toward him, when suddenly, the German Shepherd spun around on his forepaws and launched himself, hindpaws first, into Red’s chest.

Red staggered, fell backward, and bumped his head against the wall. His vision began to darken, and the last thing he saw was the dog that had ambushed him racing for the door.

*******

Luna awoke instantly to the sound of a dull thump down the hall. In less than three seconds she was out of bed and fully awake, moving with catlike stealth toward the door. Quietly she opened it and began to walk in the direction of the sound.

There she found Red lying unconscious on the floor. “My gods,” she muttered, and quickly leaned down. He was bleeding from the head. It wasn’t too terribly bad, as head wounds went, but it would have to be dealt with. Luna cursed rapidly to herself as she examined her traveling companion for further injuries. There didn’t seem to be anything.

As quickly and gently as she could, Luna lifted Red up and carried him back to her room, taking care to keep his head up.

Once there, she rummaged around for something, anything that could be used as a bandage. There was very little to be found. Finally, she grabbed the thin gauze veils that hung around her bed. With the ferocious force of a tiger in battle, which might have been somewhat more than necessary, she tore off the gauze.

Wrapping it around Red’s head, she hoped that would stop the bleeding. It seemed to be working, so Luna went back outside to look for help. No one was in the hallway, but she heard footsteps on the nearer spiral staircase and went to check it out.

A House Cat was walking rapidly up the stairs with a large pouch slung over his shoulder. He looked at Luna, then at the blood smeared all over the marble wall and floor. “What in the ninth abyss happened up here?”, he demanded groggily. “I don’t know,” said Luna, her voice rapid and nervous. She was quite caught off-guard by this cat who seemed neither awed nor intimidated by her presence.

“Are you all right?”, asked the House Cat. “Yes,” said Luna, “but my traveling companion isn’t. Are you a physician?” “No,” answered the smaller cat, “but I thought somebody might be hurt, so I brought a few basic medical supplies.” He opened his pouch. “Do you know how to use these?”

Luna took a cursory glance at the assortment, then nodded. “Good,” he said. “Take this bag and do what you can for your friend. I’ll look for a real physician.”

Luna went back to her room, where she applied an actual bandage over the top of the gauze she had used before, which was now thoroughly bloodsoaked. A moment later, a red-eyed, bleary-looking poodle groggily meandered into the room, squinting his eyes despite the fairly dim light.

“Hello,” he said, speaking with a bizarre accent Luna had never heard before. “I vould like to zee the pazient.” Luna gestured at Red. “Did you clean ze wound?”, asked the poodle. “No,” said Luna hesitantly. The curly-haired dog buried his head in his forepaws. Carefully, he began to peel away the bandages. As he did so, Red slowly began to come to.

“Whoa,” he said groggily, “what happened?” Slowly he began to feel around his neck for the silver spear. It was still there. “Ve vere hoping you could tell uz,” said the poodle. “Well,” said Red, “I don’t really remember all that well.” He put his hand to his head. “Ah,” he groaned.

“All right, all right,” said the poodle. “Don’t worry about it for now. Just lay your head back.” “Tigress,” he said to Luna, “look in my bag. You should find some herbs in zere. One of zem vill be a few leaves of thyacin. Go downstairs, crush zem together and make some tea from zem. Zen bring it up here immediately.” Luna went for the bag. “Hurry,”said the poodle. “All right, I’m hurrying.”

*******

Red lay on Luna’s bed as the poodle slowly peeled the bandage off his head. Ow. What happened to me? Who is this? A particularly painful peeling shot knives through his skull. “Ah.” “Zorry,” said the poodle. “Zat was ze last one.”

Through the blur that seemed to hang over Red’s eyes, obscuring his vision, he could just make out the surgeon going through his bag, looking for some small flask or other, which he pulled out. “Now don’t vorry, this could sting a little, but you’ll be fine.”

From the flask, the dog poured out a gel-like liquid, which he applied carefully to the back of Red’s head, where he had struck…the wall. It was starting to come back now.

Red remembered…a German Shepherd. It had charged him, then inexplicably run away as he blacked out. “What time is it?”, he asked the poodle. “Please!”, shouted the other dog. “Do not get me ztarted on ze time! I should have checked before I became a doctor. I should have made sure it wouldn’t be a twenty-four hour job! But no. I had to do it! And now, here I am–” He seemed to look around him suddenly, realize where he was, and then began to apologize. “I am zo zorry. I didn’t mean to go off on you like that. It’s about sree-sirty. Now, hold ztill.”

The very strange physician began applying a bandage to Red’s head. He was making Red very nervous, very nervous indeed. Around this time, Luna came back in, carrying a cup of tea. “Ah,” said the doctor, “at last. Thank you.” He took the tea and handed it to Red. “Here,” he said, “drink this.”

“Thank you,” said Red, and drank the tea. Within a minute or two, the pain in his head had numbed significantly. However, Red’s senses had also been dulled. He could hear, as if from a great distance, Luna asking the doctor, “How is he?”. He could hear the doctor replying, “He’ll be all right. Head vounds alvays bleed a lot, but zis one isn’t terribly zerious. Still, it’ll take a veek or zo before he recovers fully.” “Thank you,” said Luna. “Good night,” said the poodle, and walked off back to his own room.

*******

The next day, Red woke up late, unusual since he had been staying at the Grand Table Inn. He had a mild headache, but that was to be expected. He was actually surprised it wasn’t worse. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up.

Now it’s worse, Red thought. Sharp pains shot through his skull, and he was sorely tempted to lay back down and fall asleep again. No, he said to himself. I have a mission. I hope Jun’s guard was able to get us an audience with the Oligarch today. Little did Red realize how very naive that particular thought was to prove.

Slowly, gingerly, Red walked out of the room and into the hall. He couldn’t move too quickly, or the pain in his skull intensified. Still, he made it down the stairs all right.

There he saw his traveling companion, and, yes, now he would use the word, at least with himself, friend, the tigress Luna, sitting at their usual table, eating breakfast. At first he was a little miffed that she hadn’t waited for him.

Then two separate considerations convinced him that this was unjustified. The first: There was a large grandfather clock sitting on the far side of the room, which revealed that it was ten-thirty in the morning. For all Red knew, Luna had waited for him, perhaps for several hours. The second consideration was that Luna was not alone.

Opposite her sat their recent acquaintance, the tiger Jun. He worked here at the inn, but was apparently off at the moment, as he too was eating breakfast. They seemed to be having a good time, though Red couldn’t hear what they were talking about.

Thinking he had better give them some warning before intruding on what was until now a fairly private meal for the two of them, he waved twice from across the room. Luna waved back, and Red walked over to the table and sat down.

“Well, well,” said Luna. “Look who’s finally up.” “Now, Luna”, responded Red, “isn’t it bad form to make fun of a guy with bandages on his head?” Luna scratched her chin, as if she had to think about that question for a moment. “Er…no.”, she replied. Red rolled his eyes. “It was worth a shot.”

Jun laughed slightly. “What’s so funny?”, asked Luna. “You guys,” said Jun, as he flagged down the waitress, a white jaguar who about split the difference in height between Red and Luna.

She seemed a little exasperated for a moment, but then pulled herself together and said, “How may I help you?” “The third member of our party has finally arrived,” said Jun. “Oh, of course,” said the waitress. “What may I get for you, sir?”

Red ordered, then turned to his companions as the waitress walked away. “So,” he said, “fill me in. Where do we stand?” “I just got a message,” said Jun, “from our friend at the palace. He got us an appointment at two o’clock today.” Red was pleasantly surprised. “We have an audience with the Oligarch this afternoon?”

Luna and Jun both stifled laughter. “No,” said Jun. “You do come from a small town, don’t you? We got an appointment with a Viscount. With luck, he’ll get us an appointment with a Count, and with more luck, he’ll get us an audience with the Oligarch.”

“Oh.” said Red. “How long will that take?” As soon as he had asked the question, he half regretted it. I’m not sure I want to know. “A week or so if we’re lucky,” said Jun. “If not, it could be in excess of a month. Maybe that head injury will score us some sympathy points.” Red rolled his eyes but said nothing.

Soon the waitress arrived with the meal. Red was surprised to discover how hungry he was. He finished quite quickly and still felt somewhat hungry, so he decided to have some more toast.

While waiting for the toast to arrive, Red glanced at the clock. It was only about eleven o’clock. Their appointment with the Viscount was at two. “Say, Jun,” said Red, “what have you got to do around this place till two?”

“Well, actually,” said Jun, “there’s a play being performed at the amphitheater. It starts at noon, and it’s fairly close to the Viscount’s courthouse. We could go see that, and then we’d have to hurry, but we could get to our appointment with the Viscount.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Luna. “But don’t you have to work?” “I got the day off today,” said Jun, “because of the Viscount.”

Red finished his toast and got up. “Well,” he said, “I’ll be in the library. Let me know when we should be leaving to go see the play.”

*******

Red walked off to the library, leaving Luna and Jun alone at the table again. An awkward silence ensued for a moment, as Luna nervously chewed her fish. Jun just kept looking at her. Looking, looking…finally he cocked his head slightly. “Think you’ve chewed that bite enough now?”, he asked.

Luna swallowed and laughed forcedly. “Uh, yeah.”, she said. “So tell me, have you ever read the Luciad?” “It’s funny you should ask that,” said Jun.

*******

“Lenny!”, shouted the director. “Have you got your costume on yet?” “Working on it, Mister Director!”, Lenny shouted back irritably. “Who wears a cape in battle, anyway?” The director, a short, bespectacled House Cat, replied, “People who want to do the mystical disappearing scene when they play Lucius, that’s who! Now hurry up!”

Lenny could hear the director muttering to himself as he walked down the hall outside the green room. He looked himself over. Red cape: check. Bronze sword: check. Armor: check. Lifting his helmet and placing it upon his head, the tall Black Labrador stepped out the door dramatically, throwing it open and shouting, “Enter Lucius!”

The door swung backward and hit him from behind, knocking him down. “Oof.”, he said, then got up and yelled, “I’m all right!”

Brushing himself off, Lenny stood and began to march ostentatiously down the hall. As he tried to get in character, he had to admit he was a bit nervous. This would be the first time he’d ever done anything this big. He’d only gotten the part of Lucius because his uncle owned this theater, and the director made it very clear he had little faith in the budding actor.

If one single thing goes wrong in this play, he’ll find a way to blame it on me., Lenny thought miserably. Then, Focus, Lenny. You’re Lucius now. Get out there and show them the best performance they’ve ever seen.

With that mental pep talk completed, Lenny felt confident again. Rushing out to the stage, which had been made up to look as if it were the beginnings of the small town of Hebrosh, Lenny began rehearsing for the role of Lucius.

*******

Red wandered about the large library, looking over shelf after shelf. All these books, and nothing to read? Wait, here’s something good.

At that moment, he was startled by the sudden arrival of Jun immediately behind him. “Red,” he said, “I’ve been looking all over this place for you. Where’ve you been?” “Looking around,” said Red. “Trying to find an interesting book. Most of them are about the history of the Refuge. I tried reading a few, and my eyes about glazed over. This one looks okay, though. What are you doing here? Is it time to go?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Jun, “it is, and we’d better hurry if we don’t want to be late. I didn’t think it’d take this long to find you.” Reluctantly, Red put down his book and followed Jun out the door.

About ten minutes later, they arrived at the amphitheater. It was near the center of the city, carved into the ground. Looking back, Red was surprised he hadn’t taken more notice of this place when Jun had given them the tour. Red estimated it could seat perhaps seven hundred people when it was tightly packed.

And today it was tightly packed. Red, Luna, and Jun had to hold each other’s hands to avoid being separated in the crowd of cats and dogs milling about, bumping into each other, and jostling back and forth.

Finally, they found three adjacent empty seats; not at all an easy task. “The Luciad must be a popular play,” said Luna. “Oh yes,” said Jun. “But it’s being made more popular because it is Leonardo Burkleigh’s first major role.” “Who’s Leonardo Burkleigh?”, asked Red.

“An up-and-coming actor,” said Jun. “He performed supporting roles in a few other plays recently, and the girls loved him. Look around you. Half the audience is here just to see Leonardo make his starring debut.”

“Which half?”, asked Luna. “The half consisting of female dogs,” answered Jun. Red looked around him. Well, well. He must be very popular indeed. Jun hadn’t exaggerated at all. Easily half the audience consisted of young female dogs, and as the stagehands put the set together for the first scene, when the crowd began to quiet down, he could hear some of them whispering among themselves.

Sure enough, they were talking about Leonardo Burkleigh. “Oh, he’s so handsome…” “Oh, when is he coming out?” “I wish they would get started already…” So would I., thought Red. Maybe it’d shut up these girls.

Finally, a massive black canopy rose up from behind the stage to block out the light around the performance area. There were no visible operators to pull it up or down. No doubt some Mechanists helped with that.

And then the play began. A tall, handsome Black Labrador took the stage, and began a long soliloquy on the hardships he and his companions had faced on the journey down to the uncharted Jungle from the Great Western Continent.

“That’s him,” whispered Jun. “Leonardo.” “I kind of figured that,” answered Red, “based on all the sighs I was hearing around me.” Jun simply shrugged and returned his attention to the stage.

As the play progressed, Red quickly realized it was a rather fantastic, legendarized version of the history of the Jungle Refuge. It told of how the dashing hero Lucius, played by Leonardo Burkleigh, marched down into this area from the Canid Confederacy, fleeing the constant war and increasingly tyrannical rule under the Dawnpack, and established the first of the Seven Cities, called Clanrock.

But the establishment of the first city was only the beginning. Before long, the other six groups migrated to the Jungle, and friendly relations were quickly established among the then-independent monarchic city-states.

But not all the inhabitants of the area were so friendly. It seemed that many fantastical beasts remained to be slain. This, if the play was to be believed, was at that time a land populated by gryphons and manticores, all led by an ancient sorcerer called Peleneus, an old, emaciated dog who called upon the power of dark gods to maintain his control over the monsters who crawled the woods at night.

In the end, Lucius, having defeated the sorcerer in a fight and destroyed his monstrous armies, was betrayed and attacked by one of his own generals, who had ambitions on the kingship of Clanrock. He stabbed Lucius in the back, and, curiously, Lucius seemed to simply evaporate, leaving nothing behind but his cape.

Then, of course, the troops, ever-loyal to Lucius, assassinated this general after pretending to accept him as their king, and placed Lucius’s young son upon the throne in his father’s place. And it was always said among the people afterward that Lucius had not died, but ascended to the heavens and joined the gods.

A shrine was built for Lucius in the city, and his son reigned justly and was a well-loved ruler for the rest of his life. At the very end, as the lights were going down and the actors took their final bows, a booming voice thundered through the amphitheater, “And one day, Lucius’s great-grandson would go on to help found the Oligarchy. But that’s another story…”–here the voice grew somewhat higher–”…so come back next week! Thank you for coming, everybody. We hope you enjoyed the show.”

*******

Luna rose slowly. She was not in a hurry, as she was close to the center, and many more would have to leave before she could. She looked around her. The stagehands were bustling to undress the set as the black canopy lowered mysteriously.

Luna had noticed many things on this continent that seemed far more technologically advanced than the society that she was used to. Of course, she spent little time in town, and few technological advances are made by or shown to hermits living in the woods, so maybe she was just behind the times, but she thought it likely that there were no ‘copters where she came from.

Finally, the sides of the amphitheater started to empty out, making some room for her and her companions to move. Jun started to work his way toward the aisle on the left, and Luna followed. She distinctly heard Red following behind her. That was no surprise. Her sense of hearing was quite acute. She could hear all the dogs and cats on either side of her, as well, and was able to divine their exact positions from the sound.

Curiously, unlike the few theaters Luna had attended in the past, the doors here were at the top, a consequence of the amphitheater being dug into the ground. So up and out the threesome went, into a large crowd outside.

Jun turned to Luna and had almost to yell to make his voice heard. “We’d better hurry if we want to make it on time. It’s almost two o’clock.” Luna grabbed Red, who jerked suddenly. “Sorry,” said Luna, “forgot about your head. Hurry, let’s go!”

Pulling Red along with her, she ran to catch up with Jun, who was pushing through the crowd of people as quickly as he could.

Slowly the crowd seemed to disperse in several directions. Jun led Luna and Red down the street to the right, past several older-looking buildings, many of which were in pretty poor shape, including one that Luna thought was going to fall down right as she walked by.

Past what Luna mentally labeled the “low-rent district”; (At least I hope it’s low-rent.); she thought, and on down the street into a market area where various merchants peddled their goods, and some peddled their not-so-goods, and some even peddled really-really-bads, and out of the market area and to the door of an office building of some sort they went.

It was a squat, squarish wooden building, symmetrical but not terribly pretty. It had a flat roof and a gaudily adorned red door. Jun walked up and knocked several times.

The door opened slowly and a bespectacled mastiff opened the door. “Greetings,” he said drily. “How may I help you?” Jun introduced himself, and said “I have an appointment with the Viscount at two.” “Let me check the Viscount’s appointment book,” replied the mastiff, and let the door shut almost all the way.

A moment later, he had returned. “Yes,” he said, “you do indeed have and appointment with the Viscount at two o’clock. Do come in. And where are your companions?”

Jun nodded to Red and Luna, and they stepped into view of the doorman, whose only response was, “Oh. I see. Well, come in, and see that you don’t drip any blood on the floor.” Red snorted. “Nice to know they’re so friendly.” Luna gave him the “shut your mouth” look.

Jun led them down the hall, following the mastiff doorman, and at the end on the left there was a short line of dogs and cats waiting to get into what was apparently the Viscount’s office. The door hung open, and a decidedly common-looking little dog sat behind the desk decked out in noble regalia.

In a surprisingly loud voice for such a small individual, he bellowed “NEXT!”. A young female leopard, who looked rather shy and perhaps a little nervous, stepped into the room. Less than a minute later, she came out, looking very upset, and the dog inside bellowed “NEXT!” again. This happened several more times before Red, Luna, and Jun got their turn. Each interview was quite short, and several interviewees came out sobbing. Luna’s hopes were not high.

Finally, as a pair of angry-looking sheepdogs joined the back of the line, the Viscount bellowed “NEXT!” once more, and Luna followed Jun into his office, Red trailing behind her.

The Viscount barely looked up from his stack of papers. “Jun Silentpaw. How good to see you again.” “Yes,” said Jun slowly, “Isn’t it though.” “Well,” said the short dog, “I haven’t got all day. What do you want?”

“My friends and I represent a group from the Great Western Continent that opposes the ancient struggle between–” Here the Viscount cut him off. “I haven’t got all day, Silentpaw. How about you try it in the common tongue?” “We’d like an appointment with the Count.” “The Count is very, very busy.” “It’s in the interests of ending the war in our ancestral home to the north.” “Do you take me for an idealist, tiger?”, asked the Viscount, gently rubbing his fingers together. “No,” said Jun. “Perhaps I’ll just be going.” And as he turned to leave, he deftly dropped a small triangular coin on the table.

The trained hand of a thief rapidly shot out and swept the coin back under the nobleman’s desk. “Sit down, Silentpaw. Perhaps we can talk about this.” With another deft sleight of paw, Jun reached into his bag and conjured up another coin. Extending his right hand to the Viscount, who shook it vigorously and subtly removed the coin, he said, “That’s the Viscount I know and love.”

“The Count, however,” said the short, detestable little dog, “is still quite busy.” Jun rolled his eyes and withdrew another coin. The Viscount greedily accepted it, and added, “On the other hand…” No less than five large silver coins later, the Viscount had promised them the next open date.

He leaned over his desk to whisper to them. “Pretend I treated you very, very badly on your way out, and I’ll open up a currently closed date. NEXT!” Jun nodded, thanked the Viscount(who responded “Thanks for what? I cruelly mistreated you, remember?), and left, keeping his head down and maintaining a dejected expression.

Luna was about to leave as well, when she noticed that Red had not risen to leave. He looked a little woozy, so Luna walked over and placed her hand on his arm. “Are you okay?” He shook his head weakly. “I don’t know. I feel kind of lightheaded.”

“Can you walk?”, asked Luna. “I think so,” said Red. He pushed himself up from the chair slowly. “All right,” he said. Luna looked ahead. Jun had turned back in concern, and was standing in the doorway awaiting the verdict. “I think he’s okay,” said Luna as she and Red walked toward the exit. Jun nodded and turned around to walk out, staying a little bit ahead of them, but not too far.

Soon they had arrived at the front door where they came in. Apparently the mastiff’s shift as doorman was over, because he had been replaced by a sleepy-looking tomcat.

When the feline doorman spoke, he did so with a thick accent. His r’s were rolled, and his voice was low and harsh. “Greetings,” he said, his voice a staccato blast, with little emphasis on one syllable more than another. “I trust your appointment with the Viscount went well.”

Luna started to answer, but the cat cut her off. “Oh, I don’t really care.”, he said. “They only pay me if I say that.” “Oookay,” said Luna, and turned to go. Jun had already walked out the front door and stood outside, seemingly blinded by the bright sunlight.

“Wow,” he said, “The sun really came out while we were inside.” Luna stepped out into the light. “Yes,” she agreed, “it certainly did.” Red staggered out the door behind her and nearly collapsed.

Immediately, Luna reached out to steady him. “Wow,” she said, “for being so short, you sure are heavy.” “Thanks,” said Red sarcastically. “I’ll bet you win Miss Tactful at all the cat pageants.”

“Would you like me to let go of you?”, asked Luna sarcastically. ‘Actually,” said Red, “I think I can stand now, but just in case…”. He hobbled over to a bench and sat down. Jun walked over and knelt down in front of him. “Are you bleeding?”, he asked.

“No,” answered Red weakly. “It’s starting to get better. I think I’ll be all right in a minute.” He sat on the bench, not speaking, not moving, just trying to recover his strength.

*******

Red sat on the bench. He lifted his left forepaw to his head as he hunched over slightly. “Ah,” he said. Lifting his head, the Golden Retriever saw a busy street filled with dogs and cats walking in all directions. Then he saw two such streets. Then they rejoined into one, and the dizziness he felt started to fade. He stood up. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get back to the hotel.”

“Are you sure you can make it?”, asked Jun, extending his enormous hand to help Red out of the bench. “No,” answered Red, “but I have to try. It’s no good staying here any longer.”

“Let me help you,” said Jun, grabbing Red’s gratefully extended hand and pulling him up. “I think I can walk,” said Red, as he started down the road slowly.

It was quite a long trek, but finally the threesome arrived at the place where Red and Luna were staying, the Grand Table Inn. An apt name, thought Red as he walked in.

At the desk stood a White Fox, the first of the fox kind Red had seen during his time in the Jungle. White Foxes were even smaller than their Red Fox brethren, and this one in particular could barely see over the front desk. It was a rather amusing sight, the eyes, ears, and half the snout of a snow-white canid peering over the seemingly high podium. The fox watched as Red staggered in, following his companions, and stepped out from behind the desk so as to be better seen by them.

“Are you all right, sir?”, he asked. Red shook his head. “No. But I don’t think there’s anything you can do. I probably just need to lie down for a while.” The fox nodded slightly. “Out of curiosity,” he said, “Would you by any chance be Red of Dramstad?” “Indeed,” answered Red weakly, “I am he.” “Thank you,” said the fox, and turned away, once again to stand behind his podium, as Red walked slowly up the stairs and into his room.

Once he was inside, Red immediately walked over and lay down on the bed. “Are you going to be all right?”, asked Luna. “Yes,” said Red. “I’ll be fine.” Gently Luna shut the door behind her as she left, and Red for the next several hours dozed in and out of fitful sleep.

*******

From behind the front desk, the White Fox Tezca rapidly counted his coins. Good, he thought, forty-five pieces of bronze. Just enough to call a messenger. Before he went outside, he decided to double-check on the real receptionist. Down the hall to the right of the desk, as seen from behind, was a small broom closet, rarely used, where another White Fox, the one who actually worked for the Grand Table Inn, was being held prisoner.

Tezca cast a furtive glance around. Good. No one nearby. Quietly he opened the door of the closet and peeked inside. Excellent. My doppleganger is still sleeping like a pup. Quickly Tezca shut the door and returned to his desk, where he found the forty-five pieces of bronze waiting for him.

He stepped outside, into the busy street, and called out for a messenger. None came, so he called again. Still none came. One last time, he called out, and this time, someone answered, the messenger’s traditional response ringing forth from across the street. “Mine!”

A moment later, a tall, lanky black panthress who dwarfed her tiny employer drew herself up at Tezca’s side. “What is the message,” she asked, “and for whom is it intended?”

“The message is for Mingan of Bergebi. You’ll find him in room 13 at the Golden Goblet Inn on the other side of town. You must use these words exactly, and forget the message when you’re through delivering it.” “I can do that, but it’ll cost you five bronze pieces extra,” answered the panthress in her silky voice. “I expected that,” returned the fox. “Now, here is the message: The stag has come to rest in the place of the hawk. His lameness is the hunter’s strength. He hides and rests behind his friend. Strike now, assured to kill.”

The panthress raised her eyebrows. “Show me the coins.” Tezca withdrew nine five-bronze pieces from his pouch and placed them in her palm. “Consider it done,” said the messenger.

*******

The next day, Red awoke early. He tried to go back to sleep, but to no avail. Tossing and turning, he finally rose out of bed and checked the large grandfather clock that stood on the right side of his bed.

It was about seven-thirty in the morning. It was possible Luna and Jun would be up already. In any case, Red couldn’t go back to sleep, so he got up and looked in the mirror. He looked pretty bad. His face was somewhat pale, his muscles were limp, and he had a large white bandage tied about his head.

Pulling a brush off the stand where the mirror sat, Red made a halfhearted attempt to clean himself up before heading downstairs. When he was through, he looked a little better. He tried to straighten himself up, stand a little taller. That seemed to help. There was still the problem of his head wound, but there seemed to be little he could do about that for the time being.

After one quick final brushing, Red turned toward the door and opened it. He stepped across the hall to the balcony to see if Luna or Jun had gone down for breakfast. It didn’t look as if they had. So Red decided to walk down the hall to the right this time, and take the other spiral staircase down to the library.

Red felt a lot better today than he had yesterday. The lightheadedness and dull headache seemed to have gone away, but his head now itched like it was positively infested with fleas. I hope I can get this bandage off, he thought.

The staircase Red now approached was different from the other one. Red had been expecting a spiral staircase symmetrical with the one on the opposite side of the hall. But what he beheld was something quite different.

This staircase was wooden, simpler than the other, had no carpet and only an unadorned wooden banister. But stranger than that was the fact that it was straight, not spiral. It led directly down into the library, which was where Red wanted to go anyway, so he walked down it, taking care not to slip on the smooth, freshly-waxed stairs.

When he got to the bottom, Red could not quite tell exactly what part of the library he was in. The books here seemed older than the ones in the section of the library he had visited before, and had odd, antiquated-sounding titles. Red began to walk up and down the shelves, looking for something that caught his eye.

Finally, one particular tome did draw his attention more than the others. It was a very, very old book printed on parchment and bound with leather, entitled A Historie of The Moste Ancient Tymes. Red reached up carefully, holding it gently in both hands, and began to leaf through.

It started out with a story that seemed similar, though not identical, to the creation tales Red had learned as a pup, of how the great gods of old, the grandfathers of the gods worshipped now, had formed the earth out of nothing, created the dogs and the cats, and then returned to their heavenly realm, leaving their children in charge of the earth.

The second generation of gods, known as the Shiddarim, ruled for a thousand years of peace and prosperity before handing their power over to their children, the Aeisim, the current gods of the dogs, and the gods who presided over the affairs of cats, the Shenim. For a time, the gods coexisted in peace, but something went wrong. The stories of the canine and feline races disagree on exactly what happened, but–

“Red!” Suddenly Red was jerked out of his half-sleep by a sharp tapping on his shoulder. Startled, he jumped and turned his head. Behind him stood Jun. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. Didn’t you hear me?” “No,” said Red. “I was standing right here.” said Jun. “Hey, what’s that?” Red turned the book so Jun could see the spine, where was written the title.

“Oh.”, said Jun. “Good book, that. Rather sprinkled with superstition if you ask me, but useful in places.” “Superstition?”, asked Red. “Are you an unbeliever?” “I’m somewhat agnostic.”, answered Jun, in a tone that indicated he had little desire to talk about it.

“Anyway,” Jun began again, “Luna and I are up. We thought you were still asleep, so we waited a while, but when you didn’t show, we thought we’d better wake you up. It’s almost ten-thirty. But when we went to check your room, you weren’t there. Luna thought you might be in the library, so we decided to look for you. She’s over in fiction, I think.”

“Ten-thirty?”, asked Red. “Is it possible? I’ve been reading for three hours?” Then he checked the page number. 245. Wow. Perhaps I have been reading a long time. “Over two hundred pages, and just now reaching the Third Age.” “Yes,” said Jun, “It’s kind of a heavy read, and very detailed. But the print’s a little larger than usual, too.”

Red looked again at the book. “Not much,” he said, “but I see your point.” Then he added, “Would it be permissible to take this book out of the library? I’m very interested in reading more.”

Jun looked at it. “It might be, but that’s a pretty old book. They’ll probably demand that you pawn something valuable if you want to remove that from the library. Might be better just to leave it with a librarian. They’ll keep it for you, and you’ll have all day to read it. Our appointment with the Count isn’t until tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”, Red asked. “That soon?” “Indeed,” answered Jun. “I got us the soonest appointment money could buy. But I hope one of you can cover the bribing of the Count. He’s sure to demand more, and frankly, I’m running out of cash.”

“We received a bag of cash from a farmer on our way in. I think we share a common enemy with him in Graywolf Pack.” “I’m sorry,” said Jun. “I’m not terribly well acquainted with current events in the Canid Confederacy. Just who are ‘Graywolf Pack’?”

Red stood up and began to walk toward the dining room. “The current ruling wolf pack. They only gained power about twenty years ago, and when they did, they displaced a lot of the old nobility. I think this farmer may have been one such individual. I am somewhat concerned that he recognized our symbol.” Red jangled his silver spear necklace.

“He probably didn’t recognize it for what it is,” said Jun. “Occasionally, people come down from the north on the run from the law. They often wear necklaces like that, but are usually unwilling to talk about why. Usually they dispose of them if they plan to stay here permanently. You’re the first two I’ve met who were so free with your counsel. You may wish to be more careful whom you trust with this secret.”

“Isn’t public sentiment in the Jungle rather sympathetic to our cause?”, Red asked as they neared the desk at the front of the library where the librarian, a wizened St. Bernard, sat perusing an encyclopedia.

Red walked up to the desk and put the book down upon it. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you keep this book here for me until I come back?” The larger, older dog looked up at Red. “What? Hmmm? Oh, certainly. Your name?” “Red of Dramstad,” answered Red. “Very good,” said the librarian. “A Historie of the Moste Ancient Tymes? Fine book. Glad to see a Northerner or two has culture.” “Thank you,” said Red, and he turned back to Jun as they walked out of the library. There was a brief silence, then Jun picked the conversation up where it had left off. “You were saying, Red?”

“Hmm? Oh. What was I saying? Oh yes, now I remember. I was asking if public sentiment wasn’t in our favor here?” Jun shrugged. “I don’t know about ‘public sentiment’. What I do know is that anybody could be a spy. Luna said you were being chased by a wolf, a constable from a city on the Great Continent.”

“Indeed,” said Red. “Mingan of Bergebi. He captured us, but we escaped. Since then, he’s been on this obsessive crusade. I don’t know how much he knows about us, but this–” here Red gestured at his head “–was caused by a dog I believe to be in his employ. I cannot help but think that he is here by now.”

“Hmmm,” said Jun. “You should be fairly safe in public, as he has no jurisdiction here. Just keep your eyes open.” Red nodded gravely. “I know.” There was another silence, this one longer than the last, and they exited the library, arriving in the dining room.

“Where’s Luna?”, asked Red. “Probably still in the library, looking for you. I’ll go get her. You stay here in case she comes back.” “OK.”, said Red as Jun disappeared into the labyrinthine maze of shelves and tomes.

It was several minutes before the two cats returned. It was a large library to be sure, but Red also wondered if perhaps Jun and Luna had taken a circuitous path on purpose.

His stomach growled, and he decided not to give them a hard time about it. “Let’s go,” he said, “I’m hungry.”

*******

Red had most of the rest of that day to himself. It was a nice time to relax and explore the hotel, and it passed far too quickly. But in the time he had, Red discovered that the Grand Table Inn was far bigger than even he had imagined. On the other side of the library was a bathhouse. Beyond the bathhouse was a massive swimming pool. Beyond that were rooms whose purpose Red could only guess at, as he had not had time to explore them.

But time flies when one is enjoying oneself. Sunset crept up on our hero, and before long he was climbing into bed contentedly after a wonderful hot meal.

The next morning, Red awoke with the rising sun, rested and ready to face whatever challenges the new day had to offer. His head was feeling much better even than it had the previous day, and he was confident he soon would be able to remove this bandage.

Climbing out of bed and buckling on his sword for the first time since he arrived here at the Grand Table, Red was filled with a confidence he hadn’t felt in a long time. Nothing material had changed that he knew of, and yet today like no other day, our hero felt assured of his mission’s success. Right always triumphs in the end. If there’s nothing else to learn from the old stories, don’t they at least teach that?

********

Luna awoke slowly as rays of sunlight pushed their way through the thin curtains that covered her window, feeling a new confidence. She usually felt confident, but this was different somehow. This feeling told her, without question or doubt, that her cause was just and heaven would side with her.

She slid out of bed and peeked underneath to check that her sword was still there. Yes. Exactly where I left it. She thought about wearing it, but decided there was unlikely to be trouble over breakfast. On the off-chance that anything happened, no doubt her claws–and Jun’s–would serve her fine.

A certain sadness came over her when she thought of Jun. She would be going back north soon, and he would stay here, in the Jungle. It was unlikely they would ever meet again. She pushed it away. She couldn’t be getting attached to him, could she? Sure, he was handsome, but she had to be realistic. There was no way their territories would ever overlap. She couldn’t get attached to anyone or anything here. She’d be leaving soon enough.

Maybe he’ll come back with us, when we end the war. It was a mark of Luna’s mysterious confidence that the word “if” never poked its ugly head into that extremely optimistic thought.

Focus, Luna, focus! This thought came in her mother’s familiar voice. It had been so long since she had heard that voice. Did her mother even know she was missing? Maybe not. Her territory was big, and they didn’t run into each other all that often anyway.

But that was all right, Luna told herself. She was a tigress. She was strong, independent. She could find her own way. She didn’t need anybody’s help. Right?

But then Luna thought about Red, about Cider, about the few Underground members she had known in Dramstad. She thought of how close they were to friends and family. She wondered what she had been missing, living her solitary life like all the other hermitish tigers did. Maybe it would be nice to have a family you could lean on when times were hard.

Again, Luna heard her mother’s voice in her mind, crystal-clear this time. You can mope later. Now is the time for action. Luna nodded to herself. You’re right. And, for now, she put these thoughts out of her mind, as much as was possible, at least.

*******

I have already described several meals at the Grand Table Inn, including more than one breakfast, so I will spare you any detailed description of this one. Suffice to say that our heroes ate and then went their separate ways until lunchtime. Having eaten their lunch, they again separated. Jun had to work until six, and their appointment with the Count was not until six-thirty, so Red and Luna decided to go down the hall and see what lay beyond the swimming pool.

As it turned out, it was a collection of game rooms. In each room sat several tables, each bearing a board and pieces. Some Red recognized as various forms of Shatruff, and Luna pointed out a set that belonged to the game from her homeland, Chianzho. Red was fascinated, and challenged her to a game, which she accepted.

And so the day was passed. Red and Luna taught each other the games they grew up with, and had quite a laugh each at the other’s efforts to figure out the bizarre games surrounding the more familiar ones.

But eventually, as six-thirty drew near, Red and Luna had to call their final game a draw and prepare for their appointment with the Count. Meeting Jun at his desk, Read and Luna proceeded out the door, this time going to the left, the opposite of the way they had gone last time.

The Count’s palace was entirely different from the offices of the Viscount. Observing it, Red deduced that a Count was likely actual nobility, while a Viscount was probably a mere civil magistrate of no high birth.

The palace, while not as grand as the Oligarch’s, was clearly the residence of a rich individual. Outside the door, two Dalmatians armed with spears stood at attention. When the two tigers and one dog approached them, they lowered their spears toward each other to block the entry. The one on the left, evidently the senior of the two, barked, “Name?”.

Jun stepped forward. “Jun Silentpaw,” he said. “I have an appointment with the Count.”

The Dalmatians lifted their spears back to ready position. The one on the left said, “Stay here.”, and opened the door. He walked inside, shutting it behind him. Red could hear the faint sound of pages turning from inside, and after a moment the door reopened.

“Do come in,” said the Dalmatian on the left, gesturing with his spear for them to enter. Jun led the way inside, Red and Luna following him.

They came into a small, square room, a vestibule with doors on each side. The one behind them led back outside, into the street. The one in front was marked Audiences, and a line of people stood outside, waiting to get in.

The other two had guards standing in front of them; massive spotted pit bulls holding crossed swords over the doors. Red got the feeling those were not public-access areas.

The line of people who stood before the door waiting to see the Count was smaller than the line that had waited to see the Viscount, yet did not seem to move much faster. Perhaps an interview with the Count took longer. That would make sense.

Finally, after a boring fifteen minutes or so of standing in line, their turn arrived. Jun reached into a side pocket of his money pouch and withdrew a small gold disk on a chain. “Six thirty-five.”, he said. “Five minutes late. Not bad, knowing this Count.

The double doors swung open, seemingly of their own accord. The Count, a Golden Retriever who looked oddly familiar to Red, sat on a silver throne, dressed in a deep red robe, and wearing a thin gold circlet on his head.

The throne was placed on a stage raised a few inches above the floor where Red and his companions stood. Immediately in front of the stage stood a pair of lionesses, who announced in one voice, “The Honorable Count Marcus, son of Antonius, will now see Jun Silentpaw, along with his companions, Red of Dramstad and Luna of Sambar Rock.” The lionesses then dropped their arms down to their sides and stood at attention.

“Red of Dramstad?”, asked the Count. “Son of Luis of Dramstad?” “Indeed,” answered Red. “Well, this is unexpected,” said the Count. “What is it, Your Excellency?”, asked Jun. “Well,” replied the Count, if I am not mistaken, Red of Dramstad is my first cousin on my father’s side.”

“I believe you are correct, Your Excellency,” said Red. “If your father is the same Antonius who moved to the Jungle Refuge when Graywolf Pack first achieved dominance among the wolf packs, we are indeed first cousins.”

“Indeed he is,” said the Count. “At first he wanted to stay and fight against them, but he could not persuade the pack. Unable to remain because of my mother, he moved us down here when I was a small pup.”

“Wait,” said Luna. “What about your mother prevented you from remaining in the Confederacy, Excellency?” “That’s Your Excellency, er…Luna.” “My apologies, Your Excellency.” “Thank you. I will let you off this time with a warning because you are a stranger here, but in the Jungle it is considered a great discourtesy to use the wrong title.” He paused for a moment. “In answer to your question, my mother was high born, and all her brothers had died, leaving her the heir of her family’s noble estate. When the Grays took over, they banished or killed most of the old nobility, so my father knew it was only a matter of time before we went the way of the Duchy of Nordin.”

“So, he moved us down here. Through my service to the Oligarch, I was granted control of this County. But all that’s history, and we can discuss it later. What can I do for you, cousin?”

Red took the floor. “Your Excellency,” he began, but the Count held up his hand. “Please, Red. You are my kinsdog. Call me Marcus.” “Very well.”, said Red. “Marcus, my colleagues and I represent a movement among the peoples of the North to which many in the Jungle will no doubt be sympathetic.”

“We have been convinced of the foolishness of our ancient grudge. For centuries our peoples have fought, never knowing what it was they were fighting over. But neither side would question their traditions, and neither was willing to make the first apology.”

“And so it went on. More lives than anyone can count in a lifetime, lost in a sad waste. Young dogs who might have contributed much to the advancement of science and art, as demonstrated by the advancement of technology and culture in the South, were slain in pointless war brought on by some long-forgotten slight. Doubtless the same is true of the Felid Kingdoms.”

“And so the Underground formed. We work as hard as we can to prevent further pointless battles and convince the leaders of packs and cities to join our cause. Two or three towns and one pack of dogs have officially pledged their support for our cause. I don’t know what’s going on on the Eastern side of the river, but civil war is sure to break out soon among the dogs. It may already have broken. It has been several weeks since I have been within Confederacy lands.”

“And what do you want from me?”, asked Marcus slowly. “Your support, first and foremost, Marcus,” replied Red, “but also an appointment with the Oligarch. We hope to convince him, too, of the rightness of our cause. We feel a good word from the powerful and advanced people of the Jungle could have great persuasive power among the leaders of both our peoples.”

The Count scratched his chin for a moment. Then he lifted his right forepaw, gesturing to the two lionesses. “Leave us,” he said. Without a word, they turned and walked out the door on the left side of the room, behind the Count.

“I have long harbored similar feelings.” said the Count. “I suspect many do, without knowing it is within their power to act on them. I will grant your request. You have my support, and the support of my household and my County, unconditionally. I will also get you the first available audience with the Oligarch.”

“Thank you, sir.”, said Red. “Please,” said Marcus, “no ‘sir’ among kinfolk. You are dismissed.” Red turned to leave. “There is one more thing,” the Count said. “Yes, Your Excell–er, Marcus?” “Would it please the three of you to dine here tonight?”

Jun looked astonished. He opened his mouth to speak, but Red gestured, and he fell silent. “Dine here?”, asked Red. “Yes,” said the Count. “I think we have much catching up to do, and I’d enjoy getting to know your friends. And when the servants have gone, perhaps we can talk about this ‘Underground.’”

Red nodded. “We’d be delighted to join you. What time should we be here?” “I’ll send someone to pick you up at around six-thirty. Dinner will be at seven. Is that agreeable to you?”

Red glanced cursorily at Jun and Luna. They voiced no disagreement, so he accepted. “Most agreeable.”

*******

Back at the hotel, Luna, Red, and Jun sat in a large room in the library with large, round wooden tables scattered about. There were shelves with newer books, mostly works of fiction, pressed flush against the walls, and the largest table, where our heroes sat, was immediately in the center.

“Well,” said Luna, “that went better than our last attempt to use family connections to aid our quest.”

“I swear, he was the image of my brother!”, replied Jun. “All right, all right,” replied Luna. “No need to get all worked up.” “Anyway,” said Red. “It would seem things are going quite well. How large is my cousin’s County, Jun?”

Jun shrugged. “There are smaller.” “You’re being diplomatic.”, said Red. “Stop.” “Well,” said Jun, “Counties here are not what they are in the North. There are no large tracts of clear country land. He probably controls one or two outlying villages, but more importantly, he gets a share of the tax revenue for this city. His wealth, not his fief, is his real power.”

“So?”, asked Red. “Wealth sounds useful.” “Indeed it will be,” said Jun, scratching his chin. “But, if the Oligarch turns us down, he will not look kindly upon his Count aiding those whose cause he rejected. How loyal is your cousin?” “I don’t know,” said Red. “We’ve never met before.” “Well,” said Jun, “if he is willing, for the sake of family, to become a disenfranchised noble, then we have no worries.”

“I don’t know whether he’d do that or not,” replied Red, “but he seems sincere.” Jun scratched his chin some more. “Perhaps I will be able to glean further insight at dinner tonight.”

*******

At six-thirty-five by Jun’s watch, the two lionesses who had stood in front of the Count’s throne appeared in the room where our three heroes sat. Two minutes late, thought Jun, but I’ll not say anything. Their conversation over, they had spread out across the room and were reading at separate tables.

“Red of Dramstad, Luna of Sambar Rock, and Jun Silentpaw?” “Indeed,” answered Jun. “Here,” said Red. “Yes?”, Luna answered. “The Count sent us to escort you to dinner at his residence,” said the taller lioness. “Your carriage awaits you outside.”

The threesome rose and followed the lionesses out the door. Their carriage was a magnificent vehicle, pulled by four white horses. It was constructed mainly of cedar wood, yet inlaid with gold at every joint. The two lionesses approached the carriage and held the doors open. “After you,”, said Jun, gesturing to Luna, who stepped inside.

Jun then stepped inside himself, followed by Red. It was surprisingly roomy inside the carriage. Two benches covered most of the front and back walls. On the side of the vehicle opposite the door, there stood a distinguished-looking hound holding a tray of biscuits and a teapot, along with several cups. To Jun and Luna he only offered tea, but to Red he held out a biscuit as well. He knows we’re obligate carnivores, thought Jun. He and Luna accepted their tea, and Red took both tea and biscuit. The three began to converse among themselves, but not quite freely, due to the fact that the butler still stood over them.

The ride was the smoothest Jun had experienced in a long time. He only once noticed a bump in the road. If he looked out the window to the back, he could see people who had stopped to watch the carriage. Apparently it was not commonly seen out on the street. If he looked out the window to the front, he saw the lionesses driving the four white horses. The taller one sat on the left and held the whip, and the shorter one sat on the right and held the reins.

The ride went on about fifteen minutes before they arrived at the Oligarch’s palace. The two lionesses hopped down from the front of the cab and held the doors open on the right side of the carriage. Jun and Luna walked out side by side, followed by Red. Behind them walked the distinguished-looking butler.

They marched into the palace like a royal procession; the lionesses leading the way, followed by Jun, who walked arm-in-arm with Luna, with Red behind him. The butler brought up the rear as the lionesses ordered the guards to open the door, then reached inside and pulled a pair of trumpets from the wall.

Blowing them rapidly, they announced the arrival of the Count’s guests. They then marched into the vestibule, leading the entire company behind them. The door on the right opened to reveal Count Marcus, who waved away the servants with a quick hand gesture.

He then warmly greeted his guests. “Friends, cousin,” he said, “so good of you to come.” He looked at them for a moment, then said, “Your audience with the Oligarch is in two days, at noon sharp.” The threesome breathed a collective sigh of relief. Jun, and apparently, the other two as well, had been wondering, but hadn’t thought it quite polite to ask.

“So, with that out of the way,” said Marcus, “won’t you come in and sit down?” “Don’t mind if I do,” said Jun. Marcus turned his back and led them down the hall, and Red, Luna, and Jun walked a little bit faster to catch up.

Side by side in two pairs the four walked down the hall, Red and Marcus in front, Luna and Jun in the rear. A quick turn to the left, and they had reached the dining room. It was enormous. A gigantic stone table stood in the center, with one side set for four, though by far the better part of the table was completely empty.

The Count pulled out a chair and seated Luna, which elicited a smile from the usually solemn tigress, and a momentary jealous reaction from Jun before he realized how silly that was. He’s a dog. He was just being polite. Jun and Red then seated themselves opposite each other and offset one spot as Jun sat to the left of Luna, while Red sat directly across from her.

The meal was fabulous. Though the table was already covered with food, servants seemed to appear out of the woodwork every so often to bring more food to the table. There were perhaps seven courses, and all of them were of the finest quality available. There was beef, pork, fish, everything a tiger could ask for. And greater variety still was available to the dogs, who were able to eat vegetation along with flesh.

Yet through it all, Jun had trouble enjoying himself, for rather than simply taking pleasure in the good food, interesting conversation, and company of friends, his brain had switched into analytic mode. Every sentence was parsed and mined for information. Desperately, Jun tried to determine if they could really count on this dog’s support.

What made it harder was that family relationships were not nearly as important among cats as among dogs. Jun was the exception in that he was very close to his siblings, but most tigers were not that way. This made it difficult to get inside the Count’s head.

Jun supposed, but did not know, that family loyalty among dogs was akin to the sense of camaraderie that all tigers felt. Then he thought better of that. Tigers didn’t have an emotional connection with each other as much as a code of honor that bound them to aid a fellow tiger in their time of need.

As the other three discussed previous anti-war efforts over roast pigeon, Jun silently pondered. He simply couldn’t read this dog.

After several hours, dinner was finished. In deference to the tigers, no dessert was brought out, and the two lionesses who had brought our heroes to the palace took them back to the hotel.

Back in his room, Jun pondered for a long time. He still couldn’t figure out the Count, though. He seemed sincere enough, but Jun knew better than to trust appearances. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

******


After another long, relaxing day, Red woke up early the day of his interview with the Oligarch. This was it. The moment of truth. Bribery wouldn’t work here. Family connections would avail him nought. Money and influence had taken him and his friends as far as they could, and now they would have to stand on their own feet and lean on the rightness of their cause.

Red had caught quite a case of the jitters now that the big day had come. Only natural, I suppose. Red was an ordinary dog from a small town in the north of the Canid Confederacy. He had never even met his town’s alpha, although the wolf had come and spoken at Red’s school once when he was a little pup.

In point of fact, Red was so nervous that he really didn’t feel hungry for breakfast that morning. But he knew he should eat something, so he went downstairs and halfheartedly munched on his toast. I know I’ll regret not eating something more substantial when I have an audience with the Oligarch at noon, Red thought, but I’m just not hungry.

In between bites, Red paced about nervously and couldn’t sit down for more than five seconds before the butterflies in his stomach and the nerves in his legs conspired to drive him mad.

All this, of course, was incalculably infuriating to his perpetually serene and collected tiger companions. Red could hear Jun and Luna discussing it under their breath, though he wasn’t intended to and gave no sign that he did.

“That’s so infuriating,”, said Luna. There was a few seconds’ pause. “I know,” said Jun. Red approached, creating another few seconds’ pause as he sat down briefly to take a halfhearted bite out of his toast. “Should we tell him?”, asked Luna. “No,” said Jun, “it’s better if he gets it out of his system before the audience.”

Luna nodded briefly, and a similar conversation began in Red’s mind. Should I try to sit down, even though it drives me nuts? No, then they’d know I heard their conversation. But I can’t stay here and pace, driving them nuts.

All these nervous thoughts only made Red pace the faster and the louder. Finally, he said “I’m going to my room for a little while.”, swept up his plate of toast, and marched up the spiral staircase to pace in peace, in the privacy of his own room.

*******

With Red gone back to his room, no doubt having overheard their conversation and become embarrassed, Luna looked at Jun. “He must have heard us.” Jun nodded gravely. Luna felt vaguely guilty, but wasn’t sure how to respond. Should she apologize? Should she simply drop the matter completely and try just to move on?

Luna sat and thought about these things for a few moments, then went up to her room to read. A few hours later by the small clock that sat by her bedside, though it had seemed only minutes to Luna, a knock sounded on the door.

“Enter,” Luna said boredly. It was Jun who opened the door and walked in. “It’s a quarter of twelve,” he said. Luna nodded.

*******

Once again, Red found himself standing outside the outer gate of the palace of the Oligarch. This time, however, he had an audience. Red wondered if the building’s impressive facade was intended to intimidate visitors. Whether or not that was the case, it certainly intimidated Red.

But Red had an audience to keep, and he intended to do so. Gathering all the confidence he could muster, Red walked up to the guard and stated as assertively as he could. “I am Red of Dramstad. I have an appointment with the Oligarch at noon.”

The Dalmatians standing guard looked at each other. “I’ll check,” said the one on the right with a resigned air, as if he did this a lot. He reached in behind the gate, then pulled back his hand and smacked himself. He slipped a key off an earring he wore on the back of his left ear, then reached inside the gate with it. He turned the key and pushed open the door. As he walked away, Red could see him putting his key back on his earring.

A moment later, the guard came back. “You’re good,” he said. “Who are these with you?” “This is Luna of Sambar Rock and Jun Silentpaw. They have the audience with me.”

Just then, a haggard-looking Red Fox raced around the corner and tapped on Jun’s shoulder. Jun turned and looked expectantly at the fox, who stood straight at attention. “Message from a Heimlich Abelhurst.” Jun muttered under his breath, “Gramps!”. He then turned to the messenger. “Speak.”

The messenger looked up at Red and assumed an even more rigid pose. “He says to come immediately to the Mechanists’ Guildhouse.” Jun nodded. “Is that all?” “Indeed,” said the messenger, who scampered away immediately afterward.

“I have to go,” said Jun. “I’m sorry. You’ll just have to go on without me.” Red nodded. “Very well.” Jun turned and took off at a run toward the Guildhouse. “Good luck!”, he called back, almost as an afterthought.

Red shouted back, “Thank you!”, then looked at Luna and nodded. She nodded back and they began to walk through the gate. The guard on the left, the one who had not gone to open the gate, said to them, “Take the path down to the door. Then tell the doorman who you are, and he’ll guide you to the Oligarch.”

Red nodded his thanks, and began to walk down the path. It was a long path, and it took the pair through a beautiful garden. It might have been quite a peaceful stroll had not the looming shadow of the palace occupied their minds.

After passing through the garden, Red and Luna came to the door, where the doorman, a rather tall House Cat, lounged casually across the threshold. When Red and Luna got to about ten feet away from them he looked up rather boredly at them, pushed himself off of the doorframe he had been leaning on and said, “Audience with the Oligarch?”, in a monotonous voice, as if he were half asleep.

“Yes,” said Red. “Come this way,” replied the cat, in the same monotonous drawl. He then began to walk down the hall, Red and Luna trailing behind him. He took two right turns, then a left, and then up a flight of stairs, and then two left turns in rapid succession.

He walked so fast that by the time they got to their destination Red was winded. The door to what was evidently the Oligarch’s courtroom was enormous, and the line was short. Evidently, not many people got this far. There were two people in line ahead of Red. Nevertheless, the wait seemed to take hours. Whether this was because the Oligarch took his time seeing people or merely because he was nervous, Red could not afterwards say, as there was no clock anywhere in the waiting room.

Finally, their turn came. The doors opened, and no one was ahead of them. Red had thought that the palace of the Count was grand, but it was nothing compared with this. The walls appeared to be made of solid silver. A team of servants standing on a balcony above the room operated pulleys to open the doors. The ceiling was adorned with paintings of battles and historical events that Red had never heard of.

On the opposite side of the massive room there was a raised platform with a tall throne. The throne sat facing the back of the room, and evidently it could pivot, for it swung around to face them, revealing a massively muscular black panther.

In a deep, rumbling voice, the panther declared, “I am Brutus. Oligarch of Hebrosh.” He pronounced it “hebb-rosh”, unlike most people who said “hee-brosh”, but Red did not think it wise to correct him. “You are Red of Dramstad and Luna of Sambar Rock.” He said it as if it were a statement, rather than a question.

“Indeed we are, Your Lordship.”, said Red. Is it Your Lordship? I think it is. I guess I’ll find out. “I haven’t all day, foreigners,” said the Oligarch. “State your case.” Red cleared his throat rather nervously. “We represent a secret organization within the dog and cat lands, known as the Underground. We seek to end the pointless and destructive conflict between our peoples.”

“So,” said the Oligarch imperiously, “What do you want from me?” “We require your assistance. Well, not your personal assistance, but the assistance of your people as a whole. We hope that you may be able to convince the leaders of our people of what we have had only limited success convincing them; that it is best for all involved if we make peace.”

“And how do you propose we do that?”, asked the Oligarch. “Use your prestige. The wisdom of the Jungle Folk is renowned. Perhaps send a delegation to show our people the remarkable advances you have made in art and science. Maybe they’ll see what they’re missing and agree to begin negotiations.”

The Oligarch pondered for a moment. “I will indeed help you,” he said. “But to prove your sincerity, you must split up. Red, you will lead a delegation to the cats. Luna, you will be going to the dogs.”

Red’s keen dog hearing picked up a faint sound. It seemed as if Luna had muttered under her breath, “So what else is new?”, but Red may have imagined it.

Red dropped to one knee and nodded toward the Oligarch. “Thank you, Your Lordship. Who will be the delegates we will be leading?” The Oligarch gestured for Red to rise. “My finest diplomats. I will assemble them and divide them into two groups. You will be assured safe passage by my legionaries and equestrians.”

Red genuflected again. “When will we meet them?” The Oligarch scratched his chin. “It will likely take my advisers three days to assemble all of them, and I will need another…” The panther began counting on his fingers. He thought for a moment, then said, “Two weeks. In two weeks you shall meet them, and in three you shall leave for your native continent, with my holy blessing.”

“Thank you, Your Lordship,” said Red. He and Luna genuflected in unison. The Oligarch waved his hand. “Dismissed!”


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