Sorry it’s a day late, but you get what you pay for! Start sending me money, I’ll put all the stories out on time! Anyway, I didn’t really have much of a chance to correct it because it was already late. It should be fine, but if you find any mistakes, let me know and I’ll fix them right away.

Running With The Pack: Apex

It was one week after Jabari had made the official statement of the coalition’s willingness to meet with the alpha pair of Goldpaw, and the City of Sambar Rock was buzzing with activity. Clarice was happy her mission had been accomplished. She was glad to see her people and Red’s finally making peace on a large scale, the way they had on a smaller scale in her native jungle.

But the frantic pace and high-risk tension of the diplomatic negotiations over just where and when the meeting would take place were, she was sure, going to drive her to exhaustion. And she missed her home country. She missed her friends, she missed her family–a large extended family, and she missed the sights, sounds, and smells of her native land.

It may seem to you quite strange that a seasoned diplomat, who most likely had to travel frequently and far on missions for the Oligarch, should experience what amounted to homesickness. But consider the following: The Jungle people had little in the way of diplomatic relations with the peoples of the Great Western Continent. The cities, though banded together as a confederation, were still fairly independent, and more than a few Oligarchs had not forgotten their ancestral title of king.

Thus Clarice was able to acquire quite a lot of diplomatic experience representing Brutus to other cities of the Refuge without ever traveling far from the culture she knew. Additionally, she had some experience dealing with real foreigners, as barbarian tribes still lingered on the outskirts of the Refuge, and she had often negotiated for the release of hostages and such things with them. But she had never been outside the Southern Continent, never far from the burning flame of Southern culture. This was different.

The customs of these lands were alien to her. This morning was a prime example. She awoke in the house of her host, a friendly cheetah. It was customary in her country to wash the face and the hands when one awoke in the morning.

However, neither the appropriate ceremonial washbowls nor the time were available for these things, and so Clarice did without.

Clarice was a cat, and thus shared an all-carnivorous diet with the cats of the Great Western Continent. This, however, was about where the similarities between the two diets ended. In the Refuge, there were many small rivers, but the ocean was a distant, almost abstract thing unless you lived in the furthest colonies.

The river fish that lived in the core areas of the Jungle were lacking in flavor and eaten only when unavoidable. Clarice had only had them once; when she was staying with a poor family in Latium, the stingiest of the Seven Cities.

The ocean fish, on the other hand, were of the highest quality. Clarice had dined sumptuously on those when she had been negotiating the release of an Oligarch’s daughter from pirates off the colonial coast. However, they were never available inland.

The point of saying all this, apart from giving you, my dear reader, greater insight into the world we are together exploring, is to explain that it was not customary in the Refuge to eat fish for breakfast.

However, in this land, it was apparently quite customary. Though Sambar Rock was at least as far away from the nearest ocean as was Hebrosh, the river fish in these parts were actually rather tasty; it made Clarice wonder why the fish in her native rivers were so awful.

After breakfast, Clarice’s busy day began. First, she met with the coalition, taking notes of where they’d like the meeting and when. She was barely able to resist the urge to roll her eyes in exasperation when Jabari pressed for the coalition’s own court here at Sambar Rock at the location, and their usual meeting hour of three o’clock as the time.

Instead, Clarice controlled herself, merely suggesting that a more neutral location might be preferable. Though our heroine thought this eminently reasonable, Jabari apparently didn’t agree, for he merely harumphed and sulked after that. Then she rushed off to the mensaj-hus, where a messenger had just arrived with the latest correspondence from Aeradde.

She scanned it briefly, made a mental note that when–and if– she got the time, she would mention to Red that Luna was on her way, then read it again in detail and began formulating a response even as she walked down to the chancery to dictate it.

Meanwhile, another letter was being dealt with by Camilla, this one of slightly lesser importance, regarding delegates of the coalition and alpha pair meeting to engage in preliminary negotiations and draft a treaty: the letter was about where the delegates would meet and when.

*******

Luna having sent her message with the alpha’s own outgoing messenger, she was confident it would arrive quickly. Her things were all packed, and she was ready to leave. Though she was generally treated with courtesy, she could tell she was unwelcome here. She also eagerly awaited the return to the lands and customs that she knew, and her reunion with her friend Red, the Golden Retriever. After all they had been through, the few weeks they had spent apart seemed like an age. Luna laughed slightly as she triple-checked her last saddlebag. She was getting so sappy and sentimental. Get a grip, Luna!, she could hear her mother saying in her head.

Luna walked back inside the house to say one final goodbye to her hostess, Jean. “Farewell, Luna”, said the poodle, a sad smile gracing her features. “Until we meet again.” Luna lifted her right forepaw, extending her palm toward Jean, and uttered the traditional farewell of her own kind. “Farewell, sister. May the gods look favorably upon all you do.”

As she turned away, Luna could see the tear in Jean’s eye that had formed when Luna used the “sister” form of address with her, an appellation normally reserved for fellow tigresses.

*******

A messenger arrived at the door of the house of Red’s host, carrying a message from Clarice which told him that Luna was coming to see him. Good, he thought. That’ll be nice. I wonder, though, what it’ll do to my plans of returning home? Oh well, I don’t live too far from here. It probably won’t be an issue.

*******

When Luna arrived at the city of Sambar Rock, the city which was technically her hometown, though she had never spent much time there, she was greeted with much formal pomp and fanfare. As she marched through the gates of the city, representatives of the coalition came out to greet her, carrying a letter of welcome signed by every member of the coalition–except, of course, Jabari.

Luna wasn’t surprised that he was not welcoming her. Actually, she was rather surprised, and not entirely pleased, to find this great parade in her honor when she arrived. Luna was tired, and she had attended enough of these things to know that she would be expected to stay afterward and socialize with the city folk, which was pretty much the last thing she wanted at that moment.

All Luna really wanted to do was get away from the crowds, get to the local Underground house–a name that may soon become a misnomer, Luna reflected–, unpack her things, and–if she was lucky–indulge in the rare luxury of a hot bath.

That, alas, was not to be. At least not yet. Instead, Luna rode down the street on the almost insultingly small horse Aeradde had given her, her ears ringing with the sound of musical instruments, drums, guitars, various kittens waving noisemakers, cats of all shapes and sizes whooping and yelling like, it seemed to Luna, deranged banshees from the deepest circle of the pit Sinluz, the home of the wickedest demons in the most ancient tales of her people.

Luna looked around for a place where she could make a discreet exit. Unfortunately, she was surrounded by (mostly) well-meaning partygoers in the parade. She looked around, desperately seeking a way out.

Thankfully, Red was approaching the outside of the crowd rapidly. She waved to him, and he waved back. Luna sensed that he was not picking up on her desire to escape the crowd, she lifted her left hand, made a fist, then lifted her fingers in the distinctive pinky-thumb-forefinger-ring finger-middle finger order that was the secret Underground gesture for distress.

Unfortunately, the gesture carried no more specific meaning than “I need help”. Therefore, Red had no way of knowing whether Luna was in mortal danger or simply tired. He seemed to prepare for the worst, and, subtly drawing a small knife from his belt, slipped through the crowd as best he could.

It was slow going, but Red was able to reach Luna eventually. She reached down from her horse and grabbed his left hand with her right so as to avoid losing him. “No need for that dagger, I would hope,” she whispered. “These people mean well. But I’m tired from a long journey. I need to get out of here.”

Red looked around him, then nodded. “I think I can help with that.” He put his knife back on his belt and said, “I’m going to create a distraction. In the chaos, it shouldn’t be hard for you to dismount and slip out. Don’t worry if you lose your mount. If I know the city officials right, they’ll try and steal the horse, which will actually work to our advantage, because we’ll know where to find it.”

“Anything to get me out of here,” replied Luna. Red dashed back outside the crowd and ran to a nearby pile of boxes, which he jumped on top of. “Attention,” he said, “people of Sambar Rock!” Quite naturally, everyone turned to look at him.

Then, suddenly, as he was opening his mouth, apparently to speak again, he dropped backward. Luna was worried for a moment, not sure whether this was part of the plan, but then she saw his hand extended, palm out, facing her in the subtle “go” gesture of the Underground’s secret system of signs and codes.

Taking this to mean that he had not, in fact, passed out, she leapt off her horse and tried to lead it against the movement of the crowd. Whatever Red said, Luna was not going to let any city officials spirit her horse away out of the crowd.

Finally, after walking against the crowdstream for about five minutes, Luna broke free. She began to run down the street, then leapt up onto her horse and spurred him on to one final run.

Finally, she reached the house which she had been directed to find. Knocking on the door, she found a small, white, female House Cat. “You must be Luna,” the smaller cat said, looking way up. Luna tried to look at her without appearing condescending, but it was difficult because the other cat was so short.

“You must be Tassita.” “Indeed,” said the House Cat. “Do come in.” She stepped out of the way and held the door for Luna, who gratefully stepped into the house.

“My horse,” she said, starting to turn back toward the door, but Tassita stopped her. “Sit down.”, she said. “You look tired.” Luna sat down on a couch opposite the table. “Thank you,” she said.

*******

Red lay on the ground as the crowd swarmed towards him to see what had happened. He had no way of telling whether Luna had gotten away without giving away the fact that he had not actually passed out.

Keeping his eyes just the tiniest bit open, he could see that there were cats of all sizes swarming around him. Luckily, as it happened, no one had had the sense yet to go get a doctor. Finally, after what seemed like an age–which was fine with Red–two nurses arrived, a pair of female jaguars who carried him off to the small apothecary where the doctor worked.

After a few minutes of examination, the doctor determined that there was little he could do for Red, not having been trained to work on dogs, but that he’d be happy to keep an eye on him for a while.

Red then decided it would be a good time to leave, so he pretended to wake up. The doctor, however, seemed all of a sudden to think he knew a great deal about dogs, and insisted that Red stay for a little while to recover, probably overnight. Needless to say, this plan was neither necessary nor particularly to Red’s liking.

Red didn’t want to do anything violent. In an earlier time, he might have just bonked the doctor on the head and been done with it, but there were several reasons why Red was not prepared to do that now. First of all, it simply wasn’t right. That alone would now have convinced Red that he needed to try a sneaky escape. But additionally, it would have had a horrible effect on diplomatic relations, and, really, Red was tired of fighting.

So when the doctor left the room, Red opened his eyes slightly and looked around the house. There was a window behind him. As quietly as he could, he slipped off the bed and walked over to it.

It was a little higher and smaller than would have been ideal, and as he opened it, Red could have sworn the creaking would alert the doctor. But he was able to get out, which surprised him greatly.

As quietly as he could, Red slipped down into the street and began to creep away from the doctor’s house. When he had gotten about fifty yards away, he broke into a run, and didn’t stop until he reached Tassita’s house.

When he arrived there, he took a moment to regain his composure before knocking on the door gently. He was pleasantly surprised when it was not Tassita, but Luna who opened the door. “Red!”, she said. “Come in. I was worried. Wasn’t sure how you were going to get out of there.” “Well,” replied Red, “we may not be out of the woods yet. I slipped out of the doctor’s house with no explanation whatever. Well, that’s not exactly true. I tried to explain that I was fine, without giving away what I had done, of course, but he was having none of it.”

“So you just slipped out?” “Yep. I hope that little relapse into the old Underground way of doing things doesn’t ruin our chances for peace.” Luna shook her head and gestured for him to come in. “I think this situation is out of our hands now.”

“I hope so,” said Red. “I’ve been hoping to get back home for a while. My family’s probably worried sick, and no doubt my house is in terrible repair.” Luna sat down on a couch and gestured for him to do the same.

“You know,” said Red, “there was a time when I never thought I’d say this to a cat, but…” “Luna smiled. “Yes, Red of Dramstad?” “You’re all right,” Red replied. “You know, I think cats might still formally be forbidden from entering the Confederacy without special leave. But under the circumstances, I’m sure no one would mind if you stopped in for a visit now and then while I was at home?”

“I’ll be around,” said Luna. “You can count on it.”

*******

It had been two weeks since Red had escaped the doctor’s home and hinted to Luna that she would be welcome to come and visit him while he was visiting his hometown again. He and Luna had originally left with next to nothing in terms of provisions. Their plan had been to hop from Underground member’s house to Underground member’s house.

That plan had not worked out terribly well. Thankfully, however, Red’s good friend Andreas had been able to help them get started properly. And, in large part thanks to his help, they had achieved much. This was the first time in recorded history that peace between the troubled peoples of the Canid Confederacy and the Felid Kingdoms was even considered an option on the table.

Now, Red, who had left his hometown with almost no provisions or supplies, with little more, in fact, than a few coins in a small purse, came back laden down with gifts from the coalition of Sambar Rock. Gifts, notably, not one of which came from Jabari.

The town of Dramstad was unwalled; many citizens had demanded, requested, pleaded, asked for, and otherwise attempted to get a wall built over the years, but the town just wasn’t rich enough or important enough. The alpha felt they were unlikely to be attacked, and they couldn’t afford a wall anyway, and that was that.

As Red entered the village, he thought about the irony of the fact that with the gifts he had received, he could probably afford to build them a wall now. Now, of course, it looked as if they would never need one.

Well, Red corrected himself, maybe we’ll never need them. Best not to get my hopes too high just yet. Then he looked around. Where is everybody? He had been expecting a bit more of a welcome than he received. Nobody seemed to be around.

I wonder what’s going on. Red tried to remember today’s date as he walked toward his house. When he arrived, he was pleasantly surprised to find that it was in decent repair and the lawn was mowed, and rather curious about the fact that there was a light burning upstairs.

When he had left town, Red hadn’t taken his house keys with him, afraid if he did they’d be lost. Instead, he had left them at his parents’ house. Red decided that his parents had probably allowed someone else to use the place while he was gone, so after tying up his horses, he began to walk toward their house.

The nearer Red got to the center of town, the more activity he saw, but there still wasn’t much. A few scattered dogs scurried back and forth throughout the town, and they all seemed rather shell-shocked. And still, no one greeted him.

He knocked on the door of his parents’ home, and his mother came to greet him. “Red! Thank goodness you’ve come home!” Her fur was matted and her eyes Red. “What’s the matter, Mom? You look like you haven’t slept in days.”

“That’s not so far from the truth, son,” said his mother. “You’d better come in.” Red did as he was told. His mind was racing. The young Retriever had always had a fertile imagination, which now was not working to his advantage.

“Sit down,” said his mother. “Would you like some tea?” Red shook his head. “No, thank you. Mom, you’re driving me nuts. What is going on?” “While you were gone, just a few days ago, they attacked.”

Red shook his head. “They? Who they?” His eyes widened slowly. “You don’t mean…” “Yes,” said his mother, “a murderous band of cats! They stormed the town. They said they wouldn’t hurt anyone if we gave up our valuables.”

“Did you?”, asked Red. “We tried not to. Your father fought valiantly, among others.” “But,” said Red. “But they were too many. We were overcome.” “What?”, demanded Red. “Was anyone hurt?”

“Your father was wounded in the battle. A few of the other men, too. No one was killed, and a settlement was reached where a tribute was paid to the marauders, and they left. But they’ll be back! I know they will!”

“Don’t be too sure, Mom. When did this happen?” “Just the other day. Why?” “Because I wasn’t visiting relatives while I was gone.” For some reason, and this seemed strange to Red after all that had happened to her, it was that bit of news that seemed to break her.

“We figured that,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I didn’t want to believe you’d lied to us, I hoped against hope that you were where you said you were and you were all right, but it was so unlikely.”

“Mom,” he said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t entirely forthright with you about what I was doing, but it really was for the best. You worried less, you couldn’t tell anyone so no one would try to force you to, and, well, when you hear what I did, I think you’ll understand.”

The elder dog looked back at her son. “What did you do?” “I arranged for peace negotiations between the dogs and the cats.” “What?!”, his mother demanded. “See why I didn’t tell you?”

“Red,” she said, “how could you? You’re suing for peace, after what just happened here?” Red looked his mother in the eyes. “Listen to me, Mom. First, I only just found out about that, remember? Second, whatever was done to this town was illegal. Raids were supposed to stop a week ago. Maybe those cats didn’t get the message, or maybe they’re rogues. But it’ll be dealt with. We can almost certainly get our valuables back with no more bloodshed.”

“You know,” said Red’s mom, “a week ago, I might have agreed with you. But now…” “Look, I know this is hard for you. It’s hard on me too. Can I see Dad?” “He’s asleep.”, said Red’s mother. “I’m sure he’ll talk to you tomorrow.” She turned to go. “Wait, Mom,” said Red. “Yes?” “I need my house keys. And, is someone staying there?”

“Oh,” said Red’s mother, “they’re on the counter. I’ll get them for you.” She walked into the kitchen and came out carrying the keys to Red’s house. “No one’s staying there, but Cider may be there now.” “If she’s not staying there, why is she there at all?”

“It’s the strangest thing. She says she’s cleaning up, taking care of the place, you know. None of us knew if you were alive, but she never gave up hope. Still, she seems to be there at the oddest hours, and sometimes I could swear she’s not alone.”

Red nodded. “Thanks, Mom.” Of course, Red knew exactly what was really going on, but he could also see how odd this would seem to anyone else. Twirling his housekeys absent-mindedly on his right index finger, he walked back toward his house.

When he arrived, he opened the door and called out. “I’m home! Anyone here?”

A few moments passed, and all Red heard was a murmuring and a rustling upstairs. Then a pair of canine feet pattered nervously down the staircase, and Cider emerged, a crossbow in her hands and leveled toward Red.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “You’re in my house, and I’ve announced my presence. You’re here unannounced, and, I might add, uninvited. So put down the crossbow and clue me in, huh?”

Cider lowered the crossbow slowly and stepped closer. “Red?” “Yes…”, said Red. “It’s you!” She dropped the weapon and ran forward, kissing him on the cheek. He smiled. “Did you miss me?”

“Listen, Red,” she said, “seriously, I’ve sort of converted this place into Underground headquarters while you were gone. The whole upstairs is occupied.” “The whole upstairs is occupied and they let you come down here to investigate when I showed up?”

“They don’t actually know,” she said. “I’m the only one you awoke.” “Well,” said Red, “if the upstairs is occupied, did you at least leave the guest room open for the owner of the house?”

“I did,” she said. “You know, though, people were already talking up a storm about me being here all the time. Now that you’re back…” “We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Right now, I just need to get some sleep.”

“See you tomorrow,” she said, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek once more. “Good night,” he said. She walked up the stairs slowly. As soon as she was gone, Red walked down the hall into the room he kept for guests and laid down on the bed.

Incredible, he thought. Here I am, home at last. At my own house for the first time in months, and I’m staying in the guest room and getting ready to ward off a scandal in the wake of a poorly-timed raid by the cats.

Red rolled his eyes. So much for rest and relaxation. Oh, well. This’ll make a better story down the road. Red’s mind drifted to and fro, and finally settled on thoughts of Cider.

You know, he thought, when this is all over, it might be nice to settle down, get married, have a relatively normal life. Wonder if I’ve got the guts to propose…

*******

Luna patrolled her hunting grounds, searching for prey. On the horizon, she spotted a herd of zebra. She slowed down to avoid alerting them. The herd began moving in her direction. It was ponderous and slow, but Luna was patient.

When it was about thirty yards from her, she leapt out of the bushes and hurtled forward. Most of the herd scattered, but there was one zebra who was just a trifle slower than the rest.

That zebra was doomed. Caught in Luna’s petrifying stare, he froze as she leapt forward. It was a gruesome spectacle as Luna tore the throat from the helpless equine. The rest of the herd scattered, though it was rather unnecessary now that the tigress had her meal in hand.

Luna wondered if she should go visit Red today. He wasn’t that far away from here. Perhaps she should go check what was going on in Dramstad.

*******

Camilla rubbed her temples vigorously in an attempt to cure herself of the terrible headache she’d developed. Of course, the pain in her skull wasn’t her only, or even her worst headache. Dealing with these proud and suspicious royals was far more difficult. The preliminary negotiations had narrowed down the options for the initial meeting down to three, but getting the members of the coalition to agree with each other, much less the alpha pair of the dogs, was almost impossible.

She rolled her eyes. Of the three, Camilla most favored the one she thought most neutral: the one bridge over the Great River that still remained intact; an ancient stone structure that neither side had ever been able to destroy, though both had tried over the years.

Unfortunately, neither side favored that location. The other two options were fortress towns, one on either side of Camilla’s favored bridge. The coalition favored the one on the cat side of the bridge while Aeradde and his mate favored the citadel of the dogs on the western bank of the Great River.

Camilla rolled her eyes. These pigheaded monarchs were so used to, first of all, having their own way, and secondly, fighting with each other, that they’d forgotten how to compromise. Perhaps Clarice would be able to help.

*******

The headquarters of the Underground had slowly been phased out of Red’s house and back into Cider’s. People had talked, of course, when she spent the night there the day he returned. Perhaps not mentioning it to anyone and trying to keep it quiet hadn’t been the best strategy.

Red never thought the people of his own town could be such gossips. He lay awake, unable to sleep. He still didn’t know, what had happened, exactly, when his town was attacked. He had shot a letter off to Clarice at Sambar Rock, but he hadn’t gotten a response. He knew she must be busy, but, at least to him, it seemed fairly important.

Red sat up on his bed, burying his face in his hands. He had been hoping for some rest and relaxation, a little time to himself, some peace and quiet. Alas, it was not to be. And with Luna gone, there was no one to talk to. Well, there was Cider, but she was as scared an confused as he was, and needed to vent as much as he did. Luna always seemed above all that somehow.

What’s that on the ceiling?, Red thought suddenly. He looked out his window, but saw nothing. Then he decided to try and old trick. He turned away from the window for a moment, the turned back. When he did, he saw Luna hanging from the roof outside the window. He opened the window(it opened either inward or outward), and helped her in. “What in Sheol are you doing here?”

“You did say I could visit sometime,” she said. “I was expecting a little more notice,” he replied. “I also thought you’d use the door.” “Your people may still be a little touchy about a tigress simply sauntering down your streets, especially in the wake of a, er, certain recent incident.” Red nodded. “Yes, that’s true.” Red sat down on the bed, and gestured for Luna to sit down on the chair at the desk across the room. She did so, then looked back at him. “You look upset,” she said. “Is something wrong?” Red shrugged. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind.” Luna rested her head on her chin and looked at him. “Oh?” “Yes,” said Red. “I still don’t know who raided my town and why. I also don’t know what I’m going to do. A lot of things were stolen, and I’m not sure when or if they’ll be returned.”

“The firebrand in me wants to go take them back, but that probably won’t be good for our big-picture diplomatic aims.” Luna shook her head. “That’s probably not a real good idea.”, she said. “I do have good news for you, though.” “Oh yeah? What’s that? Good news would be a welcome thing right about now.” “All right,” said Luna. “The general who raided your town was a longtime rogue.”

“He’s been summoned to Sambar Rock.” Red could tell by Luna’s expression that there was more, and it wasn’t good. He raised his brow slightly. “But…” “But,” she said, “like I said, he’s something of a loose catapult. I’ve heard he’s not planning to come quietly, and his men will probably back him up. “Great,” said Red. “Every silver lining has a cloud.” Luna looked around. “Mind if I stay here tonight?” “No,” said Red. “In fact, I’d like that.” Luna turned to go down to the guest room. “I thought you might.”

*******

Clarice had taken over the location job from Camilla. This was going to require some advanced diplomatic skill, as neither side was going to want to make the concession first. Perhaps there was some way neither would have to. Clarice racked her brain. She could come up with anything off the top of her head. She sat down and closed the door. Then she began to do what she always did when she needed to think of an idea. She opened one of her desk drawers and pulled out a canvas, some paint, and brushes, and began to doodle rather abstractly, hoping something would come to her while she wasn’t thinking about it.

After a few minutes of such doodling, it hit her. It was an idea. It was risky, though. She still hoped she could come up with a better one, but if all else were to fail, she just might be able to pull this off.

*******

The next morning, Luna awoke early and tried to wake Red up too. He was only about half-awake when she said goodbye, but she hoped he wouldn’t worry about here when he awoke again later, and would remember that she had left. She would have loved to stay longer, but she knew if she was in Dramstad when the townsfolk awoke, that it would be bad news for everyone.

*******

Red awoke slowly. It was late, and the light filtered in through the curtains, filling the room with a wonderful golden ambient light. Has Luna left? I seem to think she has, but maybe it was a dream. I don’t know. He fell back asleep for a few minutes, then awoke again. He was more tired than before, but he forced himself out of bed. Groggily, he walked down the stairs and filled a pot with water from his neat indoor water pump, then lit a fire underneath the pot in the small fireplace in the corner of the kitchen.

A few minutes later, he sat at the table quietly sipping his coffee and trying to remember more clearly what had happened that morning. Eventually, it did come back to him. Luna had left. Oh well. She’d be back. Probably when he wasn’t expecting it.

*******

Clarice lay awake into the wee hours wondering what to do. This wasn’t like her, to be so indecisive, but, really, it was a risky plan. Finally, she decided it wouldn’t be fair to do it without at least mentioning it to Camilla first. She glanced at the large clock on the other side of her room. It was three-thirty. Well, she thought, I don’t have to worry about it for at least another three and a half hours, then.

She tossed and turned, struggling to get comfortable. This is going to be a long night.

*******

Camilla walked deeper and deeper into the woods with Clarice. “Are we far enough in yet?”, she asked. “No.” said Clarice. “Someone may still be following us.” Camilla looked around. “If they’ve followed us this far, what makes you think they’ll stop if we go a little farther?” “I don’t think that.”, replied the leopard. “I think I might see them as we go farther, though.” Slowly, they walked deeper into the forest, leaving the beaten path farther and farther behind. “All right,” said Clarice. “I think we’ve gone far enough.”

“What did you want to talk about?”, asked Camilla. “I have a plan,” said Clarice, “but it’s risky.” “How so?”, asked Camilla. “Well,” said Clarice, “I plan to tell each side that the other has agreed to meet at the bridge if they will.” Camilla nodded. “That is risky! Suppose someone finds out?” “There’s not much danger of that unless one side refuses to meet at the the bridge. In that case, the game is up.” “So are you that confident that they’ll go for it?” “No,” said Clarice, “which is why I brought this.” She pulled a piece of parchment from her belt and handed it to Camilla.

“I’m going to give it to one of our soldiers to deliver to Brutus.” Camilla started to unroll the parchment. “May I?” Clarice nodded. “That’s why I brought it, and you’ll notice it’s not sealed.” Camilla unrolled it and read.

To His Highness the Oligarch Brutus of Hebrosh:

Please burn this letter after you read it. I have decided on a rather risky diplomatic strategy, and in case it backfires, it would better both for me personally and for our cause if I were not here. Please reply as soon as you receive this and recall me from the field. That is all.

Your Humble Servant,

Clarice Spotpaw

Camilla nodded. “I see where this is going. I guess you want me to take over for you when you leave.” “Exactly,” replied Clarice. “Chances are, my plan will work. But if it doesn’t you must deny any knowledge of what I’m now telling you.” Camilla nodded solemnly. “When we get back, I’m going to set my plan in motion. I will seal the letter and give it to our highest-ranking noncommissioned officer, Roget, who is to leave immediately and not to return.”

*******

It had been about three days since Luna’s midnight visit, and Red had received a letter back from Clarice. Now, in the privacy of his bedroom, he withdrew his letter opener and sat down at the desk. His fingers quivered slightly as he solemnly broke the seal. The letter was written on delicate parchment, so Red unrolled it carefully and began to read.

Dear Red,

I have informed the coalition of the ill-advised actions of General Mobius. They have agreed that his raid on your town was inadvisable, but because of the fact that no once can prove he received word of the commencement of negotiations, it was not, strictly speaking, against the law. He will not be tried or prosecuted, but whatever was stolen will be returned. So far, however, no one’s been able to get hold of him. Off the record, and in my strictly private and personal capacity, I think he’s not going to come quietly and give up so much booty. But we’ll see.

Very Truly Yours,

Clarice Spotpaw.

Red rolled up the letter and filed it away. Then a thought struck him. He rose, then walked down the stairs, out the door, and down the street to Cider’s house. He knocked on the door, and a window opened upstairs. Cider’s head poked up. “Red!”, she said. “One second.” The window closed, and Red heard her feet clattering on the floor as she ran down the stairs and opened the door. “Come in,” she said, then saw his expression. “What’s up?” Red shook his head. “Close the door.”

*******

Camilla and Clarice stood in a small clearing in the woods. “Is it working so far?”, asked Camilla. “Yes,” replied Clarice. “The alpha pair suspects nothing and tomorrow I will bring up the plan before the coalition. All seems to be going according to plan.” “Excellent,” said Camilla. “So, why are we out here?” “Well,” said Clarice, “any day now, I will get a letter from Brutus telling me to come back. You’ll have to be ready to take over for me, so there are some things I have to give you. First of all, a copy of my own official seal.”

“You’ll be the senior diplomat now, so you’ll need one. I haven’t had time to get one made with your name on it, but you’ll be able to use this one. Second, and I don’t have it when we got back, is a collection of all the diplomatic correspondences I’ve had over the course of these negotiations. Third is something I can give you here.” “What is it?”, asked Camilla. “The Sojourner’s Blessing.”

*******

Aeradde paced back and forth. So the coalition had finally swallowed their pride and made the first move toward meeting at the bridge, huh? That’s what he had been hoping for, of course, but he was surprised it happened so quickly. Something didn’t smell right.

*******

“So,” said Jabari, “the alphas swallowed their pride and make the first move toward meeting at the bridge. I don’t like this. It smells of a set-up.” “You always smell a set-up, Jabari.”, shot back one of the junior coalition members. “True,” replied Jabari. “That’s why I’m still alive.” “Be that as it may, I say we accept their offer and meet at the bridge.” “Oh, I agree.”, replied Jabari. “Butler! Tell my personal guard to double their training regimen. Their services may be required soon.”

*******

Camilla was quite nervous. Today was the big day. She couldn’t believe it. Clarice had left, and given her, Camilla, a Sojourner’s Blessing! This honor was usually reserved for family members, and was thought to bestow good fortune. Well, I’ll certainly need some of that. So far, the plan had worked out brilliantly. Clarice had worked closely with Luna’s diplomat before she left to keep their “little white lie” under wraps. Camilla had to admit, she didn’t know how she felt about Clarice’s deception, but it seemed to have worked, and to blow the whistle now would be likely to destroy all they’d worked for. So, she kept quiet and got ready to join the Kingdoms’ advance delegation, which would meet with the advance delegation of the Confederacy before the leaders of the two nations actually met.

The advance delegation would consist of Camilla, Gunter, and a substitute diplomat provided by the coalition to replace Clarice, as well as a few soldiers. Camilla had protested the inclusion of armed fighting dogs and cats in their delegation, but Gunter had insisted. “We are suing for peace. Think of the tension it will cause if we arrive armed.”

Gunter’s scarred eye had twitched at that. “Oh. My. Gods.”, he had said. “You must be kidding me.” “No, I’m not!”, yelled Camilla, pounding her fist on the table. “Ok,” said Gunter. “Let me put this in simple terms for your lovey-dovey flowers-and-rainbows brain can wrap itself around the concept. They’ll be coming armed. I guarantee it. Now think about the tension it will cause if they’re armed and we’re not.” Camilla still was not thrilled by the idea, but she had no choice but to accept it.

She didn’t have much time to get ready for the meeting. But then, she didn’t need much. She had a small bag with some parchment, pen and ink, and the official seal Clarice had given her. Aside from that, she didn’t really need anything else.

So, a few minutes later, she met Gunter and the new diplomat, Jonathan, outside the palace. This situation was less than ideal. Jonathan, who was a skinny House Cat with gigantic eyes and long whiskers, was completely unknown to Camilla, which meant that working together might be difficult. Secondly, he worked for the coalition, which meant that he could not be told about what Clarice had purposed and Camilla had carried out.

Camilla wondered as the three of them, surrounded by spear-wielding bodyguards, walked down the road toward the place where they were to be picked up by the horse-drawn carriage that was to take them to the fortress town of Dobbod, near the bridge, whether there was some way she could get rid of Jonathan.

As Camilla climbed into the car, she noticed the other diplomat’s other lack of courtesy in stepping in front of her and shoving his way in rather than opening the door for her. She looked at Gunter, who seemed to her to be surprised at the rudeness of the other cat, but perhaps that was just her imagination. Gunter was usually pretty difficult to read.

It was a long ride down to Dobbod, and it was difficult to see the scenery on the way with all the armed guards on horses surrounding the coach. It was also impossible to speak unguardedly, as anything she said would be heard by both Jabari’s cat Jonathan and Jabari’s other cat the driver.

So, Camilla had little choice but to make small talk or to stare out the window in boredom. Gunter was immovable, as usual, and she gave up after two attempts at speaking with him. Jonathan tried to talk to her, but she wasn’t at all interested in talking to him and allowed his attempts at conversation to fizzle out.

Staring out the window in boredom it is, then.

*******

Razo and Ancelin sat in a carriage of their own, surrounded by their own army of mixed guards. There had been a bit of a debate between Scipio and Makalo about which one of them would get to go with the Canid Confederacy’s advance delegation to meet Camilla, Jonathan, and Gunter, but eventually, Makalo had won out. Ancelin and Razo had become rather close during their time at the capital city of Goldpaw, and they sat in the back, chatting about people and things back home.

Meanwhile, Makalo sat up front, having a quite interesting conversation with the coyote who drove the cab. Their trip was much more pleasant than Camilla’s, and after a few hours they Aeradde in the city of Riverport, a fortress bristling with defenses and always containing a large and alert garrison, as it directly faced the equally well-defended feline city of Dobbod. Today, of course, everyone was rather nervous, and the defenders on the walls of both cities paced as much as they were allowed to pace on their posts.

Scipio hoped against the odds that no fighting would break out when some careless, sleep-deprived warrior accidentally set off a catapult.

*******

Camilla rod through the city of Dobbod, formulating her plan to get rid of Jonathan. Perhaps she could pretend to forget something unimportant, pretend it was important, and tell him to go get it. That would probably work, and would have the additional advantage of being a great insult to the unchivalrous buffoon. Perhaps it was rather small of her, but Camilla liked the idea of making the diplomat Jonathan run errands like a new-hire petty aide.

Now what could she forget?

*******

The advance delegations from both the dog and cat nations stood on opposite sides of the long, arching stone bridge over the Great River, their flags flying high and their banners blowing in the wind. A hawk winged its way over the forests of the lost, following the bright sparkling stream that fed the Great River. The hawk flew out over the rocky beach that lined the Great River’s banks.

It circled once around the ancient bridge, and its keen eyes saw many, many cats and dogs together. To the hawk, this meant fresh meat. It circled lower, until its keen eyes could make out the cracks between the bridge’s paving-stones. Soon, a pair of vultures arrived on the horizon.

*******

As scavenger birds gathered over her head, Camilla smiled. For possibly a millennium or more, dogs and cats in the some place on this continent had been a harbinger of death. But not today. Not this time. Today, the culmination of the efforts of heroic felines and canines from all over the Great Western Continent was being realized. It was an incredible feeling to be part of that, and as Camilla marched westward across the bridge toward Ancelin and Scipio, as she bristled when Jonathan stepped a little closer than she liked, she offered up a prayer of thanks to the gods of her people.

*******

Ancelin, Scipio, and Makalo stepped forward as the guards around them dispersed. The soldiers on both sides relaxed somewhat as the diplomats and officers stepped out to the center of the bridge and shook hands in cordial greeting. “Hey, Jonathan,”, said Camilla, a wry smile crossing her lips for the barest fraction of a second, “I do believe I left my second-best quill pen in that scribe’s shop we stopped in on the way. Would you run back and get it?”

Jonathan looked back at her with a blank expression on his face. “You’re sending me to pick up a pen?” Camilla amazingly managed to keep a straight face while replying, “Well, it’s my second best.”

No one said a word. Each and every diplomat, officer, and soldier stared, patiently waiting to see how this played out. Jonathan was still as flabbergasted as could be. “Surely, this is a job for an aide or a–” But he was interrupted. “Excuse me,” said Camilla. “Who is the senior diplomat here?” “You are.” “Then, as the senior diplomat, I order you to go back and get my pen.”

Jonathan turned visibly red with anger, but Camilla was right. At this point, the senior diplomat allowed herself to smile slightly. Jonathan tensed under her gaze, then stomped off angrily.

Camilla smiled. “Nice to get rid of him.” Makalo looked at his two diplomats and raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t actually leave my pen anywhere,” said Camilla, “but hopefully that will keep him occupied for a while.”

“Jabari’s man?”, asked Scipio. “Indeed,” said Camilla, “and a discourteous gauche to boot. I don’t believe he’s a diplomat at all. I think he’s a spy for the coalition because Jabari doesn’t trust me.” Razo snorted. “Can you blame him?” “Yes.”, responded Camilla. “Well,” said Razo, “you did lie to him.” “OK, first,” said Camilla, lowering her voice so the soldiers couldn’t hear and gesturing for the others to do the same, “you know that wasn’t my idea. Secondly, he doesn’t know that. I’ve been extremely circumspect. If he suspects me, it’s prejudice talking, not reason.”

“Thirdly, you all know everyone is better off this way, even Jabari. What’s a small lie in the service of a good cause?” “I’m not passing judgment on you,” said Razo. “I’m just saying, if Jabari doesn’t trust you, there may be a reason for that. “Moving on,” said Camilla, “shall we get down to business?”

*******

“What are you saying, Red?” “Think about it, Cider.” “The timing of this raid was rather suspicious, was it not? Right before I get home? And do they really expect me to believe “General Mobius” never got any message about the commencement of negotiations? That was some time ago, and he’s probably closer to Sambar Rock than we are.” “So what explanation do you propose?” “I think I’m being set up. Lured into a trap, perhaps.” “You’re being paranoid, Red,” said Cider. “Who would want to try to lure you into a trap?” “One individual springs to mind…”

*******

Mingan, the smell of a fresh kill still on his breath, wandered slowly into the cave on all fours. Mobius felt the his fur standing up on end and turned around. “Mingan,” he said, “how good to see you again.” “Greetings, Mobius,” said Mingan cordially. He rose to his hind legs and leaned against the cave wall. “How’s the family?” “Spare me the pleasantries, dog! When do I get my money?” “Patience,” said Mingan. “You’ll get what’s coming to you in due time, my General. But you have not yet fulfilled your end of the bargain.”

*******

“I think this is about all we can do without the alphas,” said Scipio. “And the coalition,” pointed out Camilla. “Of course. And the coalition.”, said Scipio. “Where are they, anyway?” “I think they’re supposed do get here tonight,” said Razo. “Well, we’ve done all we can,” said Jonathan, who had returned after finally giving up trying to find the pen. It had not been difficult for Camilla to feign anger that he had returned without it. Actually, I’m just angry that he returned.

“What say we all head over to the camp our soldiers pitched and have something to drink while the scribes draw up another copy of this proposed treaty?”, asked Jonathan. Scipio, Razo and Makalo all looked at each other for a moment, then nodded. “All right, then,” said Razo.

A few minutes later, the six of them were all sitting around the beginnings of a campfire, drinking ale and toasting the first between their peoples on the Great Continent in over a millennium. Camilla was so thrilled by that fact, and so relieved to have the proposed treaty she had been working on for weeks finally finalized, and, after some time at least, perhaps so influenced by the ale, that for once she didn’t even care that she was sitting next to Jonathan.

*******

Aeradde and his mate rode in splendor out of Goldpaw. This isn’t really my style, thought the alpha male, who didn’t like some of the trappings of his office much. I wish I didn’t have all these honor guards. I’d probably go ten times faster, and I’d be able to see the scenery. His wife laid a paw on his arm. “What’s the matter?”, she asked. Aeradde shook his head. “It all comes of being High Alpha, I suppose, but I do wish we could dismiss these soldiers and most of these heralds and things. We’d probably go a lot faster, and we could enjoy the scenery better if they weren’t blocking our view and making all this noise.”

“Ah,” she said, and slid a little closer to him on the seat. “Perhaps I can…take your mind off things.”

*******

The five members of the coalition walked side by side on all fours through the forest, a small guard of armed cats spread loosely around them. Antoine, one of the junior members, decided to risk a question of Jabari. “So, how do you feel? I mean, I know I feel pretty wild. Think of it! The end of the war! A return to the peace and brotherhood of former times!”

“A compromise with accursed canines and the abandonment of our sacred quest for revenge. I’m only here because I was outvoted.”, replied Jabari. Another lion, named Tanto, snorted. “Please, Jabari. Revenge for what?” “For the offense by which the dogs started this conflict.” “How do you know we didn’t start it, Jabari?” “Impossible. We do not start quarrels. We finish them.”

“Then how about we finish this one?”, asked Antoine. “Enough,” said Jabari. “I tire of these word games.” Antoine looked over at Tanto, who mouthed the words “Best to shut up now.” Antoine nodded.

********

“So you believe this Mingan is behind General Mobius’s raid on Dramstad?” “It’s the only thing I can think of.” “What are you going to do about it?”, she asked. “The only thing I can do.” “And that is?” “Spring the trap.” “What do you mean?”, Cider asked, her tone growing concerned. “I’m going to go after General Mobius.” Cider shook her head. “I was afraid you were going to say that. Why not just let Sambar Rock deal with it?”

Red laughed. “The real problem isn’t Mobius, it’s Mingan. Even if Sambar Rock deals with the cat, that accursed constable will still be at large, and as long as he is, neither I nor anyone who associates with me will be safe.”

“When are you leaving?”, asked Cider softly, shaking her head. “I don’t know. Probably within the week.” “I thought you wanted a vacation, time to rest.” “I did. But if I don’t take care of this once and for all, there won’t be any rest. Not for me. Not for you. Not for anyone.”

“I suppose you’re right. I hate to see you go again, though.” “I know,” replied Red. “I hate to do it. But it’s the only choice I have, as far as I can tell.” Cider nodded sadly.

*******

Luna was far from her usual hunting grounds. She wasn’t exactly sure how she’d gotten out here, or even where “here” was, and she hadn’t the foggiest idea to what tiger the territory she was now in belonged. She looked up at the sky. It looks as if it’s going to rain soon. Perfect.

Luna looked around to see if she could maybe find some shelter. It’s going to be a long night, and these jungle rains are long and heavy. After a few moments of searching, Luna’s keen eyes spotted a cave.

That looks like an all right place to spend the night. Perhaps tomorrow I can find my way home. Luna began to walk toward the cave. She heard the rumbling of the sky above her, and began to make double-time toward shelter.

When she was about halfway there, her keen eyes picked up movement within the cave. What’s going on in there? She began to approach more cautiously. Soon she was able to make out distinct shapes. There were several cats within the cave, a lion standing near the fire, and a familiar canine silhouette against the wall.

That looks like Mingan! What’s he doing here? Could he have sunk so low as to betray the Law of the Challenge? Luna paused and thought about that for a moment. Probably.

Luna was dying to investigate, but she had to move slowly to avoid being seen by Mingan. Moving slowly around the perimeter, she crept up to the side of the cave mouth, where it extended out from the rock face.

Then came the hard part. Here goes nothing, Luna thought, as she leapt up atop the cave. Pressing her ear to the cold, jagged, rough cave roof, she could hear what was going on inside.

“Do you really think he’s going to come, Mingan?” “I’m not sure, to be perfectly honest. He strikes me as the romantic type who’ll go after you, and even insist on fighting you alone, at least until he finds out who’s really behind it, but perhaps I’m wrong.”

“And if you are?” “Well, then, you won’t leave him or his friends alone until he decides to come after you.” “Mingan,” said the second voice, which Luna could only guess was that of General Mobius, “you still have not come through with my payment.”

Luna thought she could hear Mingan scratching his claws on his hand. “That’s true, my friend. Our original agreement was as follows: I will provide you with a handsome sum when you finish the job.”

“If you want to invoke our original agreement, Mingan, I said I’d raid Dramstad. I never said anything about killing messengers from Sambar Rock, and I never said anything about getting involved in your meaningless personal vendetta for the long haul.”

Luna had heard enough. She considered charging down there and simply taking them all on. If she thought it was just Mingan and Mobius, she probably would have done it. But she could not bring herself to suppose that Mobius was without his regiment, so instead she ran back the way she came, hoping to find a clearing where she could orient herself in order to get to Dramstad.

By now, the rain was starting to fall. Slowly but surely, the drops of water from the clouds above increased in size, force, and frequency until it became a veritable rain forest rainstorm, but Luna no longer cared. She hadn’t been able to catch any prey, and she could feel the earliest signs of hunger pains coming on, but she didn’t care about that either.

All that mattered now was getting to Dramstad as quickly as possible. But night had fallen, and Luna no longer had the sun to guide her which way to go. She tried to remember where the sun had set, but she couldn’t do it to save her life. She tried fruitlessly for a few minutes to find a clearing, but she couldn’t do that either.

Finally, she decided to climb a tree and look out over the landscape. She picked a large, thick-trunked one and attempted to scramble up it. It took a moment with the tree’s wet bark, but she made it.

In a moment, she had found her direction–she hoped–and was making double-time for Dramstad.

*******

Red had hoped for a few days’ rest, but, sadly, it was not to be. Only three days had passed since he arrived in Dramstad and he was leaving again. Luna had popped in yesterday to inform him of what she had overheard between Mingan and Mobius, confirming his theory.

He had told her of his plan to go after the general, and she had said she would go with him. He had asked if she didn’t have some essential function to fulfill in Sambar Rock, and she said no. “Red,” she said, “Mingan has to go down. And you can’t do it alone.” “Thanks,” said Red drily.

“Sorry,” said Luna, “but let’s face facts. You can’t do this alone, and even if you could, would you really want me to miss out on the fun?” Red had laughed. “All right. Meet me on the way out.”

*******

Camilla and Gunter stood on the top of a high hill overlooking the river and the bridge. She saw the fortress towns, bristling with defenses. “We have a ways to go,” she said. Gunter looked down at the camps of both Aeradde and Jabari. “True enough. But look on the bright side. You’ve made a lot of progress, and tomorrow, Aeradde and his wife will meet with the coalition. You should congratulate yourself.”

“Not just me, Gunter. You played an important part too.” Gunter turned his back to her and took a step away. “No, it was you diplomats who made this happen. I just lent my hand, and did as I was ordered.”

She followed him one step. “That’s good enough for me.”

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