The first story Tygra could remember knowing by heart was a fairy tale. That the story was true, and starred cats he knew, only made the tale better.
"Tell it to me again, Father," he would say, warm blankets tucked up to his chin, and a candle guttering in its sconce beside his bed.
Father would scrunch his mighty face up in confusion, as though he'd forgotten and had no idea what Tygra meant. But Father could never hold that face long before his lips split into a fond grin. "All right. But then straight to sleep with you."
Tygra would always grin and giggle, thinking he'd won a victory, not realizing for years that Father enjoyed this as much as he did. This was their special time, their story time.
"Once long ago in the days of old, there lived an exceptionally handsome young prince named Claudus." This always drew out an extra giggle. "He was brave and wise ... "
Tygra liked to say this part with him: "And he could beat ten lizards with one paw behind his back!"
"Twenty when he'd had his breakfast first," Father threw in sometimes, and Tygra thought that was the funniest part of all. "The prince was loved throughout his kingdom, and he had many friends. But he was lonely, though he never told a single soul."
Like all fairy tales, myth and lies were sprinkled liberally through the story. On a long night's watch, while the rest slept uneasily by the curt and useless fire they'd managed to build, Tygra told Panthro of his father's hidden loneliness. Panthro rumbled a deep chuckle, and informed Tygra that Claudus had not in fact kept that a secret. At all. Ever.
"I wouldn't say that he whined," Panthro said, the fire crackling and Snarf twitching in his sleep. Tygra thought the second unspoken half of that sentence was, "Because he was my lord and king and he could have banished me in a heartbeat."
"Grune and I both thought he just needed to get .... " Panthro harrumphed to himself and threw another thin branch onto the fire. "Anyway, it wasn't a secret."
When Tygra was little, he thought it was a secret, that Father kept his inner, lonely pain all to himself. "Then what happened?" he would ask, if the story had not yet moved on. Father would come back from whatever mental landscape he was visiting.
"Then one day, there came a great battle. The lizards were growing in strength, and attacked cat villages along the perimeter of our kingdom. Some fled, some stayed to fight. The young prince led a large force of his people into combat, and they routed the largest lizard army from a city miles from the walls of Thundera. During the battle, he was joined by a handful of the villagers who'd stayed to fight. The mightiest warrior was a woman of mixed clan. Her name was Silvermane."
Tygra always sighed a little, every time.
"Together, they broke the lizard army and drove them away. But the damage was done. The village was utterly in ruins, and her people left to choose between relocating to Thundera proper or starving. As the young prince swept away the last stragglers of the lizards, he plucked up the courage to ask after Silvermane's intentions in moving to his city.
"Even as the words left his mouth, another warrior approached, a mighty Tiger who himself had been fighting a great force of lizards on the opposite end of the village. He and Silvermane embraced, and she introduced the young prince to her husband Tygrus."
Tygra had only ever seen one image of Tygrus, painted on a summer's day by a wandering artist down in the slums. His face had been stern, but the artist had captured the quickness in his eyes, and the power of his muscles. The artist had skimped on Silvermane's muscles, making her slender and willowy, pressed lovingly against Tygrus's side like some appendage. Tygra had firm memories of her, the power in her arms and the wisdom in her mind, not what the artist thought was flattery by rendering her as some simpering toy. It made Tygra wonder what was incorrect about Tygrus, what manner of man he'd been that had been glossed over in hopes of gold.
"Tygrus and Silvermane helped their people collect what little they still possessed, and the young prince bade his own people to assist moving all the villagers to within the safe walls of the city. Daily he worked with the two leaders, and while his first impression of Tygrus had left him with a squirmy jealousy, they became fast friends, and soon the three were inseparable, each contributing his or her strength to complement the other two."
Father's eyes would grow soft here, and distant. As he'd grown, Tygra had uncovered trickles of rumors, had overheard more than one dirty joke between guards who did not know he was listening. As a prince, he could shrug them off. As the little cub he'd been, he could not remember a time when he had not known for certain how deeply and intensely Father had loved them both.
"For three perfect years, Thundera was at peace, and the young prince lived in harmony with his two dearest friends. But the lizards were once again massing their forces, and they lay siege to the city walls."
Tygra never wanted to cry at this part, but the great sorrow on Father's face pricked tears into his eyes, while Father recounted the battle won at so dear a cost. Would it have gone a different way had Silvermane been permitted to fight? The law was firm: no woman heavy with cub could go into battle, no matter how dire the stakes. Father had held Tygrus as he'd died, whispering goodbyes only the two of them ever heard. Silvermane had not been allowed onto the field until hours later.
"Silvermane wept for three days. I wept with her." Father pressed a gentle hand on Tygra's head. "She wore the deep blue mourning robes for a year, birthed you while wearing them. You were very small when you were born, weeks early but still so strong, and I swore to her, and to his memory, I would always love you as my own son. And I always will."
Tygra wiped his eyes with the back of one paw. He didn't remember much about his babyhood, his first memories starting after he could talk and run.
"I spent every possible day with you both. Your mother was still my closest confidante, and you were the light of our lives. In you, we saw the best of our beloved Tygrus. And when your mother's year of mourning passed, and she set her blue robes aside, I took her to the highest point in my city and asked her to be my wife."
Their wedding portrait hung in the royal bedroom. Many days Tygra had played bounce-on-the-bed until he'd fallen off, full of smiles, and he'd lain there on the good thick rug, panting and out of breath, looking at the picture of Father and Mother dressed in their finest robes. This artist had spared no lines for weakness, but had painted Mother as Father's equal in height and strength, a woman to be reckoned with and loved as fiercely as she in turn gave her love.
Tygra loved this story best of all, although the ending of the story always made him pout.
"And then," Father said, voice still full of warmth, "one day she came to me and said we were giving you a sibling, a brother to love and care for, to teach and to protect."
In the next room, the baby was asleep. Mother called Lion-O "the baby" for three years, and Tygra grumbled each time. He must be quiet, the baby was sleeping. He must be gentle, the baby was small and delicate. He must be understanding, the baby would be king. The baby cried, and it smelled funny, and Mother was tired every night from caring for it.
But Father was the wisest of all cats, and he smiled when he saw the scowl cross Tygra's little face, and he pressed loving lips to the top of his tufted head. "And sometimes too, you may feel a little squirmy jealousy for someone you don't think deserves what he has. But my darling boy, don't let that guide you. He may turn out to be the best friend you've ever had."
Mother always sang her stories.
Mother always told stories with happy endings.
Mother's favorite story was about a brave princess who went on a great quest for a magic ring. She defeated a dragon, rescued her people, and married the beautiful queen.
Mother taught her twin cubs to hide, to steal, to sing their own stories.
When Mother went out into the cold and didn't come back, they told each other the story of how she went to fight a dragon and find a queen to marry, and she'd be along any day. When she didn't come home, they changed the story: the dragon had defeated her but she'd given her life to save a village somewhere, and her beautiful queen was out there dressed in blue, mourning her. So that was all right.
Wily Kat told the story of El Dara far away that had streets paved with gold. Wily Kit told the story of Mother's beautiful queen who waited in the lost city for the pair of them, waiting to take two lonely cubs into her open arms.
Mother was back in the cold, dark room with them when they told Mother's stories to each other and sang Mother's songs, even though she'd died fighting that dragon.
Stories meant "I love you."
If Snarfs told stories, it was in their own language, secret and hidden, and no one knew what they said.
Lion-O always asked for the amazing stories, not warriors in bloody battle but spacemen with fascinating technology. "Please, Father, tell me about the spaceships that sailed in convoy from the planet, the one that was destroyed." Father would laugh, and swing Lion-O up onto his shoulder, when Lion-O was still light enough to swing, and he would say in his tale-telling voice:
"Once long ago in the days of old, there was a great and powerful world brought low by its pride. Its people mocked their gods and forgot their wisdom. They built palaces to their scientists, and created vast fields of technology, as big as a mountain."
"What did it do?"
"The technology. Was it for defense? Did it make a play?" Lion-O was unclear about this, but in his mind's eye he saw cats in robes and costumes performing the Punch-and-Jaga shows but seen across miles on great sheets of light and sound. Closer to home, he sometimes wondered if technology had nobler uses. "Was it medicine? Could it make Mother better?"
Father looked troubled. "No. None of that. Technology isn't useful, my son, it is a myth of primitive peoples who wished their lives were easier."
Father excused himself shortly after, and he went to the Healers. The chief Healer was a beautiful Puma, her kind face often drawn into seriousness and sorrow. She ever had a gentle manner for Lion-O and Tygra, and sometimes a sweet, but for Father she only had long words and no answers, and Mother sickened more each day.
Later in the evening, while Tygra was allowed to stay up and read by his favorite candle, Father tucked Lion-O into bed, and made him say his prayers to the gods, and ask for help for Mother and protection for all their people. This was their time, and Lion-O loved it.
"What about the mountain of technology?" Lion-O asked, sleepy as a kitten.
"What? Oh. The mountain. Yes. Vast it was, and full of devilish power. One day, the strength of the technology's power overcame the weakened favor of the gods, and the planet cracked. The people scrambled aboard boats made of metal and fled into the stars."
Lion-O had seen a picture of a boat once, with billowing sails and great oars. He pictured boats set adrift in space, gleaming in the starlight reflected off their silvery hulls, cats standing at the prow with their manes streaming in the space winds.
"Their metal boats saved them?"
"Their metal destroyed them. Many died on their road to sanctuary." Father didn't know more than this, but he liked to repeat the point that the technology had destroyed the world. Lion-O always thought the point was that it had saved the people's lives.
In the Lair's great library, Lion-O devoured every book and scroll he could find about technology, eyes squinting to make out mythical, powerful words he could barely read: electron, diode, capacitor. He found fairy tales, and sketches of half-myth: machines that could transport many cats across great distances, machines that could look inside a living body to see broken bones and disease.
Tygra found him as he painstakingly traced the pictures in the book of the seeing-inside-the-body machine. "Not this again."
"It's so amazing, Tygra. Look! They could see bones, and organs." He shoved his drawing at his brother. When he was much older, he understood his own copy was a child's rubbery mass of indistinct shapes based on an artist's fancy of a story. At the time, he thought it a precise schematic.
"You can see bones and organs on a battlefield," Tygra said. "Just open up the body and there they are." He made a scrunched-up dead face and extended his claws.
"But this can look inside! They can see if someone is sick, and then ...."
There were other machines, Lion-O was certain. He had to find the right book, discover the right lost piece of information. Technology could heal wounds. "Then it'll be better," he said in a mumble.
Tygra rolled his eyes, but did hold Lion-O's small hand as they padded from the library to the room where the Healer was with Mother. Lion-O clutched his picture in a firm grip. This had to work.
Jaga found them in the hallway. "Boys, there you are. You must hurry." He scooted their footsteps towards Mother's chamber. Father was already there, sitting beside Mother's bed, holding her hand and weeping. The Healer had drawn to the foot of the bed, her pretty face turned away.
Lion-O dropped his picture.
Days later, when his head cleared of the sad fog and all his brightly-colored playclothes had been replaced with blue, he looked for the lost paper, tiptoeing around the doorway to the very bad, very sad room, but he couldn't find it again. When he was older and going through Tygra's things while looking for a shirt he thought Tygra had taken without asking, he found his drawing, folded and placed with reverence in a box along with a tied lock of Mother's soft hair and the nuptial necklace from her first marriage.
In his own wobbly hand, Lion-O read, "Find the sickness inside machine," and he remembered sharply the story he'd told himself that he could find a way to make Mother well, remembered how he'd believed.
In Tygra's more precise handwriting was the date in the top right corner, and no other rejoinder was needed to tell him the story had been false.
Soldiers were old masters at filthy stories, and Panthro knew every one. If it involved two cats, or three, and a novel use for a long vegetable, or surprising someone who was expecting a handshake, or a cleric who was also a prostitute, he knew at least two versions by heart and had heard four more over drinks with the other soldiers.
Grune had loved those stories, and brought the worst ones home, laughing in that filthy way of his as he made the exaggerated hand gestures then fell half-drunk into his bunk.
In the darkness of this wasteland, traveling with these children, Panthro had a lot of time to think as he took the watch at night. He thought about the past, and about Grune, about Grune's dirty laugh and his big hands.
They'd been stupid stories anyway.
When she was a cub, Cheetara had no use for stories. Her people were refugees from a village fallen under the fist of a lizard assault, and her parents died when the lizards attacked the city. Unwanted, barely named or noticed, she was handed from caretaker to caretaker, one orphan among many, fed enough to survive and never more. Beds, when she had them, were blankets thrown in a corner and shared with two or three other unwashed cubs. Stories were lies told to the youngest cubs to keep them quiet. Cheetara ignored those, and closed her ears and slept. Like most in her situation, she walked away from the last caretaker when she was old enough to notice the smaller hands and bodies wriggling for food, and wise enough to understand she must find her own way.
The clerics taught her many stories, with the strict instruction that the stories were lessons, truths to be learned.
When she grew older, she learned how fortunate she was, truly. None of her caregivers had ever struck her, or forced her to labor, or worse. When she went out into the streets after her years of training locked away, she saw with new eyes the faces of young girls and boys, those who weren't as lucky. What story could possibly ease the hard lives they lived? What lie would make the terrible nights less horrifying and dark?
"There are laws," Jaga said, when she came to him full of anger. "Evidence can be brought, and charges filed."
"What evidence? What charges? The children are afraid of starving! They will lie."
Proof was impossible. But power was simple. In the streets at night came a new story, a quiet swift vengeance against those suspected of hurting the most tender and young. Waifs and outcasts told each other of their golden savior, quick as daylight, who watched over the orphans. Names were spoken. Truth was brought into the light. The children were frightened, but were braver with the story behind them.
Jaga never spoke of it to her, but she saw in his eyes a certain estimation, and approval.
The twin cubs who followed them on their own refugees' trek across Third Earth were orphaned years ago. They too were lucky enough, never coming under the control of a hard caregiver but left to fend for themselves on the streets after the death of their mother. The boy told stories of a magical city full of gold, and the girl listened and danced.
"I don't understand," Cheetara said out loud, watching them nestled together on a cold night.
"What's to understand?" Tygra asked her. He sat close by, but not so close as to impose upon her personal space. He was always this way: daring himself to approach her, pulling himself back before he did. The firelight turned his orange to gold.
"He's lying to her and to himself. There is no such place as El Dara."
"Are you sure?"
"The streets are paved with gold? All the food anyone could eat? It's a fairy tale."
"There's nothing wrong with fairy tales."
Cheetara frowned. "'Things that are untrue cloud the mind.' As a cleric, I am bound to the search for truth in all matters."
He stared at her, the light dancing on his face. "Jaga always said truth went deeper than facts. I never really understood that, but I think I see his point."
Her frown deepened. She was the one who had studied. Tygra wasn't stupid, was in fact quite intelligent, but Cheetara considered herself the expert on Jaga's teachings. "What do you think his point was?"
"What's the greater truth, the one that keeps you fighting, or the one that takes away all your hope? El Dara exists for Wily Kit and Wily Kat. As long as they believe in it, they will get up every morning and fight and live, hoping to find it someday. Lion-O spent our childhood believing in crazier things, and it turns out technology is very real."
She recalled following the young prince that first day, how his eyes lit up at the new find. He believed the old stories, the ones she had long ago dismissed as myths and lies. Her faith had been shaken each day since.
"I don't believe in impossible things."
Tygra shrugged. "Neither do I. I think every story has a grain of truth in it somewhere. Maybe El Dara as the kittens describe it is a myth, but once it was a Thunderian settlement with rich fields and gardens. Maybe technology isn't like magic, but was an old kind of learning now lost to us except in those stories Lion-O likes." He brushed a hand against the laser pistol he carried. "Siphon out the myths, find the truth inside."
Cheetara had no name, no clan. She didn't remember her parents. She didn't believe in fairy tales. But there had been children of Thundera who had walked the streets safer because of the story created around her. She was the grain of truth.
"What impossible story do you believe?" she asked Tygra, a twig popping in the heat of the fire.
The light caught his eyes, and it warmed his smile. "My favorite stories have always been the romantic ones. Good night." He settled in his own place by the fire and closed his eyes.
Something in the darkness moved through the underbrush, crackling under small feet, and moving off into the night. Cheetara sat the first watch, offering up her protection of the others as her duty and gift.
Her eyes passed over the sleeping forms by the fire: Panthro's bulk, and tiny Snarf, and the curled-up twins, and Lion-O not far from Tygra though neither would admit the comfort each took in the other's presence. The seven of them were in their own story now, a new story.
This was the place where the stories began.