Did Pumyra know her king? Of course she did. She was a slum girl; that didn't make her ignorant by trade. He might've been a prince when she'd shipped out and a young one at that, not really much more than a cub. Still. She'd caught his scent below the pit and thought it a delusion brought on by the heat, no shit-licking lion's coming to save you, soldier, then he'd come into the light and she'd known a lion had come after all. Thought she'd fall right in line, too, lesser cat come to heel like that half-assed mane of his meant anything other than he'd lived and left her patrol and the refugees they'd gathered to die in the desert.
In the small closet on the tank - a tank! Hells! Mumm-Ra had stinking, oiled up tanks - Pumyra stripped out of the thin, matted furs Dobo had allowed her. Another shackle, shed. The stench of the pit still clung to her, made her nose wrinkle and her tongue curl. Chances were she'd be smelling it a while yet, long after she'd washed it out of her own fur.
Pumyra scratched at her ears. So itchy. She pulled irritably at her ear tufts then, wincing, cradled her cheeks. Not so rough, kit, Pops would say; but Pops was dead. She felt at her cheekbones, tracing the skinny contours of her face. She'd lost weight in the Pit. Last she'd been proper fitting trim had been--when?
The closet door opened at her back, and Pumyra jumped. She turned round quick enough to catch a glance of Lion-O--the prince--the king, her king, catch up, soldier--as he looked up and his eyes went wide. She'd bet shells the fur on his ears stood on end.
"Uh!" said Lion-O. His voice went funny; it leapt an octave. He shoved an armful of clothes through the doorway. "I brought you clothes! Sorry!"
The door slammed shut again. Pumyra stared at it, then she toed the pile of garments he'd dropped on the floor. Regs. A size too big at that, she figured. The scent of him lingered, as he lingered. Probably too stunned to even run away.
"Ever heard of knocking?" Pumyra called. She checked the width of the trousers against her hips.
"I didn't think you'd be naked," Lion-O whispered fiercely. "You could've locked the door!"
"There's no lock on the inside," said Pumyra. She almost added "Kit-brain" to that, but managed to swap it out for "My king" at the last possible second.
"Well," said Lion-O, "I--told you to wait and I'd bring you clothes! So you should've waited!"
Was he fidgeting? Pumyra sniffed at the door, trying to suss him out. Had he really never seen a naked cat before her? The thought entertained more than it should. And here she'd thought the brat--the king--was the type to think things like that were owed him.
"Next time I'm naked, I'll try to give you advance warning, my king," said Pumyra gravely, thinking cub instead of king. Hey, they couldn't discharge her for what she thought. There wasn't anyone left to discharge her anyway.
She dressed quickly, looping the sash twice around her waist then knotting it to hold both jacket closed and trousers up. Not exactly to regulations, but then, soldiers were thin on the ground; wasn't like they could discharge her for that, either. Scratching idly at her ear, she popped the door open.
Lion-O was still there, lounging against the wall with his arms folded tightly across his chest. Was this sulking kitty cat really the same guy who had shed axe then shield before her in the ring, offered up his life as proof of intent? Strange, that that much nobility could be stuffed inside a lanky brat.
Pumyra tugged at her jacket and tipped her chin up. She pretty much had to if she wanted to look him in his face. Big cats. Tipping her chin higher, she said, "If you're hoping for another show, tough luck."
His shoulders hunched; his head dropped, just a bit. Was he bowing his head to her? Pumyra nearly laughed in his face.
"Sorry," Lion-O grumbled. "You're right. I should have knocked." The claws of his gauntleted left hand worked, tapping nervously against his lean biceps.
Maybe she shouldn't have done what she did then, but who was around to stop her? Who could have stopped her? Months slaving in the Pit had changed things for Pumyra, more than even the fall of Thundera and the loss of her patrol had changed her understanding of the world. How much lower could she fall?
Pumyra stepped right up into him, closer than she'd any right to be to any big cat. Leaning up on her toes, she pushed into his face. His eyes were big again, big and oddly blue, and he pulled back like he was losing ground, like Pumyra was on the offensive. Maybe she was.
"Don't worry, cub," she said. "I won't hold it against you. But you owe me one now."
"I'm not a cub," he snapped, and yeah, all right, he wasn't at that. She could smell it on him. He had that heavy big cat smell, but up close, there was something else to it, something sweet laid underneath the pungency that made her want to stick her nose in his throat and take a whiff.
Pumyra thought, Whoa, soldier, and stepped back.
"And besides," said Lion-O, growing strident, "you tried to kill me."
Pumyra sniffed. "You could have fought back. And besides," she said, purposefully teasing, "I thought you had a point to prove."
"Yeah, I did," he said. "But that doesn't change the fact that you tried to kill me!"
Pumyra started down the small hallway, back towards the main bay of the tank. Panthro might not have been in charge of her division, but he was the nearest thing she had to a commanding officer. Lion-O trailed after her. She didn't bother looking over her shoulder. She didn't need to.
"I didn't kill you, though," Pumyra told him. At the top of the short stairs leading to the bay, she paused. "But you're right. I could have." She eyed him, how he stood with his shoulders bent and arms loose, even with a sword strapped to his hip. "Didn't anyone ever teach you how to fight?"
She pushed through the door before he could do more than puff up. The answer was obvious, anyway; if she hadn't the proof of it from their bout in the ring, she'd reports enough from other soldiers of city gossip. "The crown prince is a lackwit, never trains." "Shame his brother can't be king."
Not a lackwit, she thought as she snapped off a salute (palm upraised, claws spread wide) to the general Panthro; but he hadn't trained, either. That was certainly clear.
"General, sir!" said Pumyra. "Pumyra of the Concolor Clan, Private of the Fourth Patrol."
"At ease," said Panthro. He looked amused, briefly. "I haven't had any soldiers under my command in years. Fourth Patrol, huh? Where were you guys at?"
"Under advisement from General Lynx-O, the king--" Pumyra sucked at her tongue. Lion-O had gone quiet beside her; she didn't turn. The dead were dead. "The late king Claudus restationed us southwest of the Sandsea."
Panthro's heavy brow lifted. "That far out?"
Pumyra shrugged. As a private, it hadn't been her business to understand or question orders.
"I don't know, either," Lion-O admitted.
Tygra spoke up; he and the two tailed cubs had been playing at dice near the opened hold.
"Father was planning to open a new trade route through the frontier," he said, then he tossed the dice. The girl cub--WilyKit?--clapped at his throw; her brother groaned. "In a few years, we were going to push into the southern territories."
"That's wolf turf," said Lion-O, sounding startled. "We could never hold on to that."
"That's why we were going to trade first," said Tygra.
Lion-O was frowning then; he smelled, strangely, combative. "Why didn't I ever hear about this?"
"No fair!" said WilyKit. "You swapped the dice."
"I did not!" protested WilyKat.
"You didn't want to hear about it," said Tygra calmly over this. There was a bone of accusation somewhere in it, but he said it plainly, as a fact. "You never cared about Father's efforts to expand the peace."
"Conquering other peoples isn't expanding peace," Lion-O snarled.
Tygra looked up at this. His eyes narrowed. "That wasn't why you didn't listen. You didn't care either way."
The cubs, squalling hotly now, fell over into Tygra's lap; whatever else he might have said dropped away. He bent to sort them out. Pumyra, uncertain of where she was to stand, glanced over at Lion-O. His fur was puffed out around his mouth, but he was looking down and away, as if shamed.
"We did see a lot of wolves," Pumyra said cautiously into the sounds of domestic arguing. "But we didn't see any real action until the lizards came."
"You had no warnings?"
That was Cheetara, coming in from the sand outside. Pumyra hadn't heard her approach, hadn't thought to smell for her. Cheetara shook out her cloak, and the cubs shrieked at her for getting grit on them.
Pumyra shook her head. "Not until the first wave of refugees. They came from the farmlands a ways north of us. They told us the lizards were torching the farms and that the king was dead. They said--" The bitter laugh came up again. "--that Mumm-Ra led the lizards."
"You didn't believe them," said Lion-O.
"Of course we believed them," Pumyra snarled. Snarled at her king with a general right there, but what in all the hells did she care? "They still stank of the smoke. The lizards were burning the farms, yeah, we believed them. Maybe the king was dead, too. What did we know? We were frontier soldiers. But Mumm-Ra?" She laughed then, couldn't help it. "I didn't even believe Mumm-Ra had ever lived."
"He lives," said Lion-O grimly. "Believe me now."
"I know he lives!" she snapped at him. Gods! She knew. She knew. "He came personally to make sure the frontier patrols knew he was living."
"Private!" said Panthro. Said the general. She stiffened, stood up straight, stuck her chin up high, high. "You said patrols."
"Yes, sir!" said Pumyra. She stared at the top of his head, at the ceiling of the tank just above him, anywhere but at Lion-O breathing, breathing beside her. Anywhere but at her king. "The captain moved us out with the refugees after our scouts came back with confirmation that the lizards were on the move."
"Onca, sir," said Pumyra. She stared blankly. Remembered the captain's fur, burning. Electricity in the air pulling her fur on end, stinging her tongue. "Killed in action. That was after we'd met up with the Eighth Patrol and what was left of the Hell's Cauldron Division. We went around the farmlands picking up all the survivors we could find."
"You said Mumm-Ra came," said Lion-O. "Where?"
Panthro said, "My king--" but Pumyra answered him.
"Fifty miles south of the Pit," she said shortly. "We were bringing them through the deserts to the Grey Wolf Clans. The wolves had agreed to house the survivors while we searched for other patrols."
"You were going to leave refugees with the wolves?" Tygra's voice rose.
"We had no choice," Pumyra said, turning sharply. "And the wolves were there. Which is more than I can say for either of you." She bared her teeth at Tygra, but it was Lion-O to whom she aimed her ire.
Cheetara, ever calm, broke in as Tygra's fur began to stick out. "Did the wolves betray you?" she asked. The cubs had split, WilyKat to Cheetara, WilyKit still with Tygra. Both cubs looked up to Pumyra, their eyes wide, their tails lashing.
"I don't know," said Pumyra. She was tired, suddenly. Too little sleep, too little food for months on end. "But the lizards killed most of the soldiers. Some of the refugees, too. They took the rest to Mount Plun-darr.
"We tried to protect them," she said. She looked to Panthro when she said it. She needed him to understand. Needed him to know. "We weren't strong enough."
"You did the best you could do," said Panthro.
Pumyra shook her head slowly. How could she say it? There had been cubs among the refugees. Kittens. A few of the older cats had been soldiers once; most had only ever been farmers. They'd been three days out from the Grey Wolf Clan's protection. And Mumm-Ra, she thought. Mumm-Ra had come out of the dark, and they had all of them fallen.
"It wasn't enough," she said. That wasn't enough, either.
A hand settled on her shoulder. Pumyra's head snapped up. Lion-O, his claws just brushing her arm, startled. His jaw worked. His eyes dropped.
"I should have been there," he said. It was more than she'd expected of him.
Pumyra laughed; it came out half a bark. Too much time at the Pit. "You couldn't have changed it. We had thirty cats from Hell's Cauldron, each of them worth four times as much of you in battle." She was growling now, nearly roaring. She didn't care. "Thirty! What could you do that they couldn't?"
"Soldier," said Panthro warningly.
"It's all right," said Lion-O to Panthro, and she laughed again. All right! As if any of it was all right!
Her king looked down to her, and gods, hells, Mumm-Ra in the shadows, but he was young. He was so tall, but he was young. He was nearly grown, but he was young. He was young and he was untrained, and he was her king. Her king looked down to her, and he touched the hilt of the sword strapped to his hip with his gauntleted hand. As he touched the hilt, a jewel set in the gauntlet flashed; a jewel set in the hilt flashed.
"I've defeated Mumm-Ra before," said Lion-O. "The Sword of Omens is powerful beyond measure. And Mumm-Ra is weak against the Eye of Thundera."
"We have faced Mumm-Ra many times," said Cheetara. "Each time, Lion-O has pushed him back."
And Tygra, quiet, said, "It's true."
Perhaps if she had waited, Panthro would have chimed in as well, another loyal subject to the king. But she did not wait. It was the faint smile on Lion-O's face that broke her; it was the steadiness of his eyes on her. Be glad, poor soldier, for your king is here, and with him comes salvation.
Pumyra punched him in the throat. Lion-O fell back, gagging, his hands at his neck.
"Stand down, soldier!" Panthro roared.
And there were arms around her then, thick, strong arms striped all the way around. Tygra, brother to the king. Pumyra was very still.
"Don't worry," she said to Lion-O, fallen to his knees before her. He looked up to her then, as she had looked up to him. "I said I wouldn't kill you. And I won't."
"Watch your tongue," growled Tygra in her ear. His arms were tight about her. Cheetara, crouched beside Lion-O, looked up to Tygra and shook her head minisculely once.
"You can let go," Pumyra said. Her throat hurt with it. "I won't hit him again."
"Let her go," Lion-O rasped. His claws were at his throat. He pulled back from Cheetara's hand, ghosting over his shoulder. His eyes, downcast, flicked up then.
Tygra's grip loosened, not much, but enough. Pumyra twisted free. Her head pounded; she left it alone.
"Pardon me, my king," she said shortly. She bowed perfunctorily.
"Wait," said Lion-O, reaching out to her as he made to stand. "I still need to talk to you about--"
Pumyra bounded out the hold and into the desert heat. It was easy to do. None of them followed her. If she had struck at the crown prince but a year before, they would have had her head on the walls of Thundera. The world was roiling about her, but that was only the desert wind throwing up sand. The earth was as it had been; the sun was in its place.
The cubs came to her first. They were little things, bushy-eared and with bushy tails. They'd Concolor in them somewhere, she'd wager, a ways back but in there. They had the look of her clan in their faces. She was crouching in the sand in the shadow of the tank when the cubs peeked around the edge at her.
"I won't bite," she said tiredly.
She'd a hand at her brow, shading her eyes; even in the tank's vast shadow, the day was so very bright. The cubs were whispering to each other, glancing at her then away again as they conferred at a distance. Pumyra sighed noisily and the cubs jumped.
"If you wanted to say something, hurry up," she called to them. "I promise not to snap at you."
The cubs shared a look. The little girl cub bit her lip, and the little boy cub nodded at her. They clasped paws, tiny fingers knitting together; holding each other steady, they came forward on light claws.
"You said you found refugees from the farmlands." The boy first, then the sister. Their high voices blended; they had the slurred consonants of the western plains. "Did you meet a tall lady cat called Rmanie? She smells like bread." "She'd have two cubs with her, really little ones." "They're almost kittens," said WilyKit, nearly a kitten herself.
Pumyra dropped her hand. In the tank's vast shadow, the cubs' tails lashed.
"That's your family, huh," said Pumyra.
"Did you see them?" WilyKat demanded.
She shook her head once. "Mm-mm. I'm sorry, cubs."
Their ears drooped. WilyKit's tail stopped lashing. Then her brother's stopped, too.
"It's okay," he said.
"It's not your fault," she said. "We just thought we'd ask."
"Maybe they got out before the lizards came," WilyKat said to his sister. "Maybe they didn't even get to the farm."
Two little faces turned up to Pumyra. The question hung there, a stone before her.
"Yeah," she said. "Maybe. There's a lot of farmland."
She looked at their paws, so very small. Round faces, big eyes and bigger ears. Hardly even cubs.
"Hey," Pumyra said as they started back to the hold. "How long have you been traveling with these guys?"
The cubs paused. WilyKit tipped her head back, to the left. WilyKat tipped his head back, to the right. Their eyes rolled up. Kit looked at Kat, still thinking.
"Since the start," she said. "We met them outside the city."
WilyKat nodded. "Yup. We followed them from Thundera. All the way to the Sandsea! And then we kept going."
"Lion-O told us we shouldn't, but we did anyway," WilyKit confessed to Pumyra. "He was really mean, too."
WilyKat crossed his eyes and pitched his voice low. "'Go away, cubs! Scram! I have to fight Mumm-Ra! You're gonna be in my way!'"
WilyKit started laughing, her nose wrinkling. "Like that! He's not really mean anymore."
"Maybe not to you," WilyKat muttered.
"He doesn't get as mad as he used to," WilyKit argued. "He shouts lots less."
"But he's still fun to tease," WilyKat hurried to note. "He's re-e-eally gullible."
WilyKat sighed sadly and shook his head. Humming, WilyKit shook her head, too. Amused despite herself, Pumyra rested her cheek in her palm and said, "Aren't you worried he'll throw you in a dungeon?"
"Not Lion-O," scoffed WilyKit. She rolled her eyes again. "Maybe Panthro..."
"Definitely Panthro," said WilyKat. "But Lion-O's just Lion-O."
"Yeah!" said Kit. "He's like a big, kind of dopey brother."
"A big, really dopey brother," said Kat.
"What are you cubs doing out here?"
They all of them looked up. Cheetara leaned over the side of the tank. Her mane, a fairy gold spackled with dark spots, gleamed like a halo about her head.
"We're just talking," said WilyKat, and WilyKit nodded and hummed again.
"Well, hurry up and get inside," said Cheetara. "You have to help Tygra with the cleaning, remember?"
"Ugh!" groaned Kat.
"Do we have to?" moaned Kit.
Blithely, Cheetara said, "That's the deal, cubs." She chittered her claws against the metal, urging them on. "Hurry up, up."
"But it's boring!"
"And Panthro says we can't make music anymore," Kit said mournfully, but the cubs scrambled up the side of the tank, using the nearest wheel well as a springing board. They vanished over the edge.
"Smart cubs," said Pumyra.
"They are," Cheetara agreed. She lingered there, golden-bright in the sunlight.
"You're a cleric, aren't you?" Pumyra asked.
Cheetara smiled. "Yes. How did you know?"
Pumyra looked to her hands. "The Hells' Division had a cleric with them. She was a lot like you. Really calm. She kept the rest of us steady."
The captain, burning. Cleric Lynax shouting-- But Pumyra had been too far to hear what she had said. It hadn't mattered. Mumm-Ra had slain Lynax regardless. In the end, all her serenity had amounted to nothing.
Sand skittered across Pumyra's toes. She curled her claws in. Wrapped her arms around her knees.
"Did you wish to speak of it?" Cheetara asked softly.
"No," said Pumyra.
Cheetara said, "Mumm-Ra must never possess the Eye of Thundera. We must keep the Sword of Omens and the Book from him. No matter the cost."
Pumyra rounded on her, glaring up into that blinding knot of sunlight shining in Cheetara's mane.
"Even if we all die?" she spat.
"Even then," said Cheetara. "Lion-O is our king, and he alone wields the Sword of Omens."
"He might be my king," said Pumyra. "That doesn't mean I want to die for him."
"Would you have died for your comrades?" asked Cheetara. "Would you die for Thundera?"
Pumyra turned away. "I don't want to die at all. Not anymore."
"Tell me," said Cheetara.
Pumyra grit her teeth. Her incisors bit into her lip. "There's nothing to tell."
Cheetara was quiet a moment. The wind brushed at Pumyra's face, licked hotly at her dry and itching ears. Already the over-sized regulation clothes Lion-O had brought her felt dirty.
"If you dam a river," said Cheetara, "the water will run over the banks. But if you guide the river and do not stopper it, you may be sure of its path.
"Tell me," Cheetara said.
Pumyra dropped her face to her knees. Her breath stung in her chest.
"I should have died."
"Why do you say that?"
"My captain died," Pumyra said. "The lieutenants died. Everyone died."
"But you didn't," said Cheetara gently.
"I should have," said Pumyra, and it hurt to say. It hurt to know. "I would have, too, if the dogs hadn't found me."
"They saved you."
"Yeah," said Pumyra, "they saved me. Then they enslaved me. And--all those refugees--" Her throat was closing up quickly now. She'd always been too easily overwhelmed with emotion; she sprung leaks, Pops used to say.
"You feel that you've failed them," Cheetara said.
"I know that I've failed them!" Pumyra slammed her fists back against the tank. The metal was too solid; she only hurt her hands. She breathed in. Breathed in again. "At the very least I should have died doing my duty."
Cheetara sighed. "And what good would that have done? You wouldn't be here now."
"Better than fighting for someone else's entertainment. If he can stop Mumm-Ra," Pumyra said, "why hasn't he? If he can kill that monster, why is Mumm-Ra still alive?"
Limned in sunlight, Cheetara only shook her head. Her mane shivered. Her face was too shadowed for Pumyra to make out her expression.
"Mumm-Ra is still too powerful," said Cheetara.
Pumyra laughed brokenly. She passed her hands over her eyes, wiping at them.
"We will defeat him," said Cheetara. "So long as Lion-O wields the Sword of Omens, we still have a chance."
"That kid?" Pumyra stared across the desert, at the distant hump of Mount Plun-darr. "He doesn't even know how to fight."
"Perhaps," Cheetara suggested, "you could teach him."
She hunched her shoulders. "I don't want to be some footnote in his legend."
"Perhaps you won't be a footnote," said Cheetara. "Perhaps you'll have your own legend. Perhaps," and now she'd gone sharp, "there are more important things than who will be remembered and who will be forgotten."
Pumyra closed her eyes.
"You remember them, don't you?"
"Yeah," said Pumyra. She didn't open her eyes.
"So live," said Cheetara. "So they won't be forgotten."
Pumyra stayed there, huddled in the shadow of the tank, as Cheetara slipped back down inside. She stayed a while after, too. Where could she go? She'd never run from anything in her life. Not a fight. Not a licking. Not an order. All she'd ever been good for was wrecking things, and now she'd been wrecked.
When Lion-O came to her, she wasn't all that surprised.
"I didn't think you'd take so long," she said to her feet. She'd her arms draped around her head, blocking the sun from her eyes. The smell of him was too strong for her. She didn't know why it should bother her; she'd lived in her own filth for months now.
"Are you going to try to kill me every time I try to talk to you?"
He was so young--but then, she wasn't all that grown herself.
"I'll try not to," she said, lifting her head.
Lion-O settled beside her, his long legs spread out before him. He'd left a space between them, and she was, absurdly, grateful to him for it. He smelled like dust and that sweet thing. She wished he'd sat further from her.
"I'm sorry I wasn't there," he said.
"I'm sorry I punched you in the neck," she said.
He rubbed at his throat. "I really don't think you are."
She looked to his knees, his feet. Away from the sword, away from the gauntlet, away from his bright eyes.
"I'm a little sorry," she said.
"Well," said Lion-O, "I, uh, hereby pardon you. Or whatever. So go forth absolved of your sins."
Pumyra eyed him. "You could just say apology accepted."
"I'm king," he said, shrugging.
"Yeah," said Pumyra. "You are."
He was. She'd known it before, sworn it in the Pit before the assemblage. Now, with Lion-O sprawled out beside her, his fur a burnished wheat gold in the tank's deepening shadow, she knew it again.
She couldn't bring back the dead, but she could remember them.
Pumyra clapped her hands on her thighs and pushed upright. Lion-O tipped his head back to look at her.
"If you're going to be king," she told him, "you're going to learn how to be a king."
"I've had tutors my whole life," he started, and Pumyra reached down, grabbed his arm, and hauled him up. She'd enough momentum to get him up off his ass, anyway; he had to manage the rest of it himself. He wasn't half as big as Panthro, and he wasn't nearly as big as Tygra, either, but he was still damned heavy. As he stood, he staggered against her. He smelled like--
Pumyra shoved him back, and he hit his head against the tank. Lion-O said, "Whiskers!" and, clutching his head, bent over.
Pumyra continued: "And you didn't listen to any of them. You didn't even know how to handle a shield properly."
She held her hand out to Lion-O as he peered up at her, his blue eyes crinkled.
"Come on," Pumyra said to her king. "We've got a lot of work to do."