17 October 04

Three Ladies

Michael H. Payne

Illustration by Conrad "Lynx" Wong

“But consider.” The Lord Springbok hopped past the Lady Lioness and touched a hoof to the map, its contours changing. “A major river running right through the heart of the veldt.”

A snort from the left side of the room made the Lady Lioness sigh, the Lord Elephant lumbering to his feet. “It’s a veldt, Springbok, not a savannah. Though I doubt your ilk sees the vital differences between the two.”

Everywhere, ears dropped, the Lady Lioness’s stomach clenching. “Please, colleagues,” she said. “We’re so close.”

“Yes.” The Lord Springbok glared at the Lord Elephant. “Though if those Big Ears had their way, we—”

“If?” The Lord Elephant stomped, the grassy floor shaking. “You mean ‘when,’ Little Claw!”

From the right side of the room, the Lady Elephant rose. “Does my Lord need to be restrained?”

“By whom, traitor?” The Lords and Ladies around the Lord Elephant sprang to their paws and hoofs. “Your rabble?”

“Colleagues!” the Lady Lioness shouted, but it was the roar from beside her that shut every snout and beak.

The Lord Lion settled back, his lip curled. “This committee will come to order,” he growled.

“A suggestion.” The Lady Lioness moved to the map, her mind racing, popped a claw, and poked the features around. “Shifting these mountains will alter the rainfall patterns and allow small streams to form. They’ll be seasonal, of course, and will vary from mere trickles to more substantial flows.” She turned to the others. “Comments?”

The committee members looked past her at the map, their eyes narrow, and the Lady Lioness held her breath.

Then: “Yes,” the Lord Springbok said. “This design addresses our concerns.”

The Lord Elephant waved his trunk. “The other was fine, but I have no objection to this.”

It took all the Lady Lioness’s self-control not to start dancing. “If you’ll all please sign, then, our work will be done.” She summoned the silvery fire of her Curial Privilege and shot it into the map, the others doing the same to seal the plans with their own energy signatures. “A week ahead of deadline, too. Thank you all for your service.” She bowed.

Everyone bowed back, and the Lord Springbok made for the door on the right, the Little Claws following, the Big Ears glowering at them. Then the rest of the room emptied through the door on the left, the Lord Elephant staying, shaking his head. “Odd folks, those Little Claws. Couldn’t even stop to thank you, my Lord and my Lady, for chairing the committee.”

The Lord Lion didn’t say anything, so the Lady Lioness made herself smile up at the Lord Elephant. “It was an honor working with so many dedicated individuals,” she said.

The Lord Elephant nodded. “And I certainly hope you’re both still considering our offer. They may call us Big Ears, but we do have big plans for the—”

“Yes.” The Lord Lion’s lip curled, his voice a rumble. “Plans that go against everything this Curia stands for.”

“On the contrary.” The Lord Elephant held up his trunk. “All the power we’ve been given to create this planet, why should we return it once the world is built? Think how much we can help our brothers and sisters down on the Earth if we remain in session here above. It’s like the Lord Jaguar says: we shall be doing the work we were chosen to do, solving problems as they arise, keeping this new Earth safe, and—”

The Lady Lioness couldn’t stop a snort. “Setting yourselves up in the god business. No, thank you, my Lord.”

Silence for a moment, the Lord Elephant’s eyes getting hard again, then he turned and clomped from the room.

A ragged sigh from the Lord Lion. “Too old for this,” he whispered, rubbing his throat. “Think I tore something loose with that last roar.” He smiled at her and stroked his throat. “Give me a few minutes to rebuild my voice box, and I’ll meet you out on the Common.”

She took a long whiff of his wonderful scent. “We’ll hit the Watering Hole. I’m buying.”

“My Lady…” He touched her paw. “It’s a date.”

Nuzzling him, she turned and made for the door, her shoulders loose for the first time in longer than she liked to think about. The plans were in—veldts she’d be happy to go down and live on—and with 90% of the committees done, by next week the Curia would be ready to start building the new Earth.

Along the bamboo-thatched corridor, around a corner, and the Lady Lioness started out onto the Common, the whole green expanse bright with sunlight even though stars shone in the blackness overhead. Not real sunlight, of course, not the way it would be on the planet. And the grass in this simulated world had never felt right to her. Most of all, though, she missed blue sky….

She sighed, the low chatter from the balconies up the sides of the dome mixing with the buzz of the folks out on the grass, a group of cetaceans lolling in the lagoon to her left. Ah, yes: she should check in with the Lady Dolphin, see how—

“Nessie!” The Lady Leopardess bounded up, her white fur gleaming. “We did it! Every mountain habitat on the planet!”

The Lady Lioness did a quick calculation. “That brings us to 93% completion, I think.”

“At least!” The Lady Leopardess slowed to match the Lady Lioness’s pace. “Leopard says even the Savannah committee’s ready to agree: the Lord and Lady Jaguar barely argue anymore, they’re so busy recruiting for their factions.”

“Factions.” The Lady Lioness stopped, her tail flicking, that tightness coming over her shoulders again. “Damn them, Pardess! I wish I knew what they were really up to!”

The Lady Leopardess blinked. “Up to?”

The Lady Lioness settled into the grass. She hadn’t mentioned her concerns even to the Lord Lion while the committee was meeting, but now they bubbled up, wouldn’t be denied. “The Big Ears and the Little Claws. Since they’re both after the same thing, why do they argue so much?”

“What?” The Lady Leopardess sat, too. “But the Little Claws want the smaller committees to have more say in—”

“That’s just procedural.” The Lady Lioness waved a paw. “I mean staying in session even after the Earth is built.”

“Oh, yeah.” The Lady Leopardess’s nose wrinkled. “I like some of the Little Claw Manifesto, but that’s just plain wrong.”

“Is it?” came a quiet, familiar voice, and the Lady Lioness had to smile to see the Lady Tigress stretching herself out beside them. “While I’m happy to hear you have sympathy for our faction, Pardess, I can’t help wondering why you think keeping the Curia in session would be wrong.”

The Lady Leopardess sighed. “Section 3 of the Charter, Gressa. We have to give up our Curial Privilege once the planet’s built so we can join our folks on the new Earth.”

“Someone else who knows the Charter.” The Lady Tigress inclined her head. “You and I are rare individuals, sister.”

The Lady Lioness laughed. “Don’t tease her, now.”

“Tease?” The Lady Tigress widened her eyes and touched a paw to her chest. “Nessie, I’m shocked that you’d think me capable of such a thing, especially toward our learned young Pardess.” She looked back at the Lady Leopardess. “Though perhaps you don’t know that the Charter can be changed?”

“Well of course it can.” The Lady Leopardess tapped the ground. “But on so basic a point, there’d need to be a vote of all the folks everywhere—not just in the Curia.”

“Ah.” The Lady Tigress leaned forward. “But we Lords and Ladies were elected to represent all folks everywhere. So we have the legal power to decide this matter for them.”

“Gressa…” The Lady Leopardess’s mouth went sideways. “Section 31 plainly says that our duties are limited to making the new Earth. You know that. Anything else would activate Section 64, paragraph 19, subsection D, where it says—”

“Enough, Pardess, enough.” The Lady Tigress glanced at the Lady Lioness. “I’d say our mutual teacher still has you firmly in paw. I suppose I’ll have to come up with another argument.” She grinned. “And how’s Lon these days?”

The Lady Lioness smiled back. “He should be along any minute, actually. And Tiger?”

The Lady Tigress laughed. “Hasn’t spoken to me since I declared for Little Claw: best move I ever made. You must see him more often than I do, the way you’re both non-aligned.”

“Not really.” The Lady Lioness shrugged. “We don’t have meetings like you folks. We’re the mainstream, after all.”

“And yet,” came another voice, “you are fewer every day.”

The Lady Lioness winced, the Lady Jaguar padding across the grass, an expansive smile under her whiskers. “Tigress, you didn’t tell me you were meeting with our distinguished colleague today.”

“Yes, well,” the Lady Tigress said, the strain in her voice unmistakable to the Lady Lioness’s ear. “I didn’t plan it, just happened upon them, really….”

“Really?” The Lady Jaguar sat, her calculating gaze making the fur rise on the Lady Lioness’s neck. “How fortunate. I’ve been hoping to have a chat with you, Lioness.”

The Lady Leopardess cleared her throat. “About something other than the Little Claws, I hope.”

The Lady Jaguar didn’t look at her, but the coldness behind her smile grew. “There’s still time for you to join the winning side, you know.”

“Winning?” The Lady Lioness couldn’t keep the edge from her voice. “Is there some contest going on, my Lady?”

This time, the Lady Jaguar’s smile wavered a bit. “Oh, just the usual.” She waved a paw, but her nonchalance, the Lady Lioness could see, was as phony as her smile. “Good against evil, right against wrong: that sort of thing.”

“Huh.” The Lady Leopardess scratched an ear. “This gets more ominous by the minute, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.” The Lady Lioness rose, fixed her eyes on the Lady Jaguar. “My Lady, it seems to me that you’ve lost sight of what we are: one assembly of equals united for a single purpose. No contests, no sides, no winning—except when we get the new Earth together and join our folks upon it. That’s all we’re supposed to do, my Lady, and all I plan on doing.”

The Lady Jaguar didn’t even try to keep her smile in place, her whole face darkening. “If you’re not for me, Lioness, you’re against me.” She turned and stalked away through the grass. “Tigress! We have a meeting!”

The Lady Tigress sighed, rolled her eyes at the Lady Lioness, and hurried to join the Lady Jaguar crossing the Common to a corridor, folks gathered around the entrance. They parted to let the two big cats through, then they all followed. It was quite a large crowd.

“I forgot to tell you,” the Lady Leopardess said softly, the Lady Lioness still watching all the folks file into the corridor. “The Lord and Lady Panda declared for the Big Ears right after our committee ratified the last habitat. They were the only non-aligned folks other than me on our whole committee.”

And a shiver passed through the Lady Lioness’s fur.

 

Voices rose to the balcony where the Lady Leopardess crouched, the Curial Chamber full, Little Claws on the right, Big Ears on the left. But nowhere in the vast hall… She stepped back and turned to face the others in the alcove. “I don’t see them.”

“Good.” At the other end of the alcove, the Lady Lioness looked out into the corridor. “If I can catch Gressa—”

“Why?” The Lady Squirrel slashed at the wall, left gashes in the marble. “She’s one of them!” Silver fire in her fur, she waved at the balcony. “Three generations have already been born on our Earth while those idiots keep us in session! And today they’ll vote to make it permanent!”

“Yes.” The Lord Eft huddled gray against the floor, the Lady Leopardess just able to see him. “It’s all gone wrong.”

“No.” The Lady Lioness got that determined look on her face. “If I can talk to Gressa, she can—”

“Don’t count on it.” The Lord Lion rounded the corner into the alcove. “No one’ll tell me anything, and the tension…” His ears flicked. “After the vote, I’m afraid to imagine what’s going to happen.”

“Madness,” said the Lord Eft, his eyes clenched. “Shouting. Screaming. Horror. Wrong, all gone wrong…”

A scent stroked the Lady Leopardess’s whiskers, and her heart leaped. “Excuse me.” She rushed out into the hallway to see the Lord Leopard, his ears as low as the Lord Lion’s. Hurrying forward, she rubbed her cheek against his.

His sigh ruffled her ear. “It’s ugly, Pardess.”

She stepped back, looked into the deep jade of his eyes. “Lep, what’re we going to do?”

“Hope.” He touched her face, his paw always so gentle. “Hope the factions will keep talking and listening to each other, hope we can be the voice of reason between them, hope some compromise is still possible.”

“An admirable sentiment.” The Lord Tiger padded past. “But an unlikely one. Come along now, children.”

The Lady Leopardess nodded and followed, the Lord Leopard beside her, the Lord Tiger stepping into the alcove. “It’s worse than I expected,” he said then. “The factions have abandoned the Charter entirely.”

“Abandoned the Charter?” The Lady Leopardess could only stare for a moment. “But…but…they can’t!”

“That’s it!” The Lady Squirrel stomped forward, her Privilege making her seem larger than she was. “We collapse the Curia and be done with these vermin once and for all!” She clenched her paws into fists. “If all twelve of us—”

“Eleven now,” came the Lord Kit Fox’s voice, and he entered the alcove, the Lady Dolphin floating silvery behind him, her fins around the Lady Raven who was crying into her wings.

The Lord Lion jumped to his paws. “What is it?”

The Lord Kit Fox crooked a claw over his shoulder. “The Lord Raven. He just declared for Little Claw.”

“He didn’t even tell me,” the Lady Raven go out between sobs. “I…I heard some of them laughing with him, congratulating him on joining the winning side….” She wiped her eyes. “I can’t believe it….”

For a moment, no one said anything, the Lady Leopardess’s mind churning: abandon the Charter? How could they?

The Lord Lion’s growl brought her back. “Eleven, then.” He jerked his chin at the Lord Kit Fox. “Where’s Armadillo?”

The Lord Kit Fox gestured toward the balcony, a ghost of a smile under his whiskers. “He said he’d save our seats.”

Another snort from the Lady Squirrel. “So we’ll be right in the middle when the war starts.”

“No!” The Lady Leopardess sprang to her paws. “We’ve gotta do something!”

“Too late.” The Lord Eft’s soft voice cut like a knife. He raised one foot, claws pointed upward. “This last true meeting of the Curia will end in blood.”

Into the silence, the Lord Kit Fox gave a laugh. “Well, at least it won’t be as boring as usual.”

The Lady Leopardess stared at him until the Lady Lioness said, “All right. Lon, you and the others get down there. I’ll try to catch Gressa. Maybe she can stop the…” Her eyes darted to where the Lord Eft crouched, then she looked back at the Lord Lion. “I’ve got to try.”

“Can I—?” The Lady Leopardess stopped, not wanting to get in the way, but… “Gressa cares about the Charter. Maybe I can, I don’t know, help talk to her.”

A slow smile spread through the Lady Lioness’s whiskers. “Of course, Pardess.”

The Lord Lion nodded and led the others out of the alcove. The Lady Leopardess sighed and turned to the Lady Lioness. “So what’re we gonna say?”

“I have no idea.” The Lady Lioness moved into the hall and stopped, the Lady Leopardess joining her, following her gaze to see the Lady Jaguar, the Lady Tigress, and their entourage heading toward them.

The Lady Jaguar’s whiskers curled into the most condescending smile the Lady Leopardess had ever seen. “Lioness. Come to your senses at last?”

“Funny,” the Lady Lioness answered. “I was about to ask you the same question.”

The smile dissolved like dirt in water, and the Lady Leopardess’s fur bristled at the hatred that flooded the Lady Jaguar’s face. “Your non-aligned status won’t save you after the vote, Lioness. You’re in my camp or in my enemy’s.”

The Lady Tigress cleared her throat, but the Lady Jaguar whirled on her. “Something to say, Tigress?” she hissed.

Fire flashed in the Lady Tigress’s eyes, but she looked away so quickly, the Lady Leopardess wasn’t sure she’d really seen it. “No,” the Lady Tigress muttered.

The Lady Jaguar’s glare sharpened. “What was that?”

The Lady Tigress didn’t look up. “No, my Liege,” she said, each word carefully articulated.

A cold smile twitched the Lady Jaguar’s muzzle. “Acceptable.” She turned back to the Lady Lioness. “Last chance.” Her eyes flickered over the Lady Leopardess. “I assume your lackey will come with you when you declare for me.”

Her smugness, her steel-sharp scent, the casual way she was violating everything the Charter stood for…the Lady Leopardess couldn’t stop her hackles rising, her claws springing out, a growl curling her lips.

The Lady Jaguar’s lips pulled back, too, her teeth bright. “You’ll make a fine appetizer, brat.”

A step: that was all the Lady Leopardess took, so mad she didn’t know what she was going to do, one step toward the Lady Jaguar. Then the Lady Lioness was pushing in front of her, the Lady Tigress moving between them and the Lady Jaguar.

“You see?” The Lady Jaguar laughed, the Lady Lioness and the Lady Tigress standing with eyes locked. “My subjects are ready to kill for me!” She started down the hall shouting, “Little Claw! Little Claw! Little Claw!”

The rest of the entourage took up the chant, cheering, howling, whistling, streaming past till the three Ladies were alone in the hall, the chant shaking the floor. Then the Lady Tigress turned and raced toward the Chamber.

It took the Lady Leopardess a moment, panting her anger away, to get herself together. But as another chant started to build—”Big Ears! Big Ears! Big Ears!”—she jumped to her paws, took off down the corridor, was at the corner when she realized the Lady Lioness wasn’t beside her.

“Nessie?” She looked back, the Lady Lioness standing with her head lowered. “Nessie, we’ve gotta get down there!”

Two seconds, maybe three, then the Lady Lioness’s eyes sprang up blazing, and she hurtled past the Lady Leopardess so fast the Lady Leopardess had to run to catch up. The hallways blurred by empty, the chant filling the air, till the Lady Lioness smashed through the doors into the Chamber.

The side aisles teamed with folks, the center seats empty except for her fellow non-aligneds up by the platform. Fear and rage mixed the air into a stew, made the Lady Leopardess stop in the doorway. But the Lady Lioness kept going, stalking forward, so the Lady Leopardess hurried in after her.

“Order!” the Lord Mountain Goat was shouting from the platform. “This meeting of the Curia will come to order!”

No one was paying attention, and when the Lady Leopardess reached the front, she saw why. In the well of the Chamber below the platform, the Lord Jaguar and the Lady Jaguar stood, their entourages glaring at each other, their coats sparking.

“Order!” the Lady Mountain Goat shouted beside the Lord Mountain Goat. “The sooner we can pass the Leadership on, the sooner we can get to the vote!”

Both sides cheered, and the chanting dropped away. Privilege flashed from the Lord Mountain Goat’s eyes, illuminating the Succession Chart. “So, the Leadership of the Curia now passes to—” He turned, a smile on his snout. “The Lord Jaguar!” His smile fell. “And the Lady Jaguar,” he murmured.

More cheers burst over the Chamber, the Lord and Lady Mountain Goat scuttling off to join the Big Ears while the Lord Jaguar and the Lady Jaguar mounted the platform from opposite sides, the Lady Grizzly at the Lord Jaguar’s side, the Lady Tigress padding along behind the Lady Jaguar.

The Lady Leopardess stared: the Charter spelled out quite clearly that a Lord and Lady succeeding to the platform had to go up together, the two of them alone. She rose to object, but the Lord Jaguar was already shouting.

“Friends!” He focused on the Chamber’s left side, barely flicking a glance toward the center and the right. “Today we take the first step in making this Curia the institution that it was destined to become!”

More cheering, and the Lady Jaguar stepped up, facing the right. “United under one leader, this assembly will forever be the final arbiter of all matters down on the Earth! Under one leader, we will be living gods, ruling for all eternity!”

The Chamber shook with cheers, and the Lady Leopardess couldn’t turn away, the Charter, the plan, everything she’d devoted her life to being torn to shreds as she watched.

The Lord Jaguar raised a paw. “Who that one leader will be…” He glanced, eyes full of malice, toward the Lady Jaguar. “We’ll decide after the vote.”

The two jaguars held each other’s gaze, and silence fell, the Lady Leopardess sure she smelled blood. “Yes,” the Lady Jaguar said. “But first, the vote.” Her head snapped over to the Lady Tigress. “Make the motion.”

“No.” The Lady Tigress rose and padded to the edge of the platform, her face as calm as the Lady Leopardess had ever seen it, her voice resounding through the Chamber. “I renounce my allegiance to Little Claw and declare myself non-aligned.” She jumped from the platform, padded through the entourages in the well of the Chamber, and sat down in front of the Lady Lioness. “Get ready,” she murmured, so quietly the Lady Leopardess wasn’t sure she’d actually heard it.

The next instant stood frozen, the Lady Jaguar wide-eyed and alone on the platform with the Lord Jaguar and the Lady Grizzly. Then the Lord Jaguar whirled to face his followers. “They’re deserting her! Big Ears, now we strike! Death to Little Claw!” He screamed and leaped at the Lady Jaguar.

The whole Chamber howled, teeth crunching flesh, hoofs shattering bone, and the Lady Tigress yelled, “Now!” She tore at the floor, the stone coming away to reveal an opening.

The Lady Leopardess could only stare, the blood scent freezing her. The Lady Tigress gave a look back, then jumped down into the hole.

The Lady Lioness leaped forward. “Hurry!” she shouted; then she sprang through as well.

Without waiting another second, the Lady Leopardess leaped up and plunged after her into the darkness.

 

The sun blazed over the Savannah, the sky a pure sizzling blue, but the Lady Tigress felt strangely cool as she gazed into the crater. “Found her,” she said quietly.

She felt them before she saw them, the other eleven rippling out of the air. With a claw, she gestured to the crater floor where the Lady Jaguar sprawled unconscious.

The Lady Squirrel’s glare flared at her. “Awfully convenient that you happened upon her, isn’t it?”

The Lady Tigress almost laughed, but that would just set Squirrel off again. So she shrugged. “When she tore the Lord Jaguar’s head off, the explosion blew her in this direction. A simple trajectory.” But she couldn’t help adding: “Like following a falling nut.”

“You dare?” The Lady Squirrel swelled with white fire—

But the Lady Lioness raised a paw, the golden light of her fur soothing under the harsh sun. “Squirrel, please.”

For a moment, the Lady Squirrel stood tight and clenched, but she did step back. The Lady Lioness nodded, her weariness plain to the Lady Tigress, and looked at the others. “Let’s get this over with,” she said.

Heads nodded, and the Lady Tigress flexed her new Privilege, stepped to the bottom of the crater, took her place in the ring around the Lady Jaguar. The Lady Jaguar’s ears twitched and her eyes opened, moved around the ring till they met the Lady Tigress’s. “You…,” she breathed. She sprang up, but her legs buckled, flopped her onto her side.

The Lady Tigress sighed. With this concentrated Privilege, it would be so easy to just reach out and fry Jaggie’s brain right now. But, no. They’d already decided on this.

The Lady Jaguar lay panting until the Lord Tiger cleared his throat. “My Lady Jaguar,” he said, his voice drier and deeper than ever, “having found you guilty, we—”

“Damn you…” The Lady Jaguar dragged herself to her paws again. “I’ll kill you all, you—” She stopped, lifted her head, sniffed the air. “Why can’t I feel the Curia?”

“It’s gone,” the Lady Tigress said. “Thanks to you.”

The Lady Jaguar glared at the Lady Tigress for a moment, then turned to the Lady Lioness. “I demand an explanation.”

“You bitch!” The Lady Squirrel burst upward, towering over the crater like a thunderhead, grabbed the Lady Jaguar in her claws. “I should tear you limb from—!”

“Squirrel!” The Lady Lioness’s roar made ears drop all around the ring.

Again, the Lady Squirrel didn’t move for a moment. Then she dropped the Lady Jaguar and deflated to her normal size.

The tiniest bit of fear glistened in the Lady Jaguar’s scent as she picked herself up; it was gone immediately, but the Lady Tigress smiled at it. “I’m waiting,” the Lady Jaguar growled, looking again at the Lady Lioness.

The Lady Lioness nodded. “As you can feel, the Curia is gone. We destroyed it after taking the Curial Privilege of those members still alive who’d joined in the fighting.”

“What?” The Lady Jaguar narrowed her eyes. “You can’t take another member’s Privilege! The Charter doesn’t—”

“It does.” The Lady Leopardess raised her head, her fur gleaming like ice under the equatorial sun. “When certain provisions are violated, a member’s Privilege can be revoked for twenty-four hours. We pulled everyone’s Privilege who’d fought for you or the Lord Jaguar.” She swallowed. “But the only way to keep them earthly was to…to destroy the Chamber. And we couldn’t let them regain their Privilege, not after…”

Her voice trailed off, and the Lady Lioness stepped in: “We sent all the former Curials down here to the Earth, each to his or her own folk. But the twelve of us had to keep our Privilege to destroy the Curial Chamber.”

The Lady Jaguar’s lip curled. “What gave you the right?”

“Damn you!” The Lady Squirrel leaped up.

The Lady Lioness raised a paw. “We were the only Curials not soaked in the blood of our colleagues,” she said tightly.

“I see.” The Lady Jaguar nodded. “So you soak up their Privilege instead. They all get to die in mud and squalor on the Earth, and you all get to become gods. How very nice.”

“It wasn’t like that,” the Lady Leopardess muttered.

“No?” The Lady Jaguar turned her narrow eyes to the Lady Leopardess. “Still, it doesn’t sound Charter-approved to me.”

The Lady Leopardess’s ears fell, her eyes on the ground, and the Lady Tigress couldn’t stop a growl, her concentrated Privilege making the ground shake.

“Oh, come off it, Tigress.” A cold smile curled the Lady Jaguar’s whiskers. “I can’t believe you mean to kill me if you’re bothering to explain all this. And with the Curia destroyed, you have no mechanism for taking my Privilege.” She turned to the Lady Leopardess. “Or am I wrong?”

Still looking down, the Lady Leopardess shook her head.

“So.” The Lady Jaguar came back to the Lady Lioness. “Am I supposed to beg for a place in your little pantheon?”

The Lady Lioness gestured to the Lord Tiger. He stood up. “My Lady Jaguar, you have been judged and found guilty.” He looked across the ring. “My Lady Tigress has asked to pronounce your sentence.”

“Of course she has.” The Lady Jaguar turned slowly, and the Lady Tigress made herself gaze calmly into those hate-filled eyes. “How long did you plan to betray me, Tigress?”

“You’re such an idiot, Jaggie.” The Lady Tigress shook her head. “I just finally got tired of listening to you.”

The Lady Jaguar sprang to her paws, her jaw clenched, and for a moment, the Lady Tigress thought she might leap, might save them all a lot of trouble. But she sat back down and waved a paw. “So read this sentence of yours, Tigress.”

The others in the ring tensed, and the Lady Tigress took a breath. “My Lady Jaguar, as you have served death, chaos, and destruction, so you will become death, chaos, and destruction. From this moment on, all power of death and darkness, terror and mayhem, vengeance and cruelty, all this will be invested in you. You are now the Blood Jaguar.”

At those key words, the subroutines the Lord Tiger and the Lady Leopardess had imbedded into the concentrated Privilege roared to life, and the Lady Tigress clenched her teeth, energy tearing from her fur, similar streams bursting from the others and slamming down into the Lady Jaguar.

The pain vanished in an instant, and the Lady Tigress took a long sweet breath. “It’s all yours, Jaggie.”

In the middle of the ring, the creature that had once been the Lady Jaguar raised her head, her fur glowing a bloody red, her eyes guttering like coals. “What have you…?” she panted out. “What have you done to me?”

The Lord Tiger cleared his throat. “As the Blood Jaguar, you are the embodiment of death, just as we Twelve now embody the aspects of life.” He fixed his eyes on the former Lady Jaguar. “We’re all that’s left of the Curia, and you should be able to feel the pattern we thirteen form, my Lady, the same way you once felt the Curia and the Charter.”

“Don’t ‘my Lady’ me, damn you.” The creature glared at him. “I’m the Blood Jaguar now, remember?”

“You are.” The Lady Lioness rose, the golden glow in her fur intensifying. “Now get out of my sight before I—”

“Now, now.” The Blood Jaguar laughed. “We’re one big happy family, Lioness: didn’t you hear Tiger?” She raised a blood-red paw, claws black as burned bone popping from it. “Y’know, I think I’m gonna like this…” She laughed again, her fire flaring up to engulf her whole body, burning her away and vanishing into the afternoon heat.

A sob drew the Lady Tigress’s eyes to the Lady Leopardess: “A nightmare. Please tell me this’s a nightmare!”

The Lord Leopard was at her side instantly, his coat rustling like fallen leaves. “It’ll be all right, Pardess.”

“How?” She jumped away from him. “The Charter’s destroyed! The Curia’s destroyed! We’ve become…I don’t know what we’ve become!” She flailed a paw at the horizon. “And we’ve let that monster run free over the Earth!”

The Lord Leopard stepped toward her again. “Pardess—”

“No!” White light burst from her. “Just stay away from me! All of you!” An icy blast, and she was gone.

“Pardess!” The Lord Leopard tensed to leap after her.

“Let her go, Leopard,” the Lady Lioness said, her voice quiet but so solid in the air, it seemed to grab the Lord Leopard and hold him. She looked around the ring. “We all need some time alone, try to get a feel for this new concentrated Privilege.” A faint smile crossed her muzzle. “Or maybe just sleep for a week. But we’ll meet back here in seven days and figure out what’s next. All right?”

Heads nodded around the ring, but the Lord Leopard kept glancing from the Lady Lioness to the horizon where the Lady Leopardess had vanished. “But,” he said, “what about—?”

The Lady Lioness padded over, touched her cheek to his. “You can still feel her, can’t you?” When he nodded, she stepped back. “Then you know she’s all right. And she can find you when she needs you.”

The Lord Leopard looked down, and the golden-brown of his fur deepened, a cool breeze springing up and seeming to blow him away. The Lord Lion nuzzled the Lady Lioness before he jumped all fiery into the sky, and the Lady Tigress watched the others in the ring vanish until only she and the Lady Lioness stood at the bottom of the crater.

The Lady Tigress yawned. “Sleep for a week, I think.”

“No.” The Lady Lioness turned, her ears partway down, a hardness around her eyes. “Not you. Not yet.”

“Ah.” The Lady Tigress couldn’t meet the Lady Lioness’s unflinching gaze. “Nessie, I never meant to…I thought I’d picked the better of the two, and—”

“Gressa.” Padding paws, and the Lady Tigress looked up as the Lady Lioness touched her face. “You never have to explain anything to me: we’ve known each other too long.” She looked north. “But Pardess believed in the Charter more than anyone in that whole assembly did. And when it fell apart—”

“Ah.” The Lady Tigress swallowed and put her paw over the Lady Lioness’s. “Will you come with me, Nessie? It’s been a while since I apologized for anything….”

A smile curled the Lady Lioness’s whiskers. “Of course.”

The Lady Tigress nodded, stretched her Privilege, leaped upward, felt the Lady Lioness beside her. The Lady Leopardess’s flicker drew them northward and eastward until the Lady Tigress stepped out into cold crisp air, snow-covered crags towering overhead. “Nice,” she said, taking a breath.

The Lady Lioness sneezed. “A bit frosty, I’d say.” She gestured to a dark hole partway up the side of the valley.

A flex of Privilege brought the Lady Tigress to the snow outside the cave. “Pardess?” she called in.

“Go away,” came the Lady Leopardess’s voice, as cold and quiet as the mountains above.

“I can’t.” The Lady Tigress forced a grin. “Nessie won’t let me.”

That got a pale laugh, and the Lady Tigress started into the cave, felt the Lady Lioness right behind her. The passage sloped down and snaked around till she came to a roundish bubble in the rocks, the glowing white of the Lady Leopardess stretched over a shelf to one side, her head resting on her paws. She didn’t look up.

The Lady Tigress sat down, not sure what to say, not sure what she wanted to say. “Look, Pardess, I…I just…” She took a breath, kept her eyes down. “You said yourself that you liked some of what Little Claw stood for, and I thought…I thought I could keep Jaggie under control. But in the end, all I could do was prepare that escape hatch and…and hope I wouldn’t need it.”

She stopped, tried to gather her thoughts. “I even had a plan worked out for a planet-wide referendum to change the Charter legally. But Jaggie, she…I finally figured out that she wasn’t interested in anything but killing the Lord Jaguar and taking over the Curia.”

She stopped again. “So I didn’t…I wasn’t…” She closed her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Pardess. For everything.”

Silence then, the Lady Tigress not wanting to look, not wanting to see hatred in the Lady Leopardess’s face.

But a shuffle of fur, claws on rough stone, a touch at her shoulder, and the Lady Tigress opened her eyes to see the Lady Lioness beside her, her paws outstretched, the Lady Leopardess padding over, frozen tears glittering in her fur. She put one paw around the Lady Lioness’s neck, turned, and held the other out to the Lady Tigress.

The Lady Tigress leaned into the other two, put her own paws around them, let her Privilege flow out into theirs. “It’ll be all right,” she murmured.

A quiet “How?” from the Lady Leopardess.

“Easy.” The Lady Lioness, soothing as a spring breeze. “With the three of us together.”

And the three Ladies held each other on into their first night on Earth.

Michael H. Payne is a writer and radio personality living in southern California. His stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF, TomorrowSF and Writers of the Future. His acclaimed novel The Blood Jaguar was published by Tor in 1998. Michael is also responsible for the surreal online comic Terebinth.

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