A Matter of Pride
The image in the big-crystal-ball display in the boardroom of Majius Magical Services went dark right before the climax of an extremely funny clip on "World's Funniest Magical Mishaps".
"It's not my fault," Al Majius said, deflecting a handful of popcorn with a flick of his general-purpose wand. "The repair gnomes said the new far-sight spells would be good for at least a year --"
"I told you it'd be better if you just fixed it yourself," Githros growled. He picked up a single kernel of popcorn -- not an easy feat with two-inch-long talons on a hand the size (and color) of a large cantaloupe -- and tossed it into his mouth. "You're an oral exam and thaumaturgy exercise away from being a full Magister. You should be able to fix a wonky crystal ball."
Al sighed. "Combat magic, necromancy, and elemental magic I can handle. But the decoder spells for our pay-per-vision crystal service ..." He swept the tip of his wand over the top and sides of the big crystal, muttering generic wisdom and insight spells in the vague hopes that the problem would be revealed.
"Never mind, Al," Janine Majius said. "We've missed the end of the show anyway."
Al grunted in frustration. "Everything around here has been falling apart lately. Business has been pretty good, our buddy Morgenstern hasn't tried to kill us in at least three weeks, but our luck with the little stuff has been crappy."
Janine frowned, then deliberately relaxed. She wasn't about to add any new lines to her Homecoming Queen face over 'little stuff'. "Githros, are you sure those gremlins you and Billy caught are gone?"
The demon shrugged. "Ask your husband. We used the banishing charm he prepped for the job to send 'em away. Now your cousin Billy -- his idea would have been more of a sure thing. And tasty, too."
Al shuddered. "Sometimes I think Billy's werewolf side is getting a little too big for its fur."
Janine turned to Al and repeated, "Are you sure those gremlins are gone? Because 'little stuff' breaking down is the sort of thing gremlins might cause if they wanted revenge -- but were afraid of the consequences --"
Githros grinned, displaying an impressive subset of his teeth, consisting entirely of glistening, dagger-sharp canines.
"-- of getting caught."
"If it was gremlin magic, my revelation spells would detect it. And if they were physically present, Billy's or Githros's noses would -- er -- know."
A dim point of pearlescent light appeared at the center of the darkened crystal, and a burst of white noise emerged from the Béan Siddhe surround sound speakers.
"Hey, maybe I fixed it," Al began, but then the sound modulated into something more intelligible. At least the parts between bursts of static and feedback were more intelligible...
"--er Majius, there's a client here to see you. He's squarlleeeeoonk lyin--"
"Crap, it's picking up the intercom signal from the reception desk," Janine said. The intercom panel itself looked dead -- the lights that should have been illuminated weren't.
"He's lying? Lying about what?" Al asked.
"Zeeeowwwgrnnkot lying, he's a lion."
Al looked at Janine, who shook her head.
Githros closed one eye, scratched his head -- very carefully. He'd accidentally lopped off one of his favorite scaly protuberances just the week before. After a moment, he said, "Might be from Grwaarloom. A coupl'a Realms over, felinoids instead of anthropoids the dominant species ..."
"So he might actually be a lion?"
"Lionish," Githros replied. "Or tigerish. Big cat-ish, anyway."
Janine smiled at Al and teased, "And you said spending money on advertising wasn't worth it."
"He'd better not have fleas," Al said. "And we are not taking payment in decomposing gazelle carcasses."
"Mr. Majius -- or should I address you as Magister Majius? My name is Grroolarrgrlar. I am Alpha of the Northern Pride."
Al said nothing for a moment, still fighting the instinct to run for his life. The big felinoid stood upright, and his forelimbs ended in long, nimble-looking digits that were no doubt as agile and precise as human fingers. But he was naked except for a bandolier-like harness with perhaps a dozen small pouches (unless that fortunately-located patch of fur was clothing), his entire body was covered in tawny fur, and his teeth, though fewer in number than Githros's, were just as sharp and just as large as the demon's.
"Mr. -- or Magister -- Majius?"
Al recited a calming spell in his head and forced his legs to relax. His heels hadn't touched the carpet since Grroolarrgrlar had entered the room.
"I'm sorry, Grrool -- Grroolahr --"
"You may call me Grrool, or Alpha, if you find my name difficult to pronounce."
"I'm sorry, Grrool," Al said. "I've never met one of your people before and you are ... rather more impressive up close than I had expected. Oh, and please, call me Al."
Grrool nodded, which brought his lower jaw even with the top of Al's head. "You are wondering why I have come to you," he said.
Al leaned closer. The lion-man's voice was so deep that it made Githros sound like a castrato choirboy, and Al suspected that it could include harmonics deep enough to register as vibration rather than sound. That might explain why hearing it made Al's bladder feel suddenly full to overflowing.
"You are human, but you have some skill with the magic of The Wild," Grrool rumbled. "Lamia, ruler of the Wallachians, has said this."
Al nodded. "I have more knowledge of Wallachian magic than most wizards of the still-breathing persuasion. Of course, as far as I know, I'm the only wizard of the still-breathing persuasion that practices Wallachian magic at all."
"I can only hope that your knowledge is sufficient to the task at hand," Grrool said. "Leadership in our Realm is not hereditary -- as with the Wallachians, it is something to be earned, usually by virtue of many accomplishments that have improved the lives of Pride members, but sometimes --"
"By combat," Al said, feeling his heels lifting off the carpet again. He considered what his chances of victory would be in a duel to the death with one of Grrool's people, and had trouble imagining a number small enough. Damn Lamia if she had suggested Al as a Champion to fight in Grrool's place!
Grrool laughed. At least Al guessed that the snort - sneeze - rumble that shook the lion-man's massive body was a laugh.
"Is that what makes you so anxious? You think I want you to fight for me?" Grrool roared -- literally -- with laughter.
His face reddening, Al nodded again. "After you mentioned Lamia, I assumed --"
"Oh, no, no, no, Al," Grrool growl-chuckled. "Even with your magic, that would be out of the question. I have been challenged for my position as Alpha -- but not for trial by combat."
"I'm very glad to hear that," Al said. "But if you've been challenged in some other way, how can I help you?"
Grrool lowered his head, licked his right forepaw, and smoothed the fur over his right ear. Without raising his eyes, he said, "You are aware of the responsibilities of an Alpha in my Realm?"
Al hesitated. He was no expert in feline body language, and had even less experience in reading the gestures of 300-kilogram talking lion-men, but he had a strong sense that Grrool was -- embarrassed. That told him that Grrool was probably referring to something other than political duties...
"Um, not directly," Al said at last. "But for the big cats in this realm, the Alpha male is the only one that -- er -- breeds when the females are -- um -- receptive."
Grrool nodded. "The strongest and smartest male passes on his seed to as many females as possible, thus strengthening the Pride."
Al shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't see how that could be the basis for a challenge to your title -- authority -- Alpha-ness."
Grrool sighed, or moaned. It sounded sad, anyway, rather than angry, which Al found at least slightly reassuring.
"Our Prides have many thousands of members," Grrool said. "Naturally, as the numbers have increased, the old traditions have been diluted -- it would be impossible for any one male to service tens of thousands of females in a season. But it is still expected that the Alpha and his direct descendants will breed with most of the available females."
This set Al's mind spinning. If the Alpha male and his descendants were responsible for most of the breeding, then the Alpha most likely had to have at least a few male offspring before he became Alpha, so they would be available to act as proxies. Otherwise, the Alpha would have to spend almost all his time breeding for however many years it took for his first-born sons to reach sexual maturity --
"Al? Are you all right?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry, Grrool -- I was just trying to figure out how your current customs would work in practical terms."
"Let us just say that the first several years are -- challenging -- and leave it at that."
Al winced. Apparently there could be such a thing as too much sex. Not that he would ever have that problem...
"Heh. Sorry. But I still don't see how that could be the basis for a challenge --"
"None of the most recent births are my cubs or grandcubs."
Al felt his face turning red. He found himself wishing that his face was a furry as Grrool's, although there were probably corresponding behavioral cues to indicate embarrassment -- that grooming thing, for instance.
"Your challenger has proof of this? I mean, does your Realm have DNA testing, or something like that?"
"I didn't mean to be insulting, implying that your people were backward or anything like that --"
Grrool snorted again. "You had pig flesh, the eggs of some kind of fowl, and some of that stuff made from grass seeds for breakfast, not more than five of your hours ago. And some other kind of grain only minutes before you came to meet with me. All of it ruined by heating, of course."
It took nearly a minute, but Grrool's point finally found its way through Al's confusion. "Scent! You can tell whether a cub is related to you or not by scent!"
Grrool nodded. "As can any healthy person in Grwaarloom. And many witnesses who know my scent have attested that my blood is in none of the cubs just born."
Al frowned. "Any chance that the witnesses are lying? Could they be working for your challenger?"
Grrool snarled. "No one would dare to lie about such a thing. And there would be no point -- as soon as an independent person breathed in the essence of a cub, they would know the truth."
A number of explanations occurred to Al, but he suspected that they would turn out to be impossibilities in Grwaarloom. It seemed unlikely that all the females Grrool and his sons had mated with had used something to block their seed, and had mated with some unrelated male or males. It was almost as unlikely that Grrool and his sons had been hexed or sterilized by chemical means, and all the females had again mated with other males.
"I -- I'm not sure how this was done, Grrool," Al admitted. "There's no contraception in Grwaarloom, is there?"
Grrool tilted his head to one side. "I do not know this word."
"It means preventing a mating from producing offspring," Al explained. "In our world, there are drugs, and devices that act as a barrier, preventing... okay, I can see from your expression that the very idea of contraception is completely new to you. Never mind."
"If I can not prove that my sons and I have not become infertile, my status as Alpha will be at an end," Grrool said. "Will you help me?"
Al sighed. "Grrool, I'll do my best. But at this moment, I can't promise that I'll succeed." After a moment, he continued, "Would you be willing to have some experts in this realm run a few tests on your, er, seed? They might be able to determine if something has been done to you -- something non-magical, I mean."
Grrool lowered his head even more, until the wispy hairs on his lower jaw mingled with the coarser fur of his mane. "I will do this thing, although it goes against our customs to waste the seed of an Alpha."
"I appreciate that," Al said. "But it looks like somebody in Grwaarloom has already broken your customs in a much bigger way."
The following day, Al, Janine and Githros reconvened in the boardroom. The big-crystal-ball display was still broken. At the moment, it was showing random bits of what looked like private pocket-crystal conversations. That, or a very low-budget soap opera.
"Well, based on the lab results from the Zoo, Grrool isn't firing blanks," Janine said. "Sperm count is high, motility is excellent, no signs of malformation or damaged chromosomes."
"And the females are fertile -- the problem is, they're having cubs that aren't from Grrool's bloodline," Githros said.
Al sighed and massaged his forehead. "Grrool isn't hexed, cursed, or otherwise magicked in any way that I can detect. And even Billy says that Grrool smells healthy -- for which advice he billed us $150, by the way. You'd think he'd give us a family discount..."
"That is the family discount rate, Al," Janine said. "And he didn't charge us for expenses this time."
"Let's get back to Grrool's problem," Githros said. "His Alpha status is on the line."
Al did a slow and deliberate double take. "Why Githros -- I'd almost think you cared about our client's welfare."
"Hardyharhar," Githros grumbled. "It so happens that I admire his fangs. The retractable claws, not so much, but nobeing's perfect... Anyway, Grrool showed me a picture of his challenger -- guy looks like he couldn't bite his way out of a rotten zebra carcass. Not Alpha material."
"Thank you for that image," Janine gagged. "Salad for dinner tonight, Al."
With visions of rotting zebras dancing in his head, Al thought that a meal of fruits and veggies sounded just fine. "I think we've done all that we can do from this side," he said. "I'm going to have to see some of the females and the cubs -- the more, the better -- to figure out what happened."
"Road trip!" Githros howled. "Man, we haven't been out of this Realm in ages. Dibs on any edible bad guys we find --"
"See, this is why we don't get invited to other Realms," Al chided. "It's not nice to eat the natives."
Janine rolled her eyes and made a note to have Billy stand by -- she felt another lawsuit coming their way.
Grwaarloom was hot and dusty, with a cloudless, blindingly bright sky that seemed a million times bigger than the city-bound version to which Al was accustomed. The area where Grrool's Pride lived would have been described as savannah in Al's old geography books -- endless expanses of yellowish grasslands punctuated by isolated islands where a few thorny trees provided just enough shade for a few of Grrool's people to rest.
"Reminds me of parts of Hell," Githros commented. "More trees here, of course, but the temperature is just about right."
Al's shirt was already sticking to his chest and back as the baking heat squeezed the moisture from his skin. "Stick a meat thermometer in me and let me know when I'm done."
Grrool and an honor guard of what Al guessed were Grrool's sons emerged from the heat shimmer as if they too had just apported in from another Realm.
"Al, Githros, welcome to Grwaarloom," Grrool said. "I apologize for asking you to appear here, at some distance from my palace, but it would have been unwise to startle any of my people by apporting into their midst."
Al nodded, remembering the chaos that had occurred when he'd tossed a ball into a pen holding several kittens. The resulting furball had been cute and frightening at the same time. Replacing the kittens with two-hundred-kilogram lion men --
The City of the Northern Pride was barely recognizable as such, consisting of widely-dispersed, low buildings that blended with the landscape to the point of near-invisibility.
"The females with new cubs are housed around the Alpha's palace -- which is located at the center of the city," Grrool explained as they walked.
"Not too many people in the, er, streets," Al remarked.
"Big cats usually sleep during the hottest part of the day," Githros said.
Grrool chuckled. "This is not the hottest part of the day, my friend. It is still early morning. And it is cool today even for this hour."
Al winced and made a mental note to learn some spells to regulate his body temperature -- or to conjure large quantities of ice. Even Githros looked impressed.
As they neared a building somewhat larger than the ones they had been passing, Grrool dropped to all fours and padded over to an opening in the wall. "Arrhoun, it is Grroolarrgrlar. I have brought the wizard from the human Realm to examine you and the cubs."
After a few moments, a lion-woman emerged from the opening, with two cubs trailing behind, tripping over their own oversized paws. She stood, and the cubs tried to do likewise, but fell over almost immediately.
"Arrhoun, my name is Al Majius," Al said. "This is my partner, Githros. Don't worry, he's nicer than he looks."
Arrhoun sniffed the air, snorting as she caught the traces of brimstone that clung to Githros. The cubs pounced on Githros's left foot, snarling and trying to bite his toes.
"Aw, they're adorable," Githros growled. "I could just eat -- them -- up!"
Arrhoun growled back, and her claws emerged from their furry sheaths.
"It's just an expression," Al said quickly, "a figure of speech, right, Githros? Githros?"
But Githros had already reached down and snagged the cubs by the scruff of their necks and had lifted them up so they could clamber around his massive shoulders. "Feisty little buggers," he said, as the larger cub swatted at his nose.
Arrhoun relaxed and her claws retracted. "Magister, I am honored to meet you," she said.
Al exhaled and loosened his grip on the wand in his coat pocket. "I'm not really a Magister yet," he said. "There are tests I have to pass, and --"
"Ow," Githros said. "These little guys have pretty good teeth, just like their father."
Grrool growled so deep in his chest that Al felt it as a vibration through the soles of his feet as much as he heard it.
"How would you know what their father's teeth are like?" Grrool asked. "All evidence says that they are not my offspring."
Githros turned his head, a cub dangling from each ear. "Seriously? Look at these guys. They both have exactly the same markings around their eyes -- just like you and your older sons."
"But their scent --"
Githros tilted his head so one of the cubs swung closer to his nose, and inhaled. Then he leaned towards Grrool and sniffed again.
"They don't smell like you," he admitted. "But they don't smell like anybody from Grwaarloom. More like, I don't know, tiger cubs?"
Grrool snorted. "I do not -- we don't have -- what was the word? Tigers. We don't have tigers in Grwaarloom."
Al nodded to himself. "Of course you don't. You'd be competing for exactly the same ecological niche, and your people obviously won that battle here ages ago." He reached into his coat -- glad that he'd worn it, in spite of the heat -- and withdrew a wand that ended in a loop of shimmering metal the size of his hand.
Peering through the loop, he examined the cubs, almost falling when one of them tried to pounce on the shinything moving so tantalizingly close.
"The cubs' auras show definite signs of magical tampering," he said. "I'd guess somebody's used a transposition spell -- a pretty broad-based one, to affect all the newborn cubs in the city --"
Grrool shook his head. "I don't understand. What have you discovered?"
Al sighed. "Somewhere, there are a lot of tiger cubs whose mothers don't want anything to do with them. If they're living in the wild, the poor things may have been killed or starved to death by now."
"That -- is despicable," Githros said. "And as a demon, I know despicableness. Despicability? Whatever."
"Someone with a fair command of magic has transposed or exchanged the scents of your cubs with -- assuming Githros's nose is right -- an equal number of tiger cubs," Al said. "I can't tell if they actually swapped the scent glands, or just enough of the odor-producing body chemicals to change the cubs' scent for long enough to depose you from Alpha status. It's a real, physical change, however; a glamour -- an illusion -- designed to fool your noses probably wouldn't work the same way on Githros, if it worked at all."
"Garragranoom," Grrool said.
"Um, sure, if you say so --"
"A supporter of Rraagrraal, the one who challenged my rule," Grrool explained. "Garragranoom is known to be a student of magic."
"If he's caused a bunch of cute, cuddly tiger cubs to -- ow! -- to starve to death, I have a bone to pick with him," Githros said, delicately unhooking a cub's claws from his left nostril. "I'm thinking maybe one of his ribs..."
"Unfortunately, this sort of thing would be pretty hard to prove," Al said. "But if we could get him to admit what he's done in front of witnesses..."
Some hours later, Grrool arranged a meeting with Rraagrraal and Garragranoom in a private den reserved for the Alpha's most serious business. Al and Grrool sat on the packed-earth floor across from the entrance to the chamber, with Githros, shrunken to his old flea-size, hidden in Al's left ear.
Grrool's adversaries entered and seemed to recoil at the sight of Al.
"Why have you brought a human here?" Rraagrraal rumbled. "I thought this was to be a summit meeting to discuss your failure as Alpha."
Grrool looked disdainfully at Garragranoom, and said simply, "Since you had a wizard, I thought I should have one too."
Both Rraagrraal and Garragranoom snarled wordlessly, their heads lowering and their ears folding back. They circled the chamber as if stalking prey.
"There is another in this den," Garragranoom said. "My eyes can not find him, but my nose is not so easy to fool."
"Ah, but fooling noses is something of a specialty of yours, is it not?" Grrool asked. "Making my cubs stink of -- other-world cats so they could not be recognized as mine!"
Garragranoom recoiled, hissing, the claws on his forepaws sliding from their sheaths. "He knows! His human wizard has --"
Rraagrraal cuffed his companion with one great swipe of his forepaw, knocking the smaller lion-man to the ground. If Rraagrraal's claws had been extended, it might have been a killing blow; as it was, the wizard-cat lay there in the dirt, dazed and panting.
"If one challenge fails, then perhaps another will not," Rraagrraal roared. He leaped at Al, planning to kill him quickly before dealing with Grrool.
Al muttered his fortress spell even as Grrool moved to intercept his rival. They were both too slow.
Githros exploded from flea-size to his three-meter 'serious business' form and met Rraagrraal's attack with one massive, armored fist that struck the lion-man squarely between the eyes. Rraagrraal stopped dead in mid-air and dropped to the ground, unconscious.
Then Githros stepped over Rraagrraal's motionless form and headed toward Garragranoom, who had regained his feet just in time to see his employer's defeat.
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty..."
Since neither Al nor Githros would qualify in Grwaarloom as independent witnesses, Al had installed a video camera and microphone in the wall of the chamber. In an adjacent chamber, several members of the Northern Pride who were not of Grrool's bloodline had watched the brief and violent confrontation 'live', and the same signal had been fed into a video recorder. The technology was not common in Grwaarloom, but it was familiar enough to be considered trustworthy.
As a backup, Al had planted several small crystals enchanted to 'remember' events and display them on demand, but he knew that they might not be accepted as reliable. After all, any wizard worthy of the name could 'record' scenes that had never happened, or modify images and sounds after they had been captured through magical means.
Grrool watched the video playback for the fifth time, laughing louder every time he saw Rraagrraal's face meet Githros's fist. "The Pride has accepted this as proof that Rraagrraal and Garragranoom used magic to discredit me. My reign is safe, at least until a true challenger arises."
"Glad I could help," Al said. "And even happier that Garragranoom was so cooperative after Githros, er, negotiated with him. Your cubs smell like your cubs again, and the tiger cubs smell like themselves, too. Luckily, he had them penned up here, rather than leaving them with their mothers, where smelling wrong might have cost them their lives."
Grrool grunted. "Even a fool and a monster like Garragranoom could not bring himself to endanger newborn cubs, even if they were of such a strange breed."
"Lucky for him they were okay," Githros said. "I was about ready to grab his hind paws and make a wish --"
Al winced. "Don't you think it's strange to be so sensitive about the welfare of a bunch of small furry animals -- and so nasty about larger versions of same?"
"Infernal instinct," Githros said. "It's like maternal and paternal instinct, but with more violence."
"On that note, I think we should be leaving," Al said. "Grrool, I hope the rest of your time as Alpha goes well."
"And I wish you luck with your challenge," Grrool replied.
"The Morningstar," Grrool said. "I have heard that he is very powerful, and you will face him soon."
Al shuddered. "Wow. I hadn't realized that word had spread to other Realms. Unless the Big M has been making trouble in more ways than the Conlegium Magistris knows about--"
Grrool nodded. "He has been seen -- and has made trouble -- in other Realms than yours. Perhaps our payment for your services will be of some help when you do battle."
"I hope so," Al said. "I'm going to need every advantage I can get."
As they trudged back out of the city to the place where they had arrived, Githros said, "I never did hear what form of payment you agreed on. I don't smell any ripening gazelle meat, so..."
"Wood for wands," Al replied. "From a very old, but still living, thorn tree. It's as hard as iron, and it has been soaking up mana for a couple of centuries. It should be able to channel a hell of a lot of power."
Githros shrugged. "Cool. Some gazelle meat would have been nice, though."
Al rolled his eyes. "If you can convince me that I can beat Aaron Morgenstern with an antelope haunch, I'll see if I can renegotiate. Otherwise, I'm keeping the thorn wood."
Al made a complicated gesture and chanted several words in a dialect dating back to the founding of Ur, and they vanished, leaving only heat and dust and the infinite sky in their wake.
© 2006 by Robert Moriyama
Bio: Robert Moriyama says, "As Aphelion Short Story Editor, I have to say that this was the best thing I've ever read. Biased? What do you mean I'm biased?" But seriously, he hopes to complete the Majius versus Morgenstern uberplot Any Day Now...
E-mail: Robert Moriyama
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