Tea on the Sands
I raised my head from the ground and the world began to spin. White sands sifted around me, blown down from a nearby towering dune. I couldn't breathe, I pinched the bridge of my muzzle and snorted, spitting out clumps of sandy mucus.
My legs and arms could move and I was able to right myself up with only a little bit of nausea. My nomadic robes were just as pristine white as they were an hour ago, more than a little dusty, but there wasn't so much as a drop of red on it. There was a bump on my head that ached slightly, but all things considered, I was lucky.
There was a small, rocky cliff nearby. I clutched at my skull and tried to remember what I'd just been through.
We had secured the area around Sfox and spent weeks trying to ingratiate ourselves with the merchant caravans, pledging to protect them from fox and fennec alike, which not every fennec agreed with and we had to teach them a few lessons. Relative peace came to Sfox under the fennec yoke.
We were about to march towards Tunis when a nearby fennec clan, one of many that had pledged loyalty to Agulez following our success in Sfox, met with us and reported a small unit of colonial militia foxes were riding in the sands to retake Sfox in a surprise assault. Having very little confidence in the new fennec leaders of the city to withstand a siege, I agreed to split off from Izil and lead a small force to intercept and eliminate them.
Things were going well. Laurent and I caught them by surprise, a group of little under a hundred foxes and vassal fennecs, while they were resting in the afternoon sun with their armor, weapons and horses otherwise indisposed. Our blades cut through their flesh and bone like warm butter as we trampled their encampment.
But then a few managed to get on their horses and scatter in all directions. We called marks and split up, a fairly petty strategy that has the danger of getting one caught in a trap but good for morale and I didn't want to risk them reporting back that they had failed to whoever sent them. I wanted to let their leaders remain in the dark.
My mark was a young fox who charged towards the hills atop a skinny, white horse. His fur was black as night and his tail slapped the side of his horse behind him, he was a recent arrival from across the sea, no doubt, still had his winter coat, though it was shedding at an alarming rate with short patches all along his arms and tail. He would occasionally look back with fearful eyes, contemplating surrender.
Or so I thought. The ground rose up slightly as we approached a gentle, rocky slope and he reared his horse back. I caught the glimpse of a little hunting crossbow and before I could hear its strings twang, my horse had flipped over and sent me rolling down the hill.
This was where I was now. I was even more lucky than I had thought before. That fox could have, should have if he had any sense in his skull, killed me easily when I was helpless.
Perhaps he was waiting to return with some friends who could assist in capturing me. I decided that there was no point in waiting around here and scrambled up the pebbly surface of the hill. Sure enough, the corpse of my horse was there, a tiny little bolt sticking out of his forehead, one hell of a lucky shot.
I shooed the flies away and detached the saddlebags. The Atlas Mountains were visible in the North, so I began walking to the North-East, in the hopes of running into the main road and ideally my army.
After an hour's journey through the sea of sand, a strange sight beckoned me in the shade of a cliff wall: a figure dressed in cyan robes, sitting atop a wool carpet. Most strange of all, was that this figure was a human, one with dark brown skin that glistened with sweat when he stuck his head out into the sun after he spotted me.
“Ah, hello there!" he called out with pitch-perfect Foxen, even using vocalizations that most humans weren't able to muster. “Are you lost?"
A pointed, black beard hung from his chin. Most human servants back home shaved and for good reason: it looked silly, like they were trying to be a chimera.
“A little, perhaps," I snorted as I approached the strange human.
“You should stay put then! If you wander around, your friends will never find you!"
“If I stay put my enemies might."
“Fair enough!" the human smiled, his square teeth were pristine white but wildly crooked. He patted his palm on an empty spot on the carpet. “Care to sit?"
I peered down at the spot, “How can I be certain that you're a friend, human?"
“How can I be certain you are?" he tilted his head as if he were pretending to be a canine. “Truthfully, there is no way of knowing, aside from the fact that you haven't drawn your blade as most of your kind in this part are prone to doing to my kind."
“I have far greater things to do than to chase down renegade slaves," I shrugged and took my seat on the wool. The shade was a welcome reprieve from the afternoon sun.
“Not a slave. Never was, never will be," he chuckled. He opened up a large, shiny wooden box that contained a bronze tea set. Placing two cups on the ground and began pouring some tea. My nose twitched as I caught the scent of mint. “I'm just a crazy hermit who likes his tea."
“Not the safest place in the world to practice being a hermit, especially for a human," I brought the cup to my snout and gently blew on it. “Didn't know any free humans were about in these parts."
“Just me, I'm afraid, as far as you're concerned!"
“As far as I'm concerned."
He tapped the side of his skull, “Well, reasonably speaking, fox, should a group of humans theoretically be living in the Atlas Mountains, would it not be impolite for me to reveal their location to the creatures they're hiding from?"
“There's no humans nearby, you're talking nonsense," I snorted, “otherwise we'd make quite a killing off of them. You sure as hell wouldn't even suggest it if they were really there."
“I hear there's a large mountain range North of the fox capital, is there not?"
“Yes, the Alps."
“Now tell me, do many foxes suffer accidents more than normal up there?"
“Yes, but that is normal with mountains."
“Are you saying your kind is clumsy? Ha! We humans have become like rams and we make sure places are homes, safe from your kind. I would not assume such accidents are merely bad luck..."
This human was a little entertaining, I'll give him that much. Vito was from those parts and he never mentioned anything about a secret group of humans killing foxes in the mountains.
“I'm well-acquainted with areas your kind fear to dread. Wandered all the way from across the Sahara to find a place where I could contemplate the great mysteries of life. Learned how to keep myself hidden from bandits and slavers, it's not as hard as you think. If I didn't want you to find me, I could have kept myself hidden."
I was about to counter that we chimera have superior senses and can easily track a human by scent for miles with a good wind, but as I sniffed, I found that I only caught the scent of sand and rock. The human laughed as he saw my nose twitch.
“Give myself a sand bath three times a day, makes me smell like the desert," he chuckled and sipped from his cup, a bead of tea running down his beard. He wiped away the tea, pulling on the beard for emphasis. “This thing also makes me look older and less appealing of a target. You anthros, you love your humans young and pretty, don't ya?"
“I couldn't give a damn about what a human looks like," I laughed, “you all look like you've got a case of the mange to me."
“See? I knew we'd get along just fine when I saw you!" he chuckled. “And you foxes all smell like carpets that've been soaked in urine. Can't imagine why any human would let themselves be captured by you!"
“We certainly had no trouble reducing humanity to scattered tribes, huddling in their burrows like scared rabbits and you humans certainly didn't want to lose. Not bad for a urine-soaked carpet, hm?"
The human tapped the side of his head, “Ah, but that was a long time ago and you chimera, you were a lot more united back then! Give humanity an opening and we'll take back the world one day."
I took a lap of tea, the cup being designed for a human's mouth, and let the gentle mint flavor swish in my mouth before swallowing.
“I can see that being a hermit has done nothing but allow you to dabble in outrageous daydreams!"
“Outrageous? No, not a chance!" he showed no signs of irritation and continued to laugh. I began to fear I was dealing with a madman. “Why, didn't a human sit atop the throne of the Alphate just recently?"
Chills ran down my spine and I tried my best to keep my nerves under control. I could tell that the hermit saw the fur on my tail bristle and his smile grew wry.
“A mere accident, one that shall never be repeated. Romulus is dead, have you not heard?"
“A shame! My Grandfather met him once, you know? He could tell right away that he'd do great things!" the hermit closed his eyes as if he was lost in memory before he snapped back to reality with a shake of his head. “From what I hear, a human concubine still holds the leash of the current Alpha, like a dog. Am I not wrong?"
“We've had reports of that," I conceded.
“How insidious!" the human laughed. “I've heard of some humans who let themselves be captured or sold. I thought of them as having a death wish but now...I suppose they just wanted to have their own pet anthro."
My tail lashed against the carpet with a thump.
“Just like the good old days."
Rage was welling up in my throat. I had to admit, this human was doing a good job of raising my hackles but I never felt the urge to storm away or show him who rules the world. Some magnetism on his part? Or perhaps I simply had too large of an ego to admit a human got under my hide?
My tongue darted out and I took a gulp of tea, hoping it would sooth the anger a little.
“The wolves have a death wish, no doubt about it," I waved my paw dismissively, “the Alpha could have shut this down anytime by purging the human harem and never allowing slaves to congregate in such a fashion. Things are different in the Republic, even the Doge himself has only a few humans in his service and none given so much power. It's very clear that they're property and not given their own palace to scheme in!"
“Hm, Doge Lucius? Is he still in power?"
“He has resigned in favor of a Dictator."
“Ah, oh well! Still, he ruled for a good while, did he not?"
“His father was a merchant, a very successful one. Opened up a trade route with the Hyena Queendom, where my mother, a free woman, happened to run into him and they got to talking. Told me a story about how he bought a human child from across the ocean and was bringing him back for his kit."
“No..." I couldn't help myself from whispering.
“To be his best friend."
“I wonder, how much of the Doge's actions were whispered to him by his best friend? Such power a man can have over someone, especially if they grew up together or perhaps even..."
I set the tea cup down with a nervous clatter.
“But as you say, good fox, the Doge is out of the picture. Long live the Dictator!" he smiled. “Assuming the Dictator does not have a human by his side as well?"
“Not a lot of new humans show up in the markets now. The wolves have an embargo against it and they control a lot of the trade."
“Ah, rest easy then, the eternal human shall trouble you foxes no more!" the hermit smiled. “Unless of course, said Dictator traveled around a lot and could have access to other markets?"
“He was a pirate," I said breathlessly.
Did Philippe have a human lover? The thought raced through my head. We had met frequently in the capital and each time he had done nothing but aggravate me with tales of his heroics and misdeeds. I rarely tried to remember what he had to say unless it was something I could use against him, but at that time I didn't consider having a human concubine to be a problem.
No, this human was trying to get in my head, make me think that humanity was a threat to all chimera. The wolves had enabled the humans and without them, they would be nothing in the Alphate.
But why was this human doing this? Did he wish to make me paranoid about every human that dared grace my presence? Surely he must know that I have some degree of power and could very well make life very miserable for humanity. Did he want that? To have me become Dictator and spend every waking moment collecting human scalps until they were no more?
Utter foolishness! That would inspire an uprising beyond any before! When you corner an animal they have nothing left to lose. I wouldn't even do that to the wolves!
No, the best way to keep a group under heel is to make them comfortable but without elevating them. No humans in the Senate nor in my council, but let them be safe from violence and imprisonment.
I thought about the humans toiling in the Alphate's border regions. There have always been stories about how the laws protecting humans from abuse have been neglected there. Surely they'd turn on their masters if they were given a better deal?
“You've given me a lot to think about, young hermit," I smiled as I picked up the cup and took another lap.
“Have I?" he shook his head. “I didn't intend to do so, we were just having a nice conversation."
“Indeed we were," I stood up and brushed some of the dust off my robes.
“If you keep walking down the way you were going, you'll find the road to Tunisia."
“How did you know I was going there?" I tilted my head.
He tilted his head as well, mocking me perhaps, “The winds carry a lot of information, General Marco."
“You're a sharp one," I pointed at him, “if you're smart, you'll also keep your mouth shut if anyone comes asking."
“Wouldn't dream of telling anyone, might offer them a cup of tea but I wouldn't tell them anything."
“Good. It's been nice talking with you..." I paused, “...I didn't catch your name."
“Don't have one, Marco. Names are dangerous, terrible things. Got rid of mine as soon as I could."
“You're an odd one, alright."
“Spend enough time alone with nothing but the sand for company and it'd make you a little odd too!" he lifted up his tea cup as if to give a toast. “Here's to you, General Marco! I shall not wish you success in your endeavors, for I can tell success will find you without fail!"
The human took a quick sip before raising his cup once again.
I rendezvoused with a caravan only a few hours to the East and they helped me reconnect with some scouts that were combing the area for me. Laurent was among them and he looked relieved to see me, granting control of the reins of his horse while we rode North to join the army.
Sadly, the army always seemed to be just one step ahead of us. Izil's forces left a strong impression in the villages that he passed through, not always a positive one mind you. The villages that gave provisions and showed his fennecs a warm welcomes had nothing but good things to tell about his visit. The few that refused to pay homage to the fennecs had their homes destroyed, their granaries emptied, and their livestock taken.
I wondered which option was preferable for the chimera living in the area. It must have been galling for the proud foxes, who though they might not be rich, viewed themselves as above the fennec nomads, being forced to grovel and hand over their tithes to their new lords. But was it not smarter than making a last stand that they had no chance of winning?
One particular village was flying the red flag of the Republic proudly, but as we got closer it was quickly lowered and hidden. They gave us a lordly welcome, offered us food, alcohol, vixens, and all such pleasures. They had pledged allegiance to their new fennec overlords and paid their dues, they told us, and Izil had shown no signs of mercy for those who refused so I had no choice but to believe them.
At no point during that evening did they ever betray us, not until we rode away and I looked behind, spying the red flag being raised once again.
Perhaps sometimes it was wiser to suffer a short-term disgrace than to lose everything. No doubt they hated having me and the fennecs eat their food and run our paws over their daughters, but there was no sense in making a stand, not then.
Tunis was a true gem of North Africa. From the mountain pass we took to get there, it gave quite an impression, resting up against the wide, blue waters of the Mediterranean. The architecture was similar to Sfox, being made up of white stone that glittered in the noon sun, but it was quite a bit larger, stretching from the shores a good mile before it gave way for farmland. Even from this distance, I could make out the occasional ruined spire or tower reaching out from the bay like a skeleton, which reminded me of humanity's ruins that lurked in the depths by Vulpezzia
Nestled between the bay and a lake was Tunis Castle. The Northern side of the square, stone fortress was connected to the city while the Southern side had a fortified gate to the outside world. It was no surprise to see there were cloth tents erected a good mile away from the Southern gate and I assumed correctly that this wasn't a carnival that had come to visit.
The climate was warm but chilled by the Mediterranean's breeze. Unlike the dry areas around Sfox, grass was freely growing and we passed several ranches where fennecs were busy shaking down the local ranchers for sheep and goats to fuel the army.
I lifted my waterskin to my mouth and drank. Laurent shifted in the back of my saddle, his grip around my robes growing a bit tense.
“Something the matter?" I turned back and asked him.
Laurent's ears were folded back and his gaze was forlorn, staring off at a ranch that was being persuaded to hand over some livestock. One of the ranchers got upset and grabbed a pitchfork but was stopped by a saber pressing up tightly against his throat by a fennec. During the whole ruckus, Laurent continued staring without any expression.
“Hey!" I snapped my fingers. “You okay!?"
Blinking rapidly, Laurent snapped his head away from the scene and sighed, “My apologies, General, I was just thinking about my vixen back home."
“I don't think you've ever told me her name."
Laurent paused and lowered his voice, “You never asked..."
“Well, I'm asking now. What's her name?"
“Hm! Carpathian name, right?"
“Yeah, she was born in Pest and lived her entire life under the wolves," Laurent suddenly chuckled weakly, “perhaps she would have served you better than I!"
“When my theater troupe got caught in Pest during your campaign, I just kept my head down and let the wolves do as they saw fit. If a guard wanted a bribe, my purse was open; if a noble was passing, I'd bow in the mud."
“Wolves love it when foxes do that," I spat.
“Not Reka though! When a tax collector came by to extort her for gold and uh…" Laurent shuddered lightly, “...his nose got a little too close to her for her comfort and she broke a vase over his skull."
“I like her style."
“The rest of the story...well, the tax collector fled the house, blood dripping from his head and collapsed in the street. Died of a brain hemorrhage. Wolves chased Reka down for murder, she tried her best to hide but they caught her and were gonna hang her until you showed up. If you hadn't done that risky assault on the castle..."
Laurent choked, his claws digging into my hide through the robes. I waited for him to continue.
“Canis, she's more of a fighter than me, General!" I felt his snout bury into my back. “She wouldn't have let that fucking w-wolf do-"
“I told you, Laurent, once we don't need Ekrem anymore, you can do whatever you want with him."
“He's already done whatever he wants with me..."
I didn't know how to respond to that, so I let it lie. There was only so many times I could convince Laurent that there was no shame in what he went through and it didn't make him any less of a tod. Just about every prisoner I ransomed from Salvia came back with a sore rear after being captured by the wolves and one thing was clear among all their friends when they returned: they weren't to be made fun of.
Another thought came to my head that perhaps the real thing Laurent was afraid of at that moment was for Reka. Wolves once again controlled Carpathia except there was no Alphate bureaucracy there to at least maintain some degree of civility. A different breed of wolf was ruling the area, lead by a noble who, if Galip were any indication, being his half-brother; was at best ineffectual and backed up by savage nomads who had no stake in the well-being of the citizens.
I didn't bring this up. Laurent had enough fears without me making it worse. He quivered in silence until we were within earshot of the camp and he dismounted from my horse, holding his ears and tail confidently as he marched forward.
“General Marco has returned!" he cupped his paws around his snout and cried out.
Three fennecs atop horses approached us, one of them kicked up a cloud of dust as their horse galloped, only slowing down when they were close to tackling into me. The fennec's face was covered up entirely by scarves, but I recognized Taj's brown eyes.
Taj pulled away the rags and greeted me with a smile, “The proud warrior returns!" she announced, beckoning her horse past my side and leaning forward to quickly nuzzle my cheek.
No matter how distant we were or where Taj went, she always smelled of that sweet desert rose. My heart quivered when it brushed past my nostrils.
“Canis, I missed you," I whispered as she trotted past.
“Izil waits you in his tent. We have a most interesting visitor!"
“You shall see!"
As soon as we reached the camp, we dismounted from our horses and let a young ground of fennecs lead them to an enclosure. I followed Taj through a small city full of tents, far larger than the camp I had first met Izil in.
“How many clans have joined us?" I asked Taj.
“At least ten! Our victory over Sfox has inspired them!" she proudly announced. “There's still some blood-foes of Agulez who hold out, especially in the far South. We've had to divert some forces to defend the area."
“There's even more!?"
“Fennecs are fiercely independent creatures," Taj shrugged. “But when the foxes get a black eye, we're quick to put aside our differences."
A sharp cry rang out from the castle, clearly a fox trying to get our attention. I saw a blurry, distant figure standing on the ramparts of the walls and shortly after, a smaller figure was shoved off, hitting the ground with a deafening thud.
“They lead a sortie on our camp the other night. We fought them back but they took some of us, alive and dead," Taj turned away from the wall with cold indifference. “It makes no difference to us."
Izil's large tent approached us and two guards held the opening open for us. Laurent sniffed at the air and his fur went up on ends.
“General, I think I'll sit this one out," he whispered.
Izil and Ekrem were within, I could smell them, “Look, that wolf isn't..."
“No, it's not him!"
There was a very unfamiliar scent that was wafting out, almost like vanilla. I couldn't help but be lead by my nose and I made sure to grab Laurent by the wrist and take him along with me, despite his protests.
“Ah, Marco!" Izil greeted me, sitting back on a pile of cushions. He was wearing his robes but had his head bare. “We have a most unusual guest with us!"
Sitting next to Ekrem, who leered at Laurent with mocking eyes, was a most unfamiliar creature. At first, I couldn't tell if she was a male or female, but concluded she was a female based on the diamond loop earrings hanging from her rounded ears. Her face was intensely masculine and covered in short, patchy brown furs with the occasional spot. A tight, green robe hung from her shoulders and to her feet, a short, scraggly tail peeked out.
I had only seen such a creature from drawings and the pewter figures in the Sfox Governor's mansion. I was staring at a hyena.
“Greetings, General Marco," her voice was rough but carried with it a strange sing-song giggle. She reached out her paw and I grabbed it, shaking it gently. Her pads were rough, calloused, like a blacksmith's. It was almost shocking feeling it from someone wearing such fine jewelry.
“Pleased to meet you," I cleared my throat, “I'm afraid you have me an advantage."
She leaned in, licking those massive fangs with her tongue and I was afraid she was going to lunge at me for a second before she gently sniffed and pulled back. She didn't release her iron grip on my paw for a second.
“And you, General, have put us in quite the dilemma..."