Chapter Twenty-Two: Schemer
"Shani! Wait for me!" Peter called. He leapt onto the zebra's back.
Shani froze and winced. "Watch the claws!"
Noah helped Peter get into position.
"Shani!" Manzi said.
Shani interrupted her and sounded annoyed. "Since when did I get so popular?"
"This is serious!" Manzi knew her voice was rising. "We can't just leave Garoe and Kenobi!"
"Orders are orders, Manzi and I know better than to cross Antonio. Do I have to remind you that I'm a zebra?"
Manzi sighed and her ears drooped.
Then, Shani turned to look back at her. He was smiling and his green eyes sparkled, like Noah's did when he was planning something. "But Antonio never said when to take you three monkeys back to the pride."
Manzi smiled until her mouth was open.
Shani winked at her. He waited until they were way out of earshot of the others before he changed course. "Hold on!" he said as he broke into a gallop. "And keep your little needles inside your paws, please!"
"Whoa!" Noah cried. "At this rate, we'll beat Saka and Qymaen!"
"Maybe not," Peter said. He knew from experience the limits of zebra speed. "But maybe we can get there before Murali pays them."
Noah chuckled. "Doesn't like to damage stuff until it's paid for, right?"
Manzi glared at him.
Noah cleared his throat. "Sorry."
Peter sighed. "Let's hope Murali thinks that Kenobi is me."
"Ha!" Noah laughed. "That pair can convince anybody of anything if it's for their own good. Let's hope they can convince ol' Murali before we get there. I know a couple shortcuts." Then the cheetah cub tapped Manzi on her shoulder. "We could get in big trouble," he said, smiling.
Manzi let go a short laugh. "I know."
* * *
Qymaen stopped. He was panting. A small cloud of dust enveloped his paws as he looked up at Saka.
Saka looked down at him without moving his head. The copper-colored cub was still hanging from his jaws.
Qymaen looked ahead to the lone, bare mountain. It's black, sharp, almost twisted shape silhouetted against the star-filled sky. The cheetah felt a tingle go down his spine and nibble the back of his skull. As he looked at the mountain, he set Garoe in the dirt so he could catch his breath. He inhaled deeply now that his jaws were free. Then he let the air burst out of his mouth harshly. "Murali's lair," he thought aloud.
Saka scratched one of his feet across the dry ground before he turned to Qymaen. "It's been a long run," he said through his teeth. The cub he was holding winced.
"Let me go!" he demanded. "I'm not your quarry!"
Qymaen tilted his head and narrowed his amber eyes. "What do you plan on doing with that runt?"
"We're gonna convince Murali that this-" Saka paused and shook Kenobi in front of Qymaen's masked face. "-is Ethro's other son," he finished.
Kenobi's black tuft of mane and the thick braid behind his ear finally stopped moving. "What?" he cried.
Qymaen's teeth glistened from under the skull mask. His eyes lit up. "You're thorn brush, Saka Sefu. But I like how you think."
Saka growled in his throat. He tipped his hat with a finger claw as he winked. The black and white stripes over his eye joined for a moment. "And I've met hyenas more trustworthy than you, Qymaen. But you're good for what you're worth as a bounty hunter." Saka's red-brown, scaled skin rippled as he smiled.
Qymaen, feeling rested enough to run again, picked up the still-unconscious, mud-colored cub at his feet. "Enough, lizard brain. We've kept Murali waiting too long." Before he could change his mind, he ran toward Murali's Lair.
As Garoe swung back and forth in Qymaen's jaws, like a pendulum keeping time with his strides, Qymaen remembered when Murali gave him the job to bring in Ethro of the North's sons. Qymaen didn't know the whole story and he wasn't sure that he should care. All he knew was that Murali wanted revenge. When Saka reported to him that Ethro was ailing from his old age, Murali saw his chance to move.
Saka seemed to sense Qymaen's thoughts. His voice vibrated and rumbled even more because he was running as he said, "I hated this partnership from the start. I'll be happier when it's dissolved."
"It won't be dissolved until we get paid."
Saka smirked, despite the cub in his jaws. "After that, you'd better hit top speed when you run back to the desert, cheetah." If Saka could've spit when he said that, he would have.
Qymaen sucked in more air. "The only reason Murali partnered us is so we would get the job done. We would've killed each other in the race to find our quarry if left to our own devices."
"Heh!" Saka's laugh came as a dripping spurt through his teeth. "I would've killed you, Skull-face! But I suppose if we weren't partnered, it would've taken months to track down both brats. The drawback came when our plans were leaked to Ethro and his Lady."
Qymaen shot a hot glare at Saka. "It was your fault that the plan was leaked!"
Saka only growled, like boulders rolling down a cliff.
Kenobi swallowed. He was nervous, but felt he needed to ask what was weighing on his mind. Now was his only chance. "Is that why Garoe and the gray cub were separated?"
"Correct," Qymaen said without as much as a glance at Kenobi. "The brothers were only a few weeks old when we started hunting for them. We learned quickly when Ethro and his Lady Norina decided to separate and seek help for their cubs. I knew what had happened when I found Ethro's body near the gorge-alone. He'd left his son to fate on the Savanna Pride's territory when a disease claimed his body. I knew I had no chance of finding my quarry on Antonio's ground, so I looked for Ethro's mate instead. I found his Lady a moon later and killed her. Unfortunately, my quarry escaped."
Kenobi looked away. Now things are starting to add up, he thought. As he watched the black mountain come closer, his thoughts turned to Manzi and Noah. They've probably gotten help from Antonio and the pride by now-if that Saber or the caracal didn't get them. He shuddered and closed his eyes, forcing the image out of his mind. When he opened his eyes, he was practically on Murali's doorstep.