She found her way down into the animal pens beneath the Hippodrome, and found a way, also, of staying invisible, unnoticed. The animal pens were stone, too, but the beasts penned here had often been taken from warmer climes and did not like the cold—so the cages were heated by a constant stream of hot water running in pipes underneath the floors, kept hot by a system of furnaces whose attendants worked shifts and never allowed the fires to go out. It was warm down here, much warmer than her own stone cavern of a room, and Simonis had found a corner in the White Jewel section of the menagerie—for this place was large enough that each faction kept its own animals—and had simply curled up on a warm spot and observed.
She watched her father working with his bears, for bears were all he was responsible for in Visant—every animal kind had its own attendant in this menagerie. He was clad only in a loincloth and sandals, his hair tied back with a leather thong and chest slick with sweat, and he worked with a younger man by the name of Locinus who had been hired to the position that Batzas himself had come here to occupy, that of bear-keeper’s assistant. In other cages, lion-keepers and leopard-keepers and elephant-keepers tended to their own charges. It was a busy, hot place, smelling of animal musk and human sweat, and often of something else, something nebulous, a sense of animal unease, a feeling of incipient panic that the keepers had come to recognise and fear because it often presaged a concentrated outbreak of frenzied fury amongst the animals, set off by the smallest thing.
It was set off, one time Simonis was there, by something rather more significant—and it had started with Batzas’s bears.
The trouble started when a cub born to one of the White Jewel faction’s she-bears was sold—and the buyer’s agents had come to collect it. The mother had first growled menacingly, hovering protectively in front of her baby, and when that didn’t seem to get the message across to the determined humans who were going after the cub she began to roar, shaking her great shaggy head from side to side, shifting from one paw to the other in a way that left no doubt that the long sharp claws would be used without hesitation if anyone attempted to come any closer.
Several men corralled the mother bear, in the end, and dragged out the rather placid cub who seemed docile and sleepy and didn’t object too hard to being pulled away from its mother’s side. But once they had the cub and the cage slammed shut again the mother bear allowed her fury full reign, and her angry roars echoed up and down the stone casements, which set off the lions, which set off the elephants, and before long all the animals were bellowing and howling and trumpeting and the whole place was pandemonium.
“Simonis, get out of here and go home!” Batzas said, but that was all he had time for before he and his assistant were both yanked away to deal with the potential disaster of the panic.
Simonis, however, found her attention drawn to the anguished and angry mother bear, throwing herself against the bars of her cage again and again. After watching this for a few minutes, she marched over to stand just beyond paw’s-reach, planted her feet squarely on the warm stone, and began to sing to the bear in exactly the same way she had once sung to the elderly lions of Cyrenais.
For a while the bear seemed rather more intent on trying to swat this new annoyance away than on paying actual attention to it, her roaring undiminished, her great paws scrabbling against the bars of the cage. But then she suddenly ceased to bellow, cocked her head and fixed Simonis with its small, intelligent eyes, and seemed to pause and listen to the child’s song.
Nobody else noticed the little pool of sudden silence that had descended on the bear’s cage; all the keepers had their hands full calming their other charges, with commands or with the lash. It was only in the aftermath, with the tail of the menagerie panic barely stepped on, that Locinus, Batzas’s assistant, happened to look more closely into the bear cage where all the trouble had started—and then do a double take, and clutch at Batzas’s upper arm.
“Batzas,” he said in a low, intense voice, “your daughter.”
“She was here, earlier,” Batzas said, still a little distracted by the situation. “Again. I sent her home.”
“No. Batzas. Your daughter.”
Batzas became aware that Locinus was pointing with his free hand, the other still clamped around Batzas’s arm, and followed the line of the pointing finger—and suddenly gasped as though all the breath had been kicked out of his body.
Inside the bear cage, curled comfortably into the side of the mother bear who had started all the trouble, Simonis appeared to be fast asleep; the bear’s own eyes were barely open, its enormous head resting on the ground next to the child.
Batzas tried to say something through bloodless lips, and failed to make a sound come out.
“How do we get her out of there?” Locinus said. “If we try it by force—right after what we just went through—what if the animal thinks it’s another kind of cub?”
“I can’t leave my daughter sleeping in a bear’s den,” Batzas said.
“You’ll set it all off again,” Locinus said, glancing around for help. He caught the eye of one of the lion keepers and motioned him over, and then another keeper noticed the clutch of silent staring men and came to see what the new problem was, and after a few minutes the group had grown to five or six—all staring in helpless fascination at the child and the bear.
“She’s your daughter,” one of the other trainers said, actually sounding admiring.
“She used to do this,” Batzas said. “Back on the island. When she was very, very young.”
“How did you get her out of there back in Cyrenais?”
“We had…a different kind of animal,” Batzas said. “Simonis came out when she was ready. If the animals complained she actually scolded them—stood there and scolded a lion into letting her leave. But it was an old lion. This.…”
“You may have to let her scold the bear,” the lion-keeper said. “There’s no hauling her out of there right now, not after we’ve just spent the two hours calming the whole place down. It will just all start again.”
“But if the bear.…” Batzas began, going white, clutching back at Locinus. “That’s my child. My daughter. I couldn’t face my wife, not if anything.…”
“I don’t think the bear has murderous intentions,” the lion-keeper said. “We should watch her. When she wakes and tries to leave…that’s when we might all be needed. Right now…Batzas…there’s very little you can do.”
The bear is more valuable than the child. The unspoken words hung in the air. Unless the bear killed a human being, the bear could not be harmed.
Simonis dozed in the bear cage for almost an hour before she suddenly woke and sat up, rubbing her eyes. The first thing she saw was Batzas, crouched in front of the cage, his eyes not leaving the child at the bear’s side.
“Pappa,” she said.
The bear stirred, with a soft whuffle.
Batzas spoke, keeping his voice very low. “How did you get inside the cage?”
Simonis pointed to where a slightly wider gap opened up between a cage bar and an iron wall. “I fit,” she said.
“All right,” Batzas said, still calm. “Now I need you to come right back out, the same way. Come to me.”
Simonis stood, and the bear lifted her head, instantly alert. Batzas held his breath as the child reached out to the great shaggy animal, holding out her hand open-palmed.
“It’s all right,” Simonis said. “You’ll be fine now. I promise.”
The bear growled softly as Simonis turned and walked away to the gap, and squeezed through. When she was all but out, Batzas leapt to his feet and snatched her the rest of the way, scraping her ankle against the stone wall, raising a wail from the child and an answering grumble from the bear.
“It’s all right,” Simonis gasped, twisting her head around to stare back at the bear. “Pappa, you’re hurting me.”
But Batzas had collapsed back into a crouch, holding his daughter very tightly against him, his eyes squeezed shut. “Child,” he whispered, “oh, child, these are not the pets you left behind…don’t you understand, I could have lost you too…don’t ever do this, don’t ever…promise me.…”
“I promise,” Simonis said, mystified, not entirely clear on what she was promising or what the drama was. The bear had been comfortable. Friendly. A haven.
Of course she would come back
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