by Satoimo Taro (里芋たろ)
illustrated by tongari
Once upon a time, there were two cousins born of a dark, sinister, bloodthirsty race, into a lightless, ruthless society where the quality of mercy was very much strained, no holds were barred and winners ate all (including the losers). One was possessed of a sinuous, serpentine intelligence, and indeed he did grow up with all the sleek and self-possessed and fatally charming qualities of a snake – one that smiled at you, and coiled around you, its fangs always hidden until the time was ripe.
The other boy was dropped on his head as a baby, so under normal circumstances he would have turned out all right. Instead he found himself in an environment where he was encouraged to eliminate the competition (which he blithely achieved by declaring that he loved everyone and they were all his friends), polish up on his swordsmanship (which he did, so that he might play with more people at once) and become a supreme stalker of the night, a soundless moving shadow to whom no lock or window was sacred (he was awarded the Mithril Dart in Stealth 301 for his excellence in this field, although he used it mostly to hide and pounce at people so that he might hug them before they beat him off).
The clever cousin’s name was Cougar; the stupid one’s, Bufflo . This is their story.
A Knight Banneret
An Elder of S___
A Most Noble Leader
FIERCE TIGER KING ANGEL
A Large Animal
A Wee Knight
Upon their coming of age, and the passing of all examinations and tests of the military academy that were required of a healthy and cunning young man, the cousins met by coincidence in a small bar where they were celebrating their results  in that time-honored tradition familiar to all students everywhere as Getting Piss Drunk. Not that Cougar would really get drunk; he was there to prey on any particularly delectable mortals, and get them drunk, and in his bed. He had a fondness for white wine and muscles. Bufflo on the other hand was there to bestow hugs and kisses and gropes upon everyone, and hopefully love someone or two all the way home.
They hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and they looked as alike as cousins can look, down to the floppy hair over the left eye and chiseled Adonis features and perfectly-toned, well-sculpted calves. So, naturally, when Bufflo’s friend nudged his arm and said, “That guy over there is looking a lot like you,” and Bufflo said, preening, “You mean he is looking a lot at me,” and his friend said, “No,” Bufflo turned around and saw Cougar. And Cougar, who was rumoured to have traded his soul to the devil  in return for eyes in the back of his head, tips of his ears and your bedroom, naturally saw him too.
They met, and said hello, and since it was very loud and noisy in the bar, moved out to the balcony where they bought each other beer and traded college stories. Cougar asked Bufflo where he was going after graduating from the academy.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” Bufflo said. “I wanted to get into some place where I could travel a lot and see new things and new people. I mean, I love this city, but it’s starting to get really lousy with angry boyfriends. You know what I mean?”
“Perhaps you are not exercising enough stealth in your operations,” Cougar said. “Have you considered the possibility of sleeping with the angry boyfriends too? Then they would no longer be angry.”
“I don’t want to sleep with angry boyfriends,” Bufflo said. “I’ve been thinking.”
From the grandeur of his announcement, the outflung hand, the poetic expression and split glasses of beer, Cougar deduced this was a rare occasion. “What about?” he asked.
“Outside,” Bufflo said simply. There were groups of Palus Knights whose duty it was to patrol the borders of the kingdom, ensuring that all things wicked and foul and murderous stayed within, and good and pure and well-meaning entities did not pass through into the city. But Bufflo did not mean those. He dropped his voice to an excited whisper and leaned close to his cousin; Cougar felt hot breath on his cheek, lips brushing his ear. A wind seemed to be blowing from the east, where the great gates of the city yawned open to comings and goings from lands beyond.
“Outside,” Bufflo said, wistfully, “where there are trees, and sunsets, and blondes! I’ll run away if I have to,” boldly, “and have adventures. I’ll be a pirate for a while, then I’ll be a traveling dromedary–” “Mercenary,” Cougar corrected. Bufflo slung an arm around his cousin’s slim shoulders fondly and continued, “And when I’m bored of that I’ll join a circus and juggle lions and then I’ll become a celebrate knight and rescue ravishing monsters from ravening princesses and stuff like that.”
Cougar nuzzled his cousin on the cheek, since it had been offered, and then leaned back and looked at Bufflo thoughtfully.
“If I am not mistaken it is actually celibate knight,” he said, “and frankly I’m not sure if you can or want to become one. Do you even know what a lion is?”
“Cousin of course I know how old do you think I am. It’s a camel.”
“Mammal,” Cougar said. “Cousin, I am afraid for you.”
So, in the end, when one day – many months after this conversation, when the cousins had long separated, and Cougar thought only occasionally about Bufflo but did not worry unduly since he was not visited by any unhappy spirits – there came to the School of Dark Arts a messenger bearing a large and unwieldy parcel for Cougar that, upon unwrapping, was found to contain a vast assortment of oddities, delicacies and artifacts hitherto unknown to the subterranean city’s society – a basket of powdery white cakes decorated to resemble fat smiling faces, golden eggs that shimmered under heat and hatched into bristling scaly dragonlings, delicate metal flowers inlaid with mother-of-pearl, foam-lined boxes overflowing with strange but lustrous fruits of intoxicating fragrance – when such a tantalizing trap was laid for him, Cougar smiled, and distributed the contents of the package to family and friends, and then tended his resignation letter and the next day set off with a bemused patrol group of very junior Palus Knights, all of whom duly attempted to seduce the slender, limpid-eyed, scholarly stranger who rode with them. (All of whom found themselves walking funny and reluctant to look each other in the eye, the next day.)
Bufflo had not unwittingly turned into the Marco Polo of a new era; he had merely joined a clan. The economy of Outside, as he still liked to think of it, rested solely on the raw produce of two key fields: Agriculture and Magick. Even Agriculture was not entirely free from Magick, which explained the two-headed and four-footed Weird Chickens that were so popular on Yule’s Tide, and the propensity of large fields of maize to stand up as you were leisurely passing by, scream at you, and come running over the hedge, thorns unsheathed .
But Magick was something you could not escape, having shaped the world thus far; it was in everything you touched, the air you breathed, the food you (subdued, cooked and) ate. It dictated that gold and precious minerals and sometimes entire items of worth fell from the creatures of the land as you hunted them, that sustenance and rejuvenating energy could be distilled into a potion bottle or bestowed upon others or the self through mastery of the right spells (and assuming you bribed the right magisters to teach you). In short, Magick shaped Outside such that Agriculture was no longer the driving force behind the maintenance and conquest of civilization; Magick was. And of course, Magick itself was useless, unless shaped by: People.
What Bufflo had found was not just a clan, but a clan driven by a Person – no, a Leader – with an iron will and the sort of determination you could chip diamond on (although really Bufflo adored the Marquis because the Marquis was slim, and fair, and icily beautiful, and Bufflo often listened to the Marquis’s ideological speeches while fantasizing about the Marquis in a lacy nightgown). Aside from the Marquis’s burning ambition to organize an armed force that would sweep through the competition and seize control of various castles far and wide across the kingdoms, and the subsequent training that the Marquis put his hapless clan members through, there was also Cat; a small and exquisite creature with the creamiest complexion and widest caramel-coloured eyes and softest red-brown faux-bob, who yawned and curled up in Bufflo’s lap and demanded, constantly, winningly, to be fed.
So under the direction of the Marquis, and with Cat grasping him firmly by the heartstrings, Bufflo exercised to his heart’s content all the leaping, prowling, stalking and hunting he had so finely honed; bringing home gold, and jewels, and various enchanted weapons and armours that brought elation to the Marquis’s eyes. (And also fresh game, and sweetmeats, and very expensive cakes that fully occupied Cat’s attention, and had him snuggling in Bufflo’s lap licking icing off his fingers and nose.)
It was a very charmed existence indeed for a young’un of such dark and demonic origin, and as Bufflo watched the Marquis preen and their numbers swell, as the insignia on his armour evolved gracefully from Vassal to Heir to Royal Guard to the dizzying heights of Knight Banneret, he slowly forgot the childhood he had spent belowground; slept during the night, just like the other officers who gathered adoringly at the Marquis’s feet (not too close; Bufflo wouldn’t let them), and stopped walking in the shadows, looking over his shoulder, flicking a long and tapered ear back at the slightest sound.
He had almost not sent the parcel to Cougar, but it was almost Yule’s Tide, they had just successfully sieged G___ castle, and if Cat ate any more rice cakes he might actually explode, which would have made Bufflo very sad. So he had made up the parcel and sent it to his cousin, with only a sense of blithe good faith in the postal service that it would survive the journey. He did not really notice the fact that the staff at the post office looked at the name on the parcel, panicked, wrapped it in padding and sent it off on their fastest special-express courier, mostly because the Marquis had been passing by and signaled that he wanted to talk to Bufflo urgently regarding the appointment of a good Elder, learned in the arcane arts of healing and magical enhancements, to strengthen the clan.
“Though now I honestly do not know why I called for you,” the Marquis said, after listening to Bufflo’s list of requirements for an appropriate Elder, i.e. someone with a nice ass, long tongue, strong calves and clever fingers. The Marquis didn’t want to know why clever fingers. Or strong calves. In fact the Marquis was developing the kind of headache he only got after trying to talk business with Bufflo for a while.
“Strong calves are very important for a healer,” Bufflo said earnestly. “He stands around a lot. It puts a great strain on his legs.”
“What if a female Elder applies? Would you suggest she have a strong back ?”
Bufflo developed a hunted look. “Is her name Kerowyn?”
“It was an example,” the Marquis said testily. He drummed his slender fingers on the stone armrest of the throne. Secretly it was cold and draughty in the throne room and he would have preferred somewhere cosier and warmer, but he was the Marquis, son of a revered elven lord  and head of the clan who now ruled G___; he had a reputation to uphold, other clans to impress, and now, it seemed, a chief officer to educate. He sighed.
“We have good bowmen, a solid infantry line, and Cat’s healing powers are unsurpassed,” the Marquis said. “But you know how damned hard it is to wake him when he doesn’t feel like it. He will always be our Bishop, but that still leaves the position of Elder wide open, and this isn’t a position you just throw the doors open and announce an opening for–”
He was interrupted by the sound of doors being flung wide open and a voice announcing: “The esteemed ex-Magister of SoDA, Elder of S___ and Widely Regarded As Being the Spawn of Satan and Aphrodite Themselves, Do Not Attempt to Seduce This Man Or Else–”
“I can see myself in,” Cougar said. “Hello, cousin! Thank you for the lovely parcel.”
Bufflo stared. Then he stared some more, and more, until he became somewhat cross-eyed and had to balance himself because Cougar had come right up to him to give him a hug (and cop a feel, because Bufflo was wearing the right sort of armour for it). The Marquis had looked up at the word ‘Elder’ with the sort of alert high carriage a hunting-horse develops upon hearing a hound raise the scent.
“Er,” Bufflo said. “Cousin, this is the Marquis of G___.”
“Only recently,” the Marquis said modestly. “I hear you are an experienced Elder of S___?” The Marquis had remarkably selective hearing under the right conditions.
“I gave my card to the footman,” Cougar said, equally modestly. “I do hope I’m not imposing on your time. Really I only came in the spirit of the season, and to see how my dear cousin has been faring since his self-imposed exile. Mother  wants to know if you’ve found a nice boy yet,” he said to Bufflo, reaching out a hand to dust at Bufflo’s collar. The Marquis noticed he had remarkably dextrous fingers, and rolled his ‘s’s with a snakelike tongue. The rest of the details he decided he would leave to Bufflo.
“Let’s conduct personal conversations when I’m off duty?” Bufflo suggested. For all the fearsome spikes and heavy plating of his armour he was backing slowly into a corner, and fingering the hilt of his sword.
“We are all very informal here,” the Marquis said with the speed of a cobra striking. “Perhaps you would like to join us for tea where Bufflo could tell you about life as a Royal Guard and how much we would appreciate the presence of an Elder in our ranks to succeed at our next bid for A___ Castle. It is very good tea,” as Cougar pursed his lips, apparently considering the offer. “Knight Banneret – Knight Banneret – Bufflo – did you manage to buy any scones?”
“Ah, let’s talk business in private,” Bufflo hissed at him, but Cougar’s ears had already pricked up.
“You buy your pastry?” he asked. Bufflo hid his face in his hands.
“We have not been having much success with cooks,” the Marquis admitted. “Mainly because Bufflo tends to chase them away.”
Cougar’s eyes, under their long, long lashes, gleamed.
Later, when the entire force of the Marquis’s army was for the most part sound asleep in their beds, and only the sentries on duty were awake to be slightly unnerved by the feel of something, long and black and sleek, slipping through the shadows at the very edges of the dim lantern-light – when Outside was caught in that net of darkness which was nothing more than second nature, Underground – Cougar was interrupted in his baking.
He was in the middle of whipping egg whites into stiff peaks, humming a pleasant ditty  to himself in the stillness of the castle’s great stone-flagged kitchen and watching the firelight dance stilt-legged across the walls, when a voice purred deep in the shadows: “Cousin.”
“Cousin,” Cougar replied amiably. “Could you pass the sugar?”
There was a pause, a disgruntled rumbling, the sound of cupboards opening, sniffing, and then a claw-tipped hand the colour of pale ash dipped out of the shadows. It held a sugar jar.
“Thanks,” Cougar said. He crumbled sugar liberally into the whites, picked up the bowl, and started to whisk again. From the shadows somewhere beyond the shelves that were starting to pile high with jars of cookies and still-steaming loaves of fruitcake, there issued a sort of grumbling low whine.
“I don’t see why you’re so upset about my appointment as Pastry Chef,” Cougar said. “It’s only at nights and in the daytime when you go hunting I am more than happy to accompany you as Elder; to heal, empower, sustain and ravish as required. And your pantry is in a frightfully empty condition, seeing that Yule’s Tide is almost upon us.”
“I didn’t want you to come checking up on me,” Bufflo said sulkily. “I’m having fun on my own. With them. I’m Knight Banneret of the clan that holds G___ Castle! Me! Remember how Master Harant used to say I’d never amount to anything?”
“You slept with his boyfriend. I don’t think he was kindly disposed to say nice things about you for a long time.”
“Well he was just one person,” Bufflo said. “No one back home ever thought I’d amount to anything. Someone would always come along and save me. I mean, for once, just once, I want to be the person who comes along and saves me. Or someone else. For once.”
He watched Cougar spoon the meringue mix out onto a greased and papered pan (one large tablespoonful, one and a half inches apart).
“It seems to me that you are doing quite well,” Cougar said.
“Then why do you have to come along?” Bufflo pouted.
“If I don’t,” Cougar said, “how will you know whether you are really doing well, or if it just so happens that nothing is challenging you?”
He spooned the last drop of meringue onto the paper. In the silence that followed, there was the very faint tick-tick of Bufflo’s ears flicking as he tried to process this statement.
In the morning there was an enormous commotion: Cat was missing. In his bedroom there appeared to have been signs of a struggle.
“I’LL KILL HIM,” Bufflo said. “I mean, the guy who kidnapped Cat. I’LL KILL HIM.”
“How will you know who he is?” Cougar asked. He had changed out of his crisp chef’s uniform into a tight white robe with black fur collar and gold trimming and a pair of iridescent, eye-wateringly scarlet boots that came up to the thigh. The Marquis had raised an elegant blond eyebrow upon Cougar’s grand entrance at the breakfast table, but merely nodded, as one craftsman to another.
“By smell,” Bufflo said. “He smells like sugar. And cream! And custard. And meringues.”
“With the amount of emergency supplies Cat keeps in his room,” the Marquis said, “anyone entering Cat’s room is bound to come out smelling like a small bakery for a few hours afterward. And you did overturn the multi-tiered cake tray when you were in there this morning sniffing around.”
“It’s me, then,” Bufflo said. “I’LL KILL ME.”
“I would appreciate it if you could return to your usual duties and let the Royal Guards investigate,” the Marquis said wearily. “It is nearly the end of the year and I’d appreciate my Knight Banneret’s attention to organize festivities and beef up security forces, and quietly dispose of auditors. I am worried about Cat as much as you are. But I think we can agree he has a certain knack for convincing other people to take care of him.”
The towers and minarets of G___ Castle glowed a splendid warm russet in the rosy new light of dawn, and the lush green hills and placid shimmer of the rivers laid like an overwhelming carpet at its feet made a beautiful sight to greet anyone walking moodily out of the castle. Unfortunately the efforts of castle, dawn, hills, water and atmospheric physics were completely wasted on Bufflo, who barely noticed that it was light, and who had for the moment concentrated all his waking power into his nose.
“Cousin,” Cougar said, tripping him up gently and preventing him from tumbling off the side of the bridge into the river-gorge below, “I don’t think you are fully exercising your talents. You understand it is impossible to track your friend by smell. What else can you use, to tell you where he has gone?”
“How can I tell where someone else has taken him?” Bufflo said, getting to his feet. He moved with his usual languid grace, but his dispiritedly drooping ears and strained expression showed exactly how miserable, and unloved, and irritable, he felt.
“Who would want to take him?” Cougar asked.
Bufflo was struggling for an answer when a shadow blotted out the light in the sky. It was not a calm grey shadow as expected from a thunderstorm. It was a large, four-footed, hulking shadow with both feline grace and a remarkable sense of teeth about it.
“Growl,” it said. “Growl roar roar. Uh . . . Purr?”
“IT IS A GIANT STIPED KITTY WITH BIG TEETH,” Bufflo said, springing into defensive stance with both blades at the ready and looking much more comfortable to be in his element (danger in front and pointy things in his hands). “STAND BACK, COUSIN.”
“Being terrified, I have no choice but to remain where I am,” Cougar said. Bufflo completely missed how he slid a faintly disapproving look over at the enormous white tiger who crouched over him, and also the slightly crestfallen whimper the great cat gave in response. “After all I have recognized that this is the fearsome Fierce Tiger King Angel, Fallen Lord of the Scorching Flame, Devourer of Cities and Civilizations, who apparently cannot read simple scripts and is not going to have a good time tonight.” This last sentence was uttered in too high a frequency for Bufflo to hear, although the Tiger King himself cringed and gave Cougar a furtive, beseeching look.
“Oh, all right,” Cougar said. “Get on with it, and work on sounding more like a frightening lord of beasts another day.”
“Snarl,” the Tiger King said woefully. He dutifully raised a giant paw, large enough to flatten mere mortals beneath, and dropped something in front of Bufflo. On closer inspection it turned out to be a heavy-duty lunchbox, with several separate air-tight divisions for soup, starters, gravy, garnishings and dessert.
“I THINK HE TOOK CAT,” Bufflo said in great distress.
The Tiger King sighed, leant down, and picked up Cougar in its jaws (“If I detect any drool on my collar, I am sending you the dry-cleaning bill”), very very gingerly.
“I say, help,” Cougar called out, but it was too late, the Tiger King had turned around and, as suddenly as it had appeared, was taking off with a surprising turn of speed. Up over the hills, in a great bound over the river, and then it was galloping through the mists of the neighbouring swampland and Bufflo could no longer follow its movement; it faded, like a bad dream, and was no more. It was too sudden; I was too shocked to move, he thought, numbly, and not without a certain amount of shame.
(If he had bothered to look down he would have realized that that was not it; he had been pinned to the ground by a temporary spell of Root, a nasty little paralyzing trick that only Elders tended to specialize in.)
“RIGHT,” Bufflo said. “TIGER KING ANGEL, GET.”
The little knightling whom he had managed to drag with him (“I need bait – I mean, a squire! I need a squire!”) crouched miserably behind him and wished desperately to have called in sick that morning. It had been a very long and miserable journey to the lonely waterfall which the Tiger King called home, and being born of the spirit of water and raised like a treasured young sapling amidst a culture of great calm and enlightenment and surrounded by things of beauty and light, having to spend two hours in the company of an irate Bufflo who sharpened his swords as he walked and seemed to burn with a negative demonic aura of vengeance was not very good for the little knightling’s nerves.
“Over the bridge,” Bufflo said, “and then into the caves beyond. You walk ahead of me, and if you hear anything, I want you to strip. Got that?”
The knightling blinked at him. He was really a very delicate and precious specimen of his kind, with skin the colour of Cougar’s meringues, and a clear wide gaze of the most brilliant crystalline blue. Unfortunately the spaces in Bufflo’s heart reserved for ‘wee and cute’ were immovably occupied by Cat’s warm, mild, honey-gold eyes.
“I did some research,” Bufflo said, “apparently he’s a really horny bastard. Off you go,” and he shoved the little knight ahead of him, with an appreciative slap on the ass. He’s a very brave and rather fetching little lad, Bufflo thought absently as he prowled along in the knight’s trembling wake; must reward him when we get back. If we get back—
“Meow,” a voice purred over his shoulder. Bufflo hadn’t remembered the Tiger King as occupying so little space previously, but, as he reflected while being hurled bodily into the rock wall, and then having his arms twisted behind his back while he peered around groggily, it was possible that there was such a thing as a Tiger Prince. In fact, as he heard the clang of breastplate and shoulderpads and codpiece and flank-guards falling to the rock floor, and felt claw-tipped fingers tracing the contours of his bare skin appreciatively, he wondered if there were multiple Tiger Princes, and if they might look deceptively less feline than their parent, and had spent lots of time learning how to undo armour that he himself sometimes gave up and fell asleep in because the buckles defeated him.
“Avast and prepare to be skinned, evil creature!” he said. It had significantly less impact than he had imagined, probably because his face was being pressed into the floor. Also he had not found himself in this kind of position for a very long time and a) his knees hurt, b) the blood going to his head was making him dizzy and c) his ass was freezing. In the very back of his mind he solemnly promised himself and his (rapidly dwindling prospect of) future partners that all his future trysts would involve lots of padding, and he would be gentle.
“Purr,” the Tiger Prince said; Bufflo thought it sounded funny, as though the Prince had spent so long with his paws in the shape of human hands (one currently holding Bufflo’s arm helpless behind his back and the other setting out on an express investigative journey, starting with the hollow of Bufflo’s collarbone and moving steadily downwards from sternum to navel to groin), and his muzzle in the shape of human lips and chin, that he had forgotten how to speak like a real cat. But his tongue moved like a real cat’s tongue; rough and raspy, and he knew too well how to use it on the sensitive ridges of Bufflo’s long ears and nape of neck and that impossible to reach tickle-spot between the shoulderblades, which, when reached, reduced Bufflo to quivering jelly. Well. Almost all of Bufflo; there was one particularly delicate portion of him that had become so un-jelly-like as to prove very uncomfortable, more so when the Tiger Prince decided to devote some attention to it.
“Maybe avast isn’t the right word,” Bufflo found the strength to say, when his voice returned and the Tiger Prince had moved his mouth away. “How about beware and prepare to be skinned goosnarghhhhh!”
There were several places on Bufflo that enjoyed attention at the expense of limiting his logical thought and action, and the Tiger Prince seemed to be remarkably talented at finding all of them out; purring his somewhat wrong, not entirely convincing, “Purr?” every time Bufflo involuntarily confirmed that he had indeed found a good spot. One warm, very private place in particular which normally did not see much action, but which Bufflo was sharply reminded about when the Tiger Prince sought it out with long and dextrous and remarkably clever fingers. Hey, Bufflo thought weakly, that’s my job, I’m not used to having it done on me. And I’m normally very liberal in my usage of lubricant.
Bufflo found himself reciting what he knew about the Tiger King; apart from being a horny bastard, the Tiger King was something of a local black hole in the sense that once one disappeared into his den, the living world never saw one ever again. The rest of his life stretched out miserably in front of him (well, not entirely miserably; as much as he hated to admit it the sex promised to be remarkably good).
But he hadn’t come here just to challenge the Tiger King, he remembered. He’d come here to take Cat back. And his cousin! For all the times Cougar had effortlessly snatched him from the jaws of death (or unhappy traders, or indignant teachers, or raving perverts), there must have been at least one time where Cougar must have been tempted to just lie down and accept defeat (ignoring the penetrating question of how good the sex had been). But never once had Cougar succumbed, or given up, or caved in. Bufflo always remembered his cousin emerging triumphant, dragging himself by one hand, or the collar, or once, direly, by the ear.
He assessed the situation. His arms were firmly locked behind him; he could barely feel his fingers any more. He tried to kick out with his legs, but very quickly realized that what he had hitherto thought to be bars of steel locking his knees apart were the Tiger Prince’s thighs. Also, if he tried anything funny he would probably end up getting dumped groin-first on the unforgiving floor, and although he was stupid he had enough imagination to want to avoid that happening. Which left only his teeth – but his enemy was behind him, and he couldn’t turn his neck around enough to make use of that. Really, Bufflo thought, what was a stupid numbskulled Bufflo to do?
This, ultimately, was his answer.
“For Cat,” he said, “and Cousin.” And in a truly superb exhibition of muscles he hadn’t known he’d had and a split-second swiftness he hadn’t known he possessed, Bufflo lowered his head, steeled himself, and headbutted, backwards.
Cougar blinked lazily at him, tossed aside the broken pieces of the rock he had used to absorb the impact of Bufflo’s headbutt, and gave him an affectionate peck on the cheek. Bufflo performed a superb verbal equivalent of flailing, which involved opening and shutting his mouth a lot while various words swarmed forth and died like so many lemmings.
“Consider it an early Yule’s Tide present,” Cougar said. “I imagine the Marquis would be quite chuffed to learn that you . . . subdued the notorious Tiger King in order to return triumphantly with your beloved Bishop and Elder, wouldn’t he?”
The imagery that surfaced to the relatively flat, simple pool of Bufflo’s mind was not entirely unpleasant. “But,” he said, “I didn’t.”
“Cat is easily bribed,” Cougar said levelly. “The Tiger King himself is of course one hundred percent on our side. And you thought I was the Tiger King, yet you fought me . . . I imagine it is the same thing.”
“Why did you do it? I told you I didn’t need your help any more–”
“For me,” Cougar said simply. “I wanted to see what you’d do if things turned out differently for once, and instead of me saving you, you’d be in a position where you’d have to fight to save me. Didn’t you read somewhere  that true courage is standing up to fight when you know you’re beaten?”
“You used to say that was true stupidity.”
“I lied,” Cougar lied. “Go and fetch Cat; follow the smell of meringue. I stocked up quite well.”
“But the struggle in his room!”
“That was him trying to ambush me when he smelt the meringues.”
“And the Tiger King kidnapped you!”
“At my request,” Cougar said. “My, you certainly are earnest in your insistence on sticking around. Would you rather I finished what I started?”
Bufflo snorted and picked up his armour.
“I love you, cousin,” he said. “But let’s get something straight here: I go on top.”
He ignored Cougar’s unconvinced snickering. There was a kind of warm fuzzy feeling coming over him, although it was really insufficient in these draughty conditions and in Cougar’s presence one always did feel the need to put on some pants. He strapped on his breastplate and stalked away, resolving to get Cat’s help with the codpiece and thigh-guards. Next time, he thought, I’ll get to him first, and then we’ll see who’s snickering.
On his chest, where it caught the light, the insignia of Knight Banneret blazed proudly.
The fair little knightling had actually made quite a long circuit of the cave and its winding corridors, and, although he didn’t know it, was now coming back to the passage where he had initially lost Bufflo to Cougar’s clutches. He was humming desperately to keep his spirits up, which was how he had managed to avoid hearing the commotion caused by their struggle (thus proving that there is a God, because his delicate sensibilities might have fused had he actually been witness to the proceedings). From time to time he waved his hand and sent a column of bright light glittering into the air above his pale head, both to light his way and to cheer himself up. He was beginning to feel very small, and forgotten, and afraid, and would not have minded even a hug from Bufflo at that moment to reassure him in all this cold lonely gloom.
He looked up. There was a faint streak of light up ahead – an exit! And standing in the light was something – he strained his eyes, and stumbled eagerly forward –
“Purr,” the baby cougar said. It was sunning itself in the sunlight; it was the most adorable creature you could imagine, fluffy and white with pale grey tiger-stripes, and the longest, fuzziest, most mobile set of ears you could imagine. It looked up at the knight as he approached, and yawned, exposing a surprisingly full set of little white teeth. When he crouched beside it, it jumped into his lap, and licked at his face with a papery, baby-pink tongue. The little knight laughed, and let it nuzzle warmly under his chin. As with most members of the feline family, the little knight felt that he might have to ask permission to keep it, but right now, the animal was the one making the decision to keep him.
“I’ll ask Bufflo if we can take you home,” the knight said. “He brought me here to help him.”
“Purr,” Cougar said, kneading his paws on the little knight’s shoulder. “In that case I shall have to thank him for his early Yule Tide’s present.”
 His teachers considered it a testament to his unintelligence that he usually failed to spell his name right, but as he later explained, he just didn’t like vowels. He said they were snobbish, and gave him wind.
 There were no grades; the Education Board was adamant that their students should learn the truth of the world early, i.e. one either Survived, or Died.
 Whom they worshipped, so this was not so much a social stigma as it was a sort of class status. The devil doesn’t just take any old soul you know.
 Species reaction. When a herbivorous collective becomes sentient the question is less ‘what are we?’ and more ‘who is eating us and what can we do about it?’
(5) Not as prestigious or pretty as A___, but with significantly powerful mercantile presence and its own live-in pervert ghost.
 Female Elders and male Elders, though sharing the same taste in wardrobe for red-sequinned robes, thigh-high boots and little black thongs, were very easily differentiated by way of chest profile.
 Who received pleasing news from time to time of the territories that his son the Marquis had conquered, and remained happily unaware of the company that his son had bedded.
 Despite being Cousins they shared the same Mother, a feat neither of them ever wanted to have explained to them since it would involve at least an hour of listening to their elders’ historical achievements in the bedroom.
 It was about blood, which made it slightly less pleasant if you understood Cougar’s dialect. However, most people who spoke his dialect tended to be fond of blood, therefore it was really rather pleasant after all.
 Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.
1. This entire fic pays homage to a most wonderful MMORPG and the people I play it with, although it makes absolutely no use of the in-game mythology. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent, and the totally perverted.
2. If you have not heard of the wonderful J-drama MY BOSS MY HERO, from whose title the title of this work is derived, you should. You totally should.