by Vylar Kaftan

Keloc nuzzled his mate’s throat, licking the sweet oil mixed with her sweat.  Underneath the honey masking-scent, she tasted like fear.  Duv whimpered, her black fur rough beneath his tongue.  She lay across the bedding, on her spine, bent slightly backwards to expose the weak place where her pelvic and ventral bone plates met.  She wore a red-orange cloth tied around her right top-leg–a new decoration she’d made just for tonight with tanyan-root dye.  On the wall above her head she had scratched a spiral–a fertility symbol, for good luck.

Neither of them had done this before.  Keloc was just as frightened as she was, but he hid it.  He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing.  In his mind he saw Duv bleeding to death, clutching her belly as her lifeblood streamed out between her paws.  The image had haunted him all day.  His eyes flew open and he glanced next to the bedding.  The clay medicine pot sat there, in easy reach, next to Duv’s dye-pots and weaving projects.  Keloc ran his tongue against the back of his fangs and looked at Duv.

“Are you ready?” he asked her.

Below him, his mate nuzzled his top-leg and stretched her mouth.  She spoke no words, but he sensed that she was willing.

He exposed his drill from its sheath.  The organ was gray-white bone, extending from his right top-leg about the length of three paws.  Its narrow tip widened gradually to the base against his skin.  The Sacred Spiral’s groove circled its length.  His blood rushed through his body and warmed him.  Blood-chemicals, Griz had told him, although he had forgotten the exact word the older male had used.  Keloc had seen his organ during adolescence, but had never used it to inspire life in a female.  At the sight of it, Duv’s eyelids flared, but she said nothing.

His mate had no opening to her womb–he must create it.  He placed the tip against her abdomen, on the weak point where bone plates had fused during her cubhood.  Duv’s legs shook at his touch.  Extra sweat welled up from the pores near her bottom-legs, giving her belly a slippery sheen under its thin fur.  Keloc paused, his drill against her skin.  She breathed against him, in and out, shallowly and quickly.  In the old days males would inspire without caution, and many females died.  Keloc pushed the thought from his mind.

“It’s all right,” he whispered.  He bent down and lovingly licked her sweat where her bottom-legs met her belly.  Duv squirmed as his tongue rasped against her glands.  Her tail twitched on the bedding, its bony tip thumping against the surrounding rocks.  Keloc smoothed his mate’s breast, where the downy belly-fluff gave way to heavier fur.  He used his left top-leg to reach for her tail, intending to catch it.  Duv froze, then curled her tail into a ball.  She tried to stretch her mouth into laughter, but she only managed a half-yowl.

All this time, the drill had been poised over her womb–a reminder of what would come.  Keloc pulled his right top-leg away.  “We don’t have to do this, little fish.”

“We do,” insisted Duv.  “I want to do this.  I want a cub.”

Keloc studied his mate.  Her yellow eyes were dull, and her tail thumped again.  “I worry that I’ll hurt you.”

“We don’t know until we try.  Maybe I’m garooin, like my cousin.”

A Hero-Mother.  Keloc loved his mate with all the warmth in his blood, but sometimes he saw ambition seize her, like a fish leaping out of water.  Duv wanted so much from her life.  It was a place he couldn’t follow her–a place where he couldn’t breathe.  He said, “It would be an honor indeed, but–not likely.”

“It runs in clans,” she insisted–more with hope than belief, Keloc felt.

“Sometimes,” he said.  He was having trouble focusing on the conversation.  Just above her belly, his bone rotated with desire.  He tapped the drill’s end with his left paw.  It broke the skin.  He licked his injured paw and tasted blood.  “Little fish, you’re sure?  You will want to raise the cub, not just experience the ecstasy of birth?”

“Shrah.  What do you think?” she asked, baring her fangs.  Her tail lashed against the wall.  “This was my idea.”

Duv rarely used such language.  Keloc tilted his head in apology.  “I just wanted to be sure.  If you turn out to be garooin, you will need to mate all the time.  You will be constantly impregnated by a variety of males.”  His bone stopped spinning at the thought.  It retracted and hid in its sheath.

“Including you,” she reminded him.  “You would be my primary coupling.”  She grabbed his top-leg near the upper joint.  Her paws were stained purple and orange from her work.  Her long top-leg scars held the deep blue dyes.  The marks vanished against her black fur like they belonged there.  “Keloc, my sunpuddle.  Mate with me.”

“Little fish,” he whispered.  He wanted to wait, to tell the Council they weren’t ready yet.  But his bone emerged again, spiraling rapidly.  Keloc paused while Duv slowed her breathing.  She relaxed beneath him.  He tried to calm himself.

He had spent days questioning older males, planning his entry.  “There’s a mark there,” his father told him.  “A dark spot on the skin, underneath the fur.  Aim for that.  She’ll tell you if it hurts too much–she won’t even have to tell you.  No female can hide it.  If she feels too much pain, she shouldn’t be a mother.”

“Stop if she tells you to,” said his older brother.  “She’s your lifemate.  You don’t want to kill her.”

His friend Griz knew the most, or at least sounded like he did.  Griz had inspired life in twenty different females and had hundreds of cubs.  He heard news that most of the villagers never did.  He was particularly interested in the Council’s sexual studies.  “Aim upwards at an angle,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll strike her veins and she’ll die of blood poisoning.  Also, coat yourself with the medicine.  It’ll get some inside her, which helps her heal.  And stop if she feels too much pain, but you know that.”

Keloc had almost forgotten.  He leaned over to the table and dipped his drill into the medicine.  It was slimy and thick, like jellied seaweed.  His rotation splattered gunk against the wall.  He felt nothing on the bone, but it tingled where it sprayed his arm.  With his left paw, he inspected Duv’s skin beneath her fur.  He didn’t see the mark his father had mentioned.  His bottom-legs sweated.

She yowled.  “I’m ready, my love.”

Keloc’s blood warmed at the sight of her, sleek against the bedding.  Griz had told him to put Duv on her back during penetration, because it was a more natural position.  Keloc had been willing to do anything to ease her pain.  All females experienced some pain during the sexual act, of course.  Even Talasee–Duv’s cousin, the famous Hero-Mother–felt some discomfort.  But she said the joy of live birth made it all worth it.  Griz said it had to do with the Kurish evolution from treecats to their upright forms, with more complex nerve systems and protective bone structures–that was why treecats had sex so easily and frequently, while Kurish had such troubles.

Keloc placed his bone against Duv’s hard belly.  Her yellow eyes slitted at him.  She whispered,  “Pierce me.”

Carefully he pushed forward and broke the skin.  Duv gasped but stretched her mouth as if delighted.  Keloc’s organ spiraled in its socket.  His bone forced its way through delicate veins and drilled through her body’s weakness.  Separating her flesh was like parting a curtain.  Delight heated his blood, despite his concern for his lifemate.  Duv was breathing quickly but evenly, and she had not protested yet.

Keloc’s drill struck bone.  Duv shrieked.  The sound of bone grating against bone filled the lair.  Shrapnel sprayed across her belly as he broke through her ventral plate.  She yowled and bit her tongue so hard it bled out the side of her mouth.  Keloc tried to withdraw, but she begged, “Keep going–I’m fine–we’re so close–”

Keloc spiraled deeper, into her body’s most sensitive parts.  He licked her throat feverishly, wishing his tongue could convey his empathy.  She writhed beneath him as he pushed past nerves, the same ones that would speak such ecstasy when their cub was born.  It helped to imagine Duv in cub-birth, moaning with pleasure.  Pain now, but such joy later–such unimaginable joy, that he with his shriveled vestigial womb would never feel.  “Hold still,” he whispered, fearing that she would injure herself.  She froze and held her breath.

Keloc found what he sought–the core of his mate.  He buried his bone in her womb.  His drill’s center opened like a hollow reed.  Around him, Duv’s womb built a flesh-and-blood blanket to accept the cub he would inspire.  It took only minutes, but nothing hurt like the final spiral, females said–worse than drilling through flesh or bone.  Duv yowled–a long, drawn-out sound that faded into hoarseness.

“My love,” Keloc whispered, as his rotation sped up.  “Little fish, little fish.  We are almost done.  Now is the time to say–is it too much?”  Her flesh surrounded him.  Her bone plates trapped his male organ.  He would do anything for this female, anything she asked–even kill himself, if that was her desire.  Somewhere he knew this was blood-chemicals speaking, but nothing had ever felt more real.  He belonged to her.  “Duv.  I can stop.  Is this too much?  You must tell me.”

Duv didn’t answer.  She foamed at the mouth.  Flecks of yellow spittle bubbled past her fangs.  She moaned, and bloody foam sprayed out.  “Shrah, shrah, frriffit shrah–”

Keloc’s blood burned.  He could barely resist his body’s urge, but his concern for Duv overrode instinct.  He began his outward spiral, but she shrieked, “No!  Keep it there–frrrrrrrrrrr–”

Keloc could not deny her.  His bone opened fully.  Hot liquid streamed into Duv’s womb.  He thought of nothing else as he inspired, not even the cub she would create.  All that mattered was the moment–the ecstatic hot-blood rush, like flight above the trees.  He was lost where his mate could not reach him, at a height from which she would fall.  But just after he impregnated her, when his senses returned, he felt cold–something was not right, his mate was injured–

Duv trembled beneath him.  Blood-streaked foam soaked her lips and dripped on the bedding.  Keloc separated as quickly as he could.  His bone unscrewed from her hole and retracted.  Brown liquid dripped from him onto her belly.  Keloc reached for the medicine, and in his haste he knocked the jar over.  It shattered on the ground.  Horrified, he pawed out some jelly and smoothed it over her belly wound.  The medicine mixed with blood and bone fragments to make a clear seal.  The gummy cover was strong enough to keep out infections, but weak enough that the emerging cub could rip through it when the bone plates separated for its birth.

Duv shook on the bed.  Keloc wiped her mouth gently with the back of his paw.  He licked the sour-tasting foam off her face.  He sung her name a dozen times, on a musical note reserved for his lifemate.  He curled his body around hers and hummed her birth-song.  She had changed.  She did not taste like Duv.

“Duv,” he said, “I am worried about you.”

“I’m fine,” she said after a moment.  She spit on the ground and rubbed her mouth with a blanket.  “It was a little painful but not unbearable.”

“And I fear for this cub.”

Duv’s face hardened.  “I handled it.  I know the Council will approve the pregnancy.”

“But the pain–”

“All females feel some pain.”

“Duv–”

“Shrah!  I’m fine.  It hurt less than when I got my scars.  Aisf will be here later tonight to confirm our cub for the Council.  We will have a cub, sunpuddle.  It’s growing inside me, right now.  Think of it–how small it is, but how strong it will become!”

Keloc’s tail curled.  Aisf would test Duv’s blood, and blood did not lie.  He said, “Little fish, I hope you are right.”

“I feel sure that this will be a son.”

He said nothing.  Eight females were born for every male.  In primitive times, this was needed, as so many females bled to death while mating.  Now it meant there were too many females to find their proper mates–many had to share.  The whole Council was made of females who either hadn’t tried to mate or had felt too much pain.  The idea to breed only females with high pain tolerance had been theirs.  Keloc stroked the scars on Duv’s top-legs, where she’d slashed herself last year to earn a sexual license–a feat none of her sisters had accomplished.  Duv had desired a cub since she was very small.  He licked her bottom-leg and tasted blood.

“Duv!” he exclaimed.  “You’re still bleeding.”

She looked at her belly.  Red-orange blood seeped from the seal’s edges.  “It happens.  More medicine.”

He obeyed, scooping medicine off the dirt floor and spreading it across her wound.  “Little fish, I will consult Griz.  He will know what to do.”

“You will not!” she hissed.  “Don’t tell Griz anything.”

“But–”

Duv wrapped her top-legs around her belly.  “Don’t talk to Griz.  If you tell him I had some pain, he will tell Aisf.  Tell him that everything went wonderfully.  I felt very little.”

“And what will you do when Aisf comes?” asked Keloc, his blood still hot from inspiration.  His tail thumped against the wall.  “She will test your blood and know how much pain you had.  We shouldn’t have finished.”

“It was not so much pain.  I have fought for this my whole life, Keloc.  We will have a son.”

“Aisf will abort him.”

She snarled and raked claws towards his face.  Keloc leaped away into a fighting stance.  He wanted to attack–to shred the tender spot on her throat.  He forced himself back to his senses.  They stared at each other without blinking.  The female before him was hardly his lifemate.  They were animals, like a pair of their ancestral treecats, who met for mating and then were strangers to each other.

Duv slowed her breathing and tilted her head.  Keloc did the same, accepting her apology.  “I want to be alone,” she whispered.  “I want to pray for our son’s quick mind and shiny coat.”

“Your sisters will be here soon–to sing for you before the blood test.”

“I will send them away.  I am tired.”

Keloc had seen this mood before.  She sometimes resisted female rituals–to Duv, her sisters were competition rather than comfort.  He wanted to stay with her, to smooth her fur and soothe her thumping tail–and to be sure her injury didn’t worsen.  But he deferred to her wishes.  Once she decided something, there was no way to stop her.

“Tonight smells pleasant.  I will go out,” he said, stretching.  “Perhaps to the grove or the waterfall.  I will return by daybreak, after Aisf has been here.”  And I will ask Griz what to do, he thought, knowing Duv would be angry if she found out–but he needed help for her.

Duv stretched her mouth and licked the remaining foam with a long salmon-colored tongue.  “When you return I will be calmer.”

“If the bleeding worsens, you will call someone?”

“Yes.”

“Little fish.”  They touched noses.  Hers was cold–understandably, given her mood.  He wondered if his own nose gave away his deception.  She curled on the bedding, staring at her belly.  Keloc sang her name quietly and left the lair.

Outside was nightfall and light rain.  The baked-mud huts glistened in the moist air.  Tall walls shielded the settlement from the wind and from the predatorial dyaki.  The greens smelled fresh tonight, and a trace of blossom scented the air.  Nearby he smelled other Kurish–their sweat, their firewood, the contents of their kitchens.  Keloc looked up at the moons.  Three were visible tonight, which was a good sign.  A female treecat screeched somewhere.  She was in heat.

Keloc remembered Duv’s face against the bedding, her eyes dull, his hot blood as he pierced her.  He dropped to three legs, imagining his ancestral males taking females at their pleasure.  He bent his right top-leg at an angle underneath him, as if he had a female there.  His sheath opened slightly and the drill-tip poked out.  Keloc paused, disgusted with himself, and stood up again.

Griz lived on the settlement’s edge, where the walls met the treeline.  He heard news from other clans and from the Council.  As a male, he couldn’t be on the Council, but he still knew a great deal of their discussions.  Only Aisf knew more, and that was because she was the local Council representative.

Keloc had admired Griz for as long as he could remember.  His first memory of Griz was visiting his rich lair, with its decorated rocks and soft bedding.  Keloc had exclaimed, “You sleep on beautiful things!” and not understood why the adult had stretched his mouth with amusement.  The older male took a liking to Keloc, and treated him like a son.  Later of course Keloc understood that the beautiful bedding was meant to please females, of which Griz had a great many.  Griz had a reputation for meticulous care and precise penetration.  He had never lost a mate, although he turned many away.  He would not mate with any female he suspected to be weak.

When Keloc arrived, Griz was reading a leaf-mat with a fine weave–something from the city, most likely.  Griz set it aside and sniffed him.  “Keloc,” he greeted him, on an appropriate note between friends.  “You smell upset.  What’s wrong?”

Keloc sniffed him too.  Griz smelled like he’d been thinking about something difficult.  It was a familiar scent for him–a particular sharpness to his natural aroma.  “Griz,” Keloc began, and stopped.  He saw Duv’s point–he couldn’t tell the truth about what had happened.  Griz would just say that a weak female must not be allowed to bear cubs.  He twitched his tail thoughtfully.  Perhaps he could get Griz to tell him what he needed without revealing Duv’s weakness.  There must be a way to fool the blood test.  Griz would know if there were.

Griz sniffed again.  “Ah!  You smell of female.  Tonight was your scheduled mating, wasn’t it?  How far were you able to go?  How is Duv?”

“We completed it.”

Griz’s green eyes slitted at him.  “You’re sure?  She didn’t tell you to stop?”

“She was brave throughout,” said Keloc, with cheery confidence.  “I’m sure that Aisf will validate her pregnancy.”

Griz yowled and thumped him on the back.  “Priashya, cub, priashya!  You’ve inspired your first cub.  I can’t believe it.  Duv is a wonderful female.  She’s a rare type.  Beautiful fur.”

“She was calm and strong.  Perhaps Aisf will authorize more cubs for her.  I think she might qualify as a Hero-Mother.”  The lie slipped away from him like small prey into a den.

“That deserves a celebration,” said Griz.  “A female is visiting me later tonight, but I have some time right now.”

He went to his pantry and dug out a preserved sabruiy.  Its scales glittered in the torchlight.  Griz brought it to the eating rock.  He placed the fish on the table and slashed it in three with his right claws.  Then he touched the meat with the covered sheath on his right paw.

“To success and fertility,” he said.  He offered the sabruiy’s head and body to Keloc, keeping only the bitter tail for himself.  Keloc thanked him and swallowed the fish in two bites.  Its pickled sharpness stung his tongue, but the sweet fishy flavor overwhelmed him.  It was a good vintage.  He licked his fangs, trying to capture every morsel.  When they had eaten, they groomed each other’s ears in a friendly way.

“Tell me all the details,” Griz said.  Keloc blinked with worry.  Aisf would see Duv before morning came–but he was more likely to get information from Griz if he was patient.  Keloc described the evening, embellishing where needed.  Without Duv’s presence, it was easier to convince himself that she had been strong.  He couldn’t smell her fear.  He couldn’t taste the flavor of her sweat betraying the truth–or see her bleeding on the bedding.

Griz said soberly, “Priashya indeed.  Keloc, I do believe you have a Hero-Mother in your lair.  Such an honor for you and for Duv.”

Keloc paused, worried he had done too well at his exaggeration.  “She did have some pain.”

“Pfft.  All females do.”

“I don’t wish to share her,” he said cautiously.

“Understandably,” said Griz.  “But consider what you do for your people.  A female’s creation carries gifts from both its mother and father.  Duv will give her pain tolerance to many of her daughters.  If those females breed–only those females–they will have less pain.  And someday, many generations from now, we may have females who do not suffer at all during the sexual act.  Then any female born could bear cubs without restriction from the Council.  Think of that, Keloc.  Any female could create life.”

“Like a treecat,” said Keloc, glad he hadn’t told Griz the truth.

Griz shook his head.  “No, not like animals.  With forethought and planning–we are more than treecats.  It would be an amazing day, if every settlement would participate.  The Council is working towards a golden age.”

Keloc blinked.  “You know so much science.  Can you tell me more about the blood test?”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Griz.  “Duv will be fine.  Aisf will check her blood chemicals and confirm that she was strong throughout the mating.”

“What happens if a female fails the test?”

“Her cub is aborted, of course.”

Keloc considered.  “That must be undesirable for many females.  To go so far, only to lose the cub.”

“That’s why a female will stop you before you impregnate her–when she realizes she can’t handle the pain.  And why rapists are burned with hot sinkweed oil and left for the kreeka beasts to eat.”

“Yes, I know–but surely there are females who wish to experience cub-birth, after suffering through the sexual act.”

“They should not be mothers.”

“I know,” Keloc said impatiently, “but surely mistakes happen, and there are females who wish to keep their cubs, and–”

“Why are you so concerned about this?”

Keloc paused.  “Scientific curiosity.”

“Ah,” said Griz.  “Yes, there have been cases of that.”  Someone yowled at the entrance.  Griz perked his ears.  “Go along now.  My female Luya is here.”

“What did those females do?”

“Luya!” Griz called out, and the older gray female entered.  Keloc did not know her well; she was from another settlement.  She wore the blue bead necklace of a Hero-Mother, with the gold pendant proving she’d borne at least one son.  Keloc greeted her with a sniff and her name, on a note indicating respect for her seniority.  She smelled like sweet oil, the same honeyed scent Duv had worn.  Keloc’s blood warmed.  He did not know her well enough to taste her, which was good; now that he had experienced mating, he would find sweet oil hard to resist.  He glanced at the complex dark-orange scar on her belly, a wound that she had healed and reopened a dozen times.  It was beautiful, like a natural growth on her body, with offshoots and tendrils extending across her skin beneath the fur.

“You’re very interested in my work tonight, in several senses,” said Griz with some amusement.  “Why don’t you show this much interest in science on other nights?  You should drill into your mate more often.  It seems to make you curious.”  He touched noses with Luya.  She nuzzled his top-legs.

Keloc asked, “What did the females do? The ones who wanted to keep their cubs?”

“Some females have tried to fake their way into cub-birth and motherhood.  There’s an herb that confuses the blood test.”

“Which one?”

Griz wasn’t listening.  He smoothed the bedding down.  Luya watched Keloc with narrow golden eyes, intently.  Her tail twitched against the wall.  Griz said, “We’ll talk about it another time, if you really want to know.  Give my honors to your mate.  Now leave.”

Keloc left, reluctantly.  He started down the path when he heard a quiet mewl behind him.  Luya stood at the lair’s entrance, her gray fur shining in the moonlight.

She spoke in a low voice, and so quickly that Keloc had to piece her words together after she said them.  “Tanyan leaves, two large pawfuls.  Boil them to mush and make her eat them.  Next time give her cerf before starting.  It kills pain.  Be watchful–many females die from these.”

They looked at each other.  Finally Keloc sung her name, on a note conveying an intimacy he had not experienced with her.  “Luya.”

She slipped back inside the lair without a response.  He dipped his ears in gratitude and amazement, feeling that he shared a female secret deeper than the womb.  Keloc knew the tanyan plant well; Duv’s red-orange dye came from the poisonous roots.  A cluster grew near the waterfall.  He ran down the path and gathered pawfuls of the tiny green leaves.

First moon had just set.  He hurried towards home, leaves fluttering from his clenched paws.  If he were quick enough, he could be home before Aisf arrived to do the test.  His thoughts were with Duv, but they wandered once to Luya–alone with Griz, bleeding from her belly scar.  He wondered how much cerf she needed.

“Duv,” he called through the hut’s door.  There was no response.  “Little fish, I’m back.”  Then he saw the broken green dish that did not belong to them near the entrance.  He smelled his lifemate’s pain, and the bitter stink of paliwip and friss–the two herbs of the cub-killing tea.  His fur stood on end.  He was too late–Aisf had been here.  Tail twitching, Keloc burst into the lair.

Duv lay curled in the bedding.  She bled from the mouth, a gush of red-orange blood burbling up from her stomach–no, that wasn’t blood, too dark, it was–  The empty dye-pot lay on the ground, next to the broken medicine jar.

Keloc yowled.  He dropped the tanyan leaves and forced her mouth open.  Poisonous dye spurted from her mouth onto the color-soaked bedding.  Keloc touched her throat and felt life slipping away.  He forced his right paw down her throat.  He reached for the tender spot that he would attack in a fight.  She gagged and sputtered.  More dye poured over his paw.

“Little fish, stay with me,” he pleaded.  He sang her name.  Sweat trickled from his bottom-legs.  He thrust down her throat, until she vomited red-orange liquid that stank of digested fish and cub-death.  She coughed as he withdrew his paw.  She vomited twice more, soaking both of them in its stench and color.

Keloc held her.  His tail thumped with anxiety.  It was too late for their cub, but perhaps he could save Duv.  She trembled like she had a fever.  He wrapped his top-legs and tail around her, ignoring the rancid smell.  The only smell he cared about was his little fish–his lifemate, for whom he would do anything.  Second moon had passed by the time Duv shuddered and was still.  Keloc raised himself, afraid she was dead–but she had passed out with exhaustion.

He curled around her while she rested, his belly against her back, feeling the evenness of her breathing.  He was cold with grief.  It was difficult to accept that Duv would kill herself over a cub.  Was he not enough, her lifemate?  Did he not bring her joy?  The thought made his blood slow.  He couldn’t sleep.  When morning light slipped through the lair’s entrance, Duv flicked her ears, and he knew she was awake.

“Little fish,” he whispered behind her head.

“Sunpuddle,” she said.  “I was weak.”

“You survived.  Your wound is closed.”

“I was not myself.  I couldn’t bear losing my cub.  I tried so hard…”

“Little fish, why didn’t you stop me?”

“I wanted a cub so badly,” she said.  “Can’t you understand?  It’s born into us, like a command:  make life.  Our bodies demand it.  But what we want is behind a barrier of pain.  If we didn’t want it so much, we’d never do it.  I’ve never wanted anything more, Keloc.  Nothing more than a cub.”

Not even me? Keloc thought, but did not say it.  The only thing he desired right now was Duv’s happiness, and it hurt that he couldn’t provide it.  He said, “I can’t bear knowing how much I hurt you.  It could have been otherwise.”  He told her what Luya had said about herbs.

Duv turned her head and stared at him.  Her eyes were pale with grief.  “My sisters never told me.  Even though we disliked each other and competed for mates–they should have told me.”

“Perhaps they did not know,” said Keloc, but he remembered that Duv had sent them away earlier.

“If only we had known,” she said.  “I wonder how many females know of this.  I wonder how many mothers don’t deserve their cubs, yet still have them.  It’s not fair.”

“Little fish,” said Keloc, thinking of what Griz had said.  “All deserve their cubs, or none do.”  He tightened his embrace and stroked her bottom-legs with his tail.  He wanted to lick her stomach, but she was still coated in poisonous vomit.  He settled for humming her birth-song.  She curled her tail around his.

“I wanted a cub,” she said.  She rolled over and wrapped her top-legs around him.  “And I wanted you to inspire it, my sunpuddle, Keloc.  Now it will never be.  Aisf knows I am not suited.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he whispered.  “We are mated.  Many couples are mated without cubs.  And you have… you have me, little fish.  I will go where you go.  It is enough, little fish.  It is enough.”

“We could go away,” she said.  “A settlement where we are not known.  We could try again, with cerf, and tanyan leaves.”

Keloc said nothing.  They remained curled together, until she slept again with exhaustion.  He remained awake, licking her spine’s curve where no stain had fallen.  Her dark fur tasted foreign to him, and her sweat held no understanding.

_____
Copyright 2011 Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan writes speculative fiction of all genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream. She’s published stories in places such as Clarkesworld, Realms of Fantasy, and Strange Horizons. Her story “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” was recently nominated for a Nebula Award. She lives with her husband Shannon in northern California and blogs at www.vylarkaftan.net.