Chapter 17 (part 1 of 3)

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 Orick woke in Panta's home. The fire in the fireplace had burned down to ashes, and he and Panta sprawled exhausted on the floor like a pair of rugs.

The night had turned into a heavenly ordeal. Like most species of animal that mated only every few years, bears tended to try to make up for lost time. Panta had exhausted Orick after three hours, but demanded his services for two more. Orick was beginning to see that the ritual battles between male bears back on Tihrglas might have served a real purpose. The winners of such battles tended to be the males who had the most stamina, and servicing Panta had certainly tested Orick's stamina to the limits.

He lay staring at the female. She was beautiful—a soft, thick pelt; sensual snout; claws polished to a bright shine. Orick roused himself, went into the kitchen. A bowl of fresh fruit sat on the table, and as he helped himself, he began wondering about Maggie. He felt guilty for not following her, trying to help her. He'd let his gonads do all the thinking last night.

Panta stirred in the other room, and he called out. "These brazen fellows that Maggie went off with—"

"The Jaggets?"

"Aye," Orick said. "Where would they have her?"

"Just about anywhere," Panta said, padding into the kitchen. She stood in the doorway on all fours, put her front paws out and stretched seductively, her rump in the air. "There are Jaggets all over the country. Perhaps before saying where they might take her, I should ask you why they might take her."

Orick had already explained to Panta that he was from Tihrglas, so now he told her all about their exploits on Fale and other worlds. He had no reservations in telling her things that he might never mention to a human. Though many a bear will grow grumpy and irritable, there never was a bear with an ounce of avarice, and avarice is what led humans into so many errors.

"If the Jaggets have taken her to keep her away from the dronon," Panta said, "they'll have her at one of their fortresses. It's beyond the power of a bear to get into one of those places, and I wouldn't try, if I were you."

"The poor child," Orick said, "she's had such a rough life, I wouldn't want to add to her burdens. I'm worried sick over her."

"Perhaps your friends can help when they get here," Panta said. Orick grunted in appreciation, and Panta licked his face.

The door chimed. Panta went to the corner, looked out the window. "Vanquishers!" she whispered. "Stay out of sight."

She hurried to the door and opened it. A deep voice said, "Citizen, records indicate that you were at Flaming Springs last night."

"Yes," Panta said. "I had dinner and swam with a friend."

"Were you there at the time of the shootings?"

"There was a shooting?" Panta asked in mock horror. "I had no idea. I left early."

"It is strange how many people left early," the vanquisher said.

"I was only there for a short time," Panta said. "I went only to choose a mate. It's that time of year."

"Did you find someone?"

"Yes, an old friend named Footh. He left just an hour ago. He can verify my story."

"We shall speak to him, citizen," the vanquisher grumbled.

Panta closed the door, walked swiftly back to Orick and spoke to a grill on the wall. She talked to it for several moments before Orick realized that she was talking to Footh, using little code phrases to make sure that he would verify her story.

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