The first time she returned to the bear’s cage, less than a month after the public faction change out in the Hippodrome arena, she was lucky—she had picked a good time, between feedings, with everything sleepy and relatively sparsely attended, and she had escaped everyone’s notice completely when she slipped into the White Jewel section of the menagerie and into the bear’s cage. The bear had been happy to see the child, and that same calm that the White Jewel animal pens had learned to know while Simonis was in with her friend descended on the menagerie. And she never stayed long, mindful of the fact that she was no longer sanctioned to be there.
The second time she had to slip past a suspicious slave who had been engaged in tossing parts of a bloody sheep carcass into the leopards’ enclosure—but she escaped without being caught.
The third time, several months later and with her mother almost due to deliver Simonis’s newest sibling, Simonis lingered too long in the bear cage. Without meaning to do so she fell into old habits and the security she had always known in this place, and fell asleep against the bear’s comforting flank. The first she knew about an unfolding disaster was when she was woken up by shouting.
There seemed to be a lot of people clustered outside the bear’s cage, yelling and waving their arms about; it took Simonis a moment to rub her eyes and blink herself back into coherent wakefulness, and try to make sense of what they wanted.
Which seemed to be simply that she get out of the bear’s cage, immediately.
The bear was watchful, roused; Simonis could feel the tenseness of shoulder muscles underneath the shaggy fur in which she was nestled. She patted the bear on her side.
“It’s all right,” she murmured, “they’re just making a fuss. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep, it’s my fault. It’s all right.”
But it wasn’t all right. And what had started out as a mild uproar quickly degenerated into disaster, and then tragedy. The new bear keeper actually unlocked the door to the bear’s cage and reached in to the child, backed by an armed assistant brandishing a trident in one hand and a long sword in the other, even as a couple of other keepers threw out urgent calls not to do so. Simonis instinctively recoiled from the grasp of the enraged man, frightened by the fury that twisted his features into a feral snarl, and the bear’s instincts kicked in. Yet again the humans were trying to take her cub from her; she surged to her feet and roared. Simonis was flung free. The young and inexperienced assistant panicked and attacked the animal. The bear, now wounded, retaliated by reaching out and lashing out at her enemies with one lethal swipe of a massive paw, claws fully extended. The new White Jewel bear keeper dived out of the way, catching just a glancing blow which still managed to dislocate his left shoulder, leaving a deep slash that sliced his upper arm open to the bone; the assistant who had wielded the original weapons was not so lucky. As the bear reared to her back legs and then came down for the kill, the assistant managed to hold the sword at precisely the right angle and the bear came down full on it. But she still managed to sweep aside the trident, breaking the shaft like it was straw, and then sank her claws into his side and slashed across his abdomen, lifting him off his feet and slamming him against the far side of the bars where he lay motionless in a spreading pool of blood.
By this stage the menagerie was in an uproar, all the other animals having picked up on the intensity of what was going on in the bear enclosure and giving full voice to their unease. The keepers scattered, summoned by howls of animal panic and outrage, to deal with their own charges before more beasts or men came to grief. Somehow Simonis and the wounded bear keeper were dragged out of the cage and the door slammed in the enraged bear’s face, and even after they had all retreated to a safe distance the bear continued to roar and fling herself against the bars, shaking them in their foundations, her fur matted with her own blood and her enemy’s.
Everyone was too busy, at that particular moment, to notice Simonis. They dealt with the immediate emergencies. Simonis, although blood-splashed, was not hurt. Once one of the younger assistant lion keepers—who had known her during Batzas’s tenure as bear keeper and knew about her relationship with the bear –gripped her firmly by the shoulder and escorted her to the exit.
“They will remember this,” he said to her in a low voice. “I will do what I can. But do not come back here. Not ever. Do you understand? You belong elsewhere now. They will not be forgiving.”
“I understand.” Simonis gulped air, flooded with guilt and a prescient dread. “What will they do?”
“To you? I don’t know. I hope nothing. I will see that they know the background to this before they.…” He broke off, realising that her gaze was not on him, that her eyes were wide and staring and focused somewhere behind him. Where the bear was. He sighed. “To the bear…?” he said softly, and her eyes snapped back to his face. “She has killed now,” he said, tightening his grip on Simonis’s shoulder for a moment. “And she is wounded. There can’t be much.…” He broke off again, his lips thinning into a grim line. “Go home,” he said, giving Simonis a little shake. “Don’t come back here. Go.”
Simonis turned and fled without looking back, the menagerie still echoing in her wake with human shouts and animal roars.
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