Chapter II: For What Price Power?

 

            I finally made my way back to the den when the sun had begun to get red. That had always been the call for dinnertime back home in the Outlands. I didn’t see why it would be any different here. I had spent the day looking around, trying to familiarize myself with the new lands. I arrived at the den just when the last lionesses were finishing off their carcasses. I stared at them, looking around for one of my own.

            “Sorry, kid, you just missed the last of them.” I turned to see Dingane licking a bone clean. “Nothing like home hunting. He looked back up from the bone to me again. “Really, that’s it. Sorry about forgetting to tell you. They step it up an hour here for dinner.” He tossed the bone away. “Besides, you’ve missed plenty of meals. What’s one more?” I snarled at him. “Okay, fine, be that way. Ask Mpande about it when he gets back. He’s missed it, too.”

            “Where is he?”

            “Out spending quality time with his kid.”

            “Why is he spending time with Asari?”

            “What did your parents ever—oh, yeah, that’s right. Sorry. And no, not Asari. Shujaa. Oh, yeah, you didn’t hear that either,” he said at the puzzled look on his face. “Mpande’s little protégé. Cute cub.” He stretched out on the ground, yawning. “Good food. Good lionesses. Good den. Good everything, really. Hey.” He yawned again and laid his head down. It was almost surprising how easily his charade was going. Maybe part of it wasn’t one. I turned to watch a pile of cubs wrestling with each other. Occasionally one would fight his way to the top of the pile, but he would be immediately pushed off by the seething mass underneath him. It was all pretty pointless, in fact. I sat down and watched them, waiting for Mpande. Pointless it may have been, but it was pretty entertaining.

            About ten minutes later Mpande showed up. He had with him a little cub that was following him, Mpande’s tail in his mouth. I turned away from the fight and looked at them. The cub’s eyes never left Mpande’s leg, not for anything. Finally Mpande stopped, the little cub bouncing into the back of Mpande’s leg.

            “We’re home, son.” The cub dropped Mpande’s tail and began to walk towards the den unsteadily, bumping into lionesses along the way. He walked right up to me and stopped, slowly looking upward at my face. He put out a paw and waved it, having it smack into my leg. I could see his light green eyes. Suddenly the realization hit me. He’s blind, too. I heard a snicker behind me. I turned to where the cubs had been wrestling and saw that they had stopped, all of them watching little Shujaa. A few of them had their paws over their mouths, trying to hold inside laughter. How it was funny I didn’t understand. I looked back down at Shujaa, only to find him gone. I looked around and saw him walking towards the den again. The poor cub was a runt, nothing like his father in that respect at all.

            I turned back to Mpande and saw him standing there, watching his son go in. at least that’s what I suppose he was doing. All I saw was him standing there. I walked over to him. “Uh, sir?”

            “Sire,” I heard Dingane lazily correct me. I turned to see him on his back with his paw in the air, one digit extended. He dropped his leg again, assuming the perfect picture of laziness.

            “It’s quite alright, Dingane,” said Mpande. “Yes, what is it?”

            “Well . . . I missed dinner, sire. I’m sorry.”

            “That’s quite alright. We usually have the lionesses get one for me anyway, seeing as how I’m not usually home in time for it either. It’s probably in the den. Come on in. You can share it.”

            I followed him in and saw Shujaa nuzzling his mother. Haja looked up from him to us when we came in. “Now who just came in, Shujaa?”

            Shujaa stopped nuzzling and went still. Mpande smiled beside me as we kept walking toward Haja and her cub. “Um . . . Dad and . . . Dad and someone else.” Haja smiled.

            “Well, at least he got the number right.”

            “Oh, come now Haja,” chided Mpande. “You really couldn’t have expected him to know who Akasare is after one day.”

            “Yeah, mom!” said Shujaa. “Give me a break.”

            Mpande chuckled. “Alright, where is it?”

            “Where’s what?” asked Haja.

            “You know perfectly well what.”

            “No, really, what?”

            “Akasare is hungry, too.”

            “Oh, well why didn’t you just say so? I’ll go get it.” She got up and walked to the other side of the den and dragged a carcass over to us. Bigger than any we had ever had in the Outlands. It looked so good. She laid it down between me and Mpande. Shujaa launched himself at it and was caught by Haja.

            “Oof! Mom!”

            “Ah-ah, ah-ah ah-ah-ah. Guests first.” She looked at me.

            “No, really, that’s not necess . . .” I heard my voice die out as I looked from Haja to Mpande.

            “Really. Go ahead,” Mpande insisted. I slowly put my head down to the carcass, not taking my eyes off Mpande. I tore off a piece of it and pulled my head back. Mpande smiled. “Cautious, aren’t we?”

            “No sense in not being,” I muttered around the scrap I had taken. I let the taste sink in, slowly chewing. The Outlands had nothing that could even hope to touch this. I finally swallowed. Haja finally raised her paw to let Shujaa through. He leapt on it with all of his paws and began to work at tearing off a piece.

            “Now what happened to your other friend . . . Sicwele, was it?” Shujaa’s piece finally broke, sending him flying off the carcass. Mpande bent down and tore off a strip.

            “He had to leave sooner than expected. He said to give you his thanks for you gracious offer, and hoped that you wouldn’t mind him getting dinner on the way out.”

            “Hmm. Help yourself.” I did so. The rest of the meal was in silence, save for the sounds of Shujaa demolishing his pieces. When there was about a quarter of it left I finally leaned back, unable to eat any more. “There still is plenty left. Help yourself.”

            “I really can’t eat any more, sire.”

            “Beg pardon?”

            “This is a feast. I don’t know how you and Shujaa manage to finish one by yourself, sire.”

            “Oh, you poor thing,” said Haja. She raised a paw up to my face. I drew back my head, putting my paw up against hers, stopping it cold. The smile vanished from Mpande’s face, only to slowly return.

            “Sorry—I didn’t know—”

            “There’s no need to apologize,” said Mpande. “When you feel like telling us what you’ve been through, we’ll listen. I’m not going to force you. I’ll just be sure not to sneak up on you on a dark night.”

            I lowered my paw. “Thank you for dinner, sire.” I got up and walked out of the den. I saw Dingane watching it and sat down next to him.

            “Well?” he asked.

            “Yeah.” We didn’t say anything else the rest of the night. We just sat and watched the landscape change and the stars come out, until we finally headed for the den with the rest of the lionesses.

 

 

 

            Everyone’s had it. You know, where you wake up in the middle of the night remembering something someone said and thinking what did he mean by that? You just jerk wide awake, like snapping out of a daydream. You just never, and I mean never, want to do it on a ledge that’s barely big enough to hold you. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even be sleeping on that ledge in the first place.

            I, unfortunately, didn’t give myself this advice. The floor of the den was pretty well covered with lionesses by the time I got in. I looked around and, not finding a spot, jumped on a rock near a wall, and then to a ledge above it from there. I decided I would figure out how to get off tomorrow.

            Anyway, back to that thought. Well, here I am, sleeping peacefully when I jerk awake and fall off the ledge. I probably would have killed the lionesses underneath me if I hadn’t caught myself. Still, hanging by your claws on the side of a cave wall isn’t exactly an easy thing to do. So I pulled myself up slowly onto the ledge and sat there, catching my breath and looking for a way down. I decided to just jump back onto the rock and work my way through the lionesses to the mouth of the den. Overall, I’d say it took me a good half hour.

            I just wanted someplace where I could think and sit. I decided to head over to the lake. I sat down by the water and just stared in. I thought back to what had woken me up. I didn’t understand it at all. If cubs came from parents like Dingane and Sicwele had said to me, then where were mine? I didn’t remember and at all, just waking up and just being. It just was weird. I stared at the surface of the lake, looking at my reflection in it as though the answers might just appear there. Suddenly a head appeared next to mine. I looked up to see Asari sitting next to me. I felt that weird feeling again.

            “Are you alright?” she asked.

            “Yeah. I’m fine. Just thinking.”

            “What’s wrong Aka?” I glanced at her. “You don’t want me to call you that?”

            “No, no, it’s fine. I’m just not used to it, that’s all.”

            “What were you thinking about?”

            I sighed. “You remember your parents, right?”

            “Of course. You just ate dinner with them tonight.”

            “I don’t. I don’t remember anything about parents. I’ve just been my entire life. I don’t understand it.”

            “That’s silly. Everyone has parents.”

            “The first thing I remember is waking up and finding myself in a gorge. That’s it.”

            “You don’t remember anything else?”

            “What else is there to remember?”

            “Well, there’s . . . there’s when you were a baby.”

            “I was a cub when I woke up.”

            “Well, maybe you just don’t remember it. Nobody just pops into the world.”

            “I’ll figure it out for myself. Later.” I looked up from the lake to her face. “So why did you come out here?”

            “I was worried about you.” She nuzzled against me, setting my senses on fire. “You seemed so sad earlier. I wanted to help you.” She stopped the nuzzling, looking at me. I looked back out over the lake, at the shadow of the den’s hill. Suddenly another shadow appeared on top of it, making the hill just a little larger. The new shadow was massive. I wanted to turn around, but knew I shouldn’t.

            “Thanks.” Asari nuzzled against me again. I looked down at her, watching her press herself against me. I sat there, not moving, praying with every fiber of my body that she would just stop before I did something rash. I saw the shadow sit down. Asari didn’t even seem to notice that anyone was near. She licked my neck. I finally decided to act. I cleared my throat. She looked up at me with her big blue eyes. “Please.”

            “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” She stood up and turned toward the hill. She looked back at me. “See you in the morning.” I looked back at the shadow and saw it stand up and move back down the hill. I breathed a sigh of relief. I thanked Dingane for the discipline he’d put in me. At least Mpande hadn’t seen me do anything too bad. I sat at the lake, staring, and finally went back to the den. I decided against going inside and sprawled out outside the mouth, waiting for sleep to overtake me.

 

 

 

            I was woken up by the sun coming over the trees and staring me right in the eyes. I groaned and turned over to see a set of paws standing in front of me. I looked up at Dingane.

            “So, how was the lake last night?”

            I groaned again. “You know about that?”

            “’Sare, everyone knows about that.”

            “You’re joking.”

            “Yes, I am,” he conceded. “So, why did you do it?”

            “I didn’t.”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “No, really.” I got to my feet. “I just went down there to think. She just followed me. I didn’t know she was following.”

            “Right.”

            “Hey, Mpande saw too, so I obviously didn’t do anything too bad. I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

            “What do you mean Mpande saw?”

            “He was sitting right on top of the hill watching us.”

            Dingane shook his head. “You poor, stupid fool. One day with him and you already think he’s all-seeing. That was me.”

            “Huh?”

            “Mpande can’t see down an entire hillside to see two lions necking.”

            “One lion. I was just sitting there.”

            “Okay, okay, I believe you.”

            “Why are you even up?”

            “I thought you’d like to know about the wonderful opportunity you have to endear yourself to Mpande. I know you like it anyway.”

            “Hunting?” I asked eagerly.

            “Applause. Now, you’d better go ask him before the parties are sent out. You’re up late.”

            “It’s sunrise. How am I up late?”

            “Hey, different place, different protocol. Deal with it.” Dingane walked back into the den. A few lionesses spilled out, along with Mpande. I walked over to him.

            “Sire?”

            “Yes, Akasare?”

            “I was wondering if I could help you with the hunting.” Mpande raised an eyebrow. “Just wondering.”

            “We normally just let the lionesses do the hunting.”

            “I know, sire, but I really would like to help out any way I could. I don’t expect to just be able to lie around all day.”

            “Admirable. Alright, you may join them. Just make sure you do not interfere with their plans.”

            “Thank you, sire.”

            “Go on, then.” I happily followed the lionesses who had started away from the den. I caught up to them. They all turned to look at me.

            “Does Mpande want us back?” asked one of them.

            “Uh, no. I’m coming with you.”

            “A male hunting? Males can’t hunt. That’s ridiculous,” scoffed another.

            “Really, I can hunt.”

            “Give Aka a chance.” I heard Asari’s voice come from the crowd.

            “He’ll just get in the way,” protested another.

            “How about I let you start first, and I’ll just clean up afterwards.”

            “There won’t be anything left for you to clean up. We do our job and we do it well,” said the first lioness.

            “Like Asari said, just give me a chance to prove myself.”

            “A hunting ground is no place for foolishness.”

            “I’ll just let you work.”

            “You get in our way, your silly neck gets broken. And most likely not by us. Got it?”

            “Don’t worry.”

            They didn’t speak to me the rest of the way to the hunting ground, instead talking amongst themselves. When we finally did arrive they suddenly all fell quiet, splitting into groups. I watched some of them go to the right, others to the left.

            “You stay here, you stay low, and you do not move until we’ve started,” said the first lioness. She moved off to the left. I crept up to the top of the hill they were going over and lied down in the tall grass, watching. There was a herd of wildebeest just sitting there, grazing. The two groups split into even smaller groups, invisible to the wildebeest from their vantage point, but not to me. I watched as the lionesses slowly surrounded the herd in groups of two, the lionesses spread thinly. Some stopped while others moved to better vantage points. Finally they had all stopped moving. Then, as if on a signal, they all charged. The wildebeest saw them and began to run wildly in every direction, some of them straight into the waiting jaws of a lioness. One of the two lionesses in every group jumped onto a wildebeest, then had their partner knock it over with another leap. I could feel my blood racing. There was no way I was going to miss this. I leapt up from my spot and sprinted down the hillside.

            I saw my wildebeest and ran towards him, knowing he wouldn’t notice me in the confusion until it was too late. I darted around a pair taking out another wildebeest and leapt onto mine, trying to use my momentum to knock it over. I almost leapt over it, my claws raking its back as I flew over. I sort of landed on it, my claws getting a good hold. I didn’t let go until it had already started to fall. I hit the ground first and rolled away so I wouldn’t be hit by the falling body. I leapt up and pounced on it before it could roll all the way over and get back on its feet. I happily tore out its throat, watching the body go limp. Another was running a path that would put him right next to me. I timed it and turned just in time to be able to grab his neck in my jaws. I sank my teeth into his neck, bringing him to the ground. I shook my head viciously, feeling the neck snap. I let go, letting the rush wash over me. I breathed in deeply, inhaling the smell of blood, tasting it in my mouth. The chaos had died down around me, most of the wildebeest managing to escape. I looked around at the lionesses, each of them standing by a kill, most of them paired by one. Several dead wildebeest lay on the ground with no lioness near them. Everyone was looking around to see how they had done. Every lioness had a kill for herself.

            “Two kills?” I heard one of the lionesses say. “He got two kills?” I turned to face her.

            “No, of course not. I don’t know the first thing about hunting, remember?” All of the lionesses were staring at me, amazed. I lied down on my by my second kill. I grabbed one of its legs in my teeth and rolled over onto my stomach, then stood up, the wildebeest balanced on my back. I saw Asari staring at me.

            “Easiest way to lift and carry a heavy animal,” I told her. Dingane had taught me that after the first hunt. The other lionesses had started to look away and pick up their own kills in their mouth. I walked over to my first kill and put his neck in my mouth. We all dragged our kills back to the den, me bringing up the rear. When we got close one of the other lionesses ran over from by the den and took the one out of my mouth, dragging it the rest of the way for me. When we arrived at the den I shook my second kill to the ground.

            “How did it go?” I turned to see Mpande asking the lead lioness, the one who had insisted that I stay put.

            “The same as always,” she replied.

            “And Akasare?”

            She looked toward me, then back at Mpande. “Two kills. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

            “Really?” he looked toward me, his face amused. Dingane caught my eye, smiling. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was actually happy for once. After that I hunted every day. No one questioned my abilities again. I got to know the entire pride. I learned who had which strengths, which weaknesses, which personalities. I was gradually accepted in. Most of them began to call me Aka after Asari’s example. No one but Dingane ever called me ’Sare. The pride let me grow close to them and earn their trust. Soon it was like I had always grown up there.

            But what really interested me was Mpande. I didn’t ever fully understand him. I’m pretty sure he knew a lot more about me than he let on, but he never once let me any further into his head than he wanted to let me. What really fascinated me was how he ran his kingdom. I slowly learned about the delicate balance he had achieved between all of the creatures, and how he could shift that balance at will by just taking away something, and letting something new take its place. It was pretty big stuff, and I wasn’t really sure I understood it all. At least I had Sicwele to help me.

            Oh, right, Sicwele. Well, he had found some place just beyond the borders of Mpande’s kingdom to stay. Occasionally—very occasionally—he would venture in and talk to me, make sure I was keeping up with the training. He never walked right up to the den; he would always meet me when I least expected it. Usually when I had gone out to walk on my own and think. I had been doing a lot more of it since I had come here. He would always try to help explain things for me. The thing that he had brought up that really fascinated me—besides the balance—was something he called the Great Kings of the Past. He said that all the great rulers were in the sky, watching us day and night, and that we could see them at night as stars. He really did seem to believe it. I mentioned it to Dingane, who dismissed it immediately as stories to tell cubs at bedtime. I leaned more towards Sicwele on this, though. It gave me hope. I’d take hope over truth any day.

            And so time passed. An entire year. I grew up, finally getting my mane and getting a little stronger each day. I knew I would have to do it soon, and I began to have my doubts. Did Mpande really need to die? Should he die? I was unsure to the answers to those two questions. I just fell back on the answer that Sicwele had given me whenever I had asked him about why we did the training a certain way.

            “Yours is not to reason why.”

 

 

 

            The day came. I woke up early and went down to the lake. I was hot. I had had dreams that night. Some kind of recurring nightmare. Always there was Dingane and Sicwele standing in front of a cave, Sicwele saying all my answers were in there, Dingane denying it. Sometimes it wasn’t Sicwele, but Mpande instead, or Asari. It was always Dingane, though. I never did figure out why. Some times I had tried for the cave, others I hadn’t. Whenever I did, it all faded away, or I woke up.

            I walked to the edge of the water. I took a few drinks. They didn’t seem to do anything for my heat. I impatiently threw myself in, immersing myself completely. I came back up for air.

            “Drowning yourself isn’t going to get you out of this.” I turned to see Dingane and Sicwele standing behind me.

            “You scared?” asked Sicwele.

            “Yes. Very,” I said. I dunked my head under again, came back up.

            “Good. Makes you wary,” said Dingane. “We’re going to do it right after lunch. You meet him on the other side of the lake. He’s always over there with his cub then. You kill him, then you come on back saying how you were attacked by another pride and Mpande and the kid are dead.”

            “Does Shujaa really need to die?”

            “Of course he does! He’ll be king if he isn’t dead. There will be only one male fit to lead when the day is over, and you’re looking at him.”

            “Sicwele?” I tried to joke.

            “Funny. Just a riot.” Dingane turned and went back for the den. “You should probably get out of here Sicwele. Don’t want to be seen,” he called back.

            Sicwele turned away from him and looked back down at me. “You can do it. You’ll be fine. You’re in top form, you can—”

            “No, I can’t.” I thought what it would be like to be one of those many animals I had hunted. Having my neck broken between those huge teeth of Mpande’s . . . My stomach heaved.

            “Just remember everything we taught you. Now come on, what’s rule number one?”

            I took a deep breath. “Kill ’em before they kill you.”

            “And two?”

            “Never leave your head unprotected.” Being pounded to the ground, by raging claws.

            “Three?”

            “Never let up, never back down.” Having my guts torn out, spraying the ground. I couldn’t hold it back. I puked.

            “And I think we’ll just let four be.” I retched again, the visions still flooding my head. “That’s good, get it all up. Better now than then.”

            “I can’t do it Sicwele. I’m going to die today. I don’t want to die.” I groaned, feeling my stomach heave again. I managed to keep it down. Barely.

            “No one should ever want to die. And you will not be dying today. If you die, so help me, I’m going to have gone first.” He smiled. “I’m not going to just let you go ’Sare. I care too much for you.”

            “If Dingane heard you say that—”

            “Yeah, I know, he’d have both our skins. And hey, look, I can still use you. Even if you get the hell beaten out of you by Mpande, you can still help me with my throne. It’s not like I just discard something I can use.”

            “If Dingane heard you telling me about those plans, he would kill you.”

            “I imagine you’d have figured it out sooner or later. I just think you ought to know everything.”

            “Yeah, right, no pressure.”

            Sicwele smiled again. “I’ll be there for you. Dingane will give you something. He always does repay his debts. Hey, if you’re lucky, he may even let you have her.” I looked up at him sharply. “Dingane told me about it. Now, you’d better hurry. No break in routine, right?” He began to walk towards the boundaries again. I watched him go for a little while, then walked over the hill towards the den. I arrived just in time to see Mpande come out.

            “Good morning, Akasare.”

            “I’ve told you, sire, you don’t need to use my full name. ’Sare or Aka will do.”

            “I’ll start that as soon as you stop saying ‘sire’ every three words.” I smiled sadly, thinking of what would happen to him later that day. Little blind Shujaa stumbled out of the cave, still trying to learn to see as Mpande did. Poor little runt. Mpande spoke again, cutting through my thoughts. “So what’s the hunting like today?”

            “Hopefully a new record. What, maybe . . . five?”

            Mpande chuckled. “Where you picked up that little trait I’ll never know. Still, you’re the best we’ve got. I’d hate to lose you in an accident. Be careful.” By this time the rest of the hunters had come out. I joined them on the way to the hunting grounds.

            “So how many will it be today, Aka?” asked Asari playfully. I had never forgotten that night by the lake, where she had showed me how she felt about me. Or at least how I hoped she felt. She’d slipped a few times over the year, showing me her feelings. I had grown to actually like her. Rally like her. I’d grown to have at least some kind of relationship with all of the members of the pride, but this one was different.

            “Well, I don’t want to brag, but maybe . . . what, six?” She laughed, several others joining in. It was Asari’s first hunt as lead lioness. It didn’t seem right, letting a lioness lead who had made so few kills. We were all a little on edge. Laughing felt good.

            “Okay, we’ll have five sit out this time. Now, I don’t think you’ll end up with more than three.” The lionesses looked back at me.

            “Don’t worry. I guarantee that today I shatter that record.” After my first hunt the hunters had started to let lionesses sit out and pick up my kills after I had dropped them. First they had just brought an extra along to help me with the extra one, but when I started hitting three consistently they just had a pair sit out. So far the best I had done was four. It didn’t matter to me that it was going to be near impossible to actually take six. I had plenty of emotion on my chest, and I needed to let it all out. I couldn’t afford hesitation when I faced Mpande.

            We arrived at the hunting grounds. This time the extras stayed at the hill and I circled with the lionesses. It was the same group today that had been with me on my first hunt. They were the best we had. I had been right to be impressed by the way they perfectly coordinated their attack. Truth be told, Asari really didn’t belong here. Only the fact that she was the princess allowed her a spot. I silently took my place in the ring, counting off from one hundred from the time we left the hill. If you weren’t in your spot by zero, then the hunt started without you. Most of the other parties started from three hundred. We started from one hundred and were ready by thirty.

            I may have rushed the count. I’ll never really know. All I know was that I was the first out of the grass. Just when the wildebeest had spotted the lionesses I was leaping on one. I tackled it to the ground and tore out its throat with one clawed motion. I continued, barely even stopping to check the wildebeest’s movement. I tore my way through the herd, soaking up the wonderful chaos and bloodshed. I tore through one after another, slicing the legs of one, breaking the neck of another, snapping the neck of yet another with a pounce. I tore out another’s chest, then managed to bring down one last young one who was running away by leaping on him, breaking his legs under my extra weight. I bit into his neck, breaking it without even having to shake it. Gods, I loved hunting.

            The extras came down from the hill, staring at me in disbelief. “Aka, how many?” called out Asari. I looked behind me, totaling the bodies.

            “Uh, seven!” She stared in disbelief, the others turning away from their kills to look at me.

            “Seven?!” several of them cried out in disbelief. I ran through the kills in my head.

            “Yeah.” I realized that I was going to have to carry two again. I picked up the second to last one onto my back, then the young one in my mouth. The extra lionesses got my other kills, the rest picking up their own. I watched them picking up my kills, thinking through the past few minutes. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. And all by reflex, too. I headed back, bringing up the rear with Asari, walking by her side. I thought back through the kills, still not believing it myself. I was snapped out of my reverie by a feeling on my tail. I looked back to see Asari’s tail circling around mine. I stopped, looking at her. She stopped as well, and dropped her kill and nuzzled up against my neck.

            “Look who’s the big hunter.” She purred seductively. “How about we just get rid of these at the den and go somewhere?”

            I dropped my kill out of my mouth. “Your father would kill me.”

            “My father has just been waiting for you to ask.” She nuzzled me again, purring. I really didn’t want to deny myself this.

            “Ask me tomorrow. I’ll be too tired to hunt tomorrow morning.” I picked up my kill and continued to walk towards the den. If she had just asked any other day . . . I felt her come up close to my side, wrapping her tail as far over my back as she could around the carcass. I wrapped mine around hers, giving myself at least this small pleasure. We walked the rest of the way to the hill overlooking the den this way, having her rub against me. When we could see the den I pulled away. The last thing I needed was for Dingane to see that. I saw her look at me, her expression puzzled and slightly hurt. I nodded toward the den. She smiled. At least she understood.

            When we arrived the lionesses were already talking excitedly about the hunt. I dropped my kills and looked up to see Mpande coming towards me. “Seven?”

            “Seven. I didn’t know I had it in me.”

            “We rarely do.” He walked past me, taking a carcass. Asari took one the other and went into the den, staring at me for a while as she walked.

            “Hey, seven?” I turned to see Dingane walking over to me. “Lucky number seven. Good stuff out there.”

            “Thanks,” I replied. I took a carcass into the den myself and sat down opposite Asari, eating. I could actually finish off a whole one now. We ate in silence, occasionally looking at each other. When she finished all she could of hers she got up and walked toward the mouth of the den. I turned, following her beautiful body with my eyes. She gave me one last hopeful look. Tomorrow, I mouthed. She smiled and continued on her way out of the den. I finished my carcass and lied down to sleep.

 

 

 

            I was awakened by a poking between the shoulder blades. I looked up and saw Dingane standing over me, frowning. I groaned.

            “Just two more minutes.”

            He jabbed me again. “You shift your black and white backside now.” Again with the jabbing. I slowly got up. “Have you eaten?”

            “I had plenty for breakfast.”

            “Answer the question.”

            “Not since breakfast.”

            “Good. You’ll be sharp.” He started to walk out of the cave, then turned impatiently to see if I was following. When he saw me getting to my paws he turned again and walked out. I followed him out of the cave, and walked with him out towards the lake, but not before Asari had seen us.

            “Hey Aka, what about lunch?”

            “I’ll get it when I get back. I want to see your father.” She smiled, obviously mistaking me. I turned away, unable to look at her face. Dingane and I walked in silence. We reached the lake, started to walk around. I remembered my first night here, how Asari had tried to comfort me. I remembered how I thought it was Mpande watching. He had just let me stroll in and take up residence in his den.

            “Second thoughts?” I turned to see Dingane looking at me. I realized he had been studying me the whole time. I must have been frowning.

            “Yes.”

            He stopped. “Throw them in the lake right now, or you will not be walking back. I mean it.”

            I continued walking. “I’m fine.” I couldn’t just throw away years of training for one little regret.

            “As fine as you’ll ever be.” He started walking again.

            “And that means?”

            “You’re nuts. You’ve always been crazy. That’s why you can do this.”

            “I am perfectly sane.”

            “Granted. It’s just that fanatic bloodlust you have. Only known one lion like that. Lioness, actually. This is really a whacked-out chick. Got it over her mate dying. Hell, she didn’t even treat her cubs as if they were her own. Did nothing to stop the big brother from beating up on the little one. Guess it all worked out, though. Little brother ends up being chosen to be king. Big brother never could live that down. Wonder what happened to ’em.”

            “Talkative, aren’t we? Nervous, maybe?”

            “You’ll be fine. Just try to keep that idiot compassion you have at bay. Three things I’ll never understand about you: that compassion, that bloodlust, and that cockeyed smile.”

            “You never could understand compassion.”

            “And I’m all the better for it.” He smiled. “After all these years, I’m here. Finally, really, truly on the edge of it. And what did compassion ever do for me?”

            After that we walked in silence, until we could see Mpande’s hulking form in the distance.

            “Damn it, where is he?”

            “He’ll be here,” I said confidently.

            “He is here.” We both turned to see Sicwele raise himself up out of the grass. “Knock him dead ’Sare. Seriously. Just save the cub for later.” He paused looking at me. “And be careful.”

            “Now go on, kid,” said Dingane impatiently. “Make him suffer.”

            I turned and walked towards Mpande. He had his back turned to me, and was walking away from me with his son. Shujaa had gotten over needing his father’s tail long ago, but he still stayed very close to him. I finally got close enough to hear them talking. I had never heard them out here. As far as I know, no one had.

            “But dad, I hardly even know her. We barely talk, I hardly see her. I doubt she notices me. I don’t even know if she likes me.” I began to tense myself. Kill him now my instincts screamed. But another part of me said no. It wasn’t right to do it this way. Let him know. Give him a chance.

            “Of course she notices you. You are the prince; how can she not? Has she even told you how she feels about you? Given any way to let you know?”

            “Well, no, but—”

            “Then how can you judge her?” It was wrong. I couldn’t do it this way. It was wrong, on so many levels. Confront him, don’t sneak up on him and kill him. He opened his home for you. Respect him.

            “Well I . . .” Shujaa’s voice trailed off.

            “Knowing who a person may be an important trait for a king. Your blindness gives you insight into your subjects’ hearts far more than normal lions enjoy. You may see it as a curse, but it gives you so many blessings in return. The ability to know a person is something I would rather have than my sight any day. You listen to their every word, feel for their every motion, for it is the only thing you can do. You do not live in the blackness that we see, but in a far more enlightened world. But this isn’t enough. To judge a person, you must truly study them first. Wouldn’t you agree, Akasare?”

            I took a deep breath and watched little Shujaa stiffen in surprise. “Yes, sire. How long have you seen I was here?”

            Mpande gave a small hmph of laughter. “I have ‘seen’ you for some time. Is there a specific reason you are here?”

            I wanted to know before I did it. “Sire, what do you see when you study me?”

            He thought for a moment. “At first I saw a poor cub, brought up in loneliness. He still remains there. But now I see that he has learned more than just loneliness. He has learned companionship, and greed, and passion. He is slowly losing his innocence, but that cub in him still retains it. He is good, and he keeps the lion from devouring your soul. The cub holds onto you, protects you. He is still there.”

            We walked in silence, me going over his words in my head. Mpande finally stopped and drank from the lake. Shujaa drank as well. I refused, simply thinking. The words I had stored away. My thoughts now wandered to Mpande. I thought of him, not only a giant in life, but a giant to his pride. I was here to defeat him. I looked him over, seeing his muscles bulge out from underneath his coat; his huge paws that left imprints in even the hardest dirt and undoubtedly concealed claws to match; his gigantic mouth, so large it seemed it could swallow the world. I wondered how I could actually do this. I talked before I could stop myself.

            “Sire.”

            Mpande stopped drinking, turned to face me. “Yes?”

            “I’m going to fight you.”

            “Fight me? Why?”

            The only thought that I could think of for killing him popped into my head. “For the pride. I want to lead the pride.”

            Mpande hung his head and sighed. “I hoped it would not happen.”

            “Sire?”

            “You are not the first. You are the sixth. Various lions, various reasons, all of them wanting me.” He looked up at me. “I do not want to fight you, ’Sare.”

            The name shocked me. Only Dingane and Sicwele ever called me ’Sare. “You must.”

            “Why should he?” It was Shujaa.

            “Stay out of this. It will be explained to you later. Go to the acacia,” said Mpande sternly. He turned his head to a tree a short distance away. He turned back to me after Shujaa had gone. His face softened, pleading. “’Sare . . . please. I don’t want to have it happen to you, too.”

            “You must, Mpande.”

            He gave a sigh. “Very well. Come.”

            I stared at him uncertain of what to do. I walked toward him, and flung back a paw to strike him. I brought it forward, having it meet his raised leg. I stared into his face.

            “You have a choice,” he said. Somehow his offer made me furious. I felt that he shouldn’t show me his compassion. I didn’t need his compassion. I brought back my leg, then swung it forward again, as hard as I could. His leg gave about an inch before he pushed it back, knocking my leg away. He whacked the side of my head with his other paw, his claws tearing into my face. I staggered back, then attacked with renewed vigor, wanting to kill with every fiber of my body. I reared up on my legs, bringing down two blows on his head. He roared in pain as my claws tore through his face. I took advantage of this and dealt him an uppercut across his neck, bringing him to the ground. I slashed him across the side, trying to cut as deeply as I could. He roared again, rolling to his feet and tearing my claws out of his body as he did so. He threw me a blow. I dodged it and straightened up, only to have him leap at me. He hit my body, knocking me to the ground. He slashed me up my side, drawing a roar from my throat. He dug his claws in one of his hind legs into my stomach, slowly deepening the gashes. He put a paw to my throat.

            “I don’t have to kill you, ’Sare. We can both go home from this alive.”

            I hated him for his kindness. I forced my head up feeling him lean back and forcing the claws in my stomach deeper. “Weakness!” I spat at him.

            He forced his paw back into my throat, harder this time. “Mercy!” he roared. “I could kill you, right here.”

            “Dad!” Mpande’s ears perked up. I turned my head to see Sicwele charging at us. He slashed at Shujaa, lifting him a few feet into the air before he hit the ground again. He didn’t get up. Sicwele continued to run, tackling Mpande. He knocked Mpande off me, both of them rolling. Mpande finally came to a stop, throwing off Sicwele. Sicwele flew into the air, then hit the ground with a thud. By this time I had gotten to my feet, fighting off the pain I felt in my gut. Sicwele was shaking his head, trying to clear it.

            “’Sare, kill him now,” said Sicwele.

            Mpande turned to me angrily. “Cowardly murderer!” he roared he charged at me. He raised back a paw, me raising one to stop him. He brought his down, whacking into mine as if it wasn’t there. He hit my face, knocking me to the ground. I felt him sink his teeth into my side. I roared in pain, arching my back. He released me, then bit again, in my stomach. I screamed. I was blinded by the pain. I felt him club me in the side, his claws raking my body as his blow picked me up and moved me a foot. I cried out in pain on the impact. I felt Mpande rain down blow after blow on my body, pain shooting throughout my body. I stopped moving, not even trying to fight back. I couldn’t handle the pain. Finally the blows stopped. I opened one eye the small sliver the pain allowed. I saw Sicwele trying to beat Mpande back. Mpande knocked him to the ground, then sunk his teeth into Sicwele’s hind leg. Mpande shook his head viciously, Sicwele roaring in pain as Mpande’s teeth tore through his muscles. Then Mpande was tackled by another lion, both of them falling onto me, then over me. I closed my eyes with the burning it sent through my body. I heard angry roars coming from behind me, having them muted by the pain. I finally heard an earthshaking roar, cutting through all the pain, then silence. A few seconds later I heard a thud, then heavy breathing. I heard pawsteps behind me.

            “I can’t believe it.” Sicwele.

            “He’s dead.” Dingane’s voice, much closer, as if he was standing over me.

            “I don’t believe it. I promised him . . .”

            “He was expendable. We both knew that.”

            “It doesn’t help the pain any.”

            “Too bad for him. . . . You’re not crying, are you?”

            “Unless my tears are blood, no.”

            “Alright, let’s see what we can do with that leg of yours. Up you go.” I heard Sicwele yelp in pain behind me. “Alright, that’s good. Try walking.”

            “Yeah,” I heard Sicwele say, followed by a sharp gasp. “Yeah it’s—it’s fine.”

            “Just try to let it heal. Remember, come back in a week. See you then.” I saw Dingane walking away through the small sliver that I was able to open my eye into.

            “Goodbye ’Sare.” I heard Sicwele say.

            No! This can’t happen! I tried to move. Pain overwhelmed my body at the first inch. Darkness overcame me.

            Asari . . .

            He’s expendable.”