Chapter III: Ex-Prince
Jadi stared down into the pool at his reflection. He didn’t recognize his own face anymore. It was so . . . different. It wasn’t a cub’s face anymore. And that little scruff of black around his reddish neck . . . Jadi smiled. He was becoming a lion. Much more of a lion than that fat fool of a father. He didn’t even call him Dad anymore. Not even Father. Just Fujo. Not that Fujo would ever know. He was never home; he was spending too much time with his precious kingdom. Yes, the kingdom was important, but not that much. Fujo didn’t even know he had a son that hated him bitterly.
But Jadi had Uchu. That made up for everything. All those long, lonely hours of crying alone where no one could see him, all because his father was a fiction, something that didn’t exist except in the mind. But then Uchu would come and lick away his tears, tell him it was alright. He would go with her to the pool, the one place where they could certainly be alone, and he would pour his heart into her, his soul into her. And she would tell him that Fujo didn’t matter, that when he was king he would put all things to the way they should be: his way. Jadi no longer mourned for his father’s presence; he detested it. And it was Uchu who had shown him the light.
He turned to look at her wonderful, desirable body. He had never received “the talk” from Fujo; it was his grandfather who had given it to him. Kovu had been blunt about it, hadn’t bothered with any analogies, he had simply gotten to the point, one lion to another. He answered any questions Jadi had had in full. Jadi had complete respect for his grandfather, he always had. He’d never shown Jadi any less respect because he was a cub. He’d very rarely told Jadi, “I don’t think your parents would like that.” He represented to Jadi what a true king should be like, strong even in his old age, physically and mentally. He was always there to help Jadi understand anything on the few occasions that Jadi asked. “The talk” was the one time that Jadi could remember that Kovu had ever dragged him aside and forced him to listen to something. Jadi thanked him for it. He now knew why he felt this way about Uchu, about her wonderful, slim, toned, and elegantly curved body. She’d always seemed to have that quality, the one that made Jadi want her. He simply hadn’t noticed it before. Her gorgeous, pitch-black body, her wonderful sense of how things were meant to be, her delicious sense of humor . . . Yes, if Jadi picked a mate, it would be her.
He suddenly noticed Uchu was staring at him. She batted her red eyes at him, the eyes that seemed so much like Jadi’s. Even Jadi’s eyes had changed. They were still the same blood red they had always been, but they no longer contained the happy, cublike glow they had carried everywhere. It had been replaced by a cold, cruel hunger, one that had little use for mercy for those that happened to annoy their owner. Soon even the mercy would be gone. Uchu purred contentedly. She took pride in her corruption of Jadi. He would always follow her, always obey her. He would have a free enough rein, but he would always be subject to her power. “What are you thinking about?” she asked him.
“You,” said Jadi. She smiled. Of course he was. He couldn’t help it. That was all he was with her: helpless, a little puppet she jerked the strings on to her amusement. Just how she wanted it. She got up from her lying down position and walked over to him and sat down, noticing with pleasure how he swallowed.
“Jadi,” she asked, “how much do you really know about me?”
He was slightly taken aback by her question, and even more by his answer. “I—well, not that much. You don’t talk about where you came from too much. You barely even talk about yourself.” Jadi grinned guiltily. “I guess I’ve done most of the talking.”
She gave him a kiss on the cheek, a small, affectionate lick, the first she’d ever given him. Her smile grew wider as she watched him restrain himself from giving her a longer, more passionate one. She turned away from him and looked down at the pool. “Jadi, I’ve lied o you. My parents never tried to send me away for my safety. They tried to escape for theirs. I killed them both.” She closed her eyes, remembering how she had hunted down her terrified father and killed him before her mother’s eyes, moments before she turned her bloodstained mouth to her mother and murdered her happily. The king is dead. Long live Queen Uchu. She opened her eyes and looked at Jadi, happy that his face was shocked. “They thought they could escape from me. From me, the most able lioness, the pride of the pride. I was meant to rule, Jadi. Like you.”
He was stunned. “I don’t understand. You were a cub. How could you kill—”
Uchu laughed, her voice ringing throughout the cave. “That’s right. I keep forgetting you don’t know. I’m old, Jadi. Do you want to guess?”
“But—but you were a cub when you came here.”
“Jadi, I was born here. Years and years ago. Know how many?”
She watched him look at her body, up and down it, uselessly trying to find some sign of old age. “Um . . . eighteen?” he finally guessed.
Uchu’s eyes danced with laughter. “I’m four hundred and twenty-one years old.”
Jadi’s mouth literally dropped open. “You’re joking.”
Uchu giggled. “Well, it is four hundred and twenty-two tomorrow.”
“But—but you’re so young.”
“I know. So . . . desirable?”
Jadi swallowed again. “Yes.”
Uchu smiled. “It’s true, though. I was queen here. I found the pool as a cub, just like you. And I sat by it, stared into it, drank it, lived for it. Remind you of anyone?” Jadi didn’t answer. “So the pool began to reward me for my faithfulness to it. It gave me whatever I wished. I wished for power, for the Pridelands to bow before Queen Uchu. And they did. Of course, some animals just refused. So I killed them. And it became so much fun.” Uchu licked her lips. “Killing is pure joy, Jadi. Watching them struggle helplessly as you take their life from them, slowly, painfully. It’s so much fun.
“And then They had to go and ruin everything,” she said, her voice changing to disappointment. “I ruled the kingdom, I had my fun, but They decided it was too much. The gods decided to destroy everything I had built up. They tossed me into the pool, destroying my body as they did so. They left my mind intact, so I could suffer.” Uchu gave a sigh of pleasure. “Jadi, it was the most ecstasy I’ve ever been in. It was overwhelming. To be one with the pool . . . it was what I’d always dreamed of. And it gave me this wonderful body. I met you here, Jadi, after you disturbed me. So how do you feel about me now?”
Uchu saw the disgust in his eyes. “You killed your parents. You massacred hundreds. Are you really the queen Uchu I’ve heard about?”
Uchu purred as she rubbed against him. “Worse. I’ve had centuries to think about revenge. To grow stronger. To become perfect.”
Jadi pushed her away. “You’re . . . horrible.”
Uchu smiled. “Yes. I’m the worst thing you can imagine. And I chose you. I could have just as easily pocked your sister, or Shani, but I chose you. I saw the strong, powerful lion you would become. And I wanted you.” She caressed his face with a paw.
“And . . . and I just thought you were a scared little cub . . . hiding in a cave . . .”
Uchu gave a low chuckle. “I know. Animals are so gullible. Especially those who want ‘peace’ and ‘equality.’ Like you used to. But you want power. You want to dominate. I know you do. And I can give you that. So Jadi, do you love me?”
She saw the indecision in his eyes. “No,” he finally said. “No, you’re a—”
Uchu’s paw drew away from his face, the slapped him across it. Jadi was lifted bodily by the force of the blow. He hit the ground a few feet away with a thud. Uchu walked over to him and placed herself on top of him, putting her stomach to his. “Wrong answer.” She gave him a passionate lick across the side of his face, laughing at his revulsion. She put her paw to the side of his face again, straining not to break his will, but to utterly destroy it. “Now, once again, do you love me?”
She watched as his eyes fought desperately against her corruption, how the last, unsullied, pure remnants of his mind held on before being overwhelmed. “Yes,” he finally said.
“What would you do to show it?”
“Anything,” came the answer, not dull and lifeless as Uchu expected, but vibrant and full of passion. “Unquestioningly.”
“Even—die for me?”
“Yes.” He suddenly and unexpectedly clasped his forelegs around her neck and drew her face down to his. He gave her a long, impassioned lick, full of adoration and lust. “I love you Uchu. More than anything.”
She smiled. “Good.” She got off of him. “It’s been so long since a male kissed me. And never like that.”
“Will you marry me?” Jadi impulsively asked.
“I’ve been trying to ask you for days now,” Jadi said truthfully. “I couldn’t. But when I saw the light, just now . . . Uchu, I love you for your evil. For your wonderful lack of mercy. For your wonderful body. I love you. Will you marry me?”
Uchu laughed. “You shouldn’t even have to ask. How else would I be queen?” She walked into the pool. “Come here.” Jadi got up and followed her into it, giving her another lick. She smiled at the passion in it. She was shocked to see that she was beginning to think of him as an equal, almost. “Immerse yourself into the pool,” she said. “You want power, and the pool will give it to you.” She smiled as she slowly sank into the water/
Jadi watched in horror as his love slowly sank away from him. He needed her. What he was seeing was impossible, he knew that. The pool barely went higher than half-leg. Yet she was there, completely immersed. Then the pools floor seemed to suddenly slip away, and Jadi began to go deeper and deeper as the pool crept up his legs, then his torso, and finally engulfed his head. Jadi threw his head back in ecstasy, the pool seeming to flow through him, become part of him, become tied to him. It was pure ecstasy, the power that seemed to flow through him as he surrendered himself to the pool. His head was fully underneath the water, yet he could still see clearly, breathe freely. He saw Uchu smile at his pleasure, then close her eyes in her own. Jadi floated down to her and wrapped his forelegs around her sides. This was breaking all the rules. He knew it; he didn’t care. The rules didn’t apply to him anymore. He pressed his body against Uchu’s and heard her gasp of pleasure.
Jadi came back later than normal. Uchu had insisted on it. “How would it look if we always came back together?” she had pointed out from the beginning. She wanted nothing to jeopardize their relationship, and Jadi was sure she wasn’t above killing a few unfortunate animals to do it. He knew he meant everything to her, that she returned his love and his desire to please fully.
He walked into the den, feeling happier than he had in a long time. He’d found out that Uchu truly loved him, wanted to be his mate, wanted to do nothing but elevate him. Being queen would only be a bonus to her. And they would rule, side by side, the greatest ruler the Pridelands had ever—
Fujo sat in the middle of the den, laughing with Uzuri and Taabu between bites, occasionally grinning guiltily at the stories Tumai was telling. Jadi felt the smile slide off his face, unconsciously knowing it was replaced by a scowl. Fujo looked up at him with a smile. “Well, look who it is. I’ve been waiting for you all day.” He stood up and embraced his son with a foreleg. Get off me, thought Jadi. He said nothing. “So, where’ve you been all day?” asked Fujo, stepping back.
“Places,” muttered Jadi. He walked past his father and began to tear strips off a carcass.
“Want to tell me about your day?”
“No.” The statement carried all the loathing and contempt Jadi felt for Fujo.
“Jadi,” reprimanded Taabu, “your father took the entire day off to be with you. He’s trying to be nice to you and you do nothing but—insult him.”
“I know that, Mother.”
Fujo, Uzuri, Tumai, and Taabu stared at Jadi, shocked. The statement had hurt Fujo beyond words. “Son . . . Jadi?” he asked. “Are you having a bad day?”
Jadi turned to look at his father, blood dripping from his mouth from the carcass. “His red eyes flashed angrily. “I was having a wonderful day. The best of my life. Until I came here. Until I saw you.”
“Jadi . . . why?”
“Why? Why?! you have the nerve to ask me why?! I don’t see you, I don’t talk to you, I don’t even know you! And you think that you can just stay one day and that will make me love you? You left us. You left her—” he gestured angrily at Taabu—”to take care of us! I don’t even know who you are! And you think you know me?”
“Well . . . yes. Some, at least.”
“Oh, really?” Jadi drew himself up proudly. “Then who am I?”
“You’re my son. That’s not going to change, no matter what happens. You’re part of me, like I’m part of you.”
“Part of me? Part of me? Don’t give me that. I am nothing like you, Fujo. You don’t know me a fraction as well as you think you do. You don’t know me at all.”
“Jadi, that doesn’t matter,” said Fujo softly. “I know I haven’t been the best father, but I’ve tried. I still love you, Jadi.” He put his paw up to Jadi’s face.
Jadi batted the paw away. “You don’t love me. You’re not my father. A father loves his cubs; he’d do anything for them. And where have you always been? Anywhere but here.” He took a step forward nose to nose with Fujo. “You haven’t done a thing for me in my entire life.”
A tear slid down Fujo’s face. It was true, every word of Jadi’s brutal honesty. He’d spent nearly no time at all with Jadi or Uzuri. Not even Taabu. It’d always been kingdom this or matter of utmost importance that. It wasn’t fair. He’d done everything he could. “I tried, Jadi,” he pleaded. “I tried. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
Jadi gave a low snarl. “You—have—done—nothing.” Fujo bit his lip, tears sliding down his face. Jadi drew back his head, disgusted at the shaking, weeping, fat broken thing that claimed to be his father. “I have no respect for you.” He walked out of the den angrily. The den had fallen silent. They watched the prince go, then turned to look at the king, the king that had been a happy, carefree lion just minutes ago, reduced to this by this son. He stood in the middle of the den, shaking with sobs.
Uzuri walked over to her father and gave him a gentle lick. “I love you, Dad.” She nuzzled him gently, and was suddenly drawn closer by his forepaw, his head pushed into her shoulder. Uzuri hesitated a moment, stunned, then relaxed, patting him on the back of the neck.
“So do I, Fujo,” said Taabu, walking to her mate and giving him a kiss on the cheek.
“And me,” said Shani, standing up.
“And me,” said Kovu, putting a foreleg around his son.
“And me,” said Kiara, next to her mate.
“And me,” said Tumai.
“And me.” “And me.” “And me.” The entire den rose. They loved their king. But Fujo still had a hole in his heart, one that had been ripped out and could only be replaced by his son.
No one noticed Uchu slipping out quietly. She couldn’t stand being around anyone at moments like this. She got so emotional. She felt like killing someone. Ugh. And them, she thought bitterly. She didn’t see any reason to get emotional over Fujo. He was a pathetic specimen of a king. As for being a parent, they weren’t all that much. She’d had hers. They’d never been any real use to her. Although hunting them down and killing them was fun. But they weren’t even her first victims.
She found Jadi where she expected to: at the pool. He sat, staring at it, for once not enraptured by the pool but immersed in thought. She sat next to him and nuzzled him passionately. He looked down at her. “I didn’t think I could do that,” he said.
Uchu smiled. “I knew you could. It was only a matter of time.” She gave a small laugh. “And they were all professing their undying love when I left.”
Jadi gave a sad smile. “They’ll never take me back now.”
Uchu laughed. “You have it all wrong, love. Those fools still trust you. They’ll take you back one hundred times and still welcome you with a warm den and a fresh carcass. They believe in ‘nobility’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘moral causes.’ They don’t exist, Jadi. There’s only power, and they treat it like something to be held on a pedestal. All the better for us. I can take that power and simply strike them down—or rather you will,” she amended. “They think you can change. Fools.”
“Well,” said Jadi, his eyes flicking down to the pool, then back to Uchu’s face, “I did, didn’t I?”
Uchu smiled and cradled Jadi’s face in her paw. “But you’re never going back.” She took her paw away as she walked toward the entrance of the cave, stopping before she left. “Hungry? I feel like killing something again.”
Jadi smiled. “Please.” Uchu walked out. Jadi turned back around, staring at the pool. His smile grew wider as the picture of his father’s broken, tear-stained face swam to the surface of his mind.
Jadi spent less and less time at the den. Uchu had persuaded him to not spend too much time at the pool, that it would look bad for the king to never be at his home. Jadi slowly pulled himself away from the pool, still living for the moments that he was with it. It gradually became easier and easier to do so. Of course, Uchu’s influence on him didn’t soften at all. He may have stayed away from the pool, but he didn’t spend more time with the lionesses. They were beneath him, and his attitude showed it. His arrogance, his bitter remarks, his outright dislike for those who annoyed him. He stayed away from the den as much as possible, spending the time with Uchu.
The pool had given him a gift, a wonderful gift, one that made up for all the little annoyances. It had given Jadi the power to control it, to use it to suit his purposes. The power to call on it at any time, at any place, a seething black mass to take any form, any shape. To bind, to stab, to choke, to drown. Uchu smiled at his thoughts of the power she had given to him. She was becoming more and more pleased with her decision to rush him, to make him see things her way. She had thought her impatience would be her undoing, but she had only reaped rewards.
But Jadi’s attitude was one thing she dared not ask him to suppress, and didn’t really care to ask him either. She enjoyed his “To hell with you, I’ll do what as I please” streak he was developing. He was shaping up just as she wished: strong, arrogant, and ruthless, not above cutting an animal down, using them and discarding them.
The pride, however, did not enjoy it. They found Jadi’s growing bitterness and arrogance disturbing. Fujo had been staying home more and more, demanding that animals come to him with their problems. He saw why Kovu had done this; the animals now treated his audience as a privilege instead of something to be taken for granted. But the time at home had only gone to show the changes in Jadi. Fujo tried to ignore them, but they kept being shoved in his face by the loathing he saw in his son’s eyes when they looked at each other, how he utterly ignored Fujo unless forced to acknowledge him. Fujo kept waiting for the day that Jadi would come home, sit before him, and say, “Father, I am sorry for my treatment of you. Will you forgive me?” and Fujo would hug his son and kiss him, and say there was nothing to forgive. The day never came. So Fujo kept pushing it to the back of his mind, trying to forget the bitter remarks Jadi had directed at him the last time Fujo had actually seen him at home. But Taabu had finally brought the subject of Jadi’s blind hatred in front of him. “Fujo,” she said.
“Unph.” He was very tired. He may have been home more, but there were still days that had demanded his complete attention. Yesterday had been one of them, forcing Fujo to work through the night, all to find a few missing cubs, which, of course, had ended up just a few feet from their home where no one had thought to look. He was surprise, however, at how possessive Taabu had become. Nadhari may have had no trouble at all keeping up with all of the kingdom and still finding time to spend with his mate Tama and his son Simo, but Fujo had trouble simply keeping up with his share of the kingdom. But he hadn’t counted on Taabu meeting him halfway, fiercely telling all visitors to go away, that the king would take care of it tomorrow. Fujo never stopped being grateful to her for this. He didn’t think about any of this, though. He was tired. So, “Unph.”
“We need to talk.”
“We’ll visit your sisters next week. Y’know, why can’t they visit for once?”
“There’s nothing to talk about. When he’s king, he’ll change. I imagine I was a jerk, too.”
“Is that really what you think?”
“Yeah . . . Sure.”
“Fujo, you’re lying. I can smell the bullshit all the way over here.”
“Alright, I’m worried. But Jadi will be fine.”
“Fujo, no, he won’t. Jadi won’t be a good king. The whole kingdom will fall apart. I’m worried, Fujo.”
“You’re exaggerating. I’m sure Jadi may have a little trouble at the beginning, but he’ll improve. We all need a little help at the beginning.”
Kovu laughed from his corner of the den where he had been with Kiara. He never left her longer than he had to. “So he finally admits it!”
Fujo brought his head up fro the ground and pointed his paw at his father. “Shut it, you.” He smiled, though.
“Fujo, I’m serious,” said Taabu. “Haven’t you noticed how Jadi’s been acting?”
“It’s just a phase. He’ll grow—”
“It’s not a phase; he will not grow out of it. He treats you like dirt! You, his father! And if not that, at least the king!”
“You know, you don’t treat me that nice, either.”
“She has a waiver,” interrupted Kiara.
“Then I’ll repeal it.”
“Fujo, please pay attention!” begged Taabu. “I don’t think Jadi should be king!”
There was muttering throughout the lionesses who were in the den. “Oh, look, there’s Nadhari,” said Fujo, trying to escape.
“Deal with it,” Taabu said curtly to the cheetah.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Nadhari, turning back around.
“Wait, wait, wait!” protested Fujo. “I don’t want you to go!”
“Sire, I’m honestly more scared of her than you,” said Nadhari, leaving.
“Well, how do you like that? How do you like—” Fujo was interrupted by Taabu’s paw across his face. “Augh! Hey! I said to stop that!”
“I will when you start listening!” said Taabu. “Damn it, why can’t you just see it? Jadi just should not be king! Don’t you understand that?”
“Yes, but—Taabu, I love him. He’s my son.”
“Fujo, I love him, too, but we have to think about the kingdom first this time. He just won’t be a good king, Fujo. If anything, it’d be better for him. Look what ruling has done to you.”
“Hey! I thought we agreed that my weight was off limits.”
“Not the weight, Fujo, but everything. You’re just not as fun anymore. You can’t be. Fujo, please, at least consider it.”
“Dad, she’s got a point,” jutted in Uzuri.
Fujo was silent. Finally he said, “Well, you wouldn’t say something this rash without thinking it through. So who do you think the next king should be?”
“Gyka,” Taabu said simply.
Fujo’s eyes widened, then he turned to look at Uzuri. “You put her up to this.”
“I most certainly did not,” said Uzuri.
“And we’re all supposed to believe that your mother innocently picked your boyfriend?”
“Dad, he is not my boyfriend! I wish he’d at least notice me.”
“Fujo,” interrupted Taabu, “I picked him because he’s the only other male in the pride around Jadi’s age.”
“And the fact that your daughter is—”
“Fine, the fact that our daughter is completely in love with him has nothing to do with it at all? You expect me to believe that?”
“And that both Jadi and Gyka aren’t here right now has nothing to do with it?”
“It has plenty to do with me telling you now. But I’d already picked Gyka. What do you have against him?”
“The fact that he’s a spineless, gutless—”
“He’s just a little shy. Give him a chance. I’m not saying it has to be him, you can pick Shik. But I refuse to let it be Jadi.”
“He’s your son, Taabu!”
“Our son. Take that y off.”
Fujo stared at the ground helplessly. I was true. Jadi was shaping into a monster, whether he admitted it or not. He tried to think of some way to prove Taabu wrong, some way to not take the throne from Jadi. None came. “Fine,” he finally said. “Fine. I should have known this a long time ago. I did. I just kept—hoping—he’d—improve or—or something.” He looked up at Taabu. “I can’t tell him, Taabu. I just can’t.”
“I can,” said Uchu, for once not next to Jadi.
“No,” said Kovu. “I will. He’ll be mad. It should come from me. He trusts me.”
“Fine,” said Fujo. “But no one—and I mean no one—is to tell Gyka or Jadi anything about this until I’m ready. Especially you, Uchu. I know you’re very close to Jadi, but please don’t tell him. Please.”
“Fine,” said Uchu, her face completely willing.
“And the same for you and Gyka, Uzuri. Nothing.”
“Yes, Dad,” said Uzuri obediently.
Fujo sighed. “I need to think,” he finally said, getting up. “I need to think someplace quiet.”
Gyka sat on top of Lookout Point. It was a beautiful place, with an even more beautiful view. He was alone. He almost always was. It wasn’t for Jadi’s reason, for being an arrogant, bitter beast. Gyka was simply timid. He was too shy to ask to be with others. The pride understood this; they invited him. They didn’t try to put him though the agony of asking.
There was no real, definable reason for it. He was perfectly fine with being in crowds, he joined in the laughter of the den, but he simply couldn’t ask someone for a private word. As much as he would like to, he couldn’t. The words seemed to catch in his throat, leaving his mouth opening and closing, soundless. The more he wanted to talk to them the worse and harder it seemed to become. He knew he looked like a fool, simply coming up to an animal and to ask to be alone with them for a moment, a simple opinion or nothing important, and ending up just sitting there, next to them, looking at them but saying nothing. So instead of going to them, he stayed where he was. The pride understood. If they noticed Gyka staring at them for the past hour, they simply got Gyka alone. They all understood this, save for the one lioness that Gyka really wanted to talk to, about something that wasn’t trivial.
Gyka loved her. He loved the way she smiled, how she always seemed so nice and kind, how her clear, pure laughter seemed to ring through the den. He knew how she looked, the most beautiful lioness in the pride, but he barely thought about that. He loved her for who she was, not for the goddess she looked exactly like. But she seemed to utterly ignore him; she only had eyes or Jadi. He envied Jadi, how he spent so much time with her, completely alone, where no one could find them. Gyka had tried. He had never so much as seen them together, had never found their little hideaway. Jadi had every day what Gyka wanted for only a second: time alone with Uchu.
It wasn’t as though Gyka thought she was the only lioness in the pride. He knew there were several that would be more than willing to be his mate, and he would be quire happy with them. Even Uzuri, even the princess was interested in him. If that was a way to say insanely obsessed. He knew the way she continued to throw looks at him every day and night meant something very special, how she was always so nice and pleasant to him. He would be more than willing to return her love if it weren’t for Uchu. But as it was, he couldn’t imagine being her mate. He could be a prince, if he married her, prince of all the Pridelands. But having Uchu would be thousands of times a higher rank.
He thought of this as he sat, staring across the Pridelands as he lied peacefully on Lookout Point. The attitude toward him back at the den had completely changed, no more than a couple of weeks ago, for no reason at all. The lionesses seemed so much more—respectful. But it seemed as though they were trying to hide it. It confused Gyka beyond reason. But Uchu’s behavior hadn’t changed. She ignored Gyka just as easily as before. Even when she talked to him in conversation her voice never changed, it was the same pleasant, cheery voice that she always used and he loved so much.
It had been a month since he first asked about the best way to get Uchu alone. He asked Shani, the closest thing to a mother that Uchu had. Shani had taken her in, almost like the cub she’d never had. Almost every adult lioness had acted as a mother to Uchu in some way or another, but if anyone was asked who would be named Uchu’s mother, it would go to Shani, paws down. It wasn’t that Shani had always cuddled Uchu close to her side at night or anything like that. It was that Shani had taken Uchu personally under her wing to teach her hunting, something that had never happened to any cub. It was the most affection any lioness had seen Shani lavish on a cub since the day when Shani had been just a little cub herself and had had seen her mother die horrifically on a hunt, and had sworn over her mother’s decapitated head that she clung to and wept on that she would be the best hunter the pride had ever seen. She’d fulfilled that promise, and her choosing of Uchu was something the other cubs didn’t envy. Shani was demanding, and even more so for Uchu, but for Uchu hunting seemed to come naturally, as if she’d been doing it for years. Gyka was finally taken aside by Shani and asked bluntly, “What?”
“Um . . . well, it’s more really about Uchu.”
“You’ll have to ask her yourself,” said Shani, turning to go back into the den.
Shani stopped and sighed in frustration before turning back to Gyka. “She’s playing hard to get. You’ll have to ask her yourself. I won’t ask for you.”
Gyka stared at her in disbelief. “You knew?”
Shani rolled her eyes, irritated. “We all know. And she knows. She enjoys making you sit though this because she knows it’s hard for you. Think of it as her testing you, if you want. If you want to insult her, have someone else ask, but if you want to do it the right way, ask her yourself. Now will you let a crabby old lioness get back to her nap?”
You . . . um . . . you look pretty good for an old lioness,” said Gyka, as way of thanks. “I thought you were about Tumai’s age.”
“I am,” said Shani bitterly. Gyka swallowed nervously. “And I’m going to let that comment of yours slide because right now I’m too tired to beat the shit out of you.” She stalked back into the den.
That had been over a month ago. Gyka knew it was still probably too early for most lioness to think about mating, except, of course, the temporary kind. But he was two and a half, for Aiheu’s sake. It wasn’t like that was drastically early. He had a decent mane. Sure, it had a little ways to grow, but he no longer looked like a lioness. He was a lion, and as such, he should know what he wanted. And he did. He wanted to be Uchu’s mate, to love her and receive her love back, to make her happy forever.
But he couldn’t do it. He could never face the giggling of the lionesses as he asked the pure black lioness in their midst to step outside. He probably would never even be able to look at her face as he told her how he felt. And then would come the worst part of all, the crushing rejection, her laughter that scorned his thoughts of being her mate, her only. He couldn’t face that. He couldn’t ask her.
He was snapped out of his thoughts by a loud splash. Alright, he wasn’t entirely alone. He turned to see the four cubs he was escorting that were playing in the pool next to Lookout Point. They didn’t really count as company, though. Gyka smiled. Shik, the youngest of all the males in the pride, and the only male that could actually be called a cub, was having his head held under the water by Prinsa, who was being encouraged by Kaj and Onalla. “Prinsa,” Gyka reprimanded, “if you want to do that, you’ll all have to take turns.”
Prinsa got off Shik, Shik gasping for air as he came up. But Gyka, I was gonna let him up soon,” she protested. “Honest. Just another minute or--” Prinsa let out a squeal as Shik tackled her into the water, Kaj and Onalla laughing. After a few moments Gyka said, “Alright, Shik, let her up.” Shik got off reluctantly. “It’s time to go home, anyway.” The cubs groaned. “If you don’t go, you’ll miss dinner.”
“Can’t we have a little more fun?” asked Shik.
Inspiration struck Gyka. “Didn’t your mothers ever show you how to play with your food?”
“No,” said Kaj.
“They say it’s bad,” said Onalla.
“Well, that’s because it’s too much fun to handle. Here, let me tell you something . . .” the cubs followed him halfway back to Pride Rock, their minds swimming with what they planned to do with their dinners. Gyka was going to enjoy this. Then he suddenly stopped as a figure caught his eye, sitting on a hill. It was Uchu, completely alone.
“Well, tell us the rest,” begged Onalla. “After you put the meat on the bone, what next?”
“Uh, you step on the bone. The meat flies up.” The cubs exchanged grins. They were going to eat hardly anything tonight. “Listen,” said Gyka, “do me a big favor and go one home, okay? And tell them I’ll be back soon.”
Prinsa saw where he was looking and her mouth opened in a silent “Oh.” “Yeah, we’ll leave you--alone.” She ran off toward Pride rock snickering, the other three cubs following her, yelling for her to wait up.
Gyka turned back to look at the hill. Uchu was gone. He ran desperately up the hill. It wasn’t like him, to run after her. But something told him if he didn’t take his chance now, he’d never get another one like it. He reached the top of the hill to see Uchu’s black body striding away from Pride Rock. He ran after her, finally stopping when he saw her sit down in the middle of the empty savannah. Gyka stopped dead. He wasn’t sure what to do. He wasn’t sure if he could do it. Then, surprisingly, he steeled himself. He’d come this far, he wasn’t going to back down now. He walked up behind her and said, “Uchu?” He saw her turn around, her eyes lighting up and a smile creeping across her face. “I . . . uh, I . . . I . . .” Oh gods, please not now. “I need—to talk to you.” See? It wasn’t so bad.
Uchu’s smile grew a little wider. “You’re doing it, aren’t you?”
Gyka gave a nervous laugh. “Uchu, I . . . well, you see . . .” Then, suddenly, the words began to tumble out, perfectly, beyond Gyka’s wildest dreams, the way he’d always practiced it in his head. “Uchu, I love you. More than anything. I need you to know that. You’re special, Uchu. You deserve the best lion out there. Someone who will make you happy. I’m just hoping that I can be that lion. But I love you, Uchu. With all my heart. So much that I understand if you don’t want me. I want you to be happy, forever. If I’m not that lion, then I don’t deserve to have you. I love you, Uchu. I just hope that you’ll love me back, that you’ll accept me as your mate.” He was left breathless, waiting for her judgment.
Uchu’s solemn face broke into a smile. “You’re sweet.”
Gyka’s heart soared. He stood up and went to kiss her joyously on the cheek. “Oh, Uchu.”
A black spike suddenly shot up from the ground going straight through Gyka’s chest, stopping him dead. His eyes widened in pain. Uchu pressed a paw to the side of his face. “And you disgust me.”
“Uchu,” Gyka whispered.
“Queen Uchu.” The spike suddenly disappeared into the ground, Gyka collapsing, dead. Uchu’s smile grew wider. She always did enjoy ruining someone’s day. And she’d killed off the “prince.” She’d been waiting for this opportunity for two straight weeks. Then she suddenly chided herself for her foolishness. Here was Gyka, a hole completely through his body, with no explanation. She should have done it differently and set it up instead of letting her emotions rule her. But it had been such a wonderful opportunity. But no she was left with a complete idiot of a lion with a huge hole in him and no way to—
Wait a second. I’ve been dragged across all the Pridelands by that idiot Edaha. And she manages to miss there? Uchu couldn’t believe she’d forgotten about it. It must have slipped out of memory of the Pridelands. A cliff, with plenty of sharp rocks jutting up into the sky beneath the cliff. But it’d been so long since she’d been there. Afriti’s Teeth, that was what the place was called. None of the other lions or cubs had so much as referred to it. Was it even still there? Uchu shrugged. She’d find out soon enough.
She looked down at Gyka’s body, his mouth open in shock and his eyes wide in desperation, blood trickling out of his mouth. Uchu had never understood that. There was a gigantic, bleeding hole in his chest and blood came out of his mouth as well. She decided to drag Gyka. She couldn’t afford to get blood on her back by carrying him, Besides, it was so easy. The pool had been more than generous when it had given her a body. It was amazing how simply she could do things how strong she was. She grabbed Gyka’s neck and began to drag his body effortlessly, walking backwards. If anyone saw her, she’d just have to kill them. She could afford to make them disappear completely. But not Gyka.
She finally reached the cliff and let go of Gyka, spitting on him to get the stench of his mane out of her mouth. She looked down off the cliff, the sight satisfying her. If anything, it looked sharper than before. Sharp points had been built toward the sky. She’d gotten lucky. The entire place could have eroded away. She turned, grabbed Gyka’s neck, took him to the edge of the cliff, and with a throw of her neck tossed him off. Gyka landed, being impaled several more times by the rocks below, one going cleanly through his skull. Uchu grinned sadistically. A rock in his chest didn’t match up quite as well as she would have hoped, but it was good enough. She didn’t think anyone would decide to go down and look at the corpse. The only way to get down there was Gyka’s way. She turned and walked off the cliff into the savannah.
There was an antelope at the bottom of the cliff that stared at her as she came down. He walked past it, ignoring it. “Hey, what’s down there, anyway,” it called after her.
The antelope shook its head. “Ask a jerky question, get a jerky answer. I should know by now.”
As Uchu climbed the ramp of Pride Rock the sounds of the dinner in the den could be heard, although it sounded like very little was being eaten. She stopped outside the mouth, out of sight, composing her features into something that would show only unmistakable pity and sorrow, and sudden tragic loss. A bit of meat flew out of the den a few inches in front of her face. She sighed, composed herself, began crying, and went into the den with a tremendous sob. She collapsed on the floor next to Shani, the cub continuing their all out food melee. It wasn’t a fight; it was a war, despite their mothers’ attempts to restrain them. “What’s wrong?” Shani asked, a trace of kindness entering her voice along with the respect she had for Uchu.
“Gyka,” Uchu wailed, loud enough for the whole den to hear, “is dead!”
There was a collective gasp. Even the cubs topped playing. “He’s—dead?” Uzuri asked, her sorrow obvious. Uchu nodded mutely. “Oh gods, Gyka’s dead!” Uzuri sobbed. She buried her face in Taabu’s shoulder.
“What happened?” Kovu asked gently.
“He—he just jumped!” sobbed Uchu. Tears streaming down her face. “He asked me to marry him, he said he loved me so much, and when I said n-no he j-jumped!” She let out a gigantic wail. “I killed him! He’s dead because of me! And just because I told him I loved Jadi!” She put her head into Shani’s outstretched foreleg. She felt she should have gotten an award for her performance.
“It’s not your fault,” said Shani gently, rubbing the only cub she ever could have loved’s back. “You did nothing wrong.”
“He’s dead . . . he’s dead . . .” The den was now filled with Uzuri’s wails, a sound that gave Uchu such pleasure.
“Where did it happen?” Kovu asked quietly.
“I—I don’t know the name,” said Uchu, raising her face from her “mother’s” shoulder. “I just found it, and he followed me there.” She looked over at Uzuri, knowing exactly what o say. “He said he loved me so much.” Uzuri’s wails grew even louder.
“I—I’m sure he did,” said Kovu. “Listen, when you’re ready, just lead me to where—where it happened. When you’re ready.”
“Dad—” began Fujo.
“Son, I’ll take care of this. You don’t want to do this. I will.”
“Do what?” asked Jadi appearing in the mouth of the den. He suddenly saw Uchu crying and rushed to her, knocking a cub impatiently out of the way. “What did they do to you?” he whispered.
She looked up at him unable to hide the malevolent laughter in her eyes for a second. “Gyka is dead,” she said, filled with even more sorrow than before.
“Dead?” repeated Jadi. Uchu nodded. “That’s . . . unfortunate.” His sentence was punctuated by a sudden wail from Uzuri. He turned in her direction, scowling, and saw his parents’ expression of shock.
“Unfortunate?” said Taabu finally. “Is that all?”
“Less than that.”
“I can’t believe you!” said Taabu. “What happened to the son I raised—” Her statement was cut off by a snarl from Jadi, his claws extended.
“That’s it!” exploded Kovu, getting up and going to Jadi. Jadi suddenly and unexpectedly swung at Kovu. Kovu blocked it and smashed his head down onto Jadi’s. “Outside, now!” Jadi stared back up at Kovu, his eyes murderous. Kovu cuffed Jadi on the side of the head. “Now!” Jai stared at his grandfather for a second before walking out, snarling. Fujo stood up to follow him, and stopped dead at Kovu’s voice. “You, stay here!”
“Dad—” began Fujo firmly.
“Now!” thundered Kovu. Fujo lied down, cringing. “The rest of you—eat, or something.” He walked out of the den to the tip of Pride Rock where Jadi say angrily. Jadi turned to face him.
“What?” he asked aggressively.
“First off, what the hell just happened in there? ‘Unfortunate’? Is that all you have to say?”
“I’m sorry I tried to hit you,” said Jadi honestly. “I shouldn’t have.”
“But you tried! And you don’t even seem to care that Gyka is gone! What is your problem?”
“You were going to attack your mother! There’s no problem?!” Jadi was silent. “You looked like you were going to killer her.” Jadi remained silent. “Jadi . . . Jadi, why?”
“They hurt Uchu,” he lied, knowing she was fine. “Someone was going to pay for that. Someone is going to pay for that.”
Kovu sighed. This was something he could understand. “Alright. You love her. She loves you. Fine. But you can’t just take it out like that.”
“Why not?” snarled Jadi.
Kovu stared at him, stunned by the familiar, hate-filled voice Jadi used. “Jadi, I used to feel just as you do. You would have killed your mother in there, wouldn’t you?” he asked, knowing how he would have struck down any lioness in anger when he was young.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Jadi, trying to walk past Kovu.
Kovu stepped in his way. “Where have you been going?” he demanded.
“It doesn’t matter,” snarled Jadi.
“How many innocents have you already killed?”
“It doesn’t matter!” yelled Jadi.
“Why should you care what I’ve been doing, Grandpa? Why should it matter? I am the prince! No, I haven’t killed anyone, if that’s what you’re worried about! Just why should I even have to tell you?!”
“Because I care!” roared Kovu. He let out a sigh. “I care about you, Jadi. I love you. Like Taabu. Like Fujo. Shut up and listen,” he said in response to Jadi’s opening mouth. “I would have done quite a few bad things today if I was your age. By your age I was already a murderer. I’d killed other cubs. I was forced to. But even if my ‘mother’ hadn’t made me, I would have. I hated everything, Jadi. I don’t want you to end up that way. Your grandmother was the only thing that pulled me out of it. I’ll always live her. Always. Just try to remember that. I don’t want you to do something foolish. You’re walking a very thin line, Jadi. I will exile you, or have you killed, if you endanger the others. I don’t want it to come to that. I love you. Please, Jadi, just think twice before doing something. For me.” Kovu sighed. “You’d better go in and get something to eat that Shik hasn’t torn apart already.” Jadi walked past his grandfather. “Just try to be civil to your father tonight. He has enough going on.” Kovu sat down to watch the setting sun, his mind on anything but the view.
“Grandpa?” said Jadi.
Kovu turned to look at him. “Yes?”
“I do respect you.”
Kovu paused for a moment, trying to find something besides honesty in Jadi’s eyes. Thank you.” He turned around again to stare at the Pridelands as Jadi went into the den.
It was a month since Gyka’s death. He had been missed by all. Uchu had finally decided to lead Kovu back to Afriti’s Teeth, accompanied by an insisting Uzuri. Uchu left the two of them alone there, Uzuri weeping without end when she was his impaled body. Kovu had hoped to bring it back to the den to give it the proper rites, but the jagged rocks made that completely impossible. Gyka didn’t even have a mother; she was wounded during a hunt and died of infection. Only Uzuri truly grieved for him.
But even with Gyka gone, Taabu was still determined that Jadi would not rule. Fujo sadly agreed with her. The last male left beside him, Kovu, and Pofu was Shik, who was only a cub, and had over two years before he was even full-grown. It seemed inevitable that Jadi would rule, even if it was for the shortest time. The adults were worried, to say the least.
Shik, however, had no worries. He was a cub, and his biggest problem was persuading his mother to let him stay up five minutes longer. He didn’t even think about the kingdom; it was a problem that wasn’t related to him in any way at all. He thought. The thought of him being the next prince never even crossed his mind. Jadi was the prince again.
But despite his lack of interest in filling the position, Shik was awfully interested in the prince, or rather, where Jadi disappeared to. Jadi would always be gone during the day, and sometimes would even leave the den in the middle of the night. Sometimes Uchu would be with him, others not. But for the life of him, Shik couldn’t understand why Jadi would drag a girl around at all. They didn’t appreciate any of the finer points of life, like mud, and gross crawly things, and mud, and really brawling, not just the sissy wrestling they did, and mud, and racing, and did he also mention mud?
That night Shik woke as Jadi’s tail smacked into his face. Shik looked up to see Jadi exiting the den. A sudden, wild thought entered his mind. He got up and scampered over to Kaj, Onalla, and Prinsa, walking them up while trying not to disturb their mother. “Guys! Guys!” he said, poking them in turn.
“Whazzit?” Kaj asked sleepily.
“Come on! We’re going to follow Jadi!” he whispered.
“Tomorrow,” said Kaj, rolling over.
“No! We have to go now! Come on!”
“Get up, Kaj!” said Prinsa, a little too loudly. Their mother snorted.
“Shh!” said Shik and Onalla.
“Kaj, come on!” whispered Prinsa.
Kaj looked up at the three cubs. “Fine. But I’m sleeping in tomorrow.”
The three of them left the den just in time to see a last bit of Jadi before he went behind a hill. “Come on!” said Shik. The scampered down the stairs, stopping when they saw Pofu’s massive body at the foot, Pofu obviously asleep. They tiptoed quietly passed his eyes, which were closed that night. They ran as soon as they were past him, following Jadi’s well-worn path. It was a miracle no one had found it before. But the cubs were much lower to the ground; they could see things much easier. If it weren’t for that path they would have never found Jadi. They finally arrived at the spire, the cave for the pool, and eagerly went inside. They expected to find something amazing, like a secret meeting for Shik, or Jadi necking passionately with a lioness for the girls.
“Hey,” said Onalla, “there’s nothing here but a bunch of water!”
“Wow, Shik,” said Kaj. “You dragged me away for this. I want to go back.”
Shik ignored their comments and walked over to the pool. What he saw astounded him. There was Jadi, at the bottom of the pool. “Jadi’s down there!” he exclaimed.
“What?” asked the other girls as they ran over.
“He can’t be!” said Onalla. “How can he breathe?”
Shik poked the pool inquisitively. “It’s just water.” Jadi’s eyes snapped open. He looked up at them with anything but happiness. “Uh-oh,” said Shik, backing away from the pool with the others. Water sprang up from the pool like tentacles and flung themselves at Shik, wrapping around his forelegs. They began to drag him toward the pool. Prinsa leapt at Shik and bit into his tail, trying to pull him back. Onalla bit onto Prinsa, and Kaj onto Onalla, all three of them pulling as hard as they could the pool still dragged Shik forward as if they weren’t there. Shik let out a scream as the bonds around his legs twisted, breaking them. The bonds began to creep along his writhing body, inching toward his tail. Prinsa let go as the pool nearly swallowed her mouth and was pulled back by the other girls. Shik was dragged into the water, his screams silenced only when he went underwater. The three girls stared at where he had disappeared for a second, the bolted for the exit.
It was gone.
The three girls began to furiously scratch at the wall in terror, their efforts useless. Kaj looked behind her and gasped, the other two turning around when they heard her. Jadi stood on the top of the water, a dark red stain around his mouth. “Jadi!” said Prinsa desperately. “Jadi, it got Shik! We can’t get out!” Jadi advanced on her, grinning, his blood-red eyes gleaming in the darkness. “Jadi, what are you doing?” asked Prinsa, her voice terrified. She screamed as Jadi’s jaws lunged toward her, enclosed around her body, and snapped shut with a sickening crunch. Kaj and Onalla screamed and ran to the far side of the cave as Jadi threw Prinsa’s body into the pool. They were silenced seconds later. Jadi feasted that night.