It might help if you read The Lion King III: Tanabi’s Return, Cracks in the Ice, and After the Union first, all of them by Akril.

            Legalities: The characters Zira, Vitani, Kiara and Kovu are copyrighted to Disney. The characters Monah, Nani, Kizazi, and Tanabi are Akril’s, and used with her permission. The characters Mataka, Nasiha, Amana, Kumbukizi, Makini, Ushairi, Sudi, Kassan, Una, Loma, Liaka, Beda, Akida, Shaka, Katili, Aisha, Ashani, Ibu, Onali, Laym, Kisasa and Kivuli are my characters, and are not to be used without my explicit permission. All e-mails may be sent to conor0191@aol.com.

Heist

 

The Crew

 

            “Look, it’s just some meat. There’s no need to fight over it.”

            “That’s what you think, lion. You haven’t been starving for scraps your whole life.”

            Mataka stood his ground against the advancing trio of hyenas. “I’m just as hungry as you are. Just get your own kill.”

            “Not a chance,” said the leader. He and his two allies continued advancing.

            “I’m warning you.”

            “There’s three of us, one of you. I think we’ve got at least a decent chance.”

            “Last chance.”

            The leader ignored Mataka, charging him, flanked by his two friends. Mataka swiped at the first one, knocking him to the ground. He didn’t intend to kill the hyenas, just give them a beating their bodies would remember for a week and their minds wouldn’t forget for a lifetime. He backpawed the next, and received a vicious bite from the third in his hind leg. He gritted his teeth and fell on the hyena, expecting his leg to be knocked out with the rest of the hyena’s wind. Amazingly, the hyena didn’t let go. The other two hyenas leapt on him, each of them taking a painful bite in Mataka’s body. The leader of the three went for Mataka’s throat, Mataka only managing to wriggle out of it by placing his free leg in the hyena’s jaws. He felt no pain in his leg, but roared with pain as the other two hyenas intensified their clamps. His mind swirled with disbelief. He, Mataka, veteran of countless fights, was to die at the will of three hyenas. He must be slowing down.

            Mataka thrashed wildly, the hyenas occasionally relinquishing their grips for better ones, Mataka’s roars increasing in intensity. He managed to land a few blows on the hyenas. As soon as he knocked a hyena back it lunged forward again, taking another bite. Then a hyena was suddenly knocked off him, hitting the ground a few feet away. Mataka caught sight of a clawed paw knocking another hyena off, and roared in pain as a little bit of himself went with the hyena. He reached out and clubbed the last hyena off him. He turned over and got to his feet, advancing towards a hyena with renewed vengeance, noting his lioness ally by his side. The hyenas attacked again, the odds hopelessly against them now. Mataka and the lioness repelled them, coordinating their attacks perfectly, almost as if the entire fight had been rehearsed. The hyenas finally began to back away, Mataka staring at the leader with the lioness facing down the other two, both him and her breathing heavily.

            “We’ll get our own meat,” said the leader of the hyenas, the other two apparently mute. “But when we find you again, you’re ours.” He ran off, followed by his friends.

            Mataka finally allowed himself to hang his head. He turned to look at the lioness. She was looking at him with concern. “What was that about?” she asked.

            “Nothing,” said Mataka. He looked back at the carcass on the ground, then gestured toward it. “There. It’s yours.” He began to walk away.

            “Wait!” the lioness called after him. “I need your help!”

            “You can help yourself just fine,” Mataka called back.

            “You owe me!”

            “I do not!” Mataka kept walking, aching from all the bites. He knew he didn’t owe the lioness anything. He would have gotten out just fine. Granted, he might have been a little worse off, but it wouldn’t have been anything that wouldn’t heal. Besides, he’d left her the carcass. That more than made up for the help she had given him. He stopped at a pond to drink. He sighed as a reflection appeared next to his in the water.

            “You owe me,” insisted the reflection.

            Mataka turned toward the lioness irritably. “What do you want from me? Hmm? Can’t I just pass through a place without getting stopped?” The lioness stared at him defiantly. “Look, I’ve never even been here.”

            “You think I didn’t think that?” asked the lioness. “That’s why I’m asking you.”

            “Females are so infuriating.”

            “No doubt.”

            Mataka didn’t need this. He didn’t need any of it. No hyenas, no lionesses, no “favors.” But he had them anyway. It was going to be a long day. Irritably he asked, “And why should I help?”

            “There’s no need to be so rude about it.”

            “Listen, I am having a very bad time. You would too if you had just been run out of a kingdom by some poser who got lucky. And then I just try to get some food and get attacked, and then you come happily to my rescue. I am not happy.”

            “Then it’s a good thing I don’t need you happy.”

            Mataka began seriously considering throwing himself into the pond. “And just what do you ‘need me’ for?”

            “I want you to help my friends.”

            “Could you be a little less specific?”

            The lioness glared at him. “They’ve been exiled.”

            “Oh, so now I’m helping criminals.”

            “And a rogue like you hasn’t ever done a wrong thing?”

            “A rogue like me has done things that would give you nightmares if you’d care to listen.”

            “Look, it was a mistake. They didn’t do anything.”

            “That’s a first.”

            “They didn’t,” the lioness insisted.

            “They didn’t what?”

            “They were exiled for killing a lioness and her cubs. They didn’t. They said so, but the king wouldn’t listen.”

            “What a shock.”

            “Do you have a smart-ass remark for everything?”

            “Just about. Especially when I get like this.”

            “Look, you just need to help them. Clear their names somehow.”

            “I don’t need to do anything. I’ve half a mind to walk out of this place right now.”

            “Don’t you have any decency? My friends are banned for something they didn’t do! You can change that!”

            “What’s in it for me?”

            “Ohhh,” the lioness groaned. She gave a huff. “Can’t you do something decent? Without repayment?”

            “Sorry. That offer’s only good on Tuesday.” Mataka got up and began to leave.

            The lioness watched him go in desperation. Suddenly she yelled out, “Please!” Mataka stopped in mid-step, then slowly turned around. “Please,” begged the lioness.

            “Please, huh?” Mataka’s face almost changed into a smile. “Now that’s a zebra of a different stripe.”

            “You’ll do it?” asked the lioness desperately.

            “Maybe.” Mataka turned and started walking away again. “I’ll see what I can do.”

            “Is that all?” the lioness yelled after him.

            “Take it or leave it,” Mataka called back.

            The lioness watched him walk away. “I’ll take it,” she said quietly. She turned and began to walk back the way she came.

 

 

 

                        Another time, another place. The same old routine. Just roaming, looking for someplace to peddle his talents. Mataka rotated his neck, hearing the vertebrae crack. He was headed for Daima. Nasiha had said to meet him there. They’d only been apart for a few weeks, but Mataka missed him sorely. Nasiha was probably the best friend he had.

            Then something threw his mind completely off everything. It was a lioness. She was beautiful. Mataka had been with some very, very pretty girls, but they had all lacked something. This lioness seemed to have it. She wasn’t exceptionally pretty; she was almost mediocre. But there was something in her that made Mataka stare as she went down to the water hole. Maybe it was in the way she carried herself, maybe it was in the features of her face, maybe it was her eyes. Maybe, but Mataka didn’t know. All he knew was that he was willing to follow this lioness wherever she led him.

            But overall, he had an overwhelming desire not to tarnish her. He didn’t want to change her. He stayed away. But he watched. He stayed in one place for the longest time he could remember. He began to think he was crazy. He’d never felt like this in his life, and now he was acting like this over a lioness he’d never even talked to. He stayed for four days, watching her. He could finally bear the waiting no longer. When she went to the waterhole the next morning, he met her.

            When she saw him, she didn’t run, she didn’t yell, she didn’t even speak. She simply stared at him, then went forward to get her water. Mataka finally spoke. “Er . . .  have you had any breakfast?”

            “No,” she replied quietly. She stared at him with eyes that seemed to tell him she knew all too well that she knew what he’d been doing. But they weren’t filled with revulsion. It seemed that she felt exactly as he did.

            “Well, uh  . . . would you like me to get you some?” Mataka asked hesitantly.

            The lioness smiled. “That would be nice.

 

 

 

            Mataka walked across the savannah. There were almost no distinguishing features, save for a huge rock jutting out of the ground. He’d seen a lot of weird landmarks. This was just another. His eyes may have marveled slightly at the rock, but his mind was elsewhere He was thinking about how to fix the problem he’d been faced with. His mind made leaps and bounds of all the possible ways to wrench out an invitation back into the lands from the king. If the king was the usual type—and Mataka felt he could assume that—just forcing him into it would be suicidal. He’d have to do it carefully, and think it out with even more caution. It didn’t help that he had no idea where the king was, or what the lioness’s friends had been exiled for, or even who they were. He’d just have to try to find someone who knew.

            One need surfaced above all else: food. He was a fool to have walked away from that meal, but it was too late to go back now. Those hyenas would have gone back to it and stripped it clean. All of which meant more hunting. This was not a good day. So he thought, wandering in search of a herd. He found wildebeest grazing near a water hole and crouched low. Then, with almost no warning, the herd stampeded towards him. What the—? He stood up and roared as loud as he could, the herd turning away from him, but still continuing on their stampede. He ran alongside it and tackled a smaller wildebeest to the ground, his jaws around its neck. He tightened his grip, the wildebeest slowing its thrashing as its eyes slowly glazed over. After it had stopped for some time, Mataka let go. The herd had left, but Mataka still looked around. Something had startled the herd, and it hadn’t been him. Then he saw it, a cat hunched over an antelope, eating noisily. The cat tossed its head up to swallow, showing it was a cheetah. Mataka began to cautiously walk towards it. When he was about twenty feet away the cheetah whirled around, snarling, made all the scarier by the blood dripping from his jaws. “Who’s there?” the cheetah demanded.

            Mataka relaxed. He stood up fully from his crouch with a smile. “You’re one jumpy guy, aren’t you?”

            The cheetah’s fury changed to surprise. “Mataka?”

            “And what are you doing here, Nasiha?”

            “Just . . . stuff. What are you doing here? Last I heard you were over in Kitano.” Mataka’s face soured. “Oh.” Nasiha smiled, licking his jaws to remove some of the blood. “Didn’t I tell you that was a bad idea?” Mataka didn’t answer. “Well?”

            “Fine, rub it in.”

            Nasiha’s smile grew even wider. He let out a small chuckle. His eye fell on his carcass. “Need meat?”

            “Mine’s over there. I’ll be back.” Mataka went over to his carcass and dragged it over. He dropped it and began to eat.

            “So, what happened?” asked Nasiha.

            “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

            “Fine. Maybe later. Anyway, what brings you here? Besides the obvious fleeing for your life.”

            “Actually, excepting that, nothing. Gods, I’m bored.” Mataka took a huge bite out of his carcass, mulling over his thoughts as he chewed. “You been here long?”

            Nasiha smiled. “A bit. Why? You planning something?”

            “I haven’t been here a day and I’ve got a job.”

            “Why? It couldn’t be your reputation,” joked Nasiha. “Or your looks.”

            “Ha, ha. Look, it’s a long story, but I get some help in a fight, and the lioness doing the helping asks me to—”

            “You got shown up by a girl?” Mataka glared at him. “Go on. I like where this is going.”

            “You and I have both been shown up be females. If Aisha heard you say that—”

            “Yeah, I know, she’d gut me like a fish. Now about this other one.”

            “She asked me to get some of her friends out of exile.”

            “And you said yes.”

            “And I said yes.”

            Nasiha thought about it. “She lives here, right? In this kingdom?”

            So far as I know.”

            Nasiha laughed. “You poor, stupid fool.”

            “What?”

            “If I’m getting this right, you’re supposed to convince the king here to reverse judgment on the only exile he’s made in his entire life. That is the last punishment he reserves for anything. There is no way you can do it.”

            “And the light side?”

            “Well, I’m guessing your lioness’s friends are the leopards he exiled a while back. They’re innocent, but the king wouldn’t hear it. He’d found a lioness and her two cubs dead and half-eaten, and a group of leopards around with blood on their paws and faces. He lost it and exiled them right there. They insisted the blood was from hunting and they just found the lioness and the cubs dead, and were about to tell him. Course, there’s no proof of that except their word.”

            “And that’s a light side?” asked Mataka skeptically.

            “Think of it more as a slightly-less-dark side. They’re innocent. So what’re you going to do? Play detective?”

            Mataka smiled. “Takes too long. I’ll have to come up with something. You want to help?”

            Nasiha looked down at his carcass nervously, almost as if he was ashamed. “Not really.”

            Mataka looked up in surprise from the bite he was taking. “Huh? Why not?”

            Nasiha fidgeted. “I know we’ve been through a lot together. But—well it’s kind of hard to explain. I kind of thought I’d just, you know . . . settle down now.”

            Mataka laughed. “You think you’re getting old, Nasiha.”

            “You’re not that much younger than me.”

            “Yeah, but I got young ideas.”

            “You make me sick. Besides, I think I’ve seen just about everywhere. Why not settle down? This place is nice enough.”

            “Come on Nasiha. Just one last job. Yes, you’ve earned your rest, but when has that ever stopped you?”

            Nasiha smiled. “When I started debating whether to actually get up in the morning.”

            “So you won’t do it?”

            “I didn’t say that.” Mataka’s smile grew an inch. “Besides, if I didn’t help you, I’d probably end up with your death on my conscience.”

            Mataka chuckled. “Alright then. Got any ideas?”

 

 

 

            It was several hours later. The sun had gone down, and the two carcasses had been slowly eaten away. And still no firm plan had formed. “This is impossible,” exploded Nasiha. “There is absolutely no way to get to him. He is always with someone, he rarely stirs off his rock without an escort, and even when it looks like he’s alone he’s got that damned shadow following him. Threatening—too obvious. Subtle, uncomfortable nudges—we’d be found out. Pleading the case—already been tried. And Aiheu knows how many plans we’ve forgotten!”

            “Let me get this straight,” said Mataka. “This guy is new here, hasn’t been here for more than a few years, and the entire kingdom loves him?”

            “Just about. I’ve never met him personally, but the things you hear about him . . . It’s like he’s some kind of god.”

            “Yeah, right,” said Mataka, absentmindedly clawing some gristle off a bone. “And that black lioness you mentioned—”

            “Monah. And it’s not black. Just dark brown. Very dark.”

            “Whatever. She’s always watching him?”

            “Like I said, she acts like he’s her son or something. She’s got her own cub, but still finds time to coddle it like nothing else and look after the king.”

            Mataka thought hard and suddenly smiled. “We could always . . .”

            Nasiha took one look at Mataka’s face. “No. Not going to happen.”

            “It could work,” insisted Mataka.

            “Alright, here we go, the three most successful cubnappings I know of. Three: Lion takes a cub in Asweh. Now, he almost got to the borders. Of course, the fool completely forgets the fact that the hunters were still out. So they see him and tear him to ribbons. Now the second, it happened here. Our beloved Monah takes Prince Tanabi in the dead of night, making his parents think someone killed him. Of course, she eventually felt so guilty she actually returned him as King Tanabi. Or something damn close to that. And the most successful cubnapping I’ve ever heard of: Onali. Yeah, I thought you’d recognize it. Well, before he was king he was taken by a hyena. Of course, the hyena actually had to kill Onali’s father to get Onali, and later gets swatted down by Onali himself. There you go. Top three, and not a single one turned out like planned.”

            “Onali was cubnapped?”

            “Yeah, I know. Rock’s your world, doesn’t it?”

            “More turns one little part of my universe upside down.”

            “Look. There is no way to get to this guy. And cubnapping has to be the stupidest idea we’ve had all night.”

            “Stupider than the catapult?”

            “Alright, maybe not that one” said Nasiha reluctantly. “But it’s close.”

            “Look, we want some leverage for this guy, right? What better way that to hang a cub over his head?”

            “You want to steal the king’s cubs?”

            “No of course not. What am I, stupid? Don’t answer that,” Mataka added hurriedly as Nasiha opened his mouth. “Besides, from what you said, they’re too big to get too far with.”

            “Good. For a second, I thought you’d gone crazy. Alright, which cub do we take?”

            “Any old cub.”

            “‘Any old cub,’” said Nasiha skeptically.

            “Any old cub. Course, it would be nicer if the cub had distinguishing features.”

            “Perfect.” Mataka rose from the ground to a sitting position, arching his back inward and hearing the vertebrae pop.

            “I—I’m sorry, I must have heard you wrong. What was that?”

            “That’s the cub we want.”

            “That’s the last cub we want. It’s not special, it’s not anything at all—”

            “Look, if this king is a nice as you say he is, then he’ll bend over backward for the cub anyway.”

            “Somehow, I doubt he’ll do it for any cub.”

            “It’s a member of his pride. He’ll do it. If what you’ve said is true.”

            “It’s true. But still, there’s the fact of actually getting the cub. The cub’s mother is fanatic. She’ll keep that cub alive at any cost.”

            “She’s one lioness.”

            “She’ll try to kill you if you do this.”

            “One lioness.”

            “One fanatically maternal lioness. She’s almost as bad as Monah.”

            “Look, we can work this out.”

            “Oh, yes, I can just see it now. Walk into the den, beat down anyone in the way, take a cub, and come back the next morning demanding that the exile is lifted as a ransom. Yes, I think that’ll work out pretty well, except for the part of us getting killed in the middle of it!” Mataka smiled as Nasiha shook his head. “Yes, this one is going right up there next to the catapult.”

            “We’ll do this subtly.”

            “We have to get past the king. We have to get past Monah. And most importantly, we have to get past an insane lioness who would probably tear your guts out as soon as look at you.”

            “I’ll lie to her. I’m good at that.”

            “You walk off with her cub, and then say, ‘I don’t know where she is. She was right there.’?”

            “I’m working on it.”

            Nasiha sighed. “You’re bound and determined to do this?”

            “It’s the best shot we’ve come up with.”

            Nasiha shook his head. “Fine. We’ll call it a night. Just remember, when we both end up dead, I told you so.”

 

 

 

            Kivuli bounded into the den with Nani and Kizazi, the three of them laughing. They scampered around the den, bumping into and jumping around lionesses. Kivuli was short on a jump over a lioness and flipped over her onto her back. The lioness looked down at Kivuli with a smile. Kivuli grinned back. “Sorry, Amana.”

            “Why’d you have to be such a klutz, Kivuli?” asked Nani.

            “Yeah, come on, Kivuli,” chimed in Kizazi.

            Amana laughed. “Yeah, that hurt, Kivuli. Why’d you have to go and do that?”

            “Amana,” Kivuli groaned.

            “By the way, your mother’s looking for you.”

            “She’s always looking for me,” said Kivuli, unperturbed.

            “I mean she really wanted you.” Amana smiled mischievously. “Something about respecting your elders.”

            Kivuli whirled to face Nani and Kizazi, who were laughing. “You told her,” she accused them.

            Kizazi straightened up. “No, never. Despite what you’re thinking, never.”

            “Liar!” Kivuli protested. She launched herself at Kizazi, colliding with him and rolling with him on the ground while Nani egged them on. Amana just smiled. Kizazi finally came out on top.

            “Ha!” he exclaimed. “Got you!”

            There was a sudden burst of motion, then Kizazi was spread-eagled on his stomach with Kivuli on his back. “Got you.”

            “Actually,” said Amana, “Kisasa found out on her own.”

            “Huh?” all three of the cubs asked.

            “Kivuli!” thundered one end of the den. A lioness walked in, completely ordinary, save for a thin hunting scar that ran the length of the left side of her face. She walked up to Kivuli, her resemblance to Kivuli astonishing, an exact replica save for the scar, the difference in eye color, and the fact that Kivuli’s pelt was completely black. “What have I told you about coming home before sunset?”

            Kivuli seemed to sigh, relieved that her mother didn’t know what happened with Kiara. “Do it,” she said grudgingly. “But the sun’s barely even gone down.”

            “Cut her some slack, Kisasa,” said Amana. “She’s been with me.”

            “But you’ve been here,” said Kisasa suspiciously.

            “I went down to the water hole,” Amana lied smoothly. “I brought her back with me. It’s my fault she’s late.”

            “Is this true?” Kisasa asked her daughter.

            “Yes, Mom,” Kivuli said innocently.

            “Alright,” said Kisasa, obviously unconvinced. “But it’s time for bed.”

            “Aw, Mom—”

            “No buts. You better be asleep when I come back.” She left the den to see Tanabi.

            “Hey, we better all sleep together,” said Kivuli to Nani and Kizazi. “Someone might try to cubnap us when we’re asleep.”

            Amana laughed. “Kivuli, if anyone cubnapped you, they’d have you back by morning.”

 

 

 

            Kisasa walked up the back of Pride Rock to where Tanabi lied, watching the stars that had just filled the sky with his mate, Vitani. It wasn’t the best time to disturb him, but Kisasa couldn’t think of a better one. She had to know about Kivuli. The cub, despite Kisasa’s constant warnings and punishments, still roamed the Pridelands without a care. Kisasa was very, very worried about her. She sometimes forgot that the Pridelands weren’t the wilderness where Tanabi was raised, where anything could happen, especially to poor little cubs, and Kisasa couldn’t see why Tanabi didn’t think that, either. He had grown up in the most dangerous part of the world, outside of any kingdom. He may have been raised by a pride, but there were no laws out there.

            Kisasa had only spent a small portion of her life out there as a cub, but she had more than learned that it wasn’t a place to play. She had been carried and raised by her mother, constantly traveling, searching for something. A home. A pride, a safe place where Kisasa’s mother could raise her daughter without worrying as much. Life by herself with a cub was exhausting, and more dangerous than anyone should have had to bear.

            Kisasa had been just like her daughter, running around despite her mother’s protests, and had learned early why her mother did protest. She had been exploring happily, looking for the pretty flowers that her mother said were around here and ignoring the warning not to go that far off on her own. She hadn’t found the flowers; she had found a very hungry cheetah who hadn’t eaten lunch. The cheetah had advanced on her, its mouth open in anticipation of the meal, its large, sharp teeth rooting her to the spot with horror as the cheetah came closer. And then Kisasa’s mother had saved her, barely. She had leapt on the cheetah, knocking it to the ground. She took one quick look back at her daughter, then grabbed a foreleg of the cheetah and dragged it into the grass. She may have spared her daughter the vision of death, but horrific pictures leapt into Kisasa’s mind as her mother had beaten the cheetah to death, the horrible noises coming from the grass.

            Kisasa never left her mother’s side in the wilderness again.

            And then they had finally found a home, a place to live: the Pridelands. Scar took them in graciously, despite the protests of having another mouth to feed. The land was plentiful, however, and Kisasa’s mother showed she was more than willing to work. But Kisasa had nothing to do while her mother talked with the other lionesses; it was boring to talk. So she turned to the cubs. She proudly walked up to them and said that her name was Kisasa, and that was her mommy. The cubs had told them their names and pointed out their mommies, and then pointed at Scar and said that he was their daddy. They asked the question that embarrassed Kisasa so much later: “Where’s your daddy?”

            Kisasa learned later what they had meant in full. She slowly began to piece together in her head what most likely had happened to her mother, a horrible, horrible story. That her mother had been a fool, and had come upon a rogue that had offered her one night of pleasure, of pure bliss, and her mother, as a fool, had taken it. The rogue had left, the only souvenir of that wonderful night being Kisasa. Kisasa had finally approached her mother with what she had thought through and demanded the truth. And her mother, weeping, had told her the same story, nearly word for word as Kisasa had pictured it. Kisasa had been ashamed of her mother. She loved her nonetheless, but swore, absolutely swore, that she would never be caught in such a position.

            And then Tanabi had happened. Monah had taken Tanabi with a group of lionesses, Kisasa among them. Kisasa had wanted to go; there was no life for them here. The new king had talked of rebuilding, but very little had happened. A little bit of grass and a tree blooming here or there meant nothing to Kisasa. She didn’t realize the effort taken to swing the balance back to the way it was before the drought and Scar’s mismanagement. So Kisasa had left with Monah, youthful and full of all the changing and unstable emotions a cub that had just become a lioness had. She had walked with Monah and the others for a whole month, making sure no one from the Pridelands would ever find them.

            It was a new life for Kisasa. It was a completely different and much more dangerous place. The ones who had taken cubs with them watched them day and night, never letting them out of their sight after the first one had died through carelessness. Kisasa rejoiced that she didn’t have that problem. She helped them out whenever she could. But soon, she needed just as much help as them. She had been alone, watching the sunset, away from the Pride, when she heard a voice next to her.

            “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She had turned to see a lion next to her, smiling, his red mane beautiful in the setting sun. She gasped in surprise. The lion’s smile grew a little. “Scared you didn’t I?”

            She looked at him, uncertain on what to do. “Yes,” she had finally said quietly. And it started. Her first romance. It lasted one night. One night, where he had done his best to please her, giving her the best parts of the carcass he had caught for the two of them, lying on his back with her, watching the stars, whispering sweet nothings to her. And then, finally, he had kissed her, and she had kissed him back, the kisses elevating into something much more serious.

            In the morning he was gone. Kisasa sighed happily when she saw he wasn’t there. He had gone to get her breakfast. The thought that he had left was unthinkable. He loved her. He had said so. And the wonderful way that he had made love to her last night was proof. But the day dragged on. She never saw him again. But she had a reminder. A cub, a wonderful little boy. Kisasa wept when she noticed her stomach expanding. She had fallen into the same trap that had ensnared her mother so easily, and she had fallen into it with just as little effort.

            But she swore to continue to do as her mother did. She would love the cub. She looked on the cub as she held it between her forelegs with true love, despite the gossiping behind her back by the other lionesses. She kissed him, coddled him, and told him with complete honesty that she loved him very, very much. He became such a smart little boy, so eager to please his mother. Kisasa was very proud of her son. She wasn’t proud of him as long as she would have liked to be. She was unable to save her son. She ran to him, watching the wild dogs tear open his stomach before she got to him. She beat them off and cradled the body in forelegs, clutching it close to her as she rocked back and forth, weeping.

            It took her weeks to even smile again. She finally could think about it, with some amount of reason. The lionesses who had talked about her so spitefully now talked about her with such sorrow. Their apologies for what they weren’t responsible for salved her wounds, and finally healed her. She was content with the life she had. It wasn’t like any of the other lionesses had cubs, save for a few. Tanabi didn’t mate with anyone, even when he was old enough.

            But then it started all over again. She was surprised again by a rogue, completely alone again. He seemed to have a wonderful heart, a heart that most definitely didn’t match his black mane. But she refused to play the fool again. She had spent the night with him, but was ready to give him a set of claws across his face if he tried to touch her. But he didn’t try. And he left. She regretted it. If anything, he had seemed hurt by her attitude she had taken toward him the previous night. But life went on. She remembered him, however. He had showed her that rogues weren’t all scum.

            And then he came back. He had come back to her, back for her. And he made love to her that night, with her being completely willing. And he left again. It continued, him leaving and coming back without any of the others knowing, both of them enjoying the times they spent together. He told her he would always come back to her, because he loved her as he had never loved anyone else. And then the most wonderful thing she could imagine happened. She became pregnant. She had kissed him lovingly when she told him that she carried his cub. He had kissed her back, and rubbed her bulging stomach. He made love to her again that night and left. She never saw him again.

            She realized once again what a horrible, horrible fool she was. She had been his plaything, a wonderful little lioness to come to whenever he felt like it. And she realized that rogues were horrible, horrible things that didn’t deserve to roam the earth. She swore that she would give the ones who had used her something to remember her by if she ever met them again. But she would take care of this cub as she had her last; no, better than her last. She would not let it die. She bore his cub, a lovely little girl, and then, almost immediately, was told that it was time to leave. They would take Tanabi back home, where Monah felt he belonged. Kisasa picked up her cub and followed the pride.

            The cub was barely old enough to speak. But she knew four words: Mommy, and the three Kisasa kept telling her cub: I love you. Kisasa loved her daughter, once again despite the gossip, which was much, much worse this time. But then, once again, the harsh words changed to words of comfort as, once again, Kisasa’s cub had its life taken from it. A leopardess attacked the mother and daughter, hoping to make off with the cub for food. Kisasa fought back, but was unable to beat off the leopardess. The leopardess snapped her daughter’s neck and ran off with it.

            Kisasa was heartbroken. She arrived at the Pridelands with the rest of the group, thoroughly miserable. So much had gone by while they were gone. The pride had been split apart and rejoined. There was a new prince and princess. And now that Tanabi had returned, another prince. And then, after the death of Kovu, only one prince, and a few minutes later, no prince, but a new king. And through this time, Kisasa slowly grew better again. Finally, after the birth of the royal cubs, Kisasa asked Tanabi to give her cubs. She knew Tanabi would never run off, would never say that he loved her and then run when he was given responsibilities. He didn’t even say “I love you, Kisasa.” Tanabi had fulfilled her request as a request. And now, she had a new chance. Kivuli.

            “Sire,” she said as she approached Tanabi and Vitani.

            Tanabi raised his head to look at Kisasa. “Oh, Kisasa. Go ahead and lie down. It’s beautiful tonight.” He motioned to the freshly darkened sky.

            “I . . . Thank you, sire.” She lied down next to him, Tanabi between her and Vitani.

            “So, what is it?” he asked.

            “I wanted to know where Kivuli went today. She wasn’t home when she was supposed to be.”

            “Kisasa, don’t you think you’re a little overprotective?” asked Vitani.

            “You of all animals should know what its like out there, and the king knows, too. Both of you grew up outside the Pridelands. You know how easy it is for a cub to get hurt.”

            “But that’s just it,” said Vitani. “It was outside the Pridelands. The Pridelands are safe, Kisasa. Cubs aren’t just going to be killed if they wander off.”

            “When I grew up here, cubs were killed off. If you went too far beyond the den, you ended up inside a hyena. It was that simple.”

            “It’s different now,” said Vitani.

            “Kisasa, you really shouldn’t worry that much,” said Tanabi. “Kivuli’s always with our cub on the walks; she’ll be fine. No one would hurt Nani, no one will hurt Kivuli.”

            “I just wanted to know where she was.”

            “What did she say?”

            “That she was with Amana.”

            “Did you ask Amana?”

            “She said Kivuli was with her,” admitted Kisasa.

            “So why don’t you believe her?” asked Tanabi. “She’s home now, and the sun didn’t go down that long ago. You have to give your cub some space to work with. Kivuli can’t be expected to follow everything you say. Especially not with a personality like that.”

            “Did you see her come home, sire? That’s all I want to know.”

            “No. I know my cubs obey, because I trust them. They want me to trust them. I don’t have to check. You just need to trust Kivuli a little more. Let her show you that she can handle herself.” Tanabi paused. “I—I know it’s hard, Kisasa, but you need to forget your other cubs. Just understand that what happened was an accident. I—”

            “Don’t you dare talk to your elders that way,” snarled Kisasa.

            “I’m sorry,” said Tanabi. “I—I just thought that maybe you were a little . . . hard on Kisasa because . . . well, because of the other cubs, and—”

            “There were no other cubs,” Kisasa said fiercely. She strode angrily back down to the den.

 

 

 

            The entire day had gone by. Neither of them had said too much, even though they had been together the entire day. And yet the day had been thoroughly enjoyable to both of them. It was night now, and Mataka finally decided to propose his idea to her. “Are you happy here?”

            The lioness smiled. “Yes. Mostly. There isn’t too much to be unhappy about.

            “You could come with me,” said Mataka, feeling that the words were slightly reckless.

            “What?”

            “I could show you the world. It’s a big place out there, you know. I could give it all to you.” He thought silently, I would.

            The lioness laughed. “You’re a rogue. The only thing you could give me is a reputation.

            Mataka was crushed. “Well . . . if that’s how you feel . . .” He shook his head suddenly, as if clearing it. “Anyway, it’s nighttime. It’s too dark to go back to your pride; you don’t know what’s out there. You might as well stay here for the night.” He lied down on his back.

            The lioness looked shocked at the idea. “You mean stay here? With you?”

            “Yes, I mean stay here, with me. What’s the problem?”

            “And you’re just going to stay there, all night?”

            Mataka laughed. Her thoughts hadn’t even entered his mind. “Yes, I’ll just stay here, all night. Or you can go ahead and try your luck out there. Your choice.” Even if she did leave, he’d shadow her, just to insure her safety. He curled up, pretending to shut her out of his mind. He heard her lie down behind him, and slowly he fell asleep.

            The next morning Mataka was gone. The lioness woke up, looking for him. He was nowhere to be found. She felt she had lost something she could not replace.

 

 

 

            Nasiha woke up silently. It was always hardest to get up between the wonderful oblivion of dreamland and the first drink of the cold water hole. Usually after that he was fine. But even after Mataka had gone through even breakfast, he was only tolerable. He actually needed a reason to be happy. Fortunately for everyone else, he usually found one, although he never shared it with Nasiha. These thoughts flowed through Nasiha’s mind. He turned to look at Mataka.

            Mataka wasn’t there.

            Nasiha began to speak in tongues.

 

 

 

            Mataka walked to the large rock shooting straight up out of the ground. Descriptions flowed through his mind. Some would have called it beautiful. Others might have said awe-inspiring. Still others would say majestic. He, himself, personally, thought of it as an ugly slab of rock smack dab in the middle of a barren savannah. His mother had never loved him for his artistic bent.

            It was night. More accurately, it was night quickly going on morning. Mataka walked to an acacia and sat down, watching the tip of a rock balanced precariously between another rock and the bigger rock. He wondered idly why it didn’t fall over. Then he saw what he had come for: the earliest riser. The lioness he had met yesterday had walked out of the hole in the rock that served as the den. Mataka sat there for a second, watching her, then left for Nasiha.

            The lioness snapped her head to an acacia not far from the rock. She could have sworn she saw movement there. But there was nothing. She shrugged and went back down into the den.

 

 

 

            Mataka stopped at a pond before going back to Nasiha. He was toying with the idea of bringing back breakfast. A voice cut through his thoughts. “I hear you’ve gotten into a bit of trouble lately.”

            Mataka looked up to see a magnificent specimen of a leopard standing before him. His coat was one of the rare solid-color ones, dark and sleek. His muscles were large without being overly so, and were finely toned. He was large, but not over-intimidatingly so. The leopard’s overall posture seemed to say that he could do anything, and you wanted to prove your trust to him fully. “Kass?” said Mataka in surprise.

            “Mataka,” said Kassan. He didn’t smile, he didn’t frown, he just seemed to acknowledge Mataka’s existence. He put his head down to the water for a quick drink before looking up again. “So, why are you here?”

            “Oh, no reason, really,” said Mataka, trying to match Kassan’s air of nonchalance and failing horribly. “Just have a job going on here. Cubnapping, actually.”

            “Hmm,” said Kassan, apparently unimpressed. He got up. “Good luck with that.” He disappeared into the tall grass.

            Mataka stared at where Kassan had disappeared for several minutes, as if expecting Kassan to return. Suddenly he shook his head, snapping out of his reverie. He couldn’t stomach the thought of breakfast anymore. He began to walk back to Nasiha, his throat seeming just as parched as before he drank.

            Nasiha was furious. “Where the hell have you been?” he demanded.

            Mataka walked past him to the fresh carcass that Nasiha had caught. “I went to check on the king.”

            Nasiha watched as Mataka began to tear strips off the carcass. “You went to Pride Rock?” he groaned. Mataka appeared to think about it for a moment, then nodded. “Oh, please tell me you didn’t do anything stupid.”

            “Don’t worry,” said Mataka through a mouthful of meat. “No one saw me.”

            “And you’re sure of that, are you?” Mataka threw Nasiha a look. “Fine, fine,” said Nasiha, backing down.

            “Anyway,” said Mataka, then swallowed. “Anyway,” he continued, “the king isn’t the first one out of the den. Fortunately, our little lioness friend is.”

            “Great. Good news that helps us in absolutely no way whatsoever.” He paused, watching Mataka eat. “Alright,” he finally asked, “what’s the plan?”

            “What makes you think I have a plan?”

            “You’re never this damn sure of yourself unless you have a plan.”

            Mataka straightened up with a smile. “Alright, fine. Here’s what I have. Cub goes out to play with her friends every day, right? And the bigger ones with her are supposed to be watching her?”

            “They also usually have an adult with the cubs.”

            “Exactly. So, all we do is get one, maybe two more players, run a nice, big song-and-dance, and have one of us take off with the cub. We then just say they’re not getting the cub back until they lift the exile.”

            Nasiha thought about it. “It could work. . . . You mentioned something about other players?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Who you got in mind?”

            “Actually, I was hoping you could help me with that. You’ve been here a while.”

            Nasiha smiled. “Alright. I think I know who you’re looking for.”

            Mataka stood up, swallowing down a last bit of meat. “Great. When can we go see him?”

            “Let’s go.” Nasiha got up and started walking away. Mataka smiled and followed him, almost surprised at how everything was going his way.

            Nasiha seemed to be leading Mataka to a kind of clearing. Then he suddenly took a sharp turn, veering off in a completely different direction. He threw a look back at Mataka. “What’s on your mind?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Liar.”

            Mataka paused. “I ran into Kass today.”

            “Ah.” There was even more silence as Nasiha led him through grass that was so high it was up to their heads. Nasiha spoke up again. “Mataka, why don’t you just do what I’ve done?”

            “Huh?”

            “Just settle down, find a mate, have some cubs. You’re not going to live forever, you know. Not in this business.”

            “Not in this lifetime.”

            Nasiha sighed. “Fine. Watch your step.”

            “What?”

            “I said watch your—” It was too late. Mataka put his paw down to the grass, feeling it give way as if it weren’t there. He rolled down a hill, sliding to as top in the middle of several surprised and somewhat angry cheetahs. A couple snarled at him and began to advance on him. Mataka didn’t have a hope. Hyenas were one thing, cheetahs were completely different. Then Nasiha was by his side. “Easy,” he said. “He’s with me.”

            Mataka got to his feet, keeping an eye on the two cheetahs. They had backed down and were patiently sitting down, waiting for Mataka to leave. Nasiha started walking away, Mataka following him hurriedly. “Who were they?” he asked. “Sisters?”

            “My nieces.”

            Mataka stared at him. “Nieces?”

            “I told you, I plan on staying here. Just one last job, and I’m done.” Mataka shook his head at the thought. Instead of remarking he contented himself with looking around. It was almost as if they were walking through a trench with very high walls. There were walls on both sides of them, grass growing on their sharply sloping sides. There seemed to be a circular clearing ahead of them and behind them, cheetahs going about their business in both of them. Nasiha walked through to the next one, a female immediately looking up and running over to him. He nuzzled her lovingly and whispered something to her. She pulled her head back.

            “Of course I was worried. Gone all night, didn’t even bother to send us a message with anyone. You should be ashamed.” Her face told quite a different story.

            Nasiha smiled and glanced at Mataka. “I’m sorry, I’m forgetting my manners. Mataka this is Ushairi. Ushairi, this is the lion I’ve told you so much about.”

            Mataka looked at the cheetah. He generally made it a rule not to mate outside of his species, but he might have been willing to make an exception for Ushairi. She truly lived up to her name. He could especially see the adoring looks she and Nasiha kept giving each other. It was almost enough for Mataka to think there was something to the whole mate lifestyle. Almost. “So,” said Ushairi, “you’re the Mataka I’ve heard about.”

            “I’m sure Mataka’s exaggerated half of it,” said Mataka.

            “You’d better hope so. From what I hear—”

            “We were just coming to see Sudi,” interrupted Nasiha. “He around?”

            “He should be back in a minute,” said Ushairi. As if on cue, a cheetah slid down the side of the pit. “There he is now. I thought you said no more jobs,” she pouted.

            “I’ll tell you about it in a minute,” said Nasiha pacifyingly. He started walking toward Sudi. Mataka followed him, looking back to see Ushairi watching them. He turned his head back to Nasiha as Nasiha began to speak. “Met him when I came here. Done a few jobs himself.”

            Sudi looked up as he heard Nasiha talking. He appeared to have no scars, something that was very, very rare for rogues. He seemed genuinely surprised to see Nasiha approaching him. “Nasiha,” he acknowledged.

            “I was just telling him about your experience,” Nasiha said, nodding at Mataka. He turned to Mataka. “We call him Lucky.”

            “Why?”

            “Because he’s anything but.”

            “Hey, that’s not true,” protested Sudi. “I’ve just gotten the bad end of a few jobs.”

            “Haven’t we all?” remarked Nasiha dryly. “I’ll leave you two to talk things over.” He walked back to Ushairi.

            “And you are?” asked Sudi, sounding as if he didn’t care.

            “Mataka.”

            Sudi straightened up, surprised. “I’ve heard of you,” he said, a slight note of awe entering his voice.

            “I see Nasiha’s been talking.”

            “No, not just from him. You’ve got quite a reputation.”

            “Well, I try,” said Mataka modestly.

            Sudi stared at him for a few moments, then asked, “What do you want with me?”

            “Just a little help. I’m working a job here, thought you might be interested.”

            “You’ve heard of me?”

            “No. But I trust Nasiha.”

            “I wouldn’t put too much behind that trust.”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” Mataka asked with a snarl.

            Sudi stood up, taking a step back. “Whoa, easy. Nothing against Nasiha, believe me. I just don’t think I’m, the right guy you’re looking for.”

            “Why not?”

            Sudi hesitated. “Not a single job I’ve been on has turned out right.”

            “I find that pretty hard to believe.”

            “I’m not saying they weren’t pulled off. I’m just saying I’ve always ended up with the short end of the stick. My parts never go off as planned.”

            Mataka thought it over. “Done any jobs I might know of?”

            “How ’bout Daima? The one about two years ago.”

            “That was you?

            “Yeah.”

            “You almost got them all killed.”

            “I’m not proud of it. I did my best to make sure they got out alive.”

            “What about what happened to Loma?”

            “I said I wasn’t proud of it.” Sudi sighed. “The last thing I want is for you to end up like Loma.” He paused. “She was a good lioness.”

            Mataka sat, thinking. “Do you think you can do this?” he finally asked.

            “I’d give it my best shot. ’Specially for you.” Mataka looked up at that remark. “What, you think I wouldn’t? You’re Mataka. That’s almost as good as getting another offer from Kassan.”

            Mataka’s face soured. “Yeah . . .” He stood up. “Nasiha should be able to tell you where to meet us.” He began to walk away.

            “Thank you.”

            “You won’t be thanking us when you find out the job,” Mataka called over his shoulder. He continued walking to Nasiha and Ushairi.

            “. . . is different,” Nasiha was saying. “This is Mataka. I can’t just turn him down. Anyone else, yes, but not him. We’ve been through too much. I promise, last one.” He finally noticed Mataka. “Isn’t that right, Mataka?”

            “So you keep saying.”

            “Alright,” said Ushairi reluctantly, nuzzling Nasiha. She turned to Mataka, her eyes lit up like twin balls of fire, claws extended as she raised a paw up to his face. “But you had better make sure he comes back, or else I’ll hunt you down and hurt you real bad.” She giggled, at complete odds with her previous statement. “Okay?” Nasiha was smiling.

            “Uh, I’m leaving now,” Mataka said slowly.

            “Yeah, he’s right, we need to get going,” said Nasiha. He nuzzled Ushairi one last time and received a gentle lick on the cheek.

            “Just come back home tonight,” said Ushairi.

            “Promise.” Nasiha began climbing up the wall, almost sliding back down, it was so steep. Nevertheless, he was up at the top in ten seconds. Mataka tried to follow him, sliding down with every step he took, making hardly any progress. He reached the top at least two minutes later, completely exhausted.

            “I’m never going down there again,” he breathed.

            “You know, you missed the footholds entirely.”

            Mataka looked up at Nasiha incredulously. “There were footholds?” Nasiha smiled and began to walk away.

            “Come on. Lunch.”

            “It’s mid-morning,” protested Mataka.

            “And you ate my breakfast.”

 

 

 

            Nasiha was lying down, slowly tearing apart an antelope. Mataka was opposite him, tearing apart his own. His was defined as “brunch” by him, and “a worthless meal” by Nasiha. “Just how much do you think you can put in your stomach in one day?” asked Nasiha.

            “Enough.” Mataka swallowed. “Alright, we’ve got Sudi. Anyone else?”

            “I’ve got one, maybe two more on my mind.”

            “Think it’ll be enough?”

            “We’re not raiding the den; we don’t need an army.”

            “Fine.”

            There was a small break, Mataka’s thoughts wandering to Ushairi. “How’d you meet?”

            “Oh, this is just where he was born. Comes back a lot to visit his mother. I think she’s the only one who doesn’t know what he does.”

            “I wasn’t talking about Sudi. I meant Ushairi.”

            “I know who you meant.”

            “Fine. Be that way.” Mataka went back to eating. He wasn’t really sore at Nasiha. He was entitled to his secrets, just as Mataka was entitled to his. Secrets only became a problem when they affected the job. Mataka swallowed his meat and tore off another chunk as he looked up at Nasiha. Slowly a smile crept across Nasiha’s face. Nasiha began shaking his head. “What?” asked Mataka.

            “You know, he’s been there for at least five minutes now.”

            “Huh?” Mataka turned to find a face just inches away from his. “Ohdeargod!” He jumped up, breathing heavily. Nasiha laughed wildly. “Don’t do that! Gods, do you want me to have a heart attack?” He turned to look at the leopard that was still calmly lying down. “And who the hell is he?”

            “Makini. My godson.”

            “How does a cheetah get a leopard godson? In fact how did you get a godson?”

            “Long story.”

            Mataka stared at the dark-furred leopard. Makini had a rare black pelt like Kassan. Makini stared just as intently back, not blinking, not moving his head at all. Mataka finally tore his gaze away and asked Nasiha, “Does it speak?”

            “Oh, it speaks. But right now he’s just giving you the look.”

            Mataka looked back at Makini and saw he was still being scrutinized. “Okay already!” he finally shouted.

            Makini smiled. “I don’t know Nasiha. He broke pretty easy.”

            “He went for a lot longer than me,” said Nasiha.

            “What were you trying to do? Hypnotize me or some crap like that?”

            “I’ve done it before,” said Makini.

            “Great,” Mataka said to Nasiha. “We have a hypnotist. Now can he do something we actually need?

            “He was lying down beside you for who knows how long,” pointed out Nasiha.

            “Well . . .” said Mataka reluctantly.

            And he can run. I mean fast. Almost as fast as me.” Mataka looked over at Makini, who seemed untouched by the praise, just taking it in as fact. Mataka did notice he seemed to hold his head a little higher, though. “He’s got talent,” continued Nasiha. “Plenty of potential, all of it just waiting to be used.”

            “What, you mean he’s new?”

            “Yep. Mint condition, just waiting for the right guy to come along and use him.” Nasiha gave Mataka a sly look. “Why not us?”

            “You expect me to take this wet cub and use him for a job like this?”

            “Not exactly wet. Remember, I’ve been here some time now.”

            “He’s new. He’s inexperienced, no matter how much you may have coached him. Let me guess. You’ve been teaching him how to fight.”

            “Mostly,” admitted Nasiha.

            “And that’s not what we need. Don’t get me wrong, kid,” Mataka said to Makini, “but that’s exactly what we don’t want this time. It’s gonna have to be all about timing. That and not a single drop of blood spilled. We can’t have any deaths at all, not even an injury. I just don’t think we can use you.”

            “Haven’t you been listening to me?” asked Nasiha. “I know we can’t use him as a fighter. But that’s not what we need. You want that cub gone without anyone noticing? Here’s your leopard. He can sneak like nothing I’ve ever seen. One second he’s there, the next he’s gone.”

            Mataka looked down at Makini, unconvinced. The leopard was eating an antelope leg that was suspiciously familiar to Mataka. He looked back down to see one of the forelegs off of his carcass. He looked back up at Makini, who was chewing a bit of meat. Makini finally noticed Mataka’s stare. “Thought I’d help myself.”

            “You’re eating my leg.”

            “You want it back?”

            Mataka stared at him, seriously considering it. “Keep it. You’ve proved your point.”

            “Well?” asked Nasiha.

            “Fine. He can stay. I just want to know one thing.”

            “What?”

            “Why is he doing this?”

            Makini looked up. “Doing what?”

            “Why do you want to go this way? A lot of good animals get killed in our business, you know.”

            “It’s a lot less boring that just being a mate and father.”

            “And? There has to be another reason.”

            “It’s Kassan. No one can be like Kassan. I just want to try.” Makini shook his head in awe. “No one can do a job like Kassan.”

            Mataka looked as though he very strongly wanted to hit Makini.

            “Alright, what’s the plan?” asked Nasiha, his jaw muscles twitching with a hint of a smile as he stared at Mataka’s face.

            “Huh?” asked Mataka, snapping out of it.

            “The plan.”

            “Right. Okay. We find the cubs. Shouldn’t take more than a day to find out where they usually are. Maybe two. Next, we walk up to them. You two—” Mataka pointed at Nasiha—“are regulars here, shouldn’t cause any problem. I get myself nice and mussed up, maybe even have you three beat me around a little, and I go with you. We talk to the lioness, say how you found me, how I haven’t eaten for days, et cetera, et cetera, and while we do that the kid does his thing. We point out the cub’s gone, go to the den, talk with the king, leave him a little threat that if he goes back on the exile after I lave that we’ll wreak hell on the kingdom or something like that, and we all go our happy, separate ways after we return the cub.”

            Nasiha thought about it. “Could work. I’ll tell Sudi to be here tomorrow.”

            “What? Are you crazy?” Mataka and Nasiha turned to look over at Makini, who seemed surprised he’d even spoke out.

            “Beg pardon?” asked Mataka politely.

            “How can that possibly go right? There are so many things that can go wrong with it it’s not funny. And Nasiha never told me we’d be cubnapping!”

            “You object to cubnapping?”

            “Not normally, no. But not the king. Not Tanabi. I mean, how do you even expect to persuade him?”

            “Simple.” Mataka smiled. “I make myself unbearably unpleasant while pointing out the obvious truth the he won’t get the cub back. There’s a strategy that never fails for something like this: go to the top and make their lives hell. Course, since the job usually has the animal specified needing to be dead instead of terminally annoyed, it usually isn’t needed, meaning that I have a wonderful talent that I don’t get to use nearly often enough. But for this job, it’s perfect.”

            Makini looked at him, shocked. “But he is a god. Gods are all-knowing.”

            Mataka really looked like he wanted to his Makini now. “Animals—are—not—gods.”

            “But—”

            “Kid, I had a job where a monster was killing off little leopard cubs and leaving their bodies for their mothers to find, half-eaten, all of them. They said it was some kind of demon. It was not a demon, it was a revenge-fueled hyena so skilled it was almost a shame to kill her. That’s just one example. I’ve got more, and I’m sure Nasiha has plenty, too. So get it through your head: the king is not a god.”

            Makini looked uncertainly at Mataka. “That goes against everything I’ve been raised with. That the gods are always there. That they’re always guiding us.”

            “I’m not saying what Mommy told you was wrong. But you know, I’m pretty sure your mother never told you cubnapping was good, but look where you are now. The gods may be there, for all I know, but the king is not a god.”

            Makini stared at the ground uncertainly. Nasiha said softly, “It’s just one more thing holding you back, Makini. Remember what your mother said your father said to her about you?”

            Makini’s face slowly changed from one of uncertainty to determination. Then it softened as he looked up with a smile. “Alright. I’ll get over it. But what about Monah?”

            “Kid,” burst out Mataka, “what did I just say about—”

            “No, he’s right,” interrupted Nasiha. “She could be a problem. Especially if she’s the lioness with the cub.”

            “She won’t be,” said Makini. Mataka and Nasiha stared at him. “Well, she never is,” protested Makini.

            “How do you know this?” Nasiha asked slowly.

            “Every day the cubs go out to play with a lioness, usually in groups of two or three. The royal cubs and Kisasa’s cub are always together. Kisasa demands it that way. The lionesses differ from day to day, but Monah—the dark lioness—never cubsits. Ever. But she’s always watching Tanabi’s cubs. Look hard enough around and you’ll see her, almost every time. Except for the times when she’s wanted somewhere else. But the cubs, I know the route they’ll take by heart.” Makini stared at Mataka and Nasiha’s stunned faces. “What? I’ve lived here my whole life, I’d better know something about the place.”

            “He’s got a point.”

            Mataka appeared to be thinking it over. “This could help.” He looked back to Makini. “And to answer your question, yes, I am aware the plan is flawed. It always is. We take a couple of days to work out some of the problems, if we have a couple of days, and we do the job. You can’t ask for perfection, or you lose your chance.” Nasiha was nodding in agreement. “But let’s see what you think the problems are.”

            “Me?” asked Makini in surprise.

            “You.”

            “Uh . . . Well, for one, it’s the timing. You have to wait for just the right lioness as an escort. That could take days. And even then we have to worry about Monah catching on to . . .”

            They went on for a long time after that.

 

 

 

            “Alright,” said Nasiha, “we’ve got it worked out. Just wait for Ashani, and take the cub around mid-afternoon. Makini will look out from Monah, and if he sees her, he’ll leave the cub. If that happens, Mataka goes to the den, and we have to think up something else.”

            “Sounds good,” agreed Mataka.

            “There’s just one little thing I forgot to bring up,” said Makini.

            “This had better be a tiny thing.”

            “All of this falls apart if Tanabi knows you’re here.”

            “He doesn’t,” Mataka said firmly.

            “I wouldn’t be too sure of that. He takes the monarchy seriously. There’s rarely something he doesn’t know about. And having another lion around is going to make an impression.”

            “Kid, no one knows I’m here.”

            “If you say so.” Makini rose form the ground.

            “Where are you going?” asked Nasiha.

            “Nature calls.”

            “Oh.”

            Mataka and Nasiha watched him disappear into the grass. “He seems like a good kid,” said Mataka. He looked back to Nasiha. “But . . .”

            “How do you know there’s a but?”

            “There’s always a but. There’s never someone without any flaws. Not you, not me. And sure as hell not Kass, so don’t try to bring him up as an example. So, but . . .”

            Nasiha sighed. “But he’s got self-esteem issues. Doesn’t take much to swat him down. He thrives on compliments. But you have to be careful how you criticize. He’ll overcome anything you throw at him; he wants to please and be praised. But open disappointment sets him back weeks. I pushed him too hard at the beginning and lost who knows how many days trying to get him to even want to start again. But that’s all. Just a little coaching. There isn’t really that much to criticize, either. He won’t stop trying to live up to your expectations. He just can’t.”

            “And that’s it.”

            “That’s it.”

            “No other surprises like that religious fix?”

            “It’s not a religious fix. And no, there shouldn’t be.”

            “Hmm.” Mataka thought it over. “What was that you fed him about his father?”

            “His dad always wanted him to be the best he could. He always told him that as a cub. Makini loved his dad.”

            “You’re using the past tense.”

            “Dad died when Makini was a year old.”

            “Ouch. Who was he?”

            “Dunno. Makini never knew the name; he was always ‘Dad.’ I suppose—”

            Nasiha’s words were cut off by an eruption of sound. “Now where have I heard that before?” mused Mataka.

            “How about that time you really pissed off Kassan?”

            The roar was unleashed again.

            “Yeah, that’s it.” Mataka sighed. “I really hope the kid didn’t do anything stupid.”

            Voices were heard coming closer through the grass where Makini had left. “I said walk,” came Makini’s voice.

            “You don’t need to do that.” The voice was feminine.

            “Move it!”

            Nasiha smiled. “He certainly learned that well.”

            There was a grunt from the grass. “I said move it!”

            “If you’d stop prodding me I’d move faster!”

            “Want to stand up and see who it is?” asked Mataka.

            “Let it be a surprise.”

            A lioness burst through the grass, followed closely by Makini. “I found her listening in on us.”

            “I wasn’t listening,” the lioness protested.

            Mataka smiled. “Not at all?”

            “Maybe a little.”

            “Should I kill her?” asked Makini.

            “This coming from the same animal that was just pointing out how much interest the king takes in his kingdom. You think he’d notice if a lioness was suddenly gone?”

            “Then what do we do?”

            “Simple. We let her go.”

            Makini and Nasiha stared at Mataka in disbelief. Nasiha was the first to regain his voice. “I’m sorry, I could have sworn you said something stupid.”

            “She won’t talk. Not if she wants us to do this job for her.”

            “You know, you could have just told us that.”

            Makini turned to the lioness. “Look, lioness, how much—”

            “My name is Amana,” said the lioness angrily.

            “Fine, Amana, what did you hear?”

            “Does it really matter?”

            Nasiha turned to Mataka with a smile. “You accepted a job from her?

            “So?” said Amana angrily. There was a moment of silence.

            “Alright, why are you here?” asked Mataka.

            “I—I wanted to see what you were doing,” said Amana quickly.

            “Liar.”

            “So?”

            “Okay, you know what we’re doing. Now leave us to our work.” Mataka turned back to Nasiha.

            “I can’t.”

            Mataka stopped in mid-turn. “You can’t?” he repeated, turning back slowly. “And why can’t you?”

            “I’ve been asked to bring you to the den,” said Amana shamefacedly. “The king wants to see you.”

            “Taka!” exploded Mataka.

            “I wouldn’t use that word around here,” said Nasiha.

            “Huh?”

            “A king a while back was named Taka.”

            “What kind of idiot names their cub Taka?”

            “Probably the kind of idiot that allows himself to be seen on a job like this.”

            “I was not seen!” Mataka turned to Amana. “Was I?”

            “It was Monah,” she said. “The dark—”

            “The dark lioness.” Mataka sighed. “She is beginning to really annoy me.” He stood up. “It’s time for plan B.”

            “We have a plan B?” asked Nasiha.

            “Nope. But it’s time for one.”

            “Ah.”

            “Just go to Ushairi, and kid, go home.”

            “What?” asked Makini angrily.

            “Go home,” said Nasiha firmly. “I’ll get you when we’ve got something. And I—” he threw a dirty look at Mataka—“will think of a plan.”

            Mataka turned to the lioness with a sigh. “Fine. Take me to your leader.” He began to follow her to “the big, pointy rock.”