“That’s impossible,” protested Amana.
“I swear, it’s the truth,” said Mataka.
Amana began to climb the steps of Pride Rock. “You just cannot have a bad mane day.”
Mataka followed her. “I guarantee it, it’s true. Besides, you’re a lioness. What would you know?”
“How would she know what?” boomed a voice from the den. An incredibly large, red-maned lion stepped out into the open with a smile.
“Alright, let me ask you: Have you ever had a bad mane day?”
The lion’s smile widened. “Yes, they do exist, Amana.” He turned his gaze to Mataka. “And you are?”
“Just a guy passing through.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful to say, isn’t it?”
Mataka laughed. “Alright. You can call me Mataka.”
“I am Tanabi.”
“Heard about you.”
“I can’t say the same.”
“What are you doing here?”
“So formal, aren’t we? And straight to the point.”
“I’m just worried for my kingdom.”
“Like I said, just passing through.”
“You were here yesterday as well.”
“I’m meeting friends. Catching up, stuff like that. I’ll stay one, maybe two days longer. Possibly longer, with your majesty’s permission, of course.”
Tanabi’s smile grew wider. “Why don’t you stay with us?”
Mataka hesitated for a calculated second. “That’s a very generous offer, sire. How do you know you can trust me?”
“I believe everyone deserves a chance.”
“Huh.” Mataka thought about it, considering his chances if he actually refused. “Alright. Don’t see why not.”
Tanabi looked at him with slight suspicion. “That was rather fast.”
“‘I believe everyone deserves a chance.’”
Tanabi chuckled. “Alright, that’s me fooled.” He turned to go inside. “Come on in.”
Mataka followed him into the nearly empty den. He looked around at the few lionesses, some sleeping, two of them with cubs by their sides, taking their naps while the lionesses spoke quietly. Tanabi walked over to a lioness and nuzzled her, gently waking her up. “Where are the lionesses?” Mataka whispered to Amana.
“They’re with the cubs or out sunbathing,” she said in a normal voice. “There’s no need to whisper. Most of them are awake, despite how they look.”
“If you’ll excuse me, Mataka, I have some business to attend to.” Mataka turned to see the king walking towards him, the lioness he had been speaking to now sitting a smiling at Mataka and Amana. “Vitani,” said Tanabi, nodding toward the lioness, “should be able to help you with anything you might need.”
“Anything, huh?” Mataka asked with a sly smile.
“Within reason,” amended Tanabi. “Now, if you’ll just excuse me, I really do have to go.” He walked out of the den.
“So, what now?” Mataka asked Amana.
“Now I sleep until dinner.” She yawned. “Somehow I spent all of last week stuck with Kivuli. I’m still trying to catch up on sleep. Kisasa’s cub,” she added, seeing Mataka’s confused expression. She flopped to the floor.
“When I get back,” said Vitani, yawning. “Come on, Amana. You’re hunting, too.”
“I already did hunt. Just yesterday.”
“It’s your turn again. Come on.”
“Fine,” Amana grumbled, rising from the floor. She followed Vitani outside the den after Vitani had woken up another lioness.
“And I’ll just stay here, shall I?” said Mataka sarcastically.
“Sounds good to me,” Amana called back.
“Fine,” Mataka muttered. He slumped to the floor and closed his eyes. He couldn’t pull off the cubnapping now, not this way. Monah would be watching him like a hawk, and Tanabi would have his eye on him, too. One wrong move and he’d find himself being run out of the kingdom just like in Kitano. He tried to think of a way to make it still work. Nothing came. He opened his eyes, only to find a dark green pair of eyes staring back at him centimeters away. He jerked up straight, his heart pounding in his chest the second time that day. He looked down to see a black cub rolling in laughter on the floor. The laughter stopped as “Nani!” rang out through the den, causing the laugher and two other cubs to cringe.
Tanabi stepped back into the den. “Nani, come here,” he said sternly. A cub shuffled forward, her head hanging low. Another cub and the black one by Mataka’s feet followed. Nani sat down in front of her father, the other two cubs sitting a little behind her. “Nani,” said Tanabi, “where was your mother this morning?”
“With us,” came the quiet answer.
“All the time?”
Tanabi sighed. “You tied your mother’s tail to a tree. That was very, very wrong.”
“It was funny,” said the black cub.
“But wrong. And if I were you, Kivuli, I would worry more about what Kisasa will do to you.” The black cub hung her head. “Now, why did you do this, Nani?”
“We just wanted to have some fun. It was Kivuli’s idea.”
“Yeah, do you have any idea how hard it was to tie her tail like that?” the third cub chimed in.
Tanabi’s jaw muscles twitched, almost forming what Mataka could have sworn to be a smile. Tanabi opened his mouth, but was spared the necessity of further lecturing by the arrival of Vitani with a carcass. “I’ll talk to you after dinner,” he told the cubs.
Several other lionesses came in with carcasses. Cubs seemingly sprang out of nowhere, running to lionesses and dancing around them until they dropped the meat “Here’s one for you.” Mataka turned to see Amana with a carcass at her feet. Amana turned around. “Kumbu?” she called. “Kumbu? Kumbukizi!” The last word was a scolding. A cub winced and turned toward Amana. “Kumbukizi, you come over here, right now!” The cub hung her head and walked over. “You don’t need to be eating others’ meat.”
“Yes, Mom,” Kumbukizi answered obediently. She was nearly as big as Amana, big enough to be considered a lioness. The only reason for her not being considered one was that she hadn’t hunted with the pride yet. “Who’s he?”
Mataka stopped halfway down to the carcass. “I’m . . . I’m Mataka.”
“Oh. Okay.” The cub buried her head in the meat. Mataka did the same. The rest of the night passed uneventfully. Mataka was introduced to several lionesses, told the ones he wasn’t introduced to’s names, stared intently at Kivuli all night long, and fell asleep, cursing himself for still not having a plan.
Kisasa stormed up the back of Pride Rock to Tanabi and Vitani, who were watching the sunset again. She knew they enjoyed their time here together, and they preferred to be alone and never disturbed unless it was absolutely necessary. But this was just too far for her. Tanabi heard her coming and looked up. “Yes, Kisasa?”
“I want him gone,” she said angrily.
“I want that filthy rogue out of the den.”
“Kisasa—” began Tanabi patiently.
“Don’t ‘Kisasa’ me! I want that slime out of the den! Out of the Pridelands! Now!”
“Kisasa, he’s a guest. My guest.”
“I don’t give a damn!”
“Kisasa, you’re speaking to the king,” reminded Vitani.
“I helped raise him! He owes me!”
“Kisasa—” began Vitani, shocked.
“No, Vitani, it’s alright,” said Tanabi. “She just—emotional about this.” Kisasa scowled. “Kisasa, I can’t very well kick out my own guest. Besides, he didn’t get here any more than a few hours ago.”
“That’s too long. Get him out of here, now.”
“Kisasa . . .” He stared at her furious face. She honestly looked angry enough to think about trying to kill Mataka. It was the angriest Tanabi had ever seen her.
“That thing is a menace! He’s around my cub! He’s around all of the cubs! He’s around the elders! They could die, Tanabi. He wouldn’t hesitate to do it.”
“He really can’t be that bad—”
“He is!” yelled Kisasa.
“Kisasa . . . was he—was he one of the ones that hurt you?”
“What does it matter?!” screamed Kisasa. “Every rogue is the same! They all deserve to die! All of them!!”
“Kisasa, I will not put him out of the den,” said Tanabi firmly.
“After all I’ve said?!”
“He—is—my—guest. And he will be given the respect and treatment a guest deserves. That is final.”
Kisasa glared at Tanabi angrily. “Very well, sire. But I will not leave my cub alone. I absolutely refuse to hunt while that—monster is there.”
“Kisasa, we have migration in just two days. We have to have you hunt. Every lioness has to hunt.”
“You’ll have to get rid of him before I so much as move from Kivuli.”
“Is this the respect you show to the king and queen?” demanded Vitani.
“I will not hunt. Either he goes, or I don’t. That is final.”
Vitani began to respond angrily when Tanabi cut her off with a wave of his paw. “Fine. Vitani, we’ve got more lionesses than ever. Can’t you do with just one missing?”
“I . . .”
“I suppose,” admitted Vitani grudgingly.
“Alright then. Kisasa, go ahead and head back down to the den. You are not to harass Mataka. Just stay away from him if you have nothing pleasant you can do.”
“Very well, sire,” said Kisasa bitterly. She turned and headed back down to the den.
It was three months later. The lioness was thoroughly depressed. Nothing seemed to cheer her up since he had left. The world was empty. She walked to the waterhole alone. She was the first up today. She enjoyed being alone. Her misery did not love company.
He was there.
She ran to him, tackled him, kissed him lovingly. Then she got off him suddenly, embarrassed by her display. She looked guiltily at his face, all guilt disappearing with his smile. “Where did you go?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I just couldn’t stay. But I’m here now.”
He was right. Forget the past, what did it matter? He was here. “I love you.”
Tanabi didn’t trust Mataka. He trusted him to a point, but it was very, very limited. He still remembered what happened to Kovu. Like his parents’ deaths, he still felt it was something he could have avoided if he had tried harder. Kovu had had good inside him. He simply had not had enough, and Tanabi felt he could have given that to him.
Tanabi was not about to make another mistake like that.
Maybe that was why he didn’t trust Mataka. He looked so much like Kovu. The black mane, the muscular form. Except for the eyes. Those blue eyes definitely weren’t Kovu’s. But it didn’t matter who Mataka looked like, he still didn’t trust him.
So he decided to get the truth out of Mataka. In the only way he knew how. He went to Mataka that night and placed a paw on his side. He said quietly into Mataka’s ear, “Can you hear me?”
“Yeah,” said Mataka, only his mouth moving. “Of course. I’m looking right at you. Wow . . . what is this place? I have got to be dreaming.”
Tanabi found this disturbing. No one else had mentioned seeing him when he had linked with them, except Vitani. And Vitani had actually seen him. But still, he couldn’t see into their heads, just talk to them. They probably saw something. And it was probably different for every animal. “Yes, you’re dreaming. Sort of. I’m talking to you.”
“But aren’t I asleep?”
“You won’t remember anything we say here when you wake up. You won’t remember it ever unless we talk like this.”
“Yep, I’m dreaming.”
“Why did you come here?”
Tanabi saw Mataka’s brow crease slightly. “I told you, didn’t I? I was just passing through.”
“Do you not trust me?”
“King, I trust you about as far as I could throw a fit.”
Tanabi increased the link. “Really. Tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Why are you here?”
“Why’re any of us here?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I visited some friends. I plan to do it for a couple more days, then high-tail it out of here.”
Mataka smiled. “Well, I did toy with the idea of stealing one of your cubs.”
“Easy. They’re too big.”
“Is this your idea of a joke?”
“You ask for honesty, I deliver.”
“Are you being completely honest with me?”
Tanabi growled. “What is it you’re not telling me?”
“Well, that’d take all the fun out of it, wouldn’t it?”
“If you hurt anyone in this pride—”
“Relax. I won’t hurt anyone. Now, that little black ball of fur, she might kill someone with the way she ricochets around the den.”
“What aren’t you saying?” Tanabi demanded. He’d seen this before. If someone really didn’t want to tell him something, he couldn’t get it out of them. But they had to really want it. He couldn’t afford to take chances with Mataka. “Tell me, or I’ll kill you.” He moved his paw to Mataka’s throat.
“Yeah, that’s smart. King, I have fought in so many battles it’s not funny. If you so much as lay a paw on me, you’re dead.”
“I have my paw on your throat.”
“They’re all on the ground. What do you think I am, blind?”
Tanabi sighed. He couldn’t kill guests in his own den. Especially not after what he had told Kisasa. He moved his paw to a safer place. “I’m going to ask you one last time. Why are you here? Who are you here for? And be honest.”
“‘Who am I here for?’” Mataka snickered. “King, I just care about me, myself, and I.”
“Is—is that really how you feel?” asked Tanabi, stunned by such callous and open selfishness.
Mataka was silent.
“Well?” asked Tanabi after a reasonable pause.
“There’s . . . There’s a lioness I met,” Mataka said quietly. “Years ago. And her cub. I care more deeply about them than you know.”
“What was her name?”
“Is her name. And that, King, is something you will never know unless you kill me first. And good luck getting it out of me even then.”
It was Tanabi’s turn to be quiet. “Alright,” he finally said. He decided he wasn’t going to get anything more out of Mataka. “Good night.”
“And good night to you, to, your highness. Strangest damn dream I’ve ever . . .” Mataka’s voice trailed off as Tanabi removed his paw. Tanabi walked back to his place by Vitani, somewhat more convinced then before. Mataka went on sleeping.
Mataka woke up before anyone else, rotating his neck and hearing it pop. He let out a yawn and got to his feet. He left the den silently, disturbing no one. He immediately began walking towards the closest water hole he knew of, his mind picking up where it left off the night before. He tried to think of something that might work, short of actually beating down Tanabi and making off with the cub. There was always a possibility, he mused, as he lowered his head to the water, of letting that kid, Makini, try to sneak in at night, but there was still the problem of Monah probably being awake. The lioness never seemed to sleep. Mataka shut off the flow of thoughts as he lapped up water, trying to relax. He heard a rustle in the grass and gave a sigh. “What, Kass?”
“Just wondering how it was going.”
“Are you following me?”
“Are you worth it?”
Mataka saw his reflection frown. “It’s not going well,” he finally forced out. He looked up at Kassan, seeing the leopard staring at him intently. “There’s no way to get the cub alone.”
“You just need to minimize the number around the cub.”
“You think I’m an amateur? If you’re going to just mock me, leave. Just leave, or do something decent for once in your life.”
“It’s not my fault you’ve always been behind me.”
“That’s a lie,” snarled Mataka. “And I’ll prove it to you right here if you don’t shut up. You know why I hate you.”
“Temper. Otherwise I might have to arrange for an accident when you hunt tomorrow. It is migration, you know.” He stared even more intently at Mataka than before.
“Yes, you know, when all the animals decide they’re too good to stay here.”
“Migration . . .” Tumblers began to fall into place in Mataka’s head. Migration—big hunt—all lionesses gone—Kivuli alone—Tanabi alone—He looked up at Kassan, only to see his rear end disappearing through the grass. Mataka hesitated, then called out, “You’re really a lion, you know that, Kass?”
“And you,” came the response, “are a worthless pile of zebra dung.”
“I got it!”
Mataka jumped down into the cheetah pit, almost killing himself with the fall. He ran past the cheetahs who sat up in surprise, a few snarling at having been waked. “I have got it!” He ran to the other side, immediately looking to Sudi, who was lying on his back. “Where’s Nasiha?”
“Over there, but—”
Mataka didn’t stay to listen, instead running where Sudi had gestured with yet another yell of “I got it!” There was another short gap between that pit and another, much smaller one. “I got—” He broke off abruptly, seeing Nasiha and Ushairi looking up at him in surprise, one of Nasiha’s forelegs over his mate in a way that quite suggested what Mataka had almost barged in on. There was an embarrassing pause. “Am I interrupting anything?”
Nasiha opened his mouth, but Ushairi beat him to it. “No, of course not. It can wait.”
“Now what,” asked Nasiha, a slight edge of irritation in his voice, “is so important that you couldn’t wait until a decent hour of the day to tell us?”
“I’ve got it.”
“Is it contagious?”
“Ha, ha. I’ve got it. I’ve got the plan. It’s all up here. Just one thing: how nice it the king?”
Nasiha thought about it. “You’d have to ask Ushairi about that.”
“Well,” she said slowly, “I suppose he’s pretty benevolent . . .”
“If he saw a fight or something, would he stop it?”
“Probably. I mean, wouldn’t anyone?”
Nasiha smiled. “Fewer than you know.”
“Great,” said Mataka absentmindedly. “Great.” He snapped back. “Alright, Nasiha, get Makini, and take him . . . Okay, take him where we were yesterday. I think I remember it. I’ll be there in a couple of hours, hopefully less. I’m gonna borrow Sudi.”
“Mataka, what’s the rush? And why take Lucky?”
“I’ll explain later, but now we don’t have the time.” He ran out of the pit back into Sudi’s.
“What are you thinking?” Nasiha called after him.
“Mataka!” exploded Nasiha, partially rising from the ground. He looked down to see Ushairi’s paw on his.
“Don’t worry about it. You said he knows what he’s doing.”
Nasiha sighed. “Maybe. But Makini—”
“Always comes here. You know that.” She nuzzled him. “Just relax. You can afford to do that now.”
“I thought you said they were here,” Mataka said irritably.
“I said around here,” said Sudi. “There aren’t that many hyenas around here, they all ran off years ago. Some crazy old lioness promised to kill ’em all. They’ve only begun to come back now. Besides, do you expect me to keep track of hyenas? I’m usually not here.”
“You grew up here; that should be enough.” Mataka was testy, and the scenery wasn’t helping. Bones, rock, and methane vents definitely weren’t his décor of choice. The vents had given off so much gas that even the sky overhead was clouded. Mataka felt unclean just being in it.
“What do you want hyenas for anyway? And why do would they be interested in you?”
“Oh, the ones I’ve got in mind are interested in me. Almost killed me. I’m pretty sure they want to finish the job.”
“This place is huge. They could be anywhere. How could you possibly expect to find them? Might as well just ask the skeletons.”
“Why not?” Mataka raised his voice to a yell. “Hey, any of you dead guys seen some hyenas? You know, little furry things that look uglier than your mother’s butt?” Sudi laughed. “Come on, any of you? None of you have seen any? Let me refresh your memory: Your mother’s was so big and smelly, herds actually thought the back end was more dangerous than the front. Your mother’s butt was so ugly, it stopped stampedes. And her face. It was so ugly—”
Mataka’s little speech was cut off by his wind being knocked out by a projectile that knocked him off his feet onto his back. From Sudi’s laughter turning to yells, he expected Sudi was getting the same treatment. The projectile jumped onto Mataka’s chest, its teeth bared, and bit into Mataka’s left foreleg as hard as it could. Mataka simply watched as the hyena viciously shook the leg back and forth. The hyena finally stopped and let go, staring at the leg. Mataka’s right leg whacked the hyena in the face, knocking it off. Mataka flipped over, rushing to Sudi and knocking off one hyena while Sudi knocked off the last one. Mataka turned back to the one that had been mauling his leg. It was still on the ground, staring at Mataka in shock. The others hung back, staring at their leader.
“Uh . . . oh, gods . . . oh . . .” The lead hyena seemed to be unable to string together a sentence.
“What?” asked Mataka. He looked down to where the hyena was staring and saw his leg was bleeding, teeth marks deep into it. “Oh.” Mataka began to lick it, the blood still coming from the bite marks. “You really did a number on me there.”
“What are you?”
“Huh? A lion, of course.”
“Shut up and listen. I know you want to kill me, and I’m not too fond of you, so if you’re going to say no, I’ll give you a chance to do it quickly. I’m asking for your help.”
“And why should we help you?” growled one of the underlings in a much, much deeper voice than expected.
Mataka turned to the hyena and saw him blanch at the sight of Mataka’s leg. “Because thus us a wonderful opportunity for you.”
“How . . . how are you standing on that?”
“Huh? Okay, you see, you place the paw on the ground, and then you apply pressure.”
“But your leg—”
“Never mind the mangled leg. I don’t have time to waste. So you’re either going to help me or not, and you’re going to say so right now.”
“Help you with what?” asked the leader.
“Akida!” growled the deep-voiced one.
“Shaka, Mother gave me authority over both you and Katili, so shut up.”
“Thank you,” said Mataka. “Now, all you need to know it that what’s in it for you is food. Lots of it.”
“How do you expect me to trust you? I see two meals that just walked right in.”
“I don’t expect you to trust me. I do, however, expect you to as I tell you if you say yes.”
“Mother would never have wanted this,” snarled deep-voiced Shaka.
“Mother would have wanted us full, and she wouldn’t have cared how it was done. So stop playing Afriti’s advocate.” Akida looked back at Mataka. “What do you want us to do?”
“You’ll find out if you come with me. Come on, Sudi.” Mataka began to leave with deliberate slowness, the cheetah behind him, hearing the three hyenas arguing. Shaka almost refused to be swayed. Finally, the offer of food and the pressure of his brothers got to him.
“Alright, alright, fine,” Mataka heard him explode. The hyenas ran to catch up with Mataka and Sudi.
“Where are we going?” asked Akida, the leader.
“Just wait and you’ll see.”
“Come on, Nasiha,” Mataka pleaded.
“Absolutely, positively no.”
“Why not?” growled Shaka.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” snarled Katili, apparently the youngest of the three hyenas. The hyenas stepped toward Nasiha in a way Mataka didn’t like.
“Whoa, easy there,” said Mataka, inserting himself between Nasiha and the hyenas. “No need for that. Nasiha, can I just talk to you for a couple of seconds?”
“No,” snarled Nasiha, still glaring furiously at Akida. The lead hyena refused to back down either. “You can say it in front of these, low-down, dirty, sons of bitches, too.”
“Aiheu, fella, I didn’t eat your cub,” said Akida.
“You would in a heartbeat if I had one, you worthless piece of filth—”
“And we’re walking,” said Mataka, nudging Nasiha towards the edge of the clearing.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said no!”
“You know you didn’t mean it,” said Mataka, ignoring Nasiha’s protests and forcing him backwards.
“Mataka—” Mataka put a paw on Nasiha’s muzzle and pushed him back out of the clearing, then stepped out after him.
“Come on, move it.”
“We’re far enough away.”
“I said move.”
Nasiha grudgingly began to walk away from the clearing. After a little while he sat down defiantly. “What?”
“What is your problem?”
“I don’t work with hyenas.”
“I’ve seen you do it before. You didn’t have any problems with it then.”
“Necessity makes allies.”
“Don’t give me that shit.”
“I only worked with them because I had to. That’s the bare truth. I’ve always hated hyenas, and you know it.”
“But you never let it interfere before.”
“This is my last job. And I have seniority on you. So give me some respect.”
“You provincial lout.”
“You absolutely refuse to do this?”
“Not with them.”
“Fine. Then I’m stuck trying to find a competent con by tomorrow.”
“Yes. Otherwise, the plan’s ruined and I might actually have to kill someone. I really doubt any sane animal could get out of an entire pride of lions, so there’s the possibility of me going to that great big den in the sky. Either way, I really don’t want bloodshed on this one, mine or theirs.”
“This job means something to you.”
“Yes it does.”
“Maybe it’s just because it’s the first cubnapping to actually work.”
“Yes, I am. You refuse to do this?”
“Nothing could convince me save beating one of them to death.”
Mataka sat, staring at the ground. He finally looked up. “I think I can manage that.”
“No. In fact, this should make it more convincing.”
Nasiha smiled after a pause of nodding his head and mulling it over. “You almost had me thinking you bothered to change the plan for me.”
“Did I really? I felt I rushed it.”
“No, it was good. Almost. Too long of a pause, actually.”
“See, this is why you’re the con and I’m the muscle.” Mataka paused. “So will you do it?”
“Alright. I’ll do it. But you had better not be lying about the beating.”
“Trust me, no lie. And the more brutal, the better.”
“Now, come on. We don’t have a lot of time.” Mataka started back toward the clearing, Nasiha by his side.
“By tomorrow’s a tall order.”
“Too much for you?”
“I’m worried about the hyenas.”
Mataka laughed as they walked into the clearing. “Alright, this is the plan.”
The hyenas left to go back to their graveyard, Nasiha and Sudi back to their pit, and Makini to wherever he went. Mataka wondered idly if the leopard had a home. Nasiha had told him he’d lost his father, and when Makini had stayed behind he’d learned he’d lost more than that.
“Kid,” Mataka had said to him after Nasiha and the others had left, “don’t you think you need to get home to your mother? She’ll be worried about you.”
“No, she won’t,” the young leopard had said.
“Oh, come on. I know mothers can be hard on their cubs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love them. You see—”
There was a very prolonged pause.
“Oh. . . . I never knew. I thought Nasiha would have told me.”
Makini had shaken his head. “He doesn’t know. He thinks my aunt’s my mom.”
“Yeah. She loves me, though.”
There had been a slight pause where Makini had seemed to be working up the courage to ask Mataka something. “Out with it, kid.”
“Can I go with you?”
“When you leave. Can I come with?”
“Kid, you’ve got a good life here. You don’t want to just throw it all away, do you?”
“I’ve thought about it.”
“You need to think about it more.”
“I’ve thought it over for months. Ever since Nasiha came the first time . . . Either I leave with you, or I go my own way.”
Mataka had sighed. “Alright, I’ll think about it. But just that,” he had added, seeing Makini’s ears spring up. “Just thinking.”
“I said I’ll think about it. Don’t rush me.” Mataka had paused. “How she d—”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Mataka had paused again. “Come back in the morning, I s’pose.”
“Alright.” Makini had gotten up and within seconds Mataka could see no more of him. Mataka had sighed and turned toward Pride Rock. So now he was walking, just enjoying the night air. He heard a rustle in the grass.
“Makini?” Mataka hissed. “Makini?”
“It’s Monah.” Mataka turned hurriedly to see a figure slightly less darkly colored than Makini, but with eyes that pierced sharply through the night that most definitely were not Makini’s.
“What do you want?” Mataka asked rudely.
“The king has instructed me to escort you back. It’d be a shame if something happened to a guest.”
Mataka resumed walking. “So he sent you, out of all the other lionesses?”
“He trusts me.”
“Of course he does. I mean, someone as old as you has to depend on him. You can’t very well go out on your own, you’re unfit.”
“Tanabi isn’t like that.”
“Please. Every king is alike. They’re all pompous, arrogant jerks who enjoy having a little harem to pick and choose from, all while maintaining some wonderful sense of power by lording over a few wildeb—”
“Shut up!” Mataka turned hurriedly to look at Monah. She had all weapons exposed. “Tanabi is not like that. And don’t you dare say otherwise.”
“Right, I forgot you taught him everything he knows.” Mataka turned his back to Monah and kept walking. “Okay, I admit, I don’t know him that well. But if he is decent, he’s one of the few I know that actually are.”
Monah didn’t respond. They walked the rest of the way to the den in silence. Tanabi was waiting at the top. “So I guess you really don’t trust me, do you, king?”
“I’m just worried for your welfare,” Tanabi said honestly. He turned to the den. “There’s some leftover meat outside if you’re hungry.”
Monah stalked by Mataka with a snarl. He watched her stalk out of the back of the den. He heard a faint growl and looked over at Kisasa next to her cub. She was staring at Mataka, her blue eyes glaring at him through the darkness. Kivuli snuggled closer to her mother in her sleep. Mataka walked over to an unoccupied corner of the den and lied down. Yes, guard that cub nice and well. For all the good it will do you.
Mataka lied in the grass next to the lioness, the sky darkening over the carcass she was eating. He’d finished his, he waited for her to finish hers. It was only polite. Mataka felt an unyielding impulse to please her. He rolled onto his back, looking at the sky. The stars were coming out. They were the only things that had remained constant no matter where he went. The chewing sounds stopped. Mataka looked over to see the lioness staring at him. “What are you thinking about?”
Mataka sighed. “Just home, I guess.”
“You have a—” The lioness stopped herself.
Mataka laughed. “Yes, I have a home. Unbelievable, isn’t it?”
The lioness gave a little smile, relieved he wasn’t upset. “I guess. It’s just . . . I never thought of rogues as having a place they can call home.”
Mataka was silent for a moment. “That’s true for me. I don’t really have a place to call home. I get restless, no matter where I go. I just can’t stay put. It’s why I left. I was just thinking about home, you know, as in where I grew up.” He paused. “Yeah, I could have been king right about now.”
The lioness stared at him in disbelief. “You’re a prince?”
“In the loosest sense of the term. Hereditary only. And I do not want to be associated with a bunch of uppity royals. My father was one of the few decent kings I’ve known.”
The lioness walked over and lied down next to Mataka. “What was he like?”
“He was a strong king. He had to be.” Mataka suddenly laughed. “Yes, that’s right . . .”
“I’ll never forget what he said to me every day. ‘Good work today, Mataka. Get a good night’s sleep. I’ll probably kill you in the morning.’”
“That’s awful,” said the lioness, shocked.
“Not really. He had to be harsh. The kingdom had been left to him and his power-hungry brother who didn’t have the guts to do anything. If he’d shown the slightest sign of weakness, my uncle would have said he wasn’t fit to rule. It took me a whole year to realize what my father meant when he said that. It was the only way he could say ‘I love you.’” Mataka sighed. “I haven’t seen him in a whole year.”
“Like I said, I can’t just stay put. Being a king would have driven me crazy. So he let me go. He exiled me, walked me to the boundaries by himself, said, for the first time I’d heard it, ‘I love you.’ He loved me enough to let me go . . . I do visit him though. It’s the least I can do. But I keep thinking that when I go back, he won’t be there. It’s one of the worst things I can imagine.”
The lioness nuzzled Mataka in pity. An idea struck her. “You know, my mother always told me something. All the kings are up in the sky, in every star, watching over you.”
Mataka grinned. “Funny. Where I come from, we had sayings like ‘Don’t eat your cub after he’s six months old.’”
The lioness looked disgusted. “That’s horrible.”
“No, they’re quite good actually. The intestines hit the spot just right.”
“That has got to be the most disgusting thing I’ve ever—”
Mataka burst out laughing. “I’m joking.” He gave a huge yawn. “Gods, I’m tired. Bedtime.” He looked over at the lioness with a grin. “And yes, I will stay there, all night.”
Surprising him completely, the lioness gave him a lick on the cheek as she slipped a leg across his chest. “And what if I don’t want you to stay there?”
Mataka smiled. “I think I can arrange that.”
Amana felt a gentle rubbing between her shoulder blades. “Ooh,” she muttered. “That feels good.” The rubbing grew harder. “Yeah, that’s it.” The rubbing stopped and she felt a smack. “Hey! That—” A paw suddenly clamped over her mouth. A voice in her ear said:
“Shh.” Amana looked up to see Mataka looking furtively around the den. “Get up. I need to tell you something.” He began to carefully step over lionesses to leave the den. Amana yawned and followed him. The first thing she noticed was the stars.
“It’s dark,” she quietly pointed.
“It has to be. It’s the only safe time I could think of to tell you this. Now listen. If this goes well, you can have your leopard friends back in by tomorrow. But you gave to do exactly what I tell you, nothing less, and absolutely nothing more. If you do this wrong, you could end up like your friends. Do you understand?”
“I—I think so,” Amana said nervously.
“Good. Now here’s what to do. You can say more than this but be careful. When you go hunting tomorrow . . .”
Mataka yawned as he woke up, the den somewhat awake around him. He, like any decent animal in his trade, had a perfect alarm clock in his head. He didn’t quite understand it; he just needed to know that it worked. He looked around the den. Tanabi was pacing in front of the den, and Kisasa was by her cub, her eyes opened into tiny slits. Amana was nervously grooming Kumbukizi. “Mom,” Kumbukizi protested, “enough already.”
Amana left off on the grooming. “Alright. I just wish you didn’t have to pick today.”
“Pick today for what?” Mataka asked.
Both Amana and Kumbukizi looked over, surprised to find Mataka awake. “It’s her first hunt,” Amana explained.
“Today, I become a lioness,” said Kumbukizi proudly.
“You’re doing migration as your first hunt?” Mataka asked.
“Too ambitious,” said Amana. She began to groom Kumbukizi again. Do you have any idea how likely you are to get hurt?”
“Mom, stop it!” Amana stopped grooming again. “I’ll be fine. Besides, it’s not like I’ll be alone. The whole pride’s out there.”
“Yeah,” said Mataka, “but how likely is it that any of them will be fast enough to make pick-up?”
“‘Pick-up?’ What am I, a piece of meat?”
“If you were,” Amana said nervously, “all I’d have to worry about is you making it past the lionesses.” She resumed grooming.
“Mom, if you don’t stop it, I’ll have twenty extra pounds of your spit weighing me down!”
“Of course,” said Mataka, “I’m always open for grooming.”
“Eww! Gross!” Kumbukizi made a face. “I am so gone.” She left to join a group of lionesses around her age.
Amana sighed. “Relax,” Mataka said. “She’ll be fine.”
“I hope so.”
“You just need to worry about yourself.” Mataka yawned and stood up. “I’ll see you later.” He walked to toward the mouth of the den. “Big day, king?”
Tanabi barely looked up before he resumed pacing. “Yes. So please don’t bother me.”
“Of course. I’ll be back later.”
“Of course,” Tanabi muttered as Mataka left.