Chapter II: Taabu
A lion walked around the kingdom, a small, cub with a black stripe that arched over his back next to him. The lion spoke. “Look at it, Nafsi. Isn’t it magnificent?”
“And someday, it will be yours.”
“You must remember, Nafsi, that kindness will lead you nowhere. You need strength, not pathetic weakness. You must rule these lands with a paw of stone. Your subjects will try to influence you, to tell you what is right. They know nothing. There are very, very few that you can trust to actually know something. Keep them close.”
“Remember, they are subjects.” Jadi paused, waiting for a response.
“They are subjects in every sense of the word. They exist to serve only. We are the ones who matter.”
“Good, my son. Excellent.” Jadi ascended the ramp of Pride Rock, his son by his side. The sun was just beginning to appear over the edge of Pride Rock. Some of the lionesses were up, others weren’t. Each of them had at least one souvenir of Jadi’s anger, save for Uchu. Jadi and his son walked over to Uchu, Nafsi lying down by her side as Jadi nuzzled her lovingly. Uchu gave Jadi an affectionate lick.
“So, how is the prince doing?” she asked.
“Better. He’s learning.”
“Of course he is. I told you he would.” Uchu looked down at her cub. Nafsi’s dark eyes flicked upward to his parents faces. He closed them again and curled up, obviously trying to go to sleep.
“But, just that. Still learning.”
“These things take time. You know that.”
Jadi sighed. “Yes.” He looked around the den. “Where is the breakfast?”
“They’re still getting it.”
Jadi scowled. “More incompetent every day.”
“I know. But I think they at least try a little.”
“I can’t bother to wait for it. The kingdom comes first.” Jadi sighed. Uchu licked him. “Coming again?”
“Of course.” Uchu gave one last look to her son, then followed Jadi outside the den. Nafsi’s ears perked up as they left the den, followed a few minutes later by an eyelid, then his head. He walked over to a lioness who was still half-asleep. He lied down by her head.
“Grandma?” he asked.
The lioness cracked open an eye. “Oh, it’s you, Nafsi.” She yawned. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to be with you.”
Taabu smiled. “That’s sweet.” She stretched, then lied back down. “Been out with your father this morning?”
Taabu smiled humorlessly. “And what did you learn today?”
Nafsi smiled back. “Nothing new, really. Just that you’re lower than dirt and unfit to even be with me.”
Taabu chuckled. “I assume your father used a few more words than that.”
“And you’re filthy. Shame on you.”
Nafsi gave her a guilty smile. “I’m a cub. Cubs get dirty.”
Taabu smiled. “It’s good to know you remember some of what I’ve taught you. Alright, bath time.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Nafsi sat down in front of her, his back to Taabu. Taabu began to groom him.
Nafsi sat still, thinking as Taabu’s tongue ran over him. Suddenly he squirmed. “Stop it, Grandma. That tickles.”
Nafsi squirmed even more than before. “Yes!”
Taabu chuckled. “Alright.” She continued cleaning his back. “Alright, turn over,” Taabu finally said. Nafsi turned over onto his back. Taabu began to clean his backside.
“Hmm?” she muttered.
“Why don’t you like what Dad tells me?”
Taabu stopped grooming. “Well, it’s just not right.”
Nafsi bent his neck to look at her. “What do you mean?”
“He does teach you some of the right things, but it’s just twisted. You’re supposed to respect the kingdom, not look down upon it. Didn’t I tell you not to put too much trust in what your father teaches you?”
“Well, yeah, but . . . he seems to really believe it.”
“No doubt,” said Taabu acidly. She resumed grooming Nafsi.
Nafsi kept talking. “I mean, it seems right, what he says. If someone hurts you, you hurt them. It makes sense. And you need to let them know what fear is, otherwise they won’t respect you. You need to show them why they should respect the king.”
“Taabu, will you shut him up?” muttered a lioness. “Some of us are still trying to sleep.”
“Uzuri, can’t you hear what he’s saying? That’s awful.”
“It is?” asked Nafsi.
“Frankly, Taabu, I don’t give a damn what he spouts so long as I get my beauty sleep.” Uzuri turned over.
“Uzuri, I’ve told you time and again. You could sleep for weeks on end and it still wouldn’t help.”
“Oh, that’s real nice, Mom.”
“Go back to sleep.”
Taabu went back to grooming Nafsi. She was covering his sides now. “Grandma,” Nafsi asked, “why is what Dad says awful?”
Taabu stopped grooming for a moment, thinking. She looked down at Nafsi in front of her, his head cocked to the side as it always was when he asked a question. “Hmm . . . Well, here, let me try to show you. Fear is good, right?”
“So how do you cause it?”
“You scare someone. Or hurt them.”
“Exactly. You hurt them. And you keep it up, and you don’t back down. Eventually, they have so much fear that they’re scared to be around you.”
“Oh. How do you know that, Grandma?”
“Oh, I’ve seen it happen. I grew up with it,” Taabu said casually. “So, you agree that that’s how you cause fear?”
“And the kingdom should want to pay respect to their king, right?”
“Hmm.” Taabu placed a paw on Nafsi’s chest, then drew a claw down from his chest to his stomach. Nafsi gave a yell of pain. The slash left by Taabu seethed with black wisps, healing up the injury so it looked as if it had never been there at all.
“What was that for?” Nafsi asked angrily.
“You mean you didn’t like it?”
“No, of course I didn’t!”
“Then why should anyone else want to be hurt, either?” Nafsi stared at her, stunned by the sudden reality. “It’s not nice to hurt others. It’s not pleasant, and it shouldn’t be done. But that’s what Jadi wants you to do.”
“But . . . but aren’t they supposed to give respect to the king?”
“There are other ways to get respect. Besides, all fear brings is hate. They’ll only do what you say because of they’re afraid of what you’ll do. Respect means they do what you ask because they want to please you. Do you respect me any more for having scratched you?”
“Well . . . not really.”
“But wouldn’t they want to please me anyway? So they don’t get hurt?” Nafsi looked down at his chest, his expression puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
Taabu smiled sadly. “Maybe not today. But hopefully you will. Just remember to keep an open mind. Not everything your father says is right, you know.”
“But he says it is.”
“Are you really confused, or are you trying to get out of your bath? Now either be quiet or don’t say things where I have to talk back, please?”
“Yes ma’am.” Taabu continued her grooming, Nafsi’s mind swirling with all the possible interpretations of what he’d heard. His father and grandmother seemed to differ completely in their views, each one excluding the other. But maybe there was a way in between. Nafsi was so preoccupied he even didn’t even realize Taabu had stopped grooming him until she finally spoke to him again.
“Nafsi? Breakfast’s here.”
Nafsi rolled over and walked over to the carcass he was sharing with his grandmother. He hadn’t noticed her getting up to get it. She wasn’t at the carcass; he wanted to see what was taking her so long. He walked out from behind the carcass and sat down next to some cubs to see Taabu and several other lions dragging two other fat carcasses into the middle of the den, leaving them there for the king and queen. Nafsi didn’t notice the odd looks the cubs gave him; he was too busy watching the carcasses. When the lionesses were finished two of them looked up at Nafsi and gasped. They walked over to their cubs next to him, and led them away. Nafsi heard something very much like “You should know better than to be around him.” Taabu walked over to the carcass.
“Go ahead, start eating,” she said.
Nafsi took a bite, chewing it thoughtfully. “Grandma?”
“Why don’t the other cubs ever play with me?”
“You just now realized that?”
“No. But I’ve been trying to find a reason.”
Taabu paused. “Have you asked your mother?”
“No. I thought you said to not trust what she said, though.”
“I said to take it with a grain of salt.” Taabu tried to think of the easiest way to say it. “Nafsi, they’re scared of you. Or at least their parents are. They’re scared of your father, and they know he wants you to be just like him.”
“Is that what Dad’s trying to do?”
“Yes. That’s what he’s trying to do.”
“Why didn’t he just say that? I can be like him.”
Taabu took another bite, thinking over her words carefully. “Nafsi, would you do one thing for a kind old lioness like me?”
“Just think twice before you do anything your father tells you. Please.”
“And why would he do that?” Taabu turned to see Uchu striding into the den. “Spreading heresy again, are we?” Taabu snarled at her and received a paw in the face. “Respect your queen.”
“Of course, your majesty.”
“Now, how many times have I told you to not interfere with what Jadi teaches?” Taabu muttered incoherently. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said enough.”
“It doesn’t seem to be enough.” Uchu heaved a dramatic sigh. “I’ve looked it over long enough. But I think I’ll have to tell Jadi this time.” She smiled at the look of horror on Taabu’s face.
“You wouldn’t,” Taabu whispered.
“You know I would. So I advise you to stay in your place.” Uchu strode off towards on of the carcasses in the middle of the den. “Come, Nafsi.”
Nafsi followed obediently. Taabu watched him go, tears in her eyes. “Taabu?” asked a lioness gently. “Are you alright?”
Taabu wiped her eyes with her leg. “I’m fine, Tumai.”
“Mom,” piped up Uzuri, “don’t worry. She won’t tell Jadi. She’ll forget.”
Taabu sighed. “Maybe. But that doesn’t really matter. I’m worried about Nafsi.”
“What about the little thing?” asked Tumai.
“He’s not a thing. He’s got feelings.”
“Barely shows it,” muttered Tumai.
“And that’s what worries me. I mean, he could be even worse than Jadi. I’ve seen it before.”
“Sibu was different. You said he thrived on the stuff.”
“He had to be taught it, too. And that’s what worries me. I don’t want to die knowing that I haven’t been able to help Nafsi at all.” Taabu sighed. “I don’t have that many years left.”
“Mom, stop being morbid,” said Uzuri. “You’re not going to stiff any time soon.”
“As for the cub,” said Tumai, “there’s just no hope for him. You know this, but you still won’t listen to us.”
“You mean you haven’t ever hoped?” Taabu retorted. “He could be decent. Don’t you want him to be?”
Tumai suddenly seemed very interested in her paws. “That doesn’t mean that I think I can do anything about the little guy. I mean, look where all of your persistence is taking you.”
Taabu just stared back at the cub taking bites out of the carcass, his mother watching him closely. Nafsi seemed to straighten up just be having her around. He ate differently, carried himself differently, spoke differently, even walked differently when around his parents. Taabu could only hope it was a sign she was getting somewhere.
Simo was escorting Nafsi home. He often did so after Jadi decided to “enlighten” his son on how to be a “true” king. Simo was worried. If Nafsi took to heart everything that Jadi told him, there would be nothing but suffering as long as Nafsi was king. But the most infuriating part to Simo was that he could do nothing but walk behind them, giving the occasional answer to Jadi when he asked something of Simo. He despised Jadi. He was still undecided on Nafsi. He still had yet to speak to Simo in anything more than a few sentences, hardly enough to make a judgment on. And always in that same, flat monotone that he answered his father with. He didn’t smile, he didn’t laugh, he didn’t do any of the things Simo remembered doing as a cub.
“Nafsi?” Simo asked.
“Yes?” came the answer from the figure at his side.
“What do you think?”
“What your father has taught you.” Nafsi was silent. “If you don’t want me to ask, I under—”
“Very well, sire.”
“No, not like that. I meant ‘no’ as in I don’t mind. I was thinking. Sorry.”
“Oh. So, what do you think?”
“I don’t know.” The cub looked up at Simo’s face. “It’s Simo, right?”
Nafsi seemed to be struggling with something. He finally said, “Stop that, will you?”
“The whole ‘sire’ thing.”
Nafsi gave a small laugh. Simo was amazed. “Yes, that. Please. I know it annoys you, there’s no need for it. I think.”
“Si—Nafsi, are you feeling alright?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve never seen you so . . . emotional.”
“Okay, now you’ve got me confused. I’m not crying, am I?”
“No, it’s just . . . you seem to have no feelings. Ever. You’re never happy, you’re never sad. It’s like you don’t even have a heart.”
“Oh, I do too have a heart.” Nafsi looked up at Simo’s face. “Really. I think. It’s just . . .”
“Do you not want to talk about it, sire?”
“Hey, what’d I say about that?”
“That’s right. My name is Nafsi. Not sire, not your highness, not prince. Nafsi. Just think of that as my title now.”
“Yes, Nafsi. But even in front of your father?”
Nafsi considered it. “No,” he finally said. He looked up at Simo again. “Just when we’re together. I guess, you know, like friends.”
“How do you know you can trust me to be your friend? You know what you’re father says about the animals you should let sleep in your den.”
“But—you’re nice to me. Like Grandma. I think you two would like each other pretty well. But . . . well, you know what Dad would do if he saw you disobeying.”
“‘Dad’? Not ‘Father’? Not ‘Jadi’?”
“I—I’d like to think that. I mean, he makes time for me besides the kingdom.”
“And what do you do?”
“Um . . . well . . . It doesn’t happen too often . . . Besides, I don’t think I should tell you.”
“Then don’t. I know what your father can do when he’s angry.”
“Yeah.” There was silence for some time. “Hey, do you want to come in when we get there? I know you never do. Maybe you’d like it.”
“Your mother would kill me. Literally.”
“Oh, you know she’d never do anything too rash without asking Dad first.”
“Alright,” the cub conceded. “Hey, how about letting me meet your family?”
Simo actually stopped walking. He licked his lips nervously. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, sire. You wouldn’t like it. Besides,” he added, “there’s no family for you to see.” He resumed walking towards Pride Rock, leaving Nafsi behind.
Nafsi scampered to catch up to him. “What do you mean? Everyone has a family. And you’ve been here, right? You’re not like one of those rogues that Dad just picked up, are you?”
Simo sighed. “No, Nafsi. I have a family. Had. Your father had the pleasure of slaughtering them.”
“Oh . . . what’d they do wrong?”
“Nothing,” Simo said bitterly. “Absolutely nothing. Yes, my father tried to kill him, but that wasn’t unjustified. But my mother . . . and my sisters . . . they did nothing. All my mother did was ask for an audience . . . maybe even my freedom . . . and he killed her for it.” Tears streamed down Simo’s face.
“I’m sure you are.”
Nafsi decided to take the statement positively. “Dad probably did have a reason, though.”
Simo swallowed down the bitter remark he was about to make. “Well, even your father isn’t perfect.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Never mind.”
“Don’t do that. Tell me.”
Simo looked down at Nafsi, his concern showing on his face. “You promise you won’t tell your father? No matter what?”
“Of course. Just between friends.”
“Your father missed one of my sisters.”
“Huh? I thought you said he killed them all.”
“He nearly did. She was barely alive as it was. He just left them to die. Two of them did die, but Msasi lived.”
“So you do have family!”
“Yeah . . . yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Can I go see her?”
“Like I said, that’s not a good idea.”
“Please? No, even better, I order you to take me.”
“Your father almost got himself killed when he was a cub by ordering something stupid like that.”
“I’m not Dad. So come on, take me.”
“Fine. But you explain to your mother why we’re late.”
“So, where is she?” asked Nafsi.
“Don’t worry,” said Simo. He strode through the grass confidently. “She’ll be here. She knows she’s not supposed to go too far.” He stopped, then said to Nafsi, “Wait here.” He disappeared into the grass.
Nafsi obediently sat down, his tail twitching in apprehension. What would she be like? He heard a feminine voice. “Oh, Simo.”
“Yes, it’s me. . . . How’s the pain?”
“Do you always have to ask that? Every time?”
“Sorry.” Nafsi heard purring. “It’s just . . . well . . .”
Nafsi looked up to see a leopard sitting at his side. He knew the leopard from the numerous small scars across his face. Maafa. He was big for a leopard. “Is Simo in there?” he said in that low rumble he used for a voice.
“Uh, yeah. He’s bringing out his sister.”
Maafa looked down at Nafsi in surprise. “He has a sister? I thought Jadi finished the job.” Maafa smiled. “He’ll be pleased to know this.”
Nafsi looked up at him in surprise. He didn’t want to lose his new friend. “No, not sister. I mean—aunt. I don’t know where sister came from. Aunt.”
Nafsi heard Msasi’s voice again. “And don’t you dare leave me for that long again. I was worried Jadi did something to you.”
Nafsi heard a small laugh. “Don’t worry about my job. . . . I brought a visitor for you.”
Nafsi heard a gasp of delight. “Really? I’ve never had a visitor before. Who is it?”
A chuckle. “You’ll see.” Simo emerged from the grass. “Just wait there.” He turned his head to look at Nafsi, seeing Maafa. “What?” he asked irritably.
Nafsi felt Maafa’s tail flick against him. “Just seeing if you were around. You should know better to bring the prince into a slum like this.”
Simo growled. “My home is perfectly respectable, thank you.”
Maafa let out a low laugh. “Of course. By your standards.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Whatever you want it to. Her majesty has a job for you.”
“Have a more positive attitude, Simo. Take pride in your work.” Maafa smiled sardonically. “Remember, it’s your place to serve the kingdom.”
“Fine. We’ll talk out here. Na—Sire, she’s in there, waiting for you.”
Maafa’s eyes widened slightly at Simo’s slip. “Who’s waiting?”
“Cousin, huh?” Maafa looked at Nafsi’s body disappearing into the grass. “And what a fine name. Fitting.”
“Speak,” snarled Simo.
Nafsi made his way through the grass. He couldn’t see anything from his point of view. He may have been a year old, but his body was six months old physically. As you can imagine, you can’t see anything but legs and stomachs when you’re six months old. He finally emerged into a clearing. A cheetah sat there, slightly older than one year, her scarred, disfigured face eager. The mutilations didn’t stop there. Her entire body was disfigured, marked by horrible scars, leaving her entirely bald in some places. A foreleg had no digits at all, merely a bit of paw attached to a leg. She gasped as Nafsi walked into the clearing, her face horrified. “It’s okay,” Nafsi said gently. “Um . . . are you Msasi?”
“Yes,” the cheetah said after a pause, her beautiful voice the only hint of what she might have looked like. “What do you want?”
Nafsi sat down. “Nothing. I’m Nafsi.”
Msasi drew in a sharp gasp. “You! How dare you come here!” Her claws slid out unconsciously.
“What do you mean?” Msasi snarled. “I just wanted to meet you.” Nafsi remembered what Taabu had taught him about not pointing out embarrassing things, but he decided to do it anyway. “I—I just wanted to say sorry. You know, for what Dad did to you.”
“Sorry? Sorry? Do you think sorry is going to help me? Look at me!” Msasi said disgustedly. “I can’t even go out among the other cheetahs with any sense of decency! Do you have any idea how much I hate you?!”
“But what did I do?”
“It’s enough that you live, you little piece of filth. Because of your father, I have to live like this! Hidden, like some immoral thing! I barely see anyone, and never anyone except the other cheetahs! And I didn’t do anything!”
“But you must have done something. I mean, maybe you just didn’t do the right thing for Dad.”
“I did nothing! I watched my sisters be slaughtered by that beast you call a father, and he laughed. That’s right, he laughed. He enjoyed killing my mother, my sisters, he enjoyed scarring me like this. And if he even knew I was alive, he’d be back to finish the job.” Msasi began to pace angrily. “And I did NOTHING!”
“Hey, uh, just calm down,” Nafsi said nervously.
“Calm down? Calm DOWN?! I am livid! Do you have any idea what pain I go through every day?! Never mind the physical, I mean the anguish. I cry myself to sleep every night, thinking of ways to torment your father.” She turned to Nafsi, her face enraged. “At least now I have something.” She advanced on Nafsi.
“What?” Nafsi asked innocently.
“Your death.” Msasi swung back a clawed paw to hit Nafsi. Nafsi raised a foreleg in protection as he winced. Msasi brought her leg down, and was suddenly hurled back in a silent, black explosion, her scream the only noise. She hit the ground with a thud, her screams going silent as the wind was knocked out of her. Simo charged in, followed by Maafa.
“What happened?” Simo demanded.
“I—I didn’t mean to,” said Nafsi. “She just—she attacked—I just tried to defend myself. Like Aka said to.”
Maafa laughed his low laugh. “Well, Aka will be happy his lessons aren’t wasted. Dead?”
Simo had rushed to Msasi. “No . . . no, she’s alive.” He stepped back as Msasi slowly got to her feet, her face filled with anger. “What were you thinking?”
“I’ll kill you!” She ran towards Nafsi and hit him, tearing gashes into his body as she sent him flying. Simo immediately clipped his sister on the head, sending her to the ground, unconscious.
“Lucky you got there before me,” said Maafa. He turned to look at Nafsi, seeing the gashes heal up, black wisps playing over the injuries. “What in death’s name is that?” Nafsi got to his feet, perfectly alright. “Well, that’s handy.”
“Did—did you kill her?” Nafsi asked, a note of guilt entering his voice.
“No. She’s just knocked out,” said Simo reassuringly.
“I didn’t want to hurt her,” Nafsi said sadly.
“Sire, you did the right thing,” said Maafa. “And you exposed a fugitive. Very nice, sire. We’ll make an askari out of you yet. Your father will have some choice words for us.” He turned to Simo. “All of us.”
“You wouldn’t,” breathed Simo.
“Well, let’s see what the king says.”
Simo paced nervously in front of the cave the next day. Maafa walked up the ramp of Pride Rock. “You know,” he commented, “I don’t imagine the king will appreciate you wearing a hole in his pretty rock.”
Simo stopped, turning to Maafa. “Maafa, please reconsider. Please. She’s my sister. The only one I have left. Don’t you know how that must feel with your siblings?”
“I will not ‘reconsider.’ I told you I would give you one day. I did. And as for the siblings, I don’t have any.”
“Well, what about your parents? Don’t you have any feelings for them?”
“Oh, they’re dead.”
“See? See? Don’t you ever think about that?”
Maafa hung his head with a sigh. “I remember. It happened when I was just two. I watched my father beaten down and killed. My mother went after him pretty quickly.” He looked up, a sardonic grin on his face. “Of course, as the one doing the killing, it was pretty hard for me to look away.”
“Oh, gods.” Simo began pacing again. Sometimes he forgot just how ruthless some of the animals Jadi used were. Of course, he never forgot it for long. He stopped again as he came back to Maafa. “Look, please, I’ll make it up to you somehow, I promise. Just please don’t tell him.”
“No. I’m going to tell him. Of course, if you’re smart, you’ll tell him yourself when you report.”
“Maafa, please, just—”
“Simo, the two animals who have served longest under Jadi are right here. And neither of us got here making stupid mistakes. I’m not liked by him right now, I need all the help I can get. So you’re going to tell him, or I’m going to tell him and be ordered by him to tear your lying guts out. And you know I’ll do that with nothing more than a ‘Yes, sire’ and a smile. So I think you know what to do.”
Simo began pacing again. “Oh gods oh gods oh gods oh gods . . .”
A few minutes later Jadi came out. Simo had stopped his pacing before; Jadi came out at the same time every day, he knew when to stop. Jadi saw Maafa first. “What are you doing here?” Jadi asked.
“Just here to call on Akasare, sire,” said Maafa, sitting at attention. It’s almost pointless to point this out, as that was the only way Maafa sat in the presence of Jadi. If he even just discussed business, he still slipped into it. “Of course, sire, I’m also here to carry out orders.”
“Hmm.” Jadi turned to Simo. “Report.”
Simo became very interested in looking at his forepaws flex their digits. “Well . . . um, sire, would you like the bad news first?”
Jadi walked to the edge of Pride Rock. “How about the good news instead?”
Simo looked up at Maafa’s smiling face. “Um . . . there is no good news, sire.”
Jadi turned around angrily. “What?”
“Well, there’s bad news . . . and uh, there’s the weather, if you’d like it, sire.” Simo half-heartedly smiled, the grin dripping off his face quickly.
Jadi walked over to Simo, his face anything but amused. Simo wasn’t surprised to find black mass spreading up his legs. He was surprised when they began to edge up his legs to his chest. Jadi never ceased to find new ways to interrogate, kill, brutalize, maim, torture, or in any other way ruin someone’s day. “And just what would this bad news be?”
The black matter was almost completely covering Simo, wrapped around his entire body save for his head and neck, crushing him slowly, the pressure apparent when the mass began to start on his legs. Simo found it difficult to breath. “Sire, please remember, it’s not good to kill the messenger.” Simo felt breath involuntarily leave him as the black crushed angrily. “Especially if he hasn’t delivered the message.”
“Then deliver it,” hissed Jadi.
Darkness began to cloud Simo’s vision. “Cheetah” was all he managed to get out before his head went limp. The black immediately disappeared, forcing Simo to fall to the ground. Simo’s body drew in breaths, then Simo became conscious and drew in a huge gasp.
“Having a good day, sire?” Maafa asked innocently.
“If I may ask, why?”
“Because of my son picking up foolish ideas of mercy in my own den. I have told that wretch time and again to not interfere with my son. She seems to think she has some value for being my mother.”
“Taabu—is dead?” Simo managed to breathe out.
Jadi turned back to Simo, annoyance on his face. “No. Just nearly there. And now you,” he said, placing a paw on Simo’s throat, “are going to talk.”
Simo looked down at the paw nervously. “Sire, my sister lives.”
The paw was removed. “I beg your pardon?”
“My—my sister, sire. The one you tried to kill along with my mother and my other sisters. She’s alive.”
“Oh, yes. I know.”
“Yes. Of course I do. I know everything that goes on in my kingdom. Even if you don’t tell me.”
“But—why do you let her live, sire?”
“You mean you want me to kill her?”
Simo sat up. “No, sire.”
“Simo, I let you keep her for one reason. You have served me exceptionally well, save for the odd quirk. Wouldn’t you say you deserve something in return?”
Simo bowed his head. “Thank you, sire.”
“Now, is that everything?”
“Aren’t you forgetting something, Simo?” interrupted Maafa.
“Simo,” said Jadi. His face was anything but amused. “I don’t like secrets. Not from anyone. Especially not from you.”
Simo was silent.
Jadi whipped a paw across his face, knocking him to the ground. “Answer me!”
Simo drew in a long breath. “Sire, I—I almost got your son killed yesterday.”
“You—did—what?” Jadi hissed.
“I—I took him to see my sister, sire, and she tried to kill him.” The last few words were a mumble. Jadi turned to Maafa. “Sire, please, she didn’t know what she was doing, she’s only a cub. Please, sire.”
Jadi ignored him. “Maafa, get Akasare.”
“Yes, sire.” Maafa walked into the den, a smile on his face.
“Sire, please,” begged Simo. “Don’t kill her.”
Jadi turned to Simo furiously. “You’re lucky I don’t kill you where you sit. You are in absolutely no position to bargain. If I were you, I would sit there with my mouth shut, and pray to any and all gods that you know of that I am not bringing Akasare for you.”
Simo fell silent, tears streaming down his face. Maafa walked out with Akasare. “Sire,” they both said, sitting down.
Jadi turned back to Simo. “You are going to lead us to your sister, and while doing so, you are going to contemplate all possible meanings of ‘silent as the grave.’ Now walk.”
Simo miserably stood up and began to lead Jadi, Akasare, and Maafa to his home. By halfway there he was audibly weeping. He finally stopped at the tall grass where his sister was. “She’s in here, sire.”
Jadi walked past Simo into the grass. He expected to find one cheetah, not this many. Every one had an identical look of fear as they looked up at the king. It was possible that every cheetah in the kingdom lived right here. “Simo,” he said, all of the cheetahs flinching as he spoke. Simo walked in, head hung low. “Get your sister.”
Simo walked toward the crowd miserably. The cheetahs cleared a path for him. He walked over to Msasi, tears beginning to come when he saw her. Msasi looked at the king and gasped. “Simo, what’s going on?” she whispered.
Simo began to weep again. “I’m sorry, Msasi. I’m sorry.”
“Simo, please, no,” the deformed cub begged. “Don’t do this.”
“If I don’t, he’ll kill you anyway. Just, please, just make it fast and go up there now.”
“No. I won’t go.”
“Simo, don’t do this.”
“We don’t have a choice. Msasi, I’m sorry.” He nuzzled her, then turned back to Jadi and raised his voice. “She won’t come, sire.”
Msasi was jerked forward by black cords, screaming and thrashing. She stopped with a gasp when she reached Jadi. “Do you know what you did?” Jadi asked quietly.
“Yes,” said Msasi. “But please, it was a mistake.”
“You’re right. It was a mistake. And you have no idea how costly it was.” Jadi watched as Simo walked up and sat a short distance away from his sister.
“Simo, help me!” Msasi cried out.
“Msasi, I’m sorry. And . . . and please, tell Mother that, too.”
“Simo, no!” Msasi struggled harder than ever against the cords binding her legs to the ground.
Jadi turned to Maafa and Akasare. “Kill them.” Msasi stopped struggling with a gasp. Jadi turned to face her and the crowd of cheetahs, smiling at their stunned faces. “All of them.”
“And Simo, sire?” asked Akasare.
“Leave him to me.” Jadi turned to leave. “Other than that, there are to be no cheetahs alive by nightfall.”
“NO!” Jadi turned to see Simo leaping at him. Jadi knocked him to the ground with a paw. Cords bound Simo’s legs as Jadi walked away, trailing Msasi and Simo. He heard the screams of the cheetahs as Maafa and Akasare started on them. The three of them emerged from the grass. The cords disappeared from Msasi as Jadi hit her to the ground. He turned to Simo, Simo’s face held rigidly in place by black matter, his eyes held open. “Now you will see the price that is paid for your treachery.” Jadi turned to Msasi. Simo tried to look away, he tried to close his eyes, but no matter how much he struggled, he could only watch his sister’s agony.
Jadi hit Simo’s backside into the den. “You will stay here until I return.” He looked at Taabu with an evil smile. “And you know I’ll be coming back for you.” He turned to leave. “Come, Uchu. I need to talk to you.” Uchu followed him with a smile. Jadi watched her walk out, then turned to Simo, his face filled with anger. “You are to stay away from my son, or I will make you regret the day you were born.” He turned and followed Uchu.
Simo turned his tear-wetted face to the den and walked over to Taabu, who was lying down, her head on the ground and her eyes half-closed. Tumai lied next to her with Uzuri. Taabu’s body was raked with gouges and gashes that were shallow but noticeable. Jadi had obviously beaten his mother and had become so angry that he had forgotten to keep his claws entirely sheathed. “You look awful,” Simo observed.
Taabu gave a half-hearted chuckle, then stopped with a gasp. Laughing must have hurt. “You don’t look the best, yourself.”
A tear slid down Simo’s face. He wasn’t afraid to show emotion here. Not with his fellow sufferers. “He killed her.”
“Who?” asked Tumai.
“My sister.” A lump welled up in his throat. “She’s dead,” Simo said, his voice choked with tears.
“But she was already dead,” said Taabu. “I thought he killed her a year ago.”
“He missed her,” wept Simo. “He knew about it, and he let her live. And now he just does that!” He let out an anguished sob. “Why can’t he just die?!”
“Simo?” Simo turned to see Nafsi sitting behind him. “What’s wrong?”
“You!” Simo rounded on him. Nafsi fell over backwards and edged away on his back as Simo advanced. “You’re what’s wrong!” Simo yelled, backing Nafsi into a wall. “You, and your stinking royal corpse! I HATE YOU!” he roared. Nafsi cringed.
Nafsi sniffled. “But—but I thought you were my friend.”
“Friend?! Friend?! What kind of friend are you? Because of you, the last member of my family is dead! Your father killed my sister, because of you! And you know what?! He didn’t even have the decency to kill her! Do you have any idea what he did?!”
“No,” Nafsi said quietly.
“He made me sit there while he beat her!” roared Simo. “He forced me to watch, the whole time, with her screaming out for mercy! And he laughed at the idea! He made me watch! And he beat her, and raped her, and ate her, still alive! She was two years old!”
“Simo,” said one of the lionesses, shocked. The entire den had gone silent.
Simo glared at Nafsi angrily, tears leaking from his eyes. Nafsi stared back, his eyes wide and his mouth silent. “Damn it, don’t you have anything to say?! Any tears?! Don’t you have any feelings at all, you damned lump of fur?!”
Nafsi finally said quietly, “Dad . . . Dad probably wanted me to be safe. She tried to hurt me, so—”
“Gods damn you!!” Simo swung back his paw, claws fully extended. He was suddenly tackled by Tumai. He struggled madly underneath her. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you, you little—”
Tumai clubbed Simo across the face. “Simo, please! You know you can’t do that.”
“I don’t care what Jadi does, I’ll kill the little bastard!!”
Tumai hit him again, clipping his temple by luck. Simo’s head fell to the floor, unconscious. “Taabu! What are we going to do with him?”
Taabu groaned as she moved to a more comfortable position. “There’s nothing we can do. He just fell asleep. That’s all we know.” She sighed, and groaned as she rolled back onto her stomach, winced as she applied pressure to the wounds. “Nafsi, come here.”
“But Dad said—”
“Come here!” Nafsi obeyed, hesitating several times along the way. He finally sat in front of Taabu. “You are not to tell Jadi what Simo did. You have no idea what he’s gone through. You will not tell you father. Is that understood?”
“Mom and Dad say I’m not supposed to listen to you,” said Nafsi, his face completely straight. “I’m supposed to ignore your heretic filth.”
Taabu’s heart broke as she watched her grandson say that. “Do—do you even know what that means?”
“I’m not supposed to believe what you say,” Nafsi said coldly, emotionlessly. He looked at her face, something approaching humor in his eyes, though he didn’t quite feel it. It was plain enough for Taabu to see it. “They say you have told me nothing but lies, and you are to be treated as the deceiver you are.”
“Oh . . . oh, Nafsi.” A tear slid down Taabu’s face.
“Why are you crying, Grandma?” Nafsi asked tonelessly.
“Don’t you know?” Taabu suddenly remembered with horror what the lionesses had said. “Nafsi . . . Nafsi, don’t you love me?”
“Yes, Grandma,” he answered tonelessly. He stared at the ground for a moment, then looked up at Taabu, his head cocked to one side. “Grandma, what do you mean when you ask me that?”
“Nafsi . . .” This hurt Taabu more than anything. “You—you really don’t know? But you’ve said it, so many times.”
“I just knew you wanted me to say I did. But what’s—love?”
Taabu bit her lip. “Don’t you feel at all? Happiness? Sadness? Anything?”
Nafsi looked at the ground, thinking. “Well . . . I’ve been angry. And lonely. I think that’s what it is. I want a friend.” He looked up, his eyes lit up with discovery. “Yeah, that must be it.” The glow in his eyes faded away. “But Grandma, what’s happiness?”
“But—but you’ve laughed. You’ve smiled.” Taabu’s voice was desperate.
“Yeah, that’s what you wanted. But what’s happiness?”
Taabu buried her head in Uzuri’s shoulder, crying. Uzuri rubbed a foreleg over her back. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay.”
“He doesn’t know! He doesn’t even know!”
“Why did she do that?” Jadi asked Uchu in the comfort of the pool of darkness’s cave. “She knew the penalty. But why did she do that?”
“Your mother has always had trouble conforming,” noted Uchu. “Most likely she couldn’t help herself.” She smiled. “She probably wanted to make up for your ‘failure.’”
Jadi chuckled. “Well, she tried. She made an honest-to-Aiheu fight every step of the way.” He looked at Uchu, his face concerned. “But what about Nafsi?”
“He is perfect. He can’t be corrupted by some old lioness and her ‘virtues.’ Just wait. You’ll see. He can’t help it. He wants to hate. He just doesn’t know it. And soon, he’ll want to kill. It’s only natural for him. It’s in his blood.”
Jadi laughed. “It is, isn’t it?” He paused. “So, anything she may have said about, say, mercy was wasted?”
Uchu smiled. “He can’t even feel it. He knows no false, cheery happiness, only true passion, and wonderful, vicious pleasure from the pain of others. No sadness, only want for vengeance. No love, only admiration and lust. And, of course, hate, on every conceivable level. And quite a few unconceivable ones as well.” She laughed. “I doubt he could even feel something as simple as loneliness, the simple need for a friend. How can he? Friends are equals.” She nuzzled Jadi wistfully. “The son I gave you has no equal. He never will.”
Jadi smiled. “He really is perfect.”
“He won’t be stuck in that pathetic cub body for long, either.”
“What? How?” Jadi asked, surprised.
Uchu laughed her seductive little laugh. “He’ll have—growing pains.”
Uchu smiled, her eyes filled with bloodthirsty visions. “Oh, yes. Imagine if you were to grow an entire year in, say, one or two minutes?”
Jadi thought about it. “That would be . . . different.”
Uchu gave him a kiss. “And you know your son is different.” Her smile widened. “Just two more years. And then he will truly blossom. He won’t grow past where he is now. But in three years, he will grow, suddenly, into the true evil he is to be. From a little cub, all the way to a wonderful, malevolent destroyer.” She shuddered with pleasure at the thought. “Oh, he will suffer through the transformation. It will cause him unimaginable pain. But when he emerges from that agony . . . Oh, his hate, his anger, his lust for vengeance . . . I can’t even imagine what it will be like. But it will be glorious.” She closed her eyes, imagining the horrible, malicious lion her cub would turn into.
“It all seems like I’ll be rather useless, doesn’t it?” pointed out Jadi.
Uchu smiled and nuzzled him even more seductively than usual. “Yes. That’s all you are for me. A tool.” Jadi stared at her, only mildly repulsed by what she said. The proportions she had twisted his mind into had long ago accepted that fact. “But I do love you, Jadi. I never thought I’d say that truthfully, but I do.” There was truth in her words, even if it was only small. The tiny amount of love she possessed for Jadi had the same effect for her like a drop of water for a parched animal in a desert and was just as scarce; it meant something to her, even if it was only a small thing. She had never loved in her entire life. That sliver of love was encased in a hard, stone shell of lust. But it was there. “I don’t want to just use you, and you’re the first animal I’ve ever felt that way about. But do you feel used?”
Uchu put a gentle paw to his face, releasing her hold on his mind. She might regret it later, but she could always put it back instantly if she displeased him. She may have loved him, but not that much. And it was worth it. Jadi appeared to look at her in an entirely new light. She could see the admiration in his eyes replaced by true love, not the attraction she had conjured up. Despite his release, he was still the same ruthless, vicious monster he always was, save for the fact that now he truly, honestly loved her. “No,” he said. “No, I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He gave her a long, passionate lick. “I wouldn’t have you any other way.”