The lioness hit Pofu again, leaving an even bigger gash. “Why won’t you just leave?! You’re nothing but a filthy parasite! You’ve done nothing for us! Nothing!”
Pofu let out another small cry of pain as the group of lionesses continued to beat him. His massive body was covered with cuts and gashes. His colorless eyes leaked tears. He didn’t fight back. He was certain he could kill every one of the lionesses here, but he didn’t raise a paw. A set of jaws embedded themselves in his side. He roared out in pain as they tore through the muscle. Despite the fact that he was in the middle of the savannah, despite the fact that it was broad daylight, despite the fact that there were definitely animals around, no one would help him. He knew this.
“You deserve to die!” yelled another lioness. He might very well be dying. Blood matted his body from the wounds he had. Bones were almost broken, only held in place by his massive, firm muscles. More blows fell from the angry group. They hit his stomach, his back, his neck, his head. The pain overwhelmed him. He stopped moving as he slid into unconsciousness. The lionesses continued to hurt him, ripping open his pelt, inflicting more cruel gashes on his body. Their paws beat him, trying to do their best to smash apart his body. Finally they left, their victim’s chest still heaving up and down in a slow, ragged pattern.
Time passed. The sun went lower in the sky. It had just begun to touch the horizon as a lion came to Pofu, a lioness by his side. He looked at the broken body in horror. “What have they done to you?” he whispered. He went to Pofu’s head and nudged it gently. Pofu didn’t stir. The lion turned to the lioness. “Come on. Help me get him to some water.”
“I really don’t think that’s the best idea,” she said. “They undoubtedly had a reason for this, whoever they were. He’s probably a killer or something.”
“He’s still alive. We need to help him.”
“Leave him. I’m telling you, that Samaritan complex will be the death of you.”
The lion ignored her. He bit gently into Pofu’s neck, trying to lift his massive body. The lion groaned as he lifted Pofu’s body about six inches before dropping it, panting. The lion lied down on his side next to Pofu, making sure one of Pofu’s forelegs was draped over his body. He grabbed the foreleg in his mouth and groaned as he slowly turned onto his stomach, placing Pofu’s body on top of his, Pofu’s hind legs still off his body entirely.
The lion was obviously too small for the task. The lion strained to lift Pofu’s muscle-bound frame, his legs shaking with the effort. The lioness watched him struggle under the load for a few seconds before sighing and placing herself underneath Pofu’s stomach. She jerked her body so that Pofu was spread across her and the lion. They slowly began to make their way to a pond.
Pofu groaned. If he wasn’t blind, he would have seen that he looked infinitely better. The pair, or rather, the lion, as the lioness had simply watched, rinsed the blood off his with wet paws. His body ached like nothing else. Especially a foreleg. He most definitely wasn’t dead. He let out a groan as he opened his eyes. “He’s awake,” said the lioness. Pofu recognized her as a lioness, but didn’t know her voice at all.
“Who are you?” he asked aggressively. He sat up, doing so painfully. “What are you doing here?”
“Relax,” said the lion, Pofu turning to face him.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Pofu. “We’ve had more than enough of rogues, lion! Leave!”
The lion gave a hmph of derision. “Can’t touch this.”
Pofu’s eyes widened. He froze in shock. Then, suddenly, he launched himself at the lion, tackling him to the ground. The lion let out an “Oof!” “Taos!” yelled Pofu happily. “Oh, Taos, Taos, Taos!”
“Pofu—can’t—breathe . . .”
Pofu hurriedly got off, forgetting his pain for a few moments. “Where have you been? Oh, I’ve missed you so much!” He pulled Taos close to his chest with a foreleg.
Taos smiled as he wrapped a foreleg as far around Pofu’s massive chest as he could. “I’m glad to hear it.” He paused. “What happened to you? I mean, we just find you, all—beaten, and cut up.”
Pofu’s paw fell from Taos’s back, his face falling with it. He bit his lip. “Things have changed, Taos.”
Taos smiled. “Probably.”
“A lot. It’d take a long time to explain.”
Taos sighed. “Alright. If you don’t want to tell me—”
“I do,” said Pofu hurriedly. “It’s just . . . you should get back to the den. You need to . . . we need you to help us. You seem to have come at the right time.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” said the lioness. Taos and Pofu turned to look at her. “Not any time soon.”
“I should get back,” said Pofu. “Look . . . um, name?”
“Geuzi,” said the lioness bitterly.
“Look, Geuzi, the kingdom is falling apart. Please. I need to go back. I’ll go through you if I have to.”
“I’m not stopping you.”
“Good.” Pofu started past her toward Pride Rock. He took two steps and sank to the ground slowly, with a moan of pain.
“That’s stopping you. One torn calf. Hurts doesn’t it?” she asked acidly.
“Pofu,” said Taos, “you’re hurt pretty bad.”
“I’m fine,” he protested. “I can make it. I can get better at Pride Rock.”
“Look, maybe we should just take you to Rafiki.”
“He’s dead,” said Pofu bluntly.
Taos stared at him. “Dead?”
“Yes. Now can we please go? The sooner you get there, the better.” Pofu began to go again, gasping when he stepped on the injured leg.
Taos sighed. “Do you insist on going?”
“Fine. We’ll carry you again.”
“No!” said Geuzi and Pofu simultaneously.
“Then let’s see how far you get on that leg. Geuzi, come on. You’re going to help me.”
“Like hell,” she said. “Do you know how heavy he is? I kept thinking my back would break, there was so much pressure.”
“Fine. Then you can stay here. Just go on home.” Geuzi snarled at him. “Look, Pofu, you need my help. Just drape your foreleg across my back.” He went to Pofu and ducked under his leg. “Try now.”
It worked. It was a bit painful to have the leg across Taos’s back in that awkward position, but Pofu could move. “It . . . it’ll work.”
“Alright. Come on. Start moving.” The two began to move to Pride Rock. “Geuzi will fix you up,” Taos muttered. “She’s good at that.”
“She’s not following,” said Pofu in an equally low voice.
“Oh, she will. Now can we stop talking? You’re so darn heavy.”
Pofu laughed. “Alright.”
Geuzi watched the two walk toward Pride Rock. Muttering under her breath, she finally stood up and followed them.
Taraja stood just outside the den of Pride Rock, staring at Uwivu, quite annoyed. He wanted to help, he had explained. Anything to help his aunt’s kingdom. Anything at—
“We don’t need your help,” said Uwivu bitterly. “Your aunt already did more than enough. She drove the prince to his death.”
Taraja bit back the bitter remarks. He hadn’t exactly been made welcome in his stay at Pride Rock. Uwivu was a bitter queen. She had no qualifications for being queen, save for her having half-royal blood, even if it was from a horrible killer, resurrected only to torture others. But no one paid attention to her lineage. She led the pride, simply led them.
She had slept outside the den when night came on the day the royals died. She had gone away from Pride Rock, out into the savannah, wallowing in her misery. Nafsi was gone. He was gone, and he had experienced nothing decent from life. And she had done nothing but torment him. Six days until he turned four, and he was gone.
She had slowly cried herself to sleep.
In the morning, she went to the den. Only some were awake, and those that were awake were lying down, talking quietly, even though the sun had quite plainly risen. Uwivu woke the rest up, despite complaints. She took out a hunting party and caught breakfast. She would not let the kingdom fall apart.
But it did. She had not bothered to wake Vitani, Shani, Tumai, or Taabu. Uwivu knew they were the oldest lionesses. Jadi would have forced them to hunt, but Jadi was dead now. Shani would have hunted even if not forced, and Uwivu knew she would be bitter about her exemption from the hunt.
When the hunters returned, Uwivu gently brought a carcass over to the four of them and woke them up. Only Shani woke. It was a day of sadness for the pride.
Taabu had told them the night before she went about how she wanted to invite her sisters to see the Pridelands. She had talked so happily about it. She had told the younger lionesses where to find them; she knew she was too old for such a long trip, and especially not with the broken bone Uchu had given her seconds before Uchu died.
Uwivu sent her sister, Chungu, and another lioness, Waka, to Taabu’s former pride the day after she died. The next day they brought back many of Taabu’s sisters and, to Uwivu’s surprise, a male. Taraja. He had Uwivu pointed out to him by her sister. He went before Uwivu, his proud red mane blowing slightly in the wind, bowed respectfully before her, and said, “My lady, I would like to offer you any help my kingdom can produce.”
“We don’t need your help,” Uwivu had said, the first of many, many times that remark was made during his stay. Taraja had explained to her, over and over, how much service he could give her, how her pride had helped his when it was in the same position. He had even offered her, selflessly, one of the male cubs of his pride. Anyone even the prince, his own son.
Uwivu had been livid when he brought that up. “Is that what you want to do?” she had snarled. “What do you think we are? A second kingdom for you? A nice harem whenever you get tired of your own? We may not be that strong, we may be inexperienced, but we have our dignity. We will not bow to anyone. We are our own pride.”
Taraja was hurt. He was offering everything he had, and she slapped him in the face. She had even gone as far as to suggest he was a pimp. You never called a pride a harem. It was an unspeakable insult. “Your arrogance will be the death of them all,” he said bitterly.
“Then we die proud.”
Taraja had done his best, despite her efforts, to help. He tried to teach the cubs and lionesses about governing, about etiquette with the subjects. He knew it would be wasted. He didn’t have enough time to teach anything that was large enough to influence the kingdom. He was forced to do it all behind Uwivu’s back, all because of her hubris.
But he and his pride, the ones who had come, taught the Pridelanders something far more important, something that Jadi’s rule had wiped out, something that was essential if they were going to even think of rebuilding. He taught the younger lionesses to laugh, and helped the older ones remember.
But today was the day he left. Guests, like carcasses, began to smell after three days. He had stayed four. He hadn’t even seen Uwivu the previous day. His thoughts of her would have changed greatly if he had. He didn’t know that she had gone to the spire that used to house the pool of evil that had started the whole mess that the kingdom was in now. Uwivu had gone there, a small bunch of black flowers in her mouth, flowers that never died, even two and a half years after being planted, even after their owner, their creator, had gone. It was the last thing she had left of Nafsi. She walked into the spire and laid them gently on the floor in the center of the cave, her eyes filling with tears from painful memories. She stared at them, a tear sliding down her face.
“Happy birthday to you . . . happy birthday to you . . . happy birthday dear . . . dear Nafsi . . . happy . . . birthday . . .”
Taraja hadn’t seen any of that. All he had seen was a proud, bitter lioness striding into the den at the end of the day. And now, even as he left, Uwivu still refused his help. She even said that his aunt was responsible for the downfall of the kingdom. He wanted to hit her for her rudeness, for her inhospitality, for the many, many things she had implied about him.
He bit back his tongue.
“Shani told me what happened,” he said, willing his voice to be kind. “About how Aunt Taabu never ceased to comfort Nafsi, never stopped trying to show him the right path.” Uwivu kept her silence. “Do you really think if she hadn’t done that, that he would have been the same cub? Do you?” Uwivu stared back at him bitterly. Taraja sighed and turned to go. He walked down the stairs, then looked back up at Uwivu. “Please. One last time. Let us help you. You’re not even four. You’re just a cub. Do you really think you can rule—”
“Don’t you dare talk to me about ruling, sire!” said Uwivu furiously. “Look at yourself, king when you were born! Do you really think I don’t know what position I’m in? Do you actually believe I don’t know the weight I’m putting myself under? But do you think, even for a second, that there is anything I wouldn’t do for my girls? Do you? I love them, each and every one of them, from Shani all the way down to Urumu’s unnamed cub! And don’t you dare,” she spat, “ever forget that!”
Taraja shook his head sadly. “Very well. But we are there, not just for you, but for any lioness who wants us. Tell that to your ‘girls,’ your highness.” He turned to go, seeing Pofu, covered with wounds, accompanied by a lion and a lioness walking toward Pride Rock. Regret crossed Taraja’s face as he muttered, “Good luck to you.” His annoyance showed.
“Are you leaving?” asked Pofu.
“Yes. I’m no use to anyone here.” Taraja walked away with the other members of his pride.
“Who was that?” asked Taos.
“Taraja,” grunted Pofu. “Now can we please get to the ramp?” A little discomfort had turned into quite a bit. Pofu’s injured leg kept being jarred, his shoulder becoming more and more pained.
Taos and Pofu steered toward the ramp, trailing Geuzi. “Have I heard that name before?” asked Taos.
“He’s Taabu’s nephew,” said Pofu.
“Oh. Ohhh. The one that kept bugging Fujo.”
“Yes,” forced out Pofu through clenched teeth. It was bad enough to have all of the gashes on his body, but now his shoulder was killing him. Of course, he reflected bitterly, his shoulder wouldn’t hurt at all if his calf didn’t hurt. He finally reached the entrance to the den. Taos stopped dead. Pofu’s leg was jerked backward as it ran into Taos’s neck. “Unh!”
Taos turned hurriedly at Pofu’s grunt. “Aiheu, I’m sorry about that, Pofu.” He turned to look at the sight that had stopped him. “But who’s she?”
“Uwivu,” he said. It didn’t matter that he was blind, he could “see” better than most normal lions. He automatically knew it was Uwivu, even if she had stood completely still. She still would have breathed. “She’s Tumai’s daughter.”
“I should be asking you the same question,” said Uwivu. “How dare you trespass, rogue?”
“Uh, I was told to come back any time,” said Taos.
“We don’t need any more rogues,” said Uwivu. “We’ve had our fill. Jadi is dead; his invitations no longer stand. We thank you for Pofu, now leave.”
“Ass,” muttered Geuzi.
“Uwivu,” whispered Pofu.
“Right, Uwivu, your mother told me to come back. Just prance her on out here to look at me.” Taos saw the spasm of emotion cross Uwivu’s face. “What?”
“My mother is dead,” said Uwivu bitterly. “She died six days ago.”
“Oh . . . I’m very sorry to hear that.” Uwivu snorted in disbelief. “Well then, Taabu. She knows me. I hope.”
“She died with my mother.”
“Then how about the king? Fujo?” Taos didn’t dare to hope that Kovu was still alive after all this time.
“He died five years ago.”
“Oh, gods . . . how?”
“His son killed him.”
“Can we please discuss this when I’m down?” interjected Pofu irritably.
Taos steered for the den. “If you set paw in that den, rogue, it will be the last thing you do,” snarled Uwivu.
Taos sighed. This girl, whoever she was, was being one of the biggest pains in his neck that he had ever met. She talked to him as if she owned Pride Rock, and showed him no respect at all, despite the fact that he was old enough to be her father. “Look,” he said, looking over his shoulder, only to find her blocked by Pofu’s body, “my name is Taos. Bring up anything?”
“None at all.”
Taos shook his head. “Shani!” he yelled into the den. “Haja! Bayana! Nyota! Fina!”
The den quieted down. An elderly lioness appeared, still fit even in her old age. “Yes?” Shani asked. “You’d better have a damn good reason for dragging me out here.”
“Shani, it’s me. Taos.”
Shani blinked and tilted her head slightly to the side. She walked over to Taos and turned his head to the side. She gently ran a digit down a deep, long scar on the side of his jaw. “We thought you were dead,” she said gently. She gave him a gentle lick. “We never expected you after all these years. Bring Pofu into the den.” Shani turned to go back in.
“You’re just going to let this rogue walk into our den?” protested Uwivu.
Shani turned around and grabbed Uwivu’s jaw with a paw. She drew Uwivu’s face close to hers. “This rogue is more respectable than you will ever be.” Uwivu tried to pull away, but Shani’s grip held. “Your mother loved him very much, and Pofu. You’d do well to follow her example.”
“Let go of me,” said Uwivu.
“Listen to me,” said Shani, jerking Uwivu’s head. “You are not queen. You may lead, but you have no privileges. You are no better than the rest of us.” She tossed Uwivu’s head away from her. “Remember that.” Shani turned to Pofu and Taos and gestured impatiently toward the den.
The two lions headed into the den. Taos slid out from under Pofu’s leg once they were inside. Pofu gently slid to the ground, wincing as weight was put on his leg. Taos looked around the den at the lionesses. All of the lionesses looked at him in curiosity, some of them in surprised recognition. He heard his name float around the den on the lionesses’ murmurs. He looked over at Shani, who was lying down beside Pofu.
“They beat you?” she asked, with the closest thing to gentle kindness Taos had ever heard her use.
“Yes,” said Pofu.
“Did you fight back?”
“Was it the first?”
Shani sighed. “It won’t be the last.”
“I know.” Pofu rolled onto his side. “But there’s nothing I can do.”
“Taos started at the two of them. “What are you talking about?” he asked, hoping he didn’t understand what he thought he did. “Pofu . . . who did this to you?”
“Yesterday a group of lionesses beat me down,” Pofu said simply. “I assume that’s how you found me.”
“It’d take too long. Look, Taos, you have no idea how happy I am to have you back. But I need to rest. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Please. I want to be able to walk again soon. If I’m lucky, I’ll be up by tomorrow morning on it.” He gave a small snort of laughter. “Really lucky. And even then nothing else will get fixed.”
“Pofu, what are you talking about?” asked Taos, puzzled.
“That’s right,” said Shani. “You left before he told us.”
“Please, Taos,” said Pofu, “I’ll tell you everything tomorrow. But I need my rest, or this could get a lot worse. I’m afraid something may be infected.”
“You know that?” asked Taos.
“Please. I’ll tell you tomorrow, with Shani if she’ll stay.”
“Fine,” said Shani grumpily. “I won’t hunt.”
“Thank you,” Pofu laid his head down.
“Uh . . .” said Taos. “Well then . . . I’ll . . . Geuzi?” He looked around the den. Uwivu was inside, but . . . He saw her. Geuzi was outside, lying down, alone. Taos smiled. He should have known. He turned back to Shani to excuse himself to find her lying down as well, her eyes closed. Taos got up and went outside to Geuzi. He sat down next to her. “Hey.”
“Want to come in? It’ll be dark in a couple of hours.”
Taos smiled. “Come on. There’s really some animals you should meet.”
“I don’t do well in prides.”
“I’d say they’re bitter enough for you.”
“Can you imagine what that would be like? There wouldn’t be a moment’s peace. Hell, I’d probably start a fight.” Her eyes flicked up to Taos.
The smile slid off his face. He sighed. “Please,” he said, “this is my home. Don’t ruin this for me. We don’t need to get kicked out of another kingdom.”
“We?” she scoffed. “You were run out of one kingdom with me. I got kicked out of the rest. You chose to leave. So don’t give me this ‘we’ shit.”
“I . . . I wouldn’t leave you. You know that. To just let you down like that . . . You’ve looked for someone like me so long.”
“I’d cope without you. I’m coping now.”
“Yes, you are.” He looked up and down her body, though not as if he was interested in what pleasure it could give him. He did it in a way that an animal might look at its mother, or its sister. Geuzi’s body was covered with scars. One would assume from the numerous claw marks and gashes that she was beaten regularly, or was possessed by some demon that commanded her to cut herself or inflict pain on herself. She wasn’t an exceptionally beautiful lioness. She was fairly pretty, the few scars on her face doing nothing to detract from this. If anything, they added a sort of elegance to her face.
She had a diagonal scar across her right cheek, sliding up to the level between the mouth and nose. It stopped before it entered the territory of the muzzle, residing solely on the cheek. It went down her cheek to her neck, the scar being almost perfectly horizontal. She had a small yet noticeable scar underneath her left eye, forming a small triangle, point down. There were three scars on her left cheek obviously left by someone hitting her across the face.
Her green eyes said quite obviously that she didn’t give a damn about the scars, that she had more than enough to care about, and in the same glance said that she could just as easily leave you as take you. The scars didn’t make her seem ugly at all. They actually seemed to make her look elegantly dangerous. Which incidentally, she was. The last half, anyway. No one would ever contribute elegant as a quality to Geuzi.
Geuzi looked up at Taos for a second, then got up and walked to the edge of Pride Rock, where generations of kings had stood proudly, where princes and princesses had been shown, where the most famous royal decrees in the Pridelands had been issued.
Geuzi flopped to the ground casually, an uncaring hind leg off dangling off the side of Pride Rock.
She laid her head down. Taos watched her for a second, then walked up to her, actually placing himself above her, Geuzi between his forelegs. Geuzi wasn’t worried. Any other male she would have given a limp, as well as the inability to have any cubs ever, but not Taos. Taos wouldn’t even think about any untoward actions toward her. Or, she doubted, to anyone. It was as if he had no sex drive at all. No, that wasn’t true; he simply had no drive to take advantage of people, to hurt them. He just wasn’t that type. He’d simply moved there because it was the best place to see from.
Taos looked over the Pridelands and almost immediately drew in a slight gasp. “That definitely wasn’t there before.”
“What?” Geuzi asked, not even bothering to look.
“There’s this huge—black—crater, I guess you’d call it. And it looks like it’s a mile wide.”
Geuzi looked over to the crater, then laid her head back down. “So there is.”
Taos looked down at her. “You don’t care at all, do you?”
“Not a bit.”
Taos sighed and backed off her, then turned around for the den. He stopped, then turned to Geuzi again. “Are you sure you don’t want to come in? I’d like it.”
“Taos, I practically grew up outside. Dens are nothing but prisons.”
“Well . . . alright then.” He turned to go.
Geuzi sighed, still looking at the scenery she could see without moving her head. “I’ll come in later.”
Taos stopped and looked back at her. “Thanks.” He turned to go, then turned back again. “One last thing. You’re going to be taking Shani’s place hunting tomorrow morning.”
“What?!” she said, looking over at Taos. “You know I don’t do well with group hunting! You can’t do this!”
“Just as a small favor,” said Taos, turning back to the den.
“You’re joking, right?” Taos kept walking. “You can’t—ohhh,” she groaned angrily, turning to look back at the Pridelands, her tail flicking back and forth in irritation.
Pofu slowly regained consciousness. His foreleg felt wonderful compared to yesterday. The rest of his body, on the other hand, still hurt like no other. But the infection was gone. He’d taken care of the infection first, then focused on the injured calf. It had healed somewhat.
Pofu carefully stood up, putting no weight on the leg. He gently put it on the ground. It held, as he knew it would. It had held yesterday, after all. But could he walk?
He walked carefully out to the tip of Pride Rock. The leg was shaky. He decided not to walk on it too much. Give it more time to heal. It was rushing it, to expect a wound that deep to heal in two days.
He went back into the den. He could sense Geuzi and Taos together. Their breathing was the same as when they were awake. They weren’t asleep. But they were just lying there. Odd, thought Pofu. He lied back down in his spot. He’d wanted to sleep at the foot of the stairs again, like he used to, but Uwivu wouldn’t hear it. Pofu suspected Shani put her up to it. He knew Uwivu couldn’t care less where he slept.
Pofu’s ears perked up as Geuzi let out a sigh. It wasn’t a happy sigh. Pofu had yet to hear her make a happy noise. She got up and walked outside, staring toward the sun, or rather, where it would be. Taos looked over at her, then laid his head back down. Some of the other lionesses were awake, yawning and stretching as much as they could without bothering their neighbors. Some laid their heads back down, others whispered quietly. Geuzi began to pace impatiently, back and forth. About the time that Pofu would have guessed that the sun would rise, Geuzi walked off Pride Rock. She came back a few minutes later.
“She’s up early,” whispered Shani. Pofu grunted slightly in answer. “Better?” Shani asked, her voice gentle.
Pofu blinked in surprise, then turned to look at Shani. “Are you being kind?”
Shani smiled and gave Pofu a motherly lick. “I can’t always be crabby. Takes too much energy. Don’t tell the others,” she whispered conspiratorially.
Pofu gave a small hmph of laughter. “I’m fine. Well, better anyway. I can walk.”
“Hmm.” The two were silent. The rest of the den was slowly waking up. They used to wake up before the sun even rose. Jadi and Uchu wanted their breakfasts promptly. But even though it was barely more than a week since the rulers’ deaths, the pride was already changing. They tried to see how long it took until they were forced to get up. Even Shani waited. Until, of course, Uwivu demanded that the pride send out a hunting party.
Just as she was doing now. Uwivu was poking and prodding lionesses, waking up those that weren’t awake and making sure the ones that were got to their feet. By the time she got to the end of the line there was no need. They were already up, hoping to avoid being poked at. The result was a den of sleepy, yawning lionesses who, nevertheless, were on their feet.
The den began to empty, all but a few older lionesses leaving. Geuzi disappeared into the mob as well. Taos watched them as they left, then walked over to Pofu and Shani. He lied down with a yawn. “Tired, are we?” asked Pofu.
“A little,” said Taos. “Geuzi and I stayed up late.” Pofu smiled a bit. “Almost always do.”
“So how was it?” asked Shani.
Taos looked confused. His face lit up with embarrassed realization. “Gods, that sounded bad. No I didn’t mean it like that. We were just talking. Get your mind out of the gorge, Shani.”
“Well, she is your mate,” pointed out Pofu.
“No,” said Taos firmly. “Not a mate. Acquaintance. I guess you could call her a friend.”
Shani smiled. “Well, I don’t imagine that would stop you.”
“Shani, I haven’t touched her. Not like that. Not any lioness. Believe me.”
“Alright, alright, you don’t need to get so—that way about it. Emphatic.”
Taos smiled. “Was I?”
“Any more grave and we’d have to dig you up.”
“Sorry. I’m just—worried. About Geuzi. She doesn’t do well on group hunts.”
“Eh,” muttered Pofu.
“So . . . weren’t you guys going to tell me what’s been going on? And what happened to Pofu?”
“Yes,” said Pofu. He turned his sightless eyes to Shani. For some reason it unnerved others when he talked to them without staring at them. “Where should we start?”
“How about your head?” Shani suggested.
“And stop at my tail?”
“Now this is where I start being crabby again because you’re being an ass.”
Taos smiled. “That hasn’t changed.”
“And never will.”
“Alright Taos, let’s just get this over with,” said Pofu. “I can look into minds.”
“What?” Taos asked, confused.
“I can see your thoughts. Any time I please, so long as you’re there.”
Taos gave a snort of laughter. “That’ll be the day. So really, Shani, what’s happened?”
“He’s telling the truth, Taos,” Shani said.”
“You’re—you’re not joking?”
“No,” said Pofu. “Remember how I used to be a pain to everyone? How just being around me seemed to make others uncomfortable?”
“Vaguely. You seemed to have a knack of bringing—bringing up the worst memories,” Taos finished softly.
“Yes. I’d make you think of it, the worst things. I’d say, ‘remember when such-and-such happened?’ And, of course, you thought of it. And I wallowed in those memories. I enjoyed the pain I put the pride through.”
“No,” said Taos disbelievingly.
“Yes. I’d look through your minds when you were asleep. I gave the whole pride nightmares at some point or another. Even you. And my attitude was affected by it. I just became more and more—uncaring. What did you think when I hugged you when you came back? Honestly?”
“Pofu . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Pofu’s sightless eyes blinked. “Alright, I—I was afraid you’d kill me. I was afraid you’d do what you promised.”
“Yes, I did promise that, didn’t I? I told you to leave. Or else.” Pofu sighed, and continued in a quiet voice, “Taos, one day after you left, I came to. I’d gotten rid of the bad dreams. I didn’t want them anymore. I even moved out of the den so I wouldn’t be tempted. And you were gone. I . . . I couldn’t believe that. I would have run after you if I knew which way you went. You have no idea how horrible I felt.”
“He pined for days,” said Shani. “It was all we could do to get him to eat.”
“Pofu . . . I never knew,” said Taos, feeling guilty. “I—I just assumed . . .”
“Assumed what?” asked Pofu. “That I’d turned into a monster?”
Taos bit his lip. “Yes. I—I didn’t come back because of it. I wanted to, but there were . . . rumors. That the Pridelands had turned into a horrible place. The king allowed anything, so long as it pleased him. And—and that he did—horrible things to the lionesses. Everyone was warned away. . . . I thought the king was you.” Taos looked at the ground guiltily, then back up at Pofu. “It that why they beat you? Because of what you did?”
Pofu shook his head sadly. “No. I told you, I reformed. Fujo’s son did all of that.”
“When was he born?”
“Four months after you left. You missed Taabu and Fujo’s wedding.”
“But how could Fujo’s son turn out that badly?”
Shani sighed as Pofu opened his mouth to speak, cutting him off. “Alright,” she said, “the short, short version. Jadi—the cub—and an ass of a cub who never ceased to piss me off when I cubsat him—”
“Shani, I pissed you off,” interrupted Taos. “It’s fun.”
“Respect your elders. Anyway, Jadi accidentally resurrected Uchu in a cub’s body—”
“Uchu? Wait—are you saying—”
“Yes, the centuries old lioness who was tossed into the pool of evil. That Uchu. Now shut up and let me finish. Jadi brings her back, she corrupts Jadi, they kill Kovu and Fujo and Gyka—shut up, I’ll explain later—and Shik, and they rule, bring back the evil side of Fujo’s dead brother, have a cub—Nafsi—and wreak havoc on the Pridelands, et cetera, et cetera, until Nafsi finds a way to kill himself, Aka, Jadi, and Uchu. Oh, and along the way, Tumai was raped and got stuck with Uwivu. Yes, now you may ask questions.”
“Why did Fujo name him Jadi? There are so many better names.”
“I mean, any name. He could have named him Sudi, or Hatari, or—”
“Alright . . . Do you really expect me to believe Pofu could see into minds?”
“I could show you,” said Pofu. “You’ve seen me do it. When you were dangling off of Pride Rock.”
“Yes. Think of something.”
“Um . . . okay.”
Pofu put a paw to the side of Taos’s head. Pofu’s colorless eyes’ irises turned blue, a mirror replica of Taos’s for a split second before they began to swirl. Taos gasped. Pofu took his paw away. “You were thinking about a lion. Cahad. He exiled you.”
“Yes.” Taos looked at him suspiciously. “How long have you been able to do that?”
“Since I was born. I guess it’s just a gift the gods gave me.”
“Freakish, isn’t it?” asked Shani casually.
“Yeah . . .” Taos shook his head. “Weird.” He paused. “That big black crater out there—”
“Soul’s Crater,” repeated Shani. “Nafsi made it.”
“He made it? How can anyone have made it? It looks like—” Taos struggled for a word. “—like the sun came too close and burned the earth.”
“A falling star did it,” said Shani.
“A falling star?” Taos asked skeptically.
“Yes. In broad daylight. A few of us happened to be looking that way and saw it crash.”
“You expect me to swallow this?”
“Just don’t get indigestion.”
“Okay, you’ve already stretched it with Pofu’s second sight. But this . . . this is just too much.”
“Taos, the cub did do this. Nafsi—”
“He was a cub?”
“Yes. Uchu had a strange power. She could control the pool she came out of. She gave this power to Jadi. She created Nafsi so he would have even more power than their power combined.”
“She created him?”
“Yes. She could choose whether or not to conceive, apparently. And believe me, Jadi gave her more than enough times to choose from. But she was in charge. That was pretty obvious. She didn’t even have to bother with things, if she said ‘jump,’ Jadi said ‘how high?’”
“This is crazy.”
“You don’t believe us?” asked Pofu, his tone openly hurt.
“I—no, it’s not that I don’t believe you. I do. It’s just—absurd.”
“How do you think we feel?” asked Shani dryly. “We lived through it.”
“Just—crazy. Next thing I know, Geuzi will come in, screaming in pain.” Geuzi walked in, blood dripping from an impalement in her gut. “Oh, this is just priceless.”