The malaiki swept the two tiles out from between him and the shetani. He placed another one in the center, as did the shetani. His lit up with nineteen purple dots, the shetani’s with twenty-four green ones.
“But you’re cheating,” said the malaiki. “You just played that three tiles ago.”
“Of course I’m cheating,” grinned the shetani. He swept the two tiles out of the center towards him. “And?”
“And I suppose I shouldn’t expect any less,” admitted the malaiki.
The game was simple: One hundred transparent stone tiles, four sets of twenty-five in four separate colors, each tile with a number of dots on it from zero to twenty-four. The animal with the highest number won. Zeros, however, were special: played before another card, they were worthless; played after, they trumped any tile. The objective was to have all the tiles.
The malaiki slid another tile out from his stack. Technically, he shouldn’t have been doing this. His duty was to watch Nafsi. Nafsi didn’t need to be watched, pointed out the shetani, and the malaiki had to agree. The cub had done nothing but lie on the floor. The shetani had suggested the game. Nothing bad had happened, but every so often there was that annoying—
The malaiki sighed as he heard the lion behind him. “For the fifty-fourth time, Fujo, you can’t be here.” The malaiki turned to face the lion, certain that even while he did this, the shetani was arranging his own deck. He saw Fujo’s head sticking through the single rectangle that connected the room to the rest of Heaven. “So leave.” Fujo’s head hurriedly retreated out of the rectangle, the portal closing after he was gone.
“I swear,” said the shetani, “if he comes in here one more time, I’m going to stick one of these tiles up his ass.”
“I’m sorry,” said the malaiki, pushing the tiles in the center toward the shetani and laying down one of his own. “I must have some kind of hearing problem. Couldn’t understand a thing.”
The malaiki watched the shetani lay down another tile. “And that’s the same twenty-four.”
“I’ve got them all. That one’s blue.”
“Fine,” muttered the malaiki. Several more tiles were laid down in silence, the only noise being the clicking of the tiles as they touched each other. The malaiki continued to glance at Nafsi, the cub simply lying on the floor, as if sleeping through everything.
“Fifty-five times, Fujo!” The malaiki turned to see Fujo quickly retreating back through the rectangle again. It was nearly impossible for a malaiki to feel annoyance, but this one was getting there.
“Your tiles,” said the shetani.
“Great.” The malaiki swept up its tiles and placed down another one. More tiles were placed and swept up. Suddenly the shetani stood up and launched a fireball of his paw, the flaming object just barely missing the malaiki’s head. The malaiki heard a cry of pain and turned to see a lion on the floor, grasping at a burnt face in agony. It wasn’t Fujo.
The malaiki rushed over to the lion and ran a paw over his face, healing it instantly. The malaiki gasped. “Sir!” he said to Taraju. “I’m very sorry about this—” The malaiki looked back at the shetani, only to see it sitting there, all of the tiles gone.
“What was that for?” demanded Taraju.
“That was me,” said the shetani. “I’m tired of your brother sticking his head in here.”
“Fujo knows he’s not supposed to come in here.”
“And he is coming in here. You should restrain your brother, sire,” said the malaiki.
“He’s very worried about Nafsi. He’s his grandson, after all.”
“Grandson or not, he still—”
That was the moment Fujo chose to run into the room straight at Nafsi. All three stared in surprise as he scooped up Nafsi in his jaws and headed for the only exit the room had. The shetani launched another fireball, grazing Fujo’s mane. The malaiki flew at Fujo, just missing him before Fujo went through the portal, the rectangle closing immediately behind him.
“Oh, no,” whispered the malaiki.
“You let him escape!” roared the shetani.
“No, I didn’t, I swear!” protested the malaiki.
“My queen will not be happy with this!”
“She already knows! And you’d better find him!”
“He can’t find Fujo,” said Taraju. “No one can. He could have come from a million places. We don’t have any idea where he is.”
“He slipped right through your paws,” hissed the shetani.
“But he’s gone now. The only thing we can do is start looking.” Taraju turned to the malaiki. “Dispatch every malaiki. Start combing Heaven. Fujo has to be found.”
Fujo burst from the portal, closing it just behind him. He started running. Taraju had warned him that it was only a matter of minutes before he was found. He had to get out of here. He jumped through another portal. He couldn’t go to any of his usual places; those would be the first ones checked, Taraju had said so.
His wild thoughts of where exactly he was going were cut off by a voice. “Put me down.”
“Uh-uh,” Fujo grunted. “’Ot ’et.”
“Put me down.”
Fujo ignored Nafsi’s request and kept running. He suddenly found his two forelegs bound to the ground by black matter, stopping him dead. He nearly flipped over from the sudden stop.
“Put me down. Now.”
Fujo dropped his grandson and found the bonds released immediately. He looked down at Nafsi.
“What are you doing?” asked Nafsi.
“I want to show you something.”
“A lot of stuff. Come on, we have to get out of here. Malaiki will be here any minute.”
“Why should I come with you?”
Fujo was caught off-guard by the question. “Look, they haven’t sown you everything. Just—trust me. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Fujo obviously didn’t realize the absurdity of his statement. He couldn’t have touched Nafsi if Nafsi hadn’t wanted it. “Alright,” Nafsi said.
“Come on.” Fujo opened another portal and led Nafsi through into more savannah. He looked nervously around, then opened another rectangle to reveal a dark night. “Now this is what I wanted to show you.”
Nafsi walked through and found himself on a hill. The first thing he noticed was the moon in the sky, shining over the land below him. It seemed to be the only thing around, its luminosity surpassing everything else. He heard Fujo behind him say, “Wow.”
“It’s—different than in Heaven. The moon. Beautiful. I’d forgotten it.” He looked down at Nafsi, who was looking at him skeptically. “No, really, I’m not just saying that.”
“It is beautiful,” admitted Nafsi.
“And . . . how does that make you feel?” asked Fujo, somewhat afraid of how Nafsi might react.
“It doesn’t,” said Nafsi, continuing to stare at the moon.
“It doesn’t make me feel anything. Grandma always did say that was . . . wrong.” Nafsi turned to Fujo. “I suppose I’d call you Grandpa.”
“If you want,” said Fujo. Nafsi turned back to the moon. Fujo said hesitatingly, “I—I don’t really understand your—feelings . . .”
“I have only the emotions that Mother felt was needed. Rage, of course, and lust, and—hunger, through that’s almost the same as lust. Hunger for power. And efficiency is another one. And loneliness, though she didn’t want that. And fear. She didn’t want that, either.”
“How . . . how about love?” Fujo asked.
“I feel pleasure. A little bit of emotion, but mainly physical pleasure from certain acts. A few of them I haven’t tried yet, but I think I’d enjoy them. Like rape.”
Nafsi smiled. “Amusement, that’s another one.” He turned to Fujo. “Really, what is ‘moral?’ And ‘right,’ and ‘good,’ and ‘true?’ I don’t know. Do you?”
“Well, rape certainly isn’t right!”
Fujo was silent.
“Is it because it’s something that hurts someone else? Grandma used to tell me some of the stories Pofu told before Jadi made him stop. And it seemed like love hurt more than anything else. It tore hearts apart when loved ones died, when they did certain acts, when they acted a certain way. So why is love good?”
“I—I don’t know, Nafsi. It just is. Some things are right, and some things are wrong.”
“But I want to know why. And I don’t think I ever will. I think I need to feel—to experience—and I never will. I know why anger is bad; it destroys, but isn’t it good? If used the right way? I killed dozens in anger. But if I’d controlled it, I would have caused that one wildebeest unimaginable pain. Would that have been better?”
“Nafsi, I don’t philopho—philisopho—think.”
“But I do. And I can’t stop thinking. I want to know why. About everything. Why am I so lonely, for one? I don’t understand friendship at all, but I want it. So bad. It got so bad in that white place. I couldn’t think at all, not with all that loneliness. I felt so—abandoned. But why would I want someone? Should I want someone?”
“Nafsi, you’re not the only one that feels that way. Everyone needs someone.” Fujo paused. “Here, follow me.” Fujo began walking, hearing Nafsi’s paws rustling the grass behind him. Rustling the grass. Fujo’s paws passed right through the grass, through everything. But somehow, Nafsi was solid. But how in the world—
I don’t think. I don’t think. I don’t think.
Fujo wondered if she’d be out here tonight. Of all the nights to disappoint, this would be the worst. If she wasn’t there, Fujo didn’t know exactly what he would show Nafsi. But no, there she was, sitting by the lake. Fujo pointed out the little form to Nafsi.
“There she is. Sitting over there by the lake.”
“Who is she.”
“Her name’s Esi. At least, that’s what the malaiki said it was. I don’t know how well they know names, though; you’d think they’d know my brother’s name is Taraju and not ‘sir.’” He looked down at Nafsi. “Humor’s lost on you, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Nafsi was still staring down at Esi. “Why did you want to show me her?”
“To . . . show you that you’re not the only one. I know you think you are, but you’re not.”
“I don’t think I am. I’m just—just the only one who feels lonely. All the time.”
“You may be right about that,” said Fujo, the words feeling shameful for some strange reason. “You don’t feel happy, do you?”
“No.” Nafsi continued to stare. “Why is she out here alone at night? It’s dangerous. Didn’t her mother tell her that?”
“I’m sure she did. But her mother has been dead for a year.”
“What about her father?”
“Nafsi, only royal rubs have a father. Esi was taken in by the king and queen, but they’re not her parents.”
“So she doesn’t have any parents.”
“Or any friends. The other cubs hate her. Partly because her mother is gone and they know no one will ever do anything to help her. The queen could care less about what happens to her. The cubs know they can do whatever they want. This is just her place to be alone from all of that. Just . . . just sitting. And staring into that lake. And one of these days . . . when she grows up enough . . . she’ll finally just—break down. She won’t be able to take it anymore. And that lake will have her body in it. I just hope it never comes to that in her mind.”
“Death is a powerful thing,” said Nafsi.
“Worse than loneliness?”
Nafsi stared down at Esi, then said quietly, “If I knew I’d be with the ones I considered friends . . . maybe if there was even a hope of that . . . yes, I would choose death over loneliness. Death isn’t as bad as loneliness.”
Fujo looked down at the little cub beside him. “You’re still lonely right now, aren’t you?”
“More than ever,” said Nafsi so quietly that Fujo had to strain to hear it. “Even out of that white place, there aren’t any friends on this side of life. Not for me.” He looked up at Fujo. “Can I . . . talk to her?”
“It’s against the rules,” said Fujo. “It’s one of the biggest.” Nafsi turned back to Esi. Fujo watched the miserable little cubs for a few more seconds before saying, “Oh, what the hell. I’ve already dragged you out of Heaven; it’s not like I can do much worse.”
Fujo watched as Nafsi stood up and made is way down. He didn’t know what Nafsi had in mind.
Fujo jumped, then turned to see Taraju’s smiling face. “Aiheu, Mano, and Afriti! Don’t do that!”
“Well, how’s it going?”
“I don’t know. It’s your idea. Gods, I think I almost died again. What is it with you and speaking?”
“I’m just good at it.”
“You’re a jerk, that’s what you’re good at.”
“Fujo,” said Taraju, “she’s dead.”
“Who? You don’t mean—”
Taraju nodded. Fujo laughed. “Oh, I can’t believe it! After so long . . . gods, Taraju, this is wonderful.”
“But you can’t see her. Not until you bring him back,” said Taraju, pointing at Nafsi.
“Doesn’t anyone ask nicely anymore? You could have just asked me to bring him back.”
“They sent me to get you. They told me to say that, just for motivation.”
“You could have just put me in one of those leg-locks of yours.”
“They still don’t know about my—evil side? Is that a good name for it?”
“Evil’s such a string word.”
“Yeah, dark side. Not too bad of a name. Mr. Complete and Total Wuss and Mr. Dark Side.”
“I’m going to hit you one of these days, just for the fun of it,” said Taraju.
“And I’m going to laugh, ’cause that’ll only prove I’m right.”
Nafsi made his way over to Esi. The closer he got, the more distinct her sobs became. He broke into the clearing to see her sitting next to the pool, tears dripping into the water. She suddenly stiffened, hearing Nafsi. “Go away!” she said. “Just leave me alone!” She turned around to see Nafsi and gasped. “Who’re you?” she asked quietly.
“What do you want?” she asked, turning her tear-streaked face back to the lake.
“I just wanted to talk.”
“Why? What do you want with me? I don’t even know you.”
“I just wanted to know why you were crying.”
“What do you care? What does anyone care?”
Nafsi watched ripples form as more tears hit the water of the lake. “But . . . I wanted to know . . .”
Esi whirled around, anger glinting in her tear-filled eyes. “Why would anyone want to know anything about me? You’ve got no idea what it’s like to be just a joke, do you? Where no one takes you seriously, where no one even comes to look after you! My mother’s dead. The queen could care less if I lived or died; she hated my mother! I don’t have anyone who cares for me, anyone who even cares what my thoughts are! No one! And I doubt you have any idea what that’s like!” she finished angrily.
Esi became conscious of the tears she was shedding and turned back to the lake. Nafsi was slightly taken aback; no one had ever talked to him like that before. Then again, no one had not known he was a prince, either. He went and sat next to Esi. “I know what it’s like to not have friends,” he said quietly. “How the loneliness eats away at you. And you ant to try to make friends, but you can’t. They don’t want you. And it’s just so . . .”
Nafsi looked up at Esi. She was staring at him. “Yes.”
“You don’t have any friends, either?”
Nafsi looked down at the lake. “Not anymore. I had one, maybe two. But . . . someone died. That changed everything.”
“And you lost them?”
“Yes. I don’t think I have any friends, now.”
“I’m sorry,” said Esi. She hesitated. “I—I’d like to have a friend.”
Nafsi looked up at her. “Me, too.”
Esi smiled a little. “Do you—do you know how to play hide-’n’-go-seek?”
“Do you want to?”
“Sure.” Nafsi stood up with Esi. “Do you want to be it?”
“You can be,” she said. She smiled at Nafsi, then ran off into the grass.
Nafsi began to slowly count to fifty, closing his eyes. He finally opened them and began to go quietly through the grass. The game suddenly called up all sorts of memories of his killing lessons with Akasare. About how you wanted the element of surprise, and you had to strain your senses for the slightest sign of your prey, and how you must stalk them quietly, above all else.
But this was a game, he reminded himself. It almost seemed wrong to think this way in this setting.
He searched through the savannah, looking in every nook and cranny, and finally found her finding in the hollow underneath the roots of an acacia. He stuck his head in the hole and grinned. He nearly stopped grinning as he remembered his grandmother telling him she didn’t want him to smile if he wasn’t happy, because that was like a lie. But wouldn’t it be better to lie? At least for now? It made Esi happy.
“Found you,” he said.
Esi scrambled out of the hollow. “My turn!” she said happily. She turned to face the tree and began counting. Nafsi ran into the savannah, trying to find a place to hide. The game didn’t make him happy. It all seemed rather pointless. But Esi enjoyed it. His friend liked it.
A few more games were played. Each of them was found more quickly every time. Esi finally rounded a corner where she was sure Nafsi had to be. She crept around and yelled out happily “Found—” She gave a squeal of alarm, seeing the lion behind Nafsi.
Fujo smiled. “Hello, Esi.”
“I’m sorry, but Nafsi has to come home now.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“He’s my grandfather,” said Nafsi.
“And I need to get him back home,” said Fujo.
Esi’s face fell. But they’d been having so much fun . . . “Alright,” she said sadly.
Fujo headed out past her. Nafsi said,” You’re my friend, right?”
“Yeah,” said Esi. “And you’re mine?”
“Yes.” Nafsi smiled. “It was nice to meet you, Esi.” He headed out after Fujo, rounding the same corner as his grandfather.
Esi ran after him. “It was nice to meet you, too—” She stopped. They were gone, both of them. She didn’t understand. It was like they had just disappeared through a hole in the air.
“I want to thank you for coming back, Nafsi,” said Taraju as Nafsi stepped through the rectangle. “You saved us a lot of trouble. I can take you back to your room—”
“I’m not going back there,” said Nafsi.
Taraju was taken aback by the forcefulness of the statement. “Nafsi, as soon as you choose where you want to go, you won’t have to stay there.”
“I’m not going back there. Why do you think I let Grandpa carry me out of there? I hate that place, and I’m never going back.”
“We don’t have anywhere else to put you—”
“You aren’t putting me anywhere.”
Taraju was suddenly uneasy. He was here in the savannah, alone from everyone except Fujo and Nafsi. No malaiki had been involved as a sign of trust. “Nafsi, we just need you to go back in.” Taraju opened up a portal.
Nafsi backed away from the stark white rectangle. That was the worst thing in his mind. He couldn’t go back to that prison, not after this sweet taste of freedom. “You told me everybody runs when they’re being hunted.”
“Nafsi, that was Akasare, not me.”
“Everybody runs from what they’re scared of.”
“Nafsi, I promise you this isn’t something you need to be afraid of. If you’ll just stop backing away and come into the room—”
Nafsi turned around and sprinted off into the savannah. Taraju hung his head and cursed. “Malaiki,” he said.
A malaiki appeared. “Yes, sir?”
“Yes, sir.” Taraju could feel the air as the malaiki lifted off, its wings beating to get airborne. Others appeared, all of them heading after Nafsi.
Taraju turned to Fujo. “You’ve got a long time ahead of you in Purgatory for this.”
“Yeah, well, it was worth it,” said Fujo. “Maybe he’ll see now.”
“Maybe. You want to see her now?”
“Lead the way.”
Nafsi ran a quickly as his little cub body would let him. He came to a stop as a malaiki dropped down in front of him.
The rest of the malaiki’s words were cut off as a black spike punctured his throat. The malaiki collapsed and Nafsi kept running. He had no idea where he was running to, other than it was way away from that awful white place. He saw an alarmed group of cheetahs stare at him as he rushed by. He looked over his shoulder to see more malaiki flying behind him, rapidly catching up.
Malaiki began to fall to the ground as spikes punctured them or their wings. Those that fell didn’t get up, instead sinking into pools of black matter. They couldn’t be allowed to get up. He couldn’t go back to that white place, shut off from everything. He couldn’t.
Portals began to open up, malaiki pouring out of them. Spikes flew up, matter swallowed, black cords pinned and strangled. Anything to keep them away.
A black rectangle opened up in front of Nafsi, too suddenly for him to stop. He ran through it, the rectangle closing behind him, leaving Nafsi in total darkness. He could see nothing, feel nothing. Not even the ground felt like it was there. Everything was black, like he had stumbled into one of those pools he had created. It was even worse than the white room. He felt so alone. He wanted a friend more than he ever had, like Grandma, or Uwivu—
Moving images suddenly appeared in front of him in the air. He approached them, staring in wonder at what he was seeing. Nafsi stared in surprise as he watched himself being given a bath by his grandmother.
Abruptly Taabu stopped grooming. “Well, it’s just not right.”
Nafsi watched as he asked, remembering the words perfectly, “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 Nafsi’s grandmother as she began to groom him again.
“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?” Suddenly, Nafsi’s view of himself swung wildly and was placed on the ground, looking away from him completely, instead at Taabu’s side. “Some of us are still trying to sleep.”
“Uzuri, can’t you hear—”
Sound was suddenly cut off and Taabu began moving at an unimaginable speed, the rest of the den moving with her. Nafsi’s eyes felt blurred as they watched the images in front of him. He couldn’t see what was going on perfectly clearly; it was moving too quickly. The view also had a tendency to swing rapidly, bringing other animals and sights into view. The speed did slow sometimes, but would speed back up. Nafsi felt as through he had not control at all as he stared up at the images, entranced.
Abruptly the view slowed to normal speed. The view went black, as it had several times before, and Nafsi heard the words, “I love you, Mommy,” in union with a deep purring.
“I love you, too, honey.”
The view suddenly became clear again, shifting upward to look at a lioness Nafsi remembered, Tumai. “Uwivu, honey . . . please don’t do anything that would get you in trouble.”
“Alright, Mommy,” said the voice Nafsi now realized to be Uwivu’s. It was reluctant, and small. Nafsi hadn’t remembered Uwivu’s voice sounding like that in years.
“Okay, one more hug, and time to sleep. You’re sister’s already snoring.” The view went black again, and Nafsi felt a warm rush of—of something wonderful flow through him. “Ow,” said Tumai quietly. “Careful, that’s still open.”
The eyes opened to see a paw held up, blood on it. The view suddenly moved to Tumai’s shoulder, seeing an open wound. “I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“It’s okay. Let’s just get that paw washed off, then you can go to sleep—”
The view sped up again.
The view was with a group of cubs, laughing. Nafsi smiled, feeling a warm glow, a different kind than before. The view suddenly turned to see a cub in the grass, almost fully concealed, save for his ears that stuck out plainly.
“Whatcha looking at, Uwivu?”
“Nothing.” The view spun back around. “Just—”
The view sped up again.
Nafsi saw himself say quietly, “I brought flowers.” Black, dead-looking flowers sprang up from where he drew his paw. Nafsi looked back up at Uwivu, hoping for approval.
The view sped up again.
The black flowers opening in the moonlight, showing all their petals.
“. . . Beautiful.”
The view sped up again.
“What do you want?”
Nafsi saw himself say quietly, head low, “I—I thought you might want some of mine.” He nodded his head toward the carcass behind him. “I’m not that hungry, and I know your mother had her food cut off, so I just thought . . .”
“Fine. We’ll take it.” Nafsi found himself hating the bitter way the words came out. The view moved over to the carcass, then began to move backward with the carcass. Nafsi could hear himself moving away. The view moved to see Nafsi walking toward his grandmother, and felt a powerful wave of sadness wash over him, combined with something he’d never felt. Then the view moved back to the carcass and began dragging it again.
The view sped up.
Nafsi heard weeping, and felt a wave of disgust that he didn’t understand; disgust for himself. The view turned to see Nafsi through the grass, crying quietly. The view turned away and moved forward.
The view sped up.
“No, Jadi, please! I’m begging you!” Nafsi felt fear wash over him, mingled with despair. He saw his father’s paw reaching toward his face, and felt Jadi’s touch as he caressed him.
“You will be mine, Uwivu.”
“Please, Jadi, I’m only three!”
“Old enough to be in heat, obviously.” Jadi grinned evilly.
“Please, I don’t want this! Just let me go! I’m begging you!”
Nafsi felt his father lick his face, his touch consumed by lust. “You will be mine,” Jadi whispered. He moved out of view. “It’d be much more pleasant if you lied down.”
Nafsi felt himself being forced down. He could feel his father’s heavy breathing on the back of his neck. “Now,” breathed Jadi, his voice filled with lust. Nafsi felt horrible pain and let out a scream with Uwivu, stopping it quickly as he heard his voice go on. The pain continued as Jadi raped her, only lessening, but not leaving, after he exited her. Sadness and grief overwhelmed him as Uwivu laid her head down, the vision blurred by tears.
The view sped up.
A sudden tremor shook the ground, the view being jarred horribly by it. The view swung wildly about. “What was that?”
The view sped up.
And my parents . . . they’ll just die when I grow up. . . . They can’t live without it.
A feeling of horrible realization and terror gripped Nafsi. None of the other visions had been this real. He could feel everything. He ran out of the den, barely able to feel his paws hitting the ground. He didn’t know what he wanted, only that he had to get to the spire as quickly as he possibly could. Horrible images flew through his head.
Please don’t be a monster, Nafsi. Gods, please, don’t be that cruel to him. Not now . . .
He ran up to the spire and stopped as he saw the wall of rocks. No matter how much he had pounded on them before, they hadn’t budged an inch. It was almost as if Nafsi didn’t want him to see the thing he had become. Gods, please—
“Uwivu!” he heard a voice behind him yell. Chungu, his sister, ran up behind him. “What is your problem?”
“Nafsi’s in there!”
“Since when have you cared about him?”
“Just please help me move these rocks,” he begged. “Please. We have to get him out.”
“Just leave him. He’s more use to us in there.”
Nafsi turned with a yell and swung his paw as hard as he could at the rocks. His paw reduced the wall to rubble effortlessly; whatever force had been holding it up was gone. He stuck his head in, peering through the dust. “Nafsi!” he yelled. He saw his body on the ground, obviously weak and frail. Panic rushed through him as he ran to his side. “Nafsi . . . oh, please don’t die. Not now.” Not after all this . . .
“I . . . knew you . . . liked me.”
The words shocked him. Had he really been that transparent? Despite all his efforts to reject him, to make him feel lower than anything, did he really manage to tell him, even just a little, that she wanted to love him? “Nafsi . . . don’t go . . .”
The little cub on the ground lifted up a shaking foreleg, as if trying to reach Nafsi’s face. “Friend,” the little cub said, the word barely audible.
Nafsi reached for the paw, but before he could touch it, it began to unravel into small black shards that split themselves over and over, until they disappeared completely. The effect spread across the cub’s body rapidly, the cub’s last expression one of pain. Finally the cub was completely gone.
“Nafsi . . . friend . . .” Nafsi felt a horrible, horrible sensation of loss. Tears slid down his face. “Oh, god, why?” he whispered. “Why, Nafsi?”
“Uwivu, why are you crying?” said Chungu from outside the cave. “It’s just Nafsi.”
“Shut up!” yelled Nafsi. He spun around angrily. “How can you even say that?!”
Nafsi stormed angrily past her, then ran across the savannah, tears blurring his vision until finally nothing was visible, and the view faded to black.
Nafsi suddenly realized his face was wet—his face, not Uwivu’s. He wiped a paw against it, then held it out to stare at the tears. It seemed so long since he last cried. And those other feelings . . . they were something wonderful. If that was something Uchu had taken away from him . . . he didn’t know what he could do to her that would seem to do justice. He didn’t understand them at all.
Maybe . . . Maybe you don’t need to understand everything.
“What did you think?”
Nafsi turned around to see Taabu, his grandmother, standing behind him. Somehow he wasn’t surprised to find her here. “I hate the ending myself,” he said. “But it started with an alright scene.”
“I walked in in the middle,” she said. She smiled, then held out a paw toward Nafsi as she sat down. Nafsi ran over to her and hugged her stomach tightly, loving the warm embrace that made the loneliness ebb away.
“I missed you so much, Grandma,” said Nafsi.
“I missed you, too, Nafsi,” said Taabu gently, rubbing his back.
“How did you get here?”
“I died. They said . . .” Taabu struggled to remember the exact words. “They said your mother cracked a—rib, and I rolled over and punctured a—lung in my sleep. Whatever a rib and a lung are.” Taabu smiled. “It was a good way to go. It didn’t hurt too much.”
“It hurt so much for me,” said Nafsi. “And I’ve been so alone.” He stepped away from his grandmother, looking up. “Are we really dead?”
Taabu nodded. “Yes, Nafsi.”
“I never wanted to die . . .” Nafsi turned back around to look at the empty abyss he stood in, the only visible things being him and Taabu. “What is this place?”
“It’s where you can view memories of an animal. Were those Uwivu’s?”
“Yes. But three were only a few memories . . .”
“Different animals see different things. There were dozens, Nafsi, dozens of dozens that I saw. You’ve been in here for days.”
“But . . . but it was like . . . minutes . . .”
“You’d been in here two days by the time I came in. I don’t know how long it’s been.”
“Why did you come?”
Taabu’s smile slid off her face. “Nafsi . . . I’m here to take you back.”
“No!” yelled Nafsi, backing away.
“Nafsi, please, we just want you to decide.”
“You’re going to put me in that white place again! I won’t go!”
“Nafsi, I’m begging you, just come quietly.”
Taabu fell silent. She stared at him, unsure of what to do. “Nafsi, please, just remember what you felt in here. That happy feeling. You can have that back. And that love, and that hope, and . . . and you can be with me again. Nafsi, don’t you want all that back?”
Nafsi stared at her. Finally he said, “I don’t know.” He sighed. “I need to think.”
Taabu nodded. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”
We demand that he come with us!” snarled Afriti.
“You can’t control him any more than we can,” said Aiheu reasonably, the rest of the gods nodding with him in assent.
“Obviously you can! He disappears, he’s been gone for a week, and yet you say you know where he is!”
“He’s deciding,” said Fela.
“I know his grandmother is with him,” said Afriti angrily. “Do you think that won’t influence his judgment?”
will decide what he wants,” said Fela. “We had no choice but to put his
grandmother with him. He was scared out of his wits. And I don’t think either
of us wants him damaged.”
“You had no right to do any of this!” hissed the sleek-furred cheetah behind Afriti. “You let him escape, and now he’s firmly in your control!”
“We don’t know when he’ll come out of the Hall of Memories,” said Mano.
“You left him in there?” Afriti was even angrier. “He could be influenced by countless lives!”
“He doesn’t want to look through others lives,” said Aiheu. “He’s concerned with his own life. He is purely selfish. As for the one who let him escape, he is in Purgatory. He’s not leaving any time soon, nor will he be given the opportunity to join the Black Line.”
“I want you to let out Grandpa.”
All heads turned to look at Nafsi walking toward them, a malaiki behind him. “He asked to see you, sirs and ma’ams,” said the malaiki.
“Nafsi, your grandfather did a very wrong thing,” said Aiheu. “He is—”
“I want you to let him out,” said Nafsi. “Now. And I want to go back to life.”
There were cries of protest on both sides. “That wasn’t an option,” said Afriti angrily.
“It’s my option.”
“You can’t go back to life,” said Aiheu.
“Fine,” said Nafsi. Suddenly, at the neck of every god and anti-god, there was a disfigured, two-legged creature, somewhat resembling a primate, all of them jet-black. Instead of hands, they had stubs which had a hole in the middle where a long, thin, flat, black shaft was inserted, its sides sharp and dangerous. Every creature had a shaft in each hand, both of them crossed in front of the neck of the deity it was in front of.
“If I don’t go,” said Nafsi, “you all die.”
“Nafsi,” said Aiheu, moving slightly. The shafts were pressed firmly against his neck.
“Get Grandpa out. Now.”
Aiheu hesitated a moment before saying, “Malaiki.”
“Sir,” said the malaiki behind Nafsi.
“See to Fujo’s release.”
“Yes, sir,” said the malaiki. It left.
“You’re going to let me go back to life,” said Nafsi to the silent crowd. “You aren’t going to punish anyone for anything that has happened here because of me. You’re going to give me all of my emotions. And you’re not going to overlook anything.”
“Nafsi,” said Fela, “we’re not sure if you can have them.”
“You promised. You’re going to do it.”
“You don’t need any of those weak emotions,” said Afriti.
“I want them. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me from being whole.”
“Whole?” said Afriti. She laughed. “You’ll never be whole! You’re nothing! Only a shadow!”
Nafsi walked over to her, the creature in front of her stepping back. A shaft appeared in front of Nafsi, pure black, and much more ornate than the crude ones the creatures had. It was pressed firmly against Afriti’s neck, levitating in midair.
“I’ve had enough,” said Nafsi. “You’re leaving. Right now. All of you.” Afriti glared down at him. Every creature in front of her allies stepped back. “Get out.” Afriti snarled and left through the portal behind the malaiki that had accompanied Nafsi inside, the rest of her kind following her.
After the last one left, Aiheu said, “Nafsi—”
“And you’re going to give me my emotions. Right now.”
“We can’t do it here.”
“Fine. But I will not wait.”
“Of course,” said Aiheu. The creatures backed away, lowering their weapons. “Just—follow me.”
Nafsi lay down on the pedestal. His legs were bound as they had been before. He looked up at Aiheu. “What now?”
“We’ll need to make you unconscious.”
“Nafsi, it will be painful. The only thing holding you in place is those bonds, and you’ve broken free of those before.”
“I don’t trust you. The very last thing I’m going to do is let you stick your paw in my head when I’m asleep.”
Aiheu sighed. “Very well. But you must not struggle. Not at all.”
Nafsi nodded. “Alright.”
He saw a malaiki appear above him, talking to Aiheu. “Sir, we’re ready.”
Aiheu nodded. “Start.”
The malaiki reached toward Nafsi’s head. Nafsi felt blinding pain. Then all sight was cut off. Everything went black.
“You’ll be fine, Nafsi,” he heard. “Just fine.”
Esi stared down into the pool. She should have known he wouldn’t have come back. She wasn’t even sure he existed, almost. He had simply disappeared. She wondered if she was going crazy, if she hadn’t just imagined the whole thing.
Esi turned around to see him behind her. “Nafsi!” she said happily. She leapt at him and tackled hi to the ground, hugging him. “I thought you’d never come back!”
“I said I would,” reminded Nafsi.
“Do you want to play again?” asked Esi excitedly.
“I—actually, I needed to ask you something. I—I was wondering if I could stay with you.”
“You mean it?”
“That’d be great!” said Esi happily. “But what about your grandpa?”
“Oh, he’s dead.”
“Nafsi—that’s awful! I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sure the king and queen’ll let you in. They can be really nice. Come on, I’ll show you the den.”
Nafsi began to follow her, smiling happily.