All characters in this story are mine, and are not to be used without my permission. Lyrics from Welcome to the Black Parade belong to My Chemical Romance. Lyrics from Epiphany belong to Stephen Sondheim. Lyrics from Live and Let Die belong to Paul McCartney. Lyrics from Bohemian Rhapsody belong to Queen. Also, due to the length of the story, you may want to simply copy and paste it into a text editor and read it that way. All comments may be sent to conor0191@aol.com.

 

Sanctuary

 

Love the animals. God has given them the basis of thought and joy untroubled. Don’t harass them. Don’t deprive them of their happiness. Don’t work against God’s intent.

            Dostoevsky

 

            The desert was a harsh, unforgiving wasteland. Once in it, there was no refuge, save for the oases, which were few and far between. Therefore, it was rather appropriate that the land was called Sanctuary. Its vast swath of green and yellow seemed to defy the desert, to taunt it. It was far too large to be called an oasis, as it stretched over miles.

            The animals who lived there lived in peace. There were no challengers to the peace who came from the desert, and the inhabitants’ ancestors learned long ago it wasn’t wise to fight when the defeated had nowhere to go. So there was peace, save for the grudges and fights that form, no matter how much you try to prevent it.

            Sanctuary, like many other lands, was ruled by lions. Unlike many other lands, there were two kings. Reen and Gymara were brothers, twins that refused to rule unless the other was by their side. They were inseparable as cubs. The same couldn’t be said as kings. They had a glorious beginning, but power brings out the best and the worst you can be. Reen was a good-hearted king; he had always been the unselfish one of the two. Gymara, however, had a tyrannical streak. He slowly grew to resent his brother for his rule, and yearned to take it from him. But the change from love to despising was slow, with years in between.

            Both of the brothers had mates whom they loved dearly. Reen had his Unir, and Gymara his Adhima. Both queens viewed each other as friends, and never as rivals as Gymara came to know his brother. As can be expected, both of them became pregnant with the new princes. Adhima gave birth to a single son, Hatari. Both sets of royalty cherished the prince, and it was decided that when, in a month, Unir gave birth, the cub would, if female, be Hatari’s mate, and if male, rule with him, side by side. Even then there was some difficulty in Gymara’s acceptance of the second term, but it went unnoticed by trusting Reen.

            One month came.

 

 

 

            Reen paced outside the den. The den itself was nothing more than a lump rising from the ground, with a hole in the front. A very, very large lump. A short distance away from it stood the Throne. It was a slab that rose above the ground, like a chair in the fact that it had a tall slab creating a back and two smaller slabs rising up to create small sides for it. It was wide enough for a lion to lie down in it, though few kings were ever recorded to have done so. It had its back to the den, facing the rest of Sanctuary.

            Reen stopped his pacing to look at it. With a sigh, he continued his pacing. He recalled how it had remained almost completely unoccupied for years. The only time he had ever sat in it was when his brother was too unwell to rule, and vice versa. Even kings became sick.

            Reen didn’t enjoy sitting in it. He felt he took power away from his brother whenever he did it. But Gymara had insisted on it. “Otherwise,” he’d said, “we’ll actually have to dust the thing when a new king does sit there.” Gymara seemed to enjoy sitting on it. Reen would have been more than happy to let him sit there, and he next to the Throne, but Gymara wouldn’t allow it. “It will remain unoccupied until the one king,” he’d declared, then turned to his brother with a smile and said, “Or until you get that fever again.”

            Reen looked back at the chair again. Maybe he would live to see it filled within his lifetime with a lion besides his father. Only Unir’s cub would know, may Rahimu provide.

            Another loud groan emanated from the den. Reen’s pacing increased in speed. Gymara came in from the morning rounds. “So, it sounds like she’s still at it.”

            “Yes,” said Reen. He was worried. He couldn’t remember the last time a birth had taken this long.

            “Know if there’s more than one?”

            “No.”

            “Know if it’s a boy or a girl?”

            “Dammit, I don’t know!” Reen stopped pacing and sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I . . .”

            “I know, I know. When you get edgy, you spout off words Mom never taught us. When I get edgy . . .” Gymara’s brow furrowed. “What did I do when Hatari came?”

            “You just sat there staring at the Throne the whole time.”

            “Yes, that’s right.”

            Reen stared into the den. He was unable to see Unir through all of the lionesses around her. Unir was silent. The groans had been frequent in the beginning, but now they had slowed down, almost to the point where they didn’t exist. Reen was worried. A prolonged series of groans came from the den. “Okay, I have it,” Reen heard one of the lionesses said. The lioness suddenly yelled, “It’s a boy!” Happy shouts erupted. “Unir, it’s a—what, your majesty?” There was silence for Reen’s ears. “Ye—yes, your majesty,” the lioness said quietly. “Just . . . oh, Aiheu.”

            Reen stared into the den. A lioness named Kaata slowly emerged. She could understand what Reen was going through; she’d recently had a daughter of her own, Kria. The way she hung her head spoke volumes for Reen. But don’t jump to conclusions, he reminded himself. Only Rahimu is all-seeing. “Well?” he asked.

            Kaata looked up at him. “Sire, the cub is healthy. It is a male.”

            “Oh, thank the gods!” Reen brushed past Kaata and went into the den. A lioness, Hira, lied down, cleaning the new cub. She, too, had recently had cubs. Three girls: Jiru, Atanya, and Sarana, all of them nuzzled against her side for warmth. Reen stared down at the cub in pride.

            Hira looked up at him. “She said his name is Rayan. For you.” She went back to cleaning the prince.

            “Rayan,” repeated Reen softly. He turned to his mate. “It’s a wonderful name, Unir.” Unir was still. “Unir?” Reen stared at her gently closed eyes. “Oh, no . . . Unir.” He walked to her and put his face close to hers. He stared at her peaceful face, running the back of a paw down the side of her face. “Oh, Unir . . .”

            “Sire,” said Adhima, “she wanted you to know she loved you. It was the last thing she had strength to say.”

            Reen turned away from Unir’s body, eyes tightly shut. “Leave me be.”

            “Reen?”

            “I need to be alone.”

            “Yes, sire.” The lionesses slowly exited. He turned back to Unir, tears filling his eyes, then sliding down his cheeks. Her majestic face had lost its glow that he’d treasured so much. He looked down at the cub, only to find it missing, along with the rest of Unir’s cubs. He looked back at his mate’s beautiful face and cradled it in his paw. He closed his eyes, hung his head. His first thoughts had been of anger towards the cub. He was the reason Unir was gone. But no, that was not what Unir would have wanted. She would have loved the cub. Reen would do so. He would love the cub to his full ability. For Unir.

            He opened his eyes to see Kaata walking in front of him. She stopped as he saw her, embarrassed. “Begging your pardon, sire.” She continued walking towards the back of the den. A cub lied there, barely two days old. Kaata picked up her daughter, left behind by the lionesses in their rush to leave. She stopped in front of Reen on her way out and laid down her cub. “Sire? What about the cub?”

            Reen looked up from Unir’s body. “We’ll keep it, of course. It would be foolishness to kill it out of spite.” He looked down at his mate. “Unir would never have wanted that. She loved life.”

            “Yes, sire. I didn’t mean that. I meant—well, that is—sire, I was wondering if you would let me care for the cub?”

            Reen looked up in surprise. “Care?”

            Kaata hung her head in embarrassment. “Yes. I—I’m sorry to discuss it here, sire, but the cub needs it now. You know I got Kria just a few days ago. And I’m one of the few that have milk. Hira’s got her paws full with three cubs, and all the others have cubs that are nearly able to eat. They’ll run out of milk soon. I just thought . . . maybe you’d welcome the chance.” She looked up at Reen, her eyes filled with an emotion he’d seen so often in Unir’s. Love. Then it was gone, too quickly for Reen to even be sure it was there.

            “Of course, Kaata. I would be honored to have you nurse it.” He looked back down at Unir.

            Kaata stared at him with longing. “Thank you, Reen,” she said quietly. She picked up Kria and left to find Hira. Reen cradled his love’s face in his paw.

            Unir . . .

 

 

 

            Lymo looked up as he saw the animal approach. Its walk was ungainly, and its form was a blur at that distance. As it came closer Lymo bit his lip in sorrow. There were two animals. A lion carried a lioness on his back. Lymo had prayed it wasn’t that sight. He knew it could only mean one thing. He looked back up as the lion drew closer. It was Reen, his face tired, completely drained of energy. Reen looked at the leopard, sadness in his eyes. “Welcome, sire,” said Lymo.

            Reen gently placed Unir on the ground, then looked up at the leopard. “Hello.”

            Lymo looked at the lioness on the ground. “I am—deeply sorry for your loss. Who was she?”

            “She was my mate. Unir.” Reen touched her face with the back of his paw. “My lovely Unir.”

            “Sire . . . my king . . . I’m so sorry.”

            Reen tore his gaze from Unir and looked up at Lymo. “I need your help again. I do not know the funeral rites.”

            Lymo looked at Reen with something approaching amazement. “You remembered what we taught you, sire?”

            “Every bit of it. And please, my friend . . . call me Reen.”

            “I had no idea.” Lymo shook his head. “I thought you had forgotten completely. I was sure of it.”

            “No, friend. I follow what you taught me every day. I’m sorry that I had to come to you—like this.”

            “It’s good to cry, Reen.”

            “I don’t know what I’m going to do, Lymo. I don’t know how I can—how I can carry—carry on . . .” Reen hung his head, his body shaking.

            “There will be a way, Reen.” The leopard sat next Reen. “I’ll pray.” He bowed his head in reverence.

            “Oh, great Rahimu . . .”

 

 

 

            Rayan scampered happily into the den. He immediately went to his father. “I’m only saying, Gymara, that if we do help them, they’ll become dependent on us. We can’t—oh, hello, Rayan,” said Reen.

            “What do we care if they’re dependant on us?” asked Gymara, on his back and twirling a bone between his digits on his forepaws. “They’re ours that way. They’ll never cause problems again. And if they do . . .”

            “Gymara, that’s blackmail!” Reen shook his head. “There has to be another way. If we do this, we control their food. It’s not right.”

            “It’s the only way that I can see. Look, they’ll continue to pop up with problems. You know how hyenas are. Give their lazy carcasses an inch, and they’ll take the whole damn—the whole darn kingdom,” Gymara hastily altered, seeing Reen gesture toward his cub.

            “Dad, can I go play with Sarana and the others?” asked Rayan.

            “One minute, son,” said Reen. “Gymara, there has to be some amount of trust involved. There are plenty of animals that don’t trust the lions fully, but they don’t harbor it against us.”

            “I could name a few,” muttered Gymara, turning over.

            “But that’s it exactly. Just a few. Just individuals. You’d be punishing every hyena if you did this. If we leave more carcasses—”

            “Dad, can I, please?” interrupted Rayan.

            Reen sighed. “Where are you going?”

            “I don’t know. Around.”

            “You need to find out.”

            “Wait a second,” said Gymara. “Is Hatari going with you?”

            “Uh-huh,” nodded Rayan.

            “Well, then that solves the problem. Hatari knows to stay away from the Pits, and no one even wants to go near the desert. They’ll be fine.”

            “Yeah, we’ll be fine,” said Rayan excitedly. “We’ll be good. Tell him, Uncle ’Mara.”

            “Seriously, Reen, they’ll be fine. Loosen up. I guarantee they’ll be fine.”

            “Is this a they-get-their-life-back guarantee if they die?” Reen asked coldly.

            Gymara shook his head. “Reen, you’re being too cautious. Remember when you were a cub? You wanted to adventure. And a he—heck of a lot more than me.”

            “I also remember I nearly died several times.”

            “Rayan!” came a voice from outside the den. “We’re waiting!

            “Dad, can I please go?” begged Rayan.

            Reen sighed. He looked at Gymara, who impatiently nodded his head toward the entrance of the den. “Alright.” Rayan ran to the den entrance and was stopped by his father’s words. “But—but if you cause any trouble, you will have a talking-to.” Rayan swallowed. There had been only one previous talking-to, and it had involved a paw. Not Rayan’s. “Just be careful, son.”

            “Okay, Dad.” Rayan bounded out the den.

            “Great. Now that that little irritation is over—” said Gymara.

            “Irritation?” asked Reen, his tone with an edge to it.

            “Mess, distraction, however you want to put it. Look, the hyenas need food, we give it to them. That simple.”

            Reen shook his head. “It’s not that simple. There are hyenas all over Sanctuary. We may hunt everywhere, but we wouldn’t supply enough. We’d be asking other animals to give up food that they need.”

            “Reen, there is a surplus. It means that there isn’t a shortage of food. When there is a shortage, it’s called a shortage. But now, it’s called a surplus. Not shortage. The other animals could afford to trim down their tummies. We’d be pitching in, too. It’s not like it’s a horrible thing to do, asking for the kingdom to make sacrifices.”

            “But even if we do, we can cut off their food—”

            “Oh, not again!”

            “Gymara, you can’t deny it! It would look like we’re trying to control them. If the hyenas cause trouble, we could simply cut off their food. We may not have enough to feed them, but we have enough to make them starve.”

            “And there is no problem with that,” said Gymara impatiently. “If the hyenas cause a problem, we may do that. And we may need to. But I’m pretty sure it won’t come to that.”

            “No king has ever starved a group of animals!”

            “Reen, what did Dad say a king was? A problem solver. I’m solving this problem. The hyenas are a pain in the ass as it is, and you know it. It’s mainly because of the shortage they have of leftover meat, not surplus, and you know that, too. You know that if we do this, they’ll be more obedient, more respectful, and less likely to cause problems. There is no need to ask the other animals to cut down on their food; we can supply enough to make the hyenas eat better. They may not be full, but they will be better. Whole kingdom-starving-to-death issue solved.”

            “But—”

            “Second issue: Food control. So what if we do control the food? No one will even notice it unless they squint at it real hard, and maybe even turn their head slightly to the right. Leave it all to me. I guarantee that I will not let anything get out of control. We’ve shared responsibilities before. Don’t you trust your own brother?”

            “I’m more than sure that you can handle it—”

            “Problem solved!”

            “—but I don’t know if you realize what you’d be doing. You would be starving innocent families. Mothers would need food, and cubs wouldn’t get milk because of it! You can’t just punish an entire race for a few individuals!”

            Gymara sighed. “What did we do with that cheetah who was over-hunting? The one brought before us yesterday morning.”

            “We punished him.”

            “That’s right. And why did we punish that cheetah, and not the entire race? Because we knew who he was. Now, nine out of ten—no, ninety-nine out of a hundred times we know who did it, whatever ‘it’ happens to be. Correct?”

            Reen could see he was being pushed into a corner. “Yes.”

            “So, wouldn’t we just make sure that we absolutely positively sure we didn’t know before we started cutting off food? Besides, even if we did cut it off, the hyenas can hunt.”

            “You know they’re not adept at it.”

            “Which is why we’re doing this. We know they’re carrion-eaters, we give them food. Simplicity in ruling at its best. I told you, you don’t need to worry. That’s all you ever seem to do. Don’t you ever take any time to relax?”

            “A king doesn’t have time to relax. He needs to worry about his subjects. If we do this, we’re forcing the hyenas to do exactly as we say. This is a diarchy, not a dictatorship. We shouldn’t do this.”

            “Do you see any other choice?”

            “No, but—”

            “I haven’t heard you offer anything, either. Nothing. You dragged me into here two days ago about this, and we haven’t done anything. And when you were finished dragging me, quite unceremoniously by the tail I might add, I’m fairly sure I remember you pointing out that the longer we don’t get this done, the longer the hyenas starve. We can start leaving carcasses tomorrow, maybe even today, if we do this now. I’ve given you something that would only require the lions being involved, something that gives food for hyenas, and something that is not, by any means, permanent.”

            “It will be permanent. They’ll be dependant on it. If anything, their numbers will grow.”

            “Their numbers will not grow, that’s why we’re having the damn mess in the first place. Listen, Reen, there are more hyenas than the kingdom can handle. I’ve told you we should leave it alone, let some of them starve and maintain a balance, but you wanted a solution. I’ve given you one, and you turn it down because it gives us too much control. I can’t think of anything else, you can’t think of anything else. I’ve told you to leave it alone. You’re trying to unbalance the kingdom, Reen. It’s not the best thing to do.”

            “They’re starving! You have no idea what they’re like! How would you like it if Adhima came up to you with Hatari’s limp body in her mouth, with both of their bodies so thin you could see their ribs?”

            “I wouldn’t like it at all. But numbers change. The king has to make hard choices. I’ve pointed all of this out to you the first day, gave you a solution the second, and you still—won’t—say—yes. The only problem you really have is that we’d have too much control. When their numbers go down, we can relinquish that control. I would only stop the aid before it was necessary if it was absolutely necessary. Everything has its downfalls, Reen. This won’t be perfect. Now, I’m pretty sure we’ve shoved aside a mountain of problems while we’ve been working on this one, so would you please just drop it and let us get back to work? Please?”

            Reen sighed. Gymara was right. He had to do something, and soon. “Alright. Go ahead, have them start leaving behind the extra carcasses. I’m leaving this to you, Gymara.”

            You’re leaving this to me?”

            Reen smiled. “We’re leaving this to you.”

            “Better.” Gymara got up, yawning. “Aiheu, I need a rest. Well, let’s go see what we’ve kept waiting.” Reen followed his brother out of the den. He was even more tired than Gymara. He hadn’t slept in two days. They might have debated all last night, outside of the den to let the others sleep in peace, but the night before that they had decided to sleep on it.

            Reen hadn’t slept. He couldn’t. He could only remember the small group of hyenas that had come to him, pleading for him and his brother to do something. Their coats clung to their sides, ribs showing enough for Reen to count them if he had chosen. That image had haunted him the past three days. And their stories . . . Reen wasn’t sure if he’d ever get rid of them.

            Reen went outside the den, the bright sunlight hurting his eyes. It was midday already. Two cheetahs waited outside, lying down and conversing with each other. They stopped talking as the kings came out and sat up, saying “Sires” roughly in unison. One of them was for Reen, the other for Gymara.

            Neither Reen nor Gymara could understand how their father had kept up with the kingdom. They struggled through their shares. The two brothers split the kingdom somewhat in half according to issues. If they had looked at it closely, Reen got slightly more. Reen didn’t notice, and wouldn’t have cared if he did. It was barely anything.

            The two cheetahs were the only way the two brothers had any idea of what was going on in the entire kingdom. They might get bits and snatches otherwise, but the cheetahs were the ones that the animals really came to with their problems. Any animal knew that if they wanted the kings to know something, tell one of the cheetahs. Their names were Sudi and Nyota. Despite their similar appearance, they insisted, to no end, that they were not related, which was complete nonsense. Everyone in Sanctuary was related to everyone else in their race, at least somewhat.           The two of them immediately began to walk their separate ways with the kings, Sudi following Gymara, Nyota accompanying Reen. Once again, of the two, Reen’s side seemed to get the short end of the stick. None of the animals had a problem answering to Sudi; plenty had problems answering to Nyota. Nyota was a female. But she had proved, over and over, her willingness to shine. She stuck to whatever Reen, and occasionally Gymara, assigned her, despite the numerous insults to her and her gender.

            It wasn’t popular for Reen to have a female advisor, but she stayed. The insults slowly did fade away after the first few months. Reen had no end of respect toward her. The only shortcoming she seemed to have was to take any insult to Reen as an insult to herself, despite Reen’s insistence that it was good to critique the rulers.

            “Well?” she asked, omitting the usual “sire.” There was no need for it in private. It was a comfort she had that few other animals received. Reen felt fairly sure that Gymara didn’t allow Sudi the pleasure, for some odd reason. But Nyota was almost like family.

            “It’s done,” he said.

            “And?”

            “We decided to do it.”

            “Sire, are you trying to cause me undue pain?”

            Reen smiled. “I’m sorry. I’m just worried. We’ve decided to start killing carcasses for the hyenas. And leaving more on our own when we finish. It should help. Some.”

            “Is that doubt I hear creeping into your voice?”

            “Yes.”

            “I don’t see why it would be there. Unless, of course, you realized you’d be putting a stranglehold on the hyenas by controlling their food supply completely.”

            Reen looked over at her, eyes widened in surprise. “You found that out that quickly?”

            Nyota laughed. “Sire, it’s my job to do that. Let’s say I come up to you, saying  . . . saying that the cheetahs had put in a request to not have to share a waterhole with any other animals. That waterhole over by the edge of the desert, on the southern end of the kingdom. You know it?”

            “Yes.”

            “Well, what would you say if I told you the cheetahs wanted it for themselves and just themselves?”

            “Well . . . the cheetahs have been exemplary members of the kingdom. You’re a perfect example of that.”

            “Thank you, sire.”

            “I’d say let them have it.”

            Nyota smiled. “Sire, that is quite possibly the worst thing to do.”

            “What? But we should reward the cheetahs.”

            “The cheetahs have a feud going on with the leopards. Just a minor one, between a couple of families, but it’s still enough to have them all uneasy. And that waterhole is a prime source of water for leopards. There’re more leopards there than there are cheetahs. If the cheetahs took that, they’d anger the leopards further, and plenty of that anger would be coming at you for what you did. Not to mention all the anger from the other animals who rely on it. That’s one of the biggest waterholes there is.” Nyota turned her grin to him. “But I’m sure you were just testing me.”

            Reen blinked. “I—how can you do all of that?”

            Nyota laughed. “It’s quite easy, sire. It’s exactly what you do, but on a much smaller scale. It’s basically what you did with the hyenas, only I have to do it for everything the buggers come at me with. Besides, you usually find much more than I do on the surface. I deal with all of the little problems, choosing what to present to you—and let you deal with all the big things that the animals have.”

            “You censor your report?” asked Reen, incredulous.

            “Would you rather me not?”

            “Of course not! I’m supposed to hear the kingdom.”

            “Very well, sire. Just give me a moment to remember all the things I forgot.” Nyota paused, reflecting on details. She began to spew information forward. “There were three cubs born to a hyena today, she hopes that you will take very good care of them. The gazelle continue to complain about how the elephants are tracking so much mud into the waterholes, they say that it’s hard on their soft throats. The antelopes are demanding that they be eaten less. The leopards wish to bring their feud to your attention, despite the protests from the cheetahs. The—”

            “Alright, alright, you can stop,” said Reen.

            “See what I mean, sire? All of those little details would just pile up on you. You’d never be able to sleep at night, worrying yourself sick about them. I don’t know how you do sleep as it is,” she mused absentmindedly.

            “Yes, I see what you mean. But I thought you actually censored it—”

            “You thought I’d give the report with a slant?” Nyota asked in mock horror. “Sire!” Reen chuckled. “You know I’d do nothing more than put a sarcastic spin on it.”

            “And not enough of one on some days.” Reen fell silent, staring at the ground moodily.

            Nyota’s usual smile faded off her face. “It’s—it’s the anniversary, isn’t it? Today?”

            Reen nodded gravely. “Yes.” He tried to swallow down a lump in his throat. “I was married today. Just three years ago.” A tear slid down his face. Unir . . . He suddenly became conscious of the tear and wiped it off hurriedly.

            “We’re alone, sire,” said Nyota gently. “You don’t have to hide it.”

            “She died six months ago, Nyota. Six months.” He looked up at his advisor. “Is it normal to feel this way after this long?” He sighed, looking back down. “But how would you know?”

            “I—I lost my sister. One and a half years ago. She went out for a drink of water and never came back. I found her body on my way to you. She’d been half-eaten. The wild dogs must have run away when they heard us coming. Me and my mother. And I had to just go on to you, and just go through the day, like nothing had happened at all.”

            “You shouldn’t have come,” said Reen, shocked at what she had done.

            “I’d like to see you walk at all without your set of legs,” said Nyota with a smile. “But I still think about her, sire. I place these wonderful purple flowers that she used to love where she used to sleep. Every year. On her birthday. Your anniversary, sire.” She looked up at Reen’s surprised face with a smile. “She was born the day you got married.”

            “But—but that means she was just—”

            “Just one and a half when she died. She left us far too soon. But I still think about her. Always. I’ll never forget her. I’d never want to, either. You shouldn’t want to forget your mate, Ree—sire.”

            “Reen is fine, Nyota. In private.”

            Nyota smiled. “Thank you, sire.” Reen felt another tear try to make its way out. “Just remember your mate, sire. It’s good that you do. It’s okay to cry, sire. Even if it is in front of a subject.” Reen looked away sadly. Nyota looked at him for a second, then pushed him playfully in the shoulder. “Come on, sire. It’s a happy day. It’s your anniversary, my sister’s birthday—we’ve got things to be happy for. Do you really think ma’am would be happy if she saw you moping on your anniversary?”

            Reen smiled slightly. “I know she’d hit you for calling her ‘ma’am.’”

            Nyota laughed. “Yeah, she always did hate the title. See? There are good things to remember, too. Think positive.”

            “Nyota—Nyota, I still feel as if something’s missing. It was wonderful when I had Unir. I didn’t care that I was king, I had her. I loved her, Nyota. So much. And ever since she died . . . I just felt—empty. She gave me something I didn’t have. And I don’t have it any more.”

            “Sire . . . Well, I don’t really have anything to say. I don’t have a mate. I don’t know what it’s like. I mean, I remember my parents, but their relationship, compared with you and hers . . . You two seemed perfect for each other. But sire, she did give you something. She gave you a son. Rayan is here, at least. Her legacy.”

            “The cause of her death.” A cold edge had entered Reen’s voice that he hadn’t intended to put there.

            Nyota bit her lip. She knew she wasn’t the best at consoling others. She more or less stumbled across the right thing. But she knew that wasn’t it. “Sire—”

            “I love him, Nyota. I really do. With all my heart. But every time I look at him, I can’t help but remember that. I—I tell myself I don’t love him any less for it. I really think I don’t. But I just can’t get out of my mind what a price his life came at. I just wonder what Unir would think of him, if she were here. I had four years with her, really with her, and I only married her for two and a half of those. I miss her, Nyota.”

            “I’d be very worried if you didn’t, sire.” She wiped away a tear from Reen’s eye. Reen’s eyes defied her, pouring out more moisture. Nyota swallowed. She loved Reen like a brother. Almost all the subjects liked the king. Gymara was a slightly different story, but everyone loved Reen.

            But he never allowed the kingdom to see this side, the side that showed so much sorrow. If one of the lionesses had told Nyota about Reen’s sleep, how he would mutter “Unir” softly while he slept, and would sometimes wake up with a jerk, and go outside to be alone to cry, Nyota wouldn’t have any trouble believing them. It was well known how much the king loved his mate. But now he showed himself nakedly to her, how he felt, dropping the thin faćade he had carried around her ever since Unir’s death.

            Nyota reached out a foreleg. “Come here.” Reen wrapped a foreleg around her and pulled her close, pressing harder than she had expected with his leonine strength. She heard him as he wept into her neck, his head bending down to reach hers. She slowly wrapped a foreleg around his back and rubbed gently.

            It flickered across her mind what an odd scene it would have made if an animal were to come, seeing the king clutching his advisor close to him, weeping. Just a flicker. She didn’t care how she was seen with Reen. She’d feel no guilt if found. They were just two animals, suffering together. Just because he was king, it didn’t mean Reen had no feeling, despite how much Reen tried to hide his sorrow from the kingdom.

            Reen finally pulled away from her, embarrassed as she thought he’d be. “It’s okay to cry, Reen. Really.” She gave him a kiss on the face, a sisterly lick.

            “I should have done it with someone else. A lioness, or Gymara. Not you.”

            Sire,” she said, in mock anger. “I’m below them? I can’t believe you.” She tried to cheer him up. “And I thought you trusted me.” She turned her back to him.

            Reen sighed. He knew she was joking. He still felt the need to explain himself. “It’s just that you’re my advisor, Nyota. You’re not a counselor.”

            “Sire,” she said, turning back around, “I’m your advisor. I may help you with the kingdom, but you need more than that.” Reen looked away, still feeling guilty. “Sire, I’ll be honest. Your ways with the kingdom have changed ever since ma’am’s death. You’ve worked a lot harder. You’re putting everything you have into it. But you’re overdoing it, sire. You’re straining yourself. You need to talk. With someone. Please, Reen, talk with me.”

            “Now?”

            “You’re king now. Later.” Nyota bit her lip, thinking. “I’m holding my sister’s memorial tonight. We could talk there. If you want. I understand if there are lionesses that—”

            He wiped away the tears on his face. “Nyota, I wouldn’t think of staining Unir’s memory with another mate.”

            Nyota smiled. “Lionesses aren’t just for mating, sire. No more than hyenas are there just to scavenge.”

            “It’d end up looking that way. . . . I’ll be honest, Nyota. I couldn’t ask you. You have the entire kingdom with me—”

            “Half. Sudi and Gymara have the other.”

            “I just couldn’t ask. Thank you.”

            “Of course, sire.” She paused, weighing her next comment. “Do we feel like putting our mask on again and being king now?”

            Reen smiled. “I can survive until tonight.”

            “Good. ’Cause I’m about to forget all of this crap.” Reen gave a small laugh. “Okay, let’s see . . . first thing we need to do is take care of the leopard problem, and then some of the snakes actually want an audience in the first time in who knows how long . . .”

 

 

 

If anything can go wrong, it will.

                        Murphy’s Law

 

            Rayan bounced into the den, followed by a few other cubs. There was quiet Kria, arrogant Hatari, and little Sarana and her sisters, Jiru and Atanya. It was near sunset, the time that they were all told to be home by, or suffer the consequences. Nothing was ever that bad; the worst “consequence” that had ever happened was an entire day without going out to play. The lionesses’ patience had amazingly lasted the whole day. Normally it took under an hour before they told the cub to leave them alone to their talks and naps.

            Rayan looked around for his father. Reen wasn’t there. Rayan wondered why. His father did work late, occasionally. But it happened so rarely. The past three days he had barely talked to his father at all; Reen and Gymara had been too concerned with the kingdom to pay too much attention to their cubs. Rayan and Hatari didn’t mind. It saved time from lectures on how to rule.

            But Rayan looked at the time when he came home to be with his father as the best time of the day. Rayan loved his father more than his words could express. Reen would joke with his son, laugh with him. Rayan considered him his best friend in the world. Their relationship was almost like the ones in the stories that Hira told her cubs, where the son and father were always so happy with each other, until some horrible villain came between them in one way or another. But there was usually a happy ending, even from the worst villains.

            Reen looked around the den one last time. No, his father wasn’t there. But he’d be home soon. Rayan knew it. His eyes landed on the only lion in the den: his uncle, Gymara. Rayan scampered over to Gymara. “Hey, Uncle ’Mara?”

            Gymara looked down at Rayan. “And what may I do for my favorite nephew?” he asked with a smile.

            “Uncle ’Mara, where’s Dad?”

            Gymara’s gaze shifted away, thinking. “Oh, yes. That’s right. He went to a funeral.”

            “A funeral?” Rayan looked around the den, trying to see who might be missing.

            “Oh, not a lioness. A cheetah, I think. He said it was something to do about Nyota’s sister, or aunt, or something. He said that he might be back a little late.”

            “Late?” Rayan asked, slightly concerned.

            “Yes. He said it might take a few hours.” He stared at Rayan’s crestfallen face with pity. “But you get to spend the night with me, if he’s not back by then.”

            “Oh,” said Rayan, disappointment showing. “Okay. I guess.”

            “You guess?” gasped Gymara theatrically. “You guess? Oh, I just cannot believe this. Rayan, my dear cub, when have I ever been anything but fun for you?”

            Rayan smiled. It was true. Gymara was a fun uncle. He always let Rayan do things that Reen would never have allowed. He encouraged Rayan to take privileges that Reen denied, saying that the privileges were meant to be just that, privileges, rewards given out when things were done right. “When Dad gets angry about what I do with you.”

            “How mad has he really gotten before I’ve smoothed things over? It wouldn’t do to have my nephew in trouble, would it? It’s not as if I have a replacement.”

            Rayan grinned as Hatari came bounding over. “Hi, Dad!” He tackled Gymara's neck, Gymara rolling as if he was actually moved by the small impact Hatari had made on him.

            “Oof!” Gymara said as he was “thrown” to the ground. He sat up with a laugh. “Stronger every day.”

            “Yeah! And Dad, you wouldn’t believe what we found today!”

            “What?”
            “There was this huge dead elephant, and he was—huge! He was like, even bigger than the den!”

            That big?” asked Gymara, playing along.

            “Yeah, he was HUGE! And we had so much fun on him! You have no idea how fast we could go down that trunk like a slide—”

            “You did what?” asked Gymara, his tone serious.

            “It’s true!” said Rayan. “It was this great big thing, and—”

            “What was that about a slide?”

            Rayan started to speak, but had Hatari placed his paw in front of Rayan’s mouth before he could. Rayan might not know, but Hatari knew all too well when his father was angry. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did, no one was laughing. “Nothing, Dad,” Hatari said quickly.

            Hatari.”

            Hatari lowered his paw from Rayan’s mouth, along with his head. “We were just having fun.”

            “Hatari, you don’t ever do anything to a dead animal. Never. You need to respect the dead. How would you feel if someone started playing on Mom after she died?”

            “But . . . but Dad . . . we didn’t mean to—”

            “Hatari, I’m not punishing you.”

            “You aren’t?” asked Hatari, his ears coming up along with his head.

            “No. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to what I’m telling you. That elephant was probably very special to someone. You don’t insult their memory by using them as a playground. You are never to do anything with the dead, save eat them. It’s not right.”

            “But Dad, they’re dead.”

            “And?”

            “They—they wouldn’t care, would they?”

            “Hatari, it’s wrong to do that.”

            “But why?”

            “Some things don’t make sense right now, son. But you need to do them anyway.”

            “Alright,” consented Hatari.

            “Besides,” said Gymara, his voice gaining spooky undertones, “how do you know they don’t care?”

            “Huh?” Rayan and Hatari asked.

            “They say that the spirits of the dead are easily angered. And they will come for you when you least expect it, and snatch you from your body!” Gymara’s paw swiped, emphasizing the sentence. Rayan jumped. Hatari didn’t.

            “Yeah, uh-huh Dad,” said Hatari.

            “Well, if you don’t believe me, I guess I’ll just have to go get one for you.”

            “You can get a ghost and bring it back here?”

            “I think I’ll get that elephant,” said Gymara with a smile.

            Rayan and Hatari exchanged nervous looks. “That’s . . . okay,” said Rayan. “We believe you, Uncle ’Mara.”

            “I’m only joking, Rayan. If I could do that, your father would be a much happier lion,” Gymara said soberly.

            “What do you mean?”

            Gymara blinked. “I’m sorry, was I being serious? If I don’t watch myself, I’ll end up turning into my brother.” He smiled. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Too wrong, anyway. Now, what do you two want to do tonight?”

            “Huh? Us two?” asked Hatari. “What about Rayan?”

            “Rayan is going to be staying with us until Uncle Reen gets back. So he can join in all the fun, too. Unless your killjoy of a mother intervenes.”

            “Oh.”

            “I heard that!” called Adhima, Gymara’s mate, from a corner.

            “You heard nothing,” said Gymara as he got to his feet. “Come on boys, let’s go see if we can find some trouble.”

            “Yeah!” the two cubs said enthusiastically.

            “Have them back by sunset,” said Adhima.

            “Will do,” said Gymara as he walked out of the den.

            Adhima smiled as she watched her mate walk away. “They’re so cute when they’re that age, aren’t they?” asked Hira, who was talking with Adhima.

            “Yes,” agreed Adhima. “Hatari’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened to the two of us.”

            “Hatari? I was talking about Gymara.”

            “Hira!” laughed Adhima as she gave the lioness a playful shove.

 

 

 

            Reen arrived back at the den late at night, Nyota escorting him back. Reen hadn’t wanted it. They may have been predators, but there were still night hunters, maybe even a lioness being one of them. Stampedes from the herds trampled anyone in the way, predator or not.

            “I don’t want anyone to get hurt, Nyota,” he’d insisted when she proposed to walk him home.

            “Well then I’ll protect you,” she’d said.

            Reen hadn’t been able to argue with that.

            The two of them stopped outside the den. “At least stay here for the night,” said Reen. “I’d feel safer.”

            Nyota smiled. “Sire, that’s very nice of you, but it’s not as bad out there as you think it is. There isn’t someone hiding behind every tree waiting to kill someone else.”

            “I know, but . . . accidents happen.”

            “Sire, I’ll be fine. I’ve been away from my family plenty of times at night.”

            “But you were always with me, then.”

            Nyota laughed, quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping lionesses. “I have a life beyond just my duties as advisor, sire. Males are so naēve.”

            Reen smiled. “Can I expect to meet him any time soon? Or am I in no position to ask that?”

            “Sire, you’re in a position to ask me anything. It doesn’t mean I have to answer, though. Sleep well.” Nyota headed for the savannah.

            Nyota.”

            “Yes—oh, sire,” Nyota pouted as she saw Reen dangling a paw off the ground, one digit extended, pointing toward the ground.

            “You may feel fine about the night, but I don’t. Stay here. Or do I have to make it an order?”

            Fine, sire. As a favor to you.”

            “Good. Sleep well.” Reen headed into the den, looking back at Nyota once to see if she had obeyed her promise. He couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to her.

            The den was big enough for the entire pride to sleep without touching each other too much. Reen glanced over the den, seeing cubs snuggled comfortably against their mother’s sides. He looked over at Gymara. Hatari was between Gymara and Adhima, pressed comfortably against his father’s stomach.

            But where was Rayan?

            Then Reen saw him, in a space by himself in a corner of the den. Any other cub Reen might have thought was being left out, but he knew better for Rayan. He would only sleep by his father’s stomach. Not even Kaata, who had been almost a mother to Rayan, could substitute.

            Unir.

            The lioness sprang unbidden into Reen’s head. She always did, whenever he thought of Rayan. He couldn’t help it. The cause of Unir’s death . . . Reen never held it against Rayan, he was sure of that, and he never gave any sign of what he thought, he was absolutely positive of that.

            But still, Unir invaded his mind whenever he thought of Rayan, along with all the things she might have contributed. Would she be proud of Rayan? Would she be happy with him? Would she think he was being too harsh? Doubts about what she would think about any of the things he did with Rayan always entered his mind. He wanted everything to be exactly as Unir would have approved.

            Such an angel. Rahimu, why did she have to leave so soon?

            Whatever the god’s answer, it was still unknown to Reen.

            Reen realized he hadn’t moved from his place inside the mouth of the den. He walked over to Rayan, carefully making sure not to tread on anyone, and lied down around Rayan, his body nearly circling all of his cub. Rayan stirred slightly at the feeling of his father’s warm breath. He snuggled closer to Reen’s mane in his sleep.

            Reen smiled. Unir would have approved of the love and devotion he gave their son, he knew that. He closed his eyes and slowly slipped off to dreamland, not noticing Nyota reneging on her promise as she snuck away from the den.

 

 

 

            “I still don’t see why we have to come,” muttered Rayan sullenly. “The lionesses hunt.”

            “I know,” grumbled Hatari.

            “It’s good experience,” said Hira, the lioness making both of the cubs jump in surprise as they heard her voice. “You’ll know what we have to go through to bring down your meal.”

            “Uh, hi Hira,” said Hatari. “We didn’t see you.”

            “And that’s half of hunting.”

            “But Hira,” protested Rayan, “we’re never going to have to hunt.”

            “We don’t need no lessons,” said Hatari.

            “Who knows, maybe you’ll end up hunting some day,” said Hira.

            “Doubt it,” said Hatari.

            “Well, all the girls are here. There isn’t anything for the two of you to do right now. Can you think of anything?”

            The two cubs looked at each other, then back up at Hira. “Sleeping,” they said.

            “When we can’t get you to go to sleep half the time?” asked Hira doubtfully.

            “I’m tired now,” said Rayan. “Not then.”

            “When I was a little girl,” said Hira, walking slightly ahead of the cubs, “we didn’t have problems going to sleep when we were supposed to. Our mothers told us to do something, and we did it. We didn’t complain about what we were asked to do.”

            “And you had to walk to the hunting grounds uphill both ways in heavy rain?” asked Hatari.

            Hira looked down at the cub with a smile. “Keep up that cheek and I’ll have to tell your mother.”

            “Hey, his mom’s not here, why do we have to be?” asked Rayan.

            “Because it builds character.”

            “Doesn’t Mom need character?” asked Hatari.

            “Your mother has the day alone with your father. You know how it is.”

            “What do you mean?” asked Hatari.

            “Oh, they’re just out. You know how Mommy and Daddy like to do those—things.”

            “What things?” asked Hatari.

            Hira was quiet for a moment, then was saved by Kaata. “Hira, you’re going to poison their innocent minds,” said Kaata with a grin.

            “Well, what would you have said?” asked Hira, her metaphorical fur ruffled.

            “Just that Adhima’s with Gymara.”

            “I did say that. It isn’t my fault that they asked for more.”

            “You could have just said a day off,” said Kaata. “There was no need for more.”

            “Maybe not to you.”

            “You don’t need to get defensive—”

            “I’m not getting defensive,” said Hira heatedly.

            “Dad doesn’t take any days off,” said Rayan. “Why doesn’t he take off a day with a lioness? I mean, if you like it so much, he should give one of you a chance, too.”

            Kaata and Hira both looked down at Rayan with smiles. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” said Hira. She looked over at Kaata. “And is that good enough for the speech patrol?”

            “You don’t need to be that way, Hira,” said Kaata. “I was only trying to—”

            “Yes, we know. But look, now you’ve got a miniature of him. Who knows, you may even get him when he’s all big and strong.”

            Hira strode ahead arrogantly. The two cubs looked at each other, then up at Kaata. The lioness’s eyes were tearing up slightly. Kaata bit her lip. There was suddenly a call of “Mommy!” from behind. Kaata turned to see her daughter, Kria, bounding toward her. “Mommy, you’re gonna—” Kria stopped talking as she saw the sadness that had struck her mother’s face. “What’s wrong, Mommy?”

            “Nothing,” said Kaata, looking away from her daughter as she quickly dabbed her eyes with a paw. “Hira—just gets high-strung when it comes to hunting, that’s all.”

            “But Aunty Hira’s all the way up there with Chache,” said Kria.

            “Yes, she is,” said Kaata. She took a breath and looked down at Kria. “Now what is it, honey?”

            “You’re gonna be with us, right?” asked Kria. Rayan and Hatari began to move away from the mother and daughter. Kria was just so boring. She never wanted to do anything that could get someone in any amount of trouble. She usually would barely talk, too, but when she was around her mother, she just wouldn’t shut up.

            “You’re not hunting today, Kria.”

            There were only three lionesses on this hunt: Kaata, Hira, and Chache. Kaata had brought Kria, and Hira had brought her three cubs; Sarana, Jibu, and Atanya. Rayan and Hatari had come along at Adhima’s suggestion. The pride left teaching the cubs how to hunt up to their mothers. Chache had no cubs, but she did what she could to help out the others with theirs. She hoped that one day she would catch, but as she was already nine years old, the general thought was that she was barren.

            Hatari and Rayan let their pace slow down so that the three cubs in the rear caught up to them. “And there she goes again,” Rayan heard Sarana mutter under her breath.

            “She’s just talking,” said Rayan.

            “And talking,” said Sarana.

            “And talking,” said Jibu.

            “And talking,” said Atanya.

            “Yeah, but it’s just around her mom,” said Rayan.

            “And she’s always around her mom,” said Jibu. “Mommy this, Mommy that—”

            “It’s just not normal,” said Sarana firmly.

            “Well, I don’t know how you would know what’s normal,” said Hatari with a grin.

            “Hey!”

            Hatari ducked Sarana’s blow. “Females are crazy,” he said. “Dad said so.”

            “Are not!” protested Atanya.

            “Just completely loony—ow!” Sarana didn’t miss that time. “Hey, I’m just sayin’.”

            “Let’s see how many females want to get your food,” said Jibu.

            “Hey, we’re learning to hunt, too,” said Rayan. “We won’t need any females to get us our food.”

            “Please, you’ll be as lazy as your daddy,” said Sarana. Hatari snickered. “And your dad’s just as bad!”

            “Oh, so because we rule, we can’t expect to be fed?” asked Rayan. “We see how it is. I’m thinking exile, huh, Hatari?”

            “Just a couple days in the desert and you’d come back and appreciate our ruling,” said Hatari. “Do you have any idea how much work it is to keep this kingdom the way it is and not turning into desert?”

            “You don’t have any idea, either!” said Jibu.

            “Oh yeah? You gotta—”

            Hatari’s list of all the things that he thought held the kingdom together was cut short by a “Shh!” from Kaata. The cub’s heads snapped to the lioness. Kaata was on top of a hill, and was staying low. She had a paw under her muzzle, the universal sign for quiet, or rather, keep your jaw closed. She motioned the cubs forward to her. They could see a heard of antelope in the grass below them.

            “Look closely,” she said quietly. “Down there, in the grass. There isn’t much time, look.” The cubs looked, but could see nothing. “Right by that boulder halfway down the hill.”

            The cubs looked harder, then Jibu suddenly let out a small squeal. “It’s Mommy—”

            Kaata glared at Jibu, Jibu falling silent. “The most important thing about hunting is quiet,” she said sternly. “You hunt your prey quietly, you stalk them quietly, and you flush them quietly. There is no need to speak through the entire exercise. The smallest noise can alert them.” Kaata pointed over to the side of the herd, in the grass. “Look hard over there.”

            There was a pause before Hatari said quietly, “It’s Chache.”

            “The two of them are going to rush the herd at different times. This is one way that you may hunt. Another is rushing together. The first one is safer, but the second has a much higher possibility of killing two carcasses. If you have enough, you may even encircle the herd and rush them at once. That way is dangerous, foolish, and is almost guaranteed to injure a lioness, unless all of them have practiced it before. One lioness could ruin everything. Now watch.”

            The cubs looked at the two lionesses, waiting for them to strike. The lionesses didn’t move. “What are they doing?” asked Rayan, his curiosity getting the better of him.

            “They are separating the strong from the weak. It is imperative that you don’t try to catch a full-grown animal in its prime. It only increases the chance that the animal will get away. The chances of you catching your prey is slim enough, you don’t need any more things to take your luck away. You should aim for an older animal, or one that isn’t fully grown. Sick ones are acceptable, but if they—look!”

            The cubs looked down and watched as Hira slowly crept forward. She suddenly rushed them. The herd scattered, trying to flee from the lioness. Hira leapt for a buck and caught its neck. “Look!” said Kria.

            The others heads turned. Chache had just broken cover. She ran after the herd frantically, trying to reach them. Her endurance finally gave out; she wasn’t meant for anything longer than a short sprint.

            “She missed them,” said Jibu. “How’d she miss them?”

            “Look at your mother,” said Kaata. The cubs turned to see Hira with her buck. The buck was on the ground, thrashing. Hira was on its back, her head positioned so that her jaw was over the neck of the antelope, pressing down on the windpipe. The terror in the animal’s eyes was obvious. Its movements began to slow down.

            “She is strangling the antelope,” said Kaata. “You hope that you break their neck if you hit their neck like Hira did. But if you don’t, this is the best option. You can puncture their throat and tear it out if the animal is stunned, but that is very risky. Choking them is the best idea. You are already tired by the time you reach the animal and bring it down; you must use every amount of strength that you have to hold on to the animal’s neck. You must not let go.”

            Almost as if by magic, the buck stopped moving as Kaata finished speaking. “Yay Mom!” yelled Jibu. She began to scamper down the hill.

            “Stop!” commanded Kaata. “You have to wait after they stop moving. You have to be sure. Wait!” Indeed, Hira had not let go of the antelope’s throat. When she finally did, Kaata said, “Now you can go.”

            The cubs ran down the hill toward the fresh meat. Hira looked back at the group with a smile. Kaata walked down the hill after them. “That was great, Mom,” said Sarana.

            “Yeah!” said Atanya.

            “Thank you, girls,” said Hira with a smile.

            “Sorry,” said Chache coming up behind the group, out of breath. “I just—too fast.” She smiled. “I’m losing my touch.”

            “Well, hunters get first bites,” said Hira, nodding toward the carcass for Chache.

            Chache shook her head. “I ate yesterday; I’m fine. Besides, you’ve got seven—no, eight mouths to feed with just him,” she said, nodding toward the buck. “Eat up.” She began to walk away. “I’ll be back at the den,” she called back.

            The cubs looked at Chache before Kaata caught their interest again with “Now cubs, what was the one mistake Hira made?” Hira glared at Kaata.

            “Uh . . . I don’t know,” said Hatari.

            “She jumped wrong?” guessed Kria.

            “She picked the wrong buck,” said Kaata. “This is a buck that you would not want to catch. He’s right in his prime. He could have gotten away, and your mother could have been hurt.”

            “But it didn’t happen that way,” Hira said coldly. “So maybe you shouldn’t point out useless facts, sister.”

            “I’m just trying to teach them how to hunt,” said Kaata.

            “I can teach my cubs how to hunt just fine. I knew I was going to get this buck.” She looked down at the cubs, the glare being replaced by a smile. “Go ahead and start eating, girls—”

            “Hey!”

            “Sorry; girls and princes. It looks as if my dear sister has some things to critique about my hunting.”

            Kaata looked away, embarrassed for a reason she couldn’t quite put her paw on. “I’m just trying to help,” she said.

            “Then don’t say useless things.” Hira bent down and began to devour the carcass with the cubs. Kaata watched for a moment, then turned in the direction that Chache had gone.

            “Mommy, where are you going?” asked Kria.

            “Just back to the den,” said Kaata. “Come home with Aunt Hira, if it isn’t too much of a burden.”

 

 

 

            The Pits. Every animal knew to stay away from the Pits. The place was nothing more than a barren waste, with no way of any animal living there comfortably. They were notorious for their acid spits, an unpredictable act of nature that would burn whatever animal happened to be in the way of the burning substance. The forbidding sky loomed overhead, stained grey from natural pollutants, dampening the light from the sun.

            “Hatari, we shouldn’t be here,” hissed Sarana. The little cub looked around the wasteland. The entire area was stone. There were no plants at all. The acid had destroyed any life the ground had, leaving only hard earth and bare rock to cover the acid. “We could get in big trouble for this.”

            “I know,” said Hatari with a smile.

            “If our Mom finds out about it—” began Sarana’s sister Jibu quietly. The place seemed to conjure up a need for quiet.

            “They don’t need to know,” said Hatari. The small group of cubs was comprised of Hatari, Sarana, Rayan, Kria, Jibu, and Atanya. They stood on the edge of the Pits. All of them were scared out of their wits, save Hatari. Not that they would admit it. They were “nervous.”

            “Hatari, you’ve heard all those awful stories.” Rayan didn’t need to elaborate. They all knew what those stories were. Animals that had had their pelts burned off, had been blinded, scarred, disfigured. And because there were those that felt that the stories were nonsense, there were animals that were living reminders of what could happen in the Pits.

            “They’re just used to scare us away,” said Hatari. “There’s nothing wrong with this place.”

            “Yeah, but how would you know?” asked Sarana.

            “Because I’ve been here plenty of times,” said Hatari cockily.

            “When?” asked Atanya suspiciously.

            “I’ve just been here,” said Hatari. “It isn’t like I come here every day.”

            “Hatari,” said Kria quietly, “I don’t like it here.”

            “When have you ever been known to like anything?” dismissed Hatari. “Look, it’s perfectly safe around here if you know what you’re doing.”

            “Hatari, it’s dangerous here,” protested Atanya. There was a sudden spitting sound and the group jumped, some of the girls giving little shrieks. Acid spit into the sky out of a crack, and landed on the hard rock surface of the Pits, where it continued to sizzle for a few moments before sinking back into the stone.

            “See!” said Atanya. “See!”

            “But if you know how to avoid that,” said Hatari, “this place is great.”

            “There’s no way to avoid that!” protested Sarana.

            “Yeah, it just jumps out of the ground!” said Rayan.

            “It doesn’t just jump out of the ground,” said Hatari. “Just listen.” The group went quiet as they listened to the sounds of the Pits.

            “I don’t hear anything,” said Kria.

            “Shh!” said Hatari. There was nothing to listen to. They were about to tell that to Hatari when they heard a faint growl coming from the ground. Just moments later, acid spit up again into the air.

            “See!” said Hatari. “All you have to do is listen for that, and you can tell when it’s going to happen. You can even tell where.”

            “That’s it?” asked Sarana.

            “It’s too easy,” said Jibu. “There has to be more.”

            “Easy?” said Hatari scornfully. “Easy? Do you guys have any idea how long it actually took me to figure that out?” He turned to go further into the Pits. “Come on!” he said.

            “Hatari!” hissed Rayan. “Hatari! Are you crazy?!”

            “Come on!” said Hatari. Sarana started after him hesitantly, Rayan following her, then Atanya and Jibu together, and Kria bringing up the rear. The group walked up to Hatari, and began to follow him through the wasteland. “There’s tons of stuff here,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of bones around here. I think they’re from animals that got trapped in here.”

            “Ew!” said the girls. “Gross!”

            “And they say that they were trapped,” said Hatari in a spooky voice, “unable to move, slowly burning away from the acid that seeped into their bones, and now their spirits walk the Pits, preying on innocent little cubs that happen to wander into their domain.” Hatari obviously followed after his father in terms of theater.

            “Hatari!” said Jibu angrily. “Don’t try to scare us like that! It’s bad enough as it is.”

            Hatari laughed. “Sure. I’ll just—” His face suddenly changed into an expression of horror. He began to back away slowly. “Guh—guh—ghost!” he suddenly yelled. The group turned around hurriedly and jumped back toward Hatari as they did so. There was nothing there. Hatari burst out into more laughter. “Oh, I got you so good!”

            “Hatari!” the group yelled. Sarana and her sisters jumped on Hatari, knocking him to the ground on his back.

            “Hey! Ow!” yelled Hatari. “Play—” His words were cut off by the sudden sound of acid spitting a short distance away. The girls’ heads recoiled in shock, and Hatari used the moment to push them off him with his forepaws. He turned over and jumped up, running away from them. “Betcha can’t catch me!”

            That one statement seemed to relieve all of the tension that had been caused by the acid spurt. The cubs happily chased after Hatari, trying to catch him. He led them all over the Pits, showing them everything he had found so far. There were indeed bones that had had their owner’s fur and meat melted off. There were very few, though. There couldn’t have been more than ten that the cubs had seen.

            The cubs became more and more proficient at recognizing the moments before an acid flow. No one was burned, though there were a few close calls. It seemed that Hatari was right. The more you got to know your way around the Pits, the less harmless it seemed. Relax, have fun, so long as you listen hard.

            The games they could play, however, were limited. Hide and go seek was out of the question. There was no place anyone could hide; the Pits were completely flat and had no plants. No one could stay in one place for too long, anyway. There was always the chance of an acid spurt.

            Tag, on the other hand, was a game that everyone could enjoy. The Pits were almost ideal for it. The place was flat; you could run as far as you wanted. The acid spurts were something you always had to look out for in addition to the seeker, almost an extra challenge. The seeker had to watch out for them, too. There were plenty of times that a cub thought it had caught its prey, only to hear a faint rumble and have to stop dead as they waited for the acid to pass, the other cub bounding away to safety.

            Of course, all good things come to an end. There was such a thing as a curfew, and for the cubs, it was now. “Guys,” Hatari yelled out, “we need to get back!”

            “Aw, but we’re having fun,” protested Rayan. “Can’t we wait just a little longer?”

            “Look at the sun,” said Hatari.

            “You can’t even see the sun,” said Sarana. “The clouds are too thick.”

            “It’s over there, and it’s way too low. We have to get back now, or we’re all in trouble.”

            “Come on, Hatari, just a little longer?” asked Jibu in her best sweet-little-cub voice.

            “Yeah,” the other cubs said.

            Hatari looked tempted. “We can come back tomorrow. But we have to go,” he said firmly.

            “Aww.”

            “Now come on.” Hatari began to lead them out of the Pits. “We can stay here all day tomorrow. And the next day. As long as we want.”

            “I can’t come tomorrow,” said Rayan unhappily.

            “Why not?” asked Kria quietly.

            “Some thing Dad has going. Something about Rahimu.”

            “Who’s that?”

            “God.”

            “Aiheu’s God, stupid,” said Hatari.

            “Dad says Rahimu’s another one.”

            “How many gods can there be?” asked Atanya.

            “I dunno.”

            “Yeah, well, no one says anything about this to anyone,” said Hatari.

            “What? The gods?” asked Jibu.

            “No, the Pits. We would get in so much trouble and we’d be grounded for a million years.”

            “Oh, yeah.”

            “This is just our secret, right?” asked Sarana.

            “Yeah,” said Hatari. “No one needs to but us.”

            There was a faint rumble.

            “But what if Mom asks us?” asked Kria.

            “Then don’t tell her,” said Hatari. “It’s that simple.”

            “Sarana, move!” yelled Rayan.

            “What?” everyone asked.

            Rayan rushed forward and head-butted Sarana in the side. Immediately acid spat up. The others gasped. Rayan screamed. His head jerked up, the others screaming as they saw his burnt face. The acid had hit him directly. Fur was charred, flesh exposed and burned in turn. The acid had covered almost his entire face.

            Rayan stepped backward, shaking his head, trying to somehow get rid of the burning that way. Acid spat up again in a different place, hitting his right flank, and then yet again on his left. Rayan collapsed, screaming in pain. The others ran, shrieking as they went toward the border of the Pits.

            The pain was intense. Rayan’s screams slowly settled down into whimpers and moans. Tears slid down his face, the salt-water making the burns sting even more. “Hatari?” he asked softly. “Sarana? . . . Jibu? . . . Anyone?” There was no answer. Rayan sobbed quietly, the stinging producing even more tears. He had forgotten to ask for the one he wanted most.

            Daddy.

 

 

 

When I was a young boy

My father took me into the city

To see a marching band.

He said, “Son when you grow up

will you be the savior of the broken,

the beaten, and the damned?”

He said, “Will you defeat them?

Your demons, and all the nonbelievers,

the plans that they have made?”

                                                Welcome to the Black Parade

 

            “Hatari, we’re gonna get in so much trouble,” said Kria, fear obviously in her voice. None of them even pretended to be “nervous” anymore, they were all very, very scared.

            “I know,” said Hatari.

            “We’re gonna have to tell them something about Rayan,” said Kria.

            “I know.”

            “Oh, Hatari, we’re gonna be in so much trouble.”

            “I know.”

            “Reen’s gonna be so mad—”

            “I KNOW!” Hatari yelled. “We all get it, Kria! Can’t you just shut up like you usually do?! Of all the times you pick to talk—”

            “I’m worried, Hatari.”

            “Kria, just shut up,” said Sarana. “Gods, can’t you just be quiet? We need to think of something to tell them, not be reminded of how bad we’re going to get it.”

            “Couldn’t we just tell them the truth?”

            “Are you nuts?” all four of the other cubs yelled.

            “Mommy always says it’s better if you tell the truth. That you won’t get punished so bad.”

            “They say that so you won’t feel so bad about telling them!” said Atanya. “They’ll still punish you!”

            “But not as bad—”

            “How do you know?” asked Hatari coldly.

            “Well I—I just—Mommy said . . .”

            “Mommy says a lot of things. And we all know how far your mother’s word goes in this pride. So if you can’t think of anything good, Kria, shut up.”

            Kria looked as if she was ready to cry. She didn’t know what to do, she didn’t know how Rayan was; the only thing she did know was that she was going to get into a lot of trouble. “Oh, don’t start bawling,” said Jibu.

            “If—if you won’t tell them I’ll—I’ll—”

            “What?” asked Sarana. “Stutter at us?”

            “I’ll tell them!” Kria began to run toward the den.

            “Get her!” yelled Hatari. The cubs began to scramble after her, and in just a few seconds Kria was pinned down on the ground.

            “Get off me!” she yelled. “It hurts!”

            Hatari, who was sitting on top of her and twisting one of her legs painfully backward, said, “We’re not letting you go now.”

            “It hurts!” said Kria, tears streaming down her face. “Just stop it! Stop it!”

            “We’re not letting you go; you’ll run away again,” said Atanya. “You’ll just get us in even more trouble.”

            “Just get off my leg!” screamed Kria. “Get off it! Get off it!”

            “Hatari, maybe we should let go of her leg,” said Sarana. Her two sisters didn’t look quite as enthusiastic.

            “She’ll run away again!” protested Hatari.

            “Get off it! Get off it! Get—”

            “Hatari, I think she means it,” said Sarana.

            “And what’re we going to do the next time she runs off?”

            “Get off it! Get off it! Get off it! Get off—” There was a sudden crack, and Kria gasped, then let out a full-bodied scream. Hatari hurriedly got off and gasped as he saw Kria’s leg at an angle it most certainly shouldn’t have been at.

            “Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods,” said Jibu, plainly terrified. “We are gonna get it so bad.”

            “Get Dad!” said Hatari.

            “What?” asked Atanya.

            “Get—never mind, stay here, I’m going to get Dad!” Hatari ran off toward the den, his heart feeling ten times larger than normal. He hadn’t meant to hurt her, he just wanted to make sure she didn’t tell on them. She would have just made things so much worse. They could have gotten out of it all if she hadn’t gone and done this. He had almost convinced himself that it was Kria’s fault that they were where they were by the time he got to the den.

            “Dad!” yelled Hatari as he ran into the den.

            Gymara smiled as he looked up from his conversation with his mate, Adhima. “See, here he is right now. Hatari, what have I told you about being late?”

            “Dad, you need to come here right now, there’s something wrong with Kria!”

            “What?”

            “Dad, just come on, you need to get there now!

            “Alright, I’m coming.” Gymara got up and walked out of the den after his son, going much slower than Hatari would have liked.

            “Dad, come on, you have to hurry!”

            “What is it?” asked Gymara, unconcerned. Kria probably had just cut herself or something of the like. Gymara remembered how he had once been bleeding for five minutes, and they all thought he was going to bleed to death.

            “It’s her leg; it’s all—all—Dad, it’s not right, come on!” Hatari didn’t know how to explain it; all he knew was that it made his stomach flip-flop.

            “What?” asked Gymara, hoping he wasn’t hearing what he thought he was.

            “Come on!”

            Gymara trotted after his son, easily matching Hatari’s fastest pace. It took several minutes to reach Kria and the others again. Kria rolled on the ground slightly, crying and whimpering. Gymara’s eyes immediately found the broken leg. “Gods damn it,” he said quietly. He knelt down by Kria. “Kria, just listen to me. We’ll get the shaman over here, and she’ll get something that’ll fix it. She’ll have something that’ll make the pain go away, okay?”

            “It hurts, Gymara,” whimpered Kria softly. “It hurts.”

            “Shh,” he said. “Just don’t move. Try to stop your rolling if you can. Just try not to move.” Gymara looked at the other cubs. “How did this happen?” None of the cubs answered, though Sarana, Jibu, and Atanya’s eyes all flicked to Hatari. Gymara turned to his son. “Son, I’m going to say this only one more time. How did this happen?”

            “Dad, I—I . . .” Hatari’s voice trailed off. He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t.

            Hatari,” said Gymara sternly, with no trace of happiness in his voice at all.

            “Dad, I . . . I didn’t mean to . . .”

            You broke her leg?” Gymara asked, unable to believe it.

            Hatari swallowed, then looked down at the ground and said in a barely audible voice, “Yes, sir.”

            Gymara stared at his son, mouth open slightly, but no words coming out. Gymara shut his mouth, then said quietly, “You are going to go to the den. You are going to go to your mother, and tell her to get the shaman. You are then going to go to Kaata. You are going to apologize for what you have done to Kria. You are going to sit at the den, and wait until the shaman comes back, and take her back here when arrives. In the meantime, you will think long and hard about what your punishment should be, because I guarantee it will be much, much worse than you think it should be. Go.”

            “But Dad, it was an accident—”

            “I said go!” Hatari had never been roared at by Gymara. He found out that it was excellent motivation. He turned and ran back toward the den, then suddenly stopped as he heard “Hatari!” again. He turned around to see his father looking at him. “Wasn’t Rayan with you?”

            “Yes,” said Hatari in a very small voice.

            “Where—is—Rayan?” Hatari hesitated. “Now, Hatari!” roared Gymara.

            “The Pits,” said Hatari, his voice even quieter than before.

            Gymara stared at Hatari in amazement, then suddenly swore in a way that no animal should around cubs. He looked back up at Hatari. “I told you to go!” he yelled. Hatari immediately began to run for the den again. Gymara stared at the ground. He had known Hatari would never do this; he was sure of it.

            Worry about killing Hatari later. What about Rayan?

            Gymara didn’t even know where Reen was. He had conveniently cleared off to some place, not even bothering to tell anyone where. Gymara looked down at the three cubs next to Kria. “Listen to me,” he said quietly. “I need you to be big girls and stay with Kria until that shaman comes. Just stay here.”

            “Where are you going?” asked Sarana.

            “I have to go find Reen. Just be big girls and stay with Kria.”

            “Yes, sire,” Atanya said obediently. Gymara took one last look at them and sprinted off into the savannah.

 

 

 

            “Dad, I don’t like this place.”

            “Neither do I, son. But it’s the only way we can get to the temple,” Lymo told his son Tiifu. The two leopards walked through the barren wasteland, Lymo wearing a necklace of red flowers.

            “But Dad, not even King Reen comes out here.”

            “And for good reason. I’ve told him it’s too dangerous. The acid is unpredictable at best. You never know when it will decide to come.”

            There was a sudden rumble, Lymo picked up his son hurriedly and jumped to his right, the acid spitting up out of the ground seconds later.

            “Dad, I don’t wanna be here,” the little leopard cub protested.

            “We have to maintain the temple, Tiifu. After I’m gone, you’re going to be in charge. It’s a much honored position.”

            “But Dad, I don’t wanna come through the Pits. They scare me.”

            “They scare me, too, Tiifu,” said Lymo with a smile.

            “Really?”

            “Yes. But I must maintain Rahimu’s shrine,” said Lymo. “We must show the gods that we thank them for all that they have given us.”

            “But they didn’t ask us to come here, did they? Can’t we just go home?”

            “Tiifu, do you thank others when they give you things?”

            “I—I try.” The little cub sounded as if he was afraid of being punished for not using his manners all the time.

            “The gods gave you more than anyone else could ever give you. They gave you life. And for this, we thank Rahimu. They gave us food, they gave us water, and they gave us a blessed land to live in. Don’t you think we should thank them for that?”

            “Yeah . . .  But—unh!” Tiifu was suddenly picked up by his father again as he was swept out of the acid’s path another time. He shuddered in fright.

            “It’s okay, son.”

            “Dad, don’t we—pray to thank Rahimu?”

            “Yes. We pray to thank Rahimu. But he has given us life, Tiifu,” said Lymo. “We should thank him to no end for that. The temple that was made so long ago still stands to remind all of us what the gods have given us.”

            The little cub was silent, thinking over what he had been told. He saw the circle of stones around one large one, the shrine that his father had made the pilgrimage to multiple times. “Dad,” Tiifu said, “no one’s gonna see it way out here.”

            Tiifu looked up at his father, expecting to see a smile and receive an explanation. He didn’t expect to see Lymo frowning. “I know, Tiifu. But making another temple is difficult work. I can’t—do it alone.”

            “Why not get some other animals to help?” asked Tiifu. He stepped into the circle and found that he was stepping on not the hot earth of the Pits, but a cool stone. He looked down to see a large slab of rock underneath his paws.

            “Just look around you, Tiifu. This is your first visit, and hopefully not your last. Just look. All of this was made for Rahimu. This temple has stood for many, many generations. So many animals worked to create this, all for the glory of Rahimu. Not all of them even worshipped Rahimu as a prime god; they merely helped us, as we helped them. Monuments to the gods were things that the kingdom was proud to have.”

            “Then wouldn’t it be easy just to make another one?”

            Lymo shook his head. “No, son. It’s not the same anymore. Things have been forgotten, lost, replaced. There are very few animals that worship the gods as we do. So many of the shrines that were made have been either destroyed by nature or have just been forgotten . . .” Lymo’s voice trailed off. He looked down at his son. “It is important that you remember your god, Tiifu. There is always hope, so long as there is even one that remembers who they owe everything.”

            Lymo turned to the rock in the center. He hung his head over it, the flower necklace falling off him. He swept the old, dead flowers out of the center, then carefully put the fresh ones in the center of the stone. He stepped back, then lowered his head in prayer, speaking quietly and quickly. Tiifu looked at his father, then bowed his head in imitation of his father, though he did not know what to say. He kept sneaking looks at his father as if that would help him hear the low muttering better.

            Lymo finally raised his head, then looked around the shrine, walking around the rock in the center, staring at the circle of rocks around it. “Just look at it, Tiifu,” he said. “Even after all these years, this still stands. In this barren waste, there is one place the acid doesn’t reach.” Lymo smiled. “Rahimu truly does smile on us.” He looked down at his son. Despite the fact that Lymo knew he was perfectly safe there, Tiifu didn’t seem to quite believe it. “Do you want to go home?”

            “Yes, Dad,” said Tiifu.

            “Alright. I understand if it’s a little scary. Come on.” The two of them began to make their way back through the Pits.

            “Dad?” asked Tiifu.

            “Yes?”

            “What if we did—you know—get another temple built?”

            Lymo smiled. “That would be wonderful. But it would take years, even with enough animals. Finding the materials, finding a proper place to build it . . . It would be wonderful if we could do it, son. It’s something that I would at least like to see started, if it did happen.”

            Lymo knew it was almost an impossibility. Most animals just didn’t care about actively worshipping the gods anymore. The gods were far away to them, and there seemed to be nothing that the gods did to intervene in life. They paid lip service, but that was mostly it. The gods had never required much, but the animals now did almost nothing.

            Lymo was so immersed in his own thoughts of immorality that he didn’t even notice an acid spurt until it had gone off, Tiifu yelling in fear. “It’s okay, son,” said Lymo. “It’s over there, it won’t hurt you.” Yes, Tiifu had a long way to go before he was comfortable out here.

            Lymo kept close watch on his son from then on. Tiifu nearly shook with fear of the Pits. Despite the fact that he knew he was safe with his father, he was still afraid. Finally Tiifu said, “Dad?”

            “I’m taking you home as quickly as I can, son.”

            “Dad, what’s that?”

            Lymo looked in the direction Tiifu was staring. There was a small lump on the flat ground. “My soul,” said Lymo quietly. “Just look away, Tiifu.”

            “What is it?”

            “It’s—it’s a poor cub, Tiifu.”

            “He isn’t—dead, is he?”

            “I’m afraid so, Tiifu. Just try not to think about it. There’s nothing we can do.”

            “Dad, I want to go home,” said Tiifu, his voice more worried than ever.

            “I know, son. I’m going as quickly as possible.” Lymo couldn’t help but stare at the cub. It was a good distance away. Lymo was thankful for that; Tiifu didn’t have to see the horrible burns where the acid had eaten away at the cub’s flesh for what undoubtedly had been days. He did not want to see that. So many animals had wandered into the Pits, only to be devoured by the acid slowly. It was a horrible, painful death. Lymo almost wanted the shaking he saw in the cub to be real, so he knew the cub wouldn’t have been submitted to that kind of death.

            Or was the shaking real?

            “Tiifu, stop,” said Lymo.

            “Dad, I want to go home.”

            “Does that cub look like it’s moving?”

            “I—I don’t know. . . . Dad, where are you going? Dad!”

            “Tiifu, follow me. You’re not safe over there alone.”

            Tiifu followed his father. “Dad, you said it was dead. Can we go home?”

            Lymo ignored his son’s request for once. As he got closer to the cub, he could see that, sure enough, it was shaking. Lymo hurried toward the cub, and let out a gasp as he saw that it was a lion cub, and a male. The cub’s face was disfigured; it was impossible to distinguish if it was Hatari or Rayan. Acid had seared the cub’s sides, singing the fur on the edges of the burn and burning into the flesh in the center.

            “Tiifu, it’s one of the royal cubs,” breathed Lymo. “And he’s alive.”

            “He’s alive?”

            “Yes. But he’s not awake.” Lymo turned to look at Tiifu. “I want you to follow me very closely, Tiifu. We have to get him out of here as quickly as possible. Do you understand?”

            “Yeah,” said Tiifu, slight uncertainty in his voice.

            “Then follow me.” Lymo nipped the cub in the scruff of the neck where there were no burns, and lifted him. He began to carry him out of the Pits, Tiifu following.

 

 

 

            “Reen!” yelled Gymara. “Reen!” Of all the times to leave, Reen had to have picked now. “Reen!” There was no where else that Gymara could think of. He had been to Unir’s memorial, the one place he had expected Reen to be. He didn’t know where else Reen could be. Well, that wasn’t true. Reen could be anywhere in the kingdom, doing any number of things. The two brothers ran their own halves of the kingdom almost completely separate from each other. For all Gymara knew, Reen could be meeting with someone right now.

            “Reen!”

            The den. That was one place he hadn’t checked. Yes, Reen might go there; he might want to be home to see Rayan when he got back from playing. Gymara headed for the den, utterly exhausted and unable to do any more than walk. Lions weren’t meant to run for this long.

            “Reen!” yelled Gymara.

            He went through the kingdom, yelling out Reen’s name, making for the den. He finally came within sight of the den. “Reen!” he bellowed. No one came out for a few moments, then Reen appeared in the mouth of the den. “Reen!” said Gymara.

            Reen hurried over to Gymara. “What is it?” he asked.

            “Rayan—he’s in the Pits,” said Gymara.

            What?” exclaimed Reen, obviously worried.

            “It’s not his fault, it’s Hatari’s, but you can punish him later. Reen, we have to get Rayan out of there.”

            Reen suddenly started sprinting off into the savannah.

            “Hey! Where’re you going? They’re the other way!” yelled Gymara.

            “Come on!” yelled Reen. Gymara started to sprint after him, his body begging him to stop. Unfortunately, Reen wasn’t tiring. He ran with a purpose. Gymara began to slow down to a trot.

            Finally, the two ended up in a place that Gymara recognized as a leopard enclave. Reen stopped inside it, Gymara putting on a bit more speed to catch up the distance he had lost. “Where’s Lymo?” Reen asked a startled leopardess.

            “He’s out at the temple right now, sire,” she said, staring at the panting lion in front of her with slight alarm. “Why?”

            “He’s back, Haja,” called another leopardess. “He’s—oh, my word,” she said as she saw Reen. “Sire, I didn’t know they’d already sent for you.”

            “About what?” asked Reen.

            “About your son,” the leopardess said. “Surely you know—”

            “What about Rayan?” asked Reen, moving over to the leopardess quickly, despite his weariness. “Is he safe?”

            “He’s—follow me, sire.”

            “Is he safe?” insisted Reen.

            “He’ll live, sire.” Gymara watched as his brother was taken away by the lioness. He half lied down, half collapsed to the ground.

            “And I’ll just wait here, shall I?” he muttered. He looked over at the leopardess Haja. “What’s happened?”

            “I know just as little as you, sire.”

 

 

 

            Reen followed the leopardess to where he knew Lymo stayed. “What happened?” he asked the leopardess anxiously.

            “Sire, it’s best if Lymo tells you. I’m not quite sure. He’s the one who found Rayan. Please, sire, I don’t know anything,” she said, heading off another question.

            Reen followed worriedly as the leopardess led him to Lymo, horrible images flashing through his mind. What had happened to Rayan? “He’ll live,” the leopardess had said. Pictures of what that could possibly mean raged uncontrollably through his mind. He imagined legs missing, bones broken, his back crushed . . .

            “Ilya, there you are,” Reen heard Lymo say, unable to see the leopard yet. “Did you send word to—Sire! Come quickly. It’s best if you see for yourself.”

            “What happened?” demanded Reen, abandoning the leopardess and latching himself onto Lymo.

            “Your son was injured when I found him in the Pits.”

            “Oh, gods, it’s true!” said Reen, anguish in his voice. “I’d hoped it hadn’t—Gymara was wrong—oh, gods!

            “Sire, listen to me,” said Lymo, putting a paw on Reen’s shoulder to stop him. “Sire.”

            “What?” asked Reen, obviously not quite comprehending anything.

            “Sire, listen to me. Listen. Your son will live. He will be perfectly fine. There should be no side effects from the burns, but—”

            “Burns? Gods—”

            “Sire, listen! Focus! Please, Reen, just listen! Rayan will be fine. I’ve done everything I can to help him. There is no doubt in my mind that he’ll grow up to be a fine lion like his father. But you have to understand that he is not in a position to be worried right now. He’s awake now, and he’s in a lot of pain.”

            “What happened?

            “He was burned in the Pits. By acid.”

            “Oh gods—”

            “Reen, listen. He will be perfectly fine, but the side effects will last. You’re going to be shocked, Reen. But you have to remember that he is in no position to explain himself. Don’t ask him to talk, don’t ask him to move. Just remember he’ll be fine.” Lymo looked at Reen worriedly, seeing the lion in front of him being desperately worried and anxious. “Do you understand me, Reen?”

            “Rayan—Rayan will be fine.”

            “Yes, that’s right, Rayan will be fine. And what else?” asked Lymo gently. Reen didn’t answer. “Don’t ask him to talk or move. You have to be strong for him, sire.” Lymo smiled, trying to ease Reen’s mind. “He’ll be fine, sire. Do you want to see him now, or do you want a little more time?”

            “Now,” said Reen, almost immediately. “I want to see him now.”

            “Alright. He’s just around the corner over there, by the pond. I’ll send in a leopardess if you need anything.” Lymo saw Reen walk around the corner, not knowing what was quite going through the king’s mind. Lymo turned to see Ilya, the leopardess that had brought Reen to him, standing not too far from him.

            “I assume that I’m the leopardess you spoke of?” she asked with a smile.

            Lymo’s smile faltered. “Just make sure he doesn’t do anything rash. Please.” He kissed her gently on the cheek, and headed off for the savannah.

            “Where are you going?”

            “The shaman. Just watch the king.”

 

 

 

            Reen walked around the corner, not knowing what to expect. He saw the little form next to the pool that could have only been his son. He went closer, then drew in a gasp. Rayan’s head rose up, hearing the noise, letting Reen get a full look.

            This wasn’t his son. His son had such a wonderful face, a smiling face, a happy face. That face wasn’t there anymore. He was no longer recognizable as Rayan. The acid had gnawed at his face, disfiguring it. Fur had been charred, flesh had been torn through. The acid had reacted badly with Rayan’s skin, making it bubbly in places.

            He will be perfectly fine, but the side effects will last.

            “Oh, gods,” said Reen, horrified.

            “Da—” Rayan shut his mouth. It hurt to talk, the act stretching his face, moving the burnt areas.

            “Don’t talk, Rayan,” said a voice behind Reen. Reen turned around to see Ilya walking up behind him. “You know Lymo said not to talk.”

            Rayan nodded slowly. He looked up at his father mutely, asking for some kind of reassurance.

            “It’ll be okay, Rayan. It’ll be just fine,” said Reen. Rayan nodded again.

            “Lymo went to get the shaman, sire,” said Ilya. “He should have something to help speed up the healing. Numb the pain, too.”

            Reen nodded. He looked back at Rayan. “Just rest, son. It’ll be better soon.”

 

 

 

            It took Rayan several days to heal to the point where he could talk with permission. Like all cubs, though, he realized that he didn’t have to have permission to talk. Though he was able to bend the rule on speaking, he wasn’t able to break the rule for moving at all. The den was his permanent home, the outside world only being there for toilet and water breaks. Meat had to be torn off carcasses to be brought to the den for him to eat.

            He wasn’t the only one receiving the sick treatment, though. Kria stayed with him, being unable to move at all, being carried to and from the grass where she took care of business, and being supported in the act. Her leg had been tied tightly in a splint made from thin vines and a piece of bark. She was, in a way, worse off than Rayan. Her recovery would be slow, the leg needing more time to heal than Rayan’s burns.

            The two of them were kept in a part of the den reserved specially for illness. It was off to the side of the main den, and had only a small hole leading to it from the main den. It had access to the outside, so that the sick could receive visitors, but almost no one from the den could see them if they didn’t want to be seen.

            Rayan certainly wasn’t in a position to be seen.

            The sick den was big enough for only two lionesses. Kaata stayed with her daughter and Rayan. Reen was thankful for that. He didn’t want to have to ask a lioness to take care of Rayan while he took care of the kingdom. Kaata was already practically a mother to Rayan, having already nursed him and cared for him if both Reen and Gymara were gone.

            Reen would go to visit his son and, most times, see him sleeping against Kaata’s side. He would smile at her as she looked up at him, and would receive her smile back. They’d whisper about how the two were doing, and he would sleep outside the den, as there wasn’t quite enough room for him inside. Kaata cared so well for Rayan. Almost as well, Reen felt, as Unir would have.

            It was enough to make him wonder how such a tender animal could have done such horrible things. But was in the past. She had more than made up for it; he would have never allowed Rayan near her otherwise. But her mother, of all tragedies . . .

            The shaman became a daily visitor to the sick den. The only thing the cheetah had to offer Rayan was a salve for the burns, made out of a soothing plant that had been ground up and added to water. She gave painkillers to both Rayan and Kria, which usually happened to be sedatives. The cheetah knew how tedious lying still while being sick could be, especially as a cub. Sleeping was preferred to long hours of boredom.

            The other cubs involved weren’t given sedatives. They were given groundings. Hatari knew he was in trouble when his father had yelled at him, but he hadn’t realized just how much trouble until he found himself in the den with Rayan and Kria, himself and the other cubs not being allowed to speak at all. Anything they did that wasn’t allowed was punished.

            The shaman finally came one day and gave Rayan a thorough inspection. The burns had stopped hurting too badly, and she said that he should be well enough to walk and talk. For the other cubs, Rayan’s freedom meant theirs, too. It had been an unspoken agreement by the adults that as soon as Rayan could walk, they might as well let the other cubs have their freedom so he could have someone to play with. If he wanted to play with them.

            The night of the day that Rayan was given a clean bill of health, Reen decided to take him out to the kingdom. “Where’re we going, Dad?” asked Rayan.

            “I want to talk to you, Rayan. I need to tell you something that I should have—well, not a long time ago, but before this, at least.”

            “What is it, Dad?”

            “Just wait, son. Just let me think it over.”

            “Think what over?”

            Reen chuckled. Yes, his son really was healed. “Just wait.”

            The two of them walked to a place that Reen had often enjoyed in his youth, his paws taking him there unconsciously. He had spent many times here with Unir. It was the first place that he had shared himself fully with her, in mind, soul, and body. It had been their first for so many other things, too. Their first kiss, their first “I love you,” their first (and last) engagement, the first news that she was pregnant. He smiled as he saw the little pond on top of the small hill. It had been their little hideaway, their escape from the world. It wasn’t exactly private, but it had seemed so with her.

            “Rayan,” said Reen, “look into the water.”

            Rayan placed his head over the water, then drew in a gasp as he saw the reflection. “Dad, my—my face—Dad, is that me?”

            “Yes, Rayan. That’s what you look like now. The acid burned your face, along with your hind legs.” Reen skipped the part where the shaman had mentioned that there was the possibility of being sterile. “You are scarred, Rayan.”

            “But Dad—why? Why did it happen?”

            “The acid must have hit you in the face, son. I’m sorry—”

            “But why did it happen to me?” Rayan looked away from the pool, not wanting to see his face any more. “They’ll think I’m a freak, Dad.”

            “Rayan, no one is to blame for this—”

            “Then why did it happen? It’s not fair.”

            “Rayan—son—what happened to you was a horrible, horrible thing. Granted, you could have taken precautions, like not going to the Pits at all. But you are not going to be punished for your foolishness. What happened to you is more than enough punishment. Those scars are never going to go away, Rayan. You are never going to be normal. And it is not your fault. From what I understand, you saved Sarana.”

            “But why did I have to end up like this? I did something nice, and look at me! You always said to do the right thing, and it hurt so bad!”

            “Rayan, when you do the right thing, it isn’t often the easiest thing. It’s something that may not even have an obvious reward. But what you did saved Sarana from having your fate. And you will be a living testimony for others of your bravery.”

            “But Dad, I look like—like a monster!”

            “Rayan . . . you do look—bad. But you should not try to find someone else to blame. You see, we were created, all of us, by the gods. They know what will happen, what will become of each of us. And most of all, they care for us. The gods do not throw someone around as they please because they think it’s fun. They will always look after you, but they want to be respected. They gave you everything, and they would like to receive tribute.”

            “So they did this to me because I did something wrong?” asked Rayan, his mind flitting through all of the things he shouldn’t have done.

            “No, Rayan. Most of all, you must not blame the gods for what happens to you. They are there, but they can only guide. You must choose your actions. They will always give an animal a chance to redeem itself in their eyes. They love you Rayan; they love all of us. When an animal has turned away from them, they weep for that animal.”

            “What’s weep?”

            “They cry, son.”

            “But why would they cry?”

            “You see, Rayan, that’s how much they love you. They are, in a way, your parents. You are their cub. And they want you to love them, and they want your love so much, and love you so much, that if you turn away from them, they will consider it a tragedy. A horrible, horrible thing.”

            “But Dad, that doesn’t make sense. I don’t even know them. And you’re saying they did this to me? And they love me?”

            “No, Rayan. They are not to blame. We are to blame for our own actions. They give us the chance to choose what we do. Our consequences are our own.”

            “So all the bad things that happen . . . they’re all our fault?”

            “Yes, Rayan. That is a way of putting it. But they are not necessarily your fault. Other animals do bad things. But we must never forget that we should do good, in spite of others’ bad. We will be rewarded by the gods when we die.”

            “But Dad . . . why don’t they do something?”

            “What do you mean?”

            “If they love us so much, then why do they let bad things happen?”

            “The gods are powerful, son. They could undoubtedly stop every bad thing from happening. But the gods give us freedom of choice. They know that we will suffer, and they give us the knowledge that we will be rewarded to help ease our pain. You will be made whole again, Rayan. Not in this life, but the next. You acted for Sarana, and that was the right thing. The gods will reward you for that.”

            “But Dad, I don’t want this! I’m ugly! That’s all I am! I’m an ugly monster!”

            “Rayan, I can’t deny that you do not have the best looks for a lion. But you are a very, very long way from being a monster. You are a kind, gentle young cub that I love very, very much. And the gods see you in the same way.”

            Rayan let his head go back over the pond, looking at his reflection. “But Dad, I don’t wanna be this way.”

            “I can’t change how you look, son. I would if I could. But I can’t. You can only take refuge in knowing what you did was right.”

            Rayan looked down at the pond, Reen seeing his frown. “Dad, I don’t wanna be this way.”

            “Let me tell you a story, son,” said Reen, lying down next to Rayan.

            “Okay,” said Rayan, his tone still not happy. He lied down next to his father. “What’s it about?”

            “It’s about a little lion cub. And the cub wandered off into the savannah, and got very, very lost.”

            “Kaata already told me this, Dad.”

            “Did she?”

            “The cub nearly got eaten, but his mom saved him, so we better not go out on our own, because our mom might not be there to help us,” said Rayan in a disinterested voice.

            “This is a different story. The cub got lost, and he nearly got eaten twice. But his mother didn’t come to save him. You see, he was in the same position that you are, Rayan. His mother died while giving birth to him. All he had was his father, who he had wandered off from.”

            “That’s stupid.”

            “Stupid though he may have been, he still wandered off. And he nearly was eaten twice, by a hyena and a cheetah. And he was very, very scared and alone. And then he came upon a leopard. He tried to run, but the leopard scooped him up in a paw, and took him home in his mouth. The leopard took care of the cub, and told him that he took care of him because it was what his god would have wanted him to do. The next day, the leopard took the cub home, and his father was very, very happy to see his cub was unharmed.”

            “I bet he still punished him.”

            “Oh, he was angry with his cub for running off. But he didn’t punish his son too badly. He gave him a very firm talking-to, and then gave him a spanking while he was at it.”

            “See? I told you he wasn’t that happy.”

            “But the little cub went back to the leopard the very next day. He wanted to know more about his god. And the leopard began to teach him all he could about Rahimu, the god of the leopards. And the cub came back every day, and he learned all that he could, not quite knowing what he had learned in full. But suddenly, the visits stopped.”

            “Why?”

            “Because the leopard, you see, had been told by the king to stop telling the cub. The cub’s father didn’t want him learning about Rahimu. He wanted his son to only know the god of lions, Aiheu.  He didn’t realize that the gods are all one group, and animals are free to choose which to follow.

            “But it was too dangerous for the cub to go back to the leopard. The leopard told the cub to never come back, or else the king would have him executed. So the cub stayed away from the leopard, but he also remembered the leopard’s warning: to never let the other lions know what he had taught the cub. So the cub had to keep his beliefs to himself, and could never tell the others. He lived a very lonely life, because no one would ever get to know him fully.”

            “That’s a sad story,” said Rayan. “Why’d you tell me that?”

            “I thought you would want to hear it. Because, you see, the cub grew up. And the cub found a friend who he could share his faith in Rahimu with, and was deeply in love with her. And they had a son, and named him Rayan.”

            “That cub was you?”

            “Yes, son. I believe in Rahimu. I worship him as my god. I give my thanks to him every day, and I praise him for all that he has done, and pray for what he might give me. But the rest of the lions worship Aiheu. They don’t know that I love Rahimu as my god. And they can’t know. I have to hide my love for my god, because it is considered to not be right.”

            “But Dad, you’re king!”

            “And I do not have enough power for that. Religion is one of the topics that is not discussed, and it is because of how careful you must be with it. Animals believe their beliefs very strongly. Religion is argued over, not talked about.”

            “But Dad, I don’t understand. Why not?”

            “It is difficult to explain, son. Every animal believes in different gods. But the gods never wanted them to argue over which god to follow. Aiheu wanted to be followed, and wanted Rahimu to be as well, and Roh’kash, and Fela, and all of the other gods. But animals fight over which one deserves to be followed. They all gave us life, and they all should be honored.”

            “But why do animals fight then?”

            “I don’t know, Rayan.”

            “You don’t know?”

            “No. I’m not sure anyone knows why. But I do know that I do not want you to fight, Rayan. You have not chosen a god to follow, and that may be the best thing. To worship all of them, not one of them. But you will have the power to do something very special, Rayan.”

            “What, Dad?”

            “I have a dream, Rayan. Of what we can do for this kingdom. Of how it could be a place that all animals could believe what they wanted. Of tolerance, and sharing. Where all animals shared their food, shared their den, and shared equally. There would be equality, and there would be no one who was higher. A community that shared everything, and no animal was better than the other.”

            “But Dad, you’re king. Aren’t you better?”

            “In a way. I have more power. But that is not what I want. I want every animal to have equal power.”

            “So . . . everyone will be king?”

            Reen smiled at his son. “That is a way of thinking about it. But I can’t make this happen.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because Sanctuary is a very, very big place. And I’m just one lion, even if I am king. I can’t make the kingdom do a certain thing. This dream of mine will happen slowly, over years. I will not live to see it. But you may, Rayan, or you may not. But I want to ask you to help me with it. I want you to help me make this kingdom equal, where we can all share and live happily.”

            “Yeah, Dad. I’ll help!”

            “I don’t think you quite understand what you’ll be doing.”

            “I’ll help you, Dad. I promise.”

            Reen smiled. He pulled his son close in a hug. “Your mother would have been proud of you.”

            “Dad, that hurts!”

            Reen hurriedly let go of his son. “I’m sorry.” He smiled at Rayan. Rayan looked up at him, then grinned, quickly stopping out of pain. “It’ll get better, son,” said Reen. “I promise.”

            “I believe you, Dad.”

 

 

 

If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.

                                    Corollary to Murphy’s Law

 

            Reen decided that it would be best to take Rayan into the main den the next morning. He stayed outside the sick den while Kaata slept inside with Kria and Rayan, then took Rayan in to the main den the next morning to see everyone.

            “Dad, what are they gonna do?” asked Rayan.

            “I don’t know, son. Just act—normal.” Reen looked down at his disfigured son and smiled. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

            Rayan scampered into the den, smiling. Almost at once the den fell silent as heads turned to see who was coming in. Rayan stopped dead, looking around at the faces of disgust and revulsion. His smile began to fade off of his face.

            Reen saw what was happening. He turned to the lioness next to him and said, “So, Kifu, did I miss anything last night?”

            The lioness jerked her head away from Rayan to look up at Reen. “Oh, uh . . . nothing really, sire. Same as normal. In fact, we . . .”

            The message was quite clear. Slowly the den began to talk amongst themselves. Rayan went over to Hatari, his pace becoming normal as he went. He didn’t notice as eyes flicked over to him, things being whispered.

            “Hey, Hatari,” said Rayan.

            “Uh . . . hi, Rayan,” said Hatari, looking away.

            “Whatcha been up to?”

            “Nothing, really. We’ve just been here,” said Hatari.

            “Hatari?” said Adhima.

            “What, Mom?”

            “Do you want to go outside and play with Rayan?”

            “Dad said I couldn’t play for a few days,” said Rayan. “He said I just needed to rest.”

            “Alright, then,” said Adhima agreeably. “Hatari can keep you company in here.”

            “Adhima,” said Gymara.

            “What?”

            “We promised.”

            “Gymara, after all that’s happened—”

            “He’s served his punishment, hasn’t he?”

            Adhima was silent.

            “Hatari, why don’t you go and see if Sarana and Jibu and Atanya want to play?” asked Gymara.

            “Sure, Dad!” said Hatari, more enthused than he had been at any other point of the conversation. He scampered off toward Hira.

            “Gymara,” said Adhima, her tone annoyed. She was stopped as Gymara put a gentle paw to her lips.

            “Adhima, I’m sure that Hatari understands. Really.” He lowered his paw and gave her a kiss in the cheek. “And if I’m wrong,” he said quietly, “I’ll make it up to you.”

            “Gymara, he could get hurt next time.”

            “There won’t be one,” said Gymara reassuringly. He kissed her again, and then another time on the neck, obviously excited.

            “Gymara—”

            “Yes?”

            “Rayan’s right there.”

            Gymara looked down at his nephew to see the cub with his head tilted to the side, watching Gymara curiously. “So he is,” said Gymara.

            “And we’re in the middle of the den.”

            “So we are,” sighed Gymara, seeing where this was obviously going.

            “And you need to be king now.”

            Gymara frowned at his mate. “But it’s been so long,” he said in an overly sad voice.

            Adhima smiled. “Two days,” she said. “So shift your lust-filled carcass outside, and maybe I’ll think about tonight.”

            “Fair enough.” Gymara kissed Adhima one last time, then pushed himself up. He walked past Rayan with a “stay out of trouble.”

            “What’s been so long, Aunt Adhima?” asked Rayan innocently.

            “Never you mind, Rayan. It’s a grownup thing. It has to do with love.” Adhima whispered the last word. Rayan made a face. “And romance.”

            “Ew!”

            “And how he just holds you so tight, and you kiss him, and—”

            “Aunt Adhima, stop!”

            “Well, you asked,” said Adhima.

            “Romance is stupid,” said Rayan.

            “You might not think that a couple years from now.”

            “I doubt it.”

            “Well, I know one thing,” said Adhima with a smile. “Boys are icky, disgusting, stupid pigs!

            “Girls are worse!” protested Rayan. “And getting dirty is fun!”

            “But we don’t have to take baths like you do. Every time Hatari comes home, it’s always straight to taking a bath.”

            “We don’t mind being dirty. It’s our body, anyway.”

            “And you’re our cubs. And you know, you look awfully dirty to me . . .” Adhima grinned evilly.

            “Aunt Adhima!”

            “Just a few licks . . .”

            “No!”

            Adhima sighed. “Fine, have it your way.” Rayan smiled. It almost seemed to Adhima that if she looked hard enough, she could still see that unmelted, unscarred cub smiling through the burns. Almost. The ugly little cub still sat in front of her, its deformed face still grinning lopsidedly.

            “So,” asked Adhima, “what are you going to do today, since you can’t go outside and play? Listen to all the boring lionesses talk about all their boring things?”

            “I guess,” said Rayan sullenly.

            “You know, I think you could spend time with Kria. I bet she’s lonely, too.”

            “I think she’s asleep,” said Rayan. “We’ve been asleep a lot. Do we just sleep more when we’re sick?”

            “You could say that,” said Adhima. “But why don’t you keep her and Kaata company today, okay? Maybe you’ll be well enough to play tomorrow.”

            “Alright,” said Rayan. He shuffled off toward the sick den, Adhima watching him. He didn’t even walk the same anymore, she realized. She wondered if that limp was permanent.

            Rayan walked into the sick den, Kaata looking up as he entered. “Oh, hello, Rayan,” she said. “I thought you’d be staying in the den.”

            “They said that Kria would be lonely,” he said. He looked down at the little sleeping cub, the flat bark on her leg hadn’t moved; it had no chance to, the only time she seemed to be awake was to eat and when Kria took her outside to relieve herself. Kria was on a much heavier diet of sedatives than Rayan was, as the shaman wanted nothing to misplace the leg’s bones.

            “Well, she’s sleeping right now,” said Kaata. “You’re welcome to stay, if you want. I’d love to have someone around.”

            “I guess,” said Rayan. He lied down carefully, making sure not to put any pressure on any of his burns. He was quiet as he stared at Kria, Kaata staring at him. “Kaata?” he finally asked, looking up at the lioness.

            “Yes?”

            “Why’s Kria asleep so much? And why was I?”

            “Because it helps you heal faster. You need to get as much rest as you can while you’re sick.”

            “Alright. I guess that makes sense.”

            “Are you tired?”

            “A little,” he said.

            “Well, you haven’t been up for a few days. You haven’t walked at all recently. You may just need to get used to running everywhere again.”

            “Okay, Kaata,” he said. He laid his head down on the ground. “I think I’ll take a nap.”

            You do that, thought Kaata with a smile. She picked up Kria’s sleeping form with a paw and brought her close to groom her.

 

 

 

            “Gymara,” said Reen as Gymara exited came out of the den.

            “What?” asked Gymara.

            “We need to talk.”

            “And we’re doing that right now.”

            “About Rayan.”

            “Yeah, I saw he’s doing pretty good.”

            “He shouldn’t have gotten that way in the first place,” said Reen, a hint of anger in his voice.

            “Yeah, that’s . . . that was bad.”

            Bad?” yelled Reen. “Is that it?! Bad?!

            “Reen, I’m not sure that this is the best time to discuss it,” said Gymara, his eyes wandering over to Sudi and Nyota, who waiting for their kings. “We need to get to the kingdom—”

            “You two!” said Reen to the two cheetahs. “Get the hell out of here!”

            “Yes, sire,” both of them said, both of them standing up and leaving, a definite rush to their gait.

            “Reen, you didn’t need to do that—” began Gymara.

            “You’re not getting away, Gymara! I have been tied up for days, and you haven’t even come near me! My son got hurt! And if I remember you correctly, you said Hatari never went anywhere near the Pits!”

            “Reen, that must have been months ago. I mean, come on, you can’t expect me to remember—”

            “I can! And I do! You said that Hatari wouldn’t lead Rayan into trouble, and look at him now! Rayan is a mess!”

            “Yes, well, I really am sorry about that,” said Gymara, seriousness in his voice.

            “Sorry doesn’t cut it! It shouldn’t have happened at all! And if you had actually instilled some discipline in Hatari, this never would have—”

            “Oh, so it’s my problem as a father now?”

            “I just saw Hatari run out of the den with all the other cubs that were involved! And we know damn well that Hira only let hers out because she saw you had let Hatari go!”

            “Hatari’s learned his lesson,” said Gymara testily.

            “Has he? You thought he’d learned it before, too! And look what happened to Rayan!”

            “Rayan was an accident,” said Gymara. “And from what it sounds like, he was the only one who got hurt out of inattention—”

            “He was trying to save Sarana!” yelled Reen, louder than ever.

            “That wasn’t what Hatari said,” said Gymara coldly.

            “He lied, Gymara! Cubs lie!”

            “Not mine,” said Gymara angrily.

            “He does! Sarana even said he pushed her out of the way!”

            “Hatari said that Rayan wasn’t paying attention and got burned. That’s all that happened. He kept playing when he shouldn’t have, and got hurt.”

            “Hatari’s lying!”

            “Hatari isn’t lying!” yelled Gymara, silencing his brother with his sudden outburst. “Hatari wouldn’t lie to me,” said Gymara coldly. “Your son might lie to you, but mine doesn’t. So don’t go pushing your problems on me.”

            My problems?!”

            “Rayan got burned. End of story.”

            “If you haven’t noticed, my son has been in the sick den for over a week! Rayan is scarred for life, and all Hatari got was grounded!”

            “So what the hell do you want me to do?!” yelled Gymara. “Go to the Pits and stick Hatari’s face in acid?! Is that it?!”

            “It’d be something!”

            “I can’t believe I’m even hearing this!” Gymara turned away.

            “Hatari’s going to run off and do the same damn thing—”

            “He won’t!” yelled Gymara angrily.

            “He will!”

            “He’s my son, the last time I checked! Not yours! I’ll punish him the way I see fit!”

            “That isn’t good enough!”

            “Then what is, Reen? What is good enough for you? Tell me that!”

            Reen was silent.

            “Rayan got hurt,” said Gymara. “Okay. Fine, I can live with that. But don’t you dare go blaming Hatari for it.”

            “If Hatari hadn’t led them there, none of this—”

            “He didn’t get Rayan hurt any more than you killed Mom!”

            “That isn’t the point!”

            “It’s exactly the point! It’s Rayan’s fault; blame him!”

            “If you had put something decent into your son, this wouldn’t have—”

            “My parenting skills aren’t an issue! I actually give Hatari some space to work with; I don’t make sure he’s always exactly between the lines!”

            “This is Hatari’s fault, and you know it!”

            “So you want an eye for an eye?! Go rip off Rayan’s head for Unir, then!”

            “You leave her out of this!” said Reen furiously.

            “This sure as hell wouldn’t have been what she wanted—”

            “Shut up!” yelled Reen as he lashed out at Gymara.

            Gymara staggered with the blow, and put a paw up to his face. He took it away to find blood. “You son of a bitch,” he said quietly.

            “Don’t you dare talk about Unir like that ever again,” said Reen, his voice shaking. “You have no idea . . .”

            “I’m done here,” said Gymara. He headed toward where Sudi had gone.

            Reen watched his brother go. He suddenly realized that he was shaking. He turned back toward the den angrily. He had half-expected Gymara to hit him back. He suddenly realized he wanted it.

            He should have never talked about Unir that way.

            Reen suddenly found himself in front of the sick den. Kaata looked up, Kria between her paws, fast asleep. She smiled as she saw Reen. “I heard raised voices, sire.”

            “Probably heard every word,” muttered Reen.

            “Actually, it’s muffled over here. I could probably have heard it better in the den.”

            Reen sighed. Something in Kaata’s smile made him relax. It was so like Unir’s in its innocence. “How is he?” asked Reen, gesturing toward Rayan.

            “He’s fine. He drifted right back off to sleep. Didn’t even need a sedative.”

            Reen smiled as some drool dribbled out of Rayan’s slightly open mouth. Kaata reached over and gently wiped it away. She looked back up at him. “Well, I’d better start being king now,” said Reen.

            “Yes, sire,” said Kaata. Reen took one last look at Rayan, then headed off to find Nyota.

 

 

 

            “Who does he think he is?” muttered Gymara.

            “Sire,” said Sudi apologetically, “I know that my father isn’t exactly the most eloquent cheetah there is, but really, if you get to know him, he can be very . . . well, he’s rather . . . on the other paw . . .”

            “I don’t give a damn about your father and his bluntness,” said Gymara in irritation.

            “Yes, sire.”

            “It’s not like that Sudi, it isn’t. It’s—well, it’s Reen.”

            “And what is wrong with sire?”

            “He’s . . . nothing. Just had a little—altercation today.”

            “Would sire like to talk about it?”

            “No. Sire just wants to beat the shit out of his brother right now.”

            “I don’t think that would be advisable, sire.”

            “You probably wouldn’t think breathing is advisable,” grumbled Gymara.

            “That’s unfair, sire,” said Sudi, hurt.

            Gymara sighed. “Sorry. I’m just not in a good mood right now.”

            “Well, if you want to talk . . .”

            “Don’t you think that’s overstepping it a bit?”

            “I am an advisor, sire.”

            “Sorry to make this sound bad, but you’re a cheetah.”

            “And, sire?”

            “They’re known for an annoying habit of honesty.”

            “We’re very proud of that, sire.”

            “You also have a tendency to let things slip.”

            “Not exactly, sire. We just don’t lie.”

            “You don’t keep secrets,” said Gymara, annoyed.

            “Sire, I’m sure that you might think that. But there are some things that we can guard—closely. We do know when to shut our mouths, sire.”

            “You really want to know, don’t you?”

            “Sire,” said Sudi humbly, “I only want to help put my king’s mind at rest.” Gymara looked over at him skeptically. “And yes, I do want to know what you have in mind.”

            “Nothing yet,” said Gymara. “I just want to hurt Reen.”

            “Sire?”

            “He said a lot of things today that really hurt. Not just about me, but about Hatari.”

            “Of course, sire. It’s only natural.”

            “I don’t know,” said Gymara, shaking his head. “Maybe it’d be enough to just go over to him and give him one across the face, I don’t know. I just know that he’s hurt me. And I don’t hurt easy.”

            “Sire, if I may speak freely . . .”

            Gymara looked over at Sudi, curious. “Go on.”

            “If I may say so, your brother has been a constant source of tension for you for years. After all—and I mean this with the greatest respect—your marriage has not been—outstanding, sire. Your brother’s has been—was—nothing but bliss, or at least it seemed that way to me. He seems to be almost godlike in his perfection. It almost seems as if he can do no wrong. And next to him—well, you seem rather . . . plain.”

            “Gee, thanks.”

            “You know I have nothing but the highest respect for you, sire. I just think that you might see your brother as—well, as larger than life. That you might think you are—living in his shadow. After all, you do one thing, and he does it better.”

            “It’s not like that,” said Gymara. “It’s just . . . yeah, it’s like that. But not completely like that. I know there are plenty of things that I do better at than him.”

            “Such as, sire?”

            “I . . . I actually know how to laugh.”

            “Yes, sire, you are rather—lighthearted. King Reen is the one that is serious and thoughtful, no?”

            “And Dad always did like that quality,” muttered Gymara. “Used to tell me to knock off the jokes when he was trying to tell me something.” He sighed. “I miss him. He used to be fun.”

            “Your father . . . well, I never knew him, sire.”

            “He was a good lion. Never really did see eye to eye with him on everything. Course, I was a—a son, right? What parent has the perfect kid?”

            “You do seem awfully fond of Prince Hatari, sire. Almost as much as King Reen does Prince Rayan.”

            Gymara looked down at the ground bitterly. “Almost.”

            “Sire, I did not intend—”

            “No, I know most animals like Reen more than me.”

            Sire, I . . .” Sudi stopped, not knowing what to say.

            “You know, he gave me shit today, this morning, about being a father. Gods, I hate him when he does that. When it’s like I’m not good enough for him. I know he doesn’t mean it that way, but that’s what it seems like sometimes. ‘I can do this, you should, too.’ Sometimes he’s a real pain in the ass. But he’s my brother.”

            “As were Aiheu and Afriti, as the legend went. Sire.”

            “We’re not gods, Sudi. And I really doubt one of us is going to go on to create Hell.”

            “Raising it, however is something completely different, sire.”

            Gymara looked over at Sudi with a smile. “Why do I feel that you’re showing a previously unknown evil side?”

            “Yes, that’s exactly it, sire. I’m Afriti in disguise, here to wreak havoc upon the kingdom, starting by making you hate your brother.” Sudi smiled at Gymara. “Really, sire, I’m only reasoning. You said I could speak freely, and I only said that I’m surprised you haven’t become angry at your brother before now. There seems to be plenty to have tension about.”

            Gymara was quiet as he continued on his way back to the den. “Sudi,” he finally said, “we’re brothers. I mean, you know what it’s like. There’re fights. You know what it’s like.”

            “Only cub, sire.”

            “Really?” said Gymara, surprised. “That’s—unnatural.”

            “It’s not unheard of, sire.”

            “Well, when you have a brother . . . you either tend to fight a lot, or you love each other. At least, that’s how I see it. And I love Reen. I know he was out of line today, but I don’t think I’d do anything that would be . . . too bad. Maybe just give him a good smack. I don’t know. It’s not like I want to kill him or anything.”

            “Of course, sire.”

            Gymara looked over at Sudi. “Did you really mean all of what you said?”

            Sudi smiled. “Sire, you were the one that said cheetahs were honest. Overly so.”

            “Right.” Gymara looked over at the den that was coming closer. “Well, me to my home, you to yours.”

            “Yes, sire. Have a good night.”

 

 

 

            Rayan woke up slowly, hearing moaning. He looked sleepily outside, half-awake, and saw something in the moonlight he didn’t quite recognize. Then he realized it wasn’t one shape he was seeing, but two. Then he recognized something else: his father was on top of a prone Kaata, swaying while he grunted slightly.

            “Reen,” he heard Kaata say quietly. “Reen, that hurts—Reen—yes, that’s it. Almost—just a little further—a little more . . .”

            Reen suddenly let out a gasp as he threw his head back. “Kaata!”

            “It’s over,” said Kaata quietly.

            Reen slowly got off Kaata and lied down. “You have no idea how much that hurt,” he said in a quiet voice, obviously not wanting to wake Rayan or Kria.

            “You’re such a cub, sire,” said Kaata in the same quiet voice. “I know you enjoyed every second of it.”

            “It was painful!” hissed Reen.

            “It was just a thorn,” dismissed Kaata. “And how in all of the gods’ names did you manage to get it into the back of your leg?”

            “I don’t know,” said Reen irritably. “I just did.”

            “Well, it was in deep. And I wouldn’t have taken so long to get out if you’d have just stood still!”

            “It hurt!

            “You were digging your claws into my paw. Do you think that didn’t hurt?”

            “Not as much,” grumbled Reen as he rolled onto his back.

            “Such a cub.”

            “Says you.”

            “I bet Rayan wouldn’t have any problem sitting still while you got a thorn out of his leg.”

            “Rayan takes after his mother.”

            “Darling little angel, is he?” said Kaata with a smile. The smile slid out her face as Reen looked up at her stonily, the mood changing instantly.

            “Unir meant more to me than you know, Kaata. Her memory is one thing I won’t have defiled.”

            “Of course, sire. I didn’t mean any disrespect,” said Kaata, bowing her head as she looked down at the ground.

            “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you, but Unir . . . it’s been a year, and I still miss her.”

            “Sire, it was—is—a very strong bond you have with Unir. I’ve never seen a happier couple. But don’t you think that you should . . . move on?”

            “With who, Kaata?” said Reen, his voice gaining an edge as he rolled back onto his stomach. “There isn’t another Unir. Not anywhere in Sanctuary. And if I can’t have Unir . . . She was special, Kaata. I won’t stain her memory with another. Not now, not ever. If I can’t have Unir, I won’t have anyone.”

            “I see, sire,” said Kaata quietly, so quietly that Rayan almost couldn’t make out the words from the sick den.

            “No, you don’t. You can’t.”

            “No one could ever be as good as Unir, sire. I know you think that.”

            Reen was silent. “Yes,” he finally said. “That’s what it amounts to. Even if that is a rather crude way of putting it.”

            Kaata nodded and walked back to the den, lying down between Rayan and Kria, within easy reach of either one if they needed her. “You should probably get some sleep, sire,” she said. “You have another full day ahead of you tomorrow.”

            Reen nodded and came closer. “I—I just want to thank you for taking care of Rayan. I know he must be a pain. But he’ll be gone in a few days.”

            “Yes, sire.”

            “And—thanks for the thorn.”

            Kaata laid her head down. “Don’t mention it, sire.”

            Reen gave her a small smile. “Good night, Kaata.”

            “Good night, sire.”

            Reen walked away toward the main den. Kaata brought his head up to watch him go, then laid it down again, tears in her eyes. She slowly began to cry, the sobs shaking her body silently. She moved her body so that Rayan was between her paws. She began to lick him slowly, grooming him. Rayan drifted back off to sleep. When he woke, he had no more than a faint memory, and dismissed it as a dream.

 

 

 

Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.

                        Jubal Harshaw

 

            Rayan was exhausted. His father walked next to him, smiling. So many things were going right today. The best day for a king was when there were no complaints, nothing to attend to other than ordinary matters. It had also been the perfect day to start Rayan off.

            When Nyota had come to the den that morning, Reen had asked her specifically if there was anything that she thought would require immediate attention, anything that would be other than routine. She had answered no, and immediately Reen had called Rayan out to join him. There would be no playing for him today.

            It was almost as good as playing for Rayan. He had never met as many animals in his entire life as he had today. Reen had brought him along for his trip around his parts of the kingdom. It would normally take all day to do that, but today’s trip seemed like it was going to end sooner than usual. There would be time for rest in the den.

            Rayan, unfortunately, wanted rest now. It was only midday, but he was worn out from the journey around the kingdom. He still had roughly a quarter to get through. “Dad?” he asked.

            “Yes, Rayan?” asked Reen.

            “Can we stop?”

            “What do you mean, son?”

            “I’m tired, Dad.”

            Reen looked over at Nyota. The cheetah just smiled. She had told Reen that she thought it wasn’t going to be easy for a cub to keep up for the whole journey. “Alright, son,” said Reen. “Nyota, isn’t there a watering hole around here somewhere?”

            “Head left, sire,” she said. “It’s usually not too crowded.”

            The group headed toward the waterhole that Nyota had mentioned and found it empty when they arrived. They began to lap up water, Reen stopping quickly, Nyota not long after him. Rayan lied down and spread out his hind legs like a frog.

            “Rayan,” said Reen warningly.

            “But Dad, it feels good that way,” protested the cub.

            “You know what the shaman said. Legs up. You don’t want extra skin on your legs.”

            Rayan grudgingly pulled his legs close to his body. “I’m fine now, Dad.”

            “The shaman wants to give it at least one more week, just to be safe.”

            “It’s already been a month, Dad. Please?”

            “No, Rayan. Always follow the shaman’s orders. Even if they seem—stupid.”

            Rayan sighed and stared into the pool, just watching the water move slightly in the wind.

            “Mommy?” asked Kria sleepily.

            “Shh,” said Kaata. “You’re waking up now, Kaata.”

            “How much longer does it have to be like this, Mommy? I don’t like sleeping all the time.”

            “I know, Kria. But you’re getting better. And you can stay awake today,” said Kaata brightly. “You only have to take your sleepy herbs at night now. Isn’t that good?”

            Mommy,” complained Kria. “Stop talking to me like I’m a little cub. I’m over a year old.”

            “So you are,” said Kaata. “Alright, no more ‘little cub talk.’” Kria giggled a little. “Now come on, Mommy has to wash her big, grown-up girl.” Kria let herself be picked up and dropped gently between her mother’s paws.

            “Dad,” asked Rayan, “how do you know you’re in love with someone?”

            Reen looked down at his son, surprised. “That was certainly random. Why do you want to know?”

            “I . . . I think I like someone.”

            Reen smiled. “I think you’re a little too young to be thinking about marriage. Besides, I thought you didn’t like ‘all of that mushy stuff.’”

            Dad.”

            Reen chuckled. He looked to the side for Nyota for help. The cheetah had conveniently disappeared. If Reen had known she had suddenly taken to patrolling the grass, making sure the king and his son weren’t disturbed during their talk, he might have called her back. “Of course,” said Reen, “you can always change.”

            “But what’s it like, Dad?”

            “Mommy, what do you do if you really like someone?”

            Kaata stopped grooming for a moment. “What do you mean, ‘really like?’”

            “You know.” Kria looked around furtively, then whispered conspiratorially, “Love.”

            Kaata smiled. “Do you have someone in mind?”

            “Maybe. But what do you do, Mommy? How do you know?”

            Kaata looked out of the sick den and into the grass unconsciously. “You know if you feel it. Love. It’s—it’s like—”

            “It’s a wonderful feeling,” said Reen. “The most wonderful feeling in the world. You know it has to be. You’ll feel other things, Rayan, but you’ll know when you feel love. That animal becomes who you breathe for. It is—wonderful. It’s the only thing I can think of.”

            “It just feels good?” said Rayan. “That doesn’t sound like too much.”

            “It’s more than a feeling,” said Kaata. “It’s in how you act, too. You want to do nice things for the animal. You want be with him, make him happy . . . just make him happy as you can. If he’s happy, you’re happy. You want to do things for them.”

            “What kinds of things, Mommy?” asked Kria. “Like doing whatever they want?”

            Reen chuckled. “I would have been in trouble if I had done that for your mother, son,” he said. “No, loving someone doesn’t mean doing whatever they want. But you do want to please them. It doesn’t have to be something big, either. Just little things. Little thoughtful gifts. I once brought your mother a group of nice flowers I found.”

            “Just bring flowers?” asked Rayan.

            “It’s a way. Of course, I found out later they weren’t flowers, really. I got a rash on my tongue from carrying them. It broke out all over my mouth. And as much as it must have disgusted your mother to do it, she kissed me.”

            “Why?”

            “Because what I did was thoughtful. It was because she was sorry I was hurting from my gift.”

            “Of course,” said Kaata, “boys don’t like that kind of thing, normally. Romance is a girl thing.”

            “Why?” asked Kria.

            “Because we can actually value something,” said Kaata with a smile. “Most of the time, boys just want to get close to a girl. They like the girl, not presents.”

            “Isn’t that a good thing? Mommy, I’m confused.”

            “It’s something you’re going to have to wait a little while to understand. It’s complicated.”

            “But why’s it complicated? If you like him, and he likes you, then what matters?”

            “A lot of things. You see—”

            “It isn’t just about the presents,” said Reen. “It’s about you and her, and your bond. A relationship is a very fragile thing when it begins. There’s nothing for it to stand on.”

            “Stand on?” asked Rayan.

            “Yes.” Reen thought, and pointed at the pool. “Look at the water.” Rayan looked into the water, seeing his reflection. “Think of taking the first step as dipping a paw into the water,” said Reen, tapping his paw onto the surface of the water. Ripples floated away from where he made contact. “There’s not much to show. Just a few ripples. But do it again . . .”

            He touched his paw to the water again. Rayan watched as more ripples floated across, meeting the other ripples and bounding through them. Reen touched his paw to the water again and again.

            “The more you work at it, the more there is to show for it. But you never want to stop, or else . . . it will all disappear.” The ripples slowly died down, gradually fading. “A relationship’s something that requires care, son.”

            “But how do you take care of a relationship?”

            “It doesn’t take that much,” said Kaata. “Just a willingness to let the other one know you love them. As long as you love him, and he loves you, and you both know that you want to make it last, it’ll happen.” Kaata smiled. “You’re asking a lot of big questions.”

            “I just want to know, Mommy,” said Kria. “Shouldn’t I know all of this?”

            Kaata gave a little laugh. “Don’t you think it’s just a little early? You’re only one.”

            “But Mommy, I have to learn now so I can live happily ever after, isn’t that right?”

            “There isn’t always a happily ever after, Kria.”

            “Things happen that are beyond your control. Your mother’s death . . . that is something I never forget,” said Reen. “I never will. I loved your mother deeply, Rayan. But it was out of my control. The gods called her, and she left.”

            “Why, Dad?” asked Rayan.

            “They have their reasons, son. But I couldn’t have my way, as much as I wanted to. Even in love, no matter how pure it is, there is always the chance of something going wrong. It’s life.”

            “But I thought love was supposed to be happy, Mommy,” said Kria. “That doesn’t make any sense. All of those stories have love being the best thing ever, right?”

            “Your life isn’t being told in a story, Kria,” said Kaata. “Bad things will happen. No matter how much you think you love someone, they may not love you back. Most lionesses never do get a mate. Look at me. Look at Hira. Look at Chache. Look at me. Only Adhima has a mate. Gymara chose her because he loves her very much. But it doesn’t always work out for the lionesses.”

            “But you, Rayan, are gifted. You’re a male. You are almost guaranteed to have a mate. But that doesn’t mean you should choose one just because you want one. You need to put even more effort behind that choice than anyone else.”

            “Why?” asked Rayan.

            “So that you’ll know you love that girl very, very much.” Reen smiled down at his son. “So have you been asking this for no reason, or do you have someone in mind?”

            “I think I’ve got a choice, Mommy,” said Kria.

            “Oh, really? And who’s that?”

            “I think I love Rayan.”

            “I think I love Sarana.”

            Reen smiled. “And what makes you think that?”

            “I—I think I like her, Dad. Really,” insisted Rayan, taking his father’s broadening smile the wrong way.

            “There’s nothing wrong with Sarana, Rayan. She is, it seems, a very nice girl. I hope that you really do see something in her.”

            “I do, Dad.” Rayan stared into the pond. “Maybe that’s why this happened,” he sad quietly, feeling his face with a paw.

            “What do you mean, son?”

            “Maybe I pushed her out of the way because I loved her.” Rayan tore his eyes away from his grotesque reflection to look up at his father. “Do you think that’s why?” he asked.

            Reen smiled. “I think you’re being a little optimistic, Rayan. I think you pushed her out of the way because you are a very, very brave cub. But maybe that was why.”

            “You really think so?”

            “Rayan, it matters what you think. My time for young love has already come and gone. This is you, son. Just one of many things you’ll have to decide on your own.” Reen gently rubbed his son’s back with his large paw. “Ready to go?”

            “What, you mean walk again?

            Reen chuckled. “It won’t be so bad after you do it for a while.”

            “But I’ve been doing it forever!”

            Reen laughed out loud. “Come on, son. Nyota!”

            “Here, sire,” said the cheetah, appearing out of nowhere.

            “Time to go.”

            “Yes, sire.” The cheetah began to walk alongside the king, the weary cub trailing behind them.

 

 

 

            “Rayan,” said Kaata quietly.

            “Uh-huh,” said Kria.

            “Why . . . Rayan?”

            “He just seems like such a nice cub,” said Kria. She smiled, stretching sleepily, the bark of her splint scratching somewhat on the floor of the sick den. “I think he likes me, too.” She yawned.

            “Of course,” said Kaata. “I . . . of course. Now turn over, Kria; I have to get your stomach, too.”

 

 

 

            “So really,” said the leopard, Erevu, reasonably, “all we need is to let the hyenas get a little more—”

            “No,” said Gymara.

            “Excuse me, sire?”

            “I said no,” Gymara repeated, a little louder.

            The assembled animals stared at him, slightly shocked and confused. It was meant to be a meeting between the heads of some of the animals, the ones that were mainly under Gymara’s control. Not every species was represented by the animals sitting there. It had become an unofficial rule that a species presence wasn’t needed if they didn’t have a problem. It did help things go faster.

            The ones that were assembled here today were mainly predators, with a couple animals representing prey. There were only about a dozen animals present for the meeting this week, not including Gymara. All of them were sitting or lying down, save for the prey, which stood. Sudi, Gymara’s advisor, lied down a short distance away from the group, eyes closed but ears pricked up to catch every word.

            “Sire,” said Erevu, “I’m not sure I understand—”

            “No. Negative. Not going to happen.”

            “Sire, the hyenas are on the verge of starvation—”

            “So I keep hearing,” said Gymara, bored. “I don’t know about you guys, but really, I’m getting pretty tired of those jerks. All we hear about is how they’re going to fall over and die one of these days. If some of them would actually do it, I’d have more faith.”

            “Sire,” said a cheetah, Mwovu, “they are starving.”

            “And? This happens.”

            “Honestly sire, I agree with you. But still, something needs to be done.”

            “Look,” said Gymara, “there’s only so much space in Sanctuary. They’re going to have to reduce their numbers sooner or later. We might as well do it now. If we kept trying to save them, it’d only encourage more pups to come along, grow up, and bug us even more. Something has to be done. We’re already helping them out some; we’re leaving the carcasses, right?”

            “It hasn’t done too much,” said Erevu. “Some of them have even become dependent on it.”

            “Which we knew was probably going to happen. Look, guys, something’s gotta give. We’re killing off more animals for them, and I’m pretty sure you guys don’t like that,” said Gymara, addressing the prey. “It’s more effort for us, more sorrow for you, and quite plainly, they’re beginning to be a pain in the kingdom’s collective ass.”

            “I assume you’re going somewhere with this, sire,” said a zebra.

            “Of course. We can’t be doing this any more than we are now.”

            “What do you mean, sire?”

            “I mean it stops here. We’ve been doing more and more for them, and the balance in the kingdom is becoming more and more strained. We can’t give them anymore, simply because we don’t have anymore to give. You all know how this started as just the lions doing it, and now it’s just about everyone. We’ve given them more meat, and there’re just been more hyenas. The things are breeding like—like something that breeds a lot.”

            “Like dogs,” said Mwovu, the cheetah. Laughter spread around the group.

            “Alright, like dogs,” said Gymara, smiling. “But castration isn’t really an option. What we’re going to have to do is starve some of them. Let nature run its course.”

            “Sire,” said Erevu, “do you really want to cut off the aid?”

            Gymara paused, everyone staring at him. “Course not,” he said. “All I’m saying is we can’t provide any more. More would just be—reckless. We’ve stretched the kingdom to the breaking point for them; they’ll have to make do.”

            “Sire,” said the antelope that was present, “your brother is one of the most active supporters for more aid.”

            “He’s not a problem,” dismissed Gymara with a wave of his paw. “I’ve got control of this situation.”

            “What do you mean, sire?” asked Erevu, his brow furrowing slightly.

            “The hyenas are my problem, not his. We straightened that out a long time ago. He doesn’t need to be bothered with this.”

            “Sire, if—no, when he finds out about this, he’s not going to be pleased.”

            “You almost sound like you think this isn’t something that’s right.” No one noticed the dangerous undertone in Gymara’s voice.

            “Sire,” said Erevu with a smile, “I would have suggested this a long time ago if I had known it would have been received this well. I mean, really,” he said, turning to look at the other animals present, “who wants to give those fleabags another inch?” All of the animals nodded.

            “Their laziness is jeopardizing all of us,” said Mwovu. “If they bothered to try to organize themselves, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

            “Damn right,” said Gymara. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do but advise them. We’ll just see how long it takes for this advice to catch on.”

            “Yes, sire.”

            “Now, anything else that can’t wait until next week?” The animals shook their heads. “Great. Dismissed.”

            The animals slowly got up and made their way back to their homes, a few staying with others to talk. Gymara sat up and looked across the savannah, taking in the beautiful, majestic scene. He smiled as he took in a deep breath of air, looking over the land.

            I am the king.

 

 

 

            It was late at night after one of Reen’s meetings with Lymo. He had started them again after Unir’s death. It had now become a common thing for the leopards that lived with Lymo to find him alone with the king. None of them ever heard what the two were saying, but almost every single one knew what was being discussed.

            Religion.

            It wasn’t something they were going to tell anyone about. Doing it would only stir up trouble. Lymo would be painted as someone who wanted to influence the king, and was using one of the most devious ways to do so. None of the leopards needed it to be said that Lymo was Reen’s direct communication to the gods.

            Reen was also careful about when he came. He knew that Lymo got very little time alone with himself or his family. Most of the time he was caught up with the problems of leopards all over the kingdom; he was one of their most prominent leaders. Other times he simply had problems with the ones he lived with, little issues that needed to be ironed out.

            If Reen saw Lymo was busy, or if Lymo was simply spending time with his son or mate, he simply turned around and left. Lymo, unfortunately, had almost the opposite inclination; he would clear everything he had scheduled to spend time with Reen. Many of the times that Lymo was doing “nothing,” “little things” had just been pushed out of the way. Many of those times, Reen never knew the difference.

            This particular time, Reen had come on the rare occasion when Lymo really was doing nothing. Lymo had sat down with him and continued with his study of the gods. Reen had started again after Unir died, finally daring to come back to the leopard’s home.

            Things had changed greatly since Reen had returned. The leopard that rescued him, Lymo’s father, had grown old and died, Reen unable to attend the funeral. Lymo had changed from the little cub that Reen had known to a large, capable leopard, just as Reen had. Both of them now had sons of their own, and, for a few years, both of them had mates.

            When Reen returned, he found his memory wasn’t quite as good as he believed. Lymo had to teach him nearly everything over again. The things to be taught weren’t exactly difficult; they were just memorization.

            History was the main thing. Remembering the creation of Sanctuary; the feud between the gods that led to the horrible split, Afriti and the other Imperfects leaving Aiheu and the others in Heaven and creating Hell; the laws set down by the gods for their subjects, the absolute basis of civilized society.

            There were times when Reen felt as though he was drowning in the long and detailed history that Lymo had memorized. What shocked Reen even more was that Lymo’s son, Tiifu, had progressed farther than he had. There were even times that Lymo had his son sit in on sessions with Reen, the little leopard reviewing what Reen was just learning.

            But by now he was completely caught up from when he was a cub. Reen was learning new things. Whenever he thought that his and Lymo’s free time might coincide, he could be found with the leopard, listening to stories and remembering lessons that Lymo had had passed down to him by his father, and his father before that, and his father before that.

            Reen was walking out toward the edge of the invisible boundary of the area that Lymo and several other leopards shared, Lymo by his side. “Reen,” asked Lymo gently, “how is Rayan?”

            Reen smiled. “Much better. And all thanks to you, my friend.”

            “It was coincidence, Reen. Just that.”

            “I’ll take coincidences like that any day.”

            “So he’s going to grow up fine?”

            “The shaman thinks so. He’ll still have those scars, though. There shouldn’t be any other things, though. He’ll grow up. The only possible problem will be cubs.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “He . . . he may be sterile.”

            Lymo didn’t know quite what to say. “Reen . . . I’m sorry.”

            “It’s nobody’s fault. But even the shaman has been known to be wrong. I wouldn’t count on anything yet.”

            “I’ll pray for him.”

            “How’s Tiifu, by the way?”

            “Bigger every day. It seems like I turn away for a second and there’s already another inch added to him.”

            “Isn’t that the truth?”

            “Thank goodness Ilya spends enough time with him. It seems like half the time I only get to see him when he’s already asleep.”

            “I know what you mean,” said Reen quietly. “Adhima’s been good to Rayan, thankfully. And Kaata.”

            “But it just seems like all we do with them is teach, isn’t it? Barely any father-son time.”

            “They’ll thank us for it later.”

            “That’s what I keep telling myself.”

            “At least we’re trying to be good fathers.”

            “Yes,” said Lymo. “We are.” He paused. “Sire, I—”

            “Not Reen?”

            “No. ‘Sire,’” admitted Lymo with a smile.

            “So what are you going to ask me to do now?”

            “I was wondering if I could spend some time with Rayan.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “If you’d like, I could teach him, too. I do have more free time than you, sire.”

            “Yes, you do,” admitted Reen. “But I was waiting. . . . I meant to talk to him—”

            “—but haven’t. I know what you mean. But sire—Reen—this is a very important matter. He needs to know this. I have more time than you, and I can.”

            “I don’t know,” said Reen. “It’s . . . it’s almost something I wanted to do myself.”

            “I understand, sire. But—and this is just a guess—it almost seems like it’s easier to learn as a cub. Tiifu soaks things up. Granted, he’s been surrounded by it his whole life, and you have the kingdom constantly on your mind, so it’s not exactly fair. But wouldn’t it be best for Rayan to know it now, when he’s free of all that worry, and when he can concentrate on it fully? Wouldn’t be better to know this before he takes over some of the ruling?”

            “I don’t know,” said Reen quietly. “I mean, yes, but . . .”

            “I understand, sire. I’d been meaning to ask you for a few days, but I know you already don’t spend that much time with your son . . . I didn’t know what to say.”

            “Lymo—”

            “Really, Reen, just think on it. I’m sure you’ll choose the right thing, whatever it is. With your permission, I’d like to get back home.”

            Reen looked around and noted with embarrassment that he was already halfway to the den. “Gods, I’m sorry, Lymo. I didn’t mean to have you walk me home—”

            “It’s quite alright, sire. It’s not exactly something I didn’t want to do, was it? There’s nothing like stretching your legs a little at night, anyway. It’s going to be a late one, anyway. Anniversary.”

            “Congratulations. How long?”

            “Five years. Good night.” Lymo turned to go. “I’ll see you soon, Reen. Just think on it.”

            Reen nodded. He watched Lymo head back toward his home before he turned and headed for the den.

 

 

 

            “Now remember,” said Sudi sharply, “and this is very important, that there is a protocol to be followed with the king. You are given permission to see him, most likely by me, and then you will rise and follow me to the mouth of the den, pause, bow, make your way to him, bow and touch your lips to his paws, and then take a step back. Do you understand?”

            “It—it’s a lot to remember,” said Shaka. The hyena looked down at the ground for a moment, thinking, then looked back up at the king’s advisor. “Why do I have to kiss his paws?”

            “Kissing is done with the tongue,” said Sudi, a trace of disgust for the animal in front of him seeping into his voice.

            “Oh. Yeah. But why do I have to—put my lips on his feet?”

            “It is a sign of respect. A tradition that has been for countless generations. It is not going to change now.”

            “Yeah—yeah, but why his feet? And my mouth?” asked the hyena.

            “Because you’re too short to touch his mane,” said Sudi shortly.

            “I think I could—”

            “Touch it properly.”

            Shaka blinked. “I may not be able to do that.”

            “I thought so. Now, there are a few other rules for the king. Never sit. Never lay down. Never let him see your back. Never speak unless invited to. Never look away from him. And above all, never waste his time. He is the king.”

            “That’s a lot of nevers,” said Shaka. “Is—is there anything I can do?”

            Sudi felt his lip curl slightly. “Don’t be a fool,” he said coldly. “Or if you prefer, never be a fool. I expect that will be a valuable life lesson. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to attend to his highness. Wait here.” The cheetah turned and walked into the den.

            Gymara looked up as the cheetah entered. The den was emptied out at this time of day, Gymara and Reen wanting this part of the day set aside for meetings with subjects. It hadn’t been done like this for any other king; any and all meetings would be held outside the den, the king on the Throne, the subject before him. Having two kings put this possibility out completely. Instead, the den was used, the lionesses clearing out of it if one of the kings said they’d be using it.

            “Yes, Sudi?” asked Gymara.

            “Sire, the riffraff has arrived.”

            “What a tone to be using, Sudi. And especially for a member of the council.”

            “Begging your pardon, sire, the hyena is a member-to-be.”

            “Of course. But wouldn’t you agree that at least minimum respect should be shown?”

            “Sire—no. Begging your pardon, sire, but no.”

            “Can’t you just forget your prejudices for once, Sudi? He’s going to be a member of the council. We should welcome him with an open mind, not an open jaw.”

            “He doesn’t understand what he’s doing, sire. He has no right to be on this council. He doesn’t understand the system at all. He is, at best, a political klutz.”

            “Sudi, this guy was chosen out of all the hyenas in Sanctuary, by all the hyenas in Sanctuary. There has to be something he has. Hyenas aren’t idiots, even if they aren’t the brightest animals at times.”

            “The only thing he has is inexperience.”

            “And you may be perfectly right about that. But Sudi, please, just for the sake of it, don’t give him too cold of a shoulder. Right now he’s new to this, and you were at one time, too.”

            “I came from six generations of advisors, sire,” said Sudi proudly. “And that mongrel came from countless generations of uncultured, uncivilized—”

            “Sudi.”

            “Yes, sire?”

            “Shut up.”

            “Yes, sire.”

            “This hyena is new. Just filling in the spot left by old Ulu, rest his soul, even if he was an ass at times. We need to give him a chance, even if it’s the smallest one possible.”

            Sudi finally saw the glint in Gymara’s eyes. “Yes, sire,” he said slowly. “Even the—smallest chance.”

            “After all, we don’t need to put any pressure on him right now. He needs to be familiarized with everything. He doesn’t know how things work yet. Give him a chance to prove himself. You know, see that he sees things the way they are. He could be very useful to the kingdom if he did.”

            “Yes, sire.”

            “I’m glad we understand each other. Now, please show the—‘riffraff’—inside.”

            “Yes, sire.” Sudi turned to retrieve Shaka.

 

 

 

But in among all this terrible poverty there were just a few great big beautiful houses that were lived in by rich men who had as many as thirty servants to look after them. These rich men were called capitalists. . . . The capitalists owned everything in the world, and everyone was their slave. They owned all the land, all the houses, all the factories, and all the money. If anyone disobeyed them they could throw him into prison, or they could take his job away and starve him to death. When an ordinary person spoke to a capitalist he had to cringe and bow to him, and take off his cap and address him as “Sir.” The chief of all the capitalists was called the King, and

                        1984

 

            Shaka stared down at his forepaws, trying to remember everything that the king’s advisor had told him. He didn’t quite see what all the formality was needed for. Maybe it was just because he was meeting the king the first time, or maybe it was because today he would be sworn onto the council. Either way, it was a lot to remember. Things he had to do at certain points, things he couldn’t do at other times, and things he absolutely could not do, or else the world as everyone knew it would come to an end.

            Really, it all seemed to be stressed just a tiny bit too much.

            “Hyena.” Shaka looked up to see Sudi coming out of the mouth of the den. “The king will see you now.”

            Shaka followed the cheetah to the mouth of the den. He could see Gymara sitting in the den. He very nearly started to go in, but saw Sudi out of the corner of his eye at the last second. The cheetah bowed low, gracefully tucking one forepaw underneath his body and letting the other slide out as he lowered his head. Sudi’s head barely turned as he glanced at Shaka, annoyed. The hyena tried to imitate him, executing a clumsy bow.

            The pair straightened up, and Shaka hesitated a moment before Sudi nodded slightly to signal him to walk to Gymara. The hyena walked to him, then bowed before Gymara. Shaka hesitated, then gently touched his lips once to each paw, trying not to make a mental note to get a drink of water later. The king couldn’t help that this was the tradition. He took a few steps back as he brought his head up to see Gymara’s smiling face.

            “May you live a good life,” said Gymara. He stared at Shaka, waiting for the ritual response.

            “Uh . . . same to you, sire,” said Shaka.

            Gymara chuckled. Shaka immediately realized he had done something wrong and mentally kicked himself. “You know,” said Gymara amiably, “that probably does more justice than the other response.”

            “What is the other response, sire?”

            “‘May my services always be yours, my king.’ Almost as if they couldn’t trust their subjects.”

            “I don’t know much about mistrust, sire,” said Shaka. “But there were a few kings that had some awfully power-hungry sons.”

            Gymara’s smile widened. “Fortunately, I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that. Hatari’s a good boy. Now, I believe we had a little matter to attend to?”

            “Oh! Uh . . . sire, I have been chosen by my, uh, fellow hyenas for a place of leadership on the Animal Coun—”

            Gymara held up a paw to stop Shaka. “I ask the question.”

            “Oh.”

            “It’s alright, really,” said Gymara. He stood up and began to walk around the den. “Lot of animals have been sworn in here. Lot of great ones, too. And a lot of them started off in the same position as you.”

            “Sire? I don’t understand.”

            “Well, I may be wrong, but at least according to what I’ve been told, you don’t, ah, have a background in politics.”

            “Not really, sire. But my father kind of did.”

            Gymara’s brow furrowed. “Ulu was your father?”

            “No, Ulu didn’t have any pups. But my father, old Mahadhi, he was a good, close friend of Sudi. He was almost like Ulu’s second, rest both their souls. He was real close to Sudi, sire. Said that he never met a more honest animal.”

            Gymara looked over at Sudi. Sudi was staring at Shaka in slight surprise. Gymara smiled. Apparently Sudi’s prejudice didn’t extend to every hyena. “Was he the one who named you, too?”

            “Yes, sire,” said Shaka proudly.

            “It’s a pretty common name.”

            “I’m just a common hyena, sire. I just want to help out while I’m here. Do whatever I can to pay my dues to the kingdom.”

            “Of course,” said Gymara. “But you don’t have any experience, right?”

            “Not really, sire. But I’m a fast learner.”

            “Well, what I’ve got in mind is Sudi helping you out.” Sudi looked at Gymara in surprise, disbelief crossing his face. “He could help you out, tell you how to vote, explain everything about the motions that are brought up until you get the hang of it.”

            “That would be wonderful, sire,” said Shaka. “That is, if it’s alright with Sudi. I don’t want to impose.” He turned to look at Sudi, the anger and shock sliding off Sudi’s face instantly, as if they were never there.

            “It would be a pleasure,” said Sudi stiffly.

            “Wonderful,” said Gymara. “Now, really, we do need to get this done, I’ve got a meeting with some of the leopards, and they can’t be delayed again.”

            “Yes, sire,” said Shaka humbly.

            “Good. Repeat after Sudi. Sudi?”

            The cheetah walked over next to Gymara and sat down, hiding his annoyance perfectly. “I, your name here . . .”

            “I, Shaka . . .”

            “. . . will do my best to carry out the duties and responsibilities . . .”

            “. . . will do my best to carry out the duties and responsibilities . . .”

            “. . . of the esteemed position of a member of the Animals’ Council . . .” said Sudi.

            “. . . and will use the power given to me by the King of Sanctuary . . .”

            “. . . to exercise my judgment to aid and abet the animals of Sanctuary . . .”

            “. . . to further enrich the quality of the kingdom . . .”

            “. . . and to assist the rulers in their decisions concerning the governed . . .”

            “. . . and take this oath fully knowing that I will retain this position . . .”

            “. . . until death or disgrace.”

            “May the gods ensure your long and helpful contribution to the kingdom,” said Sudi.

            “May the gods ensure my long and helpful contribution to the kingdom,” repeated Shaka.

            Gymara smiled. “You don’t repeat that part.”

            “Oh . . .”

            “Well, congratulation, you are now a member of the Animals’ Council. My side of it, anyway. You’ll have to do this again sometime when Reen’s around, or you’ll never get full admission. And before the next full meeting, gods forbid there is one.” Gymara smiled again. “You have no idea what chaos you just swore yourself into.”

            “I’ll try to learn fast, sire,” said Shaka dutifully.

            “I’m sure you will. Now, as I said before, I have business, so just follow Sudi and he’ll fill you in on some of your duties.”

            Sire,” said the cheetah, annoyance plain in his voice.

            “Yes?” asked Gymara, looking down at the cheetah.

            Sudi leaned up to whisper in Gymara’s ear. All Shaka could hear was a long stream of hissing. He tried to look away, not wanting to overhear anything he shouldn’t. Gymara finally drew his head back and said quietly firmly, “Later.”

            “But sire—”

            Later. Take care of the hyena now.” Gymara glanced over at Shaka. “I’m sorry, Shaka now. We’ll discuss that later.”

            Sudi bowed his head and turned to retreat from the king, still facing him. Shaka looked at Sudi walking past him, head still bowed low. He suddenly realized that he was meant to leave, too, and began walking backwards, his head held low. He accidentally missed the mouth of the den, instead hitting the wall. He looked behind him to see what he hit, reoriented himself, and continued on his way out, only lifting his head and turning around after Sudi tapped him on the shoulder impatiently.

            Gymara chuckled slightly at Shaka’s ineptitude. He was almost like a little cub. No, he reflected idly as he stood and left the den, heading the opposite way of Sudi and Shaka. Shaka was exactly like a cub, or rather, a pup. Gymara would make sure he was raised right. Who knew what could happen to him in the horrible rough-and-tumble political world? Horrible demons lurked everywhere, offering beautiful gifts in exchange for horrible acts.

            No, it wouldn’t do to have Shaka lost in that world. Gymara would be the one to guide him through it. He’d show him what was right, what was truth. Old Ulu had never seen any of that. Shaka would, though. He was intelligent, despite his naēveté. Gymara knew he would come around.

 

 

 

            “But why do I have to be here, Dad?” asked Rayan. “I wanna go play with Hatari.”

            “Believe me, Rayan. You’ll thank me later for this.” Reen stared firmly toward Lymo’s home. He didn’t want to look at Rayan. The cub had managed to talk him out of taking him to Lymo earlier. Reen refused to be soft on this point again. “Just think of it as more teaching, son. Like you do when you follow me around the kingdom.”

            “I don’t want more teaching, Dad. It’s all boring.”

            “I know, son. But this is important. More important than you can imagine. Just trust me, please.”

            “Alright,” said Rayan sulkily.

            Reen continued on, Rayan silently grumbling by his side. The two of them finally came to Lymo’s enclave. A little leopard’s ears perked up as he saw the king. He picked up his body and walked back behind the rock that sheltered a certain part of the savannah when looked at it from the lion’s den.

            “Dad,” said the leopard. “Dad, King Reen’s here.”

            “Tiifu—”

            “Really, Dad, he’s right out there. He’s got a cub with him.”

            The two lions stopped and sat down in the savannah. Reen smiled down at one of the leopards. She smiled back, then looked back down at the two cubs she was nursing by her side. It was almost a reminder for Reen; heat was coming soon. About the time that all of the cubs were being born from its aftereffects, Rayan would be turning two.

            Reen looked down at his son and smiled. The disfigured cub glared back up at him. Reen’s smile faltered. He knew Rayan would see the importance of what Lymo could teach him. It would just take a bit of time, that’s all.

            He looked back toward where the little leopard cub had gone. He was still standing there, watching his father. Reen thought he could hear faint weeping from behind the rock. Finally Lymo emerged from behind the rock.

            “Sire, how are you?” asked Lymo.

            “Wonderful. Yourself?”

            “Eh—alright, I suppose.” Lymo smiled, a slight forcedness to it. “What did you need to see me about?”

            “Actually, I came by to drop Rayan off. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t find any other time to do it. I gave it some thought, and—well, you’re the right animal to teach him.”

            “I—well, thank you, sire. It’s a little unexpected, but . . .”

            “Am I interrupting anything?”

            “No, no, of course not. You never are. Really, it’s fine.”

            “I don’t want to cause trouble—”

            “Sire, you never have been trouble,” said Lymo with a smile.

            Reen chuckled. “I wouldn’t exactly say that. Look, I’m sorry, but I do need to go. Three’s a full day ahead of me; I’ve barely got time to drop him off. Nyota’s gone ahead to try to smooth things out—”

            “By all means, sire, don’t let me keep you.”

            Reen bowed his head. “Thank you. I should be back sometime after the rounds.”

            “I’ll make sure he’s kept safe, sire.” Reen nodded and half-walked, half-ran off toward the gazelle herd. Lymo looked down at Rayan. “Would you please follow me, sire?” he asked kindly.

            “Alright,” said Rayan, unable to keep all of his grumpiness to himself.

            Lymo turned and led Rayan behind the rock. Behind it were two leopardesses, one of them sobbing into the other’s shoulder. The one who was comforting the other looked up at Rayan, then up at Lymo in disbelief.

            “Lymo,” she said quietly, “of all things—”

            “Ilya, I couldn’t just refuse him. Rayan will be fine. Tiifu can keep him company for a while.”

            “Lymo—” The leopardess was cut off by a fresh outburst of sobbing. Lymo lied down next to the weeping leopardess and placed a foreleg across her back.

            “Shh,” he said.

            “I just—I just can’t believe that—that’s she’s g-gone. It was just—just hunting—gods, why did this have to happen?”

            “She’s in a better place now,” said Lymo quietly.

            Rayan felt a small poke in his side. He turned to see the little leopard cub he had seen earlier behind him. “Come on,” the cub muttered. Rayan followed him away from the sobbing leopardess until finally the cub lied down. “Dad should be with you soon,” said the cub.

            Rayan sat down. “Why’s she crying?”

            “Aunt Lea? It—there was a hunting accident,” said the cub quietly. “My Aunt Eusi. I’m gonna miss her.”

            “Oh . . .” said Rayan, not quite knowing what to say. “I’m . . . sorry?”

            “I’ll be okay. I’m just worried about Aunt Lea. She was close to Aunt Eusi.”

            Rayan stared at the ground for a few moments, feeling awkward as he didn’t have anything to say. “I’m Rayan,” he finally said.

            “I know. I’m Tiifu. Lymo’s my dad.”

            “You know why Dad dragged me over here?”

            “Probably to learn, just like me. You know, about the gods.”

            “You mean god.”

            “No, gods. There’s a whole bunch of them. Aiheu and Rahimu and Dhahabu and Fela and Mano and Roh’kash and—”

            “They can’t all be god.”

            “They’re all gods. Plural. There’s a whole bunch more, but I don’t know all the names. I think Dad does.”

            “So I’m here to learn a whole bunch of names? Great.” Rayan’s forelegs slid out in front of him as he lied down.

            “Not just names. There’s lessons, too. And history. There’s all this stuff that you have to remember.”

            “Why?”

            “So you know.”

            “Know what?”

            Tiifu’s brow furrowed. “I . . . well, Dad explains it really good.”

            “It sounds boring.”

            “It is sometimes. But Dad usually makes it kind of fun.” Tiifu yawned. “I’m hungry.”

            Rayan was at a loss of words again. He simply laid his head down on the grass. A few minutes went by, the two not saying anything. Finally Rayan heard Tiifu say “Ow!” He looked up to see the cub cringing slightly from his father.

            “It’s not polite to stare, Tiifu.”

            “But, Dad, he—”

            “It doesn’t matter how he looks. It’s not polite to stare.” Lymo turned around to bow to Rayan. “I’ve very sorry for the wait, sire. There was a hunting accident this morning. I’m supposed to be teaching you—well, for lack of a better word, religion. I really didn’t have anything planned; the king rather sprang this on me. Would it be alright with you, sire, if you just sat in on Tiifu’s lesson?”

            Lymo’s rushed talking somewhat garbled the message, though Rayan got the gist of it. Though the cub didn’t realize it, the leopard was nervous at the task he had. “Uh, sure,” Rayan said.

            “Alright,” said Lymo. He lied down in an attempt to make himself comfortable. “This’ll just be review today, Tiifu.”

            “Alright, Dad.” Tiifu sat up straight and turned to face his father.

            “Alright then, Aiheu and Afriti. What happened?”

            Tiifu stared down at the ground. He began to recite the information his father had told him, about how Afriti, Aiheu’s brother, had always harbored the seed of evil inside of him, just as several other gods did. He had been insulted by Aiheu accidentally. A few days had passed, and then the Great Argument had occurred. The two of them split, and, being the most powerful gods, Heaven was irrevocably torn.

            All of the gods who had any chance of evil followed Afriti, all of them seeing lies and disrespect that there brother and sister gods had given them, when really the gods had done nothing against them. But hate and corruption were second nature to them, even if they tried to suppress the emotions and live good lives. They thought correctly that there was something wrong with thinking evil thoughts, and kept it to themselves. But knowing that others thought as they did was too much. Their evil natures came forth, and all of them followed Afriti out of Heaven at his bidding.

            Afriti and the others created Hell, vowing to destroy the gods that had lied to them so long. They wanted to ravage and rampage through Heaven, slaughtering and utterly destroying the ones that wronged them. But they were too weak. They couldn’t do anything, not then. But they began to gain power slowly, collecting the souls of damned animals, of those who delighted in evil. And evil began to spread throughout the world with the creation of Hell, like a disease. Afriti’s power began to grow, and, though it might take dozens of dozens of dozens of years, he would eventually have a power great enough to destroy Heaven.

            That was, unless animals refused to go to Hell. If animals lived good lives, they would go to Heaven. If they loved their neighbor, if they were good to their mate, if they raised their cubs and pups and foals the right way, they would go to Heaven, and would stand against Hell and all the evil it stood for.

            It took Tiifu almost two hours to get through all the intricate details. Lymo listened carefully to his son, making sure he didn’t make any mistakes. Rayan, despite his almost definite will to be bored, even found himself listening. The lesson was one of the first Tiifu had ever learned, and was the broadest of all parables that the animals had. He finally looked up from the ground to see his father’s proud smile. He hadn’t missed a single bit of the story.

            Lymo looked over at Rayan. “Did you understand it, sire?”

            “Uh . . . mostly.”

            “That’s good. I’m sure you’ll do excellently once you learn more. But that lesson in itself is a long one. I think you’ll have enough to think over. We can do more another time.”

            “Alright.”

            “Your father should be coming by to pick you up later. I have to attend to my matters now, sire. Tiifu should be able to keep you company.” Lymo rose and bowed. “If you need anything, simply ask, sire.”

            “Okay.”

            Lymo turned and left. Rayan turned to Tiifu. “So whatcha wanna do?” he asked.

            “I dunno. Play, I guess. I usually don’t get the day off.” Tiifu’s brow furrowed in thought, then his eyes lit up. “Hey, there’s this cave I’ve been wanting to check out. You want to go there?”

            “Sure,” said Rayan. He got up and began to follow Tiifu.

 

 

 

            “Lymo?”

            Lymo jumped. He turned to see the last animal he wanted to see right then. “Sire.”

            “How was Rayan today?”

            “Uh . . . he was . . . good. He should be able to learn quickly, at a guess.”

            Reen smiled. “That’s wonderful. Where is he? I know you want me to take him out of your paws.”

            “Funny you should ask that, sire. He’s . . . disappeared.”

            “He what?”

            “Tiifu’s gone, too. We—we had a bit of an accident this morning and everything’s been a little hectic since. I think they may have just wandered off. But they should be back soon.”

            “Lymo, it’s dangerous out there,” said Reen quietly.

            “Yes, I know, but it’s murder of the highest degree to kill a prince or king, and, if you don’t mind me saying, it’s—rather obvious who Rayan is by looking at him.”

            “True.”

            “Really, sire, they’ll be fine.”

            “Lymo?”

            “Yes, sire?”

            Reen. I—could we talk about something?”

            “Sire?”

            “I need to tell someone.”

            “Of course, Reen. If you want to go somewhere—”

            “Just—just talk privately.”

            “Alright. Over here.” The two of them walked a short distance away until they were finally out of earshot of anyone who might be listening. “What is it, Reen?”

            “Lymo, I’ve been thinking . . . I want to give up being king.”

            “Are you serious?”

            “Yes.”

            “Reen, that’s impossible—”

            “Alright, not give up being king for me, but maybe for Rayan . . . or his cubs.”

            “Reen, what are you trying to say?” asked Lymo, utterly confused.

            “I . . . I want to get rid of the diarchy. Or monarchy, whichever it may be at some time. I want to get rid of it.”

            “And who’s going to rule that animals?” asked Lymo. “The Animal Council that takes weeks to reach a decision?”

            “No. I want to get rid of them, too.”

            “Sire?”

            “I . . . Lymo, I want to make a government that has everyone equal. That no one has higher rank than another.”

            “Reen . . . Okay, here’s the problem, as I see it. One of the first things my father taught me about power was that it stayed in the hands of the fewest animals possible. No one wants anyone to have more power than they do, and everyone wants more power and rights for themselves. And if everyone’s equal, then there’re going to be animals that take that power for themselves. They’ll manipulate it so that they rule.”

            “But not if everyone knows it’s wrong.”

            “Reen, what you’re suggesting would require every animal to despise greed from birth. It’s not going to happen. Greed is a part of nature.”

            “So was murder.”

            Lymo paused. “Yes. So was murder. But look at what we have today. Animals don’t kill each other because they want to anymore. But there still is murder. Despite the inhibition, it still happens. And murdering has been wrong for dozens of years. Dozens of dozens.”

            “I realize it can’t be done overnight, Lymo. But what if we could start it? What if Rayan and Tiifu could carry it on? They may not finish it either, but what if their cubs did? We could begin a change for the best.”

            “Reen, it’s a wonderful idea. But that would mean taking the rashest steps I can think of. You would have to essentially force this on the animals—”

            “No, we won’t. We’ll do it slowly. And there’s one thing that can make this happen when all else has failed.”

            “And what would that be?”

            “Religion.”

            “Reen, animals don’t believe anymore. No one believes anymore.”

            “But what if they did? What if they had to? What if we made them?”

            “Reen . . . sire, that is the most disgusting thing I have ever heard.”

            “What?”

            “You want to force a religion on every animal?”

            “Not exactly force—”

            “Yes, force. And that makes you a tyrant. A good-willed tyrant, but a tyrant.”

            “Lymo, I wouldn’t just command ‘everyone, believe this or die,’ no. I would have to be—careful. And I need your help.”

            “Sire, religion is not a tool to use to conquer.”

            “But it can be used for such good—”

            “Many times, nothing comes of this kind of thing except bloodshed,” said Lymo. “Religion is one of the most sensitive topics there is. It killed so many during the Wars of the Gods. Do you remember your lesson on that? That happened here, in Sanctuary, and the violence nearly wiped out the entire kingdom.”

            “But our religions have learned to coexist now. Isn’t that for the better?”

            “The reason religions coexist is because no one cares,” said Lymo bitterly. “You can insult the other’s religion as a joke now. And they won’t care, and you most certainly won’t. Religion doesn’t have any day-to-day importance in the lives of most animals.”

            “But that’s where you’re wrong. It does. Religion is one thing that everyone can get nice and angry about. Everyone still considers themselves to be following some god, even if they don’t know that much about it. Yes, they mostly deny it, but they will always take a stance on a religious issue.”

            “But no one really cares.”

            “I can make them care.”

            “Reen, that’s out of the question—”

            “What if I made a mandatory religion? That every animal had to belong to some religion and practice it?”

            “First, it’d never get past the Animal Council. And even if it did, you’d never be able to enforce it.”

            “But it’s worth a try, isn’t it? To start a movement? To get at least a few more on our side? Lymo, this is what you’ve always wanted. To get temples rebuilt, connections reestablished. For all of the animals to finally open their eyes from the dark. And we can start this. We won’t finish it, but we have our sons, and they’ll have their cubs. We can do this, Lymo.”

            Lymo was silent. “Reen,” he finally said, “it sounds wonderful, but I . . . I want to try to do this, yes, but it seems . . . impossible.”

            “We can try, can’t we?”

            Lymo smiled. “Yes, we can try.”

            “All we need to do is—”

            “Dad! Dad, we’re back!”

            Reen and Lymo turned to see Tiifu walking toward them, trailing Rayan. “Really?” said Lymo. “We hadn’t noticed you were gone.”

            “Dad,” groaned Tiifu.

            “What? Is your father embarrassing you again?”

            “Yes,” grumbled Tiifu.

            “Well, we can’t have that happening. What are you going to do, sire?”

            “I was thinking about eating. Haven’t had a meal for two days.” Reen pushed himself up.

            “Of course. Well, good night to you, sire. And congratulate your brother on his choice. He’ll make a fine delegate.”

            “Delegate?” asked Reen, stopping.

            “Yes. Approving the new hyena on the Animal Council. He’ll be a fine delegate.”

            “Uh—yes, of course, I’ll tell him.”

            “Good night, sire.”

            “Good night.”

 

 

 

            Reen found Gymara in front of the den when he arrived home in a way he’d never expected. The lion was splayed out across the Throne without any regard for regality. “Rayan, why don’t you visit Hira?” Reen said.

            “Alright, Dad.” Rayan wandered off into the den.

            Reen walked toward Gymara. “Hello, Gymara.”

            “Reen,” said Gymara. “Did you know you’re upside down?”

            “You’re lying on your back.”

            “That would explain a lot.” Gymara rolled over and moaned. “Gods, my head.”

            “So, I heard you swore in the hyena for the council.”

            “Yeah. Yeah, I did.”

            “Wasn’t I supposed to be there for that?”

            “Maybe. You can swear at him later.” Gymara closed his eyes and shook his head vigorously. “What do you care? They’re my hyenas.”

            “Gymara, the Animal Council is both our duty.”

            “You don’t like me, do you? You just don’t want me to do anything.”

            “Gymara, that’s not it at all—”

            “Oh, shut it with your excuses. You never liked me. This is my kingdom! Mine!” Gymara stood up regally on top of the throne. “Mine!” he yelled. Almost immediately he cowered back down, nursing his jaw with a paw. “Oh, make the world stop spinning.”

            “Gymara, are you okay?”

            “Never better.” He suddenly vomited over the side of the throne.

            “Maybe you should see the shaman.”

            “I did. I got bit. And she patched it up and said eat this and told me no and the world keeps spinning so much.”

            “I think you need to get to the sick den.”

            “Maybe you’re right. Maybe. Maybe.”

            “Alright, just step off the Throne—”

            “My Throne.”

            “Just put a leg over my neck.” Gymara did so clumsily. “Now come on, walk with me.”

            Gymara hesitatingly walked off the Throne with Reen toward the sick den. It was very, very slow going, as Gymara didn’t seem to have any idea of how to walk. He looked over at Reen and said, “Damn, you’re ugly.” He hung his head and the pulled it back up. “And your son’s ugly.”

            Reen felt a growl go through him. Gymara definitely wasn’t in his right mind. He couldn’t be held accountable for what he said.

            “And your mom, she’s ugly, too.”

            “She was your mother too, Gymara.”

            “She’s ugly. I think I’m going to puke.”

            “Try to hold it in.”

            “Shut up, Ugly.”

            The two finally made it to the sick den. Reen tried to gently ease Gymara onto the floor, Gymara instead flopping down to the ground. Kaata and Kria looked up at Reen in surprise. “I just need to put him in here for the night,” Reen said apologetically.

            Gymara looked up at Reen and pointed a paw to the left of him. “You’re an asshole. You know that? You don’t deserve my kingdom. It’s your fault Mom’s dead, you know that? All your fault. Go kill yourself.” Gymara moaned. “Why is it so bright?”

            “It’s the sunset, Gymara.”

            “Shut up. Go away, I don’t want you.” He placed both paws on top of his head and jammed his eyes shut. “Oh, my head.”

            Reen walked over to the main den. The lionesses looked up at him. “Adhima?” he said. “Did you know that your mate was over on the Throne?”

            Giggles went out through the den. “Yes, I knew,” said Adhima from the back.

            “And did you know there’s something wrong with him?”

            “Maybe a little,” Adhima said with a grin. “The shaman gave him the wrong herbs and realized too late. He’s a little loopy.”

            “He’s saying some horrible things.”

            “You should have heard him singing earlier,” said one lioness. “He’s pretty good when he’s doped up.”

            Reen shook his head. “Are you sure he’s okay? Shouldn’t we do something?”

            “You put him in the sick den. That was enough,” said Adhima. “It’ll wear off in the morning. But he’ll still feel it.” Laughter went through the den. “He’s not getting rid of that headache any time soon.”

            “If he wets himself—”

            “We’ll all be laughing. Reen, relax,” said Hira.

            “He’s my brother.”

            “He’s my mate,” said Adhima. “And I’m laughing my head off.”

            Reen sighed. “Alright. I’m getting some food.” He walked out of the den and heard a fresh outburst of song about the joys of bathing. Laughter erupted from the den as he left. Reen heard himself chuckle. Yes, it was a little funny to hear Gymara’s cracked voice trying to sing. He was his brother; he couldn’t help loving him.

 

 

 

Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him.

                        Proverbs 22:15

 

            The next few weeks were fairly uneventful. The only thing that came of that night was Gymara stumbling over to Reen, his head clouded with pain, and asked, “Did I do anything stupid last night?”, to which Reen respectfully lied.

            Within the next month both of the princes began to accompany their fathers on their rounds around the kingdom. Both of their second birthdays were creeping up slowly, along with their manes creeping out to be shown to the world, Hatari’s being darker than his father’s, almost black, and Rayan’s being pure black on the tips, but then suddenly and abruptly changing to almost pure white as it grew out. Both of them were learning all that they could of the kingdom from their fathers’ ways and personalities, and as a result, both were learning to handle problems slightly differently, as could be expected.

            There was another member of the kingdom that was learning as well, but in a slightly different sense. Shaka had been thrust into the duty of the Animal Council representative, without almost any warning at all. He had first approached his new position with enthusiasm, wanting to do everything perfectly. The only thing that had changed at all was Shaka’s eagerness had only been influenced slightly by his overwhelming lack of sleep. It seemed that his constant companion was Sudi, the cheetah never letting the hyena out of his sight; more and more it seemed as if the only time Shaka had alone was with his clan.

            Shaka couldn’t have loved it more.

            Granted, he did almost nothing in his job; the only thing he actually did was talk to the other hyenas in Sanctuary, and then reported their needs and wishes to Sudi during their time together, which Sudi then reported to Gymara in a sense that could more or less be described as “completely skewed.”

            Still, all of the work began to wear him out. He worked effortlessly on behalf of his species, trying to insure that everyone had a chance to let their voice be heard. He lied awake at night after long walks and talks with Sudi, during which Sudi would fill his head with protocol and dealings of the Animal Council, and would also test Shaka on his knowledge. Shaka’s responses were never enough for Sudi, who always insisted that he should pay more attention instead of staring off into space.

            That was the reason Shaka laid awake at night, trying to retain all of the knowledge Sudi had forced upon him, trying to find a peaceful, just solution to all of the hyenas’ problems he had been confronted with, and trying to find a way to make up to his mate and pups what he was supposed to do with them that day, but had never found the time. He refused to sleep until he had come to a firm conclusion on everything, and still had never had a completely clean conscience about it. It always seemed as if someone was being given less than all the others. He might have slept a little better if he had realized that he was one of the ones on the less receiving end.

            He only began to relax at all when he came home late one night and found the clan leader waiting for him. Her body language was more than enough to tell him that she wasn’t just here to ask him how his day went. He hung his head and his tail as he walked up to her, showing the proper level of deference. He licked the top of her head and then her throat, the traditional hyenic greeting, then waited for her to speak.

            “You’ve been out awfully late lately, Shaka,” the matriarch said.

            “I’ve just been trying to do my job, ma’am,” said Shaka.

            “And just what is your job?”

            “It’s Animal Council Delegate, ma’am.”

            “And you can’t very well do that if you’re walking around half-asleep all the time. You’ve been working all day, every day, and you’ve never even been awake a single night. You’ve missed out on every single night hunt, and look at you! You’re wasting away!”

            “Uh, well . . . Teya’s been real good about burying some of the kill for me—”

            “She shouldn’t need to be, Shaka. Ulu managed to find ways to spend time here, why can’t you?”

            “Ma’am . . . begging your pardon, ma’am, but I really don’t know how he did. Between doing all that I have been, and getting home to be able to kiss the little ones goodnight . . . and Teya, too . . . ma’am, I know she’s frustrated with the way things are going, me being never home at all, and I know I haven’t given her any—attention at all, but ma’am . . . there’s just so darn much that needs to get done.”

            The matriarch smiled at the sight of Shaka staring at the ground guiltily, his head and tail drooping so low that if they went any further, they would fall off. She tilted his head up to look at her with a paw. “I never really understood how Ulu did what he did, either. But Shaka, everyone needs to take time off. You’re not a god. You wear out. And you can’t do a good job if you’re this tired.”

            “Ma’am, I just don’t see any other way to do this. I have to make sure everyone’s doing okay, and I have to try to figure it all out, and I’ve got to learn so much about the council—”

            The matriarch laughed. “You can’t learn about the council just from lessons, Shaka. That’s absurd. You need experience. I guarantee you that nothing you learn is going to be able to stand up to what you walk away with at the end of a meeting. But that is not the point. The point is that you are not spending any time at home. Shaka, you were chosen because you have wonderful character. You will do anything for anyone with a just cause.”

            “Thank you, ma’am.”

            “But this is going too far. You are going to get some rest, and you are going to spend more time at home.”

            “Ma’am . . .”

            “Yes?”

            “Ma’am, I don’t really see how you can make me do that. I need to do my job.”

            “This is my order to you, hyena.”

            “Ma’am, if I can respectfully disagree . . .”

            The matriarch rose from her sitting position, snarling. Shaka shrank down to the ground, placing himself flat, then rolling over onto his back.

            “Ma’am . . .”

            “Disobedience will not be tolerated. You’re going to sleep now. And I am going to be there personally to supervise it. There’s going to be no staying awake and pacing tonight, or from now on.”

            “Ma’am, please, I just want to help—”

            “And you can’t help if you’re half-awake all the time. Shaka, this is for your own good.” The matriarch stepped back. “Get up.” Shaka stood up, his head and tail still hung low. “Now get over to your mate and tell her goodnight. You don’t need to tell anyone about this.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Goodnight, Shaka.”

            And, for that night, it worked. Shaka went to his mate and kissed her lovingly and told her goodnight, went to his already-asleep cubs and kissed them gently on their heads, and went to sleep, trying to stay awake for as long as he could so he could think, only to find the harder he tried to stay awake, the faster he fell asleep. And it worked the next night, and the next, and the next, all the way for the whole week, the matriarch staying with Shaka long enough to ensure that he didn’t try to stay awake, or sending someone in her stead.

            Then Shaka began to come home much later, usually after everyone had gone to sleep or was out hunting for the night, spending his time thinking away from the clan, where he couldn’t be told what to do. His mate would have worried about the implications of her mate never coming home, but Shaka was one of the last animals to ever have an affair.

            Instead, she told the matriarch. One night a hunting party went out searching for hyena instead of antelope. A thoroughly docile Shaka was told that he was to report straight home immediately after he was done with politics for the day, and would be fully expected to participate in the night hunts as well, or he would not like the results.

            Shaka’s protests went unnoted. He realized he was almost betraying the first principle of every clan, loyalty, but he saw no other way to do his job. Yet, despite showing this to the matriarch in every way he could think of, she refused to be any less severe. It all seemed to pile up; the hunting duties he had as a clan member, sorting the needs of all the hyenas he had to cater to, and keeping up with Sudi’s lessons on the way that the political system in Sanctuary worked, the lessons seeming to become longer and more demanding every day.

            Shaka loved his job, loved his clan, and wanted to do nothing but be the best servant to the kingdom that he could be, but it seemed that even his formerly inexhaustible personality would begin to crumble.

 

 

 

            “You must be joking,” said Gymara, his face horrified. “This is heat we’re talking about.”

            “Yes, I know,” said Reen. “And I know that this is a sacrifice for you. But I really don’t think it should be that way.” He smiled. “If anything, this should be more enjoyable for you—”

            “Are you nuts?” hissed Gymara. “There is nothing fun about heat. Nothing. Kissing is fun. Cuddling is fun. Sex, even that’s fun—but you can’t do this to me again, Reen,” he pleaded.

            “I just want to abstain from heat—”

            “There are ten of them that go in two weeks, Reen. Ten. All at once! And then, almost right after that, there’s another four. I can’t do this again, Reen.”

            “Gymara, I really don’t—”

            “Look, last year, you didn’t want to do it because of Unir. Fine, great, one year since she passed and all that. But two now. You can’t try to tell me you’re not over it yet.”

            Reen looked at the ground. “I am—better. But I simply don’t want to have any more cubs—”

            “They’re their cubs, not our cubs,” hissed Gymara. He looked furtively around the den to make sure they were still unheard. The only ones in the den were a few of the elder lionesses who were busy talking amongst themselves. Gymara shuddered as he thought of their tame nature changing in just a short time.

            “Gymara, it’s not just that. I was faithful to Unir as much as I could be. I—just don’t know if I really should participate . . .” He looked back down at the ground, refusing to look at Gymara.

            Gymara shook his head slowly as he looked at Reen. “You’re scared,” he said disgustedly.

            “A—a little,” admitted Reen.

            “You think you can’t do it.” Reen didn’t answer. “You think they’ll work you so hard they’ll kill you.”

            “It doesn’t need to be said quite that way. I know I won’t die—”

            “Reen, remember what I was like after last heat? Hmm? I felt like my hind legs were going to fall off. I couldn’t walk for a week. I lost half my weight, practically—”

            “That’s a bit of an exaggeration—”

            “The point is,” said Gymara, “that I was a complete and total wreck after I was done. And there is no way that you’re putting me through that again. You’re not standing me up. You’re going to be right there, going at it just like me.”

            “Gymara, I—”

            “Fourteen of ’em, Reen. Fourteen. Neither of us likes this, but it has to be done, for some god-unknown reason. You’re not standing me up. Out of the question. No.”

            Reen sighed. “Look, maybe if we let Rayan and Hatari—”

            No!” snarled Gymara. Reen looked down at the ground, almost disgusted with his suggestion. “They will not be doing anything,” said Gymara fiercely.

            “I don’t know why I said that,” said Reen.

            “Because you’re a wuss. Besides, they’re almost two years old. What do they know about sex anyway? They didn’t even see heat last time; you took them with you.”

            “Well, we can’t keep them away this time,” said Reen. “I won’t exactly be able to do that if I’m—participating.”

            Gymara stared out into space. Suddenly he snapped back. “Fine. I mean, look at us. We turned out okay after it, didn’t we?”

            “I think I’m half-deaf from hearing Dad’s roar so many times,” said Reen.

            “Look, you’re not getting out of it, and that’s final. The lionesses win. We lose. That’s it.”

            Reen sighed. “Very well. But about this—”

            “No buts!”

            “—this Shaka. What do you think of him?”

            “Shaka?” Gymara thought for a moment. “The—oh, right, the hyena. Too many animals with that name. I thought we were talking about heat,” Gymara said, slightly confused.

            “What do you think of him?”

            “He’s, uh . . . you know, yea high, ’bout this long—”

            Gymara.”

            “He’s okay, I guess.”

            “That’s it? ‘Okay?’”

            “What more do you want? You want his life story, ask his mother.”

            “You know I meant the famine. Is he doing anything?”

            Gymara thought about the endless petitions Shaka had made to Sudi to, in turn, make to him, asking for more food, more carcasses, and more land, the last of which Gymara found amusing. “Eh . . . not really, no.”

            “Nothing?”

            “He’s new at this. Maybe he just hasn’t gotten used to it yet.”

            Reen shook his head. “We need to do more about it. They’re starving, Gymara.”

            “I’m well aware of that,” said Gymara dryly. “They entertain me with it all day long.”

            “It’s not something to laugh at, Gymara.”

            “I know; it’s more annoying, really . . .”

            “And you still haven’t let me swear in Shaka.”

            “Look, there’s not really any need. There’s going to be no full council meeting any time soon—”

            “There’s one next week.”

            “Next week?” asked Gymara, so loudly that some of the lionesses in the den turned and stared.

            “Two thirds of my species have requested one. That’s enough to constitute one—”

            “Couldn’t you have scheduled it during heat?” Gymara groaned.

            “We’d miss it,” pointed out Reen.

            “Exactly. I’d rather go through hell with them than the council,” said Gymara, waving a foreleg toward the lionesses.

            “Gymara, you’re a king. And a king must uphold the honor and integrity of his position in order to—”

            “Reen, just shut up,” groaned Gymara. “I don’t need you shoving any of your little proverbial bits of wisdom down my throat. You’re not Dad.”

            “I wasn’t trying to be—”

            “Then stop telling me how to behave. So I’m relaxed. That’s not a crime yet. Might be after the meeting.”

            “You don’t act regally.”

            “Screw regally,” said Gymara, annoyed with the way the conversation was headed. “Don’t you have somewhere to go?”

            “No.”

            “Great. Then I do.” Gymara stood up and stretched, vertebrae popping.

            “Could you at least bring Shaka by the den tomorrow night?”

            “I’ll bring him when it’s good for me.”

            “Sudi can do—”

            “Sudi’s got his mouth full. He doesn’t need anything else.”

            “Nyota, then—”

            Gymara turned angrily. “Look, Reen, this is my territory. You’ll see Shaka when I can get him to you. But don’t go stepping out of line.”

            “‘Stepping out of line?’ Gymara, I’m just seeing what I can do to help. The kingdom’s not divided into your animals and my animals; it never has been.”

            Gymara heaved an annoyed sigh. “Look, you’ll see him when you see him. But don’t try to run my part of the kingdom. I don’t run yours.”

            “I ask for your advice, Gymara—”

            “I’m not asking for yours. So please, just let me deal with it. My way.”

            “Is this a touchy subject—”

            “You have no idea.”

            “I only want to help,” said Reen. “You know I wouldn’t try to do anything else.”

            “Look, I’m just having a lot of problems.” Gymara looked back at the den entrance. “Look, I gotta go. There’s stuff I have to take care of.” He walked out of the den.

            Reen watched his brother leave, then looked over at the lionesses in the corner. One of them shrugged, and a few moments later, they were back to their conversations. Reen lowered his head in thought. What had he done to make Gymara that annoyed?

 

 

 

            “Really, sire,” said Sudi, “there are some times I want to give him a good smack right up the . . .”

            “Yes?” asked Gymara. “Right up the where?”

            “Dad?”

            Gymara turned to look at Hatari. “Yes?”

            “I’m bored.”

            Gymara sighed. “Cubs these days. So desensitized by hunting and war.” He looked back around at Hatari. “And just what do you want me to do?”

            “I dunno. Let me play.”

            “Hatari, you’re—learning valuable life lessons here,” Gymara said, trying to come up with something different than the other things he’d said the last few times Hatari had brought up that fact that he’d rather be anywhere else.

            “It’s still boring,” he grumbled.

            “You’ll survive.” Gymara turned back to Sudi. “So you were saying you wanted to stick your paw where?”

            “Sire . . .”

            “Okay, fine. No more bad jokes.”

            “Basically, he’s becoming more of a nuisance than he’s worth.”

            “Well, just keep the pressure on him. Sooner or later he’ll figure out that we’re trying to get him to cave.”

            “He’s a hyena, sire. And an outstandingly stupid one.”

            “I’ve realized that.”

            “And the most sickening thing of all is his patriotism.”

            “I think his morals are cute,” said Gymara. “How he thinks they’re everything. Ugh.”

            “I don’t think that we can do anything to him to make him do what we want, sire. He’s completely honest, he only wants to please everyone—he’s frustrating beyond belief.”

            Gymara sighed. “Fine. But keep trying.”

            Sudi was outraged. “Sire! After everything I’ve told—”

            Keep trying,” said Gymara. “We’ll find something on this guy.”

            “Sire, there is nothing—”

            Gymara glared at Sudi. Sudi fell silent. “My word is law,” said Gymara quietly. “And that means that you obey me. Or do we have to go over this again?”

            “No, sire,” said Sudi, his tone repressed.

            “And why, Hatari, is it important that he obey me?” asked Gymara, turning around to look at his son.

            “Because the world will end if he doesn’t,” said Hatari in annoyance, playing idly with a few stalks of grass.

            “Exactl—wait.”

            Hatari sniggered. Sudi smiled.

            “Hatari, you really do need to pay attention.”

            “Dad, it’s boring,” complained Hatari.

            “Hatari, you’re going to be king. And in order to be a good king—”

            “The only thing I’ve seen you doing is think how to get rid of that hyena. Why don’t you just kill him and shut up?”

            “Why, that’s a brilliant idea,” said Gymara. “And while I’m at it, I can go on a whole killing spree, just getting rid of everyone that bugs me. There’s a thing called subtlety, Hatari.”

            “It’s boring. I don’t want to be here. It’s no fun.”

            “Sire, if I may,” asked Sudi politely.

            “Sure, why the hell not?” asked Gymara in annoyance. He walked away from a pair to get a drink of water from the nearby pond.

            “Sire,” Sudi said to Hatari, “as a future king, you need to be able to understand animals. It’s a necessity. Manipulation is one thing that is necessary for every ruler. The animals don’t know what’s best for them. Therefore you must act on their behalf. That reason is the entire basis of monarchy.”

            “I’m two years old,” said Hatari. “I don’t want to learn about monarchy.”

            “Sire, you are a prince. You have no choice. You’re going to be king someday, and its needed to—”

            “I don’t wanna learn,” complained Hatari. “It’s no fun.”

            “Sire, if you don’t learn—”

            “Who cares if I learn? I’m just two years old!”

            “Okay, you know what?” burst out Gymara angrily, whirling around. “Fine! Go off, go play with the girls, do what you want! See if I care! I just hope that when you’re king, you have to go through the same crap I am!”

            “Finally,” muttered Hatari. He got up and headed through the savannah, never looking back.

            “Goddamn ingrate,” muttered Gymara. He glanced over at Sudi. “What? Going to say I’m a bad father now?”

            “Well, sire,” said Sudi, “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about him being able to manipulate others. You’ve succeeded in that part. Now if you’ll excuse me, there are a few matters I need to attend to before the council meeting tomorrow.”

            Gymara growled at the sight of Sudi walking away. “Arrogant ass,” he muttered. What did he know about raising cubs?

 

 

 

            It was late again. So much had to be prepared for the council meeting the next day, so many little details ironed out. Gymara cursed whichever one of his ancestors had decided to make the council. It was nothing more than a pain in his royal behind. Every law went through the council at some point, and thankfully, most of the time there was never a majority to contradict a law. It was a group of talking heads at best.

            Gymara walked into the den, noticing that several of the lionesses were gone. Another night hunt, he supposed. He saw Adhima lying down in the den, her son next to her. He walked over to her and nuzzled her gently, receiving only a mild groan. She was asleep.

            “Adhima,” he whispered into her ear. No response. He poked her gently in the neck, then again.

            “Whaz . . . Gymara?” she asked sleepily.

            “Come on,” he said. “Outside.”

            “You have the council tomorrow,” she said. “You need sleep.”

            “Please, Adhima—”

            Adhima finally brought her head up to look at him. “No,” she said firmly.

            “I just want to talk.”

            “That’s it? Just talk?”

            “I swear,” promised Gymara.

            Adhima heaved her sigh, then got to her paws and followed Gymara outside. “What is it?” she asked.

            “It’s—Hatari. He’s not being—cooperative.”

            “And?” asked Adhima.

            “He’s disobeying me,” said Gymara.

            “And?”

            “And it’s not right, is what I keep hoping you’ll pick up on!”

            Adhima smiled. “You’re cute when you’re stressed out.”

            “Adhima, I’m being serious.”

            “Gymara, Hatari’s a cub. Cubs disobey. It’s just a fact of nature.”

            “It’s rude, it’s disrespectful, it’s—”

            “It’s what’s expected. So do you know what you do?”

            “Tell me,” said Gymara sarcastically.

            “You punish him.”

            “And how am I supposed to do that? Half the time he manages to wriggle away when he’s with me, and the other half he’s wishing he was anywhere else. You’d think that’d be punishment enough—”

            “Gymara, he just doesn’t think too highly of you anymore.”

            Gymara looked as if she’d slapped him. “What?”

            “You used to spend so much time with him, and I know you still try, but there’s just other things he wants to do. He wants to play with his friends, and the only time he can really do it is when you’re trying to teach him. He doesn’t understand half of what he’s learning yet, and he doesn’t see why he should.”

            “And he told you this?”

            Adhima smiled. “It doesn’t take a genius, Gymara. Look, I know you love him, but you have to remember to try to keep his feelings in consideration.”

            “You’re saying I shouldn’t punish him.”

            “I’m saying you should. But give him a day off every now and then. But you can’t tolerate his talking back to you. He’s even picked up a little bit of sass with me.”

            “So what am I supposed to do? Ground him?”

            “I was thinking more like making him hunt. Get his own food for a change. Maybe spend some time tending to the older lionesses.” Adhima smiled, a sort of sadness behind it. “You just have to try, Gymara.”

            “I don’t have enough time to try. Cubs are for lionesses.”

            “He needs to respect what you’re trying to do Gymara. He just hasn’t had a chance to see just what it is. He’s just turned two. Just . . . I don’t know. But you need to let him know that you can be a good father for him. That you care about him. Love him.”

            “He just seems like such a pain in the ass sometimes.”

            “I know.”

            “And it seems like he’s trying.”

            “He probably is,” admitted Adhima. “He knows that if he pushes hard enough, he gets his way. So don’t let him. You need to be firm, Gymara.”

            “I am firm.”

            “To be honest . . . you’re spoiling him just a little.”

            “Am not.”

            “Are too.”

            “Am not.”

            “Are too.”

            “Am not.”

            Adhima smiled and kissed Gymara on the cheek. “Just try to be a little more—I don’t know. Like your father.”

            “What, dead?”

            Adhima laughed. “I still want you nice and warm.”

            Gymara smiled. “Are you trying to say what I think you are?”

            “Most definitely not. Now come on, you need to get to sleep. Long day tomorrow.”

            Adhima headed back into the den. She stretched as she lied down, and her eyes opened wide as she felt Gymara deliberately nose her rump. She looked up at him in mock reproach and saw his smile. She laid her head down and saw Gymara looking at Hatari. The lion took one long look at his son before finally lying down to sleep.

            Adhima closed her eyes and whispered, “Are too.”

 

 

 

            Shaka padded toward the circle of animals outside the lions’ den, all of them sitting so that it seemed as if the Throne was actually a member of the circle. “Now, as the most junior of all the animals on the council, you will be the last to be given the opportunity to speak,” said Sudi. “You must remember that by the time you are reached, all of us will be completely annoyed with how things are going. I advise you speak your part fairly quickly.”

            “But I’ve got a lot to say—” protested Shaka.

            “Then you’d better say it quickly. None of us like these meetings, but they’re an evil that must happen.”

            “Did you tell King Gymara about—”

            “Yes, I’ve told him everything,” said Sudi in annoyance.

            “Then why hasn’t he—”

            “The king is a very busy lion. He has other things on his mind than hyena trifles.”

            “Trifles?”

            “Minor things.”

            “I know what the word means. But I—I know he can’t think of it that way. Is there any chance I could talk to him before—”

            “No,” said Sudi coldly. “Now don’t make a fool of yourself. You sit between Erevu and Katili.”

            “Who?”

            Sudi sighed. “The leopard and the wildebeest.”

            “Oh. Okay.” The hyena trotted over to his spot, and sat down. He looked over at the leopard on his left and smiled. “Hi.”

            “Hi. You’re Shaka?”

            “Yep.”

            “I’m Erevu. And that’s Akida,” he said, nodding to the wildebeest on the other side of Shaka.

            “I thought his name was Katili,” said Shaka.

            The wildebeest glared down at Shaka. Erevu whispered to Shaka, “Katili got eaten yesterday.”

            “Oh.”

            “Try to be a little more subtle around here, okay?” said Erevu. “It’ll make it a lot easier on you.”

            Shaka saw Sudi lie down behind him, a short distance away. “What do—”

            “All rise!”

            Shaka turned to see the shaman backing out of the circle of animals, the cheetah being replaced by King Reen and King Gymara. All of the animals rose, Shaka just a pause behind them. The two lions took their place in the circle, neither one of them sitting on the Throne, instead standing on the ground in front of it.

            “You may be seated,” said the shaman. All of the animals did so.

            “First,” said King Reen, “there is one thing that must be taken care of. I don’t know how many of you know Shaka,” he said, gesturing at the hyena, “but he still has yet to become a member of the council. Shaka, would you please step forward,” said King Reen, smiling kindly.

            Shaka stepped into the middle of the circle, before the king. “Yes, sire?”

            “I assume you remember your swearing in by my brother? It’s just something for both of us.” King Reen turned. “Nyota, come here.” A female cheetah stepped into the circle. “If you’d be so kind . . .”

            Nyota smiled at Reen, then turned to Shaka. “Repeat after me. I, your name here . . .”

            “I, Shaka . . .”

            The pair went through the whole ritual for Shaka’s second time. “May the gods ensure your long and helpful contribution to the kingdom,” finished Nyota.

            “Thank you very much, ma’am.”

            “We hope you’ll live up to the examples of your predecessors,” said King Reen. “Both of you may return to your places.”

            Shaka did, uncomfortably feeling all of the council’s eyes on him. He sat down in his place and heard the shaman declare, “The first to speak—the lions.”

            King Gymara said loudly, “We have no complaints to lodge for the council. But all those laws last time—yeah, they’re passed.”

            The shaman nodded. “The next to speak—the cheetahs.”

            “The only thing that we have to say,” said a cheetah, stepping forward, “is that we would like the leopard scum to stay off our land!

            Shaka heard Sudi mutter behind him, “Oh, here we go.” Shaka could practically feel Erevu bristle next to him. “We have done no such thing!” the leopard insisted.

            “You constantly invade the Plains of Lea, infringing on our domain!”

            “The Plains are sacred ground!”

            “To the leopards,” dismissed the cheetah.

            “And I am one!”

            “I know,” said the cheetah disgustedly.

            “I take offense—”

            “You don’t just take that! You take our prey, our water—”

            “You have an abundance of all those things, except for, apparently, honor—”

            And they were off. Shaka looked around at the other animals. Surely one of them would step in and do something to give the animals a logical compromise. None of them did so. If anything, they ignored the yelling match in front of them, instead talking to their neighbors. Many of them began to lie down and make themselves comfortable.

            And this was supposed to be the body of animals that brought order to the kingdom?

            Finally, after almost twenty minutes of arguing, when the two delegates were at the point of blows, King Gymara nodded to King Reen. Reen’s voice cut through the yelling: “The Lands Accord of Marin, on the fourth year, the sixth month, and . . .” The king looked over at his advisor.

            “Twenty-fifth day of his reign,” finished Nyota.

            King Reen nodded. “And what of it?” asked the cheetah.

            “It was decided that no species would be able to declare any part of Sanctuary as their own land, unless they declared war on another species,” said the king. “And if so, they must clearly state where the boundaries of their territory are, and are not allowed to pass out of their territory.”

            “The Plains of Lea have been inhabited by the cheetahs for two generations! It is ours and ours alone!”

            “It’s ours, if it’s anyone’s!” yelled Erevu.

            “Enough!” said King Reen. “Unless the cheetahs are willing to fully commit their entire species to war over a simple feud between two families, the cheetahs have as much right to the Plains as you do. And if you do declare war, it is only then that you may draw your boundaries and keep them out. Any intrusions into the Plains previous to the declaration will have no retribution. The Accords will stand.”

            “But—” protested the cheetah.

            “The Accords will stand,” insisted the king. “If the cheetahs have no further matters to discuss, we may move on to the next species.”

            The cheetah glared at the king. “We have nothing else to say,” he said. Shaka could hear the repressed anger in his voice.

            King Reen nodded to the shaman. The shaman stepped forward again and said, “The next animal to speak will be the gazelles.”

            And the meeting went on. King Gymara took the next dispute, and then King Reen took the one after that, then King Gymara again, the two of them alternating being the negotiator. It was a rare occasion that an animal passed without having some outburst to be heard on, usually involving another species.

            Although almost every animal had a complaint, few actually had laws to propose. Shaka strained to listen eagerly, but could understand little of the jargon. It was no surprise; none of the laws proposed were actual laws, instead asking the kings to amend the standing royal decrees. The only thing that Shaka understood clearly was the kings’ responses; never did they say yes, rarely did they say no. Most of the time it was a solemn promise to think about the situation carefully.

            Shaka could see why most of the other animals paid little attention; they were almost not needed. The debates were almost between the kings and the animals concerned alone. He continued to sit up and pay close attention to every debate, trying to make sure that his terms of office were fulfilled, and that he was the best representative that he could be. Despite all of his effort, he still felt a shiver of excitement run through his body as he heard the words, “And, lastly, the hyenas will speak.”

            Shaka hesitated, then stepped forward. “Uh . . . I’m really not used to this but, uh . . . I got a problem that needs to be noticed. We hyenas, we’re simple animals, and we don’t ask for all that much. But there’s one thing we need pretty bad, and its food. I know it’s kind of irregular for us to be asking for it, but we’re hurting real bad. We’re starving, and there’s no—”

            “Sire, motion to adjourn!” Shaka looked over to see the cheetah who had spoken. The cheetah pointedly looked away from Shaka, instead staring at King Gymara.

            “But—but I—”

            “Second the motion!” said the antelope delegate.

            “Now hold on one second!” protested Shaka. “I need to get my chance to speak!”

            “A motion to adjourn is never out of order, and takes precedent for all motions,” said King Gymara tonelessly. “Alright, the vote. All in favor, aye.”

            “Aye!” came almost unanimously from the council.

            “Against, nay.”

            Shaka stared, then suddenly blurted out, “No!”

            “The yes’s have it,” said King Gymara. “Adjourned.”

            The animals began to leave. “Hey!” yelled Shaka. “Hey! Hey! You need to listen to me! We need help! Please, just . . . just listen.”

            None of them turned back.

            Shaka watched them go in disbelief. “We need help,” he said quietly. He looked over at the kings. King Gymara had already left, heading into the den. King Reen met his gaze and smiled kindly before he, too headed into the den. Shaka turned to look at Sudi for help, but he, too had gone. He hesitated one last moment, then walked sadly into the grass, his head and tail low.

 

 

 

. . . “Well you know, I became an alcoholic because my parents didn’t love me enough. And then I became a junkie because my parents didn’t love me enough. And I went into hypnosis and therapy and I found out that my parents used to hit me”—hey, my parents used to be the living (crap) out of me, okay?! And looking back on it I’m glad they did, and I’m looking forward to beating the (crap) out of my kids, aren’t you?

            Denis Leary

 

            “. . . And the weak were cast out into the desert. The unfit, the ugly, the frail, the sick, the elderly. Raids were conducted throughout the kingdom, searching for those who might ‘bring down’ the strength of Sanctuary. The land was no longer a haven, instead being a place of fear. And the Malaiki was succeeded by his son, Shujaa. Only more pain and suffering were brought to the lands. He began the greatest abomination the kingdom has ever known: he passed a law that forbade the practice of any religion. Believers were tortured as a public spectacle, made to suffer untold agony, many of them dying from their thirst or their wounds. Those that survived were cast into the desert along with the others, believing that they would only weaken the kingdom. He tore down what temples he could, and banned all animals from going near the rest. Shujaa’s rule only thrived.

            “His son, Giza was born, and Shujaa committed his greatest sin yet: He proclaimed that he had sired a god, that all of his efforts to destroy religion were to make way for this great god that even he bowed down to. And indeed, it did seem as though Giza was destined to be a god. He has been said to be fearsome, strong, cunning—everything his father had intended him to be. He had an unshakable will, and the strength of ten lions. For some time, he followed his father’s example, believing exactly what his father told him. But somehow—it’s unknown exactly how—Giza reached the decision to overthrow his father. He discovered religion. It still existed in small, underground communities, well hidden. But unlike his father, Giza wished to learn more about it. And it was through this that he learned how much of a tyrant his father truly was. He murdered his father, knowing that there was no other way to stop his cruelty. He never forgave himself for that, even though his intentions were good.

            “Of course, Giza also had an heir. Shetani. Yes, it is a name normally abhorred by lions, and a female name, but Giza worshipped Roh’kash. He gave his son one of the highest names he could think of. Fortunately, Shetani didn’t have quite the same severe discipline that Giza had. He was much kinder than his father, and improvised on his father’s heavy penalties. It was underneath his generosity that the religions of Sanctuary finally flourished again. Unfortunately, it was also that generosity that was unable to prevent the coming of the Wars of the Gods. Giza’s stone will was needed, but he had passed on, and the Wars consumed three generations, taking countless lives and destroying what few temples Shujaa had been unable to, before peace was finally achieved. The wise king Makini finally was able to negotiate a truce with all of the animals, and in the same stroke also created the Animal Council. And both the monarchy and the council continue to exist today,” finished Lymo.

            Rayan blinked, feeling overwhelmed. It was too much to take in at one time. “I don’t think I got it all . . .”

            Lymo smiled. “Don’t worry. It was just meant to be an overview. Tiifu barely managed that in one sitting. He’s a very smart cub, sire.”

            “He could make a fine advisor someday,” said Reen.

            Lymo smiled politely. “Why don’t we leave that to cheetahs, sire?”

            “Having trouble?”

            “Trying to avoid it.”

            The king and his son sat together for the lesson, Rayan having caught up to his father’s teaching, and having even surpassed him in some areas. The young prince spent most of his time by either his father’s or Lymo’s side. Of course, it was necessary for Rayan to spend a few days every now and then with the other lion cubs. Reen felt it wouldn’t be appropriate for the den to know his beliefs just yet.

            “Really, Lymo, what is going on between you and the cheetahs?” asked Reen.

            “It’s nothing that I have anything to do with, sire,” said Lymo stiffly and with a sudden air of formality.

            “Alright, alright,” said Reen. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

            “There are simply some—issues that can’t quite be resolved.”

            “Such as?”

            Lymo’s face grimaced. “I’d hardly like to say it in front of Rayan, sire.”

            Reen. Please, I think he’d be old enough.”

            Lymo sighed and said reluctantly and disgustedly, “Interspecies—affairs.”

            Reen was shocked. “You mean—someone forced—”

            “No, it’s completely voluntary. And absolutely disgusting. But the two families are now practically at war because of their offspring.”

            “But that’s insane—”

            “Dad?”

            “Yes, Rayan?” asked Reen.

            The half-cub’s face was distorted even more than normal as he concentrated. “When Shujaa had a son . . .”

            “Yes?”

            “What did Lymo mean by ‘sired?’”

            Lymo and Reen looked at each other. “I . . . meant that he had a son, that’s all,” said Lymo cautiously.

            “But how are cubs made?” asked Rayan, his ears perking up.

            “Eh . . . carefully,” said Lymo. He gave Reen a look that plainly said, You said he was old enough?

            “Carefully?”

            “Yes, you break if we drop you. Now sire, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to cut our session short. There’s a funeral that I need to preside over. A friend of the family.”

            “By all means. Don’t let us keep you.”

            “Thank you, sire,” said Lymo, standing up and bowing his head. He began to go, then stopped and said, “And sire?”

            Reen.”

            “Yes, uh, Reen. Ah, maybe you should talk to Rayan a bit. About, you know. Life.”

            “Lymo . . .”

            “I know it’s a little out of my place. Just friendly advice. But he’s two years old now. By the next time the cycle comes around, he won’t just stand there. And I’m not going to let you drop him and that little hellion of a nephew off in my home again.”

            “Hatari is not a hellion.”

            “He’s spoiled, that’s what he is. And if Gymara doesn’t do something, he’s going to end up a lot worse—”

            “Lymo.”

            “Yes?”

            “The funeral.”

            “Yes, of course. Just—think about it, Reen.”

            “I will. I still have almost a year, anyway.”

            “Sire . . .”

            “I’ll think on it. I promise.”

            The leopard headed his way; the two royals headed theirs. The king and his son walked in silence for a few moments before Reen finally asked, “What did you think of the lesson?”

            “I forgot it.”

            Reen chuckled. “Me, too.”

            “Dad, what are you going to think about?”

            Reen paused before he said, “You—you’re growing up, Rayan. And you need to learn things. Lots of things, about all kinds of things.”

            “I thought I already was learning all kinds of things.”

            “You need to learn more.”

            “I don’t know if I can learn more.”

            Reen chuckled. “You can. You’re the brightest son I could hope to have.”

            “Tiifu’s smarter.”

            “Tiifu has a wonderful gift. He couldn’t ask for a better teacher than his father. He’d know what to say.”

            “Does Tiifu know what I need to know?”

            “Probably not,” admitted Reen. “I just don’t know how to tell you. Your mother would have.” Reen smiled. “She’d know just what to say.”

            “Kaata’s like Mom, isn’t she?”

            The smile on Reen’s face faded slightly. “Kaata is a good lioness. But she . . . she’s done some unforgivable things.”

            “Like what?”

            “Like things you don’t need to know.”

            “I thought I needed to know everything.”

            “Not everything. Just a lot of things.”

            “But what are you gonna think about, Dad?” insisted Rayan.

            “Why don’t I tell you after I’ve decided to?”

            “Kaata’s nice, though. You could talk to her.”

            “Kaata is nice. But she is nothing like your mother.”

            “Dad, nobody’s perfect. Mom probably did awful things behind your back all the time.”

            “Unir was perfect. Your mother was stainless in every way.”

            “Like hell.”

            Reen stopped dead. “Excuse me?”

            “What? I just said ‘like hell.’”

            Reen hit Rayan sharply across the face. Rayan cried out in pain as he fell to the ground. “I don’t want to hear that again,” said Reen sternly.

            “But Dad—”

            Reen hit Rayan again. “I don’t want to hear that again. Is that understood?”

            “But—Hatari says it. And Gymara says it. He said it meant ‘I doubt it—’”

            “Gymara is a bad influence. I don’t want to hear you repeating what he says.”

            “But he said it was okay—”

            “I’m saying it’s not. Is that understood, Rayan?” Rayan looked away. “Is that understood?

            Rayan sighed. “Yes, sir.”

            Reen frowned. He gently nuzzled Rayan. “Come on, let’s get back home.” The half-cub stood up slowly and began to head back to the den, determinedly not staring at his father. Reen sighed and continued by Rayan’s side. The rest of the trip was almost entirely silent. When the den was in sight, Reen said quietly, “I love you, Rayan.”

            “I know,” said Rayan half-heartedly.

            “Are you going to be in the den?”

            “Yeah. I’ll be with Aunt ’Hima.”

            “Alright. There’s hunting tonight, we can get something to eat then.”

            “Fine.”

            Reen watched the half-cub head off toward the main den, his head still hung low. He didn’t know if Rayan was feeling guilty or angry. He wasn’t happy with his father; Reen knew that much. He sighed and headed toward the sick den. It almost seemed as if Kaata had taken up permanent residence inside it with Kria.

            “Hello, Kaata,” said Reen.

            Kaata looked up from bathing Kria. “Hello, sire.”

            Reen realized she must be in a bad mood. “‘Sire?’”

            “Aren’t you here on some kind of official business?”

            Reen shook his head. “I just came to talk.”

            “Oh.” Kaata seemed surprised. “Well, what about?” She went back to grooming Kria.

            “I guess about Rayan. I don’t think I’ve ever had a chance to thank you properly about—caring for him.”

            “You’re welcome.”

            “That wasn’t exactly meant to be the thank-you.”

            “What was it then? Giving me something? Dinner? Sex?”

            Reen was shocked. “Kaata, Kria’s right there.”

            “She knows all about the stupid subject. Told her ages ago.” Kria nodded, then had her head forced down by her mother’s tongue. “Now what did you want to say about Rayan?”

            Reen was silent for a moment. “I had to punish him today.”

            “And this is outstanding why?”

            “Because it just happens so rarely. I don’t like doing it.”

            “No parent likes doing it.”

            “I hit him, Kaata.”

            “And it’s the best way to do it, if that’s what you’re worried about. I turned out wonderfully, didn’t I?”

            Reen smiled a bit, the sarcasm slipping past him unnoticed. “It’s just—it’s not what Unir wanted. We never could agree on this. She never wanted any of our cubs to be struck at all. She just wanted to raise them—well, I guess in a non-violent manner.”

            “Well then we should all just do what Unir says, shouldn’t we?”

            “Are you—angry with me?”

            “Of course not, sire.”

            “If there’s something I said—”

            “There’s nothing.”

            “Kaata—”

            “It’s nothing, sire.”

            Reen frowned. “If there’s something you’d like to tell me about, you don’t need to keep it to yourself.”

            “There isn’t,” Kaata said forcefully.

            Reen knew to let the subject drop. “I’m just worried. Rayan’s been acting a little differently than I expected, and you just seemed angry . . . I don’t know what I’m expecting.”

            “Reen, listen to me.”

            “What?”

            “If you’re worried about punishing Rayan for anything he’s done, don’t. At least have the decency to know he needs your help. Gods forbid he turns out just like your idiot brother.”

            “Gymara’s not—”

            “He’s an idiot. Now, is there anything else, Reen?”

            Reen saw he wasn’t wanted. “Eh . . . no.” He stood up, and headed out of the sick den. “Good night Kaata, Kria.”

            Kaata watched him go, then called out, “Happy birthday.”

            Reen paused. “Oh . . . Yes, it is, isn’t it? Thank you.” He continued on his way toward the main den.

            “Mommy?” said Kria, looking up at her mother. “Are you still angry with him?”

            Kaata’s mouth pressed into a firm line. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

            Kria looked down at the ground. “I don’t wanna be angry like that when I grow up.”

            Kaata sighed. “I don’t want you to be, either,” she said finally. “Now come on. I need to get your stomach.”

 

 

 

            Shaka waited outside the lions’ den, waiting for the two kings to finally emerge. He struggled to keep his eyes open. He’d spent a long night awake, finally deciding to come straight here. There wasn’t any law that he knew of that forbid him from consulting the kings directly. It was just an oddity.

            A cheetah emerged from the grass that surrounded the hard, almost rocky ground the den was placed on. “Oh,” she said. “Hello. I didn’t think there’d be anyone here already.”

            “Sorry,” apologized Shaka. “Uh . . . should I not be here?”

            “Well, I suppose you can stay wherever you like. That’s freedom, isn’t it?”

            “I suppose.”

            “I’m Nyota.”

            Shaka’s eyes widened at the name. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I had no idea!”

            Nyota laughed. “Calm down. It’s not like I’m a goddess or anything.”

            “I—well—it’s just—you’re the king’s advisor,” said Shaka, whispering the last word.

            “And I bleed just like you.”

            “But that’s almost as good as being king.”

            “And that’s where you’re wrong. Gods forbid I was king. Queen. Whatever. There’d be no peace in the kingdom.”

            “Uh . . .”

            “Alright, enough about me,” dismissed Nyota. “Your name is . . .”

            “Shaka.”

            “Oh, the delegate. I thought I’d seen you. You were last at the meeting.”

            “Er . . . yes.”

            Nyota smiled. “Don’t worry, usually the junior members aren’t expected to do any more than just sit and smile.”

            “Ma’am . . . without meaning to seem—pushy . . . we just don’t have time to sit around and wait.”

            “We?”

            “Hyenas. We’re starving, ma’am. This thing’s going on two years now, and it’s something fierce. We don’t have nearly enough food to go around. That—that’s why I came here this morning. I needed to talk to King Reen and King Gymara about it.” Shaka looked over at the den. “I thought they’d be up by now.”

            “They won’t be up for another hour.”

            “What?!”

            “This is their rest day. They get a chance to sleep in and relax for once. They don’t get nearly enough of them.”

            “Well then why are you here, ma’am? Begging your pardon.”

            “Because this is the absolute best place to sunbathe.” Nyota flopped onto the ground, sprawling out and stretching. “Oh, that’s so much better. I have to sit all day, there’s nothing like lying down for once.”

            “Uh, ma’am . . .”

            “Come on, go ahead.”

            “Hyenas don’t sunbathe, ma’am.”

            “Oh. Well, try it. You won’t believe it.” Nyota stretched out a little farther.

            Shaka hesitantly lied down, almost as if he was expecting the ground to swallow him whole. He spread out his legs and looked up at Nyota with a small smile. “It’s warm.”

            “Course it is. That’s the best part. Just stretch out and enjoy it before the lionesses all demand it for themselves. Sun-hogs.”

            “Are you sure it’s okay . . .”

            Nyota looked up at Shaka for a moment and laughed. “You’re one of those ‘hallowed are the lionesses’ types, aren’t you?”

            “Actually, I believe in Roh’kash . . .”

            “You’re avoiding the question.”

            Shaka grinned guiltily. “Well, they are the rulers . . .”

            “There are two lions that rule. The lionesses sit on their butts and do nothing, just like every other healthy, contributing member of society. They’re not holy or anything. If I want this spot, I’m going to have this spot. My nice warm spot.” Nyota laid her head down with a smile.

            Shaka just stared.

            Finally he spoke up. “Er, ma’am?”

            “It’s Nyota.”

            “Yes, ma’am. Do we really have a whole hour?”

            “And all of it’s for sunny warmth.”

            Shaka frowned. He wasn’t even sure if he could stay awake another hour. “Do you know if Sudi will be by soon?”

            “Probably not. He chooses to stay until called for.”

            “Ma’am, I really do need to talk to the kings soon.”

            “Where’s the fire?” Nyota asked, raising her head.

            “Uh . . .”

            “I mean what’s the hurry?”

            “I just need to talk to them.”

            “About?”

            “The feeding plan. We really do need a lot more carcasses. It seems like we’re getting less all the time. We may even have to go back to stealing them again.”

            “So what do you expect the kings to do?”

            “Uh . . . pass a law, I guess.”

            “Why don’t you do that yourself?”

            “Ma’am, there’s no way I can. The kings make the laws. I—I didn’t even get to speak at the last council meeting, there’s no way I can do anything there.”

            “Where’d you hear that?”

            “Uh . . . that’s just how the council works, isn’t it?”

            Nyota smiled. “I don’t know who taught you the council, but they got it wrong.” Her brow furrowed. “Who did teach you?”

            “Sudi.”

            “Well, Sudi should know better than that. Every council meeting, the lions go first, then the party that requested it.”

            “Wait—I’d go first?”

            “Course.”

            “But I’ve barely had any experience. I thought I went last.”

            Only if you don’t have anything to really say. Otherwise, you go first.”

            “But Sudi never said that,” said Shaka, confused.

            “He probably just never expected you to want to propose something already.” Nyota laid her head down again and closed her eyes. “Just wait until the next council meeting. Or ask for another. You could do that today.”

            “Okay,” said Shaka. He shifted uncomfortably. The ground was a little too warm for his liking.

            “So, what are you going to propose?” asked Nyota.

            “Uh . . . You know, I don’t really know.”

            Nyota opened her eyes again and stared at him. “You don’t know?”

            “Well . . . I just don’t really know of anything that can help us much more than getting help. We’re starving, ma’am.”

            “Then you might as well leave. You’re Gymara’s species, and he does not like his time wasted. He’s going to ask for every detail of your little plan.”

            “Couldn’t I just ask him for help?”

            “Every species to its own. I’m sorry, Shaka, but the kings have enough on their minds without having to work for other species.”

            Shaka’s face fell. “Well then there’s nothing I can do, is there? I can’t think of anything.”

            “What have you thought of?” asked Nyota curiously.

            “Well . . . just suppose for a minute that we did have enough meat to go around for all the hyenas. That’d mean that there’d have to be a whole lot more meat. We have to eat what’s left over from everyone else; stealing’s downright uncivilized. And it’s just plain mean. But we almost have to do it. But if we did have enough meat, that’d mean everyone should have enough meat, too. Couldn’t we all just let up on the meat a little bit? I mean, just eat a little less? Let the herds get a little bigger?”

            “The problem with that,” said Nyota, “is that you’re asking everyone to make sacrifices. And it’d probably be thought that you hyenas are asking everyone else to back down to get meat for yourself.”

            “Ma’am, I don’t mean any disgrace to us, but we aren’t the best hunters. We do okay at night, but we mainly just scavenge. It’s not the best life, but it’s ours.”

            “Facts aren’t enough to turn around generations-long prejudices, Shaka. You’d have put animals on your side. And it seems like you’re a little too honest for persuasion.”

            “But ma’am, I’m right,” protested Shaka.

            “Same as everyone else.”

            “Ma’am, I have to do something. I know my idea won’t work, but we’re starving. We have to do something. You don’t know what it’s like to have pups that need milk and mothers that can’t give it. I—I have to do something.”

            Nyota sat up and stared at Shaka for a few moments. “You really are desperate, aren’t you?”

            “I just want to help, ma’am. And we need it more than anyone.”

            “Shaka . . .” Nyota stared at her forepaws. “Look, Shaka—you can’t just force it down the kingdom’s throat. They need time, and they need to be persuaded. You can’t just do this on the spur of a moment. Now,” she said, cutting off Shaka, “I want to help you with this.”

            “Really?”

            Nyota nodded. “But you’re gonna have to think this through. I’m going to be busy all day today, but later tonight . . . maybe we can do something then.”

            “That’d be wonderful, ma’am.”

            “Alright then. Tonight, after I’m done being advisor. I’ll just come over to your place.”

            “Thank you, ma’am.” Shaka looked over at the savannah, then at Nyota. “Uh, I—I think I’m gonna go take a nap now.”

            Nyota smiled. “You do that.” She watched the weary hyena march off through the grass. She wanted to help him, she knew that. She needed to help him.

 

 

 

            “Hey, Kria!”

            Kria looked up as she heard her name called out. “Oh, hi Rayan. What’s up?”

            “Do you know where Sarana is?” the scarred half-cub asked.

            Kria’s hopes fell as she heard the question. “I . . . I think she went hunting. Over by the Withered Tree.”

            “Alright, thanks!” said Rayan. He bounded off with his slightly limping gait, Kria watching him go.

            Kria sighed and lowered her head back down to the ground. Sun-bathing didn’t seem like that much fun anymore. She laid limp on the ground, lying there and doing nothing. Finally she pushed herself up and began to walk back to the sick den to see her mother.

            “Mommy?” she asked as she walked in. Kaata was asleep. Kria walked over to her mother and nudged her gently. “Mommy?”

            Kaata looked up and smiled. “Oh, it’s you, honey. What’s going on?”

            Kria bit her lip and lied down on the ground. Finally she said, “I think Rayan likes Sarana.”

            Pity immediately registered on Kaata’s face. “What happened?”

            “He’s just been asking about Sarana all the time. He doesn’t ever come to see me anymore. He just . . .” A tear slid down Kria’s face. “Mommy, it hurts.”

            “Come here.” Kaata held up a foreleg and Kria snuggled close, almost as if she was a cub. It was impossible to do that anymore, Kria had grown far too large. Kria was different enough already, Kaata reflected. All of the other cubs wanted to play with the others their age, confide in them, practically do everything with them. Kria had never fully recovered from when Hatari had broken her leg. She’d been left behind by all the other cubs in their progress. Even now, when she was over two years old, Kria still clung to her mother for every social thing there was. The only frustration Kaata ever received from her daughter’s social retardation was that none of the other girls even tried to help.

            “Mommy, why doesn’t he like me?” whispered Kria. “I love him, but he doesn’t even like me.”

            Kaata squeezed Kria gently. “I’m sure he likes you—”

            “No, he doesn’t!”

            “Kria . . . honey . . . you’re like a sister to him. And that may be the problem. He may just not have feelings for—”

            “I’m not his sister. You’re not his mom. You said Gymara was my dad.”

            Kaata sighed. “That’s true. But you—it just seems that way to him. And that may never change. And I’m sorry that I kept him so long with you. I just . . .” Kaata felt tears come to her eyes, which she blinked away furiously.

            “The other girls don’t even like him. They think he’s ugly. They say awful things, and they only do it behind his back, and they say all these horrible things—”

            “I’ve heard them.”

            “They don’t like me either. And they—they say it to me and it hurts so much.”

            “I know,” Kaata whispered.

            “Mommy . . . sometimes I—I want to hurt them for what they said—”

            No, Kria!” The remark was an explosion compared to the quiet conversation.

            Kria jerked away from her mother. “Mommy—”

            “You can never—never—say that,” said Kaata sternly. She sighed. “Come here.” She held out her foreleg again. “Come on, come here.” Kria was embraced by her mother again. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Just—don’t say that to anyone. Don’t even joke about it.”

            “Why?”

            “You just can’t.”

            “Is it because of Aunt Hira?”

            Kria looked away from her daughter. “Yes. Part of it.” She couldn’t tell her daughter. Kria loved her so much, trusted her so much. And here was yet another example of her past haunting her future, yet another way that Kria was bound and gagged from her freedom.

            “What happened, Mommy?”

            “Nothing happened. Just—don’t ask about it. Don’t talk about it.”

            Kria looked away from her mother, then snuggled closer to her. “Mommy?”

            “Yes, honey?”

            “I love you.”

            Kaata squeezed her daughter hard and close. “I love you, too.”

            “I want Rayan to love me, too.”

            “I know,” whispered Kaata. She wasn’t able to keep all the tears back this time. This is just another way I’ve imprisoned you, Kaata thought miserably. And I couldn’t imagine a worse one.

 

 

 

            “Sarana!” yelled Rayan. He ran over to her. “Hey.”

            “Oh, uh, hi Rayan. What are you doing over here?” Sarana asked.

            “I heard you were hunting. Do you want some help?”

            Sarana laughed. “Like the males ever help?”

            Rayan grinned sheepishly, his scarring distorting it into a grimace. “Well, things can change.”

            Rayan heard a voice drift through the savannah. “Sarana, who’s that you’re talking to?”

            “It’s Rayan, Mom!” She turned back to Rayan. “Uh . . . you want to come?”

            “Sure,” said Rayan. He headed off by her side.

            “So, uh, is that your mane growing in?” Sarana asked hesitantly, nodding at the few hairs of black-tipped white that Rayan had on the back of his neck.

            “Yeah, yeah it is,” said Rayan with a smile. He couldn’t help thinking, She noticed.

            He saw several figures ahead that were hunched over. As he got closer, Rayan could see that it was Sarana’s mother Hira and Sarana’s sisters, Atanya and Jibu, along with, strangely enough, Hatari. “Oh, hello Rayan,” said Hira. “What are you doing all the way out here?”

            “I, uh, I heard Sarana was hunting and . . .” He felt his face become hot underneath his fur. “I was hungry.”

            “Oh, alright. There isn’t much left, though. The little prince here has quite an appetite.” Hatari smiled.

            “What’s Hatari doing here?” Rayan asked bluntly.

            “Hatari was hungry and we all said that we’d get food for him,” said loud-mouthed Jibu. Hatari’s smile grew a little wider. “But Mommy wanted to come with to make sure we didn’t get hurt. And we did just fine, didn’t we?” said Jibu in mock-pout as she looked up at her mother.

            Hira smiled. “Yes, you three made me very proud. Maybe next time I’ll let you do it on your own.” The three girls cheered. “Maybe.”

            “Oh, you will, Mom,” dismissed Sarana.

            Hira turned to Rayan. “Aren’t you going to eat?”

            “Uh—yeah. Yeah.” He took the few steps over to the carcass and began to tear off meat.

            “You did great, Sarana,” said Hatari. “You’re gonna be a great hunter,” he said confidently.

            “Yeah, Hatari’s right,” said Rayan.

            “You weren’t even here,” said Jibu. “How would you know?”

            Rayan felt himself becoming as hot as he had when Sarana had noticed his mane, but for a very different reason. “Oops.”

            “It’s okay,” said Sarana. “It’s a nice thing to say.”

            “And what about the two of us?” asked Jibu. “Aren’t we worth anything?” Atanya smiled guiltily behind her sister.

            “Well, Sarana killed it,” defended Hatari.

            “Only after we brought it down—”

            “Alright, I already said you girls did fine,” said Hira. “You don’t need to get in a fight over little details.”

            “Aunty Hira,” asked Hatari, “can me and the girls go and play?”

            “Alright,” said Hira, “I’ll stay here and wait for Rayan to finish. You can go so long as you—”

            “What makes you think we want to play with you?” asked Jibu, putting on an arrogant air. “You’re just a zebra.”

            “I may be a zebra, but you can’t live without me,” grinned Hatari.

            “Liar!”

            “Oh yeah?” Hatari ducked Jibu’s blow that was aimed for his face, then ran off into the savannah, Jibu and her two sisters hot on his tail.

            Hira chuckled. “I remember when I was just like them.”

            “You were?” asked Rayan. He wanted to get away and be with the others, not sitting around with Hira and talking about times when he wasn’t even around yet.

            “Oh, yes. Me, and Adhima, and Kaata. Well, not exactly Adhima, she wasn’t my sister, but we were close enough. She was much better than Kaata at being fun anytime. We used to flirt with Gymara all the time. Of course, Adhima won. Not that it was a contest or anything. Although sometimes it almost seemed like it. We had fun running around playing with each other all the time. Your father wasn’t much for that kind of thing. I didn’t even know where he was half the time, either. I don’t think he and Unir wanted him to know anything about where they headed off to some of the time.” She sighed, almost dreamily.

            Rayan continued bolting down his food as fast as he could.

            “Sometimes I wish we were younger. We’d have so much fun with Gymara. Reen sometimes, too. But not nearly as much fun as Gymara. He’d make us all laugh. Your father never did quite have any humor. Not much, anyway. I don’t know what Unir saw in him, honestly. He’s nice, but I couldn’t understand marrying him. Not that there’s anything wrong with Reen, your father’s a very nice lion. Very nice. You’re turning out to be a lot like him, did you know that? And Hatari into Gymara.” Hira let out a small hmph of laughter. “Almost like the past repeating itself. But that’s ridiculous, of course, no one’s ever the same. Although Hatari is almost as much fun as Gymara was, it seems . . .”

            Meat flew off the carcass.

            “No, no one’s ever quite the same. Hopefully Kria won’t be the same, gods forbid she turns into a—well, I shouldn’t speak ill of my sister, I really shouldn’t. But she’s done a few things that have made life—harder,” said Hira, her tone suddenly becoming steely. “Acting like a miserable wretch when she . . . But it’s in the past, I suppose. That’s what your grandfather said, anyway. And how long are you going to keep eating? I swear, I’ve never seen anyone put down meat like you can.”

            “I’m done,” said Rayan enthusiastically. “Can I go play with the others?”

            Hira looked around. “I don’t think you’ll be able to find them now. They just disappeared. Why don’t you just come back to the den with me? Your father does seem to like to know where you are.”

            “But Hira—”

            “Or is it that you just don’t like hearing me droning on about the past?”

            “No,” said Rayan, looking down at his paws and feeling his face grow hot yet again.

            “Come on, why don’t we go back to the den? I’m sure you can play with them tomorrow. Come on.” The lioness stood up and began to lead the cub back home.

 

 

 

He is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.

                        H. H. Munro

 

Death solves all problemsno man, no problem.

                        Joseph Stalin

 

            “No,” said the antelope angrily. “I won’t wait another day, and I won’t settle for this cub! I want to see King Reen!”

            “He’s sick right now,” said Nyota patiently. “If you’ll at least explain the problem—”

            “I won’t say anything to anyone but the king!”

            Rayan didn’t know what the confusion quite was. His father had become ill—nothing major, but enough to keep him down for at least a day. It was Nyota’s idea to have Rayan take the route as he usually did with his father, but for today, Rayan could be king.

            So far he’d done a fairly good job. There were a few minor things that Nyota had needed to correct him on, but nothing that was a big mistake. A couple of the things that he’d come up with, Nyota had never expected; they were actually somewhat brilliant. Still, several animals had protested at having to give their problems to a half-cub instead of the king. None of them had made as much of a fuss as this antelope, though.

            “Sir,” said Rayan, “I just want to help—”

            “Well you can’t,” said the antelope. “You’re nothing but an ugly little cub, how is that supposed to help anyone?”

            Nyota looked down at Rayan, waiting for the “royal rebuke” of “I’m the prince, and I will not be talked to that way.” It never came. Rayan stared back, hurt filling his eyes.

            “Listen antelope, this is the prince,” said Nyota angrily. “Your prince. He can’t help the way he looks, and you certainly shouldn’t talk about it that way—”

            “Or else what?” asked the antelope angrily. “I have freedom of speech. Them stupid royals don’t do nothing, it’s the Council what makes all the laws now.”

            “It’s the kings that make the laws,” said Nyota coldly. “The council has no say in that. Now say what your problem is, or shut up and walk away.”

            “Who’re you to tell me what to do?”

            “I’m hungry,” said Nyota pointedly.

            “You wouldn’t,” said the antelope. His voice was tinged with disbelief. Predators never spoke about eating in front of the prey, it was considered a horrible breach of manners.

            “You never know. So, no problem here?”

            The antelope glared at her.

            “Come on, sire. Let’s get out of here.” She walked away from the antelope, Rayan following her, giving the antelope a backward glance as he did. When they were out of earshot, Nyota said, “Sire, don’t pay any attention to him. There are some idiots that just don’t know when to keep their mouth shut.”

            Rayan was silent.

            “Come on, sire, cheer up. Don’t make me make you laugh.”

            “I really am ugly, aren’t I, Nyota?” asked Rayan. “Just a monster.”

            “Sire . . .”

            “I’ve seen the way they all look at me. They think I’m a little freak.”

            “Sire, I’m sure . . . Well, to put it another way . . . Well, maybe—”

            “You think I’m just a monster, too, don’t you?” said Rayan angrily. “Even Dad.”

            “Sire,” said Nyota, “I’m not going to lie to you.”

            “And?”

            “That’s about all I got.” Rayan headed off in another direction angrily. “Sire? Sire! Rayan, where do you think you’re—”

            “Somewhere else!” he yelled angrily. “Somewhere where I don’t have to be treated like some hideous thing!”

            “Sire!” protested Nyota.

            Rayan didn’t hear her. He just ran as fast and as far as he could, his limp only being accentuated by the action. It hurt to run at all, but he did it anyway. He felt as if he needed the pain; for some bizarre, masochistic reason, he wanted it. He’d had it with the faces of pity, with the looks of disgust, with all of it. He was tired of being treated differently, as if he wasn’t even a proper animal. None of the cubs were his friends anymore; none of them ever played with him, his own father had seen to that, making sure that he never got any free time at all to enjoy himself, always pushing the kingdom and forcing Rahimu down Rayan’s throat.

            Rayan just wanted to scream.

            He found his paws instinctively leading him home. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want their stares and sympathy and their snide jokes when they thought he wasn’t listening. He didn’t want them more than anyone. He avoided the main den and ran straight into the sick den. He stopped as he saw Kaata lying there with Kria. He hadn’t expected to run into them here at this time.

            “Rayan,” said Kria in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

            She had it, too. That false, cheery brightness when she looked at him, smiling when she saw he was in a bad mood. The fake interest to cheer him up, only to laugh at him when he turned his back. He didn’t want her pity. He didn’t want her lies.

            “Just shut up! I don’t want your stupid—compassion and—and caring—and none of that, you hear me?” he yelled.

            Kria stepped back, instinctively going for her mother. Kaata glared down at Rayan. “What?” said Rayan angrily. “You want to tell me that it’s all ‘going to be okay?’ Going to try to make the little freak feel good—”

            Kaata stood up with a snarl. Rayan stepped back uncertainly. He’d never seen Kaata like this. She was literally snarling at him, her face drawn into features of seemingly murderous anger. She advanced on Rayan, Rayan backing away until he hit a wall. He pressed himself as close to it as he could. His anger had dissipated into fear.

            “Don’t you ever talk to my daughter like that again,” she said in a low voice, her growl seeping into her voice, making it almost sound as if she was purring. “If you ever do, I promise you, you won’t have any time for last wishes. I don’t care who your daddy is; you’re no different to me. Now get out of here.”

            Rayan ran out of the den, running for the horizon. Kaata glared at his retreating figure and moved back to her half-cub. She held Kria close, despite Kria’s protest of “Mom, no—”

            “He doesn’t matter,” said Kaata. She nuzzled her daughter fiercely. She looked down at her daughter. “You matter. Don’t forget that. Just take it if you have to.”

            “Mom, I don’t—”

            “He’s like the others, Kria. Don’t let him stand in your way. Don’t make my mistakes.”

            “Mom, I want to be good. But I want Rayan.”

            “Then take him,” breathed Kaata.

 

 

 

            Kaata had never been truly happy. There was a time when she was miserable. There had been a time when she had been relieved. There had been a time when pain and anguish cascaded down around her. There had been a time of hope.

            She and her sister Hira were the only two cubs their mother gave birth to. The two of them did practically everything together. They slept side by side, they both received nourishment from the same mother. They played together whenever they could, along with Adhima and a small group of other cubs. They also hated each other.

            Kaata’s mother was a cruel taskmaster. She was strictly fair and overbearing. Hira loved her, and never failed to say so. Kaata loathed her, though she lived for half of her cubhood in sickening ignorance of the evil of her mother.

            It was quite simple, really. Her mother, though seemingly unfair, was very, very fair if you looked closely. Hira would be allowed to run off with the other cubs and play their games. She would be allowed to have as much fun as she pleased, and was allowed to do what she pleased, so long as it wouldn’t harm other cubs or herself. “Hurting others is a terrible thing to do,” their mother said to the two of them once. “Always treat others with the utmost respect they deserve.”

            “Yes, Mother,” the two of them said agreeably.

            Because their mother believed in fairness, she believed in equality. The basis for equality is for one thing to be balanced out by another. Hira’s fun and pleasure couldn’t be allowed to go unchecked. It would upset the balance. It would be far too much to expect Hira to be forced to bear not only that fun, but also have to have punishments. Kaata had practically nothing. She could easily bear the burden of the punishments. Hira, who was already shouldering her own load of pleasure, could easily accommodate Kaata’s as well.

            This, at least, was her mother’s justification. Soon enough there was no guilt to be justified.

            Kaata didn’t think much of the fairness. She learned several words that quite appropriately fit her mother, and one time introduced her mother to those words. She had never suffered such a horrible beating in her life. She would experience many more much worse ones before her life was over.

            Kaata did try to please her mother. She did whatever was asked of her. She stayed and “kept her mother company” in the den while the other cubs were let out to play. Kaata groomed her mother fully while she talked to the lionesses and lounged. She was let out to play with Hira and the others, and told to positively not mess with their games. She quickly learned to hunt, and often brought back her mother food at her mother’s whim.

            Fair slowly became too much. Unjust suppression cannot last without creating resentment. Kaata gained resentment. She became miserable. There was nothing she could do about it.

 

 

 

            Kaata laid in her corner of the den, sleeping contentedly. She felt a sharp jab in the side of her face. “Wake up, wench,” she heard quietly in her ear. It took her a moment to begin to lift her head. That moment produced another jab. “Now! I’m practically filthy.”

            Kaata got up and followed her mother to the main group of lionesses. A few were still asleep around the den, while the rest were all grooming each other and gossiping. Kaata lied down next to her mother and began to run her tongue over her. Her mother began to talk happily away with the other lionesses.

            Kaata wasn’t interested in listening; nothing ever happened that was really worth talking about in her opinion. It was the same thing, day in, day out, in here. She wanted to be out with the other cubs more than anything. Her mother would never let her, though. Kaata didn’t know how, but somehow her oppression gave her mother joy.

            Kaata finally finished grooming her mother and laid her head down with a sigh. It was going to be another endlessly boring day in here. She’d heard what Hira had said about all the things she’d done outside the den, and Kaata had been able to fantasize about only half of them. She saw that her mother was impatiently glaring at her, and she brought her head back up off the floor of the den. She had to at least look interested.

            She’d lost her innocence at a fairly early age from the lionesses’ conversations. They talked about what they pleased; it didn’t matter that there was a cub present. It was why they encouraged the cubs to go out, they didn’t want to have to whisper. Kaata’s mother made it clear that she was just an exception. Kaata learned just about everything about life, reproduction or otherwise, long before the other cubs had.

            It didn’t mean that she didn’t find it boring, though. “Mother, can I go out and play?” she asked.

            Her mother glared at her. Kaata knew better than to stare back. Instead she looked down at her forepaws. “Oh, go on, let her,” said one of the lionesses. “If you don’t, she’ll just end up being under-stimulated and a cub and it’ll show up as an adult and cause all kinds of problems for her and probably her cubs, too.”

            There was a moment of dead silence as all the lionesses stared at the one.

            “What?” the lioness asked.

            “Where the heck did you come up with that?”

            “It’s amazing what the shaman’s coming up with.”

            “She’s pulling it out of her butt, that’s what she’s doing. Do you even know what under-stimulated means?”

            The conversation went on. Kaata could see in a matter of seconds that she had been forgotten again. She let the time pass by, then hesitantly touched her mother. Her mother turned to her, irritation plainly on her face. “What?”

            “Can I go play?”

            Kaata’s mother groaned. “Fine. You know the rules.” Kaata nodded. “Now get out of here.”

            Kaata walked out of the den, gave one look back, then ran out to the savannah, getting away as quickly as she could. They never discussed anything interesting in there. More than that, thy never did anything in there. The cubs were the only ones who ran around and played; the grownups just sat around doing nothing all the time.

            She knew the other cubs were in one of their usual spots. There was always one group that she followed, invariably being her sister’s group. The concept of an enjoyable time for her was also missing in this group. They were half-cubs, all of them, and although they had some fun, there was a lot of time that was spent talking.

            Kaata found them lying down at the top of a hill, none of them talking, all of them staring at something. It was the usual group. Gymara was there, with Hira, Adhima, and Unir. To Kaata’s disappointment, Reen was gone. There were times when she could never find him, and he would just seem to disappear. She’d tailed him, and found nothing more interesting to explain his disappearances than talking with leopards a few times.

            “Hey guys,” said Kaata as she walked up to the group. All of them whirled around at the sound of her voice and said angrily “Shh!” Hira wrapped her foreleg over Kaata’s neck and pulled her roughly to the ground.

            “Can’t you tell to be quiet?” asked Gymara, annoyed. “Reen’s about to make an ass of himself.”

            Kaata crawled up to the top of the hill and looked down. She could see a shape crawling through the grass, zigzagging to a group of zebras. It stayed low to the ground, creeping toward the middle of the herd. It slowed as it approached, and finally stopped next to a zebra near the edge. There were a few moments of silence, and then a whinnying scream was heard.

            LION!

            The herd stampeded, the lions next to Kaata falling over in laughter. Reen popped out of the grass, looking as if he was going to burst with laughter. The group walked down to him, and found him flat on his back still chuckling quietly.

            “Didn’t I tell you it’d be fun?” said Gymara.

            “Yeah,” said Reen. “Alright, you win.”

            “As always.” Gymara turned to the girls. “Well, what do we do now?” he asked.

            A wicked grin sprouted on Hira’s face. “I have an idea.”

            Reen looked up to see three lionesses advancing on him. “Oh no. No, wait—stop!” Reen was unable to defend himself as the lionesses pounced and subjected him to merciless, relentless tickling of a degree that had been rarely inflicted on any animal of any species and quite possibly only existed in legend. Kaata watched silently, waiting for them to stop. She didn’t want to join in with them. It confused her more than anything, this desire to be in a group, yet not to join in their fun.

            Gymara sat down next to her, chuckling and watching. “I do love my ideas.” He turned to her. “And you’re still not having any fun. Why’re you out here, anyway?”

            “Mom let me out,” said Kaata, somewhat uncomfortably. Gymara was far too loud for her tastes. He always was the center of attention, the life of any party.

            “‘Let you out.’ You make it sound like she keeps you in a little prison and you spend all day running your claws against the wall.” Kaata looked away from him. “Come on, your mom’s a nice lioness. She—hey, girls, he can’t take the throne if he can’t breathe.”

            The half-cubs backed off the prince, Reen breathing heavily, laughter coming out in spurts. He looked up at Hira. “That was completely and totally uncalled f—” He yelled out as the girls jumped him again.

             Gymara laughed quietly. “Hey, the best part is right there. No, a little higher—”

            “Aiee!”

            “There!” Gymara grinned as widely as he could. He looked back over at Kaata. “Oh, come on, laugh, it’s funny.”

            “You’re going to kill him if you keep it up,” observed Kaata.

            Gymara threw his head back and laughed. “See, you do have a sense of humor.”

            “Ha, ha.”

            “Oh, come on, lighten up, Kaata. Just have a little fun.” He lowered his voice seductively. “Or if this isn’t the right spot . . .”

            Kaata looked at him, disgusted. “That is the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

            Gymara gasped, looking at Kaata in shock. He turned his back to her and fiddled with the dirt in front of him. “Well . . . if you—if you really feel that way . . .” He sniffed theatrically.

            “I heard that!” said Adhima, stopping her tickling. “And you’re next!” She and the other two lionesses darted over to Gymara and pinned him to the ground before he could react.

            “No, look, I didn’t mean it, please—eee!”

            Gymara writhed underneath the lionesses, who were suddenly pushed away by Reen. “Get off him, get off him!”

            Gymara gasped as he saw Reen above him. “No, Reen, please—it was their idea—”

            Ho-o-ock!

            “No, no, Reen, no, get it away—”

            Reen pinned the right side of his brother’s face to the ground and dangled the lugie above Gymara’s face, the disgusting thing dripping closer and closer.

            “—oh, Reen, no, no, no, no—AH!” Gymara shoved Reen off. “My EAR! For Aiheu’s sake, you got it in my ear! Gods!” The girls laughed wildly as Gymara ran swearing to the nearest waterhole, plunged his head in, and flung it back and forth wildly. Kaata chuckled at the sight.

            The rest of the day followed. The group made its way around the kingdom, Kaata along with them. She stayed on the fringes, rarely talking or being talked to. Laughs were had, pranks were made, life was enjoyed. Kaata loved it. She enjoyed the time she spent with the group, but most of all, she enjoyed the time she spent with Reen.

            What she didn’t like was the time that she needed to come home. It inevitably came, and it would inevitably bring more misery, crashing in on the temporary joy she felt. Kaata and Hira cut through the den, then squeezed through the den-side entrance to the smaller den where they and her mother lived. Kaata had spent her entire life in this den with her sister and mother. It was private; no one saw what went on in it. She would have given anything to have slept anywhere else.

            “Hi Mom,” said Hira as she bounced into the den. Kaata followed with a “Hello, Mother.”

            “Oh, Hira, you’re back,” said Kaata’s mother. She was lying next to the king, Deshu. Kaata felt as if she had walked in on something meant to be private. She knew she most likely had; the king often visited her mother’s den for less-than-moral purposes. “So, how was your day?”

            “It was good, Mom.”

            “Why don’t I just come back a little later?” suggested Deshu as he got up. “They’ll probably be wanting me in the den for this and that.”

            “Of course,” said Kaata’s mother with a smile. “Whenever you like.” Deshu left, and Kaata’s mother turned back to Hira. “So, what did you do today?”

            “Gymara got a lugie in his ear.”

            Kaata’s mother smiled. “From who? Not you, I hope.”

            Hira shook her head. “Nope. Reen. It was great.”

            “I suppose it was. And how was your sister?”

            Hira sighed. “You wouldn’t believe how much she was in the way all the time. Gods, it’s like dragging a baby around.”

            Kaata tried to make herself small. She knew what would happen. She should have seen it coming. She knew Hira was interested in Gymara, and she knew Hira had seen her with him. It would only get her in trouble later.

            “How many times do I have to tell you not to annoy your sister?” asked Kaata’s mother angrily. “You never listen to me, never.”

            “I’m sorry, Mother,” said Kaata quietly.

            “Sorry isn’t good enough. This is why I don’t let you go out, because you can’t be anything more than a nuisance to all of those around you! Gods, if you could be any more of a waste—”

            “Mother, I didn’t try—”

            Exactly! And you never will, not with that lazy attitude of yours.”

            “I’m not trying to be lazy—”

            “Don’t you contradict me, wench!” Kaata cowered as her mother raised her paw to strike a blow. She took it on her back, feeling claws rake her. She knew better than to cry out in pain. It would only bring more. “I feed you, I nurse you, I try to raise you properly, and this is how you repay me,” said her mother angrily. “You couldn’t have been born to anyone else, could you have? You couldn’t—”

            “Kria.”

            Kaata’s mother whirled around. Her eyes widened in fear and surprise. “Deshu! Ah . . . just what are you—”

            “They told me you were doing this,” said the king. His face was hard with anger.

            “Doing what, exactly?”

            “Look at that poor cub!” said Deshu angrily, gesturing at Kaata. “How dare you hit her, and for no reason at all!”

            “A cub needs a firm upbringing—”

            “It does not need to be beaten!” Kaata’s mother simply glared. “Come here, Kaata,” said the king gently, holding out his foreleg. Kaata came to him, staring firmly at the ground. She heard the king say, “You are not to go anywhere near this cub until you can act like a mother. Your intolerance is a disgrace.”

            “Deshu—”

            “A disgrace! You favor Hira and you beat her! What kind of conduct is that for any parent? Until you have proven to me that you can be decent to her, then you can have her back.”

            There was silence. Finally Kaata’s mother said, “Yes, sire.”

            “Come with me, Kaata.” Kaata followed the king around into the main den. She looked up at the king uncertainly. She hadn’t expected this at all. “What is it?” Deshu asked her.

            “What do you want me to do?”

            “Er . . . go play with Reen and Gymara and the others. But it’s getting time to go to sleep.”

            “Alright.”

            The rest of the night passed by quickly, the lions either nodding off or going out for a hunt. Kaata found herself once again on the fringe of the conversation with the half-cubs. She didn’t mind. Hira found her way into the den, though her mother did not. Kaata couldn’t have cared less; she’d learned long ago that her sister wasn’t exceptionally kind.

            Kaata finally fell asleep in the den, sleeping next to the royal family. It was uncomfortable; she wasn’t used to sleeping in this den. She could have cared less; with Reen’s hind legs mingling with hers, she felt she’d never been as close to him in her life.

 

 

 

            It didn’t take Kaata’s mother long to get Kaata back. Kaata knew what had happened. It was common knowledge in the pride just how Kaata’s mother received “favors” for “services” to the king. Kaata found it disgusting, but there was nothing she could do about it. Nor was there anything she could do to keep her mother from taking her back.

            When she arrived in the sick den again, she was escorted by the king. As soon as he left, it was clear her safety was gone. Her mother pinned her against the wall, out of sight of the main den, and said to her, “I don’t know how you managed to pull that little disappearing act of yours, but let me tell you that you are never going to do anything like that again. So help me gods, if you so much as step out of line, you will wish you had Deshu there. And if you tell anyone at all about this, I will make sure that I redefine your world as living pain.”

            Kaata saw madness in her mother’s eyes. She knew that there would be no escape this time; she was stuck with her mother for good. It didn’t mean that her conditions hadn’t improved; since her mother had “bettered herself,” Kaata was able to go out with the other cubs almost every day. She knew better than to go with them all the time, lest her mother’s anger boil over and scorch her.

            But Kaata was able to spend more and more time with Reen, Gymara, and the others. A new way of looking at them was revealed. She began to see who was connected to who, who thought they loved who. Worst of all, she saw who thought they loved Reen. One lioness had eyes only for Reen, and would settle for no one less.

            Unir.

            Kaata didn’t know what to do with her. Hurting Unir was most definitely an option, but it wasn’t anything that could sway Reen’s decision. If anything, he might take pity on the fool. Kaata knew that she and she alone loved Reen. That little fool was no better than Hira.

            Reen didn’t seem to see it, though. His twisted, warped view of his “little angel” disgusted Kaata. He practically ignored Kaata, or at least that was how Kaata saw it. She wanted Reen so much, but Reen saw nothing in her.

            The others weren’t quite as blind as Reen. It quickly spread through the pride that Kaata was smitten with the young prince. Still Reen knew nothing. Kaata tried to spend as much time as she could with him, trying to get him alone, yet always seeming to run into Unir. Her efforts seemed to work exactly the other way; Reen became more and more annoyed with having her around. Unir became more than annoyed; she finally took Kaata to the side and talked to her.

            “Look,” she said, “I know you like Reen. And I think you know that I like him, too. But you’re not going to impress him this way. We’d like our private time to be kept that way.” Unir sighed. “Look, I know you really like him, but he just doesn’t like you the same way. He just likes you as a friend, Kaata. I know you want it to be more, but . . . I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”

            You’re a bitch, thought Kaata angrily. You’re a conceited, stuck-up bitch. “Alright,” she said politely. “I can take a hint.”

            “Kaata, I didn’t mean to hurt you—”

            “I said alright.” Kaata stood up and left, feeling angrier than she had in a long time. It was bad enough that her mother constantly told her how foolish she was, that she could never hope to be the prince’s mate, let alone have cubs ever. But now Unir had to go and lie to her face, pretending to be nice and asking her in no uncertain terms to back off. It infuriated her.

            She didn’t meet with Reen anymore. She stalked him instead, following him wherever he might go with Unir. It embarrassed her slightly at first, but her anger was more than enough to vindicate her actions to herself. If the two of them had ever discovered that she was listening to their deepest, most private conversations, she knew that “angry” would be a massive understatement.

            She found the two of them sharing rituals of some kind, which she didn’t understand at all. If Kaata hadn’t known better, she would have said it was religious, but neither one of them had ever had anything to do with Aiheu. There was one ritual that she did observe between them that she knew wasn’t religious at all. She lied in the grass, listening, tears brimming in her eyes as silent sobs shook her as the two lions consummated each other.

            She cried all that night. She wept the next day. She never came home that night, and knew what was waiting for her. She stayed out in the kingdom, lying down, consumed by her misery. She knew now who Reen loved, and she knew she could never have him, not while Unir lived. She was left alone with her miserable, gloomy thoughts, until finally they were interrupted.

            “Well, guys, what have we here?”

            Kaata looked up. Three cheetahs were circling around her, staring at her.

            “I really don’t know.”

            “Doesn’t look too happy,” said the third one.

            “Oh, that’s genius. Using the head right there, bro,” said the first one. “You gotta do it like this.” He cleared his throat, leaned down to Kaata’s face, and asked politely, “Excuse me, are you animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

            The other two laughed. Kaata knew when she was being ridiculed. “Just go away!” she yelled.

            The cheetahs took a step back. “Whoa, something wrong?” asked the third.

            “Just leave me alone!”

            “Aw, come on,” said the first one. He crouched down by Kaata’s head. “What’s wrong? Go on, you can tell us.” He smiled. “Come on, what is it?”

            It was his eyes that did it, his kind, caring eyes that pushed Kaata over the edge. Everything burst out, all at once. Her abusive mother, her uncaring sister, the love that she would never have, the unfairness of it all. Tears streamed down her face and she ignored them. Nothing was right, nothing was as it should have been, and she knew that nothing ever would be.

            The cheetahs just stared at her when she finished. “Wow,” said the first one finally. “We didn’t realize.”

            “Of course you didn’t,” said Kaata, looking away. “Nobody does. Nobody even cares.”

            “Well,” said the first one, “it sounds like you’re screwed.”

            “Totally screwed,” agreed the first one.

            “And I really needed three idiot cheetahs to tell me that. Just go away, I don’t want you.”

            “You mean you know you’re screwed?” asked the first one.

            “How could I not know it?”

            The cheetah bopped her on the head. “Then why do you still care?

            “What?”

            “Can you believe this?” the first cheetah asked the other two. “She still cares!”

            “Unbelievable,” said the third.

            “You need major help,” said the second.

            “Who are you to tell me what I need?” asked Kaata angrily.

            “Well, I’m Red,” said the first cheetah, “and that’s Bavu,” he said, pointing to the second cheetah, “and that’s Sufa.”

            “Hi there,” said Sufa.

            “I don’t care what your names are,” said Kaata.

            “Well that’s just rude,” said Bavu.

            “We’re only trying to help,” said Red.

            “By what? Making me relive the worst parts of my life?!”

            “Just forget ’em,” said Red.

            “They’re part of who I am, I can’t just toss them away.”

            “I said ‘forget ’em,’ not erase ’em.”

            “And just how am I supposed to do that?”

            “Alright,” said Sufa, “I want you to look over there.” He pointed over at the horizon. “What’s that?”

            “The desert.”

            “And how many times do you think about the desert?” asked Bavu.

            “A lot less than you do anything else,” said Sufa.

            “And it’s been there a lot longer than any of that stuff you just told us,” said Bavu.

            “That’s different,” said Kaata.

            “How?” asked Red politely. “Pray tell.”

            “I . . . I never go near the desert. And I have to go home every night.”

            “Like you did last night?”

            “What are you, stalking me?”

            “Course not,” said Red with a smile. “But come on, really. What was the last time your mother hit you?”

            Anger crossed Kaata’s face once again. “Yesterday.”

            “And does it still matter?”

            “She hit me.”

            “Yes, yes, and she will burn in hell for eternity, etc., etc. But really, does that matter? Come on, we know where you’re coming from.”

            “You’re screwed if you don’t stay still,” said Bavu.

            “Or if you speak your mind,” said Sufa.

            “Or decide to fight back.”

            “Or break-dance.”

            The other two cheetahs stared at Sufa. “Break-dancing is not the issue here, bro,” said Red.

            “But it could be.”

            “Eh, it could be. But anyway,” continued Red, “like we were saying, there’s no reason to get all upset and flustered and stuff about it. Look, there’s a very simple way to keep all those nasty things they say out of your head. Just repeat after me,” he instructed. “Blah.”

            “Blah?” asked Kaata.

            “Yes, very good, now here’s the tough one: blah.”

            “What?”

            “No, blah.”

            “You’re nuts.”

            “No, seriously, try it. Next time they open their mouths, what’re you hearing?”

            “Blah?”

            Red nodded. “Just ‘blah.’ Bla-a-a-ah . . .”

            “Bro, you’re drooling,” said Bavu.

            “Oops.”

            “Who are you guys?” asked Kaata.

            “We told you,” said Sufa patiently. “Sufa, Bavu, and Red.”

            Kaata stared around at the three, then smiled. She laughed. “You have got to be the craziest three I’ve ever met.”

            “We were just going over to the waterhole when we saw you,” said Red. “Want to come with?”

 

 

 

            Kaata spent the rest of the day with the three of them. She’d never had a day like it. She was admired, she was paid attention to, and for once, she was given her fair say. She’d never felt happier in her life. Nothing seemed worse than her curfew, constantly creeping closer to her. She hugged each of the three cheetahs goodbye, feeling her eyes tearing up.

            “What’re you crying for?” asked Red. “You’re gonna see us tomorrow.”

            “And the next day,” said Sufa.

            “And the next . . .” added Bavu.

            Kaata smiled. “I—I just don’t want to go home. Mom . . . she’s going to be so mad. I didn’t come home at all last night.”

            “She what?” asked Sufa. “You hear something, Red?”

            “Alright, alright, I get it,” said Kaata. “I—I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

            “See ya.”

            The three cheetahs walked their own way, and Kaata headed back for the den. Her happiness slowly wore off and was replaced by fear and gloom. She walked into the den, her mother lying down inside. “Oh, you’re back? I was hoping I’d lost you for good.”

            Kaata lied down in her corner, her back turned to her mother.

            “So, where were you? Or did you just manage to get lost for a whole day?”

            “I was—out, Mother.”

            “You know to come home every night. I gave you that curfew hoping to save you from your own damned incompetence—”

            Blah.

            Blah, blah, blah.

            Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

            It works?

            And that’s an interesting crack in the wall . . .

            Kaata felt a paw hit the side of her head, sending it into the stone floor. Stars popped into her head. “Are you listening to me, you little wench?”

            “Mother . . .”

            “Don’t ‘Mother’ me. Get off your lazy behind. I’m hungry.”

            Kaata got up and walked back out of the den. “Yes, Mother,” she said.

            “And don’t take your sweet time about it, either.”

 

 

 

            Kaata met with Red and the others the next day. When she told them what happened, Red merely shrugged. “Well, you tried, didn’t you?” Kaata miserably nodded. “Try again.”

            Kaata shook her head. “She beats me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

            “I don’t suppose killing Mommy is an option?” asked Bavu. The other two cheetahs laughed.

            “I don’t want to kill her,” said Kaata earnestly. “She just—sometimes she just . . .” She looked down at the ground, tears filling her eyes. “I just hate her so much sometimes. But she’s my mother.” Kaata looked up at the three. “This isn’t right, I know it isn’t.”

            There was an uneasy pause, the three cheetahs staring at each other. Red finally held out a foreleg and said to her, “Come here.” Kaata rushed to him, burying her head in his shoulder, the tears coming forth once more. “It’ll be okay,” said Red softly. “It’ll be okay.”

            When Kaata finally had wrenched herself into control, she sniffed and said, “I’m sorry, I—I don’t know why I keep doing this to you guys.”

            “Just don’t do it all the time,” said Sufa. “Or we might think something’s really wrong with you.”

            After that day, everything seemed to speed up to Kaata. Time began to blur into happy, cheer-filled days and cruel, miserable nights. She spent every day with the cheetahs, growing closer and closer to them. Most specifically, she grew closer to Red. She found herself inexplicably spending time with him alone, the other cheetahs being absent for odd reasons. She didn’t mind, Red was the closest friend she had ever had in her entire life. No one had treated her so nicely, so politely, so caringly.

            There was one night that stood out in the blur, one night that she felt closer to Red than any other. She refused to go back home that night. She couldn’t, not after the way her mother had beaten her and talked to her. “I want to stay with you guys,” she said. “Please.”

            “Then why didn’t you just ask?” asked Bavu. “Geez, we were beginning to think you didn’t want to be with us.”

            That night was another one of the times that Kaata and Red were left mysteriously alone. She lied next to him, feeling his body by her side. They spent the night looking up at the sky, staring at the stars. “What kind of name is Red?” she asked.

            “Uh . . . what do you mean?”

            “Who names their cub after a color?”

            Red looked away. “Well, it’s not really my name. It’s just what my brothers call me.”

            Kaata looked over at him. “What’s your real name?”

            “It’s nothing.”

            “Come on.”

            “Really, you don’t need to know.”

            “Come on, please?” asked Kaata, leaning into him.

            “Alright,” sighed Red. “My name is Guatalenajared.”

            Kaata stared at him in disbelief. “Run that by me again?”

            “Guatalenajared. So, just Red.”

            “I like Red better.”

            “Me, too.” He leaned against her with a content sigh. “You happy?”

            “When I’m with you I’m always happy.”

            Red looked over at her, a smile on his face. “That’s sweet.”

            Kaata found herself smiling, too. She stared deeply into his eyes, wishing she could imprint the beautiful brown orbs into her mind forever. She found him leaning toward her and felt his tongue brush her muzzle slowly. She felt her own snake out, kissing his cheek.

            The two broke apart.

            “Ew.”

            “No.”

            The two of them stared at each other for a moment, then burst into laughter. What they’d just done seemed so absurd. The rest of the night went by, Red falling asleep by Kaata’s side, the two of them not waking until early morning.

            More days went by, Kaata’s time with her cheetah friends uninterrupted until one horrible day. Fires were especially feared in Sanctuary; there was practically no stone in the land, save for the lions’ den and the Pits. When a fire did break out, homes were irreparably lost, the grass almost never growing back, instead turning to desert sand.

            Kaata and the cheetahs had no warning as the wildfire erupted; by the time they heard of it, it was nearly upon them. The four of them ran for their lives to the lions’ den, hoping to find room on the limited space. The fire was too fast, though; as they ran, the cheetahs found themselves separated from Kaata. When she turned to look for them, they were gone.

            She found them trapped inside the flames, the grass around them quickly burning. “You can jump!” she yelled. “This way!”

            “Kaata!” yelled Red. “Kaata, get out of here, get to the den!”

            “No, I won’t—”

            Her words were cut off by a scream of pain, joined shortly by two more. Kaata watched helplessly as the cheetahs’ pelts caught flame, the fire spreading across their bodies rapidly. “Bavu!” Kaata screamed. “Sufa! Red! Red!” There was nothing she could do as the flame overwhelmed them, their death screams poisoning her ears. The heat finally drove her away. She plunged into the first waterhole she found, staying there, praying the water would be enough to save her.

            Kaata got home safely. She was spared the inevitable beating, as the den was a temporary haven to a dozen animals that had homes no longer. The next morning, Kaata was commanded by Deshu to go out and hunt for the guests. It was the last thing she needed to do, she had gotten no sleep the last night; the cheetahs’ haunting screams penetrated even into her dreams.

            They were no longer there, she realized. She would never see them again. She would never be with them again. There would be no more fun times. There would be only Mother.

            Still, a royal command was something that couldn’t just be thrown to the side. Kaata was forced to hunt, and was given the worst partner she could have dreamed of: her mother.

            Kaata didn’t listen to a word as they walked to the hunting ground. She couldn’t. Red and the others still lingered on her mind. Tears slid down her face as she stared at the ground. There was no one with her now. There was no one for her.

            She was snapped out of her thoughts as she felt her mother hit her across the face. She instinctively growled, and was hit again for it. “Don’t you snarl at me,” said her mother angrily. “And for once, pay attention to something in your little brain. We’re going to be doing this hunt my way.”

            Kaata followed her mother, shaking with anger. You don’t even know what I’m going through. You don’t even care what I’m going through. Nevertheless, she did as she was told. She crouched down in the grass and looked through the herd, picking out her kill. She followed her mother’s lead and rushed into the herd, trying to target her prey. She heard a cry of pain and stopped dead. She looked around, dust obscuring her vision.

            She finally saw her mother through the dust. Her mother had been gored through her flanks, blood on the grass next to her. She was trying to get up, her hind legs making her unable to. “Look what you did, you little bitch!” she yelled as she saw Kaata. “You rushed too soon, and now look what you’ve done! For the gods’ sake, can’t you do anything right?” She hissed sharply in pain, and then groaned. “Go get the shaman, you miserable excuse of a lump!”

            Kaata had stopped breathing. She felt herself shaking uncontrollably. Her heart was pumping far too fast. She found herself moving toward her mother.

            “What are you waiting for?” her mother asked angrily. “Get the damned shaman!”   Her eyes widened as Kaata drew a paw back. “What are you—no!

            She screamed in pain as Kaata hit her, Kaata’s claws tearing through pelt and flesh. It wasn’t enough, it couldn’t be stopped. Kaata watched on, as if in a vicious dream, as she slowly beat her mother to death as she herself screamed at the top of her lungs. She didn’t stop until she was unable to, the blows going on even after her mother had died. She stood there, staring at the body, in an utter trance, unable to move.

            “Mom!” Kaata heard. She snapped out of it, looking to her side. Everything had changed; the day had turned almost to night. Hira stood there, looking at the two of them in shock, then rushed to her mother’s side.

            “Mom, Mom, please, Mom . . .” Hira stared at her mother’s disfigured face, her shock turning to sadness. She looked over at Kaata. “You did this,” she whispered. “You killed her.”

            There was no denying it. Her mother’s blood still remained on her paws and forelegs, having dried on it. “I didn’t mean to,” Kaata said quietly.

            “You killed her!” Hira screamed. “She was your mother!

            “My mother . . .”

            Kaata stared off into space. Hira ran off, running back to the den. Kaata didn’t know how, but she found herself at the den later that night. She walked through the main den, the stares making it plain that Hira had already told all of them what she had seen. She headed into the smaller den and curled up.

            I’m a murderer. I’m a killer. I’ve done a very, very bad thing. I’m so sorry, Mother, please don’t punish me . . . Don’t punish me . . .

 

 

 

            Kaata woke the next morning to find news that she couldn’t have wanted less. She had been charged with murder, but the trial had been postponed until the next day. Reen was to be married today, and not even murder would stop the wedding.

            Kaata was confined to the small den, two guards posted outside the entrance. She could hear the ceremony going on outside. It was a wonderful ceremony. She wept. It wasn’t her ceremony.

            She looked up half-way through the day to see the bride in the mouth of the den. “Do you mind if I come in?”

            Kaata mutely shook her head. Unir walked into the den slowly, then sat down in front of Kaata. “I came to see how you were.”

            Kaata said nothing.

            “I know how she treated you. I just want you to know that I’m sorry I didn’t do anything.” Unir frowned. “Nobody did anything.”

            “Is that all, your highness?” Kaata asked bitterly.

            Unir smiled sadly. “You don’t want to see me right now, do you?”

            “It doesn’t matter anymore. Reen’s all yours, isn’t he? And you can enjoy him all you want.”

            “It’s not like he’s a prize, Kaata—”

            Kaata sat up angrily, fury in her eyes. “You still treat him like one,” she snarled.

            Unir stared at Kaata, mouth open in shock. “Kaata, we love each other.”

            “What would you know about love? What would you know about kindness, and niceness, and love? You stole him from me, and here you go on about how you’re so sorry about all the hell I’ve been through—what do you think you’ve just done? I love him, and more than you ever could. And you just stole him away while I couldn’t do anything.”

            “Kaata . . . I really want to be friends with you, really—”

            “Friends? Hah!”

            “I know you’re a good lioness. You’re not a killer. I just want you to know I’ll try and help you—”

            “Only so you can rub what you’ve got in my face. I hate you, you lying bitch, and I want you to know that right now. You can drop the nice girl act, I don’t want it. I don’t want your charity, I don’t want your goddamn pity. The only thing that I’ve learned from you is to take what you want.”

            “Kaata—”

            “Get out.”

            “But—”

            Get OUT!”

            Unir left quietly. Kaata flopped back down on the floor of the den. There was nothing for her in life anymore. There was no one left for her in life anymore. Unir had taken all she had.

 

 

 

            “You’d better have a good reason for dragging me out here tonight,” grumbled Gymara. “I could be off eating. I haven’t had a meal in three days, you know that? Is it that wrong to listen to your stomach?”

            “I humbly apologize for stopping you from manipulating your females so you can get an easy meal,” said Sudi.

            “This is that sarcasm thing, isn’t it?”

            “Very much, sire. I have a very good reason for ‘dragging you out here.’ If you haven’t noticed, we’re quite alone.”

            “Ominous, isn’t it?”

            “Sire, I have something very important to talk to you about.”

            Gymara sighed. “Very well, I’ll behave myself.”

            “Sire, there comes a point in every king’s reign that he must take a critical cusp, something that defines how his legacy is looked upon for all of history.”

            “Probably not every king.”

            “Admittedly. But you have one of those opportunities right now.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Sire, the hyenas . . . they’re becoming quite a problem, are they not?”

            “Well, yeah, they’re a problem, but we’re doing everything we can. We can’t give them any more aid; we’re stretching the kingdom to its limits just for the fleabags.”

            “Sire, I’d like to suggest a more—active approach to the problem.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Shaka could be a great asset to us, sire, or a liability. It would help if he were—persuaded. Rather forcefully.”

            Gymara looked over at Sudi again, startled. “You want to kill him?”

            “Sire, please, say this softly. Such strong words.”

            “You want me to have Shaka killed?

            “Sire, Shaka has resisted everything. We need him; he is the leader of the hyenas. We must do something.”

            Gymara looked away. “Sudi, I don’t—kill animals. Aiheu, you’re asking me to order a hit like I’m some . . . thug.”

            “Sire, I would never dream of asking you for such a thing. All I’ve said here tonight is that I feel that we need to persuade Shaka to see things our way. I’d just like to—inform you that I feel that I should take certain actions. There’s no need for you to be involved in something this minor. I was really hoping for some leniency, sire. The results of this undertaking would be spectacular. Think of it: Gymara the Great. The Beloved. The Wise.”

            Gymara stared at the ground. “What are you planning on doing?”

            “I’ll be—negotiating. I’m sure you won’t need to know all of the boring details, sire. Why do you hesitate?”

            “Because I’m not damn sure!”

            Sudi placed himself in front of the king. “Sire, I have all of this planned out. Nothing will go wrong. How often have I lied to you, sire?”

            Gymara shook his head and stared at the ground, thinking. Sudi was silent, simply watching. “Alright,” Gymara said. “Do it.”

            “Thank you, sire.”

 

 

 

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

                        Abraham Lincoln

 

            “. . . So,” asked Shaka slowly, “if we just divide it up so’s each species has a certain amount to give, and insure that both clans get their doses of birth herbs, we should be able to curb this, right?”

            “Mm-hmm,” said Nyota.

            “And to make sure that the hyenas don’t forget, the punishment for having pups when you’re not supposed to is to be excluded from the food?”

            “And anyone helping out those who’re supposed to be excluded won’t get food either.”

            Shaka smiled. After months, they’d finally come up with this. Something that clearly gave the hyenas the short end of the stick, but still pleased all. It meant food for all, even if the hyenas ended up with less land than they started with. Most species still despised the scavengers, something that Nyota had had trouble working against. Yet she’d done as she’d promised. She’d done her best to garner all of the support she could for the hyenas.

            Shaka had been surprisingly brilliant legally. He’d seemed to have almost memorized all of Sanctuary’s laws. Most of the ideas in the law were his. Nyota had only helped him smooth over a few patches. He would be a great delegate, Nyota could see that. He was an excellent compromiser, and she had never met anyone with a heart as clean as his.

            “You know,” said Nyota, “I think we’re finally ready.”

            Shaka grinned, an odd thing for a hyena. They almost never showed their teeth. Nyota had stereotyped them as bestial things, just as most of Sanctuary had. Though they did cling to old traditions and behaviors, no one could call them uncivilized. Dignity was at all of their cores.

            “You really think so?” asked Shaka.

            “Yep. Only thing to do now is to ask for a meeting.”

            “I couldn’t have done this without you, ma’am.”

            Nyota.” In all their time together, the hyena still used the honorific.

            Shaka looked down momentarily, embarrassed. “Sorry. Anyway, I—I really wanted to thank you.”

            “I’m just doing the right thing.”

            “Well, ma’am . . . I kind of thought about a little more—physical thanks.”

            Nyota looked at him uncertainly. “‘Physical?’”

            “Well . . . would you like to come home with me for dinner?”

            “What? Shaka—Shaka, I couldn’t. You guys are short enough on food the way it is.”

            “It’s alright, ma’am, it really is. They all want to meet you, they think you’re great. Teya really wants to meet you.”

            Nyota smiled. “Are you sure it’s okay? I don’t want to impose—”

            “Really, ma’am. I asked the matriarch and everything, and she’s fine with it.”

            “Alright then,” said Nyota.

            “You want to come now?”

            “Sure. Let’s go.”

            The two of them started away. Nyota stopped as she noticed a tail flicking in the grass. “Ma’am?” asked Shaka. “Something wrong?”

            “Uh . . . no. Listen, there’s something I want to do first, female needs and all—I’ll be done in a few moments.”

            “I’ll give you some privacy,” said Shaka agreeably. Nyota watched him leave, then promptly sprang at the intruder, tackling them to the ground. They rolled over, her adversary pinning her.

            “Sudi!”

            “Nyota,” said the cheetah with a smile. “Going to dinner, are we?”

            “What do you think you’re doing spying on us?” Nyota demanded furiously.

            “I think I’m spying on you. And for some time now.” Nyota’s eyes widened with realization, then she snarled. “You—”

            Sudi pushed her chin up, forcing her head back to the ground and exposing her throat. “Profanity is so unbecoming of a female.” Nyota struggled against him. “Really, Nyota, I do miss things like this. You and us. Alone.”

            Nyota jerked free of his paw. “There was a reason we stopped!”

            “Because you found someone else. That’s always the reason with you. Hopping from cheetah to cheetah. Although, if what I’m hearing recently is true . . .”

            “Oh, shut up! What do you want?”

            Sudi frowned. “Well, as you seem reluctant to let me have your amazing body, I’ll be content with what I heard you two talking about never coming to be.”

            “You want me to stop the law?”

            “It’s not a law yet. Only a proposal. One that hasn’t even been proposed yet. And I’d like to keep it that way,” said Sudi, a hint of a snarl entering his voice.

            “Sudi, hyenas are starving—”

            “Oh, I know. Pity, isn’t it? It just isn’t happening fast enough.”

            Nyota felt revolted by the animal on top of her, even more so as he settled comfortably down on her body. “You’re insane.”

            “No. I am very much not insane. I am, however, determined. And this proposal will not pass, do you hear me? I want you to drop it. Kill it any way you can. Shaka just needs to follow orders.”

            “He’s not your stooge!”

            “And it annoys me to no end. He was worthless before, but now you’ve gone and made him dangerous. Do you have any idea how hard I worked on him, Nyota? It’s bad enough when I’ve got that idiot king on your back half the time, but now you have to do this? I’m giving you your last chance, Nyota. Get Shaka to stop this, and nothing will happen. Nothing too bad.”

            “Sudi, this could solve all the problems—”

            “I don’t care. Stop the proposal. Kill it. Immediately. Or things could be very bad for Shaka.” Sudi stood up with a smile. “I’m so glad we can come to agreements like this.” He got off her.

            “Wait!” said Nyota. Sudi stopped. “What . . . what if I—gave myself to you again?”

            Sudi smiled. “If that happened, I’d enjoy it immensely.”

            Nyota felt uneasy just with the way his eyes roved over her body. “So if I let you—have me—you’ll leave Shaka alone?”

            Sudi’s grin grew wider. He shook his head. “Of course not. Unlike you, I can do without sex. This, however, is something I will not wait for.” Sudi turned and headed into the grass again. “Oh, and you and Reen are going to be dealing with the cheetahs from now on.”

            “What?!” asked Nyota, stunned.

            “It shouldn’t be too much to ask. Quite frankly, the hyenas are just too much of a problem for Gymara . . . And it looks as if quite a few more are going to be picked up. Why not think on it over dinner?” Sudi left.

            Nyota stared at where he’d gone. She didn’t know how, but Sudi had always had a knack for knowing the worst things. And now he was blackmailing her and Shaka. She headed back to Shaka, pretending that everything was normal. She followed him home, and was warmly greeted by the matriarch and Shaka’s family.

            She smiled and enjoyed the antelope they had brought for her. Only she, the matriarch, and Teya, Shaka’s mate, ate from it. Nyota did her best not to be greedy, yet the hyenas ate just as politely as she did. In the end, most of the carcass ended up in Nyota’s stomach. She enjoyed the change of dining with a family; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten in polite company like this, even though Shaka’s pups stared at her incessantly, as if they’d never seen a cheetah before.

            When Nyota finally left, she was escorted out of the clan’s territory by Shaka. “Thank you for dinner,” she said.

            “Sorry there wasn’t more,” apologized the hyena.

            “No, it was wonderful. Maybe I could get you a meal sometime.” She looked down at Shaka. He was looking up at her strangely. “What? I didn’t do something wrong, did I?”

            “No, no, not at all. I’d love to come. But, uh . . . do you mind if I bring Teya and the pups?”

            “Bring whoever you want. But, uh . . . I didn’t make myself an idiot tonight, did I?”

            “You’re a female, ma’am. You can’t do anything wrong.”

            “You know what I mean. Anything rude or anything like that?”

            “No. Nothing.”

            “Shaka?”

            “Don’t worry. We planned for you coming over.”

            “You’re not telling me something.” Shaka looked away in embarrassment. “Tell me, Shaka.”

            “We’re just gonna have to go hungry for a little while, that’s all. The pups understand. Besides,” he said, trying to be cheerful, “this is gonna end all that, ain’t it? This law?”

            “Shaka, I’m so sorry—I didn’t know—”

            “You weren’t supposed to, ma’am. Really, don’t worry. We’ll make out fine. There’re others worse off than us.”

            Nyota smiled sadly, then suddenly grabbed Shaka in a hug. Shaka went limp, whimpering. “Thank you, Shaka.”

            “Ma’am . . .”

            Nyota let go of him. “Is that something I wasn’t supposed to do?”

            “Hyenas don’t hug. Especially not females.”

            “Sorry.” She smiled at him. “I’ll let you know how it’s going tomorrow, okay?”

            “Alright. Goodnight, ma’am.”

            “Night.” Nyota headed off into the grass. She’d see what she could do. Sudi could go screw himself.

 

 

 

            “Good morning, sires,” said Nyota warmly. The cheetah stood up and bowed low in front of the king and his son.

            “Oh, get up,” said Reen. “What did you do this time?”

            “Sire, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Nyota, grinning broadly, all of her teeth showing.

            “Of course you don’t. So what little surprise do you have for me today?”

            “Well, for one thing, you’re going to need to start visiting the cheetahs today. Sudi says Gymara says he’s got his mouth full with the hyenas and he can’t carry any more.”

            “Just like that?”

            “Just like that. No notice at all.”

            “How can he expect me to make room for a whole species in my schedule?” Reen shook his head. “I’m completely booked today.”

            “Oh, don’t worry, we can just skip them, I’m sure they don’t have any problems at all, sire,” said Nyota quickly.

            “Nyota . . .”

            “Sire?”

            “I don’t like being lied to.”

            “Sire—Reen—you know they’re never any more than little white ones.”

            “Nyota . . .”

            “Sire, really, I’ve already thought of all this. Just drop off Rayan with the leopards for one day, and then you can just zip through all of the animals as quick as you can. But we need to hurry.”

            Reen sighed. “Alright. We’ll do it your way.” He turned to Rayan. “Son, you mind staying with Lymo for the day?”

            “No. But can’t I come?”

            “I’m sorry, son, but you just can’t keep up.” Rayan hung his head. “I’m sorry, really.”

            “I know, Father.”

            Reen smiled. “‘Father?’”

            “You don’t like it?”

            “You only say it when you’re trying to guilt me.”

            “Do not,” protested the scarred half-cub. “It just sounds better.”

            “How about I take you out hunting after I get back? Would that be alright? Just me and you.”

            “Alright. Come on, let’s get to Lymo’s.”

            “Eh, sire?” interrupted Nyota. “By ‘drop off’ I meant ‘leave right here and hope he can find his own way.’”

            “What?”

            “Seriously, Reen, today is going to be busy, and we need to go now.”

            “Alright,” conceded Reen. “Rayan, can you—”

            “Dad, I’m three years old. I think I can find my way around the kingdom.”

            Reen smiled. Yes, his cub was growing up. Yet sometimes it seemed as if he was more angry and alone than anything else. “Alright, son.”

            “Reen, we need to go. Now.”

            “Alright, Nyota. We’re going.” Rayan watched the cheetah half-running into the savannah, his father walking calmly behind her. He stared for a moment, then headed toward Lymo’s.

 

 

 

            “Sudi!” The cheetah looked up for a moment and saw Shaka running toward him, the sighed and continued cleaning his paws in the waterhole. “Sudi, thank the gods I found, you! I have to speak to the king!”

            “And why would that be?” asked Sudi acerbically.

            “There’s been a murder!”

            Sudi looked up sharply. “What?”

            “Someone’s been murdered! It’s Shetani!”

            “And just who is Shetani?”

            “She’s in my clan, and she’s—it’s awful, I have to see the king!”

            “I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait,” said Sudi. “The king has taken the day off for family time.”

            “But—this is a murder! Surely something like this—”

            “Shaka, are you the king?”

            “What? Uh, no.”

            “Then you have no idea what he works under. Can you even imagine carrying the entire weight of the kingdom on your back? All of those animals and their requests, and he has to take care of it all. He gets almost no time to spend with his mate and that stuck-up furball he calls a son. Would you really want to deny him that?”

            “Sudi, someone’s been killed!

            “You made that point.”

            “Well can’t we do something?

            “Well, just an idea, but we could try a novel concept and wait until tomorrow. How about that?”

            “Sudi . . .”

            “Really, what are the chances that the killer’s going to go knock off another hyena? This is probably something private. Do you even have any idea who did it?”

            “Well . . . about that—”

            “Shouldn’t you spend a little more time investigating your clan yourself? Ask around? You can’t expect to run to King Gymara with all of your problems, can you?”

            “But it wasn’t a hyena!”

            “It—excuse me?”

            “It weren’t none of my clan, I swear!”

            “And how could you possibly know that?” dismissed Sudi with a wave of his paw. Water sprayed over Shaka as he jerked it out of the water.

            Shaka shook his head to get the water off. “Because none of the hyenas kill that way! We bite, we don’t—snap necks,” he said, shivering as he remembered the poor creature’s body.

            “I’m sure any reasonably strong hyena could, however. Could they just be trying to pin it on another animal?”

            “We don’t fight each other like that, Sudi. We’re open. We’re all clanmates.”

            “Regardless, you’re not disturbing the king today. You can tell him tomorrow.” Sudi turned back to cleaning his paws, rubbing them together underneath the water.

            “But you’re just—doing your thing. Couldn’t you tell him?”

            “For your information, I’m getting the blood off of my paws. And I thought I made myself quite clear that the king is not to be disturbed.”

            “What blood?”

            Sudi sighed. “I eat, hyena. Antelope blood. It gets stuck between my toes. Unlike you dogs, I prefer to be clean and not smell like something that died days ago.”

            “Hey, that’s just not fair—”

            “Fair or not, you really shouldn’t be standing right here, should you?” asked Sudi. “The more evidence you have for the king, the faster he’ll act on it, I’m sure. Shouldn’t you be off checking the body or looking at alibis or some such thing? Or do you hyenas maybe even have funerals?”

            “It’s tomorrow.”

            “Still, I’m sure you have lots to do, don’t you? Want to impress the king?”

            “Uh—sure. Yeah. I’ll get right on that. Uh, be sure to tell him tomorrow about it, okay?” Shaka called over his shoulder as he began to run back to his home.

            “Of course,” muttered Sudi.

            “What?”

            “Of course!” he yelled after Shaka. He sighed and turned back to cleaning himself. He hated that idiot hyena. The least he could have done was asked politely. He even thought of Sudi as a friend, apparently. Sometimes it seemed as all of his naēveté was more of a hindrance than a help. But Gymara had been right in keeping him. He would prove useful.

            Sudi finally got the last bit of the blood out from under his claws and walked back to his home. Remember, he told himself quietly, bite, not snap.

 

 

 

            Reen sighed. Nyota had been right. It had been a day. It was almost sunset now; he’d been up since dawn. It seemed that there was nothing that the animals didn’t bring to him. He tried to treat all of them the same, but there were just a few that seemed so insanely stupid. But it was over now. He was almost at the den, Nyota by his side.

            “Well, it’s been fun, Reen,” said Nyota. “See you to—mo—” She was cut off by a giant yawn. “Sorry. Been a long day.”

            Reen smiled and nodded. “Yes it has. But at least it’s over.”

            “Finally. See you tomorrow, sire, I’m going home.”

            “You do that.” He headed for the den, then abruptly stopped and looked at Nyota. “Oh, Rahimu!

            “Sire?”

            “The cheetahs!”

            Reen began to run for the cheetah’s section of the kingdom, but Nyota stepped in his way. “Really Reen, I don’t think we need to go there—”

            “Nyota, what are you trying to hide?”

            “Nothing, sire. I’d just rather not have . . . uh, you see, there’re these massive monsters running around, slavering jaws, etc., etc., and I just don’t want to see you hurt—”

            “We’re going,” said Reen firmly, walking around Nyota.

            “Sire—Reen! Come on, sire, we really don’t need to do anything, they’re fine, I promise you—”

            Nyota’s protests stopped only after she realized that Reen wasn’t listening at all. She finally stopped complaining and followed docilely behind him, staring at the ground and silently cursing and hoping for the best. She nearly put her nose into Reen’s rump as Reen stopped suddenly and bowed his head. “I’m sorry to be calling on you so late,” said Reen, “I wasn’t informed that you were on my list until this morning.”

            Nyota stuck her head out from behind Reen to see the cheetah Mwovu standing before Reen. “That’s fine, sire, I understand. But are you trying to insult me?”

            Reen’s brow furrowed as Nyota emphatically shook her head behind him. “What do you mean?”

            “I mean bringing that little—Sire, I hardly like to swear, but there isn’t anything to call her but a whore.”

            “Hey, who’re you calling a whore?!” demanded Nyota angrily. “I’m perfectly honest!”

            “It doesn’t make what you do any less disgusting,” said the cheetah delegate.

            “Nyota?” asked Reen.

            “Sire?”

            “Why is this good, honorable cheetah insulting you?”

            “He suffers from a huge inferiority complex that’s inversely proportional to the size of his pe—”

            “Nyota!”

            “Just telling it like it is, sire.”

            “Sire,” said Mwovu, “do you actually have no idea what she has been doing?”

            “I don’t think so.”

            “This little strumpet has been running around with a leopard.”

            Reen looked over at Nyota in shock. “Is this true?”

            Nyota stared at the ground in silence. Finally she said, “Yes.”

            “It’s done nothing but cause hell for all of the cheetahs and leopards, as I’m sure you well know, sire,” said Mwovu. “Neither of them are happy with the arrangement. Quite frankly, it’s disgusting—”

            “Oh shut up!” said Nyota angrily. “Just because you won’t go outside your little moral limits doesn’t mean I can.”

            Mwovu spat at Nyota’s feet. “I never want to see you in my home again.”

            “Fine,” she said, turning around and walking away.

            “Nyota,” called Reen exasperatedly after her.

            “Sorry, sire, I quit.”

            “Nyota!” Reen sighed. This wasn’t the first time she’d quit on him. He turned back to Mwovu. “You aren’t making yourself any friends right now.”

            “Sire, you aren’t doing the best job of that yourself. I’d expect better service from another predator.”

            Reen glared at him. “I am the king, Mwovu. If anyone should be ‘servicing’ anyone, it’s you to me.”

            Mwovu smiled politely, though Reen could easily see the annoyance in his eyes. “My apologies, sire. But I’ll let you know that she is not welcome in my home. So if you do somehow manage to get her back to you . . .”

            “Are you threatening me?”

            “Don’t be ridiculous, sire. I only want to emphasize that she is not welcome here. Quite possibly not even in the kingdom. I can’t advise you enough to get rid of her as soon. Now please, sire, I need to get back to my mate.”

            “What about your problems?”

            “What problems, sire? The only reason I made such a fuss was because I will not accept affronts to my dignity such as that ethically-challenged freak.”

            Reen stared for a moment, stunned, and then turned and walked away, thoroughly angry. Mwovu stared for a moment, then turned and left as well, a satisfied smile on his face. The king wouldn’t be able to just walk all over him.

 

 

 

            Rayan trudged over to Lymo’s home. He lied down, watching the other leopards going about their business and waited patiently for Lymo. Lymo had an enormous amount of power among the cheetahs, almost as much has the delegate, Erevu, had. Lymo hardly ever used it; he preferred to use simple persuasion. He respected everyone’s opinion, not just his own, and always consulted anyone before doing anything large.

            Tiifu had to be lucky to have a father like that.

            He’s got plenty of friends, thought Rayan miserably. Everyone accepts him. Everyone loves him. He sighed. I can’t even spend time with my father when I really want to.

            Minutes went by as Rayan waited. He saw Tiifu walk out, several other leopards, male and female, with him. As Tiifu walked past, he saw Rayan. Rayan heard him say, “Uh, guys, I’ll catch up in a sec.”

            “Sure thing, T.”

            Rayan watched Tiifu walking over to him. “Hey, Rayan. What’s up?”

            “Just waiting for your father.”

            Tiifu grinned embarrassedly. “Uh . . . about that . . . That might be a while. They—well, it’s kind of their anniversary.”

            “Ah.”

            “Yeah.”

            “I can wait.”

            “If you say so. I’ll see you later, okay?” Tiifu headed off after his friends.

            Their anniversary. Rayan felt like he was imposing now more than ever. Lymo always did whatever he or Reen asked of him; he really didn’t have any choice but to obey the royalty. We’re just manipulating him, thought Rayan.

            Over an hour had passed before Lymo appeared. He jumped when he saw Rayan. “Sire! What are you doing here? You should have come and found me, you don’t need to just wait like that.”

            “Tiifu said it was your anniversary.”

            “Ah. Well, it is. Ilya’s actually sleeping now. Would you mind if we went somewhere else for a change?”

            “Alright,” said Rayan. He got up and followed Lymo.

            “So, what brings you here today, sire?”

            “Father was too busy.”

            “Hmm. I don’t know whether to be honored or insulted.”

            “Really, Lymo, he doesn’t mean it that way—” said Rayan hurriedly.

            “I was joking, Rayan. I know your father’s intentions. Frankly, though, I’m rather flattered. Who would have thought that my father would have made such an influence in your father’s life?” Lymo smiled. “Hopefully I’ve lived up to him.”

            “Don’t worry,” said Rayan. “If anything, I know more history than I ever did.”

            “What would you like to learn today, sire?”

            “I don’t know. Did you have anything planned?”

            “Sire, everything I do is completely spur of the moment.”

            Rayan grinned. “Who knew?”

            “Well, if you don’t have anything you want me to talk about . . . How about the Wars of the Gods?”

            “Again?”

            “They went on for years, Rayan. I doubt anyone knows everything about them.”

            “I think I do. Anyone would have to by now.”

            “You’re sure of that?”

            “Pretty sure.”

            “What about tactics?”

            “Tactics?”

            “Do you know much about those?” asked Lymo with a smile.

            “Uh . . .”

            Lymo’s smile grew wider. “Today’s lesson: tactics used during the Wars of the Gods.”

            “This is going to be boring, isn’t it?”

            “Sire, every king needs to know his tactics.”

            “There hasn’t been a war in ages.”

            “Regardless, sire.” Lymo lied down. “Very well, the cheetahs . . .”

            The lecture began. Rayan did his best to keep up, but the mind is a very slippery thing when confronted with a lecture, particularly when you have things you were thinking about previously, and didn’t quite want to listen in the first place. His eyes began to rove over the animals milling about in pairs or groups. Friends playing together in the sunlight, tossing water or chasing each other.

            Here he was.

            I get so little time with anyone. His ears laid flat against his head. But even if I did, who could I possibly be with? I’ve always been separate. My looks, my—my face . . . They think I’m a monster. The way they look at me, the way they pity me . . .

            Rayan simply stared at the animals. Wishing wasn’t going to get him friendship, no matter how hard he tried. Nor was it going to get him the approval of a kingdom for a prince that didn’t look remotely regal.

            “Sire, you’re not listening to me, are you?”

            “Huh, what?”

            Rayan looked over to see a smiling Lymo. “You’ve got things on your mind, don’t you?” Rayan looked away. “If you want to talk about them, sire, I’m always here.”

            “I’m just—really, it’s nothing, I don’t need to bother you.”

            “Sire, I’m open for anything you want to talk about. Anything.”

            Rayan stared at the ground. He wanted to talk to someone, anyone, so badly. Yet it seemed that if he did—well, he didn’t know what happened, but something awful would. “Lymo—I—I just feel like I don’t have anyone.”

            “You have your father, at least.”

            “I don’t have any friends.” The words came out as a rush.

            “No one at all?”

            “They try to avoid me.” Rayan bit his lip. “It’s because of how I look.”

            Lymo was silent.

            “Whenever I go out with father on patrol, you can see how they stare at me, like I’m some kind of—of thing. They talk about me behind my back, I know they do, I’ve heard it, all the time. I feel like everyone’s just waiting to watch me fall and say, ‘Hey, look at the freak.’”

            Lymo was silent. Rayan looked away from him in embarrassment. Lymo finally spoke: “I’m sure you know who Giza is.”

            “Shujaa’s son.”

            Lymo nodded. “He was ruler of Sanctuary, the greatest there has ever been. But one thing that most animals forget is that he wasn’t happy. He never was.”

            “That can’t be right.”

            Lymo smiled sadly. “The greatest ruler we have ever had, and he was not happy. Of course, he knew it. He was an intellectual giant and just as humble; there was no way he couldn’t know about it. So he tried to become happy. He of course had his immense power. But it didn’t bring him happiness. He had the mind and stature of a god, yet that brought no happiness, either. He tried immersing himself in lionesses, yet that didn’t work, either. Nor did the political arena, or narcotic herbs, physical contests, the kingdom he had almost single-handedly built, or even his son. None of them brought him happiness.”

            “So you’re telling me he was depressed all the time.”

            “No. He laughed, and he was happy, but only for brief periods of time. He never found true, lasting happiness, something he could be truly content in. In the end it nearly drove him mad, and he left Sanctuary.”

            “‘Left’? What do you mean, ‘left’? No one can leave. There’s just desert.”

            “But he left anyway. He headed out into the desert looking for the answer, even though he knew it meant certain death.”

            “He killed himself?”

            “Effectively. But do you know why? Why wasn’t he happy, Rayan?”

            “He couldn’t figure it out, and you expect me to?”

            Lymo smiled. “You should take that as a compliment. The reason Giza wasn’t happy, despite being in the most envious position anyone could be in, is actually very simple. He was an atheist.”

            “Huh? But he believed in Roh’kash—”

            “At first, yes. And through all of his life. He always professed himself to be a believer, and never denied it. Yet he didn’t believe. After he killed his father, politics became his center, and religion was pushed to the back of his mind. His belief shrank to nothing. He knew everything there was to know about the religion, but he believed less and less of it. He became so centered on the other issues in his life, his belief withered and died. He remained in ignorance of the fact, and it drove him to his death.”

            “So you’re saying I’m not happy because I don’t believe what I say I do?”

            “Do you, Rayan?”

            “This is nuts. Of course I do.”

            “The story of Muutashonga. Tell me about it.”

            “A leopard strays from his beliefs and is guided back onto the path by Rahimu. Pretty simple.”

            “‘And Rahimu said to him, “Do not be afraid of the aching void. I am always here for you, even in your darkest hour. When all others have left you, still I will remain. Come to me, and I will embrace you, for all are welcome in my home.” And Muutoshonga left, and was troubled no more.’”

            “Alright, alright, I see the point.”

            “You’re making a mistake, Rayan.”

            “Big surprise.”

            “Rahimu doesn’t care how you look. Just come to him, and he’ll wipe your paws and soul pure. Above all, he won’t leave you.”

            Rayan stared at the ground. “I find that hard to believe, sometimes.”

            “He won’t, Rayan. He loves you. But he can’t make up your mind for you.”

            “My mind isn’t the problem—”

            “It is. Honestly, Rayan, whose opinion do you value? Yours, or his? Or maybe even theirs?”

            “‘Theirs?’”

            “You yourself said that they don’t accept you, that you think they are always watching you for your errors. They don’t matter, Rayan. They don’t make who you are.”

            “Look at me! I’m still a monster!”

            “One with a beautiful heart.”

            “No one can see that heart!”

            “They can see your actions.”

            “Lymo—dang it, it doesn’t mean I won’t screw up!”

            Lymo looked out over the savannah. “There’s something my father once told me. ‘Your actions don’t determine who you are, who you are determines what your actions are.’ If you really do see yourself as a monster, Rayan, then you will begin to act the part. You can’t help your outside appearance any more than you can help being a lion. But you can make sure your intentions are good. So long as that happens, so long as you see yourself as a good lion, you will do as you think you are. And as long as your intentions are good, animals will forgive your mistakes.” Lymo smiled. “I can understand if you are nervous about becoming king. It’s far better than not being worried at all.”

            “Hatari’s not nervous.”

            “And I have very low expectations for his rule,” said Lymo. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he failed to meet even those.”

            “He’d love to hear that.”

            “He is a perfect example of what I am saying. He feels that he should have to work for nothing, and should be given everything. He will make a lioness very unhappy, whoever he chooses to marry.”

            Rayan said nothing.

            “Rayan, I can’t promise that anything will happen. But I can promise that you will be a very unhappy lion if you go through life expecting to fail. You have the power to be one of the greatest kings Sanctuary has known. And you are not a monster.”

            “Lymo . . . can I just be alone for a while?”

            “Of course, sire. I’ll be waiting back at my home. Come back whenever you like.” Lymo got up, stared down at Rayan for a few moments, then placed a paw gently on the top of his head before leaving.

            Rayan stared off into the savannah.

 

 

 

            “Nyota!” yelled Reen, charging brazenly through the savannah. “Come on, I know you’re out here! Nyo—” He stopped as he nearly walked into the cheetah as she lied on her back, a leopard over her in a very compromising position.

            “Reen,” said Nyota, as if she wasn’t fazed at all by the king finding her like that. “What brings you here?” The leopard over her began to back off of her, obviously embarrassed, but Nyota wrapped her forelegs around his neck and pulled him fully on top of her. “No,” she said, “stay.” She looked back up at the king. “Well, what’re you here for?”

            “Is—is what Mwovu said true?” asked Reen hesitantly.

            “Sire, you found me like this. What do you think?”

            “Uh . . .”

            “Aw, we don’t want to overtax Reen’s little brain, do we?”

            “But why are you—with—him?” The leopard once again tried to extricate himself from Nyota’s grasp.

            “You mean a leopard? Really, sire, I want to know what it matters at all who I’m with. He’s just another animal. The hardest part is making him learn to stay put,” she said as she wrapped all of her legs around the leopard as he tried to get off of her. The two of them rolled over, Nyota flipping on top of him. “Now stay. Good boy.”

            The leopard whispered something, looking at Reen and obviously embarrassed. Nyota laughed. “What does it matter if he’s the king? He’s just another friend.”

            Reen heard the leopard whisper something like “But he’s the king.”

            Nyota sighed. “Sire, come here please.”

            “What? Why?”

            “Just come here.” Reen approached her and stood by the couple. “This is going to hurt a little bit, sire.” Nyota suddenly swiped a claw down Reen’s foreleg.

            “Ow! Hey—”

            Nyota held the claw above the leopard’s face. “See? He bleeds like everyone else.”

            “That doesn’t mean you’d have to hurt me,” said Reen in annoyance.

            “Please, sire, we all know you’re a huge masochist underneath all that mane and fur.”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Don’t worry,” said the leopard, “she does this all the time.”

            “You’re going to get another smack for that,” said Nyota. The leopard’s mouth opened, but closed as his eyes flicked up to Reen. Nyota giggled. “Maybe I should keep Reen around more often; he shuts you up.”

            “Yeah, but . . .”

            Reen was unable to hear any more of what the leopard said. Nyota leaned back off of the leopard as soon as he was finished with a wicked smile on her face. “Want to bet?” she asked as she positioned herself.

            “Nyota!” the two males yelled.

            “Present.”

            “Nyota, how can you be flirting with—with—”

            “Sire, you’re going to hurt his feelings.”

            “Nyota—”

            “Hush, you. Good boy.”

            “Nyota, he’s a leopard.”

            “And?”

            “And you’re a cheetah.”

            “And you’re a lion. Very good, Reen.”

            “This is—this is interspecies mating,” said Reen, his voice sinking to a conspiratorial whisper.

            “I know. Fun, isn’t it?”

            Reen stared at Nyota as if she was crazy, a possibility he was considering. “No!”

            “Oh, come on, you expect me to believe that you’ve never thought about any other species that way?”

            “Of course not!”

            “Come on, Reen? Not even me?”

            “Of course not! You’re my advisor!”

            “Sire, that hurts, really. If it’s any comfort, you have crossed my mind.”

            Reen looked at her in disgust, at a total loss for words. “Excuse me—”

            “I thought I told you to hush.”

            “All the blood is going to my head.”

            “Maybe you’ll get smarter.”

            “Ha, ha. Come on, let me up.”

            “No.”

            “It’s starting to hurt.”

            “Well, yes, that’s what thinking’s like the first time. But, give it a little time, and that pain will go away.” The leopard shot both of his hind legs into Nyota’s stomach, propelling her off. “Ow! Is that any way to treat a female?”

            “It’s the way to treat you.” The leopard turned to Reen. “Please, sire. Don’t fire her. She really does do a good job, honest.”

            “She’s already quit,” said Reen.

            “Nyota!” said the leopard angrily, turning around.

            “What? I do it all the time.”

            “You can’t just quit! You’re the advisor.”

            “That’s what I said the first ten times,” said Reen dryly.

            “I can quit any time I want,” said Nyota. “I’m irreplaceable.”

            “Regrettably.”

            “Hey!”

            “But Nyota—you went behind my back, you deliberately tried to keep this from me.”

            “I told you I had a boyfriend.”

            “You always have a boyfriend.”

            “But I’ve had the same one for almost three years now.”

            “You’ve been causing trouble for three years?

            “Don’t look so surprised, sire.”

            “Nyota, this is—revolting.”

            Nyota sighed and pushed herself up. “Sire—Reen—you have no right to tell me how to live my life. You have no reason to tell me that this is wrong. And the idea that two animals from different species can’t love each other is ridiculous. I’ve been with this idiot for three years now—”

            “Hey!”

            “No one but an idiot would have stayed with me that long, so once again, hush! As I was saying Reen, I love him. I’m pretty sure he loves me, too. And there’s no reason we can’t be together other than stupid little prejudices like the whole kingdom has. There’s no way we’re leaving each other any time soon. So you can either learn to live with me the way I am like you have been for the past three years, or you can piss off.”

            “Nyota, he’s the king—”

            “He’s my chew toy, and he knows it. Well sire, what do you say?”

            Reen stared at the cheetah in front of him, his gaze shifting between her and the leopard behind her. “You lied to me,” he finally said. “For three years.”

            “I lied to you yesterday, too. And the day before that. Both times about things not related to this. And you know I’m a liar. So what? I’m irreplaceable, and you know it.”

            “You’re trying to blackmail me.”

            “No, I’m just being honest for once.”

            Reen glared at her. “I don’t know what disgusts me more, the fact that you’ve been lying to me about something this—big . . . or that you’re an inter-species freak.”

            For the first time, Nyota looked honestly shocked. She slapped Reen across the face as hard as she could, leaving two claw marks. “How dare you—”

            Reen was tackled to the ground, and was vaguely aware of the leopard trying to drag Nyota off of him while she screamed at him. The leopard finally got her off of Reen, only to have her turn her head into his shoulder and cry. The leopard wrapped a foreleg around her gently and whispered into her ear. Reen stood up. “I—”

            “Sire, you should go now,” said the leopard quietly.

            Reen stared at the leopard for a moment, then turned and walked away. It just wasn’t his day for cheetahs.

 

 

 

            As Reen approached the den, he saw Rayan lying outside. He felt guilt sink down into his stomach. He’d even forgotten that his son wasn’t at home for the day; he hadn’t even bothered to look for Rayan at Lymo’s. Reen tried to return Rayan’s twisting of his face that was his smile. “Long day?” his son asked.

            “Too long. I could have done without a few of the last parts.”

            “You still want to go?”

            “Go?”

            “You know. Hunting.”

            Reen had completely forgotten about it. He really didn’t feel up to it all; the sun was almost down, and his body ached. He yearned to simply go inside and try to sleep away the day. But as he looked at Rayan, with his happy, eager look in his eyes . . . “Alright, son.”

            “You sure? You look pretty tired.”

            “Let’s go. Come on.”

            Reen followed his son into the savannah, watching him automatically slip into a hunting posture; head low, tail flicking, strides long. Reen tried to do the same. It was difficult even to move for a little while that way. How long had it been since he had last hunted? More than a year, definitely, probably more than two. “What are we hunting tonight?”

            “Well, Aunt Adhima said there was some wildebeest that were over here. A couple gave birth today.” Rayan looked back at his father with a grin. “Sound good enough to you?”

            “Sounds wonderful,” said Reen, smiling back. It felt good to see Rayan happy and smiling. It seemed that he never did get to spend enough time with his son and see him this way.

            “I’ll take point. You can come up right after me—”

            “Son, I can take point.”

            “But Father, I’ve been practicing, I can do it. You’re . . .”

            Reen smiled. “I know. But just let me take point. I don’t want you getting hurt.”

            “This is about my legs, isn’t it?”

            “Son—”

            “Father, please, I can hunt.”

            Reen sighed. “I don’t want to see you hurt.”

            Rayan stopped. “I won’t get hurt. Come on, Father.”

            There was a long pause, and Reen finally nodded. “Fine. But the only reason I’m doing this is because I’m hungry and don’t want to wait.”

            Rayan laughed. “Says you.”

            “Just don’t take any risks.”

            “I won’t, don’t worry.”

            It wasn’t long before they reached the hunting grounds. Rayan crouched still lower into the grass and motioned to his father to move into position a little further over. Reen moved, crouching, feeling his muscles burn. He looked down at the herd, trying to pick out one to move against, his discomfort distracting him. He felt a cramp starting. Just when he felt he couldn’t hold his position any longer, he saw Rayan burst out from the grass, limping as he ran.

            He followed suit and tried to pick out a wildebeest. He jumped for one, felt his claws slice through its flanks, and fell to the ground as it galloped away. He breathed heavily. He was used to the long walks around the kingdom, not the short spurts hunting required. He looked around for Rayan and saw his son with his jaws around a wildebeest’s neck, strangling it as it jerked. Rayan twisted and broke its neck, the wildebeest going still.

            Reen walked over to his son. “Good job.”

            “He was old. It wasn’t that hard. Hungry?”

            “Oh, yes.”

            For the next few minutes there was silence as the two lions dug into their kill. Rayan finally paused for a moment and asked, “Think you should practice a little more?”

            “Are you saying that I’m out of practice?”

            “And fat,” said Rayan with a grin.

            “Respect for your elders is a valuable thing.”

            “Yeah? Why? Are you saying you’re old, too?”

            “You get to the ripe old age of nine and let’s see how many times you can walk around a kingdom in a week.”

            “Alright. But you have to be there to watch.”

            Reen smiled. “Alright.” Rayan grinned back and applied himself enthusiastically to his food again. The meal was finished in silence. The two of them finally sat back and lied down. “You want to go back, son?” asked Reen.

            “Father . . . can we talk? You know, just stay out here?”

            “Of course, son. What is it?”

            “It’s . . . well, what were you and Mother like?”

            “Us? Why?” Rayan looked away and down at his paws. Reen grinned. “Alright, who is it?”

            “Sarana.”

            “Still her?”

            “Dad, I love her, I know it.”

            “Then why don’t you tell her?”

            “Because—because I . . .”

            “What’s the worst she could do? Say no?”

            “Yes,” said Rayan grudgingly. “But what if she did? She—what would I do then, Father?”

            “Son, you are the prince. You’re going to be the king. And the king always has a mate. If you don’t, the entire hierarchy could collapse. Who would be the heir? Whose cub?”

            “Gee, thanks for the relief,” said Rayan sarcastically.

            Reen chuckled. “I’m joking, son. You’ll find the right mate. It took me a few mistakes before I decided on your mother. Fortunately, she was good enough to forgive me when I fell.”

            “I don’t know what Sarana will say, though. Father, I’m worried.”

            “Well, why do you love her so much?”

            “Dad, she . . .  she’s got the most beautiful face. And eyes that feel like they burn straight into you with their—brilliance. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, and she’s got the greatest heart, Father, she’s so nice. Even when the other cubs . . . well, you know. But she wasn’t like them. I love her so much, Father, she has to love me back.”

            “Son, you’re a kind, gentle lion. Any lioness would be happy with you. You’re my son. You’re Unir’s son. You’re growing up into a fine lion, son, one that your mother would be proud of. One that I’m proud of, too.”

            Rayan smiled warmly. “That means a lot, Father.”

            “I’m glad it does. Really, son, you’ll be fine with whoever you marry. But there’s no reason Sarana wouldn’t want to have you.”

            Rayan looked down at his paws. “Thanks.”

            There were a few moments of silence before Reen quietly asked, “Is there anything else?”

            “Well . . . I . . . Father, there are a few things I don’t quite understand.”

            “About?”

            Rayan looked ashamed. “When I’m with Sarana sometimes . . . a lot when I’m with her alone . . . I . . . I get—feelings. And things—happen to me.”

            Reen smiled. “You’re growing up, son.”

            “Is that all?” asked Rayan in disbelief.

            “Son, this is a very special thing that you feel. Let me explain . . .”

            The moon climbed higher in the sky, reaching its apex and beginning its descent into the earth.

            “So . . . me and Sarana . . .” asked Rayan hesitantly.

            “Son, I want you to know this. You must remember this above all things. You must decide the time is right for the act. Not just the atmosphere, but everything. There is always the possibility that the girl—whoever it might be—may carry your cub from your actions. If you aren’t ready, and she’s not ready, then you will have never made a bigger mistake in your life. This is not something to be taken lightly. It is one of the greatest gifts the gods have given us, and it can be abused. It’s not something to rush into.”

            “Father, I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”

            “Then quite simply: don’t.”

            “I mean just knowing it. It seems—huge.”

            “Son, I’m telling this to help you. When you are in the moment, there is nothing but instinct. It is wonderful, wonderful bliss, but it is thoughtless, in some respects. I’m telling you this so you will know what is happening, so you will know the full repercussions.”

            Rayan was silent. “Should I just stop being around her?” he finally asked.

            Reen smiled. “Of course not. If you love her, the last thing to do is distance yourself from her.”

            “But if I—”

            “There are other things that a couple may do than mate.”

            Rayan looked puzzled. “There are?”

            “Oh, yes.”

            The moon continued down its heavenly path.

            Rayan grinned. “Anything else?”

            “You’ve exhausted my brain enough for one night. I’m tired, I need to sleep.”

            “You’re no fun.”

            “Of course not, I’m your father. Come on, let’s go home.”

            The two of them started for the den, side by side. Reen stared at the ground silently as he walked. It had been a night of many firsts for Rayan. Should he make it just one more? It had to be done sooner or later. But if he could spare his son the knowledge, just a little longer . . . Neither he nor Gymara had taken kindly to the news when they received it. It had to be done, though. There was no other way. But did he have to tell him now?

            Yes. Get it out of the way. You will cherish these moments together. You need to tell him.

            “Rayan?”

            “Yes, Father?”

            “There’s something I need to tell you.”

            “What?”

            “Stop here for a moment.”

            “What is it, Father?”

            “Rayan . . . there comes a time when a king must die.”

            Rayan smiled. “Don’t worry, Father. Lymo’s already told me.”

            “He has?”

            Rayan nodded. “He’s promised to help with all of the funeral rites.”

            Reen shook his head. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

            “What is it, then?”

            “Rayan . . . Son . . . kings have to die. We would die anyway, everyone does. But the pride has to have a small number of males. Typically, there’s only one, the king, or there may be the prince, or another animal. But because of what I told you tonight . . . there must be a small number of males in the pride. Sanctuary’s space is limited. So, we must conserve space.

            “Around the time when I was four—just about a year, maybe a year and a half older than you are—my father died. He gave me this same talk, me and Gymara. I thought about it for a long time afterward, and there simply is no other way.” Reen paused. “There will be a time when you start participating in heat. Instinct begins to take over, and not all of it good. We separate the young from the old, in an effort to prevent accidents. But if I see you near me . . . I will be in a daze, Rayan, as will you. I will attack you if you come near me or any of the females.”

            “Father, you’d never—”

            “I would. I would kill you, if I felt it was necessary. It is why we separate the young from the old; so this will not happen. But there is always the possibility, and tragic accidents have happened. This is just another reason why measures have to be taken to make the number of males small. A king who has murdered his son cannot live with himself.”

            “Then I’ll just stay away from you.”

            Reen shook his head. “It isn’t enough.” He sighed. “Son, there is a time that will come. You will kill me.”

            “That’s crazy!”

            “Most likely, you will poison me. The shaman can make it; she even recommends it. It is painless, it causes sleep—”

            “Father, I’m not going to kill you—”

            “You have to,” said Reen angrily. “We live on a stretch of land with nothing but fire surrounding us. We have no room. We cannot make more room. There is less land each year, be it from fire, or from the desert creeping in on us. The pride must be kept small. And the king must be sacrificed for his kingdom.”

            “Father, no!”

            “Yes! You have to do this, Rayan, there’s no other way! This reduces cubs, it reduces population, it solves the problem! There is nothing else that we can do! When Gymara and I let our father die, it was the hardest thing we had to ever do. But we knew that it had to be done!”

            “Father—Father, I love you!” said Rayan. His eyes began to tear up.

            “I know, Son. But there is no other way. My only request is that I not know. I don’t want to think about—”

            “No!” yelled Rayan angrily.

            “Son—”

            “Father, I love you! I love you! You can’t ask me to do this! I won’t do it, I can’t kill you, it’s just not fair!”

            “Rayan—”

            “No!” Rayan flung himself at his father, tackling him to the ground, burying his face in his father’s mane, tears flowing down his cheeks. Reen was stunned. It had been nothing like this for him. Yes, it had been hard to accept, but it was nothing compared to Rayan’s outburst.

            But who did Rayan have? Who did he care about? He had no close friends, the closest companion he had being his father. Reen wanted to tell Rayan he was overreacting, but the thought appalled him. Rayan loved him, more than anything else. He would be leaving Rayan alone in the world, with no one by his side, with no one to guide him.

            Reen hugged his son tightly.

            “It’s not yet, son. Not yet.”

            “Father, please don’t go. Please.”

            “I won’t until you’re ready.”

            “I won’t ever let you die, Father.”

            Reen closed his eyes and pressed his son closer to him. It wouldn’t be easy for either of them.

 

 

 

            Jibu couldn’t believe her luck. She could almost jump as she walked beside Hatari. It was just the two of them that night; Sarana had stayed home with Atanya, the two of them “exhausted” from all the running around their mother had them doing. It had been the prince’s half-birthday, three and a half years. Of course, that meant that there was also a feast in honor of him.

            Jibu hadn’t taken all that she had caught back to the den; she had left a leg buried out here. The idea had come to her in a flash of inspiration, one that was very, very rare for her. It had happened, nevertheless, and it had worked; here she was, out here alone with Hatari. She couldn’t wait for it. A night with him, underneath the stars, completely alone. She’d “accidentally” nuzzle him, and . . . it would be a perfect night, her sisters would be so jealous. Maybe even a little more than perfect, she hoped.

            “So, how much further is it?” Hatari asked.

            Jibu looked over at him with a smile, to see him smiling back. We’re so good together. “It’s not that much further. Actually, it’s right—right here,” she said, stopping at the tree she had buried it next to. She began to dig hurriedly, and had the piece of meat out in seconds. She laid it at Hatari’s paws. “It’s for you,” she explained. She smiled up at him, unconsciously biting her lower lip in as she did.

            Hatari’s smile grew. “Thank you,” he said. “I was wondering why one of them was missing a leg.”

            “Well, now you know.”

            “You want to split it?”

            “Yeah!”

            Hatari smiled and took a bite out of the thigh. Jibu smiled and started down near the ankle. They were almost bumping heads as they finished the last part. Hatari smiled up at her, then walked around the bone to her side. He lied down next to her, his pert rubbing against hers. He casually flicked the bone away. “Thanks,” he said.

            “No problem.” Jibu felt her heart racing inside her chest. She wanted to lean up and kiss him. But would that be too early? Too obvious?

            “It’s a beautiful night,” said Hatari, looking over the lands. His gaze stopped on Jibu.

            “Uh-huh.”

            Their eyes seemed to be inseparable as their heads moved closer. Jibu felt her tongue run gently across Hatari’s muzzle. She felt him nuzzle her, moving his head down to his neck where he kissed her. Jibu closed her eyes and rolled onto her back. Hatari kissed her passionately, and slowly began to work his way down her body. Jibu had never felt anything like it.

            He moved back up to her head and stared down at her, smiling. “Hatari . . .”

            “Mm?”

            “I—I want you. So bad.”

            Hatari smiled. “Let’s see if we can’t do something about that.”

            Jibu smiled back. She moved himself from underneath him, nuzzling him as she did so. She didn’t know what to expect from this. All she knew was she wanted it, and so much. And Hatari wanted her. He placed himself over her. The two of them lost a precious, unique gift.

 

 

 

I’m not an assassin. Killing is more of a hobby with me.

                                                            The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

 

            “There is one other thing that you need to know, sire,” said Sudi. “It’s quite important.”

            He and Gymara had stopped by a waterhole for a short rest. “Is it something I’m not going to like?” asked Gymara. “You know how I feel about surprises.”

            “I’ve got two of them for you.”

            “Oh, joy.”

            “There’s been a murder.”

            Gymara choked on the water he was lapping up. Sudi smiled at the sight. “Excuse me?” Gymara finally managed.

            “There was a hyena killed two nights ago.”

            Gymara looked at Sudi suspiciously. “There was?”

            Sudi nodded. “Shaka came to me with the information immediately. He hasn’t said anything yet to me today, but I have a suspicion that the killing didn’t stop there. There might be another one to hear about today.”

            Gymara looked away from Sudi down into the water. “Any idea who might have done it?”

            “Personally, sire, I think it’s another hyena. The uncivilized beasts eat their own kind. Who knows how little it would take to have them do it when they’re not even dead yet?”

            “I don’t approve.”

            “Then we should catch the killer at all costs. Yes, sire?”

            “Sudi . . . we might want to do it soon.”

            “My thoughts as well, sire. May I propose a council meeting? In two or three weeks time?”

            Gymara looked back at Sudi, confused. “Do we need one?”

            “I really think we do, sire.”

            “If you say so.”

            “I’d also like to suggest something in the meantime. The hyenas obviously can’t be trusted. They’re killing each other off, who knows what else they might be doing? Perhaps we should withdraw the aid we’ve been giving?”

            “Stop leaving carcasses?”

            “Until the current crisis is resolved, yes.”

            “We can’t do anything about that until the council meeting.”

            “Of course. But perhaps suggesting the idea to some of the other predators, seeing how they’d react to it. Getting a feel for the idea, sire.”

            “Sudi, sometimes I wonder where your heart is.”

            “It’s in my work, sire,” said Sudi with a smile. A few teeth showed. “All of it.”

            “I hope both of those surprises you told me about were in what you just said.”

            “Actually, sire, no.”

            Gymara sighed. “What, then?”

            “It’s about your brother.”       

            “What about him?”

            “He’s been spotted several times with the leopards. Almost daily, in fact.”

            What?

            “It’s absolutely true. And for some reason, he’s also started adding the cheetahs to his list of animals.”

            Gymara stared down into the pool. How could Reen do such a thing? There were boundaries for a reason. Maybe he was paranoid, but it seemed like just too much. Here was his brother, snapping up his species. “Why do you think he’s been doing that?” he asked Sudi.

            “Sire, I would hardly like to say what I haven’t anything to confirm,” said Sudi carefully, staring at Gymara intently.

            “Just say it.”

            “Sire . . . I think your brother isn’t quite satisfied.”

            Gymara stared down at the pool, then angrily slammed a paw into it. “Damn it,” he said quietly.

            “Sire?”

            “All of these thoughts in my head . . . Damn it, Sudi, Reen is my brother.”

            “Your point, sire?”

            “I don’t want to think he’s doing this!”

            “Is it really that hard to think so, sire? He’s never with us; in fact, he’s hardly with anyone but his son. Now he’s slowly—for lack of a better word—usurping your part of the kingdom. I’ve been telling you this for some time now. He wants more. He already had more as it was, but still . . .”

            Gymara turned to Sudi. “Can I trust you?”

            “With your life, sire.” Gymara continued staring at Sudi. “Something wrong?”

            “Everything’s changing,” said Gymara quietly. “Reen’s always been good . . . but now this? Aiheu, the hyenas are giving us hell, even before you started pulling this little stunt, and now Reen’s doing this to me, and Hatari . . .”

            “What about him, sire?”

            “He’s growing up. Fast.”

            “I know what it means that way.”

            “He’s having sex, Sudi.”

            “I find the experience quite enjoyable myself, sire.”

            “Dammit, he’s only three and a half—”

            “Sire, it’s not an unusual age. For cheetahs, at least. Was it unusual for you?”

            “No,” Gymara admitted. “By his age . . . I’d slept with about every girl in the pride.”

            “Sire, I have no cubs. Frankly, I think they do nothing but wear on the nerves. But your son is growing up. You can’t expect him to come out just as you wanted. Or so I’m told.”

            “Sudi, just promise me one thing.”

            “Yes, sire?”

            “Will you, at least, not change?”

            Sudi smiled. “Sire, I will always be my king’s side.”

 

 

 

            Reen walked outside of the den. Gymara had left long ago with Sudi. It was going to be a long day, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that he’d gotten only a few hours of sleep. He was blinded by the sunlight as he first came out. As his vision cleared a little, he saw Nyota sitting outside the den, her eyes rimmed with red, but reporting again as usual.

            “Sire,” she said quietly.

            “Nyota.” There was an uncomfortable pause. “Are you resigning?”

            “If you want me to.” Reen shook his head. Nyota stood up. “Alright, then. Let’s go. The kingdom won’t wait.”

            “Nyota.”

            “Yes, sire?”

            Reen could easily hear the chill in her voice. “I—I’m sorry. I said some things I shouldn’t have yesterday. I just want you to know, what you’re doing with this leopard, I don’t approve of it.” Nyota’s mouth became a firm line. Reen could see her jaws clench behind her lips. “But—but I won’t pry into it. What you do with your private life is your business, not mine.”

            “It’s good to know that, sire,” said Nyota, turning to leave again, her voice still frigid.

            “Nyota, we’ve been friends for longer than I remember,” said Reen, almost as a plea.

            Nyota turned around angrily. “You’ve said terrible things about me, sire. You want my respect again, you’re going to have to earn it again.” She stomped angrily off into the savannah. Reen sighed and hung his head. This would be another long day.

 

 

 

            Kecha couldn’t sleep. None of the hyenas could. Someone was obviously against them. Some had even started to believe something. Every night the killer struck, killing the hyenas he found. At first it had been only one a night. Hyenas began sleeping closer together. It made no difference to the killer. He killed regardless, eliminating all to make sure there were no witnesses.

            The tragedy couldn’t have come at a worse time. Almost all of the carcasses that the other predators had been leaving behind had disappeared. There were too many hyenas in Sanctuary to live just on what they could salvage from normal leftovers. Kecha herself had been driven to stealing food from other animals, driving them away from their kills so that she and her pups could eat.

            It had been days since Kecha had last eaten. Hunger had been her constant companion for too long. It had been her shadow long before the drying up of the food supply. But this was worse than the hunger before. Famine had taken up residence inside of her, screaming for nourishment. There wasn’t any to be found.

            Kecha felt a nuzzle by her head. “Mommy?”

            “Go to sleep, honey,” said Kecha, opening an eye to look at her daughter.

            “But Mommy, I’m hungry.”

            “I know. Just try to sleep.”

            “But Mommy, my tummy really hurts.”

            “Me, too Mom,” said her son from her other side.

            Kecha raised her head and stared at the two of them, then pulled them close for a hug. “I know you’re hungry. But we don’t have any food.”

            “But Mommy, I’m hungry,” her daughter protested.

            She’d heard the words too many times. It seemed to be all she heard now. She was sick and tired of hearing it. She was hungry, too. All of them were hungry. It took all of her self-control not to snap. She was tired, she was famished, and there was no end in sight for any of it. She couldn’t lash out at her pups. They didn’t know any better. It was hard enough just to look at them. It wasn’t the fact that their ribs showed plainly through their fur that brought tears to her eyes, nor was it that their spines were just as visible. It was that they had gone so far that she could even count the bones in their little paws.

            “Just go to sleep. We’ll eat in the morning,” she promised.

            “But you said that yesterday, Mommy.”

            “Mom, I’m hungry. It hurts.”

            “Both of you, go to sleep right now, or you won’t get any food at all!” snapped Kecha.

            The two pups looked at each other, horrified, then looked back up to their mother, tears in their eyes. “Mommy,” asked the girl quietly, “do you still love us?”

            Kecha was stunned by the question. “Of course I love you. Mommy just can’t find any food right now.” Kecha sighed. “Just go to sleep and Mommy will try to find some in the morning.”

            The two pups looked at each other. “Alright, Mom,” said the boy reluctantly. The two of them both lied down by their mother’s side.

            “You promise, Mommy?” asked her daughter.

            “I promise,” said Kecha. “Just try to sleep.”

            Eventually, the two pups’ breathing settled into a steady rhythm. Kecha, however hard she tried, couldn’t find her way into dreamland after them. Her stomach gnawed at her alongside her conscience. She felt terrible for yelling at her cubs. None of them were happy anymore, none of the hyenas. There wasn’t enough food, enough land. The species barrier only seemed to have heightened; animals who Kecha would have been able to talk freely to were now avoiding her at all costs.

            It would be perfectly understandable for this assassin, whoever they were, to go around killing as if it was nothing. The hyenas were practically driven to kill. But to massacre his fellow hyenas like that . . . they were suffering just as much as he was. His total was in the twenties after only two weeks, and still rising. Guilt and pain weren’t the only things that kept Kecha awake.

            But would it be so bad for the assassin to come to her and her pups one night? The misery she felt, the pain . . . she was dying slowly, and she knew it. All of them were, all of them starving. Not even the matriarchs ate well. She would have called it genocide if she didn’t know better. The assassin was only speeding up the inevitable. What if she felt her jaws on his neck, felt him strangling her to death? Her cubs would soon follow her. She didn’t know where to. She had stopped believing in Roh’kash long ago. Sweet oblivion would greet her. Her suffering would end. Her trials through this hell would be over.

            She wished, he delivered.

            If Sudi was surprised with the minimal resistance the hyena offered, he didn’t show it. He killed her quietly and efficiently. The pups followed soon after, neither one waking up until his jaws pierced their fur. By then it was too late. It was short work for him, routine work by now. He left the scene, looking for a waterhole. He didn’t want to endure their blood on his body longer than absolutely necessary.

 

 

 

            Reen waited patiently by Lymo’s home. It had been almost a half-hour. The leopard that had notified Lymo that Reen was here had come and gone. Finally Tiifu came forth, his tail held high, flicking agitatedly. The young leopard headed outside of the leopards’ territory, most likely to be with his friends.

            Lymo emerged a few seconds later. Reen was stunned by the leopard’s appearance; it seemed as if Lymo had aged several years overnight. His head and tail were hung low and his eyes looked tired and old. He stared after Tiifu for a few moments before finally noticing Reen. “Sire!” said Lymo in surprise. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting?”

            “Is this a bad time?”

            “There’s never a bad time for you, sire, I’ve told you. Come on, come on back.”

            Reen followed Lymo back to where he slept. “How’s Tiifu?”

            Lymo stiffened. “He’s—fine, sire.”

            Reen changed the subject. “And Ilya?”

            “She’s good. She’s out hunting.” Lymo smiled. It looked slightly hollow to Reen. “You wouldn’t believe the fuss she made about leaving those carcasses for the less fortunate. ‘If someone had thunk a’ this before, there wouldn’t be no problems.’”

            Reen smiled. “It’s nice to know she approves.”

            Lymo nodded. “It’s good to know that it’s finally gotten to the point we can stop.”

            “What?”

            “Haven’t the hyenas been better?”

            “They need it now more than ever. They’re on the brink of starvation, they’re being murdered . . .”

            “But we were told we could stop. Erevu said so himself.”

            “That doesn’t make any sense . . .” Reen shook his head. “I’m going to have to have a talk with my brother.”

            “Wouldn’t it be easier with just one of you?”

            “Sometimes I think so,” admitted Reen. He sighed. “We’ve even got a council meeting coming up and we don’t even have that stupid hunting law worked out yet.”

            “Hmm. Well, is Rayan coming along?”

            “No. He’s doing rounds today with Nyota.”

            “Alright then. Where were we . . .”

            “The life of Giza.”

            “Ah. Yes. Now, it’s difficult to know all the facts; there’s been so much that’s been exaggerated or just plain forgotten. . . .”

            The lecture went on. The fact that Lymo had managed to retain all of this information was amazing to Reen. He didn’t believe he would ever be capable of something like it. Most of the time he only walked away with the meaning of the lesson. History rarely stuck with Reen, even when his father had tried to teach him and Gymara.

            “. . . Now, what is most unknown about Giza is his death. For all we know, he could be alive today, several generations old. He wandered out into the desert, leaving no trace behind.”

            “But why would he do that?” asked Reen in confusion.

            “It’s a very good question. It turns out that Giza was never happy. I tried to explain this to Rayan, too. You see, he couldn’t find happiness anymore . . .”

            Lymo’s voice trailed off, Lymo staring off into space. Lymo’s faćade slowly faded, his eyes gaining that ancient look again. “Lymo?” said Reen gently, making the leopard jump. “Is everything alright?”

            “You have your own secrets, sire; I’d like to keep some of mine,” snapped Lymo. The leopard sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little tired—”

            “I understand,” said Reen.

            Lymo was silent for a moment, then continued: “So after Giza came Shetani . . .”

            The rest of the lesson was continued in silence, save for a few questions from Reen. By the time they had finished their prayers after the lesson, the sun had already traveled into late afternoon. Lymo walked with Reen to the edge of the leopards’ territory, both of them unusually quiet.

            “Lymo?” Reen finally said.

            “Yes?”

            “I know I can’t make you tell me anything, but if you ever need to talk . . .”

            “Thank you, Reen. It’s a generous offer—Prince Hatari? What brings you here?”
            “I could be asking my uncle the same thing,” said the adolescent lion, a slight smile on his face. “The leopards aren’t in your part of the kingdom.”

            “We were just talking—” said Lymo, but was cut off by Reen.

            “I just needed some religious counsel. Lymo here is good enough to provide it.”

            “How nice,” said Hatari. “Now where’s Erevu? I need to see him.”

            “He should be over there, sire,” said Lymo, pointing.

            “Fine.” Hatari moved on without another word.

            Lymo and Reen watched him. “Reen, I swear, the kingdom is going to hell when he rules.”

            “That is no way to talk about your prince,” rebuked Reen.

            Lymo looked up at Reen in surprise. “Sire, he’s unfit to rule, surely you see that.”

            Reen frowned. “I have had my doubts . . . but he’s the heir, just like Rayan.”

            “It’s a crying shame. . . . Well, good night, sire.”

            “It’s Reen.”

            “I know. But how else would I bug you?”

            “You’re impossible, Lymo.”

 

 

 

            The sun had nearly set by the time Reen had gotten back to the den. He had a few stops to make personally before he went back to the den. Rayan was learning, but Reen couldn’t expect him to do it all yet, not by a long shot. He was tired now, all he wanted to do was go to sleep.

            But first, Gymara.

            Reen walked to the den and saw Gymara walking out. “Gymara!” Gymara’s head snapped to Reen. “I need to talk to you.”

            “Oh, how nice,” said Gymara, looking none too pleased. “Are you going to do some explaining?”

            Reen’s brow furrowed. “I—look, Gymara, what’s this about stopping the food for the hyenas?”

            “Found that out, did you? Yes, I told them to stop it. They’re killing each other, I see no reason to drag it out.” Gymara made to walk away.

            “Gymara, I thought we agreed that we wouldn’t do anything until we asked each other.”

            Gymara turned around, angry. “This is my call, Reen. You’ve been avoiding me for the past three days—”

            “No, I haven’t!”

            “Bullshit. Every time I look for you, you’re gone. So I decided to take matters into my own mouth.”

            “Gymara, they need that food. They’re starving—”

            “They’re killing each other off, Reen. There’s a murderer out there, and it’s a hyena.”

            “You don’t know that—”

            “Who else would have a motive to start killing just hyenas, huh? Got an answer? Didn’t think so.”

            “Gymara, you can’t just decide to starve an entire species on the action of one individual!”

            “It’s temporary. They’re voting on it at the next council meeting.”

            “Gymara, they need that food. And you know just what is going to happen. You know how hard it was to even get the law made—”

            “Reen, just back off, and stay the hell out of my own business, got it? I can run my kingdom just fine.”

            Your kingdom?”

            “Yes, my kingdom. You can keep your greedy little paws off it.”

            “It’s not your kingdom, it’s ours—”

            “The cheetahs are mine!” snarled Gymara. “There was no reason for you to even go and take it—”

            Sudiyour advisor—told me to!”

            “Bullshit.”

            “Damn it, stop being such a stuck-up ass and actually listen!”

            “Oh, now I’m being an ass? Look at you, you took my cheetahs, and now you’re taking my leopards, too?”

            “I go there for reasons of my own!”

            Gymara snorted. “‘Religious’ reasons?”

            “Yes!”

            “Beasts like you don’t follow any religion,” said Gymara, turning away again.

            “Don’t you walk away! I’m not finished with you yet!”

            “Oh, screw you Reen.”

            What?!

            “You heard me, high and mighty asshole. You can take your religion and your lies and all that other shit and stuff it up your ass.”

            “Gymara!” Gymara continued to walk away. “Gymara!” Reen ran after him and put himself in front of Gymara. “You have no right to say anything like that?”

            “Why, whatcha gonna do about it? Cry about it to your little freak son and your dead mate?”

            Reen lost it. He hit Gymara across the face as hard as he could. “Don’t you dare talk—”

            Reen was cut off as Gymara hit him back, knocking him to the ground. Reen looked up just in time to receive another blow across the face. Before he knew it, the two kings were in an all-out brawl, grappling with each other, biting and scratching wherever they could.

            Reen finally landed on his back and was getting the worst of it as Gymara hit him repeatedly across the face when Gymara was suddenly hauled off of him. “What do you think you’re doing?!” It was Adhima. Reen looked up, his vision blurred slightly, just in time to see Adhima cuff Gymara on the shoulder. “We have enough trouble with catfights, we don’t need you two going at it, too!”

            “But he—”

            “I don’t care! Get in that den now!” Gymara hesitated. “Now!” Gymara sullenly walked into the den, glancing back at Reen as he did.

            Reen laid his head back down on the ground. “Thank you.”

            “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Reen?” demanded Adhima.

            “I—look, there was a little misunderstanding—”

            “You two were beating the crap out of each other, don’t give me that. How do you think Unir would have felt if she saw that? Hmm? It’s a fine way to set an example for your son, brawling out here in front of the whole kingdom, and with your brother, no less. None of us need this, Reen.”

            “It was just a little fight.”

            “How many ‘little fights’ have you had with Gymara? I can count them on a pawful of digits. Don’t try to tell me that. Gymara’s having a hard enough time as it is. Seeing my own mate fighting out here with his brother like a couple of beasts . . .” Adhima sighed. “Look, I know I’m not your mate. But do you think this is what Unir would want? I can’t do anything to you, but Gymara is going to get it bad. Think about that.”

            Without another word, Adhima turned and walked into the den. A few minutes later, Reen could hear heated yelling. He moved away from the den.

 

 

 

            “Relax,” said Nyota with a smile. “You’ll do fine.”

            “I—I can’t relax, I can’t stop fidgeting, I—ma’am, I’m so nervous—”

            “Shaka, relax,” said Nyota. “This meeting is for you. You don’t have to worry about respect or anything like that; you’re a delegate, for Aiheu’s sake.”

            “Ma’am, I just ain’t no good at orating and talking and stuff like that.”

            “You’ve memorized the whole thing. Just spew it all out. It’ll be fine.”

            “I’m just worried—”

            “Shaka.”

            “Yes, ma’am?”

            Relax. That’s an order.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            Nyota grinned. “Come on, be happy. It’ll all be fine.”

            “I’ll be sitting right next to—to King Gymara, won’t I?”

            “Reen, actually. Don’t worry. It’ll be over, soon. It’s bound to pass, if you’ll just—stop—worrying.”

            Shaka took a deep breath. “Alright.”

            “You think you can handle yourself?”

            “Ma’am—”

            “Great. I’ll be over behind Reen. Remember, though, I can’t talk.”

            “But ma’am, if I forget—”

            “Just look over at me,” said Nyota with a reassuring smile. She gave Shaka a comforting nuzzle, then walked over behind the Throne, yet in front of the lions’ den. She saw the hyena staring at her, then turning back to look around the circle of delegates. She could see him shaking. She smiled. He’d do fine, she knew it.

            Her eye was caught by the arrival of the last few delegates. Sudi and Mwovu, the cheetah delegate, were among them. The two cheetahs were quietly conversing. Nyota watched Sudi escort Mwovu to his place, exchange a few last words, and then head over toward her.

            “Good morning, Nyota,” said Sudi with a friendly smile. Nyota didn’t return it. “Oh, come now, you look as if I’ve eaten your cub.”

            “Sudi, just shut up and sit down.”

            Sudi frowned and lied down next to her. “Temper, temper. I see the hyena is still going through with it.” He glanced over at Nyota. “Should be a rather interesting thing, seeing words come out of an animal like that. He looks as if he’s going to piss himself.”

            Nyota was cut off from her profane remark as the shaman suddenly called, “All rise!” The animals rose. King Reen and King Gymara came forward with their two sons, the four of them sitting in front of the Throne. They sat, and then the shaman called, “You may be seated.” The rest of the animals sat. The shaman looked over at the lions for a moment, then said, “The first to speak—the lions.”

            King Gymara looked over at King Reen, who nodded. King Gymara opened his mouth to speak but was suddenly cut off by King Reen: “The laws proposed during the last meeting have been enacted—save for the law for the conservation of prey.” The various species of prey looked around at each other. “It is the kings’ opinion that such a law would only disturb the already-delicate ecosystem. Does the council wish to put it to a vote?”

            “Yes!” said an indignant wildebeest.

            King Reen looked over at the shaman. “All animals for the passing of the law proposed by the former antelope delegate Jabari during the council meeting of the fifth year, third month, and twenty-seventh day of the reign of King Reen and King Gymara—” The shaman paused for breath. “—on the subject of limiting the predatory species of Sanctuary to hunting only specific prey, say aye.”

            “Aye!”

            “Those opposed, nay.”

            NAY!

            “The law is destroyed. Is there any further business for the lions?” asked the shaman.

            “We have no complaints,” said King Reen.

            “Very well. The next to speak—the hyenas.”

            All eyes turned to Shaka. There was dead silence for a few moments before Shaka finally stood and spoke. At least his shaking is better, thought Nyota.

            “F-fellow delegates,” began Shaka, “I—uh, I have come to you, on the part of all of the hyenas in Sanctuary, to ask for your help. We’re—we’re starving. There ain’t near enough food to go around any more, we’re dying every day, and we—”

            “Shaman, ma’am.” Shaka’s head turned. It was Mwovu who had spoken.

            The shaman looked over at Shaka. “Does the hyena delegate wish to yield to the cheetah delegate?”

            “Uh . . . sure, I s’pose.” Shaka looked over at Nyota to see her shaking her head vigorously. “Uh—I—”

            “You may proceed, delegate,” said the shaman.

            “Delegates,” said Mwovu, placing himself in the middle of circle, “I have the unfortunate task of being the bearer of bad news. I have come upon evidence that I wholeheartedly wish was not true. I regret to inform you that our fellow delegate, Shaka, is unfit to address this prestigious body. My fellow delegates, this hyena is a murderer.”

 

 

 

Fury said to a mouse

That he met in the house,

“Let us both go to law:

I will prosecute you.—

Come I’ll take no denial:

We must have the trial;

For really this morning

I’ve nothing to do.

Said the mouse to the cur,

“Such a trial, dear sir.

With no jury or judge,

Would be wasting our breath.

“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,”

Said the cunning old Fury:

“I’ll try the whole cause

And condemn you to death.

                                                Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

            There was a stunned silence. Shaka burst out angrily, “Well that just ain’t true! I ain’t never killed—”

            “My fellow delegates, my friends, if you will let me, I was just as shocked to learn of this as you were,” continued Mwovu. “He has been in a unique position of power, and because he saw fit to do so, has abused it grievously. For weeks he has preyed on his fellow hyenas—his own kind—and has—”

            “That ain’t true!” protested Shaka.

            “You do not have the council’s attention, delegate,” said the shaman. An icy tone had slipped into her impartial voice. “Remain silent.”

            “As you can see,” continued Mwovu smoothly, “our fellow delegate states that these claims aren’t true. But I have proof, undeniable proof—and I charge him, here, before all of you, as guilty of the murders of his hyena brethren.”

            There was a moment of silence, then King Gymara said, “Sudi, Nyota.” The two cheetahs stepped forward. “Escort the hyena to the sick den. Put him under guard.”

            “Yes, sire,” the two of them said tonelessly.

            “Wait just one second, I ain’t done nothin’ wrong—”

            “The accused will remain silent,” said the shaman. “As of this point, he is stripped of all privileges as delegate to the Animal Council, save during his trial. Escort him to his place of imprisonment.”

            “Hold on—” Shaka stopped talking as Nyota nudged him. He silently frowned, then followed her out of the circle of delegates, Sudi following behind him. It wasn’t until they reached the sick den that any of them spoke again.

            “Kaata,” said Nyota gently.

            The lioness looked up. “What?”

            “Um . . . well, we’re going to need to use this den for a couple of days. A few minor issues to be sorted out.” Sudi snorted in derision.

            “I see,” said Kaata, her tone becoming much like the shaman’s as she looked at Shaka distastefully. She got up and walked out of the den. Sudi roughly shoved Shaka inside.

            “Hey, there’s no need for that!” said Shaka angrily.

            “Silence, prisoner.”

            Nyota cuffed Sudi on the shoulder, hard. “Don’t be an asshole.”

            “He’s murdered—”

            “We both know that isn’t true. So if you think you can handle shutting up and staying still for a few minutes, I’m going to get a couple of lionesses over here, mmkay? Good.” Nyota left.

            Shaka stared up at Sudi. “I didn’t—”

            “Don’t you even think about trying anything, murderer,” snarled Sudi. “Believe me when I say I would enjoy ripping out your throat.”

            “Sudi, I didn’t do it.”

            “That’s for the council to decide.”

 

 

 

            The lionesses walked up as Nyota walked into the den. “Okay girls, I’ve got a big, scary serial killer in the sick den. Who wants to stand guard?”

            “They finally caught the one behind—” began a lioness.

            “Okay, look, he didn’t do it. So put that out of your head. As a matter of fact, you’re deputized. Alright, one more,” said Nyota, the lioness spluttering in protest.

            “Is he nice?” asked one of the older lionesses, Raja.

            “Nice enough.”

            “Alright. I’ll do it.”

            “Good. You two, follow me. Adhima, go ahead and organize a watch.”

            “Will do.” The two lionesses followed Nyota out of the cave, Raja pausing every few steps to push the protesting younger lioness’s rump. When they arrived outside the sick den, Nyota said to the lioness, “Okay, I don’t want to hear any more complaining. This isn’t going to ruin your life. Look at him. He’s harmless. Say hi to the nice lioness, Shaka.”

            “Uh, hello, ma’am . . .”

            “There, you see? Just sit your butt down, and stay there. He won’t do anything.”

            “But what if he tries to—”

            “He’s a hyena. They respect female authority. And as the authority, deal with it. Sit down and shut up, lioness.”

            “I have a name.”

            “I could care less. Sudi, let’s go.” Nyota turned, then looked back. Sudi was still staring at Shaka. “Now, Sudi.” The cheetah slowly got up and followed Nyota back to the council meeting.

            “You know,” he said quietly, “the penalty for murder is death.”

            “He’s not guilty. He’ll be fine.”

            “Will he?”

            “Sudi, shut up.”

            The two of them sat down quietly behind the two kings. “You know,” said Sudi quietly as the two of them observed the antelope delegate now speaking, “I know what you do when you’re like this. You’re not thinking. You can’t think. You know he’s going to die—”

            “Shut up.”

            “You don’t want to think about it, but you know I’m right. You know he can’t get out of that long walk off that awfully short cliff—”

            “Sudi?”

            “Yes?”

            “One of these days, I’m going to remember just why I hate you so damn much, and I am going to rip out that tongue of yours, tear it to little bitty shreds, and piss on it. That day could very well be today.”

            “And now, of course, you’re angry. Very angry. You don’t like thinking about it.”

            “He’ll get off. Shut up and watch the meeting.”

            Sudi smiled complacently and turned his view back to the meeting in front of him. The arguments were few; those that did happen were short. All were looking forward to tomorrow, none of them wanted to remain here today. After all, who would want to waste time here today when tomorrow they could see an execution?

 

 

 

            Nyota walked to the sick den that evening. She knew it could be a long night. She nodded at the two lionesses that were guarding Shaka, now Chache and Adhima. “Evening, ladies. How’s the evil murderer?”

            “Pretty quiet,” said Adhima. “He makes a pretty stirring defense when he wants to.”

            “Which is . . .”

            “‘I didn’t do it.’”

            Nyota sighed and looked over at Shaka. He was asleep. “Would you two mind escorting him down to the waterhole with me?”

            “Not at all,” said Chache. Nyota turned to Shaka and shook him awake gently.

            “Whassit—Nyota?”

            “I’m gonna take you for a little walk, okay, Shaka?”

            Shaka yawned. “I ain’t been this still for months. Sure. Where to?”

            “The waterhole. Come on, let’s go.” The two of them started off, the two lionesses following them at a respectful distance. Shaka was silent. “You know what they’re going to do to you?” asked Nyota.

            “Execute me.”

            “I meant a little more immediately,” said Nyota. “Like tomorrow?”

            “Ain’t they gonna kill me tomorrow?”

            “No. That’ll be the day after, unless by some miracle there’s hours to spare after the trial tomorrow. But it won’t come to that. Tomorrow you get to make your case.”

            “I’ve told ’em I’m innocent.”

            “It’ll take a little more than that. You know the law.”

            “‘Guilty until proven innocent.’” Shaka sighed. “It just makes no sense for it to be that way. I didn’t do nothing and I . . . I ain’t even gonna be able to see Teya again.”

            “She can visit you.”

            “Then why ain’t she come yet?”

            Nyota didn’t have an answer. She changed the subject. “But yes, you’re guilty until proven innocent. Long story behind that, but we aren’t exactly waiting endlessly. I’ll explain it after we’re done with this whole thing.”

            “But how could they even said I did something like that?”

            “Sudi had a part in it.”

            Shaka turned his head, shock on his face. “Sudi wouldn’t do nothing like that!”

            “Well, he did.”

            “No, Sudi wouldn’t have done that, we’re friends!”

            Nyota sighed. “Well look, someone did it. It doesn’t really matter who did it anymore. The point is, they just don’t want you to get out of it.”

            “Ma’am, I didn’t do it, I swear—”

            “Shaka, I know. But you’re going to have to convince all of them.” They reached the waterhole and Nyota sat down. “They’re going to have evidence against you.”

            “But I didn’t do nothing! How’re they supposed to—”

            “They’ll have it. They’ll lie through their teeth if they have to.”

            “But why?”

            “They—they just don’t want you bothering them. They like things the way they are now. Even if it means hyenas have to starve.”

            “Ma’am, that just ain’t right!”

            “You can worry about that later. Right now your own neck’s on the line.”

            “Ma’am, I didn’t do nothing!”

            “Shaka,” said Nyota, annoyance entering her voice, “I know you didn’t do anything. I’ve got that. But you have to realize that some animals don’t want you to live past tomorrow.”

            Shaka looked down at the lake. “All I wanted to do was help. I never meant for this to happen.”

            “Shaka, it’s not your fault. You have to remember that. Whatever they may say tomorrow, it’s not your fault. They’re going to make you look like you’ve done things you didn’t do, they’re going to try to discredit you in any way they can, and the sad thing is it’s probably going to work. You need to convince them otherwise.”

            “But how am I supposed to do that, ma’am?”

            “Well, I’ve got a night to coach you on that,” said Nyota with a smile. “Maybe two, if they drag it out long enough. You’re not beat yet, Shaka. You’re going to get off, I promise.”

            Shaka smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.”

            “Now let’s get to work.”

 

 

 

            The presentations from the opposition started the next day. Prince Rayan sat by his father, alongside Hatari, the two of them sitting just outside the circle. They weren’t the only spectators; animals of almost every race had turned out for the trial. As Prince Rayan scanned the crowd, he saw, curiously enough, Tiifu sitting alongside a few other older leopards. What he also found strange was that there were very few hyenas; Prince Rayan could count them on one paw. What Shaka knew but Prince Rayan didn’t was that Teya, Shaka’s mate, was completely absent.

            Nyota sat behind Shaka, and several times had to swipe at his tail to keep him from speaking. He could only listen as Mwovu presented his “witnesses;” there was nothing he could say until he was allowed to speak. Several animals had apparently seen Shaka murdering his fellow hyenas, and all of them had been so intimidated by the sight of it that they had refused to speak about it until they had assurances that Shaka would trouble them no more. Only one animal had spoken in Shaka’s defense.

            “State your name and species,” said the shaman tonelessly.

            “Shetani. I’m a hyena.”

            Mwovu stepped forward. “What is your relation to Shaka?”

            “I’m matriarch of his clan.”

            “And that’s the only relation?”

            The hyena hesitated. “I’m his mother,” she said reluctantly. “But that counts for nothing for males—”

            “Please, just answer the questions asked,” said Mwovu with a kind smile. “Just the information asked for.”

            The matriarch glared for a moment, then said coldly, “Of course.”

            “How well do you know Shaka?”

            “Very.”

            “A little more information than that, please.”

            “He is my son. I raised him, I fed him, I did everything any mother would do for her cub. Then as soon as he reached maturity, I put him outside my family.”

            “Why would you do that?”

            “It’s hyenic custom. We have a strange notion that if you actually think with your head instead of your balls, your species might actually go somewhere.” Nyota grinned, and saw the shaman not quite suppressing a smile. They were the only two other females at the trial.

            “I—see,” said Mwovu. “Now, what do you think possessed Shaka to commit murder.”

            “He didn’t kill anyone.”

            “But there is practically enough evidence that proves otherwise to fill the desert.”

            “Not one animal who has come here and said that Shaka killed anyone has spoken the truth.”

            “Putting your beliefs to the side for a moment, if Shaka did kill anyone, what reason would he have for it?”

            “None whatsoever.”

            “No motive at all?”

            “No.”

            “Now, you say you put him out of your family, what exactly does that mean?”

            “He no longer ate from my carcass. He slept away from me. It’s considered degrading for a high-level bitch to consort with the common dogs all that often.”

            “But Shaka is a delegate of the Animal Council. Surely that merits—”

            “He received his privileges when he joined. He still has them.”

            “And what might those privileges be?”

            “He can request an audience with me at any time.”

            “That’s it?”

            “Please understand when I say that we hyenas aren’t too trusting of the Animal Council. We all tend to have our own best interests in mind, don’t we?”

            “So his nomination meant nothing to you?”

            “It meant less than it most likely does to most species.”

            “So,” said Mwovu, “you didn’t quite come to know him that much more since he joined?”

            The matriarch was silent.

            Mwovu turned to the shaman. “You must answer the question,” the shaman said.

            The matriarch looked around at the council before saying firmly, “I know Shaka didn’t kill anyone.”

            “Even though you barely see him?”

            “Yes.”

            “Thank you. You may leave.” The matriarch stood up and joined the other hyenas that were watching. “Shaman, ma’am, I have just one more testimony I’d like to call,” Mwovu said. The shaman nodded. Mwovu turned to the royals. “Sudi,” he said, “if you would come forward please.”

            The cheetah came forward, his face blank and emotionless. Nyota could see the hint of a smile as he passed by Mwovu and sat down in the center of the circle of delegates. “State your name and species,” said the shaman tonelessly.

            “Sudi. Cheetah.”

            “Thank you,” said Mwovu. “Now, how do you know Shaka?”

            “King Gymara entrusted Shaka to my care when he was named as the hyena delegate after Ulu passed away, gods rest his soul. He was one of my closest friends on the council; if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be where I was today. So, naturally, when Gymara told me that Shaka was Ulu’s protégé, I naturally jumped at the chance to tutor him.”

            “How did that work out?”

            “Honestly, I think Shaka knows more of Sanctuary’s law than any other animal on the council. He has an amazing memory. He picked up the law at a simply amazing speed. He can recite a good majority of it. He was a very good pupil.”

            “I’m sure he had an excellent teacher,” said Mwovu with a smile. “So tell me, do you think Shaka could have actually committed murder?”

            Sudi’s smile slid off his face. “I—I never would have believed it.”

            “But do you think he did it?”

            Sudi shook his head sadly. “I don’t want to, but look at all of the evidence that’s piled up against him. Five sightings of him committing brutal, ruthless acts—killing hyena pups, even, right before their mothers’ eyes. It seemed uncharacteristic of Shaka, but now . . . well, there just seem to be so many—well I hate to call them character flaws, but I can’t think of any other word.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Well, Shaka is an amazingly persistent animal. If he doesn’t have it his way, he’ll keep pushing and pushing and pushing. He becomes angry, even if he doesn’t see that things are how he wants them. He normally seems to be very nice, very gentle even—but those few times when I was alone with him—well, I wasn’t the most forgiving mentor. But I knew when he felt I’d gone too far. That look in his eyes . . . it chilled me to the bone.”

            “You never had any idea of his actions against his fellow hyenas?”

            “None. Never. Although . . . yes, looking back. It was right after the very first killing. He came up to me, and practically begged me to tell the king about it. He said it was urgent, that someone had been murdered. Naturally, I was concerned, and asked him if he’d done anything. He said that he hadn’t, and he insisted on seeing the king. That was what puzzled me most: he didn’t want his own clan to look into the matter at all; he went straight to King Gymara, one of the animals least likely to find anything wrong. Granted, he’d know there was a murder, but how could the king possibly know it?” Sudi paused, his brow furrowing. “You know, I do recall . . . the first hyena was killed differently, Shaka told me that. He said ‘we don’t snap necks’ or something like that. But after that, they were all killed the hyenic way, strangling, weren’t they?”

            “Are you sure he told you that?” asked Mwovu.

            “Yes. Yes, quite sure.”

            “Is it possible that he gave up on making it look like another species only after you pointed out the futility of the king being able to point out a murderer.”

            “It’s . . . possible.”

            “Do you think he could have been planning to frame the murders on someone else?”

            Sudi stared at the ground, frowning. “I never would have thought it . . . but yes. He could have. He’s quite brilliant. I just never would have thought that he would have misused all of that talent in—such an awful way . . .” Sudi’s voice died down to a whisper.

            “You can step down now,” said Mwovu gently. Sudi nodded mutely and walked to where he had been sitting, behind King Gymara and Prince Hatari. “Shaman, ma’am, I have nothing further to present as of now.”

            “Step down,” said the shaman. Mwovu left the center and walked to his empty spot in the circle. The shaman turned to Shaka. “The accused may speak now.”

            Nyota gently jabbed Shaka in the rear. He stood up and nervously walked to the center, looking around at the delegates. All of them stared back at him, their faces stern and unforgiving. He swallowed nervously. “I . . . I just came here today to say . . . well, I didn’t kill no one. And—and I don’t care how long it takes, I’m gonna stay here and convince everyone of it. I had a few lessons last night, and—well, I know I can hold this council until Roh’kash herself comes down and sweeps us all away. And that’s what I’m gonna do!”

            Groans went around the group of delegates. Most of them stood up and began to walk away. Shaka looked over at Nyota, who nodded at the shaman frantically. “Shaman!” said Shaka, practically yelling. All of the animals stopped at the bark. Shaka looked around, surprised by the volume of his outburst himself. He added, much more quietly, “Ma’am.” He glanced around one more time and added, “I request an audience.”

            The delegates that had been leaving sighed in exasperation and walked back to the circle. Shaka looked around at the delegates, none of them staring kindly at him at all now. “Well, I guess I got your attention.”

            “Shaman, ma’am,” said Mwovu.

            “Will the accused yield to the cheetah delegate?” asked the shaman.

            Shaka looked over at Nyota. “Only—only for questions.”

            “Very well,” said Mwovu. “Why do you insist on holding up this dignified body with what is undoubtedly a very well rehearsed lie? We do not have time for—”

            “The reason I’m doing this is ’cause I’m innocent, and none of you will listen! Alright then, if you won’t give me your time, I’ll make you give it to me! Because I swear to you, all of you, I’m innocent, and no amount of lies or corruption or nothin’ is gonna stop me from convincing you of that, all of you. I’ll stay here and talk as long as it takes!”

            Shaka looked around at all of the animals, then said, “And as my first proof: the Proclamation of the Creation of the Government of Sanctuary.” He took a breath. “‘We, the animals who reside in the land known as Sanctuary . . .”

            Prince Rayan watched him. He knew the basic principles of the Proclamation, but he’d never actually heard the entire Proclamation word for word before; very, very few animals knew it. That didn’t mean it wasn’t boring. Surprisingly, Shaka didn’t just stand there reciting; he moved about freely, as if it was something he had imprinted on his heart. Still, Prince Rayan felt his attention wandering.

            Fortunately, something a little more interesting happened a few minutes later; Mwovu stood up and walked around the ring of delegates, tapping or nudging seemingly random ones. The delegates that he singled out walked out of the circle, and congregated away from the trial and the spectators. It continued until Mwovu had exactly half of the delegates out of the circle. Shaka went on, either ignoring it, or unable to focus on anything but reciting.

            Prince Rayan watched the group Mwovu had assembled for a few minutes, but their voices were so low he was unable to hear anything. After a few moments, his attention wandered back to Shaka. A few moments later, he, along with many, many of all the animals present, had lied down.

 

 

 

            “Well, I’m sure all of you know what’s going on,” said Mwovu. “He’s going to try to persuade enough idiots to save his neck. So we’ll just have to wait him out. All night if it takes us.”

            “It’s not going to take that long, is it?” asked Erevu, the leopard delegate.

            “He’s a desperate animal. He’s going to talk our ears off if he gets half the chance, and apparently he’s smart enough to know he has it now. Just wait him out. Don’t listen to his lies. Just wait him out.”

 

 

 

            Night fell. Shaka continued to talk. All of the animals knew the rules by now. So long as Shaka remained standing or sitting, he could talk as long as he wished. If he stopped talking or lied down, then the tirade was over. Usually when this happened, animals talked for hours, stopping near the beginning or middle of the night. Shaka plowed right through it.

            The spectators left as night came on. A few of the more interested ones stayed and watched, but most of them fell asleep. Nyota herself had trouble staying awake. The council had begun a series of watches, relieving the delegates that had been listening in boredom with new delegates, with fresh strength to ignore.

            Shaka ignored their feigned lack of interest just as easily as they ignored him. He talked to them from the center of the circle, addressing all of them not as delegates, but as animals. He did all he could to get them to show some sign of listening. Only the two kings stayed the entire time; the rest of the delegates left as soon as they had been relieved, plainly happy to get away.

            Yet Shaka was far from happy. He was understandably irritated by the lack of attention. Sometime between midnight and early morning he let out a loud, hyenic “ooo-wup!” All of the heads jerked awake. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought a few of you might’ve actually been listening there for a bit.” The animals turned away again in annoyance. Shaka sighed. “Look, I’m sorry guys, I really don’t know what I’m doing here. I shouldn’t be here, I—well, let’s face it, I’m not meant for office. I don’t have the background, or the status or prestige or whatever you want to call it. And I certainly don’t have the ethics for it. I can’t stomach what half of you do on a daily basis. I know that’s my problem. If I’d been a decent, corrupt politician like the rest of you, well, none of this would’ve ever happened. I’d be back at my home, starving like everyone else, hoping for someone to take a stand . . . and all of you would be back at your homes, sleeping, not a care in the world. And it’s gonna be that way for a mighty long time unless someone does something! Unless someone shows you what’s going to happen, you’re still gonna go to sleep, every night, sleeping happily while the world burns! But you can’t see if they turn away everyone who tries to show you. Not if all the animals who try to show you are killed for just speaking up.”

            The speech went on. Day broke, only to find Shaka still talking. The delegates switched again. Spectators came once again to watch the spectacle, more this time, to watch the hyena flounder to save his neck. It wasn’t until the sun was high in the sky once again that all of the delegates returned.

 

 

 

            “They’re muttering,” said Sudi. “And do you know what they’re saying? They’re wanting to believe him—”

            “The spectators don’t count,” said Mwovu sharply.

            “They don’t, do they? You think none of those idiots in the circle are going to be swayed by that mob’s opinion? That runt has been talking for a day now—”

            “Almost a day—”

            “Don’t bother with semantics. They aren’t going to save you. What will save you is finding something that will change public opinion, something that will make everyone just stand in shock and horror and want to rip him to shreds. Or do the next best thing and make him out to be an adulterer, or something like that. Getting caught getting a blowjob—”

            “Are you listening to yourself?” asked Mwovu incredulously.

            “I’m rambling, I know that,” said Sudi. He turned and looked back at the circle. Shaka continued to talk, no matter what the number. Still more animals had come; there was a veritable crowd now. “We’re going down,” said Sudi. “Or rather, you are. Your career will be finished. No more politics, no more pull, no more ‘take my virgin daughter and pass this law while you’re at it.’”

            “Actually, I’ve never been offered that.”

            “Non-virgin?”

            “Maybe.”

            The two of them were quiet. “You’d better do something,” said Sudi, “and damned fast.”

            Mwovu frowned. “I’ll think of something. He’ll be convicted.”

 

 

 

            Nyota watched the events, completely exhausted herself. Her boyfriend had been nice enough to drop by with some meat for the two of them. Shaka, however, had gone entirely without food, or even water, yet still he was talking. She hoped he hadn’t noticed that she’d nodded off through the night.

            She didn’t know how he was doing it. Strike that, she did; death was a very powerful motive. But she never thought anyone would be, or even could be, talking this long. His tongue hung out as he panted, the heat unbearable. His voice had been gripped by hoarseness, and he staggered around the circle, his legs weary from standing. He refused to sit.

            She didn’t know when he should stop any more than he did. Only when there wasn’t a doubt in any of their minds of what the truth really was, only then could he rest easy. It was torture, watching stand there, flailing about for a hold in their minds to prove himself. In the back of her mind constantly lurked the fear of him breaking under the pressure, snapping like a twig.

            “Nyota!”

            “Huh?” She turned to see her boyfriend next to her.

            “I asked if you wanted to get a drink,” he said quietly.

            “No, don’t worry about me, I’m fine.” She turned back to Shaka.

            “I can keep watch just as well as you. Just take a quick break.”

            “No, I’m fine.”

            “You’ve been lying out in the sun all day.”

            “I’m fine. Just shut up.”

            Her boyfriend frowned, then sighed. “He’ll get off.” Nyota said nothing.

            “Enjoying the show?” Nyota and the leopard looked up to see Sudi. “There’s a bet going on for how long it’s going to take to shut him up. Want in?”

            “Go away, Sudi,” said Nyota.

            “That’s rather rude.” He lied down next to her and looked over Nyota’s head. “And who’s he?”

            “My boyfriend.”

            “Ah. You could do better.”

            Nyota turned to Sudi testily. “I will end you.”

            “Touchy, aren’t we?”

            “I’ll help,” offered Nyota’s boyfriend.

            “Really, you don’t think he has a chance, do you?” said Sudi, ignoring the leopard’s remark. “He’s cutting his life shorter with every word. You don’t really expect phwoar—oh—oh, I needed those . . .”

            “Shut up, Sudi,” said Nyota. “You’re making a scene.”

            “You bitch . . .”

            “Hey, it’s what I do.”

 

 

 

            “Teya?” The hyena looked up from her two sons playing. “There’s a cheetah here to see you.”

            “Um . . . okay . . . send him over here, I guess.” Teya looked around her little clearing self-consciously as the hyena went to fetch the cheetah. It didn’t look that bad, for having two sons, a male, and a female hyena living in such a small space. The hole near the edge where they cached their food was empty; it had been weeks since it had been used, there had never been enough to merit using it. A few bones were scattered around, but other than that, it looked rather tidy.

            “Ma’am.” Teya looked up to see a cheetah entering into her clearing, the grass neatly closing after him, closing the area again. It was anything but soundproof, however, Teya knew that. Unfortunately, the cheetah seemed to fill a great deal of the area, being much bigger than a hyena, and even somewhat large for a cheetah. The cheetah lied down, his head being roughly at Teya’s level.

            “Hello,” said Teya. Her two pups stepped behind her instinctively.

            “You must be Teya. My name is Mwovu.”

            Teya’s pleasant smile slowly faded. She turned to her cubs. “Boys, would you go out to see Shetani?” The two half-pups left the clearing reluctantly. Teya turned to Mwovu, her eyes cold. “You’re the one who accused my husband.”

            “Guilty, I’m afraid. And so is he, apparently.”

            “You framed him!”

            “Nobody can prove that. Not even I can, although I know it probably isn’t true. You see, I’m just doing as I’m told. For all I know, I could be bringing a criminal to justice—though I very much doubt it.”

            “I want you to leave! Now!

            “Why aren’t you at the trial with your mate?”

            The statement caught Teya off-guard. “I . . .”

            “You know, he’s been talking for an entire day now. And I really don’t know if he can hold out much longer. Wouldn’t you like to be there when he falls flat on his face?” Tama glared at Mwovu angrily. “I’m sorry, it’s rude of me to be saying these kinds of things in front of his pups. I just have a small favor to ask of you.”

            “Go to hell, asshole.”

            “Well, I—Shaka would never say anything like that.”

            “My better half. Now get out of here.”

            “I simply need to borrow one of your sons. Either one, I’m not picky. A talker, preferably. Now, if you’ll lend me the use of one with instructions to do exactly as I say—they do follow their parents’ orders, don’t they?”

            Tama said nothing.

            Mwovu smiled. “You don’t plan on letting me have one, do you?”

            “Over my rotting corpse.”

            “No, that’s more of Shaka’s thing.”

            “Get out now!

            “Let me make myself abundantly clear. I am between a rock and a hard place, the hard place being simply my political neck—maybe even my real one if I botch things up enough, because the animal employing me has made clear to me that the only possible verdict must be guilty. The rock, however, is you. Fortunately, though, rocks can be broken, they can be shattered—if the right methods are used. I have a job to do—doing whatever dirty, filthy job I’m approached with by certain animals. Currently, that is reducing your husband to a murdering, lusting, villainous, traitorous piece of shit, and I thought that I had done a rather good job of it until he started talking, because damn, does he love to talk. Talk someone’s ear off if given half the chance, as I’m sure you well know. And you see, that is where you come in. You have a job to be a hyena. Currently hyenas are being slaughtered, and by the aforementioned slice of excrement.”

            “You know—”

            “I’m talking, bitch. You aren’t. You are going to help me, however, because you see, if you don’t, I’m going to be forced to say a few things to what must be by now half the animals in Sanctuary. You see, he’s rather had his back turned on him by the hyenas, hasn’t he? Only five have attended the trial at all. Why would they turn their back on someone who tried to help them so much? And then not even you have come to the trial. And it’s rather well-known what’s going on between the two of you, or rather isn’t. After all, how much time does a killer running around at night have to spend making love to his mate? Of course, I’m sure I could find some hyena slut who, for just a little food, would easily testify about how he always came over to find comfort in her instead of you. There is also the matter of scarfing down as much food as he can get his paws on, and almost never bringing any home to his mate and cubs. He’s looking awfully well for a hyena, isn’t he? Rather well-fed, rather happy, going against the grain of all of you starved, miserable, inconsolable wretches that the kingdom sees you to be.”

            Mwovu paused to smile at Teya’s face that had become contorted by fury. “You give me one of your pups, and none of that need be said. You will be fed for it, of course, and will be fed comfortably for the rest of your life, the same for your two pups. Don’t, and I will crush his character so thoroughly, he’ll believe he’s done the things I’ve said he’s done and more—and you’ll wish you’d never been married to him.” Teya glared at him. “The animal that runs this kingdom—the real ruler—could have picked almost any animal on the council to do this. He picked me. Don’t doubt what I can do. Do I make myself clear?”

            “More than clear. Transparent.”

 

 

 

            It was mid-afternoon. The crowd had finally gone silent, simply listening to Shaka’s words. Nyota knew anything could happen now.

            “I know,” he said in barely a whisper, “that you’ve listened to me for a long time. I know that you’ve been forced to sit through this while I just go on and on and on. And I’m sorry I’ve put you through this. I know you’re decent animals, I know you shouldn’t be forced to sit here, partaking in a lie. But I’m not going to go down, not until I’ve said my piece, all of it, every last word of it. Look out there! Just look out there. This is Sanctuary. Shouldn’t a kingdom live up to its name? Shouldn’t we be free of all the lies and falsehoods and evils that threaten to destroy integrity? Fight for justice! Fight for life to be clean and pure and good, as it was meant to be! We pride ourselves on being rational, on being animals, not beasts. We don’t kill needlessly, or rape or indulge in stupid, wanton acts of destruction like they used to. We’re better than that. We’re more than that. But here we are, doing it again, over and over. Look at the hyenas. Starving, because kindness and goodwill are being stifled. Look at the cheetahs, and the leopards, look at them, beating each other around and for what reason? Because two of them have managed to find something special, something sacred, and it’s seen as wrong and corrupt! Look at the animals of prey, being bartered over like they’re nothing but a meal, like nothing but a means to help ourselves, and they don’t get a say about it at all! Look at ourselves. Look at us, at me and you and them. Look at us, being forced to make compromises just to live. I’m finding that out the hard way. I didn’t compromise. I asked why we should have to. I tried to change. That’s what this is about, and you know it. I didn’t go along. So what do I get? I find myself accused of murder. It could have been something indecent, but that wasn’t good enough, you know why? Because they’re afraid of change! You know who you are! You’re afraid of it! You don’t want things changed at all, because it benefits you! Because it benefits the system! Why does there even have to be a system, I ask you? All of you! Everyone! Why does there have to be something to oppress, and deny, and cast aside? I’ll tell you why. Because we’re scared. They’ve got us scared, and you know it. Is it that much to ask to have decency? It is to them. And you know it! You’re scared! But I wasn’t. I was worse than that. I was someone they were scared of. They weren’t afraid because of what they thought I could do. They were afraid because they thought I was a fool! Because they thought I was an idiot! Because I was ignorant about the way things worked. Because I was inept enough to ask ‘What if?’ . . . ‘Inept.’ ‘Foolish.’ That’s the words used to describe someone like me, someone naēve enough to think about change! You know it’s possible! Just reach out, and grab it! Do the decent thing! Stand up against the system and its evils. Reform! Change! Don’t let it push you around. You can see what it’s done because of it. Nothing good has come out of this council because of that system. We teach our cubs and pups and calves to stand up for what’s right while we shrink from it. If that’s what we grownups are doing, maybe we should turn this whole kingdom over to the little ones, because they’d do a lot more with this than we could. They don’t understand ‘treason’ or ‘murder’ or ‘lying.’ They know decency. It’s at their core. And it was at your and mine and everyone else’s. And we’ve all changed. The world’s made us hard. I’m standing here, telling you, all of you, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can change.”

            Mwovu suddenly walked into the circle of delegates. “Will the accused yield?”

            “Only for questions.”

            “You keep saying you desire change. That we don’t understand how things should be. By your definition, however a cub, or in this case, a pup, would know, yes? I have here a pup who says he knows exactly how things are. Would you like to hear what he says?”

            Shaka stared at Mwovu for a moment. Nyota watched, her heart suddenly pounding. She didn’t have any idea what Mwovu might be up to. “I’ll humor you,” said Shaka. Mwovu turned and walked into the crowd. Shaka looked around. There were almost no hyenas in the entire crowd, he could see that. Then he spotted Teya, sitting alongside the matriarch and a few others. He smiled at her.

            “You may recognize him,” said Mwovu, Shaka’s attention turning back to the cheetah. He looked down to see a half-pup by Mwovu’s side.

            “Usiku?”

            “Do you have something to say to the crowd, little one?” asked Mwovu kindly.

            The pup looked up at Mwovu, then over at his father. His gaze turned to the ground as he said quietly, “My daddy killed those hyenas.”

            “I’m sorry,” said Mwovu. “Could you say that a little louder?”

            The pup tried to swallow down a lump in his throat. “My daddy killed those hyenas. I-I saw him.” He bit his lip. “He killed ’em.”

            “No,” whispered Shaka. He staggered over to his son. “No, it’s not true. Son, tell ’em it’s not true. He told you to say, didn’t he?” The cub turned away toward Mwovu. Mwovu gently took the cub to his stomach with his paw.

            Shaka stepped back. It was pathetic. The fatigue that he had held at bay for hours finally seemed to cascade in. He felt his eyes brimming with tears. Nyota watched as he staggered around the circle of delegates, tears streaming down his face. “It’s not true!” he yelled hoarsely. He coughed violently; yelling was too much for his tired voice. “It’s not true, you’ve got to believe me,” he pleaded. “Please, just listen to me. Listen . . . listen to me . . .” He slumped to the ground, passing out from exhaustion.

            There was silence.

            After a few moments, the shaman hesitantly moved to Shaka and checked him. “He’s only fainted,” she announced. She turned to Mwovu. “Do you—have anything else?”

            “No,” said Mwovu quietly.

            “Very well. The council will now vote, starting with the lions, and moving around the circle. King Reen?”

            The lion stepped forward. “Not guilty,” he said quietly.

            King Gymara stepped forward. “Guilty.”

            “Guilty.”

            “Guilty.”

            “Guilty.”

            “Guilty.”

            The vote went around the circle. Finally the shaman spoke. “Five ‘not guilty.’ Twenty-seven ‘guilty.’ The accused shall be executed as soon as he is physically able. The council is dismissed.”

 

 

 

            Shaka looked out over the cliff. It was a long drop; in fact, it was the only cliff Sanctuary had. Shaka looked back over at the small crowd that had come to watch. He looked for Teya in the crowd, but couldn’t see her.

            The shaman stepped forward. “Do you have any final words for us?”

            Shaka looked around the crowd. They stared at him, vindictive in their glares, a wall of hostility. He hung his head. “Not yet.”

            “This is your only chance.”

            Shaka looked up at the shaman. He saw a gentle smile on her face. “I think you’d be the only one to listen,” Shaka said quietly.

            “The accused will face the cliff.” Shaka looked up at the shaman on last time, then did as he was told. “Walk.”

            Shaka did so. He paused on the edge. This was it. He was going to die. Nothing made sense anymore. If Teya loved him, how could this have happened? If Usiku had loved him—it made no sense. How could Roh’kash turn her back on such a devoted follower? In his hour of need, he was alone. Maybe there was nothing left in this kingdom anymore.

            He jumped.

 

 

 

No, we all deserve to die

Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I

Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief

For the rest of us death will be a relief

We all deserve to die

                        Epiphany

 

            “What do you wa . . .” Mwovu’s voice died off as he saw Sudi with two lovely female cheetahs roughly half his age and a carcass in front of him that had a few bites taken out of it.

            Sudi smiled up at him. “Congratulations.” He nodded to the two females. “Care to celebrate?”

            Mwovu grinned wryly. “Sudi, just for a second, why don’t we assume that I have at least the inklings of a conscience, hmm?”

            “Because that would be both ridiculous and make you an animal with feelings. Sit. Eat. And later,” said Sudi, stroking a female’s face, “enjoy.”

            Mwovu stared at Sudi, sighed, and sat. “Was he guilty?”

            “Obviously. The council found him guilty, he must be guilty.”

            “You know what I mean.”

            “If you’re asking whether or not he killed those hyenas—he didn’t.”

            “He was innocent.”

            “Completely and totally,” said Sudi with a smile. “I’ll say it again, I love your work.” His smile slowly faded. “Oh, come on now, you look like you’re having no fun at all! Do I need to give you that little speech again?”

            No,” said Mwovu firmly.

            “No, I think you do. Because you’re quite obviously forgetting,” said Sudi, his voice rising dramatically, “about the Greater Good!

            “Sudi, you’re entertaining these lovely ladies, so don’t torture them.” Mwovu took a bite out of the carcass.

            “You know, I think you’re actually bothered about this one,” reflected Sudi.

            “Sudi, your intense cognitive power never fails to underwhelm me.” Mwovu sighed. “Alright, just answer me one thing.”

            “Anything.”

            “His mate. She’ll be fed, right? And her pups? They’ll all be taken care of?”

            “Mwovu, of course not.” Sudi smiled at him. “Come on, what’s so different? You’ve done this—well, not dozens of times—but more than I can count on two paws at least. You’re the best. And now, just sit back and relax. Enjoy the privilege of doing what you do so well.”

            “Yeah. Right.” Mwovu gave a hollow laugh. “Geez, what’s wrong with me, right?”

 

 

 

            Reen walked out of the den and yawned in the morning light. Gymara had already left; only Nyota remained outside. “Morning, Nyota.”

            “Good morning, sire.”

            “What do we have today?” he asked.

            “Just the usual rounds.”

            “Really? No surprises? We were in trial for three days.”

            “I’m quitting, sire.”

            “What?” asked Reen in surprise. He turned to look at Nyota, her head hung ashamedly. “Why?”

            “Because I just don’t want to do it anymore. Isn’t that enough of a reason?”

            “Nyota, I didn’t ask to be king—”

            “I did ask for this,” said Nyota. “And if you think you can tell me to stay—I’m sorry, sire.”

            Reen sighed. “And just what did I do to offend this time?”

            “I mean it, sire. I want to quit. I’m going to quit.”

            “Nyota, what possible reason could you have for quitting?”

            “I—I don’t want to do—this anymore,” she said. Reen could see tears beginning to brim in her eyes. “I can’t do it anymore. I just need to go back home, settle down, maybe have a few cubs . . .”

            “If you’re pregnant, you’re more than welcome to go on leave—”

            “You really don’t get it, do you?” asked Nyota. She sniffled. “Sire—Reen—I want to quit. I need to quit. I’m not going to keep going, I just won’t. I’m sorry.”

            “This is about Shaka, isn’t it?”

            “This—maybe.”

            “Nyota, I realize you cared about him—”

            “You saw what they did to him. They killed him. All of them. Your own brother, sire. They’ve won! There was a chance for at least a little decency with Shaka and they—they killed him.” A single, solitary tear slid down her face.

            “Nyota, I’m not my brother,” said Reen quietly. “Nor did I kill Shaka. Neither did you. If you think that walking away is going to help things, you’re wrong. He wanted change, and the best way to get that is to stay here and fight for—”

            “I’m not a hero, Reen. This is enough change for me. A friend died. I don’t need to go any further. I’m sorry, Reen, but I’m done.”

            “Nyota, I need you.”

            “You can find another advisor. There are plenty of animals who know the kingdom well enough.”

            “There isn’t another Nyota out there, and you know it.”

            “That’s nice for you to say, sire. But I’m sorry. I’m quitting.”

            “Nothing I can say will change your mind, will it?”

            “You’re more than welcome to visit any time. I’m sorry, Reen, I just can’t do this anymore.” She hesitated, then kissed him gently on the cheek. “You know where to find me.” A moment’s hesitation, then she turned and walked away.

            “Nyota!” called Reen. The cheetah paused, then turned to look at Reen. “Don’t be a stranger, alright?”

            Nyota smiled weakly. “Yes, sire!” she said, as if at attention. The two turned and went their opposite ways.

 

 

 

            “Hatari!” Jibu ran through the grass. “Hatari, I—” She stopped dead as she found Hatari lying in a clearing, Sarana close by his side. “Oh, hi, sis.”

            “What is it?” asked Sarana.

            Jibu grinned. “I’ve got the best news!

            Sarana and Hatari stared at her for a few moments. “Are we going to have to pry it out of you?” asked Hatari.

            Jibu’s grin grew even wider. She burst out happily, “I’m pregnant!

            “Oh,” said Hatari. After a moment he added, “You’re sure?”

            “Pretty sure! I mean, just look at my tummy!” She turned sideways to let them see the one-month-old bulge.

            “Huh. Great,” said Hatari.

            “Aren’t you happy?” asked Jibu, grinning. “We’re going to be parents!”

            “Uh, ‘we?’”

            “Yes, ‘we.’ What, did you think these are Rayan’s?”

            “Jibu, cubs are for lionesses.”

            A ray of the darkness began to slip into her mind. “But these are your cubs,” she insisted.

            “Look, Jibu, you’re not my mate.”

            Jibu’s mouth slowly fell open. “But you said you loved me,” she said.

            “I—well, I didn’t mean it,” said Hatari in a tone that made plain he thought it was the end of the matter.

            “You said you loved me,” insisted Jibu. “You said that.”

            “I said that before you got pregnant.”

            Jibu stared at him blankly. Her eyes brimmed with tears, a few sliding down. “Hatari, these cubs need parents, I—I don’t know how to raise cubs, I need help . . .”

            “Ask your mom. She can help.” Jibu stared at him pleadingly. Hatari shifted uncomfortably. “Well?”

            Jibu slowly turned and staggered out of the clearing, tears silently streaming down her face. She stopped at the edge and looked back at Hatari before leaving. Hatari breathed a sigh of relief and turned back to Sarana, to see her glaring disgustedly at him.

            “What?”

            “You’re a pig, that’s what.” Sarana stood up and headed after her sister.

 

 

 

            “Adhima?” The lioness looked up to see Sudi standing in the mouth of the den. “Excuse me, ma’am, have you seen King Gymara?”

            “Ask someone else.” The queen got up and walked away.

            O-kay, thought Sudi. He ventured into the den, looking for a lioness that wasn’t asleep. “Hira?”

            “Hrm.”

            “Where’s Gymara?”

            The lioness snickered. “He’s outside. Around the back.”

            Sudi stared at the lioness before asking, “There’s something I should know, shouldn’t I?”

            Hira grinned. “You’ll find out.”

            Sudi exited the den and walked around to the back of the den. “Ah . . . oh, gods . . .” He turned around so he wasn’t facing Gymara.

            Gymara sat hunched over, his face contorted. “Don’t—say—a thing,” he forced out, though nothing else came out.

            “Actually, I’m afraid I have to say a few things. It’d actually probably be better if you finished up soon, we’ve got a day ahead of us. Both the leopards and the cheetahs are at it again, really at it.”

            “The cheetahs—they aren’t our problem anymore, are they?” breathed Gymara.

            “The leopards still very much are, and I’m afraid they’re ready to open hostilities at any time. One of the ones that has been keeping them in check—Lymo, I doubt you know him—something’s come up and he’s—well, he’s lost a lot of influence.” Sudi looked around. “Any progress, sire?”

            “Shut up.”

            Sudi turned back around. “Anyway, Nyota’s caused quite a stir. By the way, she quit yesterday.”

            “She what?!

            “Was that a bowel movement I heard?”

            “Shut up,” muttered Gymara.

            “How much does it hurt, sire?”

            “I swear, when this comes out . . .”

            “Anyway, that will probably take up most of the day. By the way, I think you should just know this—Jibu’s pregnant. Hatari’s the father.”

            Suddenly, Gymara let it all loose. “Oh, gods . . . I don’t know whether this feels good or bad . . .”

            “But at least it’s all out in the open now, right?” Sudi sniffed for a moment, then yelled out, “Oh, gods! Sire!

            Gymara rubbed his rump on the ground. “I had no idea.”

            “Sire—permission to leave?”

            “I think I’ll go lie down,” said Gymara quietly. He walked around the den and lied down, Sudi running the other way.

            Reen walked over to Gymara. “So, brother . . . did it come out okay?”

            “Shut up.”

 

 

 

            “Excuse me,” said Reen politely to one of the leopardesses, “where’s Lymo?”

            “Here I am, Reen.” The lion turned to see the leopard walking toward him hurriedly. “I’m sorry, I just need to—to go do something.”

            “Oh. Do you need help?”

            Lymo hesitated before saying quietly, “Reen, can we make this quick, please? What did you need?”

            “I just stopped by to talk. Is something wrong?”

            “Look, Reen, there are just some things I need to do.”

            “Lymo, what’s wrong?”

            “Nothing. Please, Reen, if there isn’t anything else, I should go.” Lymo tried to walk around Reen, but Reen stepped in his way.

            “Lymo, you can talk to me,” insisted Reen.

            “There are some things I’d like to keep private, I’m sure you feel the same way. If you’ll excuse me . . .”

            “Lymo, this isn’t like you.”

            “Look, Reen, things have changed. Are changing. There are just some things that I feel I need to do.”

            “You make it sound like you’re going off to die. Lymo, what’s going on?”

            Lymo smiled wryly. “I’m not ‘going off to die.’ I’ll be gone a few days, maybe.”

            “Lymo, this is Sanctuary. There’s nowhere to go.”

            “Reen . . . friend . . . I’m not going to tell you. I would love to but . . . I just can’t.” Reen didn’t budge. “Look, I’ll come see you as soon as I’m back, alright?”

            Lymo walked around Reen, refusing to meet his gaze. Reen watched the leopard walk away, a sinking feeling in his gut. It almost seemed as if he’d never see Lymo again.

 

 

 

            Rayan looked out over the savannah. It was a nice view. He didn’t have anyone with him. It was wonderful to be here alone, simply looking over the kingdom. True, it was a rather grim place. Shaka’s body no longer rested beneath the cliff; the murderer’s body had been consumed by the ones he had haunted as soon as they had privacy. Rayan had walked by the place the next day with his father as they went on the royal rounds. Shaka had been stripped to the bone and left unceremoniously to rot the rest of the way.

            Rayan didn’t look down at the bones, instead looking at the rest of the view. The sun set over the kingdom, illuminating it in a beautiful orange-red tone, setting the savannah grass seemingly on fire in a blaze of color.

            What Rahimu could do was his golden orb was amazing.

            Here Rayan sat, alone with his thoughts. It was wonderful this way.

            With Sarana . . . it would be bliss.

            “Nice view, isn’t it?” Rayan looked over to see Hatari sitting next to him. “I never really spent that much time up here by myself.”

            “Spent any time up here with anyone?”

            Hatari chuckled. He looked over Rayan with an appraising eye. Rayan had almost completely grown. Hatari was larger, even considering his six months’ head start. Both of their manes were still growing, though those too had almost fully come in. Hatari’s had become a lovely, thick brown-black. Rayan’s still had black tips, changing abruptly to pure white. His mane was thinner in places, non-existent in some. His body matched his mane, being somewhat scrawny. Hatari’s, on the other hand, was well-built with muscle, his mane accentuating his body. He was almost irresistibly striking, while Rayan’s body itself was barely desirable and his face horrific.

            “It’s a nice view,” repeated Hatari.

            “I come up here a lot.”

            “You seem to like it that way.”

            “Alone?”

            “Yeah.”

            “I just . . . well, I’m just used to being—alone.”

            “It’s the face, isn’t it?”

            Rayan grimaced. “Yes.”

            “It’s kind of a turnoff.”

            “I never would have guessed,” said Rayan dryly.

            “You take this too personal,” said Hatari. “You just need to lighten up. It’s alright to joke, you know.”

            “My face got melted. You can understand if I’m a little touchy.”

            “You’re all better. Come on, you’re a prince. You’re gonna be a king. And you’re gonna get a mate. One of life’s givens.”

            “Yeah? And who’s it gonna be, if you’re so smart?”

            Hatari grinned. “You really don’t know, do you?” He shook his head. “Completely oblivious.” He nudged Rayan knowingly. “Let’s just say that there’s someone close to you.”

            “Hatari, can I ask you something? I mean something serious?”

            “Why not?”

            “Do you think that . . . well . . . me and . . . Sarana—?”

            Rayan watched as a smirk slowly spread over Hatari’s face. “You can always try.”

            Rayan turned away. “I—never mind. It’s stupid.”

            “You like her, don’t you?”

            Rayan was silent.

            Really like her.”

            Rayan shifted uncomfortably.

            “You just want to hold her, and kiss her—”

            “Shut up. Just shut up, okay? You’re a prick, you know that?”

            Anger flashed across Hatari’s face for a moment before it resumed its mellow expression. “I suppose you’d see it that way. Only so many things a guy can do.” He looked over at the sunset fir a few moments, then looked back to Rayan. “Come on. Believe me, there’s someone who wants you—bad.”

            “Yeah, right.” Rayan sighed. “Why don’t we just go back home?”

            “Alright, alright.” Hatari looked over at Rayan as they stood up. “You’re dying to know who it is, aren’t you?”

            “I really could care less.”

            “You probably would if it just slid right on by.”

            “You know things only happen if a whole month goes by, more or less.”

            Neither noticed the quiet scuffling in the grass as they left.

 

 

 

            “Sire, you need to eat.”

            “Hmm?”

            “Food, sire,” said Sudi. “Generally you stick it in your mouth, chew, and swallow. It’s good for your health.”

            “I’m not hungry,” said Gymara.

            “You’re thinking, aren’t you?”

            “I’m just—concerned.”

            “Sire, everything is going swimmingly. Nothing could make it better.”

            “Sudi . . . I feel like I’m lost.” Gymara shook his head. “My son is growing up. It seems like he was just a cub and now . . . he’s off screwing lionesses every chance he gets. Jibu’s pregnant, he doesn’t give a damn, he’s broken her heart. He doesn’t care about the throne at all, he doesn’t even want to be around me when I try to talk to him about it . . . Adhima’s mad at me. I think she thinks it’s my fault, but we haven’t talked in a week, I haven’t gotten her properly alone in longer . . . I feel like I’m just walking, and I don’t have any control over which way I’m going. I feel—useless. And I don’t think I should.” He looked over at Sudi pleadingly.

            “I told you not to think, sire. It only makes your stomach turn.”

            “We’ve done some pretty shitty things, haven’t we?”

            “We’ve done some necessary things, sire. We’ve kept our power in this land. We’ve done more than should be asked of us.”

            “I feel guilty.”

            “It’s a little late for that, sire.”

            Gymara stared at the carcass in front of him blankly.

            “Remember how I found you, sire?” asked Sudi. “A little lost cub who couldn’t find his way back home. And I was a rather striking youth who only wanted to help you. It’s been that way ever since. I wanted to help you then, sire. And we just kept running into each other. And it’s turned into this. Here we are, with dominance over an entire kingdom. Quite frankly, we don’t need Reen, all he does is pacify the animals. No, we built this kingdom into what it is today sire, you and I. Together. I showed you what power was.”

            “Why do I care?”

            “Sire . . .” It was all Sudi seemed to be able to say. He didn’t have an answer to that. “Sire, you’re the king. You will always be remembered in Sanctuary for that. King Gymara the Wise, the Mover, the—”

            “Cram it, Sudi.” Gymara continued to stare down at the carcass.

            Sudi was silent for a few moments before saying, “Permission to speak, sire?”

            “Hell, I don’t care,” said Gymara. “Probably my problem. I just don’t care about it anymore. About anything, really. If I cared, maybe things wouldn’t be this way. Hatari doesn’t deserve to be king. He’s four, I know, but he doesn’t deserve it.”

            “And why not, sire? He will be a wonderful king. He’s already—expressed his desire to have me as his advisor,” said Sudi.

            “No he didn’t,” said Gymara quietly.

            “I assure you he did.”

            “Hatari doesn’t ask. Hatari doesn’t care about anyone but himself. He blackmailed you, didn’t he?”

            “Sire . . .”

            “He knows about Shaka. He knows what you did. And he threatened to have you killed if you didn’t do just as he pleased.”

            “One would think you suggested the idea to him, sire.”

            “But I didn’t,” whispered Gymara. A tear slid down his face. “He doesn’t care about anything unless it’s his. He sleeps around. He doesn’t even want a mate. Just a harem. He’s already using extortion. And it’ll be murder soon, I know it.” Gymara closed his eyes tightly. “And he’s my son, damn it!”

            Sudi frowned down at the lion, watching with disdain as a few tears slid down his muzzle. He placed his foreleg around Gymara’s neck gently and said, “Sire—” Gymara pressed his face into Sudi’s chest. Sudi grimaced. “Sire, you’re getting old. You’re nearly ten. You’re going to step down soon. You won’t have to worry about this. Hatari can be king and worry about this. He’ll be a little rough, but I’ll be there. I can make him into the king he should be, like I did for you. Where would you be without me?”

            Gymara became rather still, but said nothing.

            “Really, sire, you just need to take things one day at a time. Just eat. That carcass won’t devour itself.”

            Gymara reluctantly pulled away from Sudi. He looked down at the carcass and took a bite. “Maybe I should take a few days. Try to get everything straight with Adhima. Try to work with Hatari. Be a good father.” He swallowed and took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. “What do you think, Sudi?”

            “Just eat, sire. We’ve got quite a day ahead of us.”

            Gymara swallowed. “Sudi, I can count on you, right?”

            “Of course, sire. Now really, we do need you to eat. We’ve got plenty of things to do.”

            Gymara took another bite. He swallowed before saying, “It really didn’t seem like anything this morn—” His words trailed off. Sudi watched as his eyes widened and he began to frantically take deep breaths. Gymara sank to the ground, convulsions wracking his body.

            “Oh, dear,” said Sudi. “It looks like poison. Who could have foreseen that?”

 

 

 

            Reen walked through the kingdom, lost in thought. He found his footsteps unconsciously leading him to that single, solitary cliff in Sanctuary. He missed Shaka. It was hard to believe; Reen had never even spoken to the animal except during the council sessions. A hyena that Reen had almost never spoken to, had almost never met, had managed to stir emotion. It was strange.

            Reen sighed and sat down. He couldn’t help but reflect back on Shaka’s speech. He’d spoken for more than a day, simply speaking about what was right, about what was just. He’d barely spent a breath on his own innocence. It was almost as if he knew he was going to die, and simply wanted to leave the world with one last expression of innocence.

            Shaka was gone. The Animal Council remained, with all of the injustice that had been there before, but Reen found more convenient to block out.

            Yes, it always did seem like the good, decent animals were the ones to go.

            Shaka had died.

            Nyota had left him, simply trying to retreat from the world that condemned her as a freak for her love. Her cubs, if she had any, would be shunned for life, half-breeds that belonged to neither cheetahs nor leopards.

            Deshu, Reen’s own father . . . it was painful to think about. Such a happy moment between a father and his sons, ruined as Reen watched his father slowly fell asleep, his head lowering one last time as he slid into eternal sleep. Neither Reen nor Gymara had wanted to poison him, but he was too old. So wise, so paternal, so loving, despite his flaws.

            And Unir.

            His lovely Unir.

            It almost seemed as if Rayan was to be taken from him next. He didn’t know he would do if that happened. It would be too much to bear, to lose all that he had.

            I need to get back to work, remembered Reen. I have a kingdom that counts on me. He couldn’t help but wonder if that was true. How long would it take the kingdom to realize what Deshu had said to his sons years ago, that the Animal Council could effectively run the kingdom, that the kings were no longer needed? Mediators and middlelions, that was all the kingship truly amounted to. Yet the kingdom still was just that, a kingdom.

            Reen stood up, shaking his head. It was the middle of the day. Far too early to be thinking ridiculous, depressing thoughts like these. He had a job to do, it was as simple as that. He stretched and felt his foot catch on a long vine. He yanked it out of the vine impatiently and began to walk away when he felt gravel fall on his head.

            He looked up to see a boulder come crashing down on him.

            He was knocked flat on the ground, all of his wind knocked out of him. He was unable to roar out, all he could manage was a feeble whimper. He cringed with the pain; he couldn’t feel his hind legs at all. His chest felt as if it had been flattened, which it most likely had been. He tried to draw in a breath.

            “What’ve we got here?” Reen felt the boulder being moved slowly off of him, and then heard a sudden gasp. “Oh, gods . . .” A female hyena walked into his view, two pups by her.

            “Mommy, is that the king?” asked one.

            “Yes . . . yes it is . . . oh no, oh gods no . . . Roh’kash save us . . .” Reen let out a moan. The hyena knelt down by him. “Oh sire, I’m so sorry, I never meant to do this to you—”

            Reen knew what had happened now. It was an act of desperation. Hyenas were poor hunters. This one had laid a trap instead. Vines weren’t found around this part of the kingdom; this was savannah, all of it. “I know,” whispered Reen.

            “We won’t eat you, sire, I promise, we won’t touch you—”

            “No,” said Reen, the words barely audible. “Eat . . .”

            “But—but sire—”

            “You need—food . . . Eat . . .”

            “Sire . . .”

            “Tell Rayan . . . I love him . . . that I wanted—this . . .”

            The hyena stared at him in disbelief. “Sire . . . you’ve helped us so much . . .”

            “Eat,” pleaded Reen. “Quickly.”

            The hyena stared at him for another moment, then nuzzled his mane and kissed his muzzle. Reen felt her grasp his neck and shake.

            Unir!

 

 

 

When you were young and your heart was an open book

You used to say live and let live

But if this ever changing world in which we live in

Makes you give in and cry

Say live and let die

                                    Live and Let Die

 

            Night had fallen on Sanctuary. Rayan waited steadfastly outside the den, sitting in front of the Throne. Reen hadn’t returned from his rounds; in fact, more than half of the animals he was supposed to talk to hadn’t seen him all day.

            It’s not like Father to do anything like this. He always lets me know where he is.

            One shock today was bad enough. Sudi had come home, laboring to bring Gymara into the den on his back, Gymara completely unconscious. The shaman had found traces of poison in his mouth. Adhima had nearly fainted when she heard the news. She had refused to speak to her son since.

            Hatari had poisoned his own father, with no warning even to the pride. Gymara was asleep and refusing all attempts to wake him. The shaman had said there was a chance that he might not recover fully from the incident. And Reen had been missing for almost the entire day.

            Father, I know you’re out there.

            “Rayan?” Rayan jumped. He had been concentrating so much he hadn’t heard anyone behind him. It was Kria. “You should come inside. Get some sleep.”

            “No.” Rayan turned around, watching the kingdom again.

            “It’s the middle of the night. You’ve had a long day.” Rayan didn’t move. Kria sat down next to him. “Rayan, you’ve done everything you could—”

            “I can wait, Kria,” said Rayan sharply.

            Kria flinched as if she had been stung. She looked down at the ground. She knew what his father meant to him. It hurt her to see him like this. She could practically feel the tension radiating from him. He wasn’t feeling at all right now. It would come later, after the news came.

            “Rayan,” she said gently, “have you even thought that maybe—”

            No!” Rayan yelled, turning on her. “Don’t even think about it!” Kria trembled at the outburst. She slowly left, going back to her cave, her head down. Rayan sighed and turned back around. He shouldn’t have lashed out at her like that.

            Who gives a damn? I don’t care.

 

 

 

            “Sire?” Rayan turned to look at the speaker. It was Lymo. ”You’re up early,” remarked the leopard.

            “Are you alright?” asked Rayan, the leopard’s body not as clear as it could be in the early morning light.

            “Just a little tired . . . and hungry . . .” The leopard’s frame had diminished; it almost looked as if Lymo was withering. Rayan could see that the leopard’s eyes were bloodshot, probably even more than his own.

            “Where’ve you been? Father said you just left.”

            “I—I needed guidance. So I went to the shrine to ask.”

            “For two weeks?”

            Lymo nodded. “For two weeks. I simply fasted and prayed to Rahimu. And I received nothing.” He smiled wryly. “You can understand if I collapse, right?” he asked, doing so before the sentence was even over. Rayan tried to steady him, but Lymo was too heavy.

            “Come on, Lymo, here, just put your leg over my neck—”

            After a little maneuvering, Rayan managed to help Lymo hobble into the den. He laid the leopard down on the floor, a few of the lionesses that were awake coming over. “You look like you’ve been up all night,” said Lymo.

            “I have been.”

            Lymo chuckled knowingly. “Does your father know?” Rayan looked down. “What?”

            “Father’s . . . missing.”

            “Missing?”

            “He—he left yesterday morning. No one’s heard from him since.”

            Shock slowly came over Lymo’s face. “Rayan . . . Rayan, I’m so sorry, I had no—”

            “Sorry for what?” said Rayan sharply. “He’s not dead!”

            “Rayan—” said one of the lionesses.

            He’s not dead!” He glared angrily around at the lionesses. “Nobody can say differently!” He looked around the den, daring any of them to defy him, his face even more contorted than normal. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some duties to take care of while my father is away.” He turned and walked out of the den, feeling his claws scrape against the stone in anger.

            Adhima was the first to approach Lymo. “Are you okay?” she asked.

            “Just a little worn out. Do you mind if I stay a while?”

            “Not at all—”

            “Who’s this, Mom?” Adhima froze at the sound of Hatari’s voice. Hatari ignored her as he pushed his way to the front of the lionesses around Lymo. “What are you doing here, leopard?”

            “My name is Lymo, sire.”

            Hatari stared down at him. “I—I just needed to rest a while.”

            “Then why are you here?”

            “I—I told King Reen I’d see him the moment I came back.”

            “The king is dead.”

            “I—I’ve heard he was missing—”

            “He’s dead, leopard. What does it matter to you?”

            “I was his—spiritual advisor, sire. And Prince Rayan’s.”

            Hatari smiled. “I see. Spiritual advisor?”

            Lymo could hear the mocking tone in the prince’s voice. “Yes, sire.”

            “That’s very nice. When will you be leaving?”

            Lymo’s jaw clenched before he smiled politely up at Hatari. “Immediately, sire. Thank you so much for your gracious hospitality. If one of you lovely ladies could help me up . . .”

            Adhima and Hira helped Lymo to his paws, Lymo draping a foreleg over Adhima. “Come on, I’ll help you home,” said the queen. She pointedly refused to look at her son. Hatari watched the two of them go, then returned to his spot in the den.

            “Spiritual advisor. He snorted. Religious nut.

 

 

 

            “Eh . . . no, sire,” said the antelope. “Really, I don’t want to impose on you.”

            “There’s nothing at all?” asked Rayan.

            “No, it’s been—rather peaceful, sire.”

            Rayan smiled. “That’s a surprise.” He turned to go. “If you need anything—anything at all—just ask.”

            “Of course, sire. And sire?” the antelope called after him.

            “Yes?”

            “I—would like to apologize for your loss. I know he meant a great deal to you, and for you to still be carrying on, even after—”

            “He’s not dead.”

            “Sire?”

            “He’s not dead,” said Rayan simply.

            “But sire—the body—”

            “What body?”

            “I—ah . . .”

            “What body?” asked Rayan, his friendly nature disappearing instantly into a cruel, hard tone.

            “I—I thought you had seen it . . .”

            “What body?”

            The antelope swallowed, feeling Rayan’s eyes boring into him. “Maybe you should follow me, sire.”

 

 

 

            Rayan felt his claws instinctively flexing and sheathing. His breathing had grown heavier. His paws felt as if he’d put them in water. It made no sense at all.

            I know Father is alive. He has to be alive. I know it.

            “It’s . . . it’s over here, sire,” said the antelope. He looked down off of Sanctuary’s cliff. Rayan hesitantly approached it. It almost seemed to be too much to look over the edge. He peered down and froze, transfixed by the sight.

            “Sire?”

            “Oh—oh gods—oh gods—it’s not real, it can’t be real—oh gods!

            Rayan darted down the back side of the cliff and ran around to the front, literally skidding to a halt in front of his father’s body in the loose gravel. Reen’s body lay at the foot of the cliff, the lower half of his body crushed. The entire body had been stripped clean down to the skeleton, save for the head, which was undeniably the fallen king’s.

            Rayan laid down in the dirt and wrapped the head close to his body in a foreleg. The tears he had fought back came rushing forward. “Father—Father . . . Father, why? Father . . . Dad . . . It’s not right . . .” Reen pressed his head to his father’s cold, rigid face, tears streaming down his face onto Reen’s. It was impossible. His father, the animal that he had cared most for, the one who had given him everything—he just couldn’t be dead.

            Rayan gripped Reen tighter.

            It’s not possible. It—it was never meant to happen. You weren’t meant to die. It’s not right. It’s—it’s a mistake. Rayan squeezed the head. Someone did this. Someone did this to you. Someone killed you, father.

            Rayan nuzzled the head, hoping desperately for some sign of warmth and affection back. The stillness was too much. He threw back his head, his roar of agony echoing out to the kingdom.

 

 

 

            “But there was this fight—ooh, it took three of ’em just to get the two apart,” gossiped Hira happily.

            “Really?” asked Chache. “I bet—” She fell silent as her eye finally fell on Rayan standing in the entrance to the den. Slowly the entire den fell silent as they turned to look at the prince.

            Kria walked to him. “Rayan, what’s wrong?”

            “He’s dead.”

            The silence became deafening. Kaata rushed to Rayan, pushing her daughter out of the way. “You said he wasn’t. You knew he wasn’t.”

            “They killed him at the bottom of the cliff,” said Rayan quietly. “They broke his whole back. They didn’t even let him die peacefully. And they ate him. They only left his head.” He raised his head up to look at Kaata. “He’s dead,” he said tonelessly.

            Kaata’s mouth fell open. She took a few steps back, then ran out of the den. Rayan went quietly back to his spot in the den and flopped down on the ground. Kria stared at him, debating whether to go to him or to her mother. Sarana simply lied down next to Rayan.

            “Are you okay?” Sarana asked quietly.

            Kria turned and headed after her mother.

 

 

 

            Kria stopped at the edge of the cliff. “Mom!” she yelled out.

            Go away!” The scream echoed up from the bottom of the cliff.

            Kria recoiled from the voice, then rushed down the back of the cliff. She found her mother over a skeleton, weeping. Kria gasped at the sight of the king. “Oh my—” She slowly walked to her mother and sat beside her. “Mom—”

            Kria was cut off as her mother swung around, backpawing her in the jaw and sending Kria to the ground. Kria looked up hazily to see her mother standing over her, tears covering her muzzle, her mouth drawn into a snarl.

            “This is your fault!” roared Kaat