“Did you tell her?” Nasiha asked as Mataka came into the clearing.
“Of course I told her. I’m not incompetent. Where’s the kid?”
“Right here,” said Makini, appearing inches from Mataka.
“Don’t do that,” said Mataka, his heart racing.
“You jumped at least a foot in the air,” laughed Makini.
“Not funny.” Mataka turned to back to Nasiha. “You got the food?” Nasiha looked at the ground guiltily. “You for—you forgot the food? What’s with you?”
“Um, food?” asked Sudi. He had been talking with the hyenas. Shaka, the angry one, had seemed much less surly after hearing his job.
“You can’t do a job on an empty stomach.”
“Sorry,” said Nasiha. “I guess you’ll have to look in the grass over there or something.” He looked up with a smile.
Mataka sighed. “Both you and your godson are really getting on my nerves.” He walked to the grass, stuck his head in, and brought out it back out with a leg in his mouth. The rest of the carcass followed. The hyenas stopped talking and began looking at the carcass hungrily. Mataka dragged it to the center. “Dig in.”
In less than five minutes the carcass was stripped.
Mataka leaned back. “That’s better.” He rotated his neck, hearing the vertebrae pop. “Okay, we’re going now. And you two—” he pointed at Shaka and Katili—“are not to touch any lionesses. Is that clear?”
“Good. Lucky, you know where you’re supposed to be.”
“I’m already gone.” Sudi disappeared into the grass.
“Okay. You three, let’s go.” Mataka walked into the grass followed by Nasiha, Akida, and Makini.
“You know,” said Nasiha after a few minutes of walking, “I still don’t see why we have to do it this way.”
“Huh?” said Mataka.
“I mean, I have a wonderful talent for fighting, and so do you. We could do this a lot easier if you didn’t have this violence thing.”
“Makini, listen up. This is how to gripe. Please continue.”
“The way I see it, we could just go in there, just the two of us, clear out whoever’s still in the den, just leave ’em unconscious, grab the cub, and go. There you go, cubnapping’s over.”
“Nasiha, while that does sound nice, let’s just stick to the plan, huh? Just trust my instincts.”
“Like we did at Alanu?”
“Alright, that was one bad job.”
“Same for Cheko? Kitano? The Kube?”
“Alright, so I don’t have a perfect track record. But remember, you were there for most of them, too. Don’t worry, this one will be fine.”
After that there was silence until they met the lionesses traveling to the hunt. Immediately Akida and Nasiha began violently arguing. It was impossible for the lionesses not to notice. They started for the group. “What’s going on?” one of them asked.
“Look, uh . . .” Mataka struggled for a name.
“Vitani, the king really does need to see this.”
“See what? That hyena shouldn’t even be here.”
“Yeah, that’s the thing, though. You see, they’ve got a problem. Now, I know the cheetah, and I kind of, you know, promised him I’d arrange something. With the king.”
“You had no right to do that,” rebuked Vitani.
“I know, I know. I just wanted to help him out, keep him from killing the hyena.”
“Who’s the leopard?”
“Witness. Now, look, we nee to see the king now.”
“We’re kind of in the middle of a hunt.”
“I’ll take them back,” Amana said, stepping forward.
“What about Kumbu?” asked Vitani.
“Well . . .” Amana looked convincingly reluctant. “This won’t take long, will it?” she asked Mataka.
“Great. I’ll be back in time then.”
“Alright,” conceded Vitani. “But remember, we can’t wait.”
“Right.” Amana turned to Mataka. “Come on.” She began walking back toward Pride Rock.
“Thanks,” said Mataka. He turned back to Nasiha and Akida. “Will you two shut up and come on?”
Nasiha and Akida fell silent and reluctantly followed, staring daggers at each other. Makini followed silently. The lionesses continued on their way. Mataka finally spoke to Amana when he felt they had gotten far enough away. “Scared?”
“I’m shaking all over.”
“I’m fine, too, Mataka,” said Nasiha. “Thanks.”
Tanabi was continuing to pace the floor of the den. No matter how many times Kiara or Monah had gotten him to stop, he’d started again. He knew he shouldn’t worry. Vitani was an excellent huntress, and always did her best to bring everyone home uninjured. Last migration she’d set a kind of record, no injuries at all, not even a scratch. But Tanabi still worried.
“Tanabi, get a grip,” said Kiara. “They’ll be fine.”
“Some of them have barely started. I shouldn’t have let all of them go.”
“If you didn’t we’d be short meat.”
“I know, but what if something happens?”
“Tanabi!” Tanabi’s ears perked up at the sound of Amana’s voice. He rushed out of the den.
“What happened?” he demanded.
“Calm down, Tanabi,” Amana said soothingly. “No one’s hurt. The hunt hasn’t even started yet.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“Uh, sire, that’d be me.” Mataka stepped forward. “Got a little problem, thought you should handle it.” Mataka nodded to a cheetah and a hyena, who were looking about ready to kill each other.
“Fine,” said Tanabi, walking back up to the den. He almost wished it hadn’t been a false alarm. He’d have to go back to worrying. He watched Amana and Mataka go into the den, being followed by a leopard. “Stop,” he said. The leopard froze, and slowly turned around.
“Me, sire?” he asked.
“What are you doing here?”
“He’s just a witness,” interjected Mataka. “He’ll be with us until you want him. I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“But what’s the problem?”
“The problem,” exploded the cheetah, “is that this filthy scum has eaten my cubs!”
“I didn’t!” protested the hyena. “Sire, you have to believe me!”
Makini continued into the den and lied down beside Mataka and Amana, half of his head listening to the heated debate outside, half of it staring around the den. Monah, surprisingly, was in the den, her lithe, dark brown body lying down on the floor of the den. Mataka felt Kisasa’s eyes boring into him. He cursed silently. He hadn’t wanted her to be here. All of the cubs were in the corner on the care of a couple of older lionesses, too old to do much more than cubsit. It wasn’t really cubsitting, more just watching the cubs wrestling and breaking it up whenever it got out of hand. Makini walked over to the cubs, some of them stopping their “fights” when he came over. “Who’re you?” asked one cub, his green eyes standing out.
“Hey, Kivuli, come here.” A cub who was on the back of another, enthusiastically using the scruff of the cub’s neck as a chew toy, looked up and came over, followed by the cub she had been chewing on.
“What?” Kivuli asked.
“He’s almost as dark as you!”
“He is not!” Kivuli jumped toward Makini, who drew a foreleg up in surprise. Kivuli wrapped herself around his other foreleg, her coloring only a tiny shade darker. “See? I’m much darker.”
“It is not!”
The argument outside was reaching its climax. “Dammit,” Nasiha was saying, he ate my cubs! Do something!”
“What do you want me to do?” Tanabi asked patiently. “All hyenas have already been exiled from the Pridelands before my time. This one shouldn’t even be here.”
“And isn’t the penalty for refusing exile death?”
“Yes, but that punishment hasn’t been served for years.”
“This smelly, mangy, filth-ridden, son of a bitch has just eaten my cubs! I want some compensation!”
“Who’re you calling mangy?” asked Akida. “And I didn’t do it!”
“My son’s neck was in your mouth!”
“Sire, I swear it wasn’t me!” pleaded Akida.
“I’m not saying it was,” said Tanabi. “Just let me think it over.”
“If you’re not going to do anything, I will!” Nasiha launched himself at Akida, trying to beat every inch of him he could reach. Akida sunk his teeth into Nasiha’s leg, only drawing a roar from Nasiha, accompanied by more blows. Tanabi tried to separate the two, only to be beaten back. All the cubs had stopped to watch. This was a whole lot better than their fights.
“Kiara! Monah! Kisasa! Get out here!” The three lionesses sprang to Tanabi, Kisasa taking a quick look back at her cub first.
Mataka sighed in relief. Makini was looking at him. “Go, kid, go!” Mataka said quietly.
Makini turned back to Kivuli. “We’re going on a little trip.” He picked up Kivuli by the scruff of her neck.
“A trip? Alright!” The last syllable echoed around the den. The fight had just been broken up. Kisasa turned to see her cub, smiling, being taken out the hole Kiara had made some time ago in the back of the den.
“Kivuli!” she yelled. She ran toward the hole than stopped to avoid colliding with Mataka, who suddenly appeared before her. She brought her paw down on him, only to have it deflected and have herself knocked to the ground from a blow by Mataka. “Kivuli!” she screamed as she saw Makini run across the savannah, the happily unaware cub in his mouth.
The two hyenas crouched low in the grass, waiting to disrupt the lionesses’ hunt in any way they could. They could see the lionesses in front of them, the lionesses only paying attention to the approaching herd of animals. Shaka smiled. They didn’t have any idea they were there. “You ready?” Katili asked his brother. He could feel the ground shake from the approaching stampede.
“Oh, I’m ready,” said Shaka eagerly. “I’m gonna get me a nice, juicy lioness.”
“What? You can’t.”
“Oh, I can. And I will.”
“It’s not in the plan!”
Shaka rounded angrily on his brother. “Was it part of the plan for Mother to end up with her neck in a lion’s mouth?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean we need to hurt them.”
“I think it does.” Shaka turned back to the approaching herd. “I won’t touch a single one, just as told, but I’ll make sure this hunt is so screwed up, they’ll be lucky if one limps away.” He began to rush the herd, just behind the lionesses.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Tanabi furiously.
“The meaning of what?” asked Mataka innocently. “Kisasa on the floor or her cub gone?”
“Easy. You can get the cub back. I’m just not sure about Kisasa’s dignity.”
“You monster!” Kisasa screamed as she launched herself at Mataka. Mataka threw her to the floor, placed himself on top of her, and put his paw to her neck in one swift motion.
“Your highness, I don’t want to hurt her,” Mataka said, “but she’s making that awfully difficult for me.”
“Get off her!” roared Tanabi. The cubs cowered. They had never seen the king this angry.
“As you wish.” Mataka stepped off Kisasa, who immediately leapt up for his face again and was immediately pinned down again, this time by her throat. “Now that’s no way to get your cub back.”
“What do you want?” Kisasa snarled.
“I want the king to lift that exile he’s made.”
“You want me to let hyenas back into the Pridelands?” Tanabi asked incredulously.
“What you do with hyenas is your own business. I’m talking about a few poor leopards you kicked out.”
“How do you know about that?”
“That’s not your problem. What is your problem is having a very angry lioness breathing down your neck for years if you don’t save her cub. And it’s a pity. The cub has such a nice, long life ahead of her, too.”
“What are you going to do if I don’t do as you say?”
“Well, having the little thing wait on me hand and foot strikes me as a nice idea.”
“You’d make her your slave?” Kisasa said furiously.
“I prefer ‘freedom-challenged.’”
“Easy! Of course I wouldn’t do that to her. From what I’ve seen she’s got an independent streak that makes slavery impossible. No, I’d just make sure she’d never see her mommy again.”
“No, no, no!” Mataka exploded. “Who do you think I am, Afriti himself? I’d just take her to some faraway place. Maybe I’d let her see her Mommy every alternate leap year. I wouldn’t kill her. I’m not a heartless beast, no matter what you think. I’d raise the little urchin the best I could. She wouldn’t go hungry, and I’d make sure she was as happy as possible. No, the point of this is to hurt you.”
“I’d hunt you down and kill you,” said Kisasa ferociously.
“You’d try. You’d die. Of course, we could skip all that nasty business and have you just do as I ask. The choice is yours.”
“Cubsitting,” Sudi muttered to himself. “Of all the jobs, I get stuck with cubsitting. Whoopee.” The gorge the cheetah was sitting in provided barely any shade at all. Sudi was curled up in one of the few patches that he could find, pressed close to the wall. And the shade seemed to do nothing for the heat. To test his theory he stuck a paw out into the sunlight, pulling it back almost immediately after feeling it burn. He heard voices coming closer.
“When are we gonna meet him?”
“Will I like him?”
“I don’t see why not. He’s nice enough.”
“Where is he?”
“I told you, he’s somewhere around here.”
“What’s he like?”
“Sudi!” Makini yelled, obviously having reached the end of his tether. Sudi stuck a foreleg out of the shade and waved it. “There he is. Go bug him.”
Kivuli ran to Sudi and jumped on him. “You’re Sudi?”
“Yes.” Sudi stood up, Kivuli sliding off him. “Come on, we need to get moving to the meet point.”
“Not even a rest?” protested Makini.
“I feel fine.”
“I meant for me.”
Sudi flopped back to the ground. “Alright. Five minutes. What was happening when you left?”
“The den was about to explode.”
“You cannot expect me to take those leopards out of exile,” snarled Tanabi.
“Yes, I can,” said Mataka patiently.
“They killed a lioness and her cubs for no reason!”
“And you’re sure about that?”
“Yes! They had her blood on their mouths!”
“I’ve heard they were hunting.”
“They were hunting the lioness!”
“That’s a lie!” yelled Amana suddenly. Everyone turned to stare at her. Nasiha and Akida even stopped their quiet conversation. There was a ringing silence.
“You,” said Kisasa quietly, then louder, “It’s you! You told him to do this!” She leapt at Amana and began clubbing her with her paws. “I’ll kill you!”
Amana landed a forceful blow on Kisasa, knocking her off. “I did not ask him to take Kivuli. When he told me what he was doing I thought it was the stupidest thing ever.” Nasiha smiled. “I just asked for his help. I had to. You would never listen to me.”
“You had no right to do this,” said Tanabi angrily. “None whatsoever.”
“What’re you going to do? Exile me like you did Ibu and her cubs? At least this time you’d have a shred of justification!”
“You exiled cubs?” asked Mataka incredulously. “That’s low.”
“I didn’t exile her cubs,” said Tanabi. “Only her.”
“You might as well have!” yelled Amana. “How would you like it if you hadn’t had Monah to snuggle up to at night? And her mate was heartbroken! How could you expect him to just stay here when she was gone? But no, you didn’t think of any of that!”
“So you would have let her stay even if she killed, say, Kumbu?”
“Ibu didn’t kill anyone!”
There was silence. Mataka finally broke it with, “You have one day. If the ban isn’t lifted by then, and other demands that may come up aren’t met, then you never see Kivuli again. Of course, if I’m killed, or the cheetah, Amana, or the hyena is in any way hurt, then it’s just as good as if you waited too long. Of course, if I’m killed, that leopard is stuck with the cub, and I really doubt his skills as a father.”
“What’s stopping me from beating where Kivuli is out of you?” snarled Kisasa.
“Nothing. Go right ahead. I’ve gone for an entire week under torture.” Nasiha gave a small snort at that. “It’d just be your loss.”
“You mentioned other conditions,” said Tanabi.
“Just that you treat everyone involved as if this never happened. In other words, no punishing Amana, the hyena, the cheetah, or the leopard for their involvement. Same for me.”
Tanabi sighed. “I still see no reason to let them back in. They’ll kill one lioness after another.”
Amana got up, walked over to Tanabi, and hit him across the face. Hard. “Ibu—is—innocent. But no, you didn’t wait for that., did you? You didn’t even listen to her pleas. You disgust me.”
Monah walked over to Amana and hit her across her face. “Don’t you dare act like that to your king.”
“King?” Amana scoffed. “Making you a queen, I suppose, seeing as you raised him. Why don’t you go console Kisasa?” Kisasa snarled. “Maybe you’ll understand why Mother went against you stealing Tanabi.”
“Your mother came with me willingly,” snarled Monah.
“My mother came with you to change your mind!”
“Enough!” exploded Tanabi. “Let me think!” He walked out to the edge of Pride Rock, Monah and Kisasa right behind him. Nasiha and Akida walked in from their spots outside the den and lied down. Amana stared in fury at Monah’s back for a few minutes and stormed over to the group.
“I’ve been waiting to do that for years. Oh, I wish she’d just give me a chance to kill her. She’d regret it.” Amana took in a deep breath. Mataka just smiled. “You think he’ll do it?” Amana asked.
“I’m not worried about that,” said Nasiha. “I’m more worried about Makini and that cub.”
Kivuli was a little hell-raiser. Unfortunately, Sudi and Makini did not know this. But they learned. Quickly. As soon as they made the mistake of telling her that the trip was going nowhere and that they were actually cubnapping her she began to do her best to escape from them. It had ended with, after five straight minutes of hanging from Sudi’s mouth by the scruff of her neck while trying to cut his “dirty, cub-stealin’ throat,” Makini making her promise not to run away. She kept to her word; she never ran farther than thirty feet from in any direction from the two of them, but several times she became convinced that they wanted to race and ran happily down the gorge while Makini and Sudi did their best to catch her as quickly as possible.
But she later tired of even that and decided to begin asking about everything you can; questions like “Why is the sky blue?”, “Where are we going?”, “Are we there yet?” (multiple times), “You wanna play tag?”, “What about lunch?”, “What is that ugly thing on your face?”, and all the other questions a terminally bored cub can ask. The answers were, respectively, “I don’t know.”, “None of your business.”, “Not yet.” (in increasing irritation, volume, and profanity), “No.”, “The sooner you stop thinking about it, the less hungry you’ll be.”, “How old are you?” “Six months.” “If you want to live to be seven you’ll shut up.”, and all of the irritable answers a leopard and a cheetah can be expected to questions asked by a terminally bored cub.
Makini and Sudi swore off having any cubs ever.
One good can be said, though. The tedium only lasted a couple of hours.
In answer to “Why do cicadas make that weird noise?”, instead of “Ask a cicada.”, Kivuli received from Makini, “Hey, you hear that?”
“No, stupid, you can only hear them at night.”
“Shut it, cub. Sudi, you hear that?”
“I don’t hear anythi—” He stopped in mid-sentence, hearing a dull roar. He looked down at the ground to see pieces of rock dancing. Kivuli let out one long, happy note, her voice moving up and down, distorted by vibration. “There is no way my luck is this bad,” said Sudi slowly. He and Makini looked at each other and then behind them. A small group of mixed animals rounded the bend. “Oh, well that’s not so bad.” An entire flood of animals began to stream around the bend. “Oh, hell no!”
Sudi grabbed Kivuli and began to run down the gorge for his life, Makini surprisingly by his side, matching his top speed. He was fast for a leopard. The ground shook as the thunder of hooves ran behind them. They’d gotten a decent head start, but neither one of them were meant for endurance. Just above the roar Sudi could make out Makini saying, “He had to pick migration, didn’t he? It just had to be migration!” They came up on a fork in the gorge. “Steer left!” Makini yelled. “We need to go left!” Sudi followed Makini down the left side, already feeling fatigued. He couldn’t keep this up forever. “The river!” Makini yelled. “We just need to make it across the river!” Sudi could see the flowing blue just ahead. He put on an extra burst of speed and raced across it, now caught up to Makini. As soon as he was across he collapsed, taking in as much air as he could in each breath. Makini was doing the same while staring at the stampede.
Kivuli shook off what water she’d gotten on herself. “That was fun! Do it again!”
“Now what?” Sudi managed to get out. He turned to look at the herd, still running like their lives depended on it. Sudi was amazed at how much distance they’d put between themselves and the herd, and was even more amazed at how quickly the animals were eating up the gap.
“They’ll stop at the river. They always do.” Makini’s chest was still heaving.
Sudi stared at the herd. “They’re not stopping.”
“Wait for it.”
“They’re not stopping.”
“Just give it a chance.”
“They’re not stopping!” Sudi picked up Kivuli again and resumed running, Makini at his side. He heard the herd splash through the river behind them. He ran as fast as he could, praying for the gorge to end soon. Then he saw their salvation: a narrow ledge that could serve as a walkway up the side of the gorge.
“Ledge!” Makini yelled, having seen it, too. Sudi’s breath came in quick spurts. Just a little farther . . .
In all fairness, it wasn’t Sudi’s fault. He wasn’t meant to run like that, and besides carrying his own weight, he had a mouthful of Kivuli weighing him down, too. He staggered. The stagger turned into a trip. The trip turned into a fall. The next thing her knew, he was on the ground, Kivuli rolling away from him.
Makini looked back, time seeming to slow down just for that. He’d heard Sudi’s cry of “Unh!” and saw him on the ground. He looked at Sudi, then back at the ledge. Time sped back up. Makini ran to Kivuli and put her on the ledge with a quick, “Get up there!” He turned back to Sudi to see him standing up. It wasn’t going to be fast enough. The small herd that had been in front of the big one was bearing down on Sudi much too fast. Makini ran around Sudi and rammed him as hard as he could towards the ledge, putting himself out of danger. Makini looked back toward the herd and braced himself.
Sudi looked back to Makini just as the herd hit him. Makini was knocked to the ground and rolled over several times, the herd thundering around and on him. They finally passed over him, Makini rolling to a painful stop.
And then, suddenly, he cut it off, gritting his teeth. All Sudi could do was stare at Makini, Makini’s foreleg at a bizarre angle. Makini slowly tried to get up, almost immediately falling back down when his leg moved. He looked at the approaching herd, then at Sudi. Sudi was unable to move, rooted by fear and stunned by the look in Makini’s eyes. The eyes changed, the face became feminine, the daylight became dark night. But the expressions remained the same. Fear. The face looked back down, her paws were torn from underneath Sudi’s, and “Loma!” was torn from Sudi’s mouth. The scene changed back into day, Makini trying once again to get up, partially up and in unbearable pain. He collapsed with a prolonged groan. Sudi acted. He ran toward Makini and turned him over, ignoring Makini’s screams. He grabbed Makini’s leg and juggled him so he was roughly across his back. He ran like hell for the ledge.
He made it. Barely. One of Makini’s back legs was actually touched by an antelope, the force almost throwing him off Sudi. Sudi ran up the ledge as fast as he could, picking up Kivuli along the way. When he reached the top of the gorge, he dropped Kivuli, then tried to lay down Makini as gently as possible, injured leg up. Makini was still screaming. Kivuli gave a little shriek at the sight of the dislocated leg. Despite his earlier resistance, Makini wouldn’t stop screaming. Sudi did the kindest thing he could think of. He clipped Makini on the temple, sending him into unconsciousness.
“Don’t worry,” said Mataka. “The kid’ll be fine.”
“I hope so,” said Nasiha.
The next hour was spent doing nothing but waiting. Monah had come in after just a few seconds of talking, lied down, curled up, and had done nothing but stare at the rogues. Kisasa spent the entire hour quietly arguing with Tanabi on the edge of Pride Rock. Finally both of them stopped talking and looked out into the savannah. Tanabi was almost immediately off Pride Rock. Kisasa stayed where she was. A few moments later Vitani came into the den, her head hung low. “Amana.”
Amana went over to her. “What?” Her voice was shaking.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“Is—is it about Kumbu? Please tell me it’s not Kumbu,” she begged.
Amana took a step back, tears filling her eyes. “No . . .”
“I’m sorry . . . It looks like she’s a better hunter than you.”
“What?” Vitani brought her head up with a smile. “Vitani, that’s NOT FUNNY!”
“Mom!” Kumbukizi appeared in the mouth of the den.
“Kumbu!” Amana ran to her, nuzzled her.
“It was her idea,” said Vitani. “You know, to scare you.”
“Don’t you ever do anything like that again!” scolded Amana. “I was so worried!”
“I told you I’d be fine, didn’t I?” said Kumbu with a large grin. “It was nothing.”
“She was great,” said Vitani. “If it weren’t for her, things could have been a lot worse.”
“Huh?” asked Amana.
“A couple of hyenas decided to go hunting, too. Would have completely wrecked the hunt. We almost lost plenty of lionesses. Kumbu managed to get three out of trouble herself.”
“Hyenas?” asked Tanabi, walking into the den.
“Yeah, two of them. They got knocked out and dragged to safety. It seemed decent to leave a couple carcasses. They probably had no idea what they were interfering with. So what’s with this party in the den?”
“If you haven’t noticed, Kivuli’s gone.”
“Yeah, it did seem a little quiet.”
“And they refuse to return her until I let the leopard I exiled for killing Laym and her cubs back in.”
“Now run along,” said Amana, “and let us talk.”
“I am the queen, Amana,” rebuked Vitani coldly.
“Not you. Kumbu.”
“Why?” asked Kumbukizi innocently.
“Because,” said Kisasa bitterly, everyone turning their head to see her walking into the den, “your mother has—”
“Shut up, Kisasa,” snarled Amana.
“Why should I? They should know what you’ve done! They should see you for the traitor and monster you are!”
“I’m trying to help a friend!”
“Then what do you have to hide?” Kisasa turned to Kumbukizi. “Your mother—”
“—has stolen my cub. And she’s conspired to have it killed if we don’t give in to this rogue’s—” she spat out the word disgustedly—“demands!”
“Uh, point,” interjected Mataka. “Taken away, not killed. And my plan, not hers. Let’s give credit where credit’s due.”
“It all amounts to the same thing,” said Kisasa furiously.
“Mom,” said Kumbukizi, shocked, “is this true?”
“Yes,” said Amana defiantly.
“Alright Mom!” All heads in the den turned t Kumbukizi, completely shocked. “That’s how to do it!”
“Kumbu!” reprimanded Kiara.
“Oh, sorry. Shame on you, Mom. Shame in slow, steady doses. Shame.” Kumbukizi shook her head, her smile completely ruining the entire act.
“Kizi!” Kumbukizi turned to see a lioness standing in the mouth of the den. “You gonna eat what you caught or just brag about it?”
“Coming.” Kumbukizi turned back to the crowd. “You guys want anything?”
“Yeah, a buck over here,” called Mataka. Nasiha and Akida stared at him. “Oh, right, and some for them, too.”
“You must be joking,” said Tanabi.
“What? I’ve barely had any breakfast.”
“You walk into my den, steal a cub, threaten me, and then you expect me to feed you?”
“Common courtesy. Especially since you really want that cub back.” Tanabi groaned. “Just make that one buck, kid.” Kumbukizi ran off. “Alright. Back to your whispered conversation.”
“What makes you think I haven’t decided?”
“You kings never keep anything in. You’re all the same.”
“Maybe I’ve decided to kill you.”
“Go ahead. I don’t care. I’ve got your cub.”
Tanabi walked towards Mataka slowly. “You’re right. You’re a rogue. You don’t care. You lose a partner here, a friend there, it’s no loss. They’re replaced. That’s what you’d like us to think. But I think you do care.” He stopped, inches from Mataka’s face. “I think you don’t enjoy what you do nearly as much as you pretend to.”
Mataka smiled. “And I think you need to shut up.” Nasiha quickly looked over Mataka, easily recognizing the strain in his voice, the clenched teeth, the left foreleg with its claws fully out and its toes splayed.
“Easy,” he cautioned.
Tanabi raised his head, letting out a small “hmm” of satisfaction. He walked back out to the edge of Pride Rock. Mataka stared at him a second, then shook his head. “How does he know? How the hell does he know so goddamned much?”
Makini slowly came to, his eyes still firmly shut. He eased the pressure forcing his eyelids together, and applied some of it again feeling his leg throb. He let out a small moan. He opened his eyes, seeing a little set of black paws in front of his eyes. He let out another moan, having nothing to do with the horrific pain in his leg. “He’s awake,” Kivuli said.
A paw brushed Kivuli aside a moment later. Sudi stuck his head down by Makini’s. Makini shifted his gaze up, moving his body slightly when he turned his head. He clenched his teeth in pain. “Makini?” Sudi asked.
“Sudi,” he forced out.
“If your mother had seen you do that she’d be very upset.”
“Nasiha said today you were my mother.”
“Does it hurt when I do this?” Kivuli asked. Makini felt a jab in his injured shoulder.
“Of course it hurts you little shit!” Makini exploded. “Don’t do that again!”
“Cub, sit over there and try to be quiet,” said Sudi. Kivuli obediently walked away. Even she realized this wasn’t a time to play. “How do I fix it?” Sudi asked quietly. Makini muttered something. “What?”
“Yeah, but he isn’t here. You’re his protégé, tell me how.”
Makini muttered again. Then louder, “What’s Kassan like?”
“I don’t feel like talking, so listen. What’s Kassan like?”
“Who, the black leopard?”
“Yes, the goddamn black leopard.”
“I’ve only worked with him twice. He saved the entire job both times.” Makini’s eyes begged for more. “What’s he like . . . well, it’s really how sure he is. He never second-guesses himself. And he’s . . . detached. You could even call it cocky, or uppity. He’s better than you, and he knows it.”
There was a pause. “That’s it?” asked Makini.
“Well, you’ve probably heard most of the rumors. Especially about how free he is.”
haven’t. Free with the ladies. He isn’t picky about species, either. Heck, I’ve
even noticed him with a hyena on one job. What he could find in anything
outside leopards is beyond me. I can’t see anything in anything but cheetahs.
He’s probably got cubs all over
“Yeah, real funny. Now tell me, how do you fix it?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
“You call that muttering audible?”
“Why don’t you lean down a little closer so I can get a good look at your neck?”
Nasiha stared at Mataka staring at Amana. He knew Mataka wasn’t actually staring at her, he was just staring off into space. He’d barely touched the carcass Kumbukizi brought in. Kumbukizi had refused to leave, and promised to stay quiet if she did stay. Mataka had barely taken notice of it. Nasiha knew that when Mataka reflected like this he could get extremely touchy. He quietly asked, “Share your thoughts?”
Mataka looked up. “Huh? Oh, nothing really. Just reliving Cheko.”
“That massacre?” Mataka nodded. “Why?”
“Can’t help it. That damned king . . . it’s like he can see through me. I just can’t stop thinking about all my failures.”
wasn’t your problem. It wasn’t anyone’s. Hell, the entire situation was given
to us wrong. We simply never had a chance.”
“But we could have saved little Beda . . .” Mataka sighed sadly. “Poor guy. All eager to fight . . . and his mother was so proud of him . . . called himself a lil’skari, remember?”
“Yeah. But that’s what we get for relying on the locals for everything.”
Mataka stared at Nasiha. “That’s pretty caustic, don’t you think?”
“I’m over it. You used to be, too. I mean, we both feel sorry for the whole thing, but we have to get over it. What’s your problem?”
“I don’t know. Must’ve been that damned king . . . He isn’t like the others.”
“Of course he isn’t,” said Amana.
“What do you mean, ‘of course he isn’t’?”
He has gifts. He doesn’t see you when he looks at you; he sees your aura.”
“You mean that stuff is true?” asked Nasiha incredulously.
“Yeah,” said Amana.
Tanabi walked over. “Amana.” She looked up. “Why are you so sure?”
“Because Ibu couldn’t. She just couldn’t. She’s never anything but nice.”
Yeah, didn’t you give her a chance to explain?” asked Mataka.
“Of course I did. Do you take me for a fool?” asked Tanabi.
“The precise degree of your idiocy is not under question. What is being questioned is how you could make such a stupid mistake in the first place. Everyone I’ve talked to says they’re innocent.”
“That leopard had blood all over her mouth and claws, poor Laym and her cubs had been half-eaten—”
“Hey, we’re talking about Ibu the leopard, right?” interrupted Kumbukizi.
“Yes. Now qui—”
“She didn’t do it.”
“Very funny. As I was saying, she had blood all over herself and her cubs—”
“I really mean it. I was there.”
“What do you mean, you were there?”
“Mom used to let me play with Ibu’s cubs sometimes. She could trust Ibu for anything. Anyway, Ibu got us lunch, and we were all eating when we heard this scream. We stayed put for a long time before Ibu told me to stay there while she took her cubs. Then I just never saw her.”
“Kumbu,” said Amana softly, “why didn’t you say anything?”
“Isn’t that obvious? I just didn’t know. I tried to ask you where Ibu had been exiled and you refused to talk about it. Remember?”
“Oh . . . yes.”
“There you go, king,” said Mataka. “Proof. So are you going to lift the ban or not? Remember, only one day.”
“I was so sure . . .”
“Yeah, that’s great, now can we go get the cub or not? I’m tired of Blackie over there trying to kill me with her eyes.”
“How do I know you won’t just leave?” asked Tanabi suspiciously.
“What, do you think I don’t have any moral . . . whaddayacallem . . .”
“Scruples?” supplied Nasiha.
“Yeah, thanks, scruples. I mean, there has to be some degree of trust here. You can call me a rogue, you can cal me a ’skari, you can call me a stubborn pain in your ass. But at least I’m honest.” Nasiha stared at him. “Mostly.”
“Alright then,” said Tanabi. “Bring the cub. I’ll lift the ban.”
“Good.” Mataka, Akida, and Nasiha stood up. “May take time to get the cub. Give us a day.”
“Alright. And—just so you know—if anyone is exiled or re-exiled, or anything happens to anyone, I’ll find out. And for each thing I see that I’m not happy with, someone dies. Understand?”
Tanabi seemed slightly taken aback. “Er . . . yes.”
“Good.” Mataka bowed. “Your servant, sire.” He backed out of the den, his head still low. Nasiha and Akida didn’t bother with the act. Once out of the den, Mataka straightened up. “And thank you so much, you dirty, black piece of filth.”
“Come on,” said Nasiha. “She wasn’t so bad.”
“For you, maybe. I hate that Monah. Gives me the creeps.” Mataka turned to the hyena. “Nice job. And tell your brothers thanks for the distraction.”
“I will.” Akida began to walk his own way before he hesitated and turned back. “For a lion, you’re halfway decent.” Then he was gone.
Mataka kept walking with Nasiha to the rendezvous point. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to Ushairi?”
“She’ll understand. I want to check on Makini first.”
“Alright . . . Some job, huh?”
“Too quiet for me. A little less conversation, a little more action.”
“Yeah, but what about that job down in Daima?”
“Alright, that was too much action there. Just a little . . .”
Mataka and Nasiha had caught dinner. They were taking it to Sudi and Makini, still discussing jobs, Nasiha with the carcass on his back so he could speak freely. “What happened to Ey-Aye?” asked Mataka.
“Ey-Aye . . . Oh, Aisha. Doing pretty well. Talking about settling down, too, last I heard. Funny, though, she’s about your age.”
Mataka laughed. “Now that was a lioness for you. She knew how to be a pain in the ass.”
Nasiha laughed. “Yeah, but she’d kill you faster than anything if you gave her a reason.”
“Yeah . . . Aisha.”
“You’re really leaving it, aren’t you?”
“Yep. Do me a favor, though will you?”
“You mind taking Makini with you?”
Mataka smiled. “Funny. He already asked me that.”
“What’d you say?”
“I’ll tell him yes.”
They heard a yell, followed by, “I told you not to do that, you little—unh!” Mataka ran to see behind the hill blocking the speaker from his view. His entire left foreleg went rigid.
“Oh, taka . . . Nasiha!”
Nasiha shed the carcass and ran, stopping dead when he reached Mataka and laughing.
“What’s so damn funny?” asked Makini, his face contorted in pain. His shoulder was still protruding out of its socket.
“It’s not funny,” said Nasiha. “It’s not funny at all. But doesn’t it look familiar, Mataka?”
“Too damn familiar.”
“He’s had this same injury. Same leg even.” Nasiha placed both of his forepaws on Makini’s body around Makini’s shoulder. “We tried so many things to get it back in we completely wrecked his leg.” Makini winced.
“Can’t feel a thing in it now.”
“Comes in handy occasionally. But don’t worry; your leg should be fine. How long ago did it happen?”
“Few hours,” said Sudi.
“Okay. I’m going to fix it, but it’s going to hurt.” Makini tensed. “No, just relax. I’ll do it on three. Just relax.” Nasiha paused. “Can’t feel anything broken. Can only hope. Now, right after we’re through here, I’m going to take you to this wonderful little spot I found. Most beautiful place you’ve seen. Remember it, Sudi?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Sudi, having no idea what Nasiha was talking about. “Gorgeous.” He was doing his best to keep Kivuli back against her protests of “Let me see! I want to see!”
ahead, let her watch. Just stay back, cub. As I was saying, wonderful place.
Makini screamed as Nasiha shifted his shoulder back into its socket, stopping a little after it went in. “The pain,” he said disbelievingly. “It’s gone.” He made to stand up.
“Lie back down right now. You aren’t moving until I’m satisfied. And that’s a day, at least. I’ve only seen this happen three times, and only one of the cases actually was walking immediately after it.” Nasiha turned to Mataka. “Get the carcass, will you? I’m going to check him out.” Mataka went to get it. When he returned Nasiha was gently running a claw up and down Makini’s leg. “You feel all of that?”
“Yes. Now can I get up?”
“You’re to lie like that all night. Don’t move an inch. How would you like it if you did what Mataka did? His popped back out when he put weight on it.” Makini winced. “I didn’t think so.”
The rest of the night Makini stayed put. They all stayed there, trying to make him happier, Kivuli especially. By and large, she succeeded. Once Mataka tried to take her back to Pride Rock, but she insisted that she would “thrash all of you” if Mataka tried to take her away before Makini stood up again. The matter was dropped after that. Kivuli was actually kind of fun to be around in her own wild way. So the night was spent talking, eating, joking, teaching Kivuli as many dirty words as she could hold, speculating on what words Kisasa would say when filth began to pour out of her daughter’s mouth, and finally, sleep.
Mataka tried to get up quietly. He didn’t want to rouse the lioness. He didn’t want to say goodbye. Not to her. He’d come to her and left her numerous times. He always left, and each time it got harder. He loved her and she loved him, there was no doubt about that. He still remembered last night’s conversation vividly. He’d hated it. But he felt he needed to tell her. About his failures. About how he’d left others to die, about how he’d left them screaming in pain, but how he had to save others. It hurt. “But,” he’d reasoned, “let’s say that for every Liaka, or Una, I save two, maybe even five others. That’s worth it, right?” They still hadn’t had an answer. He felt bad enough leaving her as it was. Her bulging stomach was more than enough reason to stay. She was due soon. But he’d be back for that. He swore that.
“You leaving again?” He turned to see her sitting up.
“Yes. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“But you did.”
He smiled. “Yes, I did.” He paused. “Does your pride know about me?”
“Not a thing. They asked questions for about a day, and then gave up. I love you too much to give you away. I want this to be my little secret.” She looked down at her stomach proudly.
Mataka suddenly sat down. “I’m staying. I don’t want to leave you like this.”
The lioness laughed. “Yes, you do. But don’t worry.” She gave him a lick on the face. “I’ll be waiting for you. And you’ll come back.” She smiled. “Go on, get, before someone sees you.”
Mataka did as he was told after giving her a kiss. There would be a day when he would no longer leave. He was more than thankful that she would wait for him.
He went back to her two weeks later. She would have had the cub by then, and he cursed himself for missing it. If he had only left when he could have . . . But when he did arrive, she was gone. He looked everywhere. He didn’t find her.
Makini waited at the base of Pride Rock while Mataka escorted Kivuli up to the den. Nasiha had no idea he was here, and if he did, he probably would have thrown a fit over his walking. His leg felt fine. A little sore, maybe, but it was fine.
Mataka approached the mouth of the den. “Now listen, kid,” Mataka said to her. “I want you to go in as quietly as you can, and just cuddle up to your mom like you were never gone.”
“Okay,” said Kivuli in an equally conspiratorial whisper. “I’m gonna tell those mother-grabbing sons of—”
“Kid, don’t curse. Not unless you really, really mean it. Just as a favor to me, ’kay?”
“Alright,” said Kivuli reluctantly. Mataka watched her go into the den, then headed back down the ramp. He stopped dead when he heard a voice.
“Are you leaving again?”
Mataka turned to see Amana emerging from the shadow of the area under Pride Rock. “I don’t think Kisasa would be very happy if I stayed. Besides, I just can’t. You know that. I get restless.” He walked over to Amana and kissed her on the cheek. “You can come with me.”
“It still wouldn’t be fair to the cub.”
“She’s not a cub anymore.”
Amana smiled. “She still is to me.” She stepped forward and nuzzled Mataka. “Thank you for Ibu.”
Mataka looked at the ground guiltily. “Sorry I was so rough on you.” He looked back up. “Did he follow through?”
“As soon as you left.”
Mataka smiled as he nuzzled Amana. “They treat you alright?”
“They won’t treat you the same now. They never can.”
“It’s worth it.” She looked into his eyes. “When will you be back?”
“Whenever I can be. It gets harder to leave every time.” He sighed. “Just don’t move like that again. I looked all over for you.”
“I mean everywhere.” Amana laughed. “I’ll be back in a week. I promise.”
“I mean this. I’ll be back in a week, or I’ll be dead.”
She nuzzled him again. “Well, that night two nights ago was wonderful.” She looked up at him, smiling. “I love you.”
“I’ll wait,” she promised.
Mataka stared at Amana lovingly, then gave her a lick on the cheek. “You be good.” She smiled. Mataka began to walk away. “You coming, kid?”
“Right behind you,” said Makini, falling in step with Mataka, limping unconsciously. Amana watched them go with a hint of regret.
“Mom?” Amana turned to see Kumbukizi.
“What are you doing up?”
“Kivuli bounced on my head.”
“Ouch.” Amana turned to continue to watch the two receding figures.
“Who was he? Really?”
Amana smiled. “Ask him when he comes back.” She turned and began the climb into the den.
“He’s coming back?”
“Oh, yes. Always.”