"So, it's agreed then? My
son will be betrothed to your daughter?" A soft breeze blew around King
Habari, but he didn't feel it. The only thing he felt was a large heaviness
settling on his chest. The words were out and nothing would take them back. He
put a paw on his wife's.
The lioness in front of the royal rulers looked up. Her eyes were bright and pleased. "I am most honored at this arrangement, your majesties. I do hope this works for both our families." It was a false statement but she wasn't about to admit that. She'd hoped this would happen, and now it did.
"As do we," said Queen Nadia. Out of the corner of an eye, she glanced at her mate's torn face. Thankfully, the other lioness didn't notice. Her joy and happiness was still present and would be for awhile.
A hard moment of silence passed and Habari, with now tired eyes, stared at the lioness. She would never know the pain of this decision. He licked his lips and narrowed his eyes. "But, if it doesn't work, if there is no love between my son and your daughter, the arrangement is off. I will not have my only son be in a marriage that has no feeling, or let him be married to a lioness he does not love. Am I clear?"
The lioness just smiled, as if she didn't hear the last part. Maybe she didn't. "I understand, sire. Thank you both so much. Sauda won't let you or your son down, I promise."
"Very well," the queen said. "You may go." It was time to dismiss her anyway. Everything was said and done.
The lioness rose, bowed, and left the clearing. Another hard, uncomfortable silence filled the air.
When she was gone, Habari leapt to his paws, the color gone from his face. He ran for the nearest bush and retched.
Nadia winced. He had never done that, but she didn't know the thoughts running through his mind either. And now she was worried. Habari returned, came up and nuzzled her fiercely. She nuzzled him back and felt him shaking. Confusion filled her but before she could speak, he spoke first, his voice low and quivering.
"I pray we did the right thing today, Nadia."
She would have responded but he pulled away quickly and abruptly, then turned and stared into nothing. His eyes were blank and distant, and a shadow of pain covered his strong face. Nadia remained silent. The fact that he was even considering a betrothal for their son overwhelmed her. The question, the one she'd asked in her mind, was why? They weren't betrothed. A mate couldn't be chosen by parents, or anyone else. To choose a life partner had to come from the heart. There was nothing she could say now. Habari had made his decision. She may have hated it but… He was king.
Nadia shook her head and walked up to him. She rested her head on his shoulder, trying to bring comfort. "I think we did," she said, her voice quiet, but her eyes held doubt.
Habari swallowed. He heard the doubt in her voice, which caused ache. "A betrothal hasn't happened in this kingdom for generations. My father told me the story of the first king setting down the laws with the first shaman, who was a long time friend." He set his jaw and gritted his teeth. "They agreed that betrothals could only be fulfilled if the ones betrothed feel love for each other. If not, then the arrangement can be annulled." He closed his eyes. "What if our son doesn't feel love for Sauda? What if she's not the lioness for him?"
Nadia wanted to agree. It was a hard and bitter truth, but instead of admitting it, she nuzzled him slowly. "We'll just have to wait and see." That statement made her shiver.
He flinched. That was the last thing he wanted to hear, but she was trying to help, something he appreciated more than anything. "Sauda was born right after him. The first king declared that, should a betrothal be made, that the first lioness to give birth after the queen… her cub is betrothed to the royal cub. We… we all have free will. And not all betrothals work the way we expect them, which is why the first king made betrothals an option. They were never used unless something good could come from them." The next words stuck in his throat. He forced them out. "Can something good come from this? What we've done… what I've done…" The thought made him want to throw up. The thought weakened him.
Licking his cheek, Nadia pressed her head against his. She was worried too, and refused to address it. She didn't want to increase his pain. "They're still young yet, dear, just adolescents. We have time to find out if it'll work."
He couldn't keep his emotions in any longer. The tears spilled from his eyes. He lowered his head into his wife's shoulder and sobbed. For a king, Habari knew he shouldn't show such emotion of concern for his son's future, a future he already laid out, and had planned supposedly for his son's best interest. But as the tears flowed down his face, as the sobs made his body shake and tremble, he had to wonder. Was this whole thing really in his son's best interest, or to prove that sometimes betrothals do work? Why had he really done this? What they, what he, had done was the hardest thing in the world, but waiting would prove to be harder than anything.
Nadia wrapped an arm around his back and purred softly. In her mind, she prayed for strength. She and Habari would need it if this arrangement backfired.
The ceremony had gone well. As well as he could expect. As well as anyone could expect. Aside from him being crowned king and married, the entire day had been quiet, ghostly.
Nkosi breathed a heavy and tired sigh. The cheers of the gathered animals remained in his mind. At least they were happy to have a new leader. King… The word, spoken by the shaman and spiritual leader only a few hours ago still rang in his head. He knew it was bound to happen, but it was still so overwhelming. He was the new sovereign ruler of the Eastern Valley, protector of his people and the other inhabitants. And he was also a husband and partner of someone else… someone he didn't love.
In spite of himself Nkosi growled softly, his claws cutting into the hard solid ground. Why? Why did his parents betroth him and to her out of the lionesses he grew up with? He knew the laws and options that had been passed down all the way back to the kingdom's founding. He understood them and would use the ones that benefited others, but this… a betrothal? Who would that benefit? Not him or his wife. It seemed or sounded like his parents just wanted to try. What was wrong with that? Why couldn't they try this option at least once? If it did cause harm then the damage could be undone, but what about him? He didn't even get a say! But he knew that some things had to be tested and tried one time.
Angry and hurt, Nkosi shook himself. He had to maintain composure. No matter what he felt or didn't feel for this lioness, she was his wife, his partner, and his second in command on the royal front.
And there was no way he would break it off. Even with the kingship, he couldn't. He wasn't the king who fashioned the agreement. It was his late father, the father who up and disappeared on everyone a few months earlier with no explanation or reason. He just left, in the middle of the night. Nkosi had feared this would happen for sometime as did his mother. They'd watched his father struggle. He wasn't weak, that much Nkosi knew. Some decisions could have a lasting effect. And this, betrothing his son, had been it.
Truth was Nkosi couldn't annul this 'union' if he wanted to. Trouble was he wasn't sure if he did. Perhaps this happened for a reason, and whatever the reason, he would make it work. He had to. He was that kind of a lion. If he made a commitment he'd stick to it, even if it hurt. And he would try to love her, maybe not as a lover, but as a friend, for that's what they were and all they probably would be. They could work their way up to romance. They had their whole lives to do so.
He looked up at the sky. The sun was setting, but there was still some warm air in the atmosphere. It was a good feeling. The day was near over and he was relieved. Tomorrow he would start his rule. He was excited and anxious, something many new kings rarely felt, his own father included.
Nkosi smiled as he heard his mother's voice. He turned from the view and faced her. "Mother," he said, bowing his head deeply. He came and nuzzled her.
"I'm proud of you. Your father would be too." Nadia looked at him. He had his father's crystal blue eyes.
"Yes, I know." His face suddenly fell, his expression grim.
Nadia's own ears lowered in response. She knew what was on his mind. It had been on hers all day too. "I'm so sorry," she said quietly. "We shouldn't have betrothed you to her. Do you –"
A gentle, soft glare silenced her. "Mom," Nkosi said softly. "It's okay. I'm willing to make it work. Whether she is or not, is a different thing, but I am. That should be enough. I don't love her, but I am willing to try."
His mother nodded and stared. There was a spark of determination in his eyes. If she didn't believe his words, she'd believe that. Should they speak of this matter in the future, she would always remember that look. "I just hope she's willing to love you back."
Nkosi nodded and shook his head. "I won't pressure her. This… us, will be as new for her as it will be for me. We just need time. We'll work it out. Don't worry."
Hearing this made the Queen Mother feel better, but only a little. She had been dreading her son's wedding day for months, maybe longer than that, and she had worried that the arrangement would or wouldn't fall through. But it had worked; waiting had worked, and now, hearing her son's words, seeing the look in his eyes… It was a relief that also caused an ache somewhere deep inside her soul. Maybe with time the ache would disappear. She could only hope, but now she was tired, the day catching up with her. She yawned.
Nkosi put a paw on her shoulder. "It's been a long day, Mother. Go and rest."
She eyed him. "You should do the same. You have a long day tomorrow."
He shook his head, amused. "I will never understand how Dad woke before the dawn."
A small smile of recollection formed on her maw. "I won't either, sweetheart, but he did. Sometimes I'd go with him. Maybe Sauda will go with you."
"It's alright if she doesn't. I'll be okay."
She was about to say something else, but closed her mouth. She yawned again and glanced up at the sky. The stars were slowly coming out. "Well, I'm heading in." She gave him a gentle lick on the cheek. "Don't stay out too late."
Nkosi smiled, nuzzled her, and watched her go. What a wise lioness, and she was his mother! He considered himself blessed to have her. He learned much about leadership from her as he had from his father. Without warning, his heart sank. He turned and walked up the stone and lied down, his paws dangling over the ledge. Tears stung at the edges of his eyes, his mind speaking one word.
Nadia entered the den with grace. The cool air made her body feel at ease. Upon her entrance, the lionesses rose and bowed. The old queen smiled, shook her head, and regarded them all with a loving stare.
"You don't need to bow. I'm not the queen."
A lioness walked up, tears in her eyes. "My lady, to us, you will always be our queen."
Nadia nuzzled her gently. "Now, now… Sauda is your queen."
At the mention of the new ruler's name, many lionesses cringed while others muttered. Nadia couldn't really blame them. Queen Sauda didn't really have a good ring, unlike her own, but it wasn't the title that bothered her old pride. She knew the true reason which made her uneasy, and her daughter in law wasn't even starting her rule yet. Nadia wasn't a lioness who judged anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. And in this case, was it?
She lifted her eyes from the lioness to all of them, her eyes making contact with each of theirs. The lioness in front of her stepped back. With a breath, Nadia spoke again. "Like I said, Sauda is your queen. You must treat her with the same respect as you have treated me. She is new to leadership as was I at one point. It will take her some time to get used to her new position. I don't want any of you to pressure her by any means, all right? And don't be afraid to go to her with your problems."
"But, can you help us, if she can't?" another lioness asked.
Nadia nodded. "Yes, I will help however I can."
In the darkness, it was hard to see if they were nodding their heads in response, but the sounds of their voices made it a little easier.
"Yes, ma'am," some said.
"We understand, my lady," said others.
Nadia smiled. They were all in agreement. At least they didn't have problems with her son. "Okay. Now, let's rest."
The lionesses moved about the cave, some going to old sleeping spots, others finding new.
Nadia looked around and saw a corner unoccupied. She walked to it and lied down. A cold, empty feeling surrounded her. The reason was all too clear and it would take some getting used to even after a few months. Habari… The first night without him, the first night after he left had been hard. Did ruling have that bad effect on him? Was it the ruling or something deeper? Had he gone to the shaman? She had wanted to ask this afternoon after the ceremony but didn't. She wouldn't spoil her son's wedding and coronation with questions about his father, though the thought must have occurred to him more than once during the day. She would ask, but later when it was appropriate. The point was she had to know what went on with her mate. For now, however, she would sleep, but déjà vu hit like a stampede. She missed Habari deeply.
As she put her head on her paws, her eyes darted around the cave as if hoping he would come in and lie down beside her and tell her he was alright. That it was nothing. She felt his presence even now and longed to be with him wherever he was, but she was needed here for her son's sake. She would continue with her life. Habari would want her to.
A jolt woke Nkosi from his surprise sleep. His head jerked up from his forelegs and he looked around in a daze. Where was… Then he remembered. He was still on the stone and, looking up at the sky, it was night. The stars were in their full brightness, which made him smile. He loved when the stars shined fully. It was so peaceful and brought memories of his cubhood, memories of his…
The smile fell from his face and a grim, somber look replaced it.
He clenched his jaw. How he wished his father had gotten counseling on his struggles. He wished Dad had been here to see his coronation and marriage, even if the marriage was forced. That wasn't the point. Was his father even aware that he had missed the most important day of his son's life? A hard question… Did his father even care? A painful question too. He swallowed the emotion and put his gaze back up at the sky, small tears appearing in his eyes. He wasn't sure if his late father was up there with those who died, but just in case he offered his prayer.
"Dad, I promise… I will make you proud; not only as a king, but as the lion I am now because of you." He stopped for a small beat to collect himself and continued. "I… I hope you're at peace, wherever you are."
He rose and walked down the small staircase of rocks that led to the stone, down to the den. Once there, he stopped, frozen. The moment he walked in, he would be saying goodbye to his old life and greeting his new one. Was he ready? Could he do this? What choice did he have? He had agreed to the terms the shaman had given this morning. He had promised everything he had. It was a done deal; he couldn't take it back now. He shut his eyes, braced himself and took a step forward. Each step would bring him closer to the cave.
When he had woken from that place this morning, he was only a prince. Entering it this evening, he was a king.
The atmosphere was cool, just what he needed after staying out so long. His mother would have scolded him for it if he was still a cub. It seemed so strange that his own mother, the one who gave him life, was going to have to take orders from him. He couldn't do that, could he? No, of course not! King or not, Nadia was still his mother, his elder and a former ruler. He would go to her for advice but he would never order her around.
He stopped and looked at every part of the den. Everyone rested in their own spots on the floor. The cave was big with plenty of space for stretching out tired limbs. He smiled as he saw how content each member of his pride was. His pride… Knowing that sent a large wave of responsibility on his shoulders, but unlike his father, he would allow it to settle on his shoulders and not take him down. This morning, he had made a vow to protect these good creatures and he would fulfill it by any means. The responsibility flowed down his back as he walked slowly through the scattered lionesses.
He noticed his mother sleeping in one of the corners near the back of the cave. He was glad she had found a good spot, but he knew that any of the lionesses would have gladly given up their spots for her. He smiled. No matter what, they would still see her as their queen. He stared at her. She was alone now and had been for a few months but now it was real. His father was no longer at her side and never would be again. But his mother was strong. She would get through the pain of Habari being gone, as would he, especially now that he had a kingdom to take care of.
Nkosi bowed his head and continued walking to the back where another cave rested: The royal chambers. Once home to his parents, the place where he slept from the times of his cubhood, now belonged to him and his wife. He took a deep breath and entered quietly. Sauda, his mate, was near the corner sleeping soundlessly. His steps were soft, while his heart slowly hammered in his chest. His throat constricted. Get a grip on yourself!
He lay down beside her with no intention of waking her. He would need his strength tomorrow. She would too. He wanted to nuzzle her but thought better of it. Surely she was as exhausted from the day as him. He eyed her for a few moments before putting his head down. She was… pretty, in her own way, he'd guess. She was a dark chocolate brown with a dark sand tan muzzle, underbelly and tail tuft. Her paws were the same color as her main pelt. And her eyes were dark green. He wasn't mesmerized, just simply admired. Her breathing was deep. Nice to see her so content.
He hadn't had his head down long when she stirred. He cracked open an eye and managed a small, feeble smile. "Hey. Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
She let out a yawn and turned, her green eyes washing over him. "You didn't," she said softly as she leaned over and nuzzled his neck. His mane was soft and warm against her cheek.
He gave her a small lick at the top of an eyebrow, but offered nothing else. He still wasn't sure of his feelings for her, if he ever would be, or if he had any. "That's good," he said.
She nuzzled him again, a little harder this time. A purr sounded.
His ears fell and he swallowed. This was what he feared, and in his spirit he wasn't ready. On top of that he didn't really know her well enough and vice versa. It wasn't the right time for what she obviously wanted. Was she even aware of her actions?
"Nkosi," she said passionately.
He shut his eyes and fought inwardly. In any other circumstance he would respond and succumb, but it just didn't feel right. And he wouldn't go against his beliefs or morals. He wouldn't take advantage of the situation just to fulfill his duty as a husband. He knew there had to be love for this, but was it love she was feeling or just instinct? Whatever the reason, he pulled away and turned his head, trying desperately to keep himself in check. A small tremble shook him and he put a paw to his head, which was damp from a cold sweat.
"No… please…" he said in a pained whisper.
She stopped nuzzling him. "What?"
Did he have to repeat himself? What didn't she understand? "S-Sauda… I'm sorry. I can't, not yet." He didn't want to look at her, afraid of what he might see. This was not supposed to happen. As a lion, he was supposed to want it, want her and not refuse! But he was in an unknown and extremely awkward situation. What was he supposed to do? He didn't want any mixed feelings.
"Come on, Nkosi. I'm your wife…"
She was really going to urge him on. He couldn't take it. "Sauda… please, I'm asking you. Stop. We have time. It doesn't have to be now."
"It's our wedding night," Sauda said, nuzzling his neck and licking his cheek.
Nkosi forced himself to remain in control of his emotions and inward desires. As hard as he tried, he wasn't about to let her seduce him. He knew that snapping at her would do no good, but succumbing wouldn't either. There was only one thing he could do. Hurt feelings would be involved, but it was for the best at least for now.
"Lord… I don't want to do this…" He stood up and walked away, settling down in a small but acceptable space near the entrance. He didn't want to leave her alone but she gave him no choice.
Sauda was shocked as she watched him leave. She had no words to give, but if she had, the words would be confusion and fury. He was refusing her? How could he? He was her husband and she was his wife! The anger filled her body, while the fur along her back rose and she moved back to the corner. Just as he didn't want to be near her and give her what she wanted, she didn't want to be near him and see him decline. So this was how she would spend her first night alone with her husband? She growled and snarled quietly, but soon fell asleep, her tail twitching in angry strikes beside her.
Nkosi didn't hear her quiet snarls or growls. He didn't see her move to the corner. What he did feel was agony and sorrow for the situation. He didn't mean to upset her and wanted so much to surrender, but he just didn't know her. She was a stranger despite the fact that they grew up together alongside their other friends. His front claws gripped the stone floor, scratching it deeply as his emotions churned. He closed his eyes in pain, his heart doing somersaults, his stomach in knots.
How he would make this marriage work, he didn't know. But he wanted and had to. He cared about her, but then he cared about everyone. He wasn't selfish. His parents had truly raised him well. The last few minutes brought exhaustion and he felt it. He blinked his tired eyes and put his head on his paws. Sleep came within seconds. He would be so thankful when the first real day of his reign started.