Ilizi had given up with her polite conversation, receding into a nervous silence as she led the way through the throng of the Nergui camp. It was hard to ignore the hard stares thrown her way. Hard to pretend that she wasn’t affected by the anger and disgust that emanated in her direction. She couldn’t blame them for their single-mindedness, really. How were they supposed to know that a hybrid had a soul, too? She was just some strange, twisted abomination. Neither lion nor leopard. Belonging nowhere. So wretched that the Nergui saw fit to destroy them. Perhaps the destruction was meant as a blessing. A relief from the curse of being such a creature. Either way, Ilizi kept her eyes firmly ahead and kept her jaw firmly clenched.
Behind her, the lithe male lion moved with a fluidness that seemed to defy nature itself. The large paws were not clumsy or noisy, but seemed to seek out the most quiet of the ground to step upon. Avoiding twigs and leaves and foliage, he stepped with care onto bare earth, his steps steady and in time with hers so that his own footfall was masked by her loud, clumsy ones. She’d never felt clumsy before, but the Shuko was swift and silent enough to make anyone feel like a bumbling oaf. And, no matter how much she tried to relax her posture, swing her hips or lengthen her stride, nothing seemed to help.
She was no Shuko.
“Abukemoseum.” The lion rumbled when, at last, they came in sight of Mchawi’s den (not so much a den as a tumble of thorns). “Laoqa.”
Ilizi was not fluent in Nergui language for two reasons. Firstly, no Nergui spent much time conversing with her – other than direct relatives – and secondly, those who did speak with her did so in the common tongue. Mchawi, especially, seemed to delight in her use of it and Ilizi wondered whether her aunt was trying to cover up her lack of understanding with their new ‘friends’. She supposed it might also have helped if she had wanted to learn. But why would she want to use the language of a people who would love nothing more than to attack her? She was no fool. She was alive only at the whim of Mchawi and even then she would have to be careful. Stray too far from family and they might go for her anyway.
Still, fluent or not, Ilizi knew those words. Abomination. Leave. She had heard them all too often.
“As you wish.” She replied in a short tone, earning a warning growl from the lion at her flank. And, with a skitter in her step, she brought herself out of easy range of his claws and teeth and circled wide. Her aunt was there, rising up from her hollow amongst the thorns and the pair of them traded glances. Nothing was said but the steely look in them gave Ilizi heart. Her aunt still loved her. Still wanted her safe. Still, she dared not linger now. Not when they had things to discuss.
Things to do.
Ilizi was no fool. She knew the art of seduction and Mchawi was playing this male for a fool. He was a good Shuko but he was just that. A guard of no distinguishable rank. Some had said he had turned down the opportunity, preferring to live life out in the wilds, doing what he did best. A promotion would hinder him, keep him at camp longer than necessary. The pride had been shocked when Tömörbaatar had become the mate of the Kaar Oma. Ilizi had not been. She knew her aunt. Knew that this male worked to her advantage. Mchawi did nothing without good reason and so far she’d put enough fear into the locals that males had left her alone – for now. But there was no telling how long that would last. Sooner or later a higher ranked male would seek a high ranking female to mate with,
Oh, Ilizi missed being desired. Missed male company.
And, as she disappeared, she heard only the beginning of the greetings.
Mchawi’s purring voice rumbling ‘daor’ as she moved forwards to speak with the iron-pelted lion.
“Daeko.” Tömörbaatar rumbled, eyeing the Overseer with an appreciative look that held nothing back. Mchawi was amused at how subtle he was in some things and how obvious he was with others. Like most males, his lust was a thing he could not easily control. And how fun it would be to manipulate him!
“It is good to see you again.” She spoke in careful Nergui. “You have been gone long. What did you think of the children?”
“No kikar.” He returned. “Full grown Nergui.”
“As I said, daor, you have been gone long.”
“The task you assigned to me was a difficult one.”
“The vision was clear. It was a task for you and you alone. But when you did not return I began to think that somewhere, something had gone wrong.”
“I never fail.” Was his simple response. “Come, Mchawi, did you think I would?”
“No. But still, you know how things work here. Would you have had me do nothing and allow another male to claim me?” Her face betrayed nothing of her anger at having to speak those words. She was a powerful lioness. She did not belong to some male. She was not some prize for them to claim. It was one thing she detested about the place. But, sometimes, such things could work in your favour. They would never believe her a danger. Not truly. But, if they crossed her, she would show them how wrong they were. You didn’t need brute strength to cause harm. Only smarts, and she was clever. Perhaps too clever for her own good, sometimes.
“You are mine.” He confirmed with all the possessiveness she had come to respect.
Mchawi did not much care for love. Love was foolish and made lions and lionesses do ridiculous and dangerous things in its name. This was about cubs only. Her cubs. What Tömörbaatar lacked in rank he made up for with his lifestyle. He was a respected lion who spent most of his days outside of the Nergui. Away from her. Away from her cubs. She could raise her children without his interference and who would they grow to love and respect? Her. They would choose her, the female who had doted on them and built up their confidence and strengths. Not the father. They’d respect him, yes. But never love him.
So, perhaps it was that even Mchawi’s love of family was born from a manipulative desire to make sure that – if things went wrong for her – she’d have family at her side to protect her from the backlash. It had happened before and she needed a contingency plan in place in case it happened again.
“Then make it so.” She replied fiercely.
He took a step towards her and she cut him off with a raised paw. “But not until you speak of your mission. Did you find her?”
The male gave a low growl of frustration. “I did.”
“You were wrong. She would not come.”
“You came back without her?” Mchawi’s voice was stony.
“No. She came but she will not join. Hyenas are not as bound to our power as lions. Lions must accept. Hyenas take oaths and vows. If she will not speak the words we either release her or kill her. You should know this.”
“And here I thought my daeko had the gift of charm. Must I do everything myself?”
“Not everything.” The male spoke in a warning tone. “The deal is not done yet. Your vision showed you her face but perhaps it was not her face at all.”
Mchawi did not look amused at his riddles. Still, she would not give him the amusement of asking him what he meant. A little thought, later, would be all she would need to work it out. If it was not her face it was someone who looked like her, which meant it was a relative of some kind.
“Just make sure it is done.” The female replied, her eyes looking angry.
“It will.” He replied, taking another step towards her. She evaded him with a small side-step and lured him away from the thorn-encased den.
“We will continue this marriage, Mchawi.”
“Oh, of that have no concern.” She replied. “But not here.” She received many a visitor these days. Visitors came seeking council from her most days. Acquaintances dropping by to say hello and gain favour. Family taking the time to see how she was doing. That damned raven hopping amongst the thorns above her head, always keeping a beady eye on all that happened. Others came also just to gawp at the powerful ‘witch’. There was no privacy. Not here amongst the bones and thorns.
And, with a short puff of breath, she motioned for him to follow her and headed out and away from camp; him never more than a step behind.