(A/N: New chapter after a realllllly long hiatus! Many of you asked for updates. I had a lot of things that took me away from this story, including my two from-home jobs. I also needed a break to reflect on this story and figure out what I want to take away from writing it. I have a few ideas now and I'm mostly deciding on the pacing/length for this story.
I don't know when I'll be able to upload next. It took me several months to put down the words for this chapter, so I don't have a set schedule. We shall see. Anyway, please enjoy!)
"I feel guilt."
Kiara raised a brow and glanced at Ramik. This'll be a weird visit to Tinni's home, the princess thought.
Her mate-to-be looked morbid. "Oh, is that so?" Ramik replied flatly.
Tinni gave a raspy sigh. Tapped her chin. "I can feel the power of what I'm about to tell you." As if the words actually had weight, the mandrill shaman made two fists, which she clenched and unclenched.
"Don't let it get to your head, Tinni."
She flashed a gap-toothed smile at Ramik. "Power to my head? Never."
Inside Tinni's hut, Ramik sat down and Kiara sat beside him. The princess's eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light in the cozy space—made cozier by the sheer number of artifacts Tinni had collected and displayed.
She guessed it would take a whole day to take inventory of every shiny shell, feather, and odd bit of non-natural debris that dangled from the low, curved ceiling. Tinni's bed looked like a scaled-up bird's nest, and along the sloping back wall was a collection of elaborate walking sticks. The one Kiara liked the best was the simplest; it reminded her of the staff Rafiki carried—a dark wood item with dried, rust-colored gourds tied to the top.
This den is beautiful… Mother would've loved it… She tried picturing if a lion's den could ever be so pretty, but decided it probably only worked for Tinni's home.
Kiara glanced at Ramik's paws. His extended claws worried her. He wasn't usually a tense lion, and he hadn't dug them too deeply into the dirt, but clearly he was preparing for what Tinni had to say.
Or else he's stopping himself from fleeing.
Gently, Kiara covered his toes with her paw. When he didn't shake off and reject her support, she breathed a sigh. His claws receded back into a relaxed position and she smiled to herself.
Without warning, Tinni reached up and grabbed Ramik's cheeks with her small hands, pulling his face down towards hers, their muzzles nearly touching. Ramik stared back, wide-eyed.
Tinni squinted. "Your mind's cluttered, Father's Heir. Your eyes—foggy. Your heart…" Tinni's attention was drawn to something in Ramik's brown mane. With one hand still on his face, she plucked it from his fur with her nimble fingers before popping whatever it was between her lips. "Constipated." She crunched down on the specimen and swallowed.
Ramik snorted and rolled his blue eyes. "Not unlike my father?"
Tinni didn't respond. Her small hands slid from Ramik's face. She turned to Kiara, took the princess's right paw, lifted it, and stroked it tenderly.
Kiara smiled and giggled. Tinni's forwardness and odd, jarring way of directing a conversation caught her off guard, but it was somewhat endearing.
"Look at her, Ramik. Came through hell and shaking off that ash. I don't envy those who wronged you, Kiara. Did my best to ease you back to life, did I?" Tinni squeezed her paw gently. "A flower that just needed a little light and some water."
"Thank you for helping me," Kiara replied before giving a shiver. The road back to sanity had by no means been smooth, and she still struggled daily, but she loathed to think about how much bumpier it would have been without Tinni's medicine. Kiara nodded and smiled. "Really. Thank you."
Ramik cleared his throat sharply. "I hate to be hasty. What's Father so worried about?" He made a face of apology. "Tinni, any other day, I'd visit, but—"
Tinni raised a hand and nodded. "Yes, yes." She gestured for them to lie down and relax. "Settle in. I must get into headspace I was in when King come to me." Reverently, hands clasped, she looked up at the ceiling of her home. "May I learn more."
Kiara caught the anxiety in Ramik's eyes. They both lay down, their sides touching.
They patiently watched the shaman as she hopped about and gathered up several items—the top half of a turtle's shell, a handful of water-smoothed pebbles and glass, feathers, and a few bone fragments. She also dipped her fingers into a gourd filled with red, chalky dust. She painted two lines below each eye before adding a vertical stripe down the center of her face from hairline to chin.
A few lengths in front of them, Tinni placed her staff on the ground and sat down, legs crossed with the upturned shell in her lap. She gripped the flared sides of the shell. With a cough to clear her throat, she closed her eyes and began to concentrate.
"I… I've met a disturbance like this before. Its touch is familiar. I worry that…" Tinni grimaced and squeezed her eyes more tightly shut. "I'm sorry, it's still out of focus. It may have yet to begin, but it's there. Waiting. The will is festering in the heart. It be worrisome, yes."
Looking on, Kiara lowered her ears.
"Things are changing. They will fast."
"Why can't my brothers stay? Why do I have to make them leave?" Ramik asked. "Is that why Father's acting like a… well, like a mad king?"
Tinni didn't answer. For too long, Kiara was sure Ramik's questions had fallen on deaf ears…
No, she heard him.
Tinni's entire face scrunched up and she flinched, as if someone had poked her with their claws. She muttered under her breath, something about seeing a rising sun, before she continued with a grating, harsh tone.
"Flames smolder within a heart, run through blood of he who lusts after more, he who feels unjust. It's hate—hate that burns worse like fire." Tinni's eyes remained closed, but she twisted her head up, as if straining to hear a faint whisper in the distance. "Yes," she murmured with a visible shiver that rocked her body. "Yes, that's what feels so familiar."
Ramik's body rose an inch as if he was ready to spring at Tinni in his eagerness to hear what she'd seen. "What?"
Her eyes remained closed ever still. The tension in the hut expanded and the faint shadows around them seemed to grow.
Yes, what is it?
The mandrill's face fell and she became sullen, close to weeping. "Bad blood between a son and an uncle, I fear. A deep wound…one not to stop festering."
In confusion, Ramik arched his brows.
Kiara could only imagine the horrors going through his mind. Great Kings, her words are terrifying. Her grandfather, father, and Scar immediately came to the forefront of her thoughts. Although they weren't related to any of the lions in Tojo's pride except for her, she couldn't help but think of them. Was that what made Tinni's vision feel familiar? Was Tinni remembering what had happened to her Great-Uncle's soul, how he'd been corrupted by greed and hatred? Maybe there really was something rational about Tojo's seemingly irrational fears. Just maybe. But did that matter when Ramik's brothers seemed completely happy and passive? Were they hiding their true selves just that well?
"Do you think Ramik will have a nephew who will hurt him in the future?" Kiara asked. She added quietly, grief-stricken, "Will we have a son who will hurt them…?"
Humming to herself, perhaps out of comfort, Tinni reached into the turtle shell and trancedly wiggled her fingers through the feathers, bones, shells, and pebbles. She then abruptly dumped the bowl, sending debris clattering across the floor. To Kiara's dismay, a majority of the bone fragments rolled and clattered to a stop at the tips of her paws. Even a tiny mouse skull rolled upright and stared back at her with empty sockets.
A chill went down Kiara's spine as she gaped at the objects. A gasp left her.
Ramik all but slapped a paw across Kiara's shoulders, startling her to gasp again. He curled his lip at Tinni. "Enough! It's just your imagination overacting. I didn't come here to let you scare me like you've scared my father and Kiara."
In that second, Kiara snapped from her spell of anxiety. She shook her head to try clearing her thoughts, but was only halfway successful.
I should have realized I was getting caught up in Tinni's visions, she scolded herself, staring forward. Obviously it's all up to Tinni's interpretation. Tojo's interpretation.
Tinni could say whatever she wanted… Though, the results of the prophetic musings did leave Kiara feeling more uneasy than before, and she couldn't quite shake the sick grip of dread. Her words felt so real. Blinking, she couldn't help but to gaze down at the bones at her paws. Why are they closest to me?
Ramik's attempts to get Tinni's attention by calling her name brought Kiara out of her thoughts.
The shaman blinked and seemed to come to, but not completely. Her eyelids drooped and her body sagged with the turtle shell slack in her hands. Her pupils were barely visible.
"Tinni," Ramik growled. "Tinni!"
With sharp attention, Tinni finally snapped from her dazed state. She frowned at Ramik, taking him in like an insolent cub. "How you feel about warning of the future not my fault, and does not remove its danger." She held up a finger. "Just heed it."
Kiara watched tensely as the prophesier and the prince stared each other down. Her body shook a little as she observed the stalemate.
Finally, Ramik said, almost through gritted teeth, "I won't send my brothers away on vague warnings. Point to them directly and I might actually consider it." Before anyone could stop him, he turned to leave. "Kiara, let's go," he shot over his shoulder with one last cool glare at Tinni.
Still shaking, Kiara stood to go, too. When she took a step, however, Tinni snatched her tail and tugged the princess off balance. Kiara gasped and opened her mouth, but was cut off.
"If you dare take a life, look in the eyes of your enemy and let final words pass over lip."
A violent chill went down Kiara's spine. She knew she was gaping at Tinni, looking more frightened than before. Her stomach twisted with fear and embarrassment. "W-what?"
The shaman grew even surlier. Her grip on Kiara's tail hurt. "Listen to the words of the dying. Death is not the answer if you cannot give the courtesy."
Kiara trembled. She yanked her tail free and stumbled for the exit without looking back. Faintly, she heard Ramik call her again. If not for the sobering effect of his voice, she might have stayed absorbed there, staring back at Tinni.
"Heed my words!" Tinni called out as Kiara fled to Ramik's side several lengths away from the odd dwelling.
"You all right?" Ramik asked.
Shaken, Kiara nodded.
"We shouldn't've come here." Ramik shook his head. "I'd never insult her by calling her an old superstitious fool, but…"
"Let's get out of here." As if fleeing from danger, Ramik turned and took off at a brisk run.
Kiara chased after him, mind still shell-shocked. She only knew to follow the prince. They weren't heading in any particular direction, they just ran. But by the time he stopped and they began to walk, the overwhelming fear in her mind had thankfully faded.
What even just happened?
The sound of Ramik's pawsteps beside her felt too loud. Kiara glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. They'd heard Tinni's news, the very information Tojo was using to chase away the brothers. But what did it mean? Did it mean anything?
Say something already, Ramik, she begged inwardly.
Ramik was quiet for a long time before he finally spoke up, his voice subdued.
"I can't believe my father would be stirred to action by tales that would scare cubs."
"She scared you, Ramik."
Ramik regarded her with a concerned frown.
"Well…" Kiara started apprehensively, "You ran out of there like you were facing down a stampede, didn't you?"
Ramik didn't argue, only looking away with shame in his eyes.
Kiara looked at the ground as they walked. She disliked what Tinni had said. It spooked her… and though she hated to admit it… she still agreed with Tojo. The brothers deserved to live lives of their own, whether they were already dangerous or not.
"I don't want to believe my brothers are evil, Kiara. I don't want to listen to Tinni… but now…"
She held herself back for a moment before she whispered, "When someone's unhappiness offers the excuse for chaos, they don't always hold themselves back…"
"Part of me is scared that she's not out of her mind. That she's saying the truth and not just gibberish." Ramik stopped for a moment. "She's been right before. Oddly right… but right."
"What?" Another chill went through Kiara. "Like what?"
"She was on edge a few days before the Outsiders overthrew your pride, though she didn't know why. She's also very good a predicting when and which herds come and go, almost to the day, if not better… it's her specialty…" Ramik paused before adding, "And… And I'm fairly sure Tinni hinted to my mother around the time she thought she might die."
Kiara blinked. "How?"
"I don't remember much; I didn't get to spend much time with her right before she died. She was constantly at Tinni's and didn't take me with her like she sometimes had before. It was at the start of the raining season… I think they knew something bad was coming even though things were good. There were lots of cubs expected that season, and the hunting wasn't dismal. And more than at any other time in my life, my father spent nearly all his waking energy with my mother. "
Kiara lowered her ears. Ramik rarely mentioned his mother. Not because he'd disliked her, but she suspected it hurt too much to live in the memory long enough to speak of her. She'd died in a hunting accident and her death had left young Ramik heartbroken.
"How does sending my brothers away stop what we don't know for sure will happen? Why did Father come to this conclusion? Do I not know my brothers? Are they lying to me?" Ramik asked, voice cracking. "Can't I just ask them to not have... families..." Ramik trailed off, looking even more distressed.
Kiara lowered her ears. She felt the stone of grief at the pit of her stomach. Whether the prophecy was true or false, whether Kiara and Ramik had cubs, whether or not the brothers were permitted to have families, it would be better for all if the brothers left. "Your father won't let them stay," Kiara reminded him, feeling cruel for doing so.
Ramik lowered his head.
"He believes Tinni's prophecy with every fiber of his body. And his word is law." Aren't we too young for this? Making such big decisions? She bit the inside of her cheek. No, it was time, and sooner rather than later. Tojo's pride needed them to make these hard choices, to set their own selves aside in favor of leadership and guidance.
After a long moment and a sniffle, Ramik slowly nodded. Once he'd lifted his head, he'd more or less composed himself, or at least locked his emotions away behind a stony expression. "I'll talk to them tomorrow." He let out a sigh, his eyes losing focus as he became lost in thought.
"If you dare take a life, look into the eyes of your enemy and let final words pass over lip..." Tinni's words whispered in her own mind.
Kiara nibbled on her lip anxiously. She raised her head. "Umm… Ramik?"
"Yeah?" Ramik replied, if not somewhat distracted.
She opened her mouth, and was surprised by the actual words that came from her mouth, instead of what she thought to say, "Let's go for a little hunt to blow of some steam. What'd'ya say?"
Ramik's smile didn't last long but she was happy to get a little one out of him. He put his nose to her forehead. "Okay." He nuzzled and licked her face before starting to walk.
She wasn't sure why she kept what Tinni had said to herself…It didn't make a bit of sense, but the impression it gave her made her stomach turn.
She was not a killer. Not like those heathens who had taken her parents from her, who still now made her pridesisters suffer needlessly when they'd already been humiliated and stripped of their security… No, not like them.
"Death is not the answer…"
A whimper rose up from Suki. Kovu lifted his head in their dark den. He hadn't been sleeping, though he could see that Suki was resting, albeit fitfully. She fell silent again.
"I just want to make you happy…"
Kovu's stomach turned over in his belly. That night, he'd finally done his duty as king. Mated. And I still couldn't make either of us happy, he thought, wrapping his tail around himself more tightly.
He repulsed himself; it had been awkward beyond his expectations, without passion. He hadn't anticipated that the act would hurt his queen, and at the end her clear discomfort and his own temper had caused him to pull away and to let her go more roughly than he should have.
Maybe this will make Vitani and Mother happy. Ancestors, please give us an heir quickly.
How much could he give of himself in that way? Would Suki gape at him like he was a monster after every engagement? He shivered. If cubs didn't come soon, or come at all, Kovu was wholly certain that Nuka, Batzail, and little Taka would steal his throne.
What if they're eliminated now? Before there's three instead of two? Before the whole pride turns their back on you? Their place is beneath their king, and they should be reminded of their place…
Yes, they were cocky, weren't they? Kovu brushed the ruminations aside, though his anger still lingered. He sat up and stretched quietly, extending his paws far out in front of him. What it meant to be king, he really wasn't sure. And did he really care?
It's my birthright. I am a king's heir, hand-chosen by Scar.
Power. Power to finally have a little say over his life, power to hunt on land of his own, power to walk wherever he pleased. At that moment of bitterness, however, he was reminded of how little the pride lionesses and his mother thought of his ruling style. The way they now looked at him, without a gleam of pride and hope in their gazes, was entirely foreign to him. He stared into the dark outside his den. The praise of those around him had once been as constant as the stars in the sky.
"You brilliant child!"
"One day Kovu will save us."
"Powerfully conniving mind!"
"Truly Scar's heir."
"You've grown into such a strong young lion."
With those thoughts in his head, his heart wrenched. As he saw it, he had two choices: mourn his glory days, which he now realized he cherished more than anything, or remind those who needed to be reminded that he was their one true heir. The one who had brought them out of misery and degradation…
Kovu stood in the dark, and before he knew it, his paws were taking him out of the den and across the Pride Lands.