Author's Note: This takes place in the same continuity as my Cheetara fic "Run Yourself Dry," but it is not at all necessary to read that before reading this.
Strength of Conviction
The night vigil was not a valued assignment among the senior clerics. Oceus hated missing both supper and sleep. Felida claimed that the drafty palace corridors and long bouts of stillness made her muscles ache without fail, leaving her barely able to perform the rites at hourly intervals. Whenever Cheetara's weekly rotation came up, she attended to it without complaint.
It was to be expected, favored student, full of practiced reserve as she was, but privately Cheetara enjoyed the vigil. Keeping her place from sundown to sunrise was not especially amusing, but she liked the comforting sameness of the rites. Pushing her body through the precise motions that last half dozen times or so, when her muscles had begun to scream protest, was a welcome challenge. There was a satisfaction like nothing else to feeling her magic flood through the grand palace of Thundera, marking each inhabitant, surrounding and protecting them.
It was her job. More than that, it was her purpose, and she was good at it. This pleasure she was allowed and in it she reveled.
As such, when Jaga came to her eight hours into her vigil on the second night, Cheetara was, at first, concerned. Felida trailed him, a sulkiness in her posture that could only be detected by dint of long association, the source of which displeasure became apparent when Jaga indicated that Cheetara was to relinquish her post at the entrance of the throne room to her compatriot. Cheetara did and wiggled four claws to indicate how long until the next rite would be required. Then, she followed Jaga deeper into the palace.
All that a cleric required - room, board, and meager possessions - was found in the monastery, but, in deference, a small space was also kept for the head cleric within the palace itself. It was here that Jaga led Cheetara. It was part private study and part meditation chamber. The sconces already glowing low upon their entrance revealed that it had been in use this night.
Jaga knelt in one corner, before two modest effigies of the first King and Queen of Thundera, and bid Cheetara sit beside him. She folded her legs under and her claws clicked against the marble floor. Jaga waited then, silent, perhaps deep in thought as he so often was, and Cheetara waited as well.
He looked to her, askance, but it was a clear-eyed, piercing gaze, and said: "I wish to speak to you regarding the prince."
There was a pause, tiny, yet intentional. But if her teacher expected some reaction from Cheetara, in this, and only this, she would disappoint him. Her expression remained placid and distantly curious. In her chest, her heart beat a rapid tattoo.
The moment passed and Jaga continued: "I worry for Prince Lion-O. He lacks focus, if not drive, and he takes neither his studies or his duties as seriously as he should."
Her heartbeat slowed and her curiosity grew.
"So it is said," Cheetara responded. Then, carefully: "Prince Tygra is greatly admired. It is his achievements of which the people speak when they lament his younger brother."
"Prince Tygra is a fine young man," said Jaga, "but he will not inherit. I begin to fear that young Lion-O has become accustomed to allowing his brother to bear burdens that he should be taking up, while burying himself in his fancies. Expectation and the lack thereof hounds them both. Intervention is required."
"What do you wish of me?" She was very still and her voice, tremulous with anticipation, moved through that stillness like ripples on the surface of a lake.
"A cleric's primary duty is to protect, but for some the responsibility also falls to them to guide."
Along her arms and the backs of her shoulders, Cheetara's fur bristled, stood itself up in surprise. Clerics were silent, faceless guardians; they behaved as shadows and were meant to garner all the notice of same. The only members of their order who advised the throne, even spoke in the royals' presence, were the head clerics themselves.
Jaga was very old and very powerful, but not until that moment had Cheetara ever thought of him as mortal.
She looked at him, ears perked, head tilting.
"I want you to watch over Lion-O," Jaga said, meeting her eyes. "Your other duties will be suspended until further notice. Keep him out of trouble to the best your considerable abilities."
"Thank you," Cheetara said, for there was nothing else to say. To be trusted with this and all that it implied was a greater honor than could be described or believed.
Her teacher smiled kindly.
"Do not thank me yet. The prince is not in his bedroom and he quite enjoys shaking the palace guard. I suggest you go find your charge. Quickly."
She was on her feet and out the door while his words were still on the air.
Finding a single cat in so densely populated a place as Thundera was a daunting task, but Cheetara was fast and she was smart, and she did not tolerate failure. The upper city was quiet in the dead of night, its inhabitants safe and snug in their soft beds. There were few places of interest one could possibly go and Cheetara searched them all.
The arena stood empty, the great statues of generals past casting long shadows. The carefully manicured park that cradled the palacetown held nothing but docile wildlife, just recently restocked to accommodate the noble children's hunting games.
Cheetara even checked the wall itself. She knew that the wide walks from which one could see the rest of Thundera sprawl out below had been quite the draw for both princes not so many years ago. Her mantle and veil granted her free passage wherever she wished to go without question, but each search failed to turn up her quarry.
After some time, Cheetara was forced to consider the only remaining options. It was possible that the prince had set out not just for a stroll or the thrill of breaking curfew, but to a specific purpose. Visions of a rendezvous with a likely courtier in one of the darkened estates around her flitted through Cheetara's mind before she dismissed it. Neither of the princes was known for his romantic indiscretions. As was to be expected, they'd both always been kept far away from any untreated females in the throes of The Call, nor had they succumbed to any such exploits under normal circumstances.
Prince Tygra was charming, but aloof. Unattainable and distant were what the young ladies of the court whispered of him in between their swooning. Prince Lion-O was younger, barely more than a cub by some reckoning, and though he'd recently shown long-awaited interest in the charms the ladies of Thundera had to offer, Cheetara had heard nothing of him displaying especial or even more than momentary consideration towards anyone.
(Guardians of the Crown were above gossip, of course, and above, too, the betrayal of confidences gleaned during service. However, the passage of information vital to their stations was only to be expected, and the measure of what was vital was left to their discretion.)
No, Prince Lion-O had no paramour, and he had always been quite solitary. Yet, the only other option seemed equally as unthinkable.
If he was not to be found in the upper city, then there was nowhere else for him to be but the lower reaches. Cheetara knew them well, down to the deepest slum. Long before she'd carried a bright imperial seal on her chest and cleric's robes on her shoulders, Cheetara had lived there, worked there, and languished there.
The royals were of a different world entirely. Oh, they visited the slums on feast days, a long, glittering procession handing down shillings and sumptuous treats to grasping, grateful paws. Wandering such places in the middle of the night, alone, however, was unfathomable.
It was likely, though, that her assignment would not exist as such had Prince Lion-O been inclined towards fathomable things. Cheetara passed the guards at the main gate with only a wave of her hand and descended towards the city.
She'd barely made it a quarter of the way down the Winding Walk - carved into the rocky outcrop on which the upper city stood countless years ago, and wide enough to accommodate half a dozen supply carts abreast - when her ears pricked at footsteps and a familiar yowl. In a flash, she returned to the head of the Walk and flattened her body against the far corner of the gate, thickly shadowed in the moonlight.
A cloaked and hooded figure approached, and the source of the distinctive yowl, the rarified royal pet running at the figure's heels, left no doubt as to his identity. The snarf leapt up to Prince Lion-O's shoulder and burrowed under his cloak as he approached the gate. The prince bent his head low and used just one hand to flick open his cloak enough to reveal his seal.
The guards hesitated and Cheetara could not tell if it was because they were suspicious of the mysterious figure or because they knew full well who he was. Either way, they allowed him to pass. Cheetara counted, slowly, then set off after him.
He doffed his hood once out of sight of the gate, his bright red mane like a flame against the moonlit night. His pet jumped down to the ground with a plaintive mewl. The prince muttered back, though it was with good humor. He carried something under one arm, a battered, old metal box, and his obvious pleasure in having attained it radiated from him. His bearing and the set of his shoulders reminded her, she realized, quite forcibly of his brother's, though obviously they shared no blood. Cheetara brushed the thought away.
The prince made no haste to return to the palace, his leisurely pace alternately amusing and frustrating Cheetara. He did turn to swiftness and stealth at last, or an endearing attempt at it, when he arrived at the palace. So concerned with his own nearly silent passage through the corridors, he made no note of Cheetara's. He adjourned directly to his room, closed the door behind him, and, though she waited, he made no move to set out again. The soft sounds of his shuffling about eventually ceased, and a few hours before dawn, Lion-O, Crown Prince of the Thundercats, presumably slipped into peaceful slumber.
Peace came far less easily to Cheetara. She'd felt faint relief upon locating him and finding him perfectly well. That relief became more pronounced when he seemed content with a single adventure for the night. But now, as she returned to the monastery while the third moon set, painting the horizon in shades of violet, the enormity of her task loomed. Whatever Prince Lion-O was doing with his secret treks into the city was now her concern, as was the question of what could be done about it.
As it turned out, Lion-O's days were not usually so exciting as the one on which she was assigned to him. He spent most of his time amusing himself within the splendor of the palace, even attending marginally more lessons than common talk would have one believe. He was rarely prompt and almost never entirely focused - he had a look Cheetara had come to know, when his gaze shifted and he clearly saw everything but what was right in front of him. His tutors scolded and his brother laughed and badgered at intervals, and Lion-O continued these small rebellions. But he did not journey out into the lower city again.
Weeks in, her assignment had settled into routine that required very little of Cheetara but patience, and she watched from a safe distance, undetected, as Lion-O sparred his brother in one of the interior courtyards.
Lion-O was not an especially diminutive cat, certainly not for his age, but he was still far smaller and leaner than Prince Tygra, whose shoulders were broad and whose arms and chest were thick with muscle, though he was not yet full grown himself. They circled each other, sizing and measuring, and Lion-O struck first, a heavy blow that would certainly have smarted had it landed. Tygra moved, as he most often did, his comparative size belying his speed. He called out a taunt that Cheetara couldn't quite make out and Lion-O charged again.
Cheetara clicked her tongue as Tygra side-stepped his brother's wild rush and swept his feet from under him. Lion-O was easily roused and Tygra had proven expert at playing to his temper. Still, he bent, grinning, and offered Lion-O a hand up, which Lion-O took, then yanked in order to bring Tygra's square jaw in line with his fist. The elder prince staggered, but did not go down. Instead, he twisted his brother's arm into a bar, then locked a meaty bicep about his neck. Tygra ruffled Lion-O's mane vigorously to noisy protest. Cheetara bit back a smile as Lion-O squirmed and wiggled like a cub caught up by his scruff before finally slipping away.
Both brothers were panting just a bit with exertion. From her vantage point, Cheetara could see their chests rising and falling much more easily than she could hear the gust of their breath. She was upwind of them, intentionally, and snatches of their scents wafted to her as well — Lion-O's a sweet, breezy thing and Tygra's pungent and piquant. They backed out of range of each other's reach again, and Cheetara was struck by the resemblance of their grins, noses scrunched and teeth flashing.
They batted and pawed at each other for a while longer, half in jest, but came to a sudden halt as King Claudus entered the courtyard. He looked down at his sons and they looked up at him. Cheetara could feel the thundering of his voice more than hear it. His address was mostly for Lion-O, and Tygra stood beside, arms crossed, the wide expanse of his back turned just so to the sun that shadows gathered at the base of his spine. Something about the ceremony today was the topic, Cheetara imagined. Lion-O was to wield the Sword of Omens for the first time. King Claudus set a heavy hand on the Crown Prince's shoulder and when Tygra spoke, he smiled at his eldest son, then squeezed Lion-O's shoulder once more before departing.
The princes paused before resuming their spar, a silence descending between them. Cheetara's ears draw back and a moment later she smelled the shift in their moods. It happened from time to time and she'd begun to recognize the signs, to know when their taunts would take on a bitter edge, when resentment would leak into their gazes. Sure enough, Tygra took Lion-O down, hard, and a hiss erupted from the younger cat before melting into a low growl. Tygra's responding growl rumbled, rich and deep, and Lion-O scrambled to his feet, spitting invective before marching into the palace.
Cheetara did not look at Tygra, did not watch the smooth lines of his face contort in anger - though she still knew it to be so - and set off, instead, to intercept Lion-O.
He'd gone off into his study, where he often spent long hours, doing what Cheetara could only guess. This time he sequestered himself but briefly and when he emerged, a familiar, dingy cloak was cast about his shoulders. Cheetara's breath caught and she readied herself to follow him, unerringly, from the palace and to the main gate of the upper city. Her cleric's robes she left behind, for in the lower city on a busy afternoon, they would render her hopelessly conspicuous. She trailed him only in her light leathers, blending into the crowd as she hung back, and watched the prince descend deeper and deeper into the slums.
A change came over him as he did so, one she did not expect. The tense set of his shoulders loosened, the anger that had sent him fleeing the palace and the realities of his life draining away until there was just a young cat, standing a bit too straight and tall to really belong among the destitute.
He meandered down a merchant's row, cluttered with broken down stalls selling the leftover and scavenged from the upper city levels. Cheetara thought to go to him, reveal herself and her purpose and drag him back to the palace by his scruff if she had to, but if she did that she would never know why he had come all this way. She would never understand him. So, she followed.
His footsteps slowed as he neared a group of obvious thugs — one of the many tiny packs that roamed these streets extorting those who already had less than nothing. As Prince Lion-O paused while they harangued a hapless pup, Cheetara drew her staff.
It escalated as quickly as she expected. Animals of the slums knew how to make themselves small and non-threatening, how to roll over and show their bellies all in the way they averted their eyes. Lion-O exuded pride and had the stance of one who'd always been challenged and knew only how to challenge back. He acquitted himself well in the few moments before she found an opening to intervene, but he was outnumbered and bullies always liked to fight dirty. Cheetara's assistance was brief but effective.
And there, in a grimy back alley, she came face-to-face with her charge, undisguised, for the first time. She was taller than him, which she had not known. Or rather, had not thought of until that moment. She knew, of course, that she stood not quite so tall as Tygra, who had no few inches on his younger brother. But such thoughts were scattered and usually pushed away, just as she did now whilst Lion-O greeted her with wide blue eyes.
His voice broke and Cheetara could not help but to smile. She would not let it distract her from her purpose, however.
"I'm sure the king would not be happy to learn his son was wrestling alley cats," she said, her tone a mild suggestion.
He unmasked himself then, snatching back his hood with a brashness and naiveté that revealed how he could come to be in a place like this if not exactly why. Given his willingness to cooperate — and she silently praised her decision to eschew her cleric's garb — that was the next answer Cheetara sought.
"What's so important that you'd risk your life coming down here?"
"That depends," he fired back with an infectious grin. "Can you keep a secret?"
Prince Lion-O's secret was a filthy secondhand shop full of black market goods brought in by travelers — usually unscrupulous ones seeking only to make quick coin with forged treasures. The people of shining Thundera had no need to go elsewhere, their home was the center of the world as well as their empire, and often foreigners took that to mean that their high walls made them gullible. Much as this friendly old trinket seller clearly thought the same of the prince.
A cleric could not be a skeptic, but she could very well be a pragmatist. This, however, was not a trait the prince shared. Cheetara watched him closely as he spoke of the old tales that she knew so well, the ones that had defined her childhood and then her sacerdotal education. And she knew. She understood why he came. It was not just pique or rebellion as she had thought, a way to act out against a father who demanded so much and a brother who expected so little.
He believed. Or at least wanted desperately to do so. He ached with it, the longing for more than he knew, more than any of them knew - for something else - as his ancestors must have done in times long past, as so many had forgotten how to do in these days of cloistered comfort and mundane concerns.
"You think I'm crazy, don't you?" he asked suddenly, abashed, as his mind came back to the here and now and he realized the way he'd gone on.
"I think you're... different," said Cheetara and felt the truth of it in her bones.
From her many turns at the vigil, Cheetara knew well how long one night could seem, but no one night could ever feel like enough to encompass horrors that had occurred since the day before.
The chains ground into her wrists and crushed the breath from her lungs. Staying conscious was a struggle as she hung there, strung up like yesterday's catch, from one of the pillars in the ruined throne room. But struggle she did, for she'd found that when she closed her eyes she saw nothing but the flashing light of that wretched creature's magic and the bodies of her order as they fell. Wakefulness brought with it Jaga's cries of pain, but that only meant he still lived to voice them. That much, at least, she had done.
When first her teacher's cries ceased and the sounds of battle rang loud enough to make her ears twitch, Cheetara felt she must be dreaming. Then the chains fell away all at once and air and life rushed back into her body. She lashed out, instinct and training doing her work for her, and found herself standing in front of the Princes of Thundera. Princes, now orphaned. Thundera, now fallen. The weight of it threatened to crush her, but only for a heartbeat. Then, she moved, and yelled for them to do the same. As long as they lived, as long as Lion-O lived, they could not stop.
They fled into the secret passageways that ran throughout the castle and down into the mountains on which the upper city was built and there, without hesitation, because Jaga demanded it, because it was necessary, she dropped to her knees across from Tygra and paid obeisance as Jaga performed the coronation rite.
"Now, Lion-O, Lord of the Thundercats, go," Jaga said and Cheetara was first to see his intent.
"You're going with us, Jaga!" Cheetara yelled. She had not raised her voice to him since she was a cub. He was as unmoved by it as he ever had been.
"I would only slow you down. At least, this way, I can buy you time." His eyes were sunken in and he leaned heavily against his staff. He looked old, so very ancient, and Cheetara could not bear the thought that he was right any more than she could that of leaving him to die.
"I can't do this alone," Lion-O protested over Jaga's final instructions.
"You won't have to," Jaga replied. There, without fanfare, in the way he cast his eyes to Cheetara in the moment before he continued, was a rite as sure any other he had ever performed.
He pushed Lion-O away and yelled again for them to go. Cheetara did not look back at the sound of the tunnels collapsing in on themselves or the sharp report of the lizards' strange weapons. If she looked back, she would slow down.
It took them hours to work their way through the tunnels, fumbling in the dark for much of it. The night was nearly over when the last rough hewn passage — they had long since lost the careful architecture of those nearest the palace — spat them out among the quarries to the west. They pushed on still, into the hills, and did not stop until all three moons had set and the sun rose over their ruined kingdom.
They would have to return. They needed to scavenge supplies, at the very least, as they had none, and though they could not hope to put all the dead to rest, the princes would surely wish to bury their father. No. Not princes, Cheetara brutally corrected herself. Prince Tygra and King Lion-O.
Tygra had managed a fire, though they had nothing to cook over it and little need of its warmth while the sun was still so high in the sky. She thought he just needed some way to feel useful. His grief made his brow furrow and his back ramrod straight. Lion-O sat away from them, staring out at the nightmarish vista. Cheetara had no wish to know how loss hung on her body.
They waited and waited, until darkness fell and Tygra made a panel to shield the fire so that it did not give away their location. The time to move was now, it would take hours to get back to the city and stealth would be key until the lizards had done ransacking Thundera's corpse.
Tygra caught her eye across the dimly flickering flame and it made her feel weak, made her feel fragile, as if she would fly apart at the seams, and that could not be allowed. Not now. She turned away, eyes downcast, and went to Lion-O where he still perched, staring out into the night. It was too dark to see if he had the look she'd come to know so well; it was too dark to tell if he still saw far off things. They all needed him to, however, and Cheetara would do everything in her power to make sure he could still believe. He seemed very small, curled up and legs folded. The boy-king of the Thundercats. Her king.
"We need to move," she said, not a command, but an observation. "While we still have the cover of night."
He looked up at her and she met his gaze, her own firm, unflappable, serene.
"Get up, King Lion-O," Cheetara said, and lay her hand gently on his shoulder. "Your time has come."
He got up.