The Queen chirped with pleasure at Claudus' decision. "This is wonderful news!" The Queen smiled at Claudus. She kissed the little tiger prince and danced him in her arms. "Do you hear that, my handsome little Prince? We have found you a queen!"

The Queen turned to the Lady. "Chiana, my dear, we must begin the preparations for a celebration!"

"You are most gracious, my Queen." Lady Chiana dipped at the knees and nodded in deference.

"Come." The Queen extended an elbow toward Lady Chiana. "Let us leave the men to arrange the details of the joining of Houses." Lady Chiana placed her slender fingers in the crook of the Queen's arm. The Queen led the Lady toward the sun-lit throne chamber balcony where her handmaidens were preparing a celebratory tea for the women in honor of their agreement. "We shall be as sisters!" the Queen declared.

Claudus watched the women glide away arm in arm, with the trains of their white and purple gowns trailing behind them, the Prince in tow. Jaga left to prepare the afternoon exercises for the senior clerics. Claudus turned toward Lord Lior and faced him squarely. "We shall not be as brothers," the King growled. His navy cape flapped behind him as he led the younger lion to the war room to commence the negotiations.

Lady Chiana let the Queen lead her to the honored seat facing the central city and its outlying farmlands; a clear blue topaz sky soared above. She looked out from the high balcony and focused her far vision onto the verdant hillside. Miles in the distance to the east, Chiana could identify forests of oak trees by their shingled bark and paw-like leaves, and elms by their slit-like bark and leaves with serrated edges. From miles away, without squinting, Chiana could see a red-breasted cardinal perched at the edge of its nest in an oak tree near the outer walls of the city. While squinting, she could make out the sienna-colored earthworm the bird dangled over its nest from its beak.

Chiana then looked at the table before her. The Queen had prepared high tea with Chiana's favorite foods. Upon a pressed white linen table cloth, tiered silver platters held small marble plates filled with thinly sliced smoked salmon sandwiches; a rare liga-bird pâté spread over sweet wafers; palga eggs boiled, sliced, and stuffed with whipped egg yolks, mushrooms and spices; and sliced water fruit on sponge bread. Silver finger bowls held raw salmon eggs. Delicate tissues caressed round dessert cakes glazed, topped, drizzled or filled with candyfruits obtained in trade from the four cat realms surrounding Thundera. Chiana smelled the fragrant tea, sweet with blossoms from the Queen's own garden. The women ate, heartily celebrating their accomplishment.

Flawless. Lady Chiana smiled to herself. She admired the Queen and everything that she was made of, from the stylish aqua-colored threads that detailed the hems of her gowns, to her clear-eyed and politic management of the kingdom. As the women dined together, Chiana reflected on how deeply the Queen had influenced the course of her own life. Until she became engaged to Lior, Chiana had studied as a cleric under the great Jagara herself. Now the Queen had become her mentor as Chiana shed her cleric's robes and adopted the ways of the nobility.

Lady Chiana first met the Queen, then the newly married Princess, when she accompanied Lior on one of his trade missions near the lizard-occupied woodlands beyond the Sand Sea. Lord Lior brought Lady Chiana with him on this mission to introduce her to society. The Lady and the future Queen gravitated toward each other, despite Lior's prodding, and fell into a passionate conversation during which they left the trading party to gather mushrooms from the forest for soup. Chiana remembered it well: without warning, five lizard women had surrounded them, hissing out a grievance. Chiana had drawn the future Queen close to her side and together they approached the lizard women. She coolly greeted these lizards in a language the Queen had never heard, gave them Thunderan shillings for any damage done to the mushroom beds, and bid them goodbye. During the quick walk back to the trading party, the two women shared common views on the hostilities between cats and lizards. The Queen asked Chiana how she had learned to speak with the lizards at all. The Lady explained how, as a girl, she had actually known seven lizard families, and she had convinced Lior to let them dwell on their lands. These lizards now worked as domestics for her family, and for other nobles in their territory. "They actually make quite good tea," Chiana had joked.

The Queen had praised Lady Chiana for her gallantry and invited the Lady to the palace on occasion. Through the years, Lady Chiana took those opportunities to observe the Queen's habits, and manner with the noblemen who had business with the King. Chiana fashioned her own relationships with Lior and his business partners after the Queen's authoritarian style; she used her position to demand an audience, gave her commands as suggestions to soften their delivery, and smoothed interactions with soft kisses and gentle touches to redirect a wayward nobleman while protecting his sense of virility. It was in this way that Chiana transformed herself from cleric to Lady. She felt she owed her life to the Queen and was determined to serve her every wish.

"Do not concern yourself with the negotiations." The Queen smiled at the Lady. "Claudus will agree to the additional guards, security, and treasure as you and I have already discussed. And not a shilling less!"

"And Lior will agree to the expansion of territory within our lands that can be leased to Thunderan farmers, I assure you," Chiana said. "I have told Lior that he could never convince Claudus to provide so generously, and he will be pleased with himself when he emerges with this settlement!" The two women laughed together.

"May I hold him?" Lady Chiana reached out to Prince Tygra.

"But of course!" The Queen smiled broadly and rested the infant in Chiana's lap.

"He's so handsome!"

"Yes, my precious little Tygra," the Queen cooed.

Tygra reached upward from Chiana's lap and touched her enormous belly. The tiger prince giggled with delight at the furious flutter within Chiana's womb.

"Yes, Tygra, that is your queen!" The Queen laughed. "He likes her already!"

"Oh!" Chiana gasped as her child raced and flipped about in the tiny space. "I think she likes him, too!"

"Come here Tygra." The Queen pulled the Prince away from the Lady's lap to spare her the discomfort. Tygra grasped at the fabric on Chiana's lap and mewed a sharp and piercing cry as his mother tried to loosen his hold on the purple gown. Large watery pools formed beneath the Prince's light brown eyes, and his sobs rang out into the open air.

"Now, Tygra!" The Queen clicked her tongue. "We will behave ourselves, won't we? Yes! We have guests, my sweet little one!" The Queen nestled Tygra closely against her breast and calmed him.

Chiana was quiet for a moment before addressing a far more serious matter. "My Queen, I know that the cleric's words upset you." Lady Chiana looked at the Queen directly. "I want you to know that I have taken Jaga's prophecy to heart. I will raise a queen who will serve her king, and with my dying breath I will make sure that she has every skill and power needed to protect his life. I swear it to you."

The Queen pursed her lips and nodded. Chiana knew the Queen would not allow her tears to fall.

"I knew I had chosen wisely." The lion Queen smiled softly. "And of course, we shall extend the title of Princess to your daughter when she is married to the Prince before he is made King. Princess . . . ." The Queen searched for words. "What name is she to be called?" she asked.

"With your permission," Chiana replied, "I would humbly request that she be called after the mother of Claudus, 'Her Majesty Queen Leah the Thirty-fourth of the Honorable Kingdom of Thundera, Descendant of the Cheetah Line of His Royal Highness Leo and Her Royal Highness Panthera'." Lady Chiana paused to take a breath. "I humbly accept the title of Princess Leah after she is of age to be married to the Prince." Lady Chiana smiled brightly. "And as is the tradition, during the betrothal period we will simply call her after my mother, Lady Cheetara."

"Leah." The Queen nodded with approval. "A lovely and perfect name. We will prepare the rites to welcome Leah into the world and into our family."

The Queen grasped Chiana's hand tightly within her own. Cheetara turned and fluttered within Chiana's womb. Lady Chiana placed her other hand upon her belly to soothe the child.

oOo

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Author's note: (spoilers for Astral Plane, Survival of the Fittest ) Most assume that Cheetara was an orphan from poverty, but that backstory doesn't really explain how well she was dressed, or, her manner when she appears in Thundera in the flashback episode Into the Astral Plane. Compared to the Wilys, who definitely looked like they'd been on their own on the streets, Cheetara looked better cared for. Also, the Wilys weren't actually orphans either as I assumed, so it's possible that Cheetara's mysterious background had more of a twist than we think.