The Quiet Before the Storm part 13

The weeks after Ahadi's and Masilahi's joining saw things returning to normal in the pride. Hunts were scheduled, gossip was spread, herds were negotiated with. Almost nothing had changed.

And yet somehow, after his marriage to Masilahi, Ahadi's world had seemed just a little bit brighter. The clouds that had cast such uninviting shadows on those around him after Asili's betrayal had been lifted a bit. His cool attitude towards his parents warmed and he made more of an effort to ingratiate himself in pride life again. Believing that others actually cared about him didn't seem so hard now, not after such an amazing lioness had chosen to be his mate.

When he saw a rogue being led to Pride Rock by his pridemates, however, his old suspicions flared up. There was a sly look about her that he definitly didn't like. She looked to be mid-thirties, but there was a youthful sort of sharpness about her movements, as though she were tensed for attack at any moment.

The lioness who had brought her forward bowed to the Royal Family. "Your majesties, this is Queen Unga of the RockLands. She requests an audience with you and Ahadi." With a respectful nod towards all three monarchs, she turned and padded off.

Icy claws of fear gripped Ahadi's heart. Unga of the iRockLands?/i Why did someone from Masilahi's old pride want to talk to them? He tried to look as unconcerned as possible as his parents formally welcomed the Queen. "What brings you all this way, Unga?" Mohatu asked. Ahadi could hear the real question under his words; iWhy are you here instead of one of your underlings?/i

Unga flashed a smile with far too much teeth. "Well, I wanted to come down and have a little personal chat. As Queen of the RockLands, it's my duty to negotiate the marriage of our princess to your prince, and what... costs it will come at." Ahadi decided that her smile reminded him of the look on a crocodile's face before it struck.

Mohatu and Safi shared a puzzled glance. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," Safi told the lioness.

"Oh, don't you?" Unga's cold orange eyes strayed carelessly to Ahadi. "Ah, but I see the prince does." She stood and strolled over to Ahadi, who felt as though he were carved out of stone, rooted to the spot. The lioness circled him carefully before flashing that crocodile grin again. "Ahadi, be a dear and go fetch Princess Masilahi for me, would you?"

"I don't know who you're talking about," Ahadi growled through clenched teeth. "My mate's name is Uru, but if you must insist I'll bring her here." iNyonda. Nyonda will pretend to be Uru if I ask her to./i The idea flies from Ahadi's brain when he sees Masilahi approaching the group.

Unga followed Ahadi's gaze. "Ah," she purred in a voice of silk, "I see there's no need." Masilahi had stopped dead in her tracks, confusion fading to horror. "That's right, my dear, we've met before. Though I doubt you'd remember. You were a little out of sorts that day. Up and attacked me, you did."

Masilahi's eyes widened. "You were the lioness who was talking to my father at the () border." Understanding flashed in her eyes before being replaced by a cold hatred, the likes of which Ahadi had never seen there before. "What do you want?"

Queen Unga raised her head in a mock show of regality. "Oh my darling, did no one say? I'm your daddy's new Queen. Well, hardly 'new' seeing as I married him eight years ago, but new to you I suppose. Isn't that right, precious?" The cruel grin faded into a more serious expression. In an all-business tone she explained, "You're still the Princess, sweetie, so you're still the property of your father. He's got nothing against you marrying this Ahadi fellow. Far from it, actually. But it'll come with a cost to the PrideLands. They'll have to pay us in land and prey. Unless, of course," here her voice turned acidly sweet, "You refuse. Then of course it's quite simple. We claim you double-timed us and attack you with a pride twice the size of what you remember" She smirked.. "I'd say you had any choice in the matter, but you'd know I was lying. Pay up or be conquered. Your choice."

Masilahi and Ahadi shared a quick glance. Time. They needed time.

Prince Ahadi drew himself up to his full height and applied every bit of royal haughtiness he could muster. "We will discuss your proposal. Leave us," he commanded. "Someone will come to fetch you when we have reached a decision."

Unga's eyes lit up with cruel amusement. "Very well," she said with mock formality. She strode away with an air of one who has cornered their prey and is just waiting to strike. iWhich isn't far off,/i Ahadi thought grimly.

The King and Queen waited until Unga was out of earshot before turning to their son. Their faces wore matching expressions of confusion and anger. Mohatu, jaw clenched, asked Ahadi with quiet anger, "Do you want to explain what's going on here, son?"

Ahadi clenched his jaw in much the manner his father was. This wasn't his secret to tell. The two had a glaring match until Masilahi stepped in. "Ahadi, there's no point in hiding it anymore." As the monarchs' glares transferred to her, she turned to them and explained quietly, "It's me. She's here because of me."

With a show of calm that Ahadi admired, Masilahi explained her true past to the stone-faced King and Queen. Ahadi didn't take his narrowed eyes off of his parents, but his side was pressed against's Masilahi's, and one paw was laid comfortably over hers. Whatever judgement the rulers cast down on one would be cast on the other.

When she finished Safi turned to her son with heavy disappointment in her eyes. "Oh Ahadi, why didn't you tell us?"

Ahadi glared at his mother and said coldly, "It wasn't my secret to tell. Besides, it's none of your business. It was my choice to make." Masilahi threw her mate a grateful glance.

"It's our business when it threatens our Kingdom," Mohatu's deep rumble cut in. He was throwing Masilahi a cold look that Ahadi hated.

Ahadi growled, "So?" He got to his paws. "Pay them what they want. You paid plenty for Nyeusi's betrothal, I don't see why you're hesitating now."

A growl rumbled in Mohatu's voice. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Father and son faced each other down with hackles raised and teeth bared. Before either of them could make a move, Masilahi stepped between them. "Enough!" Her brown eyes flashed with a fire Ahadi had last seen when he'd foolishly pushed her away. "You two don't need to be fighting over me." She turned urgently to Mohatu. "Listen, I think I have an idea, but I need a few days to check if I'm right."

Masilahi's confidence managed to calm Mohatu. He looked Masilahi up and down as through re-evaluating her. "What do you need us to do?" he finally asked.

"Unga's not going to let us wait a few days, so we'll act like our business is too important to share with the Queen Consort and must be taken directly to King Hodari." She spat out his name as if it burned her mouth. "That'll buy us the four days that it'll take to travel to the RockLands. I'll need Zuzu to fly out and check something for me. If I'm right, I might have a way to turn my father 's little blackmail scheme on him."

"And if you're wrong?"

Masilahi bowed her head. "I'll accept any punishment you choose."

"And me," Ahadi growled in a low voice. "Anything you do to Masilahi, if you punish her or banish her, you'll have to do to me."

Hurt flashed in Mohatu's eyes, but when he saw his son wouldn't be swayed, he simply dipped his head. "I hope, for all our sakes, that you're right Masilahi," he rumbled.

The journey to the RockLands was long and tense. Ahadi and Masilahi had accompanied Unga back to her homeland.

iThe RockLands./i The name gave Masilahi a slight thrill. The PrideLands were her home now, but the RockLands were filled with happy memories of her cubhood, even with the dark presence of her father. And now she was back.

The familiar barren stretches of rock were almost painfully familiar. Here was where she had first gone tunneling with her mother. There was the place she and Johari had often played as cubs. She pointed these places out in whispers to Ahadi, bringing out the few smiles his current worry would allow.

They were almost in reach of the inner RockLands when Zuzu finally reappeared. The purple bird flitted down to Masilahi's eye-level, a grin on her beak. "You were right," she chirped cheerfully.

Masilahi's breath caught in her throat. "You're sure?"

Zuzu nodded. "I talked to her myself. She's happy where she is by the way."

For the first time in those four days, hope swelled in Masilahi's chest. She had the leverage she needed to turn this thing around. But now came the hard part - the political dance required to get this to work. It could go either way.

As they were brought into the Inner RockLands, a lanky teenager loped his way over, a familiar grin on his face. "Long time no see," he quipped.

Ahadi let out a low growl at the sight of the stranger, but Masilahi shook her head. There was something about this lion that seemed familiar... "Johari?!"

Her brother chuckled. "Guilty as charged." He pulled her into a tight bear hug before pulling back with another grin. "Missed you out here, sis. I've had to take to spoiling Dad's fun on my own."

Masilahi couldn't help but return the grin. "Good to know my work was continued in my absence," she joked.

Johari started to reply, but a deep roar interrupted him. Out of one of the cave-send stalked a huge lion with a few new scars and a graying mane. But the cold, violet eyes were the same as ever. King Hodari stalked out into the open and fixed his cold glare on his daughter. "Welcome back, Princess Masilahi," he growled in that familiar rumble.

Masilahi drew herself up to her full height. Her head was held high, her stance powerful, her expression one of royal haughtiness. Everything she'd ever learned about being a Queen was being used to her fullest ability. Half of selling a bargain, Tamu had once told her, is selling yourself.

"King Hodari." Her voice rang clear through the Inner RockLands. "I have come to negotiate the terms of my Joining to Prince Ahadi of the PrideLands."

Hodari's deep scowl went unchanged. He growled, "You have the choice of paying us with the southern strip of land that runs from the border to the river, or I can bring war down on you and your pride." Ahadi and Zuzu flinched at Hodari's steep price, but Masilahi was unmoved. "Your choice."

Masilahi let a small, smug smile play at her lips. "Actually, King Hodari, the choice lies with you. Let me go in peace and allow me to continue to be known as Princess Uru, or reveal your treachery to the HighLanders." Hodari's ear twitched slightly at this, and Masilahi knew she'd gotten to him. "That's right, the HighLands. Where I was supposed to be sent for my betrothal before I ran away. Where you sent an imposter, the lioness Siri, to carry out the betrothal."

Hodari didn't acknowledge her words in any way, but his silence told her she had a foothold. She continued, "Queen () still believes she has secured a royal bride for her son. What would she do if she found out that was a lie? She is not of a forgiving nature." A growl entered her voice. "If you attack the PrideLands, I will ensure you find yourself at war with not only us, but the HighLands as well. Not to mention our allies in the WindingLands."

Hodari deliberated in a glowering silence. The HighLanders were few but powerful, having grown tough and agile in their dangerous mountain home. The WindingLanders were divided, and not all would come when called. But the combination of the PrideLands, the HighLands, and the WindingLands would overwhelm his pride in sheer numbers. Even if Hodari were to gather enough allies to fight back, it would end up a huge, bloody affair that would end in him owing his allies more than he won from his enemies.

Hodari glared at his daughter. "What are your terms?" he asked quietly.

"My cover as Princess Uru remains uncontested by any in your Pride," Masilahi growled. "My Pride won't owe you a pawprint of land. You never acknowledge me as your daughter and never try to get any gain from my marriage. From this moment on, I iam/i Uru."

She met the King's glare with as even a gaze she could muster. This could still go either way. Hodari could decide full-out war was worth the risk. The lioness waited with bated breath as Hodari deliberated.

Finally, the old king lifted his head. "Very well," he growled. Masilahi released the breath she'd been holding. "But in turn, you lose any right to succeed the RockLands throne, as do any of your heirs. You and any of your blood are banished forever from our lands, and if you enter here again shall suffer death."

Masilahi didn't hesitate. "Done." The loss of her homeland pained her, but she would give it all up to protect her true home.

As she turned to look at Ahadi, her mate looked back with overwhelming relief. It was over, and now they could go home.

Yay for more Masilahi and Ahadi! So now their marriage is secure, and nothing can threaten them again. Big time-jump coming up, and maybe a cub for the happy couple. ;) As you can probably guess, we're coming up on the second half here.

More There's No Place next, then a Warriors fic chapter.