As the weeks rolled by, the Pridelands adapted to their new queen. Kiara was a bit nervous and frantic at first, but she was finally settling into her new role. If Vitani did not know any better, she would say Kiara actually enjoyed being queen. Kovu was certainly happy. Vitani was glad they had found each other. Perhaps happy endings were real after all.
She had enough to keep her busy herself since she had been put in charge of caring for Kamili. She had not been exactly sure what she was supposed to do; she did not know how to be a mother. It turned out she did not need to do much. The cub was always out playing with Sadiku. Vitani just had to give her baths and keep her warm throughout the night. She was growing more comfortable with this situation as well.
Sometimes, Kamili would rattle off about her past and the Rushlands. At first, Vitani had found it annoying, but now she was irritated that there was nothing she could do to help the situation. Why couldn't Kiara send out scouts to survey the situation? The pride was certainly doing well enough now. Vitani made a note to herself to bring it up the next time she saw the queen.
It was another sunny day, and Vitani needed to get out on her own. She had been absentmindedly padding through the Pridelands when she noticed that she was nearing the Outlands. She stopped short, raising her paw and blinking twice. At this part of the border, there was still the old tree log providing a bridge across the river.
She hesitated. Did she really want to cross? She was a Pridelander now; there was no reason to visit the Outlands. Still, this was part of her past and who she was. She had been feeling lost lately, so perhaps this would help put her life in perspective.
She placed a tentative paw on the log. Then, taking a deep breath, she crossed onto the other side. Once she was on land again, she stopped and gazed across the land. Everything was just as she remembered it. She slowly padded forward. She visited everything she remembered: the den, her favorite play spots, the elephant graveyard…
She looked up at the giant elephant skull, wondering why she had ever had an attraction to it. This was not where she belonged, was it? The last time she had been here was with her brother Nuka…
She shook the thoughts away. She could not think about him now. She forced herself to walk forward into the dark cave.
There still did not seem to be any living creature inside. Vitani stopped in the middle of the den and sat down. Then she lowered her head and let out a heavy sigh, her ears drooping down. What had she expected to find by coming here? This life held nothing for her anymore.
"Vitani?" said a small voice.
Vitani's eyes flew open, and she instinctively leapt to her paws. "Who's there?" She growled. Every muscle in her body was tense; she was ready for a fight.
"M-me," the voice said again. Then, out of the darkness stepped a female hyena. Her fur was lighter than most hyenas' - almost silver, and her eyes were a deep brown. She looked timid and frightened. "I didn't mean to scare you."
Vitani relaxed only a tiny bit. This hyena did not seem threatening, but she could never be too carefully. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"
"Don't you remember me?" the hyena said. "I'm Asante, Kopa's friend."
This caught Vitani off guard. Startled, she stumbled backward and ended up sitting down. Her eyes were wide, and her mouth was hanging open. "Asante?" She had not seen hyena since the whole pack of them ran off. And she had not talked to Asante personally since…
"Yes." Asante took a step forward. Her eyes were swimming with an emotion the lioness could not understand. "I was hoping you would come here. Listen, I need your help. My pack has taken over the Rushlands and-"
At this Vitani snapped out of it. "That was your pack?" She eyed the hyena suspiciously. "If you want Kamili back, you can forget. We're keeping her safe."
Asante shook her head. "No, that's not what I meant. I never wanted to attack the Rushlands. It was Kopa's idea."
Vitani's heart nearly stopped upon hearing that name. "Kopa? No…" Her eyes grew wide again, and she slowly backed away. "It can't be. He's dead." She swallowed and found a lump in her throat. It was suddenly hard to breath.
"No, he's not," Asante said. "He was driven out of the Pridelands, but he found a place to hide for the night. The next day, two of my pack mates found him. They recognized him as my friend, so they took him to me. He told us he could never go back to the Pridelands or he would be killed. We were already planning on leaving for new grounds, so I convinced my leader to let him join us. I said he wouldn't be any trouble."
Vitani could hardly believe what she was hearing. All her life she had thought Kopa was dead. She felt numb. "But – what does he have against the Rushlands?"
Asante gazed at her with sad eyes. "We treated him well, but he became resentful that he would never become king. The environment fostered his resentment, and he grew hard. He became so obsessed with power that he was willing to take over a pride to get what he wanted. He rationalized it by saying that the queen was not fit to rule because she's a girl. The hyenas have taken advantage of his desires." She shook her head. "I hardly recognize him anymore. I've tried to talk to him, but he keeps pushing me away." She let out a heavy sigh and gazed at the ground.
A multitude of emotions hit Vitani all at once. She had sometimes imagined that Kopa was still alive, but she had never thought this would be possible. Kopa was warm and kind. This just didn't make any sense. "Kopa would never do anything like that," she said with fear in her voice. "That's not who he is.
Asante lifted her head and looked at her sadly. "I'm sure he never thought you would help chase him out and help your mother plot revenge against Simba and the Pridelands."
Vitani closed her mouth. She looked away in shame.
"You were influenced by your mother, and he was influenced by the worst of the hyenas."
Vitani looked back at her. "But I changed my path! I've made amends."
"He can as well, but he needs help." She placed a paw forward. "Come with me to the Rushlands. He might listen to you."
Vitani sat down and flattened her ears. She should have been excited that Kopa was alive, but now all she felt was guilt and despair. "If he won't listen to you, he won't listen to me. I betrayed him. He probably forgot about me a long time ago."
"Can you try?" Asante pressed. "I don't know who else to turn to. You said you know Kamili. Maybe she knows something about the Rushlands that can help us."
Vitani lifted her head up. "That might not be a bad idea. I want to find out more."
A slight smile crossed Asante's face. "Good. Go do that. Whenever you're ready to leave, come back here. I'll be waiting."
Vitani nodded but did not say anything. She was not sure how to say goodbye, so she simply turned and padded out of the cave. Her mind was swarming with thoughts. Kopa was alive! But… he had been corrupted. Was there really anything she could do to help?
Vitani sulked all the way back to the Pridelands. Kamili… She had to find Kamili. But where would she find the young cub? She decided the best course of action was to return to Pride Rock and wait for her there. She ignored the other lionesses as she neared the giant rock. She found a spot where she could look out at the horizon and laid to down to wait.
Vitani dozed off once or twice, but she finally saw Kamili and Sadiku padding back to Pride Rock. The cubs were headed right for her.
"Hi, Aunt Vitani," Sadiku said.
"Hello, Sadiku," Vitani said. Then she glanced at the female. "I need to talk to Kamili."
Kamili blinked. "Me?"
"Why?" Sadiku asked curiously.
Vitani glanced at him. "That's not your business." She looked back at Kamili. "In private, please. It's important."
"Alright," Kamili said with a shrug. She smiled at her new friend. "I'll talk to you later, Sadiku." She turned to follow Vitani.
"See ya!" Sadiku called.
Vitani led the cub over to the clearing where they could talk without anyone listening in. Once she was sure they were alone, Vitani turned to face Kamili and began. "The lion who led the hyenas to take over your pride, his name is Kopa, isn't it?"
Surprise flashed across Kamili's face. "Yes, that's it! How did you know?"
Vitani hesitated before answering, "I just talked to one of the hyenas. She is a good hyena and did not approve of the attack. Kopa was her friend… and mine."
Kamili's eyes turned wide. "He was your friend? Why would you be friends with someone like that?"
Vitani flicked her ears in irritation. "He was not always like that. He was driven out of the Pridelands when he was a cub. He had a hard life after that. I suspect this is his way of making up for it."
Kamili frowned. She appeared to be thinking hard about something. "He was a Pridelander?"
Vitani looked over the cub's face, trying to decide how much she should trust her. She definitely did not want to tell her that her family was responsible for getting rid of Kopa! "Not just any Pridelander… He was King Simba's son… Kiara's older brother… The prince and future king. Until he was driven off."
Kamili let out a gasp. "He was the prince?! No wonder he feels he has a right to be king. Why was he driven off? Has the threat passed?"
Vitani hesitated before nodding. "Yes, it has. Everyone thinks he's dead. They would all be relieved to know the truth."
Kamili's eyes were suddenly bright. "Then let's tell him he's welcome back! Then he can leave the Rushlands and be a Pridelander like he was supposed to!"
Vitani frowned down at her. Why did cubs think everything was so simple? "I don't think it will be that easy. He may not even want to come back."
"Can't we try?" Kamili pleaded. "I'll take you to him and you can talk to him. Please? This may be the only way to save my pride and… I don't know what else to do." She suddenly looked so sad and pathetic that Vitani could not help but give in.
"Fine," the lioness said grudgingly. "We'll leave tomorrow morning. But don't tell anyone where we're going!"
Kamili's face broke out into a huge grin, and she jumped to her feet in excitement. "No problem!"