Maji stepped out into the bright sun. It was a particularly hot day and he had spent the better part of an hour taking a break under an acacia tree. Any solace from the heat of the sun was welcome, but he had a job to do and if he didn't get it done, there would be consequences. He was still sore from the last time he had failed his assignment. Last time, the king ordered him to listen in on a meeting the local elephant heard was having. Unironically, a lion among elephants is easy to spot. He was chased away and when his failure was found out, he suffered the usual punishment. This time, he was ordered to try to blend in with a certain clique of members in the pride itself.
"How am I supposed to get into this group? They already know me as the low-life in the pride." He muttered to himself. "I was never even part of this pride to begin with." He continued as he swatted a pebble away with a paw.
"Shh. It's the outsider." A hush fell over the group of lionesses.
Vita's ears immediately perk up, and she turns and spots an oddly colored lion, passively entertaining himself with a loose pebble on the ground.
She's seen him before, once or twice as he clearly avoided the pride. She's only been visiting a few days, passing through from her adventure when she came across this pride. A pride that used to have an alliance with her old one, before her father's.
With a playful grin, she bats a loose stone towards him, purposely knocking his own pebble away.
His eye's followed the pebble as it rolled along. As soon as it lost momentum, another pebble appeared and knocked it away. Maji's bright blue eyes widened as he followed the path the other pebble had taken. Only to meet the eyes of the very lioness he was assigned to spy on. She was a visitor to the pride and for whatever reason, the king was suspicious of her presence. She seemed friendly towards him, which wasn't something Maji was used to. Her smile was one of very few he'd seen directed at him. This was his chance.
Slowly, Maji walked up to the group of lionesses, eyes turned away, head lowered.
"Uh, I uh um... Hi." He stammered, forgetting how to at least pretend to be able to make conversation competently.
"Just leave, Maji." One of the pride members interrupted. "Doesn't the king need you to clean his paws or something?"
Maji stepped back and flattened his ears, eyes darting between the two lionesses, feeling the eyes of the third and fourth bearing down on him. Of course, it couldn't be that easy.
Frowning, Vita turns towards the other lioness. "Hey, leave him alone. He hasn't even done anything." She says, then turns her smile back to the lion. "I'm Kavita, though most simply call me Vita. And you are?"
Never before has she seen a lion act so timidly. However, with the mild hostility from the other lionesses, she understands why.
"Ooh. You must be pretty smart then, huh?" Vita asks with a smile, ignoring the scoffs from the other lionesses. "What sort of records do you keep?" She asks. Maji seems like the quiet sort, in her opinion.
"Interesting." She nods, then stands up. "Any news from the king, then? Might tell me a bit about what's going on in the area." Vita says. She has asked the other lionesses about news, but they only talked about whatever mischief their cubs got in. Nothing special.
Vita blinks, then tilts her head. "Huh? Am I that obvious from his pride?" She wonders aloud with a small laugh. "Ah, well yeah. He's my brother actually. I'm just passing through, since I needed a good adventure. Therefore, here I am." She says happily, then walks closer toward the lion.
Smelling him a bit, she smirks. "You're not from here either, are ya?"
Maji smiled, pulling from his memory. "Well, your pride and this pride used to have an alliance right? It's my job to keep track of these sorts of things. All the different prides and descriptions and names of their descendants."
"Ah, well yeah. He's my brother actually. I'm just passing through, since I needed a good adventure. Therefore, here I am."
Once again, Maji became distracted from his job as she pulled his imagination into her world.
"You're not from here either, are ya?"
"Me? No, I came here when I was a cub." His smile faded slightly for a mere moment but he brought it back, if a bit less genuine now.
Vita notices his smile fading slightly, yet chooses not to mention it. "I was right: You are smart. Especially if you remember all of that." She smiles a bit. "Do you like it here?" She asks curiously, noting how the lionesses drifted away from them.
"Yeah, it's a nice place. I work directly for the king, so that's nice." He lied, then tried to change the subject back to her. "But what about you? You left your home because you didn't like it or something?"
For a second, Maji thought he probably shouldn't get too involved with this lioness, but then he realized, that was the point. The more time he spent with Vita, the more he could find out about her. The more thorough his report, the happier the king would be... he hoped.
He walked past Vita towards a location he liked to go to some nights when everyone was asleep. It was the only time he ever got to do what he pleased, away from watching eyes.
"Maji. The king wants to see you. Now." It was Ulafi, one of the many guards. Not that they did much 'guarding.' The pretty much did as they pleased unless told specifically to do something else by King Uchoyo.
"Now? But I haven't even-" Maji began to say.
"Now!" Ulafi barked before walking away in a huff.
Maji's spirits sank back down. The king wanted a report already? What was he supposed to say? He turned to Vita.
"Sorry, I've got to go." His eyes fell to the ground, feeling that he had let her down somehow. Then he got an idea. "Meet me tonight? Just follow the creek upstream. You'll know the place when you get there." He smiled sheepishly.
"Oh. Ok, sure! Uh. See ya!" Maji walked back towards the den.
When Maji arrived, he was met by King Uchoyo at the back of the cave. He was lounging about, as usual, with two lionesses. One at each side.
"So?" He said, impatiently. "Have you found out anything yet?"
"I, uh. No, not yet. I think she's just visiting. She said she was just traveling and decided to make a stop here."
Uchoyo already looked pretty impatient and disappointed, but somehow, he now seemed even more so. Maji knew that look. This wasn't good. "Maji, again, you're trying my patience. I asked you to do something but you haven't done it. I expect to know what she's doing in our lands. Until you find out, you're not welcome in the den. And tomorrow, if you've still found nothing out... I don't think I need to tell you what will happen."
Instead of being somber at the punishment, Maji was actually glad to sleep outside. It only made sneaking off that much easier. He pretended to be disappointed. "Understood."
As Maji padded out of the den, into the dusk, the rest of the pride members were coming in. He kept his head low. He didn't want to attract any attention. Aparently it didn't matter. He felt a shoulder push him out of the way, then a paw from the other side shoved him over. Maji hit the ground with a thud, scraping his shoulder on the rough gravel.
"And you thought you were gonna get you some tail." Ulafi said mockingly. He was flanked by two other guards.
Embarrassed and suddenly afraid, Maji covered his face with a paw. "No, I-" A paw to the stomach silenced him.
"We all saw you with Kavita. She doesn't know who she's getting involved with, so her a favor and forget she exists." Ulafi finished his verbal assault and spat on the cowering lion. Maji stayed there, covering his head and waited for them to leave.
When the sound of paw steps faded, Maji got up and wiped the saliva off his fur. She is better off without me. Maji thought. But maybe I can pretend I have a friend. At least for tonight... With that, he padded off in the direction of his favorite place.
The trees thickened until it was difficult to see more than ten or twenty meters, but he knew where he was going. As soon as he hit the creek, it was an easy walk. The water felt refreshing on his paws. Eventually, he came to the reservoir. It was a quiet place, surrounded by thick foliage. It was a hard place to find unless you knew it was there. The trees parted just above so that the moonlight shined through, illuminating the water.
Now to wait for Vita. Ulafi's words echoed in his mind. Assuming she even shows up...
As quickly as the situation intensified, it calmed back down as Vita calmed her own voice. He lowered his paws and began to lift himself out of the water.
"I'm sorry, Maji."
He wanted to say something but he didn't know what. What was he supposed to say to that?
"It's- It's my fault. Sorry." It didn't make much sense. Nothing really was his fault, but there wasn't a time he could remember that he wasn't blamed for a mistake. The wet fur on his legs and underbelly were matted to him as he stood up again.
"Do they... do they hurt you here?"
Maji raised a brow in surprise as his jaw hung open.
"Uh, I-I-I don't, uh. What would make you think that?" Quickly, his mind raced to find ways to act more casually.
"I startled you and you looked so afraid, like I was going to hurt you. No one has that reaction unless it has happened before." Vita explains. "I've also noticed how no one in the pride seems to have much care for you. You lied when you said you liked it here, didn't you?"
"Try telling that to Uchoyo. He let me live when I was a cub. As far as he's concerned, I owe him everything. He'd just kill me if I tried to escape anyway." He said, turning away. He looked at his reflection in the water, the moonlight illuminating the surface like a mirror. Maji shook his head and blinked, setting his eyes back on Vita. "Why am I telling you this? If they found out I snuck out to meet you... they'd..."
Maji turned away again. Moments passed and with a sigh, he turned back around to face Vita. He sat down and lifted his front paws, exposing his less furry underbelly. It was covered in bruises and scars. Some of them reached into his sides and chest where they disappeared under the thicker fur, hinting at the existence of more concealed under his coat.
Slowly, he lowered his paws back down to the ground, still sitting, facing Vita, but his eyes turned away. He couldn't bring himself to look at her. Memories of pain and suffering were brought back. Maji's head lowered and the tears came.
Vita frowns at the old injuries. "Maji, I'm going to help you get out of here, alright?" She says, then rubs herself against him for comfort. "We need a plan, though. And, I'm sure if need be, I can take you back to my pride. My brother would make sure this king won't be able to get you."
Separating from the lion, she sits down and ponders a bit. "You said you have a good memory, right? Is there anything you can recall that would make the king have no choice but to let you go? Other than running away?"