"Intelligent. No, I can just remember things exactly as I see and hear them. I never said I was smart." He scratched his head. "I don't now how much I'm really worth to Uchoyo. But he'd refuse all but the most bountiful payments just to be cruel."
Maji sighed, trying to think of something. "His life? I don't know. He's very fond of... living. He likes... well. Lionesses." Maji shrugged. "You met the snooty hellions. The more time they spend with the king, the more self-importance they seem to have." Maji rolled his eyes. "I don't know how that helps us though."
"Only when he needs me to spy on someone or to be reminded of something that happened. Close to around once or twice a day. Some days he doesn't talk to me at all. What are you getting at?" Maji asked, confused.
"Next time you talk to him, kinda mention how my brother 'sent' me to this pride as an offering of some sort in order to join the prides. He might like that, an opportunity to greatly increase his pride and power." Vita says, pacing. "With a little acting on my part, I can get close to him. Close enough to push him into a position to either set you free for to become fertilizer. Think that'll work?"
Maji's jaw hung open. "You'd... You'd do that for me? I mean, it would work, but... are you sure? I don't know what that would mean for you." Maji paused, suddenly realizing, and not quite understanding why, just as she seemed to care about him, he cared about her. "I don't want him to hurt you."
Maji wasn't sure what it really meant to trust someone, but if anything, he at least hoped she could really help him. "Ok. Ok, I think we can do this." He looked up at her again with his deep blue eyes. "Thank you." He said as he put his paw over his heart.
"Yeah. Tomorrow, he'll ask me what progress I've made on finding out why you're here. I'll just tell him you were sent by your brother to join him and unite our prides." Maji repeated the plan back to her. "So I guess I should head back then. See you tomorrow."
Maji found his usual sleeping spot just around the corner outside the den. He couldn't seem to get comfortable with the thoughts and worry about how tomorrow might go. It was already late so he wasn't going to be getting much sleep anyway. If all went well, then he'd be free. Or maybe he'd just be trading one life of pain for another. His parents never liked prides. Were they all like this one? Nothing could be worse than this, could there?
As these thoughts swirled about in his mind, Maji drifted off to sleep.
Maji woke up to a pressure and pain in the scruff of his neck.
"Wha- whoa wait!" Maji shut his eyes and braced himself as he was being dragged into the cave suddenly. He was dropped onto his paws by Ulafi then shoved further in.
"Go. Uchoyo is waiting for you." Ulafi said, not wanting to waste any more time with Maji.
The meek lion padded into the cave slowly, dreading what uncertainty was to come. Finally, he made it to the back of the cave where Ulafi laid, once again, flanked by lionesses. They all turned their heads away and looked at each other, making faces of disdain and scorn at Maji's presence.
"I hope you haven't wasted your time, Maji. Ulafi is tired of wasting his time on you but if I have to have him beat you again, I fear he will finish you. Don't let that happen." The pompous king said in a bored tone. Maji's heart began beating faster and the fur on the back of his neck stood on end.
"Sh- she told me that... that she was here to oversee the kingdom. Her brother, K-King Kuzo wants to unite the two prides with the joining of Kavita into your pride."
A couple of the lionesses eyes widened and they looked at each other once again, whispering to one another. Uchoyo suddenly became interested.
"I hope this is true, for your sake, Maji." The king's eyes narrowed. He then looked to one of the guards. "Bring in Kavita."
Vita glares at the lion that rudely woke her up and persistently herded her towards the cave where King Uchoyo resides. However, since she's being taken there, she supposes her plan is starting to work.
The pompous king looks at her with interest as she approaches, while the lionesses looks down at her with jealousy and disdain. She sees Maji meekly cowering in the corner of the room out of the corner of her eye, but doesn't risk full eye contact. Instead, she looks the king straight in the eye with as pleasant of an expression as she can muster.
"Tell me, Kavita, what brings you to my pride?" King Uchoyo asks, casting a suspicious glare towards Maji.
"As you know, my king, my brother is hardly older than I. Only a few minutes older, by my late mother's count. He hardly has enough experience with leading a pride, unlike you. I gave him the idea of moving our pride under your reign, with your permission of course. I came to see if that would please you." She replies, trying to sound as sincere as possible, ignoring the sour taste in the back of her throat.
"Hmm." Uchoyo says, rises from his position and looks more closely at her. "Why couldn't he come himself for such a... generous negotiation? What does he get out of it?"
Vita shrugs helplessly. "As I said, he's an inadequate king." She lies easily. "He's hardly king material and realizes that. Sent me, hoping I'd be better at settling a deal. He only want to do our father proud and ensure our pride's survival. If that means combining with another pride, then so be it."
"Hmm." Uchoyo hung on the thought. "Your brother is wise." With that, he turned to the lionesses who laid behind him and to his sides. "Leave us." He said, then nodded to the guards, giving them the same directions. Maji knew he should probably leave as well, so he turned and left, leaving Uchoyo and Kavita alone.
"Come. Sit with me." Uchoyo invited her to join him on the large slab of stone that acted as both a throne and lounging area for his lionesses.
"With pleasure." Vita agrees, leaping on the slab and taking a seat next to the king, much closer than she was comfortable with.
"Tell me more about your pride. It was quite strong before your father passed, was it not?" Uchoyo prods for information.
Vita nods. "Yes, and it's still as strong as it has always been, too strong for Kazu, my brother, to handle as it would seem." She says sadly. "My father's leadership skills didn't pass on to him."
"I see. Well, you can go tell your brother that I agree to take his pride under my reign. Choose any of my finest warriors as an escort." He says, throwing her off guard. "You can return within a few days with news on how soon we can start the joining."
Thinking fast, Vita smiles at the king. "While a warrior would be a marvelous idea, I'd rather bring that meek lion, Maji, along with me. His memory, as I hear, is impressive. He'd be able to convey the negotiations much better than I." She says, then reluctantly rubbed her head against his shoulder. "It would make it so much easier on me."
Uchoyo scowls, yet turns towards the opening of the cave. "Guards!" He calls to the ones stationed outside of the cave. "Bring in Maji!"
Maji tried to keep looking worried and afraid. His heart raced. This was the only time he had ever intentionally gone against the king in any way. If he was caught, he may never see the light of day ever again.
"Y-yes. Understood." Maji was barely able to get the words out. Kavita's smile was somewhat reassuring, but in truth, he was just as afraid as he had ever been.
"You should leave soon. Let's not delay any further." Uchoyo said to Kavita. Before Maji could follow her out, Uchoyo called to him. "Maji. Stay a moment." Maji's heart sank. He glanced at Vita, worried, then turned to the king in obedience. He sat in front of the throne, head bowed and tucked between his shoulders as he curled his tail around close to him. "Ulafi." The King called as soon as Kavita was gone. Maji began trembling at the name. He could soon feel the presence of the guard behind him as King Uchoyo approached.
"If you think you're going to do anything but what you are being assigned, you are very wrong, Maji." The King glanced at Ulafi and Maji felt a paw on his back, slamming his chest and face into the cold stone floor. A clawed paw raked across his side gently. The cowering lion whimpered in dread. "You still have many things, Maji. Your eyes, your ears, your legs. I can take them away. Do not misuse them." With that, Ulafi's claws dug into his side slightly just in front of his thigh. A muffled whine escaped his muzzle before he was released. Maji half crawled, half cowered away from Uchoyo and Ulafi. "Go now." Was the last thing Maji heard before he trotted hurriedly out of the den.
"Well, it beats any other idea I've ever had." Maji replied as he felt the lingering sting in his side from Ulafi's claws.
Finally, after a bit of walking, they came to the edge of the pride territory. Maji slowed, visualizing a line separating Uchoyo's land from the outside. Suddenly, a sinking feeling came over Maji. The last time he was this far away from the den was when he was a cub. Before his parents had died. He stopped a few meters behind Kavita, staring at the imaginary line in the ground.
Maji didn't answer. It felt like he was about to step into an entirely different world. A few moments passed and he stepped past the mental barrier, into a world he had never known. One of freedom. He walked toward Kavita and then turned to look back. The life behind him looked so dark and the horizon ahead looked so bright. He wondered if this was what it was like to walk into heaven.
"I'm... I'm out. I'm... free?" Maji barely knew the word, but it felt like a weight had been taken off his back as soon as he said it.