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All the Stars

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When M’Baku was eighteen and had grown taller than his father and his father’s father, he saw the golden city of Birnin Zana for the first time. The sun was setting over the mountain’s teeth, drawing harsh lines over the huge sculpture of a panther, prowling out of the rock.

“What do you see?” his grandmother had asked.

Even in the twilight of her life, Ngozi stood light-footed on the narrow stone ledge outside the tunnel inset to the sheer cliff. She wore a longbow strapped to her back and no other weapon. In all eighty years of her life no one had ever gotten close enough to her in battle to scratch her.

“The city of our enemies.”

Ngozi huffed. “Stupid boy. Every day I pray for Hanuman to grant you wisdom.”

Stung, M’Baku tried not to scowl. Tomorrow Ngozi would announce her retirement as the Great Gorilla of the Jabari, clearing the way for M’Baku’s father, a health decision that she had come to only after pressure from her Council. She started to cough, an awful hacking sound that pressed her briefly against the rock, though she waved M’Baku back as he stepped quickly to her side. “What should I see?” M’Baku asked instead.

“The Golden City and its people are not our enemy. We are Wakandan. They are Wakandan too.”

“They are not our allies,” M’Baku said, bewildered. “No King has come to see us in centuries.”

“They are not allies,” Ngozi said. She smiled, gap-toothed. “They are family. Family may stop speaking to each other, may hate each other, quarrel, hurt one another. But in the sunset of all things, at the very edge of the cliff, when there is no-one else to turn to, nowhere to go, they are blood. Our blood.”

“Father said—”

“Your father! Pah. He too failed this test.”

“You and your tests,” M’Baku muttered, though not softly enough.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Grandmother.”

“We lost your mother too early and your father has sworn to take no other wife. You will one day be the Great Gorilla. It is my wish—my hope—that you will take that role to heart. Remember that the Jabari are not just one tribe, but one of five. You must care not just about the Jabari but about Wakanda.”

“What have you done for Wakanda?” M’Baku shot back.

Ngozi laughed. “Careful. You are not so big now that I cannot put you over my knee.” She looked over the steep drop, watching as the sun dropped the sky into night, the stars blinking slowly into its absence. Birnin Zana glittered even in the dark, vibrant with light that pulsed in a hundred laughing colours. It was, M’Baku thought guiltily, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

His grandmother had been watching him closely. She smiled, amused. “Incredible, isn’t it?”

“The Fastness is more beautiful,” M’Baku lied.

Ngozi let out a derisive hoot. “Are you blind as well as unwise?”

“Birnin Zana is beautiful,” M’Baku said, annoyed now, “but its beauty is hollow.”

“Yes. Yes, that’s right. What else?”

“It feeds itself from fieldlands annexed from Niganda centuries ago. It reaches for the stars, but humanity’s race for better and better technology has always merely meant better and better weapons. It is ruled by a panther, an apex predator. One day the panther will tire of its nest and go forth to eat the world. It will not care that the world will lay waste to Wakanda in return.”

“Yes. And that is why we watch the golden city from afar. For one day, when the panther goes forth,” Ngozi spread her arms wide, palms up, as though trying to hold up their half of the sky, “we will be there to stop it.”

#

“So why did you kill him?” M’Baku asked, when T’Challa walked noiselessly to his side. They stood on the granite disc of the Roost, an overlook high in the spine of the mountains that cradled the Fastness. The stone was cold even through M’Baku’s furred boots, the wind icy. Below, the Fastness was slowly waking into the gray morning.

“Who?” T’Challa asked. The Dora Milaje stood respectfully at the single exit of the Roost, the red of their armour fierce against stone.

“Prince N’Jadaka,” M’Baku said, and smirked as T’Challa flinched.

“I offered to heal him. He refused.”

“And so? He was your blood.”

“I was going to,” T’Challa admitted, looking away. “But he pulled…” T’Challa trailed off, miming pulling a blade from his chest.

“You could have stabilised that with a bead.” At T’Challa’s blink, M’Baku said impatiently, “We may reject rampant technology but we’re not blind to it.”

“You think I should have saved him? He killed Zuri. He nearly killed my sister. He assaulted an elder. Killed others. Started a civil war, nearly declared war on the entire world—”

M’Baku yawned. “Death, blood, war, all that is nothing new to the panther.”

“For centuries there has been peace.”

“Tell that to your uncle.”

“My uncle drew a gun on Zuri,” T’Challa said, though he looked troubled.

“And? The Black Panther suit has been made bulletproof ever since the outsiders invented bullets. Your father could have stepped between them. Deflected the bullet. Captured your uncle. But he did not. He chose to use his claws because it was easier than dealing with the consequences. Like father, like son.” M’Baku folded his hands behind his back, watching the sun pull itself past thinning clouds. “What do you want now?”

T’Challa’s lip curled, then he made a visible effort to smooth down his expression. Interesting. “You weren’t at the last Council meeting.”

M’Baku made a show of considering it. “Wasn’t that the one about, hm, inviting a delegation from the UN to visit Wakanda?”

“Yes.”

“Boring.”

“Come on, M’Baku. I know you care.”

“Then you also know what I think.”

T’Challa had the temerity to smile faintly. “So I thought I would come here and let you tell me what you think to my face.”

“‘Let you’, eh?” M’Baku glowered at T’Challa. Despite being a head taller than T’Challa and broader, M’Baku didn’t intimidate T’Challa in the least. He suspected that very little likely did. More fool the panther.

“Okoye said everything you’d have said,” T’Challa said lightly. “Outsiders are dangerous, a threat to national security, a destabilising influence, they’ll steal our secrets, and so on.”

“You should listen to your General.”

“A sentiment that she no doubt shares.”

M’Baku glanced over T’Challa’s shoulder. “So where is she?”

“Talking to the Border Tribe.”

M’Baku sniffed. “At least you didn’t execute W’Kabi as well. Or is that a work in progress?”

“He’s one of my oldest and dearest friends. Friends can… disagree.”

“And start civil wars in the process, hm?”

“Regardless, it was a tribal matter, not mine.”

“And what do the tribes think of your decision?” When T’Challa didn’t answer, M’Baku let out a harsh laugh. “Let me guess. Every member of your Council objected.”

“They’ll come around.”

“And you think I will?”

“If the Jabari come around, the other tribes may decide to have a little more faith.”

Ah, so there it was. “Some of my people died on your behalf,” M’Baku said flatly. “Don’t you think that’s enough?”

T’Challa looked him over, assessing, his face still as he swept his hunting-gaze from M’Baku’s face to the Fastness and back. He was years older than M’Baku but he did not show it: time had been kind to T’Challa in all ways but wisdom. “I honour your losses,” he said.

“If you do, then ask us for nothing more.”

“And I hope that in doing what you did for me it has not made trouble in your house,” T’Challa said, watching M’Baku’s face again, keenly.

“Tribal matters,” M’Baku said, as coldly as he could. Panthers always had good instincts. T’Challa inclined his head, folding his hands behind his back.

“May I at least state my case?”

“Go ahead. It’ll amuse me, if nothing else.”

“Now that the world knows what we are, we must either meet them on their terms or ours. I would prefer it to be the latter. Outreach in their cities, a curated exchange of ideas, and a curated exchange of people. People fear what they cannot see and what they cannot understand.”

“People also fear what they see and misunderstand,” M’Baku shot back. “Just you wait and see.”

“We are going to approach integration with the global community in a way no one else has. Not on our knees but from a position of strength. And we do this for the good of the world.”

“What happened to your friend? Captain America?” When T’Challa blinked, M’Baku sneered. “Wasn’t he once a hero of the world? Handsome bright-haired white man, saved his country and the world and all that. What is he now in the eyes of the world?”

“Fear is not a good reason to withdraw and hide.”

“You think the Jabari live apart because we are afraid?”

“I think the Jabari have cause to be afraid,” T’Challa said lightly, “as do we all. Change is always frightening.” When M’Baku rolled his eyes but said nothing, T’Challa stood by his side, looking over the Fastness. Watching. Their breaths steamed in the air until the sun came up. Then T’Challa said, “What were their names?”

“Whose?”

“Those who died.”

“Gored by rhinos, stabbed by your enemies, trampled into the dirt?”

T’Challa’s jaw tightened. “I would like to know.”

“Their families have no interest in your condolences.”

“I would like to remember them,” T’Challa corrected himself. “And remember, in turn, that all my decisions have blood-consequences.”

He looked tired as he said it, finally weighed down by his years, drawing lines in his handsome face. M’Baku exhaled loudly, praying to Hanuman for patience. T’Challa was a destabilising influence, now and before. This close, M’Baku could smell him again, that warm animal smell, read the panther’s strength hidden under his fine clothes. His cock stirred, to his irritation, and he wished he was elsewhere.

“…I’ll forward the names to you.” There would be no budging T’Challa on this. And it would be a small gesture.

“Thank you.”

“Is there anything else you want, O King?” M’Baku asked acidly.

“The next Council meeting—“

“I’ll try to clear my schedule.”

“That’s what you said the last time.”

M’Baku smirked. “Your point being?”

“And I would like you to visit Birnin Zana more often,” T’Challa said, in a lower voice, his eyes flicking up and down.

M’Baku stared at him evenly. “I said I’ll try to clear my schedule.” He chuckled as T’Challa sighed. It was tempting. “What happened to Nakia?”

“She’s in Washington D.C. giving a talk at Howard University. Why?”

“You and her?”

“There’s no more of that,” T’Challa said, wry. There was no pain in his tone, and if there was regret, it was a gentle one. Instead, he looked amused. “Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering whether I should now press my suit. She would make a good Queen,” M’Baku said, and let T’Challa startle and scowl at him for a heartbeat before he started to laugh.

“You have a cruel sense of humour,” T’Challa told him, shaking his head in mock reproach. “I’ll see you at the next Council meeting.”

“You’ll have to kidnap me and drag me there.”

“Don’t tempt me,” T’Challa said, and it was his turn to laugh as M’Baku gave in, reaching out to haul T’Challa over. He was warm to the touch, yielding, his grin inviting, but M’Baku didn’t rise to the bait this time. His had been perhaps a slower journey towards wisdom than his grandmother would have liked, but M’Baku learned his lessons. He kissed T’Challa on the forehead instead, a mocking kiss that made T’Challa tense, then relax with a soft huff, and as T’Challa tried to pull him down, M’Baku stepped out of reach and waved him away.

Once T’Challa and his Dora Milaje were gone, M’Baku stared down at the Fastness until he heard a faint step behind him at the doorway. “Yes, yes,” he said impatiently. “Enemies at our door and in our midst.”

His cousin Ce’Athauna sniffed. “And now you can read minds? Amazing. The effects of this magical panther herb are sexually transmissible?”

Ce’Athauna.”

She snickered. Fully garbed in Jabari armour and skirts, Ce’Athauna had daubed war paint on her face, her spear strapped to her back. She was M’Baku’s age, born days apart, and like their grandmother before them, she had a fey humour. “So what new war do we fight in the King’s name?”

“No more wars. You heard the Elder Council.”

“Since when have you cared what the Elder Council said?”

“Of course I care what they say. Sometimes they are wrong and we disagree, but in this matter we have the same opinion.”

“Grandmother never cared what they said,” Ce’Athauna said, leaning a hip against the doorway. She mimicked Elder N’Gamo. “You’re not getting any younger, O Great Gorilla. When will you make like a fish in the river and spawn many heirs?”

M’Baku tried to scowl, but it was a losing battle. The laughter shook out of him until he was leaning against the wall, clutching his sides as Ce’Athauna smirked, pleased with herself. “Now I’ll never be able to take his advice seriously ever again.”

“They’re not all against this new development in your life. Elder Babalwa told me just this morning that you might as well marry the King and be done with it. Easier way to get to the throne and all that.”

“Does everyone know?” M’Baku grumbled.

“Nothing travels faster than the speed of rumour. I’ve heard at least ten different stories about what you guys did in the cave.”

“Hanuman preserve me,” M’Baku said gloomily. He should have known. Small wonder T’Challa and his procession had been let through the gates with little fuss. “That was a lapse.”

“Is that what we’re calling it now?”

M’Baku pretended to glare at her, pushing away from the wall and heading down the narrow stone stairs, Ce’Athauna a few steps behind him. “By the way,” she said, once they were nearly at the base, “Lulama wants a word with you about the new cultivars.”

“I’ll talk to her.” Last year’s food crop had been poor, ravaged by an outbreak of disease. The Jabari’s Chief Botanist, Lulama, liked to talk M’Baku’s ear off with grave predictions about the world ending every few weeks or so.

“There’s also the matter of the Fishers.”

“We can’t afford to overfish our river—“ M’Baku cut himself off as a Jabari Prime hurried up towards them, out of breath and pale. “Silumko, what’s the problem?”

“You’d better see this, Chief.”

#

The Primes crossed spears before T’Challa, but even as the Dora Milaje behind him started forward, he raised his palm to stay them, looking soberly over at M’Baku. “By your leave.”

“Let him through,” M’Baku said, and tried to ignore the disapproving frown that instantly creased the faces of the closest Godkeepers. T’Challa inclined his head politely to them all, stepping past once the spears were grudgingly raised, the Dora Milaje thankfully staying watchful by the corridor instead of storming through behind their king.

Beside M’Baku, the god was dying. Anathi had come down from the mountains into the Fastness in the later years of his grandmother’s rule, a great Wakandan gorilla, revered as one of the living avatars of Hanuman. Like many other Wakandan fauna the gorillas of the mountains had been affected for centuries by the effects of vibranium in the heart of the stone, and they had grown huge. Anathi was nearly as tall as M’Baku on his knuckles: on two feet his silver shoulders towered over M’Baku’s head. His sheer size hid a gentle soul. To see the usually grave, dignified creature curled on his flank and breathing painfully hurt in M’Baku’s gut in a festering ache.

“Poisoned,” M’Baku said curtly, as T’Challa stopped at a respectful distance. M’Baku sat on the fresh bedding beside Anathi, holding one of the gorilla’s great leathery palms. “The Godkeepers say he doesn’t have long left. Most of his organs have failed.”

“If I can help you in any way—”

“Don’t say it,” M’Baku snapped. Was T’Challa truly so blind? “Don’t you know who this is?”

“He is Great Anathi.” T’Challa said, choosing his words carefully. “That is the name your people have given him. It is the closest translation of his true name, which he told your grandmother in a dream.”

“The Godkeepers think he was poisoned not long ago. He may have fought off his attacker.” M’Baku nodded at the Godkeepers, who were applying treated snow and poultices to the jagged gash on Anathi’s flank. It was a futile effort and all of them knew it.

T’Challa finally caught on, his eyes narrowing. “I was met at the Ascent by Primes and escorted directly to you. And of course my people and I will be happy to remain in the Fastness to assist in any investigation.”

M’Baku patted Anathi’s knuckles as the great fingers squeezed his palm weakly. Before him he could see nothing but ugly endings. “Silumko will show you to the guest quarters,” M’Baku said, and added, with calculated ungraciousness, “your Majesty.”

T’Challa inclined his head again. For a moment he looked as though he was going to say more. Tell M’Baku to take the gorilla to his sister’s labs, perhaps. M’Baku hoped not. There would be blood if he did. The Godkeepers and the Primes were tense enough, and M’Baku was in no mood now to play peacekeeper. Thankfully, T’Challa retreated instead, the Dora Milaje closing ranks, Silumko leading them away.

Once T’Challa was out of sight, M’Baku exhaled loudly. “You should’ve chased him out of Jabari lands,” Ce’Athauna said, crouching down by Anathi, grim-faced.

“You know how that’d look.” M’Baku had had enough of being accused of kissing the ring. If he let T’Challa go, unchallenged, the rumours would only fester.

“You know how this will look. Are you trying to start another war? Anathi dying, King T’Challa detained with his Dora Milaje?” Ce’Athauna retorted.

“Not detained. Here as a guest.”

“People will see that as a convenient fiction.”

“And what do ‘people’ want?” M’Baku growled. “Anathi was attacked around the same time that he was here.”

“Which gives him an unbreakable alibi. He was in full sight of the Fastness and at least four Primes on his way up.”

“So he won’t mind staying to help us find the culprit!” M’Baku flinched as Anathi made a low moan, and hastily lowered his voice. “I know T’Challa wouldn’t do something like this. Which makes the timing of the attack interesting.”

“You think one of our own would attack Great Anathi? I find that even harder to believe.” Ce’Athauna curled her lip.

“Peace. Have your quarrels elsewhere,” said a Godkeeper, her voice cracking as she gestured at Anathi’s body. Ce’Athauna grimaced in embarrassment, bowing deeply. At M’Baku’s nod, she backed hastily out of the chamber and fled.

“Nothing can be done?” M’Baku asked again, once she was gone.

The Godkeepers glanced at each other and shook their heads. “He would be dead already if not for what he is.”

“Let him go.”

“Better here than in the lands of the panther.”

M’Baku swallowed his temper with some effort. Anathi squeezed his fingertips as though in encouragement, breathing with terrible wet gasps, but in his dark eyes there was only an unbroken familiar calm. M’Baku met his gaze. He would keep the god’s vigil to the end. Then it would be time for answers.