“Aren’t you tired of nearly dying?” Shuri’s voice rose steadily as T’Challa explained the situation to her via his communication bead.
“Calm down, sister.”
“Calm? He asks me to be calm,” Shuri growled, turning offscreen towards one of her assistants for a moment. “My dear brother. It was not so long ago that you got thrown off a waterfall.”
“Don’t forget I was also shot at repeatedly in Busan, attacked by all of the Border Tribe, and was nearly run over a few times by your trains.” T’Challa thought things over. “And before that I was attacked by some of the Avengers in a car park.”
“You see this?” Shuri pressed her fingertips to her forehead. “This. This is a stress line. I’m sixteen.”
“I don’t see anything. Don’t be so dramatic.”
“Oh, I’m dramatic? Who decided to randomly accept a stranger’s throne challenge after Challenge Day was already over, eh?”
“It wasn’t random.” And T’Challa had been too confident: he thought he’d be able to force N’Jadaka to yield. Work the violence out of both their systems before sitting down for a more private talk about family. He would have apologised for what T’Chaka had done. Instead, T’Challa’s mistakes had cost others their lives. He would remember that.
Shuri frowned at him. “Are you in prison? Do I have to come and break you out?”
“I’m not in prison, Shuri.”
“Well that’s not fun.” Shuri’s grin, however, was uneven: she was trying determinedly to sound flippant, but her eyes were bright with worry. “At least you have Ayo with you. Mother had to repeat that twice to Okoye before she could be persuaded not to personally storm the Fastness.”
The Queen Mother always had good instincts. Better than her own son. “Exactly. Ayo and the others are with me and I’m being housed in the guest quarters.” Like much of the Fastness in general, the guest quarters gave the impression of being cored out of granite. Ribs of prized Jabari wood formed rippled seams over the stone. Fur pelts were draped over solid stone furniture, patterned rugs over the cold floor. As with Jabari construction in general, it was built in defiance of eternity, functional and subtly defensive.
“It’s… nice there?” Shuri sounded suspicious.
“Yes. It. Is nice.” There was even a view of the Fastness. Like the chamber that housed the Seat of Hanuman, it opened out unbroken over a sheer drop. T’Challa stood by it now, only a hand’s breadth away from a plunge to the darkening street. It was strange to have stayed the whole day in a single space, though T’Challa had been allowed the use of his Kimoyo Beads. He’d spent the day in remote conference with his Tribal Council.
“Is there, you know. Plumbing? Toilets?” Shuri stage-whispered.
“What? I was just asking. You hear things. Terrible things.”
T’Challa exhaled. He could guess. The Jabari had only been every other tribe’s second favourite bogeyman for centuries, right after outsiders. T’Challa had found the sparse design of the Fastness visually confronting at first, used as he was to Wakanda, but he had to admit it was growing on him. There was an untempered beauty to the Fastness, a raw energy reflected in its people. And its simplicity was misleading. The stone furniture was all subtly textured, and through some trick of architecture and heating T’Challa could not immediately see, the chamber was pleasantly warm despite the open view.
“I’m sorry about Great Anathi,” Shuri said, sobering up. “Mother would like to offer her condolences too.”
“Yes. A profound loss for the Jabari.” There would probably be a period of mourning. Then, a time for anger. T’Challa wished his father was here. T’Chaka would have known what to do. What to say to ease M’Baku’s evident grief, to soothe tempers politically, extract peace out of nothing. He had spent all his life in the shadow of his father and somedays T’Challa felt that he had learned nothing.
“Mother tells you to be careful. And to tell M’Baku that she requests permission to attend the funeral rites.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” To put his own safety at risk was fine by T’Challa, but Ramonda had been through enough.
“She wasn’t asking you,” Shuri said, and flashed him a sharp grin.
“And what does Okoye think about that?”
“Okoye? Come on. Okoye might try to boss you here and there because you guys grew up together, but she’s always been scared of Mother.”
“So suffering in silence it is.” Okoye was a master of reproach, silent or otherwise. “How are the outreach efforts?”
“Fine. I was enjoying myself today, even. Until a certain brother of mine decided to tell me that he was maybe-or-not the prime suspect in the death of an avatar of Hanuman and staying indefinitely in the Jabari lands. That kind of minor detail.”
“They’re feeding you, right?”
“For the last time, I’m here as a guest—” T’Challa paused as the Dora Milaje at the doorway to the guest chambers rapped their spears on the stone. He shut off the communication bead, turning to see M’Baku beyond, studying the Dora Milaje with amusement.
“Do we have to go through this every time now?” M’Baku asked, the edges of his eyes crinkling in dry humour. T’Challa waved him through, and as an afterthought, sent the Dora Milaje in the chamber out with a gesture. They closed the door behind them, though Ayo shot him a reproving glance before she did so. M’Baku noticed—he made a show of looking around. “So we are no longer friends?”
“I’m glad to hear that you considered me a friend at some point.”
“Don’t push it.”
But for the tension to M’Baku’s jaw, his grief was not immediately visible. “How is…?”
“Anathi has returned to the Ancestral Plane.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. On behalf of—”
“—Queen Mother Ramonda,” T’Challa said, and waited as M’Baku blinked, “she too offers her condolences and regrets and requests that you grant her permission to attend the funeral rites, if it would be appropriate.”
“Really?” M’Baku asked, skeptical.
“Why, what do we have to fear?” T’Challa kept his voice gentle.
M’Baku studied him thoughtfully for a long moment. “No, it would not be appropriate,” he said formally. “Though I thank her for the sentiment.”
“That’s none of your concern.”
“Considering I appear to be a suspect, I should think it’s my concern.”
M’Baku glowered at him. “You’re not a suspect. The moment you entered Jabari lands we were already observing you. Whoever attacked Anathi likely did it while you were still on your way here.”
“And this sentiment is common among your people?”
“Common enough.” M’Baku was being evasive. At T’Challa’s steady stare, he clasped his palms behind his back and looked down over the drop. “You can’t erase centuries of mistrust so quickly.”
“Mistrust and neglect,” T’Challa said, because he had loved his father and his grandfather, but love could no longer blind him to their mistakes. Not since Killmonger. “I find it hard to believe that one of your people would attack Great Anathi.”
M’Baku sniffed. “You hardly know us.” Before T’Challa could temporise, he added, “My cousin said the same thing. But like the other Tribes, the Jabari are not a monolith.”
“I know that Great Anathi is not the only one revered as an avatar of Hanuman.” T’Challa pressed his palm lightly over M’Baku’s arm, high over the fur trim of his vambraces. M’Baku tensed, and for a moment looked as though he would pull away. He curled an arm around T’Challa instead and hummed as T’Challa pressed close.
“So says the chosen of Bast.”
T’Challa shook his head. “The Heart Shaped Herb isn’t as discerning as all that.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard.”
“It gave N’Jadaka powers.”
M’Baku laughed. “He was more panther than you, O King. If Bast had her choice of champions I doubt you would have been closest to her spirit.”
He bent to kiss T’Challa as T’Challa huffed, finally, a brushing kiss that turned demanding as T’Challa leaned into it, reaching up to thread his arms around the back of M’Baku’s neck. He liked that he had to reach for it; liked that M’Baku towered over him with his imposing build, but what he hunted against M’Baku’s mouth was his intemperate wit, his uncompromising tongue. Like Nakia before this, T’Challa had always been drawn towards the unbreakable.
M’Baku caught T’Challa’s wrists when he reached for M’Baku’s belt. “This isn’t why I wanted to see you,” M’Baku said, lowering his voice.
“What do you need from me?”
M’Baku studied him again, silent and solemn. T’Challa had to look up to meet his eyes, and he read no anger in them. M’Baku did not seem to be a man driven easily to anger: the Jabari would not love him if he were. Hanuman’s followers revered strength, but not in the way the rest of Wakanda did. The silver Wakandan gorillas were worshipped as the avatars of Hanuman not because of their size and strength but because of their grave and uncommon intelligence.
A trait that they also respected in others. “Apparently you are a genius,” M’Baku said, with a touch of humour in his eyes.
“You don’t sound so certain.”
“Let’s say that recent events have not been so convincing.”
“Do you want to ask me for help or keep insulting me?” T’Challa asked dryly.
“Eh, I am thinking.” M’Baku brushed a kiss over his temple, breathing him in, nuzzling his hair. Then he stepped away, his palms stroking down T’Challa’s sleeves. They sat on a fur-covered stone divan, knees close, angled for a view of the snow-capped peaks instead of the Fastness. “You are not Jabari. And I am certain that you did not do it.”
T’Challa nodded slowly. “What reason would I have to do something like this?”
M’Baku shrugged. “Perhaps you are learning from your cousin. To foment chaos, to find a way to annex us. Bring the so-called ‘lost’ tribe back into the fold.” He smiled, with little of his usual humour.
“You’ve heard all that before.”
“It is not such a big city.”
“I am sorry.”
“It is a tribal matter,” M’Baku said, and stared keenly at T’Challa.
“I give you my word.” T’Challa crossed a palm over his chest, pressing it over his heart. “Whatever happened to Great Anathi, it was not by me or mine.”
M’Baku stared at him for a moment longer. He looked away, over at the mountains, his shoulders relaxing. “I believe you.”
“But not everyone does.”
“Do you blame them? Your Majesty.”
“It hurts me that I can’t. And I will do better.” T’Challa reached over and took M’Baku’s palm, clasping it the way he had seen M’Baku hold Anathi. He felt a shiver go through M’Baku’s frame. “And I know you did what you did for the sake of both our people.”
“My people, your people…” M’Baku shook his head. “My grandmother would have called that nonsense. She always felt there was only one Wakanda.”
“She was a wise woman.”
“Is that what you believe? That there is only one Wakanda?”
“More than that, I believe there is only one world. It may not always have been what I believed, but a wise man is not afraid to mend his ways when he is proved to be wrong.”
“And is that what you are? Wise?” This time, M’Baku grinned, amused, as though at some secret joke.
“I hope to be,” T’Challa said, as seriously as he could. M’Baku’s grin faded. He looked at their palms, distracted by a memory T’Challa could not read. T’Challa listened to the background noise, ever-present, of people making their way within the Seat, going about their business. He had always found the heightened senses from the Herb soothing.
Eventually, M’Baku said, “So what do you think happened?”
“To Great Anathi?” At M’Baku’s impatient huff, T’Challa said, “I would follow motives. Play out as many scenarios as I can. Who stands to benefit from chaos in the Jabari?”
M’Baku laughed. It was a harsh sound. “You.”
“Me,” T’Challa acknowledged. “And your direct successor. Your uncle, Elder Damola. Then your cousin, Ce’Athauna.”
Instead of getting angry or impatient, M’Baku nodded. “Damola was with the Fishers, negotiating catch quotas. Ce’Athauna was with me. Regardless, neither have a real motive. The Jabari will turn on anyone who killed Anathi. Regardless of whether the culprit wielded the knife. They would be banished from our lands.”
“You mentioned… dissatisfaction. With the deaths… with the deaths I caused.” Saying the words hurt, but it was a necessary hurt. “What of those?”
M’Baku snorted. “They call themselves the People. They’ve been around for a while. Every so often they’ll protest some decision of mine or other. Usually they’re a nuisance, nothing more.”
“What do they want?”
“They want the Jabari to move away from being effectively a monarchy,” M’Baku said wryly. “Our Elder Council is elected, and is an equal branch of our government, but they want the position of Great Gorilla reduced to something ceremonial.”
“That’s… democratic.” T’Challa blinked.
“The monarchy is generally seen as an outdated form of government,” M’Baku said, amused again. “Especially by the colonisers. Even though their own governments often reflect monarchial rule. A lot of power, held hostage by the character of one person, often a man.”
“You sound like you sympathise.”
“Of course. They are Jabari too. They can say what they wish and I will hear their concerns.”
“And you don’t think they’re behind this.”
“Fisher folk and grieving relatives? No.”
T’Challa held his tongue, thinking. “Another possibility. The Jabari Tribe borders the Mining Tribe. I hear there are occasional skirmishes.”
“Usually when young men from the Mining Tribe decide to take silly dares and try to see how far they can get into Jabari lands. We always return them to the border.”
“A little.” M’Baku smiled, showing his teeth.
“I assume you’ve already interviewed the Godkeeper on duty at the time and the Primes in the vicinity.”
M’Baku nodded. “It happened when the Godkeeper went to relieve herself. Cebisa ate something at breakfast that upset her stomach, but she didn’t want to miss her shift. She’s devastated by what happened. Blames herself. Her mother was also a Godkeeper.”
“She was the one who found Anathi?”
“There was a great roar from Anathi’s chamber that brought her and the Primes running. He collapsed quickly.”
“Anathi usually suffers strangers to come close?”
M’Baku nodded again, tightly. “He’s never had any cause to fear humans.”
“Apparently he defended himself?”
“His knuckles were a little bruised.”
“A serious blow from Anathi would have killed a normal person.” The Wakandan gorillas matched strength to their sheer size.
“Oh yes,” M’Baku said heavily, and stared at T’Challa again. At his necklace. “A normal person. Many people in Wakanda have not been ‘normal’ for a while.”
T’Challa bit down on the retort at the tip of his tongue. “I would like to make my own inquiries. Not here,” he said, as M’Baku started to object. “I’ll have the War Dogs look into it.”
M’Baku wrinkled his nose. “Your spies.”
“Spies are good at solving mysteries.”
M’Baku considered this for a while. “If they find anything, let me know.”
“And the culprit. I want them found alive. Not.” M’Baku curled his fingers into a claw.
Again T’Challa swallowed his temper. “Of course.”
“Enjoy your stay,” M’Baku said, with wry irony, starting to get to his feet. He paused as T’Challa caught his elbow, and straightened as he read something in T’Challa’s face. “I’m not in the mood,” M’Baku said quietly.
T’Challa ignored the implication. “I truly am sorry about Anathi.”
“So you’ve said. Many times.”
“I’ll like to attend the funeral.”
“That would not be wise.” M’Baku said, after a pause, though he sounded apologetic.
“All right. When will it be?”
“You’ll know. You’ll hear it.” M’Baku cocked his head. “Most of the Jabari will be there.”
“I presume so, yes.”
“That does not give you leave to go sneaking around the Fastness,” M’Baku said, though he smiled tiredly.
“I presume that as well.”
“Should you happen to ‘lose’ your way and we catch you outside these chambers during the rite, that will make many people very unhappy. There would most certainly be a diplomatic incident.”
“That being said…” M’Baku began, then exhaled, staring hard at the Fastness. “That being said. The Godkeepers will be away and Anathi’s nest will be empty. Some of the poison was leached for study and a sample will be in a laboratory close by.”
“Good to know,” T’Challa said. If he could get a scanned copy of the sample to Shuri, they could perhaps at least trace where it might have come from. And who might have made it. “I know of very few poisons that act so quickly.”
“Very few poisons could have killed a Wakandan gorilla within an hour,” M’Baku said, his jaw clenched. Hiding something, perhaps. T’Challa wished for a moment that the War Dogs’ file on the Jabari wasn’t so patchy. They were good at rooting out spies. Any information they did have had to be scrounged by remote drones, which the Jabari were also very good at rooting out. “You spoke to your Tribal Council.”
“I did.” T’Challa patted M’Baku’s shoulder. “They are your Council as well. I believe they will send their condolences directly.”
“Already received. Tch. I have too many Councils in my life.” M’Baku rose to his feet, and this time, T’Challa made no move to stop him.
Once he was alone, T’Challa accessed his communication bead. Okoye picked up instantly, her face set into a worried frown. “My King?”
“No need to storm the Fastness,” T’Challa said mildly. Okoye sighed, hardly reassured. “I know W’Kabi has contacts within the Mining Tribe.”
“As do you.” Okoye narrowed her eyes.
“I need a question answered quietly, and I don’t want it to come from me. Tell him it will be part of his debt repayment plan.”
“He maintains that he owes no one a debt,” Okoye scoffed, though she nodded, and made a smacking sound of mock disgust. “Younger men. I don’t know why I bother.”
“We don’t know why you bother either,” T’Challa conceded, with a faint smile that Okoye didn’t reflect, her face still creased with concern. He related the question and the context. T’Challa shut off the bead, walking to the edge of the chamber to sit at the drop. Legs dangling, T’Challa waited for the city beneath him to mourn.