The Truthseeker delegation arrived via royal airship with T’Challa. Formalities were exchanged. Ce’Athauna and her Prowler delegation commandeered a stateroom to have a debrief with the Truthseekers, at which point M’Baku cut T’Challa out from the herd to discuss ‘state matters’.
T’Challa was amused as they made they way up the narrow stairs to the Roost. “People will think that you’re trying to get me alone.”
M’Baku shot a pointed glance over his shoulder at the Dora Milaje and Primes trailing behind them. “For a given definition of ‘alone’, O King. And did you really have to bring a War Dog along?”
“You approved the delegation list.”
“It’s not exactly politic for me to pick and choose, is it? Especially when Palesa approved my list instantly.”
T’Challa chuckled. “You make such a good show of not caring about tribal politics. But you do.”
“Of course I do. I wouldn’t be a good leader if I didn’t. We care about every aspect of Wakandan politics. Even the parts that don’t appear to have any relation to the Jabari. Don’t the others?”
“Nakia told me that she felt the Jabari have a different, secret agenda. Hopefully now that she’s here again for less trying reasons she’ll change her mind.”
Nakia had better instincts than her King. M’Baku shrugged. “As long as she understands that she’d be more closely watched than the others. Nothing personal. She’s a spy.”
At least T’Challa had the grace not to deny that. “Of course.”
They left the Dora Milaje and the Primes in the stairwell, ascending to the Roost alone. T’Challa pushed M’Baku back towards the stone once they were on the viewing platform, and M’Baku let himself be pushed. The stone was cold through his armour as T’Challa leaned up on the balls of his feet for a kiss. M’Baku curled his arm around T’Challa’s waist. It felt strange to step outside time like this, to kiss someone whose name held as much weight as M’Baku’s own. Complications, Ngozi would have said, laughing, Hanuman loves complications. He kneaded T’Challa’s ass through his sleek jacket, chuckling as T’Challa groaned and thrust eagerly against M’Baku’s thigh.
“I don’t think we have the time,” T’Challa said, though he was grinning slyly, a hunting grin. M’Baku sniffed and kissed it away, trying to stay quiet, conscious of the Primes and Dora Milaje not far away. Fingertips curled into his hair, stroking over his throat, running teasingly over the edges of his wooden breastplate. M’Baku growled, and T’Challa nipped him, scratching blunt nails down polished, tempered armour.
“Do you still carry that device of your sister’s for clothes?”
“Really? Now?” T’Challa asked, though he nodded, breathless. M’Baku turned them around, bracing T’Challa against the wall, burying his mouth against T’Challa’s neck, breathing in the warm skin-scent behind his ear. Grass skirts crinkled as he pushed the swell in his breeches against T’Challa’s ass, rubbing himself against it as he fumbled open T’Challa’s trousers. He spat on his palm. T’Challa stiffened with a gasp he stifled against his own arm as M’Baku grasp him and started jacking him off roughly.
“Pity about the rush,” M’Baku whispered against his ear. “If we had the time I’d open you up. Do it slow. That night, you took my fingers like you couldn’t wait to take more. Think you’d look good on my cock.” He laughed as T’Challa groaned and shoved his hips back against M’Baku’s. “Your Majesty.”
T’Challa made a panther’s hoarse and guttural hunting moan. M’Baku pressed his cheek against T’Challa’s throat, curling his free arm around T’Challa’s waist, holding him closer. He listened to the rumble shake through T’Challa as he rocked against him, let an ancient impossibility seep down through his skin to his bones. Bast’s spirit always simmered close enough to touch through violence and sex, twin base emotions that were just different shades of hunger. M’Baku let T’Challa thrust against his grip until he grew abruptly still, locked up in ecstasy, soiling M’Baku’s fingers, the wall.
Shuri’s device was convenient. M’Baku inspected his clean palm and the wall, then caught T’Challa’s wrist as he reached for M’Baku’s belt. “No time for that.”
“Doesn’t seem fair,” T’Challa said, his eyes still hot.
“Oh, now you’re interested in ‘fair’?” M’Baku smirked. He did want more. He wanted to push T’Challa to the ground, strip them both to the skin, taste him in intimate places; M’Baku wanted to hustle them both back to his chambers, spend the whole day in bed. But there would never be time for something like that. Not with who they were. “Now get going. We both have a lot of work to do.” He pinched T’Challa’s ass, making him flinch and yelp.
T’Challa pretended to scowl, catching M’Baku by the chin, rubbing his thumb through the bristle of his beard. “You don’t get to tell me what to do either,” he said, and pulled M’Baku down for a bruising kiss. M’Baku hauled him closer when they broke for air, and they kissed until General Okoye politely cleared her throat from the stairwell. T’Challa startled back with a badly stifled laugh.
“Until next time, O Great Gorilla,” he said, with a quick smile.
M’Baku rolled his eyes. “Get out of my city.”
Back within the Seat, the Jabari contingent had already left—they were hitching a ride to Birnin Djata with T’Challa. M’Baku found Ce’Athauna chatting animatedly with Nakia and Truthseeker-Captain Gcobisa. The other four Truthseekers who had come with Gcobisa were studying readouts transcribed for their Kimoyo Beads. Everyone fell silent as M’Baku walked into the room. The Truthseekers looked wary, Nakia, curious.
“So I hear you people have come to do my cousin’s job for her,” M’Baku told Gcobisa, who drew herself up quickly.
“Not at all, O Great Gorilla. We are here simply to observe. And provide advice, should your Head of Security require it.”
“And do you think she’d require anything from outsiders?” M’Baku growled. Gcobisa stiffened, the other Truthseekers tensing up.
Ce’Athauna started to laugh. “Stop it.” M’Baku grinned at her, snickering, even as Nakia raised her eyebrows and Gcobisa thinned her lips. “Forgive my cousin,” Ce’Athauna told Gcobisa, “for he is young and has a terrible sense of humour.”
“I’m not young, we’re nearly the same age,” M’Baku said.
“You’re young in the head. Cursed like all men.” Ce’Athauna made a shooing gesture. “Go away, you’re just… just taking up air and space right now. Don’t you have a backlog of supplicants to work through?”
M’Baku allowed himself to be chased off, still chuckling. He was in a sober mood by the time he got to the audience chamber, and as he sat down, he was composed again. He nodded at Silumko. “Send in the first supplicant.”
Something was keeping the Fastness at a pleasantly cool temperature despite the snow. And Nakia was sure that the Jabari had some way of communicating with each other long distance. Strangest of all were the Godkeepers, the all-female shamans of the Jabari, tasked with their rituals, keeping traditions, and taking care of ‘the sacred creatures’. With no gorilla now in residence in the Fastness, Nakia wasn’t sure what other creatures the Godkeepers were referring to.
It was difficult not to gawk. The Godkeepers were dressed starkly, in plain white fabrics, barefoot, their arms, throat and ankles encased in wooden bangles. They had powdered their foreheads with the chalk that M’Baku and his Primes had worn to the Warrior Falls. Other than that, the Godkeepers wore no other decoration, their hair shorn almost down to their scalps, and they stood in a neat file behind the oldest of them, who was mixing something solemnly in a earthenware jar.
Ce’Athauna had pointedly herded Nakia and the Truthseekers to a corner of the dome-like room that she’d called the Resonance Chamber. The walls were ribbed with Jabari wood in unsettling, strangely even whorls that hurt the eye to follow. At the centre, cuffed to stone chairs, the two Jabari prisoners were stiff with unease and fear.
Truthseeker-Captain Gcobisa nervously cleared her throat, though she pitched her voice low. “What exactly is going to happen here?” she asked Ce’Athauna.
“The Godkeepers heard we hadn’t gotten anywhere in our questioning and wanted to have a turn,” Ce’Athauna replied. “Hush now. You’ll get a chance to ask your questions.”
Gcobisa subsided, if reluctantly. Nakia tried to appear unobtrusive and relaxed, clustered with the other Truthseekers behind Gcobisa. The Godkeepers were spreading out around the chamber, taking up even positions close to the walls. They pressed their palms over their chests. At some hidden signal, they began to hum, a stuttering cadence that grew louder, louder, somehow refracted from the wood in the walls, until Nakia’s jaw ached, the sound rattling in her skull. One of the Truthseekers clapped her hands over her ears. The old Godkeeper before the prisoners reached into her jar, flicking some sort of ground powder from it across their faces.
The prisoners began to thrash, gasping, heaving against their cuffs. The Godkeeper raised her hands, palms up, and the prisoners arched in their seats. Then they sat down, limp, breathing shallowly, drool collecting at the edges of their mouths.
“Speak,” the Godkeeper told Ce’Athauna. Gcobisa flinched.
“Why did you kill Anathi?” Ce’Athauna demanded.
“Not us. Not us.” said the prisoner known as Tuma, in a listless tone. “Tetu.”
“Why did Tetu kill Anathi?” Ce’Athauna corrected herself.
“For chaos. For chaos.”
“Who is Tetu?”
“Shamanic. Within the Arteries.”
“All Jabari shamans are women,” Ce’Athauna said.
“This is a different path.”
Ce’Athauna ignored the frown of the elder Godkeeper. “Where in the Arteries?”
“Everywhere,” Tuma said, with a dreamy smile. “Tetu is everywhere.”
“What is his goal?” Ce’Athauna asked.
“The goal of the People.”
“So he’s behind the bombing in Birnin Djata?”
“A bomb was made. But there was a mistake. Bad structural collapse. It was only meant to kill the marks. Not civilians. A man has died for his mistakes,” Tuma said, shuddering. “Still more will die.”
“What do you mean, more will die?” Gcobisa demanded sharply.
“There are bombs. Other bombs,” said the other prisoner, known as Eki. “In all the cities. A big one, under Birnin Zana.”
“Where?” Nakia asked, a chill finger curling up her spine.
“We know not. Only Tetu knows. There will be no more mistakes. Only the unnecessary will die.” Tuma smiled again. “This is what Tetu has promised. A clean slate to begin again. To grow a new garden.”
“One that we deserve,” Eki mumbled.
“Why were two Mining Tribesmen kidnapped and killed here?” Nakia asked. “Nceba and Nkokeli?”
“Their cousin was unwise. Brought them into the plan. Misjudged them. They were not ready for a war. They wanted to report the People to the Truthseekers. They were taken here and we killed them here. Left them in the Collection Place,” Tuma said.
“We were merciful,” Eki said, bowing his head. “They never woke up. Nothing personal.”
Gcobisa’s fists were clenched tightly. She exhaled, and took in a slow breath. “Where is Tetu now? Can you take us to him?”
“Everywhere. Tetu is everywhere. You will all understand this. Soon.” Tuma grinned, so broadly that Nakia winced. “Tetu's work is already here.”
Ce’Athauna started for the door, snapping orders at the Primes beyond. They scattered in different directions, even as Ce’Athauna sprinted for the closest stairs. Nakia hurried after her, Gcobisa at her heels, though Gcobisa waved for one Truthseeker to remain with the prisoners. “M’Baku?” Nakia asked, keeping pace beside Ce’Athauna.
“Holding court at this hour.” Ce’Athauna took the stairs up two at a time. They dashed past surprised Primes, past staff who stopped to stare, past the waiting chamber of supplicants, until they were on the audience floor of the Seat, all but tumbling past the perimeter guard. Beyond, by the open view of the Fastness, M’Baku was rising to his feet in surprise.
“What—” he began, even as one of the supplicants who’d been in the chamber beyond darted past Nakia, bowling a metal sphere towards M’Baku which began to glow a bright green.
Nakia reacted, because War Dog training was indelible. She leaped forward, twisting into a slide, scything the ball away from M’Baku with a kick and out into the open air even as Ce’Athauna pounced on the supplicant. There was an ugly, whispering sound as the ball hovered impossibly in mid-air. Primes cried out in surprise as their spears leaped from their hands like errant fish, striking the ball. As did the decorative shafts hung over the throne. Festooned, the ball sang, a shrill sound, then it was falling, dulled, to the ground far below.
Had the ball rolled behind M’Baku… those spears, every sharp piece of wood in the room—
Slowly, Nakia got up. The supplicant was a Jabari woman, snarling in Ce’Athauna’s grip. “Freedom!” she cried, as Primes grabbed her from Ce’Athauna. “Freedom for the People!”
“Take her down to the Godkeepers,” Ce’Athauna said curtly. “And search the others.”
“My thanks,” M’Baku said, glancing at Nakia.
“Count my debt to you paid,” Nakia said, with a nod. But for Jabari intervention on the fields above Mena Ngai, she would be dead.
Late in the evening, they were all invited to dinner at Ce’Athauna’s house. Like most of the houses in the Fastness, it was made of Jabari wood, its door intricately carved: no two doors in the Fastness were the same, as far as Nakia had seen so far. Dinner was with Ce’Athauna’s family: her father, Elder Damola, and her mother, Aisa, who had cooked a feast of jollof rice, fried plantains, fattoush, a lentil bobotie, and roast vegetables. There was even umqombothi, Damola’s recipe. The homemade brew was strong: it made Gcobisa cough—but it relaxed everyone, at least. Gcobisa ended up discussing some intricate honey fraud trial through dinner, and afterwards, Ce’Athauna escorted them back to their guest chambers in the Seat.
“You were quiet during dinner,” Ce’Athauna said, once Gcobisa and the others had been packed off to separate rooms.
“I was intrigued. Honey fraud in Wakanda, who would’ve thought.”
Ce’Athauna grinned. She wasn’t easily fooled. “Easier to let others talk so you can observe.”
“As you say.” Before walking into her room, Nakia paused. “About what the prisoners said. The bombs. There’s likely one in the Fastness.”
“Yes, I heard as much. I have Prowlers combing the Arteries. And we’ve twice-checked the Seat.”
“Either way, it’d be safer for M’Baku to move elsewhere for now.”
Ce’Athauna sniffed. “I’ve told him. The answer is no.”
“Pride is ill comfort if everything goes up in an explosion. Speaking as someone who was only just recently caught within one.”
“He’s not inclined to run, he says. Besides, the Seat is probably as safe as we can make it. That’s why they used that sphere. Anything else wouldn’t have gotten past our security.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Nakia said, with open skepticism.
“Good night, War Dog,” Ce’Athauna said, with a smirk. “See you in the morning.”
The guest quarters were comfortable, albeit not as lavish as what Nakia was used to back home in the River Tribe’s lands. She did a slow circuit, used the washing facilities, and allowed herself to marvel at whatever design allowed an open-air drop without the chill coming in. She was studying the wooden ribs in the walls when Shuri pinged her.
“Shuri? Is something wrong?”
“No? I was really just checking in. You?”
“Someone tried throwing a ball made of that vibranium alloy at M’Baku.”
“Is he okay?” Shuri’s hologram blinked, concerned.
“Yes, he’s fine. Stubborn but fine. How’s everyone else?”
“I’ve been using drones to scan Wakanda for the alloy. It’s a diffuse signature, hard to pick up in small quantities. T’Challa, W’Kabi, and Okoye are going to investigate what looks like a larger resonance in Birnin Bashenga.”
“W’Kabi?” Nakia grimaced.
“I know, right? I told T’Challa, look, W’Kabi is obviously a trash fire, you guys should just dump him back at the border, but T’Challa was like well, he’s an old friend and he had his reasons.” Shuri made a disgusted sound. “I guess Okoye will be around to keep them in line.”
Okoye would have her hands full. “I suppose W’Kabi would be useful in Birnin Bashenga. It’s a Border Tribe city. Having the First Shield around would be able to open some doors.” And smooth down some feathers.
“Ugh. T’Challa’s still on speaking terms with Shieldchief Khosi. He would’ve been good enough.” The leader of the Border Tribe was a philosophical and quiet soul. Albeit one who had also sided with Killmonger under the advice of his First Shield.
“Could you find a resonance for this alloy anywhere else?”
“Not yet, no. I can’t pick up small instances of it.”
“There’s one more thing. I sent T’Challa an emergency brief earlier, so I’m sure you’ve seen it. About the bombs.”
Shuri nodded grimly. “I’ve had drones out, scanning, and everyone’s on high alert. So far, we haven’t found anything.”
That was good. Or not. “Keep looking. I don’t think it was bad information.”
“There’s one more thing. I’ve managed to isolate the frequency of the tightbeam that resonates with the alloy. If it happens again, I’ll be able to trace it more accurately.”
“I feel like everyone gets to go on a mission but I’m stuck here,” Shuri said, a little enviously.
“You’re doing great,” Nakia said, with a tired grin. Shuri was still a child—Gods willing, she would never be in direct danger again.
“I hate it when you guys say that.”