Curse you, T'Challa, and curse this abomination of Vibranium you call airship.
Nausea sits deep and smugly insistent in M'Baku's stomach. He doesn't let it show to his guards, and especially not to their pilot who would report it back to the king without a doubt.
“We will arrive shortly, Lord M’Baku. Please take your seat.”
With a grunt, he does as the Dora Milaje in the Talon’s pilot seat says, and ignores the queasy feeling.
“Why do you get one of the beloved ones as a pilot again?” Shoyebi asks in Yoruba.
“Because your Chief is mated to one of the Golden Tribe. Thus he is entitled to the Dora Milaje’s protection,” The woman answers instead. M’Baku hasn’t seen her smile yet, but there is an undertone of amusement in her voice.
“She speaks Yoruba?” Shoyebi asks.
“When she wants to. I will land on the eastern slope of the mountain. Is that agreeable to you, my Lord?”
“As long as you don’t destroy a building, I don’t care where you land.”
“Of course, my Lord.”
Fierce they may be, but T’Challa’s guards also definitely have an attitude. She brings the airship to the ground flawlessly, as far as M’Baku can judge in any case. It doesn’t help the vicious twist of his stomach. He clenches his jaw and scowls through it. As soon as they touch ground and the ramp lowers itself, M’Baku stands up, and walks out of the accursed vehicle with squared shoulders.
Outside, snow crunches under his boots, and the crisp air embraces him, bites the skin of his face and his lungs with metallic cold. He revels in it.
I am home.
It is so much better than the sultry, warm air of the Golden City, or the artificial temperance of the Palace. Only now, it is not enough anymore, because a part of him is still down there, in the planes. The Kimoyo beads’ weight is almost unnoticeable in the innermost pocket of his robes, and already M’Baku wants a private place, so he can check on N’Jadaka. But that is not his purpose here.
“Will this thing need special shelter or maintenance?” He asks his assigned Pilot. She is the last to exit the airship, after his six permanent guards.
“No, my Lord. We can leave it right here, if that is agreeable.”
“It is. Follow us. Shoyebi, you will provide –our Pilot a room in the guest quarters. And show her the mess hall.”
As they walk up the side of the mountain, they are greeted by some people of the city, most notably a group of children.
“Olùkọ! Olùkọ is home!”
His guards step aside, unhelpful as ever. The next moment M’Baku goes to his knees under a horde of fifteen kids, who all jump at him at once.
“Hey, awọn ọmọ wẹwẹ, ey-” he topples over, backwards into the snow accompanied by peals of laughter, and can’t help the massive grin.
“Where were you?”
“Did you fight the Black Panther again?”
“Where is your mate?”
“Is he also a Panther?”
“Did he bite you?”
“One at a time, one at a time, eh?” With a grunt and a laugh, he gets up. Jadesola and Gbadebo cling to his shoulders, so he takes one into each arm and resumes walking. Behind the horde of kids, one of his cousins waits, with crossed arms and a smirk.
“Welcome home, oh Great Gorilla,” Damola says.
“Did you set up this assault?” M’Baku asks.
“Chief M’Baku, overpowered by a bunch of babies.”
“We’re not babies!” One of the boys that currently cling to M’Baku’s right boot shouts.
“Did this rascal teach you anything useful while I was gone?” M’Baku rumbles.
A resounding chorus of “No!” puts an expression of appalled betrayal on Damola’s face.
“Children, you know what to do.”
With fierce battle cries, his little troupe of warriors attacks. Jadesola actually uses M’Baku’s arm as a vantage point to launch herself at his cousin. With amusement, M’Baku watches Damola eat snow.
“Glory to Hanuman, that was easy,” He addresses the children. “I’m happy to see you, awọn ọmọ wẹwẹ, but I have to do chief duty now, eh? I’ll join you in the afternoon.”
“And tell us about your mate?” Gbadebo asks.
“I’ll tell you everything.” He ruffles the boy’s hair. “Off you go now.”
He pulls Damola up, and pats his back hard for good measure, to shake off the snow. Then his cousin hugs him tight.
“It’s good to have you home. How long will you stay?”
“Two days. I’m sorry it cannot be longer.”
“Eh, we all figured that when we heard your mate stayed in the flats.”
“How is Eniiyi?”
“Driving the other Elders nuts, as usual.”
“And her heart?”
“Not better, not worse.” Damola shrugs.
They make their way through the mountain city. Hollered greetings and jokes fly across the market square, and M’Baku finds himself grinning indiscriminately. The tribes of the planes are reserved, refined, polite. In contrast, he has never had to wonder what his own people think of him.
“The Great Gorilla is back!”
“Back without his mate though!”
“Glory to Hanuman, M’Baku!”
“M’Baku, where’s your little kitten?”
“Yeah, we wanted to see if he’s as pretty as the stories have it!”
His people tease him, and M’Baku laughs, loud and unrestrained. “Prettier, and don’t you doubt it. I’ll see you all tonight, eh?”
“We’ll bring some food!” the old baker hollers. “Haven’t they been feeding you in the flats?”
“You know flatland food, Nkanmaa. Nothing compares to your Akara anyways.”
“You want some Puff Puffs too, hu?”
“You know it.”
“Spoiled boy!” She grins at him, toothless, and he gives her a saucy wink in return.
“How do you always manage to charm her?” Damola mutters.
“Natural talent,” M’Baku snickers.
They cross the rope bridge to the Chief’s house. Built into the mountain, the oldest parts of the compound are well over a thousand years old. Jabari wood, like the Jabari people, is just that stubborn. It has been M’Baku’s home since he was chosen by the White Gorilla as a child. Its familiarity helps him calm the constant worries in the back of his mind. N’Jadaka will be fine.
He spends the morning and midday sitting on his throne, to hear his people. It’s minor things mostly, a fight over an escaped goat that broke into a neighbor's garden and two co-farming families’ dispute about what to plant for the next crop rotation. Four newly mated couples seek his blessing. All easy, until two beleaguered parents and their seventeen-year old beta daughter step in front of him.
“What is your grievance?” M’Baku asks. He recognizes the alpha of the family. It is the fisherman who brought the king- who brought T’Challa to the doorstep of the chief’s house. The memory of the man, lips frozen into a blue tint and ice in his hair, comes unbidden. It sits uncomfortable in M’Baku’s chest.
“I know you, don’t I? You’re the fisherman who saved the panther's life. Our tribe as well as the flatlanders owe you a debt. How can I help you?”
On second glance, there is something at odds in the small family. The daughter glares furious, while her parents ignore her entirely.
“Great Gorilla, my name is Tejumola. This is my omega mate Folu and our daughter Korede,” The alpha introduces himself with a humble bow. Then he gestures towards his daughter. “She is intent on running away, to leave our lands, and we are here to ask you to forbid her!”
“Why do you want to run away, Korede?” M’Baku leans back and crosses his arms.
“Because my true mate lives in the valley, and I know it.” The girl juts her chin.
“You have never even met her!” Folu argues angrily. “She has only seen that flatland woman from afar, yet she’s got it into her head they’re meant to be!”
“She’s my true mate, I’ve seen her in my dreams!”
“She’s of the Mining Tribe!” Tejumola yells. “How do you think they will react to a Jabari teenager showing up and claiming mateship to one of their own?”
“I’ll be showing up with my first courtship gift, and you can’t stop me!”
“Great Gorilla, please!” Folu looks at M’Baku, imploring.
Hanuman help me. Where to start.
T’Challa is already on his mind, and M’Baku suddenly feels an odd pang of sympathy in his chest for him. Then again, the king has proven time and time again that he is adept at solving these situations. Without a doubt, he’d graciously find the exact right words to mend the rifts in this family.
M’Baku scolds himself for the brief urge to call him and ask him for advice. He looks at the three people in front of him again, and his eyes catch on Korede’s expression. Something about her reminds him very much of N’Jadaka.
“I have to speak to your daughter without you two,” He tells the parents. “Go wait outside.”
They look as if they’d like to disagree, but they don’t, and his guards close the doors behind them.
“So, what is her name?” M’Baku asks and crosses his arms.
“…Khanyiswa, Daughter of Nobomi.”
“And how often do you meet with her?”
The beta girl's eyes widen, caught, and M'Baku suppresses a triumphant smirk.
"Whenever we can." Korede swallows and her expression turns determined. "I'm not going to tell you where, though."
M'Baku sighs. Mateships between Jabari and the tribes of the planes occur every once in a while. Not often, because there is little contact, but they are one people after all, as much as they like to deny it.
“And you are certain that Khanyiswa is your true mate?”
There is no doubt in the girl’s expression. Well then.
“You know that our traditions don’t allow you to enter a courtship before you’re eighteen.”
It’s a loophole, the distinction between mateship and marriage. Mateship is a biological urge that can be accommodated. Marriage is the matching social institution, bound to strict rules so that young couples and triads have to think at least twice about their commitment.
“Khani is two years older than I am, and her parents are already pressuring her to find an alpha,” Korede says. “They won’t force her, but they signed her up for a kind of meeting? To find her a mate.”
“So your mate hasn’t told her parents the truth.” M’Baku raises an eyebrow.
“The Jabari aren’t well liked on the planes, my Chief. You know that.”
"How far along are you in your courtship?"
"I gave her my third gift five days ago. But, they do those things differently in the planes..."
"Have you talked about where you are going to live?"
"She doesn't want to leave home. I don't care where I live, only that she's there. But we fear that her parents won't accept me."
M'Baku leans back, and suppresses the irrational yearning for his mate. To have him here right now would soothe several worries at once. He knows what N'Jadaka would say to this problem, too.
So fuck the parents, do what you want. If they ain’t on board they can fuck all the way off.
Yes, well, maybe it’s better to channel T’Challa in this instance.
"Your parents were right to come to me with this," M'Baku says. "Can you and your mate wait for a few weeks more until you elope?"
Korede looks down bashfully. "We're not quite at that stage yet, Great Gorilla."
"Good. Will you let me speak for you when I bring this matter to the king?"
Her eyes widen comically. "The king? We're not important enough for that, right?"
"Diplomacy." M'Baku shrugs with a smirk. "Wakanda has changed, and they want the Jabari to change with them. We get some things in exchange, and if I can manage it, acceptance for your mateship will be one of them. It won’t hurt that your father saved the king’s life."
"Thank you, my Chief!"
"Don't thank me yet. It's going to take a lot longer than running away together would."
“It doesn’t matter,” She replies, and raises her fist to her heart fiercely. “If I can give my mate a life where she doesn’t have to leave her family, I will wait for however long I have to.”
He nods at her seriously. “Then you are dismissed. Share this with your parents, if you have to, but don’t talk to anyone else about it.”
“I’ll keep my quiet.”
“Good. The Elders are going to be cranky enough as it is.”
She gives him a smile then, the first easy expression on her face. “I thank you, Great Gorilla.”
“Eh.” He waves her gratitude away. “Just doing my job as your chief. Expect a message in two weeks.”
The guards escort her out. He allows his shoulders to sag ever so slightly while he closes his eyes and adds the star-crossed mates to his mental to-do list.
"That was graceful."
M'Baku looks up and a grin spreads on his face when he realizes that he has an audience after all.
"It was, wasn't it? Hanuman has blessed me with exceptional skills of diplomacy."
Asira snorts, and rolls her eyes as she swings herself into the room. She's always liked to climb the most impossible places, that hasn’t changed since they were children. And she is a sight for sore eyes.
"Hanuman has blessed you with amazing family to cover your ass, while you're down in the flatlands wooing your kitten. Why didn't you bring him?"
"N'Jadaka has -some things to work through. With his family."
"You think he will offend the council?"
"I am certain he will. It will do them good," M'Baku replies wryly. "But he's not yet used to Wakandan culture. I want to make this easy for him."
"Did you two really wreck the King's throne room?"
"The Council room."
"Hanuman bless you, I like him already."
"I have no doubt that you two will get along. Would you like to meet him?"
They're alone in the throne room, so M'Baku uses the opportunity to reach into his inner pocket and take out the Kimoyo beads.
Asira sucks her teeth. "No! Flatland-tech, how could you! M'Baku, first of the White Gorilla's chosen... If the Elders hear of this..."
"Shut up." M'Baku glares at her and she snickers.
"If you tell the Elders of this I will stick you on goat duty for the next year."
"At least they'd match your temper."
"You're a terrible person."
The Kimoyo beads always manage to make him feel clumsy. The most he's done with them in the past was to send some text messages, and switch them off. He has the vague suspicion that his beads are set up with the kid’s version of the operating system, with only the cheerful color scheme removed. He manages to summon the facetime option of the messenger in any case, and with a bright noise, N'Jadaka materializes in the palm of his hand.
"Hey Chief. Wassup?"
"Oh, he is handsome," Asira coos.
"Hell yeah I am. Who's that?"
"Hello Olufẹ. This is my cousin Ce'Athauna."
"I go by Asira." She grins. "How is life in the Golden City?"
"Oh you know." N'Jadaka shrugs and smirks. “Hot weather, luxury, kinda boring. How’s home?”
“Home is well,” M’Baku says. “My people want to meet you.”
“Yeah, looking forward to meeting them too.” N’Jadaka tilts his head, with a small, sincere smile that tugs on M’Baku’s heart.
“Aaaawe look at you,” Asira fawns. “Prince N’Jadaka, my cousin is smitten with you!”
“Course he is, have you looked at me?”
Asira throws her head back and laughs. “Oh, he’s gonna fit right in around here.” She sobers slightly, and pats M’Baku’s shoulder, hard. “I’m going to leave you two lovebirds alone. I’m sure I don’t want to hear your newly mated talk.”
M’Baku smirks at her, and she throws a rude gesture into his direction. Then she leaves the same way she came, and M’Baku sincerely hopes she doesn’t give any of the guards outside a heart attack.
“She seems nice,” N’Jadaka says amused.
“Eh, she’s okay.” M’Baku doesn’t attempt to hide the warmth in his voice. It’s been barely two weeks since they met, but already N’Jadaka knows him anyways. “How are you, Olufẹ? You seem uneasy.”
“Caught that, didn’t you.” N’Jadaka gives a little huff. “So, the Queen Mother’s invited me to dinner.”
“I’m gonna throw a plate at someone and the Dora Milaje are gonna skewer me.”
“I am sure the king will look out for you.” If only because he promised that very thing to M’Baku just this morning.
“He offered to cover for me,” N’Jadaka groans. “Shit, now I wish I joined you. Is it too late to take a plane to Jabariland?”
“You are welcome here whenever you like, but you remained in the city for a reason,” M’Baku reminds him gently. “And that reason is to stay closer to your family, form a connection with them.”
“Yeah, Okeke said the same thing.”
“Okeke is your counselor?”
“Best War Dog Shrink around, yeah. Anyone can integrate me back into civilized society, s’him.” N’Jadaka snorts.
“At least you don’t actively dislike him,” M’Baku says.
“Don’t actively like him, either.”
“You don’t actively like a lot of people, Olufẹ.”
“Currently you take up the top three ranks by yourself.”
“I have a lot of greatness to offer.”
“Ranks four to ten go to your massive cock.” N’Jadaka grins, and M’Baku laughs.
“Well then, my cock thanks you for the rating and is determined to improve it in the future.”
“Looking forward to it.” N’Jadaka hesitates, then meets M’Baku’s eyes with rare vulnerability. “Missing you already.”
“I miss you too. I thought about you just before I called you.”
He tells N’Jadaka about the case of Korede and Khanyiswa. N’Jadaka listens carefully.
“That sounds like a whole mess, not gonna lie.”
“With your cousin’s determination to improve the relationship with us, I think this one has a chance for a happy end.”
“What do those couples usually do?”
“There is a small town to the east of Jabariland, where our border meets with that of the Mining and River Tribe. There has been an unspoken agreement for the last three centuries to treat it as neutral ground.”
“Sounds like an unhandy solution.”
“It is. For the Jabari it is a matter of pride to take care of our own, and their mates. But for every unit of food or medicine that we provide, the other tribes respond in kind.”
“Passive aggressive competition?”
“Very much so. Other than that, we all like to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“You gonna bring up their case in the next council meeting?”
“I thought I would talk to your cousin in private first, if a good opportunity comes up,” M’Baku replies. “Our two lovebirds are only on their third courtship gift.”
“Third courtship gift is almost married if you ask the tribes of the planes,” N’Jadaka replies with raised eyebrows.
“You have continued your reading?”
“You know I have.”
“You consume a lot of books in a very short amount of time, olufẹ.” M’Baku says. “I must admit that I did lose track some days ago.”
“Yeah well, I read up on courtship stuff and on tribal protocol. Down here, if you meet your mate, your families have to negotiate chaperones and a whole lot of other shit first, before you even get that second meeting. And before you get a gift, it’s got to be approved by your chief.”
“Eh, flatlanders always like to make things more complicated than they need to be.”
“The star-crossed lovers count as fifunni, don’t they?”
“Yes. All mateships with an Omega involved count as that.”
“So what are the Jabari rules for them?”
“They would have to meet within the village. Not necessarily chaperoned, but loosely supervised. Giving gifts is the traditional reason for a visit, so there is usually a lot of exchange. The first gift, and the last gift before the wedding hold a lot of meaning, but the smaller gifts during can vary widely.”
“Sounds like a lot more fun than the planes version. You can exchange three courtship gifts, tops, and the purpose is mainly to impress the in-laws.”
“That’s what the meals are for in Jabariland.” M’Baku says. “The receiver of the first courtship gifts arranges the first shared meal, with their family’s support. Then a few weeks later, the other family hosts the second meal. After every family hosted once, official negotiations for the couple’s or triad’s living arrangements begin.”
“How many meals does it usually take?”
“Depends.” M’Baku shrugs and grins. “On the one hand, Jabari like to feast, so plenty of shared meals aren’t unusual. On the other hand, you know what a fresh mateship feels like, and with a fertile couple or triad, there are heats to take into consideration.”
“Yeah that’s definitely the chill version. Plane tribes have a whole different set of rules for when the negotiations start. There is a shared meal, but it’s gotta be hosted by a third, completely unrelated party.”
“Why would that be necessary?” M’Baku asks.
“Far as I can tell, it’s a custom from times when there was a need to ensure peace between all four tribes. If two people from different tribes can’t marry unless a third party hosts the negotiation, you got no other choice but to make at least some friends, I guess.”
“And if you have a triad from three different tribes?”
“Worst case, the Golden Tribe can host, though that’s pretty rare, and not everyone is down with kingly intervention.”
“I can imagine.”
“Anyone talk to you about courtship proceedings yet?” N’Jadaka asks him.
“Not until now, no,” M’Baku replies. “It would fall into the Queen Mother’s or the King’s responsibilities to do so.”
“Well, I ain’t complaining. I’m not moving out of your rooms because some dried-up council gets their panties in a twist over premarital sex.”
“Aren’t the rules a little less strict for alphas?”
“Nah, you wish.” N’Jadaka smirks. “Only case touching is allowed is if someone’s in heat. And that’s presuming an improper amount of touching already occurred before courtship could start all mannerly.”
“The heat part won’t apply to us.” M’Baku waggles his eyebrows. “But I think I can do something about an improper amount of touching.”
“Hell yeah.” N’Jadaka smiles at him wryly. “Don’t think T’Challa’s gonna cockblock us, right?”
“Not likely, no,” M’Baku says.
Someone knocks at the wide doors of his throne room, and he looks up. The doors don’t open, but a look at the time makes him scowl.
“You gotta go?” N’Jadaka guesses accurately.
“I promised my children to visit them this afternoon and tell them about the Golden City. They’re very curious about my mate.”
“Well, tell’em I look forward to meeting them.” N’Jadaka grins.
“I can call you again tonight,” M’Baku offers.
“Don’t sweat it,” N’Jadaka says. “I’ll text you if anything comes up.”
“Anything at all,” M’Baku confirms. “I will see you soon, olufẹ.”
The transmission closes and M’Baku sighs. Just today and tomorrow, and then they will be reunited again. He rises from his seat and goes to the doors. When he opens them, he finds his younger brother, with crossed arms and a knowing grin.
“What’s the great Gorilla doing all alone in his throne room?”
“I don’t answer trick questions.” M’Baku pulls Mandla into a tight hug. “How are you?”
“Annoyed. Why did you give Damola the kids and leave the geriatric ward to me?”
“Because between the two of you, you’re the charming one.”
“And how come Asira got away without additional duties?”
“She got goat duty.”
“Glory to Hanuman, M’Baku, I know that’s not true.”
“And how would you know that?”
“You are not lying curled up on the floor, crying “My balls, my balls, she ripped my damn balls off”. That’s how I know.”
Mandla updates him on the latest council proceeds while they make their way through the building, up the stairs and into the west wing of the chief’s house. Its scent is familiar and well-loved, wooden floors, wax, pencils. The walls of the hallways are plastered with pictures, some of which have been added in the two weeks he was away. M’Baku takes a moment to look at each, before they enter the sun-flooded common room.
The youngest of the chosen are already here, and on him immediately. M’Baku sits down in the middle of the room, and tries to sort the children that climb his arms and back. He answers the storm of questions as best as he can, and when the kids calm down, he uses the opportunity for an impromptu lesson on the Golden City and the tribes of the planes.
It’s easy familiarity, speaking in teacher-voice. During the lesson, some of the teenaged chosen filter in to listen and take their places with Mandla and Damola by the wall.
“Can your mate turn into a panther, too?”
“Not as an actual transformation, no. But he drank the heart shaped herb the panther goddess gave him.”
“Did your mate also fight the king because he’s not careful with the vibranium?” Jadesola asks with a serious frown.
M’Baku hesitates. He has never lied to his children, and he’s not about to start now, but this a difficult question. He should have known that the kids would pick up on the countless rumors that run around the city.
“No, that was not the reason. N’Jadaka was angry at the king because he felt that the king should help the outside world.”
“How can your mate be a prince and an outsider at the same time?” Gbadebo demands.
“N’Jadaka’s father was the old king’s brother. They had a fight, and N’Jadaka was raised in the United States of America.”
“It’s so lucky that he came home to meet you,” Ganiru, a six-year old beta and most recent addition to the chosen, says wide-eyed.
M’Baku gives the boy a big smile, glad that he is finally starting to talk. Ganiru had been chosen after his parent’s death in an unfortunate rockfall a few months ago.
“Na-ah, not lucky. They’re true mates, it’s destiny!” Jadesola says confidently. She looks up at M’Baku, expectant: “When will we get to meet him?”
“I’ll bring him as soon as we find time,” M’Baku promises. “He is very new to Wakanda, and he has a lot to learn. I don’t want to rush him.”
“You just want him all to yourself so you can cuddle all day long!” Anwuli, one of the younger omega girls, accuses with pointed finger.
At the back of the room, Mandla snorts loudly, and Damola doesn’t even pretend to hide his snickering, while the teenaged chosen try and fail to mask their shit-eating grins.
“Well, he is a very cuddly person, and he likes to cuddle with me a lot,” M’Baku says, with dignity.
“When will you have your wedding celebration?” Jadesola asks.
“We have not talked about it yet. At the moment, there is a lot to do in the Golden City, so it will probably take some time. But I promise to bring him here soon.”
“To meet your family!” Gbadebo shouts.
“Yes, to meet all of you.”
The afternoon passes like that. At some point, Asira comes by with a basket of sweets from the kitchen, which is on all accounts an entirely unethical but very successful tactic to get a moment of quiet for the grown-ups.
“You are a cheat,” Damola says to his sister with a smirk.
“You are jealous that all the cooks like me better. They gave me a whole basket. I barely had to ask.”
“That’s because I notified them this morning,” Mandla says dryly. “See what I have to put up with while you’re away, brother?”
“I don’t know. Could be good for you.” M’Baku grins.
“So, your outsider Prince is still working on his issues?” Asira asks, with a rare, serious expression.
“Yes. N’Jadaka is- troubled. He had a mission when he came here, and he was ready to give his life for that cause.” M’Baku says. “When we realized how different our ideals were, we-” he breaks off.
These are his siblings, not only in oath and bond by Hanuman’s choice, but also in blood. There is no one he trusts more, and yet the memory of N’Jadaka’s rage, of their fight…
“When you realized how different your ideals were, you took it out on the king’s antique council room.” Damola nods unhelpfully. “We heard.”
“A very mature resolution,” Mandla adds. “The new chairs you ordered are almost done, by the way.”
“You guys suck at this,” M’Baku says dryly.
“But you don’t.” Asira grins. “Personally, I can’t think of anyone better suited to be mated a gorgeous, homicidal Prince. You have a very grounding presence.”
“I don’t know why I even bother.” He can’t help his smile entirely.
“If Hanuman has chosen him for you, and you for him, then it will turn out alright.” Mandla grabs his shoulder and squeezes it, reassuring. “You don’t need us to tell you that.”
“It’s nice to hear it anyways,” M’Baku gives back. “Thank you, for guarding my back and taking care of our home.”
“Eh, we’d do that anyways.” Damola gives him a haughty grin. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
A bit later, the door opens, and Ndidi comes into the room to deliver a message.
“Eniiyi humbly requests a visit, my Chief.”
“You can tell me what she really said.”
“’Tell that boy he better come for a visit before he stuffs himself with puff puffs’”
“That sounds like her.”
M’Baku says his goodbyes to the kids and then follows Ndidi out of the compound, onto the familiar, well-trodden path up the mountain.
Eniiyi’s house is built into the side of a steep slope. The wood has taken on a greyish, metallic glint from almost two centuries of enduring the glacier’s cold, and it is more abiding and durable than steel.
Inside, they are greeted by Eniiyi’s caretaker, and Ndidi stays in the living area with her while M’Baku climbs the wide, airy stairs. The room they lead to is light-flooded, the inner wood-paneling a warm, golden tone. The view across Jabari city, the valley, and the flatlands on the northern horizon is breathtaking.
In the soft light of early evening, Eniiyi sits, wrapped in two blankets of fur. Her dark grey hair is in neat rows, and it still has some black strands in it. Her face is wrinkled, pronounced around the corners of her eyes and mouth.
“There you are, you restless boy.”
“I am sorry I stayed away so long, Lya-nla.” M’Baku says, and kneels down beside her bed.
“Nonsense. You have a mate to woo, I remember what that was like.”
“You have my word, I will not neglect my duties to our people.”
“No one is worried about that, little monkey.” Eniiyi raises her hand and pats M’Baku’s head, and he desperately tries not to notice how fragile her fingers look.
“Now, put away that frown of yours, and tell me about your mate.”
So he does. He sits on the soft carpet next to Eniiyi’s bed, and talks of N’Jadaka, of Birnin Zana and the king’s council, T’Challa’s plans. Eniiyi was his predecessor’s Captain, and M’Baku’s mentor from the day he came to the chief’s house first. She listens, and they speak until the sun has set behind the western mountains.
“I will be back tomorrow.” M’Baku promises.
“I will count on it,” She gives back with a smile. “Now shoo. The whole city is waiting for you.”
Eniiyi is right, of course. The city hall is a large, round building with a conic roof constructed of high wooden arches. It is one of the oldest buildings of his tribe, almost a thousand years old, a monument to the strength of Jabari wood and people alike.
The scent of food and the sound of laughter fills the air. M’Baku makes his way through the room, and for the rest of the night he is entirely focused on the moment. He is chief of the Jabari, and he still loves his people before everything else. It is reassuring to know that he has not changed that much. He gets a lot of questions about N’Jadaka, and a lot of encouragement, invitations and support as well. As he cares for his people, so they want to see him happy as well.
“Whatever Hanuman was thinking, seems to me that our tribe’s isolation is coming to an end,” Nkanmaa says while she loads his plate with puff-puffs. “Of course that’s just this old baker’s opinion.”
“I hear you,” M’Baku replies. “And I agree with you.”
“Well, I don’t envy you your task with the council tomorrow.”
“No one does.” M’Baku smiles at her wryly. “But with the strength of your baking filling my belly, I will sit through anything.”
“Eh, eat up and stop wheedling!”
He does, and when he falls into his own bed late at night, alone and just a little potted, he does not expect to dream.
When he awakes the next morning and realizes how wrong he was, he stares at the ceiling of his room for a long moment, before he gets up.
He takes his breakfast in the commons of the chief’s house with his guards, siblings and the children who greet him enthusiastically. When he checks his kimoyo beads, there is only a short message from N’Jadaka:
Got my dad’s stuff. See you tomorrow.
His heart aches for his mate. He wants to be there for him while N’Jadaka explores this unexpected connection to his father. But maybe it is better that N’Jadaka gets to have this first look on his own. And M’Baku has duties to attend.
Mandla brings him to the threshold of the council hall, but not a step further.
“You aren’t really leaving me to their tender mercies on my own, are you?” M’Baku asks.
“We heard that!” One of the elders crows.
“I am taking my well-deserved day off and nothing you can do will stop me,” Mandla declares.
“I will put you on goat duty,” M’Baku threatens desperately.
“This is treason.”
“Have fun, brother.”
M’Baku, very decidedly, does not have fun. He does make some headway in convincing the Elders that T’Challa’s plan is not entirely foolhardy. Only just mostly foolhardy, partly disrespectful, and a danger to public safety. They only call for a renewed challenge three times.
“What about your mate? Doesn’t he have some influence over his cousin? It is in N’Jadaka’s duties to represent the interests of our tribe now that he is part of it.”
“I will not.” M’Baku lets his voice go glacier cold. “Use my mate to further my political gain. And the next suggestion in that direction will earn you a personal challenge from me.”
He lets the shocked silence sit for a long moment, before he adds: “Besides, my mate chose to go by his American name. You may call him Erik Stevens.”
An outraged gasp and mumbles follow. M’Baku keeps the smirk off his face, but he knows that N’Jadaka will enjoy the recollection of this moment. The thought gives him an unexpected amount of satisfaction.
When the Elders have finally gotten tired of the topic of crazy flatlander plans, there is still a lot of other things to discuss. Preparations for the beginning of the dry season, a series of tests for a new method of kola tree farming, and the yearly ceremony of the chosen all are discussed extensively.
Noon has gone when M’Baku finally steps out of the stuffy room. All he wants to do is climb up the nearest slope and bury his head in a pile of snow. But his time is limited, so he hurries to Eniiyi’s house.
“What has gotten into you today, hmm?”
She barely needs a glance to identify the unrest that he feels.
“I have another mate. N’Jadaka and I saw him in our dream last night.”
“Did you now. What’s his name?”
“Ah, that part is complicated.”
He tells her all of the situation, and when he is done, looks up to find her smiling.
“Well, Hanuman has blessed you, my boy.”
“How will we find him?”
“You will find him when he wants to be found, and not a moment sooner. Until then, take care of your N’Jadaka. And maybe try to smile once in a while when you’re in the Golden City.”
“I’m not sure it will help.”
“No, but it will be amusing to watch for everyone else.”
When it is time to go, he presses a kiss onto Eniiyi’s forehead.
“I’ll be back soon. I promise.”
“There’s no rush. Find your third, and enjoy the time that Hanuman has given you with your mates.”
He leaves Eniiyi’s house, determined to return as soon as possible. It’s late afternoon, and he heads towards the chief’s house with a lighter heart.
The kids are already waiting. Damola has prepared a bunch of games, and one after another, the other residents of the chief’s house join them. They play and tell stories well into the evening. After the kids have all reluctantly said their goodbyes and gone to bed, Mandla and Asira vanish, only to reappear a bit later with several bottles of Ogogoro. And the rest of the night, well, it goes swimmingly.
When M’Baku wakes up, he does not remember how he got into bed. He grins through the slight headache, and this time, he really does dunk his head in the snow. It’s early yet, the sun hasn’t risen above the mountaintops to the east. With satisfaction, he notes that Shoyebi and the rest of his guards look worse than he himself does, while they stand in two loose lines in front of the demonic flatland flight machine.
Their pilot greets them with crossed arms and only the hint of a curl on her lips. M’Baku makes a mental note to invite her to the drinking games next time. If only to prevent that air of superior amusement as she gracefully sits down in the pilot’s seat.
It doesn’t matter, even as the talon rises in the air and M’Baku’s unsettled stomach lurches dangerously. N’Jadaka is at the end of this flight, and for that his heart is joyful.