“Congratulations, O King,” M’Baku said, when it was the Jabari’s turn to pledge their allegiance. The Great Gorilla looked none the worse for the beating he’d taken in their duel. No malice marred his handsome face, no contempt or humiliated anger. Only amusement, the strangest of all, even though M’Baku had yielded the fight.
“Thank you. That was invigorating,” T’Challa said. T’Challa waited for M’Baku to say the formal words of recognition, the words he’d have heard the other tribal leaders utter. From the border to the rivers to the mines, accepting T’Challa as the King. M’Baku merely smiled. T’Challa lowered his voice, pitching it barely audible under the dancing and singing from the cliffs. “You came to challenge me for the kingship. You’ve yielded.”
“I have,” M’Baku said. His eyes crinkled in a joke that only he and the other Jabari shared. One of the chalk-painted warriors behind M’Baku coughed, swallowing a laugh.
“Do the Jabari recognise my right to the throne?” T’Challa asked, impatience feeding bluntness into his tone. It bled out of him as an alpha’s serrated growl, one that would have given any omega pause. Even one built as large as M’Baku. “Are the Jabari ready to rejoin Wakanda?”
M’Baku didn’t even blink. He made a show of looking behind him at his guard, omegas all. One of them laughed, and another said something in a dialect that T’Challa didn’t understand. Hundreds of years of isolation had allowed the Jabari to forge their own language. M’Baku grinned as he looked back at T’Challa. “The panther wears no crown, O King,” M’Baku said softly. “It wears hunger, and the Jabari reject hunger. Our borders will remain closed.”
“You answered the challenge. Participated in ritual combat. There are consequences to a loss.”
“The terms of participation did not include gambling our sovereignty, only my life,” M’Baku said, “or I would not have participated.”
“I did not think that the Great Gorilla would be so ungracious in defeat,” T’Challa said, hoping to use anger to goad a concession out of M’Baku. Or at least a break in M’Baku’s unbreakable amusement.
M’Baku laughed. “I’m used to defeat, O King. I am not the strongest warrior that the Jabari have, nor the best.”
“Why didn’t they challenge me in your stead?” T’Challa asked, surprised at M’Baku’s easy admission. For a big man and a ruler in his own right, M’Baku appeared to have no ego.
“My grandmother wasn’t interested, and the others lacked something you people seem to find so important, this so-called ‘royal blood’.” M’Baku yawned. “Can we go now? I’d like to be home by supper.”
T’Challa should let M’Baku go. Pretend at graciousness, or at least attempt to be polite. His father and his teachers had taught him how to armour himself with pleasantries, to disarm his opponents with diplomacy. He could still smell M’Baku on his own skin. They had stained each other with their sweat, bloodied and bruised each other. The panther had yet to resettle inside T’Challa’s skin but he could feel the ghost of the hunter-cat’s hunger humming in his blood, right under his skin.
M’Baku’s amusement faded. He was watching T’Challa with his hand curled loosely on his staff, but his feet were shifting subtly apart for better balance. Behind T’Challa, Okoye cleared her throat loudly. T’Challa twitched. “You should attend the festivities,” T’Challa said.
“I should, should I?” M’Baku said mockingly.
“I would like you to,” T’Challa amended. “Please.”
Ramonda took in a short intake of breath, while behind him Okoye built a ringing silence in reproach. M’Baku glanced at them, then at T’Challa. One of his men murmured something in their language and M’Baku spoke a curt word in response. “Just me?” M’Baku said flatly.
“You and any guests you might care to invite,” T’Challa said. He made himself smile where the panther wanted to snarl. T’Challa fought down its temper. He might not like M’Baku but he respected him. “You and your people will be honoured guests.”
“I’ll check my schedule,” M’Baku said. When T’Challa inclined his head, M’Baku smiled sharply. He offered T’Challa a terse little wave and strode back into the tunnel, the other Jabari closing ranks behind him.
Beside T’Challa, Shuri let out an explosive breath. “What was that all about, brother?” she asked.
“The Jabari are part of Wakanda too,” T’Challa said absently, watching them go.
“A little part. One that we usually try to forget.” Shuri nodded at the distant peaks, painted purple and gray against the horizon. “And you heard them. They don’t want to open their borders.”
“It is not respectful—or wise—to forget family just because it is convenient.” T’Challa looked at Ramonda, but she pressed her lips into a thin line and offered no counsel.
It was W’Kabi who stepped forward, breaking the tension. “Do you want us to watch the Jabari border more closely?” he asked. W’Kabi gestured at the tunnel. “They shouldn’t have been able to get here without me being notified.”
“Have some of your men do a second check of the tunnels,” T’Challa said, because that was a matter of national security instead of pride. “But don’t aggravate the Jabari. They were within their rights to challenge me for the throne. They are Wakandan too, and can go where they like.”
“They were Wakandan too,” W’Kabi corrected, his eyes fixed pointedly on the empty tunnel. “A long, long time ago.”
“Message from the Palace,” Okoye said from the cockpit. “It’s Princess Shuri.”
T’Challa swallowed the growl that tried to force its way past his teeth. Zuri and T’Chaka had been worried when T’Challa had been born an alpha. Bast’s gift sat too close to the skin where alphas were concerned, too aligned to all that was still wild in the most elemental of human aspects. When Shuri had been born an omega, T’Challa had wanted to step aside. It was Ramonda who had counseled patience. Shuri had grown up with little interest in the throne. Yet when she had raised her hand in challenge at the Falls, a part of T’Challa had been relieved—then disappointed, when he’d realized that it was just one of her jokes.
“Put her through,” T’Challa said.
Shuri’s anxious face flickered into view. “Brother, the Jabari are here.”
“Mother’s receiving them in the Garden of the Graces, but I thought you might want to hurry back? If you can? W’Kabi’s with them too?”
“The Jabari are not a threat.” T’Challa knew that much. “Don’t be afraid.”
Shuri glowered across the airship. “I’m not afraid. I didn’t mean that they were going to hurt us. I meant that W’Kabi’s already said three rude things to them and counting, and if you aren’t home soon there’s going to be a diplomatic incident. I don’t know what you see in him,” she told Okoye, then looked back over at T’Challa. “I’m going to try and do some damage control. See you soon, I hope.”
T’Challa didn’t sprint to the Garden of the Graces, but it was a near thing. He was braced for the worst when he stepped out of the lifts onto the garden floor and breathed out in relief as he saw everyone by the Pool of Reflection, apparently engaged in polite conversation. They looked up as he threaded through the forest of suspended terrarium bubbles, each holding a microcosm of an environmental sample from elsewhere in the world.
W’Kabi straightened behind Ramonda, folding his arms behind his back as Shuri pulled a face. M’Baku towered over them all, offering T’Challa a faint mocking smirk. Ramonda smiled. She was standing beside an old Jabari woman who barely came up to Shuri’s height, her seamed face wreathed in an easy smile. Her silver hair was tied into long braids that brushed her waist, and she wore Jabari armour with no visible insignia or decoration. She had a longbow slung at her back and a simple quiver at her hip, and by those and her imperious manner T’Challa could guess her name.
“My son,” Ramonda said formally, “this is Lady—”
“The Jabari recognise but one title and it currently belongs to my grandson,” the old woman said. She had to be M’Baku’s grandmother, Ngozi, who had once been Great Gorilla in her time. Before M’Baku’s late father.
“Welcome to Birnin Zana, Ngozi of the Jabari,” T’Challa said. He crossed his arms in Wakandan greeting. Curious. There were no other Jabari about, not even any of the Primes, M’Baku’s personal guard. "And you honour us with your presence as well, M'Baku."
Neither Ngozi nor M'Baku answered him in kind. Ngozi smiled and set her hands on her hips. “I thought you would be taller,” she said.
Ramonda’s smile faded, and W’Kabi narrowed his eyes. Shuri, however, swallowed a laugh and looked instantly guilty. “He’s tall enough,” M’Baku said.
“I see that.” Ngozi pursed her lips. “I hear you nearly killed my grandson, T’Challa of Wakanda.”
“It was mutual,” T’Challa said. He smiled, despite Ngozi’s pointed lack of use of his title. “M’Baku tells me that you would have bested me had you cared to join the fray, O Ngozi the Undefeated.”
Neither Ngozi nor M’Baku showed any surprise that T’Challa knew her Jabari nickname. The Fastness was not impenetrable, though what little intelligence could be gleaned from it was still painfully sparse. “I’m too old for the kingship,” Ngozi said, “and wish you every joy in it, I think.”
“You don’t appear too certain,” T’Challa said.
“Ah well, the capital’s rather disappointing so far. I was told that there were festivities. Free food and drink and such.” Ngozi made a show of looking around. “Is this it?”
“Not at all. I would be pleased to personally escort you both to the feasting hall,” T’Challa said, with a careful smile. Ngozi glanced at M’Baku instead of answering, murmuring something that made him shrug. She exhaled.
“We still want the kingship,” M’Baku said. T’Challa blinked. He held up his hand automatically as Ayo stepped forward.
“The Challenge is complete,” T’Challa said, as politely as he could, “and were you to take me on now you will find me a far more difficult opponent, M’Baku.”
“There’s more than one way to be king, by your laws,” M’Baku said, folding his arms. “I would like to have a private word with you. My grandmother will attend the festivities on my behalf. As a gesture of faith and trust and friendship and all that.”
“My King,” Okoye said tightly.
“Leave us,” T’Challa said, now curious. M’Baku could not defeat him without the Herb—now T’Challa wore Bast’s gift, and he feared him less. And it was clear that the Jabari had come here in peace, to face what was available of T’Challa’s mercy and patience. Ngozi stared at T’Challa calmly. Calm, for all that she was effectively here as a guarantee for her grandson’s good behaviour.
Okoye grumbled under her breath but fell silent as Ramonda forced a smile and turned to Ngozi. “Please, this way,” Ramonda said, with every inch of warmth that discipline could summon.
T’Challa waited until they were alone in the Garden of the Graces, and folded his arms behind his back. “Well?”
M’Baku was busy inspecting one of the terrariums. The globe he studied was half as big as he was tall, suspended in place by tiny antigrav nodes. The climate within it was icy, the rocks within crusted over with pale lichen and little else. “You people are arrogant beyond belief.”
“Why do you say so?” T’Challa kept a firm hold on his temper.
“This Garden. A waste of resources, powering a conceit with no purpose but aesthetics. Outside, this golden city of yours. Never mind that you people still kill and eat animals. The plants on the banks of your roads, they aren’t native to Wakanda.”
“The flowers?” T’Challa hadn’t given the botanical decor of Birnin Zana much thought.
“Obviously the flowers. They’re disrupting your local ecosystem. What’s left of it,” M’Baku said. He shook his head. “Arrogance.”
T’Challa’s headache and restlessness were growing. He grit his teeth. “Is a lecture all that you wish to give me?”
“If only,” M’Baku said. When he looked back towards T’Challa, he looked—tired. “The world is dying, O King.”
“The Jabari have seen a threat?” Shuri hadn’t said—
M’Baku let out a harsh laugh. “Sometimes it feels like we are the only ones who see the threat for what it is, yes. This warming world. The weather is getting worse. The great forests, the lungs of the world, they are being razed. The outsiders dig up and burn the bones of the earth and release the smoke into the sky. They choke the seas with refuse. Surely even in this golden tower of yours you have seen this.”
“I have seen it,” T’Challa said, puzzled. “The Jabari are concerned?”
“Of course we are concerned,” M’Baku said, biting out each word. “The Vault is beginning to melt. Even the old ice. Hanuman’s forest is beginning to die. When it dies, we die. So yes. The Jabari. Are concerned.”
“Forgive my ill-chosen words,” T’Challa said, and waited until M’Baku’s anger faded. “The Jabari are Wakandan as well. I would be pleased to offer any assistance—”
M’Baku let out a loud snort. “Technology, you mean.”
“And any expert advice, which will be respectfully given.”
“You do not look beyond your borders. You think your technology can preserve you from what is coming. This is why we attended the Challenge for the first time in five hundred years. Because we grow tired of you panthers biding your time. Hiding behind your technology while the world dies.” M’Baku gestured at the great glass windows that bordered the Garden. “In truth, we did not seek the kingship because of sudden ambition or out of fear of your technology. We sought it because we are desperate.”
“I recognise your concerns,” T’Challa said.
“But you do not hear them. Even now,” M’Baku shot back.
“What would you have me do? The world is far more than Wakanda. How can I stop the rest of the world from killing itself?” T’Challa demanded. He coughed, swallowing hard. The panther had uncurled itself in response to his uneven temper. He’d snarled the last of his words in its voice.
M’Baku stared back at him, unafraid. “So it is true. The panther spirit. It suits you alphas.”
“‘Suits’ isn’t how I would put it,” T’Challa said. His fists were clenched. Dully, he forced himself to relax, breathing slowly. He had to leave. “M’Baku, I am truly, truly concerned. On behalf of your people and mine. I invite you to take your place in the Tribal Council. You can raise any suggestions you have at our next Council meeting and I will address them seriously, you have my word.”
“Your word is not what I want.” M’Baku strode over, and T’Challa forced himself to stand his ground as M’Baku drew close. Closer. He bent, his plush mouth nearly brushing T’Challa’s ear. T’Challa breathed him in. M’Baku’s scent, earthy and richly omega, so much stronger in his senses now with the Goddess’ gift.
“The kingship,” T’Challa whispered, frowning. Violence pulsed under his skin with M’Baku’s bared throat so close. Violence and lust, because for the panther it was sometimes one and the same.
“Aye, the kingship.” M’Baku sounded amused again. “You don’t yet have a mate. Do you, O King.”
T’Challa sucked in a tight breath. He snapped up his stare, taking a step back. “That’s presumptuous of you,” T’Challa said.
M’Baku laughed. He had an easy laugh, deep and rich and loud. “More presumptuous than challenging you for the throne? If you’d prefer, I’ll fight you for this too.”
“You couldn’t best me before.”
“I’m referring to a different kind of contest,” M’Baku said playfully, “on a different sort of battlefield.”
M’Baku was flirting with him. T’Challa refused to be flattered, even though the panther wanted to be. “You think I’d acquiesce so easily?”
“Probably not,” M’Baku said, amused, “but I thought it might be worth a try. If you want to take all the fun out of it, fine. I can put forward a formal proposal through diplomatic channels. Assimilation of the ‘lost’ tribe through marriage, exchange of technology and ideas, blah.”
Despite his resolve, T’Challa let out a startled laugh. “‘Blah’?”
“Eh, I’m getting bored and I’m hungry,” M’Baku confessed, “so if I’m wasting my time here, I’ll go collect my grandmother and we’ll go home.”
“You’re both welcome to eat with us. That’s the point of a feast.”
M’Baku shuddered. “No thanks. There’d be dead animals everywhere. If my grandmother’s managed to stomach anything at your table so far, she’s braver than I am. Well?”
“You’re not… well. This is a surprise,” T’Challa said. The panther was making it hard to think. It, too, was bored and hungry.
M’Baku grinned lazily at him as though he knew. Of course he knew. “You don’t have to decide right now, O King. If you’d like, I’m open to a trial run.”
“What trial run?”
M’Baku clapped a hand over his face and let out a deep sigh. “Hanuman preserve me. How direct do you need me to be? Take me to bed. To. Have sex. For fun,” M’Baku said with exaggerated slowness. “Or not. I’ll take no offense either way and assume no obligation.”
“I…” T’Challa was tempted. Worse, the panther was tempted. He swallowed its temptation, forcing out a breath. “The Herb,” T’Challa tried to explain. “It puts me in a strange mood. The first night.”
“The panther,” M’Baku said, and smiled sharply as T’Challa flinched. “Yes. I see it. I know. Good. To be honest, O King, I think you’re going to need its help to satisfy me.” He winked, and this time, T’Challa laughed and stepped forward to draw M’Baku into his arms, hauling him down for a kiss.
“For what?” M’Baku touched his fingertips to the bite. “This is nothing. I confess I’m a little disappointed.”
T’Challa stared at him. “Disappointed?”
“We grow up on stories about the savagery of the panther-kings,” M’Baku said, shifting over to straddle T’Challa’s thighs. “Now I sleep with one and all I get for my trouble are a few bites and scratches, psh.” M’Baku kissed T’Challa when the first helpless laugh pushed past his tongue, confident and hungry still, swallowing his laughter, his lust.
As he kissed, M’Baku rubbed the slick and the mess between his legs over T’Challa’s thigh, marking him the way T’Challa had marked M’Baku. M’Baku had left no visible marks on T’Challa, no scars. He kissed memories into T’Challa instead, caressed fervent impressions of lust between them. Laughter kept uncurling from T’Challa, bubbling from his throat. He’d never felt this unreserved with his lovers before. T’Challa had always had to be careful of the panther’s strength, of the herb-given savagery. The Goddess gave her chosen no easy gifts. He’d never had a lover who’d welcomed all of it, every part of him. When he bit M’Baku next, T’Challa bled him.
“Again then,” M’Baku said, with a challenging smirk. T’Challa shoved him onto his back, clawing on top. He bit down on that very smirk, mauling M’Baku’s plush mouth. Big fingers curled against his throat, up into his hair. M’Baku moaned, rubbing himself against the thigh T’Challa thrust between his legs. His cock was stiffening again against T’Challa’s hip. T’Challa would have bent to taste it, but he was wary of his teeth today, his restless urgent hunger. He dug his hands into claws on the sheets and growled as M’Baku grabbed his wrists and hauled his hands to sweat-slicked hips. “Again, O King,” M’Baku commanded, grinning, “harder. If you can manage that.”
“M’Baku,” T’Challa gasped, settling eagerly between powerful thighs. “Goddess,” he whispered, as he eased back into that slick, tight heat. M’Baku rolled his eyes and wrapped his legs around T’Challa’s hips, hauling him balls-deep in a sharp jerk. M’Baku jerked, with a groan of pleasure that he pressed against T’Challa’s cheek, then he began to chuckle as T’Challa hissed.
Bracing M’Baku’s weight was easy with the panther’s strength. T’Challa buried his mouth against the hollow of M’Baku’s throat and for the first time in forever, he let the panther loose. Heard himself snarl, felt himself sink his teeth against yielding flesh as he thrust roughly into the body against him, the mate he—they—deserved. M’Baku braced himself with the exquisite balance of a trained wrestler and bucked against T’Challa, breathing in gorgeous panting gasps. His blood was sweet on T’Challa’s tongue, his heartbeat loud and bright. There was no fear in his desire and no awe. M’Baku matched the panther’s hunger with his lust, the panther’s strength with his grace. He rolled T’Challa onto his back with an elegant twist of his hips and sat down on T’Challa’s cock with a challenging grin, bloodied and defiant and beautifully amused.
M’Baku drove his hips against T’Challa’s thrusts, arched against T’Challa as T’Challa snarled and braced himself against the bed and pushed himself deeper, desperately deeper, again and again until he could feel his knot thickening, his body yielding tighter. T’Challa closed his hand tightly around M’Baku’s cock, stroked him in urgent tugs until M’Baku ground down with a shout, clenching tight, squeezing orgasm from T’Challa and demanding his knot, demanding more. T’Challa sank gratefully into the bed. He would give in to what M’Baku wanted in the end. They both already knew this.
“Somewhat better,” M’Baku said, as irreverent in victory as he was in defeat, his legs bracketing T’Challa loosely as they waited for the knot to ease. They lay on their flanks on the bed, breathing hard.
“Thank you for your kind assessment,” T’Challa said, trying to imitate M’Baku’s playful dignity. M’Baku grinned at him. The bite on his throat would scar, as would all the other bites T’Challa had given him this round. M’Baku’s blood still tasted sweet on his tongue. “About this formal proposal you mentioned.”
“Oh, that. I’ll start the arrangements tomorrow. Do you have somewhere suitable for ritual sacrifices? I’ll warn you first, it’ll get messy and might frighten young children.”
T’Challa stared at M’Baku in surprise. “I thought the Jabari abhorred killing animals.”
“Who said anything about animals?”
“What…” T’Challa trailed off as M’Baku started to laugh. “You. Are terrible.”
“You’re too easy, that’s the problem.” M’Baku yawned, shifting lazily to get into a more comfortable position. He ignored T’Challa’s wince as the movement pulled on the knot. “Eh, I don’t know. We’ve never had to arrange a marriage between one of us and one of you people before. What do you want, eh? Presents? A nice letter?”
“I don’t think any of that is necessary,” T’Challa said. He stroked M’Baku’s flank, admiring the sleek muscle under his fingers. Under his skin, the panther was sleeping, sated. “What is your plan?”
“To save the world?” M’Baku asked, only partly facetious. “I’m thinking we build a very big rocket and put all the other people in the world in it. Fire it towards another galaxy and take our time fixing the mess they’ve left behind.”
“Be serious.” T’Challa slapped M’Baku’s hip.
“We’ve been studying the so-called world powers for a while. A lot of them appear to be in debt. Aren’t you the richest man in the world? We buy debt with Wakanda’s sovereign fund. Buy land. Forests. Export Wakanda’s renewable power systems…” M’Baku stifled a yawn. “We have a very detailed action plan. I’ll have it forwarded to you in the morning.”
“That’ll do,” T’Challa said, reaching over to tip M’Baku towards him, “in lieu of presents and a formal proposal.”
“So are we getting married, or is it still presumptuous?” M’Baku asked, grinning knowingly.
T’Challa sniffed. He brushed a kiss against M’Baku’s mouth. “I want to consider this detailed action plan of yours first. Perhaps put it to general consideration before the Tribal Council.”
“No. I can see how that would go. I’m not interested in more research committees and debates.”
“Even should I… agree to a marriage, you will still have to heed the Council. And my opinion,” T’Challa said dryly. “You won’t just immediately be able to do what you like with the sovereign fund. Things will take time.”
“Twelve years,” M’Baku said. At T’Challa’s puzzled look, he clarified, “That’s the amount of time that the outsiders think we have left. Twelve years left to act on climate change. The Jabari think they’re being generous, actually. We don’t have time.”
“Why didn’t you bring your concerns to us earlier?”
“To your father?” M’Baku smiled tightly. “Oh, we did.”
T’Challa blinked. “When?”
“You were a child, and it was in secret. My grandmother came to Birnin Zana to talk to your father. He told us the same thing you did. He wanted to consider our action plan. Put it to general consideration before the Tribal Council. As you can see, nothing happened. So forgive me if I don’t trust your politics, O King. Or the throne. But unlike most of my people, I’m willing to trust you,” M’Baku said quietly.
“I’m humbled by your trust,” T’Challa said, his hand lingering on M’Baku’s flank.
“Don’t be. I have no choice.” M’Baku’s solemn stare fed quickly into another irrepressible grin. “At least you’re easy on the eyes. And tolerable in bed.”
“You can revise my opinion in the morning,” M’Baku said, and tucked T’Challa against him as they laughed.