So the Jabari had a seat among the Tribe Council now.
Big deal, truly. A voice for the Mountain tribe! This had never happened, as far as memory went. But it seemed it would change very little, all in all. The Golden tribe remained on the throne, and T’Challa remained firm in his decision to pull Wakanda out of hiding. No real discussion could be had; of course all the other tribes on the Taifa Ngao were eating out of his hand—the River tribe was marrying Nakia to him soon, O joy! The Border tribe was meekly trying to atone for W’Kabi’s sins, O shame! And the Merchant and Mining tribe were enchanted by this occasion to enrich themselves, O opportunity! Which meant the Mountain tribe, newly admitted among its reluctant peers in the person of Silverback King M’Baku, was left alone to oppose every decision they made.
“To open the country to foreign immigration. All in favor?” T’Challa asked in a long-suffering voice.
“Ewe!” intoned all the others as one man. Yes! From the River tribe, the Border tribe, the Merchant tribe, the Mining tribe. Wakanda forever, T’Challa forever! Yes, yes, yes!
Then all eyes turned to M’Baku, who took his time to sprawl comfortably on his seat—his beautiful Tribe Council seat, made of good Jabari wood—and gave them a grin.
All of them groaned, and the Merchant tribe elder even threw his hands in the air. M’Baku could have acknowledged it as an insult if he hadn’t been having so much fun.
T’Challa pinched the bridge of his nose. “Let us stop there for today. Thank you for your presence, thank you all. Ndiyabulela.” He got up from his seat and said over his shoulder, “Lord M’Baku, please, a moment.”
The elders walked out of the room in a single, dignified line while M’Baku smugly waved them out, still seated.
T’Challa didn’t address him right away, and walked across the room to uncork a bottle of maize liquor instead. Golden wine for the Golden tribe. He handed a glass to M’Baku, who took a long, appreciative sip, and clicked his tongue.
T’Challa was silent, sleek and elegant in his black djellaba; he kept his back to M’Baku, pouring a glass for himself.
“Can’t imagine why you’re so surprised,” M’Baku said. “O brother-in-arms, did you think I would magically approve of your every decision now?”
“Magically, no,” T’Challa answered, turning around at last. “But as a new member of the Tribe Council…”
“The Tribe Council should oppose you more often.” M’Baku raised his glass to look at the sun catching in the wine. “If they did, you would’ve heard W’Kabi’s words—before he had to shout them at you from the wrong side of the spear.”
T’Challa shot him a look. “I am hearing you now, O Silverback King. Hooting from the branches, hayi hayi hayi. Is ‘no’ the only word you know?”
“Hayi,” M’Baku grinned. “But my politics are closer to W’Kabi’s than yours, it’s no secret. Playing nice with the colonizer boys? Trampling our ancestors’ heritage?” He opened his hands. “We will not have it—I said, on challenge day. Seems you’ve forgotten already.”
“I am not trying to dilute our country’s traditions,” T’Challa said with patience. “I believe they must be shared to grow. We have been running in closed circuit for too long. We have been ignoring the sixth tribe, which is—”
“Please don’t say ‘the world tribe’—”
“The world tribe, M’Baku,” T’Challa said, a smile playing at the edge of his mouth. “We have so much to bring them. Not weapons, not war; that was W’Kabi’s politics—Killmonger’s, too, may he rest in the Djalia.”
He paused for a moment, and drank in silence. Whether for his long-time friend or his deceased cousin, M’Baku didn’t know.
“Not weapons,” T’Challa began again, “but the wealth of our assistance, the wealth of our technology. And yes, that means our culture. This is why I gave you a seat on the council—not just because you saved my life, M’Baku. Not just because you rescued our country from war. But because you have been fighting for tradition the longest. I am trying to listen to every voice in Wakanda, to honor all of our country, past and present alike.”
M’Baku looked away, snorting softly. T’Challa was a damned orator; he could have probably ruled the country on charisma alone. And he had honor, and he had heart. It was hard not to like him, almost to the point of forgoing one’s own values.
“Think about it,” T’Challa insisted. “If I’m to be such a king, Wakanda cannot do without the Jabari. You alone can guide us in sharing, without losing ourselves.”
“Yeah—right—are you finished?” M’Baku said, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “Great Hanuman. You almost make me miss the good old days, when you and I were solving politics with our fists.”
“You mean last week?” T’Challa grinned, eyes twinkling. M’Baku snorted again, louder, which made him laugh. “Ah, you are right. I think we’ve both had enough for today.”
He put his glass away and M’Baku did the same.
“Come on,” T’Challa said. “Okoye and the Queen Mother await. Lord M’Baku is invited to our table if he likes.”
Okoye facing him at dinner. M’Baku shivered, then rose and stretched a mighty stretch. “Nah, Panther King. I have been locked indoors for too long already; the mountain calls.” He walked out of the room. “Till next time.”
“Will I hear an ewe from you next time?” T’Challa called.
M’Baku waved a hand in salute, without turning around.
He walked the streets of Birnin Zana with long, stalking strides. People turned as he passed, murmuring and pointing at his gorilla pelt. He held his head high. Let them witness the might of the Jabari.
(But even the mightiest warrior couldn’t escape unscathed from the humiliation of squeezing his six-foot-five frame in one of the sleek, narrow Hyperloop wagons zipping through town. Glaring at those whose gaze lingered too long, M’Baku burrowed in one of the ridiculous metal seats, crossed his arms and spread his legs.)
The rail moved smoothly, soundlessly. Its rhythm was hypnotic. The city whipping past the windows had changed a lot; yet it still brought forth old memories. M’Baku was surprised at his own nostalgia. He hadn’t seen Birnin Zana since his childhood, when he’d been sent to the palace along with every other child of elder blood, for the Royal Year.
The Jabari kid was always going to be bullied, surprising no one. But nine-year-old M’Baku had come ready to fight, shouting and biting and scratching, letting Hanuman hoot and snarl through his mouth, tackling anyone who dared to look at him wrong. What he hadn’t expected was for someone else to fight by his side. Not T’Challa, no—the Golden kid was shy and always close to his father. But Okoye.
Okoye! Nine years older, a Dora in training, with a soul like iron and eyes like a forest fire. M’Baku closed his own eyes now, to remember better. As a child, he’d worshipped her. On challenge day, he’d recognized her at once; and in-between, even from the top of his snow-capped mountains, he’d heard news of her on the wind. General Okoye. A rank that would have surprised no one who knew her.
And there had been this moment, during the battle on Golden grounds: W’Kabi astride an enormous Border rhinoceros, suddenly coming for M’Baku—he was T’Challa’s only ally, T’Challa’s only chance, so of course he’d be a prime target; the most valuable after T’Challa himself.
M’Baku had known it might come, had accepted the risk; yet what man can claim to be ready for death? For a moment he’d seen his charging doom, the ruin of his people, Killmonger’s victory, and terror had paralyzed him down to his core. But then—without a single second of doubt—Okoye stepping in front of him, one single step to plant her feet and hold her head high, fire in her eyes, confident the animal would know her. And it had! Skidding, contorting itself to stop its own bulk, plowing the ground and turning the earth in its efforts not to hurt her! And Okoye? Not even a moment spared for boasting; next, her spear to her husband’s throat, her words promising duty and death over love. And thus, M’Baku saved, all of them saved, the entire fight won. O, the woman! She had not changed.
To think she had bound herself to limp-cocked W’Kabi!
When M’Baku reopened his eyes, the silver buildings were rushing past in a blur. The sun was about to set, blue fading into purple and red. Okoye, Okoye—M’Baku’s respect and awe were mixing with older feelings, bubbling up from the buried layers of his youth. The memory of a desperate, powerless love for a girl who was, at the time, twice his age. A goddess, he’d thought then; a goddess, he thought now. Such a frustration to think that M’Baku could have courted her in his adulthood, had he not been a child of the mountains. Had T’Challa’s hand, reaching out in friendship, not come ten years too late.
But it was too late now, even for regrets; she was wed to the kin-killer maggot of the cattle-herding Border tribe. The waste! But even those bounds could not bind her. Okoye had said, for Wakanda? Without question, while holding her love at spear-point. And her love had knelt for her, choosing sentiment over honor, when she’d chosen honor over sentiment. Truly a miserable fit for her, that man, right until the very end.
But how could M’Baku fancy himself any better? In truth he hardly knew her, except for this sole year of shared friendship and fights; except, twenty years later, for this one battle where she’d proved herself the fiercest warrior in the whole of Wakanda, before T’Challa and M’Baku themselves. In truth, M’Baku was wary of facing her now that fragile peace had come. Wary of speaking to her away from the thoughtless rage of childhood, from the wordless rage of a battlefield. Afraid he had not marked her the way she had marked him.
Yes, that was the truth. But it was a pointless truth, that nobody needed knowing. M’Baku huffed to himself as if after a point well made; then, as the vibranium train slowed to a stop, he got up and left, suddenly fed up. He was on the edge of the city, still Merchant tribe grounds, flat land away from his mountain and his woods, but he’d had enough of the constricting machine. He was a Jabari, too broad-shouldered to be at ease save under the boundless sky.
The path that led home vanished into the trees, growing into thick, whispering jungle. During the first few miles, on Border tribe territory, a shimmer of vibranium shielded the walker from animal attacks. Like an invisible tunnel. Laughable, some part of M’Baku thought—if one lives near the forest, one must learn to survive it. Is that not the way?
But another part of him thought of the children, of the elders, of the people who didn’t wish to fight to enjoy their land. Should they not be protected? Was the ease of an ultramodern world that much of an anathema?
Damn T’Challa, who’d gotten to him too quickly, with his twinkling eyes and his earnestness. M’Baku did not like doubts, did not like uncertainty. Opening the country to foreigners, to immigration, to tourism? No! Hayi, hayi, hayi. And yet T’Challa was getting to him. Hiking up the mountain from all the way down would take five hours; and five hours were just what M’Baku needed to clear his mind.
Halfway up, he caught sight of a silver lake shining across a clearing, gently rippling with tall grass. He hadn’t walked this path in so long he’d forgotten its beauty, and stopped to contemplate it for a moment. Through the violet shimmer, the moon-pale waters were shaded in mauve. The tableau looked like the Djalia itself.
Peace came unto M’Baku, by degrees, almost despite himself. In the end, he could not despise T’Challa, and did not hate all Wakandan technology, unlike his father before him. He just disliked the unnecessary. Which was exactly what T’Challa had implied he needed from him: to help him sort what was needed from what was not. Laziness from ease, bigotry from tradition.
For the first time since the Jabari had retreated into the mountains centuries ago, maybe a compromise was possible. The king had come and beseeched them. If Jabari and Wakandans could truly walk hand in hand, this meant M’Baku could visit as often as he wanted. Gain Okoye’s friendship again, if nothing else—O, he’d cherish it enough. To unite the country, past and present alike…
And then M’Baku went still.
There was someone by the lake, looking onto the waters. Someone whose skin shone white in the dimming light.
“What is this,” he growled, and stalked right through the shimmer-shield.
He did not hide his approach like panthers did, announced himself instead, stepping on cracking branches and pounding one of his arm-guards against his breast plate, three loud times. The foreigner’s head snapped round. He had long hair and soft clear eyes, but he was built like a warrior under his simple shuka tunic.
“You!” M’Baku called. “Who gave you the right to tread upon this land?”
Now that his surprise had passed, the white man just watched him approach, as if he had every right indeed to be there. He did not even fidget and twitch like Ross had; just stood very still, with wariness in his eyes.
“Are your ancestors buried in this land? Are they?” M’Baku stopped right in front of him. “Has your blood spilled for this land? Has it? Answer me now.”
He meant to poke him in his chest, but the stranger eluded him by stepping back just in time for M’Baku to stab at the air instead.
“<I do not want to fight,>” he said in uncertain Xhosa.
He spoke the Wakandan dialect, without a trace of South African accent. Was he trying to impress M’Baku with so little? If so, he would be disappointed. The Wakandan tongue belonged in Wakandan mouths; and the Jabari spoke the Yoruba dialect anyway, Wakandan only in name.
“<Answer my question,>” M’Baku insisted in Xhosa, stepping forward again. “<Who gave you the right to be here?>”
“I don’t understand you.” His voice was quiet and hoarse. “<I do not want to fight.>”
M’Baku blinked, caught short. That man did not, in fact, speak Wakandan Xhosa. He had learned only one sentence in the language, and this was it.
I do not want to fight.
They both turned around. Shuri was coming out of a small hut, glaring daggers at him, irreverent cub that she was. The setting sun seemed to light her on fire.
“Hanuman’s idiot! I could hear you from across the field. What are you doing here?”
“<Temper your disrespect, girl. Who is he?>” M’Baku said, pointing at the white man. All of his indulgence for T’Challa’s politics, all his respect for T’Challa’s character was gone. “<The tribes have not yet voted to open the country—and already there are foreigners soiling our land!>”
“He isn’t soiling anything, he’s just standing there! Bast! Calm down!”
The fact that she answered in English—so the other could understand—sent M’Baku’s blood boiling. He rounded on him, saw him tense imperceptibly.
“Are you going to let a child speak for you? Huh? I ask one last time. Who are you?”
“He’s T’Challa’s guest!” Shuri exclaimed before the stranger could open his mouth.
“T’Challa’s guest?” M’Baku spat on the ground. “I was told the Jabari were part of the council now; but obviously the Golden tribe holds its own council.”
“M’Baku, don’t be a moron. He was there before T’Challa was even crowned—”
“Insult me one more time, girl, and risk the wrath of the Jabari lord!”
She crossed her arms, not impressed at all. “Oh yeah? You going to challenge me in combat?”
M’Baku towered over the little brat. “I will challenge your champion in combat. And by Hanuman, I’ll be owed reparation.”
“Sounds like you really want my brother to kick your ass again.”
He bared his teeth. “Third offense, girl. You were warned. And maybe it is better this way; T’Challa can explain this situation to my face. Go and tell him that—”
It was then that the foreigner stepped between them.
“I’ll be her champion,” he said quietly.
The clearing seemed to stand still for a moment. Nothing could be heard save for the soft lapping of the water, the swishing of the grass. Even the turacos were silent in the branches.
M’Baku stared hard at him. He had never seen clear eyes from so close; they met his gaze steadily, quiet as the lake. M’Baku gave him a quick once-over and suddenly realized the stranger’s left arm was not hidden under his shuka: it was missing completely.
“A one-armed champion.” He snorted a laugh. “Against me? Is this a fourth offense?”
“You want to fight because of me,” the man said. “So fight me.” He was still soft-spoken, but his gaze didn’t waver.
“Come on, it’s not worth it.” Shuri tried to pull the stranger back. “If you beat him, he’ll be even angrier.”
“If he beats me?” M’Baku repeated, more disconcerted than offended this time.
“He matched T’Challa.” Shuri glared at him. “In the suit. Now will you go and take your tradition with you?”
M’Baku blinked. The little Shuri, so proud of her big brother, would not claim a stranger his equal without it being the stark naked truth—and even then, her pride would make it difficult to admit.
Swallowing his surprise, he opened his arms, raising his eyebrows. “I’ve issued a challenge; I will not retract it. You say he’s got the strength of a Black Panther? Well, he’s missing an arm, so that makes us…” He tilted his head. “Equals is the wrong word.”
Shuri threw her hands and stepped away, tapping at her kimoyo beads. She was going to warn T’Challa, which was M’Baku’s goal. Let him know, let him come, so he could confront him in person about his little secret. The Jabari did not hide.
“Now!” he said, walking in a circle around the foreigner. “Let us fight, in the short time we have. You say you’re her champion? Come, colonizer! Pasty one-armed boy, come!”
The stranger moved to follow him, matching his circling pace. They didn’t have much time before T’Challa showed up; no matter. M’Baku intended to win way before then.
At the right moment, he pounced. The foreigner braced himself—and got tackled to the ground.
He ended up crushed under the full weight of M’Baku in ceremonial armor, which wasn’t nothing. They were close, close enough for M’Baku to see into his eyes again; he was reminded again of the lake, still and fathomless. The stranger was breathing hard; M’Baku felt the heat of it on his face. After struggling once under M’Baku’s weight, to shift him off his ribs, he stopped moving; but instead of coiling for a counterattack, he closed his eyes, resting his head back in the grass with a deep exhale.
M’Baku froze. “What?”
The stranger cracked his eyes open, looking at him as if to say: you heard me.
“What are you saying?” M’Baku repeated, moving off him, getting to his feet.
“I told you,” the man said, getting up as well. “<I do not want to fight.>”
The tall grass was rippling under a sudden wind—except it was no wind; M’Baku didn’t have time to say anything before an aircraft landed near the lake, opening its maw on T’Challa looking like an angry king. When M’Baku looked again, Shuri had already drawn the outsider away, urging him to go quicker under the trees, looking over her shoulder as if to make sure M’Baku didn’t follow.
“You were childish,” T’Challa said, low-pitched over the buzz of the aircraft.
“Childish? I do not hide like you. I call out what I think. Disputes are settled much faster that way; you should try it, instead of counting your ewe and your hayi.” M’Baku was still restless with unspent energy. He half-wished he could fight T’Challa after all, but the stranger had trapped him; he had entered the challenge and yielded right away, which meant it was complete. What kind of prideless coward did such a thing?
T’Challa’s aircraft landed just at the edge of the first everlasting snows—undisputed Jabari territory. They both got out in the chilly air. Despite everything, M’Baku felt calmer the second he breathed the rarefied atmosphere of his home.
“I meant to tell you all about him,” T’Challa said slowly, “but later—after other matters were settled.”
“Tell me now. Who is he?” M’Baku felt like he’d asked that question a thousand times.
“You can call him Ingcuka.” T’Challa looked up at the clouded sky. “He was the man accused of bombing the UN.”
M’Baku stared at him.
“I chased him with T’Chaka’s blood still warm on my hands. He said and repeated: I did not kill your father. And I didn’t believe him, didn’t try to stop or speak or think, until I got the proof, despite myself, that he’d been telling the truth all along. By then it was too late—he’d been injured nearly to death.”
“By your hand?”
“No.” T’Challa gave him a half-smile. “But not for lack of trying.”
There were details he was hiding, but M’Baku couldn’t be bothered with them anyway; the essential was there. “You feel like you owe him.”
This, he understood. He had helped T’Challa for a similar reason. Debt of honor, a life for a life. But the memory of that presumptuous rat Ross still bothered him like a mosquito at night. Trying to speak over M’Baku in his own court, thinking he had any authority there! The condescension of Americans! That man—Ingcuka, a pseudonym, as if his real name mattered in any way to M’Baku—was an outsider, too. He had protected Shuri’s insolence, and made a mockery of the Wakandan custom.
“Well, he looks healthy enough now,” M’Baku said curtly. “So why keep him in Wakanda?”
“His body’s healed, but he’s got wounds of the mind.” T’Challa hesitated. “He was a captive soldier, M’Baku. Tortured for years.”
M’Baku’s mouth twisted. He recognized now the stillness in the stranger’s gaze, always looking in the middle distance. The Americans called it thousand yard stare. The Wakandans called it half-spirit eye. All the same, what did he care? T’Challa had brought him into their land, and brought Ross, caring altogether very little for his own Tribe Council which had not yet agreed to open the country.
“All he wants is peace. And I owe him peace.” T’Challa fixed him with one of his damned earnest stares. “Leave him be.”
“I am on your council, T’Challa.” M’Baku started hiking up the snowy path leading home. “But I may walk away yet.”
Days passed, and M’Baku couldn’t keep his thoughts away from Ingcuka. To imagine him just down the mountain slope, by the lake, with the overconfident girl Shuri. Child who thought herself an adult, alone with a foreign ex-soldier. What was T’Challa thinking?
And the Border tribe did not live so far down the mountain. What if children found him? Ingcuka indeed—wolf, like the lone wolf stealing sheep to devour them away.
A man who could match the Black Panther in combat had not been created for peace. A man who had been a plausible suspect for bombing a diplomats’ meeting was not a man of peace.
In the end, M’Baku’s feet brought him there on their own. All of a sudden he was in the jungle, stepping down the winding path, catching sight of the first violet shimmers of the shield. The lake shone silver through the trees; he made his way through the tall grass, walking towards the small hut.
“Foreigner!” he called. Always, the Jabari announced themselves. “Come on out!”
No voice answered him. Shuri must not be there. Good—for a number of reasons. But Ingcuka’s absence put unease in M’Baku’s heart.
He pulled back the curtain to peer into the hut. It looked like any other, with a pallet and what few things needed for an easy living. Some tech gadgets, locked away, meaning they must be Shuri’s. He let the curtain drop over the entrance and moved back towards the lake.
Ingcuka was there, in the water.
M’Baku had not seen him at first, because his white skin blended in the silver surface of the lake; but his dark hair revealed him now, trickling down his shoulders, plastering to his neck. He walked out, sending ripples ahead of him, and stopped at waist-height.
He was squinting against the diffracting sun; his soft-spoken tone did not carry well over the water. M’Baku took a long look at the stump of his left arm, the gnarled, scarred shoulder, an angry pink standing out starkly against pale skin. Ingcuka had no scars anywhere else, but there was an edge to him, like he’d been starved for a long time.
Water drops trickled down his chest and sides. In bright daylight, his clear eyes looked almost translucent.
“Come out of the water,” M’Baku snapped.
Ingcuka hesitated, being naked. But then he obeyed without a word.
M’Baku felt a stirring at the sight of him, which he ignored with practiced annoyance. By all accounts, this pale body should have left him unmoved, but something there called up his arousal. Maybe the confidence with which Ingcuka offered himself to the eye, the dusting of hair leading down from his navel, or the dense muscle rolling under his skin.
A warrior’s body indeed. M’Baku liked this less and less.
Ingcuka picked up a blanket left to warm up on a rock and toweled himself up, then knotted it around his waist one-handed, best he could. Wringing water from his long, straight hair—something else M’Baku had never seen from up close—he twisted it into a loose bun, using an elastic band already wrapped around his wrist. The result was a limp, dripping mess, but he obviously didn’t care how he looked.
He hadn’t tried to speak again, which set M’Baku on edge. He needed to get a rise out of the man; he needed to see what sort he was, before he could let him roam his land with a clear conscience.
“Enjoying the lake? You are dipping your dick in sacred waters, pasty boy.”
Vulgarity had no visible effect. When he answered, Ingcuka’s voice was quiet, almost absent. “I wasn’t told it was forbidden.”
“The girl Shuri doesn’t have a care for tradition. I am the lord of the mountain. I tell you what is forbidden.”
There was no answer from Ingcuka. But then, M’Baku’s words didn’t really call for one. They stared at each other until M’Baku realized Ingcuka was waiting to be dismissed, hoping to avoid confrontation altogether.
No such luck for the white wolf.
“What do you do with your days?” M’Baku challenged. “Huh? What do you take, out of my blessed country?”
“I’m in Shuri’s lab a lot.” He shrugged. “The rest of the time, I’m here.”
Here, spoken dismissively like this wasn’t a Djalia on earth. M’Baku crossed his arms. “And who else knows you’re here?”
For the first time, he saw the shadow of a smile on Ingcuka’s lips. “Some kids.”
Kids. Fear tugged at M’Baku’s gut. The Border children had already found him. And they came here unsupervised? Without their family’s knowledge? This wasn’t a distasteful secret anymore, but reckless endangering of the Wakandan people. T’Challa, thought M’Baku with rage, and then, with even more anger, just as he saw her emerge from under the trees: Shuri.
Ingcuka was turning his back to her; his eyes were still on M’Baku. Shuri saw M’Baku was here, made an indignant face and hastened her step.
“Don’t you know how to dress?” M’Baku said, eyeing the towel drooping down Ingcuka’s hips.
Another shrug. “Usually I have some help, but I figured you wouldn’t want me asking.”
M’Baku glanced over Ingcuka’s shoulder at Shuri again. Idiot girl who didn’t know the world. “And who helps you? Huh? The king’s sister? If you like them young—”
The next moment his jaw broke.
All of M’Baku's bulk toppled in the grass, sky flying over his head; he caught himself, more surprised than anything else, knowing already something was wrong with his mouth. He spat blood in the dirt, looked at it for a few blank seconds; and finally, after a moment of plain astonishment, a wave of red pain flooded him.
He heard Shuri cry out and start running; but even then, it took him another moment before the world knitted itself back together and he realized Ingcuka had hit him—with such violence he’d broken and dislocated M’Baku’s jaw.
His next thoughts went to Shuri. If the animal hurt her—
But when he looked up at last, Ingcuka wasn’t attacking anyone, and Shuri wasn’t running away; she was running towards M’Baku, insulting him in such colorful ways he could only feel some kind of begrudging admiration. She was a spoiled princess, but nobody could say she lacked courage. Or recklessness.
She knelt next to him. There was a kimoyo bead in her hand, and though he was loathe to accept her help, he couldn’t speak to tell her no. The pain wavered, then went away, and his jaw stopped trying to hang off his face.
“—there,” Shuri was saying. “It’s not fixed, but I’ve got everything I need in the hut, it’s like a secondary lab—”
M’Baku looked up at Ingcuka, who was just standing there. On his face was the look of a man who’d just damned himself right after being pulled out of hell. He had been goaded until he lost his self-control; and now he’d lost T’Challa’s protection by attacking the Jabari lord.
The hopeless defeat in his eyes made M’Baku’s stomach churn more than the pain ever could.
“M’Baku,” Shuri said quickly when he rose to one knee, “M’Baku, don’t—”
“Lord M’Baku,” he corrected, long-suffering. His jaw ached, but he could speak now. “Move away a few paces, girl.”
“M’Baku, he belongs to T’Challa, you are not allowed—”
“Princess Shuri,” he snapped.
This made her stop and look at him.
“On my honor as the Silverback King,” he said, looking into her eyes. “Move away.”
For a moment, he thought she wouldn’t trust him—thought he’d managed to paint himself a blood-lusting beast in her eyes; but then she nodded tightly and stepped back, far enough that she couldn’t hear, but close enough that she could watch them.
M’Baku got to his feet and walked to Ingcuka. He was standing there, without trying to run from his punishment, so absurdly pale he looked like a chalk statue of a man.
“So this is what it takes for you to fight?” M’Baku said.
Ingcuka closed his eyes. He was holding tight onto the towel around his hips, probably less in an effort to hold it up than to keep his hand from shaking.
“It’s interesting enough,” M’Baku went on. “I insult you, I threaten you, I disturb your rest, and you take it all onto your shoulders like a beast of burden. I say you want to assault a child—and you break my jaw.”
Ingcuka blinked up at him in hesitation, not daring to hope yet.
All he wants is peace, T’Challa had said.
Maybe M’Baku could start to believe it. Begrudgingly.
“I provoked you, and you answered the provocation.” M’Baku held out his hand. “This matter is settled.”
Ingcuka was still for a moment; then his fear came out of him in a shuddery exhale. He stepped forward, reached out—but M’Baku took his hand away at the last second.
“I still don’t like you here,” he added, raising an eyebrow.
For the second time he saw Ingcuka’s smile, not a melancholy shadow this time, but a knowing tug of the lips. Being mocked didn’t get a rise out of him—not because he was submissive to the point of cowardice, not because he was groveling in hope of favors. Just because he was patient. This he took on his shoulders too.
Wolf of burden.
M’Baku still didn’t trust him, but some of his urgent dread was gone—for now.
“Hanuman’s idiot, stop moving so much!”
“Ow—respect for the Jabari lord, girl, or else!”
“Or else what? You’ll dangle your jaw at me?”
“If I tell your brother his guest attacked me—”
“If I tell my brother you came back to provoke his guest—”
“And if I tell him you keep lab equipment in the middle of the jungle—”
“Well, if I tell him you let me use my dirty, non-traditional tech to heal your face—”
M’Baku and Shuri stopped and glowered at each other.
“Let’s not tell anything to anyone,” he said at last.
“Deal.” She picked up her tools again. “Now hold still.”
Ingcuka lived by the lake. He bathed often, stayed in the water for a long time, then sat on a sun-warmed rock for even longer. He slept in the shade of a banian tree, for hours and hours. At dawn or dusk, when nobody walked the path, he wandered in the jungle, looking upon everything with his dream-filled, half-spirit eyes. He dressed by himself when he could, asked for help when Shuri’s assistants were around. He spoke almost not at all.
All of this M’Baku learned thanks to the Border children, who’d taken a shine to their white wolf and happily retraced all his steps for whoever thought to ask. Had they told their parents, M’Baku asked. No, what for? And Shuri said not to tell! All right. And what about the white wolf? Is he scary? Eyerolling and giggles. He’s not scary, he’s sad. Sad? Yeah, and afraid, too. Sometimes he says things in his sleep like he’s afraid. In a language we don’t know. Thabo says it’s Russian! Thabo is full of shit. Don’t talk like that in front of Lord M’Baku! Ow—don’t hit me! I’ll tell mom and then you’ll see! Ndiyeke! Hamba, hamba!
And then Okoye came to visit the Gorilla Court.
Okoye! General Okoye, climbing alone the path to Ilu Inaki! It had been announced to M’Baku a day before her official visit. He did not know what she wanted or why she was coming alone, and for the life of him, he couldn’t imagine a reason. Twenty-four hours to wonder, and he felt as though he had been fretting for as many years. All he could feel, in a hypnotic loop, was the thrill of death he’d felt facing the rhino, and the immense surge of life which had followed, magnifying Okoye standing in front of him. Like a goddess of courage and strength.
When she finally arrived, M’Baku was sprawling on his throne, trying to appear calm and uncaring as was his usual; but he had to fight the urge to stand when she entered.
Okoye was always in her uniform, which was almost the exact same as her subordinates’. Practical, deadly and beautiful. Her skin was smooth as a river rock, her mouth red as her deep red clothing, and her lashes darker and thicker than feathers. She looked down, as was proper in the Gorilla Court, until told to look up; then she gazed upon the Jabari throne room with undisguised admiration, pressing her lips into a smile.
“Great Gorilla M’Baku,” she said. “It is an honor to be in your presence, here in Ilu Inaki.”
“It is an honor to be in yours.” M’Baku hesitated, but hell; the Jabari did not hide. “I have never forgotten our days at the palace during the Royal Year.”
Her eyes crinkled. She remembered. “You were smaller back then.”
The woman. “And you were just as fierce.” He got up, unable to sit for a second longer. “It was a fine battle the other day, on the Golden grounds.”
She looked down in reverence. “Lost if not for the Jabari.”
“Lost if not for you,” he insisted. “I haven’t forgotten, either, that I owe you my life. And that you did not hesitate in the face of W’Kabi. Your man.”
Her voice was quiet like an unsheathing sword. “Wakanda forever.”
She had been ready to sacrifice her love for the country, and ready to sacrifice her favored king, too; she had sided with Killmonger for a time. Even for this—especially for this—M’Baku could only admire her, with as deep a passion as he’d had in childhood. Honor was the most valued trait in the Jabari tribe, and he couldn’t help thinking they could have made a splendid match. If only.
“I am glad to hear you say W’Kabi’s name,” she went on. “It is because of him that I stand here today.”
“Oh,” M’Baku said, disappointed. “What has he done now?”
“He must be judged soon for his actions. He has a right to an advocate, who will speak for him before his judges. It must be a member of the court.”
She looked out the window at the ever-snowy mountains.
“It cannot be the Border tribe elder—nobody of his blood. And the other three refuse to speak for him. Lord M’Baku...” She looked at him. “Will you do it?”
He looked back at her in silence, absorbing her request.
“I know it’s a great favor to ask of you,” she went on. “But I trust in the Jabari not to be influenced by either politics or personal grudges. I know you will be fair, without indulgence… or malice.”
He had a personal grudge, against anyone who wronged her, but she didn’t have to know—and besides, she was right all the same; he wouldn’t let it influence him. He didn’t have to think twice.
“You are the one asking. I’ll do it.”
Okoye was of the Golden tribe; like T’Challa, she was stoic in her pain. But M’Baku still heard relief in her voice. “Thank you.”
So he went back to Birnin Zana. Twice in a week now, when previously he’d only been there once in his entire life. And he went to defend the husband of the woman he loved! Gods, but his world was walking on its head these days.
This time, M’Baku had not taken the narrow train; he’d agreed to the royal escort, in the faint hope of seeing Okoye before he went down in the gaols to face her love. But she was staying out of the way, and after the aircraft had landed on the platform overlooking the city, it was another Dora who led him down the depths of the palace.
The gaols were well-lit and well-aired, made of beaten-earth so polished it was like stone. It was a long, narrow room, like a giant’s corridor, with cylindric pits dug into the ground at regular intervals. W’Kabi had been lowered into one of those.
The pit was clean and dry, but austere, with nothing but a toilet and a bed. The smooth, circular walls offered no pattern to hold the eye. It was a place to contemplate one’s actions. A place to be looked down upon by those who judged you.
M’Baku crouched at the edge of the pit and peered into it. “Meet your advocate, Border man,” he called.
W’Kabi squinted up at him, lifting a hand; M’Baku must be haloed in silver daylight to his eyes. “Lord M’Baku?”
“In the flesh. Do you accept me as your advocate?”
A puzzled silence answered him. Of course W’Kabi was confused; he had personally targeted M’Baku during the battle, after all, spurring his rhino at him.
“Okoye sent me,” M’Baku said.
“I accept you as my advocate,” W’Kabi answered at once.
M’Baku sat on the edge of the pit, dangling one leg into it. “It is too late to please her in the little ways, you know. Even surrendering to her on the battlefield was too little too late.”
“My advocate is not my counselor,” W’Kabi said with an edge of annoyance to his voice.
“I’m sorry. Sensitive subject.” M’Baku grinned down at him. “So tell me, O twice-defeated. What is your cause, that I may advocate for it?”
“You know my cause! It is also yours,” W’Kabi said, getting more animated. “To protect the purity of Wakanda. To strike its enemies with a merciless fist. Were you not happy, when Klaue was killed?”
“Eh, didn’t give a shit,” M’Baku said, ostensibly scratching his nose. “Klaue only stole vibranium. Useless purple junk! My people live of wood and bone, close to the earth that gave us life. Does the name Jabari mean nothing to you, O forgetful neighbor?”
“T’Challa is soft!” W’Kabi insisted. “Look me in the eye, and say you disagree. He could not shed blood to avenge his father’s murder! He could not catch a single thief! He puts Wakanda in charge of world peace, without preparing for world war!”
“He’s an idealist, I’ll give you that. But soft?” M’Baku realized the truth of his own words as he spoke them. “A compromise is the hardest road of all. Between T’Chaka and Killmonger is Nakia’s vision. Trying to implement it—and trying to have me, M’Baku, on the Taifa Ngao, when he knows I will oppose him in every way… No easy feat.”
W’Kabi scoffed in frustration. “How can you side with him? I do know the name of the Jabari. You refuse modern technology, yet you’ll follow T’Challa in this waste of our people and our culture?”
“I follow no one,” M’Baku growled. “Yet. And think before you speak, O weather-cock. You wanted such a waste, too, except through war instead of peace.”
“War is inevitable!” W’Kabi yelled.
A dark fear moved inside M’Baku like a snake in backwater. Maybe war was inevitable; the Jabari had fought on Golden soil less than a month ago, against their own kind, no less. And the world was greedy for riches always.
“I’m afraid you might be right,” he said slowly. “And this is what I’ll say as your advocate. That you tried to get ahead of the war. Maybe others will be sympathetic.” He got up and dusted his clothes. “But know that I am not. The Jabari only fight when it is needed, when it is challenged; as a consequence, and not a cause.”
He was halfway out of the gaols when W’Kabi’s shout echoed against the walls.
“T’Challa is fooling you,” he said, “fooling you all!”
M’Baku stopped, sighed, then came back to lean over the pit.
“How so? Talk fast, it’s lunch time.”
“He’s already compromising the purity of Wakanda!” W’Kabi had lost his dignity; he was only trying to start a fire. “He brought strangers into our land! Americans! Offered them asylum!”
Of course the maggot would know; the children laughing through the jungle were Border children. Some of them had told their parents after all. Or maybe T’Challa himself had divulged the secret; W’Kabi used to be his friend, almost his brother, not to mention his Chief of Security.
“Uh-huh. You mean Ingcuka?” M’Baku said.
Watching W’Kabi’s face fall was a delight. M’Baku had tried to listen and be fair as his advocate, but this wasn’t part of the proceedings. This, he could relish, the astonishment of this dishonorable man who’d broken Okoye’s heart.
“You know?” W’Kabi said miserably. “Why aren’t you angry? You, of all people, you, upholding tradition—”
“Great Gods. He is only one man,” M’Baku spat. “If that is enough to threaten tradition, then our tradition is not much.”
His last words to W’Kabi tasted of unpleasant hypocrisy, even hours after he’d spoken them.
Despite himself, M’Baku found himself thinking of Ingcuka again. His presence grated at him, a constant irritation. Even if T’Challa owed the man a debt—so what? He could have paid it from afar, instead of putting the worm in the fruit. The Council had still not successfully voted to open Wakanda to foreigners, which meant T’Challa was going to leave for weeks of travel—starting with an address to the UN—without the assurance that his country would follow. And Ingcuka’s presence did not help his case in M’Baku’s eyes.
He needed to get rid of his annoyance before he could make an informed decision, which meant he needed to know more. As his father used to say, even the best cooking pot will not produce food. It seemed another visit was in order.
This time, to ensure the absence of Shuri, M’Baku went to find Ingcuka at the earliest hour, when most of Wakanda slept—except for noisy turacos in the branches, facetious children and, it seemed, wandering white men.
Ingcuka was slowly strolling up the path. He froze when he saw M’Baku coming down to meet him.
“Lord M’Baku,” he said, cautiously.
“Yeah, yeah, get that stick out of your ass. I am not here to start a fight.”
For the third time, a smile touched his lips. “That’d be a first.”
M’Baku cocked his eyebrow. “Well! You talk back, now. What changed?”
A one-shouldered shrug. “You said you weren’t here to start a fight.”
The answer was shrewd enough that M’Baku barked a short laugh, even though he still disliked the sight of this pale ghost in his jungle. Ingcuka was dressed in a knotted shuka again; his feet were bare, and his long, limp hair wrapped in another of those untidy buns. Now dry, it looked soft, soft as feathers. M’Baku internally waved his curiosity away like a fly.
“I will spend the day with you,” he announced.
Ingcuka blinked. “All right,” he said in his half-spirit voice, slow and soft and distant. “Why?”
“Do not question the Silverback King with your feet in his country’s dirt.” M’Baku gestured at him to go back. “Turn around, now, we’re going back to the lake. This part of the jungle is not safe for you.”
Ingcuka complied, with a look of mild bafflement.
By the time they got back, the sun was beating down on them.
“Do you have business with Shuri today?” M’Baku asked.
“No.” Ingcuka was unknotting the top of his shuka; the undershirt was clinging to his broad back with sweat.
“What will you do, then?”
“Sleep.” He stepped into his hut. “Until it gets too hot.”
He slept. After it got too hot, he left the hut and went for a swim under the watchful eye of M’Baku, who grudgingly allowed it. Glistening with water and towel-clad, pale feet caked with red dirt, Ingcuka then walked to the shadow of the banian tree and sat down by its roots.
“And now?” M’Baku asked. “What will you do?”
Ingcuka lay down, closed his eyes, and put his arm over his face. “Sleep,” he said again.
It had only been five hours, and already M’Baku was bored almost to death. He’d wanted to witness for himself the ripples caused by a foreigner in his land; he’d also wanted to check whether the kids had spied true—after all, they could have easily been misled, or observed a nefarious action without understanding its purpose. But Ingcuka’s life was just as dull as advertised, and as for waves, he seemed to cause none at all.
“Is sleeping all you do?”
“I’m not forcing you to stay,” Ingcuka answered.
His voice was even softer when he was close to sleep, even though his words were toeing the line of irreverence. M’Baku considered calling him out on it, but the day was hot, and he sat next to him instead. The waters had never looked so enticing; still, he refused to swim in his ancestors’ lake under the eyes of an umlungu.
“You are like an old man,” he declared gruffly. “Always tired, always asleep.”
“I am an old man,” Ingcuka murmured.
M’Baku glanced doubtfully at him. There were no lines on his face save for crow’s-foot around his eyes, and white men always looked older than they were.
“How old can you be, O ancestor?”
“S’not an easy question.” His breathing was getting deep. “I guess… one hundred and one.”
M’Baku stared at him.
He did not think Ingcuka was mocking him, which meant he must be mad in ways he hadn’t anticipated. Delusional. Wounds of the mind, T’Challa had said.
“Wasn’t awake for most of those years,” Ingcuka went on. “Like you just said, always asleep. So… around thirty-five years old, is another answer. But really, I’m not sure.”
“If you slept for decades, why are you tired now?” M’Baku said rather than disputing his words.
“That’ll be the brain damage. Though Shuri’s making me better.” Ingcuka opened his pale eyes and looked at him. “She’ll tell you better than me, you know. I don’t mean to be cryptic. I’ve just forgotten a lot.”
“T’Challa told me you were tortured,” M’Baku suddenly said.
He hadn’t meant to say it; the words had found their own way out.
Ingcuka just closed his eyes again.
“It’s nice here,” he mumbled after a while. “Warm.”
Shuri cornered M’Baku a few days later, on the day of the trial.
“You went to see him again,” she hissed.
M’Baku had mostly given up on getting her to follow proper protocol; she was a spoiled teenage princess, and she’d seen him get punched by a one-armed man. Of course, at the time, he’d been making sure she was not in danger—but she didn’t know it; such things dented one’s authority.
“I did,” he said. “And so what? He is on my land.”
She exclaimed in exasperation. “Not all the mountain is your land!”
“You want to talk territory? All right then. How about this: I am of Wakanda, your brother insists on it. Which means all of Wakanda is my land, girl.”
“Ugh! Don’t you have anything else to do with your time?”
“Why the nagging? I didn’t do anything to your white pup. He fell asleep under the banian and I left.” M’Baku hadn’t been about to wait for him to wake up a second time. “Now enough of this. W’Kabi awaits.”
The trial was short and to the point. M’Baku argued for W’Kabi about the negative impact of the outside world, and the threat of a war. He spoke of fear, and he spoke of protection, and he poured his heart in his words, because such was his duty. But the council answered him the same thing M’Baku himself had told W’Kabi; he who claims to dread a war does not provoke one. W’Kabi had been greedy for blood, and eager to give his people’s lives in the fight. There stopped the resemblance between him and M’Baku.
The sentence fell: five years in the gaols. Okoye was standing guard with her captain-in-chief, and didn’t look at her husband once.
“Thank you for your help,” T’Challa said tiredly, much later, when they were alone. He was pouring maize liquor again. “I know it meant a lot to Okoye.”
“Where is she now?” M’Baku asked.
A faint hope was candle-blown in M’Baku’s heart. Foolish, he thought, and tried to turn his mind to other matters. “Who would’ve advocated for him, if not me?”
He already knew the answer, but T’Challa smiled at him all the same. “Me.”
M’Baku toasted him in silence.
T’Challa put his empty glass down and sat in his wicker chair, with his elbows on his knees, lacing his fingers. He looked through the immense windows at his sprawling city—and beyond, the meadows and the jungle, the waterfalls and the mountain. It seemed so peaceful. But it was the calm before the storm; the secret was out now, and things were about to change. He was flying out to Europe first thing in the morning.
In a way, it served M’Baku’s cause; scared of the icy draft, the Wakandans were sure to find solace in the warm foyer of tradition. Wakanda forever. It used to mean they would live forever hidden from the world; now it meant they would live forever amidst the world. Or so they all hoped.
Of course T’Challa would need help for such an endless task. M’Baku himself wasn’t sure he’d be able to curb the country’s withdrawal into itself; and he wasn’t sure he’d want to curb it. For now, he was opposing the opening of Wakanda, so the fragile balance was maintained, so they all had more time to think; but he knew he couldn’t do it forever. Part of him was surprised T’Challa hadn’t changed his mind and kicked him out of the Taifa Ngao already.
“How do you preserve a country’s soul without calcifying it?” T’Challa asked out loud, still looking on the horizon. Obviously his thoughts had been walking along M’Baku’s roads. “How do you maintain tradition without impeding progress?”
M’Baku cocked an eyebrow. “The Jabari are managing just fine, glory to Hanuman.”
T’Challa smiled. “Even the Jabari are not so removed from the world as you claim. You’ve come down from the mountains to help me, M’Baku. Isolation is no longer an option.”
“Isn’t it? We could secede.” The words seemed to tumble by themselves from M’Baku’s mouth, when he would’ve preferred not to speak them. “The secret is out. We no longer need Wakanda to extend an invisible umbrella over us.”
T’Challa took a long look at him. The lines of his face had hardened, making him look older—more like his father.
“M’Baku,” he said at last, “if the Jabari want to be one country, we will not oppose your decision. But… I cannot help feeling it’d be a waste. And something tells me that deep down, you feel that way, too.”
M’Baku was about to leave the palace—on foot again, this time, enjoying the thought of a long walk home—when he heard a voice call his name.
He stopped on the terrace and turned round. It was her.
He wished he could’ve told Okoye she needed not use his title, but this intimacy existed only in his mind, so he just gave her a respectful nod. “General.”
“I wanted to thank you again, for lending W’Kabi your voice today.”
“You fought your husband; the least I could do was speak for my enemy,” M’Baku shrugged.
She laughed. “Sometimes I think I would’ve been at home with the Jabari.”
I think it all the time, M’Baku wished he could say. But his longing was helpless in the face of common sense. Such words would only burden Okoye, or discredit him in her eyes. And besides, M’Baku had just told T’Challa he was considering secession; he wasn’t going to think twice because of personal attachments.
Still, when Okoye came to stand by the guardrail next to him, with the sunset painting her cheekbones gold, M’Baku could only look at her and nothing else.
“May I ask how you feel?” he added quietly.
She huffed through her nose. “Better than if I hadn’t fought him. Better than if I’d had to kill him. So why should I complain?”
He could think of no good answer to that. A wind rose and caught in his white pelt. Okoye looked down in the face of the flamboyant sun.
“After N’Jadaka Killmonger took the throne, W’Kabi and I had a long talk. He tried to appear conflicted like me, but his mourning was overpowered by…” She twisted her mouth. “Fervor.”
“A man has convictions,” M’Baku acknowledged. “N’Jadaka was an honorable enemy that way. But W’Kabi was faithless; in the end, he renounced his beliefs. You didn’t.”
Okoye arched an eyebrow. “Are you saying you would have let me kill you, in his situation?”
“I’m saying I would’ve never caused you to choose between love and honor.”
M’Baku’s voice had taken a life of its own again. He hesitated for a moment before risking a glance towards Okoye; and in this hesitation, he knew she’d read volumes. The look on her face was undecipherable.
“T’Challa tells me you are considering secession,” she said eventually.
Her change of subject was a mercy, and M’Baku knew it. “We might. Nothing’s decided yet. But letting the world in… It’s never been the Jabari way.”
“Our ways could change,” she said. “And still be our ways.”
M’Baku bowed to her, because they both knew the truth of their words; and yet nothing between them would change. So in the end what else was there to say?
So much of M’Baku’s troubles belonged to a hypothetical, ever-changing future, that the problem of Ingcuka felt refreshingly concrete in comparison.
M’Baku checked on him every time he went up or down the mountain now, which was often. Ingcuka remained infuriatingly passive, always confining himself to the lake, the hut and the banian tree, like the wolf had caged itself.
“What in the land’s name happened to your hair?” M’Baku said that day, walking to him under the banian.
Ingcuka was sitting with his legs crossed, not moving much because of the heat. His hair was braided intricately, close to the skull, strands upon strands weaving into one thick plait falling down his back. Minuscule flowers had been pinned along its length, pink and purple and blue.
“Shuri said it was in her way,” Ingcuka answered placidly, as if he had not worn his hair up in messy buns every time M’Baku had seen him before. “And then the kids decided it needed color.”
He wiped his forehead and squinted up at the sun, letting the back of his head rest against the trunk. “Of course I can’t swim on the hottest day of the year.”
What are you talking about now, M’Baku almost said—then belatedly understood Ingcuka didn’t want to swim for fear of ruining the children’s handiwork.
“These are igba otutu violets,” he pointed out. “For styling little girls’ hair.”
“Oh, I know.” For the fourth time M’Baku saw him smile. “They thought they were very clever, but they couldn’t help laughing about it. Saying I was pretty.”
M’Baku frowned. “And how come you understood them, foreigner?”
Ingcuka just shrugged, looking at the ground ahead of him. “<I have been learning. I try.>”
“So you speak Xhosa now? Not just one cowardly sentence to avoid a fight?”
“A little. But not in front of you. I know you don’t like it.”
“And why would you care what I like?” M’Baku challenged.
He’d expected an obsequious response, something sickly sweet and weak-bellied. But Ingcuka just looked up at M’Baku. The sun painted bright white the lines of his glistening throat, lit up the strange agates of his eyes, and the flowers were vivid spots in his dark hair.
“So you keep visiting me,” he answered.
This time M’Baku was baffled, so visibly that Ingcuka hesitated before attempting to explain.
“Shuri’s here often. The kids, too. But they’re…”
“Kids, yeah,” M’Baku finished for him, unimpressed now. “Are you trying to make me cry? Plenty of conversation your age in your homeland, if you’re lonely.”
Ingcuka touched the stump of his shoulder underneath the shuka, just a brush of the fingers. “Tried that.”
“And I entertain you better, huh? I make for good conversation?” M’Baku’s irritation was rising again. “You’ve seen it all, foreigner, you’re not impressed by the Silverback King—is that it? I do not like you, but you don’t care—you like it rough anyway, is that what you’re saying?”
“You’re rough.” Ingcuka got to his feet. His braid spilled off his shoulder like water; his half-spirit eyes were staring in the middle distance, at the invisible line between this world and the other. “But you’re not cruel.”
“He is arrogant,” M’Baku growled. “Full of himself, conceited, irreverent—”
“No, I am irreverent, Nickelback King,” Shuri snorted, rolling out of the screen to tinker with another screen. “You’re offended because a foreigner said he enjoyed your company. Big deal! That doesn’t mean you’ve betrayed Wakanda’s core values, or whatever.” She slid back to the center of the screen and her eyes narrowed. “And why are you still going to see him?”
“To make sure he doesn’t—”
“Snore in his sleep?” Shuri deadpanned. “He doesn’t, by the way.”
“I’m sure you imagine that I care.”
“He doesn’t, ‘cause they modified his nose and his bronchial tubes to make sure he couldn’t physically snore. They needed him silent.” She opened a few X-rays in M’Baku screen. “There’s also traces of attempts to remove his voice box entirely. See? Here, and here. But that didn’t take.”
M’Baku said nothing. Shuri went on, with a sort of viciousness in her voice now, pulling up so many X-rays she occulted her own image.
“Did you see his arm, the left one? He doesn’t scar, he’s like the Black Panther that way. But he still has scars there. Care to imagine what it took for that to happen?” Always more X-rays and imagery. “But the biggest piece of work is inside his head. When they understood he wasn’t going to kill for them if they just said please, they took two plaques of metal, put them on his skull, and shot a few thousand volts through his brain. Then while he was half-dead, he was trained to respond unthinkingly to certain words like an animal. Again and again until he forgot his own name.”
All the X-rays collapsed, leaving only Shuri. For a moment there was nothing but silence.
“You do not care about the person he is,” Shuri accused. “You do not care that he needs help, and that we are the only ones who can help him. All you see when you look at him are all the white men in the world.”
She leaned closer to the screen.
“M’Baku, I know what you think, because you always make it clear. And yes, there might be war, and there will be difficult times, and I’m afraid too, all right? But we must choose hope over fear. In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
M’Baku huffed quietly.
“That is your brother’s address to the UN.”
Shuri gave him a grin. “You watched it! How, though? I literally just sent you your first screen.”
“And I’m going to destroy it now,” M’Baku said. “I am not your brother. If you need to talk to me, you can hike up the mountain like everyone else, girl.”
“Hey, no, wait, I worked really hard on—”
M’Baku broke the screen cleanly, then waved a guard inside the throne room and gave him the pieces, which he took with a silent bow and a half-smile.
After he was gone, M’Baku looked up at the branches of Jabari wood hanging from his ceiling. All sacred first cuts of a Jabari tree. The Golden tribe insisted the Jabari wood could hold its own against their tech only because it was infused with vibranium, much like the heart-shaped herb. As if they must always have a hand in others’ greatness!
The herb—M’Baku remembered very clearly the moment when the Queen Mother had offered it to him. He remembered the shadow of ambition in his chest. To unite Hanuman and Bast! To rule Wakanda! Jabari forever! But of course it had been just a shadow; because T’Challa was half-buried in the snow, dying. The Jabari’s great task was to uphold tradition, and the root of tradition was honor.
M’Baku felt the fatigue of doubt again. Was secession such a bad idea? That way, they would not owe anything to Wakanda. And who knows? We might make better neighbors than bedfellows.
Seceding would be cruel to T’Challa’s work and efforts, though. Ingcuka had told M’Baku he was not cruel, and M’Baku had heard an accusation of weakness, a condescending dismissal. But as it turned out, Ingcuka knew cruelty—intimately enough that he didn’t mistake impatience for it.
All right, thought M’Baku, suddenly impatient with himself, with Shuri, with T’Challa and all the rest of them, and especially the white wolf by the lake. All right. I wash my hands of this. I am done making conversation.
The thought of never going back to the lake still prickled at him. There was something about Ingcuka—something that felt like he must confront it. And for a part of his own mountain to be closed to him? To accommodate an outsider? Not to mention the lake was sacred, said to be healing waters…
Which, he now realized, must be exactly why Ingcuka had been set up there. In the hands of Bast.
Ah, damn him. Wolf of burden, pliant to M’Baku’s moods. So you keep visiting me, he’d said. Well, too bad. No more visits, no more conversation, rough or not. Only children from now on, to braid flowers into the white wolf’s hair.
M’Baku was as good as his word, so he always kept it—even to himself. He did not go and visit Ingcuka anymore.
The urge seized him at the strangest times. There were many tiring cold days, snow twirling outside the window during long debates with his captains. A lot of them were in favor of secession. The Jabari, alone, unchallenged, independent! To be free of these foreign matters, to live the way Hanuman intended! But almost as many of them were against it, arguing that Wakanda and Jabari had only just settled their feud. Why not take the chance to be one people again?
M’Baku listened and said nothing. For now he must only listen. He knew he was to his tribe what T’Challa was to Wakanda: a trailblazer who needed every ounce of charisma he could muster, to ensure his people would follow. Except he had not yet decided where to lead them.
And during those long and taxing discussions, M’Baku often caught himself thinking that at least he could go down to the lake afterwards, the quiet lake with the half-spirit man—that undisturbed place, half-way down the mountain, not quite Jabari and not quite Wakanda, like the wolf’s very presence had made it liminal. Sit under the banian with him, pester him for breathing wrong, sigh loudly when he fell asleep again, leave in a huff.
Almost two weeks after Shuri’s insolent gift, M’Baku was woken up in his bed by his first captain, Amandi.
Amandi placidly waited till he’d dressed, bowed to him, then informed him that a one-armed white man had been found waiting in front of the palace, shivering in the cold, barefoot and wearing only a shuka tunic.
M’Baku put on his ceremonial armor while muttering a long string of profanities and strode out into the throne room, barely taking the time to sit down before barking out for him to be sent in. Ingcuka was brought forward, unresisting, flanked by two guards. His cheeks were red with cold, and his dark hair plastered to the sides of his face with molten snow. His bare feet were bleeding—it looked like he’d climbed the mountain at a running pace. Some of the cuts were beginning to heal already, fast enough for the naked eye to see.
He was keeping his eyes down.
“Look up,” M’Baku ordered curtly. “Why are you here?”
“Great Gorilla M’Baku,” Ingcuka said, slowly, like he was afraid they were the wrong words. When he wasn’t struck down for it, he kept going. “There are foreigners in the forest. Eleven of them.”
The guards stiffened at once. M’Baku thought fast for a second, then gestured at them to leave. They obeyed without a moment’s hesitation, even though this move must be very confusing to them.
As soon as the great carved doors had closed on them, M’Baku rose from his throne. In two weeks’ time, Ingcuka’s skin had tanned, and his hair shone copper when he moved his head. He wasn’t moving now, staying very still like he had on their first meeting.
“Are they here for you?” M’Baku asked.
“I would’ve killed them if they were.” This, soft-spoken as always.
“No,” Ingcuka went on, “from what I’ve gathered, they’re here for treasure. Vibranium and Jabari wood.”
A logical consequence of advertising the country’s wealth. M’Baku was not surprised by this information; he was however surprised to learn it in this way. “Why did you come to me?”
“You were closest.”
“The Border tribe is closest.”
“Only their children know I exist.”
True—and the elders would not just take an unknown white man at his word; first they would ask who he was and how he’d gotten there, losing precious time.
“What about Shuri?” M’Baku asked.
For the fifth time, he saw Ingcuka smile. “Would you believe me if I told you she’s not answering her phone?”
M’Baku huffed again, then called his guards back with a single word.
“Thieves in the forest,” he said. “I need Amandi and N’Tsalo with three men each. And find shoes for the umlungu. He’s coming with us.”
Bringing the wolf along was not the wisest idea, but it might not be so unwise either. Part of M’Baku still mistrusted him enough to suspect him of colluding with the thieves. A second part of him loathed the thought of leaving Ingcuka alone in his palace, as though he were a guest. A third part was simply curious to see how he reacted. Would he keep his infuriating calm even in the true jungle, alive with noises and beast calls, without a violet shimmer to stand between him and danger?
So far the answer seemed to be yes. Ingcuka was quiet, but his eyes were not half-spirit anymore; they were alert and sharp, as if the wolf in him was rising closer to the surface.
T’Challa used complex detection systems to catch sight of any intruder. M’Baku needed no such tools; his knowledge of the forest was enough. The turacos were chattering in the distance, when they shouldn’t have woken for another four hours. On the contrary, the ọpọlọ’s croak, usually audible from a mile away, could not be heard; they were quiet, scared by an unknown presence. This was enough to get an estimation of where the intruders were, and how fast they’d been moving in comparison with Ingcuka’s first indications.
Of course M’Baku had sent a man down to the Border tribe so they would be alerted, and alert the Golden tribe in turn—supposing they didn’t already know. But the intruders had come into M’Baku’s territory first, and must be stopped before they had a chance to hurt anyone.
M’Baku and his men progressed fast; he barely needed to speak to Amandi and N’Tsalo before they broke off from his group and vanished under the canopy. Soon he heard their call, bird-like to carry unnoticed across the trees; they were in position.
“They’re trapped,” M’Baku told Ingcuka. “No retreat on any side. Let’s go.”
“Straight at them?”
M’Baku frowned. “The Jabari do not hide. Are you a coward? I said let’s go.”
Ingcuka reluctantly followed. The darkness was almost complete, but M’Baku didn’t need his eyes, only his ears…
Then shadows moved between the trees, shots exploded in the air—promptly deflected by his wooden shield, which tightened like a living thing—and a blind struggle ensued. Ingcuka could not see, but—M’Baku suddenly realized—they could see him; in the night, he was not masked as the Jabari were, because of his damned moon-pale skin. The difference was not huge but it was enough. This was why he’d wanted to stay hidden. His one arm was not enough against several assailants he could not tell apart; and before M’Baku could even think of protecting him, Ingcuka took a hard blow to the head and was shoved to his knees.
South African Xhosa. M’Baku spat blood on the forest ground, considering the situation. He had taken several steps back and could see the foreigners now: seven black and brown men, four white, all armed with rifles and painted with mud. A barrel was pressing hard against the back of Ingcuka’s head.
“Drop your weapons, Wakandan, drop them!” the leader shouted. “And we can hear your men sneaking in the bushes. Tell them to stop!” The gun pushed against Ingcuka’s skull. “Tell them to surrender now!”
M’Baku hesitated. To surrender, because of one man, one umlungu; to let the thieves through to attack the Border people, maybe kill them, their children—
But really his hesitation was just an empty shell. Was he not the guardian of his people’s honor? His ancestors would turn from him if he gave up someone else’s life as expendable. Even Ingcuka’s.
“Amandi,” he called out, quietly seething. “N’Tsalo!”
That was when Ingcuka looked up at him. His face was unlike anything M’Baku had seen of him yet—twisted and dark, with a murderous scowl.
“No need,” he rasped—and reached behind himself to grab the barrel of the gun.
The shot went off; his head jerked to the side. Despite the blood soaking his hair, he ripped the weapon from his captor’s hands and fired back. M’Baku sent the call for attack instead of surrender and jumped into the melee. The fight was quick; Amandi and N’Tsalo seemed to burst out of nowhere and quickly disarmed the panicked intruders. Nobody was wounded except for the men Ingcuka had shot—and Ingcuka himself, still bleeding abundantly from the head.
The gun slipped from his hand; he wavered. On the ground, the thieves were moaning, still alive. He had shot them in the gut or the thighs, steering clear from chest and skull.
“Show me,” M’Baku said, pulling him down, kneeling with him. “Stop moving. Show me.”
Ingcuka seemed to remember he was playing tame wolf, and went still under M’Baku’s hands. Amandi brought some light, and M’Baku’s fingers parted the long dark hair. He’d gotten to touch it after all—not that he registered how it felt, with the oozing slickness of blood. After an endless moment, he realized what should have been obvious from the start: Ingcuka had managed to push the barrel away, just enough that the bullet had not penetrated the skull, only ripped along the bone.
“You are mad,” M’Baku murmured.
For the sixth time he saw Ingcuka smile. It was a wolf’s grin; blood had seeped into his mouth and colored his teeth.
“Just a kid with a gun,” he said hoarsely.
All of a sudden, M’Baku felt the violent, pressing need to taste the blood from his lips.
The urge did not surprise him—it often came with the heat of battle—but its brutality did. It was physical, mindless, robbing him of thought; he was on fire, he felt like he might die if he didn’t satiate this hunger now. Ingcuka’s burning eyes drilled into his as if he knew, as if he could feel the desire on M’Baku’s hot breath.
“My lord?” Amandi said with concern.
“He’ll live,” M’Baku said shortly, then shrugged off the silver pelt from his shoulders. “Let’s bundle up the wounded until T’Challa’s people arrive.”
T’Challa himself did not come, since he was abroad. But Shuri did, and the forest fire in her eyes could have measured up to Okoye’s. She ushered everyone in the aircraft, flew them to the Golden Palace at neck-breaking speed, then left them without escort or oversight to disappear with Ingcuka into her lab.
M’Baku made sure the prisoners were brought to the gaols or the infirmaries, sent word for Okoye to meet him, then dismissed his men and went to wait in T’Challa’s throne room.
He didn’t have to wait long; Shuri joined him at the first light of dawn.
“Why,” she hissed, “was he with you?”
“He came to me.” M’Baku got up. Her anger over this matter meant Ingcuka was not gravely wounded. “When you release him from your care, tell him he is awaited at the Gorilla Court. My men will let him through.”
This was so unheard-of that even Shuri’s anger was derailed. M’Baku gave her a short nod; after all, she was a princess. Then he walked out of the room to meet Okoye. They needed to discuss jungle border security—and beyond that, he wanted to see her.
“It seems that Wakanda owes you thanks again,” Okoye said after her captains had left the room with their orders.
“You would’ve caught them without me.” He shrugged. “I just caught them first.”
She was polishing a spear with long, smooth gestures—not a weapon, because the sonic blades never needed sharpening. A relic from her family, M’Baku remembered from their childhood years; an infinitely precious thing, almost a thousand years old.
“Okoye, do you know about the wolf?” he asked her, suddenly dropping her title.
“I know,” she said.
Of course she knew. She was the general of the royal armies. The fact that she hadn’t called him Lord M’Baku gave him a slight thrill.
“And what do you think?” he asked slowly.
He didn’t want to ask for advice; he wasn’t even sure what kind of advice he sought. He felt he just needed to talk about Ingcuka with somebody—hoping, maybe, that Okoye would vindicate him.
But she didn’t. “It is my king’s will, and my will is the king’s.”
He huffed. “You say this now, but you turned on Killmonger.”
“The challenge was not complete.” She was smiling, still polishing the spear with infinite care. “He was not my king.”
“Wasn’t that convenient for a lot of people.”
She gave him an unimpressed look, which he returned squarely. Neither of them was guiltless; the challenge should’ve ended the moment T’Challa had received outside help. But Erik N’Jadaka Killmonger had been too hungry for blood, and in this case, their duty to their people had exceeded their respect for tradition.
“Okoye, your thoughts are silver and gold to me,” M’Baku insisted. “What do you think of the wolf?”
She sighed. “I know Shuri likes him. I know T’Challa respects him.” Then she looked up. “I know he is a test for M’Baku.”
He narrowed his eyes.
“Make no mistake, it was not my king’s intention,” she went on. “You are testing yourself, hayi-hayi lord. Can you accept this man’s presence? If so, then maybe there is hope for Jabari and Wakanda together. Hope for Wakanda and the world together.”
M’Baku felt suddenly tired by his sleepless night. Ingcuka, a test? He had almost died in the jungle—and so what? What did it symbolize, what was the lesson? The incident in the forest had not shed any light upon M’Baku’s internal conflict, on the contrary. And Okoye’s presence did not help him think.
“Hope,” he said slowly. “I don’t know if there’s hope.”
“You are on the Council, M’Baku,” she said, “because you are the one tasked with answering this question.”
Ingcuka came to the Gorilla Court three days later, as requested.
He was wearing a panther pelt, sleek and black, over his usual shuka. Shuri’s anger plastered over his shoulders, no doubt, flaunting the Golden tribe’s protection, lest M’Baku forgot. At his feet were the shoes Amandi had given him before they all went into the jungle. It was a cold day; a few snowflakes had caught in his dark hair, in the panther’s fur, and not melted yet.
He kept his eyes down and knelt on one knee, and called M’Baku Great Gorilla again, and waited to be prompted before he spoke.
“You know the proper protocol,” M’Baku remarked from his throne. “You knew it already, when you came to me the other day.”
“I asked Shuri after we first met.” His half-spirit voice crackled around the edges like pine embers. “Felt like I should try and make up for my first impression.”
M’Baku snorted. “Come closer.”
Ingcuka obeyed. Now that he had been allowed to look up, he would not look away. The distance in his eyes was still there, the softness in his crow’s-foot, too. His hair spilled on his shoulders, looking much lighter than usual against the black pelt. But the wolf’s focus was not gone, and it was focusing on M’Baku, meeting his gaze.
M’Baku rose to his feet, stepped close to him, and reached out. “May I?”
There was a moment of perfect stillness. Then Ingcuka bowed his head for M’Baku’s hand.
This time, M’Baku could feel at leisure how sleek and liquid his hair was under his fingers. He took a good look, angling Ingcuka’s head. Ingcuka was pliant, holding his breath. But there was nothing to see; the headwound was gone. All that was left was a white line of scalp where the hair had been sheared. The bullet ripping against Ingcuka’s head should’ve put him in a coma, but he’d been only dazed. And he was walking on his feet now, not a week later.
Still. He’d grabbed a barrel pressing against his head and wrenched it away. This was not the act of a man who put a lot of value in his own life.
“You took a bullet for the Jabari,” M’Baku said in an undertone. “I must give you my thanks.”
Ingcuka didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge what an unprecedented honor it was. He did not say either that he wouldn’t have had to take a bullet if M’Baku hadn’t forced him out of the shadows. He did not say either that the Jabari had almost surrendered for him; that it had been a debt instantly paid on both counts. He said nothing at all.
“All right,” M’Baku said, lowering his hand with a faint feeling of frustration. “You can go.”
He was about to turn away, walk back to his throne, when he heard him speak at last, so very quiet.
The intimacy of his name without a title.
M’Baku turned. Ingcuka was looking at him. His eyes seemed clearer than ever, cloudy-clear like pools of rain.
“The other thing,” he said softly.
That was when M’Baku knew he was brave.
Not because he’d risked death, not because he’d climbed a mountain barefoot, not because he had stood to be Shuri’s champion. But because he had dared to speak, to evoke this moment in the forest; this moment when fire had beaten at M’Baku’s temples, pooled in his gut, filled him with want. Ingcuka now dared to let M’Baku know he’d seen it.
M’Baku walked to him again and looked squarely at him. Ingcuka stared back. For a moment M’Baku did not move, arrested by his own pride, by the voices in him murmuring this was beneath him, so far beneath. This was nothing like what he felt for Okoye, the deep reverence of love. This was a thrill close to the fury of a fight; a rush of adrenaline drying his throat and stealing his breath. You are a Jabari! protested the voices.
But yes: he was a Jabari. And the Jabari did not hide, not even from themselves.
He cupped the back of Ingcuka’s neck and pulled him forward to press their mouths together. Ingcuka took a sharp breath just before their lips met. M’Baku’s heartbeat was loud as a drum in his ears. Part of him could not believe what was happening; he felt distanced from his own actions as though in a fever dream. But he could feel Ingcuka’s hair tangling in his fingers, could feel the scrape of his stubble against his hand.
For a while there was nothing but tension; then Ingcuka angled his head and tried to put his tongue in M’Baku’s mouth.
Startled, M’Baku jerked away; Ingcuka recoiled too, genuinely surprised for the first time since M’Baku had met him. For a moment, there was only dumbfounded silence; then Ingcuka found his voice again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t even think…” He looked lost. “I guess you don’t do that.”
M’Baku cracked up. “You people lick into each other’s mouths?”
Ingcuka seemed so relieved to hear him laugh; and for the seventh time, he smiled—his best smile yet, not a sad shadow, not a bloodied grin, but a bright true beam of a smile, crinkling his eyes even more. And oh, really, M’Baku should have known his own desire from the start: he’d been counting the man’s smiles. Hanuman’s idiot, indeed.
“Yeah,” Ingcuka said, sounding amused at himself. “It’s kind of a major step in the dance, actually.”
M’Baku raised an eyebrow in challenge. He cupped the back of Ingcuka’s head, slipping his fingers through his hair, and gave it a second try. Ingcuka let him lead, parted his lips for him; it lasted for a minute before M’Baku pulled back.
“Seriously, this is gross.”
Ingcuka didn’t look offended. “I enjoyed it.”
Although uninterested in doing it ever again, M’Baku felt flattered. Ingcuka’s breathing was shallower than before; his features remained soft as always, but his fingers were caught tight in M’Baku’s ceremonial furs, as if afraid to be pushed away again. There was something anxious in his eyes.
“Does it stop here?” he rasped.
M’Baku’s answer was inevitable; he knew this, and didn’t try to stop himself.
Though the kiss Ingcuka gave him stayed close-mouthed, he managed to imbue it with desire just fine. Quick learner.
M’Baku had not taken a man to bed since his Jabari guard training, over ten years ago. He’d certainly never had an umlungu before, and he felt a hint of puzzlement while pulling him to his room. What if every step of the dance was different?
But lovemaking was not a time for thought, and in the end he listened only to the urges of his body, to the blind agreement in his brain, saying this was right, this was needed. Although their cultural discrepancies had already made themselves obvious, M’Baku figured there could not be that many ways to take someone to bed; and though strange and pale and one-armed, Ingcuka was a man like the ones he’d known—something M’Baku had been vividly aware of, ever since the first time he’d seen him come out of the lake.
He pulled off the panther pelt, unknotted the shuka, spread Ingcuka naked on his bed. Then he crawled over him so he could press their mouths together again, while Ingcuka’s one arm came up in an asymmetrical embrace. He cradled M’Baku’s head with a light, uncertain touch, like he wasn’t sure he was allowed.
M’Baku’s hand pressed against his chest, stopping him.
“Do you know how to say ‘no’?” he asked.
“Hayi,” Ingcuka answered, like a good student.
“It is the one word you may speak in the Wakandan tongue,” M’Baku said. “Understood? You don’t say a lot, and I don’t let a lot be said to me. But hayi is fine, foreigner. If you need it.”
With that, he pressed his face into Ingcuka’s neck, tasting the faint, salty tang of his sweat. The royal room was plunged in obscurity, moonlight cutting shapes through the shadow, and in the dark he felt Ingcuka’s body like it was his own, felt the strength of his chest, the plane of his stomach, the corded power of his thighs. Ingcuka’s hand, callused but light, was brushing down his back. M’Baku’s fingers followed the trail of hair down his firm stomach, and found his cock curving up, hard and heavy. Arousal rushed through him in a burst of fire. Ingcuka was pliant like a virgin, eyes closed, breathing deep. He arched by a fraction when M’Baku took him in a tight grip.
M’Baku’s other hand came under his thigh, hooked Ingcuka’s leg over his shoulder. He was on the lookout for the man’s eyes to reopen, for wariness to tighten his body; who knew if he considered this act a humiliation. But Ingcuka stayed quiet as always, and kept his eyes closed.
Still, the kiss had been a lesson; nothing could be assumed, especially not from a man who didn’t altogether mind taking a bullet to the head.
“Ingcuka,” M’Baku called quietly.
Ingcuka cracked his eyes open, looking at him lazily from the dark pillow of his spread hair, and M’Baku felt a dangerous twist—not in his gut this time, but in his heart. He was not close to toppling yet, but heeded the warning all the same.
“Ingcuka,” he repeated, “now would be the time to stop me.”
Ingcuka just stared flatly at him, his silence eloquent now.
M’Baku cocked an eyebrow, then pulled away. He took out a vial of seedling oil from the chest by his bed and put it within reach. Then he guided Ingcuka into turning on his left side, and lay down behind him, pushing a thigh between Ingcuka’s thighs to hold them open. Easy access. He popped open the vial of oil, coated his fingers generously, then slowly pushed one in.
Ingcuka arched again, breathing in deep, hiding his face behind the curtain of his hair. Pliant for this, too, open, which stirred the fire in M’Baku’s loins to blazing heights. He worked in another finger, then a third, mimicking the movement his hips would make later, a slow back-and-forth. The wolf’s cock was leaking on the sheets, and M’Baku himself was hard as iron, pressing against the small of his back. He wanted to be in him now; he felt like he’d been waiting for days, ever since he’d wanted to take Ingcuka, bloodied and dazed, right on the forest floor.
“On your feet,” he said when they both couldn’t wait anymore. “I’ll have you standing up.”
Ingcuka moved slowly, slipping out of bed, getting up on slightly unsteady legs while M’Baku shed the rest of his clothing. He grabbed Ingcuka by the arm and pulled him back against him, letting him feel he was nude, letting him feel the stiffness of his desire. Ingcuka let his head hang back against M’Baku’s shoulder, half-spirit eyes half-lidded.
But when he felt M’Baku’s cock slipping between his legs, finding the way, he took one step forward—just enough to move away from him. “Wait—hayi.”
Part of M’Baku sneered that there it was; all this to tease, to refuse himself after all, to mock or worse. But most of M’Baku just waited, giving some credit to the wolf. And the wolf did not disappoint him.
“Just…” He hesitated. “Could you face me?”
M’Baku pulled him back in, carding his long hair away from his face. “If you don’t want it from behind—”
“Don’t mind it from behind.” Ingcuka’s lips pulled up; he angled his head to catch sight of M’Baku in the corner of his eye. “Just like it up against the wall better.”
M’Baku blinked, then could not help grinning. “You do like it rough,” he said, and for the first time he heard him laugh.
So M’Baku put Ingcuka’s back against the wall, the moonlit wall painting him silver; then he hooked Ingcuka’s left leg over his right arm, opening him up, and lined up so the head of his cock would fit inside. Ingcuka had his eyes closed again, breathing deep; when M'Baku took his other leg up and lifted him off the floor entirely, sliding his back up the wall, his cock pushed up into Ingcuka by enough inches to make him cry out.
Such a noise, from such a silent man—and he was burning hot inside, working in spasms to accommodate the intrusion; he held onto M’Baku’s shoulders with his only arm, laced his legs around his waist, and panted, “Yes,” and gasped, “More,” when M’Baku took the time to fully seat himself in, with a series of slow, rolling thrusts; and then he kept thrusting, making Ingcuka rub up the wall then sink back on his cock every time, pushing the air from his lungs, making his soft voice even softer, breathier, “Harder,” he managed to whisper, and that whisper felt as though it could slither into M’Baku’s ears even from miles away, reach him in his sleep, keep him awake at night. “Harder, you know I can take it,” and M’Baku went harder, harder with every thrust, chasing his own bliss, trying to find a limit, but Ingcuka seemed to have none, breathing harsh and shallow, bracing hard around M’Baku’s shoulder almost to the point of pain, and speaking in a third language now, one M’Baku did not know, “Spasibo,” he gasped, “spasibo, spasibo,” and his voice cracked, splintered with pleasure as he pulsed hot and sticky between their stomachs, spurring M’Baku into giving one final thrust, deepest and hardest, and coming inside him, a lightning storm inside his head, relishing the thought that he had just done something final, something he could not take back, and taking pride in it.
As the Jabari did.
They got in bed afterwards only to catch their breath. Ingcuka seemed more dazed by his own pleasure than he had been by a bullet raying his skull. The plane of his stomach was still heaving with deep, far-reaching breaths. His sweat smelled different, which made M’Baku wonder how he’d taste, which somehow made him come to his senses at last. Now was not the time to let lust overwhelm him again.
“Ingcuka,” he said, sitting up. He brushed his fingers through his soft hair. “Ingcuka, you cannot stay the night.”
Half-spirit eyes gazed up at him. His voice was quiet and hoarse. “What’s that you’ve been calling me? I don’t know that word.”
“It’s the name T’Challa gave me for you. It means wolf.”
Ingcuka blinked, then smiled. “Oh, hell, white wolf. Now I get it.” He pushed to sit up, went to pick up his shuka. “I’m going. Don’t worry.”
His matter-of-fact tone, as if he’d only expected to be used and discarded, sat wrong with M’Baku.
“I don’t worry,” he said bluntly. “I will not be hiding this. I don’t do things that bring me shame or guilt. If this happened, then it had to happen. I just need time to think.”
Ingcuka had gone still, with his shuka in hand. M’Baku wished he had more to tell him, but the essential was said, and he did need time to understand how this fit in the greater picture. He looked at the garment and gave him a half-smile.
“I will help you put it on,” he said. “If you ask me.”
It felt like they’d been in bed for days, but in reality it had barely lasted one hour; the torches leading the way back down the mountain had not yet burned out, and the wolf needed no escort to return home.
M’Baku slept, and his dreams were haunted by the smell of Ingcuka’s straining body, the smell of Ingcuka’s pleasure. When he woke up, he waited for clarity to find him. It seemed like it must find him now, after crossing such a threshold.
He’d told the white wolf he didn’t regret taking him to bed, and it hadn’t been a lie. But was this not the threat he’d feared? For him to open his home, to open his bed to Ingcuka, in a flaring moment of desire—was this not proof that presence always meant influence? If even the leader of the Jabari could have his defenses taken down, what of his people? What if secession really was the only way to protect them?
Then irritation rose in him. What defenses? What protection?
He had not been conquered. He had not given anything away that wasn’t his to give. You look at him and see all the white men in the world! Shuri had said, and of course she would think that of him. Okoye had said it in other words. He is a test for M’Baku. But the girl Shuri was wrong. Even Okoye, his unattainable, was wrong. As if M’Baku’s reaction to one man, one white man, could dictate the way Wakanda would interact with the world! As if, by dissecting his relation to Ingcuka, he could predict the future, like an anxious soothsayer digging through an animal’s guts!
The truth was not in their words, but in M’Baku’s own: the ones he’d thrown at W’Kabi in his irritation. He is just one man. Ingcuka wore Wakandan clothing and bathed in Wakandan waters and spoke the Wakandan language—so what? He’d been invited to do those things, just like he’d been invited to M’Baku’s bed.
M’Baku was one man, too: despite his dislike on principle, he’d been curious about Ingcuka from the start. Curious about his odd way of kissing, to the point of trying it again; aroused by the unusual way he looked, the unusual way he reacted to his touch. M’Baku had wanted him, and fucked him. Was he any less of a Jabari for it?
Secession! O, the very idea! He got out of bed, suddenly full of determination. To split the country, now, when it had never been so exposed—it seemed so ridiculous now. A cowardly retreat in the name of purity! Were they so afraid of the world? Were they so afraid that people would turn away from tradition, if they came to know something else? Had they no trust in their own values? Seceding, hiding, running away! No, of course no! Hayi, hayi, hayi! The Jabari did not hide!
M’Baku remembered the profound delight he’d felt at the moment of orgasm. It wasn’t just physical; it was the joy of being right, doing something right. The certainty he felt now, this hard-won clarity, he owed it to the risk he’d taken. Just like when he’d brought his people into the Golden lands to fight.
M’Baku scheduled a meeting of the Jabari captains later in the afternoon, then went down the mountain with long strides.
Ingcuka was reading in the shade, dappled with light by the branches overhead. When he heard M’Baku making his way through the tall grass, he looked up and watched him cross the clearing.
“You came back,” he said when M’Baku reached him. There was surprise on his face, and maybe a faint trace of gratitude, too.
“Out of pity. I was told you were starved for conversation.”
He got a slow smile in return. It was painfully true, what Ingcuka had told him that time: he had no company except for a teenager and some kids. He had T’Challa’s respect, maybe even T’Challa’s friendship; but T’Challa was not here. Ingcuka could seek no other friends, since he was not supposed to exist.
“Speaking of starvation.” M’Baku stepped close to him. “Tell me. Why are you alone here?”
The smile went away. Ingcuka hesitated; but in the end he was too sparing of his words to try and talk circles around the truth.
“I was brought here to heal,” he began.
“Yes, I know. And what happens after you’re healed?”
“I suppose I’ll go back to…” He huffed. “Ukhozi. If he’ll have me.”
“Eagle. So you do have friends out there?”
“He’s more than a friend. He’s everything,” Ingcuka said, in the same tone he would’ve used to remark it was raining. “But it’s not something I’ll ever burden him with.”
He really was shrewd, because of course this was why M’Baku had asked about his friendships; so attachments would be clearly laid out. Now everything was plain between them. M’Baku could have been offended that Ingcuka had not sought him out for love, only for company; but in truth it was a relief. In this way, maybe the most important of ways, they were the same.
“I also love someone I cannot burden,” he said. “I don’t feel it lessens what we have, though I can’t name it yet. I think we might call it friendship.” He shrugged one shoulder. “After a while.”
Again his favorite smile, the one that reached Ingcuka’s eyes. “Friendship would be a lot more than I ever hoped for, Lord M’Baku.”
“And something to shock the Taifa Ngao elders out of their wigs,” M’Baku said. “Two birds, one stone.”
Ingcuka laughed, and again M’Baku felt the deep-seated satisfaction of having done something right.
“Let’s go for a swim,” he said.
That earned him a slightly startled look. “You want to swim together?”
“Why not? I’m boiling.” M’Baku unbuckled his pelt, slipped off his leather tunic, then grinned at him. “And fresh water’s never impeded a Jabari’s performance.”
“Is that a fact,” Ingcuka said.
“Come and find out.”
Ingcuka shot more and more appreciative looks at M’Baku’s body under the sun, sliding in the water, until finally he swam close and whispered, “I can hold my breath for a very long time.”
He wasn’t lying either.
In his own council, later that afternoon, M’Baku spoke for the first time in weeks.
“We will not secede.”
One by one, his captains went silent, looking at him. Amandi and K’Takia, who had most ardently opposed secession, were beaming; others were more reserved, but looking hopeful still. They had all been waiting for a decision to be made.
“The Jabari watched from the mountains,” M’Baku said. “And when the time came, we went into the valley. We changed the course of this nation forever. We have lost nothing, and gained a lot. So why retreat?”
Silence answered him. He looked at them, one by one.
“Why retreat? Are we afraid?” He opened his hand to stop their answer, raised his eyebrows. “It would be fine to be afraid. Fear is sometimes the only thing separating the foolish from the living. Had I not been afraid to jump off the roof when I was eight, I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.”
A laugh shimmered around the circle.
“But what is there to fear today? I ask of you,” he went on. “Are we afraid of a war that might not be, like W’Kabi in his pit? A fine strategy, then—to remove ourselves from Wakanda’s protection! If we are afraid, then we must stay.”
This he said while looking at the ones who’d considered secession. He saw no flame of resentment in their eyes, only embarrassed agreement.
“But if we are not afraid—I ask of you, what then? We have reconciled with the Golden tribe for the first time in history. We are given the chance for the whole of Wakanda to know the Jabari, without fear or mistrust. We are no longer being shunned. And we would shun them in return?”
Another long look around the room.
“I ask of you, what are we?” he said louder. “Pouting little boys? We have made so much progress. And some in Wakanda say the Jabari refuse all progress; because, in their blindness, they think progress is only technology. I ask of you! Do we not know better?”
“Ewe!” Amandi said spontaneously.
“Do we not know better?”
“Ewe!” they all shouted.
“Progress is the way towards peace and long living with the world. I believe T’Challa is bringing such kind of progress. My friends, I ask of you! No matter how far away we’ve lived—are we not part of the world?”
“We are,” Amandi said, getting up like he couldn’t stand to be seated anymore.
All heads turned to him.
“M’Baku, you decided to save T’Challa and our people was greater for it. You decided to go and help the Golden tribe and our people was greater for it. You have done more for the Jabari than anyone else has since the beginning of our memory. Great Gorilla M’Baku, you are our people’s glory.”
A round of nods followed, and M’Baku felt his heart swell with emotion. “Thank you, Amandi. Thank you, all. Now…” He reached out, and tightened his hand into a fist. “All in favor of secession?”
They all mimicked his gesture; nobody said a word.
“All in favor of uniting with Wakanda?”
They all hooted Hanuman’s hoot and slammed their fist against their breastplate. He grinned at them, and they grinned at him.
“Then we are in agreement.”
He made to get up from his wooden throne, then sat back.
“Also,” he said by way of a closing statement, “I’m taking the umlungu to bed. Just so you guys know.”
“You said that?” Ingcuka said incredulously.
“Sure I did.” M’Baku loved the air of the high mountain more than anything else; if he could not smell the crisp, cold everlasting snow, then he was not truly happy. “I told you I would not hide it.”
Ingcuka looked up at the Gorilla Court waiting for them. His eyes trailed across the whole of Ilu Inaki, the city of Hanuman clinging to the face of the mountain. “I’m going to assume they took it well. Since I’m officially invited.”
“N’Tsalo was outraged. He wants to challenge you to a death match.”
He got an unimpressed look in return, which made him grin.
“Nah, I’d already welcomed you at my court. It’s not just a matter of protocol. Invitations matter a great deal to us. My guests are every Jabari’s guest.”
“I’m honored,” Ingcuka said quietly.
Not two weeks ago M’Baku would have listened for sarcasm in his voice, but he knew now there was none. He still snorted. “You better be.”
“Really, though—did no one blink?”
“Well, Amandi asked if I meant to marry you and make it political. When I said no, they all lost interest in the matter. Except K’Takia, who had certain questions about size and skill…”
Ingcuka cracked up, which only widened M’Baku’s grin. He was happy, because he finally felt confident in the direction his country was taking—and happy too in a much more petty way: the girl Shuri would have to climb the mountain all the way to Ilu Inaki if she wanted her wolf back before tomorrow. Nothing like a little effort to build character.
M’Baku was getting to know Ingcuka behind his quiet façade, and he could tell that the man was not fond of cold and snow, though of course he was too gracious to complain. But when he was led to the hot springs bubbling at the bottom of the Gorilla Court, his face all but lit up.
“Is that what’s warming up your court?”
“Got it in one.”
“This... this is wood,” he added, surprised, looking at the polished edges of the basin. Snow was softly falling from the open ceiling.
“Jabari wood. We can make it take any shape we want. Now, take off those furs.”
The black panther pelt slid off him; the shuka soon followed. There was a peculiar, chilling grace in the way he held himself, something that spoke of death—a certain lightness of step, an economy of movement. But he didn’t want to fight, and he did not.
He got into the basin and groaned with pleasure, sliding down until his dark hair started floating in the sulphur water. M’Baku joined him, pressing him against the rounded wooden edge for a kiss. Ingcuka’s eyes were closed; his muscles were relaxing against M’Baku’s body.
“What happens now?” he asked hazily.
“We bathe.” M’Baku slipped a hand between his thighs, weighed his balls, tightened his hand around them for a moment. Then his fingers found the way inside him. “After that, we go one floor up and use the bed this time.”
“I meant—politically,” Ingcuka said, breathing shallower as M’Baku worked his way deeper into him.
“If you can still talk politics in a minute, foreigner, I’ll take offense.”
Ingcuka smiled, then gasped. M’Baku worked him over to make sure he was as clean as could be; he hummed when Ingcuka’s hand found him and slowly stroked him to full hardness. Within a few minutes, neither of them were much for words. Finally, Ingcuka looked at him, half-lidded, and M’Baku knew he was ready.
“Turn around. Here…”
He guided him into facing the edge of the pool, then bent him over. He grabbed one of his thighs to immobilize him. Ingcuka was pliant as always, breathing deeply.
“I won’t put my tongue in your mouth,” M’Baku said quietly, “but I’ll put it elsewhere.”
Ingcuka let out a low, throaty sound.
“Does that mean anything articulate? You are awful at saying yes.”
“Not used to it,” Ingcuka murmured.
M’Baku parted his ass. “What was that?”
“Yes,” he breathed. “Yes, yes, y—”
M’Baku licked around the rim, then pushed his tongue inside, tasting sulphur and melted snow. Ingcuka let out an extraordinary moan and tried to find purchase on the sleek wood, scrabbling until he gave up, surrendered, gasping out almost-sobs. This, M’Baku loved. He never felt more powerful than when he was pleasuring someone in this most intimate way, and he was glad Ingcuka hadn’t refused it. He took his time to find all the most sensitive nerve endings, scraping with his teeth, licking with the light point of his tongue; until he finally got tired of torturing him and pushed his tongue in again, deep, as far as he could go. Ingcuka was a mess, shuddering, with one of his feet braced underwater against a notch in the wood. He was saying nothing still, communicating only through the shivers and gasps he could not hide. M’Baku had never had a more silent lover.
When Ingcuka suddenly made noise again, M’Baku didn’t realize why at first—and then he pulled back to grin wide.
“Now that’s a compliment.”
Ingcuka could not answer, still orgasming in spasms, visibly trying and failing to stop himself. Eventually, he slumped against the wood again, breathing deep.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped when he could speak again.
“Sorry, why?” M’Baku pulled him back fully into the water. “I told you, it’s a compliment.”
There was fondness in Ingcuka’s half-spirit eyes. He took M’Baku’s face in his hand to kiss him and, when he pulled back to breathe, said he’d like to earn a few compliments of his own.
They climbed up to M’Baku’s rooms, and got into bed as promised. M’Baku sat back, and Ingcuka knelt between his knees. He wasn’t hard again yet, but slicked up his fingers with sure gestures, worked two of them into M’Baku’s ass, and took his cock into his mouth.
He didn’t have another hand to help matters along, which meant he had to rely on his oral capacities alone. M’Baku had already experienced them in the lake, and knew they were appreciable; he was very glad to have it confirmed when Ingcuka took him whole, so deep it felt M’Baku was losing himself entirely into tight wet warmth.
Ingcuka’s tongue was skilled in ways that almost made M’Baku want to try the kiss again. He seemed to have no need for breathing; and when he took M’Baku to the root and sucked hard, his lips a firm ring of pressure, he crooked his fingers inside him to send bursts of white light up his nerves. He knew how to make it last, so much that his jaw was probably sore, but he didn’t seem to mind; and after a long, lazy while, M’Baku's hips jerked up, something unwound in his body, and pleasure washed over him as Ingcuka drank every drop of him.
An unpleasant cloud obscured M’Baku’s sun as his pleasure receded. Shuri had hinted at people modifying Ingcuka’s body, training him like an animal; was that why he could choke himself without retching? Was that why he made so little noise?
But before he could think further on it, Ingcuka crawled up to lie down next to him, both of them sated. His eyes were closed, so he didn’t notice M’Baku’s concern. M’Baku let it float away. He couldn’t act on what had already happened; only what happened now.
“I’ve got a stupid question,” Ingcuka murmured.
M’Baku turned to his side to face him. “Impress me.”
“Am I the first white guy in the Gorilla Court?”
“Hah—missed by a short stretch. Nakia already brought along some hapless CIA agent.”
Ingcuka’s eyes reopened.
“Everett Ross? He was here?”
M’Baku raised an eyebrow. Ingcuka guessing wasn’t a surprise—Ross was now famously connected to T’Challa and Wakanda—but he seemed to know Ross from more than just hearsay. “Friend of yours?”
“One word for it.” Ingcuka looked tired. “He tried to have me locked away for life without trial.”
“That worthless maggot?” How had he even caught—oh. Right. T’Challa. “Well, you’ll be happy to know he attempted to speak over me in my own court, and called me ‘Your Highness’”.
Ingcuka blinked; then suddenly grinned. “Guess that went well for him?”
“We hooted him silent. The little man got all shaky. I told him—” He pulled awesomeness into his voice, “One more word and I will feed you to my children! Waited till he shat himself, and then I said just kidding, we’re vegetarians.”
Ingcuka laughed louder and longer than anything M’Baku had heard of him, which made him very pleased with himself. For a moment they were both grinning; then the half-spirit distance crept into Ingcuka’s smile again.
M’Baku reached out to card his fingers through his soft, sleek hair. He couldn’t get enough of how it felt to the touch.
“I will give my vote for T’Challa to open the country,” he said. “When he returns and assembles the Taifa Ngao again.”
“You’ve made me realize one thing: curiosity is inevitable. And the freedom to satiate it is needed. Otherwise it turns into fear, and your own home turns into a trap—something everyone will wind up escaping from.”
“You’re a good king.”
“No. T’Challa is a good king.” M’Baku brushed his hair away from his face. “I am, hopefully, a good leader to my people.”
Ingcuka had closed his eyes; he reopened them. “Hey. Who is it?”
“Who is it that you’re in love with?” Ingcuka elaborated.
M’Baku snorted, then pulled Ingcuka’s hair in well-deserved punishment. “This you cannot ask.”
Ingcuka smirked. “Do that again.”
“What? Pull your hair?”
“Yes,” was all he said, rolling to his stomach and spreading his thighs.
Intricate cornrows, delicate dreadlocks and close-cropped hair were not meant to be pulled; but in Ingcuka’s unruly mane, M’Baku could sink his fingers close to the skin, and grab hold while he penetrated him. Ingcuka’s muscles bunched in his pale back, drawing a sinewy map of valleys and mountains; he had a body of iron under what little softness Wakanda had given him.
M’Baku fucked him slow, so very slow, with his hair wrapped up so tight in his fist Ingcuka couldn’t move at all. Ingcuka seemed to love it, and love also M’Baku's weight pinning him down, M’Baku’s cock filling him up, the effort it took to accept every demanding thrust all the way. He was submissive to M’Baku’s grip, without trying to free himself; but he still moved, inside, tightening his muscles as if to draw out M’Baku’s energy from him. When his orgasm came, M’Baku almost didn’t notice at first, until it all caught up to him and he heard again the moans Ingcuka only made at the peak of ecstasy.
When it was over, they rested against each other again at last, breathing deep, with the scent of sex thick in the air. In that moment, all of M’Baku’s troubles were gone from his mind.
Dressed in a silver tunic and black panther pelt, with his hair wrapped up in a bun, Ingcuka looked out of place at M’Baku’s royal table—but not like Ross would have been. Not scared, not uncomfortable; only cautious. He smiled and spoke quietly to his neighbors, Amandi and K’Takia, when they spoke to him. Otherwise he ate, more slowly than most, but managing well enough.
At one point he observed, “It’s lucky I lost my left arm and not the right,” which sent a laugh around the table, because plantain cakes and other hand-held food were not to be eaten with your left hand. M’Baku was touched to see him make such efforts, and was moved as well by his captains’ goodwill; even the ones who had reacted with mistrust to his announcement (he had greatly minimized their reaction to Ingcuka) were being not only polite, but friendly. And like M’Baku, they were ripe with curiosity.
There was something, M’Baku mused, about Ingcuka: so genuinely humble, so anxious to be kind, that it was nearly impossible not to warm up to him in some way. By the end of the day, he’d learned how to play awalé the Jabari way—meaning with men hooting and cheering and loudly discussing the two players’ strategy from the sidelines. He lost twice and won twice against Amandi, lost three times in a row to N’Tsalo, and smilingly refused to play against M’Baku.
While the men and women met for the afternoon discussion, Ingcuka somehow ended up with kids wrapped around his legs again. Those didn’t know him like the Border kids did; yet they were not afraid, and yelled out loud some of M’Baku’s thoughts—look at his eyes! Come touch his hair! They climbed him and nagged him and yelled at him in shrill Yoruba, and Ingcuka bore it all with endless patience, smiling gently at them. He had never reminded M’Baku more of an old wolf stoically enduring puppies’ stumbling games, even when its ears were being chewed by fangless mouths.
“<All right, children, scram,>” M’Baku said at last, moving away from the circle of discussion. He hadn’t had much to bring to the daily talk anyway; his day had been spent doing things that had no place in family tales. “Hope they didn’t maul you to death.”
“I like kids,” Ingcuka said quietly. “They’re not afraid of me.”
“Nobody here is afraid of you,” M’Baku said, sitting next to him.
Ingcuka hummed, without elaborating. “It was a good day. Actually, it’s been… years since I lived a day like this. Your tribe is like a family.”
“We are not many,” M’Baku just said, modest so he wouldn’t sound too proud. But he was proud of his people, so terribly much.
“Thank you for inviting me.”
“Hey, we are neighbors, white wolf by the lake.”
Before Ingcuka could find anything to answer, Amandi crossed the room and bowed quickly to M’Baku.
“My lord, princess Shuri is here.”
“She is?” M’Baku blinked. “Don’t tell me she climbed all the way.”
“No, my lord. She came on an aircraft.”
“This child!” He sighed. “When will she learn. I should send her back. But come on, foreigner. She must have come for you.”
Shuri was waiting in the fading light, pacing in the room overlooking the great monochrome mountains. When he saw her, M’Baku’s annoyance at her ignoring tradition dimmed by a fraction; her hair was undone and she had barely taken the time to paint her face. Worse, she bowed to M’Baku as if to keep his anger from impeding the conversation—and then she walked straight to Ingcuka.
“You have to come,” she said. “It’s started.”
All the ease of a leisure day went out of Ingcuka at once. “Where’s T’Challa?”
“Still in Beijing. Very publicly. The last time his name was associated to Rogers, he was trying to kill you. Wakanda will be fine.” There was trepidation in her voice. “But you asked me to tell you and I’m telling you: it’s now.”
“Is there any way to monitor it? Know what’s going on?”
“From my lab, yes. Come on.”
Ingcuka turned round. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
M’Baku hesitated. This sounded like an opportunity to find out what else T’Challa been doing in the wings; and thus far, following his curiosity had served him well. He nodded to Amandi, who nodded in answer.
“I’m going,” M’Baku said. “No discussion, girl. Let’s go.”
They flew to the Golden Palace in less than five minutes. Usually, M’Baku would have scoffed at this absurd need for quick moving, especially since no one was dying or dead—as far as he knew. But Ingcuka was even paler than usual and Shuri so grim it was enough to send a thrum of trepidation in the pit of his own stomach.
They got into the lab and Shuri gave a headset to Ingcuka, who put it on one-handed. His fingers were shaking; and M’Baku suddenly knew, without a doubt, that this was about his love—his Ukhozi. The one who was everything.
“More consequences to T’Chaka’s death?” he asked, low.
“Yeah.” Shuri sounded tense. “The Americans have this underwater prison called the Raft. Four people had been wrongfully locked away, partly because of T’Challa’s actions. He promised to help free them; we’ve been planning this for weeks.”
Reckless king—making such promises right after he’d brought his country into the limelight. But he’d given his word, and he was not like faithless W’Kabi; so of course he had to follow through.
M’Baku spoke close to Ingcuka. “Is Ukhozi in there?”
“No,” Ingcuka murmured, without looking at him. “No, he’s the one breaking them out.”
His cheeks were colorless, his body like a drawn bow, and in his eyes was the shadow M’Baku had seen in the forest, while he was held at gunpoint. Murder in his gaze, in the tight line of his mouth. He wished he could fight; he wished he could be there. But he was missing an arm, and of course his presence would have connected T’Challa to the breakout anyway. So he was here while his love was fighting alone.
“Come on,” M’Baku told Shuri.
“Are you going to sit here and watch him while he worries? Come.”
For once she didn’t argue further. They both left Ingcuka alone in the lab, listening in to something that was happening on the other side of the world.
“How long will this take?”
“Five hours if everything goes according to plan,” Shuri said.
“Five hours of torture for him,” M’Baku chastised her. “You shouldn’t have told him before it was over.”
She gave him a look, very much like T’Challa. “He made me promise to tell him the moment it began.”
“When he was brought here with his arm missing and his bones cracked open, the first thing he said to me was condolences for my father’s death. I try to keep smiling, M’Baku—” Her voice shook for a dangerous second, “for Mother and for T’Challa, and for myself, too, so not all the joy is gone. But he doesn’t expect me to be happy all the time, so I will let him be sad too if he likes.”
M’Baku was silent. After a tired few seconds, Shuri somehow conjured up a smile.
“How come you’re such close friends with the white boy anyway? You used to be fighting and now you’re joined at the hip...”
Again, M’Baku spoke before he even knew the words had been in him. “I would like to invite you and other Golden youths to spend half a year in the mountain.”
She blinked, taken short. “What?”
“And I would like for Jabari children to spend a half a year down here in Birnin Zana—not just the tribe’s heir, not just during the Royal Year.” He shrugged. “I will not change my people for Wakanda, and I do not expect Wakanda to be changed by my people either. But it would be good, I think, to weave our cultures tighter.”
Shuri’s eyes were very wide.
“You’re not seceding,” she breathed after a second.
“No kidding, princess. This kingdom would be lost without us.” He raised an eyebrow. “As recent events have proved.”
She hugged him.
Or rather she clutched his pelt and pressed her forehead to his breastplate, since her arms were too short to reach all the way around him. M’Baku was startled; he put a hand on her back, hesitantly. But after what she’d just told him—of course she was missing her father, such a deep loss at such a young age. And she must be missing T’Challa, too, who’d never been gone from home so long, and who would be gone a lot more often in the upcoming years. Maybe she even missed Ingcuka, who seemed to be her friend in his quiet, kind way, and who’d been spending so much time on the mountain lately.
She’d said she was afraid of a war, when she’d sent the offending screen to M’Baku; but he had only seen the teenage irreverence, and not really listened to her. Now he realized how much his threat of secession must have weighed over T’Challa, and over Shuri in turn. He didn’t often feel shame, but protectiveness came to him now.
“It’ll be all right,” he said, low.
“Yeah.” She pulled back, sniffing. “I know.” Then she looked up at him. “If I go to the mountain, can I experiment on some Jabari wood?”
“No. You will come to discover tradition, not break further away from it.”
“Oh, come on.”
“If you keep arguing, girl, you will get uninvited…” He looked up, suddenly, and saw Okoye who was watching them from a doorway.
She sent M’Baku such a smile he suddenly felt able to bear all of Shuri’s antics as if she were his own sister, if it meant Okoye would smile again at him in that way.
“Shuri, the Queen Mother needs you,” was all she said.
“Right. Yeah.” She wiped her eyes again. “I’m coming.”
M’Baku had time to spend, and decided to spend it walking the streets of Birnin Zana, gazing upon these people who were so much like him, and so unlike him at the same time. He saw buildings looking like the old, and made of the new; he ate food he’d never eaten, and food that was like what he’d always eaten—always turning up his nose at the meat, though.
He thought of Okoye, and he thought of Ingcuka, and how he held one different kind of affection for each of them in his heart. As long as love was not foolish, it should always be fostered over hatred. This was how he knew for certain, in the end, that he had made the right decision.
When the five hours were finished, the night had fallen. M’Baku walked back to the palace. The Dora let him through, but the room where Ingcuka had been anxiously waiting for blind reports of a distant mission was empty.
“You’re back,” Shuri said, emerging from an adjacent room, rubbing her eyes.
“Where is he?”
She smiled tiredly. “You really do like him.”
“Yes, yes. Irreverence, blah.” The white dots on her face were smeared in lines like comets’ tails. “The mission was a success. So—how do you call him? Ingcuka? That’s fun. He asked me to finish up.”
“On him. I’ve been healing his mind slowly; I’ve had it mapped out from day one, but I took my time for the actual work, so it wouldn’t be too hard for him. But now he’s running out of time. His people are coming back. So he asked me to finish up all at once, and I did.”
“And he’s been hurt?” M’Baku frowned, concerned with the flatness in her voice.
“Hey, of course not,” she said, frowning. “I don’t hurt people unless I mean to. But he’s… confused. Kind of inevitable. It’ll last for an hour or so.”
“And you left him alone?”
“Yeah. It’s better.”
“Is he dangerous?”
“No, he’s not dangerous, M’Baku, but—”
“Lord M’Baku. Take me to him.”
“I don’t think he’d want you to see him like that...” She groaned when he kept staring her down. “Fuck. You’re so goddamn stubborn. Fine—but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
She led him to a room he’d never seen before. There was a bed—if it could be called a bed; no more than a horizontal surface to lie on—and a strange, translucent tube, human-sized. It sent a chill down M’Baku’s back, and he eyed it with distaste.
Ingcuka was not on the bed or in the tube; he was sitting on a stool, staring into space with huge, confused eyes. When M’Baku walked in, he looked up.
“Steve—?” He stopped short when he saw M’Baku. Then kept staring at him without any evidence of recognition.
M’Baku felt suddenly cold. He walked close to him, careful to be slow, and opened his mouth to call him by his name—then realized he didn’t know the man’s actual name, and risked confusing him even more.
“I… sorry,” Ingcuka said weakly, still looking at him. “I’m sorry. I’m sure I know you. It’ll come back.”
“It’s all right.”
“Please—don’t tell Steve I thought it was him,” he went on quickly. “Don’t tell him—just, if he thinks I need him—”
“I won’t tell him.”
“No, you, you don’t understand.” Anxiety made his eyes brighter. “He’s wasted so much on me. He can’t waste anymore. He just needs to know I’m fine, and then he can drop it. It’s better for him. It’s better for everyone. So—please—?”
“I won’t tell him,” M’Baku repeated, and knew that Shuri was right. He shouldn’t have come and seen him like this, stammering and lost, but it was too late now.
All he could do was go before he saw anything else; so he reassured him again, then took his leave, with coldness still haunting his chest.
The next morning, M’Baku got up with the sun and went down to the lake.
But Ingcuka wasn’t there. He must have spent the night in Birnin Zana. M’Baku lingered around the hut for a while, and couldn’t help noticing how carefully tidy it was. It had always been so. From the beginning, Ingcuka had treated it like a temporary shelter, like overstaying his welcome was his greatest fear.
Going back up to the heights of the mountain, climbing at a brisk pace, M’Baku saw a solitary silhouette trudging up the path to Ilu Inaki. It was wearing a panther pelt. But its gait was wrong for Ingcuka, and a minute later, he realized who it was.
He called from below, and T’Challa turned, saw him, and stopped to wait.
M’Baku wasn’t long to catch up to him. T’Challa had climbed alone as was proper, without an escort or technological aid. If you didn’t count the heart-shaped herb’s power still running through his veins.
“Look who’s back,” M’Baku greeted him when he was within talking distance. “You look exhausted, Panther King.”
“Politics are not restful.” He smiled, that half-smile which could topple countries. “Who knew?”
M’Baku snorted and reached him, briefly clasping his arm. They started walking again side by side, looking up at the Inaki Gate carved into the face of the mountain, a great stone gorilla with edges softened by snow.
“It was worth the journey,” T’Challa said. “We’ve made such progress, M’Baku. Seventeen countries have accepted the implementation of an Outreach Center, and a lot more would like to open an embassy here.”
“No, please. Let’s save it for the Tribe Council tomorrow.”
M’Baku huffed, but said nothing more. Since he was being asked to wait, he certainly wouldn’t mind playing up the element of surprise.
The Gorilla Court was in sight now, but it took them another hour to reach it, up the winding stone path. K’Takia by the gate bowed his head and pounded his breastplate in salute. M’Baku took T’Challa to his private rooms and started up a fire while the king let himself fall in a chair. He didn’t need it—the Court was warm at all times, and always bright with chemical and solar lights. But a good fire could nourish a tired man’s soul.
“You’re visiting me first thing, fresh from the world,” M’Baku said when the fire was bright and crackling. “Craving simplicity?”
“I’ll admit I came above all for the quiet. And the conversation.”
“It is quiet here, when we let it be,” M’Baku admitted. “But what is it about my conversation? You’re not the first one to go after it.”
“Ah, I’d say it’s like snow in summer. Both welcome and startling.” T’Challa looked at the mountains outside. “I suppose the landscape inspires you.”
“Honestly? I just like shutting people down.”
T’Challa laughed, and M’Baku realized he’d missed him—as a leader and as a friend. He also realized T’Challa had really come to play on that friendship in a private setting, so M’Baku could be persuaded to vote ewe when the time came again for the crucial vote.
Little did he know his efforts weren’t needed. But he’d asked M’Baku not to speak of it! So M’Baku wouldn’t. He was very accommodating, when he wanted to be.
“My little sister tells me,” T’Challa said, “that the wolf sniffed out some thieves.”
Yes, there it was—a fine conversation which would allow him to lavish praise on the Jabari. But M’Baku had other plans.
“Your sister talks too much and has no respect for her elders. I’m glad you’ve brought up the wolf, though. What are you planning to do with him?”
“With him? He’s not a prisoner.”
“No.” M’Baku sat in front of him. The fire crackled and popped. “But then what is he? A guest, in Shuri’s words? A refugee? What is his future here? This is what I’m asking.”
T’Challa was quiet for a while.
“I owe him,” he began slowly. “And he is… under the protection of a powerful ally. Shuri tells me he’s a good man, and from what I know of him, I believe she’s right…” He was stalling and knew it. “I will offer him citizenship.”
“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea,” M’Baku said casually.
He had the pleasure of startling the Panther King completely—a rather rare occurrence, even considering the past few weeks. T’Challa blinked, then blinked again.
“You need to set a precedent,” M’Baku explained, “and I like how high he raises the bar. Nearly murdered by the king himself. Ah, don’t wince! You’ve made it up to him.”
“I’m… very surprised you’re not fighting me on this,” T’Challa said slowly.
M’Baku stared into the fire. What to tell him? That he and Ingcuka had found comfort from impossible loves in each other’s arms? That fucking an enemy was an excellent way to make him a friend? That Ingcuka had given shape to the fear, anger and mistrust M’Baku had felt lately, and allowed him to strike those dark feelings down—to find his true path again?
What to tell him? That M’Baku had seen Ingcuka’s hut empty, and realized he hated the sight?
Waste, Ingcuka had said, talking about himself. A word not even W’Kabi in his pit would use, still holding his own person in high enough regard. But Ingcuka had risked a bullet to the head and scarcely noticed; and he didn’t want his love to know he loved him.
Surely he could use a home, this man.
“What can I say? Amandi says he’s good at awalé,” M’Baku shrugged. “Graceful loser, too.”
T’Challa gave him a long, long look. He said nothing, asked for no explanation, but there were worlds in his eyes; and some of his tiredness seemed to melt away into relief and into hope, down his shoulders like ice turned to spring water.
The Tribe Council was the next day, and so M’Baku went again to Birnin Zana—without resisting the urge to visit Ingcuka’s hut again on his way down, and finding it empty once more.
Okoye, his unattainable, came at the palace’s door to escort him personally, which turned the day beautiful despite objectively clouded skies. While they walked down the hallways together, they came to discuss the underwater prison escapees.
“It went well, and there will be no repercussion for Wakanda,” she said shortly. “They’re on their way here now.”
“All of them?”
“No. Two of them have families; since they were illegally detained, they’ll risk returning to America under the protection of a good advocate. Another is a witch and was welcomed by a gifted school in Europe. T’Challa’s welcome only extends to the last two.”
One of which was Ukhozi.
“Have you met either of them?” M’Baku inquired.
“I hear they’re interesting people.” She tilted her head to the side. “Do you know, I cannot figure out what you think about their coming here.”
“Not much at all. They’re,” he smiled, “only three people, all in all. Our country will have to absorb a lot more in the years to come.”
“Our country?” she smiled.
“Do not pretend Shuri didn’t tell you,” he snorted. “No, the Jabari are not seceding. We’re supporters of tradition, not detractors of progress.”
Okoye laced her fingers around his wrist.
He stopped walking, surprised—only to freeze completely when she raised his hand between them, and slightly bowed her head to press her forehead to it.
For a moment, M’Baku could think of nothing to do or say; he wanted to pull his hand from her grasp, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“Don’t… Okoye,” he said at last. “General, you’re humbling yourself.”
“I don’t think so. I pledge my friendship to whoever I like.” She lowered their joined hands, but didn’t let go of him. “And lately, you’ve looked at me with more than friendship in your eyes.”
M’Baku swallowed. His thoughts flashed briefly to Ingcuka, wide-eyed and desperate, pleading for his love to remain hidden. M’Baku hadn’t liked seeing his fear; he didn’t like the hints of it in himself, either. So what if Okoye knew? She’d guessed, she’d chosen to bring it out in the open. Now he owed her the decency of the truth.
He exhaled, then settled his shoulders.
“I always have,” he said, looking her in the eye. “I loved you as a child. Now that I’ve met you again, I know I’ll never outgrow these feelings.” He hesitated. “I hope you’re not offended.”
“Offended? No.” Her fingers were warm and callused. “Surprised, maybe. I am nine years older than you.”
“So what? Are we children still?” He gave her a half-smile. “If there was nothing else, I would’ve made my courtship known already. But there is W’Kabi.”
The smile left her mouth. “Yes. There is W’Kabi. I…”
“You owe me nothing,” M’Baku interrupted. “No explanations, no justifications, no conjectures. And there is no hope in my heart to burden you—I swear. No matter what happens next…” He put his other hand on top of hers. “I will be your friend.”
He squeezed her hand, then let go. Okoye looked weary, and he hated that he’d been the one to put such a look on her face. But then she reached out again—cupped his face, and let her thumb trail down his cheek.
M’Baku closed his eyes and did not breathe, to feel her hand better. Those fingers on his skin made him feel like he'd never been truly touched before. This moment was worth all his doubts, all his longing, even if he never received anything more.
The door to the throne room slid open; Okoye quickly put her hand down. T’Challa walked out, clad in the silver-threaded black djellaba he wore to Tribe Councils, and blinked at them; but if he’d noticed anything, he was too gracious to comment on it.
“The Tribe Council’s about to begin,” was all he said. “Lord M’Baku, if you will.”
So here they were again. The River tribe elder, Nakia’s grandfather, a staunch supporter of his king-in-law. The Border tribe elder, W’Kabi’s aunt, dignified to the extreme in hope of extinguishing her nephew’s fault. The Mining and Merchant tribe elders, a tradeswoman and a tradesman, rather than politicians.
And M’Baku. And T’Challa.
“Before we begin,” T’Challa said in a slow, smiling voice, “it is my great honor to invite all of you to my wedding to Nakia of the River tribe, a week from now.”
“A week?” said the Mining tribe elder, without bothering to conceal her glee. “That is… very short.”
“What can I say? Our courting goes back a very long way.” For all the weariness he’d demonstrated at M’Baku’s court the day before, T’Challa was radiating joy now. “And we will be busier than ever as time goes by. There’s no sense in waiting.”
M’Baku tried not to smile—the others would have zeroed on it. But after the weeks he’d been through, he couldn’t help feeling fond of uncomplicated love. T’Challa accepted congratulations and questions for a few minutes, then raised his hands.
“Now—actual politics,” he said. “First of all—Lord M’Baku of the Jabari, you and your people have reached a decision, I believe. On the matter of secession…?”
“What? Oh, that. Forget it, we’re staying.”
M’Baku entertained some irreverence of his own at times, just to see the elders’ jaws clench—and damn it, maybe he really was more similar to the girl Shuri than he thought. He found himself hoping she’d accept the cultural exchange; having her at the Gorilla Court for six months was sure to be entertaining. To say the least.
T’Challa was of the Golden tribe, stoic and cool in every circumstance, but his eyes flashed with relief and sincere happiness. “I am very glad to hear it.” He hesitated. “I had arguments for the opening of the country… but it’s a song we all know already, I believe. So I feel I must simply put it to the vote again.”
A round of nods. T’Challa cleared his throat.
“All those in favor?”
“Ewe,” said the River tribe.
“Ewe,” said the Merchant tribe.
“Ewe,” said the Mining tribe.
“Ewe,” said the Border tribe.
“Hayi,” said M’Baku.
He instantly raised a hand to stave off reactions, and looked at T’Challa alone.
“I will give my ewe,” he said slowly. “For the ambassadors. For the scientists. For the researchers. For the refugees. For the foreign exchange students. For the people with a sincere desire to work and live here. For the people who marry one of our people.” He lowered his hand. “But there will be no tourism. That kind of money is not needed, and that kind of attention is not welcome.” He spared a brief thought for Ingcuka. “In our country, I want only people we’ve invited.”
T’Challa looked at him for a long while, calculating.
Then he straightened up in his chair. “The Golden tribe says ewe.”
His approval was quicker than M’Baku would’ve thought. In fact, he’d half-expected a hayi in the name of deliberation. In this moment, T’Challa impressed him maybe more than he ever had—and T’Challa had already impressed him a lot in the past.
He’s soft! W’Kabi had shouted. What a hopeless idiot, this man.
“So says the River tribe.”
“So says the Border tribe.”
Of course their response was instantaneous, tangled with the king as they both were.
“So says the Mining tribe,” said the Mining elder after a short moment.
Her approval wasn’t surprising; as far as she was concerned, no tourists meant fewer potential thieves. (And people thought the Jabari were the prejudiced ones.) The Merchant tribe elder, however, looked conflicted. Tourism would have made his people richer than the gods and richer than the king. But after ceaselessly berating M’Baku for weeks, groaning out loud at every one of his hayi, throwing his hands and glaring daggers, he couldn’t suddenly start acting in the same way.
“So… says the Merchant tribe,” he said at last.
T’Challa gave M’Baku a private smile that felt like a wink.
Then his smile extended to them all. “My friends,” he said, “it seems we’ve opened the country.”
For better and for worse, M’Baku thought. Wakanda forever.
T’Challa held him back before he left the Council room.
“Thank you,” he said.
“What are you thanking me for? I’m not doing this to please you. I have thought and thought, and come to my own conclusions.”
“I know. That’s why I’m thanking you. I have a feeling the Jabari will keep steering this country true in the future.” T’Challa smiled. “And I’m glad you’re staying, my friend.”
M’Baku clapped his forearm, and T’Challa clapped his in turn.
“Since you will not answer with secession this time, there’s a question I’d like to ask you again,” T’Challa went on, letting go. “How do you keep tradition alive in a country that’s changing?”
“Celebration,” M’Baku answered without thinking, as if he’d been ready for it. “Joy. Pride. Noise and color.”
T’Challa gave him one of his bright smiles. “This answer I like best.”
“Your wedding’s a good start, I think.”
“Yes, that… And Shuri told me about your exchange ideas.”
M’Baku snorted. “That girl tells you everything.”
“How would I understand you if she didn’t? You tell her more than you tell me.”
M’Baku blinked, genuinely stumped for once in his life. That couldn’t be right—could it?
“She has her ways.” T’Challa was too dignified to boast openly about his sister, but his eyes were sparkling. “What I wanted to say was—I like this project, and we’ll make it happen. Glory to Hanuman.”
These words in his mouth shocked M’Baku. “Don’t say this when you do not believe.”
“I believe in all of our gods,” T’Challa shrugged, “I just favor one when it comes to worship. Are we so different?”
Of course the answer was no. T’Challa was asking the whole world this question now, and always hoping the answer would be no.
A great many things had been accomplished today, some M’Baku hadn’t expected at all; he was wrung, and longed for the peaceful snows of his home. Lately, he felt like he’d been spending all his time in Birnin Zana. Still, despite his desire to walk out and keep walking until the Gorilla Court was in sight, he couldn’t let himself leave before visiting Ingcuka, who had to be here somewhere if he wasn’t looking over the lake with his sad, half-spirit eyes.
M’Baku’s strategy to find him was very simple—walk around until Shuri honed in on him, which took no time at all.
“What are you doing here wandering the hallways?”
M’Baku just stared at her, arms folded over his chest, waiting. She rolled her eyes.
“Hello, Lord M’Baku, how can I help you today, O great Silverback King glory of the Jabari?”
“A miracle of protocol,” he snorted, but uncrossed his arms. “I need to see Ingcuka. I suppose he’s locked in your lab?”
“Don’t even joke about that,” she said with a rare hint of seriousness in her eyes. “Go wait in that room. This time, I’m asking him first if he’s okay to see you.”
This, M’Baku let fly; he supposed he’d earned it after his blunder last time. So he went to wait in what just looked like another lab, full of machinery he didn’t care for. Minutes passed and nobody came; he sat on a chair and closed his eyes to meditate, an attempt made harder by the beeps and purring of the tech all around him.
Then a different kind of whirr made him look up.
“Hi,” Ingcuka said quietly.
M’Baku slowly got up, speechless.
Ingcuka seemed very reluctant to show himself, as if afraid M’Baku would recoil in—disgust, maybe? Because he had a new arm, a prosthetic made of sleek black metal. It moved just as fluidly as the real thing, but it had a muted, threatening look.
M’Baku reached for his strange hand, and Ingcuka gave it to him, with relief plain on his face. He still didn’t dare to speak, though. His hair was loose, spilling on his shoulders, half-hiding his face like a curtain. His fingers were smooth and warm against M’Baku’s palm.
“Forgive me for intruding on you, while you were recovering,” M’Baku said quietly.
Ingcuka looked up quickly. “There’s nothing to forgive.” He swallowed. “I’m… I’m glad you’re here. I don’t know if I’ll be going back to the lake, and I don’t know if we’ll ever get to… again…”
He couldn’t quite finish his sentence, perhaps afraid Shuri was listening in—which was not an unreasonable fear. But M’Baku understood him just fine, and knew he was right.
“I wanted to thank you for welcoming me,” Ingcuka said softly instead. “When you had every reason not to.”
“You’ve earned your welcome. And as it turns out, T’Challa agrees.”
Ingcuka’s puzzlement was plain on his face.
“He’s offering you citizenship,” M’Baku explained. “Didn’t you know?”
He’d spent weeks trying to shock Ingcuka; and now that he wasn’t trying anymore, he’d suddenly succeeded. The man stared at him with wide eyes.
“Citizenship?” he stammered. “But… I don’t… I don’t belong here.”
“You didn’t. Now you do.”
“I can’t. I can’t.” He shook his head. “I’d put you all in danger. There’s a lot you don’t know about me, M’Baku—”
“And I don’t need to know it. T’Challa isn’t a child playing awalé, welcoming you on a whim,” M’Baku interrupted. “You are a political statement, just like everything else he does. Put us in danger?” He looked him in the eye. “You have never been condescending. I liked that about you. Don’t start now.”
Ingcuka was silenced. After a moment, he looked down.
“I haven’t been a citizen of anywhere since 1945,” he murmured.
Now that sounded truer to his feelings. M’Baku reached out to brush his long hair away from his face. Damn him, but he liked that quiet white wolf, who did not want to bite, who thought his existence was a waste of other people’s time.
“Take the offer, then, old man. Didn’t you say you wanted peace?” M’Baku looked down at his gleaming hand. This was, he knew, a weapon. “Didn’t you say you didn’t want to fight anymore?”
“I’ve wanted peace since they shipped me off to war.” Ingcuka shrugged. “But if Steve fights, I fight. Without question.”
Without question. The corner of M’Baku’s mouth ticked up. He had a type—who knew?
“My friend,” he said, taking the elastic band from Ingcuka’s wrist and tying back his hair for him. “If you really are a hundred years old, maybe it’s time to stop hiding. When you love someone—” He briefly thought of Okoye and felt himself smile, “you want them to know they’re loved.”
Ingcuka caught him smiling. “Yeah? That what you said to the Dora general?”
M’Baku flicked his face, annoyed that he’d found out. “I told you—this you cannot ask.”
Ingcuka took it good-naturedly, smiling too. He was close; it was easy for M’Baku to pull him in his arms, and Ingcuka accepted the embrace with a soft sigh, wrapping both human and metal arms around M’Baku to grip the back of his pelt.
Whether he chose to stay or not, they both knew their strange relationship was coming to an end, because Ingucka’s love was coming back; whether or not he decided to reveal his feelings, the time for convalescence was over. M’Baku felt his breath against the side of his face, but he knew they wouldn’t kiss, and Ingcuka knew it too. It was fine. They understood each other. They’d managed to understand each other in the end.
After a few moments, Ingcuka loosened the hug and opened his clearwater crinkled eyes. “My friend,” he echoed, because of course he’d noticed M’Baku calling him that. “Thank you.”
M’Baku stayed for a last shared breath, then clapped his shoulder and moved away from him. Now, he could leave.
Just before he left the room, though, he stopped and turned around, thinking of one last thing. Ingcuka looked at him, expectant.
“Your real name,” M’Baku said. “What is it?”
Ingcuka grinned like he’d only been waiting for him to ask. “It’s Bucky. But I like it when you call me wolf.”
M’Baku huffed, then opened the door. “I’ll see you at T’Challa’s wedding then, white wolf. Maybe your Ukhozi will be back by then—we’ll make sure he’s on the list.”
“He’s American too, you know,” Ingcuka called.
M’Baku smirked at him over his shoulder. “Nobody’s perfect.”
Joy, pride, noise and color. For T’Challa’s wedding, the whole of Wakanda seemed to have taken M’Baku’s advice to heart.
They were all here. The River tribe, bursting with pride for their Nakia, with the great Sobek held over their heads on pikes, a ten-feet-long crocodile figure made of woven reeds, fully articulated, opening its great jaws to stick out its blood-red tongue—as if trying to snap at the dancers underneath, all wearing bright green-and-yellow pearls that rustled and whispered when they danced. The Mining tribe, all decked out in crimson, sleek braids coated in red argyle, lion furs cascading down their backs, holding great vibranium horns that roared when they blew them, all-powerful over the noise of the crowd, each saluted by cheer and shouts. The Merchant tribe competed with them for the loudest celebration, shouting hyena laughs that sounded like the real thing, hysterical cackles of glee pulled from the back of their lungs, a noise that no one could manage without training for years. The Border tribe was silent and did not dance, because their rhinos alone were enough, heaving and snorting, tossing their great heads; Basotho banners were waving in the breeze above, so intricately woven that they seemed to constantly change patterns, different colors shimmering with the wind.
And finally, there were the Dora Milaje in their rarely seen ceremonial armors, black and gold shining under the bright blue skies, spears up as if ready to tear any cloud that would dare approach.
When she saw M’Baku, Okoye gave him a glance—it lasted for a second but felt like a physical touch. He had to conceal his emotion before he announced the Jabari tribe.
Heads turned when his people all announced themselves with him, hooting and pounding their wooden breastplates, carrying great drums that resonated in men’s stomachs when they rolled. All the other tribes answered in an explosion of joy, dancing evermore, waving banners and sounding horns, laughing hyena laughs, cheering, the great articulated Sobek snapping its mighty jaws. For the first time in history since the rise of Bashenga, the five tribes had assembled.
O, the king’s wedding!
And the last tribe arrived, the tribe that wasn’t really a tribe, the royal family, the Golden tribe, the Panther tribe. They were all decked in smooth black and shimmering purple; but the most impressive was the huge vibranium-violet figures that walked with them. A panther per family member, giant holograms encasing them, following their wearers’ every move, looking where they looked, blinking when they blinked. Shuri’s creation, no doubt.
The crowd seemed to detonate with awe and glee—except for the Jabari, who snorted and shook their heads. M’Baku gave a satisfied nod; he was proud of his people.
Then a flash of white skin caught his eye. Ingcuka was there, at the very back of the Golden tribe, with his left arm hidden under his panther pelt. He never did try to draw attention to himself. Of course he had no panther haloed around him, but the fact that he didn’t seem troubled by the giant make-believe beasts walking around him made him stand out all on his own.
His eye caught M’Baku’s, and he smiled.
Then all present turned their heads, and a whisper of excitement passed over the crowd like a great wind. T’Challa and Nakia were walking out of the palace to reach the middle of the grass courtyard.
He wore the Black Panther suit, and was haloed by a giant panther like the rest of his family—except his own was almost solid and even more alive, swishing its tail, showing its fangs in great yawns, looking upon the crowd with ghost-white eyes. And Nakia, who wore a flowing green dress and a headpiece of gleaming gold, was haloed as well by a crocodile so immense it looked like a dinosaur. Its intangible tail cut into the crowd without hurting anyone.
Then all the holograms faded, and T’Challa suit folded itself into his necklace, revealing flowing dresses of purple underneath. It was like a flower blooming all at once: like war suddenly resolving itself into peace. He looked at nothing and nobody but Nakia. He looked like a man in love. She looked at him the same way, with so much happiness it seemed to halo her the way her god had.
The five tribes surrounded them in a great semi-circle. The articulated Sobek still waved cheerily in the air: Shuri could not turn off that one, but it didn’t seem to bother her. Next to her mother, she was smiling like she could not help it. Not all the joy was gone—far from it.
Uri, son of the late Zuri, stepped forward and spread his arms. After a moment, silence fell upon the assembly. T’Challa and Nakia stood side by side, with their back to their palace, facing their people who’d come from all the corners of the kingdom to marry them.
“The Mining tribe will come,” Uri shouted, “and bind this man and woman in the Mining way!”
The Mining tribe elder came forward, in a concert of lion roars, and wrapped a strand of kente cloth around the couple’s wrists. They would remain bound that way for the rest of the celebration. M’Baku saw their fingers interlace after their wrists were tied together.
“The Merchant tribe will come,” Uri called next, “and bind this man and woman in the Merchant way!”
At least a dozen people detached themselves from the Merchant group, throwing bright hyena laughter to the skies, and ran madly around T’Challa and Nakia while pelting them with vibranium chips they carried in leather satchels. The bride and groom both laughed and covered their faces; the violet figments caught in their hair and clothes, shimmering in the daylight, an omen of wealth and prosperity to come.
“The Border tribe will come,” Uri bellowed, “and bind this man and woman in the Border way!”
An immense rhino, mounted by the Border tribe elder, stepped out of the crowd. It went to T’Challa and Nakia, snorted and huffed, then bowed its mighty head. T’Challa reached out to touch its horn, in a short moment of melancholy. W’Kabi was still in his pit and would remain there for years to come. The Border tribe was silent, but their Basotho cloths shimmered and changed colors overhead.
“The River tribe will come,” Uri went on, “and—”
He couldn’t finish his sentence; the River tribe roared with joy and rushed to the couple like one great green-and-yellow wave. Laughing and clinging to each other, T’Challa and Nakia were hoisted up on a great metal disc and paraded all over the crowd, going from tribe to tribe, bobbing over the human sea in a chaos of cheers and laughter. This lasted for almost fifteen minutes since nobody wanted to put them down. Eventually, they did make it back to the ground, giddy and disoriented and smiling so much it probably hurt their cheeks.
“The Mountain tribe will come,” Uri called, looking miffed at being interrupted, “and bind this man and woman—”
“In the Jabari way!” M’Baku finished for him, stepping from the crowd.
Uri looked scandalized this time, but nobody paid any attention to him. A hush fell: the Wakandans had never seen a Jabari wedding.
M’Baku walked to the couple, followed by Amandi and N’Tsalo holding wooden jars, two each. He had no need of a hologram to feel Hanuman walking with him at every step, and neither did his captains. All three of them stopped in the middle of the courtyard, in front of T’Challa and Nakia whose wedding raiments rippled in the gentle wind.
“So,” Nakia said, smiling, when M’Baku reached them. “What is the Jabari way?”
“Fight to the death between the groom and bride,” M’Baku said.
He grinned while they laughed. Then he gestured at Amandi and N’Tsalo, who opened the wooden jars they carried.
“Here. You will give each other a taste of the four elements.”
T’Challa and Nakia leaned close to see. One jar held clear lime juice; another, red cayenne pepper; a third, dark fluid vinegar; and a fourth, golden mountain honey.
“Remember all your life to be together in all these ways,” M’Baku recited. “Sour and hot, bitter and sweet.”
He watched as Nakia and T’Challa dipped their fingers in the lime juice, and made each other taste it. M’Baku held back a smile when he saw how shy they were about it. The great warrior king and the War Dog international spy, both blushing like children.
The lime juice was sharp, but Nakia licked it with the rosy point of her tongue, and T’Challa tasted it from her fingers slowly, with a look that made M’Baku glance away after all. All right—maybe it was a bit of an intimate ceremony.
His gaze landed on Okoye, and he felt a small shock when he saw she was looking at him, too.
For a moment of folly, he imagined licking thick honey off her fingers, tasting hot cayenne from her hand, and felt such a stab of longing it robbed him of breath. Worse—he wondered if she imagined it, too. Her gaze betrayed nothing; but her eyes were burning him.
He had to look away, and he found himself looking for Ingcuka instead. Except Ingcuka was gone.
M’Baku frowned. Gone during the wedding ceremony? He looked harder, trying to remain inconspicuous about it—which wasn’t difficult since all eyes were on the king and queen-to-be, now making each other taste cayenne that burned their tongue and lips, laughing and coughing.
After a moment, M’Baku spotted a figure in the shade of the palace, where stone gave way to nature. It was Ingcuka, in his panther pelt, facing the path that came up from the gardens.
A man was climbing up to meet him.
Ukhozi was dressed in worn, leather-like armor, like he’d come straight from battle, straight from the underwater prison, in one long run across land and sea. Ingcuka wasn’t saying anything, wasn’t moving; he just watched him approach. Ukhozi stopped in front of him, and they both stood in the shadow of the palace, hidden from all but M’Baku’s attention. A bubble of silence away from the noise.
Nakia and T’Challa tasted vinegar, grimacing at the bitterness, then letting their grimaces turn into smiles.
Ukhozi made an aborted movement towards Ingcuka, then stopped himself with a look of extreme restraint. Even from a distance, his longing was as clear as blood pulsing out of a wounded heart.
Nakia took honey from the last jar, and brought it to T’Challa’s lips. He did the same, painting her mouth with gold. Then they kissed each other, eliciting a clamor of joy longer and louder than any other, cheers and shouts and stomping feet, and laughter and tears, a clamor that felt like it might never end.
In the shadows, Ingcuka stepped forward as if he’d planned this all along—and maybe he had. Maybe M’Baku’s words had been enough. He kissed Ukhozi on the lips like a greeting, then he stepped back, rigid with tension, and waited. Ukhozi looked at him in astonishment. Even from afar, his wide eyes were bright blue.
Come on now, M’Baku found himself thinking. Come on.
Standing in the sun, surrounded by the five tribes, Nakia and T’Challa were still tasting honey from each other, under a renewed rain of bright vibranium flakes, with their wrists bound together, hearing lion roars and hyena laughter and gorilla hooting, because the cry of celebration was still not done. They parted eventually, looking as if they’d never wanted to part, the king and queen, bound in the way of all their tribes, smiling at each other, existing only to each other.
In the shadows, Ukhozi pulled Ingcuka to him and kissed him back. With desperate relief, with all-encompassing love. Both of Ingcuka’s hands came up, flesh and metal, and knotted themselves in his clothing so he couldn’t step away. They had none of the four elements to taste, but the way they kissed made it clear they’d already tasted it all, time and time again.
Every double-beat of M’Baku’s heart was suddenly like a drum of victory in his chest: a loud beat for the royal couple standing in the sun, and a quieter echo for two tired soldiers in the shadows. And the spaces in-between, M’Baku dedicated them to Okoye, who still looked at him whenever he dared to glance at her—impassive and proud, but looking, steadily.
Who knows, said the hopeful silence between his heartbeats. Who knows.
“These men are licking into each other’s mouths,” suddenly said Amandi, who’d apparently been watching the sidelines too.
“Look away,” M’Baku advised, smiling with the edge of his lips.
The music was starting now, and would last for days.