When he was very, very small, his father took him to the top of the highest mountain. It was very cold, but his father's arms were warm, and he delighted in watching as the ice crystals formed in his father's dark beard. Night had fallen in full by the time they reached their destination. Above their heads, the stars burned bright and sharp.
"We came from the stars, my son," his father told him, in the way he would learn meant Father was reciting something from long ago. "Our bodies grew on Earth but our souls descended from light." He touched his son in the center of his chest, which tickled. "You are made of light."
"Yes, Father," he said with a giggle.
"You will be called M'Baku."
He tried out the word in his own mouth. "M'Baku." He giggled again.
Father smiled, and the recitation was over. "Children are given their names when we know who they are. If your mother and I named you when you were born, your name would be simply an expression of our joy at your birth. But I know who you are now, my son, and this is a good name."
M'Baku laughed again, and looked up at the stars, filled with their light.
M'Baku caught his first sight of a flying ship when he was five years old. He had seen the Wakandan ships from very far off before this, but those had been dots like birds in the distant sky. This one had come close enough for him to make out the elegant shape of the hull. His heart filled with longing and joy as it flew by the mountain. He wanted to jump astride it, ride the wheeling, bright thing into adventures he could only imagine.
"I saw a flying ship!" he said as soon as he came inside. "Father, did you see?"
Father was busy at his work, but he paused and offered a smile as he always did when M'Baku came to him with some new discovery. This smile was less kind than most. "It is just a ship, M'Baku."
M'Baku recognized the tone, but his heart was too full of wonder to hold back. "Why don't we have flying ships? The Jabari are brave and intelligent. We could make our own ships." He pictured this: carved wood, air-tight and sap-smelling, chasing the metal craft through the skies.
"We have no need of flying ships. Anywhere we wish to go, we can use our own legs or a cart, and we are stronger for the journey."
"We can't go into the sky."
"There is nothing in the sky we need. Clouds bring rain and snow as they will," he made a different face. "At least until climate change stops them." Father said 'climate change' a lot. He and M'Baku's mother had tracked the weather patterns in Wakanda as recorded over the last five hundred years, and they didn't like the trend they saw. It was another jagged piece of the outer world encroaching, and they did not like it one bit.
M'Baku ignored his father's old worry and sat beside him at the table, putting his face in his hands. "I would like to fly. I think it would be fun." He looked slyly over at Father. "We could ask the other tribes to borrow one. Just to see."
Father set his ledger aside with a sigh. M'Baku knew the face he was making. "We are not going to ask the other tribes. We are separate from them for many good reasons."
"But just one flying ship?"
"Go play, M'Baku."
They lit their torches, one by one. Mother's oldest friend had died in the night, and the Jabari were gathered to give him a proper send-off. M'Baku had practiced the chant this morning. "Up through your feet, up through your stomach, and out," Father told him. "Let Hanuman move inside your spirit."
"Hanuman is a story," he told his father, trembling in the awe of his own disbelief. "He isn't real."
Father sat down in a chair and bade him sit opposite. "You've been reading again."
M'Baku liked to read the books they kept in the deep library, safe from heat and cold and wet. Jabari from long ago had written their thoughts and beliefs of Hanuman. A few, a rare few, had traveled outside Wakanda and returned bearing strange tales of other lands, including lands that worshiped him, not as the Great Gorilla but as a trickster. Comparative mythology was not a large section of their library. M'Baku had memorized every book they owned on the matter.
"But it's true," he said. "Why do we worship a god who is not real?"
Father took a long breath. "M'Baku, today is not the day. Today, your mother needs us beside her to help through her loss. Hanuman is a strength and a comfort."
He wouldn't be moved. "So is a doll."
His father looked at him a long time. "We choose who we want to be. The other tribes chose Bast. We chose Hanuman. It tells us each not what is real here," he said, touching his shirt, "but what is real here." He touched M'Baku's chest over his heart, the same place he had touched long ago when they stood on the mountaintop.
M'Baku felt the light inside himself. He also felt a bit of stubbornness. "Does it matter which god we honor if none of them are real except in our hearts?"
"Of course. Tell me about Hanuman. Our Hanuman, not the one in your books."
"He is the Great Gorilla. He is mighty and strong, like the Jabari."
"Yes. We call on him to make his strength our strength. But far more important than that, we choose the Great Gorilla because gorillas have wisdom. They are strong, yes, but they only fight at need. They love their families fiercely and do not idly hurt them or any other save when they are in danger. They live in harmony with the world, not taking more than they can return. We choose the Great Gorilla because he is intelligent. That is who the Jabari are."
M'Baku had read more books than that. He knew the history of their country, and he still longed for a flying ship. "But the rest of Wakanda worships Bast."
Father smiled, and his eyes twinkled. "A cat. Yes. Cats are sleek and beautiful, and excellent hunters, but they are also lazy and inconstant, and some are cruel. A cat will play with his enemy, or kill it, or eat it, all for sport. A cat will lounge in the sunlight and find easy ways to get what he wants, using magic metal to make flying ships instead of walking on his own feet." He leaned in with a whimsical whisper, "Besides, cats lick their own behinds. You would never catch Hanuman doing that."
M'Baku reached the Throne Room behind many others. As the Prince, he could move his way to the front and stand beside his father's chair, earning only the briefest glance from Father at his tardiness. The rest of his attention was on the young man standing before him.
He looked to be a few years older then M'Baku, and wore the garments common to the Border Tribe. Beside him stood two guards. The youth put on a pretense of calm, but his nervousness shone through.
Father said, "We don't often find spies from the other tribes in our lands. What does T'Chaka want?"
A spy? From the back of the room, M'Baku heard muttering. Someone said the word 'execute.' Father ignored them, focusing his gaze on the interloper.
"I'm not a spy." He became even more agitated. "I was hunting. I didn't realize I was following the track onto Jabari land." That was a lie. The border was clearly marked. Stay away, it said without words.
Father sat back. "Hunting?"
"Did you succeed in your hunt?"
"No. The guards came and frightened the animal away. That was how I discovered where I was."
"I didn't know there is famine in the rest of Wakanda. Our harvest has been good this season." He raised his hand, and a platter was brought in, filled with piping hot roasted vegetables. "Please, if you are starving, don't fall on ceremony. You're welcome to eat."
The youth took in the meal, which looked like it would be tonight's supper after this was finished. M'Baku had been very tardy coming home. "I'm not starving. Thank you for your kind offer, Your Highness." The platter was removed.
"I see. You trespass on our lands to hunt our animals, and you don't even have the excuse that you are hungry?"
"I meant no disrespect."
"Tell me, have T'Chaka and his scientists conquered death itself with their vibranium trinkets? Had you succeeded in your hunt, could you have given the animal its life back?"
He looked startled and confused. "No. Of course not."
Father shook his head again. He turned away, looking outside for a while and deliberating. M'Baku could read no emotion on his face, but for a moment in profile, he saw age. His father was growing older.
"Take him to the border. Take all the possessions he has on him, including his clothes, then set him free." He gave a sharp look to the guards. They had heard the mutterings, too. "He is not to be harmed or abused in any way."
The guards nodded, and half-led, half-shoved the young man away.
The spectacle over, the Throne Room cleared out, with the low muttering still in the background. M'Baku stayed where he was, a bit amused at the thought of the young man sent naked back home, and a bit perturbed.
When they were alone, he said to his father, "He was a spy."
"I doubt it. T'Chaka is smarter than that."
"What if he is clever enough to cut himself, sending a fool to make us complacent? You should have ordered him to be executed."
Father blinked at M'Baku. "Why?"
M'Baku stared back, but he didn't have an answer. His own youth burned inside him, telling him alternately to fight or run or find the nearest warm body and rut. He wasn't able to do any of the three, and that hurt worse. "To show the others we are strong."
"Then I have had two foolish young men in my Throne Room today." Father sighed. "There are two very good reasons to let him live. The first is that T'Chaka would feel obliged to respond if the Jabari killed one of his people for no reason. That would escalate into a fight none of us wants. If the Jabari send a foolish boy back home looking like an even greater fool, his friends will laugh at him, and he will try to forget he ever came to the mountains." He smiled at his son. "Anyone can fight. It is a more satisfying victory to allow your foe to choke on his own foolishness."
M'Baku shrugged. He saw the wisdom. He did not have to like it.
"And the other reason to let him live?"
Father turned back to the snowy view. "We do not take what we cannot return. We never take what we cannot return." He indicated the fine decorations in the room. "We build with wood because we plant wood to grow again." He touched the furs around M'Baku's shoulders. "We take only the furs of creatures that have died, or those we defended ourselves against." He looked at M'Baku's face. "If you took his life, could you give it back to him?"
M'Baku shook his head.
"The Jabari are not murderers. We only kill when we must. We do not hunt for sport or pleasure, and we have food enough not to steal the life of an animal to eat. A man's life is worth no less than that. Tell me you understand."
M'Baku nodded his head. "I do."
"I hope so. You will be leader after me. The Jabari are the greatest tribe of all the people on the Earth, and they deserve only the best leader. Every day, I try to live up to that responsibility. Some days I fail. Today was a good day."
"I will try to be a good leader, Father."
Unexpectedly, Father reached out and touched M'Baku's chest over his heart. "I know you will succeed."
T'Challa sprawled in M'Baku's bed, lounging then twisting against the deep cushion in an effort to get comfortable. M'Baku watched him, chuckling at the sight. Amusing as he found T'Challa's contortions, though, they were enough to make him think the two of them were due for another round if T'Challa didn't fall into a nap instead like he usually did after they finished.
"What is it?" T'Challa asked him, one eye open and the other hidden by a blanket.
"You are a cat."
T'Challa rolled his eyes. He was more like his sister than he wanted to admit, but his sister wasn't the one here tonight. "Yes," he said patiently. "That's what a panther is."
"I know." M'Baku placed a hand against T'Challa's hip, enjoying the warmth. Cool bedrooms were good for sleeping, and even better for huddling together with another to get warm again. "That's why you worship Bast."
"Because cats are quick and sleek and attractive." He grinned at M'Baku, and yes, they were definitely due another round.
"And lazy, and impulsive, and inconstant as a cloud. You let your technology do your work for you, and you're always running off to save the world."
T'Challa sat up, bringing his face closer to M'Baku's. "You think I am inconstant." M'Baku didn't answer. T'Challa took his hand and placed it against his chest. M'Baku could feel his heart beating. "I am as constant as the stars. I am here as long as you are."
It was impossible to feel light. M'Baku knew this. He was no longer a small child. But he wanted to believe he felt the starlight inside T'Challa, warming through his arm and into him. They'd come together to bind the tribes, the Jabari and the rest of Wakanda at last rejoined. That was politics. This was more. M'Baku had the terrible feeling he was falling in love with this man.
"I am here as long as you," he said back to T'Challa, and he meant it. "But you are still a cat and you will lick your own behind."
"I am not that flexible. But if you ask me nicely, I might lick yours."
M'Baku met his smile with another. "Then I will ask you very nicely."
Their son was tiny, but big enough to walk. T'Challa fretted about the cold. M'Baku assured him it would be fine.
"I should go with you."
"You should worry about your own traditions and let me tend to mine."
"My traditions said he should have had a name when he was born."
"Yes," M'Baku said, "and that is very silly. Now we know who he is. He will have a good name for himself."
They quarreled like this often when they were alone, gentle pokes with no barb. In public, they spoke with one voice, and Ramonda gave her grandson a name to use during official appearances. They called him 'darling child' and 'sweet boy', and he knew only smiles.
"We could take my ship," T'Challa tried one last time. "We could fly there in less than a minute. It would keep him safe from the cold."
M'Baku thought of the steep mountain, and the cold snow, and the hard climb with a little boy. "No. Some things he must learn to do the slow way. The best things should be done slowly." Then he kissed his husband, promising with his lips the warm, slow time they could share after he returned.
By the time M'Baku reached the highest part of the mountain, the cold was deep in his bones. He wrapped his child more warmly in his arms, and knew he had made the right choice.
"We came from the stars, my son," M'Baku told him. "Our bodies grew on Earth, but our souls descended from light." He pressed his lips against the boy's hair, and touched his fingers to where his little heart beat against the cold and the dark, burning like a distant sun. "You are made of light."
The boy laughed as he looked up at the dazzling stars. M'Baku told him his name.