Born: 151 AD
Shadowland cubs were typically raised by their grandmothers and hardly ever knew their fathers. Olubayo and Zahra were different – not only did they know the name of their father, but also got to spend quite a lot of time with him. The lion, who was more majestic than any of the males the girls knew, visited once a month, usually accompanied by one or two of his older daughters. Those times were joyful, filled with games, practice hunting, and storytelling. When the family descended to the underground caves, it was Zahra and Olubayo who lead the way and explained things to their father and sisters. In exchange they received tales of the other lands and prides their relatives knew. All of that fascinating.
It turned out Shadowlanders were special. No other pride spent so much time underground. While Shadowlanders ate mostly fish from underground rivers, other lions chased their prey on the surface – huge prey, animals as big as lions themselves. Also, surface lions practiced joining ceremonies and sometimes mated for life. Whole families lived, hunted and raised cubs together. Prides had ranking systems, with leaders and ordinary members – unheard of in the Shadowlands, where all lions were equal and their own masters. Zahra and Olubayo were glad to have such an interesting family.
There was, however, one drawback – surface lions had some very stupid beliefs. amongst them the belief that black lions bring bad fortune. And thus Zahra, who was black as night itself, could never travel into the lands her father and sisters described. If she did, she could get hurt. Or worse.
Father said he would love to give Olubayo a tour of the empire, but not Zahra. He loved her too much to expose her to danger. Not only her – some lions would not seem it satisfactory to just hurt the black cub. Their fear could push them to eliminate Zahra’s entire family. Just in case they were touched by her curse as well.
So nobody outside of Shadowlands knew the great emperor had a black daughter. It pained him to hide her existence, but it was the only way to keep his family safe.
It was the most unfair thing in the world.
So the girls thought. And thought. There had to be something that could be done to help their case. A way for Zahra to travel. Cause Olubayo sure as hell was not leaving the Shadowlands without her twin.
They did find a solution of sorts. The mountains surrounding their province were rich in reddish dust. A dust that – as claimed by their sister Wingu, who often got dirty – colored fur red.
All siblings tried their paw in helping Zahra apply the dust to her fur. It took some practice, but the outcome made their hearts soar – Zahra no longer appeared black. She was dark red.
The twins tested the cover by making short journeys outside Shadowlands. First at night. Then in the light of day. And it seemed to work. As long as no rain clouds were in sight.
Still, Zahra chose not to claim kinship to Olubayo, letting herself be known as the princess's friend. Shall their secret be exposed, their remaining sisters will not be put in danger.
Thus, while Olubayo got to walk beside their father and practice surface hunting with his older daughters, Zahra observed from the shadows. Olubayo always felt guilty about leaving her twin behind, but Zahra told her it was okay – she was happy just watching. It was still better than being confided to their home province for life.
Sometimes Olubayo got angry at her father. Told him that pale lions such as himself should give up on their divine status. That no creature should ever be deemed more or less important than others based on color alone. That it was his duty, as the emperor, to fight with such harmful stereotypes. The old lion replied that those stereotypes were established centuries prior to his birth, and he could not fight them, even if he wanted to. No lion ever, not even one deemed as holy, has the power to change the views of the entire species. Olubayo called him lazy and an opportunist. He said he was protecting his family the best he could, and sometimes one had to accept his own limitations rather than challenge the sun. At the end of the day, Olubayo never managed to convince him to change his views. And she never had enough courage to challenge the world alone. Deep in her heart she knew it was a battle she couldn't win.
And so, without even realizing it, Olubayo begun to resent the dominant culture. Surface lions regarded her as cold and arrogant, maybe a little uncivilized, but she didn't care. If anything, she was glad to be resented by the same culture that hurt her sister.
She might have managed to move her father’s conscience a little bit, since he came up with a proposition. He concluded it would be a good idea to transform a part of the empire into a cursed zone - an area exclusively for criminals and offenders. Such a solution seemed preferable to exiling such individuals from the empire, since exile only gave them the opportunity to cause trouble elsewhere. Since Shadowlands were mostly barren, this was where the cursed zone would be – right at the very border with the Western Mountains. Shadowlanders would be left in charge of keeping the offenders from escaping. And Zahra would be their boss, the one with the final authority to deem an individual redeemed or outlawed. Who better to defend the empire than a black lioness?
Olubayo was beside herself with fury when she heard these plans. Father wanted Zahra to take on the role of a demon!
But Zahra herself was intrigued by the offer. If she could be of use to the empire, then by all means, she wanted to. Even if it meant playing a demon. Great Spirit must have had a purpose behind giving her such coloration, and perhaps this was it. Besides, she and Olubayo could recruit other guards, and hopefully convince them she was as normal as any other lion. It was worth trying.
Thus the roles were divided – Olubayo became the governess of the Shadowlands and Zahra the commander of the Cursed Guards. The organization ends up consisting almost entirely of Shadowlanders or partial Shadowlanders – surface lions do volunteer every now and then, but cannot stand the living conditions in the long run. Which is for the best – Shadowlanders don’t mind Zahra’s real colors.
The sisters live in harmony until their father comes up with another brilliant suggestion.
He has established a betrothal agreement with the kingdom of Riverlands – their princess was scheduled to marry his grandson Shahan – the future emperor. Unexpectedly, the princess was accompanied by a prince of Open Plains, who offered himself as a betrothed for one of imperial princesses. The lion was only a few years younger than the twins, and since Olubayo was not involved with any male, perhaps she could take a look at him?
The young lioness is annoyed at first. She cannot help but feel that her father is dumping his problem onto her. But then, she cannot judge somebody she hasn't even met. Thus she agrees to take a look at the prince.
The lion’s name is Tayari. He seems to have a hero's complex and is looking for interesting new challenges. He claims he wants to serve the common good and bring honor to his family. Reading between the lines, Olubayo concludes he was tired of being the king's kid brother, and thus decided to try his luck away from home. Overall, she finds nothing outright appalling in his appearance and personality. Still, she doesn't feel any chemistry either.
But then the wheels in her head begin to turn. Tayari is a royal lion. His great-grandmother was a white lioness. He has white blood. If he mated with another white-born, he could have white cubs.
And maybe, if Zahra would have white cubs, she would no longer be viewed as cursed.
The idea is so tasty Olubayo gets excited. A black lioness having white cubs. Would that be something!
She questions Tayari if he’d be interested in joining the oh so noble formation of brave guards, protecting the empire from the exiled criminals. He is very much interested (the fool! XD).
She questions Zahra if she’d be interested in Tayari as a male. Zahra does not like the idea of manipulating others for personal gain, but she does admit – the male is handsome and very much to appealing to her.
Thus Olubayo requests her father’s permission to entrust Tayari to the Cursed Guard – to see if there is a real male under this handsome hide. Theluji does not like the idea, but allows it – warning his daughters to be extra careful with Zahra’s cover.
And so the plan is in motion.