The occasion had no precedent. A Prince of the Pride Lands was being proclaimed King of the Tree of Life. The assemblage of animals gathered was large, and as he ascended the rock, the Prince, the King-to-be, felt a sense of accomplishment as the animals rejoiced. “All hail King Kion! All hail Queen Rani!”

But while Kion was certainly adept, and would indeed make a good king, his heart rejoiced the greater for his marriage with the Queen of the Tree of Life. Rani was her name, which itself meant ‘queen’. It was but a few days ago that her grandmother, Queen Janna, had died, and she had felt the greatness of the responsibility that was now hers. That he would share this responsibility with her gave her strength, he knew, and he resolved to himself to ever be to her a pillar of support. She was brave, smart, and kind — qualities with which he was himself equally blessed, but to which his humble self would not admit.

Meeting Rani had renewed his strength, his confidence, and his sense of purpose. Terrible was the ill that befell him when, in the final and decisive battle for the defence of the Pride Lands against the vengeful spirit of his granduncle, Scar, and the animals that served as his acolytes, Ushari the snake had bitten him and injected his venom into a mere hairline length above his left eye, and the bite gave him a scar in the likeness of the one that gave his granduncle his name.

On the advice of Rafiki the Mandrill, who was the Royal Mjuzi, Kion and his friends that formed the Lion Guard — the formidable team that defended the Pride Lands — undertook the arduous voyage to the Tree of Life, where Kion could be healed. Throughout the voyage, Kion stood in peril of becoming like his granduncle, and his compassion, his patience, and his perceptiveness threatened to be replaced by anger, impatience, and hubris.

But his staunch friends that formed the Lion Guard led by him — Fuli, the cheetah; Bunga, the honey badger; Beshte, the hippopotamus; and Ono, the egret — never gave up on him, or on hope, or on the healing that awaited him at the Tree of Life. And healed he was, after certain trials, and after the tribulation of confronting himself, that made him realize that his scar did not define him. Rani, and the ‘Night Pride’ of lions that she led, had helped him, and between the two Royals a romance bloomed. In Rani’s own fleeting moment of irresolution at the wise Queen Janna’s death, but at whose instance she might not have permitted entry to Kion and his friends, she had Kion’s comforting support.

Simba, King of the Pride Lands, and Nala, his Queen, were alike content and aching. They would be the first Royal couple in several generations to live long enough to see their children marry. They were not yet verging on senescence either; perhaps they would yet cradle, nay be of importance in raising, their grandchildren! And yet Kion, their son, would no longer be in the Pride Lands. Over the years, leading the Lion Guard, and finally leading the assault on Scar — Kion’s granduncle and Simba’s uncle — Kion had proved himself capable on every instance of trouble that befell the Pride Lands. And now, he was to dwell at the Tree of Life, ruling its realms, so far away from the Pride Lands, his Lion Guard friends having pledged to stay with him.

They still had Kiara, their daughter, Kion’s elder sister, the future Queen of the Pride Lands, for whom they were happy. She was now married to Kovu, a lion once part of a pride exiled from the Pride Lands by Simba. The pride’s leader, Zira, who was Kovu’s mother, was loyal to Scar, who had himself assumed kingship of the Pride Lands by treacherously killing his elder brother, and then Prince Simba’s father, Mufasa. Kovu, raised by Zira into a weapon to kill Simba, felt the first pangs of doubt at his mother’s creed upon meeting Kiara after long years — they had met only as cubs before circumstances did them apart — and found to his joy that his heart was no longer his own; that it had forsaken the blackness of his mother’s creed and was won over by such an intelligent, such a vivacious lioness. She found to her own joy that the winsome lion had won her over, and the duo intervened to stop an imminent battle between the prides of Zira and Simba. Heeding their pleas of peace, and seeing sense in the need to leave behind the acrimonious past, Kovu’s sister, Vitani, and all other lionesses of Zira’s pride but Zira herself, pledged allegiance to King Simba. Zira, unable to let go of her hate, met her sorry end, and the two prides united and proclaimed themselves as one to all of Pride Lands. Kiara would soon be Queen, and Kovu the King, but Kion would not be with the Royal Family, on occasion though they may meet, and in the blessed realm of parental love, no one child among children could ever hope to take the place of them all.

Kion and Rani ascended the rock, and amid the hails of the animals assembled, let out their ceremonial roars to proclaim themselves rulers at the Tree of Life, and the animals that were to be their happy subjects bowed in respect.

So soon as they roared, the gentle breeze of the evening gave way, with gradual steadiness, to a grey and windy sky. A malicious laugh echoed, and out of nowhere appeared a mysterious figure, whose being was concealed in a black robe, a hood over his head. The creature was of a like never before seen by the assemblage, and they thought his robes to be rather like a skin about to be shed.

“Animals of the Pride Lands and those of the Tree of Life,” the figure addressed the assemblage, his voice sepulchral. “Bow in greetings to your true sovereign, the Emperor of the Universe.”

“The Universe?” asked Fuli, the cheetah, the fastest of the Pride Lands. “What is the Universe?”

“It is of little surprise that your pitiful gathering must not know of the Universe,” the being said, his voice dripping with haughty disdain. “You know of the Pride Lands, of the Tree of Life, and of the biomes between, but like these there are realms, billions upon billions, the totality of which is called the Universe. And I am the suzerain, the overlord, the one true Emperor of them all. Save, indeed, the Pride Lands and the Tree of Life, which I desire to make mine. It is my command, therefore, that you surrender these realms unto me.”

“What do you know about this, Ono?” asked Beshte, the hippopotamus. Beshte, the strongest in the Pride Lands, reacted to most incidents, no matter how dire, with enviable calm, such as might lead an unacquainted animal to wrongly infer as indifference. On this occasion, he was curious, and he sought the opinion of the egret who, with his vast knowledge of regions, plants, and species, was as indispensable a member of the Lion Guard as any.

“Well, I have never heard of the Universe,” Ono said. “There are lands far beyond those we know of — that much is common knowledge, really. There is clearly a lot we don’t know.”

“Who cares?” asked Bunga, the honey badger, the bravest in the Pride Lands; brave, to the point of recklessness. He jumped up and down in his characteristically boundless enthusiasm. “Send this shrivelled old hag flying, Kion! Do it! Do it!”

The Emperor was neither offended nor amused. “May we dispense with the mindless entertainment, that I could subordinate your lands to my rule?”

“No,” said Rani firmly. “We will not give up without a fight.”

The Emperor affected disappointment. “Since long before Askari formed the first ever Lion Guard of the Pride Lands countless generations ago, have I been Emperor,” he spoke with a sigh. “The virtue of experience alone makes me much better a ruler than any of you young fools would ever be.”

Stunned silence befell the animals in general and the lions in particular. This mysterious ’emperor’ knew of the legendary Askari! How long had he been studying the Pride Lands? How old, indeed, was he, seeing as he claimed to having been around since before Askari? Older than even Rafiki?

“You misunderstand, Emperor,” said Rani, recovering first, the slightest of contempt in her use of that title. “We value experience, too, but above all, we value the Circle of Life. We are rulers, but we are rulers in deference to, and in defence of, the Circle of Life.”

“I know all about the Circle of Life,” the Emperor said. “I have been watching your realms with great interest. Know then, that the Circle of Life, and its guiding precept of temperance, is known to many a realm, and to many a king. It is known with many a name, and I defer to it.”

“But we don’t know that,” said Rani, getting feisty. “And we are not going to take your word for it, Emperor. We will not stand by and watch as you possibly disrupt the Circle of Life, despite your protestations.”

“Equanimity, young Rani,” the Emperor said, his voice pointedly condescending. “How do you think a lone creature such as I would rule the Universe? Not, surely, by overseeing small matters peculiar to every realm? That shall be the concern of those who govern their realms in my name. I shall defend the Circle of Life in the Universe as a whole. Allow me to allay your fears, then, by assuring you that while your realms shall be mine, and while you shall rule in my name, you shall defend the Circle of Life by your own wisdom, and so rule much as would kings and queens.”

“No,” said Rani again. “We do not trust you. You cannot possibly expect us to accept such subservience. We are prepared to fight you to the bitter end.”

“I see,” said the Emperor, and then his face curled into a malicious smile. “I must impress upon you that I have with me an army so powerful and so large, that not the Roar of the Elders itself could ever hope to defeat it. Your lands shall be overrun, and as all animals bow in reverence to their triumphant Emperor, I shall, to set an example, have you lions executed. Would not your defeat result, by extension, in the defeat of the Circle of Life as well?”

A cloud of fear hung over the assemblage. The Roar of the Elders was a special power with which the leader of the Lion Guard of every generation had been endowed. Calling upon this power, when the leader roared, the Great Lions of the Past, who lived as spirits in the clouds, would mingle their roars with his, intensifying it, and thus serve the purpose of the leader. Kion, and now Vitani, had that ability, and Kion had, over the years, used it with devastating effect against enemies of the Pride Lands. To cause rains, to shatter the mountains, to unleash the power of the elements; the Roar had been used in ways aplenty. But the Emperor seemed to know of it, and seemed to bubble with supreme confidence in his army’s immunity to it.

“Why the stunned silence?” mocked the Emperor. “King Kion? Have you nothing to say? What manner of a king are you, so voiceless in time of peril? Or are you fueling your anger, that you may heroically roar me away? Pitiful!”

Simba stepped in, feeling the need to help his son and his daughter-in-law. “Your Majesty, you must…”

“Has your son no voice of his own?” the Emperor snapped. “Let him speak for himself.”

In those last words Simba perceived an odd emphasis. He had the sense that things were not as they seemed, and that the prevalent feeling of hostility was a veneer for something else. He decided to observe in silence. No stranger to wisdom herself — indeed, often proving the calmer of the ruling couple of the Pride Lands — and perceiving much the same, Nala, too, maintained her silence.

Ever since the Emperor’s purpose was brought to light, the currents of conflict had been coursing through Kion, as he judged the merits of launching a war against the hooded being. But asudden he felt clear of thought. No desire had he to imperil the lives of his subjects, and yet, he realized that animals heeding his summons to fight would have fulfilled their purpose, and those that would choose to watch from the sidelines would be forced to live through a time of great distress and privation. He had to trust the wisdom of his subjects, and inspire in them all the undying confidence that his friends, his parents, his sister, and his queen reposed in him. He decided to answer the Emperor’s question.

“No, Emperor. Our defeat would not mean the defeat of the Circle of Life itself. It would only mean the completion of our respective journeys therein. It is possible that our defeat tips it towards imbalance. And it may stay in imbalance for several years, possibly generations, during which you might rule unopposed. But understand, Emperor, the Circle of Life finds a way to restore itself to balance. And when it does, the forces that sought to supplant it will be defeated, and your Empire will collapse.”

Silence prevailed for a moment. Simba, Nala, Kiara, Kovu, and Rani, gazed at Kion with renewed respect, and the animals organized themselves, slowly but surely, into a defensive position. They were determined that, should their king call upon them to fight, they would not fail him. They stood, staring at the Emperor with grim resolve. And then the Emperor burst into a laugh. But this laugh was devoid of malice, and seemed jovial, and such was the transformation in the energy that the Emperor diffused that it seemed to the animals an ethereal moment, so fleeting, and yet so long.

“Rejoice, animals of the Pride Lands and those of the Tree of Life! For you are indeed blessed with rulers wise and prescient,” he said, and it served not to diminish the ethereality of the moment.

“King Simba, Queen Nala, King-to-be Kovu, Queen-to-be Kiara, King Kion, and Queen Rani, you have my congratulations,” he said, gazing at each of them in turn. “You have passed my test.”

“Test?” asked Kiara.

“Indeed I am the Emperor of the Universe, but never did I intend to rule over your lands. Nor do I desire that you rule in my name. I sought to know how well you comprehended the Circle of Life, and indeed you know it well. It exists pristine and unsullied in your lands. It is thus that I do not intend to rule them, and so long as your understanding prevails, your respective realms shall know happy days.”

The Emperor turned to the skies, “King Mufasa!” he called, his voice assuming a royal reverberation.

The grey skies darkened further, but through a portion of the ubiquitous clouds a dazzling light clove its path, and in it was seen the spirit of Mufasa, the wisest lion ever to rule the Pride Lands; father to Simba, grandfather to Kion and Kiara. Kion had, on occasions many, actively sought advice from the spirit of his grandfather.

“Yes, Your Majesty!” Mufasa’s voice boomed. But there was no servility in his words. His face had the tranquil smile of a lion at peace, and his words had a courtesy that a king would express to another.

“May your wisdom continue to bless these young lions and their realms, Your Benevolence!” the Emperor said.

“The Great Lions of the Past will always be there to guide them, and so will I, until the Pride Lands’ end,” and as he said the final words, his countenance ever adorned with his reassuring smile, he faded into nothingness, and thus he would stay until sought for.

The Emperor turned to the assemblage. “There are creatures and forces in the Universe the likes of which you had never seen. Not all of them defer to the Circle of Life, and may seek in their desire to defy my established order, to conquer lands far and great. If ever the threat to your lands should prove too great, you shall find in me a willing ally, and my army shall serve in your defence.”

Having seen Mufasa’s spirit in the sky, the animals assembled were at ease, and regarded the Emperor with respect. Kion, taking charge, stepped forward, “Thank You, Your Majesty!”

The Emperor sensed in his voice a uniform sincerity, and gave a slight nod in acknowledgment. “May the Circle of Life smile upon your fortunes,” he said as his gaze encompassed all the animals, and as the skies returned to the peace of a tranquil evening, he, too, was gone.

Exhilaration swept the assemblage, and as they resumed the ceremony of proclamation with loud cheers, the spirits of Mufasa, Askari, and Queen Janna, looked on with contentment, knowing that the Pride Lands and the Tree of Life, having so forged an alliance where once was only a vague knowledge of each other, were safe for ages to come.

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