The Emperor of the Great Southern Empire slouched in his throne, looking at his empty court with listless eyes. It was midday, the height of the heat, and everyone was asleep, save himself. Sulim simply couldn't sleep; he was too busy brooding over his upcoming meeting with the Advisers to do any resting. "Just get a girl and settle down!" they'd say, "Get an heir, and then your night-time activities are nobody's business!" They'd try to be young and vulgar, the way they imagined him to be, to try and get on his good side. If Sulim had the energy, he'd have shuddered.

Sulim was perfectly willing to get married, to a wonderful example of high breeding and common sense. She had smooth dark chocolate skin, black hair in tight ringlets, and white teeth that flashed like lightning when she smiled. Trinka and Sulim had spent many years and hidden adventures together, and Sulim was head over heels in love with her. There was only one thing stopping him from having extended the offer at any time in the past three months – the Lion Lilies had not bloomed.

Life in the Great Southern Empire was based solely upon tradition, even above religion. Tradition dictated everything, from one's caste to one's job, to one's clothes, to one's food. Sulim was dressed in an open-fronted, sleeveless tunic of tawny yellow and orange pants, of silk so fine as to be just this side of translucent. He was the Emperor of the Great Southern Empire at 18, and ate delicacies daily. He also couldn't marry until he officially turned 20, and that wouldn't happen until the Lion Lilies bloomed. Which hadn't happened yet. And they were three months late.

The Lion Lilies grew in a special place on the palace grounds, guarded zealously and carefully. Every year, they grew, bloomed, lived gloriously, and wilted in the space of a week. Within that week the Emperor celebrated his birthday – no matter when it actually was. During that short window when the blooms were open… and only on his 20th birthday… the Emperor was allowed to make and changes or new laws he desired. Only on an Emperor's 20th birthday was change allowed in the rigid society of the Great Southern Empire, and there had not been a twenty-year-old Emperor in generations. And now, the Lilies refused to even nose above ground. Many were whispering that it was a bad omen, that this Emperor would bring misfortune on their heads, or worse yet – destruction. Sulim had been going over everything with his Advisers exhaustively, but there was no way around it. Until the Lilies opened, Sulim would not be officially twenty, he would not be able to change the laws, and he would not be able to marry Trinka.

Suddenly getting a burst of nervous energy, Sulim got up and half-ran out to the Lilies, tunic-vest flapping behind him. When he reached the edge of the small garden, he saw the guards asleep… and an enormous lion sitting serenely in the middle of the garden. Stopping in alarm, he was about to turn back when the lion… Spoke to him.

Telepathy was not unknown to those of the Great Southern Empire, but it was not common, and not a comfortable feeling. 'Fear not, human Emperor, and warn not, or you shall not receive that which you most desire.'

/What?/ But then he actually thought about it. This was obviously no ordinary lion – Sulim had no telepathy, and there was NO way it could have gotten here without magical assistance. And hadn't he always wondered why the Lion Lilies were called thus? They certainly didn't LOOK like lions – they were just as milky white as every other lily, if much larger and shorter-lived. The over-large and obviously (now that he was looking for it) celestial lion sat patiently watching him as he worked it through, now and then twitching his tail. "What?" Sulim finally snapped at it, a little unnerved at the scrutiny. He got the strangest feeling the lion was laughing at him. 'Have your Advisors told you nothing? Evidently not. The Lilies will not open until you have acknowledged all that in yourself, good and bad, all that you desire and all that you want, petty and selfless, to me. You have not done so.' The lion looked as if it was about to go on, with an increasingly annoyed expression on his golden face, and Sulim was about to shoot his mouth off with a smart answer when a female voice hailed him.

Turning in dismay, he saw Trinka half running, half trotting to catch up with him, holding her diaphanous skirts up out of the way of her legs. "Sulim, I was just coming to see you when you ran out – oh, look!" Too late he remembered the lion, and was about to pull her back to safety – what if it attacked? – when she brushed by him headed straight for it. It just sat there, totally unlike the lions he knew, and allowed her to run her delicately manicured hand over its ruff. Sulim stared. Trinka turned to look at him curiously.

"What?" she said. "Isn't he yours? He's been hanging around here for weeks now, I thought…?"

Sulim was staring at her. Then he turned to stare at the lion. Then he turned back to stare at Trinka, who at cocked her head to the side, wondering what was going on. This was repeated for a few minutes, until Sulim felt his heart would burst for the love he felt for Trinka, and her innocence and delightful way of solving problems. He grabbed her into a tight hug, burying his face in her hair and muttering how much he loved her, and… how much he loved her and how much he… loved her. Again and again, as Trinka energetically returned his hug, laughing delightedly. The lion looked on in the forgotten background. 'My work is done here,' he thought to himself with an internal smile, and disappeared with a flick of his tail.

When Sulim and Trinka finally surfaced from their euphoria, it was to find little green shoots popping up about their feet, and growing higher every second as they watched. Laughing aloud, they ran the few steps to the guards hand in hand, waking them for the good news, then ran off, still hand in hand and still laughing. The guards blinked sleepily and bemusedly after the decidedly odd behavior of their young Emperor, then one turned to look behind him, jabbed the other excitedly in the shoulder, and they both completely forgot about the Emperor as they ran into the palace, banging on shields and doors, garbling the message that the Lilies had finally bloomed.

Sulim and Trinka were totally oblivious.

From his place on high, the lion lay with his paws folded, watching the activity in the palace with interest. His tail gave it away, the way it twitched and danced like a snake. It was always so intriguing when humans acted like that, especially when he was the cause of it. Then he got up to hunt. Even demi-gods have to eat, after all. Gazelle was looking especially tasty right now…

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E/N: There. This was an entry to a contest on the Earthsongsaga Forums. Makes life easier to read like this, rather than white or yellow on black.