The storm quieted before the evening meal was served. Lilavati was able to swallow the bread and stew, her visions of her home recalling starkly the difference between those food she’d grown up on and the ones she was now required to eat.
She set her bowl to the side with a sigh after she finished. “Is something wrong, katali?” Manas asked.
“I am merely thinking of something that I did not consider prior to this,” Lilavati said.
“What’s that?” Manas asked, setting his own dishes to the side.
“What you serve me is very different from what I have lived my life eating. The clothing I now wear, that too is nothing like what is traditional in my home,” Lilavati said. She pulled the mass of black waves over her shoulder. “I no longer have my braids or my travel hoods. What is there then of my homeland that I still carry with me?”
“You carry that tiger you wear,” Manas said, pointing to the charm she’d already been playing with. “You hold in your heart a love for the sands, the beasts, and certain people, don’t you?”
“I do,” Lilavati said.
“Then you will carry a piece of your home with you until the day you die,” Manas said. He smiled bitterly. “That’s the mantra the captain of my personal bodyguard used to tell himself, and later me, every time I went out among my people after I became lord. He wanted me to find something good about Phiri Hu and carry it with me no matter where I went so I’d always have a way to orient myself on home.”
“What happened to this man?” Lilavati asked.
“He passed away five years ago,” Manas said. “He was an old man, long retired by that point. His daughter came and told me. He’d talked a lot about me, even in his final days, and she knew he was concerned about my safety even though I wasn’t his charge anymore.” He put his hand on the dagger she’d used to kill Sieglinde. “This was his. He made her promise to give it to me. He got it from my grandfather, when he first entered my family’s service. I’ve carried this to honor the both of them – my grandfather and my old guard captain – since.”
“Your grandfather was a man of honor then?” Lilavati asked.
“He must have been, because no one could understand how my parents could turn so far away from the people,” Manas said. “I hear often how that’s not what my grandparents were like, that it wasn’t what they wanted for our lands, and other such comments.” He winced. “Put out the lamps, katali.”
Lilavati flitted around the tent, snuffing all lights. She made sure that not a single spark remained, taking care to even put out their fire. As a last resort, her internal tiikeri drove her to take off the charm and bury it under some cushions too.
She almost wept as she watched Manas shift into his massive beast form. His golden eyes seemed less human that night. Lilavati trembled as she approached him. “Sikha?” she whispered.
For an instant, she was reminded of the great cat she’d seen in her vision. Then Manas let out a huge, huffing breath and what was still human about him returned. He made his way to the center of the tent and curled up, leaving room for her to recline against his side. She made sure everything was closed and sealed, and then joined him. He fell asleep quickly, but that lack of humanity in his golden eyes worried her. It kept her awake long into the night.
She was awakened by Manas’ cries as he resumed his human form. She caught him as he fell forward, chest heaving. “Katali, what happened last night? You looked at me as if you were afraid,” Manas asked as soon as he could speak coherently.
“You were not yourself when I first approached you,” Lilavati said, lighting a single lamp and lighting the fire in the brazier. She retrieved her charm and was shocked to find it was broken. “Ah, the sands take all darkness.”
Manas looked over. “Is that your bracelet?” he asked. Lilavati nodded, tears slipping down her cheeks. “Why did you take it off?”
“She told me to,” Lilavati said, gesturing to her stomach. She got the sense the great feline was pleased about something. “She is quite happy, but I do not know why.” She shook her head. “Many tales of the inkosi tiikeri claim they have a deep kinship with the tiikeri they bond to. I have never seen one where the inkosi tiikeri was possessed by the spirit of a tiikeri.”
“I wonder if you were changed by my curse,” Manas said. “I’m not a tiger all the time, katali. And if you are what we believe, you’ve bonded to me, which means that you’ve tied yourself to someone who is half man, half beast. When I’m in tiger form, is she quiet?”
Lilavati thought hard. “For the most part, yes. Unless there is something where my life is in danger, she is quiescent.”
“It’s only during the day, during those times where I’m still in my human form, that she’s the most aware, isn’t it?” Manas asked. Lilavati thought hard for a few minutes and then nodded.
A low growl caught their attention. As they looked up, they were met face to face with the glowing eyes of not one but two tigers. Lilavati tried to scream but couldn’t draw in the breath. One of the tigers had eyes as crimson as her own. The other had emerald.
Each of the tigers approached the humans, sniffing around them. The emerald eyed one gazed into Lilavati’s face. He sniffed hard around her scars before backing up a few steps. The crimson eyed one had her face buried in Manas’ chest, though by the expression on his face he’d rather she wasn’t there.
When she backed up, the two tigers looked at each other before advancing on the two prone humans again. The emerald eyed tiger reached out and ran a single claw around Lilavati’s wrist, where she’d usually wear the bracelet with the charm. Searing pain overwhelmed her and she blacked out.
to be continued…