Photo via Visual hunt
Manas turned his face away. “I was up by the hearth fire, drinking a sweet warm drink. I no longer remember what it was. Those people who’d been so kind in taking me in returned from their travels, laughing and joking. The lord noticed me and asked if I’d like to see something ‘sure to brighten my spirits.'”
“He did not show you your own parents’ corpses,” Lilavati asked, gasping.
“Their heads,” Manas said. “I was shown the perfectly preserved heads of my mother, my father, and the dark mage. I screamed when I saw his and ran to the other side of the room. I swore to them I heard it speaking, telling me I was a traitor.” He finally met her gaze again. “They got me calmed down and explained that I was now lord of my lands and my people were waiting for me. So they sent me home with ‘advisors.'”
“Men who were selected to bend you into the kind of man your enemies wished you to be?” Lilavati asked.
Manas smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “They were my enemies, my dark scholar. I just didn’t know that until many years later.” He released one of her hands to rub his face. “I suffered under their thumb until I was sixteen. It was actually my birthing day celebration. Or rather, the night of. I’d gone to bed, though the revelry of my people and my personal council went on.”
He looked so pale, almost like one of the corpses she’d seen in her visions. “What happened?” she whispered.
“I don’t know when the beast started killing. I didn’t wake up until well after midnight. There were already corpses strewn everywhere in my courtyard. Being the young, headstrong, foolish boy I still was, I grabbed my bow and my sword and joined the defenders trying to kill it,” Manas said. “It knew when I walked outside. It ceased being interested in my people and honed in on me.”
“I was an apprentice at that time, so I too stood in defense of Phiri Hu,” Theda said. “This beast was massive.”
“What did it look like?” Lilavati asked.
“It was some kind of feline,” Manas said. “Eight heads high at the shoulder, and with the muscle to match.”
“It was orange with black stripes, and some white on the belly and paws,” Theda said. “What you could still see of them. When I joined the fight, the creature’s pelt was sticky with blood.”
“A tiikeri?” Lilavati asked, her eyes widening as far as she could open them. “You fought a demon tiikeri and won?”
“Is that what you call them?” Manas asked.
“I am trying to think of the word in your language,” Lilavati said. She closed her eyes, calling up the images of the book of animals on her father’s desk. “Tiger? I think that is correct.” She opened her eyes again. “It was a demon tiger, in your tongue, that attacked you?”
Manas nodded. “As it drew closer, I could hear the chanting voice of that evil sorcerer. He’d come back from the Gardens of Despair to curse me. I couldn’t move. It was as if my very limbs were frozen.”
“Those around him remember him whispering over and over again the words no and you’re dead,” Theda said. “Then all of us lost consciousness when we heard the Great Lord scream.”
“The pain.” Manas shuddered. “I thought I was dying. According to the healers, I almost did die. But they saved my life. And in doing so cursed me until my last day.”
“But what form does this curse take? You have not told me,” Lilavati said.
“Let us stay with you tonight, Great Lord,” Theda said. “I can protect her.” Glancing at Lilavati’s face. “Though I have an odd feeling she’ll be safe around you no matter if I’m here or not.”
“Why?” Manas asked. “You said you’d tell us when we were alone.”
“Great Lady, do you recall what you heard about the markings on your face?” Theda asked.
Lilavati bit her lip, tugging at a few strands that had come loose from the traveling hood. “It was only a taunt used cruelly against an unwanted daughter,” she said. “My father punished my mother severely for it.”
“What was it?” Manas asked.
Lilavati took a deep breath. “She named me the inkosi tiikeri.” She paused. “The tiger’s keeper.”
to be continued…