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Manas carried her inside. “Set me there,” Lilavati said, pointing. “This way I am close to the water to bathe myself.”
“I’ll help you with that and get you changed,” Manas said. He winced. “That’s all I’ll have time for, my beloved.”
“That is all I require this night, my love,” Lilavati said. She smiled and ran her fingers across his cheek. He shuddered and looked at her, his amber eyes full of desire.
He got her bathed and then started putting her night clothes on her. She stopped him. He looked at her in surprise. “You don’t want to wear this one?”
“I do not wish to wear anything,” she said. “I remembered something I read while we rode today. An inkosi tiikeri bonds even better with their tiikeri if they are unclothed when they lay against them.”
Manas looked at her sharply. “You aren’t lying to me, are you?”
Lilavati smiled at him. “I do not lie to those I love.”
“And you love me?” Manas asked, his voice low and pleading.
“I do,” Lilavati said.
Manas kissed her gently. He pulled away, groaning in agony. He staggered to the center of the tent, tearing his clothing and the binding off. Lilavati shuddered as once again she heard the cracking of the bones and his screams. When the change was done, she let him stalk around for a few minutes before she struggled to her feet.
She started towards him and dropped to her knees. Her legs were very weak. Stubbornly she tried again. She fell once more. Crying in frustration she watched him still pacing. He needed her. She couldn’t wait. She crawled forward.
Manas must have seen the movement. He turned to look at her. His low growl died in his throat. He moved as close to her as the tent would allow and laid down. She reached him and pressed into his side. He wrapped himself around her and dropped his massive tail over her to provide as much warmth as he could.
She smiled up at him and stroked the short fur on his nose. She closed her eyes and relaxed. Soon she drifted off to sleep.
“Father, father, I am not dead. Do not leave me,” she screamed.
“You are dead to me. You cursed your mother with your presence,” her father said.
“No! She protected me. I did not curse her,” she screamed as the shroud was wrapped around her legs.
“Anup, you will be cursed by the Thousand in your next life if you seal your daughter,” one of the masked ones said. “Are you certain you wish to dare their anger?”
Her father paused, and she could see the fear in his eyes. “Release her, and speak of this to no one. I do not wish to be cursed by those of my own people.”
She crawled off the slab and staggered up to her father, the infected wound on her face making her weep. “Father, father, what did I do?”
Lilavati woke with a start, tears streaming down her face. What were these dreams. This one did not bring fear, but a deep and aching grief. She wiped her eyes and looked up in time to see a bright light. At first she thought the sun was up. A fear gripped her heart. Was it that her presence had kept Manas in his cursed form? Then she remembered what Ludger told them before leaving.
She looked up at Manas. He was watching, a low growl emanating from his chest. She shifted to let him know she was awake. He glanced down at her. “Rise, my love. I can move so you are free to attack.”
Manas got to his feet. She crawled as fast as she could to an area where she could barricade herself with the supplies in the tent. She didn’t move against any of the walls or into a corner, fearing they’d try to cut through the canvas to strike at them.
They both heard the voices. “I don’t see the tent. I know Ludger put it out here.” The first voice was gruff and angry.
“I’m sure he hid it with other spells.” Lilavati’s internal feline snarled in anger. That voice was familiar. It was Sieglinde. She sounded just as angry. “He knows about the Great Lord’s curse.” Her use of the honorific was sarcastic and full of scorn.
“How did you learn of it?” someone else asked.
“I went to check on the Great Lady that first night she spent with him to see if she needed anything. She was curled up against him as if he were nothing but a giant kitten, not a murderous monster,” Sieglinde said.
“He couldn’t have been the one to kill so many of us all those years ago,” someone protested. “He was out fighting with us. The preester was among those who saw him.”
“That may be, but he is just the same as that dark creature,” Sieglinde said.
“Why do you want to kill the Great Lady so much now too?” another voice asked.
“I don’t,” Sieglinde said. “I want to save her. It’s my brother who wants her dead.”
“Are you going to do what he said?” the first voice asked.
Sieglinde snorted. “Do I ever? We get the Great Lady out and kill the beast. We’ll find some way of releasing the Great Lady from his spell once he’s dead.”
“I don’t think Ansgar will agree to that,” the first speaker said.
“Ansgar is my problem,” Sieglinde said. “Look for the tent.”
“There it is,” someone said. Manas crouched, tail lashing, and Lilavati braced herself as a thin blade slipped into the nearly invisible seam where the opening was. It slid down and the small assassination team entered.
to be continued…