More spirits of those who died in her service appeared. The last to arrive was Vera, the arrow still sticking out of her chest. “I do not regret taking your life,” Lilavati said. “I never will. Nor will I forgive you for murdering Odilie.”
You’re a fool, Vera said. Do you really think you’re going to be able to pass Magda off as a legitimate child of the Great Lord?
“We will make every attempt to do so,” Lilavati said. “I will fight for her until I am no longer able to, even if it means I must go to the king of these lands and demand he name her my beloved’s trueborn child.”
You care for that sniveling little brat that much? Vera asked. She seemed surprised.
“I love her as if I had birthed her myself,” Lilavati said. “Why do you find it so hard to believe that someone could love that beautiful, intelligent, loving child?”
She is none of those, Vera spat. She is a lying, sneaking little manipulator who claims to have visions to force people to do what she says.
“She has proven to us both that she does have visions, Vera,” Lilavati said. “She knows far more than a child of her age has a right to, and has articulated what she has seen in a way that we can understand while using what vocabulary she has learned.”
Vera blinked. My sister, she said, glowering. That stupid bitch. She swore that she’d come back to help Magda, just not in any way I’d recognize.
“Go back to whatever hell the Twelve decreed for you, Vera,” Lilavati said. “I have no more time to waste on you.”
Vera smirked. You’ll wish you continued to banter with me when you see what’s up ahead, inkosi tiikeri. With that, she vanished.
Lilavati couldn’t move. How had the woman known those words? She was fairly certain no one but Theda, Ludger, and Manas knew them. Not even Ariane had heard them, unless Theda told her. Shaking, she started forward, her steps dragging as she moved along the cracked black path.
Two tigers, as immense as Manas when he was in his cursed form, lay on each side of the pathway. Sitting on the ground in between them, was a woman so manged by claw and fang, Lilavati couldn’t identify her at first. Then it finally came together with a sudden rush of insight.
“Upsana,” she said. “Ama’ana.”
I haven’t heard that word since the day I died protecting your worthless father and the two of you girls, Upsana said. Though there was nothing left of her face and throat, her words came out clear and strong. Lilavati clung to the sound, as she did the beauty of her people’s language. I’m sure the others told you to fear me.
“I was told I’d face the greatest sorrow I’ve ever known when I came here,” Lilavati said. “It’s you, isn’t it? Or you have something to do with it.”
I do, Upsana said. You are inkosi tiikeri, as I was. But you were never meant to leave Pasir Naik. Your sister-soul waited in the sands for you for many years until she died of a broken heart. It wasn’t your fault, my Ishani. Anup broke his word to me. He knew what the marks on your face meant, your unnatural grace, the way the tiikeri were drawn to you as they’d been to me.
“Why would he keep me away from them then, if he knew I was destined to be with them?” Lilavati asked.
He hated my power, Upsana said. Hated and feared them. He’d lost his own twin sister to a tiikeri. He didn’t want anything to do with them, yet his father forced him to wed an inkosi tiikeri since it both carried a great deal of prestige as well as wealth since my father was one of the wealthiest men in the city at that time.
Lilavati felt a pang of sorrow, and a strong desire to know what would have been had she joined with her sister-soul instead of coming to the northlands. She shook her head. “I may have been destined for a soul-sister in Pasir Naik,” she said. “But here I’ve found more than just a piece of my soul. I’ve found someone who also makes my mind and heart whole.”
Upsana shook her head. Ishani, you can’t stay with him. You belong in the sands. I know you’ve bonded to him, and it’s going to be hard to break it. Especially since you claim to love him and that little cub he sired. But you don’t have a choice. You will take your sister-soul, who waits here with me, and return to Pasir Naik.
“How can I do that? I’ll be killed as soon as I set foot in the city,” Lilavati said. “Father was paid the highest bride price for a daughter not of noble blood. He won’t take it well to find me back on his doorstep – especially with a tiikeri at my side.”
It isn’t to him you must go, Upsana said. It’s to my father and brother. Hasn’t Anup introduced you to my family at all?
“No. He remarried, a woman who’s the epitome of spite and petty evil,” Lilavati said. “I’ve only ever known her as my mother since I believe he used some rogue sorcerer or one of the priests to either eradicate or at the very least block my memories of you and the way I got these scars.” She touched her face.
Upsana shifted her position. That thrice cursed son of a sandworm and a slime crawler, she snarled, sounding very much like the tiikeri that surely lived inside of her as Lilavati’s did in her. He’s destroyed you, Ishani. He’s taken away the very things that made you special in the eyes of our people.
“Has he?” Lilavati said. She started pacing, something that disturbed the two very large tiikeri next to her mother. “It’s true he refused my bond to my soul-sister. That’s one of the cruelest things he could have done, to both of us. I would rather have bonded to her than anything else. However, I was given an education as no female child was ever allowed. I learned to read, write, and speak seven languages. I learned history and folklore for five different lands. I studied mathematics, science, and the stars. Up until I reached my adulthood, I was allowed to be a scholar. After I took my adult name, I was denied all of that. I was made useless, obsolete, a burden on the family as I waited for a proposal that would never come.” She smiled. “Then my beloved came and freed me.”
He’s imprisoned you, Upsana shouted. If you can’t see that now, then I must force you to, Ishani.
“I am not Ishani any longer, mother,” Lilavati said. “My name is Lilavati. I am a free woman, I am bonded to my tiikeri, cursed though he may be, and I will not give him up.”
So be it, Upsana said. She rose to her feet, as did the two tiikeri beside her. Now it’s time for you to die.
to be continued…