Tiger, Tiger – Part seventy

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“How do you know so much, my katali?” Manas asked with a fond smile.

“Books,” Lilavati said with a sigh. “Though I would trade some of that knowledge for far more life experience, my sikha.

Manas brought Lilavati’s hand to his lips. “Then you wouldn’t be my katali and my beautiful scholar.”

Lilavati smiled and leaned on Manas’ shoulder. “Don’t you two make a pretty picture,” a sour faced woman sneered. “I wonder how well your children will be received, being of a mixed breed. They’ll be abominations in the eyes of the Temple and the King.”

“I strongly doubt that, Tanje,” Manas said, wrapping his arm around Lilavati’s shoulder. “Given that the lord of Stuhi Detit and the lady of Bitxi Nirea are both mixed breeds themselves and they are in the highest councils of our king.” He gave the woman a stern look. “If all you wanted was to come here and insult my lady, then you can leave.”

“You asked us to bring you our folk magic, Great Lord,” Tanje said. “I have something that I remember from our village witch.”

“What is it?” Manas asked.

“Salt, Great Lord,” Tanje said. “Salt is a simple protection from evil spirits. They will be able to enter the camp, but if we pour rings of salt around the tents they may not be able to enter them.”

“We have quite a bit of salt,” Manas said thoughtfully. “If Ludger and Ariane fail in their task to find the ingredients, we might just use it.”

“We should use this information even if Ludger and Ariane are able to accomplish what they say,” Lilavati said, earning a surprised look from Tanje.

“Why do you say that, my katali?” Manas asked.

“What if the barrier does not hold them back? There should be another layer of protection. Our people are far more important than any common ingredient such as salt,” Lilavati said.

“Tanje, tell Bjorn to pull out as many of the sacks of salt as he can. I don’t know how much we’ll need. Just before we retire for the night we’ll pour the circles,” Manas said.

“Of course, Great Lord,” Tanje said. She turned and hurried away.

“Good thinking, my katali,” Manas said. “Though you seemed to startle her with your suggestion.”

“No one has ever seen me disagree with you. They simply assume that I am always going to agree with you,” Lilavati said. “To them, I have no mind of my own even though you call me a scholar. I do not think they believe I am as educated as you claim.”

“Then we must prove them wrong, katali. You’re my equal, my balance, my lovely lady,” Manas said. “You are also my stand in when I have to be away, or when I’m ill. You will be taking my place at certain events because I’ll have other duties to attend to. You’re my beloved and my partner.”

“Then I will work hard to learn my place in your lands,” Lilavati said.

“You’ll do fine, my katali,” Manas said.

A few others came up to speak with the pair, but all they did was repeat Tanje and Micha’s suggestions. Then two more approached them. Manas stiffened as they approached.

Lilavati looked at them closely. It was a very nondescript looking woman, of average build with brown hair and eyes, and – she blinked in astonishment – a child. The girl looked no more than five, and appeared so fragile that the strong winds that they now faced seemed able to pick her up and break her in half. She had peculiar eyes, one was amber and the other was a starling shade of blue.

“Hello father,” the girl said with a shy smile.

“Hello Magda,” Manas said, holding out his arms. Lilavati saw the reluctance in the eyes of the older woman in releasing the child’s hand, but she let go.

Magda threw herself across the narrow distance between her and her father and locked her arms around his neck. “Father, I’ve missed you,” she said in a high, lilting voice that nonetheless carried a hint of her father’s deeper tones.

“I’ve missed you too, princess,” Manas said, drawing her up on his lap. He turned his attention to the brown eyed woman. “I see you’re disregarding my orders as usual, Vera.”

The woman flashed him a smile full of venom. “You told me that once you wed you’d spend more time with her. You announced just earlier today you’ve taken a bride, so why shouldn’t I bring Magda to see you? Especially since you haven’t seen or spoken to her once since we left the Southlands.”

“Father, Vera told me that when you brought your new lady home, you’d send me to live with the servants. Is this true?” Magda asked.

Manas flushed, and looked over at Lilavati. Lilavati held out a hand. “Kikaii imera, mikri,” she said with a smile for Magda.

Magda looked confused. “What does that mean?” she asked.

“It means ‘fair morning, little one,'” Lilavati said. “It is what you say to a child in your family in the morning.”

Magda released Manas’ neck and shyly moved over to stand in front of Lilavati. “Vera told me you would curse me if I spoke to you,” she said.

Lilavati chuckled. “I fear many thought I would curse them if they spoke to me,” she said. “It is the way of people to think that of those things that frighten them.”

“Why?” Magda asked with the simplicity of all children.

“Magda, come away now,” Vera said.

“Magda stays here, Vera,” Manas said. “You brought her to visit and of course my wife must get to know her stepdaughter. So leave her here and be on your way. I’ll send Magda to you before dark.”

“Great Lord, you’re very busy right now,” Vera said.

“He is, but in truth I am not,” Lilavati said, still smiling. Magda looked at her father for approval before taking Lilavati’s hand. Lilavati slowly pulled the girl into her lap. “I am quite happy to sit with her.” It was obvious Vera didn’t like that, but she turned and walked stiffly away. “You will have to explain all of this to me, sikha.”

“I will,” Manas said, a haunted look in his eyes. “Later though.”

“Of course,” Lilavati said, smiling at Magda. Her tiikeri purred in delight as the child curled up against her. “Innocence should be kept as long as possible.”

to be continued…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty seven

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The first of the spectral weapons struck Ludger. He let out a cry, holding his leg. There was no blood, but it was obvious he was in pain. Lilavati shrieked and curled in on herself as an arrow slammed into her shoulder. Manas let out a shout and hunched over as a sword embedded itself in his stomach.

“Ride faster,” Ludger said, his voice coming through labored breathing.

Lilavati urged her horse into a canter. The spectres tried to stop her, but the horse was unaffected by the insubstantial attackers. She could hear the confused talking behind her. “We will have to explain this to the others once we make camp,” she said, her voice weak and trembling.

“We’re crossing cursed land,” Manas said. His voice was stronger than the other two in spite of the ghostly sword embedded in his stomach.

As the company made its way through the spectral forces, there were some screams. “They are no safer than we are,” Ludger said. He was sitting up taller in his saddle.

“Then the cursed land will be easier to convince them of,” Manas said. Lilavati turned her head. The sword was beginning to fade. She caught sight of the arrow in her shoulder. It too was vanishing.

Ludger sat up straighter. “That was not a pleasant experience.”

“I was not aware that they could see me,” Lilavati said. “I have never experienced such a phenomenon before.”

“None of those others that you’ve seen have paid attention to you?” Ludger asked.

“No,” Lilavati said.

“What if it wasn’t my katali?” Manas asked quietly.

“What do you mean, Great Lord?” Ludger asked.

“They were my parents’ soldiers, and we’re making our way to the Halls of the Damned,” Manas said. “Katali, was there anything different about these spirits?”

Lilavati thought hard. “I saw more color, and the screams were louder. As was the laughter and crude commentary.”

“They could have been cursed for their actions,” Ludger said. “Great Lady, did the Vengari raise weapons against us?”

Lilavati had to think hard for a moment. “No,” she said. “It was only those who wore armor and the colors of my sikha‘s parents.”

“What kind of trouble do you think they’re going to cause for us as we camp?” Manas asked, looking at Ludger.

“I’m not sure, Great Lord. I wasn’t aware the area was cursed. The last time I was through here nothing like that happened,” Ludger said.

Manas looked over at Lilavati. “Katali, I don’t believe you’re the cause of them noticing us. I think they would have attacked us regardless of the fact. I believe they would have come after me, as the traitor in the family.”

Sikha, you cannot blame yourself. You were a frightened child who was treated with extreme disregard and hatred by those who were meant to be your most ardent supporters,” Lilavati said, reaching out one hand and touching his arm.

“I know,” Manas said. “It doesn’t make it any easier knowing that I’m responsible for their deaths.”

“No, Great Lord. You’re not,” Ludger said. “Their murderers are answerable to the Twelve for their own actions, which included enticing a child to betray his own parents.”

“I was willing, even eager, to tell of their atrocities,” Manas said. “I needed to let someone know what they were doing.”

“Yes, and had it not been you, someone else would have escaped their grasp and spoken to whomever would listen of the evil spreading in Phiri Hu,” Lilavati said. “And you would have been slain in the ensuing battle, for the enemies of your parents would have sought to eliminate the entire bloodline, would they not?”

“Your early scholarly pursuits serve you well, katali,” Manas said with a lopsided smile. The cries of those behind them soon died down. He looked over his shoulder. Lilavati stole a glance of her own. There were pale faces and some tears, but no one seemed injured.

“We must push on,” Ludger said. “We can set up before the storm worsens.”

“Will these spirits come hunting for me, I wonder?” Manas asked, a hint of fear in his voice. “I can’t protect my people at night if they do. And it’s said a ghost’s true power is in darkness.”

“My people have similar tales,” Lilavati said.

“As do mine,” Ludger said. “Let me think on this, Great Lord. I might be able to come up with something to protect us.”

“I only hope you can,” Manas said. “They’re losing faith in me as it is. We’ve seen so much death since we left the Southlands.”

“Pasir Naik,” Lilavati said, as a tear slid down her cheek.

“What’s that, Great Lady?” Ludger asked.

“It is the true name no one seems to wish to give my home,” Lilavati said. “Pasir Naik.”

“Is that your city’s name?” Ludger asked.

“There are no individual cities, as you see here in the north,” Lilavati said. “We are what the northern scholars call city-states.”

“Essentially each city is its own country,” Manas said, grasping at the distraction.

“There is a ruler of all city-states,” Lilavati said. “His is a position granted by the gods, and not even the priests and priestesses will counter his orders. Our history is littered with the corpses of men and women who sat in that position, and those who paid for their depravities.” She paused. “It is said that those who bear the gift of the inkosi tiikeri come from the bloodline of the first God-King, the man who united the Southlands so long ago his name has been lost. He is now only known as the God-King.”

“You’ll have to tell us that story later, katali,” Manas said. “It’s not a tale I remember reading in my search for information on your home.”

“It is not one that is commonly told,” Lilavati said. “I am not even certain where I heard it, only that I know the tale.”

“The camp is just there, Great Lord,” Ludger said, pointing.

They rounded a corner and found themselves face to face with a vast, rolling, open area. Off to one side was a small nook where Manas’ tent could be pitched. The rest of the camp could be set a short distance from it. “I don’t like how close it is,” Manas muttered.

“I knew you wouldn’t,” Ludger said. “But look up.”

Manas did so. Lilavati followed his example. She gasped. Never had she seen so many shades of green in the trees of the north. Branches wove together and the different varieties of leaves tangled with each other in a kind of natural tent, protecting the clearing. Very few raindrops got through.

“We will be well protected from the weather here, sikha,” Lilavati said.

“Make camp,” Manas called. He turned to Ludger. “Then gather everyone together. We need to talk.”

“Yes Great Lord,” Ludger said.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty six

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The three hours passed too quickly for Lilavati’s taste. Once the storm was done, the camp was torn down faster than usual. They were back on the road within twenty minutes.

It was still raining, so she wrapped herself in her rain cloak. “How are you faring, katali?” Manas asked.

“I am cold,” Lilavati said. “But the cloak is keeping me dry.”

“That’s its purpose,” Manas said with a smile. “How’re you feeling?”

“I am well,” Lilavati said. She gave him a sly look. “Though I would not mind a repeat of what you did to comfort me during the storm.”

Manas laughed. “That can be arranged, though not until after we make camp.”

“This pleases me,” Lilavati said with a hint of a purr in her voice.

Manas flushed, then gave her a dirty look. “You aren’t helping make this ride comfortable for me.”

Lilavati laughed. “My apologies, sikha. I will behave now.”

Manas just shook his head. “I have a feeling you are going to be quite a handful, my katali.”

“I have always been one,” Lilavati said. “I am simply changing my methods.”

Manas snorted. He opened his mouth to answer but his horse stopped and started shying. Lilavati’s horse did the same thing. Both of them pulled on their reins. Manas raised his fist. The company behind them stopped.

“Great Lord, why are we stopping? There’s another storm moving in,” Ludger said.

“There’s something here that’s frightening the horses,” Manas said.

A hiss caused the horses to whinny in fear. A rather large snake crossed in front of them, hurrying to get out of the rain. It hissed at them again before vanishing into the underbrush.

Lilavati rubbed her horse’s neck as he started to calm down. She kept her eyes on the road. When the horse was calm, she looked over at Manas. Manas nodded and raised his fist again.

“What was it, Great Lord?” Ludger asked.

“A large snake attempting to escape the storm,” Manas said. There were a few weak, relieved chuckles. After the past several weeks, Lilavati couldn’t blame them for being so fearful.

They’d traveled for a few hours when a distant rumble sent a shiver down Lilavati’s spine. Ludger joined them. “There it is,” he said, pointing to a fork in the road. “Follow the left path, Great Lord. We’ll find our next campground there.”

Lilavati bit back a shriek. “I will take my risk in the storm,” she said, unable to pull her gaze away from the ghostly slaughter she saw taking place in front of her.

“Great Lady, the next nearest place – with the pace we’d be forced to keep because of the storm – will put us at a campsite after the sun sets,” Ludger said.

“Ludger, do you know what happened in this place?” Lilavati asked, her voice cracking.

Ludger frowned. “What do you mean, Great Lady?”

“What do you see, katali?” Manas asked.

“Men, perhaps a hundred that are all well armed and armored, butchering so many,” Lilavati said. Her voice was loud enough to be heard by the two men but not by the others. “I see strange wagons painted bright colors that look like they would be drawn by horses, which are shot down by those men before their inhabitants can react. I see their victims coming out of the wagons and dying before they can reach for their own weapons. Then some of the armed ones go into the wagons and drag out all who are left inside. They are just women, children, and some elders.” Lilavati was glad the rain hid the tears on her cheeks. “They are killing them all.”

“There is no history of such a slaughter here,” Ludger said. “Great Lady, can you describe the clothing the men are wearing? Or the clothing of their victims?”

“The men all wear some kind of dark leather armor,” Lilavati said, trying to focus on the details rather than what she knew was coming. “There is a long vest they all wear belted at their waists. It bears the same pattern and what I am assuming is some kind of insignia or crest.”

“What are the colors?” Manas asked.

“The pattern is in black and silver,” Lilavati said. “The crest is harder to see, it becomes covered with blood so swiftly.”

“What of their victims?” Ludger asked.

“Men and women with skin lighter than mine though darker than yours,” Lilavati said. “Their clothing is full of bright color. The women wear skirts in jewel tones, and the men wear embroidered vests made up of all colors of the rainbow.” She stifled a gasp as she saw a child no older than two or three get beheaded. “The crest, I can see it.”

“What is it?” Manas asked.

“A black tree trimmed with scarlet,” Lilavati said. “It looks like it is weeping blood from its branches.” She heard the creak of leather as Manas clenched his fists. She tore her gaze away from the horror. “You know this crest?”

“It was my family crest, before I became lord,” Manas said. “And slaughtering the Vengari sounds like something my parents would order their soldiers to do.”

“Vengari?” Lilavati asked.

“They are nomads, Great Lady,” Ludger said. “Some are thieves, some are sorcerers, and others are just simple traders trying to make a living.”

“There are more of the last than there are of the former two,” Manas said. “But that wouldn’t have mattered to my parents. If they took any kind of dislike to a Vengar of any tribe, they’d have set out to slaughter however many Vengari they could get away with. And since the king in their day despised the Vengari, he’d have turned a blind eye to their soldiers chasing down the camps.”

“Great Lady, we don’t have a choice. We have to go through there,” Ludger said. “The site I want is far back in the trees. With luck we’ll ride past the length of your vision.”

“Close your eyes as we pass through,” Manas said. “I’ll make sure you don’t go astray.”

“You do not understand,” Lilavati said, her voice cracking even more. “It is not just what I see, but what I hear. I know every scream, every blade striking flesh. I know every laugh of those soldiers, the pleading of the women, the terror in the men’s voices as they struggle to protect their families.”

“We have to ride through it, Great Lady,” Ludger said.

“I will try not to show anything then,” Lilavati said. “It would do great harm to let those within this company know of my strange curse. I cannot promise I will be able to hold back however. Not with all that is happening there.”

“Just try, katali,” Manas said.

They turned left and drew closer to the entrance to the area where Ludger wanted to set up camp. As they started to pass through the edge of the fight, everything stopped and the eyes of the spectres turned on her. “They can see me,” Lilavati gasped, terror gripping her as the ghosts of the past aimed their weapons at the three living who rode at the vanguard of the company.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty five

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Ariane swiftly left the tent. “So what truly led to this?” Ludger asked.

“My desire to take her to my bed in more than the simple way of sleeping up against her,” Manas said. Lilavati felt her cheeks go warm. “Also my thoughts on the Halls of the Damned.”

Lilavati heard the not so subtle growl, but it wasn’t one of anger or fear. It was what you’d expect from a protective mother or perhaps a mate. “I do not think she intends on letting you face them alone,” Lilavati said, meeting Manas’ amber eyes with her own. “Nor do I.”

“‘She?'” Ludger asked.

“I have a tiikeri sleeping inside of me,” Lilavati said. “She awoke the moment I touched Manas, though I did not recognize it at first. Gradually, as I became more aware of myself as inkosi tiikeri, I heard her more often. Now my sikha hears her.”

“Interesting,” Ludger said. “We know so little of your people and even less of the strange powers you have.”

Lilavati laughed. “Ludger, even I do not know anything of this gift I carry. I learn more of what it means every day as I spend time with my – my husband.” She turned a glowing smile on Manas, who returned it with equal fervor.

Their idyllic moment was shattered by the sound of thunder. Lilavati shrieked and dove for cover under the blankets they’d just been sharing. “I see she isn’t fond of thunderstorms,” Ludger said.

“No she isn’t,” Manas said. “Neither am I, for traveling conditions.” He glanced at the sides of the tent and saw how dark it had gotten. “This one moved in very fast. It wasn’t but a few minutes ago that the sun was out.”

“I was worried about that,” Ludger said. “Great Lord, this is still the Daughter of the Twelve throwing tantrums. It’s nothing magical, but she’s going to be very unpredictable. I barely sensed this storm coming in. I need to get out there and see what I can do to help make certain our supplies are salvaged so we don’t go hungry.”

“Any idea how long this’ll last?” Manas asked.

“A few hours,” Ludger said. “I can feel the power behind this one. After that, if I’m reading the currents correctly, we should be able to move on. I’ve got a few campsites in mind that are close to this one in case we have to dive for cover. They’re not as well protected as the one I’d like to reach today, but they’ll do in an emergency.”

“Thank you, old friend,” Manas said. Lilavati felt a blast of cold air. The warmth returned quickly. She knew when Manas settled in beside her. “Katali, you can’t keep doing that. Phiri Hu is famous for its spring and summer storms. You won’t make an effective lady, not to mention give a poor impression to my neighbors, if you’re running and hiding from them.”

“Then I will make that poor impression,” Lilavati snapped from under the blanket. “I have no control over this fear, sikha. It is as if it is a part of me, just as my leg or my arm are.”

Manas slipped under the blanket and pulled her close. “Katali, I know how afraid you are,” he whispered in her ear. “But now, since we have the time and I am free to act, may I try to help ease your mind and pull you away from the fear?”

“How?” Lilavati asked.

Manas nibbled on her ear as he slid one arm forward, cupping a breast in his hand. “Like this.”

Lilavati gasped as he moved down to her neck. “Sikha,” she murmured, twisting so she could reach him. He caught her mouth in a kiss that shook her to her core. It left her trembling with desire. She reached up and pulled him back down, his desire for her pushing all fear of the storm out of her mind.

Within her, she could feel the need of her tiikeri as much as her own. When Manas pulled at the laces on the top of her dress, she let him untie them. She helped him remove her dress before assisting him in getting out of his clothing. The tension between them rose higher and higher until their bodies and souls sang in ecstasy as their mutual desire was finally satisfied.

Lilavati felt his heartbeat against her fingers as they lay tangled in the blankets, trying to catch their breaths. “My kalati,” Manas murmured, still gasping. “I have never wanted any woman as much as I’ve wanted you.”

“Never has any man caught my eye and held it for so long,” Lilavati said, taking deep breaths. The scent of his body was enough to send a faint thrill through her core once more. “And never has anyone excited my passion the way you have.”

Manas kissed her gently. “If ever there was more proof needed that what we did was right, listen.”

Lilavati frowned, then caught what he meant. Within her, the tiikeri was purring. She seemed as satiated and satisfied as Lilavati was. Lilavati smiled. “She is pleased this happened,” she said. She glanced at Manas’ chest. “Sikha, look to your curse mark.”

Manas glanced down and let out a choked cry. It had shrunk again. Not much, but it was still noticeable. “Katali, you do more for me than you know,” he said, his voice cracking. “All these years it’s only gotten larger. Now, with you in my arms, it’s gotten smaller.”

“It may begin growing again,” Lilavati said. “We cannot be certain it will continue to shrink, or stay the same size.”

“I know,” Manas said. He pulled her closer. “For this moment though, I’m going to enjoy the fact that it’s gotten smaller and that I have you here in my arms.”

Lilavati relaxed against him. “I will do the same,” she said. Deep within her, she could feel the hackles go up on her tiikeri, though she continued to purr.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty two

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It was Manas shaking her that broke the hold of the vision. “Katali, Lilavati, what happened? Your tiikeri was so loud I’m certain even those outside heard her, and you were sobbing and calling out something.”

Lilavati was still sobbing. She clung to him, heedless now of the storm, as the gruesome vision replayed itself before her eyes. A cool breath of air crossed her face as someone entered the tent.

Soon a cup of warm liquid was pressed to her lips. “Great Lady, drink this. It will help calm you,” Ludger’s voice rumbled in her ear.

Lilavati did as she was told and soon was able to regain some semblance of control over herself. Ludger rose to leave when both Manas and Lilavati each put a hand on his arm. “Unless you have a pressing need to be elsewhere, old friend,” Manas said, giving Ludger the new honorific. “I think the both of us would prefer it if you stayed here for a while.”

Ludger seated himself beside them again. “Only until just before the sun goes down,” he said. “I’ve seen enough of your curse to last me for a while, Great Lord.”

Manas grimaced. “Think how I feel, having lived for so long with it.” He shook his head. “Katali, now can you tell me what it was you saw?”

“Another vision of my parents with me and Nikitha,” Lilavati said, the warmth given by the tea draining away. Manas wrapped his arms around her and drew her up against him. “This time it was not of a hidden room in my father’s house, but outside the city. My mother was inkosi tiikeri, and we were walking in an area familiar to her. Her soul sister was off hunting, I think, and we were attacked by a large male.”

“What did this male tiger look like?” Ludger asked.

“Bigger than a normal tiikeri, though not even to your shoulder, sikha,” Lilavati said. “His eyes were pure green, almost the color of grass or emeralds. He had no fear of us and his attention was only on me. That was what it appeared as to me, at least. My mother was waiting for her soul sister to return when the great male pounced. My parents were knocked away, my father still clinging to Nikitha. The male drew his claws down my face.” Lilavati put her fingers on the claw scars.

“Then what?” Ludger asked when she was silent for too long for his comfort.

“My mother’s tiikeri arrived,” Lilavati said, curling against Manas. “The two of them attacked the male while my father pulled me to my feet and dragged me towards the city. The last thing I can remember seeing is the male slowly rip my mother open, as if he were enjoying the sight of my mother’s agony.”

“You were saying something as you cried, katali,” Manas said.

“What was it?” Lilavati asked.

Ama’ana,” Manas said. “You were saying it over and over again.”

“It is the child’s way of saying mother,” Lilavati said, her voice barely above a whisper. She pressed one palm to her forehead. “What is going on? Why am I having these visions? What do they mean? Which is true? Why can I not remember?” These final words she wailed, and the wind howled with her.

“What’s going on?” Ludger asked. Manas filled him in on the now two very different versions of how Lilavati got her scars, and how her parents were portrayed in both. He frowned. “Great Lady, someone has taken a great deal of care in blocking, changing, and quite possibly even erasing many of your childhood memories. I don’t have the necessary skills to break the blocks or to restore any that were damaged by the tampering.”

Lilavati choked on a sob. “How am I to know which of these is a true memory then, and not a fabrication of the foul dark magician who corrupted my mind?”

Ludger shrugged. “I don’t know, Great Lady. I’m not an all powerful being, like the Twelve. I’m also not as strong a sorcerer as you two seem to think I am. Yes, I can do certain things very well – such as what I did to Theda and those who followed her. In reality I can do a few large things with a certain degree of proficiency, but mostly I do small things immensely well and have learned how to chain enough of them together to make things work more efficiently.”

“It is the smallest pebbles that can bring down a mountain,” Lilavati said.

“Where did you hear that?” Ludger asked.

“It was in one of the books I read,” Lilavati said. She frowned. “This is why I am so puzzled. I retain all the knowledge I gained reading, but none of the memories of my actual life.”

“We’ll figure it out, Great Lady,” Ludger said. “You will have to talk to someone with different skills than me, though. I’m not the one to help you with this.”

“Thank you, old friend,” Manas said.

“I’m sorry I can’t do more,” Ludger said. He gestured. “I’ve put the same protections on this one that I did the last time. The only differences are that this time it isn’t if you two shed blood – it’s if someone means either of you harm – and no one will hear anything from this tent other than faint murmuring and then silence once the light goes out.” He paused. “Great Lady, as close as we are in here – and I had them place the Great Lord’s tent as far away from the main camp as I could and still have him protected from the weather – I suggest putting out the light before he goes through his change this evening.”

“It would give it away too easily if people were to see the shadows on the canvas,” Manas said.

“That’s not the problem,” Ludger said. “It simply won’t happen. It’s the sound, Great Lord. Even my spell may not be enough to blot out all of the sounds of your change if the lamp is still lit. Only when it is dark will you be fully protected.”

“I will be certain no light shines in this tent by the time my beloved must face his curse again this night,” Lilavati said. Ludger stood and, nodding, limped out of the tent. Lilavati became aware of the thunder once more and buried herself in Manas’ arms.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty one

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Ludger chivvied the cold, wet servants and guards into setting things up quickly. Lilavati retrieved the tent she now shared with Manas and put it up herself. “I have seen it done enough times to know how to manage it on my own,” she said at Manas’ curious look. “However, it does not furnish itself and I am not capable of carrying everything alone.”

“I’ll help you then,” Manas said.

The two of them managed to get most of their things into the tent before a servant helped them carry the rest. Lilavati moved things around until the tent was comfortable for the both of them. “You know me well, katali,” Manas said as he lounged on a pile of cushions instead of in the chair that the servants always brought in. It was pushed to the side.

“I have learned much by observing you,” Lilavati said. “Even though I have not been in the best of shape for much of this journey.”

“You have been ill but not blind,” Manas said. “As you’ve said before.” Lilavati smiled. A crack of thunder made her shriek. Manas was at her side in an instant. He wrapped his arms around her. “It’s all right, katali. We’re safe here.”

“The storm is too close. It will blow down the tents and kill the animals,” Lilavati said, whimpering as she spoke.

“It won’t,” Manas said, stroking her hair with his hand. “Ludger chose this site with the storm in mind. It’s well protected, katali. We are safe.”

The tent lit up as lightning illuminated the afternoon. Lilavati buried her face in Manas’ shoulder, shaking. There was something about thunderstorms that drew more memories of Ishani to the surface, vague and terrifying memories that slipped through her grasp when she tried to capture them. Deep within her the tiikeri growled.

She felt Manas stiffen. She looked up at him. His amber eyes were haunted as he looked into hers. It took her a moment to fight beyond the fear. “You heard her?”

Manas nodded. “How could I not? I’m holding you. She’s very loud.” He tightened his grip on her. “I curse everyone I touch.” This last was said with such bitterness that it tore at Lilavati’s heart.

“No sikha,” Lilavati said, reaching out to comfort him. “This is a thing that happens to all inkosi tiikeri. We draw the spirit of the tiikeri inside of us, and it becomes a part of our own souls. Mine awoke and has been growing stronger.” Another loud clap of thunder sent her cowering into the cushions, abandoning Manas’ arms.

Manas laid down beside her. “Why did she growl?”

“She knows something I do not,” Lilavati said, her voice muffled by the cushion she pressed her face into. Manas gently pulled her over until her face was pressed into his chest.

“Do you have any idea what it could be?” Manas asked.

“It has something to do with Ishani,” Lilavati said.

“Your child name?” Manas asked. He rubbed her back. “Why is that significant?”

Lilavati tilted her face up so she could look at him. “I think, perhaps, some terrible event happened to me as a child during a thunderstorm.” Lightning sent her back into hiding.

“What do you remember?” Manas asked.

“Nothing,” Lilavati said. “The same as I do with almost all of my memories of my years as Ishani.”

“I don’t like this, katali,” Manas said. “It seems to me that someone – be it your father or someone else who held some influence over him – has removed all traces of your life as Ishani.”

“I maintain the knowledge I gained,” Lilavati said. She gave a little shriek as the ground shook from the thunder. Tears filled her eyes as she gazed up at him. “However I cannot remember the things my brother and sister often spoke of so fondly.”

“Such as?” Manas asked.

“Playing in the garden,” Lilavati said. “Uma, the sister you met that I still remember as Nikitha, remembered a time when I would spend hours among the many flowers and trees my father had. She told me of an occasion where I fell and broke my arm, but was more upset because I had shattered the tiikeri charm I wore on my wrist.” She glanced down quickly and saw, to her relief, the bracelet had survived everything they’d been through.

Manas saw her look. “Where did this come from?” he asked, touching the porcelain figurine.

The bloody scene from her visions momentarily blinded her. She came back to herself, gasping for breath with Manas holding her head up. “My mother’s,” she said, trying to draw in enough air to regain her equilibrium. “I think it was my mother’s.”

“Then why let you have it? Why give you something that would remind you so much of your mother, when it’s obvious he went to all the trouble of erasing your memories of her?” Manas asked.

Her tiikeri snarled again, this time angrily. Another vision swam before her eyes. She stood in the desert, her parents in front of her. “Send it away, Upsana,” her father said.

“It isn’t my tiikeri, Anup. I have no control over it,” Upsana said, her voice carrying a hint of desperation. “Take the girls and when I tell you to, run.” She passed the fussing infant over into Ishani’s father’s arms.

Anup took hold of Ishani’s wrist. “What about you, katali?” he asked. “You won’t be able to take on a male tiikeri yourself, especially with no weapons.”

“My soul sister comes now,” Upsana said, gesturing. The massive male tiger in front of them barely moved, his glowing green eyes fixed solely – or so it seemed – on little Ishani. “She’ll help me drive him off.”

The male obviously knew the female was on her way. He wasn’t going to wait that long. He lunged forward with a roar, scattering the two adults and pinning Ishani beneath him. She screamed, but was unable to move. He slashed down her cheek with one paw, opening gaping wounds in her face.

A higher pitched roar and a deeper scream echoed in her ears. The tiikeri was gone, tackled by both her mother and the deep orange female her mother was bonded to. Anup ran over and seized Ishani’s hand. “Let’s go, child. We can’t stay here,” he said, pulling her to her feet and dragging her along behind him.

“But mother,” Ishani said. She looked over her shoulder. The emerald eyed male swatted the female tiikeri out of the way and drove his claws into Upsana’s stomach. Ishani screamed as he slowly tore through her mother’s flesh, leaving her to fall to the ground with wounds she couldn’t survive. “Mother!”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty five

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The men continued speaking but Lilavati lost the train of the conversation as she once again slid into the half dreaming state she seemed to exist in. Twisted dreams and odd visions held her captive as she struggled to maintain her sanity.

She was barely aware when someone pressed food and water to her lips. She ate and drank what she was given and then lapsed back into the encroaching madness. Manas’ voice couldn’t even break her free from them. The only time she seemed to be closest to reality was when Manas went through his transformation. The invocation of his curse drew her out of her stupor enough that she was able to interact with him. Beyond that, she existed only in the timeless world of her nightmares.

Physical pain shattered that dreamworld, though only for a moment, before her mind dragged her back into hell. She screamed silently as she fought the chaos. The visions grew darker and more violent. Brutal deaths, stone crumbling, the world burning. All of these played out before her unwilling eyes.

Soft light drove away the nightmares. Gentle fingers brushed something wet from her cheeks. She realized they were tears. “Her eyes are open, Dieter,” an unfamiliar feminine voice said.

“That’s a good sign.” The soft spoken scribe moved into her line of sight. “Great Lady, I need you to try to move. Nothing much. Just try to turn your head towards me.”

Lilavati was exhausted. The visions had given her no surcease as she drifted in and out of semi consciousness. But she dredged up the energy she needed and strained her neck. Her head slowly moved. It took most of what she had left, but she was able to looked at Dieter.

Dieter smiled. “That is a very good sign, Great Lady,” he said. “Bianka, get some pillows under the Great Lady’s head and shoulders and wipe the sweat off her face. After the past several days that had to be hard.”

“All right, Dieter,” the young woman sitting next to Lilavati said. A pale face covered with a mask of freckles and topped with a mop of curly red hair moved into her peripheral vision. She lifted Lilavati up with one arm while the other pushed soft cushions and pillows behind her. A cloth soaked in warm water scented with herbs wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Be easy, Great Lady. You should be fine now.”

Lilavati opened her mouth. “Thank you,” she whispered, the only sound she could make.

Bianka smiled. “You’re welcome, Great Lady.” She looked over her shoulder. “Dieter, should we let the Great Lord in to see her now?”

“No. We need to let her recover a little more before we do that. You know how agitated he’s been,” Dieter said. “He could do her more harm than good.”

Bianka nodded. “Great Lady, the Great Lord has been – difficult – to deal with since your injury. The only one who’s been able to keep him under control is Ludger. We hope that, with your recovery, you can soothe him and return him to his normal self.”

Lilavati could only blink. It seemed the tiikeri was taking control more and more of her beloved. That wasn’t a good sign. “Great Lady, don’t let what Bianka said worry you,” Dieter said. “Ludger’s doing a good job of keeping him from doing anything rash. There are many who are impatient to be on the move, but we told Ludger and the Great Lord that moving you would most likely kill you so we’ve been in the same campsite for the past three weeks.”

Lilavati gasped. “Great Lady, this is the longest spring we have ever seen. It should be well into summer now, which is why the older members of the Great Lord’s retinue were worried. But either we will never enter summer and go straight into autumn from spring, or this is a year where we will see a longer spring and summer and a shorter autumn,” Bianka said.

“It means a much harsher winter if it happens that way,” Dieter said grimly. “I’ve seen three years like this, and read about several more. We still need to be home by the time autumn hits, but I think we have the time.”

Lilavati felt her eyes grow heavy. Panic set in and she whimpered. “Great Lady, you need to sleep,” Bianka said. “Don’t worry. The drink I’m about to give you should help keep you from having nightmares. Your dreams may not be completely pleasant but you won’t be trapped in them either. If they trouble you too much you’ll be able to wake yourself up.”

“Someone will be with you throughout the night, Great Lady,” Dieter said. “Bianka will stay with your for now. Valeska will take her place in a few hours. Romy will take the shift after that. If you manage to sleep through the night, you’ll find Odilie with you in the morning.”

“I don’t think she knows any of us, Dieter,” Bianka said.

“I have no doubt she doesn’t,” Dieter said. “We’re the lowest of the low when it comes to the servants. That’s why we’re able to do this.”

“Yes, but if we succeed, the Great Lord has promised us a great reward,” Bianka said.

Dieter’s smile was bitter. “Do you think, in his present state, he’ll remember?”

Bianka drooped. Lilavati coughed. “I remember,” she whispered, forcing the words out even though she was exhausted and her throat hurt.

Dieter looked at her. “Do you really think you’ll remember, Great Lady?” It took the majority of her remaining energy but she managed to nod. “You said your memory, in spite of pain and chaos, was good. I’ll trust to that, Great Lady. Please don’t let him forget us.”

Bianka pressed a cup to Lilavati’s lips. “Great Lady, you need to drink this,” she said. “It’ll help you restore your strength.” Lilavati swallowed as much as she could of the sweet liquid. As she drifted off to sleep, the tiikeri inside of her stretched and purred.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty four

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Lilavati drifted back into a kind of odd sleep, still hearing her child name but also seeing vivid visions in her mind. Nothing of the strange images remained in her mind except for one – a great white tiikeri, watching her, at times walking with her.

She was drawn out of those strange dreams by the screams and roar of Manas’ transformation. She still couldn’t open her eyes or speak. But she did manage a soft whimper. She felt the massive beast curl up around her.

In the morning she was once again in Manas’ arms. She felt her body growing lighter little by little. She forced her eyes open and tried to turn her head. She managed a small motion, enough to get his attention. “My katali,” he whispered, looking into her eyes. Relief suffused his features. “You are still with me.”

“I told you she was,” Ludger said. Lilavati couldn’t see him but she heard his limping gate and the thunk of a staff on the ground. “I’m not entirely sure what magic was used on that blade. I’m wagering it was given to him by that damnable dark magician that served your parents. It wasn’t a traditional lightning spell. I’m not sure how long it’ll take for her to recover.”

“I know she hates being laid in a cart, but we don’t have much of a choice,” Manas said, brushing his fingers against her cheek. “As soon as you can ride again we have to be on our way. I want to be through the pass before the snows start.”

“I know,” Ludger said. He still wasn’t within Lilavati’s line of sight. She tried to move her head, or to sit up, and still couldn’t. “Do you think I want to try to take this caravan through the avalanche zone? I know how to get through without dropping half the mountain on us, but they don’t. Even if they did it would be an impossibility with as many people and horses as we have.”

“Do you still insist we have to go through the Halls of the Damned?” Manas asked, his voice cracking.

“I do,” Ludger said. “It’s that or the Black Waste, Great Lord. And I truly feel that you need to pass through the Halls.”

“If she isn’t able to move by the time we reach them how is she going to be able to protect herself from the damned souls?” Manas asked.

“I won’t let you take her through if she isn’t ready,” Ludger said. “I’m not an idiot, Great Lord. I won’t leave her defenseless.” He finally moved into a position where Lilavati could see him. “I can see your unhappiness, Great Lady. It’s very plain in your eyes.”

Manas pulled her up against him, helping her into a sitting position. “How can we know what she needs?” he asked.

“You should already know, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “Can you not hear her?”

Lilavati felt Manas’ chin move across the top of her forehead. “How can I when she isn’t able to talk?” he asked.

“She can’t use her physical voice, but there’s nothing wrong with her mind, Great Lord,” Ludger said. He limped over and eased himself down onto the ground. “The two of you are bound, Great Lord, by something I don’t understand. I think Theda saw the same thing I do and feared it, which is why she pushed the assassination attempts so hard.”

“What of the one that happened prior to me retrieving Lilavati from her father’s house?” Manas asked.

“I don’t know anything about that one,” Ludger said. “At least, I don’t remember if she told me about it before.”

Manas explained what Lilavati had told him. Lilavati listened, a prisoner in her own body. Her frustration and fear grew as she struggled to speak, to move, to do something. “That can’t have been arranged by the preester, could it?” Manas asked.

“Easily,” Ludger said. “Theda knew where we were, and when you told us who you’d chosen and her father’s name, it wouldn’t have taken much to locate his house. Gold is gold, Great Lord. All she’d have had to do is pay someone – perhaps one of those corrupt priests from the Great Lady’s lands – and an assassin would have been sent.”

Manas growled under his breath. “May the Twelve condemn her to an eternity of pain for what she’s done,” he said.

“If she’s in the Halls of the Damned, they have,” Ludger said.

“My katali will never survive that accursed place,” Manas said, repeating himself.

“I know this, Great Lord,” Ludger said, his irritation showing in his voice. “If I could heal her I would, but I have neither the energy nor the knowledge. I don’t know what curse was in that blade, and when he turned it on himself, you saw what happened.”

“It was that or face me,” Manas said. “I think he knew what would happen if it came to that.”

Ludger nodded. “You’re very dangerous when you’re angry, Great Lord. Sometimes too much so. You need your lady to balance you, as she needs you to balance her.” He drove his fist into the floor of the tent in frustration. “There has to be a way to do something for her.” He sighed. “I’ll be back to full power in a few days. I’ll see what that precocious scribe of yours and I can come up with.”

“Dieter? What does he have to do with this?” Manas asked.

“He’s as infatuated by the Great Lady as are many of the younger set of servants,” Ludger said. He managed a small smile. “Don’t think all of those who serve you are against her, or your being wed to her. They’re outnumbered, but they’re very vocal.”

Manas snorted. “Dieter isn’t that vocal.”

“No, but those he spends time with are,” Ludger said.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part forty nine

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“Great Lord, have servants clean and replace everything in your tent,” Ludger said. “Then get them to move it to the spot I originally chose. Visit with those willing to talk to you, and then go get some rest. Perhaps nap this afternoon if you think you can. Great Lady, you need to stay with him no matter what anyone says.” Ludger glared at Manas. “I know you around one man in particular, Great Lord. If he should come to counsel with you, the Great Lady remains at your side.”

Manas nodded. “I know who you mean, Ludger. I won’t be able to face him alone. I don’t have the strength.”

“Who is this strange monster that commands so much control over you, sikha?” Lilavati asked.

“Captain Jorg Weiss,” Manas said. “The commander of my guards and the one who leads what military forces I have with me.”

“That’s the wrong way to look at it, Great Lord,” Ludger said with a weary sigh. He shifted positions. Lilavati rose and helped him into a more comfortable spot. He smiled in gratitude before looking back at Manas. “He doesn’t command or lead anything. He relays your orders to your soldiers.”

“Why do you give this man so much control over you if he is but a servant?” Lilavati asked.

“He was put in place right before the uprising. I can’t get rid of him because the few times I’ve tried to, he’s murdered his replacement. He knows I can’t prove it was him because he’s always in plain sight at the time of the deaths, but he’s also aware that I know it’s him,” Manas said. He pressed his hand against his chest. “I’m not sure just how much he knows.”

Lilavati looked towards the tent flap. She’d sworn she would never return to her homeland, that she would stand by her husband-to-be’s side for all time. More and more she longed for the clean death her father would give her rather than these constant cloak and dagger escapades. Something flashed in front of her eyes and she was once again drawn into a vision.

She screamed as the strangely shaped blade gouged her face. “Leave her alone, Anup,” a weak, tremulous feminine voice said. A blood soaked hand pulled at the elaborately embroidered sleeve of her father’s robe. “She is but a child. What harm has she done?”

“She has done no harm, but you have,” Anup said, turning the weapon on the woman behind him. He slashed down with the weapon, tearing great gashes in her chest and abdomen. The woman fell out of the bed she was on, dragging herself away from her raging attacker. Off to one side an infant screamed. “This is your doing, Upsana. You and your cursed blood.”

“Ishani is innocent, Anup,” Upsana said, great gurgling breaths marring her words. “So is Nikitha.”

“I know Nikitha is,” Anup said, still pursuing the weakened woman around the room. Ishani saw the weapon now – it was an oversized blade that resembled a tiikeri’s claws. “The priests cast their spells on her long before she was born. I should have paid them to do that to Ishani too.”

“You gave to the Temples what is Ishani and Nikitha’s by birthright to force the Thousand to purge our younger daughter of a taint that is not even there?” Upsana asked. She collapsed, blood foaming at her lips. She cast a desperate, crimson eyed look towards her bleeding daughter. “Do…not…kill…her…” Her eyes went blank and she lay still.

Anup took several minutes to mutilate her mother’s body. Ishana couldn’t move. She huddled in the corner, her face burning in agony. Anup stood up. His fancy robes were soaked in blood. Nikitha was whimpering now. He set the weapon down and went to soothe her. He turned to face his older daughter. A cruel smile crossed his face. “I will not kill you,” he said coldly. “The gods may do it for me.” With one swift blow, the world went dark.

“Katali,” Manas said, shaking her shoulder. The vision slipped away, leaving behind only terrible fear and the knowledge that she couldn’t walk away from him. “What’s wrong? You were so still and for a moment it looked like you stopped breathing.”

“A vision,” Lilavati murmured, shivering. She fought off the fear of the child at the horror she could no longer remember. “I cannot say of what. I only know that I cannot go home, though I offered to free you from our contract. My death would not be swift and painless as I desire. Instead I fear my father and mother would make it as painful and bloody as possible.”

“Why do you say that, Great Lady?” Ludger’s gaze was on her face, his eyes unwavering as he stared at her.

Lilavati hesitated. “The only thing I remember of the vision is my father covered in blood,” she whispered. “And fear. Pure, mind shattering fear.”

Ludger rubbed his temples. “Great Lady, I fear the Halls of the Damned may prove unforgiving to you too. There is something beyond his curse and your strange gift that ties you two together. We must find out what it is before it kills you both.”

“You’ll have no arguments from me there,” Manas said with a shaky laugh. He fumbled for Lilavati’s hand. She caught it and held tight. “She is my strength now. What little I’ve managed to hold on to is slipping away from me.”

“If I am your strength, you are mine,” Lilavati said.

Manas brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it. A loud voice outside began a rather impressive dress down of the soldiers that had remained behind when Lilavati and Manas dismissed the others. “And there is the good Captain,” Ludger said, disdain dripping from his every word.

“Would you care to meet one of the nine banes of my existence, katali?” Manas asked. His tone was light though there was no amusement in his voice.

Lilavati rose to her feet. She took a deep breath and pulled the remnants of the travel hood off her head. She straightened her braids and smoothed her skirt. “Let us remind him that there are now two powers he must deal with, not just one,” she said, her voice firm.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part forty eight

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Lilavati glared over her shoulder. “I said disperse. Only two of you need to remain. The rest are more of a threat towards me than protection for him,” she snapped.

“You aren’t the one in charge, Great Lady,” one of the soldiers said with some scorn in his voice.

“She is my voice in all things even as I am hers,” Manas said, one hand pressed to his chest. He stood up as straight as he could. “If she has ordered you to disperse, then do so.”

“Yes Great Lord,” one of the other men said. “Shall we pass this along to Captain Weiss?”

“Tell him what I’ve said, and have him come speak to me later. I know he’ll have questions, objections, and will attempt to force me to change my mind,” Manas said, wincing. “He always does.” All of the men snorted before departing, leaving two of their number behind.

Lilavati got him inside Ludger’s tent. Ludger was trying to sit up straighter. Lilavati got Manas seated and then went to help Ludger into a more upright position. “Great Lord, what’s happening?” Ludger asked.

“The curse mark is spreading. It’s never done this before,” Manas said. “Katali, come help me get my shirt off so he can see.” Lilavati helped him in getting his tunic off.

Ludger sucked his breath in between his teeth. Lilavati looked down. She gasped. Here, where there were no distractions, she could see just how much worse the curse mark truly was. It had spread both above and below the binding Manas wore to cover it. The deep gashes that went to the bone and showed his organs – whether it was mere illusion or not – weren’t as pronounced, but were showing as deep marks in his flesh.

“Great Lord, when did this happen?” Ludger asked.

“I saw it this morning, when I got dressed,” Manas said. “Then, when I lifted my shirt to show the scars left even after you healed us, I saw it was even worse than when I first rose.”

“What has changed? Why are you suddenly constantly in the middle of -?” Ludger stopped.

Lilavati stared down at her hands. She didn’t need to see them to know they were both looking at her. “My very presence has changed the curse of the tiikeri,” she said softly. “I would rather face death at the hands of my father than lead you down a path that will bring your demise at the hands of your people, which is where this will all end if what was done to you becomes well known.” She smoothed her skirt and choked back a sob. “I will return to the Southlands.”

Inkosi tiikeri,” Manas whispered.

“Yes, that is what I am,” Lilavati said, looking up. There was an uncharacteristic hint of anger in her voice that startled both men. She kept her voice low. “I am the tiger’s keeper. And yet what has it done? It has led to the both of us nearly being killed more than once, your curse growing, and the deaths of so many of your people. How many more lives am I to be responsible for?” She raised her hand before either of them could speak. “As your wife, as one who would rule as a partner, that is one way of bringing lives into danger. That is not always preventable.”

“And this is?” Ludger asked.

“My presence here is what led to that,” Lilavati said, gesturing to the new marks on Manas’ torso. Her hands shook and her voice cracked. “Theda is dead. Sieglinde is dead. So many have died, and all because of me.”

Katali, you can’t know that,” Manas said.

She fixed her crimson eyes on his amber ones. “You can say that your people would have betrayed you? That you would have almost died time and time again? Or would you have ridden home safely, to be protected by those truly loyal to you, and had time to discover the secrets of the preester,” she said.

Manas squirmed. Ludger answered. “Great Lady, he would’ve been dead by the time we reached Phiri Hu had Theda been permitted to go on like she was, with or without you here. I have a feeling it would have been the same no matter what wife the Great Lord chose,” he said.

“Yes, but they would have been more willing to follow a woman of the Northlands, would they not?” Lilavati asked. “There would not have been the troubles that came about because I am a child of the desert, of the sun, of the sand.”

“Actually, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Ludger said. “The Great Lord wasn’t looking for a bride from among the noble houses because he knew none of them would be able to handle his curse. They’d run home to their families as soon as they first witnessed the change and Phiri Hu would fall to whoever could bring in enough allies to take it. He was looking for a wife who didn’t have family connections, who wouldn’t bring anything into the marriage but herself.”

“This angered many people,” Manas said as he struggled to pull his tunic back on. Lilavati went and helped him once more. His smile was faint as he looked up at her. “My advisors – the same ones who served my parents, who are still trying to control me to this day – kept screaming at me to take a ‘proper wife.'”

“Do they know your affliction?” Lilavati asked, seating herself on a stool beside him.

“I don’t know,” Manas said. “I thought they didn’t, but now that I know the preester was playing me false, I have no idea who knows what.”

“There is a way to find out, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “It would take a great deal of sacrifice from you.” He looked at Lilavati. “From the both of you.”

“What do you mean?” Lilavati asked.

“He means the path through the Halls of the Damned,” Manas said, turning as white as bone. “Theda will most assuredly be there. As will my -.”

“As will your mother and father,” Lilavati finished.

“To get the answers we need, will you face them, Great Lord?” Ludger asked, his voice so low it was barely audible.

“Yes,” Manas said.

“Great Lady, you too must walk the path of the Damned. I am no visionary, but when I see him standing at the gate, you’re at his side. Whether it’s to hold him up or to face your own demons, I don’t know,” Ludger said. “But you have to be there. Can you do this? Will you do this?”

Lilavati looked at Manas’ pale face, at Ludger’s grim one, and at the faint traces of blood still caught in her fingernails. “Yes.”

to be continued…