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Lilavati looked around. “But there is no tent,” she said.
“Sit, my dark scholar, and I will explain why,” Manas said. Lilavati sat beside him while Theda settled on a rock across from them. Lilavati got the impression the preester was actually far older than she looked. She gave herself a mental shake and turned her attention to the man she was about to marry. “My dark scholar, Lilavati, what do you know of curses?”
Lilavati didn’t answer right away. She was aware of their existence. She’d seen the havoc a curse could wreak on a person’s life in that indeterminate time between childhood and womanhood. Strange things had happened to a family her father knew that couldn’t have been the work of men. They were driven from their home and eventually from the city.
“Curses are real,” she said finally. “I know this. They can take many forms, and are caused by unknown powers that are seen and felt.”
“Sometimes the causes are known,” Manas said. “Though the reason for it isn’t.” Lilavati tilted her head to one side, eyes wide open. He sighed and stripped off his armor. He glared at Theda. “I didn’t want to do this until we were wed, when I was sure she wouldn’t be able to run home.”
“I cannot return to my people, no matter the fears you bear,” Lilavati said softly. Manas looked at her. “Were I to do so, I would be killed. I am a married woman in their eyes. No married woman is permitted to leave her husband for any reason. If she does, then she is put to death.”
“So no matter what truth the Great Lord tells you, you are bound to his fate as well as your own?” Theda asked. Lilavati nodded. Theda gave Manas that same look she had on the road. Lilavati wished she could understand the facial expressions of the northerners better.
Manas shook his head. “You were right, Preester. It seems the wisdom of the Twelve wins out, as usual.” He was bitter and angry, that Lilavati could tell. He took a deep breath and pulled his tunic. There was a band wrapped around his chest and upper stomach. His fingers moved slowly as he undid the buckles holding it in place. He pulled it away.
Lilavati couldn’t help but gasp as she saw the terrible scars running across his chest. There were four of them that had torn through flesh and looked to even have scored the bone. “How do you yet live?” she asked.
“Because they aren’t entirely real,” Manas said. “They are phantoms, like what you’ve seen today. Well, to an extent. There are real scars there. They were carved into my flesh with a dagger.”
“Why?” Lilavati asked.
Manas wrapped the band back in place, pulled his tunic back on, and sat down before answering. Lilavati hadn’t even realized he was standing. “My parents were…not good people. They angered a lot of the nobility in the kingdom. The king ignored their depravity because they were able to send him large amounts of tax money and fine gifts they gathered from their travels.”
“So why not curse them?” Lilavati asked.
“They were protected by dark magic,” Manas said. “I don’t know where they found him, but they brought home a mage who seemed impossibly large to a small boy. He wore black and red robes covered in strange symbols and had strings of bones and claws around his neck. He even had a small human skull hanging from his belt.” He rubbed his jaw. “He terrified me. He would stroke the skull and smile whenever I was in the room. He would deliberately seek me out and try to convince me to come to his chambers. I ran away from him as often as possible.”
“Would your parents not defend you?” Lilavati asked
“They encouraged his behavior. They wished me to fear him. They told me they’d give me to him if I didn’t do exactly as they said,” Manas said. He shuddered. “I can’t talk about all the horrors I saw back then.”
“Then tell me of the curse, if you can without speaking of those things,” Lilavati said.
Manas took a deep breath. “One of my parents’ enemies sent assassins in to kill them. It didn’t work. But the men who came in didn’t stop. Instead of staying to die themselves, they snatched me and carried me off. They were very surprised when I started thanking them. They took me to their masters and I spilled everything out to them, from the mage to the weaknesses in the defenses.” He paused. “Including the one way I knew of to kill my parents.”
Lilavati pulled back. “You wished to be free of them so much that you gave their enemies the key to their deaths?” She didn’t know if she was horrified or if she approved. The abuse of a child was one of the worst crimes to commit in her homeland, if you could get someone to admit it was happening. But to have that child turn around and betray their own family was something unthinkable.
“Let me explain something, Lilavati,” Manas said. He took her hand. She let him. “War, famine, disease – these weren’t the things that killed people in my lands during the time my parents ruled. They and their dark mage were. Their foul magician required human blood for his spells, and where else were they going to get it? Destroying their power meant killing them. There was no other way to protect my people.”
“Is that what you were thinking of when they stole you?” Lilavati asked, looking into his cat like eyes.
Manas shook his head. “I was a nine year old boy standing in front of adults not covered in blood who treated me with the first kindness I’d had since I was a very young child. I was given food, comfortable clothing, a real bed, baths and attention that didn’t come after a blow. I was desperate for this kind of affection. I didn’t even realize I’d told them what I did until afterwards.”
“What happened?” Lilavati asked, terrified but determined.
to be continued…