Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty one

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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…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty

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Manas joined them at that point. “You don’t what, my dark scholar?”

“She doesn’t regret leaving her home, in spite of your secrets and her new curse,” Theda said.

“Preester, it’s my secret to keep,” Manas said.

“That is something we need to discuss after we set up camp,” Theda said. She gave Manas a look Lilavati couldn’t identify. “Great Lord, this conversation must be held at your tent.”

“Preester, that’s not something I’m willing to do,” Manas said.

“Then this union isn’t going to work and you shouldn’t have brought the Great Lady out of the Southlands,” Theda said.

“Why do you say such things of your Great Lord?” Lilavati asked.

“I call him Great Lord because I’m attached to his household,” Theda said. “We actually hold an equal rank to each other, and those above me in the temples outrank him. Only the High King holds equal power to the Archpriest, but that’s something for another day.” She fixed Manas with a stern look. “Great Lord, I know you think you’re doing this to protect her, but keeping her in ignorance is most likely one of the reasons she’s so susceptible to an assassin.” She paused. “Great Lady, I would ask that – when we get into the discussion – you tell the Great Lord what you remember of your mother’s tales of your facial markings.”

“I will do my best,” Lilavati said. “I must see what I can draw up into the front of my mind.”

“Great Lord, this isn’t a request. We will be having this conversation at your tent,” Theda said.

Manas glared at her but finally bowed his head. “It will be as you say, Preester.” He turned and rode off.

“He is angry,” Lilavati said.

“Of course he is. I challenged his authority and reminded him that while his comes to him through inheritance and secular power, mine comes from the Twelve,” Theda said. “It may not seem like much to you, Great Lady; not with your disdain for your own religion. But for us? This means a lot, and to defy me when I pull what I just did is to argue with the Twelve. That’s dangerous and could lead to so much more trouble for him.”

Ludger called a stop a short while later and Lilavati watched as the camp was laid out. Sieglinde found her talking to Theda, their horses having already been claimed. “Forgive me, Preester, but I need the Great Lady so we can set up her tent,” the golden haired servant said.

“You can set it up yourself, Sieglinde,” Theda said. “The Great Lady and I will be meeting with the Great Lord shortly at his tent.” Sieglinde’s eyes widened. “Yes, he knows we’re coming. Make sure everything is set up for her, and make her something to calm her nerves. She’s most likely going to need it.”

“Yes Preester.” Sieglinde gave what Lilavati thought must be the typical obeisance to a religious leader and scurried off.

“We’ll wait a little longer. Things need to be more settled,” Theda said. She glanced at the sky. “We have several hours yet before we need to worry. Let us hope he doesn’t try to draw it out so we don’t have to discuss all that’s necessary.”

“Manas does not seem to be a man who would delay a situation to avoid it,” Lilavati said.

Theda snorted. “He’s very good at that, Great Lady. It’s one of the many reasons he’s lasted as long as he has at Phiri Hu.”

Manas came up to them a short while later. “Let’s go to my tent,” he said, scowling. “I dislike being forced into things, Preester.”

“So my predecessor told me,” Theda said, looking completely calm. “To the Twelve, what a mortal likes has no meaning. It’s what is necessary for the safety and well being for the whole group that matters.”

“And this conversation will be vital for everyone?” Manas asked, gesturing to the entire band of soldiers and servants as they walked away from the main body.

“It is for you and the Great Lady, and that is the gathering I’m concerned with right now,” Theda said. “I’m already irritated with you right now, Great Lord. I told you not to give the potion to anyone without dire need.”

“I felt it was a dire need. She wouldn’t have stayed in her saddle otherwise, and she brought up a very valid point,” Manas said.

“Which was?” Theda asked.

“That being an outsider was bad enough. If I were to insist she ride in a cart, what little respect my people were giving her would be gone. They would no longer be as diligent in serving and protecting her because she’d be seen as a burden,” Manas said.

“Is this what you saw, Great Lady?” Theda asked, turning to her.

“It is,” Lilavati said. She frowned when they stopped. “Is this where we are going?”

Manas sighed and sat down on one of the large rocks. “Yes, my dark scholar. It is.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part nineteen

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“What is the Barrier?” Lilavati asked.

“You won’t like it,” Manas said. “But I should prepare you since we’re about to pass into the area and I’m willing to wager you’re going to see it.” He took a deep breath. “A thousand years ago, when the Antinarians and the Velrusians – ancient ancestors to both our peoples, my dark scholar – fought a bitter war over these lands, the Velrusians needed time to muster their forces after a horrific battle. So, late into the night for nearly a week, the Velrusians gathered the dead of both sides and piled them high in a line between them and the Antinarians. They didn’t differentiate between man or beast and they stacked it as high as they could.”

Lilavati gasped as they rounded the corner. She couldn’t hold it in. She bit her lip to stop the sobs welling up inside of her. The only thing that kept her rooted to her saddle and not running in the opposite direction was the presence of the preester.

“I take it you can see it, Great Lady?” Theda asked quietly.

“It stands higher than my father’s house. I dare not look to see how far it extends, for to do so would be to draw more attention to myself than I care to,” Lilavati said. “I am already making more of a stir than I wish.”

Manas glanced over his shoulder. “I think you’re right, my dark scholar. Would you like me to tell you what everyone else sees?”

“They see great rocks stained with something that makes them a washed out brownish red. They do not understand that it is blood that they see,” Lilavati said. “The blood of thousands of men, women, children, and beasts.” She shuddered. “For it was not only the dead of battle they chose, Manas. It was the villagers and townsfolk from nearby. If they were already dead, I could understand. But I just witnessed a Velrusian soldier slit a woman’s throat. Her abdomen was swollen and she was near the time of birthing.”

“How can you be sure of that?” Manas asked.

“Do I need to tell you?” Lilavati asked, meeting his gaze.

Manas looked into her eyes for a moment. He saw what she wouldn’t say. “No you don’t,” he said softly.

“Great Lord, it looks like there’s a good spot for us on a plateau about six spans past the Barrier,” Ludger called. “Is that far enough ahead to suit you?”

“It should be,” Manas said.

“Good. Then we need to turn our track just a bit to the west,” Ludger said. The group shifted and moved on.

Manas drifted between chatting with his soldiers and servants, conferring with Ludger, and making sure Lilavati was staying in her saddle. She knew he wanted to remain by her side, but Theda reminded him he needed to act normal or things would just get better for the dark woman.

Lilavati was grateful for Theda’s presence. She kept the worst of the sickness and horror away, though she couldn’t completely blind Lilavati to what she saw. The preester kept Lilavati’s spirits up as they passed through some of the most horrific, violent, terrifying things she’d ever seen.

They passed through the Barrier and Lilavati was able to straighten in her saddle. “Don’t get comfortable, Great Lady,” Theda said. “You’ll still see random pockets of violence along here.”

“Will I see anything as sickening as what we just passed through at the Barrier?” Lilavati asked. “For as long?”

“As horrific? Quite possibly,” Theda said. “But no, the Barrier is the worst event in history in this part of the country, other than the Devouring – which I know you also saw.”

“What were those creatures?” Lilavati asked.

“We’ll talk about that when I can get you and Manas alone for a while,” Theda said. “Among many things. Great Lady, I think the two of you need to talk, and not just about the curse that’s been placed on your eyes.”

“He refuses to tell me what haunts the camp at night that forces me to seal myself away,” Lilavati said. “But what I would need to tell him I do not know. I have no secrets that I have not told him.”

“Why you were marked the way you were?” Theda asked.

“I do not know why the Thousand – or whoever it is that put this on my face – did it,” Lilavati said.

“Did your parents not tell you any stories as to why you were so ugly?” Theda asked. “In their eyes, at least.”

Lilavati frowned. “My mother, perhaps, when I was little. But my father forbade them when it became obvious I was a scholar rather than something more suited to a young woman in a noble house.” Her lips quirked. “Then again, even at that age I knew I would never win a husband. I was never told I could not be a scholar as an adult so I went through my childhood happily thinking I might attend the chuo kikuu.” The smile turned bitter.

“You wished to be a scholar, Great Lady?” Theda asked.

“It was the purpose to which I dedicated my life,” Lilavati said. “I hoped to find answers to every question I wanted to ask, even the ones I did not yet know. But when my first blood appeared, my father pushed me from his library and banned me on threat of a beating. The one time I defied him, he broke two of my ribs to prove to me that I was no longer a welcome guest in what I once considered our shared domain.”

“Great Lady, have you known no love at the hands of your family?” Theda asked.

Lilavati smiled. “My brother Kavi loved me. It is not the false affection my parents showed when we were around guests. He truly wanted to be with me, even when no other member of my family would look at me. I taught him to love the written word, and to speak the five other languages I know. We talked often of the politics my father forced him to learn and I was able to explain them so he could understand them.”

“Do you regret leaving him behind?” Theda asked.

“No,” Lilavati said. “I do not.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part eighteen

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Theda looked intrigued. “I’ll exchange one story of our gods for a tale of the way your people look at spirituality,” she said. “We can go on this way until we make camp.”

“I will agree to that, so long as you do not let anyone else call you from my side,” Lilavati said. The latter half of the comment was barely heard, but Theda nodded.

“Then I’ll begin,” Theda said. “And what better place to start than with the creation of our world?”

Lilavati moved unconsciously to allow herself to match the movement of her horse as she turned her attention to the preester. “How do your people say how it was formed?”

Theda’s face grew solemn. “In the beginning, there was the Void.” Lilavati shivered. “Then Bolorrma, Mother of the Darkness, and Ikeena, Father of the Light, joined together and created the sun, the stars, and the moons. They pushed the Void back and sealed it away behind a barrier of light and shadow. Now, there was light in the universe, and some substance, but still no life. So Bolorrma and Ikeena created this world and set upon it twelve beings of the purest form. They gave the care and governing of this newly formed creation into their hands.”

“So those twelve beings are your gods?” Lilavati asked.

“They are. We believe that, when they saw how barren and empty this new world was, they decided to give it life. They covered it with everything they could think of to make it perfect for their children, and then spun our races out of their own essence. They were  young gods, so their creations were imperfect, but in their eyes that made us interesting to watch,” Theda said. “So they watched.”

“If they are so pure, why do they allow such things as wars, famine, and disease to kill so many?” Lilavati asked.

“A very good question, and one I asked many times when I first entered my training,” Theda said. “I was told to seek the answer myself and I would find it.” She smiled gently. “I won’t ask you to do the same thing, as you aren’t a preester with access to all the things I did.” Her face grew serious again. “Great Lady, the reason the Twelve let such terrible things happen to us is the fact that they made us mortal. We can die where they cannot. We are also not a peaceful people. By our very nature, we must fight. We’re made up of weak flesh rather than pure form, and our bodies are vulnerable to such things as disease and hunger. They let these things happen so we can be free of our frail flesh and rejoin them as beings of pure form.”

“Why not simply give all people a certain length of time they have to live and in the end let them go in peace?” Lilavati asked.

“Another thing they have given us, Great Lady, is the freedom of choice,” Theda said. “We aren’t mindless creatures, strictly following the orders of divine beings – though they have given us some guidelines. We get to be who we want to be. Unfortunately those who choose the wrong path can cause suffering for others. It’s not fair, it’s not what those who suffer choose, but it’s the way of life. Things aren’t meant to be fair either, Great Lady. I see that question in your face. But the pendulum of power swings always and things balance themselves out in the end.”

“An interesting idea,” Lilavati said.

“So, tell me a bit about your people and what they believe,” Theda said.

“I cannot say much about the Thousand, not because I do not wish to but because I do not know,” Lilavati said. “I was taught little about them, other than their laws and what I am forbidden – as a woman – to do. Many women chafe under these laws, but as the men prefer it as it stands, nothing will change because there are not enough of us who wish to challenge the laws.”

“I’d think there would be many,” Theda said.

Lilavati shrugged. “Perhaps the way we are taught drives all thought of resistance out of their minds. Our spirituality though comes out of our ties to our home.” She fell silent for a moment. “Each day is new to us, with the spirit of the world speaking to us in whispers of what wonders it could hold as we wake. We listen and make our plans. Water plays a very big part in our ceremonies, whether the little ones we do as part of our daily rituals or the great ones to celebrate the turning of the seasons, ancient festivals celebrating events we no longer even have records of. They are traditional parts of our lives, and we must follow the never ending cycle of our lives until they end.”

“That doesn’t sound very spiritual to me,” Theda said. “It sounds more like a forced tradition that you’ve been taught is spirituality.”

“You may be right,” Lilavati said. “But that is the way I view things.” She closed her eyes. “I do not know how much longer I can stand this.”

Manas rejoined them. “Ludger says there’s a good spot another eight spans up the road where we can camp. He’s muttering about how it’s too early, but I told him the life of my dark scholar is more important to me than our progress. We’ll still get to Phiri Hu with plenty of time to spare before it gets too hard to get through the passes.”

Theda nodded. “I’ll continue riding with you for a little longer, Great Lord, if you don’t mind. I think I’m needed to steady the Great Lady.”

Lilavati opened her eyes and nodded. “Please Manas. Let her stay.”

“Of course, Lilavati,” Manas said, using her name for the first time since the exchange that ultimately freed her from her father. “Be calm. Ludger says we’re almost through this area. We’ll be on to a flat stretch known as the Barrier, and then we’ll be good. Can you hold on that long?”

“What’s the Barrier?” Theda asked.

“Somewhere that’s going to be hard on my dark scholar,” Manas said grimly.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifteen

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It was harder staying in the saddle than Lilavati guessed it would be. It wasn’t more than an hour after breaking camp before she was regretting her choice. Manas rode up next to her. “You shouldn’t be riding, my dark scholar,” he said.

“I will not be put in a cart, as if I were some kind of baggage,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Why not? There is no shame in admitting you need help,” Manas said.

“There is, in the eyes of your people,” Lilavati said softly.

Manas drew his horse closer to hers. “Why do you say that?”

“Right now, I am simply the outsider, the stranger,” Lilavati said. “I am an anomaly they haven’t been able to catalogue, to put into a slot in their lives. Should I give in and prove I am the burden they suspect? I’ll never have their respect, and my life will be worth nothing to them.”

“You think so little of my people’s willingness to do as they’re told?” Manas asked.

“They’ll do it, but not with the kind of immediacy that is needed when dealing with assassins,” Lilavati said. “If I die because of it, they know you’ll be angry. But they also know that eventually you’ll forget about me and move on. I’m a transitional part of your life until we reach your home. So I cannot show too much weakness in front of them.”

“You’ll do yourself harm by this,” Manas said.

“I will survive,” Lilavati said. She winced as they hit a rough spot in the road. The horse stumbled a little, but recovered quickly. Lilavati was jarred forward but thanks to the strange gift she’d been given at birth, she never fell off. “This is why I chose to ride. I know I won’t fall, though I will be in great pain.”

“At least let me give you something that will help with that,” Manas said.

“I can’t have anything that will influence my ability to think and react,” Lilavati said. “While this is all reflex, there are still things that take conscious thought to deal with.”

“I drink it myself when – when I am in pain as I ride,” Manas said. “I can’t afford to have my wits muddled either.” He passed her a small bottle, concealing the movement with his body. “Don’t let them see you drink this, but take a few swallows. Do it quickly, and make no sound. It won’t be pleasant but it’ll help.”

Lilavati did as he said, fighting back the retching when she passed it back. He openly handed her a waterskin, which he’d already opened. She quickly drank, taking just enough to wash the taste from her mouth. “That was awful,” she said, when he put the waterskin back on his saddle.

“I’ve grown used to it,” Manas said. “It both eases the pain and clears the mind, or so I was told. I’ve needed it for the past few years and I’ve never had issues with it.” He paused. “Though it’s made from northern herbs, and you’re not used to them. I didn’t stop to think of that.”

“We will find out if it helps or harms me soon,” Lilavati said. She smiled. “You can blame the assassin if I get ill from this.”

“That doesn’t make me any easier, my dark scholar,” Manas said.

“Do not worry, my amber eyed lord,” Lilavati said. She took a few deep breaths. “I feel no ill effects now. We just need to watch and wait.”

“I’ll be watching you very carefully,” Manas said. He moved his horse back from hers a bit, though his eyes never left her face.

They rode this way for a few hours until finally Manas relaxed and turned his attention to the road in front of them. Lilavati studied his profile. She frowned. She saw something different, a faint aura she’d never noticed before. It covered him from head to toe.

She glanced back over her shoulder, but saw no such light around any of the others. She looked down at her hands. An aura similar in brightness, though not color, emanated from her skin. She returned her gaze to the road. She looked at everything they passed, and nothing – living or inanimate – radiated the same kind of light she and Manas carried.

As they neared a crossroads, Lilavati shivered. She could hear – faintly – pounding hooves and men shouting. Screams of agony and rough voices sounding their rough battle cries echoed in her mind. She wanted to cover her ears but no one else seemed to hear anything. The sound got louder the closer she got to the large area surrounding the four way crossing.

She looked around as Manas and Ludger consulted the map. Her eyes picked out places where men and horses died on the dry grass that was slowly taking the place of her beloved sands. Yet what she saw wasn’t the sere, dry stalks. It was a verdant land, filled with green and water. Blood ran as freely as the streams that ran where the roads now sat.

She pressed one hand against her forehead briefly, hoping Manas wouldn’t see it. A moment later, his hand was on top of hers. “Do you need to rest, my dark scholar?” he asked softly.

“Tell me quickly, was there ever a great battle fought here?” she asked, her voice cracking as the ghostly visions she saw continued to play out.

Manas looked at her strangely. “This was the site of the war that divided the Northlands and the Southlands nearly a thousand years ago. Why do you ask?”

“Because I can see them,” Lilavati whispered. “The soldiers, their animals, the rivers of blood. I can see it all.” She tilted her chin towards the ground. “We are standing in the middle of a river, and where Ludger is was a great barrier of stone to prevent anyone from crossing here.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fourteen

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Manas set Lilavati down on a pile of blankets, which his men hastily threw together for her. He left her to rest as the camp continued to shift around her back into the efficient traveling group it had been the previous day. She lifted her face up, feeling the sun warm her skin. “You should wear some kind of protection from that, Great Lady. Or you’ll lose what beauty you have,” a sniveling voice said.

Lilavati turned to see who’d spoken. A thin man in the same kind of clothing as the other servants stood next to her. “As I have none to lose, I don’t see any issue with this,” she said, shifting a little so her hand was on the hilt of her blade. “Who are you?”

“I am Alister, Great Lady.” He moved a few things around before joining another, larger group of servants. She frowned. She didn’t know what it was, but she felt something off about him.

Manas joined her a few minutes later. “You have such a look on your face, my dark scholar. What’s wrong?”

“Do you know all the names of those who serve you?” Lilavati asked.

“I do,” Manas said.

“Then can you tell me about the one named Alister?” Lilavati asked.

“Alister? He’s been with me for five years now,” Manas said. “He’s a good, honest man. He came from another part of the Northlands, much as Ludger did. Alister was in dire straits when we found him, half dead and being stalked by a wolf pack. We chased off the wolves, nursed him back to health, and he became my servant once he could stand on his own two feet.” He looked down at her. “Why?”

Lilavati shook her head. “I see assassins everywhere and all odd sounds and voices send me into a slight panic.” She smiled. “I suppose I must remember that not all your people are the same.”

“This isn’t the Southlands, Lilavati. We aren’t a homogeneous people. We have our own ways, our own laws, and our own ways of ruling over different segments of the population,” Manas said.

Lilavati laughed. “You, a lord who claims to be a scholar, believes the Southlands are only one people? One nation?” She shook her head. “I have much to teach you about my home as you do me about yours.”

“I look forward to the learning,” Manas said. He stooped and kissed her forehead. “We’re ready to move out. All we need is those blankets stowed and you on your horse.” He straightened and held out his hand. “Can you do it?”

Lilavati slid her hand into his and gripped it tightly. He pulled her up and she steadied herself against his supportive arm. She took a few steps and found she wasn’t as shaky as she’d been. She let Manas keep her steady as she went to the side of her horse.

She eyed the animal, who sat there placidly, waiting for her to mount. “I think I’ll need help with this,” she said, feeling the same weakness in her arms that she’d had when she first tried to ride as a child.

“Then up you go,” Manas said. He lifted her again – how can one man be so strong? Lilavati thought – as he helped settle her in the saddle.

She grabbed the reins and adjusted her position slightly, moving with the horse as it moved under her. She waited to see if she was going to fall off. “I think I’m going to be fine. As long as she doesn’t try to throw me, I should be able to stay on.”

“Then lets get on the road. We’re already well behind the schedule I hoped to keep,” Manas said. He smiled at her as he brought his horse next to hers. “And I do not consider it your fault, my dark scholar. It is the doing of the assassins who have chosen to attempt to kill you.” He paused. “Though why they chose you I don’t know.”

“I already voiced my thoughts that they wish to stop our wedding,” Lilavati said.

“I know,” Manas said as they started forward. “But why you instead of me? I’m the logical choice as I am the one with all the power.”

“True, but look how many guards you surround yourself with,” Lilavati said. “Your servants are numerous as well, and they are loyal to you. They would do whatever was necessary to protect you.” She shook her head. “I am the outsider, the stranger, the new one. I am the bride who is, as of yet, unmarried to their lord. They aren’t sure of me, so they aren’t entirely sure about whether or not I’ll make a good wife for you. This is why I am such an easy target for the assassins. I am not so closely guarded.”

“That’s going to change,” Manas muttered under his breath.

“It won’t change until they do, and that will not be until we reach your lands,” Lilavati said. “Even then, their hostility will remain until long after the ceremony.”

Manas took one of his hands off of the reins and rubbed it through his hair. “You have a point, my dark scholar. I will see what I can do to make sure you are better protected.”

“I doubt you can do much,” Lilavati said.

“What I want to do is know who is behind it,” Manas said. “I have no enemies that I know of. Does your father have someone who would do this? An old rival, perhaps? Someone who does not wish him to prosper?”

“I am not aware of any,” Lilavati said. “Then again, I would not know all of his dealings. Women are kept out of that side of our society.”

Manas shook his head and returned his hands to the reins. “We will find a way to protect you and stop this.”

“I thank you, my amber eyed lord,” Lilavati said, choosing a name from his looks as he’d chosen one from hers.

He stiffened in his saddle, but then relaxed. “You noticed what most don’t,” he said.

“I have seen more than just the color,” Lilavati said.

Manas looked at her. “There is much we will have to discuss when we reach my home.” She nodded and they both fell silent. Lilavati relaxed, letting her body shift and bend with the motion of the horse. Behind her she could hear the sound of marching feet. She felt a shiver go down her spine.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part eleven

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Photo via Visual hunt

The liquid seared her throat and burned its way down into her stomach. Lilavati choked and spluttered, gasping for breath. Manas shifted his grip so he could keep her propped up. “How long will it take to work?” he asked.

“It depends, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “On how much of the poison she’s absorbed and how far it’s worked into her system. If it has reached too many vital organs, this means nothing. She will be dead in minutes anyway.”

Lilavati kept her eyes fixed on Manas’ face. While she didn’t yet love him, she wanted her last sight – if her death was to come – to be of the one man who saw more value in her than in countless more beautiful women he’d seen on his travels. The blur the blood and poison made him kept her from seeing details. That didn’t matter to her. Just the knowledge that someone wanted her was enough.

As she continued watching, more and more of his face became clear. The pain ebbed in some places and her breathing returned to normal. She choked and spit out a clump of blood. Before Manas could say anything, she held up one bandaged hand. “I’m no longer dying, Manas. It was caught in my throat. That’s all,” she said, her voice still raspy from the coughing and the passage of the partially dried blood.

“How do you feel, Great Lady?” Ludger asked.

“How do you think?” Lilavati asked. “Weak, exhausted, and in pain. Bloodrain is not a poison that many recover from.”

“Yes, and those that do often have lingering effects,” Ludger said. “Such as weakened lungs, bleeding disorders, and possible early deaths because their organs are too badly damaged to give them their natural lifespan.”

“If that’s what we have to deal with then we will,” Manas said. “Lilavati, will you be able to ride?”

“I can answer that,” Ludger said. “She will, but you’ll have to tie her to her saddle in some way. She won’t be able to keep her balance well enough to keep from falling off.”

“I’m wiling to try without the bindings,” Lilavati said. “I’ve never fallen in my life, no matter how ill I became. What my face lacks in appeal my body has acquired in balance and agility.”

Ludger gave Manas an odd look. Manas shook his head. Ludger shrugged. “I’d recommend against it, Great Lady. No matter how skilled you are. However, if you wish to attempt it I won’t stop you.” He looked at Manas. “Just make sure you have some kind of rope or other bindings waiting, Great Lord. You’ll need them.” With that, he stalked off.

“Manas, we must burn everything that has my blood on it,” Lilavati said. “Or find something to destroy it. I cannot leave such a rich source of material for any sorcerer who happens along our trail to use against me.”

“Agreed,” Manas said. “Is Sieglinde taking down your tent?” Lilavati nodded. “Go to her. If it’s already down, ask her to help you get cleaned up and into a new dress.”

“I will try,” Lilavati said.

“Do you want me to help you to where you had your tent?” Manas asked.

“That might be helpful, as I’m not sure my legs will support me right now,” Lilavati said. “At least, not very well.”

Manas eyed her and then scooped her up into his arms. “You’re not very heavy, my dark scholar. Do you even eat?”

“I eat enough to satisfy myself,” Lilavati said with a small smile. She was trying to relax, but the feeling of Manas so close to her sent a strange thrill through her entire body.

It wasn’t the sense of desire. It was the lure of mystery. There was something that no one was telling her and she needed to find out what. She had a feeling it was the key to why no one was permitted to go outside at night.

They got back to the place where the black and gold tent had been. Sieglinde was shoving into its pack. “Sieglinde, find Lilavati a place to bathe, and assist her in getting into a new gown,” Manas said. “She was poisoned by magic and is in need of some care before we leave.”

“Of course, Great Lord,” Sieglinde said as Manas set Lilavati down.

Lilavati swayed a little on her feet. Sieglinde came and braced her as she watched her soon-to-be husband stride off. “He is a very strange man, Sieglinde,” Lilavati said as the other woman led her off to the side, a short distance from the camp. There was more cover there so Lilavati could have some semblance of privacy as she got cleaned up.

“Why do you say that, Great Lady?” Sieglinde asked.

“He knew the name I spoke when I mentioned the poison that was killing me,” Lilavati said. “It is an extremely rare poison, even among my people. Yet he is learned enough to have at least heard of it. He travels with a man who seems a giant and yet is a mage?” This was more a question than a statement.

“You mean Ludger,” Sieglinde said, helping Lilavati strip out of the blood caked silk. “He is no giant, Great Lady, though to you I suppose he seems that way. He comes from a land far to the north of Phiri Hu. The Great Lord met him there and they struck up a kind of friendship, though they are still lord and servant. I’m not sure how long Ludger has been with him. He was already in the Great Lord’s household when I took service with him.”

Sieglinde poured water over Lilavati until she was soaked and most of the blood had been sluiced off. “I’ll finish this part, Sieglinde,” Lilavati said. “Please bring me one of my dresses. This whole thing has delayed us enough, and I don’t think Manas wants to be slowed down much longer. Even if he is concerned about me.” Sieglinde nodded and hurried off back to where Lilavati’s saddlebags were sitting. Lilavati continued scrubbing at the blood in her hair and on her face.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part ten

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Photo via Visual hunt

Manas pulled the scarf from around his neck and tore it into two pieces. He wrapped them around Lilavati’s hands, trying to stop the bleeding. She started shaking. Her lungs were on fire and her chest was too tight. She tried to cough but her throat closed off and she couldn’t get it out. She was barely able to breathe.

Lilavati realized more blood was trickling down from her forehead as it dripped into her eyes. She looked up at Manas, knowing the fear she was feeling would show on her face. Her knees buckled and she started to fall.

Manas caught her. “You will not be leaving me this way, my dark scholar,” he said through gritted teeth.

“I may have no choice,” Lilavati said. Her voice was no louder than a whisper and she felt as if knives were slicing her throat when she did speak.

“Ludger, I need you,” Manas shouted.

Lilavati’s eyes were filling with blood, but she could still see the unbelievably tall, broad, and lumbering man that limped up. “What can I do for you, Great Lord?” he asked in a gravelly voice. She saw him shake his head. “By the Twelve, what’s going on?”

“She said something was wrong with the mist and then this happened,” Manas said. “Has no one else reported injuries or illness?”

“I’ve had a few complaints about headaches but that’s it,” Ludger said. He held out his hands over Lilavati’s head. “Its a curse, Great Lord. A very potent one. It’s been directed solely at her, using some kind of token tied to her. My guess is either her blood or, more likely, strands of her hair.”

“Can you stop it from killing her?” Manas asked.

“I’m not sure, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “I don’t even know what kind of curse this is.”

“Well, figure it out,” Manas snapped.

“I’ll try, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “But I am no god, though you have named me as one on more than one occasion. I can’t do everything.”

Manas held her as Ludger set his hands over her heart. “Why there?” Manas asked.

“She’s bleeding out of every pore, and soon – if I read the curse right – out of every orifice,” Ludger said. “The heart is what drives the blood through the body, Great Lord. If I can find the curse there, I can remove it.”

Something tickled at the back of Lilavati’s mind but she was too disoriented to catch it. She continued chasing it while the giant of a man used his magic to try to save her life. “She is worsening, Ludger,” Manas said.

“I cannot find the source, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “It’s as if a poison straight from the gods has entered her body.”

Poison. That was what she was trying to remember. A virulent poison she’d seen used once before, on an enemy of her father’s. It was only effective if applied to the skin or breathed in.

Lilavati tugged on Manas’ sleeve to get his attention, her weakness making it hard to even lift her fingers. Manas looked at her. “Poison,” she whispered. She struggled to speak. “Bloodrain.”

Manas swore. “Ludger, can a poison be targeted for a single person with magic, and then spread across an entire group?”

“Yes Great Lord,” Ludger said. Lilavati’s eyes were so caked with blood she could no longer see him, but she heard the intake of breath. “Which one?”

“She called it ‘bloodrain,'” Manas said.

Ludger swore even more fluently and creatively than Manas. “Great Lord, that poison has few antidotes, and I don’t know that I carry any of them with me.”

“Check,” Manas said.

There was silence for several moments, time that felt like an eternity to Lilavati. Finally Ludger returned. “I have one that may work, Great Lord. It isn’t a common antidote because it doesn’t have a high success rate, but it’s all that I can find.”

“How do you use it?” Manas asked.

“I pour it down her throat,” Ludger said. “But it won’t do any good until I clear away the mist that has targeted her.”

“Then do it,” Manas said. “She’s dying and I won’t be able to safe her if you can’t do something about it.”

“Hold onto something, men,” Ludger shouted, deafening Lilavati and making Manas snarl in pain. There was something not quite human in the sound, but Lilavati soon lost track of that thought when a strong wind started swirling around her.

It cooled the burning in her skin, pulled some of the dried blood from her face, and gave her much needed fresh air. The ache in her chest eased a little. When the wind finally died down, Ludger returned. “There’s some color back in her face,” Manas said.

“Then perhaps she isn’t as far gone as I feared,” Ludger said. “Great Lady, can you open your mouth?” It took a moment for Lilavati to realize he was talking to her. Her jaw ached and didn’t want to move. The stubborn flame in her that prevented her from killing herself out of despair all her life, that kept her from giving up during the previous attack by the assassin, drove her to fight once more. With an extreme effort of will, she slowly moved her jaw down until he could fit the stopper of the bottle into her mouth. He dumped the entire thing in.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part eight

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Photo via Visual hunt

Lilavati knew Sieglinde was watching her as she worked, so she took great care not to embarrass herself by doing something so stupid as cut or burn her fingers. “Great Lady, how did you learn to cook?” Sieglinde asked from her corner.

“My family was reluctant to let me eat with them because of how ugly I am,” Lilavati said. “So I needed to take care of my own needs. At first I went to the kitchen and the slaves fed me. Then I grew tired of that. So I had one of them teach me to cook. While my family ate what they wished, I was able to do the same.”

“Slaves, Great Lady? Your people keep slaves?” Sieglinde asked. She seemed very disturbed by the idea.

“Sieglinde, Manas gave my father one hundred slaves as part of my bride price,” Lilavati said. “Did you not know that?”

Sieglinde looked ill. “I know the Great Lord said he was going to have to do it, in order to secure you, but I didn’t think he was serious.”

“Slavery is a way of life among my people,” Lilavati said. “Just as servants instead of slaves is a way of life among yours.”

Sieglinde shook her head. “I keep forgetting that not all lands are like the Great Lord’s.” She smiled ruefully. “I wish it were so, for Phiri Hu is a paradise as far as I am concerned.”

“But will I find it so?” Lilavati asked. “I am not the same as you, Sieglinde. As you pointed out, all lands are different and what you consider paradise I might consider part of the eleven hells.”

“Eleven hells Great Lady?” Sieglinde asked. “Is that part of your religion?”

“It is, though I’ve never really given much thought or care for it,” Lilavati said. “The gods cursed me with this face, though they gifted me with cleverness, grace, and an honorable streak that has gotten me into trouble more than once because I wouldn’t divulge secrets I was given in confidence.”

“You can keep a secret well then,” Sieglinde said.

Lilavati nodded. “I find that keeping them is far easier than explaining to the person who confided in me why I broke their trust.”

“Great Lady, do you wish to know anything about where we’re going?” Sieglinde asked.

“Actually, yes I do,” Lilavati said as she stirred the tiny pot that rested over the coals. “I have several questions, though I don’t know how many you can answer. My first is why must we be locked away at night?”

Sieglinde hesitated. “Great Lady, I think that is something best left until we get to Phiri Hu. That is for the Great Lord to explain, as it is his orders.”

Lilavati nodded. “I thought as much.” She tasted what she was cooking. The spices were different from what she was used to, but it wasn’t bad. It didn’t look like the meat was all the way rehydrated yet so she continued stirring. “Sieglinde, is there a curse at work here?”

Sieglinde choked. “Great Lady?”

Lilavati shook her head. “Sieglinde, Manas chose me because I’m intelligent. I’m not a fool. We have to be sealed away in our tents by nightfall. We can’t leave else Manas can’t guarantee our safety. We are still near enough to my city for me to know there are no night prowling beasts here that could harm us. So, the only reason for this edict is because there is some kind of curse at work.”

“I can’t confirm that, Great Lady,” Sieglinde said. “Or deny it. That is something you’ll have to ask the Great Lord in the morning.”

“I believe I shall,” Lilavati asked. The meat looked like it was through cooking and she pulled the pot off the fire. She hooked it to the cunning little bracket on the tripod that held it. She scooped the contents out into a bowl to let it cool a bit before eating. “Sieglinde, everyone here is so pale?”

Sieglinde laughed. “It’s because we come from a land that isn’t as hot as yours, Great Lady. The sun doesn’t bake us. It gives us light and gentle warmth. It feeds our crops, as does the rain.”

“Rain?” Lilavati sat up. “You have rain?”

“Of course, Great Lady. Do you not see that here?”

“We do, but not often. It is a moment of great rejoicing when it does come,” Lilavati said. “It shows the Thousand Gods are pleased with us.”

“You have a thousand gods?” Sieglinde asked. “We only have twelve.”

Lilavati laughed. “I doubt there are really a thousand. But as I said, I question the validity of our religion. I have seen no miracles, no proof of the power of our priests and priestesses. They have given me no answers as to why I was cursed. So I have no desire to pursue a relationship with the gods of my people.”

“Perhaps the Twelve will give you an answer,” Sieglinde said. “They are very close to our people, Great Lady. You will have to learn their ways and how to honor them. But it isn’t hard and I think you’ll find them far more responsive than you’re used to.”

“That sounds quite intriguing, Sieglinde. Now, another question. Just how much water do you have in Phiri Hu?” Lilavati asked.

“Oh, we have lakes that span miles, Great Lady,” Sieglinde said. “And rivers as wild as anything you’ve seen. Phiri Hu even borders the sea, though I’ve never seen it.”

“The sea?” Lilavati felt a rush of excitement. “I’ve wanted to go there since I was a little girl and first learned of it in one of the books I purchased from a merchant of the east.”

“Perhaps the Great Lord will take you there one day,” Sieglinde said.

“That I would love,” Lilavati said.

 

Tiger, Tiger – Part five

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Photo via Visual hunt

“Here she stands,” Lilavati’s father said, gesturing. Lilavati bowed with the same sinuous grace she’d known since she was a child. “She is ready.”

“Is she?” Manas asked. “Do you have all you will need?”

“I have my clothing, jewelry, and what small trinkets I can claim as my own,” Lilavati said. “That is all I may bring with me.”

Manas frowned. “Are none of those books and scrolls yours?”

“Some I purchased before I became recognized as a woman,” Lilavati said. “When that happened, they were no longer mine. They became my father’s.”

“A woman has no need of such things to divert her mind from the importance of finding a husband,” her father said.

“Do you know which were hers?” Manas asked.

“Of course I do,” her father said. “I keep meticulous records.” He seemed offended that Manas would even suggest such an oversight. Lilavati bowed her head to hide her smile. the only reason her father kept such good records was because Lilavati herself had taught one of the slaves how to do it when she was still considered a child.

“Then fetch those items from your library. I do not care that they were purchased when she was young. They are hers and I lay claim to them as her husband,” Manas said.

Her father opened his mouth to object, then closed it again, perhaps thinking of the huge bride price. “I’ll bring them out as quickly as I can,” he said. “Kavi, come with me.”

“Yes Father,” Kavi said. The two of them went into the house.

“I do not like being delayed like this,” Manas said. “Why didn’t he gather these last night?”

“Because, to him, they’re not mine,” Lilavati said. “At least, they weren’t until you told him they were.”

“Why should that make a difference?” Manas asked.

“You gave him much in exchange for a daughter that was pretty much a useless mouth to feed,” Lilavati said. Manas looked at her. “I brought in no money because I wasn’t allowed to learn a trade, and until you came along no man would have me.”

“You are far more than your face,” Manas said. “No man here could see that?”

Lilavati snorted. “Husband, you’ve watched my father. He is very typical of the men in this city.”

“Do not call me that,” Manas said. “You will use my name when you speak to me.”

Lilavati smiled. “Good,” she said, surprising him. “I detest the custom that forces women to not use proper names. Then again, I’m better educated than most so I know there are better ways. My father wasn’t happy when I started questioning my place in our society. I think he was relieved when I came of an age where I wasn’t allowed to read any longer. I wouldn’t be in his library where I could ask him uncomfortable questions.”

“I take it you’ve found your place as a woman in your father’s house confining?” Manas asked.

“It is what it is,” Lilavati said with a shrug.

Her father and Kavi soon returned with a small pack. “Is that all of them?” Manas asked.

“It is,” her father said.

Lilavati checked the pack herself. “He speaks the truth,” she said.

“Then attach those to your saddle as well,” Manas said. He glanced at the sky. “Mount quickly. We’ve wasted enough time on this foolishness.” Lilavati did as she was told. “Geta Prabhu, I will say this once. I’m not from your country, so I don’t know all your customs. Understand this though – you will never be permitted to see Lilavati again, unless she chooses to permit it. I won’t let her agree to it just because she feels it’s some sacred duty as your daughter that she must uphold. It will be what she wants as a free thinking woman, not the subservient creature you have forced her to be.” He looked at Lilavati. “Let’s go.”

Lilavati followed him out of the courtyard, leaving behind her stunned father and her snickering brother. Once they were well away from her father’s house, one of Manas’ servants rode up next to her. “You should be beside him, Great Lady. Else he will grow angry,” he said.

Lilavati didn’t feel like arguing and nudged her mare into a trot. She caught up with Manas. “They told you to join me, didn’t they?” Manas asked, glancing over his shoulder at his servants.

“It might have been suggested,” Lilavati said. “But I didn’t have to listen to them, did I?”

Manas shook his head. “You didn’t, but I’d have been fairly irritated if you chose to ride behind me the entire way to my home.”

“As I’m still not sure what my place is in your house, what my duties will be, and how I’m to be addressed – the servant who spoke to me called me ‘Great Lady’ – how am I to know what you want?” Lilavati said. “I can only guess so much.”

Manas glared at her momentarily before relaxing. Now that she was closer to him, she could see his amber eyes were a peculiar shape. It was as if a cat was staring at her out of a man’s face. This didn’t frighten her as it might have her mother and sister. Perhaps it took one considered odd by society to accept another like them.

“They’re supposed to call you Great Lady,” Manas said. “It’s an annoying fact, but even in my lands there must be titles to differentiate the masters from the servants. As for your duties, I’ll have Sieglinde discuss those with you tonight when we camp.” He paused. “Lilavati, when we camp, everyone goes immediately into their tents. The ones we have are special. They’re charmed so they don’t catch fire, so meals are prepared individually inside. Do you know how to cook?”

“I do. I learned it in self defense against starvation at the hands of my family,” Lilavati said.

“Then I’ll send Sieglinde to you with some supplies just before everyone closes in for the night,” Manas said. He released his reins with one hand and put a finger in her face. “Heed my words, Lilavati. I can’t guarantee your safety if you venture out after the order to seal the tents has been given.”

“What am I to do if I need the privy at night? Isn’t it the custom to create a pit rather than have private chamber pots in each tent?” Lilavati asked, thinking back to some of her father’s books.

“It is, but we don’t hold to many customs here,” Manas said. “You’ll have a chamber pot. In the morning Drishti will show you where to empty it, and also where you can bathe. She’ll keep track of you for a few days until you get your feet under you.”

to be continued…