Tiger’s Curse Uncut Prologue
January 31, 2014
Tiger’s Curse Uncut Prologue
The prisoner stood with his hands tied in front of him, tired, beaten, and filthy, but with a proud back befitting his royal heritage. The man seated before him on a lavishly carved, gilded throne was Lokesh, his future father-in-law. Lokesh wore a golden diadem on his head and had a gaudy jeweled ring adorning each of his broad, stubby fingers. Though his hair was still black, his beard showed signs of graying and fine wrinkles showed when he narrowed his eyes.
The magnificent throne was draped with a rich purple brocade, and thick, comfortable pillows were scattered nearby should there be a need to soften the hard planes of its golden surface. The throne sat on a dais that was nestled adjacent to the room’s only wall.
Tall white pillars surrounded the room and stood like mighty sentinels, providing support for the ornately carved ceiling painted gold and textured with symmetrical scrolls and whorls. Sheer cream-colored draperies were the only barriers separating this part of the palace from the jungle, and even they were pulled back, in hopes that an errant breeze would slip through to cool the air on this sweltering day. Lokesh’s palace was built on the outskirts of a tropical jungle full of evergreens and deciduous trees. It was rampant with wildlife. The calls of birds could be heard clearly as they flew nearby.
The prisoner, Alagan Dhiren Rajaram, was the prince of a mighty Indian kingdom called Mujulaain. Technically, his current title was Prince and High Protector of the Mujulaain Empire, but he still preferred to think of himself as just Ren. His father had plans to step down soon and leave him, the eldest son, the responsibilities of the kingdom and of its people.
The fact that Lokesh, the raja of the small neighboring kingdom of Bhreenam, was his captor was not as shocking as seeing who was sitting next to him. Occupying a smaller but still ornate chair was Kishan, Ren’s younger brother, and in another chair sat Yesubai, Ren’s fiancée. Ren studied all three of them but only Lokesh returned his gaze. He raised one eyebrow, curious to know what would happen next.
Lokesh turned on his ostentatious throne and abruptly snarled to his soldiers, “Remove yourselves!” His piercing words echoed around the great hall, a startling contrast to the silence a moment ago. The soldiers instantly obeyed and quickly filed out with their dirty boots leaving a filthy trail on the sparkling white tile.
Ren looked at the mess and thought dryly, Mother would never have allowed our soldiers to behave with such blatant disregard for her home. He smiled; picturing the stinging rebuke his mother, Deschen, would have given them. Though, she would have softened it later by sending the soldiers baskets of delicious foods as an apology for showing her temper.
Lokesh narrowed his eyes and studied the face of the man meant to marry his daughter. The man was smiling. Presumptuous boy, he thought. He could charm the spots off of a leopard. Which was the quality that made him such an excellent diplomat, but the handsome prince was spoiled worse than sheep’s innards left in the desert. Lokesh smiled himself in anticipation. The long awaited culmination of years of effort was soon to come to fruition. How delightful it would be to see the youth’s proud expression fall as the prince realized everything he loved would soon be destroyed.
Ren spoke first, saying softly, “My soon-to-be father, why have you treated me with such…inhospitality?”
Lokesh snorted. So, it would be a verbal game. Nonchalant, Lokesh affixed a deliberate smile on his face, tilted his head to the side, and replied simply, “My dear Dhiren, you have something that I desire.”
Allowing just a portion of his incredulity to show, Ren said, “Nothing you could want can justify the murder of my guards. Are our kingdoms not to be joined? Everything I have has been at your disposal. You needed only to ask. Why have you done this?”
Lokesh rubbed his jaw. “Plans change. It seems that Kishan here has a,” his eyes glittered as he chuckled in delight, “desire to take my daughter for his bride.” Lokesh shrugged, indicating he couldn’t possibly fathom the emotions of young people. “And he has promised me certain remunerations if I help him to achieve this goal.”
Astonished, Ren turned his gaze to Kishan. Could it be true? Kishan’s eyes remained fixed to the floor, affirming that what Lokesh was saying was true. Ren turned his attention to his fiancé Yesubai, who, with cheeks aflame, assumed a demure, submissive pose with her head bowed. Quickly surmising what must have happened, Ren calculated that this had partly been his own fault.
His arranged marriage to Yesubai was supposed to have ushered in an era of peace between the two kingdoms. He had, unfortunately, been away for the last four months overseeing military operations on the far side of the empire and had left his brother to watch over the kingdom. His mouth turned up at the corner in sardonic humor. I guess Kishan was watching a little bit more than just the kingdom. Ren admonished himself, never leave a cat to watch over your pet mouse.
The next words Lokesh spoke pulled Ren out of his reflections as he said, “Of course, if you were to agree to surrender the Mujulaain forts and if you were willing to turn over all of your treasure to me, including your piece of the Damon Amulet, I might be persuaded to allow you to live.”
Ren laughed. “To live? I thought we were bartering for a bride.”
“I’m afraid your rights as a betrothed husband have been usurped. Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear. Kishan will have Yesubai.”
Ren clenched his jaw, and said simply, “My father’s armies would destroy you if you killed me.”
Lokesh laughed deviously. “He certainly would not destroy his other son or his son’s family. We will simply placate Rajaram and tell him that you were the victim of an unfortunate accident.”
Ren felt no fear, only a deep anger displayed by the tightening of his fists. Lokesh stroked his short, stippled beard, then clarified, “Of course, you understand, that even should I allow you live, I will be the raja of both kingdoms. Nothing will prevent that now. I only say this because you appear to be emotionally overwhelmed and I wouldn’t want to appear to be holding back information.”
He chuckled portentously to himself. “I suppose I could just kill you and take the amulet, but then I wouldn’t be able to take pleasure in forcibly removing it from your person.” A nefarious smile spread across his face and his eyes tightened shrewdly. “You may speak. It amuses me to watch people beg for their lives.”
Ren had no doubt that Lokesh intended to follow through with his plans. He thought to himself, how could my perceptions of the man’s character have been so flawed? Lokesh’s accomplished and compelling persona had fooled Ren and his family.
Kishan had been carefully studying Lokesh as well and had reached the same conclusion. He leaned toward Lokesh and protested stiffly, “I thought we had an arrangement. I only brought him to you because you swore that you would not kill him! You were to take the amulet and that’s all.”
Lokesh shot out his hand as quickly as a snake and grabbed Kishan’s wrist. Kishan was a young, powerful man and though Lokesh appeared older and frail; Kishan could not break the man’s hold. Grinning with a sinister, saccharine smile, Lokesh said, “You should have learned by now that I take whatever I desire. If you would prefer the view from where your brother is standing, I would be happy to accommodate you.” Kishan remained silent. “No? Very well, I have now amended our former arrangement. Your brother will be killed if he does not comply with my wishes, and you will never marry my daughter unless you hand over your piece of the amulet to me.”
Vehemently, Kishan lifted his head, and with a dangerous edge to his voice, said, “Yesubai will be mine.”
Lokesh spat back enraged, “Presumptuous youth! I will tell you what is yours and what isn’t. This private arrangement of ours can easily be revoked, and I can have Yesubai married to a different man. A man of my choosing.”
Kishan narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw. He’s insane. Obsessed. Kishan had made a mistake. A horrible one. An unforgivable one. Now the question was how would he fix it?
Cackling, Lokesh continued, “Perhaps an old sultan would cool her hot blood. If you desire to remain close to Yesubai, you will learn to be submissive.” Lokesh hissed and squeezed Kishan’s wrist until it cracked loudly. The younger man didn’t react at all which aggravated Lokesh further. After twisting it almost to the point of breaking, an unsatisfied Lokesh finally stretched out his fingers and opened his hand, dropping Kishan’s arm. Inflicting pain was something of a specialty of his and the younger prince’s stubborn insensibility to pain was intriguing. He would explore that at his leisure another time.
Flexing his fingers and slowly rolling his wrist, Kishan sat back in his chair. He made eye contact with his brother, and an unspoken message passed between them.
Ren analyzed his situation. He and his brother would deal with each other later, but Lokesh’s actions meant war, and the needs of the kingdom were a priority for both brothers. Composing his face, Ren narrowed his eyes with determination and raised his head. “So what is it you really want? The kingdom? A new son-in-law? The forts? The amulet? Ah. Your body language betrays you. A man who makes multiple demands and threats should try to school his emotions more carefully. So it is the amulet you really desire. I am surprised you learned of the amulet’s existence, but I promise you that our pieces of the Damon Amulet will never be yours! Under no condition would I ever be intimidated to give it to you.” He rebuked curtly, “No matter what the sacrifice.”
Refocusing on the task at hand, Lokesh scrutinized Dhiren with a hooded gaze, and said, “Well, you see, Kishan has already agreed to hand over his piece of the amulet after he marries my daughter, and even should he choose to revoke his offer, I feel assured of his cooperation.” He smiled. “He wouldn’t want any harm to come to his bride after all. As far as you’re concerned, I guarantee you that I will have yours as well, even if I have to kill you or both of them to get it.” He sat back and with a magnanimous gesture, said, “But, if you give them to me now, I promise that you will all go free.”
Ren shook his head and gestured to his brother. “Kishan can promise whatever he wishes, but my portion of the amulet will remain in my possession until my death.”
“Impudent princeling! Your death can easily be arranged!” Crimson fire swept over Lokesh’s mottled face, and his angry voice stabbed, emphasizing each word, “You dare not to give me what I ask for?” Obsession pumped up Lokesh’s neck, throbbed at his temple, and settled behind his black, serpentine eyes. Those same eyes dissected Ren’s face, probing, assessing for weakness. “Perhaps you require a demonstration of my power. Yesubai, come!”
“No!” Ren and Kishan shouted at the same time.
The girl shook her head fearfully, whimpered, and twisted in her chair trying to make herself seem as small as possible. Kishan reached out a hand but she was so focused on her father that she didn’t notice.
Ren diverted the man’s attention, strode fearlessly forward, and faced a livid Lokesh. He called out, “You have fooled us all. You are like a coiled cobra that has been hiding in his basket, waiting for the moment to strike.” He widened his glance to include his brother and his fiancée. “Don’t you see? Your actions have freed the viper, and we are bitten. His poison now runs through our blood, destroying everything.”
Ren looked at Yesubai and softly accused, “Bai, did you ever care for either one of us, or did you conspire with your father to tear our kingdom apart?” A tear slowly fell down Yesubai’s face as she opened her mouth to answer, but then shook her head in denial and closed her eyes, causing more tears to drop onto her smooth, pink cheeks.
He then turned toward his brother. He knew his brother’s heart. At least in regards to duty. Despite this situation, he knew that Kishan would never betray the kingdom, but the game must be played to its conclusion. He gestured dramatically and said, “Kishan, this deed sickens my soul. Will you not return to clasp my hand in brotherhood?” Kishan acted his part well; he scowled back at Ren, then turned his head and stared stonily out at the jungle.
Ren sighed deeply in affected resignation, tightened his jaw, and said flatly to Lokesh, “Do what you will. There is nothing you can do to me that will force me to hand over the amulet to a malignant despot such as you. I will not tell you where it is and I will not give it to you freely.”
Lokesh moved quickly for an older man. He approached Ren and struck him hard across his face with the back of his hand. The rings on his fingers gouged into Ren’s cheek, leaving a jagged trail of deep, bloody scratches. “Insolence!” he shouted. The sound echoed from the great hall out into the jungle where it disturbed a flock of myna birds.
Lokesh’s hot, spicy breath fanned out across Dhiren’s face as he leaned in close to whisper, “Perhaps you are unaware that I have other, shall we say, hidden talents. Even without the amulet, I can make a man cry out in despair and beg for mercy. If you dare continue to manifest this obstinate belligerence to me, I will use my skills to hurt first her, then your brother, and finally you.” He gripped Ren’s chin and made him look at Yesubai. “Do you want to hear her scream? I promise you she does it quite well. I offer you a choice one last time. Relinquish your piece to me.”
Ren said nothing. He glanced at his brother, who was staring thoughtfully at Yesubai. Then, he jerked his head away, adjusted his stance, raised himself up to his full height before Lokesh, and challenged him by saying…nothing. He stood there calm, noble, and defiant.
Lokesh cackled madly, “So be it!” He pulled a shiny knife with a jeweled hilt from his robe and roughly yanked up the sleeve of Ren’s, once beautiful but now filthy, white Jodhpuri coat. The ropes twisted on Ren’s wrists, and he grunted in pain, then sucked in his breath as Lokesh drew the knife across Ren’s arm. The cut was deep enough that blood welled up, spilled over the edge, and dripped onto the tiled floor. Lokesh tore a circular wooden talisman with a curious engraving from around his neck and allowed Ren’s blood to drip from the knife onto the charm. The wood absorbed the blood and the engraved symbol glowed an intense red.
Ren quickly thought through and dismissed several escape scenarios. He wasn’t in mortal danger yet, and he needed time to think. He would have tried to escape already, but his hands were still painfully bound, and he was weak from the beatings of the soldiers and the many days without food or drink. The soldiers were close and could be called back in an instant. He was fairly sure that he and Kishan could escape, but Yesubai…complicated things.
Lokesh began to twirl the talisman’s chain between his fingers and softly chant to himself. His eyes sparkled with malicious glee as the charm began spinning on its own, slowly at first, and then faster and faster. It started to pulse, and an unnatural white light bubbled up from it and grew, expanding and filling the space between the two men.
Ren was about to make a move when the light hit him. He wasn’t prepared for it. He screamed as his body suddenly became inflamed with a prickly heat. The white light shot toward him with groping fingers that pierced his chest with a sharp, tearing pain that clawed its way through his body.
He heard a shout, “Lokesh!”
Ren cracked open his eyes and glimpsed Kishan struggling to wrest the knife from Lokesh. The older man shoved him roughly to the floor, but Kishan had successfully seized the knife. Quickly turning to Ren, he began sawing at the ropes that bound his brother’s hands. As the ropes fell to the floor, they heard Yesubai scream and looked up in time to see her fall to the ground hard.
She had tried to pull her father away, but he shoved her back viciously. When she fell, her head hit the dais with a horrible crack. Lokesh turned his attention back to the talisman. Taking up the chant once again, he walked toward Ren.
Forgotten for a moment, Kishan quickly moved over to Yesubai. He gently picked up her hand, caressed it, and then stroked his fingertips from her forehead down her cheek. Grief and crippling despair welled up inside him as he realized that her neck had broken.
Stroking her hair with a trembling, tentative hand, he whispered softly, “Dayita, my love.” He picked up her limp body, clutched her in his arms, and rocked back and forth. He stayed with her for another brief moment, long enough to observe the change in her eyes. Her lively and bright violet orbs had lost the spark of life and were now dead and glassy. She was gone.
Kishan felt like he was underwater, drowning and incapable of speech. His movements were slow, and the sounds of struggle felt murky and distant. He knew he needed to help his brother, but he couldn’t bear to move away from her. Then he heard the hum. It began reverberating through the air, growing louder each moment. Kishan covered his ears, unsteadily got to his feet, and turned back to confront Lokesh.
Tears blurred his vision as he leapt toward the man and howled out in suffering and fury. Lokesh had anticipated this action, however, and twisted to turn the spell’s power on Kishan as well. He was delighted to see that the spell had worked on both brothers at the same time. He hadn’t been completely sure it would, but the blood ties were strong enough that it encompassed them both.
Kishan froze in mid-attack and was enveloped in a great thrust of air. He screamed as his emotional anguish curled itself around intense physical pain. He smelled an odor of burning flesh and realized it was his own. His amulet, which he had kept hidden from Lokesh under his shirt, was burning the skin where it rested.
Ren’s pain also began to expand. It swirled under his skin, burning him from the inside out. Enveloped in agony, he collapsed to his knees. He reached out with his hands to brace himself, but he managed only to scratch feebly on the cold, white tile of the floor. He was aware that his brother was near him, suffering in a similar manner, and then he was aware of nothing except the pain.
White light shrouded his body and obscured his vision. Slowly, the fiery, stabbing needles and the white, pulsating glow began to recede and move off into the distance, leaving a shadowy void behind. Viscous darkness crept over him, tightened around his body, and squeezed the air out of his lungs. He thrashed around on the floor, struggling to breathe. He felt as if his body was diminishing, falling down a long, dark shaft. He focused on the white light, which moved away from him slowly, becoming smaller and smaller until there was only…blackness.
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