Originally published June 19, 2008.
Read: Chapter One
I reached out with my paw to touch her, and she flinched away from me. I know now that it was with her word that the spell was released, and she thought I was going to harm her. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, though she was too scared of me to see it yet.
It was with faint regret that I said to her, “You really are beautiful.”
She was, she is. Such a fish there has never been, near as long as my foreleg, with stripes in all the holy colors, with scales that shone like fire and eyes that were like nothing I’d ever seen before. I was young then, and had never met a sorceress before.
The need to breathe struck me and I lunged for the surface, breaking through it with a great roar of delight and landing, sodden, on the soft bank. There I dripped, while before me a tableau of action halted mid-motion persisted.
In the years between my sixth and sixteenth birthdays, I would not say I thought often of what my fate might have been if that tiger had not disappeared as it had. I was not one to question fate, as a child, and felt that if my father told me that all was as it should be, such was the truth. It was reason enough to be proud, however, that even so fierce a beast could not defeat me, and in my pride I was unfortunate.
It came to pass that I, like the lotus flower, bloomed, and like the flower of the lotus I was full and curved as the gods intended. I did not much think of it, except as it was pointed out to me, busy with lessons and stories from my nurses. Ever I was guarded by my father’s men, who were loyal to him and respected him, and wished me no harm. Even when I was struck by some fancy and thus insisted on carrying it out, still I was obeyed and respected by men much my senior in years and in acumen.
On the night following my sixteenth birthday, the captain of my father’s guard came to me and on bended knee took my hand in the garden. He asked, “Will you marry me, your highness? For I have looked at you from afar, and I must have you for my wife.”
I did not move to reclaim my hand, but I looked at him with unkind eyes. I asked, “Have you put this question to my father?”
He replied earnestly, “Your highness, you are the only one who I care about. If you will marry me, I will convince your father.”
Since he had always been good to me, I did hesitate, but I felt nothing for him, and honesty insisted I tell him so. “I will not marry you, I think. I am sorry.”
He shook his head, and stood, still holding my hand in his own. He was not taller than me, but he seemed to loom dark. “I cannot accept that, your highness,” he said, stepping forward. We were close enough that our sleeves might brush against each other. “I will not.”
I do not know what would have happened then, and I do not care to speculate on such matters. Instead, let us say that it was at that moment that my tiger appeared, slick with water in the starlight, and he bared his teeth at us and growled.
The captain of the guard still held my hand in his when he drew his sword with the other, but the tiger was a rush of motion and the captain screamed, and choked, throat red as the tiger’s jaws, breath crackling and breaking, ending, dying.
My tiger looked at me and grinned, teeth so red, and licked his lips free of the captain’s blood. I was frozen, and could not move. I could hardly even breathe, the effort of breathing making me tremble.
His tail flickered, near the edge of my vision, the very tip of it swishing, and he grinned at me. I shivered, I admit.
Then, as if he made up his mind, the tiger turned, soaring over my garden wall in a tremendous leap.
It seemed to me that this was his way of saying goodbye.
Watching them together was the hardest thing I had ever done. I could not know whether the tiger’s promise would hold, or whether she would scream and call more guards, or whether the man who I used the tiger to destroy would destroy him in turn and take for himself the kingdom as some few of my visions suggested.
It did not help that he had been my constant companion of ten years, and now he was gone, and further away with every moment. It did not help that my beautiful charge was grown and did not need me anymore.
It did not help that I ached to speak with both of them, just once. Just once more.
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