On July 9th, my new novel, The Guardian Hound, is being published by Book View Cafe.
It’s coming soon!
In the five weeks leading up to the novel release, I am publishing a short story a week, and having each available for free for that week. All the stories are about the world or somehow involved with The Guardian Hound and the various clans.
Chronologically, I wrote this story, A Tiger’s Shadow, before I wrote the story for last week, A Prophesy in Shadows. But once I finished this story, I knew I had to write what came before it.
I know I said that A Prophesy in Shadows was the second story I wrote, when I was only writing short stories and not tackling the novel yet. But I was wrong. It was the third story. This story, A Tiger’s Shadow, was actually the second story I wrote for the novel. It’s included as part of The Guardian Hound.
This story takes place during what is now called The Week of Long Knives, in Calcutta, in 1947.
The Tiger’s Shadow
Betty could never admit to Mother or Father how much she missed the English rain. Not just the way it patted softly against the roof of the gazebo in the garden, but the smell of it, green and fresh. Even when it was cold, and the sun had been hiding behind gray clouds for weeks, the rain still carried the scent of rich soil and new leaves slowly unfurling.
Calcutta never smelled that way. Instead, it smelled of hot bodies that never bathed, of the cow dung and dirt that made up the streets, of pasty dye used to dot the natives’ foreheads and drizzled across women’s palms in beautiful patterns.
Yes, it was exciting to live in such an exotic, foreign city, with the mad colors and the noise of the market, the women in their elegant saris, the men looking formal in their white tunics, long trousers, and funny hats.
Her friends back in England complained bitterly that since the London Victory celebrations heralding the end of the Second World War, there was nothing to do, and begged her for anecdotes of her travel.
However, Betty had no tales to tell them, not recently. The British were leaving, letting India rule herself. There was much unrest. Mother and Father didn’t let her travel anymore, telling her that she was too young at only sixteen, and that it was too dangerous, even with an armed escort of soldiers.
Betty suspected they might be right, at least for now. Layered underneath the smell of rich spices and extreme poverty rolled a thick scent of fear.
Not the delicious, sizzling fear of prey, or the heady scent of a combatant certain to lose a challenge. No, a cloying scent that clogged the back of Betty’s throat and made the air, already humid and moist, even stickier.
Betty wasn’t sure why there was so much fear in the air. The natives were probably capable of ruling themselves. Even the council of the tiger clan had agreed to split, with two groups leading, one all Indian, and one all British. They were going to separate for a decade or more; Betty was sad she wouldn’t be able to visit her cousins again for so long.
As independence day approached, Betty had seen her cousins walk taller, as if they were trying out their new freedom. Of course, they told her she wouldn’t understand—that was their most common response to any of her questions. Her cousins still covered their heads like all the women did here and said the proper, polite things.
However, a restlessness boiled just underneath the placid surface.
Betty was on edge as well. Her skin seemed to shrink and mold onto her bones, as if there wasn’t enough room for her inside her own body. Sparking electricity bubbled in her blood, as if even her usual limp brown hair was about to stand on end.
To Betty, it was similar to the transformation, like the time just before her tiger soul emerged.
Aunt Tanita had described the change like slipping into a stream of silk.
Betty had never felt that way. It was always a fight to let her tiger soul completely out, another to reign it in. She scoffed at the old recitations even as she carefully memorized and wrote out each one. Find the balance. Be one.
Her tiger soul meant power and control.
No one would ever be able to accuse Betty of being wild, the worst insult she and her cousins could hurl at one another—out of control, not tame, a mere beast; no longer human or tiger, but a creature that none could reason with.
Though in her secret heart of hearts, Betty wished she could let go and be as wild as her soul sometimes felt.
# # #
The summer heat pressed down on Fort Williams, making it too hot to sleep. Betty walked along the second floor veranda facing the formal gardens, breathing in the sweet night jasmine, the musky clematis, and the heady wild roses.
She never saw stars in London like she did here in Calcutta. Then again, except for during The Blitz, London had always had her own light.
Betty shivered in the hot, humid night, pulling her knitted shawl closer over her white cotton nightgown. She couldn’t imagine living through such an attack. It made her want to growl just thinking about being closed in at night, every night, for weeks.
Even without the light, Betty, like the rest of the tiger clan, saw well in the dark, easily avoiding the pots near the railing filled with Mother’s hopeless English Ivy, as well as the chairs that had been pulled from the nearby gallery.
Then she saw the shadow, a patch of night darker than the rest. Betty looked behind her, as well as above, but she didn’t see a light source, nothing bright enough to cause such a dark spot.
The troubling cloud slid to the side as Betty approached, leaving a thin, black trail behind.
Betty reached out and tried to grasp the slight remains of the dark, but it was like catching at smoke: It left nothing behind but her slightly chilled fingers.
It was magic, though, something powerful.
Betty hesitated. Should she go get Mother? She knew much more about spells and charms than Betty did.
Then Betty’s tiger soul rose. They could face anything together. She didn’t need Mother, or Father, or her cousins.
She would prove that she was capable of handling this on her own, despite only being sixteen.
Claws emerged from the tips of Betty’s fingernails. Her jaw grew heavy, stronger, and her mouth filled with razor sharp teeth.
The darkness before Betty intensified, spreading like oil across clear water. Fear spiked through her chest, but she shook her head, growling.
If her cousins could battle for independence against their own people, Betty, and her family, then she could be brave as well.
But she didn’t have to be stupid.
Instead of wading into the blackening cloud, like her tiger soul urged, Betty reached out with one clawed hand and carved a bit of the shadow off, a long squiggling line, separating it from the rest, as easily as a knife cutting through silk.
For a brief moment the two remained separate, the cloud and its little tendril, then the shadow collected itself back together, and no trace of the tear remained.
Yet, something had happened.
Betty sensed the shadow’s rising excitement, much like her own these days at the mere mention of leaving the fort, or of coming visitors.
The shadow pulled in on itself, slowly, leaking out of the world until nothing remained except Betty, the too-hot night air, and a lingering sense of promise.
# # #
“Let’s go to the market,” Betty proposed to her cousins Abhya and Shalini, visiting from the north. They weren’t much older than Betty, but their mother had let them travel by themselves, coming by train with a male cousin.
The cousins had the same mother, but different fathers, as was traditional in the tiger clan. Abhya had dark skin—almost as dark as the little African boy the missionaries had brought back with them. Shalini was pale as milky tea. They shared the same deep brown eyes, thick black hair, and moon-shaped faces as their mother.
The three of them sat together in the morning room, leaning against pillows and drinking tea. The day was humid and still, no wind to carry away the hot stink of fear that had invaded the fort that week. Betty was desperate for something, anything, to distract her from the tingling anticipation and anxiousness that buzzed across her skin.
“Is it safe?” Abhya asked.
Betty always found it funny that though Abhya meant fearless, her darker cousin was constantly concerned about potential risks.
“We’ll take one of Father’s soldiers,” Betty assured her.
She didn’t bother to tell them that Mother had deemed it safe; her cousins didn’t think much of Betty’s mother. Not many in tiger clan did. She’d not only married Father, but they’d raised Betty in the human fashion, with nannies and tutors, instead of sending her to the shishu greeha to be raised with the other tiger clan girls her age, sisters for life regardless of actual blood ties. Betty had still traveled to the commune every summer, so she’d at least met her sisters, but she’d never bonded with them—she was always an outsider, even to her own clan.
Betty suspected that the reason her parents sent her was so that they could have time by themselves, something they greatly desired. Her parents always looked at each other with such tenderness, as if Betty wasn’t even there.
Shalini finally said, “Only if we go by car.”
“Of course,” Betty said.
She didn’t tell them that the only car they could get was one of the Royal Force’s Jeeps. It was a horrid beige color, like dried mud. The wide wheels took every bump hard, jostling Betty’s bones, and the straw-stuffed seats didn’t make the trip any smoother.
However, her cousins seemed happy to be riding in it, even if they couldn’t drive fast enough to raise a decent wind.
Freddie, Betty’s favorite guard, drove them to the edge of the market, then informed them he would stay with the car.
Abhya looked worried at that, but Betty told her again, “It’s fine.”
Though the stench of fear still rolled at their feet, at least the market had enough other smells to mask it: the salty odor of fresh fish, lemons and oranges from the countryside, dusty tea from the plantations, and the spices—spicy ground peppers, sweet coriander, musty cumin, and comforting cinnamon and nutmeg.
Betty didn’t need to buy anything—the cooks did all the proper shopping for the fort. All she wanted to find was another memento for her friends back in England.
Abhya and Shalini trailed behind Betty as they strolled through the crowded corridors of ramshackle stalls, whispering to each other and barely nodding when she held up a bracelet or oddly carved statue for their commentary.
“What are you two gossiping about?” Betty asked, exasperated.
“Nothing,” Abhya said.
Betty smelled the fear, could practically see it rising like a dirty tide, flowing from their feet up to their waists. She looked around, but she didn’t see any threat. Indian merchants stared at her as they always had, her fair coloring marking her as foreign in this land of dark natives.
“It’s nothing you would understand,” Shalini said dismissively. “Have you finished your shopping?”
“Why wouldn’t I understand?” Betty asked sharply, tired of these digs.
Shalini took Abhya’s hand into the crook of her own elbow, patting it. She whispered something to Abhya and took a step forward.
Betty didn’t give, didn’t move back. Instead, she stared at them in the most rude way possible.
Finally, Shalini looked over Betty’s shoulder and pointed with her chin to a merchant standing there. “We should go.”
Betty turned and stared at the man. His black hair shot was through with gray, while wide brown eyes and thin, disapproving lips filled the rest of his narrow face. He wore the usual local costume: cotton tunic over baggy trousers, with a vest on top, all in shades of gray and tan. He glared fully at them, his hands at his sides, clenching and unclenching.
There was nothing unusual about him, though. Many of the natives were upset with the British for one thing or another. Betty was used to it. She turned to tell her cousins that when she realized he wasn’t even looking at her.
He glared at Abhya and Shalini, instead. In fact, so were many of the other merchants.
The scent in the market had changed as well. Anger began to overlay the constant scent of fear.
“Why are they mad at you?” Betty asked. She would have denied feeling a bit put out that the natives, for once, weren’t paying attention to her.
“They think we’re Muslim,” Abhya said softly.
Betty shook her head, then turned and started walking back the way they’d come. Of course, her cousins worshipped Traya, goddess of the tigers, same as all the tiger clan. They just pretended to follow the local religion, just as Betty and her parents regularly went to Church of England services.
Fit in was one of the recitations Betty resented the most strongly, but still obeyed.
“Why would that matter?” Betty asked as she stopped, picking up a small leather purse and waving it at the wizened old woman sitting behind the counter, sucking on her three remaining teeth.
“Five rupee,” she croaked out, holding up a wrinkled, frail hand, all fingers extended.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Shalini said.
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Betty muttered. Then she turned her attention back to the old trader. “Half a rupee,” she said. “Look at how small this is! It will barely hold even that small a coin. Bah!”
The old woman heaved a tremendous sigh. “Feel how soft,” she said. “Each stitch, prayed over,” she added, folding her hands over her chest and bobbing her head. “Blessed,” she said. “Three rupees.”
Betty held the purse up, opening it and looking inside. “Any luck will fall out,” she complained. “The stitches are too wide. Uneven. One rupee.”
“One and one half, with blessings on my dear boy’s head,” the old woman said, dropping her hand to a picture of some Indian god blowing a flute, blue and smiling, with many arms.
Betty sniffed but gave in. She handed the purse to her cousins without looking back while she dug out her coins.
When Betty turned back to Abhya and Shalini, they both scowled at her.
More of the merchants were standing, drawing near, looking angry as well, but at least their anger wasn’t directed at her for once.
“I am not your servant,” Abhya hissed, drawing near. “I am not here to fetch and carry for you,” she added as she pushed the purse back into Betty’s hands.
“Of course not,” Betty said, confused. What had she done wrong? She would have helped carry their things if they needed. Or was it one of those Indian things she’d never understand?
“We must go now,” Shalini said.
“But—” Betty started. She really wanted to go get some lemonade from a shop near here.
“Now,” Abhya said, looking over Betty’s shoulder.
The merchants had gathered closer.
“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you,” Betty said, reaching out for Abhya’s other hand.
“Not for much longer, English,” muttered one of the nearby merchants.
Before Betty could make any remark in return, Freddie was suddenly there. “We need to get home, Miss,” was all he said.
No one looked away or sat back down. Betty suddenly realized that just as her cousins had started walking taller, so had the rest of their countrymen.
Betty nodded and followed Freddie out of the marketplace, letting him push through the crowds of staring Indians, clearing the way for all of them. She kept her head high, her expression, stern.
Yes, the British would be leaving India soon.
# # #
A tendril of shadow followed Betty into her dreams that night. She stood in a cave dark enough that she needed a torch to see. The walls reflected back yellow and gray, with hidden water dripping behind her. The smell of dust and long-dried bones tickled her nose. Under her feet, the path was covered with fine dirt that puffed up as she walked and muffled all noise.
In the absolute darkness, Betty could follow the shadow more easily. Here, in her dream, she could tell just how different it was from the surrounding blackness. It moved like an eel, swimming upstream against the currents of air.
Betty followed it, further under the mountain. She knew (as one does in dreams) that she was the only person to have ever been there. No intrepid explorer had ever dug down into these depths. No other eye had beheld the graceful dripping of rock, like artful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, or the subtle colors, layered like a sunset, red, yellow, and white.
The path led to a large, open cavern in the heart of the mountain. Shadows churned in the center of the wide open space, boiling up like a fountain, then falling back down again. The walls sweated with the effort of the shadows, smelling like sweet incense burned in sacrifice.
But this wasn’t what the tendril of shadow wanted to show Betty.
It led her around the frantic clouds to a side corner, where a thick, still pool gathered at the foot of the rock. It looked like crude oil, midnight black and sticky.
The tendril of shadow urged Betty forward, wanting her to step into the pool.
For the first time, Betty resisted. The darkness of the pool seemed complete and overwhelming; if she stepped into it, she might never get clean again. The shadows here were angry and chaotic—they moved outside of human purpose, like a wild beast, unknowable and not moved by reason.
The little shadow reared up in front of her, changing form, its head flattening out like the snakes Betty had seen performing in the marketplace, fangs extending.
It was still just a wisp of a thing, not truly deadly. Still, Betty retreated, and her tiger soul pushed forward, taking over.
The cave grew brighter and the shadows lost form and density, becoming more like mist or fog.
However, the pool gained depth, as well as a telltale shimmer.
Magic, thick and potent, floated there.
Betty suddenly understood: Stepping into the pool would meld her own meager magical abilities with those of the shadows. The further she submerged herself, the stronger she would grow magically.
Betty’s tiger soul hissed, backing away from such a change. She didn’t trust it. She leapt up, the shadowy mist unable to hold her, pushing her way higher and higher through the air until they flew out of the mountain.
The land below was no longer India, but Betty’s beloved England. Sparkling green fields dotted with lazy sheep spread out in all directions below her, while hedges covered in fragrant pink roses divided the green into neat, orderly squares.
The brightness of the sun warmed not only Betty’s back, but her soul. It made her tiger soul playful as it never was awake. They landed softly on a hill, pink petals floating up. Her tiger pounced on the petals, capturing them in gentle paws, then rolled in the sweet grass.
Something made Betty turn and look back.
The towering mountain loomed behind them, dark and powerful, its shadow growing.
Betty gave a loud, body-shaking roar, but it sounded like a kitten’s squeak in the face of such might.
# # #
“Stay inside today,” Father ordered, showing up as Betty ate her breakfast alone in the room adjacent to the kitchen; too lowly to call it a dining room, and too homely to be called a breakfast nook. The walls were painted a drab brown, the table in the center taking up most of the space.
Betty tried to convince herself that she was like the lady of the house, sitting alone and having her tea and toast, but she was actually lonely.
“Why?” Betty asked, not because she cared, but because she hated the idea of being stuck anywhere, at anytime.
“The Muslim leadership is calling for a general strike—some sort of day of direct action.”
“Abhya and Shalini left this morning,” Betty told him. “They were heading back home, by train.”
“Hmm,” Father said, obviously worried. “I’ll send some guards to the station, pick them up if the trains aren’t running.”
“Thank you,” Betty said. “Where will you spend today?” she asked, just to keep him there a bit longer.
“I’ll be in my office all day,” Father said.
He looked so dashing in his uniform, with his finely trimmed mustache and twinkling green eyes. Betty had always thought he looked like the epitome of a British officer.
“Reports and paperwork are the most exciting things I have to look forward to.” He paused, giving her a conspiratorial wink. “I think you should find your mother. She said something about making a tent…”
“Oh, yes!” Betty said eagerly. She would happily stay inside if Mother was in a playful mood.
“Be careful, Father,” Betty said. The air continued to reek of sickening fear and blazing anger.
“Don’t worry. I shan’t be faced with anything more deadly than a paper cut, I promise.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek. “You’ve grown,” he said softly. “I forget sometimes how old you are now.”
Betty sat up straighter, preening.
“Now, that’s enough of that,” Father said with mock sternness. “Go attend your mother. I’ll try to have lunch with you later.”
With that, Father strode from the room.
Betty hastily downed the rest of her tea, then went off in search of her mother. She found her in one of the long galleries that faced the garden, which had portraits of the King and other important leaders glaring down at them.
“Quick, quick!” Mother said, reaching for Betty’s hand, then pulling her along.
Mother was in native garb that day, a pretty pajama tunic made from plain white cloth, though the placket in the front, as well as the cuffs and hem, were decorated in black and gold. She wore a traditional shawl over her auburn hair, and nothing on her feet.
They raced the length of the gallery, Betty giggling as her mother tugged at her hand and urged her to go faster. They barely slowed going around the corner, then Mother led Betty to the corner study.
Mother had decided to play “tent” that day. Carpets and pillows lay heaped across the floor, while the walls were hidden by long, billowing strips of cloth, making everything seem soft, hiding the hard lines. The room had changed from drab brown to rich red, orange, and pink. Sweet patchouli burned on a low altar against the far wall, and candles were lit everywhere, hanging from the ceiling and lining the floor.
It was also stifling hot.
Betty paused by the door. She saw the distraction charms twinkling in the cardinal points, while enchantment dots wove their way between the soft silks.
It was a trick. A distraction. Mother and Father must have planned it together.
Father had lied. Something bad must be happening.
“No, no, nothing bad,” Mother reassured Betty, tugging on her hand.
Betty resisted, staying stubbornly on the threshold.
“It’s just—I know how much you hate being cooped up,” Mother confessed. “This was an easy way for us to spend the time.”
“I’m not a child,” Betty said. “You could have just told me.”
“Perhaps. But perhaps you wouldn’t have listened, either,” Mother said quietly. “And today, you needed to listen.”
“What’s going on?” Betty asked, risking a single foot inside the room.
The magical appeal of the room washed over Betty quickly, tempting her with unknown delights. It would be so easy to lose a day in there. But there was something she needed to do first, something she had to tell Mother.
“We don’t know,” Mother admitted. “There have been warnings. Not from the Indian government, of course. But others. We were supposed to have a visitor today, from the Americas. To bring us news. Of course, he was delayed. So we delay.”
“But Mother—” Betty knew she must tell her mother something about her cousins. She’d told Father, but it wasn’t enough, she knew it wasn’t enough.
“So come,” Mother said, drawing Betty all the way into the room. “I know you saw the distraction and enchantment charms, but what about this one?” she asked, pointing to the ceiling at a charm Betty hadn’t seen.
What a pretty charm. She sensed that it was more about light than distraction, though. “What is it?” she asked, the little niggling fear in the back of her thoughts disappearing.
The door closed silently behind her, swung shut by no human hand.
And Betty was entertained for the entire day.
# # #
Betty and Mother came out of the room, laughing. Betty knew she wouldn’t remember everything from that day—the distraction spells had been too strong. But she’d remember the magic Mother taught her: the protection spell, the light charm, and others.
The distraction spell had also lessened the hurt when Mother commented, yet again, on how meager Betty’s own magic was.
A soldier waited for them in the corridor, directly opposite the door. “The commander would like to see you,” he said stiffly, bowing.
Mother sniffed the air, then gripped Betty’s hand again and set off quickly.
Betty could smell it, too: The stinking fear that had invaded the city was now mingled with an undercurrent of spilled blood.
Father sat behind his desk. Instead of the order Betty was used to, the top was littered with reports, maps hung off the edges, and books were open facedown with other books crushing their spines. The cabinet in the corner had its drawers pulled out, papers and folders strewn across them.
“Are Abhya and Shalini with you?” Father asked at once, standing, looking worried.
“No, of course not,” Mother said. “I was training Betty all day.”
“I sent soldiers to the train station after the general assembly,” Father told Betty.
Mother looked at Betty.
“They decided to go back home this morning,” Betty told her.
“You should have told me,” Mother accused her, growing pale. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“How could I? You had me distracted from the moment I set foot in there,” Betty spat back.
“Distracted! Not addlepated!” Mother shot back. “You should have been strong enough to resist. At least long enough to have told me that your cousins had left the fort. This is all your fault!”
“I told Father,” Betty said.
“We couldn’t find them,” Father said. “And the leaders of the general assembly put forward a call for direct action. Many answered that call—now there’s rioting and mayhem in the streets.”
Betty could smell the small current of relief from Father—as least the mad bastards were only attacking each other, Muslim versus Hindu, not both of them against the British for once.
“Come,” Mother said. She raced back to the corner study, plucking a wad of unspun cotton from the air, wrapping it in plaited twine. Then she spun the lure, muttering a seeking spell.
The lure flew in a direct path north, then abruptly stopped as if it had hit an invisible wall and fell to the floor.
Fear pounced on Betty, making her sway where she stood.
Someone else’s spell blocked them from finding her cousins.
“We must go get them. Now,” Mother growled, turning toward the door.
“No,” Father said.
Betty turned to look at him, surprised that he’d followed them into the room. Mother must have let down the guard spells for him to come in.
Or maybe she never blocked Father.
“It’s too dangerous,” Father insisted. “Listen to the city.”
Mother waved her hand and suddenly the far-off sounds were magnified.
Angry shouts filled the room, punctuated by the tinkling of broken glass. A terrified woman’s scream was suddenly cut off, followed by the cracking of out-of-control fires.
“I cannot lose you,” Father said softly, moving forward to touch Mother’s shoulder.
Betty knew what always came next, and turned away. When she turned back, Mother and Father were in each other’s arms. At least they’d finished kissing.
“Those poor girls,” Mother murmured.
“It’s too dangerous,” Father repeated. “Even for you. Especially for you, if there’s another spell caster out there.”
Betty bent her head and looked at the ground. No one would save her cousins. Mother might have been able to do it, to push past the other’s magic, but Father wouldn’t let her go.
And Betty couldn’t do it. Her magic wasn’t strong enough.
Mother was right.
If her cousins were dead, it was all Betty’s fault.
# # #
That night, Betty kept vigil with her parents. Father sent a few scouts into the city, mapping out the worst of the fighting but not engaging.
His superiors had been very clear about that: The British forces weren’t to engage. Not yet.
They sat on the veranda overlooking the gardens, the night wrapped around them, each wrapped in their own thoughts.
Betty told her parents of the incident in the market. Father directed his spies there, but they found nothing.
The sounds of fighting in the far distance died as the false dawn crept in. Smoke and tears joined the other scents, the jasmine mingled with fear, hot, coppery blood with the roses.
Mother tried her finding spell again as soon as it was light enough. The blocking spell was gone. The lure flew freely around the still-tented room.
However, it landed upside down.
The fear that had settled in Betty’s gut rose up again, making her feel sick.
“Just past the market,” Mother hissed, giving directions. “Quickly.”
Then she took Betty’s hand and returned to the veranda, waiting.
The normal sounds of soldiers returned: muttered conversations, the clank of boots on concrete, shifting sounds of metal and uniforms. Cook had fixed porridge for breakfast, but both Betty and Mother had let it sit, not even tasting it.
Dread clenched Betty’s stomach. She told herself that the lure may have found clothing or bags belonging to her cousins. That was why it had landed upside down.
Not that it had found bodies.
Mother looked up when the Jeep returned. How she heard the single engine and identified it, Betty couldn’t be sure. Her own magic wasn’t strong enough. She could only follow Mother from the veranda.
One long wooden stretcher lay across the hood of the Jeep, while a second across the back. Even as they entered the courtyard Betty knew they were merely corpses, not her cousins.
Mother gave a great tiger howl. Betty joined in.
Other women in the compound—natives—joined in their cry of grief, shattering all the activity around them, the soldiers freezing as the sound undulated.
The girls hadn’t been desecrated, at least not physically. No, it was much worse. They stank of putrid herbs and foul rites.
The damn native dhayana had stolen their tiger souls.
“Mother—” Betty said, horrified.
“We will deal with this,” Mother said, her voice like iron.
The tiger clan would get revenge on the witch.
Hurt one, hurt all…a recitation Betty was truly grateful for.
# # #
That night, the shadows brought a different dream. Betty strolled through the rows at a country fair in a mythical England, bright and green with soft air filled with the scents of new grass, spring tulips, and daffodils. She wore an old-fashioned frock made from frilly white lace that swept down to the ground, with matching white gloves and a pillbox hat.
Crowds of people stood in the distance, but whenever Betty approached them, they moved to the next spot, so when Betty arrived where they’d been, it was deserted. She knew they’d been there, however, because of the debris they’d left behind: half-eaten candied apples, torn tickets and wrappers, nuts and dried fruits stepped on and pushed into the soft ground, even a lone, gray silk glove.
Betty walked slowly past the carnival stages. One had a guessing game about the number of rusty horseshoe nails in a glass jar big enough to hold a person’s head. Another had a hoop-throwing game, where customers paid to throw brightly colored bracelets over wooden pins and win silly stuffed toys.
Then Betty came to the row of freak shows: the ancient blond man who had wings instead of arms; the fat female boar who rode a tricycle in erratic circles on the small stage; the ugly tattooed man with a huge, flat head and the eyes and tongue of a snake; the pathetic dog boy; and a scary Asian woman with a long snout and scales instead of skin.
The last stage held a mighty tiger who struggled against the shadows that had pinned down all four of her paws as well as wrapped around her muzzle so she couldn’t pace or roar.
Betty leaped up on the stage easily, despite her long skirt. She plucked the shadows from the tiger. They stretched like taffy, then snapped up, wrapping around her hands and wrists. However, they didn’t weigh her down like they had the tiger. Instead, they seeped into her skin, down to her bones, spreading along them and making them like steel.
The shadows also wormed their way into the base of her spine, where her magic pooled, expanding it and thickening it, making it more like molasses than black wine.
Betty shook with the changes, surprised that her frock still fit as she felt her insides grow and expand, her skin growing tight.
The tiger gave a loud roar, startling Betty, making her look up and see that the tiger stared at her with the dead eyes of her cousins.
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you,” Betty said, reaching out and patting the stiff, matted fur. “I’m so sorry.”
Next time, though, with the help of the shadows, she would be strong enough.
# # #
Betty was still tired from no sleep the night before. However, she perked up when one of the guard announced their American visitor had finally arrived.
Mother went to greet him and walk with him to the morning room, while Betty went to the kitchen to order tea. Then Betty followed the servant back up, pausing at the threshold.
The visitor looked quite plain, almost like a native. He wore a common cotton tunic and pants, but he wasn’t an Indian; he wore his black hair long, to his shoulders, and his dark skin had a red tint to it. His face was broad and somehow familiar.
When he turned his black eyes to Betty, she hid her surprise.
He looked like the snake man from her dream.
Not only that, she could tell he was from the viper clan. A shadow creature imposed itself over his face, with scales, snake eyes, and a great golden hood. She was amazed at how clear the vision was. Before the shadows had merged with her magic, she wouldn’t have seen so much, just a vague light making him seem brighter than other regular people even when he stood in the dark.
What could be so important that the clans would contact one another? After centuries of keeping apart, primarily so that no clan would ever betray a rival clan, either accidentally or on purpose like the raven clan had?
“Yes, the shadows,” he was saying as he accepted the cup of tea. “You haven’t had any contact with them? You must avoid them at all costs.”
Betty froze. What did he mean? Why was the viper clan afraid of the shadows?
“I know of no shadow creatures,” Mother said. “Just the dark times we live in.”
“They are coming,” the young man insisted. “Here. We’ve foreseen it.”
“Interesting,” Mother said. “So your mystics still dream?”
The young man nodded.
Betty had heard tales of the viper clan living far away in their mountain villages where mystics spun out visions and dreams, but she’d never seen anyone from another clan. She wondered if the other tales were true: the horrible ravens and their black-hearted assassins, the stupid hounds who were so easily distracted, the chaotic boars that you never brought to a fight because you couldn’t trust them not to turn against you mid-battle, the wealthy crocodiles and their hedonistic palaces.
“Oh, Betty, darling,” Mother called, beckoning her to come further into the room. “This is Gezane, from the Americas. This is Betty, my daughter.”
“Hello,” Betty said, bowing her head so she wouldn’t have to come closer, wouldn’t have to take his hand.
“You haven’t seen any shadow things, have you?” Mother asked.
Gezane caught Betty’s eye. He stared hard at her, his flattened nostrils flaring.
“No, Mother, I haven’t,” Betty lied.
The shadows rose, much like her own tiger soul, giving her words weight and truth so Mother believed her.
However, Gezane knew she hadn’t spoken the truth.
Betty lifted her chin in defiance. What could he possibly do about it? The shadows weren’t just in her anymore. They were connected to her magic, as well as all of the tiger clan’s magic.
“I see,” Gezane said softly.
“What do they do, these shadows?” Mother asked. “What should I look out for?”
“They’re powerful and dangerous,” Gezane said, still looking at Betty. “They confuse the mind, and make you say or do things you normally wouldn’t. They can trick you into believing things that aren’t true. Long association can also make a person callous and cruel. They’ll also drain you of energy and life.”
“Are they really that much of a threat?” Mother asked.
“Yes,” Gezane replied, turning his gaze from Betty. “We’ve foreseen that if they’re allowed to grow, they’ll first take over all the clans, then the human races. They’ll destroy our entire world. If you ever see them, you must contact the other clans immediately. You can reach the hounds the easiest, at their court in Germany.”
Betty heard the warning he uttered: She must keep the shadows all to herself.
“Thank you,” Gezane said, standing abruptly. He glanced once again at Betty, looking as sad and pathetic as his dream counterpart. “Goodbye. Good luck.” He nodded to Mother, then walked past Betty as if he no longer saw her.
“What an odd man,” Mother said. “He didn’t even finish his tea. Do you have any idea what that was about? Did your cousins ever say anything to you about the shadows?”
“No, they didn’t,” Betty said easily as she sat down next to her mother.
Power worked in more than one way—and dangerous might only mean that the tiger clan grew stronger than all the other clans. Betty dismissed this Gezane’s claims of the shadows taking over the world. They were just there to help her.
Betty talked with her mother of inconsequential things, distracting them both from the funeral later that day, the packing ahead of them, and the long trip back to England, where Betty would nurture the power she now carried inside of her, that was only a shadow of the greater power to come for the entire tiger clan.