This is a story idea that has frequently occurred to me, but was never able to come to fruition, mostly because I couldn’t figure out what to do after the initial idea came. It’s like one half of a fairy tale. Maybe one day I’ll get the other half.
Bahadur came to the holy palace of the Samrat with his blessed sword at his hip, and dressed from head to toe in the white of the sacred warriors. The people threw rice and petals into his path, cheering, singing, and dancing at the mere sight of him. This was their Savior. This was the man who had saved all India from the demon, the flame rakshasa of the East.
But, to Bahadur, he had to shut himself out from the noise. He wasn’t use to this many people. Being alone as a hermit spirit warrior for seven years would do that to you. But he had kept going, teeth on edge, for the sake of his loyalty. One simply did not ignore the summons of the Samrat, great Emperor over all. This was no simple Raja. Samrat Muati had been sent by the gods themselves, and to deny him was to deny the gods.
Still, Bahadur had had enough of gods.
The steps to the palace, carved of smooth white stone he couldn’t identify, went up and up until even his own sturdy legs protested. It had only been two days since he had defeated the rakshasa, and his body was still weary. He almost considered laying down in on the steps, right in front of the cheering city, and falling asleep then and there.
But Bahadur kept his chin up.
When the double doors had been closed behind him with a bang, he brushed his golden bangs out of his eyes (a very unique trait that stood him out from his people), and cautiously walked forward. He could feel bits of rice that had stuck in the soles of his boots crunch and dig deeper.
The Samrat waited for him on a golden, ivory inset throne. A rounded wall of sheer, beautiful silk hid the forms of his wives, who made the veil flutter with every one of their movements and breaths. Even as Bahadur came to a bow at the foot of the throne’s dais, he could here a few of the younger one’s giggle, like the chirping of an exotic bird.
Just kneeling there made him want to sleep. He should feel nervous, he knew. This was the Samrat! And yet, the anxiety from the crowds had worn on him, and after confronting a rotten-flesh smelling demon surrounded by flames, an ordinary man could only be tame, sultan or not.
Despite this, he flinched out of a light doze when the emperor cleared his throat.
“I believe great thanks are in order for the hero who has saved India single-handedly.”
“I wouldn’t say single-handedly,” said Bahadur, uneasily (the sound of his own voice still shocked him a bit). “I had help…your majesty.” Oh yes, he had to say that to kings, didn’t he? Though, how did you refer to an emperor? He had been gone too long.
“From the gods, of course,” added the sultan, as though not really hearing him. “But I have brought you before me as it is my duty to bless you on behalf of all the people of our great country. I originally had a great speech written up, but since it’s only been two days, my adviser suggested you would appreciate a place to sleep more than any well written speech. I’ve been told that, despite your greatness, you sleep on the roadside with merchants and other various vaisyas beneath you. Is this true?”
“Yes.” Thought Bahadur was having trouble figuring out why sleeping a few feet away from another man’s fire, lower caste or not, would matter. Though, he had almost forgotten his own place in this world. A place, he knew, no one should ever know that he denied.
The Samrat did not sense his drifting in thought, though, for he went on about how he had prepared a luxurious bedroom in the palace for him to rest in, and that he would be the guest to the Samrat’s own table and food for as long as he wished. When he was rested enough, he could request whatever his heart desired from the Samrat and head on his way. The tired warrior hadn’t meant to, but he found himself waking up with a start, still in his bowed position, by the clapping of the Samrat to summon his Chamberlain. Bahadur respectfully kept his eyes lowered, gave the appropriate thanks (as he could remember from his short lessons on the ways of court etiquette), and followed the chamberlain like a zombie. He could still here some of the Samrat’s wives cooing to each other like doves in the lofts, even after he was pointed to a bed, which he fell upon without a thought to propriety. He remembered waving off the Chamberlain’s offers of a bath or food before falling into a deep sleep.
Oh yeah. The road had nothing on this bed. He would have killed the fire demon all over again if it meant he got to sleep on his bed for as much as he liked.
But then the dreams returned. Of fire. Of ice. Of pain and viscera and screams of anguish.
And he woke up the next morning, sweating in the musky city air, surrounded by the scent of jasmine and the distant rumble of thunder. Birds twittered from the gardens outside the balcony, and he could hear feet quietly pattering outside his door.
For a terrifying moment, he couldn’t remember how he had gotten there. Then the drowsy memories of moving thought he city in white, and the sword handle digging into his waist reminded him of all that as well. He probably should have taken it off, but having the holy sword his only companion for seven years, it had become habit to never let it off of his person. Even as he pushed himself off the bed to take in his surroundings, he didn’t bother to take off the sword.
So this was his reward. A room in the Samrat’s palace for as long as he wished, and gifts afterwards.
Bahadur didn’t know what to think of that. He didn’t know if he even cared.
Chained to a brass cage set high in the wall, Mahni curled herself into her blue wings and tried to ignore the curious eyes of the women. A few of the more younger, more adventurous ones darted forward to poke and prod at her wings, one even going as far as to tug a bit on her auburn hair, but Mahni just huddled against the wall. The links of her chain, which hung from the cage above her head, chinked and jingled like tiny bells with each movement.
Mahni couldn’t understand what the women were saying. They spoke in a language beyond her, but their chatter rose and mingled in the open, high arching room like a flock of birds.
Eventually, a few of the women grew tired and tried to coax her out of her cocoon with treats and various fruit. One even tried to tug open her wings, but her fingers only managed to pull out a few downy blue feathers.
Then the man who had put her here walked into the room.
She didn’t have to see him to recognize the timbre of his voice.
Again, she couldn’t understand what he said, but the women crowded about him, cooing and clucking with joy, and she could hear him laughing as he greeted them. The smell of pheromones, of mates, wafted over to her and made her stomach churn. It disgusted her. All these females? To this one man? So the stories had been true. Humans really were filthy creatures, mating like animals, worse than savages.
The women’s voice seemed to come closer. With a sense of forboding, she peered out through her feathers to see the man coming towards her, flocked about by a few of his wives who were speaking earnestly with him and point towards her.
She had already been on the edge of panic before he came. This broke her control. She squawked and flung out her wings to pound down hard. Wing from her huge, powerful beats blew past the women, flinging up their saari’s, yanking on their long hair, tearing at their husband’s beard.
Once in the cave, she hurried to pull in the chain, hands sweating.
But the man caught it before she could.
The next thing she knew, she was falling, yanked down by her ankles, into the hard marble floor below. Stars popped in her eyes. The wind rushed out of her, and suddenly, she couldn’t breathe. Women gasped, but none moved to help her.
When a rough, masculine hand reached down and grabbed the back of her simple white tunic, she flapped weakly, but he heaved her to her feet and brought his face so close she had no choice but to breathe in his rancid breath. His black eyes sucked her in, like a cave. Like death.
Air. She needed air.
“Play nice.” he said in her tongue. He ruined the words. Made the beautiful consonants sound like slime.
And then he dropped her unceremoniously on the floor.
The women clucked some more to him, and he responded with the loving tenderness meant for mates, though Mahni still couldn’t comprehend one male actually doing that many females justice.
He left soon after, taking one of the women with him and leaving the rest to cluster around her once more.
“Play nice.” They echoed clumsily. “Play nice.”
Mahni wanted to cut them. Wanted to attack, slash at their curious, pretty cinnamon faces. Captivity was nothing to laugh at. Did they really expect her to bow her head so easily? To be their play thing?
When the first hand reached out to her, Mahni snapped. She hissed, lashed out with her blunt claws, and then beat the girl back into the others with her wings. Several of the women screamed in fright. The girl who had so bravely tried to touch her was merely bruised, at most, but she was startled enough to start crying in earnest.
Just before Mahni could start to feel guilty, the doors burst open and guards rushed in. Once more, she tried to flee to her gilded cage, tried to yank the chain out of reach, but she had only gotten airborne before she found herself on the ground once more, curved blades of steel held to her neck and body. One man kicked her in the side and she cried out in pain.
This time, when a human touched her, it was by her long auburn hair, and hairs popped as they left her skull.
The women were jabbering on and on. Whatever they said, the guards seemed to agree, for Mahni found her hands tied behind her back and her beautiful, strong wings held to her sides by more rope.
Then they dragged her out to the sultan, who still had his chosen woman at his side. His black eyes burned, his wet mouth was thin.
“I will not tolerate misbehavior.”
“I hate you!” she cried, so loud her throat hurt. “How dare a savage like you try to keep me as a pet! How dare you!”
But the royal man only seemed to understand a few of her words. He was so illiterate and stupid, she wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even understand what he himself said when he used what little of her tongue he knew. But the anger that clouded his face told her he understood her tone well enough.
With one sharp word to the guards, Mahni was dragged away, kicking and screaming, to her first cage. The cage of damp, stones, and darkness. Despite herself, she felt overcome with fear. She remembered this place. The place too far beneath the earth, the place devoid of light. Being so far from the sky had sickened her almost unto to death, which was why the man had brought her up to the light of his women’s room, hoping the time underground had been enough to tame her.
And now she was going back. For how long, she didn’t know.
“I hate you!” she screeched. “I hate you!”
When the last of the sun slipped away from her, and the musty, dirty smell of the dungeons overtook her, she couldn’t stop herself from weeping. How had she come to this? Why did she have to be so stupid? Why hadn’t she just ‘played nice’ as the savages had requested? She didn’t even bother to fight back when the guards cut her ropes and threw her into her iron and stone cell. Mud and half-rotten straw stuck into her feathers. Muck caked her wherever she touched the floor.
And still she continued her mantra, even as she rocked there on the floor, crying and vainly trying to wipe the muck off her arms.
“I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”
Bahadur hadn’t meant to find her. He had meant to find the kitchen, as he still hadn’t a clue how to order food for himself, since the Chamberlain had ordered the rest of the palace staff to leave him well enough alone to his sleep. Not to mention it had to be some ungodly hour in the morning, for the sky was still dark outside.