At first, there is a light, no greater than a pinprick.
Then comes a voice, monotonous and low but enough to jar my brain. “Greetings, Prisoner 11384. You have served your sentence. You are free to go.”
My eyelids crack open. How long has it been since the last trial? Days? Months? Years? All I remember of that day is passing out after the guard pressed that forsaken tikka leaf to my neck. That the emperor would resort to using an herb typically used in dark magic just to temporarily disable our magic is an irony that seems to be lost on him.
The guard watches me as I get to my feet. My entire body protests – my bones feel swollen in their joints, and my muscles and ligaments are on fire. Damn tikka. My tribe and I had tried to burn them all before, but those wretched herbs grow like weed during winter, when we are hibernating. By the time we rouse, they would all have been picked – for merchants, for apothecarists, and, evidently, for the imperial family to use as a torture device.
But I retain my cool as I walk out of that cage. My feet feel like iron, but I keep my steps light, like paw prints on snow, soft and silent. The guard narrows his eyes at me when I turn to give him a wave. It’s been a pleasure spending all this time with him. I’ve had the most fun of my life with him yelling at me, dragging me out for trial after trial, poking my battered body with a stick, and leaving the pan of water just out of my reach when I was too broken to move another inch.
He doesn’t understand why I’ve been released. Neither do I. But I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth; I normally just eat it. Even if this is a trap I’m walking into, at least I’m out of that cage. And I can change whenever I want to.
Actually, perhaps I should. Right this moment. It’s been too long since I shifted into my tiger skin. I can feel it – my other self – calling out for me. I miss the ripple of power that extends to my paws, my heightened senses, my speed and stealth.
But I know if I change now, the guard will have me put down in a flash. Unless, of course, I have him for a snack.
No, first things first: I need to find Shao. She had been by my side during the riots, during the trials, and we had both suffered at the hands of the emperor. If anything, we need to hunt down that piece of scum together and tear him to shreds.
“Don’t you dare try anything funny,” says the guard, as though he’s read my mind. “The emperor –”
I don’t get to hear what his thinks about the emperor, because I’ve knocked him out with a blow to the temple. He crumples to the ground without another sound, but the other inmates race to their bars all the same, as though they’ve been waiting for this moment. I fish around the guard’s pocket and find the ring of brass keys.
I wind down the narrow passageway, peering into each cell for the ones I’m looking for. A left turn here, a sharp right there. I realise that I can’t rely on my dulled human sense of smell and allow my tiger self to nudge a paw in. It’s demanding for me to give in completely, but now’s not the time. Not yet.
A few more passageways and bends later, I catch a whiff of them through the stench of decay. There they are, my tribe. Half of them, at least. The other half managed to escape capture during the riots – smart folk.
“Hello, everyone.” I bow with a flourish. “I’ve missed you all.”
“Bo!” Shao rasps, scrambling to her feet. “How did you…?” Her expression changes. “Tell me you didn’t.”
I unlock their cells and usher them out. “Now, that’s just insulting, Shao. Would I do something like that? The emperor let me out.”
Her brows pull together. “But why? It’s only been three days.”
“Three days? No wonder I’m hungry.”
They charge out of their cells, some thanking me along the way, others watching me like I’m offering them poisoned meat. But the smell of vengeance curls thick in the air, heady and exhilarating. It’s time.
I set the animal free within me. It rears his head, tasting the air, and fills every part of my body. Along with it comes the pain, as the lingering effects of tikka leaks into my bones. But it’s a good pain – it fires me up, getting me hopped up, raring to go.
As we near the entrance of the dungeon, Shao whispers to me, “What’s the plan?”
I glance out the little square of window, spot the full moon hanging low in the clear night sky. Perfect – we are just in time. The rebellion is waiting for us.
I turn to face everyone shuffling behind us and announce, “Hope you’ve got your stomachs ready, folks. We’re feasting tonight.”
There’s blood to be shed tonight. And the good news is? I am starving.
About the Author
Joyce hails from the tropical island-city of Singapore, where she spends the perennially sunny days writing YA novels and short stories. Since graduating with a degree in English from the National University of Singapore, she has won a nationwide novel-writing competition organised by the National Arts Council and published her YA contemporary romance, LAMBS FOR DINNER (Straits Times Press, 2013). She subsists on green tea and baked pumpkins, and blogs about books, writing, and TV shows at The Writes of Passage in between writing her next novel. You can read all of her short stories here.