A disgraced and exiled noble, stripped of his status, spends his days drinking and whoring in the exotic jungle colonies. When pressed to pay his debts he gets entangled in a deadly plot involving deceit, murder, and the dark magic of the deep jungle.
tags: Alexandru Constantin, horror, supernatural, fantasy, action/adventure
|Publication Date||May 04, 2017|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
A TIGER IN THE GARDEN
by Alexandru Constantin
Fragrant smoke enveloped the tiny room. Small candles flickered throwing shadows across the paper walls bathing the small chamber in soft light.
Valan put the lit pipe to his lips and inhaled the sweet smoke, holding it in his lungs for several seconds before letting it out. He shivered as a wave of pleasure traveled across his body. Content he slumped back into the soft cushions. With his eyes closed, he could hear the pleasure girls soft breathing as she took her turn smoking. He heard murmurs of hushed conversation from the neighboring rooms and the hint of distant music from somewhere in the pleasure house. Sweat ran down his bare chest, a product of the tropical heat mixing with the mind-altering smoke.
“You treat your guests well,” he said propping himself up to face the girl.
“We reserve the best service for esteemed lords like you Master Valan,” said the girl, her accent betraying the rehearsed nature of the line.
“Indeed, I have been enjoying the best Angkasa has to offer. After being stuck on a ship for months I have quite the need for enjoyment.”
The smoky haze softened the light in the tiny room, making the elaborate tigers and monkeys that adorned the wall appear to vibrate and dance. Focusing his gaze he watched the girl preparing another pipe. She wore her black hair up, held by bone picks in the style of native courtesans. No doubt manufactured to play up the exotic allure for her patrons.
“How long will you be staying in our beautiful city?” she asked, handing him the lit pipe.
“Until the company ships are loaded with spices and the Governor gets his cut,” he said and inhaled the sweet smoke from the pipe. “But, let’s not talk about that. Merchants, sailors, governors. I have no interest in that sort of nonsense.”
Taking her cue the girl came closer and began to run her fingers across his bare chest. “I’m glad you chose to spend your time here with me,” she whispered into his ear, “you will have the most pleasurable experience.”
The euphoric effect from the smoke was reaching its peak. Valan could barely keep his eyes open. Every touch from her sent shivers of pleasure across his skin. He could hear her every breath, each inhale, each exhale. The smell of her body mingled with the smoke was spicy and intoxicating. In this drug altered state, he could forget the long voyage across the seas and the exile that brought him to this distant colony.
The sharp clack of the bamboo panel jarred him out of his reverie. Opening his eyes in time to see an old, stick thin man, walk into the room. He was dark skinned like the Kaff farmers who toiled in the tropical sun and looked to be well into his later years. Yet his face expressed a harsh, serpentine nature, accented by a long groomed mustache that reached down to the middle of his chest. Behind him, a monstrously large, shirtless native followed.
“Your services are no longer needed,” said the old man, dismissing the girl with a glance. She gathered her possessions and made her way out of the room. The entire time her eyes were fixed firmly on the ground avoiding his gaze.
Valan tried to focus. His mind was still scattered by the drug. He sat up and tried blinking away his blurry vision. He had no idea who these two were but being caught shirtless in a pleasure house by two dangerous looking men was never a good thing.
“I was just about to start enjoying myself,” he said and stood up.
The big man’s fist caught him right in the mouth, sending him sprawling onto the floor. He tasted blood and for a moment felt like he was about to go unconscious.
“Sit down Master Valan, you are our honored guest,” said the old man standing over him. His voice sounded distant through the ringing pain in his head.
Cautiously Valan brought himself to his feet and faced the old man and his huge partner. “Do I know you gentlemen?” he asked, rubbing his jaw.
“No, but we know you Master Valan. You have been enjoying the services of Black Tiger’s many establishments these past few weeks and my employer wishes to assure the payment for your many transactions.”
Of course, this was about money he thought. These were nothing but local thugs here to shake him down for all the credit and goodwill he indulged in for the past few weeks.
“Listen, I haven’t the vaguest clue who this Black Tiger is but my word is my credit. I’m the sixth Marquess of Lahnsted,” he said, mustering the most official tone he was capable of.
The old man gave him a crooked smile revealing a row of rotten teeth. “Black Tiger knows about your unfortunate circumstance, that you are disgraced, landless, and exiled. Black Tiger is understanding, but perhaps men in your situation should not enjoy such lavish pleasures.”
The conversation was getting tiresome. Somehow he had to talk his way out of this situation because shirtless and intoxicated he stood no chance fighting these two.
“If this Black Tiger, whoever he is, knows I have no money, what exactly are you doing here besides wasting my time?”
Another brutal fist connected, knocking the air from his lungs. Several more brought him down to his knees. He desperately tried to protect himself but the large man’s strength and the drug haze made his efforts useless. The brute easily overpowered him, pinning him down with his body and forcing his head into the ground. Clearly outmatched Valan submitted.
“Master Valan,” the old man continued, “you have until the end of the week to come up with sufficient payment. If you fail to reduce your substantial debt we will work out a suitable payment plan. Unfortunately, we can guarantee that you will not find those arrangements pleasurable.”
The brute’s weight on top of him was oppressive. He couldn’t take a breath to offer a reply. His mind raced, trying to make sense of the situation but the effects of the smoke left him unable to form a coherent thought. His vision blurred and went dark as he went unconscious.
ValanÕs head throbbed and his body ached as he got up from the puddle of vomit he was laying in. Looking around he realized he spent the better part of the night unconscious in the garbage pile behind the pleasure house.
“Looks like you had a rough night Sir,” Bartholomeus said. The big man, dark skin made darker by his tattoos, leaned in offering to help Valan steady himself.
“How did you find me?”
“I always find you in some gutter after a long night.”
Bartholomeus was not the most traditional of servants but he was honest and loyal. Valan found his forward demeanor and soft-spoken honesty refreshing. Besides, the fact that he was a beast of a man with a penchant for effortless violence came in quite handy in numerous situations.
“We happen to be in quite a predicament,” Valan said retrieving his crusty shirt from the garbage pile. “It seems our credit has run dry in Angkasa.”
Walking through the early morning streets Valan filled him in on the previous night’s events. The first light of the sun illuminated the narrow unpaved streets of Angkasas port district. Everywhere they looked peasant Kaff farmers were bringing heavy loads of product, tightly bundled on their backs, towards the trading houses. The Kaff grew in the deep jungle of Angkasa. A tough tropical crop native to the islands, grown by the locals and traded to the company merchant houses. The ripe Kaff was dried and roasted, then sailed back to the empire to be sold for exuberant profit.
“Where are we going to get the money to pay off our debts?” asked Bartholomeus.
“You mean me, you don’t owe anything.”
“I’m your partner, we are a team.”
The enthusiastic loyalty always amazed Valan. He was penniless, an exile wasting his days in pleasure houses and taverns, worlds away from his home but he somehow managed the loyalty of a good man like Bartholomeus. A not insignificant part of him felt unworthy.
Reaching the main wharf they made their way through the already busy docks. Company marines stood guard with rifles watching sailors and workers while they loaded heavy bundles of Kaff onto the company ships. Even at this early hour, Angkasa was busy with commerce. Merchants were haggling with fishermen over the morning catch. Native women were bringing baskets of jungle fruit for sale. The smell of the many exotic spices blended with the salty smell of morning sea was an intoxicating fragrance unique to Angkasa.
Valan led them to a small Kaff shop overlooking the bay. The place catered to colonial merchants and other foreigners. Inside the shop, it smelled like sweet roasted Kaff, spice, and cacao. They grabbed a table and ordered two mugs of the roasted Kaff from the old man behind the counter.
Luckily word of his financial situation did not spread beyond the pleasure houses.
“We need to come up with a plan,” he said, taking a sip of his hot drink.
“Let’s run. Take a ship to another colony.”
Taking a ship off Angkasa was an option Valan considered. Unfortunately, he had no money to pay for even the shortest trip and no discernible talent to barter as payment.
“We could,” he said, “but I don’t think we can scam our way onto a ship in the next few days.”
The bitter spiced Kaff warmed him. It calmed his nerves and eased the pain from last night’s beating. No wonder Kaff was such a valuable commodity, it was an amazing substance. The Empire had several colonies devoted to growing the Kaff that flourished only in hostile jungles. Hundreds of company ships filled with the valuable bean made the perilous journey. Fulfilling the ravenous demand and making the company merchants extremely wealthy.
“Don’t worry friend, I will think of something to get us out of this,” he said taking another sip.
Valans thought was interrupted when a group of company sailors walked into the small shop. To his displeasure, they were led by Captain Henrick. Henrick was a successful young lord given command of several company ships due to his ambitious nature, charming personality, and significant family wealth. He was a driven and responsible man, quite the opposite of Valan.
“Master Valan, you look like you spent the night sleeping in an outhouse,” Henrik said.
“Alley actually,” replied Valan raising his mug.
Henrick was wearing the formal uniform of a company captain. Powdered wig, blue overcoat trimmed with gold, and a ceremonial sword hanging from his waist. He held his feathered hat and ordered mugs of Kaff for his equally sharply attired men.
“Look Bartholomeus, Henrik is making his crew practice for a dress up parade.”
“Actually, I am wearing formal attire because tonight I will be attending the ball at the Governor’s Plantation. It is my duty as the ranking company representative to attend.” Henrik took the Kaff he ordered and led his men towards the back of the shop, away from Valans table.
“The Governors ball, how could I forget,” said Valan.
“Well, you did enjoy a lot of local entertainment. It takes its toll.”
Governor Jansen, one of the wealthiest men in the colonies owned a massive plantation outside the port city. Due to his control of the Kaff trade, he wielded immense power and styled himself an imperial lord over Angkasa. Proud of his status and eager to display his wealth he was known to host lavish parties, inviting company officers, merchants, and dignitaries from the Empire.
“I think I have a plan,” he said smiling.
“We’re going to work for the governor?” asked Bartholomeus finishing his drink. “No, we are going to rob him.”
“Presenting the Honorable and Distinguished Lord Valantijn, Sixth Marquess of Lahnsted,”
Bartholomeus announced holding open the flimsy door of the rickshaw that brought them to the Governors Estate.
Valan stepped out into the sticky jungle night. He was wearing his finest outfit, dark leather overcoat, ruffled sleeves, and tall boots. His blond hair, well combed and powdered, held up by a velvet bow. A ceremonial dueling rapier hung from his belt. Sweat was already forming into heavy beads across his brow. He casually patted his overcoat feeling the familiar outline of his prized dueling pistols, readied with flint and shot in case of an emergency.
“You look like a true Imperial Lord,” said Bartholomeus.
“I am one, well at least I was one.”
The Governor’s plantation sat perched above the port city, carved out of the wild jungle that dominated the rest of the island. The massive colonial house was surrounded by a garden filled with lush tropical trees, hanging vines, and a multitude of colorful flowers. The garden was the Governor’s pride. He delighted in showing of his wealth to every visiting merchant and Imperial dignitary.
Tonight the garden was filled with revelers. Colonial women dressed in the extravagant Empire fashion chatted among the vines while sipping from crystal glasses. Their pale faces and high powdered wigs a stark contrast to the dark-skinned locals dutifully standing by to serve drinks.
Valan leaned in whispering to Bartholomeus, “Go work amongst the servants. Mingle, find out anything that might be of use to us. I’m going to get myself a drink.”
He grabbed a crystal of wine from a passing servant and began to stroll through the garden. Even at night the humid jungle heat was oppressive and did not agree with current fashion. All of the ladies, dressed in their massive layered gowns were drenched in sweat. Yet they dutifully pretended to be enjoying themselves. The gentlemen appeared even more miserable in their heavy overcoats.
Valan made his rounds, moving between groups of revelers making small talk. Most of them were new money colonials. Company merchants who made their fortunes on the Kaff trade. Important in Angkasa but considered uppity back in the Empire. The conversation consisted of ship schedules, market prices, and rumors of revolts from distant colonies.
Making his way through the garden, he came across a small marble stage covered in flowering vines. Two beautiful Angk women were performing some sort of traditional dance. Their bodies moved rhythmically while a third woman sat cross-legged, chanting a guttural, melancholy song. In each hand, the dancing women balanced a fast spinning orb on long shoots of what appeared to polished bamboo. He stood watching, mesmerized by their precise, serpentine movements.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” a voice behind him whispered.
Turning around he came face to face with a stunning dark haired woman. She wore a dress styled in the simple local fashion and her long hair hung down past her shoulders. But it was her necklace that grabbed Valan’s attention. A large, coal-black, gem of exquisite quality perfectly held by a silver chain. A piece of jewelry of this caliber was easily worth enough gold to buy several trips off this island, if not a ship itself.
“Lord Valan Marquess of Lahnstad,” he said, giving her a small bow.
“Lady Arabella Jansen.”
Valan somewhat remembered mention that the Governor had a daughter but he never imagined her to be a gorgeous young woman. He pictured her one of the overfed, crass colonial women who fancied themselves royalty and mistreated the locals. Arabella was nothing like them. Immediately something about her stood out as different. Her dark eyes, her tanned skin, unlike the other women she looked like she belonged here on Angkasa.
“Are you enjoying my father’s party Lord Valan?”
“It’s fine. Honestly, I’m not one for heartfelt conversation about trade regulations.”
“I find the whole thing dreadfully boring. My father likes to pretend he’s important by entertaining every company nobody that passes through.”
“Your father is important,” Valan said, interested in the conversation. “He’s the Governor of one of the Empires most profitable colonies.”
Arabellas gaze turned towards the dancers. “My father has no real power, the company runs this island. He is just a figurehead here to entertain, no different than the native servants.”
The chanting woman’s song became louder. The dancer’s movements more intense and frenetic. Suddenly the spinning orbs they balanced began shining brighter than torches. The orb light had an organic quality that reminded Valan of the fire beetles he used to chase as a child. He had no idea what trick they used to make the illumination but it was flawlessly performed.
“Khat-En orb dancer,” said Arabella, answering his unspoken question. “It’s jungle magic, practiced by the local women. My mother was the best orb dancer on Angkasa.”
“Your mother, she learned from the natives?”
“She was a native. My father took a native servant for a wife.”
Of course, he thought. This explained her exotic looks. His instincts were right, unlike the other women she did belong on Angkasa. This revelation made her even more desirable.
“So how long do these parties last,” he asked.
“Until everybody gets disgustingly gorged on food and completely pissed drunk on wine.”
Valan gulped his remaining wine and tossed the empty glass over his shoulder. “Well, looks like I have a bit of eating and drinking to do. But I keep getting distracted from my task by all the beauty surrounding me.”
“You won’t find any real beauty here in this garden. The true beauty is out in the jungle where the
Kaff trees grow.”
“I have never been out there, maybe one day.”
“Maybe one day I can take you myself,” she said smiling.
Valan stood still, looking into her eyes. They were dark like her hair and reminded him of a wild animal. He wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of the night with her. She was intoxicating. But, he remembered his purpose. He needed to find something of value. Something to steal worth enough gold to pay off his debt and get himself and Bartholomeus off this island.
The silence was broken when Captain Henrik walked up holding two filled glasses. “Lady Arabella, I brought you a drink,” he said, handing her the glass.
“Henrik, thank you. It’s been so long. I heard your ship was in port and hoped you would visit me tonight,” she said and leaned in to give him a hug.
Valan stiffened up and casually straightened the lapels on his coat. Of course, he thought, finally he comes across an interesting woman who wasn’t a complete bore and she ends up somehow involved with an idiot like Henrik. Either way, the whole point of being here tonight was to rob her father, so any long term engagement would have been strictly hypothetical.
“Well, I will leave the two of you alone,” he said, giving Arabella a small bow and ignoring Henrik.
“Oh no Lord Valan, please stay,” she said. “Have you met Captain Henrik?”
“Of course. Who hasn’t heard of Captain Henrik. Our friendship goes back before coming to the colonies,” he said, grinning.
“You are not my friend,” Henrik exploded, unable to hide his irritation. “You are nothing but a debased vagrant, a disgrace to your now meaningless title.”
“I rather be a vagrant than a cheap imperial whore selling herself to the highest bidder for…”
Before Valan finished, Henrik red-faced, lunged and grabbed him by the neck. “I’m going to kill you!” he spat.
With a well-practiced motion, he reached into his coat and pulled out one of his dueling pistols, shoving the barrel between Henrik’s ribs.
“Are you now Henrik,” he said, attempting a smile. Hopefully, the idiot would fall for the bluff, swallow his pride, and back off. While the idea of shooting an asshole like Henrik was attractive. Killing somebody at the Governor’s party, in front of the Governors daughter, would definitely get in the way of actually robbing the Governor.
“Enough,” said Arabella, “displays of male bravado bore me.”
Her calm, commanding demeanor caught him by surprise. He lowered his pistol and relaxed his stance.
“The two of you can continue this nonsense some other time.”
“My greatest apologies Lady Arabella. I don’t know what got into me,” said Henrik. He stepped back and began to nervously adjust his uniform.
Valan bowed excusing himself. He needed to get out of this situation. It was time to regain his bearings, get some loot, and get off this forsaken island.
Valan spent several hours conversing with other guests, eating food, and trying his best to stay sober. Sometime in the night Governor Jensen came out and gave a short speech welcoming everybody, toasting the Empire, and wishing prosperity to the Kaff trade.
Wearing a newly acquired servant uniform, Bartholomeus approached Valan with a silver platter loaded with wine glasses.
“What’s the deal?” whispered Valan, as he took a glass off the tray.
“The Governor’s bedchamber is on the second floor, facing the jungle. The window is left unlocked and wide open. I walked around and noticed that thick vines cover that side of the house. You should have no trouble climbing right in. Once inside there should be a large vanity filled with jewelry that used to belong to his wife.”
“The servants were ordered to avoid the second floor in order to allow discrete rendezvous between the guests.”
“Excellent. Give me half hour. I will go in, grab whatever I can get my hands on, then make my way to the far edge of the garden.”
Valan staggered through the party, taking the time to smile and engage several groups of revelers in simple banter before excusing himself. By this time the party was winding down and most of the servants were focused on keeping the inebriated guests happy. It was easy for him to slip unseen towards the back of the estate.
He walked slowly, making sure that he didn’t attract any attention. Once he made his way around to the back end of the house he was alone. Above him, on the second floor, he saw the large double windows, wide open, and conveniently crawling with vine just like Bartholomeus described.
Right as he was about to start the climb he heard a pair of whispering voices making their way towards him. He dropped down, rolling underneath a large tropical hedge.
“I will see you soon my love,” said a voice he recognized as Henrick’s. Followed by a soft feminine reply that had to belong to Arabella. He held his breath and held his body frozen until he felt sure they were out of sight before he rolled from underneath the hedge.
The second floor of the estate was dark, no light shone in any of the windows. He put on his tough climbing gloves and started making his way up the side of the house. Climbing the thick jungle vines was easy and when he reached the opened window he rolled inside taking care to make no sound.
He stood motionless, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dark. The room was spacious, its walls decorated with tall framed paintings that he could not make out in the sparse light. Dominating the room was a massive bed canopied with soft fabric, intended to keep the insects at bay. To the right of the bed, he saw his target, a large hand crafted vanity.
He took several slow, deliberate steps. His soft boots silent across the carpeted floor. Reaching the vanity he saw what looked like a lady’s jewelry box. If it held anything comparable to Arabella’s necklace he could easily pay his debt and get off this island.
Feeling uneasy he scanned the room one more time. The moonlight coming through the window illuminated a bit of the bed allowing him to see a bare foot sticking out from beneath the bed covering. Valan froze. His heart pounded in his chest. The Governor was asleep in the bed and he was standing less than three feet away.
He gently raised the lid on the box, keeping one eye on the sleeping figure. No movement. No sound. The old man was a deep sleeper. The jewelry box was full of necklaces, rings, hair pins, and a large brooch. He grabbed a handful and shoved it into his coat pocket, not worrying about the value.
Suddenly behind him he heard the metal latch clanking. Somebody was trying to open the bedroom door. Instinctively he dropped to the ground and rolled underneath the large bed. The door opened and light poured in for a few seconds then the intruder stumbled in and closed the door.
“Arabella,” slurred a heavily inebriated Henrik, “I’m here..”
From underneath the bed, Valan could see Henrik’s expensive boots as he shuffled around the room. The idiot was fumbling in the dark. Then he saw his coat and shirt drop onto the ground. Henrik was undressing.
Valan regretted not shooting him earlier. He was going to wake the Governor and bring down the entire household. Some servant was going to find him hiding under the bed and the entire plan would be ruined. Even his tenuous noble status could not save him from the noose if he was caught with his pockets filled with stolen jewelry.
He had to make a decision. Come out from underneath the bed, overpower Henrik, and make his way out the window to safety. Or, stay put and hope that the idiot would realize he walked into the wrong room and get out before waking up the Governor.
He put his palms flat on the ground. Tensed his muscles, and prepared to roll out. He would spring to his feet and hopefully take Henrik by surprise.
Right as he was about to put his plan into action the large door slammed open and light poured in. He froze, every muscle in his body wound up. Sweat ran down the side of his face. This was it.
Hopefully, Bartholomeus would get away to safety.
“Henrik!” he heard Arabella. “What are you doing in here?”
Valan watched her walk closer to the bed. She wasn’t alone, coming in behind her he saw the heavy boots of two guards.
“Ummmm you,” muttered Henrik.
“Father, wake up.”
He felt the mattress above him move and compress as she put her weight on it.
Without warning, Arabella threw herself off the bed screaming.
“Murdered!” a servant shouted.
“You murdered my father!” she wailed.
The room erupted into chaos. Servants poured in, shouting, and screeching. Guards surrounded Henrik who put up no resistance.
“You and the Company plotted and murdered my father so you could take control of the Kaff production,” she said. “He always warned me about your treachery.” “No, no, not true,” Henrik mumbled.
“Take the murderer downstairs. Have the guards arrest the rest of his crew and any company conspirators.”
Valan waited motionless, shocked by the unexpected turn of events. The guards exited the chamber,
Henrik in their possession and Arabella followed right behind. He needed to get out of here and find Bartholomeus. If anybody discovered that he was underneath the slain Governors bed he would quickly overtake Henrik as the prime murder suspect.
A quick roll followed by a swift jump and he was up on his feet. The room was now well lit by several oil lamps. He saw the Governor, splayed across the bed. His face contorted in a permanent expression of shock. His throat slit from ear to ear.
Valan stepped over the pile of blood-soaked blanket and made his way to the vanity. He intended to close the jewelry box and hide any sign of his robbery when he noticed an ornate dagger next to it. He must have missed it in the dark. He picked it up and examined the sharp blade. It was covered in dried blood. This had to be the murder weapon. It was unique, finely crafted with a hilt carved to resemble a tiger.
He put the dagger back down, then checked one more time for any trace of his presence. Satisfied, he made his way out the window and down the vine. The garden behind the house was still, no sign of servants or guards. Silently he began making his way towards the meeting spot.
Valan found Bartholomeus at the agreed upon spot. He was creeping behind a spiny bush that did a horrible job of hiding his lumbering frame. He was holding a large bowl in one hand and shoveling the contents into his mouth with the other.
“We have a problem,” said Valan walking up. “Somebody murdered the Governor.”
“It was Henrik, they already captured him.”
“No. Henrik is an idiot but he did not commit this murder.”
“How do you know?” Bartholomeus asked shoving a mouthful of the rice gruel into his mouth.
“I don’t know who is responsible but it wasn’t Henrik,” said Valan. He dug around his coat pockets and grabbed a handful of the looted jewelry. “Whoever killed him did it before I broke into the house and snatched our prize.”
Bartholomeus put his bowl of food down and palmed the bundle of treasure. “Is this enough to pay the debt?”
“Should be enough with plenty left over for us to hire a ship off this island.”
They walked back around to the front of the house. The party had disbanded. Servants were tearing down decorations and cleaning up after the long night. Colonial soldiers swarmed the garden, sharply dressed and carrying muskets. Several of them appeared to be taking guests into the house. Valan had no desire to get detained, or worse questioned, so he urged Bartholomeus on.
The wrought iron gate leading to the road to Angkasa was wide open. Two soldiers stood guard. One of them was having what appeared to be an intense conversation with an old servant dressed in local garb, his face hid behind a wide brimmed jungle hat.
“Good evening sirs,” said Valan, bowing politely.
“Where are you two going?” said the fatter of the two. “Order from the Governor say nobody goes in or out.”
“Listen, I’m a great friend of the Governor,” smiled Valan, “and this is my man servant. We have important business to attend to back in town, so we must hastily depart.”
The other soldier broke from his discussion with the local and walked up, facing Valan. He was a hideously ugly man, with a nose that must have met the wrong end of a fist numerous times, and a mouthful of the most rotten teeth Valan ever saw.
The soldier looked Valan over, then stuck his palm out smiling. “Can you prove that you are friends of our Gov? Maybe if you showed me some proof.”
Valan frowned. Of course, he thought, this whole colony was filled with extortionist thugs. “Let me guess,” he said reaching into his coat. His fingers wrapped around the smooth butt of his pistol. He considered it. But the loud gunshot would bring every soldier and servant down on them. Instead of the pistol he palmed a ring from the bundle of loot and handed it to the soldier. “This should be all the proof you need.”
The soldier examined the ring grinning, a bead of spittle pooled at the corner of his mouth. Finally satisfied with his appraisal he waved them along. His fat companion began laughing like a dimwit. Valan guessed that the value of the ring was easily worth at least a years pay.
As he walked away he took one last look at the pair. He wanted to make sure that he would remember their faces in case he ran across them again. That’s when he noticed the old servant again. Something about the old man was familiar. He picked up his pace and caught up with Bartholomeus who was already on his way down the road.
“I know that old servant.”
“Yeah. That’s the bastard that shook me down in the pleasure house last night. I didn’t recognize him at first because I was hazy from the smoke but I will put my honor on the line that it’s the same crook.”
Thinking over the events of the night he remembered the tiger motif on the dagger used to kill the
Governor. “You know, I think that this Black Tiger had the Governor murdered.”
He quickly filled Bartholomeus in on the details of the night. What transpired in the bedroom, how he found the ornate dagger and his suspicions about the Black Tiger being behind the murder.
“It’s not exactly clear what’s going on here, but I think we should get off this island fast,” said Valan.
Bartholomeus stopped in the middle of the road. “We need to go back.”
“Are you insane?”
“If the Black Tiger murdered the Governor that means his daughter is in danger,” he said in his usual soft tone. “Also Henrik, he’s one of us after all.”
“I hate that guy.”
“But he’s not guilty of the crime.”
Valan considered the situation for a moment. Rescuing that idiot and Arabella could end up being a profitable endeavor. He would get a reward from her and be able to rub it in Henrik’s face for the foreseeable future. Also, if he could prove that the Black Tiger was behind the murder he might be able to get him out of the picture, allowing him to keep the profits from the stolen jewelry.
“Alright, I’m sold. We go back, find Arabella and explain the whole Black Tiger thing. Once she knows the truth, she has to release Henrik and reward us. Then we make the idiot give us safe passage off this island.”
Valan led the way back to the Governor’s Estate. He wasn’t sure if going back was the right choice, but it was a chance at getting out of debt and finally getting off this island.
“Ready friend?” he asked Bartholomeus as they approached the gate.
The two soldiers were still guarding the gate. The fat one stood leaning on his musket, swilling drink from a rusty flask. The other, started towards them, his smile exposing his rotten teeth.
“You two,” he said barring their way, “it’s going to cost you to come back through.”
Valan reached into his coat, pulled out his readied pistol, and pulled the trigger. The hammer came down, sparked, and fired hot shrapnel into the soldiers left knee.
Taking the cue Bartholomeus rushed the fat one, smashing his face with a rock. The soldier collapsed onto the ground in a bloody mess.
The shot soldier writhed and cried, pouring blood from his wound. Valan bent over, held him down, and searched the pockets of his dirty uniform, fishing out the ring he handed over earlier. Getting a hot ball of lead to the leg isn’t a pleasant experience, he thought, but if the man got himself to a local doctor in time he might prevent infection.
“Got it,” he said, admiring the topaz stone for a moment.
Valan put the spent pistol back in the coat and pulled out its twin, making sure it was loaded and ready. He walked over to where Bartholomeus was standing and grabbed the unused musket lying on the ground. It was a well made colonial long arm, suited for the rough conditions of the jungle. The satchel around the soldier’s waist held several paper cartridges filled with shot and powder. “Take this, use it to watch our backs,” he said, handing Bartholomeus the readied weapon.
They made their way into the garden, crouching low and keeping to the shadows. Valan held the readied pistol in his left hand, his right rested on his sheathed rapier. Behind, the massive Bartholomeus tried to keep a low profile, crouching, musket in hand. The garden was dark, all of the torches extinguished. In the darkness, Valan did not see any servants or soldiers. Ahead, he saw that the manor was equally dark. “Something’s wrong,” he whispered, as they approached the entrance.
Valan tried the main door and found it unlocked. He pushed it open revealing a poorly lit hallway. The house appeared empty, no sign of life. Arabella could have dismissed the servants for the night he thought, but that would have been an unusual act considering the circumstances.
“Did you hear that?” whispered Bartholomeus.
Valan shook his head.
Holding his breath and opening his mouth he tried to focus his hearing. Several seconds he heard nothing but the strains of the old house reacting to the jungle moisture. Right as he was about to give up he heard several muffled screams from below. “There has to be a cellar beneath us.”
After a bit of searching, they came across a set of stairs. Valan led the way down into a large cellar. It was filled from floor to ceiling with wine barrels and sacks of Kaff beans. The air was cool and dry and smelled of sweet spice.
From the back of the cellar, behind a row of stacked barrels, Valan heard several voices, one of them sounded distressed. He checked his pistol and nodded to Bartholomeus.
“Tomorrow you will confess your crime,” said a voice in a thick local accent. “You will admit that you murdered the Governor on the orders of the company…”
Valan came around the corner pistol ready. He saw Henrik, bloodied and beat, tied to a wooden chair. Standing over him was the old, serpentine man and his large companion from the pleasure house. He raised his pistol aiming at the old bastard. What extortion this Black Tiger was committing was going to end now.
“Master Valan, welcome!” said the old man without turning around.
Valan pulled the trigger. Quicker than his mind could register, the old man threw his body aside. The shot missed, going above Henrik’s head and splintered into a barrel, showering everyone in dark wine.
The shirtless native charged, brutal fists ready for violence. Unlike the last time in the pleasure house, Valan was sober. He tossed the spent pistol and rolled away before the brute got on top of him. Unable to stop the momentum of his charge the goon went over Valan and collided teeth first into the readied stock of Bartholomeus’ musket.
Back on his feet, Valan drew his rapier and faced the old man. “I’m here to pay my debt to Black
The old man looked him over. His face expressionless. “You can do it in person Master Valan,” he said, gesturing towards the cellar stairs.
Valan turned around to see Arabella holding two readied pistols. One was pointed at Bartholomeus who was gently placing his musket on the ground. The other was pointed at him.
“Master Valan, you owe me quite a bit of money,” she said.
“They killed your father, it wasn’t Henrik,” he blurted out, not yet grasping the situation.
“I killed my father,” she said and motioned towards the old man, who silently followed the order, grabbing some rope in order to bind their hands.
Valan put down his rapier. “I don’t understand what’s going on here, and honestly I don’t care.
Bartholomeus and I have nothing to do with any of this.”
“My father was a tool of the company, but I understand where the real power lies. In the Kaff, in the jungle. With Henrik’s confession exposing the company, proving them to be murderers, the colonials will follow me in becoming an independent state. We will be free of the Empire and parasites like you.”
“I don’t give a damn about the empire,” he said as the old man began to bind his hands behind his back.
“Oh, I know Master Valan. But I have plans for you and your friend,” she said turning away, “Take them to the temple.”
The old man led Valan, Bartholomeus, and Henrik out into the jungle night. They marched in a single file, hands tied behind their backs. In the rear, the big shirtless native carried the musket pointed at their backs.
The path took them through the plantation garden and out into the jungle proper. The night air was wet and sticky, filled with the constant buzz of predatory insects. The deeper they went into the canopy the more oppressive it felt. Valan could not banish the constant feeling that they were being watched.
He looked up at Bartholomeus who was walking silently in front. “Hey, this is what I get for humoring your sense of honor.”
“Nobody asked you to come for me,” coughed Henrik from behind, “I can take care of myself.” “Yeah, I can see that.”
“You never even came because of me, you most likely wanted to impress Arabella or rob the place.”
“Impress Arabella,” laughed Valan, “you mean like walking into her father’s chamber all excited like a giddy school boy.
“I was set up! She told me to meet her there.”
“You’re still an idiot.”
The serpentine old man whipped around. “Silence!” he yelled. At that instant, Bartholomeus tripped and fell face first over some tangled roots and vines. “Clumsy idiot! Get up before we shoot you.” He walked over and pulled him up. “If any of you talks or falls down again we are going to leave you bound in the jungle to be eaten by beasts.”
They marched in silence, their only light a small flickering torch carried by the old man. Around them, Valan heard the bestial screams of the jungle, his mind imagining the malevolent forces that dwelt in the dark. After what seemed like hours they reached a rope bridge suspended across a dark ravine. On the other side, Valan saw the massive shape of a step pyramid jutting out of the jungle canopy. Thick vines enveloped its base, snaking up the central stairway that led up to a torch lit platform. The architecture was nothing like anything Valan had ever seen. It felt ancient and sinister.
Crossing the swaying bridge, Valan tried to see how deep the ravine was, but the bottom was obscured by darkness. The closer they got to the pyramid the worse Valan felt. This is not what he expected. He figured they would be held for ransom, or sold to slavers. Something else was going on here. For the first time tonight he started to worry.
“What in the god’s name is this place?” whispered Henrik, his usually confident voice faint.
“I have no idea, but it doesn’t look good for us.”
With the bridge behind them, the three prisoners stood at the base of the pyramid. The wide rough stairway was lit all the way to the top by torches. The old man and his brute ordered for them to continue up. Valan looked around, there was nowhere to run, and with his hands bound behind his back, there was no way he would stand a chance against the musket. Ahead, Bartholomeus climbed the steps in expressionless silence.
“Alright, I get it,” began Valan, “you guys have a crazy ancient temple you want to show us.” “There is much you don’t know about Angkasa. Now hurry up!” said the old man.
The top of the pyramid was a flat platform, its center illuminated by a circle of torches mounted on bamboo shafts. The floor was covered in patches of damp moss and littered with debris. The light from the torches threw monstrous shadows across the surrounding jungle making it seem like every tree was covered in writhing dark creatures.
The shirtless brute led them to one of the corners and motioned for them to sit down. Valan started to sit slowly when the old man grabbed him.“Not you, Master Valan, you serve a different purpose.
When our demonstration is over Captain Henrik will surely cooperate.” He tied a longer rope around Valan’s wrists and pulled him towards the center of the platform.
“When this freak show is over I’m going to kill you!” spat Valan.
“You will do no such thing,” he grinned and tied the longer rope to a metal hook sticking out of the stone at the center of the platform.
Valan struggled but the rope was strong and the hook did not budge. Each time he pulled pain shot through his shoulders as the knot tightened, pulling him closer to the ground. Inside the ring, the torchlight was intense making it difficult to see anything past the edge of the platform. All he could see was the other two prisoners on their knees, hands bound behind them. Bartholomeus was silent and composed. His eyes focused on Valan. Beside him, Henrik was slumped over, covered in sweat. His eyes darted in every direction reminding Valan of a frightened animal. The old man and the brute stood watch, musket ready.
Suddenly silence, as if the jungle took a deep breath and held it in. Valan could no longer hear the buzz of insects or the screeching of the night birds. Something unnatural was going on. His heart raced as fear began to edge in on his thoughts. He should have tried to escape earlier, should have gone for that musket. His arrogance got in the way of prudence and he underestimated the situation.
He heard a sharp scrape from the opposite end of the platform. Something was coming up the side of the pyramid. Valan struggled to see what it was but the shadows and bright light obscured his sight. The scraping sound came closer. He looked around, hoping to see something that might be useful. But, to his horror, he realized that what he earlier thought was rubble was actually bone. The platform was littered with human bones. He took a deep breath and prepared himself to face the unspeakable.
A massive black tiger came out of the shadows. It was twice the size of any tiger Valan had ever seen and the wrong color. Its fur was midnight blue with ink-dark stripes that gave it a monstrous appearance. Its paws were the size of a man’s head and with each step, its razor sharp claws scraped the stone floor.
It stood still gazing at Valan. Its eyes were pure darkness reflecting none of the torchlight, betraying a sinister intelligence beyond any natural beast. Valan met the tiger’s gaze and shivered with dread. He knew the beast wanted not only to devour him but to consume his very soul.
The beast roared and began to circle. Valan pulled on the rope harder, desperately tried to slip his hands out of the tight knot. Nothing. The rope was tied well, all he managed to do was rub his wrists raw. The tiger stopped its pacing and crouched down. Valan began to panic, he was going to be eaten alive.
It pounced, launching itself through the air. Sharp claws flying at him. Less than a hands length from his face, Bartholomeus body collided with the beast mid-air, sending both of them rolling. A whirling mass of flesh and fur. Valan exhaled. Somehow Bartholomeus managed to get out of his bindings and rushed in at the last moment.
Across the platform, the shirtless brute raised his musket and tried to aim, but the tiger and Bartholomeus were intertwined. He pulled the trigger right as Henrik leaped up and rammed his head into his gut. The barrel kicked up and the shot discharged high into the jungle. Henrik’s blow and the recoil from the musket sent him sprawling onto his back. Not wasting a moment Henrik followed his initial attack with several vicious kicks pushing the brute over the side of the pyramid and to most certain death down in the ravine.
Valan closed his eyes and pulled on the rope. He felt the muscles in his shoulders tearing. The coarse rope around his wrist ripped at his flesh. He bared his teeth and struggled harder against the excruciating pain. Finally, one bloodied hand slipped free. He spun around, grabbed the longer rope with both hands and pulled with all his strength. The iron loop he was tied to shot out of the stone platform right as the old man approached, deadly dagger in hand.
He spun the rope above his head, iron loop whistling through the air and smashing into the side of the old man’s head. Valan dropped the rope and leaped on top of him, smashing his fists into what remained of the man’s face.
“Valan!” he heard Henrik yell, “Behind you!”
Turning around, he saw the tiger on top of Bartholomeus. The beast was tearing chunks of flesh from his arms and chest. Blood was everywhere. He had to do something quick or his friend was going to lose the struggle.
He grabbed one of the bamboo torches and charged the tiger flame forward, spearing it right in its face. The beast let out a painful roar as it rolled away, its face covered with flaming torch oil.
Bartholomeus lay in a bloody heap, but he was still breathing. Henrik ran up to them after freeing himself using the old man’s dagger. He was shaken but unhurt.
“Get him out of here,” Valan told Henrik and turned to face the tiger.
The tiger’s face was badly burned. Its remaining eye fixed on him with a dark intensity. Valan slashed and jabbed with the torch. Each time he got close the tiger dodged out of the way and continued to circle. They danced in this fashion for minutes. The tiger trying to break Valan’s perimeter after each thrust of the flame. Valan knew this was no regular jungle beast, it moved and reacted with a human intelligence.
He went for a deep thrust with the torch. It was a mistake. The tiger seemed to anticipate the move and slashed the bamboo torch out of his hand. It leapt at him, digging its sharp claws into his shoulders and bringing him down. Its massive body pinned him onto the ground digging its claws deeper.
The pain was excruciating. The beast’s claws burned his flesh. It took all of his will to remain conscious. He looked up at the tiger’s open mouth and saw its dagger-sharp teeth dripping with saliva. He prepared himself for the end. That’s when he noticed what appeared to be a silver chain holding a coal black gem around the beast’s neck.
With his remaining strength he forced his head forward and bit the chain, jerking his head back he ripped it off the tiger’s neck. The gem flew across the platform and bounced off the edge. The tiger reared up on its hind legs, giving off a hideous roar. It rolled onto its side and began violently writhing on the ground making unnatural noises.
The pyramid shook and the jungle exploded with sound. The screeching of monkeys, birds, and other creatures was deafening. Whatever dark magic silenced them was no longer in control.
Valan could barely move. His vision was red with blood. He forced himself up, right as the stone beneath his feet began to shake and crumble. He ran. Pushing himself as fast as possible down the pyramid steps and across the rickety rope bridge.
Safe on the other side his legs gave out and he collapsed. Across the ravine, the pyramid was falling onto itself. His head spun, and he began slipping into darkness. The last thing he saw was the shape of a naked woman that looked just like Arabella.
Several days later the three of them stood on the deck of The Princess Eliza, Henrik’s flagship.
“Thank you for coming back to get me,” said Valan. He took a sip of wine out of his flask and raised it to his friends. After he lost consciousness at the edge of the ravine, Henrik managed to drag him out of the Jungle all the way back to the city. Once safe, he gathered his crew and quickly set sail without looking back.
“The two of you came back to rescue me,” said Henrik, taking the flask.
“You can thank Bartholomeus for that. I wanted to leave you.” Bartholomeus nodded and raised the flask.
“Well, once I drop you off at the nearest port we will be even.”
“Not so fast. If what I saw wasn’t pain-induced delirium, that vile sorceress Arabella is still alive. That means that the colonial authorities still think you’re a murderer. You might need our help.”
Henrik nodded and walked away. A small part of Valan enjoyed the fact that both of them were now disgraced outlaws. But, he had to admit that for all his faults Henrik acted honorably back in the Jungle.
“So old friend, what do we do now?” he said, elbowing Bartholomeus.
“Knowing you, booze, smoke, and some filthy pleasure house.”
“A Tiger in the Garden” copyright © Alexandru Constantin
Alexandru Constantin is currently an active duty U.S. Navy Corpsman living in Japan. When he is not busy taking care of Marines and Sailors or adventuring with his amazing wife, he writes action packed Science Fiction and Fantasy. Check him out at BarbarianBookClub.com