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The tiger was a colossus seated at my feet. By my guess he’d be well past six if not seven feet tall standing, and solidly built—I imagined ancient sculptors might have used him as a model for statues of gods and heroes. I was a bit on the lanky side myself, especially after my long illness, and I felt entirely dwarfed in his presence.

I looked up into the tiger’s face and was so captivated by his dark eyes that I didn’t even notice he’d started talking.

“I am Maro. My sister Nyaiya and the kits found you on the beach. You are very sick; please accept our care.”

A tigress who had been sitting nearby got up and came closer, carrying a clay bowl. It finally dawned on me that I was outdoors—in a clearing surrounded by jungle.

“Where am I?”

“This is our island, Iisera. My youngest one said the Present have brought you here; we think they mean to have you made well again. Drink this,” she said, offering the bowl. “It is rak’aisa and it will make you stronger.”

I looked into the bowl. The drink, which was rather a stew, was dark red, like blood, but it smelled—it smelled strong, like mint, but there was nothing cool about it. I took a little taste and nearly choked, dropping the bowl and spilling the stew on the ground.

It burnt my tongue, like hot pepper, like acid even; the taste lingered on, sharp and hot.

Nyaiya yelped, hugging me and apologizing into my shoulder. I felt even more awkward as I noticed both tigers were naked. I tried to extricate myself from her, but she was built nearly as powerfully as Maro was, and she was too busy apologizing to notice.

“The rak’aisa is too strong for you. And my sister is too, I think. Nyaiya! Let him go, you will strangle him.”