I woke up from a dream where April sat before me, our chess set laid open, and the peepul tree rustled in the afternoon breeze. There was brewed jasmine tea on the marble table. Her eyes were intense, looking straight into me, while she pushed her Queen in front of my chess piece.
Her lips parted, whispered Love You. Something the real April wouldn’t do.
Yet, in the dream, I cherished those words. Held them to my chest, to my heart. They were my talisman, holding the demons at bay.
The drab surroundings greeted me. I sat up. Another day. S’sahrak would be arriving in twenty minutes for its “daily interrogation activities”. S’sahrak was punctual to a fault.
I tore into the bread, feeling the hollow and biting hunger inside me. The bread was laced with the drug. So was the water. Yet I ate and drunk. I needed to have energy to face S’sahrak. Somewhere in my head, I imagined copious amounts of Mother’s herbal tonics, dishes of delicious food, my favorite trotters in ginger and vinegar. Real things to sustain me, to keep me from falling. I wanted to fight the addiction.
“Consider this,” S’sahrak said, flexing its claws. I focused on the glistening half-moon talons, fascinated by their obsidian sheen. “Consider this, your situation. Ever wondered why you were here.”
“You are an agent of Yeung Leung, my enemy,” I said calmly.
S’sahrak tilted its head. “As you wish.”
“You are not an agent then?” I pushed on.
The shishini did not answer. Instead, it began to pace around the table, tracing a definite pattern. “We of the claw are not confined by such restrictive parameters. Agent? Enemy? What are those words? They restrict us.”
“Now you are a philosopher,” I muttered.
“Shishini are philosophers,” S’sahrak said without missing a beat, its tail swinging a rhythm as it continued its pacing. “Like what is male or female, but restrictive and confining identifiers. We choose to be male or female or none, when we are ready to move on. You are restricted by your female-ness, but you choose to desire-to-mate with your first officer, have you not?”
Ice drenched my back. “How did you know?”
“I am an agent of Yeung Leung, am I not?”
“You speak in circles.”
“Life, my captain, is a circle.”
“Is it?” I admitted that S’sahrak’s pacing was hypnotic. The rosette patterns blurred with every circuit around the interrogation table. I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear a nascent headache.
“Your bond with your first officer might be a liability, my captain.”
“I am not your captain,” I grit my teeth. They are going to go after her! April, no! I began to smile grimly, a wolf smile. No, April won’t let herself be caught that easily. April would hunt them down. April would destroy them.
“I see,” S’sahrak nodded slowly, as if it was contemplating a piece of outlandish artwork. “Then why do you persist to be female?”
“Stop,” I said dangerously. “You are being oblique.”
“Am I not?”
I felt the wolf grow larger inside me, heard the growling in my throat. With iron will, I caged it back. “What do you want, S’sahrak? Irritate your prisoner?”
“Isn’t that my goal, my captain?” S’sahrak clicked its claw-tips together. Tink-tink-tink.
I stared directly at the shishini clawleader, staring straight into its pupil-less eyes. I felt as if I was looking into pools of oil. Was S’sahrak male, female or none?
“I do not want to play games,” I said finally. “But if you want to play games, so will I.”
“As you wish.” A gentle incline of the saurian head. “You have to realize this is already a game. I am your captor. You are my prisoner. There is a relationship here I can exploit.”
Shishini play games. Mind games. They play them like puzzle games. Stay focused, Francesca. Do not lose it.
“Then how do I address you?” I sat down, the very picture of an obedient prisoner. Even a day-old pup would sniff out the pretense.
“Call me clawleader or S’sahrak,” the shishini said, settling down in front of me. Now we were face to face. “At the moment, I am none. I am rar.”
I nodded, wondering at the terms.
“Now shall we begin?”
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