From the pages of history and the dense undergrowth of human memory, we see glimpses of lurking fantastic beasts. Anupam Arunachalam in Tooth and Nail, Fur and Scale, brings an exhibit of monsters from the Indian subcontinent that have been hand-picked from musty old encyclopedias, murky urban legends, earthy folk tales and the white-hot bowels of mythology.
Here’s an exclusive excerpt from the book.
‘Abdullah is a fine man, Wazir, but I’m afraid that’s out of the question.’ The sultana’s voice rang in Mehruddin Malik’s head as he watched the pink muslin curtains of the royal hammam billowing at the window in the distance, smoke curling between them.
He stood on one of the tiny balconies that studded the western tower of the royal palace, the one known as the blacktop, because of its shiny obsidian-tiled roof. A tall Norsewoman stood by his side, her yellow braids streaming from a steel helmet and her powerful frame a tight fit in her chain mail.
‘B-but, Sultana Begum,’ Malik had said, ‘they’ve known each other since they were children. They like each other.’
‘They knew each other, you mean. Abdullah has been abroad for four years now.’
‘Yes! Learning at the feet of masters of statecraft! Training in every manner of strategy and warfare! He has been readying himself—’
‘For taking over your job whenever you tire of it,’ the sultana had said. ‘And I do believe he would make a superlative wazir.’
Mehruddin Malik had bowed his head. ‘Abdullah is in love with the shahzadi, Sultana.’
He recalled hearing the sultana’s jewellery clink as she had shaken her head. ‘You, of all people, Wazir, should understand,’ she’d said. ‘The shahzadi will only marry into a royal house. It is tradition, it is pragmatic—and my daughter has accepted that it must be so.’
‘Sultana, I beseech you—’
‘Enough, Mehruddin Malik! We shall speak of this no more.’
Now, on the balcony, watching the hammam’s window, the wazir said things he wouldn’t dare say in front of the sultana.
‘You ungrateful hag!’ he muttered. ‘If it hadn’t been for me, your brothers-in- law would have driven you out after the sultan’s death. Your precious daughter owes me her life—but you won’t deign to give my son her hand in marriage!’
‘Your Excellency,’ said a voice from behind him. Another woman—this one a Nubian but dressed much the same as the Viking—stood at the door to the tower. ‘The beast has been put to sleep.’ Her face was pale, her skin glistening, and her cropped hair was slick against her neck. He walked up to her, his lips drawing back in a grin to reveal discoloured teeth.
‘For all the battles you’ve fought, Asmina,’ he said, cupping her chin in hispalm, ‘the sight of a little blood still nauseates you?’
‘I’m used to man killing man, Your Excellency,’ she said, trying to hide the tremor in her voice. ‘The work of beasts is something else entirely.’
The wazir faced the blonde warrior. ‘Take care of the remains of the handsome prince, Alva. Asmina shall stay by my side.’
After Alva disappeared through the doorway, Asmina’s shoulders slumped. She had been putting up a brave front before her fellow mercenary.
‘It was mimicking the prince’s dying screams when we got there, sire,’ she said. ‘For a moment, we thought he had survived!’
The wazir squeezed her shoulder and looked to the base of the tower. Soon enough, Alva appeared at the entrance and proceeded to the hammam at a jog. He stood stone-still, watching her supervise the mute slaves as they hefted what looked like red bundles of rags from the bathhouse to a waiting mule cart. Soon, the cart would be upended in the marshes south of the city.
He didn’t fidget despite his arthritic knees, despite the twinges of horror and regret that worked their way up from the depths of his being—after all, the prince had come all the way from Samarkand to meet this fate. And he had been handsome.
Perhaps now the sultana would understand that he meant business. Surely, a third suitor mysteriously disappearing from the palace should set off some alarms. Of course, she would suspect him. But Mehruddin was not just the wazir of the kingdom—he was also spymaster and master of the treasury, and the Ministry of Defence was under his brother-in-law’s command. Mehruddin Malik was the kingdom, and if he hadn’t needed royal blood on the throne to keep the people in line, he would wear the crown openly.
‘Asmina,’ he said, ‘Alva and you will follow the slaves to the marshes tonight. I don’t think I will be requiring their services any longer.’ He looked at the Nubian soldier, who had composed herself by now.
‘Yes, Your Excellency,’ she said.