Prologue

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Merina Empire, 1895

A cool zephyr tugged at the branches of the jungle trees while making its way through the valley and beyond. As the leaves danced with the passing breeze, the morning sunlight filtered through the foliage, causing a myriad of shadows in the vale below. It was one perfect morning of hundreds, thousands, in the carefully maintained valley. There was vibrancy in this morning, making it stand out from its predecessors; a subtle difference that only denizens of the jungle would know.

The hint of fresh beginnings brought on from the late December showers the night before was more of a demand on this particular morning. The melodious call of songbirds flitting through the trees seemed to have an orchestrated purpose. The sigh of the wind was one of relief, as if resting, after completing a masterpiece. It seemed as if the jungle could sense change in the air, and the world strove at perfecting one last morning before it arrived.

The heat of the day was already permeating the thick canopy of trees, causing a mist to settle on the jungle floor. The mud on the small mountain trail was thick and slippery, churned from the boots of the Merinite fighters that used it to reach the beach the night before. Feeling confident that the enemy fighters had long since passed this portion of the jungle, the young French scout absently scraped the mud from the bottom of his boot. He carefully scanned the trail side, searching for signs of the small hidden path that would lead to his destination.

He found some markings that were barely discernable, indicating the entrance to the secret path, and the scout pushed through the brush to find a rough trail of stone and mud winding up the mountainside. The jungle encroached upon the trail, as if trying to reclaim the small swath of civilization, but the path was easy enough to follow once he had found it; navigating it was a different matter. Before too long, the scout was winded from the exertion of traversing the path. The steep incline, as it led to the base of the escarpment that separated the fertile lowlands of Atsinanana from the highlands of Alaotra Mangoro, coupled with the small gullies and fallen trees that had intersected the trail, made for an exhausting hike.

She always did enjoy being as far from humanity as possible, the scout thought, as he entered a small clearing at the trail's end. On the far end of the dell, a small hut made of mud, brick and thatch was nestled in between two large Traveler's Palms. The scout thought it odd that the palms were so far from the coast, but when she was involved, Nature seemed to accommodate her wants and needs. Across the clearing, opposite of her hut, was an impressive view of the lowlands. Smoke and haze could be seen on the horizon as a result from last night's battle, and the formations of French soldiers were in clear view, making their way north. The scout smiled. She keeps far from humanity; but still keeps an eye on them.

As the scout approached the squat hut, he noticed a movement above the door. A large, reticulated python was entwined in the cross beam above the hatch, barely noticeable until he was directly in front of the small shanty. Its eyes considered the intruder as he approached. As if recognizing him, it pulled its head back in line with its body, and once again blended in with the thatch on the roof. Casting the snake one last, admiring look, the scout entered the hut.

The interior was much as the scout had imagined it would be. With the exception of a small, wood-framed cot in the corner the room, it was devoid of furniture and it looked much more spacious than it did from outside. The center of the ceiling was opened up to the sky, allowing the smoke from a small fire in the room's center to rise up and escape from the shack. The air in the enclosure had a strong odor of burnt wood, mildew, and a smell the scout didn't recognize; combining into a sickly, sweet and faintly acrid scent.

A young, black woman sat cross-legged next to the fire, staring intently at the flames. As the scout entered, she stood in one fluid motion, and with the grace of a predator, walked towards him with a smile. The scout stood just inside of the doorway, waiting for her to approach. He examined her lithe frame as she walked towards him, noting that her gait was more of a stalking lion than that of a welcoming host. The beads on her leather vest made soft clicking noises as she walked, and the feathers tied into the hem of her cotton skirt bounced with each gentle sway of her hips. She centered herself on the scout, a full foot shorter than him, and had to stand on the tips of her toes to raise her hand to his face. With a soft brush of her hand, she gently caressed his cheek and then traced his jawline with her finger down to his lips.

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