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Fractures

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Crossing the Kuokilwan River put them properly in the nestled forest lands to the direct south of Fang’s island. The bridge under their mounts still smelt of fresh-cut wood. A temporary construction Namaari called it. Raya had to laugh at that.

“Do Fang’s masons and architects know the concept of restrain?”

Namaari covered her face but didn’t do a good enough job to hide the flush to her cheeks. “It needs to be sturdy if we’re going to transport lumber and stone across.”

Raya only shook her head the response.

Fang was taking down the forest in sections with linking path cleared in-between them.

“We learnt our lesson about working with the land when we made the canal,” Namaari explained. “It took us a year longer to complete than expected because we cleared too much vegetation away and kept having the land collapse into the water, reversing our work.”

Even at a glance Raya could see the marked paths for roadways and buildings. After enough time spent looking she could piece together in her mind the way each section would stretch out like the spokes in a wagon wheel. There were some buildings set up already. From the designs, Raya guessed it was mostly storerooms and barracks.  

Namaari had a quick conversation with someone before leading them to one of the barracks. “This one is yours,” She said to the Ta family, “I know it isn’t much, but I hope you can find your home with us. Please, rest tonight and tomorrow you can talk to Chayan and she can help with organising a more permanent plot.”

“Thank you for doing this. I know I asked so much of you today but I wish you nothing but good fortune in your new home.” Raya said.

Quy and his brother only acknowledged them with quick nods, some sour emotions still evident on their faces.  His wife thanked them and gave a quick bow. Some of the children followed her lead while others were already busy with off-loading their things.

“So, the chances of one of them coming after me in my sleep. What do you think? 50/50?” Raya asked Namaari in a whisper as they were walking away.

“I’d say more like 70/30 odds,” Namaari whispered back.

“Oh good. Wait, is the 70 for killing me or not killing me?”

“Killing you.”

“Great. I’ll be sleeping with my eyes open.”

Namaari laughed, “I saw how one handled a rake, if that’s who you fall to I’m going to be personally insulted.”

Raya snorted, “You’ll be insulted.”

“After all the times we fought, if you die so easily it’s going to reflect poorly on me.” 

“Oh no, we can’t have the image of Princess Undercut be tarnished. Not like you’re already doing that with the cat lady thing.”

“Hey, you leave Sinn out of it,” She hummed, scratching the neck of her serlot, “She’s my best girl.” Sinn purred, leaning into the touch. Namaari looked at Raya, “While you’re here, would you like a tour?”

“I’d be remiss to pass on seeing Fang engineering up close.”

Namaari pulled herself into the saddle and Raya followed suit. She led the way through future roads, describing the buildings that would stand there. They passed the half-built docks, some of the builders calling out to Namaari as they did.

“Here, let me show you something,” Namaari said, as they rode up one of the few two-storey buildings in the area. Inside the walls were lined with schematics and lists. There was a map spread on a table. Leaning on the edge of it she nodded Raya closer.

The map was a detailed map of Fang’s territory, “Here and here are the main areas we’re developing settlements,” She said pointing to the spot they were in and an area to the northwest. Her fingers trailed across to the peninsula directly southeast of Fang’s island, “And we’re working on irrigation canals through the land here to expand our farms.”

Raya looked up from the map, a brow arched, “Fang’s getting into agriculture?”

“Assassins and architecture will only get us so far. If we’re going to bring something to the table for Kumandra, we need to be able to stand on our own feet.”

“So you’re going for the triple threat.”

“Or at the very least the ability to provide for our people if the other tribes won’t help.”

“You know we won’t abandon you. We’re all Kumandra.”

Namaari hummed thoughtfully, “I wish I could believe that. But I just can’t. It’s why we’re trying to move quickly. Even in the worst case, this harmony will last for some time. No one wants to be the idiot who risks the Druun returning by breaking our peace.”

“The worst case isn’t going to happen.” Raya placed a hand on Namaari’s arm, “We’ll see to that. But you need to believe in Kumandra. In all of it.”

Namaari exhaled through her nose and smiled faintly, “I do owe you at least that.”

Footsteps drew their attention and a Fang soldier entered the room with a bow, “Princesses. I’ve brought you your evening meal.” He was holding two bowls of a thin soup in his hands.

They accepted them with ‘thank you’s and Namaari nodded to the stairs, “My quarters are upstairs.”

The upstairs was divided into a few rooms. Raya counted two bed-chambers from what she could see, both spars in furniture. A simple straw matting and beddings tucked into corner. One room had a worn serlot saddle propped against the wall. There was a common area, more sketched plans spread out over the table. Namaari flushed and quickly moved to tidy the table making room for them to sit. They sat on opposite sides of the table.

“Have you seen Sisu lately?” Raya asked. That led to a conversation catching each other up on their friends and the other tribes. Sisu was fleeting with her appearances for Namaari as she was for Raya but neither found themselves feeling rejected by her absence.

“She wants to see how the world has changed in the last five hundred years. I don’t blame her.”

Namaari was genuinely excited to hear about Noi, Tong and Boun, even if she hesitated to ask. In turn, Raya admitted with an embarrassed smile she didn’t know what was happening in the other tribes from a political standing.

“I’ve been away from home for a few weeks.” She tried to shrug it off.

“Dang Hai and Dang Hu still haven’t decided who the official leader is.”

Raya groaned at this, dropping her head onto the table, “Ba has been trying to get a council going for weeks with the other leaders. They’re the reason it keeps stalling.”

“At least we know they’re both too stubborn to try co-ruling.”

“If it were up to me, I’d make someone new Talon’s chief.” Bitterness seeped into her words. It almost jarred Namaari, the venom ringing in Raya's voice.

“I know why you don’t like Dang Hai, but what did Hu do to you?”

“She almost turned Sisu to stone trying to get the location of the stone pieces from her.”

Namaari clicked her tongue against her teeth, “Ruthless, that woman. Even by Talon’s standards.”

Raya unconsciously rolled her shoulder touching it briefly. As their conversation had shifted focus to Talon and its leaders she'd hunched down more and more. She hadn’t taken a mouthful in that time either, her spoon just pushing around the bamboo in the soup. Namaari glanced to Raya’s other hand on the table. There was a moment’s hesitation, where she considered offering comfort. But Namaari wasn’t the person to do that. Not for Raya. She offered an apology instead.

“I shouldn’t have brought up Talon. I should have known after what happened you’re still-”

“No,” Raya cut her off, “I’m fine. We’re Kumandra now. What happened is in the past. It was years ago.”

Namaari fiddled with the edge of the table and said nothing more on the topic, they just finished their meals.

"I'm sorry I can't offer more," Namaari said as she watched Raya scrape the last of her soup into her mouth.

"Are you kidding? I usually eat jerky when I'm away from home. Just having a warm meal is amazing."  

"But still. We've had to ration out meals more often than I would like," she sighed, pressed her middle and index finger against her brow. "Morale takes a hit every time we do. But we have no choice. We've been hit by the Scales a few times." 

"The Fallen Scales? In Fang?"

"There have been instances of supplies vanishing without a trace. We strongly suspect the Scales." 

The Fallen Scales were the whispered shadow sixth tribe of their lands. Mothers told their children tales about the Scales lurking in darkness, waiting to steal naughty children away in the night. The stories told of the shadow tribe using dark magic and allying themselves with the Druun, gaining some of their power. It was all tall tales, mostly, told to children to keep them from wandering too far home and from causing trouble.

However, the Fallen Scales were very real. They were less a sixth shadow tribe and more smaller pockets of exiles and deserters from the tribes. Fallen Scales had once been the term for anyone exiled for their crimes and over time naturally became attributed to anyone or group who lived outside of a tribe. Each pocket very rarely interacted with each other and on even rarer occasions allied with each other. Forming too large of a group would make it harder to mask their tracks. 

"I've had my fair share of run-ins with them over the years, but I didn't think there were Scales here in Fang." 

The Scales never seemed to settle in any one place, the stability of a home too much of a risk for groups that were mostly criminals. They gravitated towards areas less cultivated, in the deepest parts of the bamboo forests of Spine, in the sweltering heat of Tail. There were some rumours they had an underground city under Talon but then there were a lot of rumours about Talon. Heart and Fang had been the most resistant to their presence but after the day the world broke there was no longer anyone to keep them out of Heart. Fang remained the one tribe resilient enough to consistently weed out their presence in their borders.

"Namaari, why does your mother keep ask me about your health? Please write to her if you're not going to take the time to go home. And I don't mean just progress reports." General Atitaya walked into the room, pausing when she saw Raya there, "Forgive me, Princess, I didn't realize you had a guest. Princess Raya, my apologies."

"No, no. Come join us. I was just telling Raya about the Scales."

She took a seat next to Namaari glancing between the two women. "You were?"

"Have they stolen from the encampment?" Raya asked. 

"A few times. At first, we suspected someone among us, but the investigation cleared everyone. The camp was much smaller at that point and easier to keep track of everyone's movements. Sometimes shipments are attacked, the guards knocked out before they know what hit them."

"I didn't think the Scales were bold enough to get anywhere near a settlement. Let alone in Fang." Raya perched her chin on a hand, her attention shifting from Namaari to empty space above her head as she thought, "Every time I've encountered Scales it’s far from any cities. The exception being when I found some in Heart's empty city." Her hand unconsciously moved to cover her neck as the memory came back, "They nearly killed me that time. Ironically if Druun hadn't appeared I would have been done for. I also learned that day the rumours of them having powers from the Druun were untrue. They'll turn to stone the same as anyone else. They're getting bolder if they're stealing from large camps."

"They sense our weakness in the wake of the Druun and are using it to their advantage. We have every able-bodied person working on construction here or at home. We just don't have the numbers to do that and protect the borders. Reconstruction needs to be our priority. But we can't afford to keep losing food."

"I know being open to help from the other tribes is still new to all of us, but have you considered asking for food?”

“Everyone has more mouths to feed, Raya. And unlike Heart, we don’t have untouched treasuries to afford the cost of the little surplus there is. As it is Spine is bleeding us for their bamboo shoots.”

Okay, Raya had known her father dipped into their reserves to buy grains and other food for their people but she hadn’t realized the cost cut into purses that deeply.

“I- I didn’t realize. Fang’s always seemed so secure.”

“That canal didn’t get built with just good intentions and with the other tribes reluctant to trade with us the past years we haven’t have the opportunity to replace what we depleted.”

“Princess Namaari, might I have a word?” Atitaya asked, already standing.

Namaari nodded, following her lead.

“Excuse us a moment, Princess Raya,” Atitaya with a quick bow.

Atitaya led the way outside, turning on her heels to face Namaari.

“Is this one of my ‘I’m in trouble’ talks?” Namaari asked, a bit of smirk playing on her lips.

“Do you think it’s wise to discuss Fang’s issues so openly with the Heart Princess?”

“From the tone of your question, I’m going to assume you’re of the stance that it is not.”

“In this time of transition, we don’t want the other tribes to see us as weak.”

“Raya won’t judge us like that.”

“Princess Raya isn’t the only one we have to worry about.”

“Atitaya, sometimes to forge trust one must take a leap without being certain there will someone to catch you on the other side. Raya taught me that. If we want to make this world a better place for the next generation of Fang to grow up in sometimes we’ll be the ones taking the leap.”

“You trust the other tribes not to exploit our weaknesses?”

“For now, I trust that Raya and Heart won’t. You know I’d never take a half thought out risk with Fang at sake.”

“No. But you would take one with yourself.” Atitaya looked back in the direction they’re left Raya, “Do you trust her not to hurt you?”

Namaari inhaled a sharp breath and couldn’t stop herself from looking back as well.

“Raya was the one who took the risk in our relationship and got hurt for it. I’m just repaying her for everything I’ve done.”

When she looked back Atitaya was burning into her with her gaze.  

“Stop,” Namaari said, “I am fine.”

“Are you?”

“Yes.”

“I just don’t want to see you hurt.”

“If that were true you wouldn’t knock me on my ass with cheap tricks when we spar.”

“Emotionally hurt I mean. I’m fine with any physical bruises as long as I’m the ones giving them to you. And why are they only cheap tricks when I use them?”

“Because when I use them, it’s with finesse.”

Atitaya snorted at that. Without warning, she spun on her heels, sweeping low. Namaari jumped the sweep, striking out with the back of her palm in the same motion. Atitaya deflexed the hit. Pressing a step forward, Namaari moved to her side, grabbing her arm. Atitaya rolled into the grab, striking backwards. Her elbow collided with Namaari’s stomach, knocking the wind from her. Namaari grabbed her around the neck, holding firm.

Atitaya kicked off the ground, but Namaari stepped back with the momentum.

“Not this time. It hurt like a bitch last time you flipped me.” Namaari said.

Atitaya laughed, tapping Namaari’s wrist. Namaari let her go.

“That’s 20 to 16. Are you trying to pay for the drinks this month?”

“I’ll get you next time.”

“You’ll try,” Namaari replied smugly.

For anyone else, an unprovoked strike against the princess would have been a crime punishable by imprisonment. But it was par for the course for Namaari and Atitaya. They had a long, deep friendship forged by years and experiences. One that began when they joined the army on the same day.

It was Fang law that every able-bodied person serve in their army for at least two years. The reasoning behind it being Fang would be able to call upon most of the population to defend it if the need arose. Once someone had completed their training and the two years of service they were given a discharge or could continue on with the army if they wished. Admittance to the army began at age 17. The one exception to that age limit being the royal family.

It was Fang tradition the royal family join the army once their private tutors believed they’d achieved a proficiency in their combat that allowed them to keep up with the army’s training regime. The majority of the royal family joined the army around ages fifteen or sixteen. The rare and gifted ones joined at a younger age. Virana, Namaari’s mother had joined at twelve.

Namaari joined at ten.

She was the youngest to join the army, sharing the achievement with her ancestor Jai Fa one of the most prolific Fang leaders in history who’d ruled 300 years ago. Her age put a spotlight on the young Namaari. Yet not all of the attention she gathered was favourable. Her age and status caused many to approach her with trepidation, pulling their punches during sparring or giving her special treatment when on training exercises. Some went in the opposite direction, jealous and spiteful they took it out on her in the ring, aggressively taking advantage of her limited reach and smaller frame. Atitaya did neither. She approached her as an equal and yes, while at first, her older body gave her the advantage in their bouts it didn’t take Namaari long to develop skills that made up the shortcoming.

If her opponent had the longer reach she wouldn’t try to bridge the distance. She’d make them come to her. Having to aim forward and down to hit her shifted their center of gravity forward. With the right footwork, her opponents would go stumbling off balance. She learned to deal with those who came at her with spite. Blinded by aggression they only came harder and faster and it was all the easier to topple them.

But not Atitaya. Never Atitaya. Ever time Namaari figured out a way to counter Atitaya, she’d adapt to Namaari in turn. So they’d go, until Namaari’s skill (and height) grew to such an extent Atitaya physical advantages were negligible. At that point, it stopped being Namaari chasing after Atitaya and the pair pulling each other along. Their repartee began in the ring but it very quickly outgrew those confines.

They weren’t quite friends, not at first. Their difference in social standing and age placing just a bit too much between them to call their early days friendship. It was more of a mutual respect and utter fascination (at least on Namaari’s end for the latter). Polite conversations became gentle ribbing, which became less gentle ribbing. They didn’t start as friends, but it was inevitable.

The passing years only forged their connection stronger. Atitaya remained with the army after her two years passed. She was flourishing in it. Already clear she was a skilled warrior, her keen mind and natural tactical instincts only drew more attention to her.

Virana already had one eye on Atitaya even before she and her daughter became friends. As chief, Virana made a point to spend time with the next generation of Fang, taking note of the exceptional seeds in any crop so they could be fostered properly. Atitaya caught her attention early and seeing how she interacted with Namaari only cemented the notions she had about her. She was sure she’d not only be an important voice to help pull Fang forward, but she’d also be an invaluable ally and advisor to Namaari when her daughter eventually took leadership. Some people whispered about Virana’s personal interest in Atitaya’s career and cited her friendship with the princess as the reasoning but Atitaya’s track record proved those statements had no merit in public discourse.

After eight years, Princess Namaari and her friend Atitaya became Princess Namaari and General Atitaya. In the two years since Atitaya had proven to be one of Fang’s most efficient Generals, a valuable advisor to Virana and continual catalyst to Namaari, second only to her mother in her ability to develop her rationale. Second to none in her ability challenge her physically. Or at least that had been true until Raya reemerged and fate seemed set to cross their paths as often as possible.

“There’s a week left. I’ve got time to catch up.” Atitaya smirked, “And when I win this month, we’re going back home for drinks with Kusa.”

Namaari groaned.

“I don’t know why you’re avoiding your mother but I won’t have it. Whenever she can’t find you I’m the one she interrogates.”

“I’m not avoiding her.”

“No, of course not. You just refuse to go home.”

“There is a lot of work to be done. Speaking of, do you think Raya will stay to help?”

“I can’t say I know the Heart Princess well enough to comment on her thoughts.”

“But you always have an opinion on everything.”

“A fact you usually detest.”

“What? No. Only when you tell me what I don’t want to hear.”

“This may be one of those times.”

“And when have you hesitated to tell me something I don’t want to hear?”

Atitaya sighed, “I just worry you want different things.”

“Raya and I?”

Atitay nodded.

“And how do our wants differ?”

“I think Raya wants to foster the relations between Fang and Heart.”

“I want that too.”

“Princess Namaari wants that. Just Namaari wants her guilt assuaged.”

Namaari’s jaw clenched for a beat.

“I told you wouldn’t like it.”

“The other tribes were just as a fault as we were.”

“There is no doubt about that,” Atitaya said, “but that doesn’t change the fact you continue to carry your burden. You have nothing to be forgiven for Namaari. Back then you did what you believed to be the best thing for Fang. That has not changed after all these years. The only thing that has changed is our understanding of what the best thing is. We were ignorant and yes, a little arrogant. And you were a child.”

“Don’t use that old argument,” Namaari looked away, “I understood perfectly what I was doing.”

Atitaya held Namaari chin, turning back to face her, “What happened happened,” She said, repeating words she wasn’t saying to Namaari for the first time and probably not for the last time. “We can do nothing more than move forward. There is no fixing our mistakes, only working to make the future better.” She smiled and for the first time added a new part of this speech, “For the first time in six years…no even longer than, we have the best chance of making a good future for Fang. For all the people of Kumandra. You don’t need to seek forgiveness. But, if you were to ask me, the best way to earn that forgiveness is to make sure you never need to ask for it again. We learn from our mistakes, but don’t dwell on them.”

Atitaya squeezed Namaari’s shoulder, leaving her to think on her words. Looking up to the sky Namaari sighed, pinching her nose, “Mother, I’ll never forgive you for making the most impossible person to argue with our general.”

When she returned to their quarters Raya and Atitaya were conversing about Fang’s planned agricultural expansion. Raya was asking questions about the crops they were planning on planting.

A thoughtful expression crossed Raya’s face, “You already have your pepper crops. If Fang can’t afford to pay for food in jade, why not offer a trade?”

“Our chillies have traded never well during times of famine and limited resources,” Namaari said, joining them at the table, “It’s seen more as a luxury good. In a way it is, it flavours the meal, but outside of Fang is rarely the main feature of a dish. When times are hard, the luxury of added flavour is the first thing to be cut from the budget. It will probably be a while before we can start trading with our chillies in earnest again.”

Raya hummed, “Everyone is trying to get their feet under them. Buying a luxury good would signal to the other tribes ‘our strength hasn’t wavered. If you play it the right way to Spine you could trade your chilli for their bamboo. The other tribes might follow suit.”

“You’re suggesting we sell the perception of prosperity to the other tribes?” Namaari asked.

“That’s, honestly pretty ingenious,” Atitaya said, “And more devious than I’d expect of someone from Heart.”

Raya shrugged, “I spent days on a boat with a restaurant owner and a con baby. I learnt from them the experience of what you’re offering is as important as the thing as itself. My Ba wouldn’t necessarily agree with the intentions, but even he would have to admit both sides get something from the trade.”

“My mother would love this idea.”

“It is an avenue to consider, at least,” Atitaya offered Raya a smile, “Thank you, Princess.”

“Just Raya please,” She shook her shoulders as though she were shaking that word off of her.

“Then, Raya, thank you.” Atitaya nodded to her, “Namaari your idea to ask her to stay will be even more beneficial than we first anticipated.”

“You want me to stay?” Raya burst out.

Namaari’s head snapped to Atitaya, glaring at her. Atitaya’s head cocked to the side and her smile grew. She arched one brow in challenge.

“I-I was,” Naamaari cleared her throat, “I think it will be good if we presented a united front. Heart helping Fang. We’ll of course return the favour and help you in any way we can.  Obviously, you have good advice to offer. And you mentioned some run ins with the Scales. I’d like to pick your brain on what you know of them. My personal experience with them is limited. Atitaya had encounters with them, but those past experiences haven’t been as helpful lately.”

“We know how to repeal them. But now that they have a foothold, we’ve on uneven ground and they’re at the advantage.” Atitaya added.

Raya thought for a moment, “The Scales were affected by the Druun, same as us all. They’ve got more mouths to feed now too. It would explain why they’ve been so bold. They’re desperate. But that also means more bodies, more tracks. The old saying goes Fallen Scales rattle when there are too many in one bag. No matter how good they are at covering their tracks, they’re going to be sloppy and leave something behind. They’d probably stick to the deeper parts of the jungle but some are venturing out to steal. That’s one place to start.”

Atitaya looked at Namaari. “I like her.”

 “Oh, thank you.” Raya beamed.

Namaari spluttered.