Namaari brushed off the layer of dust from the Fang symbol set into a stone slab, embossed and raised from the surrounding floor.
“How long has this been here?”
“What is this even?” Raya asked, further ahead in the tunnel, torch in hand. She swung it through webs in her way. The light fell on a new set of symbols, these on the wall, mirrored on either side. Raya ran a hand tracing the edge of the symbol. A tower rising above fields. It reminded her of the main palace of Fang.
“This isn’t a crypt, is it?”
“I don’t see how it could be. Fang honours our dead with pyres.”
“Then you tell me what the foreboding tunnel marked with the Fang crest is?”
“I don’t know.”
There was the sound of boots hitting the floor behind them.
“What is the river’s course did we do?” Atitaya asked, joining them, pulling two unlit torches from her belt. Lighting them Raya’s one she did a slow turn on the spot. “When she said to come down with more light, I don’t know what I expecting but it wasn’t fully decorated architecture.”
“I told you there was a tunnel.” Namaari took the third torch from her.
“You could have been more descriptive than ‘a tunnel’.”
“Does this mean anything to you?” Raya asked, pointing to the tower symbol on the walls.
Namaari and Atitaya joined her, standing on either side of her.
“That’s a draughts marker.” Namaari cleared away some more of the dust, “This looks like Jai Fa’s.”
“It’s a stylistic technique,” Atitaya explained, looking at Raya, “Major constructions are marked with them. They’re like a stamp or a signature. Usually, any construction will have three, one for the architect, one for the head builder and one,” She gestured at the wall, “For the Chief in charge when construction began.”
“Are those what the symbols are in the plaza you showed me yesterday?”
Namaari nodded, “Each symbol is unique to the person. Some families use similar imagery but they’ll all be personalized in some way. A Chief’s symbol is something that defined their early life, a remarkable feat they did or their first major declaration when instated in as ruler.”
Atitaya’s head tilted, frowning slightly.
“What?” Namaari asked.
“That’s not Jai Fa’s symbol,” She said pointing to the top of the tower, “No horned roof on the palace. That was his first major construction as Chief. He extended the main tower and designed the roof to mirror the horns of Bulbons. This would be the symbol of his grandmother, Chief Akito.”
“Oh, you’re right.”
“That makes it 18 to 20,” Atitaya smirked at Namaari.
“That does not count.”
“Me remembering our history better than you did, Princess? It certainly counts.” Atitaya gestured further into the tunnel, “Let’s see if we can find the architect and builder symbols. We might find this place in the archives if we know who to look for.” She took the lead, forging ahead deeper in the tunnel.
“18 t 20?” Raya asked.
“It’s a thing we do, you don’t want to know,” Namaari rushed out, coughing at the end.
They didn’t have to walk long before they found another set of symbols carved into the wall. This one was a flower with six petals and a star-like pattern in the heart of it.
“I don’t recognize this one.” Atitaya turned to Namaari.
“I don’t either. The builder and architect known for working with Akito were Sakda the Shifter and Tarun. I know their symbols, they’re all over the lower levels of the palace. Neither one of them is a flower.”
“I’ve don’t think I’ve ever seen this architect’s symbol,” Atitaya said.
“How do you know it’s the architect?” Raya asked, “And not the builder?”
Namaari ran a hand along the outline of the symbol. “The outline. Here, it's faded so it will be easier if you feel it,” She took Raya’s left hand in her own, guiding it to the wall and along the edge of the stone slab where the symbol was set. “It’s like a wave, do you feel it?”
“The chief’s symbol is marked with circles. Builders are interlocking latticework, solid diagonal lines that interconnect. Architects’ are a flowing line. It’s meant to replicate the image of a brushstroke on canvas because the architects are the artist in this equation.”
Atitaya cleared her throat from behind them and Namaari let go of Raya’s hand.
“Shall we keep pressing on, see if this tunnel leads anywhere?”
“Yes, let’s,” Namaari nodded briskly.
Raya took the lead for this stretch as Atitaya fell into step with Namaari. She arched a brow.
“What was that?”
“Am I not allowed to explain our history and traditions?”
“Oh, surely you are.” Atitaya’s grin grew, “Are you going to explain to the Princess and the manner in which we cut stone for building next?”
“Maybe I will. Some people do find that thing interesting Atitaya.”
Namaari was, maybe, slightly irritated at Atitaya’s inexplicable smugness. The only thing Namaari hated more than when Atitaya was smug, was when she couldn’t read why she had reason to be smug. Telling the difference between two similar crests was maybe deserving of a point against her but surely it wasn’t why she was looking at Namaari with mischief. Atitaya wasn’t that petty.
But even that couldn’t dampen the growing curiosity for Namaari. Who knew how long it had been since someone stepped through this hall? And despite the familiarities in the Fang architecture, there was something much more indescribably strange about the place.
The tunnel began to slope down gradually, the air cooling around them. Raya stopped, holding her torch out in front of her.
“Look at the floor ahead of us.” She crouched down, holding the torch to floor level. There was a length of the floor, about three feet long and half as wide, depressed from the surrounding stone. “It looks like…” She pressed down, the section sinking further. Muffled, yet heavy sounds reached their ears. Raya shifted back as sharp twangs filled the air. But… nothing.
“What was that?” Raya asked.
“It sounded like- crossbows?” Atitaya suggested but her expression was non-pulsed. “But then, where are the bolts.”
“I’m happy there weren’t any bolts to impale me, thank you,” Raya said.
“Keep an eye out for more triggers.”
At the bottom of the slope, the smooth stone abruptly ended. For a moment Raya thought it rubble and stone collected at the bottom of the slope, but Atitaya saw it for what it was before she did.
“Well, there are the bolts we were missing,” She kicked through the small pile of metal-tipped bolts.
“I think someone else was done here before us,” Raya said, hopping over the small pile of bolts.
Looking past her Atitaya made a surprised sound in the back of her throat while Namaari gave a simple, “Oh.”
Raya approached the skeleton first, holding her torch backwards. Namaari took it for her, allowing her to kneel and examine the body.
“They’ve been here a while, whoever they were?” She moved some of the fabric around the bones, but the threads crumbled away with the slightest pull. “These might have something to do with it.” She picked up two bolts, wooden and metal-tipped.
“I guess we can thank them for setting off the traps for us,” Namaari said, a little trepidation slipping into her voice.
“There are more ahead,” Atitaya said, holding her torch out to cast its light further. “Do we keep going or should we turn back?”
“I would like to know the builder’s marker before going back.”
“We’re already this far in,” Raya said.
They passed two more bodies as they continued, the hallway getting narrower and narrower as it levelled out. It came to a point where they had to push forward single file.
“Be very careful,” Namaari warned, “This screams hidden traps.”
And the hallway kept going and going and going. The air still and stale, carrying the scent of damp earth. Just went it felt like they were getting too far in the tunnel opened out again into a small chamber. Two carvings of trees stood on opposite sides of the chambers.
“This is our builder, right?” Raya asked, tracing the interlocking lines that outlined the carving.
“I do know this one.” Namaari said, but she frowned, “Tu, but something’s wrong. Her symbol is meant to be an upside-down tree.”
“It also doesn’t make sense to have a trapped hallway that leads to nowhere,” Atitaya said, walking across the small chamber.
Raya stepped back, looking from the floor to the ceiling, “This reminds me…” She trailed off, drawing her sword. “You said this tree is usually upside down?”
“Unless this is another mason I don’t know off,” Namaari said.
Raya stabbed into a gap in the stone and pulled down. With a heavy low groan, the whole stab of stone began to rotate. Namaari’s eyes went wide and she drew her sword, doing the same on the opposite side of the room. As they turned the wall perpendicular to the symbols began to lower.
"Good thinking," Atitaya cough in some of the dust that rained down with the movement but that didn’t dissuade her from hopping the wall once it was low enough for her to do so. Once the trees were upside down and the wall, now a revealed doorway was down Raya and Namaari joined her, walking into a massive chamber.
“Another dead end?” Atitaya groaned.
“No, there must be something.” Namaari walked in further, lifting her torch high above her head.
Raya walked to the walls. There was a detailed carving of the Fang capitol on one wall although with much fewer buildings than the present-day Fang had and then two landscapes on the adjacent walls. These were intricate and obviously crafted with care.
“Does this look familiar to you?” Raya asked, standing in front one of the landscapes, a waterfall and small pond surrounded by trees.
“I don’t think so.”
Namaari joined her, standing shoulder to shoulder.
“What do you think this place is?” Raya asked.
“I wish I knew.”
Suddenly there was a low groan. Both princesses turned on their heels. Atitaya on the far side of the room, looking down at her feet. She looked up, eyes wide.
The groan turned into a heavy thrum as vibrations began to rumble the floor under their feet. Raya was already bolting to the door. Parts of the floor started to give way underfoot.
“Namaari, move!” Atitaya shouted, running to the doorway too. Namaari was watching the floor falling away around Atitaya. The sound of her voice, stern and desperate got her to move, following hot on Raya’s heels.
Outside the room, the vibrations weren’t as acute. Namaari turned around, her arm stretched out. Atitaya was there. Almost there. She was almost there. But then she wasn’t.
The floor was gone. Falling out under her feet.
The metallic impact of metal on stone and the blur of Raya went past Namaari’s eyes. She dived after Atitaya. There was a sick sense of vertigo as Namaari looked at them both fall into darkness.
Then there was a wrecked cry, Raya and Atitaya both, as they grabbed each other arms, the force of their fall stopped suddenly as the grapple went taunt. For a few moments, there was only the sound of their echoing pants in the chamber.
Atitaya pulled herself up so she was holding the hilt above Raya’s hand. “That’s the second time today you’ve gotten me out of trouble.” She said, “I owe you.”
Raya gave a bit of a muted laugh, “Nah. Just annoy Namaari for me and we’ll call it even.”
“I can hear you.” Namaari’s voice called down. “Are you okay?” She dropped down to her knees, leaning over the edge where a floor had been moments before.
“My arm’s going to hurt tomorrow,” Atitaya called up.
“That all?” Namaari said.
She was holding her torch out, to illuminate as much as she could. She could see Raya and Atitaya hanging in the air. Below them about ten feet or were long, thin protruding spikes. For a moment Namaari blinked, unable to process how the floor was reflecting the fire light. But with the way it rolled and bobbed she understood what it was. Water. Disturbed by the collapse of the floor this layer of water was churning from the debris. But there was something else under the water.
“What can you see down there?” Namaari asked.
“You mean besides the drop that could have killed us?”
“Do you see something in the water?”
As the surface of the water calmed, with the torchlight it was difficult to see through to the bottom.
“Raya, that ledge,” Atitaya gestured with her chin. Raya nodded and began pumping her legs. Atitaya joined her, their momentum allowing them to reach a small outcropping of stone several feet below Namaari. From there, borrowing Raya’s sword she lowered herself into the water, diving under the surface. When her head broke the surface again, she held up a clenched fist.
“We need to go to your mother, tonight.”
“What is it?” Namaari asked.
She threw it for Raya, several small items that scattered in the air. Raya managed to catch about three out of the air, the rest clattering with small metallic chimes around her.
“It's gold and jade,” She called up.
From the water, Atitaya’s grin was wide, “You know what this means, don’t you?”
“That,” Namaari shook her head, “No, it’s a myth.”
“I would have said the same thing this morning. But we’re standing in it Namaari.”
“What?” Raya’s neck craned to keep up with both sides of this conversation, “What are we standing in?”
“We need to tell my mother.”
“That’s what I said.” Atitaya swam to the wall, beginning to climb up.
"Why do we need to tell the chief? What did we find?"
“Let’s get out of this hole and we’ll explain it.”
They did just that, Raya and Atitaya climbing back up to Namaari and then making their way back from where they came. Namaari explained as they walked.
“Akito was one of the more divisive leaders in Fang’s history. She was the one who began the construction of the palace that became a symbol for our people. But she was also known as the woman who squandered the treasures of Fang. Her father and grandfather before her had amassed quite the fortune for Fang, but in her time the treasuries were almost depleted. The reason given for it was the palace and other constructions she commissioned were expensive.”
“But there was a rumour there was another reason the treasuries emptied under her rule,” Atitaya said.
“The rumour was she build three treasure vaults, divided treasure and hide it away.”
“And we just found one of those vaults?” Raya glanced back.
“All the signs point that way,” Atitaya said, tapping the wall near the symbol of Akito, “Even if this isn’t that, the jade in there could go a long way to helping our expansion.”
“But if there are three vaults then that means there are two more out there?”
“Possibly.” Namaari nodded. She was smiling. “This is a good sign. I feel it.”
Despite it being after sunset neither Namaari nor Atitaya wanted to wait until the morning. From where they were it was a two hour ride by serlot and Tuk Tuk to the capital. Virana was dressed for bed, but still up went they arrived. It took her a moment to calm Namaari and Atitaya enough to stop their words overlapping.
“Are you sure of this?” She asked when they explained what they’d found.
“Mythical vault or not, there is coin in there,” Namaari said.
“Hard to say, the chamber was flooded,” Atitaya said, “But at the very least, it’s a start.”
“Mother, if this is what we think it is and the rumours are true, there is enough jade sitting somewhere to fund the expansion, reconstruction and any projects we could have for the next five years.”
“It is tempting, but we need to be careful. With the Scales in our borders if word gets out we’ll be in competition for our own jade.”
“But we’re going to look for it, aren’t we?” Namaari asked.
“We stumbled into one by complete accident. The other two won’t be so easy and we can’t prioritize a man search over construction.”
“Mother, we need the jade if we’re to continue construction.”
“Namaari, you know what is the most important thing right now.”
Namaari exhaled through her nose, “The people.”
“This is not a no, dear.”
“We need to think more carefully before we decide a plan.”
“Exactly,” Virana nodded, “We’ll start with the vault we do know about and assess again once we know what we’ve gained from it. What did you tell the workers at the site?”
“Oh, with everything else, I forgot, the reason we found the vault was a sinkhole opened up in a spot we’d been digging. One of the workers was injured. They’re moving him in the morning. Can Doctor Khamla see to him?”
Virana nodded, “I’ll see to it.”
Once they’d filled her in of any other details she didn’t know Virana sent them all to bed. Raya was shown to a guest-chamber near Namaari’s. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Namaari and Atitaya go into the princess’ room together, still discussing their find with excitement.
Raya followed the servant into her room and their voices became muted, distance. And there it was, Raya felt a sting in her chest, not for first time. Over the past days Raya had watched Namaari move among her people with such familiar ease. It was most prevalent with Atitaya who she spoke with freely, laughter in their conversations often.
Raya didn’t have anything similar in Heart. Most faces and voices she’d known hadn’t changed at all. That was the problem. Raya had changed. She’d changed, grown in more ways than just physically. It was a harsh disconnect for those who, to them, Raya had been a young girl only a few months ago.
The person it had affected the most was her father. He was still her Ba. Their connection was there. But everytime he looked at Raya nod it was a mixture of pride and deep sadness. The sorrow from their missed time, not that he ever voiced it, but Raya knew. She felt the same.
The pride he turned her way was its own kind of blade. She expected warmth went she saw it. It was certainly with warmth that he gazed upon her. But by the time it reached Raya, it only left her chilled. His pride beamed so bright because she’d done the thing he’d wanted so for long, to bring Kumandra back.
But he didn’t know she’d tossed that idea aside less than a year into being on her own. He shouldn’t have pride when she, the leader of their people in his absence, had done for them. She’d almost failed, almost destroyed any chance they had when she went after Namaari in a blind rage. His pride was so hard to accept when in it, she only saw all the ways she’d failed.
Raya tried to put her thoughts aside. Thoughts of her Ba. The way there was a moment when, for people she used to see every day, didn’t recognize her when she stepped into a room. The way she burned what Namaari had with her people. The way she wished had an Atitaya to confide in, to laugh with, to tease and just be at ease with.
Yet, sleep eluded her. The bed extended on all sides around her, a lake she was adrift in. Beds were another stranger she’d found after five years being on her own. They felt too soft, too big, too…strange. When she was at home in Heart, she’d taken to laying her blanket on the floor to sleep. Her Ba had caught like that once, and he, bless him, hadn’t commented. Only kissed her good night and took his leave.
Raya gave up on sleep at some point, slipping from her room to walk out in the open air. She closed her eyes, breathing in deeply, filling her lungs with the cool night air. She wished she’d paid better attention to where they’d been going when they’d arrived so she could retrace their steps to the stables. Tuk Tuk helped her sleep the best these days. But she’d been too caught up in Namaari and Atitaya’s excitement then.
“Are you too excited to sleep too?”
Raya jumped, hand reaching for her sword, only to dimly remember she didn’t have it when she grasped air where she expected to find the hilt.
Namaari, looking soft in her sleepwear and her eyes still carrying the faint traces of sleep was walking towards her. She smiled, head tilting to the side.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.”
It was an obvious lie and they both knew it. Namaari took some mercy on Raya and didn’t push it further.
“I still can’t believe our luck, to fall into Akito’s vault.”
“Certainly not something you see every day.”
“I know mother is right about where our focus needs to be. We need to make sure our people have places to live before anything else. But, well, there’s this myth about the vaults, that Akito hid the fortunes of Fang to await a ruler of the tribe worthy of the riches. It feels like fate, that we find it now.”
Raya nodded, not knowing what else to say. Namaari seemed to pick up on it.
“You’re don’t really want to listen to me go on about a Fang treasure.”
“No, no, it's fine. I feel invested in this now. I am genuinely interested in it.” That wasn’t a lie. But she was hedging around the truth.
“But it's not the reason you can’t sleep, is it?” Namaari asked, picking up on the things Raya didn’t say.
She sighed and shook her head.
“Do you want to talk about what is keeping you up?”
And, to her surprise, Raya found she did. She really did.