The breeze pushed Namaari’s hair across her face where she sat. It was already cooling with the evening, even though was some sunlight left in the day. She listened to the sounds of conversation filled the air. The warmth of the fire played on her face, even though she sat some distance from the center of the square. From her spot she could see Boun spooning out some food into the bowls of a couple of the kids she’d escorted with Raya a few weeks back. Heart and Tail kids, sitting at the table in Fang. It was an impossible concept to wrap her mind around. A few years ago this would have been inconceivable. Actually, make that a few months ago.
“Do you want another?”
Raya sat down next to Namaari, startling her out of her thoughts. Raya snickered.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Namaari found herself unreasonably irritated by Raya's smug expression. Yet, also bashful. “You didn’t.”
“Sure,” She tapped Namaari’s empty bowl, “Do you want another? I can get you one.”
“Oh. No. Thank you.”
Raya shrugged, “Suit yourself. You’re missing out.” She helped herself to a large mouthful from her own bowl. Namaari stared at her long enough for Raya to stop chewing. She swallowed and wiped her chin before asking, “What?”
“Just a small bit of advice, since you want my help. Princesses don’t eat like that. It’s considered bad table manners.”
“I don’t see a table right now. Do you?”
Namaari laughed at that.
“I thought you wanted my help.”
“Yeah. With the stuff that’s actually important. Talking to people. Knowing what a good trade deal is. Who’s going to care how I eat?”
“You’ll be surprised.”
Raya rolled her eyes, “Fine. Show me how to eat like a dignified princess.”
“For one, don’t stuff your face. And you don’t have to hold your spoon like a dagger. No one is trying to steal your food.” She adjusted Raya’s grip.
“You’re not living in the wilds anymore.”
“…How did you know that was what I was going to say?”
Namaari shrugged, “Lucky guess.”
Raya took another bite, looking at Namaari, “Do I pass?”
“You’ll get there. And sit up straight.”
Raya groaned, “I take it back. I don’t want your help.”
“Good posture isn’t just good etiquette. It helps overall balance and that will be useful in fights in the long run.”
“Oh, so you’re saying I would have kicked your ass even more if I hadn’t gotten the habit of slouching these past years.”
Namaari shoved her shoulder, “Cocky.”
“I’m just saying,” Raya laughed. She finished her food and nudged Namaari’s foot with her own when she caught her looking at the crowd intently. “So, is this the part where I say I told you so?”
“And when you admit I was right about the rice. Everyone is enjoying the food. I knew getting Boun’s family to cook something was a good idea.”
“We’re going to pay you back. Properly. That doesn’t count.” Namaari pointed at her bracelet that was now on Raya’s upper arm.
“We can count princess lessons as the payment.”
Namaari snorted, “That definitely isn’t a fair trade.”
“I don’t know. You make me think I need them even more. Considering you’ve insulted how I eat and sit,” Raya leaned back on her elbows, watching the fire.
“I didn’t- It wasn’t meant as an insult.”
“I’m teasing.” Raya nudged her foot again, “If I keep taking your lessons, am I going to be as high strung as you?”
Namaari’s cheeks bloomed red and her voice pitched up, “I’m not high strung.”
“Sure. So you say.”
Music had started up. A few people sitting near the fire playing a lively tune. Raya laughed as she watched Boun’s older sister pulled him out to dance. His cheeks burned and he was stumbling over his feet. But he looked like he was having fun. More people got up, joining in the dance.
“Reminds me of Sisu,” Namaari said.
“Sisu isn’t as nearly coordinated with human feet.”
Namaari chuckled, “That’s probably true.”
She bit her bottom lip, looking at Raya.
Raya was looking at the crowd, tapping a finger in time with the beat. Namaari thought about that night in Heart, when she’d found Raya on the roof. That night she’d wanted to talk with her longer, before her mother interrupted. Thinking back on it, she didn’t know what she wanted to talk about. Just that there was this perpetual magnetism to Raya that she never understood.
Not when they first met. Not in the six years she spent chasing her. Not now.
“Raya?” Now she’d done it. What did she even want to say?
“Mmh?” Raya looked at her, her hand still beating to the music against the stump.
A thought popped into her head. Why was that the only thing coming to her head at that moment? It was more a desire than a thought really. But she couldn’t ask that. It was weird. You don’t just ask someone that question randomly.
“Do you want to dance?” Well shit, she asked that question. It was out there. She couldn't rip the words out of the air. Would Raya think it was as weird as Namaari thought it was? Why’d she even think it was weird? If Atitaya was here she would have already pulled Namaari to dance.
Raya tilted her head, clearly perplexed. “You want to dance? With me?”
Yes. “It looks like you want to.”
Raya smiled. She smiled like she was going to give Namaari the answer she wanted to hear. She started to rise to her feet and exte–
“Princess Namaari!” A Fang soldier all but crashed into Namaari, red in the face and out of breath, “Scales. They took jade collected from the vault. The general went after them.”
“Northwest from the vault.”
Namaari put her fingers in her mouth, whistling long and loud. Sinn bounded into the clearing. Namaari pulled herself onto the Cerlot’s back in one fluid motion.
“Go, I’m right behind you.” Raya said, running to Tuk Tuk.
Sinn’s form charged through the undergrowth, Namaari directing her north as her eyes scanned the tree line. She trusted Sinn to see the obstacles she couldn’t in the darkness.
With the sounds of heavy footfalls, two more Cerlots fell into line with Namaari. Two more Fang soldiers.
“Ahead princess. She was the first to give chase.”
‘Of course, she was,’ Namaari thought to herself, “The scales?”
“There’re on baslin lizards. They were in and out with one of the sacks before anyone could do anything."
Namaari tsked, biting the inside of her cheek. Baslin lizards were a rare mount animal in the tribes as they were harder to breed than other alternatives. But they did have advantages. They were incredibly fast on land and in water. Not to mention the ability to scale near-vertical walls with a rider.
She’d told her mother that the vault was worth putting their effort into. If they lost part of the treasure now, they’d look like fools.
“I’m going ahead,” She said, leaning low on Sinn’s back.
Eventually, Sinn growled and there was an answering growl back. Namaari could make out Atitaya a few dozen meters ahead. She whistled to catch her attention. Atitaya glanced back before point ahead of her. With her direction, Namaari could just see the slim darting figures of baslin lizards a hundred yards give or take ahead of Atitaya.
Atitaya fell in line with her.
“What happened? I thought you were moving this batch in a few days.”
“We weren’t moving the jade. They came into the camp.”
“What? They've never been this bold before.”
“If we don’t stop them here, who knows how emboldened they’ll be next time.”
“The one upside for us is baslins leave an easy trail to follow when moving quickly.”
Even in the low light, they could see the foliage that had been tattered from the motion of the baslins' tails swinging back and fought at high speeds. The rest of the scenery was whipping past. Namaari could feel the way Sinn’s muscles coiled under her fur. They hadn’t pushed their Cerlot’s like this since… well, Namaari couldn’t help but smirk at the thought, they hadn’t pushed like this since they were chasing Raya.
If this were a prolonged chase they would gain ground gradually. But there was one scenario that worried Namaari. She desperately wanted to close the distance at once, but that was impossible as it was right then.
If they were on open ground, Tuk Tuk would have the best chance of covering the distance quickly. But in this forest, even with sections partly cleared away, his mobility was hindered. But thinking of Tuk Tuk made Namaari think of Raya. Had she caught up?
Looking back, she couldn’t see or hear any signs of her. Was she far behind? Could Tuk Tuk even keep the pace? Yes, Raya had managed to escape her, regardless of the terrain, but that was when she’d been the one trying to escape.
Atitaya’s shout pulled Namaari’s attention back forward. One of the scales had stopped to intercept them and was drawing back a bow.
“Shit! Sinn!” She ducked and Sinn darted to the left in a wild veer that almost knocked them off-kilter. She felt the arrow fly over her shoulder. A chill crawled up her spine at the proximity. And they were nocking another arrow.
Atitaya used their focus on Namaari to close the distance, jumping from her Cerlot, knocking them into the dirt. Seo-Jin leapt at the lizard, trying to pin it down. Namaari started to slow on Sinn, but Atitaya shouted, “Go! Get the others!”
She trusted that Atitaya could take of herself and pressed on, Sinn jumping over the tangled bodies on the ground. In moments the jungle had swallowed them from sight. It was just her, following the trail of the lizards.
She had a vague sense of where they were and that worried her. If she was right about their location she needed to close the distance faster.
There was a telltale whistle in the air and this time Namaari saw the arrow coming towards her. It arced to her left, sinking into a tree. They weren’t stopping to fire this time, so the accuracy was off but Naamri still gave the ready command to Sinn, in case they needed to change course to avoid.
When she heard a dull roar Namaari’s heart sunk. That’s what she’d been scared of. Songmu Falls. The forest opened suddenly ahead of them, a sheer cliff down cut away by a waterfall. Namaari watched the baslins vanish from sight over the edge of a cliff.
The unique thing about Songmu Falls was it has punched through the land into an underground cavern meaning the river seems to ‘vanish’ from the landscape at this point. While it actually made an underground river and emerged from the carven a mile or so to the south. This area had formed a pseudo canon where the river had flowed centuries before. Now there was only a shallow layer of water that pooled in the divots of the once riverbed if it could be called be that. It was mostly run-off from the falls that had gathered there, ranging from a few inches to maybe two feet at the deepest. In no way deep enough to offset a fall from the top of the cliff.
But the baslins didn’t need to worry about that. Namaari got off Sinn at the edge of the cliff, looking at the large lizards walking down the near-vertical cliff with ease. She could see the straps around the riders’ legs to keep them in their saddled. It had slowed their pace, but it didn’t matter because Namaari couldn’t follow safely. Sinn paced at the edge of the cliff, clearly agitated at losing the trail.
“Come on girl, we’ll head down the long way and see if we can find the trail again. She was about to pull herself into the saddle when she heard the unmistakable sound of Tuk Tuk.
Raya rode up, stopping when she saw her.
“What happened? Where are they?”
Namaari pointed down. Raya leaned over the edge and clicked her tongue against her cheek, “I know we hate them right now, but baslins are cool.”
“We need to hurry if we have a chance of catching up before they cover their trail. The path from down from here is on the other side of the river. We’ll have to go upstream to cross and double back.”
Raya took a few steps away from the edge of the cliff, “But they’re right in front of us.”
“Oh, are you proposing we jump off a cliff to follow them?”
Namaari turned to Raya incredulously and was given a spilt second to process that Raya was charging towards her.
“Hold on!” Was all the warning Namaari got before Raya’s left arm around was her waist and she jumped, pulling them off the cliff.
“What the-!” Namaari’s stomach turned as she was suddenly in free fall. “RAYA!”
With her sword in her right hand, she jammed the edge of it into the rock face, releasing the grapple. They both jerked as the line went taut, Namaari almost falling from Raya’s grasp. They managed to catch each other’s forearms. Raya kicked off the cliff, sending them towards the descending baslins.
“By the dragon!” One of the scales blurred when he noticed Raya and Namaari swinging towards them.
“Sorry,” Raya gritted out to Namaari went the strain of holding her grew too much. She let her go, tossing her towards the nearest scale. It was only years of finely honed training that had sharped Namaari’s instincts enough to grab onto the baslin’s saddle in midair. The creature, not ready for sudden weight loss it's footing, all of them falling the remaining distance to the ground. Luckily it was a little less than four meters at this point.
Raya retracted her sword, swinging the blade to cut through the saddle of another lizard, this one with a large sack haphazardly tied to it. Her momentum carried the blade not just thought the straps but also the leg of the baslin. She managed to land on top of the lizard as she landed, rolling off. It was poor dismount, sending her face first into the shallow water. She got to her elbows coughing up water.
“Are you insane?” Namaari shouted from a few feet away. She’d managed a better landing than Raya, just barely. She was already on her feet, drawing her swords.
“I wasn’t going to waste time explaining the plan.”
“I wouldn’t call hurling us off a cliff a plan.”
“We got down, didn’t we?” Raya got to one knee, raising her sword in front of her.
The two scales who’d fallen with them were struggling to get themselves free from their saddles in their compromised positions. The third scales with his baslin quickly closed the remaining distance on the cliff, getting inbetween Raya, Namaari and his companions.
He was easily the tallest of their group, dark hair pulled back into a bun. A toned figure, with wide shoulders and piercing dark eyes. He pulled out a rantai batangan, a weighted chain whip, spinning, further pushing Raya and Namaari back to stay out of its reach.
“You’re outnumbered and injured after that fall. Don’t push your luck. We’ll let you live if you let us go.”
Namaari narrowed her eyes. Injured? The landing had been hard, but it hadn’t been that far. His own allies were already standing, having cut themselves free from their saddles. She glanced at Raya and realized what he was talking about. A line of blood was flowing from her hairline, down her face.
“Leave the jade and we’ll let you live.” She answered, slowly pivoting her heels, hoping the few inches of water they were standing in would disguise her inching closer to Raya.
The Scale snorted, “What would the princess of Fang need with more jade?”
“That belongs to Fang and we will be taking it back.” She flipped one of her blades in her hand to a reverse hold, and barely moving her lips, she said, “Raya?”
“I’m fine,” Raya answered, just loud for Namaari to hear.
The other two Scales were armed with a sabit, a wicked-looking sickle and golok, a machete-like blade. At this point, they’d flanked the third, who seemed to be the leader.
“This is your last chance to walk away.” He said, dismounting.
“Funny, I was about to say that to you,” Raya said.
In a flash, the chain whip was swinging in the air towards them. Namaari flipped backward, while Raya ducked in a low crouch. In midair Namaari took note of the other two, both darting to the left and right, their blades out.
Several scenarios flashed in her mind in a moment. Her first instinct was to take down the one to her left, noting his sickle had a longer reach. That would be more difficult to counter if he was allowed to attack as he pleased. But then she saw Raya’s form lean in that direction and in her mind’s eyes she could see Raya’s next moves as clearly as she could see her own.
She could leave him to Raya.
She landed, raising her sword to her right to block the incoming blow from his golok. She heard the sing of the air. She kicked him away, jumping away in the same motion as the whip slammed down where she’d been standing. The water split with the force of the impact.
Raya was blocking slice after slice from the sickle, one eye keeping track of the position of the other. She didn’t try to counter yet, focusing on blocking as each hit got more intense than the last. She saw the whip user swinging in another arc towards Namaari. Predicting where it was going to landing and the way Naamari was going to dodge Raya shifted herself backwards, making the Scale she was engaged with follow, clearing him out of the space Namaari was going to land in.
As she landed, Namaari glanced over her shoulder at Raya, their eyes meeting for a beat. Namaari was three feet give or take away from the man Raya was engaged with. Like lightning Raya knew her next move. As he brought his sickle down, fast enough to make the air whistle, Raya flipped backwards, landing on one hand, kicking up water towards his face in the same motion.
He flinched back, stepped back just as Namaari’s leg swung around, catching him in the side, pushing him into his ally. His companion braced him from falling over. Before Namaari or Raya could press the attack the chin whip whizzed through the air between them.
“That range is annoying,” Raya said, wiping blood from her eye.
The whip kicked up water every time it hit the nadir of its arc and the Scale spun it with increasing velocity. He was standing in nearly knee-deep water, deliberately using the water to obscure exactly where the whip’s end was.
“Can you get it to keep still?” Namaari asked. She didn’t want to prolong the fight, not knowing the extent of Raya’s injury.
“It’s like you don’t know me,” Raya smirked.
Namaari’s face suddenly felt hot and this wasn’t the time for distractions.
Raya slashed, extending her sword. The whip and her sword collided in the air, their ends whipping around each other, water spinning off them both. Raya pulled, drawing it taunt, both weapons knotted around one another.
Namaari closed the distance between herself and lead Scale, going for a low sweep, a crescent wave forming from the velocity of her kick. He dropped his whip and jumped, tucking his knees to his chest to avoid her.
The one holding the sickle came from behind, aiming for Namaari’s shoulder. She saw the strike and knew she didn’t have time to dodge. Using her momentum, to continued spinning, shifting her point of rotation from the ball of her left foot onto her right wrist. She leaned back, pulling her weight on her elbow, lifting her leg to stop the strike. Her foot hit his wrist, stopping the momentum, but in the same motion that energy was transferred forward into her body.
She was forced to lean further back. She took a breath just before her head slipped under the water. In this situation, her vision being distorted underwater, even for a second could cost her life. This was the kind of risk she’d never take if she was alone.
Either of other Scales could already be in position to strike and she wouldn’t have the time to adjust once she got a clear visual. In that single moment there was only one thing she could hope for.
Raya you better be there!
Namaari pushed up, breaking the surface again. She blinked the water out of her eyes, taking in everything in an instant.
Raya was midair, having leapt over the back of the Scale with the sickle, her knee slamming into the neck of the leader. She landed on one foot and was already pivoting to swing her sword around, deflecting a strike from the golok that was inches away from hitting Namaari.
Namaari, shifting her weight to both hands, brought her other foot around. Her aim was true. Her heel caught his arm. The sabit went flying in the air.
The whole exchange happened in a heartbeat. Less than. But it stretched in Namaari’s mind. Every movement between her and Raya. The water flung into the air by their attacks catching the light of the sunset.
Only with Atitaya had Namaari moved this well with before.
And they were just getting started.
The one remaining armed Scale charged at Raya, their blades clashing between them. The other ran to where his sickle had fallen. Namaari tried to intercept, but their leader got in her way. His fist connected with her gut stopped her in her tracks. The pain made her vision blur for a moment. Yet she managed to block his next punch. Just barely.
It felt like her teeth rattled with the impact. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw the third Scale had retrieved his weapon and was returning to the fight. He was coming right at her. She shifted her hold on her sword in anticipation of his strike. But midway through his arc he flipped the angle of his sickle, now going for Raya.
Namaari slammed her sword down, the edges of both blades singing as they grated on each other. His blade was stopped inches from Raya’s calf. Raya placed her hand on Namaari’s shoulder, using it as leverage to jump over her, kicking the leader in the face before he land a hit on Namaari.
He fell onto his ass, nose bloodied.
A golok enter Namaari’s field of vision, dangerously close. The edge had just bit into her shoulder as she deflected it with her second sword. He tried again, swinging in a vicious arc. Raya blocked this time, leaning across Namaari to do so.
He spun, coming from the opposite direction. At the same time, the one carrying the sickle carved through the water with an upwards slice.
In unison, Namaari and Raya flipped back, out of their ranges. They glared down their opponents, swords at the ready.
“Let’s go,” the leader called. “The jade isn’t worth it.” He was on his baslin. The other lizard creature with its saddle ran behind the two other Scales. They both pulled themselves up. The third baslin, now without a saddle, ran after them, only marginally slower despite missing a leg.
Namaari watched them go before sheathing her blades.
“Do you want to go after them?” Raya asked.
“No. We have what we came for.” She confirmed the sack tied onto the saddle did have the jade before sitting in the water, leaning back on her hands.
Raya joined her, tucking one leg under the other as she sat. She looked up, squinting towards the top of the cliff.
“Do you think Sinn and Tuk Tuk can find a way to us on their own?”
Namaari threw water in Raya’s face.
“What was that for?”
“For throwing us off a cliff.”
“We got the jade, didn’t we?”
“We could have died.”
“But we didn’t.”
Namaari splashed her again.
“Okay, I’ll ask permission the next I do something life threatening.”
Namaari rolled her eyes, “Don’t go making a habit of it.”
Sitting on her knees, she placed a hand on Raya’s chin, turning her face towards her. Raya’s mouth, already open for a retort closed just as quickly. Her expression shifted, the teasing smile going away and her eyes widening slightly as Namaari leaned in. Raya pulled her hands away. Or tried to. Namaari only sat closer, holding her face again.
Namaari pushed Raya’s hair back, using some water to wash away the blood on her face. There was a gash on the left side of her forehead.
“Head wounds bleed a lot.” Raya said, reaching up to move Namaari’s hand.
Namaari slapped her hand away, “Let me see it. I’ll decide how serious it is.”
Raya didn’t try to pull her hands away again. She just sat there while Namaari flushed out the wound.
“Do you feel dizzy?”
“How about looking at the sunset. Does the light hurt your eyes?”
Raya shook her head.
Namaari gave a small exhale, “If either of those things happen tonight you need to tell me right away. Or if you feel tired all of a sudden.”
“I know the signs of a concussion Namaari. I’m pretty sure you gave me one when we fought outside of Spine.”
Namaari’s cheeks felt warm, “Then you know it could be serious. Don’t joke about it.”
Raya’s eyes softened. She reached up, taking Namaari’s hand and pulling it away from her forehead.
“I know. I’m sorry. It just feels awkward having someone else do it. I’m used to doing this by myself.”
“How did you do this on your own for so long?”
Raya shrugged, “I got good at stitches.”
“That’s not the part I was asking about.”
Raya met her eyes, not answering. The air and water against Namaari’s skin suddenly felt much cooler. With her free hand, she swept her thumb across Raya’s forehead, cleaning off a trickle of blood. But her hand lingered there.
“What part are you asking about?”
Namaari’s hand drifted down Raya’s face.
“Weren’t you lonely?”
“…Always,” She said with a depth of honest that almost seemed to hurt.
“Then why are you trying to do it on your own still?”
Raya exhaled through her nose, breaking eye contact with her. She gave a small shrug. She squeezed Namaari’s hand, as though she didn’t realize she was still holding it. Namaari tilted her head, ducking down to meet her eyes.
“Force of habit. I guess.”
“You don’t have to be alone anymore.”
“Hey, did you get the jade? What happe- oh.”
Atitaya rode in, Sinn and Tuk Tuk following behind. Her eyes met Namaari’s, then glanced to where her hands were. Namaari looked too and suddenly let go, falling backwards onto her hands. She and Raya looked anywhere but each other.