Sometimes Raya wondered if she’d ever feel completely at peace among people again. She would have used the word normal as the defining descriptor for that statement at one point. When would things feel ‘normal’ again? But the things that had been the most ‘normal’ once, were the very things that stuck out the most in her mind now. Dinners with her father. A warm bed and roof over her head.
It was in those moments that stood out in acute juxtaposition in her mind. Normal didn’t feel like it would. She knew she should have felt safe or comfortable. But she just didn’t. Something she thought she should be scared that normal would never return for her. Sometimes she just wondered if this was just how it was going to be now. To only feel secure when a weapon was within reach or when she knew all the paths of escape.
And to have any conversation with the people in her life without a dozen thoughts running around her mind at the same time.
“I was looking for you.”
Or make that at least a hundred extra thoughts when it came to Namaari.
“I’ve been here,” Raya said, putting down her whetstone and sheathing her blade.
“My mother wants to talk to us.”
Namaari nodded, “I only just got the message myself. So I don’t have a clue about what.”
“Maybe she’s going to exile me for risking your life.”
“She wouldn’t do that,” Namaari said with a chuckle, holding a hand out.
Raya grasped it by the wrist, letting Namaari help her to her feet. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yes…Mostly." Namaari paused a beat, thinking about it. "She wouldn’t. It would cause too much tension between the tribes.”
Virana was in a class with a group of children who couldn’t have been older than 10 or 11.
“Your mother tutors classes herself?” Raya asked in a whisper, leaning closer to Namaari.
“Not always. Every fortnight or so. She likes to keep a personal eye on the seedlings to help them grow. Her words.”
Raya frowned slightly.
“It’s…” Raya flushed, not realizing she’d let her emotions play so openly on her face, “Nothing.”
“I was just trying to imagine you doing that someday.”
“Why does that though give you such a pained expression?” Namaari looked aghast.
“You are not nurturing.”
Namaari made an affronted sound in the back of her throat, “And you decided that on what?”
“The last several years where you hunted me down across the tribes.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not nurturing.”
“It means your bloodthirsty which is the opposite of nurturing.”
“Bloodthirsty is not the opposite of nurturing.”
“It’s certainly isn’t a synonym.”
“And that means they’re opposites.”
“I didn’t mean it as a bad thing.”
“And was I supposed to take that Raya?”
“You fight good? That’s a compliment.”
“Nowhere in that statement did you say that I fight good.”
“I didn’t think you’d take it as an insult.”
Someone cleared their throat and Raya and Namaari both realized the class had ended and Virana was standing in front of them. She had one eyebrow arched, but other than that, her expression was unreadable.
“Shall I return at another time?” She asked, looking between them.
Namaari’s posture straightened, “Sorry, mother.”
“Walk with me,” And Virana turned on her heels, marching off in one direction, “I’ve given consideration to what we discussed.”
“And you see my point?”
“And what would make you think that?” Virana’s head tilted to the side.
“You would haven’t asked to speak with Raya as well if you were about to tell me no.”
“Astute. I’ve given it thought. I’ll allow you to scout the areas you suspect the vault might be located. But I have some stipulations.”
“I would expect nothing less.”
“Raya, I’d ask you not take your tumblebil,”
“Your Tuk…Tuk, yes.”
Raya stopped walking, “Why?”
“Our cerlots are the most efficient mounts to traversing these forests. If you were to encounter any scales, I worry about your ability to maneuver the jungle growth.”
“It never encumbered me the months I spent searching the rivers in Fang. While also avoiding your cerlots.”
Namaari’s eyes went wide when she saw the way her mother’s nostrils flared. “Tuk Tuk’s pretty versatile in all terrains. I’m sure it will be fine. I would know. I’m the one they escaped from all those times.”
“Raya, I mean no insult. I ask this for your own benefit and for Namaari’s. If you’re going to accompany her, I won’t have you holding her back.”
“I think we’ll be fine.”
Virana’s gaze shifted from Raya to Namaari. “Fine. It was meant as a suggestion. The next one, however, isn’t as flexible. You need to be back within three weeks.”
“Three we- why?” Namaari asked.
Virana walked into her study. Raya’s neck cracked as she looked up at the floor-to-ceiling shelves piled with books and scrolls. There was a detailed map hanging on one wall, depicting Kumandra, the five tribes and the main settlement of each.
“Mother, three weeks isn’t much time. The journey itself should only take a couple, yes, but the search itself is going take time.”
Virana put her hand up, silencing Namaari with a gesture. “I know. I’m not doing this out of spite. I’ll need you back here in three weeks.” She picked up a scroll from her desk and handed it to Namaari. “I imagine Raya will be needed back as well.”
“Oh,” Namaari said, “I see.”
“What is it?”
Namaari handed the scroll to Raya. Written in elegant script that was almost too stylized for Raya to read, was a formal invitation too… “Dang Hai is getting married?” She spluttered.
“He wasted no time since being un-petrified,” Namaari said, her voice mildly amused.
“He’s marring the middle son of the Aio family, a branch family descended from a Talon chief five generations back.”
Namaari snorted, “That would coincidently give him the higher standing over Dang Hu.”
“I don’t think there is anything coincidental about it.” Virana said, leaning against her desk, “It’s clearly a calculated move. He gets the edge over Hu now. As a bonus, he’ll never have an heir so Hu is next in line and she looks like the fool if she complains about that.”
“But Hu is never going to be chief again. Unless something happens to him,” Namari said.
“For his sake, I hope he doesn’t accept any drinks from her at the wedding.”
Namaari snorted, “Not even she is bold enough up to try something like that a public event this big.”
“Seems like he’s invited everyone. He wants his wedding to be a symbol of unions for Talon and all the other tribes too. There are other invites to all chiefs I’m sure. That self-inflated bangsat is going to get claim he had the first wedding in a united Kumandra.”
“We could make Atitaya get married and have it next week. Beat him to the punch.”
Virana chuckled, “We already ask too much of her. And this is assuming that Heart attends Hai’s wedding.” She looked to Raya.
Raya realized she’d partly crushed the invitation in her hands and tried to smoothen out the parchment, “Why wouldn’t t- we?”
“After what Dang Hai did?” Virana asked, “To you?”
“Oh,” Raya passed the invitation back to Namaari, “My father’s dream is Kumandra. He’ll be overjoyed by this.”
“But even he’d be hesitant to show support to Dang Hai,” Namaari said, “After…”
Raya rubbed the back of her shoulder, “He doesn’t know,”
Virana and Namaari were both silent for a long moment. Finally, Virana asked, “You never told him?”
“It’s been a busy three months,” She said with a little shrug.
Virana folded her arms, “It’s not my place, Raya. But you should tell him. Before the wedding. You wouldn’t want someone else to bring it up. Benja is going to need time to digest the information before facing Dang Hai.”
“I will. There just hasn’t been the time,” Raya said quickly, “But if we only have a few weeks to find this place, we should leave sooner rather than later.”
Virana nodded, “Of course. I wish you luck. Be careful,” she looked at Namaari, “Be careful.”
“We will be mother. We’ll leave today,” Namaari said.
"Do you think you could do what Dang Hai is doing?" Raya asked, as they were making their camp for the evening. Namaari had gathered stones and dried wood for a fire pit, while Raya had cut some branches and was now weaving them into a kind of latticework to serve as a shelter, in case it rained that night.
"What? Marrying a man?" Namaari asked, with a snort, "Marrying a woman wouldn't be an issue for me."
"No, I meant, marrying someone you don't love."
"Oh," Namaari's cheeks grew hot and she became very invested in lining up the stones for the fire pit, "I mean, we don't know that for sure."
"You and your mother seemed convinced. And wouldn't past him either, if it gets him more power."
"I've always assumed I may not have the option to marry for love, being the princess. But I know mother wouldn't force me to marry anyone I disliked. I figured the best I could hope for was marrying someone and that the love would come later."
"Was your parent's marriage one for power?"
"In a way. It was more an arrangement of convenience. Mother needed an heir. And my father was General at the time. It made sense. They'd worked closely together and like each other well enough. But I don't think they loved each other. Not romantically. I remember mom being genuinely sad when he died. A fight with Spine. I don't think she would have been so devastated if she didn't care for him. But from what I do remember of them when they were together, it doesn't match the kind of love I see in other couples."
"How old were you, when your father died?"
"Eight. What about you? Your mother died when you were young too?"
She nodded, looking at her, "I was still a baby. She came down with an illness a few months after I was born. But Ba always talked about her with love. I guess when I was a kid, I never thought to ask if they got married for love, or if that came later."
"What about you? Could you marry someone you didn't love?"
"I never thought about it before. Until recently marriage wasn't conceivable to me."
"But have you..." Namaari's mouth was suddenly dry.
"I guess have you been with anyone."
Raya snorted, "Being on the run the past few years hasn't made that possible."
"Right... sorry about that."
"Not like you were the only factor there. I didn't want to get close to anyone. But I'm sure the princess of Fang is beating off the suitors."
Namaari rubbed her nose and didn't say anything more on that.
"I've been... I wanted to ask you."
"What?" Raya asked.
“Why didn’t tell your father about what happened in Talon?”
Raya swallowed, returning to binding the branches together, “Like I said. We’ve been busy.”
“You keep saying that. But I don’t think it’s true.”
“What am I going to say? Hey, dad, I was tortured while you were a statue?”
“Probably not so crassly, but yes.”
“He doesn’t know about most of the things that happened since the gem broke. And what I did tell him, I watered the events. He doesn’t need to know.”
“Raya, he’s your father.”
“Exactly,” She said, “He’s my dad. And he’ll just blame himself for things he wasn’t there for. What happened, happened. Nothing we do now is going to change it.” She vine she was using to tie the branches snapped as she pulled and Raya swore. “I’m going to get another vine.” She walked away from their camp.
By the time she returned, Namaari had a fire going and had warmed some of the rations they’d brought with them. She held up a small bowl of food for Raya. There was a beat where she just stared at it. But she took it, sitting down by the fire.
“I’m sorry if I overstepped,” Namaari said.
“Look, I get why you wouldn’t want to tell him. But I think my mom was right. You wouldn’t want him to hear from someone who isn’t you.”
“I don’t want to hurt him.”
“You don’t know my father. He takes on the weight of the world. I can’t put anything more on his shoulders.”
“Do you know how my mother get along? We understand there are times when we can’t just be mother and daughter. There are times when Chief Virana and Princess Namaari have to come first. But at the same time, there are also times when we are just mother and daughter. If I had gone through what you did, I’d want my mother’s comfort. But I’d also want my chief to know, so she wouldn’t be blindsided by the information while in conversation with Dang Hai.”
“You’re saying I should tell him about the horrible things that happened to me because he’s also the chief.”
“Yes. If it were you, would you want to be blindsided by the information?”
“No. But he just doesn’t need to know.”
“Well, I think you need to talk to someone about it because you’ve clearly still not okay.”
“And what makes you think that?”
“The way you tense any time Dang Hai is mentioned. Or the way you touch your right shoulder when you do.”
Raya moved her hand away from her shoulder. She put her bowl down, “I’m not hungry.” She stood, moving to where Tuk Tuk was, laying out her bedding next to him, her back to Namaari.
Namaari sighed, tossing Raya’s portion to Sinn, “I think I messed that up girl.”