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Fractures

Chapter Text

Saving her home, her people, her father, had been Raya’s driving force for six years. She’d travelled every corner of their known lands. Into the depths of the jungle with lurking beasts armed both claws and blades. Across deserts where everything wanted to kill you, from the heat, to the plants, to the people. She sunk to depths she never knew she’d have the strength or stomach to cross. She’d endured betrayal and humiliation. Hunger, loneliness and loss started to feel like old friends. Every step had been brutal in its own way. Down to her last step that was in a way, her first step, when she made the choice to trust someone she had every reason not to. Those years presented challenge after challenge. Hardships she still doesn’t know how she survived.

But that was three months ago. A lot could change in a few months. Raya realized fighting the Druun and reforming the Dragon Stone was a gentle afternoon gust compared to the torrential storms that were civil concerns.

Give her a sword and a dozen enemies surrounding her any day. That was easy. She understood the heft of a weapon and the gambol that was a fight. Battle was familiar territory. Deciding who rightfully owned a piece of land, the family currently living on the premises or the family who resided there before being turned to stone? Raya would rather face the Druun again.

Her authority as the princess was the one blade she let dull over the years. Heart suffered the greatest losses when the Druun reappeared. For most of their population who’d been turned to stone, it had happened on that first day when the stone broke. Those of her people who’d survived were forced to scatter, either to settle in another province or find a way to make their home with the Druun so close. Raya didn’t have a people to lead after the Dragon Stone broke, and even for the scattered few that remained, at 13 and without her father she had no idea how to do it.

So, here was Raya, a saviour to their people, a survivor of the impossible and completely unmoored in her role as the Princess. She didn’t even have her father to lean on right then. With so many people displaced and the sudden influx of people to house and feed, she and her father were forced to divide and conquer. He was focusing on the issues at their capitol city while she was travelling near the border, handling the disputes as best she could. Helping families locate lost loved ones or repair their homes that had been taken by time and weather, those were the easy days.

How could she tell a family that had found comfort and security in an empty house after their previous one was destroyed by Druun to leave? How could she tell a family who’d lived generations on a plot of land that these random people had moved in and should be allowed to stay? There was no easy answer and that’s what made this so difficult. There was no right or wrong. Just people who’d all been hurt by the same evil and were trying to pick up the pieces now. Same as everyone else.

Currently, she was trying to keep the tensions calm between two families, the Ta family and the Danh family. The Danh clan had returned to their farm only to find the Tas already there. Raya had arrived that morning spent and most of the day with the heads of both families, trying to come to some sort of agreement. Both sides were stubborn and just wanted their home. For now, Raya had stepped away, needing the air and time.

She’d decided tomorrow she’d walk the lands with both family heads and have them outline the boundaries for the compound. She was hoping there would be enough of a discrepancy that she could divide the land by what they indicated. She knew that only solved part of the problem, with the main issue being deciding who got the homestead. Both families were large and the construction of a new home of suitable size would take time, even she sent for help from their warriors. 

But that was an issue for future Raya. Right now she just wanted to enjoy these precious moments alone. Time for small pleasures was short these days. When they’d freed the dragons and defeated the Druun she had thought, maybe naively so, that there would be more time to sit in the afterglow. As it was the celebrations lasted three days in Heart. On the nights her role kept her away from home she savoured the memories. Her father’s embrace, warm and familiar. The laughter of new friends mingling with old voices she thought she may never hear again.

There was one conversation, in particular, her mind returned to time and time again.

On that first night after reuniting with her father with her head singing with her first taste of rice wine, she’d crept out of the party, onto the palace roof. As happy as she’d been, there was only so many social pleasantries she could handle at once. After being alone for so long, aside from Tuk Tuk, she was clumsy in social interactions. She stumbled over the formal civilities she’d been raised on interacting with the other Chiefs and their families. She had no idea how to navigate the boisterous atmosphere of the party. Especially when she was the centre of attention.

But she hadn’t been alone long when she heard footsteps approaching. The light gait set her on edge, instincts getting ready for an attack. She had to fight the instinct to bolt, turning to meet whoever was joining her. Oh. There was a bemusing rush of emotions when she recognised the familiar silhouette approaching with careful steps over the tiled roof. Namaari.

“What’s dripping?” Raya asked.

Namaari stilled for a moment, “Hi.” she had two goblets in one hand and a platter in the other. Until Raya spoke to her, her focus had been on keeping them steady. 

“Hey,” Raya echoed, “Need a hand?”

“I got it.”

She dropped to the edge of the roof next to Raya, struggling for a moment to get the platter to lay still on the slanted roof. Just watching that beat down some of the conflicting emotions that had been crawling up Raya’s throat. She’d been a little jealous of Namaari during the party, watching her weave through conversations with an ease that only came from practice. While Raya had been in the wilds for six years, Namaari had been among her people, honing the social graces of a leader. It wasn’t until that moment some of the mystification fell away and Raya saw that maybe she wasn’t the only one struggling to find balance.

Raya tucked one foot in, moving the platter to her thigh. Namaari gave a grateful smile before passing one of the goblets.

“Is it common practice in Fang to sneak onto the roof with stolen food?” Raya asked, popping a khanon tom into her mouth.

“Only when there’s a companion hiding on the roof.”

“I’m not hiding.”

Namaari arched a brow, leaning back on one hand.

“Oh, what would you call it then?”

“A tactical retreat.”

“Funny, isn’t that same thing you did with me and my hunters when we found you in Fang territory the year before we completed the canal?”

“You mean when you poached my hunt?”

“What were you going to do with a boar that size? You’re one person.”

“It’s the principle of the matter.”

“I’m not going to apologise for securing food for my people. Besides, I went back and left some smoked hen. It’s your own fault if some animal got to it before you did.”

“I did. Find it.”

“Oh, good.”

Silence bled into the conversation. Raya kept waiting for the moment to tick over into awkward but it never quite did. Yet, as peaceful as their shared silence was, Raya didn't find herself regretting when Namaari broke it, “Why are you retreating now?”

“The party is great, but…” Raya leaned forward, looking down to the courtyard.

“It’s a bit much?”

“Yeah,” Raya sighed, “Been a while since I’ve been around so many people.”

“I know the feeling.”

Raya snorted, “Sure. Like you haven’t been flattering people all evening.”

“Only the nobles,” Namaari corrected, “And only because they’re polite enough to wait until my back is turned to whisper.”

Somehow, here, away from the glow of the party, Raya saw Namaari better than she had all evening. She saw the mask slip and the pain behind her eyes.

“The dragons may be back and we may be ready to claim the name Kumandra, but we’re far from being those people again. Fang has the furthest to claw back in the eyes of the other clans.” Namaari stared down into the dregs of her drink, “We have the furthest to go in my eyes too. We’re a proud people. That’s not going to change overnight.”

“But it will change.” Raya said, “Your people have you to look to. You saved everyone.”

Namaari laughed, “Me? No, Raya, you were our saviour. No one wants to trust me and they’re right not to.”

Raya reached out, resting her hand on Namaari’s shoulder, “I trust you.”

Namaari blinked, once, twice. Her lips parted slightly. She tried to say something, but her voice didn’t feel like cooperating. She gave up on words eventually turning away, her hair curtaining her features from Raya’s piercing gaze. The warm brown was more than Namaari felt she deserved just then.

“I trust you.” Raya said again, “I trusted you with the Dragon Stone. And I’d like to keep trusting you, moving forward.”

Namaari laughed, this time softer at the edges, a fragile sound. “I don’t know why you would. I didn’t deserve it.”

“Deserve is a funny word. You proved you do deserve my trust when you reformed the stone. But if I didn’t take that first step, I would have never learned that. We all have our regrets, but right now, I don’t want to look back. I want to keep moving forward.”

“Do you really think we can be Kumandra again?” Namaari looked at her again.

“If you’d asked me that question two days ago, I would have said no.” Raya looked down at the festivities again. She spotted Sisu among the crowd, having a conversation with Benja, completely oblivious to what the wave of chaos her tail was causing behind her, and Raya smiled “But now, I do. I really do believe it.”

“If you believe it,” Namaari said, looking at Raya, “Then I have to believe it too. I swear I’ll work to make our people whole again.”

Raya shot her side-eyed glance, “You’ll work? Don’t you mean we’ll work? You’re not planning on showing me up, are you Princess Undercut?”

Namaari smiled with a gentle, amused expression, “Me? Show you up? That’s impossible dep la. You are the saviour of our people. The best I can do is follow your lead.”

Raya squirmed, not really sure how to respond. She definitely didn’t know how to process the way her chest tightened when Namaari turned her smile on her.

Namaari took the last bit of cake from the platter, looking back to the party. She choked suddenly covering her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Raya was desperately grateful for the sudden distraction.

“Please tell me I didn’t just see my mother looking at me.”

Raya scanned the area and it didn’t take long to spot the silver-white hair of Chief Virana. And yep, her gaze was definitely zoned in right on them.

“Maybe she won’t recognize us, from so high up.”

“She’s my mother Raya, she recognizes me.”

Raya waved because she felt compelled to under Virana’s gaze. Virana’s head cocked and she made a gesture with her hands. Even at a distance, Raya got the gist of what she wanted. She nudged Namaari.

“Um, I think she wants you.”

Namaari uncovered her eyes, looking to her mother who simply pointed down with a finger. It was a summons. Namaari winced.

“I’m going to get an earful about ditching the party,” She groaned.

“Tell her I made you do it.” Raya offered.

Namaari laughed, “Then she’ll give me a lecture about giving in to peer pressure. I should go.”

As she stood, her foot slipped on the edge of a tile, still slick from the rainfall earlier. Raya reached out for her, grabbing her by the waist. She pulled her away from the edge, but the platter went tumbling off the side. By the time it crashed to the ground, drawing the attention of half the party, both princesses were off the roof and out of sight inside the palace hall. Their laughter echoed around them.

“I’m guessing your mother isn’t going to like that either.”

“She’s going to be livid.” Namaari placed a hand on Raya’s shoulder, “I mean what I said about following your lead. If you ever need me, for anything, I’ll be there.”

Again, the look she levelled at Raya threw the other princess off. She didn’t know what to do with it, so she just watched as Namaari left to meet her mother. Weeks later she was still thinking about it. Sometimes she imagined she’d stopped Namaari and asked her exactly what she meant. But she’d let the moment slip away.

She hadn’t seen Namaari since the celebration. She hadn’t seen most of her friends. After they left Heart the opportunity to see Tong or Noi hadn’t come up. She’d gotten a message from Tong at least. She’d seen some of Boun and Sisu. The dragons were naturally nomadic and moved with the rhythm of a falling leaf. They could be here one moment and just as quickly gone the next. Boun’s family had taken to travelling with their restaurant to the other tribes and Raya was lucky enough to be in Heart at the same time as their last visit.

Boun was the one link she had to others, hearing from him how they were doing. It was through him Tong had sent his message. But even Boun couldn’t tell her of Namaari’s wellbeing.

“She hasn’t been at Fang any of the times we were. I heard she was out with the army, exploring to the north. Fang’s been busy.” He’d shrugged as he explained, “Do you want me to take a letter to Fang?” Raya had turned down the offer, promising herself to find the time to visit herself. She wanted to visit all her friends, but those words were easier said than done when there was still so much to be done.

“Maybe after I figure out how to divide this farm what do you say we visit Fang?” She asked Tuk Tuk as she entered the small encampment she’d made in one corner of the property. Quy Ta, the father of the Ta brood, had offered a room, but she’d declined, not comfortable with being offered a place in the home when the Danh family hadn’t been extended the same courtesy. And it wasn’t like she wasn’t used to camping.

“What do you think Ba would do?” She asked as she dropped into her tent. She felt like the Danh had the better claim to the home, but it pained her to ask the other family to leave. She knew her father would find some solution that made everyone happy. She just didn’t know what that solution was yet.

As she munched on some jerky for her dinner she regretted not taking one of the families’ offers to dine with them. She didn’t want it to seem like she was favouring one over the other by eating with them. There was also the fact she still felt uncertain in a social sphere. She was able to put on a diplomatic mask well enough, but once the conversation turned away from the problem she was meant to be solving she found herself awkwardly making small talk with the people she was meant to be helping.

Helping. “Is that what I’m doing?” She flopped back, throwing a hand over her eyes. “And here I thought stealing all the Dragon Stone pieces was the hard part.” Sleep claimed her slowly. One of her last conscious thoughts was the hope that morning would bring fresh inspiration for a solution.

The morning brought shouting. That’s what the morning brought. For a moment she forgot herself, where she was and why. She turned over, determined to ignore the shouts and squeeze a few moments more out of her rest.

More shouts, the words distorted by distance and the sleep Raya was trying to hold to. Some phases slipped through. ‘Where…How could…Right…Home’ Not enough for her to follow the conversation. Then…

“You cut it down!”

That voice belonged to Wei Danh. Oh no. They were shouting. That wasn’t good. Raya hurried out of her tent, pulling her jacket on and grabbing her sword. As she came around the storehouses she’d camped behind she could see the two families gathered near the edge of the compound.

“Every person in my family has been married under that plum tree going back six generations. And you cut it down! Where will my children get married?” Wei shouted.

Quy’s face was red, “That’s not my fault.”

“Whose axe fell the tree?”

Raya’s stomach dropped when she saw Wei’s brother grab a rake and charged at Quy, arms poised above his head. Damn it, why had she slept so far from the main compound? Raya drew her sword, but even at a glance, she knew the whip wouldn’t be long enough to cover the distance.

The rake came down, the air humming as the metal prongs arced through it. Raya caught the glint of metal in the air and the rake head tumbled to the ground, carried well behind both families by the momentum. The severed handle slammed into the dirt at Quy’s feet, too short now to cover the distance. A daab, a short sword, embedded itself into the dirt with a quiver. A familiar blade to Raya.

But Raya didn’t even have a moment to take that thought any further because she saw the anger flash across Quy’s face.

“Please reach.” Pulling the trigger to release her blade’s whip form she aimed at the tree stump they were standing by. The edge bit into the wood. With a snap, Raya’s feet left the ground. Her momentum let her bridge the distance just in time to catch the fist Quy Ta was drawing back.

“Enough,” She put herself between the two families, “We are not raising arms against each other.”

A rhythmic pounding drew near and three serlots crested onto the scene.

“What’s happening here?” Namaari asked, second blade in hand. Her eyes alighted on Raya and surprise softened the edges of her posture, “Raya?” She caught herself, sheathing her sword and lifting her hands in a circle to her chest, bowing to Raya, “Princess Raya,” she amended.

Raya would have asked her not to bow if standing between two angry families wasn't her biggest concern at the moment.

“Why is Fang here?” Someone asked. Raya didn’t miss the curt undercut to their tone.

“Put that down, please,” Raya asked the brother still holding the rake handle. He had the sense of mind to listen to her.

The appearance of Namaari and two fang warriors seemed to have curtailed any immediate fighting, but Raya could still see the anger sitting on the faces around her.

“Are you really willing to hurt someone over a tree?” she asked, turning to face the Danh family.

“That tree as stood there for over a hundred years. It has stood sentinel over my family for generations. Since we first settled here. It saw more any of us ever will.”

“It did,” Raya agreed, “And it’s a shame it didn’t see our people return to being Kumandra. But you are here to see it. Your family is here to see. Don’t squander that by giving into anger. If they cut the tree, it was not with malicious intent. They couldn’t know its importance.”

Her words seemed to settle a tense truce. The families parted, putting some distance between each other. The Ta clan drifted towards the house while the Danh gathered around the stump of the once plum tree.

Raya retrieved the daab from the ground, walking towards Namaari.

“Your timing is impeccable. That was a good throw, thank you. You saved that man from facing punishment for assault, if not worse. But, what are you doing here?”

Namaari slipped off her mount, accepting the blade.

“We were scouting in the area. What’s going on here?”

Raya pointed to Quy Ta “They’re living in the home that they used to before," She pointed to the other family, "they were all turned to stone.”

“Ah, a squatting dispute.” Namaari offered a sympathetic smile.

“The last one I dealt with I got the families to agree to live together temporally while they build a second home. That isn’t going to be an option here. They’re too quick to anger.”

“I may have an option to offer.” Namaari glanced between the families then back to Raya, “If I may?”

“Please. I need the help obviously.”

“You were doing pretty well. You defused their temper with expert care,” Namaari complemented. She approached the families, clearing her throat, “Princess Raya explained the situation to me. Fang has begun expansion to the North and North West and we’re giving grants of land to anyone who wishes to settle there. You would honour us if you choose to join our new settlements. We’re still building and clearing the land, but there are temporary constructions in place for now. We can promise a roof to lay your head under, food to share in and a community you can help develop.”

“Why would Fang give land to anyone from Heart?”

“We are all Kumandra. We’re opening our borders to all.”

“There. You can get a home now,” Quy said to the other family.

“Why should we leave? This is our home. You follow the binturi to their litter box.”

Raya caught the flash of pain across Namaari’s face before she schooled her features again.

“Don't show such disrespect to Princess Namaari. Our people aren’t divided any longer. To insult Fang is to insult Heart.” Raya said. She remembered her father’s words to her before she set off a few weeks ago.

“Kumandra didn’t flourish in a night the first time. A few nights of revelry isn’t going to erase the past 500 years. We can call ourselves Kumandra, but we won’t become that unless we move forward together. We need to lead our people forward.”

Raya really hoped the way she was leading was forward. “And I think you should go to Fang.” She said the Ta family.

“Us? But-”

“I know this has become your home. But they have the stronger claim to the land.”

“On what basis?”

“This is their home.”

“It’s become our home.”

Raya could feel the edges of patience her wearing away. She really missed when her problems could be solved with her sword.

“Change is never easy,” Namaari spoke up, “And we’re at a point of huge change. This place became your home during a horrible time, but just as you had another home before this one, you can make a new home once again. Walls, land, that doesn’t make your home. It’s the people who you share it with. I’m alive today because your princess chose to trust me. Please, allow me to return that trust by opening my homelands to her people. Trust in Fang to help make your new home.” Namaari bowed to them, bringing her hands to her chest.

“Please,” Raya joined Namaari, bowing to them, “honour Heart by being the first to join our sister tribe in their expansion.”

They seemed taken back, having two princesses bowing before them.

“Why can’t they be the ones to honour Heart by leaving?” Quy gestured to Wei and his family.

Raya felt the blood pulse at her temple, “I’ve already made my decision. I see there’s no way I can ask your families to co-exist. I don’t wish to force you from this home but there are no good compromises. You don’t have to go to Fang, but with them you have the promise of safety in a community.”

“You’re asking me to uproot my family on a whim.”

“I am,” Raya said solemnly, “but not on a whim. Believe me, I understand what it means to lose your home, so know I don’t ask this of you lightly. This is the decision I think is best.”

Quy stepped closer, his voice dropping, “You really think the backstabbers would be opening their lands without some ulterior motive.”

“I think they’ve suffered just as much any tribe and they have to rebuild, the same as all of us.”

“For all we know they’ll jump us with the cats in their jungles and be gone with all our possessions.”

“They won’t,” Raya said.

“You can’t trust those binturi.”

“I can. I do. But if your family’s safety is what you’re concerned about I’ll accompany you to where ever you wish to go. Be it to Fang or anywhere else you wish to settle.”

He eyed Raya but said, “I’ll discuss with my family where we’ll be going.”

He returned to his family. Raya exhaled. She accepted Wei’s numerous thanks and desperately hoped she wasn’t grimacing as she did. She’d justified her reasoning for siding with the family she did, but she didn’t feel good about it. Without really thinking why, she retreated to Namaari’s side. She wanted to be away from both families just then, not wanting to talk. She didn’t even question why she felt Namaari was the person she did want to talk to.

“That was a good speech,” Raya whispered, leaning towards Namaari.

“You think?” A small smile pulled on the corners of Namaari’s lips.

“Better than anything I’ve said to them.”

“I don’t know about that. You got them to listen to you when they were moments away from tearing each other apart. And you handled asking one family to leave without talking down to them.”

“I don’t even know if that was the right choice.”

“I don’t know about right or wrong, but it was a good choice.”

“Are you getting a lot of this in Fang?”

“Too much,” She sighed closing her eyes, “We were already pressed for land before. But between how much of the city was destroyed by the Druun and the return of everyone who turned to stone we don’t have the space to put everyone.”

“That’s why you’re expanding?”

“With the Druun gone we can do it safely. But there a whole slew of other issues raising their heads.” She pressed two fingers in-between her brows, rubbing in small circles.

Before Raya could ask for elaboration one of the Ta children, one of the older ones walked up.

“We’ve decided to go with you to Fang.” She said.

Raya and Namaari nodded.

“We can help you with your preparations.” Namaari looked to the pair of warriors with her, “Help them with any heavy lifting.” They inclined their heads to Namaari and walked over to the Ta family.

“I hope you don’t mind. I promised I’d accompany them on the journey.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Namaari’s smile grew.

It took a few hours for the Ta family to gather their things. More than once a new argument broke out between Quy and Wei, a heated debate over who owned some household utensil or piece of furniture. Raya bought the Danh’s cart for the Tas to stop one argument. Her energy and patience had worn thin by the time they were ready to leave. She was already fantasying about returning home after this journey to Fang. She just hoped she wouldn’t have to set out immediately to mediate a similar scenario.

The youngest of the Ta family, a kid about four or five from the looks of it, was inconsolable about having to leave. Her mother placed her into the back of the cart as she sobbed. The heaving wet sounds stabbing right into Raya's chest. 

"Do you still think the decision I made was good?" Raya asked as she watched one of the girl's brothers try to console her with little success. 

"I do," Namaari said simply. She gave Raya's shoulder a quick squeeze before walking to the young girl. Leaning down so they were eye level she began to speak to her in a soft voice. Raya couldn't hear what was being said, but she could see the way Namaari slowly garnered the girl's interest bit by bit. She didn't stop crying, not completely. But her sobs became soft whimpers and through the tears running down her cheeks, she watched Namaari as she spoke. Namaari was allowed to wipe her tears and she whispered one more thing to the girl before patting her head and returning to Raya. 

"That was amazing," Raya said, in genuine awe. 

Namaari ducked her head to hide her smile and shrugged. 

Once the family gathered all their things and the cart was packed they departed. Namaari promised they could reach the closest encampment before night fall, once they kept a steady pace during the day. An hour or so before dusk, after travelling most of the day, Raya couldn’t help it anymore. She had to ask.

“What is it?” She looked over to Namaari.

They were leading their small group, Raya astride Tuk Tuk, Namaari on her serlot, making a gradual pace through the forest.

“I-what?” Namaari looked bemused.

“You’ve been staring. What is it? Do I have dirt or something?” she scrubbed her face, acutely aware she didn’t have the time to wash up after her sudden awakening that morning.

“No, no.” Namaari looked down, hands slipping into the fur of her serlot. A subtle nudge and her mount quicken its pace so she was riding ahead of Raya. “Nothing like that.”

“Then what?” Raya tried to nudge Tuk Tuk faster, but over the uneven forest floor, the serlot had the advantage in mobility and speed.

“It’s just, it’s nothing really.”

“If a spinder fell on my back you have to tell me.”

Namaari looked back, “If you can’t feel on a spinder that big, that’s on you, not me.”

Raya couldn’t help jerking her head to see over her shoulder and was rewarded with Namaari’s laughter for her gullibility.

“That was rude.” The forest floor opened out and the space allowed Raya to fall in line with Namaari.

“It was a little funny.” Namaari shot back.

“Why do I even bother with you? Fine, don’t tell me whatever it is.”

“It’s…” Namaari hesitated, “I’m not used to seeing you in Heart colours.”

Raya looked down at her clothes. She was wearing a darker, muted cloak over her outfit, but underneath she did have a simple top in the greens and blues of Heart. She unconsciously drew her cloak closer.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” she added quickly.

“But I look weird,” Raya said.

“You look…like you’ve found your place again. Like you found your people.”

Raya fought the urge to snort. How did she explain she felt steadier while on a boat with people she’d only known for a few days than around the people she’d grown up with? In her attempt to mask her emotions she missed the way Namaari knocked the heel of her palm to her forehead and muttered under her breath.

The canopy above their heads opened out completely and Raya stopped Tuk Tuk. She whistled at the expanse before her. A section of the forest cleared away, stretching out before them. There were piles of logs stacked together every few hundred feet.

“You have been busy,” She said, looking to Namaari.

“We have a lot to do but I can't wait to show it to you.” Namaari smiled, “Raya, welcome to the new Fang.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Five Years Ago

 

“Namaari.”

“…”

“Up, my morning mist. I know it’s early my love, but I need you.”

Namaari wished she could just say no and return to the sweet bliss of unconsciousness but she couldn’t. Not when it was her mother calling to her. Not when she sounded harried.

The sky was still inky darkness. From what Namaari could see through her windows the stars weren’t even visible. That meant cloud cover. Virana was sitting at the edge of her bed, a lantern in hand. She’d mercifully thrown a shade over the light so it was softer on Namaari’s eyes.

“Raya is here. I need you to keep her company.”

“Okay,” An ingrained response to offer her mother help when she could answered for her. Only after she’d pulled herself from the bed did her mind catch up. “What?” She turned on her mother, eyes wide.

“Raya. Of Heart. She is here. In the dining hall. Listen to me Namaari it is imperative you make her feel welcomed.”

“Raya’s here? Why? What is she-” Every muscle in Namaari’s neck and chest tensed, “She’s here to steal the gem. Or to kill me or… or you.”

“Shh,” Virana soothed, combing her fingers slowly through Namaari’s hair. She placed her hands on both of Namaari’s shoulders. “She isn’t here to hurt anyone.”

“You can’t know that.”

“A mother knows these things.”

Namaari caught the turn of phrase. Those were the words Virana used when Namaari had skirted training because of bullying. Those were the words she used when Namaari wasn’t finishing meals so she could take a share to Atitaya. Those were the words she used when she knew Namaari was lying about her nightmares.

Those weren’t the words Virana used when she’d predicted Tail betraying them in a trade deal. It certainly wasn’t the words she used when she asked Namaari to get close to the heir of Heart for the sake of their people.

So why were they the words she used now, with Raya?

“Mother-”

“I understand where your apprehension comes from, but this is an opportunity we mustn’t let slip past.”

“Why me?”

“You’re the one she’ll feel the most comfort around.”

“No, she won’t. Not after what I did to her.”

Virana’s expression sharpened at the edges and she cupped Namaari’s cheeks. “We need information about the gem from Raya. We need to understand how Heart made its magic work for them. We need to get her to open up. She came to us, there is a reason for it. I need you to try, please, my morning mist.”

Namaari nodded. Of course, she was going to try. She didn’t believe she was going to be successful, but she would still try. If she was the one who could learn what they needed for their people then that’s what she would do.

“She came to us?”

“A patrol brought in her not long ago. She approached by our main pathway, making no efforts to hide herself.”

“Why?”

Virana shook her head, “Why she came to us, I don’t know. No whispers about her have reached my ears since she escaped Talon a moon ago. I can only guess what’s happened in that time. But she seems injured.”  

“Injured?”

“I can tell you no more. She hasn’t spoken much beyond asking for a meal.”

Namaari nodded once more. She changed out of her nightclothes. Her mother left with the promise of finding her again soon. She left behind the lantern for Namaari. Even with its light, the halls were still dark and the quiet of the early morning seemed to chill her more. Her chest was tight, all the muscles seemingly refusing to let her breathe as she descended to the lower levels of the palace.

The familiar doors to the dining hall stood before her with anything but their usual welcome. The gilded metal strung cold as she pressed her palm flat against the surface. She pressed her ear to the doors, listening. No sounds. Not from the dining hall.

She could hear the stirring from the kitchens in the opposite direction. But the doors in front of her gave no hint of what awaited Namaari on the other side. An ambush? A smile? A bloodied body? Namaari knew which one she hoped to find. She also knew which one was most likely.

Footsteps suddenly flattered behind her and Namaari turned. A kitchen hand, young lad, maybe only two or three years older than Namaari herself stood like a deer caught in headlights. He wasn’t one of the usual severing staff, Namaari knew their faces. But likely no one else was on hand, giving the time. The way he carried the pitcher in hand, both his hands around the neck instead of holding the handle, was a dead giveaway he was out of his element. Strangely she felt soothed, having someone else who was dragged out into uncertainly with her.

A final breath, filling the air in her lungs, hoping to find stability. She didn’t. But she pushed on the doors anyway.

No ambush. No blood. No smile. Just a small body at the table, wolfing down the contents from two plates. Raya froze when Namaari and the kitchen hand walked into the room. She eyed them both, lingering on Namaari longer. Slowly she took another bite. When neither Namaari nor the kitchen hand made any indication of stopping her she shifting back into a hurried pace. She had a plate of Som Tum, green papaya salad with a sauce made from signature Fang peppers and steamed fish, still half wrapped in fig leaves in front of her. Even at a glance Namaari could tell the meal was one thrown together quickly, the fish lacking any of the usual adornments and sides their chef usual would have served it with.

The kitchen hand stepped around Namaari with his pitcher. Raya tensed again as he drew closer, her eyes shifting from Namaari to him. He pulled her cup to the edge of the table, filling it quickly before stepping away into the corner of the room. Raya waited until he was out of reach again before taking the cup and downing it all in one.

She eyed the kitchen hand with such an intensity Namaari worried she was going to attack him. But she cleared her throat and in a voice timider than Namaari expected, asked, “Is there more?”

The kitchen hand glanced down at the pitcher and startled. He tripped over himself to pour another cup for her. He left the pitcher this time. Raya drank three cups in a row before she slowed down.  Namaari took that opportunity to sit opposite her at the table. ‘Make her feel welcomed’ her mother had said. She placed the lantern on the table and leaned forward on her elbows.

“Hi,” She ventured.

Raya glared at her, not answering as she continued to eat. She’d finished the Som Tum and was working her way through the last of the fish.

No reply. That was fair. Namaari hated feeling like she was failing her mother, but this was one time she thought her mother’s idea was flawed. Raya wouldn’t be comfortable around Namaari. Right now Namaari didn’t feel comfortable around herself, so thrown off by seeing Raya again.

It had been eight months since she’d last seen Raya as they’d fled Heart with a shard of the Dragon Gem. The change in those months was dramatic. Her face and eyes were drawn in, her skin a shade darker from their last encounter. Her clothes, Namaari recognized the cut and colors of a Heart warrior from the times they’d encounter some near their borders but the cloth was soiled and ripped, a hollow memory of former splendor Heart’s colours.

It took Namaari a moment to notice Raya was dropping some of her bites before she could bring it to her lips, her hand clumsy around her utensil. Her left hand, Namaari observed. She tried to think back to the meal at Heart and the hand Raya used there. Which arm had been the lead in their fight? The thought was too diluted from all the times she’d retraced the steps of that day to trust if she remembered correctly which hand Raya used as her dominant. 

But now, Raya’s right arm was tucked close to her body and, oh, covered in bandages. That might explain why she was using her left. The bandages rose up to her shoulder where dried blood, dark, almost black, stained the cloth.

“When was the last time you changed your dressing?” Namaari asked, forgetting who she was with. Forgetting this wasn’t a fellow Fang soldier she was sitting across from. Raya pulled her cloak over her shoulder and arm, shrinking back from Namaari.

Namaari was certain her mother’s judgement was flawed now.

As though summoned by her thoughts, Chief Virana strode into the room then, quiet and calm like an old river bend.

“Princess Raya, how was your meal? Forgive its simplicity. Unfortunately, short notice is not an ingredient in Fang’s best meals.”

That’s something about her mother Namaari truly admired, how she kept all emotions out of the equations when it came to matters of the people. Here Namaari was, too deep in her own thoughts to say more than ten words strung together. Yet her mother was placid.

“Chief Virana, please allow me a moment’s conversation with you.”         

Oh, so Raya was fine speaking with her mother. It was just Namaari then she took issue with. Understandable, but Namaari still felt an edge of annoyance.

“You are welcomed to as many moments as you desire, but please allow our physician to look at you first,” Virana called someone into the room, Fang’s head doctor who nodded to Raya.

Raya’s hand moved to her shoulder again, clutching at the fabric.

“I need to talk to you first,” Raya said, “About the gem.”

“I want to speak with you about the Dragon Gem as well. But you’re injured. Let’s take care of that.”

“I’m fine.”

“There have been rumours about your time in Talon,” Virana said carefully.

Raya’s expression darkened and she stood, the chair scraping against the floor cutting the air. Namaari stood as well, shifting so she was between her mother and Raya.

“Raya, I wish to talk, same as you.”

“Then talk,” Raya said.

There was a moment’s silence and in an instance, Namaari saw her mother calculate an unknown number of paths and came out with the one she deemed most favourable. Her posture went from open to the rigid demeanor Namaari most associated with her mother when in a council meeting. 

“The Gem, how did Heart use it?”

Raya blinked. “We didn’t use it. We protected it.”

“You must have used it. There is something we don’t understand. Something to the magic. A trick.”

“The Gem didn’t give us the prosperity you think it did. We only protected it.”

Virana’s eyes narrowed. “You said you came here to discuss the gem. What do you want to discuss?”

“We need to bring to gem together. If we do maybe it can reverse what the Druun have done.”

“You posture Heart has never used the gem, yet you come asking to do just that.”

“That’s,” Raya inhaled sharply, “This is not the same.”

“How Princess Raya?”

“It’s just not.”

“We want to provide for our people, same as you want to protect yours. Tell us how to use the gem.”

“The gem doesn’t work like that,” Raya’s voice grew heated now.

“Then how does it work?”

“I don’t know! My Ba, he just believed it would bring our people together. We could have been Kumandra. But you ruined that.”

Raya stepped forward and Namaari got ready, sensing the attacking coming. Raya’s arms raised at the same time but the moment her right hand lifted towards her shoulder her body seized. Namaari’s guard dropped as she hesitated. Their physician, Khamla moved to Raya. Namaari was going to stop her, but Virana’s hand on her shoulder pulled her back. She gave a small shake of her head.

Khamla pulled back Raya’s cloak, pressing her fingers to the bandages. Raya winched, grabbing her hand to stop her.

“How long as this injury been like this?”

“A month, since I left Talon.”

“It shouldn’t be swollen at this stage.” She said and looked to Virana, “She needs treatment. This argument can wait until after.”

Virana nodded once, “Help her.”

“I don’t need-” Raya started to push her away but moving her arm brought another wave of pain.

Khamla didn’t let her argue again, helping her stand. She led her from the room.

Namaari looked to her mother, who without turning her head to return the gaze said, “Say what’s on your mind.”

“Nothing, mother.”

“Nothing?” Virana turned her fully at that.

“I- we can’t trust her, but her pain seemed genuine.” 

“There is a reason I didn’t bring my staff to this meeting.”

Namaari only then realized her mother didn’t carry the staff and she silently chided herself for missing details.

“And if our suspicions are true and Raya has the fifth shard that didn’t turn up at one of the other tribes I suspect strongly she didn’t bring it with her either.”

“Was this a ploy to get her shard?”

Virana’s head tilted to the side, “You know I won’t lie with you.”

Namaari nodded.

“Two shards is a tempting and if the opportunity were to lay before us, I would consider it.”

“Yet, there is an addendum you’re thinking of.”

“What factors would change if we were to have a second shard?”

“Having more could bring us the prosperity Heart had?” Namaari ventured.

“There is a potential to that, yes, but what are the certainties?”

Namaari thought, “The other tribes.”

“Yes?”

“Which each tribe holding one piece of the gem each we have a tentative stalemate. If we were to gain a second, their eyes would turn to us.”

“Is that worth the potential of prosperity?”

“Not the potential no.”

“This we agree on. I was honest with Raya and asked plainly want I wanted to know.”

“Do you think she’ll tell us?”

“I think we should let her be, until Doctor Khamla has treated her. And that you should return to bed. Your rest is important.”

“Yes, mother.” Namaari bowed to her mother, but she didn’t return to her room. She went to the training grounds, taking up one of the dulled Ngao from the racks. She’d always picked her daab’s, her swords like second nature, but the longer reach of the staff wasn’t one she’d found a comfort in as of yet. She was determined to work at it until she had.

“Is it true?”

She was well into running through memorized forms when Atitaya’s voice broke her concentration.

“Is the Heart Princess here?”

Namaari nodded. Atitaya gave a low whistle.

“She’s bold.”

“I don’t know what she is.”

“Fang would make her four for four.”

“Four?”

“She’s been to the other tribes in the past weeks.”

“I only knew of Talon.”

“Talon is where she made the biggest showing. No wonder that’s what people are talking of. But some patrols along the Spine border were chatty with some of our men. She’s been to Spine and Tail as well.”

“Mother would want to know this.”

“I’m sure your mother already knows. I’m surprised you didn’t.”

“Why did she go?”

Atitaya shrugged as she chose a rencong, a heavier and longer sword than the daabs Namaari preferred from the racks.  “She asked for the same thing at each tribe, to see their Chief. Tail refused her outright. Talon turned into a mess and Spine fully refused to open its gates to her.”

“She asked mother to bring the pieces together.”

Atitaya snorted, “Yeah. Certainly bold. So you talked with her?” She joined Namaari in her exercise, going through the motions of repeated attacks and blocks, warming up.

“I wasn’t the one talking.”

“Where is she now?”

“The medical wing.”

“In th- did you attack her?”

“No, she was already injured.”

“Is she okay?”

“I don’t know,” Namaari answered honestly.

“Don’t you want to know if she is?”

“I don’t know,” She says again, less honest this time.

“Well, I want to see her.” Atitaya moved as Namaari swung a faux attack. She stumbled when the resistance of a block she’d been expecting never came.

“Atitaya, wait.” She dropped the staff and ran after Atitaya.

She followed Atitaya to the medical wing, glancing around.

“Why do you look scared to get caught?” Atitaya narrowed her eyes at her.

“Mother said we shouldn’t interrupt Doctor Khamla.”

“We’re not going to interrupt. I just want a peek.”

As if to spite them both, they heard Virana’s voice and out of instinct pressed themselves to the wall.

“Were her injuries serious?”

“They could have been. A fractured bone in the shoulder that wasn’t set properly. I don’t even know how that girl walked her on her own. She would have been in constant pain the past weeks. I managed to set it, but it wasn’t pretty. I also redid some stitches she’d done herself.”

“Did you say where the injuries came from?”

“No, didn’t say much to me. But I can I guess where they did happen. Even us medics are talking about what Dang Hai did.”

Virana made a noise in the back of her throat, “I understand wanting information on the gem. But what he did, he’s as lawless as the rest of his people.”

“They say she never talked,” Khamla said.

“Impressive for a girl her age. She’s only a bit younger than Namaari.”

“Seeing those injuries, if Dang Hai couldn’t get what he wanted, either she doesn’t know or was telling the truth.”

Virana didn’t respond at first, then, “Is she awake?”

“She should be. She refused the pain draught I offered her.”

“Will you let me speak with her?”

“You are my chief and I will heed your orders.”

“You are her doctor and I will listen to what you think is best.”

“…Try not to get her worked up again.”

Namaari and Atitaya listened as Virana’s footsteps moved away from them. They skirted around the edge of the building to keep listening. The conversation didn’t last very long, Virana and Raya going around in the same circles as earlier. Raya remained insistent the gem gave no magical advantages. Virana was stubborn in her disbelieve. Raya asked that the gem be used to save those turned to stone. Virana wasn’t going to hand over the gem knowing the other tribes would never agree to the same.

They talked around each other until a heated back and forth left Raya coughing with a groan of pain. Virana simply dismissed herself at that point, rejoining Doctor Khamla.

“She’s delusional if she thinks she can get the tribes to relinquish their gem pieces,” Namaari said.

“But, if it’s true, don’t you think it’s worth it to try? If we can return everyone from stone?”

Namaari chewed the inside of her cheek, “Sisu was the one who reversed the Druun’s powers. Without a dragon, the gem would be useless.”

“Maybe Heart does know how to use the gem and she’s hiding it.”

“If she is, then she can’t be trusted.” Namaari pulled on the hem of Atitaya’s shirt, “We should go.”

“No, please. I want to hear your opinions.”

Namaari and Atitaya’s heads shot up. The window above their heads was open and Virana looking down at them. They both jumped to their feet, Atitaya bowing.

“Mother.”

“Ma’am.”

“Do I bother asking what you’re both doing? Or shall I say my assumptions?”

Namaari straightened her shoulders, “I wanted to inquire of Princess Raya’s health.” She didn’t how much of that a statement was a lie. Hopefully, that meant her mother wouldn’t be able to read the lie either. Virana’s eyes narrowed for a moment. She saw right through Namaari.

“You don’t inquire by hiding outside of hallways.”

“Yes, mother.”

“Yes, Chief Virana.”

“To answer the question you didn’t ask, she’ll heal completely once she doesn’t aggravate the injury.” Khamla said, “I’m going for one last attempt to convince her to take something for the pain. I can give you a full report after.”

Namaari nodded, her skin hot and her mother’s boring gaze locking her to the spot.

“Chief Virana, I was the one who asked Namaari to come.”

Namaari, somehow, suppressed the urge to look at Atitaya. She just said a quick, “Don’t.”

“You should listen to your princess, Atitaya. Her actions will always be her own, no matter the influence of those around her. It is not your job to take responsibility for Namaari’s actions. As for your own decision to come here to eavesdrop you are better than such lowly acts. One day you will rise to be an important voice in Fang. I wish for that day to be sooner rather than later. Prove to me you will rise the expectations I have you.”

Atitaya nodded, her neck stiff.

Virana exhaled, expression softening, “Your concern for the Heart Princess is not out of place. You, both of you, are well within your rights to ask about her condition. I brought a potential enemy into Fang and offered her aid she needed. If you asked out of concern for the people of Fang having an enemy among them and why that is well within your right as the Princess and as a Captain. If you asked out of concern for Raya herself, then it is an admirable quality. You can look at an enemy and also see a person. You are both above lurking outside, especially when you each have reason to be in this room as well. All you needed was to ask. Understood?”

Namaari and Atitaya nodded together.

There was a sharp cry from the infirmary, the three of them turning to the sound. Namaari was the first to react. That cry had been Khamla’s. She was sure Raya had attacked the doctor by the sound of it. She vaulted through the open window, down the hallway to the doorway of Raya’s room. She kicked the ajar door fully open, running in, ready to strike. But her momentum flattered when she only saw the doctor in there.

“What?”

“She’s gone. She was just here.”

Namaari quickly assessed. The bed was empty. There were no potential hiding places. The pack Raya had with her was gone. Virana and Atitaya appeared in the doorway. Namaari met Atitaya’s gaze.

“She’s running. Get Sinn and Seo-Jin. She can’t be far. We’ll track her.”

Atitaya nodded, turning. Virana caught her shoulder, holding her firmly in place.

“No, you are not.”

“Mother,” Namaari started.

Virana cut her off with a firm, “No.”

“But.”

“Why are you going after her?”

“Because she’s running.”

“She came her of her own accord. And we offered aid of our own accord. She is not our prisoner. Enemy or not, she has given us no reason to detain her.”

“But-”

“But what Namaari? What will you do if you bring her back? Throw her in a cell? Under what charge?”

“I-I don’t know.”

“We allow her the dignity of this choice. You will not pursue. We will not lower ourselves to the same level as Talon thugs.”

“Yes, mother.”

“Good. Both of you, to your duties.”

“Yes, Chief Virana.”

“Yes, mother.”

Namaari trusted her mother completely, even when she didn’t see reason with her. Her mother was older, wiser. She understood things Namaari was only just becoming aware of. She never doubted her. So it couldn’t have been doubt that carried Namaari to the infirmary later that day.

She was, of course, going to listen to her mother’s orders, so asking Doctor Khamla if Raya could have gotten far with her injuries was a moot point. And asking how they’d heal without proper care wasn’t a factor she need concern herself with.

“I set the bone properly while she was here. Her stitching could use some work, but her bandages were well done, so she can handle that on her own. She’s young, so she should make a full recovery once she doesn’t try to use the arm for anything extraneous in the coming weeks.”

“Good to know.”

“Why do you ask?”

Namaari swallowed. She didn’t have an answer. Not right away. After a moment she decided her reasoning, “I suspect this won’t be my last encounter with the Heart Princess. If our next meeting is with weapons drawn I’d like to know if this injury would leave her with any lasting effects I could exploit.” That sounded reasonable enough that Namaari even believed herself.

The next time she met Raya, two months later, it was with weapons drawn. The patrol in the area had claimed seeing a Scale. Fang warriors came upon Raya first, Namaari arrived on the scene when two warriors were already disarmed and on the ground, and the third barely keeping Raya contained.

Namaari understood why she was mistaken for a Scale. The Heart colours were gone now. Replaced with muted colours aligned with no tribe. Her hair, open and wild. And a sword that looked too big for her, but she still held with an expert grip. An expert grip in her left hand.

Her injury hadn’t left her with a handicap. It had increased her versatility. A burning jealousy settled under Namaari’s skin, hardened when Raya left her winded on the forest floor, making their fight seem like it was play for her. In Raya of Heart, Namaari decided then, she had found a rival she wouldn’t lose to.


“Do you remember when Raya came to Fang asking we use the gem to save those turned to stone?”

General Atitaya shifted in her saddle to look at Namaari next to her. It was four days since Raya had come to Fang with them. She’d been helping since then. She’d joined Namaari and Atitaya in construction. Yesterday afternoon she’d assisted their camp’s chef preparing the evening meal. Everyone talked about it being the best meal they had in weeks afterwards. Today they’d ventured from the housing construction, travelling to fields being cleared for agriculture. The area had been cleared of trees and now they were working on uprooting the stumps left behind. They could sometimes use their serlots for assistance but Fang’s mounts were better for speed and agility so most of the stumps had to be dug out by hand. The serlots were used mostly for pulling the stone and wood on sleds once they’d been dug out.

However, Tuk Tuk had proved to have better pulling power than a serlot. He’d demolished some of the trickery stumps. But even he was taking time with this one deeply embedded root system. They’d been working on it continuously for three hours now, digging down and readjusting the ropes to give better leverage.

“You know I do, so ask your real question.”

Namaari snorted “You’re too much like my mother. No chance for preamble with either of you.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. Now, what’s in your head Namaari.”

“What do you think would have happened if we’d agreed?”

“Nothing. We know now only reuniting the stone with shared trust could have stopped the Druun. Even if Fang had been willing then, the other tribes weren’t. And if we’re honest, Fang wasn’t willing then either.”

“But, what if, we’d asked Raya to stay when she was injured?”

“Maybe she would have proved to be a good ally than as she has proven now. Maybe we could have joined in her search for Sisu instead of being her pursuers. But energy and time spent on the missed opportunities of yesterday only take those away from planning for tomorrow.”

“You really are too much like mother. Not meant as a compliment.”

Atitaya laughed, “Namaari, you punish yourself for past choices. You don’t want Fang to be recorded as history’s villains.”

“That’s what we are to the other tribes.”

“Right now all the tribes are shedding the idea that we’re advisories. For all the tribes, not just with Fang. The history is being written now. Our actions will colour those words. And even if Fang is called the villain, so what? We’ll prove them wrong.”

She lightly kicked Namaari’s shin, “Chin up Princess. I swear your mood has been a pendulum the past few days."  She shook her head at Namaari before looking back to th fields, "Okay, what are they doing now?” She leaned down to detach Seo-Jin from the sled he had been pulling with Sinn.

All the other workers had retired for the day, about to lose the last vestiges of daylight. Namaari and Atitaya had just cleared their last loaded sled for the day. Now the only group who remained at work was Raya and six Fang workers all trying to pull out the demon stump as they’d taken to calling it. A few minutes ago they’d watched one of the men walk away, assuming they were giving up for the day and the others were just untying all the ropes before retiring for the evening as well. But that man was now walking back one of the large sledgehammers on his shoulders.

Atitaya rode up to them.

“There’s no shame in admitting defeat for today,” She said, “Half an hour more you’ll be working in the dark. We can tackle this in the morning.”

“General, we’ve figured out why this one refuses to move,” A man called from in the hole they’d dug around the large stump.

“The roots grew around a boulder,” Raya pointed to a slab of stone the roots were interlocked around.

“How long have you been digging?” The last time Atitaya had seen this hole it had been at least five feet shallower.

The man in the hole laughed, “At first we thought we could dig out the stone, but it kept going down.”

“Boodie,” The worker carrying the sledgehammer joined them at this point, kneeling down to pass the hammer to the man in the hole.

“We’ll shatter the boulder and we’ll call it an evening, General,” Another worker said, “We already have the hammer out here.”

Atitaya could see series of metal wedges had already been bored into the stone as points. She nodded. She understood not wanting to leave a task unfinished.

Raya got Tuk Tuk ready in case the stump started to slide back into the hole once the stone it was anchored around was smashed so the stump wouldn’t fall back on Boodie in the hole. Atitaya dismounted and tied Seo-Jin to the rope array as well as extra insurance.

In the hole Boodie started hammering away, the heavy falls of the hammer echoing faintly with each strike to the metal wedged in the stone. He’d gotten two chunks off, the second one falling out of the roots and landing to the side of him with a dull, almost hollow sound at the bottom of the hole. With that part broken off, they could see the stone went deeper than they’d dug.  

“Okay down there Boodie?” One worker called as she coughed in the dust cloud.

“Two more wedges and the stone should be free of the roots.”

His next strike missed the metal wedge, the hammer slamming into the stone. The vibrations reverberated up the stump and through the tension of the ropes. And seems to pass into the ground.

“Wait, wait,” One of the workers called, but it was already too late.

The vibrations got stronger, the earth around the edge of the hole starting to cave in.

“Boodie!”

With a heavy crack and groan the ropes looped around the trunk went taunt as it slid back into the hole. Tuk Tuk, not prepared rolled backwards with the sudden force. Seo-Jin, with a panicked growl, clawed into the ground, but there was only loose dirty, dug up from the hole and gave him no purchase.

Raya and Atitaya both grabbed ropes, trying to pull in the opposite direction.

“Boodie!” Someone was leaning over the edge reaching for him, but he was pulled back by someone else as the edge of the hole kept fallen in. Boodie had vanished from sight for anyone looking down.

The stump was dipping lower and lower, Tuk Tuk and Seo-Jin being pulled with it. Raya saw one root, looped with rope bending back. Her hands left the rope she was bracing and she tackled Atitaya moments before the root snapped off, recoiling in the space they’d been standing. It pinged off Tuk Tuk’s shell.

Sinn bounded in, Namaari jumping off, cutting the ropes binding Tuk Tuk and Seo-Jin. She grabbed Atitaya and Raya, pulling them back as the hole widened. It swallowed the trunk.

Then all was still.

The hole had almost doubled in diameter and the bottom wasn’t visible.   

“Boodie!” One of the men called down.

Namaari threw a small stone down. One second, two seconds, three seconds, fou-… it hit something. “Get more ropes!” Namaari shouted in the direction of the workers running from the camp.

Raya drew her sword from Tuk Tuk’s saddle, stabbed the edge into the dirt and jumped into the hole.

“Raya!” Namaari tried to grab her but was a second too slow. She disappeared into the darkness. There was a moment quiet.

Then, “He’s pinned under the rubble! But he’s breathing.”

“Is he conscious?” Atitaya called down.

“No!”

“I’m tossing down a water skin. See if that snaps him awake.”

At the bottom of the hole, Raya heard the water skin land near her. She felt around, grasping nothing but air and dirt for a few seconds. But she grabbed the soft leather of the skin and pulled the stopper off, pouring it over Boodie’s face.

Dirt and grime was caked on his face and a gash somewhere on his head hidden by his hair was bleeding down the side of his face and into his ear. The water washed it away. He spluttered, spitting the water out. Instantly he screamed.

“Don’t try to move,” Raya said when his first reaction was to pull himself.

Some dirt fell on her head and Raya glanced up to see Namaari being lowered down, a rope around her waist. She dropped the last few feet.

“You’re conscious. Good,” She said, seeing him looking at her. She scanned quickly, taking in the situation.

“Looks like we dug into a cave. You’re lucky it wasn’t deeper.”

“I don’t feel so lucky right now,” He grimaced.

“You are. I think this means you get some time off,” Namaari tried to joke. “Raya, help me with this.” She nodded to the stone on his feet. Standing on either side, they lifted together, Raya slipping under it to brace it with her shoulder. Namaari pulled Boodie away and Raya let the slab fall again once he was clear.

“We should splint that leg before we pull him out,” She said pointing above them.

“Namaari we’re dropping a torch!” Atitaya’s voice came down, “Lookout.”

A length of wood dropped down next to Raya, making her jump. A beat after, something smaller, flint, dropped. Raya lit the torch, holding it so they could see his leg.

“Definitely needs a splint.”

She cut off a length of root from the stump that caved in. Raya ripped the edges of her cloak handing it to Namaari. Bracing his leg with the root, they tied it. Then Namaari looped the rope in a crisscross around his shoulders and chest.

“Not great, but you won’t have to be like this for long,” She offered him a small smile before calling up, “We have Boodie tied off, don’t pull quickly.”

She and Raya helped brace him for the first few feet as he was lifted before watching him rise above their heads slowly. Namaari kept her eyes on him the whole way up, while Raya picked up the torch again.

“Hey, Princess Undercut,” She called, pulling Namaari’s attention, “I don’t think we dug into a cave.”

Namaari turned, seeing a tunnel stretching out ahead of them. The floor, walls and ceiling were made from slabs of cut stone. Just at the edge of the firelight in front of them, an ornately carved tile, more decorative than any of the others they could see. And in the centre, a Fang symbol.

Chapter Text

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?”

Raya nodded.

“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.

“Run!”

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.

Atitaya fell.

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.

“How much?”

“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.”

“You didn’t.”

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.

 

Chapter Text

Raya sat down on the edge of the steps. The stone underhand was chilled from the night air. Namaari sat next to her, folding her feet under her.

“Beds have been a surprising stranger to me,” Raya said.

“What do you mean?”

“The softness.” Raya gave a half-laugh, “It sounds stupid saying it out loud. But it’s too soft for me.” Every time I’ve tried to sleep in one since- since everything happened, I feel like I’m going to sink through. I guess I got to use to the dirt.”

“Oh,”

“Stupid, right?”

“No. No.” Namaari shook her head. “I wouldn’t think that.”

“I would. It’s just a bed. I used to sleep in one perfectly before.”

Namaari fidgeted with a bit of hair between two fingers, “I was the reason you lost that bed.”

Raya exhaled, closing her eyes for a moment, “It was a lot more than just you.”

“But I was a factor.” Namaari looked at her.

Raya met her gaze, silent for a long moment, “It was a lot more than just you.” She said again, “And it wasn’t like I didn’t have opinions. Heart wasn’t completely whipped out. I had people I could have been with, but I choose to wander by myself. Aside from Tuk Tuk.”

Narmaari’s shoulders dropped and she drew her knees up under her chin, “I can’t even imagine what it was like for you. The chaos of those first days, to be in that alone.” Namaari remembered those first days the clearest when she thought back on the years the Druun had plagued them. The numbers kept climbing each day as they lost more and more of their people. At times the advisors of their council wanted to stop counting. Her mother refused too. ‘The moment we stop counting we will only see what the Druun have taken from us as a community but we must not forget each number is a life taken. Each number is a person we failed to protect.’ That was her mother had said. Namaari couldn’t imagine what she would have done if the Druun had decimated Fang the same way it had Heart and she had to live after that. Namaari’s life was her mother. It was Atitaya. It was her people. Without them, she wouldn’t be whole.

“I don’t really remember much of those first days,” Raya said, “It was just a blur. I washed up near the Spine border and I was lost for a few weeks before I found a landmark I recognized.”

“Wait, washed up?”

“Oh. My Ba, he threw me in the river to protect me from the Druun.”

Namaari covered her eyes with her hands. Raya huffed and nudged Namaari.  

“It’s hard to talk to you if you’re going to feel bad for everything you’ve done in the past.”

“It’s hard, with my pass, to have a conversation with you that doesn’t remind me of everything I did.”

Raya looked up, rubbing her arm for a moment, “You did fuck each other up a few times.”

“That’s putting it mildly.”

“But the way I see it, us being the heirs of Heart and Fang we’re going to have to keep interacting in the future. We can let the past dictate that every conversation we have is going to feel like pulling teeth. Or we can say screw it.”

“You make it sound easy.”

“I don’t think it’s easy at all. Politics on the whole I’m still getting used to it again. And with you, talking about our past, it hurts. But listening to you talk today in that vault. Or when you explain the reasoning behind the design of a roadway or a bridge. That’s okay. I like talking with you then. I want more of that. I want to be able to talk about, anything with you, without it hurting. I don’t know how we’re going to get there, but I don’t think avoiding what we’ve done to each other is going to solve anything.”

Namaari looked at her, eyes flittering over her features before her gaze turned up, mirroring Raya’s.

“You have any ideas how we’re going to do that?”

“Well, shit, I thought you’d know,”

“Why would you think that?”

“You’re so good at,” She gestured at Namaari, “That stuff.”

“That stuff?”

“The people stuff.”

Namaari laughed, “People stuff,” She repeated.

“You know what I mean. I’m not good at any of that.”

“You’re selling yourself short.”

“I am not. I have no clue how to be a leader. But you meld so easily with your people.”

“You handled that conflict with the family we brought here.”

“No I didn’t. You gave me an out that they took. I had no solution for them. But you did and they weren’t even off Fang. And you still offered them a place.”

Namaari exhaled through her lips, smiling faintly, “They were almost to blows when we arrived. You talked them down before I ever offered anything. And can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure, not I’ll make no promise to not tell Atitaya.”

Namaari chuckled, “Oh, Atitaya is already aware of this. The truth is I don’t know how to be a leader either.”

Raya kicked her, although the force she put behind it wasn’t there. It was more of a shove than a kick. “You don’t need to make me feel better.”

“I’m being honest here.”

“For someone who doesn’t know, you’ve been doing a good job of it.”

“You’ve only seen have to deal with people in and around the expansion. It’s easy to lead when there’s a goal we’re all working towards. The hard moments are when you don’t know what the next goal should be.”

“I’ve been watching you for much longer than the last few days. You’ve always been a competent leader.”

Namaari’s mouth was dry, robbing any response from her.

“For so many of my people, I was the young princess, not tall enough to reach the top shelf. And suddenly I’m a young woman expected to lead them.”

“You’re still not tall enough to reach the top shelf.”

“Shut up, binturi.”

“Give them time. It’s only been a few months. It’s going to take time for normal to return.”

“I don’t know if normal is something we will find again.” Raya leaned back on her elbows. “I mean, until a few months ago normal for us was trying to kill each other.”

“I could stab you, if it makes you feel better.”

Raya laughed, “You could try.”

“You don’t think I could?”

“I know you couldn’t.”

Raya gasped as two knuckles jabbed into her side, hard enough to steal the air from her lungs.

“Not fair,” Raya wheezed, “I thought we were having a moment.”  

“We were. And then we had a moment where I stabbed you.”

Raya lashed out, grabbing for Namaari, only she was prepared, leaning out of the way.

“Binturi, take your hit like a warrior.”

“Only a poor warrior gets hit,” Namaari smirked.

Raya leapt at her, grabbing her collar.

“Hey!” Namaari rolled with the momentum, pulling Raya over her body and pinning her to the ground. Only Raya was counting on that, throwing her shoulder into Namaari’s as she pulled her weight over, taking them into another rotation that ended with Raya on top, hand hovering above Namaari’s neck. Namaari’s chest rose and fell, once, twice. The third time with a heavy huff.

“It's too late to be doing this anyway.”

“So you ceded? I win?”

“If it makes you feel better.” She moved Raya’s hand away from her neck.

Raya stood, holding out her hand for Namaari which she took, letting her help her up.

“I haven’t thanked you, for what you did today.”

Raya tilted her head, puzzled, “What did I do today?”

“You jumped into harm’s way to help Atitaya. Twice. You went down that hole after one of my men without a moment’s hesitation.”

“Oh. That? That was…Anyone would have done it.”

“Not anyone,” Namaari said, holding her gaze, “But a leader- a leader does things like that.”

“Sure.” Raya snorted, “A leader would put themselves in harm’s way carelessly? A good leader would protect their people best by being there too lead. I’m too reckless for that.”

“My mother has a saying. Good leaders know that be keeping themselves alive they’re giving themselves more chances to keep their people alive. But the best leaders recognize the difference between protecting oneself and hiding. If you weren’t a good leader you wouldn’t be so willing to give up your own safely for the sake of people who aren’t yours.”

“We’re Kumandra. They are our people. Or, I want to come to think of them as that.”

“Kumandra. Another new normal we will all have to come to terms with.”

“Add it to the list.”

“If Talon ever decides who’s leading them, what’s your father’s first plan for that council of his?”

“He wants to establish formal leadership for the people.”

“Is he proposing himself? Or you?”

Raya did a double-take at that, laughing, “Me? That’s crazy.”

Namaari hummed, “Is it? You brought us together. You seem, to me, the perfect candidate to lead us forward.”

“Weren’t you listening when I said I don’t know how to be a leader to my own people in Heart?”

“I was. I was also listening when you called us all Kumandra.”

“That’s different.”

“How?”

“Being a servant to the people is different than leading them.”

“If a leader isn’t there for the service for their people then who are they there for?”

“I’m not going to be the leader of anything any time soon. Besides, Ba doesn’t have plans to take the leadership. He wants a council. Joint leadership. Each chief has a seat at the table, everyone has a voice.”

“That’s why he needs Talon to pick their leader.”

“Can’t offer one seat to two people.”

“You think the other tribes are going to agree to a joint council?” Namaari asked.

“I don’t know. Sometimes I still think peace is too good to be true. But you had a point when you said no one wants to be the idiot who risks the druun’s return by breaking the peace.”

“No one wants to be that.” Namaari agreed, pushing down a yawn.

“I’ve kept you up,” Raya said.

“No, no.” Namaari shook her head, “I’m enjoying it.”

“We should rest,” Raya deflected, turning to make her way back to her room, “Big day ahead.”

“Raya,” Namaari started to say but she was already walking away. Namaari sighed, “Good night.”

The next morning Atitaya greeted her by pressing her thumb into a sore spot just to the left of her chin. The flash of pain made her pull away suddenly.

“Did we miss that yesterday?” She asked, “We checked for injuries before we retired and you didn’t have any.”

Namaari touched the spot, wincing when she found it tender, “It must have happened last night, with Raya.”

“Excuse me?”

Chapter Text

“Excuse me?” Atitaya’s brows rose and her jaw dropped. “Are you telling you were with Raya last night?”

“Yes? What of it?”

“What of it?” Atitaya repeated the words in a breathless rush, “What of it? Namaari, consider for a moment the fact that the princess of Heart gave you a hickey.”

“A hic-” Namaari choked on nothing, “What? No! No! By the dragons no. This is, we had a tussle last night. She threw me into the ground.”

“A tussle? Really?”

“Atitaya, what sounds more likely? Raya and I having a fight or her giving me a hickey.”

“The fighting would make more sense.”

“Thank you. Really,” Namaari huffed and under her breath, she said, “A hickey, really.” She rubbed at the spot with the heel of her palm.

“But you can’t blame me, given how much time you’ve been spending together.”

“What would that have to do with anything?”

Atitaya stared at her blankly for a few moments, “Namaari, really?”

Namaari stared back with an expression just as blank, then she blinked and a red hue crept up on her cheeks, “Does it look like that? Do we look like that?”

Atitaya snorted and just walked away. Namaari went after her, “Atitaya!”

“No, you don’t look like that.” Atitaya said, “Not with the way you two tiptoe around each other half the time, like you’re expecting to step on broken pottery with a misstep. Mostly from your end.”

Namaari spluttered.

“You’re still trying to apologize for your actions.”  

“And you still think that’s the wrong course to choose.”

“The way you’re doing it, yes.” Atitaya looked at her, “Your words on the past are worthless without actions to change the future.”

“Have I ever mentioned how much I detest it when you sound like my mother?”

“Several times.”

“I already have one of her. That’s enough.”

Atitaya snorted, shaking her head. 

A servant knocked on the door, “Princess, General, the engineer, and the builders have arrived. And Princess Raya is awake.”

“Thank you. Send everyone else in.”

Atitaya glanced at her again, “We’re beginning without your mother?”

“We had a conversation about it this morning before you were awake. She agrees with me that the vaults could take us out of the red with our costs, but she still thinks searching for the other two is an extravagance we can’t afford to put people into without certainly. For now, she’s trusting me with the excavation of the one we have found.”

Atitaya hummed softly.

“You can’t make that sound and not tell me what’s on your mind.”

Atitaya smiled, “She’s trusting you with more responsibility.”

“She’s just testing me. Like she’s always done.”

“No. Not like she’s always done. She’s let you lead before, but she’d also be in this room with you. She thinks you’re ready to do this on your own.”

Namaari made a sharp sound of disbelief and rolled her eyes, “There are other things to be done. She’s not here because she had better things to do than babysit me. It’s going to be decades before I’m ready to do this without her.”  

 “You say that Princess, but I think even you know that you’re more ready than you’re willing to admit.”

The door opened, silencing their conversation. Four people entered, bowing to Namaari. She invited them to sit and explained what they’d found and their plans.

“Do you think you’d be able to construct a pump, Sonan?” Namaari asked the engineer.

They rubbed their chin, “It’s not a matter of if, Princess. Could I? Yes. Easily. It’s a matter of how long it would take me. The entrance you found was some distance from the main chamber, yes?”

“We must have walked, 600 meters, more maybe.”

“A system of that length, to build underground. It will take some time.” They said, “And there’s the issue of materials. That much piping, we’re going to need to pull from materials set aside for the expansion.”

Namaari shook her head, “Unacceptable. This cannot interrupt the timeline for the expansion.”

“That’s going to extend the time we need to drain the chamber, Princess.”

“I understand that. But the content of that cavern isn’t moving. But our people need homes now. That is the priority.”

“Understood.” They gave a deep exhale, “We could potentially dig straight down to set up the pump. I’d have to calculate where the cavern is in relation to the surface.”

“Can you do it?” Atitaya asked.

“Of course.”

The conversation continued, Namaari outlining everything that needed to be done, with her people offering their advice on what was feasible or not.

“Princess Namaari, if this is the vault of legend, shouldn’t we have diverted our soldiers to guarding it.”

“We’ve already assigned men.”

“Yes, but surely protecting this would need more than a few spare soldiers. If the other tribes were to learn of this, there’s no doubt they’d come to claim it.”

“That’s not a worry. No one outside of Fang is aware of it. We’ll have it properly secured before anyone else can learn of it.”

“The Heart Princess is already aware of it. Who’s to say a company of Heart soldiers won’t arrive on the morrow, claiming the right to our jade with some factious claim that we’re all Kumandra so our treasure is shared.”

“We are Kumandra,” Namaari said, her voice steady.

“Does all our jade belong to Kumandra?” One asked.

Atitaya glanced at Namaari, keeping her own expression neutral. She could see Namaari’s face shift just slightly, a hesitation, as she tensed her jaw for a beat.

“Our resources will go towards helping our people. Make no mistake of that,” Namaari said, mimicking her mother’s calculated tone, “Now, are you going to continue asking me irrelevant questions not related to the construction that needs to be done? Or are we done here?” Her tone said there was only one right answer and everyone in the room understood what that was.

“We’ll begin preparations right away,” The engineer said. They stood first, leading the others out of the room.

When the door closed behind them Namaari let out a long frustrated huff, “Now, I do wish mother had been here.”

“You handled it well.”

“No, I didn’t. I danced around the answer.”

“True, but you act as if your mother hasn’t done the same. Or any ruler before you. But they broach a valid concern. If we share the name of Kumandra now, how much else do we share?”

“I hope you’re not expecting an answer from me now,” Namaari said as she stood.

“No. But I would be impressed if you did have one.”

“You could surprise me and offer a solution.”

“No. I couldn’t possibly step out of my station. I’m the General. My concerns are with the army and defense of our people.”

“Suddenly it’s inappropriate for you to step out of your station,” Namaari said with an amused snort.

Sensing that Namaari wanted solitude, Atitaya didn’t follow her. Namaari preferred to think on her own.  She never sought her mother’s council, unless she had some semblance of an idea first. She wanted to be able to offer solutions, not just expect her mother to solve the problem for her. When she had something that truly left her in a conundrum there was one of three places she’d retreat to, her room, the archives, or the stables. Today she went to the latter.

But the solitude she was seeking wasn’t to be found. Once she was within earshot of the stables she could hear, “I don’t know what you want. I, I can’t help you. Stop. Please, stop.”

Namaari stepped into the stables, to see Raya in-between Tuk Tuk and Seo-Jin. The serlot was curling against Raya, rubbing his cheek against her. She was frozen, every muscle stiff, her hands, trying not to touch him any more than she already was.

“Seo-Jin, calm.” Namaari said.

The serlot’s ear perked towards her, his whole head following the movement a moment after. With a slow, languid gait, he turned and padded towards Namaari. Namaari ran her fingers through the fur under his neck. “What are you doing, hmm?” She asked him.

“I swear, I didn’t provoke him or anything,” Raya said, her hands still up.

Namaari laughed, “That wasn’t him being hostile. That was him saying hello. Granted, more affectionately than he usually is with strangers. He must remember you helping Atitaya. He’s her mount.”

“Oh, well if that was a thank you, then, you’re welcome, I suppose.”

“Did you just want some rubs?” Namaari worked into the thick fur between the shoulders, handing combing down the spine. Seo-Jin started to make a deep rumble in his chest and stretched.

“Usually seeing a serlot that close would spell bad news for me.”

“Luckily for you, most serlots are just big softies on the inside. Isn’t that right boy? Except for my best girl. You’re vicious through and through, aren’t you Sinn?”

One serlot still in a stall perked up, yawned, and then settled back down.

“Thank you, Sinn, for proving me wrong.” Namaari deadpanned.

Raya chuckled, “So, Sinn is yours?”

“I raised her from a cub." Namaari's pride warmed her voice, "Watch this,” She said to Raya, and then barely above a whisper she said, “Sinn, food.”

Sinn’s head perked up again and this time she padded across the area to Namaari. “You are too spoilt,” Namaari said, scratching behind her ear. She opened a barrel with smoked fish stacked up and tossed a few pieces towards Sinn who snatched them out of the air.

She missed one piece and fell near Raya’s feet. Sinn turned, following the fish, but stopped a few feet from Raya. Large, intelligent eyes trained on Raya with an unbreaking gaze.

“Sinn, calm.” Namaari said.

The serlot’s body posture didn’t change.

“I said, calm,” Namaari grabbed her by the scruff, pulling the serlot’s head around, “Don’t look at me those eyes. Yes, I’m aware we’ve tracked her in the past. But she’s not an enemy anymore.” Namaari’s cheeks darkened and she looked at Raya, “Don’t judge me that I talk to my serlot like she’s a person.”

Raya held up a hand, “No judgment here. Tuk Tuk was the only one I had to talk to for years. I get it.”

“Raya’s an ally, Sinn. Friend”

“It’s okay if she wants to stay acquaintances,” Raya said.

Namaari snorted, “No it’s not. Come here. She needs to get used to you.”

“I’m good.”

“Don’t be a baby about it. She won’t hurt you with me here.”

“This isn’t an ‘I don’t trust you’ thing. This is a ‘those are sharp claws and teeth’ thing.”

“Give me your hand.” She held her hand out.

Raya hesitated, but she stepped forward, placing her hand in Namaari’s open palm. Namaari guided Raya’s hand forward.

“If I lose any fingers I’m cutting off yours.”

Namaari laughed, “She likes this spot on her neck best. Scratch right…” Sinn started purring as Raya’s fingers combed through her fur, “there.” Namaari finished with a grin, “And look at that, all fingers still intact.”

“They’re not so bad,” Raya said, the tension leaving her a little, “When they’re not chasing me.”

“Yeah,” Namaari laughed nervously, “We did do that a few times.”

“It’s all good. You were never good enough to catch me.”

“And there’s the Raya sass I detest so.”

“You say that. But I think you like it. Why else would you banter me every time we saw each other?”

“It’s called distraction.”

“Shitty distraction.”

“I will make Sinn attack you.”

“But we’re friends now.”

Sinn was purring in Raya’s hand, seeming like she was utterly content. And despite it all, Namaari smiled.

Chapter Text

“Ba!” Raya called out, seeing her father down below her. He looked her way, his smile visible even at a distance. He raised a hand, and then called her down with a simple wave. Raya didn’t need further invitation. She ran down the staircase, but near the bottom, her foot went right through a wooden plank. She just managed to catch herself on the railing.

“Dewdrop, are you okay?” Her father asked, jogging over to her.

She held up a hand, catching her breath after the sudden spike of adrenaline. He got to her, kneeling to inspect her leg.

“I’m okay.” She said, pulling her foot back through the broken and rotted wood.

“Whoa, okay. Not too fast now. We need to make sure you didn’t twist anything. Or worse.”

“It feels fine. Nothing but a few scraps.”

“Here, sit down,” Benja said like he didn’t really hear her.

“Dad,” Raya said, placing her hands on his cheeks to get his attention, “I’m okay.”

He hesitated, but nodded, “If you’re sure.”

“I am. The only bruises are to my ego.”

“Well, knowing you, that heals quicker than a twisted ankle. I’ll make a note about this one too,” He said indicating to the broken board.

This was hardly an isolated incident in the recent days for Heart. With no upkeep over six years, several buildings and structures had deteriorated. The number of rotten boards they found only grew with each day. There was a whole training barracks they had to condemn, the condition being beyond repair.

“At least I didn’t fall on my face.”  

“You mean like you did the other day.”

“Dad,” Raya ribbed him, as he laughed. The embarrassment flushed her face, but he just brought her into a side hug. She couldn’t help but lean into him, savoring the moment for a few seconds. At a leisurely pace, they slowly made their way around the grounds.

“How was dealing with the Ta and Danh families?”

“Never ask me to handle a property dispute again.”

He gave her a sympathetic smile, “I know it couldn’t have been easy, making that choice, but from your letter, you seemed to have found a good compromise.”

“You mean Namaari saved my ass with a solution.”

“Yes, but I think I put it more eloquently.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Raya, you helped our people. And taking them to Fang will only help our long-term goal. We need to dissolve the idea that borders separate us. Needing help doesn’t mean you failed.”

“Just that I’m not good enough to do it by myself.”

“I don’t think it's human nature to do anything by ourselves. To need help, is to be human.”

“Then why does it feel like a failure.”

Benja hummed, folding his arms, “It’s only a failure if you choose to not better yourself. You’ve found where you’re lacking. Learn from this so next time you can be the offering help instead of needing it.”

“Next time I’ll probably do the same thing. How else am I going to ask a family to leave their home?”

“And where is the wrong in that? From your letter, Fang seems a perfectly lovely place to live. You seem excited to be there.”

Raya hoped the heat she felt on her cheeks wasn’t showing. “It’s...” She shrugged instead of answering, “It feels good to help them. Helping their construction is a lot easier than dealing with another property dispute.”

Benja chuckled.

“How have things been here?” Raya asked.

“A continuous string of developing issues. But there is good news.”

“Oh, please tell me the good news.”

“Our first harvest of rice came in.”

“That's great news.”

“But the bad news is several of the granaries aren’t useable. So we don’t have space to store all the rice safely.”

“So I guess we’ll be having rice with every meal for a while.”

“I sent a message to your friend with the boat restaurant. I figured his family could put some of the excess to good use.”

“That gives me an idea. Do you think we could give some to Fang?”

“The rice? Of course. I’ll arrange the transport.”

“No needed. I’ll catch a ride with Boun.”

“You’re going back to Fang so soon?”

Raya stopped walking, “Is that okay?”

“Of course.” He smiled, “It just feels like I’ve barely seen you recently.”

“Things have been busy you know,” Raya said quickly, “I’m never that far away.”

He nodded, but his smile looked a little sad.


Raya gave a whistle as she descended the makeshift ladder into the chamber before.

“I’ve been gone a few days. When you said you were busy, I didn’t think you meant this busy.”

The chamber was lit brightly now, torches secured along the walls every few feet. Most of the water was drained now, with only a few ankle-high pools remaining. There was a crude elevator system in place, being used to haul material and jade to the surface.

Namaari gave a nonchalant shrug.

“Things have been going in our favor, which is surely a sign something bad is lurking on the horizon.”

“I think the dramatic way we found this in the first place was the bad luck. I’d say you’re due for smooth sailing from this point forward.”

Namaari chuckled, sitting on the edge of a platform. Raya joined her, watching a container filled with jade being loaded onto the elevator. 

“I’m a little surprised you returned as soon as you did.”

Raya shrugged, “I just wanted to see my dad. I don’t like being away from him for more than a few days. But at the same time, it’s weird being home again. It’s so full of life now. And people.”

“But you’re happy to have him back, aren’t you?”

“Of course. It’s everything I wanted. I just never thought about, how different things would be. It was six years for me. For him no time had passed. I was a kid when he last me and then I wasn’t. He’s not the only one. So many of the staff, the people I grew up around. I don’t feel like I fit in at the palace anymore.”

“Everyone’s had to adjust to this. Things will feel normal again. Just give it time.”

“What does normal even mean anymore? It wasn’t that long ago when normal for you and me would be trying to kill each other.”

“I was trying to capture you.”

Raya arched a brow.

“Mostly,” Namaari amended, “You were very good at getting under my skin and I let that get to me sometimes okay. I was never trying to kill you. Injury you, maybe.”

Raya snorted at that.

“Wait, does this mean you were trying to kill me?”

Heat rose up the back of Raya’s neck, “We were using sharpened weapons. It was not the intention, but I was prepared for that to be the consequence. But it’s beside the point. I just meant that I don’t know if I want to return to what was normal. That’s the whole reason things are so awkward.”

Namaari looked at her curiously at that. The heat on the back of her neck was impossible to ignore. Raya rubbed at the nape.

“I’m pretty sure they still think of me as that kid.”

She saw the way Namaari’s lip twitched.

“And you think that’s funny.”

“No. No.” Namaari shook her head, covering her lips with the back of her hand.

Raya rolled her eyes. “I would laugh if our places were reversed.”

Namaari cleared her throat, composing herself, “And that’s where we differ.”

“Oh, so you’ll only laugh when my back is turned.”

“No,” Namaari said, genuine sincerity slipping into her voice, “It must be hard, having friends and family who don’t know you anymore.”

“I used to see them every day. And I don’t know how to talk with them anymore.”

“Why not stay in Heart then? Spending more time with your father seems like the fastest way to bridge the distance.”

Raya sighed, “I’m the Princess of Heart. Our people need help everywhere.”

“Then why are you in Fang?” Namaari’s eyes narrowed.

“Raya’s cheeks darkened, “Because I don’t know to be a Princess anymore. I’ve kind of been hoping if I follow you around enough I’ll pick something up.”

Namaari snorted, “I’m the example you’re following?”

“Well I’m not going to Talon for advice.”

Smiling, Namaari placed a hand on Raya’s back, “What about Tail? You’ve got their anti-social traits down already.”

Raya shoved her hand away, “That’s what I’m trying to break.”

“You’re something, you know that?”

“What you mean?”

“Most people, immediately after stopping the end of our civilization as we know it, would think that’s enough.”

“Most people weren’t raised by my father.”

“A ruler is as much a servant to the people as they are to them,” Namaari said.

“Yeah, something like that.”

“My mother says that.”

“I guess our folks aren’t that different.”

Namaari’s lips quirked, “If only they’d figured that out a few years ago.”

“Nah, you wouldn’t want that. Imagine how boring your life would have been if you hadn’t spent the last six years chasing me down.”

Namaari punched Raya’s shoulder as she laughed.

“Someone thinks they’re important.”

“You’re the one who insists I’m the savior of our people at every turn,” Raya said.

“I-” Namaari’s cheek flushed and she looked away, sweeping her hair behind her ear, “I was just pointing out the obvious.”

Raya snickered, “Then I’ll keep pointing out the obvious that I wasn’t the only one there that day. It was a group effort. And speaking off, I was all ready to help around here. But it doesn’t seem like you need any.”

“This find has revitalized spirits. The jade puts us in a better position with our expansion, but it’s still only a fraction of what we need to pull us out of the red.”

“Is there any way Heart can help?”

Namaari shook her head, “Mother would never to agree to it. And I agree with her in this case. If Kumandra is going to work, all the tribes need to have equal footing as we move forward. Fang wouldn’t have that if we were indebted to Heart.”

“It wouldn’t be a debt.”

“My people won’t see it like that.”

Raya looked guilty which caught Namaari’s attention, “What’s wrong?”

“If that’s how you feel, then there is something I should tell you…”

 

Sinn and Tuk Tuk crested the path to the docks. Boun saw them first waving eagerly as he put down a sack that was half his height, giving Raya a quick hug. He moved to do the same for Namaari, but she walked past him, inspecting the sack he’d been carrying.

“Okay, no hug then,” He said, a little dejected.

Namaari turned on Raya, who instantly put her hands up, “I just wanted to help. I thought this would be fine.”

Namaari sighed, rubbing her brow.

“It’s a gift.”

“We can’t accept this and you know it.”

“Are you not taking the rice? Can we take it then?” Boun asked.

“No,” Raya said to him, without taking her eyes off of Namaari, “If it makes you feel better we’re giving rations to all the tribes. These just happen to be from our first harvest.” 

“That’s…” Namaari huffed, hands on her hips, “Doesn’t really help me feel better about this.” She saw Boun’s father bringing two more sacks over his shoulders and her eyes went wide when she saw him add them to an already large pile“How much did you send for us?”

“The excess we didn’t have the space to store. Really you’re doing us a favor by taking it off our hands.”

“Why does that feel like a lie?”

“It’s a half-truth,” Raya said, making Namaari give a short laugh.

“Weren’t you the one just talking about not knowing how to be a leader? You’ve got the doublespeak down.”

“Look. We have a lot that fell into disrepair the past few years. Our granaries among that list. We really didn’t have a way to store this long-term. When I mentioned to my father, he thought it giving it to you made more sense than letting it go to waste.”

Namaari didn’t look convinced.

“Okay, okay.” Raya said, her hands up, “A gift is hard to accept. I get that. So this isn’t a gift. You’ve paid for it.”

“Well, that’s an outright lie.”

“No, it’s not.” Raya took Namaari’s arm, holding it as she slipped one of the gold bracelets on her arm off, “You paid me with this.”

“Raya that’s hardly…”

“Wow, you sure know to negotiate. You really beat me down, but I absolutely can’t go any lower.” Raya said, her voice exaggerated. She nudged Boun next to her, “Isn’t she a great negotiator?”

“I don’t really know what’s happening right now.”  

Raya glared at him with a ‘come on’ expression.

“There isn’t anything wrong with the rice if that’s what you’re worried about. We cooked with some today from the same crop. The best congee we’ve made in months.”

Raya snapped her fingers, “Boun, that’s a great idea. Can you make enough congee for everyone here?”

“With a big enough pot, easily.”

“Do you know who Atitaya is? She’ll be able to direct you to someone who can get you the equipment you need. Namaari won’t be able to say no once she tastes how good the rice is.”

“Atitaya is the serious-looking general right? I’ll find her.” He ran back to their boat, having a quick conversation with his family before he and his sister ran off.

Namaari watched all this before looking back at Raya. She crossed her arms.

“I didn’t agree to any of this.”

“You needed the food and we have food we needed to get rid of. It's win-win, all around.”

She rubbed her brow, “The most annoying part of this is you make it so hard to be mad at you.”

Raya’s smile grew a little at that, a little smug, but mostly she looked genuinely pleased.

“I hope mother doesn’t hear about this until tomorrow. I don’t want to get chewed out for this right now.”

“Come on, let’s go help with the cooking.”

Chapter Text

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.

“Okay, but-”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“What direction?”

“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.

“Where’s Atitaya?”

“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.

“Namaari!”

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?”

“Yes,”

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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“…I…”

“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.

Chapter Text

The journey back to Fang was quiet. Their trio didn’t say much to each other. Atitaya was by far the most talkative, a position she wasn’t used to being. She’d managed to pull details about the fight from the princesses but little more beyond that.

“There isn’t anything more to tell,” Namaari had said, but Atitaya had little faith that was the whole truth.  When they returned to camp, there was a small uproar from the guards as they celebrated the return of the jade. But Raya and Namaari didn’t stick around for the praise. They walked off in separate directions leaving Atitaya even more perplexed as to what happened between them.

After making sure the jade was properly secured Atitaya went looking for them. Namaari was sitting near one of the campfires. At a glance, Atitaya recognized the Tail boy who’d aided Raya when she’d been collecting the gem pieces. Boun was his name if her memory served. It was good to know where Namaari was. But she wasn’t the princess Atitaya wanted to speak with right then.

Finding Raya was another game altogether. Most of the crowd had dispersed for the evening and Atitaya was on the verge of giving up when she spotted the distinct bulk of Tuk Tuk near the river’s edge.

“Princess Raya,” Atitaya gave fair warning of her approach, not wanting to spook her, “It’s no wonder how you were able to evade our capture for so long. You’re not an easy one to find.”

“I didn’t realize anyone was looking.”

Raya was sitting with one foot in the river, leaning back against Tuk Tuk. She started to rise but Atitaya stopped her with a dismissive wave. “No need to stand.”

“Is everything okay?” She asked.

“I was hoping we could have a chat.”

There was a perplexing expression that momentarily flashed across her face. Raya and Atitaya hadn’t conversed one on one before.

“Umm, sure.”

Atitaya sat next to her, crossing her legs clasping her hands on her knees.

“I feel like about to be interrogated,” Raya said with a nervous laugh.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed Namaari’s been rather taken with you.”

“Taken with?” Raya spluttered, warmth creeping up her neck, “I don’t- that seems like an overstatement.”

“The past six years took a toll on everyone.”

Raya tilted her head, her expression saying ‘obviously’.

“And much of the blame for the druun’s return fell on Fang. Some of our tribe would argue we aren’t the sole blame. But Namaari would not be one of them. She felt the weight of our consequences the most these past years. She’s been searching for some way to assuage her own guilt. I believe she thinks she can find absolution in you.”

Raya spluttered, “I- I don’t actually know what I’m expected to say to that. I’m not trying to be anyone’s redeemer.”

“That may be, but many people see you as the one who saved us.”

“It wasn’t just me there that day.”

“No. But in every story, you’re the linchpin that everything else centers around.”

“What do you want me to say? That it’s true?”

“I want you to be careful with Namaari. In her journey for absolution, she’s going to take the kind of risks that usually she wouldn’t.”

“If this is about jumping off the cliff, I had the handle on the situation.”

“No. This isn’t about that. But kindly, at least give it a second thought the next time you consider jumping off a cliff with our Princess.”

“I’ll try.”

“Namaari is usually guarded and calculated. You are… less so.”

“I feel like that was an insult.”

“I didn’t mean it as such. I’m just saying Namaari pushed herself out of her usual habits when you’re around. I’m only concerned she’ll overextend herself in a way that leave her with more regrets than she already has.”

“I still don’t see where I fit into this.”

“You don’t?” Atitaya arched a brow and smirked, “Raya, she looks up to you. If anything she’s trying to be you.”

Raya snorted, “That’s not right. Namaari has her shit together. I’m the one trying to follow her. I don’t blame her for what happened anymore. Her or anyone from Fang. I don’t how else you’d expect me to absolve her.”

“I’ve been telling her to let go of her guilt for six years. Maybe she’ll listen if it comes from you.”

“You think it's just that easy.”

“In all the time I’ve known Namaari I can say with certainty that nothing is ever easy with her.”

“Sounds exhausting.”

“In some ways, it is. But it’s certainly entertaining.” Atitaya stood, bending her knees a bit, “Raya, Namaari trusts you and she wants that sentiment in turn from you. Don’t go taking advantage of that.”

Before Raya could respond she left, leaving Raya in the silence of the night once again. From her perch she stared at her reflection before throwing a stone, rippling the image into distorted colors.


Namaari and Raya were returning from a round of patrol the next day.

“I have to thank you for joining me. We don’t have the men to spare for the added patrols, but after seeing the Scales act so boldly, I want there to at least be the illusion of more patrols.”

Raya snorted, “Do you have to make everything sound so formal?”

“I… didn’t know that’s what I was doing.”

“I feel more comfortable in a fight than I do in most other places. Going out hoping for a fight is exactly the kind of thing I need. If anything, I should be thanking you.”

“Princess Namaari,” They were interrupted before Namaari could reply. One of the architects who’d been working in the vault approached them, bowing to them both. “You asked me to examine the chambers for clues to the locations of the other vaults. I believe I might have something.”

“Yes? Please show me,” Namaari said, her focus shifting to him entirely.

He presented a sketch of a waterfall.

“Is that the carving that’s on the left side of the chambers?” Namaari asked.  

“I was looking at records for the architects known for working with Chief Akito and on the Chief herself. There seemed to be a pervasive theme of the landscapes surrounding a construction influencing it. I’ve been recreating the carving on the walls of the chamber, trying to fill in those parts that were eroded. What strikes me is there aren’t any waterfalls like this anyway near this vault. So why would the architect take the time to carve this on the wall. This is my theory, but I think if we can find a waterfall that matches this image, another vault is hidden somewhere in that area.”

“That’s genius. And the wall on the right, that must be the third vault.”

“Its very likely, if my theory is correct. Unfortunately, I’m still working on the sketch of that one. That wall had a greater degree of erosion.”

“Its okay. We can at least start with this. I’ll have someone pull maps of the waterways, we can narrow down locations with waterfalls like this from that.”

“Hmm, I think I’ve been there before,” Raya said, peering over Namaari’s shoulder.

Namaari turned on her, eyes wide, “Where?”

“Um, near the end of the Paivo River. Or the Karkana River. I don’t remember which one, but I’m pretty sure I’ve camped there while I was looking for Sisu. There was a cave behind the waterfall I slept in. That’s why I remember it.”

Namaari threw her arms around Raya. “This is amazing. We can send scouts out to investigate the area. Thank you.’

“I didn’t really do anything,” Raya said, fidgeting a little. She rubbed her nosing, looking up at the sky and not at Namaari.


“Mother?” Namaari stopped in her tracks in the threshold of her room. Virana was sitting in her room at the table, a Makruk board set up in front of her. Sixteen polished pieces sat in the first and third rows of the board on either side.

“Ah, there you are. I was beginning to wonder if you weren’t returning for the night.”

“You could have sent for me,” Namaari said.

“No need for anything that dramatic. Can’t a mother simply want to play a game with her daughter?” Virana said, folding her arm, looking across the table with a calm expression. It was the kind Namaari could never read.

“Of course you can.” Namaari moved one of the cowries forward one square. Virana made a similar move on her side. The first few rounds were simple movements, slowly trying to pry from the other the strategy they’d chosen for this game. Neither said anything until Virana captured one of Namaari’s pieces, one of her horses.

“How is construction?”

“Slow, but progressing.”

“I heard about your incident with the Scales.”

Namaari froze for a moment. She didn’t reply right away, taking her time in placing down one of her pieces. It was a sacrificial move, giving up one of her boats to her mother’s horse, but preserved the safety of her lord for enough turns for her position herself for a counter.

“What did you hear about it?”

Virana made a low rumble in the back of her throat, “I’d like to hear the events from your perspective.”

“Jade was taken from the camp near the excavation site. We retrieved it.”

“We, as in you and Raya.”

“That would be correct.”

Virana moved one of her pieces and Namaari took the chance to capture it.

“Are you not going to mention the fight? Or the cliff?”

“Seeing as you know already, is there a need for me to repeat information you know?”

“You are avoiding the question.”

“Not well enough, obviously.”

“Namaari.”

“We tried to resolve things without a fight. But they forced our hand.”

“Where were their skill levels?”

“Good enough I would have been pressed into a corner if Raya hadn’t been there. One had a fighting style reminiscent of Tail, but that could mean very little among the Scales.”

“Were you hurt?”

“A few cuts. All minor. I was more worried about Raya. She had a bad landing.”

“Yes, from when you fell off a cliff face.”

“I think it would be more accurate to say we threw ourselves off.”

Virana sighed heavily, “I am, of course happy you were able to regain the jade, but I can’t condone such reckless actions. If something had happened.”

“We had it under control.”

“Even the most skilled of warriors can lose a fight if their luck fails them. It’s why we train, to remove luck from the equation. Jumping off a cliff adds a large amount of luck into the equation.”

“I understand that. It wasn’t my idea, but I can’t disagree with Raya’s actions. We needed that jade.”

Virana didn’t say anything for a moment, “We need you more Namaari.”

Namaari focused on the board, “Yes, mother.”

“I am saying this as both your chief and mother, finding this vault was a boon, but it is not a magical fix for our current problems.”

Namaari moved one of her pieces.

“Are you listening to me Namaari?”

“Of course I am.” She lifted her head to meet her mother’s eyes, “I always am. I always will.”

“You listen, but you don’t always heed what I say.”

“I only do as you taught me,”

“Indeed. Sometimes I think I taught you too well.”

“Is this your way of tell me we will not be looking for the remaining vaults?”

“This is my way of telling you we won’t be looking for them right now.”

“But mother,”

“Namaari,” Virana said, her voice steady yet cutting without raising her voice, “Our manpower is stretched thin as is. We’re not pulling a large force away from where they are needed.”

“We have a lead on a location.”

 “We don’t even know for certain if there are other vaults.”

“One exists, so it’s a safe bet to say the others are just as likely,”

“This is not a ‘no’. It’s a ‘not now’.”

“Mother, we are on the verge of the rebirth of Kumandra. There will be more trade between the tribes in the coming months than there has been in years. This will help us keep up with the other tribes. Help pay for the construction. Help boost morale when we do find the vault.”

“If you find it.”

“I have to believe we will.”

“There are Scales in Fang. If they get a hint of our scouts searching for the vault, they’ll be a part of this search too.”

“Then just send me. No scouting party. I’ll confirm the location and we’ll return when we can spare enough people to properly secure the area.”

“No. I’m not sending you alone. Certainly not when you’ve just told me you were outclassed by those Scales you fought.”

“Only because they had numbers. I could have best any of them one on one.”

“And if you run into them again, will they give you the courtesy of facing you one on one?”

Namaari didn’t say anything because they knew the answer.

“My morning mist, please, slow down.”

Namaari took a breath, “If I ask you a question, will you answer me honestly.”

“If you asking this question to your chief, I will. If you are asking your mother, then it depends.”

Namaari couldn’t help her smile at that reply. But she grew serious again, “As my chief, if you could go back and stop me from repairing the dragon gem and helping the others stop the druun, would you?”

Virana folding her arms, sitting back in her chair, “You certainly aren’t going easy on me this afternoon, are you?” She almost sounded proud, “As your chief, I promised to answer honestly. Of course, I wanted the druun gone. But their defeat has left us in a precarious situation. In an ideal world, I would have preferred their defeat come at a time we were in a better position to manage the sudden growth in our population.”

“And that is why we need this now, mother. We should not be having regrets and second thoughts about the single best thing to happen for our people in years. Securing the vaults will help us get there.”

“I’m still not sending you alone.”

“I’ll ask Raya.”

“Raya?” Virana arched her brow, “Not Atitaya?”

“As you said, there are Scales in Fang. Our general should be here to lead if any conflict breaks out. Raya knows where we’re going and she is used to traveling discreetly.”

Virana exhaled heavily, “Let me think on it, I have my decision in the morning.”

Chapter Text

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.

“Raya!”

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.”

“Now?”

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.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s…” Raya flushed, not realizing she’d let her emotions play so openly on her face, “Nothing.”

“It’s something.”

“I was just trying to imagine you doing that someday.”

“What?”

“Teaching.”

“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,”

“Tuk Tuk?”

“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. 

"Have I...?" 

"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 why 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.

“It’s fine.”

“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 wouldn’t,”

“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.”