Amir slowed his breath as he dared his feet to edge closer to the herd of elephants gathered near the edge of the festivities, Janisha stood a few feet back, not willing to get any closer. The gentle eyes of the animal before him almost encouraged him forward, but his fear of such new and immeasurable power in any single life terrified him at an innate level. For all physical purposes, the boy might as well have been approaching a god, but luckily Myra was a kind and gentle god, fond of humans big and small, and they were all small to her. She had carried many over countless journeys, and over the years she had learned patience for them all, whether seeking her strength, or leaning into their occasional weakness for cruelty. She was a well of gentleness and forgiveness to all, and this boy, who's soul dreamed with the magick of maya radiated only good intentions and curiosity. They both, she thought, were brave to come so close, for neither yet knew if she was strong or weak.
“Do you have visitors, Myra?” a women's voice intruded, causing Amir to freeze.
“Is it alright for us to be here?” Amir asked, seeking an early exit to forgiveness if he was refused permission. The middle aged lady, with curly gray hair, and dressed in a scarlet dress, was too quick to have any such mischief.
“I don't remember you asking for my permission, so I suppose that would be up to Myra.” She said walking up the girls side and encouraging her forward with a gentle push. “She likes it if you scratch her behind the ears.”
Janisha looked back, and, receiving permission, took initiative, walking past Amir up to the pachyderm. Amir, not to be thought of as a coward, suddenly found his courage and was quickly behind, as the three creatures came eye to eye. Myra, rolling on her side as she used her giant trunk to play with Janisha's pony tail.
“What's her name again?” Amir asked, stroking her head with little scritches.
“Myra,” the lady said, “and my name is Chhaya, wife of Raju.”
“Myra! Oh, that's right, you said when you came over,” Amir nodded, devoting the name to memory as if the elephant were somehow important.
Chhaya could already tell that her name would be quickly discarded. The young always loved the elephants more.
“Are you two brother and sister? Cousins?” Chhaya asked, making small talk as she walked over to where their merchandise was piled up, double checking everything was fastened well, and ensuring the two hadn't been helping themselves to her wares while everyone was off at the party. Each of the guards must have promised the other that they'd be watching and now none of them were here to watch over things.
“Oh, no,”Janisha answered. “We're just... friends. My name is Janisha by the way.”
“And I'm Amir,” Amir found his manners.
“I didn't notice anyone else at the party your age back there. Do all the adults here mistrust us that much? He can't be your only friend around here.”
The two looked at each other and realized they hadn't given the idea that they were a bit of an endangered species much thought. They once could count their friends on one hand, it wasn't much, but they had each had friends, once. But the famine had buried their fingers one-by-one and it was surprising that neither of them had come to face the reality of this scarcity of playmates and confidants until now – nor had they truly grieved, given that grief was a luxury that the constant battle to survive did not permit them.
“They're. They're all dead,” Janisha admitted, looking disappointed, and Amir grabbed her hand – not as a romantic gesture, but as a shared moment of mutual understanding, a mutual respect for what was stolen from them.
“I'm hoping that some of them cross paths again soon,” Amir added in. “Like Dad.”
“My Mom hasn't come back yet,” Janisha added, “Or my friend, Saira...”
“Or Madhuk... or my cousin Bukka,” Amir added to the list.
What a cruel fate that's been thrust upon them, Chhaya thought to herself, fiddling with the guilt of the task at hand. But it would be better if neither of them had a reason to stay rooted in this place; too much death here.
“I bet you would both find many friends if you came to the city,” Chhaya said. “I am from Kukkuta, of the Red Banner and the Black Cocktrice. There are always people, and games to be had. Even a boring day always has something to do and new people to meet. And where we're heading, is even more fantastic! I think you would love it there.” Chhaya said with a smile, as she sifted through the boxes for one particular trunk, made of varnished wood, and fixed together by an elaborate grass weave.
“I would love to visit a city one day.” Janisha's voice jumped with excitement at the thought. “But they're all very far away.”
“Does everyone dress like you, there?” Amir asked.
“No,” Chhaya, said. “As a trader I lead a privileged life, so that nobles can recognize the quality of our wares. If I dressed like you, they might not think we had any merchandise at all.” Chhaya ended with a tease, and then segued the conversation, as she pulled out a small, skirted summer-dress, colored of lapis lazuli, and trimmed with clouds of silver thread, and ornamental buttons of abalone, carved into little birds, sewn in flocks across the skirt. Just above the flocks around the waste, and up towards the shoulders, bands, like splashes of milk, of topaz stars clustered in flashing scintillation in the magic light of the moon.
“Wares like this. But there are no nobles to catch us here,” Chhaya added, as she inspected the dress in the air. “This rare treasure is the tailor-work of one of the greatest dressmakers in East Caspirius. I think this is just about your size, Janisha. Would you like to try it on? I want to see if it will fit well when I present it to the princess of Sittaragaatii.”
The sparkle of a hundred gemstones shimmered in the two tween's eyes as they became hypnotized by the fire-filled flashes of cerulean stained moonlight. Janisha instantly felt the cruel consequences of her fathers insistence from earlier, though. “I'm afraid I can't. My father worked me all day and I'm covered in mud.”
“All day?” Chhaya acted surprised, though she could hardly empathize given that working every day was life to her, too, and, to be honest, she was kind of jealous of this kid right now. But she didn't wish to indulge a princess in such things. “Well that fits fine, you should know that even these gem stones lived most of their lives in the mud, and now look at them. All you have to do, is...” Chhaya said as she picked up a jug from the side with a smile, “Add a little water and clean them off.”
Chhaya noticed that there were still TWO excited people in her presence though, and figured she should get rid of the other one. “But unless you want me to pour this entire jug over your head, you best be going boy. That way I can clean off this little gem, here.” She said, patting Janisha's head with a free hand.
Amir looked back and forth for a second before realizing that Chhaya was talking about him and realized he needed to make himself scarce. “Oh! Yeah! Sorry!” He said before running back towards the party, “Can I just stand behind the tree over here?”
“Only if you think I can't pour water over your head behind a tree!” Chhaya yelled out, rolling her eyes, returning her attention back to Janisha, again. “Boys.”
“He likes birds without feathers,” Janisha repeated what her sister said earlier, wondering if it was some kind of random phrase about the opposite gender. It was a misunderstanding that would not last for long.
“Well he wouldn't like it if you were spying on him without his.” Chhaya cleared the fog and suddenly Janisha realized a lot more then she did five seconds ago.
“Wait, you mean?” Janisha stopped, eyes going wide with disbelief
“Well that's what you meant, wasn't it?” Now Chhaya was the one confused. “Well, I'll keep an eye out for him, you just focus on looking good in that dress. I bet he prefers your feathers after this.” Chaya said to Janisha with a wink.
Amir waited back. Waited waaaaaaay back. Past the party, and the fire all the way out by the road again. Had to be sure. He had just checked around the corner ONCE, and Chhaya acted like she would chase him all the way back to Kukkuta. In fact, she'd threatened twice as much, and then beyond to someplace called “Wasozai”. But luckily he was faster while she was lugging that giant jug of water around. Why did girls have to be like that?
The boy took his flute to his lips under the moon and began to try and play along with the distant musicians under the light of the full moon. In long strides, he marched, meandering roads around the trees in Sagara's field as he sought after misplaced things among the dirt, a loose coin? Nothing called out his name. How boring!
Being bored was the worst. Everyone else was simmering down around the festival, they had just put a second set of logs on the fire and a dim light glowed within Sagara's house, but the music had dissipated to drunken chatter. Oh, if only Chhaya had let him stay! Then, then, then... then what? He wasn't sure, but he wanted to find out. Maybe a peek. It was just then that he felt the tune on his flute tilt, something he missed was near, a gem, a bag of gold – a – a – a!
“She chased you all the way out here?” Janisha said with a chuckle.
Amir spun around on his toes and at once his flute dropped from his mouth, to bob around his neck. Cliche as it was, the boy's mouth was agape with the hypnotic flicker of a thousand gems, as the hem of the dress drifted teasingly in the wind, making the birds and clouds dance. “Do you think I look like a princess?”
“You look like a goddess!” Amir exclaimed, and he'd sworn for a second that he had would need to bow for his life before a diva, even having prepared himself for the dress. “Does everyone in royalty sparkle that much?”
“If so, it's no wonder they love wearing things like this to parties!” Janisha said, spinning around so that the two them could watch beams of dancing moonlight race circles around them both. Amir tried to keep up as he ran with them and saw the girl from all angles, but found that the further he went from Janisha, the more impossible the little orbits of light were to catch – Janisha could spin faster then he could run?! Soon out of breath, the two stopped for a few, giving Janisha a chance to change the topic slightly.
“Amir,” She began slowly, as if preparing for a weighty question. “Do you like me?”
“Oh, yeah!” Amir replied, thinking it was a silly question. “Even if I did think you were going to beat me up earlier today. You're not so mean when you're not chasing me.”
Janisha shook her head. “I don't mean like that. I mean, like... earlier, when I was working with my Dad, I saw you staring and then suddenly looking away like you were fighting with a catfish or something. Like you were afraid I'd catch you.”
“A river monster,” Amir corrected.
“A river monster...” Janisha said, suddenly feeling like the questions should retreat, a bit nervous about asking these things. In fact, part of her mind was convinced that asking this directly was just a bad idea. Perhaps Amir was going to prove her right? “So... You don't 'like' 'like' me?”
“I don't really know what you mean.” Amir admitted. This was one of those confusing girl things.
Janisha felt grumpy at his antic, but inside her sister and Chhaya's advice kept coming back to haunt her, so she took a bit of a risk and sitting on the rock wall that fenced in Sagara's estate, she tugged back on the hem of her skirt to show off just a bit more skin. Amir's eyes instantly caught on, even if he wasn't, internally aware “why”.
“I think you're a liar,” She said. And stood back up walking back over, and Amir felt his heart stop. She was close enough to hit him, but something else seemed to terrify the boy more then being hit that he didn't understand.
“I've decided we need to make a decision.” She continued. “I realized something after talking to Chhaya tonight, if you and me don't have any friends left in the village, then that means... That means...”
“That we're going to have to do a lot more work as everyone gets older?” Amir asked in horror. Janisha's found this answer so absolutely off topic that it inspired an instant look of disgust. Did she have to spell everything out for him?!
“No, it means we're going to get married.” She said matter of factually. “And so you have to make that decision, too!”
This was an ultimatum from someone that looked very much like a queen. Amir was taken back and terrified all at the same time.
“Wait?! No! I can't!” Amir yelled.
“What do you mean you can't?” Janisha demanded. “I know you like me, so why not?”
“I don't know if I want to marry you!” Amir said. “That sounds like a really really big decision.”
“I've decided for you, so it will make this entire thing easy,” She said, crossing her arms. “You either marry me, or I'm making plans with my sister to go off to the big city. To Kukkuta. I'm going when Chhaya comes back, and I'm going to train with her to be a trader. Or I will if you say no. I'm not staying here and being a slave under my Dad forever!”
“You can't decide for me!” Amir was now in knots and his stomach filled with bubbles, this was not good. Though, Janisha was cute and he HAD enjoyed her company until recently, he felt backed into a corner. What if Pallando or Lusha wouldn't help him! Would he have to build a house? He didn't know how to build a house? Would he need to ask Sagara to borrow land? Would he have to stop Moon Dowsing? Would he have to listen to Sagara talk about her stupid pot every night?!
“Can I think about it?” Amir asked. Yes, this was a big decision. He wasn't sure what all he even needed to think about, or was agreeing to, but he needed to run this nightmare through his head.
“How long?” Janisha leaned in. “I have to know if I'm gonna ask Chhaya to come pick me up on the way back! And I know you like me so you might as well surrender to love!”
How long? A year? A month? A week? A decade?! No Amir didn't have that kind of time. And then the unthinkable happened. Janisha leaned over as he was wracking his mind, and planted a kiss on the edge of his lips. His brain stopped working and blurted out the first think that rolled through his empty boy-mind. “Can I have a day?”
Woah! Janisha thought it would take him at least a week, maybe ten! But a day. Also, she was feeling a bit crazy from planting that kiss, too. She couldn't believe she just did that. But it scared her so much she was almost inclined to push him out longer, did he already have the dowry saved up?! Maybe Pallando had saved something for the two of them? Or they inherited a fortune from Chaganti?! OR maybe he thought he could FIND a treasure with his Moon Dowing skills tomorrow? Either way, she had the boy right where she thought she wanted him! But now, maybe she was regretting her decision to put him right on the spot like this. “Yeah, yeah, but if you, you know... need a bit longer she said. I totally understand.”
“A promise is a promise!” Amir said, “I'll tell you if I'm going to marry you tomorrow by sunset.”
But before she could add anything else he waved to her and darted towards the river.
“Ok! Yeah, I'll see you tomorrow and stuff. Bye bye!” He yelled, frantic.
Amir's heart pounded in fear. And did he have a choice?! Agh?! Why did he have to know, now? He had only looked at her because he thought she was pretty... though that kiss was... that kiss was... Something stirred inside of him and there was a definite answer there... he wanted more of whatever THAT was. But he was terrified what THAT was going to cost him. It was a trap. Yes. Definitely a trap! So he climbed aboard Grandpa's house boat, not like a floating house, but a double-wide canoe with canopy to keep the rain out, and tossed and turned between newly hatched dreams of friendship and fear, thoughts bordering on desire and definite night terrors of rejection, until the chattering of the festivities faded into the serenades of crickets and frogs, until the milky glow of the moon put the people of the Indus River to bed and everyone, even Amir, fell fast asleep...
Well... all except two. Two who played until twilight burned with wrath for the sleepless in the eastern skies.
“No- ELA! You're my only daughter left! Don't leave me!!!” The distant sound of pathetic pleads woke Lusha from his rest as the boat rocked lightly in the morning waves. The sun was high overhead, but most of the village was and should have been asleep after last night. But two, and now three people were up and Lusha wondered if he or Gramps should go handle it. Looking catty corner in the boat, Grandpa Pallando was blowing a bubble of snot from his nose, it grew unnaturally large before popping and another started in its place, Amir was on the other side of the boat, curled up with a pillow in his arms and chicken feathers in his lips... the joys of getting old, or being young. Grandpa was too tired out from last night to take this up, though. Besides, Ela was more his age and maybe the two of them could work out what was going wrong. So slipping into his tunic, he stepped back onto land, the swaying of the river following him even as he walked towards Ela, her father's arms wrapped around her leg as she attempted to storm towards the village edge.
Before he could even wave hello, however, Ela delivered a dooming blow with a sharp kick to her father's head that knocked him off as she stormed towards the edge of the village towards Sagara's estate. Lusha could catch up with her soon, but figured he best pick up Ritvik and see if he could tell him what was going on. He didn't need to ask, as Ritvik quickly latched onto his leg as soon as Lusha had stepped within arms reach. “Oh, gods! They took everything! Everything!” He cried. “I lost it all, Lusha! That swindler took it. My money, my food, my daughter, the farm – I think he got the farm, and my boooooooze! Oh my booze!”
“Hold on a moment, quiet down and get'off me.” Lusha scowled, “Wha'did you loose now you old gambling gaffer? I don't think you lost Ela, she's probably just mad at you for gambling away half your stuff again.”
“Not Ela, nooooooooo...” Ritvik whined punching the ground with his fist. “The other one!”
“What?!” Lusha looked down in shock, and soon felt uncomfortable as others started to gather outside with all the commotion. Whether he tried to handle this himself or not, he could now see that Pallando was getting out of the boat and was drifting over. Even his little brother, Amir had stuck his head out from under the cloth drape over at their boat. Sagara too, was peeking, never one to miss the town drama... before long the entire village would be over.
“They dressed her up and took her off to marry the prince up in that fancy city!” He declared, you don't understand, I had to up my bets – but in the end I lost them both!”
“How the hell do you bet your own daughter?!” Lusha yelled, perhaps this guy deserved it, and what was all this about a prince? “And I don't think you can bet your land if they're not living here, I don't think that's how all that works. Do you know where Janisha is?”
“I tooooooooooooooold you! I lost her in the bet.” He moaned... as Lusha noticed that Grandpa Pallando looked a tad bit too smug... and something about that bothered him. It was a look that was quickly shattered, though as Ritvik added a bit more. “I lost Janisha! I lost that damned pot of Sagara's and NOW I'm gonna lose Ela!”
“YOU BET SAGARA'S VASE?!” Pallando was suddenly stricken with horror over what Lusha felt was the wrong thing, but part of him realized the terror of the situation as he too felt the horror and strange sense of joy of being rid of that damned thing...
Every thing, every bad thing led back to that stupid vase. He thought. I'm glad to be rid of it.
He would quickly realize that 'maybes' were for people luckier then him.
“YOU LOST MY VASE!” The entire village heard Sagara scream in a blood draining roar.
“No, no, no,” Pallando declared, “This must be a mis-”
Suddenly Amir burst past both of them darting down the road that Lusha had seen Ela marching down. A fishing pole on his back. But Lusha's attention snapped back to Pallando as he heard his name called.
“LUSHA!” Pallando yelled. “Grab your things and catch up to that caravan and get Sagara's vase back pronto if this fool did what he claims. There will be no peace here until that vase is back in this village and you and I both know it.”
Curse it all! He thought to himself, why couldn't the old drunkard have kept quiet until the vase was too far gone?
“What about Ela?” Lusha asked confused, but then he suspected that Pallando wasn't entirely innocent in terms of THAT affair. Something was off here.
“Yes.” Pallando declared, and without saying anything verified what Lusha had been thinking. “Now get that infernal vase so I don't have to trek all the way up to Sittaraggatii!”
“I'll get right on it, they couldn't have gotten far,” Lusha half lied, he wasn't sure if he could bring himself to bring that vase back here... But with a sinking sense of disgust rising in his stomach, he rushed back to grab some coin and a small flint fishing knife, one that was a bit too big for most fish, but he kept just in case bandits one day decided to invade the small village of Tikra and momentarily after, his breath was chasing the wind, until his little brother and Ela came into view at the border of civilization. “I'll find that vase... bring it back to the edge of oblivion to be done with my past once and for all.” He decided, then and there.
Ela stood at the village's edge, off to the north, a few broken branches and a light animal trail led away from the village of Takri. The caravan was already gone, but had they gone this way? It seemed so, but she wasn't sure. “Alright, north then.”
The sudden sight of motion redirected her attention back towards the village. At first she imagined it must have been her drunk father, scrambling to drag her down again and so she readied her hand on her stone frying pan to really bash him off hard... but as her vision cleared, she instead found it was just Amir.
“WAIT WAIT!” The boy waved his arms as he caught up. “I have to come with you.”
“You don't even know where I'm going!” Ela yelled... “Actually, I'm not even sure where I'm going, but I don't want to have to be responsible for the two of us getting lost. You don't even have a reason to come with me.”
“Yes,” Amir declared. “Yes, I do!”
“I can't even begin to imagine why that is,” Ela declared. “Jani is my sister and I've had enough living with that drunk of a father of mine. I'm going north to find a better life with her, whether she becomes a princess or not. You have a functioning parent, even if he's old, and last I checked, your brother wasn't gambled off. If you want more? Well, I know one old man who's going to be short a few kids – but word to the wise, expect to do all the parenting.”
“I can't let Janisha get married to a prince!” Amir declared. “I can't!”
“Why not?” Ela laughed, “I only wish I could get hitched up with royalty, not that any of them would take me, even if my father gambled me off.”
“She can't marry a prince, though. She can't because I have until tonight to decide and I've decided!” Amir declared stamping his foot.
“We're getting married!” He said matter-of-factly.
Ela was suddenly struck by a thousand laughs and couldn't help herself, falling to the ground laughing... at least this village would leave her with a good mood before her journey.
“It's not funny!” Amir protested. “She said I had until today to decide, and so I'm deciding now!”
“And when did she push THAT on you?” Ela asked, “Sheesh, and here I thought it was you being all goo-goo-eyed for her.”
“Last night!” Amir said, “And this is very serious business.”
“Suuuuuuure,” Ela said. “well I'll tell the prince that she's already taken if I reach her before she makes it to... to...”
“Sittaragaatti,” it was Lusha. The older boy walked over and put his hand on Ela's shoulder. “I'm sorry to hear what happened with your sister.”
“Glad you could make it,” Ela said. “Though if you could avoid losing your brother, I'd really prefer if you brought him back home before he runs off chasing his crazy ideas planted in his head by my sister.... Or he's just come up with all this on his own.”
“What crazy fantasies?” Lusha looks confused.
“We're getting married!” Amir declared again.
“Those kind,” Ela said.
“Amir, go back home to Grandpa, I've got to go catch up with that caravan,” Lusha brushed his brother off.
“Please don't tell me you're also engaged with my sister,” Ela asked warningly.
“Wouldn't think of it,” Lusha said, before adding. “I couldn't steal my brothers girl!”
“You better not!” Amir injected himself back in.
“No,” Lusha said. “They've got THE VASE.”
There was a long pause between them.
“Sagara's vase?” Amir finally asked.
“Smoking holy monkey dung,” Ela smiled. “I thought something was missing... I suppose I'm not getting rid of you so easily as small stuff here, then.”
“Yeah,” Lusha said. “I figured I'd ask if you wanted to group up there, I'd leave you off with the caravan and all... if you're mind is made up on all that and all. I can understand why you wouldn't want to go back.”
“Yeah, my mind has done it's making up and it's been doing it for years. I really only stayed for Jani...”
“And mine is, too! I want to do that kiss thing again.” Amir said, getting all dreamy eyed.
Ela looked back, at Amir and then to Lusha, “In fact, the faster I leave this place the better.”
“Sounds great, I suspect they've got a good couple of hours on us... and they've got pack animals to speed them up, too, so we're going to have to hurry.” Lusha said. “Amir, back home. NOW.”
Amir suddenly was the one looking all smug, he'd gone from double-crossed kid lover to thinking in a hurry as his brother and future would-be sister-in-law tried to scheme ways to break apart his future.
“But you can't.” Amir said, glowing with an evil smile. “You won't be able to find the way!”
“Sure we can,” Lusha said, “They're going to Sittaragaatti. Hopefully we can catch them at Talpur? If they're not pushing hard in which case we might lose them all the way till Ragpur.”
“And I suspect you're an expert tracker!” Amir yelled out, causing Lusha to stop all of a sudden.
It was true. He'd never left the village before... if they went more then a few dozen miles and missed the trail, they could be lost... well... forever. And he had no way of finding a way back.
“What a shame!” Amir cornered his brother, “If only you happened to have to a Water Witch to guide you! Oh look at this! A Moon Dowsing bone.”
“Please tell me we don't have to take him with us,” Ela looked back at Lusha.
“You don't,” Lusha said, “But I think he's right, it might help... unless you know Moon Dowsing?”
“And here I thought the day was turning around after being the single worst day in my life,” Ela roared out her rage at the sky.
“That's a yes then?” Amir beamed, hopping up and down.
“Didn't Pallando teach you both how to do Moon Dowsing?” Ela asked.
“He tried,” Lusha admitted, as this suddenly threw a whale bone in his plans to get rid of that vase.
“Then, even if I might hate having a noisy compass along for the ride, I think you'd better take him.” Ela admitted.
“I really don't need,” Lusha tried to weasyl out of him.
“Lusha, you'll just end up getting lost, or we'll both get lost... something I hadn't considered until now and then what happens to him? We've both lost enough people we love in the last few years.”
“Maybe that's inevitable anyways,” Lusha said.
“Nothing is inevitable,” Ela was surprised at herself, changing the tone and switching over to Amir's side. “Ok, fine, I officially invite you on the find my sister journey. But I'm telling you now, you're up against people way out of your league, small stuff!”
“Really?! YES! Oh! Yeah, if we lose the path, at night I can tell where we need to go the next morning by seeking out Myra, she's an elephant.” Amir excitedly declared.
“Wouldn't you just need to find the sister of mine you're supposed to be marrying?”
“Oh! Yeah, I could use her, too... But I think Myra is much bigger and stuff spiritually, so she'd be easier to find.”
“I'll make sure the elephant knows you think she's spiritually fat when I see her,” Ela said.
“No! Don't tell her that,” Amir said. “It will hurt her feelings... So... When we get married and your my sister!”
Amir continued this rambling conversation as Lusha tried to salve the pain with quiet, hoping that the three of them could make it to the caravan before nightfall... but it would be a bit longer before any of them reached their princess...