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Chapter 1: Mangoes
By: Ian Sime
|This story is part of a series|
|Succeeded by:||Chapter 2: Knitting Needles|
In the oldest legends, the Sun was named Star-Mother. It was Star-Mother who, when the heavens were still warm and cherry-red from creation, took the first breath of life. It was Star-Mother who, as the cooling song rang out through all there was, molded the breath in her belly. It was Star Mother who, as the glow faded into darkness, bore the first dragons.
She loved her children as much as the sky is high, and It was because of this that she made for them three gifts: The Stars, so that there would always be light in the darkness; The Moon, so that they would remember her even when she was gone; and the World, so that they would always have a home.
Star-Mother's children grew mighty, and wise, and beautiful with these gifts. And although they no longer need her, each day Star-Mother flies over them, watchful for threats. Each day as she does, Star-Mother looks down on her children, and her children's children, and shines brightly with pride.
"Wait, wasn't there a fourth child?"
Sabrina Bunahr closed her eyes and knit her brow in concentration. She was a stout girl, broad at the shoulder and hip, with dark, warm skin and firm features. She was dressed in a robe of gauzy silk and a dress of sheer cashmere, and her sleek, blue-black hair was tied up with a chain of gold. The chain encircled her hairline and hung down on her forehead, where a single, brilliantly purple amethyst was cradled in her brow.
"Yes," she said. "Definitely something about a fourth child. Bar... something. Or... Bey?"
She dabbed at her forehead with the silken scarf she carried, and as she did she hid a low, soft sigh behind it. The heat wasn't helping her memory in the slightest. The worst rains of the wet season had ended, but the humidity had not, leaving a sticky, stagnant heat in the air. The interior of the palace had been transformed into a single, gigantic oven, so hot that Sabrina could scarcely think without sweating.
The palace gardens offered some small reprieve. The occasional breeze took the edge off the heat, and the cascading fountains offered cooling spray. Even so, the air was oppressive. Sabrina's face and arms were gleaming with sweat, and she didn't dare check the dress beneath her robe to assess the damage.
Astha lounged on the rim of the fountain, flicking idly through the book. "Mm," she said. "Nope. Nothing about a fourth child."
Sabrina frowned. "Really?" she asked. "I could have sworn..." She dipped her fingers into the fountain and rubbed them on the back of her neck.. The sudden coolness sent a refreshing shiver down her spine, and she straightened up once again. "Alright. So no fourth child. Then, where was I?"
Astha continued to flip through the book. "You can probably skip the next part," she said. "It's just lists. Lots and lots of lists. Of titles, and materials, and plants, and animals..." She rubbed her head. "For a species that barely has a written language, they sure are thorough about what they record."
"I believe it's metaphorical," another girl, Kamalakshi, offered. She sat beside Sabrina on the bench, slightly taller and straight as a pole. She was a wispy, stringy girl, as though someone had taken a normal person and stretched them out, although she was far from waifish. "Like Vikaasi's Hundred Thousand Seeds. They just discovered a lot of things."
"If it was a metaphor," Astha countered, "Why wouldn't they just say something simple like that? Instead of..." she flipped back to the beginning of the lists and began to read, "Iron and marble and sandstone; dunes and stones and mountains; Silver and Gold and Tigers-Eye; poppies and hawthorn and stinging pears; thunder and lightning and sandstorms..." She took a deep breath and flipped the page.
"Because," Kamalakshi cut her off, "they live in a desert full of absolutely nothing. They probably needed some way to entertain themselves. And if they do something practical, like... teaching their children what to avoid until they were old enough to deal with it, then all the better." She flicked her hair over her shoulder and said, without even trying to hide her disdain, "Or perhaps whoever was telling the legend to the recorder was enjoying a new form of torment and tedium."
"Kamalakshi," Sabrina chided, laying a hand on the girl's. "That's unkind." Still, she couldn't help but laugh. "They're harmless."
"Peaceful isn't the same as harmless," Kamalakshi snorted. "Just because it pleases them to be now, doesn't mean it always will. I don't trust them."
"For now, then," Sabrina said, very deliberately not rolling her eyes, "You worry too much. The worst thing dragons have done lately is make my afternoons much less relaxing than they should be." She brandished her own copy of the history book. "And even then, Harinma is more to blame for that particular offense."
"I'll say," Astha commented from her bed on the fountain. "I'm surprised you aren't with her, actually. She's probably the only cool place in the city right now."
"Because I'm positive that Harinma has been working up to another test, and is prepared to spring it on me the next time she sees me," Sabrina replied. "She's probably hunting me down as we speak, and I would prefer to be at least a bit prepared for it."
"If it were me," Astha said, "I'd want to jump right in, and get it over with. What's the worst that could happen?"
"Another lecture from Father on taking my studies seriously and respecting Harinma," Sabrina said.
"Oh," Astha said. Both she and Kamalakshi fell silent, considering the possibility. Astha nodded gravely.
"And then he would make me study even harder to make up for it," Sabrina concluded.
"Esteemed Maharaja is a wise and just leader," Kamalakshi said, so neutrally her voice managed to sound gray.
"I wish I could share your faith," Sabrina said. She saw Kamalakshi's expression and added, "It's not that I don't trust Father. I just..." She rolled her shoulders and opened the history book. "I just don't understand what value he sees in all this." Astha had been correct: there were pages of lists of what the first three dragons had discovered when they came to earth, enough to make her eyes cross.
Kamalakshi shifted her jaw back and forth. She opened and closed her mouth several times before finally saying, "Yes, well... it's important for a leader to be knowledgeable."
"Sure, in history, and arithmetic, and literature and law," Astha said. "We all learn those. But all this stuff about dragons?"
"I'm... sure Esteemed Maharaja has a good reason," Kamalakshi said, though her tone lacked conviction.
"I'm sure as well," Sabrina said. "But I wish I knew what it was. Perhaps if I did, this wouldn't all feel like such a waste of time. I just don't understand the point in it."
"Well, whatever Esteemed Maharaja's reason is, if you're right you'll find out before too long," Astha said. "I think Harinma just found you."
"What?" Sabrina asked. Her head snapped up and scanned the garden.
Sure enough, Harinma had entered from the other end. The ancient woman's robe was a shade of green that blended with the transplanted trees and ferns, camouflaging her perfectly. Only her slow, waddling movement and the occasional glint of the gold chain she wore gave her away.
Sabrina swore, then covered her mouth. Harinma had not spotted Sabrina yet, judging from how her gaze swept across the garden, and Sabrina had no intention of helping her along. Even if she were able to sort out the dozens of bizarre and foreign names floating around in her head and arrange them into something concrete, she had no desire to spend her afternoon being scrutinized for every stammer or hesitation.
The more she thought of it, the more she set her jaw and tensed her shoulders. Even if she passed the test Harinma would expect her to redouble her efforts, so as to not 'fall behind'. Even while she excelled in her other studies, she spent hour after hour, day after day, studying the dragons—and for what? It wasn't as if she didn't have other responsibilities. She found herself less watching Harinma approach, and more glowering at the woman. Then, out of the corner of her eye, something else caught her attention.
Harinma, it seemed, was not the only one to have joined them in the garden. She had been so intent on her studies, and on Harinma, that she had not noticed before. An enormous figure was making his way between the plantlife. A young man, not much older than Sabrina, and almost as broad across the shoulder as he was tall.
A thought struck Sabrina. She checked back on Harinma, who still didn't appear to have noticed them.
Sabrina closed her book with a soft clap. "No, I won't," she said.
"What?" Kamalakshi asked, blinking.
"She hasn't seen me yet," Sabrina explained, leaning forward. "So no, I'm not going to find out what her excuse is for all of this."
"But you can't just... run out on your responsibilities!" Kamalakshi objected. "What about your father—" She caught herself. "What about Esteemed Maharaja's lecture?"
"I'm not," Sabrina said. "But I have other responsibilities aside from frivolous tests and lessons."
Astha followed Sabrina's gaze to the young man in the garden and grinned. "And the fact that Tu'i Taurau happens to be your favourite responsibility doesn't hurt," she teased.
"It's not like I'm going to avoid the test forever," Sabrina said. "I just need more time to prepare." She put her hands on Kamalakshi's. "Please, Kamala?" she asked.
Kamalakshi scowled the most regal scowl she could manage. Her expression quickly softened, however, and she sighed. "Fine," she said.
Astha jumped to her feet and hauled Kamalakshi up. "We'll tell her you're up in your room studying," she said.
"Thank you," Sabrina said. She stood as well and quickly threw her arms around the pair of girls. "I love you both."
"Have fun," Astha said. Then she began to pull Kamalakshi in Harinma's direction, coaching her on the lie as they went.
Sabrina darted away before Harinma could notice her. She strode quickly between the plants, but did not run, or stoop. A person that moved suspiciously would only attract Harinma's attention. Instead, she took the route that would keep most of the larger flora between her and Harinma.
It was an obtuse, winding path that took Sabrina behind Taurau. He moved at a dawdling pace, roaming from bed to bed with no sense of purpose. Sabrina was able to reach him quickly, where she wrapped her arms around his. "Hello, Tu'i Taurau," she said, before he had a chance to react. "Rescue me, please."
In spite of his bulk, Sabrina quickly brought Taurau's pace up to match hers. She lead him out of the garden as quickly as she could, and around the corner. Then, just for good measure, she lead him down several hallways.
They were walking for several minutes before Sabrina finally decided they were safe and allowed their pace to slow. She let go of Taurau's arm, somewhat reluctantly, and smiled up at him. It was difficult not to.
Tu'i Taurau was everything his silhouette promised. He wore an open robe made of fine, gauzy silk, fastened around the waist by a broad sash. Unlike most men, however, he wore no shirt underneath. Instead he wore his chest bare, exposing his broad, powerful trunk.
His chest and abdomen were covered in tattoos, jet black lines that swirled in intricate patterns, framing strange symbols and terrifying faces. They disappeared beneath his robe, where they covered his shoulders and upper arms in the same detail. Sabrina had heard him explain that the tattoos were sacred, and that to cover his chest was particularly unthinkable. She had always believed he just liked showing off—not that she was inclined to complain.
A cascade of rich, curly black hair piled around his shoulders and framed his round face. Wide, expressive eyes peered at Sabrina from beneath a heavy brow, filled with worry. He cleared his throat and asked, "Is everything alright, Yuvrani Sabrina?" His voice was surprisingly gentle for his powerful appearance.
"Just perfect," Sabrina said. "That was an excellent rescue, Tu'i Taurau, thank you."
"I'm... glad," Taurau said. He glanced back over his shoulder and asked, "But, ah... what did I rescue you from?"
Sabrina thought about it. "Tedium," she answered eventually. "I simply felt like a pleasant afternoon stroll."
Taurau raised an eyebrow at this. "Oh," he said. "Well... I've always thought of afternoon strolls as being a bit more relaxed, but I guess it was a good cure for tedium."
Sabrina laughed and placed a hand on Taurau's arm. "That was a joke, Tu'i Taurau," she said. "I apologize for ambushing you. I hope I didn't worry you too badly?"
"Well," Taurau said. He looked over his shoulder and ran his fingers through his hair. After a moment he turned back and laughed. "Well, no," he said.
Sabrina smiled back at him, a bit slyly. "Oh?" she asked. "Not even a little?"
A look of concern flashed across Taurau's face for a moment, just long enough for Sabrina to appreciate the way his brow crinkled. Then it passed, and he threw back his head in another laugh. "Alright," he conceded. "A lot, at the time. But if you're fine, then there was nothing to be worried about."
Sabrina smiled wider, and she found herself sharing in Taurau's infectious laugh—though not quite so loudly. "Well, I suppose I can live with that," she said.
She lifted her scarf to her forehead once again, dabbing at the beads of sweat that had formed during their walk, and using it to hide her grin. "Now... am I mistaken, or were you taking a stroll of your own?"
"I was," Taurau said. "The garden is beautiful—flowers like I have never seen before."
"You flatter me," Sabrina said. She held her scarf in front of her face again, although this time she strategically failed to hide her smirk.
Taurau blinked. A moment later an expression of realization spread across his face, followed shortly after by a broad smile. "Ah," he said, laughing. "Well, I meant—Yes, but I meant the..." he waved his hands vaguely.
Sabrina laughed and laid a hand on one of his arms, stilling it. "Would you like some company on your walk?" she asked. "I promise we can take a slower pace."
Taurau's laugh quieted to a simple smile, and and he laid his hand over Sabrina's on his arm. "I would like that very much," he said.
Sabrina began to reply, but was cut off by a dusty, wheezing noise, like the scream of time itself. It came from down a hall they had just passed, a distant echo, and it had called her name. In spite of the heat, Sabrina's blood froze in her veins. Harinma.
Sabrina peered up at Taurau, who was staring over his shoulder in shock. He looked down, and when his eyes met Sabrina's she could see his thoughts racing. Taurau's family had won their throne in battle, but they had kept it through cunning.
"Perhaps," Taurau said, "We could take our walk... elsewhere? At a slightly less leisurely pace, for the time being?"
Sabrina nodded sharply. "Outside," she said. "The city. Harinma hates the city; she'll never follow us down there. She can't sit at the gates for me forever." She was fairly certain, at least. If Sabrina spent long enough in the city, Harinma would probably keel over from old age.
She took his arm again and led him in the direction of the front hall. Although their pace was not the near-run it had been when they left the garden, it was still faster than most people would call a walk. In spite of that, Sabrina could not shake the feeling she heard hurried footsteps behind them, as though Harinma was chasing them down. She told herself it was impossible. Harinma's age made waking at a normal pace a monumental task, to say nothing of keeping up with Sabrina and Taurau. Sabrina walked faster just the same.
They managed to reach the front courtyard without being ambushed or set upon by any aged tutors, and Sabrina let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding in. Beneath her hand she felt Taurau's arm relax as well. Together they allowed their pace to slow, if only slightly, and approached the massive stone wall that surrounded the palace.
The guards bowed in silent recognition of Sabrina. Each of them wore the same leather armour, boiled and polished to a high sheen, over the same long, leather-studded coats. Each coat had a hood that tucked beneath their helmet and covered their face. Only their eyes were visible, peering through two holes in the hood. They were completely identical, and completing the illusion, none of them made a sound.
One of the guards stepped forward. He still did not speak, although his question was clear.
"We won't need an escort," Sabrina assured him. "We'll only be gone for a couple of hours, and I'm certain we won't find any trouble."
The guard looked between the two of them, and looked Taurau up and down. He seemed satisfied by the explanation. He bowed again and stepped back into line. Taurau bowed to him in return, and Sabrina nodded deeply as they passed the guards and crossed through the main gate.
The main gate was actually five gates: broad, peaked arches arranged side-by-side along the wall. Each arch lead to a different path along the stone bridge that connected the palace to the city below. The paths themselves were open, separated only by the pillars that supported the wooden ceiling.
The four paths along the outside were masterfully made, their pillars decorated with patterns reminiscent of creeping vines and water flowers, but for all their artistry they were put to shame by the central path that Sabrina and Taurau walked.
The central pillars were each as thick around as a man. They were decorated not with flowers and vines, but with detailed murals and stories. Each pillar was different: One might show brave warriors doing battle with terrifying beasts, while the next would show those same figures sharing food and drink. Each pillar was a glimpse into the history of Vikaasthan, and of its crown city: Sangam.
Taurau rubbed his cheek as they stepped off the bridge and into the Royal Square. "Well," he said. "Now that we're away from..." he gestured back to the palace, "whatever that was, what now?"
"We stroll, of course," Sabrina said with a laugh. She looked up at him, and noticed the worried crinkling of his brow. "Have you never been into Sangam?" she asked.
"To the port," Taurau said. "When I first arrived, and to greet the attendants father sent after."
"The ocean ports?" Sabrina asked.
"I suppose?" Taurau replied. "Are there others?"
"One for each island, almost," Sabrina said. "And another in the river mouth. The ocean ports hardly count as being in the city. You should really learn more about the city you're living in, you know!"
Taurau ran his fingers through his hair and laughed. "Yes, I suppose," he replied. "It's just been difficult to find the time, and I don't know where to begin. Even just the port is quite impressive."
"Well, that's just telling of how little you know about Sangam," she said. "But fortunately for you, I know exactly where to start." She held his arm tighter, and added, "But don't worry: I'll make sure you're safe in the city."
As Taurau threw his head back in a laugh, Sabrina lead them across the square and into the streets of Sangam.
In spite of the dizzying heat, Sangam was abuzz with activity. The entire island in front of the palace was a single, enormous bazaar, divided into four smaller marketplaces, places on the points of a compass around a central square. Once the divide had been defined by what the shops sold, but now each market was more colourful and eclectic than the last.
Unlike the palace, the bazaar was constructed entirely from the wood of the mangrove trees that filled and surrounded the city. Although the wood was naturally gray, the buildings had been stained red with dyes and years of dust shaken up from the hard-packed dirt streets.
More colour came from the men and women who filled the bazaar. They wore robes for protection from the sun, and each robe seemed more richly dyed than the last. Fiery reds, lush greens, brilliant yellows and depthless blues all moved in a churning current, turning the bazaar into a kaleidoscopic ocean of bodies.
Sabrina kept Taurau close as they moved through the bazaar. There was little danger of losing him, of course—he stood a head above most of the crowd—but for all that Sabrina had been joking about keeping him safe, she also knew that if they were separated he was liable to be ambushed by aggressive shopkeepers. Their cries could be heard over the rumble of the crowd, advertising their wares and decrying competitors. Some even approached Sabrina and Taurau, offering samples of their wares.
Of course, there were other benefits to sticking close to Taurau. Aside from the obvious, that it gave Sabrina an excuse to enjoy his arm and chest, his enormous frame was perfect for pushing through the crowd. The stretch of the southern and northern bazaars would normally take Sabrina almost half an hour to push through without an escort. With Taurau's assistance, they halved that.
Even with his help, more and more merchants approached them as they moved, until they were hardly able to walk for the throng. Eventually, Sabrina accepted a pair of mangoes that the short, fat man selling them insisted were the juiciest in all of Vikaasthan. After she did, he turned back to the crowd and declared that the Yuvrani, as well as a foreign royal, preferred his produce.
The crowd of merchants parted, their mutterings lost in the ensuing clamour of the crowd, and Sabrina and Taurau were able to make for the broad archway that signalled the end of the bazaar.
They exited into another square, though much smaller than the royal square. On the other end were three bridges, crossing over channels to the other islands of the city.
Taurau laughed and ran his fingers through his hair. There was a wild look in his eyes, and a broad grin on his face. "So!" he said. "The ports definitely weren't anything like that. I hope we aren't going to have merchants hounding us all through the city, now that you've given in to one of them..."
Sabrina laughed, and handed one of the mangoes to Taurau. "I only did it so they'd let us go," she said. "If I hadn't, they would probably bar the exits until I had accepted something." She bit into the mango. It was wonderfully cool, the perfect cure for the still-mounting heat. She made a noise of pleasure and said, "Besides. We do so much work for the good of the country, is it such a terrible thing to accept a simple pleasure now and again?
Taurau looked over his shoulder. Beyond the gates of the bazaar, the very tip of the stone palace was visible in the distance. "If you say so," he said. He took a bite from his mango as well, although he was not familiar enough with the fruit to keep the juice from spilling down his chin.
He and Sabrina shared a laughed as Taurau wiped his face. "You don't have to eat so fast," Sabrina assured him. "It will take us a while yet to reach where we're going."
"Oh?" Taurau asked. "Where, exactly?"
Sabrina very carefully and very pointedly did not reply to that. Instead she smiled impishly and wrapped her arm around Taurau's again. "Secrets, Tu'i Taurau," she said.
Taurau bit into the mango to stifle a laugh.
Beyond the bazaar they crossed to a smaller island, leaving behind the ornately designed squares and bustling crowds. They walked along a simple, cozy street nestled in between the houses and the island's banks.
More mangrove trees grew along the banks, and even sprouted from the channel, at intervals too haphazard and frequent to be designed. Despite many of the trees having been cut down, leaving rows of stumps as impromptu walkways across the river, there was still ample shade. The lazy light that filtered down through the leaves turned the red city green, and if it was not cool, it was at least comfortable.
The houses across from the channel were terraced, ten or twelve homes between each street. Although the fronts were plain, made from the same undecorated mangrove wood that filled Sangam, the rare gap in the houses showed a glimpsed of the colourful, lively squares that the homes surrounded.
Although it was the height of the working day, there were still people in the streets. People worked from their homes here, offering mending, tinkering, and other simple services. They and their customers gossiped and chatted as they worked. Their children ran around their legs and through the streets, immersed in the nameless, rule-less games that children play. They stopped to gawk at Sabrina and Taurau as they passed, or to wave wildly. Their parents waved as well and bowed.
Sabrina felt her smile growing steadily wider as they passed through the people. She only distantly recalled how she had originally planned to spend her afternoon cooped up in a classroom, straining her brain over pointless old legends and traditions. This, this had a point. This was worth something.
She knelt down, breaking the remains of her mango in half and giving the pieces to a pair of young girls that ran by. They thanked her profusely and dashed off, giggling with excitement. As she stood up, Sabrina couldn't help but laugh as well.
"It's wonderful," said Taurau, who had finished his own mango. "I can see why you wanted to show me all of this."
Sabrina smiled and looked around. "It is," she said. "But this isn't what I wanted to show you."
"No?" Taurau asked. He ran his fingers through his hair and furrowed his brow, though he smiled all the while. "Then I can't imagine, what is?"
"That's only because you haven't seen it yet," Sabrina said, patting his arm. "But don't worry. You will soon."
She was right. By the time they reached the end of the block they could see poles rising over the line of buildings. A block further and they could hear a busy murmur and clatter.
Sabrina frowned, and her steps slowed for a moment. They were approaching the end of the block, and the sounds were becoming more and more clear. It was also becoming clear that it was not the sound of work and conversation that she had expected. There was shouting, and pounding footsteps, and the sound of grinding stone.
Taurau clearly heard it as well. He moved ahead of Sabrina, staring hard at the corner the sounds were coming from. His posture was lowered, ready to spring. "Is something going on?" he asked.
Sabrina wanted to know as well. She picked up her pace again, striding past Taurau and looking around the corner into the wide alley beyond.
If Taurau had not been ready, had not be able to lunge forward and pull her back, she would have lost her head to the dragon's tail.
The tip swung inches away from Sabrina's face, fast enough to make a thrumming noise that rang in her ears. She yelped and jumped back, nearly tripping over her own feet.
Taurau laughed. It was not his usual brassy, sonorous sound. Instead it was high, howling and vicious. It was not a sound of joy, but a warning. He leaped forward, ducking under the swinging tail and slamming his open palm into the dragon's knee.
The dragon roared and staggered forward. It reared up to keep from toppling over, and turned on Taurau.
It was young, perhaps only thirty years old: It stood just shy of seven feet tall. From head to tail it was almost ten feet, with a wingspan to match. Powerful muscles rippled beneath cobalt scales, like those of a crocodile, and a nest of horns as black as pitch sprouted from a bony crest on its forehead. Claws of the same black material tipped each finger and toe, vicious, and caked in dust from where they had scored through earth and stone.
The dragon howled again, showing off a mouth full of fangs, each one as long as Sabrina's fingers. Taurau returned the howl, slapping his thighs for emphasis, and leaped forward again.
"Wait!" the dragon cried, throwing his arms in front of his face. He spoke with a strange, barking accent, but his meaning was clear even if the words were not. "Cut it out!"
Taurau hesitated for just a moment. It was long enough for Sabrina to throw an arm across his chest. "Taurau, stop!" she said.
He did as he was asked, but Taurau looked between Sabrina and the dragon. "He could have hurt you!" he said. He didn't sound as sure.
"It was just an accident," Sabrina said. "He was just turning around and didn't see me." She turned to the dragon and asked, "right?"
"Y-yeah," the dragon replied. He eyed Taurau warily, and took a step away from him. "I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention." He brought in his tail, curling it around his feet.
"It's alright," Sabrina assured him. "What's going on? We heard noises."
In fact, they were still hearing noise. Sabrina leaned to look past the dragon. She couldn't see much, but she caught the occasional glimpse of workers and dragon whelps dancing awkwardly around something she couldn't quite see.
"It's..." the dragon said. He was clearly hesitant to speak to them, or share the issue. Then his eyes locked on the chain on Sabrina's forehead. His bony brow furrowed, and a look of recognition flashed across his face.
"Ah!" he said, pointing at the chain. "You're the, ah..." he patted his tail on the ground, searching for the word. "The, um...! Speaker!"
Sabrina blinked, and frowned. "Esteemed Yuvrani?" she suggested cooly.
"That!" the dragon said. "Can you help? I think we need help."
Sabrina's frown deepened. "Help with what?" she pressed, trying her best to remain patient.
Rather than answering, the dragon gestured for Sabrina to follow. Then he turned again and limped towards the source of the noise. He lead Sabrina and Taurau around the corner and into an open area.
It was a public square—or rather, it would be. At the moment it was a construction site, cordoned off with ropes and stakes that the dragon cleared easily. The dirt beyond the barricade had recently been churned. Cobblestones had been pressed into the earth in some places, but much of the dirt was still soft and loose, and riddled with a history in claw and footprints.
At the centre of the square was the skeleton of an enormous bridge. It rose as high as the rooftop of the surrounding buildings and spanned the main channel of the Salaee River in a gentle, lazy arch. The poles that they had seen before rose up around it, supporting a network of scaffolding that spiralled around the bridge like a creeping, strangling vine. Amid those poles, beneath the bridge, the source of the noise was immediately clear.
Another dragon, a female almost twice as large as the first, was tangled among the scaffolding poles and the false supports of the bridge. She had managed to get a grip on either bank of the river, one with a foot and one with a hand, but her wings were trapped between the poles and it was clear that he balance was beginning to fail. Every so often she would reach out to try and get a grip on the bridge, resulting in a chorus of shouting from the human workers.
"There!" the cobalt dragon said, gesturing to the scene beneath the bridge. "She came in for a landing too fast, and wound up under the bridge."
Sabrina strode past him, searching for the most important looking person. She found a group of men huddled together and asked, "What's going on here?"
One of them men shot her a scowl. Then he started, and looked up fully. "Esteemed Yuvrani!" he said. The other men looked up as well, blinking in shock.
One of them, a clean-shaven man with thinning hair and leathery hands, seemed to be quicker than the rest. He stepped away from the group and bowed to her. "Forgive me, Esteemed Yuvrani. I'm the foreman here, but I'm afraid we're having a bit of a moment—one of the dragons helping with deliveries got trapped under the bridge. The weight must've thrown her off or something like. Either way, we've got to get her out from under there without tearing down everything we've done so far."
"Can't she just go into the river?" Taurau asked as he arrived alongside Sabrina. "It looks like she could swim between the poles."
The foreman shook his head. "Take a look," he said, pointing to the dragon. Her front swung down as she momentarily lost a grip on the bank, showing an enormous bundle on her back.
"Granite," the man explained. "Heavy da—" he eyed Sabrina and coughed. "Heavy stuff, and expensive. If she goes in the river, best case scenario is we lose it all."
"And it'll weigh her down!" the cobalt dragon added. The worry in his voice was clear even through his accent. "The river isn't wide enough for a wingbeat. If she can't adapt in time..."
The foreman nodded gravely.
Sabrina stared at the dragon for a long moment. "Can you get the stone off of her?" she asked.
"We could get some men climb up there, train it down," the Foreman said. "Or maybe get someone down from the bridge, rope it up."
Sabrina crossed her arms, wrapping her scarf over her mouth as she did so. She shifted her jaw back and forth as she considered it. "That would just put more weight on her back," she said, finally. "I don't think she could do it. But..." she turned back to the foreman and asked, "Do any of your men know how to pray to Vikaasi?"
The foreman rubbed his jaw. "None of the men," he said. "I know a few scraps, myself... don't have the knack for it, else I wouldn't be doing this."
"That's alright," Sabrina said. "Get your men's attention, and then let me tell them what we need to do."
The foreman nodded sharply and bellowed to the group. When they were all paying attention, he bowed to Sabrina.
She stepped forward and raised her voice. "Form a line!" she said. "I need people as close to the dragon as possible, ready to ferry stone down!"
The men jumped to work. They climbed the scaffolding like spiders, and in the space of a moment they were ready. Even Taurau had joined them, ready on the edge of the river.
"Follow my movements carefully," Sabrina told the foreman. "Once you're ready, you just need to keep the stone in place. I'll move it one piece at a time."
The foreman gave a grunt of understanding, and watched Sabrina carefully. Together, they fell into the prayer stance: hands pressed together in front of the belly, shoulders loose, knees and elbows slightly bent.
Sabrina breathed deep and let her mind relax. She felt the breath filling her lungs, the air. She felt the subtle switching and tensing of her muscles, the soil. She felt the moisture on her fingertips, the rain. She turned her thoughts to Vikaasi, the mother of all that grew, the green woman, and felt the tiny seed of power thrum to life in her belly.
She parted her hands and made a series of gestures. Each motion was precise, practiced. Her entire body moved, flowing from one pose into the next as she rolled her wrists and arranged her fingers. Each one had a meaning, single and specific, and the gestures had to be exact. Together, they formed her prayer.
The power inside her grew, spreading through her limbs like a vine around her bones. In spite of the circumstance, she could not help but smile, as she did every time she prayed. The power was warm and welcoming. Despite being inside of her, it felt like an embrace.
Soon it had filled her so full she could not longer contain it, and with a final gesture she set it free. It flowed down her arms, through her fingertips, and into the air with a near-invisible shimmer. Beside her, the foreman did the same.
The effect was subtle, at first. The pack on the dragon's back shifted, then slowly came undone. The blocks it had tied began to shift and tumble. For just a moment, the world stood still. Every man and dragon held their breath as the blocks fell.
Then, all at once, they stopped.
Sabrina breathed a sigh of relief. The foreman was struggling, but he had them, and he would not drop them again. She turned back to the scene, and began her own work.
The first block lifted off the pile. It sailed through the air in a tight arc, landing perfectly in the hands of the first man in the train. He, in turn, passed it to the man behind him, who passed it to the man behind him. All along the wall the brick made its way down, until finally Taurau caught it with a grunt of exertion, and laid it on the ground.
There was a rumble of approval from the workers. There was no time for congratulations though, not yet. Sabrina made the next block fly. The moment the first man in the train passed it along, she sent him the third. Soon the workers found a fast, steady rhythm. No hands were ever without stone for longer than the time it took to turn around.
Before long the entire bundle had been shifted, and the dragon's back was clear. Sabrina let the power of the prayer slip away, and dabbed the sweat off of her brow. "Alright!" she called out to the dragon. "You're safe to let go!"
The dragon dropped immediately, crashing into the river and sending up a spray that soaked the men on the wall. They roared with laughter at the splash, and at a job well done. They slapped one another on the shoulder and some began the climb down, while others opted to instead jump into the river after the dragon.
Soon enough everyone was back on the bank. The cobalt dragon, as well as an assortment of whelps, crowded around the sopping wet dragon's feet. She touched their heads and assured them she was alright, then shooed them back.
The surface of her scales rippled and flickered like a candle flame. She looked almost fluid as her scales became skin, and the skin became gleaming duck feathers. The water on her beaded and cascaded to the ground like a waterfall, and in moments she was as dry as her homeland. Then she shimmered again, and was scale once more.
She approached Sabrina, and bowed deeply. "Thank you, Honoured Yuvrani," she said. "I am Tor-Tomae, Speaker for my tribe. You have done me a great service, and I am indebted. If there is anything you might ask of me, please."
Sabrina smiled and waved a hand. "It was nothing, Tor-Tomae," she said. "I just helped where I was needed. But I'm sure if you tried to be more careful landing next time, the foreman would appreciate it."
Tor-Tomae's dark copper scales and heavy crest hid her scowl. Even if they had not, Sabrina likely wouldn't have noticed. She had turned her attention back to the foreman, who was wheezing and leaning with his hands on his knees.
"Whoo!" he said said. "Been years since I tried to do anything that heavy. Reminds me why I don't anymore." He hauled himself back and beamed at Sabrina. "That was some mighty impressive work, Esteemed Yuvrani. We're lucky you came by."
"I was happy to help," Sabrina said with a smile. She put a hand on Taurau's shoulder as he joined them and added, "Though I'll admit it isn't exactly what I expected to see when I brought us down here. Is everything going well?"
The foreman ran a hand over his hair. "Aside from Tor-Tomae getting stuck?" he asked. "Everything's going perfectly, actually. Those fellas can work like nobody's business, when you set them to a task."
Sure enough, the dragons had already returned to their work. The whelps had begun to divvy up the blocks for carving, and some had even started inscribing rough shapes. Those shapes would gradually be whittled down to perfect detail, using nothing more than their claws.
"If we get lucky and don't have any other major issues," the foreman continued, "we'll likely get finished well ahead of time. Only trouble will be keeping the locals from peeking until it's time."
"Time for what?" Taurau asked. "Are you not planning to open the bridge once it's finished?"
The foreman cocked an eyebrow at Taurau. "Pardon," he said. "Suppose you aren't from around here, ah..."
"Honoured Tu'i Taurau," Sabrina introduced him. "And no, he isn't.
"This isn't just any bridge," Sabrina explained to Taurau. "This is the Armistice Bridge. The second Armistice Bridge, actually. The first one is up north, between the lakeshore provinces. It will be the hundredth anniversary this year, so we're going to unveil it for the celebration."
Taurau looked up at the bridge with renewed interest, and he ran his fingers through his hair. "A hundred years?" he asked. "That's..." he laughed. "A fitting tribute, I suppose!"
"The Esteemed Maharaja certainly thought so," the foreman said. "I hope you'll think so too, Esteemed Yuvrani?"
"Definitely," Sabrina said. "I'm sure it will be many more times as beautiful when it's completed. At the peak, you'll be able to see right down the Salaee, for miles into the country." She felt her heart swell with pride.
"Say," the foreman said, rubbing his jaw. "Won't be quite the same, since you wouldn't be seeing it from the bridge, but the scaffolding at the top there has about the same view. Would you like a bit of a sneak peek?"
"Ah," Sabrina said. "Up... there, you mean?" She peered at the scaffolding, and noticed for the first time just how... high it was. "Well, that does sound..." She peered at Taurau.
Unfortunately, Taurau was smiling. "That does sound quite impressive," he said. "Sangam has been beautiful so far, I can only image a view from up high. I'd quite like to see it."
"Perfect!" The foreman declared with a clap of his hands. He lead them to the bridge, and began to climb the scaffolding.
There were no real ladders or steps. The foreman used the supports themselves to climb with almost impossible speed. Taurau followed after, and if he was not as fast as the foreman, his agility was still surprising.
Sabrina, however, found herself climbing with much less agility, and a great deal more shaking. It was difficult to push herself up when her legs felt like rubber, and the desire to keep her eyes shut as tight as possible forced her to grope blindly for the next level of the scaffolding.
Eventually she felt a hand take hers. It drew her up in a gentle, but unhindered movement. Slowly, carefully, she opened one eye to see who it was.
She realized, briefly, that it had been Taurau. A moment later she realized that they were standing on the highest platform of the scaffolding. In particular, she was standing on the very edge of the highest platform.
The river seemed miles below her, far enough to be hard as stone if she fell. Even if it hadn't been, it seemed so thin that she was as likely to land on the hard banks. The longer she stared, the farther away she was—and at the same time, the more precarious it seemed.
Her mind knew that was foolishness, of course. The river could not be more than 10 feet down, and was twice that across. If she fell she would be wet, and no worse. Her stomach, however, was too busy twisting itself in knots to listen to reason, and her knees seemed to have abandoned her entirely. She collapsed against Taurau, throwing her arms around his trunk to steady herself.
She was fortunate that he was so sturdy she was unable to move him at all. Less fortunate was that he apparently found it hilarious. His laughter caused his belly to shake, which in turn caused Sabrina to shake.
"I'm sorry!" he said, putting his hands on her shoulders to keep her steady. "I shouldn't laugh. Are you alright?"
"Yes," Sabrina said. She hoped that her voice sounded even half as confident as she had meant it to. She reigned in her traitorous knees and forced herself to stand up straight. "I'm perfectly fine. I just... slipped, is all." She considered stepping away from him, but decided that wasn't quite wise.
Taurau chuckled and looked out at the river. "Well... the foreman was right," he said. "It's a very impressive view."
With some effort, Sabrina managed to follow his gaze, careful not to look down at all. As she did, she felt her fear beginning to slip away.
The bridge crossed the main channel, which sliced cleanly through the northern half of the city. Sangam rose on a gentle slope, enough that they could see the channels between each individual island. The late afternoon sun glittered on the water, setting the deep greens of city alight with gold and silver.
They could see even beyond the city, where the delta gradually flared out into mainland, and the river disappeared into the trees. Although they could not see, Sabrina knew that it stretched for hundreds of miles north. Mangrove trees would give way to Nutmeg, and Banyan, and White Dammar, all casting their shade over plants and flowers of every description. Vikaasi's splendour, stretching for what seemed like an eternity in all directions.
Sabrina's breath caught in her throat, and her fear was forgotten. Everything was forgotten. She leaned against Taurau's arm, and watched her country. If she listened carefully, she imagined, she could even hear its heartbeat. "It's beautiful," she said.
"It is," Taurau agreed. His voice was low, and softer even than usual. He was quiet for a moment, and then added, "Thank you, Yuvrani Sabrina."
Sabrina blinked up at Taurau. He explained, "For showing me everything today. The city, the bridge—and on the riverbank... that was amazing."
"Oh, that?" Sabrina asked. She began to laugh, but stopped when she saw the earnestness on his face. "The riverbank wasn't anything special. I've just been studying prayer since I was little. If you cared to learn, you could as well."
"Not that," Taurau said. "Although that was impressive, too. No..." he shook his head. "I meant the workers. They listened to you, without even thinking. And before that, in the city, how the people waved to you, and called out to you. Even in the bazaar, they offered you gifts, and wanted your opinion." He ran his fingers through his hair. "You know, I... when you found me in the garden today, I was thinking about a letter from my father."
"Were you?" Sabrina asked, finally recovering from her surprise. "I'm sorry—I hadn't realized I had pulled you away from something important."
"No," Taurau said. "No, it wasn't very important. He was just asking if I was finally beginning to settle in, and what I thought of Vikaasthan."
"Oh?" Sabrina asked. She watched him carefully. His normally open, jovial expressions had taken a distant quality. "And... what were you planning on telling him?"
"That's just it," Taurau said. "I wasn't sure. I didn't know how to explain all of... this," he waved a hand vaguely at the city before them, "without sounding mad. It... may I be honest with you, Yuvrani?"
"Of course," Sabrina said.
"My father thinks that Vikaasthan is frivolous," Taurau said. "That you have too much, and it's gone to your heads. And before I came, I thought so too." He laughed wistfully. "You know, I even fought with him about it. I didn't want to come. But he told me that trade was too important for Kainga-o-Whenua. If I wouldn't go, he said, then he would have another son. And if he sent him the day he was old enough to walk, then he would be just as mature as I was being."
He threw his head back and laughed. Sabrina blinked, too thrown off by his bluntness to do anything else. If it had not been for shock, she would have objected.
"I came, of course," he continued. "For the good of Kainga-o-Whenua. And I'm glad I did. Actually being here made me realize that I had been wrong... but I couldn't say how. But now I can." He looked back over the city, and smiled. "Your people love you, Yuvrani Sabrina."
Sabrina blinked. She had never thought of it before. Even in her earliest memories, that was simply how it had been. "Shouldn't they?" she asked.
"Perhaps," Taurau said. "But in Kainga-o-Whenua, they don't. They respect my father and my brother, and they respect their leadership, but they don't love them. We're a means to an end: someone to rule the nation, because the nation needed someone to rule it. Someone who could do what's best... for the country."
Taurau gestured to the skyline before them. "Parks, statues, reliefs... there's so many things in this city that a country doesn't need. My father would never build those things. But then... he would never walk down people's streets, and offer them pieces of a mango."
For a long moment, the only sound was the rushing of the water below as Sabrina considered this. Slowly, her smile returned. "Shouldn't I?" she asked.
Taurau beamed back at her and took her hands. "You should," he said. "What I saw today wasn't frivolity. What I saw was a young woman who, one day, will do wonderful things for her country."
"I will," Sabrina said. She turned back to the country, and breathed deep. "Soon. I'm ready for it. I know I am."
"Maybe so," Taurau said, chuckling. "Thank you, Yuvrani Sabrina, for helping me to understand. I hope you can forgive my ignorance?"
Sabrina frowned slightly. But it was impish, and it became a smile before too long. It was difficult to frown at the warmth in Taurau's face. "Ignorance you kept to yourself is hardly ignorance worth apologizing over," she said. She gripped his hands tighter. "But of course. I forgive you, Tu'i Tuarau."
Taurau smiled broadly and pressed his hands together over Sabrina's. "Thank you," he said. "And... forgive me, I don't always know what's polite. But if it is acceptable, please... just call me Taurau."
It was strange, how the day seemed to get warmer in the hours approaching evening. Sabrina dipped her head and rolled her shoulders. "I think," she said, "that would be acceptable. In fact... you may call me Sabrina, as well."
Somehow, Taurau managed to smile even wider. "Thank you, Sabrina," he said.
They stood together in silence, for a while. They listened to the murmur of the city around them, and the rush of the water, and the distant giggle of wind in the trees. They enjoyed each other's company, and the coolness of the breeze above the city.
Time passed, however. The shadows grew long and the light turned orange, and they agreed, wordlessly, that it was time to return.
Their trip through the city was also taken in silence, at first. But soon enough the silence was filled with idle conversation and—in Sabrina's case at least—mild flirtation. By the time they reached the palace again, when dusk had well and truly begun, both were enraptured in conversation.
"...and he said," Taurau related, throwing up his hands in a pantomime, "I just wanted some Kiwis!"
Sabrina laughed until she snorted, barely remembering to cover her mouth as she did. "And all of that, just for fruit?" she asked.
"Well, that's the story we tell ourselves," Tautau said. He ran his fingers through his hair and grinned. "I think it just makes us feel better about being pirates."
"Surely not," Sabrina laughed, waving a hand. "Maybe then, but pirates don't collect taxes."
"Having had been, then," Taurau said as they stepped onto the bridge to the palace. "Either way, even when I was young I doubted it captured the actual history of the matter."
"These things rarely do," said a voice that stopped Sabrina in her tracks. It was a moderate, breathy sort of voice, the kind that always seemed patient and reasonable. Sabrina had long ago learned to recognize the subtle edge to it, however.
She winced, and had to fight the urge to hunker down and away from the voice. Her eyes flicked to the guards and the ministers standing along the edge of the brewing storm, before, finally, she had no choice but to look at the speaker. "Honoured Father," she said.
Sabrina's father, Maharaja Marthanda Bunahr, was a stoutly built man. He was by no means muscular, or even particularly large, but he was solid and square, and made all the more so by his rigid posture. He seemed to be made of straight lines and hard edges, with the exception of a full, curling moustache. Even the wrinkles that lined his face, drawn by years of stress, seemed unnaturally straight.
"Sabrina," he said. He turned to Taurau and bowed slightly. "Tu'i Taurau."
Taurau bowed as well, deeper. "Esteemed Maharajah," he said.
Marthanda nodded in acknowledgement, then turned back to his daughter. "So," he said. "This is where you spent your afternoon."
She bit back a comment. Instead she squared her shoulders and tried her best to match her father's posture. She felt more like a condemned woman giving one last show of defiance than the future Maharani, but there was no sense in showing it in front of her father's ministers. "Yes," she said simply.
Sabrina was unsure if it was the humidity making her sweat, or the mounting tension in the air. Her father's frown seemed to deepen with each passing moment. She told herself it was just an illusion created by his moustache, and almost managed to believe it.
Taurau cleared his throat suddenly, and stepped forward. "Esteemed Maharaja," he said. "I would like to thank you. Your daughter was showing me the city today, and helping me to understand your country better."
Marthanda raised an eyebrow at this. He looked between Taurau and Sabrina. "Indeed?" he asked.
"Yes," Taurau said quickly. "I wanted to help my father understand your culture better. With her help, I believe that I can. I have much I wish to tell him, now."
"I see," Marthanda said. He stroked his moustache, curling the end around his finger thoughtfully. "Thank you, Tu'i Taurau. I am glad to hear that my daughter has been helping you. My faith in her was not misplaced." He never took his eyes off of Sabrina. "I won't keep you from your writing. Have a good evening, Tu'i Taurau."
Taurau blinked, and managed a chuckle under his breath. "Ah, thank you, Esteemed Maharaja." He turned back to Sabrina and bowed to her as well. "And you, Sabrina."
Sabrina bowed to him as well. As she did, she mouthed, 'Thank you'. "Good evening, Taurau," she said.
Taurau slipped past the Maharaja and the ministers, sparing a glance over his shoulder before disappearing out of the courtyard.
Marthanda waved a hand limply. "A private moment with my daughter, please," he said. The ministers nodded and left as well, though their reluctance was clear. The guards remained. They gave no indication that they were paying attention, or indeed even existed beneath their armour.
Some of the stiffness drained from Marthanda's posture, and he allowed himself a smile. Suddenly the lines of his face did not look hard, but warm and inviting. "Honestly, Sabrina," he said.
"I really did want to help him," Sabrina objected.
Marthanda laughed and beckoned Sabrina closer. She approached, and he put a hand on her head. "I believe you," he said. "But I also believe that particular responsibility weighs on you less heavily than others."
Sabrina began to retort, but couldn't find one. Eventually she settled on, "It's still important."
"It is," Marthanda agreed. "Kainga-o-Whenua will be a great friend to Vikaasthan." He sighed and shook his head. "My Sabrina," he said, cradling her face in his hands. "You are clever, and beautiful, and responsible, but you are obstinate and young. All of your responsibilities are important. I give them to you because I trust you."
"I... thank you, father," Sabrina said. She could not help but lean into her father's touch.
"But," Marthanda said, "How can I trust you if you run from your duties? Harinma was searching for you all afternoon. She tells me that Kamalakshi and Astha lied to protect you!" He frowned, and his expression became distant. "And while I will admit convincing Kamalakshi to lie is impressive on its own, it is not the behaviour of a Maharani."
Sabrina sighed. "I know," she admitted. "I'm sorry, father. I just... wasn't ready. I knew that Harinma was planning a test, and I wasn't certain I could pass it."
Marthanda nodded. "And there is a wisdom in that," he said. "To hold off, and prepare. But there is also virtue in facing your failures head-on, when they will not hurt you."
Sabrina and her father clearly had a different definition of 'hurt'. The thought of spending every afternoon for the next month trapped in one of Harinma's lectures was torturous. Wisely, however, she simply nodded. "I understand," she said.
"I am glad," Marthanda said. He took a step back and smiled at her. "Vikaasi grew you strong," he said, "And Salaee carried you well. But I am proud of you. I am positive you will be able to pass Harinma's test."
Sabrina smiled at the compliment, but then blinked. "What?" she asked.
Apparently taking that as her cue, Harinma shuffled out of the shadows. "Good evening, Honoured Yuvrani," the old woman said. Although it was unspoken, Sabrina was positive she could hear the addition of, 'Thought you could escape, eh?'
Sabrina's shoulders sagged. "Harinma," she said. Evidently, she had been wrong. Harinma was very capable of waiting for her at the gate all afternoon. "Is it alright for you to be up so late? Your health..."
"Has never been better," Harinma replied, in a tone that was barely more polite than a growl. "I am glad to hear you're more dedicated to your studies, that you wanted extra time to prepare. I will make sure to adjust my expectations."
"I'm sure you will," Sabrina said flatly.
Marthanda patted Sabrina's shoulder firmly. "All of your responsibilities are important, Sabrina," he reminded her. "Take your test, to the best of your abilities." He smiled broadly and kissed her forehead. "Then come for dinner when you are done."
"I imagine this will not take long," Harinma said, bowing to Marthanda. "Thank you, Esteemed Maharaja."
Marthanda nodded to her. "And thank you, Harinma, for your patience," he replied. "Best of luck." Then he turned on his heel, and strode out of the courtyard.
Sabrina and Harinma stared at one another in silence. Sabrina broke it first, with a heavy sigh. "Let's get this over with," she said. She considered asking for death, but she was afraid Harinma might take her seriously.
Harinma nodded sharply. "Come with me," she demanded, and began to hobble into the palace.
"Wait," Sabrina said. "The study room is the other way."
"I had the little whispers in your ears return the study room's text to your room," Harinma said. "I thought it might help you remember what you were supposed to be doing this afternoon. We'll pick it up on the way to the Library." Then she was silent, with an expression that brokered no argument.
Sabrina fell in behind her, matching the woman's agonizing pace. Idly, she reflected that all of this might not be so terrible if there were some way of just getting it over with.
But there was no way to get it over with, and it was terrible. By the time Harinma stopped them, night had fallen.
Sabrina groaned internally. It would take them as long again to reach the library. "We can just take the test in here," she suggested.
Harinma peered over her shoulder an arched her eyebrow at Sabrina, an expression that threatened to crack her stony old face.
"What do we need?" Sabrina asked. "A book, and a place for both of us to sit. It has both."
Harinma muttered under her breath as she considered this. "Fine," she said finally. "I suppose we won't need it for long anyways." She ushered Sabrina inside before the girl had a chance to retort, and shut the door tight behind them.
Sabrina's bedroom was as lavish as any there had ever been, walled with yellow marble inlaid by pillars of dark, red-brown wood. The far wall held a series of glass windows and a door, which lead to a balcony overlooking the gardens.
All the furniture was made from the same wood as the pillars, including the bed that dominated most of the room. It was low and wide, and carved with images of bluebelle vines. A veil hung open around it, a pale lilac colour the same as the silk sheets. The guest furniture, a pair of high back chairs and a long, backless sofa arranged around a low table, were made in the same style and arranged across from the bed.
Finally, beside the bed was a small desk, nestled in between a full-body mirror and another door, which lead to Sabrina's wardrobe. Just as Harinma had said, the history text had been left in the middle of the desk, where it could not possibly be missed.
Sabrina took a seat on the edge of the bed as Harinma shuffled around the room. The old woman retrieved a pack of matches and hobbled to a nearby sconce. She lit it with slow, shaking movements. When it was burning to her satisfaction, she began the journey to the next.
Sabrina groaned. Her patience had finally failed her. She straightened up, put her hands together, and prayed.
The sconces sprung to life as one, just as Harinma reached the second. She let out a cry, followed by a viscous mutter. "That was unnecessary," she said.
Sabrina disagreed. "I'd just prefer to get to the test," she said as she sat back down. Her mood had not improved at all, but she couldn't help but feel more chipper with the warm afterglow of prayer still in her bones.
"Fine," Harinma grunted as she hobbled her way to the front of the room. "I suppose I'm eager to have this finished as well."
Sabrina thought she heard something about 'haughty' and an 'upstart' muttered under Harinma's breath, but she ignored it.
Harinma snatched the history text off the desk. Without bothering to open it she demanded, "How did it begin?"
Sabrina blinked. "What?" she asked.
"How did it begin?" Harinma echoed. "You're the one who wanted to be impatient. How did history begin?"
Sabrina realized that Harinma had begun the test. She sat bolt upright and kicked her mind into motion. "The legend begins with Star-Mother," she said. "'First there was the universe, and it breathed out, and then there was Star-Mother, and she breathed in',"
Harinma grunted. She still hadn't opened the history book, but held it at her hip like a weapon. "And who were her children?"
Sabrina furrowed her brow. "Kenoch, Tahra and... Supin?"
"Ko-Kenoch, Tor-Tahra and Sal-Supin," Harinma wheezed. "And their sacred stones?"
"Sandstone and gold, for their abundance and how easy they are to work," Sabrina replied. Harinma's eyes narrowed, and Sabrina felt a faint smile find its way to her lips. Her mental frenzy had begun to subside, and she found the information coming to her more easily.
"And because they were the gifts Sal-Supin and Tor-Tahra gave one another before they parted," Harinma said. "Enough! I've heard all that I need to. You can drop that smile. You've failed."
"What?" Sabrina asked. She kept her smile, if only out of spite, but managed to scowl at Harinma just the same. "but I answered every question right!"
"Superficially," Harinma said. "At best. You've obviously heard the words I said, but their meaning appears to have escaped you."
"It's only a religion," Sabrina said, her smile finally fading. "You don't expect me to believe it, do you?"
"Whether you believe it or not is up to you," Harinma said. "What isn't up to you is that the dragons believe it, and that it's important to them. And if your esteemed father, bless his reign, saw fit to hire a barren old hag to teach it, then it's clearly important to him as well," she said.
Sabrina did not sigh, and did not slouch, although she very much wanted to. Harinma's threat was clear. "Fine," she said. "You want to know what they believe. I can do that. Ask me another." she very carefully did not roll her eyes at the word 'believe'.
Harinma's expression softened, in the way that wood is softer than stone, and she finally opened her book. She turned a few pages, muttering to herself as she did, until she appeared to find something suitable. "What is the name of Star Mother's fourth child?"
"That's," Sabrina began, and stopped. Her brow furrowed in concentration. "Fourth... I knew there was a fourth!" she said. She shut her eyes and concentrated. "Ben... Bell? No, Bek..."
"Ban-Belii," Harinma said. A wicked smile split her face. "Who was banished into darkness when she tried to take Star Mother's gifts for herself." She shut her book with a clap.
"No," Sabrina said. Her furrow deepened into a scowl. "You never taught me anything about her, I only saw her name in passing. You can't just ask me something I've ever learned and expect me to just know it."
"If you had been studying this afternoon like you had claimed, you might have been able to answer it," Harinma said. "People will ask you questions, whether or not they think you have the answer. Dragons included. The fact that I could ask you a question you don't know the answer to just goes to show how much more you have to learn. Ban-Belii will be your next lesson. We'll start on her tomorrow, after we've seen if you've actually learned anything."
"But that's not--" Sabrina fumed. For a lack of anything better to do, she stood up. "Nobody is going to expect me to know any of this! No dragon is ever going to come to court, so what's the point?"
"Your father certainly thinks there's a point," Harinma said. "Would you like him to explain it?"
Sabrina seethed. Harinma's smile was far too knowing, far too controlling. Tutor or no, the woman delighted in the chance to make demands of the Yuvrani. Worse still, she trotted out Sabrina's father as a trump card at every opportunity. "I know that Father has his reasons," she said. "But for as much faith as I have in him, he can't always be right. We don't need it."
"Not even if you find you've accidentally spit in a dragon's face?" Harinma asked. "Not even if you insult them so badly they want to stop trade? Or go to war again?"
"They can go ahead!"Sabrina said. "They're the ones who asked for a treaty. They knew it was only a matter of time until we could take what we needed, so they made the smart choice. Vikaasthan didn't happen because of legends, or bowing and scraping, it happened because of this." She threw her hands out at the torches. "And that, I know."
Harinma's eyes narrowed dangerously. If Sabrina had not been so furious, she might have heard a faint hiss escape the woman's throat. "So prove it," Harinma demanded.
Sabrina prepared a retort, and stumbled for a moment over the lack of anything to react to. "What?" She asked.
"Prove it," Harinma said. "Prove that you can protect your people, if the dragons decide to stop bowing and scraping. A Maharani needs to protect her people, and if you can't do it through politics, then at least show you can do it with war."
Sabrina's anger had cooled to a low, steady fury. She set her jaw and her shoulders. "My ancestor had other mages," she said. "They were strong because they could share their prayers."
"Exactly," Harinma said. "There's hardly a scrap of power in me. Vikaasi's as likely to answer my prayers as a fish is to sprint. If you can manage to share prayer with someone like me, then maybe, maybe I'll believe you're ready."
Sabrina peered hard at Harinma. "And... that means you'll hold back on the lessons?" she asked.
"I'll convince your father to drop them entirely," she said. "You won't need them anyways."
Angry as she still was, Sabrina considered the offer. It was tempting, but she would hear no end of it from her father.
Then again, Harinma had said she would convince Marthanda. Harinma could tell him that the lessons were complete at any time, that Sabrina had learned all she needed to, and more. If, somehow, Harinma were willing to leave it at that, she would be out of Sabrina's life forever.
"Well?" Harinma barked, slamming her book down on the table.
Sabrina jolted. She folded her arms and turned her shoulder towards Harinma. "I'm thinking!" She said. She frowned deeper, scowled harder. "I've never... actually shared a prayer before."
"So?" Harinma asked. "You've never learned this, you've never done that—if the dragons come calling, are you going to tell them you've never gone to war before? Ask them to go easy on you? Come back in a few years when you're ready?"
"So, don't expect me to be able to carry you through this!" Sabrina growled. Her shoulders were so tightly tensed they were beginning to ache.
"Then what are you for?" Harinma demanded.
"Fine!" Sabrina spat. "Fine. Do you know the motions, or do you need me to walk you through it from the start?"
"Of course I know the movements," Harinma said. "I doubt you'd understand, but when you want something so desperately you're willing to smash against it just to have a chance, you learn a lot about it." She flowed into the same pose Sabrina had, hands together with something that almost resembled grace, despite her frailty.
Sabrina took the pose as well. It was difficult to still her shaking shoulders, to quell the hot anger in her belly, but she breathed deep. Before too long the worst of her fury had subsided, leaving her with hard, steely focus.
They began together. They moved in perfect unison, matching gesture, pose, and even breathing. Vaguely, Sabrina felt the beat of her heart begin to slow as well. She felt the power spreading through her, smothering the last of the anger. Filling her up. For over a minute Sabrina and Harinma moved in perfect time, fifty-five movements.
There was a shuddering feeling as the spell left Sabrina, and her body filled with warmth. To judge from Harinma's expression, she felt it as well. The old woman held up her hands to look at them, and Sabrina felt a faint tugging in her bones. Her body wanted to keep up the dance, to continue to mirror Harinma.
Harinma made another series of quick gestures, and one of the sconces went out. Another set, and the sconce blazed back to life. Each time she did Sabrina felt a faint, strange fluttering from a part of her she couldn't quite place.
"Incredible," Harinma said. "So this is what it's like?" She continued to cast small, simple spells, feeling out the breadth of the power. "It's different, but so... familiar."
"It is," Sabrina said. The warmth inside of her had grown, and was beginning to feel uncomfortable. "There. I've proven that I can help my people, no matter what. Now, are you satisfied?" She dabbed at her forehead with her scarf, but realized that she wasn't sweating.
"Oh, yes," Harinam purred. Her smile widened, until it resembled bared teeth more than happiness. "Thank you, girl. I've been waiting for this moment for sixteen years. Picturing it, over and over, every detail... but honestly, I never imagined I would enjoy it so much."
The warmth in Sabrina exploded into fire. It spread through her in an instant, setting her entire body ablaze. Or so it felt. Her bones ached and screamed as the pain licked across them and sent her reeling. She opened her mouth to cry out, but no sound escaped.
The fire lasted for just a moment. It lasted for eternity. She lost track of time, of the world, of herself. She couldn't feel her limbs. She couldn't feel the impact as she toppled to the floor. She was weightless, bodiless. For an eternal, agonizing moment, she was fire itself.
Then the fire subsided. Her body returned to her, and the fire retreated from her muscles and into her bones. Soon, even that faded. She was left gasping for air, writhing on the ground, consumed by the memory of pain.
"There, there," Harinma said. "That wasn't so bad, was it? It's all over now."
Slowly, Sabrina managed to open her eyes. Her mind was addled from the pain, and her eyes were blurred and unfocused, but she realized Harinma was standing over her. The woman seemed impossibly tall and looming. Sabrina tried to speak, but all that escaped was a thin breath.
Harinma made a soothing noise and knelt down beside Sabrina. Not the rickety motion of an old woman with poor knees, but strong and graceful. Her skin rippled and flickered like a candle flame, and she seemed to become fluid for just a moment. Her features slipped away.
"H-harinma?" Sabrina managed. Her voice was reedy and weak.
"Shh," Harinma said, in a voice of flames. "Not Harinma. Not anymore." Her features solidified once more. The face Sabrina saw staring back at her, wearing a wicked smirk, was her own. "You may call me Ko-Kraham."