Chapter 1: Reset

The Twenty-Third Year of Astir, Vaki Desert, August 

Only the foolish would offer up their lives, their souls, in an impossible gamble; she supposed the two of them must indeed be fools to give up everything for this. Her face was pressed against his shoulder, his fingers tracing bloody patterns on her back. Her eyes had long lost their vision and she could smell only the cloying scent of blood emanating from the wound in his chest. 

“It will hurt.” His voice was hoarse. 

 A blade pressed between her shoulder blades, cold metal against torn fabric.

 “I am sorry, this is the only way we can go back.” 

The clangs of metal and piercing battle cries penetrated the barrier around them. This cacophony of sounds was their only companion. 

The blade pierced through her flesh to the hilt and a heat flashed through her body, fingers going numb. A gasp escaped her cracked lips and he pulled her closer, a small comfort before death. He pressed a blade, identical to the one draining her soul, into her hands and caressed her face before letting her go. 

Taking a deep breath, she plunged the blade into the center of the array etched in the reddened sand between them. A dense, fog-like candya erupted from the array and pulled away the man kneeling across from her. It was her body that was injured but their separation made her feel as if her heart and mind were being pierced. In the next life, she thought, he was definitely forbidden from leaving her like this. 

When the candya cleared, the two missing bodies were unnoticeable amongst the other dead on the battlefield. For a moment, the fighting around them continued and it seemed that the world did not care for their sacrifice. But only for a moment. 

The Twenty-First Year of Astir, Unnamed Island, May 

Sura closed her left eye as sweat dripped into it from down her forehead; her hair, frizzy from the heat, had long been plastered against her temples. She tightened her grip around the katar in her left hand, her other hand wrapped around the hilt of Jaya’s talwar. The blade of the talwar glinted in her peripheral vision from where it lay perched on her shoulder. Even the smallest falter would end with Sura’s flesh split, yet a pretentious smile sat on her face. 

Jaya laughed and pulled her talwar away, brushing her long straight hair back over her shoulder, “You’ve beat me this time but don’t look so proud, I guarantee I’ll have your head in the next round.” 

Jaya shook her broken right wrist, her sword hand, and released candya from her palm to heal. She pushed Sura away and rolled her neck, stretching out the tension built up during their match. 

Sura nodded, staring up at the taller girl who was almost the perfect image of a Ciketi warrior: tall and straight figure, exceptionally skilled in her position, and unquestionable loyalty. Just lacking with her talwar, but Jaya could still be considered better than the mainland soldiers. Resisting the urge to give Jaya another lecture on the older’s weaknesses, Sura wiped the sweat dripping down her neck and sat down on the vistara placed in the corner of the room. 

“No change in your candya?” As Sura spoke she couldn’t help but pick at the braided fabric that made up the vistara. A bad habit she picked up as a child. 

Jaya shook her head, “Mine is the same as always. Perhaps you’ve just discovered a potential you hadn’t realised.” Even as she spoke, her expression exposed her doubts. 

Candya, magic of the soul, was innate; you were lucky if you were born with strong candya and plain unfortunate if it was weak. Despite this, Sura had experienced a surge in her candya a week ago, the day she was promoted. She only told Jaya who, despite having studied candya since she could read, had never heard of such a thing. 

The only, the safest, explanation was that Sura herself had never used her full potential. An obvious lie if anyone were to hear it.

 Before Sura could respond, a knock sounded on the door. For someone to bother their training when Pariya was still out patrolling, available to deal with issues, could only mean that an urgent matter required their attention.  

Jaya flicked her wrist and a white mist enveloped their bodies, healing the bruises and scrapes at a rate barely visible to the naked eye. Sura quickly tossed off her javana chestplate; the javana was the cheapest and lightest set of armour, only able to defend against close-range attacks. Perfect for training. The dull grey colour, however, perfectly captured Sura’s disdain. She roughly ran her fingers through her hair and folded it back into a simple bun before nodding towards Jaya. 

“Come in,” Jaya called out, positioning herself behind Sura who stood facing the door with her hands behind her back. 

The door opened and the room was instantly flooded with the scent of iron and wet cotton as a woman stepped in, dragging in two men by their collars, all three of them thoroughly soaked. The woman glared at Jaya and Sura but didn’t say a word, only tossing the gagged and candya-bound men to the ground. The unfortunate bleached sandstone floors stained red. 

Sura cleared her throat and spoke, “Pariya, I see we have the honour of receiving some guests.” 

Pariya’s ink-black eyes met Sura’s as she answered, “Commander, our honoured guests arrived today without the appropriate warnings. They requested to personally see the Commander.” Pariya kicked against the hand that was trying to grab her leg.

 Sura was more than sure their request didn’t include being beaten to this extent. She glanced at the men on the floor, her gaze filled with disgust. She looked at Pariya and raised a brow, full of hidden mockery unapparent to outsiders. How could the other not deal with two pests? 

Pariya’s lips curled in annoyance as she held back the urge to retort; regardless of their past enmity, in front of outsiders they would naturally be united. Pariya took a deep breath, decided to be magnanimous as an elder, and began to explain the circumstances to Sura. 

The rather brave Imperial steward and his guard had arrived on shore without warning and demanded to see the Commander, but when Pariya restrained them from moving around the island freely, the steward ordered his guard to attack her. Being doused in water was a consequence of this shoreline fight, but the most astonishing fact was that the guard was also an experienced candya user. 

The Ciketi were a proud network that spanned the entire Navaka empire; every major incident of importance, and all its related activity, reached the ears of the Commander quicker than it seemed possible. For their sisters on the mainland to completely miss this, something must be wrong. 

The Maharaja, in sending a candya user without warning, had also decided to ignore the courtesy rules observed for generations. The reason for it was beyond obvious. 

The existence of the Ciketi was like a legend to the common folk: a group of female warriors and spies operating in the dark alleys and shadows of Navaka, serving the Maharaja. In Sura’s own lifetime, she had spied on Rajas and their heirs, silenced unruly officials, and catalysed chaos. 

Carrying such unsurmountable influence, it was fate for the Ciketi to be repeatedly suppressed by the Maharajas of Navaka, who loved the throne and feared betrayal. Thus, the Imperial Family and Court often treated the Ciketi as a blade that was better left dulled, to avoid the wielder suffering a cut. 

Yet, how could the Ciketi, whose existence transcended dynasties, suffer such an insult? 

Jaya stepped forward and nudged the bloodied shoulder of the guard with her iron-toed leather boot, “The guts of these little fellows has grown. Last time they mocked us with words, but now they fight with our Vice-Commander.” 

The last time members of the Court visited their island was a week ago, during Sura’s promotion to Commander and the subsequent promotions of her Vice-Commanders Pariya and Jaya. 

Massaging her temples, Pariya couldn’t help but comment, “Well, most court members especially disdain women gifted with candya. It seems this attitude and ignorance has spread to even the lowest subordinates. That is why they dare attempt such things.”

Sura pinched the bridge of her nose, not exactly eager to deal with this issue, before standing up and looking down at her two guests. The light leaking in through the ornate screened windows painted the limestone walls with smatters of gold. Those accents of gold added a graceful elegance to the Commander, all dressed in white.

Pariya forced the men to kneel as Sura looked down at them, brimming with an arrogance and confidence that betrayed the softness of her face. This contradiction in nature and appearance was an asset. How else could she trick the tongues of the foolish for information.

So, when the steward finally focused on her face there was both disbelief and contempt in his gaze, “We have come under the command of the Maharaja to present an Imperial Order to the Ciketi Commander.” 

All three women resisted the urge to laugh at the unfounded aggression in his hoarse voice, quite contrary to his position.

Sura suppressed her annoyance at his tone, letting the hush of the distant waves calm her temper. She thought for a moment, coughing in her fist to hide a laugh, “My Vice-Commander is our best healer so let her take a look at you,” she gestured towards Jaya, “I cannot allow a guest to be injured on our shores.”

The guard, barely alert, jerked in surprise and struggled against the misty ropes of candya wrapped around his body. They could just make out the bruises the candya left on his skin. Jaya bent down before the guard and released a blanket of foggy candya from the center of her palm, which quickly enveloped the guard’s body.

Jaya looked back at Sura who only shrugged, widening her round eyes in an exaggerated show of innocence. Jaya tsked before turning her attention to the men on the ground; Jaya had known Sura since they were five and fifteen years were enough for her to know what that look meant. 

The cuts and scrapes on the two men appeared to heal, but only a moment passed before the room filled with cries of pain. A straight cut was visible on the stewards face; it had only shrunk for a moment before it tore open with jagged ends, as if someone had pulled at it with their hands. The groans were accompanied by drops of blood landing on Pariya’s white salwar. 

Gasping, Jaya waved her fingers and the candya covering the men’s bodies disappeared, leaving the small cuts twice their original size, “Ay, that was my mistake. I’m not very good at this.” 

Pariya rolled her eyes, anyone familiar with Jaya would know that wasn’t an accident. Jaya’s study of candya meant her healing was one of the best in all of Navaka; the mastery of it required extreme steadiness and knowledge of the human body. 

It was why, during their missions as children, Sura would be sent to bloody her hands doing recon whereas Jaya would stay behind dipping hers into corpses.

Sura – with lips curled in disgust at the steward’s weakness – finally spoke again, “Since you’ve had enough, let us now hear the Imperial Order.” Pariya released them from their bonds and the guard supported up the shaking steward, who pulled out a small marble filled with pale swirling mist. 

Pariya reached forward and snatched it out of his hand, examining it. 

“Looks like the Vaki Institution has finally improved the design. A couple of years ago I saw a guard shatter one of these after taking five heavy steps.” To be able to carry this delicate thing across heavy waters was indeed quite a feat. 

She passed the marble – a container of candya – to Sura, who rolled it between her thumb and forefinger, watching the steward snivel with hatred. With a simple flick of her wrist, a mist spread over the men, suffocating. They only struggled for a moment before falling flat on their faces. 

Jaya clicked her tongue, “Dead?” 

“Not yet, let me see what the Maharaja has to say first. I might need someone to vent my anger on.” 

The elder rolled her eyes, “Look at you, don’t go around wasting candya on scum. You already look tired.” 

After using candya all day Sura was feeling tired but she felt more secure knowing there would be no interruptions as they listened to the imperial order. She crushed the marble in her fist and watched as the candya from within dissipated in the space around them.


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