Chapter 3: That Ungrateful Bastard

The Shores of the Purohita Kingdom, Navaka Empire, May 

The evening sun dipped into the sea and shattered golden fragments of lights across biggest dock of Purohita. A large warfare ship, equipped with cannons and the capacity to hold a hundred men, burst through the flaming sun. A mountain amongst the merchant ships. Street vendors, mothers dragging their children home before late, and labourers on the dock all looked towards the ship. Most of them did not see these war ships often and, at this majestic sight, their hearts filled with pride for the Empire. 

The situation on-board, however, was far from glamorous. 

Jaya pushed against the bunk over her head, jostling Pariya, with gritted teeth, “This must be karma for beating that poor steward. If Sura wasn’t making us play nice, we could be up there on the deck, too.” 

The cabin was perforated with the sour stink of sweat and mould, a combination of scents that Jaya was not fond of. Before she could continue complaining, a door creaked to reveal Sura standing atop a narrow set of stairs that led up to the deck. 

With her braid thrown over her shoulder, she looked a bit like the daughter of a zamindar. But the daughter of a noble landowner would never find herself in the cabin of a warship, equipped with weapons that had seen more blood than most coroners.

“What are you complaining about? The stench of saltwater and rotting wood up there isn’t better than this.” Sura tossed both women a hefty pouch filled with round gold coins, each engraved with scenes of ancestral warriors in battle. “Get up now, they’re taking us to shore in a smaller boat.” 

Jaya tucked the pouch full of dinaras at the waist of her armour, “Soul’s sake, I didn’t realise we were rich now.” 

Sura rolled her eyes, “Come on now, we don’t have much more time before I’ll be considered late for meeting the Maharaja.”

 Pariya and Jaya exchanged a glance before following their Commander to the deck, where a small boat waited for them. Chipped wood littered its floor and even one person, let alone three, would have a hard time sitting comfortably. Of course, Sura didn’t expect any better treatment from men who treated that little steward like he was nobility. 

Upon reaching the shore, the three women attracted many curious stares. It’s not that there weren’t women in the military, it’s just that their lack of armour and white clothing put forward a strange image. 

Pure and simple white was the colour of funerals and a show of respect towards the dead. Instead of soldiers, they looked like widows as they departed their rickety little boat. 

However, a funeral was a laughable notion in the Ciketi: if a sister died during a mission, she would likely rot in a place no one would care to look for. Sura ignored the stares directed their way and quickly delegated their tasks – Pariya and Jaya would need to split up and check in with their sisters on shore before heading for the palace.   

Sura, on the other hand, went to collect information and meet an old friend.

~~~

By the time Sura reached the kotha, the night air was thick with the scent of lotus candles, their light flickering against the gleaming arches and pillars of the building. When Sura entered, she was greeted by the sight of two women, draped in brightly coloured saris, sitting on embroidered cushions as they sang for a group of young men. This particular kotha was owned by the Maharaja and was patronised by those who could afford to squander gold coins, dinaras, on gifts for these noble-serving courtesans. 

The two ladies were reciting some unknown poem and the men, drinks in hand, uttered nonsensical praises and occasionally tangled their fingers in the courtesans’ long, unbound hair. Beyond the open stage were fragranced private rooms which belonged to individual courtesans. Sura, with a face that betrayed no emotion, flicked a gold coin to the old courtesan who managed the place before heading straight for a room on the second floor. 

A familiar set of creamy brocade curtains hung from the door and the soft strumming of a sitar echoed into the hall, nearly indistinct from the other noise filling the kotha. Sura’s constantly steady heart quivered a bit – perhaps from anticipation or maybe nerves – as she pushed aside the curtain to reveal the familiar figure inside. 

Hiran only looked up after Sura stood right before her, the woman’s fingers still strumming the sitar, and raised an eyebrow when she saw her visitor, “You haven’t come to see me in a while.” 

Hiran’s voice was soft and melodious, perhaps because she was often singing, but it couldn’t hide her disappointment. It was to be expected. Sura hadn’t come to personally see Hiran since she was 17. She suddenly felt a bit guilty coming after three years only to ask for a favour. 

“I’ve come to borrow clothing, and some information regarding a new mission on behalf of His Majesty.” 

Hiran ignored her request and put down the sitar, “You really are worse than those little young masters. They’d come to see me at least once after spending a night together. You all but disappeared.” 

Sura paused, deciding not to dig into old matters, “I do not think that is a moment that needs to be revisited. And did you not receive the things I sent?” 

Hiran pointed her chin towards the brocade curtains Sura had sent, “I have received them and also use them well. But I won’t bother you anymore, what information are you looking for?”

Sura rubbed the spot between her brows, glad the other didn’t intend to question her disappearance that night, before she replied. “Any news from the palace or the borders, or anything you have about those foreigners.” 

Hiran only stared at her for a moment before turning around to pull over a large wooden chest, the drape of her pale green sari swaying to reveal the jasmine flower carved into her lower back. The coral jasmine flower was a brand that all Ciketi got on their lower backs. Only Commanders had another on the back of their necks, for identification purposes. Seeing the familiar mark, Sura couldn’t help but reminisce her first encounter with the Ciketi. 

Sura and Jaya had met Hiran when they were nine years old, still living in the slums of the southernmost Sabali kingdom. Hiran, three years older than them, had caught the two gnawing on sugarcane stolen using candya. Most adults struggled with forming corporeal candya, so the innate skill of these two little thieves was obvious. Hiran, and an older sister who had now long passed, had recruited the two of them into the Ciketi. 

Jaya and Sura had clutched onto each others hands as they faced the searing pain of the delicate looking brand at 9 years old. For Sura, being part of the Ciketi was a life-saving grace and Hiran was her saviour. One that she had later cultivated feelings for. 

“Take this,” Hiran interrupted her reminiscence to hand over a dark lehenga, “this is probably the most appropriate thing I have for the palace.” 

Without hesitation, Sura shed her salwar and slipped on the nearly indigo lehenga. A layer of transparent muslin hung over its linen, the hem embroidered with a delicate gold lace that must have taken ages. Sura immediately sent out a plea to whatever lingering souls were listening, hoping that she would not have to fight in these clothes. The guilt of ruining something so elegant would kill her. She cut an unnoticeable slit in the side of the lehenga, under the muslin layer, making it easier to access the katar sheathed at her thigh. 

She sighed softly; these days, Sura was doing everything possible to avoid using candya. It hadn’t always been like this. 

Hiran slipped behind Sura to adjust the pleats of her skirt and spoke softly, “Recently, there’s been some activity in the palace.”

 A warm breath tickled Sura’s ear as the older woman spoke, “I heard the Maharaja halted the movements of all the Rajas and their heirs. The border guards in the Asuri and Durvan kingdoms were rearranged, many of them sent here to guard the palace and others sent to the Sabali and Vaki kingdoms.” 

Sura frowned, because it made no sense for the Maharaja to employ help from those two particular kingdoms.

Asuri was the furthest from Purohita and as for Durvan? It was the paternal family of the Maharani but their support for the Maharaja could be described as conflicting, at best. At their worst, the Durvan were antagonistic. Although the Ciketi were well-informed of most things going on in the empire, it was impossible to discern the Maharaja’s exact thoughts. Sura could only assume that there was something being kept secret that the Durvan and Asuri were already involved in. 

“Where did you get this informa-”  Sura grunted when Hiran pulled tight on the strings attached to the blouse, an obvious interruption to the question. Sura’s words changed half-way through her sentence, “Where did you buy this thing?”

Hiran chuckled as she pulled open Sura’s braid, “It was a gift from a patron.” 

What a man, Sura thought, as her hair, soft with waves from the braid, fell along her shoulders and to her waist. Hiran slipped off her own armlet, studded with three gold coins, and handed it over to Sura. If she walked out on the street now, the people who had just seen her would need a moment to recognize her. 

“You’re going to leave in the middle of the night? Isn’t it time to be in bed?” Hiran questioned, sitting back down and tapping her fingers along the body of her sitar. 

Sura nodded, “It might be for the citizens, but I have no doubt the Maharaja is wide awake.” 

Hiran knew it was pointless to say anything to convince the other to stay and silently returned to playing music. Parting music. 

Sura’s heart suddenly felt a bit unsteady and she hesitatingly spoke, “You don’t have to stay here any longer.” She crouched down and grabbed Hiran’s hand to whisper, “I can take you to leave this place. Back to the island. Or wherever you want to go.” 

Hiran’s eyes narrowed as she thought back to a certain conversation but she didn’t say anything, only grabbing a brand new container of sandalwood paste out of her chest. She dipped in two fingers and smeared a thin layer on the back of Sura’s neck, hiding the flower that announced her position as Commander. 

Hiran rubbed her thumb in comforting circles on Sura’s bare wrist, “Feelings that have been lost for so long are better left unkindled. You are the Commander now, you can’t be softhearted. That night–”  

A dull thud sounded from the room next door, like someone had kicked the wall. Sura frowned, yanking her hand away, and sent out a wisp of candya to probe their room for signs of a foreign power but discovered none. Whoever was in the next room could not have possibly heard their whispering. 

Without taking another glance back at Hiran, Sura left the room and stood before the deep red curtains of the neighbouring room. As she moved to step inside, an arm stretched out and grabbed her forearm. Sura frowned but allowed herself to be pulled into the room. 

She collided into a young man’s chest, the other lowering his head to speak in her ear, “I didn’t expect for you to wear this gift today of all days, little deer.” 

This man had obviously mistaken her for Hiran. 

Uncomfortable in the arms of a stranger, Sura slipped out her katar and pushed the point at the mans abdomen, with just enough pressure to pierce the fabric of his kurta. The man looked down, a hum of surprise escaping him, before Sura turned to leave without a word.

She did not intending to investigate some patron, and the blade should be enough to discourage him from following her. But as she took a step forward, she was forced to crouch. A loud thud sounded. A shimmering blade pierced the wooden panel of the door frame before her, sure to have pierced straight through her chest if she hadn’t ducked. He dared to attack her when her back was turned? Ha. 

Bubbles of anger built up in Sura’s chest as she turned around to deal with this man, but what she didn’t expect was for that person to be a candya user. Instead of the expected fist or blade, several needles of candya shot at Sura, forcing her to put up her own shield of candya.

The thin mist before her somewhat shielded her from the mans vision, who now was attacking so violently that Sura couldn’t help but be a bit awed. Candya drained the soul, and to use so much in a fight with a random women who barely offended him – this man was either stupid or powerful. Sura would not take any changes with her life, regardless of which he really was.

Her candya whirled around her body, causing the man to stumble. Removing her shield, she simultaneously threw out a coin from her armlet, a sharp tang letting her know that it had been blocked. As she slung out the other two, leaving a bare strip of gold on her arm, Sura looked towards the exit. 

 Although now would be a great chance to escape, she moved closer to get a look at her opponent. His skills in candya were well-developed, likely through actual combat, and he was ruthless enough to attack an unknown and potentially unskilled woman. A few guesses as to his identity flickered through her mind, but she had no time to pick one. His candya whipped around the room like a tornado without warning, drowning out signs of her own power. 

Sura’s brows furrowed, realising that she had previously underestimated the strength of his man. Piercing together her knowledge of this stranger’s skill, and now the immensity of his candya, there was only one person it could be. 

The youngest child of Raja Marsin Asuri: Kumar Nishant Asuri. That ungrateful bastard she should have left to die. 

21 thoughts on “Chapter 3: That Ungrateful Bastard”

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