As quickly as she entered, she turned to leave, but two guards now blocked the doorway. “I’m glad everyone could join us,” she hissed, whirling back around and shifting into a subtle fighting stance, inching her feet apart and lowering her center of gravity. Her mind swirled with escapes, each more impossible than the last. Unless she could miraculously punch her way through the guards, she was due for a stint in prison.
“I must say, you’ve made quite a mess of things.” She recognized the speaker as the man who had attempted to stab her earlier that day. Alia did not miss that his hand had not left the pommel of his sword since she burst into her room.
He glanced around her home, sniffing in disgust. Alia struggled to hold back her rage at his smug evaluation of the tiny space. Save for a potted plant on the window sill — a foolish attempt to brighten up the room — the area was characterized by its sparseness. The concrete walls were bare, and she only had a threadbare blanket to go to bed with. Alia kept no trinkets, fencing any knick-knacks she ever pocketed. She knew better anyway. The other tenants weren’t exactly upstanding citizens.
Maybe prison won’t be so bad, she mused. You may get more living space.
“What was that you said earlier?” he taunted, dragging a finger across the window ledge and inspecting the dust. “Try again next time?”
“Awh.” She jutted out her bottom lip theatrically. “Did I hurt your feelings?”
He ignored her childish antics, choosing to nod at the men behind her instead. Before she had a moment to process what was happening, she was being lifted in the air, a strong arm looped around each of her arms and hoisted her up.
Alia knew fighting was meaningless, but that did not stop her from swearing in fury and lashing out her legs. I refuse to go out like this. She reared her leg back and slammed it into the larynx of one of the guards, who went down wheezing and clutching his throat.
A small crowd was forming outside her door. Alia could not see it, but she could hear it, and she felt a pang of regret that she had never tried to socialize with her neighbors. Perhaps then, they would have rushed to her defense, instead of watching her flail and shout like it was a private show.
One of the guards grabbed her leg, though that did not deter Alia. She wrenched it out of his grip and kicked him in the shoulder. The small room was suddenly paying dividends. The guards could not escape her range.
“Stop!” The guard by the windowsill levelled his sword at her, the metal glinting even in the musty room.
In his other hand, he held her potted plant. “Where did you get this?” There was something new in his tone, as if he was standing on an old bridge high in the mountains and did not know if his next step would bring death or safety.
“It’s a plant,” she spat, trying futilely to release her arms from their cages, but the two men were like elephants — steadfast and impossible to move.
Rage flashed in his eyes, and he brought the sword to her neck, pressing in painfully. Alia dared not swallow for fear that any movement would result in her end. “Where did you get this?” he repeated.
Alia briefly considered lying, but the Kshat guard had plenty to charge her with anyway. One more steal would not change her destiny. “I grabbed a trader’s satchel a few months ago,” she admitted. “Found a packet of seeds.”
He pushed the sword still closer, splitting open her skin. “Whoa!” she yelled. “I’m telling the truth! That’s all I know! It’s just a plant!”
“Who was the trader?” he gritted out.
“The next time I steal from someone, I’ll be sure to get their contact information for you,” she hissed. But the guard only looked at the sword at her throat pointedly. Recalling the pale countenance of the trader, she sighed, “I’m pretty sure he was Pennmyrian.”
Alia had a fondness for robbing Pennmyrians. With their snobbish attitudes and clear distaste for Maurya’s kitschy markets and loud festivals, she felt stealing from them was her patriotic duty.
The guard paused, running her words through his head and gazing down at the plant. She did not understand why he was so curious about the simple flower, just tiny white petals around an almost imperceptible green center. It held no scent as far as Alia could detect and looked distinctly out of place in the slums of Toshalwar. But it was something Alia had taken care of. Something that had not died under her watch.
Something she had not given up on.
“Have you ever been sick?” The guard asked, finally removing his sword from her neck and sheathing it.
The crowd outside her room was dispersing, bored by the sudden shift in conversation and tone. Alia searched her memory, but while she could come up with a million different cuts and bruises, scraped knees and broken bones, she could not recall one instance of a fever or illness.
She shifted uncomfortably, wondering how she had never noticed. In the shantytowns, illness was unavoidable. People died in the streets of untreated disease every day, with their bodies carted off to be burned.
“I don’t, I don’t think so,” she whispered, an icy grip encircling her heart.
When Alia was young, just a small sprite of a thing at the orphanage, she would disappear into the kitchens during class. It was where she first learned to steal — a loaf of bread, some exotic fruits, even stale crackers. She never stole because she was hungry, but for the thrill, the jolt of energy that drew up the length of her spine and down to her fingertips every time she got away with it. Back then, she would share her hauls. It was the only way Alia knew to make friends, having never been known for her charming personality.
And it was a happy life, until, one day, some merch with too much money had decided to adopt a girl, hoping to assuage his needy and whining wife. Alia remembered the way the house mother had bathed them the night before, scrubbing their skin until it was raw, massaging oils into their hair so it gleamed. But when the couple came to tour the orphanage and make their pick, Alia had run away to the kitchens.
That was the day she had discovered she was a coward. The cook found her within minutes, folded into the corner of a dusty cupboard, nibbling on moldy cheese. She remembered the woman opening the door and staring at her. The cook was a mean old woman, with a scowl that seemed etched into her face like stone and a missing finger on her right hand. The girls would whisper terrible stories of how she lost the digit, but Alia always assumed it was a simple chopping accident.
Alia had expected the woman to chastise her, to grip her by the wrist and lead her to the house mother for a beating. Instead, she had sighed, shaking her head in disappointment. “Foolish girl,” she muttered, smearing her hands against the front of her smock. “You cannot fear change. You cannot be helped if you throw away your chances.”
She had been throwing away her chances her entire life, more than happy to stay in the same spot and live out her meaningless existence. It was just more fun this way. But as Alia dangled there, the Kshat guard gaping at her in something mimicking awe, she knew change had come for her.
“This plant is from the rocky hillsides of Pennmyr. It grows in a cool climate, with limited sun and heavy rains. It could never grow in Toshalwar, much less bloom,” the guard explained, gesturing to the two men carrying her to set her down.
“You are a descendant of the Gods. You are of the royal bloodline.”
Alia’s heart hammered in her chest, her palms sweating at her sides. She desperately wanted to run away, to once again hide in the cupboard until the destructive storm of change passed her over.
“You are the lost princess of Maurya.”
Arjun Yadav ducked his head too late, the flying fist making contact with his nose. His vision bloomed in white sparks at the impact, blood dripping into his mouth and engulfing it with the taste of metal.
He narrowly dodged another punch, ducking his head just in time. Rahul’s gotten a lot faster, he mused, taking a step backward to get some much needed space.
But he was running out of room. Even now, his back grazed the whooping soldiers who encircled the fighters. He rolled his shoulders, stretching out the aching muscles, before crouching into his stance, his feet wide and his center of gravity low. A strong base makes a strong warrior, his Father would always say. And a King is nothing without a strong base.
Rahul charged at him, fists in the air, but Arjun dropped his head while bringing his own fist up, making contact with the bottom of the soldier’s jaw. Rahul stumbled backwards, massaging his chin.
His dark eyes flashed with amusement. “You’ve never had to hit me that hard.”
“You’re getting better.”
Arjun lunged forward, allowing the rare compliment to distract his cousin. Gripping Rahul’s upper arm, he twisted his body and flung him to the ground, using his opponent’s own weight against him.
“Still not good enough though,” Arjun smirked, laughing at Rahul’s frustrated stare as he lay on the dirt ground. The prince helped Rahul to his feet.
He turned to the onlookers, at least fifty members of the cavalry who were far too reliant on their swords as far as Arjun was concerned. Though his Father was in Maurya to negotiate a ceasefire, Arjun did not take the threat of war lightly. They had enemies all around them, and there was the distinct possibility the summit was a trap.
Not that his Father had listened to him.
“Now, what did Rahul do wrong?” he asked, motioning for a rag from one of the servants.
“I made a joke,” his cousin muttered under his breath.
Arjun glared at him. “No, he lost focus. In hand-to-hand combat, your focus, your diligence, is everything. There are no sharp toys to distract your enemy, nothing but your wits and the Gods’ blessings.”
He knew they were all tired of his sermons, but they needed to get this right. A fight was coming. Arjun could feel it in the depths of his soul.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir!” The soldiers resounded in unison, standing to attention and clasping their arms behind their backs. Arjun let himself smile. At least his army was disciplined, against all efforts of his more lackadaisical cousin.
He nodded. “Good, you’re dismissed for the day. I expect to see all of you at dawn tomorrow for more exercises — and I don’t want to hear any complaining!”
The soldiers kept their grumbling to themselves, jostling each other as they ventured into town. Arjun resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Despite the early morning training, he knew half the men would be in the taverns tonight. The other half would visit the brothels.
A servant appeared with a rag, and Arjun carefully pressed it to his nose. “I meant what I said, Rahul, you are getting better.”
His cousin grinned, failing to hide how proud he was. In all the years they had grown up together, raised more as brothers than cousins, Arjun could count on one hand the amount of times he had congratulated his cousin. This was despite the fact that Rahul was actually five years older than him.
He supposed they looked more like brothers too. Both had black hair that curled around their ears, dark brown eyes framed by long lashes, and broad shoulders — a soldier’s build. But that was where the similarities ended. Rahul gambled his money away, bedded any man or woman who glanced in his direction, and drank two jugs of wine every night.
Arjun was far more… austere.
His Uncle had sent Rahul to live at the Golden Palace when Arjun was born. As the next King of Yadava, Arjun needed protection, and he would eventually name his First Advisor. 18 years later, it was eminently clear that Rahul would become that man.
His cousin clapped him on the back jovially. “I’m heading into town to celebrate. I can sneak you out if you want.”
Rahul was always trying to get Arjun to join him on these misguided forays into the town. But Arjun did not see the point in wasting a night in a stein of ale. He had more serious affairs to attend to.
He shook his head. “No, but thank you.”
Rahul sighed, running a hand through his long hair. “One day!” he vowed with a smile before jogging to catch up with the soldiers.
Arjun doubted he would ever see that day in his lifetime.