Priya pulled her coat tightly about her. The red sun was gone and soon it would be night. Nights were not as cold as red sun time, but they were cold enough to freeze a person to death if they didn’t find shelter. She hoped Chandra knew where he was leading them.
The capitol lay far behind them, the smell of smoke still lingered in her nostrils, the screams of the citizens and the glassy eyes of the dead all played on her mind every step of the way.
Amit walked with assistance, braced by Ravi. The illusion he’d cast to shield them all from the invaders had drained him. His pale face was pinched, his eyes dazed. They needed to get to shelter soon.
Priya couldn’t help but watch Deepa, who moved with a strange sinuous grace that sent a shiver of unease up Priya’s spine. Despite having wrapped herself in layers to keep out the chill, her slim body lost beneath all the fabric, she still managed to look sensuous.
The sun arched in its descent across the sky, and the air grew even colder. The refuge of the woods did little to block the icy wind. Chandra picked up the pace, weaving between the trees in an expert fashion. The world grew darker as the foliage grew thicker, blocking out what remained of the light. Priya stumbled. Someone grabbed the back of her coat pulling her up before she could hit the ground.
Priya started at Deepa in surprise. For some reason she wouldn’t have expected the woman to rush to her aid. Maybe her assessment was colored by her own negative emotions. Deepa didn’t know her, so there was no reason for her to dislike her. It was Priya who had the problem.
“Stay close to me, I have very good eyesight,” Deepa said.
They continued, this time with Priya walking in Deepa’s shadow.
The question of Ravi and Deepa’s relationship was burning a hole in her heart. It would eat away at her until she asked, and so she did. “You and Ravi know each other?”
“Intimately.” The word was enclosed in a smile that killed any hope in Priya’s heart that she may have been mistaken.
She walked in silence, swallowing her pain, a pain she didn’t want to understand because if she stopped to examine it then she would have to admit things she didn’t want to admit. Best to let it seep out and evaporate.
“We’re here,” Chandra said.
Priya quickened her pace, straining her eyes to see into the darkness. She made out the shape of a building; large, squat, and solid. Chandra’s lithe frame was up ahead, with Ravi’s distorted shadow a few steps behind him.
A loud creak filled the night. A gentle light flared to life that seemed to float in the air.
Ravi vanished inside the dark yawning mouth of the building followed by Deepa. Priya lingered on the threshold for a moment. She inhaled and exhaled slowly. Ravi’s relationships were no concern of hers. She had a bigger job to do, an invasion to thwart, and if Ravi helped her with that then fine, if not then she still had Chandra who had proven himself more than resourceful thus far. The words were strong, but she struggled for conviction.
“Priya, come in and shut the door,” Chandra said.
Priya entered with a sigh of resignation.
She found Chandra busy at the hearth lighting a fire. Deepa had lit two more lanterns, and by their light Priya was able to appreciate the understated grandeur of this forest dwelling. The walls were made of logs, actual logs piled atop each other and fixed together somehow. The floor was wooden plank, sanded to a smooth finish, and the hearth was made of expensive looking red brick. A pot hung over the fire, ready for whatever concoction they wished to brew. The main room, where they stood, was wide and rectangular, consisting of a seating area and a small kitchen. There was a washroom which could be found half way down a narrow corridor. The corridor ended in a large bedchamber with an equally large bed. It was here that she found an unconscious Amit.
Ravi’s face was grim. “I’m going out to hunt. We need to feed. He needs to feed.”
Feed? It made them sound like animals.
Deepa quirked a finely shaped brow, “Do we really need to hunt?” her eyes slid in Priya’s direction and Ravi’s jaw clenched.
“Yes, Priya is hungry, and I’m sure Chandra is too. The food the queen packed won’t feed us all. You can help me.”
Deepa shuddered. “It’s cold Ravi, you know how I hate the cold.” She said it in a whining little girl lost voice that grated on Priya’s nerves. Her teeth clenched, and she turned away.
“A little cold won’t kill you.” Ravi snapped.
Priya left them to their debate, moving to the hearth to sit by Chandra.
“Lovers eh?” Chandra snorted. “Rather him than me, that woman is high maintenance, I tell you. From the moment she arrived at the palace I knew she would be trouble.”
The door slammed. They were gone.
“Tell me.” Priya said.
Chandra cocked his head regarding her speculatively. “Is this a general interest or a ‘know your foe’ interest?”
Priya looked away, heat blooming in her chest. “Don’t tell me then. I don’t care.”
Chandra laughed. “Hey, don’t get angry, I was only teasing. I just thought . . . you and him. Well, maybe I was wrong. Look Deepa is . . . she’s mercurial. She was always getting into altercations with the palace staff and making strange demands. Amit would be there to smooth it all over though. I wasn’t really sure what their relationship was. He always treated her like a daughter; indulgent, exasperated, anxious. He was all a parent could be, and any fool could see that he loved her.” He smiled to himself. “I used to follow them about. I was fascinated by them both. She treated me like a child, but he . . . well he became my mentor. My father . . . well you know how he is, but Amit was there with advice, and a shoulder whenever I needed. I was devastated when they were sentenced. I begged mother to set them free, but she wouldn’t be moved, and then you come along and all of a sudden she changes her mind.” He sighed. “I can’t help feeling there’s so much I’m missing.”
Priya leaned forward in her seat. “I feel it too, something under the surface. I felt it at the palace.”
Chandra sat up straighter. “You did? I thought maybe I was going . . . mad.” His warm brown eyes darkened with some internal conflict and he glanced into the flames.
Priya’s stomach growled loudly and Chandra tore his eyes from the hearth, his brows shooting up.
Priya winced. “Sorry.”
Chandra chuckled. “Let’s hope they catch something, eh?”
Priya nodded and then a thought occurred to her. They hadn’t taken any hunting equipment, how did they intend to catch anything?
She didn’t have long to ponder as the door burst open a moment later and Ravi and Deepa spilled into the room. They were both bloody, but laughing hysterically.
Priya stared at them, taking in their crimson hands and blood stained coats. Ravi was clutching two dead rabbits and Deepa held a third.
As if sensing Priya’s eyes on them they sobered.
“I’ll clean them up outside.” Ravi held out his hand. Deepa passed him the third rabbit.
“I’ll get cleaned up.” Deepa’s eyes were still twinkling as she sashayed down the corridor to the tiny washroom.
Ravi’s eyes tracked her movements. Priya burned with impotence. She swallowed her tangle of emotions staring into the flames. She didn’t want to watch him watch her.
The door slammed again. He was gone. She sagged in a seat.
“Are you alright?” Chandra asked.
Priya couldn’t bring herself to look at him. She didn’t want to see the sympathy in his eyes. Instead she nodded jerkily.
“So, who’s cooking?” Deepa asked.
Finally, something she was good at. “I will.” She risked a glance in Chandra’s direction and saw no sympathy. Instead she saw a look she couldn’t define and a lopsided smile that warmed her.
Priya was proud of the meal she put together. There wasn’t much in the way of rations in the cabin, but it was well stocked with herbs. They decided to cook on the heavy black stove in the kitchen and Chandra retrieved the pot from its spot by the hearth.
Chandra had rolled up his sleeves without a word and helped. He stirred, tasted, and advised, and it was the most pleasant hour of cooking she had ever spent. She found her sadness melting into laughter as Chandra regaled her with palace tales over the simmering pot of rabbit stew. Meat again, but she had little choice. She could eat the meat or starve. The smell filled her mouth with saliva.
She couldn’t say that she wasn’t aware of Ravi’s eyes on her the whole time, or that she didn’t inhale that much deeper whenever he passed by, but Chandra’s presence made it bearable.
Deepa lay in front of the hearth, eyes half closed, not a care in the world.
Amit awoke just as they were filling their bowls and joined them in the main room for their meal. Everyone had two helpings and the pot was wiped clean.
Yes, Priya was proud of the meal.
Afterwards, as she gathered the bowls, Ravi approached her in the kitchen area. She kept her eyes fixed on the dishes as she piled them into the bucket which would be used to wash them in the morning. Something had changed between them. There was awkwardness where there had been closeness. It hurt, and she was afraid to look up at him, afraid of what she might see in his eyes.
She glanced up and was caught like an insect in his amber gaze. It travelled over her face like a caress; warm and uncertain.
“You seem to be getting on well with Chandra.”
Is that all he wanted to say to her? Comment on her relationship with a man she had just met? Her brows snapped together. “And you seem to be getting on well with your long lost girlfriend.”
Ravi’s eyes shuttered, his expression closed. “You know nothing about Deepa and me.”
“No. I don’t, because you never tell me anything about yourself. Your whole life is some big secret, and now I find out you have a father and girlfriend that have been locked away for goodness knows how long. You don’t tell me anything.”
“And Chandra does?”
“What?” She shook her head in exasperation, swallowing the tide of anger rising in her throat.
“I’m just saying, we don’t know him that well, we need to be careful.”
“No, you don’t know him that well, because you haven’t bothered to get to know him, but I have. In fact I’ve learned more about him in a few hours than I’ve learned about you in months. He helped us escape. He’s helping us now.” She made to turn away and he grabbed her arm pulling her against him.
“But why? Have you asked yourself that?”
She glared up at his beautiful face, at those perfect lips so close and yet so far. Her anger began to melt and tears blurred her vision. She pulled away from him before she made a fool of herself and rejoined the others by the hearth.
Deepa watched her from beneath sooty lashes, her mouth curled up in a smug smile. Priya palm itched to slam her.
Amit cleared his throat. “Chandra was just telling us about the invaders. They came from the sea?”
“Yes. The queen suggested we approach the Fist and Chandra is going to help us find them.” Priya said.
Chandra inclined his head. “The desert lands can be dangerous. They have their own rules, and punishments for people that don’t adhere. The place is riddled with Daku’s. These bands of thieves on horseback attack indiscriminately. It’s perilous, but I have some contacts that may be able to help us.”
Amit was silent, his head bowed. “It’s late, we should sleep. If we’re to begin our journey early we should all be well rested.”
A yawn forced her jaw open and she covered her mouth with her hand. “Sleep sounds good.”
Chandra slapped his hands on his thighs. “Well, I think the women should have the bed. We men can camp out here.”
Deepa slid a sly look Ravi’s way.
Ravi tensed. “Father is still recovering; maybe he could have the bed? I am sure Priya and Deepa will be fine here by the fire with us.”
It looked like Amit would protest, but one stern glance from Ravi sealed his lips. “Very well, I shall see you all at dawn.” Amit got to his feet and made his way back down the corridor.
Chandra got to work, providing blankets and pillows. Priya had to admit he was a good host.
Deepa made her bed by the fire so Priya made hers by the kitchen. It was colder, but she didn’t care. She curled up and closed her eyes.
“Are you alright?” Chandra leaned down to lay an extra blanket over her.
She smiled up at him and he smiled back. “Fine, thank you. I forgot to ask, this place . . . it’s yours isn’t it?”
Chandra smile turned sad. “My escape. I’m glad it could be of help. Get some sleep, Priya. I’ll sleep here, if that’s alright?”
A few days ago if a strange man had offered to sleep beside her she would have been horrified, possibly even slapped him for his troubles. But everything had changed, the rules were gone, so she simply nodded and pulled the covers tighter. She watched the flames for a while, listening to Chandra settle beside her. Ravi glanced her way once, his jaw tightening before turning away to make his bed by Deepa. She ignored the pain and closed her eyes. This time they remained closed.