Indra nudged open the door and stumbled over the threshold, removing her boots as she went. She breathed a contented sigh as the fresh air hit her toes, stifled by leather for hours. Then she crossed the room as she took off her belt with sword and scabbard, then tossed off her green surcoat and peeled off the long-sleeved white kameez tunic, bringing her down to the bare essentials of a red-brown midriff choli top and a pair of loose white salwaar pants, the front hems of which she buttoned to the waist to shorten them. She left a trail of the sand-dusted, sweaty clothes behind her and plopped onto her bed, for a moment breathing deeply with her face pressed into the pillow that was cool with the house's shade.
He understood my directions, I think. I'm sure he did, it was simple enough.
She huffed a sigh to clear her head as she turned onto her back, closed her eyes, and tried to concentrate on the soft caresses of breeze that wafted in through her open window—the way it gently tousled her dark brown hair…
"After you turn at the end, you'll see it not far off, it's a dark brown goat." It might look more black in the shade, but I'm sure he'll know.
She chuckled harshly as she clutched her hair and muttered, "And this is why I like to finish my tasks before leaving my shift!"
Goni's prize goat, which had a conceited streak of independence, had broken loose again. Indra had found the goat and was in pursuit when a hand fell on her shoulder and halted her—her replacement had come; her shift was over. It was nothing to fret about whatsoever. And yet she could not get it out of her head. Turning to lay on her side, she tried to concentrate on her breathing—the soft sound it made as it shushed in and out.
I should help Goni repair his fence tomorrow. I might forget, though. I should write a reminder and leave it… She drummed her fingers. No, not getting up. What next? She surfaced a song into her mind, her favorite song that was usually played and sung during the harvest festival. It made her picture the village square at night alight with torches, the band playing, the people dancing. She remembered last year's festival when she decided to wear a skirt without arguing about it with her parents. After being so accustomed to wearing pants for her daily work, wearing a skirt felt awkward, especially when her neighbors remarked on it. "Indra, a skirt today! You must be very excited for the festival!" they had said, along with, "It's so strange seeing you without your uniform. You look so nice!" She never knew how to respond. In fact, she felt certain that she did not look quite so nice in a skirt. Most other women in the village—especially those matching Indra's unmarried age of seventeen—would grow their hair long in spite of the desert heat and in spite of any inconvenience to their work, and skirts looked natural and becoming on them. Indra was convinced that wearing a skirt herself—with her more practical but not as charming short hair—was like trying to make a silk slipper from a sow's ear. Though she had to admit: after the initial awkwardness, a skirt was refreshing.
Indra shook her head and sat up with a growl. Her thoughts had begun to take her in so deeply that for a moment she forgot it was not the harvest festival but the height of summer, that her parents were not there to argue with, but were working at the palace, and that she had no reason to feel awkward and uncomfortable because she was alone in her house wearing pants. It was times like these—when she could not clear out her mind—that she wondered if Commander Ahnir's advice to her was right: "When the other young women go off duty, they change out of their work uniforms, dress up in their skirts and saris, and leave their houses to visit and play games. Maybe if you weren't alone with your thoughts so much, you could relax more easily."
But she was never very keen on making the effort to socialize. More often than not, when in a group with others, she would listen to conversations more than participate in them, causing her to slip into the background—and then, what was the point of being there? She was more comfortable with her routine of attempting to empty her head, then having a cup of tea and reading a book, practicing her potato flute, sharpening her sword, or doing chores.
The only thing to possibly keep her mind from jumping from one thought to another announced its presence: the alarm horn blew three times, with two high notes followed by one low note. It meant that all guardians currently on duty were being called to deal with an urgent situation. Indra supposed it was for the same reason it always was—that cocatrices had wandered into the village from the desert. Instinctively, she went to her window to see people rushing into their homes, clearing the streets by the time the horn's alarm faded into silence.
As soon as Indra realized she was staring out, she pulled herself back inside and immediately started a fire to boil some water and make a cup of tea. "Close the drapes if you have to. Don't let yourself be tempted." Indra followed the old advice and drew the brown drapes shut over the street-facing windows. She hated shutting out the sunlight, but she knew it had to be done. Then, as she waited for the water to boil, she found her favorite book on the table, folded back the worn paper cover, and began reading.
But she knew the book by heart, making it easy for her mind to wander. The village had just gotten a fresh batch of new and transferred guardians, and it was well known throughout the network of Royal Protectors that the village of Deimadka was one of the most difficult assignments because of the frequent cocatrice invasions. Too many new guardians underestimated the two-foot-high monsters and suffered dire consequences.
For a moment, she concentrated on her senses. It was silent, except for the gentle hiss of the simmering kettle. The only scent in the air was the usual warm fragrance of her sandstone house. She concluded that the cocatrices had to be on the other side of the village, for while she did not live at the desert border, she could always smell them when they were anywhere near her neighborhood. She wondered if she could smell them if she peeked past the drapes, but she remained lounging on her bed, trying to force herself into the book.
The kettle's lid began to rattle as the water rolled to a boil. Indra crossed the room, put the straining cloth over her cup, then held the kettle and began to pour—only to see that she had forgotten to add the tea to the kettle, and so was pouring plain hot water. She laughed wryly with the remark, "Well done, Indra, just as I like it!" Shaking her head, she started again, this time adding brown tea to the kettle.
When she returned to her book, she realized that she was two chapters in, and the safety alarm had not yet sounded. It did not usually take long for the cocatrice problem to be resolved. Then again, with new recruits on the task…
An odor of coal and black pepper drifted in between the drapes. Indra practically jumped across the room to open the drapes and look out the window. Down the street some ten meters away was a cluster of cocatrices rounding the corner. They looked like sickly, featherless chickens with ash-black skin, dull grey beaks, and beady black eyes. The only things about them that looked at all intimidating were their forked tails covered in coarse, inch-long quills.
Indra stared, leaning onto the windowsill, waiting for any sign of a guardian to come round the corner and hack down the deadly creatures. She did not want to kill them. She hated killing them. It was her least favorite aspect of an occupation she did not like so well to begin with. The moment that a flash of green surcoat came into view, she nodded in satisfaction, closed the drapes, and checked on her tea.
Loud coughs issued from outside, but Indra tried to ignore it as she poured the tea. I cough too. It doesn't mean anything. Cocatrices' natural biology allowed their bodies to turn an inward breath of air into an exhale of something toxic and poisonous to every other living thing around them. Many cocatrices grouped together doing nothing but breathing could kill. Furthermore, the poisonous breath had been known to irritate people's eyes to the point of blindess—sometimes permanently. One cough could lead to many, leading to helplessness.
As soon as the coughs began to overlap, the tea was abandoned. Indra tied a cloth over her face, took her curved sword, then ran outside and began to decapitate cocatrices like a thresher at harvest time. She could see only blurs of motion through the cloth, and despite the strong and distasteful smell of coal and black pepper that the cocatrices issued, she persisted to breathe through her nose, swallowing hard every time she felt a cough trying to creep up her dry, itchy throat. She shut her eyes each time they began to tear, though not quite due to the toxic air—in the rush to leave the house and help, she had forgotten to put on her boots, leaving the cocatrices free to peck at her feet and stab her legs with their spiked tails. But the pain was not distracting; it helped her even more realize where the creatures were and where to slice her blade. She was not concerned about accidentally harming the guardian who had pursued them around the corner, for two reasons: one, they likely would have seen her and backed out of the way; and two, she had been slaying cocatrices for nearly seven years and could by this point sense if a comrade was near or not.
She halted her sword just as she felt someone was near, then she felt a hand grasp her shoulder and pull her away. Stumbling back, she found a bench and sat, noticing just how much her legs hurt. Taking off her mask and looking down, her legs and feet were pricked with holes, blood trickling to the ground and painting her skin red. She shuddered with a slight haze of dizziness—she never could handle gore well. Still, there were some quills sticking into her shins, and she knew she should pluck them out sooner rather than later. She tried to abate the stirring in her head and stomach by taking deep breaths, but it only made her cough.
"Uh, here, I'll…" came a somewhat nervous voice. A man no more than two years her senior, wearing a green guardian surcoat, knelt down by her and started taking out the quills the best way that it could be done—yanking them out quickly by the same angle they entered. With each quill having its own barbs, Indra winced as it felt like each one clawed at her skin on its way out.
After the last one was removed, the guardian said, "I'll get some water, one moment." He knocked on the door of the house she was sitting in front of and asked those within for water and washcloths.
Indra laid herself across the bench, still concentrating on clearing her dizziness, and looked out across the street. The cocatrices had been finished by Commander Ahnir, who was slowly conjuring winds, trying to clear the cloud of toxic air hanging over the pile of dead creatures. I'm going to be hearing it from him for sure…
The guardian brought a bucket of water and splashed nearly half of it over her legs. When the bucket was set down, Indra scooped a handful and splashed her face.
The guardian began dabbing at the spots on her legs that still bled. "Are you alright?"
Indra just nodded with a deep sigh. As her dizziness finally began to lift, she propped herself up on her forearms and, for the first time, actually took notice of the guardian who was helping her. "My thanks to you…?"
"Sir Guardian Bandel," he replied. "I should be the one giving my thanks to you, Lady Guardian. If you had not come when you did…"
A shadow fell over their conversation. Looking up, Indra saw the face of Commander Ahnir hovering over her. He made a point of looking disapprovingly at her wounds, then back to meet her eyes with an expectant brow raise. "Have you anything to say?" he asked with his usual quiet yet deeply stern tone.
Indra covered her face with her hands and replied, "Yes, sir." Then she moved her hands, revealing a somber expression, and said, "I've brewed some tea. Would you like some?"
The medicine woman finished wrapping Indra's legs in bandages, making sure the knees were free to bend. "Wait at least an hour to see that the bleeding's stopped," she told her patient, "then apply the salve twice a day, three times if it itches or stings badly, but no more than three."
"My thanks to you, Uruhla," Indra said.
Then, with an admonishing glance, the medicine woman turned to Ahnir and said, "She is yours now," on her way out the door.
Indra sat up in her bed and slowly stood, her wounds stinging as they shifted slightly under the bandages. Ahnir did not say a word, only watched with arms crossed as she took small, cautious steps toward the table and began to pour tea.
"Milk and sugar?" she asked, though she knew full well he always took his tea plain. She sank into the dining chair with a sigh. "I heard him coughing. Sounded like he was in trouble. Was I supposed to just sit back and listen to him die?"
Still silent, Ahnir sat down at the table, setting his tea aside. "You are supposed to trust those on duty to do their job."
"I understood that we have new recruits, and he sounded like he was in trouble…"
"Lady Guardian, everyone in the service of the Royal Protectors is prone to danger and very aware of it. Why do you always think your life should be put at risk over others with equal duty?"
The question stunned Indra for a moment. "I don't…I don't think of it that way."
"Then why do you do it?"
"I just…I can't help it. I guess…" She sipped her tea, taking a moment to consider it. "I suppose I know that I have more experience, and I'm more likely to survive." She shook her head. "It's pointless for someone to die over a difficulty that can be easily avoided by someone else."
Ahnir moved her tea aside, removing her distraction. "The foremost duty of guardians is to protect the people. After that, the most important duty is to protect each other. Once you are off duty, you are not Lady Guardian, you are Indrani Jirata, entitled to the same safety as anyone else. When you are off duty, Indra, you have no duties. Your problem is that you carry on as if you do. That is why you have no peace of mind." He shook his head. "When I accepted the responsibility of looking after you when your parents were promoted to the palace, I had no idea what I was getting into. I ought to have learned by now what to do with you."
Indra shrugged. "Locking the doors from the outside might be a start."
"No, the law would frown upon that. I had in mind a vicious guard hound that would bark into oblivion if you so much as set a toe outside." He smiled a little. "Though I think it would be better for all of us if you allowed yourself the same luxury as everyone else."
"It would be nice if I gave myself time enough for a bath now and then," Indra quipped with a smirk, "and maybe a full meal once or twice. If I'm not careful, my neighbors will begin to think they live next door to a ferret."
"I had wondered what they were setting traps for." While finishing his tea, he scanned the room. "Any letters from your parents recently?"
"…Yes, their usual weekly post." Indra quirked an eyebrow at him. "Why do you ask?"
Ahnir seemed to reach for his vest pocket, but the alarm horn sounded, interrupting his thoughts: three high blasts, a sign of danger that urgently called all guardians to arms, whether on duty or off.
Before Indra could rise from her chair, Ahnir pointed back to it with a firm hand, saying, "You have already doubled your duty today and paid for it." Then he bolted out the door and down the street toward the village square.
Indra got up from her chair and crossed the room, yanking the drapes open. It was bright for night, and smoke was clouding the air—the village was on fire.