Indra woke in her plush, luxurious bed the next morning knowing that evening would be the ceremony. She felt the tingle of excitement rushing through her the entire day. To have a knight in the family was a great honor for anyone, but to have two, and at the same time…. On the other hand, it made her nervous as well. As the daughter of two knights, what if people wanted to talk to her at the reception? What if they expected her to be as skilled as her parents? How impressed could they possibly be when they hear that she's no more than someone who culls the population of local wildlife? She didn't imagine she would be feeling any pressure about it—her parents were being knighted, not her. Most of the day was spent in the garden, trying to relax. When she couldn't relax, she tried to piece together conversation she could use at the reception.
Sooner than she thought, it came time to bathe then change into her formal dress uniform. Opening her wardrobe, Indra realized she'd never even looked to see what the outfit was like: black velvet churidar pants, white crepe kameez tunic, a splendid green sherwani jacket with silver embroidery, and highly polished black leather shoes. She dressed herself then looked in the mirror to make sure everything was on straight. It all felt a little too snug, but then she was used to the more loose, comfortable clothes she wore on any casual day. Then her door knocked and Padma came in.
"Oh, Padma, good!" Indra gasped. "This is all on right, right? I'm not missing anything?"
"Just the hat, m'lady," she said, reaching into the wardrobe.
"The hat? A hat?" Indra hated wearing hats. Combined with her short hair, they made her look boyish. Nonetheless, Padma produced the protocol hat: a simple round black velvet hat with a short brim and a small white feather embellishment on the left side. Padma fitted it on her, slightly tilted to one side. "Is it supposed to be like that?"
"Yes," Padma said. "There's a saying we're all taught when we go into service: 'jaunty for jolly occasions, straight for sad occasions'."
Indra dispensed a shaky giggle, alleviating some of her nerves. "I like that. I'll have to learn it myself."
"Now you're ready. And good timing, as your escort will be here any minute."
Then all her nerves shot back to her. "Escort?"
"All special guests are escorted to formal occasions. As daughter to the guests of honor, your escort with be Captain Jiten Kasimir."
Indra's heart plummeted into her stomach and began to boil over. "Captain? The captain? The supreme officer of all Royal Protectors?"
Padma took note of her reaction and wrung her hands. "Normally I would apologize for putting my foot in, but if I may say, it seems better than waiting for you to find out from the man himself."
Indra dashed over to the fountain and started cupping her hand to catch the water so she could lap it up—her throat suddenly felt tight and dry, and she didn't have the presence of mind to search for a cup. Then there was a knock at the door. She dabbed her face with a towel and dried her hands. Padma opened the door when she thought she looked ready. And her escort stepped in—she knew he was the captain by his plum-colored sherwani jacket and the gold chains that hung from both shoulder guards. But he was nothing like she expected. She always imagined a man of middle age, wartorn and scarred with a grim, stern face. But the man wearing the captain's jacket was young—maybe no more than ten years her senior, by her estimate—with expertly groomed silvery white hair, a sandy complexion that softly glowed, and deep black eyes that gleamed. He saluted with a charming half-smile that rendered Indra numb with shock.
"Lady Guardian Jirata," he said, his voice smooth, "it's a pleasure to meet you."
Indra almost forgot how to salute back, but with a literal blink of her eyes, she regained her senses and did so. "It is an honor to meet you, captain."
"We'll arrive early, but we'll draw less attention that way. If you're anything like me, you might be relieved to not have all eyes on you."
Indra merely nodded as she walked to his side, then he led her down the hall. He offered his arm, and Indra was going to take it, presuming it was protocol, but her hand barely brushed the surface of his silk jacket when her heart thudded painfully in her chest and she withdrew, deciding her nerves would only allow walking alongside him, no matter what protocol dictated. He simply smiled and good-naturedly dismissed it. With her breath quickening into what she could only assume was an anxiety attack, she desperately wished he wouldn't want to talk.
He shattered her optimism almost immediately: "Allow me to offer my condolences for the ruination of your village."
Indra nodded, trying to catch her breath.
"I am working with the warrior council almost daily to track the cause. His Royal Highness made me add your name to the summons list for the next meeting, and I have done so. In fact, I see no reason for you to not be a permanent attendee."
Indra felt a light haze of dizziness. "Permanent?"
The captain sighed decisively. "I feel like it's my duty to tell you. Your parents wanted it to be a surprise, but in my opinion, it's not the kind of thing that should be sprung on someone. With Commander Ahnir's recommendation, you are being promoted to Warrior directly after your parents are promoted themselves."
The intense pounding of Indra's heart made her shake. She hadn't felt so agitated since the tragedy at Deimadka. "Promotion?"
"He wanted to explain that he felt you were qualified for the promotion and that you would benefit from the way of life here at the palace."
"Here at the palace?" She barely even noticed when they made it into the ballroom and he guided her to her table at the head of the room near the royal table.
When the captain realized she wasn't sitting, he looked directly into her eyes. "Are you feeling alright, lady guardian?"
Indra blinked with a flutter as her hand raised to her temple. "I'm feeling kinda lightheaded."
"Just sit here. I'll get some water." He took hold of her arm and helped her sit on the soft cushion. Indra felt a surge through her body that she couldn't describe. Her vision went black as she felt her fists strike the tabletop. But almost as quickly as it came, it abated. It was as though someone splashed her with an entire bucket of boiling hot water, and though she was cooled off now, was left with the sting of the burn. She suddenly rose to her feet and started pacing, her eyes wide. That was when the captain returned and handed her a cup of water, which she drank eagerly. "You look better now," he remarked. "Do you feel better?"
Indra just shook her head. "I don't know. I can't stop…"
"I apologize if I caused you any anxiety with my announcement."
"No, no, I'm glad you told me. I mean, just think how I would have reacted in front of everyone. In front of…" Then she remembered she was in the presence of her supreme officer and stopped her pacing dead. "Oh, captain, please forgive my behavior."
"Just sit and relax. Focus on celebrating your parents at this time. Get your mind off yourself for awhile. I must go to my table, but your maidservant has arrived and is against the wall directly behind you if you need her."
As he left for his table, Indra sat and grasped her empty cup, only then realizing just how much she was shaking. It was strange—she suddenly felt like she was teeming with energy that wouldn't allow her to sit still until it was spent. She had never felt so anxious about anything in her life. Getting promoted, living and working in the palace… Why did it warrant a stronger reaction than her home being assaulted? Did the addition of the captain make everything explode? He never even tried to intimidate her with his position, but she felt intimidated nonetheless. Padma poured her some more tea, which Indra drank gratefully. Padma had even remembered just the way she liked it: cream and two lumps of sugar. She finally began to calm down and rubbed the last of the burn out of her eyes. The only thing to make her completely calm would be more comfortable clothes, but she knew she would just have to endure for an hour or so more.
A flute began to play a regal hymn as the ceremony began. The Royal Family walked down the aisle with their knights, sitting at their thrones and fine armchairs on the platform. Altogether, they were a brilliant sight, like a jewelry box: King Sapphire with his blue hair and blue eyes, Queen Amethyst with her violet hair and violet eyes, Princess Topaz with her amber hair and eyes, and of course Prince Garnet with his red hair and eyes. The bold natural colors of the royalty of Fatehsma was long a mystery to its people. It became the common belief that the Royal Family carried their own brand of magic that painted them when they became part of royalty. In fact, a law had been passed decades ago that if a potential ruler or potential spouse of a ruler did not undergo the mystical color change, that person could not be admitted into the Royal Family by any means.
The ceremony proceeded. Her parents bowed down on their knees with their palms and foreheads touching the ground as the captain recited the traditional speech for the occasion. Then the king stepped forward with the vajra—a golden relic only presented at special occasions—to touch their heads and knight them. When they rose to their feet, their red jackets were taken from them and replaced with brilliant blue jackets; their silver Warrior rings were replaced with gold ones. Then the applause flowed freely. Indra clapped as loudly as she could, almost tearing up with pride for her parents, thinking how long and hard they worked throughout their lives, to be rewarded for it all.
After her knighted parents took their seats at the king and queen's shoulders, the captain announced, "And we have one more promotion to celebrate today. Lady Guardian Indrani Jirata, come forth."
Indra took a deep breath as she slowly rose to her feet to stand before the captain. She thought it would be best to stare past him and at her parents—a more comforting image—but her eyes were always inexorably drawn back to the gleaming dark eyes of the captain. Fortunately, she was required to bow to her knees as well, during which she could just shut her eyes and concentrate on her breathing. Then she felt the gentle tap of the vajra on her head, so she slowly rose to her feet again. Padma helped remove her green jacket and replace it with a red warrior jacket. The design was equally snug as her guardian jacket, but wearing the warrior jacket, Indra felt entirely different. She knew her life was going to be entirely different.
But she tried not to think of that as ceremony turned to reception and her parents came to her table, both smiling but with eyebrows crinkled with concern. "Are you alright?" were the first words out of her mother's mouth.
Indra expelled a heavy breath. "I'm fine, I just…" She shrugged. "Really didn't expect this. I mean, I expected yours, not mine."
Her father told her, "Ahnir had made the recommendation a long time ago, so it is on your own merit, not just because of us."
"Which is nice, but did he tell them…I mean, do they know…about me?"
Her parents exchanged glances. Her father replied, "It was Ahnir's responsibility to let the captain know, yes."
Indra felt her stomach stir. It didn't matter that her village neighbors knew her secret; she'd proven able to protect them and earn their trust. What was it going to be like at the palace? Perhaps she was a skilled fighter—with a sword, fighting cocatrices—but she would be useless against any human being, and knowing how to fight people was the most important skill any warrior needed. But there was no way she could ever fight a human being, no matter what kind of training she could be given with a weapon. The captain knew that. She would be useless.
She blurted out, "I wish they could have just let me stay in Deimadka."
Her mother put her arm around her. "I know. We both felt the same way at first. And I know this doesn't mean much since we won't see much of each other: but we're all living under the same roof again."
"If we can't see you," her father added, "you can always arrange to see us, so long as we or Their Majesties aren't in private meetings."
Then Indra scoffed with a smirk. "Ahnir knew about this the whole time, didn't he? He didn't give me a chance to give him a proper goodbye or anything." She pulled in her lips. "That's better, I guess. If I'd known while I was there, I might never have left."
Her mother put her hand on her face. "You don't look well, dear. You feel a little hot."
Her father suggested, "Have your maidservant show you to the healer's chamber." He waved Padma over and gave her instructions. Indra let herself be led away, still reeling a bit.
Just leaving the ballroom and going into the hallway made Indra breathe better, and by the time they reached the healer's chamber, she felt almost normal again. Still, the anxiety attack had been so unexpectedly fierce, she was anxious to see what the healer might advise for the future. The room was small, and as expected had shelves full of odd jars and an apothecary table. She sat on the bed while Padma stood outside to watch for the healer's arrival. Indra tried to take a cleansing breath, but the smell of herbs and ointments made it come out as a cough.
A few minutes later, the healer arrived: he had the deep brown complexion of a man from Venjy, yet he was by far the shortest Venjuvyan Indra ever saw. People from the desert kingdom were generally tall and lithe, but this man was shorter than herself and with a sturdy build. His curly hair and beard were grey with age, and he wore a pain linen robe that swept the floor. He smiled wide with warm eyes when he saw Indra. "Hello there, I am Adebaba. Lady Warrior, if I may begin by congratulating you on your promotion." His Venjuvyan accent—heavy vowels and thick consonants—was a wave of comfort to Indra's ears.
"I appreciate it," she replied with a smile. "And I'd like to say how much I love your voice. My village is right near the border to Venjy. Hearing you talk makes me feel like I'm back home."
"I'm glad to hear that," he said as he pulled up a stool to sit beside the bed. "There are many people around the palace who have a hard time understanding me. So, I suspect you are having some trouble with stress." He began examining her—looking at her eyes, feeling her forehead and her glands.
"I had an extreme anxiety attack," Indra explained. "But it was strange. I felt dizzy and weak, then I suddenly had a burst of energy." When his hand touched her face, she felt her head throb. "Oh!"
"My head…I just got a huge headache! I was fine, but just now…"
Adebaba nodded and sat back on his stool. "Tell me everything, every feeling, every action that you experienced as part of this 'anxiety attack'."
Indra related to him everything, from the moment Padma told her who was escorting her to the ceremony until the point she left the ballroom. Adebaba listened intently, but rather than nod, he stared directly at her eyes the entire time. He was perfectly composed, but Indra sensed he was concerned in some way. She knew that all Venjuvyans born in their kingdom of descent were born with the Light of Truth, and normally when a Venjuvyan looked at her so intently, it was because they were reading the truth of her words. She had no idea why he would suspect she would lie about her symptoms, though.
He was silent for a moment after she finished speaking, but continued staring. "You lived in Deimadka, yes? Were you born there?"
She didn't understand why the question was relevant, but answered, "Yes."
After a moment of rumination, he mused, "One of the things you mentioned that made you anxious was wondering if you would be able to fulfill your duties as a warrior, your skills as a fighter."
Indra swallowed hard. She knew that he had sensed some sort of unspoken truth in her. Now she understood his questions—though they didn't seem relevant to her health, her secret did cause her anxiety. She sighed. "The captain knows, so I suppose telling you would be no worse. But I'd still rather it wasn't talk about…"
"Confidentiality is a healer's prerogative," he swore.
There was nothing but trust and confidence in his voice, so Indra confessed: "I have no magical abilities. I was born without them. My parents were assigned to greet and escort an immigrant across the border from Venjy, and…on the way, I was born directly on the border between the two kingdoms…some luck…" It spilled out more than she expected, and she hoped that Padma hadn't heard from outside the room.
His smile faded a little. "If it makes you feel any better about it, you now have someone to blame. I was the immigrant your parents were escorting across the border."
Indra couldn't believe it; it was almost like being reunited with an estranged family member. "Oh. Really? Oh."
His smile brightened again. "I helped deliver you, actually. You were a beautiful child. I had a wonderful trip with the three of you." He then got to his feet and crossed to one of the shelves on the wall. "The good news is, you can believe me when I say that you have nothing to worry about. Your skills as a warrior will serve your kingdom well. I'm sure your trainer will help you realize that. In the meantime, I suggest some aromatherapy in your room to help reduce your stress." He handed her a fragrant linen pouch. "Lavender. Use it in your bath and keep it next to your bed. I also suggest you try to avoid the captain as much as possible, since he seemed a major trigger in your anxiety. If you have another attack, you can ask Padma to bring my assistant to you. Her name is Eyna. She has a specialty for massage and other therapies for stress relief."
"My thanks to you," Indra said as she took a whiff of the lavender. "I will have meetings with the captain and other warriors, though, that are unavoidable."
"Then do not sit near him and try not to make eye contact."
Indra was a little shocked at his advice. "Not make eye contact? Isn't that against protocol? Or…you know, rude?"
Adebaba simply replied, "If you want to be a helpful member of the council, you need to keep yourself calm. You will likely be addressing the entire council when you speak, if even to answer a question. Direct your eyes somewhere else."
Indra remembered how she tried to avoid his gaze before, but was unable to. Her eyes kept finding his, and each time they met, a shiver ran down her spine. Then everything suddenly fell together into the realization that maybe she was attracted to him. She never really thought about romance and perhaps only once ever felt such interest toward anyone—the carpenter's apprentice in Deimadka—and a small flutter when she met the prince in the garden, but neither of those felt nearly as strong. Is that what attraction really felt like? Fear and exhilaration, weakness and strength? She thought it was simply intimidation and respect. There was something about his eyes that stayed with her.
Realizing she had been sitting in silence, she smiled in parting and left, meeting Padma in the hall. As if her new life wouldn't be a difficult enough adjustment, now she had the added awkwardness of being infatuated with her superior officer. And though she knew it should be the opposite reaction to discovering an attraction, she was annoyed rather than excited. She was glad to have doctor's orders to avoid the captain.
Indra and Padma almost made it to the stairwell when they heard the loud thud of hurried footsteps and someone calling, "Stop him! He tried to murder the king!"
Indra whirled around to look down the hall. There was a person, dressed exactly as one of the raiders that had attacked Deimadka, running in their direction. At first, she was frozen, not knowing what to do, especially without her sword on hand. But she brought to mind one time when she had chased a thief through town, and it jolted her instinct into action. She bolted off toward him, her formal clothes slightly disrupting her normal rhythm: the jacket felt stiff against her pumping arms, the pants created a slight friction against her legs, and the shoes threatened to slip off every five steps. She finally stumbled a little, allowing the raider to reach the stairwell and begin his descent. Indra kicked off her shoes, the sweat underneath her feet gripping the floor well enough to keep her running along the sleek fabric on the ground. Reaching the stairwell, she used the handrails to jump down a few steps on the side. She finally caught up with him where he was standing at the next floor's landing. Splaying out his palms, he cast a crushing blast of wind, tossing her back. She smacked into the stairs, her back hitting a step's edge while she managed to save her head by blocking with her hand, which was stabbed with pain. She caught her breath and pulled herself back up. When she opened the door to the next floor, she found him breaking into the nearest suite. A handful of warriors were walking down the hall together, so she pointed toward the suite and yelled, "He tried to murder the king!" The warriors shot off into the suite to catch him before he jumped out the window. Indra followed slowly but surely. There were flashes of light and roaring hums, the sights and sounds of magic. When she made it inside and saw that they had apprehended him, she sat down on the nearest chair, hissed through the pain as she cradled her hand, and for a moment wondered where she'd dropped her lavender. No matter. She would have to revisit Adebaba at this point anyway.
Three warriors escorted the raider out of the room, followed by a woman in a violet surcoat with one gold chain—the lieutenant. An unusual sight, she had stone grey skin with ash grey hair braided into cornrows and eyes so light in color that at first they didn't appear to have pupils at all. Indra had never seen anyone like her before. The lieutenant took one look at her and said, "You are the new Jirata."
Did her tanned complexion really give her away so much, or did she just really strongly resemble her parents? Indra felt somewhat irritated at being so easily identified by strangers. She was about to salute, but it was her saluting hand that was in pain. Wherever the lieutenant came from, she spoke the Fatehsmanian language well with a highbrow accent, as though she were born nobility.
"Come with me," the lieutenant said. "You can tell me about this on your way to the healer."
Indra rose and followed. "There's not much to tell. He ran out of the ballroom and into the hall where I was. Someone called out that he tried to murder the king, so I chased him."
"Hm. An attempted assassination in a ballroom full of knights and warriors. The fact that he managed to escape the room at all is an embarrassment." She shook her head. "Not a single protector will leave that room until they've heard from me. And I thought Jiten would be there too. If so…" Then she cast a glance over the newly promoted warrior. "You at least have somewhat of an excuse, one I will deal with personally. I'm not sure how much you were told, but because of your special condition, I have volunteered myself as your trainer until you're ready to train with the troops."
Indra was convinced now that her reaction to the captain had to be attraction. The lieutenant was a much more intimidating person by her forceful words, and yet she wasn't feeling as nervous as she had felt around the captain. Still, learning that she would be personally trained and judged by the lieutenant, second-in-command of all Royal Protectors, did not help in following Adebaba's prescription for relaxation. But she knew the appropriate thing to say: "I will appreciate your help."
"My name is Virtra. While we are in a training session, you will call me Virtra, but any other time, any other place, you will call me lieutenant. A first-name basis is allowed during training to achieve the necessary connection and level of trust. And another subject I must broach because I am aware it causes unease is that my descent is Zhunto."
The name of the kingdom set off an alarm in Indra's head.
The lieutenant seamlessly continued, as though it was all rehearsed: "Yes, the kingdom of destruction. No, I am not evil or destructive. No, I am not a spy. No, there is not a barrier between Zhunto and Fatehsma. There exists a group of Zhunto refugees of which I am the third generation." As she opened the door to the stairwell, she met Indra's eye and added, "If you ever voice doubt in my loyalty toward Fatehsma, I will have you stand at pillory in the training room, hoisting the third-class training dummy over your head until you've contemplated how I could possibly have achieved my rank otherwise."
Apparently the lieutenant had suffered her share of prejudice in the past, but with all she ever heard of Zhunto, Indra was hardly surprised. A century or so ago, Zhunto was a peaceful and flourishing kingdom, until it was usurped by a tyrant who reduced it to a hostile wasteland of greed and suffering. However intimidating this woman was before, it was now doubled. Indra could, however, see her dedication. She wanted to prove that she would respect her commanding officer, and so when they arrived to the floor where the ballroom was, Indra said, "I'll see Adebaba later. I'll go with you. I want to find out what happened, and if you have anything to say about the…about the raider almost escaping, then I should be there to hear it too."
Indra couldn't tell if the lieutenant was pleased or not, but she did pause to silently regard her trainee for a moment. Then she said, "Then at least sling your hand inside your hat or something. You look pathetic."
With a flush of shame, Indra took off her hat and used it to hide her hand, supporting it against her abdomen.