From the moment he received his cup of chai and found too much milk in it, Sagar knew his day was going to get infinitely worse. One did not simply have a good day after an unsatisfactory breakfast.
With a sigh, he gulped down the sweetened tea and proceeded to stuff his face with some savoury parathas in order to relax his taste buds.
No matter how unfair the beginning of his day had been, he still needed to get work done.
Life never goes on his pace though. All Sagar wanted was to create his own morning, but the knock on the door that followed hindered even that possibility.
It was a young servant. New too, judging by the clean pressed white shirt and a tremble as he bowed his greeting. Sagar tried to smile, but it must have come out as more of a grimace because the boy looked terrified to his core. His sister did say that his smile is enough to terrify children.
“Yes?” Sagar asked softly, a headache just coming about.
“A message came from the docks, sir. Master Karn requests your presence as, as soon as possible.”
Sagar does not sigh. He came close to it, looking forlorn at the complete spread in front of him and the window overlooking the sea where he could see ships in the distance.
“Tell Master Karn I will be there before the ships dock.”
It was not as if Sagar hated his job. In fact, if asked on any other day, Sagar would stress the fact that he was honoured to serve the Royal Family as a Chief Guard and ensure their protection. He finds it cathartic, to give back to the family that gave him a purpose and a life. On a day like this, though, he found even getting out of bed a chore.
Hundreds of ships on the horizon slowly inch towards the city-kingdom of Vyagar. The following days were going to be filled with noise, people asking too many questions and just enough nonsense to get on his nerves. As he put on his scabbard, Sagar wondered if he should have taken up the offer from the King to step back from this celebration. He could have just sat with the royals, watching dancers tap their feet, old people talking about the good old days and people asking about his marriage plans.
As soon as the thought entered his mind, Sagar shuddered. The mere thought of sitting still for hours with nothing but chatter sent a chill through his body.
His fingers tighten around the hilt of his sword. Despite the madness that Vyagar was going to witness the next few days, Sagar could not run, and neither would he. So facing the trouble of people it is.
Sagar exited his room with determination coursing through his veins. He could feel himself being in control. The day will pass as it always does and though it may be difficult he would-
Sagar froze, “Yes, Chakor?”
“Um, you were, um, talking to yourself.”
Of all the people to catch him in his act, it had to be Chakor and Kiran, his two apprentices.
“Being the speaker of the words, I was well aware,” Sagar deadpanned, “Follow me. We have a long day ahead of us.”
Sagar walked away, head in his hair, not at all puffing out his breath or giving his students’ laughter any notice. Instead, he decided to focus on the environment. That was always a good distraction.
Vyagar was, for all intents and purposes, a fortress city. Normal people lived within the high walls that protected the city from the sea in the east, the mountains in the north and the Gravens in the south.
As Sagar made his way down the castle and into the city, followed by his two disciples, he could not help but marvel at the speed of his people. The cobbled streets that were empty just the day before had started displaying stalls. Merchants from across the lands set up their wares. The hustle and bustle was reminiscent of the weekly market, except grander.
Yellow clothes seemed to be the top choice, followed by orange and some shades of blue that came from the north. Cooks were already frying snacks for later sales, and when Sagar turned the narrow bend that would lead him out, he could see mouthwatering white and yellow sweets on display.
“I want it,” Chakor whispered to Kiran.
“Later,” Sagar scolded, mentally planning to send a boy to get some lunch afterwards.
The darkened halls of Bahri Diwar had the oil lamps hanging by thin nails. The artisans began their day with exquisite crafts and clothes displayed. Sagar itched to explore but focused his mind on the task at hand.
The next time Sagar saw light, he was slammed by the smell of saltwater and fish. People rush across the docks, pulling handheld carts filled with wares behind them. As always, everybody was shouting. None of the ships had docked yet.
Sagar counts that as a win.
It is not difficult to situate Master Karn. He stood by the Old Gate, a crumbling feature of a bygone era acting as a marker for anyone coming to Vyagar. Sagar rushed to his side, wondering how the older man remained unbothered by the waves crashing just a few inches from him.
Master Karn, the Commander of the Guards and Sagar’s superior was a man well past his prime. With greying hair slicked back, a thick moustache and piercing eyes that even made Sagar tremble, he was a legend among his kind.
A hero of sorts for boys all around, including Sagar.
When they came to stand side by side, Sagar reached the same height as him. He does not have a moustache to boast- his long slim nose making him hesitant to even try- but Sagar followed Master Karn in every other way that matters- slicked back hair, well-starched jacket and clean clothes, a scabbard to the left and brown pointy jutti on his feet.
“Good day, Sir,” Sagar said in greeting.
The Commander turned with a smile, reserved only for Sagar, “Good day, indeed. Nothing less for our King.”
Sagar hummed, situating himself as far away from the ocean as he could, “Yes. The month when our King turns fifty. That is worth a grand celebration.”
Karn looks over at him knowingly, “Only if it did not mean such a logistical nightmare for us.”
Sagar stifled a laugh. It felt good knowing the dread was not his alone, “Where will you have me, Sir?”
“By the Northern Gate. Those who will live close by or within the Palace. There is the Princess of Lisa, who has specially asked for you. The performers from the South will be staying at the Guest Houses. And the cargo ships bringing other necessities. Be careful, though, if the message is right then we have Shape-shifters, Fashas and Gravens coming for performances.”
Sagar barely resisted the urge to scream, “Why do the Gravens need a ship? Those fin-monsters can just swim up, can’t they? Or perhaps they are too busy pretending to be one of us.”
“Careful,” warned Karn, “They will be King’s guests this time. We cannot offend them.”
Sagar grumbled but did not cross the Commander. He gathered Kiran, Chakor and a few more soldiers and marched north. He needed to greet a Princess who wanted his hand in marriage, for some reason, and handle a group of bloodthirsty monsters pretending to be normal.
Yes, his day was going to get significantly worse.
The sharp smell of fish and garlic, along with Meira’s shouts, awaken Alfar. His home was close.
“Get up! Get your asses up! We have reached the port.”
Alfar slowly lowered the shawl from his face, curly hair sticking up in all directions.
“Alfar!” a sharp elbow to his side had Alfar scrambling up on his bed, “Get up!”
“I am up! I am up!” Alfar groaned, throwing the shawl down and rubbing his eyes as a yawn broke through, “You annoying minstrel, I am the only one who is actually awake! Why don’t you go and poke Barek?”
“Aye, shush!” Mira swatted his head, “I was just going to do that.”
“Oh were you now?” Alfar grinned widely, only to receive another smack on his head.
“Go wake Jhuri up. There will be no time once we dock. Up, up, up!”
With another groan, Alfar got himself out of the bed and onto the swaying cabin of the ship. Sea sickness does not touch a Graven like him, water being his his entire life. However, with how rocky the vessel was, Alfar would not have been surprised had he thrown up.
Unlike Alfar, who found going on any vessel terrible, Jhuri, remained unbothered. Her long brown hair looked like a bird’s nest, her left leg touching the floor while she fought an imaginary enemy. Alfar got sick thrice over the two-month journey- Jhuri? Not even once.
Seeing her so peaceful made Alfar’s insides squirm. Chaos was his eternal friend.
He inched closer to the younger girl and sticked his finger in her mouth. When she mumbled and scrunched up her eyebrows, Alfar took the chance. He grabbed her hair and pulled her off the bed.
The result is a screeching Jhuri straddling Alfar within seconds with a knife to his throat.
When she realized who was under her, Jhuri pocketed the knife only to rain punches and smacks on him. Alfar laughed, using the hand not pinned under him to tickle Jhuri, causing another scream and a wrestling match in the making.
“Aish! I leave you two for a few minutes!”
Alfar tilted his head, grinning at an exasperated Meira and an amused Barek. Jhuri used the moment to get off his chest and rush to Barek, wrapping her arms around his chest and beginning to sign furiously.
“Hey, calm down!” said Meira, “Slowly. Breathe.”
Jhuri pouted but obliged. She turned to glare at Alfar and signed.
Barek hummed, his wings fluttering behind his back as he glared mockingly at Alfar, “Is that true?”
“Aye, she was sleeping with no worry in the world,” Alfar said, picking up the shawl and folding it, “If I were to give her the sweet time, she would be waking up by the time we start to dance tonight.”
“Not true,” Jhuri signed furiously.
It was at this moment that Meira said, “He is right. Now, don’t you look at me like that young lady? You do tend to sleep excessively. We will have all the rest after tonight. Well, not all, but enough. You know what?”
And with that, Meira launched a speech that could rival Kings, Queens and Scholars. Barek, tired of fluttering his wings, settled down on the bed with Jhuri still clinging to him, pouting excessively. Alfar, used to it, just continued to pack his clothes and things in a jute bag, making sure that his ghungroos remained safely secured. By the time Meira finished her speech, Alfar had packed his and Jhuri’s bag, combed his hair, freshened in the tiny sink and was ready to see the sky.
“And that is why you must be ready on time. Understood?”
Jhuri nodded sadly, burrowing in Barek’s embrace.
Alfar snickered, “Well, I shall leave you three to get ready. I will be on the deck when you are ready. Goodbye, my friends. I shall see you at the end of this glorious journey.”
“He says as if we are not spending the rest of Rains together in Vyagar,” mutters Barek, but there is a hint of amusement in his voice.
Alfar grinned, pulling up his bag on the shoulder and walking out of the tiny cabin.
The moment Alfar stepped on the deck, the warm sun rushed through his skin. With a skip in his step, Alfar dodged the workers, skillfully passing through crowds of men and leaned across the edge.
The old semi-circle archways, darkened with old moss and vines welcome him to Vyagar. The red high walls covered with green vines almost look like the flag of the kingdom. From the looks of it, the ship would dock by the Northern Gate, one of the bigger ones in the kingdom. If he craned his neck, Alfar could see the Old Gate at a distance. The high walls of the Bahri Diwar looked massive.
Alfar had scaled all those walls once.
Silent, unleavened trees twisting at nooks and crannies welcome them as the ship moved closer. People around him shout, trying to contain chaos as well as hundreds of visitors aboard. When Alfar peered down, he could see purple fins in the water, guiding them to the dock. His eyes longed for a familiar face among the Gravens in the water.
Alfar would be lying if he said he did not miss Vyagar. Three summers had passed since he last touched the ground and swam in the waters of his city. Four, if he was being particular. It was a short time in the lives of a Graven, their life spans easily extending to a century and some more. But for someone who had never seen the world outside Vyagar, who could walk around the city-kingdom with a blindfold on and swim through fresh as well as seawater with as much ease, leaving was a severe punishment.
One he hoped never to go through again.
With a sigh, Alfar ran his hand through his curls. There was much to do, and he did not know how much time he had. Alfar had already taken care of the general things, such as his ever-growing stubble that was currently gone but would be making its appearance soon enough. Dancers needed to look a certain way. If Alfar wanted to stay in Vyagar, he needed to leave his old ways behind.
Which was going to be difficult, considering the pouch he had nicked from one of the workers that now rested in his bag.
By the time noon gave way to the setting sun and candles and lamps began to lighten up the city, Sagar felt every muscle cramp up, including the one in his head. His back begged to be stretched, and his feet would require a deep message in order to work properly.
At least the day was coming to an end.
When Sagar enters the Nrityashala, he is for the moment struck silent. The long hallway, held up by rounded white pillars and lined with channels, glittered under the yellow light. The chandeliers overhead were in the process of being lit up one by one, but the hall was already bright. Sagar pushes through the workers, letting the scent of rose waft through. He could see the different coloured flowers scattered across the hall, and he would not be surprised if some were dispersed in the water as well.
His focus, however, remained on the exits. Sagar was quite pleased to see two soldiers already standing by every entrance, with three more on the outside dressed in ordinary clothes. When he looked up, the galleries were secured by his people. The performances on the first day would only host the people from the cabinet, some businessmen and perhaps a few close friends. However, for Sagar, it was a question of skill.
It has barely been a year since he was given the position of Chief Guard, and this was his first test.
“Your brows are going to be stuck together if you keep squinting like that.”
Scoffing, Sagar hurriedly smoothens his face before turning to face the speaker, “Why are you here?”
“Overseeing the preparations, before people begin to arrive.”
Sagar just stared.
Princess Finnani, the heir to the throne of Vyagar and the only child of King Aarav was an overthinker, stubborn to a fault, and often micromanaging details that had no business being micromanaged.
Case in point- she was standing in front of Sagar, already dressed in an orange lehenga she somehow managed to pull off with a top bun, a number of accessories Sagar did not even want to count and a wild look that remained focused everywhere yet nowhere.
“That is not your job.”
“I know my duties well enough, thank you,” she says with a tight smile.
“And I know mine, one of which is managing the schedule which you made, and that said you should be in the welcoming room with the King and the Queen, entertaining your close guests right now.”
She gave Sagar a look, her light brown eyes holding judgements and desperation he was very familiar with. Sagar restrained the urge to pinch her nose, very like his own and instead tried his best to be formal.
“Princess,” Sagar said through gritted teeth, “Please. I need you secure.”
“My guards are here!”
The Princess whined, immediately reaching out for Sagar’s hand, “I have seen things Sagar. The visions I had during the high moon showed me something.”
“And what was that?”
“Just, something to worry about.”
Even if Princess Finanni’s Sight had posed a threat to their lives, Sagar knew well enough that was not the reason she had escaped. He told her as much.
“Sagar, I cannot bear to stand in that room while Lord Pangiri propositions another marriage proposal.”
The wild look in her eyes made more sense.
“This is the third time!” She hisses, “After being rejected by Father as well as I. I swear to Gods above if Father agrees-”
“He will not,” Sagar whispered, gently caressing her hands, “The King knows. But Nihar is not that bad.”
“Just because he is your friend does not mean he is good!”
“Did not say he was. Having said that, there is no way that King and Queen would accept a proposal without your input, especially considering the future consort. All right?”
Princess Finnani looked doubtful, but she nodded. Slowly untangling her hands from Sagar’s, she straightened up, taking a deep breath in. When she next opened her eyes, Sagar saw the poised heir of Vyagar smiling at him. They may be the same height, but at times like this Sagar felt smaller.
“Very well,” she says, “I will return to the welcoming room and wait for further instructions. Meanwhile, please make sure that the chandeliers are cleaned clockwise and that no windows are open and-”
“Princess,” Sagar said shortly.
She grins, “Fine. But the flowers-”
“Fina, I swear to God I do not care if you are the Princess, I will drop you in the channel.”
Chuckling, Finnani turned and glided away, disappearing by the doors at the other end of the hall. Later, the same doors would welcome the Royal Family. The dais in front of the door was thankfully already decorated, the three thrones cleaned and ready for their occupants. The wooden divider behind them remained unopened, but Sagar would personally close it and ensure the placement of guards back there.
Another look around the hall managed to satisfy Sagar. Everything was already in place. All he needed to do now was take his own spot up in the gallery with a complete view of the hall.
Sagar made his way up just as the chatter began to pick up. From the corner he settled down in, he could see the few Lords and their families being led in by the soldiers. The musicians settled to the right of the hall and started to play their instruments. Slowly, the hall began to fill in, the music a calming background noise to the chatter of the people. Sagar watched intently as some guards hurried to bring in a wooden stage under one of the chandeliers.
He looked over to the door across and saw the performers lined up. Bright colours, sparkling ornaments and huge instruments peak back.
The sound of karnay pulled everyone up to their feet. A hush fell over the hall. Behind the dais, the double metal doors opened.
King Aarav entered with Queen Ira to his right and Princess Finnani to his left. He stepped forward, his bustling moustache visible even from the gallery. He let his red cape with green threadwork swipe through the floor, the entire assortment glittering.
Queen Ira shone with an orange-coloured saree lehenga. She always looked a little different from the rest- with a wider nose, darker skin and ringlets for hair. Yet as she held the King’s hand, nobody dared to question her place. Sagar still kept an eye out for any discontent.
When Princess Finanni stepped up, a murmur passed through the crowd. If Sagar had to garner a guess, it was because of the heavy crown of an heir on her head.
The King’s voice boomed through the hall as he welcomed the crowd, thanking them for their attendance and asking them to enjoy the performances. Sagar used that time to rush to the other end, gesturing for the soldiers to pull the divider. As he pulled on the thick rope, the wooden divider glided through the hall like a curtain. By the time the King finished his speech, they were secured from three sides and Sagar could breathe a little easier.
As the musicians once again worked their magic on what would otherwise be a useless piece of wood or stone, Sagar took another round. He appreciates the arts of music and dance just fine, even if the players were brutes of nature. They are beautiful creatures, Gravens and Fashas, looking to entice anybody who would as much as look at them.
Sagar ignored their presence and turned to security.
By the time Sagar finished one rotation of the hall, the line of performers had dwindled. He felt no grief over missing what would have been fabulous performances. Sagar did, however, give a cursory glance to the next creatures in line.
He could not see the face of the graven that caught his eye- graven, for he had no wings- but the slim arms and hands resting on the waist made him stop. Sagar’s eyes rushed up from the waist to the head of curls bouncing as the Graven laughed at something his female companions said. A ray of light bounced off the earring dangling from his ears. Sagar felt spellbound, resisting the urge to walk away.
Something stopped him. Something new. He was unsure what it was, but he was not opposed to finding it out.
The music swelled in the Natyashala of Vyagar, echoing across the hall. It was the kind of music that one could lose the self to. The female singer, a fasha, let her wings go free and sang of love in making. Her notes reached heights while her voice remains as sweet as a cuckoo’s.
Beside her, another fasha let his wings flutter as he played the tabla. The beats came fast but never rushed. Between the two, the entire hall remained spellbound by the music.
It would be enough of a treat for ears. But that was not what they were trained for.
Alfar lets Meira’s voice wash over him as he and Jhuri turn on Barek’s beat. Their bodies moved in parallel, never meeting and yet mirroring each and every step. Jhuri draped an imaginary dupatta over her head as Alfar caressed his head, looking forward to a meeting of lovers that would come soon.
Their limbs flowed like water: free, moulded by the music and the beat, never still. Alfar and Jhuri’s feet dropped together, the sound of ghungroos only accentuating their step. Every pair of eyes remained on them. Some could not look away, others did not want to. When the bandish comes to an end, Alfar and Jhuri fall to their knees, their heads meeting, lovers finally together.
The silence lasted for less than a moment.
Thunderous claps echoed in the hall. Alfar and Jhuri opened their eyes, relief coursing through their veins as they got up. Behind them, both Barek and Meira hurriedly folded their wings, the court rules of the new kingdom yet unknown to them. Even when the four stood together to face the royals and bow, the applause did not stop.
“Marvellous!” Said the King, silencing the applause at once, “That was a performance to be remembered. I shall have you four again. Marwa!”
“Yes, my King?” came the voice from the side.
“I will have you issue these brilliant performers a place in our court for the entirety of the next season.”
Meira failed to control her gasp. When she fell to her knees and bowed, Alfar felt the relief too new, too much and too uncertain to hold on to.
Amongst the applause, the four of them are led out of the hall and into a tiny room to the side. It had just enough space for all of them to sit. Alfar wasted no time untying his ghungroos, his mind still reeling when Barek’s voice cut through the haze.
“Was that real?” Barek asked, fluttering around like a buzzed bee from one person to another, “Are we truly to stay? Really?”
“If I heard it right,” Jhuri signed, “Or maybe we drank Alfar’s tea again.”
Alfar gasped, putting his ghungroos on the only table with a bang, “Oye! That was once and nobody hallucinated more than a few elephants!”
“Those elephants could have trampled me!” Barek pointed out.
“They were not even real!”
“Shush!” Meira shouted, immediately shutting everyone up. “Sit down, everyone, now!”
Jhuri plopped down on the floor, resting her face on her hand. Barek finally settled on the desk, his residual limbs crossed together. Alfar leaned on the wall, some part of him not willing to follow Meira just yet.
“It was real,” said Meira, immediately shushing everyone up, “And we have a problem.”
As three pairs of eyes turn to Alfar, he raised his hand in defence, “I was clear before coming down here. The King saw me and he still gave us a chance.”
“But what if he doesn’t remember?” signed Jhuri, “It has been three years. The King must hear a thousand pleas a day.”
“So he must, but I like to think I was special.”
“Get your head out of your ass,” Meira said dryly, “It’s entirely possible that he forgot. We will communicate it effectively with the bayik drawing our contract. There should be no errors.”
“My punishment is technically over,” Alfar pointed out.
Before Alfar could even speak up in his defence, the door flung open. A Guard, too familiar to Alfar, entered followed by more soldiers and wasted no time in pinning Alfar to the wall with his hands twisted behind his back.
Alfar sighed and then grinned turning back, “Hello there soldier. Long time no see.”
“It’s Chief now. How did you get to Vyagar?”
Alfar whistled, only to be pushed more forcefully, “Technically, my punishment is over.”
“Hey!” Meira shouted, “Leave him alone! You cannot hurt him.”
Chief turned around, “Watch me.”
Alfar chuckled, “It’s okay, Meira. We are old acquaintances.”
If it were anyone else, Alfar would have turned, docked the man in the balls and made a run for the door. However, even as the soldier- Chief, now- turned and tied his hands to the front, Alfar could just grin. From the moment he had entered the city, Alfar had been waiting for this.
“Chakor, Kiran,” Chief turned to two of the soldiers, “Lead the rest of them to Minister Marwa and Commander Karn. I don’t want any of them escaping.”
Ignoring Jhuri, Meira and Barek’s cries, he continued, “Nobody is drawing any contracts until I have questioned this thief here. Are we clear?”
The two young soldiers nod. Alfar felt bad for them. They barely looked like adults and were probably being tortured under Chief’s guidance.
As the Chief dragged Alfar out of the room, he sighed and prayed to Dorian that his friends manage to explain the situation. He had been ready for this confrontation for ages.
This chapter is a preview of Hear Ye by Shubhr Aakriti. Hear Ye is an enemies-to-lovers desi!fantasy murder mystery hitting your laptop screen this Saraswathi Puja. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay tuned!
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