“Are we lost?” says Shashi, her voice a knife-edge. “We’re lost, aren’t we?”
“No,” I say, more firmly this time. “We are not.”
We have been picking our way along the frothy lip of the coastline, Shashi and I, tracing the path I mapped out beneath the desert stars. We make careful progress along its sand-splotched waterline, traveling only at night. Now and again the icy water rushes over our feet, and Shashi shrieks and races ahead, scattering tiny crabs who skitter and flatten themselves in invisible mud-pockets in the dark. The cold sea breathes peacefully beside us, and we are definitely not lost.
At least I think we aren’t.
“We’re lost,” Shashi insists.
I turn and see that Shashi has stopped. In the ten feet of waterlogged beach between us, the only sandal-prints are mine.
I know then the look on her face, the uncertainty close to tears. In a minute she will ask for bread, then for home, then for Mami. And my magic can only bring her one of those.
I trudge back over my own footprints.
“We aren’t lost, silly.” I seat myself on the cold sand. “Here. Let me show you on the pada-sara board.”
I reach into my rucksack and withdraw the old, sand-beaten board. The pieces rattle woodenly inside. I unfold it like a pair of wings, balance it on my lap and place an elephant, Shashi’s favorite, on a black square on the bottom edge. “See, this is where we started. This is Tarq.”
I drag the elephant two squares up, against the left edge. “This is where we are now. Right up against the sea.”
“Ankora,” I say, placing a white castle piece, “is here.”
“How about the yodhinika?”
A white cannon, for the yodhinika soldiers, goes down right behind our elephant, one square away.
“So close!?” says Shashi, aghast.
We squint down at the board together, at the three lonely pieces and the blocks and blocks of space separating our black elephant and that faraway white castle. After a while Shashi nods. I pack the board away, take her by the hand, and stand.
And we flee on.
I am sitting atop a hunk of driftwood, an itchy tangle of seaweed and sand, with Dadi’s spyglass pointed west. Along with my pada-sara board, it is the one tool I dug out of Dadi’s armoire when Shashi and I squeezed out the back window and snuck out of Tarq. The spyglass is cold and heavy and beautiful, and it is many things to us now: our compass, our scout, our weapon. All our other family things, rugs and tools and gold rings and pocketwatches, are lost.
We have just done our bread magic and eaten, and the sun is cresting the dunes. I can hardly keep my eyes open. I have my eyes trained on a specific spot on the coastline, a narrow gap between a wrecked ship and a bulky jut of cliff. If the yodhinika are still on our tail, they will have to pass through that crevice before the tide comes in. But if all my planning has paid off, we will stay ahead of them for yet one more day.
Shashi does not know, but if the yodhinika catch us, we will die. They will bind our hands, kneel us on the beach, and shoot us. Our bodies will be wrapped up in crimson flags to be marched back through the ghettoes of the city; the corpses of two more disobedient bharjana on display.
I am tired. I yawn, and I am about to put the spyglass down when I see something.
There. A man, booted and red-vested, peers around the side of the wreck. He scans the beach, movements clinical. He strides through the gap. A column of gloomy soldiers follows, their boots kicking up harsh sprays of sand.
My heart twists. It is not two or three yodhinika, or even six. We are being pursued by an entire troop.
The leader has a moustache to match his dark, chubby face. His pepper-black hair hides a sprinkle of salt. And suddenly my stomach sinks, because I recognize him. He is Jagmeet, the patrolman responsible for the ghetto where Shashi and I lived.
I let the spyglass fall away, and scramble over the rocks to join Shashi where it is safer.
Jagmeet. Of all the yodhinika oppressors, he is perhaps the one who knows Shashi and me best. After they took Mami and Dadi away, Jagmeet was the one assigned to watch us, and from time to time I’d catch him squinting in through the sand-caked windows of our hovel. He was our clockwork ghost, moving through the ghetto the same way every day, hands knotted behind him. In the evenings he’d trace a route round the esplanade, keeping an eye out as we sat in the warm grass and played pada-sara.
One evening he did not keep to the outskirts; he crossed the hot cobblestones of the esplanade until he reached the center of the field. The instant he stepped onto the grass, everyone’s eyes were on him: the lone yodhinika in a crowd of bharjana.
And out of everyone, Jagmeet stopped in front of me. He slouched to the ground, smelling of wine. His gaze swept my pada-sara board, the pieces and screens. He made a little movement with his chin.
As yodhinika requests, so bharjana does. We played. We propped up our screens, arranged our secret pieces, and did battle. Everything went quiet, the only sound from the rustle of blankets and the velvety tap of our pada-sara pieces.
When I had captured most of his pieces and cornered his king, he stared at the board, digesting his defeat. I looked up, the summer wind hot in my nostrils, playing back the last few moves in my mind.
He leaned over the board, clapped me on the shoulder and rose to leave.
The others waited till he had rounded the corner, then exploded in a flurry of chatter. That night I was the hero, the bharjana that stood up to the yodhinika bully and won.
But I remember the pressure of Jagmeet’s hand on my shoulder. It was firm. It did not feel like he was pushing me down; more like leaning over a little to measure my height.
“I’m hungry,” Shashi says.
“Stop it,” I say. “We need to walk.”
“But I’m hungry.“
“You ate less than two hours ago. When the sun rises, I’ll make you some more.”
“When is it?” she bargains.
The world is quiet this time of night, just the moon and the rustle of warm breezes stirring the seagrass. Our sandals make a shhh shhh sound against the sand, the grains scraping painfully on our ankles.
“I want to sit down,” says Shashi.
“No,” I say, and a bolt of impatience shoots through me. “I told you. Be a good girl and walk.”
“For how long?”
“As long as we can, as fast as we can, for as many nights as it takes.”
“No!” Shashi flops to the ground, face against the sand, and lies there like a dead octopus.
“Why are you doing this!?” I scream. “I can’t do the bread magic now because they’ll see us! They’re right behind us!”
Shashi starts to wail. I suck in an angry breath and let it out again, and for a moment I just want to grab Shashi, throw her over my shoulder and press on. But the moment burns out, and I slump to the ground.
I am tired too. I am hungry too. It was a mistake to start so early today, to push Shashi so hard.
I move beside her. Her cheeks are covered in mucus and fine sand, and her hair feels gritty. She feels small in my embrace, almost fake, like a doll. My eyes trace the waterline, taking in the ebb and swell of waves.
“I want to go home,” says Shashi.
But home isn’t there anymore, I almost say. The yodhinika took it away. First Dadi and then Mami, for the same old tired crime: belonging to a fictitious bharjana cell and “plotting treason.” Like so many before them.
Shashi crawls into my lap, and I notice that the backs of her ankles are rubbed raw—they are hot and half-sticky to the touch.
I close my eyes. We cannot go much further, not like this. We are moving too slowly anyway. The yodhinika are closing the distance; if they are not upon us tomorrow, it will be the next day. The white cannon piece butting up against the black elephant’s square, preparing for capture.
“I think we’ve lost,” I murmur.
Shashi squirms and pulls her ankles away from my fingers, her face digging into my stomach.
I pull the pada-sara board out of my bag, just to look at it. I set the elephant, cannon, and castle in position, and slouch over the board with my head in my hands.
The situation looks hopeless. If we keep going along the beach, the yodhinika will surely overtake us. No hiding place will shield us. If we turn off into the desert, they will see our tracks leave the waterline and follow at full speed. Either way, we don’t have much travel left in us. We need rest.
“I’m hungry,” says Shashi. She burrows her face into the front of my shirt, smearing it with tears and mucus.
I turn the elephant piece over in my hand. Its sandalwood eyes stare back at me, questioning, until I hide them in the grip of my fist.
“Okay,” I say. I nudge Shashi. “Let’s eat.”
She stops sniffling. She studies me. Her mouth is covered with snot and sand. “Really?”
“Yes. I’ll make us some bread, and we’ll eat. But then we’ve got to keep walking, okay? I have a plan.”
Shashi’s eyes go round. “But can you make me a really big bread?”
“Of course,” I say.
I plant my knees in the sand, facing east. I make my hands into a bowl. It is a posture of supplication, asking the sky for its gifts. I close my eyes and remain that way for a moment, feeling the breath in my chest, the pulse in my veins. I am a conduit between ground and sky. The desert wind rasps in my ear, bringing the smell of dried roots.
I say the traditional words, lengthening each syllable as much as I can, stacking them in fuzzy layers.
A familiar, hot energy radiates out from my core, filling the spaces between my organs. I am forced me to breathe deeper, to sit stiffer. The heat oozes from my stomach to my chest, from my chest to my arms. It gathers in my hands.
All bharjana can do this. The bread magic. We make food from air and shadow.
A surge of heat scorches my palms, as if I have placed my hands too close to a fireplace. A flash of green penetrates my eyelids, and I know the night around us has lit up briefly with the color of life and sustenance.
I open my eyes. I am cradling a brown, spherical loaf, smooth and hard. It is patterned with pale green streaks, places where the energy moved in whorls and eddies.
I tear off a piece of the crust, put it in my mouth, and give the rest to Shashi. She squeals, as if I am handing her a chunk of gold.
My manna bread is chewy today, with a hint of clouds and seaspray. I scoop up Dadi’s spyglass from its place on my belt and focus south, on the yodhinika camp. There is no movement that I can see. Their tiny campfire winks and flickers, barely visible in the darkness.
“Are you eating?” I ask, stowing the spyglass.
Shashi nods. She shows me the chunk in her hands: more than three quarters of it is gone.
I kneel again and summon a loaf for myself, then another for Shashi. Two more flashes illuminate the night.
When I check the camp again, it has come to life. Torches are lit. Tiny soldiers stumble from their sleeping pads. I watch a man sling what must be a rifle onto his shoulder, and although it was my plan to begin with, I feel suddenly afraid. My body, still magic-warm, feels like it has been dropped into an ice bath.
They are coming for us.
I bite off a large piece, brush the crumbs off Shashi’s clothes and help her to her feet. The bread’s nourishing magic rekindles a tiny, resilient spark inside me, and I am grateful. I take another bite. Chew and swallow. Chew and swallow.
“Okay,” I say, when I am almost finished with my loaf. “Let’s go.”
The game of pada-sara is played on a grid. On each side of the central board there is a bamboo screen, behind which each player is free to arrange his pieces before the game. When the game starts, both screens are pulled away to reveal the armies. Much of the strategy comes from anticipating the arrangement of your opponent’s army, and creating an opposing plan. They say pada-sara strategies outnumber the clouds: some are intricate as the veins on a leaf, some blunt as stone.
When Jagmeet leads his troops charging down the shore, he will notice that Shashi and I have left the safety of the waterline. Ever since we shook them off in the desert and took to the coast, they have been looking for this. They have been searching slowly up the beach, kicking over every dune, toppling every rock formation. They will not miss our prints when they see them. Two sets, one large and one small, tracing a wavering route up the beach. They will know we are making a run for it.
They will follow us upshore, moving quickly. They will wind their way up a ten-foot bluff that makes their voices echo and casts a welcome shade in the heat of day. Our prints will stand out like ink on a canvas. The yodhinika will track us to the desert’s edge, eager to finally end this chase and go home.
And there they will find an empty crust of manna bread, just lying in the sand.
They will take the crust, examine it thoroughly. It will be a few hours old, perhaps a little dirty, just starting to crumble away into inedibility. They will hurl it away, cursing. And they will look up and realize that ahead lies not one set of tracks, but two. A set of footprints, large and small, will lead off to the left. And another set will lead off to the right.
Perhaps they will be confused. Perhaps they will think we are four bharjana instead of two; all the better. Like hungry ants, they will swarm eagerly down both forks.
But then, after another long, lonely stretch of sand, they will stop again. They will find another crust of manna bread at their feet. And there, on the flat, undisturbed surface of the desert, our footprint trail will end.
They will scratch their heads. They will mutter about black bharjana magicks. They will confer with their compatriots, inspect the crusts of sandy manna that they have found.
But they will never find us. Because Shashi and I won’t be hiding in the desert at all. And no matter how hard the yodhinika rack their brains, they will never understand that sometimes the best way to move forward is to take a step back.
I am cold. Icy water surrounds me, undulating in the glare of morning sun. It has been nearly twelve hours since I took Shashi into the desert and made those tracks, spurred on by the manna bread’s nourishment and my own pounding heart. I hope, with every shivering inch of me, that Jagmeet’s men are not able to distinguish the difference between the tracks of a boy fleeing across the desert sands and the tracks of the a boy walking carefully backward over his own footsteps.
Because not only did Shashi and I stay at the sea’s side, we are hiding in it. We have been crouching in the surf for hours, the water bobbing and surging up to our chins. Shashi’s sleeping head lies itchy and heavy against my neck. I hope she is warm—I gave her the bulk of our manna bread earlier to guard against the chill.
A salty wave hits me in the mouth, and I struggle a little to regain footing. My chest is cramping from the cold, and I am not sure if I can still feel my legs.
I manage to extract Dadi’s spyglass from the sack and lift its smudged lens to my eye. No yodhinika in sight, though their passing has stirred up sand everywhere.
I am shivering. Is it safe to come out? Perhaps I should give it a minute more. Five minutes. I can hold out. My head feels light, and it is so cold that I can feel heat seeping out of my flesh. In the sweaty rush of escape, I have severely underestimated the ocean’s chill.
After what feels like an hour, I push off against the sand and move, teeth chattering, toward shore. Gulls circle in the gray-green light overhead. By the time we near the beach I am shuddering violently. Shashi stirs and opens her eyes.
“It’s cold,” she mumbles.
When we spill out onto the sand. I sprawl to the ground and breathe. I lay my cheek against the hot sand. The sun beats down on my head, warming me only on the surface. The world starts to ebb, as if I’m still moving up and down with the waves. My stomach churns. My head throbs.
I lay that way for a while, drinking in the warmth of the sun and the sand, breathing in the clean ocean air. The trampled-up beach is silent. No yodhinika appear to kill us.
We should be safe here, I think. I will rest just a minute.
Somewhat later, I open my eyes. The sun is hot and bright. My back itches, and my eyes are full of sand. I push myself up, rub my eyes, take in the beach around me. The sands are blindingly white.
And Shashi is gone.
I stagger to my feet. How much time has passed? But my head spins, and I fall back onto my palms. I am shivering violently.
Shashi. Prone on the sand, I cup my hands into a bowl.
I begin the words. But a fit of coughing overcomes me, and my insides quiver. I can’t summon bread like this.
Shashi, where are you?
I drag myself up the beach, nausea roiling within me. Where is Shashi? Is she in danger?
There is a small boulder some distance from the waterline, a tiny pocket of shade. I make that my goal.
But I never reach it.
A breeze ruffles my hair. Something soft and smooth bumps the back of my head.
“Anu,” says Shashi. “Anu.” I manage to turn, and see that Shashi is holding out a miniature loaf of manna bread, whorled with green.
I stretch my neck and bite off a piece. Shashi’s manna has always tasted a bit raw to me, overly sweet and sticky. But this time it tastes like pure bliss. I swallow and stretch forward for another bite. I feel the piece of bread travel down into my gullet and into my stomach, spreading health and warmth into my organs.
“Shashi,” I rasp. “We need to move. Find a hiding place for the day. Shade.”
But then I stop, because I realize, somewhat belatedly, that we’re already in shade. The desert’s heat is no longer intolerable. Another cool breeze passes over my lips.
I roll onto my back, and find myself staring at the underside of a canopy, propped up with sticks. The cloth is red.
My stomach plummets. Yodhinika.
I hear the rasp of footsteps, and watch a pair of boots and the tip of a bayonet approach the canopy. A yodhinika’s shaved head peers under the canvas roof. “Bharjana,” he says.
The soldier grabs my wrist and drags me to my feet. When I stumble out onto the sand, I see Jagmeet standing at the head of a group of soldiers, hands clasped behind him. His expression is inscrutable. For a moment I stop and make eye contact as my handler ushers me forward: Jagmeet in his perfect, unruffled uniform and me in my damp, sand-caked rags, half-bent from weakness. We come from different worlds, he and I.
Jagmeet lowers his chin, and the corners of his mouth turn up. Again I get the feeling that he is measuring me. This time I win, his eyes say.
We are herded to a tent in a back corner of camp, where two more soldiers are waiting to bind our wrists. I spit on the soldier who binds Shashi, and he gives me a tight backhand in return.
And then we are left alone.
“Anu?” says Shashi hesitantly. “Are we in trouble?”
My cheek stings. “No. We are not.”
Through the thick fabric of the tent I hear the sounds of camp being pitched: the slap of hammers on stakes, the crackle of bonfires. I wonder why they are bothering. They will only have to decamp again tomorrow, a swift march back to Tarq with our corpses in tow.
When Jagmeet approaches us alone, later in the evening, I have a new strategy ready.
“Kill me,” I blurt, before he has a chance to speak. “Spare my sister. She’s only five.”
Shashi starts to bawl, but Jagmeet only pauses. He selects a patch of ground beside us, brushes it with a brisk hand, and plants himself there. He sits in silence, watching us, until Shashi’s bawls become sniffles. He inspects his fingernails, dislodges a grain of sand.
“She’s a brave girl, your sister.”
His tone is neutral, perhaps even cautiously conversational.
“We found her about an hour’s march from here. Saw the flash of her bread-making.” Jagmeet’s eyes travel from me to Shashi. “Had we not found her, I dare say she would have walked—and survived—for a very long time. You bharjana are resilient, I’ll give you that.”
I say nothing.
After a long silence, Jagmeet sighs. “I will unbind your hands so you can make bread. Rest well—nobody is killing anyone tonight. We will speak more tomorrow.”
I stare at my hands, motionless, as Jagmeet undoes the knots.
Nobody is killing anyone tonight.
I spend the night staring at the back of our tent guard, watching the lit orange tip of his pipe move up and down, up and down. What does Jagmeet mean? Does he mean Shashi and I will die tomorrow? Or are we to be brought back to Tarq and used as an example? My stomach tightens at either option.
My mind races. Whatever happens, I cannot let Shashi die. But however hard I think, I cannot shake the piercing image of Jagmeet’s eyes, and I fall asleep gazing up at the underside of our tent, wishing I could see the stars.
The next morning, the camp is strangely still. It is as if they intend to remain here. For one more day, at least.
Jagmeet shows up near noon. He draws back the flap of our tent, glances at me. Then he crosses to the far side, where my pile of belongings sits. He roots around in the rucksack, smiles, and draws out my pada-sara board.
He flips it open, counts the pieces inside, and snaps it shut again.
I watch as he clears a space on the ground, props open the twin screens, and starts to arrange his pieces.
“What are you doing?” I ask. My voice is rough.
“Setting up my army,” he says. He motions with his eyes at my side of the board.
His smirk fills me with cold anger. I throw aside my thin blankets. I defeated him before, and I will defeat him again. Perhaps I will die before tomorrow, but for the pride of bharjana everywhere, let it be known that whenever Jagmeet and I played pada-sara, I was the victor.
My cannons go down in the most aggressive position possible. Jagmeet folds his arms—he is finished. I glare at his relaxed countenance, then shift my cannons back to a more conservative position. It is the first rule of pada-sara: if you play according to your emotions, you may as well be playing with no screen.
Soon I have devised an elegant defensive formation, the perfect counter to the traditional, oblivious style I expect from him. We remove our screens, and Jagmeet frowns.
He is right to be worried.
He scrutinizes me, then shakes his head. “So you know about Tarq, do you?”
“Ahh, so you do not.” He reaches forward to makes his first move: the tactical retreat of a horseman. “Well, I will put it simply. The bharjana have risen up.”
The bharjana— My heart beats faster, but I do not dare show my reaction.
“On the Holy Day, ten days ago. They stormed the palace. Hundreds are dead.”
They finally did it. We finally did it! We are taking our homes back. The sensation is like liquid gold. No wonder Jagmeet’s troop has not struck camp—they too are outcast from their own city. The thought makes me smile. And a small voice marvels: Mami, Dadi—were you a part of this?
Jagmeet continues. “The bharjana are building barricades across all their ghettoes. Closing themselves off. The naandapa are empty, there is no food anywhere. The people of Tarq are starving.”
I laugh. “Only half the people,” I say, before I can stop myself. The bitterness is coming out, the years and years of feeling stepped on, used, mistreated. I slide an elephant forward, a blithe challenge.
The light in Jagmeet’s eyes turns instantly cold. “You think the yodhinika should starve, do you? You think it serves us right?”
Jagmeet glares at me for a moment, then turns forcefully back to the board. “You are too young. You will not understand.”
Instead of answering, Jagmeet makes an aggressive flanking movement with his horse, punishing my earlier arrogance. I respond, and so does he.
A few quick, bloody trades later, Jagmeet exhales. He rubs his eyes.
“I believe...” says Jagmeet. “I believe we are both part of a greater system. Yodhinika and bharjana. Like two halves of a circle. Like siblings. We have our disagreements, but still one should not... a brother should not leave his sister to starve.”
“But shooting is alright?” I snap. I am angry now, and the words flow like fire. “If we are half, treat us as half! All we ever wanted was fairness, but instead you dominate us. You enslave us, ask us to summon your food for you. Generation after generation. You are nothing but bullies and parasites. As far as I’m concerned, you yodhinika can make your own bread if you want it. Or starve.”
“You know we cannot summon bread.”
“Then dig it from the ground, or whatever god-awful thing they do across the sea. Or pay us for it, like they do in Ankora.”
“Tarq is not Ankora,” says Jagmeet quietly. “The last time we tried that, there was war.”
I smirk. “You mean like now?”
This silences him.
I press my attack. “Don’t try to excuse yourself, yodhinika. You have no excuse for what you have done.”
He glances sideways. “Perhaps not.”
“You kill us.”
He shakes his head, sadly. “We must, or you would all run.”
“You force us to work against our will.”
“Or people would starve.”
“You hate us.”
“We fear you.”
I am momentarily empty of words; anger is the only thing that sustains me. For a while there is no sound but the bustle of soldiers chatting and moving around in a faraway tent. They are probably eating manna bread.
Jagmeet slouches forward. “Forget what I said.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I am suddenly fearless. “Just kill me and get it over with.”
Jagmeet stands, towering suddenly over the board. His bark of laughter sounds like a gunshot. “Why would I want to kill you now? For vengeance?”
The way he says the word reverberates inside me, even long after he leaves.
Jagmeet comes to our tent every day, and every day he sits before the pada-sara board and makes a single, careful move. He is a patient man, above all else. And he is soft-hearted.
“I want you and Shashi to return to Tarq with me,” he says, near evening on the third day. Shashi is asleep in my lap, her fist tight around the hem of my shirt.
I have no reply.
He speaks of joining forces with a small cadre of charitable bharjana, to provide food for the starving of the city. He speaks of trying to create unity between the people, of protecting and nourishing. Of growing something.
“Just promise me you’ll think about it,” he says after he has made his final move for the day.
But I do not understand. These charitable bharjana, they must work hard, long after standard naandapa hours have ended. I imagine them summoning loaf after loaf after loaf, their hands scalding, their knees bleeding. And never making enough.
These are bharjana who have served in naandapa all their lives. Perhaps their parents and grandparents did the same. And yet when offered freedom, they volunteer themselves to harder work than ever, making food for a people who oppress them.
A part of me wants to ask Jagmeet about my parents. Perhaps he knows where they are: in a yodhinika jail, or even manning the barricades that split the city in two. But it is a big perhaps. And something tells me that I do not want to know the answer. Sometimes it is better to keep the spark of hope burning in one’s chest. I must not be selfish and think for myself now. I must think for Shashi, for the one who has a chance at a better life.
Jagmeet does not mention Tarq again the next day, or the one after that. But sometimes when I am pondering a move, I feel his eyes on me. I sense that there is much he is not telling me.
And one morning, before I am ready for it, things are different. I open the tent flaps to fresh air, the bustle of orders and laughter and the sound of metal on metal. The men are preparing to decamp.
Jagmeet shows up mid-morning. He seems pleased. “Devadas says he spotted a bharjana flash last night,” he says. “We head east, at full march. Perhaps we will find ourselves another couple of breadmakers.” He looks at me, and something in his gaze makes me think of the look a mother dog might give a stray pup. “What is your choice?”
“Yes, your choice. Will you stay with us? Or leave?”
It is not what I was expecting.
Jagmeet smiles. “Come with us, and help mend the rift. You can teach me how to play pada-sara as well as you do.” He gives the side of our tent an encouraging slap, and moves on.
I sit down on the pallet. The pada-sara board stares back at me. We have only just reached the midgame, where the battlefield begins to open up. And I was looking forward to Jagmeet’s move today.
My fist clenches. But Jagmeet, I think. Not everyone wants to be a teacher.
I stand and gather up the rucksack that has been my pillow. One by one, I pack away our belongings. Soon I am left with just the pada-sara board, the pieces like statues in a field.
I select the two generals, Jagmeet’s and mine, and place them carefully to the side. Then I sweep the rest of the pieces off in a slow, smooth movement, and put the game away.
I hold Shashi’s hand, and together we stroll through the half-disassembled camp. A yodhinika soldier greets us, showing his teeth, and I grin bashfully in response.
I turn to Shashi and scoop her up. Her arms encircle my neck, and a calm comes over me. We walk for a while like this, taking in the smells and meaningless noises of camp. The brass spyglass and my beat-up pada-sara board weigh comfortingly against my back.
When we are nearing the edge of camp, we round the corner of a tent and come face to face with Jagmeet.
Jagmeet’s eyes widen. He looks us up and down, sees the rucksack on my back, Shashi resting against my hip. He opens his mouth, as if to say something. But nothing comes out.
I make a tiny twitch of movement. Like clockwork, quick as an instinct, he steps aside.
I want to say something, something that encapsulates everything I am feeling: the regret, the sorrow, the anger, the relief. The tiny gratefulness. But I cannot seem to put words together, and before I know it we have moved past him.
I turn back, make eye contact.
“Goodbye,” I say.
We walk out of the camp, and no one stops us.
After a while we are walking aimlessly amongst the litter of an empty rockfield, adjacent to the beach. The morning sun makes the landscape a maze of slopes and angles, shadows and light. Each footfall crunches on gravel.
We will be patient, Shashi and I. As patient as Jagmeet, perhaps. We will face the wide, boundless desert, and head slowly toward Ankora. When we are hungry, we will find a square of crumbled wall to snuggle up against, our bottoms warm in the sand, and summon bread. Perhaps someday, when we reach Ankora, we will find what we are looking for.
Perhaps one day we will meet Mami and Dadi again. Perhaps not. But even without them, we will make a life. We will be family, just the two of us. And perhaps I will find someone else to play pada-sara with me. Someday.
I think of Tarq, of the city divided. Among my people there is a proverb: A bird who wants to fly need only flap its wings, but an elephant who wants to fly must give up everything but its ears, and jump.
Mami, Dadi, we are jumping.
And during the cold nights ahead, when we are tired and lonely, when the lights of Ankora glint invitingly off the coast like golden stars, perhaps Shashi will turn to me, worried, and ask if we are lost.
I will know just what to say.
No, Shashi. We are not.