The man in the red and gold looked her father over with a cool gaze, as if he was studying an apprentice’s craftsmanship.
“I trust your journey was not too trying?”
“We had a little trouble on the way, but nothing we couldn’t handle,” her father replied, smoothly. “Now, this must be… Vaneeta, yes?”
Her father smiled politely in the woman’s direction. She inclined her head ever so slightly, as Rishi and Abasi offered perfect half bows. The smoothness in her father’s voice, and his pleasant smile, reminded her of how he sometimes acted around the men on the university board. Though she’d seen him put on the facade before, it always left her feeling a little unsettled, as if she was watching a different person who had stolen her father’s face. Across from him, Dayaram and Vaneeta’s faces seemed like perfectly arranged masks, pleasant on the outside, but with eyes that seemed all too hollow within.
Abasi and Dayaram shook hands, their grip perhaps a little too firm, and then her father began to introduce his crew. Micah bowed and kissed Vaneeta’s hand, and Ilona, her features set in almost uncanny mimicry of Vaneeta’s, allowed Dayaram to offer the same courtesy.
“My wife, Milima,” Abasi said, as Milima nodded at Dayaram and Vaneeta in turn, pressing her hand to her chest, just over her heart.
“And you must be miss Chandra,” Vaneeta said, smiling sweetly as Arsha remembered herself and bowed politely. She was sure she must have looked horribly awkward, but no one remarked on it. She wished she had Ilona’s easy way with high class manners.
“And of course, the young lady herself,” Dayaram added, turning to address Rachael. “You must excuse us, young miss. We were not informed of your name.”
“I’m Rachael. Barnes,” Rachael said, obviously feeling uncomfortable with their expectant gazes.
Dayaram simply nodded and gestured for the group to follow him toward the archway at the far end of the courtyard. As they walked, Arsha and Rachael slipped into the back of the group, side by side.
“That was weird,” Rachael whispered as they walked. Arsha just shrugged.
“It’s sort of this thing everyone has to do. I think all the big families just have this game going or something, to see who can sound the most sincere without meaning it,” she said.
“Father is in his study,” Dayaram was saying to her dad, at the front of their procession. “He’s been informed of your arrival, and hopes you will join him for lunch. He regrets that he could not greet you all in person, but he is an old man, and tired.”
Her father nodded politely.
“You may inform Lord Bhandari that I will be pleased to join him. There is much that I wish to discuss,” he said, as Dayaram lead them under the archway, into a long tunnel lit by a myriad of hanging ghostlamps.
“What was with that thing Milima did back there? Like, when everyone else was shaking hands and stuff,” Rachael said, as the soft gloom of the tunnel enclosed them.
“That? Oh, uh, it’s a Herdlander thing. Most people don’t like shaking hands with them, so they do that instead,” she said.
“Why? I mean, why don’t people want to touch them or whatever?”
Arsha considered this for a moment, feeling slightly confused by the question.
“I guess it’s just, y’know, because of what they are.”
“What they are?” Rachael repeated, perplexed.
Arsha just shrugged.
They emerged from the tunnel into a sprawling garden. A path of white gravel was laid out between green lawns. Vibrant sprays of brightly coloured flowers seemed to burst forth from every side. The air was thick and warm like a heavy blanket after the coolness of the tunnel. Beyond the nearest rooftops, Arsha could see towers and sloped roofs that rose up in grand tiers.
“God, I could spend all day running around this place,” Rachael said, eyeing the vast expanse of the rooftops.
At the far end of the garden, steps lead up to the front of a colonnaded building with a large pair of double doors. As the group approached the doors swung wide, revealing a grand entrance hall.
“Rooms have been prepared for you in the South wing. Our home is yours, should you wish to wander the grounds or make use of any of the facilities. The servants will attend to anything you require.”
“Thank you, Dayaram. You are too kind.”
“Not at all, Rishi, not at all. I can show you to father’s study now, if you wish. Vaneeta will see that your companions are settled in.”
“If you would,” the professor nodded.
“Oh, when you are done speaking with my father,” Dayaram added, “he has asked if young miss Barnes might grant him a few moments of her time.”
Rachael looked up sharply, and Arsha saw her father’s civil mask crack just a little, before he recovered himself.
“I’m afraid that’s simply out of the question,” he said, with the appearance of perfect calm.
“Oh? I rather thought it might be her decision to make,” Dayaram replied, with a raised eyebrow. He turned to regard Rachael directly, his features carefully neutral as he waited for her reply. Arsha tried her best to hide her curiosity, as she waited to see what Rachael would say.
Rachael looked over at her father, as if trying to decipher what was going on behind his cautious mask. Then she looked back to Dayaram.
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll hear what the old man has to say.”
They found themselves lead through broad and well lit corridors that were covered in deep carpets of red and gold. The winding passageways eventually lead them to what Arsha imagined was one of the more secluded wings. Trying to remember the route was a nightmare. The estate seemed to have been built upon itself in layers, some of it surprisingly new, some of it very old.
Eventually they arrived at their rooms, where servants deposited their baggage and politely inquired after any needs they might have.
“It’s like one of them fancy hotels,” Rachael whispered. “Everyone’s being polite because they have to be.”
Arsha just nodded. They had been put in a shared room with two single beds and a small en-suite bathroom. Windows looked out onto the gardens, perfectly manicured and surrounded by a high stone wall.
Rachael began to poke around the room as Arsha sat down on the bed and watched. When they heard a whispering sound, both girls turned to look in unison.
The door had been left slightly ajar, and through the crack they could see two pairs of eyes watching them. Small, rounded faces with nervous expressions. Two young boys, the oldest not more than six, as best she could guess.
Surprised, she raised a hand and waved.
“Hi there,” she said, gently. If anything, the boys eyes grew even wider. There was another flurry of whispering, and then the door was pushed open and both boys stepped nervously into the room.
“Hi. I’m Arsha. This is Rachael,” Arsha continued.
“I’m Mohan,” the older one said with a sudden energy, proudly slapping his chest. “This is Jeevan. He’s my brother.”
“And do you boys live here?”
“Of course we do. We’re the hairs to the family.”
“Hairs?” Rachael said, looking perplexed.
“I think he means ‘heirs’,” Arsha said, with an embarrassed smile.
“That’s what I said,” Mohan said, pouting.
“I guess that means the stiff bloke we met before would be your dad, huh?” Rachael said.
“He runs everything here. And my granddad is a… is a guild council… uh… councilman.”
The boy seemed immensely pleased with himself. Silently, Jeevan stood a little behind him, clutching at his older brother’s trouser leg. In his other hand, the boy was clutching a small stuffed doll, some kind of winged lizard.
“So who’s this then?” Arsha said, smiling as she gestured at the doll.
“It’s a dragon,” Jeevan announced, proudly holding it aloft. Immediately detaching himself from his older brother, he flew the ‘dragon’ in a lap around the room, as the girls both watched and laughed.
“It’s probably just a Rake, actually,” Arsha whispered, leaning close to Rachael so only she would hear.
“What’s that then?” Rachael whispered back.
“Big winged lizard. They fly in packs, and they hunt herd animals and stuff. Abasi hates them, because they attack stuff that threatens them. You know, big flying things like our ship. So whenever we see packs of them we have to put in to port, or fly slow and close to the ground so they won’t attack us.”
“So, how’s it you don’t just call them dragons?”
“Well, they’re not. There aren’t any dragons. Not any more.”
“Oh,” Rachael said, seeming both disappointed and perplexed by this discovery. Jeevan continued flying his doll around, making angry growling noises as the ‘dragon’ attacked their legs. Then both boys looked up in surprise as the door opened. A young man stood in the doorway. Another brother, she guessed, perhaps ten or eleven. It was hard to tell with boys.
“Mohan. Jeev,” the boy hissed, sharply. He made a gesture, and his brothers looked up with disappointed expressions, but made no move. His first effort having failed, the young boy strode into the room, grabbed both of their hands and lead them out of the room, ignoring their protestations. From the doorway he threw a sharp glare back at the girls, before the three of them disappeared.
“That was weird,” Arsha said, after a moment’s pause.
“A bit, yeah,” Rachael nodded.
“It’s so sad. They’re just innocent little kids. They’ve got no idea what their family is really like.”
“Won’t stop ’em from turning out just as bad,” Rachael replied. Arsha turned to look at the girl with a mortified expression.
“You don’t know that,” she said. Rachael just shrugged.
“People can’t change what they come from.”
Not sure how to respond, Arsha said nothing as Rachael continued to poke around the room.
“What about where you came from?” she said, quietly. “What were they like? Your parents?”
Rachael stood at the window, staring out into the garden. For a moment Arsha wondered if she simply hadn’t heard her.
“It’s just you’ve never really talked about them,” she added, cautiously.
“What’s to talk about?” Rachael said, still not looking at her. “They weren’t my real parents.”
“What do you mean?”
For a moment it seemed as if Rachael was turning something over in her head, as if she wasn’t sure what to say, or maybe just how much to say.
“Justin told me,” she said, at last. “My real mum, she lives way out in this dream thing. Honestly, I didn’t really understand much of it. Point is, the people what I grew up with, they were never really my mum and dad.”
“Did they know?”
Rachael shook her head.
“So they still loved you. Just because you weren’t really their daughter, doesn’t change that.”
Just for a moment Rachael turned away from the window, to give her a disdainful look.
“Love me? Arsh, they thought I was crazy.”
Arsha could think of nothing to say, as Rachael turned back to the window, her eyes fixed on something in the far distance.
“They thought I was crazy and they didn’t know how to fix it,” Rachael said, her voice growing softer. “You know if it hadn’t of been for me, they might have made it work. Dad might never have left, and Mum might never have…”
She fell silent again. The only sound was the clock on the wall, counting out the seconds as Arsha stared at her hands, and wondered what to do. She almost jumped in surprise when Rachael stepped away from the window.
“Screw this,” the girl said, “let’s have a poke around.”
Trying not to let her nervousness show, Arsha followed Rachael out of the room, still trying to think of something to say. As they turned the corner, the pair of them very nearly crashed into the tall figure walking quickly the other way.
“Woah. Girls, hi,” Micah said, clearly as surprised as they were.
“Fates Micah, you nearly scared us to death,” Arsha hissed, feeling her heart pounding out a drumbeat on her ribcage.
“Sorry, about that,” he said. “Anyway, I was looking for you two.”
“Why’s that?” Rachael said, eyes narrowed.
“I was having a little wander around the grounds. There’s something I want to show you,” Micah said, nodding in the other direction.
“What is it?” Arsha said.
“Just trust me,” he replied, with his usual boyish grin.
Before long they found themselves outside of the manor walls, walking down a rough path that cut across the open fields of the estate. Though there were uniformed men at the last gate, no one made any move to stop them. A soft wind blew over the mesa, making the long grass whisper as they walked. Micah had brought lunch with him, roti and fresh mango juice, which they ate as they walked. Even though the spiciness of the food made her eyes water, Rachael still asked for a second roti, wolfing it down in three bites as if it might have less time to burn her tongue. Micah went ahead of them, eventually leading them to the crest of a gentle slope which they could not see beyond. Silhouetted against the blue sky, he turned and beckoned to them.
As they crested the hilltop, Arsha looked down and saw what Micah had meant to show them. A worried expression creased her face, and she felt a nervous fluttering in her stomach.
“Horses,” Rachael gasped.
There were three of them, slender and beautiful, grazing in the sun as if nothing in the world could bother them. Already they could see Micah approaching the nearest of the creatures, a reddish-brown mare that was a little shorter than the other two. Very gently he whispered to the animal and stroked at its mane. For a moment the creature tensed, seeming nervous, but he slowly calmed it, speaking softly and stroking its neck and flank. Eventually, he lead the horse over towards the girls.
“Girls, this is Amber, and Jamal tells me that’s Ruby, and Opal.”
“Who’s Jamal?” Arsha said.
“Huh? Oh, he’s the stable-boy. I went out for a smoke and we got chatting.”
“Hi Amber,” Rachael said, sweetly. She seemed enraptured, gazing intently into the horse’s huge brown eyes. Arsha found herself becoming more fascinated by Rachael’s demeanour. The girl was always so guarded, like she was expecting a fight. It was strange to see her speak and act so softly.
“Can I?” Rachael raised a hand, gingerly, towards the horse’s nose and looked up at Micah excitedly.
“Sure. She’s friendly.”
With something between terror and delight, Rachael ran her fingers down the horse’s long snout. It sniffed, sharply, and Rachael pulled her hand back in alarm.
“Stroke, don’t tickle,” he said. “She’s a big girl, you won’t hurt her.” Micah demonstrated, running his own hand along the mare’s snout, quite firmly. Amber leaned into his palm, appreciatively.
“Here,” he said, dipping a hand into his bag and producing a small apple, red with spots of green.
He showed it to Amber, who devoured the offering greedily. Clearly fascinated, Rachael tried it herself, giggling as Amber’s thick tongue slapped at her palm, and soon all three horses were gathered around, jostling the girl for treats as Rachael laughed. Arsha stood back, watching.
“So,” Micah said, “you girls want to go for a ride?”
Rachael turned to look up at Micah with an incredulous expression. The girl seemed genuinely speechless.
Whatever objections Arsha held, they were worthless against Rachael’s expression of pure delight. Before long Micah had rounded up all three of the horses and brought them back towards the stables outside the manor walls. He saddled the beasts quickly, setting about the straps and buckles with a practised hand, all whilst Rachael prodded him with a hundred questions. Arsha could scarcely believe the change that had come over the girl.
Eventually the horses were saddled and ready, and Micah set about helping each of them into the saddle. Rachael took a shot at vaulting up onto Amber’s back, but she couldn’t seem to find the right place to grip, and the girl quickly ended up on her ass, looking embarrassed. Arsha covered her mouth to keep Rachael from seeing her laughing. Still, she caught the scowl that was thrown in her direction.
“Alright, let’s try this,” Micah said, helping Rachael to her feet. Then, with scarcely any warning, he grabbed the girl by the hips and hoisted her up into the saddle. Rachael’s look of surprise made it even harder for Arsha to silence her laughter. As Micah turned away, Arsha couldn’t help but notice how red Rachael’s cheeks were, or the way the girl’s eyes followed Micah as he walked.
“Your turn,” he said, standing at Arsha’s side. “Come on now, you’ve done this before. Put one foot up, and I’ll help you up the rest of the way.”
“Yeah, and the last time I fell off and got mud all over myself. And the time before that I scared the horse so bad it ran off,” Arsha said, pouting.
“OK, yeah, try not to do that again,” Micah said, chuckling.
That first step was almost impossible. Arsha finally forced herself to lift one leg and set the ball of her foot into the stirrup. Then Micah lifted her by the waist, just enough that she could throw her leg across the saddle. When Opal shifted under her, a jolt of terror ran down her spine and she felt sure she would fall. At the last second she grabbed at the front of the saddle and held herself in place.
“OK there?” Micah said. Looking down at him, she forced herself to smile.
“See… Not so scary,” he said, smiling back.
Arsha glanced over at Rachael, who was trying very hard to hide how nervous she was. The girl’s knuckles were white on the reins. It was oddly reassuring, knowing that she wasn’t alone in that.
“Just sit tight there,” Micah said.
Taking the reins from them, he held one in each hand and began to walk, leading one horse on either side of him.
“Just concentrate on sitting right. Hold the pommel if you need to balance better… That’s the little ridge at the front of the saddle. Rachael, keep your back straighter. You have to keep your shoulders over your hips. That’s right. Arsha, press your legs in more. Grip with your calves. Come on, you’ve done this before.”
They walked back out across the fields, Micah reciting a soft litany of instructions as the horses plodded along at a gentle stroll. Arsha found that her nervousness slowly faded as her attention was consumed by the awareness of her own body and that of the creature that carried her. She realised, with a little jolt of surprise, that she could feel Opal’s heartbeat pulsing up through her ribcage. She could feel the slow expansion and contraction of the horse’s chest as it drew each breath. Occasionally the mare would let out a sudden snort and Arsha would feel a ripple run down her back. There was something strangely beautiful about being so completely connected to another creature, so aware of every tiny movement of her body.
They started to get the hang of it, and before long Micah gave them the reins and mounted up on Ruby to ride with them. Arsha fell off once, and Rachael took several tumbles, mostly from trying to pull Amber into sharp turns that the horse was all too willing to comply with, whether her rider was ready or not. No matter what, Rachael was on her feet the moment she hit the ground and springing eagerly back into the saddle. As they began to master bringing the mares up to a gallop and back down to a walk again, Arsha saw a look of delight firmly root itself on Rachael’s face. She seemed entirely lost in the moment.
Eventually Arsha began to slacken off a little, easing her horse into a slow trot as Micah focused his attention on correcting the finer details of Rachael’s posture. Soon enough the two of them set off on a proper run, leaving Arsha to take a breather by a narrow creek. Opal lapped at the water as Arsha rested in the saddle.
As she gathered herself a little, she heard the approaching sound of hooves. When she looked up it was not Rachael and Micah she saw, but a stranger on a black horse. As he drew closer, she realised the boy was about her own age. He had wavy hair and bright, attentive eyes. He was good looking, she had to admit, though it was not hard to see the Bhandari family resemblance in him. She felt a chill when she noticed the rifle slung over his shoulder, and the brace of dead birds hanging from his saddle. Hawks, she realised.
“Hey, you there,” he called out.
“What?” she said, turning Opal to face him.
“Arsha, right? Where’s your friend? The refugee?”
“Rachael? She’s riding. With Micah.”
It seemed important to add the last part, somehow. The boy nodded.
“They’d best stay close to the house. Father wouldn’t be happy if anyone got hurt,” the boy replied, lip twisting in a sneer.
“Yeah. Right. I’ll them that,” Arsha said, still scowling. Seeming to sense her mood, Opal backed off a pace and snorted loudly in the boy’s direction. He nodded again, and glanced down at the mare.
“Be careful with that one. Never got broken in properly. She can be a bit dangerous. Little too much spirit.”
Arsha felt a scathing smile creep across her face.
“Good thing she’s with me then,” she said. The boy gave a derisive snort and wheeled away. He was a distant shape against the horizon when she heard Micah and Rachael approaching. Rachael looked breathless, but deliriously happy, and Micah had a healthy glow about him.
“What was that about then?” Micah said, nodding at the distant shape of the boy on his horse.
“One of the Bhandari boys. I didn’t like him much,” she said.
“Huh. Yeah, that’d be Vasuki I’m guessing. I met him with his dad at a function one time. He was an obnoxious little… Well, yeah,” Micah said. “Anyway, we should probably head back. I’m starving.”
Arsha turned to look over at Rachael.
“You had fun?”
The girl just nodded, clearly too out of breath to even speak clearly.
Micah was right about the time. The sun was getting low, and the sky was slowly reddening. Micah took the lead, as Arsha and Rachael followed a little way behind him, their horses walking side by side.
“Hey, thanks for doing this,” Rachael said. “I know you weren’t really having the best time out there and all. I just… I really appreciate it.”
Caught off guard by the curious sincerity in Rachael’s expression, it took her a moment to respond.
“No, it’s OK,” she said. “I’m glad you had fun.”
“Yeah, I did.”
Arsha caught the way Rachael’s gaze settled on Micah’s back, his sweat soaked tunic plastered to his shoulders, and she couldn’t keep herself from smiling.
“Admit it. You like him,” Arsha said.
Rachael’s cheeks glowed crimson as the girl scowled.
“I never… Shut up,” the girl stammered, as Arsha grinned at her.
“Not even a little bit?” she said sticking her tongue, as Rachael stared down at the reins.
“Yeah, I mean, he’s OK if you like tall, muscle-y guys with perfect cheekbones,” she said, quietly.
As Arsha struggled to hold back her laughter, Rachael looked at her with narrowed eyes.
“What, and you’ve never thought it?”
Arsha just shrugged.
“Not really… I mean I’ve known him since I was, like, seven? He’s like a, you know, a big brother or something.”
“Right,” Rachael said, with a knowing smile. “You live with a guy who looks like that, and you never had even one dirty thought?”
It was Arsha’s turn to fix her eyes on the reins, as she felt her cheeks tingle.
“Maybe a little bit,” she mumbled.
She caught Rachael’s eye, and almost in unison the girls stuck their tongues out. A moment later Micah was looking back with a bemused expression at the both of them, doubled over in their saddles, trying not to fall off from laughing.
The sun continued to dip towards the horizon as a cool wind sprang up. Slowly, the walls of the estate began to rise up ahead of them, and Arsha couldn’t help but notice how the light slowly faded from Rachael’s eyes as they drew closer. Before long the girl had the same cold, guarded expression that she always seemed to wear.
They arrived at the stables, and Micah helped them dismount as a young man stepped forward to lead the horses away. As they walked through the gates into one of the many courtyards, they saw the tall form of Dayaram Bhandari approaching them. Arsha’s footsteps slowed as the man fixed each of them with his icy cold eyes.
“Miss Barnes,” he said, his gaze settling on Rachael. “My father will see you now.”
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.