Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. I wandered long and far after leaving the monastery, but you surely knew me still, though I had no name …
“I’m no one,” she says, putting the final stitch into the gash in the boy’s arm. This is the third village she’s seen plundered; the first with survivors, thanks to the old man now interrogating her as he holds the injured boy still for her needle. The old man she refuses to name, because she can’t allow this haggard, wasted figure to be the beloved Sukhbir of her memories.
“I don’t believe you,” says the man who can’t be – mustn’t be – Sukhbir. “I know a priestess when I see one.”
“Look at my hands, old man.” She holds them out, palms uppermost, bloodied as they are from her work. “You see any symbols of the Lady there?”
“The Lady has more than one way of marking her own – even the lad can see she’s in you.” He pats the boy. “The priestess has patched you up well. Now be off and get us some tea.” He smiles, the same gentle smile as ever, and she can no longer pretend.
It’s been twenty years since he escorted her to the monastery and she first saw men’s blood staining his kukri; thirteen since she last sat with him in the House of Healing, his body mended but his mind still broken with grief. She’s changed beyond recognition in that time, especially as life has not been kind to her since she walked away from the Lady – three years of taking any job that offered, staying nowhere long, forever trying to escape herself. And though the child he knew might yearn to be held by him, the woman she’s become is too ashamed, too full of self-loathing, to reveal who she is. Better that he believes her long dead.
So she turns from him and washes her hands clean of blood. Then from her pack she takes out pen, ink and the precious sheets of reed paper she bought after finding the first burnt village. “Describe the men who did this and tell me everything that happened.”
“What for?” he asks.
The villagers are eager to talk about the raid, and she quickly has lists of the dead and injured, and of everything stolen or destroyed, even some descriptions of the bandits. What she doesn’t have is any idea how Sukhbir killed six men, all at different parts of the village, and put another dozen or so to flight. Most villagers saw nothing, having obeyed his instructions to remain inside the temple, and the few who disobeyed and survived are confused and confusing, while Sukhbir’s own statement is vague to the point of absurdity, his memory determinedly hazy.
Then the boy with the gashed arm brings her more tea, checks no one is near, and whispers “It was guard magic, wasn’t it?” There’s a strange pleading note in his voice. When she looks blank, he crouches beside her. “Old One-Eye’s been working with me since he arrived last month, and he told me stories about when he was a guard for the priestesses. I’ve heard it said the Lady gives her guards magic, so I asked One-Eye and he said she did, and they practised it in great secrecy. Everyone laughed when I told them, but it’s true, isn’t it? You’re a priestess, you must know. And I did see him do it.”
With time and gentle questioning she pieces together the full story. Sukhbir by a wall, kukri unsheathed, hidden from all but the boy who watches everything from a roof. Sukhbir vanishes. There’s a terrible cry like a demon howling, and a bandit falls dead, his throat cut. The other bandits spin round but there’s no assailant there, and Sukhbir is back at the wall. Six times he disappears and reappears; six times a demon howls and a bandit dies. The bandits’ leader, a big, thick-set man, shouts and curses and hits his men. The bandits themselves are first puzzled, then terrified. Two panic, mount their horses and bolt. The rest follow.
“Magic,” the boy whispers.
The Lady’s transport-magic. “But it’s a secret,” she says. “Tell no one.”
The boy beams and stands a little taller as he walks away. For herself, she’s more unsettled than ever – it surely isn’t coincidence Sukhbir is here, but she can’t allow herself to consider what it means. Since she’s done all she can for the villagers, it’s time to go and leave him behind.
She gathers the sheets of evidence – no statement from the boy; that wouldn’t help – and returns everything to her pack. As she stands, Sukhbir is at her side.
“What now?” he asks.
“Now I get justice for the dead.”
“What now?” Sukhbir asks again, gently.
She doesn’t know. She walks down into the stone yard of the town’s hiti water fountain, drinks, then slumps onto its steps. She thought someone in this high-town would act on her evidence, but she suspects that without Sukhbir no one would even have agreed to see her. She’d tried to insist he stay in the village, using the excuse that he’s clearly ill – if his gaunt features weren’t evidence enough, two harsh coughing fits proved it. But she’s glad, now, that he came. Riding with him – the village gave them two of the bandits’ horses – rekindled warm memories, bringing comfort, and his presence here has brought respect. For he’s wearing the dragon-scale gorget of a monastery guard, and though each official she met wrinkled his nose at her shabby appearance, each one spoke courteously and made repeated surreptitious efforts to see her palms.
But each one also brushed her off with sham apologies and ornamented excuses about jurisdiction and responsibility, or lack of money or men, or the impossibility of finding a few brigands in the hilly borderlands, while nonetheless directing her to someone else whose job it should be to hunt down such brigands. She’s seen endless assistants and deputies and deputy assistants for the town’s custodian and guardian and both important personages themselves. She even confronted the tax collector’s officers, pointing out that dead villagers pay no taxes, but was met with the same dishonest platitudes and inaction.
Someone must bring the bandits to justice, but if these officials won’t act, what can she do? Who else is there?
Sukhbir is drinking at the fountain. For a moment she reflects on him and his kukri …
No. She’s failed here, but the provincial capital must contain someone with both power and a sense of duty. But will he act on the little information she possesses?
She needs to gather more material on the bandits and their crimes. More facts. More evidence.
Her notes of evidence slide from her lap as she watches Sukhbir. She usually keeps herself busy as he undertakes his daily pattern of guard exercises, but today the pull of memory is too strong.
On that first long-ago journey to the monastery she was captivated by the strange, slow dance that he and Lal undertook each morning, and to Lal’s abiding amusement she was soon standing alongside them, copying their movements, her bamboo flute wielded in lieu of their kukris. She can still feel the fierce concentration she brought to it, the sheer joy it gave. Only much later did she make the connection with Sukhbir’s graceful, effortless killing of the demon-husbands. She was never able to watch the guards exercise again.
Sukhbir’s movements are still graceful, effortless, but the difference between the sturdy guard of her memories and the ailing figure before her is too much to bear and she has to look away.
She recovers her notes and once again considers the map she extracted from the officials. In the months she and Sukhbir have been riding together, they’ve found the charred remains of four more villages, one small township and two companies of travelling merchants. The map shows the destroyed settlements straddle the border, under the jurisdiction of several different authorities. But she can’t determine if the bandits are moving from place to place, like a caravan of death, or they’ve made themselves a base and are selecting targets carefully.
The sound of coughing interrupts her thoughts – Sukhbir is bent near-double from another attack. He won’t let her help him when this happens, but he can’t prevent her scolding: “This is insane. We have to get you to a town for proper care.”
“No,” he manages when he can finally speak. “I told you.”
“But it’s getting worse.”
“No matter. Better for me to die out here, doing something, than rotting away in some hospitium. And it’s not ready to kill me yet.”
Not yet. But finally, after their months together, she’s been trying to summon up the courage to reveal to him who she is, and if she doesn’t do it soon, it will be too late.
They’re too late. Smoke still billows from the burning village as they peer over the lip of the ridge, but the echoing screams that drew them here ended when they were still far away among the winding, bewildering, paths through the hills.
Bodies lie everywhere, and the only movement comes from six men dividing up the spoils of their raid and loading their horses.
“I recognise them from before,” Sukhbir whispers. “But where are the others?” The answer comes with the sound of hoofbeats. “I recognise most of them, too,” he adds as a dozen men ride into the village.
The leader is big, thick-set, and there’s no shock, no jolt of revelation as she recognises Aprakash, only a sense that it was inevitable, her karma now irrevocably entwined with his in the eternal war between good and evil.
The riders surround the six men, who shift uneasily. Aprakash dismounts and approaches one of them. They’re too far away for her to hear what’s said, but his anger can be easily read.
“Thieves falling out,” says Sukhbir. “Looks like they’ve disobeyed orders by raiding here. There’ll be killing soon.”
And with one sharp movement Aprakash pulls a knife and thrusts it into the other man’s belly. For a moment it seems more deaths will follow, but then Aprakash snarls an order and remounts. The riders seize the laden horses, and they all ride away, the five abandoned men hurling shouts and curses after them.
“That makes things easier,” says Sukhbir. “But we’ll wait for nightfall, make it easier still.”
She nearly asks Makes what easier? before understanding comes. She swallows hard, then slips down the ridge to their tethered horses. If judgement is to be passed on these men, she must first assemble the evidence against them.
“Go back with the horses,” Sukhbir whispers.
She wants to. Oh, how she wants to. But she’s judged them, and a judge must face the consequences of her rulings, so she stays at the ridge. She tries to watch Sukhbir as he snakes his way down, but he’s quickly hidden in the darkness, so she watches the bandits instead – three sleep by the embers of a bonfire, two pass a jug back and forth. One gets up and is soon lost to the night; the other continues drinking.
Aeons seem to have passed since Sukhbir left her, and she begins to fear the illness has taken him. Then there’s a glint of metal and the drinking man topples over. Sukhbir steals forward; the kukri flashes again.
A whinny comes from the horses. She hurriedly slides down to quieten them, but someone’s there. The fifth man.
“I knew I saw someone up here,” he says, knife already thrusting forward.
But Sukhbir’s there, standing before her, so the knife tears into him as he swings his kukri through the man’s throat. Blood spurts, the man falls. Sukhbir staggers, then vanishes.
For several shocked moments she can’t move, then she stumbles back up the ridge and down the slope to the village, where Sukhbir has collapsed to his knees by the four dead men. He’s covered in blood. Blood, blood everywhere.
She throws her arms around him, tears coursing down her face. “Don’t die, I need you.”
“Hush, little one. This is the end I always wanted, saving my priestess. And I told you when you needed me, really needed me, I’d be there.”
She bundles his coat against the gaping wound and presses hard against it, though she knows she can’t stem the bleeding. “I still need you.”
“Not any more.”
Then she realises what he said, what it means. Her voice breaks. “You knew it was me. How?”
He touches her cheek. “I’d have recognised you no matter what – the child I cared for is still there, just hidden behind a mask of age and sorrow, like the mask hiding the Lady’s true face. But I saw you, the night of your accepting. The Lady carried me to the monastery, and I was there with Lal, waiting. I saw you leave with the abbess.”
She buries her face in his shoulder. “I so wanted you to be proud of me, Sukhbir.”
“I am proud of you, little one. I’ve always been proud of you.”
“But I rejected the Lady.”
“She called you too soon; you weren’t ready.” His voice is harsh with pain, his strength failing, but somehow he manages to raise his kukri. “You’re ready now. Take it. A priestess of the Lady of Justice needs a good blade.”
“I can’t …”
“You can. If you don’t bring justice, who will?”
Tears still falling, she looks at Sukhbir, at the kukri, and takes a deep breath.