One last leaf.
She inspected it with ginger fingers. Her gaping eyes followed the stem as it branched out upon the plant. The stem looked like a tree in its own right; rotting, dying without a single leaf upon its branches. They’d all abandoned the festering, useless piece of wood.
Left it for the bugs to devour.
Prisha crushed the leaf. She sprinkled it into the pipe. The best ones were brittle and flakey like this one, as they lit right up. And when she took a deep draught—that first draught—it was sweet. It sent a rippling tide—the gentle sort, like from a stream—through her small frame. All the pain in her joints fell away like a boulder off a steep, endless cliff. Her heart’s thump disappeared.
She flew away from that city of muck.
From the thick smog she’d grown used to in that damned house.
From all the people that came with it.
Komali and that orchard visited her every now and again. When it didn’t pain Prisha to think about it—particularly when she was high—she recollected those mornings when her mother was in town, and Komali was all hers.
The orchard made a wonderful place for their imaginations to gallivant. Often on these mornings, a special pair of trees were the sisters’ castles—their formidable fortresses. Despite their father’s esteemed position in the army, Komali and she were always fascinated with the idea of war.
Their mother would hardly answer their questions about it, however. “Don’t,” was the common response to the loquacious girls.
Though, now that Prisha was a bit older, she acknowledged that Komali may’ve just been following her lead. The amount of times Komali would be sent running back into the house with—in her opinion, overdramatic—tears, were too many to count.
To this, their mother would shoot Prisha that look.
However, the following morning, the pair of them would be back at it.
“With the thickness of my castle’s walls, not a single army can even think about breaching them!” Prisha was propped up in her tree’s sturdy branches, straddling one as if it were a horse’s saddle. She also held a stick in her right hand as if it were a lance or sword, pointing it to the blue sky. “I am the great goddess of death! Prisha!”
Komali was still struggling to hoist herself onto her desired branch. “Prisha, I can’t get up.” She huffed out a great sigh of frustration. “Can you boost me?”
Prisha kept her chin high and pointed her lance at her sister. “The goddess of death helps no one, not even her supposed kin, of whom she is at war with.”
She huffed again, falling to her buttocks in defeat. She took a carnivorous chomp of a piece of fruit she’d picked on the way down. “Go on. Smite me.”
Prisha sighed this time, dropping the lance to her side. She watched her sister eat away at the piece of dripping, orange flesh.
“I’m worried about Father.”
“We’ve discussed this, Komali. Father very rarely gets into the line of fire, as he observes more often than he kills. But don’t get me wrong—”
“How do you know?”
“How do I know what?”
“How do you know that he doesn’t get in the line of fire? Didn’t he get shot with an arrow once?” Komali looked up at Prisha, wiping her face with a dirty sleeve.
Prisha laughed. “That was before he met Mother. He was little more than a foot soldier, then.” She inspected her lance, removing a piece of bark from the end. “I’m telling you, Komali, you don’t have to worry so much.”
The breeze filled the void. As did the rippling of leaves from those tree branches.
Prisha stared down at her sister who played in the dirt, drawing a picture with her finger. Then Prisha looked into the vast sky above and watched the clouds slowly drift. It was true that Prisha was also worried about her father. It had been a month since she’d seen him, and the worry on her mother’s face was greater than usual.
Had the war effort gone that awry?
She locked eyes with Komali.
“Come on, wake up.”
A taut gauntlet tugged at Prisha’s shirt, so hard that her head whiplashed. When it hit the wall behind her, she lurched forward, falling onto the thick wooden floor with a smack. She moaned at the avalanche of pain and struggled to align her senses.
The presumed guard rose to his feet, per Prisha’s muse. “Come on, you filthy drug-sack.” He drove a foot into her thigh. “In the street.”
She rose in a languid, erratic motion, having to use the surrounding, dusty shelves to support herself. It was her head that fueled the bleariness, but the weight of her body didn’t help either.
This was how it typically went after a daze. The day passed at the speed of a raindrop falling from a cloud, the high came down with the weight of a dozen cows, and her head pounded like a battering ram against a city gate. The only cure was another leaf.
That sweet flavor.
That gentle tide.
Prisha lumbered down the stairs, almost toppling forward, but maintained her balance enough to tumble into the street. She fell to her knees in the dirt, kicking up dust around her. And as that dust settled, her senses followed suit.
Around her were all the people from that dreaded house—the lumps of likewise disorientation, moaning or babbling incoherently.
Prisha had gotten used to this feeling and hadn’t been using the leaf long enough for her mind to fester. Part of her wished she had been. Part of her wanted to be nothing but a senile bag of bones, withering in the corner of some forgotten stead.
A clean slate.
“Everyone, on your feet!” The shout rang throughout that grimy street.
Prisha glanced to the source of it: a sergeant or captain or commander type. Underneath his pristine armor, the man had saggy jowls and a thin veneer of white stubble. On his head, no such veneer was present.
“Up, I said!” He clapped his gauntlets together. “We’ll see who here is fit.”
A guard yanked at Prisha’s underarm.
She quickly stole it back. “I can stand. I have legs, you shit.” Prisha hardly believed her own words, but she lumbered to her feet regardless. And when her focus shifted from the stance below her to the sight in front of her, she gasped.
That commander stood just before her, a glare poisoning his face. “A feisty one.”
Prisha scoffed. And upon seeing that insignia on the old bastard’s cuirass, the burden of the comedown was usurped by rage. “What do you want, oaf?” She bit down on her teeth, summoning a glare of her own. “Haven’t you plundered enough?”
“What’s the matter with you, girl?” He crossed his arms. He took a step forward. He was inches from her face. “Why do military affairs concern you? You’d be in a crack house regardless of who occupied this city.”
Prisha made fists at her sides. She curled her toes in the dirt. The girl spit in the commander’s face.
As he wiped it away with the back of one gauntlet, he unsheathed a longsword with the other. “The bitch wants it her way!” He gestured to one of the surrounding guards. “Arm her up.”
Time moved faster than when she was high, and Prisha had a blade in her hands before she could say a word—before she could process what was happening. It felt heavy. Much too heavy.
“If you’re so confident,” said the commander, distancing himself from Prisha, “then what’s a little duel, peasant?”
He turned to Prisha, raised his sword, and allowed the sun to lick the steel with its glisten.
“Komali, what is it?” She hopped down from the tree. And as soon as Prisha’s feet hit the ground, her sister’s face made a terrifying amount of sense.
“You feel it too, don’t you?” Komali said, almost whimpering as she stood.
It was percussive.
If clouds sat beneath the ground, then a storm was brewing under their toes. If the gods resided below dirt, then their anger came in the form of an earthquake. If layers of glass held the crust of the earth up, then they were shattering into a million fragments.
“Get in the house, Komali.” Prisha still held that stick. Only now, that once almighty lance felt like a flimsy twig. “Hide in the cellar. I’ll be right behind you.”
“You have to go, Komali. You have to be strong for us.” Prisha held the twig tightly. She wished, ever-so-desperately that it would turn into a real weapon. And she wished that what eclipsed the hill before her was not the enemy. “Dad,” she whispered to herself. “Please be you. Please be you.”
Komali had taken off in a desperate sprint toward the house.
Prisha listened to the soft steps of her sister disappear. And as the wind died, falling out of the air like a bird shot with an arrow, her ears were plagued with the sound of oncoming horses.
A stampede of death.
There was no way that her father’s army—or any friendly caravan—was passing through this way. It made no sense for a group of riders to come this way if they knew the land. And so her legs moved out of instinct.
Prisha dropped the stick to the ground, and began a climb up the tree she just played in. It was the same tree where she fantasized the idea of war. Romanticized the spilling of blood—the slaughtering of life. But never in these fantastical imaginations did she acknowledge the fear.
The fear that made her wrists shake.
The fear that closed her throat.
The fear that forced a sob without tears.
Hopefully, the thickness of the leaves, elevation of the tree, and smallness of her frame would be enough. If it wasn’t…
Over the hill they came, ripping through the orchard like a great, roaring tide from the roughest of oceans. They veered between the trees, taking each narrow path as if it were a direct line to a pot of gold.
Prisha held onto the trunk of that tree tighter than she ever had her mother. She widened her eyes, shocked by the sensory overload of attackers roaring past. The girl prayed to the gods. She pleaded with every way to say, “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt Komali,” as she could.
And when that horrendous sound became distant, she staggered.
She fell out of the tree onto shaky legs.
And when she looked into the sky, lacing it was a looming strand of black smog, replacing the white clouds. Prisha ran toward the source:
That sword felt much lighter in Prisha’s hands, now, especially since the rage had taken over. The only techniques she knew were the ones she read about in books as a child or studied from her father’s training.
“You hit hard for a lady. For a peasant. For a brittle leaf.” The commander issued her strikes away with precise blocks. “Just look at—”
“You killed her!” She swung again, this time striking from below in an upward slash.
He couldn’t strafe away from the blade’s edge to complete a successful dodge. The commander came away with a dripping gash across his cheekbone.
Armor plates rustled around them, as a circle of guards had formed around the duel.
“Don’t intervene!” shouted the commander, lifting a hand away from his blade. “I want to deal with her. Myself.”
Prisha panted, her shoulders rising and falling vehemently.
“What are you talking about?”
She scoffed, though it almost came out like a growl. “Komali,” she murmured. “You burned her alive.”
He bit his lip.
“At the orchard. I remember your ugly face.”
“The general’s daughter?”
“That’s right, bastard!” She lunged, knocking his blade clean out of his hands with a ferocious swing. “And just remember, oaf…”
His eyes turned into white pits of fear. The man was defenseless.
“Leaves are best when they’re brittle.” Deep into his gut, just below the front plate of his cuirass, Prisha buried that fang with the force of a cavalryman’s lance.