The Archer at Dawn – Swati Teerdhala

Esha brushed aside the leaf as it tickled her cheek, notching an arrow in her bow. The rosewood tree she perched in shook gently in the breeze but held steady. In front of her lay the open road, bracketed by a row of trees. Esha pulled the string of her bow taut with slow precision, her eyes narrowing in focus as she aimed down the long road. Kunal had said he’d spotted the caravan about a mile away. It was too soon—they had crossed the Jansan border only a day ago—but she was taking every precaution. The last thing they needed was to let the caravan with Reha slide past their noses. A rustle came from the tree across from her, and Esha glanced up to catch a pair of amber eyes staring back at her. She made a face at Kunal, who was gesturing wildly. This wasn’t the first time Kunal had forgotten that she wasn’t a Blood Fort soldier, with their special signals. He paused and pointed down the road, motioning an “X” with his hands. “You can talk, Kunal. The caravan is far enough away that no one will hear us,” Esha said. “And your newfound dancing skill would probably draw more attention than our brief conversation.” Kunal gave an exaggerated sigh.

“I’ve been trying to motion that it’s not the caravan.” Esha slackened her bow and relaxed into a squat. “It’s not her.” The breeze tousled his hair. “How can you tell? Could you sense her?” she asked. Hidden in the jungle for the past week, Kunal had been able to experiment with the new shape-shifting powers in his blood. So far, he had discovered sharpened senses—keener eyesight, better hearing, a sense of the animals nearby—but his shifts were unpredictable. “No, it’s an open cart. A fruit seller,” he said. Kunal rubbed the spot between his eyebrows, pain that plagued him whenever he used his sharpened eyesight.

“Why he’s taking this road instead of the Great Road, I don’t know.” “Fruit? Mangoes?” Her eyes lit up. Esha scrambled down the tree and landed with a soft slap, the hardness of the ground below a reminder that they were back in Jansa, where the land thirsted. Kunal landed next to her, his presence warm at her back. This new closeness between them was still something she was getting accustomed to. Normally, her missions were alone. But she didn’t mind having him around. “Mangoes. I bet he has mangoes,” she said. Kunal only groaned.

“I think I’ll know you for years and still not understand this obsession of yours.” “We’ve been waiting for hours for some sign of the transport that might have Reha. My hands are cramped, my legs are aching, and I haven’t had real food, aside from these horrible rations you brought, since we left Mathur. You wouldn’t even let me steal anything in the last town,” she said, throwing in a pout that she knew would soften Kunal’s expression. It did, but it was accompanied by a raised eyebrow. He was catching on. Smart man. “We don’t want to draw the attention of soldiers, and you scampering out of someone’s bedroom with an armful of fruit would have certainly been something to remember. I’ll plant you a cursed mango tree so you can stop buying them at every stand,” he said. “Think about it.

Some hot food. A nice bed instead of these scaly trees.” Her words were soft, needling. “What about letting me sneak into an empty house at the next town? We won’t be hurting anyone.” “No. We’ll get by on rooftops.” He paused. “Though I can’t deny I would love a hot bath. Or even a hot spring for us would be wonderful.” A faint blush crept up Kunal’s skin.

“You’ve been thinking about us, soldier?” she said. Esha stepped a bit closer. His breath hitched, and she held back a laugh. “No need to look so horrified. You’ve already kissed me. I think a bit of flirting is allowed.” “It’s not that— It’s not about being allowed— I’m—” Esha held up a finger to Kunal’s lips. “I’m teasing,” she said. “But I do want those mangoes.” And with that she ran off, throwing a challenging look behind her.

Kunal had decided long ago that Esha might be the death of him, but he had never feared death. He shook his head at her even though she was long gone down the road. It had been almost a week since the skirmish at the ruins of the temple, and they’d heard only murmurs of the caravan the soldiers had mentioned. The one that could hold Reha, the lost princess. Enough to suggest its truth, but not enough for them to have found anything yet. And though he was sure Esha had been on longer missions with less success, he could tell she was getting antsy. There had been a hawk that had arrived with a note that she had quickly hidden away. He had meant to ask, once or twice, but each time they had a moment to themselves, other, more important things had come to mind. At the thought of those moments, he grinned. Kunal secured his pack before crouching and launching off down the road himself with inhuman speed.

Within seconds, he had caught up with Esha, laughing as he grabbed her by the waist. He held her steady as she careened forward, startled. Kunal hadn’t shown her this newfound ability yet—he’d discovered it only the day before when hunting for food. She slapped his arm as he righted her. “You could be seen by someone,” she whispered. He shrugged, a sudden nonchalance taking over. “I’d fly us both away.” “And if that person had eyes and saw you shifting into an eagle? Would you be okay with me killing him? Because you know that would be the only option.” “What is with you and murder as the first resort?” he said. “Well, apparently I have to be the sensible one right now, and I’m not particularly enjoying it.

” He crooked a finger under her chin, tilting it up so that he could brush his lips against hers. “I don’t like to be teased,” he said. “You’re going to have to get used to it.” A smart reply was on his lips when the earth wheezed farther down the path. Kunal and Esha broke apart as the fruit seller came around the bend. The man was startled by the presence of two strangers on the previously empty road, his askew turban nearly falling off. But within minutes, Esha had charmed him while purchasing a mango and Kunal had started to fix the creaky wheel on his caravan. Kunal bent lower, straining to lift the wheel out of its socket. “And why are you two on this path instead of the Great Road?” “I could ask you the same thing, emenda.” Esha smiled.

“Though I’m sure I can guess. Tariffs on the Great Road have increased. My brother and I heard as much in the last town.” Kunal choked back a cough. He’d had enough of surprise relations recently. They’d agreed earlier that their story would have to change in different situations. The old fruit seller would be more likely to help them as traveling, bumbling kids. Kunal didn’t know how Esha immediately read people with such clarity that she could shift her story at a moment’s notice. He envied her skill. “Yes, yes, those cursed tariffs.

My brother’s wife’s cousin didn’t have the money and is now paying double taxes for the season—it’s the vultures if they can’t comply.” “Vultures?” “The king’s newest method of execution.” There was an undercurrent of fear in the man’s words that Kunal recognized. He’d heard it before while traveling up Jansa. “As for us, we’ve lost our travel caravan at the last rest stop and have been trying to catch up. Have you seen it?” Esha took a deliberate bite of her mango, her tone light. The man shook his head but then paused. “There was a private, armored one I passed a day ago. Wealthy merchants, by the looks of it.” He glanced between them, and a crinkle appeared in his brow.

He’d probably realized that the two of them looked nothing alike. Kunal stood up, letting the wheel fall with a thud. “Fixed,” he said. The fruit seller blinked a few times before beaming. “Thank you, my son. I have been struggling with this cart for a day, and my back is aching.” The older man placed a hand over Kunal’s head in blessing, as Kunal pressed four fingers to his heart and bowed. “I hope you find your caravan.” Kunal nodded as Esha rushed to help the man back into his cart. They waved off the fruit seller, making sure he was safely down the road before turning to face each other.

“An armored caravan. It’s got to be the king’s royal caravan,” Esha said. “Agreed. It’s possible we’re not the only ones who know of this. It’ll be best to be on alert and devise a plan. We could trail the caravan, find them in the next town, and create a diversion—” “Already have a plan,” Esha said. She slung her bow across her chest and fixed her uttariya. From it, she drew a small pin, one of a Fort soldier, and presented it to Kunal. “I nicked it off Amir before I knocked him out.” Kunal shook his head, though he couldn’t help but smile.

“Lead the way.” It took Esha only a minute to realize the caravan wasn’t a caravan at all. She edged slightly to the right to get a better look. She recognized a military chariot when she saw one, having helped Harun design a few. This one was designed to transport important goods quickly, unlike the plodding tread of a caravan. Esha cursed under her breath. Her plan was useless now, if that was the case. But maybe the wheels . She bit her lip, shifting her head to squint at the two rows of soldiers that surrounded the chariot. It had come to a stop in a well-covered part of the nearby jungle, close enough to the path to escape, but surrounded by trees so no one could take them by surprise.

A few steps forward, and the first line of soldiers would be in her line of fire. Two shots, two soldiers down. Kunal shook his head at her, as if he could read her thoughts. He really was no fun. Esha decided to concede this one to him and changed the aim of her bow. Two soldiers down would make her happy, but it would alert the others to their presence. However, she might be able to create a distraction. She raised a hand in signal to Kunal, pointing at the wheels and then her eyes. He furrowed his brow, concentrating as he used his eyesight to narrow in on the wheels, a power of his that Esha was getting rather used to. Kunal’s brow relaxed, and he nodded at her, drawing a wheel in the air and pointing at the bottom two spokes.

She returned the nod, readjusting her bow and focusing in. It was . pleasant. Having a partner, someone to watch her back. A small part of her still wondered, worried, how much she could really trust a soldier who had turned. A bigger part of her realized how unfair that was. She focused, taking aim and drawing her bowstring taut. Esha let the arrow loose, her gaze unwavering as it sailed through the air and hit the bottom spoke. A sharp crack punctuated the air as the wheel broke off and the entire chariot pitched forward, landing heavily into the dirt. The commotion came from the driver and the foot soldiers, who reacted as most people might— with confusion and annoyance.

The Senaps reacted as she expected. Within seconds their bows were drawn, their swords at the ready. The chariot driver got down from his perch and waved at one of the Senaps, who came over to help inspect the wheel. Esha could make out only the faint notes of conversation, but from the way Kunal was cocking his ear he could understand what they were saying. Two of the Senaps, both wearing jeweled armbands, signaled at the others to move. “He’s assigning them off in twos to patrol the perimeter. Basic protocol—I don’t think they suspect anything,” Kunal whispered. “But they will, once they find the arrow,” she said. He nodded. “Once they find the arrow, they’ll lock down the surroundings and encircle the caravan.

Naria herself would find it difficult to get through that shield maneuver. Our best bet is to distract the two guards before that happens.” Esha turned to Kunal, pulling out the pin she had nicked off Amir. She undid the clasp and pinned it to the waist sash of Kunal. “It’ll have to be you,” she said. “Makes sense. I’m not sure these soldiers will be so kind happening upon a girl in the jungle.” He flashed her a wicked grin. “Oh? Because you were so kind?” She tilted her chin at him as he leaned in. “Kind might not be the right word.

” He leaned in for a kiss, and she let him get closer until the last second, when she pulled away, tapping a finger to his lips. “Mission first. Think of it as a reward,” she said before she tossed a wink at him and climbed down the tree.

.

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