(Quick note: This is connected to TWP, but I want it to also work as a stand alone story, so let me know if there are any gaps in information I forgot to fill.)
Ramyas in Spring
Gish put on her raincoat before leaving the university. The clear skies made it completely unnecessary but she didn’t want to encumber herself by carrying it.
“Gish Alac Sahari?”
Gish turned quickly, her hand on the latches of the scabbard covering her arm-blade. The man was a fellow medical student who she hadn’t spoken to before, she recognized him by his unusually short hair, but couldn’t think of his name. He fiddled with a loose string on the sleeve of his robe, which put his hand close to the clasps of his scabbard.
“Yes?” Gish took a step back and moved her hand away from the latches.
He opened his mouth but didn’t say anything.
“What do you want?” Gish said, shifting her weight to her far leg.
“You… you’re Ekana Masul, aren’t you?”
Gish felt the adrenaline in her system spike. ‘Fearsome Left-blade.’ That name had followed her for nearly seven years now.
“I don’t accept duels anymore.” Gish shifted her weight again, her right hand drifting to her left side.
“Oh… sorry to bother you then, I guess.” Gish watched him walk away. She let out a long breath and said a silent prayer of thanks to her family that things hadn’t turned ugly.
On her walk home she noticed a pair of Human men come up behind her. They were a bit more common here in the capital than in Bantsar, where she grew up, but were still an uncommon sight, although easy to spot with their beige or brown skin among the green-skinned crowd. The taller of the two only came up to Gish’s shoulder, and she was short for a Samyali. Gish wondered if they were businessmen or if they worked at the US embassy. She couldn’t tell from the few English words she recognized from when her younger brother Tanaal was teaching himself English.
Gish could smell the ramya flowers that grew in small hedges in front of the teashop, dividing the outdoor tables from the rest of the street. She always looked forward to passing that row of bushes this time of year. There had been a row of them that she passed every day back when she went to school in Bantsar. They only bloomed between the end of the dry season and the beginning of the monsoon season. She stopped and bent down to smell the ramyas. The blossoms were small with four purple petals, surrounded by oval-shaped leaves.
She continued to her apartment and up the three flights to get to her door. The building held about 20 small apartments. Gish’s was four small rooms connected by a short hallway and she assumed that everyone else’s had approximately the same layout. She put her bag down on the couch and went over to the shrine by the window. It was just a small table covered by some red cloth and portraits of her mother and brother. She straightened the cloth so the pattern matched up with the corners of the table and wiped some dust off the frame of Tanaal’s portrait with her sleeve.
There were potted maftu djool plants on either side of the table. The woody vines had a few clusters of little red horn-shaped flowers, but Gish could never get them to produce many flowers. She snapped off a dead jagged-edged leaf and checked the moisture in the soil. It seemed to be fine.
Gish retrieved a container of leftovers from the fridge and emptied it into a pan to reheat. The oil sizzled as she stirred the cold fried vegetables and meat. It didn’t take long for it to heat up. Gish pushed everything to the side of the pan with a large plastic spoon before tipping it into a bowl. While she was eating she got a call from her father, passing on the good news that her cousin, Beeja, had gotten engaged.
“That’s great, tell her congratulations from me.”
“Fine, same as always.”
She had visited her father fairly recently, on the few days she had off from school before her 29th birthday. She wished she could see him more often but the transit between the capital and Bantsar was such a hassle.
They talked about nothing much for a few more minutes until her father realized he had interrupted Gish’s dinner and said a hasty goodbye, promising to let her know when Beeja and Gizali set a date.
Gish finished eating in silence.
* * *
In class they were discussing proper amputation technique and how best to bandage the stump to prevent infection and facilitate regrowth. Diagrams of severed limbs and bandaging were projected onto a screen at the front of the room. In the afternoon they watched a recording of an amputation of a sword-arm. It had been too badly damaged in a duel to be saved. After they talked about how to care for the regrowing limb over the following half-year.
* * *
She stopped again on her way home to smell the ramyas. When she straightened up there was someone staring at her, smiling.
Not this again, Gish thought.
He had fairly long hair tied back, and wore fairly nice robes. That and the briefcase suggested he was some sort of businessman.
“Hi,” he said, still grinning.
“Hello,” Gish said, less enthusiastically.
“I’m Seren Rais Chadra, would you join me for a cup of tea?” He gestured to Rizwaan’s teashop on his left.
“No.” Gish started to walk past him.
“Can I walk with you?” he asked, keeping pace with her.
“Will you at least tell me your name, then?”
Gish turned and stared at him. He was more than a head taller than her, making it a bit uncomfortable for her neck. She took a step back. “Is that some kind of joke?”
He looked startled. “No, why would it be?”
“You expect me to believe you’d ask someone you know nothing about to tea?”
“Only in special cases.” He grinned again.
“Wait, that’s not fair, you haven’t even given me a chance.”
Gish stopped walking. “What do you want from me?”
“I’d settle with your name for starters.”
It occurred to Gish that he might be telling the truth. “I won’t tell you,” she said, although she had a faint smile this time.
“Alright, I’ll call you Ramya then.” He picked a bloom from one of the bushes and moved to put it behind Gish’s ear. She flinched, catching his hand and taking a step back. Neither moved for a moment.
“Nothing,” Gish said, taking the flower and tucking it behind her ear.
“Will you join me for tea, Ramya.”
“No, I have to get home. And no you can’t walk with me.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Stranger things have happened,” Gish said, walking away. Seren went into the teashop.
Once home, Gish took the purple flower from behind her ear and put it in a glass of water to keep fresh. After all these years it seemed strange for someone to approach her for some reason other than the fame of her blade. That was assuming that he really didn’t know who she was.
* * *
After dinner she decided to play some music. It didn’t take too long to locate her zitril in a box in her closet. It had been a birthday gift from her parents, and she still had no idea where they had found a right-handed zitril. She settled the instrument in her lap. To her the shape looked a bit like a shell from Earth that Tanaal had bought and treasured. She lightly ran her finger across the zitril and a sweet electronic note sang.
* * *
The route that Gish usually took tended to not have a lot of traffic; although there were a few people in the shops and restaurants. About halfway to the university a man stepped out of an alley in front of Gish, making her take a few steps back. He had a hairstyle that seemed to take some inspiration from Earth fashions, shorter on the sides and long in the back, and wore a short sleeveless robe over loose pants
“Yes,” Gish said, keeping her hand by her scabbard. “What do you want?”
“What do you think I want? I want a duel.”
“I don’t accept duels anymore.” Gish walked past him, keeping her distance.
“Don’t you walk away!” He grabbed at her arm, but she dodged his hand and took off running. “Coward!”
The street was deserted, no one would have heard his insult, but she kept her head down all the same.
She arrived at the university out of breath and sweating. She was quite a bit early for class, so she took the time to compose herself. She went to the bathroom and washed the sweat off her face.
* * *
She took a different route home, but one that still took her past the teashop and the ramya bushes, not wanting to miss their smell.
It was Seren.
“Were you waiting here for me?” Gish asked, a little disturbed by the thought.
“Yeah, better than leaving it to luck. Will you join me for tea today?”
“Come on, what’s the harm in a friendly cup of tea?”
“I have somewhere I need to be.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“Maybe,” Gish said reluctantly.
Gish continued home, considering alternate routes to and from school so that the man from this morning would have a harder time predicting where she would be. Once inside she watered the maftu djool plants. The ramya flower Seren had given her yesterday still hadn’t wilted yet.
After dinner, Gish went to the bathroom. She took off the scabbard and examined her blade, which was so dark a brown it was almost black. She was looking for scratches or imperfections. She ran a file over the chitin blade twice to smooth the edge, stopping three fingers-width above where the blade met the flesh of her arm. She took out a bottle of zinc solution and, using the brush on the inside of the lid, painted the solution onto the blade, paying special attention to the edges. Over the next through hours the zinc in the solution would be incorporated into the structure of the chitin, strengthening it. A weekly application was usually enough.
* * *
Gish took a more heavily trafficked route from the university the next day. The press of people slowed her down. This meant that she spent a little time walking next to a woman and her daughter, who looked about five or six. The little girl pointed out flowers and interesting window displays to her mother as though they would vanish and she might not see them if she didn’t look immediately. They turned a corner after about a street while Gish continued straight.
“Gish Alac Sahari!”
She winced. Every head turned toward the speaker. It was the man from yesterday, again in sleeveless robes.
“Fight me or be shown a coward,” he said as whispering people cleared the space between them. She couldn’t ignore an insult like that in front of this many people.
“You want to do this here?” Gish made sure to keep her voice steady and her expression neutral. She could hear the crowd whispering as they formed a ring around the pair, giving them enough space for the duel.
“Yes.” He took off his scabbard and handed it to someone who patted him on the shoulder.
“Could you hold these?” Gish asked someone nearby, holding out her scabbard and bag. She overheard someone else say, “That’s Ekana Masul? She’s so short.”
They faced each other. Gish forced herself to focus, panic was dangerous to herself as well as him. He made the first move, aiming for her sword-arm above the elbow. She sidestepped and deflected with the flat of her blade. She could tell he wasn’t used to fighting left-blades.
He struck at her leg, faster than before, although Gish was able to stop him cutting very deep, and answered by slashing at his sword-arm below the elbow. She moved back before he could strike at her left side. He struck at her sword-arm again, giving her a shallow cut before she could get away and she answered with another strike to his sword-arm. He took a few steps back, clutching at the wound below his right elbow.
“Mallanc!” he swore, before attacking again, but the pain and the injury were getting to him. Gish deflected his blade before elbowing him in the chest with her right arm and tucking a foot behind his knee, knocking him over backwards.
“Alright,” he spat. “I yield.”
“You should get him to a hospital before he loses more blood,” Gish said to one of the man’s friends. She took her scabbard and bag back and started to push through the crowd. They weren’t moving out of her way and she had to nudge a few people to get through. Blood was soaking into her sleeve and running down her leg; it wouldn’t be hard to spot. She picked up her pace and tried to limit her limping.
Gish jumped. She had barely noticed the teashop as she approached.
“Not now, I have to get home.” Her voice was shaking a bit, and she didn’t want to slow down.
“Hey!” shouted someone behind her and she started running.
“My apartment is only a street away,” Seren said, keeping pace with her.
Gish was about to say no when she thought about it. Her own apartment was four streets away, and with her injured leg whoever was behind her (and it looked like there was more than one person) would catch up before she got home.
“Ok,” Gish said and Seren took the lead.
She managed to keep pace with him as they ran to the apartment building but the single flight of stairs was painful. Gish wondered if this was the right decision as she heard the door to Seren’s apartment close behind her. But if he didn’t know who she was, why was he helping her?
“It’s not important,” Gish said, her voice still unsteady. “Do you have any medical supplies? Bandages?”
“Yeah, in the bathroom.” Seren showed her to the bathroom and got the box of bandages out of a cabinet. “Here, let me help you.”
“I’m a medical student I can handle it,” Gish said, taking the box from him.
“Oh… I didn’t know that.”
Gish closed the door after him and examined her wounds. They were shallow enough to not require sutures. She cleaned them and started bandaging. The cut on her leg probably wouldn’t leave much of a scar, but the cut on her arm certainly would, although it would be hardly noticeable among the rest. It didn’t seem worth trying to wash the bloodstains out of her robes as the long slash through the sleeve seemed unrepairable, although she was glad that her red belt embroidered with maftu djool flowers wasn’t damaged or stained.
She wondered if the people who were following here were still waiting outside. There would have to be a back entrance but someone might be watching that too, or might spot her on her way home.
She left the bathroom to find Seren in the next room.
“I’ve made up the guest bed,” Seren said. “You can stay the night.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you’re a medical student. I know you like the smell of ramyas. I know you’re beautiful. I know someone tried to hurt you today and I know I couldn’t live with myself if I let you go out and get hurt again.” He put his hand on her cheek. She didn’t move away.
“It’s not like everyone’s going to give up tomorrow.”
“’Everyone?’ How many people want to hurt you?”
Gish took a step back. “There’s a reason I didn’t tell you my name.”
“Gish Alac Sahari.”
Seren just stared at her, looking confused. “You are Ekana Masul?” Gish examined his expression and tone. His surprise seemed genuine.
“You’re not at all what I expected, I’m surprised anyone recognizes you.”
“You imagined me taller?”
“More than that. From what I heard of Ekana Masul I expected her to be monstrous and violent, certainly not someone who stops to smell flowers. I think the name I gave you fits much better.”
Gish gave him a weak smile.
“How did you defeat Lare szwe szwe?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Please? I’ve heard so many stories.”
“I heard he killed one of your family and you tracked him down and killed him for revenge.”
“He killed my mother and little brother. Broke into the house and killed them. I came home, found them dead,”
Tanaal was lying on the stairs with a gaping wound under his ribcage, his blood soaked into the stair carpet, her mother’s head was on the sitting room floor, a look of surprise on her face, still connected to her neck by a strip of flesh.
“And he attacked me. I didn’t track him down, it was self-defense. I got in a lucky blow, hit an artery. I barely even remember the fight.”
“Why was he there?”
“I don’t know, no one does. The man was insane, he was disowned by both sides of his family, there was something deeply wrong with him.” And it seemed by gaining his glory he got his revenge every day she watched her back.
Seren hugged her. His scabbard pressed against her back, but she didn’t move away.
“I’ll make some tea,” Seren said.