Kansal’s Ambition (24.3)


12th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 1995 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — Dobo Broadlands, Village of Garani

12 Years Before The Ayvartan Revolution

35 Years Before The Solstice War

Daksha woke with the sun creeping in through several tiny holes in the wall of their shack, but her mother had beaten her to the day once again. All trace of her was gone from the room.

Looking around drowsily, the teenager stretched her arms and hit the wall on her side. She grumbled a little. She was bigger now — mother and daughter now barely fit side-by-side on the mattress. Their new furniture was a big, sturdy frame bed raised off the floor. Someone dear to the Kaushiks donated it, and they painstakingly assembled it in their little bedroom.

One side effect of the bed, or perhaps the growing load of work around their corner of Agora, was that no matter how early Daksha woke she always found her mother gone to the fields.

She stepped off the bed, and pulled off the sack-like gown she wore to sleep. From a clothes chest she produced a plain shirt, a pair of overalls, and a sari. They were her mother’s clothes but there was not much distinction anymore. Daksha was a bit taller than her now.

Marching a few drowsy paces from the bed Daksha yawned before the pantry and served herself a piece of bread from a half-cut loaf on a shelf, sitting next to the knife used to cut it. There was already a boiled egg floating in a pot on the stove. Daksha peeled it, and put the whole of it in her mouth, chewing quickly. A metal pitcher sat on the table. When she inspected it, Daksha was mortified to find fresh milk in it. Yanna had done her chores.

She sighed a little. Mother should not have done that. Daksha could have taken care of it.

After breakfast, she picked up her encyclopedia, a thicker version of her old textbook meant for a more matured pupil, with smaller text, fewer pictures, and a greater breadth of subjects.

She hugged it to her chest — that much didn’t change — and left the house behind.

On the way out she clipped a machete to her belt. Just in case. That much had changed.

Outside she found her mother seated beside their two Brahmin and the new calf, brushing the animals and singing to them. Her voice was a little rough. Daksha found it a little grating.

“Mother, taking care of the cows is my job and I can do it.” Daksha protested.

“Not so much as a good morning?” Yanna replied, smiling at her daughter. “I couldn’t sleep, so I took care of it. You should be running along — make the most of your school day!”

“I can’t make the most of it if I’m worried about you collapsing in the afternoon.”

“Hmph, you think because you’re big now that you can underestimate me? Go Daksha. I did this much work every day before you were born, while you were in the womb, and after.”

Daksha sighed, shook her head and got going as instructed. There was no use debating with her. Back when she did all that work there was not as much work to do! Now they had more acreage and the landlord demanded more crop. She shouldn’t push herself that much.

But she had it in her head that it was not the lentils, but Daksha’s sessions with Ms. Ulyanova, that would push them forward. Teenage Daksha felt strangely resentful about this. She loved Ms. Ulyanova and her lessons, she loved spending the day in Garani with her. However she did not enjoy the interest that her mother had gotten in them, and how pushy she had become.

These thoughts would dissipate completely as she got going down that long road to Garani. As soon as the ankle-high sprouts of the lentils disappeared behind her and she passed the small eggplants and the soybeans and the tiny stalks of wheat her enthusiasm grew palpable.

A few more wooden buildings had popped up in Garani over the years, both on the outskirts of the town. The Imperial Authority had blessed the village with a postal office, making the freelance horse couriers of the village an official outfit, along with an outpost with two sleepy young guardsmen that had just barely made it out of cadet rank. Ostensibly they were there to guard against “banditry,” a disease that had recently metastasized in the countryside.

In reality everything had been set up for the convenience of Von Volker, who had erected a countryside manor several kilometers off Garani and moved to Agora to personally supervise his vast, and growing, parcels of farmland. Agora was practically his vegetable factory.

Lena’s cabin had not changed and neither had Lena — in the morning she sat outside under her tree, nibbling on some fruit and cheese and reading a book or a newspaper, courtesy of the new post office. Daksha, arms crossed over her encyclopedia, gave a shy smile as she approached.

“Good morning Shacha!” Lena said, raising her arm and waving from the little hill.

She set down her plate and paper and stood, spreading her arms to greet her pupil.  Daksha eagerly dove into the woman’s embrace. That little girl Lena had met years before was getting lanky now though — she was more than a head taller than Ms. Ulyanova. It was harder to sink into her and feel protected and cared for, but Daksha took warmly to her nonetheless.

Together they sat down under the tree. Lena offered her food but Daksha shook her head.

“What were you reading about?” Daksha asked, glancing at the paper Lena dropped.

“Trying to keep abreast about developments in my country.” Lena said.

“Are your people fighting?” Daksha asked. She knew Lena had been exiled in part because she criticized or resisted the Lubon Colonial Authority. She didn’t know all of the details, but she had gathered enough over the years to know that Calanchi was not very stable these days.

“Not among themselves. My people are struggling for their freedom.” Lena said gently.

Daksha looked at the village around them. My people, she had said; those in Calanchi.

“Theirs is what you call a class struggle, right?” Daksha said. These things were not exactly part of the curriculum, but as an interest of Lena’s they partially became an interest of Daksha’s as well. Piece by piece, across conversations, whenever Daksha could wheedle something out of the exile, there were certain ideas that recurred and the growing child picked up.

A battle for freedom from the rich men like Volker. This idea appealed to the girl.

“Indeed.” Lena said. She looked down at her hands. She seemed reluctant to say more.

“I wish them well. I think if you embrace it then theirs must be a very noble goal.”

Lena reached out a hand to Daksha’s shoulder. “We’ve both done much to help them.”

Daksha jumped a little. “I don’t understand! What have I done to help your people?”

“You’ve done my errands! I have done the best I could from my exile and house arrest to help my people’s fight, and you in turn have helped me. Someday you’ll be in their books.”

“Really?” Daksha’s face flushed, and she felt very awkward suddenly. She had butterflies in her stomach and perhaps dancing around in her skull too. Her name in history books?

Smiling, the exile took Daksha’s book and spread it open to the page they had left off on.

“Lessons time, little Shacha. We’ll tackle history; prove yourself witty enough, and I will poison your head with the notion of socialist struggle.” She winked at her with a wry smile.


* * *

Around noon, after a discussion of the 1st Knight’s War between Imperial Ayvarta and Lubon, and the resulting Ayvartan victory achieved by dragging Lubon’s forces across the red desert and then destroying them at their weakest, Lena called for a break, and handed Daksha a little paper envelope. She instructed her to walk to the shop and hand it to the owner.

Head held up high, Daksha dutifully went about her task. She marched with great energy up the street and proudly handed the shop owner the envelope. He checked it; afterwards she was handed a somewhat heavy covered package and took this back to the log cabin.

There she found an abominable horned creature picking its beak through the grass for bugs, tied up to a black phaeton with gilded bars. Daksha gripped the box and grit her teeth.

She walked past the fiend and ignored Haji’s exuberant waving from atop the thing.

She found Von Volker, insinuating himself beside Lena under the tree. He sat with his legs crossed, hat on his lap, cane propped up beside him. Lena had a neutral expression.

“Ah, it’s the little girl, good day, my dear.” Von Volker said. His Ayvartan had improved.

He was sitting on Daksha’s encyclopedia and either contrived it or did not seem to care.

“I must say it is a commendable act of charity on your part, Ms. Ulyanova, to teach this girl. Such a child has an opportunity of a lifetime in being so touched by you.” Von Volker said.

“She is my star pupil.” Lena said curtly, averting her eyes from the man.

Daksha stood, hiding her mouth behind the box and feeling like she wanted to kick Volker’s teeth out. Nothing in the world made her more irate than the man’s smug expression.

“Admirable that you are making reparations in this new land. It must get awful lonely.” Von Volker said. He crept his hand over her own, having no sense at all of her body language or perhaps just not respecting it if he did. He continued to talk while Lena stared away.

Daksha glanced at her own hip; she could take her machete and slice off Volker’s arms right now. Lena would be covered in blood but it didn’t matter as long as Volker was dead–

“Say, I have been pondering a solution, if you desire it; I could put in a good word for you with the Imperial Authority, and lobby for your freedom. I would love to have you at a party, my dear, and I can attest to the guard that this dreadful house arrest is no longer necessary.”

Parties? Daksha grumbled a little. This degenerate threw parties out here while they all toiled over vegetables? Who in the transient hell of the spirit-soul did he invite to them? Bloody thoughts were giving her a headache. She was nearly in tears with this surge of violence.

“You needn’t go out of your way.” Lena said, again curtly. She didn’t make eye contact.

“I insist!” Von Volker said. “This place ill suits a woman like you my dear.”

“Ain’t she the one who decides that, gryzun? Looks to me like she ain’t interested.”

Daksha and Von Volker both turned to face the grass, where a small man had crept up on all of them. Lena seemed the only one unsurprised by his appearance. Daksha knew him well, but she had not expected him, and she thanked the spirits for his arrival. He had puffy white hair and a very thick beard and blocky shoulders. He was a head shorter than Lena and two shorter than Daksha, and his face looked quite weathered, but he was very well built. He had a greatcoat on despite the weather and long brown pants, very indistinctly dressed. His Ayvartan was rougher than Lena’s in accent but all his sentences were appropriately spoken.

“Have you know, I’ve got an appointment with the lady, gryzun.” He said. He glanced at Daksha and smiled. Daksha smiled back, lowering the box from her face. “Both the ladies.”

Reluctantly, Von Volker stood up from the tree and Daksha’s book, picking up his cane and hat. He bowed to Lena, who tipped her head without making eye contact, perpetually disinterested. His self-satisfied smile settled into a blank expression, betraying none of the personal offense he more than likely felt. He did not bid any goodbyes to Daksha or to Colonel Grabin.

Off went the beast and the phaeton behind it, kicking up shot of dirt that managed to strike Daksha in her long hair. She shook her mane, grumbling loudly as the steed retreated.

“One day I will wrestle that beast.” Colonel Grabin said, watching the monster as it went.

Lena sighed deeply as if she had been holding in the breath all along. She smiled to Daksha.

“I’m very sorry about that incident Shacha. Von Volker is terribly persistent, and I have to seem an idle noblewoman as much as possible to outsiders like him.” Lena explained.

Daksha smiled. It felt good to hear that; it implied Lena was more authentic with her. She set down the box, and then found Colonel Grabin in front of her with his arms out.

“C’mere girl, lift up your old uncle Grabin in those wiry arms of yours! I wanna fly!”

Giggling a little because of his size compared to hers, Daksha knelt, hugged Grabin and then stood up, holding him in her arms. He was lighter than she expected. He waved his arms and stuck out his legs as though he were really flying, and he laughed heartily in her embrace.

“You’ve gotten big, my girl! All that work on the farm is making you tough!”

She set him gently down, wondering if she really was that much bigger than before.

Before they separated, he pulled the machete from its loop on her hip and looked it over with a big beaming smile on his face. It was a weapon designed for Ayvartans, so the handle and blade seemed a visibly oversized in the old Colonel’s grip. He swung it a little, getting a feel for it.

“Been practicing your strokes lately?” Grabin asked. “The ones I taught you?”

“Mostly on bushes that creep into the property, but yes.” Daksha replied.

“Good!” He said. He returned the machete to her, and she tied it to the side of her overalls again. “These tools are revolutionary, Trainee Kaushik. They will serve you well.”

Daksha laughed awkwardly. She could not tell whether Colonel Grabin was being too serious or a living parody of himself sometimes. Nonetheless she liked him well enough. He showed up periodically to speak with Lena, and while she fixed snacks or lunch for everyone he would show Daksha his revolver, or teach her how to swing a sword, or throw a proper punch.

She never asked of what he was a Colonel of; she figured that was him and Lena’s business.

Lena watched them, quiet and smiling. She pulled the box closer to her and opened it.

“Daksha, come to me now, I’ve got a gift for you. I’m sure that you will enjoy it.”

Inside the box there were several items. But Lena gave to Daksha something soft and firm, wrapped in paper. When Daksha opened it, there was a large piece of meat. She nearly gasped. Whatever cut it was, it surely must have been expensive. Her family did not eat chickens or beef — their cows and birds were too precious for farmers and held to be sacred. Meat also tended to be prohibitively expensive; they had hog jerky a few times a year, on Daksha’s birthday.

“It is pork belly; I had it brought in from Dori Dobo. For you and your mother.” Lena said.

Daksha nodded energetically, and she bowed to her waist. “Thank you so much!”

As she bowed she glanced inside the box. She caught the glint of several steel pistols.

She made a mental note not to ask about it or acknowledge it. It was Lena’s business.

Satisfied with the gift, Daksha wrapped it up again and made to sit down beside Lena.

Lena reached out her hand and gently pressed against Daksha’s stomach, stopping her.

“Shacha, the Colonel and I will be discussing some things, so I will have to cut your lesson short for today.” She said amicably. “However, that does not mean that you have to leave.”

“Is that right?” Daksha replied. “Well, I don’t want to get in your way. I should go.”

“You are not ever in my way, Shacha.” Lena said. “I’d like you to stay and listen, actually.”

Colonel Grabin nodded. “It’s nothing bloody, just politics. I think you’d be interested.”

Shacha nodded her head. She felt a surge of energy as though she was ready to spring into the air. She tried to hide her excitement. Ms. Ulyanova wanted her to stay and have an adult chat!

She quickly took her place beside her, and Colonel Grabin sat with his legs crossed about a meter away on the grass. They started talking, about soviets, about bolsheviks and mensheviks, about the Lubon Colonial Authority, about fake passports and smuggling and border crossings, about organizing strikes and sabotage. Shacha could hardly keep up — but it was exhilarating. She asked no questions. She didn’t want to stop the conversation. She soaked everything in.

Hours passed under the tree and the little seed of revolution in Daksha’s heart grasped water.


* * *

On the way back home it started to rain. There were no clouds and it was only a dismal drizzle at first, its pace noticeable only by tiny dark brown marks left by drops of water on the dirt. Daksha stuffed the wrapped pork into her overalls and started running. In time the little drops grew thicker and faster and the wind began to blow. Clouds gathered overhead and blocked out the sun. Cold sheets of rain swept over her suddenly, and the roadside dirt turned to mud.

She rushed back home, embracing the bundle bulging under her overalls and bending forward so the water hit her back and trailed off her flank. Headlong she pushed around the corner.

Daksha found her mother soaking wet and toting an full bag of ground meal for the lentils.

“Mother! Get back inside!” Daksha shouted. She charged past her and took refuge under the tin awning stretching before the curtain that covered the threshold to their shack. Watching from the makeshift door, she grew increasingly irritated as her mother contained to spread meal over the muddy plots of lentils, doing nothing to shield or extricate herself from the rain.

“You’ll get sick!” Daksha shouted herself hoarse. “Mother, come in now! Right now!”

Her mother finally acknowledged her: she raised a hand behind her back and waved her index finger. Then she returned to fertilizing. Daksha was speechless. Did she want to die?

She stared, helpless and dumbfounded. She could have gone and dragged her mother back inside. But there was something about her casual demeanor out in the rain; she would have resented Daksha’s interference. For whatever reason she was resolute in this course.

Yanna stood under the rain for almost twenty minutes with Daksha in attendance, and who knows how long beforehand. When she finally returned to the shack, water dripped off her and her clothes in dozens of thin rivulets that muddied the dirt floor. Daksha seized a towel from their linens chest and helped dry her– but her mother took the towel, smiled and did it herself. She partially undressed, drying her hair and her back, her breast, smiling all the while.

“How were your lessons, dear?” Yanna asked. She reached out to stroke Daksha’s cheek.

“They were interesting.” Daksha replied. She held her own hand over her mother’s.

“I am glad. Take every word Ms. Ulyanova says seriously, Daksha. She is a great lady.”

“I know. I do.” Daksha said. “Colonel Grabin was there again today too.”

“Good, good! Say, what is that under your clothes? You can’t have grown so much overnight.” Her mother chuckled. Daksha looked down at her chest, and she removed the wrapped pork from under her clothes. She peeled off the paper. Yanna clapped her hands sharply together. She stared admiringly — perhaps hungrily — at the cut in her daughter’s hands. They hadn’t even seen a piece of meat since the new year festival and that had been over 70 days ago.

“Ms. Ulyanova got it as a gift for us. It’s pork belly, she says.” Daksha explained.

“We can have meat for supper today!” Yanna said. She threw her hands up and around her daughter in celebration. “Everything is turning around for us, everything!”

Daksha blinked, puzzled. “I’m glad you’re happy, but it’s just a cut of meat.”

Yanna pulled back from her daughter and stroked her hair and stared into her eyes.

“Child, today, Mr. Volker came to visit. He promised me a wage in place of the untaxed crop. Under the Thakur we had so little, but with this we will get money, and we can get things from Garani and farther off now! He wants to slowly turn the Agora into an industrial farm.”

“That sounds good,” Daksha half-heartedly said. Just hearing the man’s name made her blood boil. She was instantly suspicious. Nothing good could come from Von Volker.

“You’ll be able to see Lena again three times a week like before. Your mother is going to work her hardest, child. You’ll have everything our families did not. You will go right to the gymnasium in Dori Dobo and have a good job.” Her mother started to weep. She pulled Daksha close again and kissed her in both cheeks. “You will not toil here forever, my child!”

Daksha couldn’t muster a response. She felt guilty and angry and elated and anxious in dizzying succession. She guessed this was the reason that her mother had been out in the rain. Hard work for a steady wage, a ray of hope in the tumultuous life of the rural folk.

“Thank you, mother,” was all that escaped her lips. Her mother embraced her again.


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