An Unromantic Love Letter
It is morning when I hear the news I have been dreading for nine years. I’m eating upma, my mouth and heart functioning properly when my father trips them both with a single question.
“Did you know Jatin is coming back home today?” He glances up from the mounds of reports that fan out in circular stacks like a topographical map of the northern rice fields. Refusing to choke, my mouth revolts, and I eject the porridge instead of breathing it in.
My sister, Prisha, drops her spoon into her bowl and it clangs. “Ew.”
Mother’s face tilts in disgust. “Adraa.”
I place a hand over my mouth to create a barrier so nothing else can escape as I cough. It feels like various organs have arisen in a coup. My heart, the leader, lurches, trying to make a break for it or at least to rip off the surrounding ropes of my arteries.
My father’s eyes seize mine as they hum with insinuation. “I’m guessing that’s a no.”
Nine words, one for each year I had not seen him; that’s all it takes to wash away my peace. After all this time, Jatin is coming home.
The sun has decided it’s going to play peekaboo with the clouds, so in cyclical intervals the dining room glistens with warmth and then dampens into gray hues. Of course, it would be during a piercing blaze that the consistency of my life breaks apart. My mind tries to pick up each individual word my father uttered, but drops them like a clumsy toddler.
“Today? As in like a few hours from now?” I cough.
“Yes, that is what today means.” Father sets aside a large report without looking at me.
“Maharaja Naupure didn’t tell you last time you visited?” Mother asks, clearly satisfied I won’t ruin the finely embroidered tablecloth.
“No,” I say. “I mean, he might have . . .” Since that first night years ago, Maharaja Naupure and I have developed a friendly relationship, beyond the role of future father- and daughter-in-law. It is upheld by my monthly deliveries of firelight, which we both use as an excuse to discuss everything--politics, economics, a special project I’m working on--anything besides his son. Sometimes he slips up and I then pretend my brain has slipped up. But I couldn’t have truly skimmed over this news, right? I’d be impressed with myself if anxiety wasn’t drowning out all other emotions. Ignoring the idea of Jatin and being his wife is a second job.
“Oh, Adraa,” Mother sighs.
“What? I haven’t been summoned or anything and I’m not scheduled to send my firelight today, so . . . so I’m not going.” I wrap my voice in confidence so maybe they won’t push me. An unpleasant shiver runs down my spine. Going to the palace, being part of a welcome home parade I’m sure all of Naupure will attend, seeing the boy who would one day be my husband. My heart gags, one more tremor to note it isn’t done freaking out. After nine years of me being here, in Belwar, and Jatin a hundred miles away training at a fancy prep school in Agsa, the engagement was finally . . . real. Now only Mount Gandhak would separate us.
“That’s fine,” Father says.
Mother frowns. “Don’t you think she should at least make an appearance? After all, he’s coming through Belwar to show his support. Half the city will be there.”
Father looks up from his reports at last and shrugs. “If Maharaja Naupure did not summon her, I’ll leave this one up to Adraa.”
Mother grabs a slice of naan and rips it in half, her crooked nose flaring. When Father makes sense and advocates for freedom of choice, Mother really can’t argue. Victory soars through me.
“I think Adraa should go!” Prisha exclaims, head buried in her spell book. But I can spot the smirk nestled in her tone. The little . . .
“We’ll leave this one up to Adraa,” Father reiterates, and a thick silence slides around us indicating the matter has been concluded. I look at my breakfast, able to breathe again. I wouldn’t have to face him today. And tonight I’ll craft better excuses. Though I’ve been running through all the good ones lately.
Father shuffles some more paperwork. “Did you also know he stopped an avalanche on his way home?”
This fact, unfortunately, I do know. “Yeah, a small avalanche. Whoop-de-do.” I spin my spoon into the upma, pushing the vegetables around, appetite officially lost. Prisha grins at her spell book. There is nothing amusing about the logistics of witchcraft, especially in fifteenth year. She just loves this, loves when I can be proved wrong, when I can be outdone in magic. And Jatin is always there to prove that.
“Stopping an avalanche of any size is impressive, Adraa. It saved half a village,” Mother interjects.
“I’m glad people are safe.” I relent. It’s just . . . did it have to be Mr. Arrogant, Jatin Naupure who did it?
“That boy is very proficient at snow spells--exceptionally so, in fact. I heard during his royal ceremony Dloc threw a blizzard at him and he took it down in seconds.”
White magic is his forte, Dad. Is he supposed to be bad at them? That’s like being impressed that, as a red forte, I can start fires. I almost remind my parents of the stable inferno I stopped last year, or even, dear Gods, what I do when I sneak out at night, but I hold my tongue. Because that needs to remain secret. And who was I to talk, really? I have never saved so many people. And I have yet to battle through my own royal ceremony and prove myself capable in all nine types of magic.
The next moment, Willona bursts into the dining room holding a bowl of mangoes and sets it on the table. Our oldest and dearest servant runs her hands over her apron and I just know she is contemplating something. Why does she look so . . .
Oh no! Wide-eyed, I pivot fully in her direction and wave my hands, but it’s too late, the words are already spewing out of her. “What did his letter say, Lady Belwar? I know everyone in the kitchen has been dying to hear.”
I cover my face. That is--I mean was--supposed to be our secret. Do I need to start bribing the palace staff? But even that might not work. I cannot trust anyone when it comes to Jatin. Our engagement is common knowledge, too public in the palace to try to rein in the rumors.
Mother sits up straighter. She is such a sucker for romance. Except, she has no clue what lies between Jatin and me is not romance. It’s fierce competition. And it can only end in disaster.
“He sent you something again?”
“Um, no,” I lie.
Prisha smiles from across the table, daring me to lie again. How can someone who looks so young and innocent in all other features have such a mischievous mouth?
The note burns hot in my pocket. I had just gotten it this morning and had not felt like opening it. I know about the avalanche. He is going to rub it in my face.
I sigh. “What? Should I read it aloud?”
“That would be lovely.”
Willona brims with excitement and then claps. “I’ll get the kitchen staff.”
“No, Willona, don’t!” The door swishes into place behind her retreating form as I’m completely ignored. I tear the letter out from its useless hiding spot. The sun sinks behind a cloud once again, casting the room into dusky light. How fitting. I peel apart the seal and scan the contents to make sure nothing is too disturbing to say in front of everyone. The letter is short, but still gag-worthy, as always. “Really? You guys are going to let this happen . . . again?”
“Let them have their fun,” Father says while signing something important.
“Yeah, Adraa, let us have our fun.” Prisha looks me square in the eye.
“Fun?” This was my love life, or lack thereof. It should not be . . . fun, especially for our entire household, staff included.
It takes only four minutes for a quarter of the witches who work in the palace to tumble into the dining hall. They all appear giddy to the point of combustion. I might feel the same if I believed one word of Jatin’s nonsense.
“Okay, everyone ready? I’m only reading this once. Zara? I’m looking at you.” My maid rolls her eyes and then nods for me to proceed.
“Dearest,” I begin. The women sigh in one heaving breath. Oh please! I give them a stern stare over the parchment and start over.
If you haven’t already heard, I am in Alps of Alconea, where a terrible avalanche nearly destroyed the village of Alkin. I was able to stop the destruction and hopefully further solidify my honor in your eyes. For one note of appreciation from you is all I’ll ever seek in this world. One day I hope we can walk side by side on these beautiful mountains. How I long to be near you again! My heart punches in anticipation.
Wishing you my love,
It is a complete farce. I have not seen the boy since that night I “punched” him in the face. Thinking back, what I did should be categorized under a shove or a slap, not a punch. I barely grazed him. But details get exaggerated with time. Or better put, Jatin likes to exaggerate. In reality, we don’t like each other. And we certainly don’t love each other.
Glancing up, I watch the kitchen staff hanging off each other and melting into the rugs. “Really, every time, guys?”
“He is so passionate and romantic,” our cook, Meeta, says.
Zara croons, “Read the part again about appreciation in your eyes is all he seeks.”
I push off the table and turn to go. Most of my audience heeds the signal and slips back to work in their designated parts of the house. Only Willona and Zara stay behind, probably to talk to Mother or Father about some chore or other.
“Where are you off to? Aren’t you going to help me in the clinic today?” Mother asks, annoyed at my rudeness. “And you need to deliver firelight to the East Village, right?”
I swivel back. “Um, I need another hour to get the firelight ready for the East Village.”
Her fingers full of upma stop midair. “You didn’t finish last night?”
“Ah yes, that is what I’m saying. Didn’t finish.”
“Oh, Adraa.” She releases her frown, the signature one. “That’s the fourth time in the past two months you have been behind.”
“Training first, then one hour of work, and I’ll be right on schedule.” I put on my best “it’s no problem” face.
She sees right through me. “Training first? Adraa, no. Basu expects a thousand firelights by midday.”
I shove at the swinging door, desiring escape. If Mother pushes about why I didn’t get the firelight done, she might start to piece together what I really do at night. I can’t let that happen.
Willona saves me, with a joke at my own expense. “Oh, Miss Belwar gets so enthusiastic for training after getting one of Jatin’s love letters.” She grins and places one hand near her heart.
“Probably to burn off that blush.” Zara fans herself and giggles.
I gesture to my face. “I’m not blushing.” Although it might be hard to tell even if I were. After Mother I’m the darkest in the room, sometimes in the entire palace.
“Oh, guess you aren’t,” Zara says, sounding way too disappointed. A blush lies over her own cheeks, however, which makes me smile. She will surely sneak out for the festivities and I could ask her later how Jatin’s parade went. Then I could ask about more than just the parade; I could ask about him. Did he look kind? Did he look nice? Did he look as powerful as he must be?
Ah, why do I even care about the jerk? Walk side by side on the Alps of Alconea? He knows I’ve never truly traveled, didn’t join him at the academy a year after he started. I’m the oddity with a one-armed Touch and thus have been bound to this part of the world to preserve the Belwar reputation. Can’t have the heir to the throne running off to the academy, a place to showcase the next great leaders of our generation, and embarrassing herself. I push at the door again, thinking about training. Maybe I am an embarrassment. Unlike Jatin, who at nine could cast all nine types of magic, my white magic casting is bloody awful. If Alkin had had to rely on me, that village wouldn’t have survived.
“Fine, one hour to train, one hour to make the firelight, and then you are getting down to the East Village,” Mother says.
“Thank you. You’re the best, Mom!” I call.
Father looks up from his reports and raises both his arms. “I’m still here, you know.”
“You are the best too, Dad.” And he was, for getting me out of seeing Jatin today.
“Can I go to the parade, then?” Prisha asks. “If Adraa doesn’t want to see Jatin, I do.”
I hold my breath. In no way was that a good idea.
“Prisha, you have an exam,” Mother argues.
Thank Gods. I could take Zara’s giddy reconnaissance, but Prisha would deliver me lies or half-truths and I would be left to decipher them. Or even worse, she would walk right up to Jatin and introduce herself. Then I would have to explain my absence was due to fear and annoyance, not obligation to other duties.
I push through the door, glad to leave my sister’s protests behind. Once alone in the hallway and on my way to the training yard, I whisper and touch my fingertips to Jatin’s letter. “Gharmaerif!” A warm red glow spreads across the page and one icy clear word in Jatin’s messy script, for my eyes only, unfreezes and steams into life. “Winning.”
Blood. It’s true.
Homeward Bound and Hating It
Up. High up, where clouds start to flirt with the sun, Kalyan and I fly. It is a freedom like no other. My skyglider, whiter than bone, glides under my control toward home. I am heading home. Huh, I thought I would get used to thinking that after the eighth hour of travel or so. But it’s not like I have ever escaped the cage of my name and title. School had been only an extended prison, reaching out hundreds of miles from the palace to confine my heart and bind me to ambition. Learn and train, you must, because one day you will rule. Messing up or giving up means not only personal failure but also your country’s demise.