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The Khadija Prophecy

By AJ Nelson and Imran Khan

By AJ NelsonPublished 2 years ago 24 min read
Photo by Mayur from Pexels

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.

They had come down from the Himalayas and settled around Choti Gaon twelve years ago, around the same time Paro came to the village. Rajesh insists it was the very same day, but Auntie says that jinn can’t be trusted.

As far back as she can remember, Paro has been speaking with the dragons. In fact, she can talk to most of the animals in the Valley. Creature communication is her strongest skill.

Which is why, this morning, Paro is too busy talking to the Tibetan Tigerstripe hovering around the waterpump to hear Auntie the first time she calls.

“I’ve asked everyone,” she sighs as the tiny dragon licks waterdrops from the spout. “I don’t know who else I can talk to.”

Paro balances on one leg, scratching at her silver anklet with the toes of her other foot. She’s been asking the same question for months. She’s talked to everyone in Choti Gaon, though that’s only eight humans and five animals. She’s talked to the periwalla who visits once a month to sell juju herbs to Auntie and used books to Uncle. She’s even tried asking Rajesh, but the jinn gives her a different answer every time.

Paro holds out her hand and the dragon comes to rest on her knuckles, his transparent wings shivering her skin. There are as many types of dragons as there are butterflies in the Valley. Some are the size of donkeys, some are small like dragonflies. Some are sweetnatured and curious, like songbirds. Some sting like bees, and a few breathe fire. This tiny tangerine-scaled creature looks like a bright petal drifting in the sunlight. Paro concentrates on his bulging eyes behind their bushy blue eyebrows, on the wordless feeling between her ears that tells her what he’s saying.

“Patience,” the dragon flutters. “Your cohort finds you. Not the other way round.”

Paro tries and fails to hold in a sneeze. The dragon rises into the golden air, weaving around her head. “But I’ve been waiting so long!” she complains. “And I don’t want to go off to Jadoo without my cohort.”

Paro is leaving for her first year at Jadoo Academy for Sorcery and the Supernatural in a week. Without her cohort, the lifelong magical partner who will help balance her uneven magical skills, she might never fully develop her powers.

“Paro!” Auntie’s voice splits the still morning. Paro jumps, and the dragon sails away toward the feathery trees lining the stream behind the village.

Paro shuts her eyes and sighs. “Yes, Auntie?”

“Water, Paro!” Auntie’s voice floats out the backdoor of their house, squatting in the shade of an enormous Khejri tree like an old brown bullfrog with mosquito-net eyes. “Pump the water to fill the ketalee. How many times must I ask you?”

Paro opens her eyes to find Nilgiri, Auntie’s cohort, sitting right in front of her. He’s a weasely yellow-chested marten with sharp teeth and a mean streak. Paro can’t stand him.

“—keep an eye on you yes yes of course she asked me what do you think she’s busy very very busy and you out here lazing about as usual—”

Paro breaks eye contact to cut off Nilgiri’s endless chatter. She heaves the ketalee from its place on the steps by the door and begins to pump. As she lifts her cupped hands to take a sip for herself, a firework explodes at her elbow.

“Ouch!” Paro chokes. She maneuvers her elbow around so she can see it. There’s a hole in her red kameez. The smell of scorched fabric tingles her nose. Auntie is going to kill her.

“Rajesh!” she hisses, trying to catch sight of the jinn. The shimmering heat makes him harder to see. But Paro’s had lots of practice. She’s known Rajesh as long as she can remember. He’s the one who brought her through the dark night to Choti Gaon when she was just a baby. And he’s been with her ever since.

She locates his wide grin in the air next to her ear.

Before she can fire off a question, he shouts, “Game on!”

His massive silhouette bleaches into the dry white sky. Paro glances at the house, but Auntie is nowhere to be seen. She takes one cautious step, then another, and then springs onto the balls of her feet and pushes off as fast as she can. Nilgiri squeals and gives chase, but he runs like a rocking horse, and Paro easily outpaces him. She leaves him eating red dust as she speeds ahead, following Rajesh’s delighted cackle.

“What flies, but has no wings?” the jinn singsongs.

Paro keeps running, racing ahead to the answer. “Time!”

Their game began so long ago that Paro can’t remember not playing. As soon as she could talk, Rajesh would explode into the kitchen after breakfast with the first riddle bursting from his lips. Auntie would mutter and fume and invent chores for Paro to keep her in the village. But despite all of Auntie’s warnings, Paro always found her chance to sneak away and meet Rajesh at his cave.

That’s where her feet are carrying her now. She breathes in time with the percussion of her jingling anklet. If she answers all three riddles correctly, she gets one minute alone in the cave to look for buried treasure. If not, she has to do everything Rajesh says for a whole hour. Paro hates losing. But there are only so many riddles in the world, and by now she’s heard almost all of them.

Rajesh folds his thick arms across his chest and faces Paro, sailing through the air with his back to their destination.

“What’s harder to catch the faster you run?”

Over the thump of her feet, Paro heaves a laugh. “Your breath!”

Rajesh opens his mouth and blows. A sudden gale rises, sending tiny red tornadoes spinning across Paro’s path and coating her sweaty face with dust. With a glint and a wink, a wide lake yawns before her. Her heart pumps faster and her legs want to slow, but she forces herself to keep running, right up to the water’s edge. As she skids to a stop, the spray cools her bare feet. She squeezes her eyes shut, and when she opens them again, the mirage evaporates to the soundtrack of Rajesh’s high-pitched giggling. He knows Paro can’t swim.

Paro collects her breath and takes off again. Up ahead, the mouth of the jinn’s cave stretches, yawns. Rajesh rockets into the sky with a sound like ripping fabric. He flings one long leg high in the air, drops his heavy heel. A gorge opens under him, spreading in a lightning flash down into the hard-baked earth, toward Paro’s flying feet. Sucking in her breath, she gathers herself for a leap. The other side of the chasm recedes as she treads air.

“What passes before the sun, yet makes no shadow?” Rajesh shouts from the edge of the cliff behind her.

Paro lands hard on the lip of the newborn canyon, ankles burning, lungs crumpling. But she picks up her stride. She can see the shadowy opening ahead.

“Paro?” Rajesh roars, soaring over the gap between them. She’s taking too long to answer. He raises a finger, ready to zap her.

Paro spits dust. Her mind spins to the beat of her feet. The answer rushes up to her. “The wind!”

As she shouts these words over her shoulder, the charm guarding the cave entrance dissolves, and she staggers through. The thick sandstone echoes her panting as her heart tries to leap out of her chest. In the gloom at the back of the cave, something glitters.

“Gotcha!” Paro yanks a sparkling silver handle from the silky soil. She brushes the glass clean, lifts the handmirror to her face. It’s too dark to see clearly, but the large round sapphire at the top of the handle glows with its own light. There are no mirrors in Paro’s village. She’s seen her own face before, of course: in muddy puddles after the monsoon, or hung upside down in Auntie’s polished brass bowls. But she’s never held a mirror in her hand. And she’s certainly never handled such an expensive jewel before.

Paro squints into the glass. The darkness unzips, shimmering. Goosebumps pimple her arms. Instead of her own reflection, the mirror shows her a tongue-flickering purple dragon with milky blind eyes.

“Rajesh?” she whispers into the vault. A laugh echoes deep within the stone, but it’s not the jinn’s jaunty, familiar cackle.

Mesmerized, Paro finds herself swaying to a silent tune. The dragon’s opal eyes glimmer in the glass. She feels a tug like a hook snagged deep in her belly as fire kindles behind the dragon’s bared teeth.

A flash scorches her cheek, sends her reeling to the floor. The mirror tumbles from her hand.

“Time’s up, Dabang!” Rajesh roars, sailing in at the opening. “No fair playing dead!”

She pushes herself up on her elbows, scanning the dirt floor for her treasure. In the light of Rajesh’s burning pupils, the fireserpent cools to embers, scales slithering away across the stone walls. Paro takes a shaky breath.

“What was that?” She’s used to Rajesh’s mirages, but this one felt different. “Did you conjure that?”

“I’ll ask the questions!” He leers. “What is it that no one ever yet did see, which never was, but always is to be?”

Paro sits up, brushes herself off. “Game’s over, Rajesh. I won.” She points at the mirror, lying faceup in the dirt. “And look what I found!”

Rajesh howls and leaps at the handmirror, flipping it over so the glass faces the earth. “I know you’ve never had a mirror before, Dabang. But you can’t just leave them lying around faceup like that. Never know what might jump out at you.”

Paro punches her hips with her fists. “Like that firebreather, you mean?”

“Firebreather?” Rajesh jerks both feet off the ground. “Where?”

“You mean you didn’t—” Paro’s gaze wanders the shadows. Rajesh narrows his smoky eyes to slits, studying her. She sucks on her unspoken words. “Nevermind.”

They sprawl side by side in the cool of the cave, the mirror facedown between them, the sweet smell of ripe guava drifting in from the slope below.

Paro heaves a long sigh, swirling the ochre dirt. Rajesh side-eyes her.

“Still no luck?” He checks behind her back, lifts the hair off her neck, reaches for her pocket. “Not hiding something?”

“Stop it!” She bats his hand away.

He purses his lips. “Still no cohort, I see.”

Paro shakes her head. Her face burns. “I’m leaving in a week. That’s seven days!” She holds up seven fingers.

Rajesh sighs. “I know how many days are in a week, Dabang.”

“And I’ll be the only one at Jadoo without a cohort!” Paro growls. “How will I learn to use my powers properly without my partner? I can’t possibly be the best if everybody else has their cohort and I’m all alone!”

“Well,” Rajesh giraffes his neck. “Maybe you don’t need a cohort? Not everybody has a jinn best friend, you know. That’s pretty special.”

Paro ignores this. “But it makes no sense!” She holds out her palms. “Creature communication is my best skill. But for some weird reason—”

“—for some reason your cohort hasn’t found you yet.” Rajesh gestures toward the mouth of the cave, framing the ruby-and-jade Valley stretching to the horizon. “Maybe you’re just too well hidden in Choti Gaon. No mirrors. No landlines. No interwebs. Almost as if someone’s trying to keep you disconnected from the great wide world, isn’t it?”

Paro pouts. Rajesh lifts the mirror, studies his reflection. “Everything in its time, Dabang. Just be sure to keep one eye open.” He makes a pirate face, doubles down to catch her eye. As always, when he looks directly at her, she has to look away. “You have no idea what’s waiting for you out there.”

Paro is sick of being reminded of all the things she doesn’t know. She’s almost thirteen years old, and fantasies of everything her powers could conjure are beginning to command her dreams. She will be so strong. She will be invincible.

“But that’s the point, Rajesh. To learn.”

Rajesh leers into the mirror, his pointed teeth glinting. “Well. There’s more than one way to light a lamp.”

Paro knows that look. “You have a plan?”

Rajesh ratchets his eyebrows, and his silver topknot climbs higher on the crown of his head. “Not so much a plan as an idea. Not so much an idea as an inkling.”

He leans down to whisper in her ear. Paro’s smile starts small, then grows teeth.

“You think that will work?” she asks, hope brimming beneath her voice.

“Since when does a jinn plan not work, Dabang?” He pokes a sharp elbow into her ribs, passes her the mirror. She wraps her palm around the gleaming silver handle. In the shaft of sunlight straining through the gloom, the sapphire winks like a blue eye. Paro studies her reflection in that indigo light. The incandescent purple dragon is nowhere to be seen.

“That’s no ordinary mirror,” Rajesh murmurs. “It’s the Mirror of Mumtaz.”

Paro draws her eyebrows together. In the reflection, it looks like a caterpillar has landed on her forehead.

Rajesh runs his hand tenderly over the mirror’s silver back. “It’s famous. Enchanted.”

Paro tears her eyes away from her image, turns the mirror so the glass faces Rajesh. “What can it do?”

The jinn gives his reflection another wicked grin. “You’ll see.”

In the distance, Paro hears the clank of metal pots, the deep rumble of Uncle’s voice, and Auntie’s sniggling nightjar call.

Rajesh tilts his head toward these echoes. “Probably best not to mention that mirror to Auntie, Dabang. You know how she can be.”

“Of course not,” Paro retorts. She stuffs the handmirror up under her kameez, securing it in the waistband of her shalwar. “How dumb do you think I am?”

“No comment!” Rajesh sticks out his tongue. The cave mouth snuffles. Nilgiri’s pointy nose and whiskers appear, framed in the stone circle. The rest of him follows.

“—finally caught up to you didn’t I you may be fast but I always get there in the end Auntie says time to go time for the market you need supplies for school and she wants to go now before it gets any hotter and—”

The marten stops when he catches sight of Rajesh’s smoldering pupils floating in the dark. He puffs the fur along his spine. Rajesh sticks his fingers in his ears, blows a raspberry, and disappears with a zap, leaving a sulphury bubble behind.

Nilgiri fills the cave with a long hiss. Paro adjusts her kameez, making sure the mirror is well hidden. It glows warm against her belly. She remembers Rajesh’s whispered words.

“Fine,” she says to Nilgiri, feigning exasperation. “Let’s go.”

# # #

“Oops.” For the third time, the basket on Paro’s head slips sideways and tumbles to the ground. Auntie breathes a martyr’s sigh as the breakaway onions weeble across the sunlit aisle.

Balancing a basket on her head requires a calm steadiness Paro can’t summon. Flibbertigibbet, Uncle calls her affectionately. Hyperactive is Auntie’s word. Auntie can carry a kilo of rice, a pyramid of peppers, and three sacks of chickpeas on her head and still manage to squat down to remove a stone from her chappal slippers without spilling.

Auntie’s Thapkipay card pings where it floats in the air, confirming payment for an enormous head of garlic. The glinting plastic sails back into her pocket as she turns her attention to her niece.

“Take this, Pagal Ladki,” she says, levitating Paro’s empty basket off the ground and handing Paro a rolled-up list.

Paro begins to read, but stops after the second item, her eyes glazing over. “You want me to find all this?”

“Of course. Why else did I bring you along?” Auntie taps the list. “Find the Jujuni herbalist and see how much tulsi she has. And don’t just take the first price she offers!” She digs a five-rupee note from her kameez pocket. “Well, what are you waiting for? Chalo chalo!”

Paro bolts up the aisle. She has no intention of fulfilling Auntie’s wishlist, but she’s not often allowed to roam the market alone. And she knows better than to waste an opportunity.

As Paro disappears into the crowd, Auntie throws Nilgiri a look. The marten whines, but no one says no to Auntie. She cocks an eyebrow at him. With a huff, Nilgiri pursues Paro into the mêlée.

The market is crowded with kiranas for fruit and veg, cloth and cooking utensils. Kiranas for astrology and prophecy, for casting curses and lifting them. The crowded aisles are a mishmash of magi and humdrums, people with magical powers and people without. Like Paro, some of the twelve-year-olds are getting ready to go off to boarding school. There are various humdrum schools all over the Subcontinent, and some of the magi are headed off to study abroad. Many of them will go to England, others to Ethiopia, or Indonesia, or even America. But Paro doesn’t have many friends, and she doesn’t know anyone else who’s headed to Jadoo Academy for Sorcery and the Supernatural.

As she charges into the chaos, Paro has Rajesh’s plan in mind. She has a cohort to find.

Vendors press in on her from all sides, braiding the air with Urdu, English, and Hindi, Punjabi, Mawati, and Rajasthani. The thick morning waves and shimmers like silk as she dodges ziggurats of oranges, towers of mango, rainbows of spices. Huge white sacks of rice whisper and shush into waiting baskets. Contactless payments ping from every kirana like starlings calling to each other.

The hot hiss of boiling oil singes Paro’s face as she pauses at Kapadia Auntie’s Jalebi Kirana to peer over the rim of the bubbling cauldron. Kapadia Auntie sends her bronze fried-sugar pinwheels spinning across the aisle to attract potential customers, directing their choreography with her telekinetic powers. Paro’s mouth waters. The smells of burnt candy and overripe banana tether the bright air to earth like tent pegs, holding in the heat. Tuneless flies buzz everywhere. Paro’s sweaty armpits itch.

Skinny young magi bathed in the blue glow of smartphone screens stand behind wooden tables stacked with chargers, speakers, and hologram adapters for sale. They call out to passersby, promising to enchant any old flipphone and switch it smart. Their kirana caters to humdrums who wield technology to control the world around them, the way magi do with their powers. But they also sell to magi who enjoy the conveniences of contactless cash and mobile maps. Some humdrum technology is just as good as magic.

Paro snorts at the boy who leans out to pluck her sleeve, offering his technojuju. She knows his weak charm won’t last long. And anyway, she has no mobile phone to ensorcel.

Paro dodges a pair of wide hips in a swinging sari, ducks under a low-flying carpet. At the end of the aisle, she stops to ask for directions, catching a pungent waft of old sweat as Pandey Uncle in his blinding white kurta lifts his arm to point the way.

The crowd seethes, the heat blisters. Paro turns down the next aisle. Two aisles over, the quiet shade of Bandar Covered Market beckons.

Paro throws a glance over her shoulder. Like so many things, Bandar Market is forbidden to her. But the jostle at the food stalls has hustled Auntie out of view, and Nilgiri is several steps behind, distracted by a yowling bobcat cohort under one of the tables. Paro sets her jaw and submerges herself in the cool shadows, ignoring Nilgiri’s belated warning bark.

Throughout magical history, there have been times when Bandar Market was outlawed, when Tonk was a humdrum-only town. But it’s been almost 100 years since these tensions between magi and humdrums erupted. Still, humdrums tend to avoid Bandar, skirting the edges, never diving all the way in.

Most of the sellers at Bandar Market are monkeys. Paro passes a baboon with a horsey face and a bonnet monkey with center-parted hair. Away from the bright sun and the endless murmur and ping, the air is musty and still, and the red earth sifts between her toes, tickling under her anklet. Shafts of yellow sunlight filter between bluegreen shadows, spotlighting spiderwebs. In these dim corners, there are older, stranger things.

Paro grins at a gaggle of jinn crowding a floating Tarot table, hissing and hooting. Her steps slow outside Maryam’s Magical Mirrors, where the walls are crowded with reflections tall and short, round and square, in glass and polished steel. Paro stops, entranced. She’s never seen so many versions of herself all at once. She raises her eyebrows, and a dozen diamond-angled Paros do the same. She giggles, and they laugh back at her. She thinks of Rajesh’s mirror, tucked safely between the strings of her charpai in Choti Gaon, hidden under her bedsheet. Behind her, Nilgiri grumbles low in his marigold chest. She makes a sour face, glaring over her reflection’s shoulder. As she leans over a dark wooden basin filled with still water, her hair falls forward and skims the surface, sending ripples like wrinkles rising up over her face. She wonders what’s so dangerous about this, why she’s never been allowed a mirror of her own.

A leathery hand circles her ankle, pressing her silver anklet deep into her skin. She jerks her chin down to meet the thin golden monkey’s ancient eyes. “I can see your future, Priya,” Maryam the monkey prophet croaks in a voice only Paro can hear. “A prophecy just for you.”

Nilgiri arches his back and snarls. The monkey’s long ebony fingers tighten around Paro’s anklebone.

“Is it really you?” The monkey squints, cocks her head at the wall of mirrors. “The stranger’s reflected face,” she mutters, disjointed words jostling in Paro’s mind. “Unleash the Division.”

Paro shakes her head and slips out of the monkey’s tightening grasp.

“Um, no thanks.” She takes a few backward steps. “Maybe some other time,” she calls as she hurries on.

As she nears the end of the aisle, Paro’s head gradually fills with a murmur of voices, indistinct at first, then sharper and clearer as she comes closer. She stops, squints into the gloom. Finally she spies what she’s looking for: a rusting stack of empty wire cages framing a dim door. She sucks in a breath, stalks toward the dark kirana. As she steps through the doorway, an enormous mouth bracketed with pearly fangs leaps out at her, stopping a feather’s breath from her nose. She shrieks, leaping back in a puff of dust.

“Don’t mind him,” comes a grainy murmur from the shadows within. “He got up on the wrong side of the sun this morning.”

Paro eyes the enormous skyblue dragon looped around the doorpost. She steadies her racing heart and meets his gaze, just like Uncle taught her. “Welcome,” the creature smirks. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Gingerly Paro steps into the stall. A parrot’s shriek tugs her eyes toward the roof. The bare wooden rafters overhead are looped in garlands of dandelion yellow and spring green, bright coral and deep ebony. They undulate along the beams with a sound like bare feet sliding over wet stone. As Paro’s sight adjusts, she sees the glitter of dozens of black lidless eyes. She sucks in a gasp.

“Don’t worry,” comes the gravelly voice again. “They only strike when I say so.”

Nilgiri sticks his whiskers over the threshold, snuffles, sneezes, and skitters back down the aisle in search of Auntie. Paro spies a pile of purple rags in the far corner, takes a step closer. The coil shifts in a slow spiral, twirling looser and looser until another pair of eyes emerges. Fiery white like opals, and just as hard. The firebreather from Rajesh’s cave flashes before her eyes. But this is no dragon. She’s a naga. Half woman, half snake.

Paro hesitates. “Have we— met?”

“Not officially,” the naga chuckles. “Mamba. Charmed, I’m sure.”

Paro leans back, spinning slowly on her heel as she takes in the hissing, slithering, chirping riot of scales and feathers.

“Are you looking for someone in particular?” asks Mamba. “Or is someone in particular looking for you?”

Paro turns toward the empty aisle. Nilgiri is nowhere to be seen. She knows she doesn’t have long. “I’m going to school,” she blurts. “Next week.”

“Which?” Mamba asks.

Paro lifts her chin. “Jadoo.”

“Indeed,” Mamba nods knowingly. “You must be excited.”

“Yeeees,” Paro drags out the word.


Paro’s fears rush out in a flood. “But I haven’t found my cohort yet, and—”

“—and no mage in their right mind trips off to Jadoo without their cohort,” Mamba finishes for her. “So you’ve come looking. Against everyone’s better judgment, I suspect.” The naga stretches a smile. “Good for you.”

Paro hiccups as a steelgrey parrot with a bloodred tail sinks his claws into her shoulder, bringing his black-on-white eye up to her cheek. He tilts his head and squawks, “Cold blooded!”

“Aha, so you’re not one for the birds, dearie,” Mamba murmurs.

Paro brushes the parrot off her shoulder. A king snake drops his bright-striped head down out of the rafters, level with Paro’s nose. She looks long and hard into his eyes.

Mamba studies their exchange, though Paro knows she can’t overhear what they say. Eye contact is essential to creature communication, and most animals can only really look at one thing at a time.

“You have a way with our creature cousins,” the naga murmurs.

“Creature communication is my best skill,” Paro announces. “I can talk to just about anybody.”

Mamba laughs like a wave rushing over loose stones. “Indeed. And it seems someone here wishes to speak to you.”

A movement in the corner traps Paro’s attention. The greenish wood dances, a small section of the creaking beam making its way toward the dusty floor. Paro reaches, her fingers finding cool, rough scales. Tiny greenclawed feet grip her hand. An electric blue jolt fires her brain. Between her ears, she hears a tiny voice sing-song her name.

“Pleasure to meet you, Paro.” The words glow turquoise in her mind. “I’m Aarti.”

“The perfect match for you.” Mamba chuckles again, her purple robe bobbing, exposing a carved blue stone in the shape of an eye dangling from a golden chain around her narrow neck. “Oh yes. He sees in every direction at once, but nobody sees him.”

Paro leans in till she’s nose to nose with the little chameleon clinging to her hand. One of his eyes circles, taking in Paro’s profile. The other stays trained on Mamba’s face.

“Aarti?” she whispers. “Is it you?” He winks at her. Paro raises her eyes to Mamba. “How much?” She tries to keep her voice from wavering. She knows it’s illegal to deal in magical creatures.

“Seventy rupiah!” Mamba smirks.

That’s sixty-five more than Paro has in her pocket. She thinks fast. “My uncle says you can’t buy a cohort. He says your cohort finds you. He says—”

“I know all about your uncle, Ladki. Humdrum, isn’t he?” Mamba stares hard, and something squeezes Paro’s temples. “Just because your cohort finds you doesn’t mean it’s free. I’m providing a service. Sometimes finding needs a finder, doesn’t it?”

Paro fingers her coins. “I can’t afford it.” She kicks at the grey parrot as he sidles up again, intent on nibbling her toes.

Mamba’s wide, slow smile splits her face in two. “Maybe there’s a trade to be made.” Her milky eyes never leave Paro’s face. “That’s a nice anklet you have.”

Paro glances down at the loop of silver links. She knows the anklet was her great-grandmother’s, that she inherited it when her mother died. And she knows it’s an amulet, a protective charm. Her aunties and uncles tell scary stories about something called the Division, a malevolent power Paro needs guarding from. But as far as she can tell, that’s all ancient history. It has nothing to do with her present.

Mamba leans in. “It’s a good deal. If we both get what we want, where’s the harm in that?”

Paro considers, imagining the look on Auntie’s face. She shakes her head. “I can’t.”

Mamba swivels her chin. “But you can.”

Paro’s brain feels like a walnut in a shell, clutched tight in Mamba’s coils, cracking. “It was a gift. My auntie would kill me.”

“Would she now?” Mamba looks enthusiastic.

“Why should I kill you this time?” Auntie stomps over the threshold right behind her voice. Mamba turns, hisses low in her throat as Nilgiri flows into the kirana, setting off a cacophony of parrot screeching.

“So this is what happens when I turn my back for one second?” Auntie fumes. “Bandar Market! What were you thinking, Pagal Ladki?”

Auntie swings her anger around to blast Mamba, but something dams up her throat. She sucks in a breath, stretches two inches taller. Her eyes dart from the dragon wrapped around the doorpost, to the snakes dripping from the ceiling, to the rustle of feathers in the dusty corners. She fingers the teardrop topaz amulet around her neck and grabs Paro’s arm.

“This is no place for young ladies.”

“But—” Paro watches as Aarti flickers out of sight. She feels him let go of her hand.

Auntie’s grip is deathlike as she hauls Paro through the narrow doorway. “Come!”

“No! Wait!” Paro tries to free herself as Auntie marches her up the aisle, Nilgiri gallumping behind them. Monkey whispers quiver in their wake.

“You’ll be back,” Mamba calls after them. “Just wait. Some things are meant to be.”


About the Creator

AJ Nelson

I wrote my first novel when I was 10 years old – about a horse, of course. Since then, my work has been shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, the Bridport Prize, and the Berlin Writing Prize. My pronouns are she/her.

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