Kansal’s Ambition (24.2)

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20th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 1990 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — Dobo Broadlands, Agora Farms

17 Years Before The Ayvartan Revolution

40 Years Before The Solstice War

For generations the Kaushik family had grown lentils. Knee-high, bushy green lentil plants covered the three acres of their farm, the rows situated along one side of a dirt road leading their little house. Across from their lentils there was plentiful unkempt grassland for a pair of long-horned Brahmin, lazing in the sun beside a little shed where hand plows and other tools were kept under lock and key. On one final acre was the family’s three-room house, a chicken coop, and a garden where they grew a few vegetables for their own use, mostly roots.

Under the heat of the Yarrow’s Sun the hardy Ayvartan lentils would come into their own. Sown in the new year’s mud, the crop took over 120 days to reach maturity, but it would soon yield its bounty, and then the summer lentils would be sown, and the process would continue.

Lentils sewn for the Dobo Thakur, cousin of the Emperor, who demanded tax from the soil. His share taken, the rest would be sold or bartered at the Msanii, the ancient marketplaces.

Such was the way of the world in the bread basket and soup bowl lands of the dominances.

Daksha Kaushik had seen ten years worth of lentils, though she personally remembered only five or six. Her hair tied in a ponytail, wearing a purple sari with gold trim over her weathered overalls and a patched shirt, Daksha walked down the dirt road on the crop’s side. She held a big book to her chest as if she were giving it a comforting embrace. Judging by the way the sun bore down on her she guessed it was around noon. She had a boiled egg, a piece of bread and a bit of cheese in her belly, floating in boiled milk, and she had brushed and fed the cows.

Now she was headed for her lessons in the little village of Garani, around 3 km from the farm. In her pocket she carried a little metal canteen with water to sustain her during the trip.

She walked to Garani and back every two days and hardly ever saw anyone along the way.

So she raised her head with surprise when she heard the distant galloping of a horse.

Along the road a black beast appeared, screaming down the road with a phaeton at its back.

It took the perpendicular corner toward her home without slowing and hurtled at her.

Drawing wide its bony beak and rearing back its horned head the beast screeched at her.

Daksha gasped and leaped headfirst into the cropside ditch as the beast charged past.

For a few seconds the shaking and noise brought to mind earthquakes, something Daksha had never experienced but that certainly had to possess comparable power to this disturbance. When the animal and its carriage finally stopped and the noise and the crashing of hoofs and wheels subsided, Daksha peeked her head out of the ditch, still hugging her book tightly.

A tall man in a black suit dismounted the Phaeton, screaming something incomprehensible at a finely-dressed horseman. He broke into a brisk run from the side of the massive horse pulling the carriage, and Daksha realized he was heading for the road, and then for the ditch. She stood frozen as he approached, her little head the only thing visible over the ditch. He stopped beside her, and looked down at her. He had a sparse yellow beard, pinkish skin and dark blond hair swept back. His spectacles were tiny and perfectly circular, and he had on a polkadot bow tie.

He started saying something Daksha did not understand; he then corrected himself.

“Are, alive, child?” He said. His Ayvartan was messy. He stretched out his hand to her.

Daksha looked at his hand. She trembled a little. He retracted it with a long sigh.

“Alive then.” He might have wanted to say well or healthy or unhurt but he kept saying alive and Daksha found the sentence startlingly odd. She didn’t know what to make of it.

Timidly she climbed out of the ditch. Curiously the man appraised her; abruptly, as if following the stream of his consciousness, he turned around. She followed the man back toward his mount, the horrific creature lifting its legs in succession and kicking up bits of the turf.

By then her mother had come out to witness the confusion — a broad-shouldered, stocky woman with her hair in a scarf and big cheeks. She was hassling the horseman, who had driven his phaeton over the cow grass and uprooted large chunks of the earth. She stopped throwing her hands up when she saw Daksha and the strange gentleman approaching from the lentils.

Her mother’s eyes turned from daughter to stranger and back. “Hujambo?”

In response the man adjusted his glasses, and waved his hand half-heartedly at her.

“Husband? Where?” He asked her. His Ayvartan was limited and grating.

Her mother looked at little Daksha again before responding. “Gone. Who are you?”

“Keister Von Volker.” Replied the man. These words came much more naturally to him.

“I am Yanna Kaushik. This is my farm, Mr. Volker. Not my husband’s.” She replied.

“I can see you.” Von Volker said. He might have intended to say he understood.

“What is your business, Mr. Volker? Your carriage damaged my grasses.” She said.

Von Volker bowed his head and rubbed his forehead with a handkerchief from his pocket. He was sweating profusely and breathing roughly. Daksha thought he looked frustrated.

His horseman suddenly stepped in, a swarthier fellow with a bald head under his cap.

Ich werde übersetzen.” He said, before turning to face Yanna and bowing his head to her. He spoke perfect Ayvartan. “Apologies for your grass ma’am. My name is Haji. Mr. Volker is a business-man from the Nocht Federation. The Thakur who owns the broadlands, owes him a hefty sum, and has chosen to repay by ceding land to Mr. Volker. Graciously, Mr. Volker has come to visit each farmstead personally, and to explain these matters to the laborers.”

Yanna narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “I don’t understand. The Thakur, indebted?”

Haji explained everything said to Mr. Volker in Nochtish. Von Volker tipped his head and said nothing in reply but Haji turned around and continued speaking on his own initiative.

“Yes ma’am. I’m afraid of late your Thakur has been taken by a love of liquor and fineries that has far exceeded his means.” Haji smiled as he spoked. Daksha found it alien. He could say all of these things with such a pleased expression as if nothing concerned him. “You could think of it this way — Mr. Volker is your new Thakur. He will collect on these lands from now on.”

Yanna stared critically at the pair, as if they were trying to cheat her. But Daksha knew this was all too real. Foreign men never traveled to cheat you; they traveled because they had already cheated and gotten away with it. These were not snake oil salesmen. This Mr. Volker was a prince in wealth if not in status — and status certainly did nothing for the luckless Thakur.

Von Volker outstretched his arm and laid his hand behind Daksha’s head. With a firm grip on her head, he nudged her gently forward out from behind him and toward her own mother.

Dass ihr Kind?” He asked in his strange, gruff tongue. Daksha felt a chill down her neck.

“Is this your child?” Haji asked. Yanna looked at Daksha with worry in her eyes.

“Yes, she is. Her name is Daksha. She is only ten. Forgive her if she inconvenienced you.”

Von Volker smiled. “Very cute. Enjoy her skin. Like dirt. Should travel from horses.”

Daksha bowed her head. She hated this man touching her head and saying odd things about her. He stomped into their farm like he had lived there his whole life, doing whatever he wanted. He stomped into their country without even being able to talk to them. She felt a terrible presence from him, from his wicked grip on the back of her head. She thought suddenly that if she tried moving, she would find that he is gripping her hair and she would be hurt.

She did not want to test that. She remained perfectly still. She felt trapped by him.

“Again, apologies for the disturbance. Someone from the Imperial Authority will be here soon to discuss the details with you, but Mr. Volker wanted to come in person.” Haji said. “You will find that Mr. Volker is very personable and agreeable. Not at all like your distant Thakur.”

Von Volker nudged Daksha forward again, lifting his hand from her. She walked the first few steps; then she ran to her mother’s side and hid behind her, gripping her mother’s long skirts and suddenly exposing her fear and desperation. She wept a little and clung and grit her teeth. She trembled openly. Daksha felt a churning in her gut and a horrible and sudden panic.

Across from them, Von Volker chuckled. He laughed all the way back to his Phaeton.

 

* * *

Even after Von Volker left the farm there was no respite for little Daksha. Her eyes still red and puffy with tears, she received from her mother little more than a soft slap in her buttocks, nudging her toward the road. Silent and obedient she resumed her trip to Garani from the beginning, now certain to be at least half an hour late. She sobbed to herself and wiped her tears on her sleeves. Her panic lasted past the lentils and a neighboring field of soybeans.

Half an hour into her walk the sobbing and weeping turned to grumbling and grinding.

She started wishing Von Volker’s beastly steed would trip and send him flying out.

Stomping a little harder as she went, Daksha left behind fields of maize, eggplants, peppers in turn; every family had lands that they cultivated. Through marriage, barter, debt and death the Thakur’s lands had been passed around the various families living on Agora, such that some families had ten acres and others had seven and some had a paltry two or three to plant. So long as the Thakur got his tax for every acre he did not particularly care who worked it.

She passed a spirit shrine, an unmistakable monument in its own acre off the road. The shrine was a structure built into the hollow of a broad tree, this tree being about five meters tall and three wide, with thick roots and thin branches and a lopsided canopy. One person at a time fit into the shrine, where there was an embroidered, thick mat set down before a figure of a many-armed man, a local deity for spirit worshipers. Sometimes she stopped inside it to pray, but she did not want to tarry any further. Daksha kept on moving and left the shrine behind her.

Besides, praying to the spirits hardly ever seemed to help matters any.

About an hour into her trip the village came into view. Flanking the dirt road on either side were about a dozen wooden buildings and a pair of water wells. Standing prominently where the soft, rich farmland segued into dry, hard village grounds, there stood a cobbler’s house and a mason’s workshop. Past them were a few houses arranged in a semi circle off the right side of the road. Daksha walked past them, waving half-heartedly at the windows and porches.

She left the roadside and walked across a field of short yellow grasses to a large wooden cabin, set apart from the core of the village and sprawled across a cleared circular plot. There was a water pump, and a big shed full of kindling for a stove. There was a big tree standing on little bump in the earth that could hardly be called a hill. A plastic cord ran from a branch to one of the house windows; an embroidered petticoat and a purple dress swayed in the breeze.

Daksha climbed the porch steps and knocked on the door. She waited, book hugged tight.

From behind the door a young woman peered out. She gasped with delight; the door burst open. In her voluminous skirts Lena Ulyanova knelt and threw her arms around little Daksha.

Though the woman herself was also little — only ten or twenty cm taller than Daksha.

After pulling Daksha into her bosom, she pulled back, looking over the child at arm’s length.

“I am glad you appear unharmed.” the woman said, her accent light and her words clear and quick. “Had you arrived any later I would have taken to the road myself, house arrest be damned. I feared something had happened. You’ve never been late before today.”

Daksha smiled at her. “I am fine Ms. Ulyanova, thank you. I am sorry for worrying you; a strange man visited our house and made a nuisance of himself Ms. Ulyanova! I was scared!”

Lena stroked Daksha’s shoulders. “What kind of man? Did he do anything to you?”

“He was a foreigner– I mean, well, he couldn’t speak Ayvartan, and he was pale–”

Daksha looked suddenly unsure of her descriptions. Lena giggled and reassured her.

“Do not fret Shacha, I know what you mean when you say those things. So, a foreigner.”

Good, she wasn’t offended. Daksha continued. “Yes, he had a big nasty thing with him, it looked like a very sick horse with horns! It was pulling a phaeton and it ruined our grasses.”

“A sick horse?” Lena rubbed her chin. “Probably a Balan, if it was pulling a Phaeton.”

“Whatever it was, it was ugly.” Daksha said. She trembled a little just thinking about it. She raised her arms to Lena’s shoulders, reciprocating the comforting little massage she gave.

Lena beamed brightly, her ice-blue eyes looking fondly at the girl. “So what did this man want? Come in and tell me about it dear; your lesson can wait a little bit. Come on.”

Lena turned around and ushered Daksha into her home. She was a Karlik from Calanchi, one of the colonies of the Kingdom of Lubon far in the north. These were the words that Daksha knew to describe her, the ones she had learned from her book — but she felt bad thinking them because she knew Lena resented them. Lena had no better words of her own, but she had taught Daksha that Karlik just meant “small person” and Calanchi was not the name of her land, but the name the elves gave it, “the dead land.” Elven slurs went into the books while the nomenclature of the small folk had over time been erased by the Colonial Authority.

Karliks (Daksha cringed internally thinking it) were somewhat small folk who reached full adult proportion while topping out at 130-140 cm; Daksha herself was 140 cm already, and Lena was particularly tall for her people. Physically she was visibly foreign, very pale in appearance with long, flowing blue hair. Her clothing was the finest Daksha had ever seen, and she was elegant and pretty and mature; all kinds of adjectives floated inside the girl’s head.

“Make yourself at home as always, Shacha. Sit and rest; I will pour you some tea.”

Though unable to leave this plot by law, Lena was quite better off than anyone in the area. She had a wood-burning stove with an exhaust pipe channeled out the roof, and several cabinets worth of food and tools; a bedroom with a big bed all to herself; a tea room with a music player that played big black discs; an indoor latrine connected to a modern septic tank; her own porcelain bathtub that could be filled with buckets from the pump outside.

This was as close to a palace as Daksha had ever seen in the flesh. Her own house was one barren room with a mattress on the floor and one with a stove, a pantry and a table.

Daksha followed Lena to her tea room. She set down her book and brought out two porcelain cups from the nearby cupboard, arranging them and and their white saucers on top of the table while Lena walked ahead to the kitchen. Along with the stove, the kindling box and the wooden pantry and spice rack there was a nondescript metal box in the kitchen. Lena knelt down in front of it and opened the top. She withdrew a silver pitcher of brown tea that had been prepared ahead of time. She brought it to the table, popped it open and stirred sugar into it.

“Unfortunately my ice box is now a water box, and it takes several days for my ice man to replenish it. So rather than cold tea I am forced to serve tepid tea.” Lena admitted.

“No problem at all Ms. Ulyanova, thank you!” Daksha smiled and held her cup out for Lena, who filled the cup with the sweet tea before filling her own. This was a drink Daksha could only have here — tea, sugar and ice were prohibitively costly. Even sans the ice the drink would have cost too much in Dobo. All of the ingredients arrived here from a long distance away.

Lena put down the pitcher and sat next to Daksha. Smiling warmly, she set her hand on the girl’s lap and watched her drink. “Tell me more about this annoying stranger of yours.”

Daksha filled her cheeks up with tea and swallowed slowly, delighting in the sweet flavor.

“He was called, um, something, something, Volker.” Daksha replied. “His servant said that he owned the Thakur’s lands now or something like that. I don’t know if I believe that.”

“I heard something like that myself.” Lena said. She looked out the window at the grass outside, her fingers rubbing the handle of her own cup. “A wealthy foreigner collecting a debt from an Ayvartan prince; that is part of the price paid in courting the wealth of the Federation.”

“I don’t understand how a Thakur can fall into debt. They own everything don’t they?”

“Not anymore.” Lena said. “They claimed to own everything in Ayvarta, once upon a time. But the Empire is opening its doors to an entire world; in the face of such vastness the Thakurs can no longer claim to own it all. Your Thakur became addicted to temptations of such scale even his wealth cannot thoroughly satisfy — because men overseas set the price of them.”

“That seems unfair.” Daksha said. This was still a little hard for her to take in. She started to feel that this event was too big for a ten year old girl from a farming family to understand.

Lena did not help settle the child’s anxieties. Instead she seemed prompted to show her own.

“Unfairness is the way of wealth; in the end it is the poor who suffer. Because a rich drunkard could not pay the debts of his greed, your family must swear to a new master now.” Lena sighed a little. Daksha tipped her head. She felt as if the older woman was looking and speaking past her now, off in her own world. “Rich men like to think of themselves as carnivores but parasites is what they truly are. They embed themselves in society’s organs and feed ravenously.”

Daksha blinked. She tried to pick through Lena’s speech in her mind, word for word.

“Oh.” Lena seemed to awaken from her reverie. She patted her hand on Daksha’s lap and laughed. She had a wonderful laugh — a soft and infectious o ho ho ho. “I’m sorry Shacha; these are adult things that frequently occupy my thoughts. Let us put them aside now and return to your lesson. We’ll take care of your arithmetic for today. What do you say?”

Spontaneously the child beamed and clapped her hands and laughed. She ran off her chair and out the back door with her book in her hand, racing to the tree on the little bump beside the house. She sat with her back to the tree, taking in the breeze under its shade, and she waved as Ms. Ulyanova approached from the house with a little basket full of wooden blocks and cubes. Daksha huddled close to her; Lessons with Ms. Ulyanova were the highlights of the week.

Lena took the book and opened it to the section on Arithmetic. It was a standard textbook for school children in the Empire, brown and somewhat thick with a featureless cover and back cover  — Lena had bought it herself and given it to Daksha so they could have their lessons. Two days ago they had done some work on reading and poetry. Now they would do division.

“So Daksha, you know what multiplying means: to take a number and add it up as many times as the multiplying number, so four times three is four plus four plus four, which is–”

“Twelve!” Daksha answered after a short pause. She remembered the groups of blocks.

“Good! And you know the multiplication tables, we did them together. Do you remember the little trick I taught you for figuring out how to multiply nine by other numbers?”

Daksha held up her fingers, with the pinky down, so 9; then she put all the fingers down except for her pinky, so there was 1 up and 8 down, or eighteen; she raised her ring finger, so there were 2 fingers up and 7 down, for twenty-seven. Lena laughed and stopped her, satisfied.

“Very good. Today we’re going to start dividing. Dividing is the opposite of multiplying; you split a number into groups instead of adding more. We can use the blocks to show this.”

Lena picked up wooden cubes from her basket and set them on Daksha’s lap. There were 4 cubes, and the girl felt comfortable, because it was an even number and she found them very easy to think about. She paid a lot of attention to Lena’s fingers running over the blocks. Then Lena brought out a few additional pieces — a pair of saucers from the cupboard.

“So, think of it this way. We have the number, four. There are four blocks. Now, we want to divide four by two; two is the divisor, the number we are dividing four by. We have four blocks and two saucers. We want to divide the blocks equally among the saucers, so every saucer has the same number of blocks. How many blocks would you put on each saucer, Shacha?”

Daksha did not have to think of it too hard. She split the blocks two to a saucer.

“Good! So four divided by two is two.” Lena said. “What if I added a saucer?”

Daksha gave it a moment’s pondering. “There would be a block left over.”

“Indeed. That block would be the remainder. But you can put 1 block each on the three saucers, when dividing 4 blocks across 3 saucers. Your answer is 1, remainder 1.”

In this way they carried on for a few hours, dividing blocks among saucers, talking about cows eating equal amounts of hay bales and dividing acreage equally among certain crops, and other examples the child found relatable, until the sun began its descent from the sky. To get home before dark, Daksha would have to set off soon. She picked up her book and kissed Lena in the cheek. Before she left however, Lena had a little errand for her that had become usual.

“Set this down by the scarecrow in the corn field when nobody’s looking.” Lena said.

She handed Daksha a blue cardboard envelope with a white symbol printed on it. It looked like a hammer and a sickle meeting, but fanciful Shacha thought it could also be a snake with two heads. She had heard of such things in stories. The child concealed the enveloped in her book and went on her way, waving goodbye and feeling quite sorry to leave her tutor behind.

Twenty minutes into her journey, starting from the village, Daksha always walked past the corn fields of the Foana family and the scarecrow with its straw hat, wooden machete and roughed-up overalls watching over the crop. She crept into the corn, laid down the envelope at the feet of the scarecrow like an offering, and went on her way. This was the only price that Lena Ulyanova put on her tutoring — simple errands. Letters dropped, delivered, brought to persons.

Despite being exiled from her country, Ms. Ulyanova had plenty of money and no need or want to take anything from a poor child. She had been the one to suggest the lessons to begin with, and had this form of compensation in mind from the start. Daksha found it amusing.

 

* * *

When she returned home the sky was bloody red and her mother was pacing outside near the wounds cut by the phaeton on their grasses. Daksha waved her hand over her head to signal her, and she didn’t smile. When the child approached, she knelt down and took her by the shoulders. There were no tears in her eyes — her mother never cried — but Daksha knew that if she were one to cry, now would be the time. Perhaps she made that face so Daksha would cry in her stead. Certainly whenever her mother looked at her so seriously, she wanted to weep.

“Shacha, there was a man from the Imperial Authority here, while you were gone.” Yanna said. “He explained what was happening. From today we will working for Volker. He will be taking more of the lentils than the Thakur did, and he will want more grown; in exchange he will give us two more acres of land, the empty ones around the back, and we will be paid with more paper money that we can use at the store in the village. We will have to clear out those acres and prepare them, and it will be rough. You’re going to have to stay and help me five days of the week now instead of four; you can visit Ms. Ulyanova the other two days. I am sorry Shacha.”

Daksha gripped her book harder around her chest. She nodded her head quietly. She would obey; she had no choice, and her mother already did so much work alone. Without her help, how could they possibly grow even more than they did now? But she felt very bitter about it. Farm work was not what fulfilled her. She wanted to learn about the world with the strange and glamorous exile in her town. Mr. Volker’s lentils wouldn’t get her anywhere in this world.

 

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