“Well hello there, my fair ladies! Welcome to Usheniko’s super-duper fantastic tent, where I can give you the most accurate consultations in the history of mankind! Voila!”
Her abode welcomed the eyes of Neha and Sachen. In the middle of the tent, a maroon carpet draped over a table. A crystal ball was sitting there, which dimmed every few seconds. To their left, a wooden carvings of animals, colorful feathers, and broken sticks infested the bookshelf and accumulated dust.
When one of the carvings seemed to move, Neha hyperventilated.
She crossed her arms and released a squeal.
Usheniko led them to the two chairs in front of the table, and the girls took their seats.
“Good early afternoon! You came in quite early today, I am astonished!”
“You were knocking at our doors before you scurried off like a squirrel,” Sachen said.
Usheniko leapt from her chair, her eyes hollowed holes. “How do you know that it was me?!”
“You chanted your name like a million times,” Neha replied, “so of course it was so obvious.”
“Smart girl. But I swore I cast a spell so that you guys would not hear me talk until you arrive at my tent. Oh, woe is me!”
Sachen grinned, wiggling her shoulders. “Haha, your trick isn’t going to work this time! So let’s go on with it! Hurry!”
“Don’t be impatient.” Usheniko wagged her finger. “I have to analyze this wonderful sphere first before I can give you the consultations! Now, did you know that this sphere came from the heavens. As a matter of fact, the primogenitor of my family saw a dragon spitting out this object as a sign of trust and goodwill, and it represented the willingness of the heavens to place trust on us. Our family started to get into the consultation and psychic business, in order to guide humans to the right paths. We have since served the three previous Lamas, not counting the current ones.”
Neha giggled. “That’s very interesting. Mind if you tell us more?”
“Sure! It’s not everyday that somebody is interested in my family past-”
A bulge protruding from her forehead, Sachen jumped. “Hurry up already, you broom-flying witch!”
“Golly! A witch?! My heart shrivels. I am descending into depression. And I am not going to play you with one of my board games next time Sachen, if you want to keep calling me a witch!”
“What? So you won’t play snakes and ladders with me? Unfair! No I shouldn’t say that. I’m sorry madam, I take that back!” Sachen dropped herself to the ground and bowed. Usheniko laughed it off.
Usheniko then announced the start of the consultation, and the girls spurred themselves into great interest for their fortunes. Whether inspiring or disappointing, appreciation was the appropriate response.
Rubbing the crystal ball and scanning the specks and smudges of the object, the consultant hooted with a fluctuating voice. The two girls couldn’t help but snicker. Usheniko then planted her face so close to the ball, that it was absorbing her attention all together. She hovered her hands around it, and thrust her fingers.
A few moments later, she raised her head up, blinked to get the dust off her eyes, and twirled around her seat. She sat back down.
“The gods have answered my plead!” The girls applauded and nodded. “Why thank you, thank you very much! It was hard to get a face-to-face chat with one of the gods, but I have finally got them to talk for a few minutes before they disappear on me.”
“So what did they say about us?” Neha asked.
Sachen rocked her seat. “You better not give us any baloney!”
From the duo bending back and forth and kicking their feet in the air, Usheniko burst into a sweat. It shivered and petrified her body. Her eyes glanced around the tent, she grinded her teeth on her fingernails.
Spinning around once more, Usheniko opened her mouth and widened her eyes, but so much as her face was showing such expression, the girls remained in interest.
“My little sparrows, curious ones are you? Hearken my words, for I shall give you the fortunes you need in your lives! Drumroll please… okay! Let me start off with Sachen’s fortune, as I need to suppress her supposed impatience. Sachen, in terms of your school life, you will pass with average grades, and an average standing among your classmates. However, you will not allow that to stop you to pursue your dreams! You aspire to be a food critic, since you always make a comment about your mother’s cuisine, as you eat every single morsel of her dishes. An easy job you thought… well, you are in for a hellstorm of angry chefs, raw foods, and low-standard restaurants!”
“A food critic? Haha, as if I’ll ever become one!”
Sachen’s stomach belched, making her blush. “Okay, that totally wasn’t me…”
“Hungry Sachen? You came in just in time!” Usheniko laughed to herself. She ambled to the corner of the tent, and pulled out something from the scorching oven. The ashy, charcoal smell wrenched Sachen.
She curled back and tightened her shoulders. Usheniko then presented her creation.
“Look at this! A muffin sprinkled with sugar, and covered in egg yolk! This might be the best thing to come out of the oven!”
“Um, why does the muffin have eyes?” Neha inquired. The ‘eyes’ were slipping away from the top of the muffin. They had red dots and wrinkles on them.
“Those are almonds! I worked hard to make them look like eyes! Pretty rad isn’t it? They might come to life if I just sprinkle a little bit of fairy dust.”
The duo caressed their arms and their skin ran goosebumps in wake and awe of the muffin. “Since I will become a food critic when I grow up,” Sachen said, “then I can say that for your cuisine, it looks absolutely dreadful. Even a baby can cook something better than that!”
“Ouch, how can you say that when you haven’t tasted it…”
Usheniko groaned, clouds developed and drizzled above her head. The woman chucked the muffin back to the oven. “My heart hurts, my soul is crushed by your arrow of words.”
Considering it to be a victory, Sachen drummed her chest. Usheniko got back on her feet and continued to provide the consultation. She ogled at Neha.
“Let’s get back on track shall we? Neha! You are quite a beautiful young girl, so it makes sense for your fortunes to be blessed with luck and prosperity! In the future, absolutely likely, you will have a boyfriend that you can fawn over all day and night. That boyfriend will shower you with his love, give you gifts, and even propose you to marry him.”
Turning crimson like a lunar eclipse, Neha gyrated around her chair.
“Boyfriend? Proposal? No, that’s too much for me!”
“Do not be embarrassed Neha! There is more to that anyway! You will work in a charity that supports the needy and the homeless. You will do nothing but that, and in the end, your life will be filled with happiness. You will bring upon them your own compassion and strength.”
“Charity? That sounds nice.”
The fortunes might sounded like riddles or more so fairy tales, but Neha felt thankful for it. Amidst her initial embarrassment, she wished for such things to happen in the future. A fuzz softened her chest.
Usheniko scratched her tongue with her teeth. She retreated her gaze back to the crystal ball, before looking up.
“So, what do you think girls? Are my fortunes legit crazy? Or perhaps they are true to the stars above your head?”
“For me, it’s funny!” Sachen said. “However, I believe that it will come true… I don’t think I have any other options than to be a belly-filler! So, it sounds good to me.”
Neha nodded. “Although my fortune sounds quite strange, I accept for what I will become in the future. The boyfriend part… yeah, I don’t know about that. Regardless, you are a wise person Usheniko, like an old man, so we can trust on your words!”
“Aw shucks, you’re making me red.” Usheniko scratched the beauty mark next to the right corner of her lips. The clock ticking near the table, she sighed. “Wow, look at the time there! It’s been half an hour, and I’m afraid I have to close the session! Ah, Neha, I forgot to remind you! I will make your lunch for school next week, so please come visit early okay?”
“O-okay, I’ll pick it up in the morning!”
“Hehe, don’t worry too much about it. I heard your mother is not feeling well lately, so I don’t want her to cook while she is sick with a condition. Well, so long fellows!”
Sachen stretched her legs. “Thank goodness. I might have fainted if she had kept us for the whole day.”
Sachen and Neha got up from their seats, and blessed a good day to Usheniko. They departed the tent, returning to the streets that ran along the northern district. They giggled and fawned over their own fortunes, as it seemed apparent to them that prosperity would come to their doorsteps.
The breezes of the air massaged their skin and hair. The sun weaved the sky with its rays of light. Clear clouds and flapping birds, the weather rendered the girls’ day perfect for recreation, but as it was in this moment, they had no clue to how to spend the first day of the weekends. Going to the food stands again, running around the village, playing board games, there was never a lack of entertainment.
But with a lot of things, what did the girls desire to do?
As they exited the tent, countless villagers swarmed the food stands and pushed them to the side. The duo hit somebody from behind. They plunged to the ground and raised their heads. Their eyes lured themselves to a woman that was walking her way to the crowd. They were about to apologize.
Before they uttered a single word, the person squinted, she hissed under her breath. She clutched her hands onto the hood of her robe and removed it from her head. Disheveled hair, pale skin, sharp pupils, and cold skin, her appearance caused the girls to tremble. They couldn’t avoid their eyes from diverting the individual; perhaps that the woman had enchanted them.
“Hey you two,” the person said, sneering. “You happen to know where Usheniko is?”
Sachen slanted her head. “Usheniko? Do you have business with her?”
The person arched her eyebrows. “It’s none of your concern.”
“Well then… she is in that tent.”
“Thanks. Stay cautious, girls. The name is Azukunika…” The woman swayed her head and smiled her teeth. She then entered the tent.
Scratching their heads and rolling their eyes, the girls stood before the place. From first impressions, they found her quite peculiar. Another passerby Sachen considered, the girls thought of going away to continue enjoying their time together. But their curiosity had suspended them. What was the stranger’s purpose in visiting the tent?
The winds whistled and swished the tent. The girls kept themselves quiet, their feet were throbbing and stepping on imaginary razors. It looked like to them that Usheniko would kick the woman out for intruding without appointment. If so, they were ready to act upon measures of protecting their friend. Such a thing might happen – only in their heads.
Cheers and laughter reverberated the abode, repelling the winds.
Neha and Sachen stepped back, their faces froze. They then walked to the drapes and took a peek inside.
Usheniko was sobbing. She hugged Azukunika, her tears streamed along the latter’s robes. An unexpected sight.
“Azukunika, my precious daughter! You are here, oh my goodness! I miss you so much… how have you been in your time at prison? Good, okay, bad? I thought you were dead for good! You still haven’t told me to why you were arrested, for I only heard about your sentence! I should have been there for you when you were hurting yourself. I have returned and settled in this village for a year so far, so I have to know what’s up. Don’t worry my dear, our family is calling for you to come back, although they are far away! That’s why I am saving up money so that I can visit them with you! Why, have you changed your hair color? Silver into black, that’s pretty cool! God, you always tie your hair in a braid, and now you let it loose! But nonetheless, how come you are here now? Did the Holy Army decide to let you go?”
Usheniko’s questions falling to deaf ears, Azukunika bowed halfway.
The woman embraced her until she ran out of breath. Usheniko then took her to the bookshelf, and let Azukunika browse through the contents. Upon the spectacle, the duo had no words to express this.
They backed away from the tent and slanted a smile.
“Um Neha, did that witch just call the woman ‘my precious daughter?’” Sachen’s arms and legs stiffened. “Let me guess. It must be that Usheniko is a mother?!”
Neha yelped, a pulse crammed her brain. “W-what? You can’t presume that so quickly!”
“I remember Usheniko saying that she is in her thirties, and that she was once married to a man that had died. This is odd, I have never heard that she has a kid. That’s kind of cute that she has one! And her kid is that tall? She must be twenty years old or something.”
“We shouldn’t interfere though. If they are meeting each other once again, then all is good right?”
“So let us move on from that. They are family, and we cannot jump into their affairs.”
“Geez, I just want to know about them, especially the part about Azukunika being in prison. Hmm, I’m starting to believe that Usheniko is harboring more things in the darkness, and that’s why she is conspiring with the demons in the underworld-”
Neha clamped Sachen’s lips. “Don’t worry Sachen. Maybe we’ll find out later.”
Neha freed her lips, and Sachen took a breather. As Usheniko and Azukunika conversed, the girls’ curiosity grew. They wondered what had happened between the two. But for now, they diverted their focus away from it, for it boggled their heads.
The way wandered to the eastern district. The school was closed, and the flag continued to fly upon the flagpole. Across the school, clinks and clanks from the blacksmith’s workshop flinched the girls, the sounds crept up to their necks. Stopping her feet, Sachen crossed her arms and looked around for a while. She then gasped.
“Neha, I got something that both of us can do! We can go to the forest of the east, and hang out at the river!”
“T-the river? Isn’t that where we are not supposed to go? Because I heard that it’s dangerous, there might be bears and leeches.”
“Since I am a strong girl, I’ll protect you from those beasts.” Sachen patted Neha’s shoulders. “You don’t have to worry a bit, because we’re going to just have fun.”
“I’m not sure…”
“Come on Neha, we’re only going to be there for a couple of hours. I got your back, so just have fun okay?”
Her head shaking, Neha flushed. She flopped her lips and tried to say yes or no to her friend. It seemed difficult to choose. They had not ventured in the forest for a long while, so the potential of them getting into danger was great.
The smile from Sachen wrapped Neha into a bind. Soon she locked in her answer.
“Okay Sachen, I will go with you.”
Sachen’s sides tickled all the sudden. “Really?! Thanks, you’re the best Neha, hehe!” She then squeezed Neha. “Let’s go right now!”
“But we’re only going out for a couple of hours. I don’t want to get in trouble with our parents.”
Sachen dragged Neha to the end of the eastern district. Before them was a gate; it was in fact, part of a single wall that encircled the perimeter of the village. Rumor had it that the wall had stood for centuries. Upon the discovery that the material was mainly concrete, the forefathers flabbergasted. They then believed that the heavens had already built the protection they needed for their establishment.
At the place, a pair of guards from the Holy Army was patrolling the area. Staying there day and night, with their chins high and their eyes hawking at everything, they let nothing in their way. The girls deemed passing through them impossible. But today was their lucky day.
Panting and dying to remove their armors, the guards slumped at the wall. They nodded and snored, and chatted. Without the will to work for the rest of the hours, they let their guard down. Sachen pumped her fist and smirked. Neha sucked on her own lips.
“We should ask permission from them, you know… hey, wait!”
Sachen zipped by Neha and stumbled to the doors of the wall.
Panicking, Neha caught up to her friend, grabbing her shoulders. The two girls lurched by the doors, and Sachen watched her sides. She confirmed that the guards were still sleeping. Still holding her smirk with sweat covering her eyelids, Sachen slipped away, along with Neha.
They made it to the other side. Their chests quivered and softened in relief. The girls then traversed into the forest.
The scent of pine trees sharpened the air and stung the girls’ lungs.
Leaves and twigs buried their feet, pricking their skin. Along the way, squirrels and dragonflies flocked around them and begged for company.
Neha giggled, while Sachen swatted them away from their path. The animals scurried off. Much to their surprise, the trees reached so high to the clouds that they could pierce the heavens and turn the sky green.
They journeyed deeper. The trees packed close to each other, their branches coiling and twisting together. They cast shade that cooled off the girls. The place seemed to last forever, as though that was all the world could offer.
The girls then stopped and glanced at the area ahead of them. The river slicing the earth, the water streamed along the stray longs and rocks on the surface. It splashed and crashed on the soil. Droplets sprang towards the girls and iced their body. Sachen whooped, and Neha cheered.
Sachen submerged her feet on the water, and goosebumps hatched on her skin. “It’s so cold!”
“I know right?” Neha dipped her toes before sinking her legs in. “I mean, after a while, you start to get used to it… but goodness, it’s chilling my feet!”
“Then let’s make you even colder, hehe!” Sachen lowered her body, and with open hands, she splashed water towards Neha.
“D-don’t do that too suddenly Sachen! Hmm… I’ll do it to you too! Take this!”
Drawing a distance and flaring their faces with scowls, the two girls paddled water at each other. Neha slowly dipped her hands and launched a large scoop. For Sachen, she splashed the surface to no end, creating a torrent. As Neha was getting close to her, Sachen tracked back and accelerated her firepower. By then, Sachen’s had soaked Neha’s tunics. Neha lowered her shoulders, and her teeth clattered.
“What are you waiting for Neha? Drench me, before you’ll lose!”
Sachen’s hands grew numb, but she kept on going. Neha stood there, and waited until her friend ran out of strength. At the right moment, Sachen let loose of her arms, veins brightened and pulsated on her skin.
Neha made a counter. She ran to her friend and opened her arms, then hugging her. Neha took a laugh.
“I got you Sachen! My clothes are wet and heavy, so you’re also soaked like me! I guess it’s a lose-lose situation…”
Sachen puffed her cheeks and averted her eyes. “I cannot accept this as defeat! You were the one who got drenched first! Hmph, I shall have my revenge Neha!”
Knowing that it was fun and games, the duo smiled. They messed up their clothes, which would soon make them susceptible to the cold and the scoldings of their parents. They stepped out of the river, wrung their tunics and pants, and twisted their hair.
The girls still had a lot of energy, so they made the most of their time in the forest. They gathered a bunch of pine cones and showered them over their heads. The cones being stuck on their hair, they grabbed twigs and put them on top of their lips, impersonating the guards at the gate. They grunted and flexed their arms, their laughter soon spoiled the charades. The girls took the time to hunt for flowers and flexible branches; they started to make wreaths. Sachen, with her awareness of details, weaved the materials together, and finished her creation in no time. As for Neha, her fingers twitched. Her gatherings fell apart, and it left her with a sigh. She shrugged, but she acknowledged that she could try harder in the future.
The sun ascended near the horizon. The girls huffed, their bodies wore out from their fun. Neha wiped the petals off her pants, and tapped Sachen on the shoulders.
“Come on Sachen, let us go home and rest.”
“Eh? It’s over that quick? Wow… whatever, at least I had fun with you Neha, that’s all it matters.”
The girls called it a day. With Sachen holding onto her wreath, they walked back to the depths of the forest. Exerting a lot of energy had cost them, they were about to fall asleep on the spot.
As they retreated, they panted and slouched their backs. Too tired to talk, too tired to run. They perspired, beads of sweat dripped through their eyelashes. Sachen was ahead, Neha was trailing behind.
Something fluttered in Neha’s chest, she soon rolled her eyes. Trees and dragonflies were duplicating, the leaves were turning into mush, and the ground seemed to be breathing. Neha heaved. She moaned as Sachen was far away.
Before she could reach her friend, Neha exhaled all the air inside of her. Flashes blinded her for a few seconds. Her feet jerked, and she tripped on a branch. Her left foot arched a little. Neha then fell. Hearing a thump, Sachen lurched back. Her eyes enlarging, she rushed to Neha.