“I’m starting to sweat, Bayal. Please, do not let me sweat.”
Qiyana’s servant fretted at the words. He mustered what little control he had over the elements, concentrating on forming a magical cloud of mist. In seconds, the mist surrounded Qiyana and grew cooler, dispelling the heat of the jungle.
“That’s better,” said Qiyana. “If I am to do this, I must be able to focus.”
She began to swivel her ohmlatl slowly around her body, causing the jungle thicket to bend and part with each rotation of the ring-blade. Roots and stems popped, tossing up bits of soil until, at last, a narrow trail revealed itself in the brush.
“Here it is,” Qiyana said, and promptly started down the winding path.
With each twist of her ohmlatl, the thick vines of the rainforest receded before her. Behind her, they slithered back across the path to conceal it. Bayal fell behind just long enough to be caught in the growth of the writhing plants.
“Keep up, Bayal,” said Qiyana. “Honestly, you have one task.”
The servant hurdled the freshly grown thicket, struggling to catch up to Qiyana, and to maintain the temperature of her mist cloud.
When the two finally emerged from the forest, the sun had sunk low in the sky, its golden dusklight shining on a small village. Qiyana took one last look behind her to see the secret path was now completely buried in jungle. Three village elders greeted her with a respectful Ixtali salute, arms held tightly across their chests, and led her into a plaza just inside the settlement.
At the far end of the plaza, a great Piltovan machine sat lifeless and defeated—spoils from a recent skirmish in the jungle. Qiyana paid it little mind as she took the seat presented to her at a small table, modestly set with fruits and nuts.
“To what do we owe this honor, Child of the Yun?” asked an elderly woman, leaning forward to get a better look at Qiyana.
“I have heard the news of your prefect’s passing. You have my condolences,” said Qiyana.
“Killed by the outlanders,” said an old man, pointing at the Piltovan machine to his rear. “Tried to stop one of those from felling trees for their mine.”
“So I was told,” said Qiyana. She sat perfectly upright as she arrived at the purpose of her visit.
“It seems that Tikras needs a more capable governor. One who is strong enough to stand up to the outlanders, and their toys,” said Qiyana with confidence. “Someone like me.”
The elders turned to each other, confusion showing through their weathered faces.
“But Yunalai, respectfully, we already have… someone like you,” said the old woman. “Your sister is here.”
“What?” fumed Qiyana.
As if on cue, a procession of local servants marched across the plaza toward Qiyana. Four of them carried a palanquin on their shoulders.
As the palanquin came closer, Qiyana could see a plush bed, several fine silk pillows, and her sister Mara, reclining with a goblet of wine in her hand. A silver tray of exquisite dishes rested beside her, and two servants cooled her with elemental magic far stronger than Bayal’s. As Qiyana wiped a bead of sweat from her brow, she glared bitterly at her servant.
“Qiyana. So… good to see you,” said Mara uneasily, as her palanquin came to rest on the ground.
“Mara. You seem to be enjoying yourself,” said Qiyana.
Mara squirmed under her sister’s penetrating stare, seemingly trying to retreat into the plush bedding.
“Would you care for some wine?” offered Mara, as she took a tense, joyless sip from her goblet.
“You’re supposed to protect this village, not empty its larders,” said Qiyana, declining the drink. “You should step down. Let me be prefect.”
Mara froze as she forced wine down her rigid throat.
“I cannot do that,” she said. “You know this. I am older than you.”
“A whole year older,” replied Qiyana. “Yet so far behind.”
She approached her sister’s bed, her smug expression slowly transforming into a scowl.
“I say this only as a statement of fact. You know it is true. What would happen if these miners discovered this village?”
“I would defend it,” said Mara meekly.
“You would die. So would everyone in this village. This we both know,” said Qiyana, for everyone in the plaza to hear. “I can protect them.”
A murmur spread about the plaza. Mara bit her bottom lip—something she had done since childhood, particularly when her younger sister had gotten the better of her.
“I… cannot give it to you. The Yun Tal will not allow it,” said Mara timidly.
“They will if you resign,” said Qiyana. “Go home to Ixaocan. Tend your water garden. I will assume your responsibilities here.”
She watched Mara’s eyes dart around at the elders, as if looking for some way to save face.
“The law is clear,” said Mara. “No one else may be prefect, as long as I am capable of governing.”
Clenching her jaw in anger, Qiyana turned toward the great machine resting at the far end of the plaza. She spun her ohmlatl around her body, startling the elders from their seats. Drawing elements from all around the plaza to the blade, she launched them toward the machine. In an instant, the great metal behemoth was entombed in ice, battered by rocks, and ripped apart by vines—all at the command of the young Yunalai.
The elders and servants in the plaza gave an audible gasp at the display of power.
“You think you already have ‘someone like me,’” said Qiyana. “But there is no one like me.”
The elders frowned at her, reaffirming the decision. “As long as Yunalai Mara is capable of governing, the position belongs to her.”
The words rang in Qiyana’s head as she turned and silently left the plaza, dejected. She led Bayal back to the edge of the village, where they were met by two elementalist wardens.
“No need to see us off,” said Qiyana. “I know the way, and what to do with it.”
With a turn of her ohmlatl, she parted the brush to reveal the path that lead back through the jungle. With her servant struggling to cool her, she walked back toward the grand arcologies of Ixaocan, uncovering the secret path, and re-covering it behind her.
As soon as they were out of sight of the village, Qiyana’s ohmlatl slowed. Behind them, the path was now unconcealed, laid bare in the late day sun.
“My Yunalai—you’ve forgotten to cover the path,” said Bayal.
“Bayal, does your one task have anything to do with tending the path?” asked Qiyana.
“No, my Yunalai. But… what if someone finds the village?”
“Not to worry. I’m sure the new prefect will defend it.” said Qiyana.
The following morning, Qiyana awoke in Ixaocan to the sound of sobs.
“Outlanders. They found Tikras!”
Her sister’s cries came from the hallway outside her bedroom. Qiyana put on her robe, and opened the bedroom door to find Mara, weeping in Bayal’s arms.
“Mara. What’s the matter?” asked Qiyana, making some effort to sound concerned.
Her sister turned to her, red-faced and trembling, covered in scratches from running through the jungle.
“The miners… they leveled the village. Half the people are dead. The other half are hiding. I barely escaped—”
Qiyana embraced her sister, suppressing a smile over her shoulder.
“Do you see now? I was only looking out for you,” said Qiyana. “Being a prefect is a dangerous responsibility.”
“I should’ve listened. You… You would have crushed the Piltovans,” lamented Mara.
“Yes. I would have,” said Qiyana. She beamed as she thought of the miners and mercenaries that had plundered the village—how easily she would slaughter them, and how the surviving elders would grovel in thanks to her as they came to the same realization her sister was now reaching.
“You should be prefect of Tikras,” said Mara.
I should, thought Qiyana. I deserve it.