Ah, the good friend of many Singaporean writers, but also my greatest challenge. I will be honest - I cannot stand reading descriptive exposition that’s too long. But since exposition also means backstory, I'm going to mix descriptions with my 'I-just-want-to-know-what-happens-next' sensibilities, so this is going to be interesting.
Prompts: Noticeable body marking, Could have stopped at any time
Nargis smiled, adjusting the scarf around her marked neck while she continued observing the distillation of whatever potion she was asked to look after.
“Didn’t do it or was taking the rap for a Master?”
“For someone who has been around convicts so much, Tormi,” she said, tapping one of the bubbles out of the pipes, “You don’t seem to take the rule of ‘don’t ask’ very well.”
The other woman, a stockier, weathered person on the other side of the potion contraption, put herself next to Nargis.
“I don’t have anything to fear from you,” Tormi replied, still fixated on the Perso-Arabic script tattooed just under her left jawline and side of her chin, “How old are you again?”
“20,” Nargis replied shortly.
“What the hell happened?”
“Don’t tell me you’re going to break your vow of silence to these convicts over a kid from the outskirts of Narkavrum,” Nargis replied, releasing the distilled potion, drop-by-drop into the vial at the end of the contraption. Tormi walked to Nargis’s other side, her eyes fixated on the latter’s right temple.
Reaching for the carved flaming flower on Nargis’s right temple, Tormi started talking again, “No one gets markings like that around here without a story.”
Nargis turned the potion contraption off.
“I didn’t do the arson,” she said at first.
“Of course you didn’t.”
Nargis wagged her fingers over the crate of potion vials next to the both of them, picking a clear vial before dispensing this batch’s first potion. When the clear, ruby liquid flowed into the palm-sized container, the citrus scent of the sumac wafting from the concoction. While Tormi took in the refreshing scent, Nargis turned away.
“Isn’t this your signature?” she asked.
“First rule of alchemy,” Nargis readjusted her scarf, this time with her neck tattoo more visible, “Inhaling everything is not the best way to go about your day.”
Tormi herself turned away as Nargis corked the full vial before handing it to the prison trader. As Tormi held the vial closer to her face, she responded, “Was that how your arson came about?”
“What makes you think that it’s not my affinity to make things burn?”
The stockier woman pocketed the vial, then placed herself between Nargis and the rest of the apparatus, “Before a good part of his mansion burnt down, the Khan’s compound was often filled with women interviewing for his son’s harem. Rumour has it that it was the work of a single dancer, a single immigrant dancer, one who managed to survive one of the worst blights in Narkavrum, one who managed to go through the ranks, that was found in the middle of the burnt wreckage.”
“Now, I’m wondering,” she continued, “The officials warned me about you - said you survived things you weren’t meant to. So I’d like to ask you one more time…”
Then, Tormi looked Nargis in the eyes.
“Nargis,” she said, “What happened to you and what are you now?”
Nargis glared back, the slightest inkling of a head cold building at the back of her head. With a smile, she pulled her headscarf away from the right side of her head, revealing a carved tattoo on her right temple, a gift from her mentors, “Maybe it’s this.”
Before Tormi could respond, a flash of black light tore through Nargis’s line of vision.
‘Hello,’ a voice sounded, ‘You seem perturbed. Something troubling you?’
Nargis inhaled deep, her head now heavy, left ear ringing, liquid trickling down her nose. Tormi rushed forward to catch the now-stumbling Nargis, asking, “Hey, what’s going on?!”
‘I see you’re brewing something,’ the voice continued, ‘Have you called me back?’
“Knock…” Nargis squinted, half-supported by the worktable and a slightly panicked Tormi, “Knock me out, knock me out!”
She felt the sting searing through her left temple before everything went black.
Nargis awoke to see Tormi standing outside her cell - a tiny little shoebox that she did her best to at least keep clean despite the cold, damp environment. Unable to fight off a smirk, she hauled herself from her sleeping platform.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said.
Tormi extracted a cypher from her sleeve, “I’m surprised you don’t speak prison guard.”
“Okay,” Nargis stood up, arms raised in resignation, “I’m fine now, you don’t have to stick around.”
Tormi leaned closer, her forearms dangling over the prison bars, “You thought I was working with you because you’re the only one here with a perceived half a brain?” Her right hand reached into her left sleeve and extracted a piece of papyrus with an emblem inked into its stained, creased surface.
Leaning closer, Nargis almost fell back at the familiarity.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Tormi folded the papyrus with her right hand and slipped it back into her sleeve, “I don’t work with Emblems, but no one could say no to that amount of money.”
Clutching her headscarf, Nargis’s eyes darted around, her fingers tapping the air involuntarily, until she found purchase and support against the wall. Catching her breath, she leaned her back against the wall, then eyed Tormi.
“I’m fine, so your job is done,” she breathed, “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Tormi rolled her eyes. Nargis shrugged.
A tense couple of seconds ensued - the silence dangled over a tightrope between the two.
“What else did they ask from you?” Nargis finally asked sheepishly.
“Nothing else,” Tormi answered, “But if you’re harbouring something that might endanger my work with your so-called caretakers, I’m going to have to know everything…”
The lady on the other side of the bars slowly sat back down on her sleeping platform. “You can tell them I’m fine then. And this will be the last you’ll see of me…”
Tormi continued standing there, gaze piercing through to the young inmate.
“I don’t know if any of your caretakers told you about this before you go thrown in here,” Tormi finally said, “But it’s not just the big cities and kingdoms that are changing. If there are problems in Neth, it won’t be long until the trouble reaches us.”
Nargis looked up.
“Have you heard talk about strange happenings?” Tormi continued, “Missing people, dark auras…?”
“Superstitious nonsense is common within these walls,” Nargis scoffed.
“Whatever it is, the people are getting more and more uneasy,” she said, “You’re a smart kid, and I’d expect that you’ll come out of this alive, if not stronger. But if what I saw in the lab just now had something to do with these rumours, you’re in…”
“It’s the entity that brought me here,” Nargis finally said. Tormi’s shoulders relaxed, and the inmate continued, looking over her shoulder one more time before she lowered her voice, “I was on assignment for my mentors - the Khan was suspected of being affiliated to a few networks set up to undermine Neth.” She blinked back a dull ache that was now collecting at the back of her head.
“And before I was able to gather any information, what you saw in the lab happened.”
The slightest gasp escaped Tormi’s throat.
“My mentors told me that they found me unscathed, in the middle of the rubble of what was apparently the Khan’s treasure room.”
“So I was right,” Tormi said.
“Hey,” the smuggler called after the inmate as Nargis stepped back to her platform. Tormi didn’t wait for Nargis to turn back before she continued, “I could still use your help - and you could still use mine.”
Nargis’s brows furrowed.
“You need my connection back to the outside if you want any knowledge out of this place,” Tormi explained, “And I could use someone with your talent.”
Then, she stretched her hand out for a handshake.
“What do you say?”
Nargis looked over her right shoulder as they worked, catching Tormi averting her gaze from the corner of her eye.
“So what about the flaming flower here?” Nargis turned and saw Tormi pointing towards her right temple.
“When I start owing you favours,” Nargis smiled.
Regardless, I hope you enjoyed this piece! Stay tuned for this year’s final Writing Challenge, coming up next month!
My adventures with in urban speculative fiction.