A Single Grain of Sand
Pangiota, the Desert Aisha, hung her head in frustration as she left her cousin’s palace. “Princess Amira is such a spoiled, self-centred brat,” the Aisha muttered to herself. “It’s like she’s oblivious to the pain and suffering that exists in this world. All those sick pets at the Field Hospital that my lovely cousin won’t even let me tell her about. What presents her subjects have given her, what poems they have written for her, how beautiful they think she is – is that all she truly thinks about? It’s just not right!”
Pangiota stomped her foot petulantly, knowing that trying to change the Princess would be about as easy as counting each grain of sand that swirled and shifted in the vast expanse of the Lost Desert around her. Standing at the top of the palace steps with this image in her mind, the Aisha swept her golden curls away from her eyes with a slow movement of her tiny paw and looked out at the desert; its enormity and timelessness made her feel small and insignificant, helplessly adrift in a sea of sand and grit.
She shook her head to clear it of such useless negativity and thought to herself, This is ridiculous, Pangiota. You’re stronger than this; you’ve had all of the advantages that the poor and weak at the Field Hospital have never known. One thing Amira might never learn is that being Royal born does not in itself grant nobility – that is a question of character, earned through deeds. As soon as Pangiota thought these words, she knew them to be true. A smile brightened her sweet pink cheeks and she skipped down the rest of the palace stairs, eager to put her new theory to the test.
Cavillace, the mutant Draik, raised her head as the tent flaps opened and the stranger walked in. Cavillace quickly scanned her with practised eyes and noted that the newcomer did not limp or hold her stomach or scratch furiously or otherwise appear to be ailing. She soothingly patted the Darigan Krawk’s hand she was holding, knowing that the patient was beyond awareness at the moment, and rose to speak.
“Can I help you?”
“Actually,” the Aisha replied, plucking nervously at her plain linen robe, “I was kind of wondering if I could help you.”
Cavillace raised a quizzical eyebrow but otherwise remained mute. It had been her experience in situations like this that silence drew out more information than questions; that an uninformed question could start a conversation off in exactly the wrong direction. As the silence stretched uncomfortably, the stranger coughed and added, “I have passed by the Field Hospital so very many times, you know, and in my experience most of the people in Sakhmet don’t even know you exist. Like you’re beneath their notice.” Raising her hands to her reddening cheeks, the Aisha quickly added, “Not to say that you are beneath everyone’s notice, or that you should be, oh dear. What I mean to say is...”
Cavillace decided to relieve the other’s anxiety by smiling and interrupting, “Yes, I do know what you mean. And it’s not just her Royal Highness in the palace who ignores us and our work. Merchants and travellers, mothers with their children, everyone just walks right by as though we’re invisible.” Chuckling and shaking her head, she added, “Everyone knows where we are sure enough when they get sick, though.”
“Yes,” the Aisha agreed, “that’s what I’ve noticed too. So, could you use an extra pair of hands around here?”
The big Draik glanced surreptitiously at the Aisha’s tiny, pink paws, smooth and delicate as porcelain, but knew better than to look a gift Alabriss in the mouth. “Of course,” she replied warmly. “My name is Cavillace, and I’m delighted to have your help.”
She stuck out her hand and the Aisha grabbed it and replied, “Wonderful to finally meet you, Cavillace. My name is Pan..., um, just Pan.” The Aisha wasn’t certain why she didn’t want anyone here to know that she was a member of the Royal Court in Sakhmet, but for now she decided to remain anonymous. “So, what can I do for you?”
The Draik looked around at the rows of occupied beds and sighed, “Well, Pan, I’d love to ask you to give some medicine to these patients, but we just don’t have any.”
Pangiota opened her mouth into a tiny “o” of surprise and asked, “No medicine? At the Hospital? How can that be?”
Cavillace lowered the brows on her fearsome looking mutant face, changing her aspect from friendly to very frightening, and replied, “You see, we’ve had a serious outbreak of Reptillioritus around here. So many bites from the Reptilliors out in the desert, and all these poor folks...” Cavillace pulled back the sheet on the nearby Krawk, exposing shoulders covered in seeping welts. “Do you see this reddened skin? She’s in terrible discomfort, itchy and sore, and so tired. She’s sleeping all the time, it’s so hard to wake her to even give her water. This traveller was brought in so dazed that I haven’t even learned her name yet.”
“But surely there’s medicine for this... this Reptillioritus,” Pangiota protested.
“Oh there’s medicine all right,” Cavillace said with a bitter laugh. “The only cure is Cactopus Cream, and it is totally unbuyable. Or rather, it is buyable if you happen to be a Princess.”
“Well, rumour has it that Princess Amira knows of the restorative effects of Cactopus Cream, and she stockpiles it for her own use. And it is doubtful that the Princess has Reptillioritus. ”
Pangiota cast her mind back to her last audience with her cousin, remembering how Amira had been so preoccupied with her beauty regime that she had refused to turn and face her as she spoke. There were quite a number of jars on her vanity desk. Pangiota thought to herself, What if the rumours are true? What if Amira is wasting all of the Cactopus Cream, the medicine these people need, for reasons of... vanity?
Cavillace interrupted the Aisha’s thoughts. “Without the medicine, all we can do is try to keep everyone comfortable. I could use your help making some bandages.”
Pangiota’s voice caught in her throat and she nodded her willingness to do whatever she could to help.
Pangiota nearly made it out through the Palace doors with her backpack stuffed with gently clinking glass jars; she could probably have made it past the sleeping guard if he had not at that moment snorted to awareness and spotted her sneaking past in the plain linen robe that she had neglected to change.
“You there,” the blue Skeith demanded, “where do you think you’re going?”
The Aisha momentarily froze in fear, but screwed up her courage to assume her most imperious pose and replied, “I am Pangiota, royal cousin of Her Highness, the Princess Amira, niece of His Majesty, King Coltzan III. Who are you to challenge me?”
The guard shook his head with shock; this was the one answer he could not have expected. Squinting his eyes at the Aisha, he had to admit that she looked like the Lady Pangiota, but weighing her indignance against Princess Amira’s wrath, he decided to take a chance with the former. “Well, whoever you are,” the Skeith said uncertainly, “you’re coming with me.”
Princess Amira was livid to have been raised out of bed to deal with petty Palace issues. As she entered the throne room, she stopped in her tracks when she saw who the guard was holding roughly by the arm.
“Pangiota? Is that you in those... rags?”
Pangiota glanced down at her perfectly average robes and shook her head slightly at her cousin’s arrogance. “It’s me, Amira.”
“I don’t understand,” the Princess replied, turning her attention to the abashed looking Skeith. “I was told that there was a break-in tonight, that a thief was attempting to sneak out of the palace with something.”
The Skeith hung his head and replied, “I was slee... standing guard, and this Aisha tried to sneak past me with a backpack that was clinking like it was full of jewels or something. Dressed as she is, how was I to know she’s your Highness’ cousin?”
The Princess raised a quizzical eyebrow and turned to Pangiota. “Well? Is this true?”
Pangiota sighed and nodded her head. “Not jewels, but...”
“You stole from me? After all I have done for you?”
“Please let me explain.”
“Guard,” Amira commanded. “Open that backpack.”
The Skeith looked at Pangiota smugly and took the backpack from her loosened grip. He brought it to the ground at the Princess’ feet, opened the zipper and took out a small red jar. Feeling foolish, the guard explained, “I heard the clinking, I was sure it was jewels or something valuable.” He looked up at the Princess, expecting to taste her wrath, but he was surprised to see that Amira’s fury was directed at her cousin.
“You stole my face cream?” Amira fumed.
“You don’t understand...” Pangiota meekly attempted to explain.
“Oh, I understand,” the Princess insisted, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re jealous of me and of the fact that the people of Sakhmet write poems of my beauty. But if you think a jar of cream is the only difference between you and me...”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Pangiota yelled. “Jealous? Me? Do you even know what this cream...?”
“I know everything I need to know, including something you do not. You are banished.”
“Banished? This cream, it’s needed for...”
Turning to the Skeith, Princess Amira proclaimed, “Pangiota has been banished. Please escort her out of the Palace and make sure everyone knows that she is not to be admitted ever again.”
Feeling vindicated, the guard bowed to his Princess and turned to grab Pangiota roughly by the arm. As they exited the Palace, the Skeith placed the confiscated backpack in the closet of his small guardhouse, not noticing the two glowing red eyes that watched him from the shadows. When all had been silent for a few minutes, a form emerged from the darkness and turned the handle of that same closet door.
Kreludor hung high and gibbous in the desert sky as Pangiota arrived at her late uncle’s shrine. Not knowing where else to go, she sat heavily on the ground in the obelisk’s shadow and propped her head in her hands.
“Oh, Uncle Coltzan, if only I could have made her understand. You were such a good king, and Amira is a good person, but she doesn’t always see beyond herself.”
The Aisha grabbed a handful of sand and let it run through her fingers. “It’s hard to believe that the entire Lost Desert is made up of grains of sand as tiny as each of these, no one piece more important than the other, yet put together they are an immense and imposing force.”
Lost in this meditation, Pangiota didn’t notice the approaching figure until it loomed right in front of her.
“Pan? Is that you?”
The Aisha scrambled to her feet and replied, “Cavillace? What are you doing out here?”
The Draik laughed gently and said, “I often come to visit the shrine when it gets quiet at the Hospital. It’s such a peaceful place. And what about you? Why aren’t you at home after that long shift you put in with the patients?”
Pangiota had to fight back tears as she replied, “I’m afraid I don’t have a... home.” The last word stuck in her throat, and the Aisha had to choke it out, an act that freed the tears that she had been struggling against. With the tears came a rush of words as well, and the Aisha revealed her true identity, describing her failed efforts to take the much-needed Cactopus Cream from her vain and spoiled cousin; the adventure that had ended in banishment, a word that made her shiver with anxiety.
Cavillace placed a protective arm around the Aisha’s shoulder and said, “Nonsense. There’s plenty of room at my place, and therefore you do have a home. We would all be overjoyed to have you there, and I suspect you may not be the only newcomer to this family tonight.”
The Aisha smiled through her tears, recognising the enormous heart that lay inside the unlikely façade of the mutant Draik. “Another newcomer? But who?”
Cavillace winked at Pangiota and said, “Perhaps we should make another stop at the Field Hospital before I show you the way home.”
The Draik and Aisha lifted the canvas flap that served as a door to the Field Hospital, interrupting the Darigan Krawk whose hand rattled the glass jars on the shelf of the medicine cabinet she had broken in to.
“Thief!” Pangiota cried, taking an accusatory step toward the Krawk before thinking better of it and allowing the big Draik to take the lead.
Cavillace took a step forward and said in an even tone, “I know what you did.”
The Krawk turned to face the Draik and narrowed her eyelids, turning her crimson eyes into dangerous looking slits. “You know nothing.” Withdrawing her hand from the medicine cabinet, she added, “I am no thief.”
Cavillace drummed her fingers thoughtfully against her chin and asked, “So you did not follow Pan here to the Palace? You did not watch her from the shadows as she relieved the Princess Amira of her stockpile of medicine?” Drawing even nearer, the Draik continued, “And did you not watch as she was captured? Did you not see where the Skeith Guard hid the backpack?” Reaching into the medicine cabinet and picking up a small, red glass jar, Cavillace added, “And did you not then take the Cactopus Cream and deliver it here, where it is needed the most?”
The Krawk lowered her eyes, suddenly looking weak and weary, and said, “I may be a Darigan, but despite what others may think that means, I am no thief.” As a thought occurred to her, the Krawk met the Draik’s eyes once more and asked, “But how did you know...?”
Cavillace put a hand on the Krawk’s shoulder and said, “Because I was there, too. I too hid in the shadows, awaiting my opportunity. Had you not taken the medicine, I would have.” The Draik began to laugh, and as the others joined in, she said, “And no matter what assumptions others have when they look at me, I consider myself to be no thief, either.”
As the laughter diminished, the Krawk asked, “What now?”
“Well,” Cavillace began, “first let’s treat your Reptillioritus. Correct that... let’s cure your Reptillioritus.”
A grateful smile broke out on the Krawk’s face and she said, “And then?”
“And then we take you home,” said Cavillace cheerfully. “The Field Hospital is no place for you once you’re cured.”
A frown passed over the Krawk’s face like a thundercloud as she said, “I have no home. No family. No one.”
As the Draik soothingly rubbed cream into the Krawk’s shoulders, she said gently, “I know. No one has ever been in the Hospital for so long with no visitors, no enquiries. When I said that we would take you home, I meant home with us.” Cavillace glanced at Pangiota inquisitively, and the Aisha beamed and nodded.
“So, to begin, let’s have some introductions. My name is Cavillace, and I am very pleased to meet you.” The big Draik wiped the grease of the Cactopus Cream onto her smock and shook the Krawk’s hand heartily.
“I’m Pangiota, and I am new here myself.” The Aisha shyly offered her hand, which the Krawk grasped and pumped good-naturedly.
“My name is Krawkawk,” she said simply.
“Krawkawk, it is good to see you looking better.”
The Krawk beamed when she realized that the cream’s effect seemed to be immediately effective. The smile slowly faded from her face as it took on a more reflective look.
“And about my offer?” Cavillace prompted gently. “Would you be interested in joining my family? We would be delighted to have you, and you could stay... well, forever.”
The Krawk scratched her head and continued to consider the question. “Why me? I mean, you get hundreds of sick and lonely patients through here. Surely you don’t take them all home with you? Surely, I’m just one more.”
Cavillace opened her mouth to reply when Pangiota took a hesitant step forward, saying, “I think I understand.” The Aisha looked toward the Draik, who smiled at her with encouragement.
Pangiota cleared her throat and began hesitantly, “I have been thinking a lot lately about my own place in the world. When I look out over the vastness of the Lost Desert, it is so easy to feel small and insignificant, as unimportant as a single grain of sand. But... but the beauty of it is that I am just like a single grain of sand. And so are you and so are you and so are we all. Put us all together and we are an awesome force of nature: grains of sand combine to make the building blocks of kingdoms, or when let loose, can swallow those same kingdoms whole. It is about intention. And we, together, with the best of intentions, despite misconceptions anyone has by merely looking at us, well, we could be that awesome force of nature, a force for good.” The Aisha waited, feeling small and exposed, for someone to respond.
Krawkawk raised her eyes to the ceiling, blinking back unbidden tears, and said, “So where do we live then?”
Cavillace threw an arm around each of her new family members’ shoulders and drew them close to her as she made her way to the Field Hospital's entryway. “Right this way, my friends, my sisters, my grains of sand.”