“I entered quietly.” The prince rubs his throat where my handprint fades. “I thought you might like to come with me to the encampments.”
I shield the Zhaleh with my body while I stow it away in my satchel. “You told the sultan we wouldn’t go there.”
The prince grips the strap of a bag slung over his shoulder. “I gave it some thought, and I agree with what you said. We should see our people. Will you come with me?”
I have no qualms about defying Sultan Kuval, but I will not go anywhere with the prince until we discuss the Binding of the Ranis. “Brother Shaan told me of the law. You have first rights to me.”
“He mentioned your conversation to me.” Prince Ashwin’s tone is maddeningly neutral. How can he be offhand about my future?
“You tricked me into coming here,” I say, venting my anger.
Hurt crosses his face. “I was told you knew about the law. Remember it was my will to tell you about the tournament prior to your arrival. I’m truly sorry you were misled.”
The prince’s apology dumps icy water over my temper. I do not recall Tarek apologizing for anything. Ever. Either Prince Ashwin is a terrific liar or he was also misled. Gods, I hate that I feel sorry for him. I am the one wronged.
“As I said,” Prince Ashwin goes on, “you can leave at any time.”
“You won’t compel me to compete?”
“No, but I will do my best to persuade you to stay.”
His eyes shine with sincerity, driving me to look away. I simply cannot trust him. Prince Ashwin may not be Tarek, but he holds the same power over my fate.
“All right. I’ll go with you.” I came here to support the prince, after all.
“Good. I’ve arranged for a distraction, so we need to hurry.” Instead of going to the corridor, he strides out onto the balcony.
I follow him into the late-day sun. “There’s no way down.”
“Certainly there is. I used to sneak out of the temple all the time.” His smile is a tad daring and plenty dashing. He swings his leg over the banister and offers me his hand. Ever so cautiously, I rest my fingers in his. He brushes his thumb over my wifely rank. Sympathy emanates from him with a trace of understanding. We are both tied to the throne.
Shouts rise up from the garden below. The prince helps me over the banister and grips a vine growing up the palace wall. He climbs down hand over hand.
Brother Shaan’s voice carries to us. “I tripped on that rock! Who put that there? Are you trying to injure an old man?”
I pause at his ranting. Brother Shaan is the most even-tempered man I know.
“Kalinda, come on,” Prince Ashwin whispers. “He won’t buy us much time.”
Oh. Brother Shaan is the distraction.
I scale down the vine. At the bottom, we duck behind a flower bush and check the path. While Brother Shaan berates the guards, we dart across the empty pathway into the tree cover.
A shrill voice erupts from across the garden. “What’s all the commotion?”
Princess Citra marches up to Brother Shaan and the palace guards. As her back is to us, we sprint to the overhang where the stream lunges off the cliff in a waterfall. Prince Ashwin reels up a rope that hangs over the edge.
“I was assured this is safe,” he says, tugging me against him. “Hold on.”
Before I can object, he leaps over the cliff with me. I strangle a scream, clutching him with all my might. We swing down in an arc. Wind whooshes through my hair, and then we break through the streaming water. Cold wetness shocks me, drenching me down to my skin, and Prince Ashwin lets go of the rope. We drop to the floor of a cave behind the waterfall and roll to a stop, lying beside each other and dripping wet.
“You could have warned me,” I snap.
“I wasn’t sure if I had the nerve for it myself.” The prince grins. “You didn’t scream.”
“I’m not the hysterical type.” I shove away from him. The gushing waterfall mists our faces and muffles our voices. “How did you know about the rope?”
“Princess Citra’s little sister Tevy told me about it. Tevy said young people use the rope to swing into the cave through the waterfall.”
“For excitement.” He wiggles his eyebrows, rousing a droll smile out of me, and then walks deeper into the cave. Away from the surging water, the light wanes to grayish blue. From his pack, he removes dry sparring garments for me and an extra set of clothes for himself.
I accept the clothing, cautious of his thoughtfulness. He peels off his wet tunic, and his smooth, bare chest robs me of all coherent thoughts. I twist around, my face heating.
“Get changed,” he says.
I glance over my shoulder at him. Ugly scars run across the length of his back. I have a similar scar from my rank tournament down my arm from a khanda wound, but Prince Ashwin was the most protected child in the empire. How did he get his?
I hear him start to undo his belt and twist back around.
“Are you finished?” he asks.
“Almost.” I unpin my wet sari, leaving on the petticoat and blouse. Shivering in the dampness, I drape and pin on the dry scarlet sari. I lift the finished edge of the cloth up through my legs and tuck it into the back of my waistline, leaving my covered legs free to move.
I slip my sheathed daggers to my hips and straighten. In the familiar training uniform, I face Prince Ashwin. “Done.”
He turns back around. He has changed into coarser clothes, shedding his royal finery. If he were any other boy, I would look twice at him. Tarek was handsome, but his ruthlessness repulsed me. Prince Ashwin is equally attractive without the cruelty.
The prince smiles widely at me. “Brother Shaan told me that color flatters you.”
“He did not.”
“No, but you do wear scarlet well.” A blush blossoms on his cheeks, and a tingling sweeps across my face. Prince Ashwin packs my wet clothes and then offers me a corked bottle. “Rub this on your skin. It’s lemon-eucalyptus oil to repel the mosquitoes.”
We take turns rubbing the smelly oil on ourselves, and then he shoulders his pack.
“There’s a stairway at the back of the cave that leads to a lower door,” he says.
“Ashwin. We swung over a cliff together. That merits the use of my first name.”
“All right, Ashwin, what will happen if we’re caught?”
“I don’t know, so let’s not find out.”
I am far from reassured, but he knows how to get out of here, so I follow him deeper into the dim cave. The farther we travel from the waterfall, the darker our surroundings. Ashwin stops in the scant light and draws a torch from the pack.
“Will you please?” he asks, holding it out for me.
I draw back. Brother Shaan must have told him I’m a Burner.
“Are you going to leave us in the dark?” Ashwin presses.
I search his expression for any warning of loathing but find only ardent expectancy. Ashwin has known all along what I am, yet he still invited me here and asked me to compete for the throne.
Holding my finger to the torch, I push out my powers, and the wood ignites. Torchlight illuminates the wonder on Ashwin’s face.
“Incredible,” he breathes.
I start down the steep stairway. Could Ashwin respect my powers?
“I’m sorry I didn’t mention I knew about your bhuta heritage before now,” he says, his footsteps at my back. The ease of his apologies continues to astound me. “Brother Shaan swore me to secrecy. He’s concerned Kuval would accuse you of working with the rebels and blame you for Rajah Tarek’s death.”
I stumble downward a step in surprise. His arms come around me and steady my balance. I pull away in haste. He knows about the blood on my hands.
“Brother Shaan explained everything,” he rushes on. “None of it was your fault, Kalinda. You were forced to defend yourself against Kindred Lakia, and you couldn’t have saved Rajah Tarek.”
Ashwin’s defense of me against his parents is the last reply I expected. Brother Shaan must have left out that I conspired with Hastin. Ashwin does not know that I killed Tarek.
“Did you . . . did you love him?” Ashwin asks, misinterpreting my silence as sorrow for my late husband.
“No,” I reply fast. Gods’ virtue, I sound so coldhearted. “I mean to say I hardly knew him.”
“I barely knew him too.” Ashwin passes me on the stairs. I trail him, eager for him to go on. I never observed Tarek act as a parent. “Far back as I can recall, I was raised by the brethren. They were my family. Kindred Lakia and Rajah Tarek visited me once a year, if that.”
I never met my mother or father. Having parents would be a blessing, but Ashwin speaks of his like they were a scourge.
“Tarek was a selfish leader.” Ashwin’s voice hardens with contempt for his father, paired with an undertone of resigned acceptance about his legacy. “My duty is to fix Tarek’s mistakes, but I cannot redeem the empire alone. I need someone at my side, someone who will stand for what’s right, someone who has already found favor with the gods.”
I arrange my features into apathy. Spinning at the back of my mind is the law that promises Ashwin my future. How far will he go to fix his father’s mistakes? Will he rescind his promise and force me to compete? I agree the empire must heal from Tarek’s rule, but I cannot assist Ashwin in the way he wishes. I did my godly duty. I won my rank tournament and ended Tarek. The most I am willing to do is help Ashwin find another competitor from the encampment to represent Tarachand in the trial tournament. He will have to find another champion.
Silence closes in around us as we continue into the dark. The stairs flatten out to a high tunnel. Many paces later, the torchlight reveals odd clay markings across a gray wall face. We pause to inspect the strange symbols.
“Runes,” Ashwin says.
“They’re beautiful.” Whoever left them must have lived a long time ago. I run my finger over the rough stone. “I wonder what they mean.”