“Why do Janardanians depict Ki with a snake?” I ask Ashwin as he walks beside me.
“If I recall my studies correctly, snakes are distant relatives to dragons. In the Janardanians’ portrayal of the land-goddess, the dragon cobra represents the demon Kur. Some people believe Kur and Ki were lovers. Others have gone as far as to say their union bore a child.”
I rear back to look at him. “Ki would never take a demon for a lover.”
Ashwin shrugs. “Ki supposedly had a wandering eye, and Kur was said to dote on her.”
“You’re a romantic,” I say on a laugh. “You think the myth is true?”
“It’s possible. Everyone has redeemable qualities.”
His smile waivers, but his answer remains resolute. “Especially demons.”
Guests and palace attendees gather in the lattice-roofed terrace that has a view over the twilight sky and city. Flowering vines twist up the exterior columns and latticework overhead to the gray dome ceiling. Teardrop lantern chandeliers light the late-afternoon shadows.
Veiled women of various ages, with inarguable beauty, kneel on one side of the terrace. They must be the sultan’s wives, his sultanas. Additional lovely women in slightly less gaudy finery sit behind them, the sultan’s courtesans. Kuval’s court is smaller than Tarek’s, and his women are soft and plump from their privileged life. I do not see a single sister warrior among them. They have never set foot in an arena. Tarek reinstated rank tournaments, even though they were abolished centuries ago. He alone hungered for the arena violence, and his wives bore the scars from the ruthless duels he forced upon them for his entertainment. I would be in different circumstances had I been claimed by a man like Kuval. His sultanas and courtesans are pretty possessions to pet once in a while, not sister warriors to pit against one another in the arena.
On the opposite half of the terrace, representatives from Paljor and Lestari congregate in groups. I cannot tell which of them will be my opponents, but they all wear formfitting clothes made of thick material and carry strange, flashy weapons.
Sultan Kuval oversees the gathering from his throne on the dais. The back of his seat is fashioned from elephant tusks. I recall hearing that elephants are sacred in the sultanate. Janardanians believe elephants are the first animals the land-goddess introduced to the Morass.
Ashwin follows my gaze and speaks into my ear. “Years ago, Rajah Tarek poached an elephant herd from the jungle. When Sultan Kuval demanded them back, Tarek sent him the ivory husks of the oldest and largest elephant he stole.” Ashwin gazes pointedly at the large tusks of the sultan’s throne. “I’ve been told those are they.”
Sultan Kuval beckons to Ashwin. The prince goes to occupy the empty throne to the sultan’s left. Brother Shaan kneels across the aisle from the sultan’s court. I would rather sit alone, but to prevent others from noticing that we are at odds, I join him. I do not meet the brother’s seeking gaze. I am still fuming at him for not telling me when my party arrived. His omission cost Deven the skin on his back.
The sultan rises, and a hush falls over the terrace. “Welcome, honored guests,” he says. “We’re joined by representatives from Lestari and Paljor, as well as Prince Ashwin of the Tarachand Empire. The prince has asked for aid, and we have heard his call. The rebels are not his responsibility alone. Together we will unify the continent with this trial tournament. At this time, each competitor will come forward and declare their intent to vie for the Tarachand throne. First we welcome Indah, Virtue Guard from the Southern Isles of Lestari.”
He swings out an arm to direct our attention to the stream. A young woman floats over the water on bare feet, a cloud of vapor around her. A short skirt is wrapped around her legs, and a twisted band covers her chest. She is tall, taller than me, and built to weather a tide, with strong sculpted legs and arms. Her bare waist is thin, her shoulders broad, and her golden-brown skin dewy. Ashwin’s mouth falls open. Lestari has sent a woman who exudes natural strength and sexuality, and who is also an Aquifier.
Indah reaches land, and the ethereal mist dissipates. She pads on bare feet to the dais, carrying a trident and a large shell. Her eyes are the same golden hue as the interior of the shell and reflect the bronze sheen of her painted lips.
Indah bows and holds out the shell to Ashwin. “Your Majesty, please accept this gift from my island as a token of my devotion.” He takes the shell, his hands exploring its rough ivory surface. “Hold it to your ear, and you can hear the sea.”
Ashwin lifts the shell to his ear, and his eyes widen. Indah bows to him with a smile, and then descends the dais and joins the Lestarians in the audience. She moves with the grace of a wave and the might of the moon. Ashwin sets the shell in his lap, pleased and stunned by her magnificence.
Sultan Kuval announces the second competitor. “Next we welcome Tinley from the alpine cliffs of Paljor, daughter of Chief Naresh and Guardian of the North Wind.”
A gale rushes through the terrace, tousling hair and skimming cheeks. A sound like a whip cracking snaps overhead, and everyone looks up. Something large flies above us, a bird with red-orange feathers and the sharp beak and talons of an evolved predator. A mahati falcon, king of the sky and natural enemy to serpents, mocks the wind with the speed of its flight.
On the back of the mahati rides a sleek young woman. Her opaque eyes and silver hair are striking against her warm sepia skin. She lands the falcon with a whoosh that disperses all sound to wind song. Only a Galer could dominate the skies with such flawless form.
Tinley dismounts and strokes the bird’s feathery breast. She pulls a scorpion from a pouch around her waist and tosses it into the falcon’s open beak. A long sarong covers her upper thighs, a high slit revealing long, lean legs, and her chest is banded with a single strip of dark cloth. A crossbow is strapped to her back. Her milky eyes take in the crowd, sharp as the long nails jutting from her fingers like talons. She stalks into the terrace and down the aisle before the dais.
Tinley bows and removes a feather from her pack. “Prince Ashwin, as a token of my devotion, please accept this feather plucked from my falcon, Bya, sky-friend to all mankind and guide to the heavens.” Her musical voice rings like copper wind chimes.
Ashwin takes the feather and runs his fingers over the flexible blades. Tinley assumes her place among the crowd beside her people. A small current of sweet air flows around her, a sip of pureness that is intoxicating.
Dread imbeds itself in my belly. I am not competing against mere warriors. These women are bhutas and masters of their inner element. Another lesser concern nags at me. I did not bring a gift for the prince. I have no more time to think of this as the ground begins to tremble.
Sultan Kuval raises his voice. “It is now my pleasure to introduce my firstborn and eldest daughter, Princess Citra, Sentinel of the Morass.”
Trumpets peal, startling the crowd. The ground shakes harder, rising up through my thighs. A group of elephants stomp across the gardens, decorated with headpieces of golden tassels and rich green and purple cloth. Princess Citra rides bareback on the first of the animals. She and her majestic mount stop shy of the pillars, and she emits a ground-shaking yip. Her elephant lifts its two front legs and holds the balanced stance. Princess Citra hangs on, one arm raised above her head. Another yip from her, and the elephant drops, vibrating the pillars.
The only other person surprised by Princess Citra’s powers is Ashwin, who gawks along with me. The princess has not worn a yellow armband like the other bhutas in Iresh, so it did not occur to me that she is a Trembler.
Princess Citra slides off the elephant, moving gracefully in her heavy breastplate and helmet. She lifts her arms and clucks her tongue. The elephants bow before her, and the crowd hushes in reverent awe. Princess Citra clucks her tongue twice. The herd rises and plods away, their thin tails swishing.
The princess slinks up the dais to Ashwin and removes her helmet, her hair falling over her shoulders like strings of black sapphires. “I offer a token of my devotion to Prince Ashwin.” Planting either hand on his armrests, she leans over him. “A kiss,” she says and presses her lips to his.
Ashwin’s eyes fly open. The audience titters. Sultan Kuval scowls at his daughter’s audacious display. Princess Citra withdraws, and Ashwin droops in his throne, red faced. The princess licks her lips and grins. Has she any decency?
The princess struts down the steps and kneels with the sultan’s women of court. A girl no more than twelve sidles up to her, and Princess Citra loops her arm around the youngster. They have similar features—they are sisters. The girl must be Tevy, the one Ashwin told me about.
Sultan Kuval clears his throat, calling the audience to attention. “And finally, we welcome Kindred Kalinda, rank-tournament champion of the Tarachand Empire.”
I rise without fanfare. I have no majestic beast to ride on. No fancy armor. No grand weapon besides my mother’s daggers, hidden beneath my skirt.
Sultan Kuval’s lips twist smugly. He does not know that I am a bhuta, yet he pitted me against three. He has set me up to fail. How far does his scheming go?
Silence digs into my back. I stare up at Ashwin, my heart hammering. I do not know what to do. I cannot be seen as weak before my competitors, but I cannot reveal my powers without word spreading to the camps that I am a Burner.
“Kindred Kalinda, what’s your offering?” Sultan Kuval presses.
“I . . .”
Reading my panic, Ashwin rises from his throne. “Kalinda needn’t offer me a token of devotion. Her coming here is the only gift I require.” He crosses to me and kisses my cheek. I jolt a little. This close, he is a mirror of Tarek. Ashwin frowns, understanding that he has unsettled me. But instead of moving away, he kisses my other cheek. “I’m not my father,” he whispers.
I scrounge up a smile and turn to the audience. Princess Citra’s face screws up in jealousy. Tinley inspects her sharp nails, unimpressed by my introduction, and Indah remains collected, unconcerned by my closeness to Ashwin. He and I return to our seats, and Sultan Kuval addresses the assembly.