My chamber door flings open, and Ashwin marches in. “Are you all right? I saw you leave the feast in a hurry.”
I lay the book in my lap and conceal it with my hands. “I’m fine. Indah said something that worried me.”
“Was it about the Zhaleh?” His directness blindsides me. Ashwin sits beside me on the bed. “Brother Shaan told me you brought it from home. Do you have it?”
Brother Shaan trusts the prince enough to tell him about the book, so I might as well show him. I remove the Zhaleh from the sketchbook facade and set it in his lap.
Ashwin rests a tentative hand over the weathered cover. “It’s real.” He opens the book and peruses the pages. “I appreciate all books and texts, but this . . . The Zhaleh has existed since Anu bestowed godly powers on the First Bhutas.” He reaches the back of the book, farther than I sought. The final page has symbols all over it, runes.
“Can you read them?”
“A few.” Ashwin runs his fingers over the marks. “This means ‘evernight,’ this means ‘smoke,’ and this here means ‘awaken’ or ‘rekindle.’”
My skin bristles in alarm. “This is the incantation to release the Voider.”
Ashwin pulls his finger away from the page, as if touching it alone will transfer evil onto him. “I dare not read more, for once the incantation is started, it must be completed. I don’t know if this belief is true, but I’ve heard the invoker will go mad with desire to finish the spell.”
“The incantation is a curse?”
“From what I can glean, it is sort of a prayer, but not to the gods.”
“Then to who?” I question.
“Not who, what. When the day was made, so was the night. When man was made, so was his shadow. The Void dwells in darkness, and life dwells in light. The Voider cannot cross over to where light reigns unless he’s invited. But once welcomed, everything the gods created would be consumed by evernight.”
My nerves tingle from heightened awareness. The shadows between the lanterns grow sinister fangs.
Ashwin goes on in a hushed tone. “It’s said that the Voider can call to those in the light, tempting them with the promise of a favor. From what I have read, it isn’t a favor as we know it. Whatever the person who releases the Voider desires most is the bargain the demon must fulfill. Even knowing the dangers, having your heart’s wish granted is an enticement many cannot resist.”
My heart’s wish is to start a life with Deven independent of the rajah’s reign, but I would not unleash a demon to attain it. “A heart’s wish won’t mean much when the world is ending.”
Ashwin closes the Zhaleh and offers it to me. “Desperate people can be deceived. A mirage tricks them into believing cool waters await them, but when they bring a drink to their lips, they draw in sand.”
I hold the Zhaleh, a plan to hide it forming in my mind. I will need a contingency arrangement should something happen to me during the trial tournament. I offer Ashwin the oil vessel. “The Zhaleh and vessel are both needed to release the Voider, so we’ll hide them apart. You take the vessel, and I’ll take the book.”
Ashwin studies the small container with a troubled frown. “How many bhutas died to fill this?”
“Tarek needed a thousand drops of blood, one each from a thousand bhutas.”
Ashwin’s fist slowly curls around the vessel, and he slips it into his pocket. “I should return to the feast.”
“Citra is probably wondering where her dance partner went,” I tease.
He grimaces. “Are all kisses so . . . wet?”
“No.” I laugh and then my heart pangs, thinking of Deven, my first kiss.
Ashwin’s demeanor sobers. “I’d like to know what you’re thinking.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” I shift away from him, and the corners of his mouth turn downward.
Ashwin rises to leave, pausing at the door. “Kalinda? Don’t tell me where you hide the Zhaleh. I may not be strong enough to resist the call of the Voider. I’m still of Tarek’s blood.”
“Brother Shaan wouldn’t have told you about the book if he was worried.” I push a reassuring smile at him. “You shouldn’t be afraid of becoming your father.”
Ashwin’s gaze pulls inward. “Unfortunately, I should.”
I tiptoe into Natesa’s darkened antechamber and stop beside her bed. Her sleeping face looks peaceful without her typically cross expression and sarcastic smirk. When I knew her at the temple, Natesa dreamed of marrying a rich benefactor. She was livid when Tarek picked her as his courtesan. Does she have nightmares about the Turquoise Palace? Do visions of Tarek disturb her sleep?
I have not thought to tell her of my own nightmares. I trust Natesa—she would not be here otherwise—but I have only ever confided my deepest fears in Jaya.
I shake Natesa’s shoulder gently. When she does not stir, I jostle her harder.
She groans. “You better be on fire.” Lamplight streams through the open door, falling across her groggy face. “It’s the middle of the night. I need at least eight hours of sleep, or I’ll have puffy eyes tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry for waking you, but I need your help.”
Natesa pushes herself up to sitting, her dark hair wavy around her. “Do you really need me right now?”
“Yes.” I lower my voice even more. “I need your help hiding the Zhaleh.”
I pace the width of my bedchamber the following afternoon. The colorful inks and charcoals beside the untouched parchment taunt me from the corner of my eye. I pause to finger the tops of the ink jars. Red, yellow, blue . . . I could try them. Just one drawing . . .
I yank my hand back and pace again.
“Would you sit down?” Natesa asks, brushing polish over her nails. After a yawn, she adds, “You’re making me anxious.”
I am anxious. No one knows what I can expect for skill demonstrations this evening. Not even Opal and Rohan have heard anything. The sultan is not revealing any more about the trial-tournament proceedings. All I know is that I am to meet my competitors at the mouth of the Morass at sunset.
Across the room hangs a tapestry of the jungle. Within the verdure are an elephant, a tiger, and a dragon cobra curled near a rock, as well as crocodiles sunning on the riverbank. The dangerous creatures are symbols of Ki’s majesty and power, a harrowing reminder that this is her land and I am a mere visitor. I draw my daggers and aim at the tapestry. I release the first dagger. The pointed end cuts through the cloth, impaling the wall. A fair hit. I grip my second dagger and toss it next. The blade lands below the first.
“Would you fetch me a drink of water, please?” Natesa asks, lying stretched out on my bed.
“You’re my servant, not the other way around.”
“I seem to remember you waking me in the middle of the night. I have puffy eyes to prove it.”
“You promised not to speak of it,” I remind her. Last night, after an hour of debating the best place to hide the Zhaleh, we hid the book under loose floor tiles in her antechamber. Should someone come sneaking around for it, we agreed they would search my room. Natesa is nearly always in our chambers, so she will guard the book.
She flashes her hands at me and fakes a pout. “I have wet nails.”
“Fine. Give me a moment to finish.” As I retrieve my blades, Tarek’s figure appears in the dimness out of the corner of my eye.
I’ve missed you, love. He reaches for my hair, his eyes smoldering with need.
Pain lashes up my arm from the rank marks on my hands. I rip a blade from the wall and throw it at him. The dagger turns end over end through Tarek, and he vanishes. My dagger hits a potted tree in the corner, rustling leaves, and falls to the floor.
“Kalinda?” Natesa joins my side, staring at the accosted tree. “Did I miss something?”
I hold still, waiting for my pulse to calm. “I thought I saw a . . . a lizard.”
“Hmm. That’s enough practice for now.” Natesa wraps her arm around me and directs me to my bed.
I lie down, numb with confusion. Tarek has never visited my mind in the daytime. Could there be legitimacy to my nightmares? Do the gods consider our marriage binding?
My memory replays the image of Tarek in the shadows. Only now that I think about it, he looked different. His eyes blazed like coals disintegrating into the night, and when he reached for me . . . the backs of my hands burned.
The sun sinks into the treetops. Standing with my competitors at the Morass, I try to dismiss the notion that every creeping creature lurking in the trees is waiting to draw me into the jungle’s gullet.
A small crowd of onlookers gather to hear what our skill of demonstration will be. Princess Citra holds herself with confidence, at ease in this wild land of her heritage. Indah and Tinley peer anxiously into the foliage. I seek out Ashwin. He is the only attendee who cares what happens to me. Although he is preoccupied with the sultan, my nerves are steadier with him near.
The sultan addresses us from the front of the crowd. “Welcome to skill demonstrations. The purpose of this preliminary contest is to provide competitors the opportunity to display their abilities to all of the foreign dignitaries and courts. At the sound of the gong, competitors will go into the jungle and search out the most deadly thing the Morass has to offer. Dangerous animals, plants, and insects dwell here. Each competitor must find and capture one lethal living thing from the jungle. This demonstration will test their weaponry skill, tracking and hunting ability, and orienteering.”
The Morass is not somewhere I wish to spend the day, let alone the night. I try to avoid things that want to kill me.
“One more rule.” Sultan Kuval’s mustache twitches with delight. “Competitors must return to the palace throne room by dawn with their deadly offering or be disqualified.”
The old buzzard is changing the rules. By tradition, skill demonstrations are regulated, to the point of allotting the same amount of time to each competitor for her performance. Adding the possibility of elimination is unheard of. But protesting the alteration is pointless. The sultan and my competitors will think I am a bellyacher if I complain. Moreover, this does not change my plan. I will still be in and out of the jungle as fast as I can.