She could be endearing herself to me to get the Zhaleh, but she profits nothing from this lie. Matching her stare, I sense her certainty. Brac and Mathura are not coming.
“Your friends are camped near the border checkpoint,” Indah says in a hushed tone. “They’re safer there than in the encampments, but it does make one wonder about the sultan’s intentions to honor his word . . .”
She saunters off, casual in her decimation of the fragile treaty between Tarachand and Janardan. What does the sultan gain by stranding our people at the borders? I cannot conceive what he ultimately wants or what he will do if Citra does not win the tournament.
Ashwin meets my gaze across the crowd and frowns. He can tell I am upset. I wipe the concern from my face and resolve to speak to him later. I must concentrate on the trial now.
“Tinley will now represent Anu, God of Storms,” decrees Sultan Kuval.
Tinley goes to his side, and the crowd hushes. Overhead, black clouds rush across the sky. A gust rustles the long reeds near the lagoon and plucks loose petals from the wild orchids. Two people come into view high on the cliff, Galers manipulating the wind. A crash of thunder startles everyone, and then a lightning bolt sends me ducking.
The sultan shouts over the blustery weather. “Tinley will now disperse the storm. Turn the sand timer!”
A lightning bolt illuminates Tinley’s determined face. She places two fingers in her mouth and whistles. Another crash of thunder sends spectators dashing to the bottom of the cliff and under an overhang that provides shelter. The dark clouds unleash a steady stream of raindrops. I cram under the overhang with the others. Ashwin squeezes through the crowd to my side.
“This is madness,” he remarks.
A screech barrels across the sky, and Tinley’s falcon, Bya, swoops down. Tinley jumps on Bya’s back, landing in her woven saddle. The mahati flaps its fire-colored wings, and they pitch upward, speeding into the storm.
“That’s madness,” I reply.
The great bird and her rider streak across the dreary sky, dodging lightning bolts. Bya fights to stay upright, but the strong gales knock the mahati around like a dancing leaf. Tinley, her hair white as the August moon, shoots a bolt into the storm with her crossbow. A patch of blue opens where the bolt disappears.
The audience sounds its awe; I cannot tear my gaze away.
Tinley fires three more bolts, and the sky around her opens farther. Her falcon swings around, leaving a circle of clear blue. As Tinley arms her crossbow to shoot again, the gaps in the clouds collapse to a gray wall. In seconds, her progress is reversed.
A thunderclap rattles straight to my feet. I shield my face from the lashing wind. Two soldiers hold down the hourglass timer. The sand is nearly half gone.
Thunder rages after Bya, but the falcon’s wings slice through the gray. As Tinley and Bya drag a ribbon of blue across the stormy abyss, a lightning bolt strikes. Bya dips, and Tinley slides out of her saddle. The crowd gasps. I lay my hand over my mouth in alarm. Gripping the mahati’s neck, Tinley struggles back into her seat and steers Bya directly into the storm.
With her feet planted in her saddle, Tinley stands and releases bolt after bolt into the massive thunderhead. The bolts bring along with them a flash of cleansing winds. The zipping gusts sweep across the sky, dicing up the storm and opening the firmament to mellow blue.
Bya banks right and then flaps her wings, pushing away more of the perilous clouds. The sand timer is nearly finished. They’re going to make it.
Tinley stands in the saddle with her crossbow armed. She and Bya streak upward into the last thunderhead, and a lightning bolt strikes down. An earsplitting scream fills the sky.
The falcon is falling. Twisting. Turning end over end for the land. Tinley holds on to Bya’s back, trying to rouse her. But the great falcon is in a free fall.
The spectators go still. Sultan Kuval’s mouth opens in shock, stunned by the sight of this mighty bird spiraling to her doom.
“Do something!” Ashwin shouts.
Opal and Rohan run into the field and stretch out an airstream between them. The swirling vortex smacks my face with brisk gusts. The two position themselves under Bya and throw up their wind. Like an invisible net, the swelling current catches the falcon and slows her fall. Opal and Rohan dig their heels into the ground and slowly lower their arms, bringing the bird and her frightened rider to safety.
Bya lands in a heap of fiery feathers. Her outstretched wing tip splashes in the lagoon.
Tinley hops off the falcon and peers into her glassy eyes. “Bya!”
The falcon does not respond; her wing smokes where the lightning struck. Indah rushes in and lifts a whip of water from the lagoon. She tosses the airborne stream at the falcon’s wing, dousing the last of the embers. The Paljorians cry mournful sobs that bruise the soul.
Tinley wraps her arms around the falcon’s neck, burying her teary face in Bya’s feathers. The sky has returned to blue, mockingly so. No thundercloud or lightning can be seen on any horizon.
Indah slides her healing hands over the bird’s injured wing. “Water bless the sky. Sea reflect the clouds. Blue of the sky shine in the heart of the sea.”
She repeats the healing prayer, and each time she finishes, my despair grows.
Ashwin goes to Tinley and touches her back. She cries with her face in her hands. He turns her around and enfolds her in his arms. She lays her face against his chest, sobbing so hard her hair shakes like wheat stalks rippling in a breeze. Ashwin seeks me out with wet eyes and holds Tinley tighter.
Overhead, a rain cloud gathers and pours lightly over them, a patch of misery in an otherwise cheerful sky. Finally, Indah stops her strings of prayers and steps back from the falcon’s injured wing.
Citra shields Tevy’s face from the devastation, gripping her sister against her. A silent tear runs down Citra’s cheek. She brushes it away before anyone else sees.
Sultan Kuval saunters over to me and slicks down his white mustache. “Tinley failed to complete her trial,” he says.
“Have you a heart?” I hiss. “She’s lost her best friend.”
“She has also lost the tournament. Should you fail as well, Citra and Indah will move ahead to the duel, and your people will be one day closer to better living conditions and remedial care.”
His bribe sets my teeth on edge. “I won’t fail my trial on purpose.”
“I didn’t imply you should. I’m merely providing you consolation for when you do fail.” He strolls away pompously, his hands tucked behind his back.
I glare past him at bamboo-woven riverboats drifting upstream into the lagoon. The bows and sterns of the long, narrow vessels curve out of the water with a regal rise. Gold leaf covers the sides of the first canoe, the imperial boat.
Sultan Kuval lifts his voice. “We’ll now adjourn to the riverboats for Kindred Kalinda’s trial.”
One by one the audience members flock to the water’s edge. Citra parts from her sister, leaving Tevy to return to the palace with her eunuch guards. The Paljorians stay with their competitor. Tinley pulls away from Ashwin and clings to Bya, weeping into her side.
I walk toward them. Bya is even bigger up close, her fiery feathers breathtaking. My heart wrenches hard. I cannot believe this guardian of the sky is gone. I stop beside Ashwin and Tinley, press my palms together in prayer, and dip my chin.
“May Anu welcome Bya to the Beyond, and may she find peace and contentment flying the forever skies.”
Tinley’s swollen eyes take me in with reserve. I bow in farewell, and Ashwin and I leave her and her people to mourn.
Ashwin helps me board a riverboat beside Rohan and Opal. As our boatman paddles us out of the lagoon and down the narrow waterway, I stare at Tinley clutching Bya.
If she can fall this far, I can too.
Our boats slide down the stream, out from under the low-hanging trees and into Iresh. We glide past bamboo huts and those people along the water’s edge. They wave when they see Sultan Kuval and Princess Citra. Soon their cheers draw a large crowd, until the muddy banks are packed shoulder to shoulder. Some run alongside us, matching the speed of the parading vessels.
The waterway widens and empties into the River Ninsar. Spectators gather along the waterfront between rows and rows of bobbing fishing boats. Our vessel drifts into an open slip, and Rohan jumps off to tie the line. Ashwin and I follow Sultan Kuval to the end of a dock. There a gong and sand timer wait. Bhuta guards are stationed along the riverside, and a dinghy is tied to the end of the pier. Out farther in the river, a barge is buoyed. I swap a questioning glance with Ashwin—What are we doing here?
“We’ve come to our final trial of valor for the day,” says the sultan. “Kindred Kalinda will now represent the fire-god Enlil, Keeper of the Flame.”
I join the sultan’s side, my back to the river.
“Due to the dangerous nature of the kindred’s powers, her trial will be held here. At the sound of the gong, we will release a burning arrow to light the barge in the middle of the river on fire. She will have five minutes to row out to the barge and extinguish the flames. The boat is tied to buoys that are anchored to the riverbed to ensure it does not drift away. Aquifiers are on standby should there be any danger of the fire spreading to shore.”
Thorny fear rakes at my belly. They want me to tame nature-fire. I coaxed an ember into a flame once, but that hardly qualifies me as a master Burner.
Ashwin comes to my side. “Kalinda, you don’t have to do this.”
“True, Prince Ashwin,” the sultan says loudly. “The kindred may concede.”
The onlookers whisper to each other. They must think I am a monster and a coward.
I lay down my khanda, climb into the moored dinghy, and pick up the oar. The sultan gestures toward shore, and a guard there lifts a bow. Another soldier lights the pointed end of the arrow on fire. With the tip burning, the arrow flies out over the water and strikes the flat-topped barge. Flames overtake the boat, and trepidation blazes through me.
Ashwin leans over me from the dock above. “Have you lost all sense?”
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