“This is why you brought me here, isn’t it? This is the trial tournament.”
“Gods, Kalinda,” he says, terror shaking his voice. “I’ll give you your freedom. Just don’t do this.”
“I’m not doing this for my freedom. I’m doing this for the empire.”
The second I utter the words, they are true. I am kindred to the Tarachand throne, and our people must come first. Before my needs, and even before Ashwin’s. Everyone I love has been affected by the empire’s divide. Brac and Mathura are stranded at the border, and Deven and Yatin are imprisoned. Deven predicted this moment was coming long before I did. He saw what I must do to free us. I can play the sultan’s game. I can face fire for Deven and the others I love. I can set aside my fear for my people. I can—I must—fight for peace.
The gong sounds, ringing down on me.
Ashwin says the Prayer of Protection. “Let the sky lead you, the land ground you, the fire cleanse you, and the water feed you.” He unties the dinghy from the dock and tosses me the line. As I paddle out, he stays crouched on the dock, his troubled gaze watching me go.
Spectators observe me from the waterfront, drawn from their huts by the smoke and light of the fire. A few boat lengths later, the heat of the inferno hits me. I stop rowing and slip over the side of the dinghy into the cool river. The small boat bobs away. I swim the final distance to the barge and hoist myself up on deck.
Flames flicker over everything, slithering tongues of yellow, orange, and red. A burning segment of the wheelhouse breaks off and splashes in the water. The fire hisses like a disturbed den of vipers and then extinguishes to smoke. I am tempted to jump back into the water, but the memory of Brac’s last lesson stops me.
You have nothing to fear. You are fire, and fire is you.
All fire starts with a spark. A tiny ember like the one I cajoled to life in the temple ruins. I brought fire life—maybe I can take it.
I push to my feet, heat singeing my face and hands. I close my eyes and search for my inner star. A single, perfect light in a velvet night. Brighter, bigger, hotter than nature’s flame.
Summoning my soul-fire to protect me, I open my eyes and stretch out my hand. My fingertips touch the yellow rim of the fire. Instead of pulling back, I pull the heat in. The flame unravels from the blaze and twists around my finger, dancing like a child around a campfire. I watch the flame coil down and link together on my hand like a ring. Fear eludes me. We are made of the same essence. I am fire, and fire is me.
The flames spread at my back, blocking my way to the water.
Don’t panic. They’re friends too.
No, not friends. Servants.
I am the greater fire.
Water douses the flame, wind feeds the flame, land cups the flame, and I . . . I rule the flame.
I step forward, and the flames part in front of me, revealing a charred path. Smoke billows away, clearing a place for me to breathe. I enter the sea of fire.
Warmth slams my face and rises through my feet. My inner star shrinks from the wildness of nature’s inferno, but my powers protect me like a shield. Another step, and more fire parts. I take one footstep at a time, charming the flames as I would a cobra.
Shh . . . I’m welcome here. We’re the same.
At the center of the barge, the blaze surrounds me and shoots over my head like a halo. I cannot see the shore. Within the firestorm, where life ends and new life begins, the veins on my arms glow so brightly I am flame.
The fire forms into serpents, wingless dragons made of luminous tendrils. Their beauty transfixes me. I do not wish to part with this humming power, this reflection of my soul. But I must nearly be out of time.
I stroke a fingertip down a fiery dragon’s long, scaly back. When I reach the tail, I pull my hand away and blow on the thread of flame ringing my finger. Rest, dear one. The flame vanishes to smoke. Now for the others.
I throw out my arms and the fire curls away, receding out of reach. I pursue the heat and exile more flames. They shrivel to a dusting of ash and embers.
Working in a circle, I shrink more flames, banishing them to cinder. As I blow out the last flare, on the far side of the barge, the blaze has nibbled down the taut ropes that connect the boat to the anchored buoys. The fire has nearly bitten its way through.
I hurry over to extinguish the burning ropes, and two things happen at once.
The gong rings, a muted bell of failure.
And the nearest rope snaps.
Instead of swinging back at the barge, the burning rope launches for land. Onlookers along the waterfront dart away from the blistering whip lashing the sky. The rope strikes several boats tied along shore, and the fire leaps onto the vessels. The Aquifiers on standby summon streams of water from the river and throw geysers at the early flames, but the blaze jumps from one wooden watercraft to the next, chewing up canvas sails. Within seconds, smoke hazes the breadth of the city dock.
The rope on the other side of the barge is still on fire. As I run for it, I trip on a burned hole in the deck and fall. The second rope snaps, flinging back at me. I duck, and it lands in the water. With my hands and face deep in ashes, the barge beneath me groans. The side where the ropes broke dips into the river. Water rushes up on deck, gushing my way. I search the surface for the dinghy, but it has drifted downriver. The fire-damaged deck beneath me begins to lift as the other half of the barge tips downward into the water.
Pushing to my feet, I scramble across the slanted deck. The creaking and groaning mount to a roar. As the floor buckles, I reach the bow and leap into the river. I submerge in the dark cold. Water becomes my sky and my land. A portion of the barge lands with me. I try to swim out of its path, but a fragment of broken wood tangles in my hair and drags me downward. The barge sinks nearby, sliding past me with deadly grace.
I cannot reach my hair to detangle my braid. I kick for the surface, but the debris is locked against my head, towing me under.
My lungs burn for air. I fight to wrench free . . . Darkness turns me inside out, filling my sight. I open my mouth to gasp, and water fills me.
As I choke, a hazy light materializes before me. A young woman floats closer from the deep, her white robe trimmed with pure light. I recognize her sweet face.
My best friend reaches for me, but I have no strength to gather her in a hug. Her arm passes around me, and she tugs my hair free.
“Swim, Kali,” she says.
I paw through the water weighing me down. Jaya drifts away, fading into the deep. I strain to see her vanishing light.
She is leaving me. She is breaking my heart all over again.
I open my mouth to call to her, and a powerful current charges at me, dragging me away from Jaya’s glow. I break the surface, and arms grasp me. A hand cups my forehead.
“Blood is water, and water is mine.”
The water in my mouth and nose clears out, like raindrops wicked away by a beam of sunlight. I collapse forward, coughing. Indah holds me upright, both of us hovering over the river.
“Gather your strength,” she says. “They need help onshore.”
Indah floats us toward land on her mist. Smoke obscures the shoreline, and flames flash like glowing spikes. The fire runs the entire length of the city’s waterfront.
We reach the muddy riverbank down from the dock, and Indah lets me go. I fall hard on my bottom, my legs and arms waterlogged. Indistinct shouts surround me. All of my senses are muddled.
Slowly, I comprehend Citra and a group of Tremblers are heaving dirt upon the flames and sinking the burning boats. Indah joins the Aquifiers dousing the blaze. Everyone rushes to stop the fire from spreading inland. I used most of my powers to extinguish the barge. But I grab what is left, don it like armor, and walk to the blazing boats.
A flame leaps at me. I throw my hand up, and it curls away like a disobedient dog’s tail. I focus on the next flame, and the next, but I might as well be trying to catch fleas. This fire has more fuel than the contained barge fire; it is nearly impossible to get in front of.
My hands shake. I sink to my knees, preserving the strength to stand, and shrivel more flames. Several more return in its place. I cannot win this. My soul-fire is shrinking and weakening my shield. Heat breaks through, drying my lips. Smoke chokes me. I am drowning again, this time on flame’s breath.
A breeze encases me, and I inhale sharply. Rohan stands at my side, summoning a clean wind that flows around us.
Indah comes into sight beside us, with Pons. She throws water, hissing flames to embers, while Rohan and Pons maintain breathable air. I collect the last of my soul-fire and command the fiery destruction to bow to me. The flames dip, kneeling at my feet. Citra crosses to us and stamps out the last of the blaze with a mudslide.
Rohan pushes away the smoky air with a slingshot of wind, and my eyes clear of the burning sensation.
Indah looks up at Pons and grins. “You have soot on your face.” She taps his nose, and he grins at her.
Rohan stamps out cinders beneath his feet. I taste ash in my mouth and feel gritty soot inside my ears. Citra rests on a pile of rubble. Her usually flawless hair lies limp around her dirty face.
Opal’s wing flyer swoops down from overhead. Before the craft comes to a full stop, Ashwin jumps off and runs to me. I meet him halfway, and he grabs me against him.
“I saw you on the barge.” His voice is muffled, his mouth pressed to the side of my head. “You walked into fire.”
“I guess I did,” I reply, just as amazed at myself. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” He leans away, and his shock evolves to marvel. “When you vanished into the fire, I panicked. Then I saw you inside it, shining like a star.”
“I’m glad you aren’t hurt either.”
Sultan Kuval marches up the shoreline, a fleet of soldiers at his heels. Citra clambers to her feet. “Kindred Kalinda!” the sultan shouts. “You are an abomination. Look what you did!”
More smoke clears, exposing the wreckage around me: the ruined boats and dock, half sunken and charred beyond repair. The reality of the sultan’s blame silences any defense of my actions. Everywhere I go, I leave a trail of ashes.
“Disqualify her, Father,” Citra demands. He would not guess that moments ago we were battling alongside each other to put out the fire. “She didn’t pass her test.”