“All the more reason to revere it. Galers respect the storm. Aquifiers idolize the sea. Tremblers worship the mountain. And we . . . we respect this. Soul-fire and nature-fire come from the gods. The only divide is how your mortal half perceives them. Your mortal side fears death and pain.”
“I wonder why,” I say dryly. Across the fire, Deven glances away from us, pretending he is not watching my lesson.
“Ignore your mortal half,” says Brac. “Listen to the half of you that connects to the gods. That is your strength.” He brings the swirling flame closer. “Hold out your palm.” I do not comply, so he lifts my hand. “Ready?”
Not at all. But Brac will not leave me alone until I try, so I nod.
He tips his hand and drops the flame into my open palm. The instant the fiery tendril hits my skin, I draw back in pain. The wispy flare falls to the ground and catches the dry grass afire. Brac extinguishes the small brush fire with the wave of his hand and then aims an accusatory scowl at me.
“You’re being absurd. You’re a Burner. You shouldn’t be afraid of fire.”
“Shouldn’t I?” I show him the scalding boils on my palm. They are minor, but they hurt.
Brac grasps my forearms and pushes in his powers, awakening radiance beneath my skin. Tiny rivers of soul-fire brighten up the veins in my arm. I gawk at the powers now visible within me. “You are fire, and fire is you,” he explains. “You cannot fear fire or it will turn on you. Burners are the ones to fear. Nature-fire will obey our command.”
Deven steps over to us, avoiding looking at the pathways of light running up my arms. “Brac, that’s enough for now.”
Brac slings an irritated frown at his older brother and releases me. The shining trails along my skin fade like a star subject to a new day. “I don’t interfere with your and Kali’s weapon training. Don’t interfere with ours.”
“I haven’t burned her,” Deven retorts.
“Oh, hush,” Mathura orders her sons and then carries a small pot of salve over to me, limping on her bad knee. Deven stays at my side, his temples bouncing from his clenched jaw. Mathura slathers the cool medicine on my blisters and speaks soothingly. “Don’t be discouraged, Kalinda. Fear of fire is perfectly rational.”
Deven’s frown deepens. His interference with my training bothers Brac and me for different reasons. Deven wants my powers to remain hidden from our people for my protection. Rajah Tarek spread lies to teach his subjects to hate all bhutas, and now that the bhuta warlord has run them out of their homes, they may link me to Hastin’s insurgence. Bhutas look like full-mortals even though they are half-gods, and so my people do not know what I am. But I suspect Deven takes personal issue with my powers. He dislikes any reminder that I am a Burner.
My blister stops stinging, and a sudden wind hits us, rustling our clothes.
“I don’t like the mood of that wind,” says Natesa, batting away a loose strand of her hair. She has not bathed in days, yet she is still one of the prettiest women in Tarachand.
Another flurry whips at us with dusty swipes. Gooseflesh springs up my arms. These are not natural gales. Something—someone—comes.
“Kali, where is the Zhaleh?” Deven asks.
My pulse skips in alarm. “Inside my satchel.”
Deven slings my bag over his shoulder. Yatin returns to camp, and they both unsheathe their khandas. I draw my dagger, my injured hand free to employ my powers. Mathura and Natesa stand back to back, weapons ready. The camels exchange high-pitched moans and bunch together to stave off the errant winds.
Brac steps out of the circle of firelight to search for what approaches. He leaves camp, his figure waning to a silhouette, and shouts, “There!”
I expect to see rebels, but a great bird soars over the valley. I peer at the monstrous fowl, its moonlit wings frosted ghostly silver. The bird is as large as a passenger carriage. I have not seen anything this gigantic airborne; its wingspan is wider than a wagon is long. We watch the immense bird, hypnotized by its graceful approach in the high winds. The flying monster banks right, zooming in our direction.
Brac dashes for camp. The bird races after him, harnessing the force of the gale, and dives. Brac drops to the ground, and the monster skims over him—flying straight at me.
Deven knocks me down. We roll twice and land with him on top, a barrier between me and the sky. The great bird swoops over us. Everyone else has stretched out on the ground. We stay down as the enormous creature soars back with the moon facing its front. The bird is actually an extraordinary flying contraption. A boy rides within it, lying with his belly perpendicular to the land. He steers the flyer down and lowers his legs. His feet connect with the land, and he sprints to a stop with the contraption.
Another flyer cuts across the sky. The birdlike device dives for an open patch of hillside, and a girl lands with the same skilled poise as her partner.
Deven and I rise together. Yatin straightens from his protective crouch over Natesa, and Mathura steps forward from behind a boulder. The boy and girl climb out of the flyers. Their plain clothes do not reveal who they are or where they come from. All I am certain of is that they are bhutas, Galers. Their flying contraptions ride their conjured winds. The only Galer I have met is Anjali, the warlord’s sneaky daughter. I gather soul-fire into my hand, fingers glowing.
Brac plants himself between our visitors and camp. He throws a blast of fire to push them back. The flame lights up their surprised faces and sizzles out. They raise their hands in peace.
“We aren’t rebels,” the boy says. His dark hair flops casually across his forehead, fringing his overly round eyes. He takes a tentative step forward. “We were sent to find you.”
“Goal accomplished. Now go.” Brac tosses another heatwave at them.
“Stop that,” says the girl. She is short and reed thin, with a confident full mouth and wide, flat nose. Her looks are plain, but beauty and intelligence reside in her sleek cheekbones and thin brows. She lowers her arms and throws a squall at Brac, swiping him off his feet. He lands with an umph.
I hurl my dagger. The tip embeds in the ground shy of the girl’s toes. “That’s far enough,” I call out.
“Kindred.” She drops to her knees, and the boy follows.
“What do you want?” Deven’s voice is sharp and flat, like his outstretched blade.
The girl—I wager age sixteen, and her male comrade a year younger—shows us a sealed letter. “We bring a message from Brother Shaan.”
Brac gets up and snatches the message from her hand. He stalks back to us, his attention locked on the pair, and hands me the sealed letter. I open it and read.
Trust the messengers. They will guide you.
I hand the letter to Deven. He reads the concise instructions and frowns.
“That is Brother Shaan’s handwriting,” he says. Like me, he is not ready to trust these strangers. “And that sounds like him, cryptic and all knowing.”
I consider our young guests and the possibility that they would know who we are and carry a note from Brother Shaan. I lower my glowing hand. “Let’s hear what they have to say.”
Brac does not disengage his glower as the Galers cross into the firelight. Natesa and Mathura lower their steel but keep the blades close. Yatin flanks our visitors, his huge size provoking wary glances from the girl.
“May we sit?” The boy gives a flimsy smile. “We’ve been flying for hours, and our wings are tired.” He flaps his arms for good measure. None of our expressions budge. The boy coughs awkwardly into his hand.
“I’m Opal, and this is my brother, Rohan,” says the girl.
“Please rest,” I offer. Opal sits beside her brother, and I join them. Everyone else remains on their feet, distrustful and wary. “Your flying contraptions are remarkable.”
“Wing flyers,” Opal corrects. “They were made in Paljor.”
Their nondescript attire bears no insignia linking them to the northern tribal nation of the Alpana Mountains, or any nation for that matter. “Are you from Paljor?” I ask.
“Paljor is our mother’s homeland,” answers Opal.
“Where is Brother Shaan?” Deven asks.
“Safe,” she replies. “We flew him to the northern temple where Prince Ashwin was hiding and then took them both to Janardan a few days ago. Per their request, we’ve been searching for you since.”
A light sparks inside me, bright and warm. Prince Ashwin is alive. Mathura sets down her weapon and sits near us to listen, resting her bad knee.
“Why did the prince leave the empire?” Natesa asks, crossing her arms over her chest. “His people need him here.”
“It isn’t safe,” Opal avows. “When Hastin discovered Brother Shaan escaped Vanhi, he rounded up the brethren for questioning.”
“The wind told us of their fate.” Rohan’s grimace reminds me that Galers hear secrets on the wind that no other bhutas or mortals can. “Anjali tortured them to find out the prince’s whereabouts. The brethren wouldn’t tell, so Hastin ordered his daughter to winnow them.”
“Buzzards,” Brac says. At my confused glance, he explains. “A Galer can use their powers to siphon the air from their victim’s lungs. They call it winnowing.”
“Only amoral Galers use that technique,” Opal says in aversion. “None of the brethren knew where the prince was hiding, only Brother Shaan.”
My mouth turns dry. Mathura takes up her handheld hookah pipe to cope with the accounts of torture. I am close to asking for a puff of the mind-easing smoke myself.
“And the imperial guard?” Deven asks tightly. He has been reluctant to speak about the palace guards, but the rumor the woman told us of their being executed must be wearing on him.
“Hastin stoned the guards and beheaded the higher-ranking officers,” Rohan replies.
Deven pales. He and Yatin would have faced the same fate had they not fled with me. My worry for the ranis and courtesans Hastin is holding captive surges.