“She did.” Ashwin wraps his arm around me, and I lean into him. Let them see us united. “Kalinda’s trial was to extinguish the barge fire. No one mentioned the buoy ropes.”
Sultan Kuval roars. “This would not have happened if Kalinda weren’t a—”
“I do hope you’re going to say the aftermath of the fire would have been worse without the kindred’s aid,” Ashwin warns. “Anything else would be disrespectful, and after showing great valor by risking her life twice today—once to pass the perilous trial you forced upon her and again to save your city—she deserves your appreciation. Or if you cannot muster gratitude, at the very least you can manage silence.”
Sultan Kuval sucks his bared teeth, and Citra’s mouth falls open. Before they can utter another vile word, Ashwin pulls me closer, and we walk away.
Cries sound outside the tent. Yatin does not stir from his nap. He is like a hibernating bear; he can sleep through anything. I bat away more annoying mosquitoes and step outside.
Smoke billows over the city skyline. Not long ago, a thunderstorm came out of nowhere and drenched us. Yatin and I took cover in our tent, but my clothes are still damp from the rain. My suspicions double. These odd natural occurrences must have to do with the trial tournament.
On the hillside rank board, Kali’s name remains, along with her three competitors. Is Kali up against her own kind? Do they know she’s a Burner?
Bhuta prison guards jog past me. Apprehension quickens my pace as I follow them to the gate. Most of the guards file out. Only two bhutas stay behind—even the towers are empty. From the symbols on their yellow armbands, they are Tremblers, not Galers.
This is the chance I have been waiting for. I have memorized how many guards are on duty on average—twenty. How many prisoners—approximately five hundred. How many guards are bhutas—about half. The guards change shifts at noon and midnight. Twelve-hour stints mean they are worn out at the end of their watches. Tired men make mistakes.
I stride up to a man I sparred with the other day, the one who landed the hit to my mouth. My lip has mostly healed, but it hurts when I smile. Not that I have had much to smile about lately. I tug on his sleeve and lead him around a corner so we are hidden from the remaining guards.
“Have you seen Manas?” I ask.
“Last time I saw him he was sulking outside the sick tent.”
“Go get him and then wake Yatin. Tell them to meet me by the latrine.”
He reclines against the outer wall, in no rush to obey. “You aren’t my captain.”
I lean into his face and drop my voice to a growl. “If you bear any love for our homeland, you will do as I say.” He cringes from me. “Go quickly.”
The soldier rushes off, and I round the corner. The other men and guards are captivated by the plumes of smoke in the distance. I stroll past them to the deserted east end of camp. The latrine area is the only place I can guarantee privacy. But skies, it stinks.
While I wait, the smoke continues to pour into the sky and frustration builds inside me. I cannot shake the nagging worry that Kali is in trouble. I slam my fist against the high prison wall, wishing I had the power to knock it down. Kali is out there fighting, and I cannot help her.
The soldier I sent on my errand shows up near the tents alone. He shrugs and hurries off. Manas must have refused to meet me, and I doubt he woke Yatin.
Great gods, do I have to do everything myself?
I stalk to the opposite end of camp, my angry strides eating up the muddy ground. Manas sits cross-legged across from the sick tent, brooding. He has been waiting to see Eko, but only the sick are allowed inside. Ten more men have fallen ill since yesterday.
I prowl up to him. “Get up.”
He sits forward, resting his elbows on his knees. I oppose violence as a means of garnering cooperation, but I do not have time for his snit. I grab him by the scruff of his shirt and haul him to his feet.
“Take your hands off me!” he says. I shove him into the dead end beside the sick tent and block his exit. “I don’t have to listen to you.”
He tries to skirt past me, but I hold him back. “I am your commanding officer, and I’ve had enough of your insubordination. Explain yourself. How did you escape Vanhi?”
“Brother Shaan brought me with him.”
“How did you escape Hastin?”
He casts me a petulant glower. “What do you care? You left me.”
“Are you working for Hastin?”
Manas scoffs harshly. “You’re questioning my loyalty?”
I grab him by his shoulders and shake him a little. “Answer me.”
“Hastin had his daughter winnow me.” His upper lip curls in repugnance. “You don’t know what it’s like to have someone reach inside your body and take part of you away.”
I release him, my hands falling at my sides. I have not forgotten the frosty emptiness I felt when Brac parched my soul-fire, but telling Manas I understand will only prove his spite. Manas has reviled bhutas since he was a boy, when a Galer killed his family and wiped out his village. He has acted out in fear and hatred since then.
“Bhutas are a disease,” Manas drivels on. “Prince Ashwin believes they should be exterminated.”
His mention of the prince sharpens my focus. “What do you mean?”
“Eko told me the last time Rajah Tarek visited the prince at the northern temple, they discovered his instructor was a bhuta. Upon the rajah’s order, Prince Ashwin executed the filthy demon.” Manas sneers at me. “I warned the prince that Kindred Kalinda is one of them.”
“Lower your voice,” I say, glancing around.
“You think I don’t want to tell everyone she’s a traitor?”
I grip Manas by the front of his shirt again but restrain from decking him. “Do not speak ill of our rani in my presence, Soldier. What did the prince reply?”
“He told me not to say anything. He said he would take care of it.”
Manas would relish sharing specifics of the prince’s promise to “take care of” bhutas with me, so this must be all he knows. I let him go and stalk out of the dead end.
Smoke plumes pour like a fountain of death into the distant sky. Prince Ashwin knows Kali is a Burner. Maybe he lied about his affection for her. Then why the tournament? If I am right about her competitors being bhutas, the prince will marry a bhuta regardless of whether or not Kali wins.
Unless the trial tournament is a ruse. But for what? Why did Prince Ashwin lure Kali here? What could he stand to gain from trapping his people?
The Zhaleh. Does the prince know Kali has the book? Did Brother Shaan tell him?
I stalk to my tent, my thoughts consumed by razor-sharp fears. I should be with Kali. My duty is to protect her. But that is not the worst of it. I love her. I love my queen. Yet I let my shortsighted jealousy of her marriage to Rajah Tarek come between us. I let the boy prince come between us . . . and perhaps my own insecurities. The fate of the empire is important but not more important than Kali. I throw open the tent flap and duck inside. Yatin is still sleeping. I jostle his shoulder.
“We have to go,” I say in a low voice. “Kali’s in trouble. I’ve been watching the guards’ shifts. I think we can—”
Yatin rolls over. His face is red and his forehead slick with sweat. I press the back of my hand to his cheek. His skin is burning, and the pitch of his breathing is shallow. Yatin was well this morning. His appetite was less than usual, but he had no fever.
I slump down onto the ground. We aren’t going anywhere.
On a muttered prayer, I step outside to call for a healer. Several banging noises draw my gaze upward. Civilians in the neighboring encampment are casting stones at the rank board. Kali’s name remains on the list, but Tinley from Paljor has been taken down.
Vizier Gyan comes the other way, flanked by several bhuta guards returned from the city. “Captain Naik, come with us,” says the vizier.
“Why are they throwing stones at the rank board?” I ask.
The vizier drops his voice so no other prisoners can hear. “The civilian refugees have learned that Kindred Kalinda has been lying to them. She’s a Burner.”
I hold myself perfectly still, my stomach pitching. Our people were taught to abhor bhutas, and now the strongest remaining symbol of the empire—their chosen contender in the trial tournament—is a Burner. Their enemy.
“Will you tell my men?” I ask, fearing a riot. The soldiers will rage when they hear their beloved kindred, their champion rani, has deceived them.
“We both know that would be unwise,” Vizier Gyan replies. “Neither of us wants an uproar.”
He does not have to convince me; I will protect Kali’s identity for as long as possible. “One of my men has fallen ill. I need help moving him to the sick tent.”
Vizier Gyan checks on Yatin and then calls two guards. Together we heave Yatin off the ground. He is so large we need a fifth man to carry him across camp.
Manas waits outside the sick tent. I pass by him while lugging Yatin inside. The ailing lie on bedrolls across the floor. My insides sour at the reek of vomit and excrement. As soon as we set down Yatin, the other men leave. No healer is here to ask after Yatin’s condition. Maybe I missed him outside.
On my way to the tent door, Eko grasps my ankle. He lies on the floor, his color green and his beard crusted with dried vomit. He tries to speak, but his words are indecipherable.
I crouch down and tug his blanket up to his chin. “Lieutenant, you should rest.”
Eko parts his chapped lips and groans, a painful cry of misery. The injustice of this soldier, who served dutifully for years, suffering without aid incenses me. Eko gave everything to the empire. What has the empire given him in return?
Eko drops his head to the side, struggling to breathe. I reach for him, and he clasps my fingers with the meaty hands of a seasoned soldier. I grip Eko tighter to tether him to mortality, but his nostrils flare, and his chest pumps hard to draw in air.
I have seen death before and heard the sounds of life’s final struggles. The fish that flaps wildly against the bank. The struck deer that runs off with the arrow. Before death, everything becomes louder, faster. And then all falls silent.