“Close your eyes and pick a light.” More calm. More urgency. “You can do this, Kali.”
I do as Deven asks, and the light explodes as I am cut three times at once. I scream, a feral cry, and buck against the table. Agony leashes itself to my spine. Hands lash me down. I have no words, only sobs that rise up from a place of anguish, like a pressure exploding from my center. The stars behind my eyes fly at me. I have no stamina to hide from them. Upsurge after upsurge strikes, each fiery whirlwind accompanied by a quick, deliberate cut on my back. Bleeding quells the firestorm, and the swells of agony shrink to waves, then ripples, until finally, the biting scores diminish from a lancing pain to a sweet release.
My body hums a steady flow of heat, but the intensity is softer, gentler now. A banked fire. A cooling pot of boiling water. A warmth that does not destroy but feeds.
A tender hand strokes my damp face. “Kali, it’s done.”
I pry one eye open and see Deven’s concerned gaze. “Did I hurt you?” I say.
He tucks his hand away, but not before I spot blisters on his palm. His mouth slides up on one side. “To touch you, it was worth it.”
I use the last of my strength to smile; then I close my eyes and drift off beneath the light of a single perfect star.
I cannot say if I am out ten minutes or ten seconds, but when I awake, my back does not burn. Across from me, Indira wraps Deven’s hand. Beside them on the table sits a mound of bloodied towels and an empty water pitcher.
“You did well,” Hastin says from my other side. I turn my head to look at him. He fingers a lock of my hair. “Tarek always had a weakness for women’s hair. Your hair is like midnight, as was Yasmin’s.”
“You knew her?”
“She was close to our previous bhuta leader, Kishan.” He releases my tresses. “He was a Burner, like you.”
“What are you?”
I remember what I have read about Tremblers. Hastin can wield the land as a weapon. Reminded of how dangerous he is, I redirect the conversation back to Yasmin. “How did Yasmin and Kishan meet?”
“Rajah Tarek invited us to Vanhi to discuss reinstating Virtue Guards. Bhutas served on every rajah’s council up until Tarek’s great-grandfather did away with them. We were in talks about joining Tarek’s council when Kishan met Yasmin. He loved her at first sight. Neither I nor anyone else could keep him from her.” Hastin’s gaze drifts inward, remembering. “Before long, Yasmin was with child. Tarek believed she was carrying his heir, but Yasmin knew it was Kishan’s child. They knew she couldn’t hide their child’s paternity once it was born, as the infant would be a bhuta, like its father, so when Yasmin was heavily pregnant, she and Kishan tried to run away. Tarek caught them before they left the palace. He confined Yasmin to her chambers and executed Kishan. Yasmin’s grief over losing Kishan started her labor early, and ultimately, that was the end of her and their infant boy.”
I cannot believe that I have not heard of this scandal. Tarek speaks worshipfully of his first wife. I never would have guessed that Yasmin had betrayed him.
“Kishan had the Zhaleh with him when they were caught. We did not know of his death until Tarek ambushed our peacekeeping party. I was the only one to escape. Tarek held on to the Zhaleh and has hunted our people since.” The warlord’s ebony eyes, two granite pebbles, meet mine. “Yasmin foresaw that Tarek would be the ruin of Tarachand. Tarek wanted to use our powers to expand his empire. He never bore love or respect for bhutas, but Yasmin did.” Hastin holds out a dagger. “This was hers. She would want the person who ends Tarek to have it.”
He lays the dagger near my face; it is a twin to the one Mathura gave me. The turquoise hilt comes into focus, along with the gaps in Tarek’s past. His hatred for bhutas is a motivation I do not know if I can outmatch, but my alliance with Hastin is complete.
I have one more question for the warlord. “I never met my parents. Did you know them?”
Hastin shakes his head, and my hope falls like a foot stamping on my chest. If the brethren and bhutas cannot tell me about my parents, I doubt that I will ever know.
“Regardless of who they are, your parents would be proud of you,” says Hastin. “And you should be proud of your heritage.”
It’s too early to tell how I feel. One or both of my parents passed down their powers to me, a legacy that left an unseen mark but unites me with Hastin, Indira, and Brac. I may not have found my family, but I have found my people.
Brac comes in and flaps a hand in front of his face. “It’s hot in here,” he says. “Viraji, it’s time to go.”
Deven helps me down from the table. “Indira closed your incisions, but you still have shallow scratches. She says they will fade by tomorrow.”
“And your hand?” I ask.
“It will be better by morning.”
I thank Indira, and Deven helps me quickly repin and drape my sari. I strap the second dagger, concealed, to my waist. My back is stiff, and my skin feels stretched thin, but there is little pain. I am simply drained of strength. Deven supports me up the steps to the chapel.
Brother Shaan is speaking with a girl. He turns.
I pull up short, and Anjali bows with a smirk. My gaze bounces from face to face, seeking an explanation for why she is here. Deven is faster at piecing it together.
“Anjali is your informant?” Deven asks his brother.
Brac shrugs. “I could do worse.”
“You have, if I remember correctly.”
Brac slides his brother a knowing look. “We cannot all be with the viraji.”
Deven flushes, and I sling a scowl at Brac to silence him.
Brother Shaan hurries over. “They know the viraji is missing. You must return immediately.”
Deven helps me toward the passageway. Anjali falls into step with us. “So you agreed to my father’s bargain,” she remarks.
My eyebrows jump. Hastin is Anjali’s father? Gods . . . I study her profile for a resemblance to him, but do not find it. Still, there is one commonality they must share. Anjali is also a bhuta, probably a Trembler, like her father.
“I suppose this means I cannot kill you,” Anjali says. She purses her lips in dissatisfaction and strides ahead to Brac.
I glower after her. “Mathura said Tarek picked up Anjali off the street. How could Anjali have planned that?”
“Her father must have encouraged her to charm the rajah.” Deven shakes his head. “I should have suspected she was involved. Tarek doesn’t take in many beggars.”
Hastin’s dedication alarms me straight through, chipping into my confidence about our agreement. He has been exploiting his daughter as bait to infiltrate the palace. The warlord has no limit to how far he will go to dethrone Tarek.
“Why doesn’t Hastin ask Anjali to kill the rajah?” I ask.
“The rajah isn’t interested in using Anjali as Yasmin’s host,” Deven says. “Anjali could try to win the tournament and wed the rajah, but unless Tarek reveals the book, it wouldn’t matter how close she got to him.”
Of course. Killing the rajah is not Hastin’s chief concern; it is retrieving the Zhaleh. He presumes Tarek will reveal the book after he weds me. I shudder, my insides freezing with fright. I will worry about marrying the rajah after I secure the throne.
Deven and I step into the underground passage after Anjali and Brac. We return to the palace in good time, but Brac passes the chapel entry and continues onward. The path changes from dirt ground to stone stairs, challenging my quaking legs.
Anjali pauses at another door. “Captain, you and Brac find another way in. The viraji and I will enter here. If anyone asks, she slipped away from you. Meet up with us in the Tigress Pavilion in five minutes.”
I doubt that Anjali would have brought us this far only to betray us, but Deven hesitates. He subtly brushes his hand across the daggers hidden at my back, reminding me that I am armed, should Anjali prove to be untrustworthy. I try to hearten him with a short smile as I follow Anjali through the door.
We emerge into the south portico of the Tigress Pavilion. Anjali hustles across the open dark patio to the wall of weapons.
“Arm yourself,” she says. “Whoever finds us needs to believe we have been sparring.” I draw Yasmin’s daggers in time to dodge the khanda Anjali brings down next to my face. She grins. “Don’t look so frightened. If I wanted to kill you, you would be dead already.”
“I thought you put a viper in my bed.”
“That would be Lakia.” Anjali rotates, and our blades meet. “You’re surprised?”
“Yes.” My arms nearly buckle under Anjali’s might. Even if I were not weakened, she is stronger, faster, and more experienced. “Lakia wants the tournaments to end.”
“Not more than she values her rank. She thinks you will steal it.” Anjali kicks me in the thigh. I stagger to the wall and brace against it, recovering my breath.
“But Lakia and I are not scheduled to battle each other.”
“As it turns out, no one is. Someone planted scorpions in the rooms of Lakia’s challengers tonight. Two fell with fever. One will lose her toe where she was stung. The other lost her whole hand.” Anjali lunges at me, her braid whipping behind her. I block her with both daggers, one on each side of the sword, and hold her off. “After the injured ranis were found, Lakia ordered a bed check and found that you were missing.”
“But you said Lakia planted the scorpions.”
“No one will report her if she did.” Anjali pushes closer to our locked blades. “I heard what you said about my father. You’re wrong about him. I volunteered to come here.”
I drag the blades down, metal screeching, and back away. “You heard that?” Deven and I were whispering, and she was far in front of us.
“I hear everything the wind tells me.”
My mouth opens in surprise. I had thought that Anjali was a Trembler, but Galers hear the secrets of the wind. Hastin is cleverer than I supposed. His daughter’s powers make her the ideal informant to position in the palace.