Tarek, Lakia, and I go to the imperial box overlooking the arena. The events start with Fareeshah’s match; she is the courtesan who asked about my health during the declaration ceremony. She is to battle Manju, a courtesan in her late twenties. All four gongs chime, sending a tremor down my back.
Fareeshah attacks first. Feral in her movements, she stalks Manju like a wildcat on the hunt. I fear for the older courtesan, waiting for Fareeshah to spring with her sharp daggers. Fareeshah prowls closer and closer to Manju. Inevitably, Fareeshah attacks and Manju falls, struck down by the swiftness and accuracy of Fareeshah’s blades. Fareeshah raises her knives to the crowd, soaked in her opponent’s blood.
Tarek cheers with the crowd, and my stomach gurgles in repulsion. Fareeshah must still win the victors’ match before she secures a position battling me. Although it is callous, I wish for her to lose so that I never have to confront her in the arena.
The tournament continues with the second duel, another gory, cringe-inducing sight. For most of the morning, there is no safe place to rest my gaze. I cannot watch the challengers battling, nor can I look down at the courtesans in the terrace without thinking of Tarek drowning them, and I cannot look at Tarek without wondering if he is aware that at this very moment his stronghold is being searched.
I hate that Deven is combing the palace without me, but as soon as he finds the Zhaleh, we can use Hastin’s help to get away. Once I leave, the rest of my challengers will have no one to fight for the throne. I do not anticipate that Hastin will let Tarek live long enough to claim another final viraji, and so the tournament will be over. All I must do is my part. I must stay here and play the role Tarek has given me.
During a midday meal of roasted lamb, which I pass over so as not to gag, a messenger enters the imperial box. I follow him out of the corner of my eye, watching him whisper in the rajah’s ear. Tarek looks at me and then back at the messenger. My worries vault. Something could have happened to Jaya or Deven.
The messenger leaves, and Tarek returns to his roasted lamb, cutting it into precise bite-size chunks. He is playing coy. I hate to feed into his strategy to draw me in, but I cannot sit here any longer without knowing what is happening at the palace.
“Your Majesty, have you received unpleasant news?”
“Why would you say that?” He pops a piece of lamb into his mouth and studies me.
“A message is often urgent,” I say, trying to act offhanded.
Tarek pats his knee and smiles. “Join me, and I will tell you.”
I am in no position to deny my ruler. I go to him, and he pulls me into his lap. He smells of warm eucalyptus oil and the spices on the meat. Lakia curls her lip at us and turns away with her plate of food.
“How would you like to have supper with me tonight?” Tarek plays with my hair, wrapping the ends around his wrist.
I compel myself to relax in his arms. “Supper?”
“General Gautam and his new wife have agreed to dine with us.”
“That’s very thoughtful, Your Majesty.” I will not pass up the opportunity to see Jaya, but if the message were about supper, why would Tarek be reticent to tell me?
He brushes aside my hair and kisses me behind my ear. “After they leave, you and I can be alone.” I lower my gaze to conceal my wrinkled nose. Tarek tips up my chin, and I startle at his cold eyes. “You would not deceive me, would you, love?”
“N—no, Your Majesty.”
Still glaring, he presses his lips to mine and works them like he did the piece of meat. His rough kiss brands me as much as a number on my hand. I hold my breath, my stomach cramping with disgust. Tarek finally stops and rests his forehead against mine. Hours ago, Deven did the same, only I wanted him to touch me.
“We will be together soon, love,” Tarek whispers, twirling my hair.
His forced intimacy suffocates me. He is not speaking to me, but to Yasmin. I am merely a vessel for the woman he desires. The pampered smell of his oiled skin and the stink of chewed meat on his breath curdle my insides. I have to get away.
I stand, and pain shoots across my scalp. My hair is still wrapped around Tarek’s wrist. He yanks on it like he would a rope, and I fall to my knees before him. The servants and guards in the imperial box quiet. Lakia swivels back to watch us.
“You smell different today.” Tarek lifts my hair to his nose. Does he detect Deven’s scent on me? “Is that new soap?” he says.
He means the ginger-lavender soap the Aquifier used to wash my back. “Y—yes, Your Majesty. Do you like it?”
“Very much.” Tarek releases my hair, his expression distrustful. “Yasmin favored the same scent.”
I try for a flattered smile at the morbid coincidence and return to my chair. For the remainder of the meal, I steal glances at the rajah, but he ignores my attention. His disinterest unsettles me almost as much as my suspicion that the message his servant delivered was not about supper.
The victors’ match takes place in the suffocating heat of late afternoon. By the time Fareeshah slays her last challenger and secures a finalist position, my nerves are scored down to bone. Tarek has warmed to me again, but he is preoccupied. We leave the amphitheater, and I realize that he has not had a single drink today.
The return procession goes on forever. I expect to break away from Tarek when we enter the palace gates, but he holds my hand, and we descend the rolling stairway pushed up to the elephant’s side together. In the courtyard, he does not let go.
“Supper will be served soon,” he says.
“Do I have time to change?” I pretend to be crestfallen. I have to get away from him long enough to see Deven and hear how the search went.
Tarek smiles wide. “I will escort you to your chamber and wait for you.”
His proximity stifles the air, like walls closing in around me. He hovers near my side during the long walk to my chamber, his guards behind us. No one stands guard outside my door. I pray that Deven is not visible within.
Asha greets us with a low bow. “Your Majesty. Viraji.”
My gaze darts around my chamber, and I relax a fraction. Deven is not here. “Asha, I need to change for supper. Would you bring me the jade sari, please?”
Asha hastens to find the garment, and Tarek’s guards take up their posts near the door. I step behind the dressing screen and exhale slowly. I breathe more easily without Tarek’s insufferable nearness, but he is still too close. I can hear him wandering my room.
Asha brings me the sari. From her troubled eyes, I sense something is amiss. “What is it?” I whisper.
“Captain Naik has been imprisoned.”
My blood runs to ice. “What for?”
“I don’t know, but he is in the dungeons.”
Fearful tears spring from my cold regret. Whatever the reason he has been detained, it must trace back to me.
“Are you dressed?” Tarek asks. “We don’t want to leave our guests waiting.”
“Almost,” I squeeze out.
Asha drapes the pleated sari over my shoulder and dries my eyes with her sleeve. “Hide your pain,” she whispers. “The rajah laughed when the kindred threw hot oil on my face for bringing her supper late. He cares nothing for your tears.” She tucks the tail end of the sari into my front waistline. “Hurry.”
My heart aches for Asha, but I drive away the fear making my hands shake. Play the role. Be the viraji. I gather every tattered scrap of courage I possess and step out.
Tarek’s gaze devours me. He steps forward and fixes the kohl around my eyes, where a tear must have smudged the color. “Has something upset you, love?” His concern borders on mocking.
He knows that I know about Deven.
I am tempted to touch him and push, push, push all my fire into him until he is nothing more than a heap of dust. I am confident I have enough hatred stockpiled to hurt him, but could I do away with him? Even if I were able to scorch him and evade his guards, I cannot risk trying until I know what he has done to Deven.
I fix him with a taut smile. “Not at all.”
One side of the rajah’s mouth curls up, and he leads me by the arm to a secluded atrium in the wives’ wing. The atrium is enclosed by high walls and lush greenery. The intimate garden is scented with hibiscus and shaded from the setting sun by blooming magnolia trees. The second I step inside, my inner fire shrinks. Though the desert night could not be warmer, dread chills me.
My Burner abilities are gone.
I went so long without my powers that I immediately recognize the sensation. Does Tarek know? He could have brought me here to disarm me, but he sat beside me all day without any indication that he knows what I am.
I do not think about it long, for I see Gautam and Jaya. I restrain a gasp. My friend’s face is bruised more than before, and her lip is split. The scar across her cheek has been reopened, cut in a precise, purposeful line. I wrap her in my arms.
“What has he done to you?”
“The rajah knows,” she whispers back.
My windpipe seals shut. Knows what? That I am a Burner? About Deven and me? That we are after the Zhaleh? That I am aiding the bhuta warlord? I have so many secrets that I do not know which to prepare a defense for.
Tarek invites us to the table. He and I kneel on floor cushions beside each other, and Gautam and Jaya sit across from us. The table is set with elegant plating and silverware, including carving knives, golden chalices, and satin linens. A platter of bread and honey has been set out as an appetizer. I touch none of it.
Jaya tucks her arms and legs close to her body, like an insect curling in on itself. I wish that we could link hands under the table like we did in Samiya. I could gut Gautam for what he did to her. The cut on Jaya’s cheek had healed, but now it will leave an ugly scar.
A servant offers wine to the rajah. He waves her away and selects a portion of cheese that he lays on my plate. “Good matches today, wouldn’t you say, General?”
“A headache forced me to miss most of the morning,” replies Gautam.
I resist the urge to look at Jaya. I want to praise her slyness for poisoning her husband, but for all I know, he caught her and repaid her with new injuries.
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