The rest of us cluster around the outer perimeter of the circle. No one may enter the ring until the victor is declared. I drift to the back, refusing to look up at the rajah spying over us. I cannot stomach watching Jaya be defeated. Hives still blemish her arms and legs. I pray that Natesa will not do anything permanent to her.
Jaya and Natesa assume their stances: feet spread, knees bent, shoulders tense, weapons raised.
“On my mark.” The priestess lifts a hand drum, palm hovering over the stretched deerskin face. Tension sparks the air. Her hand thunders down on the drum.
Natesa lunges, swiping the blade at Jaya’s chest. Jaya spins like an arrow, and their shafts clash. Natesa’s khanda is slow to rebound, and Jaya retreats to the rim of the ring.
I scan my friend from head to toe and exhale slowly. No blood yet.
Natesa paces around Jaya, attacking with taunting smirks. She has won many matches by intimidating her opponent, but her efforts are wasted here today. Jaya is prepared to be beaten.
Jaya closes the gap and brings her blade down against Natesa’s. I cringe at the screeching metal. The challengers’ grunts reverberate off the outer walls. The onlookers are silent. We typically cheer on our favorites, but today this is less about skill trials and more about the Claiming. Apprehension hangs over us like a thunderhead. One of us will be taken from here today. Maybe more than one of us. And no one knows who.
Jaya thrusts with the short haladie blade, grazing Natesa’s sari. She pauses to see if she drew blood. She missed. Only I know that the miss was intentional. Natesa swoops in with the khanda, ramming Jaya back. Jaya falls and drops her blade. Natesa places the tip of the sword to Jaya’s torso. My friend stills. So does my breath. Natesa raises the sharp point to Jaya’s face and rips a slash across her cheek.
Fury hits me like a wall of flame. I do not realize that I am moving until I have shoved my way into the circle. Natesa shifts the sword to Jaya’s other cheek. She is going to cut her again.
I slam my whole body into Natesa’s side. She spins through the air, feebly lifting the sword to defend herself. I roll forward in a somersault and unfurl, kicking my feet into her legs. Natesa flings away and lands hard on her back, banging the khanda loose from her hand.
Snatching up the sword, I stoop over her. I lower the thick middle of the blade to her throat. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I know that I should stop. But I do not care about the plan. I do not care about the rajah. Natesa did not mark Jaya in a spot that could be hidden.
She scarred Jaya on purpose.
“Kali, stop,” Jaya calls. Blood runs down her cheek from the gash, feeding my rage.
My blade bites into Natesa’s neck. Crimson flecks bead around the razor edge. She freezes at the scent of her own blood. Not a gasp or a plea leaves her lips, parted in fear.
“Kalinda!” Priestess Mita’s snappish voice tears through my haze of vengeance. She drags me away from Natesa, and I stagger back, staring wide-eyed at Natesa’s bloody throat.
I did that.
Sister Hetal kneels in front of Natesa. Healer Baka rushes forward to help Jaya. My friend holds her cheek, scarlet teardrops seeping through her pale fingers.
“Kalinda, go inside.” Priestess Mita’s order leaves no quarter for disobedience.
Before I take a step, someone starts to clap.
Without a word, every person in the courtyard gazes up at the north tower scraping the gray sky.
The applause stops, and a deep, firm voice shouts from above, “Let her stay.”
Barbs of terror dig under my skin. The courtyard goes as still as a sky burial. This is the first time many of these girls have heard a man speak.
Priestess Mita breaks from the daze first. “Kalinda, you heard the benefactor. Step back and wait your turn.” Her eyes roll upward, and she steals a look at the rajah without lifting her chin. She is frightened of him.
Healer Baka helps Jaya up. I start toward my friend, but the healer warns me off. “She’s going to the infirmary. Stay here.”
“I will be all right.” Jaya holds her bloody face. “Be careful, Kali.” She eyes the tower, and she and Healer Baka walk toward the entry.
Sister Hetal raises Natesa to standing. Natesa blubbers on as if her neck has been cut clean through, but her wound is a mere scrape compared to the one on Jaya’s cheek.
My lack of empathy after what I did surprises me. Natesa saw Jaya’s lovely face as competition, so she marred her. I wish the pain of a thousand cuts upon her head.
I toss the khanda into the weapons pile and join the daughters waiting to duel. The weight of their shocked gazes oscillates from me to the shadow watching from above.
“Sarita and Kalinda, please step forward.”
At last, Priestess Mita has called our names. Natesa and Jaya left less than an hour ago, but we have shivered in the cold for an eternity. I am ready to be done with my trial and go inside.
The rest of the duels were predictable. Falan overcame her opponent, and Prita lost, the former being the more aggressive of the pair. All that remains is for Sarita to defeat me, and she must. The rajah has not applauded or spoken again. I have drawn too much attention to myself. I did not intend to, but now is my chance to reverse my mistake.
Sarita and I face off in the ring. Not one for subtlety, she has chosen the khanda. I am the first dueler to select the staff. Everyone else attacked with a blade. Each victor sliced her opponent in unseen places—arms, legs, torsos. Never again on the face. My only regret, other than drawing the rajah’s attention, is that I did not repay Natesa’s cruelty with a more appropriate punishment. I should have cut her cheek and tarnished her face too.
Grasping the staff with both hands, I prepare my defense. Sarita may be shorter than I am, but she is nimble and has a mighty swing. Though my assault on Natesa made me out to be a swordswoman, I am most comfortable with the weapons I have trained with.
Priestess Mita strikes the hand drum, and Sarita moves in.
“Natesa isn’t here with me because of you,” she says, blade raised.
I rotate the staff in a circle. “Neither is Jaya. She did nothing to Natesa. She did nothing to anyone.”
Sarita bares her teeth. “Natesa wanted to fight you.”
“She did a poor job of showing it.”
Sarita lunges, hacking at the air with sloppy, angry swings. I evade her, sidestepping. She thrusts and connects with the bamboo. The strong vibration jolts up my arm. I revolve, and we meet again. The blade hacks a chunk out of the staff.
“I knew you would choose to fight with a tree.” Sarita smirks, all superiority and malice. “It’s as ugly and skinny as you.”
Annoyance rasps at me. Quit jabbering and end this.
I strike at her head with the maneuver that Jaya and I practiced yesterday, only I misjudge the strength of irritation behind my swing, along with how far apart we are. The end of the staff smacks Sarita in the mouth.
Priestess Mita beats the drum, signaling the end of our duel.
I stare openly at Sarita’s split lip. She touches her injured mouth and gapes at her bloody fingertips. My victory was not a brazen show of skill. Neither of us expected me, the weakest fighter here, to draw first blood.
Alarm barrels down on me. What have I done?
The priestess dabs Sarita’s lip with a cloth bandage, and the daughters clear the courtyard. Everyone shivers from standing in the wintry air, and it isn’t long before they have all funneled inside. I am the last to go in, but not before I hear the distinct ring of applause from the pinnacle of the north tower.
I nearly laugh at the girls scurrying out of my way in the corridor. They have always kept a distance on account of my illness, but they have not had a real reason to fear me. It is disconcerting yet oddly satisfying that I have given them one.
The familiar scents of ground ginger and sweet chamomile welcome me into the infirmary. The cot Healer Baka reserves for me is empty, and none of the other beds are occupied. We are alone, like we were for most of my childhood.
“Where is Jaya?” I say. “Is she all right?”
Healer Baka looks up from sterilizing her instruments. “Jaya needed stitches. She will have a small scar from the cut, but she is fit to be shown. I sent her to dress for the rite.” The healer considers me from behind her spectacles. “I understand why you stepped in to defend her, but you went too far.”
I rest my hands on the back of a chair and stare her down. “Someone had to help Jaya. How long was the priestess going to wait before intervening? Until after Natesa marked Jaya’s other cheek?”
“How long should she have waited to pull you off Natesa? Until after you slit her throat?”
I clamp my mouth shut, and Healer Baka tempers her voice. “You cut Natesa the same way she cut Jaya. You have to make peace with what you did.”
“She scarred Jaya on purpose!”
“And what you did was so different?” Healer Baka asks gently. “Making peace is not for her. It is for you.”
I grip the chair, remembering the weight of the sword in my hand. Sisterhood is one of our five learned godly virtues, but I have no sisterly love for Natesa. “I will not apologize. I was right to help Jaya.”
“That may be so, but peace is a choice, Kali. A decision not to be at odds with the world and to accept the gods’ path for you. You can attain no higher peace of mind than doing what the gods would have you do.”
I glower at the floor. I have so little freedom. It is unfair for her to expect me to forgive Natesa. Holding a grudge is one of the few choices I have.
Healer Baka rounds the table and touches my forearm, forcing my gaze up. Her brow creases with concern. “How do you feel?”
“Fine.” It is on my lips to tell her that my fever surged when the dosage expired, but she would scold me for neglecting to take my medicine on time. “How much longer will I have to take my tonic?”
“The tonic isn’t a cure, Kali. You could grow out of your fevers, but it is just as likely the tonic’s effectiveness will wear off.”
We frown at each other, mutually dissatisfied. After years of failed remedies, Healer Baka concocted a fever-reducing tonic; however, she has not determined the source of my sickness. We know I am not contagious, since I am often the only patient in the infirmary. Her best theory is that I inherited my fevers from a family member, but with my unknown parentage, it is impossible to confirm.
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