I slog into the frigid water after them. More arrows fly in front of me, blocking my path. Deven and Brac float out of sight. I run with the current, hurrying after them near the shore.
Water rises to my waist, and the river sucks me downstream. I move my arms back and forth near the surface to keep my head above water. Splashes sound behind me, and Manas grabs me. I try to kick him off, but he is a stronger swimmer and will not let me go. I bob under and up again. Manas hauls me, my arms and legs flailing, back to shore.
I sputter up mouthfuls of river water, my limbs wet and heavy. Manas and another guard lug me before Tarek and shove me to my knees. I hang my head as I regain my breath, but I can see that the rajah is pressing a hand to his bleeding thigh, where I stabbed him; his injury is at my eye level.
“The captain may have gotten away,” he says, “but he will not live through the night.”
My chin shoots up. Tarek has taken away everyone I love. I have obeyed for too long. I will be silent no more.
“I hate you,” I say, and I reach for my powers, vowing that the first second Tarek realizes that I am a bhuta will be his last. But I have exhausted my inner flame. I could parch his soul-fire for fuel, but I would have to be close enough to lay my hands on his skin. Still, that would knock him out long enough for me to push his fire right back in, scorching him. I draw my dagger and stand.
Tarek raises a finger, stopping an archer from shooting me. “You will not kill me, love.”
“You are wrong. I am not Yasmin. I am Kalinda, and you will pay.” I lift my knife as though I plan to cut away his smug smile, and then I move in with my free hand. But before I can touch Tarek, I see the blur of something arcing toward my head—and then nothing.
A foul stench wakes me. I lift my head to look around and then drop my cheek back to the sandy floor. The dungeons stink as dreadfully as I recall.
I do not sit up when a guard brings a breakfast tray into my cell, nor do I stir when he leaves, locking the iron door behind him. I lie on my side, waiting for Tarek to come and force me to attend the tournament.
He does not come, but the rats do. They scurry close, sniff my feet, and twitch their whiskers. I do not move for them either. Eventually, they grow bold and help themselves to my untouched food. I let them have it.
Sand works its way under my clothes, a gritty itch that I lack the will to scratch. I stare at my hands. My worthless hands. All I can do in this poisonous prison is think. I have more than enough hours to reflect on what went wrong, but I do not need them. I know why I am here. The gods are punishing me. I strayed from their path, and they crushed my rebellious dreams.
“You look droopy today, love.”
Tarek drags a chair to the bars and sits facing me. He is dressed for the tournament in his finest jewel-adorned tunic and turban, the rubies cold crimson in the dim light. Either he knows that I am a bhuta and I have no power here, or he does not suspect what I am. I doubt that it would matter if he did know. He would probably find a way to restrict me by tying a collar of noxious herbs around my neck.
“The guards said you won’t eat. You really should. You will need your strength for your match tomorrow.” I stare at the floor, and he adds, “The third finalist is Natesa. Your opponents have opted to fight with blades. You may choose differently if you wish.”
I am unsurprised to hear that Natesa was victorious, but his offering of a choice is absurd. Regardless of the weapon I choose, every one of the finalists is a better fighter. Any one of them could defeat me. I stew in my resentment. Let Tarek force me into the arena. Let him pit me against the three strongest challengers. Let them cut me down to the ground we stand on. I would rather go on to my next life than give him the satisfaction of watching me spill innocent blood.
“I won’t fight.”
He settles back in his chair, relaxing into his mantle. I am not fooled by his ease. He is unpredictable when he has been drinking, and I can smell the apong on him from here. “You will fight,” he says, “or I will burn down your temple. Samiya will be nothing but a smoke pillar in the distance.”
A dark laugh bursts out of me. “You’ve taken away everything else, why not my home?”
“I offer you the empire. You will be my wife, my queen. What else could you wish for?”
“A family. A home.” My traitorous voice trembles on the last word I say. “Love.”
“We speak of the same things.”
Contempt drives me to my feet. “Your court is not a family. These women serve you only to survive. Your home is not my home. It is a prison of secrets and lies. And I will never love you, not in this life or the next.”
His eyes spark with temper. “If you’re holding on to hope that Captain Naik is alive, you waste your prayers. He’s dead, washed ashore downriver. The birds and fish fed off his face.”
My chin quivers at his cruelty. It cannot be true. Deven was alive when I sent him off with Brac. They escaped the river’s savage pull, and the Aquifier healed him. “You lie.”
Tarek tilts his head, a smile twisting his lips. “What need do I have to lie when the truth serves me better?”
I refuse to believe him, but darkness descends upon my mind, swallowing up my denial. Tears I vowed not to shed in front of Tarek slip through my grasp. I turn away. “Leave me.”
“The tournament starts at high noon tomorrow. I expect you to be submissive when I return. The sooner you bend your will to mine, the sooner we will be happy.”
I whirl to face him and glare. “The way you and Yasmin were happy?”
Tarek stands fast, tipping over his chair. “You know nothing of Yasmin.”
I step forward, braver with the bars between us. “I know she tried to run from you. I know she never loved you. She loved Kishan—”
“Never speak his name!” Tarek pounds his fists against the cell bars. His face reddens, and tears gloss his eyes. Even with my own tears tracking down my cheeks from his cruel words, I find no satisfaction in causing him a mirrored pain.
The color in Tarek’s cheeks fades. He straightens and tugs down the cuffs of his jacket. “I will punish you for that.”
Done with him, done with everything, I back into a corner and lower myself to a huddled crouch. Tarek goes, reserving his punishment for another time, for a time when he has not already won and I am not already broken.
My cell door creaks open, and a guard brings in my supper tray. “Viraji?”
“Go away.” I stay hunched in the corner with my head down. “I won’t eat. I don’t care what the rajah said.”
“The rajah didn’t send me.” The guard’s voice is familiar, with its gentle burr. “Natesa asked me to come. I brought a visitor.”
A different voice adds, “We have come to see how you’re faring.”
I look up and see Yatin in the cell doorway, Brother Shaan behind him.
The big soldier scans me with soft eyes. “Natesa was concerned when you didn’t attend the tournament today.”
I wipe my soggy nose and rest my chin on my knees. “Tell her . . . tell her I’m . . .” Alone. Afraid. “Here.”
Yatin offers a sympathetic smile and sets down my supper tray. He leaves the cell, relocks the door, and then goes down the corridor, out of sight.
Brother Shaan rights the chair that Tarek knocked over not long ago and sits. “I have taken care of your friend’s burial. Jaya has her own grave.”
Thinking of Jaya buried in a grave shreds the last of my resilience. I slope farther into the wall, my budding tears blooming to full-size teardrops. Gratitude for Brother Shaan’s kindness mixes with my grief. Most wives are buried with their husbands, but Jaya would not wish to be laid to rest with Gautam. She would want her freedom.
“I’m sorry for your losses,” his gentle voice continues. I want to cover my ears to avoid hearing what other loss I have accrued, but I am not fast enough. “Deven was a good man, one of the scarce few in Vanhi.”
A whimper escapes my lips. Part of me still held on to the hope that Tarek was lying. But it seems he needed not lie in this, that the truth truly did serve him better.
My heart retreats from the pain of losing Deven. I hug my knees closer to my chest and replay our final moments together. I did not know I was sending him to a watery grave. I did not know I would never see him again. Hot tears trickle down my face and drip off my chin into the sand, staining it dark.
“I am sorry, Viraji,” Brother Shaan offers quietly.
I am too. He has no idea how much. I am sorry I did not save Jaya. I am sorry I did not make it down the river with Deven. I am sorry I will never see either of them again.
“Do you think starving yourself will punish the rajah?” says Brother Shaan.
“No,” I grit out. I hate that all my pain traces back to him. I hate him even more than I did last night. I hate him as much as I love Jaya and Deven. Eternally and unconditionally. “Not eating will make my point.”
“Tarek does not command me.”
“I see.” Brother Shaan looks around the dungeons, as though there is something else to see besides filthy walls, sandy floors, and a broken girl. “How do you suppose you will win your match if you take poor care of yourself?”
“I have no intention of winning,” I say with a scalding gaze. Then I refocus my abhorrence from Tarek onto Hastin. The bhuta warlord left Deven to die. I blame him too.
“What do you suppose the tournament is about?” Brother Shaan asks in a reflective tone.
“Winning the throne.”
“Is it? I think it is about changing the way things have always been done.”
I shake my head. “We cannot change it.”
Brother Shaan crosses his arms in front of him. “In the story of Enlil’s Hundredth Rani, the decision of who lived and died was left to the fire-god’s wives and courtesans. The tournament took place because they disagreed on who would forfeit their place with Enlil.”
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