I sit up and see that Natesa is asleep. I quietly lift the curtain and peer out the window. We did not travel far today. The snow and ice slowed our descent.
Seeing the observatory light from the north tower may help me rest. Grabbing my slingshot and stones, I creep out of the carriage with my blanket wrapped around me. There is no sign of a guard on watch in the silent, still camp. Muted light from above adds an ethereal glow to the snowy landscape, and the freshly fallen snow muffles my steps up the road. Cold pries at my skin with jagged nails, yet I push on.
I round a bend and look back. The carriage is long out of sight, my footprints the only guide to camp. Shivers rack my body. This is ridiculous. I could freeze before finding the temple. But I have come this far, and I do not know if I will be back.
I face forward. One more rise.
The path steepens. I stumble over the tail of the blanket and fall, catching myself with my hands. My fingers are ice. I wrap the blanket closer and stand. Almost to the top.
I crest the hill, legs and lungs burning. I promise myself that regardless of what I see, I will turn around at the top. I look to the darkened skyline and skim for the beacon. Nothing.
I set my jaw against a torrent of tears. Healer Baka would advise me not to look back, but all I see before me is my death. I will not survive the rank tournament. I will never see Jaya again. But I promised her that I would try.
Shoulders hunched, I retrace my footsteps in the snow. On the second slope, my footprints intersect with another’s. The tracks, nearly twice as long as mine, split off the road and disappear into the trees. My pulse quickens, and my breaths slow to deliberate streams. I load my slingshot and aim at the forest.
Captain Naik steps out from the shadowed tree line. I aim between his dark, calm eyes.
“You shouldn’t have left camp,” he says.
“How long have you been following me?”
“Since you left. Lower your weapon, Viraji. I won’t harm you.”
“I know that.” A partial lie. I am cautious of his size, his strength, and his foreignness. Even so, each time we meet, my desire to stare at him grows. Am I intrigued by his being a man, or is this feeling singular to him?
I lower my slingshot and trek swiftly down the road.
Captain Naik trails me at an obligatory distance. “I followed you for your protection. I thought you might be running away.”
“Then what were you doing?”
I stop and glower at him. I would rather not answer, but I cannot have him thinking that I will try to escape. I am here, and, as unhappy as that makes me, I have to stay. The Sisterhood does not take back claimed wards.
“I wanted to see the temple beacon,” I say.
His pensive stare husks away my annoyance at him for following me.
“I don’t know if I will see my home again,” I say.
The captain’s stare lengthens, his eyes softening with every ragged beat of my heart. He smiles a little. “Follow me.”
He turns and plods up the hill. I glance toward camp. I could return, or I could find out where he is going. Priestess Mita would be appalled that I am considering following him, but the rajah left me in the captain’s care, so he must trust him. I have felt nothing unseemly from Captain Naik, but what if I have misjudged him?
The captain pauses at the tree line and quirks a brow. “Coming?”
I search his open face for cause to distrust him beyond the fears that Jaya implanted in me. If Captain Naik meant to harm me, he could have done so by now, but he gave me distance, even when he thought that I might run.
I hasten to catch up. My rationale for joining him falls to the back of my mind with every step, and I wonder what it would take for him to smile at me again.
Instead of going up the road, the captain cuts across the ridge, through the trees. The faint siff, siff, siff of his steps blends into the night so well that it could be heavy-laden branches dropping their snowy burden. He spies on the shadows and pauses more than once to listen. His caution prompts me to walk quietly and be alert.
We hike into a clearing. On the skyline, blue-purple shadows frost the Alpanas’ triangular tips. Captain Naik points, and I follow the line of his finger to a tiny glow near the lowest peak. Samiya’s beacon. A single star breaking through the night.
Tears mist my eyes. We stand side by side and stare into the distance at the last sign of my home. Sometime later—I do not know how long—a violent shiver pulls me back.
Captain Naik faces me and draws my blanket closer over my shoulders. His breaths steam between us, whispering across my cheek. “I hope coming here brings you peace.”
Snowflakes stick to his sooty eyelashes, his eyes warm brown. I am no more afraid of him than I was in the lower level of the temple. He radiates warmth and safety, riveting me with the trust he engenders. I want to tuck myself against his tall, muscled form and curl into his body heat, like a rabbit in a burrow.
My cheeks flame in embarrassment. I should not feel this way. I did not react so favorably to the rajah. His touch, his voice, and his smell were repulsive. But every nerve ending in my body comes alive near Captain Naik. Beside him, my slenderness feels delicate, curvy, and even womanly.
An ache to explore this new, scary feeling deepens at the back of my throat. I should turn away, but an odd fusion of curiosity and empowerment locks me in place. I never thought that a man would come this close to me without my feeling intruded upon. Compared to the other daughters, I fall short of having feminine allure. The captain’s nearness does not make sense, unless he has another reason for bringing me out here alone.
My eyes shoot open in shock. “Do you—do you desire me?”
Captain Naik withdraws, his color rising. “I cannot. That is to say, I brought you here only to please you.”
Hotness creeps up my neck, remembering my study course on bedchamber behaviors. A sister told us that we must satisfy the desires of the man who claimed us. The daughters blushed and giggled the rest of the day. Some whispered of Anu’s consorts and told stories of his touch awakening feminine pleasures. My pulse pounds harder, the ache in my throat spreading. I want to know if their whisperings are true, but the captain is not the man who claimed me. No matter how exciting and tempting these feelings may be, I would be reckless to pursue them.
“Captain, you are very handsome, and I am grateful to you for bringing me here, but I cannot repay you.”
The captain dips his chin and rubs the back of his neck. “Viraji, I never said . . . I did not bring you here so you would be in debt to me. I caution you to be less open about such matters.”
“Oh.” I press my cold hands to my burning cheeks. “Have I spoken out of turn?”
“Generally speaking, men express their interests. Women do not.”
Gods, I am a fool. Captain Naik does not desire me, or he would have said so.
He tries to ease my humiliation with a smile. “We should return. For your safety, and for the safety of my men, please stay in camp.”
Captain Naik starts for the trees. The distance between us numbs all but my swelling chagrin. Is the sign of a devoted woman one who holds her tongue? Am I only to think of pleasing the rajah forevermore?
Is there no room left for my own happiness?
Stealing one last glance at the temple beacon, I turn away from Samiya and follow the captain south, toward the City of Gems.
Over the next three days of descending from the snow-clad peaks, the terrain transforms. Evergreen trees thicken to indomitable forests, the snow melts to soil, and the air warms to tolerable temperatures. Natesa finds a stack of religious texts under her bench and reads nonstop, flicking the pages so that they make irritating ruffling noises. I stare out the window at the passing scenery, each rickety turn of the wheels taking me farther from Jaya. In my nightly prayers, I plead with the gods to let me see her again in my dreams. But nightmares plague my sleep. I dream of waking by myself, and Natesa and our guards are gone. I run into the forest to find them and lose my way.
Even in my dreams, I am alone.
On day four, I try to read, but the jostling carriage nauseates me, and I surrender after two pages. Drawing is my usual escape, but when I open my sketchbook, my mind goes blank. In the infirmary as a child, I would use my slingshot to knock empty medicine bottles off shelves; Healer Baka did not object, most days. But trapped inside this carriage, I cannot do even that.
By sunset, I am desperate to plant my feet on solid ground. I leave Natesa with her nose in a book and step outside. Our guards are assembled around a campfire, eating their supper beneath a starry sky. Upon my exit, Captain Naik promptly stands. My face warms, my mortification returning from the other night. A second later, his men rise.
“Viraji, how may we assist you?” Captain Naik asks.
My smile wobbles under the men’s quiet scrutiny. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your supper. I came out for fresh air.”
The captain hesitates with a heavy pause and says, “Please, join us.”
I normally would not stay after such a lukewarm invitation, but I cannot stand to be in the carriage any longer. The men take a seat, and Manas offers me his log stump. I sit, tucking my limbs close.
Manas dishes a bowl of red rice and offers it to me. “Welcome, Viraji.” He points to each of the guards, going around the campfire. “That’s Bel and Ehan, and Jeevan, your coachman.”
Each soldier nods in turn. I stash away their names in my memory for later and eye the one I have not met. The soldier seated beside Manas is as big as a bear. His ropy beard hangs to his massive chest, and cords of muscles line his thick neck. Next to his bulk, I am dainty.
“That’s Yatin,” Manas says. “If you think he’s big, you should see his mother.”
I smile, envisioning a bear of a woman, and my apprehension about this group of men lessens. “Are you all from Vanhi?”
Manas’s smile falters, but he regains it easily. I had forgotten that he had lost his family. I assume that his brief frown was about them. “We’re not, but Deven is.”
Deven. All eyes turn to their leader. I try not to stare, but Deven’s supple mouth and sculpted jawline fascinate me. Sadly, he shaved this morning. I rather liked the dark stubble on his chin.