The ground vibrates around Deven and me, stones hopping and jumping. Whitecaps cover the surface of the lake, whipped into a frenzy by the wind. Aquifiers stake their tridents through Lilu. She flies back into the waves, and they smother her. A Trembler traps Edimmu’s flicking tongue with a boulder, and a landslide pitches her into the lake.
Udug, wounded, shoots blue fire at elephant warriors. Tinley dives at him with Chare. The falcon plucks him up, her talons ripping through his wings. Udug flails, but the falcon lowers to the water and drops him in. A swell sweeps him under.
We’re winning. We’re going to resurrect the morning. Anu is watching over us from Ekur on high. He will not let us fail.
The falcon warriors combating Kur take their leave to give room for the airships. Kur sends fire at the sky, striking one. The patchwork of sails ignites. The ship tips, the flames overtaking it, and careens into the land.
The other Paljorian airships harness the northern wind and converge on the demon dragon. Their gusts slide Deven and me into the knee-high frigid water. Deven stabs his sword through the cloth of my tunic, embedding the blade in the lakeshore and anchoring me to it. He grips the hilt, and I hold on to him.
The airships fly nearer, intensifying their winds. The Lestarian Navy pushes Kur with waves, adding to the impetus. The onslaught impels him farther into the choppy water.
Deven’s hand slips. I catch his wrist before he flies away. I hang on to the sword, but his wet grip slides from mine. He spins off into the lake.
I lose sight of him, foam and dirt in my eyes. He reappears swimming helplessly against the powerful currents and crosswinds.
“Someone help him!”
Indah and Pons’s mahati dives, claws outstretched to pluck Deven up, but the gales knock them back, and they pinwheel out of range.
Kur sinks up to his breast. Deafening winds howl at me. My tunic rips free from the sword, but my hand holds me in place. Behind me, the lakeshore has been cleared for this attack. Even the Aquifiers conduct the waves from afar. I am the closest person to Deven.
I inhale a deep breath and let go.
Gusts pitch me across the water. I land among the chunks of ice, up to my neck in freezing waves. The cold bites, the water like teeth dragging me to Kur. Deven is caught in a tide pool near him, dipping in and out of sight.
A surge pushes me under. Another heaves me up and whirls me about. Kur’s claws rake at the air. Our forces are sending all they have at him, but his head remains above water.
He needs a reason to go under.
I ride an incoming swell to him and latch on to his scaly side. With one hand, I reach inside him and pull, parching him. His venom powers flow into my burning palm. My fingers blister and boil. My skin melts, but I hold fast. I can stand his cold-fire. I can embrace the night.
Kur tries shaking me free. I hold on and bring the evernight into my bones. Agony screams up my arm, begging for me to stop. The pain spreads everywhere, excruciating to the point of near blindness.
Unable to draw in anymore, I let go, and a whitecap drags me from him. My fingers continue to shrivel, eaten by the cold venom I welcomed inside me.
“Kur!” I bellow.
He lowers his head to me, and I throw the cold-fire I parched back at him. The sapphire flames burn across his snout and ignite his whiskers. He tosses his head to extinguish them, but the venomous fire blazes across scales, indiscriminate in its destruction.
A wave pushes me under and up again. Kur is eye level. He lowers his snout to the water to put out the flames. I reach for the last of the cold-fire within me and send the blue-white flames at his eye. He roars and thrashes as it burns and burns.
“Kali!” Deven calls.
He is trapped in Kur’s wake. Our gazes connect, both rife with terror. Kur is still on fire. Unable to withstand the pain, the demon god submerges to extinguish the flames.
The strength of his descent whips up a massive tow of crosscurrents. A maelstrom spins me around its outer radius. Closer to the center of the violent whirlpool, Deven is sucked under.
I dive for him. Shadows writhe below, grasping and pulling like hooks. I push my powers into my uninjured hand, but the muted glow does not reveal Deven or Kur. The blackness is all-consuming. My lungs pang for air. But the darkness tugs at me, tying itself to my ankles like millstones.
I descend into the cold nothing, closer to the gate.
A sudden upsurge drills into my side. The current launches me into the air. I gasp, sputtering, as I am wrenched on a wave across the surface to shore. I land on the wet rocks, wilted and panting.
Cold chatters my teeth. My leg bleeds freely, lying limp and frozen before me. My injured hand—my drawing hand—is so mangled it is unrecognizable. Its flesh has been nearly eaten away, the remnants of the fiery venom still burning. I cradle my hand close and scan the waves between the chunks of ice for Deven.
Ashwin races up to me in the dying winds. “Kali, where’s Deven?”
I concentrate, pushing against my draining consciousness. “Kur took him.” Ashwin considers the roiling lake, his jaw hard-set. “He went under—”
“I’ll find him, Kalinda.” Ashwin tears off his jacket, splashes in, and dives underwater.
Just as he goes, Natesa and Yatin reach my side. She blanches at my disfigured hand and bloody thigh, and calls for Indah. The quivers within me rise to uncontrollable quakes.
“Where did the prince go, Kalinda?” Yatin says.
“Kur grabbed Deven. Ashwin dove in to find him.”
Yatin pales and shouts to the troops behind us, “The prince is in the lake! Find him! Get him out before he’s dragged through the gate!”
Aquifiers splash into the water up to their knees. The rest of the troops crowd along the shore and call their god by name.
“Anu, God of Storms . . . Ki, Mother of the Mountains . . . Enlil, Keeper of the Flame . . . Enki, Bearer of the Seas . . .”
Why are they praying? They should be jumping into the lake. They should be looking for Deven!
The stars blink into brightness, and the moon reveals its haunting eye. But their reappearance brings no joy. How dare the stars shine without him! How can they return when he is gone? How can the world be saved when my heart is destroyed?
The mournful praying continues, and so does my raging at the heavens. Anu, you cannot! Deven is good. Kur cannot have him!
A wave crashes nearby.
“I have him!” Admiral Rimba shouts.
I compel my eyes to open. A man lies on the ground, soldiers crowded around him. I try to sit up, but the abrupt movement rips my strength away. Numbness steals over me.
Is it Deven?
Please, Anu. For all that is good in the world, you must bring him back.
A voice calls my name. I cannot tell whose. My spirit succumbs to the venom, and I float off into the night, seething at the stars.
The Tigress Pavilion is warm today. Spring awakens heat from the afternoon, and a breeze ushers in a sweetness scented of blooming irises and sun-warmed citrus. None of the women or girls complain, of course. We are content with the sunshine, remembering vividly a world under a broken sky.
I have finished my art lesson and dismissed my class. Sarita, my co-instructor, will come by later to pack up my supplies and return them to my chamber. She has an aptitude for painting, and as I may never sketch like I used to, she is a fine asset.
In the center of the pavilion, Parisa and Eshana demonstrate sparring strategies. Their class of temple wards sits cross-legged in front of the full weapon racks, their attention rapt on the ranis wielding staffs. Near the black-and-white-tiled fountain, Shyla shushes three girls for whispering instead of listening and then lectures them on the importance of honoring the land-goddess Ki and her sister warriors. Rehan toddles at her feet, her little hands clinging to her mother’s knees.
Priestess Mita, Healer Baka, Sister Hetal, and all the other sisters kneel on floor cushions in the shade of a ruby-red canopy. They sip on chilled mint-and-lemon tea and select ice chips from a bucket to suck on or wipe across their brows. Natesa suggested the wards and sisters stay at the palace until another temple could be built. Construction may not begin for a long while, though, as benefactors are reluctant to contribute to our collection now that we have altered the terms of the Claiming. Some of them like the challenge of winning over a sister warrior, while others believe it is improper for women to select their occupation and, should they desire, a husband. Regardless, the land-goddess Ki always intended for women to have a choice, and so they will. Eventually we will collect enough funds to erect the first Sisterhood temple in Vanhi, but I already lament the day when these girls will leave us. They have been a pleasant distraction.
Parisa’s voice carries across the pavilion. “We should always be kind to our sisters,” she advises her pupils.
“Unless we’re sparring,” Eshana replies, bopping Parisa on the hip with her staff.
Their class giggles as the pair exchange a series of light, playful whacks. I slink by the row of girls, waving good-bye to the few who also attend my art course, and slip out.
In the corridor, I maneuver past men working high above on scaffolding. They spread white plaster across the wall and ceiling, patching holes and cracks in the ivory facade. Repairs on the palace began as soon as we returned to Vanhi.
Well, almost immediately. First, we banished the rebels to the arctic tundra. Anjali and the rest of Hastin’s followers were commanded never to set foot in Tarachand again. Given their gross offenses, their punishment was a mercy. Then we helped our refugees relocate to their homes in Vanhi. The city is still partly empty, but more and more people return every day.
I stride through to the center of the palace. The gate to the rajah’s private atrium hangs open. I start down the path of the well-tended garden, alive with leafy trees and brightly colored flowers, and pause before I step on a fallen lime. I pick up the ripe citrus with my left hand, my only hand. Indah had to amputate my other one. She told me afterward that demon venom is deadlier than a dragon cobra’s, which can kill a man in fifteen minutes and an elephant in a few hours. Pons crafted me a prosthesis out of wood and leather, but I returned it to him so he could improve the cuff and strap. It fell off while I was teaching my art study. None of my students laughed—they have more respect for me than that—but I will not wear that hand again until it fits right.
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