What a curious man.
“Yatin and I will sleep here,” Deven says of the lounges on the terrace.
“The kindred is safe,” Indah assures him. “We’re a peaceful people.”
“So were our people once.” Deven strides to the balcony and scans the city beneath the twilight.
“Let’s find my room.” Natesa grabs Yatin by the hand and tows him to an antechamber.
I sit at the driftwood table and wrap a blanket around my shoulders to ease my inner chill. Indah kicks off her sandals and puts her feet up. The damp air adds dewiness to her brown skin and fullness to her wavy dark hair.
“Why does the datu think I’m Ashwin’s viraji?” I ask quietly.
“He assumes you’ll wed the prince because you won the trial tournament.” Indah glances past me to Deven and speaks lower. “Bulan is different than Rajah Tarek. He has only been married once, and it was for love. His wife died years ago. Their only child, the princess, will inherit his throne.”
A female heir? Tarek would have never endowed his throne to one of his daughters. He saw women as accessories, servants, things.
“Princess Gemi is a Trembler like her mother was. She will be the Southern Isles’ first female ruler and our first bhuta ruler in a long while. Bulan believes bhutas and women should be in power to diversify our leadership.”
His coolness toward the prince becomes clear. “He doesn’t like Ashwin because he’s a mortal man?”
“No, Bulan doesn’t know him as well as you. Ashwin was harbored by the brethren until Tarek’s death forced him from hiding. Our informants have been watching you since you left Samiya. The datu will help your people, but only if you are part of the new empire.”
Bulan will only aid us if I plan to marry the prince. I do not have to tell Indah a union with Ashwin is not in my future. She has seen how close I am to Deven. I glance his direction. He tarries at the balcony, out of earshot. “I will be part of the new empire, but not as Ashwin’s wife.”
“You don’t have to wed him,” Indah explains. “Just let the datu think he’s your intended.”
I consider what I must do to maintain the illusion that I am Ashwin’s viraji, and my insides scramble. I do not wish to lie to Bulan, but perhaps I can leave his assumption uncorrected . . . “What about you and Pons?” I ask, eager to veer the topic of conversation to her. “Will you and he wed?”
Indah’s gold eyes darken. “My father disapproves of our closeness.”
“Then why is Pons your guard?”
“He isn’t my guard. He’s the datu’s Galer Virtue Guard. Bulan likes how we work together, so we often receive the same assignment.”
Virtue Guards are bhutas who counsel and protect the physical and spiritual well-being of mankind. I assumed Pons was Indah’s guard because he always hovers near her, but it makes sense that he serves the Southern Isles as a Virtue Guard. Indah has always treated him as her equal.
She slips on her sandals and rises. I did not mean for my prying to shoo her away. “I’ll send for the healer I told you about. He lives on an outer island and should arrive by boat tomorrow. My mother is off island as well, on assignment for the datu. My father said she’s unable to return to meet you and the prince.”
Indah told me her mother serves as the datu’s Burner Virtue Guard. All four divisions of bhutas work together here. “Will you see her soon?”
“I spent time with her before I left for Iresh. We’ll meet again before long.”
Indah starts to go, but I call to her. “Is Lestari really so safe?” The breaker is high and thick, but the palace and city are less guarded than any other I have visited.
“You’re just as safe as the rest of us.” Her frown overshadows her reassurance. Only after she leaves do I work out her meaning.
No one is safe so long as the Voider is in our world.
I hobble to Deven on the balcony, bringing my unease with me. I have difficulty believing the raiders could not find a way onto the island. The Voider certainly gave them the proper motivation to try.
Deven watches the city intensely, dissecting every weakness of this stronghold. Lestari is lusher than the desert surrounding Vanhi but as isolated as the Alpana Mountains where I was raised. I still miss home, usually when I think of my best friend, Jaya. But remembering her requires that I also think of her death, and that hurts too much to dwell on.
Deven’s temples bounce, his jaw is so rigid. He must be thinking of his family. I slip my hand closer to his on the banister. His pinkie finger reaches for me. I do not glance at our tiny link, but his jaw loosens and my knotted stomach relaxes.
Natesa romps back into my chamber. “My antechamber is huge!” Yatin strolls in after her, his hair and shirt mussed as though they had been kissing. “The vanity has makeup, and I found silks in the wardrobe. I’ll help fix up your appearance, Kalinda. We cannot let the Lestarians think our ranis are slovenly.” Only Natesa can volunteer to be of assistance while criticizing someone at the same time. “What time is supper?”
“Soon, I hope,” Yatin answers, patting his slimmed-down girth.
Natesa grabs him and Deven by the arm and drags them to the door. “You both need to leave.” Yatin goes willingly, but Deven digs in his heels.
“We can wait on the terrace—”
Natesa shoves him out, shuts the door, and whirls around. Her critical gaze sweeps over me. “Let’s hope supper is running late.”
I bottle a retort—I know better than to back talk when she is preparing to beautify me.
While Natesa searches the wardrobe for a garment I can wear to supper, I sit at the vanity before the mirror glass. My cheekbones are sharper than usual and my skin is a sallow yellow. She was right. I do need her to fix me up.
For a second, my pupils flash with a sapphire flame. I blink and peer closer at my reflection. My eyes have returned to their normal deep brown, stark against my pallid complexion, yet the memory persists.
You’re just as safe as the rest of us.
Am I really? The Voider is far away, but a piece of him is right here. Planted inside me.
I drop my face in my hands. Before the Voider poured his cold-fire into me, my powers were improving and expanding. I had mastered soul-fire and nature-fire. Wildfires heeded my command. Flames bowed to embers at my feet. I even summoned a dragon of fire and rode upon its back. I should not fear a flash of blue in a mirror glass. And if it were only my imagination, I would easily overlook it. But agony has a long memory, and the cold inside me will not let go.
Yatin is stationed on the opposite side of Kali’s door. We stare forward, arms tucked close, and stand guard. The hushed corridors allow my thoughts to wander back to Indah and Kali’s earlier conversation. They assumed they talked quietly, but I overheard enough. The datu trusts Kali—a wise decision. But Kali is not the prince’s intended, and the datu should not pressure her to commit to him or compel her to choose between us. That is the very reason I have not imposed my will on her. I will not offer her my future just to outpace another man or from fear of losing her. When I ask Kali to spend her life with me, my proposal will originate from love, and love only.
Thinking of proposals reminds me . . . I look askance at Yatin. “What happened to your lotus ring? Did you lose it?”
I wait, but he does not go on. “Did you change your mind about giving it to Natesa?”
His one-syllable replies rub me the wrong way. Yatin and Natesa can be together. They have nothing standing in their way. I pray every day for Kali and me to gain that level of freedom. Why is he squandering it?
Indah comes down the hall wearing all-white robes, the preferred state of dress in the Pearl Palace. I have not known her long, but she looks more tired than usual. I knock on the door, wait a moment, and then open it for her. Within the chamber, Natesa arranges the low neckline of Kali’s white-and-gold robes. Her hair has been brushed to a shine, and she has color, albeit from the rouge on her cheeks. I step in, staggered by her loveliness.
“You look stunning, Kalinda,” Indah says.
“As do you,” Kali returns.
“What do you think, General?” Natesa asks, her smile impish. She is a quick study at ways to boil my blood.
I clear my throat. “Um, yes. Stunning.”
Kali lowers her kohl-lined lashes, her dark hair forming silky waves around her lean shoulders. “Any word from Iresh, Indah?”
“I’ve spoken with the datu,” she answers. “Deven, would you please close the door?” My insides grind as I shut Yatin outside and give Indah my focus . . . barring the part of me that wishes to run my lips across Kali’s cheek. “It’s been too dangerous to send scouts into Iresh, so Galers have been listening from the coastline. From what they can tell, the refugees have taken over the city under the Voider’s direction. He and his soldiers are gathering resources to march.”
This was my fear. The demon rajah is pillaging Iresh to feed, clothe, and arm his troops. Once he finishes picking the city clean of everything valuable, they will march on Vanhi.
“The Voider has declared Kalinda and Prince Ashwin traitors. He offered the sea raiders ten thousand coin each for their return. Should Kalinda and the prince return to Tarachand, imperial soldiers are ordered to seize them on sight.”
“I know at least two soldiers who won’t obey that command,” I say, referring to Yatin and me.
“It’s all right, Deven,” Kali says, more weary than outraged. “The people already despise my bhuta heritage. That I anticipated. But Ashwin is their ruler. They need him. We all do.”
Her loyalty to him jabs at me. Does Kali need Ashwin any more than any other citizen of the Tarachand Empire?
Prince Ashwin enters and strolls directly to Kali. He changed his attire to the local cultural favorite for men: baggy trousers and a lightweight tunic with a low-cut collar. Pons is not with him, nor did I see him in the corridor.