“Her name is Kalinda, Mother,” says Tinley. “She relinquished her throne.”
“Oh?” Sosi studies me anew. I can practically see her opinion of me waning.
Chief Naresh sweeps us along. “Shall we dine?”
I sit between him and Tinley while Sosi and the newlyweds dine across from us. Bedros’s attention is so strong on Tinley that Maida nudges his side. Three girls run into the hall and pile onto the bench by Sosi. They must be the rest of Tinley’s siblings.
Servants roast root vegetables and antelope meat over the hearth, then dish the mixture into bowls and bring them to us. The hearty stew and spiced wine refuel my soul-fire. I eat while Maida regales the table with details of her wedding. Bedros watches Tinley the entire time. Not once does she look up from her food.
“Burner Rani,” says Sosi, “how is the integration of bhutas proceeding in Tarachand? Your prince has a great deal of work ahead.”
“He does,” I reply, stirring my stew and thinking of my friends at the palace. “So far it’s promising.”
Naresh addresses his younger girls. “That’s enough grown-up talk. Why don’t I recount your favorite story about Kalinda?”
The girls bounce up and down.
“Favorite story?” I ask. “You have more than one?”
“You’re a popular subject at supper.” He winks at me and dives right into the story. “Watching from above on the airship, I saw a young woman atop a dragon of fire, lobbing heatwaves at Kur. The First-Ever Dragon was terror incarnate.” Naresh deepens his voice to frighten the children. “He had blue-black scales and talons large as a man. His demon commanders were hideous and had powers much like bhutas.”
Naresh goes on in detail about Kur’s attack. I half listen, more interested in my second helping of stew than remembering that battle.
His captivating narrative pulls me back.
“When the stars and moon had faded, and all seemed lost to the evernight, the Burner Rani turned Kur’s venom against him and burned his snout and eye.” The children gape at me. “Kalinda sacrificed her hand and saved us all.”
My chewing slows. Naresh’s retelling of the war is missing the most important part. Had I saved everyone, I would not be here in need of his help.
Maida jumps into the break in conversation. “Tinley, you should see the sleigh Bedros built me. It’s large enough for a whole family.”
Tinley’s chin jerks up. “Are you with child?”
“Not yet.” Maida clutches her belly and beams. Bedros glugs down half a glass of wine. “We want a son.”
“With your temper and Bedros’s indecisiveness?” Tinley asks.
“No,” Maida protests. “With his big eyes and my powers.” She centers her attention on me. “I inherited my mother’s northern Aquifier abilities. We can manipulate ice and snow, unlike those half-Aquifiers from the south.”
“Tinley and I have an Aquifier friend from the Southern Isles,” I reply, sounding appropriately offended. “She’s healed me many times.”
“I’m certain southern Aquifiers are good for something,” Maida counters, “but I couldn’t bear having my powers be so limited.”
“You better hope you’re never in need of a good healer,” Tinley mutters.
Bedros downs the last of his wine and dismisses himself from the table. Maida’s hold on her chalice tenses. Frost creeps out from her grasp and shrouds the cup.
I lean into the chief’s side. “Might we have a word?”
“Please.” His eyes sparkle. “Let’s escape.”
Sosi fills the silence between her daughters with chatter about the weather. Naresh and I sneak off to the reception hall. I left my fur cloak behind, so he covers my shoulders with his vest, and we stroll down the corridor. The center of the icy floors is textured for traction, the outer areas gleaming pale blue.
“My daughter told me why you’ve come,” Naresh says. “You’re not the first to seek absolution from the woes of mortality by finding the paradise of the gods.”
“I don’t seek Ekur for myself.”
“Tinley alerted me to General Naik’s predicament. He asked you to do this for him?”
I pause, taken aback. “No.”
“I thought not. Deven is a godly man. He knows you have more to lose in the under realm than your life. Why have you come, Kalinda? Besides finding the general, why do you seek Ekur?”
We walk in silence, Naresh waiting expectantly. A confession slips off my tongue.
“I cursed the gods. The night Deven was taken, I blamed them. As soon as I learned he was alive, I pled for forgiveness, but what if I don’t get it?”
Naresh halts me. “Perhaps this is the fate the gods want for you and Deven.”
“Or maybe seeking them out is what they want.”
The chief absorbs my vehemence with a quiet “hmm,” and we continue down the corridor.
“Mortals looking for Ekur are often fleeing a pain so vast and burdensome they believe only a god can liberate them.” Naresh’s voice extends between us, both temperate and persistent. “What relief do you seek?”
My deepest worry slips out. “What if they won’t help me free Deven? What if they allowed Kur to take him to punish me for not wanting my throne?”
Staying on as Ashwin’s kindred when I love Deven would have been wrong. But what if Anu thinks I defied him for choosing Deven over my throne? Nothing I do may be enough. I could give my all to liberate Deven, and the gods may still leave him in the under realm.
Or could our fates be tied? I cannot say how much of our lives is predestined, or what, if any, is within our control. I do know that whether I live in Samiya or the Turquoise Palace or the hills of the Alpanas, peace comes through following the gods’ path for me. Finding Deven may be my godly purpose or it may give me purpose. My task is the same. I cannot leave him to suffer an eternal death, even if it risks my own standing with the gods.
“You attribute your circumstances too much to the gods and not enough to chance,” says Naresh. “I was there as well. Kur took Deven on a whim. The gods did not plan that.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I still need a god to rescue him.”
The chief’s mouth tugs downward. “I see why my daughter favors your friendship. You’re both stubborn as yaks.”
I accept his comparison of me to Tinley as praise. “Can you direct me to Ekur?”
“Regrettably, I cannot, but I know who may. Our stories are passed on orally from one generation to the next. It is a gift to learn and teach them. Our matron, my mother, was training Tinley to memorize them, but my daughter set aside her orator duties to take to the skies.”
“Is that why Tinley stays away?”
Chief Naresh halts before an open casement. Tiny fractures of ice glitter in the night sky. “Tinley’s betrothed was killed in a tragic accident. He was to become the next chief and she his chieftess. Sosi and I raised him with our children. His death was a devastation to us all.”
I have no words. Moons ago, when Tinley and I first met, I learned she had lost her intended through Indah. Tinley has never mentioned him. I assumed she was somewhat relieved to dodge an arranged marriage.
“The matron is ill and needs her rest,” says Naresh. He does not include details of his mother’s ailment, but his protectiveness suggests he worries about her recovery. “Tinley will take you to her tomorrow.” He swivels toward his daughter at the end of the hall. She has my fur. We join her and I return the chief’s vest. “Please show Kalinda to her chamber,” he says.
Tinley shoves my cloak at me, and I scurry after her.
“Your mother and sister are . . . conversational.”
I scrounge up an optimistic reply. “Bedros is pleased you’re home.”
“Yes,” Tinley says, “he is.”
She enters a chamber on the main floor. A cozy fire blazes in the hearth, a bear rug laid out before it. More furs are piled on the bed. The furniture is constructed of ice, and the window and bedposts are etched with snowflakes, each unique and delicate.
I set down my satchel. “Thank you for bringing me here. I know how hard it is to survive loved ones. Our memories are strongest in the places we were happiest.”
“Stop,” Tinley says, low and direct. Her surliness is a poor, false front for her pain. I should have seen her grief before, recognized it and given it a name.
Before I can apologize or offer sympathy, she swivels and stalks out.
I drop onto the bed, too tired to dwell on her prickliness. The mountain of fur protects me from the hard, cold ice. I loosen the strap around my wrist and release my prosthesis. Turning toward the hearth, I watch serpents dance in the flames.
Hello, my friend.
I extend my hand, and several flames disentangle from the nature-fire. The burning tendrils zip across the room and twirl above me. The fiery offshoots combine into a dragon no bigger than a lynx kitten.
Siva, as I named her, lands on top of me. I stroke her head, and she curls up on my stomach, crackling contentedly. On occasion, I summon Siva to keep me company while I wait for Deven. Her warmth soaks inside me, tinder for my soul-fire. I pet her long, thin back and pray I am on the eve of my own contentment.
I am seven minutes late to supper. Captain Yatin and Pons sit in the lamplight beneath the pagoda, already into the wine. My effort to educate Natesa about my independence is squandered. She and the other women are not present.
“Where’s everyone else?” I ask.
“Natesa likes to make an entrance,” Yatin replies. He drinks from his chalice, his jacket unbuttoned. I cannot recall when I last saw him relaxing. Typically he is at the main gate directing the guards. “Two of my men are following Commander Lokesh as discussed. They’ll report back when they uncover his employer.”
Spying on Lokesh was my recommendation. Mercenaries are merely front men for another person’s agenda. “How is our guard head count?”
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