“We can cover the day and evening watches,” Yatin replies, sipping more wine.
His lack of specificity troubles me. Those under my command tread carefully in their reports, a practice retained from Tarek’s reign. My father was intolerant of unsatisfactory news. “Captain, I would appreciate your evaluation on our drought of guards.”
“Yatin gave his full report this morning,” Pons replies. “You missed the meeting.”
He refers to the appointment he reminded me of while I was with Kalinda. “I apologize for my absence and for my terseness with you, Pons. Captain, please repeat the foremost items.”
Yatin clears his throat. “Another eight men have left to serve Commander Lokesh for higher wages. His operation must be funded by his employer.”
A wealthy sponsor, no doubt. Structural repairs have depleted our coffers. Tarek was fair in his payment of his personal guard, perhaps his only reasonable decision as rajah, but I have already elevated wages to entice guards to stay. I cannot afford to increase them again.
“You could offer a short-term signing bonus for new guards,” Pons suggests.
I do not like incentivizing my own men to serve me. Still, I must slow the depletion of our defenses. “Instruct the treasurer to find the coin to pay for the bonuses.”
I drink down my water, then adjust the waist of my trousers pinching my sides.
Our female diners arrive, and all of us rise to greet them. Natesa regards my matching tunic and turban approvingly and then goes to Yatin. Indah joins Pons, leaving Gemi in the doorway.
She has traded her trousers for a crimson sari fringed with beadwork. A black comb pins up half her hair and the rest tumbles down her back. She still wears her shell earrings and necklace. Beneath the hem of her skirt, her feet are dyed with henna markings of the moon phases, the style in the Southern Isles, and her toenails are painted pink.
More noticeably, someone drew a henna line down her nose, a signal to all that she is intended to wed.
Brac enters next and in three big steps reaches Gemi. “Welcome, Princess. Wonderful to see you again.”
The princess bobs into a curtsy. “Ambassador, Mathura and Chitt send their well wishes. They’ll arrive later with my father.”
“My mother does love a wedding.”
“Don’t we all?” Gemi’s gaze flits to me. “Ashwin, you look handsome.”
As Natesa goes around the table, she bumps me with her hip to further establish her dominance as my fashion delegate.
“Everyone sit,” Indah says. “It isn’t often Pons and I have an evening without Jala.”
We kneel around the low, circular table under the pagoda. Indah refills the water and wine chalices, sending perfectly measured streams from pitchers and bottles. Servants bring a hookah on a tray. Brac picks up the pipe and draws in a puff of smoke.
He speaks as he exhales. “I didn’t know I would be the only person without a companion, or I would have found one for the evening.”
“Do you have someone in mind?” Natesa’s arch tone implies she has thoughts on the matter.
“One or two ladies of court. They’re on hold for the prince.” Brac sets the hookah mouthpiece against his lower lip. “They’re waiting for him to determine their fates.”
I wince at his phrasing. “They can remain in the palace during the two-year interim after the wedding. I won’t ask them to leave.”
Servants set dishes of food before us. Yatin finishes his chalice of wine and yawns. Natesa leans against his side, also fatigued.
“What will happen after two years?” Brac inquires. “Will you retain them in your court or require that they resign?”
“Whatever is determined, I will not alter their way of life.” This is the ranis’ home, the place many of them bore and raised their children. I would never force them out.
Gemi adjusts the side pleats of her sari, disengaged from the conversation. Her arrival is the ideal pivot point.
“Princess Gemi, tell us more about you.” The second I speak, I recognize my error. Out of everyone at the table, only Yatin and Natesa do not know her well. And myself, of course. Brac spent time with Gemi on his last visit to the isles, and Pons and Indah lived in Lestari at the palace with her for several years.
“I’m an instructor at an all-girls seminary,” she says. “I studied higher learning under several prestigious sages. Now I teach language and reading.”
“What are your favorite literary categories?” I ask, then quickly add, “I also like to read.”
Natesa laughs stridently. “The prince would read constantly if he could.”
Everyone around the table mutters in agreement. I am not offended or ashamed. A fascination with books is not a vice but a hobby.
“Reading is the gateway to learning,” Gemi says, receptive to our shared interest. “My favorite categories to teach are animals and plants. The girls are eager to learn.”
“Those are fascinating subjects to convey to children,” I say.
Gemi casually runs her finger around the rim of her chalice. “I like to watch them discover new things. It gives them a deeper appreciation for our world.”
Brac releases another puff of hookah smoke. “Ashwin, you should show the princess the library.”
“Didn’t you see it during your last visit?” I ask her.
“The door was pointed out on my initial tour,” Gemi replies, “but I was not let in.”
I give undue attention to the smoke curling upward. “I, ah, will have to correct that.”
Gemi regards me closer. She may sense my offer is disingenuous. Everyone stays out of my library. It is the only place I am guaranteed solitude, and I want to keep it that way.
“Did you see more of the palace today?” I ask. The grounds were under construction and repair the last time Gemi visited. I worked long hours to ensure they were restored before her arrival.
“I did. Pons tried to complete our tour, but we only made it halfway.”
“The princess spent too long in the gardens,” Pons explains.
“You have lavender,” Gemi says excitedly, “and birds we don’t have in Lestari.”
“You have no lavender in the Southern Isles?” Natesa asks.
“Our soil is too wet. Did you know if you run your hand over the flower stems they mark your skin with their scent?” She smells her hand and offers it to Natesa for a sniff.
I am too far across the table to smell. She seems disappointed that I do not get up, so I say, “I’ll remember to try that next time I’m near lavender.”
Indah and Pons’s nursemaid appears at the courtyard door, bouncing a crying Jala. Indah goes to calm her child, but the infant is inconsolable. She returns and whispers to Pons. I overhear Kalinda’s name, nothing more.
“We should put Jala down for bed,” says Indah.
Pons bows. “Please excuse us, Your Majesties.” The couple sets off. Before Jala’s cries have faded, Natesa touches Yatin’s cheek.
“We’ll go too,” she says. “This one needs to rest.”
“We can stay, Little Lotus,” Yatin replies before repressing another yawn.
“Go ahead, Captain.” Although supper is unraveling, I will not deny them a respite.
“We’ll have a welcome gathering for the viraji tomorrow,” Natesa says. “The ranis are excited to meet you, Princess.”
Her emphasis on “excited” alters the connotation. Are the ranis glad about the princess? Gemi misses Natesa’s borderline wryness and thanks her. Natesa pulls on Yatin and they set off.
Silence fills the gazebo. Brac’s long stare pushes me to say something. When I cannot think of anything worthwhile to discuss, he speaks to Gemi about his visit to Lestari. I am not jealous of their connection but do envy their easiness.
I twist my untouched wine chalice and munch on fried black mustard seeds. Kalinda’s absence has left a hole inside me. I will wait for Deven tonight, though I am concerned my friends have both left Vanhi for good.
“What do you think, Ashwin?” Gemi asks. I meet her amused gaze. She knows I have not been listening. “What are your thoughts on bhutas displaying henna markings for identification?”
Lords, Brac must have told her about Lokesh’s scheme. “The markings would further divide our people. What do you think?”
“I agree,” Gemi says. “When is your next speech? You can contest the commander’s proposal and set your people at ease.”
I glance from her to Brac. “Speech?”
“His Majesty prefers to let the people learn by his example,” Brac says.
His bland statement pokes at me. “I don’t want to disrupt their exchange of ideas and solutions. Growth comes from higher intellects discussing the idealistic outcome of transitions.”
“Higher intellects?” Brac snorts. “How is permitting mercenaries to rile up our citizens intelligent?”
My temperature rises. Brac is portraying me as a foolish idealist. The Southern Isles is a progressive nation where men and women are free to debate and discuss ideologies. Then the people may bring their concerns and philosophies to the datu for deliberation. After my short visit there last year, I was impressed by their nonviolent methods of initiating change.
“Datu Bulan believes every citizen should have a voice,” says Gemi. “People should speak their minds without fear of retribution. But, Ashwin, your people need to hear from you. They’ll come together with your guidance.”
A guard interrupts to whisper in Brac’s ear. The Burner wipes his mouth and sets aside his napery. “Your Majesties, I’m needed elsewhere.”
This must be pressing. Perhaps another issue arose with the protestors. I wait for Brac to allude to an explanation, but he takes his leave.
The servants deliver dessert, and Gemi piles a mountain of yogurt onto her plate. She dips her spoon into the creaminess and slips it in her mouth. Her eyes shut and her shoulders drop in a full sigh. Her delight is so infectious that although I prefer fried bread drizzled in honey for my final course, my own yogurt tastes sweeter than usual. She pauses to drink her wine and empties her chalice. I refill it for her.
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