“You haven’t touched yours,” she says, gesturing at my cup.
“I don’t drink.” Rajah Tarek carried a flask with him and regularly stank of spirits.
Gemi pushes her tongue to the side in amusement. “Pretend to be grateful when my father gives you a prized bottle of apong as your groom’s gift.”
“I’ll try,” I say on a chuckle.
She sets down her spoon and fingers her napery. “Thank you for receiving me early. You must want to know why I came.”
“I have wondered.”
“The letters we exchanged were polite but formal, and your marriage proposal was . . . succinct.”
I bristle at her thinly restrained criticism. “Your father and I negotiated until we felt the terms were fair.”
“How could I have refused?” she replies dryly.
I tug at my scratchy collar. “I could have reworded my intentions. My apologies for hurting your feelings.”
“You didn’t,” she replies swiftly. “I was used to something else. My parents wed for love. After my mother passed away, my father hasn’t remarried. Your culture has different views and customs.” She twists her earring. I wonder if she realizes her accent thickens when she speaks of her home. “Your marriage proposal helped me to interpret our nuptials for what they are—a binding of unions. Our negotiations are fair, but my own needs were omitted from the dialogue.”
I sharpen my attention on her. In a roundabout way, she has reopened negotiations. “What do you wish to include in our agreement?”
“I want to train with the sister warriors.” Gemi stirs her finger through the last of the yogurt on her plate. “My father treated me like a fragile shell, and my people . . . The throne intimidates others. The rector at the seminary let me teach without asking for my qualifications. Even though I have the aptitude, the other teachers did not receive me well.” She quits drawing in her yogurt and looks up. “People either are too polite and pretend to like you when they don’t or they’re harder on you than they would be on others. Proximity to power unnerves many.”
“So you’ve come to train?” Her desire to teach and be taught intrigues me. I assumed she was content in her authority in Lestari.
Gemi sets her elbows on the table and licks the yogurt from her finger. “My training focused on my Trembler abilities. As kindred, it’s important that I learn your ways.”
No one could accuse Gemi of complacency. The first time we met she defied her father and coerced herself into a position in the war. She must have anticipated I would allow this latest request, but I am not the one she must convince.
“The ranis are tough to impress,” I hedge. “They’re rank tournament champions with no tolerance for weakness.”
“I’ll work as hard as they require.”
I recognize her expression. A woman wears it when she has made up her mind. Kalinda and Natesa use it daily. However, I worry Gemi has hinged her happiness in Vanhi on gaining the sister warriors’ approval. “I’ll speak to the ranis about your training.”
“Thank you. I knew you would understand.”
Her pale-gold eyes glitter. Even her skin has an iridescence that is riveting.
I lean across the table toward her, transfixed.
Brac stalks back in. “Pardon the interruption. Ashwin, you’re needed in the infirmary.”
I puzzle out his summons. The only patient in the infirmary is the battered guard.
“Gemi,” I say, “please excuse us. Help yourself to the rest of the yogurt.” I wave and follow Brac out.
He ducks through passageways and lantern-lit corridors. We arrive at the infirmary moments later. Healer Baka waits outside.
“He just passed on,” she says. “We did all we could, Your Majesty.”
I sweep past her. The soldier lies propped up on his bed, his lips possessed by a disturbing colorlessness. He was young, not much older than me. “What happened?”
“He was bleeding inside his head. Indah tried to stop it, but nothing could be done.”
“His family?” I ask, and Healer Baka defers to Brac.
“A comrade told us that his mother, a widow, lives across the desert.” Brac’s voice coarsens. “We haven’t notified her of the accident yet.”
The soldier’s limp hand is lukewarm. His final moments of consciousness must have been horrifying. Beaten to death in the streets of his own city, by his own people. For what purpose? To protest my choice of kindred, my trust of bhutas, my dissimilarities to my father?
“Thank you for not letting him be alone,” I push out.
“Anu has him now.” Healer Baka covers the man’s face with his blanket. “I summoned a brother to bless the body. Would you like to stay?”
My pulse slows, the thuds in my chest steady pangs. “I need to do something first. I’ll return soon for the Prayer of Rest.” I start out and Brac falls into step alongside me.
“Lokesh must be stopped,” he says. “Send me to silence him.”
I usher Brac from the infirmary faster. I will not discuss retaliation in front of the still-warm body. “And do what?” Brac may be skilled at surveillance and scorching people to dust in battle, but he is no cold-blooded killer.
“I’ll leave him in the desert and let Anu have his wrath,” he rumbles.
“Tarek may have employed those tactics, but I will not.”
“Your father would not have let an innocent guard die without recompense.” Brac’s heated words barrel down the corridor into the obscure corners where my sire’s memories are entrenched. “I’m not a proponent of your father’s policies, but you should understand why he ruled as he did and not choose the opposite path simply because you believe it’s better.”
The ambassador’s second admonishment of the day is two too many.
“My methods aren’t up for debate.” I hold strong against Brac’s disapproval. He did not survive the near extermination of his people because he is irrational. With Kalinda’s parting and Lokesh’s threats, this has been a wearisome day for us both. “Lokesh will face recourse, but his removal now would turn him into a martyr. We must find his employer and cut off his profits. Without earnings, the mercenaries will abandon Lokesh forthwith.”
“Your Majesty, call back the spies following him and send me.” At my protracted stare, Brac adds, “Son of a scorpion, I won’t hurt him . . . much.”
I disregard his warped humor. “Find out who Lokesh is working for and why he’s doing this. A man like the commander is after more than treasure.”
Brac accepts the task. I set off to inform Yatin of the fallen soldier. Afterward, before I return for the Prayer of Rest, I will pen a condolence letter to the deceased’s mother and break her heart.
I have become an expert at seeing in the dark. During the mortal realm’s daylight hours, the sky of the under realm lightens to elephant gray. At night, those same shadows deepen to stone and ice, and the narrow roadways splinter off like stairways into the sky. Some are dead ends, while others lead travelers right back to where they started.
One path, just one, leads me to Kali’s chamber.
Using a needle that I snapped off the thorn tree, I etch the ivory hilt of my janbiya dagger. The long handle of my weapon already reads: 1ST RIGHT. 6TH LEFT. RIGHT AT FORK.
I start the next instruction. 200 PACES, THEN LEFT.
The thicket I hide in crouches up to the Road of Bone. The bones, taller than any man, are laid out in a path, resembling the rib cage of a sea monster. I imagine the primeval creature was a casualty in the premortal war between the saltwater-goddess Tiamat and her son, Anu. This grisly roadway is the only thoroughfare in and out of the city in the distance. Other pathways form at night, but all lead back to the City of the Dead.
Nothing travels the road now. As far as I can see, the nocturnal wanderers that dwell here are dead. I am the only living thing. To keep it that way, I scratch the hilt harder.
Closer to the city, Kur’s serpentine tail lies outside his cave. His rumbling snores resound from the towering entry. I have not seen him leave his abode since he entrapped me in the under realm. I remember the war in the mountains, trying to save Kali, and winds sweeping us into the lake. After I failed to reach her in the waves, I recall little except shocking cold, then waking in a fallow field nearby. Kur had disappeared to his lair. He must have assumed I was dead or would be soon.
I pause carving the handle. 200 paces, then . . . was it right or left? To remind myself, I rub the inscription at the top.
Going up to the mortal realm is akin to surfacing for air. This inscription on my dagger will ensure I do not forget the complicated pathway to Brac and my mother, to Natesa and Yatin, to Kali. My friends and family are my purpose for enduring, but the route to the mortal realm is becoming harder to remember. This place, this pervasive darkness, eats away at me one day at a time.
I have been stuck in the evernight without a reprieve for too long. For two nights in a row, I have tried to go home. The night before last, Kur summoned his top commanders from the city to his lair. I recognized Asag, Lilu, and Edimmu from our battle on the mountaintop and from their warped forms of bhuta powers. The paths that lead to the mortal realm are on the other end of the Road of Bone. To get there, I would have had to violate one of my survival rules: never sneak past Kur’s lair at night.
Kur’s minions finally returned to the city this morning. I do not trust this change in their behavior. They have never visited their ruler all at once. Though I have tried to puzzle out the purpose, I have been left with more answers than questions and a deeper urge to find a way out of here for good.
A branch creaks overhead. I glance up at a crow perching in my tree, my janbiya in my fist. The feathers on the crow’s wings molt, its bony legs cracked and bleeding.
From what I have gathered, when spirits of animals or souls enter the under realm, they are less distinct in form. Within hours of dwelling in the shadows, they harden to physical beings once more. They are more corpse than flesh, as if they were put back into their rotting bodies.
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