The brethren teach that death is not the end. This is not what they meant.
I shrink toward the ground, my senses twitchy. The crow takes no interest in me, but fear is useful. Fear means I am still myself. When I am numb to the terrors of this place, the Void will own me.
My grumbling stomach draws me to the great hall for breakfast. Servants cook pots of spiced rice over the hearth fire. Maida sits at the long table alone, knitting.
“May I join you?” I ask.
She scans the empty table. “I don’t know if there’s room.” Her lips turn upward.
Unexpected. She has a sense of humor.
I plunk down across from her. A server delivers me a bowl of steaming rice pudding that smells of rose water and cardamom. My first bite sends delicious warmth into my belly.
“What are you knitting?” I ask.
Maida holds up a partially completed infant’s cap. “My grandmother says no woman fulfills her purpose without preparation.”
She must really want a child. I have never, not once, felt such an inclination, though I expect someday that may change. Deven would be a good father.
The sentiment comes at me without forethought, and I immediately suffer retribution.
Gods, I miss him.
As predicted, Deven did not visit me last night. My estimation that he can only find his way to my bedchamber in the Turquoise Palace may be accurate.
I tap my toe while I eat and glance at the door often, hoping for Tinley. Maida’s knitting needles click together. Upon another glance, I notice they are ice picks.
“Did you sleep well in my sister’s room?” she asks.
“That was Tinley’s bedchamber?”
“You didn’t displace her. She sleeps in the aviary.” Maida eyes me again. “You and my sister are friends. Tinley rarely makes friends.”
“You’re friends, aren’t you?”
“We’re sisters. That’s different.”
Why can they not be both? Maida and Tinley share a sense of irritability, so I keep quiet. I do not want to get caught between their tempers.
Deep laughter carries through the hall. Chief Naresh and Tinley saunter in, joking with each other, and join us at the table. Tinley’s tangled hair is windswept and her eyes aglow.
“Where have you been?” Maida asks. “I’ve been entertaining our guest alone.”
I peer sidelong at her. I did not realize my company was such a burden.
“We flew to the mountains to watch the sunrise.” Tinley bumps her shoulder into Naresh. “Father thought his falcon could outrun Chare.”
“Your mahati is swift for a runt.” He eats from a bowl that a servant puts before him.
Maida knits faster, her ice pick needles clicking furiously. “I’d like to go flying with you, Father.”
“Hmm?” He glances from Tinley to her for clarification. “Oh, Maida. We can go flying anytime.” Maida balls up the knit cap and drops it into her lap. “Were you warm last night, Kalinda?”
“Very,” I reply. Siva kept me toasty. After I woke, I returned her to the hearth.
“Are you finished, Kalinda?” Tinley asks. “The matron is waiting.”
Maida turns interested. “You’re visiting Grandmother? May I join you?”
“Not this time, little sister.” Tinley rises to go.
Maida fists her knitting needles. “Don’t call me little. I’m married now.”
“How could I forget?” Tinley retorts. “You remind me every five minutes.”
“Now, now,” drawls Chief Naresh. “Maida, let your sister go without you. You’ve had plenty of time alone with your grandmother. Let Tinley have hers.”
Sadness creeps into his tone and drags down his expression. The matron must be more unwell than he disclosed.
Maida pushes to her feet. “You’re right, Father. I’ll visit Grandmother this afternoon, as I’ve done every day since she fell ill. I didn’t abandon my family and duties.” She storms off, the ball of yarn lagging after her.
“Make peace with her,” Naresh quickly tells his eldest daughter.
“Spend more time with her,” Tinley shoots back, and Naresh looks sheepish. Tinley tugs my sleeve to go.
Out in the corridor, Tinley stalks ahead. I skip to catch up. “Do you and your sister compete at everything?”
“She was always jealous that I would be chieftess. I thought she’d be content once she secured the title.”
Maida seems to want her father’s and sister’s approval, but that may be oversimplifying years of discord. Tinley and I exit the palace and trudge across the snowy grounds. A shoveled path leads down an embankment to the rear of the palace. Rows of massive buildings lie in the gully. Behind the compound, pieces of turquoise ice shimmer beneath a dusting of snow.
I pause to absorb the view. The ice reminds me of my mother’s daggers. “What is that?”
“Blue Lake. We fish for alpine trout here during the summer. When the water freezes, the ice turns that brilliant hue.”
We side-foot down a slick trail to the compound. Long, low flat buildings, not too dissimilar in size to the elephant stables in Vanhi, compose the aviary. Between them, yaks bed down in pens and chew on alfalfa. Tinley slides open the door to the third building, and we go in.
Steam wafts through the high, open aviary. Lamplight shines from the rafters where a variety of smaller birds nest. The mahati falcons nestle below them in moss on the ground. I search for Chare, but she must be in another building.
Tinley directs me through the massive birds. Their huge eyes, the size of plates, follow our movements. A handful of stable hands add fresh moss to the nests and exchange the old water for fresh drink. In the center of the aviary, an old woman rests on a stool and cleans the talons of a mahati with a large brush. Behind her, a hot spring bubbles and steams. Two middle-aged women sit at a workbench off to the side.
“Matron Anoush,” Tinley says, “Father said you shouldn’t be working.”
“I’ll stop working when I die.” The elderly woman looks up from her task. “If it isn’t my wayward granddaughter. You missed your sister’s wedding.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Matron Anoush harrumphs. “Should have been you.”
I swivel on Tinley. The matron did not say Tinley should have been chieftess. Was she implying she should have wed Bedros?
Tinley waves a pointy nail at me. “Grandmother, this is Kalinda, former kindred of the Tarachand Empire.”
Matron Anoush tips her chin higher. “You married Rajah Tarek.” I nod. She judges me closer. “You killed him.”
Tinley stills. We have not discussed my part in Tarek’s demise. I cannot fathom how her grandmother knows, except that she is more perceptive. As I see no reason to lie, I nod again.
Anoush puckers her wrinkled lips and returns to grooming the bird, brushing the talons clean with great strokes.
I step into her line of sight. “Naresh said you can direct me to Ekur.”
Tinley’s gaze flickers to mine and back to her grandmother. “But you know how to get there?”
“Of a sort.” Anoush’s brushstrokes slow, her old, veiny hand shaking. She drops the brush and clutches her chest, as though she is pushing air inside her. Tinley rushes to her side, as do the two women at the workbench.
“Let your aides take you to lie down,” Tinley says.
“Do that, and I’ll never get up.” Anoush clutches at her granddaughter. “I have someone for the Burner Rani to meet.” The aides move back. Tinley supports her grandmother, and they shuffle to the other side of the hot springs. An ivory egg, bigger than my head, is snuggled in the moss. “The mother wouldn’t keep this one in her nest. Tried to roll it into the hot springs.”
“Mahatis are territorial,” Tinley explains. “Chare is in another aviary. This flock would tear her apart.”
“But this is their own egg,” I say.
“See the crack?” Anoush points to a tiny zigzag on the shell. “The mother noticed it was damaged and saw fit to do away with the egg. She reserves her care for her other hatchlings. They all broke out of their shells this morning. This one has been trying since last night. She has to get out on her own, or she’ll never have the strength to survive.”
I crouch down and listen to the bird’s pecking. “How do you know it’s female?”
“The female eggs are yellow, and the male eggs are green. We raise the males until they learn to fly, then set them free. They’re wilder than the females and more dangerous to tame. Every spring we release the females to mate. The domesticated ones return.”
The pecking drums onward. I inspect the egg for breakage but see none. “You’ll just leave her in there?”
Matron Anoush rubs the shell. “She has to want to live. We cannot decide that for her.” She squints at me. “I cannot direct you to Ekur, but I can tell you who can.”
A buzzing sensation travels across my skin.
I’m getting closer, Deven.
The matron’s gaze bores into mine. “This journey will lead you into great darkness. When you finish, you won’t be as you are now.”
“You don’t yet, but you will.” Anoush flounders forward, shrinking into herself. Tinley helps her sit at the bank, and the matron slips her feet into the gurgling water. The aides come closer, yet give us distance. Anoush wheezes heavily. “Burner Rani, I have a tale for you. It is our most sacred story, passed on from matron to matron. I have not told even my granddaughter, but your journeys are entwined.”
Anoush pulls a necklace from under the collar of her robe. A gold medallion, wide and thick as a coin, bears a strange design. “This is the emblem of the gods, the quad symbol. I have been told it marks the entrance to Ekur.”
I study the emblem, a wave for the water-goddess, mountain peaks for the land-goddess, a flame for the fire-god, and a curl of wind for the sky-god. Together the crest resembles a shooting star.
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