“You see it, Burner Rani,” Anoush remarks. “Some truths are never forgotten.”
“Grandmother, what story does it tell?” Tinley says.
Anoush licks her dry lips. “Many generations ago, the gods lived among mortals. We served and obeyed their every command but were easily corrupted.” She wheezes between every word. “Kur sought to enslave mortals for his own. When Anu saw we would fall, he sent mahati falcons, enemy to serpents, to fend off the demons. The mahatis stayed and we became their stewards.”
Within the egg, the tapping increases. A beak punctures the shell. Anoush turns to watch the egg, and Tinley supports her. The hatchling pecks and pushes. A head pokes out, then a neck and wings. The bird wriggles from the tattered shell, squawking with her eyes closed and covered in white down.
“She’s so little,” I say, unable to imagine she will grow as big as the adults.
“Go on, Burner Rani,” Anoush says. “Pick her up.”
I scoop the mahati into my cupped hands. The hatchling beds down on my wooden palm. “One of her wings is shorter than the other.”
“Her cracked shell must have caused it.” Anoush clucks her tongue. “Shame.”
“Grandmother,” Tinley says, “what was the purpose of that story?”
Anoush runs a finger down the back of the fluffy falcon. “Mahatis ferry the souls of the deceased to the Beyond. To access the gods’ holy home, the falcons pass through Ekur.”
“What about the arches outside the city?” I ask.
“Our people built those for souls returning to our realm. A mahati can lead you to Ekur. Many have searched the mountains in vain. They went on foot when they should have gone by sky.” Anoush sinks into Tinley’s lap, winded.
Tinley strokes her white hair. “I’ll ask the aides to take you to lie down now.”
“Leave me be.” Anoush removes the medallion. “For you, Burner Rani.” Her whole arm quakes, so I accept the charm. “I have finished my purpose.”
“What purpose, Grandmother?”
Anoush’s rasps crackle into pants. “Moons ago, when I was very ill, I was visited by a god. He said the Burner Rani who dethroned the tyrant rajah would come, and after I directed her to Ekur, I could return to the Beyond. The god gave me the medallion to pass on to Kalinda, but he called her by another name.”
I set down the hatchling and kneel by Anoush. “What name?”
“He called you”—she wheezes—“Cala.”
I rock back. That is the name I heard while we were flying near Wolf’s Peak.
“Tinley, you know all the stories now,” Anoush says, patting her cheek. She coughs, each more painful sounding than the last. “Assist Kalinda. Go with her and find peace.” Her head lolls against her granddaughter’s middle.
“Grandmother? Grandmother?” Tinley listens, her ear over Anoush’s mouth. The aides rush over. “She’s breathing. We need to get her home. Someone fetch my father!”
A stable hand sprints off to find the chief. One of the aides feels Anoush’s forehead.
“Why did you let her come here?” Tinley demands. “She should be in bed.”
“Today started as a good day,” an aide replies. “She was feeling well and insisted on meeting you and the Burner Rani. We couldn’t persuade her otherwise.”
Anoush does not strike me as someone who is easily swayed, yet I sympathize with Tinley’s outrage. My gut has wound into tangles.
More stable hands arrive to lift the limp old woman. Tinley and the aides stay close as they carry Anoush out. I begin to follow them, but the hatchling squawks and squawks. Uncertain if the bird is safe to leave alone, I shove the medallion into my pocket and pick her up. The tiny falcon cozies into my prosthesis. I cradle her, needing her comfort more than she needs mine.
The ranis and courtesans quiet as I enter the Tigress Pavilion. Few men are let into this den of sister warriors. As a rule, we are advised to stay out. This long-held custom originated from a general sense of propriety. Only Brac routinely defies it, but he has left to spy on Lokesh.
Eshana greets me, and Parisa follows her over. The other women—a mixture of sisters, temple wards, and former courtesans—chatter lowly, their stares on me. I swipe restless fingers through my hair. Why are they all dressed in training saris? And where are Natesa and Gemi?
“Your Majesty,” Eshana gushes, “we weren’t expecting you.”
Parisa folds her arms across her chest. She wears her hair tied back, revealing the missing piece of her earlobe. A purple scar runs down her neck from the earlobe. Both were injuries sustained during her rank tournament.
“Is that aftershave?” Eshana asks. “Parisa, would you say it’s cinnamon?”
Parisa turns up her nose. They must smell the cinnamon sweets I took from a bowl during my previous meeting. The last candy I ate is still on my breath.
Eshana drapes herself down my side. “Have you given more thought to that foot massage?”
“He doesn’t want a massage from you,” Parisa snaps. “He has his foreign viraji for that.”
“Sssshhh . . .” Eshana pushes Parisa off to a corner. “You could be reprimanded.”
“For what?” Parisa does not lower her voice. “An outsider cannot be our kindred. The rajah’s first wife should be one of us.”
Other women mumble in accord. Shyla appears at my side.
“Your Majesty, let’s seat you.” As she leads me away, she says, “Those two have been bickering nonstop. Parisa told everyone you’ll wait two years to decide which of us, if any, will migrate to your court. Eshana insists you won’t make us wait long.”
We stop at the black-and-white-tiled fountain. Cushions are laid out opposite the weapons racks, and a sparring ring is marked on the training yard floor with chipped paint.
“Will you?” Shyla inquires. “Make us wait two years, I mean.”
I have not told anyone, not even Kalinda, that I am developing a long-term solution for the women of the court. Before I present my proposal, I need to finish my research. Shyla does not want flimsy promises. She needs the truth. “Firstly, this will always be your home. I will never ask you and Rehan to leave. Secondly, I—”
Natesa and Gemi enter the pavilion, and I lose my stream of thought. Kohl lines Gemi’s eyes, and her lips are dyed a daring red. Her hair is partially braided and circled around her head in a crown while the lower half flows down her back. The compromise between the ranis’ customary loose locks and the courtesans’ single, thick braids is striking. She fits in with a black training sari, wrapped so the skirt sweeps through her legs and tucks into the back of her waist. Our women don this fashion for ease of movement when they spar. Gemi could have accomplished the same freedom in the trousers she regularly wears, but she wore the Tarachandian traditional garb.
I take her clammy fingers in mine and guide her to the floor cushion on my right. Shyla occupies the one to my left. Everyone else kneels as well. None of the women invite my viraji’s attention with a jubilant welcome.
“Everyone is so quiet,” Gemi whispers to me.
“You’re doing well.”
Natesa stands in the center of the training pavilion. She outglows everyone in a tangerine sari with fuchsia embroidery. “Welcome to the arrival celebration for Princess Gemi of the Southern Isles. We will open with a sparring demonstration. Viraji, we will now introduce the wards of the Samiya Temple.”
Pairs of girls, between ages eight and sixteen, rush into the training section. They confront their companions with bamboo staffs and lift their weapons at the ready. Natesa claps and the show commences.
The girls sidestep and swing their staffs in a choreographed dance of striking and evading. Gemi observes, fully absorbed. One by one, each skirmish brings about a victor. We applaud them, and the wards scurry off.
The bhuta trainees run into the area next. Indah, who must have been waiting with them elsewhere, instructs her charges.
The children bend into their knees. Giza and Basma, the Burner sisters, cast flames above our heads. I jump, concerned that the girls might inadvertently char us, and startle Gemi. We both exchange a nervous laugh.
The Galers stream wind at the flames and arc them higher. The Aquifiers steal water from the fountain and propel streams at the fire. Steam bursts above our heads, and, in unison, the floor rumbles from the Tremblers’ collective stomp.
All goes still.
Gemi begins the ovation. In Lestari, bhuta powers are displayed for entertainment, but the ranis and courtesans wear dazed expressions. I clap and some of them applaud half-heartedly.
The bhuta children dash off, and Shyla enters the sparring ring.
“Sister warriors,” she says, “select your weapons.”
Several ranis in the audience go to the weapons racks. Once they have picked their weapon of choice, they line up across the pavilion.
“As daughters of the land-goddess Ki,” Shyla says, “we face each other in battle to prove our honor, godly virtue, and strength. The ranis of Tarachand have a rich history of defending their families and homeland. We now ask the viraji to step forward.” Gemi complies at once, and Shyla squares off with her. “As first wife and kindred, you will represent us to the world. Will you defend our families and homeland?”
“I will,” Gemi vows, shoulders back, chin high.
“Will you fight now?” questions Shyla.
I stiffen in protest. Natesa must have suspected this is where Gemi’s introduction would lead and dressed her appropriately.
“Yes.” Gemi beckons Indah. The Aquifier takes a trident from the weapons rack and gives it to the princess.
“Who will spar with the viraji?” Shyla asks the crowd.
“Me.” Parisa stalks forward with a khanda. Her lithe movements are practiced and powerful. For a moment, I see Gemi’s confidence flicker.
“Competitors will spar until first down,” says Shyla, retreating from the ring. “Either one concedes if she breaches the circle. No powers allowed.”
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