“I’ll compete fairly,” Gemi replies, holding the trident across her chest.
I assess the audience for any signs of alarm. No one appears to think this is an antagonistic welcome. Their hierarchy remains with or without the rank tournaments. My father’s ruthless legacy lives on.
Gemi lunges first. Parisa evades and swings. My muscles twitch in anticipation of either one sustaining a hit. Gemi blocks with the center of her trident, and Parisa shoves her back.
“What happened to your ear?” Gemi asks.
“I avoided a khanda blow to my skull.” Parisa aims her blade at my viraji while they circle each other. “Do you have any scars?”
“One on my thigh. I fell out of a tree when I was a child.”
“A tree.” Parisa laughs. Most of the spectators snicker as well. Gemi’s complexion deepens to scarlet. “I’ll give you a scar to be proud of.”
Parisa hacks at Gemi, forcing her to the rim of the ring. My viraji’s heel nears the line. Using both arms, she flings Parisa back. Gemi jabs the trident’s triple prongs at the rani and sweeps the long end under her feet. Parisa hits the floor on her bottom, sitting upright. Gemi lowers the prongs over her neck. Scars or not, she is spry for a novice fighter.
Parisa is still in the match. She whacks Gemi’s ankle with the blunt end of the sword. Gemi hobbles back, and Parisa hops up and kicks her in the knee. Gemi drops forward. Parisa goes behind her and knocks her in the head with her hilt. Gemi falls onto all fours.
I begin to stand, but Natesa motions me to stay back.
Parisa punches Gemi hard in the chin. My viraji falls into the center of the sparring ring, abdomen down. Parisa lowers the tip of her blade to the back of Gemi’s head, which bleeds from an earlier strike.
“First down,” Parisa says. Gemi rolls onto her back and looks up at the rani. “You’ll have to try harder to become our kindred.”
“Enough,” I interject.
Parisa falls back. She sets her khanda on the rack and prowls out of the pavilion.
Gemi picks herself up and retrieves her trident. She approaches the line of waiting opponents. “Next,” she says.
“One test will suffice,” I say.
“I’ll meet any challenger.” She hoists her trident at the ready. “Who’s next?”
None answer. They will not defy me.
Natesa slides between Gemi and the armed women. “This concludes our demonstration. We will now partake of fried breads and chilled wine in the dining terrace.” She guffaws nervously.
The women rack their blades and disband.
Gemi marches over to me and steels her voice. “You undermined me. You cannot defend me or they’ll always view me as an outsider.”
Her rosy complexion and smoldering eyes twist my tongue. “One test of skill was sufficient. You aren’t obligated to perform another.”
“But I am,” she hisses. “They must learn to trust me or I cannot lead.” She stomps to Indah, her knuckles white on the trident. The Aquifier tends to her head wound.
“She’s riveting,” Shyla says.
Heat pushes up my neck. “Gemi wasn’t raised as we were. To her, these rituals are strange.”
“Yet she’s shown she’s capable of rising to our standards.” Shyla touches my forearm. “Most of us didn’t receive a happy welcome upon our arrival, but few of us had the same innocence.”
I have also sensed Gemi’s goodness. She has not been jaded by the brutality of the empire. Training as a sister warrior will evolve her fighting skills, but what attributes will she relinquish for that knowledge? Is she doing this for herself, her peers, or for me?
“She wants a sister warrior to train her,” I say. “Will you do it? I trust you’ll be kind.”
Shyla blushes. “It would be my honor.”
“Your Majesty?” Pons calls from the doorway. I excuse myself to meet him. “Captain Yatin asked me to notify you that protestors have rallied by the river. At least two hundred, and their numbers are expanding.”
I leave the pavilion with Pons and go to an open casement that overlooks the city. People have clustered at the main riverbank. Lords, I hope Gemi does not hear of this.
“Where is the captain?” I ask.
“At the gate. Would you like me to escort you?”
“I’ll find my way.”
I get turned around twice. Once in a servants’ passageway, staggering a kitchen server, and again in the garden. (In my defense, the gardener clipped back the rhododendron trees, which were my previous marker.)
“Your Majesty,” Captain Yatin says, meeting me outside the guardhouse, “we must take you inside. The protestors are marching this way.”
Chanting resounds from the city. “Return to tradition!”
The protestors round the bend in the road to the main gate. Commander Lokesh leads the parade on his horse. He slouches in the saddle, relaxed in his arrogance, as the people intone.
Yatin ushers me to the palace entry steps. The commander halts at the gate. His headscarf masks his face except for his bold stare.
Anger scalds my tongue. Who is he to come to my door and terrorize me?
I revolve from Yatin and stride to the gate. With each step, the cries of the mob mount. Commander Lokesh signals for quiet, and the protestors silence. Several of my former soldiers and guards are mixed into the crowd.
“You’ve disobeyed a direct order, Lokesh.”
“As I’m no longer your commander, I elected to ignore it.” His headscarf does little to muffle his voice, which rings clear across the expanse.
I endeavor to keep my words between us. “Call this off.”
“These people have gathered on their own. I’m merely their figurehead.”
I grasp the bars. “Because of your lies, they beat a soldier to death.”
“I regret that you’ve lost another defender, but his demise could have been prevented had you listened to your people.” Lokesh goes on, plainspoken and loud. “We disapprove of a bhuta foreigner as our rani and will reject her as our kindred.”
Countless men stomp in accord. A cloud of dust drifts up and flows through the bars.
“You’re too shortsighted.” I drop my voice. My anger makes my every word crisp and clear. “Princess Gemi brings with her the assurance of fair trade, ample treasuries, and naval protection for generations to come. This union will provide us with the resources to rebuild stronger than ever. No other rajah has made a more profitable alliance.”
“Then you don’t wed for love,” states the commander. “If you want what’s best for Tarachand, then select a rani from the existing court. A rani who battled for her throne and earned our respect.”
His brazenness stokes my temper. “This is my decision. Accept my choice and advise your followers to do the same.”
Lokesh’s attention strays behind me and his tone darkens. “Someday you won’t have bhutas to hide behind. Then what will you be?”
I follow his gaze to the palace. Gemi and Indah are watching from a balcony. Yet again I appear to rely upon my bhuta allies for compliance. I push away from the bars. “That’s enough, Commander. We’re done here.”
“Heed my warning, Prince,” Lokesh says. He spits through the bars to punctuate his distaste for me and then steers his horse around and saunters off.
The crowd disbands, casting glowers in my direction. I recheck the balcony. Indah and Gemi have returned inside. How long was my viraji standing there?
Yatin enters my peripheral vision and waits for my order.
“How many men do you estimate are in Lokesh’s ranks?” I ask.
“Approximately a hundred and fifty. Close to our same number of palace guards.” Yatin scratches his bristly chin. “A dozen men joined after they heard about the bonus, but three more defected in the middle of the night.”
Lokesh continues to fatten his support while we bleed ours. This public spectacle was for intimidation. Now that he has a taste for humiliating me, his behavior may escalate.
“Double the guards on watch. I don’t care where you find the men, just do it. I want to know if Lokesh comes anywhere near the palace.” I relax my taut jaw. “And ask Pons to send for Brac. We need to talk.”
I march inside and nearly trip over two girls playing marbles in the entry hall. How in the gods’ names did Tarek live with people constantly underfoot? I sidestep around them and head for the only place in the palace where I can be alone.
Wind rages against the village of mourners trekking up from Teigra. They have sleighs, but it is their ritual to carry the dead on foot to their resting place. A burial procession, Chief Naresh called it when he told me his mother had passed on. He said the matron slipped away quietly, surrounded by her family and friends.
We crest the snowy hill. Two guards lay the body wrapped in cloth on top of an altar, a slab of stone on stacked rocks. The afternoon sun, partly veiled behind a horde of clouds, gives no warmth over the winter landscape. Chief Naresh and Tinley lean together. Maida and Bedros comfort each other, and Sosi holds her younger children.
Snow flurries zip around us in unnatural sideways patterns, a manifestation of Maida’s or Sosi’s northern Aquifier powers. I watch from outside the group, my rabbit fur shielding me from the worst of the cold. Anoush’s final words to me burrow into my mind.
He called you Cala . . .
A spiritual leader in white robes uncovers the body, preparing it for excarnation. She speaks in a language I do not recognize. Tinley warned me beforehand that they leave their deceased open to the elements to decompose and serve as carrion to scavenging animals, including wild mahati. The grisly process suits their belief that the falcons take hold of the soul during their feeding and carry the departed to the Beyond. The only part that is like ours in Tarachand is that their deceased also face upward toward the sky.
The leader stops singing and steps away from the altar. Anoush’s remains collect snowflakes. Tinley buries her face in her father’s cloak. He tries to embrace her, but she lets him go and speeds off downhill, her feet packing down snow.
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