Maida and Bedros leave next, then Sosi follows with her younger children. One after another, everyone else returns to the city until the chief and I are alone.
“My mother wanted our whole family there with her when she passed,” Naresh says. “It was her last wish. She held out until Tinley came home.”
Tinley must not have told her father about our conversation. “Did Anoush ever mention a godly medallion?”
“She may have. My mother’s head brimmed with stories. She could spin a tale unlike any other. Her words inspired people to strive for betterment.” He hunches his shoulders. “She will be missed.”
Naresh kneels in the powdery snow before the altar. I fist the medallion in my pocket. Anoush believed a god held her in this life though she was ready to pass on. Would a deity be so cruel? Or was that the final story she wished to tell?
A powerful gust blows me back a pace. In the distance, the Crystal Palace captures the sparse sunshine and glints in defiance of the moody clouds. I select the spires as my beacon and set out for Teigra.
I enter the aviary and slide the door shut. Steam from the hot springs melts the snow on my clothes as I start for the middle of the longhouse. A man’s voice halts me.
“Please don’t leave again. Your family needs you. I need you.”
“I cannot stay,” Tinley answers.
The mahati falcon bedded down nearest me pops open an eye. I peek around him. Tinley and Bedros stand close.
“Tinley, I love you.”
“You should not say that.” She wields no anger but an undercurrent of disgust. “We’re not children anymore. Your marriage to Maida is sanctified by the gods. As next chief, you must honor your vows.”
I lean forward and peer through the mist wafting off the hot springs. My movement draws the attention of the hatchling in her nest. She cranes her head but does not spot me.
“Why didn’t you come?” Bedros asks, his thumb brushing Tinley’s chin. “You could have contested my betrothal.”
“My sister loves you. I couldn’t do that to her.”
“Maida was never for me, just as my brother was never for you.”
Brother? Bedros’s brother was Tinley’s betrothed?
“We’ll go to Naresh,” Bedros insists.
“He cannot undo your vows.” Tinley stalks out of my line of sight.
“I waited for you,” Bedros counters, disappearing after her.
My eavesdropping has gone on long enough. I back up for the door. The hatchling sees me and squawks shrilly. I shush her, but she wails on and on. I hurry over and scoop her up. She stops screeching. Little imp.
“I waited for you on my wedding day,” Bedros rants at Tinley, both out of sight. I move backward with the falcon, and they enter my view again. “Even as I stood before your sister, I wished to Enlil you would come.”
“I couldn’t!” Tinley’s shout rouses the mahatis. They ruffle their feathers and turn their attention to the couple. “Our fates cannot be changed. The gods care nothing for our desires. Heart’s wishes are for fools.”
“Then I’m a fool.” He springs at Tinley to kiss her.
She pushes him off. “Leave before I tell my sister and father.”
Bedros’s whole body hardens. She balls her fists. He defies her for two breaths . . . then three. She persists, so he trudges off.
Tinley slumps over and kicks at a mound of moss. I cradle the hatchling and wait for an appropriate amount of time before I step out. Many moments pass. When I emerge, Tinley looks right at me.
“Bedros is a fool.” She stomps to a workbench. “He’s married to my sister.”
“If he weren’t, would you be together?”
“No.” Tinley shoves supplies into a leather satchel.
I close in on her, still carrying the hatchling. “How did your betrothed die?”
“His name was Haziq.” Tinley latches the bag and ties her crossbow to it. When she finishes, she has composed her frustration. “The wild falcons will arrive soon.”
I gesture at their docile counterparts. “Why not take one of these?”
“These belong to us. The free ones hail the gods.” She throws her bag over her shoulder. “We must go. Put the hatchling back.”
I set the baby bird in her nest and she squawks loudly. “I think she’s afraid. What do we do?”
“She’ll adjust to your being gone soon. Our falconers will raise her until she’s old enough to fly with you.”
“Fly with me where?”
“Wherever you like,” Tinley answers. “My grandmother wanted you to have her.”
“Have her?” I sound like a dolt, repeating her replies.
“Mahatis imprint on the first person who holds them. We only touch the male hatchlings after they learn to fly. She’s connected to you.”
I run my finger down the hatchling’s bony head. “She’s mine?”
“She’ll learn to fly in a few short weeks. In about a year, she’ll grow large enough to carry a rider. What will you name her?”
Nothing comes to thought. “Must I decide now?”
“It’s your bird.” Tinley starts for the door. “Come along. Ignore her weeping.”
The falcon is indeed shedding tears. Each one compounds my regret.
“I’ll return for you,” I say, though I have no idea what I will do with a full-grown mahati. “Behave for your caretakers and get along with the other falcons.”
Tinley’s eyebrows shoot up. “Impressive mothering.”
The falcon squawks forlornly. I nearly weaken, but Tinley grabs me and keeps me on course.
“They must learn who’s in charge,” she says. At the exit, her clutch lessens. “She’ll be well cared for, Kalinda.”
Under the thickening clouds, we enter a yak pen. A driver is harnessing a pair of yaks to a sleigh. Sosi waits by him, tugging on leather mittens.
Tinley pulls up short. “Mother, Kalinda and I are leaving.”
“I’m taking you to the burial site.” Sosi climbs into the sleigh and picks up the reins.
Tinley curses under her breath and gets on. I ride beside my friend. Sosi spreads a red wool blanket across our laps and leads the yak team past the Crystal Palace and out of Teigra. The sleigh glides over the snow and ice with minimal joggling.
“Your sister was hurt when you didn’t attend her wedding,” Sosi says to her daughter.
Tinley groans. “You made that more than clear, Mother.”
“Maida loves Bedros. He’s wrong to have eyes for you.”
“I’m sorry, I truly am, but I cannot change what happened. I can only stay away.”
Maida’s anger against Tinley takes a firmer shape in my mind. Paljorians are betrothed from infancy . . . which means Bedros was intended to wed Maida while he and Tinley were together.
Sosi’s eyes glow in the late-afternoon light. “You cannot run forever, Tinley. It’s unfair to your father and me and your sister. Maida wants you to help her lead.”
Tinley sniffs in derision. “She doesn’t need my help.”
“If you believe that, then you’ve been gone too long,” replies Sosi. “We all mourned Haziq. I know your heart was broken, but have you considered how the rest of us felt? We lost more than Haziq. We lost you.”
Tinley stares stonily at the wintry hills. Her manifested winds mount at our back to assist the craft up the snowy rise. The yaks pull the sleigh to a stop near the burial site. Birds of prey and arctic foxes scatter from the altar. I hop down, careful not to glance at Anoush’s remains.
“Thank you,” I say to the chieftess.
Sosi bows her head. “Let the sky lead you, the land ground you, the fire cleanse you, and the water feed you, Burner Rani.”
Tinley steps out after me. “Mother, will you look after Chare while I’m gone? She gets lonely when I’m away.”
“I will.” Sosi kisses her daughter’s forehead. “Come home soon.”
“Tell Father good-bye for me,” Tinley replies. We move from the path of the sleigh, and Sosi journeys back. Tinley treads to an outcropping and waves me over. We lie down on our bellies behind two rocks. Our white furs camouflage us from above, and we have a direct view of the altar.
Night unfolds across the horizon. The muffled splatter of snowflakes rests upon us, a quiet attack that slowly collects on our cloaks. Tinley leaves her crossbow strapped to her back and tilts an ear to the wind. I prop my elbows on the ground so I can see through the gap in the rocks and monitor the stone altar and surrounding hilltop.
“What now?” I ask.
Tinley answers, her resolve ringing through. “We wait.”
The door squeaks open. I pay closer attention to my book, The Imperial Guard: A History of Tarachand’s Elite Forces, and ignore my intruder.
Footsteps approach. They pause.
“There you are.” Brac peers up at me seated atop the bookcase, his head cocked to the side. “Should you be up there? What if you fall?”
I slam the book shut. “Did you bring your report, Ambassador?”
“Come down and I’ll deliver it to you.”
Why must everyone have an ultimatum? I jump to the floor beside the discarded pile of my boots, tunic jacket, and belt. They came off the second I was alone in my library. “Tell me what you’ve learned about Lokesh.”
“Not much to tell.” Brac helps himself to an untouched decanter of apong. He bypasses the dusty cups and takes a swig from the bottle. After he swallows, he gives me an empty envelope addressed to Commander Lokesh. “I managed to lift this from his hut. He must be corresponding with his employer by dispatch to circumvent Pons tracking their movements.”
“We still know nothing,” I say, tossing the envelope aside.
Brac downs another pull from the bottle. “Captain Yatin secured the palace. After your impromptu exchange with Lokesh, the men were dissatisfied. They thought you should have spoken up on behalf of your loyalists. Yet another guard has turned in his khanda and left.”
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