He need not clarify why that is a terrible idea. We had this discussion yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that . . . The issue is not getting into the Void but getting Deven out.
“How is he?” Brac asks.
“Weaker.” Few of our friends and family know Deven is alive. We have left his name carved on the door of my mother’s tomb for simplicity’s sake. Explaining his imprisonment is too complicated. On occasion, he asks to visit with his brother and mother. They dined with him often during the first weeks of his visits, but he has become less sociable. The hour after he leaves is my loneliest. Most mornings I question if he was really here.
Brac hunches over his knees and scrubs at the coppery stubble on his chin. “I’ve thought about going after him too. Until we work out how without risking ourselves, we must stay here.”
Deven learned the complicated route through the roadways of shadow to my chamber after several attempts. Even if he could find me elsewhere, now is not the time to leave. The Tarachand Empire is regaining strength, but we are like an old man overcoming a grave illness. I edge up to Brac and finish the rice left on the food tray.
“Ashwin needs us too,” I say.
“He’ll be safer once he’s rajah.”
“That’s just a title.”
“Titles hold power, Burner Rani.”
Our citizens have taken to calling me “Burner Rani.” It is not intended as a compliment. My tournament championship and short-term marriage to Rajah Tarek as his kindred mean nothing. I am a bhuta, same as the rebels and warlord who occupied the palace to stop the extermination of our kind.
Tarek’s legacy of hate runs deep, so when the demon Udug impersonated him, our people were quick to believe the rajah was back from the dead to defeat the rebels. We unmasked Udug as a fraud, but he released the demon Kur from the Void. With the help of our bhuta allies—the Paljorian airship fleet and Lestarian Navy—we vanquished them and stopped the evernight from conquering the mortal realm.
None of our good deeds matter to the people. They care not that Ashwin banished the last of the rebels. They only care that he suspended his father’s execution order against bhutas and appointed Brac as his bhuta emissary and selected Virtue Guards, including me. To protest our proximity to the throne, countless soldiers have defected from the imperial army. I knew integrating bhutas into society would take time, but after all we have done to preserve the empire, the citizenry’s stubbornness rankles.
Brac claps his knees in preparation to stand. “You’re expected at the amphitheater this morning.”
“But I was up all night,” I groan.
“Those little scamps nearly burned off my eyelashes again.” Brac pats my back in a conciliatory manner. “It’s your turn.”
Natesa knocks and bustles in. “One of you needs to go to the dining hall. Your trainees set fire to the table linens during breakfast!”
“The prince expects me for a meeting.” Brac throws me a smirk and strides out.
“I’ll go,” I say.
“Not looking like that you won’t,” Natesa counters.
I brush rice crumbs from my lips as she digs through my dressing cabinet. Natesa and I were raised together in Samiya. We became friends after Tarek claimed us, she as a courtesan and me as a rani, and we competed in my rank tournament. Her jade sari and short blouse complement her curves. I have become shapelier since my younger years, when she teased me for my thinness. Our mutual friend and healer, Indah, insisted I eat heartily to keep my soul-fire well stocked, which in turn healed the aftereffects of Kur’s fiery venom and increased my weight.
While she is turned around, I put on my prosthesis, winding the leather strap around my shoulder. The wooden fingers have no joints but are the same size and shape as my functioning left hand.
Natesa holds up a black training sari. “This one will show off your full hips.” She drapes the sari across my bed. “Get changed before your trainees burn down the palace. Yatin will take one of them over his knee if they don’t start behaving.”
My trainees are the last two Burner children in the Tarachand Empire. Yatin would never lay a hand on them, let alone any child, but another guard might. “I’ll speak with the girls. Any news of your wedding plans?”
“Yatin and I agreed the ceremony can wait until we’re less busy.” Natesa has been working to open her inn, and Yatin accepted a promotion to captain of the guard. “The inn is ready for me to move in to.”
I repress my surprise. “I didn’t realize you were leaving the palace so soon.”
“I didn’t want to . . . ,” Natesa leads off, twisting her lotus engagement ring.
Everyone does this now, calculates their speech and anticipates my reaction. They presume I will crumble under a single unplanned word.
“Didn’t want to what?” I press.
“I didn’t want to boast.”
Her careful treatment of me pricks. Still, I keep my tone airy. “Telling your friend good news isn’t boasting. When the time comes, you’ll be the most beautiful bride in the empire.”
Natesa glances in the vanity mirror glass. “You should see Princess Gemi’s bridal sari. Asha outdid herself on the bodice. I may ask her to embroider mine.”
“Princess Gemi is lovely, but she isn’t you.” I replay my words and quickly cover my mouth. “Please don’t repeat that to the viraji.”
The formal term of endearment crowds my throat. I disliked the title when it was mine. It feels odd conferring it upon another.
“Repeat what?” Natesa answers, eyes twinkling. She picks up a comb and brushes my hair. “Don’t worry, Kali. Everyone knows you’re glad for them.”
“I am,” I say firmly.
Though Ashwin proposed marriage to me, I care for him as my cousin and friend. I support his decision to take the Southern Isles’ princess as his first wife. Gemi has a unique zest for life and a free spirit. The empire is in dire need of a leader with her forward-thinking views.
A crash outside draws Natesa to the balcony. She clucks her tongue and motions me to join her. Servants douse a grass fire in the garden below. A pair of girls flee into the trees.
“You didn’t make it to the dining hall in time,” says Natesa.
I rub at a mounting headache. “I had no idea two girls could be so much trouble.”
Servants extinguish the fire and resume their work. Past the palace wall, Vanhi has woken. Men crowd the roads with their burros and carts, headed to the marketplace that is shaded by a mosaic of lean-tos. Women hang laundry on the lines strung between the huts and milk goats. Children play in the side-winding river while their older siblings collect water in baskets. Life is on the move, ready for a new day. I could fall into bed until noon.
I scoop up my clothes and duck behind the dressing screen. Natesa prepleated the sari, but I fumble with the pins.
“Kalinda?” Her voice comes at me tentatively. “Would you like help?”
A former rani who lost two fingers during her rank tournament taught me how to carry out everyday activities such as dressing and dining. By necessity, my left hand has become dominant and does well with the assistance of my prosthesis.
While pulling my sari over my shoulder, I drop a pin. Gods almighty.
Natesa hovers nearby, waiting for me to give in.
I select another pin and try again.
My trainees—Basma, age nine, and her seven-year-old sister, Giza—gaze up at me with their hands clasped in front of their bellies. Dirt dusts their sandaled feet and legs. Historically, the Vanhi amphitheater housed rank duels between sister warriors. Basma and Giza are sisters but are far from skilled fighters.
“Who threw the heatwave at Master Tinley?” I ask.
Basma’s stare does not waver from mine. “It was me.”
Giza lowers her chin. A sign of agreement? Or is she letting her older sister take the blame for her mistake?
Except for the finger length of height Basma has on Giza, the sisters are identical, with rounded faces and tiny underbites that become more pronounced when they hold back tears.
Tinley grumbles from across the arena, the tail end of her long silver braid singed. Indah, acting Aquifier instructor, soaked her down with water from the practice barrels. Neither woman needed much persuasion to stay in Vanhi and train our bhuta children, though right about now Tinley must be rethinking her decision. Indah and Pons, her partner, are content raising their baby girl here, and Tinley will seize any excuse not to go home to her parents and four younger sisters in Paljor. Though I have tried to figure out why, she has not provided any hints to her self-banishment.
Across the arena, Tinley returns to instructing the five Galer trainees, teaching them how to manipulate the sky and wind to their advantage. The archery target Basma missed remains untouched and will remain so for now.
“Practice looking for your inner star,” I tell my students. “Don’t open your eyes until you find the brightest one.”
While the girls look inward for the manifestation of the fire powers, I stride to Tinley’s section. Her apprentices push a massive granite block across the arena with their winds.
“I smell like charred yak meat,” she grumbles.
“More like roasted lamb,” Indah says.
Her five Aquifiers rest in the shade for a break. High above us, the benches that encircle the roofless amphitheater are empty. Even higher, on the rafters, the gongs glint in the late-morning sunshine and the Tarachandian red-and-black pennants lie slack without a breeze. We divided the oval arena into four equal parts. The bhuta children ages five to sixteen train in their respective sector.
A little over a moon ago, Brac petitioned Prince Ashwin on behalf of our bhuta youth. Accidents with their powers were occurring all over the empire. The half-god children with elemental abilities passed down through their parents’ bloodlines no longer lived in fear of execution but had no masters to train them. After one mishap led to a six-year-old Aquifier drowning in her village bathhouse, Brac gathered the bhuta children, mostly orphans, and converted the arena into a training ground. Princess Gemi, a Trembler, has agreed to instruct our four Tremblers once she arrives. In the meantime, Indah oversees them.
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