I can barely breathe. A wool blanket was laid over me, and what feels like sacks of grain pin my back and legs.
“Better than a magic carpet,” I grumble.
Gemi nudges me with her heel. “Shush. We’re almost to the main gate. Girls? If the prince speaks again, you have my permission to use your elbows.”
The temple wards giggle. They sit atop me while I lie on the carriage floor. I proposed that I could hang on to the underside of the carriage, but Gemi insisted this is safer.
She leads the wards in a round of song, a hymn about Anu’s great mercy that I have not sung since I was a boy. We roll to a stop at the gate.
“Afternoon, Viraji,” says the guard. “Destination?”
Gemi replies over the girls’ singing. “The Sisterhood temple. The priestess invited the wards and me for a tour.”
“General Yatin said you aren’t allowed to leave the premises.”
“The general was misinformed,” Gemi replies, haughtier than usual. The princess was more imperialistic in her homeland. It pleases me to hear her take a position of power over the palace guards, as this will soon be her domain. She sweeps the conversation along. “Prince Ashwin approved of my visit. You can fetch him if you’d like while we wait in this stuffy carriage. But best hurry. I don’t want one of the girls to faint in the heat, and you don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of Priestess Mita’s temper.”
The young choir sings the chorus. “He is true. He is just. He is one we can trust. We are safe under the eye of his sky . . .”
“Go ahead,” grumbles the guard. “Stay in the wagon until you arrive.”
We set off into the crowd. Fists thump against the exterior of the carriage. Gemi sings louder to drown them out. The pounding reverberates through the walls, and the wards’ voices wobble on the chorus. In seconds, the bangs stop. The carriage sways faster, and the wards sing without fear again. I had doubts about this outing, but Gemi’s assumption that the mob would not risk angering the gods by harassing a group of wards proved ingenious.
We trek unhindered downhill onto less busy roads. In the middle of the girls’ third number, we halt and they pile out of the carriage. I strip off the blanket. Gemi is dressed in a blue sari, the attire for temple wards. So long as she avoids eye contact, people will assume she is one of them.
She ruffles my disheveled hair. “I told you it would work.”
“Yes, but you didn’t tell me I’d be serenaded.”
She laughs lightly as we step into the courtyard. I fix my hair, and Gemi stops to greet a myna hopping around the ground. She carefully approaches the bird with the yellow beak and underbelly. I tried to catch mynas when I was young. They always flew away before I could get close.
Gemi creeps right up to the bird. Thinking I can too, I sneak up behind her. My nearness spooks the myna, and it takes off into the sky. Gemi beams as it flies over the rooftops. I should not be surprised by her stealth. The first time we met, she had snuck onto a balcony to eavesdrop.
“Do you have mynas in Lestari?” I ask.
“No. Aren’t they lovely?” Her delight is infectious, and I must admit they are interesting birds. “I heard one singing this morning. Do you have any books about them that I may borrow?”
“I, ah, will check the library. You haven’t by chance borrowed a book?”
Gemi cocks her head. “I wasn’t aware I was allowed.”
My face heats. She leaves me with that thought and starts up the outer steps of the temple. Engraved above the main entrance are the five godly virtues—obedience, service, sisterhood, humility, and tolerance. Every threshold in the Southern Isles is adorned with them. We go inside and Gemi surveys the artistry in the entryway.
“Kalinda had the shells brought from the coast to replicate the chandeliers in the Pearl Palace,” I explain.
“They remind me of home,” Gemi replies wistfully. “Father will be envious. Once he sees this, he may remodel our temple.”
The datu is a collector of rare and precious things. “I’m certain Kalinda would share the layout.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Gemi says, striding quickly ahead.
I trail her into the chapel. Minimal progress has been made on the murals since I was last here, but the completed sections are spectacular.
The wards run around, playing sleeping princess on the burned sacrifices altar. In a finished chapel, they would be reprimanded for irreverence. The temple has not been formally blessed by the brethren and dedicated to the gods, so I let them run and play. Gemi and I meander to the mural of the land-goddess Ki and her warrior daughters.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” I ask. “The artist was inspired.”
“By Kalinda?” Gemi’s flat tone unbalances me.
“The painter had creative freedom.”
“Hmm.” Gemi stares at the sister warrior on Ki’s right-hand side. It may be her comment, or perhaps I miss Kalinda, but the warrior does marginally resemble my cousin.
“Prince Ashwin!” Priestess Mita’s voice bounces off the high ceiling as she rants from the doorway. “Why are these girls here? You should have left them at the palace. I asked to see you, not them.”
“I’ll take them outside,” says Gemi. The priestess eyes my viraji suspiciously. Gemi averts her gaze and leaves, the wards scurrying after her.
“Your Majesty, we have a concern with the design. I need your decision immediately.” Priestess Mita leads me down a flight of stairs to an open area and posts that will eventually be a door. “The builders want to turn this section into another classroom, but this should be the Claiming chamber. We cannot have a temple of the Sisterhood without it.”
None of the temples in operation are currently utilizing their chambers. The priestesses have been commanded by me to postpone the rite. Kalinda and I planned to meet with them and establish a new order after this city temple is dedicated.
I toil to eliminate exasperation from my reply. “The ritual room is no longer relevant, as the wards will choose their own husbands and vocations. The additional classrooms are necessary. A proper education will be essential for them to make these decisions.”
“I strongly urge you to reconsider, Your Majesty. The Claiming is a sacred rite. Doing away with it will antagonize the gods. The girls should still be inspected and shown to benefactors, but they can accept or refuse who claims them. This compromise will appease our supporters and maintain our teachings of the five godly virtues. Obedience and humility are paramount to a healthy spiritual journey. How will fate direct our wards if they don’t submit to the gods’ will?”
“It’s not the gods’ will we oppose.”
“Your Majesty,” Priestess Mita presses, “our people look to you for guidance.”
Perhaps they should look at their own actions. Lives were stolen, rearranged, and imprisoned for this ritual. And not just Kalinda’s. My mother and her sister, Yasmin, Kalinda’s mother, were claimed as well. Would they still be alive if not for the hold Tarek had on their lives? Who would my mother have become had she been free?
This current institution, upheld and exploited by my father, has no place in my empire.
“Priestess, within these walls, the daughters of the temple will discover their own path. Proceed with the classroom construction.”
“But Your Majesty . . . !” She brings her palms together in prayer.
I turn on my heel and find Gemi playing with the girls in the courtyard. I make no sense of their game, except they are hopping about and giggling.
“Are you all right?” Gemi asks.
“Yes . . . no.” I rake at my hair. “The priestess disagrees in changes Kalinda and I are making.” I imagine the girls who are running about the courtyard older, forced to stand nude and blindfolded before a strange man for the Claiming. My gut curls into a fist. “This is right for the Sisterhood, especially the wards.”
“Kalinda is very important to you.” Gemi’s tone hints at disappointment.
“She’s my cousin,” I reply. “When it comes to establishing peace in the empire, Kalinda was the impetus. I am the means by which progress will be achieved.”
Gemi pauses midnod and her eyes broaden. “We need to return to the palace.”
I detect them then, the vibrations surging up from the ground. Every girl in the courtyard stills. Outside the wall, people abandon their work and run for home. The last time our city experienced quakes, we were infiltrated by bhutas.
“Let’s go!” I say, motioning to our driver.
Gemi rounds up the wards, and we pile into the carriage. Two girls sit in my lap, one on each knee. Both are in tears. We pull into the road. Families dart about in search of shelter. Mothers huddle under eaves with their children, crying. A loud rumble carries from behind us. I lean out the window and see huge dust plumes rising from the southeast.
Lords of all. Let it have been in the district closed off for reconstruction.
Gemi points ahead. The protestors are still outside the palace gates, crowded near the wall. We must go through them.
The quaking strengthens, detectable over the jostles of the wagon. We ride up to the gates, and people push in around us. Soldiers strong-arm them back and we pass through.
Before the carriage has come to a full stop, Gemi throws open the door and leaps out. The guards shut the gates, and our driver assists the girls from the carriage. I hurry after Gemi to the palace entry. A group encircles a section of the pebble courtyard at the landing of the outer steps. Basma, the older Burner girl, is wedged in the ground. Tears roll down her face. Her arms are free, her nails raking at the dirt. A Trembler boy; her sister, Giza; and several nursemaids hover over her.
Someone opened a hole in the dirt and closed it around Basma, crushing her inside.
The nursemaids quarrel about how to pull her free. One yanks on her upper body. Basma howls. She is jammed in tight.
Gemi kneels beside Basma and grabs her wrists. “I’ll hold on to you.”
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