My viraji gradually opens the fissure with her powers. Basma slips some, but Gemi holds her level. When the gap is wide enough, I grasp Basma by the waist and haul her up. Her legs sprawl out, limp and broken in several places.
Brac runs out of the palace and down the front steps. He must have returned to the palace while we were in the city. Basma cries for him until pain overcomes the girl. Her eyes flicker back into her head.
“I’ll take her to the healers.” Brac scoops Basma up and carries her inside.
“Send for Virtue Guard Indah,” I order the nearest nursemaid. “Tell her to meet them at the infirmary.” She obeys my command, and Gemi embraces the weeping Trembler boy.
“Tell us what happened,” she says.
“Giza burned my favorite toy tiger,” he cries.
My gaze flashes to Basma’s little sister. Giza’s eyes are swollen from sobbing.
The Trembler boy sniffles and points to a pile of ash that must have been his toy. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I only wanted Giza to apologize. Then Basma pushed me.”
Giza hangs her head. “She was defending me.”
“You were all wrong.” I regret my anger—they are only children—but the harm they are capable of inflicting warrants sternness. “It’s a mercy no one else was injured.”
Another nursemaid wrings her skirt. “We’re sorry, Your Majesty. The trainees were playing in the garden when we felt the quakes. These few must have slipped past us. By the time we arrived, Basma was stuck. We didn’t know what to do.”
Other than watching the trainees more closely, they could have done little else. I wipe my sweaty brow. “Take the children inside. Their outside play is suspended until further notice.”
The nursemaids corral the last of the children up the palace steps.
“You cannot lock them away forever,” says Gemi. “In Lestari, we teach bhuta children to respect their powers. They aren’t raised separately or hidden away like they should be ashamed of their abilities. They’re brought up like any other child.”
“To my people, these are not just children. They’re former enemies.” I am outraged for the trainees, for my people, for us. Which group is more important? Which group comes first?
Gemi gestures at the ruptured ground. “This was an accident.”
“Is that what I tell the people who ran and hid? What do I say to Basma when she wakes? What if she never walks again?”
Gemi flails for an answer, trying to pluck one from the sky. “Bhutas may be half-gods, but we aren’t perfect. We’ll disappoint you. You cannot pen us up like animals when we make mistakes.”
She has transitioned from discussing the trainees to speaking about herself. “I don’t expect perfection, Gemi. I expect restraint. Every power must have a limit.”
My viraji crouches down and touches the gravel. “We’re more fragile than we seem.”
She pushes the ground back together. Basma’s legs will not be so easily healed.
Commander Lokesh’s voice carries in from the road. This entire debacle was visible from the front gate. “Look what those atrocities do even to each other! Imagine what they will be capable of when they’re fully grown. Prince Ashwin knows they’re dangerous. He trains them to raise an army against us!”
What in the name of Anu’s sky is he going on about? I brought the trainees here to protect them and the people from possible mishaps.
Lokesh’s shouts grow louder. I spot him on his horse wearing his regular headscarf. His eyes, his only facial feature visible, burn hatred. “Generation after generation we allow these creatures to live among us. They have unimaginable powers, yet they roam free. Just days ago, I saw children wielding the power of fire. That right and responsibility should not belong to a child. Other bhutas can whittle a man’s bones to dust.”
Gemi grimaces. As a Trembler, she can grind bones, though she would never corrupt her god-given gift with such an act of sacrilege.
“Each bhuta has a shocking ability to harm us: winnowing, leeching, grinding, parching,” Lokesh yells. “Our own former kindred parched her enemies, stealing others’ soul-fire to wield as weapons.” He shakes his head. “Our prince wishes for us to live in harmony. He claims he wants peace. But where is our peace of mind with these monsters living among us?”
“I’ll show him a monster,” Gemi says.
I hold her back. “He wants us to respond so he can warp our words.”
Gemi clenches her jaw askew. “Why must I remind you that this man’s actions led to the brutal beating and death of one of your guards?” Before I can inquire how she knows, she adds, “Brac told me.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” I assure her. “See their weapons? Lokesh’s men and many of the protesters are armed. He could stir the mob into a frenzy.”
“I could stop them.”
“You would only be proving Lokesh right. We cannot respond with bhuta force.”
“Then say something. Don’t let his opinion go uncontested. He’s wrong.” She nudges me toward the waiting people.
I walk out into the open. The crowd hushes to murmurs. General Yatin appears on the ramparts, and my soldiers still to listen.
As I near the gate, a man runs up to the commander and speaks into his ear. Lokesh straightens in his saddle and pulls aside his scarf, uncovering his face.
“An abandoned building has collapsed in the southeast district! We’re fortunate that neither we nor our loved ones were inside. But it matters not! What guarantee do we have that it won’t happen again? What if our homes topple next?” From high on his horse, Lokesh opens his arms wide. “What say you, Prince Ashwin? Is this your plan for the new Tarachand? Are you building an army against your own people?”
“Will you protect us from these destroyers of peace?”
The audience goes utterly silent. How do I convince them they are wrong after this, after what they saw of the trainees’ power? How do I tell them bhutas should not be feared or branded?
I try to find the right words, but these people do not want my assurances. Lokesh’s rhetoric is incendiary. They want retribution.
“Disperse,” I say. “In ten minutes, my general will dispatch my soldiers and arrest every last protestor who defies my command.”
“That’s your response? To threaten your people?” Lokesh seeks the crowd’s support of his insolence. They stand with him, prepared to do as he asks. “We won’t quit until you stop harboring bhutas.”
“You have nine minutes.” I tug down my cuffs and return to Gemi. My viraji looks at me with such raw hurt it rocks me off my heels. “Gemi—”
She runs up the steps and disappears inside.
General Yatin organizes the soldiers to exit the gates, shouting and telling them to ready their khandas. Lokesh’s defiant glower slices at me from across the divide. He turns his horse and rides away. His fellow mercenaries, distinguishable all in black, disassemble as well. Many more of my people prepare to confront the soldiers, drawing their daggers and hoisting their clubs. Again, the protestors chant for tradition to prevail.
Tarek’s voice slinks into my mind. Your people must fear you. You must make them obey.
As I leave my men to execute their orders, I realize that I have, in part, given my people what they wanted.
Enlil and I overlook the Valley of Mirrors from a rocky rise. He secured our passage from the bear-size rabisu by feeding it a mango. In turn, the rabisu told us to take the path through the valley, forthright instructions if not for the giant crystal brambles covering the lowland.
The razor barbs fan out, pointing every which way, and infringe upon the narrow path. Nothing reflects off the crystal thorns. They are lusterless, dull and rough like unpolished quartz.
Enlil extends his spear toward the field of serrated crystals and breaks a tip. The thorn shatters, and from the opening, oil oozes. He rubs his finger over the jagged end, collecting a cloudy drop. He sniffs the colorless substance and wipes it off on his sarong.
“The briars weep venom. Do not touch them.” He ties my cloak tighter at my throat and lays the hood over my head.
My state of head-to-toe dress feels gutless next to his bare arms, chest, and legs. I contemplate asking what will happen should I be cut, but the danger of venom is evident.
Enlil goes first, his spear pouring out light. We thread through the crystal thorns, some taller than our heads. Our path shrinks, narrowing to an impassable width. Enlil swings his spear and knocks down the infringing spikes. They splinter and the trail widens.
During his next swipe, he sustains a scrape across his elbow. I tug at him to stop and inspect his wound. He does not bleed. The small opening shimmers and heals before my eyes. He goes on without a word. He has spoken little since I scolded him for showing me that . . . that . . . vision. I almost regret my harshness, but this trek does not require friendliness, so I leave him be.
Before too long, the path tapers to a rabbit trail. Breaking through the brambles could take hours.
“I could open a bigger footpath with a heatwave,” I say.
“No, you should conserve your powers.”
“You mean because of this?” I raise my prosthesis. “My blasts are half as strong as they were.”
Enlil touches my wooden fingers, clasping them as he would flesh and bone. “I am sorry. I cannot repair your limb, but you have always been powerful, Kalinda. You will always be powerful, no matter your physical form. Strength dwells in the soul.” He lets me go and pats his back. “Climb on. I will carry you.”
I chew my bottom lip. His suggestion comes from necessity. I cannot go forward without snagging my clothes. Yet an indescribable familiarity falls over me. This is not the first time he has praised my inner strength or borne up my burdens without complaint.
“Kalinda, I apologize for upsetting you. If it eases your mind, Jaya and you were not always master and servant. In other lives, you were sisters.” Though he has misinterpreted my hesitation, his mention of Jaya enthralls me. “When Anu crafted mortals from the stars, you and Jaya were born of the same constellation. Your souls find each other in every life. Many of your loved ones reappeared life after life as your friends or family. The forces of nature, the very essence of the sky in your lungs, land beneath your feet, fire in your soul, and water in your blood, call to one another.”
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