The Aquifier lifts her wavy hair and fans the back of her neck. She has slimmed down since birthing her baby, while her proportions have fluctuated. What stayed of her pregnancy weight redistributed to her curves.
“I thought winters in the desert were cooler,” she says. Perspiration shimmers across her golden-brown skin.
“This is cooler,” I reply. I watch my apprentices search inside themselves for their soul-fire. Neither seems able to find it.
“Are you going to leave them like that all day?” Indah asks.
“I would,” replies Tinley. She twirls a gust at a Galer boy who quit pushing the granite block. He scrambles to rejoin the others. Their massive rock reaches the arena wall, and she yells, “Next time finish faster!”
The children slump against the ground, panting.
“You should reward their progress,” Indah says.
Tinley examines her talonlike nails. “Compliments breed laziness. They must always be on guard.”
“Always be ready” is our training motto. My teaching style is less aggressive than Tinley’s. Brac taught me about my Burner abilities, and I had formal weapons training at the Sisterhood temple—all wards do. Jaya put in the longest hours with me. She was firm yet heartening during our sparring sessions.
I return to my students.
“Giza, stand against the wall. Basma, face me.” They both scurry to follow my orders. I set the archery target before Basma. “How many stars can you find?” She shuts her eyes again and counts. When she reaches twenty-two, I cut her off. “Let’s say thirty. When you come fully into your powers, you’ll raze and consolidate them into one inner star. Until then, you mustn’t let them overpower you. Without looking, hold out your hands.”
As my student obeys, Ashwin and Brac appear in the imperial box at the north end of the arena. My pulse trips into a sprint.
The prince looks just like his father.
That box is where Tarek supervised my rank tournament. I am still too susceptible to the memory that engulfs me.
Gooseflesh raises up and down my body. The Claiming chamber is cold. A blindfold conceals my sight from the benefactor looming behind the thin veil. I hear him step out and feel the heaviness of his gaze exploring my nakedness.
Patient, plodding footfalls come closer. I want to run, scream, cry. My chin stays high, my fingers curled. Hot, sour breaths drift across my cheek . . . neck . . . chest.
Fingers thread through my hair. The water-goddess’s symbol of obedience, a wave stained in henna down my spine, burns like blasphemy.
The echo of Tarek’s voice shatters my memory. I press my prosthesis over my charging heart. Ashwin abolished the Claiming, the rite that gave benefactors the power to take orphaned temple wards as servants, courtesans, or wives. We are in the early stages of establishing alternative futures for those girls, and ourselves, but the past is hard to release.
Ashwin’s arrival—not Tarek, Tarek is dead—stirs whispers from the trainees. The prince mentioned he might stop by to observe their improvement.
Maybe he discovered how to free Deven.
I know better than to let my hopes climb too high. Still, my breath is bated. I try to catch Ashwin’s attention. He watches the trainees. The Aquifiers shoot water from barrels like jumping minnows, and the Galers take turns suspending a rectangular carpet in midair. All of this is possible due to Brac, yes, but also Ashwin. He took in the bhutas and housed them at the palace. With the sisters and temple wards also lodging there until their new temple is habitable, his home is a constant mess of people.
Basma leaves her eyes closed. I talk loudly so she is not distracted by the others training. “When I say so, release the lights.”
“All of them . . . ?”
“Don’t be afraid. They’re born of your soul-fire.”
Basma fiddles her fingers. These girls must stop cowering to their own abilities.
“Grab those stars and push out their heat,” I say. “Like this.”
I throw a heatwave, and Basma’s eyes pop open. My shoulder recoils from the blast. I lock my elbow and regain control. My powers are half as strong as they were. Funneling them into one hand is a skill I have yet to master, if it is even possible.
Basma tries for herself. Streams of mandarin flames jet from her palms and scorch the target. Frightened, she swings upward. Her heatwave arcs high across the amphitheater and strikes a pennant. The red cloth dyed with the empire’s black scorpion symbol catches fire.
Basma covers her mouth in shock. Giza hurries over and hugs her sister. My annoyance at the girl’s carelessness dwindles and longing fills me. Will I ever stop missing Jaya?
“I’m sorry, Master Kalinda,” Basma says.
I grab both girls and hunch down to their level. “Don’t be afraid of who you are. You’ll learn to control your powers eventually. The gods gave you these abilities. They believe in you. Trust that.”
The center doors to the arena clang open, and a large group of men prowl in. The men, wearing all black and headscarves across the lower half of their faces, disperse around us. Their swords are sheathed. Tinley and Indah guard their students, and I reach for one of my twin daggers. My mother’s blades are like a guardian spirit I carry with me always.
An intruder steps forward, presenting himself. His headscarf covers all but his gaze. Though he no longer wears a uniform or carries the military-issued khanda sword, I recognize him as the first officer to defect from the army. The former commander has not been silent in his desertion. He has been speaking out all across the city against the prince’s acceptance of bhutas.
“Go over there,” I say to my trainees. The girls dash to the children gathered behind Tinley and Indah.
“Commander Lokesh,” Ashwin calls from the imperial box. “You weren’t invited.”
The commander grips the gauntlets of his sheathed twin pata swords. The handguards cover his fists. “We saw the fire and came to see that everything was under control.”
“As you can see, all is well,” Ashwin calls from on high.
“I think not,” Commander Lokesh replies. His men still spread out, lurking closer. “Who will protect the people from these children? Your Majesty’s guards are becoming scarce.” He declares this with smug gratification. “My men and I are offering our services to those in need of more security in these uncertain times.”
Captain Yatin and more guards march into the arena, near the imperial box. Ashwin is safe with Brac, but the mercenaries’ proximity to the children sets me on edge. I sheathe my dagger and push soul-fire into my fingers.
“You need to leave,” I say. Tinley summons a wind to further coerce them. While her breeze tugs at the commander’s scarf, his cool gaze remains on Ashwin. I send off sparks, and Lokesh passes his attention to me.
“Burner Rani,” he says in farewell.
He signals to his men and they file out. After the last goes, Tinley reels a gust and slams the door shut. Yatin and his men exit to track their departure. Indah and a student sends geysers at the burning pennant and put out the fire. I let my powers ebb.
“Something isn’t right about the commander,” Tinley says, reining in her winds. She drifts into herself, lost in thought. “His voice sounded . . . odd.”
“I didn’t pay attention,” I say. “I was too busy watching his gauntlet swords.”
Tinley harrumphs, unimpressed by his blades, and stalks to her trainees. The far doors swing open, and the prince enters the arena, his ambassador close behind him.
“That was a warning,” Brac says. “Every day Lokesh takes in more soldiers. His mercenaries may soon outnumber the palace guards. You must divide them, Your Majesty.”
“On what grounds?” Ashwin inquires. “The commander has done nothing unlawful. Lokesh has the right to vocalize his views. I cannot silence everyone who disagrees with me.”
“Lokesh wants us to fear him,” I say, gesturing at the huddled children.
Ashwin lowers his head. “Welcoming bhutas into the empire is a substantial change. The people will learn to trust each other. The more they interact, the less they will fear. For the time being, we’ll suspend training.”
“Canceling training is what he wants,” argues Brac.
“Would you have the children continue as though Lokesh hadn’t come here?” Ashwin challenges. He knows we would not. “We’ll assess the matter day by day.”
Basma and Giza sprint to Brac and leap. He catches them and swings them around. “Come play with us!” they plead.
Brac carts them off to join a game that Indah started. Ashwin’s gaze lingers after them, dark circles under his eyes. He was up late reading again.
“Find anything new in your library?” I ask.
He shakes his head, and I deflate. The only record we have of a mortal traveling into and out of the Void is the tale of Inanna’s Descent. Ashwin recalls some but not all of the story. We have been searching the library for the written version with no luck. Even if we find the text, the gate to the under realm lies at the bottom of a frozen alpine lake. Deven’s mother, Mathura, has traveled to the Southern Isles with Brac’s father, Chitt, to question the Lestarian elders about the existence of another gate. We have yet to receive word from them.
“Would you like to ride back to the palace with me?” Ashwin asks. “I’m stopping by the temple building site.”
Out of respect for his viraji, I have avoided spending time alone with him. Nonetheless, he is still my cousin. “I’d like that. Brac can stay with the girls.”
The trio are far into the game. The trainees take turns blasting their powers at a coin on the ground. Whoever makes it jump the highest wins.
Captain Yatin waits atop his horse outside the main door. His snug uniform shows off his bulky arms and barrel chest. He shaved his long beard, a mandate for officers. Natesa often complains about missing his hairy chin. I think his boyish face softens his daunting build.
“Lokesh is gone,” Yatin reports. “I lost him in the market.”
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