“Yes, please do,” Irkalla intones.

This woman is a fair replica of my love, but the real Kalinda shines like the midday sun. Her soul-fire is unmistakable, and this woman has no notable radiance. I recheck the doorways for a clear exit. Rabisus still guard them.

A large red eye peers out of a hole halfway up the curtain. Irkalla must be massive, as big as Kur or larger. Her gaze sweeps to me. “There you are. Did you think you could hide from me under all that filth? Son of man, your soul-fire is blinding.”

I backtrack a step.

“Uh-uh,” she tsks. “You must not flee or I will kill your beloved and eat her soul.”

Lilu presses a sharp fin against Kali’s throat. I grimace despite it not being her.

“Go ahead,” I bellow. “That isn’t Kali.”

Irkalla expels a laugh-hiss. “Clever little mouse.”

Lilu lowers her razor fin. Kali bears her teeth, and before my eyes, she transforms into me. I hardly recognize myself. My jaw is bruised and my body gaunt. I touch my bottom gums, swollen and sore. When did I lose two teeth?

“Marduk is a gifted chameleon demon,” Irkalla says. “Mortals are so easily fooled by him. Hopes and dreams distract them from basic truths.”

“I would settle for the truth. Why was your chameleon demon following me?”

“He does as I command,” Irkalla answers grandly. “We have not had a mortal visitor in centuries. You must be weary of hiding. Come to me and I will see that you have food and drink, a warm bed and a soft pillow.”

Her offer is a barefaced lie. The under realm offers no such comforts. Irkalla wants me for some awful purpose. Since she dangled a false version of Kali before me as an enticement, I suspect that I am bait.

Irkalla huffs. “Your indecision is tiresome. Guards, bring me the mortal.”

The twin ugallus stalk down the steps. I push through the wanderers. The ugallus knock them down and chase me to an exit. The fox rabisu in the doorway lunges. I throw it off and dash out of the palace, down the steps to the wagon and yoked oxen.

An ugallu leaps over me and lands, blocking my path. The second prowls up to my back. I slip between the oxen, and the ugallus roar.

The oxen stomp their hooves and snort in defense at the lion-eagles. I jump into the driver’s bench and snap the reins. The oxen and wagon take off into the city. Once I leave its walls, I will lead my pursuers in the opposite direction from Kali. Her soul-fire shines in the distance, alerting me to which way not to go. Irkalla will not get us both.

I lose track of her light and push the oxen faster. The city gates lie wide open. For the briefest moment, I glance down at the reins and my mind empties.

What am I doing? Where am I?

Out of the corner of my eye, a monster leaps from an alleyway. I bend back, but its claws smack me off the driver’s bench. I tumble to the road, and the wagon bounds out of sight.

Two big creatures prowl to me. They have wings like a bird of prey and sleek, feline bodies. I have never seen anything more horrendous. I roll off my side. Blood spreads down my hip from a slash. I cannot recall what got me into this predicament, but stubbornness drives me to my feet. Whatever these monsters want, my instinct is to defy them.

I take three strides before the nearest beast bats at me. I sail into a wall and slump to the ground. Hunks of brick shower down. My mental faculties scramble to latch on to something tangible, something hopeful.

I am already adrift.

29

ASHWIN

Brac and Indah come out of the infirmary to meet me. I push up from the floor of the corridor, my back stiff from sitting against the wall all night.

“How is Basma?” I ask.

Brac rolls down his sleeves. “She’ll walk again.”

“The breaks were clean,” Indah explains, carrying an empty pitcher. Asha assisted her, coming back and forth from the infirmary to refill it with healing waters six times over the course of the night. “I was able to knit her bones. She shouldn’t stand for a while, but she’ll recover. You should try to sleep.”

I nod and nod, grappling with my regrets over yesterday. Catching up on sleep is the furthest concern from my mind.

Indah uses her quiet voice that she usually reserves for patients. “Ashwin, the infirmary is out of sleeping tonic, but you can follow me to my chamber and I can give you some of ours. Jala is still being fussy. A tiny drop in her water helps us all.”

“No need,” I say. “You go on and rest.”

“Both of you take care.” Indah pats Brac’s cheek affectionately and goes.

My ambassador slumps against the wall. “That accident never should have happened. I should have been with the girls.”

“I’m not sure you could have prevented this.” I lean my shoulder by the door. “Please tell me you uncovered who Commander Lokesh is working for.”

Brac pushes his lips side to side. “He was held in the military refugee camp for a while. Then he rallied with the demon rajah and marched on Vanhi. His mother fell ill, and she died as he was bringing her back.”

Bhuta guards oversaw the military refugee camp. “Perhaps that’s where the commander’s dislike for bhutas comes from.”

“Many of our soldiers were in that camp and stayed on,” Brac answers shortly, irritated with our lack of progress. “Lokesh does his business in the early morning. The night before last, he met with someone. I got close enough to listen, but they were writing notes back and forth to each other to avoid Galers eavesdropping.”

“Was it his employer?”

“They did not exchange payment. When I tried to follow his associate, he vanished.” Frustration rebounds in Brac’s tone. “One second he was there, the next he was gone.”

“What did he look like?”

“You aren’t going to believe me.” He rubs at his mouth.

“I’ll try.”

“He looked like my brother.”

I stare into Brac’s red-rimmed eyes. Why would Deven meet with Lokesh? How did he meet with him? “That’s not possible. Night before last, Deven visited me. I saw him enter and leave Kali’s chamber.”

Brac pinches the bridge of his nose to fight off a headache. “I know what I saw, but I . . . I don’t know what I saw.”

His confusion about Lokesh spreads to me. Deven would never conspire with Lokesh, but I also trust Brac. He believes he saw his brother.

Yatin jogs down the corridor. He has also been up all night. “Sir, someone snuck out of the palace grounds.” My neck stretches in alarm. “We’ve been monitoring the gates. The one by the elephant stables was opened. The footprints were smudged, but we think it was a soldier.”

Brac slams his fist against the wall. The bang is extra loud in the morning quiet. “Lokesh has an ally inside the palace.”

I rake at my hair, which already stands on end from repeated tousling. We still know too little about the renegade commander. Every day the possibilities become more dangerous.

“Sir, perhaps you should delay your wedding,” Yatin suggests. A day’s worth of stubble covers his jaw. I do not comment on his uncomely appearance. Brac and I are not pictures of respectability either. “We can postpone your nuptials and post an announcement to appease the people.”

“No.” I will not be bullied into risking our ties with the Southern Isles. “Datu Bulan will arrive in two days. My wedding celebrations begin in three days. We must bring Vanhi under rule. Increase the soldiers in the city. Assign a man to every corner.”

“Ashwin,” Brac says tiredly, “the commander won’t be pressured.”

“We’re past coercion. Yatin, summon Commander Lokesh. I’ll see him at noon without you, Brac.” I clasp the Burner’s shoulder. “I have to establish that I can lead without bhuta allies.”

“Lokesh wishes to separate you from your allies. Be careful that you don’t give him what he wants.” Brac yanks from my grasp and stalks away.

Yatin’s gaze hops from my ambassador to me. He wants to follow his friend, so I excuse him. He rushes after Brac, leaving me alone in the empty corridor. Lords, I wish Kalinda and Deven were here.

By the time I return to my chambers to wash up, I am wide awake. Someone in the palace could be aiding Lokesh. A new soldier or guard doubling as his informant? A defector he planted in our ranks?

While I comb my hair, the thought of a spy sneaking about nags at me. I could confer with Gemi. She knows just what to say to focus my thoughts, but after yesterday, I doubt she wants much to do with me.

I open my dressing cabinet and groan. Natesa has been here again. She added more tailored tunic jackets and fitted trousers to my wardrobe and snatched the last pair of loose pants that I had stashed at the back.

Gemi stomps into my chamber and draws up short. Her face flames at the sight of my bare chest. I look over the wardrobe door at her.

“You could knock,” I say.

“I’m too angry.”

Her accent is stronger when she is upset. I turn around to pick out an ivory tunic, and she crosses to me.

“Who did this?” she asks, touching a scar on my back.

“Tarek whipped me for disobeying him.”

Gemi traces the raised white marks. “Do they hurt?”

“Not anymore.”

“I cannot imagine a father doing this to his child.” Gemi’s gaze loiters around the room. She halts on a portrait of Rajah Tarek and Kindred Lakia, the only one left of my parents. “Everyone says you look like him, but I think you look more like your mother.” She runs her palm over my shoulder. The sensation untenses my muscles.

“I thought you were angry.”

She slides her satiny touch down and toys with my fingers. “Brac said you summoned Commander Lokesh and you don’t want bhutas present.”

“This isn’t a matter of not wanting you there. The people believe I rely too heavily on my bhuta guards. I must set a precedent that I can stand on my own.”

Gemi slings her arms over my shoulders. Her short silk blouse presses against my chest, her warm skin radiating through the thin cloth. “You can rely on me.”

***

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