I drop my tunic to the floor and hold her. She smells of lavender and rose hips. The rash along her elbows has nearly healed. “Trust me to manage Lokesh.”

“I do, but that doesn’t mean you have to confront anyone alone.” Her gaze lowers to my mouth and lingers there. My viraji makes me feel seen, not as a prince but as a person. “Eshana and Shyla are fascinated by your ‘fancy hair and plum lips.’ They talk about you incessantly. I’m tired of listening to them go on about your splendid features.”

“You don’t think they’re splendid?”

“They are. Maddeningly so. Shouldn’t you have one flaw?”

“You’ve seen my back.”

Her touch slides over my scars, leaving a wake of gooseflesh. “It’s perfect too.”

She tucks in closer, sealing the gap between us. I mold my palms to her hips. Hunger collects in my mouth, building . . . building. She dips her nose near mine, a breath away from a kiss.

“Are you in love with Kalinda?” she whispers.

“What? No. That’s long over.” I squeeze my viraji against me, locking her pounding heart against my chest. “She’s the one who suggested you and I wed.”

Gemi angles back. “This was her idea?”

I continue to embrace her, certain she will understand. “At first. I wrote you weeks later after I determined this would be advantageous for the empire.” Gemi pushes from my grasp. “I . . . I said that wrong.”

“I think you said it right. You just don’t like how it makes you sound.” Her fingers curl into fists. A vibration carries up through the floor and a vase trembles on the bedside table. “Did I secure my throne by default?”

My mouth falls open. One could say Gemi was my second choice, but my feelings for Kalinda had gone by the time I proposed our alliance.

“Ashwin, I’m not Kalinda. I don’t have scars like the sister warriors, and despite my willingness to learn your people’s customs, I don’t want to train with weapons for the rest of my days. I’m a teacher, and I want the man I marry to care about me.” Her voice trembles, her accent heavy. “I’m willing to contend against Kalinda or any other woman for your affections, but I cannot vie against your throne.”

“You don’t have to compete against anyone or anything. You’re my viraji.”

“I wish that meant as much to you as it does to me.” Gemi revolves and dashes out.

I slam the door of the wardrobe closet shut. It bangs closed, then swings open again. A shelf’s worth of clothes slides out and falls at my feet.

How can Gemi be upset? I was honest about our betrothal. Neither of us signed the alliance out of love for each other but for our nations. She understands the demands of ruling. She knows what this alliance means for Tarachand’s growth and her people. The Southern Isles stands to benefit from better trade and agriculture. Romance would be a convenient outcome, yet our duties come first.

Pons appears at the door to escort me through my daily schedule. I pluck a tunic off the floor. I will think on how to make amends with Gemi later. Right now, I have a busy morning ahead and a meeting with Lokesh for which to prepare.

Pons and I step out of a council about the wedding festivities—a meeting Gemi did not attend—and come upon a small group of ranis in the corridor. The ranis see me and swiftly walk the other way. My betrothal is still unsupported by the bulk of the women of court.

A sudden strong need to see Gemi cinches down on me like a vise. “Pons, where’s my viraji?”

He leads me to a balcony overlooking a lower courtyard. Gemi sits at a fountain, encircled by Trembler trainees. Their nursemaids and some ranis watch off to the side. Gemi holds a large coral seashell to each child’s ear so they may listen to the musical rush of the sea. The ranis and nursemaids wait their turn. Their eagerness draws them nearer to Gemi, and soon the group is talking and smiling.

“Your Majesty,” says Pons, “everyone is waiting for you in the throne room.”

My presence above draws Gemi’s eye. In one glance, I read her expression. Despite our disagreement, she is glad to see me. That is all I need to know. “Thank you, Pons. I’ll find my way.”

I enter the throne room through an antechamber. General Yatin waits by the main door. Rows of soldiers stand in formation between us, dressed in their impeccable uniforms. Boots shined. Turbans wrapped tight. Khandas slung at their side. Tunics buttoned to the top of their stand-up collars. Their presence pulls my own shoulders back and lifts my chin.

At the front of the room, close to the dais, Eshana, Parisa, Shyla, and Natesa speak in low voices. They followed Yatin’s instruction to dress in their finest and wear gold-embroidered tangerine saris, smudged kohl around their eyes, and rouged lips. I have no question Natesa led the effort to coordinate their apparel, and, for once, I am grateful for her overbearing directives. These women could never be mistaken for former competitors. Together they look like friends, or at the very least, a female guard.

In addition to their eye-catching attire, each carries a weapon of her choice. Natesa selected a khanda, Eshana a haladie, Parisa a pair of silver daggers, and Shyla a machete. The cold steel blades are for show, but the weaponry adds a reminder that these women are more than their stunning looks. I asked Yatin to invite them and the soldiers to establish that I have an array of defenders.

“Thank you for coming,” I say. The women take turns kissing my cheek in greeting. First is Parisa. “I’m especially glad you agreed to my invitation. I know circumstances have been stressful as of late. Your support is appreciated.”

“As is yours,” Parisa returns. “I hope I don’t stink. I came straight from the elephant stables to dress.”

“You smell like a flower garden,” I assure her.

Eshana kisses my cheek next. Her fingers find a ticklish spot at my side, and I subtly extract myself. Next, I come to Shyla.

“You look so handsome, Your Majesty.” Shyla’s lashes flutter down to her cheeks. I resist teasing her about my “plum lips” and move on to Natesa.

“No viraji?” she asks archly. “What are you up to, Ashwin?”

“You’ll find out soon. Thank you for organizing the women. You all look magnificent.” I swoop in and kiss Natesa on the cheek. “Yatin cannot stop staring at you. Marry the man already, would you?”

She bats my shoulder, then winks across the entry hall at her intended.

My nerves rattle as I climb the steps to my dais and sit on my throne. Never have I thanked the gods that I take after my father in appearance. Today, I am relying on just that.

I wave at Yatin. “Let him in.”

My general opens the double doors. Lokesh enters, flanked by two more mercenaries. Yatin unarms them, and then the renegade leaves his cohorts near the door and comes to the dais.

Lokesh bows low. “Your Majesty.”

“You disregarded my orders, Commander.”

“Your bhuta trainees gave me no choice. How is the girl?”

His contrived sympathy mocks me. “She will make a full recovery.”

“Then you’ll have one more Burner in your personal guard. That makes a total of four. Considering Burners are the rarest bhuta, you certainly have a lot of them under your command.”

“I’m not raising a bhuta army, Lokesh. I warned you not to spread lies.”

He looks up with a partial grin. “I would be glad to stop my speeches, but you must make a concession, Your Majesty. By tomorrow, the people will be calling for you to send away the bhuta children. This is your opportunity to prove you’re listening. You brought bhutas into your palace, opposed bhutas wearing a mark to identify themselves, and selected a foreigner as your viraji. You must concede on at least one account.”

“I have.” I rise, towering above him. “You’re done here. General Yatin will escort you out of Vanhi.”

“You’re banishing me?” Lokesh sputters out a laugh.

I drain all mercy from my expression, drawing upon memories of my father. “Be grateful I’m not ordering you hanged.”

“I’m not your adversary,” he rejoins. “You’ve invited your enemy into your bed and asked us to accept her as our kindred.”

The last of my self-control snaps. “Look around. These people are the future of the empire, and you are no longer welcome.”

He glances at the sister warriors and their blades. “You cannot force peace.”

“Of course I can. Removing you will be the start.” I signal at Yatin to fetch him.

The general arrives at the dais and grabs Lokesh’s shoulder. He wrenches free and snarls, “My men will rebel against you.”

“I’ll apprehend anyone who interferes with my wedding, and I’ll root out any informant in my midst. From this moment forward, Vanhi is under occupation. The unit of soldiers I relocated to the palace will maintain order on my behalf. A group of them will escort you out into the desert and return your swords. Leave, Lokesh, and do not come back.”

His lips twist arrogantly, then he strides through the lines of soldiers and departs, his lackeys after him.

Natesa lowers her khanda. “You didn’t have to banish him. I would have happily done him in.”

I sink down onto my throne. “I have no stomach for bloodshed.”

“You fooled me,” she says. “I almost mistook you for Tarek.”

Eshana murmurs a sober agreement. Parisa’s attention has not left the door since Lokesh walked out.

“Nicely done, Your Majesty,” Shyla says.

“I should have shut him up sooner.”

Lokesh’s lies are less valuable than pig slop, but one of his warnings holds merit. In three days, Gemi will become my first wife and I will ascend to the throne as rajah. Nothing and no one will stop our union.

30

KALINDA

The sky grays as we come up to a body of water. The wind picks up, tugging at my hair like little hooks. Something strikes me as familiar. The bloody waves and deserted shoreline . . .

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