I collapse to the blood-speckled ground. My sisters, my friends. I crawl to Jaya and bury my sobs against her.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” My apology is for breaking my promise to protect her from the Claiming. She swallows loudly. I meet her open brown eyes. “Jaya? Jaya, it’s me. Do you remember me?”
“Kali.” Her hand finds mine and squeezes. I sputter out a coarse laugh. The squeeze is our secret way of saying I love you.
“I’ve missed you terribly,” I say, returning her clutch. “I didn’t do this to you. I would never.”
“Cala isn’t you,” she says. “You’re Kalinda, and Kalinda doesn’t serve herself. She serves others.”
I press her hand to my tearstained cheek. “Please don’t leave. I cannot lose you again.”
“You haven’t lost me. I’m waiting for you in Vanhi.” Her assertive gaze confirms what I supposed about Jala. “Free Deven and promise you’ll return.”
Fresh tears race down my face. “Last time I made you a promise, everything went awry.”
“You’re a rani now. A Burner. A sister warrior. You were always those things, only now everyone sees you as I do. Tarachand needs you. You have more to give.”
“Jaya,” I cry, grabbing her close. She understands me better than anyone. I will fight for any opportunity to return her to my life, to have a life of my choosing with the people I love. “I’ll come for you. I swear.”
She kisses my palm and slips away.
Crying harder, I shift onto my knees and bow. Memory or not, I will not leave here without a prayer for the fallen. “Gods, bless these women’s souls to find the gate that leads to peace and everlasting light.”
After a moment of silence, I rise. The crowd in the amphitheater disappears, as do Cala and her slain opponents. Even the arena begins to vanish. The memory is fading. I will not return to confinement. Leaning back, I harness my resolve and shout at the sky.
“Cala! No more!”
My fury shatters the door she locked me behind. The amphitheater disintegrates to sand in a cyclone. I ride the whirlwind up, up, up. I am myself again, my awareness acute and senses heightened. Cala and Enlil are flagrant in their affections. The violation fuels my anger against Cala.
How could you harm Jaya? You slaughtered my friends!
They were my challengers. They tried to come between Enlil and me. I couldn’t let them.
I will never forget my friends’ horrible wounds, injuries inflicted upon them by my former self. Cala’s callousness and disregard for my will appall me.
I am not this. I am not you. I heave every ounce of injustice storming through me at her, casting it as I would a heatwave. Get out of my head!
Control slides back into me.
“Stop.” My protest garbles against Enlil’s lips. I leverage more disgust. “Stop!”
His lips withdraw, his arms still around me. “Cala?”
“Stop calling me that!”
“She is within you. You are the same.”
“I will never be her.” I wriggle against him. “I saw her tournament. She slew my friends.”
“They were your enemies,” he says, sensible and aggravating. “They were my wives. They challenged your throne. You won and became my hundredth rani.”
I shove against him harder. I might as well be wrenching against bricks. “I am not yours!”
“You deny our kinship after what you witnessed?” He tries to nuzzle me. I twist my head to the side. “Your previous lives exist inside your soul, layers and layers of devoted warriors. They were all mine.”
I growl in frustration. Must I belong to a man, any man, even a god, to fulfill my measure? Is my purpose to serve as a shadow to another? The daughter, the sister, the wife . . . When am I myself without owing my life—my fate—to a man?
I ram a finger into his chest. “You knew Deven was trapped before I came to you. All my prayers, all my pleading . . . You heard me and knew I would come for help. You left him to suffer so I would climb into your web.”
“You came to me of your own choosing. I am not a man, Kalinda. With me, your happiness will know no bounds. As my companion, you will be free to do as you wish.”
“I will live to suit your needs,” I retort. Cala takes offense, but I still dominate our voices.
“Deven can make you a wife. I can crown you a goddess. He can give you a life. I can bless you with an eternal home. Pick me and you will thrive in Ekur. You will be above the anguish and misery of the world. Mortals will worship you and hail your name. I offer more than a future. I offer everlasting peace.” Enlil relaxes his iron embrace. “Is contentment not your heart’s wish?”
“My heart’s wish doesn’t include murder.”
His displeasure turns icy. “Would you not battle for a life with Deven?”
“He would never ask me to.” I take off Cala’s championship medallion and thrust it at him. “I don’t like who I was with you. What Cala did for you.”
“You spoiled child.” The fire-god’s eyes go molten. “After all I have done for you.”
Cala cowers. I lean into the deity, weathering his feverish temper. “Will you keep your bargain?”
“You question my honor?” he bellows.
“I question your motives for guiding me here. Your honor is your own concern.”
Enlil’s intense glow stings, yet I do not flinch. He replies, his tone incredulous. “Is the worth of one soul so high?”
“His soul is invaluable.” I jangle the medal, urging him to take it.
Enlil ignores the outstretched ornament. I pocket it and rise from the dust. Cala has not reemerged from hiding. For someone so aggressive, she is easily undone by Enlil’s temper. He can throw a fit without me.
I set out from the base of the mountain. Whether I truly saw Jaya or her visit was born from my imagination, I made a promise. She believes I can prevail, so I will.
Preparations for the wedding are everywhere. I sidestep servants carting linen baskets and flower bouquets. Rich aromas of coriander and turmeric permeate every corner. The kitchens will be bustling from now until the matrimonial feast.
The main outdoor terrace has reached full-blown chaos. Servants hang lanterns and erect tents, while others clean and set out furniture. In the Southern Isles, weddings are held at sundown and followed by a banquet under a new moon. Guests feast until all the food is devoured. According to Datu Bulan, the celebration can go on for days. Although most Lestarians do not consume meat, we will serve an array of dishes. As Gemi did not attend the meeting this morning, I hope she does not take offense to my decision to include plates of roasted lamb. Now is not the time to try her patience. I already owe her an apology for our earlier disagreement.
General Yatin and several guards patrol the gates. The soldiers’ camp is deserted; the men are on task in the city. Lokesh was escorted out quietly in a prison wagon. As of now, all is calm. By the time the people learn he was banished, the datu and navy will have arrived. I am less concerned about the mercenaries disrupting my nuptials than of those living under my roof.
Basma sits upright in her cot, her legs set in splints. Her younger sister keeps vigil at her side, drawing a picture. They go silent when I enter the infirmary.
Healer Baka wipes her hands off on her apron. “Prince Ashwin, I’m making tea. Do you care for a cup?”
“Not presently.” My belly could not withstand a drop. “I’ve come to see Basma.”
The healer drags a stool to her bedside for me. “Isn’t that kind of the prince?” She tucks Basma’s hair behind her ear and then resumes preparing the tea.
“You’re looking better, Basma.” I make a point of studying Giza’s charcoal sketch. She depicted Brac wielding his axes. “That’s very good. Have you shown him yet?” Her eyes grow and she blushes. Oh, she fancies him. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell him.”
She adds more shading to his hair.
I rub my knees, gathering my nerves. “Girls, I have news. I’ve found you another home.”
“We’re leaving?” Basma says. “But we like it here.”
“The Sisterhood temple in Hiraani is in a green valley near the sea. Have you ever seen the open water?”
Giza sets down her charcoal stick. “I’ve drawn it.”
“The Sea of Souls is big and blue. The fine sand is powder beneath your feet, and the waves sound better up close than listening to their echo in a seashell.” I am overemphasizing the appeal of the seashore; however, viewing the extent of Basma’s injuries has confirmed my conclusion. “All the bhuta trainees are moving to a Sisterhood or Brotherhood temple. The boys will stay here in Vanhi, and you will go to Hiraani.”
“Why can we not stay?” Giza asks, pouting.
Healer Baka grinds herbs with her stone mortar and pestle while she listens. I speak over her. “In Hiraani, you will have lots of room to run and play. It’ll be a better life for you.”
My words drill into me. Is this how my mother rationalized sending me away? Did she truly think I would be better off without her?
Giza concentrates on her sketch. “Will Master Brac come?”
“We haven’t discussed it. I will send my bravest guards with you.” After I left the throne room, I messaged a brother at the temple. I still need to send word to the Hiraani priestess.
“Am I allowed to travel?” Basma asks.
We all seek Healer Baka for her recommendation.
“You can, but a healer must accompany you.” Her flat tone implies that I should not be moving anyone. I never intended for the bhuta trainees to stay. Their visit was proposed as a temporary solution. Moving them out before the wedding will free up room for our guests and verify to the people that I do not value bhuta children above their own. More important, this will give the trainees a true home.
“We could have a bonfire on the beach,” Basma says to her sister.
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