“I would like to swim in the sea,” replies Giza.
“Good,” I say, my gladness forged. “You’ll leave tomorrow.”
Healer Baka crushes the herbs faster, every click of the pestle against the mortar a mark of her disapproval. I add to the girls’ excitement with additional stories about the beaches and then take my leave.
Priestess Mita kneels at the altar in the palace’s small chapel. Thick trails of sandalwood incense hang in the air, and a significant pile of ash from burned sacrifices spatters the altar. Natesa must have come earlier for her daily offerings.
The priestess lowers her head to pray. I step backward to go, and she quickly stands.
“Pardon the interruption.” I shift on my feet, fingers twitching to swipe at my hair.
“I was just finishing. You may have the chapel to yourself.” Her tart tone speaks to her opinion of me and my need for prayers.
I wave at a floor cushion. “May I have a word before you go?”
Priestess Mita kneels again and clasps her hands in her lap. I join her on the floor, my knees bent to my chest. She scowls at my casual position.
“I’d like you to write to the Hiraani priestess. I’m sending the female bhuta trainees to her for lodging.”
“You wish to send those girls to a temple of the gods?”
“I won’t debate their value, Priestess. The Hiraani Temple is isolated in a southern valley near the sea. They’ll be under less scrutiny there.”
Her censure deepens. I hold myself taut to keep from fidgeting.
“And what of their training?” she asks.
“Suspended until I employ live-in bhuta instructors. In the interim, they will attend the temple courses with the other wards. A spiritual upbringing would do them well. I can think of no better teachers than the sisters.”
Priestess Mita snubs my flattery. “The Hiraani priestess will honor your request. But if I may, I must express a concern. Now that our temple wards will not be claimed by a benefactor, what will they do? Will the public accept them as more than servants, courtesans, and wives? What will become of them when they are no longer under your or my care?”
The ramifications of no longer relying on benefactors to take in the wards are a mighty adjustment. Without the Claiming, no man will be held responsible for their welfare. I had thought of this, which is why my plan for the ranis also includes the wards. Their participation is integral. “If you will grant me your patience a little longer, I’ll present a solution that will satisfy your worries.”
Her dubious look hints otherwise. “I’ll write the Hiraani priestess forthwith.”
I thank her and listen as she exits the chapel. I hunch over my knees and shake out my hands. During the whole of our meeting, not once did I touch my hair.
Before I go, I light incense, one stick each for Kali, Deven, and my mother. I am not in the habit of lengthy prayers, so I offer a short plea for their safety and get on my way.
Rosy sunshine warms the tiles in the corridor. The day has vanished, and I have not yet visited the nursery. Rehan must wonder what has become of me.
Nursemaid Sunsee and Rehan play on the rug in the main area. My sister raises her arms to me. I lift her and she bops my chin.
“Did you hear that?” I ask Sunsee. “She said my name.”
“So she did.” The old nursemaid’s eyes crinkle.
I bounce Rehan and she giggles. “Say Ashwin. Ash-win.”
Gemi throws open the door and stomps up to us. “What did you do?” she asks.
I pass Rehan back to the nursemaid, then lead Gemi to my childhood chamber for privacy. “I intended to speak to you,” I explain. “I understand your people don’t eat meat, but—”
“Ashwin, this is about another matter.” Gemi sets the empty lotion jar before me. “I stopped by the infirmary to get more of this and saw Basma and her sister in tears. You’re sending them away?”
“The girls were in good spirits when I left,” I reply, my voice constricted. “They were excited to swim in the sea and have a bonfire at the beach.”
“What could they say? You’re their ruler.”
“Which is precisely why I must think of their care.” I attempt to control my exasperation, but my fidgety hands get the best of me and rake my hair. “I’m trying. I’m considering the welfare of all our people. It’s a bigger, more complex task than I was prepared for.”
“I know you’re doing all you can,” Gemi answers softer. “What did Lokesh say to you?”
“Nothing,” I snap, unable to help my gruffness. Speaking of the renegade commander always triggers my temper. “Shyla said I managed him well.”
“Shyla was at your meeting?”
I wince at my error. “I invited a few sister warriors to attend as my supporters.”
Gemi twists her earring. “Of course. They aren’t bhutas.”
“I’m sorry I excluded you. I meant no offense. Lokesh is gone, and more soldiers are stationed in the city, but none of that will matter as long as the trainees are terrifying the people.” I step closer to my viraji, her floral scent familiar now. “Our wedding mustn’t be compromised.”
Gemi tames my rumpled hair, her fingers pacifying. “When I first arrived, I thought you might care for Kalinda or someone else.”
“I assure you I do not.”
“Falling in love isn’t an imposition, Ashwin.”
“It isn’t necessary either. Love starts with good intentions but rarely meets the fullness of its measure.”
Gemi tucks her lower lip between her teeth and releases it. “Before we met, my life on my island was small. I knew everyone in Lestari and had studied all the plants and animals I could find. Then your proposal came. The alliance between our people promised I would see more of the world—and you. I admired your courage during the war. You see the best in people and believe we can accomplish great things. I wanted to be part of the changes here, but my father discouraged me.”
“He did?” The datu never indicated he was against our alliance.
“Father hoped I would wed for love. I told him I would arrive early and visit with you. I did come to train with the sister warriors. Mainly I wanted to find out if you could come to care for me.” My pulse slows to deep thuds, and Gemi’s voice thickens. “Neither of us anticipated this unrest. Your people may not forgive you for taking a bhuta for your wife. It would be better for you to wed one of the ranis and start your reign as rajah with their approval.”
My chest falls in on itself. “You wish to suspend our nuptials? Everyone is coming. The preparations have begun.”
“The preparations can be postponed until you select another kindred.” She cups my cheek, and her focus turns inward. “My father taught me that rulers don’t have paths, we have places. We must choose our place and never falter. You’ve always known your place is here, Ashwin. I thought mine could be here as well. I need to know I can win your heart, or I’ll worry that someday you could find my powers an inconvenience and send me away too.”
“I wouldn’t,” I promise. “I want you here.”
“So long as I am here, I’ll be to blame for this unrest.” Gemi takes my face in her grasp. “Wed someone your people respect. Someone who can be content as your friend.”
I have come to care for Gemi, but dividing my dedication between the empire and her will weaken my commitment to both. This marriage was to align our homelands, our citizens, our thrones. I cannot guarantee her a partnership upheld by love.
“It’s all right, Ashwin.” She lays her lips against my cheek. This is our only point of contact, yet her sadness pierces me. “I’ll speak to my father about taking the trainees home with us. They’ll never be misunderstood or mistreated by our people. They will be cherished.”
Gemi scans the dusty bedchamber and, lastly, me. Before I can put my regret into words, she leaves.
The Road of Bone starts as a stripe on the horizon. As night falls, the ivory takes on a grim, grayish hue. At last, I stride up to the lane.
“Kalinda, halt.” Enlil’s first words since we departed from the Mount of Ruin do not affect me. “Kalinda, please.”
I stop and revolve. Must he always tell me what to do?
He crouches to inspect hoof and paw prints in the dirt. The numerous tracks are concentrated around the base of the road.
“Rabisus were here.” Enlil lifts his spear to illuminate the roadway.
No gate and guardian appear to admit our passage.
Enlil meanders to a hole in the ground off the side of the dirt road and drops a dead chicken by the opening. He returns to me.
“Something spooked the guardian. It will not come out. Be vigilant.”
He takes the lead into the sixth obstruction. I halt before the Road of Bone and thicket lining the thoroughfare. Everything within our sight is deserted. After enduring endless horrors, I did not think a roadway would alarm me, but this visual of death reignites my fears.
What would startle a rabisu into hiding? Glancing back, I notice the chicken in front of the burrow is missing. I set a resolute pace down the road. Travelers and wagon wheels have worn down ruts and paths in the bones. Despite these signs of use, the thoroughfare remains empty. I scurry along until we put the grisly road behind us and tread down a dirt lane. The woods open to hills and a cavern in a knoll.
“That wasn’t difficult,” I say.
“We are not through.” Enlil dims his spear. “Stay behind me.”
He treads sideways, his front turned to the cave. A golden eye stares out of the shadows. I know that eye. I plant my feet.
“Kur! Where is Deven Naik?”
Enlil gapes from the First-Ever Dragon to me, shocked by my audacity.
Kur answers with an intelligible growl and dips his head out of the cavern. Ugly, swollen scars mar his blue-black snout. His whiskers are singed down to varying lengths. His closed eye has been sealed shut by severe burns. I tuck my right arm close. The same venomous fire that blemished his leathery hide took my hand.
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