I did it, Jaya. I found him.

“Who—who are you?” Deven hears his lisp and touches his lower gums. Two of his front teeth are missing.

“I’m Kali,” I say, relieved to hear his deep voice.

“What is this place?” He sits up and wraps his arms around his shivering torso.

“You’re still cold. Let me warm you.” I lift my shining fingers to touch him. His eyes pop open, and he backtracks across the floor, cradling his bleeding side.

“You’re a . . . a Burner.” Deven spots Enlil with his lightning spear. “I won’t reveal the rajah’s location. Tell the warlord Hastin I’ll die before I betray the empire.”

Hastin? The rebel bhuta warlord is long dead. Deven saw him die.

“Deven, I’m Kalinda,” I repeat, withdrawing my powers. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

He appraises the daggers at my waist. “I was preparing my men to escort the rajah on a tour of the Sisterhood temples. Rajah Tarek intends to claim his hundredth rani.”

A growing panic bangs around inside me.

“We met during that tour,” I say. “Your party came to the Samiya Temple. You caught me listening outside the rajah’s door and shooed me away before Tarek discovered me. He claimed me, and we left for Vanhi. I was his viraji, and he promoted you to captain of the guard.” Deven stares at me blankly. I go on, each word more frantic than the last. “You were my personal guard during my rank tournament. Tarek’s ranis tried to sabotage me. I lost my best friend, but you were there. We . . . we fell in love.”

“You and I are in love,” he says, a straightforward sentiment. I wait for recognition to dawn in his gaze. He slowly angles toward me for a closer view in the dimness. “Kalinda?”

“You call me Kali,” I say, leaning into him.

He reaches for my face. At the last second, he lowers his aim to my waist, steals my dagger, and positions the blade under my chin. “Take me to Hastin.”

Enlil shoots a lightning bolt over our heads. It strikes the wall behind us and explodes a hole. Deven scoots away from me, taking my dagger.

“Kalinda,” the fire-god says, his tone authoritative. “He doesn’t remember you.”

Irkalla cackles, a deep, resonating sound. “Mortal minds are so easily shattered.”

Deven searches the throne room for the source of her voice. He looks at me with the same wariness, without warmth or fondness.

I fight back tears. “Enlil, remind him who I am.”

“His mind and soul-fire must be intact or I could cause further damage.”

“You won’t even try,” I rejoin. Enlil wishes to keep us apart, but Deven’s memories must be inside him.

I advance on my beloved cautiously, holding my hand up in peace. “You’re a good soldier, Deven. You know you cannot fight your way past the man with the spear. You’re not in danger from us. We’re trying to help you, but you have to trust me. Some part of you must know I’m not an enemy, even if it’s simply your warrior instinct.” He starts to lower the dagger. “Give me the weapon, and I promise no one will—”

He lunges with the blade and slices my palm. I gawk at my bleeding cut. He hurt me. Deven has never hurt me.

“I tire of this,” Irkalla says from her hideaway. “Marduk, return the man to the mortal realm.”

A squat demon with smashed, grotesque features emerges from behind the curtain and clubs Deven over the head. He buckles to the floor, and Marduk drags him away. The swiftness of the demon’s cruelty leaves me aghast.

“Wait!” I kneel beside Deven and crush my lips against his. “You’ll be safe soon.”

Marduk lugs him down the outdoor steps. A bear rabisu heaves him into a wagon, then the demon climbs onto the driver’s bench and the oxen plod off.

A rattling returns my attention to the dais. The high drapery parts from the center, revealing a monstrous dragon. Irkalla is substantially larger and thicker around the middle than Kur. Spiny prongs line the ridges of her back. Horns protrude from her giant skull, and whiskers cover her long snout. Her onyx scales form diamond patterns down her girth and serpentine tail. A minor bulge rings her head and drops between her eyes into a stately point.

Irkalla rules from a throne of tall, sharp rocks that fan behind her like a wall of spikes. She curls her upper lip and fangs large as battle poles glisten at us. An army of rabisus charge in. At the lead are Edimmu, Lilu, and Asag astride ugallus.

“Surrender your weapon, Enlil,” orders the queen of the dead.

He hesitates and then casts aside his spear.

In a blur of speed, Irkalla breaks a spike off her throne and impales it through the fire-god’s middle. She slams the barb into the wall, pinning him. Asag shifts stones to encase Enlil’s hands and feet. He tenses, fighting against the agony, and fades from consciousness.

Irkalla sharpens her sneer on me. “Chain the bhuta.”

Edimmu dismounts. “Against the wall, slag.”

I hardly hear the demon over my internal thrashing. My devastation is deafening. Deven forgot me. I was too late.

Edimmu locks on cuffs, securing the one on my right arm above my elbow. “Melt your confines, and I will pluck your eyeball out and force you to watch me devour it.”

The demon licks her chops to reinforce her threat. I do not recoil. I have glared into the maw of the evernight, and it did not break me.

“What happened to Udug?” I ask. “Was he punished for failing to overthrow the mortal realm?”

“Silence,” Edimmu snarls.

I should not provoke her, but any hurt I can lob back at these monsters will be a victory.

“Was Udug tortured?” I press. Edimmu slams her elbow into my temple. My consciousness tips on the brink of numbness. “He must have wept. Did you hear him crying—?”

Edimmu whams me square in the forehead with her own. Pain pours down my body, and then I am afloat.

33

ASHWIN

I read the list of names for the dozenth time.

The throne room is hushed and the hour late. Two lanterns glow behind me, casting a muted glow across the empty hall. Upon leaving the nursery, I asked Pons to halt the wedding preparations and then sought fresh air on the roof. Half an hour later, he delivered Gemi’s letter. I brought it here.

My throne’s shadow stains the floor. Gemi is free to find “her place,” but sending me a list of ranis that I should consider as my kindred an hour after she canceled our wedding struck me like a crossbow bolt.

Shyla’s name is at the top of the list, followed by Parisa, Eshana, and Sarita. Gemi finished with a brief comment—These women care for you. Perhaps you could care for one of them?—followed by her signature.

I sniff the paper. It smells like lavender.

“What in the skies did you do?” Natesa stomps into the throne room and up to the dais. “The wedding is delayed?”

“Gemi advised me to take a non-bhuta Tarachandian as my wife.”

Brac marches in and slides right into our conversation. “Did Gemi change her mind before or after you decided to exile my trainees?”

My gut bunches. “I didn’t exile them. They would have been well cared for by the sisters. Gemi insists on taking them to Lestari.”

Brac halts before me, his stare daggered. “Your solution to the protests is to send bhutas away? Who will you dispose of next? Me?”

Natesa wags a finger at him to settle down and refocuses on me. “Ashwin, did you ask Gemi to stay?”

“For what purpose?” I rest my chin on my fist. “She’s made up her mind.”

Natesa takes off her chunky bracelet and throws it at me. It strikes my knee and lands on the ground. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. This is your fault.”

“My fault?” I rub my sore knee; it will undoubtedly bruise. “Gemi gave me this list of alternatives. She’s finished with me.”

Brac groans. “You’re so unobservant! The entire time I spent with Gemi in Lestari, she prattled on about you. She was so eager to see you again she told the datu she would accept your proposal whether he negotiated the alliance or not.”

I manage a hard swallow. “Why would she do that?”

“She cares for you! While you were busy moping for Kalinda, Gemi was watching you with moon eyes. You really didn’t see it?”

Natesa waves Brac back, and he paces away.

“Ashwin,” Natesa says in an I am trying not to throw another bracelet at you tone, “when it comes to matters of the heart, you are a dolt. Gemi came here for you. That makes her the right kindred for you and the empire.”

I lean my back into my throne. “Then why is she leaving?”

“Did you give her a reason to stay?” Natesa questions, turning her lotus engagement ring on her finger.

Brac paces back to her. She holds him off.

“We’re going to a farewell gathering for Gemi in the Tigress Pavilion,” she says. “Parisa organized it. She feels bad about how she’s behaved and wants to make amends. You should come and talk to the princess.”

“Thank you, but we said our farewells.” The princess should enjoy her final hours here without me hovering.

“There, then,” Brac grumbles to Natesa. “We can go.”

Natesa treads backward after him. “You should come, Ashwin. Not many women would leave their home to move to a far-off desert for marriage. You could have found other ways to pay for the empire’s regrowth than an alliance and picked any woman on that list. Maybe it’s time you consider why you chose Gemi.”

As Natesa’s footsteps recede, my attention drifts to the kindred’s floor cushion. I barely knew Gemi when I proposed, but I had observed enough. She had stood up to the datu, something I never did against my own father, to defend my homeland. Since her arrival, she has pointed out treasures in my world that I had not noticed. She honored her duties to teach the Tremblers and trained with the sister warriors, yet still made time to study her surroundings. Gemi is untainted by Lakia and Tarek’s oppressive reign. In her company, I feel less tainted by them too.

***

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