Ashwin assists me onto his horse and climbs on behind me. Our bodies are snug, nothing more. The attraction that was once between us has been dispelled.

We set off uphill through the flow of people. Yatin and the other guards ride close to dissuade anyone from approaching. Most hurry in the other direction when they see me. Two wash girls do not recognize me until they are in front of us. They both utter “Burner Rani” in dismay and run off.

I pretend their abhorrence does not bother me so Ashwin will not get upset. Truthfully, a piece of me misses my imperial title. Relinquishing the esteemed rank of kindred has left me off-centered. I have sought stability by serving my trainees and teaching the temple wards, but I am like a sunbird without a perch.

We ride into the temple courtyard. Celestial glories are etched into the stone exterior, patterns of the sun and phases of the moon. In the short period since we broke ground, the artistry has been remarkable. After much convincing, Priestess Mita commissioned Tremblers to perform the carpentry, shortening overall construction by half the time.

The floor plan is patterned after Samiya, except for the added windows and classroom where the Claiming chamber would have been. No more does the Sisterhood rely upon the generosity of benefactors. As fate would have it, the brethren of the Parijana faith are very frugal. They have enough in their coffers to support every division of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood for decades to come.

Ashwin enters the archway and admires the multicolored walls. At our behest, the master architect sought inspiration from our diverse empire. Every landscape is portrayed, from the desert to the mountains to the southern seashore. Ashwin buffs a dusty tile with his sleeve and peers up at a shell chandelier, a replicated design from the Southern Isles.

“The builders should conclude their work in a few weeks,” he remarks.

Priestess Mita will oversee the dedication, then the sisters and wards will move from the palace and live here. I continue onward, leaving that lonely thought behind.

Inside the chapel, painters toil on the murals. Their rendition of Ekur, the gods’ mountain temple, is otherworldly. Lush flowering gardens, pillars that hold up the sky, crystal waters bursting with rainbow fish, pristine walkways . . .

“I’ve wished to speak to you alone for a while,” Ashwin says from my side.

“We’ve been preoccupied.”

“We both know it’s more than that.” He tugs nervously at his jacket sleeves. “You’ve been distant.”

“Any closer and your viraji will be displeased.” I nudge him in jest. His solemnity is immovable.

“I worry about you, Kalinda.”

“You needn’t.” I ponder the mural of the land-goddess Ki flanked by sister warriors. Women of all ages carry blades engraved with the five godly virtues. My attention drifts to the shadowed corner of the room. I once thought I belonged with the daughters of Ki. Now I am not so certain.

“Where do you go?” Ashwin asks.

“Hmm?” I say, refocusing on him.

“You haven’t been the same since the evernight came, and I’m not referring to your hand. You’re hardly here. I want to find Deven as much as you do—”

“You couldn’t possibly.” A weight strains against my rib cage. Ashwin is not driven by this urgent throbbing. “I’m glad we had this time together, Ashwin. I need to return to the palace. My art course starts soon.”

“I’ll stay awhile longer,” he says. Our gazes travel across the chapel and reconnect. “Will you move here when it’s finished?”

“The temple is no longer my home.”

“You will always have a home at the palace.” Ashwin holds still in expectation, waiting for me to agree.

I cannot. The Turquoise Palace is home to my worst and best memories. Jaya died and I wed Tarek there. It is also where I witnessed the revival of the sister warriors and Deven and I fell in love. Under Ashwin’s reign, Vanhi will become a home for bhutas and non-bhutas alike. This is the future I envisioned for him, but is it mine? Is happiness tied to a place or person, or can it thrive anywhere?

“Thank you,” I say with a note of finality. “We’ll speak soon.”

I leave Ashwin and go outside.

“I’ll ride back to the palace now,” I tell Yatin. My conversation with Natesa from this morning resurfaces in my mind. “Yatin, if I may, why have you and Natesa postponed your wedding?”

He fiddles with a button on his jacket. “We want all our friends to be in attendance.”

He means Deven. Yatin and Natesa are waiting for something that may never come. Gods, it hurts to admit that. I muster cheerfulness in my reply. “Tell the prince not to work you so hard.”

“I’ll think on it,” Yatin answers.

He would never gripe to the prince. Natesa, on the other hand . . .

I mount a guard’s horse and amble uphill toward the palace. Its immaculate ivory exterior reflects the midday sun, and its golden domes burnish a glorious gleam. No doubt it is spectacular, but my heart’s wish is for rolling pastures and grazing sheep. A humble hut filled with books. The Alpana Mountains outside our door while I sketch in the den and Deven mills about the kitchen.

The hot desert wind pulls my attention back to the city. As I cross a road, I pass by a mother and her children. She tugs them away and flees in a rush. A painful tightness grabs at my throat. I remember a time when these roads were lined with people waving and cheering my name. They may not have adored me, but they adored the throne I represented. I gave much of myself to prove I was worthy of that throne. Some days I think I gave too much. The demands of the empire are bottomless. I had to step down, or the burdens would have consumed me.

I never thought I would miss it this much.

3

ASHWIN

My return to the palace inspires no fanfare. I pass the reins of the horse to a guard and stride up the entry steps. Repairs from the battle against the Voider are finished. Although I oversaw the restoration of the damages, the palace’s expansive floors still feel foreign. “Home” is too valued a term to bestow upon a residence absent of memories.

I pause at the top of the double curved staircase. Which way is my meeting?

Two ranis see me and hasten over.

“Prince Ashwin,” says Parisa. Or is she Eshana? I cannot recall. They are both stunning ranis. Lords, a man could forget his own name. “Eshana and I were discussing how generous you are to house all the sisters, wards, and trainees.”

“You’re too kind,” purrs Eshana.

My neck grows hot. “I see no need for them to stay elsewhere.”

“How magnanimous of you.” Parisa dips her chin as if we are coconspirators and grips my bicep. “Eshana and I were wondering if you’ve decided whether you will retain your father’s former ranis in your court?”

I flex my arm muscles. “I’m still thinking on it.”

“We can help you decide,” Parisa says, her lips stretching. “You should visit us at the Tigress Pavilion soon.”

“Your father loved my foot rubs,” adds Eshana.

Disgust worms into my belly. I try to forget they were Tarek’s wives; it helps me to think of them as more than ranis. “I’ll take your offer under consideration.”

They each kiss me on a cheek and sashay off. As the wetness evaporates off my skin, my guilt sets in. They have been through many trials: their Claiming, rank tournaments, marriage to Tarek, imprisonment by the warlord, and full-on war. They deserve every happiness for their loyalty to the empire, but they need not know I am betrothed to Princess Gemi.

During this tenuous transition of bhutas into society, I feel better announcing my selection for kindred right before the wedding. Once we wed, custom will constrain me from marrying another rani for two years or until we produce an heir. Tarek ignored this practice by wedding my mother and then Kalinda’s mother one after the other. I will honor the waiting period to establish that I have no aspirations for a hundred wives like my father. Then I will be expected to marry the former ranis or release them from their rank and dismiss them from the palace.

I do not wish to do either.

“Your Majesty?” Pons asks.

I revolve toward the Galer. Soft-spoken and quiet in his approach, Pons serves as my steward when needed. A familiar, welcome sight. His hair is long at the back and shaved on the top of his head. He wears a sleeveless tunic and short, baggy pants. A blowgun hangs at his waist, the short bamboo pole sticking out of his leather belt.

“Ah, I was just . . . Where’s my next meeting?”

“It will be at the third terrace on the fourth floor in an hour.”

“Which is . . . ?” I ponder the corridors. Pons has been here as long as I have, yet he has memorized the layout. I am . . . progressing.

“Would you like me to escort you?” he asks.

“I’ll find it on my own.”

Pons does not follow me. He does not need to. The large-statured warrior can track my movements with his Galer hearing.

I climb several stairways to the rooftop. Upon my entrance to the aviary, doves ruffle their wings. I slip inside and maneuver through the nesting birds to the window. From the floor, I take up a small box and pull out parchment paper, a quill, and an ink bottle. The flat top of the chest doubles as my desk.

Dipping the sheared end of the quill in the ink, I set the tip to the parchment.

Inanna was a cherished young woman, beloved by everyone in her village. Some said she had the loyalty of an elephant and the bravery of a tiger. Men tried to woo her, but Inanna ignored them. She was waiting for one man—the same man she had loved in every lifetime.

I transcribe the tale from my recollection, citing how Inanna’s beloved was taken to the Void and later rematerialized at night, at which point my memory empties. The adaption I first told Kalinda moons ago was exaggerated for her benefit. Inanna braved the Void to liberate her beloved, but how did she survive?

My mind is blank as the parchment. I drop the quill and rise. I need to move.

Gripping the upper eave, I boost myself out the window and onto the pitched roof. My toes hang over the drop-off.

***

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