I do not know what that means, except that I do not want to lose this feeling.
I dart into an antechamber and take a servants’ passageway to the upper floor. I climb the stairs two at a time and arrive at the entry to the wives’ wing short of breath. Throwing open the silk curtain, I enter the dining patio right behind Brac and Natesa.
All conversation at the candlelit tables ends. Gemi dines on cardamom rice with Eshana. Indah and Pons eat across from them. The couple must have left their daughter with a nursemaid. Parisa serves wine to her small assembly of guests. She pales upon my entrance.
“I’d like a word with my viraji,” I announce, then stroll off to the side and wait. Gemi drinks half her wine and then rises and brings her chalice with her. Her long sarong is tied low on her hips, her blouse cut high above her stomach. Her hair flows around her slim shoulders, loose and wavy.
Lords, she’s a sight.
“Why are you here?” she asks, glancing at our audience. All ears are on us.
Gemi drops her gaze. “I don’t think—”
“Just listen.” I pull out the list she gave me. “I don’t picture any of these women as my kindred. This isn’t about an alliance, it’s about a better future. My parents had a terrible marriage. I don’t want that for myself. I don’t know where this is leading between us, but you must admit it is leading somewhere. We’ll never find out if you go.”
Gemi sets her chalice on a table. “But marriage?”
“We can postpone the wedding and spend time together, just us. Whatever you decide, please know that I care about you. I wouldn’t have proposed otherwise.” I rear back on my desperation and level out my voice. “Of course, you may stay regardless. The palace will always be open to you. You’re welcome to research our plants and animals and use my library for as long as you like.”
“You’ll let me into your library?” she asks, her golden eyes wide.
“Only when I’m present.” I qualify my answer with a teasing wink.
Gemi sways forward as she laughs. I grab her against me to catch her from falling. She blinks up in confusion, her legs weakening. “Ashwin?” she slurs, then turns limp in my arms and blacks out.
I shake her a little. “Gemi?”
Crashes come from the table.
“Son of a scorpion,” Brac says. He crawls off his floor cushion and slumps over.
Indah and Pons are passed out against each other, the contents of their wineglasses spilled down their fronts and Pons’s blowgun untouched at his waist.
“Guards!” Natesa calls. She confiscates Eshana’s chalice and sets it aside with her own. “Don’t drink that.”
“Your drinks are fine,” Parisa drawls, drawing a haladie. “I only altered the bhutas’ wine. Put down your weapons.” She disarms Pons of his blowgun and Indah of her dagger. She holds out her palm to Natesa and Eshana. They lay their concealed blades on the table.
“Parisa!” Eshana says. “Did you kill them?”
“I slipped sleeping tonic into their drinks. They’ll recover.” Parisa crushes Pons’s blowgun under her foot, her expression sour. “The prince wouldn’t listen, so we had to act.”
Gemi’s deadweight slides down my front. I lay her on the floor and frown up at Parisa. “You said we.”
“A bhuta foreigner cannot become our first rani. Our kindred should be a sister warrior proven in the arena. Not this, this . . . princess.”
“But Gemi called off the wedding,” Natesa counters. “Why do this if she’s leaving?”
“What will prevent the prince from selecting another unsuitable viraji over those of us who earned our place here?” Parisa takes her argument to Eshana. “Gemi never went through the Claiming, and she’s not a tournament champion. She knows nothing of our sisterhood.”
“Those trials didn’t make us sisters,” Eshana replies, her eyes watery. “Standing together did.”
“I’m doing this for us.” Color splotches Parisa’s complexion, her pitch rising. “After everything we gave the empire, we were passed over for a foreigner. She and the prince will decide whether we can stay in the palace or must go.”
“That choice is yours,” I break in. “I’m organizing a council for women. I hoped to present my proposal to the court at my wedding feast. We’re establishing a palace guard of sister warriors, and alternately we’ll offer occupational training for those who would rather lay down their weapons and join the workforce.”
“An all-female guard?” Parisa asks, her blade still.
“Women deserve independence.” I gaze down at Gemi and my voice chokes. “The idea came to me after visiting the Southern Isles. Their women don’t marry out of necessity . . . but for love.”
A man speaks from the entry. “More reform and changes. Your Majesty, when will you learn to leave our beliefs alone?” Commander Lokesh and his men file in. Clothed in all black and armed, they are an unsettling lot. Lokesh wears a headscarf over his nose and mouth. I nonetheless sense his smile. “Next time you banish someone, send guards that cannot be bribed.”
I edge in front of Gemi. “How did you get in?”
Lokesh steps over Brac without sparing him a glance and strolls to me. He pulls aside his scarf; his smirk is broader than I imagined. “You let me in.”
A replica of me enters the patio. The man does not resemble me in the way that I do my father. He and I are identical from our tight trousers to our mussed hair. Eshana gawks at my twin. Even Parisa appears confounded.
“What trick is this?” Natesa demands.
“No trick,” replies Lokesh. “Prince Ashwin has come to his senses. He withdrew the troops from the city and sent them home on leave for their service. He then notified the palace guards that he hired my troops for security. The guards were amiable, except for the general.”
Natesa tries to grab at Lokesh. The mercenaries block her. “What did you do to him?”
Lokesh signals at his lackeys, and they haul in Yatin. The general’s head hangs and his feet drag behind him. They dump him on the ground. Natesa rushes to his side. Yatin’s eyes are unfocused and his nose bloody.
“Commander,” Parisa says breathily, “you said you wouldn’t hurt the guards.”
My look-alike snorts at her gullibility.
“Parisa,” Eshana asks, “how do you know Lokesh?”
“We met after one of his visits to the palace.” Parisa kneels before Eshana and grasps her knees. “He’s going to preserve the empire, Eshana. We won’t ever have to leave our home.”
“No one planned to turn you out,” I say, tossing the list at her. “Not me or the princess. Those are Gemi’s recommendations for who would make a good kindred. Your name is second from the top.”
Parisa blanches. Eshana peers over her shoulder and reads the list for herself. Parisa murmurs excuses, but Shyla turns her back to her friend.
“Don’t give that any credence, Parisa,” says Lokesh. “The prince and his viraji will dismantle our beliefs. They don’t share our vision.” He rounds up his men with the spin of his finger. “Bind the prisoners and lock them in the dungeons. Leave the prince.”
The palace dungeons are reinforced with neutralizer herbs that suppress bhuta powers. Once the sleeping tonic wears off, the bhutas will be trapped like any other prisoner.
Eshana does not resist capture, but Natesa grapples with three men trying to pin her down. Lokesh lowers the blade of his pata to Yatin’s head.
“Concede or I’ll use this blade.”
Natesa quits struggling, her glare vowing retribution. The mercenaries restrain her, then prod her and Eshana out, dragging Yatin after them. The rest of the invaders tie up Gemi. One of them throws her over his shoulder. Her hair swings down his back. They cart her off, leaving me with my look-alike, Parisa, Lokesh, and a handful of his men.
“What will you do with them?” I ask.
Lokesh claps me on the back, overplaying our closeness. “Tomorrow, my Prince Ashwin will order the viraji hanged. Everyone far and wide will be reminded that bhutas are not welcome in Tarachand.”
My look-alike leers. Gemi will hang, and my people will believe I gave the order. “Who is this imposter?” I ask. “How long has he been imitating me?
Before I get a response, one of Lokesh’s men rushes in. “Commander, the children are gone. A healer helped them get away.”
My head flinches back. What children? My siblings in the nursery?
“Gone?” Lokesh yells, then reels on Parisa. “You said you would put them to sleep!”
She elevates her chin. “I was afraid of giving them too much sedative. I borrowed books from the library and read about the effects. One of them said an abundance of sedative could kill them.”
Parisa must have taken more than one book from my library besides the childhood-studies title. I did not think to search for other missing texts.
“Find them,” Lokesh orders his men. “I need those children tonight.”
“She will be vexed,” warns my look-alike, his voice ratty.
“We’ll get them,” Lokesh replies. He draws his second pata sword and aims both at Parisa. “You have fulfilled your usefulness.”
He cuts her down in consecutive slashes. She crumples, her haladie useless in her fist. I lower to her side and cup her injured ear and scar. My gut heaves at the sight of her fatal wounds.
“Tell Eshana I’m sorry,” she rasps.
Before I can pledge that I will, life bleeds out of her.
Mercenaries bind me and push me out of the pavilion after Lokesh. My look-alike stays behind, contemptuous in his farewell smirk.
Guards are stationed in every corridor, all aligned with Lokesh. More wait in the front courtyard with a trio of camels. A fine indoor rug is spread over the stone tiles. Lokesh shoves me down so I land on top of the rug. I fall on my stomach and flip onto my back.
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