My strained eyes pick up on a disparity to our right. The Void, with no variance in color, has a spectrum of textures.
“Look there!” I indicate at the patch. “See how the darkness there is coarser like gravel, whereas the parts around it are soft like muslin?”
Enlil concentrates so hard his eye twitches. “I do not see it.”
Chaser loses a piece of his hind leg. Our weight wears on him.
Without another option, Enlil passes me the reins, and I redirect for the gravelly path. The closer we get, the firmer the roadway appears. Chaser’s hooves touch down, and the chariot wheels spin. Enlil emits a grunt of surprise.
The reins start to turn brittle in my grasp. I strain my eyes, searching for the doorway out.
A sudden pitch and angled slope of the chariot nearly throws us off. We lost a wheel. I hold on as the bottom of the chariot drags against the path, sending off sparks.
A section of the floor flies off and disappears. Enlil coaches Chaser to keep going. I peer down the road. The texture ahead evolves into a grainy wall.
The end of the trail.
I snap the reins and Chaser gallops faster. Flames shoot off from his mane and tail.
“Hurry along, old friend,” Enlil calls. “Give us all your might!”
The fire horse stays on course. Enlil and I brace each other as Chaser disappears into the wall of shadow first. Our momentum throws us through the gate into daylight. I tumble across the floor into a wall. Enlil rolls into the bed frame. Pieces of the smashed carriage smolder on the furniture and floor around us.
Chaser did not make it through.
I crawl toward the open doors of the sunlit balcony and inhale the flowery air. I missed sunshine. And my chamber. And my bed. I will never complain about the desert sun again.
Enlil pulls himself up and stomps out a small flame. He reviews my sketches of Deven on the table. The prospect of seeing him again both delights and terrifies me. What if he still doesn’t remember who I am? My heart is too tender from our last meeting to consider how badly that would hurt.
I grab a handful of dried fruit from a dish and shove it in my mouth. “Let’s find those children.”
“I must not meddle with Lokesh and Irkalla’s agreement,” Enlil replies. I stop midchew. “They have a binding contract that I cannot interfere with. Furthermore, it would be unwise to leave the gate unsecured.”
“Then tell me where the trainees are hiding.”
“I do not know.”
So much for omniscient knowledge. “Can you at least close the gate?”
“Yes,” Enlil replies. “However, Marduk would be trapped in your realm.” I imagine the chaos the chameleon demon could cause and decide against stranding Marduk here. “I will guard it.”
“How magnanimous of you,” I say. Enlil nods and then rightfully interprets my statement as mockery. I pause at the door. He may infuriate me, but leaving without him feels wrong.
“Proceed ahead with caution, Kalinda,” Enlil says, his tone wrought with worry. “I will ensure no one enters or exits the gate.”
How can you stay angry at him? Cala asks.
If those children are captured, it’ll be easy.
I steal down the empty corridors. The quiet is unnerving. Movement outside the door to the wives’ wing halts me. I press my back to a wall. Mercenaries lead the ranis and children down the stairs by knifepoint. The ranis and nursemaids guide the older children by hand, and Shyla carries her daughter.
Once they have passed, I creep to the corner and peek around it into the entry hall. The women and children are going outside. I slip down the corridor to a balcony that overlooks the front of the palace. People in the city congregate at the gates, all looking up. I follow their gaze to Lokesh high on the roof. I do not see Ashwin—or Marduk impersonating Ashwin.
Lokesh’s break from locating the bhuta trainees sets me on edge. What could keep him from honoring his promise to Irkalla?
Unless he has the children and is waiting for nightfall.
I think of the trainees, especially my own students, Giza and Basma. They must be petrified. But they are bhutas. Lokesh’s men would not be a match should the children fight back. He would be clever to imprison them where their powers would not work . . .
The possibility will not let me alone. As I have no other ideas, I tiptoe to the stairwell that leads to the dungeons and start down the circular stairway. At the bottom, a pair of guards protect the entry. One of them is a mercenary. The other man is clean-shaven and wears a black uniform. His fat lip and bruises have healed. He is still scarily thin, but I love that face in any condition.
I round the corner and throw a heatwave at the mercenary. He hits the stone wall and falls, knocked out.
Deven draws his khanda. “The rajah said the rebels would come.”
Letting my powers fade, I hold up my hand for peace. Deven has confused Ashwin with his father, a mistake I made myself when I first met the prince. For simplicity’s sake, I leave his assumption uncorrected. “I’m not a rebel. I’m a warrior. The children the rajah captured are innocent.”
“They’re rebel children.”
I pace closer, wary of Deven’s fast striking abilities and considerable arm length, both traits I appreciate when they are on my side. “They’re trainees. We cannot let the rajah have them or they’ll die. I know you would never hurt a child.”
He retreats a step, his blade outstretched. “I’ll give you a chance to surrender before I call for more guards.”
“Those aren’t palace guards. I understand it’s your instinct to obey your ruler and defend the palace, but sometimes it takes more courage to step back than forward. You said those words once when we were standing up to a tyrant. I’ve never forgotten them.”
Deven wavers long enough that I feel encouraged to move closer. He centers his blade on me and shutters his warm brown eyes. “Don’t come closer.”
I match his stare despite my thrashed heart. “I’m sorry about this.”
I throw a minor heatwave at him. As he cringes from the scalding slap, I slide up to him and touch his freshly shaved cheek. Skin to skin, I parch his soul-fire and he faints.
His stand-up collar is loose from his weight loss. I rebutton the top hole and graze my nose against his. “I love you, you loyal dolt.”
I pilfer his keys to unlock the dungeon door and drag Deven inside.
He’s not a god, Cala notes, but I understand your fascination with him.
As I haul in the second guard, she rummages through my memories of Deven.
Cala, those are private!
So were my kisses with Enlil.
I shut us in the dungeons, and the neutralizer toxins that are built into the walls douse my abilities. Without my powers differentiating us, the divide between me and Cala closes even more.
I follow Brac’s voice down the low-ceilinged tunnel to a cell and let him out. Indah and Pons are asleep on the sandy floor. “Are they sick?”
“They’ll wake soon. We were sedated.” Brac identifies his brother’s inert body by the exit. “Why is Deven—”
“He isn’t himself.” My stomach balls into a fist. “But he’s home.”
Banging sounds farther inside the dungeons. “Down here!”
Five cells down, Eshana calls to us. I unlock her door, and she embraces me. Natesa sits on the floor near a sleeping Yatin. Neither woman asks where I have been, nor do I spare the time to explain. “Where’s Ashwin?”
Eshana’s voice hollows. “I don’t know.”
“Lokesh came for Gemi a little while ago,” Natesa says. “He means to execute her.”
The people must be assembling for the execution. “Where are the bhuta trainees?”
“They aren’t here,” Brac answers from behind me.
“Are you certain?” I ask, and he reaffirms his account.
Then where . . . ?
This must have been a distraction, Cala replies.
I groan at myself. Deven is not strong enough to battle a Burner, yet Marduk stationed him at the dungeons. He anticipated I would come here. Nightfall must be minutes away, and the roadways of shadow leading to the City of the Dead will be ready for moving the children.
I toss Brac the keys. “Wake the others and go to the roof. I think Lokesh means to execute Gemi up there. Oh, and Deven may be surprised you’re alive since he doesn’t remember much of the past year, but I doubt he’ll harm you. Watch your back as a precaution, and if you could tell him something nice about me, I’d be grateful.”
Brac blinks as he digests that feast of catastrophes. I pat his shoulder and dash out.
I sit forward to better see the sun descending into the city skyline. The sight of the Turquoise Palace fills me with readiness. I made it home.
Tinley tilts her head to the wind and impels Chare faster. She and the chief bank their falcons south, out of the direct line of the palace.
“Why are you changing course?” I shout in her ear.
Tinley’s voice carries to me on a gale. “The execution is on the rooftop. We’ll approach from the rear.”
The falcons race the failing sun. Chare pulls ahead from the chief, and he and her sister section off to wait out of sight. Tinley spares them no glance. Despite their lack of communication, their decisive, controlled movements are a comfort.
We sail over the elephant stables to the rear of the palace. Chare hovers near the lower roofline. I slide my legs together and jump down.
“This is as far as I can take you.” Tinley tosses me her crossbow.
I sling the strap over my shoulder. I am not up to par with the sister warriors’ training, but Tarek made certain that my weaponry skills are sufficient.
“Send a bolt into the sky, and the chief and I will fly in,” Tinley says, then cocks her ear to the wind. “Hurry.”
I run across the rooftop and leap up the wall. My fingers hook the molding. I pull myself onto the next level. Tinley gazes up at me in astonishment. She assumed I would go through the palace. This will be faster. I ascend several levels, relying on the balconies and archways for handholds. My arms and back ache and the fascia scrapes my palms. Tinley’s warning propels me upward.
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