Barking voices carry from outside the aviary. I climb onto the next rise and crouch low. Mercenaries swarm the rooftop. Several of them are archers, bows slung over their shoulders and quivers full. I slide the crossbow to my front and squeeze the fore grip. Lokesh directs his men from his position by the ledge. He wears his headscarf open, while the rest of the men don turbans to continue the charade that they have been hired as imperial guards.
I search for the thief that has stolen my appearance. My look-alike is not in attendance.
Mercenaries walk Gemi out. Her naturally straight posture has bowed. She sways as a pendant in the wind while the executioner slips a noose over her neck. Dry blood stains her wrists. I clamp down on the crossbow, ready to inflict pain on her captors. They cut her. They let her blood to weaken her powers.
My people crowd up to the main gate below and line their rooftops. Tarek fed their hunger for bloodshed with the tournaments and public stonings. Here they are again, eager for violence. I withhold my rising disgust. Their participation as spectators in Gemi’s mistreatment shames the empire.
More mercenaries hold the ranis and children by sword point in the courtyard. Lokesh is forcing them to watch, but it is he who should be punished. I take aim at him with the crossbow. Gemi is between us, so I hold my fire.
The final sliver of sun melts into the western horizon.
Lokesh lifts a cone amplifier to his mouth. “Citizens of Vanhi, welcome!” On the ground, the crowd stills to listen. “Today we witness the restoration of Tarachand! Prince Ashwin has returned to the teachings of his father. He asks that you please pardon his absence. He felt burdened to remain on his knees in prayer, pleading for forgiveness that he might no longer lead us astray.” The commander lying about me—yet again—goes on his long list of offenses. I balance the crossbow and wait for a clear shot. “Upon the death of his viraji, the empire will be cleansed and undergo a rebirth. We will have a new life without demons, without fear!”
“You know nothing of fear,” says Gemi. Her head is hung, her hair in her eyes. “My admiral will bleed every drop of blood from your body, and my father will feed it to the sea.”
“Be quiet, filth.” Lokesh backhands her, and she folds in half. “Put her on the partition!”
The guards heft Gemi onto the rim of the roof. I have walked that ledge many times and never felt this sick. My finger strains on the trigger. Lokesh is out in the open, but he could fall back against Gemi and knock her over the drop-off.
A little left and I can fire.
“Hang the demon!” Lokesh proclaims.
His men reach up to push Gemi. I switch my aim to the aviary window and pull. The bolt zips through the window. A quarter of a second later, the doves flood out. Lokesh and his men shield their heads from the flurry of birds.
Gemi remains balanced amid the onslaught of flapping wings. As the doves fly away, thunder crashes overhead. Gray clouds brew up a storm. The moody thunderheads usher in cold, sweeping winds.
Lokesh traces the angle of the bolt back to me. “Shoot him!”
Archers prepare their arrows. Gemi raises her gaze to mine. Adoration warms her countenance. I was a fool not to see it before.
Arrows whiz past me. I slide down to the other side of the roof in plain sight of Lokesh. He grabs Gemi and shoves.
“Tinley, wind!” I cry and jump from the ledge.
I dive headfirst past Lokesh. Nothing lies between me and the ground. Gemi swings down, the rope almost fully stretched. A frigid gale heaves her up at the same time one pushes me.
In our momentary suspension, I reach out and pull her in.
Another well-timed gust redirects us. We swing to a higher ledge and land against the palace on a narrow recess. My body secures Gemi’s against the wall. We pant in tandem, our heartbeats pounding.
Tinley and Chief Naresh circle above in the storm, their falcons drawing the archers’ attack. The temperature plummets to wintry conditions. My cold fingers fumble to untie Gemi’s wrists. She removes the noose and embraces me. Although her wrists no longer bleed, she will have scars.
“Down there!” Lokesh’s men call.
The archers take aim and unleash their assault. We have no safe cover or path down.
Chief Naresh drives winds between us and redirects the arrows back at the bowmen. Then a curious phenomenon occurs—snow falls in the desert. Big, fluffy snowflakes pinwheel down and nest in Gemi’s hair. I pluck one off, and we watch, mesmerized as it melts.
Tinley flies up on her falcon. “Jump!”
Arrows stream at her and Chare. The mahati retreats, and another string of arrows stops them from returning.
High above, Chief Naresh and Tinley’s sister dart about on their falcon. Maida elevates her arms to the clouds. The snow falls heavier and faster. Frigid winds wail. The blizzard is so thick, I cannot see the ground. The archers shoot at us blindly.
“This is our cover!” Gemi shouts.
Tinley lowers again on her falcon. Gemi leaps first. The recess is slick, but I lunge, and Gemi grasps me. I sit behind her and Tinley. The falcon soars up the exterior of the palace and levels off above the archers. Most of the mercenaries are retreating inside from the whiteout, many of them injured by their own arrows. Lokesh and a small band of men withstand the gusts from Chare’s flapping wings and heavy snowfall.
Gemi slides off the falcon and lands in a crouch on the roof. As I reload the crossbow with my second-to-last bolt, she heaves the clay tiles underfoot and fells the nearest mercenary. Another one slashes his khanda at her, cutting her arm. She kicks him in the jaw and disarms him. Taking up his blade, she swings at the next man.
Lokesh runs at Gemi, his pata swords out. I jump off Chare, landing between them, and take aim.
“It’s over, Lokesh.”
“You have much to learn, young Prince.” He swings his double patas. I fall back onto my rear and release the bolt. It zips at him and embeds in his thigh. He bends and clutches his leg.
“I may be young, but I’ll bring peace to the empire.” A gale amplifies my voice, carrying it far and wide, Tinley’s doing. Maida lessens the snowfall. Onlookers below stare up from their huddle, my confrontation with Lokesh visible. “Bhutas are welcome in Tarachand. Anyone who opposes their freedom will pay.”
“The people won’t listen,” Lokesh says, straightening. “They love me.”
Gemi boosts the clay roof tiles beneath him and trips him onto his back. His headscarf falls off into the snow. She wrenches sections of the brick ledge away and drops them on his patas, warping the metal blades.
“They fear you,” she corrects, her arm bloody.
“You belong in the Void with the rest of the demons,” he snarls. “I’m Rajah Tarek’s firstborn. The throne is my birthright.”
He grabs Gemi’s ankle to pull her down. I slam my foot onto his forearm.
“Don’t touch her.”
Lokesh drags himself back to sit against the ruined ledge. “You think I did this for myself? I can bring Tarek back from the dead.”
I step back, gripped by shakiness. I do not care how he plans to resurrect our father, but he will fail. “Tarek had his reign. The empire is my responsibility now.”
“You abuse your power!” Lokesh screws up his mouth and rises, favoring his injured leg. “I’ll never follow you. I’ll dismantle your supporters one by one until you’re alone.”
He will never stand down. I have seen what men like him do. They have no limits. So long as he lives, everyone and everything I care about is in peril.
Lifting the crossbow to my shoulder, I take aim with the last bolt. “I tried to reason with you, Lokesh. I could have forgiven the lies, manipulations, and even you stranding me in the desert. But you shouldn’t have hurt my viraji.”
“I’ll gut your demon viraji and any other bhuta ally.”
“No, you won’t.”
I release the final bolt into his chest. The impetus throws him backward over the drop-off.
I cast aside the crossbow and stagger a step. The wind lifts Lokesh’s scarf and spins it off into the sky. The entire palace is dusted in snow.
Gemi and I peer over the edge. Lokesh lies below, encircled by people. Many more watch us from the city. I have no words left for a speech, but they will hear from me soon.
I wrap Gemi in my arms, embracing her for all to see. Her cut has stopped bleeding. The wound is shallow, but she will have another scar. I would not be surprised if she leaves Tarachand and never returns.
Snowflakes rest on her eyelashes and ring her head in a crown. I slide my hand up her cheek. “I hope you can forgive me for this.”
“I already do.” Gemi sweeps her fingers across the nape of my neck and cozies against me. “This wasn’t you, Ashwin. I won’t let them chase me away. I stand with you.”
I tip my forehead against hers, those pale-gold eyes filling my world. Vanhi and the palace and the empire are my place. At Gemi’s side, I am more convinced that my home could become her place too.
Go to the Tigress Pavilion, Cala says, tapping into my memory. Enlil will hold off Marduk. You need a better weapon than those daggers.
I am the weapon, I reply.
We pass the pavilion en route to my chamber, and Cala nudges me again. I go in, straight to the racks, and select a haladie.
No, not that one. This one. Cala directs me toward the urumi.
I’m not trained for that.
Let me use my training.
Fine. I hope you’re left-handed. I clasp the handle of her favorite weapon, and Cala grins—at least that is how her glee feels. Wary of the spray of blades, I extend the urumi out in front of me. The multiblade weapon is surprisingly light. My left hand can wield it without my right, which is still a bare wrist without my prosthesis.
Carry it off to your side.
I do as Cala says and drag the steel blades to my chamber. Enlil lies on my bed with his ankles crossed, his spear beside him. Cala’s mind turns to lustful memories.
Stop that, Cala.
Sorry. She redirects her thoughts.
“The children weren’t in the dungeons,” I say. “Where’s Marduk?”
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