My elephant enters the courtyard and halts. I climb down onto a temporary stairway, and a handler leads the elephant off. The sisters and wards are lined up outside the temple, hair brushed to a shine and skin scrubbed clean. Priestess Mita stands by the steps, Healer Baka beside her. A couple of my art students wave. I return their quiet hello, earning a glower from the priestess.
Gemi and Ashwin enter the courtyard, the people’s adulations ushering in after them. A servant assists them from their howdah. Halfway down the staircase, Gemi kisses Ashwin full on the mouth. The crowd hollers with enthusiasm.
Ashwin tugs at his high collar, embarrassed. The princess leads him to me.
“Viraji,” I say, bowing. “You’ve stolen the empire’s heart.”
“Hopefully we can maintain this approval after our wedding,” Gemi says, twisting her shell earring nervously. She draped her sari so her scarred arm is visible. No one would guess she was not a sister warrior.
The whole city is abuzz about their wedding. When the datu arrived for the original date, he was perturbed the ceremony was postponed. His daughter explained that she and Ashwin wanted more time together. Thus, she remained while her father returned to the Southern Isles. The datu will come back for the real wedding, the evening of the next new moon.
More attendees arrive, the rest by horse, camel, or foot. The ranis and children come in as a big group. Shyla and Rehan are mixed in with the rest of Ashwin’s siblings. The ranis have been nattering nonstop about the wedding gifts they are making Gemi. As the prince and princess welcome each of them by name, I nearly miss Indah and Pons’s entrance.
Jala is tied to Indah’s front with a cloth binding. I shake her little fist and smooth down her hair. She grins, her top two teeth sticking down like a bunny’s.
Oh, do I love that sweet face.
Tinley leads in the bhuta trainees. No one in the crowd at the gate spits or boos. They cheer just as loudly for them as they did for me.
And well they should. Those who saw Enlil also witnessed the bhuta children battling demons, which raised questions about why they would do so if they were, in fact, demons themselves. Those who lived in the empire before Tarek rewrote our history flocked to the Brotherhood temple to learn about bhutas as half-gods. Since this collective epiphany, the number of palace guards is up, and the general phobia of bhutas is diminishing.
The people’s fickleness sets my veins on fire. Ashwin often reminds me this is the change we wanted. Acceptance of bhutas is the true return to tradition.
Giza and Basma run ahead of Tinley. The Galer is visiting from Paljor, her current primary residence. Maida asked Tinley to come home and help her lead. Ashwin calls the sisters the frozen fist of the north. Instead of arguing with each other, they advocate for their tribe. The prince always emerges from their trade meetings wholly drained.
My Burner students run to stand by me. They straighten as the last of the procession comes in, the all-female guard. Eshana rides a camel at the front of her unit. Ashwin assigned her as captain of two dozen women who alternate shifts with the other palace guards. Eshana’s service helps to distract her from grieving for Parisa. I was saddened when Ashwin told me of her demise. Little will heal the knowledge of her death other than time.
At last, Deven and Brac approach on horseback, the conclusion of the procession. Deven’s broad chest fills out the navy-and-silver tunic. He rides at ease, his sword slung at his side. I have yet to adjust to him not wearing a uniform. Deven did not feel right about displacing Yatin as general, so he accepted an advisor position, acting as a liaison between the army and the prince.
Deven dismounts and kisses me in welcome. His trim beard brushes my skin, his sandalwood scent mild. The Burner girls giggle and make room for him at my side.
Separate from the procession, Mathura and Chitt arrive. They have stopped traveling to spend time in Vanhi with us. Deven thinks they will reside here now. Natesa and Yatin come in last and find standing room at the back of the audience. People on the streets fill the temple gate to listen. I pause to absorb the view of my friends and family.
We are all here.
Ashwin strides up the temple steps. The priestess passes him a cone amplifier.
“Citizens of Vanhi,” he begins, “we’re honored to gather today at the completion of the first Sisterhood temple in the City of Gems. Before the priestess dedicates this sacred home, I would like to say a brief word about forgiveness. As the brethren of the Parijana faith taught me, our godly purpose is to learn and grow into the greatest versions of ourselves. Along our way, we inadvertently and, at times, intentionally hurt or offend those in our path.” Ashwin speaks out to those in the roads and on the rooftops. His voice embeds within me. I am touched by the care and delivery of his words. “All of us have someone to forgive. Perhaps it is someone we love or someone we hoped would do better. I promise you, as we seek the finest versions of ourselves, the gods will give us strength and hope to believe in goodness. I will lead you in this journey as I aspire to become the rajah the empire rightfully deserves. Gods be with us.”
Ashwin passes the cone amplifier to the priestess. We applaud, Gemi beaming at him, and he swiftly rejoins her side. Priestess Mita and the head priest of the Brotherhood temple proceed with the ceremony.
I eye the temple wards dressed in their blue robes. Before when I used to see them, I could only think of the purpose behind all my teachings—preparation for the Claiming.
None of these girls will experience that humiliation.
The temple priestesses across Tarachand unanimously agreed to do away with the ritual. Even Priestess Mita acquiesced after she heard about Ashwin’s educational advancements. Gemi has been instrumental in the formation of these policies, using what she learned in the Southern Isles as a foundation. A new curriculum is in development for the wards. When they come of age, they may work in education, science, history, arithmetic, and the arts. Looking at them, tears brim in my eyes. They may choose who they become as they rise in strength together. The sisters will continue to teach them the godly virtues and train them in the sparring ring. Some wards may elect to join the all-female guard or the Sisterhood. They have so many paths to choose from, I can scarcely imagine how they will decide.
I am sorry I will not be here to view all their achievements, to see what the city becomes with their talents nourishing its future. Vanhi may finally suit its name as the City of Gems and deserve the reputation as the stronghold of the Tarachand Empire.
Deven’s fingers seek out mine. “Kali, it’s done.”
I join the closing applause. Healer Baka offers the benediction, and then the temple is open for touring. Children dart about the courtyard, playing. Deven and I seek out the refreshments for a chunk of ice to cool ourselves. Tinley rushes over.
“We’re playing toss the coin.” She grabs Deven by the arm. “You’re on my team.”
She drags him off. He looks back, shrugging. I saunter over to the sparring circle and stand around the perimeter with Ashwin. Within the ring, Deven and Tinley contend against Gemi and Brac in a children’s game.
“Your speech was moving, Your Majesty,” I say. Ashwin ducks his head modestly. “Have you settled on your honeymoon?”
He cheers for Gemi, then answers, “Out of the nine places we picked, we whittled it down to . . . nine.” He tousles his hair, bemused. “Gemi wants to visit them all. I haven’t the heart to tell her no. Can you and Deven stay until we return? I would feel more comfortable knowing Brac and Natesa are not left unattended. Lords know what I would return to.”
“We can stay,” I agree at once. Deven and I have organized a trip to Paljor before we survey the lower Alpanas for a piece of land to settle on. My mahati hatchling, which I named Chaser, is old enough to live with us. Tinley said she will grow happier and healthier in my company. I am certain I can write to Maida and ask her to bring Chaser along during her next visit.
“I’ll speak with Deven as well,” Ashwin says. “I know he’s looking forward to leaving the city.”
I wear a tight smile, but his attention has already returned to the game.
Gemi and Brac have collectively flipped the coin the highest. Tinley finishes her turn, accomplishing an impressive height. Deven must achieve a coin toss half as tall as hers for his team to win.
He steps into the middle of the ring and kneels beside the coin. Hands on each side, he slaps the ground. A pillar shoots up, lifting the coin above his head.
The crowd cheers. Deven pats Brac on the back, beaming. He outtossed his brother.
Gemi removes the coin from the pillar and shows the bhuta trainees. “See what Deven did? This is why you should practice.”
The first day back on his feet, Deven joined Gemi and the Trembler trainees for lessons. We had discovered almost immediately which bhuta powers he had acquired. While bedridden, he had dropped his spoon over the side of the cot. Before I could collect it, the floor had shot up and delivered it for him.
Brac calls for a rematch. He will play until he wins.
This could be a while.
“I’m going inside,” I tell Ashwin.
He sneaks in a quick kiss on my cheek, then sends me off.
I navigate the crowd inside the quieter, cooler temple. I bypass the chapel and go to the back stairway. The area is closed and dim. I pluck flames from the line of wall lamps. They spin together and form a lynx kitten.
Siva gazes up at me from the floor. I set her on my shoulder, and we sneak down the stairway. The lower corridors of the temple are half-done. I enter the biggest classroom, the art room. Pails of tiles and mortar are set around for a project I designed. I want a tile mural of the Alpana Mountains. The execution is taking longer than anticipated, but the result so far is spectacular. I shut the door to the classroom.
Siva jumps off my shoulder and sits in front of it. She sniffs around and finds a broken piece of tile to chew on.
“You shouldn’t be down here.”
I reel on Deven. “Are you going to tell the priestess?”
He strides up, his hands tucked in his trouser pockets. “Consider this your second offense of sneaking around the lower level of a temple.”
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