I shift in my throne. It is here, in his direct shadow, that his memory is strongest.
Sit up. Look me in the eye. Do not fear anyone. You will be rajah. Your people must fear you. Force them to obey.
His urgings were rigid. Be better. Exude more strength. Tolerate less weakness. When I displeased him, he whipped me. Disobedience cost me the skin on my back.
Be vigilant, my son. We must protect our reign. Our legacy.
His legacy is one I will not repeat.
Brac strolls in the room. “Have you seen Kalinda? We need to discuss Basma and Giza’s training schedule.”
“You’ll have to discuss arrangements with the nursemaids. Kalinda and Tinley have gone north to find a route to Deven.”
His honey eyes flash. “She left you here to fend for yourself.”
I press my shoulder blades against the high-backed throne. His lack of conviction in my fitness as ruler hangs between us. “Her departure alters nothing. I’m still leader of the empire.”
Brac regards me with uncertainty. “I can only speak for bhutas, but it would console the people to see you proactive in your authority.”
My tone roughens. “What are you saying, Ambassador?”
“You’re still reacting from Tarek’s rulership, the warlord’s insurgence, and now the protestors.”
“I inherited a war,” I remind him. “My decisions are not all reactionary. I’m taking a wife on my own accord.”
“A foreigner and stranger,” Brac rejoins, expressing facts instead of his own judgement. He commended me on my selection of kindred when I first proposed. “Tarachandians want to trust your vision for the empire. They’ll follow your example, but if you’re ambivalent, they will be as well. Today’s riot will become a habit.”
My teeth slam together. Granting clemency to the deserting soldiers could be regarded as too lenient. I welcomed home the refugees and started reconstructing their huts and places of work. On reflection, I should have mandated that they contribute more to our city’s rebirth. I reopened our borders to bhutas and ceased the slaughter of their kind, but have I demonstrated equal commitment to those who now reside alongside their former adversaries? Every decision I made has offended someone. I cannot please all my people, yet I will continue to exhort them to treat bhutas fairly. Consistency will prove I am not ambivalent about their equal place in the empire.
“Commander Lokesh will arrive any moment,” I say, weary. My solitude on the dais tires me. “I would appreciate your support.”
The ever-mischievous Burner grips the axes strapped to his back. “Would you like me to intimidate him?”
I trap a sigh. I wish General Naik was here to offer his advice and wrangle his brother. Deven knows conflict strategy and Brac far better than I. “Only if need be.”
Commander Lokesh enters the throne room, Yatin behind him. Brac positions himself on the dais at my left-hand side. The captain did not disarm Lokesh of his pata swords. With Brac present, his weapons are a nominal threat.
Lokesh pauses in the shadows between the pools of sunshine cast from the high casements. He bows, a perfunctory bend of the waist. “Your Majesty.”
“I hear you have grievances. State them here in my presence.”
He still wears a headscarf, his face uncovered but shadowed. Although he stands tall, his shoulders have a brutish downward slope that makes his posture appear offset. Early signs of gray mark his trim beard and wiry mustache. His palms are covered by strips of cloth, a practice of soldiers when they train to prevent callouses.
“You’re welcome to attend my speeches,” he replies.
“Your followers nearly killed one of my soldiers.”
No sign of remorse crosses Lokesh’s expression. “My apologies to the soldier and his family. I have no authority over the rioters.”
Brac scoffs. “You’re like a boy who set two dogs upon a single bone and then backed away from the fight.”
Lokesh snubs him, reserving his attention for me. “This dogfight is older than me, Your Majesty. That bone was thrown long before you or I entered the scene.”
“But we’re here now,” I counter. “Delay your speeches until after my wedding.”
“Or . . . ?” he asks.
I select my response carefully to avoid him misconstruing my remarks. “Consider your temporary cooperation a wedding present to my viraji and me.”
“Then you do intend to wed a bhuta.” Lokesh presses his lips into a slash. “My speech today was unplanned. The people gathered to protest your choice of kindred. I came to listen, and they demanded I explain the flames above the amphitheater yesterday. I told them the truth: you’re letting children dabble with fire. Tarachandians are rightly outraged.”
A discouraging reaction. Though given the damages from the rebel insurgency, warranted. “What would they have me do? The trainees are children.”
Lokesh, again, is unmoved. “Ask the bhutas to announce themselves. They look the same as you and me. People are afraid of what they cannot see, cannot identify. Require bhutas to reveal their powers. A mark on the hand or forehead.”
Brac recoils. “You want to brand us?”
“This protects you as well,” Lokesh counters, a mocking ring to his tone. “You cannot identify bhutas either, and you destroyed all the neutralizer tonic after the war. What’s to stop an Aquifier from striding up and leeching you?”
“Why not mark the full-mortals instead so we may know who you are?” Brac contends.
“Your Majesty,” says Lokesh, flouting Brac’s outburst, “this is not a radical policy. Your father’s ranis donned henna rank markings to identify their standing in his court.”
“They were competitors,” I say, voice rising. “Bhutas have stepped forward by their own free will. They need not be made into spectacles or targets. When the people ask about their welfare, tell them the truth. They are safe, Commander.”
Lokesh’s enmity molds into steel. “Rajah Tarek would never make such an ignorant claim.”
“Tarek wouldn’t have entertained your impertinence.” I leave my threat unfinished, as we can both imagine the repercussions. Tarek would have waited until Lokesh rallied a crowd and executed him publicly. I am satisfied to deliver a warning.
“The people cannot be silenced.” Lokesh barely restrains his rage, his voice and fists shaking. “You’ll regret welcoming bhutas into your palace.”
My belly hardens. His inflection of speech and hatred for bhutas reminds me of Tarek.
“Are you threatening His Majesty?” Brac demands, summoning a ball of flame. It hovers before him, ready for him to cast.
“A premonition,” Lokesh qualifies.
I incline forward. “Inviting you here was a courtesy, Commander. Suspend your speeches, or I’ll blame you for every individual injured on your watch. Should anyone so much as trip and fall while they’re listening to you, I’ll hold you accountable.”
Brac rescinds his powers and grasps the back of my throne to show his support. I glance at him to step back, but the damage is done. Lokesh’s eyes glint, intensifying his sneer. Brac has confirmed his assertions. My orders will be reinforced by bhutas.
“Good day, Your Majesty.” Lokesh bows and stalks out, the echo of his footfalls dangling in the rafters.
Tinley and I ride racing winds into winter’s stronghold. Bracing cold has usurped the north, forcing dormancy over the land.
Chare speeds past the lower hills and up the craggy mountains. A solid wash of heavy clouds hampers my view, and then, like a monster transpiring from the deep, Wolf’s Peak appears. Jaya believed Ekur is located upon this pinnacle of the Alpana Mountains, where land meets the sky-god’s territory. The temple is a gate between our world and the Beyond, a go-between wherein the deities once ruled, free from the woes and infirmities of the mortal realm.
Great Anu . . . I stop my prayer. Is there any point? The gods have not answered any of my entreaties. Why answer them now?
But just in case the gods are listening, I send up a plea. Protect Deven.
My small effort at faith drains me. I hunker down into my fur cloak, and the clouds clear below us, revealing scorched land and trees. We have reached Samiya.
Piles of rubble fan out from the remains of the Sisterhood temple. Under the snowbanks, the last of the stone structure is nearly unrecognizable. My longing for Jaya has steadily lessened, like a wound puckering to a scar, but near our home again, my memories of our simple life cause me to ache. Before the Claiming, I knew little of the world of men. Jaya and the Sisterhood were everything. I felt certain they were my intended future.
Chare banks west and soars over the alpine lake. The frozen surface shimmers in the low light, deceiving the mortal eye. Beneath that sheen of ice lies the gate to the Void.
Burn marks stripe the lakeshore, remnants of our battle against Kur. Tinley circles the wreckage of two Paljorian airships, skeletons of their once graceful glory. Chare banks away from the lake. I twist around to prolong my view and tuck my prosthesis close. Our war was won, the cost mighty.
“Cala . . . ,” the sky whistles.
That is an odd thing for the wind to say.
We glide toward Wolf’s Peak, snow dusting the steep ridges. I blink fast to stave off the wind and search for a glimpse of the gods’ temple.
“Cala . . .”
Upon hearing the name a second time, I listen closer.
“Cala . . .”
The voice’s anguish scratches at me—this is the sound I would label my own grief.
I scour the snowcapped peaks for the source as we climb higher into the flurries and the presumed site of Ekur disappears behind a wall of white.
The northern wind must have tricked me. Nothing lives up here. No one could survive this lonely cold.
We dip into a land of ice and snow. The entirety of the valley has been drained of color. Even the sun is insipid, diffused by the reflection of its greatness upon the ivory and charcoal landscape.
Chare glides lower over the tundra and kicks up swirls of powder. The falcon’s feathers soon bear a fine coat of soft crystals. Every so often we fly over ancient arches that rise from the flatlands like empty doorways to nowhere.
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