I cannot puzzle out how he intends to fulfill his pledge, but his swift assurance appeases Priestess Mita.
“Will you please show us to our chamber?” Pons asks the priestess. Indah has not spoken since we landed. She sways some on her feet, her pallor worsening by the second.
“Right this way.” Priestess Mita bustles to the door that leads to the corridor.
Pons lags back. “Can we trust her, Kalinda?”
“She may be rude, but she won’t harm you.” I rub Indah’s arm. “Go rest.”
They follow the priestess out, and a thought strikes me. I need another room as well. This chamber has only one bed. Priestess Mita must assume Ashwin retained me as his kindred. Sleeping in the same chamber with him would be disastrous. I need only catch a chill during the night and seek out his comfort . . .
My throat heats to an itch. “I’ll ask Priestess Mita for quarters of my own.”
“No need for that.” Ashwin runs his finger over the mantle and comes away with a clump of dust. “You can have the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor.” He lowers to his haunches and stocks the hearth with kindling. “Did my father board in this room when he last visited?” His simple question carries a strained undertone.
“He did.” I met Deven in the corridor outside this chamber. How different my life would be if he had been a benefactor and claimed me instead. Or had I never been claimed at all.
“Kalinda, would you please?” Ashwin motions to the kindling piled in the hearth.
I go to his side and press my finger to the firewood, coaxing in heat. My powers shine but are still tinged green. Just as the kindling ignites, sapphire sparks fly from my fingers. I quell my powers and sneak a glance at Ashwin. He was preoccupied with the wood pile and did not see. I imagine the blue sparks I saw moments ago evolving into cold sapphire flames and shiver.
Ashwin throws a log onto the growing blaze. “Does the temple have a library?”
“Yes, on the upper floor.”
“I may find a text about the gate to the Void.”
Ashwin has an aptitude for research. If the gate’s location is written in one of the library books, he will find it. “Wait until tonight when everyone’s asleep. How will you solve the temple’s supply shortage?”
“I don’t know yet.” Crouched near the fire, he prods the logs with the fire iron. “Can you find out how dire it is?”
“Yes. I’m going upstairs now.”
Ashwin pushes a tired hand through his hair, which is still damp from the melted snow. “Will you tell the priestess the real reason why we’ve come? She should be made aware about our meeting with Hastin.”
I owe Priestess Mita no such explanation. She lost my esteem as a sister in the faith when she allowed the rajah’s monstrous general to claim Jaya. The priestess should have protected her. She should have protected us both. Instead she still preaches that men are our betters, our gods. My time in the world of men has taught me that any man worthy of my admiration would never force me to worship him.
Moreover, Priestess Mita will be livid to discover the bhuta warlord is meeting us. Her concern will be for the wards; she is not entirely hard-hearted. But informing her of our plans will feel akin to asking permission, which, as her rani, I am no longer inclined to do.
Ashwin watches moodiness come over me—my stiffening features and pressed lips—and rises. “I can speak to her if that would be easier.”
He detects the furious storm brewing inside me, but he cannot identify the origin. I cannot settle upon the right words to explain my upbringing. How it feels to be raised for the sole use of another, to exist to fulfill another’s whims and desires and taught to never think of my own wants or needs. I never had to enlighten Deven. He saw firsthand the damaging effects of his mother’s service as a courtesan. But Ashwin was too sheltered in his youth to grasp the destructive, selfish nature of the supremacy his birthright entitles him to wield. With a flick of his finger, he may claim any girl in this temple or in the whole of the empire.
Even after I have ended Rajah Tarek’s tyranny.
Even though I am a two-time tournament champion and the kindred.
Even with Ashwin striving to improve upon his father’s legacy.
The unjust division of rights still reigns.
“I’ll take care of it,” I say, picking up a lamp. I go into the corridor and start for the stairway. My injured knee aches, and I could use a long nap, but I cannot wait to see the only person left at the temple who I consider my friend.
I take the long route to the infirmary to bypass Jaya’s and my former bedchamber. I cannot bear to view our place of happiness or confront those memories. By now, two different wards are dwelling in our haven, replacing us as though our friendship never was. But the ghost of Jaya entwines with the sandalwood incense burning in the halls. She is everywhere: in the walls, in the floors, in my heart. Running from her is pointless, so I allow the loss of stolen wishes to fester. My longing for her is deeper than any other ache or pain I carry.
The door to the infirmary stands open. I enter and survey the vacant cots. The strong aroma of medicinal chamomile unburies a landslide of memories. Most of my childhood was spent in this chamber, endless days lying in a sickbed with raging fevers.
Healer Baka jots in her patient log at her desk. Her spectacles have slid down her nose, perched on the end. When she lifts her quill to dab on more ink, my shadow pulls her attention upward. She inclines back in her chair on a whispered prayer. “Thank Anu.”
Old, held-in anger charges out of me. “Did you ask Anu to send you a Burner?” Healer Baka concealed the truth of my bhuta heritage to protect me from Tarek’s hatred for my kind. Though her justifications were well founded, I have yet to recover from her deception.
“Brother Shaan wrote me to say you’re full into your powers.” Her voice brims with pride. “Let me have a look at you.” She comes and turns me into the light.
“I haven’t changed much. I’m still thin as bamboo.”
“Haven’t changed? You’re a rani!” She skims her palm up my cheek, her eyes shining. “You’ve become the woman the gods intended.”
I tug her hand away. “Jaya—” My voice shreds to a rasp, and before I can stop them, tears pour down my cheeks. “Jaya’s dead.”
Healer Baka enfolds me in her arms. No one else knew Jaya as well as I did, except for Baka. When Jaya died, I had no one to mourn her with, no one who fathomed my bereavement. “She’s well, Kali. Jaya was good and pure. She’ll have a new life in her new form, and her loving spirit will continue to bless others. You may miss her, but do not mourn her. You will meet her again.”
I hold Baka tighter, clinging to her sentiments. “You truly think so?”
“Time is relative in the Beyond. Jaya will be born again, and you will reunite with her in another life.” My crying lessens to quiet hiccups. Healer Baka goes to close the door most of the way for privacy. Passersby would find it suspicious to find the infirmary sealed off. “Brother Shaan hasn’t written since your wedding. I began to worry.”
“A lot has changed since I left.” I set aside my grief to deliver the news. “Brother Shaan passed away.”
Healer Baka draws into herself. She and Shaan had a long-distance friendship that began in Vanhi years ago. They trusted each other implicitly. “I’ve missed more than I realized,” she says.
“Why don’t I tell you everything over a hot drink?” I am cold, and Healer Baka keeps the most delicious herbal tea mixes.
While she prepares the tea, I relay all that has happened. Unloading the burden of my loss for Jaya opens a floodgate of confessions: falling in love with Deven, murdering Tarek, my expansion of Burner powers, and Ashwin unleashing the Voider. The only part I omit is Healer Mego’s prognosis of my condition. Baka listens, interrupting only once for clarification about the Voider returning in the physical form of Tarek. Long after we sip the last of our tea, I finish my summary and await her reaction.
“I’m . . . I’m at a loss,” she says. “You and Natesa are friends?”
“Out of everything I told you, that surprises you most?”
“You forget that I helped raise you. I’ve seen stray cats get along better than you two.”
I chirp a laugh. “Well, it wasn’t without effort.”
“Kali, I’m so glad to see you again, but . . . you shouldn’t have returned.” My chin ticks sideways at her reprimand. “Your health is poor. I can tell you’re hurting more than you let on.”
“I’m fine,” I say, fiddling with my teacup.
Her expression does not change. “Even if that were true, you shouldn’t have agreed to meet Hastin here. He’s too dangerous.”
“He picked Samiya for our meeting place. I wouldn’t have considered accommodating him, but the demon rajah is marching on Vanhi as we speak.”
Healer Baka pulls back slightly. “Your intentions for coming here aside, you’ve brought more mouths to feed. We’re living off our fall harvest.”
“The prince is aware and has promised to arrange for aid.” I leave out that he has no idea how he will do so, and Healer Baka notices. She pushes her spectacles up her nose in a quick jerk, still troubled. “I won’t let anything happen,” I say, a guarantee that even to me sounds more convincing.
She holds my solemn gaze. “I have to tell Priestess Mita. For the good of our daughters, she needs to know.”
I lock my jaw. “The priestess sent me to die in Rajah Tarek’s rank tournament.”
“But Jaya didn’t!”
Healer Baka lays her hand over mine. “Priestess Mita’s strongest virtue is obedience. She submitted completely to the rajah, perhaps to a fault. But you know as well as I do that she couldn’t have stood up to him.”
I uncross my legs and rub my sore knee. I can no sooner rid myself of its ache than I can set aside my resentment for the priestess or my longing for a future with Jaya.