“To serve the commander?”
“Does it matter?” Brac’s unruly coppery hair falls into his defiant gaze. “Yatin has our guards pulling double shifts. He thought for a time that he might have to employ the ranis to stand in. From here on out, don’t engage Lokesh. Let us manage him.”
I drop my book on a side table. “Any word from Kalinda?”
“None.” Brac puts down the apong bottle. He needs a shave, a trip to the bathhouse, and a clean change of clothes. “We must keep our focus. I suspect Lokesh is hiding something. Something he really doesn’t want us to find out. I’ll keep following him. Until the datu and navy arrive, you and every member of the imperial court must not leave the palace.”
My own city, my home, is unsafe for me. Lokesh’s lies have cultivated fast and farther than I anticipated. I press my fists into the table. “If you think so.”
“I do.” Brac squeezes my shoulder. “This is a temporary reprieve. Enjoy it.”
What is there to enjoy? I have the duties of rajah without the official title. This is not a reprieve from my responsibilities. This is detention for not silencing Lokesh when I had the opportunity. “Thank you for your report, Ambassador.”
Brac recognizes he has been discharged and bids me good night.
I drop into a lounge cushion and resume my study about the imperial guard. The words soon blur into a misshapen jumble on the page, and the quiet library closes in around me. I rub my sore eyes and look up from the text. Down the way, in the child-studies section, one of my shelves has been disturbed. From this angle, I see a line of dust where a book once was. I rise and inspect the gap in the bookcase.
Someone was in my library.
It is difficult to determine which text is missing. Based on the section it was taken from, a couple suspected intruders come to mind. One more than the others.
I clap my book shut and reshelf it on the way out.
By some mercy, I locate the nursery on my first try. The nursemaids have put the little ones to bed and turned the lamps down low. Nursemaid Sunsee travels between the rows of beds, tucking in the squirrelly children. She soon meets me near the play area.
“Your Majesty, Rehan is asleep.”
“I came to see you.”
“Oh?” she asks. “What may I do for you?”
“I’m missing a book from my library. Might you or one of the other nursemaids have borrowed it?”
“I’m certain we did not, Your Majesty. We know not to go into your library.” She brushes residual dust off my sleeve. “I’m glad it’s getting use. For all your mother’s love of stories, she wasn’t much of a reader.”
“You knew Lakia well.” After seeing my old room in the nursery, I have tried to remember Lakia as a loving young mother who read to me nightly, but I have too many contradicting recollections.
“I’ll tell you about her. Sit. Sit.” Sunsee points to the reading chair. “Your mother gained a reputation for her malice. When you were little, Kindred Lakia was quieter, less certain of herself. You remind me of her. Take that as no offense, Your Majesty. Lakia held herself to a lofty standard and was intolerant when she fell short. She was not rigid, per se, but had an idea of how things should be done.”
The nursemaid digs around in her pocket and pulls out sugared pieces of cinnamon. “These were her favorite.” She pops one in her mouth, giving me the other. I tuck the sweet against my cheek. They are the same ones found in dishes about the palace. “After you were sent away, Lakia was never the same.”
I cannot muster much sympathy. She was my mother. I was her child. “She never said good-bye. The day I left she wasn’t there.”
“She was devastated. She ordered us not to touch the nursery. The first year you were gone, she slept in your room more than her own bedchamber.” Sunsee grabs my chin and holds me in place. “Lakia had many flaws, but she loved you.”
Some part of me wants to believe this, yet I still cannot equate the rani I knew with a gentle woman who told stories and had a sweet tooth.
Sunsee gives me her last sugared treat. As she checks on the dozing children, I savor it, letting the gritty sugar dissolve to a bitter cinnamon center. Are people the same? Do we start off saccharine and eager to love, then, as life goes on, we dissolve away until all that remains is a bitter hardness?
I ruminate on this while I leave the nursery and go to the wives’ wing. Before I reach Kalinda’s door, an army of servants exit another room, lugging water buckets, and leave the door ajar. As I approach, I hear Gemi speaking within.
“Thank you, Natesa. The water helps me feel less homesick for the sea.”
“Would you like more bath oils?” Natesa asks.
“May I? My skin has been so dry.”
I peer through the crack in the doorway. Gemi bathes in a tub set in the middle of the chamber. Her body is concealed by the washbasin, only the back of her head visible. Her hair hangs outside the steaming bath, a rich curtain of brown.
My tongue goes papery. I am torn between getting closer to see her better and slinking away.
Natesa brings a pitcher to the side of the tub and begins to wet Gemi’s hair for washing. On the next pour, the flow exposes my viraji’s bare shoulder. Her skin truly glows when damp, a radiance I would like to see more of.
Lords, I am a scamp.
I hurry on to Kalinda’s chamber. Asha, her servant and friend, left an oil lamp burning. She also set out a food tray and a full water pitcher. I sit on the bed and rub my eyes. An image of Gemi’s hair draping her glistening skin fills my mind. I should have presumed she was homesick. After I left the Brotherhood temple, I longed for the familiarity of those stone walls.
A memory of my mother starts to come, foggy pieces of a hurt so strong I shut it down before it drags me into the past.
Resting against stacks of pillows, I hold the childhood pains at bay. Deven needs me alert. I clear my thoughts, centering myself upon my priorities, and monitor the night for his arrival.
The moment nightfall hits I slide out of the thicket and set into a run. In minutes, the Road of Bone will be full of wanderers. I have to cross to the other end by the sky pathways before the inhabitants of the Void wake.
Kur’s tail no longer blocks the road outside his lair. As an officer, I would order my men to retreat and remain hidden, but I can almost smell Kali’s jasmine-scented hair and taste the food her servant has left out for me. On the other side of this pitlike doorway is nourishment. On the other side is my love.
I sprint across the entry, alert for a golden-eyed stare. Nothing stirs within the lair. Kur could be asleep or still nursing the injuries Kalinda gave him. I waste no more strength pondering his disinterest in me. Fortune has swung in my favor. I am overdue for a little luck.
My footfalls thunder down the Road of Bone. Unlike the hard skeletons beneath my feet, my bones feel brittle. No man this unfit could serve in the imperial army. I tire sooner than the day before and the day before that. The long stretches of fasting are emptying me. I hardly feel hunger or dehydration anymore.
At the end of the roadway, a haunting melody carries from the City of the Dead. I stumble along faster. I can see the pathways zigzagging the sky like crooked spiderwebs.
The first three directions inscribed on the ivory hilt of my janbiya are memorized.
1st right. 6th left. Right at fork.
Ahead is my path, a sharp, narrow incline without rails. I start up, sticking to the middle to avoid the vertical drop-offs.
6th left. Right at the fork. 200 paces, then . . . right?
Closing my eyes, I funnel all my concentration into the next direction. 200 paces, then left. Yes. That’s the path.
Another hundred steps, and I pause. By this point, I usually sense Kali’s soul-fire to guide me the rest of the way home. I blink several times and peer up the road. The shadows go on, icy against my skin.
A presence stirs behind me. I spin around, dagger out, and stop to listen. Seconds roll into minutes. The presence, whatever it was, has left. My alarm has not. By now Kali’s luminosity should be visible, a beacon high above. I have executed this trek dozens of times, but never without her guiding me.
Think. What now? Where to next?
I stay still until I remember. Little in the mortal realm prepared me for the loneliness of the Void. More so, the stillness. I can endure the loss of sunshine, constant chill, and foul air. But the lack of life stirring in the grass and trees, the quiet without the insects or birds, the absence of rich-smelling dirt and spices, even the monotony of this weather without seasons, tear at me. Life is loud and shouts for attention. It makes a man feel seen. Standing here, so motionless, my breaths feel like a betrayal to my survival.
Finally, my inner voice responds. 200 paces, then left.
Trusting my intuition, I feel my way into the nothingness, praying Kalinda’s soul-fire will appear and lead me home.
Tinley blows into her cupped hands. In the descent of nightfall, gales chased off the snow clouds and the temperature plunged. My soul-fire burns high to shield me from the weather, but Tinley’s teeth chatter uncontrollably. I touch her, skin to skin, and send a small pulse of soul-fire into her. The Galer’s whole body unclenches, and the wind whispers her thanks in my ear.
We have sat in our hideout for hours, Tinley observing the sky while I inspect every shadow for the man I long to see.
Come on, Deven. See my soul-fire and follow it to me. I am so determined to draw him out of the Void by sheer will, I nearly miss my friend tensing.
“They’re coming,” she says, her voice faint as a heartbeat.
I arch my chin to see over the rocks. A trio of mahatis casts shadows over the moon. I thought domesticated falcons were fast, but these feral monsters fly like an avalanche falls. Aggressive. Unstoppable. They could outrun the northern wind.
They are upon us, circling the hilltop. The largest one, their leader, screeches so loudly my eardrums pound. His razor-sharp talons are curved into hooks. He has an intelligence in his eyes that his companions lack and a wingspan that is equal to ten sleighs end to end.