Home > The Fire Queen (The Hundredth Queen #2)

The Fire Queen (The Hundredth Queen #2)
Author: Emily R. King

1

KALINDA

Death has a stench, and it is not decaying flesh but the bitter scent of smoke clawing into my pores. A wide, dark plume blots out the afternoon sun, an ashy stain rising to the heavens like a sacrificial trail. A lonely wind, hot as dragon’s breath, pushes black soot toward our caravan.

Please, gods. Not again.

I click my tongue and press my heels into my camel’s side. The long-legged animal grunts, exhausted from long days of tracking. I dig my heels in deeper, rousing a spurt of strength from the beast, and the camel’s feet crunch over clumps of dead grass as yellow as the harvest moon. Rays from the late-summer sun beat down, parching the land.

We crest a short hill, and I yank on the reins, stopping to absorb the destruction. Across the expanse of golden hills, dark smoke obscures the temple roof, and red flames chew apart the crumbling stone walls and surrounding cobble courtyard.

Another Brotherhood temple razed to rubble.

Deven leans forward, his chest close to my back. “Great Anu,” he says behind me. “They outpaced us again.”

Mathura and Brac slow to a halt at our side. We left the imperial city of Vanhi with another camel, but Mathura’s fell lame days ago. After being held in the palace for over two decades, the stately courtesan has viewed the outside world with childlike wonder, but a solemn frown ages her striking face. Her son Brac, a Burner, removes his headscarf, uncovering his reddish-brown hair, and scratches his scalp. His golden eyes are red rimmed with fatigue. Two moons’ worth of road dust covers him, covers us all. My blouse under my sari itches against my back, sweat clinging to a layer of grime.

Yatin and Natesa catch up, their camel struggling under Yatin’s hefty bulk. Natesa, my former contender in the rank tournament, gapes at the pyre. Yatin shakes his head in dismay. His years as a soldier did not prepare him for this level of ruthless destruction.

I lift my chin, stretching the hard lump in my throat. “We’ll circle the area.”

“Keep an eye out for survivors,” Deven orders the group.

Our camels charge down the slope, pushing into the smoke-filled wind and leaving trails of trampled pasture behind us. As we conquer the next rise, we pause, overlooking the temple.

“Captain,” Yatin says in his deep burr, “would you like me to ride closer?”

“I see no need,” Deven replies with grim-set lips.

I follow his gaze to the closed courtyard gate and barred doors. This is precisely how we found the last two Brotherhood temples. The patrons of the Parijana faith—brethren and young male apprentices—were locked inside when the fire was set. The flames raged into a blazing sarcophagus. We found no survivors.

Tears clear the smoke stinging my eyes. Deven shifts forward, sealing his chest against my back, and his arms come around me. I settle into him, too stricken to question his affection. Deven has been increasingly distant since we left Vanhi. Although I ache to return to our former easiness, we are both still reeling from our escape.

Nothing has been the same since Rajah Tarek claimed me as his last bride. I had to earn my position as his hundredth and final rani in a rank tournament, battling in the arena against his courtesans vying for my throne. I did not grow to love Tarek; I fell in love with my palace guard Deven. After Tarek killed my best friend, Jaya, and sentenced Deven to execution, he had to pay. I won the rank tournament, but I was forced to take the rajah’s first wife’s life or forfeit my own, a choice I still agonize over. During battle I learned the first wife was my mother’s sister—my aunt—and the only family I had met since I was orphaned as an infant.

I wed Tarek the evening after my arena duel. That same night, after I enacted my revenge by taking Tarek’s life, the Turquoise Palace was attacked by rebel bhutas seeking vengeance against the tyrant rajah. I fled from the bhutas’ conniving warlord with the friends who accompany me now. Each day I thank the gods I have them, especially Deven. Wedding Tarek pushed the life we dreamed of together in the lower hills of the Alpana Mountains further away, but I will not give up on our hope for peace.

Deven’s calloused thumb rubs my wrist, staying away from the back of my hand where the number one, the rank of the kindred, is dyed into my skin. The henna bridal markings on my arms and back faded a fortnight ago, but my wifely rank was doubly inked on with something stronger and will not leave me, no matter how often I scrub my skin raw. The mark of the rajah’s first favored wife is a cursed reminder of the night I became Rajah Tarek’s wife—and his widow. I wish this blight on my body, this reminder that I swore my life to another man, was gone.

Flying embers hit the cobble courtyard and bounce to sizzling ash. I worry a stray spark will ignite a brush fire and feed off the arid meadows, but the stone courtyard serves as a buffer to the bone-dry valley. The grounds were well maintained, cared for, loved.

My Burner powers simmer through me like streams of fire, begging for retribution. The bhuta warlord Hastin did this. I anticipated Hastin and his rebels would chase us to steal back the Zhaleh, the sacred book of record I took when we ran from the Turquoise Palace, but I was wrong. I should have known Hastin’s hatred for Rajah Tarek would lead him to seek out the rajah’s heir, Prince Ashwin.

The prince was raised in one of the four Brotherhood temples—which one is a long-held secret. We have trekked across Tarachand from temple to temple, searching for him, but Hastin has been one step ahead of us. This is the third temple we have located too late. Three sanctuaries of the Parijana faith brought down by powerful bhutas, the guides the brethren believe the gods charged to assist mankind.

“What now?” Natesa asks, her tone forlorn.

“What do you mean?” I reply.

“Prince Ashwin is dead.”

“We don’t know that,” I counter. “The prince could be at the final temple.”

“Why should we continue to search for him when he hasn’t stepped forward to claim his throne?” Brac questions. “Either Prince Ashwin is a coward or he doesn’t care what becomes of the empire.”

I gnaw on my inner cheek, locking down my exasperation. Brac is exhausted and frustrated. We all are. Our deliverance from war relies on us locating Prince Ashwin, but finding him is taking longer than we anticipated. We are chasing a spirit, someone we have been told exists but have never seen in the flesh.

“Hastin will own his victory when the prince is dead,” says Mathura. “We’ll find out if the prince survived this attack in the next few days.”

“Until we hear otherwise, we’ll assume he’s alive,” I say, and Brac glances away.

Am I wrong? Should we stop searching for the prince?

I look to Deven for his opinion as a captain, as my guard, as the man I love. He gazes at the burning temple, his eyes pained. Since he removed his soldier uniform and put on a plain tunic and trousers, his attention often drifts elsewhere, lost in thought. Before Rajah Tarek died, he charged Deven with treason and stripped his command for helping me aid the rebels in their attack on Vanhi. But Deven’s only mistake was siding with me.

“What should we do, Captain?” Brac inquires.

Deven flinches into focus, cringing every time someone uses his title. He scrubs a hand over his dark beard. His facial hair is scruffier than when he wore the crisp lines of his scarlet uniform, and the ends of his hair are longer, curling out from beneath his turban. His pause lasts longer than usual for his decisive nature. He has come all this way in pursuit of our new leader, and his hesitancy puzzles me.

“Son?” Mathura presses.

Deven glances at Brac, his half brother, and then at their mother, Mathura. “We’ll continue onward.” Deven points at the Alpana Mountains’ far-off shadowy peaks. “Tonight we’ll camp above the refugee trail in the foothills, and tomorrow we’ll start for the northern temple.”

“Thank you,” I say quietly.

He registers my gratitude with a short nod, his soft beard grazing my cheekbone. “Stay alert,” he says. “The rebels could be nearby.”

We lead our camels away from the fiery ruins, the stench of death beating at our backs.

Our caravan rides up to intersect the eastward thoroughfare leading to Iresh, the royal city of the sultanate of Janardan. Rajah Tarek’s demise and the bhuta warlord’s occupation of Vanhi spurred a mass evacuation. Over the past two moons, thousands of feet have worn a trail into the water-starved valley on the way to the sultanate.

Ahead of us, a small group of refugees wear more tracks into the land. A mother with an infant tied to her chest with a headscarf plods beside a handcart. Two young men heft the cart that holds their scant possessions and supplies for their journey. A little girl runs alongside them, tapping the spoke wheels with a knotted stick.

The woman sees our approach and orders her sons to halt. As the young men set down the handcart and wipe their sweaty brows, the woman watches us guardedly. Pieces of her braided hair fly in tatters around her sunburnt face.

“Ma’am,” Deven says.

She clutches her infant closer to her bosom. Gripped in one hand, partly tucked in the folds of her sari, she conceals a knife. The new road has brought evacuees in droves and, with them, thieves preying on travelers.

Brac leads his and Mathura’s camel across the road, and Yatin and Natesa follow on theirs. I yank the reins of ours, stopping in the center of the roadway.

“Pardon me,” I say. “Do you have any news from Vanhi?”

The woman squints up at me with cold distrust. “None since the bhuta warlord invaded. My husband was stationed in the palace at the time. Word is the warlord executed him and the other guards.”

My heart beats slower in my chest. By lingering around village water wells, we learned that Hastin boarded up the gates to the Turquoise Palace, locking everyone inside. The people of Vanhi blame Hastin for Tarek’s murder. Few know the truth.

I reach into my saddlebag, and the woman lifts her knife.

“I don’t want trouble,” she warns.

“Neither do we,” I promise.

Deven shifts behind me, his discomfort palpable. We are not safe out near the open roadway.

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