Home > The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)

The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)
Author: Emily R. King

1

KALINDA

The burial starts at daybreak, before the heat of the jungle evaporates the dew and suffocates the morning breeze. Our solemn group congregates in the stern of the riverboat and watches Deven and Yatin finish tying heavy stones to the body’s ankles and wrists. Indah has already washed the deceased in almond oil, a ritual in her homeland, the Southern Isles. Pons, her beloved guard, helped her wrap the departed with white bedsheets.

Natesa slips her arm around my waist. I hold on to her, shifting my weight off my sore leg. Prince Ashwin stands to the side, his head down, but I can still see his red eyes and nose.

Deven straightens slowly, as though every part of him aches. I recognize that feeling, that sinking heaviness like quicksand. Everyone aboard moves with the same cumbersome slowness, as though we are all tied down by millstones.

The rush of the River Ninsar fills the silence. If only life could be as constant as a river. Although I believe death is not the end and our spirits live on, I am never fully prepared for life to dry up.

Deven bows his head and offers our traditional Prayer of Rest. “Gods, bless Brother Shaan’s soul so that he may find the gate that leads to peace and everlasting light.”

Yesterday afternoon, I found Brother Shaan slumped over in his chair outside the wheelhouse. For the past fortnight, since we fled the city of Iresh, he prayed diligently for the gods to preserve us in this dire time. Indah said his heart merely failed, as aged hearts do. But I think his fear put him in an early grave.

Deven finishes by adding his thoughts. “Brother Shaan was a dedicated, loyal, and loving member of the Brotherhood. He exemplified the five godly virtues in every way and served Anu with his whole heart.” His ragged voice catches. “He will be missed.”

Yatin, his brother-in-arms, squeezes Deven’s shoulder. The soldiers slide the body to the edge of the skiff. Pons helps them push the remains overboard, and the water splashes in finality.

Tears sting my eyes. The body floats for a heart-wrenching beat, and then the stones drag Brother Shaan below the surface of the murky river.

“Enki,” Indah says, praying to the water-goddess. “Send your sea dragons to ferry Brother Shaan’s soul to the Beyond and wash away any memory of pain or anguish from this mortal life.”

Her burial prayer is unusual to us Tarachandians, who worship the sky-god Anu. Indah’s people believe sacred creatures of the deep, sea dragons, ferry their souls to the Beyond or the Void when they die. In this moment, when we cannot stop to dig a grave for Brother Shaan, as is our custom, her words are a much-needed comfort.

Pons is the first to leave, going to oversee our navigators, the pole pushers. I should rest my injured leg, but I linger near Deven. The river leads us along, and the place where Brother Shaan sank drifts away in our shallow wake. A mangrove forest crowds the riverbanks, thriving in the brackish wetlands between the rain forest and the Sea of Souls. The tree roots, partially submerged in the muddy waters, ascend from the surface like knobby stilts. We are nearly to the river delta. Brother Shaan was so close to viewing the sea . . .

Yatin steps to Natesa’s other side. “Are you all right, little lotus?”

She runs her hand down his chest. “Yes.” Her burly soldier with a thick beard came aboard the skiff very ill. Indah, the most experienced Aquifier aboard, cured Yatin’s ailment, and Natesa has finished nursing him back to health. Yatin slimmed down while he was unwell, though he is still the biggest man on board. We were so concerned about his recovery and my tournament injuries, we neglected to care for Brother Shaan.

We all bear the weight of that guilt.

Natesa and Yatin take the walkway around the side of the boat. Ashwin has left, having snuck off when no one was watching. He and I have not spoken since Iresh. I spend my time with Deven—and Ashwin avoids us. This was the closest the three of us have been in days.

Indah comes to my side. “Kalinda, it’s time.”

Given the solemnness of the morning, I consider canceling our session, but Indah’s healing powers are the only reason I can stand right now.

Deven has yet to look away from the river. I consoled him the best I could last night, but Brother Shaan was his mentor. Some losses leave behind holes that cannot be filled.

Accepting Indah’s arm, we let Deven mourn in peace.

Lying on a cot in the wheelhouse, I feel Indah’s powers flow over me like tepid streams of water. She lets go of my temples, her expression tight. My hour-long session has not gone as expected.

She cleans her hands in the washbasin. The fresh scents from her healing waters, coconut and white sandalwood, waft off my skin.

“Well?” I ask.

“The bone in your leg has knit back together, and the sword wound on your side has closed to a faint scar.”

Both injuries were sustained during my duel in the trial tournament, but they are not what concerns us. Before our escape from Iresh, the Voider, a corporeal demon set free from his prison in the evernight, breathed his poisonous fire down my throat. Despite Indah’s efforts to cleanse me, his powers still slink icily through my veins. Not even a pain blocker, Indah’s rare ability to suppress hurt for a short time, allays the cold.

I close my eyes and search inside myself for the single perfect star in my vision. The ever-burning light is the source of my Burner powers—my soul-fire. No mortal or bhuta exists without this inner radiance. I locate the star but its vivid light is hazy. “I see a greenness behind my eyelids.”

“That’s from the demon’s powers.”

“Can you get rid of them?”

“I don’t know how,” Indah replies, helping me sit up. “In a sense, your soul is frostbitten. If the injured parts were an extremity, I would recommend amputation, but as the damage is internal . . .”

“You cannot amputate my soul.” I finish with a strained laugh, though I find nothing humorous about my memory of writhing on the ground in agony, tormented by the slow, torturous burn of the demon’s cold-fire. The initial anguish has abated, but it left dark stains inside me, like tarnished silver. The Voider’s powers would have destroyed me if I were not one quarter demon. All Burners descend from Enlil, a bastard son of the land-goddess Ki and the demon Kur. I suppose I should appreciate my ancestry. But I am not grateful. Not at all.

Indah’s golden eyes reflect her worry. “I’ll find you a more experienced healer in Lestari. In the meantime, save your strength and powers.”

I have had no need to call upon my Burner abilities since I battled the Voider. But what will happen when I need them? I suspend my concerns. We are nearly to Lestari, the imperial city of the Southern Isles. I can hang on until we arrive tonight.

Pushing to my feet, I test my weight on my bad leg; no pain hisses at me. Indah offers me her arm, but I pick up my cane. “I’ll be all right on my own.”

I shuffle out the door, mindful of the gentle sway of the ship. Several steps later, I rest in a sunny patch of deck. The brightness warms my skin, but the inner hoarfrost will not yield.

“Does Indah know you’re out here alone?”

I swivel toward Natesa and link my arm through hers. “I’m not alone. You’re here.”

“Let’s walk.” She tugs me from the banister, and we stroll around the outer deck. Her hips swish, swinging her braid like a pendulum, though not on purpose. Natesa cannot suppress her curves any more than I can change my skinniness.

As former rivals in my rank tournament among the rajah’s wives and courtesans, for a time we could not stand each other. Natesa and my other competitors fought to gain a better life in this world of men. Only I won the rank tournament. My second victory in Iresh’s trial tournament secured my throne as rani of the Tarachand Empire. I competed against four female bhutas in a series of contests designed to test our powers. My prize is to wed Prince Ashwin as his first wife, his kindred. I respect Ashwin, but marriage to him hardly feels like a reward.

“The prince left rather quickly after the burial,” Natesa notes.

“He’s avoiding me.”

“He’s avoiding Deven. Did he tell you about their altercation?”

“No . . .”

Natesa’s lips twist wryly. “Right after we left Iresh, Deven struck Ashwin and nearly threw him overboard.”

Gods help me. As captain of the guard, Deven’s duty is to protect the prince, but he blames Ashwin for unleashing the Voider. The demon came disguised in the physical form of Ashwin’s father and my deceased husband, Rajah Tarek. For releasing him, the Voider must grant Ashwin his heart’s wish—to unseat the bhuta warlord from the Turquoise Palace in our imperial city of Vanhi.

The demon rajah has set out to do just that. He delivered our people from the awful encampments in Iresh, earning their devotion while preying on their suffering. Our army intends to march with the Voider to far-off Vanhi. The rest of Tarek’s wives and his courtesans are trapped there; my friends and fellow sister warriors, held captive by the warlord and his band of rebels. I want to see the ranis released, but the demon rajah cannot be allowed to overthrow the warlord. If he succeeds, he will be free to inflict terror on our world.

“I’ve tried to explain,” I say, “but Deven won’t listen.”

“Maybe he’s right to be angry.” Natesa’s gaze wanders to the river. “Even Brother Shaan feared our fate.”

Unfortunately the loss of Brother Shaan is another tragedy for Deven to blame on the prince. “Ashwin couldn’t have known that the demon would disguise himself as Tarek and convince our people he’s their rajah.”

We round the stern of the boat and nearly bump into the prince. He holds an open book, appearing as he did when we first met. Only, this time, I do not mistake him for his father. Ashwin may possess Tarek’s compelling good looks, but he is kindhearted. From his wounded expression, he overheard our conversation.

“Your Majesty,” Natesa says, bowing. “We didn’t see you there.”

“Clearly.” He snaps his book shut. “I’ll go around.”

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