Home > The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)(17)

The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)(17)
Author: Emily R. King

“Let me give you something for your leg.” Healer Baka rummages through her herb cabinet and takes out a jar. “I’ll mix a salve for the pain.”

“An Aquifier has been healing me. She’s very gifted.”

Healer Baka lowers her chin and peers over her spectacles at me. “Not all gifted healers are Aquifiers.” She hands me parchment and a piece of charcoal and then waves at the cot in the corner, the one that was once mine. Jaya used to sit beside me and watch me sketch for hours. “This won’t take long. Have a seat and draw while you wait.”

I should return to the lower floor, but I do not trust myself alone with Ashwin. And I have not sketched in so very long. This opportunity to create is too precious to squander.

I settle into the lumpy straw mattress while Healer Baka crushes herbs at her workbench. The fragrance of brewed tea and chamomile strokes my nose. Although Jaya’s place remains empty beside me, I press the charcoal stick to the parchment and draw as though she is watching.

10

DEVEN

My lungs and legs burn. Night left long ago, but the day has been in less of a hurry to end. All day long we have jogged over fields and marshes, side-footed down deep gullies, and marched up slippery hills, yet the imperial army is still in front of us. In the past hour, their tracks have led us into an autumn forest. The sunset streams through the trees that are thick with auburn leaves and the scent of inbound rain. The leaves’ redness, illuminated by the light, reminds me of Kali’s fire dragon in Iresh: fierce and bold, awe-inspiring. Just like the woman who summoned it.

My comrades’ pace slows to a grinding walk. I am tired, but not as tired as they. My urgency to find Brac fuels my strength, but I cannot run forever.

The farther we trek, the more certain I am that my brother was captured and the less I can deny that this is my fault. A moon ago, I let Brac and Mother stay behind in Tarachand. Before leaving Janardan, I sent Opal and Rohan—two young Galers, hardly old enough to live on their own—to find them instead of going after them myself. Both decisions led to this plight.

Rohan falls back, nearly out of view. Yatin and Natesa tread closer, shuffling through the fallen leaves. Trails and trails of broken branches lie before us, trodden down by heavy wagons and soldiers. Somewhere far ahead, leading the troops, is the demon rajah.

“Deven,” Yatin says, panting, “how much longer?”

Natesa lags behind, clutching her side. Rohan stumbles after her, even farther in the rear. None of us wants to risk not returning to the wing flyer in time to meet with the navy, but we cannot continue through the night.

I stop with Yatin. My knees wobble, close to giving out. “Stay here with the others. I’ll pull ahead and then circle back.”

Yatin bends over to catch his breath. “You’ll be of no use to Brac exhausted.”

“Exhausted is better than absent.” I swipe at perspiration dripping in my eyes and mumble an explanation. “This is my comeuppance.”

“The gods aren’t punishing you, Deven. You’re punishing yourself.”

I rest on a raised tree root. Finding Brac is paramount, but so are the welfare and condition of my friends. “I should never have separated from my family.”

Yatin sits, his bearded face sweaty and flushed. “As I recall, Brac offered to stay behind. Seems to me you’re angry about something else.”

My friend may be big, but he has never been slow. “Kali and the prince arranged to meet the warlord in Samiya. I tried to talk her out of it, but her mind was set.” I have had plenty of time to mull over why she sided against me, and I will relent on one point: Prince Ashwin and Kali must do all within their power to protect the empire. But depending on the warlord is still a bad idea. “Kali supports the prince’s efforts.”

“Kalinda has a will of her own, and a strong one at that.”

He did not walk in on her cozied up to Ashwin; otherwise he would not try to reassure me by touting her strong will.

Yatin pats his trouser pocket and then pats it again. He switches to his other pocket and takes out the lotus ring. “Gods’ mercy, I thought I’d lost it.”

I start to ask why he has not yet given Natesa the ring, but I hold my question when she staggers up to us.

“Praise the skies, you stopped.” She uncorks her flask and gulps down water. While she is drinking, Yatin slips the ring away. She passes him the flask, and he draws a long pull. Rohan straggles closer, a few strides away.

“Rest up,” I say, adjusting my pack. The straps dug bruising valleys into my shoulders while I was running. “I’m going ahead.”

“Give us a minute, and we’ll go with you.” Natesa flaps a tired hand at the distance. Lights have appeared in the trees, visible in the twilight.

We have caught up to the army.

“Son of a scorpion.” I drop behind a log. Yatin pulls Natesa down, and they kneel beside me. Rohan teeters up to us and slumps over, lounging on a leaf pile. I would lie down too, if I thought I could get up again. I drop my pack to lighten my load. “Yatin and Natesa, stay here. Rohan and I will go ahead and stake out the camp while it’s dark.”

“Why do I have to go?” Rohan gripes, his young voice breaking. “I’m starved!”

He has not complained once during our trek. I hesitate to push him further, but we are here to find Opal and Brac. And I need Rohan to do so. I grasp the back of his shirt and lift him. Fortunately, he is not fully grown or I would not have the strength. “I need your sharp hearing. Are any scouts nearby?”

Rohan listens to the breeze stirring the branches above. “No, but the soldiers setting up camp are loud, so I could be missing them over the ruckus.”

Scouring the army’s camp could take us all night. Rohan’s exceptional hearing is the only chance we have of succeeding. “Expect our return by dawn,” I tell Yatin. “Be on watch.”

“Eat before you go,” says Natesa, passing out rations.

I force down several bites of dried fish. The briny taste clings to my tongue like barnacles. I drain my water flask and give Rohan the rest of my fish. He shoves the chunk into his mouth, his cheeks bulging, and we set out.

The nearer we creep to the army, the wider the hole in my stomach expands. Torches extend so far into the distance I cannot make out the other end of camp.

Rohan and I carefully navigate the leaf-strewn forest, sneaking closer to the men, horses, and tents. We stop in the shadows and duck low in the brush. Torchlights illuminate the peaks of several buildings—barracks.

This is not just a camp. The army has stopped at a military outpost.

My mind spins to figure out which one. Yatin is the more proficient navigator, but if I remember right, the closest outpost to the location where Brac and Opal crashed was well within the Tarachand border. The army has traveled farther than I presumed. Should they continue their grueling pace, they will reach Vanhi a day ahead of schedule, and do so with swelling ranks. This outpost houses five hundred men, all of whom will be eager to join the imperial army under the direction of their returned rajah.

Their numbers are already large. They must have recruited while marching. When the army left Iresh, they could not have had more than two thousand men, both sworn-in soldiers and volunteer citizens. Now their ranks are vast. I estimate the army is composed of several infantry units, a light cavalry, and archers. But I am unable to accurately tally the army’s head count in the dark. Perhaps it is better that I cannot discern how big their camp is, or else I might turn away.

Unbending from my crouch, I signal for Rohan to lead on. The trees shield us as we dart across an opening to the back side of a barrack. He listens for stray guards, then shakes his head. We have not been discovered. I peer around the corner.

Soldiers mill about between the pitched tents, cleaning their jackets and brushing off their boots. Many wear no military garb, but they fly the Tarachand colors, a black scorpion on a red backdrop. Though they are short on uniforms, they have plenty of weapons. Khandas, haladies, and machetes are propped against every tent. Wagons full of food and water are parked intermittently across camp. A massive wooden catapult rests off to the side. Wagons brimming with ammunition, bolts, and boulders outnumber those hauling food supplies.

I rejoin Rohan and whisper, “Any trace of Brac or your sister?”

“Nothing.” Rohan’s huge eyes are even wider than normal. He looks so young. “We should turn back. Something isn’t right. When I reach for the wind, it doesn’t come.”

A breeze flows over us. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Something is stopping the wind’s whisperings.”

A gong rings far off. I draw farther into the shadows. Rohan fits his thin back tighter against the wall, his chin lifted. The lump of his voice box protrudes from his elongated throat.

The barrack door slams, rattling the wall. I look around the corner again. The men inside the building have left. All the soldiers are moving to the center of camp.

“Let’s go.” I tug on Rohan’s sleeve. “Stay close.”

We slip into the empty tents. Rohan does as I ask, sticking to my side. I toss him a soldier’s jacket that was left behind. I am still wearing mine. He slips it on, and the too-long sleeves hang past his knuckles. I hand him a machete and select a khanda for myself. The familiar military-grade sword feels right in my hand, but the wrongness of standing in the imperial army’s camp as a traitor makes me restless.

If I do not belong here, where do I belong?

Gripping our blades, we tiptoe to the nearest barrack, and I open the heavy door. Bunks and cots and personal bags fill the one-room building. I back out, and we go to the next barrack, and then the next. I assumed the demon rajah would hold captives in a more secure shelter than a tent, but none of the barracks we investigate house prisoners.

At my questioning glance, Rohan shakes his head. He has not heard our siblings. I consider returning to Yatin and Natesa, but our search has led us deep into the campsite. The soldiers congregate ahead. We work our way through them in search of another barrack, skimming the perimeter as much as possible. When we have no choice but to move within the throng, a voice cuts through the night.

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