Home > The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen #1)(15)

The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen #1)(15)
Author: Emily R. King

Deven draws a deep breath through his nose.

The general chuckles. “Young Viraji, let me give you a word of advice from a man who has known the rajah many years—do not ask questions.”

I tilt my head and return his condescending tone. “And I will advise you to stay away from the rajah’s women.”

“Kalinda,” Deven warns.

I scowl at him for taking the general’s side.

General Gautam flashes a cold smile at Deven. “Still haven’t learned how to keep a woman in line, have you, son?”

Deven goes stock-still. My eyes widen, and I glance from him to the general. They share the same strong chin and dark brows, the same thick shoulders and long arms. Deven told me that his father is a benefactor and an officer. The general is his father.

“A pleasure to meet you, Viraji.” General Gautam bows without lowering his chin. “I will offer your regards to Natesa.” The general strolls into the receiving hall.

Deven’s firm silence repels my questions. Asha steps forward, and we clip down the corridors after her. I glance at Deven’s stony expression and replay our meeting with the general. I still do not understand what General Gautam was doing at the temple or why he would visit Natesa.

We turn a corner and enter my bedchamber. My chamber is ten times the size of the one at the temple and bedecked in the same ostentatious taste as the rest of the palace. A four-poster canopy bed that could easily sleep five is stuffed with silk pillows. A table near the hearth is decorated with a large bowl of multicolored glass orbs, shining prisms of rainbow light across the plaster walls. Daylight and a slight breeze pour in from the balcony overlooking the gardens, a view Jaya would adore.

“Viraji, I will see about your bath.” Asha backs out of the room in a bow, leaving Deven and me alone.

“My apologies about my father,” he says quietly.

“Why does the general want to see Natesa? You said the rajah punishes men for speaking to his women.”

“Wives. The rajah punishes them for speaking to his wives without permission. His courtesans are entertainment for his court.”

I recoil a step. “Rajah Tarek is going to share Natesa?”

“He shares all of his courtesans.” Deven’s composure cracks. Deep in his eyes, he looks as though he has been kicked in the chest. “Gautam won’t take her to his bed right away. The rajah will expect that privilege first. But afterward, Natesa will spend time with anyone who requests her company.”

The wrongness of a woman being passed around like a flask of apong roils my stomach. Courtesans should belong to a single man, as they did to Anu. “Do all the benefactors do this?”

“Only the rajah.”

I glance around me. What crooked world have I come to? I set my jaw. “Rajah Tarek is a monster.”

Deven comes close and rubs my arms. “He’s better to his ranis. For your protection, you must obey him.”

“Does every choice come down to obedience?” I whisper.

“Yes.” He brushes my arms one more time and steps back.

Longing flares inside me for more of his touches. I swallow the desire, locking it down. “Do you know why the general stayed behind at the temple?”

“He came there to attend the rajah’s Claiming, and he was so impressed by the recipients that he arranged his own.”

Jaya. My stomach dips to my ankles. No, he could not have. The general could not have claimed Jaya, not with her scarred cheek and hives. She has to be in Samiya. She must be. But the possibility rips the ground out from beneath me.

“Can you find out if he claimed anyone? My friend Jaya, the one I helped during skill trials, is the only family I have.”

“I know some of my father’s men. I will ask them about your friend.”

“Tell me as soon as you find out.”

“I will.” Deven tries for a hopeful smile, but it comes out weak.

Asha returns with a small army of veiled serving women heaving buckets of steaming water and a brass tub.

Deven takes that as his cue to leave. “I will return soon.” He bows and squeezes past them out the door. I stifle the urge to call him back. I am not ready to be alone here.

Asha starts to undress me. I pull away and wait for the extra servants to finish filling the tub and leave.

I strip down quickly and slide into the bath. Warm water seeps into my pores, loosening the knots in my bones and removing all traces of Deven’s touch on my arms. I cannot understand why he agreed to stay on as my guard; he knows the risks. Yet his nearness relieves some of my apprehension. I want him by my side while I face the tournament proceedings.

Asha scrubs my hair with a bar of soap. Try as I might, I cannot quit fretting about Jaya. I have no right to complain about the rajah when Jaya’s future is so uncertain. Rajah Tarek may be a monster, but I will fight to wed him. And gods willing, I will win.

A couple of young women welcome themselves into my chamber, walking in without knocking. “She’s taller than I thought,” one says to the other.

“And thinner,” adds the second.

“Her face isn’t entirely unpleasant.”

“Not entirely. And that hair! Tarek does admire beautiful tresses.”

“Especially when they are all a woman wears!”

They saunter my way, snickering. One of them, with oval eyes and a pouty mouth, yanks my hand up from the side of the tub and tsk-tsks. “Your nails are frightful.”

The second young woman tugs on my big toe, which is sticking out of the water. “Hasn’t anyone taught you that nail care says you care about your appearance?”

“Was that question for her or me?” I ask.

The first young woman answers with all seriousness. “For you.”

“Then no, I don’t care about my nails.”

“Clearly,” sniffs the second young woman. “I’m Eshana, and this is Parisa.”

“Kalinda. Are you courtesans or wives?”

“Wives!” Parisa says, hand rising to her throat. “You must learn to tell apart the courtesans from the wives, or you will find a scorpion in your bed.”

I laugh, but neither of them join me. Clearing my throat, I ask, “How long have you been married to the rajah?”

“A year.” Parisa sits on my bed. Her bone structure is striking. Her lean face and lofty cheekbones would be a joy to draw. “Tarek claimed us from the Hiraani Temple at the same time. We were glad to get away from the Sisterhood. Those old crones never let us do anything exciting. Here we can do anything we wish, so long as we stay within the palace grounds—”

“And it doesn’t involve a man,” adds Eshana. She is the more obvious beauty, with her pouty lips and slim oval face. She leans forward and whispers across the room, which is quite pointless. “One of the wives ran away. With a guard.”

My thoughts fill with Deven, and I am unprepared when Asha dumps a bucket of water over my head. I sink into the tub and sputter to the surface.

Eshana smiles. “Tournament jitters?”

“Or wedding nerves?” says Parisa, speaking to her friend.

Eshana’s demeanor sobers. “I was more nervous during my rank tournament.”

“The arena is terrifying,” Parisa admits. “But for some, being with a man for the first time is scarier.”

Eshana laughs, shaking off her mood, and starts for the door.

Parisa pats my hand. “Should you survive the tournament, you will have the rajah to yourself on your wedding night. That is Tarek’s gift to his brides. After you have him the first time, you will never have him alone again.”

She joins Eshana, and they walk toward the door, commenting on the size of my room and the color of my draperies. Asha dumps another bucket of water over my head, and when I reopen my eyes, the gabby duo is gone.

12

Asha rotates me to face the mirror glass. I gape at my reflection and touch the beadwork on my bodice. The fitted top amplifies my slight curves. The trousers hang low on my hips and then balloon out and tighten again at my ankles. My bare midriff is partially hidden by a shawl draping from my shoulder and sweeping across my chest. Heavy kohl lines my eyes, arcing out at the sides in crow wings. Gold powder speckles my eyelids and cheekbones. My hair is down and brushed to a shine. The dark line of henna Priestess Mita drew down my nose has faded, but it is still noticeable. I purse my lips, stained red with passion fruit.

Asha clasps her hands together, an accomplished gleam in her eye. “You’re a vision, Viraji.”

She is being generous. After hours of grooming, I nearly pass for pretty. But then I think of Deven’s words to me during our journey: You’re beautiful.

I wrap my arms around my torso. I have shed more than fabric. Nothing appears to remain of the temple ward from Samiya, but beneath this painted mask I am still that girl. I will not lose sight of her. I dig through my satchel for a reminder of who I am to carry with me, but there is a problem.

“I don’t have pockets. Where am I supposed to hide my slingshot?”

“Do you intend on needing it for supper?” Asha says.

A handsome man in finery fit for the gods enters my chamber and displays a wide smile. “My wives may be fierce, but they won’t spoil a fine meal.”

I hold myself tight. Rajah Tarek needs no introduction. I recognize his voice from skill trials.

Asha bows out of the room, and two imperial guards position themselves near the door. I look for Deven, but he is not here.

“Kalinda, isn’t it?” Rajah Tarek strolls to me and takes the slingshot from my hand, setting it aside. He is younger than I thought, not an old man, but middle-aged. His is a pampered appearance, a look of long days soaking in the bathhouse and rubbing oils into his skin. His dark hair is short, almost the same length as his beard. Well-trimmed and well-dressed, the rajah carries himself with the ease of someone certain of his place in the world. Or perhaps someone who owns the world.

I bow low. “Your Majesty.”

“I would wager those who know you well call you Kali.”

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