Home > The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen #1)(16)

The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen #1)(16)
Author: Emily R. King

“Some do.”

“Then so will I.” His eyes shine with amusement. “You look surprised.”

“I thought you would be . . .”

“Older? Fatter? Grayer?” His lips tug up.

I have no reply. I cannot agree that, yes, I expected him to be unsightly. That if he were, he would better suit my impression of him during our brief encounter in the Claiming chamber.

Rajah Tarek traces a finger down my arm, setting off a fire of gooseflesh. “Kali, did the priestess tell you why I claimed you?”

“To be your wife.”

“Not just my wife—my final rani. The importance placed on my hundredth viraji meets, and perhaps exceeds, that placed on my kindred.” His fingers feather through my hair. “For that, I need a young woman I can mold into a legend, someone worthy of the role.”

I confront him with a glare. I will never be who I once was, but if the gods have indeed brought me here, then they know that I will not bend to him. Not now. Not ever.

The rajah grins. “There’s the woman I claimed. I could feel your fiery glare through the blindfold.”

I repress a shudder. He is incredibly handsome, but his calculating eyes chill me. He is a charmed cobra that could snap out of its trance and turn on me any second.

“Tell me about your sickness.”

His abrupt command catches me off guard. My first instinct is to lie, but since Healer Baka notified him of my illness, I tell the truth. “I have a tendency toward fevers.”

“Any other weaknesses?” The rajah releases my hair to stroke my chin. “Pride perhaps?” His grip tightens on my jaw. “Or is it disobedience?”

I jerk free, and he chuckles. “I don’t like to be told what to do either.” His hand lashes out and clamps down on my chin before I can move away. Holding me captive, he leans in. “General Gautam spoke to me about your impertinence. I won’t hear any more tales of your defiance. You are my champion. You will conduct yourself properly. Do we have an understanding?”

His threat vibrates to my knees. “Yes.”

Rajah Tarek lets me go only to reach for me again. I cringe. “Shh.” His knuckles skim my cheek. His hot breath stinks of spicy apong. “I do not wish to hurt you.”

He brushes my hair off my forehead so tenderly that he could be looking at someone else. Someone he knows well and cares for.

“You will defend your throne for me. Won’t you, love?”

I nod, unable to speak. I will fight to win, but not for him.

“Captain Naik,” Rajah Tarek calls.

Deven rounds into the room, his gaze appropriately blank. He has changed his uniform into dark fitted trousers and a plum jacket with gold embroidery and a stand-up collar. The attire of an imperial guard.

The rajah kisses the back of my hand, his dry lips lingering against my skin. He looks at me and speaks to Deven. “I needn’t remind you of the importance of Kali’s safety. Nothing in the world matters more to me than her. I would not entrust her care to many men. Take that to heart.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“I will see you soon, love,” Rajah Tarek says to me. He kisses my cheek and goes, his two guards marching out behind him.

I slump onto my bed and shove my shaking hands beneath my thighs.

Deven’s controlled voice carries to me. “Did he hurt you?”

“No.” The pain in my jaw has faded. I stare at my lap, confusion twisting my mind around. “He spoke to me as if . . . as if he knows me.”

“Perhaps he has been waiting for you all his life and he feels he does.”

Deven’s quiet answer tugs up my chin. His tender gaze extends across the room, and a warm ache gathers in my chest. Having met Rajah Tarek, I am no closer to understanding why he claimed me. He has bound me to him, but my heart is above whatever role he wishes me to play. As I look at Deven, that same heart whispers of a certainty.

The gods guided me here to Rajah Tarek, but that path also led me to Deven.

He glances at the door. “The ranis will dine soon.”

I follow him into the corridor and see two more imperial guards. A smile splits my face. “Manas. Yatin. What are you doing here?”

“The captain promoted us.” Manas stands with his chest thrust out and his shoulders back.

“We hope you don’t mind,” says Yatin.

“Not at all.” I tug his stiff collar, and he smiles shyly. “I hope you don’t mind the uniform.”

Manas yanks at his own high neckline. “The jacket will take some getting used to, but look at us. We’re imperial guards.”

“You earned it,” says Deven. “Let’s escort the viraji to her supper.”

He guides the way. Every corridor in the palace is a copy of the last, with the same gold-leafed trim and flowing jewel-toned draperies. I have yet to see any turquoise, for which the palace was named.

We turn into an outdoor corridor lined with latticework doors opposite arches that open to the garden and the sunny sky. Early evening light streams through the openings, glowing against the palace’s alabaster walls. We stop at an inner doorway draped with red silk.

“The Tigress Pavilion,” Deven says. “The wives spend most of their time here.”

I waver at the threshold. “Are you coming?”

“Imperial guards aren’t permitted inside. If you need us, we will be stationed at this exit.”

I bite the inside of my cheek. All of the ranis could be like Parisa and Eshana, more concerned with their nails than backbiting, or they could be as horrible as their reputation, vain and vicious. None of the warrior wives will be my competitors in the tournament, but that does not mean that they will be friendly. But I will not know until I face them, so I step through the door.

13

The Tigress Pavilion is an unroofed courtyard in the center of the wives’ wing. A portico borders the black-and-white-tiled area. Silk fabrics flow from the eaves, where they are pinned. At the center of the patio, a fountain gurgles a tranquil song. The carvings on the fountain’s base complement the outer walls, which are covered in a plastered pattern of Tarachand’s scorpion emblem.

I circle the area, staying under the shady portico. The pavilion is broken into two parts. In one area, young women lounge on overstuffed floor cushions, where they read books or play games with tiles. The other section is a training ring. I stop by one of the columns that divide the pavilion from the portico and look out at the courtyard. Women wield khandas, haladies, bows, slingshots, metal-tipped spears and shields, axes, javelins, and even an urumi—a weapon made of several flexible whiplike blades. Generally treated as a steel whip, it is the riskiest weapon to master. One lash from an urumi and a victim’s flesh could be sliced so deeply in several places that he or she might never recover.

A knife zips past me and sinks into the closest column. I step back and look around the pillar at Parisa. Her hair is pulled back, revealing a deep-purple scar from her ear to her neck. A piece of her earlobe has been hacked off. She flings another dagger, embedding the razor end through a target tacked to the post.

“Too far left,” Eshana says from a bench nearby. Her attention appears to be on the book in her lap, but her assessment was accurate. Parisa missed the center of the target pinned to the pillar by a hand’s width to the left. “Goddess Ki would not approve of that throw.”

“Why don’t you get off your rump and do it then?” Parisa challenges.

Eshana rises and accepts the throwing knife that Parisa offers her. Taking her stance, Eshana hurls the dagger with impressive form. The silver blade revolves in the air, gleaming like a spiraling star, and stabs the center of the target. Eshana reviews her mark and turns to smile at Parisa. “Ki would approve.”

Parisa notices me in the shadows and purses her lips. “You clean up well,” she says.

“Don’t mind her crankiness,” Eshana says. She comes to my side and pulls me out into the open. “The rajah sent his summons for tonight, and her name wasn’t on it. He hasn’t summoned her to his bedchamber in six moons.”

“Five!” Parisa shouts to our backs.

Eshana tips her head toward me. “Six, and the last time she was summoned, she had to share him with another wife and three courtesans.”

I shudder in repulsion and glance back at Parisa, who is throwing another knife. Her aim is still pulling left. “How did she get her scar?” I ask.

“A souvenir from her rank tournament.” Eshana sits back down on the bench, just out of the range of two ranis practicing swordplay, and I see that the book in her lap is Enlil’s Hundredth Rani. Jaya’s recitation comes to mind, and longing for her stretches through me. “Many of us will be glad when the rank tournaments are over. Every time another takes place, we cannot help but remember our own.” Eshana rests her palm on the book, and I see the number eighty-nine dyed in henna on the back of her hand.

“What’s that?” I ask, touching the number.

“My wifely rank. We all have them.”

I search the women before us, looking past their weapons for the numbers on the backs of their hands. Those were not strange lines that I saw on Lakia. They were ones. I consider my own hands, picturing what they would look like with the number one hundred branded on them.

Eshana rubs the book cover. “Most people’s favorite part of Enlil’s Hundredth Rani is his viraji winning the tournament, but what happened next was more important. Do you know the rest of the tale?”

I shake my head slowly. I have never heard that there is more to the story.

“I didn’t know the rest until I found this text in the palace library,” Eshana says. “It says that after Enlil married his final viraji, men began to emulate the gods and institute their own rank tournaments. But Ki soon became wrought with the loss of so many of her daughters, and she formed a band of young women and trained them for battle in secret. Her followers became warriors in the Sisterhood. By the time the next tournament was proposed, the sister warriors loved each other so much that they laid down their weapons and refused to fight. Their bond made them stronger together than they were apart. The land-goddess’s tradition of raising girls to be warriors became the cornerstone of the Sisterhood and carries on today.”

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