Home > The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen #1)(3)

The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen #1)(3)
Author: Emily R. King

Priestess Mita’s reprimand from yesterday pricks at me. I should return to my bedchamber and be obedient. The lower floors are forbidden to daughters. But, gods’ virtue, I want to see who is down there.

I descend into shadows, all light skittering away from the skulking darkness. I feel my way along the wall, my fingertips chafing against rough stone. Each step drops me farther into bone-drenching cold. I lose track of the number of stairs and the number of times I carefully survey for the bottom with my bare toes.

The floor smooths out, and the wall I was trailing disappears. The low voice barely thrums above my thundering heart. I chase the sound down an unlit corridor toward a gaunt glow at the far end. The temple is the only shelter on this secluded mountaintop. I had not given any thought to where the benefactors lodge, but it must be here, on this level.

The corridor juts into a lit alcove. Two deep voices steal out from behind a tall door, their exact words broken by the barrier. I eye the way out. I know that I could be caught, but their conversation may tell me who has come. I creep up to the entry and lean in to listen.

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

I spin around at the muted voice, no louder than those through the door, and alarm pushes me back a step. A young soldier blocks my escape path. I must have passed him in the dark.

He grips the hilt of a sword slung at his side. “Does anyone know you’re down here?”

My tongue thickens to a useless lump in my mouth. From the drawings I have studied of the gods, I wager that the soldier is two or three years older than I am. He is also taller. A rarity. I have towered over everyone since I was thirteen.

Despite the soldier’s daunting stature, I do not sense aggression from him, merely suspicion.

I pull my shawl closer around me. “I—I heard voices,” I say. “And . . .” I have no reasonable excuse. I doubt that he would believe that above all else, I wanted to see a man’s face.

His face is not what I expected. He looks more god than mortal. Though the angular shape of his jaw is the image of Anu’s, the smooth sweep of his cheekbones, the fullness of his lips, and the straight slope of his nose resemble Enlil, who takes after his mother, Ki, the land-goddess. His arrangement of delicate yet sturdy features is striking.

“You need to go.” The soldier glances at the closed door. He must be guarding whoever is inside. “It isn’t safe here.”

My palms turn clammy, but I cannot leave without the answer that I came for. “Who has come for the Claiming?”

His gaze and voice flatten. “You must leave.”

Beyond the door, the talking ceases. My ears explode with the sound of approaching footsteps.

“Go!” The soldier sweeps me out of the alcove.

I flee down the dim corridor, pursued by the creak of an opening door and the annoyed voice of a man.

“Captain Naik?”

My lungs burn from short, shallow breaths. Something wet squishes through my toes. My teeth lock down on a squeak. A little farther. Almost to the stairwell.

“I relieved Manas of his post,” says the captain. “I apologize for disturbing you, Your Majesty.”

I trip forward on the lowest stair and scrape my hands on the stone. Your Majesty.

Tremors rack my body. I cover my mouth, locking in a gasp. Rajah Tarek is here. The ruler of the Tarachand Empire has come to Samiya. I hold still, my flesh shivering.

“Where is Manas?” challenges another voice, the second stranger to speak.

“He has gone to bed, General,” replies the captain.

I frown, my only movement. Why is Captain Naik protecting me? Why does he not tell the rajah that a girl listened at his door?

“Come in, Captain,” the rajah says. “I wish to discuss our plans for after I claim—” The door creaks closed.

An icy finger slithers down my spine. Rajah Tarek has come for the Claiming.

I rest my forehead against a stair. Heat blazes down my face. In seconds, I burn all over. Gods, I forgot to take my tonic.

The sudden fever drives a hot mallet through the top of my head. I rise on shaky limbs and push myself up the dark stairwell to the main floor. Daughters pass me on the way to the dining hall for breakfast. I weave down the corridor and stagger into my bedchamber.

Jaya is awake and dressed. Her arms and legs are marked with hives—red, raised, and furious. The room reeks of chamomile.

“Healer Baka says they will go away,” Jaya says, slathering ointment on her legs.

I eye the angry dots on her skin. “Where did they come from?”

“I’m having a reaction.”

“To one of your plants?”

“To the Claiming.” She rubs ointment into her arms with trembling hands, her countenance pale. “Healer Baka says I need to calm down, but . . . Where were you?”

“On a walk.” I stumble to my cot and sit, elbows on my knees, head in my hands. Breathe.

Jaya hurries over and tests my forehead. “You’re burning up. You didn’t take your tonic this morning.”

Groaning, I lie back. “Get it for me, would you?”

Jaya finds it on the bedside table and pushes it into my hand. I uncork the thin vial and draw a swig. The fermented tang sours my mouth, but I swallow. A rush of coolness accompanies the remedy to my belly, clearing my mind.

My fever came on fast. Usually it takes a day before I reach that height of illness.

Jaya hovers over me, tugging her braid nervously. Dark circles stain the skin under her bloodshot eyes. “Do I need to fetch Healer Baka?”

“I’m fine.” I grab Jaya’s hand and lay it against my forehead. “See? I’m cooling off.” Her tepid skin soothes my flaring face, and my temperature adjusts to hers. I sniff loudly and smile. “You smell like Healer Baka’s herb garden.”

She laughs and looks at her rash. “We’re quite the pair. If only the benefactor could see us now.”

My smile stiffens. I cannot tell her that Rajah Tarek is the benefactor. She is already sick with worry. Furthermore, his identity does not change our strategy for skill trials. But the immensity of his presence weighs me down. I cannot understand why the rajah wants to watch us duel before the Claiming. Skill trials are a rite of passage—proof of womanhood and the exercise of moral maturity, proof that we deserve our inherited birthright from Ki. A true sister warrior is well trained and physically strong, but she is also dedicated to practicing the five godly virtues—obedience, service, sisterhood, humility, and tolerance. The rajah wishes to view a test of our inner and outer strength, but for what purpose? All I am certain of is that Rajah Tarek has come to claim a girl, and, by midday, I will know what for.

3

A silhouette darkens the casement of the observatory at the top of the north tower. I try not to look up, or think of the rajah watching us, as I listen to Priestess Mita’s instructions.

“I appreciate your being on time, daughters. We hope to hurry these trials along and move you back inside, where it is warm.”

Jaya and I huddle against the frosty wind lashing at us. We wear training saris, the pleats passed between our knees and tucked into the waistline at the back, allowing free movement while covering our legs. The slippery ground beneath us has been cleared, the ice chipped away to reveal the circle that was hidden during practice yesterday. The dueling ring.

“Today’s skill trials will be run a bit differently. Our benefactor has made a request.” The priestess glances up, and our gazes follow. The rajah presses against the observatory casement in anticipation, his dark silhouette growing. My brittle nerves tighten. “The match will end when the winner draws first blood.”

I narrow my gaze in dissent. As a rule, the duel winner is whoever drives her opponent out of the circle first. We never battle until first blood.

Priestess Mita holds herself too still, her rigidness pronounced by her silent disapproval of the changed guidelines. “For leniency, injuries you acquire in the ring will not be taken into account during inspection.”

How considerate of them. Jaya and I exchange a look, our brows raised.

Healer Baka and our defense trainer, Sister Hetal, who has stepped aside to let the priestess mediate, wait on the sideline. The healer attends skill trials in case a girl is accidentally injured. A tassel of nausea hangs in my belly. Those defeated today will definitely need her care.

The priestess’s voice pervades the courtyard. “Step forward to draw lots!”

Jaya grabs my hand and pulls me to the front of the group. The priestess offers her fist of wooden lots to the daughter in front of her—me. I pull out a long lot, and Natesa draws next. Hers is a quarter the size of mine.

Natesa sucks her teeth. “Shame.”

I almost agree. I would like to see her skin run red, but the likelihood of my winning a duel against her is lower than the chance of escaping the Void.

Sarita draws a wooden lot and measures it against mine. We are a match. She grins, and I arrange my features into apathy. Our pairing is anything but fair. Sarita is the third-most-skilled fighter here, after Natesa and Jaya.

The other girls pluck their lots. They match fates, coupling off and wishing each other good luck. Priestess Mita hands Jaya the final one.

Natesa nails Jaya with a pointed smirk. “Looks like you are with me.”

Their match is even, but Jaya has to lose to Natesa, and I must lose to Sarita. The rajah must see us bleed.

Priestess Mita finishes our instructions. “Those with the shortest lots will go first, then the next shortest, and so on. Our first match is between”—she scans the pairs of girls—“Natesa and Jaya. Daughters, select your weapons!”

Natesa jogs to the weapons laid out near the iced-over meditation pond and chooses first. She sneers at Jaya on her way to the dueling ring with a khanda. As the biggest, scariest weapon, the long double-edged sword suits Natesa’s battle style. Intimidating. Abrasive. Hefty but powerful.

Jaya selects the haladie, a double-bladed knife. The weapon reflects her combat method. Versatile. Precise. Small yet quick. She could win with the haladie, but I do not know if she can lose.

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