The Warrior Queen – Emily R. King

Darkness holds secrets few see or seek. But when one spends as much time as I do studying the shadows, they reveal unique textures that brush over the skin. The cozy fleece of the evening hour, the velvet kiss of full midnight, and the chilly silk of early morning. I have found some solace in the patterns of the night. Little else is a comfort. Sitting at my table before my charcoal and parchment paper, I train my senses to feel and listen. Hushed winds rustle the palm fronds outside the open balcony. Under the eye of the winter moon, shadows eclipse the astral powers. We are long into the evening, so far that morning will soon place a new dawn across the heavens, peeling back the night and revealing the face of day. My tired eyes strain through the layers of shadows for movement. He will come. A yawn escapes me. I reach up to rub my eyes, and the blunt end of my right arm stops me. Will I ever remember? My prosthesis is on the bedside table; I do not wear it when I am alone. Quite often my hand still feels there.

Its spirit tricks me into thinking I have all ten fingers. The demon Kur’s venom that I took into my body to harness as a weapon destroyed my hand. Teaching my left hand to draw as well as my right has taken practice, but increasingly I am satisfied with my sketches. A smattering of finished drawings litters the table. Using my charcoal stick, I add more shading to my latest subject. The Sisterhood temple, under construction in the city, will soon house the sisters and wards from Samiya. My childhood home is gone, as is my dearest friend. Jaya was murdered by Rajah Tarek in an act of pure malice, and the temple I grew up in was demolished in an accidental fire. Though Jaya’s death still haunts me, the rebuilding of the temple gives me hope that all which succumbs to death may be reborn again. I set aside the charcoal stick and rise, stretching to stay alert.

A figure stirs in the darkness near the hearth. “Kali.” I blow out the lamp and lunge at Deven. I thought I had lost him after Kur dragged him down into the under realm. His revival was a mercy, even if he is confined to the Void during daylight hours. He follows my soul-fire home through the roadways of shadows at night and has done so for three moons. “You took so long.” He has been coming later and later. “I’m glad I made it.” Deven presses his lips to the side of my head.

His thick beard sweeps against my hair. “You smell of jasmine at midnight.” He just smells. The muskiness of the Void has masked his sandalwood scent. Deven tilts my chin, and his lips take mine. His touch sparks an instant reaction. My hand rakes through his hair, and his fingers knead my hips. We stand in one place until our kisses seek out more contact. We walk, our bodies locked together at several pressure points, to my bed. He leans me back onto the covers, his weight sturdy.

Small silk pillows crowd around us. Deven lobs them off one by one. Once we have more room, his lips explore. My fingertips trace the curves of his back and clutch him close. His cheek drops against mine, and he slides his fingers through my hair, the silk sheets wrapping about our legs. His deep, calm voice resonates in my ear. “Someday you need to explain to me why you have so many pillows.” I chuckle more than I normally would. Nights when he has a sense of humor are seldom. These moments have been our temporary haven.

I loathe disrupting his rare peace, but dawn looms. I smooth down his beard. “Would you like me to fetch your brother?” “Not tonight.” He has not asked for his family in many days. I assume he does not want them to see him this way. He is thinner and sallower than even yesterday. “Are you hungry?” “Yes.” He nuzzles the tender spot beneath my chin. I dare not shut my eyes or I will lose my ability to think. I fetch the tray on the bedside table.

He wipes his hands clean on the napery and eats the aromatic rice. He does not have access to food or water in the under realm. I have tried to send rations and a lantern, but they disappear once he leaves. Nor can I enter the labyrinth of shadows with him. “How are you?” he asks. Deven does not need to hear about my mundane days. “I’m well. Ashwin and I are still searching every book in the city. We’ll find something soon.” None of us know whether our research will lead to a solution, yet I have faith.

“We’ll find a way to release you.” “You cannot be certain.” Deven sets the unfinished plate aside. He must fill up, but his appetite has been decreasing. “We have to accept our fate.” At my lowest moments, I have almost succumbed to the same despondency. All day long I pray for the gods to free Deven. His inner light is dimming, like the reflection of the moon compared to the glory of the sun. I sit on his lap and pull his wooden arms around me. “Fate is ours to decide.

” “You cannot feel what I feel.” His tormented gaze climbs to mine. “My coming here is a risk. Someone has been following me.” “Who?” “I don’t know. I haven’t seen anyone, but I’ve felt them.” I rest my forehead against his. “Ashwin and I are getting closer. We’ll get you out of there. Promise me you’ll keep coming.

” I could not bear for him to disappear. “For you,” Deven says, his muscles relaxing around me. Outside, the heavens have lightened. Sunrise will soon reach the golden domes of the palace and sleepy Vanhi. Deven clings to me, dreading the same burden of time. I tuck into him and shut my eyes so hard they ache. Please, Anu. Let him stay. Deven’s solid form dissolves around me. I open my eyes, and all that remains is his warmth, fading on the sheets.

Someone touches my shoulder. My face is buried in a pillow, but I sense Brac. A Burner’s soul-fire radiates strongest, and only he dares to enter my chamber without knocking. “Deven’s gone.” My bleak voice nearly pushes me to tears. The mattress shifts. I look up at Brac seated beside me. His coppery hair sweeps across brows knit over honey-colored eyes. “We’ll find him.” “I should go after him.

I should have gone down there moons ago.” “Then you’d also be trapped in the Void, and I’d have to free you both.” He need not clarify why that is a terrible idea. We had this discussion yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that . The issue is not getting into the Void but getting Deven out. “How is he?” Brac asks. “Weaker.” Few of our friends and family know Deven is alive. We have left his name carved on the door of my mother’s tomb for simplicity’s sake. Explaining his imprisonment is too complicated.

On occasion, he asks to visit with his brother and mother. They dined with him often during the first weeks of his visits, but he has become less sociable. The hour after he leaves is my loneliest. Most mornings I question if he was really here. Brac hunches over his knees and scrubs at the coppery stubble on his chin. “I’ve thought about going after him too. Until we work out how without risking ourselves, we must stay here.” Deven learned the complicated route through the roadways of shadow to my chamber after several attempts. Even if he could find me elsewhere, now is not the time to leave. The Tarachand Empire is regaining strength, but we are like an old man overcoming a grave illness.

I edge up to Brac and finish the rice left on the food tray. “Ashwin needs us too,” I say. “He’ll be safer once he’s rajah.” “That’s just a title.” “Titles hold power, Burner Rani.” Our citizens have taken to calling me “Burner Rani.” It is not intended as a compliment. My tournament championship and short-term marriage to Rajah Tarek as his kindred mean nothing. I am a bhuta, same as the rebels and warlord who occupied the palace to stop the extermination of our kind. Tarek’s legacy of hate runs deep, so when the demon Udug impersonated him, our people were quick to believe the rajah was back from the dead to defeat the rebels.

We unmasked Udug as a fraud, but he released the demon Kur from the Void. With the help of our bhuta allies—the Paljorian airship fleet and Lestarian Navy—we vanquished them and stopped the evernight from conquering the mortal realm. None of our good deeds matter to the people. They care not that Ashwin banished the last of the rebels. They only care that he suspended his father’s execution order against bhutas and appointed Brac as his bhuta emissary and selected Virtue Guards, including me. To protest our proximity to the throne, countless soldiers have defected from the imperial army. I knew integrating bhutas into society would take time, but after all we have done to preserve the empire, the citizenry’s stubbornness rankles. Brac claps his knees in preparation to stand. “You’re expected at the amphitheater this morning.” “But I was up all night,” I groan.

“Those little scamps nearly burned off my eyelashes again.” Brac pats my back in a conciliatory manner. “It’s your turn.” Natesa knocks and bustles in. “One of you needs to go to the dining hall. Your trainees set fire to the table linens during breakfast!” “The prince expects me for a meeting.” Brac throws me a smirk and strides out. “I’ll go,” I say. “Not looking like that you won’t,” Natesa counters. I brush rice crumbs from my lips as she digs through my dressing cabinet.

Natesa and I were raised together in Samiya. We became friends after Tarek claimed us, she as a courtesan and me as a rani, and we competed in my rank tournament. Her jade sari and short blouse complement her curves. I have become shapelier since my younger years, when she teased me for my thinness. Our mutual friend and healer, Indah, insisted I eat heartily to keep my soul-fire well stocked, which in turn healed the aftereffects of Kur’s fiery venom and increased my weight. While she is turned around, I put on my prosthesis, winding the leather strap around my shoulder. The wooden fingers have no joints but are the same size and shape as my functioning left hand. Natesa holds up a black training sari. “This one will show off your full hips.” She drapes the sari across my bed.

“Get changed before your trainees burn down the palace. Yatin will take one of them over his knee if they don’t start behaving.” My trainees are the last two Burner children in the Tarachand Empire. Yatin would never lay a hand on them, let alone any child, but another guard might. “I’ll speak with the girls. Any news of your wedding plans?” “Yatin and I agreed the ceremony can wait until we’re less busy.” Natesa has been working to open her inn, and Yatin accepted a promotion to captain of the guard. “The inn is ready for me to move in to.” I repress my surprise. “I didn’t realize you were leaving the palace so soon.

” “I didn’t want to . ,” Natesa leads off, twisting her lotus engagement ring. Everyone does this now, calculates their speech and anticipates my reaction. They presume I will crumble under a single unplanned word. “Didn’t want to what?” I press. “I didn’t want to boast.” Her careful treatment of me pricks. Still, I keep my tone airy. “Telling your friend good news isn’t boasting. When the time comes, you’ll be the most beautiful bride in the empire.

” Natesa glances in the vanity mirror glass. “You should see Princess Gemi’s bridal sari. Asha outdid herself on the bodice. I may ask her to embroider mine.” “Princess Gemi is lovely, but she isn’t you.” I replay my words and quickly cover my mouth. “Please don’t repeat that to the viraji.” The formal term of endearment crowds my throat. I disliked the title when it was mine. It feels odd conferring it upon another.

“Repeat what?” Natesa answers, eyes twinkling. She picks up a comb and brushes my hair. “Don’t worry, Kali. Everyone knows you’re glad for them.” “I am,” I say firmly. Though Ashwin proposed marriage to me, I care for him as my cousin and friend. I support his decision to take the Southern Isles’ princess as his first wife. Gemi has a unique zest for life and a free spirit. The empire is in dire need of a leader with her forward-thinking views. A crash outside draws Natesa to the balcony.

She clucks her tongue and motions me to join her. Servants douse a grass fire in the garden below. A pair of girls flee into the trees. “You didn’t make it to the dining hall in time,” says Natesa. I rub at a mounting headache. “I had no idea two girls could be so much trouble.” Servants extinguish the fire and resume their work. Past the palace wall, Vanhi has woken. Men crowd the roads with their burros and carts, headed to the marketplace that is shaded by a mosaic of lean-tos. Women hang laundry on the lines strung between the huts and milk goats.

Children play in the side-winding river while their older siblings collect water in baskets. Life is on the move, ready for a new day. I could fall into bed until noon. I scoop up my clothes and duck behind the dressing screen. Natesa prepleated the sari, but I fumble with the pins. “Kalinda?” Her voice comes at me tentatively. “Would you like help?” “No.” A former rani who lost two fingers during her rank tournament taught me how to carry out everyday activities such as dressing and dining. By necessity, my left hand has become dominant and does well with the assistance of my prosthesis. While pulling my sari over my shoulder, I drop a pin.

Gods almighty. Natesa hovers nearby, waiting for me to give in. I select another pin and try again.

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