The Rogue Queen – Emily R. King

The burial starts at daybreak, before the heat of the jungle evaporates the dew and suffocates the morning breeze. Our solemn group congregates in the stern of the riverboat and watches Deven and Yatin finish tying heavy stones to the body’s ankles and wrists. Indah has already washed the deceased in almond oil, a ritual in her homeland, the Southern Isles. Pons, her beloved guard, helped her wrap the departed with white bedsheets. Natesa slips her arm around my waist. I hold on to her, shifting my weight off my sore leg. Prince Ashwin stands to the side, his head down, but I can still see his red eyes and nose. Deven straightens slowly, as though every part of him aches. I recognize that feeling, that sinking heaviness like quicksand. Everyone aboard moves with the same cumbersome slowness, as though we are all tied down by millstones. The rush of the River Ninsar fills the silence. If only life could be as constant as a river. Although I believe death is not the end and our spirits live on, I am never fully prepared for life to dry up. Deven bows his head and offers our traditional Prayer of Rest. “Gods, bless Brother Shaan’s soul so that he may find the gate that leads to peace and everlasting light.

” Yesterday afternoon, I found Brother Shaan slumped over in his chair outside the wheelhouse. For the past fortnight, since we fled the city of Iresh, he prayed diligently for the gods to preserve us in this dire time. Indah said his heart merely failed, as aged hearts do. But I think his fear put him in an early grave. Deven finishes by adding his thoughts. “Brother Shaan was a dedicated, loyal, and loving member of the Brotherhood. He exemplified the five godly virtues in every way and served Anu with his whole heart.” His ragged voice catches. “He will be missed.” Yatin, his brother-in-arms, squeezes Deven’s shoulder.

The soldiers slide the body to the edge of the skiff. Pons helps them push the remains overboard, and the water splashes in finality. Tears sting my eyes. The body floats for a heart-wrenching beat, and then the stones drag Brother Shaan below the surface of the murky river. “Enki,” Indah says, praying to the water-goddess. “Send your sea dragons to ferry Brother Shaan’s soul to the Beyond and wash away any memory of pain or anguish from this mortal life.” Her burial prayer is unusual to us Tarachandians, who worship the sky-god Anu. Indah’s people believe sacred creatures of the deep, sea dragons, ferry their souls to the Beyond or the Void when they die. In this moment, when we cannot stop to dig a grave for Brother Shaan, as is our custom, her words are a much-needed comfort. Pons is the first to leave, going to oversee our navigators, the pole pushers.

I should rest my injured leg, but I linger near Deven. The river leads us along, and the place where Brother Shaan sank drifts away in our shallow wake. A mangrove forest crowds the riverbanks, thriving in the brackish wetlands between the rain forest and the Sea of Souls. The tree roots, partially submerged in the muddy waters, ascend from the surface like knobby stilts. We are nearly to the river delta. Brother Shaan was so close to viewing the sea . Yatin steps to Natesa’s other side. “Are you all right, little lotus?” She runs her hand down his chest. “Yes.” Her burly soldier with a thick beard came aboard the skiff very ill.

Indah, the most experienced Aquifier aboard, cured Yatin’s ailment, and Natesa has finished nursing him back to health. Yatin slimmed down while he was unwell, though he is still the biggest man on board. We were so concerned about his recovery and my tournament injuries, we neglected to care for Brother Shaan. We all bear the weight of that guilt. Natesa and Yatin take the walkway around the side of the boat. Ashwin has left, having snuck off when no one was watching. He and I have not spoken since Iresh. I spend my time with Deven— and Ashwin avoids us. This was the closest the three of us have been in days. Indah comes to my side.

“Kalinda, it’s time.” Given the solemnness of the morning, I consider canceling our session, but Indah’s healing powers are the only reason I can stand right now. Deven has yet to look away from the river. I consoled him the best I could last night, but Brother Shaan was his mentor. Some losses leave behind holes that cannot be filled. Accepting Indah’s arm, we let Deven mourn in peace. Lying on a cot in the wheelhouse, I feel Indah’s powers flow over me like tepid streams of water. She lets go of my temples, her expression tight. My hour-long session has not gone as expected. She cleans her hands in the washbasin.

The fresh scents from her healing waters, coconut and white sandalwood, waft off my skin. “Well?” I ask. “The bone in your leg has knit back together, and the sword wound on your side has closed to a faint scar.” Both injuries were sustained during my duel in the trial tournament, but they are not what concerns us. Before our escape from Iresh, the Voider, a corporeal demon set free from his prison in the evernight, breathed his poisonous fire down my throat. Despite Indah’s efforts to cleanse me, his powers still slink icily through my veins. Not even a pain blocker, Indah’s rare ability to suppress hurt for a short time, allays the cold. I close my eyes and search inside myself for the single perfect star in my vision. The everburning light is the source of my Burner powers—my soul-fire. No mortal or bhuta exists without this inner radiance.

I locate the star but its vivid light is hazy. “I see a greenness behind my eyelids.” “That’s from the demon’s powers.” “Can you get rid of them?” “I don’t know how,” Indah replies, helping me sit up. “In a sense, your soul is frostbitten. If the injured parts were an extremity, I would recommend amputation, but as the damage is internal . ” “You cannot amputate my soul.” I finish with a strained laugh, though I find nothing humorous about my memory of writhing on the ground in agony, tormented by the slow, torturous burn of the demon’s cold-fire. The initial anguish has abated, but it left dark stains inside me, like tarnished silver. The Voider’s powers would have destroyed me if I were not one quarter demon.

All Burners descend from Enlil, a bastard son of the land-goddess Ki and the demon Kur. I suppose I should appreciate my ancestry. But I am not grateful. Not at all. Indah’s golden eyes reflect her worry. “I’ll find you a more experienced healer in Lestari. In the meantime, save your strength and powers.” I have had no need to call upon my Burner abilities since I battled the Voider. But what will happen when I need them? I suspend my concerns. We are nearly to Lestari, the imperial city of the Southern Isles.

I can hang on until we arrive tonight. Pushing to my feet, I test my weight on my bad leg; no pain hisses at me. Indah offers me her arm, but I pick up my cane. “I’ll be all right on my own.” I shuffle out the door, mindful of the gentle sway of the ship. Several steps later, I rest in a sunny patch of deck. The brightness warms my skin, but the inner hoarfrost will not yield. “Does Indah know you’re out here alone?” I swivel toward Natesa and link my arm through hers. “I’m not alone. You’re here.

” “Let’s walk.” She tugs me from the banister, and we stroll around the outer deck. Her hips swish, swinging her braid like a pendulum, though not on purpose. Natesa cannot suppress her curves any more than I can change my skinniness. As former rivals in my rank tournament among the rajah’s wives and courtesans, for a time we could not stand each other. Natesa and my other competitors fought to gain a better life in this world of men. Only I won the rank tournament. My second victory in Iresh’s trial tournament secured my throne as rani of the Tarachand Empire. I competed against four female bhutas in a series of contests designed to test our powers. My prize is to wed Prince Ashwin as his first wife, his kindred.

I respect Ashwin, but marriage to him hardly feels like a reward. “The prince left rather quickly after the burial,” Natesa notes. “He’s avoiding me.” “He’s avoiding Deven. Did he tell you about their altercation?” “No . ” Natesa’s lips twist wryly. “Right after we left Iresh, Deven struck Ashwin and nearly threw him overboard.” Gods help me. As captain of the guard, Deven’s duty is to protect the prince, but he blames Ashwin for unleashing the Voider. The demon came disguised in the physical form of Ashwin’s father and my deceased husband, Rajah Tarek.

For releasing him, the Voider must grant Ashwin his heart’s wish—to unseat the bhuta warlord from the Turquoise Palace in our imperial city of Vanhi. The demon rajah has set out to do just that. He delivered our people from the awful encampments in Iresh, earning their devotion while preying on their suffering. Our army intends to march with the Voider to far-off Vanhi. The rest of Tarek’s wives and his courtesans are trapped there; my friends and fellow sister warriors, held captive by the warlord and his band of rebels. I want to see the ranis released, but the demon rajah cannot be allowed to overthrow the warlord. If he succeeds, he will be free to inflict terror on our world. “I’ve tried to explain,” I say, “but Deven won’t listen.” “Maybe he’s right to be angry.” Natesa’s gaze wanders to the river.

“Even Brother Shaan feared our fate.” Unfortunately the loss of Brother Shaan is another tragedy for Deven to blame on the prince. “Ashwin couldn’t have known that the demon would disguise himself as Tarek and convince our people he’s their rajah.” We round the stern of the boat and nearly bump into the prince. He holds an open book, appearing as he did when we first met. Only, this time, I do not mistake him for his father. Ashwin may possess Tarek’s compelling good looks, but he is kindhearted. From his wounded expression, he overheard our conversation. “Your Majesty,” Natesa says, bowing. “We didn’t see you there.

” “Clearly.” He snaps his book shut. “I’ll go around.” He starts to pass, but I loop my arm through his. “Walk with me?” Ashwin slowly pivots and rubs the side of his head as though massaging a headache. I tug him forward, and Natesa gladly goes, leaving the other direction. “How have you been?” I ask the prince. “Well, thank you.” His perfunctory answer quiets me. The clack of my cane on the wooden deck is the only noise between us.

I have nearly given up on a conversation when he asks, “How are you feeling?” “Better. Indah said I should be walking on my own soon.” He nods but says no more. I long for the easiness we once had between us. In Iresh, while Deven was imprisoned in the military encampment, Ashwin and I learned to trust each other. I still wear the brass wrist cuff he lent me for good luck before my final trial. Ashwin is my cousin and only living family. Dissolving his friendship is a loss I cannot sustain. I stop, halting him. “What can I do to fix this? The awkwardness between us is unbearable.

” “You know what I want.” He looks everywhere but at me. “I can repeat my wishes if you’d like, but I will keep my word. You won the trial tournament and have no further obligation to me or your throne.” “Do you really think I’d abandon you?” His brow creases. “I thought now that Captain Naik has returned—” “The Tarachand Empire is my home too. Our people have been deceived by the demon rajah. He’s marching upon our palace with our army, where my fellow ranis are held captive by the warlord. I’m with you, Ashwin. Perhaps not the way you hoped, but we’ll confront the demon rajah together.

” His lips twitch, withholding a smile. “Understood, Kindred.” I pull him forward, and he keeps up, relaxing into my side. “Where did you find your book?” I ask of the text under his other arm. “I stuffed it under my shirt before I left Iresh.” My gaze flies to his. “You did not.” “I did. I saw it on the ground and grabbed it.” Ashwin has read more books than anyone I have met.

“Is it any good?” “Dull as a cow’s nose. On the upside, I learned how to sew a turban.” He shows me the title. A Seamstress’s Guide to Men’s Attire . A laugh erupts out of me. He chuckles quietly, his shoulders shaking. I sober some, questioning the appropriateness of our humor just hours after Brother Shaan was laid to rest. But Brother Shaan believed all children of Anu, bhutas and mortals, should dwell in harmony. He would like for Ashwin and me to make amends. We reach the unoccupied bow.

Past it, blue sky yawns above the water and mangroves. A breeze tousles Ashwin’s short ebony hair. I rest on the wide ridge near the rail, winded from my short jaunt. “Can I escort you back to the wheelhouse?” he asks. “I’ll stay here awhile.” Ashwin does not sit, nor does he leave. His indecision about our closeness exasperates me. I have missed him, but the sentiment clings to my tongue. He may interpret my feelings differently than I intend. “Thank you for the stroll.

” He hesitates, all seriousness. “I’m going to regain the empire, Kalinda.” Ashwin bears the bulk of his transgressions alone. I have seen him pacing the deck at night, kneading away headaches and raking his fingers through his hair. Brother Shaan’s death only adds to his remorse. Ashwin loves the empire and his people. He will not rest until he wins them back. I consider his bloodshot eyes. “I know you will.” He smiles a little and bends down to kiss my cheek.

I turn into him; he smells of coconut shaving oil. We both misjudge how close we are, and his lips land on the corner of my mouth. His look of surprise fills my sight. He pauses and then presses his lips to my cheek properly. His tender mouth lights a fire across my skin. Warmth pierces inside me, straight to my core. I lean into him to prolong our connection. For the first time in days, my inner chill thaws, and my soul-fire burns true. Ashwin pulls back. Cold rushes inside me again.

I gape up at him, speechless. He beams, delighted by my reaction, and saunters away. What has just happened between us? I . I let him kiss me. Twice. Watching my reflection on the water, I try not to think of Ashwin, but my head keeps reeling. As soon as I reunited with Deven, I set aside my romantic feelings for Ashwin. Yet the prince’s kiss could have lasted longer without any protest from me. Is it possible that I still care for him as more than a friend? I cannot ignore those soothing seconds when the winter inside me melted . “There you are,” Deven says.

He tugs down his scarlet uniform jacket and sits beside me. Since this morning, he has shaved his thick beard and trimmed his hair short beneath his turban. He is prepared to meet the Lestarians, looking every bit a handsome officer of the imperial army. I rest against him, nestling into his side, and wait for him to inquire about Ashwin and me. But either Deven did not see us together or he does not wish to speak of the prince. I do not raise the subject either. Ashwin’s kiss was innocent, a gesture between friends, but admitting to one such gesture could lead to questions. Sometimes the truth is more harmful than an omission. And I am not the only one who has kept secrets. “Natesa mentioned you tried to throw Ashwin overboard,” I say.

“It was more of a shove,” Deven replies, taking my statement in stride. I give in to a sigh. “You shouldn’t have done that.” He bristles. “It’s my responsibility to defend the empire. The prince had just unleashed the Voider. By all appearances, he was a threat.” I thread my fingers through his. “The prince is your ruler. As soon as he takes a wife, he’ll be rajah.

” I have unintentionally led us into a topic of conversation I have dodged for days. Deven has not asked me to walk away from my throne. He understands my rank as rani is my godly purpose— and my choice. Or more accurately, an accepted obligation. But neither of us knows where that leaves us or our dream of a peaceful life in the mountains. “You have to put aside your hard feelings. We have enough division plaguing us.” He tenses, his voice strained. “I’m trying, Kali. I have a lot on my mind.

” More than Brother Shaan’s passing wears on him. His mother and brother, Mathura and Brac, were stranded at the border between the empire and the sultanate. Two Galers were sent to find them but have yet to return. Each day we wait increases Deven’s angst. I cup his smooth cheek. “I know you are.” He leans into my touch. His features are an appealing mishmash of hard planes and pliable smoothness, like his two main roles: soldier and dedicated worshiper of the Parijana faith. I bring my lips to his. He tugs me closer, and his sandalwood scent fills me up.

His body heat skims mine but does not soak in or alleviate the cold inside me. I disregard whatever that may imply and trail my fingers up his neck. Hot need builds at the base of my throat, yet the frost within me perseveres. I pull away, breathless and shivering. Deven’s soft brown eyes study me. “What’s wrong?” “I . ” I don’t know. “I should lie down.” I use my cane to stand, but Deven sweeps me into his arms. My feet flail out, and my hands fly up to his neck.

“Put me down!” “All right,” he says evenly and then starts for the wheelhouse. I pull the skirt of my petticoat and sari close beneath me. “You said you’d put me down.” “I will . on your cot.” “But I can walk!” Deven calls ahead. “Coming through!” A chair blocks our path. Indah and Pons dine on a late breakfast of mashed fruit and currants. Pons’s hair hangs down his back; the top and sides of his head are shaved. He grabs Indah’s seat and slides her out of our way.

I blush at their open stares. The Aquifier and the Galer are in love, yet they do not show it with public demonstrations. I sense Pons would if Indah were willing, but she is private about her affections. Deven carries me through the open wheelhouse door and lies down with me, our bodies filling the cot. “See? That wasn’t so awful.” I sink against him. “I could burn your nose off for that.” “You like my nose.” “I do,” I say, kissing the tip. He slides his rough palm under my blouse and across my bare back.

His touch warms me in places Ashwin’s kiss could never reach. I press my lips to Deven’s again, indulging in the sensation of his body tight against mine. My fingers creep across his muscled shoulders, but his jacket prevents them from meeting skin, constricting my touch. Deven does not stop kissing me while he undoes his front buttons, preparing to take off his jacket. The door swings open, and Natesa pulls up short. “I’m sorry to interrupt.” Her eyes sparkle at finding us entwined. “We’ve reached the river mouth. A Lestarian ship is waiting.” Deven nuzzles my ear.

“Someday I’ll have you to myself,” he says in a husky rumble. A warm chill courses down my neck. “I’ll hold you to that.” I kiss him once more and sit up. Dizziness whams me from rising too fast, and I sag forward. “You should lie down,” Deven says, rebuttoning his jacket. “I’m fine. Just give me a moment.” After a few more breaths, my vision clears. Deven places his hand on my shoulder.

“Kali, you really should stay here.” “I said I’m fine,” I snap. I know I am weaker than usual. He need not constantly remind me. “Natesa, please hand me my cane.” Deven grabs the cane and thrusts it at me. Natesa shrinks away and tiptoes out. Deven is worried about my health, but I have greater concerns. “I have to greet the Lestarians,” I explain. “Our first impression must reflect well on the empire.

” Indah assured Ashwin and me that we can rely on Datu Bulan, the ruler of the Southern Isles, for aid, but we are placing a lot of faith in a stranger. The Voider is positioned at the head of the most powerful army in the land. We can only hope the datu will recognize the threat he poses and join us to stop him. I stand and temper my frustration. “I need to go, Deven.” “You also need to take care of yourself.” He reaches for a stray hair against my cheek. I swipe it away before he can, and he draws back, hurt. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. Embracing my throne means accepting my responsibility to assist Ashwin.

“We need to keep our distance now that—” “No need to explain.” Deven adjusts the cuffs of his jacket with short, irritated jerks. “It would reflect poorly on the empire for the kindred to favor her guard.” “It’s only for a little while.” I seek out his understanding, but his expression remains defensive. Ashwin appears at the door. “Kalinda,” he says tentatively, gauging Deven’s scowl and oppositional posture. “Indah is asking for us.” “I’m coming,” I say, leaning into my cane. Even though Deven is upset with me, he hovers close, as though expecting me to topple.

Anu, please don’t let my legs give out or I’ll never hear the end of it. By gods’ virtue, I cross the wheelhouse on my own, and Ashwin leads the way.

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