The Fire Queen Page 2

My fingertips brush the turquoise handle of the dagger in my bag, a twin to the blade strapped to my outer thigh. The daggers belonged to my mother, Rajah Tarek’s first-ever wife. Mathura brought them from the palace for me, and Deven has trained me to wield them well. I depend on my daggers as I once did my slingshot. I bypass the hidden knife, find the object I seek, and pull out my hand. The woman peers at the headscarf.

“For you,” I offer.

“I don’t need your help.”

“Maybe so, but what will happen to your children if you fall ill with sun sickness?”

Her scowl lessens, yet she still resists.

Down the road, a larger group of travelers ambles our way, wagons and men. No, soldiers. They are dressed in dark-red uniforms, with the Tarachand Empire’s black scorpion crest on their chests, the same uniform Deven no longer wears. They travel without banners. This far from an army stronghold, they must be deserters. Civilians are not the only ones fleeing the bhuta warlord.

Deven vibrates with tension, silently demanding we leave before the soldiers arrive.

I dangle the headscarf between the woman and me, her children solemnly observing our exchange. “Please, take it,” I say.

She shuffles forward, pinches the farthest corner of the cloth, and plucks it from my grip. Upon seeing the back of my hand, her eyes bulge.

“Kindred,” she says, sinking to her knees. Her sons lower to the ground after her, and she waves for her little girl to do the same. “Forgive us. We didn’t recognize you.”

The noises from the caravan of soldiers quiver in my stomach. I forgot how much I despise being bowed to. Imagining the lot of them kneeling at my feet, my tone shortens. “You’ve caused no offense. Please don’t speak of seeing me.”

“We won’t, Kindred. May the gods watch over you.”

“And you.” I snap the reins for the camel to go.

Deven and I finish crossing the road and start up the rocky hillside. Below, the mother holds her children and weeps. She does not cry from misery or fear but from happiness that twitches my spine. I will add their family to my daily prayers.

Deven’s hawkeyed gaze remains on the party of soldiers coming around the bend. Once we are out of sight of the road and the travelers, he relaxes. His voice reaches out to me like a gentle caress down the back of my neck. “That was kind of you.”

“I only gave her a headscarf,” I say.

“You gave her more than that. You’re the kindred. Seeing you gave her family hope.”

I shift in the saddle with a frown. I may be nobility, but I am not noble. The woman and her family would not have been forced to flee their home had I not foolishly placed my trust in Hastin. I bargained with the warlord for my freedom and lost more than my own. I assumed by ending Rajah Tarek I would liberate his ranis and courtesans, but now they are Hastin’s prisoners in the Turquoise Palace. As the first wife, I was the ranis’ kindred and leader. Their friend. I failed to protect them, just as I failed to save my dearest friend, Jaya.

“They shouldn’t still think of me as their kindred,” I say, my voice monotone.

“Your duties to your throne remain until Prince Ashwin releases you from them,” Deven reminds me. “Your triumph in the rank tournament has been told far and wide. Our people love you—and you love them. You earned their devotion. Don’t diminish what your achievement means to them.”

I hold my tongue before I ask Deven what my achievement means to him. I fought for my title of kindred, but I have fought harder to forget the bloodshed and horrors of my rank tournament. Most days I succeed. Some days I do not. Yet it is not my victory in the arena or the loss of Deven’s command rank that has come between us most. My marriage to the rajah has been our greatest divide. The same reason I am a symbol of hope for that struggling family is why Deven is hesitant to touch me. To the people, my fate and future belong to the rajah’s throne. I can no more change their minds—or Deven’s—than I can unwed Rajah Tarek or bring Jaya back to life.

As I look out at the trail-worn valley, the refugees’ weary footsteps carve blame into my conscience. The empire has changed since I became the rajah’s one hundredth queen. Tarachand is gloomier, full of desperate people and massacres of the innocent. I find nothing dignified or noble about being the inciter of heartache.



Something strokes down my nose, pulling me from sleep. A ruby silk canopy stretches over my bed. Curtains billow near the balcony, a hot breeze ushering in the rustle of palm fronds. I am in my chamber in the Turquoise Palace.

A finger brushes my nose again. I blink fast, and a face comes into focus.

Rajah Tarek’s white teeth flash predatorily in my darkened room. “I’ve missed you, love.”

I try to jerk away, but my hands and legs are pinned.

“Shh,” he croons. “We’re going to have the wedding night the gods intended for us.” He lies beside me, turns his body into mine, and buries his face in my hair.

I wrench at my bindings, struggling to kick free, but my ankles are tied to the bedposts and my arms are stretched over my head. I reach inward for my powers to burn away the straps—and find a well of emptiness. No soul-fire flickers within me.

“What did you do?” I ask, my voice hitching on terror.

Tarek answers while kissing a trail across my cheek. “I poisoned you as you did me.”

His hands roam down my body. A wild, hot scream rises up my throat. Tarek slams a palm over my mouth.

“Don’t fight me, love. You are my wife”—he kisses my cramping neck—“and I am your husband. The gods have bound our souls in matrimony. You’re mine, forever and always.”

I struggle against my bindings, tears flooding my sight. Tarek presses his hand harder over my mouth to muffle my screams.


My head jerks up, my breath thrashing against my rib cage. I am not in my bedchamber. The Turquoise Palace is far away. And Rajah Tarek . . . Tarek is dead.

Brac is sitting beside me, his honey eyes shimmering with worry. Mathura, Natesa, and Deven finish a supper of dried fruit and toasted nuts across the campfire. Yatin stands guard on the outcropping overlooking the valley, a shadow against a starlit night.

“Are you all right?” Brac asks.

I wrap my arms around myself to suppress a shiver. “I drifted off.”

“Did you dream of him again?”


Brac curses under his breath and glances across the campfire at his brother. “You should tell him.”

“No,” I answer with finality. Deven can hardly stand to speak of my marriage to Tarek, let alone hear that the rajah dominates my dreams. Neither Natesa nor Mathura have asked what privately took place between Tarek and me on our wedding night, and Yatin only sends me glances of sympathy from time to time. Brac was on guard when I first woke from a night terror in a cold sweat and confided in him. He already knew that I had been poisoned—he had burned the toxins from my body when he and Deven found me—but he did not know how. After my explanation, I swore I would not tell anyone else that I used poison-laced lotion to kill Tarek, or that I was prepared to die with him.

I stare into the crackling fire, fatigue wearing a path down my spine. I wish I could sketch to alleviate my mind, but those days of quiet pleasure are on hold until after we find Prince Ashwin and determine what to do with the Zhaleh resting in my satchel. We have not discussed where best to secure the bhutas’ sacred book, but that is a concern for after I am free from my throne.

Brac gazes into the campfire and speaks, his tone thoughtful. “It’s said that when a Burner looks into the heart of a fire, they can see the reflection of their soul. I used to spend hours watching for mine, waiting for my blood to sing to the flames and reveal my inner self.”

“Have you ever seen anything?”

“No, but I imagine my soul’s reflection would be a wolf.” An apt choice. Brac is stealthy and sly, and his golden eyes shine like a canine’s. He bumps his shoulder into mine. “What do you see?”

I look into the campfire, uncertain what it will show me. My inner self has done some awful things. “I don’t see anything either.”

“Let’s try this.” Brac reaches for the campfire and plucks out a spindly flame as he would a loose thread. The filament of heat suspends between his palms, hovering above his skin. He rotates his hands, and the long flame winds through his fingers like a serpent weaving through tall grass. He is trying to cheer me up, and I cannot help but be amazed. The sight of him playing with fire is mesmerizing.

“Nature-fire is the last element the gods created. When the sky-god Anu bestowed godly gifts on the First Bhutas, the Burner was feared above them all. People saw her as a peril.”

“Her? The first Burner was a woman?”

“Her name was Uri,” Brac says. I stare, transfixed, as the flame twists between his fingers. “Uri knew she had to master nature-fire or she would always be feared, so she trekked up the highest mountain and spent several moons learning to manipulate a single flame.” Brac holds out the strand of fire. “Take it.”

“I don’t think so.” Brac has been training me to expand my abilities with soul-fire, but I am not ready for nature-fire.

“Kali, you can scorch and parch soul-fire as well as I can, but until you master nature-fire, you’re a danger. See this campfire? You cannot extinguish it without an outside source. You need a pail of sand or water. You can start the fire, but you cannot control it.” Brac comes nearer with the hot flame. “Anu created mortals in the image of the gods. Sky in our lungs, land beneath our feet, fire in our soul, and water in our blood. The First Bhutas were each given dominion over one of these powers. So you see, you have nothing to fear. You are fire, and fire is you.”

“But soul-fire is contained within the body.” I maintain a firm eye on the flame dancing over his hand, mistrustful of its cheerful movements. “Nature-fire is wild.”

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