The Rogue Queen Page 3

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.



I grab my sword from behind the wheelhouse door and follow the click-clack of Kali’s cane. Since sustaining her injuries, her already tall, lean frame has thinned to frailty. She stoops over like a crane, her healing leg quaking from exertion.

Skies, she’s stubborn.

Helping her would be easier if she would quit interpreting my aid as her failing. She is not weak; she is in need. Before the Voider blasted her with his cold-fire, Kali shone bright as the sun and enchanted nature-fire into a huge, fiery dragon. It hurts to see her struggling.

Indah and two more Lestarian Aquifiers use their powers to guide our skiff across the choppy delta waters. I managed to avoid seasickness on the smooth-flowing river, but my stomach is less enthused about the open water. On either side of the inlet, the coastline stretches into the distance, dotted with palm trees along alabaster beaches. The rest of my party line up at the rail, staring at the waiting ship.

The larger watercraft is more suitable for open seas, with a flat bottom, high bow, and lower stern. I estimate its length at three hundred cubits and width about half that size. The exterior has been painted a true blue, and the prow is shaped into the head of a sea dragon. The military vessel has a single mast but no sails or steering oar. Aquifier sailors stationed on the starboard and port sides power the vessel. Hollow barrels are mounted at the stern—water cannons. The Lestarian Navy protects merchant and passenger vessels from the raiders that troll these waters. A serpentine sea dragon, mirroring the prow, decorates the amethyst flag snapping in the wind atop the mast.

We reach the navy vessel and stop before the teak hull inscribed with the name Enki’s Heart. Pons throws the line up to the sailors. They fasten it and drop a rope ladder. I climb the ladder first. Two older official-looking men wait to greet us on the pristine deck. The crew consists of men and women, all in baggy knee-length trousers and tunics.

One of the older men with a long white beard holds a trident as I would a staff. He is chewing a wad of something green—mint? I heard mint chewing is a popular pastime among sailors. The Lestarians watch me with their golden eyes. I leave my sword sheathed and return their scrutiny.

Prince Ashwin arrives next and then helps Kali off the ladder. I do not react, pretending her accepting his help does not bother me, but I want to pitch him overboard. I barely restrained myself earlier when I saw him kiss her cheek. A seemingly harmless act, except that he holds the power to force her to wed him. She believes he will not, but I am slow to trust anyone dense enough to release a demon.

Yatin and Natesa come aboard next. Natesa leaves her hand free for the dagger at her waist, mistrustful of the strangers. Yatin’s daunting size and ropy beard cause the strangers to shift nervously, even if he is mild unless provoked.

Pons arrives next, his blowgun wedged in his belt. He is a trained soldier, though his main duty is guarding Indah. He assists her on deck, and the white-bearded man with the trident grabs her up in a hug.

“This is my father,” Indah says proudly, “Admiral Rimba, head of the Lestarian Navy. Father, this is Prince Ashwin and Kindred Kalinda.”

The admiral bows. “Welcome aboard. This is Ambassador Chitt,” he says of the nondescript dressed man beside him. “He’s the standing bhuta emissary.”

“Please, call me Chitt,” the ambassador says. Gray streaks mix into his otherwise coppery hair. He is tall, about my height, but rangier in build. Cords of lean muscle run up his forearms and disappear under his thin tunic. He may be a diplomat, but his hands and arms belong to a man acquainted with labor. Something about his rugged features is . . . familiar.

“Kindred, for a time I was your father’s delegate,” he says. “I accompanied him on several mediation missions.”

“His delegate?” Kali asks.

“Kishan was the previous bhuta emissary,” the ambassador replies. The breast of Chitt’s tunic bears the fire-god’s symbol, a single flame. Admiral Rimba wears the water-goddess’s emblem, a wave, on his collar. Both marks identify them as bhutas.

I exchange a glance with Yatin. The sultan employed bhutas in his military as well. They did not treat us well.

“I’d like to hear more about my father sometime,” Kali says.

Ambassador Chitt’s presence niggles at my memory as he answers, “It would be my pleasure.”

Indah picks up where she left off with introductions, continuing until she ends with me. “And this is Captain Deven Naik.”

“General Naik,” Prince Ashwin corrects.

I flinch at my new title of command. After I accosted the prince, I did not think he would honor his word in promoting me to general. And just who am I the general of? We have no army. The only soldier under my command is Yatin, and my friend would follow me anywhere, regardless of my title. If the prince thinks he can persuade me into liking him, he is dimmer than I thought. My father was the army’s previous general. Under the rajah’s direction, he massacred hundreds of innocent bhutas. Inheriting his seat of command is neither a prize nor honor.

“Good to meet you, General Naik,” Chitt says, examining me as well. “We were told you have another passenger, a member of the Brotherhood?”

“He passed away.” I cut a glare at the prince. Brother Shaan worried himself to death because of him. The thought of the Voider let loose in our world was too much for his old heart to handle. I already miss him.

“Has anyone arrived ahead of us?” Kali asks. Pons has been listening to the wind for messages from my family, but none have arrived. “Deven was separated from his brother and mother. They and two Galers, more of our guards, are supposed to meet us in Lestari.”

I pray they are already there.

“We haven’t seen or heard from them,” replies Admiral Rimba, squashing my hopes. He continues, speaking around his mint chewing. “But they could have arrived after we left this morning. We’ll soon find out. We must leave now to reach the isles by sunset.”

He and Indah direct us to a cabin at the center of the deck. Pons falls in line behind them, his expression sterner than usual. It is strange not seeing him beside Indah. Prince Ashwin and Kali follow next with Chitt, who chats politely about the humid weather.

Ahead of me, Natesa whispers to Yatin, “Does the ambassador look familiar to you?”

So it isn’t just me.

I step inside a half second after them and miss Yatin’s answer. Benches with pillows line the rectangular cabin, and the doors slide closed to circumvent the wind. Everyone finds a secure place for travel. Of course Ashwin occupies the seat beside Kali. I sit near the exit, splitting my attention between the foreign navy and my rani.

Sailors shut the sliding doors, leaving the door facing the stern open. The Aquifiers manning the deck lift Enki’s Heart on a mountainous swell and fly us forward on a continuous wave. My fingers curl around edge of the bench. In no time, the ship rocks Kali to sleep. I keep alert, less trusting of our hosts than the others, but my attention wavers as nausea dangles in my belly.

Everyone else watches the passing scenery, unbothered by our bumpy speed. Natesa and Yatin point out seabirds and jumping fish to each other. I scan Natesa’s hands for the lotus ring Yatin saved for her. When he was ill, he asked me to give it to her on his behalf. I told him to hold on to it. Now that he is well, I thought he would propose, but Natesa is not wearing the ring.

Yatin notices my ashen pallor. “Do you need a bucket?” he asks in his gentle burr.

“No, just fresh air.”

I compose myself and leave the cabin. When I am out of the others’ view, I stagger to the rail and retch overboard. Spray shoots up, cooling my cheeks. I empty my stomach and slump over. Past the bow, the sea rolls on with no end in sight. I have never seen anything more empty or dreary.

Chitt steps on deck and joins me. “General, do you know Mathura Naik?”

I gulp down more nausea. “She’s my mother. How do you know her?”

“We met years ago at the palace. She had a little boy with solemn eyes about this tall.” Chitt measures the height of a small child. “He wouldn’t fall asleep without his wooden sword.”

“You spent time in the courtesan’s wing,” I say flatly. They only could have met there. My mother was one of Rajah Tarek’s courtesans.

“Mathura was sent to my chamber.” At Chitt’s use of my mother’s first name, I grip the hilt of my sword. “We talked all night long about my travels. Her curiosity for the world was infectious.”

Tarek forced my mother to entertain his men of court and visiting dignitaries. “You never touched her?” I press.

Chitt’s golden eyes flash. Antagonizing a powerful Burner may not be my brightest idea. “General Naik, I do believe that’s a question for your mother.”

“I’ll be certain to ask her.”

“I hope you do.” He considers me closer. “I heard Mathura has another son.”

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