Home > The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)(2)

The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)(2)
Author: Emily R. King

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.

   
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