Home > The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)(5)

The Rogue Queen (The Hundredth Queen #3)(5)
Author: Emily R. King

We sail up to the monstrous breaker in a long line of vessels. Seabirds screech above our procession, some of them nested along the craggy cliff. The crew slows our approach, and we wait our turn to slide under the bridge on the low tide. Water cannons are mounted on the span, aimed at the open water. They’re larger than the raiders’ cannons, I think. They should keep the raiders out.

Enki’s Heart glides up to the opening, next in the fleet to pass through. Soldiers watch us from the guardhouse on the bridge, and then we coast beneath them into the shade. Through the shadows, I make out runes etched into the underside of the arch.

“What do they say?” I ask Ashwin beside me.

“Water in our blood,” he answers, reading the ancient script. I saw that line once in a book about bhutas. All mankind was created in the likeness of the gods—sky in our lungs, land beneath our feet, fire in our souls, and water in our blood. Ashwin grimaces at the etchings. The last time he read runes, he released the Voider.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t think.”

Before he can reply, we emerge into a sparkling blue cove. A verdant island awaits across the water. The city of Lestari rises from the sea with dignified refinement. A labyrinth of waterways weaves beneath picturesque houses built on platforms and secured to stilts erected upon the beach. Thick columns, endless windows, and wide-open terrace balconies line every level of the staggered structures. Palm trees thrive on patches of white sand. Arching bridges span the azure inlets, connecting the city without disturbing the ebb and flow of the tides.

The Pearl Palace, the grand centerpiece of the Southern Isles, extends into the sunset sky with spindly spires glossy as the inside of an oyster. As I watch, residents light torches to illuminate the roads and homes darkening in the failing daylight.

Our vessel slips down a main channel toward the heart of the city and past water mills that power textile, paper, and flour mills. The Lestarians use the tides resourcefully, though I suspect they have ongoing Aquifier aid. A woman guides one of the water wheels, pushing a stream through the wheel’s slats.

An outdoor market runs alongside the opposite bank. The sea breeze flutters orange-and-lime-colored sunshades stretched between lean-tos. Merchants present a spread of enticing goods, from painted pottery to ripe bananas. Fish hang from rafters, drying in the late-day sun as buyers purchase their wares before nightfall. Everyone’s clothes and faces are clean. Everything about Lestari is immaculate, like a perfectly round pearl.

The waterway pushes us through the open gates of the Pearl Palace, where Enki’s Heart bumps against a dock. A medium-height old man dressed in all white waits there. Several guards, also in white, flank him. The man’s gray hair hangs past his shoulders, and a strand of pink shells rings his neck. His deeply tanned brown skin is sun worn, like cracked leather.

Our party disembarks, and Admiral Rimba leads Ashwin and me to the gray-haired man in white. My bad leg aches. I left my cane on the riverboat to avoid the impression that the kindred of the Tarachand Empire and two-time tournament champion cannot walk without assistance.

Admiral Rimba bends into an impressively low bow. “Datu Bulan, we bring you Prince Ashwin and Kindred Kalinda.”

“I have eyes, Admiral,” the datu answers, quirking a bushy brow at my slouch. He is not a big man. Even stooping, I tower over him. “Welcome to Lestari, Jewel of the Southern Isles.”

My posture aggravates my sore leg. I speak to hide my discomfort. “Thank you for your hospitality. Have any members of our party arrived before us?”

“So far, only you,” replies the datu, revealing a gap between his top front teeth.

Ashwin stands taller, as he often does when I am at his side. “We’re eager to discuss the happenings in Iresh.”

The datu’s eyes cool on the young prince. I have only seen Deven look at Ashwin with that much distaste. “We are preparing supper for you and your viraji. First, let us direct you to your chambers.”

I startle at the datu’s formal endearment for me, and, at the fringe of my sight, Deven stiffens. No one has called me viraji—intended queen—since Tarek claimed me as his final rani.

“Datu Bulan,” I say, “there’s been a mistake. I’m not—”

“Kalinda isn’t well enough to stand here any longer,” Indah finishes. “She suffered an ordeal while securing her throne in the trial tournament. I must insist she rest.”

Datu Bulan dons a paternal friendliness. “Then let’s move along.”

Ashwin pulls back. “Datu, may I have use of your library?” He intends to research the Voider. Bhuta powers cannot injure the demon, so we have to find another way to stop him.

The datu does not balk at the prince’s request, nor does his glower lessen. “As you wish.”

Admiral Rimba steps forward. “Pons can escort the prince.”

Deven does not object to leaving Ashwin in Pons’s care, but Indah raises her voice.

“Must it be Pons, Father? We only just arrived.”

“The ambassador and I have matters to attend to,” Admiral Rimba clips out. “Have you any grievance, Pons?”

Pons tucks his arms in, his chin high. “No, sir.” He speaks to Ashwin. “Your Majesty, if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the way to the library.”

Ashwin begins to go with him, and the newness of this place lands on me all at once.

“Will I see you soon?” My question arises as a demand. Distance between Ashwin and I has not troubled me before, but the pressure on my chest will not abate.

“I’ll find your chamber later,” Ashwin promises, and he sets off with Pons.

My anxiety dissolves . . . until I catch Deven’s sidelong look. I cannot say what came over me, except that I am not as comfortable in the company of our allies as I thought.

Admiral Rimba leaves with Chitt, and Datu Bulan shuffles up the main walkway in sandals that are too big for him. An amethyst banner with a sea dragon hangs above the arched entry. Through the main doors, pastel shells encrust the ivory walls and lanterns. Additional banners drape from the vaulted ceilings, splashes of majesty that offset the neutral décor.

In the center of the entry hall, a fountain cascades down from the second level between the double staircase. The datu slows before the fountain’s base so we can view the lifelike sculpture of Enki riding astride a sea dragon. The creature’s sleek, serpentine body is half submerged in the miniature rapids. The goddess holds a trident in one hand, her arms open to the archipelago of the Southern Isles.

I recognize the depiction of the legend from my history lessons with the Sisterhood. “This scene portrays the creation of the isles.”

Datu Bulan smiles, revealing his toothy gap. “Very apt, Kindred. We tell our creation story every spring at the highest tide.”

“Will you tell us?” Natesa asks him. “I didn’t listen as closely in class as Kalinda.” Yatin releases a deep chuckle, and Natesa elbows him to be quiet. She was more studious in the sparring ring than the classroom.

Datu Bulan gazes up at the water-goddess sculpture. “Our island is nearly as ancient as Enki herself. Our ancestors dwelled contentedly by the sea until the gods left the mortal realm for the Beyond. As soon as Enki departed, the sea rebelled. Tides flooded the villages and farmlands.”

I listen closely. His brogue is somewhat hard to follow, his k’s and r’s rushed or not enunciated. Indah and Pons have accents as well, but theirs are less noticeable.

“The islanders feared for their lives, but they loved their home and would not flee for the mainland. They congregated along the shoreline and confronted the roiling waves. The sea waited for them to turn their backs on the surf so it could ambush them and sweep them away, but the islanders stood firm and prayed for Enki to save them. When she saw they would not be moved, she bridled the sea and dragged the high tide away from the villagers. In the absence of her waters, more fertile islands rose up from the seafloor for them to build and plant upon.” The datu dips his fingertips in the fountain. “We still offer daily sacrifices to Enki. In return, she preserves us from the tides.”

I memorize Enki’s beautiful yet fierce stance, her open arms beckoning for me to believe.

Datu Bulan motions for us to move along. We trail him up the grand staircase and down a wide corridor. Etchings above the doorways draw my notice. The godly virtues—obedience, service, brotherhood, humility, and tolerance—decorate every threshold. The temple sisters emphasized sisterhood instead of brotherhood, but otherwise the virtues are the same ones we strive to emulate in Tarachand.

Natesa sees them too. “Why are the godly virtues over every doorway?”

The datu stops. “To remind us of our divine path.” He passes through a door and we follow.

The spacious chamber is open to a terrace and balcony, letting in the briny scent of the sea. A fountain flows down the wall into a low basin. The running water continually cools the room. The furniture is crafted from durable grasses and driftwood, and thin white linens cover the bed. Deven prowls around, checking the chamber’s security. I can already tell he does not like the terrace; it is too easy for someone to slip in unseen.

“This is lovely,” I say.

Datu Bulan lifts the back of my hand to his lips. “Anything for a two-time tournament champion. I would trade all my pearls to have hair like yours in my collection.”

“Ah . . . thank you?”

“It’s a compliment, Viraji. I collect rare and valuable treasures.” Bulan lifts his shell necklace for me to see. “I traded a bucketful of black diamond sand for these. They can only be found in the Northern Sea.”

I touch a smooth pink shell. “They’re exquisite.”

“Not as exquisite as your hair.” Datu Bulan delivers his flattery with utmost sincerity, as though very few things in the world awe him more than his strand of shells. Then he sweeps his hands behind his back, nods farewell, and shuffles out, his too-large sandals slapping the floor.

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