Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
For those of you just joining us: Kerani is a counterassassin who has discovered a large plot that impacts her main source of information— underground crime— but her father is insisting she start to give up her counterassassin ways so she can get married.
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I was quite happy not to see an anarkali suit delivered. I recalled many a time Ranya had tried to wear something more traditional to the Palahiras and her fabric choices had returned as Empire pieces. I supposed that was an advantage to marrying within the Palahiras— our own traditional outfits were acceptable.
Despite having found the merchant, I wasn’t allowed to go see them. Father didn’t want me killed before the date was announced. His paranoia was making me want to burst through his office door and lecture him for a change. If it had been a direct attack on him, he would spare nothing to make sure I could stop it. As it was, all I could do was rage and distract myself with family happenings.
Sometimes I needed reminders why I was doing this.
It was difficult, next to impossible even, to keep kindling bonds with my family when all they did was remind me Ranya wasn’t a part of it anymore. She’d lost her right to this land when she signed her contract. My parents kept telling me I was supposed to have loyalty to my family, because they wouldn’t leave like guards, but then my sister had been torn away from me and many other sisters were poised to marry outside of the family instead of in.
Then there was me, marrying within the family because of my own stubborn loyalty to an ideal I hated half of the time.
Loneliness was not an ache that got any easier to bear. Trying to forge new connections or maintain old ones only seemed to make it worse.
I dismissed my servants after they brought my makeup. I had too many poisons in this room to risk people in here. Finding the time to train these girls was low on my priority list. I also preferred keeping our observations of servants to those who assisted our actual scientists. Their servants were true lab assistants, and we could only do background checks on and keep tabs on the expenses of so many people. I made sure to pay mine particularly well so they wouldn’t be tempted by bribes. Not like they knew where I kept anything.
After today, I would be betrothed. I blinked away unexpected desire to cry, pressing a finger against my lash line to not disturb the pigment already applied on my lid. Betrothal was normal. Expected. I was late already. My heart didn’t matter, and this was a good alliance. I was picking a man I could sway, in a place I could rule.
Rajat’s face flashed in the mirror.
The roar of an avalanche filled my ears, world falling to white. Most days, most triggers, I could control garükh yunu. Not this one. Not when all I was trying to avoid was the thought Suraj could befall the same fate, that anyone I loved intensely was nothing more than a weakness that could be used against me. I didn’t want to live a loveless life. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I didn’t know which desire was stronger.
I had no choice but to get betrothed.
Why couldn’t he see how weak it would make me? He was the one who told me how loving outside men would compromise my operations. He had forced me to stay single. Forced Rajat away so I could learn my lesson. Forced all of my friends away so I could learn my lesson. Only let Aydin and Sakari nearby because no other guard was skilled enough while also being free enough to follow me around the city. The more senior guards were too busy with the scientists, or my parents.
Chandi tried to offer something, at one point. All I could do was shove her away. She was pregnant, I worked with poisons. Nitika tried to come in. I pushed her away for the same reason.
Finally, Jalil came. “I swear, if this is how I find out she’s pregnant…”
I paused and laughed, sound transitioning into a sob. “I’m good at my job?”
He pulled a soft white cloth from the spread of makeup and wiped the tear streaks off my cheeks. “You are. And I will defend your right to do it with my dying breath.”
I cried into my hands to not stain his white shirt. The worst tears always came when they would ruin something. Part of me wanted to ruin this, but not his part in it. Not when he’d done so much for me. I wanted to stay close to the family just to protect him while I still could, before he’d become the family ambassador to the Empire and our older brother would return to rule.
The Empire kept taking everyone I loved and here I was trapped within the family by my own will because I couldn’t be myself anywhere else, and I was about to lose that, too.
Struggling to breathe panic. Great.
Eventually, I calmed down enough I could stop shaking, stop babbling everything that I was worried about to Jalil and hearing platitudes about how he wouldn’t let my worst fears about this marriage happen.
He rubbed my arms. “Nitika’s gotten makeup ready in our suite, if you want her to do it.”
I nodded and followed him into their room. Nitika was, indeed, ready with makeup— powders and creams in my favourite colours laid out on her vanity. I smiled at that, slightly.
“My cycle is two days late and already you’re keeping me away from the potential of poison,” she said with a thinly-veiled grin. “You’re ridiculous.”
Now, I laughed. “You know the one rule about my room is nobody who could get hurt goes in there.”
“You’re worse than the alchemists…”
Familiar jabbing just left an equally familiar ache in my heart; whether or not I’d get to keep my instruments. Everything I had been trying to ignore for years kept threatening to spill over.
Nitika dampened a cloth to properly wash khol streaks off my skin. “If he refuses, send him to Jalil. I would offer, but if he’s that incorrect with how he sees Empire women I doubt he would listen to me.”
Jalil smiled as he watched. “I’ve already offered. Maybe I should pay him a visit. Make sure he’s kept up with his education so he can match you.”
“He’s heir to running the city,” I said, pressing my fingers to my lashes to catch another wash of tears. “He should. He’s probably better than me.”
Jalil shook his head. “I dare the Empire to find somebody better than you at what you do.”
I swallowed. “Don’t spread that. They might decide to test it and discover I’m best used elsewhere.”
He smoothed a hand over my hair, grabbing a brush to comb it. “I had hoped to reassure you with that…”
The self-deprecating grumble brought the smallest laugh to my throat. “In a sense it is, but you know better than I do how the Empire takes the best for itself.”
He snorted. “That should be a compliment, how much they’ve taken from us.”
I had ignored thoughts about Ranya’s marriage, for how they had been so tied up with my own. Once she had been married, I was free to be married. I hadn’t been allowed to be distracted while she was in danger— I had lost too many nights to stopping assassination attempts, practically living in her suite, her practically living in mine— and now I was expected to live a lifetime of distractions.
I was going to be yelled at for lateness, for how much I was crying. Nitika’s eyes were watering in empathy, her own emotions difficult to keep in check. Teary-eyed betrotheds were common enough. I didn’t need to add to them.
That thought finally snapped me out of it and I worked on both coming up with an excuse and lowering the redness to my eyes. Happiness could be manufactured relatively easily— I was happy I had picked somebody I could manipulate, and I was happy I could move to the city to be closer to my informants.
That would do.
Jalil added flowers to my hair, braiding some parts across my scalp with gold chains, weaving them in with jasmine vine down the length and adding hibiscus at the end and nape of my neck. Nitika brushed black along my lash line, the end extending towards my temple. Simple. Traditional. I hardly wore jewellery except for a tiered necklace and a jeweled dagger. I had only gotten the barest amount of henna done on my hands. I looked more like a guard bride than the Crown Princess’ younger sister. I wanted to remind people they could not remove my former life so easily.
A brewing headache let me know I was late. Father was dragging my attention to Suraj waiting in one of the private meeting rooms, and the food that was now at risk of being overdone. I closed off any potential heartache and fear to adjust my scarf draped like a mock sari. Everything about my costume from the gold trim to the deep red for brides was too fine to be anything but noble; everything about how I wore it was too common to be. Sometimes I liked reminding people who I was.
And Father could do absolutely nothing about it.
Jalil paused in the mirror to add the diamond broach to his saffron turban, a servant handing him his matching vest with silver embroidery in snow leopard print. He looked every inch a Palahira; understated but crisp, his clothing the colours of a topaz on snow.
Nitika went to get ready herself, not needing to be out for at least another hour, her favourite servant slipping into the room, while Jalil and I went to the private sitting room for important Palahira functions. Father was already there. He hadn’t screened my outfits in years, me a shadow in the background as the rest of court mingled with Imperial representatives, and me being able to stop an assassin more important than how I looked.
The look on his face almost made me regret not showing him. Almost.
Suraj, to his credit, looked pleased with me. He hadn’t seen me dress up for years, and I was rather pleased to see he was in more traditional garb, himself. His turban was deep orange with fine threads of silver woven in, beard trimmed much like Jalil wore his. He still wore hints of blue like the Empire wanted, but it was limited to embroidery in a peacock feather pattern.
Hopefully, that was the full extent the Empire exerted its influence on him. I knew how close to treason I was walking, believing this. I had grown up seeing the cost of independence sentiments. I still refused to be another gem in the Empire’s crown. Wife of the city magistrate would do me very well, politically. That was what I told myself. Hopefully I would believe it eventually.
Father sat on Suraj’s side. I tried not to show my unease he was there instead of at the head of the table, with Suraj having his own independent representative. He’d never run the contract by me. How much input had Suraj received already? How much had Father told him this was for the best?
I sat on the provided cushions, unsure if I was slightly lower just because I was shorter, or if my cushions were thinner.
Father began, only giving Jalil and I a glance long enough to be polite, addressing Suraj. “I am so sorry for the delays. We had to ensure only the best person would be so close to the Imperial throne, for how Rayna was selected. We had to sort through many other offers before deciding on yours. We decided that despite the higher offers from the Empire it was best that at least one child stay within the family.”
“So I can keep protecting you,” I replied. “I selected you to ensure I could continue protecting those who need me, allowing us to remain the stronghold we currently are.”
Suraj gave a smile that almost looked relieved, emotions just barely betraying him. “How many assassinations have you stopped in the past year? It’s been awhile since I’ve received a count.”
“I believe I’m at seven.”
His eyes widened. “Part of me would like to know why the numbers remain quite this high…”
I glanced at Father simmering with rage, keeping my emotions under lock. “Do keep in mind this does include the last few attempts on Ranya. And I have a fortunate habit of dismantling plots before they have a chance to arise.”
He nodded. “True enough. I am quite glad this betrothal is coming into fruition, with a track record such as yours.”
I smiled at the flattery and my current position. Credentials established, the little clauses that guaranteed children out of me and insisted my realm would be inside the palaces were quickly weeded out, Jalil drafting a fresh contract that included such little things as exempting me should the Empire sanction women-only suites under the belief palace women were best left unseen. While I knew the political potential of those suites, I preferred to exert politics outside these walls.
Father tried not to glare, only directing his anger as white hot needles into my skin. I’d gotten practice tuning them out, never quite daring to stop him from sending them just to give the illusion he had some grips over me.
Suraj looked over the contract, teasing gleam in his eye. “This contract contains more clauses than our merchant agreements.”
I matched his expression. “I’m more valuable than a merchant.”
What I kept hidden deep down under wards of my own creation— wards I used to hide my own involvement with the nobles, relying on power only a handful of people in the palace held that only they could break if they matched my training— was how I had changed every instance of wife to spouse. It was the only way I felt comfortable entering marriage at all. I wasn’t blessed as a woman, and I couldn’t go against that blessing. Not for something as significant as a wedding. I just hoped they didn’t ask about it.
Father looked it over, next. My own contract, worded in such a way it looked like a simple wedding agreement but gave me more freedom to act in ways I knew would help. He kept murmuring to Suraj with frustration radiating off him just enough I could sense it. Suraj met whatever he said with confusion, far more expressive than he should’ve been. I’d have to work on that.
Suraj signed it, handing the fountain pen to Father with an insistant air. I kept my smirk at his squirming internal.
He signed it.
Suraj seemed at least partially oblivious to why I was feeling pleased. He escorted me to the celebratory dinner, kissing my hand as we entered on the raised platform given to nobles. The view was different from here— I had entered the floor level door of servants so much, to not draw attention to my watchful activities, I had forgotten what it was like to look over everyone.
Cheering for me.
My weight shifted to the balls of my feet, boots pressing into marble to ground myself. Those who cheered for a corination would cheer for an execution, and I knew just how many people wanted the second scenario to come to pass for me. I kept my gaze cool as I looked over the crowd, meeting the eyes of Father’s key advisors in particular. Letting them know without words or emotions that I could ruin them if I so chose, and this was not an opportunity to silence me.
I still ruled them, and I made sure I would continue to do so. The crowd hushed as we stepped down, taking our place beside Father to Suraj’s side, and Jalil to mine. Nitika looked stunning beside her husband, decorated in gold and light peach— a striking contrast against her medium brown skin. I kept an eye on her as dinner was served, but nothing about her meal choice was unusual. Perhaps I had been wrong this time.
Kathak dancers entered the open space between tables, the tinkling of ghungroos and hollow clanking of wood against granite the overreaching sound. Chatter died as they began tuning their instruments, the dancers already going through their full-body prayer for stamping the Earth with their feet.
They began with a prayer to Palanhaar, the warrior who protected this land, acting out the battle he fought to banish demons from this valley and establish his home in a peak only accessible if you pass the palace and the temple. Slapping of feet and the steady rhythm of drums grounded me, the story familiarly enchanting. The dancer representing Palanhaar glared at the demon while miming a spear thrust, the other doubling back to the beat of the music before beginning to spin on their heel, each slap making Palanhaar recoil from the demon’s strength before beginning to spin himself, the tabla and sitar growing louder and louder with each rotation.
They moved on to a piece focusing on Sandhin’s exploits and I smiled that the dancers had spent enough time at Sandhin’s temple to know I had been blessed there, instead. Dancers representing the nobles and the working people were both joined by the ever-shifting Sandhin, their costume not quite fitting with anyone but closer enough they were welcomed as family. The dancers didn’t act out any exploits for my own safety— Sadhin was also known as the god of spies, in this region.
Janani’s dance I hardly paid attention to, not because it wasn’t stunning, but because I had been resting long enough. Being at ease too long had nearly cost too many people their lives. Even if there was nothing, it wasn’t worth relaxing.
Nothing continued throughout dinner, throughout the music beginning and everyone standing to dance, throughout into the scholars demonstrating their latest invention in the moonlight— coloured sparks.
I had felt nothing before.
This was not nothing.
This was empty.
“What is it, my love?”
I raised one finger to Suraj, attention on the dark outside of the crowd. People still flowed along the paths like water in a canal, multiple exhibits established along the garden paths to show what advancements could be made under my rule.
He took my hand, trying to placate me in a blanket of softness. “I’m sure we’ll all be safe for one night.”
“You told me that the last time I saved your life,” I replied quietly, squeezing his hand in a bid to have him release me.
He sighed. “I want to protect you from this. Can’t you leave it to the guards?”
I shook my head, pushing his ill-fitting desire to coddle me far away. “Your wants have no place in politics, my love. The guards can’t do what I do, and both of us know it.”
He cooled, emotions more like a glass knife than ice. “I would like a wife, eventually.”
I kept my expression neutral, my own countenance equally cool. No sense in tipping my hand for what he had signed just yet. That was for later, when my house was in proper order. “You will get a protector, politician, and an unquestioned rein. Would you rather have safety or love from your first wife?”
He blinked. “So you expect me—”
My dagger slid out of its sheath towards emptiness trying to wrap around me. Hollow chimes of metal-on-ward. A glint of light out of the corner of my eye indicating a needle.
Suraj grabbed my arm. Anger exploded inside me, shoving everyone away. My attacker remained stubbornly stayed put. Screams turned to yelled orders in multiple languages. I only paid attention to the words no other noble would understand.
Duck. Arrow whistling. Cracked ward.
I drove my dagger into his leg and leapt back.
Light shattered around him before he fell, arrows peppering his back and neck.
My own energy flowed along my skin with hyper-awareness, pushing something out of a scrape in my arm. The ward under my skin healed itself, my eyes closing as more sticky-warm blood soaked into fabric. Before I was ready to acknowledge my surroundings, a tap on my shoulder had me swat someone’s hand away.
Anger pressing down on me— followed by two protective bubbles— drew my attention to my surroundings. Ihit and Neha were the source of one layer of protection against Father, while Suraj was the other. Neha came forward to help me up, her grip firm on my arm.
“Do you need a Guard healer?”
I nodded, responding in the language of guards more easily than I could remember the language of nobles. “And my clothes taken so I can test them.”
What drew me back to my mother tongue was a heated conversation between Suraj and Father.
“She shocked you!”
Suraj was cool and flinty. “I put her in danger.”
Maybe I had picked better than I thought. “I’m going to the healers.”
Suraj glared at Father before backing my retreat.