Home > The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen #1)

The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen #1)
Author: Emily R. King

1

Snowy mountains tear into the ashen sky, their jagged peaks pearly, like wolverine fangs. Cold winds sting my bare cheeks and exposed hands. The frosty temple courtyard is barren of the other daughters and sisters who reside here. Only my best friend is with me.

“Strike me here,” Jaya says, pointing to her neck.

I frown, gripping the bamboo staff harder.

“I have done this a thousand times,” she says. “Trust me, Kalinda.”

Jaya is the only daughter in the temple I do trust, so I swing the staff at her jugular, sweeping sideways in an arc. She stops my attack with both hands and yanks backward. Still holding the other end, I am dragged with her. Jaya jerks upward, wrenching the staff from my grasp, and brings the long end down over my shoulder blades. The bamboo gives a hollow thwack, and I crumple to my knees in the snow.

Jaya straightens to her whole height, a head shorter than I am. “You should have let go.”

I grind my teeth together. Jaya is not gloating. She knows that I have to master this maneuver, one of several I should have already learned, and would have, if it were not for years of lying in a sickbed. I am well enough now, not that my performance shows it.

I push to my feet, my back stinging almost as much as my pride. “Again.”

Jaya passes me the staff and rubs her hands together for warmth. I must have done something tremendous in my past lives for the gods to reward me with a friend like her. She will stay out in the cold as long as I ask, exposed to the Alpana Mountains’ wintry moods.

I swing the staff at her once more. Jaya catches it and yanks back, no hesitancy or leniency in her strength. I hang on, and we grip the staff face-to-face, our silvery breaths colliding in the icy air. My mind goes blank. I can remember the last book I read and the last sketch I drew, but I cannot remember what to do next.

“Spin it fast and pull,” Jaya reminds me.

I whip the staff in a dizzying circle. Jaya’s wrists cannot rotate with it, and she is forced to let go. Finally, I have the upper hand. I jam the short end of the staff into her chest. She jolts backward and skids on a patch of ice. I seize her arm before she falls.

“Sorry,” I say. “I should have warned you.”

“I would have done the same.” One corner of Jaya’s mouth curls up. “But I would have let you fall.”

Rightfully so. I cannot be unprepared for my first skill trials tomorrow, or my opponents will laugh me out of the ring. Training with the younger girls at the preliminary level, and having them beat me, was humiliating enough. I finally won my match two days ago and moved up to my age group, but I am still inexperienced compared to the other eighteen-year-olds.

I skim the back of my hand across my forehead, relieved to find it cool to the touch. My health has improved since Healer Baka first concocted a tonic that lowers my chronic fevers, but I have a lot of time to make up for and a lot of skill to prove.

“Up for one more round?” I ask.

Jaya brushes her ebony hair from her eyes and takes the staff from me. “See if you can stop me this time,” she says.

I grin, accepting her challenge. She knows that my strength lies in defensive maneuvers. She is trying to increase my confidence as a dueler, and, gods’ virtue, I love her for it.

A sudden noise, like rocks being crushed, comes from beyond the high stone temple wall. We still and tilt our ears to the wind.

Jaya’s gaze intensifies on me. “Wagons.”

By wagons, she means visitors—or, more specifically, men. I listen harder to the sounds of their approach. Many mysteries surround our gender counterparts, but I am more curious than frightened. I grab my slingshot and start for the gate.

“Kali, wait!” Jaya tugs me back. “You cannot leave the grounds alone.”

“So come with me.”

She worries her lower lip with her teeth. I glance at the gate. We do not have much time. The sisters will discover us missing and come for us. The temple was built without windows, to withstand the lengthy winters and to protect our innocence—or ignorance. This is our first and maybe our only chance to glimpse an arrival party.

Jaya’s gaze flits to the gate. “All right. Quickly.”

We fling open the gate and race to an outcropping overlooking the road, the only thoroughfare leading to and from the Samiya Temple. I crouch low behind an alpine shrub, my senses jumping. Jaya joins me, shivering in the frigid wind. The steady clattering swells. I arm my slingshot with a firing stone. The sisters have warned us of bhutas hiding in nearby caves. No one has seen the evil demons with dark powers, but I want to be prepared.

A supply caravan plods into sight, a line of horse-drawn carts loaded with wares. My belly rumbles with hunger. Our last delivery of fresh goods was three moons ago.

Jaya nudges me with her elbow. “Kali, look.”

A gold-leafed round-top carriage pulled by an ivory horse team ambles over the jutted roadway. The golden carriage is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, but an inner chill shakes me. I cannot mistake who is inside. One of the empire’s elite has come to Samiya, and the benefactors make this journey up from the valley below for only one reason. A Claiming.

Jaya frowns so hard that a crane could roost on her lower lip. I was raised in the Sisterhood of the Parijana faith from infancy, but she was brought to the temple at age eight. When she shared horrible memories with me from her life before, my stomach ached for days.

Several horseback riders come into view. My heart pounds harder. The lead soldier is the clearest to make out; his long legs taper from narrow hips and a boxy, solid chest. He is the first man I have seen in person. My eyes widen to take him in. He is more fascinating than the chapel murals of the sky-god, Anu, and his son, Enlil, the fire-god. I want to see him more closely.

Slingshot ready, I rise for a better look—and stand in full view of Priestess Mita, the headmistress, who calls for us to come in. Jaya goes directly to her. I drag my pace, hoping for another look at the lead soldier, but it is too late to see his face again.

“Kalinda,” snaps the priestess.

I hasten into the courtyard. Jaya picks up the two potted plants she brought out for a spot of sunshine and cradles them against her sides. Priestess Mita hustles us through the dark temple entry. Smoke curls laced with sandalwood rise from the ever-burning incense sticks stationed in the corridor to lessen the mustiness. The priestess passes us lit oil lamps.

“What were you doing outside the grounds?” For a short, shoulder-hunched woman, her authority could make a mountain tremble.

I brace against her scowl. “Jaya was helping me practice for skill trials.”

“What did you see on the road?”

“Nothing.”

Her nostrils flare. “Is that true, Jaya?”

Jaya lowers her eyes. “Yes, Priestess.”

The priestess’s gaze cools. She believes Jaya over me. Last year, the priestess caught me trespassing in the north tower. I was tired of being bedridden, and I often sneaked up to the restricted observatory for fresh air. I tiptoed up there unseen for years, until she came upon me in the stairwell one night. The tower door has been locked since, and Priestess Mita’s trust in me has been stowed away with the key.

“Jaya, go to supper,” orders the priestess.

My friend sends me a hesitant glance and then leaves, her lamp lighting the way down the corridor.

Priestess Mita pins me with her stare. “You know better than to leave the temple grounds, Kalinda,” she says. Then her voice turns careful. “Are you content here?”

“Yes, Priestess.”

This is my home. I would scale the highest peak of the Alpanas to protect it, but, given the opportunity, I would do the same for another look at the lead soldier. I tip my face away from the lamplight to hide my flush.

Priestess Mita clucks her tongue. “Focus on your lessons, your sisters, and your devotion. Of the five godly virtues, which do the gods esteem above all else?”

“Obedience,” I mumble. I do not add that I doubt that the gods intended us to be stripped of all but one choice. Then again, when it comes to the Claiming, none of us have any choice at all.

“You will do well to remember your place here,” Priestess Mita says, shooing me along as she leaves to greet the arrival party.

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