When she woke that morning, Runa felt a phantom scorpion dance across her palm. She did not sit up in fright, but she lifted her hand to her chin slowly, even as her reason assured her that no scorpion was present. Almost a year had passed since that evening on the hill, and she hadn’t seen a deathwhisper since. But she thought of it often, because it was the first time in seventeen years that she had known true fear. That day was a test, one she had passed. She felt certain that she had upheld the principles of the Harmonious Path, and that, in doing so, she had honored her parents and the Beneficent Deity.

“Runa!” An excited voice called up to her, and she went to the top of her stairs to answer.

“Coming, I’m coming! Almost ready.”

A moment later, her best friend Basima pounded up the winding staircase that led to the princess’s apartment. Runa tried to step back, but Basima was long-legged and strong: she grabbed the princess by the shoulders and held her fast.

“I bet you haven’t even done your morning meditation yet, have you? Life’s blood, you’re half-naked!” Basima cried, shaking her friend for emphasis. Dizzily, Runa pitched forward and slumped against Basima’s chest.

She grumbled. “I woke up late, apparently.”

“It’s already the tenth hour,” Basima said. “I’ve been up since the fifth. Mind, that’s only because Basir makes more noise than a windstorm when he’s cooking breakfast, but there you have it. Always singing to the eggs like they’ll poach faster that way.” Basima released Runa, and the princess stumbled, reaching for her dresser to maintain equilibrium.

“Just give me a few minutes,” Runa said.

“What about meditation?”

Runa shrugged as she stood up straight. “I’ll just make evening meditation twice as long.” She opened the dresser to pull out the day’s costume while Basima clucked in disapproval.

“Your discipline leaves a lot to be desired,” she said, without rancor. She leaned against the doorframe while her friend dressed, watching Runa pull on a long, jeweled skirt made of light, iridescent fabric over a heavier, dark blue fabric cut to look like lotus petals. She wrapped the gauzy top around her chest, tying the layers of folds together behind her back. Her belly and nose glittered with tiny diamonds, and she wore chunky gold jewelry on her neck, wrists and ankles. Basima favored trousers to skirts, and she wore simpler colors—dark red with burnished gold trimming, and heavy black boots in the style of the palace guards. 

Runa pulled back the curtains of her window and sunlight poured in, causing the diaphanous fabrics and jewels to twinkle as the light played across them. She smiled and felt at peace. To Basima, she said, “The spirit of religion is more important than the letter.”

“I’m the wrong person to debate with about that, princess,” Basima said, scratching the spot on her scalp where her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. “But I’m sure my brother would love to get into it.”

“Maybe after lunch,” Runa said. She held out her hand to her friend. “Come on, let’s go.”

Grinning, Basima took Runa’s outstretched hand and hauled her down the steps. For the past week, Runa had been confined to the palace-temple, to deal with a string of visiting diplomats. After four hundred years of isolation, Runa’s father, King Narayan, was officially opening Shantiis to foreign traders. Or at least, he was seriously considering doing so. It had been a stressful and hectic time for everyone, but today their guests were resting while the King considered matters with Runa’s mother, Queen Aamina. The princess herself was free until dinner, and grateful for it—she had seen no one but her immediate family and strangers for weeks, and she missed Basima and Basir most of all.

“My brother is waiting for us at the market,” Basima said as they dashed through the palace-temple’s halls, which were empty and silent save for the girls’ hurried footsteps. Most of their visitors were probably asleep, and Runa’s parents were most likely in their meditation chamber. Runa would slip out unnoticed.

She ran down the front hall, skirt petals whirling around her legs, her left hand gripping Basima’s right. The palace-temple was the largest and oldest building in Shantiis. From the outside, its golden spires and domes glowed in the rising desert sun; it was the ancient crown jewel of the kingdom-city. Shantiis had been founded around the palace-temple by Runa’s ancestors, centuries before her birth. According to their writings, it had been erected by the Beneficent Deity as a gift to those who would settle there and follow the Harmonious Path, along with the lush oasis that flourished for miles around it.

“There are so many new things in the market, thanks to all the foreigners bringing in samples of their goods,” Basima said.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Runa said. “I haven’t seen anything.”

“Out of politeness, princess. The diplomats do not want to appear as crass salesmen to the royal family, after all.” A low, smooth voice drifted from behind one of the columns in the hall. Basima stopped running abruptly, causing Runa to crash into her. Both girls collapsed to the ground on their knees, and Runa stifled a growl in her throat. It wasn’t Basima’s fault, but Runa did not relish being prostrate before this speaker.

Devarajas chuckled as he stepped into view. He extended a graceful, many-ringed hand to Runa. She forced a smile and accepted it, then turned to help Basima. But the taller girl was already on her feet and making the sign of obeisance: head bowed, palms raised and open in front of her, fingers interlocked. “A pleasure to see you, Lord Devarajas.”

“Stop that,” Runa hissed. The artificial, simpering quality in Basima’s voice struck at some deep well of indignation inside Runa.

“Mm,” Devarajas said. He offered Basima a passing glance of approval and then said to Runa, “Am I not fit to be greeted?”

His voice was soft and marble-smooth. Runa caged the fire in her throat and said, “Certainly you are, Devarajas. But we are late for an appointment and have no time for formalities.”

“I see,” Devarajas said. “Well then, don’t let me keep you.” He bent to kiss Runa’s hand, his lips hot on her skin, which she bore with dignity. His long hair brushed against her knuckles as he lifted his head and she pulled back. Runa imagined the remote peaks of the northern mountain range in her eyes, and tried to infuse her posture and tone with that same sense of distance.

“Thank you for your consideration,” she said.

“I shall always consider you,” Devarajas said. “Have a pleasant morning, princess.” He turned and walked back the way he came, his sandals making no sound.

“Life’s blood, Runa,” Basima said, once they were safely onto the road that led to the market. “What a sugar-tongued fiancÚ you have.”

Runa pursed her lips. “Devarajas unnerves me.  And he’s old.”

“He’s only twenty-eight,” Basima said.

“I’m nineteen!”

“He’s handsome.”

“He’s oily.”

“Can hardly fault him for that,” Basima said playfully. “I’d be smug, too, if I got to marry you.”

“Why, because then you’d be guaranteed the throne?”

Basima kissed the top of Runa’s head. “Nah, that would be a bonus.”

Runa blushed and smiled up at her friend, forgetting temporarily about her unfortunate engagement to her cousin.

“You’re lucky,” she sighed. “You’re not promised to anyone.”

“Not for lack of trying on father’s part,” Basima said. “Basir keeps scaring them off.”

“I think he’s not the only one,” Runa said.

Basima shrugged. “Well, you’re talking about old—everyone father brings home for me is his age.  He thinks an older man provides more security.”

“What d’you need that for?” Runa said. “Stay out of the desert, and you’re secure.”

They walked out of the palace together, holding hands.  The sun set Runa’s diaphanous skirt and gold jewelry afire; the glow suffused her skin and made her form darkly luminous.  The people on the streets of the market smiled to see her, bowing with flourishes as she passed.

Basima squeezed Runa’s hand as they approached the sprawl of tents and stalls, the racks and tables.  The bazaar was particularly busy now, given that several of the visiting countries had established themselves among the native vendors, offering the wonders of their homelands to the citizenry of Shantiis.  It was a clever strategy, Runa thought: although Shantiis was a monarchy, its roots were tribal, and her father was very much attuned to the opinions of the people.  If they welcomed these foreigners, chances were he would, too.

“Hello, my ladies!” Basir called to them, waving from beside a table laden with peeled dates and figs.  He wore his guard’s uniform, pure white with gold trim and gold buttons, with a ceremonial sword hanging from his sash.  He strode over to Runa and took her hand, kissing the palm gently.  The gestured mimicked what Devarajas had done, but Runa felt pleased rather than repulsed.  Basir’s touch was a comfort, unlike Devarajas, whose very smile felt like a warning.

“How’s the market today?” Runa asked, as Basir exchanged friendly punches with his sister.

“Completely insane,” he replied. “Best keep close to me, princess.” Basir spoke with an easy grin on his face, but his grip on her wrist was firm.

Basima flanked her to the right, but after a few minutes of uncomfortably walking among the crowds in the bazaar, Runa stopped suddenly and pulled away from them.

“What is the matter with you two?” she said. “You’re making a human cage around me.”

“It is technically my job to protect you, princess,” Basir said.  His eyes were on his boots but his tone was far from deferential.

“From what?  This is the safest country in the world,” Runa proclaimed, hands on her hips.

Basima massaged her temples and Basir said softly, “Only for those who live in the palace-temple.”

Runa scoffed. “The last murder was ages ago, and we sent him off to the desert, didn’t we?”

“Be that as it may,” Basir said, “sometimes threats to your livelihood are more dangerous and numerous than threats to your life itself.”

All jocularity was gone from his tone and posture; his eyes were solemn on Runa.  Basima exhaled and pulled them bother aside, away from the main thoroughfare of foot traffic, which had been jostling and talking over them.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Runa said.  She rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet, a nervous habit left over from childhood.  Truthfully, she worried about Basir’s exact point.  Shantiis had existed in isolation ever since its birth as a nation, and there were often conflicts between its people and the nomadic tribes, despite the fact that they shared a tightly interwoven ancestry.  The excitement of the bazaar was palpable—the dire streets were packed as though for the sacred feast—but not every face Runa glimpsed was happy.  She had a way with grasping invisible lines of communication, with reading the subtle inflections and movements of other people.  Though Basir and Basima tried to shield her, Runa sensed an undercurrent of agitation rising among those gathered in the marketplace, of pulses heightened by fear rather than joy.

Still, the foreigners’ displays weren’t going ignored.  Clusters of people surrounded the exotic wares and demonstrations laid out before them; they were as enticed as much as repelled.  Runa supposed this was to be expected: Shantiis was a small country, both in population and in its physical limits, and its community had never before suffered outsiders.  It had never needed to.

“What would you like to see, princess?” Basir said, making grand flourishes at the various attractions, which ranged from vendors with strange fruits to magicians manipulating spheres of colored light to inventors explaining devices that worked in ways and performed tasks none of them had ever seen before, including a system to deliver messages rapidly back and forth using conduits for sound.  Runa found herself staring as a pale young woman around her own age picked up a shell-shaped object and explained that, after the proper rituals, it could be spoken into and used to transmit speech over long distances.  The young woman said she hoped to launch such a system here in Shantiis, a pronouncement which was met with a dull roar of anxious muttering.  The woman smiled and raised a hand to calm the crowd; she responded in soothing tones of how their lives would improve with these devices by their sides and in their homes.

Runa caught only a little of the woman’s reassurances, as another sound broke out over her soft voice.  It was music, of a kind unknown to Runa, enchanting and high-pitched, ethereal in its chilling echoes.  Runa turned from the woman and toward the sound.

“Runa?” Basima said, as her friend let go of her hand and started walking through the crowd.

“Don’t you hear that?” Runa said. “I’ve never heard anything so beautiful.”

“Sounds a bit creepy to me,” Basir said.  He followed after Runa, with Basima close behind.

Runa thought at first that it was an exotic singer come to share her culture with Shantiis.  But as she approached the semi-circle that had gathered around the stall where the music rang loudest, she realized it was an instrument.  A man sat on a bench, a half-smile on his face, moving his hands over a curious contraption set up in front of him. 

The instrument hummed beneath the man’s fingertips, though he plucked no strings.  His hands hovered over a board crafted of polished black wood, encrusted with sharp, translucent crystals.  A thick spire of the same crystal material was attached to the board’s left side; it was filled with dark liquid and glowed in response to the slight wind generated by the man’s other hand.  Or so Runa assumed.  She truly had no idea how the man was calling forth music without touching the crystals or any other part of the instrument.

The man finished his song and leaned back in his seat, flexing his dark fingers.  Runa thought he looked familiar.  Certainly he wasn’t a foreigner.  But why was he carrying himself like a visitor, why was he situated among them?

The listeners applauded, and the man bowed his head obligingly, the half-smile never wavering on his lips.

“That was amazing,” Runa said, and her people moved aside as she spoke, allowing her to step directly in front of the stranger and his odd device.

“Thank you,” the man said. “Princess.”

Runa gestured to the instrument and it hummed beneath the sweep of her hand. “What is this?”

“An aetherphone,” the man replied. “They have multiple uses; magic is but one of them.”

“How does it work?”

The man lifted his left hand, and the whorls of his fingerprints glowed a bright blue.  “A little bit of science.  A little bit of magic.”

“Isn’t it all the same in the end?” Runa touched the crystal array and it sang along her skin, thrummed in her veins.  She gasped.

“No,” the stranger said. “Not really.”

Runa took a step back.  She was not afraid, but she was unsettled.  Magic was not often practiced in Shantiis, not outside of the priests, and their rites were hidden, sacred.  Desert shamanism was common among the wandering tribes, but those beliefs were savage to the disciples of the Harmonious Deity.  And Runa of course knew but little about the ways of other continents, though this native stranger clearly did.  For upon examining him closely it was obvious to Runa that he belonged to her country, with his sun-browned skin and proud features, his golden eyes and dark, unruly hair.  His body had a delicate slightness about it, though, and he was not tall like most of her people were.  Probably his mother or father was of the nomads.

“Whatever it is, it’s creepy,” Basir said, breaking the uneasy silence that had settled between the princess and the stranger and by extension the rest of the audience.

“Gives me the shivers, for sure,” Basima said.  They flanked Runa, both looking unimpressed.

“I like the shivers,” Runa said. “Especially in this heat.”

The stranger chuckled.  He began to play the aetherphone again, his fingers sweeping and curling above the crystal arrays. Its eerie song bathed the crowd, which had swelled in size since Runa’s arrival.  Even Basir and Basima were transfixed by the sonorous trills the instrument produced; it reminded Runa of the foreign fairy tales about women who lived in the sea and crooned death to sailors.  She had never met a sailor nor ever seen an ocean, but there was water enough in Shantiis, enough to imagine a fish-woman rising from the moonlit lakes to lure passers by into a deadly trap.  The aetherphone’s music would make for a fine such trap.

“You must play for us at the palace-temple,” Runa said. “Mother and father would love this.”

The stranger bowed his head again.  His hands fell to his sides. “I’ll be there, your Highness.”

“Meanwhile,” Basir said, “it’s getting late.  You’re due back for lunch, princess.”

Runa couldn’t deny the sun’s position in the sky, which was now considerably higher than when she had left home.

“Tonight, then,” Runa said.  “Before supper. I’ll send someone.”

“No need,” the stranger said. “I know what time my country settles down for its evening meal.”

“I knew you weren’t a foreigner,” Basir said. “What’s your name, anyway?”

The stranger’s eyes flicked over to Basir. Months later, Basima would confide to Runa that she wished she had put out those eyes right then.  “Damayanti.  My mother lived near the eastern border.”

“Ah,” Basir said.

“I’ve been on the serpentine continent for the last four years,” Damayanti said. “Attending the academy there.”

“Well.  Welcome back,” Basir said in a stiff tone completely absent of warmth.

Damayanti began to pack away his stall.  He placed the aetherphone in a metal case with a multitude of clasps and a thick, heavy handle.  He folded the velvet blue cloth he had laid out over his table and tucked it into the pocket of his jacket, which was beige and pressed and did not rustle at all with the afternoon wind.  His clothes were why none of them had immediately marked Damayanti as one of their own—they were heavy, starched, formalized.  Damayanti’s body looked trapped in the bland suit he wore, which was buttoned up to the collar at his throat.

“I lived quite far from the palace,” Damayanti said. “I started traveling after my mother died.”

“Oh,” Runa said. “Was she very old?”

It struck Runa immediately after she said it that this was a stupid response, callow, even.  But it was done and there was no way to undo it.

“I do not think age was a factor in her murder,” Damayanti said mildly. “But no. She was barely past her thirty-sixth year.”

“You mean—you’re Sita-Dhevi’s son?” Basir said.  “The woman who was killed ten years ago?”

Damayanti picked up his case. He had dismantled the stall and left its canopy and table in pieces on the street, as was common—that way another merchant could come tomorrow and set it up as he or she pleased.

“I must be going if I am to prepare for my performance,” Damyanti said. “And your lunches are likely cooling.”

He bowed his head for a third time and then turned away from the three of them.  After a minute the surging crowds swallowed up his figure.

Basima took Runa’s shaking hand. “I’ll lead you back.”

Runa nodded and allowed her friends to herd her back to the palace-temple.  Their bodies acted as blinders to the outside world, shuttering her like a skittish horse.  She was too lost in disquieted thought to take offense.

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