PROLOGUE
Goosebumps rose all along Runa’s arms and legs, showing beneath the gauzy fabric of her dress. Evenings were chilly in the desert, and the sun was fast slipping beneath the horizon. Dusk’s warm fingers stroked the hill upon which Runa sat and then dusk fell away, leaving a cool breath in its wake. She did not shiver, did not stretch a muscle, though she was in the lotus position and her thighs ached. 
A deathwhisper scorpion crawled along her upper arm, its yellow tail curled high over its body, and she forced her heart to be still.

Runa did not cry out for help, though she had royal guards waiting for her to finish her meditation stationed at the bottom of the hill. If the scorpion were startled, it would sting her, and they would both die as a result. She could fling it off of her, but the scorpion’s fragile body would break into pieces against the rocky ground; the deathwhisper possessed terrible venom but its armor was thin like fine parchment.

“Princess, the moons are rising!” one of the guards called up to her. He gestured to the expanse of purple-black sky, jeweled with stars, and the seven moons that were revealed by the sun’s receding trail. The moons poured unearthly light across the desert; the dunes glowed as though imbued from beneath rather than above. A sharply chilled wind raced over Runa’s bare shoulders and stirred her long, dark hair. 

The scorpion paused on her wrist, its tail quivering. 

Runa exhaled, slowly, evenly, imagining the way her mother cooked pea and pearflower soup, letting it simmer for hours so that the flavor of the vegetables seeped fully into the broth. She imagined her breath seeping into her cells as she drew in air carefully and then let it back out, so that her limbs remained taut, remained bound to their arrangement like potted flowers. One of the guards shouted again, and the scorpion turned around and around on her wrist, agitated. The little thing was less than three inches long, but even a drop of its venom was enough to kill a human being within ten minutes. 

Ten agonizing, nerve-twisting minutes. 

Runa wanted to shout back at the guard, to silence him, but such a disturbance would surely frighten the deathwhisper into sinking its stinger into her wrist. It clung to her warily, unsure of the texture of her skin, having wandered onto her leg while she meditated, and then skittered in a panic up over the swathes of fabric to her bare left arm, where it had picked its way up the slope of her inner elbow to rest on her shoulder. Touching fabric again, the scorpion journeyed back down her arm. It was now in Runa’s open palm, tracing the ridged lines of skin as though preparing to tell her a fortune.

She could have tossed it away then easily, and seen crumble on the rocks, but even though her heart wanted to press through her bones and tumble down the hill, the thought of killing the scorpion repulsed her. She had not been raised to privilege any life above her own; in fact, she had learned quite the opposite.

Runa looked up at the seven moons, each in varying phases of fullness. The largest moon was full now, and it was a blood moon, casting a rusted light over the hill, the scorpion, and her brown cream skin.
The guards were coming up the hill; she heard their heavy footsteps and felt the little rocks around her feet tremble. Runa shut her eyes, sure that the scorpion would react as many creatures naturally do, and attack her in a spasm of fear.

After a moment, she heard the guard’s voice. “Princess, your parents will be worrying. Please, honor us with your company.”

Runa opened her eyes and looked beyond the guard; the deathwhisper was traveling leisurely down the hill. She exhaled with a great, shuddering breath, and held out her hand to the guard. He helped her up, the concern fading from his smile when she said, “Sorry, Ravi, you know that I get lost in myself sometimes.”

*

In the vast library of the Academy of Sophists, Damayanti studied for an exam beside a wall of the world’s deadliest creatures. Carefully crafted replicas of wraiths, chimera, demons and other such unsavory beings lined the walls in glass cases, their sculpted, gleaming menace almost as terrifying as the real thing. The deathskitter scorpion occupied a case just above him, jutting out over a finely detailed sabretooth. The location marker for the scorpion was vague; the placard read ‘desert’ and nothing else, which pleased Damayanti. He had told no one of his home country during his time at the Academy, and he lied when asked. Most of them didn’t even know his real name.

“Hey, Samil! How are you doing?” Geoff Harper shouted from the room’s entrance, his big, friendly voice echoing over the bookcases. 

Damayanti lifted one dark hand in acknowledgment and then brought a finger to his lips, offering Geoff a slight smile. “Keep it down, if you could. I have finals tomorrow.”

“Oh, sure, buddy,” Geoff said, tromping up beside his friend and slapping him on the back. Geoff thought physical exchanges were signs of affection, regardless of whether that meant a hug or a punch to the face. As a result, he found himself quite popular with a variety of people. “But you’re all set, aren’t you? I mean, your scores are like, perfect.”

“The possibility for failure lurks always,” Damayanti replied evenly. After four years, the language of this continent was still rough on his tongue. He was looking forward to hearing the flowing, low tones spoken by his kinsmen, and returning them in kind; the words here were rough, heavy on sharp consonants and colloquialisms. He turned the page in the enormous, yellowed book laid out before him; it was a compilation of volumes regarding ancient military treatises. He had come to the Academy from his homeland to study Arcanotech, but he took electives in History. He was not surprised to find that he excelled at both.

“What are you gonna do after graduation?” Geoff asked.

Damayanti wrote a note on his paper about the aggressive culture of the Bellicosans, a long-extinct tribe that was believed to declare war upon any strangers who approached their land, regardless of that stranger’s actual intent. This policy offered them relatively peaceful isolation through widespread fear of their country and the vicious god they worshipped (said to be capable of stopping the hearts of a thousand men at once). Eventually, however, the entire tribe died of a disease, posited to be an early form of tuberculosis.

That material was never mentioned in his class, but his professor liked to be tricky. As a woman who hated students that skipped class and students who tried to get by only on lectures, she pulled exam questions from every possible source, and was rarely moved by any pleas for clemency. Damayanti liked her immensely.

“Samil?” Geoff said. He nudged Damayanti’s elbow, and the page in the smaller man’s hand tore at the edge. Damayanti exhaled through his teeth.

“I’m going home,” he said. “You know this.”

“Where is that again?” Geoff said.

His voice was light, mischievous and oblivious. Damayanti shut the poor book to spare it any further collateral damage. Disrespect to books was difficult for him to tolerate. He imagined his mother’s gentle face drooping in disappointment after he, as a small child, drew a red X in oil paint over a paragraph in one of his books. He felt that gaze on his back then, as he pushed the book away, and for a few moments he was a little boy.

“I’ve told you,” he said. “Really, Geoff, I’m quite preoccupied.”

“Oh, right. With the name I can’t possibly pronounce.” Geoff slapped Damayanti on the back again. The gesture was affable, but it knocked the wind out of Damayanti’s thin frame, and he wheezed.

“Please, Geoff,” he said.

“Fine, fine. Just send me a postcard sometime, would you?” Geoff bowed with an exaggerated flourish and started walking for the exit.

Rubbing his back, Damayanti looked up at the glass box containing the deathwhisper. As he examined the artistry of its multi-faceted eyes and segmented tail, wondering who had seen it long enough to draw a sketch from which to create the sculpture, he heard Harper call out to him.

“Almost forgot!” Geoff said. He tossed a rolled-up copy of the university newspaper at Damayanti’s head, which the other man barely caught. He unraveled the paper in front of him on the table and read the headline: PARADISE IN THE DESERT. A grainy image of his actual homeland, Shantiis, accompanied the short article.

“Thought that might interest you!” Geoff said. His inflection was bright as ever, but Damayanti could have sworn he heard a smirk. He looked up sharply, but Geoff was gone. Frowning, Damayanti traced his fingers over the photograph and wondered if Geoff Harper was quicker than he seemed. Not that it mattered: Damayanti would be home in a few days, and then all would be well. Let them know of his kingdom. Let them come, and be sorry for their intrusions.

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