And now here’s an exclusive excerpt from the book. I got chills down my spine when I read it.
Somewhere deep within the palace, wind chimes were ringing like crazy, deep and sonorous, like temple bells gone rogue. Bajah rushed through the dimly lit long corridors of the palace, her heart hammering inside her. If she didn’t reach her lady in time, she was doomed, and so was the child.
The child! Was it really going to be as foretold in the Apocrypha? Then again, the Book of Truths just pointed out the various branches of the future; the one branch on which they would walk wasn’t disclosed. Could she choose? Could anyone choose? She was confused and afraid. All she knew was that she had to get to Lady Anuskaya, and alone and terrified within the Confinement, she would go crazy and not be able to manage the childbirth. The thought brought chills to her mind. If the Inner Council were to know that one of the Blessed acolytes was pregnant, then they would both be executed; the acolyte and the unborn child. Nobody broke this cardinal rule. Bajah still didn’t know who the father was, but that was the last thing on her mind. She had to save her mistress, and the thought gnawed away at her soul like a flesh-worm. Would she be able to manage on her own?
The bells tolling in the distance urged her on. Her light feet pattered soundlessly, flying past the carpeted walkway. Suddenly, her balance shifted. Something snagged against her cloak, tightening up against her throat as she slipped forwards. She croaked, her helpless arms flailing and soundless screams stifled as the cloak tightened. Someone had tripped her and was trying to strangle her! The pressure suddenly let up and she slipped.
The carpeted floor slammed into the side of her face and her cloak ripped as she rolled away. A dark figure stepped out of the crevasse in the wall, the lamp in hand obscuring the face in the gloomy shadows. A falsetto voice greeted her.
“Little birdie, flitting freely, flying fast, you won’t last … so sit awhile and rest your pile.”
The lamp swung in her face, as the person squatted down and peered at her. In the dark, a pair of wolfish white teeth shone through, leering at her. She knew the voice. Cheema Okuri—a guard inside the Shikshadhaam, the House of Learning, where acolytes lived. A kill dog for his masters at the Inner Council.
“Do you like the poem? I made it … as a paean for you. Maybe I will coach the cook to sing it for your funeral, huh?” He grinned, swinging the lamp. The shadows played hide and seek on his face. “Pruksa’s blessings, little birdie, you really oughta slow down. Don’t you know,
the corridors within Shikshadhaam are treacherous places? Nasty places where you slip and break your neck … you follow, li’l birdie?”
“What do you want, Cheema?” Bajah sat up, mustering as much dignity as she could.
“What I want … ah! No time for social chit chats, I see?” He squatted down, bringing his face closer to her’s. “You seemed to be in a tearing hurry, and that set my warning bells a-tingling, Bajah Sudhanshu. You know that feeling, don’t you? When this multi-legged creature walks up and down your spine, your heart beats faster and you’re left feeling a little dry in the mouth. It’s called suspicion. And when I see birdies trying to take flight without letting me know, then somethin’ don’t add up right. Must I remind you that within the confines of the Dhaam, anything that flies, flies with just one wing, the other being busy protecting itself, lest it get shot down? Ye with me so far, li’l birdie?”
Bajah nodded, dull fear thudding through her like bellows in a forge. Did he know about the lady? Did the council suspect? Displaying an outwardly calm that she didn’t feel at all, Bajah stood up, “Cheema, you are not threatening me now, are you?”
Cheema laughed, “I always maintained that birdies oughta be caged. Nooo, li’l birdie, I am not threatening you. Charged with keeping the acolytes safe within the Dhaam, this hurried flight of yours ruffled quite a few feathers on the upper levels. I’m just a messenger, birdie. Just like you. So, now … d’ye want to tell me where ye’re flying with such haste?”
Bajah turned her back onto Cheema, making sure he didn’t see the flint of fear that sparked in her eyes. “Lady Anuskaya’s been taken sick. She wanted me to bring her the Book of Solace and fetch the Castle Vaidyas to care for her.”
“The Book? An acolyte demanded for the Book?” Cheema’s tone had an edge to it that Bajah hated, the tone twisting in her gut like a stuck knife. ‘Does this lowly guard know that the acolytes aren’t allowed to read the Book, not without one of the priests around?’ Cheema’s sharp question brought her back to the rain-lashed parapet of the castle.
“So what are you doing here? The Haveli is to the North. The gardens ought to be the easiest route to the Haveli to get the Book?”
“I have to collect the Lady’s medicines,” Bajah lied, her face taut. Cheema nodded, holding the lights over the handrails, peering out into the cold night, “Some kind of a freak windstorm
whipping in from the Odhaan. You ought to keep indoors and not take this route. I will accompany you to the living quarters. Oh wait, where’s the Book?”
Bajah bit her lips, blanched white with fear. This wasn’t going good. As with the windstorm and the rain Gods, this was fast going downhill. Mists of raindrops sprayed onto her face as the winds shifted. The sky cleaved, as purplish lightning crashed and rolled across the clouds. The smell of acrid burnt ozone hung heavy on the parapet as Bajah’s heart raced. A sudden gust of wind swept across and doused the lantern lights, blanketing the corridor in complete darkness. Cheema cursed over the sounds of wind ripping through the dark hallway, the curtains near the far oaken doors billowing and flapping hard. He knelt down to light the fuse inside the lantern.
It was now or never.