The Star-Touched Queen (The Star-Touched Queen #1) - Roshani Chokshi Page 0,1

The caretakers had set the children of the royal nursery to sleep. The tutors had begun droning to the betrothed princesses about the lands and ancestries of their soon-to-be husbands.

I had my own appointment. My “tutor of the week.” Poor things. They never lasted long; whether that was their decision or mine just depended on the person. It wasn’t that I disliked learning. It was simply that they couldn’t teach me what I wanted to know. My real place of study hovered above their heads. Literally.

Outside, the thunder of clashing gongs drifted through the harem walls. Parrots scattered from their naps, launching into the air with a huff and a screech. The familiar shuffle of pointed shoes, golden tassels and nervous voices melted into a low murmur. All of my father’s councilors were making their way to the throne room for his announcement.

Within moments, my father would reveal his solution for dealing with the rebel kingdoms. My heart jostled. Father, while never on time, was nonetheless efficient. He wouldn’t waste time on the frivolities of the court, which meant that I had a limited amount of time to get to the throne room and I still had to deal with the most recent tutor. I prayed he was a simpleton. Better yet—superstitious.

Father once said the real language of diplomacy was in the space between words. He said silence was key to politics.

Silence, I had learned, was also key to spying.

I slipped off anything noisy—gold bracelets, dangling earrings—and stashed them behind a stone carving of a mynah bird. Navigating through the harem was like stepping into a riddle. Niches filled with statues of gods and goddesses with plangent eyes and backs arced in a forgotten reel of a half-dance leaned out into the halls. Light refracted off crystal platters piled with blooms the bright color of new blood, and flickering diyas cast smoke against the mirrors, leaving the halls a snarl of mist and petals. I touched the sharp corners. I liked the feeling of stone beneath my fingers, of something that pushed back to remind me of my own solidity.

As I rounded the last corner, the harem wives’ sharp laughter leapt into the halls, sending prickles across my arm. The harem wives’ habits never changed. It was the one thing I liked about them. My whole life was crafted around their boredom. I could probably set my heartbeat to the hours they whittled away exchanging gossip.

Before I could run past them, a name rooted me to the spot … my own. At least, I thought I heard it. I couldn’t be sure. No matter how much I wanted to plant one foot in front of the other and leave them behind, I couldn’t.

I held my breath and stepped backward, pressing my ear as close to the curtains as I could.

“It’s a pity,” said a voice sultry from years spent smoking the rose-scented water pipes.

Mother Dhina. She ruled the harem with an iron fist. She may not have given the Raja any sons, but she had one enduring quality: life. She had survived seven pregnancies, two stillbirths and a sweating sickness that claimed eight wives in the past three years. Her word was law.

“What is?”

A simpering voice. Mother Shastri. Second in command. She was one of the younger wives, but had recently given birth to twin sons. She was far more conniving than Mother Dhina, but lacked all the ambition of real malice.

“It’s just a pity Advithi didn’t go the same way as Padmavathi.”

My hands curled into fists, nails sinking into the flesh of my palms. Advithi. I didn’t know her long enough to call her mother. I knew nothing of her except her name and a vague rumor that she had not gotten along with the other wives. In particular, Mother Dhina. Once, they had been rivals. Even after she died, Mother Dhina never forgave her. Other than that, she was a nondescript dream in my head. Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d try to conjure her, but nothing ever revealed itself to me—not the length of her hair or the scent of her skin. She was a mystery and the only thing she left me was a necklace and a name. Instinctively, my fingers found her last gift: a round-cut sapphire strung with seed pearls.

Mother Dhina wheezed, and when she spoke, I could almost smell the smoke puffing out between her teeth. “Usually when a woman dies in childbirth, the child goes too.”

Mother Shastri chided her with