It’s too beautiful to die today.
Gita and I hike along a slender trail blanketed on either side by glossy green leaves shaped like teardrops. The path isn’t steep, but I can hear Gita’s breath—the rise and fall of it, the way it catches in her throat each time she speaks.
Her fear is like the moisture trapped in the humid air—hidden, but so heavy I can feel it pressing against my skin.
“Everything will be fine,” she says. “Balavan just wants to meet you. I’m sure that’s all it is.”
“Or maybe he wants to execute me,” I say, trailing my fingers across a plant with bright red blossoms. The flowers release a cloying scent and coat my fingers with a filmy residue that feels like drying blood. I snatch my hand away.
“No, Marinda,” Gita says. “I won’t let that happen.” But I can hear the lie in her voice. She couldn’t protect me from Gopal, and she won’t be able to protect me from Balavan either.
The small palace that serves as Naga headquarters is nestled in a rain forest outside Sundari and far from the prying eyes of the Raja. Far enough that only the tigers and monkeys would hear a girl screaming.
I was a fool to think there was a chance the Naga would allow Gita to continue as my handler, to hope I’d be allowed to remain living on my own in Bala City, to believe that anything would be the same after my betrayal. Today I’ll either get a new handler or I’ll die for my disloyalty. Judging by the sweaty palm marks pressed on the middle of Gita’s sari, she thinks it’s the latter.
“Tell me about him,” I say when I can’t stand the silence any longer. We walk under a canopy of trees that provides shelter from the sun. Monkeys squeak and twitter above us like gossiping ladies.
“What do you want to know?”
“I want to know what to expect,” I say. “Tell me something that might save my life.”
Gita shakes her head. “I wish I could,” she says. “But Balavan is unpredictable. Sometimes he is charming and personable. And sometimes . . .” She presses her eyes closed as if blocking out a memory. “He can be cruel.”
She reaches for my hand and I resist the urge to flinch. Most days it takes all the restraint I have to look at her without grimacing, to touch her without wrapping my hands around her neck and shaking her like a rag doll. But if I want to bring the Naga down, I have to swallow all of my anger and play the part of the compliant follower.
Gita squeezes my fingers. “You must convince Balavan of your loyalty,” she says. “You must tell him what you told me. How the Raja is holding your brother captive, how he beat you and imprisoned you. It’s important that Balavan feels your hatred for the Raja. That he knows you will be loyal to the Snake King. Just tell him the truth.”
Dread twists my stomach into a tight knot. Because it’s not the truth that will save me today. It’s how well I’m able to lie.
I curl my fingers into my palms. My hands always feel useless now, empty without Mani’s tiny fingers threaded through mine. There’s a hollow space in the center of my chest that aches with how much I miss him. But, for once, I’m grateful we’re not together and that he’s tucked away in the Raja’s palace in Colapi City. He’s safe. If I die today, at least I’ve given him that much.
Gita and I walk in silence for several minutes until two men emerge from the forest and step onto the path in front of us. Thick tattoos of snakes curl around their muscular forearms, and swords hang at their hips.
I take another step forward to explain why we’re here, and in a single fluid motion one of the guards slides his sword from its scabbard and presses it against my neck. The cool metal bites into my skin. My breath gathers at the base of my throat, trapped.
“This is a broad and winding path,” the guard says. The sword is heavy on my shoulder, and my spine starts to collapse under the pressure.
“The path that twists like a serpent always is,” Gita says behind me, her voice calm and even. The guard lowers the sword and returns it to his side. I press a palm to my neck to check for blood as I try to make sense of the exchange. It must be some kind of password.
“Marinda is the rajakumari,” Gita says, motioning toward me, and I try not to cringe at the title. I don’t want to be anyone’s princess, let alone the Nagaraja’s. “Balavan has requested a meeting with her.”
“Yes,” the guard says, raking his gaze along the length of my body. “I bet he did.”
“She’s the ra-ja-ku-ma-ri,” Gita repeats, emphasizing every syllable, her eyes blazing.
“For now,” the guard says, looking everywhere except at my face. “But maybe not for long. Rumor is she’s deadly with a blade.”
He’s heard, then—how I killed Gopal, how I stabbed the Nagaraja in the eye to save Mani. The memory makes bile rise in the back of my throat. That and the way this man is looking at me like I’m a piece of ripe fruit.
“See something you like?” I ask.
He grins wickedly. “I see a lot I like.”
I step toward him and put a palm on his chest. “That’s more like it,” he says, throwing one arm around my waist and pulling me close. I stand on my tiptoes so that my lips are just inches from his. “Didn’t you hear?” I ask, running my fingers through his thick hair. “I don’t need a blade to be deadly.”
I see the flash of realization in his eyes as he remembers the rest of my story—how I can kill a man with only a kiss as a weapon. He wrenches away from me so fast that he nearly tumbles over. The other guard rushes forward with one hand on the hilt of his sword. “Leave that where it is,” I say.
He clears his throat and drops his gaze to his boots. “Of course,” he says, stepping off the path. “Forgive me.”
We pass the guards and continue on the path. “I’m not sure that was necessary,” Gita says once we’re out of hearing range.
“Of course it was,” I tell her. “If I’m going to die today, it won’t be after letting some man look at me like I’m a rabbit roasting on a spit.”
“It’s better if he thinks you’re about to kill him?”
I fix her with a hard gaze. “Yes,” I tell her. “It’s better.”
I’m about to say more, but the Naga headquarters materializes in front of us and my words die on my lips. I understand why Gita has been calling it the palace.
It’s a pyramid-shaped building made entirely of dark gray granite. Pillars carved with snakes, birds, tigers and crocodiles circle the perimeter like sentinels. It looks both majestic and like it’s part of the landscape, as if it could have sprouted from the ground right alongside the bamboo and the soaring fig trees.
Gita reaches for my hand, and even though I hate when she touches me, I let her take it. Because I need to feel tethered to the earth. I need to feel the reassuring press of another human heartbeat against my wrist to remind me that I’m alive, that I’m not alone.
We climb the sheer staircase that leads from the bottom of the forest floor to the entrance of the palace. My heart slams against my rib cage, and I tell myself that it’s from the exertion and not because I’m worried about what will happen once we reach the top.
The moment our feet touch the final step, a monkey off in the distance howls a single shrill note and the door swings wide. A chill races down my spine.
Gita gives my hand a squeeze that I think is meant to be reassuring, but it feels more like a warning. I let go of her as I step over the threshold.
It takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust to dimmer light, but when they do, my astonishment overtakes my fear.
I’m not sure what I was expecting—something more like the caves near Colapi City. A shelter made from the earth, thick with the musty scent of reptile and lit only by flickering candlelight. But this. This is something else entirely.
The palace is dripping with splendor.
My gaze sweeps over the walls, inlaid with gemstones in intricate mosaics that stretch from floor to ceiling. Millions upon millions of winking jewels—sapphires, rubies, emeralds, amethysts. The walls are literally made from treasure. The furniture is finely carved and gilded, and the floor is gleaming black marble, so shiny I can see my own reflection.
In the center of the room is a rug shaped like a huge white snake. But when I look more closely, I see that it’s made not of fabric but of living flowers. Creamy magnolias—so many that the entire chamber is filled with the sweet, lemony scent of them.
“Do you approve?” I startle at the voice and spin around to face a woman dressed in a green-and-gold sari. Her hair is braided in half a dozen loops, and gold disks hang from her earlobes. She’s several years older than I am. Maybe in her midtwenties. Her hand still rests on the doorknob, and she gives me an easy smile.
“It’s breathtaking,” I tell her.
“The Nagaraja would be pleased to hear it,” she says, and my sense of wonder vanishes.
I think of the last time I saw the Nagaraja—his jaw clamped down on Mani’s arm, his anger at my escape like a hot knife in my head—and I know that he wouldn’t be pleased to hear anything from me right now.
The woman must see something shift in my face, because her smile fades and she clears her throat. “I’m Amoli,” she says, pressing her palms together and dipping her head. “Balavan is waiting for you.”
She motions for me to follow, but before I do, I glance once more around the room to commit it to memory, along with all the other scraps of information I’ve gathered today: the Naga headquarters is roughly 14,842 steps from the entrance to the rain forest; the path is manned by armed guards who require a password; the entrance to the headquarters faces west. The lavish main foyer has only two visible exits—the one I just walked through and the one Amoli is headed toward.
Both Gita and I fall in step behind her, but a few moments later she turns and shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she says. “He only asked for the rajakumari.” She gives Gita a forced smile. “You can wait here, and I’ll let you know when it’s finished.”
When what is finished? My gaze flits to Gita, but the panic swimming in her eyes is no comfort.
I take a deep breath and square my shoulders. I can’t afford to look weak or scared. This is the moment I’ve been preparing for. The moment I prove to the Naga that they can trust me again, that I’m one of them.
It’s the moment I either live as a spy or die as a traitor.
Copyright © 2018 by Breeana Shields. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.