"Aditi Khorana has whipped up the perfect book recipe: a rogue princess, a freed oracle, and a library with the power to change your fate!" —Justine Magazine
No one is entirely certain what brings the Emperor Sikander to Shalingar. Until now, the idyllic kingdom has been immune to his many violent conquests. To keep the visit friendly, Princess Amrita has offered herself as his bride, sacrificing everything—family, her childhood love, and her freedom—to save her people. But her offer isn't enough.
The palace is soon under siege, and Amrita finds herself a fugitive, utterly alone but for an oracle named Thala, who was kept by Sikander as a slave and managed to escape amid the chaos. With nothing and no one else to turn to, Amrita and Thala are forced to rely on one another. But while Amrita feels responsible for her kingdom and sets out to warn her people, the newly free Thala has no such ties. She encourages Amrita to go on a quest to find the fabled Library of All Things, where it is possible for each of them to reverse their fates. To go back to before Sikander took everything from them.
Stripped of all that she loves, caught between her rosy past and an unknown future, will Amrita be able to restore what was lost, or does another life—and another love—await?
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Aditi Khorana
Parable of the Land of Trees
Long ago, there was a land entirely occupied by some of the most beautiful and oldest trees in the world. These trees had inhabited the Earth longer than humans, longer than the vetalas—the immortals who roamed the planet alongside humans until they all but disappeared.
They were wise trees and had existed on the Earth for such a great span of time, they had learned how to speak. They offered their visitors fruit and shade. They told captivating stories and made people laugh. They were servants to the land and to those around them.
Those who had the good fortune to stumble upon the Land of Trees said that the experience stayed with them forever. They returned to their homes and spoke of this ethereal world, and so, word began to spread about the Land of Trees. Waves of new explorers trickled in, and soon visitors came in droves, marching into the land from all corners of the Earth.
But these new visitors wanted more from the trees. They sought to own the trees and the land that they lived on. They spoke of opening up taverns and lodges and inns so people could stay when they came to visit. They wanted to build roads, bridges, an infrastructure that would allow individuals to come by the thousands so that they could experience the Land of Trees. But there was one problem with this . . .
They needed the wood from the trees to build all of these things. And so they began to chop down the trees in order to build inns and taverns and roads and bridges. One by one, the trees came down, axes cutting into their trunks. Saws slicing away at their roots and branches.
And soon, the Land of Trees was filled with inns and taverns and roads and bridges. Some trees survived, but they were so devastated by the loss of their family and friends that they stopped speaking, stopped laughing, stopped sharing their voices. Their despondency, their mistrust became silence, and the forest was no longer filled with laughter, with wisdom, with stories.
For some time, people continued to visit, but instead of the Land of Trees, what they saw now was a land that had devolved into just another place on a map.
After some time, people stopped coming, and now the Land of Trees is just like any other place. A place whose magic has been erased.
But perhaps one day, you’ll find yourself walking through a forest, and maybe if you listen closely enough, and maybe if you ask from the very bottom of your heart, one of the trees might hear the longing in your soul—the longing for connection, the longing for something deeper that resides so far below the surface of the world in which we choose to live out our day-to-day. And you’ll hear it, the voice of one of those trees, calling back to you, telling you that the world is alive with mysteries, and that in order to understand them, one must first learn to be still, to listen, and the world will unveil itself to you, as though it was waiting to do so all along.
I still remember the first time my father told me the Parable of the Land of Trees. It was night, and outside my window, a soft quilt of mysterious darkness had settled over Chanakya Lake. But I felt safe under the gauze of the white silken mosquito net that hung over me, and my father’s presence reassured me. He sat at the edge of my bed and pointed out past the lake, past the mountains, to a horizon shrouded in mist. What he was really pointing to was a time that existed before us, to a world neither of us could even be sure had ever really prevailed.
“Have I ever told you the Parable of the Land of Trees?” he asked me, his dark eyes fixed on that elusive brim between earth and sky, before they turned to look back at me, a wistful smile twitching on the edges of his lips.
I shook my head. Outside my window, lanterns lit up the sterns of houseboats on the lake, their twins reflecting in the water, suggesting another world underneath that channel, a mirror to the one we inhabited now. I wondered about the people who slept on those boats, who lived in that sphere I had still never seen. I thought about all the places I had never visited, that I had heard about only in the stories people told me.
And then in the gauzy lamplight, over the quiet, con- tented chirping of insects calling out to one another in the night, my father told me the tale. I didn’t understand then how stories have a way of staying with us long after people are gone. That night, I simply held on to his words: somber and thoughtful. I listened to his voice: calm, soft, measured, wise. It was how I would always remember it, taking for granted that it would always be there. I didn’t know then what I know now: that everything—my father, this moment, every experience that molds and shapes us—is ephemeral, evaporating into the air before we have a chance to grasp on to it, before we can truly even understand what it means.
Papa was standing on the balcony outside his library when I arrived to meet him. From the doorway where I stood, I could see the sun setting over the lands he had inherited from his father, that for so long I had thought I would inherit from him one day, turning the hills and plains the color of burnished gold. Far out in the distance, snow cover- ing the mountaintops glistened like a gilded scrim sparkling in the early evening light.
Blue and silver minarets rose above the walled city of Shalingar’s capital—Ananta. A layer of marine fog settled over Chanakya Lake, revealing miniature houseboats wearing elaborate gardens on their roofs like soft, mossy hats. They sailed placidly across the flat, misty surface of the basin. But I was anything but placid. As I crossed the vast sanctuary cut of auric filigree and tomes, its gold and crystal domed ceiling dousing every shelf and book in honey-colored light, I measured my breaths, as though controlling each inhalation were the key to mastering my fate itself.
I approached the balcony, and from there, I could hear the sound of the festivities below in the streets. Cannons exploded, making the stone walls of the palace tremble. And just below those walls, dancers swathed in white silk, green and red ribbons around their waists, twirled in the streets like spinning tops. The brazen blast of horns and the clop clop clop of horse hooves resounded through the pal- ace quarters. Children flung rose petals into the sky. They fell back down into the mud streets, transforming the lanes between homes into blushing rivers. Elephants adorned in patchwork costumes embellished with mirrors, tassels, and festive silk ribbons made their way up these very rivers, carrying Macedon’s most important dignitaries on their backs. Brightly colored lanterns illuminated their path, like diyas lighting Emperor Sikander’s way to our home.
My father stood, watching the festivities. When I approached, he turned abruptly, as though I had interrupted him from a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. “Sabahaat Shaam,” I said, giving him a warm hug.
He started for a second. I realized that he had never before seen me this elaborately dressed and coiffed. My cheeks were covered in rouge tincture, my lips streaked with crimson; my lashes were curled and painted black like thick spider’s legs. I was wrapped in a magenta and gold sari, my hair piled high over my head.
Earlier that day, Mala, my lady-in-waiting, and a retinue of her helpers had buzzed around me, a hive of activity that revolved around beautifying me from head to toe. It was a dance that took place whenever an important dignitary came to visit the kingdom, but today the hive spun and sped as though an inaudible tempo had accelerated everyone’s movements without warning.
“Hold still, dear girl. When a great king arrives, one must look presentable,” Mala had said as she combed out my snarled hair, untangling the knots with her capable fingers.
A great king.
A great king who held the fate of our kingdom, as well as my own fate, in his hands.
Papa regained his composure and smiled at me. “Sabahaat Shaam,” he said before he looked back at those packed streets before us. “I forget sometimes how lovely the kingdom is at this time of day. Not the dancers or the carnival down below . . . but the light,” he said, glimpsing the sky, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s as though the sun and the moon want to offer our little kingdom their best.”
“Luminaries,” I said to him. “That’s what Shree taught me in our astronomy tutorial—the sun and the moon are luminaries. And the way Shalingar bends toward the ocean…” I said, mimicking the curvature of the Earth. “It’s the light reflecting on the water.”
Papa looked at me and laughed. “Or perhaps it’s just magic,” he said, and his eyes sparkled as he challenged me.
I shook my head. “No such thing.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he quietly responded, and for a moment, I was regretful of my words because a mask of seriousness transformed my father’s face again. “One day, after you’ve seen the world, you’ll understand just how special Shalingar is.”
“I know how special it is, Papa.” I sighed. “If I could stay here forever…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“You always did speak of traveling the world, didn’t you?” he wistfully asked. “Now you’ll have the opportunity to do so.” But I could hear the lack of conviction in his voice. We both knew that this, what was about to transpire over the next few days, was not what either of us had in mind when I spoke of traveling the world.
“Sikander was a friend of yours once, wasn’t he?” I changed the subject.
If he had once been a friend of Papa’s, how bad could he really be? I wondered. I had, for the past several weeks, asked everyone I knew a variation of this question.
“They’re all just . . . stories, aren’t they?” I had queried Arjun, my best friend, the night before as we slowly walked the grounds together.
“Of course they’re just stories,” Arjun had mumbled. “Like that thing about how he had all the advisors on his father’s council stoned to death?”
“I’m sure that’s not true.” Arjun shook his head vehemently before he pressed his lips in a thin line. But his silence for the remainder of the walk didn’t inspire confidence.
Now my father turned to me, and the light of the sunset caught his eyes, transforming them to gold. We looked alike, my father and I; people often told us this. I had his hands, with their long, tapered fi his smile, broad and easy, and his dark, wavy hair.
“Friends . . . something like that. But it’s all in the past. I haven’t seen Sikander since you were a baby. Now we’re starting anew.” The uneasiness in his voice was difficult to ignore. I assumed he didn’t want to discuss it. It had never been his way to be open about the past.
But I knew some things about Sikander and about Macedon beyond what my tutor, Shree, had taught me about the Silk Road and Sikander’s conquests. I knew that my father had first met Sikander when they were both young scholars at the Military Academy of Macedon. And that they had been friends, once upon a time, at least according to Bandaka, Papa’s advisor and Arjun’s father.
That was before Sikander took the throne by assas- sinating his own father and declaring himself the new emperor. After that, he battled his way through Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Bactria. After his overthrow of Persia he became Sikander the Great, who led the greatest and fiercest standing army of all time. In just fifteen years, he had nearly quadrupled his territories, largely through battle. Who was he really, though? Who was he back when my father knew him?
I attempted a different tack. “Did you like Macedon?” I asked Papa.
“It’s . . . very advanced in some ways. Buildings so tall they block out the light. Giant arenas that took hundreds of years to build. They’re used for fighting: slaves fighting one another to the death. People cheering like madmen over it. Everyone has a slave, practically.” He shook his head. “They don’t believe in equality between the sexes. To question the leadership is considered a sin. And they like war. Very much.”
I was quiet as I considered that it didn’t matter anyway what Macedon was like. I would see it from my window in Sikander’s harem, living among his other wives. I wouldn’t visit the great cities of the world, or rule over my kingdom the way my father had. I would be nothing more than a prisoner in Sikander’s bejeweled zenana of toys.
I knew the thought of this sickened my father, just as it horrified me. I wanted to believe that my fate wasn’t yet sealed, but we both knew that my father’s options were limited. He could agree to Sikander’s proposal of marriage to me, and Shalingar would remain stable and have a powerful ally. Or he could refuse, and Sikander would undoubtedly take umbrage, as he was often known to do.
In fact, we were expected to be thrilled, honored that Sikander was seeking to build diplomatic relations with our little kingdom. That was Sikander’s new strategy, now that he had battled half the world. Or rather, that was the only choice left for the tiny kingdoms he hadn’t yet conquered. Agree to all of Sikander’s terms with regard to the negotiation of trade relations, developing trade routes from the east to the west, and the fate of your daughters and sons, and Sikander would be your most powerful friend.
Displease him, disagree with him, question his motives, and another outcome awaited you.
What concerned my father, beyond my own future, was the future of our kingdom. While Shalingar would have an ally in Sikander once I took his hand in marriage, would it also mean that Macedon’s ways would bleed into our own?
In just a few weeks, Arjun was expected to make the journey to attend the Military Academy of Macedon—the best military academy in the world. For the longest time, I had desperately wanted to join him, and I still remembered the day that I learned that the Academy didn’t accept girls. I was devastated to learn that the fate of a woman in Macedon was so circumscribed. There were no women on Macedon’s Leadership Council, and all the diplomats and scholars sent from Macedon to Shalingar were men. Women weren’t allowed to own businesses in Macedon. Or work, for that matter. They weren’t allowed to attend school, or walk down the street unescorted.
“How come you never went back to Macedon?” I asked my father now. It was an obvious question. My father traveled all over the world on diplomatic trips, but he had never returned to the place of my birth.
Papa continued to look out past the horizon. The parade in honor of Sikander’s visit was thinning now, the tide receding, and most of Sikander’s advisors were already within the palace walls, waiting for us to come greet them.
I looked at my father expectantly, waiting for his answer, well aware that there was something else embedded in my inquiry about his time in Macedon. It was a question within a question, like those dolls I played with as a child—the ones that nested inside larger versions of themselves. I was really asking him to tell me something, anything about my mother, whom he had met in Macedon during his time away.
I wondered now if Sikander had known my mother too. “There was no reason to,” he said as he looked back toward the walled city. I followed his gaze, noticing the way whitewashed homes blushed in the early evening light, an empire of pink. That was what my father was talking about when he mentioned the light.
I thought about things like that sometimes—how many elements it took to create the simplest of things—a pink sky, an unusually perfect day, a happy family, a deep friendship, a moment of pure delight.
I wondered too what it took to undo these things. It seemed to me that undoing something was far easier than creating it.
“I wish your mother were here now, to explain things to you.” Papa abruptly interrupted my thoughts.
I glanced at him in shock. He had never mentioned my mother before, and as much as I had hoped that he might, that day it still stunned me to hear those words coming from his mouth.
She was the mystery I most wanted to unlock. It called to me in my dreams, a vision of her, green eyes just like mine, and her voice telling me how much she loved me, how much she missed me. How desperate she was to meet me, wher- ever she was . . . if she was even still alive.
“What . . . kinds of things?” I asked carefully.
“Amrita, what’s about to happen . . .” My father shook his head. “I wish I could go back in time and undo things.” He paused before he added, “And I wish your mother were here to tell you about marriage . . . I have so many regrets, and now it’s coming back to haunt me, the past, and I—”
“Your Majesties?” Arjun’s low voice called from the doorway. My father and I both turned, and I found myself doing a double take when I saw him.
He was handsomely dressed in a crisp blue and gold khalat rather than his everyday kurta pajamas or slacks. His hair, usually a mess because he was always running his fingers through it, was combed down. He looked taller some- how, more like a man than the boy who chased me around the mango grove outside his parents’ quarters.
“It’s time,” he announced to us, a tight smile on his lips.
His eyes caught mine for a moment before he quickly looked away.
“Go on, Amrita. Arjun will escort you,” my father said, before he gave me a kiss on the forehead.
I squeezed my father’s arm to reassure him. His words about my mother lingered in my mind, what he had said about his regrets. I opened my mouth to ask him more, but the moment was already gone.
“Go on,” he said again, more gently this time. “They’re waiting for you downstairs. I’ll be there soon.”
I nodded slowly before I crossed the library toward Arjun, noting his broad shoulders, the stubble on his jaw, the loose smile on the edge of his lips, his dark eyes examining the shelf to my right. I followed his gaze: Something sparkled amid the tomes. I discreetly ran my fingers across the dark wood till I discovered something cool and delicate wedged between two books. I realized what it was even before I saw it.
I gasped, turning to look back at my father, making sure he didn’t notice me snatching the bauble into my palm. I quietly inspected the treasure that had been hidden expressly for me. In the place of a gemstone, the gold delicately curved into the petals of a jasmine bud. I slipped the ring on my finger. It fit perfectly.
“Thank you,” I whispered, looking back into Arjun’s face, returning his smile.
“For good luck,” he responded, his eyes twinkling. Hidden gifts: It was our language; it always had been.
It started when we were children. Arjun was allowed to leave the palace whenever he wanted, something I envied. I was allowed to leave, but going out into the world beyond the palace walls was such a fraught production that on most occasions, I avoided the entire nuisance of it. For one thing, at my father’s insistence, I had to cover my face with a veil.
“We have to protect your identity,” my father insisted.
“We don’t want you to lose your anonymity and not experience life in a normal way. Or worse, become a target,” he always added, his voice stern.
And then there was the matter of my having to be escorted by a member of the palace retinue, which made leaving the grounds decidedly less fun than I hoped. But Arjun had traveled the world with his parents and, more recently, on his own.
When we were children, every time he went away, I cornered him upon his return, demanding to know what he had seen. Every time, he was vague.
“I went to a temple.”
“It’s high up on a mountain, with a slanted roof and lanterns hanging from the rafters.”
“Who goes to this temple?” He would shrug. “People.”
“What kinds of people? Where do they live? Whom do they pray to in the temple?” Impatience creeping into my tone. Arjun would sigh. Or sit down, or bite his lip, running his nervous fingers through his hair, apprehensive that his answers would never placate me in a way that was satisfying to either of us. “It’s really not all that interesting, Amrita. And I’m no good at describing things anyway. You’re the one who tells stories.”
“You’re the one who gets to travel.”
“So at least bring me back something.”
And so he did. From the ocean, a shell. From the desert, a dried fossil of a sea horse. From the temple, a thread of jasmine. From a shop, a silk scarf. I had a collection of things that Arjun had brought for me from the outside world, that he would hide in all corners of the palace for me to find. Sometimes he left me clues about where his presents were hidden. A note tucked into my schoolbooks, arrows made of stones that I would find in the mango grove outside his living quarters, and occasionally, a sly gesture or glance.
I had, over time, made peace with the fact that he spoke better in gifts than he did in words.
Now I turned the ring in my hand as Arjun and I crossed the wide, pillared corridors of the residential west wing, past the potted palms and portraits of my ancestors, our feet clacking on the marble checkerboard floor.
“I had it made,” he whispered. “An artisan in Shalingar. I know jasmine is your favorite flower. You can’t carry the fragrance with you all the way to . . .” He went silent for a moment, as though he didn’t want to say it, as though he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge it. “And I wanted you to remember . . .”
That was all he said, his eyes fixed on the guards, dressed in emerald and gold khalats, who saluted us as we made our way down the corridor. He refused to look at me, but I couldn’t help but watch that profile I was so familiar with that it may as well have been my own. His regal nose, his square jaw, his full lips tightening into a line as his face fell into a mask of composure.
“It’s good luck,” I repeated his words.
“Too bad you’ve never believed in luck,” he said to me, and I caught a brief smile fleeting across his face.
“Maybe I should start now. I need it,” I told him.
“You’ll be fine. You’re good with people. He’ll . . . love you.”
“Perhaps it’s better if he doesn’t,” I whispered under my breath as we turned toward the grand stairway. I tried to smile, attempting to shore up my confidence.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s an option,” Arjun responded. “It’s impossible not to adore you.” He was still looking straight ahead, and his words released a torrent of butterflies in my stomach.
I wanted time to stop. I wanted to turn, to run, but where? I could already hear the brass band playing Shalingar’s national anthem in the gallery below.
In the quiet hollow of my chest, I was lamenting the fact that I was powerless in the face of my own fate, and something within me was screaming, flailing against all the walls of my own existence, fighting for another outcome, for another choice.
But on the outside, I remained calm. I did what I knew to do whenever I greeted dignitaries: I slipped a cool mask of composure over my face. I held my head high, flashing the diamond-studded shoes Mala had selected for me, my fingers light on the redwood banister as we descended the grand stairway into the Durbar Hall, a vast gallery with a glass dome and frescoes of Shalingar’s history painted into the ceiling.
“Are you sure you want to wear it?” Arjun asked, his eyes glancing at my finger.
I nodded. Wearing Arjun’s ring felt like an act of defiance but also reflected something true within me.
I knew why my heart was racing. And it didn’t have to do with my fear of Sikander.
I wanted to choose my own future. I didn’t want to be Sikander’s bride.
What I wanted was too impossible to say aloud, too dangerous, too fraught.
And yet I knew that I desired it with my entire heart: To stay in Shalingar. To be my own person. To serve my people. And to be with those I loved—Papa, Mala, Bandaka, and Shree. But also Arjun, I realized in that moment. Especially Arjun.
My heart was pounding like a drumbeat as I descended into a sea of red coats. They stood in formation as the band played Shalingar’s national anthem. “Where is he?” I whispered to Arjun, squinting my eyes as I smiled at the crowd of men standing before me.
They didn’t smile back. Their faces were somber, immovable. Their large, rectangular bodies formed a wall of same- ness. Even their haircuts were identical.
“I can’t recognize him,” Arjun said. “All I’ve ever seen is his likeness on a coin.”
Shree, Arjun’s mother, had shown us the coins, along with maps of the region, giving us lectures on the Silk Road, teaching us Macedonian greetings, which we employed the moment the band stopped playing.
“Kalispera.” I nodded as I bowed before a tall, broad-shouldered man with silver hair. He nodded back at me, his eyes narrowing as they took me in. I quickly looked away.
“Kalosìrthes.” Arjun shook hands with another man whose palms were at least three times the size of mine.
When the musicians started playing Macedon’s national anthem, I knew this was a signal. Our own guards saluted in formation as a man walked across the threshold of the hall, his feet plodding heavily across the parquet. He too wore a maroon jacket, but his was trimmed with gold, medals across his chest.
I had held those coins in my hand, inspecting them so carefully, trying to identify who he was from those gilded discs. But it was tantamount to reading my fortune in tea leaves.
He looked past me and Arjun, his head held high, his hand over his chest as he listened to the brass chorale that seemingly went on forever. Was their national anthem a war chant? I wondered as I watched him.
In person, he looked nothing like the face on those coins. In fact, I would have been hard-pressed to find anything exceptional about the physicality of the man standing before Arjun and me. He wasn’t tall or broad like his men. He was slight and carried his body as though entirely aware (and dismayed) that he had somehow been assigned the wrong one.
I carefully studied his face. It was creased with deep lines, his hair almost completely gray. He looked much, much older than my father even though I knew they were about the same age. His face looked weathered, severe, humorless. There was no evidence of all those victories. Or maybe it was evidence of what a lifetime of military victories can do to a person.
I was still watching him when the music stopped. For a moment there was silence.
It was Sikander who broke it.
“Chandradev.” He greeted my father by his first name. His voice was a jeer, or maybe it was just the Macedonian dialect.
I turned to see my father, descending the grand stairway. His uniform contrasted sharply with Sikander’s. My father was dressed in a simple raw-silk tunic, the only ornament on him the wedding ring he always wore.
He smiled. “Sikander,” he said, walking past me and Arjun so he was standing face-to-face with the man who, it was rumored, had stoned his father’s entire council to death. Tension gripped my shoulders as I watched Sikander’s visage unexpectedly open into a smile. I noticed that his front teeth were broken and that they had been capped in gold. I caught my father’s expression as he took note of Sikander’s teeth. For a moment, he looked taken aback by the sight, but he recovered quickly as Sikander reached to embrace him.
When they stepped back from each other, Sikander softly said, “It’s been a very long time.”
He was standing a mere half pace from my father. I tried not to think of how many people he must have killed in his life, how many people had died in battles he had waged.
“It’s been far too long. It’s an honor to welcome you to my home, Sikander,” my father said. He hesitated before he said, “Meet my daughter, Princess Amrita.”
“Your daughter—” Sikander’s eyes caught mine. He looked startled for a moment before he spoke. “Ah yes, the last time I saw her, she was but a baby.”
“Welcome, Your Majesty.” I bowed before him, and he laughed. It was a short, staccato sound, not a real laugh. “No need for that,” he said, touching my bare shoulder. His hands were ice cold, making me flinch. He quickly stepped back, his head tilted to the side.
“She looks just like her mother,” he said. My father opened his mouth.
“You knew my mother?” I interjected, before my father had a chance to speak.
“I did, little one. A very long time ago. She was quite a force to be reckoned with,” he said, his eyes manically bright. I turned away from him and caught my father’s eye, waiting for him to say something, anything. But my father was impossible to read, his eyes flitting quickly away from mine. Perhaps my interruption had forced him to reconsider his words, or maybe he hadn’t anticipated the mention of my mother.
But shouldn’t he have? I wondered to myself.
I wanted him to take charge of the situation. I wanted him to deliver a response that would quell my curiosity, shift the axis of power that Sikander had somehow managed to capture the moment he mentioned my mother.
But he didn’t. Or he couldn’t.
Instead, it was Sikander who turned to my father, narrowing his eyes. “Surely your father has told you about her?”
My eyes scanned the Great Hall. Orange trees grew from large blue-lacquered pots around the edges of the space. On their branches hung brightly colored gold lanterns, imparting a warm, golden glow in the large, stately room.
The dining table was decorated with copper platters covered with figs and pomegranates, rose and marigold petals scattered across their surfaces.
There was always beauty here. Shabahaat. It was one of my favorite Shaligarsh words. It meant beauty, grace. Our language had nearly fifty words for the different varieties of beauty, but Shabahaat also included a certain subtext; it alluded to how beauty made one feel: full, whole, transformed. And I desperately needed to feel whole rather than the fractured emotions I was currently experiencing.
A thick, discomfiting tension hung over us, as though we were enclosed in a hut made of kindling on the hottest of days. “Don’t you want to be a part of civilization, Chandradev? It’s certainly charming, this . . . kingdom of yours. Very quaint. But I know how we can bring the grand avenues and lofty stadiums of my kingdom to yours. Consider it a gift. A gift that comes at a price, of course.”
“Typically, things that come at a price are by definition not a gift,” my father intoned, his finger resting on the sharp, golden edge of his thali, the platter filled with mounds of sumptuous food.
I glanced at the immense spread of food before us: spicy prawn curry dotted with cashews and pomegranate, black lentils in cream with wild greens, roasted brinjal with ginger and tomato, raita frothy with fresh green flecks of coriander and cucumber, tomato-raisin chutney, tiny orbs of lemon pickled in sugar syrup, glass after glass of ruby-colored wine. But Papa had barely eaten a thing. So had I. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Sikander had said about my mother, and I didn’t doubt that it had thrown my father off too. He wasn’t his usual self. He was distant, irritable in a way I had never seen him before.
I could barely concentrate on the conversation transpiring before me. Why hadn’t my father mentioned anything about my mother in all these years? Why had he always cut me off or changed the subject when I attempted to inquire about her? What was he keeping from me? And to what end? I looked across the table at Arjun, who smiled at me before he glanced at my ring. Just looking at him flooded my heart with affection. I caught myself staring as the lanterns lit up the golden planes of his face, the angle of his cheekbones, and forced myself to look away.
“I’m going to get right to the point, Chandradev,” Sikander said. “It’s taken me fifteen years to establish trade between the east and the west.”
“And it’s been very good . . . for Macedon.”
“Not just Macedon, Chandradev. The Silk Road has been good for everyone.”
The Silk Road: When I fi heard of it as a child, I imagined a path made of reams and reams of gold silk. I imagined traders, monks, entire clans of Bedouins traveling along it, barefoot so as not to mar the pristine fabric under their feet. It took me years to understand that the Silk Road of my imaginings was nothing like the real thing, even if I had never seen the real thing with my own eyes.
“And I know just the thing that you can bring to the table, so to speak.”
“Enlighten me, Sikander,” my father said, narrowing his eyes.
Across the dining hall, there was silence. Bandaka put down his spoon. Shree raised her eyes. Arjun and I glanced at each other. For a moment, all that could be heard was the startled chirp of insects.
My father leaned back in his chair, his face drawn, his jaw tensed. “That’s a complicated request, Sikander.”
“It’s not a request, Chandradev,” Sikander responded crisply. Again, silence. This time Sikander shattered it with a sharp laugh that startled me. “That’s why I’m here. To say hello to an old friend, to discuss our trade relationship. And, of course, to meet your beautiful daughter,” he said, turning to smile at me with his golden teeth.
I shrank in my chair, forcing a small smile in his direction, but his gaze was so intense that I had to break it. I imagined what it would be like to be married to him. The image of him kissing me with that mouth filled with gold teeth startled me and made me want to retch.
“You don’t know this about my kingdom, Sikander, but I don’t have any control over chamak. It’s not a regulated substance. It’s a drug—”
“A drug that isn’t available anywhere else in the world!”
“A drug that’s mined and guarded by an ancient tribe that lives in an undisclosed location and communicates with the rest of society only on their own terms, through their own intermediaries—”
“But they communicate with you, Chandradev,” Sikander said quietly.
“Through messengers whom they select and deploy, but never directly.”
“Then bring the Sybillines here. Make introductions. I’ll talk to them.”
Bandaka shook his head, interjecting, “They would never agree. They don’t leave the caves. And, with all due respect, Your Majesty, one can’t just think about a boost to our own economy and irresponsibly send caravans full of chamak to other lands. We have to consider the consequences.”
“What consequences? You already trade small amounts of it with neighboring kingdoms,” Sikander said.
Shree stepped in, authority in her voice. “With neigh- boring kingdoms, yes. And small amounts—that’s the key. But we have to limit its trade. Chamak can be good or bad, but ultimately, the Sybillines are the custodians of it—they’ve studied its uses for thousands of years, and we have to acknowledge its power. If it were to get in the wrong hands—” She hesitated and looked away.
“One could easily go to the mountains, mine the stuff with or without the Sybillines,” Sikander said with exasperation in his voice.
“It’s not that simple,” Bandaka responded. “Chamak responds to the Sybillines—it’s a living substance. It loses its power if it’s mined by someone else.”
Sikander placed his palm on the table before him. “Then we force the Sybillines to mine it for us.”
My father interjected. “They would likely rather give their lives than live as slaves. They live within a compound of caves that’s impossible to find. People have tried to find them and died trying. And they are a fiercely ethical people. Sikander, you don’t understand—the Sybillines communicate only with those they want to communicate with—”
But Sikander dismissed my father. “Anything is possible if there’s a will. There must be a few we can persuade.”
“No one has even seen a Sybilline in centuries, Sikander!”
Sikander sighed, exasperation registering on his face. He looked at my father like he was reasoning with a belligerent child, one who didn’t know what was good for him. “You knew me all those years ago. Did you ever think I’d become emperor of the greatest kingdom there ever was? Did you ever think I’d become Sikander the Great?”
My father was silent.
“I learned quite a bit from you back then, Chandradev. Maybe now it’s your turn to learn something from me. You’re a maharaja of a kingdom. And you’re being pushed around by a gang of chamak farmers and Earth-lovers who live in caves?”
“Chamak is a temperamental substance, Sikander.” My father raised his voice. “It has the wiles of an infant. It can be tended to only by the Sybillines, or it’s just a powder.”
“Silver dust,” Shree added.
“You’ll be a part of our trade route, part of the modern world! Imports pouring into your kingdom, visitors coming in from across the world. Why fight this, Chandradev?”
“No one in Shalingar suffers from poverty. Everyone is taken care of here.” And then my father added the part that we all instantly knew he shouldn’t have. “Not like in your kingdom,” he said.
I glanced at Arjun, who looked back at me, startled. I knew right then that my father needed saving in that moment, and instinct kicked in, the urge to protect him. But I can’t say my own curiosity didn’t play a part in what happened next.
“Your Majesty, I’d love to learn more about your time at the Military Academy,” I said. I was looking down, but the moment the words were out of my mouth, I knew I needed to go on. I looked up, my eyes meeting my father’s. “What were you like? What was my father like? And my mother . . .”
Sikander didn’t look at me. His eyes were on my father, who sat at the head of the table, glaring back at him.
“Your mother was a magnet, a star, the sun to all our moons,” Sikander said, skipping to the information he seemed to understand I most wanted to know. “Beautiful, courageous, brilliant, compelling. Good at so many things that sometimes I wondered if she could possibly even be human.” Sikander’s face softened for a moment before he continued, his next words directed solely at my father. “Brother. We have history. Do you remember that time we snuck off campus together and went into town, drank bottles and bottles of wine into the night, just the three of us?”
But my father said nothing. He simply pursed his lips together.
“She told us that story, that parable . . .”
My head whipped back in Sikander’s direction. The Parable of the Land of Trees.
“She was quite a storyteller.” I could tell he was drunk from the way he slurred his words. I didn’t care.
“What was she like?” I whispered, my eyes fixed on him. Everyone at the table hushed, hanging on Sikander’s every word.
He leaned back in his seat and looked at me, his eyes tracing my shoulders, my bare arms. I looked away, uncomfortable, slightly afraid.
“Quite like you, actually. Brilliant, witty, very protective of those she loved. She had a fighting spirit, coming from that family she was born into . . .”
“Your father really hasn’t told you any of it, has he?” He grinned, glancing back toward my father, whose silence was beginning to infuriate me. I avoided looking at him across the table, even as I felt a pang of disloyalty.
“I don’t know anything about her,” I said. And as I said it, I knew that I had chosen a side, but hadn’t my father kept everything about my mother from me my whole life? Wasn’t he simply standing by as Sikander marched into Shalingar to make me his bride, technically against my will? I was owed something. An explanation. That was all I was asking for. It wasn’t very much, I realized, and this realization made me even angrier.
“Your mother came from the aristocracy of Macedon. They were very liberal in their politics. Troublemakers, intellectuals, revolutionaries. The kind that don’t fight. The kind that talk.” He shook his head and laughed. “They were very outspoken about their vehement dislike of my father’s rule. None of them survived, of course.”
My heart stopped. “What do you mean?”
“There was a raid on their home, sometime before your father left Macedon with you.” He turned to me, pressing his hands together in a strangely watered-down mea culpa.
“My father didn’t like his critics very much. It had to be done. Her parents—your grandparents—were taken in for questioning. Her brother too. They died in prison, as far as I know. But your mother, she escaped.”
“They weren’t able to locate her. She’s still on the loose, as far as I know. In hiding, I suppose. So your father never told you that you have criminal blood in your veins, eh?” He laughed, looking back at my father. “I’m sure she wonders about you too.”
“You mean she’s—” Alive. My mother is alive.
But Sikander was lost in his own thoughts. “Every man at that school was in love with her, but she was quite taken with your father,” he said, pointing his spoon at my father. “It was back in the days that the Academy accepted women. Not anymore. I find them to be an unnecessary distraction.” At that very moment, my father’s gaze caught mine from across the table. He looked from me to Sikander, and I could tell from the frozen expression on his face that he had completely lost control of the situation.
“We were such . . . idealists back then, weren’t we?” Sikander went on, lifting his knife and turning it in his fingers before he drove it into the spiced quail sitting on his plate. “But much has changed since then. We’ve changed. We live in modern times . . . I wish I had your idealism, Chandradev, but I live in the real world. Not in a land of magical talking trees.”
We were all silent, stunned. I glanced at Arjun, who furrowed his brow at me. Sikander looked around the room at his advisors, then at my father’s.
He choked out his words in anger, emphasizing each one. “Fairy tales mean nothing to me. Stories have never saved anyone. Time moves forward, and you have to decide: Do you want it to move on without you? Think of the future of your kingdom. Think of Amrita’s future,” he said, and he pointed his hand at me, a gesture that made me shrink in my chair. “Right now, you have a choice. What happened to this Land of Trees of yours—that’s just the nature of the world. One can’t resist the world forever. And if you resist now, you won’t have the choice later.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Woohoo! I have been waiting for this book for a while. I heard about it online and was excited to read it! The story follows Princess Amrita who travels to the caves in order to save her kingdom and hopefully save her father. I found that Amrita was such a compassionate, warm person and that really bled through in the story. Thala is also a fantastic character that shows so much loyalty and concern for Amrita, which was also a main element to the book. I also loved the folklore woven in and I will definitely be doing some research on the folklore mentioned!
The Library of Fates has an interesting mythology set in the ancient fictional kingdom of Shalingar - a kingdom that is nearly utopic but is being threatened by a foreign emperor. Amrita, the princess, is ready to sacrifice her future life for her kingdom, but the nature of her sacrifice takes her on an unusual journey where she discovers herself. The fantasy world, while taking inspiration from ancient kingdoms, has a wholly unique mythology of its own. First, let me start with the world-building. Shalingar is a pretty peaceful and chill kingdom - the king is benevolent, the subjects are happy, sexism is non-existent, and it is largely influenced by kingdoms and provinces in India. The author includes lush details of the culture, and customs of Shalingar, while staying away from the stereotypes; for instance, spirituality is largely the people's prerogative, but different religions and faiths co-exist. The central mythology of this book concerns a land where people were in tune with nature, and a vast library where every person's life is written (which honestly feels similar to the Library in The Magicians). The influences of Hindu mythology are in the form of vetalas - but they are loosely interpreted, as vetalas are sort of like ghosts, but here they are immortal spirits, as in the former is in a negative sense, while the latter (or at least as in this book) they are keepers or guardian-like. Amrita is an interesting protagonist. She has been closeted from childhood, but being brought up by a kindly king, she learns to always put her people first. Even when the time comes to finally leave her kingdom, she does it with great sorrow in her heart. However, she is also a strong person and will do what is necessary for the greater good. Her journey is more of her realization that sometimes the life you imagined is not the life that is waiting out there for you, and sometimes that is okay, too. At first, she is skeptical of the mythology coming to life, as she has considered them as merely stories. Her friendship with the seer Thala (who is also a slave) changes her, and sets her out on her journey - and their growth was beautiful to watch. There are two romances, but neither is the focus of the story, but the reincarnation was a nice addition. As for the emperor, he seems underdeveloped and feels like he is derived from Alexander the Great. He is, however, a key part of Amrita's journey and her choices later on in the book, but I won't discuss further on that to keep this review non-spoilery. I will, say, however, that the last quarter of the book felt rushed on that account, and could have been stretched out a little - especially because it was a crucial part of her story's development. As this, so far, looks like a standalone, it feels like it was wrapped up fast to end the story. Overall, though, this book is a lushly written fantasy, and I am delighted to read a story about my culture in such a wonderful setting.
This story has so much intellectual depth, which is exactly what I was expecting from Aditi after reading MIRROR IN THE SKY. Aditi begins writing her books by focusing in on the themes she wants to include in the story, and in THE LIBRARY OF FATES, we really get to explore the ideas of fate, destiny, and the path not taken. There is also some commentary on refugeeism and the utter devastation and challenges that come along with truly losing absolutely everything. I loved the tone and imaginative world building throughout this story. It so perfectly matches the beautiful book cover, which itself has all kinds of wonderful Easter Eggs that are applicable to the story. I also adored the mythology that Aditi created to accompany this story. It was beautifully imagined, and I deeply admire the way she gave women such prominent and vital roles in the mythology of this world. Amrita was such a fantastic main character. Her love for her people and selflessness was inspirational and heartwarming, and it was a pleasure watching both her journey through the plot of this story as well as the mental and spiritual transformations she undergoes throughout the novel. It was also incredibly refreshing to watch two wonderful female characters, Amrita and Thala undertaking a journey of such epic proportions. This story is absolutely lovely. I am so glad I had the opportunity to read it and can't wait to see more from Aditi in the future.
“I didn’t know then what I know now: that everything - my father, this moment, every experience that molds and shapes us - is ephemeral, evaporating into the air before we have a chance to grasp onto it, before we can truly even understand what it means.” The Library of Fates is an emotionally gripping and magically captivating read. Filled with a rich culture and endearing characters, Aditi Khorana’s world is vividly brought to life. We follow Princess Amrita as she goes on a journey to find herself and challenge fate, along with Thala, the seer on a quest of her own. Things I Liked: The book opened with a parable that I LOVED. The Parable of the Land of Trees was so beautifully magical and perfectly setup the moral of the story. It’s a lesson of sacrifice and selflessness that resonates through the entire story. I personally really loved the writing. I found it to be very full and beautifully vivid. It was descriptive in a poetic way, with incredible imagery, but it never felt too flowery. A lot of personality came through and the world became real. The relationships were also all really well done. I loved Amrita and Arjun’s relationship and completely bought their connection and history. I wish we got to see more of Arjun though. I loved the tumultuous partnership between Amrita and Thala. They are forced together together and must make the best of a bad situation, while neither really knows what they're supposed to be doing. Amrita’s journey is so great. She is so distraught after Sikander’s siege and she doesn’t really know who she is. Through her journey she finds that self discovery is a lifelong process, influenced by your choices and actions, not your family. You are your own person, you decide who you will become. She begins to accept the magic in the world around her. I also really loved the mythology and fantasy elements. The oracles, the Syballines, the vetalases, the Library of Fates, Maraka . They were all really well integrated into the story, and kept me engaged! There was a fantastic full-circle feeling to the story. The resolution was bittersweet and emotional, but felt perfect for the characters. Things I Didn’t Like: I thought the transitions between chapters was kind of abrupt. They were often not as fluid as I would have liked. I also would have liked for some scenes or characters to be expanded and fleshed out more. I felt like some scenes moved rather quickly, and I would have liked to live in the moment a little longer. This was a great story, and I was an emotional wreck for the last 50 pages. It’s a beautiful story of love and fate. Amrita goes through an incredible journey and discovers her own power and strength. The world is vivid and fantastical. This was one of those books that just really leave you completely satisfied. I received a copy of the book from Penguin’s First to Read program in exchange for an honest review.
I should have paid closer attention to the comparison titles for this novel. I wasn’t big on The Star-Touched Queen (though loved the sequel, A Crown of Wishes) and unfortunately The Library of Fates fell in the same category of the former. This book reads like an extended story you would see in a book of folklore and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but it left me underwhelmed for a novel. For starters, I cared little for the characters. Amrita is discovering where she belongs in the world and went on quite the whirlwind adventure, but the entire time I never felt anything toward her. No fear for her life in danger or hope for her potential future with one of the love interests (I’ll get to that in a sec), or even curiosity at how her friendship would change with the oracle Thala. Amrita became the blank slate while the characters around her had emotions, responses that didn’t require counsel, desires that drove them forward. But I never felt the princess had these things. They were stated — what she wanted and what she needed to do to achieve it — but I couldn’t feel it in her character. Then there’s the romances. I hesitate to even call it a love triangle especially since the first one is all “I love you’s” and planned elopements which are all but forgotten when the second guy comes around. Both read a bit insta-lovey (more the second than first but the first didn’t have the development with the reader to read true for me). I’ll say that I liked how the protagonists were girls building a friendship while working toward related but separate ends. The romance, though I wasn’t a fan, didn’t impact a lot of the scenes where it was just Amrita and Thala interacting. Their friendship taking up page space was good even though I didn’t find much in their individual characters. Where I see the comparison to TSTQ come in is with the world-building and writing. Though not as intricately beautiful as I found TSTQ, the writing here is detailed and brings forth a world both fictional and real. I traveled across lands, encountering a world of diverse people filled with the influence of Indian folklore promised in the synopsis. This lasted for the beginning portion of the book until the writing became awkward in several sections. It’s an easy read from a technical perspective, and I was able to push through to the end where the story improved a bit but was too rushed to make an impact on the rest of the book. Honestly, this book was such a quick read but I finished it feeling… nothing. It wasn’t a particularly engaging story and while the writing was alright, it didn’t quite reach the same level as its comparison titles for me. Which is a shame. I’ve really loved how more and more YA fantasies are coming out based on non-European mythology and folklore but I haven’t been enjoying most of them. Fingers crossed for more in the future but this one just wasn’t working for me.
As soon as I saw the comparison to The Star Touched Queen and The Wrath and the Dawn, I was intrigued and had high expectations...sadly I was sort of disappointed. Amrita and Thala are decent enough MCs. For a Princess on the run and a previously enslaved Seer, I figured there would be some fire, yet they're both sort of bland on the page. Varun is easily the best part of the story for various reasons, but I won't spoil anything. Plot wise, I loved the idea of this and the idea of it is probably why I gave it 3 stars instead of 2. Everything seemed to come so easily to Amrita. There wasn't any tension or struggle. I didn't feel any bit of anticipation or build up. Overall, it was a fairly quick read with a satisfying ending, but lacked a spark and the excitement I was expecting. **Huge thanks to Razorbill for providing the arc free of charge**