Gauri, the princess of Bharata, has been taken as a prisoner of war by her kingdom’s enemies. Faced with a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. Hope unexpectedly comes in the form of Vikram, the cunning prince of a neighboring land and her sworn enemy kingdom. Unsatisfied with becoming a mere puppet king, Vikram offers Gauri a chance to win back her kingdom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together, they’ll have to set aside their differences and team up to win the Tournament of Wishes—a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor.
Reaching the tournament is just the beginning. Once they arrive, danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans and mischievous story birds, a feast of fears and twisted fairy revels. Every which way they turn new trials will test their wit and strength. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire…
The ashram might have taught the princes numbers and letters, philosophy and diction, but Vikram knew something far more useful. He was raised on a bellyful of want—always kept at a distance, always in sight of everything he wanted and could never sink his teeth into—which only made him that much more attuned to seeing through words and straight to the desires. Know the value of the desire and the value of the deficiency. That was how he lived around his own wants.
First, he knew the apple was valuable to the vanaras. Yet the vanaras refused to hear anything about taking it back and letting them go on their way. And they refused to let it out of their sight. Vikram had tried bribing them. At one point, he offered Gauri’s hand in marriage, which earned him two sharp jabs in the ribs. For equality’s sake, he offered his own hand in marriage, but that ended all bargaining negotiations on the spot. Then again, even if the vanaras had agreed, it would have made no difference. The apple refused to leave Gauri’s hand.
Second, the vanaras had given away their greatest weakness without even realizing it: They felt adrift. Their queen had left them and they wanted her return. What if he combined them—the apple and the missing queen? If he spun the right tale, maybe it would be enough to bargain their freedom.
But the moment he stepped inside the Night Bazaar he forgot everything he knew.
Wonder sharpened his senses. The Night Bazaar was the pith of stories murmured in the dark, the seedling of dreams and the haunt of nightmares. And he was in it. He drank in the scent of the Night Bazaar. On the side of star-touched night, a plume of winter hung in the air—cold pears and banked embers, polished gems and kefir cream. On the side of rain-kissed day, a lace of fire spiraled through the air—overripe plums and ripped flowers, dusky berries and cold honey.
Seeing the Night Bazaar was a victory. All his life, Ujijain had treated him as an afterthought. A glorified case of pity. Stories were his solace, the one place where someone like him could become someone else. And now, staring at the Night Bazaar, he felt that his whole life had aligned. He breathed deeply, out of breath from the trek through the caverns. His legs ached from hours on horseback, and the heavy chains had already cut into his neck.
Beside him, Gauri looked distraught. Chivalry demanded that he should inquire after the Princess’s well-being. Then again, when the princess in question had tried to kill him and probably would try again the next chance she got, perhaps chivalry should be ignored. She caught him looking at her and frowned:
“You’re heaving like a water buffalo in its death throes.”
The vanaras dragged them through both sides of the Night Bazaar. No one paid them much attention. Vikram shuddered. Was it that normal to drag humans into the Otherworld?
“Can you imagine what they sell here? ” he asked, venturing a glance at Gauri.
“Dreams,” she said hoarsely, not looking at him. “Or so I was told. At least, I hope it’s true.”
Her chin tilted up and her black eyes filled with the sky. For a moment, she looked as if she were made of light. Vikram caught himself staring and turned from her sharply. The Otherworld was playing tricks on his sight.
The Lord of Treasures must have a foul sense of humor to have set him up with the enemy princess. He thought the promise of a wish would keep her from killing him, but she wanted nothing to do with magic. Even now, she was looking for a way to get out, scanning the Night Bazaar like a predator stowing away information for later. If Bharata wanted her dead, then why did she want her throne? The callous part of him thought she simply wanted a toy she no longer had. Another part of him suspected there was more to her. Who was this girl who softened beneath a sky full of magic and hoped that the city she’d stepped inside traded on dreams? Vikram straightened his shoulders. Forget it. He didn’t need her life story. He needed her partnership in the game or else he couldn’t get into the Tournament of Wishes. She had to be it. He’d felt it the moment he’d thrown the ruby to her, like a thread snapped into place. But how could he make her want to play?
As they walked, tents leapt in front of them, shaking their wares: golden fruit that grinned, splitting down its middle like a smile (“for when your speech must be comely even when your heart is a rotten thing”); a chain of star fragments, each one humming with celestial song (“for temporary wisdom and brilliance”); the ghungroo ankle bells of an apsara dancer (“guaranteed to bring the wearer beauty… seller-shall-not- be-responsible-for-mistaken-affections-from-less-compelling-potential- lovers”); a tray of teeth taken from a makara (“aphrodisiacs for the lover seeking a bit more fight and bite in the bedroom! ”); and more.
The vanaras first purchased a jar of heartbeats from a woman with no eyes. Gauri fidgeted. The apple still hadn’t left her hand. She was staring at the path they’d walked down, as if plotting an escape.
“Very useful in battle,” murmured the yellow one. “Pour it down your throat and you may get a mouthful of last words.”
“How do you harvest heartbeats? ” asked Gauri.
“You snip them from the chest while a child loses his footing, or a new bride hears the footsteps of her husband outside the threshold of their bedroom. Humans waste their heartbeats,” said the woman. “Why, girl, do you wish to make a trade? ”
She opened her mouth to speak but the vanaras pulled their lips back from their teeth and hissed: “No. She does not.”
Next, they marched them through a tent full of thousands of bolts of silk. Vikram strained against his manacled wrists to touch them. There were silks crafted of apple blossoms and a golden net of whir- ring honeybees, bolts of river water where fish bones drifted through the waves and threads of birdsong hanging in the corner. The vanaras haggled viciously over a cloth sewn of shadows.
“I’ll give you the shadow cloth and throw in a cursed brooch if you’ll give me the handsome human boy,” smiled a thin young woman with needles for teeth.
“Do I want a brooch? ” asked the yellow vanara to the gray one.
Please say no….
“You do not want a brooch.”
Vikram sagged against the chains, relieved. The woman shrugged and handed over the cloth. As they walked away from the tent, they crossed a booth of strange-looking weapons carved from crystal. Gauri tensed. When the vanaras pulled them, she sucked in her cheeks, feet planted. Was she going to try to topple into a table of weapons? He watched her expression narrow. Yes, Yes, she was.
The moment she sprang up, the vanara in front of them snapped his fingers. Gauri froze in midair.
“Bad beast,” he snarled, yanking her out of the air and pulling her chains until she stood upright. “Walk. Or I’ll cut off your feet.”
Last, the vanaras dragged them to a platform in the night section of the Night Bazaar. Twelve women stood on the dais. Blue stars shone on their throats, and impossibly bright flowers covered the stage. One by one they withdrew their veils. The twelve women were so beautiful that every single person in the audience sighed. Even Gauri raised a disbelieving eyebrow. The women looked like temple carvings, distant and perfect. Some had the silky complexion of burnished gold. Some had skin the deep blue of a peacock’s throat, and some had no skin at all but scales. The only thing the women shared was the blue imprint of a star at their throats. Gauri’s eyes widened. Vikram stared at them…a word danced at the tip of his thoughts. Something that made him step away from the women. Gauri drew in a sharp breath.
“Vishakanyas,” she whispered.
That was the word he remembered. Vikram shuddered. Most of Ujijain treated them as rumor, but his father had told him that his uncle had been felled by the touch of a poisonous courtesan. She had been sent as a gift by an enemy kingdom. One day later, the uncle was dead and the courtesan had disappeared. A single touch would kill a man.
“You recognize them? ” asked the yellow vanara, impressed. “That makes sense that you would recognize your own. They started out human.”
Gauri looked horrified. “They used to be human? Do those women even want to be vishakanyas?”
Vikram stared at Gauri. Most of Ujijain’s court treated women like fashionable baubles, easily traded and replaced. His mother, a former palace singer, had been one of those discarded fashions. The moment the court discovered she was with child, she was sent away. He’d known only a few royals who considered the lives of those outside their courts.
Gauri opened her mouth to speak, but the shrieking cheers of the audience drowned out her words. A vishakanya had selected someone from the crowd. A handsome musician ascended the platform and sat before her.
“Are they going to kill him?” asked Vikram.
“They can’t kill us,” said the vanara. He nodded at them. “Well, you, certainly. And her. There is no better food to a vishakanya than human desires. And don’t look at me like that, rude girl. You won’t meet your end with them. We’d rather save the pleasure of killing you for ourselves.”
“Then why did you bring us here? ” she spat.
“To witness their last performance! ” shouted the other vanara. “Tomorrow they will disappear for the Tournament of Wishes—”
Vikram’s expression brightened. What if they could follow the courtesans to Alaka? But his expression must have given something away because the yellow vanara started laughing.
“You’re not the only man who wishes to be spirited away with them, boy. But you cannot fool their magic into taking you.”
Gauri raised her head sharply, her gaze flying to Vikram. His gut twisted. Poisonous courtesans would be at the Tournament?
“While they’re away, no one will be able to send them to the human realm and end the life of a foul or unpleasant king, and that means no demonstrations,” sighed the yellow vanara. “No pleasure.”
On the stage, the vishakanya sang and stroked the musician’s neck.
“This is why we will miss them when they go,” whispered the vanara.
At her touch, a strange whorl of smoke appeared in front of the musician. It took life and shape from the vishakanya’s touches and whispers, becoming a man made of smoke. The smoke being beckoned to the musician, and his face constricted in want. The moment the vishakanya lifted her hand, the smoke being vanished. The musician stood up, a thin line of blood dribbling from his lips. He wiped it away and stared at the vishakanya hungrily. Like an addict. Violent applause burst through the crowd. Vikram’s stomach turned.
The yellow vanara turned to them, his pupils dilated to the point where they had nearly eaten away the whites of his eyes.
“You sees? ” he asked. “They can show you what you want the most. You can drown in it.”
The gray vanara laughed. “Ah, desire. Such a poisonous thing.”
Vikram frowned. Where had he heard that? But the thought faded as they were once more dragged through the Otherworld. For all its beauty, there was something unfinished about the Otherworld. Many stalls were in the middle of construction. An orchard with silver sap- lings lay enclosed by a pearl fence. Even the sky looked sewn together; pieces of the night sky wore strange white scars that were neither clouds nor stars, but thread. Vikram recognized the looks of the place. The city bore the aftermath of war, as if it had grown harder and more wary.
“Who won the war? ” asked Gauri. “You said there was a war here.”
“Oh yesses,” said the vanara. “The Dread Queen and her Cold Consort soothed Chaos to sleep, muddled the stars, broke the thread, ate the dark and spits it up!”
Vikram rolled his eyes. Their captors were insane. Which didn’t bode well for whatever would happen next. He steadied his nerves. He had knowledge about a weakness, and that was the greatest weapon he could demand. He’d talked his way from tight spots before and if he had to sell his soul to get them free and take them to the Tournament, he would.
At the bottom of a sloping valley lay a glowing number of pools. The land looked like the earth after thunderstorms, divots of silver puddles lighting up the world. The gray vanara expertly picked his way through the pools. Vikram peered into the pools, and what he saw stole his breath. He saw a forest of glass birds. A hundred suns. A thousand moons. As the reins tugged him forward, he caught a glimpse of the gray vanara. His hands were gripping something glittering. A shining ruby. For a panicked second, Vikram thought the vanara had stolen from him. But then he felt his own ruby grazing his chest from the concealed pocket in his jacket. What was a vanara doing with a ticket to Alaka? His thoughts went no further. The vanaras jumped into a pool. His feet skidded over the edge. A rush of hollow terror filled his stomach and he shut his eyes, bracing for the fall.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A CROWN OF WISHES. Copyright © 2017 by Roshani Chokshi. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.