Read an Excerpt From Prashanth Srivatsa’s The Spice Gate

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Spice Gate, a South Asia-inspired debut fantasy by Prashanth Srivatsa, out from Harper Voyager on July 16th.

Relics of a mysterious god, the Spice Gates connect the eight far-flung kingdoms, each separated by a distinct spice and only accessible by those born with a special mark. This is not a caste of distinction, though, but one of subjugation: Spice Carriers suffer the lashes of their masters, the weight of the spices they bear on their backs, and the jolting pain of the Gates themselves.

Amir is one such Spice Carrier, and he dreams of escaping his fate of being a mule for the rich who gorge themselves on spices like the addicted gluttons they are. More important than relieving his own pain, though, is saving his family, especially his brother, born like him with the unfortunate spice mark that designates him for a life of servitude.

But while Amir makes his plans for freedom, something stirs in the inhospitable spaces between the kingdoms. Fate has designs of its own for Amir, and he soon finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that could disrupt the delicate dynamics of the kingdoms forever.

The more Amir discovers truth and myth blurring, the more he realizes that his own schemes are insignificant compared to the machinations going on around him. Forced to chase after shadows with unlikely companions, searching for answers that he never even thought to question, Amir’s simple dream of slipping away transforms into a grand, Spice Gate–hopping adventure. Gods, assassins, throne-keepers, and slaves all have a vested interest in the spice trade, and Amir will have to decide—for the first time in his life—what kind of world he wants to live in… if the world survives at all.

Chapter 1

A man who offers you tea without ginger is more miserly than one who doesn’t offer you tea at all.
— Morsels of a Bent Back, Volume 1

Amir stood within the ring of erected stones encircling the Spice Gate in the midst of the saffron fields. The spicemark burned on his throat, sensing his proximity to the arch. Karim bhai shuffled next to him, stoic as ever, hair ruffled, beard unkempt, age wrinkling his forehead. He held a pinch of turmeric in his hand.

Amir counted the others. Forty Carriers in all. Twenty each to Vanasi and Halmora. Squatting beside tilted sacks or perched on cartons filled to the brim with saffron, cardamom, and rhubarb, and vials of honey and crates of rosewood. Jhengara, the accountant, whistled an old tune at the front of the queue, a stack of papers beneath his arm and an anxious tremble that was visible twenty feet away.

Amir shivered.

Because no amount of experience could settle the nerves when it came to walking through the Spice Gate. Not for the first time; not for the thousandth.

It loomed ahead like a monstrous archway upon a pedestal, dressed in gray marble and ancient stone, its base withered and swamped withcreeping vines that twisted around the pillars in a gnarled choke hold. But what caught Amir’s attention as always was that swirling tempest beneath the arch, a veil like a melted mirror that held a storm within its prison.

The soul of the eight kingdoms ran through its crevices.

A soul I want no part of.

Buy the Book

The Spice Gate
The Spice Gate

The Spice Gate

Prashanth Srivatsa

“Salaam,” Karim bhai greeted one of the chowkidars. The guard waved a pike in their direction, its tip grazing Amir’s elbow. Karim bhai raised his hands in supplication and continued. “If you’d be so kind to tell us what we’re waiting for?”

The chowkidar shrugged and moved away. Amir clenched his fists but prevented himself from prodding the chowkidar further. There was added security by the Gate today, and Hasmin, the chief of the chowkidars him- self, stood by the Gate’s arch, casting a derisive frown at the column of Carriers waiting to sift through.

Amir whispered in Karim bhai’s ear, “Don’t tell me that now, of all times, they got a hunch about Ilangovan prowling Vanasi.”

He was careful to temper the tension in his voice as he mentioned the most wanted man in the eight kingdoms. Karim bhai sounded far less anxious. “They can pursue him all they want. But make no mistake, in those Mouth-cursed towers, I’d no sooner find a dropped cardamom.”

It ought to have allayed Amir’s fears a little. But as a bowler of Raluha, as a gatecaste Carrier of the eight kingdoms, his fortunes, like those of Karim bhai, flickered like a candle about to be extinguished.

And there’s never been enough wax to begin with.

Ilangovan was a source of light for Amir and the gatecaste. Amir just needed it to hold steady a while longer. Or, better yet, go shine some- where else, far away from Vanasi. Of course, Amir was not certain if Ilangovan was even in Vanasi—no one could ever really know where he’d be when he was not in the Black Coves; the renegade Carrier was as much a spirit as a pirate. But there was one thing Amir was certain was in Vanasi: the Jewelmaker’s Poison.

And much as he desired to meet Ilangovan, now was not the time. In fact, the time would only come if he could get his hands on the Poison, and it would be a gatecaste irony, where one desire was upset by the appearance of another.

No—he would get the Poison. It had to be in Vanasi. He’d sacrificed three fortnights’ worth of spices to be certain. He’d climbed enough vines, delivered enough contraband, and crawled on enough rooftops to know that the Jewelmaker and his elusive Carnelian Caravan were supplying the Poison to the denizens of the upper levels of Vanasi’s bramble-choked towers. And all Amir needed was one vial.

Karim bhai must have sensed the trepidation in his voice, the vacancy in his eyes as his thoughts plunged into darkness. “Ho, pulla. Are you sure you’re up for this?”

Amir blinked. “What? Oh, yes—of course, yeah. What do you mean, bhai! I have to do this.”

He immediately regretted those words. Making it a compulsion sounded insensitive of Karim bhai and the other bowlers, who harbored no desire to upend their fates. Or at any rate put their lives at stake for it.

But Ilangovan had. He had broken free.

Karim bhai chuckled. “So much for not wanting to be like your father.

You remind me of Arsalan in more ways than one.” “Is that what you think I am? Delusional?”

“It’s not very far from reckless, pulla. The line between them blurs as you get more desperate.”

Amir forced himself to not think of his father. He raised his head stiffly, to regard the mountains looming beyond the Spice Gate, and the dense hold of trees hugging their bellies. Beautiful and treacherous, the stench of death in the air and the promise of darkness. No, he was nothing like his father. Unlike Appa, he had a plan.

“The Jewelmaker is in Vanasi,” he said. “I am certain. I will have the Poison in my hands before nightfall, bhai.”

“By the Gates I hope you do.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Amir. “Just give my letter to Harini.” Karim bhai, who had begun cleaning his teeth with a bristled leaf, clicked his tongue. “She’s going to be upset you’re not on the roster for Halmora today.”

“I have explained it all in the letter. Just ensure she reads it.”

“I will do what I always do: deliver. But remember, pulla,” warned Karim bhai, “if the thronekeeper of Halmora finds out his daughter is reading letters sent to her by a bowler of Raluha, things will get ugly real soon, and this whole dream—of joining Ilangovan, of getting your mother and Kabir to the Black Coves—it disappears.”

Amir had thought about this possibility too many times to be truly bothered by Karim bhai’s warning. “She’s not like the other throne- keepers.”

At that, Karim bhai laughed. “If I had a peppercorn for every time the abovefolk thought that of themselves—”

“No, she truly is not. It’s not her saying this but me. I trust her. Ten years of carrying, twenty years in the Bowl. Do you think I do not know the thousand ways the abovefolk discriminate against us? Do you think, after the lashes, after the stink, the seclusion, I would consider opening my heart to one of the abovefolk, to a princess of Halmora, if I was not certain?”

“You’re certain of a lot of things today, pulla.” Karim bhai continued chewing the leaf, massaging his teeth as he did so. “I fear for these assur- ances you’ve got going on in your head. It reeks of having control over one’s lives. And we? Pulla, we’re not the ones in control. We’re not bred to be certain of anything except the pain of passing through the Gates.”

Amir wanted to argue further—and the Gates knew he was tired of repeating his arguments to Karim bhai day and night as the years rolled by—but at that moment, the line of Carriers began to shuffle ahead. Jhengara the accountant’s tune intensified as a signal for the Spice Trade to begin. Hasmin’s eyes trailed each Carrier as they picked up the sacks and lifted the crates to place them over their heads. Amir swung his own sack over his back and staggered ahead, his head low, his gaze fixed on the back of Karim bhai’s feet, the coarse, fissured skin, the garb of dirt, only a feeble image of the end of the day shimmering in his mind.

At one point, Karim bhai stumbled, and Amir groaned. A whip fell on the old Carrier, and he dropped the sack with a wince. Karim bhai lowered himself to the ground, wheezing, one hand twisted to massage his back, and the other pulling the dropped sack closer to him. Amir’s eyes widened as Hasmin loomed behind the old Carrier, a snarl on his face that he had come to loathe.

“Ho, that wasn’t necessary!” Amir protested.

Yet Hasmin ignored him and, like a predator patiently enjoying the struggles of its prey, watched Karim bhai pick himself up, and the sack with him. Karim bhai almost fell again, teetering against the weight of saffron. Any temerity, any social capital Karim bhai had built over five decades of carrying, vanished in that moment as he enslaved himself to the tenets of his duty. That’s all that remained once stripped of the brittle comforts to which the bowlers had clung to. That frenetic moment of picking the spice-laden sack and hoisting it upon their shoulder—that was the only permanence. That, and the aroma of spices that surrounded them, of course.

If not for the sack on his back, Amir would have stood erect, with his chest out, and glared at Hasmin. He’d have spat at him if there were enough saliva in his mouth.

Fortunately, he could do neither.

Remember, you need the Poison. Keep your mouth shut.

For a moment, Amir wondered if Hasmin would grab him and shove him to the ground. Or perhaps, cup him under his chin and crush the bones of his jaw.

Wishful thinking.

What Amir got was, instead, a projectile of mucus right in his face. All the wealth of a hydrated body, conjured in that working of tongue and cheek muscles.

Hasmin would sooner parade naked in front of the bowlers than touch one of them. But whip them? Spit on them?

That he did without compunction.

Amir, who needed both hands to cling to the sack, felt the spittle dribble down his cheek and along the line of his throat where the spice- mark rested, and could do nothing about it. Even looking the chief of the chowkidars in the eye could be seen as an act of defiance.

Jhengara’s tune ended. A whistle from the Gate broke Hasmin’s glare. The second signal had arrived. Carriers shuffled ahead. Hasmin spat once more, this time so Amir had to sidestep the wad as it smacked into the dirt at his feet. The chief bellowed for the Carriers to maintain their line. A low breeze wafted in the scent from the saffron fields, stalks swaying, bulbs frolicking.

The rest was clockwork. Amir trudged on, not trying to be too eager. Usually, he would scurry to the end on all the duties—all except Halmora, when he’d always be excited to meet Harini. With those other deliveries, he’d hope against hope that, by the time his chance came, Hasmin would hold him back; announce that there had been a mistake, that the Carriers who had been ferried ahead were sufficient to complete the trade. That he, Amir, could return home, no harm done.

But in his ten years of carrying, he had never been blessed with such fortune.

Now, though, he wanted to get through. Needed his fortune to keep Hasmin from holding him back. Once Karim bhai sprinkled turmeric on the veil and disappeared through the Gate to Halmora, Amir took a deep breath and a step forward, his head spinning as the swirl beneath the arch shimmered with a steady thrum. A thrum that hammered into his bones. A thrum he wanted to stop screaming in his ears.

He adjusted the sack of saffron and hoisted it higher over his shoulder. It was amazing to think that such tiny strands or ground bits of a seed could weigh so much, but stuffed into a burlap until near-bursting, it was enough to bend the strongest back—which Amir could hardly claim to have. He gritted his teeth but said nothing as Hasmin poured some of the powdered leftover nutmeg on Amir’s extended palm. His key through the Gate.

His mind wobbled. He was not sure if the scent on Hasmin’s person was of orange or ginger. Amma would know.

The jumble continued, the Gate making it hard for him to focus. A lash fell on his back. He yelped. One of the chowkidars screamed at him to keep moving.

He swallowed hard and stopped a retort from escaping his mouth. The gatekeepers were only doing their jobs, yet in the presence of Hasmin, they appeared like extensions of him, like poisonous tentacles tethered to a heartless monster.

“I better not discover that you have strayed from the spice trail,” Hasmin growled, low enough for Amir to hear, then nudged him up the steps. Hasmin’s shadow eclipsed any warmth Amir might have felt as the Gate’s essence vibrated in his chest even louder.

Amir climbed the seven steps to the Gate, panting as his sack threatened to drag him down. When he was within a foot of the arch, he opened his fist and cast the nutmeg into the veil. The mirror shimmered violently, jerking and shuddering, dispelling a wave of heat—l ike masala thrust into boiling water—before transforming into a rippling shade of golden brown. It pulled the air toward itself, like a vacuum.

The Gate worked. Amir had no choice. He lifted his chin and stepped through, giving himself to the spice god, and as always, the great Gate tore him apart.

Excerpted from The Spice Gate by Prashanth Srivatsa. Copyright © 2024 by Prashanth Srivatsa. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top