Vanhi, known to those who love it as the City of Gems, unfolds before me. Parts of the city are still in ruins. Whole districts are blocked off, their residents shut out. Tents were set up by the outer wall that borders the Bhavya Desert for temporary housing until the districts are rebuilt. What would my ancestors think of this disarray? The rajahs that came before me tamed the desert and built this oasis. My first major act as ruler undid all their hard work.
Few people know that I released the demon Udug from the Void to prevent a wicked sultan from doing the same. Udug impersonated my father and led our army in a battle against the warlord. They prevailed against the rebels, though the cost was great. The repairs have rapidly depleted our reserves.
But not for long.
In one week, I will wed Princess Gemi. In most regards, she is a stranger. I gained respect for her and her people as we fought together against Udug. I have since studied the Southern Isles’ history and their inclusion of bhutas. The empire needs the materials and monetary resources I negotiated for in our alliance. I also need guidance on how to progress to peace.
For a time, I envisioned another marital union for myself. Kalinda was the obvious selection as my kindred, but her heart led her elsewhere. The hurt of her refusal clung on for a time but has since disintegrated. Kali sacrificed much to return me to my palace and throne. I see how our people look at her. Those who saw her fight for their freedoms respect her more, undeterred by her bhuta heritage. Many more do not appreciate her labors and view her only as a Burner. Their incoming kindred, who had no associations with the rebels, will more easily garner their esteem. Gaining my own affection for my first wife is not a priority. Rajahs do not have the same romantic independence as others. Our hearts must belong to our empires.
“Your Majesty?” Pons asks from the lower roof. I drop into the aviary. The Galer enters, rousing the doves. He does not remark about where I am. During our first days together, I made him promise not to tell anyone about my rooftop escapades. “Your meeting begins soon.”
“I’m coming.” I replace the ink and quill in the box and then pick up the parchment with the unfinished story.
“Would you like me to send that correspondence, sir?”
“This? No. This is nothing.” I crush the parchment into a ball. The bottom of the wooden box is littered with crumpled papers. I toss my latest attempt in with the others and close the lid.
Wind and rain beat against my back and lash at my hair. I stand on the lakeshore, icebergs bobbing across the shattered surface.
“Kali!” Deven calls from within the hurling water, near the center of the lake. He dips under a crashing wave and up again.
I run up to my shins into the freezing waters. Ice bites into my skin. Rain distorts my vision. He disappears behind a wave. I search frantically. He reappears, swimming against currents and crosswinds.
Our gazes connect across the perilous divide, both rife with terror. The storm whips up massive crosscurrents. A maelstrom spins Deven around its outer radius.
He cannot break free.
I dive in and swim out. My right hand is whole again. I cannot stop to think about how that is possible. I funnel all my strength into reaching him. He twirls closer to the whirlpool.
We reach for each other. Our fingertips touch—
A current slices between us.
Deven careens into the vortex and goes under. I scrutinize the choppy waves. When he does not resurface, I inhale and dive.
Shadows writhe below, hooks grasping and dragging him. I swim farther and catch his fingers. The hooks pull harder, wrenching him from my clasp. The darkness arrests him and he sinks from view. I swim into the directionless pit.
“Come to me.” The distinctly female voice vibrates through my skull. “Come to me or your beloved is mine.” Something ugly in her voice twists “beloved.”
The same hooks that stole Deven reach for me. Icy spikes impale my thighs. Not hooks—claws. I try to scream. My mouth fills with water that tastes of lead. The phantom cackles. I grasp for something solid, but the claws submerge me deeper into the pit.
Someone jostles my shoulder. I jerk awake.
“Sorry to disturb you,” says Indah. “You’ve both been asleep awhile.”
Her daughter, Jala, naps in my arms. I came to their chamber for a visit, as I do most days after I teach my art course, and sat down to rock the baby to sleep. “I must have dozed off.”
“You were mumbling.”
My legs ache. I can still recall that eerie cackle.
“I was dreaming.” I say no more, unwilling to give credence to my nightmare by reliving its horrors, and peer down at the bundled infant.
“Jala sleeps soundly with you,” Indah notes, her tone pleased.
She has hinted more than once that Jala and I were connected in a past life. More than once I have wondered if Jala’s little body holds my best friend’s reincarnated soul. Delusional as it may be, I like the notion that Jaya has returned from the Beyond. I appreciate that speculation more than when Rajah Tarek declared I was the reincarnated soul of the fire-god’s hundredth rani. Even though I yearn for more respect from my people, mercifully, his grand assertion did not stick.
I kiss Jala’s downy head and pass her to Indah. The baby wakes, her face scrunching in protest. Her grouses work up to mewling cries. The noise tugs away the final tendrils of my nightmare, save only Deven’s fear when he slipped away. Nothing can clear that from my memory.
“Are you not meeting Deven tonight?” Indah asks.
My gaze zips out the open balcony at the dusky sky. “What time is it?”
“Just past sunset.” Indah’s response follows me to the door. “That’s why I woke you. I thought you’d want to see him.”
“I do.” I thank her and dash down the corridor to my chamber. Natesa reclines on my bed and snacks on a mango from Deven’s food tray.
“There you are,” she says. “How was your day?”
Deven is not here yet, so I sit with her and steal a piece of fruit too. “Well enough. My art pupils are learning how to sketch people. They’re fascinated by the fire-god Enlil. He’s all they want to draw.”
“They’re young women infatuated with perfection.”
“I was once taken with Anu,” I admit. “But I’d never seen a real man. These girls have seen plenty.”
“Anu and Enlil aren’t men—they’re gods. It’s difficult not to be enraptured.” Natesa stretches her toes near a stack of books at the foot of the bed. “These came from the Hiraani Temple for you. Priestess Mita couldn’t find you so I brought them.”
I forgot I sent a correspondence to the distant Sisterhood temple asking for their texts about the Void. “Thank you. I’ll start them tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be at your inn?”
Natesa swings her legs over the side of the bed. “Yatin and I decided that can wait. I’ll hardly see him if I’m living in the city and he’s here.”
She rises to go. I should be pleased she is staying, but the feeling of wrongness from earlier returns stronger.
“Natesa, I don’t want you and Yatin to put your life on hold for anyone.”
“First you delayed your wedding and now—”
“You aren’t the only one who feels helpless, Kali. Deven is Yatin’s best friend. My friend. We all want him home. It’s hard for life to go on while we know he’s down there.” Natesa’s frustration matches my own. She glances at the pile of books. “Most of us don’t read as fast as you and Ashwin, but we’re helping where we can.”
They are doing plenty. Yatin is running the palace during our drought of guards, and Natesa aids me more than my servant, Asha, does.
“I don’t thank you enough,” I reply.
“You could do better.” She tucks her tongue in her cheek and tilts her head. She is such a pest. “Good night, Kali. Tell Deven we miss him.”
After she goes, I finish the fruit and lug the stack of texts to the table, starting with the one on top. Lost Souls: The Realm Below. Deven is not a lost soul, but the sisters thought this book was pertinent, so I settle into my chair.
On the first page I read a poem, “Ode to the Evernight.”
Seven gates to ascend, one must pay
A token dear and precious.
Crest all below and do not delay:
The Desert of Anguish, the Valley of Mirrors
A broken heart and spirited tears
A River of Ordeal, a Road of Bone
The city of death, and Kur’s home.
Beware of Irkalla, Queen of Thorns.
Reveal her fangs and you are never born.
A barb of fear clenches my neck. I cannot fathom how Deven spends every day in that awful place. Turning the page, I read on.
According to the text, the under realm is divided by seven gates, each one manned by a guardian. In between the gates lie domains, some listed in the poem. One detail I recall from Ashwin’s recounting of Inanna’s Descent is that Inanna paid each guardian with a piece of her wedding adornment.
One by one, the guardians will request a token in exchange for entrance through their gates and passage through their domains.
At last some truth. This confirms a portion of Ashwin’s recounting. I read in earnest, devouring page after page as I wait for Deven to arrive.
Some time later, when midnight marches into the early hours, a chapter heading nearly flies off the page: “Mortal Wanderers.”
Woe unto the mortal who finds himself imprisoned in the Void. Man was created to turn toward the light, seeking, aspiring, ascending. But no ember lies in the belly of the evernight to warm or enrich the soul of man. He is doomed to wander, driven farther into the Void, while his soul-fire dims from eternal brightness. Once his inner star fades, he will be empty and forfeit his capacity for rebirth. A death eternal, body and soul.
“A death eternal,” I breathe.
Shaken, I glance up from the page. Dawn spreads its golden wings across the horizon. Did I miss Deven? Though distracted by my research, I would not have overlooked his arrival. I hurry out, bringing the text with me.