My footfalls liven the hushed palace corridors. I arrive at the main palace and throw open double doors. The prince’s chambers are vacant. Nor is he in his dusty library, though the oil lamp is warm.
Next I check the atrium where he takes his meals. No one is there. I backtrack to the wives’ wing in the hope that a rani has seen him.
I push through silk curtains billowing in the doorway into the Tigress Pavilion. The daylit training courtyard is not in use. All the weapons racks are stocked: khandas, daggers, haladies, talwars, shields, spears, and, at the far end—an urumi. None of the current wives possess the skill to wield the weapon made of flexible, whiplike blades. Only Kindred Lakia mastered it.
Off the main courtyard, servants set out breakfast. Ranis, sisters of the Parijana faith, temple wards, and courtesans kneel on floor cushions around the packed tables. My servant, Asha, dines between Eshana and Parisa. My friends motion me over.
“Kali!” Eshana calls. “Join us.”
Women bow as I pass. Many of them still consider me their kindred. I have quit correcting them. Priestess Mita ignores me, her usual reaction to my presence. We have not spoken since I stepped down from my throne. She intends her silence as punishment. Her lack of nagging has been paradise.
Eshana tugs me to kneel between her and Parisa. I set the book in my lap, and Asha dishes me a plate of honey-drizzled fried bread. Her facial scars came from Tarek’s mistreatment, but she fits in with the tournament-scarred sister warriors.
“You look tired,” Parisa says, playing with my limp, unwashed hair. “I have a sleeping agent Healer Baka gave me. Take a little, and you’ll be gone from the world for hours.”
“I’m fine.” Except I do need to bathe. Next to my friends, I am an unpolished gem amid rubies. I tear into my bread and chew the doughy sweetness. “Have you seen Ashwin?”
“Him? Here?” Parisa scoffs. “We’re beginning to think he’ll never choose a kindred and we’ll be stuck in this in-between life forever.”
“Give him time,” I say. “He’s trying to make the best decision for the empire.”
Parisa rubs the back of her hand where her rank mark has long since faded. I advised Ashwin to tell them about his betrothal, but he wants to wait until Gemi arrives. It will not be long now, so I let it be.
“Kali, we heard some news,” Eshana says, her tone overly conspicuous. “Shyla told Parisa, who told me, that you went riding in the city with the prince yesterday. Have you changed your mind about marrying him?”
The table of women goes quiet. I finish chewing and articulate my response. “No. Ashwin and I are friends.”
Eshana bats her eyelashes in confusion. “You’ll wed again, won’t you, Kali?”
Asha observes our exchange without commenting. She must suspect Deven may not be entirely gone. When she is not training with Healer Baka in the infirmary, she assists me. She has tidied my chamber and left heaping trays of food too often not to have poked around for answers. I have none to give, and what explanations I do have are worrisome.
“I should go,” I say, taking my fried bread with me. My friends put up a fuss, but I pull from their grasps.
“Give her time,” Eshana whispers loudly to the others. “She’s still mourning General Naik. Eventually she’ll move on.”
I speed off, blinking back tears. They know nothing. Their biggest concern is winning over Ashwin. They sit in their silk and jewels, surrounded by mountains of food, oblivious to true heartache.
Deven didn’t come last night. Why didn’t he—?
I bump into Shyla at the door. She shuffles back.
“Kali, are you crying?”
Tears sting my nose. They want out badly. I consider telling her everything, but when words are not spoken, they create a divide that cannot be crossed without causing hurt. “Have you seen Deven?”
I stare at her in horror. “I meant Prince Ashwin.”
Shyla’s frown deepens. I can only imagine what she will say to Parisa and Eshana about our encounter.
“I just left the prince,” Shyla says. “I’ll take you.”
I sit cross-legged on a rug among wooden blocks and build a tower for Shyla’s daughter. My sister Rehan knocks down the structure with her chubby fists.
“You little tyrant,” I chide affectionately and re-erect the tower.
The toy structure is four blocks high when the baby swats it down again. At almost a year old, Rehan is the youngest of Tarek’s children. The palace nursery houses all fifty-two of my siblings. I was so overwhelmed when we met I left, intending never to return, but Rehan’s brown eyes plagued me. She has our father’s eyes. We both resemble Tarek, me more than her. My friends and family looked past his face to see me, so I did the same for my sister. I no longer see him in her at all.
Rehan rocks on her bottom, her sturdy legs spread apart. I restack the blocks, wishing the city was this easy to repair.
From the corner of my eye, I see Kalinda enter the nursery. Her trousers and blouse are wrinkled, her hair tangled. Her gaze slices through me, one part relief, two parts urgent.
Rehan gnaws on a block, my tower forgotten. Kalinda sits in the nursemaids’ reading chair near a stack of children’s books and rests a larger one in her lap.
“Shyla told me you were here,” she says. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“I come here every morning.” I add lower walls to the block tower.
“To do what?”
“Sometimes I read to the children. Other times we play games.” I continue to construct a miniature palace. “Visiting them helps this place feel like home.”
Rehan knocks down the tower again and claps at her conquest. She does not view me as her ruler. I am simply her brother.
“Deven didn’t come last night,” says Kalinda.
“At all?” I ask, looking up from the blocks. She jerks her head side to side. “Could you have missed him?”
“I didn’t fall asleep,” Kalinda retorts firmly. Rehan grabs my leg, anxious about her vehemence. The nursemaid across the chamber sends us cautionary glances. Kalinda explains, “I couldn’t have missed him. I was up all night reading.”
“Find anything interesting?” I ask, my tone buoyant to put Rehan at ease.
“Something terrible.” Kalinda palms the book in her lap. “This says mortal wanderers are doomed never to return to our realm. Deven will remain trapped below and lose his ability to die and be reborn. He’ll suffer an eternal death.”
I grimace. Severance from the gods is a penance beyond imagination for anyone, but especially for a man of faith like Deven. For a short period, he trained with the Brotherhood and almost joined them, eventually enrolling in the army instead.
“Is what the text says true?” Kalinda says, her pitch shrill.
“I haven’t read anything to refute it,” I reply. Rehan takes interest in the blocks again, decimating the palace.
Kalinda drops her chin, her fingers digging into her knee.
“I’m sorry, Kali.”
Her head snaps up. “Are you?”
“Yes.” I cannot place her animosity. “We’ve done everything we can.”
“We are not done,” she replies, pink flooding her cheeks. “We need to search harder for the tale of Inanna’s Descent, tell more people, bring on more readers.”
Her panic overshadows my concern for Deven. “This is consuming you.”
“Agh!” she cries. My sister’s eyes broaden at Kalinda. “Did you really forget the tale? Did you even try to save him?”
“You know I did.” I do not remind her of the long nights I spent researching in my library. Deven’s predicament goes beyond proving my diligence. I have not wanted to risk upsetting Kalinda more, but I finished searching the texts in my library the night after last. We are out of resources. “The gods may have a plan we cannot yet see.”
Kalinda recoils, her expression wounded. “You told me we’d search until we found him.”
“We have searched, but if the origins of the tale are oral, tracking it down may be impossible.” I run my hands through my hair to ease my fidgeting. “How you’re living, straddling our world and the evernight . . . No mortal should sustain that. Maybe Deven didn’t come so you’ll let him go.”
“I’m his only way home!” Kalinda says, jumping to her feet. Her sudden movement knocks over the chair, which hits the mound of children’s books. They tumble to the floor in a landslide.
Rehan startles and sucks in a lungful of air. As she howls, Kalinda’s chin trembles. I lift the baby to calm her. Her weeping rises to high-pitched wails.
“Please don’t cry,” I say, an appeal for them both.
“I’m sorry I upset her.” Kalinda bites her inner cheek and kneels to restack the books. “I’ll fix it.”
“It’s all right,” I say. “Just leave them.”
She organizes the mess while Rehan wails. I bounce the baby, at a loss for how to console either one.
The old nursemaid crosses to us. Sunsee, the nursery leader, takes Rehan and pats her back. Kalinda rights the tipped chair and drops into it, resting her face in her hands. Her nose hits her wooden prosthesis. She groans and buries her watery eyes in the crook of her elbow.
My suggestion that we may not free Deven was not meant to be callous. The longer this goes on, the more I worry I could lose Deven and Kalinda. She is thinking only of his well-being. Someone must think of hers.
Nursemaid Sunsee quiets my sister. “Might I suggest you read to her, Your Majesty?” she says, passing the baby back. “You could tell her your favorite story when you were little.”
“My favorite story?” I ask.
“Kindred Lakia recited it at bedtime.”
I comb my recollections, coming across nothing of the sort.
Kalinda shoves at her wet nose, damp from repressing tears. “I’d like to hear this story.”