Much like the power Ashwin gave the Voider when he released him to fulfill his heart’s wish, but he brushes over this similarity.
“The night before their wedding, the demon took the form of Inanna and entered her intended’s bedchamber. Trusting the demon was Inanna, he went off with her into the evernight.” I settle closer to Ashwin, his voice a mild rumble. “The next morning, Inanna donned her wedding robes and set off to be married. She waited at the altar all day for her intended, but he did not come. Jilted, she returned home and locked herself away. She refused to see anyone and could not find the strength to change out of her bridal attire. Many nights later, she woke to find her intended at her bedside. He could not step out of the dark, nor could she light a lamp without him fading. He had traveled by shadow to tell her he was trapped in the Void.”
Traveled by shadow. Ashwin once told me that when the day was made, so was the night. When man was made, so was his shadow. The Void dwells in darkness, and life dwells in light. Can spirits in the Void, both living and dead, travel into the mortal realm so long as they stay in the dark? Is that how Tarek came to me? “I never understood how Inanna’s intended visited her.”
“Numerous sources cite that mortals trapped in the Void are confined to the dark. They can visit our world at night, but they must return to the realm below during the day. Inanna spent every night with her intended. But she could not bear to leave him in the dark for eternity, so she descended below to find him and came upon the first of seven gates. Each guardian required a toll for her passage and to point her in the right direction. Inanna paid with the clothing and adornments of her wedding attire. After the final gate, her torchlight went out. Inanna feared she would be lost in the dark forever, but she sensed her intended was close by. Following the promptings of her heart, she found him near death. She had to get him out, but she could not see the way. Inanna cried up to the gods, but none would listen except the fire-god Enlil, who had a weakness for mortal women. He took pity on Inanna and sent her an ever-burning ember to light their path back to the mortal realm.”
Ashwin skims his finger under my chin. His voice gentles between us, a silky caress. “Love bound Inanna and her intended together and gave them direction in the dark. If their love can overcome the Void, so can yours bind you to Jaya in this life and the next.”
Tears blur my sight. I did not think a tale could lessen my sorrow, but Ashwin’s storytelling and assurances soothe me.
The mood between us shifts. The intent of his touches changes from comfort to one of need. His hug becomes more for him than me, and his heart beats faster.
I should pull back. Push him away. But his nearness calms the blizzard inside me. I am not parching his soul-fire. He is bequeathing it to me.
Ashwin settles his forehead against mine, his gaze trained on my mouth. His thumb brushes over my bottom lip, and my stomach bubbles like hot springs. His breath smells of cinnamon. A craving for more of him ripples out in a wave. How much warmer would I feel with his lips on me? I tip up my chin and wait for more of his light.
“Kali,” Deven says.
He stands in the doorway, his emotions progressing from disbelief to hurt. Ashwin’s arms fall from around me, and my teeth clack together, snapping me back into focus.
Deven crosses the chamber and throws Ashwin to the floor. “You have no honor! You’re taking advantage of her loyalty!”
His fury shocks me. He rarely reacts without forethought or context. “Deven! I was upset and—and Ashwin found me.” I reach for him, but he brushes me aside.
Natesa and Yatin run in from the other room in their nightclothes and draw up straight.
Ashwin shuffles back from Deven on his elbows. “Kalinda is aware of her actions. I’m not forcing her to stay with me. This is her choice.”
Deven leans over Ashwin and grabs the front of his tunic. “Keep your hands off her.”
Ashwin yanks himself from Deven’s grasp. “Touch me again, General, and I’ll have you imprisoned.”
“Both of you stop it!” I say.
“I’m not your general,” Deven grits out. “I won’t serve a man I don’t respect.”
“Deven,” I breathe. “You don’t mean that.”
He retreats from Ashwin, his arms and fists bunched. “I serve you. But if you continue to align yourself with this boy . . .”
“You’ll denounce me too?” The challenge slips out of me testier than I intended. But the thought of him coming between Ashwin and me . . . I need Ashwin’s warmth.
Deven draws up to his full height. “My apologies, my queen. You’re free to do as you wish.”
He revolves and marches out.
“Deven, wait!” I hurry after him, but he whisks ahead. In my effort to keep up, my limp worsens. We venture down corridor after corridor, and I quickly lose my bearings. I ignore the pain in my leg for as long as possible, but when he is nearly out of sight, I double over. “Deven, please.”
He pauses and stares over his shoulder at me, his flinty expression split by shadows. “How long have you and the prince . . . ?”
“We became friends in Iresh,” I say. “What was said at supper about us was for the datu. He’ll aid the empire so long as he thinks Ashwin and I are committed.”
“Then what was that just now? Were you practicing your commitment?”
“That was . . .” A mistake. But my excuses will only serve to bruise him more deeply. Telling him Ashwin’s closeness acts as a balm for my wounds is ridiculous. I cannot understand the oddity of our connection myself.
“Are you in love with him?” Deven questions, eerily calm.
I hug my torso, trying to strangle the cold inside me. My need for heat is paramount, unquenchable. For whatever reason, Ashwin answers that necessity. I cannot deny he has some hold over me. “No, but we . . . we need each other.”
Deven drops his chin, his jaw twitching. “I told you once that I won’t stand by while you spend every meal, every public showing, at another man’s side. I told you I want you by my side, and I still do.”
“And I still want to be there.”
He lifts his gaze and searches me for sincerity. I meant what I said. He must see that. But bleakness enters his voice. “I won’t interfere again. When you decide what you want, I’ll be waiting.”
Deven charges off without a second glance. I lunge after him, but pain shoots through my knee. Backing up, I rest against the wall and push my palm over my heart. Maybe I can wring out whatever nonsense has come over me. I care for Ashwin, but I love Deven.
My body trembles from indecision. Even after recognizing the distinction of my feelings, hunger rises in me to return to the prince’s pacifying arms . . .
Gods, I’m incorrigible.
I lower myself to the cool floor and rest my leg. The Voider’s icy breath rages within me, freezing me to my spot. The corridors all look identical. I chased Deven so far, I cannot recall the path back to my chamber. Not that it matters. I have little strength to do anything except huddle into myself and try to regain some warmth.
A nudge rouses me awake. “Were you here all night?” Indah asks, standing over me.
Morning’s first rays lighten the corridor. I push up from the floor, astonished I slept here. I understand why neither Deven nor Ashwin searched for me, but I am surprised Natesa or Yatin did not come looking. They must have assumed I was with Deven. “What time is it?”
“Dawn.” Indah joins me on the floor, our backs leaning against the wall. “The navy is finishing preparations for the voyage. We’ll leave for Iresh soon.”
“Did Ashwin and the datu come to an agreement last night?” I was so upset when Ashwin found me, I forgot to ask.
“I don’t know about the prince, but Bulan is pleased. Ashwin offered up lumber, grain, and livestock in exchange for our help. Our food stores have been low for some time, and we don’t have enough land to cultivate the agriculture necessary for our population.” Indah presses a hand to her stomach.
“You still aren’t feeling well?”
“I’m a bit run down from traveling, but I’m fine,” she says. “I’m glad I found you. I didn’t get a chance to ask you last night: Do you and Ashwin intend to marry?”
“You know we don’t. Why?”
Her lips mash together. “At supper, when Ashwin said you weren’t officially set to wed . . . he wasn’t telling the truth.”
Indah can sense the blood flowing through another’s body, specifically when someone’s pulse speeds up, such as when they are lying. Her prowess for sensing people’s dishonesty is a valued asset, but it can be disconcerting when someone I know is her target.
“Are you certain?” I ask. Ashwin would not go against his promise to relinquish his first rights to me.
“I don’t know what it means,” Indah says, quick to qualify her inkling. “I only know what I sensed.”
“But I’m not his intended.”
“Does he know that?”
“Yes . . .” After Indah’s persistent silence, I add, “I—I think so.”
My actions may have confused more than just me. In all fairness to Ashwin, I have acted erratically lately. I must dissolve this strange bond between us. Yet even as I resolve to speak with him, like a rabbit scurrying into a cozy burrow to escape winter, I want to bundle myself in his arms.
Datu Bulan strolls down the corridor, sporting a knee-length night tunic and oversized sandals. He carries a water cup, sipping from it every so often. “Blessed be Enki’s sea, ladies.” He does not let on if he finds it peculiar that we are seated in his corridor. Staring down into his cup, he says, “I once traded ten coconuts for an icicle frozen by a northern Aquifier. It melted by the time I brought it home, but that water was the freshest drink I ever had.”
I cast an inquisitive glance at Indah. Northern Aquifiers dwell in the arctic tundra and are rumored to manipulate ice and snow. How the datu came upon one or why he thought an icicle would last in the Southern Isles is beyond me.