Thirteen Years Ago . . .
The rani rushed into the nursery. Dim lamplight revealed baskets of blocks and toys. All the nursemaids had gone to rest, and the single child under their care was put to bed. The rani hurried down a corridor and paused at the ajar door. Inside, the draperies were drawn over towering windows. A single lamp burned low on the bedside table beside the painted portrait of her and her husband. She had looked so happy then.
She pushed inside. Her sari sailed above the floor, the rug muffling her steps. Her son was tucked into bed, blankets up to his tiny chin. His gaze fastened onto hers, and he brightened.
“Mother, you came.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner. I had duties.” The rani hid a smudge of blood on her blouse. Her wrists ached from the beating she had delivered minutes ago. She loathed her responsibilities, but the lesser ranked ranis must learn to obey. “Shall I tell you a story?”
“Of course.” The tale was her favorite as well.
She knelt at her son’s bedside and stroked his head. The mural over his headboard depicted a world beneath theirs, a warrior, and a god. The rani began her recitation of the child’s tale they knew by heart.
“Inanna was a cherished young woman, beloved by everyone in her village. Some said she had the loyalty of an elephant and the bravery of a tiger. Men tried to woo her, but Inanna ignored them. She was waiting for one man—the same soul she had loved in all of her lifetimes, right from the beginning when Anu plucked the stars from the heavens and named them mortals.”
“What was the man’s name?” asked the boy.
“We don’t know, but it’s said that the moment they saw each other, the ground shook and the skies sang. The whole world rejoiced that Inanna and her beloved had reunited.”
“Was it the same for you and Father?”
“Just so, dear one.”
Had the boy been older, he would have detected sorrow in her whisper. He clutched his covers, anticipating the progression of the tale.
“The night before their wedding, a chameleon demon took the form of Inanna and entered her beloved’s bedchamber. The demon’s likeness to her tricked the man. Trusting the demon was Inanna, he went off with her into the night.” The boy pulled the blanket up to his nose. “The next morning, Inanna donned her wedding robes and set off to marry her love. She waited at the altar all day, but he never came. Jilted, she locked herself away and could not find the strength to change from her bridal attire.”
The boy yawned, his eyelids sinking.
“Many nights later, Inanna 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 into nothing. He had traveled by shadow to tell her he was trapped in the Void.”
“I wouldn’t like it there.” The boy stretched out another yawn. “I like it here, with you.”
“I like you here with me too,” replied his mother.
The boy might have recognized her sadness had he been more awake, but drowsiness weighed him down.
His mother continued in an ever-softening voice. “Inanna spent night after night with her intended. They both tried to be content, but Inanna could not leave him in the under realm for eternity, so she sought a way to descend below to find him . . .”
Exhaustion overcame the boy. His mother watched him doze while he dreamed of slaying demons and rescuing princesses.
Had the boy known this would be the last time his mother would tell him the tale, he would have paid better attention and tried harder to stay awake.
Had he been warned that this would be his last night in the palace, he would have kissed his mother good night.
Had he known his father would prevent his mother from bidding him good-bye the next morning, he would have said he loved her one more time.
But the boy slept, unaware of the pain dawn would bring.
Darkness holds secrets few see or seek. But when one spends as much time as I do studying the shadows, they reveal unique textures that brush over the skin. The cozy fleece of the evening hour, the velvet kiss of full midnight, and the chilly silk of early morning. I have found some solace in the patterns of the night. Little else is a comfort.
Sitting at my table before my charcoal and parchment paper, I train my senses to feel and listen. Hushed winds rustle the palm fronds outside the open balcony. Under the eye of the winter moon, shadows eclipse the astral powers. We are long into the evening, so far that morning will soon place a new dawn across the heavens, peeling back the night and revealing the face of day. My tired eyes strain through the layers of shadows for movement.
He will come.
A yawn escapes me. I reach up to rub my eyes, and the blunt end of my right arm stops me. Will I ever remember?
My prosthesis is on the bedside table; I do not wear it when I am alone. Quite often my hand still feels there. Its spirit tricks me into thinking I have all ten fingers. The demon Kur’s venom that I took into my body to harness as a weapon destroyed my hand. Teaching my left hand to draw as well as my right has taken practice, but increasingly I am satisfied with my sketches.
A smattering of finished drawings litters the table. Using my charcoal stick, I add more shading to my latest subject. The Sisterhood temple, under construction in the city, will soon house the sisters and wards from Samiya. My childhood home is gone, as is my dearest friend. Jaya was murdered by Rajah Tarek in an act of pure malice, and the temple I grew up in was demolished in an accidental fire. Though Jaya’s death still haunts me, the rebuilding of the temple gives me hope that all which succumbs to death may be reborn again.
I set aside the charcoal stick and rise, stretching to stay alert. A figure stirs in the darkness near the hearth.
I blow out the lamp and lunge at Deven. I thought I had lost him after Kur dragged him down into the under realm. His revival was a mercy, even if he is confined to the Void during daylight hours. He follows my soul-fire home through the roadways of shadows at night and has done so for three moons.
“You took so long.” He has been coming later and later.
“I’m glad I made it.” Deven presses his lips to the side of my head. His thick beard sweeps against my hair. “You smell of jasmine at midnight.”
He just smells. The muskiness of the Void has masked his sandalwood scent.
Deven tilts my chin, and his lips take mine. His touch sparks an instant reaction. My hand rakes through his hair, and his fingers knead my hips. We stand in one place until our kisses seek out more contact.
We walk, our bodies locked together at several pressure points, to my bed. He leans me back onto the covers, his weight sturdy. Small silk pillows crowd around us. Deven lobs them off one by one. Once we have more room, his lips explore. My fingertips trace the curves of his back and clutch him close.
His cheek drops against mine, and he slides his fingers through my hair, the silk sheets wrapping about our legs. His deep, calm voice resonates in my ear. “Someday you need to explain to me why you have so many pillows.”
I chuckle more than I normally would. Nights when he has a sense of humor are seldom. These moments have been our temporary haven. I loathe disrupting his rare peace, but dawn looms. I smooth down his beard. “Would you like me to fetch your brother?”
He has not asked for his family in many days. I assume he does not want them to see him this way. He is thinner and sallower than even yesterday. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes.” He nuzzles the tender spot beneath my chin. I dare not shut my eyes or I will lose my ability to think.
I fetch the tray on the bedside table. He wipes his hands clean on the napery and eats the aromatic rice. He does not have access to food or water in the under realm. I have tried to send rations and a lantern, but they disappear once he leaves. Nor can I enter the labyrinth of shadows with him.
“How are you?” he asks.
Deven does not need to hear about my mundane days. “I’m well. Ashwin and I are still searching every book in the city. We’ll find something soon.” None of us know whether our research will lead to a solution, yet I have faith. “We’ll find a way to release you.”
“You cannot be certain.” Deven sets the unfinished plate aside. He must fill up, but his appetite has been decreasing. “We have to accept our fate.”
At my lowest moments, I have almost succumbed to the same despondency. All day long I pray for the gods to free Deven. His inner light is dimming, like the reflection of the moon compared to the glory of the sun. I sit on his lap and pull his wooden arms around me. “Fate is ours to decide.”
“You cannot feel what I feel.” His tormented gaze climbs to mine. “My coming here is a risk. Someone has been following me.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen anyone, but I’ve felt them.”
I rest my forehead against his. “Ashwin and I are getting closer. We’ll get you out of there. Promise me you’ll keep coming.” I could not bear for him to disappear.
“For you,” Deven says, his muscles relaxing around me.
Outside, the heavens have lightened. Sunrise will soon reach the golden domes of the palace and sleepy Vanhi. Deven clings to me, dreading the same burden of time. I tuck into him and shut my eyes so hard they ache.
Please, Anu. Let him stay.
Deven’s solid form dissolves around me. I open my eyes, and all that remains is his warmth, fading on the sheets.
Someone touches my shoulder. My face is buried in a pillow, but I sense Brac. A Burner’s soul-fire radiates strongest, and only he dares to enter my chamber without knocking.
“Deven’s gone.” My bleak voice nearly pushes me to tears.
The mattress shifts. I look up at Brac seated beside me. His coppery hair sweeps across brows knit over honey-colored eyes. “We’ll find him.”
“I should go after him. I should have gone down there moons ago.”
“Then you’d also be trapped in the Void, and I’d have to free you both.”
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