“What are those?” I call over the wind.
“Gates to the Beyond.” Tinley’s silver hair is pinned under her fur cloak to prevent it from whipping at me. “Our ancestors erected them centuries ago. We believe the souls of our loved ones pass through them when they die.”
We approach the next arch; it is so wide Chare could fly through without touching the stone. The plain yet noble gates have two protrusions on top like horns.
“What do the embellishments mean?”
Tinley shouts her reply. “They symbolize the wings of a mahati falcon. The mahatis have existed since the primeval era when Tiamat ruled. They usher souls from our world to the next.”
Paljorians are not alone in answering the complex question of what becomes of our souls after death. Lestarians believe primordial sea dragons guide their spirits to rest. We have no such notions in Tarachand, but it is feasible that ancient creatures cohabitated with the gods long before Anu plucked stars from the heavens and forged them into mortals.
We fly past an archway and onto another. If only the gates to the Void were this plentiful.
On the horizon, the pinnacles of an ice-blue palace glow against the setting sun. Chare doubles our speed for Teigra. The northern city thrives despite the nearly year-round winter. Steeply pitched roofs appear in abundance. Teigra must be twice the size of Vanhi. The glittering spires of the Crystal Palace, like inverted icicles, lure us to the dazzling stronghold.
Mahatis take off from within the city and zoom toward us. They bleed into the sunset, their reddish-orange feathers painted from the sundown sky. Tinley pumps her fist into the air and whoops loudly. Chare screeches in reply and flies headlong for the flock. We soar past them, and their riders wheel around to follow.
The other mahatis line up, a wingspan apart. Falcons fly in unison in battle, but this is not an offensive maneuver. The flock escorts us over the city in a parade.
Rooftops glisten, crusted in ice. Sleighs glide down the snowy roads, their riders warmed by red lap blankets. Smoke billows from countless longhouse chimneys. On the outskirts, four single-level buildings, large as mountains, tower over the central city. They must shelter the airships. Military barracks lie within the fenced compound around the dockyard.
We fly up to the Crystal Palace, and our escorts turn around to land elsewhere. Chare swoops near the frosty spires. Ice bricks compose the outer walls, and sculptures of mahati falcons perched on the eaves watch over the inhabitants. Welcomers occupy the courtyard along with drummers thumping wooden crates topped with tanned animal hides. I pick out the tall and strapping Chief Naresh. White fur covers his shoulders, leaving his deeply tanned arms bare to the cold.
“Do they always welcome you home like this?” I ask Tinley.
“I sent a message ahead. They’re excited to meet the Burner Queen.”
We circle over the congregation and glide to the ground. Chare brings us to a halt and folds in her wings. My stomach gradually rises from my knees.
Tinley drops into her father’s outstretched arms. Chief Naresh swings her around in a haze of polar fur.
“Welcome home, daughter.”
Tinley withstands her father’s public display amiably. The chief switches his generous warmth to me. I slide off into his grasp. His skin and long white hair smell of peat moss.
“Welcome to Teigra, Kalinda. Every time I see you, I’m reminded how much you resemble your mother. Yasmin was a treasure to behold.” Chief Naresh knows I hang on his every word when he speaks of my parents, his old friends. He can give me what many cannot: memories of them. “Kishan’s presence was unmatched. When your father strode into a hall, every person felt his authority. I would have liked to have seen them together.”
“I would have as well,” I reply.
“Perhaps in our next lives.” Naresh directs Tinley and me into the palace.
His guards carry khandas with hilts crafted from the long, twisted horns of blackbuck antelope. Everyone wears fur but has more skin exposed to the cold than I could withstand.
We pass through a high archway into the reception hall. Carvings of the fire-god’s flame symbol decorate the walls, beams, and pillars. Chief Naresh stops in front of an ice sculpture of Enlil gripping a lightning bolt spear like a staff.
“Isn’t he magnificent?” the chief asks.
My face warms. The fire-god is the most arresting of the deities. He inherited his good looks from his mother, the land-goddess Ki. Enlil’s true father is the demon Kur, yet he bears some resemblance to his adopted father, Anu. I have often chosen to sketch Anu instead of his son. Enlil’s chiseled physique has a sensuality that unnerved me as a girl. As a woman, I am even more aware of his full lips and muscled abdomen. I glance down the long entry hall for more sculptures. This is the only one.
“Your people worship the fire-god?” I ask.
“Uri, the First Burner, was a member of our tribe,” replies the chief. Brac taught me a little about the First Burner during my training but did not specify her heritage. “The fire-god Enlil favored Uri. Before the gods left the mortal realm, he foresaw that we would suffer great trials and passed on his teachings to her. The first winter after the gods left was frigid. The skies and land lamented the deities’ exodus and treated us liked a scourge. Uri set a fire and kept it burning for ninety days and ninety nights. Her living flame saved our people. As winter thawed, Uri implanted the embers from the dying blaze into our ancestors’ soul-fire so they would never again fear the cold. We have no Burners among us now, but we still carry the flame of Uri’s lasting fire in our souls.”
My gaze wanders up Enlil’s sculpture. “We have stories of Enlil too. Every temple ward is required to memorize Enlil’s Hundredth Rani.”
“Oh?” queries the chief. “We’ve never heard that story.”
“Never?” I press. “Tarek justified the rank tournaments with this tale.”
“Can you recite it?” Tinley asks.
“If you’d like.” I rummage around in my memory for the correct words and start down the hall. Speaking of Enlil beside his likeness is too awkward. “The fire-god took many wives and courtesans. All of them were blessed with astounding beauty, enough so that the sky-god began to covet his son’s good fortune. When Enlil announced that he would wed his hundredth wife, Anu was wroth with his son’s greediness and wouldn’t allow Enlil more wives than him. Anu told Enlil he could have only one hundred women and he was to drown those he did not keep in the Sea of Souls.
“Enlil was distraught. He cared for all his wives and courtesans and could not pare them down to so few. In his grief, he asked his father how he should choose which of his women to retain. Anu replied by saying, ‘Let them decide.’”
Tinley grimaces and her father harrumphs. Good. They understand why I’m not enthused about this story or the god it portrays.
“Enlil’s wives would not give up their rank. They loved their husband and honored him, but the courtesans loved Enlil as well, and they did not think it was just that they should die. So the courtesans challenged Enlil’s final wife and battled for her rank as the last rani. Enlil’s final wife was the loveliest of them all and had a merciful heart to match, but she was also a fierce fighter. She defeated every challenger and held her position until she was the last warrior standing. She wed the fire-god and was his favored wife forevermore.”
“Quite a story,” says the chief. We stop before the doorway to the great hall. “It aggrieves me that Tarek twisted your beliefs to suit his selfish desires. But this story founded your people’s love for sister warriors, did it not?”
“Mortals began to replicate the tournaments, so the land-goddess Ki taught women to defend themselves and embrace their sisterhood. Ki didn’t want her daughters’ virtues exploited.”
Chief Naresh gives a wide, pearly smile. “Our tales are much alike. From hardship comes great blessings and strength.” He pats my shoulder and strides into the great hall.
His unique interpretation locks my knees. My aversion for the fire-god comes from his role in the origin of rank tournaments, but Anu forced Enlil to limit his wives, and Enlil’s women elected to battle for his affections. From their decision much heartache was born, as well as the Sisterhood. I cannot envision my life without my friends, my sister warriors.
Tinley waves me forward. “Kalinda, come on.”
I double-time after her, circumventing long tables and benches, all formed of ice and secured to the floor. Chandeliers hang low from the ceiling, and a giant hearth dominates one wall. Piles of peat moss are heaped in the corner, fuel for the fireside. Its warmth raises the temperature so my exhales no longer stain the air silver.
“Tinley, why do the walls and floors not melt?” I ask, eyeing the cathedral ceiling.
“Northern Aquifiers hauled ice by sleigh from the arctic ice cap and laid it brick by brick with their powers. The Crystal Palace will never melt or break away. This fortress has outlasted generations and will do so for centuries to come.”
Ice that can withstand fire. I might need to return to see the frozen palace defy summer. What a wonder that would be.
Tinley’s adamancy for staying away confuses me more. She takes pride in her home. Whatever kept her away must hurt more than not being here.
The chief directs us to the table nearest the hearth. An older woman and a younger couple await our arrival. The young man rises to embrace Tinley. She does not hug him in return.
“Welcome home,” he says.
“Sister,” says the woman beside him, “you missed our wedding.”
“Did you receive my endowment?” Tinley asks.
“The carton of fruit?” the woman replies. “The pomegranates were overripe.”
The older woman, donning a stunning red fox fur, interrupts. “Daughters, you’re being impolite. Burner Queen, this is my daughter Maida and my son-in-law, Bedros, the next chief of our clan. I’m Sosi, Naresh’s chieftess.”
Maida takes after her mother, her complexion and hair both ebony, but the sisters have identical light eyes.
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