Siva flies above us, drawing my gaze to a design on the wall. I swing the torch near it and reveal the quad symbol, the same design on the medallion in my pocket.
This is not a wall. This is the door.
Anoush said the gods’ emblem adorns the gate to Ekur. Something compels me to touch the symbol. A cracking noise fills the cave, and a fissure opens at the floor. Light slices into the cave. Tinley and I squint as the section of wall lifts.
Siva flies back into the torch, becoming one with the nature-fire. I set it aside and swing Tinley’s arm over my shoulder. We venture into an immense garden. Sweet-scented flowers and leafy trees ring with birdsong. Lush foliage lacking briars tumbles around the banks of a mellow stream. Rainbow fish swim in the crystal waters. Farther ahead, a stone bridge arches over the waterway.
Tinley looks up. “What in the name of Anu . . . ?”
The sky is a vivid shade of violet. My eyes ache at the intensity of the color. The hues of this animated dreamland are sharper and more refined.
Above the sky, an arched, domed ceiling spans the entirety of the garden. Puffy clouds drift within the cage of the ceiling, defying nature’s laws. Nearby, an antelope grazes in a patch of wildflowers, and across the stream a rabbit chews on grass. Behind us, the stone door to the cave slides closed.
“How did you know how to open the door?” Tinley asks, favoring her injured leg.
“I don’t know.” I acted on impulse.
“I suppose you don’t know which way to go?”
“No. I . . . wait.” Upstream, high above the treetops, a gazebo overlooks the garden. The same instinct that prompted me to touch the door urges me to go there. “This way.”
My decision earns me another skeptical glance from Tinley.
“I don’t hear anyone else,” she says.
My soul-fire glows through my skin. Our abilities are back, but they will not make our journey to the gazebo easier. “Can you walk?”
“Do I have a choice?” Tinley hobbles as we start upstream. “I don’t like this place.”
“Why not? Everything here seems perfect.”
“Precisely.” She glares at a patch of cheerful yellow flowers. “Nothing this beautiful can be trusted.”
Her cynicism may be founded. Where does the wind come from? How can a sky exist inside a mountain? Why are the colors so pure? My mind is too limited to understand these wonders, but I smell the flowers and feel the breeze. This paradise is real.
The stream leads us to a waterfall storming down a cliff into a pool. The staircase alongside the cliff must lead to the gazebo.
Tinley plunks down on a mossy log. “I’ll wait here.”
I crouch in front of her and lift her bloody sarong. Her gouge is deeper than she let on. I remove a tunic from my pack and tie off the wound. She winces as I tighten the binding.
“Go on, Kalinda. I’ve brought you as far as I can go. Whatever is up there is for you.”
She may be wrong, but I cannot let my doubts overpower me. I start upward, glancing back at her several times. Each step brings me higher above the garden. A low-hanging bough eventually blocks my sight of her.
At the top, I pause to marvel at the gazebo. The edifice is octagonal and has pillars instead of walls. A gold throne rests in the middle of the polished marble platform. I climb the steps one at a time. Out of respect, I slip off my sandals and pad to the throne.
My pulse thrums. My mortality feels more pronounced here, my fragile life minuscule. I kneel and bow my head. Stillness flows inside me, a rare abiding quiet.
“Great Anu, God of Storms and Father of the Sky, I’ve come to speak with you. I didn’t mean to blame you for Deven’s capture. I’m sorry.”
The whole of the garden hushes. Even the sound of the gushing waterfall drifts into the distance. I listen and listen, yet no voice answers. I try again.
“Dear Gods, I’m Kalinda Zacharias, daughter of Kishan Zacharias, former bhuta ambassador of the Southern Isles, and Kindred Yasmin, former rani of the Tarachand Empire. I humbly request your aid.” My final words choke out, ragged and faint. “I—I need you.”
Time and place lose all meaning. My knees and back ache, and the vacant throne needles at me. Just as Inanna knew she could save her intended, I believe I can free Deven. I am not getting up until my prayers are answered.
I lay my cheek against the cool floor. “I know you’re there. Please come.”
White luminance falls over my head, increasing in power. I raise my gaze, and the luster stings my eyes. I tuck my chin to my chest. When the supernal glow fades, I look again.
Two sandaled feet are planted near my head. My vision gradually meanders up the length of him. Tan, muscled legs rooted in majesty. A sarong wrapped snugly around his trim waist. A golden, bare chest formed from sensuous dips and rises. Arms thick and mighty as rivers. A face sculpted from beauty eternal, exquisitely idyllic from plump lips to firm chin to high cheekbones. Chin-length ebony hair with a natural shine and waviness. Eyes like two living flames, a physical manifestation of everlasting soul-fire.
He embodies everything distinctly masculine about a man, yet he is too handsome, too flawless. He beams down at me, a molten smile meant to melt mortals to their knees. Fortunately I am already on the floor.
He speaks, his voice full and gentle like a summer rain. “Welcome home, dearest Cala.”
Standing outside the palace in the courtyard, I watch the main entry for movement.
“Prince Ashwin, I’m sorry,” says the nursemaid. “Your mother is caught up with her duties. But it’s all right, young sir. She said good-bye last night.”
We said no farewells when Mama came to my chamber late, nor did she say she was sending me away. I fell asleep listening to her tell our favorite story.
The carriage and horse team wait behind us, as do the soldiers. Our guards follow Mama and me when we ride in the city. I peer up at the ivory walls, which are lemon from the sunrise, and search the balconies. Mama’s coming. She must be. I’m not allowed to leave the palace grounds without her or Father.
The driver signals for us to go, and the nursemaid carries me to the open carriage door. A quiet tightness crouches inside me. When we breach the threshold, I grab the doorframe.
I kick and thrash, the tension springing out of me all at once. So much is jammed inside, big tears pour down my face. Only Mama can make this better.
Did I upset her? I tried not to fall asleep during her story last night, but I was so tired.
“Mama! Mama, I’m sorry!” Maybe Father found the potted plant I tipped over while running down the corridor. “Father, please! I’ll be good. I won’t run in the palace!”
A soldier pries my fingers from the door. The nursemaid holds me on her lap and pins me against her. I cannot make myself be still. I squirm and yell myself hoarse. The carriage leaves the palace grounds and jostles through the city.
We near the outer wall. Whimpers bubble from my lips. I’ve never been this far from home, but the soldiers let me through the gate without my mama.
My first up-close view of the desert hushes me. The nursemaid dries my cheeks. I’ve never seen anything so full of nothing.
Our carriage bumps and jostles as we navigate into the dunes. The nursemaid lets me go to grip the bench. I hang on to the windowsill. The orange reds, burgundy browns, and palm-tree green of Vanhi drift farther away. High above the city, the golden domes of the palace remind me of honey-drizzled fried bread.
The nursemaid urges me inside. I stay in the sun. I love my home and city, but more than anything, I love that Mama lives there. Why hasn’t she come?
A thumping noise pries me from the memory, yet it pangs onward, a well-established sore. Every detail of that day has stayed with me. Hanging out the window, I combed the desert horizon for hours. I thought my mother would gallop up on her horse, lift me from the carriage, and carry me home. I was sunburned for days after. Mother never apologized or explained. I grew up thinking she wanted nothing to do with me. After what Nursemaid Sunsee said, I wonder what really stood in Lakia’s way. Is there a sufficient excuse? Does anything merit sending away her child without a good-bye?
Seldom do I pray. The gods do what they please, regardless of what I want or hope for. But I tire of carrying around this heaviness.
Gods, please forgive Lakia . . . and help me forgive her too.
A thud sounds nearby. Kalinda’s lamp has burned out, so I push up in the bed and study the chamber. Deven lurches from the shadows and stumbles to the sitting table. He pours a cup of water and guzzles it down.
Deven swipes his forearm across his lips. “Where—is—Kali?”
Something stirs behind him. I look for the source but detect nothing more. I stride to Deven. His beard has grown scraggly, and his garments sag off his frame. He is a fraction of the soldier I remember. “She left to find you.”
“No.” Deven grabs my shoulders. “Tell her not to come. Kali cannot enter the Void. She’ll never get out again.”
“She left for Paljor two days ago. I haven’t heard from her.”
Deven presses the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. “I tried to find her . . . Her soul-fire was hidden.” His fingertips dig into his hairline. “Kali is gone.”
“Come sit down.” I help him into a chair at the table. Kalinda told me nourishment is scarce in the under realm, so I refill his cup and pass him the flatbread. He rips off half a piece and shoves it in his mouth.
“When did Kali leave?” Deven asks, chewing.
I just explained this. Perhaps he did not hear me. “Two days ago. No word from her since.”
He swallows the bread and gulps more water. “Where’s Brac?”
“On an errand. We’ve run into . . . complications with my wedding.”
“What sort of complications?”
Deven is the best soldier I have, but I will not burden him. “Captain Yatin and Brac can manage it. Why have you stayed away?”
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