“Kur summoned his demons to his lair. Their meeting lasted days and let out just this morning. This was the soonest I could come.” Deven runs a shaky hand over his lips. “Kur may be planning something. You have to get word to Kali.”
“She won’t listen. She’s determined to find you.”
“She cannot come.” Deven’s gaze grabs at mine. “Kur isn’t the worst monster down there.”
Although I cannot imagine who could be more terrible, I trust his estimation.
Deven drinks the last of the water and presses the cup to his cheek. “Tell me about the complications with your wedding. I may be able to help.”
He pushes his tray away and waits. Doubting I can sidetrack him again, I slide his tray back in front of him. “I’ll talk. You eat.”
While I recount Commander Lokesh’s public protests and the people’s anger with my selection for my first viraji, he returns to his meal. Deven, of course, latches on to my immediate problem.
“You have too few guards. Station your nearest units of soldiers at the palace temporarily. Set up tents for them outside to make their presence known. This will discourage the protestors from marching on your gates again.”
Armed troops on these grounds could be interpreted as a countermove. The people may credit Lokesh for influencing my choices. However, I would rather they see me depending on my army than bhutas.
“You’ve done well, Ashwin,” Deven says, “but Lokesh is not for you to confront. Don’t give him any more credence. If there’s anything malignant about Lokesh’s employer, Brac will find it and Yatin will organize your defenses.”
“The captain has been invaluable.” I add belatedly, “and the ambassador.”
“Brac can be difficult, but you can rely on him.” Deven scrubs at his beard, his eyes owlish. “You should promote Yatin to general. He’s fit for the task. When he denies the advancement, tell him it was my idea.”
“Why do you think he’d turn it down?”
“Don’t take offense. He’s loyal to my friendship.” Deven uses the table to push himself up, every movement paining him. “I have to go.”
“Stay a little longer. I’ll get you some more food and drink.” His departure is a bitter end to this reunion. What the Void is doing to him is unbearable.
Deven closes his eyes and draws a deep breath. He reopens them again and answers in monotone. “Find Kali and keep her safe.”
The night shifts forward around him. Shadows clutch his wrists and ankles like manacles.
“Deven—” I reach out and my fingers pass through him, leaving me with a fistful of cold emptiness. I stare at the bare wall he was in front of, my insides encased in ice.
A shadow darts past the balcony. I rotate in that direction. Nothing is visible, but the sensation of not being alone nags at me. I grab the empty pitcher and creep over. My heartbeat ramps up as I near the fluttering curtain. I snatch the drapery back.
Fresh air pours in through the ajar door. The place is empty, the movement a trick of the wind.
Before my imagination can deceive me again, I leave the wives’ wing and travel up one floor. I knock at a door. A moment later, Indah answers in her robe.
“Ashwin, it’s the middle of the night.”
“I’m sorry. May I come in?”
She lets me inside the chamber. Pons is up, pacing the floor with Jala. The baby squirms and fusses. It is too late for pleasantries, so I rush to the point.
“Deven came and told me to warn Kalinda. He thinks Kur is planning something. Has any word come from Paljor?”
“No,” Indah replies. “Pons, what can you hear?”
While Pons listens to the wind, Indah takes their child and bounce-paces her around the room. Jala rarely cries, yet every time I see her lately, she is in tears.
“Is she ill?” I ask.
“She misses Kalinda. Her fussiness started right after she left.” Indah bounces Jala some more and asks Pons, “So?”
“I cannot hear her.”
Indah paces faster.
“What about Tinley?” I suggest.
Pons clears his throat. “She’s unreachable as well.”
I sit on their rumpled bed. Deven said Kalinda’s soul-fire was hidden from him. I should have never let her leave. “Can we send Tinley a message that they can receive once they travel closer?”
“It isn’t a matter of distance,” Pons replies. Worry wears his voice down to a murmur. “Where Kalinda has gone, no message on the wind can reach. She’s alive; I would know if she had passed on. It’s as if she’s disappeared. As if . . .”
“She’s left our world,” I finish.
The stranger extends his hand to help me up. I hesitate, uncertain if I should touch this being with flames for eyes. He persists, so I lay my fingers in his.
A vision blinds me.
Fire Eyes locks me against him. I hang from his broad shoulders, my hands secured around his neck. My cheek rests above his collarbone. I am tall, but my head fits neatly under his chin. He is mountainous and warm as a bonfire.
His shoulders sear into my fingertips. Within him, his soul-fire illuminates little pathways up his arms for me to trace. Tingles dance across my skin. His feverish touch soaks into me like a hot drink in my belly and brings out my inner sunshine. My own veins come alight with powers.
He presses his lips to my forehead. “My dearest Cala. How I have missed you.”
My vision fades and a shudder ruptures from my core. I yank from his touch. “Who are you?”
“You know who I am, Cala,” he says, his voice liquid warmth.
“My name is Kalinda.”
“Of course.” He steps closer. The air between us sizzles, a repeat of my vision. “Do you remember me yet?”
We have never met. Or maybe we have . . . ? The brief vision of us was extremely convincing. Gods alive, it felt so real. “Who are you?”
“I could revive your memory.” He extends his hand again, and I retreat. No more of that. He puffs out his chest, appearing even bigger. “I am Enlil, Keeper of the Living Flame.”
“You’re a . . . a . . . god.” I should have guessed. His good looks are unparalleled. No mere man could be this entrancing.
“Just so, and you are a bhuta. A chosen Virtue Guard of my father, Anu.”
I gawk at him so long I nearly forget what he said. “Yes, I’m a Burner, but that’s not why I invoked you.” I pull out my portrait of Deven. “This man is trapped in the Void. Deven Naik, a faithful soul. I need your help to bring him home.”
Enlil skinnies his eyes. “Who is this man to you?”
“Deven is the general of the imperial army.” I point to his decorated uniform jacket. I selected the portrait for this very reason. Establishing Deven’s importance to our world may persuade the fire-god to return him to us. “I would have gone after him alone, but I need a god to guide me through the Void, do I not?”
Enlil’s tone chills, a contrast to his impassioned eyes. “The demon Kur and his queen cannot harm any god, or any mortal with a god, who enters their realm. To traverse the Void without a divine guide would be imprudent.”
“Deven didn’t do anything to justify this fate. He cannot suffer an eternal death.” I maintain eye contact, afraid to blink lest Enlil disappear.
“You wish to free this man.” Enlil sounds bored with me and our conversation.
“Deven doesn’t belong there. Several moons ago, Kur dragged him through the gate for trying to save me.” I show him the portrait again. “Will you help us as you helped Inanna save her betrothed?”
The fire-god flexes his fists. “The journey to the City of the Dead is fraught with perils.”
“I would be amazed if it weren’t.”
“You are willing to risk yourself to save this mortal?” Enlil surveys my prosthesis coolly.
I boost my chin. “I risk only what he’s worth.”
“Love fortifies the heart,” he says almost sadly. The voice of the wind crying from Wolf’s Peak returns to the forefront of my mind. It was the fire-god? Enlil brushes his finger across my cheek. “I will assist you in exchange for a favor.”
“You want something from me?” I thought gods were benevolent overseers tossing out blessings like coins to beggars.
“Compensation for my aid.”
Wary of bargains, especially with a god, I stare slantwise at him. “What kind of favor?”
“We will negotiate the conditions later. If this mortal man has been in the Void as long as you say, he will not survive much longer. The evernight will gnaw him into fragments of who he was, and he will be broken, never to reassemble.”
A persistent suspicion warns me to understand his terms. “When the time comes, what will you ask of me?”
“Would knowing change your need of my assistance?” Enlil asks and awaits my reply. Knowing would not amend my reasons for coming. I sought the gods for aid, and one answered. I am already in his debt. “You need not fret, Kalinda. If we fail to free the man, you will owe me nothing.”
If we fail, I will have lost everything.
The heat from Enlil’s touch lingers on my cheek. Whatever payment he wants could not cost me more than Deven. What else could the gods desire besides increased obedience?
I measure my response so as not to insult him. “I appreciate your willingness, but I must know your conditions first.”
Enlil gazes far into my eyes, seeking something. He seems to peel back layers of me, flesh and then bone, right down to my soul. The intensity of his focus knocks something loose far down inside. My breath catches on a dig of pressure, and the sensation abates.
“On my father’s name, Great Anu of the Sky, I will require nothing that you are unable to fulfill,” Enlil promises.
A warmth starts at my toes and zips straight up my spine. No greater vow have I witnessed. No greater assurance have I received.
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