“Be still.” Enlil dives his hands into the tar and heaves me out of the sludge. At eye level, his gaze shines like piercing stars.
He slogs through the tar.
“How are you not stuck?”
“Nothing may kill me here. When you and I are close, the elements of the under realm cannot harm you as well.”
The tar gurgles. A bubble pops near my feet, and cold air flashes out, stinking of moldy chickpeas. Each inhale crowds my nose and throat, the very air strangling me. At the embankment, Enlil sets me down. We dropped into a massive cavern riddled with pits. Spiky rocks protrude down from the cave ceiling and up from the floor. In the places they nearly meet, the points look like fangs in an unwelcoming grin.
I wipe at the tar on my clothes and the sores where the substance chafed my skin. We have barely arrived and already Enlil has rendered me incompetent.
“Thank you,” I push out between set teeth. Enlil chuckles and melts the patches of tar off his legs. “What?” I ask.
“Your pride amuses me.”
“This isn’t pride. I simply prefer to take care of myself.”
“But you are unconfident in your ability to do so.” He lowers to one knee and cleans the tar off my skin. The stickiness melts and drips into puddles. “In another life, you were the greatest warrior of your generation.”
My heart thuds against the trapdoor. “I was?”
“I could remind you. Should you desire, I will retract the veil over your memories.”
I am tempted to see myself as he does, but that is not why I summoned him. “Who I was isn’t relevant to who I am now.”
He finishes and stands, his expression downcast. “The future is relevant to the present.”
“But you want to show me the past.”
“The past reminds us where we were so we may understand where we must go.” Enlil considers my glower and crosses the cavern. Rid of the sticky tar, I keep up at his side. “When you are ready, I will show you. You will be pleased. Your memories are yours, but they also include people you love.”
He stops before a network of tunnels. No signs are posted to specify where they lead or how long they go on for. His spear casts a glow down the beginning of the paths, his corporal light wreathing us. Enlil peers down each one and then signals at the second to last.
“This is the route to the first gate.”
A gate? Of course. According to Inanna’s Descent, we must pass through seven gates before we reach the City of the Dead. I presumed they were figurative symbols. I had not considered they were literal distance markers. “How do you know this tunnel is the right one?”
“The stench.” Enlil wrinkles his nose. “The reek of pain is most putrid down there.”
I cannot smell anything over the drying tar on my cloak. We enter the tunnel of the fire-god’s choosing and rely on his effulgence to carve a path into the dim.
Breakfast is always quiet in my atrium. I dine alone and watch the door.
After leaving Pons and Indah’s chamber last night, I wasted no time issuing a relocation order to the troops stationed at the city wall. At dawn, a unit marched through Vanhi and up to the palace. Yatin is currently supervising the settlement of their camp.
Even knowing the palace residents were safe, I could not sleep. Every time I shut my eyes, I was with Deven in the middle of the desert. Kalinda and my mother were trapped in quicksand. No matter how hard we pulled and dug, we could not free them.
The cook made my favorite fried bread with extra honey. I pay more attention to the doorway than my plate. At last my chamber servant enters.
“I found it.” He sets a small jar before me.
“Are you certain this is the one?”
“Healer Baka assured me it’s lavender.”
I spin the lid off and sniff the cream. Clean lavender with a hint of rose hip. I tuck the small jar into my jacket pocket as a messenger brings in a letter. In the message, Priestess Mita requests my attendance at the Sisterhood temple. The builders have come upon a complication that requires my input. Brac asked me to stay in the palace, but I will not postpone the completion of the temple.
I grab a handful of cinnamon sweets off a dish on the table and thank the servants. “If you need me, I’ll be in the wives’ wing.”
The path there is direct and unencumbered. At the entrance, Eshana rushes out and speeds off without a word.
“Good morning, Eshana,” I call after her.
She spins around. “Your Majesty! Have you seen Parisa? She was gone from our chamber when I woke, and she missed breakfast.”
“She may be at the elephant stables.” Eshana glances about the vacant doorway and drops her voice to a scratchy whisper. “Her father was an elephant handler. He died when Parisa was young, and she was sent to the Hiraani Temple where we met. Did you know we were claimed together?”
I was unaware. She goes on without my reply.
“Our rank tournaments were consecutive. The cut on Parisa’s head was more severe than she lets on. The blade nearly shattered her skull. She’s struggling with your choice for kindred, but I hope her apprehensions don’t influence your decision for who you retain in your court.” Eshana plucks a stray thread from my jacket sleeve and leaves her hand there. “Whatever you decide, I’ll go with Parisa. We came to the palace together, and if we must, we’ll leave together.”
I cannot speak intelligently about Parisa’s state of mind, though I do appreciate Eshana’s perspective. “I’ll take your thoughts into consideration. One question: Were you or anyone from your court in the library yesterday?”
“Me?” She sounds scandalized. “Skies, no. We all know not to go in your library.”
“Thank you, and thank you for informing me about Parisa. You’re a considerate friend.”
Eshana reddens from ear to ear, then waves good-bye.
I pass into the wives’ wing. Down the same corridor, a group of sisters gathers at an arched casement to view a crowd at the front gate. The protestors have returned.
I fist the lavender lotion in my pocket. Visiting Gemi will have to wait. I hustle outside to the guardhouse. The angry mob throws stones into the grounds and at the guards on the ramparts. Yatin leads me into the garden, out of view of the gate.
“Captain Yatin, what’s going on?”
“The people are alarmed, sir. Commander Lokesh told them you rallied the soldiers to guard your viraji and left our people defenseless. They blocked every access in and out of the palace grounds.”
“Lokesh lied.” Or did he? I summoned the soldiers to guard us from his growing rebellion, but never at the expense of our people’s safety. “The city has sufficient protection. Is Lokesh out there now? I’ll speak with him.”
“He’ll twist your words to reinforce his lies. Sir, you’re best off returning inside and letting us manage him.”
Everyone’s recommendation is for me to ignore Lokesh. No one thinks hiding behind my army is gutless. “As you say, but you need the proper authority to represent me. The army needs a leader. Serve as my general, Yatin. You’re doing the work; you’re entitled to the prestige.”
“I’m honored,” Yatin rumbles in his mild baritone, “but I cannot accept. The army deserves its true general.”
“This was Deven’s idea.”
Yatin’s eyes expand. “How is he?”
“He’s holding on.” I regret minimizing Deven’s pain, but reminding Yatin that his friend is in grave danger will do no good. “Will you lead in his stead?”
Yatin dips his head. “I will serve as you command.”
A soldier runs down the path and draws up short. “Your Majesty, pardon the interruption. Captain Yatin is needed at the guardhouse.”
“General Yatin will be right with you,” I reply.
The soldier aims an amazed look at Yatin, bows, and dashes off. Yatin rubs fingers over his bushy eyebrows, pressing them down. He must be overwhelmed, and, for the foreseeable future, overworked.
“When this is over, I’ll send you and Natesa on a honeymoon wherever you wish.”
Yatin chuckles. “You’re concerned Natesa will be mad that my advancement may occupy more of my time.”
“Regardless, you deserve a break.” I did not expect to share these feelings, but they must be said. “Having lost some of my men, I’m even more grateful for those who stay.”
Yatin grabs me in a hug, lifting me off the ground. He sets me back down and his face reddens, comprehending his casual handling of his ruler. I smile to lessen his embarrassment. He pulls at his chin sheepishly until shouts compel him to return to his post.
Alone in the garden, I notice a lavender bush along the path. I run my hand over the blossoms and sniff. It has a sharp smell that is both medicinal and floral. Oddly pleased that Gemi’s experiment worked, I refocus on my next task. Choosing a lemon tree with ideal boughs, I climb halfway up. Above me, a family of monkeys swing to an adjacent tree and chatter to one another. I settle on a limb and watch the happenings below. The leafy branches shield me from the soldiers setting up camp and afford me a view of the gate.
Yatin and the soldiers clear a path in the crowd for a string of military wagons to pass through. The foolish protestors chant, “Return to tradition.” What is it they miss most? The tyranny? Bloodshed? Total disregard for their happiness?
“What are you doing?” a voice calls from below.
Gemi stands beneath the tree, gazing up at me.
This is not how I wanted to see her today. I hope she loses interest and continues on her way, but she lifts herself onto a low-hanging branch and climbs. My branch quakes as she straddles the bough in her trousers, her bare feet dangling.
“Why are you hiding?” she asks.
“I’m not. I like to climb.”
She tugs at my tunic sleeve. “You need more comfortable recreational attire.”
“Natesa snuck into my chamber and removed all my favorite clothing,” I say. My viraji laughs, the merry sound like the jingle of a dancer’s wrist bells. “What are you doing in the gardens?” I ask her.
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