“I was studying the monkeys. We don’t have their kind in Lestari.”

I have given no thought to the types of monkeys in Tarachand versus those in the Southern Isles. Monkeys are widely considered pests. “Learn anything of interest?”

“They sleep, travel, and hunt together. The mothers carry their young on their backs for what I think is the first year or so of their life, and when the guards are not paying attention, they snitch their food.” We chuckle together, and she asks, “Why are you up here?”

“I was investigating a route out of the grounds. I need to visit the Sisterhood temple in the city, but the gates are blocked.”

Gemi watches the throng beyond the wall. “They don’t want me as their kindred.” I shake my head in objection. “Don’t patronize me, Ashwin. I heard what Lokesh said. They want you to wed one of your father’s ranis.”

“The people are acclimating to new ways. They’ll learn to accept you.”

Gemi readjusts on the tree branch and our fingers meet. I pull away from her touch.

“The ranis aren’t warming to me,” she says. “Shyla and the temple wards like me, as do the Trembler trainees, but the others barely tolerate my presence. My training with Shyla is progressing slowly. We can only use the sparring ring when no one else is around or the ranis become testy. I’m fairly confident Parisa would like to slit my throat with her pretty red nails.” Gemi’s pale-gold eyes meet mine. “I like them, Ashwin. They’re faithful, brave, clever women.” She sounds dissatisfied with herself by comparison.

“They may be seasoned competitors, but you’ve been a ruler over a peaceful nation since birth. These women know how to survive—you can teach them how to live.”

Gemi smiles, the reward I wanted. “You make a good speech. You should voice your opinions more often.”

“My parents discouraged original thought. I was to think of the empire first and them second. After they were pleased, I could think of myself. They were never pleased.”

“My father kept my world small and secluded on the island.” Gemi leans into my side and stares at the far-off sand dunes. I let her brace against me, her shiny hair brushing against my shoulder. “Leaving Lestari to fight in the war challenged us both. I speak my mind more, and he listens better. You can speak up, Ashwin. Your thoughts hold value, and your people will listen.”

Watching her from the corner of my eye, I see her intense focus does not waver from the desert. “What do you see?”

“Pardon? Oh, nothing.” Her accent thickens. “Sometimes when I stare at the dunes, I can almost trick my mind into seeing the sea.”

I search the horizon for the promise of waves, yet find ceaseless concourses of sand. Gemi scratches at her elbow. Patches of her dry skin have turned to inflamed abrasions.

“This is for you.” I pass her the lotion jar that I had stowed in my pocket.

Gemi unscrews the top and sniffs the contents. “Lavender!” She rubs the lotion into her elbows and sniffs her skin. “Thank you. That was very thoughtful.”

Loud shouting sounds from the gate. The supply wagons enter the grounds, and the protestors return to the bars, chanting and casting rocks.

“A trip to the temple will be impossible today,” I say.

Gemi twists one of her shell earrings and narrows her eyes in contemplation. “What if I can get us out?”

“Do you own a magic carpet?”

“Something better,” she promises.

I eye the crowd. Not two days ago, they beat a man to death. “I’m not sure we should leave. Someone could recognize you.”

“Hardly anyone knows what I look like.”

Perhaps, but Tarachandian women do not have pale-gold eyes and dewy skin.

Yatin posts a dozen more men outside the main gate to enforce a barrier between it and the protestors. The people stop throwing stones but remain, undaunted by the threat of arrest.

What right do they have to imprison us? No matter what Yatin and Brac say, hiding is cowardly. Though Rajah Tarek may have been a tyrant, no one dared hold him captive in his own palace. I am beginning to comprehend how he convinced himself that his ruthlessness was just.

Gemi climbs down the tree, pausing partway. “Are you coming?”

20

KALINDA

Our tunnel goes on without end. Enlil charges ahead, undaunted by the obscurity we crest or the shadows chasing our backs. I hurry to match his long strides.

We are trapped between closed-in walls and a continuously low ceiling that barely misses Enlil’s head. The only change is the downward slope of the ground, a gradual, almost indiscernible gradient that leads us deeper into the under realm.

Though Enlil’s true father is the demon Kur and his powers carry his father’s venom, and thus do my own Burner abilities, I could never be at home in this dreadful place. Does Enlil’s fearlessness come from his comfort here or his security in his godliness?

I deliberate on this as my legs ache in exhaustion. Enlil shows no signs of tiring. Maybe I can distract him and he will ease up to a less punishing pace.

“When did you learn Kur is your father?”

“He is not my father. Kur would try to convince us that we are his children, born of fire and venom, and therefore we belong to him. But I have sworn my allegiance to the God of Storms, and your very soul-fire originates from his glory. Kur has no claim on us.”

Enlil walks faster. I groan and skip to avoid falling behind.

At first, when the end of the tunnel appears, my mind convinces me that I am seeing more of the fire-god’s glimmer, but a new dimness fills the opening. Forgetting my exhaustion, I rush along. Enlil stops before the end of the tunnel. The opening is partially blocked by a low stone wall.

“Do not speak,” he says. “Rabisus are spirit feeders and tricksters. They will twist your words and trap you in a bad bargain.” The fire-god ambles up to the gate and says louder, “We have come for safe passage across the first obstruction.”

A shadow the size of a grown wolf slinks out from behind the low rock wall. The rabisu’s empty eye sockets repel me. I shift closer to Enlil’s side.

“Payment,” the rabisu garbles out, a voice of ash.

Enlil takes a mango from his bag. The rabisu snatches it from the fire-god. “A skiff waits at the shoreline. Cross the Sea of Desolation and follow the coast north. Go ashore at the cliffs.”

The creature exposes scraggly teeth and tears into the flesh of the fruit. A narrow section in the wall vanishes. A gate. Enlil drags me through. When I look back, the wall and its guardian are gone, as is the tunnel that led us here. In their place is a barren field.

“Quickly now,” Enlil urges.

“A mango?”

“Rabisus like sweets. They especially crave children. It is said a child’s innocence sweetens the flavor of his soul.” My insides contract, reminding me I have not eaten in some time. Enlil tosses me another mango. “Eat up. Retain your strength.”

“How did you know I’m hungry?”

“I am a god.”

I huff at myself. What other response did I expect?

He chuckles, a rolling rumble. “I cannot read your thoughts, Kalinda. I discerned you were hungry by fact. Mortals need sustenance.”

“Gods don’t eat or drink?”

“Only when it suits us. The fruit I gave you is enhanced with all the nutrients and rest you need for a day. Finish it and your strength will be replenished.”

I nibble a bite. The mango tastes sweet, a tad sour, and very juicy. I devour it on our walk to the seaboard and am indeed refreshed. “What else do you have in your satchel?”

“The satchel is but a prop. I am Enlil, Keeper of the Living Flame.” He holds out his hand, and a tiny, intense glow, like a direct ray of sunshine, manifests over his palm. The flame forms into a little white bird. “I create life and nourishment from my living fire.” He closes his fist around the bird, and it vanishes.

“Why don’t you summon your horses and chariot? We could fly right over the sea.” Or to the City of the Dead and bypass the gates and guardians.

“We must follow the guidelines of the rabisus and not cheat the rules of the under realm, or we will be expulsed.”

He does not explain what our expulsion would involve. I trust it would be unpleasant.

Ever so steadily, like a sunrise, the sky changes from bitter midnight to glum gray. A strange, directionless wind combats our every step to the coastline. The Sea of Desolation fulfills its lonely name. A dreary expanse of water stretches beneath a stormy sky. Thunder grumbles overhead from a lightningless storm.

A two-passenger skiff is wedged into the rocky shore. Pieces of ivory, like shells, are mixed in with the rocks. My mouth turns sour. They are shards of bones.

Enlil and I haul the skiff and oars against the wind down to the lapping sea. Each wave grasps at the pebbles and slinks away. Unlike a sea in the mortal realm, this one has no briny scent. The smell of iron carries off the waves, diffused by the strident winds.

“Climb in and do not let the sea touch you.”

I get in the skiff, and Enlil pushes the bow into the waters. The murky liquid is thicker than water and clots in spots. High winds howl, their tenor eerily mortal, and break the surface into choppy ridges. The skiff undulates against the pulling tide.

“Can we not walk?” I ask.

“We must cross the sea to reach the mortal man.”

“You mean Deven.”

Enlil ignores my correction and wades into the sea. Once the skiff floats, he jumps in across from me, the two of us knee to knee. The water staining his legs is crimson.

“Is that blood?”

He wipes off his shins with his hands and picks up the oars. “A millennium ago, the spirits of the fallen attempted to escape the Void. The demon Kur’s high queen, Irkalla, would not part with a single soul. Thus, she crafted the seven obstructions with their adjoining gates and formed the rabisus from a drop of her venom to serve as their guardians. The fallen souls still tried to run, so Irkalla set a plague upon the under realm and cursed the sea, turning the water to blood.” A large bone floats past the skiff. My stomach pitches on the mango I ate. “The lowest trenches of the Sea of Souls in the mortal world empty into the Sea of Desolation. Do not fall in or you will be lost between the realms.”

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