“Can we not spare them food or water? You could give them mangoes like you did me.”
“Nothing can quench their thirst,” Enlil replies. “The living pray for them; thus, Irkalla cannot confine them to her city. Trust me. Wandering the desert is a more compassionate sentence.”
The City of the Dead is worse than this? Deven said he hides near there.
“Kalinda,” a voice calls from within the open wasteland.
A woman drags herself toward us over the rough ground.
The last time I saw Ashwin’s mother, we were in the amphitheater arena locked in a duel, an impulsive conclusion to my rank tournament that led to her death. Though she still wears her training sari and sandals, her attractiveness has lessened from a sharp blade to a dull spoon.
“Please, Kalinda. Water.”
Someone in the mortal realm has been praying over her soul, and I would wager it is her son. My memories of Lakia are not the fondest, but if Ashwin were here and this were my mother, I would expect him to show her compassion.
“Don’t leave the trail,” Enlil warns.
“It’s all right. I know her.” Stepping over a skull, I go to Lakia. She appears even more miserable up close. Her once-glowing complexion has a lusterless hue. Patches of her hair are missing, the rest knotted in stringy clumps.
“Kalinda,” she cries, guttural, tearless gasps. “I left him out in the desert. He’s gone and I could not stop it.”
I kneel on the sandy desert floor, which is softer and finer than it seems. “Who’s gone?”
“My little boy.” She sobs into the crook of her elbow. “Tarek sat in my chamber and waited with me. I heard his cries as the carriage pulled away. My husband wanted me to cry or run. He wanted to punish me for my weakness.” She lifts her bloodshot gaze to me. “I didn’t cry. I held it in until I was alone. But my boy . . . my boy was gone.”
“Ashwin is home, Lakia,” I promise, her heartbreak pressing upon me. “He’s living in Vanhi again, in the palace. He’s home.”
Lakia rubs her forehead in the dirt, further matting her hair. She lifts her head again, her gaze wild. “Water. Please, water.”
I wave for Enlil to come over so I can ask for one of his mangoes. He sends me a stern glare to return to the path and does not budge. “I don’t have any water for you. I’m sorry.”
Lakia pushes up and cups my cheek, her fingers icy. “You’re my husband’s kindred . . . ?”
The fact of this strikes me deep. I never wanted to be Tarek’s kindred. Then I was his kindred, and I was good at my role. Gods curse him for that. Without the title that I earned, I no longer know what to do with myself.
“Much has happened since you . . . left,” I continue. “Prince Ashwin rules Tarachand now. He reigns with fairness and mercy.”
Lakia grabs my chin hard. “I know not who you speak of. I have no son.” Her other hand grasps the back of my head, securing me in a vise. I immediately realize my legs are stuck. I have been sinking into the sand. “No water? Just as well. I’ll drink the water from your blood.”
She lowers her mouth to bite me. I push her off and yank at my knees. I have sunk farther into the ashy ground. Lakia lunges and her teeth snap at my nose. I hold her back, her flesh frozen and lifeless. I cannot parch her to render her unconscious. She has no soul-fire to draw out.
Enlil enters my side vision and aims his spear at her. A lightning bolt shoots from the end, striking Lakia in the side. She flies back, smoke rising off her still form. Our squabble attracts more wanderers across the open area. They amble toward us.
“Hold still.” Enlil aims his spear at the sand around my feet and shoots. It solidifies to glass. He smashes it and heaves me up. “Next time use your dagger.”
“I didn’t want to hurt her.”
“Kalinda, everything wants to harm you here. Even the ground would devour you.”
Back on the trail, I brush myself off. The dustiness persists. “What is this sand?”
“Bone ash.” Enlil drags me onward while I knock the dust off faster. “We must not tarry. The wanderers cannot enter the path, but we best not tempt them.”
I skip along, stunned from my encounter. “Did Lakia truly forget her own son? She was weeping over him one minute, and the next she said he didn’t know him. How could she forget him? She had her faults—many faults—but she loved Ashwin.”
“She was not the woman you knew. The Void boiled her down to her worst attributes and pains.”
“I took her life,” I whisper. Lakia will recover. After all, she is already dead. But leaving her to suffer . . . “I sent her here.”
“You took her life to preserve your own. You did not condemn her. Her actions did.”
I wait for Cala to add her opinion of murder to the matter. I saw what she did in the arena. She killed all those women to secure her place as Enlil’s wife. She remains quiet.
The souls in the desert beseech us for water. I cannot do anything for them, so I focus on escaping this morbid wasteland. “Will you be punished for breaking your pact not to interfere with mortal affairs?”
“No,” Enlil replies shortly. “My unusual paternity formed lower expectations of my behavior.”
“How many times have you saved me?”
Enlil slows to a more official gait. “My dear queen, it is you who saved me. Before our first meeting, I was floundering. My sister Enki was the epitome of obedience. I was . . . less so. My true parentage had been revealed, and I felt I did not belong with the gods. I hid my pain in the joys and passions of the mortal realm. Then I met Cala. She loved me as I was.” He adds tenderly, “Every time you are reborn, I rediscover the wonder of watching the sunrise.”
Is he speaking to Cala . . . or to me? The separation between us has blurred.
I rummage around inside my head for her commanding voice.
Her memories are hazy yet accessible. I resist traveling through them. We can coexist and still have our privacy.
After several more minutes, the wanderers dwindle. We pause and I catch my breath.
“This fell from your pocket.” Enlil slips the medallion over my head so the gold disc rests against my breastbone. He kisses my cheek.
I wait for Cala to melt, yet she watches as a bystander. Her presence has swiftly become familiar, her thoughts and feelings second nature. Dread needles at my heart. Is she disappearing into me, or am I disappearing into her?
We are one and the same, Cala answers. Enlil is our forever love.
Enlil waits for me to announce I am ready to go on. Only he knows the path I am to follow, even if coming here was my choice. As we set off, I wonder how much of a choice Cala had. Was she happier following Enlil’s path instead of finding her own? Maybe she never learned the difference. She may have trusted the gods would not lead her astray. She may have sought Enlil’s companionship above all else. Or maybe she did not have to sacrifice for his love. Perhaps she had it all along and he was always her only fate.
I amble up to the Umbra Palace with the crowd of wanderers. The last time Irkalla summoned her subjects, she publicly disciplined the demon Udug for failing to aid Kur in conquering the mortal realm. His screams stayed with me for days after. Udug has not been seen since.
The palace casts a shadow across the courtyard. The few intact walls have gaping holes that resemble eye sockets. Night and day, shrieks carry from the high windows. I once saw the rabisus unload wagonloads of new souls and lead them inside. Not long after, the screams began. Those same wagons are parked out front. The new souls have been cleared out, but the oxen are still yoked, their harnesses nailed into their bloody backs.
The wanderers shuffle me along in the throng funneling up the stairs. Fish Face Lilu examines the entrants with her huge, glassy eyes. She lets me pass without her gills flapping.
We congregate in the massive throne room. The grandness of its pillars and high arches resembles the finest imperial chamber in the world, the difference being everything here is sooty and tarnished, corrupted by the evernight. Similar perversions can be seen across the under realm. In this immortal stronghold, where power should rule just and fair, the mockery of authority is loathsome.
Rabisus guard every exit, and a pair of ugallus oversee our entry from the dais. Sitting on their haunches, the lion-eagles’ wings tuck around their sleek bodies, their wingtips dagger sharp. Also on the dais, souls are chained to the far wall, unmoving and silent. Draperies span from ceiling to floor. Once we are all inside, a female voice slithers out from behind the curtain.
“Welcome, slaves. You must wonder for what purpose I have summoned you.”
Every wanderer wears the same vacant expression. None have wondered anything in a long while.
Irkalla extends a big black claw into view and slices the chains off an imprisoned soul. She curls her talon around the wanderer and snatches him behind the drapery. His screeching is replaced by bone-chilling crunches. My ears burn and my teeth grind until the feeding stops.
“We have a visitor,” Irkalla explains, smacking her chops. “A mortal man has trespassed into my realm, my city, my palace.”
I lock my joints. This summons was for me?
“General Naik, step forward and announce yourself.”
The silence from the dead is suffocating.
“De-ven,” Irkalla singsongs. “Mortal blood reeks of starlight, and yours is especially potent. Forgive our late introduction. Kur believed you would perish shortly after your arrival. Unlike me, he does not value the mettle of mortals.”
My stillness itches.
“I grow impatient, General.” Her breaths billow the curtain. “If not for propriety’s sake, perhaps you will step forward for her.”
Lilu leads out a chained woman with long midnight hair. She wears a blue sari, identical to the one she wore the first time we met in the lower story of the Samiya Temple.
“Deven?” Kali scans the audience. “Please come out.”