“Who are the children you’re after?” I ask. Lokesh murmurs to his men, disregarding me. “Who are you working for?”
Lokesh bends over me, eyes narrowed. “I have no employer. My payment will be the palace, city, and your coffers. I’m taking back my throne.” At my prolonged befuddlement, he says, “You still don’t know who I am.”
My first introduction to Lokesh was the day he deserted the army. I comb my memory for an association I may have missed.
“My mother was a palace servant. Rajah Tarek took a shine to her long before he wed Kindred Lakia. When it was discovered that my mother was with child, we were cast out. She raised me on the streets, begging and stealing to survive. You were a year old the first time I saw you riding through Vanhi with Lakia. I remember thinking—he stole my life.”
Lokesh is my brother?
Reason swiftly replaces my shock. It is possible. Tarek was a serial philanderer, and a servant would never be permitted to live in the palace with the rajah’s bastard son.
Family resemblances float to the forefront of my awareness. Lokesh has the same thick shoulders and long arms as Tarek. I may have recognized the resemblance sooner if not for the man’s customary headscarf.
“The Turquoise Palace is my rightful home,” Lokesh says, flinging one side of the rug over me. “I swore on Mother’s deathbed that I would set the empire back on course.”
His men roll me up in the rug. I wrench at my bindings, but the thick cloth confines me. Someone picks me up and throws me over the back of a kneeling camel. I hear the beast grunt and then Lokesh’s voice.
“You’ll suffer a death befitting your betrayal of Father. Good-bye, young Prince.”
My world joggles as the camel rises and plods off. I wriggle to expose a foot to passersby, but the effort is pointless.
Everything I have worked for has been swept out from underneath me.
Cackling wakes me from my stupor. I must not have been unconscious long. Enlil is still pinned to the stone wall by the spike Irkalla drove through his belly. His spear is propped against the wall on my opposite side, far from reach.
Rabisus have congregated around the fire-god, jeering and jumping. One spits in Enlil’s face, and they all screech in hilarity. Cala’s fury mounts at his mistreatment. I am too hurt by his omissions about Deven’s and my past to defend him.
Irkalla lounges on her throne and softly hums the hymn about Anu. After witnessing how the Void corrupted Deven’s memory, I have no tolerance for her irreverence.
“Why are you singing about the sky-god?” I ask. “Aren’t you rivals?”
She opens one red eye and closes it again. “Before Anu usurped the saltwater-goddess Tiamat and banished Kur and me, we sang Tiamat’s praises. After Anu’s conquest, he rewrote the lyrics about himself and taught it to his mortal slaves. Unlike him, I will never forget my origins.” She picks up where she left off humming.
A wolf rabisu sprays saliva at Enlil’s lower half. The spit dampens his sarong and drips down his legs. Enlil comes alert. From my angle, I notice cracks in the spike restraining him to the wall. He scours the throne room until he locates me. Cala relaxes some, happy he is awake. I can hardly meet his gaze.
Another rabisu spits on his arm and snickers. Enlil glares at his tormentors and sends a small burst of luminance at them. They scatter, hissing and whimpering.
Asag and Lilu march through the main entry followed by four visitors, one of whom carries a torch. Irkalla lifts her head to greet them. I assume her demons have brought prisoners, but Commander Lokesh holds the torch. Two of his mercenaries escort him and—
“Ashwin!” I wrench against my chains.
His face melts away to reveal Marduk, the repulsive demon that returned Deven to the mortal realm. What in the gods’ names . . . ?
Marduk must be a chameleon demon. Reasons why he would impersonate Ashwin swim through my mind. Harassment, extortion, assassination. Each one plunges worry further into my gut. Marduk leans casually against a pillar while the remainder of the party addresses Irkalla.
“My queen,” Lokesh says, bowing.
“Where are they, Commander?”
“We had an incident.” Lokesh’s voice vibrates with fear. “They hid from us. We searched the palace most of the night, but they haven’t been found.”
I listen so closely my head aches. Who couldn’t he find? Ashwin? Gods, please let it be the prince. Lokesh could only have searched the palace if his men had gained control, which would only happen if Ashwin was dethroned.
“Our bargain is contingent upon their delivery.” Though Irkalla speaks matter-of-factly, she could turn vicious in half a second.
“I’ll find them during the day and return with them tomorrow night,” Lokesh swears.
“Do not break your word,” Irkalla says, “or he will remain mine.”
None of this makes sense. Even though I can hear their every word, I am missing huge sections of meaning.
“My queen,” Lokesh stutters, “may I see him?”
“You failed to deliver what you promised, yet you request a favor?” Irkalla’s tone has a callous edge. Lokesh drops his head. She narrows her eyes and flicks her tail. “Oh, all right.”
Chains rattle above us. A stairway, large enough for the queen of the dead to pass through, winds from the upper floor to her dais. The jangling closes in. Edimmu and rabisus lead a prisoner down the staircase. Irkalla’s underlings drag a soul with a shaggy beard and hair.
Gods alive. It’s him.
Tarek’s shoulders have sunken over his rib cage, and his tunic pulls against the knobs of his spine. He passes me without a hint of recognition. Nor does he react to Enlil’s mighty luminance or physicality. He is a husk of the man he was.
I find no joy in his affliction. My only solace would be to never see him again. I thought I had earned that reward. Tarek is like a house cricket, silent all day long and then, when one lies down for the night, a strident invader of peace.
Edimmu leaves him between Irkalla and Lokesh.
“Your Majesty,” Commander Lokesh says, bowing, “it’s my honor.”
A trace of Tarek’s identity returns to his expression. “You serve me?”
Lokesh perks up. “I’m your commander. You have my undying allegiance, Your Majesty. Prince Ashwin is a traitor to your great authority.”
More of Tarek’s demeanor returns. I see the moment when he remembers himself in his clenching fists. I leave my powers on standby in case this summit of evildoers goes awry.
“Commander,” Tarek says, “I order you to free me and return me to my empire.”
Irkalla clenches her claw, drawing in her talons. “Remind him who rules here.”
Edimmu pushes against Tarek’s shoulders to force him to kneel. He pushes back. Beside me, Enlil wiggles against the spike impaling him. Slowly, nearly imperceptibly, the weapon is withdrawing from his abdomen. His wound is healing and extracting the stone spike.
Edimmu tires of Tarek’s defiance and strikes his back with a flick of her forked tongue. Tarek sags forward, and the rabisu guard finishes compelling him to his knees.
“I warned you, Tarek,” Irkalla says. “This is my domain. Do you recall what happens when you disobey me in my realm?”
Tarek quivers from rage. “I am rajah.”
“You are vermin.” Smoke whirs from Irkalla’s nostrils. Tarek shuts his bloodshot eyes and coughs as it streams over him. “How many piles of refuse must you shovel before you accept your fate?”
“Temporary fate,” Lokesh inserts. “I’ll return tonight and we’ll make our exchange.”
Irkalla arches her head to better glare at him. “Tarek remains my servant until you deliver the bhuta children.”
Enlil’s glow lessens, his godly version of paling. What does he know? I glance at Marduk reclining against the pillar, all smug and disinterested. His reasons for arriving under the guise of Ashwin’s appearance must mean that Lokesh and his men do have control of the palace. To find the bhuta children . . . ?
Merciful gods. Irkalla wants the trainees. Lokesh will bring them to her, and in exchange, she will give him Tarek. The commander could not mean to replace Ashwin with Tarek, could he? Is that even possible? According to Enlil’s expression, it may be.
“I’ll leave one of my men to reopen the gate,” says Lokesh.
“Then you do not need the other one.” Irkalla jabs her talon through the nearest soldier’s chest and yanks it out.
He drops, and the rabisus pounce on him. Lokesh and the other soldier skirt away from the feeding frenzy. I quell my gagging and look away.
“Take our visitor upstairs with Tarek,” Irkalla tells Edimmu. “They can muck out my chamber. Marduk, escort the commander out. Hurry, or he will be trapped here all day.” She cackles at the idea; she is the only one.
Marduk saunters off with Lokesh as ordered. Edimmu grabs Tarek’s chain and drags him across the floor. He shutters his eyes to Enlil’s natural glow and reopens them. Our gazes connect. A range of emotions play across Tarek’s countenance. Surprise, disbelief—and rage.
“Kalinda!” He wrenches at his bindings. I grab for my soul-fire. I doubt I could aim well enough to land a hit, but I could certainly scare him. “You disobedient wretch. You did this to me. I will find you! You will wish you’d never defied me!”
I stare him down while Tarek shouts more threats about claiming me and how I am his wife. None of his rancor cleaves through my armor of disregard. As soon as he disappears up the stairwell, I bank my fire and shudder.
“Do not fear, Kalinda,” Enlil says. “Tarek is never leaving here.”
The spike has been freed from the fire-god’s chest another finger length. Irkalla licks the mercenary’s blood from her talon.
“How did Lokesh find you?” Enlil calls to her.
“I found him,” Irkalla replies. “He was present the night Kur took Kalinda’s beloved below. Kur sensed hatred in the commander for those challenging our rule. We knew he could be motivated. Marduk said Lokesh did not need much persuasion. He recognized his true queen.”