“But we haven’t tried—”
“Deven is dying.” My lungs contract sharply. Enlil grasps my shoulder. “You spared Deven Naik from an eternal death. He will be reborn again. In time, you will reunite in the Beyond.”
“I wish to be with him in this life!” I point at Enlil. “Heal him. I know you can. Death is temporary. Delay it and let him stay.”
“He is past revival. I can only restore him into another form.”
“Then do it.” My words transform into unbidden pleas. “Please don’t let him die. I cannot . . . I cannot bear it.”
“He will not be as he is now.”
“So long as he is still Deven, I don’t care.” The fire-god hesitates, his expression pensive. Deven’s soul-fire continues to diminish, the glow weak as a cinder. “Enlil, if you love me, you will fix him however you can.”
Enlil’s gaze roams around my chamber, taking in the shattered mirror glass and broken furniture. “I will do this to make amends. I apologize that I was not forthright with you.”
“I understand that you did what you felt you must for Cala,” I say, my voice tiny. “Just please, hurry.”
Enlil lifts Deven and carries him to the bed. The fire-god lays him down and tears open his ragged tunic. Deven is so thin. So thin. Enlil ignites a living flame above his palm. All my hopes pour into that pure blaze. He tips his hand, and it falls onto Deven’s chest. The flame soaks into his skin like a raindrop dissolving into soil and vanishes.
I hug myself, offering my own comfort. Cala watches avidly and waits with me. She feels stronger and closer, close enough to hold my hand.
Seconds stretch into eternity. Enlil’s inactivity almost brings me to tears. I hardly allow myself to blink, worried I will miss a change.
A pure light fans out across Deven’s chest and travels down his limbs. He gleams, resplendent as a new day, building to a sustained, concentrated radiance. In a flash, the incandescence flares and extinguishes.
Color returns to Deven’s complexion, and his bruises and cuts heal without scarring. His gaunt frame fills out, returning to his healthy weight and structure. With his lips slightly parted, his teeth grow back as I watch. These miraculous changes occur in seconds, a revival unlike any I could have imagined. I sense his inner light, a lambent, golden intensity that I long to touch.
His chest expands, drawing in a long pull of air. I place my shaking palm over his heart. A reckless laugh pushes out of me. His soul-fire feels like him, solid and splendid.
“He will wake soon,” Enlil says wearily. “As he was not formally reborn through a bloodline, his soul’s innate predisposition will determine his powers.”
My chin snaps up. “He has powers?”
“His next reincarnated state was a bhuta. As his current life was finished, I had no choice but to progress him to his next physical form. He may be disoriented for a few days. Let him rest. His powers will reveal themselves soon.”
I gape down at Deven. He looks and feels the same, but he is not. “Will he . . . will he remember me?”
“I cannot speak to his state of mind; however, he is the same soul he was.” Enlil withdraws from the bedside, his movements slow and heavy. “I must return to the Beyond and report my happenings to Anu. He will have questions.”
“Are you in trouble?”
Enlil smirks. “No more than usual. Do not fret, Kalinda. You are regaining your independence. No longer must you rely on me as your guide.”
“You’re leaving right now?” I ask, Cala’s sadness mingling with my own. “Cala hoped you would stay.”
The fire-god wipes ash from my cheek. “We had beautiful lives together, Cala. More happy moments than there are shells on the seashore.”
I love you, Cala whispers.
“She says she loves you.”
“And I love her.” Enlil grasps my chin and his voice softens. “You will always be my sunrise.”
“I’ll miss you,” I reply, in sync with Cala.
“You will live on in my heart. We had our time, and it was unforgettable.” He kisses my mouth, his lips soft as petals. I allow his nearness one last time for Cala. “I will cherish you forevermore, my dearest. My champion, my queen.”
He separates from me and steps over a piece of broken mirror glass. I consider my reflection. Somewhere in my mind, Cala is staring out at me.
Thank you for allowing me more time with him, Kali.
I couldn’t have done this without you. Where will you go?
Back into your memories. Be content.
She sounds wistful. We cannot touch, so I send thoughts of hugging her. She passes them back.
She relinquishes the control she has on my faculties, untying her memories, thoughts, and will from my own. The second she is detached, she sinks inside me. The domain in my mind expands wider as she drops deeper, diluting into my soul-fire until we burn as one.
A knot in my neck unravels. My reflection appears the same as when Cala was with me, yet I will never look at myself again without thinking of her.
I revolve toward Enlil. “She’s gone.”
“You were very kind to her. Not everyone would have managed these circumstances with your compassion.” Enlil extends his hand, and a new lightning spear materializes. “I should be going. I cannot change your mind?”
He refers to his invitation to dwell with him in Ekur. “My decision isn’t in my mind, it’s in my heart. And hearts are difficult to change.”
“That they are.” Enlil traces my knuckles. “You gave me a gift I will never forget. More time with Cala was a mercy. You owe me nothing, Kalinda. Consider your debt paid.”
A horse whinnies. Seen through the hole in the wall leading to the balcony, Enlil’s chariot suspends in the sky, waiting for its rider. I go to the horse team and pet Chaser’s nose. He nickers and nudges his head against my shoulder.
Enlil wanders over to us. People in the city gather to gawk at the deity. Perhaps now they will give up their foolish ideas about bhutas.
“How did you bring Chaser back?” I ask. “Never mind. You’re a god.”
One side of Enlil’s mouth ticks upward and then swiftly drops. Neither of us can bring ourself to part ways.
I take Cala’s medallion from my pocket and slip it over his head. “To remember our journey by.”
He grasps the medallion and presses it to his chest. “I will think of you fondly, my dearest Kalinda.” His great arms enfold me, and he kisses the spot he cleaned on my cheek. He embraces me until my skin glimmers to mirror his. When he lets go, the luster fades.
“Will you be all right?” I ask.
“Of course. I am Enlil, Keeper of the Living Flame.”
I let loose a dry chuckle and pat Chaser farewell.
Enlil steps onto his chariot. He snaps the reins, and his horses charge upward over the city. Citizens all over Vanhi stop to witness the ascension of the fire-god’s chariot shrinking into the desert night.
A groan sounds behind me. I dash back to my bed. Deven is just as I left him, only he has managed to wedge one of my many silk bed pillows under one of his knees. I pull it away and adjust the covers. His warm brown eyes home in on me and he frowns.
Enlil, let him remember me.
He contemplates my wrecked chamber, his bewilderment deepening. His attention returns to me. “Kali? I had the strangest dream about your parents.”
A laugh-sob bursts from my lips. I lie down and lean my head against his shoulder, resting my hand over his healthy, beating heart. I have so much to tell him that I cannot decide where to begin.
He drifts off again, so I snuggle into him and let him rest. He said everything I need to know.
I clench the passenger’s bar and smile despite the precarious side-to-side cadence of the howdah carriage. The box carriage with a red silk canopy is tied to the back of an elephant. Children run alongside us, keeping pace with the gentle beast’s patient lumber.
General Yatin patrols ahead on horseback, clearing stragglers from the roadway. The onlookers cooperate, moving aside for the army general in his dress uniform. As I near, they cry, “Burner Rani,” in praise.
Gods, what a difference time makes.
The imperial procession winds through the packed roads, my view swinging with my ride. A canopy shields me from the midday sun, and a dry breeze whisks away my perspiration. The rest of the procession leaves the palace after me and snakes through the packed roads.
On their own elephant behind mine, Ashwin and Gemi wave from their howdah, both dressed in finery. The people’s cheers grow to a roar for their prince and his viraji. They have gone from despised intendeds to celebrated rulers in three moons.
Ashwin has doubled his efforts to rebuild Vanhi. The southeast district is nearly complete, which eased tensions somewhat. Mostly we have Enlil to thank. The chapel altar is littered with burned sacrifices day and night for the fire-god. He must feel so smug. One appearance to our citizens, and suddenly the Brotherhood temple is full of worshippers.
The fire-god also contributed to the empire-wide reacceptance of me as a champion rani. Our public embrace before he flew off on his chariot revived the rumor that I am Enlil’s hundredth rani reincarnated. I have advised my friends and family not to dissuade the gossip. Wherever Cala is, she, too, is smiling.
We round a corner. The howdah tips, then rights itself. I leave my grip on the bar and wave at a child below. I rarely wear my prosthesis anymore, but Indah added carvings and jewels to this one. Today is my first time showing it off.
We pass Little Lotus Inn. Natesa bends out the top-floor window, brandishing a headscarf and blowing kisses to Yatin. Two moons ago, they wed and moved here. Natesa complains regularly about how busy they are. She is very happy.
Soldiers open the gates to the Sisterhood temple. Yatin stops outside them, monitoring the crowd for suspicious rabble. The last of Lokesh’s mercenaries have gone underground. As the public becomes more accepting of bhutas, the likelihood of an insurgence of dissenters lessens.
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