“Come along,” says Sunsee. We follow her into a shuttered chamber in the nursery. She opens the draperies, revealing furniture and wooden toys. “Forgive the dust. This is reserved for the heir. It’s been unoccupied for some time.”
This was my room before I moved to the Brotherhood temple for the brethren to raise me. I explore the chamber and wait for fragments of my memories to return.
Kalinda wanders the perimeter. We reconnect at the bed. A haunting mural covers the wall behind the headboard. The painting depicts a subversive world awash with grays. A path of switchbacks divided by narrow gates meanders into the underground. As I track the path downward, I count seven gateways.
Kalinda approaches the mural in a daze. “Is this . . . ?”
“The tale of Inanna’s Descent,” finishes the nursemaid. She takes my squirming sister from me, setting her down to crawl. “This was Kindred Lakia’s favorite story. Some of the nursemaids would listen at the door while she told the prince.”
“Was there a book she read from?” Kalinda asks.
“No,” Sunsee replies, “she recited the tale by heart.”
I study the mural closer. “I have no recollection of this.”
“You were four years old, Your Majesty.”
Perhaps so, but Sunsee’s nostalgia implies I should remember.
“Why this story?” Kalinda asks.
“Lakia was fascinated by Inanna.” Sunsee points to a tiny outline of a woman at the top. Paths wind between her and the city at the bottom. A shining figure stands with the woman.
How could I forget my mother’s obsession with this tale? I have been a reader for as long as I can recall. At the temple where I grew up, I was the only child under the brethren’s care. Books were my best friends. Could my passion for reading have come from before the temple, from Lakia?
Kalinda indicates the glowing man with Inanna. “Who is that, Sunsee?”
The nursemaid’s voice hushes. “Inanna could not navigate the under realm alone. As the tale goes, she visited the gods’ mountain house temple and prayed for a divine guide to lead her. The fire-god took pity on Inanna and escorted her through the Void to her beloved.”
“Ashwin,” Kalinda utters breathlessly, “is this the detail you couldn’t remember?”
I pry my heavy tongue from the bottom of my mouth. “Must be.”
Kalinda blanches, her bloodshot eyes stricken.
Sparing Deven from an eternal death is possible, but only with guidance from a god.
Ashwin steps to my side. “I’m sorry, Kalinda. I should have remembered.”
He was a child, and his later interactions with Lakia were less than favorable. Had Ashwin recalled the entire tale, the solution to freeing Deven would be the same.
I exit the nursery in a haze. A god. I must find a god.
Barring the story of Inanna and her beloved, deities have not dwelled in our realm since Anu bequeathed powers upon the First Bhutas and charged them to watch over mortals. Requesting a god to guide me through the under realm is less plausible than accomplishing the journey alone.
Upon entering my chamber, I stare at my bed. Just two nights ago, Deven and I laid there together. Now I may never see him again.
“Kalinda?” Ashwin asks.
I twist away to conceal my watery eyes. Spread out on the table are my drawings of Deven. The sight of them releases my tears.
“I’m sorry,” Ashwin repeats.
What else can he say? He is sorry this is the end. Sorry I will never find Deven.
A knot of fury swells within me. This cannot be over. But how can I entice a god to return to the mortal realm?
I do not care how daft or improbable my mission may be. My promise to free Deven from the evernight holds true. Leaving him there is not an option.
I yank my satchel out from under the bed and drop it on the mattress.
“What are you doing?” Ashwin asks.
“I’m going after Deven. I’ll find Ekur and beg the gods for help. Should that fail, I’ll cut a hole in the icy lake and go down into the Void by myself.”
Ashwin enters my side vision. “Wait another week and I’ll go with you.”
I doubt Gemi wants to spend their honeymoon in the under realm with me. “I’ve already waited too long. Deven needs me now.”
Pons knocks at the open doorway. “Your Majesty, you have a meeting with Captain Yatin and Ambassador Brac.”
“Not now, Pons.”
“Sir, they’re waiting for you—”
“I said not now,” Ashwin repeats. Pons backs away and leaves us. The prince musses his hair distractedly. He should not have been short with Pons, but after upsetting Rehan, I am in no position to criticize. “Kalinda, you cannot leave. We’re right in the middle of changing the temples and integrating bhutas. I cannot do this alone.”
“You won’t be alone. You have the support of your family and friends.”
He tugs at his lower lip in indecision. “You’ll miss my wedding.”
“I apologize for that.” Ashwin can lead without me and will probably be better off. My reputation is sullied by my bhuta heritage. Unlike Princess Gemi, I do not have food and materials to win over our people.
“You aren’t really sorry,” he says, his gaze fixed on mine. “You’ve been waiting for an excuse to leave.”
“You think I want this?”
“I think you’ve forgotten that people here care about you. Tinley and Pons and Indah did not stay to help us rebuild Vanhi out of devotion to me. They are your friends first. And the ranis? They’re your family. This is your home.”
Is it? I have not felt certain that I am where I belong since Jaya and I lived in Samiya. Since stepping down from my throne, I have fought hard for the reassurance that I am where the gods desire. Giving up my rank was the right decision, but what did I step down to? My reward was supposed to be a quiet life with Deven. Instead I am here, living in the shadow of who I could have been.
Perhaps I am relieved to go. I used to believe everything serves a purpose. Yet, since Deven was taken, I am less certain of the gods’ role in my life. No more can I wait for them to point out the path I should follow. I have to seize my own fate.
“Ashwin, I need to go.”
“You’re talking about traveling into the Void,” he clarifies.
“My fear of the under realm is still less than my regret for what’s happening to Deven. I don’t imagine you’ll understand.”
Ashwin inserts himself between me and my satchel. “I understand you blame yourself for his capture.” I attempt to maneuver around the prince, but he blocks me. “Getting yourself trapped down there won’t help anyone.”
“I’m not trying to help just anyone. I’m trying to help Deven.”
Ashwin gives me a blank look. He cannot relate. His feelings for me hinged upon him thinking he needed me at his right-hand side to rule. He was not in love with me. His great love is the empire.
“Someday,” I say softly, “I hope the gods bless you with a forever love.”
He flinches as though I have cursed him. I reach around him for my bag.
“Will you say good-bye to the others?” he asks.
Defending my decision to more of my friends would take the better part of the day, or longer. Natesa and Brac are not easily swayed. “I’d appreciate your telling them.”
“Natesa will be agitated.”
“Then it will be a typical day at the palace.” My humor does not cheer up Ashwin. “Will you wait up for Deven while I’m gone?” Ashwin agrees, his jaw muscles ticking. I stop myself from fixing his disheveled hair. “You were born for this, Ashwin. You’re the rajah the people deserve.”
He sniffs hard. “Come back soon. And be safe.”
He kisses my cheek and then goes, dragging his heels.
I slump over myself and stare at my bag. What do I even pack? I open my wardrobe closet, and there on the bottom shelf rests my old slingshot. The relic of my upbringing in the Sisterhood temple has been retired. Much has changed since I wielded it. I am so overwhelmed by the task of acquiring a god’s aid that I wish I had never entered the world of men and was still sheltered in my ignorance.
That woman is gone now, and I cannot go back. I can only move forward, regardless of how difficult. The gods’ temple might as well be the sun for how likely I am to reach it, but Deven found me night after night. I can search the unknown to locate this temple. Because if the Void exists, so must Ekur.
A steady flow of feet travels the palace corridors. By some mercy, I venture outside without a single hello and dash down a path shaded by eucalyptus trees. The supplies in my pack are minimal: warm clothes, water flask, hair comb, and a sketch of Deven.
At the rear of the palace, I reach the stables. The long, narrow outbuilding has several archways under domed roofs, stalls that house the imperial elephants. My nose itches from the scent of manure. In an adjacent riding arena, Parisa leads a bull elephant along the fence line. She visits the stables often to assist the trainers due to her gentle hand with the animals.
I pass behind the riding yard to a canopy crafted of poles and palm fronds. The temporary aviary shields Tinley’s mahati falcon from the sun. As I anticipated, Tinley saddles her bird, Chare, in preparation to patrol the sand dunes.
“Going somewhere?” Tinley asks without turning around.
“I’d like you to fly me to the Alpanas,” I reply. Tinley pivots and awaits my explanation. “I have to find the gods’ temple and ask for guidance through the Void.”
Many believe Ekur is hidden in the northern Alpana Mountains, yet I quickly grasp how ludicrous this sounds.
“I’ve patrolled those mountains often,” says Tinley, tugging on her gloves. “The weather is moody and the northern wind is a trickster. Finding anything there will be a challenge.”
“You would save me a lot of time,” I press. On horseback, the trip takes weeks.
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