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I stood outside the home, watching as the light beaded and dripped down the length of the Tapestry thread. I waited. There was never any rush. Not for me at least.
The light dangled from the end of the string, clinging and reluctant. A passing wind stirred the ends of the thread, teasing out strands of memory. The memories plumed into the air, releasing the scent of a life lived in love. One by one, the memories unraveled—a pillow shared by two heads bent close in secrecy, a frayed blanket kept inside an eternally empty cradle, a table that sagged from the weight of uncertain feasts. Happiness stolen from the edges of sorrow.
I stepped over the threshold.
The lights in the hut extinguished. Shadows slipped off the walls to gather around my feet. Inside the hut, someone had propped up a stingy fire. Cinnamon scented the air. Past the dusty vestibule, rows upon rows of bay leaves hung from the ceiling. Strange runes scratched into small animal bones and ivory hairpins lay in carefully constructed patterns. I laughed. Someone had tried to ward me away. But there was no door that didn’t open to me.
At the far corner of the house huddled two people. A man in the arms of a woman. Old age had blessed him, yet for all his gnarled veins and silver-streaked hair, the woman cradled him as if he were a child. He murmured softly into the crook of her neck. I watched them. She wasn’t crying.
The woman looked up … and saw me.
“Greetings, Dharma Raja,” said the woman in a clear voice.
I took in the bay leaves and bone pins. “You were expecting me, I take it.”
“Yes,” she said, hanging her head. “I regret that I cannot serve you any food or drink or treat you as a guest in our home.”
“Don’t let it trouble you,” I said, waving my hand. “I am rarely a guest. Merely an inevitable occurrence.”
Her husband did not stir in her arms. His breath had grown soft. While the woman had kept her eyes trained on me, I had taken away his pain, siphoned it bit by bit. I was in a generous mood.
“You have come for him.”
“As I will for you, one day. I could tell you the hour, if you wish it.”
I shrugged. “Very well.”
She clutched him tighter. Her hands trembled. I knew she could feel his life unspooling. She may have seen me, but she did not see his life pooling beneath him.
“May I ask something of you, Dharma Raja?”
But I need not honor it.
“We always wished to leave this life together.”
“I cannot change your appointed time, even if I wished.”
She closed her eyes. “Then may I request, instead, that you not let him pass to the next life until I may join him there?”
Now this was interesting. I sank backward into the air, and an onyx throne swirled up to meet me. I tilted my head, watching her.
“Why? I haven’t weighed your life yet. What if you were far more honorable than your husband in this life? I could pour your soul into the mold of a princess blessed with beauty and intellect, riches and wonders. I could add silver to your heart and fortify you from any heartbreak. I could give you a life worthy of legends.”
She shook her head. “I would rather have him.”
“You’d rather have him, and whatever life that entails?” I leaned forward, eyeing the dingy room.
Her eyes flashed. “Yes.”
“He may not even come back as a human. Believe me. I’ve remade emperors into cockroaches and cockroaches into kings. You seem like a reasonably intelligent woman. Would you truly like to keep house for a bug?”
She lifted her chin. “I would be his mate in any form.”
A curious emotion prickled my skin, nudging the back of my thoughts. My hands tightened on the shadow throne. Before I could stop myself, the question flew from me:
“Because I love him,” said the woman. “I would prefer any life with him than any life without him. Even the deities know love to the point that they will chase their counterpart through thousands of lifetimes. Surely you, oh Dharma Raja, understand how extraordinary love can be?”
I knew very well what could come of love. I had seen it. Been cursed by it. Even now, I thought of her. The way she ran away and left a shadow in her place. Love was extraordinary.
“Bold words,” I said.
“They do not move you?”
I shrugged. “You may appeal and supplicate and wheedle as you wish, but I have heard every excuse and plea and sputter, and my heart has never been moved.”
The woman bowed her head. She gathered her husband to her chest. Her wedding bangles clanked together, breaking the silence. When I left, custom dictated that she must remove those wedding ornaments. Widows did not wear such bracelets. I had not considered until now that the sound itself was a thing near death. And that chime—gold against gold—struck me far louder than any keening. In the echoes, I heard something hollow. And lonely.
I dropped the noose. It slid through the man’s skin, noiseless as silk. Life had left him. All that was left was his soul.
You never forget what it’s like to withdraw a soul. It is an unclasping. Sometimes a soul is tough and hard, surrounded by sinews of memories gone brittle with age. Sometimes a soul is soft and bursting like wind-fallen fruit, all bruised tenderness and stale hope. And sometimes a soul is an ethereal shard of light. As if the force of its life is a scorching thing.
This soul belonged to light.
When the woman looked down, she knew that her husband was gone. The thing she cradled was nothing more than meat soon to spoil. Tears slid down her wrinkled cheeks.
“Come now,” I said, standing from the throne. “I have taken husbands when their wives still wore the henna from their wedding. I consider you lucky.”
“I beg of you,” she said. “Don’t let him move on without me. He would have asked the same.”
I swung the soul into a satchel and the light faded. I headed for the door, more out of formality than anything else. If I wanted, I could’ve disappeared right then and there.
“Please. What would you do for someone you loved?”
I stopped short. “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure of that provocation.”
“You love no one?” she asked, her eyebrows rising in disbelief.
“I love myself. Does that count?”
And then I left.
* * *
I had lied when I told the woman I loved nothing.
Standing in front of Naraka—taking in the flat gray lands and stone trees, the crests of mountains like jagged teeth, and the night sky stretching its stars above my palace—I felt the closest thing to love. Night understood me. Night held the promise of secrets slinking in the shadows, of things that conjured fear and bewitched the sight. Nothing was more beautiful than a night sky dusted with stars. Nothing was more terrible than a night sky scrawled with a thousand destinies.
Night was inevitable. Like me.
Yelping and the scratching of paws greeted me the moment I walked inside the palace. My hounds snuffled the folds of my cloak, whining loudly.
“Souls are not chew toys.” I sighed.
They huffed, slinking away to the shadows. If they were upset now, they would soon forget. My hounds were my usual representatives to the worlds above and surrounding Naraka. They fetched the souls too stained to lure me aboveground. They’d taken queens from their deathbeds and maidens from the throes of childbirth, soldiers in war and priests at their altars. I was certain they’d find a murderer among the dead to rend and chew with perfect contentment.
I envied them. They could forget what had upset them. But I saw the reminder of what had unsettled me in the empty hallways and silent vestibules, in the solemn and in the eternal. Everywhere.
Envying a mortal and now a beast? Pitiful.
Gupta walked into the hall, his arms full of parchments.
“How was it?” he asked.
“Normal. Less tears than I expected. The wife could see me, though, and she asked for a boon.”
“Did you grant it?”
“I’m undecided on whether I should.”
Gupta stepped back, brows crumpling. “You look—”
“Record keeping is ruining your eyes.”
“Well, one can hope.”
“If anything, record keeping has made me more observant,” said Gupta.
We started walking down one of Naraka’s halls. A thousand mirrors glittered around us, reflecting cities and ports and seas. I never bothered to look at them anymore. There was nothing new to see in this world or any other.
“And what do you observe?”
The woman’s parting words flitted to mind. What would you do for someone you loved?
“Don’t let that trouble you. Probably just the reflection of your own mind.”
Gupta primly rearranged his papers. “When you decide to stop being a churlish infant, and talk to me about what’s bothering you, you know where to find me.”
“I am not bothered.”
“You are irritated for some reason,” he said loftily. “But I’m sure you’ll find the answer in the Tapestry.” He glanced down at his parchments, checking off names and underlining cities. “Anything else to tell me?”
“You have ink stains on your nose.”
Gupta shrugged. “Admittedly, I can be too close to my work.”
“Exactly how close? Do you roll around with the parchment afterward, murmur love songs to the paper, and profess your undying love for the written word?”
“I would never roll around in my parchment. It would get wrinkled.” Gupta turned to walk away before pausing. “Oh, I forgot…” He snapped his fingers. Ink splashed on my face. “You’ve got something on your nose.”
And then he stuck his tongue out at me, and disappeared.
* * *
The Tapestry was a lesson in light and dark. When I stood in the throne room, I felt the threads from a hundred lives pass over my palms, snagging and spinning against one another in an unfathomable web of cause and effect and balance. It was my duty to uphold the balance, to throw dark where there was too much light and sew light where the dark grew too thick. Sometimes the Tapestry showed me a life thread out of place. Sometimes it showed me forest fires approaching a village or a cure for a disease that the world should not yet see. Today it showed me … myself.
The threads shimmered like light upon water. My reflection changed, stretching into the halls of Naraka itself … the stone halls and the marble courtyards. Empty, empty, empty. The reflection quivered: an ivory counterpart to the onyx throne, a shadow curled around mine in the night, a voice that balanced and weighed. A garland of flowers placed around my neck. My heart tightened. I felt that image opening inside me, as if my whole life had been something lopsided in need of righting itself. The Tapestry’s demand knifed through me:
I needed a queen.
Once more, the threads twisted, and the sight wrapped tendrils of ice around my heart—the palace of Naraka split in half, the moon hanging in a torn sky. Without warning, the Tapestry fell back on itself, threads looping and dancing until it was still as a pool.
I sank into my throne, staring at the Tapestry. The message was vivid and vague at the same time. It wanted me to fill the halls, not with the dead, but with … a bride. I sat there. Numb. For years, I had considered the possibility of finding someone to share this gift and burden. But whenever I closed my eyes, I saw her. The way her eyes had squinted against the brightness of the Sun Palace. The shadow she left standing in the doorway as she fled. Wearing her smile. Wearing her eyes. Did she think I would not notice the substitute she had left behind? If I had stayed silent, I would have committed a grave injustice.
If I had stayed silent, I would never have been cursed.
The longer I sat there, the more the palace fidgeted. Annoyed. Perhaps it felt neglected in the past few days. Voices grew out of the floor, suddenly taunting and cruel.
Let us show you a jewel that is not yours.
Let us show you a door that will never open to you.
Let us show you a soul that you can never claim.
In the Tapestry, I saw a smile fashioned for me alone. A jewel that is not yours. I saw a man standing in a field, someone’s arms thrown around his neck as if she had created a hidden world just for them. A door you will never open. I saw two people walking with their fingers threaded together, and I felt transfixed by the impossible wonder of a bond so powerful that it was a living thing. A soul you can never claim.
I slammed down my fist. The sound trembled throughout the room, and small fissures netted their way down my onyx throne.
“Enough,” I said harshly.
I abandoned the Tapestry and the door slammed shut. My head throbbed. I knew what I had to do. Stepping into the hall, a familiar door winked in the half-light. Gupta called it my Inspiration Room, which sounded vapid, but I suspected he did this on purpose. The room was so much more. It was my thoughts poured into shape. The moment I stepped inside, a burden lifted from me. Here, I was not the Dharma Raja. Here, I was no destroyer.
Here, I was a creator.
The onyx floor expanded, and the shelves—littered with my old thoughts—bent forward as if in polite acknowledgement. Around me, I saw decisions that had weighed heavily in the past: all conquered, all organized.
In the corner of the room, a pair of heavy wings caught the light. Each feather was a braided bolt of lightning. On another shelf, a ship with an ever-changing prow crafted from an eclipse’s halo glowed. There were jars of materials floating in the air: the velvet-silent tread of panther paws on the forest floor, buttons of lies and garlands of nightmare teeth.
Even looking at them gave me peace. My creations served as reminders that my thoughts could be conquered and tamed. It was a reminder that even with all that I destroyed, I could create too. Even if no one was there to witness it.
I took a deep breath and tasted the crackling of magic on my tongue. I flexed my fingers, closed my eyes, and concentrated on the darkness.
Darkness has a sound if you know how to listen. Around me, darkness sounded like the roaring space between thoughts and the chaos of possibility. Nothing was born of light. Everything was born of shadows. I caught a ribbon of lustrous shadow notes and snatched it from the air. I twisted the dark in my hands, and thought of the Tapestry and the Shadow Wife’s curse. When I opened my eyes, I faced what my thoughts and energy had created:
A lustrous horse with milk-pearl eyes. It drew its lips back over its teeth and in the unshaped dark of its mouth, a city glinted—steel spires and iron trees, paved walkways of jasper and agate, squares of amber windows glittering in the makeshift night. A hidden world. The horse snorted, nipping at the charcoal shoulder of my sherwani jacket. The longer I stared, the more I saw it for what it could be. What made a thing a horse? The content or the shape? Was it somehow … both? And maybe that wasn’t so impossible. Maybe I could have a marriage and not a marriage. I could have a bond that looked like marriage, but have none of the inner workings that made its essential marriage-ness. My queen could have everything she wanted. Except my heart. I didn’t need the Tapestry before me to imagine what that future would look like: perfect equality, and perfect balance, with none of the intimacy. None of the risk. I would escape the Shadow Wife’s curse, and still keep Naraka whole.
I smiled to myself before realizing that a critical part was missing from my plan:
I needed a queen.
* * *
Gupta was hanging upside down in his favorite hallway, a bone-white corridor lined ceiling to floor with crackling tomes, glowing branches, and sweet-smelling parchments. He swung back and forth a little when he saw me.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, glaring. “Sometimes I need a new perspective when I’m writing.”
“I was not going to comment. I recognize a hopeless case when I see one.”
Gupta frowned at me upside down. “What do you want?”
“And I want dinner.”
“I’m serious.” He fell to the floor. I kicked at his foot. “Shocked?”
“Floored,” said Gupta, and then he cackled at his own joke.
“This is no time for humor. I need a queen. Now.”
“What brought this on?” asked Gupta, still not bothering to collect himself from the floor. “I believe I send you a list of prospective brides at least once a year. If memory serves, you burned each of those lists…”
“Not true. With the last couple of lists, I tossed them into the air…”
“You mean that tornado of paper that chased me down the hall?”
“See? I don’t set fire to everything,” I said. “Now to answer your question, it’s become a necessity because I’ve seen it in the Tapestry.”
Gupta paled. In a blink, he was upright, floating with his legs crossed and scribbling on parchment.
“But what about the…” He trailed off, and I knew what word had made him stumble.
“I found a way around the Shadow Wife’s curse.”
“Simple,” I said. “I won’t fall in love.”
Gupta raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
“Now I need to find out what—”
“Not what,” said Gupta. His gaze was unfocused, fixed somewhere on the cut of night sky through one of Naraka’s windows. “Where. And when.”
* * *
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been dragged to the Night Bazaar. It was the riotous, pulsing center of the Otherworld. Here, merchants peddled all manner of strange wares—bones that told the truth, rare blooms that toyed with memories, harps that sang their players’ emotions, and even edible colors shorn off from a single rainbow. It was a place I avoided as often as I could. Far too noisy. Full of simpering beings eager to pay false homage.
“What are we doing here?” I asked, ducking my chin to avoid making eye contact.
He cut a path through the merchant kiosks. From the corner of my eye, I spied a kinnara woman with bright gold feathers laying out a series of small weapons—bows and arrows that shifted diaphanous and half-invisible in the light; an apsara adjusted her anklets and threw her henna-stained hair over one shoulder; a bhut with its feet pointed backward peddled a cursed cup of alms. After years of walking leisurely—what was the point of running to something or someone when they could never escape you anyway—I found myself walking briskly. Impatiently.
And then, rising out from the crests of the merchant kiosks loomed a strange dais. Small birds carved of amber soared against a silk screen. Lotuses a violent shade of pink and purple released a drowsy perfume. I caught a whiff of it even where we stood and I drew my hood back. Desire. Heat coursed through me. Need gathered low and furious at the base of my skull. But I pushed back. When I chose a consort, those emotions would not drive me. If I had my way, we wouldn’t feel them at all.
“This is where you will find your bride in two months’ time.”
“What’s in two months?”
“Do you never keep track of holidays?”
“It’s going to be Teej in two months.”
My eyes must have widened because Gupta’s grin stretched widely.
“Not so brooding and hidden in the dark that you could forget what that means.”
Teej was the time when the members of the Otherworld selected a consort. Lovers would often arrange to meet and declare their choice of a consort by placing a single red bloom in their beloved’s palm. But there was a strange rule to Teej. A heavy samite curtain separated them from each other’s sight. Lovers would have to identify one another by the sight of their palm. Some didn’t bother with choosing a lover beforehand. They would peruse the line of assorted hands and choose the one that called to their soul.
“You expect me to make this momentous decision by chance and simply show up at Teej and let someone choose me? Based on my hand?”
“You could do that.”
I waited, then caught the smug tilt of his grin.
“Or?” I prompted through clenched teeth.
“Or you could take the two months you have available and find someone. And arrange to meet them at Teej.”
“What if the right one doesn’t come to Teej?”
Gupta scoffed. “Every Otherworld maiden will be at Teej. Trust me.”
Copyright © 2018 by Roshani Chokshi