io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “A Love Story Written on Water” by Ashok K. Banker. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
A Love Story Written on Water
Bhi’ash was a king of the Axe clan. Truthful and courageous, he was renowned for having performed one thousand Black Horse sacrifices and one hundred Fire sacrifices. For his devotion, upon his demise he attained entrance to the heavenly realms and was honored by the Stone Gods.
One day, Bhi’ash—accompanied by many other king-mages and some of the Stone Gods themselves—went to pay homage to Agar, the highest of Stone Gods. Jeel, queen of all rivers on Arthaloka, also came to pay her respects, clad, as always, in a flimsy garment as white as moonlight. Just as she presented herself before Agar, a wind blew away her insubstantial garment and she was left completely exposed.
Embarrassed, all present averted their faces, except for King Bhi’ash who found himself unable to avoid admiring Jeel’s beauty.
Aware of his unabashed gaze, Jeel felt her emotions stir and was curious as to who this king-mage might be who dared to look upon her undaunted when even the Stone Gods had lowered their eyes.
As Bhi’ash continued to stare at her nakedness, completely lost in contemplation of her beauty, Agar took offense at his rudeness. “Shameless one, for this you shall be reborn once again in the mortal realm.” But because his sin was only a minor one, the Creator also decreed that once that mortal life was ended, Bhi’ash would once again attain the heavenly realms. Bhi’ash did not protest or object to the punishment, which only increased Jeel’s curiosity. He only asked Agar, with a humility that was ironic considering the boldness of his request, if he could be born as the son of a great ruler in his own lineage. After seeking a suitable candidate, he proposed King Shapaar. His request was granted and he prepared to descend one last time to the mortal realm to accept his danda, or karmic punishment, without complaint.
After a last glance at her admirer who had willingly accepted punishment for the simple act of gazing at her, Jeel departed the court of the Stone God.
Around this time, a similar penalty had been imposed upon the eight Vessas. These divine dwellers in the heavenly realms had committed a grave error and as a result were also cursed to take rebirth in human form on Arthaloka for a single lifetime.
The great Lord Mage Kenikyu, son of Vrrun, lived upon Mount Coldheart, king of mountains. In that idyllic place, he performed his austerities and sacrifices. Needing a plentiful supply of ghee to offer, he sought out a cow. He appealed to Sage Yapashk, who fathered upon Rabhi, daughter of Shask, a magical cow capable of fulfilling every desire. Despite her magical properties, Kenikyu only used the cow sparingly to obtain the milk product he required for his sacrificial offerings.
One day, the divine Vessas came to Mount Coldheart. It was common for Stone Gods, seer-mages, and other divine personages to rove the idyllic forests of Mount Coldheart. The Vessas came with their wives and made love upon that scenic slope. Afterwards, wandering near the hermitage of Kenikyu, the wife of Kwayg chanced upon the magical cow. Realizing by the power of her own divinity as well as the cow’s extraordinary qualities that it was no common animal, she tested its nature. She was astonished by its powers and rushed back to her husband. Kenikyu was away at this time. Urged by his wife, Kwayg came to see the cow and was equally amazed by its celestial beauty and powers. He saw the hermitage and immediately knew that it was Kenikyu’s. He told his wife, “I know of this divine cow. It belongs to Runya’s son, Kenikyu, who lives here. Apart from its ability to produce anything one desires, this creature’s milk grants anyone who drinks it ten thousand years of undiminished youth!”
Hearing this, the wife of Kwayg was struck by a thought. Her dearest friend Jinnavati, daughter of King-Mage Shianarr, was the most beautiful young woman and dearly desired to retain her youth and beauty forever. “How wonderful it would be if we could give to her this cow’s milk to drink. She would be able to stay young and lovely always!” The only way to do so would be to take the cow as well as its calf to Jinnavati, in order to draw the milk fresh before drinking. Kwayg was hesitant but his wife seduced him with amorous promises and he succumbed. With the help of the eldest Vessa Thuir and their other brothers, they stole the cow and her calf and took her to Nnava’s domicile.
Kenikyu had left the hermitage to collect fruits. When he returned and found the cow and calf missing, he grew concerned for their welfare. Worried they might have gotten loose of their tethers, he searched for them in the forest. But when he could not find them anywhere, he knew something was amiss. Resorting to his divine sight, he perceived that they had been stolen by the Vessas to please one of their wives. Enraged, he cursed the Vessas. As divine beings who had never set foot on Arthaloka, the worst punishment possible for them was to be sent down to the mortal realm where they could never enjoy the same powers and pleasures they enjoyed here in heaven. Therefore he cursed them to be reborn in human form for a single lifetime.
Feeling the effect of the curse, the Vessas raced back to Mount Coldheart. They prostrated themselves before Kenikyu and pleaded for clemency. But for a very long time, he remained adamant. Finally, acknowledging that all of them were not equally responsible for the transgression, he modified his curse. “As you only did your brother’s bidding, you will be permitted to return to the heavenly realms after spending a year on Arthaloka. But Kwayg, who was fully aware of his crime, shall remain in the world of men for the entire duration of his mortal lifetime. In addition, because he was seduced into committing this crime by promises of amorous pleasure, therefore he shall be denied the pleasure of cohabitation during his time on the mortal plane. He shall remain celibate and shall sire no offspring. He may devote himself to the pursuit of Krushan law in order to learn right from wrong, and attain skill in the use of weapons, remaining always among men and neither gaining pleasure from nor giving satisfaction to women.”
Remorseful and stricken, the Vessas left the heavenly realms and were making their way to the mortal world when they met Jeel, who had only just departed the Stone God’s court. She heard their voices and saw their agitated state and enquired what the matter was. They told her the story. She sympathized with their plight and told them of King Bhi’ash, who had just been sentenced with the same penalty, albeit for a different reason.
When the Vessas heard that Bhi’ash was to be reborn as Sha’ant, the son of King Shapaar in the great line of Krushan, they saw an opportunity. “Great goddess of the river, grant us your grace. We have never entered the womb of a mortal woman before. Our divinity shall be diminished if we do so now. You are the purest epitome of womanhood in all the worlds. Descend upon Arthaloka and allow us to be born as your children.”
Jeel had sympathy for the plight of the Vessas but she was hesitant for one reason. “In order to do as you wish, I would have to cohabit with a mortal man. His seed would have to enter my womb.”
“Let the man be this same Emperor Sha’ant in whose mortal body Bhi’ash will take rebirth. Sha’ant is destined to be a great king and Bhi’ash’s illustriousness is already legendary. We would be honored to have such a personage sire us in the mortal world.”
Jeel thought of the way Bhi’ash had stared openly and unashamedly at her nakedness in the Stone God’s court and also of the powerful emotions that had stirred within herself when she returned his unabashed gaze. There had been a great sharing of erotic energy between them at the time, and she could still feel her loins stir with desire for him. If she consented to help the Vessas, she would have an opportunity to copulate with Bhi’ash in his mortal form as Sha’ant, and fulfill her suppressed desires. It would not be for selfish fulfillment but for a righteous cause.
She agreed to do as the Vessas requested. “Very well. I will agree to cohabit with Emperor Sha’ant on Arthaloka and give birth to you. But once born, you will have to live out your lives as mortal men. Is that acceptable to you?”
The Vessas discussed the matter and said, “Seven of us are permitted to return home after spending one year on the mortal plane. Therefore, all you need do is to hurl each of your newborn sons into your own waters after birth. Through your divine channel, which connects all three worlds, we shall ascend back to heaven. Cruel as this may seem, it is in fact a blessed release, for to stay mortal is greater suffering for us than for mortal children to be drowned at birth.” They added wistfully, “Only our brother Kwayg shall have to remain on Arthaloka for the entire span of his mortal life. That is part of the curse.”
“It is good,” Jeel said thoughtfully, thinking of Sha’ant. “Slaying the seven of you may release your souls for ascension, but it deprives Sha’ant of his sons. This way, at least one will remain with him to be his heir.”
“It shall be so,” they agreed, “but there are certain conditions. The eighth son cannot have children of his own or mate with any woman.”
Jeel nodded sadly. “If that is what the curse demands, so be it.”
King Shapaar was a deeply devout man. He spent every moment he could spare in meditation. His favorite spot was a certain place on the banks of the Jeel. One day while he sat cross-legged, lost in silent contemplation, Jeel rose in human form. Emerging from the river in droplets and spray that coalesced to form the shape and solidity of a human woman, she stepped onto the bank and approached Shapaar. So absorbed was he in meditation, he did not notice her approach. So she sat on his right thigh.
Opening his eyes, Shapaar was unperturbed by this sudden appearance of a beautiful woman. As a king and a warrior, he had seen and experienced all the ways of the world. He asked Jeel kindly, “Blessed Goddess, what is your desire?”
Jeel replied coyly, “I desire you, great king. Take me and love me. I offer myself freely of my own will. I am brimming with desire and cannot be spurned.”
Any other man might well have accepted her without question or further comment, but Shapaar was a spiritual man more concerned with seeking the delights of the soul than the pleasures of the flesh. “Lady, you are beautiful and desirable. But I do not know you. I cannot cohabit with any woman without knowing her in some detail. It would be against Krushan law.”
Jeel replied, “Making love to me can never be forbidden or against Krushan law. This much I assure you. I bear no ill will or malice towards you, and have no ulterior motives. I genuinely desire union with you. Love me as I wish to love you.”
But still Shapaar resisted temptation. “In that case, you are greatly desirable, that I cannot deny. But alas, you have chosen to seat yourself on my right thigh. That is reserved for daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters. If you desired to have pleasure with me, you should have seated yourself on my left thigh, as that is the proper place for a lover to seat herself. This choice suggests that it is not appropriate for us to cohabit, no matter how great your desires. It would most certainly be against Krushan law and I cannot condone that.”
Jeel was not disappointed, for she had known all along what she was doing. “O king, you say the right thigh is the proper seat for a daughter-in-law. Therefore make me your daughter-in-law. Unite me with your son. I am sure a king as magnificent as you are in appearance and wisdom will have an equally illustrious son. It would be my privilege to mate with him and add my contribution to the famous Krushan line.”
“So be it,” said Shapaar gladly. “However, wise and insightful as you are, you must also know that I have no son and heir as yet.”
“I do know this,” Jeel admitted. “Yet I am of divine nature and can wait as long as need be without aging or losing my beauty. Therefore I shall gladly wait until you sire a son, for I have decided that he alone shall satisfy my desires. Whenever you have a son and he becomes of marriageable age, bring him here to this very spot and I shall appear to offer myself as his mate. I shall bear him many sons and enhance the reputation and glory of your dynasty, of this you can be assured.”
“It shall be as you say, divine one,” Shapaar said, understanding that a being of great power was blessing his lineage.
Jeel rose to leave, then paused and turned briefly. “King Shapaar, I ask only that you do not reveal my divine nature to your son. Do not tell him who I am, even if you suspect the truth yourself. Also tell him that if he wishes me to bless your bloodline, then he must never question what I do, no matter what the circumstances. These are the only two conditions I lay upon you. If they are acceptable to you, then know that your descendants shall be blessed with divine power and fame as a result of this union.”
Shapaar accepted all her conditions and watched as she walked slowly from the bank onto the rushing waters of the river. She stepped across the raging surface of the Jeel as if she were stepping on kusa grass. Dolphins leaped and sang in greeting, turtles swam around her in homage, and her power over the river was evident. When she was in mid-river, her body itself turned to water and fell back into the spate from whence it had come, leaving only her clear grey eyes lingering in mid-air for a moment. Then they too melted into spray and were absorbed by the river. The sound of the Jeel’s roar filled Shapaar’s ears once more and in its steady torrent, he recognized the voice of the beautiful stranger who had accosted him. But he kept this knowledge of her divinity and true identity a secret within his heart for all time and spoke of it to no one.
In time, Shapaar and his wife performed austerities to obtain the blessing of an heir. Despite their advanced age, a son was born to them. This was in fact Bhi’ash reborn under the terms of his danda. Shapaar’s son came to be known as Sha’ant, because he was created after his father had achieved the state of quietude, Shanti, and gained control of his senses. Indeed, the moment he knew he had a son and heir, Shapaar began preparing him for kingship, and himself for retirement.
Sha’ant grew up to become a magnificent young prince, intelligent, well-versed in Krushan law, and an expert archer. When he was of age, his father summoned him to the throne chamber and sent away everyone else. When they were alone, he confided in Sha’ant. “My son, your mate in life has been pre-ordained.”
Sha’ant was an obedient son who was willing to do whatever was asked of him. “Father, if you have chosen a wife for me, I am sure she is no less than Sri herself descended on Arthaloka. Whomever you choose is acceptable to me.”
Shapaar was pleased by his son’s response, but this was no ordinary arranged match he was referring to. He attempted to explain, choosing his words carefully in keeping with Jeel’s wishes. “The match is somewhat unorthodox,” he admitted to his son. “For one thing, you cannot ask who she is, nor seek any knowledge of her family, lineage, background, or any other details of her life.”
Sha’ant was surprised but did his best to be supportive. “Your word is law for me, father,” he replied. Though he did wonder at the strangeness of an arranged marriage wherein nothing was known about the bride or her family background.
Shapaar clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder. Even at his young age, Sha’ant had a neck that the court scribes described as being “as thick as a conch shell” and shoulders and arms as strong “as elephant tusks.” The exaggerations were not far off the mark; Sha’ant took pride in building his own strength and his many activities kept his body fit and strong. Shapaar had no doubt the boy would grow up to be a great warrior and a conqueror of his enemies. It was Sha’ant’s judgement as a lover and husband that now concerned him.
“All you need know,” Shapaar said, “is that she is no ordinary woman. Her beauty is extraordinary, and you will find great pleasure in her company. You shall enjoy great satisfaction in her charms.”
Sha’ant was not sure how to react to his father’s description of a woman in such terms, so chose to say nothing. But his father’s next words frankly shocked him.
“She first offered herself to me,” Shapaar confessed, “a long time ago. I refused only because I did not deem it appropriate.”
Sha’ant could not contain his curiosity. His princely upbringing and teachings urged him to remain silent but the boy in him got the better of his grooming. “Why, father?” he asked. “If she was such a great beauty, why did you refuse her?”
Shapaar smiled a wistful smile. “I loved your mother well enough for one lifetime. Carnal pleasure was never a great attraction for me. It is the spiritual delights of the mind that attract me far more than those of the flesh. But also, the signs were not right.” He frowned, staring into the distance thoughtfully. “Indeed, looking back on that day, I later thought . . .”
“I thought perhaps she intended not to seduce me, but only pretended to do so. It was you she was after all along.”
“Me?” Sha’ant was flabbergasted by the idea of a woman pretending to seduce his father in some past time in order to seduce him at some future date. “But that makes no sense at all. You said this happened before I was even born!”
Shapaar nodded. “That is why I know, and you know as well, that she could be no ordinary woman. No ordinary mortal woman. Do you follow my meaning?”
Sha’ant did. His father was suggesting that the mystery woman was some kind of . . . goddess? Avatar of a goddess? A serapi or harva perhaps? They were considered supremely beautiful. “Who do you think she—”
Shapaar raised a finger, his wrinkled face turning severe. “Enough. No more questions about her. That is a firm condition she insisted upon. This is why I had this talk with you, so that you would understand and accept these terms before you went to her.”
Sha’ant glanced around, his emotions roused. “Where is she then?”
“First promise that you are ready to accept her conditions.” Shapaar spelled them out clearly and carefully for his son.
Sha’ant considered for a moment: Mate with a woman who was clearly of divine or otherworldly origin, unspeakably breathtaking to look upon—if she could have such an effect even on his ascetic father she must truly be a legendary beauty—and capable of giving a man immense carnal pleasure, who wished to confer herself on him, indeed, had desired him since even before he was born, and produce beautiful, magnificent children with her, of whom one would rule his kingdom someday and be a legendary and historical king of the Krushan? What was there to consider? Except . . . he desperately wished to know who she was and what was her purpose in seeking him for so long. What part did he play in this divine game? But that was the first and most important condition: He could never ask who she was or anything else about her.
He hesitated only briefly, but for a boy of his impetuous age and great appetites, even that hesitation was a foretelling of things to come. Perhaps I shall find a way to learn her secret without her knowing, he thought to himself, to know everything without breaking the promise. Yes, I am sure I shall be able to do so. For he was a prince of a great empire, heir to the Burning Throne, and of the age when anything seems possible, even the most extraordinary feat imaginable.
Aloud, he said simply: “I agree.”
Soon after this curious conversation, King Shapaar installed Sha’ant upon the Burning Throne and retired to the forest with his wife, where they spent the rest of their days in pursuit of spiritual ascension.
Sha’ant went on to fulfill all the promise of his childhood and youth, becoming a powerful young king. Intelligent and gifted with many physical skills, he grew renowned for his archery. Like many kings of his line, he spent his spare time hunting in the forest. His favorite game were deer and buffalo.
One day, while hunting alone on the banks of the Jeel, he encountered a vision: The most beautiful woman he had ever seen seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere. He had been watching the bank carefully, tracking a deer, and she could not possibly have come from the treeline, which meant she must have come from the river, but there was no sign of boat or raft. One look at her and it suddenly failed to matter where she had come from. She was the supreme epitome of womanhood, comparable to the great Stone Goddess herself, as that great deity was described in puranas and tales of gods and demons. Her physical form was perfect in every respect, with not a single fault or blemish. When she smiled at him, her teeth flashed white, brilliant and perfect. Her face was so beautiful, he could have gazed at her all day and never tired of looking at her. Enhancing her beauty further, she was dressed in golden bejewelled ornaments of a design he had never seen before, scintillating pieces of great workmanship and art. Her splendid body was barely concealed by flimsy translucent garments that swirled around her in the gentle lotus-fragrant wind from the river.
At the sight of her, Sha’ant’s every hair stood on end, and he dropped his bow as well as the arrow he had been holding. He was stunned by the sight of her. Even more astonishing than her beauty was the fact that she gazed at him with a look that bordered on pure adoration. She came closer, her diaphanous garments moving about her as her ripe, full body undulated with each step, and as she approached, he could see that the look in her eyes was nothing less than pure wanton lust. Her own gaze moved up and down his own body, admiring his masculine figure and assets. Never before had he been admired so boldly by a woman, never before had he looked so unabashedly upon a woman of such perfection.
“Who are you?” he asked in a voice hoarse with desire. “Are you a god perhaps? An urrkh? Harva, serapi, shael, or pannacron?” Belatedly it occurred to him to add, “Are you human at all? You cannot be! Human, I mean. You are surely a goddess of some kind.”
Through all these questions, and the spaces between them, spaces in which he could hear nothing but the thundering of his own waves of lust washing upon the shore of his mind counterpointed by the roaring of the Jeel in spate, she remained silent. Only the wanton abandon in her eyes and the sultry movements of her body, clearly aimed at arousing him further, served as her replies.
Finally, he said, “Goddess or otherwise, whoever you are, please be mine!”
He said these words gently, not in command. And as he said them, he moved slowly towards her, raising his hands in a gesture of wanting, of pleading.
She smiled slowly, and he could not help but smile back, and that simple act of exchanging smiles seemed as intense and satisfying as coupling with most other women. He realized then that he had never truly known love, desire, or lust—not until now. What he felt now, this was true desire, real lust, and perhaps true love. He knew only that he wanted her and was willing to pay any price to have her in his bed, in his life. At that precise moment, so consumed was he by his desires, he did not even recall the prophecy that Shapaar had made before leaving for the forest: “She will come to you one day, and change your life forever.” Only much later that night, looking back on the day, would he remember those words his father had spoken, and realize that this was that day, and this the very woman. His body, his nerves, his heart and his organs of desire, they all knew what his conscious mind had yet to accept at the moment of meeting: this was she. The one who had promised to come for him, who had been waiting since long before his own birth. And suddenly everything made sense.
“I shall be yours only in marriage,” she replied softly, her voice as musical as the song of the river itself. “And only on the conditions your father laid down. Do you recall those conditions? Can you promise them to me once more? If you can make those little promises and abide by them, we can be married this very day and spend this night itself together, as man and wife.”
Sha’ant swallowed. Nervousness was never one of his traits. A strong, powerful man with great gifts of mind and body, he had been raised without reason to doubt himself or his abilities. Yet before this vision of a woman, he felt tongue-tied and as nervous as an errant disciple before a stern guru. “Yes,” he said softly.
She smiled. And took a step closer. Now he could smell her fragrance, the soft musky perfume of womanhood mingled with something undefinable: It smelled like the river itself, lotus and fresh glacial water and the Coldheart Mountain wind that travelled down with it. It was intoxicating as soma and almost drove him to his knees. It was all he could do not to crush her in his arms and have his way with her there and then. And from the look of mischievous teasing in her own lustful eyes, he knew that she was well aware of the effect she had on him.
“Let me repeat it for our mutual benefit,” she said, stepping slowly around him, like a bride around the sacred Stonefire at the time of wedding nuptials. “You shall never ask me who I am or whence I come. You shall never question anything I do or try to stop me. You shall never even speak harshly to me of those acts or attempt to dissuade me by word or tone of voice, gesture or expression. So long as you give me complete freedom to do as I please and go where I please to do it, I shall be your queen and make your every desire a reality. The instant you break these vows, I shall leave you and you shall never see me again in this form.”
He did not know if she had circumambulated him once, twice, thrice, or more. All he knew was that she had now stopped, and was before him once again, her body, her beauty, her face, her voice, all driving him to unbearable heights of lustful longing. “Give me your answer now or go your own way,” she said. “The choice is yours. I shall not repeat myself nor come before you again if you refuse.”
At this he paused. So he had a choice. That was good. Some part of him, the most kingly, mature part, the part that had been schooled so thoroughly in Krushan law, that still sane part whispered that it was a fair offer: He was free to reject it and go his own way. There was no coercion involved.
Of course, sometimes the most powerful form of coercion is the illusion of free will itself. Thus does destiny tempt and seduce us time and again. I chose, we say proudly. But what other choice did we truly have?
He could refuse her conditions. They were strange, unacceptable conditions. It did not matter whether they were being demanded by a woman or a man; what spouse could demand unconditional acceptance of any act of commission by their spouse? Without fear of censure, without even the power to dissuade or comment? That was not a marriage; it was an autocracy!
He desired her more than he had desired any woman before. Or anything.
He wanted her.
He must have her.
And she wanted him just as badly. That was evident in her eyes, her body, her every movement, the gentle shudder she released when her hip had accidentally brushed against his rear as she circumambulated him. The quick intake of breath when she leaned closer to him and spoke her most recent words. The blazing flames of desire in her eyes. Those could not be feigned so well. She desired him and had carried the torch of desire aflame and alight for a great length of time. He was new to this. She had been waiting here a long time and her lust burned brighter and sharper for that long wait.
And within himself, he felt a stirring of some ancient memory. As if he too had seen her once before, and desired her. A memory, half-formed, of her in the same flimsy garments, wind-blown, then laid naked by a gust of wind. And he shuddered in the paroxysm of lust as he recalled the sight of her naked body. And he knew that his free will and choice were as good as no will or choice.
He must have her.
He would have her.
On any condition.
“Yes,” he said hoarsely.
“I accept,” he added.
And then he moved towards her, and she towards him, in a blurring of emotion and flame.
And the rest was white satin bliss.
The next several months of Sha’ant’s life passed in that same blurring rush of lust and fire, hot seminal passion spent upon cool satin skin. His nameless wife, whom everyone addressed simply as “Queen” or “Your Highness,” exchanged with him every manner of pleasure imaginable between man and woman. He had her whenever he desired, as often as he desired, with never a complaint, look of weariness, or gesture of denial. She was like a waterfall in spring, roaring with passion, brimming with desire, overflowing her banks with lust and love. Her body undulated between his hands and his hips like water poured into a human vessel, taking whatever shape he desired.
But she was not merely an adept lover; she was equally immaculate in her conveyance of the arts of queenship: Her conduct, behavior, speech, generosity, social skills, and royal bearing won the hearts of the entire court and the love of the people as well. Nobody could desire more in a queen, and even more amazingly, no one did. Nor was she dominating or interfering: She let him have his way with the kingdom as he did with her body, and yet somehow that only made him feel more responsible for his every action or word, more considered and just in his judgement, more exacting in his pursuance of Krushan law.
Those were golden days and they passed with the speed of a dolphin racing downriver. Even the kingdom flourished, for the rich alluvial plains of the kingdom, nourished by the Jeel and her sister rivers, seemed to pour bounty upon them, producing the most plentiful crop ever recorded, and the most bounteous quality of harvest.
When she gave him the news that she was to be the mother of his child, he was overjoyed. It was the diamond atop her tiara of accomplishments. He knew she would be a perfect mother just as she was perfect in all else she did. And she would give him the most beautiful, intelligent and capable child ever.
He sighed and lay back against the ornate golden rack of the enormous bedstead. They were laying in their bedchamber after a session of lovemaking. The moonlight was soft on the marbled floor, the wispy curtains fluttered in a cool night breeze, and somewhere a nightbird was singing to its mate a song of sweet sad love. His life was perfect and about to be enhanced by the arrival of a new level of perfection: parenthood.
“How long?” he asked, smiling up at the curved ceiling, inlaid with precious stones and carvings.
“Soon,” she said.
He assumed she meant a few months. He had heard that women often did not show their condition of motherhood until several months after conception. He did not know the exact numbers, but he knew that the total gestation was about ten moon-months, so he assumed she meant three or four or five months still would pass before she was to give birth.
“When our child is born,” he said, “we shall have a grand celebration. I shall declare a feast day. There shall be—”
And he went on to describe all the wonderful things that would be done to mark the occasion of his first child. He did not even assume it would be a boy, merely that it would be his child, their child, and that was enough happiness for now. If it did indeed turn out to be a son, well, that would also satisfy the legal requirements of producing an heir and fell two deer with a single bow-shot. In which case, he would also . . . And he rambled on, spelling out the various things that he would be expected to do if it was a son and heir to the kingdom.
When he looked around, wondering why she had not spoken for a while or participated in his plans, he was surprised to see her gone from the chamber. Evidently, she had walked away while he was still speaking and he had no idea whether she had left a moment ago or several moments earlier.
Puzzled, he rose and walked through their chambers, expecting to find her at any moment. His search took him all the way to the queen’s apartments where he was surprised to find an old flinty-faced woman barring his way.
“My apologies, your highness,” she said, “The queen cannot receive you at this time.”
He frowned. “I don’t understand. She was with me only a short while ago.” He resisted addressing her as “daiimaa,” even though he knew she was a wet nurse.
The old woman looked up at him with a strange inscrutable expression. “It is her time, sire. She must be alone.”
He had no idea what she meant. “Time? What time?”
She gazed up at him with the same infinitely patient look which all aging wet nurses seemed to reserve for princes and yuvarajas. “A woman’s time, my lord. Her confinement.”
He stared at her. “Confinement?” He had heard of this before. “You mean to tell me that she is with child. Yes, I know this already. I wish to see her and have words with her.”
But she raised a hand as he tried to step around her. “Please, sire, I dare not bar your way, but she bade me tell you personally that if you enter her chambers now, you do so against her will and thereby break your promise.” The daiimaa swallowed nervously and joined her palms together. “I am only repeating my mistress’s message. Please, do not judge me harshly for it.”
“No, of course not,” Sha’ant said, irritated by her obsequiousness and her sudden concern. He was not the sort of king who went about ordering the execution of wet nurses simply because they prevented him from . . . from what exactly? Bursting in on his own wife while she was pregnant with his child? He could not fathom how there could be anything objectionable in that. But he knew that the mysteries of women’s bodies, especially those mysteries they chose to keep to themselves, were sacred and unassailable. And those words by the wet nurse—“if you enter her chambers now, you do so against her will and thereby break your promise”—had chilled him to the bone.
So it had begun at last. The things that she chose to do which he could neither question, comment upon, criticize by word, deed, gesture or expression, and never stop her from doing herself. This was apparently the first.
She intended to confine herself to her chambers for the duration of the pregnancy and only see him . . . when would she see him again? After the birth of their child? Months from now? He felt a surge of panic, as an addict of soma feels when told that there would be no further supply of his precious honey wine for an untold length of time. Months? He could not stay without her for months! Not like this, without even being able to see her, speak with her, touch her!
“How long do these things usually last?” he asked tentatively, not looking directly at the wet nurse because he was quite sure that she had been one of his many wet nurses in his infancy, which meant he had probably suckled at her wet teats at some time and it embarrassed him to be asking questions that reminded them both of that bond that linked them.
“In her state, your majesty,” he heard her reply with evident relief, “no more than a day or three. Perhaps even hours, if the goddess wills it.”
He had a moment of disorientation wherein he was confused about whether, by the term “goddess,” she meant his wife. But the earlier part of her reply obfuscated that query altogether. “You mean months, of course,” he said, certain that he must have heard her wrong. Of course she meant months. He had only just made love to his wife less than an hour earlier, and at that time her belly had been flat as ever. She could hardly conceive, gestate, and produce a child within a few hours! It was impossible.
Not to a goddess, he thought. And you know she is no ordinary mortal woman.
He looked at the wet nurse and saw her looking up at him strangely. “Why, no, your highness. She is almost ready! I saw her only moments ago, before she sent me out here to await you, and she was in the final stages of her laboring. The child has already turned and is coming soon. Perhaps even within the hour. The queen is blessed in her womanly perfection and it is possible she might deliver herself of your heir within—”
He turned on his heel and walked away, unable to listen to more.
A woman who had made love to her husband only an hour earlier, then told him she was with child, then came to her chambers and summoned her midwives to her, and was now “in the final stages of her laboring” and about to deliver herself of child “within the hour.”
But not for a goddess.
He went to his throne room rather than his bedchamber, and sat in the vast empty hall, upon the great seat where his father and ancestors had sat before him, surrounded by the might and splendor of the Krushan nation and the Krushan race.
And he waited.
It was all he could do.
The old daiimaa’s cry was cracked and heart-rending. She shambled in as quickly as she could, raising her arms in relief as she caught sight of the lone figure seated upon the throne at the far end of the hall.
“Come quickly!” she cried. “You must stop her!”
Sha’ant rose at once from his seat, soma spilling from the goblet, running over his hand. He cast the goblet aside and ran from the throne chamber. The palace corridors were brightly lit and there seemed to be people clustered everywhere, speaking in whispers—the atmosphere was tense and curiously unnatural. The night on which the heir to the Krushan line was born should be a bright, cheerful night, a night of feasting and revelry. But he sensed that the unusual circumstances of the birth had unnerved everyone, just as they had unnerved him.
He caught fragments of conversation as he raced through the corridors, the footfalls of his mandatory king’s guard echoing behind him: Yesterday . . . slender-waisted as a newlywed . . . today delivered of child . . . Unnatural . . . Uncanny . . . Impossible . . . All his own anxieties and fears spoken aloud, the echoes of the whispers filling the endless corridors of the great house.
He burst into his queen’s chambers, startling the wet nurses, all of whom were sitting or standing around in a state of distress. Some cried out as if fearing the entrance of some demon, but quickly silenced themselves perforce when they saw it was their king.
The sleeping chamber was in disarray, the usual evidence of childbirth—hot water vessels, towels and cloth, some blood and unguent bodily fluids drying stickily on the bedding. All the things one might expect after a queen had birthed a child.
There was no sign of his wife or the newborn life she had just released from her body.
The wet nurses avoided his eyes, looking down as if in shame.
“Where is she?” he thundered.
One woman, nervous but strong, younger than the old wrinkled one who had come to him in the throne room—and was no doubt still shuffling her old bones back here again—pointed to a doorway.
He leaped across the bed and went through the doorway.
Racing through antechambers and seemingly endless corridors, he found himself in an unfamiliar part of the palace: the bhojanalya where all meals were prepared. The bhojanalya staff, busy kneading, frying, grilling and roasting, turned to stare at their Emperor, suddenly appeared in their midst.
“Which way?” he shouted.
A fat young chef pointed.
Sha’ant went through the doorway and found himself in the rear courtyard, near the palace staff quarters.
There was no sign of her, but he knew that the gate ahead led outside the palace compound and from thence, out of the city.
But why would a newly delivered mother take her newborn and leave her bed, her home, and walk out of the city itself? It was madness, all madness.
Suddenly, he understood the reason why his father had forewarned him. He had been too young then to understand, had only thought of pleasure, of taking, of getting, of enjoying.
There was another side to such things; there always was. He had learned that painful lesson often as a king, and as a warrior and a commander of armies.
He was about to learn the same painful lesson now as a man.
Sha’ant leaped on the first horse he saw, throwing off the man who had been riding it. The man grunted in surprise as he fell, landing on his side with a thump, but recognized his king and bowed his head silently, joining his palms, making no complaint.
Sha’ant rode through the city, startling the few citizens out and about at this late hour. Most appeared to be milling about in groups near the palace complex. The word had surely spread about the queen delivering a child as well as of the strange circumstances surrounding the event. He glimpsed nervous faces turned up towards him as he flashed past. Until today, everyone had accepted the queen as she was, her considerable charm, wit, intelligence, eloquence, and numerous other good qualities negating the obvious mysteries: Who was she? From what family did she come? Where was her homeland? What was her name? But now, everyone’s unspoken doubts and suspicions had been proven true: The queen was no normal woman.
What that meant exactly, Sha’ant would soon discover.
From time to time, when people saw him coming and recognized him, they pointed the way the queen had gone. Some even called out to each other: “The king! The king! Show him where she went.” And others standing farther on the road lifted their hands and pointed.
He left the city behind and rode through the darkness of a moonless night, finding his way by instinct. Once outside the city avenues, there were a dozen different ways to go, depending on one’s destination. There were no citizens here to point the way—evidently none had wished to follow the queen on her strange night errand. But he was certain he knew where she had gone.
The place where they had first met, or close by.
He burst through the thicket, the horse exhausted, and ran out towards the river. He wanted to call out her name, but he knew of no name to call her. All the words that seemed so charming in the bedchamber—“Queen of my heart,” “Empress of passion,” “Sovereign of my body and soul”—he could hardly run about on the bank of the Jeel yelling such endearments.
He looked this way, then that, harried, at wits’ end, unable to understand what she could be doing here in the dead of night. More than that, he found it hard to believe that a woman who had just been delivered of child could have walked this long distance so briskly. He feared that perhaps he had come to the wrong place after all. Perhaps she had gone some other way, to the city of his enemies perhaps . . .
Then he saw her.
Exactly as she had been the day of their first encounter. Clad in the same white garments that swirled around her like white mist—or like the white spray flung by cascading waves. She clutched the baby in her arms, gently, lovingly, exactly as a mother should. She appeared as slender as ever, and as strong; neither her outward form appeared altered in any way, nor her inner resilience reduced a whit—indeed, she moved, even now, with that same sinuous grace that drove him mad with desire.
Except that this time, it was not desire she evoked in him, but awe and terror.
For she was not standing on the bank of the river.
She was standing upon the river itself.
The raging waters bore her weight as easily as solid ground. The fauna of the river, dolphins, turtles, fish of all sizes, broke surface around her, seemingly worshipping her.
She stepped gracefully out to the middle of the vast concourse, midway between banks, too far for him to reach even if he dove in and dared the swim.
She turned to face him.
Somehow, despite the lack of moonlight, he found he could see her face as clearly as if in daylight. The river itself seemed to glow with energy, a palpable power exuding a luminescence that illuminated her from below. In that glaucous light, she appeared more beautiful than ever, but forbidding as well, like a woman far, far older than the young nymph who shared his bed . . . a being of great age, energy, power and wisdom.
She raised the newborn babe in both hands, cradling it gently upon her palms, holding it out above the rushing waters.
Sha’ant, until that moment mesmerized, broke out of his reverie and began racing towards her.
As he ran, it seemed as if the river itself raced alongside him, rushing downstream towards her. At first, he thought it was a blurring of his vision due to his emotional state, but then he turned his head and saw that the river itself was rising up, to form a maw, a great open mouth of white water that roared towards her. He cried out and increased his speed, pushing himself to the limit of his abilities. Yet he knew he could not win this race. These were forces far greater than he could possibly comprehend, let alone control. Still, he ran. For that was his son she was holding. If she did not care for him, he did. And if he had to wrest the child from her by force and violence, he would do so as well.
The maw of water grew until it resembled a great white serpent, and as it reached her, it released a bellow of such power and intensity that the resulting blast of air and waterspray blasted Sha’ant sideways and off his feet, raising him up in the air for several feet, to land with a cushioned thump on a midden of lavya grass. He lay there, winded and drenched, staring at the incredible sight.
His wife, standing in mid-river, surrendered their newborn babe to a great serpent made of water. The serpent snatched the babe in its giant maw, roaring as it did so, and swept over and through and around his queen, overwhelming her.
Sha’ant cried out in horror.
Then the cascade of water passed by, leaving behind a backwash that sloshed on both banks before falling back and settling.
And he made out the figure of his wife, walking back towards the shore on which he lay, stunned and breathless.
She stepped out of the river and onto the bank. He saw that the water clung to her with longing tentacles, as if reluctant to release her. He saw also that her feet were no longer wholly human feet; now they were something else, an amalgam of water and fish-tail that formed, as he watched, into flesh, blood, and bone, transforming into the perfect replica of human female feet just as she stepped on solid land. Her form clarified, and she was once again the woman he knew, the eager young loving wife who pleasured him and took pleasure with such intensity night after night. His beauty, his queen, his empress of desire, his sovereign of body and soul.
As she strode up the bank to where he lay, a smile playing on her lips, the wind whipped away her garments, snatching them with a single rough action, and she was left naked, perfect, flawless as ever, with no sign that she had ever been a mother, or that so much as a single day had passed since the first day he had met her here, in this very spot. Naked and undulating like water in human form, she came towards him, and despite the circumstances and his emotional turmoil, he was aghast to find his body aroused at the sight of her nudity.
Unable to stop himself, he raised his hands to greet her as she fell upon him, laughing with pleasure and desire. And despite himself, he found that he was smiling in response as well. Unable to prevent what was happening, he entered into loveplay and cojoined with her, the actions familiar and all the more pleasing for their familiarity. Men who seek comfort in the arms of new women each night are men who have not discovered the supreme pleasure of the perfect union. Those few, those lucky few, who are blessed with the perfect mate, achieve heights of pleasure that no grunting copulation between strangers can ever attain. For it is love which is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and without that emotional bonding and joining of souls, the act itself is merely violence without weaponry. An act of rage rather than of pleasure.
Sha’ant’s love and desire for his woman outweighed all else and he found himself unable to even speak out against what she had done—for he knew that the instant he spoke, all would be over between them. Those were the terms of their marriage, and he had no doubt she would abide by them to the letter. So he kept his silence and took his pleasure and, by morning, he somehow was even able to pretend that nothing had happened at all, that it had only been a bad dream. How could she have conceived, gestated, and borne a child, then killed it, all in one night? It was impossible of course. He had probably drunk too much soma the night before and suffered an impossible nightmare.
And like any nightmare, it was easy to push aside and pretend it had never occurred at all.
Until the next time.
In retrospect, it was extraordinary how easily life went back to the way it had been before. The events of that night might never have happened: The palace staff knew better than to spread tales openly and the citizens who heard the rumors quickly wondered at their veracity. After all, here was their Queen, flat stomach and beauty intact, as winning as always. And the King beside her at all times, rarely apart for long, mooning over her as much as ever.
The sight of them riding together in their royal vaahan, the ornamental bejeweled carriage, brought people running out of doors, leaving aside their work to watch the king and queen pass by. Shouts of joy were heard everywhere and those who possessed conch shells—or rather, those merchants and nobles rich enough to possess their own guard—ordered them to blow the conch shell trumpets, heralding the approach of the royal couple. They were too dearly loved for the rumored scandal of that one night to cast a shadow upon their reputation. People quickly dismissed it as an idle rumor and soon even the palace staff wondered if that really had been the Queen’s newborn son she had been carrying with her that night, or merely a bundle of clothes. People even surmised their own explanations, assuming that in her homeland—wherever that unknown place might be—they had such unusual customs as walking to the river and throwing in articles of clothing as a means of appeasing the gods and asking for the gift of an heir. This theory, that it was all an arcane ritual designed to obtain a son, was the most favored, for it explained everything quite neatly.
The only ones who knew the truth were the wet nurses who had been present in the queen’s bedchambers when she gave birth to that beautiful black-skinned child-prince. They were accustomed to keeping secrets and silencing rumors, and so they did so. For they understood that the King loved the Queen and she loved him as well, madly. Whatever reason she had had for that extraordinary deed, or how in fact she had been able to produce a child within an hour of copulation and conception, were things they did not dwell on for long. They were superstitious women given to the wearing of amulets and sacred threads and chanting of mantras designed to ward off evil eyes and spirits. They accepted supernatural impossibilities as a part of life.
Time passed, healing all wounds, annulling all hurtful memories. The human spirit survives by selective forgetting.
When a year had gone by, on another night much like the first one, Sha’ant and his Queen were in their bedchamber, entwined in the grip of passion. When their ecstasy was spent, she looked at him in a certain way, rose, and left him. This time, he knew at once that something was amiss. He rose as well and followed her—and was just in time to see her slip into her bedchambers. The wet nurses were already there, waiting with pans of steaming hot water and cloth. They looked at him sadly as they went into the chamber and shook their heads in commiseration before shutting him out.
After the child was born, he followed his wife once again, this time close on her heels.
On this occasion, the wet nurses had not informed anyone of the queen’s impending delivery, even though she had asked them to make arrangements for the same. They had thought it best to wait and see. If this was to be a normal birth—or as normal as an hour’s gestation and delivery could be—then they would inform the whole city. Until then, it seemed best to hold their silence.
So the streets were empty and silent when Sha’ant followed his wife. It was a long walk and he dearly wished he could offer her a ride on a horse or chariot or even a carriage if she preferred. But he dared not speak a word or delay her progress in any way, for the terms of the agreement had been quite specific on those points. And so, he only followed at a discreet distance, going on foot this time as he felt ashamed to ride when his own wife could walk the distance.
Things went as they had the previous year. She reached the river, stepped out onto the water, then walked out to the middle of the concourse. Raising her hands, she held the baby out. Sha’ant felt a great piercing pain enter his chest and flood his being with sorrow. That was his son, their son! How could she do this? Why? Was it a sacrifice? For what? What deity could demand the sacrifice of one’s own newborn child? And two sons in as many years? Why?
But the terms of the agreement caused him to keep his silence. And he watched in silent anguish as the river came once again, roaring with deafening rage, and swept the child away as before. Once again, she walked back to the bank, stepped onto the ground, and came towards him, growing visibly younger and more beautiful than ever. Once again, he succumbed to his love and lust and received her in his welcoming arms. As he held her tightly, feeling the stirring in his groin belie the sorrow in his heart, he shed a tear from each eye. Just the two. One for each lost son.
The next one, he promised himself silently. The next child she will keep. This is some ritual to ensure that the third child will be a great king of kings. It was the only explanation that appeased him and allowed him to accept her cruel actions as necessary in some fashion.
But of course, the next year, she did it again.
And yet again.
Seven times in all, over as many years, she threw his newborn sons into the river.
Finally, a day came when he could take it no longer.
The past eight years, he had wept silently, containing his grief within himself, keeping it all a secret between himself and the wet nurses. Nobody else suspected or knew, and those who heard the rumors dismissed them out of hand. One child might have been believable, for some arcane ritual. But eight children? Impossible! Even a rakshasi would not sacrifice eight of her newborn children for any reason.
On the eighth night when he followed her to the river, he broke down. “Stop,” he cried out just as she stepped out onto the water. “I beg of you, stop!”
She paused upon the water, standing as easily as if on an unseen rock beneath the surface. He knew she was not standing on any rocks, for he could see the water rushing beneath her feet, even the occasional fish or turtle swim beneath. She was standing upon the water itself, her feet melding with the fluid to become partly water as well.
He fell to his knees on the bank. “Goddess, serapi, demoness, whoever you are . . .” He pressed his palms together in supplication. “I cannot stand by silently anymore. Please. Do not kill our son.”
She looked back at him, her face still set in that resolute expression she always had during these nights, when she seemed older, wiser, more powerful than the woman he shared his bed with, and said, “It is what he wants.”
It took him a moment to realize that she meant the child in her arms. “He? How can he possibly know what he wants? He is a babe! Newborn! How can a newborn wish to commit suicide?”
She sighed and shook her head. “It is for his own good.” There was a tone to her voice that suggested that he could still back away and let her continue, and she might not consider the agreement broken yet.
But he no longer cared. “Who are you? What sort of mother would kill her own newborn children? Eight years! Eight beautiful, perfect young children. Sons! Why do you do this? Who are you?”
She paused and nodded. Turning around, she walked back to the bank and stopped just short of solid ground. Still on the water, she looked at him with the same loving expression he knew so well. “Very well then. Since you have asked, I must tell you. For I cannot lie, nor can I conceal truth once it is demanded of me. I am transparent as clear water, as the glacial Coldheart Mountain ice from whence I come, and to do otherwise would be to dishonor my father. Therefore I shall tell you the truth as plainly as possible.”
He could not make head or tail of what she said, except that she was offering to answer his questions. His confusion only made him more belligerent. “Tell me then. What sort of evil creature are you to do this terrible thing year after year? Answer me!”
A peculiar expression came over her face then, one that he had never seen, not even in her most vulnerable, naked moments. “I am Jeel,” she said, “daughter of Coldheart Mountain.”
He stared at her, then at the river, then at the place where she stood, upon the rushing water. And he knew she told the truth. Everything made perfect sense then. If she was indeed Jeel, the river-goddess, then it explained how she could appear and disappear at will on the banks of the river, how she could walk upon its waters—for she herself was water—how she could be so passionate and tempestuous, as the river was, and numerous other half-glimpsed half-understood mysteries and doubts were cleared up at once. All save one.
“Then why do you do this terrible thing?” he asked. “As Jeel, you are the most honored of all seer-mages, sacred river of the Gods themselves. How can you commit such a heinous crime? How could you kill your own newborn sons?”
She smiled. Tears sprang into her eyes and trickled down her face, and as she rolled down those smooth unblemished cheeks, he saw that the water was the reality and the flesh the illusion, for each teardrop erased the skin and body down which it ran.
She was turning back to water again even as she spoke. “These were the eight Vessas, great demi-gods from the heavenly realms. Due to a curse by Kenikyu, they were compelled to spend a year each on Arthaloka. They approached me and asked for my help. I agreed to take human form and give birth to them and to destroy each one at the time of his birth so that he could return at once to his true place in the heavenly realm. I was killing our sons, it is true, for I was destroying the physical bodies in which they took birth upon this plane. But by doing so, I was freeing their immortal souls, which were never destined to remain here. If not by my hands, they would have died anyway. Better to throw them into my own waters for a quick, merciful death, than for you and I to watch them grow for a full year only for them to die by some unimaginable unexpected method each time. Cruel as this was, and difficult for me to do—you cannot imagine how difficult—it still had to be done. It was the only way. Surely you can see that now, Sha’ant, my love?”
He passed a hand across his face roughly. He was already drenched from the riverspray. His head swam with understanding and shock. A curse! A remedy. And each one a demi-god, herself a goddess. Then nothing was what it had seemed. All this was part of some cosmic plan that would have unfolded regardless. What she said was true: To live with each child for a full year and watch them grow, until their every action, expression, gesture, and sound became intimately familiar, and then lose them . . . that would have been unthinkable. And to endure that eight times over? Impossible. He would have been driven insane, he was certain of it. There was a limit to how much any person could endure.
He rose to his feet. “I had no idea . . .”
She nodded. “I know. But it was impossible to tell you. As a mortal, I could not share such knowledge with you. It is forbidden. Besides, it was necessary for things to proceed exactly in this manner, for even this was part of the plan.”
He looked around, stunned. “You mean that even my protesting before the death of the eighth son was part of your intention?”
“Yes, my love. For I wished you to have the pleasure of raising one son from my womb. And by testing your patience all this while, I knew that you would eventually stop me. Thus, I am now entrusting to you your lawful son, born of our union. Take him now.”
She handed out the newborn to him. Sha’ant took the bundle of warmth and softness, scarcely able to comprehend what was going on. The child began to wail and cry, dismaying him further.
“He will be a great man, a great king. He will do great things and when he takes a vow, any vow, no matter how terrible, it will be as rigid and unyielding as the sky and the earth in resoluteness. He will do all he does for your sake and the sake of your kingdom and your lineage. He will do the Krushan race proud, and be a shining example of the Krushan line. This is my last, my only gift to you, my beloved.”
And now her tears came faster and thicker, as her lower body melted away, turning into a whirlpool of raging water. Only her head and upper body remained recognizable as the woman he had loved for so long. In his arms, the child’s crying grew more plaintive and mournful.
“But I don’t wish to lose you!” he cried. “Now that I understand everything, I forgive you! I didn’t know, my love. Do not blame me. Do not leave me.”
“I must,” she said, “for that too was foretold.”
“Stay for the sake of our son,” he said. “Stay and rear him with me.”
“I cannot,” she said, “stay another day in the world of men. Once even a single mortal knows my true identity, I must return to my original form. That is the law that binds me.”
He shook his head and held out the child again to her. “Then take him with you. Raise him yourself. Raise him like a god, a great being. His true place is with you, not on this wretched mortal plane. Let him not suffer the misfortunes of mortal living when he can live like a god among gods!”
She hesitated then dipped her head. Already, he could see, the back of her head had turned to water, only the face and ears remained intact. Her arms were melting too. She reached out hands that were more water than flesh and accepted the child once more. She cradled him to her watery bosom, and he gurgled as if content and fell asleep again.
“I shall keep him and rear him as befits your son and heir,” she said. “When he is ready, I shall send him to you again. Thereafter he must live out his time on Arthaloka. Indeed, he shall live a great length of time, for he has taken his brothers’ ages on the mortal realm upon himself as well. He shall live all their mortal lives in his own lifespan, and only by his own choice shall he eventually succumb to death, only when he has endured and suffered enough to atone for them all.”
Sha’ant had nothing to say to that. He joined his palms together. “I am honored to have been your mate in this world. I have loved you as I can love no other woman ever again. I shall remain without a wife for the rest of my life henceforth. For no other woman can ever take your place in my heart.”
She smiled sadly, her face melting away even as she spoke her last words. “Matters of the heart do not always turn out the way we plan, Sha’ant. As a man, you may desire to live alone, but as a king, you owe it to your people to produce an heir. In time, you may learn to love again. Until then, remember, I am always here, always running beside you, as fast as you run, sharing in your every triumph and achievement. Come to me anytime you please. Except for that one limitation of the physical form, I shall always be your beloved Jeel forever.”
And with those terrible final words, she fell back into the river, the waterspout that had been her body dissolving back into the body of fluid from whence it came.
Sha’ant grieved for his lost wife and sons. The official word given to the people was that the Queen had dropped her child still-born and had taken her own life by flinging herself into the Jeel. This matched the rumors and gossip that had circulated for years and was in keeping with the Queen’s legendary love for the river. The people grieved with their king, for they had also loved her dearly.
In time, they got over the loss and went on with their lives. There were enemies seeking to overthrow the might of the Krushan and take over Hastinaga’s territories, there were great swathes of newly conquered dominions to govern, and the countless other duties of any king.
In time, Sha’ant, too, overcame the loss of his beloved Jeel. From time to time, he went to the spot by the river and sat upon the bank as his father had once done, but instead of meditating, he talked to the river, confident that the steady roar would prevent his words from being heard by anyone within sight. He spoke of matters of kingship and governance, of palace intrigues and political maneuvering, of skirmishes and rebellions, fights and outbreaks—all the usual things that kings talk about to their wives at night behind closed doors.
The river listened and in its steady, relentless roar, he often thought he heard an occasional word or phrase or sound of commiseration, sympathy, or even, on rarer occasions, a few words of advice. Once, when discussing a certain noble and his daughter who were needlessly haranguing the ministers with constant demands, he was taken aback when a face appeared in the water below him. The face was exactly that of his former Queen and wife, if formed of water. “Beware. They mean to assassinate you,” she said in a watery gurgle that none but he could hear. Then smiled, pursed her lips in an action that resembled an affectionate kiss, shut her watery eyes, and melded back into the river. The following week, the noble and his daughter did indeed try to use a clever ruse as a cover for an assassination attempt—and failed because Sha’ant had been having them watched constantly since the day by the river.
In time, his visits grew less frequent as the empire grew and his responsibilities increased. He admittedly threw himself more completely into his work and vocation than he had before, as if conquering new territories or suppressing distant barbarian rebellions in foreign lands could ever compensate for the loss of his beloved mate. They did not, of course, but they did help keep him from thinking as often of her. In his travels, he found also that while the river was always benign to him—on more than one occasion, he was able to cross her in spate under impossible weather conditions, always to the astonishment of his own local allies in the region—the special bond he shared could only be explored in that particular spot on her bank, near his own capital city. At all other places, she would listen intently, but only here would she speak aloud or show herself: a wave of butterflies risen from the water itself, dissolving into a cloud of spray as they rose up in the air; a pack of dolphins mating in the water within sight of him; patterns in the water that defied the tide and made pleasing designs that reminded him of places they had been and things they had done together.
These intimate secret communications kept his heart alive and kept love awake within him. Even though he had long since accepted that he could never have her back again, the sheer glorious intensity of their years and experiences together kept him emotionally afloat for another decade and a half. If nothing else, these platonic dalliances kept him from growing bitter and from hating the sight and touch of all women.
In time, gradually, he began to form the idea that perhaps, just maybe, someday, he might learn to love again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashok K. Banker is the author of more than sixty books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana series. His works have all been bestsellers in India and have sold around the world. His latest novel is the first in a new epic fantasy series, Upon a Burning Throne. He lives in Los Angeles.
This story takes place in the world of Ashok K. Banker’s Burnt Empire Saga, which launches in April 2019 with the publication of Upon a Burning Throne (from John Joseph Adams Books). This story is the first of five “Legends of the Burnt Empire” stories Lightspeed will be publishing over the next several months.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the December 2018 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Kim Stanley Robinson, Seanan McGuire, Adam-Troy Castro, Lizz Huerta, Shaenon K. Garrity, Maurice Broaddus, Ken Liu, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.