Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

Love and Marriage in the Hexasun Lands

Every child knows the story of how King Adhamrya, Son of Suns, slew a demon to win the heart and hand of Schyan, the goddess of love and desire. But the story of what happened afterwards is not as commonly known. In this entry I will present to you the full account of that sad tale, for I believe it is one worth remembering.

Excerpt from A History of the Hexasun Lands by Imperial Historian Nananaore

In her boudoir, Schyan was making it rain flowers again.

Adhamrya saw them as he stepped through the portal. They fell like slow raindrops from a sky the colour of marketplace copper, and filled the vast, empty chamber with a sweet fragrance. Today Schyan had floored her hall with a giant mirrored surface, already carpeted with petals. There were no shadows in that place, only reflections.

It was beautiful, but Schyan never made anything beautiful unless she needed comfort from it. Adhamrya set off to find her, and a reflection of himself trailed alongside him in the place of a shadow.

She was sitting high in a floating tree she had manifested. Reflections of tangled branches reached out to Adhamrya as he approached it, as if they wanted to grab him and keep him prisoner. A brush was making long strokes through Schyan’s black hair. Her long red gown was decorated with images of the same flowers that were falling from the sky. She did not look his way as he approached the base of the levitating tree.

“Schyan, my love, come down from there.”

No reply.

“It’s been three weeks since anyone’s seen you in the mortal realm. My ministers are growing anxious.”

“Three weeks? I hadn’t noticed,” she said, in a tone that didn’t fool him. “Time matters little here.” Her brush halted mid-swish and she went perfectly still. She looked down at him with inhuman eyes of solid black. “Is that why you’ve come to fetch me? Because your graybeards worry?”

“I came because I missed you,” Adhamrya lied.

“Missed me.” A smile turned up the corner of her mouth. “You. Missed. Me.” She allowed a single leg to dangle over the branch she sat on, so the fabric of her robe rose slowly to mid-thigh. But when Adhamrya made no further move in response, she fixed her clothing and, in a single fluid motion, slid to face him.

Schyan had chosen to be of equal height with him today. Adhamrya held her dark gaze. He didn’t feel fear, but a sudden desire to get away from her.

“Did you really miss me?”

Vapid creature. “I did.” He pulled her to him and kissed her—hard, to add weight to the fiction. She all but purred against him. She broke the kiss and touched his face with long nails.

“Stay, then. Stay and be with me.”

“I can’t.”

“We need not be in these forms,” she pouted. “We could play as stag and hart in summer’s rut, I know you enjoyed that.” Her lips were at his earlobe, his neck. “Would you have me tall or short? Slender or buxom? I could be two maids instead of one, or we could be gales mingling in a hurricane.”

Once the thought of such lechery would have excited Adharya, but now her lips and tongue on his flesh felt like cold slime. He stepped back and held her at arm’s length. “An hour here could be a week out there, and I can’t stay. I’m needed. I have to go back but I want you to come with me.”

She was plainly disgusted with his answer. “You spend too long in the mortal realm. It dulls your memory.” She gestured at the empty landscape. “Nothing out there can compare to what can be in this place, in my palace. Remember that. Remember us.” Schyan pressed her middle finger into the centre of Adhamrya’s forehead and he felt a cold tingle, the unmistakable sensation of her magic. “Remember me.”

He did remember. Images flashed in his mind, fleeting but vivid. Himself as a younger man, fighting down a rebellion in one of his remote territories with Schyan at his side. She made him stronger and faster than mortal men, and he felled enemies like a farmer scything grain. There was magic in the air, fire and lightning that Schyan called forth, and he was laughing over the terror of the rebels.

No. Adhamrya pushed the memories away. He was not that kind of king anymore. That behaviour had brought riots, chaos, and a reputation as a barbarian. He was different now, a real king. And his people needed him.

“The war council meets today. I’m sorry, Schyan, but I’m going.”

Her face twisted in a series of emotions too quick for him to register—was that jealousy?—and she sprang away from him and back into the tree with the strength of a panther. “Go back to your court then, great king.”

“The people miss you, not just me.”

“And I should return for them? To receive an offering of burnt meat from a piss-poor farmer? I don’t think so.”

“It’s not about prayers, it’s about morale. The men have come to expect your blessing before battle. They’re whispering in the barracks that maybe they’ve upset you.”

“Mortals live and mortals die. Why should I care?”

“Because the war effort is flagging. We need you.”

“My brother is the war god, not I. Take it up with him.”

“Schyan, please—”

“Enough!” She glared down at him. “You didn’t come here because you missed me, because you wanted me, but because you’re concerned about your sweaty, unwashed soldiers. I am a god, Adhamrya, and I do not rank below the concerns of mortals,” Schyan said, breathing hard. “Leave now before I make you.”

Adhamrya sighed and took his leave of her. She had moved the door to within visibility, so at least he didn’t have to ask her where it was. It manifested as a wide rift in the air which led to his bedchamber. As he was stepping through he felt a sharp pain on his arm. He looked down⁠—there was a spot of singed fabric on his sleeve that hadn’t been there before. He peered up at the sky.

The flowers were burning.

• • • •

When Varabhata, queen to the south, came to the capital begging for aid, there were many who distrusted her. They suspected she was consorting with the foreign invaders from across the ocean, even knowing how they had taken her capital so soundly that she had fled in a refugee caravan to avoid detection. If these same nagging voices expected King Adhamrya to throw her out of the court, then they were sorely disappointed.

For it is well recorded that as the queen approached the throne with the dust of the road still on her and her head held high, asking that her people be taken in as refugees, the king stared at her with something akin to awe. He rose and greeted her by the hand as an equal, declaring loudly that it was a blessing from the gods that Queen Varabhata had come to offer her aid in this time of crisis. She and her people were honoured guests, and a banquet must be held in her honour within the week.

Loosened by wine at the feasts, tongues wagged about the king’s folly for a pretty face. Surely the seeds of rebellion were sown even then.

At this point the invading army had begun to approach the borders of the Hexasun Kingdom. Despite their reported ferocity, King Adhamrya’s generals found them to be little challenge. Their soldiers were better armed and trained than Queen Varabhata’sa training that came from the dozens of minor rebellions that King Adhamrya had endured in his youth.

But six months after the southern queen arrived in the capital something changed. Overnight, the invading army seemed to have doubled their strength. Warriors who had previously shown little inclination towards strategy became fearsome tacticians. There was little time for the capital to consider the cause of these changes, however, as they were suddenly pressed back in the fight.

Excerpt from A History of the Hexasun Kingdom by Imperial Historian Nananaore

It was past fifthnoon and he still hadn’t come out.

Varabhata sent a footman to check if the war council meeting was still in session. It was. She had chosen not to attend the meetings herself as of late, for her presence had always been viewed as presumptuous and the hostility towards her people didn’t need further encouragement. Instead, she was surveying the latest grain reports in her study. The light from the three daytime suns, two orange and one yellow, fell across the rolls of paper on her desk.

When he did show up, he looked tired. There were bags under his eyes, and there might have been a few new tips of dry-grass yellow in his otherwise dark green hair. She got up from her chair and kissed him as he came up to her.

His beard tickled. It was a good kiss.

When it ended, King Adhamrya found Varabhata looking at him with concern. Her eyes were chips of heliodor.

“What is it?”

“You’re tired.”

“We’re all tired.”

“Not an excuse.”

He hummed in what may have been agreement, slipping behind her and resting his chin on her shoulder. “Any news?”

“Nothing you’ll like. We may have to tighten grain rations if we’re to take in all the refugees.”

“We will.”

“I know. But there is a cost.”

Adhamrya sighed. He was tired of bad news. Couldn’t there be any good news, just for once? He laid his hands on the curve of her stomach. “What about our littlest one? Is he kicking yet?”

“I’m not two months along, Adhamrya,” Varabhata said. “Besides, what makes you so sure it’s a boy?”

“Just teasing, Hebenath,” he said, using her given name instead of her royal one. “And call it a father’s intuition.”

“Is that so?” She was smiling.

“Yes.” He kissed her again, and it was just as good the second time.

Varabhata was pleased that he was so affectionate, and had they time she might have tried for more than simply kissing, but there was just too much work to be done. She must have worn that thought on her face, for Adhamrya’s own worries seemed to return as he looked at her. He sat down at the table, scanning some of the reports himself.

“Did you have any luck?” Varabhata asked.

“No. I honestly have no idea what prompted her this time, but I can tell she’s not coming out until she’s ready.

“I told the lot of them,”—he jerked a thumb at the door he’d come through—“that she wasn’t coming, and they seemed more upset by that than the reports from the front lines.”

“Can you blame them? It’s comforting to have a goddess on your side.”

“A goddess who, for reasons I don’t understand, refuses to help with the war effort? And she won’t tell me why whenever I ask.”

“You always say she never really cares about the mortal realm.”

Adhamrya shook his head. “There’s something else going on here. I can feel it.” He got up and started walking around the room, peering out windows restlessly. “I had a thought when I was in there. That she might know—about us,” he said.

“Impossible. We’ve been so careful. We meet alone maybe, what, every fortnight?”

“I know. It was just a thought.”

“How was the meeting otherwise?” Varabhata asked.

“Bad. General Nikosh believes he’ll have to retreat with his forces in a matter of days. He plans to pull back to the northeast, rejoin Kharjal and his elephant brigade, and mount a renewed assault. But by that time the enemy will have gained twenty miles or more.” His lips tightened. “There are villages in that territory, Hebenath.”

This side of his nature was one that had taken her aback when she had moved into the palace. Adhamrya was known as both a sloth and a butcher, unwilling to rule but more than happy to join a fight. She’d often been grateful his eye had never glanced south at her own borders. A warlord with a crown. Or at least he had been. Something had changed about him. The people didn’t like him, exactly, for they remembered his tyranny too well for that, but they weren’t starting rebellions anymore either. She recalled one night when Adhamrya had told her in a whisper that a few years ago he’d started to dream about blood on his hands—and those were not the dreams of a heartless man.

“What changed in you?” she wondered aloud.

Adhamrya seemed to have heard her. “Are you asking me why I care about the people all of a sudden?”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I wouldn’t mind if you did. It’s a fair question.” He turned away from the window and sat down. There was a long silence before he said simply, “Schyan.”

“Your marriage?”

“Not that.” Adhamrya studied his hands, turning them over slowly. Like a physician looking for spots. Like a blacksmith looking for calluses, wondering how long it will be before his work destroys his hands, leaving him unable to work a forge. “I haven’t told you about the Huxin rebellion, have I?”

“No.”

The king nodded. “I suppose it’s been four years now. It feels longer than that though. Schyan and I had taken a small contingent of soldiers and gone to Huxin to fight the rebels.

“We were raiding a village, like we had done many times before. We were separated in the carnage. When I found her, she had just set fire to a man’s house with his family inside. Hearing the man scream for his children . . . it was like I was suddenly aware of what we were doing, what I had become. I thought of my own father. I have no idea why; gods know I hated that man, but I did. I ran inside to rescue them, but they were already gone. When I came out, I saw Schyan had killed the man with her bare hands.” He held out his own hands above the tabletop, palms up. “Soaked in gore.” He stayed that way for a long moment, then balled his hands into fists and looked at Varabhata.

“I have hardly been a king at times, Hebenath. I often wonder if I deserve to wear the crown today.”

She took his hands in her own. “Adhamrya,” she said patiently, “the crown is yours precisely because you turned away from that path. I don’t care who you were before I met you, the man I know now is a good man. He cares not only for his own subjects, but mine as well. Gave them shelter in his own home. I couldn’t ask for anyone else to be the father for my child.”

King Adhamrya closed his eyes and raised their joined hands to his temples, pressing them against his skin. Varabhata bent to kiss his soft hair. His hands were slightly shaking.

There came a knock at the door. The two of them rapidly moved apart. “Come in!” Adhamrya said. A page poked his head into the room. “Your Highnesses,” he said, “A message has arrived from General Nikosh. He says the enemy wants to send an emissary to the capital, to discuss terms of peace.”

• • • •

Blind is he who marries for beauty, beggared is he who marries for riches, but cursed is he who marries for love.

A popular saying

The emissary arrived more than a week after Adhamrya sent back his reply to General Nikosh, during which time the capital tensed with expectation. No one regarded the offer as anything more than a trap, not while the enemy seemed to have the upper hand, but equally no one could say what the trap might be. They would send only one messenger to the capital, unarmed and with the terms set by the enemy’s unknown commanders. “What could one man do?” said many of Adhamrya’s advisors. Yet others remarked that the enemy must be very confident in their abilities if they planned to send a trap with a single man. Adhamrya listened to these wiser minds and slept little, dreaming of poisons and daggers hidden in sleeves.

All along the Kingdom, Adhamrya had told his men to keep an eye out for the messenger headed north. But no one had any news to send.

Then one day a mounted rider approached the gates of the capital at dawn and announced himself to be the long-awaited envoy. “Where did he come from?” the guards were asked by their superiors. “We didn’t see,” they replied. “We came out for the morning shift and there he was, horse and all, and no sign of the road on him.”

Adhamrya’s breath tightened when he received this news. He ordered the man to be kept waiting while he filled the audience chamber at the front of the palace. Nobles and their attendants, courtiers, ministers great and small, and tradesmen. The head priest and his key acolytes, as many pages and chambermaids as they had in the palace, and row after row of guards armed with bow, spear, and sword. There was even a crossbow or two. Even the scullion girl was there, worried she might be caught until she saw the chef watching the doorway expectantly like everyone else. On the king’s orders, members of the public the guards thought clean enough were allowed in as well. Let him try something with so many people around, Adhamrya thought. Let him try. We’ll skewer him where he stands.

Adhamrya himself had the throne brought to the chamber and placed on a dais. Varabhata sat on an ornate chair, not technically a throne, to his right and just behind. Adhamrya wore his turban-crown and sword, while Varabhata, in a brave gesture, wore armour and was also armed.

At thirdnoon and no earlier, the messenger was allowed into the palace. He was indeed alone and appeared unarmed. Tall and young, with saffron skin and pale gray hair. Wrapped around his shoulders was a blue fox-skin stole. He wore hunting leathers.

This is the enemy’s man? He looks like a foppish noble.

The stranger walked past rows of murmuring faces noble and common alike, stopped an appropriate distance from the throne, and bobbed his head in a poor imitation of a bow, openly disrespectful for the assembled crowd to see.

“Son of Suns,” he said in a dry voice, “I am come bearing a missive. For you and for your people. For those who might need a reminder of our strength,”—he glanced at Varabhata—“and for those who serve as proof of it.”

Varabhata stiffened. Don’t let him provoke you, Adhamrya thought.

“You will show respect in my hall, stranger, or I will teach you what it looks like.”

The man actually smiled. “I am not here to kiss your slippers, Adhamrya. The only respect my men have is the respect of the battlefield.”

Your men?

“Then give me your message,” Adhamrya said. “And count yourself lucky if I don’t send your head back to your masters as a message of my own.”

“Very well then,” said the emissary, “My demands are simple. For your crimes against the people of this realm you will surrender yourself to me. Your men will lay down their arms, you will be tried, found guilty, and executed, along with the coward dross you choose to harbour in your palace.” He openly stared at Varabhata.

Weapons had already been drawn before he had finished speaking. Varabhata’s men were snarling, just waiting for an order. Adhamrya didn’t tell them to stop—his own blood was running hot.

“Turn around,” he boomed, “Go back and tell the men who lead you that they have earned my wrath today. Not even one of you will be left alive, you have my word.”

The emissary didn’t move. His gaze slipped past Adhamrya to someone in the crowd. He seemed to be waiting for something.

Pushing past others, the head priest freed himself from the throng and came to stand beside the stranger. Astonishingly, he then turned away from Adhamrya and faced the mass of spectators.

“My friends, I take no pleasure in informing you like this,” the priest said to the silent crowd. “Our once-beloved king has committed a crime for which there can be no forgiveness. He, who won the heart of the goddess Schyan herself, has spurned her love like a common man. For he has broken the sacred fidelity of marriage”—he whirled to point at Varabhata—“with the foreign slattern who sits beside him now in the rightful place of the goddess. He has dishonoured the gods, and for his crime deserves death!”

All the sound in the world seemed to have vanished. If there was even breathing, Adhamrya couldn’t hear it in the vast, crowded room. He stood slowly, aware that Varabhata was already standing with her sword drawn.

How? They had been so careful.

Hadn’t they?

Adhamrya remembered Schyan’s face as she asked him to remain with her in that other realm, the delight when he said he had missed her—her, specifically. The pained look she gave him when he said he was leaving. She knew. Gods, she knew.

But how did the priest know?

Somewhere in the whirling panic a voice of reason was screaming at him. Why now? it said. Think, think. If the priest knew about them, how did this messenger come to know it as well? And why had he had called the army his men?

“Who are you?” Adhamrya asked the stranger.

The man smiled as Adhamrya looked at him, really looked at him, and saw the eyes of unbroken black. A gust of dust and wind hurtled through the open doorway to the chamber and blinded everyone who was there. An eyeblink and it was still again, the god now in his full divine aspect. Nine feet tall, still wearing his blue fox stole. He was grotesquely muscular, shoulders and back corded with so much sinew that he stooped like an old man.

“War god!” he roared, in a voice like a typhoon. “Avenging god! God of strategies, plots, and deception.” His face was wild with savage delight.

Marik. Schyan’s elder brother.

Adhamrya was very, very afraid.

The priest was the first to kneel, followed by the crowd once the shock seemed to pass. Only Adhamrya and Varabhata were standing. She was now beside him with her sword raised in a fighting stance. After a moment’s hesitation, Adhamrya drew his as well. The god just grinned at them.

“The god Marik,” boomed the priest, “has informed me of the slight to his kin. We who still follow the gods must turn away from our false rulers. Their deceit and blasphemy will only lead us astray. Marik has come to right these wrongs.”

Marik made a gesture and the prostrate rose. “Your priest speaks true,” he said. “Your king is godless, but he has also insulted me by betraying my sister.

I aided the foes your men now die fighting. I drew the blood from your lands as punishment for your king’s crimes. But you have suffered long, and my wrath is now sated. If your king and his southern whore will surrender their lives to me then I will remove the enemy from your shores. You have my word.

“But if he won’t, then I will redouble their strength and slaughter every man and woman in the kingdom for it.”

The priest looked up at his god, shocked. He hadn’t been told this part of the plan.

“How could you have known?” Adhamrya whispered to himself.

The god must have heard them. He laughed, a sound that shook the bones in Adhamrya’s skull. “Will you believe it, mortal king? She saw you. Embracing one night in the gardens. After all your carefulness.”

It was Varabhata’s turn to be shocked. “She would have said something, done something,” she spluttered.

Marik shook his head. “You don’t know her then. Ask him, ask Adhamrya what Schyan would do.”

She’d turn cold. Sulk, shut herself away if she felt vulnerable . . .

It was true. It was all true.

“You poor fools.” Marik’s smile was mocking. “You mortals know nothing of my kind. Do you know how old my sister is? To you she is ageless, but in our eyes, she is barely an infant. She is as petulant and callous as a mortal child.” His face grew pensive. “In some ways we are not so different, your kind and mine.”

But the smile returned, broader than ever. “But do you know what the worst part is? The worst part is what she knew before you did.

“They say women always know. It’s true for gods, at least. She could smell it on you, Varabhata, the scent of your twinned bloods.”

“What do you mean, war god?” asked the priest.

Marik simply said, “She’s pregnant with his child.”

Adhamrya gave up the thought of talking his way out. He grabbed Varabhata by the hand and took slow steps backwards off the dais.

“I don’t know what you were thinking, mortal. How were you going to hide it when her belly began to swell?”

They had never really thought that far. The war had always seemed like it demanded more of their attention. But even if they had, what would they have done? What could they have done?

For now, though, they could run. Adhamrya surged into action, yanking Varabhata along with him.

From behind he heard the priest shout and the cries of armed men sprinting as if into battle.

Stupid, stupid! How could he have been so stupid?

They fled along the long corridor that led into the palace interior. The mob was not far behind. A thrown spear crashed into the wall feet from Adhamrya’s head. He swore as they turned around a corner.

A door was waiting for them, a rift in the air. Through it they could see an orange sky and a silvered ground.

Varabhata was shouting something, but Adhamrya couldn’t hear her over the blood in his ears. Was this a trap?

He had no time to think it over. The crowd had turned the corner and was gaining on them. Varabhata jerked his arm and pulled him through the portal. It closed behind them. Adhamrya whirled. Same sky, same eternal twilight, but no flowers.

“—Schyan’s realm, isn’t it?” Varabhata was saying. He nodded. Their heavy panting was the only sound they could hear. When it faded, they were left with silence. Compared to the chaos they had just escaped, it seemed almost peaceful.

“It’s beautiful,” said Varabhata, eyeing her reflection. “Is it always like this?”

“It goes through cycles. This is the autumn landscape.” Now that Adhamrya had calmed down his brain was working again. “But I don’t see her. If this is a trap, she should be here. Schyan!” he shouted, “Schyan!” He turned around.

Schyan was there. Varabhata gasped. Adhamrya just stared at his wife. Her face had no emotion at all.

“Schyan, I . . .” He trailed off, not knowing what to say.

The goddess of love turned around and walked away, leaving them alone in her boudoir, safe from the men and women outside that wanted to kill them.

• • • •

King Adhamrya’s marriage to the goddess Schyan was unprecedented in human history. The gods had always maintained a distance from their human worshippers, accepting praise and bestowing blessings but rarely doing much else. This union promised to be the beginning of a new era. What would come of it? What would a marriage between a man and a goddess be like?

Excerpt from A History of the Hexasun Lands by Imperial Historian Nananaore

Schyan disappeared into the distance, and Adhamrya fell quiet. He stared after her for what seemed like years before dropping to the ground with his head in his hands.

Varabhata decided not to presently comfort him: She was no longer panicked, it was clear that immediate danger had passed, but she was very confused. They would be served better if she could think her way out of this mess. Then she would attend to Adhamrya.

In the long stillness that followed, Varabhata tried to compose herself. As a child, her tutors had taught her to count her thoughts when she was confronted with a bewildering situation, to arrange and study them like a list of numbers without emotion. It calmed her greatly to have such a dispassionate exercise to turn to. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and started counting.

One: She had just seen the goddess Schyan for the first time and lived. Despite her knowledge of her affair with Adhamrya. This was baffling, but without any other information to make sense of it she would have to come back to it.

Two: She and Adhamrya had been found out. Weeks ago, it appeared. If they ever managed to get out of this place and back into the palace, they would be killed instantly. If not by the mob, then at least by Marik. You couldn’t win a fight against a god.

Three: That meant they were trapped here forever.

One again. Schyan hadn’t killed them. She’d saved them. There was no reason for it—unless she couldn’t kill them. Didn’t want to kill them. No, that wasn’t right. Varabhata she could have slaughtered on a whim, it was Adhamrya she couldn’t or wouldn’t harm.

Gods, she’s not angry, she’s hurt.

Hadn’t Marik said that Schyan was still a child? When children are angry, they sulk or throw tantrums, but more often than not they also want to be comforted. Even when they say they want to be alone. Even when they run off. They’re just as confused as they are upset, and they want someone to make sense of that confusion. In fact, Varabhata supposed, this pattern of behaviour wasn’t reserved for children. Adults did it as well.

But did Schyan, did an immortal goddess, really want to be mothered? It was ridiculous. But it was an explanation, and she was in short supply of those at the moment.

So, four then: Schyan clearly wanted to be alone. Varabhata doubted she would be coming back. If she really did want to be comforted, then someone should go after her. Not Adhamrya; even if he were in a right state of mind, he didn’t possess the subtlety. The task fell to her. She could talk to the goddess, then get her to deal with the mob in the palace and return them home safely.

Is that why she didn’t kill me? To follow her?

As soon as the thought occurred to her, she knew it was right. There was no explanation for it, just a sudden rush of conviction that she had found the answer. It wasn’t just the explanation that made the most sense logically, it also felt right. Queen Varabhata opened her eyes and said to the air, “She wants me to go after her.”

Adhamrya looked up at her. There were tear tracks on his face. “What? No. She might kill you.”

“Yes,” Varabhata nodded. “But she wants me to go with her. I can feel it somehow. I don’t know how to explain it, but I do.” She started walking in the direction Schyan had gone. Adhamrya leapt to his feet and tried to block her path. She barreled past him.

“Hebenath,” he said, “Don’t—Hebenath!”

She turned around. A huge wall stood where it hadn’t been a moment ago, made of metallic bricks that glinted in the odd light. It stretched off to either horizon farther than she could see. It may have well been infinite in length. She was penned in.

Adhamrya was shouting her name from the other side and hitting the wall. She told him sternly to calm down. “I told you, Adhamrya.” Now there was no way but forward. “Wait here, I’ll be back.”

Hopefully, she added silently.

Putting her back to the wall, she started walking, resisting the urge to look back now and then. Fortunately, Schyan’s boudoir was an easy distraction. It was too empty, too uniform, to be properly called beautiful, but it was still captivating. She was especially fascinated by the mirrored floor. Her reflection followed her steps the way a shadow might. She supposed the idea must have seemed appealing to a vain goddess.

Once the wall was beyond visibility, she was certain that Schyan wanted to be followed. She was even more certain that she wanted Varabhata to come alone. These were strong sensations, like the peal of a deep bell ringing in her chest. She’s communicating with me, Varabhata thought. But why? A new sensation told her to keep going, and she did. Not long after that she found the goddess.

In the centre of the barren mirrored landscape, there was a tree floating free from any support. In its shade rested a table with a tea set, two low cushioned chairs, and a small pool that steamed like a hot spring. As she came closer, she smelled its rich earthiness and salted water. Schyan was bathing.

Water sluicing off skin, the goddess of love stood to face Varabhata. Schyan appeared to her as a dark-haired and dark-eyed woman of impossible beauty. Varabhata had never been religious, but now as she looked at Schyan, she felt a sudden rush of awe; no human being could ever have come close to her figure. By comparison, Varabhata was hopelessly flawed. She looked away in shame. The message being conveyed was clear: Look at what he had, what he gave up. All for you. Are you worth it?

Was she?

Cloth rustled, and when Varabhata dared to look Schyan was belting on a black robe patterned with tiny spears. The goddess sat at the table and poured tea in a long stream. Drinking peacefully, she completely ignored Varabhata.

Taking it as a strange kind of invitation, Varabhata sat down. Schyan poured tea for her. It was the colour and sweetness of pale honey. Presently, Varabhata broke the silence by asking, “Why did you save us? You could have let us die—after what we did to you.”

Schyan’s reply was curt. “I did not do it for you. I did it for the child, as yet innocent of any crime.” Varabhata’s hands went to her stomach. Schyan caught the motion, her emotionless mask slipping to show a glimpse of sadness before it tightened on her face again.

“Then I thank you. For the three of us.”

“I would have killed you if I could do it without harming the child,” Schyan said coldly. She sipped her tea.

Silence grew again. Varabhata thought about what to say. If her theory was correct, then what Schyan really wanted was to talk and have her feelings acknowledged. But how to start that conversation? She needed Schyan on her side, otherwise they would never make it out of here alive. No room for false steps. So, what to do? How did you even have such a conversation, as the other woman?

And she was definitely the other woman. A natural target for hate and jealousy. Yet here she was, still breathing.

This thought seemed to shake her mind free of doubt. Something occurred to her about what Schyan had said about killing her.

“You knew about my pregnancy?”

“The scent was unmistakable. I knew the day it happened. The palace reeked of it.”

“I didn’t know there were scents for such a thing.”

“It is not a scent such as your mortal senses allow,” said Schyan. “It is the impression that new life makes on the world. The way it warps the air. ‘Scent’ is the closest analogue for your understanding.”

“I see.” Varabhata took a breath and plunged. “But you knew about Adhamrya and I before that. You had plenty of chances to kill me but never took them.”

“Perhaps I didn’t see the point.”

“If I were in your position, I would have seen the point.”

Schyan’s eyes whipped in her direction with such a sudden fury that Varabhata felt literally pushed back. “How dare you presume to know me! I am more powerful than anything your feeble mind can dream of—you know nothing of what I think.” The chair and table seemed to be shaking as if in a minor earthquake.

“I know that you love your husband.”

The shaking stopped as soon as it had begun. “Love,” said Schyan, in as bitter a tone as Varabhata had ever heard, “is a mortal affliction.” Then the mask fell away at last, and the goddess looked very tired and very old. “But it seems that I have become infected.”

“I’m sorry,” said Varabhata.

Schyan shook her head. “No, you are right to ask questions. As a woman, as my replacement, you should know the other half of this sad tale.” Her fingers held the table as if Varabhata’s question had released a tide that might drag her away, and when it came the goddess spoke as if it were a confession.

“Even before you arrived in the capital, Adhamrya had begun to change. He stopped looking at me as he used to. He no longer took pleasure in our hunts. I saw him changing and I could not understand why. Was I no longer beautiful?

“I could see how he hated me. It would not come back, his love would not come back no matter what I did. Did I anger him? Did I make a mistake? I had never loved a mortal before. Did mortals fall out of love so soon?

“But then you came. He loved you at once, I could see it even if he could not. He was happy with you as he was not with me. When you came to love him in return, I chose to stand aside, to let him be loved, be happy.” The goddess of love and desire was crying, silver tears gleaming in the corners of her black eyes. “I loved a mortal, and my punishment was to watch him love another.”

“And then I was with child,” Varabhata whispered.

Schyan nodded. “As an immortal, I could never bear him a child. Seeing him so joyous at the knowledge that he was to be a father . . . I came here to be as far away from him as possible. I let my brother lay waste to the mortal realm to defend my honor because a part of me felt vindicated by his actions. I hated you, you who took my sweet Adhamrya away from me. But you were his chosen, to be the mother of his child, and I was a monster to him. So I stayed here, alone.”

She was a monster. Varabhata knew that. She had never believed, not really, that the beings they worshipped were gods. They were far too cruel for that. By chance they had escaped the reach of death, for which humans called them gods and demons, but they were nothing worth praying to.

Why, then, was she so ashamed?

“You saved us because you still love him.” Varabhata had been right all along.

“Marik does not let his prey survive. If you had escaped from the crowd, he would have killed you himself. Here he cannot find you,” Schyan said.

She closed her eyes and tilted her face up to the sky. Her tear tracks slowly vanished like puddles in the heat of the suns. Varabhata watched, fascinated, as the goddess’ robe changed from a black wrap decorated with spears. The fabric tightened, developed stitching, and then Schyan was wearing a heavy, ornate set of white leggings and tunic that were unmistakably some kind of armor. She abruptly stood up, signalling that their time was over. “Come.” Varabhata jolted and followed her, thinking it was best to ask few questions.

They were quiet until the wall. When they drew near, Schyan simply waved her hand and the wall disappeared, showing them Adhamrya sitting cross-legged on the ground. Then he was grabbing Varabhata in a hug, and she tried to look at Schyan’s reaction out of the corner of her eye but couldn’t manage it.

“I have tarried here too long,” the goddess said. “You are both free to return to the palace; I will deal with my brother and his followers.” She looked directly at Adhamrya. “Your people will have no need to fear him from now on, King Adhamrya.”

He blinked at the coldness of her words. “I . . . I thank you, Schyan. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Varabhata was sure the goddess wouldn’t reply, but after a second’s hesitation she allowed a flicker of grief to show on her inhumanly beautiful face. “As am I,” she said. To Varabhata, to the other woman, she said, “Will you watch over him for me?” And without waiting for an answer, she vanished.

They were all alone again. Reflections stretched out at their feet in place of shadows.

Varabhata took her lover’s hand. He stared at her in amazement. “What did you say to her?” he asked.

She kissed him in reply, closing her eyes and pressing into his warmth. Relief, that they were safe for the moment. She felt him melt into her, and for a long moment they stayed that way.

When she opened her eyes, there were flowers falling from the sky.

• • • •

From then on, Schyan began to aid King Adhamrya in much the same way Marik aided the enemy. Even so, the war was not easily won. Many lives were lost before the last invader fled in his baleen ship across the waves, for while mortal men died on the battlefield, the gods waged their own contest. Now freely intervening in the conflict, Marik sent waves of pestilence to the cities and towns of the Kingdom. At the height of the epidemic, almost a hundred lives were lost every day. Schyan caused the ground to explode with medicinal plants and flowers, but there were too many sick and too few physicians, the disease simply too effective. The last patient was cured more than a year after the war ended.

King Adhamrya was one of the last. It started with a cough and a fever, a few shakes at night. He took tonics that were prepared for him, but with a grim look of resignation. One day he collapsed in the garden as he was being shown the first batch of fruit trees, and by nightfall he was dead. A shorter timeframe by many weeks than the disease usually showed—the god Marik gave his quarry no chance at recovery.

It has been said that the king’s final words were to his lady wife: “We knew it couldn’t last,” or “Every action has a consequence,” depending on whether you believe the romantics or the moralists. The queen’s own grief was muted. She took the throne as firstrise cleared the horizon, with the little prince in her lap, as the first sole ruler of two united lands under the six suns of heaven. The people came to love her eventually, even those who had spoken against her in the beginning. The major dissenters, including the head priest, had all been executed upon her return from Schyan’s realm, so the task was somewhat less difficult than it might have been otherwise.

No one knows why the foreigners arrived on these shores in the first place, and in such numbers. No one knows what lands they came from, or whether they returned to their homes when they left. What prisoners there were spoke only a few words of our language and seemed disinclined to try—silent till they died in dungeons or were executed. The bodies of the fallen were burnt, and dozens of witnesses have documented the strange scent, floral and spicy, that their flesh released. Were they demons then, wearing human skins as we might wear cloth? There is no answer to such questions, not in the annals of history.

In time, Queen Varabhata earned for herself the style of “the Temperate,” ruling as she did with grace and wisdom, bandaging the wounds of a country long at war. She is counted among the greatest rulers in the long, storied history of the Hexasun Lands. Historians have not been kind to the Son of Suns, however, framing him as an impulsive and foolish leader whose ineptitude caused the commonfolk much hardship. Some have gone further, daring to blame Schyan for failing to act against her brother earlier.

I myself hold no opinion on the matter. I view it as my duty to record the events of the past, not to judge them. That is the charge of the gods, flawed as they are. Even so, I will add one personal note to conclude this section. My great-grandfather was born during the reign of Queen Varabhata. He fought for an education and became a scribe for the capital’s granary, and a keen diary-keeper. I still have many of his volumes, given to me by my mother. There is a legacy of words in my family, it would appear. In one of his entries, my forebearer describes a visit to the granary from the queen herself. Then in her eighty-first year, “she walked with perfect grace and without aid of a cane.”

By sheerest luck, my great-grandfather was assigned to the task of showing her the vast warehouses the city kept. Cleary bored by this necessary visit, the queen started a conversation with him, this lowly scribe. Engaging her, my great-grandfather writes, “Then newly married myself and desiring to know the proper conduct of matrimony, I raised the courage to ask her how her own marriage to the late king had fared. Immediately I regretted it, was sure that her next words would be to call for my imprisonment on grounds of assuming familiarity with the sovereign. To me surprise, she did not. She held my gaze, eyes hawk-clear and piercing, and after a pause said, ‘Every year, on the anniversary of Adhamrya’s death, I visit his grave in the mausoleum. And there every year I find a white flower from the kosht tree, a symbol of unrequited love for more than three hundred years. The door to the mausoleum is always locked, and only I have the key. For all his flaws, Adhamrya managed to convince two women to fall in love with him.’”

Let the historians of the future make their case. Here I rest my quill.

Excerpt from A History of the Hexasun Lands by Imperial Historian Nananaore

Tahmeed Shafiq

Tahmeed Shafiq is an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. His Pushcart-nominated fiction has been published in Lightspeed and The Airgonaut, his journalism in The Varsity and The Gargoyle, and his editorial work in his college literary journal, the UC Review. He is trying to be a writer, or a journalist, or a philosopher, or some combination of these. One day he hopes to write a novel. He thinks cities are at their most beautiful in the rain.