They ran the girl down, in the grey light of dawn: a ring of copper-mailed horsemen, racing after her until her exhaustion finally felled her.
Yudhyana sat on his horse, shivering in the cold morning air, and thought of home—of the narrow, spice-filled streets of Rasamuri, and of his daughters shrieking with delight as he raced them in the courtyard. Anything to prevent him from focusing on what was happening.
Afterwards, they tied the girl’s unconscious body to the saddle of a white mare. Pakshman, Yudhyana’s second-in-command, nodded at him, waiting for orders.
“Back to the city,” Yudhyana said. His gaze was on the plains, sloping down to the river Kuni—and the cloud of dust that marked the advance of the Sharwah army. He said, “She didn’t have time to reach them.”
Pakshman’s face was grim. “No,” he said. “The city is still safe.”
Yudhyana thought of a thousand thousand chariots, of gold-harnessed elephants, of a myriad archers, all waiting to topple Rasamuri’s walls. Yes, he thought. Safe. But for how long?
♦ ♦ ♦
In the evening the girl woke up, shivering. Yudhyana let Pakshman and his men tie her to a stake in the ground, his mind desperately seeking a way to avoid her, to avoid thinking about the war and what it had made of him.
We must make the necessary sacrifices, Priest Marna had said, but Yudhyana knew himself to be weak—knew himself to be suited only for an age of peace, and not for the red-hot fury of war.
The growing darkness gradually robbed the stunted trees of their color and of their shape, until everything was subsumed under the mantle of night. The men’s fire sank to embers, and the raucous noise of their banter faded. Yudhyana walked in the darkness, and found his steps, almost in spite of himself, leading him to the girl.
He nodded, briefly, to the soldier who was keeping guard, and came to stand over her. In the darkness, her eyes were wide: those of a trapped animal.
“You had to know you wouldn’t reach the Sharwahs,” he said, finally.
“I tried, didn’t I?” the girl said.
Yudhyana shook his head. “Do you know how the Sharwahs treat their women? If they hadn’t tortured you as a traitor, they would have shut you in a harem—branded you like cattle and treated you—” He paused, then, remembering that she was a slave.
She laughed a bitter laugh, in the darkness. “No better than I was treated in Rasamuri,” she said. “Why should I owe you loyalty?”
Yudhyana made a short, stabbing gesture in the darkness—longing for the Destroyer to walk the earth, and set right the injustices he was powerless against. “They’ll kill you for what you’ve done. They have to set an example.”
In the darkness, he couldn’t see her expression, but he thought she was smiling: a thing utterly leeched of joy. “Yes,” she said. “But I have something they want.”
“You?” She was a slave, brought from the islands as a child, like so many servants of the temple. He could not see what they would want of her.
But, even as he thought that, another part of him thought of Priest Marna’s rage when he’d learnt of her flight; of his insistence that Yudhyana’s whole company go after her. “Even if that’s true,” he said, “they’ll still kill you.”
“What should it matter to you?” Her voice was low, as cutting as the sacrificial knife.
“I—” He stared at the moon above: the eye of the gods on this world, the eternal reminder of their protection. He wished it would give him an answer. “I don’t know.”
“I see. But to me, it doesn’t matter.”
“You value your own life so little?”
The girl did not answer for a while; for so long, in fact, that he had started to move back towards the camp. When she spoke, her voice stopped him, as surely as a knife drawn across his throat. “Everything lives and dies,” she whispered. “Everything changes, and all changes end in death.”
The first lines of the Book of the Destroyer, given by Him to mankind, an eternity ago. Yudhyana, thinking of the coming army—the god’s ultimate jest—shook his head, and went on walking into the darkness. “No,” he said. “That’s not true.”
But, deep down, he knew his words to be a lie.
♦ ♦ ♦
They reached Rasamuri on the second morning of their journey. The tall sandstone walls towered over them, carved with the likeness of the gods: the Creator’s hands, parting the primordial sea to make the very first forests; the Protector in His incarnation as a woman, fighting the King of Demons at the foot of Mount Seilesa; the Destroyer atop a high cliff, preaching to the multitudes.
The girl was imprisoned in a small cell below the fortress; and Yudhyana walked alone into the temple, to present his report to Priest Marna.
Inside, acolytes were brushing the androgynous statue of the Destroyer with clarified butter; the combined smells of rancid fat and stale incense made Yudhyana’s head spin.
Priest Marna was waiting for him behind the altar, looking more wan and tired than Yudhyana had ever seen him. The yellow thread of his office, crossing his chest at the level of his heart, seemed in the dim light the same sallow shade as his skin. “Yudhyana,” he said. “What news?”
Yudhyana shrugged. Marna had taken a liking to him, for reasons that were a puzzle: Yudhyana himself had never shown any particular love for the priestly caste. “The girl is in the cells,” he said. And, because everything about Marna currently grated on his nerves: “The army wasn’t far behind us.”
“Two days, at most. I don’t suppose the rajah—”
Marna shook his head. “You forget,” he said, softly. “We are varam, the favored of the gods. Rajah Irjun wouldn’t yield, even if he had the assurance everyone would survive.”
Of course. We are proud people, Yudhyana thought—and, for no reason at all, he remembered the girl’s bitter smile as she looked upon him. The menial work, we leave to our slaves.
“What do you want with her?” he asked.
Marna’s face did not move. “She was a runaway slave. I can’t allow discipline to lapse, especially now.”
Yudhyana shook his head—and asked, with an audacity he had not known he possessed, “You wouldn’t send an entire company to run after a mere slave.”
“Wouldn’t I?” Marna’s face was a mask.
Once, Yudhyana would have nodded and withdrawn; but now the invaders were almost at their gates, and there was no return. He stood his ground, and said nothing.
Finally, Marna relented. “We will make... a gesture,” he said. “Something to show the Sharwah that we aren’t weak, and that to take us will cost them dearly.”
“I don’t see what the girl has to do with that.”
“Chandni-em-Pankhala,” Marna corrected, absent-mindedly. “Descended from Ilya, who founded the order of the Destroyer, centuries ago.”
“But she’s a slave?” Yudhyana said, shocked.
“Fortunes rise and fall.” Marna’s face was bleakly amused. It was not clear to whom he referred, whether to the girl or to Rasamuri. “But blood—blood never lies. In her veins are the powers of her ancestor.”
A bitter laugh escaped Yudhyana’s lips. “Magic? What do you expect? That she will kill soldiers with her gaze?”
“With her dance,” Marna said, and his voice was utterly serious. “The Blessed Ilya once dispatched an entire army, it is said.”
An army of renegade priests, Yudhyana thought, bleakly amused at what Marna wasn’t telling him. “She’s a girl. A slave who’s frightened at the thought of death. And you tell me stories?”
Marna said nothing for a while. “If it doesn’t work,” he said, “then we will still have shown them how true varam die.”
With pride, Yudhyana thought. With our accursed pride.
♦ ♦ ♦
Yudhyana went home, not knowing what else he could do. He found his wife Apura in the women’s quarters, supervising the servants’ weaving.
She turned, surprised, when the sound of his boots on stone echoed under the vast marble ceilings. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
He smiled. “It was an easy mission.” He went to her and enfolded her in a sandalwood-scented embrace—trying not to think of the girl’s slight, shivering form in the moonlight. “But I missed you and the girls.”
“They are with their tutors,” Apura said. She looked at him for a while. Her eyes, highlighted with kohl, appeared even larger in the sunlight. “You saw them coming?”
“The Sharwah?” He hesitated over whether to lie to her. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t that kind of marriage; never had been. “They’re not far behind.”
“Not much time left.” Apura’s face had grown distant, as expressionless as cut stone.
“We could flee,” Yudhyana said, feeling ashamed of the thought as soon as he had uttered it. But at least it would keep them alive.
Apura shook her head. “Even if we did wish that, it’s too late.” She pulled herself away from him. From behind her came the rhythmic clacking of the looms, and the soft, swishing sound of cloth spilling from the frame to pile on the floor. “The other cities have fallen.”
Yudhyana said nothing. He wished he had been born in another time, in another place—where people would blossom in peacetime, would delight in each other’s presence. Not in this one; not in this doomed city waiting for its conqueror to take it apart, stone by stone.
Apura must have guessed his thoughts. “Come,” she said. “The children will want to see you.”
But even little Rana’s shrieks of delight weren’t enough to put the image of the girl out of his mind. A dance, Marna had said. On the very first night of the siege, she’ll dance on the battlements, to show them we are not afraid.
She’ll die. In the white shift of dancers, with gold glinting on her arms and on her throat, with the glow of torches highlighting the least of her movements, the girl—Chandni—wouldn’t last long enough to fulfill whatever dreams Marna had. The enemy would kill her long before her dance was over. And if they did not... then what kind of life could she look forward to, regardless of whether Marna was right?
Late at night, as the moon swung over Rasamuri—and as the ponderous thud of elephants on the march started to make the city walls shake—Yudhyana found himself awake, and unable to sleep.
He got up, and went into the prisons of the fortress.
The girl was in a cell. Two thin chains of silver ran from her ankles to holes in the wall; a necklace of leather encircled her throat, with another heavier chain to prevent her escape.
As if it would change anything, Yudhyana thought, bitterly. Children’s tales. There was no magic, nothing that would change their fate. Even as he embraced Rana and Sawani, he knew that they would die—and that he would, too, cut down in the first rush of the invaders. He was a man of peace, not a warrior; and the girl was just a slave, not the terrible magician Marna imagined her to be.
The guard opened the door for him. The sound of the hinges scraping against the sandstone woke the girl up; she stared at him, her eyes wide in the torchlight.
“Come to taunt me?” she asked.
Behind Yudhyana, the guard closed the gate, leaving them both in darkness, as in their first meeting. “No,” Yudhyana said. “I came to talk with you.”
Her lips compressed to a sliver of flesh. “I think we’ve already said everything we need to say.”
Yudhyana crouched by her—away from her legs, if the desire to strike him ever came into her mind. “Do you know why they’re keeping you alive?”
She laughed, bitterly. “The High Priest has already been here. For the dance, of course.”
“That was what you knew?” he asked. Perhaps Marna was right, and there could still be a miracle. But, no; even if she could dance, even if she could make armies topple, she would strike at Rasamuri first. And he couldn’t blame her. What in creation had Marna been thinking of?
“What he thinks I know,” Chandni corrected. “He is mistaken. There is no dance. There are no miracles. That was in some other age of the world, when the gods still walked the earth.” She stretched, in a tinkle of metal. “My family was killed. My sister and I were enslaved, and she died of bearing her master’s child. How can you believe Ilya’s line has any power?”
“I don’t,” Yudhyana said, truthfully. “But I’m not making the decisions.”
“No,” Chandni said. She looked at him, as if for the first time. “You’re not one of them.”
“I was born in Rasamuri,” Yudhyana said. “When the army was still keeping the order within our walls.”
“A long time ago, then,” Chandni said. “You’re not a very good soldier.”
He started. “What makes you think that?”
She smiled. “The whole time they hunted me, your mind was elsewhere.” She must have seen his shocked face, for she added, “The line of Ilya has watered down, but some things remain. A shadow of what once was.”
“Then there is magic.”
She shook her head. “Not the kind you want. That was lost when the Destroyer left this world. I don’t think it will ever return.”
“Then you’ll die for nothing,” he said, more vehemently than he had meant to.
Her smile in the darkness was terrible: not the Destroyer as prophet, but as the beast that would trample the world under its feet. “Does anyone ever die for something? You’re a good man, not meant for those times.”
“Do we ever choose where we are born?” he asked her.
She said nothing for a while. “Where we are reborn, perhaps. But we all make the best we can with what we have around us. I’m sorry for you.”
“I—” he began. No one had ever seen that, had ever dissected his weakness with such precision.
She smiled again. “You mean well, but there’s nothing you can do for me. You’d better leave, Yudhyana. Your family will be waiting for you.”
It was only after he had left her cell that he realized she had called him by his name, but that he had never given it to her.
♦ ♦ ♦
On the following morning, the Sharwah army arrived, with the flame emblem of the true god floating over the silk tents, and the rumble of a thousand elephants shaking the walls of the fortress.
Yudhyana stood on the highest wall of Rasamuri, with Apura at his side, and watched horsemen wheel between the tents, shooting arrows at targets with the grace of those born in the saddle.
Apura was silent, cradling Sawani in her arms. “Now I know there’s only one way out.”
He didn’t say anything. There were no words that would have added anything; nothing that could diminish the truth.
They could have run away, like Chandni, but where would they have found refuge? The nearest city was months away, and the army lay between them and the fertile delta. They both knew that the only way was to survive the siege; and they both knew it would be impossible.
In the evening, Marna staged his performance. A covered awning hosted the rajah and his wives, and the members of his court shared other smaller constructions: like a reflection of the tents below, Yudhyana thought, wryly.
He stood by the side of the battlements once again—save that this time there was a stage, erected where everyone could see it—and dancers milling on the wooden trestles, even as the musicians tuned the strings of their veenas.
He could not see Chandni, though he had no doubt she would be there, somewhere. Sacrificed for the sake of a children’s tale, and for Marna’s pride.
For our pride, he thought. On the stage, Marna was singing the first hymns to the Destroyer, his booming voice melding with the sweet tones of the flutes, drums marking the end of each verse, and the grave tones of the veena mingling with the song that was sung.
“Today, we honor the Destroyer, who makes and unmakes all things,” Marna said—and withdrew, leaving Chandni alone on stage. In the dim light, Yudhyana could barely see the chains—but they were still there, thin slivers of light that ran from her wrists into the ground. They clinked as she moved, slowly at first, swaying to the rhythm of the music—and then faster and faster, a staccato punctuating the beats of her dance.
Music rose from the strings of the veena: a soft, plaintive sound that melded with her steps—and she was dancing, leaping upwards like a bird straining to take flight, her arms and legs weaving a pattern that did not belong in this world, dark and terrible and unspeakable.
Marna was smiling. But Yudhyana, standing on the edge of the crowd, saw only the chains holding Chandni fast, and the way they cut each of her leaps short—and in her dance he saw not freedom, not miracles, but the desperation of caged things unable to free themselves, unable to be master of their own destinies.
This wasn’t the age of magic but the age of slaves, and follies, and overweening pride.
His hands clenched into fists, and his eyes ached. Unconsciously, he found himself moving, pushing his way through the massed crowd. There had to be a way—any way—something he could tell Marna, to make this mockery stop....
A flash of light arced from the waiting Sharwah army to the battlements—hanging suspended in the air for a short, terrible moment. As Yudhyana opened his mouth to scream, it found its target.
Chandni gasped, her hands pulling at the arrow embedded in her chest. A second one was already arching its way—this time shining with incandescent fire—and falling on the canopy of the rajah’s tent. The fragile silk, catching it, blazed like a funeral pyre.
Then everything was confusion. A mass of people bore down on Yudhyana, all seeking to escape. He stubbornly went on fighting his way towards the stage and the dying dancer—even as screams echoed all around him, and the crackle of the fire rose and rose as if to engulf them all.
Somehow, he made his way to the stage. He was the only one by then; the platform had emptied. Only the rajah’s tent remained, consuming itself in flames. Marna was at the back, screaming for some order that never got imposed; and Yudhyana was alone, kneeling by the body of the dying girl.
“Chandni,” he whispered. He cradled her against him: an instinctive gesture.
She stared upwards, at the moon that spread its light across the sky, bathing her sweat-covered skin in a white sheen, like milk. She was shivering, and she did not speak for a while.
She smiled at him, through the spreading smoke. “It’s never over, Yudhyana. Don’t you see?”
And then her eyes closed; her breathing quickened, and she did not speak again.
He held her in his arms, heedless of the confusion, of the fire; of the arrows that could have been shot at both of them. He held her, feeling the feverish warmth of her skin on his—until nothing was left.
♦ ♦ ♦
They laid her body in the vault, along with that of the men and women who had died, trampled by the mob. In the city, confusion had followed the burning of the rajah’s tent: Rajah Irjun himself had been badly scarred by the flames, and had withdrawn into his chambers. No one but his closest attendants had seen him or talked to him since the debacle. Marna was still trying to impose order, but everything had spun out of control.
Yudhyana went home in silence, remembering the touch of Chandni’s body on his—and the heady smell of incense and sandalwood, rising to cover that of blood and urine.
His house was a mirror of the confusion within the city: servants roamed the corridors, aimlessly—but in the nursery, Apura, always a bulwark of pragmatism, was singing his daughters to sleep. Dark circles underlined her eyes, to match the black kohl on her eyelids.
He waited, silently, until she was done. “The walls still hold.”
“For how long?” Apura’s voice was bitter.
“I don’t know,” he said, and it was the truth. He expected to be called forth, at any moment: to be told that the army was entering the city, and his heart contracted at the thought.
Apura watched him, silently. “The rajah has lost control,” she said. “It’s almost the end.”
There was nothing he could answer. He came closer to her, ran his hand down her neck. Her skin was warm, pulsing with her heartbeat—and for a while he felt nothing but that warmth spreading to his hand, to his arm, to his own heart. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Apura disentangled herself from him, gently. “It’s nothing you did, Yudhyana.”
He thought of Chandni, lying still in the vault of the Destroyer’s temple. No. It was what he hadn’t done. His hand strayed to his sword at his side, clenched the cold metal hilt.
“I’ll get some sleep,” he said.
“Yes,” Apura said. “They’ll call you, soon.”
In his room, he lay on his bed, staring at the marble ceiling inlaid with malachite and cornaline and precious stones of all colors. It shone, like the glistening light of the moon overhead—and the light was the same he had seen in Chandni’s eyes, before death extinguished it forever.
He fell asleep, finally, dreaming of fire—and of Chandni’s dance, which wasn’t the spell Marna had dreamt of, but simply the desperation of a helpless prisoner, underlying every gesture, every clink of the bells.
In the darkness, he heard the bells again: one two one two, on and on and on until they melded with the rhythm of his heart. The ground was thrumming with the charge of elephants, and Chandni stood, waiting for him, at the top of the ridge.
“You’re dead,” he whispered.
She did not move. Her face was turned away from him. “Yes,” she said. Her voice, too, was deeper than it should have been. “But isn’t death the beginning of rebirth?”
“No,” he said, thinking of Rasamuri, and of the walls that held nothing, that supported nothing. “It’s the end, Chandni. There’s nothing beyond.”
“Ssh,” she said. She turned at last; and he saw that she was wearing the attire of a sacred dancer, the same clothes she had died in. Her feet were already moving, and the sound of the veena hung in the air, hovering on the edge of becoming.
“This is—” This is a dream, he wanted to say. An illusion. I’ll wake up and lie in my bed, by my useless sword that I wasn’t meant to take up.... But the words couldn’t pass his lips.
“This is the end of the dance,” Chandni whispered, and, her back arched, launched into the figures she had been going through, before the arrow came out of the darkness and struck her down.
The ground shook, under his feet, as if the thousand Sharwah elephants accompanied her dance. The sky overhead was dark, quivering with the promise of rain, and still she danced: no longer a slave but a woman warrior, her chained hands holding spears, her feet parting the earth.
Chandni, he wanted to say. Stop. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t speak.
He thought, too, that he could not move, but he found that his feet were answering her; and, as the drums joined the invisible veena, he was with her, slipping into the invisible gap she wove for him.
This is the dance, she whispered. This is the memory of what Ilya left us—the dance that ends the world, so that something else might be built on our ashes. So that we might be reborn.
It’s not powerful enough. Remember? Her laughter was silver; and the sound of thunder over the plains. But it’s enough, Yudhyana. It’s enough for a small gift.
And, as she danced, her shape flickered; and she was no longer a woman, but something huge and unspeakable, the vastness between worlds, the nightmares that stalked the void. She was the beginning of everything; and the end of everything; and the spears in her hands were deep in the ground, and they were the only thing that held the earth together.
This wasn’t the age of magic, or of miracles. This was the age of overweening pride. This was the age of war, of iron and ashes.
He saw the city, then, flickering between her outstretched hands; he saw himself, running with Apura behind him, a child in his arms and one on his back; and he saw the soldiers that caught him; the spears that slit Sawani’s throat; the sword that scattered Rana’s brains; Apura, writhing beneath the men that held her pinned to the ground, screaming in such pain that he could not endure it anymore, such pain that what they were doing to him faded into nothingness....
No, he whispered, no.
But Chandni was still dancing, and her dance was the inexorable steps of the siege towers; the veena the thunder of arrows; and Apura was still screaming, and both his daughters were dead, and he....
He awoke, with a start, in his darkened room. The memory of the dance still lay in his mind; and the rumble was still there, too; and he knew what it was, even before hearing the cries.
The walls were breached.
His sword lay by his side, shining in the darkness; and in his mind was the memory of Chandni’s voice. Everything that lives must change, and all changes end in death.
And death is rebirth.
Gently, carefully, his hand closed around the hilt of his sword. He rose, and walked into the nursery. Apura was sleeping with Sawani in her arms; and Rana was in her cradle.
He knelt, gently, by their side. “I’m sorry,” he said, as he had said earlier—knowing that the words were hollow, utterly devoid of meaning.
He held Apura’s face in his hands, feeling warmth spread to his fingers, a reminder of what could have been. His mind was a blank, still filled with the dance that had ended everything; and his hand did not shake.
Better death, sometimes.
Blood fountained from her open throat, smearing his blade, staining his hands. He forced himself to think of the dream, of the memory of the army rumbling on towards them; and of the walls, torn open as easily as children’s toys.
He turned, in silence, to his daughters, and did what had to be done.
Afterwards, he walked outside in the gathering darkness—towards the distant sound of battles, where the last of Rasamuri’s defenders were fighting for something that had been doomed from the start.
He held his sword in his hand, and the weight of his Armour pressed down on him. The light of the moon was cold on his face, on his exposed neck. And in his mind, Chandni was still dancing, to the screams of the dying and the sound of metal on metal, to the smell of smoke; to the smell of ashes spread over an earth that had to be destroyed and cleansed in order to bear seeds.
And he knew that in some indefinable, inconceivable way, he would be there when that earth bloomed again. He knew that some part of him would walk among the new flowers and the glimmering trees with Apura and Sawani and Rana—in an age of peace, an age of sunlight, an age of soft breezes and restful dreams, the age he had been made for.
For nothing ever truly ended.