Before she was cast as Indian mythology’s most jealous queen, she had her own story....The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, Kaikeyi is raised on stories about the might and benevolence of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharath prospers, and how they offer the devout and the wise powerful boons. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most-favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her. But as the demons of her childhood stories threaten the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family—especially that of her beloved son, Rama. Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak…and what legacy she intends to leave behind.In the spirit of Circe, Ariadne, and The Witch's Heart, this stunning debut reimagines the life of Kaikeyi, the vilified queen from the Indian epic the Ramayana. It is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.
Release date: April 26, 2022
Print pages: 432
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I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.
In Bharat, where the gods regularly responded to prayers and meddled in mortal affairs, the circumstances of my birth held great promise. This did not matter to my father, who cared only that my brother Yudhajit, being a boy, was the heir to the Kekaya kingdom. I was but a dowry of fifty fine horses waiting to happen. For each of my mother’s subsequent pregnancies, my father made sacrifices to the gods, requesting sons. In return, he was blessed with six more healthy boys, portents of future prosperity.
The people of Bharat have often blamed my father for my sins, as if a woman cannot own her actions. He was not a perfect man, that I freely admit, but for all his faults he loved each of his sons fiercely, playing with them in his throne room, bringing them the finest tutors in all the kingdom, and gifting them ponies so they would grow into brilliant cavalrymen.
If he bears any fault through my actions, it is through his inaction. I remember few occasions when we exchanged words, and fewer still when he sought to speak with me—save one.
My brothers and I were playing hide and catch in the sweeping field behind the palace and it was my turn to find them. I kept my eyes shut as their laughter faded into wind, opening them only after counting to twenty. I immediately saw a glimmer of movement by the stables.
I crept slowly toward whichever brother was hiding there, knowing that they would get more nervous by the second, and planning how best to catch them. I doubted it was Mohan, who was three years younger than me. He was short and slow and knew I could easily grab him. Shantanu was a bit older and was fast as a deer, but I could try to trap him by chasing him toward the palace wall. If it was Yudhajit, he would be almost impossible to catch, though maybe—
Shantanu stumbled out from behind the stable. With a whoop, I began sprinting toward him, my blood racing through my veins. But as I followed him past the side of the building, I stopped short. Had I just seen movement? I whirled around to find Yudhajit pressed against the wood, and my face split into a wild grin. He must have shoved Shantanu out of their mutual hiding spot to distract me.
I spun, chasing Yudhajit around the stable, knowing as I did that I could never beat him in an outright footrace. He rounded the corner out of sight, and from just beyond the wall came a strangled shout. A second later, my shin collided with bony flesh, and I fell onto a tangled heap of bodies, Yudhajit right below me.
“I got you!” I shouted breathlessly. Someone, probably Shantanu, groaned. I rolled off the pile and onto the hard ground, laughing, asking if they knew where Mohan was, when I saw legs coming toward me.
I sat up, squinting at the guard, aware my white kurta was smeared liberally with dirt and grass and my hair was falling from its braids, but only half-embarrassed. “Yudhajit, get up,” I hissed.
“You two,” the guard said, nodding his chin toward the group of us. “The raja would like to speak with you immediately.”
I rose to my feet. “We can play later,” I said to my brothers. “You two go, I’ll find Mohan.” I had started to walk away when the guard called.
“Yuvradnyi Kaikeyi, the raja wants you now.”
I turned to look at Yudhajit, shocked. He only shrugged at me.
We trailed behind the guard back to the palace, and each of my steps felt heavier than the last. Something had to be amiss for my father to summon me. But if I had done something to anger him, why would he want Yudhajit too?
As we approached the throne room, I dragged my feet against the stone, letting the guard and Yudhajit get farther and farther ahead. At the end of the hall the guard turned and glared, waiting by the closed door until I reached him, then swinging it open in a precise movement.
Yudhajit went in first, and I lingered a few seconds longer before following him into the flickering light of the hall. He half turned his head as I approached, and the light cast strange shadows on his wide forehead and narrow nose. His dark brown eyes held a flicker of apprehension and his lips were pressed into a thin line, in what I was sure was an eerie rendering of my own face.
I took my place a pace behind him and glanced surreptitiously around the room, afraid of attracting attention. During feasts, the high-ceilinged room was filled with rows of tables and throngs of people, and its cavernous depths did not seem large at all. Absent these preparations, the wooden pillars cast long shadows, the carvings of bulls and snakes and long-plumed birds that so entertained my younger brothers fading into the gloom. The huge crackling firepits, built partially to warm the entire hall when the weather turned in the winter and partially—I suspected—to intimidate visitors, made me feel even smaller than I usually did.
My father’s throne was carved out of dark wood into stark, undecorated lines, much like the man who sat upon it. One hand stroked his beard as he stared unwaveringly into the nearest pit, his thick eyebrows deeply furrowed. Despite the warmth of the flames, gooseflesh crawled up my skin, and I tried not to shiver.
After several minutes, Yudhajit, with all the patience of a twelve-year-old boy, blurted out, “Why did you call us here if you wanted to sit there and say nothing?”
Raja Ashwapati looked up at him as if he had not realized we were there. He did not spare so much as a glance for me, hidden behind my brother.
“Your mother—” he began. I glanced around the room, looking for her, but she was nowhere to be found. She would not have added much warmth to the room, but she was rarely cold the way Father was. Father opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, then said, “Your mother had to leave. She will not return.”
At that, Yudhajit laughed, and I winced. I wished we had learned this news from the guards, without Father present, so I could tell him it was not a prank. Had he not seen how distant our parents were toward each other, how quick to snap they were, how the edges of their relationship were fraying? But my brother, the brilliant heir, said, “We’re too old for you to joke with us this way, Father. Mother is a radnyi. A queen wouldn’t just leave.”
“Kekaya is no longer a radnyi,” Father said, and his eyes sought me out for the first time.
“Why—what—” Yudhajit’s shoulders drooped. “Who will… ?” He trailed off, apparently unable to describe what our mother actually did.
Our father sighed. “As the yuvradnyi, Kaikeyi will slowly assume some of the duties of the queenship, until you are old enough to wed.”
I bit down on my tongue. The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth and I swallowed before it could stain my teeth. I had no idea how to take on any of my mother’s responsibilities, nor did I have any desire to.
Yudhajit took my hand and squeezed it. “Surely Mother will come back,” he said. “She would not just leave us like that.”
The raja shook his head. “She told me she would never return. Kekaya is no longer welcome here.”
And just like that, we were dismissed.
In the hall, Yudhajit tried to speak to me, but I brushed him aside and raced back to my room, slamming the door behind me and falling to my knees. I knew what I needed to do.
Please, I prayed to the gods, those who watched over the land of Bharat. Please help me.
I invoked Chandra, god of the moon, Nastaya, the god of twins, and Kubera, the god of the north. Please, bring my mother back. Please, grant me the knowledge I need in her absence.
There was no reply.
The gods always answered the prayers of princesses, my tutors liked to tell me, for princesses were the most devout and holiest of all. But whether it be for rains or sunshine, for strength or knowledge, for new toys or clothes, they had never answered a single prayer of mine. Yudhajit, it seemed, had stolen all the good fortune of our birth for himself, leaving me bereft of any assistance at all.
But now, surely, they would answer. They would understand that a girl needed her mother. Who else could show me how to make my way through this world? Without her I was alone.
Kekaya did not act toward her children the way other noblewomen at court did. She never kissed my scrapes or held me when I cried after fighting with Yudhajit, never cuddled me before I went to bed at night. Instead, she taught me how to read, drawing the characters in a pan of sand and repeating them with me ten times, and ten more times, until I knew them by heart. And even then, she did not praise me. But she gave me scrolls and listened as I picked out stories.
My favorite was the churning of the ocean, that wondrous tale of the gods, and the asuras together churning the Ocean of Milk, seeking in its depths the nectar of immortality. The nectar must have been unimaginably delicious for them to form such an alliance—I could understand, for I loved sweets too. As they churned, they split between them the spoils that emerged from the Ocean: a tree twisted like the claws of a tiger, with sharp red flowers that could draw blood and grant boons. Wise and powerful goddesses including Lakshmi, seated on a pale pink lotus, her hair dripping gold. Even the moon itself, a luminescent pearl caught among the waves. And at last, they found the treasure they sought.
But the gods did not wish to share the nectar with the asuras, for this demonic race had long terrorized the earth and heavens with their lust for power. They were the only beings with the power to rival the gods, and the two were often at war. And so, the great Vishnu tricked the asuras out of the share they had been promised.
“But how could the gods lie when they are good?” I asked my mother, puzzled.
“The gods do what they must,” she said, but she gave me a smile and I felt clever.
When I had finished the legends, she took me alone through the maze of palace corridors and through the polished door of teak, set into the floor with a great, glinting silver handle. Together, we descended into the library cellar filled floor to ceiling with precious texts and dusty scrolls. And this felt like the greatest compliment of all. It was because of her I loved reading, consuming even the dullest treatise in my quest to learn all I could.
I had often doubted whether she even liked me, her only daughter. But now, my heart clenched oddly at the thought of losing her presence. I felt as though I could not breathe deeply enough.
I did not cry. But I continued to beseech the gods, even as the chamber grew dark around me, my knees stiff and aching from my seated position on the floor.
Finally, Manthara came to comb my hair and put me to bed. I was relieved to see her. At least I would not lose her too.
“Would you like to hear a story?” she asked, smiling at me in the mirror. “I have a new one for you.”
I shook my head, crossing my arms. Normally, I would beg her for songs or tales, and she would comply until my eyes grew heavy and images of splendid feats danced beneath my eyelids. But tonight, I said nothing at all. “Kaikeyi, I know you must be upset, but—” I slipped out of the chair, my hair half-braided, and flung myself onto the bed. Manthara could not bring my mother back. She did not understand how this felt. I had been relieved to see her, but now all I wanted was to be left alone until I could go find Yuhadjit. I could not take her sympathy, and I hoped if I was rude to her, she might leave. But Manthara simply stood and came to sit at my bedside. I turned away from her, and still she only clucked her tongue, one hand rubbing gentle circles into my back.
“All will be well,” she said, before bending down to press a kiss on the back of my head. My eyes filled with tears, so I clenched them shut, refusing to turn my head. Eventually, she rose and blew out the candle, closing the door very quietly behind her.
Seconds passed into minutes and I continued to lie there, waiting until the quiet of night had fully descended and I could safely leave.
Finally, breathlessly, I opened my door slowly and checked both ways, then padded down the hallway on bare feet. There were no torches, and the dark gray stone turned nearly black at this hour, the moonlight barely filtering in through the few windows lining the corridor. The low ceiling seemed to bear down on me with every step, but I was intent on my task.
My heart stopped for one agonizing moment. I pressed myself against the wall as it restarted at double speed. It was only my brother, whom I had ventured out to find in the first place. “Yudhajit?”
He was a few steps away now, clad in crisp white cotton sleep clothes that had clearly not been slept in. His eyes shone brightly in the darkness. He too must have been waiting for this still hour to leave his room. “What are you doing up?” he asked.
“What are you doing up?” I retorted, not wanting to admit I had been coming to get him.
He made a face. “I asked you first.”
I shrugged and started walking away, trying to feign indifference. The court had taught me patience, but it had taught Yudhajit impulsivity. Only one of us knew how to hold their tongue.
“I couldn’t sleep. I miss Mother. She did not even say goodbye to us. I—I don’t understand.” His voice twisted and broke, and I found myself fighting back tears as well.
Unwilling to face my own grief, I kept walking, and he easily caught up to me, filling the space by my side as he always did.
We slipped like ghosts through the hallways, not wanting to return to bed just yet. In unspoken agreement, we found ourselves heading toward the door to the kitchens, our stomachs growling in unison.
Yudhajit moved ahead to open the door. I had grown distracted thinking of what sweets I might find to snack on and did not realize he had stopped until I walked right into him. He stumbled slightly but did not make a sound, pointing his chin toward the entrance. After a moment, I heard what he did—the faintest murmur of voices. We tiptoed closer, closer, closer, until the murmurs became words.
“So long as nobody learns the truth, it does not matter.” I could not recognize the deep voice, resonating through the small space like the beat of an animal-hide drum.
Yudhajit, more familiar with the men of the palace, mouthed Prasad at me. An advisor who I had seen at formal court occasions, but never interacted with. He sat near the king, so my father likely valued him.
The second voice I recognized immediately. It belonged to my mother’s former lady-in-waiting, Dhanteri. “It matters to me,” she said sharply.
“It shouldn’t,” Prasad replied.
“I know. Manthara knows. Why keep it a secret? The children deserve to know.”
“Neither of you can tell another soul, or both of you will find yourself unable to work.”
Dhanteri laughed, a sound without any happiness at all. “I am already without work. The raja saw to that when he banished Radnyi Kekaya.”
If our bodies had not been nearly occupying the same space, I would not have noticed Yudhajit’s quiet gasp.
I was listening, straining for answers, as though by will alone I could force these adults to tell me what I craved to know.
“Woman, she is not your radnyi anymore. You will not speak another word, or I will ensure that you are the last of your name,” Prasad hissed. His tone frightened me.
I snuck a glance at Yudhajit to see if perhaps he understood what that threat meant, but he looked as confused as I did.
“If you keep your mouth shut,” Prasad added, “I will see to it that you are kept on, to manage the women’s work in the court.”
There was silence for a moment. “As you say, Arya Prasad.” The faintest rustle of cloth came from behind the door. “I will speak to Manthara.”
“See that you do. So long as everyone believes Radnyi Kekaya left of her own accord, it will not matter what really happened.”
Yudhajit and I backed away from the door as one, rounding the corner slowly, carefully. But when we were sure we would not be heard, we darted fast, bare feet leaving brief impressions of dampness against the cool stone. Only when we reached our rooms did we stop, facing each other and panting.
“What do we do?” Yudhajit asked. “Surely they could not have been telling the truth.”
“There’s nothing we can do,” I said.
“We can talk to Father—”
“No!” I cut him off. “Please, we cannot tell anyone. You heard what Prasad said. If you tell anyone, Manthara will have to leave.” I couldn’t stomach the thought.
“You shouldn’t need your nurse anymore, Kaikeyi. We’re twelve, almost adults.” Yudhajit scoffed. He had only recently become taller than me. I hated his new height and the way he could look down upon me now, but I hated even more that he was right. Still, I would not give up Manthara.
“Please?” I asked.
He held my gaze for a moment, then sighed and nodded. “Perhaps we can pray to the gods to change Father’s mind,” he said.
I shook my head at him. “The gods cannot force someone to change their mind. You know how Father is. He has made this decision, and it will be final.”
Yudhajit’s shoulders slumped. “I suppose.”
We stood there together in silence for several moments more, until I yawned, the energy that had pushed me out of bed and through the halls finally draining out of me. Yudhajit caught my yawn, and we both grinned at each other.
Even so, when I went back into my room and climbed into bed, sleep evaded me. I stared up at the ceiling, wondering what gods my family might have displeased to have such misfortune.
THE NEXT MORNING, I woke with the realization that I had not tried everything to bring my mother back. I had prayed to the important gods, to the ones I knew, but she always told me I had more to learn. She had showed me the cellar full of scrolls, and what better place than that to find a minor god? Perhaps one less busy answering the prayers of others would find time for me. They might not change my father’s decision, but perhaps the gods could spirit her to me in secret. Or alter her face so my father could not recognize her. I had heard of such things in stories, at least.
I had no obligations that morning, and so I set out alone for the cellar, located in a far corner of the palace. The golden light of the morning sun filtering in through the small windows did little to make the narrow corridors feel less unwelcoming. The palace was laid out in a tight, intricate maze, and without my mother to guide me, I got lost twice on the way to the library. The wooden door embedded in the floor was heavier than I remembered without my mother’s help, but eventually I heaved it to open, then stood on my toes to fumble a torch from the wall so I could set off down the steps.
Immediately, the earthy scent of the room filled my nose. I breathed deeply, remembering how not so long ago, my mother had explained to me where I could find whatever I might want to read.
“Here, Kaikeyi, there are old stories,” she said. “And here are histories of old kings. On this shelf are scrolls of prayers and rituals, and there some older religious texts. They are not much good to read, but if you want to, you may. Anything in this room is yours to know.”
At the time, I had barely paid attention to her, opening and closing scrolls like a young child at a feast, unable to believe the sight that lay before me. She simply laughed and let me explore until I settled on a geography of Kekaya and its surrounding lands. I picked it simply because I knew Yudhajit was currently studying the same geography and I wished to impress him—but my mother did not care to know such information.
She picked a scroll of her own and beckoned me over to a corner. We sat and read together for some time, and although I quickly regretted the boring treatise I had picked, I basked in the closeness to my mother.
I picked my way through painstaking details about the swirling waters of the Chandrabagha River at the northern border of Kekaya, which sprang from the high peaks of the Indra Mountains, where stone pierced the clouds, and ran until it met the gentler waves of the tumbling Sarasvati River. That river marked the southeastern border of Kekaya and was the holiest place in the kingdom. I recalled few other lessons from that scroll, but I still held within me the memory of the steady presence of my mother, the feeling that we shared something.
Now I tried to remember her explanations, walking among the shelves until I found one devoted to prayers and rituals. I could tell after only a few minutes that these would not help me—they contained nothing I didn’t already know. So, I moved on to the older scrolls.
The first one I opened referenced a goddess I had never heard of. The second was a prayer to a god whose name I could not decipher. This was what I needed. I grabbed as many as I could fit under one arm and then clambered back up the stairs, closing the door with a thud and returning the torch. I crept back to my rooms, hoping to avoid attention, for I did not want to answer any questions about why I had taken these scrolls or who had shown me where to find them.
I spent all day reading. I learned about the goddess of elephants, a lesser known avatar of Lord Ganesh, and sent a fervent prayer to her, although I did not expect she could help me much. I prayed to the god of travelers, Lord Pushana, thinking this more apt, for he was one of many brothers, overshadowed by Lord Surya, whose fiery red chariot pulled the sun through the sky, and Lord Indra, who wielded a five-pronged spear of thunderbolts and ruled the gods. If anyone might be sympathetic to my plight, surely it would be him.
There were other scrolls too, about which penances would help someone obtain boons from the gods. Except these were no use, as they all required the gods to answer in the first place.
Finally, I gently unfurled a scroll that was so thin and worn it seemed to have been written over one hundred years ago. Its edges were frayed, and the patterns of the language hard to decipher. I turned my attention to the neat rows of text and tried to remember my tutors’ lessons as I used my finger to trace each word.
About halfway through, I realized this text made no mention at all of gods. It was simply a meditation exercise.
I threw it aside, frustrated. After a moment, I pulled a small box of sweets from under my bed and ate one, then another and another. Slowly my anger dissipated, the sugar softening the hard knot within me. I licked my fingers clean.
Calmer, I reread the title of the scroll: “Summoning the Power of the Gods by Concentration Alone.” Perhaps it was a meditation ritual that would bring general godly attention? I laid the paper down in front of me and performed each of the steps in turn: I slowed my breath, fixed my gaze at a point one hand’s length from my solar plexus, concentrated my energy and—
I must have mistranslated, for the next step, to my best estimation, read, “Let your gaze slip into the Binding Plane. If you have trouble locating such a place, seek out the threads that connect you and use the words of focus given below.”
This sounded like nonsense. But still, I had nothing else to try. I committed them to memory.
My breathing slowed and I stared ahead of me, focusing as hard as I could, then recited the syllables.
I tried again, and again. Nothing. The scroll provided no further insight, for the last few lines merely stated that this art was impossible to master by all but a select few.
I set the scroll down, tears stinging my eyes. Another day, another failure. I could not bring my mother back. I remembered what Prasad had said last night about why my mother left, and anger welled up in me at the idea that my father was responsible. It did not matter what my mother had done. How could he do this to me? My brothers needed her too, but what was I to do without her guidance? A tear slipped down my cheek, then another and another, as I gathered all the scrolls in a haphazard pile and pushed them under my bed. I curled up on top of the covers until dinnertime. Then I washed my face and joined my brothers, all of us silent and pale-faced.
The kitchen must have been trying to cheer us up—the table was laden with trays of hot roti glistening with ghee, delicately spiced vegetables sending a delicious fragrance into the air, and fresh yogurt dotted with bright pomegranate. Ordinarily such a feast would’ve been a treat, all of us negotiating for the largest portions—but today all it did was reinforce the fact that we were to be pitied, for our mother was gone.
That night, as Manthara combed out my hair in long, gentle strokes, I asked, “What did my mother do?” If anyone knew, it would be Manthara. She was my mother’s age and had been my servant as long as I could remember, attending my mother before that. She was my favorite person in the world besides Yudhajit, the one who nursed me when I was ill, sat by my side if I was afraid of monsters at night, or wiped my tears away when my brothers pushed me down.
Manthara started. “Why do you think she did something/”
“I—” I knew I could not lie to Manthara, and so after a half-hearted second of considering it, I told her the truth. “I overheard someone talking.”
She sighed, her movement pausing. I turned to look at her. Her nearly black eyes were soft, sad, and the dupatta she usually wore over her head had slipped down to her bun. “Kekaya would never willingly leave you, child.”
“Then why did she make Father—”
“She did not force the raja to do anything,” Manthara said. “I doubt anyone could.”
She returned to combing out my hair, cool fingers brushing against my neck and providing some small relief from the pressing heat. I remained quiet. I knew her well enough to suspect she had more to say.
Some time passed before Manthara asked, “Do you know about your father’s boon?”
This question surprised me. Boons were powerful gifts, granted by the gods to those mortals who had won their favor through their piety or goodness or courage, after they prayed and fasted and performed intricate rituals. People who received boons rarely discussed them, as they did not wish to lose their gifts through arrogance or carelessness.
But I was aware of my father’s gift—it had been granted many years ago, for his steadfast devotion to Lord Vishnu. It was a boon I found oddly whimsical, when I considered my distant and pragmatic father. I nodded, then hissed in pain as the motion caused the comb to catch on a particularly nasty tangle. “Yes. He can understand the language of birds.”
I hoped to earn a boon one day, but I intended to ask for something better, wiser than the gift to comprehend the chatter of the silly myna birds or ill-tempered peacocks that frequented our gardens. I would ask to be the ruler of a great kingdom. Or for the power to heal all the sick. Perhaps I would wish for the ability to find whomever I wished, or better yet to keep the ones I loved close to me.
Manthara’s voice pulled me back. “That is correct. But there is a cost to his boon. He may never divulge what he hears, on pain of death. Not to anyone.” Manthara worked through the knot with her fingers, slowly separating the strands of wayward hair. “He claims that while on a walk, he was privy to a conversation between two swans, and your mother begged him to tell her what the pair had said.”
I twisted around, yanking my hair out of Manthara’s grasp. “Why would she do such a thing? Surely she doesn’t want Father to die!”
“Who knows?” Manthara replied, pushing my head forward again. She acted very familiar with me for a servant, but I loved her and did not care. “Kekaya told me a different story, but I do not wish to contradict our king.”
We were both silent as she moved in front of me to rub oil into my scalp. Her fingers pressed into my skin, relaxing me. I thought of leaning against my mother in the quiet library, the scent of scrolls and the hidden mysteries they contained all around us. I thought of the texts filled with descriptions of the gods and their boons, how none of them had warned of the path that my family had traveled down. Suddenly, the words of the meditation mantra I had read earlier leapt unbidden into my mind.
I recited them silently, sleepily, leaning into Manthara’s deft hands.
All at once, a red rope shimmered into existence, starting just above my stomach and ending at Manthara’s. I almost cried out. I blinked hard, sure I was imagining it—but it didn’t vanish. My mouth dropped open, and slowly I lifted my hand to touch it. But my fingers passed straight through.
“Kaikeyi? Did you see a fly?” Manthara asked, her hands stilling as she glanced around the room. The rope dissolved into the air. Bewildered, I continued to stare at the are where it had been. “Kaikeyi!”
“Y-yes.” I stammered the lie. “But it’s gone now.” I rubbed at my eyes and saw the imprint of the rope dancing behind them.
“Hmm.” She went back to her ministrations.
Cautiously, I repeated the words to myself again.
The rope appeared. I nearly toppled out of my chair, Manthara accidentally yanking my hair as I started.
“What is it?” she asked, alarmed. “Are you well?”
“I—” The rope did not change but simply vibrated in a slow pulse. There was no way to explain what I was seeing. I righted myself. I think I am just tired.” I kept my eyes fixed on the rope.
Manthara sighed. “You are a child,” she said. “I am sure this must be very difficult for you. I want you to know that I spoke to your mother before her departure. She was distraught. She did not want to leave you.”
I had never seen my mother express any emotion on my behalf, and this absurdity was enough to distract me briefly from the rope. “Why would my father not tell us he banished her?” I asked. As I spoke, a small current seemed to shimmer down the rope, starting at my chest and going to Manthara’s.
“I do not know what goes through the mind of the raja,” Manthara said. “And it is not my place to guess.” She bound the end of my braid and pressed a kiss to my head. “You’re ready for bed. Be a good girl and go straight to sleep.”
She left, the glimmering cord between us lengthening but not thinning as the door closed behind her. I climbed into my bed and stared at the place where the rope seemed to pass through the wood. Was this even real? My heart raced with the possibilities.
As I studded the red rope, an even stranger thing happened. I noticed other glimmerings in the air. When I shifted my concentration toward them, more cords materialized, all leading back to my solar plexus and extending out through the door. There were threads of gold, broad strands of varying thickness and color, mottled woolen strings, and floss so fine I could barely see it. It seemed impossible that I could have somehow imagined such a rich tapestry—but what other explanation was there?
Or perhaps my mother’s departure had driven me to madness. I shut my eyes against the onslaught of color.
When I opened them again, the web of light was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief. I wanted the gods’ approval so badly that I had convinced myself that some silly meditation on an old scroll had power in it. That was all. That had to be all.
Yet still I lay in bed, once again unable to sleep, reality as I knew it warring with curiosity over this strange world, even if it was of my own creation. I turned from one side to the other, trying to find a position that would allow me to relax, but I could not remove from my mind the possibility that this was real. My skin itched, and my limbs felt restless.
Finally, I decided, I would test it out just once more. I whispered the mantra all in a rush, almost hoping that it wouldn’t work. But there the strings appeared again. I could find the red one I had originally associated with Manthara, more vivid and glowing than the others.
Breathlessly, I waved my shaking fingers through the strings, but once again, they shimmered around my skin, allowing my hand to pass through.
I focused instead on Manthara’s strand and imagined plucking it like the string on a veena. It leapt up, vibrating as though I had touched it.
Excitement thrummed through me. I got out of bed, lit a small lamp, and pulled the Binding Plane scroll from beneath my cot. “Seek out the threads that connect you,” it said. I pondered this. Perhaps those words, thread and connect, I had convinced myself that this mantra showed me the connections between myself and others?
Suddenly, the door swung open. The strings disappeared and I dropped the scroll, nudging it behind me as Manthara hurried in. “Are you okay?” she asked.
I hastily snuffed the candle. “Yes?” I ventured after a moment. “Are you?”
Manthara had never come into my room this late at night before, but now she stood before me in a simple shift, her hair in a long braid down her back, breathing hard. “I’m sorry to disturb you. I was lying in my room when suddenly I grew so worried about you. I just had to check—” She seemed to notice then that I was out of bed with a lamp in my hand. “What were you doing up?” she asked suspiciously.
I stayed silent for a moment, considering her words. A few minutes ago, I had pulled on the rope that I imagined connected me to Manthara, and now she was here before me. Could it be that these threads were not made up at all—that I had somehow summoned her here?
I thought the mantra to myself and gave the red rope a light brush with my mind.
Manthara took two steps forward and wrapped her arms around me. “Are you sure you’re all right?” she whispered in my hair. She smelled of mint leaves and crisp cotton, warm and comforting.
I hugged her back. “Yes, of course,” I said. But my mind was reeling. My hands were shaking, so I clasped them together, pulling back from her. “I was only looking for some sweets,” I lied. I resolved in that moment to never tell Manthara the truth of whatever I had discovered. She would think me mad, and I could not lose her.
Even in the darkness, Manthara’s squint was evident. “You had the lamp lit. Were you trying to sneak out?”
“No!” I protested, casting about for some explanation that wouldn’t involve admitting to the stolen scrolls. Nothing came to mind. “I really was just hungry.”
In the Binding Plane, the thread between us jumped of its own accord. Did it know I was lying? Or was this due to Manthara’s skepticism? I reached out with my mind to calm it. Please let her believe me. And somehow, as if by magic, the thread quieted.
Why had I done that? Had I harmed her? It had happened so instinctively.
I studied her anxiously, but she appeared to be fine. She merely sighed and said, “I suppose you must not have had an appetite at dinner, with all that has happened. But you need to rest. I will sit here until you fall asleep.”
I did not think I could possibly sleep, knowing these threads existed—that I had somehow brought them into existence with my words and my mind. But I hadn’t anticipated the power of Manthara’s hand stroking my hair, smoothing away the emotional turmoil of the day, and the heartsick ache that filled me when I thought of my mother. Sleep pulled me under before I could stop it.
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