In one version of the story, nobody dies, and you get to keep the princess as your maid.
She chafes against this, longing for her silks and jewels. You scoff, tugging her after you, a tangle of jasmine wound around her arms. She’s tried to break free many times, plaintively singing to the deer and the birds and the sky for help, but everything in your ashram bows to your father, even the quilt of sky above, and he is the one who bound her. And so, your princess just weeps.
But for all her faults, in that version of the story, the princess at least is a pious girl beloved of the gods. So much so that all her tears turn into sapphires and rubies, collecting in little piles by her feet. And although she protests when you sweep them into the folds of your sari, she knows that you are her mistress and she cannot stop you from doing what you want.
What you want, in that version of the story, is to take the riches from your princess’s tears, buy all the weapons of Patala, and then march into Amaravati, the great celestial city, where you will kill all the gods.
Every single one of the three hundred and thirty million.
And when their slithering godblood runs down the diamond facade of Mount Meru, you will bathe your hair in it, soaking until your scalp is drenched and your sari drips crimson, and then—only then—will your revenge be complete.
In that version of the story.
In another version of the story, which is still not the real story, you are on your knees in your ashram, trying to put your father back together. You have already tried this with frantic hands and magic, with careful hands and needles, with sticky paste from deodar trees and the decanted salts of your own tears and the drip drip of your blood churned black with incantation. Now, hours later, you are appealing to his logic: telling him how stupid you are, what an idiot-child, can’t even put your father back together.
Your father is saying nothing back at all, having burst open some time ago like ripe fruit.
In the version of the story you choose to be true, you are kneeling in your father’s blood, silent. His godly killer has just fled the scene, hoisted onto a heavenly chariot, fading into a distant astral blip in seconds. In his wake, at this scene of crime, there is no revenge, no confrontation, no loud lamentation. Only silence.
Lotuses bloom vividly everywhere a piece of your father has landed. They’re beneath your feet, climbing the walls. Great lotus leaves brush your face when you move, enfolding you in shadow over and over. Your princess sits slumped on the floor, blowing her nose into one.
“Did you hear it?” you ask, hushed. “The spell. Do you know it?”
Beneath the mountain of lotus blooms, your princess is naked as the day she was born. There is no blood on her skin, clean and new, but gore drips from her hair and coats her shoulders like a grim cape.
Your princess’s nod is miniscule, just a quick jerk of her head before she resumes staring pallidly at the violence.
“I’ll free you.”
Your princess’s eyes snap wide open.
“I’ll free you from your curse, and in return, you’ll tell me what you heard. Do we have a deal?”
You wonder what you will do if she says no. If she leaves you alone to deal with the shattered bone and adipose florets and stringy grey matter that is all that is left of your father. But the princess is too crafty to pass up this opportunity.
“You’ll free me,” she echoes. “No tricks.”
“And after I’m freed?” she asks. “What will you do?”
That is none of her business. You wring your father’s blood from your hands. You crush a flower under your foot. You wait until your princess stops waiting for an answer, blood-stained face shuttering over.
When you put your arm out, in partnership, your princess takes it.
There are two threads of stories here woven together into a loose braid, one bloodier than the other. Your princess is the strongest strand in the first thread. Your father is the bloodiest one in the other. Between the two, linking force, are you and Kacha.
Maybe you should have started the story with Kacha.
In a more traditional story, he is the hero after all. Kacha, in his blue silks and gold earrings. Kacha, with his silvertongue. Kacha, who even the goats liked, the traitorous bastards.
Some months ago, when his big celestial retinue arrived, all flappy-winged vimanas and heralds blowing conch-shells, some of your handmaidens crowded the dance hall. They jostled each other, ankle-bells tinkling, a murmuration of gentle creatures hiding vicious teeth. Each one called out a new, juicy bit of information: he wears a diamond on his chest, the size of a mango! His body is strong and robust like a peach! Oh, my lady, my lady, his servants carry bowls of fruit, gold-stringed veenas, and such heavenly flowers!
You tossed your braid over your shoulder. “If he adorns his chest with such sizeable jewels, girls, should we worry if he lacks elsewhere?”
“He’s come to study with your father, my lady,” Maniprabha said. “What he lacks in physical prowess, he must possess in spirit.”
“Spirit,” Samyukta laughed. “Are the gods’ spirits not destroyed after centuries of losing wars against us? Are they not tired of their little sons dying like pitiful worms on the battlefields? Do they not seek peace by sending their own to study here at the ashram of the demon sage?”
“It’s not peace they want,” you said. “It’s something else.”
The girls all exchanged glances at that, swooning with curiosity, but you were the mistress. You decided if you wanted to include them in your secret. You decided if you wanted to leave them hanging, spinning their theories as intricately as they worked the ashram’s looms.
“The gods have sent him to sniff out a secret,” you said. “He’s a spy.”
“A spy? A secret? What secret?”
But a queen without secrets is no queen at all, and you only smiled. “Father will need me. I must go now to welcome our new guest.”
Outside, in the seething emerald fields of your father’s ashram, Kacha stood bent in half, hands clasped, all his attendants singing harmonious praises of your father's might. Your new guest's face was neither stunning nor memorable. His voice, however, boomed in messianic thunder when he spoke: “Oh, Saint of Saints! Most Knowledgeable One in Patala! I thank you for accepting me as your most humble student."
He kneeled, bejeweled forehead pressed to your father's feet. Flowers tumbled from the center of his palms: jasmine and marigold, rose mallow and calotrope, oleander and parijat.
Your father cast a bemused smile. Lightning flickered in his coiled beard. Raw cosmic power thrummed from him in tympanic waves, flattening the grass, buffeting the crown off Kacha’s head. “Rise, student,” he boomed, motioning you forward. You performed the welcoming rituals: washing Kacha’s feet with rose water, smearing sandalwood and turmeric paste on his forehead, garlanding him with marigolds so bright the bees swarmed in droves.
“This is my daughter Devayani,” your father said. “It’s her job to make sure that your stay with us is most pleasurable.”
Most pleasurable! Ha! You knew your father. You knew he expected you to sidle up to Kacha and seduce him, lure his secrets from his mouth, feed him lies and flirtations just like you fed milk and ghee to the snakes in the ashram’s groves every morning.
Kacha was already assessing the curve of your mouth, your hip where you had shifted your sari to offer a glimpse of your skin. “Lady Devayani,” he murmured. “They whisper rumors in Amaravati that the demon sage’s daughter is more beautiful than all of heaven’s apsaras. I see now that there was no hyperbole.”
“You flatter me, my lord.”
“I look forward to studying under your father,” Kacha said. “But I fear now, after meeting you, that I will have to work very hard indeed to stay focused.”
His shoulders blocked out the sun. The diamond on his chest, set amidst repeating lotus-patterns of embroidery, made you suddenly dizzy. You stumbled, momentarily blinded, dropping your tray of rose and turmeric. He caught you neatly, long fingers folding around your wrist.
“Lady Devayani,” he said. “I’m sure you will have much to teach me, as well."
Your fingers rubbed unconsciously where his touch left welts on your wrists, an effect of his godblood. Each one was reddened, raised; alphabets in a harsh language carved into your skin. Your father’s future murderer saw them and only smiled: a whetted thing, sharp and profane.
That was the beginning.
This is the circuitous route you take to an ending.
You and your princess leave your dead father in the ashram and descend into the realms of Patala.
This is where the demons live, in their underground cities of gold and gemstone trees. At the gates, your princess pulls weakly against her flower-chains, unwilling to go any further.
“They won’t eat you,” you say. “There are better things to eat in Patala. The exquisite glair of Naga eggs. Black-skinned fish from the river Hataki. Sweets from the tables of the demon-king Bali, wrapped in sugar-soaked silver. They have no need for bland princess-flesh.”
She stares at you, aghast. You wonder how she will tell this story to the future princes lining up for her attention. You: demoness, daughter of the Dark Sage, leading her into the realms of ghosts and goblins. She: victim, hostage, held captive by a beautiful monster.
What a repugnant fable.
Your mouth turns in a curdled grimace. “Stay with me and maybe they won't rip the meat off your bones."
The vimana you summon to travel into the underworld is elegant, with swan wings that ruffle at every breeze and seats of blue and gold. A glittering green snake adorns its side, fat diamonds for eyes.
O Pious Daughter! It hisses when you board. How is your father?
Your princess opens her mouth, surely to blab about how your father is currently a formless flesh-splatter, but you hum the opening words of an incantation, the syllables slippery as eels. Your princess clicks her mouth shut, pop, hands jumping in surprise to her throat. It is not until you’re descending into the first level of Patala that you let her speak again.
“You’re not my mistress anymore,” she spits. “Don’t do that again.”
“If the demons know their sage is dead, they will march against the gods. The gods will call the sun and moon to arms, and the earth will be plunged into eons of icy nights and monstrous tides. Do you want that?”
“Don’t you? It’s your father who’s dead—”
"Another word and I'll stitch your mouth shut. With iron."
Your princess believes you. She looks out instead, eyes wide, at the winding streets and drinking parlors.
The first city of Patala is resplendently beautiful. The demon-architect Maya’s miraculous palaces glisten like beetle carapaces, all stained glass and coruscating light-beams. Canopies of ivory filigree and statues of bronze adorn the wide avenues. A vista of gemstones spills slanted light across an artificial sky, illuminating the city in strange, twinkling light.
Your father always called it excess. When the demons came to him for advice, he told them not to test the gods. Build just enough marvels. Keep your palaces just a bit smaller than theirs. Do not tempt celestial wrath, and maybe the demons could keep their cities, their sorcery, their strange and darkling denizens.
“It’s beautiful,” your princess says. “I didn’t think it would be beautiful.”
“Did you think it would all be vermin and filth?”
“No. I’ve heard the stories …”
“Women that lie with any man for a drink. Nagas that live in holes like animals. Are those the stories you’ve heard?”
In the gem-light, your princess looks like she wants to put her fist through your face. “They won’t come back, you know,” she says. “Kacha’s gone. Your father never loved you. So, you can snap at me all you wish, but they won’t come back for you. Nobody wants you.”
But this is where she misunderstands you. This is not a story about your father, or Kacha. This is a story about you.
You are Devayani, daughter of the demon sage, mistress of his ashram now that he is gone. Your father taught you how to meditate for as long as it took to bottle thunderstorms and weaponize blood. In your grottos of horns and teeth, he instructed you on dance-mantras that brought about droughts or floods. Your feet became a palimpsest of scars, layered and sliced by hours of dancing. Your very bones are carved with treatises on the importance of illusions and hypnosis, the mysteries of augury, the secretive, coded stratagems of celestial warfare.
Kacha and your father are in your past.
Your present is about you.
“Where are we going?” your princess asks.
“To the night markets. To find a locksmith who knows sorcery. Your shackles are demon-made and answer only to the one who put them on you.”
“But your father is dead.”
“Someone there will know how to free you.”
“And after that?”
You turn your head away, pressing your lips together, pretending to feast your eyes on the sights. It doesn’t take your princess too long to stop asking.
In any version of your universe, this is heaven’s most coveted secret, your father’s greatest legacy: he can raise the dead.
After the day’s battle climaxed, when the battlefields smoked and dozed uneasy at night, your father would walk through mounds of corpses and broken chariots, chanting the incantations. As he walked, demonic corpse-soldiers rose in his wake, shambling after him into the ashram.
You and your handmaidens would sit at the looms, weaving the soldiers’ new skins. The dead could not live in the skin they’d died in; their souls hung out of it, untucked, and they flopped about like fish. When the new skins were finished, you and your father stitched them onto the demons, dusted off their thick clubs, and sent them back to war.
The gods and demons have been at war for centuries. The gods were forever dying, being sucked into the karmic pipeline, cycling through reincarnation like leaves buffeting helplessly in a gale. The demons died and simply came back, as if dying was nothing but a mild inconvenience.
It ruffled some big heavenly feathers. Bruised some tall celestial egos.
You and your father were prepared for spies. Many from heaven’s ranks had come here before, pretending to seek tutelage, burrowing instead for information on the resurrection spell. But none were as subtle and determined as Kacha.
He was a good student. He studied deep into the night, poring over palm-leaf texts while your father meditated. He took diligent notes and debated for hours with your father on complex cosmic paradoxes. When he was not taking lessons, Kacha whittled wood into fantastic creatures that followed you around. There was a parrot with a green glass eye, and a rabbit so small it would fit in the cup of your palm. A monkey swung from the folds of your sari, bringing you flowers and oddly patterned stones, writing you messages such as:
Today I watched you dance. I have seen celestial apsaras dance in Indra’s palace above Mount Meru. They are not as skilled as you are, Devayani, or: I wish these treatises on conjuring spirits and calculating cumulative karmic scores was as arresting as your singing, Devayani.
You pretended to be charmed, blushing whenever he sent you a new message. His overtures of love cloyed in your mouth like oversweet rose-jam.
At Kacha’s request, you took him on tours of the ashram. You showed him the looms and the dance hall. You let him row the two of you out to the middle of the lotus pond, far enough in dawn’s fog that there was nothing in either direction but mist-shrouded blooms.
“This is where apsaras are born,” he told you, plucking a plush pink blossom. “In the hearts of flowers, soft as morning dew. Have you seen an apsara?”
You shook your head.
“I’ll show you one day,” he said. “Oh, Devayani, don’t you chafe at being locked up here in your ashram? Such a clever girl should see the world. I could take you.”
Kacha came to see you after his lessons, coaxing you to feed the deer with him or augur the shapes of clouds in the sky. He tucked flowers behind your ear and told you stories of Amaravati, his home in the skies. He made you a model of it with clay and silk and precious things, laying out wide boulevards and golden gates, sparkling indoor waterways, food-halls where celestial cooks prepared the loveliest of dishes for the gods’ banquets.
“What does an ascetic’s daughter know of sweets?” he lamented. “When I take you to Amaravati, I will bring you to the halls and let you have your pick of the sweets. Sugar-wafers drizzled with honey so light it melts on your tongue. Milk and khoya confections with surprise berry hearts. Frosted sugar-soaked cucumber garnished with candied petals.”
You cradled a coy grin at your lips. “You seem to have a sweet tongue, my lord.”
Tangerine flowers rinsed through the trees like flotsam. Butterflies spun in spiraling drifts. Kacha’s smile sharpened. “Would you like a taste, my lady?”
His touch made you burn and bubble, a beautiful firework held too close to skin. Pain bloomed, white and scalding, and you cried out again and again. Still he, feigning oblivion, pressed his mouth to yours, seeking the heat of your tongue.
He did not taste sweet. He tasted like iron, and salt, and the acid tang of godblood. You clenched your fists tight enough to carve bloody moons into your palms but did not pull away.
This was what your father expected from you, after all.
That you would dance close enough to serpents that they showed you their venom. That you would sit through the heat of a hundred scorpion stings. That you would bathe in godblood, if required, let it slough your skin off, if only it meant you could catch your father his godly spy.
“Oh, Devayani, my love,” Kacha cried, when you parted at last. “I fear our happiness will be short-lived. The demons suspect me of being a spy. I fear they are plotting to harm me. I am terrified that if I die, our love will break your heart. How could I bear leaving you? How could my soul rest, knowing you will be pain?”
And here, well-rehearsed, you assured Kacha with syrup-thick words that he need not fear. You would speak to your father on his behalf. You were the demon sage’s daughter after all. You promised: your love would always protect him.
The very next day, you found Kacha dead for the first time.
The night markets occupy the riverside of the third level of Patala.
The river here runs aureate, casting a glow over the ghosts and goblins that call the city its home. Boats full of men row across it, blowing long plumes of fire. When the fire fans the surface of the water, it spits and hisses, turning into ropes of gleaming gold which adorn the chests of the vendors at the market.
The market is a dizzying tangle of wares, sourced from all seven of Patala’s realms. Foggy glass tanks, teeming with bathypelagic creatures from the primordial ocean of the lowest level. Spines of gods, crackling with power, battle-won and encased in silver by Maya’s craftsmen. Fangs of panthers and elephant hair, sold by all manners of strange netherworld folk: mottled-blue vetalas, living upside-down in trees; grey-skinned pisacha, feeding on corpse-flesh; dark-eyed rakshasa, shifting shape into whoever you desire most.
You once purchased your dancing bells from here, from a pisacha woman whose breath was thick with death and sorcery. It is to her you go now, tugging your princess behind you.
She blanches at the sight of the shop. “This doesn’t look like the house of a locksmith.”
Rows of skulls line the shelves, and bones hang from the rafters, tinkling grotesquely. Vertiginous drifts of corpse-ash execute strange calligraphy in the still air. The pisacha woman shuffles to you, bells decorating the hollows of her desiccated ribcage, jangling with each step she takes.
“Pious Daughter,” she rasps, her flickering tongue dusty grey. “You smell of death and blood. What can I do for you?”
Your princess quivers. “No tricks,” she whispers. “You promised.”
Your promises are not worth much. Still: “My father made these bonds,” you tell the pisacha. “Can you break them?”
“Upala can do all sorcery,” the pisacha says, glassy eyes focused intently on your princess. “Snip, snip with magic knife. Cuts through even Indra’s armor.”
While Upala goes to get her magic knife, your princess gives you a suspicious look. “If it’s that easy, why couldn’t you just do it yourself?”
“I have other business here.”
When Upala comes back, you ask the price of her magic knife. Your princess’s brows furrow. A piece of bone from your father is still stuck in her hastily washed hair. You think of saying something but then turn away, deciding to let her have the pleasure of discovering this ghoulish accessory all to herself.
In some versions of your story, which you do not want to be the story, you are nothing but the querulous daughter of a powerful man, spending your days conversing with twee forest creatures. You learn dance and music, but never the spells and incantations that make them your weapons. Your father never thinks to teach you because what use is teaching a daughter?
In those versions, you are simply a distraction in the tales of conflicts between powerful men. A girl living in the margins of her own story.
Those versions of you are not ambitious. Those versions of you do not go exploring Patala, or demand things from your father. Things like tell me how to brew elixirs, or teach me how to enter another’s consciousness, or give me the secret of resurrection.
In every version of you that exists, your father chastises you for demanding the resurrection spell.
He banishes you from his hut when you persist, corralling you to your dance hall for weeks. In your rage, you break every pane of glass adorning the latticed walls. You kick at pots of saffron and turmeric and indigo. You dance in the mess, painting the hall vivid in your anger, casting spells to turn all your handmaidens into brightly dyed rabbits.
Your father lets you.
“The only obstacle to the victory of the gods is the resurrection spell,” he tells you while you sulk on the floor, boneless. "It’s a secret I must guard closely."
"I'm your daughter," you spit. "Why can’t you teach me everything?”
Your father's eyes flash, miniature suns. "You act like a spoiled child, Devayani,” he says, dispassionate. “What if I teach you the resurrection spell today and you, fickle as you are, teach it to any simple paramour the gods might send to trick you? What if I teach you my greatest secret and you use it on birds to look mighty in front of your handmaidens?”
In every version of your story, you try to show him that you are more than that. That you have bled and scarred yourself to be worthy of him. You siphon secrets. You feed men sweet poison. You press shlokas into silk and bone and metal, turning them into potent weapons. You are a blade: a bedazzled one, but a blade, nevertheless. You can be equals.
Your father only laughs. Your role is set, he says. You are the demon sage’s daughter, using your beauty and middling magic to set snares for his enemies.
But you want to be more than that.
You want to be his heir.
When he hears this, your father laughs for so long and so loud that all of hell and heaven reverberates with the sound. So long and loud that the blades of grass seem to shake with it, trees all joining in, your handmaidens hiding their faces with rabbit-paws while they try not to gloat at your shame.
(Nobody’s laughing in the end, when Kacha rips your father apart. But that part comes later.)
This is the story of how you find your princess: after your father laughs at you, you leave the dance hall a mess of pigments and tears. Your sari is dirty from days of tantrums. Your handmaidens are still rabbits, so you go alone to the river, where you stare loathingly at your reflection for what feels like eons.
When you enter the water, the river swirls about you in icy, varicolored eddies. Red for ambition. Blue for humiliation.
You stay for hours, sobbing, breathing a fortitude prayer.
At dusk, you are disturbed by a fit of laughter.
“Do you think she thinks she can wash away the embarrassment?” a voice whispers. Your spiritual cognition identifies the speakers: the king’s daughter, and her favored handmaiden. “Look,” the princess continues, and you know she’s pressing her feet against your discarded sari. “She’s the daughter of the demon sage, yet all she wears are rags.”
“She’s a demoness,” her handmaiden says. “This is what they know, princess. Corpse-ash and charnel-house raiment. Filthy things that smell like death.”
“Neither a dutiful daughter nor a talented sage. No wonder her father has been so displeased.”
It is frivolously cruel. You think of cursing the princess, something inventive and alienating: all her lovers will turn into frogs, or everything she touches will turn to slimy snails.
The princess is beautiful, after all. Delicate face and dark gaze rimmed with rings of kohl. Her fingers are red from the dye of the henna plant, elegant when she reaches down to pick up your sari.
“Come and get it, hut-dweller,” she laughs. “Come out of the water.”
It is silly, childish cruelty. But you are a child yourself, hurting because of a father you can never please. And so it is that you clothe yourself in the foam of the river, skimming the crests of small waves to weave yourself a sari. So it is that you rush out of the water, sputtering in your anger. So it is that you fall right into their trap: a muddy hole in the ground.
They must have dug it hours ago.
You twist your ankles, scrape your elbows, lose your illusory river-garb. Naked, wet mud slicks and slithers over you, weighing you down with its stickiness. Something else is in there, foul-smelling, squishing underfoot as you try to stand. You cry out when you see it: fish guts, at least a day old, likely gathered from the palace kitchens. The smell sears your nostrils. You retch, and your tormentors’ faces glisten with mirth far above you, bright from the sun.
“There, there,” your princess says, satisfied. “Isn’t that hole much more befitting for a demoness?”
You ready yourself to curse her, but she surprises you once again. Something small falls onto your lap from the surface. You scramble for it, panic squeezing your throat, and lift up a rabbit.
Its hue is unnaturally pink. Its neck is broken.
The next one is grey, still warm and twitching. As you hold it—her, her, one of your girls, which one?—your spine turns to ice. Your tongue goes slack in your mouth. The horror of it mutes you, blinds you, stoppers your blood in your veins.
“Can’t bring them back to life?” the princess asks. “Maybe your father will show them mercy?”
Later, burying the small bodies of your handmaidens, you will wonder if the princess had known. If she had understood the weight of her cruelty. If she had even had reason, save that she was a princess of something, and you were the disagreeable daughter of the demon sage.
You will never ask her this. Not when you are finally rescued, and your father—apoplectic at the loss of perfectly good servants—curses your princess to be your handmaiden. Not when you set her to impossible tasks, picking up stray leaves in the garden with her teeth, or polishing the dance hall floor with arms bound behind her back. Not even after your father is dead, and his blood is all over her, and you barter with her for her freedom.
Your princess killed six of your handmaidens that day. You do not know how to weigh cruelties on a grand karmic scale, but you think the balance is still tipped in your favor.
You make one more stop before you leave the night markets.
Your princess, newly freed, continues to trail after you, terrified of goblins and ghosts. Her fingers are laced tightly in yours, the scent of her fear sharp and distinctly peppery.
“What will you do?” she keeps asking. Devayani, whose father is dead. Devayani, whose Kacha has fled. What will you do now?
“You’re free,” you snap, hiding Upala’s knife in the folds of your sari. “What will you do?”
“If I go back to my father, he’ll just make me marry a prince.”
“How terrible for you.”
“I don’t want to marry a prince,” she sneers. “I want to learn the things you know. I always have.”
You give her your most contemptuous look. “Is that why you murdered my handmaidens? Because you were jealous?”
Your princess’s face briefly crumples. “I didn’t know,” she says. “They were rabbits, how was I supposed to know?”
“As character traits go, a rabbit-killer isn’t much better.”
“I was angry. All this knowledge you have, all this potential, and you waste it all on Kacha—”
“You said it yourself. He’s not coming back.”
“True,” your princess says, restlessly. “So, what now?”
You settle your face into its grimmest expression. “The demon sage is dead,” you drone, bored. “Killed by his own treacherous student. It’s time for retribution.”
You swivel right, dipping into the dim liquor shop of a Naga distiller. Gold-scales dapple his hood, and a ruby glistens atop it. He is surprised to see you, inquiring in his sibilant tongue as to your father’s whereabouts. You wait until after you have made your purchases to tell him: “He’s dead.”
The Naga’s hood rises in shock. His lidless eyes travel over you, trying to discern if you are joking. His coils shift closer.
“He’s dead,” you repeat. “Tell everyone in Patala. Their demon sage is dead. Killed by the traitorous gods!”
And then you leave, turning around and racing down the market, feet slipping against mottled glass and gleaming stone. Your princess trails behind you, hand in yours, gasping.
“This is why you came!” she pants. “This is what you wanted. For them to know, to panic. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?"
You hide your smile. As your vimana rises, you can hear the whispers begin, rising to screams by the time you are in the sky.
In the version of the story you tell the demons later, you will give inventory of all the different ways Kacha died in his pursuit of the spell.
The first time you let him go cold, godblood congealing against singed grass, while you tried to understand. He was sprawled just outside the dance hall, a great swathe of his flesh ripped, ribs cracked open, his insides glinting like a ruby geode. The expression on his face was that of a man trying awfully hard to look dignified while something tore him open like an orange peel.
You stood staring, mind racing, silent in the afternoon’s blood-rich breeze. The proximity of his body to your favorite haunt meant that he had expected you to find him. But why? Simply because he guessed your love for him would propel you to accelerate his resurrection?
You paced for a bit, shooing away the flies and the birds. It was only after you held his heart in your fist that you made your decision.
You tore at your hair and burned your fingers taking his heart to your father: screaming, wailing, begging until your father cried out that you had become exactly what he predicted: a weak-hearted, foolish girl, giving her heart away to sweet-talking paramours.
“I love Kacha,” you wept, disconsolate. “He is no spy, father, only my beloved. And now the demons have killed him for no crime but his love for me!”
You were adept at acting. Your father had demanded you be. Now you were putting on a show, playing a part, and he stormed and blustered at you, betrayed.
“You will not take me as your heir,” you spat, your throat raw, eyes stinging. “At least give me my lover.”
“Be quiet!” roared your father. His lightning whip cracked across your shoulder: searing, splintering your collarbone. “I will raise him from the dead because he is my student. Only because of that. End this stupidity, Devayani. He does not love you.”
While your father resurrected Kacha, stitching him into a skin you had woven so lovingly, you hid behind a wall, craning to listen. But your father did not need words for the spell anymore, only the power of his mind. And so thwarted, you ignored Kacha for two days, sulking in your hut while your shoulder healed.
A little before the second time, Kacha lamented repeatedly that he was afraid the demons would kill him again. You wept into his chest. He sighed: Oh, Devayani, why does fate test our love so?
The two of you were lying in a boat, buoyed gently by the waves of the lotus pond. You pretended not to notice a lowly demigod creeping towards you. Sunlight glimmered on the assassin’s golden crown, throwing shards of brightness in your eye. Kacha motioned with his fingers, as if telling him to hurry up.
You ignored them, playing the part of an idiot, sighing, and pressing your lips to Kacha’s neck. When the hitman struck, arterial godblood splashed all over you. It slithered down your throat, liquefying your lungs. You spat a glob of blood contemplatively, and then collapsed against Kacha. When you woke next, both you and he had new skins, and neither of you were any closer to figuring out the spell.
The third and final time, you followed a secretive Kacha into the forest without his knowledge. There he met with his co-conspirators, other demigods, all dressed unobtrusively in the fashions of demon-folk. “The gods are growing tired of waiting,” they said. “How long until you have the spell?”
For all his dying, Kacha had managed to glean only a few words of the incantation. He caught them each time his soul was yanked from the astral plane, an echo of a whisper that was not enough. The gods needed all of it, the whole spell, and they needed it fast.
It was time to do something drastic.
This time, you watched as the gods cut Kacha’s throat on his instructions and burned his body. You watched them mix his ashes into a chalice of your father’s favorite wine. It flummoxed you, this new trick. How was this different from the other times?
But then, as you paced your dance hall and your princess swept the floor, realization crept up on you. “Come with me,” you said, tugging at her chains. “I need you.”
You took her to a glade, far from the ashram. She huffed and spat on the floor, demanding to know what you were going to do. Throw her in a hole of fish-guts? Ask her to pluck fruits with her teeth?
“You’ll see in a moment,” you promised. Then you bit your lip against the unpleasantness, took out a knife, and got to work.
Later, when your father requested his favorite wine, it was you who took it to him.
You, dutiful daughter of sweet comportment, had poured him just the quantity he liked. He, pleased with you for once, downed the first cup in a single swallow.
“I am tired of fighting you, Devayani,” he said, deep sigh fluttering his beard. “Must we sulk at each other because of an outsider?”
You kneeled, folding your hands in your lap. “Forgive me, father, but Kacha is not an outsider to me anymore. He has promised to marry me and take me to Amaravati.”
Your father’s face twisted in ugly displeasure, but he hid it under a smile. You poured him more of the wine. He swilled it and said: “If you want him so much, perhaps I can consult the celestial astrologers. But if you intend to marry, Kacha must leave the ashram this instant. It is not appropriate, the two of you living in close quarters.”
You nodded, contrite. You had seen this coming. “You will not regret this, father,” you trilled, hands clasped to your chest. “Kacha is wonderful.”
“If you believe in his intentions, I believe you,” your father said, sly. He drained the last of the wine. “Where is Kacha? I have not seen him today. We must find him, instruct him to leave.”
“I’ve seen neither Kacha nor the princess all day,” you lied, wringing the hem of your sari to appear concerned. “But there were some strangers in the forest today. And a strange smell of fire in the afternoon.”
A flickering in the air, like ghosts convening.
Your father’s expression began to change. A storm descended upon his face, dark and tempestuous, and he snatched the wineglass off the floor. He peered into it, swirling it this way and that, face twisting in a horrific grimace when he spotted the flecks of ash.
“What is it?” you asked. “What is it, father?”
“Daughter,” he said, eyes wide and thunderstruck. “I have been tricked.”
Varying expressions of disgust crossed your father’s face. Someone, he raged, had tricked him. Mixing Kacha’s ashes into the wine! Knowingly feeding him his own student! What wicked treachery! If the gods came to know, they would destroy the cities of Patala. They would plunge both sides into a catastrophic war. And how was your father to explain, great sage that he was, that he had not been cognizant of Kacha swimming around in his wine?
You wailed, crumpled on the floor, “Oh, father! Father, what will we do?”
“There is no other way,” your father said, through violent retching. “I must resurrect him.”
“But he’s within you! If you resurrect Kacha now, it will kill you! Won’t you be ripped open? Torn apart?”
A long, querulous moan escaped your father. He clutched his stomach. “Go, make us both new skins,” he said. “I have no choice. I will need to teach the resurrection spell to the part of Kacha within me. Once I resurrect him, he can tear out of me, you can stitch him up, and he will revive me. Kacha knows the situation. He wouldn’t want to start another war.”
“Or,” you ventured, quietly, “you can teach it to me. And I can revive you, father, after you resurrect Kacha.”
The simpler solution. The safest, most obvious one. But even then, your father’s gaze for you was stinging. “You don’t have Kacha’s aptitude for spell and sorcery,” he scoffed. “You trifle yourself with middling spells and think too highly of your own talents. Your place is at the looms, and later at your husband’s side. Understood?”
You forced your lips into a rictus grin. “Yes, father.”
“Go now. No time to waste.”
You worked the warp and the weft at the looms, possessed by a strange calm. The weave slithered and moved, enlivened by the sorcery of its production, quickly taking shape under your skilled hands. Just as they were done, two skins perfectly woven, you heard your father scream: a wretched sound. It went on—bones cracking like fireworks, spine splitting with a wet crunch—for a long while. Only when it stopped did you move, skins thrown over your shoulder, bare feet crushing the grass beneath your feet as you ran.
The scene in the hut was a nightmare. On the floor lay Kacha: bloody, stirring, watching you with empty eyes. He strained weakly in your direction. You threw the new skin atop him, careless. He keened, tugging uselessly at it, fingers grazing your thigh. You simply stepped past him, towards where your father’s blood splattered the hut floor, crying out: “Princess!”
A loop of jasmine, pristine, unspooled from the rapidly blooming lotus-field of your father’s ribcage. You took it in your hands and pulled. It took you a few tries before you could see her, head and neck crowning, blind terror in her face as you yanked her free of your father’s torso.
You had made two skins, just like your father instructed.
One for Kacha. One for your princess, who you had murdered earlier in the glade, mixing her remains with that of Kacha’s in the wine.
As you slipped the skin over her, stitching her up tight, you could hear Kacha slithering about. He shuffled and croaked, half-alive, struggling to slip into the skin. His technique was poor, having never practiced it himself. Did he wonder why you were not weeping at his side? What was he thinking, in his untucked mind, that his eyes were starting to cloud with terror?
You began to scream. Loud, deliberate, renting your throat. The scream ripped itself out of you even as you worked fastidiously at fixing up your princess.
Help, he’s killed my father!
Help, the gods have murdered him!
Kacha belly-flopped, new skin fluttering like a half-sloughed snake. Footsteps sounded, running into the hut. You smelled godblood and stayed kneeling, clutching your head in despair, pretending to splutter and choke on your own grief.
Just a poor, helpless woman, bereft of both father and lover.
Behind you, there was gasping and grunting as Kacha’s people carried him away. In front of you, your princess panted and mewled, stretching out her new skin, gaping at you with the sick terror of something faced with both its destroyer and creator.
You could hear the gods’ chariot outside, wheels aflame, taking to the sky with Kacha still flailing uselessly at the back. When Kacha was nothing but a spark in the sky, you straightened up, taking in the scene.
Your father dead. Kacha indisposed. Your princess the sole, accidental keeper of the resurrection spell’s secret.
There was silence now, hazy and friable, broken only by your princess’s fitful crying. Into that stillness you spoke, hoarse and hushed, the question that would both begin and end your story: “Did you hear it? The spell. Do you know it?”
And in your princess’s affirmation, her awed terror, her perfect new skin and the bloody crown of her head, you glimpsed a strange new future: dark, malleable, free for you to shape.
An hour after you return from Patala, you have at last finished collecting your father’s skin, piled neatly what is left of his ribs and hips, and placed fragments of his spine in wraps of golden silk.
Your ashram is starting to fill with scores of demons. There are kings and queens, pisacha and vetala, rakshasa and Naga. There are demonic maidens so fragile they waver in the wind. Their loud lamenting rises like song, thrilling your blood, raising the hair on your skin.
You do not know where your princess is. Her absence makes you strangely lonely, but you have let her go. Her arms are free, and she kept her bargain by teaching you the resurrection spell. This is all she owes you, after you cut her throat to outsmart Kacha. Now, the two of you are even.
Briefly, you wonder what your father will think. That in the end it was not Kacha who betrayed him, but you. You wonder if he will be disappointed. But: oh father, what did you expect? He had never seen you for what you really are: a weapon, gluttonous for power.
You will suck the marrow of it, for as long as you please, and the sweetness of it will linger on your tongue far longer than any memory of love.
Upala’s knife cuts easily through bone. You put away the last sliver of your father’s skull, collecting it in a wide-rimmed container. The lotus blooms have all withered away. Outside, the demons wait: for explanation, lamentation, confrontation. You can taste their hunger for vengeance and blood in the very air.
You have rehearsed the version of the story you will tell them. The one where you screamed, and wept, and fantasized revenge on Amaravati. The one where you promise you will help them annihilate the gods—all three hundred and thirty million—and bathe in their blood at the top of Mount Meru.
There is no version of the story branching from here where the demons do not follow you to the ends of the universe. You are the holder of the resurrection spell, the avenger of your father, the savior of demon-kind.
You are no longer the demon sage’s daughter. You are the demon sage, herself.
But before you speak to them, you will pour them all liquor. A sip to remember your father, to honor and celebrate his great life.
In each glass, you will place a tiny piece of him, obscuring the taste with the strength of freshly purchased Naga wine. No piece of him will go to waste. You will make sure of it.
In this way, distributed bit by bit amongst the demonic army, you will scatter your father’s remains, that he may never be brought back whole.
One last safeguard to make sure that this is the deterministic version of your story: the final draft, the inevitable conclusion.
You drink your cup of wine, forcing it all down in one gulp.
Then you go out to start your war.