In A Starless World
A glossary is available at the end of the story.
Amrita threw herself at the door and let a scream rip from her throat that should have shaken the palace walls and made them tumble in her grief.
The building stood fast, but she pushed on anyway, clawing at the door with a fury even demons could not match. Once-elegant carvings of lotuses in the wood were now scratched and ruined from her attacks.
Her nail bent back and she shrieked, catching her finger in her fist and clutching it to her chest.
“I’ll starve myself!” She wondered if anyone could even hear her. From what she had seen, the palace was massive. Perhaps her screams didn’t carry through the air as far she wanted.
When her father, the king, announced he would marry her off to form the ultimate alliance, she had been timid, but prepared. Princesses didn’t choose who they married, and she knew that.
When she was told to follow strict codes demanding she fast and speak to no one, she did.
And when she was told the kingdom she would marry into was more powerful than any other she had beheld, she raised her head high and took pride in her political betrothal.
But no one had told her she would be marrying the crown prince of the demon kingdom.
In the middle of the night, she was carried from her home in a palanquin to a foreign place that made her head spin.
The sky was dark, but awash with deep purples and reds. No sun, or stars, or moon peered through the colorful clouds above. It looked as though the sky she knew and loved had been painted over with broad strokes of color that blurred together until she was dizzy.
The air was still as if there were none at all. Her lungs didn’t fill like they would at home. There was no caress of a warm breeze to soothe her.
She slammed her shoulder into the heavy wooden door and let out another shriek. Someone could surely hear her.
Ravi let out a groan and dropped into his seat, throwing his leg over one armrest and balancing an elbow on the other. No one else had complained about the noise, but the night was rampant with echoing shrieks that filled his room.
That woman could not be human with lungs so powerful. Such constant shrieking made him light-headed; how could she do it without passing out?
And he had to marry her.
A grumble escaped from his lips and he let his eyes wander the throne room.
Great stone serpents reared their bodies up from the floor to support a ceiling so high it nearly scraped the burning clouds above. They were made of black stones, carved from the depths so they would be only one piece, not stacked blocks like how human columns worked. Fire roared in their mouths, illuminating the room with flickering lights that made sinister shadows dance across Ravi’s tired visage.
Liquid gold undulated in a pool at the center of the room. A woman of stone was frozen in dance at the center with ever-flowing cloth swaying around her like a fine mist. The thrones were carved of bones from beasts no man had ever laid eyes on.
Even their clothes were more decadent, with cloaks of smoke wisping behind them and jewels of fire adorning their skin.
Humans prided themselves on their art, but they had nothing that compared to that of the demon kingdom. Yes, human art was beautiful, but so simple. They had only tamed colors, not the elements.
She started screaming again.
Ravi slammed his fist on the armrest of his throne. It was quieter there, but he could not stand it anymore.
“Would someone silence her?” he bellowed over the great hall.
His father chuckled from a lavish throne built of skulls with bejeweled teeth and eyes. “Give her time. No one warned her. She should be allowed to mourn.”
“Ay, not if she keeps me up all night with her wailing!”
The king shook his head and grinned pointed teeth at his eldest son. “How is it you heard her so well, yet the rest of us slept soundly?”
Ravi grumbled. How indeed, he wondered. Was it simply that the palace was constructed so perfectly her cries carried to him?
“Will she stop to eat?”
An aide stepped forward and mumbled, “We’ve already given her breakfast. She refused it, throwing the plate against the wall and smashing it.”
He frowned. “What did you feed her?”
“Yogurt and rice before dawn, the same as you.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. Fasting for the wedding would not make her stop. It certainly wasn’t helping his temper and he doubted it was helping hers.
“Send her some gulab jamun.” If the saffron sweetened desserts didn’t abate her wailing, he didn’t know what would.
“Ravi,” his father warned. “She cannot–”
“Say what you want about old traditions and superstition, this marriage will not be fortuitous if I have to listen to her any longer.”
The aide looked to the king, and the king shook his head, denying Ravi’s request.
Ravi shot up from the throne. “Give me the key to her room, then.”
“No!” the king boomed, his voice shaking the very ground they stood on. “I will not see you spurn the rules and curse your future with the girl. She will tire eventually.”
“She will die before our wedding if she doesn’t eat! How will I marry a dead bride?”
The king waved a hand in the air. “Fine, take her some. But should your marriage fail, you will find your own bride to replace her.”
“I have no qualms with feeding my wife,” he spat his words at his father.
“I don’t want it!” Amrita screamed at the poor maid clutching a metal bowl holding three plump gulab jamun. “I want to go home!” She made certain her voice filled the palace.
The young maid clutched the dish and quivered. Despite her sharp teeth and the horns sprouting from her head, she was afraid of the human girl.
“P-please,” the maid stammered, holding up the precious sweets like an offering for the gods. “I will leave it here.” She set it on a table and fled before Amrita could throw the bowl at her.
Amrita dropped her head back and wailed.
Such a great roar bellowed through the air in response that she dropped to the ground in a small ball and trembled, clutching the front of her sari and staring at the door. The trees outside swayed when they were normally still. The air rushed against her skin and pushed into her lungs until she felt she would burst.
“I am to marry that?” It must have been her bridegroom yelling in rage. What kind of beast was he that he could make such sounds?
A soft whimper escaped her, and she found she did not have the bravery to scream anymore.
She crawled to the sweets and peered at them. If she ate, it would be something to do in her silence.
They were impossible to savor, even if they were her favorite. She was too afraid of her future. Her heart was too heavy.
Pieces of her she hadn’t realized she had were taken from her when she left home. Her brothers and sisters were far away. The women who cared for her were now absent. Even the smells she had taken for granted were gone.
The air hung heavy wherever it was she had been whisked away to. It didn’t reek of death, but it lacked the scent of life.
Sandalwood incense didn’t perfume the air, but a damp smoke did.
But the saffron in her gulab jamun was the same as it was at home. She closed her eyes and inhaled, imagining she was home again. This was her room and her bed. Come morning her little sisters would fly in and pounce to wake her.
When she opened her eyes, she was still in that dark room with diyas floating in the air to light the onyx walls. A sweet could not return her home.
Ravi leaned on his balcony, listening to her pleas. She had changed tactics. No longer incoherently screaming, she begged to go home. To see the sky again.
He looked up at the wash of purples and reds. It was a sky–whether she liked it or not–but it was not her sky. That he understood.
The few times he had traveled to human kingdoms, he had missed his sky. The colors fit better.
It was more interesting to him than the small twinkling dots and large silver coin–beautiful as they were.
It was colorful. Even in the darkest point of the night when it was impossible to see his feet as he walked, he could always look up.
She let out a sob–a genuine sob–then proclaimed to the entire palace she wanted to go home.
He understood that too. He didn’t like being away from what was familiar.
Perhaps he was feeling benevolent after eating his fill of yogurt and rice, but he ventured to the library to find a book from her kingdom and carried it to her room.
She slammed against the door, then let out a soft yelp. She would be a battered and bruised bride if he could not stop her.
He knocked on the door and she went silent.
“I…” He cleared his throat. “My name is Ravi. I hear you’re Amrita.”
Even in her rage, she had a beautiful voice, like chimes ringing out as she whispered to him, “I want to go home.” But when she screamed, it thundered like a storm and broke like the sky would rip open and flood the palace.
“I know. I’m sorry you’re homesick.” He pressed one hand against the door. “I’m the crown prince.”
“I miss my family!”
He sucked in a deep breath. “I don’t have a key. I can’t let you out.”
She let out a soft cry like a wounded animal.
“I brought a book. It’s full of stories from your home.” He sat on the ground and leaned against the door.
She didn’t say she wanted to hear it, but she didn’t object either and talking to her was keeping her silent–apart from her gentle crying. He cleared his throat and began to read.
The book was full of marvelous stories. There were tales of the golden city of Lanka, Hanuman carrying a mountain on his back, the creation of the elephant-headed god Ganesha–if Ravi were devout to the human gods, he would have prayed to Ganesha for help with this predicament.
Halfway through a story about Draupadi and her endless sari, the princess heaved a jagged breath. The door quivered against his back.
She must have been leaning on it, curled up in a little ball and crying as she listened.
He wondered how helpless she looked, then realized he didn’t know what she looked like at all.
He was about to ask when she let out another cry that grew into fitful sobbing.
“Ah!” He scrambled to his knees and faced the door as if he could see her. “I’m sorry! Did that only make it worse?”
“I want to go home!” She slammed on the door over and over, resuming her shrieking.
“Please,” he begged. He couldn’t stand another sleepless night.
“Let me go!”
But she would not cease. She howled into the night until he left and woke his sister, forcing her to share a bed with him so he could sleep for a few hours before waking at dawn to eat his piddly meal of yogurt and rice.
He demanded the cooks send sweets to Amrita again. While the princess ate in silence, he drifted off for a few quiet moments.
Amrita was weak and tired. Two of her nails had broken off, more had lifted, leaving dark bruises underneath. Skin peeled off her knuckles, exposing beads of red blood she smeared across the front of her sari without thought.
But now she lay in bed, her morning sweets having been laced with a sedative to keep her tame while intricate mehendi was applied to her hands and feet. Even the beautiful patterns couldn’t hide the damage she had inflicted on herself. The cuts and scrapes still oozed around the designs.
She tried to scream, but only mustered a soft protest as her head rocked back and forth.
An old woman was busy muttering to herself as she scrubbed Amrita with turmeric. The princess didn’t think she could look presentable after the damage she had done, but they were persistent nonetheless.
Would they drug her and move her around like a puppet to keep her docile for the ceremony too? Or would the crown prince–what was his name? Ravi–run her through with his horns and rip her throat out with his teeth should she object anymore. She prayed he would.
She mumbled a curse so incoherent, she didn’t understand herself.
“Hush, child. Don’t make this worse for yourself. Rest. Heal.”
Amrita’s brow creased and her mouth tilted into a frown. If only she could open her eyes fully.
“We do not wish to hurt you.”
But they were demons. She could not trust demons.
“This collar will strangle me!” Ravi roared at the tailor.
“Your Highness, it will not.”
Ravi craned his neck and let out a growl. “It most certainly will!”
“If you crane like that, yes. But I suspect you’ll be sitting quietly and properly at your wedding.”
Ravi was dressed in a white silk sherwani beaded with glistening black jewels of smoke and red of fire. Gold thread wove in and out, completing the designs along the sleeves, hem, and collar.
“Why is Amrita silent?” he snapped.
His sister lay on her stomach in his bed, her ankles crossed in the air above her. “You complain when she screams. You complain when she’s silent.”
“I worry she’s dead in her room, Dipika! It’s almost dark and I haven’t heard her all day.”
Dipika grinned. “They drugged her breakfast so they could put on her mehendi, brother.”
He hissed and pushed away the tailor. “I don’t like this.”
“You said you wanted a bride.” The bells on Dipika’s anklets tinkled as she shifted her legs beneath her and sat up. “Now you have one. I’ve heard she’s beautiful at that.”
Ravi began tugging at the buttons on his sherwani, attempting to free himself.
“I’m not done!” The tailor tried to stop him, but Ravi let out a snarl that sent the tailor scrambling backward.
“This isn’t right!”
Dipika swatted away his hands before he could rip the front of the garment to shreds and began opening the buttons herself. “This is her duty.”
“Would you want to be drugged?”
“She was only drugged to keep her quiet. If she hadn’t been screaming then we wouldn’t need to do such things!”
The moment Dipika was finished unbuttoning the sherwani, Ravi threw it off and pulled on a much more comfortable kurta. “Is it too late to send her back?”
A soft whimper echoed through the palace.
“Ah.” Dipika looked out the window. “You really can hear her well.”
Ravi swung out his arms, nearly decapitating the terrified tailor. “See!”
“Well, she must be waking up. And now you can rest easy knowing your woman is alive.”
The world was dark and quiet. Amrita’s mehendi had long since dried and was cracking and flaking off, revealing the dark patterns staining her skin beneath. With each flake she picked off, she felt the future peeked at her.
A future in a place she didn’t understand, where the stars were missing and the moon never showed its face. Where only the saffron tasted right. Where she didn’t belong.
And her throat was raw. Her endeavor to be released was not only unsuccessful, but painful as well.
She went out to the balcony, a place she had yet to venture, only pacing back and forth from her bed to her door. Wrought iron bars slithered up to the ceiling, caging her in like a pet. The cold metal felt as inhumane as a tiger cage as she wrapped her fingers around it.
She shook the bars and they jiggled, dropping bits of stone where they were bolted into the wall.
Recklessly, she threw her weight against them, but they were not weak enough to cave.
A tree swayed nearby. Its dark leaves, like purple gems, rustled as some creature crept toward her.
She leaned in, certain nothing could be worse than the horns and pointed teeth of demons.
Two beady eyes popped into view and a forked tongue flicked out from a thin mouth turned up in permanent amusement.
A scream ripped from her throat. She fell backward as a black cobra three times her height unfurled onto the tiles.
“Help!” She scrambled along the floor to the door. “Someone, please!”
The snake raised its head and slithered toward her.
She let out another shout and clambered to her feet as the snake slipped closer.
“Oh, please!” She banged her fists on the door.
Ravi–she assumed–bellowed from somewhere in the palace, sending the snake into a frenzy. It lunged at her, snapping its long fangs and missing her by a hair as she jumped aside.
Believing no one was coming for her as Ravi protested again, she hopped on her bed and dove under her thin blanket.
The snake traced her quivering silhouette, wrapping itself around her several times before giving up its prey and slipping away.
Even when she was certain it was gone, she did not move or utter a single peep.
It wasn’t until a maid brought her ras malai topped with crushed pistachio that she emerged from her cocoon, scowling and telling the maid about the snake before resuming her wailing into the moonless sky.
He could hear the change in her screams. Her voice had gone raw and scratchy, which only made her wailing more insufferable. But she had been silent all day from her drugged daze, save for the one outburst that rubbed him wrong.
He did feel guilty when he heard it was a snake, but if she was a shrewd enough woman, she knew it would worry the palace.
Now someone checked on her whenever the screaming started again.
One guard nearly had his eyes clawed out as she tried to make a break for it. He was fortunately fine, but refused to go back.
Ravi was starting to believe he was but a human and she the demon.
Another shriek erupted and he sat up.
“Leave her, brother.” His sister waved an elegant hand through the air, her bangles clinking together with every movement. “If she stays like this, you will have to dote on her enough as a husband. Someone else will see it’s not a snake.”
He groaned and lay back with his head in Dipika’s lap. “My heart breaks for her, but I am hungry and tired and cannot stand this anymore.”
“Only one more night.”
“No, sister! It will not be one more night! I will have to bed that woman! She won’t stop screaming just because we’re married.”
She let out a gentle chuckle. “Too bad Baba found you a wife with a temper worse than yours.”
A wail wrenched through the air that erupted into a coughing fit. Amrita would ruin her throat at this rate and leave herself with only a rasp for a voice.
“I cannot do this.” He jerked up and stormed from his sister’s bedroom.
Amrita was collapsed on the floor, heaving for air between coughs. Whenever she could manage, she let out another ragged sob and cried for her mother, siblings, father.
Three days of screaming was getting to her. Her cheeks were tear-stained, knuckles bruised, and she had done something painful to her shoulder and could no longer lift her arm high. Now every rustle made her jump too.
How could she live in such a place?
She drew in a deep breath and let out a lonely cry.
The door ripped from its frame and flew back, splintering into thousands of pieces. One errant shard flew through the air and cut open her cheek.
She fell backward and squealed, but lacked the energy to do more than stare in horror.
Before her was the largest man she had ever seen.
Ivory horns twisted out from beneath his dark hair. His lips parted just enough for her to see the sharp fangs hidden beneath.
Anger melted from his face, and he gazed at her with wide eyes. His lips moved wordlessly, as if he had expected a beast to be trapped in this room, but found her instead.
“What?” she snapped, swiping the back of her hand against her cheek.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” He raised a hand and pointed at her cheek. “I just wanted to get you out.”
Unsure of him, she scooted back.
He sank to the ground across from her. “You were screaming so much, it didn’t seem worth it to keep you here like this.”
“Are you my groom?”
He tried to smile, but she cringed when he bore his pointed teeth. “I am.”
She looked him over, then at the door now missing from its place.
“You can go, but I don’t think you’ll make it far. And my father would kill me if I helped you.” He looked back at the vacant door frame. “He still might.”
She marveled at his horns as they came into the light, amazed he could hold his head up beneath them, but with shoulders like his, it must have been no problem.
Her eyes darted between him and the door as she tried to fathom what he was up to.
“Do you want to touch them?” He bowed his head to her.
It would have been easy enough to make a break for it. The corridor behind him was pitch black, only illuminated by the flickering diyas in her room. The shadows would mask her well.
She looked back to his horns. The tips were coated in gold and all down the lengths were golden rings, at least two dozen. They must have been the length of her arm as they spiraled into the air.
As he leaned forward, peering up from beneath his brow, it dawned on her. He was trying to be kind.
She reached out with a shaky hand and ran her fingers along one horn.
Glossary of terms in alphabetical order:
Diya: An oil lamp made from clay and shaped like a bowl with a cotton wick.
Gulab Jamun: A fried dough ball soaked in syrup often flavored with saffron.
Kurta: A long, loose shirt generally down to the knees
Mehendi (Mehndi): The Hindi word for henna (Arabic), both the name for the paste and the designs left behind on the skin. Brides typically decorate their hands and feet with mehendi.
Ras malai: Balls of milk solids soaked in sweetened milk.
Sari: A dress fashioned from a long strip of cloth, generally accompanied by a matching blouse and petticoat.
Sherwani: Formal attire generally worn by men similar to a long coat with a band collar.
Thank you so much to Isa (@pialli_) for not only the art, but building me up when I was feeling down. I love how you brought Amrita and Ravi to life.
Alan, for reading this in the very early stages even though you had school and another one of my books to read…whoops.
Peter (@petahhhm), despite also having another of my books to read…double whoops. Your input was hugely valuable. Drew (@dcafwriting) for reading literally anything I put in front of you and teaching me so much and helping me see my strengths and growth. (And for fixing all my comma splices.) Ashley (@_AVFranklin) for reading this TWICE and giving me feedback and listening to me talk about this a lot. Caitlin (@Caitlin_Pea and @EditEverAfter) for the input and always pushing me to keep going!
Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.