For Cindy Pon
In the garden where girls grew from flowers, their days washed in the distant trills of the queen’s wooden flute, a gardener toiled. His name was Rajesh, and in his spare time, he collected shadows. Shadows of nectar–loving hummingbirds, shadows of laughing fathers, shadows of hawks who preyed on squirrels.
Rajesh had discovered the richness of silhouettes one shining, long–ago day when he brushed by a tired laborer, whose shadow had nearly leapt into his stubby child–fingers. How gleeful the contact had been, much like the triumph of absconding with a fresh laddoo, but far more delectable.And how plentiful the unwitting mourners who now came to the royal gardens for solace when they lost their daughters, husbands, mothers, dreams. A girl–blossom for their grief, Rajesh reasoned, and if he helped himself to the occasional shadow in return, well, what of it? If they noticed, they never showed it.
Perhaps the consequence was an unhurried thing, the lumbering body still unaware that a split had occurred? Hair could be cut without causing pain; the severing of shadows must be analogous.
The question had eventually faded before more urgent concerns; after all, he had a garden to tend to. His favorite among the blooms in his charge was a tiny maiden with silver eyes and long purple hair. Padmamukhi, he called her, for her mouth was shaped like the lotus in which she had been born, and her skin shared its hue, a bright and savory pink that hinted at things unsaid.
Anyone who believed that would quickly be proven wrong, for Padmamukhi had many things to say. Too many, in fact, for Rajesh’s taste.
“Alchemists will discover that we are all really made of molasses,” she might announce, sly, “as sweet as sweet can be.”
Lotus girls were said to appear in those places where saints and spiritual masters had once walked. Having heard many of Padmamukhi’s predictions, Rajesh found this difficult to believe. “Is that so?”
Padmamukhi would only smile, then launch into another pronouncement.
When the mood struck her, she turned her flood of words and whim on her crimson sister. Gulaabi, with skin red as her rose and thorns sharp as her temper, appeared to enjoy the attention, even asking questions every now and then.
But occasionally the answers were not to her liking, such as when Padmamukhi cheerfully proclaimed that Gulaabi would “soon be cut down like any common dandelion.” Gulaabi fell into a sulk and closed her petals for three days, refusing to stir even when Rajesh threatened to donate all her water to her sisters.
Bemused, he shook his head and continued pruning. Roses were known to be volatile, and none more so than his own.
Late one afternoon, the sound of the queen’s flute lilted into the air, high and sweet. The garden quieted then. Even the clouds paused in their journey across the sky to listen.
How Rajesh dreaded the queen’s infrequent visits. Whatever the time of day, her shadow always stood out in stark relief, and his fingers itched horribly to seize it.
Bracelets clinked together, voices chattered, and the royal entourage sauntered into view, an interchangeable ripple of gold ornaments and yellow saris. Rajesh could never tell them apart—one great clump of cloth, foolish and tiresome.
“Ah, there you are,” exclaimed the queen, her voice harsh after the song. “How are my blossoms today?”
He moved to greet her, palms joined before his face. The queen’s shadow floated over the grass as she moved, owning the air as the queen owned the earth. “Namaste. They are in the best of health, Your Majesty. Excited for the cooler seasons.”
The queen bent to inhale Gulaabi’s matchless perfume, then smiled. “How perfectly delicious. I could not have chosen a better royal gardener.”
Although this was obviously true, Rajesh shifted in discomfort. “You flatter me, Your Majesty.”
One of the handmaidens stepped forward then—and directly into the queen’s silhouette. The way it spread over the attendant’s skin, dusky and deep, made Rajesh grit his teeth with envy.
“Fortune presents gifts to those whose hands are tied and cannot receive,” chanted Padmamukhi, astounding him. Never before had she addressed the queen.
The queen stepped toward Padmamukhi’s land–bound lotus pad, her shadow unfurling behind her. Rajesh’s breath caught. No, he reminded himself, the danger was too great.
“Well, well,” said the queen, “she speaks! At last, she speaks.”
Padmamukhi ducked her head, her purple hair cascading over her lotus–colored face and body.
“Tell me, child, what awaits our realm,” the queen commanded, one fingertip parting Padmamukhi’s long tresses and caressing her minute cheek. “Will we win?”
“In his haste to climb the mountain, the man rolled down the other side and broke his nose,” said Padmamukhi.
The queen pondered that before erupting in a great laugh. It was a wonderfully robust laugh, the kind that would have pleased Rajesh immensely, were he not salivating after her silhouette. Would it have the same texture as her laugh? Would it be as arrogant, as imperious?
A messenger approached the queen and bowed. “Pardon the interruption, Majesty, but the emissary has come.” The queen’s mouth tightened. Without another word, she left the garden, her attendants and flitting shadow in tow.
Another person might have been intrigued, but Rajesh had no use for matters of state. Instead, he recalled Padmamukhi’s warning about the man who broke his nose. He would have to content himself with his current wealth rather than taking imprudent risks.
Even if the most desirable shadows beckoned to him, tempting, always tempting.
Weeks passed, but the queen did not return. Although Rajesh spurned the company of the other palace workers, the rumors reached even him, a flame passed from one candle to another, until he knew the queen and king struggled to prevent a neighboring monarch from invading. Negotiations delicate as eggshells transpired daily between the two nations, or so went the whispers. The regents were said to be sleeping an hour or less each night, spending their time in court or consulting with advisors.
In the commotion, the queen’s flute had apparently been smashed. A clumsy servant had dropped a tray of food on it or run it over with a handcart. No one could agree on the details.
No wonder, Rajesh thought, the queen’s songs had stilled.
The ensuing silence lingered after the constant showers of high, spiraling notes, a breath held too long. Yet Rajesh remained indifferent. If anything, the queen’s absence let him collect shadows more effectively. More and more supplicants came for his particular balm, and there was no one to see if someone left as less than they had been before speaking with him.
Even so, he was careful to limit his reaping. A few shadows gone missing could be attributed to vengeful spirits, but more than that and someone might suspect.
One evening, when the stars blinked in surprise at the world below, Rajesh watered the slender jasmine vines trailing along a latticework trellis. As elegant as the blooms it held up to the one–eyed moon god, the trellis had been carved from two tusks of ivory, a dying elephant’s final offering. Slowly petals unfolded, and the girls nestled within yawned and stretched, their fragrance permeating the cool, crisp air. In response, a chorus of crickets chirped lullabies that took flight as luna moths, pale green in the gloom.
Rajesh watched the moths flutter, erratic, over the flowers. Once they’d calmed, he crouched down to pinch off their shadows. Soon he came away with two fistfuls of darkness, which he hurriedly deposited into the velvet bag beneath his tunic. The new spoils were flimsy and fluffy, of little value to him. Still, a moth’s shadow was better than none at all.
Residue stuck to his fingers, dark and filmy. He brought his hand to his lips and sighed. Such a smooth texture for such a murky stain.
“Having slept off a night spent imbibing soma, the sun will rise tomorrow at noon—and then with great reluctance.”
Rajesh’s head jerked up at the words. Padmamukhi studied him, her silver eyes opaque in the light of the moon. “Soon,” she said, her lip curling, “you will find what you seek.”
Not one thing the lotus girl had forecast had come true, yet with the ghosts of moth wings flapping and the moon god staring down, Rajesh could be persuaded to listen. “Do tell.”
Before Padmamukhi could reply, footsteps padded through the moon–glazed grass. A woman neared the trellis. When she noticed Rajesh standing there, she averted her kohl–rimmed eyes. “Pardon me,” she said, her voice high and haunting, mellifluous. “I didn’t realize anyone was here.”
Despite his irritation at the woman’s intrusion, Rajesh hesitated to cast her out. But what halted him? She was no beauty, so it was not that. Nor was it the thick braid hanging to her knees, nor her unadorned white sari. Many women wore those. Indeed, the mothers who had come to his garden, pleading for a girl–blossom to replace the daughter they had lost or the daughter they had never borne, had all been clothed in similar attire.
No, it was the fact that her sari gleamed, scattering light beyond what the moon’s luster could account for.
“The jasmine’s scent,” the woman said, stroking a petal. The girl within purred. “It drew me here.”
“Who are you?” Rajesh asked. “Why do you glow like that?”
In reply, the woman began to sing. She used no words, only a sorrow–laden glossolalia reminiscent of the wind whistling through trees. Something in Rajesh stirred. Through a language of her own making, this woman, this apparition in his moonlit garden, roused a memory within him—the first time he flew a kite. How keenly it had leapt into the air and scaled the treetops, red as crushed pomegranate, through the blue, blue sky! How equally keenly he had tried and failed to follow it.
He wanted the woman’s shadow. He needed it.
“That was lovely,” he told her, his focus wandering down to her feet. She cast no shadow. Disappointment shot through him, a cold dart of pain. Of course she had no shadow, not when she provided her own source of illumination.
She tilted her head, her brown face pale in the uncanny light of her sari. “Thank you, although I must admit, I’m somewhat rusty now that I’ve no master. I miss her.”
“You are recently bereaved, then?”
“Yes,” said the woman. A tear rolled down her cheek, then a second.
With a pair of gardening shears, Rajesh carefully clipped one of the jasmine blossoms, then transplanted it to a pot filled with nourishing soil. “She will be like your own,” he said, beginning the customary recitation for his distraught visitors.
But the woman had already turned elsewhere.
“A lotus–mouthed girl within a lotus?” she marveled, extending a finger toward Padmamukhi. “If she were to open her mouth, would I find another girl within?”
Padmamukhi pressed her palms together. “Namaste. You will soon find a treasure of a hundred thousand gold coins.”
“Namaste,” breathed the woman. “A prognosticating nymph in a lotus. Such a garden you keep here!”
“In thirteen hours, you will hurtle down the stairs to your death,” Padmamukhi said, her tone as pleasant as though she were discussing the weather.
“How charming!” The woman shone brighter. “I am glad I came.”
Padmamukhi’s heavy hair veiled her face. “The milk for your morning chai will be curdled straight from the cow and quite foul to the nose.”
Perhaps it was the night’s numinous spell at play, but Rajesh remained unable to tear his eyes from her glowing sari. The moon god might have stained it with his blood. Truly the queen’s shadow had never felt so far away.
He held out the diminutive jasmine girl. “For you.”
The woman inhaled the heady scent. “Such a beautiful blossom! Call me—call me Chameli.”
“Of course a woman named Jasmine would love jasmine,” Rajesh joked, though he remained unsettled. Surely if she removed her sari, she would have a shadow…
The impropriety of that thought sent a rush of heat to his belly, desire braided with shame. He had never entertained such thoughts about any of the garden’s other visitors. “Please, madam,” he said desperately, “it is late, and I must yet attend to my work.”
“But surely I should give you something in return for this splendid gift,” Chameli said. “Perhaps another song?”
“Your first song was payment enough,” Rajesh assured her. “And it is far past time for my own slumber.”
The image of his bed made him blush even more fiercely. He sent fervent thanks to the gods for granting him the cover of dark skin under an even darker sky.
“How thoughtless of me!” said Chameli. “I will go.”
“Yes, yes,” said Rajesh, choking under creepers of lust. “Please do.” Somehow he ushered her out the wrought–iron gate and locked it.
“The king’s chef will prepare a most delicate cashew biryani tinted with saffron and sweetened with sultanas,” whispered Padmamukhi, her metallic eyes sparking.
Rajesh spent the next few days awash in a mix of anticipation and agony. When would he see Chameli again? To distract himself, he began to increase his harvest of shadows.
One afternoon when the sun baked the soil until it cracked, Rajesh carried a watering can toward the barbed rosebushes. A royal engineer had installed an intricate irrigation system, but Rajesh preferred to reserve that for the lawns and trees.
“It’s about time you got here,” snapped Gulaabi. “My roots are withering from drought!”
Rajesh barely noticed. Normally he devoted afternoons to the blossoms, inspecting them for signs of blight, listening as they gossiped and commiserated, soothing any offended sensibilities. Today, though, this duty felt perfunctory, almost a hindrance.
He couldn’t stop thinking of Chameli’s missing shadow. Would she be back that night?
“In its hunt for food, the foolish mouse will interrupt the war between the garudas and the nagas and be devoured by both.”
Both Rajesh’s and Gulaabi’s heads swiveled to look at the violet–haired girl in her lotus.
Padmamukhi smiled, her mouth curving to display minuscule teeth. “One tree dies, and from its seed another is born.”
Rajesh squinted at her. Was she trying to convey a message? Or was this more of her whimsical nonsense?
Annoyed at the disruption, Gulaabi pricked him with one of the thorns lining her stem. Rajesh laughed. “I will do better, my petal,” he pledged, kneeling to water the dirt around her roots.
“Ah, yes, the royal gardener,” a strange voice said, much too close to his ear. “I’ve heard he prefers plants to people. Is that so?”
Rajesh staggered to his feet. One or another of the queen’s handmaidens stood before him, hands on her hips and lips contorted into a smirk.
“I’ve heard talk of you in the palace,” she went on. “Some say you’ve been bargaining away my queen’s flowers. For what, we don’t know. Gold? Jewels?” She scrutinized Rajesh’s plant–stained uniform, so unlike her own silk sari, and tittered. “Hardly. So tell me, is it true? Would you dare?”
Rajesh stared at her silhouette. Ire at her interference, fear of being exposed to the queen, and confusion about who might have given him away all tangled on his tongue. He had raised the girl–blossoms, and he knew best what to do with them.
Not to mention there was the problem of the shadows. He had to convince this busybody there was no truth to the rumor.
Yet no matter how he tried, no matter how much perspiration ran down his back and pooled under his arms, no words emerged. All he managed was a distressed squeal like a pig.
The handmaiden made a noise of derision. “Clearly someone is telling tales. You can barely hold yourself upright, let alone steal from under my queen’s nose!” She reached for Padmamukhi, who closed her petals.
But when the handmaiden turned to Gulaabi, cooing over the rose girl’s beauty and fine fragrance, Gulaabi hissed. The handmaiden yelped. A single droplet plunged from her finger toward the earth, red as Gulaabi’s petals. “She stabbed me!”
Rajesh watched the droplet fall. In that brief second, it hung in the air, gilded by the late afternoon sunshine. Wherever there was sunshine, there would be…
His teeth bared, Rajesh stooped and claimed the handmaiden’s shadow. Though she was too busy sucking on her finger to notice, the theft set his pulse racing. Never, never before had he taken a shadow from someone he thought he might see again.
“You little brat,” the handmaiden said to Gulaabi, her eyes narrowed to slits. “I hope the invaders come and raze you to the ground!”
“A challenge,” muttered Gulaabi, her thorn shimmering scarlet as the handmaiden fled. She grinned. “Good! I have many thorns.”
The handmaiden’s shadow nearly fluttered free of Rajesh’s grasp. He made certain he was alone, then buried his face in it. So dark, so sleek. Blood throbbed below his skin, threatening to burst through. “Yes,” he murmured.
“The stars will spill from the sky, leaving the world drowning in darkness,” Padmamukhi said, her petals still mostly shut.
When the sun god stood sentinel at the sky’s peak, the queen returned.
This time, she had come alone, an odd thing indeed, with no song, no cherished handmaiden to herald her. Rajesh strangled a cry of dismay as she bent toward a bush, a pair of scissors in hand.
As he watched, helpless, the queen held aloft the clipped rosebud. Caustic reprimands burned in Rajesh’s mouth, but he bit them back just in time. The knowledge stung all the way down: that bud, if left alone to bloom, would have been a rose girl. His rose girl.
Instead, she was stillborn, a trinket for the arrogant queen.
It seemed the queen had divined his heart, for she moved to face him. “Look at me,” she said. When he did, she continued. “You may cultivate it, you may even care for it, but you may not forget to whom this garden truly belongs.” Her tone was light, but Rajesh understood just the same. It was her garden, her girl–blossoms to destroy if she so wished. Impotent anger bubbled in his depths.
He pinned his gaze to her shadow. It was so lush and alive, a black diamond of shadows eager to ascend into the air. “Understood, Your Majesty.”
“When the girl solves the riddle of the missing prince,” said Padmamukhi, “the wayward elephant will be slain and served at a feast.”
Then she looked squarely at Rajesh. “Even a broken flute might one day play again, when the right person finds it.”
The queen’s expression grew cagey, that of a great cat circling its prey. “Is that so, lotus girl? Go on.”
Padmamukhi blinked once, twice, before thick curtains of violet hair drew together over her eyes.
“You must forgive her, Your Majesty,” Rajesh simpered. “She is a temperamental creature.”
The queen nodded, the rosebud secured in her hair, and turned away to examine the marigolds.
For once, as the sun god set down his burden for another evening and the one–eyed moon god drew into view, Padmamukhi said nothing.
Under the stern gaze of the moon god, Rajesh awoke to see a dark figure looming over him. It hurled something bright and fragrant at his feet before disappearing into the umbra.
Rajesh reached down. His hand closed around a ragged ball of soft yellow silk. Tattered jasmine petals trickled out one side. Handmaiden.
Still clutching the scrap of fabric, he dashed to the ivory trellis. Two jasmine girls had been flung onto the ground, their bodies shredded and sap oozing out, viscous and milky in the moonlight. More petals were stuck to them, pasted on with blood.
Rajesh fell to his knees and retched. His girls. His girls. A feeble sound ripped free of his throat.
When he dared to lift his head again, he realized the stars stared down, perhaps flashing in judgment, perhaps passing their sentence on his head.
He did not care.
The newly sharpened shears found their way into his fingers. He would have vengeance. He would cut the handmaiden the way his girls had been cut.
Padmamukhi looked from the shears to his face. If she was afraid, she did not sound it. “Ginger’s heat cures many a bellyache.”
“Not the ache in my belly,” Rajesh muttered, but the silly axiom brought him back to his senses. What had he been thinking, that he would go after the culprit? The queen would have his head, and who would care for the remaining girl–blossoms?
Yet anger roared and rushed within him still, searing his blood.
A third jasmine girl, intact but forever sundered from her vine, also lay on the earth. She opened her eyes and located her sisters. Her scream tore Rajesh’s heart in two.
Nearby, Gulaabi wept.
The air smelled sweet and sensual, a final sickening bequest of perfume. Rajesh knelt amidst the corpses, urging them to wake. Fragments of moonlight glittered over them like gems from a broken necklace.
He patted the dead girls’ faces with the tips of his callused fingers. They were only sleeping, he told himself, only sleeping. Soon they would wake.
Wailing, the surviving jasmine girl shut her petals so firmly she might have been a bud.
Chameli stepped out of the darkness, very nearly a shadow herself, were it not for the glowing sari. She stroked his cheek, her touch smooth and yet unlike skin. Rajesh couldn’t imagine how he had missed the music pulsating through her in lieu of a heartbeat. Had he not heard it? Or had she never sung, only played this song?
Her radiance mixed with that of the moon. Still she cast no shadow. “I am sorry,” she said gently, and when Rajesh did not answer, began to sing. It was the wordless dirge he had felt beating within her, the brush of a night wind through reeds, and he could taste each note on his tongue, complex and sultry as jasmine.
Pressing his pouch of shadows to his chest, Rajesh escaped into the song. But then it ended, and he was still there, and the girls were still dead.
Light bathed him as Chameli edged closer. “It is hard being betrayed, is it not?” she whispered.
Rajesh untied his pouch, allowing the contents to swoop out. What use were the shadows when he couldn’t protect his girl–blossoms? He picked one up, intending to toss it away, but the gentle caress on his cheek moved lower and became more insistent. Rajesh’s breath caught, and his open hand reached for Chameli. “Why—why do you cast no shadow?”
She laughed, and he shuddered at the sound. “Have you still not guessed who I am?” The shadows sailed and skittered about her, heedless of her unnatural light, or perhaps drawn to it.
It was, he thought, less a source of luminosity and more a phosphorescence, like a trail of fox fire. Or an elusive marsh light. “A ghost.”
“I am nothing but a shadow,” said Chameli. “A shadow of what I was.” She unwound her sari and offered him the yards of cloth.
Without looking away from her naked form, he let both shadow and textile fall to the ground. Lithe and sinuous, she was made to be played. That peculiar craving roared through him again, setting his blood and his body aflame.
“What do you want?” he asked, but before she could answer, he took her face in his hands. From where it lay heaped on the grass, the sari lent her brown eyes a pearlescent sheen. It felt good to sink into their depths. If he drowned, he could not remember.
“So many things,” she said at last. “What do you want?”
“And of me?”
Rajesh kissed her, crushing his mouth against her supple lips. She tasted of silver and song, and a little like sorrow.
As they sat pressed together, ringed by flowers enough for ten thousand wedding garlands, she murmured, “I knew you would understand me. Retribution, forbidden things—these are the gifts only we can give each other.”
“Retribution?” Rajesh repeated against her neck. She shivered.
“The unruly monkey will swing from the banyan tree,” announced Padmamukhi, “and the branch will break when least expected.”
Rajesh might have retorted, but Chameli’s mouth and hands robbed him of any fury. Need burned dark between them, scorching away the world.
Their bodies entwined, the lovers descended to the grass. Under a mantle of shadows, Rajesh ardently explored the dips and curves of Chameli’s skin, coaxing from her gasps and bursts of melody.
Against the backdrop of night he played her, delighting in the notes that surged forth, in her heat and high voice, faster, faster, faster. Tune and chorus sounded at once, a stream of need and cries and flesh.
Soon, too soon, she flared with light, that same unearthly glow of her sari. As she called out, her shape began to transform.
Chameli’s song rang out fully then, piercing Rajesh’s heart. He recoiled. How had he not recognized it before?
“I am a flute,” she said, her smile wistful. It melted into the gloom, and he was left holding a notched piece of bamboo. Her final words drifted through the air. “And I needed you.”
His fingers curled around the instrument that had been Chameli, Rajesh willed everything to make sense. What had he done?
Then the flute blazed like a star, blinding, until it was all Rajesh could see.
Visions: the queen’s lips on the mouthpiece, her tapered fingers drawing out forlorn chords; the court’s applause; the queen neglecting her daily recitals to speak with the foreign emissaries; the queen and king arguing again and again, and the queen grabbing the nearest object and lobbing it against the wall. The now–shattered flute cast aside.
The queen’s shadow through it all, so vivid, so vibrant.
Rajesh smoldered. Rage thrummed in his heart, his hands, while patches of brilliant white winked around him like errant fireflies. His memory of the girl–blossoms’ slaughter blurred with the flute’s memories of faithlessness until they became one, until he wondered that he’d ever thought them separate. Their desires, he saw, were also kindred: the queen and her shadow.
The other shadows gathered at his throat, waving in time to the flute’s music, to the rhythm of his heart.
Rajesh had never considered himself musical, but now a song resonated in his veins. It guided the flute to his lips, which then pursed and blew. Breathing in, breathing out, fingers covering and uncovering the holes, he paraded through the gardens. The storm of wrath and regret brewing within him emerged as a deceptively soft lullaby, putting all the girl–blossoms to sleep.
All except Padmamukhi, who watched, her silver eyes wide, but kept her own counsel.
Rajesh carefully lifted the surviving jasmine girl from where she lay on the ground, tucked her behind his ear, and departed the garden. Even with the wisps of fog that obscured his sight, he made his way to the marble palace. His animosity protected him; the flute’s refrain directed him. He was untouchable.
Two lookouts, a woman and a man, patrolled the great golden doors. Their turbans, normally burgundy, blended into the night sky.
Rajesh crept up to them and conjured more music from the flute. Though the guards still clung to their sword hilts, their chins dropped to their collars, and the woman began to snore. With nothing blocking his way, Rajesh entered the palace.
Late though the hour was, a few courtiers still wandered the carpeted halls and into his path. Their expressions of alarm remained even after their bodies dropped to the floor. Stepping over them, Rajesh hoped their dreams would be filled with blood.
The flute lurched forward like an animal on a leash, leading him straight to the royal apartments. Seated outside, illuminated by flickering wall sconces, was a handmaiden, her long braid lank, her eyes and skin dull.
“You,” growled Rajesh. The shadows in his pouch flapped. “Out of my way!”
When the handmaiden spoke, her words were just as limp as the rest of her. “Pass through if you will. What is it to me?”
Rajesh frowned. Was this wasting away the result of having no shadow? He couldn’t imagine such a wilted creature having the strength to attack his jasmine girls. Thoughts hummed in his head, a ballad of sari scraps and suspects.
But if not the handmaiden or the queen, then—
The flute chirped its impatience. After a last glance into the handmaiden’s apathetic face, Rajesh pushed open the doors to the queen’s sleeping chamber and strode inside.
The queen immediately woke and felt for the bedside lamp. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”
Rajesh bowed his head and joined his palms, the flute squirming between them. Then he smiled. “Namaste, Your Majesty. There’s something of yours I’ve wanted for a long time.”
The queen laughed wryly. “Of all the threats to my rule, I never imagined the royal gardener. That is my own failing.” Brandishing a jewel–encrusted dagger, she leaned back against her mountain of mirror–worked cushions. “But I think you’ll find me a bit harder to subjugate than you might expect.”
“The negotiations fared so poorly, Your Majesty,” mocked Rajesh, “that you needed to destroy your own flute?”
The queen glowered. “How do you know about that?”
Rajesh opened his hands, flaunting the flute. “She told me.”
The instrument dove onto the queen’s bosom, eliciting a huff. A change came over the queen’s dour face: the wariness surrendered to a soft nostalgia. Clasping the flute, she began, dreamily, to play.
What poured out was a raga so suffused with longing and misery that for the briefest moment, even Rajesh’s chest constricted. How lonely the queen must have been without her flute. How she must have rued her part in its destruction.
The yearning gave way to joy. Impossibly—a miracle—the queen’s flute had returned to her, whole. All would be well.
The tempo increased, the notes becoming dissonant. Suddenly the queen seemed unable to breathe, but the song played on. Her face reddened, then purpled, as her fingers visibly strained and failed to release the instrument. Instead, the music flowed even as her arms flailed, harsher, more furious, building to a crescendo.
Rajesh observed, transfixed, as the queen’s eyes rolled up in her head. How very white they were. He slid over to the bed and pushed back her hair, revealing the desiccated rosebud knotted there. She’d thought to replace the loss of her flute with one of his girl–blossoms? A poor decision, to be certain.
The flute agreed, its pitch growing shriller.
While the queen was otherwise occupied, Rajesh knelt and snatched her shadow, so invitingly featherlike in the lamplight. It felt like majesty and mourning, rue and rebirth, like long–denied triumph and sweetness. “My garden, Your Majesty. Mine.”
He hummed the last notes along with her beloved instrument, which fell from the dying queen’s fingers and dissolved.
The presence within Rajesh vanished, and with it the glee, the white lights undulating in and out of his vision. Now the corpse was all he could see. The stinging silence was all he could hear.
He collapsed by the bed, the queen’s shadow clutched close. Every nerve in his body felt raw, twinging in time with each incontestable memory. He’d lain with a ghost. And not just any ghost, but that of the queen’s flute.
Rajesh swallowed around the unfamiliar lump in his throat. How easily, how foolishly, he had fallen captive to the one who cast no shadow—how readily he had fallen into her arms. How vulnerable he’d made the girl–blossoms, all for the evanescence of desire.
His mouth tasted sour. How could he have chosen light over shadow for even a moment? A light that, in retrospect, must have baited him by killing his poor jasmine girls. It wouldn’t have been difficult to plant a scrap of yellow silk at the scene.
And worse, far worse, he had permitted Chameli to use him to murder the queen, the ultimate benefactress of his girl–blossoms. The queen might have been haughty and too swift to put him in his place, but the very fact of her existence had shielded the garden from the impending onslaught.
He had done this, with his recklessness, with his thirst for the trophy he now possessed. The flute must have seen the need in his eyes, must have noted how his gaze hovered near the ground whenever the queen set foot in his garden.
His garden, and he had doomed it.
Anguish might have smothered him then, dense as overturned soil. He had failed the jasmine girls, failed all the girl–blossoms.
He sat there, flattened, until the candle in the lamp burned out. Outside, a silverwing warbled for its mate, which echoed the plaintive call. Soon it would be dawn, Rajesh realized, the thought a reflex, and time to rise.
Silverwings. They flew as unfettered as a ruby kite in a petal–blue sky. A kite he’d once hungered to follow…
His mouth spreading in a slow smile, he stood. He could do nothing for the dead jasmine girls, but oh, he still had shadows. And soon he would have more.
Sometime later, Rajesh passed the unresponsive handmaiden, the slumbering courtiers, and the snoring guards, and went out to greet the last of the stars.
In the garden where girls grew from flowers, their days once washed in the distant trills of the queen’s wooden flute, a gardener mourned. His name was Rajesh, and as the sun god’s chariot manifested on the horizon, he resumed his feverish digging.
At last, when all the girl–blossoms had been uprooted, he set down his trowel. Whispering a prayer to the one–eyed moon god, he wrapped the two jasmine girls in shrouds of silhouette and interred them beneath their vine.
The morning dawned crisp and cool, festooning the land in ribbons of mango and salmon. All the palace would be rising soon, all without shadows. Rajesh counted the plants and recounted. The hasty harvest combined with his previous collection would be just enough to serve his purpose. Pinched shadows abhorred holding fixed shapes, but they could be made to yield with needle and teeth and onyx thread.
Perched behind his ear, Padmamukhi spoke. “With wings,” she said, her petals glorious in the first light, “a man becomes a bird.”
Rajesh nodded and began sewing. If not a bird, at least one who granted others flight.
At last he had fashioned a stack of shadow wings. Before he could reconsider, he placed a pair between the shoulder blades of the nearest girl–blossom. Once the wings had melded with her skin, he continued through the rows of flowers. When Rajesh reached Gulaabi, she scowled and jabbed his trowel–blistered finger. For her part, the vineless jasmine girl dozed on.
Pounding hooves and soldiers’ shouted instructions splintered the air near the front gate of the palace. The invaders had arrived.
They would find no resistance to their conquest, Rajesh thought, certainly not from him. He hastened to dole out the remaining wings.
As one, the plants soared up, up, up, tracing the route of the silverwings into the skyline. They would land somewhere safe, far from here, where they could form a new garden. His heart ached. Perhaps one day, he would even find it.
Until then, he had Padmamukhi.
Rajesh licked the wound Gulaabi had inflicted, then saluted in farewell. The queen’s shadow he draped from his neck, a regal cape for the road ahead.
“Sometimes,” said Padmamukhi, her tiny hands gripping his ear tightly as they stole out the rear gate, “it is the spoiled banana that makes for the most delectable fritters.”
(Editors’ Note: Shveta Thakrar is interviewed by Deborah Stanish and “The Shadow Collector” is read by Amal El–Mohtar in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 9A.)
© 2016 by Shveta Thakrar