A Tale by Michael DeAngelo
Note: it is recommended that you read the first story in this series, Remembered in Gold, for context.
It felt like weightlessness and immensity all at once, as though he were caught somewhere between a calm pond and a raging river that forced him down deeper with every passing moment. That concept was deeply engrained in his mind. Just like sinking to the bottom of a lake or riverbed, Kunal knew he couldn’t draw breath, lest he die. No, it was not that he should not try to draw breath, he thought intently—for that was all he could do in his present state. He was simply unable to pull fresh air into his lungs. He was unable to speak, blink, or even flatulate should he need to. And yet, with all he did without, he was still cognizant. He was still aware.
But only mostly.
Trapped in his own body as he was, a fog hung over him. Concentration was difficult, and he could only bring it to a focus under unusual circumstances. Standing immobile in the garden, facing a strange topiary before him had grown old and wearisome. Unable to look away or close his eyes, the permanent sight of everything before him felt like a blank canvas.
What was life if it never truly changed?
As his thoughts grew muddled and the golden veil darkened over his eyes, the heaviness took hold of him. His limbs, fixed in their positions, had long ago changed from feeling sore to feeling nonexistent, as though he were only a mind floating in the aether. And if his appendages had grown stiff and numb with atrophy, how long would it be before his mind followed them?
He couldn’t blink, but it felt like he did when day turned to night and back into day. If a bird flew into the garden or perched atop the topiary across the path, he felt a tingling somewhere in his golden-shrouded body. More than once, he tried to speak to the bird, though he had long ago lost his voice. In fact, it had been so long that he no longer remembered what his voice sounded like. Words themselves carried no weight, no meaning. When he heard chatter from beyond the garden walls, he could swear the speakers made soft, guttural noises in another language altogether.
Kunal thought in pictures and abstract ideas in those days—or were they weeks? Months? It was impossible to tell.
Everything drew to a focus again, for a bird that ventured into Lakmari flew into the garden. Kunal was aware of it, and with it, he was also aware of the rain that had fallen the night before, though he had been ignorant of it then. The ground was damp still, and dew hung off the leaves of the topiary.
The bird didn’t perch upon that animal-shaped hedge, though. It flew about the area and finally landed upon his upraised hand.
Kunal couldn’t point his eyes there, nor tilt his neck. He only saw it out of his periphery, the bird prodding at its blue tailfeathers with its beak. He realized he didn’t feel anything there on his fingers. He wondered if it was because of how light the bird was or because of the magic that kept him entombed in his golden shell.
As he struggled to glimpse the bird, locked in place as he was, he heard chatter nearby. Whether it was because he had been roused from his trance-like state or because whoever spoke was close, their words weren’t lost to him like so many others.
“The gardens are feeling crowded,” he heard. “We’re moving too fast.”
“Shyamal decides what is too fast,” another familiar voice replied.
“The people of my city will uncover the truth of what is happening here. The ruse will be ended, and they’ll see what we’ve done. Perhaps that is for the best.”
The other man growled, and heavy footsteps drew nearer to where Kunal stood. “There’s plenty of room in the palace,” he called out. “And your subjects only attend you there when they are invited.”
Out of his peripheral vision, Kunal watched the bird fly away. A moment later, a muscular, fair-skinned fellow was there. Kunal searched the boundaries of his mind, trying to recall his name. Ronin? Rhodin? Rohan. He was one of Prince Sazim’s so-called advisors—a visitor to the city who seemed to never leave the prince’s side. Kunal recalled the fierce grip the man had, and just thinking of it had his hand hurting.
Rohan didn’t pause to assess anything. He didn’t look at Kunal with any compassion or sympathy. He just grabbed Kunal by the waist and lifted into the air, draping him over his shoulder like a rolled-up carpet being sold at the bazaar.
“We’ll put this one inside, and if anyone questions why, you can say you’ve heard tales of his adventuring spirit and of the great things he’s accomplished. You wanted his statue closer so you could celebrate his achievements.”
“I don’t want him closer,” Sazim said. It wasn’t said with as much petulance as Kunal would have expected. Instead, he sensed remorse there in that quiet reflection. “I don’t want to be reminded of what I’ve done.”
“Find another route through the palace then,” Rohan suggested.
As Kunal bobbled there on the man’s shoulder, he faced down toward the stone path. Where time usually moved through the hourglass one grain at a time, it raced while he studied every change in his surroundings. Though it felt foolish, he was invigorated by any variation of the world around him. He looked at the stones and the blades of grass that surrounded them, and he tried to remember their sharp yet gentle touch whenever he would play as a child in the fields not far from his house. How much had he taken for granted as something he could experience whenever he wanted?
He saw his shadow, affixed to Rohan’s, though he teetered like a sack of goods being brought to market. That movement—none he provided himself, he knew—still felt amazing, as though stretching his muscles for the first time in ages.
In his mind, he thanked Rohan for the changing scenery. He scolded him for treating him like an object and not a person. He planned scorching insults and barbed soliloquys, knowing they remained trapped within his mind, never to be heard. Even when he tried to shake his head to dismiss those thoughts of grandeur—limited so much from the dreams he had when he was younger—he was fixed in his position.
A sigh couldn’t leave his lungs, but he felt the sensation all the same as he focused on the ground once more. Another shadow joined them, following behind Rohan. As the advisor’s footsteps echoed off the wooden steps leading to the palace, Kunal was afforded a better vantage of the person.
Prince Sazim followed Rohan as though the advisor were leading, and the prince was commanded to fall in line behind him.
When he was carried into the palace proper, Kunal watched the shadows fade away, only to return by the light of the sconces that hung along the walls. He studied the floor, almost admiring the exquisite long rugs that lined the corridors. Lakmari was known for many fine goods, like gold and jade, but textiles like those and the tapestries that hung beside windows in the palace had to be imported—or custom-designed and made. Every now and again as Rohan walked on, Kunal glimpsed the bottom of a wall hanging.
If nothing else, the change of venue could ignite a spark in his mind once more. Then again, the outside world was far more dynamic than the inside of the palace.
Kunal could only hope they didn’t stash him away in some storage room in the dark, where his mind would atrophy and fade to nothingness.
“No, don’t take him that way,” he heard Sazim say. “Rohan, stop.”
“There’s room for him down this corridor. You won’t have a view out of the garden anymore, but he can sit right across from the other statue.”
“That other statue is…”
Sazim’s words drifted off, but it didn’t take long for Kunal to understand the prince’s reservations. As Rohan turned and set the golden statue into place, Kunal could see who he would share that short stretch of corridor with.
It was his father, Johar.
Kunal thought back to when he had first won Lakmari’s lottery and thought he was being selected to go on a grand pilgrimage for his city—to bring it honor and glory and make the harsh world around them safer. He remembered believing that winning the Gathering meant there was a chance he could someday reconnect with his father, who had been selected years before.
He never thought for a moment the golden statue of his father was a shroud that kept him trapped inside.
As Kunal looked across the way, he spotted details he missed when he first saw the golden statue of Johar. What he thought was a heroic pose looked instead like a desperate protest—no doubt against Sazim’s magic, or perhaps his white witch’s entrancing gaze. He gazed across the way and looked at his father’s golden-coated eyes and wondered if Johar could see him too.
Were all Sazim’s golden prisoners still aware within their gilded tombs?
As he considered that, he was surprised to see Sazim appear along his periphery. He inched forward, slow and uneasy like a scolded child. Kunal realized he stood slightly taller than the prince—though it could have been due to the way the prince’s shoulders sagged or he bowed his head. Sazim’s lips parted as though he wished to say something, but he couldn’t produce a sound.
Good, Kunal thought. If I can no longer speak, you shouldn’t either.
Sazim shook his head, forgoing any snide remark or self-important revelation he had been preparing. He turned about, walking back down the way they came, his footsteps echoing for a few moments before he walked atop a plush carpet once more. Before long, it grew silent in that corridor, only the quiet crackle of a dancing flame in a sconce along the adjacent hallway reminding Kunal there was more to the world than just a still picture of his father across the way.
Kunal soon realized he preferred the prince’s attendance. Alone with his father, all he could think of was how he had failed him for not asking questions or thinking to pursue him into the harsh Lustran wilderness with hopes of finding him. How soon would he have realized that Johar—along with all the other winners of the Gathering—had never truly left Lakmari? Instead, he was trapped closer than anyone could have suspected, unable to call for help or raise a flag to indicate the prince’s nefarious deeds.
As night came along and darkness crept into the building, Kunal understood that he faced the same limitations. He could never warn the other citizens or fight against Sazim’s clandestine tyranny. He couldn’t even part his lips to apologize to his father for thinking the worst of him when he and his family never received so much as a letter when he departed so many years ago.
Emotion welled up inside him as he considered that. Just as they had thought about their father, his mother and sister were sure to think the same of him.
* * *
Another night fell in the palace of Lakmari, and to Kunal, it felt like another lifetime of torture. With every sunrise, the gold across the way sparkled, as though life was bound to resume there. The first few nights Kunal was there, trapped in his standing tomb, he thought he saw light dancing in his father’s eyes. If Johar looked at his son, though, it was in the same state as Kunal: neither could do anything.
For nearly a month, Kunal struggled to spring out with muscles he couldn’t feel and to scream with lips that wouldn’t budge. It was no use. There wasn’t even a rattle of his golden boots in one direction or another.
As bothersome as the mornings were, when he saw the sunlight creep up his father’s body through unblinking eyes, the nights were harder. It was then that he watched darkness engulf Johar and, reminded of his failures, pressed against his unyielding depression with vigor and rage that couldn’t escape the golden shroud.
Though his thoughts never manifested as words or actions, he railed against his mind in a litany of screams and shouts. His indignation came so frequently and lasted for so long that he wondered how the stress of it all had not come and simply claimed him.
And then the real curse of his entrapment became clear to him: perhaps there was no escape—not even in death. Was Johar just across the carpet, slowly and constantly wishing for his own expiration?
After countless days—no, months, it had to be—the light outside changed. Summer had come to Lakmari, and despite his circumstances, Kunal couldn’t help but think about the reprieve he would have from the Lustran summer heat. Then again, it was not as though he could feel it, he reminded himself.
Of course, he also said a silent prayer every morning when he saw his shadow form across the way.
Let this be the day the sun beats down so hard upon Lakmari that I melt against the window.
More than once, he thought of stopping the ritual. Who was to say that even if he were reduced to a small golden puddle, he wouldn’t still be conscious of his terrible predicament?
Instead, Kunal did his best to let his mind wander.
It was not as easy as it seemed, unfortunately. Over the months that passed, he’d seen his fair share of happenings within the palace—perhaps he was just more aware of it, for so little changed during each of his days compared to out in the garden.
When Sazim led another of the Lakmari residents through the halls—a lout and a drunkard who did very little with his life by the name of Yesh, if Kunal remembered right—the prince made a point to show off both statues, the father and the son, and indicated that perhaps they had found each other again after their Gatherings.
Kunal detected a shudder in Sazim’s voice, as though he truly did have regrets for what he did. It mattered not, though. Kunal was sure of why Yesh was called to the palace. He thought back to the dizzyingly dull days that came before and wondered if perhaps he had ignored the frenzy of cheers and applause when Yesh’s name was called for his own Gathering. Sooner than later, another citizen was to be turned to gold, and a new lie would be told to the people of Lakmari that he had gone on some wonderful, grand adventure.
Kunal wished Sazim’s regrets would turn to poison in his mouth and that they would be the thing he choked on.
By the time he let his angry thoughts lapse from his mind, Sazim and Yesh were gone, and the light of day had changed. New shadows crept into the building, and it became obvious that his rage swelled in him over the course of hours, blinding him to the passage of time.
As it subsided and the adrenaline passed, Kunal felt as though he were packed too tightly within the golden shell. He felt more uncomfortable than before—a thought he’d never considered possible prior to then.
He tried to shake his head before recalling he’d be unable to for all eternity. Another silent scream pierced through him but couldn’t penetrate his gilded shroud.
Before long, the dark of night engulfed the hallway, allowing him some form of respite, as he let his mind drift, aimless in his own abyss.
Kunal dreamed though he was in that perpetually conscious state. He remembered running through the city streets, playing with his sister and his friend, climbing the blossom trees in the western forest. He recalled the times before his father left, when Johar would carry him on his shoulders while his mother cradled his sister against her chest. Once, Johar was the greatest part of Kunal’s life. But that was so many years ago. How much time had they lost because of Sazim’s awful curse?
Kunal’s mind wandered still, but it was along one meandering path rather than the series of crossroads it had been set upon before. He saw images along the way: him racing his father up a hill just outside Lakmari’s city walls; an arm-wrestling contest where Johar displayed incredible acting skills while he feigned a defeat against his son; the day his father, with tears in his eyes, kneeled near the door of their humble abode and placed a hand on both of his children’s shoulders. Once again, he leaned on those fine performing arts, promising that, though he would miss Kunal and Sesha terribly, he felt great pride in them and knew they were destined for great things.
In his dream state, Kunal walked past the distant memory, nearing the palace on a quiet night where no one was around, and the gates were open.
A whisper crept into his mind, reminding him of what he truly wanted to know:
Why would Sazim do this to the people of Lakmari?
Thoughts kept pervading his recollection, like memories of a time long ago. But it couldn’t have been that long, could it? His time in the garden was mere days ago—or had months already passed?
Kunal heard a voice in his mind and struggled to place who it had belonged to. The name Shyamal fluttered in the dark corners of his awareness, and he tried to remember who had spoken that name. All he knew was that it was spoken with a rotten taste—he knew at once that Shyamal was as corrupt and wicked as the rest of them.
As he searched within himself, he was surprised by a sudden movement in front of him. Rohan—the one who had mentioned Shyamal, Kunal recalled then—had also suggested Sazim avoid his hallway in the palace if he didn’t want to see Kunal and Johar. The prince had taken that advice to heart and only ventured down the corridor when he absolutely had to.
But it was not Sazim who ventured before Kunal then. He remembered the woman’s fair skin and golden hair. He recalled that, even though she was not of Lakmari, she dressed the part, wearing fancy silks and sashes, vibrant bangles and earrings. But what Kunal most remembered about Cascadia was her haunting gaze.
She had passed him by, almost lost in the darkness, but something had brought her back. Though shadows danced upon her, she still seemed to sparkle. Her hair, nearly the same color as the statues she helped to turn the citizens into, looked vivid even under the cover of night. While Sazim was the prince, there was something about that golden crown that made Kunal wonder if she was perhaps the one in control.
Cascadia stopped in front of him, studying his features and recalling what he had looked like when he was not trapped behind his golden pall. She brought a glass to her mouth, and Kunal could see she drank wine as red as her lips.
Though his eyes were locked in place, as they were when she once gazed into them, he felt as though he could move about and truly see her for the first time.
“It was Kunal, wasn’t it?” she spoke then.
If he could have gasped, he would have.
“You’re still in there, aren’t you?” she went on. “There’s something there that’s still alive.”
As she took a step closer, he could feel his heart beating faster. Cascadia lifted her hand and caressed it against his face. Though a layer of gold separated them, he imagined the touch and swore to himself that he could feel it.
“There’s something in you still, buzzing—thriving.”
She drew closer, until her lips were nearly upon his. He heard her soft breaths and saw as her eyes danced to his various features.
A quiet, teasing laugh left her mouth as she drew away. “I’m certain this is not the last we’ve seen of each other,” she said. Her gaze lingered for a moment longer before she continued the way she had gone before.
Somehow, the darkness of the place seemed even gloomier in her absence.
It took some time for Kunal to shake the memory of the woman from his mind. Cascadia was enchanting, even if he was aware of the part she played in his fate.
As his heartbeat steadied and the vibrant color of the world seemed to fade into a dismal mix of blacks and greys once more, he realized there was a reason for the woman’s presence.
Yesh walked into the palace of his own accord, but he wouldn’t be walking out.
* * *
Summer gave way to autumn, and the light shifted through the window at his back in such a way that the sun’s rays never quite reached Johar’s eyes at any point throughout the day.
Kunal latched onto the words Cascadia had shared with him weeks—no, months—ago. She called him alive, as though it were a surprise. Perhaps that meant none of the others who had been cursed by Sazim’s magic were left to rot in their golden sarcophagi.
Or perhaps there was something within Kunal that fought still, when everyone else had more easily given up.
He stared across the way, wondering if his father had immediately been severed from existence, or if he slowly fought against maddening thoughts until he was cut off from the verve of life. Did he think about his children till the end? Or did his mind atrophy until he couldn’t make sense of anything beyond the minutiae of the world around him?
Kunal still felt connected to everything. Time was a strange construct he couldn’t make sense of, for his days, weeks, and months blended together. But he hadn’t lost anything beyond that. He remembered his time in the gardens. Though he couldn’t smell anything in his state, he imagined the aroma of the rain every time it beat down on the ground behind him. Even the taste of his last meal before Cascadia froze him in place and Sazim began his transformation was still in his mind.
Every day it was as though he relived the entirety of his life leading up to his announcement as winner of the Gathering and the dull days of his imprisonment afterward.
He replayed the most recent bitter memories in his mind every day: After Cascadia had left him alone, Sazim’s other fair-skinned associate, the burly Rohan, carried Yesh in his golden shroud toward a palace’s exit. Despite Yesh’s considerable size, Rohan looked as though he could have carried the entrapped man beneath one arm.
Did Yesh’s statue sit in the same spot Kunal once did, he wondered. They had to celebrate the man, even if he had no family and few friends to speak of. The ruse had to seem real—the Gathering had to be a victory rather than a foul curse. And what better way to keep the citizens of Lakmari content than to heroize even the lowliest scoundrel among them?
Across the way, Kunal saw disturbances in the light cast in from the window. Though none of his features shifted, it felt as though he were curling his lips up in a smile. The ryza blossom trees’ summer petals were falling, and he remembered how even in his perpetual immobile state, there was something calming and soothing about seeing that. That late in the year, the petals would have been a vibrant orange or a striking red. He remembered they would cover the stone paths that meandered through the common until a gardener swept them this way or that.
If Johar did still see, at least he was treated to a brilliant view.
Kunal tried to press out a sigh that would neither fill nor empty his lungs or leave his lips. Trapped as he was, he was at the mercy of whatever servants were at Sazim’s beck and call. Perhaps that would be where he spent the rest of eternity: looking at the lifeless body of his father, who so long ago left them, yet stayed close all the same.
He remembered that Johar hadn’t always been there in the palace’s corridor. The prince and his strange helpers moved things about at their own pace and perhaps with their own strategies. Yesh’s statue would have had to be at the forefront of the Lakmarian citizens’ minds. He was the latest winner of the Gathering, after all. He was to be celebrated.
Kunal wondered if anyone still remembered him. His mind drifted to thoughts of his mother and his sister, to their neighbors… He wondered if his friend, Param, had made new connections since he’d been gone. They were inseparable once—his friend had even claimed he would leave Lakmari and look for him. Was Param out on the road, looking for someone who never left?
How long would Sazim’s cruel sorcery go on, Kunal wondered. How long had it been in effect? The Gatherings had gone on for many years—for as long as Kunal had been alive. And the prince was only several years older than he.
Some distant chatter in the palace shook him from his thoughts then. Before long, a shadow crept down the hall, and Kunal could discern that Sazim was talking.
It was too soon for another Gathering, wasn’t it? His days blended together, but it surely hadn’t been as long as usual for a second victim to be walking into the dangers of the palace, and he hadn’t heard the usual distant buzz of Lakmari’s people to celebrate the victor.
Sazim walked down the hall, a wide smile upon his face. Kunal, unable to steer his gaze away, studied his look intently. The prince wore a veneer of excitement and glee, but there were cracks beneath it all. A keen eye could see the weak yet swift flash of a frown as he considered all the wretched things he’d done.
Still, he pointed toward Kunal, saying something about his heroism and his bravery at venturing into the Lustran wilderness. So fixated on his mannerisms, Kunal lost sense of the words for a moment. He forced himself to pay more attention, for Sazim heaped praise upon Johar then as well.
“I’d like to think they found one another out there,” the prince said with a hopeful charm in his voice. He sounded more pleasant than Kunal had ever heard, despite all the weariness he’d seen in him since his transformation. “We send letters out to the Lakmari outposts we’ve established, of course, but the life of adventurers can be unexpected. We’ve not heard back yet, but I’m hopeful that when we do hear from them, it will be exceptional news. Perhaps their quests will even see them back here one day.”
Though he knew his statue wouldn’t reflect it, Kunal felt as though he furrowed his brow. There was something unsettling about the way Sazim talked to his guest, and more, that he lingered there between the two gilded men.
“It’s…disconcerting,” he heard a womanly voice say then. “They look so much like they did when I knew them. They’re lifelike, and yet, it doesn’t appear they’ve aged a day.”
A shiver ran up Kunal’s spine. The voice felt familiar, yet time had warped the pitch or the timbre and changed it into something peculiar.
“It is an important event, being picked for the Gathering. Their absence is not lost to us, and I will spare no expense to ensure their sacrifice is remembered.” He held out his hand, enticing his guest closer. “Kunal and Johar left to see Lakmari made a better place. They went to drive off bandits, or to secure an alliance with a distant nation, or perhaps to find some great treasure that has been lost to time. But in any case, it seems they left the jewel of Lakmari here.”
Feeling a pounding in his chest, Kunal lashed out against his thoughts. It couldn’t be what he thought it was. He was wrong—his mind was devastated from his entrapment, and it wove cruel fantasies for him. It was torture, to be sure, but welcome compared to if it was truly…
When the young lady took the prince’s hand, it was as though each moment slowed to a crawl, each grain of sand in the glass separately fell one by one through the ampoule, leaving a distinct signal upon the bottom of the bulb.
As Sazim pulled his visitor closer, the horrifying truth was laid bare.
The prince had called Johar, the father.
He had called Kunal, the son.
And now, he called Sesha. His sister.
Kunal felt as though he railed against his golden tomb, slamming his fists and kicking at walls that were so near to him that he could gain no momentum. He shook about as though he were a man possessed by a tempest, the storm welling within him so fiercely that he thought that certainly the gilded shroud could not contain him.
Yet he heard not so much as a rattle as Sazim brought his sister’s hand toward his lips. A nonexistent gasp struck the frozen man, but the prince’s touch did not seem to affect the young woman as it had her brother so long ago.
Kunal looked at Sazim and saw that his features were more striking than he recalled in the past. His manner of garb had changed as well, as the prince seemed to go for bolder colors and patterns.
He wasn’t planning on using his curse on her, Kunal realized. He was simply smitten by her.
For several moments, a feeling of relief washed over the trapped man. He wouldn’t wish his predicament on his worst enemy, let alone his own sister.
He reflected for a moment and realized that Sazim, in fact, was his worst enemy at that time, and he reconsidered his stance. If the prince could be turned to gold, Kunal would make peace with it. That he could do the terrible things he did to Johar and his son—and still pursue Sesha—was unthinkable and despicable.
Kunal merely traded one type of anger for another.
Sazim spun about, ready to show his special guest more of the palace. His voice resonated from farther down the hall as he made his way from there, but Sesha lingered between her father and her brother, oblivious to the fact they were anything other than statues. She looked to her father, whispering something only Kunal, in that proximity, could hear.
“You look just like I remember you, Appa,” Sesha said. “Like not a day has passed.”
She turned her head then and looked at her brother’s statue instead. She remained there for some time, looking into his golden-coated eyes. Sesha had grown into a beautiful young woman, with dark, shadowy makeup lining her eyes and luxurious locks of coffee-colored hair that cascaded down her shoulders. She had new attention to detail, it seemed, as she grew older—older than Kunal had been when he was selected at the Gathering so long ago.
Sesha tilted her head as she looked at her brother, and he wondered if perhaps she sensed his yearning for freedom within. The only other person who seemed to understand he was more than an effigy of the man she remembered was Cascadia, and she looked at him the same way Sesha did now.
She hummed a short note to herself before she went on her way, leaving her imprisoned family there in the corridor.
Kunal wondered if she turned to look over her shoulder as she went, but try as he might, he couldn’t croon his neck in that direction to verify it.
As time passed and the shadows of night closed in, it felt as though the palace grew darker than it ever had before.
* * *
Kunal prayed each and every day. Though it had felt as though his life could not have grown worse than it was, the thought of his sister spending time with the dastardly prince made him feel like his skin crawled, even though it was trapped beneath a layer of gold.
And each day, as dejected as it left him, he hoped it would be the last day he’d see Sesha walking through the palace. Many times, days went by when he had remembered seeing her last, and he wondered if Sazim had grown bored with his sister. He could only wish he’d let her walk away rather than use his foul magic on her.
But would he really risk a citizen going missing without calling for the Gathering?
Such thoughts were pointless anyway and easy to dismiss, for Sesha didn’t seem to go longer than half a fortnight without returning to see Sazim.
The screams trapped within Kunal’s mind grew louder with every passing day, for there was no interaction between the two of them he could accept. The only positivity he could reach for was that Sazim seemed increasingly desperate for the young woman to stay the night at the palace, and she staved off his advances thus far. Kunal could sense the prince’s desires plainly—as well as his frustrations.
As winter came to Lakmari, the light of day faded faster. Kunal lost sight of his father quicker and hoped he had already lost his perception, that if he was still in there, trapped as his son was, that his mind wandered aimlessly, and he didn’t see Sesha spending time there.
Sesha continued to show at the palace, though, and before long, she came and went as she pleased. Sazim didn’t summon for her, it seemed, but neither did his guards keep her from the place. In fact, with her newfound liberty in moving about the palace, she tended to spend the earlier parts of the day there.
Kunal realized he had forced his mind to wander. Madness was overtaking him, surely, for it had been far too long that he’d been trapped in that husk. But when he stood there, staring ahead one morning and saw Sesha before him, he realized she spoke to him.
“I will find a way to get you back,” she insisted. “Sazim knows I won’t lay with him until I’m sure you’re safe. He makes promises he’ll send letters out to you and Father, but…”
Kunal focused on her as Sesha’s words trailed off. If she only knew the truth.
A quiet noise from down the corridor resonated then, and Sesha glanced there for a moment. Her gaze didn’t linger, and she didn’t look back to her brother before she began away, down the opposite way toward the palace exit.
It only took a few moments for the other visitor to arrive before the two statues then. Cascadia stopped and stared down the corridor, and Kunal could hear a subtle, introspective hum hit the back of her throat.
She looked to the man who remained trapped behind the layer of gold and raised her eyebrow, unable to shield her intrigue. It didn’t keep her there, though, and before long, Cascadia moved along, disappearing into the shadows of the palace.
In what felt like the flutter of an unblinkable eye, days turned to night and back again. For some time, the corridor remained empty except for the two golden statues, even the servants absent. Kunal cared not for that peculiarity, but as winter pressed on, he could not ignore every strange sensation.
The light of morning always seemed to bring some odd happening. A strange shadow danced on the opposite wall, sometimes landing upon his father’s statue as well. And each time it did, Kunal thought he’d felt a chill upon his body. He struggled to think back to when he’d spent time in the gardens. It had been years, he was sure, but he never remembered the heat of the sun or the crisp air of winter cooling his body. Within the gold shroud, he was lost to every sensation of touch or feeling, only sound and sight permeating his pall.
Every time, as the day went on, the phenomenon would pass, but he would be left wondering what it was. Could it be that he was losing his grasp on the world? Would it be possible for him to finally let go of his mortality and find peaceful oblivion?
If it was to be so, it would not happen on his latest day, he realized. Someone rounded the corner, their heavy footfalls reporting even on the plush carpet. Sazim was there in front of him only a few moments later, a disheveled look upon him, his chiseled features hiding behind a bedraggled beard. Still, Kunal could see the prince lock his jaw in an almost pronounced underbite.
Sazim looked to his old victim, staring at him with bloodshot eyes and an agitated frown. Without warning, the prince reached up and swung out with his fist, connecting it against Kunal’s face.
Though he couldn’t feel the sensation of being struck, Kunal’s vision wobbled a bit. Sazim had knocked him off balance, even if just for a moment.
Kunal didn’t focus on that peculiarity for long, though, struck instead by the sight of Sazim wincing and cradling his hand. He seethed, a quiet growl growing inside him as a trail of spit caught in his beard.
Though of course no sound erupted from within him, laughter welled up inside him. There he was, trapped for eternity it seemed, yet he still claimed some small victory on Sazim, for whatever reason.
The prince was the first to hear the approach of someone else, and he reached up to wipe his face with his wrist. He corrected his posture and held his head high as he focused on whoever entered the corridor then.
“My liege, Master Rohan is here to speak with you. Shall I let him in?”
Kunal watched as Sazim’s nostrils flared. He took a moment to compose himself, but lifted his hand with an air of authority, as though it were his idea to have his servant find him there.
“Of course,” the prince said. “Have him meet me in the throne room. I shall attend him shortly.”
Sazim waited for a moment while his servant tended to his duty. When he was alone, he let fly a quiet groan and rubbed his sore hand once more. He paid no further heed to Kunal then, turning about and heading back the way he came.
A feeling of contentment washed over Kunal. He had earned no further reprieve and gained no further standing, but the thought that Sazim was furious enough to do something foolish filled him with fleeting feelings of joy. It didn’t take long for Kunal to realize just why the prince had flown into such a rage. After all, it had been some time since Sesha had been there, he reminded himself.
And there it was: the truth of the situation was laid bare.
Unable to prove that Kunal and Johar were alive and well, Sazim’s words could only placate Sesha for so long. Now a prideful, strong, clever woman, she would not be swayed by mere rumor or hearsay.
Sazim longed for something he would never receive, much like his victims.
More importantly, Sesha was safe from the mad prince and could live out the rest of her days free of his corruption and his influence.
Kunal was sure that as darkness covered the palace that night, he would find a way to rest easy.
As the shadows crept in, the servants set lights within the sconces. Flickers of radiance danced along the way, and the statue across from him seemed to shimmer as though starlight was caught along its surface. It almost looked as though his father were smiling as well, taking solace in the same relief his son had.
In the distance, though, down many corners, Kunal could hear angry discourse. Struggling as he did, he tried to remember his way around the palace by memory. He counted how many corners and corridors separated his passage from the throne room, as he was sure that was where the commotion erupted from.
It was no use, Kunal figured. He had only followed Rohan through the building once, and then when he was carried out to the garden, his attention was hazy, left in tatters by the shock of being a prisoner within his own body.
It mattered not, though. None of his wishes had come to pass thus far, and being a fly on the wall of the throne room was a menial desire compared to his greater aspirations. Instead, he let the faraway shouting buzz in his ear, lulling him into a tranquil fog.
The fire-warmed twilight and the remote voices gave him peace. But it was not to last.
Kunal heard the approach before he noticed torchlight. Sazim shouted loud enough that the gold-imprisoned fellow was surprised he hadn’t heard him earlier—and he wondered if the angry voice carried beyond the palace walls, into the greater city of Lakmari.
“What he’s asking offends me to my very core. We’ve done what he asked at every turn. Now he asks for too much.”
“What he wants is not unreasonable,” another voice spoke, and Kunal searched his memory once more to try and place it. He knew it was the broad, fair-skinned advisor who sometimes came to the palace—the same one who carried him to and from the garden after he had been transformed. “At the next Gathering, we’ll choose two winners. He isn’t even collecting yet. But he does need to see some progress. A favorable pledge would be most…appreciated.”
It was Sazim who carried the torch then, and he stopped, once again, just between the father and son who had been turned to gold. The prince looked to Kunal for a moment, a loathsome look in his eyes.
“This one,” he said, pointing to Johar. “Take him away. Give him to Shyamal as my tribute.”
Rohan appeared there a moment later, seeming to tower over the troubled prince. He looked to the statue and tilted his head, as though there were a strangeness in Sazim’s request. The burly advisor took Johar’s hand as if he was preparing to shake it, holding it tightly between his fingers.
Time seemed to slow to Kunal. Something wasn’t right, and it permeated his golden shroud and left him with a feeling of unease. The torchlight flickered across the faces of the three men before him. Sazim looked full of wickedness that Kunal was just seeing for the first time. Whatever decision he had made was meant to punish Kunal and his sister. Rohan, meanwhile, demonstrated no animosity. Still, his eyebrows furrowed as he prepared for his task.
Johar’s features were frozen, as they always were. But there was something in the way the flames danced in his still eyes that left him looking as though he knew of the troubles to come.
Kunal felt as though his own eyes widened as Rohan lifted his arm high above his head. At once, time moved swift again, and the sturdy fellow came down with all his strength. A strange sound echoed out, but Rohan’s body blocked Kunal’s view.
“There,” the advisor said. “You don’t need to send the whole thing. Just a small toll will show Shyamal that you are still true to your word.”
He turned and walked on, gone before Kunal could see what he had done. Sazim remained there, though, his angry gaze settling once more after witnessing what Rohan had done.
“She should have taken my offer,” he muttered then. “I would have made her a princess. She would have lived like royalty.” He looked to Kunal, staring into his eyes as though he knew he still sensed the things going on around him. “Now who is to say? Perhaps Sesha will be chosen by the upcoming Gathering. Before long, I’ll have all three of you standing here.” Sazim started away, back to his chambers or the throne room, but his voice continued to echo as he took his leave. “Of course, that’s not to say you’ll all be in one piece.”
It was as though a wave of emotions had washed over Kunal, sending his vision pulsing. All he could think about was his hatred for the wicked prince and his desires to see him fall.
But as adrenaline ebbed away, Kunal faced a new sight before him.
Johar’s statue was no longer whole; where his right hand had been, a golden stump remained. The distant flickering from the sconces still seemed to catch in Johar’s eyes, but then it looked as though he felt the horrors enacted upon him. Though nothing had changed in his stance, Kunal thought he could hear his father’s scream echoing through the corridor.
And if Sazim’s words were anything more than an empty promise, another of their family could join them there, sooner than later.
Kunal fell within himself, lost in the swell of emotions that were his reprieve and his endless punishment.
Some evils could still find their way to a statue.