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The One Who Could Be King

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I can give you the power to change him, but you'll need to give me something in return .

Menaka wanted to say yes. She almost did. The promise had half fallen from her lips when she remembered.

Remembered the screams from the humans as Gandharva loomed over them, then how abruptly the silence came when their planet crumbled like dust.

Remembered the frantic expressions of her clansmen as they were attacked on all sides by sura allied in their hatred against them, and how Gandharva basked in the bloodlust.

Remembered Urvasi's long recovery after she had dared to speak against him, and was struck to the side like a rag doll.

He would be killed before she could change him, even with Visnu's help. She would be giving him all the time he had left and more to remain as he is: a cruel child with too much power.

And still, she almost said yes.

Visnu's hand was half raised before her, his serene smile on his face. She could almost see the offer dangling in his hand, how all she needed to do was reach out and grasp it for Gandharva to be saved.

Menaka lowered her gaze. "Thank you. I know you're offering because I asked it of you, but...I can't accept." I shouldn't .

 


 

Later, Visnu tells her that it wasn't him at all. It was Kali, and suddenly, that serene smile Menaka remembered became impossibly cold. Visnu praised her judgement, but Menaka knew how close she had come.

 


 

Gandharva died as Visnu had envisioned.

God Agni had never been in Gandharva's sights except as a fly to be swatted away whilst he played with the humans.

One day he would freeze them, the next watch them drown. If was feeling particularly patient, he wouldn't take sura form at all and and just slowly decrease the temperature of the planet until the climate became icy and nothing could grow. Then he could take human form and walk among them. Watch them starve. Watch them turn stiff and black with frostbite. Watch them lose hope as their prayers fell to gods who could do nothing to save them.

But on that day, a god did save them. On a tiny planet at the edge of the universe, Agni called upon the flames of Paradise, burning with the judgment of the trillions upon trillions of lives Gandharva had stolen. Their suffering was at last given form, and their fury given release as the flames roared around Gandharva, reducing him to dust. Just as he had done to their planets.

On that day, Menaka took her male form and became king.

 


 

Gandharva's death sent aftershocks among the sura. He was not the most powerful, but he had seemed the most unkillable. Many nastika already eyed Agni warily for reasons unknown even to themselves, but the death was something they could firmly point to. Those who didn't make a regular habit of killing humans only felt mild discomfort, but those that did began to have second thoughts.

 


 

"--we're being attacked again !" Makara shouted. "We need to strike back more definitively!" His voice echoed loudly off the towering ice walls that Menaka had built for their stronghold. The glaring gaze of the clansmen behind Makara told Menaka that his words didn't just echo with the walls.

"It's retaliation from when Gandharva lead attacks on their clan," Menaka said. "We don't have the right to--"

"And what about us then?!" The nastika behind Makara stood. "Our rakshasa are being killed at a highest rate of all the clans! Are we supposed to just sit here--"

"We defend! If we attack again, that would just fan the flames of their hatred. We defend, and negotiate!" Menaka raised his voice the best he could, even so, his words sounded empty. It lacked the ring of Makara's, even to his own ears. He had already repeated this too many times.

"Negotiate?" Makara let out a mocking laugh. None of the others joined. They simply stared back at Menaka in horror. "We've been trying to negotiate for over 100 years! If the Yaksha clan had any inclination of being reasoned with, don't you think that a ceasefire would have happened by now?"

"We destroyed their strongholds. We launched hundreds of attacks on them. And to make matters worse, nearly all of their stronghold resulted in the destruction of the planets. Makara, you know how Yaksha feels about human deaths--"

" Gandharva destroyed their strongholds. And Gandharva is dead! Why must we continue to pay the price of his follies?!"

"We should not , but if we don't attempt to build trust now, then the wars against us will never stop!"

For a long while, Makara didn't reply. His gaze turned colder until Menaka had to will himself to not shake under it. That was when he finally began speaking again. "I had thought the worst of it would be behind us with Gandharva's death, but it seems that what will make this clan fall is you . If you knew you couldn't make the decisions to save our clan then you never should have become king!"

"Then would you rather Gandharva still be king?"

Their attentions snapped to the new voice. Urvasi stood near the entrance of the room, face defiant against Makara's glares. Menaka almost sighed in relief at the sight of her.

"Well, Makara?" she said cooly. "We despaired when Gandharva made the other clans turn against us. Now we despair at repairing the mess he made. No matter how I look at it, isn't the root of the problem him? So why do I hear you thinking of the times he was king so favorably? Or…" Her eyes narrowed. "Are you eyeing the position of king?"

"And what about you? What position are you eyeing?" Makara shot back. "Rather then insisting on defending Menaka, why don't you think of the future of our clan?"

Urvasi ignored his insinuations. "This is our only chance to cut off the stain that Gandharva left us. Our only chance to bring the clan out of isolation. If you truly worry about the future of our clan, then put more effort into defending, or help with negotiations."

"My mind won't be changed, Makara," Menaka said, voice steadier than it had been before. "We continue to defend. Do not provoke them further."

"This blood is on your hands, Menaka," Makara scowled. But he said nothing more before turning to exit, footsteps an echoing rhythm that beat at Menaka's anxious heart like a drum. The other nastika followed him out, some without sparing a glance, and others giving Menaka one last haunted look.

Urvasi watched them file past her. "You're making the right choice," she said after they had left.

Menaka smiled wanly. For as long as Menaka could remember, there had never been a time that Urvasi hadn't supported him, or at the very least defended him. The affirmation was about strange as a fire taking a liking to kindling. Still, Menaka couldn't deny that the support was welcome, especially when no one else in the clan would offer it.

"Thank you."

 


 

"Sounds like a challenge to me," Agni said. "If Makara ever tries it, I'll back you up! Although I guess that doesn't mean much to nastika since it comes from a god…"

Menaka laughs. "If it's from you, it might mean something. It's not quite fear, but, they're cautious of you."

It was Agni's turn to laugh. Compared to Menaka's small chuckles, he laughed with a certain openness--mouth split into a wide grin and shoulders shaking. "They're just being ridiculous. Indra would love that being directed at him. Anyways, is Yaksha really unwilling to let up? I get where he's coming from, but the main instigator behind all this is already dead."

He changed the subject, Menaka noted. Agni always did when it came to that. There was no helping it but to continue. "That....is probably my fault. Gandharva may be dead, but the ones who helped him are not," Menaka said. "My intention was to avoid sacrificing them to appease the Yaksha clan, but in the end, all that's lead to is more bloodshed." He hung his head. "I can't blame Makara for being angry with me. I was too greedy, and now those who weren't involved are paying the price."

"Well, it's always a gamble. Kindness and mercy don't always beget the same. If it did, this universe wouldn't be nearly so twisted."

Menaka glanced sideways at Agni. He knew what Agni did in Hell. He also knew how badly Agni wanted humanity to thrive. It was a strange dichotomy--the one who cared the most was the one left to face their worst, to pass judgement and inflict punishment.

Yet Agni refused to let go of anything. Not for the first time, Menaka wondered how he could live like that.

After all, Menaka had only had to pass that kind of judgement once, and it ate at him ceaselessly.

 


 

Yaksha eventually made peace with the Gandharva clan. A fragile trust was born. As long as Menaka was king and kept his promise to not attack the Yaksha clan, then the Yaksha clan would not attack either.

Shuri had given Menaka a smile during the peacetalk meetings. Menaka wondered then whether the ceasefire was born from Yaksha's faith, or from Visnu asking Shuri to interfere.

He managed to pull Shuri to the side to thank her.

Shuri tilted her head, a serene smile that reminded Menaka so of Visnu upon her face. "There's not much to thank me for. I hope our clans can put this behind us."

"Yes, I hope the Yaksha clan can be our allies."

Shuri let out a laugh like chiming bells. "Peace barely decided upon and already you speak of an alliance?"

"It's what I've always aimed for," Menaka said.

At that Shuri stopped laughing. She regarded Menaka with a warm expression and cool eyes. "Yes," she said at last. "I hope that the Gandharva clan can be our allies one day as well."

 


 

"What were you talking to Shuri about?" Urvasi asked, eyes tracked onto Shuri's retreating figure.

"An alliance."

Urvasi gave him a look of disbelief. "We've barely finished killing each other and you're asking for an alliance?" She shook her head. "That's not something you can convince either clan of right now. And why are you asking Shuri instead of Yaksha anyways?"

"Shuri is more amenable to the idea," Menaka said. "And I don't expect it to happen right away, but our clan's survival will depend on it happening one day. Without an alliance, we'd be too vulnerable. We were fortunate this time that the other clans had conflicts when Gandharva died, so only the Yaksha took the opportunity to take revenge, but it won't always be that way. Today's conflicts may not entangle us, but tomorrow's could at any time."

"And yesterday's enemies can be tomorrow's allies."

"Yes, that's what I hope for," Menaka said. A pause. "Thank you. Again."

"Huh?" Urvasi blinked. "For what?"

"For believing that this could happen. For putting in all the effort for this to happen. Sometimes I don't know if I should've become king, but...I'm grateful that you've stood by me regardless."

Urvasi flicked her gaze to the side, slightly flushed. "Well, if it's for the clan, it's only natural that I try, right? Sometimes I feel like your head's a little in the clouds, to be honest but…" When she met Menaka's eyes again, there was a sort of faith in it that gave him a jolt. "There is no king that doesn't err. At the very least, I believe in your path. You are the one who should be king."

Menaka could only wish he could believe that as firmly.

 


 

"It will come to pass," Visnu said. "Of all the paths, the one where your clan is allied with the Yaksha clan has the highest probability of occurring if you continue as you are."

"I see…" Menaka watched Visnu, who continued to sit calmly by the water's side, carelessly observing the gentle waves that lapped against the shore. "Did you ask Shuri to help us?"

"I merely made her aware of the choices, that's all."

"Then I should thank you anyways."

Visnu turned to her and smiled. "I promised you that I'd give you that future, didn't I? Wondrous love, remarkable happiness, and friendship that can transcend the races."

"You promised that to Gandharva," Menaka said stiffly.

Visnu scoffed. "You were meant to be Gandharva. The fact that pest managed to steal the name simply got in the way of that." He reached out to pat Menaka's shoulder. "Rest assured, I'll make sure that all of your destiny returns to you." He squeezed.  "That's the path to the best future after all."

"Then Kali is--"

"Still wreaking havoc," Visnu said with a sigh. "But, the best future is within our grasp. Stand firm, Menaka."

 


 

"Unbelievable," Makara said, eyes narrowed with disdain. Behind him, several nastika were laughing at a red faced Urvasi. Even Menaka had a hard time keeping an amused grin off his face. "I hadn't thought that you were so vain, but really…"

"Shut up," Urvasi muttered, looking away.

Makara groaned. "To think...our first conflict with the Yaksha clan after our truce, is a beauty contest ."

"Ah, not just with the Yaksha clan," one of the nastika said seriously. "Almost dragged us into a three way war with the Kinnara clan too." Urvasi only grew redder and the nastika could no longer hold his laughter. The tension popped like a balloon and laughter burst forth.

"I-it wasn't that serious," Urvasi said through gritted teeth.

"Oh?" Makara raised an eyebrow. "So did we all imagine the three of you hunting down Taksaka for a vote?"

"It was just a quick way to wrap it up!" Urvasi shouted over the new peal of laughter. "He wasn't from one of the clans so--"

"But asking Taksaka? Tsk tsk tsk." A nastika waggled his finger. "You're lucky you didn't get an arm ripped off."

"He wouldn't with Airivata there…" Urvasi mumbled.

"You idiot, Airivata probably suggested Taksaka for the vote because he's her friend. She was trying to rig it!"

It was clear to see that there was no easy way out for Urvasi as she shrank under their ribbing and jeering, her normally boisterous voice quieting into indistinct murmurs. Menaka chuckled and cleared the crowd to save whatever composure Urvasi had left.

But...he couldn't resist teasing her just once. "You know, if you really wanted someone impartial, you shouldn't have asked a sura at all. I'm sure Agni wouldn't have minded if I asked him…"

Urvasi's face scrunched with disgust. "Blegh, I caught a glimpse of the last human he was chasing. Her face looked like something sat on it. Even if I did get chosen, it'd be a joke to get picked by someone with that kind of taste."

"I would've seconded his vote if he chose you."

Menaka thought he saw Urvasi's face glow redder, but it was difficult to tell given the impossibly bright color that already flushed her face. "That's just the clan bias speaking…" Urvasi said.

"But it is true that you're the most beautiful in the clan."

Urvasi's ducked her head down to stare at the ground, and one of her hands shot up to awkwardly rub her reddening neck. "Th-that's not true. I always thought your female form eclipsed mine…"

Perhaps because Urvasi had turned the tables so suddenly, Menaka felt a pang of shyness.

 


 

"Like someone sat on it?!" Agni fumed. "She was super cute!"

"Your love filter is a little too strong..."

"Your definition of beauty is too narrow."

His annoyance raised his body temperature, making the frozen stone beneath him steam. Agni was an odd sight on Halmut. The planet was relatively far from its star, and had been bombarded by icy comets early in its creation. As a result, its sky was dusky even at mid-day, and a large portion of it was covered by partially frozen seas. Even the humans that lived here veered towards cool colored hair and eyes.

It was cold, watery planet that the Gandharva clan preferred to use as one of their strongholds, but one that fire gods preferred to avoid. Even the few gods of fire that were tied to the planet usually spent their time on the star instead, and took rounds staying on Halmut's surface.

The frozen surface of the stone beneath Agni turned to slick water and he slipped off with a yelp.

"What are you doing here anyways?" Menaka's lips twitched in amusement. "It's not like you to visit watery planets like this so much."

"Well of course I'm visiting you," Agni said, rearranging himself to sit on the ground.

Menaka rolled his eyes. "For you to be here almost every day...are you chasing after that human again?"

Agni doesn't answer.

"How'd it end last time?"

"As it always does," Agni said. "I'm too stupid for it to turn out otherwise. At least it wasn't a sura attack."

"I'm surprised she hasn't forgiven you. The worst of the human slaughtering ended because of you…"

Agni's face twisted into a pained expression. "There's some things you can't forgive. What I managed to accomplish was barely anything." He shook his head. "You know, we can cry or despair at their suffering, but in the end, the ones who have to live it are the humans. This was the destiny we forced on them."

Gandharva's face came to Menaka then. His childish face from the moments after their creation, gleaming and bright eyed.

It's mine now! The name is mine--so give me its fate!

"I wonder why such fates exist." Menaka said, trembling slightly.

 


 

On a planet called Willarv, Yaksha drew his last breath. His sura form had managed to protect the planet, and his bones scattered as if to embrace the earth and all that lived on it one last time.

His death was a crushing victory for the Asura clan, but as a small sign of respect, Asura had allowed the planet to escape destruction.

The Vritra kept to themselves. The Ananta fought the Garuda. The Yaksha fought the Asura. The Kinnara were neutral. Although the Asura also despised the Gandharva clan, the Yaksha clan had drawn all their efforts.

But now both Yaksha and Gandharva were dead. Two clans without their original kings, and without their strength to sustain them. Both could be crushed with ease one by one.

Yet even then, Shuri appeared calm when she stood before Menaka. The aura of a king surrounded her. "Well? You said you wanted an alliance."

 


 

They had managed to avoid war thus far, but Menaka knew it wasn't possible forever. The Gandharva clan still preyed upon the Asura clan. They weren't like the Kinnara who could subsist without eating other sura. They weren't like the Vritra who lacked a united front to attack.

They were a clan that would have to fight for their spot on the food chain.

Menaka knew all this, but he had hoped that the peace could last. The Gandharva clan had barely started recovering from their war with the Yaksha.

He had given a rallying speech to their forces as they prepared to join the Yaksha on the battlefield, but now that he was alone, Menaka dropped his head into a hand, teeth bared against what he was leading his clan into.

"It was inevitable."

Menaka jolted straight and turned to see Makara. Immediately, he composed himself into something less pathetic and more resembling a king.

Makara continued as though he noticed nothing. "It's good that we have allies."

After a moment, Makara bowed. Menaka stared. Continued to stare as Makara straightened his back, and his steady gaze met Menaka's widened eyes.

"I'm sure that the blood spilled this time will be lessened because of your actions, Menaka."

 


 

It was too easy for Menaka to walk to the frontlines and slaughter the forces gathered there. Some would try to attack him, but there would never be any killing intent behind the strikes. It was too mysterious, the surviving sura swore. Whenever the time came to attack him, the sura's mind would be filled with a sense of calm and before they knew it, they would feel that killing Menaka was completely unnecessary.

The power of peace was a strange weapon on the battlefields. There was no need for Menaka to be protected, but there was also no way he could protect everybody.

All around him, the sura dropped like mayflies. Allied sura that were beheaded and stabbed. Enemy sura that were clawed and eviscerated. Over and over again, and he the eye of the storm, untouched by the maelstrom of death, even as the Gandharva and Yaksha clans were slowly being pushed back.

He almost wanted someone to properly hurt him. Someone to draw forth the fear that the others must have felt. Some way to understand what made them so desperate in their final moments--not for their clans, but for themselves.

Instead, he continued like a numbed arm desperately trying to grasp onto a victory he whose form he could neither feel nor comprehend.

When would it end? How could it possibly end?

He stared ahead at the walls he had temporarily built for the base. The unmelting ice glistened like jewels, pure and untarnished. Just on the other side, he knew the injured were packed in. Even in the Gandharva clan where healing transcendentals were common, there wasn't enough to treat every sura.

The dead were left on the battlefields, to be eaten or collected. The flesh meant nothing without the soul.

But Menaka thought of the humans. He had watched them mourn over the dead. Sura would at times as well, for the ones closest to them, but few would care in times like this. But the humans would. Even in the midst of war or attacks, they would find some way to bury their dead and give the deceased their last rights.

It was strange. They died so easily, but their impressions remained even after death.

Would this war end faster if they could mourn the ones lost? Did any of the sura he killed have someone to remember them, or would they rot and be eaten without ceremony into the cycles of the universe?

Menaka felt arms slip around him, drawing him into an embrace.

"I'll protect you," Urvasi said, breath fluttering over Menaka's ear.

Urvasi's back was still sliced open, and he was still in male form as well. Barely returned from the battlefield and he found his king like this. Menaka let out a short laugh. "There's no need to. I can't be hurt."

"That's not true." Urvasi tightened his hold. "You're not suited for killing. I've always known this."

Slowly, Menaka lifted a hand and ran it down Urvasi's back, closing the wound where he touched. Urvasi shifted away slightly to see what Menaka had done. He barely managed a thanks before Menaka drew him back into the embrace.

 


 

"I'm sorry I can't do more," Agni said sadly. A god had no place in wars between Sura. Furthermore, as a fire god, Agni was thoroughly unsuited to supporting water Sura like the Gandharva clan.

"I won't die, but the clans won't hold. The gap between a clan with its original king and clans without are too much." Menaka clenched his fists. "If it continues like this…" The stronghold felt emptier these days. The upani ranks were decimated, the rakshasa barely any better. They had even lost a host of nastika. He had asked Visnu what path to take, but Visnu had just smiled and told him that that was his choice to make. Of course he wouldn't care, Menaka thought bitterly. Menaka wouldn't die--that was all that mattered for Visnu's best future.

"I should have never let Gandharva die," Menaka said.

Even without looking, Menaka could feel Agni tense. "...what are you talking about?"

Perhaps Menaka was tired, perhaps it was because it was Agni who had a way of drawing things out of others, but regardless, the truth spilled out.

"Visnu told me a long time ago that you would be the one to kill Gandharva."

"That's not surprising, he sees all the possibilities--"

"And someone offered me a way to change Gandharva's fate." Menaka looked away. "A way to make sure you couldn't kill him."

When he spoke, Agni's voice boiled with barely suppressed rage. "Why...why would you even consider that? You were the one who said that his sins were unforgivable! His existence made your clan suffer! Were all those tears you shed fake?!"

Forgiveness. Sins. A moment of clarity struck Menaka, and suddenly, he understood how Agni could live as he did.

"Agni, you can forgive almost anything of the humans because of the destiny you forced them," Menaka said. "You can accept all the hatred from that woman for the same reason. Isn't that right?"

Agni stilled, jaws clenched. "What of it?"

Slowly, Menaka turned to face Agni. "Then I'm the same." A sad smile crept across his face. "Visnu promised that the one name Gandharva a blessed destiny." Menaka took a deep breath. "He promised me that, before he named us."

 


 

The memory was hazy, gauzed in the thick fog of time. All early memories were all like that, with their new consciousness too overwhelmed by existence to retain firm images. But among those blurry pieces, he could remember one single moment with clarity.

Visnu was standing before him, and Brahma was circling, eyes analyzing.

"Looks stable," Brahma said.

"Oh, this one is good," Visnu said happily. "A virtuous soul indeed." Beaming, he reached out and patted his head. "I can see a fine path for you. Wondrous love...remarkable happiness...and friendship that can transcend the races. Yes...a fine path." With one last smile, he turned away. "This one will be perfect for the name 'Gandharva', Brahma."

"Don't place all your bets on just one," she warned.

"Relax, I won't. But really, this could be the universe…"

"I don't plan on getting my hopes up." Brahma stopped at the next creation and observed him in the same way. "This one is stable as well." She turned back to see Visnu's face drawn into a grimace. "What?"

"...it would be best for this thing to be erased early on."

Brahma sighed. "That bad, huh? Wish we didn't have to use everything."

"I'll give it a weak name…"

They walked away to the next creations, unaware that the thing's gaze was following after them, burning with something called 'hatred' that even he was unable to fully comprehend.

 


 

"He cut in and took the name 'Gandharva' during the naming," said Menaka.

Agni was silent, but when he spoke again, his voice had not lost any of it's anger. "They were right. When they said that it'd be better for him to die early."

"Then why make him like that?!" Menaka screamed. "Why make him just to give him a destiny to be killed? He wanted a happier future desperately enough to take the name, but the future he desired was still mine. I had never asked to be promised such a good future, but Gandharva wanted it so badly and still couldn't receive it! Didn't he deserve a chance to get it?"

As Agni looked on, Menaka buried his face in his hands. "It was a destiny that was gifted to me, and I could've given it to him. But I didn't. I let him keep his original future." His hands fisted into his hair. "I killed him. And now the clan is like this. He could have changed! I'm sure of it!"

"Menaka!" Agni forced Menaka's arms to his sides and held them there in a vice grip. Menaka kept his head down. "Look at me." Nothing. "Look at me!"

With great effort, Menaka forced himself to lift his head. There was no gentleness in Agni's face, only a cruel assuredness that had long since passed judgement. Stripped of his easy grins and idiot's air, it was too easy to see how this god was the one tasked to rule over Hell.

"You didn't kill him," Agni said calmly. "I did. And I don't regret it. I will never regret it."

"But if I had--"

"If you had given him your destiny, what could have changed? The future isn't predetermined; we set the future in stone. It's as Visnu says: everything is just a possibility. All he can do is see the paths we can walk, and then tell us where the path we chose leads."

Agni let go, and Menaka sat there limply. "Menaka, Gandharva could have avoided that future on his own. If he had stopped killing, I would have had no way to kill him, nor would I have wanted to kill him. If he had cared about his clan, then the Gandharva clan wouldn't have been pushed to the brink until he had no allies to save him from my attack. There isn't just a single destiny in a name. Gandharva received every the destiny promised to the name, and he chose the one path that was guaranteed to him even without it."

"But…if I had let him live...surely…"

Anger surged in Agni's eyes. "If you had tried to force him onto a path where he didn't die, how many others would die in his place? How many others who just wanted to live and be happy would be slaughtered?! Let me tell you this." Agni's voice dropped low. "There are those with crueler destinies tied to their names that deserve them far less than Gandharva."

"He could have changed!"

"Changed how? He had killed so many that even his regeneration couldn't stop Paradise! He was surrounded by people who wanted him to change and he refused to listen to any of them."

Menaka couldn't stop. There had to have been something he could have done. "If he received that happier destiny, if I had more clearly given it to him--"

"HOW?!" Agni stood, and his presence towered over Menaka, looming high like a flame without end. The earth beneath him cracked as the edges of forced human form returned to their origin and flames lashed against the stone. "How could you have given that future onto him, even with all the pity you have? How many more would you sacrifice in addition to all those he killed by existing? Would you force a sura to pretend to love him? Would you force others to seek a friendship with him? Could you force a 'remarkable happiness' onto him like that?!"

"I know I couldn't!" Menaka cried.  His breaths came in heaving gasps. It was the truth. He did know. The hopelessness of it all ate at him more than the guilt. The fact that he couldn't comprehend a future where Gandharva could change. The fact that in this universe, there was not a single being that truly wished for Gandharva to live purely for the sake of him living. Perhaps, not even him.

Suddenly, Menaka felt drained. "I just don't understand," he said, "why the gods would make him like that. Why they make fates like that. Why they make this kind of future for their creations a choice."

The moments passed and Agni's form cooled and solidified from fire to flesh. Finally, he crouched next to Menaka. "It's a twisted universe, but it's the one we have. This is the present we have."

Agni reached out and gave Menaka's shoulder a squeeze. "You are the king. The path your clan walks down is yours to decide. So don't think about what Gandharva's path could have been. Think about what yours will be."

 


 

What was the Gandharva's clans path? Under Gandharva, it had been to strike terror and build up walls of fear.

And what of himself?

 


 

It was strange, but hope came in the form of another's despair.

The Ananta clan were undoubtedly the strongest clan with the undisputable strongest nastika as its king. With a turn of his sura form, Ananta could destroy galaxies. That was the king that powered the clan, and that was the clan that the Garuda had to prey upon.

It was inevitable that the Garuda would suffer greater losses than the Ananta. Soon, the strong nastika of the Garuda clan were killed off, until Vinata became the second ranked Garuda despite her relative weakness beside Garuda himself.

It was the Garuda clan's war to lose.

Despite that, Garuda's presence didn't change when Menaka and Shuri stood before him. "An alliance?" Garuda rested his head casually on a fist. "Trying to drag me into your war with the Asura?"

"The Ananta and the Asura clans are only allies in name," Shuri said. "The Ananta are confident in their strength and will not ask for much aid. The Asura are not the type to throw their numbers where they feel they cannot win. They are allied, but they act as two separate units."

"It would be different for us," said Menaka. "Regardless of their strength, the variance and quantity of the transcendentals between two clans is greater than one clans' could ever be. It's using this advantage that the Yaksha and Gandharva clans have held up as long as they have. Our support of each other is multiplicative, not additive. If the Garuda joined, this strength could be enforced further."

"You sound like the gods," Garuda drawled. "Trickery more than true strength."

Shuri smiled. "Strength is strength, regardless of the source."

"It's the same principle the Kinnara act upon," Menaka said. "Why do you think they can turn the tide of a war so easily by joining the losing side? They are friends of all clans--they understand how to cooperate with allies and also how to make enemies fall."

"You worry about your clan's pride, I understand that." Without a moment's hesitation, Shuri dropped to a knee and bowed her head. "Consider it not desperation then. Think that you are helping clans too weak to stand alone."

When Shuri lifted her bowed head, Menaka was startled to see a hint of mockery in her smile. "Of course, the Yaksha clan's pride was also in pieces when we had to turn to our former enemies for aid. But isn't it better to be able to stand without pride than to be unable to stand at all?"

 


 

The war didn't end with Garuda joining, but combined, the alliance of the three clans was enough to hold the Asura and Ananta to a stalemate. It was no longer a one-sided bombardment of losses.

Skirmishes became more infrequent, and although no peace treaty was ever discussed, at the very least, the endless battles had ceased. The war continued, but in bursts and flashes rather than drowning it's participants in an endless wave.

It was an equilibrium. For now, Menaka would accept that.

There was time now. Time to breath. Menaka laid among a field of flowers that had sprouted among the shallow waters of a lake that mirrored the sky. Eyes shut, the planet seemed to pour itself into his other sense.

He felt the cool water trickle beneath him, the tickle of tiny speckled fish rushing by, and the flutter of the falling petals from the life this water had birthed. And so he breathed.

"This kind of place has always been your favorite." Menaka's eyes opened to see Urvasi moving to sit beside him. "You piled on so many flower necklaces on me when we first met."

Menaka laughed. He had been enraptured by the flowers and determined back then to decorate his female form with as many of them as possible. Then she had seen Urvasi watching in the distance, and dragged her into it as well. By the end, both of them had looked more like heaps of flowers than sura. "I thought they suited you."

Urvasi returned Menaka's laugh. She turned to the horizon and closed her eyes against the breeze. "I'm glad places like this still exist."

Menaka watched her.

He had never asked for the destiny that Visnu had promised him. But it was Agni had said: it was his choice to accept it.

At that moment, Menaka couldn't see a reason not to.

He sat up from the shallow pool. The sound of rippling water made Urvasi turn, and as she did, Menaka leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her lips.

Urvasi spluttered incoherently as Menaka pulled away.

The sight dragged the corners of his mouth upwards, and Menaka smiled more widely than he could ever remember doing so before. "I'm glad you're still here."

 


 

It wasn't peace, but the equilibrium held.

Shuri was an easy ally to keep. Menaka found that she was someone he could understand and whose ideals matched with his.

Garuda was harder.

His pride was too strong. When the humans renounced the sura, his insistence on punishing the humans nearly split the alliance apart before he complied with ceasing his clan's mass murders.

At the time before Garuda was convinced, Menaka and Shuri had rapidly claimed planets as their own strongholds in an effort to ensure that the Garuda clan would not attack them. It was then on Gresvan that she had caught a glimpse of the woman that Agni always chased.

Humans were feeble playthings of the gods and sura, and that woman was the only one who had to be trampled and remember when it was otherwise.

There were far crueler destinies tied to those that deserved them less, Agni had said.

Yes, it was a cruel path they had forced the humans down. Menaka no longer had the chance to change Gandharva's destiny, but at the very least, perhaps he could create a better future for those who still existed.

 


 

Urvasi hesitantly allowed a tiny rakshahsa to crawl towards a cooing Agni.

"If you burn Shakuntala, I swear--"

"Come on, Urvasi! If she can handle being held by the king of the Garuda clan, she can handle being held by this puny god."

Wondrous love.

Remarkable happiness.

Friendship that transcended the races.

It was as Visnu had promised him.

And despite it all, sometimes Menaka still wondered. Wondered, about a future where he had chosen to save Gandharva. About that other 'if' in the infinite ifs of Visnu's paths.

About the one who could be king.