Between the Firmaments by JY Yang (Part One)
Last year, we Book Smugglers ran our very first Kickstarter–and beyond our wildest expectations, we not only funded but hit our stretch goals. One of those goals was a new serialized story from JY Yang, which we are delighted to bring to you this week in three different installments.
In an occupied city controlled by oppressive off-worlders, Bariegh of the Jungle is a god living in hiding—toiling away day after monotonous day, hoping his godliness will go unnoticed by those who would harness it.
But then a beautiful, daring, godling man walks into his life without a care in the world, his divinity uncloaked, and Bariegh is utterly undone.
JY Yang’s Between the Firmaments is a secondary-world fantasy about a romance between two gods, set in an occupied city where being a god is illegal. It is beautiful, challenging, queer, slightly experimental, and 100% awesome.
I noticed the boy hanging from the edge of the world, but not before he’d noticed me. The white devils know how long he’d had his gaze fixed my way by the time I looked up into the noonday sear. Crouched in the highest, freshest shoots of scaffold, he was a tantalising lanky blot disrupting the sunbleached sky. He had a queer face, pale as that of the blasphemer-priests, and waterfall-hair dark as the sky at blessed midnight. A boy, one whose name I did not yet know. A boy who watched me like a hound watches a roasting spit. He had such a build that fools might say, ah, there’s a woman, but not me. Not me! Not Bariegh of the Jungle, who can scent the heart of a person no matter how many lies the blasphemers and their rules wrap around them. He was a boy, all right, and one among my kind: proud and glorious and beating with life.
I curled my lips to smell him better, and saw his wild smile as his eyes met mine. A moment of recognition leaped between us. Kinship! He knew what I was and I knew what he was. The red tip of a tongue traced the gibbous curve of his lips. My heart sang a note: joy, joy, joy. The rarest melody in these times of poison and want. From whence came this boy, striding so bold past the fences and wards of the blasphemers, to sit merry in the inchoate cartilage of their creations without a care? Ah, but my cousins Morough and Opyret had a thousand children, and those children had a thousand each still: godlings and little-spirits outnumbering stars in the sky, so many I could not possibly know them all. But I wanted to know this one. I wanted to watch his grinning moon-pale face twist and fill with colour. I wanted to ululate his name to the stars as I put my weight upon him. I wanted to pull his form into mine and—
“Whatchu looking at, big guy?”
A full person’s weight landed on my scaffolding shoot and it yawed in obeisance, up and down and up and down. Sisu! The girl cackled as I shouted and snatched at the bamboo for balance, falling into an undignified crouch, my arse up to the sky. Her hand smacked sharply into its curve and her laugh tumbled through the muggy air.
Mischief lived in Sisu’s bones; it was her birthright. Unknown even to her, Sisulo Mogdiawati was daughter of a daughter of a daughter of my half-sister Edukan the Trickster—a hemidemisemigod you might call it. Edukan the Monkey, Edukan the Quick and the Wise. How I missed her! In Sisu the thread of my sister’s blood still ran thick and strong, the magic in her gut curled up deep and slumbering like the old dragons before the blasphemers came. It was safer there. Sisu had ridiculously good fortune—the boys called it “Sisu-luck”—and the ability to charm the knickers off anybody she wanted; that was all the godliness she needed. I would not wake more, and I would fight anybody who tried.
I swiped at her in revenge and she danced out of reach, her feet cocksure across the wobbling bamboo. A fall would mean two thousand metres down to shattered, foaming earth and a fiery death. Her laugh split the air again. “Don’t be so grouchy, old man!”
Trouble came up, as it always did. This time it presented itself in the thickly-wrapped form of Overseer Inette, her crimson robes flapping in the slipstream as she hovered over us. A frown cut through her face, a doughy thing the color of egg-pudding. “What’s happening here?”
Both Sisu and I straightened up. “Nothing, ma’am. Just some banter,” I said, as Sisu struggled to keep her scowling in check.
The blasphemer-priest’s frown grew deeper. “Skiving on the job, are we?”
The punishment for skiving was fifty lashes. In blasphemer terms, that was a gentle rebuke. “No, ma’am,” I said, looking appropriately chastened. I nudged Sisu to make sure she was doing the same.
Inette’s scrutiny slid over me, and I lowered my gaze. To meet a blasphemer-priest’s eyes is to disrespect them; to disrespect them is to defy them. I could feel the weight of her frown like hot iron on my neck. What did she see? No more than a tow-headed simpleton with a thick chest and slow words, I hoped. A dusty, unlettered bumpkin from the wild countryside of the land her people had torn apart, good for nothing except the animal strength in his muscles. A mule for pulling scaffolding into shape for her cultivation. A lowly, unremarkable cow.
Her narrow nostrils flared. “Don’t let me catch you again.”
Down she floated on her hover plate of sunmetal, the same rainbow-hued material which encircled the wrists and neck of the woodnymph who was chained to her. A thin creature, white with exhaustion, sucked of her vitality and the things that made her divine. A terrible sight for all to see. A dire warning! This would be my fate if I did not conceal my nature well enough from the blasphemers.
Sisu blew out her worry in a gust, then made a rude gesture at Inette’s back. A lifetime of Sisu-luck made her bold; I feared that it would one day be her undoing.
I looked up at the light-smeared sky. Empty! Only heat and despair blazed in its whiteness. My beautiful, mysterious boy was long gone.
After work Sisu and I went with the boys to the gambler’s quarter that was encysted in the bowels of the hanging city, fetid and tropical under strings of electric lights. In front of us the boys had burst into vulgar and off-key singing, a chummy knot of kinship pulled from the slurry of the workforce. They called themselves the boys, even though a good third of them were girls, and strapping Yadeh wasn’t one or the other. Most of them had left childhood far behind, in dust and tears and old wounds, but what are false names but ways to feel better about ourselves in the world?
We had our eye on a round of rubeykans, a game of chance and cunning, guessing the value of randomly drawn tiles. Sisu sat down by the booth with her cheeky smile. She was usually banned from Gamblers’ Row: two runs against Sisu-luck and dealers would dispatch her in a hail of pebbles, shouting Witch! Cheat! But the dealer today was some new kid, a genuine child, teenaged and gangly, rib-thin under his collared shirt. He was new here, poor lad! Come in with the morning’s ship-dock, innocent fresh blood, too sky-lagged to smell danger. He sat cross-legged under the patchy awning, sweat decorating his brow, hope etched upon his dark, sharp features. The other dealers, bastards all, sat by to watch the unfolding slaughter. The poor child! To be fleeced so fast and so easily on his first day in a foreign land. But I would not save him. Better to fall to a group of laughing, silly boys, than to discover the hardness of the world’s fists from more dangerous sources.
The game took shape in front of me. Sisu reached into the tin can to draw the tiles. How my mind wandered from the vicissitudes of reality! The apparition of that lanky boy had woken my hunger, and it prowled low and restless my belly. My teeth longed to sink into sweet flesh, and my loins… ah! It was better not to linger on some things, lest they get out of hand.
For the thought of this strange new god lit my veins with anxiety. The blasphemers had declared all deities illegal, yet there he was, wandering the ribs of this city with his divinity uncloaked. Was it unadulterated bravery, or pure ignorance? Perhaps the land he came from was unaware of these cruelties. Perhaps. My knowledge of the world was incomplete, after all. I was merely a god, and what did I know of things that were outside my domain? Two hundred years ago the blasphemers had come to our world in their silver ships and their discs of sunmetal that sucked the power and vitality from anything divine, and we had all folded beneath their might like crumpling paper. None of us knew that such things could be possible. They tore through the earth and poisoned the waters, pulling every mineral and precious metal they could find from the mountains and the seas. They used my brethren to power their infernal devices, and the number of the divine dwindled from the thousands to a handful. Now the few of us left—locked in their cages or hiding in the wild—are a precious resource, irreplaceable as their alien sunmetal.
I decided my beautiful apparition was a madman. He was inviting Father Death to his doorstep: a painful, burning, drawn-out embrace. I would be a fool to follow him, and an equal fool if I tried to save him.
And then cruel Mother Fuata—o vanished Fate!—decided to taunt one of her sons, for what else flashed into sight but the cool curve of moon-pale arms? In his sleeveless tunic a glorious sliver of boy infiltrated the knot of onlookers: eyes bright, waterfall-hair loose, red lips parted and empty. The urge to fill them swept through me like a tidal wave.
He turned his pretty head and our eyes met once more. His smile matched mine for want. With that understanding fixed between us, he faded into the crowd, his beckoning fingertips the last thing to vanish into the thicket of elbows.
Desire was too strong for something as methodical as logic! I wanted him. I wanted to run after him. The danger only made it more tantalizing.
I told Sisu, in the midst of one of her triumphs: “I’ll be back late.”
She frowned and rolled her eyes, bursting with irritation at being disturbed. “Whatever.”
A path to abandon had opened, in the glistering patch of moon-pale skin that surfaced between the jam of sweat-sharp bodies. I was off, chasing that trail to happiness.
The game of pursuit led us away from the crowd’s clamour. The boy had the right idea, heading in gravity’s direction: down, down, down. Clinging to the city’s underbelly was a thick network of pipes and sewers, subsisting on the effluent of fifty thousand denizens. Too toxic for mortals, too dirty for the white robes of the blasphemers. Perfect for the two of us. One throaty rasp of grating and the boy had vanished into the depths of that metallic swamp. I rolled the metal shut behind me and leapt after him.
It was an exhaust vent he had chosen, thick with superheated gases, reverberating to our drumming feet. Wide gaps lay between the service lights, blue rings of bioluminescence that would have left humans as good as blind—stumbling infants in the murk. But these were the eyes of Bariegh the Hunter, Bariegh the All-Seeing: Bariegh who could spy a hare from across the ocean, Bariegh who snatched sparrows from the air on the most starless of nights! My clumsy mortal form hung compact from my pelt, shucked aside for freedom. Instead my true feet—clawed and striped and exultant!—struck the echoing metal in a symphony I had missed. This is how we did things in the ages lost, hunter and the hunted, the tease, the chase, the game. Oh, to feel so alive: how I had forgotten!
In front of me the boy’s hindquarters danced, slender and lupine. He was quick, but I was quicker, and stronger. He was mine. The hunger in my belly powered my thick legs, my rippling backbone. My snout wrinkled eagerly as I closed in. Triumph awaited! Soon my delightful morsel would know what it meant to be pursued to the end by a god.
Light and echo vanished. The boy had led us to the place where the pipes met, where the city’s toxic air funnelled out into the poisoned atmosphere. Into this yawning space dark as the caves beneath the ocean he had ducked, hoping to evade me. Fool! He leapt from the left, his body connecting hard and hot with the sinew of my shoulder. We rolled and he sprang to his feet. I roared as he came at me again, his fangs trying for the veins in my throat. So this was the game we were going to play. I embraced it with delight.
His jaws snagged around the thick fur. How spirited he was, even in his imprudence! I struck him with all the force in one paw, and he flew from me, crashing against unforgiving metal. His yelp sang through my nerves as I descended upon him, forcing him back down with my weight. I pressed both forefeet against his long white throat. He struggled, but his teeth could not reach me. I held firm. Beneath me his writhing subsided until his body went limp, his belly face-up in complete surrender.
We slipped back into human shape with my hands still latched solid around his throat. He looked up at me with half-lidded eyes, licking his tender lips. I wanted to start right there, take him as he lay pliant and unresisting under me. But not yet! For I had glimpsed, in the midst of our struggle, something gleaming under the layer of wolf-form he wore. A honey-glazed knob of truth I needed between my jaws and under my tongue. I leaned close, ghosting breath over his red mouth. “Your true self. Where is it? Show it to me.”
He pulled his lips back, revealing teeth like limestone. “My genuine form I conceal for a reason.”
The first touch of his voice trilled through my skin and bone. Slight and long as he was, I had not expected that depth, that vibrating seismic weight. The flesh all down my spine shivered. That voice, rolling in my ears—! I wanted it to whimper things. I pressed my fingers deeper into his neck. “Show me.”
“Are you prepared to bear the consequences?” he whispered.
What danger could he pose to me? The tilt of his chin was a challenge. I tightened my grip; he hissed softly as the air was choked out of him. “Show me,” I crooned again.
A slanted smile took hold of his purpling lips. “As you command,” he mouthed.
Magic fell away from him. The bones of his face thawed; his flesh deliquesced and reconstituted in pure elementals. Before my eyes he left the world of mortal physics. In his place bloomed the black fire in the hearts of planets and the crowns of stars. Wards peeled off in spirals; as the final conjuration dissolved, the thing on the ground was no longer hidden from the sight of gods.
In front of me, naked at last, was a celestial hound: burning and terrible, purified of all gender, red of eye and tooth and tongue. Galaxies blazed in the void of their pelt.
Exhaling, I let them go. They slipped away, circled, came back, ears pricked in puzzlement. I sat back: still human, still Bariegh the manual labourer. Bariegh the crestfallen. I folded my arms.
The hound slipped back into boy-form, his head tilted in curiosity, his dark eyes wide and questioning.
“Whose are you?” I asked. “Kumaya’s? Yuusen’s? No, Yuusen has eagles, not hounds. Satriakat’s? The Carrion Twins’?”
I could have sat for hours listing my fellow gods of the hunt from across the world, dead or alive or fates unknown. But the boy leaped forward and put his hands over my wrists. “Not any of them,” he said, warm of breath. Slightly trembling. “No name you would know.”
“Are you from the blasphemers’ planet, then? You are pale as they are.”
A shake of the head. Being deliberately coy.
Still, I pulled my arms away. Disappointment clotted cold and heavy in my bowels, but we gods have our honored codes. To lie with a slip of a spirit boy was one thing, but with a companion-beast claimed by another? No. Grudge-wars between nations have been fought for lesser. No amount of lust was worth that.
“Go,” I said. The boy had been right; I did not want to know his truth. But better that I did, than to unintentionally offend god-kin. Especially these days, where our numbers were so terribly few. How could I bear it if they were to dwindle further?
The boy swirled between forms, a tornado of alluring smoke. He came to rest one long, hungry lunge away from me, flickering like candle flame, from boy to canine to boy again. “I am alone in this world,” he said slowly. “She who called for me, calls me no longer.”
Oh. I looked over his quiescent form with new eyes, a fresh set of emotions spiking through my chest. As the blasphemers had devoured the world, their hungry, indiscriminate jaws had sundered untold numbers of the holy. The wake of their terrible passage was littered with lesser gods torn abruptly from purpose, made bereft: servants and companions and beasts of burden. My boy here was one among that pitiful number. How had he escaped them when the goddess who commanded him had not? Had she sent him away while she faced the blasphemers alone, her final act a sacrifice?
The boy’s deep-hooded eyes held more secrets than a hive has bees. Such sadness seized him at that moment, the pathos that only we knew! He fluttered back into hound shape and came to my knee. The creature pressed their spectral head against my skin and I ruffled the starstuff behind their ear. “You seek another to belong to,” I said.
They would be disappointed, then. I was Bariegh of the Jungle, and I had always hunted alone. I neither needed nor wanted a companion animal.
I said: “What now, o strange kin of mine?”
The hound leaped away, and padded towards the exit funnel. They turned to look at me: are you coming?
Now that our truths were in the open there we could face each other like equals. I shed my mortal trappings like seasonfall, chunks of humanity dropping from me as I swelled to proper size. There I stood in the lowest bowels of the city in my full glory: Bariegh the Hunter, Bariegh the All-Eater, Bariegh with the gaze of fire and flesh bursting with the all the life of the forests in the night. The world changed around me and I looked upon it with the eyes of a god. My roar shook the walls of the room, chorusing with his wild howl: we didn’t care who could hear us, we could wake the whole firmament, we could shake every bone out of every blasphemer.
Together!—we leapt through the funnel, racing on air, carving our names in the sky over the burning land. Forward and down! Their feet created stone out of air, building a transient bridge that materialised and dissolved as we ran. Far beneath us the ruined earth seethed red, churned like a storm-tossed sea, thick coils of lava writhing over each other. The blasphemers had woken the ancient dragons that slept within the soil, and their poison smoke billowed in thick canopies where people used to live. But even the sight of the home that was destroyed would not dampen my spirits now. My hound was leading me to someplace only they knew, and it delighted me. I drank in the anticipation like mead.
Half a mile out we came upon an abundance of stone floating in the turbulent air—a marvel by any standard—massive scales of rock piled up in jagged shapes, as though somebody had reached down and scooped up a chunk of old mountain before it all melted away. My hound leaped onto its igneous surfaces with all the grace afforded liquid fire. The stone changed as they touched it, and a skinny path shimmied a wide cavemouth, which swallowed their form whole. Purring, I followed.
Inside, flickering light painted gleaming stone in orange. Bright silks, crimson and yellow, slid into being and gathered themselves into a bed. My boy reconstituted his human form in exultant nudity, black hair spilling over the white curves of his back. So he too agreed that this was the form best suited to lovemaking: the dextrous hands, the swift tongues, the gaze over the eyes and mouth at the moment of climax. Nothing else compared! I straightened up in a reciprocal shape and he tucked a lip between his teeth.
As we circled each other I studied his geometry—the planes of his belly and the angle of his hips, the width of his shoulders, the circumference of his buttocks. My human form was taller than his, and I was broad as the fields, with the same inexhaustible strength. He made a choked noise as I threw him upon the silks and pinned his wrists above his head. Lips curved; I pushed them apart, my hungry tongue diving in. The boy yielded to me, opening himself with the rumble of avalanche, earthquake, fissure, chasm.
I fell upon him. I filled him like the ocean, salt-thickened and indomitable and heaving. And my boy, my sweet wisp of divinity, rose up to meet me, an underwater volcano issuing heat, fire and water in the place our hips met, geothermal energy. Oh, the beautiful lines his neck made as he arched and cried out! I pressed teeth into his shaking flesh again and again, feeling the passage of air as he gasped and he gasped and he gasped.
Ah, my beautiful morsel, my delight, my joy! Now you are mine; you are mine, you are mine, you are—
The aftermath found us boneless and yielding, skins coated in musky nectar, chests rising and falling like the tides. My riotous markings decorated his body, red and fecund. I delighted in the contrast of our shining limbs. How pink my boy could go in ecstasy! His doeish eyes were shut and pressed against the bank of my arm, the silk of his hair spilling everywhere. I stroked his quiescent head. “I want to know your name.”
His lashes lifted and his lips parted. After a break of too many seconds he said, “Sunyol.”
I huffed air. Did he think I was an idiot? “That’s not your real name.”
He blinked, woe pulling heavy at the corner of his lips, and regret filled me. His words were clipped and stiff: “She gave me no name, and called me only Dog.” Then he turned from me, exposing the curve of his jaw, the magnolia shell of his ear.
“No name?” I tugged at him, yearning to look upon the softness of his features again. A boy with no name. Sunyol. I understood now. The word was a gift, one with value beyond measure. A thing to call him by. An offering. A leash.
“Sunyol,” I said, relishing the way my tongue wrapped around the word. I kissed his neck; he settled deep and solid into my arms. “Sunyol.”
How swiftly the heart forgets the buoyancy of love! Just as swiftly as it forgets how easy drowning is. For weeks I soaked up the warmth of my newfound joy, drinking in Sunyol’s companionship like a parched field after the first autumn rains. My laugh was deeper, my singing louder, my hugs bonecrushing. Sisu regarded me with raw disgust. “Look at you,” she said, “skipping around like a puppy! I would have stopped you that day if I knew you’d become so insufferable…” I grinned and tried to kiss her cheek; she kicked me in the thighs and scampered away.
Sunyol took a job as a serving-boy in the merchants’ quarter. Of course he needed one: idleness meant death in this city! The blasphemers replaced maimed construction workers with fresh blood from the streets, and he was no builder-boy, sturdy and blunt-fingered; he would last less than a week under the whips of the overseers.
Worse still were the mines in the blood-red below. I’d shown Sunyol how to shield his holiness from human eyes, but the surface—clouded by sulphur and swimming in molten metal—would strip him of all pretense of mortality. In those places where humans withered and curled into shrunken husks in a matter of weeks, his divinity would shine through, protecting him from the ravages of the flesh. And how the blasphemers would devour him then! They would not swallow him whole, like a fish, no—they would gut him mouthful by mouthful, sucking miracles from his bones to fuel their engines of growth.
Thank the earth and the sky then, that I had an old friend who owned an eatery, a daughter of the old High Priestess of the Temple of Bariegh of the Jungle. Her I could entrust with Sunyol’s safety. And he was popular with customers, too, with his grace, his guileless smile and his charm. They left him hefty tips and the occasional marriage proposal. Such a succulent prospect, my boy! He would tell me these things while I tied him down at night and I would roar with laughter as I nibbled on his collarbones. Then I would twist my fingers in the skeins of his hair and pull ecstasy from him until he had no words left to speak.
The proprietor let Sunyol live in the attic of the eatery. The room I shared with Sisu in the pauper’s quarters was the size of a coin-box, packed with tenants above and below and to the side, all of us stacked like dried fish. The only space I had for him was under my bed, with the spiders and the boxes of sacred old things, locked and hidden from view. Sisu hadn’t been keen on having another tenant in the room either. “You’re not going to fuck him in here, are you? I don’t need to see that shit!” It’s not like they hated each other, but there was a friction between them that was, in my mind, unwarranted.
“She is a monkey,” Sunyol explained, “and monkeys and I have had a long, unhappy history.”
It was true that dogs and monkeys were rarely the best of friends. Still I said, “That is blood of my half-sister Edukan in her. That makes her family. Do you understand?”
Sunyol knew that, of course. “If you wish to protect her, why do you keep her heritage from her? Does she not deserve to know? How else can she control her destiny?”
To this I responded in anger: “You will not tell her! You will not interfere! Her divinity must never awaken.” Did he not see what the blasphemers did to godkind in this city, even the weakest ones? Sisu was all I had left of my half-sister: all I could find after the blasphemers took Edukan to lay the foundations of the hanging city. My defensiveness about her could not be measured by rational means.
We never spoke of it after. Sunyol let me keep my secrets, much as he kept his. I knew nothing of his past and his provenance, and he was eager to keep it that way. Every attempt to prise more information was met with teeth, and then silence.
But I am Bariegh the Hunter, and I could not exist like Sunyol did, wallowing in his ennui. I was a deity of movement, the one they used to pray to in removing obstacles. I needed the chase. I needed to be relentless. Frustration ate at me, but this consumption I kept carefully concealed. Sunyol’s companionship was one of the few brightnesses left to me; I refused to spoil what we had! It became clear that sating my hunger for truth would require subterfuge.
Sunyol’s accent and features were unfamiliar to me: I guessed he came from the lands further west than Atenlen. Of them I knew very little, save for a smattering of names and fables, none of which spoke of a hunt-goddess who rode with a hound. The firmament was wide and godkind numbered as many as the stars. If I had any hope of discovering Sunyol’s origins, there was only one thing I could turn to: the truth-stone.
Ah, the truth-stone! Our greatest, most fiercely guarded secret. A relic of days past, we—what remained of godkind in the hanging city—had enshrined it in a narrow sliver between the abattoirs and the charnel houses: a liminal space, wrapped in the veil between this realm and the next. Oh, the things the blasphemers would do if they found out about it! Woven into the very fabric that made up the world, the truth-stone would answer any question you asked it—for a price.
That price was blood. In the olden days young men would have offered up their throats to their priestess lords, but those days were long gone. Lucky me, I had a workaround. Death often visited the construction sites to retrieve its bounty: the old, the weak, the sick, the unlucky. How superstitious the workers were! Squeamish around the dead, whispering that touching a fresh corpse would mark them as the next to be claimed. The construction boys would make warding signs and brave the resultant lashings from the overseers, who did not like to be reminded that killing gods alone did not kill belief. Better to be beaten than to be dead! the boys would say, their backs weeping red.
It was different for me. As a god of the hunt the work of a psychopomp had been mine also, and Father Death I knew better than most. So somebody would die, and one of the overseers—Inette mostly—would shout “You! Brick Wall! Take this one to the deadhouse,” and it would be a bound and broken bundle I hoisted over my back while the rest gave me a wide berth (except Sisu, whose luck everyone assumed would keep her from being cursed; sometimes she would try to trip me). The mortuary would get their dead, I would get my vial of blood, and I would slip into that brisket of sacred space and empty it still warm over the truth-stone.
But I could not just say “Truth-stone, tell me who Sunyol is.” The truth-stone did not work that way. Instead, the first time I said, “Truth-stone, show me a map of all the lands west of Atenlen.”
And it did. I looked at the map and burned the shape of its borders and its names into my head.
The next time, I said, “Truth-stone, tell me about the divinity of the hunt on the Isle of Jiefu.” And so it did.
It was not what I was looking for. The next time, I said, “Truth-stone, tell me about the divinity of the hunt in the city of Kodan.” And so it did. So on, and so forth. I had mere gasps of minutes each time; disappearances too short for the overseers to catch wind of my doings.
Weeks passed. The truth-stone and I floundered in a wilderness that held no answers. We tore away at the map of the western world. Yet the unexplored territory shrank without turning up the treasure that I sought. With each elimination my doubts swelled like cancers within me: was Sunyol lying to me? Was I right to trust him? How was it possible I had found nothing? Quickly my mind would turn to conspiracy: what if he did come from the blasphemers’ planet? What if he had been sent to find others like me?
I would entertain these heavy thoughts in the day, then tuck my apprehension behind a smile when we met at night. Sunyol would lie in my arms the same easy way he always did, and I would fool myself into thinking I’d betrayed no unease in our congress. But suspicion was like a poisoned blade slipped between us. The slightest pressure would result in death.
A month stumbled by. I had pared the map down to the last two locations: both islands so tiny and remote I wondered if they were even inhabited. What gods could there be where there were no people to give them names? And how could Sunyol have lived on one of these minuscule filets of land?
I knelt in front of the truth-stone, warm vial of blood cradled in hesitant fingers. “Yanthal or Xamor?” I said aloud. I could not decide. I could not admit that I—Bariegh whom they called the Indomitable—was afraid. Afraid of what I would discover, or would not, when I asked my questions.
“The answers you seek will not be found here.”
I jumped. The soft voice had come from behind. My reflexes were not what they once were, and how lucky! For I would have struck at Sunyol on instinct and killed him before I knew what I was doing.
My hound stood within the rim of the sacred circle. My boy. My lover. The center of my universe, unasked for. The directional light layered deep shadows across his face. I stood, caution prickling across my arms and the back of my neck. “Have you been following me?”
“I smelled this on you,” he said, pale fingers separating the blood-vial from my hands. “You brought traces of it home.”
We stared at one another across the vast gulfs between us. My questions were a flame that crawled across my skin, but there was such a stillness and weight to Sunyol’s manner that I dared not ask them.
Sunyol rolled the blood-vial between the bones of his fingers. His hooded eyelids seemed so heavy they could have been carved from stone. “You will not find my place of origin on your map. I come from a place between the firmaments.”
“Between the firmaments?” My disbelieving gaze searched Sunyol’s face and found nothing but seriousness, undiluted and unmovable. He could barely meet my eyes, but that was not from dishonesty—all I smelled in him was a musk-sharp desperation to be believed.
Between the firmaments. I had heard of such things, but whispered only in legend: of the great cosmic beasts that devoured one another with pitch-black mouths, of the bold one who pushed past the barriers of the world in pursuit of her love, never to return. I knew where the borders of the world lay, but its walls were opaque to me, impenetrable. I could no more break through them than a mortal human could sprout wings and fly.
I looked over Sunyol again. I contemplated his alluring human shape, recalled the wild god-form I ran with. Now I doubted any of it was real. “What are you?”
“A traveller,” he said. “Someone not so different from you.”
I must have frowned—must have looked sceptical—because he added, “My true form, when I showed it to you—that was real. You must believe me.”
I smelled the sincerity on him, and yet. How could I put faith in its veracity? If he could cross the uncrossable, he could do whatever he wanted. He could break the rules governing godkind, governing the universe even. How could I trust anything about him now? “What use does the space between the worlds have for a goddess of the hunt? Or a hunting hound?”
Sunyol rubbed one foot against his heel. “It is not just hunt-gods who have need of a hound. My mistress was a warrior goddess.”
“You were a war hound.” I could not overcome the incongruity: on one hand my pliant, gracile boy, who gently nestled his head against the pulse of my inner thighs at night; on the other the ferocious beasts that terrorized the bloodflood battlefields with tooth and claw. Those images refused to reconcile. It was impossible. “Who was your mistress?”
“I cannot speak of her. To invoke her name is to summon her.”
“Summon her? You said that she was gone!”
“I said nothing of the sort. I said that she calls me no longer. That much is true. We—” Here he hesitated, sucking breath between tender lips. I’d never seen him this hesitant. “We made a compact. She would call me no longer. And if I ever had need of her, I only had to summon her, and she would come.”
“She gave you your freedom. Why?”
He hesitated. “Many… things happened. At the end of it all, this arrangement was what we agreed on.”
I looked afresh at his face, and saw how pain lived in it. No, no, lived wasn’t the word I wanted. While pain might migrate transiently through our countenances, an occasional visitor, it was endemic to Sunyol’s: part of the terrain of his visage, the bone-peaks and valley-lines of his face shaped by a primal sorrow.
“I was tired,” he said. “I wandered for years. I was ready to dissolve from existence. And then I met you.”
“I am not one you should tie your future to,” I said. Not I with my sorry condition, doomed to hide from my oppressors until the end inevitably came for me.
A smile crossed his glorious face, both delicate and sad. “But I want to.”
I knew it was a craven idea. I knew his thoughts and actions were warped by the great hollow that dwelt in his spirit, which I too had felt on nights when the pain of what had befallen my world became too great. But action and consequence fall differently for us immortals. When the stretch of time is vast and ineffable in both directions, past and future, the only thing that matters is the present. And in the present, my foolish, foolish heart wanted to give in to his demands.
“You will be bound to me,” I repeated. Did he understand what that meant? “The power in you will be leashed to mine for as long as we both live.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice husky.
“You will be tied to this world. Whatever freedom you have now will be lost.” I lifted his chin so I could see his eyes. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
Sunyol blinked slowly. “It is exactly what I want.”
I surged forth and pulled Sunyol into my arms with such force he dropped the vial he held. The glass smashed against the truth-stone, spilling blood across its hungry surface. But I had no questions left to ask. My lips, overcome, could manage no more than a kiss. So I gave Sunyol one, deeply and without reserve, sealing the two of us together.
I brought Sunyol back to the tinderbox that served as home. Sisu yowled—“We fucking talked about this, asshole”—but she headed out for the night anyway, kicking cans and grouching all the way down the corridor. Something had shifted in her face when she saw how Sunyol clutched at my hand. She was smart; she understood.
In that tiny room, barely tall enough to straighten up in, and so narrow even Sisu could touch both walls when she stretched on the floor like a cat, I bound him to my service. I purified its confines as though it were a hall of gold and marble, dabbing the dirty old timbers with sweet water and the oils of sacred trees, placing candles and coils of incense in corners crusted with dead insects. Sunyol’s chin tilted to the heavens as I worked tribute out of him in pearlescent white, thick and bitter, the most precious kind of sap. I lapped it up, swallowed it so that in time it would become part of me, absorbed and knitted into flesh, threaded through the bone. Then I leaned over Sunyol’s trembling form as I gathered what power was left to me, and worked my way to ecstasy.
The magic surrounding us wove through our bodies: electric, geometric, epileptic. I willed my cum to bind the boy before me, committed him to a tradition that had been extant since the dawn of time. Stronger than an oath, deeper than the sea, older than the mountains. Patterned with my seed across his cheeks and mouth Sunyol lay with his eyes shut, slowly breathing. Whoever he was before he came here, whoever it was that he had been bound to: he was mine now, utterly and wholly.
Afterwards, as Sunyol sat combing the tangles out of his hair, I dove into the dust-choked undercarriage of the bed and pulled out an old trunk, surface tessellated with runes of the temple dialect. The gold imprinted into the carvings was almost entirely worn away. The boy watched with curious eyes as I pushed a needle into the pad of a finger and drew out a bead of crimson.
The trunk’s lid responded to the call of my blood. The air within the trunk was dozens of years old, sealed away when the blasphemers arrived. I carefully dug through its contents: vellum scrolls and jade figurines and jars of bone. Finally my fingers prised out what I sought—a box carved from ancient heartwood, redder than the blood I had pricked from myself.
Within it was a necklace made of teeth—no, fangs: the smallest barely thumb-length, and the largest stretching between the tip of my middle finger and the bottom of my palm. Yellowed with age but just as wicked as the day I pulled them out of my flesh.
“What is that?” Sunyol asked.
I held it up to the dim light. “These are the teeth of Char-al-gor the Dreadful. He was the first thing I ever killed.”
“Your first kill?” Sunyol’s question was more wonder than confusion.
I moved to fasten it around his neck. “I’ll tell you of that hunt later. There’s a thousand-stanza epic they till sing in some quarters of the city.”
Sunyol stroked the long, thin blades of the necklace. The remains of my ancient foe rested against his narrow chest in a strikingly pleasing fashion. I rumbled in satisfaction.
He looked guilty. “Bariegh, I cannot accept this gift. I do not deserve it.”
“Nonsense,” I said. I stilled his restless hands and kissed his brow. “Am I not the best judge of who is worthy to wear it?”
He smiled, but his fingers trembled as they tightened around the yellow teeth. He fell asleep that night with his hands curled around my gift, as if afraid it might slip away when he wasn’t looking.
There was such peace between us for that moment. But alas, it was to be all too brief.
JY Yang is the author of the Tensorate novellas from Tor.Com Publishing (The Red Threads of Fortune, The Black Tides of Heaven, The Descent of Monsters), which have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus awards, and were on the Honor List for the Tiptree award. Their short fiction has been published in over a dozen venues, including Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed.
JY is currently based out of Singapore. They identify as queer and non-binary. Find them online at http://jyyang.com or on Twitter as @halleluyang.
Part Two of Between the Firmaments continues here.