Between the Firmaments by JY Yang (Part Two)
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.
Work had not been going well. The blasphemers were building a new merchants’ wing to accommodate shoals of airships that came daily to nurse on the borders of the hanging city. Yes, the city was growing, and like all growing things it had an appetite. The rising columns and leaping eaves we shaped claimed limbs and lives alike; it wasn’t days that we counted between accidents, but hours.
The woodnymph was at the center of our problems. She was not old by the way her people counted the years: still a sprightly spring thing! Or would have been, had the blasphemers not drained vitality out of her, just like they did with everything else. As workers, our jobs were entirely reliant on her work. All we did was erect wooden scaffolding in the right shapes for the overseers to seed bamboosteel upon. Then Inette would latch up the collars on the nymph’s neck and wrists and pull the holiness from her, forcing bamboo to bloom and grow into solid foundation, the skeleton upon which the hanging city was built. Miracles came into being right before our eyes.
But the woodnymph’s magic had started to stutter like a river at the end of a long, rainless summer. The resulting bamboosteel grew crooked and spindly and splintered like bone under the slightest pressure. The whole construction site became a death trap. Heavy things fell upon unlucky skulls, and every now and then a shriek punctuated the air as some other worker plummeted to a long and bloody death. The nymph was near the end of her useful life, and everybody could see it, not just me: the boys quieted and averted their eyes when she slunk past us, pulled by Inette’s gravity, limbs trembling like piles of leaves. Even Sisu’s happy-go-lucky form flagged in her presence. So numerous were the wrongs visited upon our daily lives that we had ceased to take note of them. But this punctured the thickest shells of indifference and whispered to the conscience: this is wrong! Something had to be done. But what?
A project this sprawling and intricate should have been serviced by two godkind at least. But the blasphemers hadn’t cracked open new lands to plunder in years, and their stock of captured godkind had dwindled. And while their Father-Emperor debated with his parliament in distant halls, arguing the merits and pitfalls of expanding the empire, Overseer Inette’s pleas for more godkind to be assigned to the project fell upon cold walls of apathy. And the private citizens of the hanging city—the lawmakers, the merchants, the civilian blasphemers come to fatten their fortunes on our flesh—would not give up their godkind thralls without an Imperial writ.
So the woodnymph continued to toil alone. The strain of powering the whole site bleached life and colour from her; the skin sat white and haggard on her bones, almost as pale as the blasphemers’. Her work suffered. We all suffered.
Denied succour from her homeland, Overseer Inette was determined to solve the problem by her own hand. “There must be more of these vermin we’ve missed,” she declared, her fingers white-knuckled around her staff of office. So the nightly raids began. Blasphemer-priests and their soldiers swept the narrow, lightless underbelly of the city where the poor and undocumented lived, combing through its intricate warrens hoping to pull undiscovered godkind from its corners, squirming like fat white grub.
In our room I’d sit with Sunyol and Sisu to either side of me, holding on to them as a substitute for holding my breath, while outside the terrible symphony of boots and shouting carried on and on. My mind would reassure my shivering heart: We pass the test. We appear perfectly ordinary. Just three mortals sharing a room, quiet and mundane as anyone else. Sisu would yelp sometimes: “That’s my fucking shoulder, I have bones in there,” and prise my fingers off in irritation. But Sunyol would stay wordless and still, curled into my side, chest barely stirring. After all this time, I thought I would be better at deciphering the silent thoughts that marched through his mind. But he remained mysterious as the day I had first seen him, swaying in the heat of the worksite.
It had been four months since Sunyol moved in. He refused a bed of his own and slept at the foot of mine, curled up in a pile of rags and old clothing. I stopped asking him to join me after a few nights; he was stubborn in that way. We kept sex to three nights a week: quick and tender and quiet, conducted as humanly as possible. Sisu would shove off and come back later with bags of sweet yam soup as we sat cleaning the sweat from each others’ bodies. The girl would grumble—would she be Sisu otherwise?—but her dissent had softened into theatrical exercise. She would rather lose her fingernails than admit it, but she’d become protective of this soft, strange creature I’d welcomed into our lives. On the streets she hissed and kicked at people who gave him trouble.
And Sunyol kept his promise to me: he never brought up Sisu’s hidden divinity, in word or in deed. Sometimes I would catch him staring intently at her, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of pity. Who knew? As long as he did not worry at the holiness resting within her. That was all I wanted.
This could have been bliss, you know, this beatific state of being: quiet evenings of my boy resting next to Sisu, him sewing and she reading the latest go-round thriller plucked out of the black market, her feet propped up on the bed. By some untold magic Sunyol had gotten me to settle down. We could have remained in this gentle valley of happiness for an eternity, untouched by the prying white fingers of the blasphemers. But of course such things could not last. And valleys are the first to be flooded when the river banks break.
The big accident was the beginning of the end, although none of us knew it at that time. A week before the blasphemers had built a walkway between two pavilions on the sixteenth floor of the new wing, and one set of crew—twenty workers, including the boys, Sisu and me—were on the fifteenth floor below it, lashing in new scaffolding for balconies. The master plan for the new wing, and the order in which it would be built, was a matter entirely opaque to us. The overseers would point and assign—six of you, scaffold here, today—and we would leap to it. Who would dare question? Who would dawdle long enough to consider how the new thing fit with the rest of it, and risk the razor kiss of the overseer’s whip? When we were pointed to our next task, sweat pouring from sunbaked skins, we simply forgot the work we had just completed. We had burdens enough to carry!
Yes, ever so often curiosity snared my mind and I would find a support strut to lean against during breaks, to survey the whole site like a hunter would. And then I’d catch Sisu’s eye, or Inette would pass within sight the woodnymph in tow, and I’d think better of it.
So it was another ordinary day, us just trying to get to sundown in one piece. There I was—Brick Wall—the muscle— holding up the support poles while one of our boys—little Kurena—scrambled around lashing it to the others with twine with her quick fingers. I wasn’t the first to hear the noise—Kurena’s head snapped up before mine—but I was the quickest to know what it meant. That groan. The walkway above about to collapse.
“Run,” I said to Kurena, but she was already in flight. Terror hones our senses of self-preservation.
The walkway splintered. In the blur of the body’s adrenaline I saw Sisu standing under it, frowning up as the broken halves careened towards her. I moved. Holiness rushed through me, turning mortal flesh to rock that met the falling timber with a terrible shudder. I stood wedged under the mass of shattered bamboosteel, impervious and unbowed. I was Bodeya, the woman who pinned the stars to the sky; I was Nitaya, the tree that separates the firmaments from the heavens. The other half of the walkway spun like a toothpick as it plummeted to the roiling earth. The air boiled with screams.
Sisu stared at me through clouds of flocking dust. Her wide eyes had the glassy sheen of a prey animal. Snap out of it, child! “Sisu!”
She blinked. I gritted my teeth, heart straining under the knowledge of the overseers converging upon us like carrion birds. I could not stay godkind for much longer. “Sisu, if you don’t move—” I snarled.
That got her attention. But no sassy retort came hurtling back at me. A troubling, atypical line sat between Sisu’s brows. She scampered to the safety of the main pavilion, supported by foundations laid many moons ago, long before the genesis of our current troubles.
Gathering one last spurt of divinity I heaved, and sent my burden tumbling after its doomed, sundered sibling. The end of the walkway barely missed a overseer’s head as he sailed towards me on his hoverplate. It was Arquois, one of the lesser Overseers, skin spattered with sun-damage. His teeth showed in his grimace. Before him was a gasping, sweating worker, whom he had just witnessed throwing a spur of masonry that would have crushed ten men. “I know you,” he said. “You’re the one Inette calls ‘Brick Wall’. You’re a strong one, aren’t you?”
I bowed my head and said nothing. It was always better to say nothing.
A stop-work was called for the day. They had us corralled in a corner while Inette swept back and forth, profanities flowing as fast and loose as her barked orders. Lesser Overseers swarmed the accident site, assessing the damage, calculating the delays. What did Inette care that I’d saved the lives of the seven in the falling walkway’s shadow? She would rather a hundred workers died than endure another day of setbacks. Her footsteps rapped sharp on bamboosteel, lips folded into a razor-thin valley.
Sisu sat by my side, strangely cool and still, gazing out at the unforgiving sky. Trapped still, it seemed, in that moment of walkway-fall, watching death come at her in an endless loop. I touched her lightly on the hand that was hooked around elbow and knee. “Are you alright?”
She barely blinked. “It wasn’t going to hit me.”
“It didn’t hit you. I made sure of that.”
“No, I meant it wasn’t going to hit me. The bamboo split so that it would miss me on either side. I saw it.”
“That was luck.”
“Some kind of luck.” Sisu frowned. She’d always taken the preponderance of Sisu-luck with equanimity, but she hadn’t yet witnessed anything this bald, this blatant. The suspicions that thundered through her—I could only imagine.
She turned her questioning my way. “That blow should have killed you.”
“It would have killed anyone.”
I put on a smile; I could feel how thin and watery it was. “I’m stronger than I look.”
Sisu’s returning stare was lengthy and unreadable. Then she said, “Suppose you are, old man.” She didn’t smile back.
Inette swept by again, consumed by constant motion. In her wake the woodnymph was a piteous symphony of clanking and wheezing, barely held up by the chain around her. When Inette stopped to shout at Overseer Arquois, she collapsed like a whipped dog and lay completely still.
My eyes were fixed on her broken form; I could not help it. And there lay my mistake, for in that moment the woodnymph’s eyes flickered open and looked right at me. My gut quailed. She knew—she knew! She knew who I was, recognized old Bariegh even through the muck-coated human shell. Her eyes bored into mine, pleading and desperate. Please. Help me. Free me from this.
I knew what it was she wanted.
The moment ended. Satisfied with her scolding, Inette strode onwards, jerking the nymph along by the neck. I exhaled. To turn away a supplicant was the basest crime a god could commit. But these were extraordinary times. Could I truly be called a god, if there was—
Inette’s voice rang out over our heads, angry and incredulous. “Who are you?”
Like a thousand-headed serpent the amassed workers turned to look. My heart stopped. Mere feet from us stood an brightly glimmering figure: long-limbed, bold and graceful, hair alive in the wind. Worry creased Sunyol’s delicate features. “I heard there was an accident.”
“Who are you?” Inette repeated. “What are you doing here?” She swept towards him like a stormcloud, and my hands balled into fists.
“I have loved ones here,” he said, his gaze canvassing the trembling herd of construction workers. His spine straightened as he caught sight of me, and his expression softened. Shock lacerated me. I had not expected to see Sunyol here. He had showed no interest whatsoever in the affairs of the world. They were little more to him than birdsong in the forest. Why had he come here, and why now?
I fed my surge of adrenaline with easy, accessible rage. This foolish, crazy boy—was he trying to get himself killed? A avalanche of heated words piled up in my chest. I clamped them down for later. Later! The next time we were alone, I swore I would burn this boy’s ears with my consternation.
“This is a restricted area,” Inette said, voice low in her throat. “How did you get in here?”
Sunyol shrugged, a simple movement. “Your guards have hungry pockets.”
Beside me Sisu whistled quietly. “Man, that boy’s got some balls on him.” If she encouraged him in this, I swear by the earth and the sky, I would—
Inette leaned close enough to smell Sunyol. He looked unfazed. I, on the other hand, trembled enough for the both of us. Now, of all times, when Inette’s mood was hot as molten steel—!
“I know what you are,” Inette hissed.
I tensed, ready to leap to my feet. Inette’s head was separated from her shoulders by a mere neck. I would rip it in half if she made the slightest move—
Sunyol merely blinked. Was he not afraid? Did he not care?
Her teeth showed. “You’re that boy. Aren’t you? The noodle-stall helper. I’ve heard of you.”
Sunyol dipped his head, dipped his lashes. A tiny, elegant movement.
“Your reputation precedes you. I must say, you don’t disappoint.” She grabbed his chin with rough hands. Her fingers parted his lips, exposing his teeth and gums like she was inspecting a beast of burden. With a huff of air—of satisfaction? Amusement?—she pulled him close, by the collar, and kissed him. Sunyol stiffened. I growled, a chest-noise, and Sisu’s hand closed over mine.
Inette broke the kiss, shoving him so hard he stumbled backwards. Her laugh cracked through the air. “Mediocre!”
Sunyol wiped his lips; blood smeared the back of his hand where she had bitten him.
“Leave here,” Inette said, “or it’ll be more than a kiss that I take from you.”
Leave. I glared at Sunyol and willed him to take my hint. Losing the world I had known was bad enough. I could not bear to lose this boy too.
But Sunyol remained where he was. His attention had been caught by the wretched figure crumpled at his feet. The longer he stared at the woodnymph’s barely-conscious form, the deeper his frown became. Now’s not the time. Just leave, you stupid—
“Not leaving, then?” Inette purred.
“My apologies,” Sunyol murmured, his concentration broken. But the disturbance remained on his face. As he turned to leave our eyes met, and the depth of the sorrow in them could drown cities. It shook me, and like lava more rage rose through the cracks left behind. He was going to hear from me, oh yes, he was.
“I had to see the place for myself.”
The room was too small for us three, and the clamor of all our emotions. I stood close enough to Sunyol to feel the tremor of his breaths. On the bed Sisu sat quiet, her expression troubled, a torrent of unease visibly churning under the surface. I should have been worrying about her and the divinity that was starting to stretch its limbs within in, stirred from unquiet slumber.
But my target was the boy before me, his aloofness a lightning rod for my ire. “There was nothing to see! You have cared nothing for our plight before. This day was no different!”
“I hadn’t realized how dire your situation was.”
My nostrils flared. How dare he admit to such ignorance, after having lived with us for so long? “And taunting Inette, was that supposed to improve our lot?”
A spark of anger flashed through him, an enervation so rarely seen! “It’s rich of you to say that, when you witness such injustice daily, yet do nothing.”
I seized him by the tunic and pulled him towards me. “Do you think we haven’t tried fighting them?”
He went still but for his breathing, watching me through half-lidded eyes. There was so much I did not know about my boy. I could navigate the map of his body without a guide, but his mind—his spirit, his soul— was stull unknown territory to me. A place where I was clearly still unwelcome.
“You two done fighting?” Sisu asked.
I looked at her. She looked tired, but also angry. The day’s events had changed her more than I thought. I saw in her expression a new strain of cunning, as though she had realized a new truth about me and was combing through the fields of her memory for evidence. It was a worry, alright.
“I’m sorry,” Sunyol whispered.
I turned back to him. The energy I’d fleetingly glimpsed was gone, the rage and arrogance melted out of him. All that remained was the same old tired sorrow. “I spoke out of turn. I greatly admire what you have done, Bariegh.”
I allowed him to keep speaking, which was perhaps a mistake. He said: “For years I wandered aimlessly, flitting from one world to the next. Then I saw you from where I stood on the peaks of your world. And you were bold and strong and proud, despite the ravages you had suffered. I saw in you a survivor. So I decided to stay.”
Such flattery should have filled me with ecstasy! But I could only think of Sisu in alarm, who had sat and listened to all this god-talk. I shot her a look, and her expression was clouded. But not confused—if anything, there was a hint of knowing in the way she narrowed her eyes.
I stepped away from Sunyol. “We should all rest,” I said.
Sleep did not come for me that night. Prone on the hard surface of my bed I listened to the dark as the hours spun from one to the next. Above me, Sisu’s breaths slowed into deep rest; at my feet Sunyol was a conspicuous lack of sound and motion. Yet the thing that snagged my thoughts with its corroded hooks was not Sunyol’s ill-judged anger, nor was it Sisu’s burgeoning suspicions.
No. What filled the hollows of my mind as I lay with my eyes closed, was the woodnymph’s face. Dirty and hopeless and pleading. Seeking the relief that only a god could bestow.
Bariegh, what will you do?
I sat up in the gloom, slow as I could, and put my bare feet upon the uneven floor. Dirt ground into my soles and heels as I stood carefully, my breaths soft and slow.
Sisu remained asleep on the upper bunk. In his corner, Sunyol did not stir. Was he slumbering as well? Or just pretending? I stared at the pale shape of him in the murk and willed him to move. Give me a hint, my beloved, tell me one way or the other. But nothing happened. Did he no longer care what I did? Or did he ever?
What uncharitable thoughts! How had we come to this? A wave of sorrow passed through me, but I could not allow it to linger. I had work to do.
I left the room as quietly as I could, and crept on padded feet towards the end of the corridor. Wrapped in unquiet slumber, the city’s poor packed the dense honeycomb of the paupers’ quarter with desperate dreams. As I unfolded into divinity their unconscious prayers struck like hail, cold and heavy and fervent. I sucked those distraught entreaties into my bones and grew strong. Or stronger, at any rate: here I was, lapping at the barest dregs of unconscious faith like they were honey and mead! It was the only way to get power now that the strength of the earth and the sky had been denied to me.
I had to move fast. Every minute spent like this was a minute spent risking discovery. The borders of every city quarter crawled with the blasphemers’ guards, sharp-eyed and lusty for blood: starving for trouble to sink their teeth into. At least the night’s raids were happening in the units much lower down. Commotion boiled floors below me, shouts of dismay combusting against angry, barking orders. A distraction for the guards, so they might not notice the brief passage of a god among them. Thank Mother and Father for the smallest mercies! I slipped into my swiftest form—the spotted shadow-cat—and raced along unlit alleys and abandoned passageways, hoping the dark would conceal me as needed.
And it did, for I escaped the paupers’ quarters unscathed. Now I emerged from the lightless bowels of the city into areas open to the air and sun and stars, where the blasphemers allowed things like windows and high ceilings to exist. In racing-cat form I sprang upwards, climbing the crenulated sides of the city, layer by modular layer. The city grew cleaner and its streets grew wider as I progressed. My target was the Axis of Tranquility, the pristine cluster of white spires centered in the highest part of the city, where you could stand in an open courtyard under the sun and have no shadow fall upon you. It was where the overseers let loose the sprawl of their lives, the sanctuary where they bickered and relaxed and played and slept. It was where Inette kept the woodnymph chained at night, never a stone’s throw away from her person.
Luck was not my forte as it was Sisu’s. Stealth, however, was the hunter’s domain. I waited for the right moment, crouched by the orbit of the guards around the Axis, a porous line. I slipped through when one of them had their head turned, and then I was running ghost-footed and gale-swift through the shining interior of the Axis, gleaming even in the cloud-choked moonlight. Now my mission began in earnest.
The interior of the Axis was a landscape foreign to me: as if a lowly construction worker such as I would ever be allowed admittance here! It was my god-senses, alive and knife-honed, that I had to rely on. Surrounded by the bleached bones of what the blasphemers had built, the woodnymph—fellow godkind—was a brilliant ember in the shape of the world. I ran in her direction. There were no places to hide in the Axis, where the soothing comfort of the dark and the gentle eaves of shadows had been banished. Speed was my only recourse.
Inette’s mansion lounged behind walls of white, laden with fish-ponds and the boughs of trees torn from the land below. I cleared the boundary wall in one leap and found myself facing an extravagant, angular building. Its form was alien and unforgiving, as if a parcel of Inette’s homeland had been scooped up and grafted onto this floating city. All its windows were dark, and a guard stood stone-faced at every door. I counted six of them, fully liveried, bearing humming electric spears.
There were no secret ways here, no quiet windows where I could slip through unnoticed. It couldn’t be helped: they would have to die.
I started from the left. One by one they fell in quick succession. My shadow-cat form was swift and silent: by the time the guard noticed the heat and smell of me, my teeth would already be closed around their spine. I broke their necks and quickly, quietly set their corpses upon the ground. There was no joy in these deaths, no poetry in this exchange from one life to another, no satisfaction in the triumph of survival. I padded silently into the overseer’s house with the smell of blood lingering around my mouth.
Within the halls of Inette’s house I finally found comfort in a thick and all-encompassing darkness. The stone floors were cool beneath my feet as I slunk downwards to the dungeon where the woodnymph was locked. There were two guards; they both met swift and perfunctory deaths. No sooner had the blood of the second one wet the floor than the woodnymph stood in her cage. “You came,” she said. Her voice was barely louder than the wind.
I straightened up into mortal form. “I heard you,” I told her. “I felt your pain.”
Her thin, crooked fingers clasped the hard iron of the cage bars. “You’ll do it, then?”
“You are not one of my people,” I told her. This was no weasel-tongued protest: there were protocols for what I had come to do.
“I am not,” the woodnymph said. “I am a spirit of the forest, and my tribe is answerable to Opyret, Ripener of Fruits.” She rubbed her arms, and skin detached from it in flakes. “But Opyret is gone. They have not heard my prayers since four turnings of the seasons ago.”
My half-cousin Opyret, stubborn as the mountains, had chosen to remain on the ruined surface, refusing to leave the land which they had tended to for so long. Their fate was unknown to me: did they die? Were they captured by the blasphemers? Neither of those ends were something I could bear to think about.
“So,” I said, “having been abandoned by your lord and master, you now turn to me.”
“Bariegh of the Jungle,” she whispered, “will you release my spirit from this realm, and to the next?”
“I will. And in exchange, the power you hold in this realm will pass to me.”
“Take it,” she whispered, her voice coarse as sand. “These days it’s no more than a curse.”
The act took no time at all. I slid my hand through the bars and placed it on her feverish brow; one draw of the breath later she crumpled to the ground, empty and decaying. The last residue of her power surged through me: Hot, running filaments, searing my veins, setting my heart aflame. Shivers of rapture pulsed through my flesh: to feel almost whole again! Almost! Weak as she was, the woodnymph was the first godkind I had taken since the blasphemers came to our shores. This was more power than I had consumed in years. For a moment—brief, glorious, excruciating—I had a glimpse of who I used to be. What I used to have.
Movement behind me. I turned, teeth bared, flush with new strength. In my mind it was Inette, and I was coiled to tear her throat from her neck, consequences be damned! If I was to have blood on my hands this night, let some of it be hers!
Sunyol stood at the head of the stairs, staring at the corpses scattered around me.
I said his name. He looked up and his wide, unsettled eyes met mine.
“It was what she wanted,” I said.
Sunyol picked his way down the stairs, his feet making a cautious arc over the corpses of the guards. He squatted by the cage, fixated upon the dead woodnymph, deep furrows bisecting his pale brow. Could he not understand what was happening? He’d lived in the world for months now. He knew the conditions we were shackled with. He—
Sunyol’s slender hand reached between the bars. With gentle fingers he brushed away the stringy mats that had fallen over the nymph’s face. “You killed her,” he said, the words coming out in a soft, blank murmur.
I lost my grip on patience and temper alike. “What else could I have done? She needed help!”
“You could have freed her.”
“She didn’t want to be freed. She asked for this. Do you understand?”
I could see from his face that he did not. “Do you realise what will happen now?” I asked.
He remained unmoved, but I continued anyway. “Tomorrow the overseers will realise that their source of power is gone. They will intensify the raids. Day and night they will comb the city until they find someone to take her place. All the hidden godkind in this city—like me, like Sisu—will be in danger.”
I pointed down at the nymph. “She knew this. Why do you think she never once tried to escape? This is the unspoken compact of godkind. She was captured, and for all our sakes she bore this burden, until she couldn’t any more. There are so few of us left, we have to do what we can to protect one another.” I allowed anger erupt in my voice. “What I did tonight was a mercy. Do you think I would have done this if she had not begged me for release?”
Sunyol slowly stood. Was he listening? Did he understand? I said: “You said you admired my survival in this world? This is what it costs to survive here.” If only I could shake comprehension into his thick head! “How could you live among us and still be shocked?”
He raised his head to look at me. “Dissolve the bond between us.”
I blinked as my heart shuddered to a stop. “What?”
“The compact that binds me to you. Dissolve it. I will remain with you no longer.”
“It was a mistake for me to have wanted it. Foolishness on my part. Hubris. I want you to unmake it.”
His face was a cipher of emotions: lips thinned, brows compressed, eyes flat and neutral. “Do you—”
“I understand perfectly well. Please, Bariegh. Let me go.”
I caught his chin in my hand. His body stiffened and his eyes fell shut as I tilted his face upwards, pressing my fingers into the bones of his cheek. Where was the bold, creature I had glimpsed all those months ago, perched on the edge of the world? I saw no trace of him no matter how much I audited the lines of the face before me. My bones chilled as I studied his silent form. This forsaken world had drained him the same way the blasphemers had drained the woodnymph.
I did not understand him. I never understood him. The bond I thought we had was perhaps nothing more than an illusion.
“Very well,” I said. The words barely made it out of my mouth.
Sunyol’s eyes flew open: surprise, disbelief, and a needle-jab of hurt. He opened his mouth to speak, but I moved before the first word could so much as assemble on his tongue. The magic that bound us fell apart, dissolving in a messy flail. What I had pulled together with so much effort came undone between one beat of the heart and the next.
There. It was over. It was too late for anything except regret.
I let go of Sunyol’s chin and he staggered backwards: partly from losing his balance, partly from recoil. Had he expected me to fight him? I would not do that. I would never keep him against his will.
“Bariegh,” he said. His eyes and mouth were soft and sad.
“Go in peace,” I said. “Linger here no longer.”
He bit his lip. I ached to kiss him one last time, to seal the memories of what we once had. But his mortal form sublimed in a flash, and before me stood the shimmering, otherworldly celestial hound from between the worlds. The dog who had once been mine cast the briefest glance at me, then fled up the stairs and was gone.
I sank to my knees, hollowed out, my legs too empty to hold me up. I wanted grief to fill me, simple and sharp. But my mind was consumed by a thousand thoughts and emotions, each one as restless as the next. Nothing settled. Nothing made sense. My throat worked, but it did not know whether to howl, scream or cry.
Loud noises rattled in the upper reaches of the mansion. Then voices, and the thump of something soft finding gravity. Inette. The overseer had been roused by the disturbances, at long last.
A brief vision tempted me: Inette rushing down the dungeon stairs in her nightclothes to find one of the old deities, prostrate amongst death, hands and snout bloodied. A new thrall for her construction efforts; an end to her problems and respite for the rest of the divine. What need would she have for a little spirit, if she had the power of a god at her disposal?
But who will look after Sisu then?
Fear and panic are the worst bedfellows for reasoned decisions. Who can balance the calculus of the greater good when the life of a loved one is threatened? In that moment my worry for Sisu overrode all else; I took on cat form again and vanished from the dungeon.
When Sisu awoke the next morning, the first words out of her mouth were: “Where’s Sunyol?”
I hadn’t slept, and had spent the restless sliver before dawn preparing breakfast. Rice slurry bubbled over a tiny gaslit canister as Sisu sat up all rumpled, pulling the sleep scarf from her head and stretching. “Not gone and done something stupid, has he?”
I stirred the tin of slurry. “He’s gone.” As she blinked I clarified: “It’s over, Sisu. He’s left.”
“As in you’re not likely to see him again.”
Sisu scratched behind her ear, frowning furiously. “After last night?”
Seconds went by. Then a derisive snort: “Well. That is pretty damn stupid. I’m sorry, old man. How you holding up?”
Ah, if only I had an answer to that question myself. Instead of telling her something useful, I pointed to the slurry, thick with meat oils. “Breakfast. We have to stay in today.”
Her features grew narrow with suspicion. “Why?”
“Inette’s woodnymph died last night. There won’t be work, and the city will be full of blasphemers looking for someone to blame.”
She stiffened in alarm. “Died? You mean she was killed? Or—?” She was shaken, and in her shock I watched suspicion rise further in her. I kept silent—the less she knew of the truth, the better.
She exhaled. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. But how’s anything going to work then?”
“The blasphemers will procure a replacement in no time,” I said. Either they would extract some other godkind from the bowels of the city, thrashing and screaming, or their homeworld would finally consign Inette the replacement she had been asking for. “Until then we should remain as unobtrusive as possible.”
“Why? It’s got nothing to do with us. Has it?”
How pointed her question, how meaningful! I demurred. “Inette’s bound to be in a mood. Best we stay clear until it blows over.”
Wordlessly Sisu came and folded herself cross-legged on the ground beside me. She put her chin in her hand, her features carefully and deliberately thoughtful as I turned the gas-can off and started ladling steaming porridge into bowls. “Your parents called you Bariegh,” she finally said.
“So they did.”
“After the god of the hunt?”
“It was a fairly common practice.”
“Back when the gods were a big thing, huh.” Sisu stretched out on the floor, propping herself up on her elbows. I was too tired to pick apart what this newfound jocosity of hers meant. All I knew is that I did not like it. “Ever feel like you’re not living up to the name?”
A practiced smile stretched across my face as I set a bowl in front of her. “All the time, child.”
The disturbance started in the afternoon: a distant commotion that swelled like a crest of water. Somewhere else in the paupers’ quarter, shouts echoed and metal banged against wood. Sisu sat up from the bed, book dropping from her fingers. “What the hell’s going on?”
I had been busy with needle and thread, mending split seams and patching tears in the knees of trousers. I let the darning clatter to the floor as as the noise rushed towards us. “It’s a call to work.”
“Work?” Sisu craned her head to listen as the noise reached our floor. With frightening suddenness, a rough-voiced overseer was banging on doors all up and down our corridor, telling us to report to the worksite immediately or face a hundred lashes.
Sisu looked at me, worried. “I suppose staying home’s not an option?”
“No, little one.” Guilt and fear filled me in equal parts. In the light of morning the decisions of the previous night were clearly revealed to be cowardice. I had failed in my duty, and now we would all suffer whatever petty retribution Inette was about to dispense.
Sisu’s feet slapped against the floor as she swung her legs off the bed. “Well, fuck this.”
I shivered without letting it show. It was too late for regrets, but they gripped me anyway.
The sun beat down upon our shoulders as we huddled in a miasma of sweat and nervous energy. The overseers had us corralled onto a pavilion at the unfinished edge of the worksite. Half-built and unsecured, the open end of the structure yawned over the empty drop to the ruined world below. My mind conjured terrifying images of the blasphemers throwing us over, one after another, until someone confessed to the bloodbath at Inette’s house. As we crouched waiting for our fate I gripped Sisu’s hand’s in mine. She pulled it away with a hiss. “For fuckssake, old man. You’re just making me nervous.”
Neither hair nor hide of Inette. Or any of her subordinates, for that matter. The blasphemers swirling around us were all lower-ranked, young-skinned and tense and robed in unappealing beige. As the minutes went by and sweat beaded on brows and lips, murmurs of disquiet grew among the gathered workers. Nothing good could come out of this, and the longer we waited, the worse our conceptions of the scenario became.
“Listen,” I whispered to Sisu, my words quiet as I could make them. “If something happens to me, I want you to—”
“No,” Sisu hissed back. “Don’t you say that. I don’t want to hear it.”
“If we go down, we go down together. All right? None of this if something happens to me bullshit. I won’t stand for it.”
She sounded angry, but there was an unfamiliar wobble to her words, and she refused to turn her face towards me. “Child…”
I was interrupted by an arrival. Overseer Arquois’ robes shone and flapped as he cut through air on his hoverplate, his head and his spirits high. He surveyed the workers huddled before him and an ugly chuckle bubbled up from his chest. “Upset and grumbling, are we? Oh, how cruel of the overseers, to keep us waiting in the hot sun.”
He leapt off the hoverplate and a boy in the front row flinched, nearly falling over. Arquois snorted as the trembling boy righted himself. “Listen here, you worms,” he snapped. “Today you will have the privilege of bearing witness to marvels greater than any you’ve seen before.”
He spread his arms and shouted, flush with enthusiasm at his role as orator and grandstander. “You have seen the miracles we have worked with your so-called spirits. Mere piddle. Today we show you what my people can truly achieve. Today we show you what we can do with one who calls himself a god.”
My mouth went dry. A god. That could only mean one of two things. A god. A god. A god. The words echoed emptily through my head as they blocked out rational thought. Strangling vines filled the hollows of my chest, replacing air with fear.
Sisu sucked in breath and elbowed me. “Bari! Look—”
Flanked by her underlings, Inette swept towards us, her dress a brilliant bloody red. Triumph shone on her sharp features. Behind her, coming slowly into view, was—
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 three of Between the Firmaments continues tomorrow, October 11th.