Eventually, Lightsong had to hear petitions.
It was annoying, since the Wedding Jubilation wouldn’t even be over for another few days. The people, however, needed their gods. He knew he shouldn’t feel annoyed. He’d gotten most of a week off for the wedding fete—conspicuously unattended by either the bride or groom—and that was enough. All he had to do was spend a few hours each day looking at art and listening to the woes of the people. It wasn’t much. Even if it did wear away at his sanity.
He sighed, sitting back in his throne. He wore an embroidered cap on his head, matched by a loose robe of gold and red. The garment wrapped over both shoulders, twisted about his body, and was hung with golden tassels. Like all of his clothing, it was even more complicated to put on than it looked.
If my servants were to suddenly leave me, he thought with amusement, I’d be totally incapable of getting dressed.
He leaned his head on one fist, elbow on the throne’s armrest. This room of his palace opened directly out onto the lawn—harsh weather was rare in Hallandren, and a cool breeze blew in off of the sea, smelling of brine. He closed his eyes, breathing in.
He’d dreamed of war again last night. Llarimar had found that particularly meaningful. Lightsong was just disturbed. Everyone said that if war did come, Hallandren would easily win. But if that were the case, then why did he always dream of T’Telir burning? Not some distant Idrian city, but his own home.
It means nothing, he told himself. Just a manifestation of my own worries.
“Next petition, Your Grace,” Llarimar whispered from his side.
Lightsong sighed, opening his eyes. Both edges of the room were lined with priests in their coifs and robes. Where had he gotten so many? Did any god need that much attention?
He could see a line of people extending outside onto the lawn. They were a sorry, forlorn lot, several coughing from some malady or another. So many, he thought as a woman was led into the room. He’d been seeing petitioners for over an hour already. I guess I should have expected this. It’s been almost a week.
“Scoot,” he said, turning to his priest. “Go tell those waiting people to sit down in the grass. There’s no reason for them to all stand there like that. This could take some time.”
Llarimar hesitated. Standing was, of course, a sign of respect. However, he nodded, waving over a lesser priest to carry the message.
Such a crowd, waiting to see me, Lightsong thought. What will it take to convince the people that I’m useless? What would it take to get them to stop coming to him? After five years of petitions, he honestly wasn’t certain if he could take another five.
The newest petitioner approached his throne. She carried a child in her arms.
Not a child . . . Lightsong thought, cringing mentally.
“Great One,” the woman said, falling to her knees on the carpet. “Lord of Bravery.”
Lightsong didn’t speak.
“This is my child, Halan,” the woman said, holding out the baby. As it got close enough to Lightsong’s aura, the blanket burst with a sharp blue color two and half steps from pure. He could easily see that the child was suffering from a terrible sickness. It had lost so much weight that its skin was shriveled. The baby’s Breath was so weak that it flickered like a candle running out of wick. It would be dead before the day was out. Perhaps before the hour was out.
“The healers, they say he has deathfever,” the woman said. “I know that he’s going to die.” The baby made a sound—a kind of half-cough, perhaps the closest it could get to a cry.
“Please, Great One,” the woman said. She sniffled, then bowed her head. “Oh, please. He was brave, like you. My Breath, it would be yours. The Breaths of my entire family. Ser vice for a hundred years, anything. Please, just heal him.”
Lightsong closed his eyes.
“Please,” the woman whispered.
“I cannot,” Lightsong said.
“I cannot,” Lightsong said.
“Thank you, my lord,” the woman finally whispered.
Lightsong opened his eyes to see the woman being led away, weeping quietly, child clutched close to her breast. The line of people watched her go, looking miserable yet hopeful at the same time. One more petitioner had failed. That meant they would get a chance.
A chance to beg Lightsong to kill himself.
Lightsong stood suddenly, grabbing the cap off his head and tossing it aside. He rushed away, throwing open a door at the back of the room. It slammed against the wall as he stumbled through.
Servants and priests immediately followed after him. He turned on them. “Go!” he said, waving them away. Many of them showed looks of surprise, unaccustomed to any kind of forcefulness on their master’s part.
“Leave me be!” he shouted, towering over them. Colors in the room flared brighter in response to his emotion, and the servants backed down, confused, stumbling back out into the petition hall and pulling the door closed.
Lightsong stood alone. He placed one hand against the wall, breathing in and out, other hand against his forehead. Why was he sweating so? He’d been through thousands of petitions, and many had been worse than the one he’d just seen. He’d sent pregnant women to their deaths, doomed children and parents, consigned the innocent and the faithful to misery.
There was no reason to overreact. He could take it. It was a little thing, really. Just like absorbing the Breath of a new person every week. A small price to pay . . .
The door opened and a figure stepped in.
Lightsong didn’t turn. “What do they want of me, Llarimar?” he demanded. “Do they really think I’ll do it? Lightsong, the selfish? Do they really think I’d give my life for one of them?”
Llarimar was quiet for a few moments. “You offer hope, Your Grace,” he finally said. “A last, unlikely hope. Hope is part of faith—part of the knowledge that someday, one of your followers will receive a miracle.”
“And if they’re wrong?” Lightsong asked. “I have no desire to die. I’m an idle man, fond of luxury. People like me don’t give up their lives, even if they do happen to be gods.”
Llarimar didn’t reply.
“The good ones are all already dead, Scoot,” Lightsong said. “Calmseer, Brighthue: those were gods who would give themselves away. The rest of us are selfish. There hasn’t been a petition granted in what, three years?”
“About that, Your Grace,” Llarimar said quietly.
“And why should it be otherwise?” Lightsong said, laughing a bit. “I mean, we have to die to heal one of them. Doesn’t that strike you as ridiculous? What kind of religion encourages its members to come and petition for their god’s life?” Lightsong shook his head. “It’s ironic. We’re gods to them only until they kill us. And I think I might know why the gods give in. It’s those petitions, being forced to sit day after day, knowing that you could save one of them—that you probably should, since your life isn’t really worth anything. That’s enough to drive a man mad. Enough to drive him to kill himself!”
He smiled, glancing at his high priest. “Suicide by divine manifestation. Very dramatic.”
“Shall I call off the rest of the petitions, Your Grace?” Llarimar gave no sign of being annoyed by the outburst.
“Sure, why not,” Lightsong said, waving a hand. “They really need a lesson in theology. They should already know what a useless god I am. Send them away, tell them to come back tomorrow—assuming that they are foolish enough to do so.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Llarimar said, bowing.
Doesn’t that man ever get mad at me? Lightsong thought. He, more than any, should know that I’m not a person to rely upon!
Lightsong turned, walking away as Llarimar went back into the petition room. No servants tried to follow him. Lightsong pushed his way through red-hued room after red-hued room, eventually finding his way to a stairwell and climbing up to the second story. This floor was open on all sides, really nothing more than a large covered patio. He walked to the far side—the one opposite the line of people.
The breeze was strong here. He felt it plucking at his robes, bringing with it scents that had traveled hundreds of miles, crossed the ocean, twisting around palm trees and finally entering the Court of Gods. He stood there for a long time, looking out over the city, toward the sea beyond. He had no desire, despite what he sometimes said, to leave his comfortable home in the court. He was not a man of jungles; he was a man of parties.
But sometimes he wished that he could at least want to be something else. Blushweaver’s words still weighed upon him. You’ll have to stand for something eventually, Lightsong. You’re a god to these people. . . .
He was. Whether he wanted to be or not. That was the frustrating part. He’d tried his best to be useless and vain. And still they came.
We could use your confidence . . . you’re a better man than you give yourself credit for being.
Why did it seem that the more he demonstrated himself to be an idiot, the more convinced people became that he had some kind of hidden depths? By implication, they called him a liar in the same breath that they complimented his presumed inner virtue. Did no one understand that a man could be both likable and useless? Not every quick-tongued fool was a hero in disguise.
His life sense alerted him of Llarimar’s return long before footsteps did. The priest walked up to join Lightsong alongside the wall. Llarimar rested his arms on the railing—which, being built for a god, was about a foot too high for the priest.
“They’re gone,” Llarimar said.
“Ah, very good,” Lightsong said. “I do believe that we’ve accomplished something today. I’ve fled from my responsibilities, screamed at my servants, and sat about pouting. Undoubtedly, this will convince everyone that I’m even more noble and honorable than they previously assumed. Tomorrow, there will be twice as many petitions, and I shall continue my inexorable march toward utter madness.”
“You can’t go mad,” Llarimar said softly. “It’s impossible.”
“Sure I can,” Lightsong said. “I just have to concentrate long enough. You see, the great thing about madness is that it’s all in your head.”
Llarimar shook his head. “I see you’ve been restored to your normal humor.”
“Scoot, you wound me. My humor is anything but normal.” They stood silently for a few more minutes, Llarimar offering no chastisement or commentary on his god’s actions. Just like a good little priest.
That made Lightsong think of something. “Scoot, you’re my high priest.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Lightsong sighed. “You really need to pay attention to the lines I’m feeding you, Scoot. You really should have said something pithy there.”
“I apologize, Your Grace.”
“Just try harder next time. Anyway, you know about theology and that sort of thing, correct?”
“I’ve studied my share, Your Grace.”
“Well then, what is the point—religiously—of having gods that can only heal one person, then die? It seems counterproductive to me. Easy way to depopulate your pantheon.”
Llarimar leaned forward, staring out over the city. “It’s complicated, Your Grace. Returned aren’t just gods—they’re men who died, but who decided to come back and offer blessings and knowledge. After all, only one who has died can have anything useful to say about the other side.”
“True, I suppose.”
“The thing is, Your Grace, Returned aren’t meant to stay. We extend their lives, giving them extra time to bless us. But they’re really only supposed to remain alive as long as it takes them to do what they need to.”
“Need to?” Lightsong said. “That seems rather vague.”
Llarimar shrugged. “Returned have . . . goals. Objectives which are their own. You knew of yours before you decided to come back, but the process of leaping across the Iridescent Wave leaves the memory fragmented. Stay long enough, and you’ll remember what you came to accomplish. The petitions . . . they’re a way of helping you to remember.”
“So I’ve come back to save one person’s life?” Lightsong said, frowning, but feeling embarrassed. In five years, he’d spent little time studying his own theology. But, well, that was the sort of thing priests were for.
“Not necessarily, Your Grace,” Llarimar said. “You may have come back to save one person. But, more likely, there is information about the future or the afterlife that you felt you needed to share. Or perhaps some great event in which you felt you needed to participate. Remember, it was the heroic way in which you died that gave you the power to Return in the first place. What you are to do might relate to that, somehow.”
Llarimar trailed off slightly, his eyes growing unfocused. “You saw something, Lightsong. On the other side, the future is visible, like a scroll that stretches into the eternal harmonics of the cosmos. Something you saw—something about the future—worried you. Rather than remaining at peace, you took the opportunity that your brave death afforded you, and you Returned to the world. Determined to fix a problem, share information, or otherwise help those who continued to live.
“Someday, once you feel that you’ve accomplished your task, you can use the petitions to find someone who deserves your Breath. Then you can continue your journey across the Iridescent Wave. Our job, as your followers, is to provide Breath for you and keep you alive until you can accomplish your goal, whatever it may be. In the meantime, we pray for auguries and blessings, which can be gleaned only from one who has touched the future as you have.”
Lightsong didn’t respond immediately. “And if I don’t believe?”
“In what, Your Grace?”
“In any of it,” Lightsong said. “That Returned are gods, that these visions are anything more than random inventions of my brain. What if I don’t believe that I had any purpose or plan in Returning?”
“Then maybe that’s what you came back to discover.”
“So . . . wait. You’re saying that on the other side—where I obviously believed in the other side—I realized that if I Returned I wouldn’t believe in the other side, so I came back with the purpose of discovering faith in the other side, which I only lost because I Returned in the first place?”
Llarimar paused. Then he smiled. “That last one breaks down a little bit in the face of logic, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, a little bit,” Lightsong said, smiling back. He turned, eyes falling on the God King’s palace, standing like a monument above the other court structures. “What do you think of her?”
“The new queen?” Llarimar asked. “I haven’t met her, Your Grace. She won’t be presented for another few days.”
“Not the person. The implications.”
Llarimar glanced at him. “Your Grace. That smells of an interest in politics!”
“Blah blah, yes, I know. Lightsong is a hypocrite. I’ll do penance for it later. Now answer the blasted question.”
Llarimar smiled. “I don’t know what to think of her, Your Grace. The court of twenty years ago thought bringing a royal daughter here was a good idea.”
Yes, Lightsong thought. But that court is gone. The gods had thought melding the royal line back into Hallandren would be a good idea. But those gods—the ones who believed they knew how to deal with the Idrian girl’s arrival—were now dead. They’d left inferior replacements.
If what Llarimar said was true, then there was something important about the things Lightsong saw. Those visions of war, and the terrible sense of foreboding. For reasons he couldn’t explain, it felt to him like his people were barreling headfirst down a mountain slope, completely ignorant of a bottomless chasm hidden in the cleft of the lands before them.
“The full Court Assembly meets in judgment tomorrow, doesn’t it?” Lightsong said, still looking at the black palace.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Contact Blushweaver. See if I can share a box with her during the judgments. Perhaps she will distract me. You know what a headache politics gives me.”
“You can’t get headaches, Your Grace.”
In the distance, Lightsong could see the rejected petitioners trailing out of the gates, returning to the city, leaving their gods behind. “Could have fooled me,” he said quietly.
Siri stood in the dark black bedroom, wearing her shift, looking out the window. The God King’s palace was higher than the surrounding wall, and the bedroom faced east. Out over the sea. She watched the distant waves, feeling the heat of the afternoon sun. While she was wearing the thin shift, the warmth was actually pleasant, and it was tempered by a cool breeze blowing in off the ocean. The wind teased her long hair, ruffling the fabric of her shift.
She should be dead. She had spoken directly to the God King, had sat up and made a demand of him. She’d waited all morning for punishment. There had been none.
She leaned down against the windowsill, arms crossed on the stone, closing her eyes and feeling the sea breeze. A part of her was still aghast at the way she had acted. That part was growing smaller and smaller. I’ve been going about things wrong here, she thought. I’ve let myself be pushed about by my fears and worries.
She didn’t usually take time to bother with fears and worries. She just did what seemed right. She was beginning to feel that she should have stood up to the God King days ago. Perhaps she wasn’t being cautious enough. Perhaps punishment would still come. However, for the moment, she felt as if she’d accomplished something.
She smiled, opening her eyes, and let her hair change to a determined golden yellow.
It was time to stop being afraid.