Above, the SunSpider slid through the sky, streaks from the spring clouds drawn along its contours, trailing in thin, ribbonlike streams.
And then it swerved. The streams wobbled, startled.
A shining egg sang through what would have been the SunSpider’s path. It dropped to the earth.
Five more whistled through the sky.
Below, the autumn dream’s step whispered through the wood. She crossed through shadow and flickered across sunbeams.
Below, the mother’s breath was stolen as if she’d been struck. She paused to look out the bloom-bordered kitchen window, and then lifted flour-dusted hands from the partially-kneaded dough to gather up her skirts as she hurried from her house.
Below, the moon’s heart stopped as the music’s song silenced. They waited, taut and knowing, certain but uncertain.
Below, the spring stilled. Flowers mid-bloom stayed half-closed for a moment, before opening further as she crossed from them, seeking the morning and evening stars.
Below, the prophet closed each of the four folios scattered around him and gathered them together under an arm. Impact rippled through the earth and a wave of soil pattered at the boulder at his back.
Silvery starmetal rippled and surged forth, its rolling guided by an unseen hand into the beginnings of some kind of shape. Some pushed forward ahead of the rest, drawing itself long and narrow. More began to gather at the tip, spreading wide.
And then a hand grasped it.
Another ripple pushed through.
Starmetal grasped around the hand, fingers gripping. Color swept from where the palms met, and the silver drew back from it, revealing the form that had sought shape.
— Welcome back, my Lord.
Eyes opened, blinking. Ears shifted. The Lord Father looked upon all creation and found it had become foreign to him.
Except the familiar faces.
— Please do away with the politeness. I have no patience for it today.
The prophet tilted his head, four smiles flickering over him, conciliatory, wry, smug, and relieved.
— You have been gone seventeen years, my Lord. Someone has unraveled Fate, but he has been eliminated. The Sudice are hard-pressed to repair their tapestry. Those of us who are not present and accounted for will not be returning. The rest of us are stable, for now. Your son has borne us well on his shoulders.
— That is… not as detailed as usual.
— Forgive me for saying so, but it doesn’t take me to know that you are tired. And you would be better served to be well-rested before you begin making the decisions that will need to be made.
The Lord Father drew back, turning inward. Indeed, the weight of all pressed at him, bowing him as if he were not yet cooled, as if he were still soft.
— Yes. I may know, but I need to hear it: you have arranged for me to sleep?
— Yes, my Lord.
— And I will be receiving a more thorough report in time?
— Yes, my Lord.
— One more thing.
The prophet waited as the Lord Father’s eyes turned to the sky.
— Is that a 2006 Alfa Romeo Spider?
— Indeed, my Lord.
— Because there has already been a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Lotus, Porche, Jaguar, McLaren…
The Lord Father’s attention returned to the prophet. A shard of a smile pressed at the edge of his mouth.
— It is a good thing you are so useful, Svantovit, otherwise I would smite you.
— I thought it was because you loved me for my wit and charm and good looks.
More humor seeped in, like the heat of a forge. The smile faded in favor of matter-of-factness.
— Do not forget punctuality.
The prophet tilted his head as if in concession.
— Thank you, my Lord. That too.
— Ah, Svantovit. It does my heart good to see you.
Her heart ached at the sight of him.
A bright smile dawned over his features, smooth and youthful. Happiness as clear as a spring sun was a-bloom, from him and around him, chasing back the apprehensive fog that had crept in around the edges.
His gentle hands cupped his girls’ faces in turn, and brought their brows to his smiling lips. His arms encircled their shoulders and he hugged them close to him.
It was as if he had never been missing. Watching him, all things were right again, and all troubles would fade and be forgotten.
Dazhbog released his girls and reached to her. Sweet words waited on his tongue, a sweet kiss waited on his mouth.
As their lips parted, trouble waited in the spring’s aching heart. Trouble which would not be forgotten.
Could she leave this behind? He loved her. He was gentle, warm, kind, cheerful, bright, and had not wronged her or their daughters once. Nor would he.
And yet… she had been wronged.
Their girls’ brightness dimmed. Concern clouded his brow and covered his lips.
— My little fish. My love. You seem so sad.
But had she been? She loved him. And she would have loved him. Both times she’d met him for the first time, the stirrings in her heart had been the exact same. And the eons that followed, of joy, of hardship, of anger and sorrow and love and contentment, could not possibly have been false.
Her daughter, the evening star, moved to her side and put a hand on her shoulder.
You have every right to feel hurt and confused and betrayed by this. You weren’t trusted with the opportunity to make any sort of choice and you didn’t even know it.
Lord Dobrozhe’s words rang with truth, then and now. His concern, his sympathetic smile, had been an echo of her lord husband’s.
— Darling. Let us return home. You have missed a great deal.
She turned from him, to show him the way.
— Lada. Please. What troubles you?
The words cut through her. Around, the blooming flowers lost some of their color.
— I will tell you once you are by the warmth of the hearth. And then… — She took in a breath. — And then I have to leave, my lord husband.
— I… have to leave.
The words drifted like the fading final refrain. Birds chirped, branches groaned, and leaves rustled. It was going to be over, and the rest of the world was forging onward with its rolling, indifferent gait.
And then the moon let out a small breath. — Yes.
Midnight’s sparkle had left nightfall eyes. A familiar shadow was cast over them.
Was this really how it was to end?
Surely there was just enough space for one last kiss, to seal their happiness before it was lost forever to yearning dreams and unvoiced longing? And if not… would it be so bad if he were to witness it? Or… would it be so bad to be caught and punished? After all, he would see nothing but this last token, this one gentle defiance. The rest would be theirs.
But no. That was the impulse of the hopeful girl who had not known how deep suffering could go.
But the queen knew.
There were more important things than happiness. There were more important things than closure. They had both agreed on this at the very beginning.
She rose and began to turn away from the bower.
The moon’s soft hands took her own, halting her departure.
A tattoo drummed against the queen from within. The moon’s gaze was turned down, her dark eyes hidden under lids and lashes.
If anyone could be—if anyone would be—that hopeful girl, it would be Chors.
Lord Creator, let her not be. Pizamar could not turn her away and the suffering would be too deep, too wide.
Lord Creator, let her be. Let her want them to be damned together as much as she wanted it.
— No matter what, you are and always will be my dearest friend.
And then, she lifted a hand and kissed her queen’s ring.
A kiss from a subject.
An acceptance of the pain that was to be inflicted. Trust that it would be nothing but necessary.
A seal over their happiness.
Creator of All, there was nothing else in existence as beautiful and elegant as Chors’s grace.
Their fingers slipped from each other. The queen turned away, and did not turn back. Could not turn back.
Damn it all.
— Damn it all, Veles, what did you do!?
Thunder roared out of the crater, over the smoking scar in the forestry around them. Birds flocked into the air, frantic wingbeats rustling like leaves. Groaning and creaking and cracking from ruined trees offered a wan retort to the demand still crackling in the sky. The rumbling echo rolled and pulsed and faded.
He was alone. And he didn’t know where in the world he was or what he had been doing or how long he had been gone.
And Mokosh was going to be livid.
There was a soft groan, somewhere nearby, muffled by the earth.
— I wish I knew.
Thunder roared out of the crater again. The storm roiled. Around, an unfamiliar forest. And another crater.
Of course. Hiding, like a coward.
Good. Perun couldn’t wait to chase him from his burrow.
That crater… it was likely some kind of trick, a trap. Created to confuse and mislead. Too obvious. The deceitful lord of grain had a twisty mind, which bore twisty thoughts. Perun had to fight fire with fire. He had to think like him.
He had to lead him into thinking he was winning. His vanity and arrogance would be his undoing.
— Where are you!? If you wish to call yourself a man, show yourself!
— What if I wish to call myself… say… a goose?
His voice, whispering like a field of grain bowing before the wind. Nearby, but anywhere. Everywhere.
Hands itched, crackling closed into fists.
— Then do me the courtesy of presenting me your neck so I may wring it!
There! A rustle!
— I think you have the wrong idea about what qualifies as courtesy for a goose.
Suddenly, a tree crackled and blackened as fire danced upon it. A young buck lay twitching and spasming.
That sly bastard.
The thunder rolled away again, leaving only the fire cheerfully babbling. Perun shushed it. The hunt was still on.
— And I think you have forgotten what a goose looks like. That is most unambiguously a hart. That is… it was. Now it is venison.
The voice was to his left.
Perun struck right.
Nothing but air met him.
— Speaking of which, would you do me a favor and bring that home to your lady wife? I find myself hungry for her venison. Perhaps she will see fit to grant me some.
Behind and to the right, this time.
Perun struck right.
That slippery degenerate.
— I will bring it home! It will be a fine feast! And you will get nothing but bones!
— My dear Lord Perun. Forgive me. Let us do away with banter for a moment. Did you understand my second meaning there?
What was he going on about!?
— What are you going on about!?
Second meaning? What could he possibly mean by…
— Good. Given your response, for a moment I was very concerned.
— No, I didn’t mean… I would never… — Unthinkable! — If you didn’t talk so… so… so damn twisty then we wouldn’t have this problem!
— Yes, yes. Forgive me… I just needed to clarify. I was… in disbelief at the… the… full measure of the simplicity of your thoughts.
Another rustle! Behind him!
There was no mistaking it. This was no stag. These were hurried footsteps, heading straight towards him.
Excellent. Perun would wait. He would lead him on, making him think that he had the upper hand. And then he would whirl at the very last moment. The look of surprise on the lord of grain’s face would be spectacular.
The look on the lord of storms’s face was spectacular.
Together, storm and earth tumbled into the crater.
They settled at the bottom, soil sprinkling over them.
And Perun found himself all but drowned in a deluge of kisses.
— Perulshya! — kiss kiss — Oh my Perulshya! — kiss kiss kiss — You’re home! — kiss kiss — There is — kiss — so much… — kiss — too much…
Mokosh sounded… happy? Upset? Hurt?
Was she crying? Or perhaps about to cry? It was in her voice. But he couldn’t catch a good look at her expression between the thicket of her hair and her kissing.
— My gold, what… ?
And then blows pattered over him.
— Do you know what it was like while you were gone!? — smack — Poor, overburdened Sashunya had to keep the hearth lit for me! — smack smack — I had nothing to do but clean — smack — and cook — smack — and garden — smack — and weave — smack — and talk to my children — smack — and sit in the sauna!
No, she was definitely not crying. She was yelling. It was yelling time.
— You make no sense, woman! How is that any different?
Another hailstorm of palms and pads of fists. It was too much. All he could do was hope his hands would deflect most of the confusion.
— You idiot! Aren’t you listening? The difference was you weren’t there!
And then the storm settled. Droplets like a budding rain sprinkled over him.
She was crying.
He knew what to do now.
— Moshka… my darling… come here…
He found his arms and enfolded her. She buried her face in his chest and settled into his hug, trembling with her sobs. He pulled the quiet about him like a thick cloud. All he had to do was ensure that his noise didn’t leak out.
It was being… difficult. Moreso than usual, that was. He had been gone? Where’d he been? Where where they? Where was Dub? What language was the sky speaking? What had happened?
And was that a 2006 Alfa Romeo Spider?
No. Quiet and still. It was once an eon Moshka needed this from him. He would do this, and he would do it well.
Milky white drifted across the bright, clear blue. Damp winds carried the scent of dewed blooms. Chirping and chattering, bellows and whispers, tentatively began to drift through the air. It was spring. Mid-morning. Nearby, hearthfires chattered to him like the prickling of hair standing on end.
Eventually the shivering and shaking enclosed by his arms began to calm to mild aftershocks.
Now it was safe to start asking questions. Probably.
Something dark crouched at the edge of the crater, just at the edge of view.
— Lady Mokosh, pardon the interruption, but we are mounting the wrong end.
The voice, while as low and whispery as ever, was very near now, rolling down the sides of the crater.
Mokosh began shaking again, hard.
Of all the lowest things he could—
Mokosh lifted her face. More tears rolled down her cheeks, but low, helpless laughter choked through a throat still constricted by sobs.
After a moment she looked to the dark figure, schooling her twitching lips into a wan smile.
— Yes. — She cleared the hoarseness from her words. — Forgive me, my lord husband, Lord Veles. — She sniffed, brought a hand up to dash her tears, and began to lift herself. — Allow me to get you turned around the right way. — She paused and patted Perun companionably on the chest. — Thank you, darling, for waiting on your questions. I will be answering them now.
He released the quiet around him like a held breath.
One of these days he’d learn how to read her mind.
As the three collected on the edge of the crater, she offered an elbow to each of them.
An elbow was offered to her. The bright one smiled with the graceful bow-like curve of a tern in flight, with the edges of new spring trailing the tips of its wings. Strands of sunlight fanned over summer-lake blue, and the aroma of cool, clean dawn dew rolled over her.
Something settled under her ribs, tugging insistently. Breath drew short in her throat.
— Please, lady, forgive my momentary lapse in manners. I was… struck. What ought we call our guide, besides a blessing of good fortune?
No, no, Yesushka, don’t fall for that line. Lord Byelobog relies too much on his looks. Make him work for it. Mokosits’s counsel whispered through her thoughts.
Alarm flew across the Twisted Aspen. Yesushka!
Breath caught again. She’d committed to following Mokukas’s advice… ! Really!
Mokosits reached out and seized the alarm, settling it quickly. You did nothing wrong, my girl. I was caught by surprise, is all…
Bolstering warmth settled on her shoulder like Sashukas’s large hand. Hang in there, Yesutė. I’ll finish soon, and then if you want me to I can come be big and scary for you.
That wasn’t—no! i mean please — i mean… i don’t know
Oh, little dream… Sympathy from Doviluze, floating over as if on shadows billowing like cigarette smoke. It gets better, I promise.
The bright one flinched back, surprise written baldly on his features, his elbow dropping.
— Your manners fail you again, brother.
At the corner, the dark one swelled up from his crouch. He stepped around, feet padding around and dark eyes pinning her from beneath a dark, heavy brow. Close heat followed him, brushing over her skin, leaving behind the lingering scent of damp, dark night and hints of musk mingled with soil. Mischief curled one corner of his mustache.
— Lady Yesen. It is good to finally meet you.
He held out a hand.
Mokukas drifted forth further counsel. He intends to kiss your knuckles, Yesushka.
what… what should i do?
If you want to let him, it would not be unseemly. Or you could make him wait. Or if you don’t want to let him, there are many things you can do instead.
Doviluze’s snort drifted by unheard. Like telling him you’re not interested. It was a tug, slight, half-teasing, and uninsistent.
i don’t know yet. A pause. wait. i want him to wait.
Ask him his name, Mokukas advised.
Amusement carried over like a low, dark chuckle. So you’re telling Lady Yesen to play dumb.
Coy, Vilka. I’m asking her to play coy.
— We can hardly have met if you haven’t shared your name.
Bright approval and pleased surprise brushed over like a snowy whirlwind. Gracefully said! You are a natural!
A corner of a dark brow twitched up, and amusement curled the mischief further, sparking intrigue in black eyes.
A feeling like the flickering of quickened breath pattered at her ribs; a feeling like the settling of bone seized her throat.
With a flourish the dark one drew his proffered hand back and splayed it over his chest.
— I am the Lord Chernobog.
He swept both his hands wide, bending into a bow.
The bright one weaved more into view, bowing deeper and with a flowery flourish of his hands.
— A-and I am the Lord Byelobog.
Chernobog straightened, looking sidelong at Byelobog. — Yes. We are brothers. — Wryness wrung his voice dry. He brought his hand up, making a show of shielding his mouth from his brother’s view. — I am rather certain he was adopted.
Byelobog straightened next, sliding a glare the dark one’s way. Quickly, he returned his attention, quirked a smile, and held out his hand, palm up. — It is a true privilege, Lady Yesen.
Chernbog narrowed his eyes at the bright one and turned, moving to offer an elbow. — Please don’t let us delay you. Where was it we were supposed to be going?
Realization struck, a strange warmth which felt like delight but did not divert her pounding heart or her catching breath.
they’re… they’re fighting over me.
Not quite. Mokukas pointed out. But it will not take much to get them there.
A dry chuckle rasped. Does it ever?
Sashukas’s concern shone through as if a curtain were slowly being pulled back. Are you okay, Yesutė? You seem very confused.
this is very confusing.
Triple-headed vigorous agreement met her. And then a shadow swelled, inviting. Did you want to hide it?
(A heart, thrashing and fluttering as if attempting to escape with broken wings. Hiding in the dark, closed warmth, to beat itself into broken, exhausted pieces.)
Instead, she grabbed at the sparked fire and held it close.
no. i’m tired of hiding and being scared. this is not something i want to be scared of.
Golden sun-warmed hugfeeling enveloped her. Something warm and dark and looming brushed at either side, accepting and watchful.
(An idea streaked out, bright and hot and sudden.)
doviluzė, can you ask lady mokosh if i can take the lords byelobog and chernobog to her place?
More passed back and forth through the aspen, just as quick.
Before her, the bright one’s fingers only just twitched open, and the dark one’s arm only just crooked.
Yesen reached up to her throat.
Hearth air swallowed them, and thick layers of food-scent filled them. Before them, hooks lined the wall and boot-shelves lined the floor.
With quick finger-twitches, Yesen’s broach eased its teeth and her cloak slid to an arm. She brushed the broach into Byelobog’s outstretched hand, and draped her cloak over Chernobog’s proffered forearm.
— Thank you, my lords. You are most gracious. — She offered her own bow, then let the breeze of her passing brush them as she crossed through the doorway. — There is much to discuss. Lady Mokosh was generous enough to let us borrow her cottage; she will be here shortly with the Lords Perun and Veles. Meanwhile… — She turned back to face them, allowing herself as slight a smile she could bear. — Would you care for some tea?
Both stood there, confusion darkening the bright one’s features, glee lighting the dark one’s eyes. Chernobog tilted his head.
— Well, if you are offering… I can hardly refuse.
Byelobog’s lips parted slightly, waiting for instruction. — Ah…. — A fair hand absently reached over to slide the cloak from the dark one’s arm to hang it from a peg.
Yesen waited, carefully keeping back the laugher flickering through the aspen.
Eventually his response came. — Me neither. I mean. Me too. Ah… What were we… Right. Tea. Please. Would love some.
Yesen drifted quickly through the rooms to the kitchen.
Sashukas shone his approval. I’m glad you thought to level the field. Just remember: it’s always okay to tell them no.
thanks. Yesen sent him her smile.
Another billow of shadow drifted. You should see what other kinds of ridiculous things you can get them to do. It will be hilarious.
Mokukas leaned a thought through the aspen. Now I almost feel bad for them.
Doviluzė’s dark laugh cracked across. Someone has to.