The Patron God of Tawn

In Syna’s dream, the she-wasp comes to her. In all their hours together, the aging Unfolder has seen the patron god with her own eyes only twice, and not in half a century at that. But there’s no forgetting some things. In every way, Eotrene is exactly as she remembers.

“You weep,” the god says, looming and detached, her mind running its myriad paths. Then she cocks her head, suddenly present. “For me, child? Why?”

Syna can’t make out the features of the god’s high tower–only that there’s no veil between the two of them. She sees the god in full. That vicious beauty, that elemental confidence, a form rich and lush. She has seen this god kill and seen her rule with shrewd compassion. She knows her better than she knows any person.

“Because I can smell lamb and cinnamon and rosemary cooking outside, Sacred Ascendant,” she manages, looking down. “I hear the children of the morning vendors playing outside my window. You will leave me when I wake. And so even as I commune, I mourn.”

“Oh, little one,” Eotrene chirps, kneeling and raising her Unfolder’s chin with a curled limb, “you have always, always mourned.”

“Conqueror,” Syna finds herself saying as the dream fades, along with the god’s touch. “Hallowed One. Where are you?”

But the she-wasp can’t answer her, not for true. The patron god of Tawn is gone.

Tawn’s leaders wait three days for their god to return. After all, a divine mystery might resolve itself through divine means.

But on the morning of the fourth, a Moonsday, the city governor joins Unfolder Syna in her daily climb of Eotrene’s high tower steps. She tries to ignore the man behind her, his footfalls sounding flat on the stone. Since her youth, she’s taken this journey alone. Through the teardrop windows, the city’s peach-colored spires fall beneath her along with the wall of heat that blankets it.

As she climbs the dull pit in her stomach rises in kind. Soon it gnaws at her throat.

She knows the precise turn where the stairway opens into the patron god’s quarters, but for the governor it’s a surprise. At the apex, he holds back just outside the room. This is now a matter of state, his presence says. But he knows he doesn’t belong here.

Unfolder Syna steps forward. Her ankles throb. Above her head stretches the interlocking spines of the tower’s vaulted ceiling, and before her hangs the massive tapestry dividing the room in two: the patron god’s veil.

“Do you…see her, usually?” Gholand asks from the stairs.

“Governor, are you suggesting she may be here, but silent? Or do you respect me enough not to ask such a thing?” She sighs. “Yes, I see her every time.”

“In full?”

Gods, you’re getting comfortable asking sacred questions.

“No. In silhouette, behind the tapestry. But she’d be standing in the light’s way. I’d know.”

It was a Nonesday, the last time she’d seen that shape, as she’d received the patron god’s daily edicts.

Look out at the city, Unfolder, Eotrene had said, from behind her veil, too holy for mortal view. See the roofs, that earthy umber. The remnants of last year’s dust season. Soon the dusts will come in again, after the harvest, and the people will scrub and scrub their walls and their streets, but only you and I will know how much dust still hangs over Tawn. Our vantage gives us sight they ever lack.

Syna has never asked for more than what the she-wasp saw fit to give in any moment. Riddles were riddles but a god’s utterances were something more. They explicated themselves over time. But how could she have known the surprise that awaited her the next morning? If she had, if she’d any idea at all, the things she might have asked Eotrene–

She swallows, hard, and stills her mind.

“I hate to doubt you, Holiness,” the governor says with care, “but I have to know. Before…”

“Say it.”

The man bites his lip. “The magistrates are getting antsy. Before word gets out, we’ve got to”–his voice breaks into a choked whisper–“to see for sure. I think I should be the first to tell them. If it’s true.”

Syna nods slowly and cups her shaking hands before her mouth: “Come!”

Two boys emerge from behind the tapestry. They meet their Unfolder’s eyes with bright expectation.

Eotrene’s nameless attendants. The younger has been raised by the older; he knows no other life. They alone are permitted to pass through that godly veil to see the she-wasp in her earthly form. Attending to her needs and wants, bathing her, bringing up her pungent meals.

“Little ones.” Syna meets their eyes in turn. “You’ve told me that Eotrene has left her tower. Do you swear it? She’s not behind this veil?”

“Not asleep, perhaps?” adds Gholand from the doorway with a nervous, inappropriate laugh.

“She doesn’t sleep,” the younger boy says with a child’s bluntness. The other only nods.

Syna eyes the tapestry with trepidation. Woven silk tells the story of Eotrene slaying Kovial, Tawn’s last patron god, more than five decades before. Here she is battling the massive ocelot, the two intertwined like frenzied lovers. And there, drowning him, struggling but slowed by her venom, in his own water gardens. And finally, delivering the godbeast to the city for the skinning.

She remembers the day well. She had been Kovial’s attendant.

“Very well,” Syna mutters. She stands, lifts the divide, and walks through.

The two boys shriek and dart after her. “Unfolder,” the older says, eyes wide, “you’ve entered her dwelling!”

And here are the accoutrements of a god’s life, so mundane in the light. No treasures, no cushioned bolsters lining the room for lounging, nothing like that. Only a rough-woven carpet, a washbasin, and a squat, draped shelf inlaid with mother-of-pearl, its contents unknown.

“Entered a god’s dwelling?” she mutters. “Not so, little ones. I’ve only parted a tower’s curtain.”

But her gaze draws her forward, to the walnut slats laid up along each flat section of wall, floor to ceiling between the enormous slatted windows of the towertop, one of which has been shattered. On Syna’s side of the tower the wood was always smooth, but here they bear shallow engravings, finer and more ornate than any she’s ever seen. Ringlets and cryptic maps of places unknown, glyphs and inscrutable figures. This is years, decades, of quiet labor. And circling the room, Syna reaches the point where the designs stop–

Now realization chokes her tight.

She’s not here. Gods, she’s really not here.

The sun rises as surely as Eotrene governs Tawn, it is said, not the reverse. This is darkness at noontime; this is unfathomable.

“Governor, Tawn is godless,” Syna croaks. She walks through the curtain, past white-faced Gholand, and calls up from the stairs: “Come. We’ve got a city to keep together.”

There, in the governor’s hearing-room, sitting at the center of the god Kovial’s enormous pelt, Syna seeks the eye of the hurricane.

It’s an old exercise, the only way that she’s found to turn her holiness to her advantage amidst statesmen. In a room full of chaos, people seek the calm of the eye. Her calm. She can’t always be the most persuasive, but she can be one thing–she can be still.

But today, it isn’t working. Today, she’s as muddled as the others. She’ll find no calm here, only a counterfeit.

“Is there a chance,” Governor Gholand asks his magistrates, rubbing an eyebrow as he paces, “that Eotrene vies for the capital? What other cities might she take?”

Tongues cluck in response.

“Well? Why else would she go out into the world?”

Chetme, the city’s governor-second, speaks. “Look at this pelt, sir. I wasn’t alive then, but clearly Kovial was hardly lean in his final days. The she-wasp saw weakness.” She shakes her head. “But Kyomen, at the capital? She has to know she couldn’t challenge him and live.”

Muttered complaints and cries of outrage.

“Oh, quiet now,” Chetme says. “That’s a truth, not a blasphemy.”

“Besides, the two are friends!” cries a thin, balding district magistrate whose name Syna can never quite hold onto, turning from the garden window with a flourish that makes others jump. His face reddens. “As far as gods know friendship.”

The governor ignores the man, who turns back to the window with a wounded huff. He faces Syna. “No one knows the gods, but you of any alive come close.” He waits, and she realizes the question.

It’s in his eyes, and now she sees it in the others. In this show of debate, a pleading. He needs her to reorder these events, to put them into some form he can grasp.

I could do it, she realizes, and the thought freezes her through. But yes, she is close enough to Eotrene’s glow to give her mortal words a godly patina. And why not, just a little? She could speak reassurance.

A god has her reasons, Governor, her inscrutable patterns. Eotrene loves the city. She’ll return. She’s even spoken of leaving her tower before, just for a few days of course…

She feels faint. Shame runs through her. She finds herself shrinking away from Eotrene’s tower, outside and looming. An evil thought indeed! And one unworthy of her role.

“We are close, in our own way,” she only says. “I know as much of her mind as she cares to have known. But her whims are her own.”

That seems to satisfy the others. They mull.

Even in silence, the uncertainty in the room is thick. And with it, disquieting memories grow in Syna’s mind: Kovial’s last pathetic cries as he realized that tooth and claw would never pierce his enemy’s carapace. His voice growing weaker as he felt the venom work, his eyes reflecting such utter despair and defeat as he swiped impotently at the more vulnerable flesh kept carefully from his reach…

He looked at her, his nameless attendant, then. As if she could possibly help him.

She bore that memory like a canker for nine years afterward, taking it as evidence of her new patron god’s brutality. But on the day of her majority, even as she stood in waiting for passage across the sea, away from Tawn, still nameless, she received notice that the she-wasp had selected a new Unfolder.

Alone, she climbed the new high tower’s steps, dreading this second meeting, dreading her new life in this service. As she ascended, she was greeted with an odor like the sweetness of meat just before it turns.

Who she met at the apex defied all memory, all expectation. The god’s form was as she remembered: a woman’s torso melding into a great carapace. Six thin and reedlike limbs. A face with mandibles and perceiving, bulbous eyes. But there was wisdom in those eyes, and compassion. Primordial might, tempered with presence.

Eotrene had giving her a name that day: Syna. No longer just a nameless former attendant of the gods, but Syna. Whatever the name meant in the gods’ tongue, she loved it, because it was hers. She has held it close since.

Another god I’ve served, lost? She despairs, as the heads of Tawn bicker and speculate.

Heads turn as wooden clogs clatter on the stone outside.

A well-dressed man flings open the sash from the garden stairs and runs through. He cradles a screaming baby in his arms. Syna recognizes the servant: he tends the water gardens, Kovial’s former dwelling-place.

“Pardons, barging in like this!” he says. “But you have to understand–under the circumstances–”

The man trails off at the governor’s raised eyebrow.

“What I mean to say is, administrators, the she-wasp has been sighted. In a manner of speaking.”

The sharecroppers’ children lead them through the maze of river-irrigated rice. They run ahead impatiently and then double back when their elders fall behind.

They walk a narrow spine of earth raised between pools of partly-submerged rice. Syna hears a splash and a curse and allows herself an inward smile–she grew up tending the palace water gardens and still knows solid ground from floating crop. She breathes deep the healthy pond smell.

 “Where were you playing? Where were you when you saw her?” asks Gholand, not for the first time. The little ones only call for him to hurry.

Reaching the earthen steps of the mountain, they climb.

Terraces stretch out on each side, enormous flooded steppes carved out of the soil. A flock of tame goats scatter and hop to and fro along the raised edges of the paddies in animal urgency.

When Syna’s knees feel nearly ready to give, they reach it–a dry plateau dotted with huts. People file out to meet them; sharecroppers who years before moved closer and closer to their crop to thwart poachers, until they found themselves within it.

“Was it here? Did it happen here?” asks Gholand. By his side, the governor-second sourly wrings out her gown.

The apparent ringleader of the children points down the flatted ridge of the mountain beyond them.

The governor waves the children off with a sigh and they disperse, back to play and chattering. He approaches the gathered crowd.

“What did you see? Old woman–Baba–were you outside? Were you watching? You there, lad, you work the paddies, don’t you?”

A voice speaks from the crowd, frail. “What has gotten into your god?”

Gholand’s eyes go wide.

Before he can respond, Syna steps in. “Who said that?” she asks with a gentle, and she hopes disarming, smile.

The crowd parts with guilty looks between them as they expose the speaker. She is a truly ancient thing, slumped against the light wooden wall like a discarded tool, thinning hair wrapped in a kerchief. She wears a pair of workbreeches, hiked to her knobby and mud-crusted knees.

“What has gotten into your god?” the woman repeats, lip curled. Vice Governor Chetme opens her mouth to speak, but stops at Syna’s cautioning glance.

“Baba,” says Unfolder Syna as she sits by the woman’s side, “Eotrene is our god. Yours and mine. Or do we have another?”

With faltering arms, the woman unravels her kerchief to reveal a stitched ocelot.

Of course. Syna is moved by the care put into the likeness.

“Kovial?” laughs the governor-second. “Who’d worship such a creature?” Chetme trails off at the lethal look in Syna’s eyes. She seems prepared to defend herself, but she can see she has no allies here. She blushes and departs for the stairs, fiddling with the brooch at her neck as if to pull herself forward by it.

“I’m sorry, Baba,” says Syna. “I knew Kovial. I was his attendant, as a child. He was a friend.”

But it’s too late. The woman’s eyes are already distant, retreated. She clutches the kerchief in her shaking palm, muttering a prayer, ignoring Syna’s questions and apologies. She will offer them nothing more.

The two mortal heads of Tawn stand alone and watch the paddies below.

“What are we now, without Eotrene?” Governor Gholand asks. He lowers his forehead into his hands. “Look at us. Our god’s become some rumor on the road, sighted but never found. Like a creature of myth.”

She puts a hand on his shoulder–gently so as not to make it too familiar a gesture. When she speaks it is low and close to his ear: “Foul, to say that. If you were overheard?”

“Tricky times,” Gholand only says, shaking his head.

Another god will take the city in time, Syna knows. But without a fight and a victory, will the people accept it?

They hear a quiet cough from behind. The two jump. Syna nearly falls to the rice-pool below. A young man reaches out to steady the Unfolder, mortified, but pulls back as she finds her balance.

“Holiness? Governor?” He nods at each of them in turn. “The old woman you were speaking to, Gleah, she was the only one to see the patron god, excepting the children. And she said some things, before you came. About Eotrene.”

Syna raises an eyebrow.

“The rest of us heard her wings,” he continues, “but she actually saw her. She showed herself, Gleah said, out in the sun!” He casts his head downward. “Not that I–not that I would have looked, Holiness.”

“And what did the patron god do?” Gholand asks. “After she showed herself, did she speak?”

“No.” He swallows hard. “Just came down to drink, Gleah told us. Like an animal, flitting about and sipping at the pools. Her words, not mine.” He pleads. “Unfolder, what does it mean?”

“And it was Eotrene, for certain?” asks the governor, who takes the man by the shoulders. “It wasn’t the god of Mouth’s Bay? Or the great osprey, the God of Knowing from the saddles?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t there!”

“Describe her, as you heard her described,” Syna says.

The man does so. His terms are simple but fit a secondhand account. Gholand faces Unfolder Syna, his brow raised. He’s never seen Eotrene. For him, her existence beyond the tower veil is a matter of faith and history.

Syna feels heavy. She knows it must show in her shoulders, but she can’t stop it. “That is the she-wasp.”

“The woman could be lying.”

“Could. We’ll talk to the children. But she’s seen Eotrene, and if what she says is true, well…”

Well, what? she asks herself. She only knows, somehow, that things are worse than they’ve thought.

Far worse.

The next day the first news comes in, from the saddles of the mountains inland: The God of Knowing has left his summit temple, the osprey abandoning his clans and settlements.

Soon they hear of gods of the lakes swimming aimlessly, of other gods hunting like base carnivores. Banmud, the great orangutan, has killed her Unfolder and then claimed an area in the center of her city. She attacks any who venture within. Even the lower gods, those who have no cities, whose forms are therefore not holy and who mingle with humans and rule what they can, have turned into little more than beasts.

The secret can’t last. The gods–departed, feral!

Panic strikes in myriad ways. Many who are of means leave their trades. They cloister themselves inside their homes with their families and servants to escape the unpredictability of the streets. Others wander openly, drinking and singing, then turn to blows or mournful sobs.

What can the city guard do, but break up the larger groups and hope they head to their homes? Their authority weakens daily.

Syna stands and watches from the viewing-window of Eotrene’s tower. She sighs. This can’t last.

Days of grasping for answers have yielded nothing. She feels like a dulled instrument, less and less an Unfolder than yet another Tawnian without direction. She’s labored her entire life never to turn her gaze from her god. She feels off. Last night she caught herself staring down into her bath, wondering if the fishscale reflection of the water lapping at her ankles was an echo of the ocean’s. Later she wondered if the thought made any sense.

She found sleep after many restless hours. But even with the shutters closed, she stirred with the morning sun, conditioned by years of an Unfolder’s routine.

And so she finds herself once again in Eotrene’s tower. The she-wasp peered from these slatted windows for decades, unseen. But today, here is a mortal watching a civilization in its death throes. Are other cities in such bedlam?

She studies Eotrene’s engravings for a moment, finds some comfort but no answers. For a moment she eyes the velour-draped shelf but stays her curiosity. Let a god have her secrets.

When she parts the tapestry to leave, she cries out in surprise.

“Apologies,” says Governor Gholand. He grips the curtain’s edge with his hands, carefully, as if testing a pan’s heat. “Mind if I?”

Syna shrugs and turns back into Eotrene’s dwelling-place. The governor follows.

“My second time in the tower.” He gives Syna a tired smile. “Amazing to see these quarters. The same as any other room!”

“Does seeing them bring you any understanding?”

“I’m humbled, to have had a god so ascetic. But no. I only feel her absence more. I feel wayward. As if the world has already reached its end and I’m only waiting for myself to realize it.”

Syna peers through the shattered windowframe. “You speak for the city. Listen to the clamor, they’re aimless.”

He nods wearily. “Makes me think of the stories. About before. Much as I hate to.”

There are only whispers of what life was like before the gods, lifetimes back. War and cruelty, spoils and slaughter. Bloodshed sworn along whatever lines humans could invent to divide themselves from one another. The gods were forced to forbid torture first, of all things.

She remembers she wept, as a child, when she first heard this. How lost was humanity, once?

The gods brought wonderful things with them. Medicine, philosophy, seemingly endless knowledge. The she-wasp herself designed the massive dome capping her tower, and similar domes now dot the realm.

“I’m wholly selfish, Governor,” she says with a sad smile. “I picture the people losing what we have, falling back into depravity, and it’s almost a comfort. An escape from thinking about what I’ve lost.”

“A friend.”

“I could lose a friend. She was more, but I know not what. I’ll have to study the void she’s left behind.”

They fall into silence for a moment.

“Listen!” Gholand says, perking up. “What’s happening out there? Can you see?”

Syna furrows her brow. He is right. Even at this height, the din outside is growing…

Then they hear the humming of wings.

Gholand supports the much older Unfolder as they make their way down the many spiraling stairs. They step out into the tiny Courtyard of the God at the tower’s base and continue to the governor’s hearing-room across the way. From its windows, they can see most of the city.

The humming echoes, rebounds. They strain for its source.

Then the she-wasp emerges.

Eotrene flies low over the city and lands on the tower, her head toward the ground. She hops across its surface, crawling and leaping in haphazard bursts. Syna turns away, but she has to look at the people congregated in the streets, at her people.

She wishes she hadn’t.

The pain from their eyes mirrors hers. Their god is debasing herself, a holy form not meant for casual eyes paraded in the light of day. A form made even more perverse by its human attributes, not purely animal like the bodies of most of the gods.

Primordial might, tempered with presence? No. Today, the god is untempered, bestial. Syna can’t deny that this is Eotrene. But Eotrene is not here.

A call resonates through the air, high and piercing. Syna can see the people glance about. Is Eotrene shrieking so? But no–another form descends upon the she-wasp, a Being which must have followed her from the nearby saddles. Another god, in the form of an osprey.

The God of Knowing.

It’s a scramble, a fight of instinct. Limbs and talons flail and strike. They deal blows too quick for Syna’s eyes.

The she-wasp plants herself on the osprey’s side, sending the pair into a maple seed’s fall. Her mandibles rip through flesh and tear feathers free. But her stinger is blocked by the osprey’s curled wing. Its venom gathers in a thick, useless bead the color of amber.

The way she moves doesn’t make sense. Syna can’t reconcile it with the god she has known. This creature flails like a marionette, herky-jerky. When Eotrene killed Kovial she was purposeful; no movement was wasted, every feint was steeped in intent.

But this Eotrene, the one in the sky above…

No, no, Syna tells herself, this can’t be the god she has spoken to so many times, the one with a voice like milk, the one who has dealt justice with wisdom. The one who took up the weakening Kovial’s slack, who brought Tawn to glory and saw it flourish, while helping Syna to understand her own self.

The frenzied beast in the melee above is Eotrene, and yet can’t be. Is and yet isn’t…

Syna’s thoughts rise to an unbearable pitch. They deafen.

As the God of Knowing and the god of Tawn plummet, the osprey strikes at Eotrene to match her strikes, to beak his way through her hard lower-carapace. But his body is held firm; there is little that he can do but nip to no result.

Those watching in the streets run for better points of vantage. They strain over one another. The gods are about to strike the ground!

By Syna’s side, Gholand chokes softly.

A booming crunch of stone sounds as the two gods land hard against the railing of Tawn’s city wall, near the east gate. The she-wasp takes the brunt of the blow. They knock the topmost stones free as they fall to the other side, out of the city’s view.

Syna cranes her neck as if she might peer over the wall, so far away. She can see nothing. Only a cloud of earth is kicked up by the unseen impact. But from behind the gate Syna can hear cries of unearthly pain and ferocity from animal throats; the sounds of a mortal struggle. Who can tell which sounds come from which god? They are all so alien, so unhinged.

A shout of surprise from Tawn’s gathered masses as the God of Knowing emerges from the billowing cloud and leaps backward onto the wall. More railing-stones fall beneath his talons as he snaps twice at something unseen and takes flight. He rises until he can barely be seen in the evening sky.

From behind the wall–nothing.

The people watching are still, like a painting.

Slowly, Eotrene rises into view. A colorless ichor drains from a gash in her lower chest. There the flesh is a dark olive tone, like a human’s–not the hard orange chitin of her carapace.

Her right legs are curved around the wound, stiff, like the leg of a wounded dog. She rises aimlessly and turns without clear direction, save for her vertical climb.

Eventually, Eotrene finds her way to her tower. Perhaps some part of her recognizes it, feels drawn to it. She faces the edifice with a single mind as she flies. The she-wasp passes her viewing-window and then rises further. She circles the massive dome which she herself designed and continues into the empty air above it.

A blur of brown and white streaks through the sky, and the she-wasp is gone, snatched from the air. The dome of the tower is shattered like ceramic.

After a long moment, Syna remembers to breathe. Her ears ring with the sound of the impact, so close.

The God of Knowing emerges from the debris and perches at the edge of the broken tower window. Its torn body paints the stone around it a brilliant red. Amidst the ruin it has created, it raises its beak to the sky, wide and dripping with pale gore.

Tawn is silent. Syna watches them. Do they think that the city’s new god has arrived? She holds no such hope.

She wants to turn from the window, to sink down against the stone, to mourn. Here, stark and inescapable before her, is a death. Not a single death, like Kovial’s. No–something which will take the gods from this world, while also, cruelly, leaving them here.

In the death of this one god is mirrored the death of the gods themselves.

The God of Knowing surveys the land around it. It nips at its talons and lower feathers, at its wounds. Then it takes wing and glides over the city, past the west gate and through the valley beyond it. Its silhouette fades from sight against the setting sun.

And with that, the dam breaks.

A low, keening lament comes over the citizenry. Grief, too keen and fresh for words. Syna turns from the window and retches, but her empty stomach can produce nothing.

Without thinking, she steps out of the hearing-room, leaving the stunned governor behind. She finds herself in the streets, in the clamor. There is pain here. She takes it in. It mingles with her own.

After a long while, she blinks and comes back to herself. She sees where the force of habit has taken her.

She stands near her Unfolder’s dais.

It’s as holy a place as there is in the city, save for Eotrene’s tower. Here Syna has delivered her homilies, fresh with the afterglow of her meetings with Eotrene. The dais still has some power, she can tell: nobody sits on the goldenrod platform as they wail.

But she hangs her head. These people are lost in pain and trauma, and she with them. What function can an Unfolder possibly serve here, now? Who is she, without the god she serves? She can’t bring the gods back into the lives of these people; her only value comes from relaying their will to them–

She lifts her head in surprise.

A thought resurges, from days before. The idea of speaking for gods, making her words theirs. A betrayal of her Unfoldership. Evil, shameful.

Here in this crowd are the same pained eyes the governor showed her, in his hearing-room. The same desperate fear which led him to beg her for understanding. The same fear which led that old woman in the paddies to craft her own object of guidance, that faded stitch of long-dead Kovial, as she held fast to the god of her upbringing.

Look out at the city, Unfolder. See the roofs, that earthy umber. Our vantage gives us sight they ever lack.

Syna can never have her god back for herself, it is true. But she can do something for this miserable throng. She still has her authority, though she feels it waning. And now is not the time for an Unfolder’s stillness.

This time she’ll do it. Swallow back the horror of it and speak for a god.

Reeling, but forcing herself to walk, she approaches the platform. A young woman comes forward to help her Unfolder up, twin babies bundled behind her back. Syna steps up and turns to thank her, but is struck silent by the girl’s betrayed eyes.

She walks to the center of her dais and raises her arms heavenward in the traditional gesture. Ceremony is important at a time like this.

The square begins to fill. Some call for their friends and family. Others exit in disgust and look back at their Unfolder with resentment. Still, by the end, far more are here than have ever attended one of her homilies.

The air is filled with dread expectation.

Syna lowers her tired arms and speaks.

“I see the tumult here, and the loss of hope. I confess that it saddens my heart. On this day, the gods have seen fit to give us a gift–one we scarcely deserve.”

She meets their eyes, one by one. They may not remember all of her words, thinking of this day, but they will remember that she saw them.

“The signs were always there for those willing to see. Eotrene prepared me well for them and spoke of them often. But first, I must ask you a question: Artisans–when you take on an apprentice, do you continue to direct them after they meet or surpass your skill?”

She waits, and before long she sees heads shake in response. No, no you don’t.

“Fathers and mothers–do you bathe and feed your children, after they are old enough to have children of their own?”

This time there is a greater response, and some small laughter.

She nods her head in agreement. “No, that’s not the way of things, is it?”

No longer able to meet the eyes of these children who so trust her, she looks past them instead. She has reached the crux of her address. The principles that she will have to teach, again and again, without the slightest hint that she has ever believed anything else.

“Tawn,” she continues, “the gods never meant to rule us forever. We have become as apprentices, now masters. As children, now grown. What we saw earlier was not our patron god, nor the God of Knowing. Because the wisdom of the gods, their strength, all that they once offered us–they have laid that mantle onto us, onto the people they served.”

She pauses. She lets the people take this in, lets her words gain power through the silence which follows them.

For a moment, she nearly believes the theology that she invents. All the better. Believing what she says will give her words power. Tawn’s Unfolder will lose the gods forever, but the city won’t. These people won’t.

She raises her hands again, signaling her final words. “People of Tawn: The gods have left their bodies behind to do as beasts do. But still they watch us, from their astral lands. They want to see how we’ll use their gift! We’re to rule ourselves now, not to receive guidance through holy veils.”

Finished, she lowers herself to the ground and closes her eyes. She listens to the murmur of the crowd around her.

She will be accountable for this, perhaps, in another life, one where the gods rule in their true form. She’ll accept their judgment. It is theirs to give, after all. For now, her only thoughts are for these people.

In these first moments, there’s no motion to destroy her for heresy, either from the crowd or from the heavens themselves. She lets her shoulders relax.

As the seasons wear on, Syna’s words spread. Many who have the means journey to meet this great Unfolder. Syna gives her homily time and again, and finds to her relief that she believes it each time that she gives it. Believes it just enough.

Only afterward come the tears, the furtive attempts at penance, the desperate supplication in the night. She welcomes the guilt, as long as it leaves her face before the next homily.

“Is all of this true?” Gholand asks once. “Did Eotrene prepare you for this time? You seemed as lost as I was.”

“It is as I said,” she can only reply.

Only one other ever questions her: a dark-haired man in the robes of the tribunal. A visiting dignitary who has come to see the esteemed Unfolder of Tawn, who lies dying.

He speaks earnestly. “I was a child when my god went feral. On that day, I felt only fear. But months later, when I came to this city to hear your address in person, I… well, I felt more. Our new mantle of wisdom.”

His voice cracks. “Only now, I’m not so sure. In my work, I’ve learned that a man who wants desperately to believe something is easily convinced.” He leans in and speaks low. “Unfolder, I know why you did what you did. But please tell me: Are we really nothing more than men, as I now believe?”

At that moment, the façade falls, just a little. She meets the young man’s eyes for some time, and then casts hers downward. “Just men, yes. But find beauty in that.”

Looking both wounded and reassured, he gives Unfolder Syna a curt nod, and leaves.

At once, she feels a great peace fall over her. Perhaps her final words are behind her–it is said that this brings a calm acceptance to a person. Or maybe she feels peace because she no longer holds the weight of a heavy secret. Maybe when she has left this world, that magistrate will feel a greater weight on his shoulders.

She lays back and enjoys the feeling, relieved to be soon leaving this messy business of Unfolding behind.

Just men, she thinks. But perhaps that’s enough.

As an appendage of the gods, Unfolders are not usually afforded a formal elegy and procession. However, Syna being who she was, Tawn’s officials veer from the custom just a little by reading over her body her esteemed homily, which by now holds little of the original wording. Still, they do not flaunt the rules so far as to mark her gravesite.

Outside, members of once-rival lineages centuries forgotten sing canticles in honor of the Great Unfolder and drink themselves into oblivion, which prompts only more happy song.

Above them, the dome of the former patron god’s tower is nearly complete, redesigned by the realm’s top drafters. Theirs is a variation on Eotrene’s pattern, with refinements intended to honor the original construction while reflecting the developing knowledge and aesthetic of the realm. A great lantern stands on top, and while this version lacks stone buttresses to support it, the designers have assured the governor, entering into his silver years himself, that the dome will not fall.

He takes their word for it.

About the Author

Dustin Steinacker

Dustin Steinacker is a science fiction and fantasy writer who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he finally has the reading porch of his dreams. His short fiction has appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show and Compelling Science Fiction, and he is the 2018 winner of the James White Award.

Find more by Dustin Steinacker

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