Edith Pawlicki

a curly haired dreamer who tries

Immortal Beings

Loves of Shadow and Power

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Prologue: Of Yearning

54,000 years ago

THE sun was just setting when Bai arrived at the newly created New Moon Manor. The sky that surrounded it was a riot of color—full, rosy clouds that would never obey Bai, a brilliant stripe of sun edging them before softening to a delicate lavender and then a pale blue.

New Moon Manor itself floated in Heaven, on stone of twilight and shadow. Bai had teleported, as requested, to the “entrance” of the manor. He was standing on darkest basalt and a few feet in front of him was an amethyst arch of two crescent moons bent inward. The arch was purely decorative—there were no walls—and the basalt wove an unbroken path through the rock garden that stretched on the other side of the arch. Everything was purple and black; Bai struggled not to hate it on sight.

He did like colors besides white, but this was oppressive. And there was something else strange about this place...

He was still standing at the arch when a hand settled on his shoulder.

He turned and was greeted by a shock of orange hair and ember eyes. Cheng was grinning, making his broad nose and big jaw seem even wider than usual. “Ready to go to a wedding?”

Bai shook his head. “I was surprised they invited me,” he confessed. “They never have before—not even when they were celebrating becoming gods. If you hadn’t begged—”

Cheng snorted. “It’s good for you to socialize. They didn’t invite you to their deification because you spent Aka’s celebration telling him what a stupid choice he had made. But aren’t you glad to be invited? You must be curious about what it will be.”

Bai shrugged. “They said it’s about two people becoming one. I just hope they don’t intend to have sex in front of us. Surely they know others have figured that out too?”

Cheng barked a laugh. “Fate, that might be it! Well, we can always teleport away if we want.”

“Can we though?” Bai frowned at the garden, once again trying to decode the magic embedded in its pillars of obsidian and amethyst.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s something I’ve never seen before—some magic Zi and Hei have done past the gate. I don’t think we can teleport inside there. Maybe you can,” Bai conceded, “since others’ magic doesn’t affect you.”

“It does sometimes,” Cheng objected. “You think they blocked teleporting?” He scratched his jaw. “Well, so what? It’s their home. I wouldn’t mind learning such a trick myself. Then Meili couldn’t pop in on me whenever he wants. Last time I was in the middle of a bath.”

“You should just sleep with him,” Bai said as he continued to study the essence of the rock garden. “Either you’ll like it, and you can finally get over Neela, or you won’t, and you can say no with more confidence.”

Cheng elbowed him. “I really, really hope I’m there when you fall in love. And I hope it’s full-on, idiot-making infatuation.”

Bai ignored him—Cheng had been saying Bai would fall in love eventually for millennia now. Bai enjoyed the occasional physical release with other immortals, but he didn’t think he was made to love. He just didn’t connect to others as fully as they seemed to do with each other, perhaps because he had been alone when he first formed.

Cheng tugged Bai’s elbow impatiently. “Let’s go in. I doubt Zi and Hei would want us to live with them. And if they do try to trap us, there’s no way they could overpower all seven other Colors. Even Aka would work with you in such circumstances.”

Bai scoffed, then focused on Cheng. “Are all the Colors going to be here? Good, I still haven’t met Yellow or Indigo.”

As they walked through the arch, he thought he heard Cheng mumble, “That’s because you’re so cursed antisocial.”

The basalt path led them to the steps of a large circular hall. Tall ebony pillars marched its circumference, and violet silks hung between them. Music and laughter echoed inside, and the scents of pepper and roast duck wafted out to greet them. Cheng rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

“Come on, Bai, I’m starving!”

Bai rolled his eyes. “You can’t starve. You’re molten rock.”

“But I do like to eat!”

And then they were inside the hideously full hall. Bai had to stop himself from backing out again. There must be a hundred people here!

Zi, wearing more shades of purple than Bai knew existed, and Hei, in unrelieved black, stood just inside. They bowed in greeting, and Bai belatedly remembered to bow back when Cheng bumped his foot. Despite Bai’s sincere effort, Zi’s eyes narrowed ominously.

Using a massive silver fan set with amethysts, Zi waved toward a long table near the head of the hall. “You may both sit there, if you please.”

“How lovely. Thank you, Zi, Hei,” Cheng put in hurriedly before pulling Bai along behind him.

The table had nine wide stools along one side, four currently empty. The other five held Neela, Aka, Haraa, and two unfamiliar immortals.

The first was a small man—he was seated, but Bai thought he would be even shorter than Cheng—with a very long indigo beard, which proclaimed his identity. And the other...

The other was a woman. Her hair was the lightest Bai had ever seen besides his own, the color of freshly cut blond wood. Her eyes were gold, so gold that they seemed to glow from within, and her eyelids seemed heavy, as if her shiny long lashes truly were made of metal and pulling them down. She saw Bai staring at her, and her pale pink lips curved in a shy smile. With one graceful movement she raised a slim-fingered hand and indicated the empty seat next to her.

Bai barely remembered moving, but he was suddenly there, seated and facing her. Her smile had grown, revealing one dimple in her white cheek.

“You must be Bai,” she murmured, and her voice was the soft wash of waves on a sandy beach. That perfect, fragile hand settled on his arm, surprisingly warm. “I am Noran.”

Bai knew he said something in reply, but he wasn’t sure what.

Soon afterward Zi and Hei conducted a ceremony full of flash and power, with shadows that became birds and flower petals that exploded into miniature fireworks, but Bai wouldn’t have noticed even if they had had sex in front of them all, for he had eyes only for Noran.

She blushed under his intent gaze, and her lashes fluttered with emotion.

When dinner ended, disciples of Zi and Hei led the guests to their rooms, for the wedding celebration was to last two weeks. Bai started to follow Noran, but Cheng grabbed his arm and pulled him away. In the relative privacy of a black and purple room, Cheng asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m getting ready to rest. What are you doing?”

Cheng scoffed. “Noran. What are you doing with Noran?”

Bai shrugged. “Maybe I’m falling in love. Shouldn’t you be delighted?”

Cheng slapped his forehead. “Don’t you even know how she became an immortal? When Aka slept on her beach, she changed herself from sand to a being that could attract his attention.”

“So?”

“So! Aka spent all dinner thinking about boiling your blood!”

“You don’t know that,” Bai said as he climbed into the bed and made himself a pillow from a bit of his robe—he didn’t like the one that had been provided.

“Some of us don’t need magic to know what others are thinking,” Cheng said dryly. “You should stay away from her. I’m telling you, she’s trouble.”

“She’s beauty and power,” Bai corrected.

Cheng groaned. “That’s what she wants you to think. Her magic influences your thoughts!”

Bai closed his eyes and smiled. “If she’s influencing me, that just shows how powerful she is.”

Cheng continued to ramble at him, but Bai fell asleep picturing the way Noran had peered at him through her lashes.

gold plum blossoms indicating scenebreak

BAI woke early the next morning and decided to sketch New Moon Manor. Even though he abhorred its aesthetic, its achievement was worth recording.

Hei found him by the arches and watched Bai paint in silence for some time. “Zi would like that,” he finally said. “What would you take for it?”

Bai almost said he could have it for nothing, but he impulsively answered, “A story. I heard that you became an immortal for Zi. Tell me about it, and I’ll give you the painting.”

Hei nodded. “A fair exchange.” The basalt path he stood on morphed into an armchair, and Hei sat.

“It was off the frozen sea of Ehkoron. She had made special shoes from some violet ice at dawn and was using them to glide over the water. At first, I was long and strong as I followed her, reveling in her grace and athleticism. But I grew smaller and smaller, and I realized I would disappear when the sun reached its zenith. I couldn’t bear to leave her side, so I became a man.”

Bai’s brush stopped, and he had to whisk it away quickly as a black blob formed beneath its bristles. “The way you tell it—do you mean to say that you were Zi’s shadow? Not just a shadow on the ice, but hers specifically?”

“Of course. Just as Aka was once your blood.”

Bai snorted. “Yes, but Aka was thrilled to be free of me whereas you—well, you are still following Zi around like a shadow.”

“She is my reason for existing,” Hei said, his expression placid. “I love her. That is why we promised to be with each other for all of eternity in front of witnesses. So that you would all know of our unbreakable bond.”

Bai felt disconcerted. He wasn’t sure that he could be so confident when it came to another being’s feelings. But he also felt relieved. Even if Noran became an immortal when she saw Aka, it wasn’t as if she’d been his shadow. She had been a grain of sand, a distinct being. And Bai knew better than anyone that being present at another immortal’s inception did not dictate a lasting bond.

He was further reassured when Noran sought him out. Oh, now that Cheng had pointed it out, he did see Aka eying them sulkily, but it didn’t bother Bai. In fact, a petty part of him was glad that her flirting forced Aka to acknowledge him. See, someone likes me, he wanted to say.

For the two weeks that the wedding lasted, Noran strolled with him through the abominable garden, rested her silky hair against his shoulder, and fed him the tastiest morsels from her own chopsticks at meals.

On the last night, Bai braided a bracelet from his own hair and gathered starlight to create a pendant. He presented it to her with a flourish, intending to share his feelings as well.

Her white fingers pressed against her pink lips, and she said, “How beautiful!”

She extended her hand, and he fastened it about her wrist.

“With this, you can find me anywhere on Earth,” he told her. “And if you call for me, I’ll come.”

“What a kind present! I would be sad to lose touch with you, when you’ve become such a dear friend.”

“Yes—well. Where do you go next? Have you ever seen—?”

She smiled at him. “I will help Aka build a palace in the Heavens, even greater than this one,” she told Bai. “I’ll let you know when I finish it, shall I?”

Her delicate fingers seized his own. “Thank you again, Bai. You have given me a great gift these past two weeks.”

Bai was confused—she didn’t seem to be speaking of the bracelet.

A few hours later, she left the wedding with Aka.

“I’m sorry,” Cheng told him later, while the two of them shared a meal on Earth.

“What are you sorry for?”

“I shouldn’t have wished...”

Bai shrugged and smiled slightly. “This is just the beginning.”

If anything, the pity in Cheng’s eyes grew more pronounced.

Bai patted him on the back. “Hey, don’t act as if it’s all decided. You’re my friend; you’re supposed to cheer me on.”

Cheng shrugged. “I don’t want to give you false hope.”

Bai sighed.

gold plum blossoms indicating scenebreak

20,000 years ago

NANAMI lay stomach-down on the stone bench, one hand scratching lines in the fine pebbles with a silver stick while the other pillowed her chin. The day was warm and pleasant, a light breeze balancing the sunshine, but Nanami’s mood was more suited to thunderclouds.

Her mother had entered labor nearly a week ago—her tenth labor—and it had not progressed easily. Although Miko had birthed nine healthy children, this was her first time carrying twins, and something had not been right. Ao had sent for Haraa, and he had sent the “children” away to his father-in-law’s at Tsuku.

Nanami resented being called a child. After all, she was six thousand years old—her adulthood ceremony had been held a thousand years ago, and even that was rather late. She knew too, that if anyone deserved to feel bitter over the decision, it was Ichimi who had also been sent with them. Ichimi was eighteen thousand years old, had already been married, and had experienced pregnancy loss. Nanami had heard her mother say that Ichimi should be sent with the others because the birth might remind her of those sorrows. The fact her parents wouldn’t just ask Ichimi and let her decide for herself offended Nanami on her sister’s behalf.

But Ichimi had put a good face on things by playing shuttlecock with their cousins. Even now, Nanami could hear them at the other end of the garden, laughter punctuated by the thwack of the paddles against the shuttle. So Nanami felt guilty for sulking, but not guilty enough to stop.

The crunch of pebbles nearby made Nanami look up, and she saw Kairoku approaching. He was an inch or two taller than her but far more solidly built, and right now he loomed threateningly over her.

“Yeah?” she said. “What do you want?”

His light grey eyes flashed, and he tugged on his scraggly copy of their father’s dense beard twice before snatching the hair stick out of her hand.

“Where did you get this?” he demanded.

“I found it on the floor,” Nanami said irritably. That floor had been in her cousin’s room, which she was sharing until they were allowed to go home, but Kairoku didn’t need to know that.

“This is Eiko’s hair stick!” he shouted. “She’s been looking all over for it! And you’re just digging in the dirt with it? What’s wrong with you? You must have realized it belonged to somebody.”

Nanami sat up and hunched her shoulders. “The rocks aren’t that dirty, and it’s metal. It’ll wash off easily enough.”

Kairoku grabbed her arm and hauled her to her feet. “You’re coming with me.”

“To where?” asked Nanami.

“To apologize!”

And so he dragged her across the garden to the shuttlecock game. Nanami stumbled behind him, creating messy furrows in the carefully raked pebbles of the garden.

At their approach, the six women holding paddles all stopped playing shuttlecock, and Ichimi neatly caught the shuttle in her hand. Ichimi was beautiful, the same height as Nanami but with generous curves and an elegant oval face instead of Nanami’s too round one.

“Kairoku?” she asked. “Why are you pulling your sister around so roughly?”

Kairoku ignored his older sister, instead focusing on their cousin as he held up the silver hair stick. “Cousin Eiko, is this not yours?”

“My hair stick!” She hurried over to take it from him. “Thank you, thank you. But where did you find it?”

Kairoku smirked, then pushed Nanami in front of him. “Make your apologies,” he ordered her.

Nanami grit her teeth then squeezed out, “I found it and was playing with it. I’m sorry.”

Eiko was examining the stem closely and her gaze jerked up. “Playing with it? You bent it! What were you doing, pushing rocks?”

Nanami frowned—the hair stick had been bent when she found it. “I didn’t—”

Kairoku interrupted. “Yes, she was digging in the pebbles with it.” He bowed. “I’m sorry that we are such poor guests. Nanami, wash the hair stick for Eiko.”

Nanami pressed her lips together and bowed herself, holding out a hand for the hair stick. There was no point in arguing it had already been bent. She had no proof, anyway.

But Eiko clutched the stick to her chest. “If I let you wash it, who knows what will happen!”

That was a bit much, and Nanami looked at her sisters for support. But Ichimi, Sanmi, Yonmi, and Gomi were shaking their heads in disgust. Kairoku practically hummed with gloating next to her. Nanami’s fists balled up, and her nails dug into her palms.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

Eiko sniffed. She turned back to the game, and Kairoku at last let go of Nanami’s arm. Nanami strode away, but she didn’t go back to the other side of the garden. She strode right out the front gate and teleported to Po.

When Nanami reappeared, she was in a flower-laden bower; red petals dripped toward the sand underfoot like drops of blood; lush purple flowers slashed with chartreuse beckoned all that passed them. Thick green surged around and underneath her. It was hot and damp, and the air was so sweet that it was like being immersed in honey.

Nanami gulped in the honey-thick air in big gasps, swallowing her tears. She had mostly recovered when the foliage shifted, revealing the Koch-ssi.

What is wrong, Nanami?

The Koch-ssi was about seven feet tall, making Nanami look like a child, but she always treated Nanami with respect. Nanami had first met her when she was around two thousand, when Ao brought the entire family to Po. She looked like a sculpture of a woman made from plants. Flowers rioted over her head, her cheeks were peony petals and her eyes unshelled macadamia nuts. The Koch-ssi’s berry mouth made no sound, so the creature spoke mind-to-mind. Her siblings found the large creature unnerving and had avoided her for the whole year they stayed on Po, but Nanami loved the Koch-ssi.

Nanami threw herself into those strong cattail arms and laid her head on a bosom of hydrangeas. The sweet smell that filled the air grew even stronger, and Nanami let go of her tears.

“They don’t even try to understand—I know I shouldn’t have—but couldn’t they...”

Hush, flower. All will be well.

Nanami cried into the Koch-ssi’s arms for a short time, and then she related the past few days.

“Why am I so upset about this?” she asked the Koch-ssi. “It’s such a stupid little incident.”

The Koch-ssi’s cattail fingers combed Nanami’s hair.

It’s more upsetting to be caught doing something we know is wrong than to be wrongly accused because you can’t just brush it off. And because your siblings failed you. You wanted them to take your side just because you are their sister.

Nanami sighed. “That doesn’t make me feel any better. It makes me feel... Weak. Needy.”

It may be needy, but that isn’t always bad. I need sunlight and water and earth. Is there something wrong with me because of it? Should I be training myself not to need those things?

Nanami laughed.

You need love and support, the Koch-ssi told her. That is nothing to be ashamed of.

gold plum blossoms indicating scenebreak

3,000 years ago

XIAO wove his way through the crowd of silks and perfumes, sure that Jin was here because he had heard Neela’s distinctive cackle. It would be easier if he weren’t so short—and, actually, he was rather tall for two thousand years old, but well below eye level of his parents’ adult guests. He caught a glimpse of a shiny cerulean sari to his right, and Xiao threaded his way toward it. A rather large rear-end collided with his shoulder at one point, and Xiao almost pointed out to the lady that it was his birthday and she really ought to be a little more mindful, but he caught the words and replaced them with an apology before moving on.

Ah, there was Jin. She was dressed in robin’s egg blue, but there were little pink knots, like flowers, all over her robes. She must have sewn those herself—Neela didn’t sew and she definitely wouldn’t have magicked up anything pink. Jin’s hands were clasped behind her back and her head was bowed modestly when Neela laughed again at something the God of Festivals said.

Xiao rolled his eyes. She’d stay there all night, bored out of her mind, if I didn’t rescue her. Jin was a mere month younger than he was—maybe he’d get to go with them to the caravan when the party ended so that he could celebrate her birthday with her. His parents liked it when he stayed with Jin because he and she were going to get married someday.

Xiao grabbed Jin’s clasped hands and squeezed her plump fingers. Jin’s head jerked up, and she looked over her shoulder at him.

Xiao winked, and Jin grinned. By unspoken agreement, they wove back through the crowd, their hands latched. When they made it out of the crowded courtyard and into the empty hall, Jin asked, “Did you find something good?”

His parents’ guests might not be interested in him, but it was his birthday after all, so all of them brought a present. Most of them were pretty lame, meant for his mother rather than him, but Jin’s brother had pulled through.

“Karana brought firecrackers!” Xiao told her. “Big ones, shaped like dragons. Help me carry them to the back garden!”

Jin clapped her hands in delight, and the two of them ran to the main hall, where the presents were piled. Xiao directed her to a pile of large bamboo tubes, which were painted with red and white swirls and had carved wooden heads.

Jin picked up the top one with two hands. “Oh, wow, he made these himself! They’re going to be amazing!”

As God of Destruction, Karana had a strong affinity with fire, and his firecrackers were famous in the Heavens. He wouldn’t sell them, but sometimes he gave them away.

“I know! Come on, let’s go!”

He loaded Jin up with three of the crackers and took the remaining four himself. They didn’t run now, out of respect for their precious cargo. When they reached the back garden, where his parents’ disciples grew vegetables and such, Xiao directed Jin in setting up the firecrackers on long wooden poles that were supposed to support fragile plants. When all seven were arranged to his satisfaction, Xiao produced some flint from his pocket and knelt behind the first firecracker. Jin leaned over his shoulder, her hand on his back, and she was practically bouncing in excitement.

Xiao liked that about Jin—she’d probably seen Karana’s fireworks many times before, but she was always as excited as the first time. A good spark hit the tail of the firecracker and began burning the thin wick. Xiao clapped his hands over his ears—he assumed Jin did the same, as her hand left his back.

The little tube launched itself upward—it just cleared the roof of the New Moon Manor when BOOM!

It exploded in glorious red and white sparks. Jin and Xiao both laughed as he set to lighting two more.

They exploded in quick succession, their radiant flowers merging overhead, but Xiao never got to light a fourth.

Instead, a hand reached out and snagged his ear.

Xiao cried out in pain and tried to pull away from his father’s tight grip, but that just hurt more.

“Jin, go find your grandmother,” Hei ordered as he led Xiao away. Xiao caught a glimpse of Jin’s white face before she was gone.

Coward, he thought, but without heat.

Hei pulled Xiao along by his ear, and Xiao hurried to keep pace with his much taller father. It wasn’t until they reached Xiao’s room that Hei released him.

“What were you thinking?” Hei demanded, crossing his arms.

“I—they were a present for me. I thought it’d be alright—”

Hei shook his head. “I don’t care about the firecrackers. Your mother was in the middle of giving a speech.”

“Oh—oh, I’m sorry,” Xiao stuttered. “When I left the party, everyone was just chatting. I didn’t realize...”

Hei shook his head. “Your mother is upset. You embarrassed her. Don’t come out of your room until I come get you.”

Hei gave the order like Xiao had a choice, but his father locked the room when he left.

Xiao flopped on the bed, bored and frustrated. He supposed he wouldn’t get to go with Jin and Neela when they left—his parents would be too mad.

How long did they plan to leave him in here anyway? Maybe they’d make him miss dinner, but surely they’d still let him attend the toast. He was the guest of honor, after all.

The hours ticked by, and Xiao eventually fetched a scroll from his shelf to read. But he was too upset to concentrate on the words, and he ended up tossing it aside. His stomach rumbled its displeasure—he hadn’t bothered eating lunch so that he’d have more room for treats at the party. Not that he needed to eat, but the thought of all those honey-soaked almonds and chicken skewers and fruit crepes filled him with longing.

He eventually fell asleep, wondering if Jin asked to say good-bye and was denied or if she had been too bashful.

When he woke the next morning, he waited a long time for someone to come to the door—if not one of his parents, then a disciple. He tracked the sun’s movement on his floor and by the time it disappeared completely, no one had come. He didn’t cry that night, nor the next, or even the one after that, but on the fifth night, the tears came hot and fast and sobs racked his whole body.

Still no one came, even when he hollered for help or screamed his rage or smashed the beautiful pottery that decorated his shelves.

Just let me die, he begged of no one. I’d rather die than live here alone for the rest of my life.

gold plum blossoms indicating scenebreak

1,000 years ago

“YOU’RE going out?” Jin asked Neela in surprise. Jin had just returned to the blue caravan with a basket of mangoes and found Neela tying her sandals. She was dressed in a brilliant blue sari and her long silver hair was braided over one shoulder. She looked like any Jeevanti grandmother, except for her eyes, which were the color of the sky.

“Yes, there’s a famous sitar player coming to Shahar today. I want to hear him play and dance in the square.” She wasn’t even looking at Jin. Instead, she had her head tilted back, her eyes half closed, just absorbing the sun. Jin sometimes got annoyed when her grandmother did this, but Neela would always reply that flowers needed sunshine.

“But I’m leaving tomorrow morning for the Sun Court. I have to pack.” Jin sat the mangoes down on the small table sandwiched between two plush benches.

“Well, it’s not like you need me to help, do you?” Neela finished with her sandals and stood. “You’re an adult now.”

Jin flushed and nodded. “Of course, I can do it by myself. Enjoy the music.”

“Oh, I will,” Neela smiled.

Neela was a handsome woman, elegant and refined in her maturity, but when she smiled, her eyes took on a mischievous glint and young men flirted with her. Jin loved that smile, but sometimes she wished it would be prompted by her rather than, well, random musicians in Shahar. Half the reason Jin tried to master every craft they encountered was because she hoped her grandmother would praise her as she did the original artisans, but whenever Jin mastered something, Neela would say, “Well, of course you can do it—you have as many years as you need, after all.”

Jin followed Neela to the caravan door and shaded her eyes against the bright sun as she watched Neela begin the two-mile walk to Shahar. Neela preferred to travel like a mortal most of the time—as Jin watched, Neela knelt and plucked a wild anemone. She admired it before tucking it into her braid.

Impulsively, Jin called out to her when Neela reached the edge of the clearing, “You’ll be back before I go? To say good-bye?”

Neela stopped and waved once.

Jin clasped her hands together and chewed on her lower lip before shaking off her melancholy.

“Well,” she said brightly to no one, “there’s a lot to do! I don’t want to make Karana wait on me tomorrow.”

She went back into the caravan and began going through the cupboard for all the treasures she had accumulated over the years. Neela frequently insisted she purge her collection because the caravan was too crowded, but it was still quite large.

When she finished, the bed was piled high with silks and pottery, while the cupboards were almost empty.

I guess NeeNee is finally getting her wish. Jin blinked rapidly. Will she miss me?

Neela had insisted on raising Jin with her after Jin’s mother was murdered by a concubine, but she had never seemed to exactly enjoy it. Xiao was always telling Jin how jealous he was of her, that she got to drift around the world with no obligations, and it was often wonderful, except when it wasn’t, and Jin wondered what it would be like to have her own room in an estate belonging to her mother and father.

Well, she would soon find out, wouldn’t she? Except for the mother part.

Jin had everything packed by dark, and she prepared a meal for both her and Neela over the firepit outside. When Neela didn’t come by the time the food had grown cold, Jin put the rice and curry in bowls and covered them with beeswax cloths. They both had enough spice that they’d last through tomorrow.

Jin slept alone in the big bed that she and Neela shared—when Neela slept at home—but for once it didn’t feel comfortable. It felt hot and close in the caravan, so she took a blanket into the field to sleep under the stars. The mosquitoes were plentiful, but Jin could spell herself to be unappealing to them. She drifted off wondering if Karana would be as early as he claimed.

Jin had just finished dressing after her morning wash when Karana appeared in the clearing. He was dressed simply, in a long, deep red tunic and loose black trousers, and his hair was tied in a loose ponytail. Despite his casual attire, he had taken the time to paint his face, wearing his usual black cat eyes and lips.

He smiled. “Hello, little sister. Where’s the Wanderer?”

“Wandering,” Jin said as she gave him a hug.

“Should we wait for her?”

Jin shook her head. “She hates good-byes.”

Karana nodded, and helped her gather her bundles. “Well, are you ready to see your new home? Father finished it yesterday.”

“Oh, yes, I’m very excited!”

They reappeared in Karana’s residence in the Sun Palace, as it was the only place the two of them could teleport within the palace walls. Two of Salaana’s Light Hands—Karana didn’t have any disciples of his own—relieved them of their bundles and Karana led all four of them out of his gate and along the red gravel path that curved around the north wall of Aka’s residence.

“You probably don’t remember all this, do you, Jin? That is Gang’s residence.”

Jin would have realized that without Karana pointing it out. Huge gold disks were set every few feet along the red wall, each with a raised character for battle on it. She nodded. “And those buildings over there?”

“Gang’s and Salaana’s disciples live there. I haven’t any disciples, so I don’t have to bother with that.”

He stopped in front of a wooden gate set in another curved red wall. “This is you. Father already keyed it to your blood.” He showed her that it was locked for him and stepped aside. “So only you can open it.”

Jin shivered. Since she was moving back home, shouldn’t her family be able to come in to see her whenever they wanted?

 Jin touched the doors and they swung inward. Jin saw a large single-story house of vermillion painted wood, a large pond, and a great deal of dirt.

Karana scratched his chin. “I know it isn’t beautiful, but Father said you would want to design and cultivate everything yourself.”

Jin nodded. “Of course, how thoughtful.”

It would have been nice if it was a little more finished though, even if she had decided to change things.

They carried her bundles into the empty house, which turned out to be one large room.

“Can I help you unpack?” Karana asked.

“Oh, no, I’ll want to fuss with everything myself,” she said brightly.

Karana nodded and tousled her hair. Jin walked him and the disciples to the gate, determinedly projecting cheer.

But when the gate swung closed behind them, Jin let the tears out.

Since Karana had shown her how the door locked, she was shocked when a hand clapped on her shoulder. Jin sat up, dashing the tears from cheeks. She was mortified that someone had witnessed her wallowing in self-pity.

Slowly, she turned her head to see who it was.

Her father sat next to her on the bed, his red eyes solemn.

“Are you so sad to live here?”

Jin shook her head quickly. “Oh, no, I’m happy to come home, I just... I’m sorry, it’s not quite what I expected.”

His eyes were distant, as if he were focusing on something intensely. At last, “I can feel your disappointment. What’s disappointing?”

Jin twisted her fingers together. “I don’t want to complain.”

Aka lightly tapped her nose with his finger. “You, my girl, are one of five beings whose complaints I care about. Don’t waste that privilege.”

Jin blushed and her lips quirked up—she rather liked that. “I had pictured this—my room, living with my family many times. I hadn’t expected each of my siblings to live in their own residence, and it to be so—unfinished. I know,” she hurried to add, “that you left it so I could finish it to my tastes—”

He collected her hand with his own. “I did, but that doesn’t mean it was right.” He leaned close, conspiratorially. “Don’t tell anybody, but very occasionally, I make a mistake.” Then he winked.

Jin snorted.

“Come, walk me around and let’s figure out what we’ll do with your garden. At least there’s plenty of sunshine for you here, so that’s one need met.”

Jin giggled. “Isn’t there sunshine everywhere in this world?”

Aka smiled. “ Except for some caves and the Underworld.”

“Well, I don’t suppose I’ll ever go there.”

“No, I certainly hope not!” And Aka pulled her into a one-sided hug.

Jin smiled. She had a father at last. It would be too greedy to ask for a mother, too.

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