Edith Pawlicki

a curly haired dreamer who tries

Immortal Beings

Trials of Fire and Rebirth

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Prologue: From the Ashes

3,000 years ago

AN NING woke with a gasp, a painful ragged breath that seemed to fill her lungs with air for the first time. A brilliantly blue sky blazed overhead, telling her nothing but you’re alive.

Slowly she moved her fingers and felt something soft and powdery. She lifted her hands and found them streaked with ash.

She tried to remember where she was.

Who she was.

Both answers were equally elusive.

She pushed herself up, and, realizing she was naked, instinctively tried to cover her breasts.

But she didn’t have any.

Confused, An Ning patted her flat chest. She had nipples, but no breasts. Was she a child? Surely she was too large to be a child. She tried to remember a child—any child—but could not. She tried to remember what her chest was supposed to look like, and angry tears came to the corners of her eyes.

Why couldn’t she remember anything?

She finally looked past her odd chest, down a smooth stomach, to a lumpy thing nestled on her thighs. Gasping in horror, An Ning tried to wipe the penis away, but it didn’t move. She tugged it harder and was shocked to feel pain.

She released it.

That thing was hers. It was a part of her body.

Why would she have one of those? She didn’t need it. Her body should be soft, smooth curves, not this flat, firm chest and extra appendage. Why didn’t her body match her?

She started to shake and rubbed her arms, taking more of those ragged, almost painful breaths.

Impulsively, irrationally, she seized handfuls of the ash that surrounded her and wiped it all over her body, creating black streaks of soot that hardly covered her and yet made her feel better.

And then, inexplicably, the soot became cloth. She was robed in soft, streaky black trousers and a wraparound shirt. She rubbed her toes and gained a pair of shoes.

Then she practically collapsed back into the ash, for it felt as if she had run ten miles with a bag of rice over her shoulders.

Am I a god? she wondered.

Even though she was tired, she was vaguely aware that the energy she spent had not been physical, and she forced herself to stand. She surveyed her surroundings, and the tears spilled over.

What happened here?

There was nothing but black and gray ash stretching in all directions. No. That wasn’t quite true. Blackened rocks pierced the powdery stuff here and there. Ruins.

It was a devastating sight, even if she had no idea what had been here before.

Enough to make her cry, but she could only wish she felt pure sorrow. Instead, she also felt a surge of satisfaction. A bitter delight, a cruel triumph.

What was wrong with her? Had she done this? This unending destruction?

If she were a god, what kind of god did something like this?

Not knowing what else to do, An Ning began walking.

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IT took An Ning the better part of the day to cross the ash. The soft soot sucked at her feet, as if beseeching her not to leave, and the area was immense. She gradually realized that an entire city had burned; occasionally, she spotted temples and marketplaces in the ruins. There were no bones though—it was as if the city had been empty.

At the edge of the ash field, An Ning found the first signs of mortals. Thousands of them, huddled in clumps. They mourned together, shaking and crying, with lost, empty eyes.

As An Ning’s gaze swept the crowd, it was pulled to a group of young ladies. Bright silks clung to their curves, sheer sleeves revealing the lines of their arms, and the upper slopes of their breasts exposed. Red paint made their lips pouty and full, and pink powder highlighted their cheekbones.

Courtesans. An Ning flinched at the word, and her eyes skittered away from the group. What was wrong with her? Why did “courtesans” make her so uncomfortable? Courtesans... Despite having remembered the word, its meaning eluded her.

A moment later, as if hurt by An Ning’s avoidance, one of the women cried out.

An Ning’s eyes skittered back, just in time to see a black rock catch a courtesan on the shoulder.

“Whores!” yelled an angry voice. “You brought this ruin upon us!”

That voice scared An Ning, and she crossed her arms. She was momentarily disoriented when they folded against her ribs instead of atop her breasts.

But her personal confusion took second place to the real danger in front of her.

More stones were thrown, bringing the horrendous sound of rock bruising flesh. Blood rushed to An Ning’s ears, making it hard to hear. She stepped between the courtesans and their assailants.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

Her voice was calm, confident, and throaty. An Ning couldn’t quite believe it had come from her mouth.

Many of the bullies gaped at her in confusion, but one, an elderly woman, stepped forward with a snarl.

“This lot was condemned by the God of Destruction himself.” She raised a hand over her eyes as she spoke and added, “Fate shield me from his gaze.”

The God of Destruction. It must have been he who burned the city. An Ning was relieved to know it hadn’t been her after all.

“If they were condemned, why are they here rather than burned to ash?” asked An Ning.

A young man puffed out his chest and said, “I heard the god speak to the Fourth Prince. He said Xiling must be cleansed because he and his men couldn’t keep their robes tied!”

“What has that to do with these women?” said An Ning, though that word, courtesans, seemed to echo in her mind, and she felt scared. But she was scared for the women, not of them, she realized.

“Vile seducers,” said the grandmother. “They seduced the noblemen and brought sin to our city—”

“You are confused,” An Ning said. “Is a rabbit to blame for a hunter shooting it? Is a flower responsible for a little girl picking it? Is it the wine’s fault when a man gets drunk?”

An Ning’s heart had moved up into her throat, and she had to draw a slow breath before speaking again. “I know you are angry. You’ve lost your homes and all your possessions. You want someone to blame, a target for your anguish, but that’s not right. Turn away now.”

“Bullshit,” said the young man. “Who do you think you are anyway?” and he chucked a black stone at An Ning, as did one of his cronies.

She imagined the stones rushing toward her exploding into fine black powder, becoming soft like the ubiquitous soot. But instead, one bruised her shoulder and the other cut her thigh. An Ning stumbled back and fell on her rump. It hurt.

An Ning was no longer afraid just for the courtesans, she was scared for herself. Had she imagined making her own clothes then? Was she not a god after all?

The angry mob surged closer, and An Ning found it hard to breathe. Her arms once again wrapped around herself, trying to hold her clothes in place. She didn’t want...

Her mind balked though, and she sat frozen, terrified of something she couldn’t remember.

Before the mob reached her, another group ran between them and the courtesans.

“How dare you!” cried an elderly man who was brandishing a cane like a sword. “Attacking unarmed women because you’re angry? This young man’s right—the god kept those he wished to punish. No one here deserves your wrath. So do as he said and turn away!”

An Ning realized with some surprise that she was the “young man” being referenced. Her cheeks burned a little. Yet she found it easier to breathe. Yes, I’m a young man. Her shoulders eased back, and she looked up at their defenders. The old man with his cane seemed to be the leader, but the two dozen men and the handful of women with him had swords and leather armor.

Like most bullies, the harassers had no interest in confronting the strong. After a tense pause, the rock-throwers muttered apologies and slunk away.

Two courtesans wrapped their hands around An Ning’s arms and helped her to her feet. An Ning met their eyes—one smiled and the other mouthed her thanks.

A third courtesan, a young woman with dark brown hair and big eyes, bowed to An Ning. “Thank you, sir, for stepping in.” She turned to the elderly man and bowed again. “And you as well, Master Tianxu. I do not think they would have left without your reputation.”

The courtesan then gestured to the rest of them. “And your guards.”

Master Tianxu grunted. “We’ve been planning a caravan for travel, Lady Guiying. I think you lot had best move on quickly. Why don’t you come with us? And you as well, young man—what’s your name?”

“An Ning.” She cleared her throat. “Thank you, I would appreciate that.”

THE difficulties of the next three weeks made An Ning ever more grateful that Master Tianxu had welcomed her into his caravan. Being late summer, it should have been an excellent time to travel. The roads were hard and dry, and most of the homesteads were reaping bountiful harvests, with plenty of surplus to sell to travelers.

However, the news of Xiling traveled before them, as if carried by the wind, and they were ostracized wherever they went. No one wanted to risk bringing the God of Destruction’s gaze upon them by offering succor to the targets of his fury. There were a few who would make an exception for enough of Master Tianxu’s gold, but he had lost most of his wealth in the fire, and there were many mouths to feed.

Some of his guards grumbled and talked of taking what they needed from the stingy homesteaders, but Master Tianxu whipped the one man who actually followed through. After the whipping, An Ning followed Guiying, the unofficial leader of the courtesans, to the river and asked her about it.

“Hmm.” Guiying sat and removed her slippers before she spoke. “Master Tianxu is proud of his honor, and taking food by force, even if the farmers are greedy cowards, isn’t honorable.”

An Ning nodded and began removing her own clothes.

As Guiying waded into the river, she said, her voice soft and distracted, “He established the corps himself, as a young man, and made it successful by proving time and time again that his people could be trusted. Even Madame Azalea trusted him to guard us.” She ducked under the water.

An Ning followed suit. When they both resurfaced, she asked, “Guard you from what? And who is Madame Azalea?”

“She owned the pleasure house where we worked. The Bloom-Laden Azalea. Madame Azalea was her working name, of course. People said she was a nobleman’s bastard daughter. As for what they were guarding against...well, men who wanted to sample the goods without paying.” Guiying splashed An Ning playfully then. “I suppose you don’t understand that, do you? Do you like men?”

Guiying’s comments about Madame Azalea made An Ning deeply uncomfortable, but the warm river water hitting her shoulder kept her from dwelling on it. She did her best to answer Guiying’s question—after all, Guiying had been answering hers all week—but it didn’t make much sense to her. “Like men? I like Master Tianxu and Hulk, but I don’t like Hawker much.”

Guiying snorted and started scrubbing her arms. “I meant generally.” She bit her lip a moment then looked at An Ning more directly. “You’ve bathed with me several times—enough that most of the caravan thinks we’re lovers, but you barely notice my body. So I thought you might be gay.”

The word meant nothing to An Ning. “What is gay?”

Guiying rubbed her lower lip. “People who take the same gender as lovers.”

An Ning’s eyes widened. “Is that what Shufen and Xia are? I saw them kissing, and I was surprised. I thought it was always a man and a woman.”

“But you didn’t consider taking me as a lover, did you?”

“Oh, but we’re—” An Ning paused and looked down at her body again. She couldn’t see her privates through the murky water, but her chest was a man’s. She kept forgetting. She wasn’t a woman. She just felt like one. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think about it.” She considered Guiying’s first question, and realized the other woman was asking her if she liked male lovers. She mulled that over, then told Guiying. “I am not interested in any lover, male or female. It makes me a little uncomfortable when I see others touching. Is it bothersome if I follow you like this?”

“No,” Guiying said. “I don’t mind it. I kind of like that people think we’re lovers because then they keep their distance. I didn’t like working at the Bloom-Laden Azalea, and it’s been a relief not to have any lovers since the fire.”

“They made you take lovers,” blurted An Ning. “that’s horrid—and wrong!”

Guiying looked at her in surprise. “How are you so innocent? What was your life like before the fire?”

An Ning had avoided this question several times, but now she admitted, “I don’t know. I don’t remember anything before I woke in the ashes.”

“Woke in the ashes? You mean—you were asleep while the city was burning? How...”

An Ning shrugged. “It was all very strange and confusing to me. I’ve been wanting to talk to someone about it, but I was afraid of how it must sound.”

Guiying flapped her hand, inviting An Ning’s confidences.

“I was lying in the ashes, completely naked, and I couldn’t remember anything. Except my name. And I thought—” No, that was too strange to share. An Ning amended what she was going to say. “I thought I made my clothes out of the ashes!” She pointed to the pile of black cotton on the shore. “That was why I intervened when I saw those bullies throwing stones. I thought I could change the stones like I had the ash, but...” She laughed. “Isn’t that crazy?”

But when she looked at Guiying, the other woman’s eyes were glowing, and her hands clasped before her parted lips. “You’re a god!”

An Ning blinked. “But—”

“You are a new god,” Guiying insisted. “Anything can become a god. You must have risen from the ashes of Xiling!”

An Ning stirred the river water with her hand. “Anything can become a god? How do you know?”

“I’m done washing. Come on, let’s dry off, and I’ll recite How the Night God Fell in Love.”

Guiying toweled herself briskly, and An Ning followed suit, not sure if Guiying had forgotten her offer. But then, her voice singsong, Guiying said:

Long ago, when the world was new and empty,

The Moon Goddess danced alone.

Upon the cold ice of the North Sea, she twirled.

She dipped and swayed like a hawk with its mate—

But no mate matched her.

As the sun rose in the sky, she spun faster and faster, and her shadow dwindled.

But that same shadow could not bear to lose sight of her.

Just before it disappeared completely, it stretched up, up, up, and became a being.

This was the Night God, and as the night embraces the moon, so he embraced his Goddess.

An Ning waited a few moments after she stopped, but it seemed that was the end. “The shadow of the Moon Goddess is hardly ‘anything,’” she protested. “I don’t see why ash could become a god.”

Guiying laughed. “So you want me to recite all twenty-four becoming stories that I’ve memorized? I like that one the best, that’s why I chose it, but there are many others. Birds, flowers, deer, shadows, lightning, water—all these things have become deities. So why not ash?”

An Ning started plaiting her damp hair as she thought. “But I wasn’t able to do anything with that rock they threw.”

Guiying shrugged. “Well, I know tales of magic, but that doesn’t mean I understand it. Have you tried to use any since?”

“No,” said An Ning.

“Everyone’s hungry,” suggested Guiying. “You made ash into clothes; why don’t you try making food?”

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try—say, if you think I’m a god, shouldn’t you be...”

Guiying snorted. “Scared of you? Might as well fear a puppy. Besides, if you’re a god, I’ll be your head monk. We’ll be lifelong friends—well, my life’s length anyway. You’ll live forever.”

An Ning shook her head, not really believing Guiying’s nonsense. But she let Guiying take her hand and pull her along through the woods.

When they reached the camp, Guiying led An Ning to a campfire. An Ning started to reach toward the coals, but Guiying pulled her back.

“Don’t burn yourself! We had better use cool ash.”

Perhaps half an hour later, Guiying presented An Ning with a cooking pot full of ash.

Knowing she must look a fool, and half-convinced that Guiying was mocking her, An Ning sifted her fingers through the dark ash. She let her mind wander, as she had when she clothed herself, imagining rice in her hands.

And suddenly Guiying shrieked.

An Ning stopped sifting the ash—no, the rice, for she had transformed it.

Guiying flung herself into the dirt, heedless of her recent bath.

“Divinity! Guide me, and I will pledge my life to you and your teachings!”

Guiying was a trained performer, and her voice was undoubtedly heard by their entire camp.

Soon everyone was crowded around them, and the black rice grains that An Ning had created where being passed around.

“It’s rice alright,” said Shufen excitedly, “but what a color! Thank you, thank you, divinity!”

Then Master Tianxu himself was kneeling before her. “Bringer of peace and prosperity!” He kowtowed three times, and An Ning winced to see dirt smudge his forehead. “Please, divinity, won’t you make more?”

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THE piercing, rapid ringing of a bell broke An Ning’s concentration, and she accidentally pricked her finger on a sharp thorn of her black climbing rose.

“Divinity? Are you alright?” asked Guiying. Not the same Guiying who An Ning had met outside Xiling two millennia ago—no, this was that Guiying’s descendant, with sixty or seventy generations separating them. But because Guiying had been her first monk, it was a popular name among the locals. That simplified things for An Ning. Mortals were short-lived and prolific, and common names made it easier to address them correctly.

“I’m fine. That’s not the temple bell.” The massive temple bell rang low and long. “A travelling monk? Or a troubadour?”

Guiying sighed. “Divinity, I’m sure whoever it is will stay in the village for at least the night. But the rosewater—”

An Ning tsked. Unlike her ancestor, this Guiying was solemn and serious and always focused on her work. In fact, An Ning would go so far as to say she was boring. “Guiying, who is the god here?”

Guiying folded her hands and bowed her head.

Chuckling, An Ning led the way out of her manor and into the street.

“Oh, he’s not a troubadour,” she said.

“Then perhaps we could—”

An Ning waved her hand at Guiying. “Child, can’t you see how agitated he is?”

In addition to ringing a bell with great enthusiasm, he was also shouting a psalm. “She has risen! As the Sun sets and the Moon wanes and the Night fades, glory in the brightness of the Threefold dawn! She has risen!”

An Ning strode down the road toward the monk, fast enough that Guiying had to jog to keep up. An Ning explained, “Even though he’s just a monk, he must have some interesting stories to tell! And he’s wearing so many colors—whose monk could he possibly be? Do you think he follows multiple gods? Is that allowed?”

“I would think the god here would be better qualified to answer that.” Guiying’s arms were crossed.

“Don’t sulk,” An Ning chided her. She swore, if it wasn’t for the fact that this family had been serving her for—well, for all of her existence, she would have sent this Guiying into the world to seek her fortune.

An Ning began running down the dirt road between the wide rice fields and caught the monk’s sleeve.

It was an unusual patchwork of orange, red, yellow, and blue.

“Good monk,” she asked, “how many gods do you serve, to wear four colors in your robes?”

The monk stopped and bowed his head. “Only one, young man, the most powerful of all, her divinity, the Threefold Goddess.”

“The Threefold Goddess? Never heard of her.”

The monk shook his head. “I should think not, for it is my sacred duty and my highest honor and greatest joy to bring word of her reign to all the corners of this Earth.”

An Ning burst out laughing. Guiying at last caught up to them, panting and out of breath.

“Guiying,” An Ning said, “I have found your soulmate. Come monk, please say all that again?”

The fussy fellow was all too happy to oblige, and An Ning struggled not to blame this Threefold Goddess for her long-winded monk. After all, An Ning would be frustrated if anyone judged her by Guiying.

An Ning held up a hand as the monk began to explain the Threefold Goddess was “the most beautiful flower, the most terrible fire, and the most favored child of the Sun.”

“But what of the Sun? What was that you were saying about the Sun, and the Moon, and the Night?”

“They have died, young man.”

Guiying exploded at this address. “Young man! The Peace Bringer is responsible for the prosperity of everyone within five leagues! He may not be as hoity-toity as your Three-faced—”

“Threefold!”

“—but he is divine! You will call him ‘divinity.’”

The monk was briefly speechless, and then did kneel before An Ning to make his apologies (three times, naturally).

“Yes, yes, that’s quite alright, did you say the Sun Emperor died? But immortals can’t die!”

“Not just the Sun Emperor, divinity, but the Moon and Night deities as well. The new age will be ushered in by their children, the Threefold Goddess and the Love God.”

“Love God? Don’t you mean the God of Pleasure? And the Sun Emperor’s daughter—why that must be the Goddess of Justice or the Goddess of Beauty.”

“The Threefold Goddess was once called the Goddess of Beauty, as she hid her true power...”

The monk continued in this vein, leaving An Ning with more questions than answers. Whatever had happened in the Heavens, it was clear the Threefold Goddess had told a simplified tale to her monks.

“Well,” An Ning said, after she realized they had drawn a large crowd, “Let no one say that Ningjingcun doesn’t celebrate our new goddess. Tonight we will feast!”

The villagers cheered at her proclamation, while Guiying muttered, “But the roses...”

“Won’t you stay and celebrate with us, monk?”

“I am always delighted, honored, and prepared to celebrate her divinity, the Goddess of Life, Death, and Beauty!” crowed the monk.

And celebrate he did. An Ning was relieved to find that he spoke more like a regular person once there was a bottle of rice wine in him.

“So what about the God of Destruction?” she asked, refilling the monk’s cup. “Will he be imprisoned with the Goddess of Justice?”

The monk clapped his hands over his eyes. “Don’t bring his gaze upon me!”

An Ning sighed. It was always so hard to get news of the God of Destruction. An Ning had always felt that the burning of Xiling had somehow created her, so she had been trying to learn more about this elusive deity for the past two millennia.

The few stories she had managed to collect about him said that he was closest to his full sister, the Goddess of Justice. If that goddess had been imprisoned for challenging her youngest sister’s rule, then perhaps the God of Destruction was in trouble as well.

An Ning fidgeted in her seat, worried about a being she had never met—never even seen.

Idiot, she thought to herself. You’re just the patron god of a little village. None of this affects you anyway. It’s not like any of these beings would ever talk to you!

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KARANA plied his oversized silk fan gently, putting some effort into maintaining a slight smile. He knew that many eyes were seeking his reaction to the wedding, undoubtedly eager to spot signs of conflict.

One would think they’d be more interested in the massive tiger that occupied half the pavilion or all the tiny peony-people that crowded the aisles, but no, instead they stared at the God of Destruction, wondering if he’d make a scene. Burn this pavilion like he’d burned Xiling perhaps, to avenge his elder sister.

And so he made an effort to look approvingly upon the two couples standing on daises, for if twenty-one millennia as the Sun Emperor’s son had taught him anything, it was the importance of a flawless façade.

And the truth was, Karana saw no point in avenging his sister—she had earned her imprisonment—and he certainly did not covet his niece’s position. Karana had never wanted to be a god, never mind the world’s overlord.

He was relieved that Jin, his niece, had become the Threefold Goddess and that he was free to do as he pleased.

Sometimes it still seemed surreal to him. Even though it had been ten years since Jin had declared her dominion, ten years since his sister had been imprisoned in the Heavens, ten years since his father had died—

Well, ten years were nothing next to twenty millennia, so he was still adjusting. The past decade, he’d made a great show of attending every cursed event that Jin had organized, trying to show the doomsayers that they were on the same side.

But it was exhausting. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure how he felt about recent events, and he wanted to get away from it all. If An Ning were still alive—

What a ridiculous thought. She’d be two thousand years dead, even if she hadn’t been murdered. This wedding was making him maudlin.

He listened while his niece and her partner exchanged vows, and then as her best friend and his partner did. Only Jin with her sentimentality and extravagance would want such a double ceremony. And, perhaps, the three beings she roped into this circus.

At least it meant he only had to go to one celebration.

A few hours later, Karana was observing the feasting from the edge of the festivities, wagering with himself on whether that tiger was going to add some rarer meat to his dinner, in the form of the God of Festivals, when a hand clamped on his shoulder.

Karana turned and met brilliant gray eyes. The first immortal and, incredibly, Karana’s new nephew-by-marriage.

“Hello, First. You didn’t have to greet me. Besides my connection with Jin, I have nothing to recommend myself.”

Bai ignored Karana’s mocking, as he was wont to do. “Last month, the Cult of Alag Karana burned a Threefold monk at the stake.”

“Yeesh, sounds unpleasant.”

“Very,” frowned Bai. “What are you going to do about it?”

Karana shrugged. “I don’t see why I should do anything. Nothing to do with me.”

Those intense gray eyes narrowed. “They worship you.”

Karana snorted. “How can they worship me when I have no temples and collect no prayers?”

“The Cult is spreading lies. They are claiming that Jin murdered the Sun, Moon, and Night deities—”

“Well, she did kill the latter two.”

“—and that if they burn her alive, the old gods will be reincarnated.”

“I doubt anything could burn Jin. Her essence is flame.”

Bai crossed his arms, and Karana supposed he should be grateful that the old being wasn’t waving around the infamous Starlight Sword. “It’s too late for you to choose to be a god or not. Since the cultists follow you, you are obliged to guide them.”

Most beings would have to try to be this obnoxious, but it was a natural talent for Bai. For Jin’s sake, Karana would tolerate it. And because he had no desire to be maimed by a pinky finger.

Raising his hands beseechingly, Karana said, “Do you really want to argue on your wedding day? How about I pour you some juice and we have a toast?”

“This is important, Karana,” Bai insisted.

“Is it though? There’s always going to be some crazy mortals who believe what they want, regardless of evidence or immortal guidance.” Karana rolled his eyes and continued, “The so-called ‘Cult of Alag Karana’—because, for the record, I have never encouraged them in the slightest way—has believed that burning the dead will lead to reincarnation for at least fifteen millennia. If they can weave such a fantasy out of nothing, what makes you think I can convince them Jin is good? It’s not like they would recognize me. Or do you want me to burn all the offenders alive? Because I’m pretty sure Jin could do that more efficiently herself.”

“It’s not from nothing.”

Karana blinked. “What?”

“You said they weaved the fantasy from nothing, but they didn’t. All the immortal creatures that reincarnate do so by bursting into flame.”

Karana rubbed his head. “Look, First, you’re missing the forest for the trees. I have no standing with the cult, they just use my name. Jin’s not actually in any danger from them. If you need something to worry about, I suggest you focus on Gu. He’s full of anger and power.”

Karana’s gambit worked. Bai turned to look at his newly wedded wife. “I agree with you, but Jin can be ridiculously stubborn about certain things. Family is a blind spot for her.”

“Why isn’t he here, anyway?”

Bai lowered his voice. “We did invite him, through his mother. She asked to be excused. She wants to live in anonymity.”

Karana mulled that over. “Freedom. That’s what she always wanted. It should be a good life for Guleum, too. I can’t blame them for avoiding us then. I wouldn’t mind being forgotten.”

“It’s too late for you,” said Bai. “You have to deal with the cult.”

Karana almost said he was going to ignore the lunatics, but that would hardly convince Bai to go away. “If they so concern you, dear nephew, I will wander the Earth and observe exactly what mischief they are making.”

Bai nodded once. “Thank you, Uncle.”

Karana winced at the appellation, though he had invited it with that condescending nephew.

As Bai walked away, Karana figured that he could wander for a couple millennia before Bai nagged him again.

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