Authors: Gwenda Bond
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Adventure, #Romance
THE WOKEN GODS
For Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, and Ursula, three of my favorite tricksters
For Amanda Rutter, who kept the faith
THE CITY ASLEEP
Night enfolds the sleeping city, shadows unfurling like wings across deserted streets and empty parks. Many of the painted townhouses stand vacant. In others, people succumb to the insomnia of ordinary worries – misbehaving children, unpaid bills, stressful jobs – or dream of the extraordinary that has become commonplace: blazes caused by gods, friends vanished into cults, the Society’s reassurances that everything is fine. Everything will be just fine, so long as everyone listens. So long as everyone believes them.
Across the city, in a nearly abandoned neighborhood that used to belong to politicians and lobbyists, the gods are awake. In the strange embassies of the seven tricksters willing to live in this place, to risk everything that they are, the inhabitants never sleep. They slept for thousands of years, after all.
The pyramid of Set House rises from a jungle. Milk-white columns front the temple of Hermes House. The black fortress of Loki House juts into a night as dark as its walls. Rough hide slants into the massive teepee of Coyote House. The bright tiers of Tezcatlipoca House stand on barren sand. A sacred grove of thick trees surrounds the ornate shrine of Legba House, situated at the convergence of two wide red-and-black paths. And at the end of the property, the ziggurat of Enki House towers over a marsh.
Broad steps ascend the base and two long ramps extend from the flat surface at the top, where a towering stone temple soars. A man climbs the ramp, deliberately, a small lantern held in one hand to light the way. He has not been invited here. But when he reaches the temple’s arched entrance, a god with two faces is waiting. He is taken inside, where he shares a secret and asks for help.
He leaves before long. He does not focus on what lies ahead. Instead the past replays itself. He remembers five years ago, the day of the Awakening, when the gods rose from the earth. He remembers the plan the Society put into motion. The gods’ own magic turned against them, the relics men had gathered while they lay sleeping the only thing that could allow humanity a chance to survive. The doors were sealed, one on this side of the world and the other far away. The Society held its breath.
He is one of them. He held his.
The god they captured was one of the most powerful. She had a lion’s head, and a warrior’s heart. They marched her from the Library out onto the green mall of the United States capital, torches blazing along each side. The relic that slew her was a blade, a curving scimitar collected from beneath the ruins of a Babylonian palace. It had been a gift from a god to a king during the first time. The time before the gods vanished, when they ruled over humanity.
The cameras broadcast Sekhmet’s death around the world, giving humans hope. Gods swarmed the city and watched, some with eyes like many-faceted insects, others with wings and tongues sharp as knives, with glimmering scales and skin hard as armor. They watched Sekhmet, her lion’s head and warrior’s heart both still as she lay on the bed of green, green grass. Black blood spilled from the wound at her neck. The torches burned until the oil inside ran dry. She did not move again.
And they knew it was true, gods and men alike. The world above and the world below are denied the gods now. Closed off by the Society. Stuck here in the world between, so long as those doors are shut, gods can be killed. Gods can die.
So the treaty. So this city became the Society’s stronghold and the home of the seven tricksters most sympathetic to the humans, the ones who volunteered to deal with the murderers of gods. This is the city where deals are cut. Sometimes in the light, more often in the shadows.
There should be billowing black clouds, the man thinks, thunder and lightning to shatter the silence. The world deserves some sign that the peace is fraying. His hand grips the lantern’s handle tightly, as though if he can hold onto the light he might keep it all from unraveling.
He alone sees the storm approaching. He alone knows what tomorrow will bring.
He walks back into the city holding onto the hope he can at least save his daughter.
At the window, I watch rain that gives every impression it will never ever stop – probably because I need it to. Otherwise, I’m going to get soaked on my walk home.
My best friend Bree snores softly (which she claims she doesn’t do) across the room. I pace and admire her latest sketches, taped around the walls. In them, gods loom like horrors, ghost wings and horns traced inside with hieroglyph shapes. Bree draws them like monsters, and maybe they are.
They’re inescapable, but we avoid getting up close and personal with them. Sure, we see them in photographs and on TV, even occasionally out and about. But the closest I’ve been to a real-life, in-the-weird-flesh god is the length of a city block, traveling up to the Library of Congress for a Tricksters’ Council meeting. Looking at Bree’s drawings, knowing what they’re capable of, that suits me fine.
I go back to the window, drum my fingers against the sill. Rain still sluices down in sheets. Finally,
it slacks to a minor downpour and the gray light of early morning becomes visible. It’ll have to be good enough. I sift through Bree’s colored grease pencils and select a nice red one with a fat tip. Her corkscrew black curls sprawl messily across her pillow, and one of her hands dangles off the bed.
She’s a deep sleeper, so there’s a fair chance she won’t wake as I start to write on the pale skin inside her arm:
See you at…
Her other hand flies up and catches mine. “Kyra, you better not have drawn something on my face again,” she says.
“One time. I did that one time,” I say. “
you thought it was funny.”
That was on the last Day of the Dead. We stayed up late, raiding Bree’s mom’s bar. I sketched a skeleton over her passed-out features, and the result was a worthy effort, if far less scary than she could have done on me.
“After it came off, I thought it was hilarious,” Bree admits, blinking in a half-hearted attempt to shake off sleep. She’s small, curvy, and frequently looks like a work of art herself. This morning, she’s in rumpled PJs, a little smear of mascara beneath one eye. “You leaving?”
“Yeah. Better get home.” The whole point of staying over was to allow a grand entrance this morning – and not to have been alone in our big empty townhouse all night. These days I’m never sure when Dad will bother coming home from work and when he won’t. He could let me know, but the idea never seems to occur to him.
Turnabout is more than fair play.
Bree holds her arm up and squints. “See you at… school?”
“It’s like you’re a mind reader.”
Bree’s head thuds back onto the pillow. “You are predictable.”
“Take that back.” I pull on the cracked brown leather jacket I scored on our shopping expedition at the outdoor market the night before. Dad is guaranteed to hate it.
Bree grunts, tugging the blanket over her head. I slip downstairs and unlatch the door quietly to avoid waking her mom. Heading into the only-slightly-less-insistent rain, I’m grateful my new-old jacket is thick. By the time I make it home, the rain has ended but my long brown hair drips, the ends curled into tips like twin question marks. My jeans are soaked.
I shiver as I fumble out my key and fit it in the lock. With great feeling, I slam the door shut behind me. If Dad’s home, he won’t be asleep anymore.
But then I see he’s right here, not upstairs in bed.
He sits on the leather couch, a coffee cup in front of him. He wears sweats, but manages to look, as ever, like a scholarly librarian. Which he is. What he cares about most in the world is finding the facts the Society of the Sun needs. He’s more at home at the Library working for them than here.
He pushes his round glasses up his nose. “Up for a run?” he asks.
My sneakers are beside him, and he tosses them over. I sidestep, and the shoes clunk to the floor.
Running was something we used to do together before… everything. I try to remember the last one we went for together and come up empty. All I can think of are too-bright memories, untethered from a specific time. All my memories from before the Awakening are like that – too light, lighter than they really were, like overexposed film. I also can’t remember the last time he
me to go for a run with him.
“Aren’t you going to ask me where I was?” I counter.
“No.” He frowns. “You should change into something dry.”
“I’m fine.” So maybe my prickling goosebumps and the puddle growing around my feet make it less than convincing. “I don’t really have time for a run.”
He nods toward the chair beside the couch. “Please, have a seat,” he says, and the oddity of a request instead of an order throws me off. I flick the light switch beside the door, but nothing happens. The electricity is out again. The gods’ magic tends to fritz it periodically, so not a huge surprise. I cross the still-dim room and sink onto the leather chair opposite him.
“Kyra,” he starts. But then he says nothing else.
“Present.” I drag a hand through my wet hair. “Look, if there’s nothing, I should get ready for–”
“There is something,” he says.
The chill from the rain turns to ice. I swallow and barely manage to get out the question: “Is it Mom?”
In the next moment, he’s on his feet and kneeling in front of me. He takes my cold hands in his warm ones. I let him.
“She’s fine,” he says. I notice the dark circles under his eyes for the first time. He hasn’t been sleeping much. He amends his description to reflect reality. “She’s the same, I mean. It’s not her… I need to talk to you about something else.”
Relief at the news Mom is OK – as OK as she ever is – makes me willing to hear out whatever this is. Having his attention, undivided and on me and not angry, doesn’t happen often.
“Kyra, if anything ever…” But he breaks off again.
“You’re starting to freak me out.”
He nods. “I’m sorry. It’s just… if anything were to happen to me. If I ever… get hurt or disappear or am suddenly not around, you have to promise me that you’ll leave the city. There’s enough money hidden away here in the house to get you far away.” He waits for a response.
I have trouble figuring out what to say. I settle on, “What would happen to you?”
When he speaks, he seems to choose the words with such care that it becomes clear he’s leaving out as much as he’s saying. “This is a dangerous city. A dangerous world. You know that. Anything could happen.”
“Anything could happen to me, too.”
It’s the truth. Gods may be anywhere and everywhere now, but D.C. is different. They come and go from here constantly. Most don’t linger after they bring whatever petition to their trickster of choice. But occasionally they decide to make a statement, calling up an epic storm or sending a wave of holy fire along a street, whatever they feel like to thumb their divine noses at the Society’s authority. And then there are the crazies who come to protest or pledge fealty to gods or men or to neither. There are the oracles at the Circle, where Mom has spent the last five years.
That’s why we stay here. We can’t leave, not without her. And it’s not as if Dad would give up his job at the Library.
I lift one of my hands from his to push my wet hair over my shoulder so it won’t drip on his arm. He releases my other one to adjust his glasses again, and moves back to the couch.
“Nothing’s going to happen to you.” He says it fiercely, as if his insistence can make it true. “But I want you to promise me. I
you to promise that if I ever don’t come home, you’ll leave the city.”
I stand. “You don’t come home all the time. Three times last week, actually. So that’s a lot of leaving the city. Why don’t you just send me away, if that’s what you want?”
He rises again, and we face off. This,
is more familiar. This is how we talk now. We argue.
“That’s not what I want,” he says. “And you know I’m talking about something besides working late.”