A flicker. Air bending and shimmering like it would in a heat haze. Then the blurry patch is gone and Dakin tears his eyes away from it, inwardly flinching at the bittersweet tug that reminds him of one thing, and one thing only. It had begun when he found a breach in the onion-peel layers of the world. Before he found his way to Cien again, he’d forgotten what it was like to yearn for something beyond his reach. His is the realm of midnight and its dusting of stars, of shadow puppets and the bottom of the sea. The realm of fertility and motherhood is also his, although humans will never discover that behind the curtains of the stage upon which they have been worshipping breasts and curves and pregnancy-swollen bellies, the current incarnation of whichever deity they worship is male. Their gods, all their gods, have been women, as well as men.
Daytime is when Dakin sleeps. The first fingers of daylight touch the edges of the veil and produce an immediate soporific effect; the sleep cycles of gods are strictly regulated by nature and circumstance. He pulls his blankets of dusk around him knowing that on the other side, Cien is just waking up. Even now, he can’t help but smile to think of the other’s face as he opens his eyes. As a human, Cien had been notoriously bad with mornings. It’s one of the few things Dakin remembers like it was yesterday, despite his memories being continually subjected to the passage of time. Time stretches and bends where they dwell, and a second gone past could have been a year could have been a millenium.
They can take away everything else, but they can’t have our names.
Traditionally, the gods of nature went without names. Dakin had stubbornly clung to his, unwilling to give it up to the higher powers when they decreed that he was to rule the realm of nighttime for forever and a day. In exchange, he let them have his voice. When he declared his offering, Cien jerked behind him. The two of them had been arranged back to back, bound together at the wrists. Dakin had tried to memorize each knot of Cien’s spine since they would not let him see the other’s face. The desks surrounding them had been raised so high that they resembled walls; Dakin still does not know what his superiors look like, if they even have corporeal form.
“And you?” The faceless powers had addressed Cien. “What will you give us in exchange?” A legion of voices speaking as one. She recalled the words of the gatekeeper, who had looked upon the new pair with eyes of pity. The gatekeeper was not a hardened man, despite having seen countless couples of every variation summoned by arbitrary selection to this very court, only to be torn apart.
They will tell you sweet lies and attempt to fool you with trickery. Keep this in mind: they need you. Both of you. Don’t be fooled, young one. If you don’t want to lose him, don’t let them have your name.
Cien looked up. “Anything but my sight.”
For her insolence in making them choose, they took her sense of touch. As the pressure and warmth of Dakin’s fingers tight around her own started to fade, Cien thought about how she would never feel them again anyway. “It’s flawed.” Cien had raised her voice as she spoke, incurring laughs. “The way this place is run is messed up.”
“It is unfair,” the echoing voices agreed with him. Every language in the world made comprehensible, a buzzing, deafening tinnitus in his head. High-pitched and low, male and female and everything in between. They continued, “And yet, you are indebted to us. Your lives were prematurely ended and we offered a solution.”
“Forced us to accept it,” Cien spat out. Dakin struggled against their bonds, digging nails into Cien’s palm and the back of her hand, bruising skin that the young woman no longer had sensation of. Stop it. Stop it. Voiceless, his thoughts reached no one. The ones who heard them were impassive.