This is how magic left the Kingdom and made room for democracy. Three supernatural beings created by an Omnipotent Mushroom God travel the multiverse until they are abandoned on a planet of stunning ecological diversity. They use their magic to rule over humans, but as their powers wane and a climate disaster looms, a young illiterate man is able to take the throne.
- The Queen
Before I could embark on my revenge, I taught the forest to sing.
It wasn’t a simple matter. A particular vibration was required. A sustained flow.
The grasses found it easiest. They could catch a breeze and buzz their stalks.
Their song was faint; they were on the edge of the forest, weak. Far from the glowing ruby on the hilt of the King’s Sword, where I used to be trapped. Far from my blossom, far from my vines. Far from the indestructible blade thrust into the dirt, where my roots were tangled with the roots of many others. Far from the soil that I spoke to and drank from.
I trained the beings closest to my heart to sing the loudest.
Snow-in-Summer was the first flower on the forest floor to find the friction in her petals. From her pure white blossoms, she sang the song I taught her.
The song kept the humans away. At least until the drought.
Complaints of thirst traveled from root tip to root tip. The reservoirs of the cobra lilies emptied, the pitcher plants’, too. Ferns died at the forest edge, then farther inside. Leaves shriveled before their season and the forest floor became a heavy mat of those that succumbed.
I dug my roots down, farther than any of them could. Beneath everything, there was water. You had to be strong enough to summon it. When I found it, I shared. Nothing is apart from anything else in this forest. Our roots intertwine.
Before the King was a king, he had been a god. Wicked magic had trapped me in a jewel, but there was always a way out. I used to be a god, too.
The Wizard has a theory of energetic currents, a theory that is true, as it happens. Shortly after being buried, I made contact with a grain of pollen the size of dust. And so I became that pollen. All orchids are fed by fungi when they are young. My father made it so.
I wasn’t just a flower, though. I was the language that the forest spoke, I was its secret. I set down roots. I sprouted, then budded.
Once a year, I bloomed. A sticky red flower, seven petals, each taller than a man. My scent was of my own anger, but multiplied tenfold. The bark mushrooms loved my fragrance and spored while I stank.
The animals stayed away, even the scavengers. Nematodes and earthworms dug away from my heart, sometimes fainting from exhaustion. Whatever died in the soil decomposed and was repurposed to made me stronger. Plenty died in the dirt that spring. I bloomed larger than ever in the drought. Through the tangle of fungi that connected our roots, I passed sugar and water to Snow-in-Summer so that she might continue to sing.
She got louder and louder as the drought wore on.
- The Young Man
The ants came from the forest and then went back into the forest. Cayhun was careful to stay behind the tree line, the boundary of the forbidden. The center of the wood housed the King’s Sword, which kept a demon trapped. Trespass, and you might unleash hell.
If you believed in those sorts of things.
The stench of the forest was bad. It was probably the smell, and not the priest’s taboo, that kept the other villagers away. If Cayhun stood right at the edge of the tree line, where the ants marched in, he could see strangler figs on trees farther back. Some had blossoms, some had fruit.
Under hunger’s influence, the strangler figs looked almost edible. It wasn’t yet the season for figs. Green fruit and dead blossoms littered the ground. He scanned the forest floor for promising specimens, but could see nothing from the distance he kept. So he went into the forest for the first time.
He stood still for a second, once past the first tree. No demons came rushing out. Maybe he was now a demon? No, he was getting the myth of the forbidden forest mixed up with the myth of the forbidden river. As if the stories weren’t confusing to begin with, the village priests kept changing them.
Cayhun was supposed to take his initiation this year, but then the drought had scrambled the calendar. Just as well: he didn’t want to pledge fealty to the village gods, who were quick to punish and slow to help. And while the point of the initiation was to indicate your readiness for marriage, Cayhun knew that his father would take a second wife before he would allow Cayhun to take a first. Best not get attached to any of the girls in the village; they might become his next mother.
This could be an initiation of his own devising. This step into the woods. This first bite of fruit. He picked up one of the larger figs. It was fist sized and green with brown stripes. It felt heavy; perhaps it was sweet.
He took a bite. It was sour and full of dead wasps. He thought about this for a minute. Perhaps the wasps had pollinated the fig, the ways bees used to pollinate the apple trees in the orchard. Perhaps if the fruit were ripe, these wasp parts would add a mild, pleasant crunch to the fruit. Here they were like thorns in his mouth, and he chewed slowly and carefully to keep from cutting himself. Still, the very heart of the unripe fig was sweet. Wasps always find sugar.
If the fig didn’t poison him, that meant it was edible. He stood still for a moment, waiting to take ill. When he didn’t, he gathered up more fruit to put in his satchel and went to find the ants.
Outside the forest, in the wild fields that surrounded the forbidden wood, the brown ants made neat lines, coming and going. The returning line was laden with small prizes: nectar beads, pollen grains, or pieces of leaf. Occasionally, the prize was something larger, like a small worm or spider, and multiple ants would carry it together.
Cayhun thought the ants might be like bees. The beehives in the village had been depleted, but when they functioned, bees would find food and turn it into honeycomb. Perhaps ants had hives, too, and honeycombs within them. He meant to find out. He could bring ant honey back for Elnara, his sister. She was four summers old and she was battling a fever.
They were not permitted to feed her; their father said so. “Starve a fever” he repeated, as if it had been etched in stone by a god. But the truth was, their father probably didn’t care if she died. She was just another mouth to feed, and worse, a girl, so another dowry to pay. Cayhun was old enough to take a wife, but if that meant becoming his father, he’d rather run away. He could take Elnara. He’d have to wait for her to get better. Honey would help, even if it came from ants.
Cayhun had been watching ants in the field his whole life. What might have been derided as a waste of time during harvest was now clearly a sensible diversion during famine. It required little energy and his studies would now lead him to ant-honey treasure.
Something peculiar happened to the brown ants in the field outside the forest. The ants were mostly dutiful, leaving the nest and returning with their foragings. But occasionally an ant strayed. It would climb up a tall piece of grass and stay there, pinchers clamped down. Not even a gentle poking could convince it to move. It made sure to find a ray of sun. It wanted warmth. In a day or so it would stop moving, and in another day it would burst, scattering dust.
The dust would fall on other dutiful brown ants. Wineberries gave Cayhun stomachaches, but their juice was good for marking things. With a little juice dabbed on the end of a dried stalk, Cayhun could keep track of the ants most heavily dusted. So he knew that it was these ants that would soon stray from their duties, join their companions in desertion. Climb up, clamp down, and then explode. Cayhun wondered how much of this dust he had inhaled in the course of his investigations. Maybe the dust was why he was always running away. Maybe one day he would bite down on a tall stalk of grass and explode.
He followed the ants deeper into the heart of the forest, keeping a lookout for the King’s Sword. The fug increased to an almost nauseating level. There was buzzing that seemed to grow more intense the deeper he went in.
Beware, beware, it seemed to say. But perhaps he was imagining it? And if he were being warned, that could be a sign there really was something precious in the center of the wood. If so, then the warning was actually a reason to persist. He continued in until he found a mud mound where the ant trails both started and finished.
Cayhun wore the heavy cloth gloves that the beekeepers once used. Since the colony had collapsed, the beekeepers had fallen into depression and had not kept a close eye on their supplies. The gloves were tight; he was already large for his age and growing still.
He cut off a corner of the mound using a whittled wooden blade. Like bees, the ants swarmed at the intrusion. Unlike bees, they crawled under the overhanging lips of the gloves and started biting him. He threw off the gloves and ran back from the mound, brushing his hands on his tunic.
The bites were small stings, nothing serious, and when he was satisfied he had wiped most of the ants off, he approached the mound again and examined the cut he’d made.
He looked for honey. He didn’t see any. The chamber he had cut open was lined with white puffs, bright as cotton but made of something more dense. Like mold, but more voluminous. Like mushrooms, but smaller. Not honey. But perhaps it was still sweet?
Dipping a stick in carefully, he extracted one puff. It smelled like rot and tasted faintly of dirt. He carefully extracted a few more puffs, blowing on each one to clean it of ants. These went in his satchel with the unripe figs.
In the next village over, they grew mushrooms in caves for medicine. The trader had offered some for sale last summer and been subsequently berated for it by an elder.
Cayhun’s village prohibited the consumption of mushrooms. This was in response to an incident from years before, when some of the women were foraging in the north forest; the “good” forest, utterly unlike the wood Cayhun was now in. It was filled with ordinary striped birches and songbirds and dotted with pleasant-looking red-capped mushrooms. Mostly these mushrooms were delicious, but occasionally they were poisonous. Fatal. The village priest had declared them a curse, and this ban had somehow been extended to all their “brethren.” It included any mushroom-like offering from the trader, even medicine.
“But this is good for wounds. For toothaches. Fevers,” the trader protested. His clothes were fine. He was from far away and seemed to know many things. He already had an apprentice, but perhaps he was in need of another.
Cayhun had secretly followed the man and his apprentice for a mile after they had been expelled from the town, and then approached him.
“I want to see your village,” Cayhun shouted. “I can work for you. I know lots about insects.”
The apprentice was the size and shape of a boulder. He took a threatening step toward Cayhun and drew a knife.
“No, I don’t mean you any harm. Just . . . take me with you.”
The apprentice grunted and shook his head no. The trader explained that they were not from a village, they were from the capital.
“You’ll have to make your own way there,” the trader said. And in that moment last summer, Cayhun had decided that he would, one day. He had meant to leave this year, but then there was the drought and Elnara’s sickness. And, truthfully, his own cowardice. There was always a reason not to go. Time seemed to stretch out endlessly in front of him. He could always do it tomorrow.
“I’ll give you something for free,” said the trader as he departed. “A little advice. Your village is backward, but your elders are right about one thing. Stay out of the Witch’s Wood.”
What he had mistaken for ordinary human odor on the trader and his apprentice was actually the stench of the wood. They must have passed through there on the way to the village. Perhaps that was where they gathered their medicinal mushrooms, the ones they said were from the neighboring village. How unusual that they would warn him against the very place they had just been. Perhaps they were in search of the King’s Sword? Or perhaps there were more treasures than that hidden in the forest?
“What’s in there?”
“Magic. Strong enough to ruin a man.”
Before the trader, he had never heard it referred to as the Witch’s Wood. The name made sense now. The hum that seemed to say beware, it almost sounded like a woman’s voice.
He thought of the trader’s warning now, as he ventured toward the sound of that voice.
Deeper in, a beautiful white flower bloomed all over the forest floor. It seemed to be the source of this hum.
He was probably imagining it. But if the flower could talk, that meant it was strong. Cayhun plucked it with a shaky hand and chewed slowly. The leaves were bitter, the stem and petals sweet. He plucked a bouquet’s worth for Elnara. It was time to be getting back. It was getting dark
The way out of the forest seemed longer than the way in. The trees grew close together in some parts, and the strangler figs and other vines seemed to be closing off paths. It was like a labyrinth now; it had not been this way before. Cayhun willed his heart not to race.
He had seen plants trap insects, finding ways to move their leaves to enclose their pray. He had thought of it as a fascinating phenomenon, one that really had nothing to do with him. But now that the forest was closing in on him, he realized there was no way to be apart from the things he had spent his life observing.
As it grew darker and darker, the trees began to sparkle. Clusters of luminescent orbs appeared all around, seeming to float. Spirits? Fairies? Tiny gods? Cayhun approached one and saw it was attached to the tree in a manner similar to that of a bark mushroom, but more bulbous. He tapped it, and it released a glowing spore that clung to his tunic. Strange as it was, he was grateful for it, for all of them. They lit a path out.
It was the middle of the night when he finally returned to the village. He smelled like the forest and was covered in an eerie glowing dust, so he was determined to sleep outside with the goats. His father was less violent in the morning.
As he approached the family huts, he saw that a large bonfire had been lit at their entrance. It was a funeral pyre.
His mother sat by it alone, in prayer.
She slapped him. “Your sister is dead, and you stink of the forest,” she screamed, as if those facts were related.
He stared into the fire looking for any sign of her. He hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. He hoped she hadn’t died alone. If the Endless Ocean really existed, he hoped that there had been someone there to hold her hand as she began her swim across.
“Your clothes are covered in witchcraft. Leave now or your father will kill you when he gets back.” His mother’s shouts brought him back to the eerie silence of the present.
As Cayhun’s village starved, there had been talk of visiting the neighboring village. Some said they had more grain stored. Some wanted to send the women to beg. Others wanted to send the men to steal. That his father was gone and his mother was still here indicated which plan had prevailed.
That Cayhun had not been apprised meant he truly was not a candidate for initiation. At his age, such exclusion meant exile was at hand. Or worse.
“They’ll be killed. You’ll be killed,” he said. If the other village had food, that meant they had strength.
“You’re dead either way,” his mother yelled. If his father returned at all, it would be with a face stained with blood and smoke. His hands would be twitching with violence.
In the distance, Cayhun thought he could make out the glowing lights of approaching torches. Someone was coming. His father and kin returning, or the men of the other village, bent on revenge. His mother was right: either way he was dead.
“Come with me, we can escape together.” He offered her this escape even though he hated her. Her meanness, her temper. She had brought him into this hard world and accused him of ingratitude. Perhaps the village and its customs were to blame for her angry condition. If she could escape, she might discover a new side to herself.
He held out his hand; she spat in his face. So Cayhun turned on his heel and ran back to the forbidden forest.
He thought he heard shouts and hoofbeats behind him. If it was his kin, then the horses were stolen. If it was kin, then they might not kill him. He continued running toward the wood. He looked back and confirmed he was indeed being chased, and that the gap between him and his pursuers was shrinking. The moon lit the meadow between the village and the forest and Cayhun was still smeared with glowing spores, easy to spot in all this darkness.
Horses could not ride in the wood; the trees grew too close together. Cayhun rushed inside and hid behind trees. He saw his pursuers dismount and follow him in. They were not kin, then. No one from his village dared enter this wood. If they were from the other village, then they were here to kill or enslave him.
He heard the men gag. The stench was strong, but Cayhun was used to it after a whole day spent breathing it in. This was his advantage, so he pressed on, deeper in.
The buzzing was louder now, almost a chorus. Like a song, like the voices of women. He would take his chances with witches. He had never met any. None had ever hurt him.
He heard crashing behind him. Then cutting. His pursuers slashed through the brush. Those axes might be the same ones that would cut him open. So, forward. Maybe he would finally find the King’s Sword. Then he could fight back.
He followed the stench. Though it nauseated him, he hoped it would nauseate his pursuers more. The stench led him to a clearing, which held an enormous red flower.
Yes, the flower was talking to him, but softly, not louder than the crashing behind him. Despite his efforts, his pursuers were closer than ever. He imagined strong, well-fed men rushing into the clearing at any minute.
The flower bloomed on the forest floor, and next to it was a tangle of roots that resembled a thousand snakes in a dance. The roots writhed and made whining sounds as they rubbed together. Something glinted from within them.
The sword. He could see the hilt. It seemed to turn toward him, pushed by the roots. He might be able to pull it out. That could give him a fighting chance. One myth held that the King’s Sword was cursed. Another myth held that whoever could touch the sword without dying would become the new king.
His hand found the hilt, and, as he gripped it, the petals of the orchid moved to touch him, lightly at first.
He felt a surge of energy grow through him. So the myth was true. He gained strength and also new knowledge: the world was shaped like a ball, and he was but a speck of dust upon it.
The flower was moving to enclose him. The petals were covered in a sticky nectar that gripped him even as he tried to twist his way out. He had seen a similar death visited on gnats and smaller winged insects. His new strength would not be enough to save him.
He turned his head and saw his pursuers come crashing through. As he suspected, they were a bunch of well-fed, angry men. So they did have plenty of grain. Shame on them for not sharing. And how foolish they were to chase him. Some held looks of horror, some looked away, some began to run away. There would be no assistance coming, not for him.
The flower would kill him. But the men would have killed him. By dying this way, he had chosen his fate, and that was something to be proud of, wasn’t it? On the other shore of the Endless Ocean, if the myths were true, they would weigh his heart before they decided where to send him. He would tell them he chose his own fate. He had chosen the flower. He had never hurt any man or woman. Perhaps that would tip the scales in the right direction.
- The Wizard
The Wizard had a device for collecting water from the atmosphere, but it only produced a small amount. Just a few cupfuls, despite its advanced and elaborate setup. He could not think of a way to scale it up and sate the kingdom.
In the meantime, it made sense to pursue other avenues of research. He had thought he had heard a smart man (he couldn’t remember which one) say that lichen could filter water. Could they remove the salt from ocean water?
The Wizard used his polished lenses to examine the lichen specimens gathered from the royal arboretum. Of the many books that the Wizard had stolen from the Great Library, he found himself lately returning to the Mikrographos volume the most, especially as his magical powers diminished. The book showed you how to polish glass to reveal portions of the invisible realm. As his third sight vanished, the lenses were a consolation.
Pity about the library and how it had burned. He should have stolen more. That was already two Universes ago, but he still thought every day about the library and the horrible fire that had consumed it.
He had expected the lichen to resemble plants under the lenses. A tight grid, like the rooms in a priest’s dormitory. But instead they resembled one of the royal chef’s most famous dishes: a layer of shaped meat patties served atop a tangle of wheat noodles. Spheres and tubes.
The lichen was not a plant, then. Neither was it an animal. It was some third thing. Further investigation would reveal the lichen to be composed of two distinct things, working together. Imagine.
The Wizard could not interest the King in this matter, or in any other. The King was preoccupied with only three things: wine, women, and rumors of an invading horde approaching from the south. Regarding this last matter, the King had dispatched the Traveler and his Boulder to perform reconnaissance. Not trusting the haste of humans, the Wizard sent a scout of his own: one of his last remining birds, a female owl he had named Kleo.
Once, he had been able to speak all the most common bird languages. But as the Realm of the Gods grew more distant, he found himself losing words until all he had left was Owlese.
He housed and fed a mated pair, but the male declined every task the Wizard presented him with. Typical. The Wizard supposed he should withhold food from him, but he was too soft-hearted. In his own life, all the countably infinite years of it, he had found that you couldn’t talk to an animal without becoming deeply attached to it.
Kleo wanted two mice upon her return.
<If you eat that much in one go, you’ll be too heavy to fly for several days.>
She clucked her indifference. Once he had kept a lean hawk. She would take flight and spy for him every day. Those were easier times. Less struggle, more joy.
Now there was so much to do, and each day he grew less able to do it. He should have worked harder on his prognostications. A word from the future could have helped him prepare for the dual droughts: one of water and the other of magic.
When Kleo returned, she confirmed that that she had spotted a ragtag group of enchanted beings marching toward the castle.
<I wouldn’t call them demons. More like, um, zombies.>
<More than a few, less than a lot.>
Some birds were great with numbers. He missed the days when he could talk to crows or blue jays. Really, any of the familia Corvidae.
<They were chanting.>
She gave a sound that was halfway between a hoot and whistle. The Wizard thought about it for a minute.
<Yes, that’s what they were saying. What’s an Ekrim?>
<It was the King’s old name. Before he was kicked out of the Realm of the Gods. We aren’t allowed to say it anymore, by royal decree. Anyone that utters it gets the death penalty.>
Kleo hooted, her eyes widening in concern
<No, don’t worry. The law doesn’t apply to you. And anyway, not many people know it. Just me, the King, of course, and . . . well, the Queen; I mean, the former Queen. We’re not allowed to say her real name, either.>
<I thought the Queen was dead.>
The Wizard cricked his neck, hoping to coax away a new pain that had just appeared in the moment. For animals, death was a binary condition. For exiled gods, it was more of a spectrum.
Ekrim, former god of fruit and field. Once married to Ayunsil, goddess of fermentation. When they were happy and together, all the wine in the kingdom tasted sweet. Bottles and barrels seemed to replenish themselves. All drunks were charming.
Not now. Cellars were empty. The drink, when you could find it, was bitter. And everyone across the kingdom was mean, sober or not. Poor Ayunsil was so murderous. And relentless, too. She couldn’t help it; she got it from her father.
The Wizard stared at his spotted hands. As the realm in the clouds departed for another Universe without him, aging had set in. For the first time ever, he was an old man. It was affecting him more than the King, due to planetary positioning. The Wizard grew more hunched by the day, while the King merely went gray at his temples. It only seemed to enhance his appeal with the ladies of the court. It made him look mature. He wasn’t.
Poor, poor Ayunsil. The Wizard had hoped he had put her in a place where she couldn’t kill again. He hadn’t counted on enervating so rapidly himself. And she was so stubborn. And unrelenting. And strong.
<How far away did you say she was?>
The Wizard unrolled a map of the kingdom, and Kleo pecked at a location. It was north of the forest where Ayunsil had been placed but still south of the capital.
<How fast were they going?>
Kleo pecked out an estimate of speed.
<They could be here in two days.>
<Or tomorrow. They are a fast group of . . . whatever it is they are.>
<We need more information.>
<I can’t go back out there. I just ate.>
It was a matter of physics. Kleo had eaten her mice first thing upon arriving, and now weighed 270 pebbles. Her wings could carry no more than 230. The Wizard made a quick calculation, based on prior observations of Kleo’s metabolism. She couldn’t scout again until tomorrow at the earliest, and even that was a stretch.
<Can you convince your mate to go?>
They both looked over at Osgo, who dozed on a perch near the fireplace.
Kleo hooted a no.
Despite his apparent dozing, the Wizard was sure Osgo had been listening in. He walked over to the male and said: <The fate of the kingdom is at stake.>
Osgo opened one perfectly round yellow eye. He cast a slit pupil in Kleo’s direction, as if to admonish her for letting the Wizard address him, and then definitively closed all three of his eyelids shut: nictitating membrane, upper, lower.
<The city might fall. No more free room and board from me.>
Osgo and Kleo lived in the mews and ate the mice the royal chef caught in his traps.
<Some birds might want the city to fall. Some birds think that the bigger the city grows, the more field and forest will be stolen from us,> said Kleo, speaking as if she were a defenseless wild bird and not a royal pet.
The Wizard scanned a nearby shelf and tried to remember where he had put his book on urban planning. He organized his books by subject and Universe of origin. He had only visited five Universes since the most recent big bang and only three of those contained any books of note. Or was it four? How long ago had it been that he had visited the great and shining Metropolis?
Perhaps if he could find it, he could explain to Kleo that a smartly managed city was the best way to keep humans from sprawling out in all directions, destroying everything around them. Of course, it was matter of resource management. And he had several volumes of Makroekonomiks lying around somewhere . . . somewhere . . . somewhere.
He was forgetting things. He was once the god of birds, wind, and love. Now he couldn’t even remember his true name. He hoped he had it written down somewhere . . .
He heard flapping and saw that both Kleo and Osgo had departed out the window without saying goodbye. Dusk was approaching. They had more interesting things to do than hang around his library.
The next morning the Traveler and Boulder returned. They wore kerchiefs over the lower halves of their faces.
“You got back fast.” They had only been gone a few days on their latest trading expedition south. They bought and sold medicines and taught people germ theory, using an Other-Universe book the Wizard had loaned them. They did this while they spied for the King.
“The matter is urgent.”
The two men had not witnessed anything themselves, but a series of messengers who knew they would trade information for coin had alerted them to a shambling demon army approaching the kingdom.
“Reported figures vary wildly, from twelve to twelve hundred. I suspect it is not the number of demons we should fret over, but the danger they pose. Their condition . . . It seems to be contagious.”
The Wizard nodded. Hence the face coverings. He rummaged around in his pocket for a spare cloth and tied it so it covered it nose and mouth. He had never caught a disease before in his life, but he no longer had the immune system of a god.
It was always the Traveler that spoke for the two of them. People suspected Boulder of being mute. The truth was, Boulder’s voice was high-pitched. Despite his large size, he squeaked. He was a thick man whose graceful gait let you know he was fast, too. That he didn’t speak only made him more intimidating
<You.> The Wizard directed his thoughts toward Boulder. Unlike the Traveler, Boulder was capable of telepathy. <What did you hear?>
Boulder answered, very faintly. <They are a hive. One thinks for all.>
The Traveler, unaware of the exchange, continued his report. “The demons can’t be fought by traditional means. If you strike, they burst. They are made of dust. If you inhale too much dust, you might become one yourself. We obtained a sample. Please be careful. The King can prepare an army. But you might prepare a cure.”
The Traveler handed him a sealed set of nesting vials.
The Wizard removed two heavy gold rings from jewel-laden fingers and handed one to each man. “Thank you.”
Back in his lab, the Wizard performed his examination of the sample while wearing a diving helmet. He wished his lenses were more powerful. One of his Other-Universe texts referenced lenses that could be powered by a flow of particles. You needed an energy source if you wanted to magnify past a certain point.
Energy was always on his mind. He thought about it a great deal nowadays. What if he could use it to replace his lost magic? He sighed at the blurry lensed images and then squinted, sketched, and made guesses. He would look into the particle flows later.
He brought his sketches to the King, who had already spoken to the Traveler and was indeed preparing an army. That was his answer to everything.
“The sample the Traveler brought me: it was tree sap that had collected demon dust. I put it under my lenses.”
“And the dust is not uniform. It contains materials from many organisms. Like a lichen, but with at least twenty-eight distinct components instead of two.”
“What’s lichen?” The King put his fingers against his temple as if his head ached. His hair was white all over now, not just gray at the temples, as it had been yesterday.
“It’s . . . her. You know that already, don’t you? The forest we buried her in . . . I think she was able to draw the life force from it.”
The Wizard paused, searching for an explanation. In his investigation of energy, he found that uniting two opposites that made contact in a certain manner could induce a flow. Perhaps she had found her opposite somehow. Clearly, they hadn’t buried her deep enough.
“Her army, are these mushroom people? If so, she learned that trick from her father.”
“I haven’t seen them, but I’m not worried about whether they’re made out of mushrooms or not. I am worried that they are people with a communicable disease. A disease you and I might also catch.”
“I killed all of her mushroom people last time by myself.” Ekrim was referencing a small skirmish that already taken place millennia ago, one that he had ultimately lost. “And now, I have a thousand men with swords. And a perfect immune system. It will be easy.” The King sat up straighter.
“Your Highness, with respect, you’ve never won against her.”
The King pursed his lips. “I’ve defeated lots of mushroom people.”
“It isn’t her minions I’m worried about. It’s her. She kicks your ass every time.” Ekrim, in his millions of years of battle with Ayunsil, had never vanquished her. His only successes were temporary tricks, like the forest burial. He had trapped her in a jewel on the hilt of one her father’s ceremonial swords and then placed the sword in an energetic force field, with the Wizard’s help. Then they had buried her.
The Wizard knew the forest would not contain her forever; it was only the first part of a larger plan. But he had never managed to execute the second part. He had intended to bind Ekrim as well, forcing him into that same jewel. Their energies could balance each other out and contain each other, perhaps permanently.
Ayunsil’s father, the Origin, had expelled her and Ekrim from the realm for insufficient fealty. He had sentenced them to live out the rest of their lives in this kingdom, on this planet, in this Universe, and the Wizard had been foolish enough to stay behind with them. He liked this blue-and-green orb. He liked its forests and birds. He liked its people, too. He thought they should have some protection from the likes of Ekrim and Ayunsil.
“Are you saying she’s stronger than I am?” The King stood up.
“At the risk of committing treason: yes. She’s stronger than you, just like you’re stronger than me.”
“But you and I can work together. That’s how we bound her last time.”
“And that’s how we’ll bind her again.”
“But she’ll escape again. That’s so like you. You love doing the same thing over and over.”
“Repetition is often the course of least resistance. Yes, she’ll escape again and again. But eventually, she’ll be too weak to, and that’s how we’ll finally trap her.”
The Wizard looked up at the model of the solar system that hung from the ceiling of the King’s chambers.
The heliocentric version had been unveiled two summers before. Happier times, then: Ayunsil and Ekrim had spent two whole months without committing an atrocity and the Wizard thought it might be a good time to introduce an age of enlightenment. This was before the drought.
The model contained the Sun, the planets, the major moons, and one more thing, not to be rightfully named in front of any humans. This thing was modeled by a rock crystal the size of a fist. The King and Wizard both referred to it as a comet, but that wasn’t what it was.
The model was powered by spring and crank. All celestial bodies spun and circled, but the comet edged farther and farther out on a track, designed never to return. Their home. Their former home. The farther away it got, the weaker they got. The rock crystal would run out of track eventually. It would crash onto the floor and burst into pieces. They would be dead before then, though they hoped they had centuries left and not mere decades.
“Okay, let’s do it like we did before. Pretend to negotiate and then trap her.”
“She still has the sword, according to the Traveler.”
“Perfect. We won’t even have to enchant a new item. We can just repeat the same trick as last time.”
They met her on the royal road, well outside the capital. It took some doing to get the King to don his mask. He was worried it would muss his powder. As his skin grew pale and wrinkly, he had taken to dusting his entire face with a thick coat of copper pigment. He thought the powder made him look tan. He thought it made him look youthful. It made him look orange.
“Ekrim, Ekrim . . .” You could hear the monsters chanting before you could smell them. And you could smell them before you could see them. The Wizard had fortified his face covering with a magical forcefield. If the King lacked the wisdom to take the same precaution, so much the better.
They made their way down the Royal Road, determined to meet the demons as far from the city walls as possible. As they passed through the drought-ruined farms, gaunt citizens stood by the road and begged.
The King waved cheerily to his subjects. They did not wave back.
“You know, you haven’t asked me to make it rain in a while.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
“Well, the answer is still no. My powers are waning, too, and I don’t think the kingdom will miss its less productive citizens. Survival of the fittest, right? Didn’t you have a friend who used to say that? Back in another Universe?”
The Wizard didn’t respond. He looked at the hard, tired faces of the hungry.
The King continued waving cheerfully. “These people would suck me dry if they could.”
The King and the Wizard stood in the road with their army behind them. As the demons approached, the Wizard could see there were not many of them. Five, to be exact.
“See, so few. Are you sure you don’t want to just kill them?”
Kleo had confirmed this morning that the monsters had the propensity to explode into a cloud of dust unbidden. Many must have been ignited recently: the air was thick with their spores. The army wore face coverings and, if the Wizard’s plan worked, he would be able to remove any disease or enchantment from the dust quickly. If he failed, they might all die. He wondered if his plan was stupid. Had his intelligence faded, too, along with his eyesight and everything else?
The monster that held the sword resembled a teenage boy, though his eyes were yellow and his skin was striped with wood mushrooms.
“Darling . . .” The dappled boy spoke with Ayunsil’s voice.
As Ayunsil approached, she stumbled. She did not make linear progress, but tripped over her feet. She went forward, then back again. The Wizard, who had begun refining energy flows in earnest, placed his hand on Ekrim’s shoulder. The charged metal in his ring sapped a bit of energy from the King and former god: not enough for him to miss, just enough to enhance the Wizard’s own sight.
The Wizard used a telepathic casting and was surprised to find that the Boulder had gotten something wrong. There was not one mind at work here, but two. Ayunsil was at war with something, likely the original inhabitant of the body. So Ayunsil was weaker, too. He’d thought the position of her ruling planet might give her an advantage, but that calculation was based on his guess at the speed of the realm’s velocity out of the solar system. He had guessed wrong. She was dying, too. They all were.
The Wizard squeezed the King’s shoulder again. Too hard this time. Ekrim felt a buzz and pulled away.
“Hey, what was that?” The Wizard pointed his staff at the shambling figure that held the sword. The distraction worked. The Wizard used the stolen power to try to talk to the trapped consciousness.
<Are you there? Please kill the King, if so.>
<Not you, Ayunsil. I know I can count on you to kill Ekrim. This time he’ll really die, too. Won’t that be fun? No, I’m talking to the boy. Young man, let the voice inside you kill the King. Stop fighting her. I promise I’ll protect you.>
This had not been the plan; the Wizard was glad he could still think on his feet. This striped boy, this young man, this hand that held the sword . . . if he could survive all of this, he could be of some use to the kingdom.
And at this last bit of coaxing, the monster sprinted forward, moving faster than Ekrim could react.
“Darling . . .” said Ekrim, right before he was stabbed with his father-in-law’s sword.
The Wizard put his hand on the King’s shoulder and drew away what power he could. Now sufficiently energized, the Wizard did what Ekrim had been unwilling to do with his own powers: he made it rain.
- The Vessel
Dying felt like drowning. Cayhun struggled to find the surface. After kicking and kicking, he eventually found the place where air met water. Despite never learning how to swim, he was treading water on a calm, dark sea. The ocean wasn’t endless, after all. He could make out two shores, one on either side of him.
The village priest had, at times, said that the good life could be found on the far shore. But at other times, he had said the north shore. And anyway, who was to say he was even right? So Cayhun paddled in the direction of the nearer shore. He wanted out of the water.
As he got closer to the shore, the sky began to light up and fill with color. His feet touched something solid and he walked the rest of the way out of the water. With every step he took, the colors resolved themselves into shapes. The shapes coalesced into a familiar scene: the forest.
He watched vines shoot up from the ground and strangle the men who’d been chasing him. They fell to the floor, then, after lying still for a minute, stood up again, now released from the vines.
He tried to orient his vision in space and logic, but it took several minutes to arrive at the insight that he was looking out of what used to be his own eyes. He was no longer in charge of his body.
He heard a hum and a grunt that resolved into a chant. It came from his own throat: Beware, beware. Then a reply, coming from the throats of the other strangled men: Beware, beware.
At a certain point, as they marched out of the forest, the chant turned into: Beware Ekrim, Beware Ekrim. And then finally, eventually, just: Ekrim, Ekrim. Cayhun knew, without knowing how he knew, that Ekrim was the King. The hand that used to be under Cayhun’s control gripped the hilt of the King’s Sword.
They marched toward the castle. They strangled those that got in their way and infected them with a spore. The army grew. Cayhun found that the only thing that could make the slightest difference was his concentration. If he thought really hard about being back in control, the demon that possessed him would stumble. Sometimes she tripped, but she always moved forward. He knew it was a she, just like he knew she would kill Ekrim.
Their progress toward the castle was not constant. Some days she would slow. He would feel a headache coming over her. Sometimes members of their army would explode for no reason. Cayhun realized that, through another trick of concentration, he could hasten these explosions.
By the time they faced the King’s army, the band of demons was down to five and she could hardly hold Cayhun’s body upright. A new dilemma presented itself: how to keep his body from being annihilated by the King’s forces? The time for surrender had long passed. And anyway, he couldn’t bring her to a halt, not yet. And he couldn’t speak with his own voice to explain what was happening to him, not that anyone would listen.
And so, when a brand-new voice from nowhere spoke instructions directed specifically to him with clarity, he decided to oblige that voice, despite not knowing where it emanated from.
Kill the King? Come to think of it, what had the King ever done for him? He let go the faint grip he held on his body. When the sword pierced the King’s chest, Cayhun felt a flow of energy fill his being. It came from the sword, which glowed white. It seemed like light was flowing from the King to him.
<Stay standing.> That same voice. He released his grip from the hilt, but the King somehow stayed upright. A hand gripped the King’s shoulder; this hand belonged to the voice. <Stay standing.>
Next to the King was a tall, bearded man in mauve robes. His eyes were kind, his voice soothing.
Drops of liquid began to fall from the sky. Could it be rain? Lighting struck. Behind him lay five dead men, the same men who had first chased him into the forest.
Strong arms grabbed him and lifted him up. He recognized the man from somewhere. Was that the trader’s apprentice?
The bearded man placed the King’s crown on Cayhun’s head. It weighed a thousand pounds. It took everything he had not to collapse under the weight of it.
People were cheering for him. Who were they? Where was he?
Someone would explain it to him eventually, he hoped.
- The King
“I only made it rain for three and a half minutes. I stole a bit of Ekrim’s power to put on a show.”
Cayhun opened his eyes and turned his head. The voice continued to explain: “I wanted to take the spores out of the air and cleanse the spores from any enchantment. But I don’t think there was much magic left in it. At any rate, the show worked. The people think the gods blessed your coronation. You’re King now.”
Cayhun sat up slowly. The room was large but also warm, lit by two fires, one at either end. There were brightly colored tapestries covering the walls, and furnishings made of dark wood, upholstered with embellished fabrics.
So it hadn’t been a dream. He had killed the King with the King’s own sword. A shudder went through his body as he remembered how the crowd had cheered for the death blow. How his hand had held the sword with unnatural strength. And then how the strength had faded when he let go.
That presence that had once taken him over . . . where was she now?
“Is . . . she gone?” Cayhun’s throat burned with thirst. The Wizard handed him water in a bejeweled chalice.
“I trapped her once more in that sword, only I put Ekrim in there as well. I think the lichenization was successful, attractive and repulsive forces balanced with the sturdiest forcefield I could manage. This should hold them until . . .” The Wizard gazed off into the distance and knit his eyebrows, as if he were performing a calculation.
“Until the Realm of the Gods is sufficiently far away. And our powers fade for good.”
“I . . . don’t . . .”
“It isn’t going to make sense now. I left notes for you to study when you get back.”
Cayhun was silent. Better than admitting he couldn’t read. Letting the demon kill her prey had been one test, and he had passed. But he understood that he now faced another. He didn’t want to say the wrong thing and be sent home because of it.
The Wizard reached into his satchel and pulled out a piece of wood. He handed it to Cayhun. “What is this?”
“A crosscut of a tree.”
“Correct. This is a plains willow. See these darker rings, and how they occur at regular intervals? Those are flood years. Looking at this, when do you suppose the next flood might be?”
“It depends on when this was cut.”
“Very good. It was cut three years ago.”
“So the flood should have happened already.”
“Exactly. We’re due.” The Wizard walked to a heavy set of drapes. He pulled them back to reveal a window taller than Cayhun. Outside, the sky was blue and cloudless. No sign of the showers that had marked the old King’s death.
“And there is evidence that mass sporing events can trigger precipitation. Every time one of her minions exploded, it released a cloud of stuff into the air.”
Cayhun struggled to remember through the haze of demonic possession. Her army had grown large until, suddenly, she had become weak. Overextended, perhaps. Then her soldiers had begun to combust. Yes, there had been quite a lot of spores in the air at one point.
“What can you conclude?”
Cayhun studied the Wizard’s lined and bearded face, searching for signs of the answer the old man wanted.
“A terrible rain is coming.”
“Yes, I think so. You must convince the corps to shore up the levees and reservoirs. The dams are in disrepair. Ekrim could not interest himself in infrastructure, not even for a week. But if you wear the crown and tell them what to do, that might be enough to avert disaster.”
“But you have . . . magic. Can’t you do all of this faster?”
The Wizard shook his head. He waved his hands. “It’s fading. I’m fading.”
So Cayhun got dressed in purple robes and spent a week traveling to various sites, shouting memorized speeches. It felt like pretend. He was pretending to be King. But the important thing was that they listened, and work began right away, despite the cloudless skies.
It didn’t start raining until he had departed for the sea. On a map of the ocean, the Wizard had marked the location of a special trench. Cayhun was to go to there and supervise while a royal diver swam down as far as possible and dropped the sword down. In addition to an invisible forcefield, which the Wizard said trapped Ekrim and Ayunsil, the sword was wrapped in a dozen layers of eel-leather. This was supposed to prevent “conduction,” a word the Wizard used so often that the opportunity had long passed for Cayhun to ask him what it meant.
The Wizard remained behind at the castle. He said he needed to make notes for Cayhun.
“Just tell me when I get back.”
“No, it needs to be written down.”
And maybe it did. The Wizard became more forgetful with each day that passed.
They had meant to get out to sea before the worst of the deluge, but there had been a delay at a reservoir, and after a couple of days of rough sailing, the captain refused to go out any farther. The diver also refused to dive, citing such risks as lighting strikes, riptides, and storm sharks. The latter sounded made up to Cayhun, but he didn’t seem to have the same authority on sea as he did on land. Without the Wizard’s presence, they seemed to know he was not fully King.
So Cayhun dropped the sword into the sea himself and declared the mission a success. Sometimes you can only do your best and nothing more.
He was eager to return to the castle. For as long as he could remember, he had had this feeling of waiting for his real life to begin. And now here it was.
He hadn’t spent much time with the Wizard, but the old man was wise and kind. He was the kind of person you could have a long conversation with. He never mocked Cayhun for his curiosity or for his ignorance. Cayhun had eventually admitted his illiteracy and The Wizard said that he would teach him to read as soon as he got back from sea. Cayhun was excited to enter the realm of letters. It was time. So they headed back.
The journey from the castle to the dock and back, plus two days at sea, totaled fourteen days away. By the time Cayhun returned to the castle, the Wizard was dead.
- The Tutor
The tutor has decided to hold the first reading lesson in the Royal Library. They began with the last letter.
The tutor unfolded the chitin-pulp paper and showed Cayhun which direction was right side up. The letters were messily scrawled out in a tint derived from the ink cap mushroom, prized for the brilliant indigo hue it could produce. The tutor sat next to the boy and moved his finger over each word as he read aloud.
I’m sorry I am dead. I held out for as long as I could, but even my stolen power faded faster than I thought it might. There’s a saying in the kingdom: Sometimes you can only do your best and nothing more. I always found that sentiment stupid, yet here I am.
Our life forces, I mean Ekrim’s, Ayunsil’s’s and mine, are all determined by our planets. The celestial model in the throne room may help you understand. Ayunsil has comets, too, a gift from her father, the Origin. That means she will live the longest.
The story of what brought us here is not that interesting, and my time is short besides. I’ve been to many planets in many Universes, but this is the best one I’ve found, and if you pay attention, I think you might understand why. One day, when you’re older, etc.
I’ve left other notes for you to study. Just stuff I picked up other places. But the most urgent thing I have to tell you is this: there is no afterlife. None. Once Ayunsil and Ekrim die, there will be no more gods here. And no more magic, either. Only logic, only reason, only fairness, only decency. That’s all. Please make the most of it.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“There is plenty that’s mysterious here. I’ve read it a hundred times and I still can’t figure out what a ‘Universe’ is. But perhaps once you learn your letters, you can add some clarity to this message.”
“Can we read the other notes?”
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. There are no other notes. I know he meant to write them, but he died quite suddenly.”
- The Coral
Before we could embark on our revenge, we had to knit a forest out of bone and algae. Our first subjects were the mouths and tentacles that we taught to sing:
We were running out of time. All we had was sunlight and water and what remained of our powers. What could we do but reach up, regardless, and hope to become tall enough to pierce the surface and sharp enough to stab a man? It matters not what the weapon is made of, but how far it can reach.
- The Diver
Once a month, the moon was bright enough for night diving. The night dives were Hanka’s secret, a way to collect treasures that she was under no obligation to share.
During the day, she hunted with her kin for coral mushrooms. She would swim down to depth, knife in one hand, and carve away the fruiting bodies that grew from stalks that sprouted from the base of the reef. She put as many as she could in her bag, then she surfaced. She emptied the bag into the boat, then she started all over. Again and again until the sun went down. Every day was the same for all the women in the village. Rest was only allowed if you were pregnant or old.
There was a thick reef farther out. Hanka, the youngest of the divers, was the only one small enough to squeeze herself through the branches of this reef. This reef was not like the others they harvested. It was bloodred and shaped like a pile of deer antlers.
She got cut every time she went down, and it was worse at night. During the day she harvested the reef’s mushrooms, leaving the pearl oysters that dotted the reef untouched. She came back for those when the moon was full, cutting them open and burying their pearls in a nearby sea cave.
It was as if the reef meant to eat her. Each month she could hold her breath longer and so she went deeper in. She thought she could hear it humming through the currents: Beware, beware. Why did the warning draw her deeper in? Maybe the reef was sorry for all the times it had cut her. The dark red slashes it left on her skin stung for days. They hurt worse than normal reef cuts, but they didn’t look any different, so they didn’t give away her secret. All the women in the village were marked by the reef, bodies covered in shallow scars.
One night, she glimpsed a sword, somehow untarnished by the water. She grabbed the jeweled hilt and felt the barest hint of a shock. She knew at once it was her last dive. She was almost too large to swim in this reef, and she would never find anything more valuable than this.
The boys in her village told stories. They said whoever found the King’s lost sword would be the next King. She wondered if a girl could become King. Normally, a ridiculous thought. But there was something speaking to her. That voice that used to say Beware now said Yes.
She went first to the cave, to unbury her pearls. Then to the next village, to trade one pearl for a pair of shoes and a coin. She walked the Sea Road to the capital, even though it took longer. She liked having the water where she could see it.
She hoped the boys’ stories were true. They were so much better than the girls’ stories, where sea maidens traded their fins and voices for legs and engagement rings. The boys also told tales about the capital, but none of them had been there. Some of the things they said turned out to be true. There were giant aqueducts and they did cast large shadows. Fresh, sweet water did flow from pipes into homes and public fountains. Anyone could drink as much as they liked.
It was not true that the streets were paved with pearls, but they were paved with smooth stones in intricate patterns that Hanka found beautiful. She tried not to look at the ground too much, as her gawking would give her away as an outsider. The wheels of carts made twin ruts across the elaborately tiled streets. The astonishing thing was, the carts were pulled by horses made entirely of springs and gears.
The castle loomed large in the center of it all. She had the sword in her pack, wrapped in three layers of dried broad-leaf kelp. She unwrapped the sword to show it to a castle guard, who showed it to another guard, who brought her to the first of a series of waiting rooms. As the sun marched across the sky, each subsequent room grew larger and more lavishly appointed, until at last, the sun dipped below the horizon and she was brought to the throne room, to meet the King.
- The Sword
Cayhun gasped when the girl was brought in. Elnara.
But no, it was a trick of both the light and his failing memory. The girl before him was too old, twelve or thirteen. And Elnara had been dead for seventy years. Or more.
He put his fingertips to the center of his forehead and tried to summon all his concentration. He looked up at the girl. She was skinny and dark from the sun. Her arms were muscular and her thick hair was tied back in a bun.
“Where are you from?”
She shook her head, as if to dismiss his attempt at small talk. He smiled in admiration at her defiance. Elnara had been the same way. Sweet at times but stubborn at others, sometimes exceedingly so. He couldn’t laugh out loud, though he wanted to; she might interpret it as derision. He had nothing but respect for a person who could carry a sword almost as tall as she was. Even from this distance, from his throne to the petitioner’s podium, he could tell it was the same blade he had carried long ago.
She rested its tip on the ground, gouging a particularly delicate mosaic tile. Never mind, he would have someone fix it later. She rested her bare hand on the hilt.
“Am I King now?” she asked.
His adviser Etal began to laugh. He stopped once Cayhun glared at him.
The girl’s sandals were nearly worn through and her feet were covered in blisters. Cayhun looked up at the celestial model that hung from the ceiling. Gears moved the planets. The royal astronomers worked with craftsmen to add comets when they were spotted, because the Wizard had written that a comet could increase Ayunsil’s power. These comets had been a parting gift from her father.
There were no comets at the moment; the model was up to date. But Cayhun knew there was much invisible to the eye and that even as his engineers built better lenses, much happened that escaped their detection.
“Tell me your name.” He used his special King voice. It seemed to induce people to talk, even if they were disinclined.
“Hanka, there is a legend about the lost sword. But you must understand that it is a story and not a law. I am the last king of this kingdom.”
In the Royal Library, there were books from other Universes on how to transition to a republic. A new government was scheduled to take effect next year. The first elections would be soon.
Cayhun had never married, never had children. He knew that if he had a daughter, she would look like Elnara, she would look like Hanka, and he would want to give her everything, crown and kingdom included. Then there would be no republic, at least not in his lifetime. Besides, the wonders in the library had kept him too busy to pursue any relationships. He wanted his subjects to have the best of all worlds. And every day he endeavored to make something from another Universe come alive in this one.
“The sword is mine and I’m grateful you brought it back.” He stood and placed a falconer’s glove on his right hand. The gloved hand removed a heavy gold ring from his bare hand. “This is a token of appreciation. For you. In gratitude for the long journey you have made.” He stood up and walked the ring over himself. His hip was feeling good today.
She took the ring and weighed it in her palm, as if trying to decide if this was a fair trade or not. Reluctantly, she handed over the sword.
He lifted it to examine it and saw his glove was not necessary. No light, no buzz, no humming, no signs of life at all. He had been reading the library books on spiritual currents and could sense that the energy in the sword had been spent. Perhaps the girl had absorbed what was left of the sword’s energy and used it to find the strength to come here.
He looked at the girl’s face, searching for any sign of Ayunsil. He could detect none. “Hanka, right? That’s your name?” he asked, just to be sure.
Cayhun’s chest felt hollow. Strange as it was to say, he had hoped to encounter Ayunsil one last time before he crossed the Endless Ocean. He had so many questions for her. But the one that loomed largest was: Why him? Had he been chosen? When she called out from the forest, had she been calling for him?
Probably not, but still he hoped. He removed another ring from his hand. This one had a diamond in it. Thank goodness for the Wizard’s notes on alchemy; they kept the kingdom rich.
“This is for you, as well, if you’ll tell me how you got here.”
She began by describing the roads. Her sentences were short, hesitant, as if she were unaccustomed to speaking more than a few words at a time. If there was any voice that called out to her from the wilderness, that beckoned her while saying Beware, she didn’t mention it. That didn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cayhun never talked about what had happened to him in the forest, either.
The Wizard had only left one letter addressed to specifically to Cayhun. But he had left general notes hidden in many of his books. These were notes to a future king. Apparently, the Wizard had been plotting to depose Ekrim for a while and replace him with a wise human whom he, the Wizard, could guide. Cayhun had not been chosen specifically for this task, either, as far as he could tell. He had merely come along at a convenient time.
But if Cayhun hadn’t deserved the role given to him, he had tried to retroactively earn it. He had tried to be a just and kind ruler. He had used to resources of the kingdom to uncover the things the eye couldn’t see and to understand how everything was connected. The royal banner was decorated with golden threads representing mycelia, a pattern that resembled the worn etchings on the hilt of the sword he now held. The mycelia brought distinct and different individuals together. It allowed organisms to communicate, to mutual benefit.
From the notes left behind, he had gathered that Ayunsil had been a nightmare as Queen. She spent lavishly on herself and murdered advisers who brought bad news. This had made it urgent, from the Wizard’s perspective, that she be contained first. Ekrim ruled with a similar disdain for his subjects, only he murdered fewer advisers.
As much as he had looked, Cayhun could find no record of what brought the three former gods to this kingdom in the first place. Perhaps he was missing something. It had taken him years to learn how to read, and even now it was an ongoing process. Some books were written in unusual versions of his own language; some were written in translatable versions of other languages. Others were written in completely esoteric scripts. He had royal translators who devoted their lives to prying meaning from the page. Their work would continue long after he died. It might continue to the end of time itself.
“Can you read?” he asked Hanka.
She shook her head no.
He turned to his adviser. “Etal, you aren’t building schools fast enough.”
Etal nodded and scribbled a note, which he passed along to someone.
Every day, Cayhun had doubts about the transition to a republic. He worried that the people, if left to their own devices, would not build enough schools or wouldn’t build them fast enough. That they would not investigate the unseen with enough vigor. Perhaps the transition could be put off, but what if he were to die suddenly? Etal or one of his other councilmembers might be tempted to wear the crown after Cayhun, might be tempted to cancel plans for the republic entirely.
“Hanka, we have schools in the capital. You could attend one instead of returning home.”
“I’m not going home.” As Hanka glanced at both rings in her palm, she seemed to perform a calculation. She looked up at him and asked: “How much does school cost?”
“It is free.”
“Is the school . . . near the water?” Cayhun glanced at Etal, who answered. “She can go to Allotropa. It’s next to the reservoir.”
“The reservoir is fresh water. It protects us from both drought and flood,” said Cayhun. “I’m guessing you prefer the ocean. But it’s very large; you can’t see one shore from the other.”
“I want to see it first, before I say yes or no.”
“Yes, that’s a reasonable condition.”
“And if I decide to go, can I leave whenever I want?”
Cayhun smiled broadly. What an excellent question. Elnara would have been just like this. Sometimes, even in his old age, he dreamt she was still alive. That she was still in the village, and he had forgotten about her. In his dreams, he would rush over to rescue her. He never made it; the illogic of the timeline always woke him before he could find her.
Had she lived, and without any royal intervention, Elnara would have spent her life as a servant. First to their father, then to her husband. Or perhaps as a slave in the neighboring village.
What if Hanka could learn to read, as he did? What if she could learn to rule, as he did? The tiniest fragment of Ayunsil was alive in him. He could feel her when he searched the Royal Library for writing on the Realm of the Gods. So far, he could find nothing about it, though there were many serious texts about completely made-up religions. He knew Ayunsil’s father had been called the Origin; the Wizard had mentioned something about this, and that her father had given her many gifts. But had her father taken her seriously? Had anybody?
Cayhun looked once more at Hanka. If Ayunsil was still alive in him, maybe she was alive in the girl as well. He appointed Hanka a guardian. She would be taken care of, no matter what.
Later that evening, he took the sword to the Royal Mycorium, where he kept his most beautiful and prized specimens. Under a tapestry that depicted the royal banner, there was a mounted rack that held the Wizard’s old walking stick. People referred to it a staff or wand, even though it held no more magic than the Origin’s spent sword.
Cayhun replaced the walking stick with the sword. The jewel in the hilt was dull, and the gold threads representing the mycelium hardly sparkled. He had never gotten a good look at the thing before. Now mounted, he could see that etched into the blade was a standing figure, possibly the Origin himself. He wore a wide-brimmed cap that had gills on the underside.
“God was a mushroom.” Cayhun was speaking to the Wizard, who still lived as a voice in his head. Sometimes that voice gave him advice.
Bury her once more, the Wizard’s voice said.
This voice wasn’t always correct.
If the right comet entered the sky at the right time, the jewel in this hilt might glow again. The part of him that knew Ayunsil knew it was better to keep her close, and in a place of honor. If her power returned, there’d be no silencing her. Better to keep her safe, under the royal banner, under the royal motto, which consisted of words the Wizard had wrote Cayhun long ago: logic, reason, fairness, decency.
If she came back, she might look up. She might read these words and understand that they applied to her as well. And then she might decide to put her grudge to rest and use her powers to bless them all.
The writer would like to acknowledge Stephen Dunn’s ‘Revolt of the Turtles’ for the inspiration this poem has provided.
“Sword & Spore” copyright © 2022 by Dominica Phetteplace
Art copyright © 2022 by Jorge Mascarenhas