Physical Risk, Emotional Risk

Divine Burdens is out! You can now find it on Amazon (five days after publication, Divine Burdens is still on the site, touch wood, even though they banned the much less edgy utopian scifi that was The Brazen Altar—giant corporations gonna corp, amirite? Welcome to capitalism, I guess).

As we were discussing Divine Burdens, an interesting conversation on the topic of risk developed and we couldn’t help but share with you!

One of the main characters in Divine Burdens is a woman named Lija, a worshipper of the god called the Hunt. She’s a top athlete, one of the five best athletes in the City, and spends nine months competing with other top athletes for the coveted role of Sacrifice to the Hunt. As Sacrifice, she will spend three days without sleep or rest being chased down by Hunters through a constantly-shifting forest, her body available as a prize to anyone who manages to catch her and physically overpower her. She is both religious object and most honored worshipper in one. 

Divine Burdens is, as we’ve mentioned a time or three before, erotic horror. Lija’s experiences during the Hunt are…well, let’s be politic and call them ‘intense.’ The Sacrifice is given a Blessing that makes her terrified out of her mind and unable to rest, then set loose for wave after wave of Hunters to pursue her.

In the City, this is a high honor, and every single one of the athletes competing for the position is incredibly skilled, competitive, and strong. They all go through extensive, enormously intense training, some of which might quickly break the spirit of a person without access to the speedy healing offered by a medical pod.

Given that, you might be forgiven for assuming that the people who compete for Sacrifice to the Hunt would be utterly fearless. And in a sense, they are.

Lija lay on her back, holding Tatian tightly. She wrapped her legs around Tatian’s hips. They stared at each other for a moment, face to face.

“I almost wish you would win the competition,” Tatian said. “I might enjoy that a lot.”

“Are you conceding?”

Tatian laughed. “Oh, no. There’s no way you’re beating me.” She planted a knee on the platform and wrenched herself violently, twisting herself around in Lija’s grasp. Then she placed both feet on the ground and pushed, sliding them both backward along the platform. It tilted. Tatian twisted sideways. They both rolled toward the edge of the platform, which tilted more and more rapidly until it dumped them off the edge. They fell, still locked in a tight embrace.

Lija cursed. They hit the ground. The world filled with stars. Lija’s grip slackened for a second. That was all Tatian needed. She wrenched herself free and was on her feet again, racing for the stairs.

Lija dragged herself upright. She set out after Tatian, who was already nearly to the top. Tatian trotted out to the center of the platform. The line resumed its sweep.

Lija climbed the stairs, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She stepped out onto the platform. Tatian stepped to the side. It tilted. Lija wavered.

“You’re stronger than me,” Tatian said. “You might even be faster than me. I can still beat you. The winner isn’t always the fastest or the strongest. The winner is the person who’s willing to do what the other one isn’t.”

From Book Two, Divine Burdens

Lija and her fellow athletes are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to win. They’re the best, most competitive, most aggressive elite candidates the City has to offer. Broken bones during the competition? Eh, it happens, hop in a medpod. Just part of the price of being the best. Pain, discomfort, stretching past the normal limits of endurance? It’s how you show you’re the best. They casually accept a degree of physical pain that even the most hardcore extreme sports enthusiasts in our world would not voluntarily agree to (and we plan to discuss that more in a future blog post).

After breakfast, High Priest Henlith and Amakoli rose. “Today,” Henlith said, “we learn who will become this year’s Sacrifice to the Hunt.” A cheer ran through the Hall. 

Brin leaned forward to whisper in Lija’s ear, “I know who I think it should be!” Tatian glowered.

“The Sacrifice represents the strongest of us, the fiercest, the most capable,” Amakoli said. “Many people compete, but only one can be the best. Today, we find out who that is.”

Savine, standing behind Tatian, fixed her gaze on Lija. Two eyes floated in black emptiness. Lija shivered.

“Tonight, this hall will be filled with celebration,” Henlith said. “Let’s go find out who it will be for.”

From Book Two, Divine Burdens

Those who don’t succeed in becoming the Sacrifice in any particular year often become Hunters instead, chasing the Sacrifice through the forest, ravishing her once they catch her. These elite Hunters are also top athletes, people who have trained alongside the Sacrifice—possibly for years—who know how the Sacrifice thinks, who know how to track, who know intimately the layout of the forest that serves as the arena for the Hunt and the playground for the god they all worship.

The Sacrifice, in other words, is in for an…interesting time.

In the real world, signing up for something like this might seem so risky as to be quite bonkers. No, not quite bonkers, very bonkers. In the world of the Passionate Pantheon, the citizens of the City have a very different approach to risk than people in the real world—an approach that comes from living their entire lives knowing that the gods and the AIs always, always have their backs, that nothing can hurt them past the ability of a couple of hours in a medical pod to fix, that their limits and boundaries will never be violated, that nothing bad will happen to them.

Nothing physically bad, that is.

In the Passionate Pantheon, physical risk is treated very differently indeed than it is in the real world, thanks to their culture, their technology, and the omnipresent AI gods and drones.

Emotional risk, on the other hand…

Emotional risk in the City is a whole ‘nother beast. Partly because of the difference in contrast, of course; when you have almost nothing to fear from physical risk, emotional risk feels scarier, perhaps. And practice with assessing risk makes it easier over time to accurately judge, after all, and they get much less practice.

More than that, though, when you spend your life in the same city, a place of only a few million people, and you routinely live for centuries, the fact is, people who you hurt or who hurt you might continue to be part of your community for hundreds of years. This changes the society, and the social contract around vulnerability…something we explore in-depth in the third book, The Hallowed Covenant, and the fourth book, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions.

What does this mean for Lija and other characters we meet in the first two books?  That stark contrast between physical and emotional risk means characters will routinely, even eagerly, agree to do physically intense—even overwhelming—things (like compete to be Sacrifice to the Hunt) that would be unthinkable in the real world…but emotional risk and vulnerability that are part of our ordinary daily lives become incredibly difficult for them.

 “This might be the biggest bedroom I’ve ever seen,” Brin said. She snuggled up to Lija’s side. “You could host a party in here.”

“The thought’s occurred to me,” Lija said. “It used to be even bigger. I did make one change.”

“What’s that?”

“I had the room divided in half.” She took Brin’s hand again and led her into a second bedroom, appointed much the same as the first but without the tapestry on the ceiling. This room had a couch at the foot of the bed. Beside the couch sat a claw-footed nightstand of tiger-striped wood with a Provider set in its center.

“What’s this room for?” Brin said.

“Well, I was kind of hoping, that is, if you didn’t have any other…I mean, if you don’t mind, I thought that maybe, I don’t know, you and Savine could, well, I mean, once Savine’s finished her term as my bondslave, because, you know, she doesn’t have a choice right now, but you do, if you wanted to—oh, I’m making a hash of this.” Lija rolled her eyes and ran an impatient hand through her hair. “How would you feel about moving in here with me? You and Savine. If you want to, I mean.”

Brin hugged Lija fiercely. 

“Oof! Is that a yes or a no?”

Brin laughed. “I will consider your proposal.” She grinned at Lija’s expression. “That’s a yes.”

“Whew!” Lija said. “That was awkward. This doesn’t mean I’m going to sleep with you every night! I still like sleeping on my own. And—”

“Hush.” Brin kissed her to silence her.

From Book Two, Divine Burdens

In the real world, we have a common expectation of the way relationships are “supposed” to progress. You meet, you date, things get serious, you move in together, you get married (in some societies it’s the other way around—you get married, then you move in together), you have kids, you die. A lot of folks refer to this as the “relationship escalator.” It’s a sort of path society slots you into, which you can’t step off without tumbling all the way to the beginning again (hence ‘escalator’), and it guides your expectations about what a relationship looks like and what trajectory it takes.

In the City, there isn’t a relationship template. Relationships come in a whole colorful tapestry of different forms, with no two relationships looking alike. There are lots of reasons for that—in fact, watch this space, we’re planning a whole essay on this topic!—but the lack of a relationship template means you need to be more emotionally vulnerable, to be willing to ask for what you want without leaning on the Standard Model of what a relationship looks like…but that emotional vulnerability is harder for them than it is for us. And without a relationship template to draw upon, emotional vulnerability itself becomes attached to a lot more risk, and navigating that risk is something citizens of the City do quite differently. (You’ll see some ways that manifests, and what happens during a breakup, in the third novel.) 

(As an aside, for many people in the real world—especially those socialised as women who mostly seek heterosexual relationships—physical and emotional risk are intrinsically bound together. There is very rarely an occasion for emotional risk without the physical, and many experiences of physical harm come with emotional betrayal. So the separation isn’t always as neat and tidy as we’re laying it out here, but the point is, in general, people in the City approach these kinds of risks in ways that aren’t like what happens in the real world.)

The people in the City are, in many ways, extremely emotionally healthy—much healthier on average than we in the real world are, with our weird associations and assumptions around intrinsic value and resources and human rights—though they do have some weaknesses. One of these is grief. Grief and bereavement, especially when it’s unexpected, is something the citizens of the City have a lot of trouble with (and that’s one of the themes in the fourth novel!). People of the City are generally secure-attached, they communicate directly (the way consent is structured in the City encourages direct, usually verbal, communication and clear boundaries), and they have that bedrock sense of safety and security that comes from knowing that your childhood drone, and later the whole of the City itself, is always watching over you protectively…plus of course they live in a post-scarcity society, so they’ll never want for anything like food or shelter.

But they aren’t superhuman. They do feel rejection painfully, even excruciatingly, (though the things they interpret as rejection are different…perhaps that will be a blog post of its own!). They do get their hearts broken, and when you live for as long as they do, heartbreak is on a completely different scale. So they are, perhaps reasonably, more hesitant, more guarded maybe, around emotional intimacy.

When they offer it, they offer it all the way—the fourth novel has some lovely examples!—but it’s not as easy as it is for us, with our shorter lives and our acute awareness of physical risk on top of the emotional risk of relating to others.

At the end of the day, the reasons they do the things they do—the reason Lija and her fellow competitors are willing to fight so hard for the honor of experiencing a ritual that to us would be both intensely painful and extremely horrific, yet become incredibly flustered at the thought of inviting a lover to move in—is the way the society of the City views risk. It’s so radically different from how we in the real world look at it that we, as the authors and creators of this world, aren’t even sure we’ve fully explored the implications! Maybe in the future, we should revisit this topic?

Some musings on consent, part 4

We’ve already talked quite a lot about consent in the Passionate Pantheon universe (check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the series), but there’s always so much more to talk about! It’s a topic that is both expansive and nuanced, and we use the Passionate Pantheon novels to examine consent from a lot of different angles.

One of the differences between consent in the Passionate Pantheon (especially in the darker even-numbered novels) and consent in the real world is that consent in the real world is often assumed to be open-ended, unless it is explicitly revoked—this is the way most romantic relationships, including marriage, work—whereas in the City, consent once given often cannot be revoked, but it is never open-ended in duration. So in the Passionate Pantheon, if you consent to an activity, you’re in it for the ride. You generally can’t change your mind halfway through. However, consent is always given on a case by case basis; consent to an activity today is never assumed to mean you’re willing to do it again tomorrow! Nor that you might be willing to do other similar activities that you hadn’t given consent for. Nor that you might be willing to do that activity with anyone else.

We got to talking about this a couple of weeks ago, and Eunice observed that consent in the Passionate Pantheon works the way some non-kinky people in the real world assume that BDSM works. Sometimes, when people who are unfamiliar with kink watch a BDSM scene (or a Hollywood mock-up of one — and yes, mockery is a deliberately chosen description!) from the outside, they can come away with some strange ideas about how it works. For example, many get the idea that if you consent to be submissive once, that’s it. You’re now A Submissive, the end, and you’ve given up the right to revoke consent from that point on. You’ve signed the contract, as they might say in a certain extremely unrealistic book and movie franchise based on Twilight fanfiction.

In the BDSM community, we know this isn’t how it works (or at least, it shouldn’t be—humans being what they are, we wouldn’t want to be that definitive!). One of the hallmarks of BDSM is that consent is always ongoing. Even in so-called Master/slave relationships, which are built on the idea that the master “owns” the slave, the slave is, in reality, free to leave at any time. Master/slave relationships are a kind of fantasy about total control—yes, even for those who insist it’s not a fantasy! Maybe particularly a fantasy for them, in fact—and the people in such relationships can (and do) choose to end them. There is no way to enforce such a relationship if one party wants to end it without some almost-verging-on-highly illegal actions.

And those are rather less common than religious fundamentalist evangelicals would have you believe, especially in comparison to some of their own activities.

The society of the City is built on a strong foundation of consent. With very few exceptions, consent is baked into the social fabric to a degree that would seem quite strange to us in the real world. Even a person who consistently commits offenses against others is not involuntarily incarcerated against their will. There is no such thing as a prison in the Passionate Pantheon. Rehabilitation is short and intense, invariably taking less than a day, then reparation is done in the community. A person who absolutely cannot exist without harming others may be given a choice to have their brain changed so that their need to harm others is removed (though again, this is never done unless the person agrees to it), or simply excluded from the City. Even this choice would be at the end of a long series of attempts to prevent any damage to others without infringing on the individual’s own freedom of choice. Each person’s right to choose ends when it negatively impacts others, of course, but that doesn’t mean that their ability to choose isn’t important. This is a foundational tenet, maybe only behind the importance of keeping your promises (we’ll come back to that in a bit).

But… (and of course there is a but…)

In the City, it is typically the case that once you’ve agreed to do something, your ability to revoke consent is taken away from you…and this is considered normal and acceptable. Your consent is always, always limited in duration—one activity, one party, one day, whatever—but once you’ve agreed, you may not be able to change your mind. In fact, your subjective experience might deliberately be distorted so that you’re not capable of changing your mind.

Enrilik gestured to one of the nude figures, a tall, curvy woman with long yellow hair. The woman stood spreadeagle at one of the frames, legs apart, arms above her head. Enrilik fastened the straps around her body, then closed the manacles around her wrists. “Kaytin, this is Nayar. Nayar, meet Kaytin.”

“Pleased to meet you!” the woman said. “I’ve heard so much about you. When I found out Jakalva was hosting a party in your honor, I had to be here.” She tugged at the manacles that bound her wrists. “Can you make those a little tighter? Jakalva says I’m in for a terrifying night. It wouldn’t do for me to get loose in my panic.”

Enrilik adjusted the manacles. “Is that better?”

Nayar tugged at them again. “Much better, thank you.” Kaytin knelt to bind her ankles to the lower corners of the frame. “Will you be accepting my hospitality later, when I am confused and frightened?” Nayar said.

Kaytin straightened with a grin. “Maybe. That sounds fun.”

From Book 4, tentatively titled Unwavering Devotions

Citizens of the City are okay with that, in part because of the absolute bedrock sense of safety that comes with growing up in their society. They know, as surely as you know that if you drop something it will fall, that the AI gods and the drones are watching. They know that the gods and drones will intervene if something goes wrong. They know they will not be damaged, physically or mentally, at least not in any way that can’t easily be fixed just by hopping into a medical pod for a short time. They know the boundaries around the thing they’ve consented to will be enforced with absolute, unyielding precision. (We talk about this cast-iron sense of safety in more depth in Part 1 of this series.)

Consent works this way in the City because, while consent is one of the foundational principles of the society of the City, so is the idea that a promise once made can never, ever be broken (I said we’d get back to this point!). As we’ve mentioned previously, in this sense, the people of the City are kind of like science-fiction Fey.

Promises are the deepest, most foundational magic that exists. It’s the bond that makes living in a society bearable, for you and those around you. The idea that you are beholden to others is what drove the ability to create a social contract when we developed as a species, and what greater magic could possibly exist?

They were joined a few moments later by a tall, slim woman with light brown skin and short black hair that looked decidedly tousled. She wore a simple yellow wrap tied loosely around her waist. She walked quietly, as though trying to evade notice, her gray eyes downcast.

“Cleric Penril,” she said, in a voice so soft Avia had to strain to hear it. “I…I need to talk to you.”

The woman—Tessia, Avia guessed, from the sound of her voice—sat, eyes still downcast. Silence descended on the room, broken only by the soft sigh of a light breeze through the open windows. Penril seemed content to wait for her to speak first. She seemed in no hurry to do so. The moment stretched. Avia fought down the urge to break the silence.

Eventually, Tessia spoke. “Last night, I made a promise.”

“You did,” Penril said, his voice even.

“I…I don’t think…it wasn’t what I…I don’t know if…” A tear ran down her cheek. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

Penril nodded. “New experiences often aren’t.”

“What I mean is…” Her voice trailed off. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. “The thing is…”

“Yes?”

Tessia twisted her fingers together. “I don’t think I can keep my promise.” Her voice was nearly inaudible.

“I see.” Penril sat back with his arms folded in front of him, lips pressed in a tight line of disapproval. “You made a promise not only to me, but to the gods themselves. This is a serious matter.”

“I know!” Tessia wailed. “I can’t do service, I just can’t!”

Penril sighed. “When we created the first gods,” he said, “we struck a pact. The gods would provide for us, and in exchange, we would worship them. Central to this covenant is the idea that a promise is a sacred thing. Nobody, human or god, may break a promise once given. To do so is to tear at the foundation of our society.”

“But I—”

“I’m not finished!” Penril thundered. “If we cannot count on one another to keep our promises, the bonds that tie us to each other in mutual cooperation fail. All of society crumbles. A promise, whether to a person or to a god, is a bond. If you break that bond, what place do you have among civilized people?”

Tessia wept, wracking sobs that shook her slender frame. “I know!” she said. “I can’t—I just—I didn’t know! I thought I could do it! I’m sorry!”

Penril’s gaze held steady. “You have made a promise to the Blesser and to me. You made your promise in the presence of Avia in her role as Vessel of the Blesser. Keeping your promise is not optional. I will expect you to be here half an hour before sundown in four days’ time, prepared to serve the Blesser.”

From Book 3, The Hallowed Covenant

So the idea that consent once given can’t be withdrawn is perhaps much less frightening to them than it is to us, because consent is a promise, not to be broken, and they know that whatever it is they’ve agreed to has a fixed, usually short, duration. The end is always visible from the beginning. Tessia weeps because she is so disappointed in herself, so full of shame that she has broken a promise, but she is not terrified. She doesn’t fear being harmed or forever  judged, or a pariah for not being able to fulfil a promise.

Even in the case where you accept a punishment (and in all but one City you must both consent to, and actively ask for, punishment, and accept that the punishment is fair and just, for it to be given), the punishment too is limited in duration and impacts on your future. If you fail to accept punishment for hurting others, it won’t be forced on you, though the drones and the AIs will seek to protect others from you in the future. Only if that is impossible will you face exile.

And in the society of the City, once the thing you’ve consented to is over, it’s over. Including punishments. There’s no assumptions about who you are or what you are afterward; if you agree to be someone’s bondslave, when the term has ended, you are absolute equals again. There’s no lingering sense that that person has any further claim to power over you whatsoever due to that previous bondslavery. If you are punished, once that punishment is complete the stain of that guilt is entirely wiped clean, with no lingering stigma.

The ways we explore consent in the Passionate Pantheon universe might be uncomfortable to some people. They’re supposed to be. Hot, yes; sexy, we hope—but also uncomfortable, because we use these novels to ask “what if?” questions that hold a mirror up to some of the more uncomfortable parts of the real world.

We have a little suspicion, though, that the way we play with irrevocable consent, especially in the second and fourth books, may, perhaps non-intuitively, make kinky people more uncomfortable than people who aren’t into BDSM.

People (especially female-identified people in heterosexual relationships) in ordinary non-kinky relationships might already be accustomed to the notion that a lot of people believe that once you’ve said yes to something, you can’t stop. Many women have had the experience of feeling they can’t say ‘no’ once they’ve said ‘yes.’ They are often considered, sometimes even told explicitly, that they are selfish if they withdraw consent. That they are possibly even damaging their partner if they stop in the middle of sexual activity. That’s both horrifying and untrue, but it’s also an inevitable consequence of the way our society looks at sex and sexual agency. (We’re not saying only women have this experience, of course, though it’s probably more familiar to female-identified people than male-identified people. The real world doesn’t do a good job of promoting sexual agency for women.) 

And whilst this approach to irrevocable consent might be perfectly reasonable and acceptable in a fictional society where every single individual is both a lot more free of coercion (there’s no such thing as survival sex in the post-scarcity culture of the Passionate Pantheon) and significantly more confident of their physical safety, those two elements aren’t, and can’t be, true in our real world. And yet this belief that consent is a promise that is unforgivable to break somehow still exists in reality, and probably is far more wide-spread than most people would like to acknowledge.

Kinksters, on the other hand, are—at least in theory; the reality is outside the scope of this essay, but let’s just say that theory and practice should be the same, but humans aren’t known for being able to always perfectly practice what they preach, and kinksters are no different—inculcated in a culture that teaches consent must always be explicit, exists only in the moment, and can always be withdrawn. Withdrawing consent is the whole function of safewords!

So perhaps unexpectedly, it’s the people most accustomed to playing with consent who might find the even-numbered novels the most uncomfortable, especially if it makes them horny too. It goes utterly against what they’ve been taught is the ‘better’ style of consent, better than the way mainstream society does it, a more conscientious style that they aim for and idealise. And in our real world, we approve of that. We encourage that, in fact. But the real world is not the world of the Passionate Pantheon, and the circumstances that exist in the real world would be considered intrinsically antithetical to true consent from the point of view of the residents of the City anyway.

We hope the readers will find the scenes we paint arousing, hopefully a little thought-provoking, but we also hope they’ll be at least a little disturbing. The even-numbered novels are erotic horror, after all. And what’s the point of horror if it doesn’t make you look at the world around you and feel just a bit unsettled at the similarities?

This Light Becomes My Art 3/3

Chapter 3 of 3

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

The storm gradually subsided. The lights flowing across the shield dome faded to a steady scintillation, then to an occasional flicker, and were gone. Far beneath the shield, Donvin sat beside Terlyn, lost in conversation while the party disappeared to somewhere else. The glow of the drink hummed through him. He sank into Terlyn’s shy smile, the swirling effervescence whenever their bodies touched.

A small drone studded with tiny gemstones flitted by to whisk away their empty glasses. Another drone unobtrusively slid fresh drinks in their place. Donvin and Terlyn sipped their replenished drinks as they talked for long hours, each entranced by the other. The horizon glowed with the promise of dawn when Kalaian appeared at Donvin’s shoulder. She perched gracefully on the arm of the sofa, fingers running through Donvin’s hair. The gem at her throat glowed a steady red. “There you are! I wondered where you’d got off to. I seem to recall we have an unfinished conversation to attend to.”

Donvin shook himself, realizing for the first time that the park had somehow emptied of nearly all the guests. Drones darted about carrying off furniture. The luminous flowers on the low hedge wall had already faded in the light of the approaching morning. Softly glowing petals fell in mounds at the feet of the hedges. The statues, too, had lost some of their glow with the oncoming sun.

“I, um, wow, I—” Donvin stammered.

Kalaian’s necklace burned brighter. She grinned impishly at him. “Preoccupied with your new friend?” She turned to Terlyn. “Terlyn, yes? I’ve seen you around in the Garden a few times, but I don’t think we’ve ever been introduced. Seems a bit strange that we should only meet after I leave the Quickener to start my service to the Lady.”

Terlyn inclined her head. “You host a lovely party.”

“Thank you. You seem to be enjoying Donvin’s hospitality.”

Heat touched Terlyn’s face. “I suppose I wasn’t very present, was I? I was supposed to mingle. I didn’t realize how late it had gotten…” Her voice trailed off.

Kalaian chuckled. “I understand completely. Donvin can be quite charming. Distracting, even.” She slid her hands over his shoulders. 

“Um, if you two have things to talk about—”

The light at Kalaian’s throat blazed. “Oh, I’m sure Donvin won’t mind if our…conversation waits a bit longer.” She gave him a coquettish wink. “These sorts of conversations can be so much more satisfying when they’re given plenty of time and patience, isn’t that right?” She placed a small kiss on Donvin’s cheek. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to intrude on your conversation, unless perhaps you care to join ours?”

Terlyn blinked rapidly. “I, um, thank you, but I think we were just wrapping up. I didn’t realize we’d talked so long.”

Kalaian slipped onto Donvin’s lap. The butterflies fluttered around her head for a moment before dissolving into sprays of speckled light. “Donvin is lovely that way. His conversations can extend for hours. He does enjoy a nice leisurely…talk.” She draped an arm across her shoulder. Flowers bloomed along her side, the petals breaking free to flutter away as butterflies.

“Yes, well, if you’re finished teasing us,” Donvin said, sliding an arm about her waist.

“Is that what I’m doing?” Kalaian assumed an expression of pious innocence. “That doesn’t sound like me.” She leaned forward with a mischievous grin. “I thought I was doing the opposite of teasing. A three-way conversation sounds like fun!” The gem flared bright.

“Oh!” Terlyn said. “Oh, I, no, that, um…” She looked around. “It’s much later than I realized! I should be off. To bed. Um. Alone, I mean.” She bolted upright. Kalaian rose gracefully from Donvin’s lap. “Thank you for your hospitality,” Terlyn said.

“You’re welcome,” Kalaian said. “I’m pleased you attended, and I hope to see you again in the future.” They both bowed. Terlyn fled down the path between the rows of graceful statues, now completely quiescent, their luminous radiance faded to nothing.

Kalaian slipped into the space Terlyn had just vacated. “Did I come at a bad time? You seemed like you might be ready for a deeper conversation with her.”

“Hmm? No! I…we were just talking. Nothing impetuous at all.”

“Really?” Kalaian leaned back. “Who are you, and why do you look like Donvin?”

Donvin chuckled. “Not every conversation needs to end with—”

“Ecstasy?” Kalaian interjected, face once more a study of devout innocence. “I’ve heard that. I seem to recall we need to conclude our conversation on just that very subject.” Her fingers brushed Donvin’s lips. “So, what do you have to say?”

“Come here and let me tell you.” Their lips met. The kiss endured, extending for a timeless eternity.

When at last it ended, Kalaian chuckled, a low, throaty sound. Her necklace burned with fiery radiance. “You make a compelling argument.” She slipped her hands into his robe, spreading her palms across his chest. “Allow me to retort.”

“Please do.”

They kissed again, longer this time. Kalaian’s tongue fluttered against Donvin’s lips, light as a feather. Donvin caressed her shoulders. The butterflies scrambled away from his hands, a burst of colour swirling across her back. She purred and pressed herself against him.

Presently, she stood and offered Donvin her hand. “Perhaps we should continue this conversation somewhere more suitable?”

Hand in hand, they walked down the pathway toward the nearest pod terminal. Butterflies fluttered in her wake. Behind them, a swarm of tiny glittering things poured from the Provider. The statues collapsed and dissolved into the waving grass.

Two weeks later, Donvin sat at a small table in an open courtyard, basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun, mug of tea in hand. A noisy, laughing crowd of people in the red and black kilts of worshippers of the Wild flowed around him, chasing and teasing one another as they played a rowdy game of Capture the Turtle. Donvin caught a quick glimpse from the corner of his eye of a short figure, bronze skin, green hair. In a blink, the group was gone.

He smiled to himself as a momentary memory floated through his mind. Then, with a shrug, he reached out to Terlyn.

Her voice materialized in his head. Hi! I wasn’t expecting to hear from you again.

I just happened to be thinking of you, he sent back. Am I intruding?

No! Not at all! I, um…I enjoyed meeting you.

So did I, he sent. I’d love to continue our conversation. Not that way! he added hastily.

No? Am I not your type?

It’s not that! Donvin’s fingers curled around his mug and he brought it to his lips for a bracing sip. I didn’t mean—I just—hey! You’re getting me flustered on purpose, aren’t you?

If I say I am, would you like that?

Donvin snorted aloud. I was just thinking, I’d love to spend some time with you again, whenever you’re available.

I’m not doing anything right now. What are you doing?

Meeting you, I hope.

Terminal station by the Garden?

I’ll be there!

Less than half an hour later, Donvin stood at the base of a float tube. Above him, an ornate marble temple hovered silently in the air, the grand banquet painted across the base flowing and moving as he watched.

Terlyn drifted weightlessly down the tube, angelic in the draped folds of the long dress that floated around her. The impressionistic leaves and vines decorating the dress glowed in the sunlight. Two large, translucent panels attached at her wrists billowed in the float field, giving Donvin an impression of wings. She alighted gently at the base of the tube. “Hi!”

Donvin bowed low. “Good afternoon, Terlyn of the Quickener.”

She returned his bow. “Good afternoon, Donvin of the Lady.” She straightened, laughing. “I’m glad you called.”

“Whew!” Donvin said. “That’s a relief. This might be rather awkward otherwise.” He grinned impishly.

“What would you like to do?”

“Get to know you a little better. We’re near the Garden. You could show me around if you like.”

Terlyn sighed and shook her head. “I’d rather not. Two of my mothers are there right now.”

“Is that bad?”

“No, it’s not bad, it’s just…it’s complicated. People in my family group are kind of, well…it’s more or less assumed we’ll worship the Quickener.”

“And that doesn’t appeal to you?”

“It’s not that! It’s just…I want it to be real, you know? Something I truly want to do. When you’re from the Everessa family group, it can be hard to separate what you want to do from what the name expects of you.” She blinked. “Never mind. Anyway.”

“I suppose I was the one to reach out to you, so…” He thought for a moment. “A friend of mine is doing a performance at the Temple of the Lady. Interested?”

“Sure! Why not?”

They walked across the Temple District toward the fantastical, surreal Temple of the Lady, with its grand arches and swooping curves that seemed to defy geometry. Paths tiled in stone radiated out from the entrance through a large park in front of the Temple like spokes on a wheel, lined with a mixture of still and shifting, transforming sculptures. Small streams filled with glittering fish threaded through the park, their edges lined with carefully designed flowers in a glorious variety of colors. Three people in gauzy purple clothes assembled sections of an enormous contraption of some sort made of a frame of tubular steel stretched with colorful taut fabric, while a fourth sat in a small rounded depression atop it. As Donvin and Terlyn watched, it caught the breeze and catapulted into the sky on long silvery cords. The people on the ground whooped and cheered.

They passed through the high, arched entryway, its stones covered in engraved calligraphy inlaid with platinum, into the dizzying space beyond. Vast columns of light gray marble supported an elaborate ceiling decorated with vivid frescoes in an array of colors showing dancing figures trailing long ribbons, faces suffused with joy.

“Have you worshipped the Lady long?” Terlyn said.

Donvin shrugged. “Maybe a hundred and twenty years, I guess? Perhaps a bit longer. This way!”

He led her down the hallway into a large circular chamber with a domed roof, where a handful of people gathered with eager expressions. Light streamed from curved windows at the base of the dome. Brilliant designs spiraled up the walls, elaborate calligraphy telling the story of the first Avatar of the Lady designing this very temple. Drones flitted here and there, arranging soft cushions around a ring of small float-field generators beneath the dome. A long, curved frame hung from the ceiling, strung with a dense bundle of fine threads that spooled from reels around the dome’s edge. “What’s going on?” Terlyn said.

Donvin grinned. “You’ll see.” He seated himself and gestured for her to sit beside him.

The drones finished setting out the cushions. More people filtered in, claiming clusters of cushions around the room. A delta-winged drone decorated with bands of gleaming colored glass swooped down to offer them drinks. Donvin and Terlyn each plucked a glass from the tray it carried.

Slowly, the windows grew more opaque. As the room dimmed, the bundle of threads began to glow, each individual strand radiating rainbow light into the chamber. A murmur ran through the audience.

A door opened in the far wall to admit a small, lissome woman standing barely as tall as Donvin’s shoulder. She wore no clothing. Fine fur covered her body, rippling with brilliant iridescent patterns in vivid colors: orange, yellow, blue, violet, and green. Four long, slender, jointed appendages extended from her back, each covered with a hard shell of glossy black, faint iridescence playing across them like a thin film of oil on water. Each was tipped with a small, bright red hook.

The room grew quiet. She looked gravely at the audience through large eyes of luminous violet. “I am Avatar Arashnäi of the Lady,” she said in a soft, euphonic voice, “and I thank you for witnessing my art.”

Terlyn leaned in close. “You didn’t tell me your friend was Avatar!”

“I knew her before her Dance of Sacrifice.”

Arashnäi leaped gracefully into the float field. The dense skein of threads began to move through the frame. One of the appendages on her back whipped out to hook a thin strand of scarlet thread. It vibrated with a soft chime that filled the chamber.

Silently, the loom came to life. The threads fed down from the ceiling through the top of the frame. A mechanical puck shuttled back and forth near its base. Avatar Arashnäi looped and soared, lifting and plucking the glowing strands with hands, feet, and hooks. Every thread she touched sang out with its own bright, clear sound. Poignant music filled the air, drawn from the threads as Arashnäi flitted about. A colorful patterned tapestry emerged from the loom as Arashnäi played her haunting music.

Donvin and Terlyn sat in breathless wonder, captivated by Arashnäi’s dance. The dance blended seamlessly with the music she drew from the glowing lines and the tapestry they created, until it became impossible to tell which was the more expressive: Arashnäi’s form twisting gracefully through the air, the iridescent colors that flowed like a living thing over her body as she moved, the rich, beautiful music she called forth from the glowing strands, or the luxurious designs woven into the long tapestry that coiled from her giant loom. Terlyn leaned against Donvin, spellbound.

The music and the dance went on and on, each an indivisible part of the other, until with a few final deft twists the thread ran out. The glow faded from the long tapestry. The float field gently lowered Arashnäi to the ground. She bowed and, without a word, left through the door she’d come in through. A utility drone rolled the tapestry up and followed behind.

The spell gradually lifted. The audience stirred. Voices filled the space. Terlyn took a breath for the first time in what seemed like an age. “That was extraordinary!” 

“Yes. I can’t wait to see Avatar Arashnäi’s masterwork.”

“You mean that wasn’t it?” Terlyn said.

“Oh, no. That was just one voice. The fabric she wove contains an impression of the music she just created. What we saw is a single voice in a symphony she is assembling. When she’s finished with each voice, she will take all the pieces she’s woven and play them all together the evening before the next Dance of Sacrifice.”

“Wow.” Terlyn slipped her hand in Donvin’s. Hand in hand, they left the Temple of the Lady and emerged blinking into the sun. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Showing me some small part of why you worship the Lady. That was exquisite.”

“You’re welcome.”

They wandered the Temple District for a time, still holding hands, until at last their meandering path took them to a pod terminal. Terlyn stopped at the edge of the float tube. “I have to go. This has been a wonderful day.”

“Can I see you again?”

“Yes.” Terlyn squeezed his hand. Her eyes shone. “I look forward to learning more about you, Donvin of the Lady.”