I stepped off the shaarmite compartment steps with eagerness. Before me was the House. I tilted my head back, staring up at the square monstrosity with awe. Something rammed into my back, and I stumbled forward. The hand of whoever had hit me gripped my shoulder like a talon, steadying me. I glared over my shoulder. It was Seraline. I relaxed slightly, and allowed her to steer me forward.
We followed the crowd coming off the shaarmite, all headed for the building's entrance. It had steps even wider than those of the Councillite did. We were in the huge, winding main street of Divide City. Named because the House of the Gods was here, the supposed bridge between the races. The huge street we were walking down was huge, wide, neatly built with stones, and lined with big, tall places. Houses and shops, typical city establishments. The House loomed in front of us, almost perfectly square, and not decorated at all, I noted. None of the overwhelming grandeur of the Councillite. I climbed the steps by Seraline's side, still staring up at the place.
"Will they greet us?"
"When we get inside. All the officials we rode with, they're here on everyday business. We're the special guests."
"Really? What are we doing while we're here?"
"Counseling, I heard. Of course, they used a different name, but it's counseling through and through."
"Gods… need counseling?"
"Ours do. The ones in the other realms don't, because they don't fight. Giving us lairose has driven our realm's Gods apart. There's proof of their idiocy for you."
I furrowed my brow. My footsteps grew firmer. "We'll fix their problems. The Gods love us, they'll never stop giving us lairose."
"Don't you go shooting your mouth off saying the Gods are here to serve us. They follow far deeper allegiances than those to humans."
We had reached the doors. The crowd of officials we had ridden with on the shaarmite was streaming through the door with practiced purpose. Seraline and I followed, fitting right in with the crowd. I was squeezed against many others as we were pushed inside. My face was briefly pressed against someone's scarlet robes, tangling my face deep into the folds, but then we progressed further along our way and squished ourselves inside.
We were in an enormous entrance hall. I felt my breath catch as I stared up into the pitched high ceilings, through the colored glass windows, the carved and gleaming wooden furniture. I took a step, and my foot crunched under the dust. Well, that was one normal thing, at least. Apparently, cleaning wasn't taken too seriously around here. I took a few more steps, looking around the hall experimentally. Seraline hadn't moved from her position when she had entered, but I looked at her and saw her eyes going crazy, looking in every direction at once, being cast into every corner, every hiding place.
Officials meandered here and there around the room, talking with each other, comparing papers. I felt a gentle tap at my shoulder, and I turned hastily. A young woman stood before me, with long, shiny blonde hair. She didn't look like the most confident young woman in the world, and her voice was downcast and shaky. "I suppose you are the apprentice of Seraline? Where is she?" Her voice was husky with masked sadness. I leaned forward onto the balls of my feet, staring into her face. She had been crying. Hmm. I pointed to Seraline, still looking the place over with her eyes.
"If the two of you will follow along, I'll show you your room. After you've put your bags away, I'm supposed to take you straight to the authority here. Things have transpired during your journey."
I beckoned to Seraline. She stared at me, then hurried over, clutching her bag tightly. "This is our greeting?" She eyed the woman with severity. The woman bowed to us deeply. "I apologize, my masters are engaged. They wish to speak with you as soon as you are settled, however. I am Pahyu, and I will assist you with anything you need."
I made sure I had a tight grip on my cloth bag, then scurried after Pahyu. I could hear Seraline moving behind me, and I slowed, leaning over to whisper harshly into her ear. "Something's not right here."
"I feel it too. Look at the servants."
I did, staring into the faces of them. They were working at their assigned duties, polishing doors, scrubbing at the glass windows. None of them caught our eye, or even looked up from their work. And they were dirtier than they should have been, working in the House. "What do you think happened?"
"I don't know, Mairi. But I do know, nothing would affect daily life in the House except something having to do with the Gods."
I frowned severely. Pahyu was slowing also, casting us looks. I hurried on, past Seraline, catching up with Pahyu. I monitored my voice carefully; making sure it was devoid of all emotions. "Excuse me, servant." Pahyu tilted her head to me, and I plowed on. "Did you say something happened while we were arriving?"
"Yes. I'm sure Ahemitri and the others will give you details when you speak with them." My heart skipped a beat. "What, now? We're going to see the Gods?" My hands clenched themselves, and I forced myself to keep breathing. Not an issue, Mairi. You can handle anything. My heart disagreed, thumping wildly, flinging itself against the inside of my rib cage. I swallowed hastily, trying to clear my mind.
"Don't be scared. They're not scary." Ironically, Pahyu's tone was mechanically afraid, like she covered up her fears by being stoic. She had never had a very strong voice, but when she said not to be scared, she lost all the tone she had at all. Her voice had become a quavering pile of nonsense. I shivered and ran my hands up and down my arms, swinging my bag up my elbow. Pahyu looked at me full on, and I looked back, staring innocently into her small, round green eyes. They were the eyes of an abused animal. "It's all going to be allright. Ahemitri told me so." Her voice had become childlike and soft, like a little girl wishing for peace before her world fell apart.
I crossed my arms, thinking as I walked. "Servant." Pahyu tilted her head to me again. "Tell me the truth." My voice was surly and almost uncaring, and I instantly regretted the way it came out. "Is Ahemitri a waste of air?"
"I don't know what you mean." Pahyu's shiny blonde hair whipped across my face as she turned her head back, facing forward. She walked faster, clicking her feet against the stone floor ignorantly. I jogged to catch up with her, tapping her elbow insistently. "I won't beat you if you say yes, you know." I produced a limp smile directed at her, meaning it as a joke, but after one glance at her face I knew she was taking it seriously.
Pahyu blushed brilliantly, her cheeks stained with deep red. "I simply don't understand you." Her voice was high and fragile. Exposed.
I frowned, tugging at her arm now. Annoyance was creeping up my throat and out my mouth. "You're being a weakling. Do you want people to think you're a worthless servant, not good for anything but labor in the name of the Gods?" I shook her arm fiercely, emphasizing. "Show them you're worth more than that! Speak your mind. Form an opinion, hold on to it, and you'll be more valuable than lairose." I stared into her eyes sharply, and she stared back, lips quivering uncontrollably, eyes wild with furiously rampant panic. My grip loosened, and I locked onto her with my gaze. A powerfully wound connection shot out from my eyes to hers, locking us together and tearing us apart.
Pahyu yanked herself out of my grip, almost running now. She moved her legs oddly, jerking them around as she dashed. She was dodging me, purposefully staying ahead of me. I let her, now walking by myself. Pahyu was no different from the other servants. I'd thought she was different, but she wasn't. They ran around on the streets, filthy as all bloodiness, and when they came inside to work, they never did anything properly. I slammed my foot into the wall I was walking along. It bounced off, cracking painfully. I winced, stumbling a little, but regained my balance, limping along now.
Pahyu had stopped by a door, and didn't look at me as I drew even with her. I stared at her obviously, making sure she saw when I frowned disapprovingly at her. The servant's only response was to blush an even deeper shade of red, her pale cheeks on fire with untamed passion. I turned away from her, examining the wall next to me. Hmm. Dusty. That was hardly out of the ordinary. Dropping my bag, my hands were behind me, and I leaned against the wall as I waited for Seraline to catch up. Ignoring Pahyu, I let my fingers roam across the wall behind me. They danced through the dust, tracing a path as they moved, following the cracks.
I felt the cool stone against my skin, mixed with the roughly dank feel of the dust clouding the wrinkles in my fingers. I sighed, closing my eyes. Pahyu's face was revolting to me at the moment. She refused to be herself. I had no respect for that quality, none at all. Footsteps, sharp and short and strong, hit my ears with prolonged force. I opened my eyes, watching Seraline approach. Her gaze flew from Pahyu, hunched over blushing, to me, leaning against the wall, arms behind me. She settled her gaze on Pahyu, approaching her slowly. "Our room?" Seraline's voice was calming, smooth and gentle.
"Y-yes." Pahyu sounded like she wanted to burst into tears after gasping that one word out. Her hands shook as she fumbled with the key, scraping it into the lock. Grabbing my bag, I pushed Pahyu aside, and hammered my shoulder into the unlocked door, shoving it open. The door opened smoothly without creaks, revealing a small room, with several small glass windows through which sunlight streamed. I stepped into the room. It wasn't horrible; it had two single beds, a narrow table with a couple chairs pushed up to it, a small bookshelf. The floor was coated with a now-familiar layer of dust, the bedsheets looked worn and frayed, but other than that the room was certainly livable. I crossed the floor to one of the beds, setting my bag down on it. "It's so dusty."
I was facing the wall, shifting through my bag, but I recognized Pahyu's weak, shaky voice collapse out of her mouth. "I'm sorry. The Gods insist upon the floors and walls not being cleaned. It's a tradition in their homeworld; they think that floors won't support the building if they're clean. Some metaphorical nonsense, that clean homes are not cozy homes." She laughed nervously, high-pitched and worthless in her absence of common strength. I was done with my bag, but I didn't turn. I stared at the wall, not wanting to turn and look at Pahyu. I heard Seraline speak to me, her tone stern. "Come on, Mairi. We've got to go speak with them."
I let my bag drop onto my bed. It landed, and I stared at it, procrastinating. I gripped the edge of my new bed with the sharpest grip I possessed, pouring all my strength into it. And then I let go and formed my hands into fists, and turned around to join Seraline and Pahyu. The three of us left the room, Pahyu shutting the door behind us quietly, and leading us to meet the Gods. We walked down the hallway silently, a stiff, but not unfriendly silence. I didn't know what to say. Should I warn Seraline, or excite her? I wasn't about to lie to her, but it could be useful to prepare her the way I wanted her to be prepared. My gaze shifted to Pahyu. Agonize her, or apologize to her? It was confusing, decision-making. My head dropped forward, exhausted by the pressure.
We were in front of another door. I wanted to shout, to yell no, I wasn't ready! But Pahyu swung the door open, ushering us inside. Seraline went first, not waiting for me. She passed through, and the doorway was open. Pahyu stared at me. I took a deep, wavering breath. My eyes flew to Pahyu. Those with power do not show their fear to those without power. It was a fundamental rule, something I had taught myself. If I couldn't follow my own rules, how could I gain power? I wasn't sure of the answer. I was sure how to prevent the question from happening, however. Gathering every bit of courage and logic and strength and bravery and sheer guts I owned, I walked into the room.
My footsteps were loud, echoing. Panic exploded inside me, and I wrangled it down, ordering my brain to shut up. The room was small, and not very grand at all. A simple wooden table sat in the center of the room, and there was just enough room for chairs around it. One of the chairs wasn't occupied. Not looking at the occupants of the chairs, I joined Seraline, standing before the table in her most respectable stance. I didn't need a glare from her to prompt me to stand up straight. We were in the presence of Gods.
I heard one of the chairs scuff loudly against the floor, and slowly, I raised my head, looking over the Gods. At first I almost recoiled at the sight of them, for they were bald, all of them, and their skin was extremely pale. They looked approximately the same height as humans were, or perhaps slightly shorter. And every single one was clad in the pale blue robes of a God. I stared at them for awhile, tuning out their conversation, staring them down. Gods! My heart flowed freely with excitement, and I had to work to keep my lips from moving, control them from bursting out with words, expressing my sheer, uncut joy. So I stared, I stared at them, drinking in every detail of their bone structure, their perfect bald heads, their smoothly proportioned bodies.
Something about their bones. I was surprised at myself. Their bones? But yes, their bones. They were structured powerfully, but not just in a muscular way. Hidden somewhere in those bones was the power to create. I stared at them enviously, greedily. Their voices were droning on, but I paid them no mind. They certainly paid us no mind, talking to each other without casting us one glance. I rolled back and forth onto the balls of my feet eagerly.
My mouth was itching to burst out into speech. I gripped my hands together, and I felt my clasped hands tingle with sweat. I shivered. The noise of the God's speech had been growing quieter and calmer, and gradually, they shut up, staring at us. I had to shove the gasp back down my throat hurriedly. Their cheeks went in instead of out. I swallowed, trying to revive my dry throat. They were going to talk to us.
"Welcome to the House." It was one of the males, with a deep voice. His hands were knitted together, and he watched our every move intently, eyes flickering back and forth as we breathed.
I gulped. Seraline spoke for me. "Thank you, Yanisulle. Such a pleasure to see you again." She bowed her head, and I followed suit hurriedly.
"There's no time for formalities, Seraline. Septus is dead." His mouth drilled the words out almost serenely, making me shiver.
Seraline gasped loudly. One hand flew to her mouth, which lay open. "Tha- that can't be true. He- you…"
Yanisulle raised one hand, and Seraline became silent instantly, her words dying before they left her throat. "We know. It's already been determined that the cause of his death was not accidental. Deaths are rare even on our homeworld, but we know with certainty that no human could have done it. Humans don't have the power to kill a God." Something about the way he said it drove all thought of human murder from my brain. He was correct, I simply knew it.
Well, that left just one possibility. An idea whipped across my thoughts briefly, and instead of stifling it quickly, I coddled it, nurturing the idea with ingrown passion. I cleared my throat and talked before I lost my nerve completely. "So one of you did it. Nine suspects." I grinned wickedly at Seraline. She impaled me with her furious eyes, lips tightly stamped together tightly. One of the Gods grunted indecisively. "Your apprentice, Seraline? I have been hoping to meet her. I like her already." The God who had spoken smiled a crinkly smile at me, and I drew back slightly, too unnerved to smile back.
"Eight, actually." I jumped, I had forgotten about Pahyu. She edged into view of her masters sulkily, head bent. "I was with Ahemitri before Septus' death. Couldn't have done it."
The Gods were nodding to each other. One of them raised her head, which had been dipped low, and spoke, her voice bland and stony. "No one suspects me anyways." Her voice almost broke near the end, crackling with deeply set emotion, and the delicately built God let her head drop again. I examined her shiny hairless head, pondering her identity wildly. It was a girl, I could tell from her gently curving jaw. I stared at her. Ahemitri? Certainly not an interesting sort of being. The other Gods looked around, not staring at Ahemitri's face. Yanisulle spoke nervously, eyes darting around. "Of course not, Ahemitri. We trust you the most!" He laughed, a crazed sound. The room grew silent with deadly longing. Longing to speak and declare their agreement, I thought. But no one spoke.
I shifted nervously. Yanisulle cleared his throat loudly. "Anyways, I think we should take a look at the body now. I ordered that it not be touched, aside from determining whether or not his death was natural. And that was a simple matter, because once you see his body you'll know. It was no accident." Yanisulle's voice grew dark, and his eyes wild. Like a bush, I thought. Yanisulle's eyes were tangled with brambles and loose branches, untamed, unrestricted.
Chairs were scraped against the floor as the Gods stood. Fresh panic wormed its way around my heart, squeezing terribly at me, and I backed up hurriedly, tripping over my feet a little in my haste. Words were torn from my throat and thrust at them. "Hold it, people!" I felt my parched throat rattle after I spoke, and I raised my flattened palms in front of me defensively. Seraline hurried over to me. "Relax, Mairi. They won't cause either of us harm."
She swept her head down beside me smoothly, whispering directly into my ear, tickling my earlobes with her harried speech. "Seeing a dead God is a once-in-ten-lifetimes chance. Don't waste it." I stared at her as she straightened up. Seraline winked at me, and a piece of hair slipped loose and slid down her forehead. Trying to refocus my gaze, I faced the door. The Gods were shuffling out silently, a few throwing me curious looks. I ignored them, keeping to Seraline's side as we left the room. Jerking my head up high, ignoring the urge to blush heating up my cheeks, I marched along behind the Gods. The Gods were grouped together irregularly, trotting down the hall, completely silent. Seraline and I came along next, heads held high, hands crossed behind our backs. Pahyu came last, shuffling behind us noisily.
One of the Gods, I couldn't tell which, was beckoning to me. My heart exploded into untamed thuds. I looked at Seraline. She nodded slowly, eyeing the God suspiciously. I let my spine slouch down with a sigh, and increased my pace dramatically, scampering quickly up to the God that had called me. A male, smiling at me peacefully, waving for me to slow down. I did, breathing heavily, now walking side by side with him.
"I spoke to you earlier, said I liked you already. My name is Renfaeny."
"Oh." My head drooped. "Nice to meet you, Renfaeny."
"No need to be formal with me, child. I understand that Seraline takes respect a little too seriously sometimes." The guy smiled at me, the corners of his mouth crinkling up. I nodded back absently, mildly chaffed at being addressed as child.
"So, Septus, huh? What was he like?" Under my robes, I rubbed my hands together ecstatically. It never hurt to gather info.
"Ahh, Septus. Good old Septus. He was a charmer, a young one at heart. Ahemitri really looked up to him." Renfaeny stared at Ahemitri's back sadly, his eyebrows folding up with a passable attempt at sorrow. The old geezer was lying through his teeth. Well, not lying, exactly. I peered into the man's face. He had a wrinkly pale face, distorted in more than one direction. Renfaeny was trying to get me to believe that Septus was well liked by all the others. He wasn't. The tricky part would be figuring out who didn't like him.
"Here it is. I want everyone to stay back. We'll let the Estatutory, and her apprentice, of course, have their look. We haven't got time for dinner; we've got to move right into the preliminary questioning. I hope you two ate?" Yanisulle upturned his eyebrows at us. I shifted delicately. "We ate on the shaarmite ride."
"Good. Now, without further ado, Seraline, Mairi? Feel free."
I stepped past the circle of onlookers, somewhat nervously. They stared at me, their hairless heads bent toward me, watching me intently. I swallowed dryly. Seraline was shuffling up to me from behind. I stared at the form on the floor, bloodied and broken. A male God, laying on his back, legs spread casually, arms spread out quite far. Blood trickled round from the top of his head, into his open mouth, gasping still. And his eyes- looking at nothing in particular, uncaring, unending, seeing beyond. Sun shone through a window resiliently, showering the crumpled body with light.
I crept closer, looking the fallen God over carefully. He was still in his light blue robes, which had barely been ruffled out of place. Interesting. Septus' eyes pressed into me intently, his mouth gasping at my presence. I knelt beside him cautiously, my knees cracking with pressure, extending a trembling hand closer to him. An inch before contact, I halted my hand, hovering it over his white skin. My hand jerked closer, smacking against his rubbery skin quite suddenly. I drew back, my lungs shutting down. His skin was unreal, without feeling, older than the sun and younger than I was. My throat was closing up, and I swallowed hurriedly, unsticking it open again. I was looking at Septus, the dead God. The name was echoed again and again throughout my brain in a whisper. Septus… Septus… like some maiden was trapped inside my skull, whispering her plea into my ears in the form of his name.
Septus… Septus… Septus…! SEPTUS!!
The maiden was screaming at me, whacking her own skull against the inside of mine, beating me up from inside. Gritting my teeth so hard I felt the screech, I turned away from the fallen God, shielding my eyes from the burning, bright intensity of the sun.