“I need to know something.” I’m still kneeling on the grass, but I manage to push myself up so I’m not leaning against him anymore. Against this . . . this deity.
But maybe this isn’t Veshnic. Maybe I’m lying on the altar, knocked out. Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. Maybe I’m just imagining Veshnic because Shoch put that idea in my head. Maybe I won’t even remember this later.
Besides, why would a god look like Shoch? And apart from the blue eyes, he could be Shocha’s twin. Except that his expressions are so different. And his voice is different than how Shoch’s would be. I’m not sure how I know that, but I do.
Meanwhile, Veshnic—if he really is Veshnic—is cocking his head at me. I guess he’s waiting for me to finish my thoughts.
“That demon.” I swallow. “It came right after my blood. Fuck, it wanted a taste of me. Then I heard this . . . this wailing. That was Shoch, right? Those were the words of power. He spoke them—uh, keened them—through Jonac.”
Veshnic doesn’t say anything.
“Well? Did it work?”
He sighs a little, but he smiles too. “Why did you slice your arm open, Aric?”
My face heats up. “Don’t do that, my Lord. Don’t answer a question with a question.”
“Humor me. Please.”
I stare at him.
He stares back.
I break eye contact first. I can’t help it. The way he’s gazing at me, like he can see every last corner of my mind—no.
“Fine.” I take a deep breath. “Because the burro’s blood didn’t work. I sacrificed that poor thing. I slit its throat. But it wasn’t enough.”
He’s quiet again. Is he waiting for something more?
“Look, we needed to keep that demon there. Long enough so that Shoch and Jonac could keen the words of power. That’s why I sliced my arm open and, uh, sacrificed myself to you. I thought human blood would do the trick.”
He’s still quiet. And he’s still eyeing me with that same compassionate, intense gaze.
“It was wrong.” I choke those words out. “Blood sacrifices are wrong. And human sacrifice—that’s the worst. You know that, don’t you?”
He raises his eyebrows.
“I mean—the Sages taught us that. That blood sacrifices are evil. But the old gods endorsed those sacrifices, at least according to the stories. So do you want them back?”
“Is that what you think?”
“I don’t know what to think. But we’re not Rokofar. We’re not going to set up altars to you or any of your kin. So if that’s what you’re hoping for, go find some other priest.”
He looks amused again. It’s a wry sort of amusement, I think.
I glare at him. “What?”
“Your people follow the Sages, yes. But somewhat selectively.”
“Look, I didn’t say we were perfect!” My face must be beet red by now. I’m angry, I’m scared as hell, and I don’t know what’s happened to my brother or Shoch. “But, despite what I just did, we’re not crazy enough to go back to the old ways.”
“No. You’ve torn down the altars. No more blood sacrifices to the gods. But you’ve no problem sacrificing each other in endless wars.”
Fuck. He’s right. To the Sages, wars and human sacrifice were pretty much the same thing. “Listen, I know that most of the Sages were pacifists. But that’s—that’s not practicable. We can’t live like that.”
“No? Very well, pet.” His voice still has that same compassionate ring to it. “But before you judge Rokofar too harshly, consider this: they’re fighting a war as well.”
Wait. Shoch said something like that. “That’s how they see it? They think that when they shed blood on their altars, they’re fighting off these demons?”
Veshnic falls quiet again. Maybe he’s letting me work this out.
I gulp down some air. Hard. “I’m a soldier. Or I was. I’ve seen two wars. One was for the right reasons. The other . . . that was just for greed. So, all right. We’re not really true to the Sages.”
More silence. But his eyes are still on me. I only glance at them now and then, but I can feel their warmth.
“My Lord, I’m sorry. But I still need to know if you want these sacrifices. Wars are bad enough, but the sacrifices are worse. So if you want them back, you might as well just smite me now.”
He smiles at that. “Let me set your mind at ease. There are three things I want from you, Aric. The first is your prayers.”
“Ah, all right. But I don’t know how to pray. Not really.”
He shrugs. “Sing the old psalms. Or write new ones. Chant my name—any of my names. Meditate on me. Confess your mistakes. Petition me. Berate me. Shake your fist at me. Thank me. It’s not hard, pet.”
“Right.” I nod. “I can do some of those. What else?”
“When you’re in the wrong, repent and do better.”
I nod again. Not much to say—except that I’ve got a lot to repent for right now. “And the last thing?”
“Do your work, Aric. Perform your duties as my priest. Take care of your family and loved ones. Show compassion to everyone. Ease the suffering of those in need. And when you do each of these things, leave the results to me.”
“What does that mean? The results part—I know the rest.” The rest is pretty much the same as what the Sages have always said.
He offers me a hand up again.
This time I take it. His skin is still hot to the touch, but it still doesn’t burn. I want to ask him about that, but it would sound stupid. So I keep my mouth shut as we rise to our feet.
“It means that you have the right to your actions, Aric—but not to the results of those actions.” He pauses to put a hand on my shoulder. “Do the right thing, to the best of your ability, and trust me to take care of the rest.”
“You mean . . . just don’t worry about what happens?”
“In a sense, yes. Your actions are the only thing you really own. But you can’t control the fruits of them.”
I turn that over in my brain. All of it. “Is that why you didn’t answer my question? You didn’t tell me what happened. With the demon, I mean. With my brother, with Shoch, with Jonac.”
He gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Don’t fear for them. They all abide in me, remember?”
“Including the demon?”
“Then you’re not on our side against that thing?”
He shifts so that his arm is over both my shoulders now. “I love all beings equally.”
“Even the demons?”
“Even them. But you might not want to think of them as demons.”
I push away from him. “This one is slaughtering us and drinking our blood! How the fuck do you want me to think of it?”
He doesn’t take any offense as he lets his arm fall. I’ll give him that. “A dedicated gardener sees to her weeding, right?”
“Right, I guess.” I’ve hardly ever been inside a garden. Except when I was in the legion and we were commandeering food. “But what the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“I’ll tell you. This gardener—even while she’s weeding, she knows that there’s no such thing as a weed. Not really. There are only plants that are growing one place when they belong somewhere else. Somewhere outside her garden, preferably.”
Oh. I understand what he’s getting at now. “So the demons—they have some legitimate purpose in the scheme of things?”
“But they don’t belong here.”
He smiles again. “Arguably not, although it depends.”
I think of Shoch, keeping a demon locked up inside of him, and shiver.
Veshnic puts his arm back around my shoulders and tugs me to him again. It’s almost eerie, how he treats me with the same off-hand affection that I give to Shoch.
I’m not complaining, mind.
“All right.” I try to pull myself together. “Forget about the demons for a moment. I still want to know about my brother and Shoch. And Jonac and Gael and the rest of them.”
“You’ll find out soon enough. You’re not dead, remember?”
“Why can’t you just tell me?”
“I can, but I choose not to.” He shifts again, setting us face to face. “Aric, you cut your arm open and spilled human blood on the altar. You own that action.”
I blow air. “Which was a sin, according to all the Sages.”
“Yes. But I accept your sacrifice regardless. Now I ask you to leave the results of it to me. Whether Shocha can banish the wyvern, whether any of you live or die . . .that’s out of your hands. But, please. Trust that you—all of you—will always abide in me. I’ll never abandon you.”
“What does that mean? That even if we’re all dead, there’ll be some kind of world to come?”
He falls quiet again.
“Right. Of course you’re not going to answer that.” I take a step back from him. “That’s part of not worrying about results, right? Well, at least the Sages agree with you there. Don’t waste time imagining what happens when you die. Just do the right thing while you’re alive.”
And he’s still quiet. I guess he’s letting me enjoy my little tantrum.
I let out a sigh. “I’m sorry, my Lord. If you are who you say you are, I should just leave this all in your hands. But I don’t know how to do that. I don’t even know if I believe in you.”
“Well, fortunately for you, I didn’t ask for your belief.”
“What? Am I supposed to pray to a god I don’t believe in?”
He laughs. “No. But if you’d rather meditate on me as some abstract ideal, I’ll accept that as prayer. And you can repent of your sins without believing in me. And—”
“And I can still do the right thing without obsessing over the results.”
“Fine.” I step back toward him. “But these three things—they don’t require me to be a priest.”
“No. They’re universal.”
“But I am still your priest?”
“Yes. By your own choice, and the accident of your birth.”
“So what are my duties? They don’t include blood sacrifices, right?”
“No blood sacrifices. I promise.”
“Then what do they include? Do you just want me to keep presiding over namings and marriages and burials?”
He looks me over. “Yes, but there’s more to it than that.”
But Veshnic shakes his head. “I think I’ve kept you long enough for now. Close your eyes.”
He gives me this look that’s half amused and half exasperated. It’s the same look I’ve seen my brother give his five year old daughter. “Aric, please trust me. At least this much.”
I want to argue, but something about that look stops me. “Will—will I see you again?”
“You’re part of me, pet. I’m always with you.”
“But—fine.” I let out the longest suffering sigh I can manage. He’s not going to give me a straight answer on this. “Fine.”
He doesn’t say anything more. What a surprise.
I give him one last look of my own, tinged with a little respect, a little resignation and a whole lot of annoyance. And then I close my eyes.