Tired of being a laughingstock among her godly kin, the Noble Vel Vala draws a humble glassblower into a rigged contest of skill. With the meek Rega as her target, the contest is all but a formality; she’ll be back home by mid-afternoon, with a boatload of new followers to boot!
On the first day Vel Vala proposed a contest.
In a wide valley among many mountains there was a small hamlet that bordered a large lake. In summer, the days grew so long that night was scarcer than sleep, and sometimes folk would see sun-wisps in the fog that rolled off the lake. In winter, the nights claimed their share, bringing a bracing cold that froze the lake, and snow covered all in a hush almost holy.
It was a peaceful place, by and large.
Near that hamlet, in a dainty cottage amid a copse of peachleaf trees, lived a glass worker. She was a short woman, with the broad shoulders and dexterous hands you’d expect of any truly great glasser. Though she was young, and sometimes aloof, and her fellow folk would often tease her over her short-cropped hair, or the freckles that peppered her dusky cheeks, or her quiet nature, she was skilled at her work. And so she became a mark of pride for the villagers, who would always point the rare traveler or trader towards her workshop, cloistered not so far away, off in those lonely trees. Eventually, this glasser, name of Rega, became well known in far away parts. Which she had scarcely imagined, much less thought to visit.
This is how it came to be that, on a chill morning a week before the year’s end, a passing trader held one of Rega’s finer works up to the sky and turned it this way and that. Watching its colors scintillate in sunlight, she whistled through the gap in her front teeth and remarked, “Fine enough to beat Vel Vala, isn’t it?”
Which was a compliment, but also something of a tease, in those times.
Rega, for her part, muttered her thanks while rubbing her hands in front of the furnace, hoping its heat hid her blush.
“In the cities, you know,” the trader said, “your work sells for triple what I pay.”
“It’s not for money I do it,” said Rega.
“As you like,” replied the trader, whose cocky, natural way with flattery and small talk had stirred a quiet admiration in Rega.
As the trader went about wrapping and stowing her purchases in her reindeer’s canvas saddlebags, a flash of memory brightened her ruddy face. “Oh but here, I’d meant to give you this.” Taking Rega by the wrist, she pressed a cobalt brooch in the shape of a darting slipbird into her hand. “A girl your age should be thinking about trussing, and you won’t find that buried in those books of yours.”
The trader left soon after tea, serenading her reindeer with traveling songs as she went. Listening to the retreating echo of her voice, Rega squeezed the simple brooch against her palm, and found herself eddied by a tide of something terrible and wonderful inside her. And the saying resounded in her head…
Fine enough to beat Vel Vala.
Vel Vala was the youngest among gods, and born into a beauty that surpassed her Noble peers. She was tall and lithe, and her broad nose complemented her amber eyes as nicely as her many braids of long, jet-black hair complemented her cool umber skin.
Some who still remember Vel Vala remember her for this beauty, but many more remember her for this: god of games, god of tomfoolery, god of petty tricks. Some say it was due to that beauty that the other gods labeled her so.
Naturally, Vel Vala resented her caste; not even the god of foolishness wants to be considered foolish. So she sought to redefine her role—gods of tricks are gods of creation too, are they not?
Of course she was proficient. Drawing pigment from rock, she could produce a paintings of sublime depth and texture. Shaping glass from sand, she could create vessels of intricate shape and flow. But nothing is as elusive as beauty, and the soul of art eluded Vel Vala. Even as made, she did not understand.
Perhaps as befits a god of foolishness, she spent restless years throwing herself into creation she could not comprehend. This self-seriousness soon became a joke among gods, which, eventually, became a joke among folk too, as tends to be the way of things.
So it was, on that first day, a week before the new year, not long after the trader had rocked the peachtree boughs with the rowdy songs of her departure, that a strange, twin-tailed white fox came snuffling around Rega’s workshop.
It was nearly noon, and Rega had finished her late breakfast by the furnace. Glassing was fine work in this season, where the heat of the furnaces offered welcome respite from the weather’s ill temper. Work, however, was the furthest thing from Rega’s mind, as she turned the small brooch over and over in her hand; a full morning wasn’t nearly enough time to grow bold enough to place it in her hair. Swept along by this melancholy tide, Rega was in no state to notice any foxes, no matter the number of their tails.
Soon, this daring beast was nosing about the benches and shelves that rested under the eaves of the cottage, where a few of Rega’s works rested. This impromptu symphony of delicate glass objects tinkling against one another finally roused Rega’s attention, and she startled, looking up to see this fox balancing easily on its hind legs to stand almost as folk do.
“If it pleases you, miss fox, leave off those. They’re delicate.”
The twin-tailed fox’s whiskers never twitched, not even once, as it explored each vessel, vase, and ewer with calculating eye and wet nose. Despite her worry, Rega had a laugh. It was a small pleasure to imagine her storage hutch as a gallery and this curious fox as a fine patron of the arts—though she’d only read about such things in books.
“Here, how about a bit of this instead?” She laid some salted fish down on the snow in front of her, hoping to entreat the fox away from her fragile crafts.
At this, the strange creature slunk its foxy way to Rega, though it showed no apparent interest in the fish.
“My thanks, miss fox.” An abashed chuckle resounded in her chest. “It would pain me, if you ruined work that was just this morning declared fine enough to beat Vel Vala.”
Soon as those words passed her lips, a crack broke the air. Before Rega stood no longer a twin-tailed fox, but a woman with amber eyes and many thick braids of jet-dark hair.
“What is your name?” Vel Vala asked, though she already knew.
“Rega,” came the halting reply. Vel Vala had a voice thick and deep as a riverbed. The sound of it could bristle bodies, like soft velvet touched along your face, and easily knock mere folk like Rega into a tizzy.
“That’s a meager name, for the folk who believes she’s bested Vel Vala.”
Vel Vala wore fine silks, heavy jewelry ringed her neck, large hoops pierced her ears, and her arms were adorned with the many bracelets and threaded beads. Cowed by the presence of this lissome woman, Rega bowed her head. “It’s the only one I have.”
“Folk play at humility even as the stench of their pride enfolds them like a cloak, and I’ve tired of weathering the foolishness of ungracious blasphemers. As such, Noble Vel Vala, who has heretofore been magnanimous with all folk, now sees fit to declare a contest: if you believe your work better than a god’s, then produce something so transcendent that it brings joy to one with every new dawn or, as penance for your limitless arrogance, spend the rest of your days praising my munificence to all who’ll—”
“Or?” At this Vel Vala sputtered. “What or?”
“If I refused to do either. What then?”
It was hard to know, even for young Rega herself, what caused her to speak so impudently—except that she had noticed the fine and uncalloused tips of Vel Vala’s long fingers.
“What is a god of tricks if not a god of fitting punishments too?” Vel Vala placed a hand upon hip. A shake of her head sent a taunting ripple through her braids, and a smile crept over her lips casually as a spider. “Naturally, if you renounce your blasphemy I’ll show clemency. Instead of the rest of your days, a fortnight on the road spent proclaiming my mercy would suffice.”
Always slow to motion, quiet Rega rubbed the slipbird brooch between her fingers. “Why me?”
” Accept your fate with grace; it’s the right of gods to make examples out of folk, it’s only bad luck that caused you to be mine.”
In truth, it was a bit more calculated than that. Vel Vala, who was well and weary of being a laughing stock among both gods and folk, had set her sights on easy prey. Vel Vala knew this Rega—who by all accounts was more mouse than woman—would wither in the face of her abject majesty, prostrate herself for an hour or two, and then go off on her mendicant way, traveling far and wide to sing the praises of her benefactor. She’d triple her worshippers within the week; why, if Vel Vala really played her cards right, they might finally build her a proper temple or two!
Though, she thought, preferably somewhere livelier than this humdrum—
“You—” Vel Vala’s long eyelashes fluttered and, for the briefest moment, her jaw hung slack. “You what?”
Though Rega did not consider herself a prideful person, something about the sight of those fingers, as Vel Vala’s hands alit imperiously upon her shapely hips, mixed up with the cool, lonely sensation that cobalt brooch stirred within her. And so, with all that muddled up inside her, Rega reaffirmed herself before a god:
“I accept the contest. I’ll not be cowed to the pride of some god who claims ownership of my craft with hands like those.”
Vel Vala affected an authoritative pose, imperiously crossing her arms beneath her bosom. “G-good, then.”
It was silent in the copse, for a longer time than was strictly polite for dealings between gods and folk. Rega could hardly remember what she said at all, now that the blood had stopped roaring in her ears. Growing impatient, Vel Vala cast about, looking this away and that, and her eyes fell upon a nearby wildflower peeking out from beneath the snow. Squatting, she stripped it from the ground. “How long, until a winter flower like this wilts?”
It was a Telly’s Dell, an especially hearty thing, whose many petals’ pleasant violet shade were the only thing that prevented it from being labeled a weed. To Rega’s estimation, “Three days without water, perhaps?”
“Then you’ve until this flower withers to show me something that will give me joy for the rest of my days—otherwise, I’ll consider your fate mine to use.”
To Vel Vala, this seemed a more than sufficient way to start a contest.
In the cottage, there was a table for work, a table for supper, and a sunken central hearth for sitting and talking by. A bed sat in each far corner, away enough from the door that the draft didn’t bother overmuch, but only one had blankets laid out. Cutlery on the dining table, grit-caked tools, boots and winter coats, and precious little for comfort except for a small basket of dried petals on a dresser near the door and a pair of cushioned chairs. One sat beside the hearth, its twin was cloistered off in a corner. The only bit of character in the cottage was the set of shelves above the left bed, which were dug into the wall as one might hollow out a hillside. On them sat dozens of volumes—far too many for a simple glasser to enjoy, if she could read at all—their titles written on their spines in all sorts of colors and varying scripts.
After getting a fire going in the hearth, Rega sat at her drafting table and began her work. With little better to do, Vel Vala retrieved an unassuming piece of crockware from the hooks above the dining table. Placing it on the dresser, she set the wildflower inside it.
The flower was only for show; this docile and homely Rega wouldn’t last three hours, let alone three days. Oh, she would try her hand at it, craft a few crooked and ungainly pieces through her frayed nerves, but she’d understand the futility of it all too soon. Mice could roar, Vel Vala had learned, but anything with a throat can start a roar. Sustaining one is a different matter entirely, and Vel Vala doubted this particular mouse had the constitution for it. This would be over and done by mid-afternoon at the absolute latest.
Which is why she had to wonder…
“Why haven’t you started?”
“I have,” replied Rega.
“Is this a laugh you’re having at me? You scrape at goatskin with charcoal and call that work?”
“How can I know what I’m making if I don’t draw it first?”
“Don’t throw middling riddles at a god of tricks. Stoke your furnace already and get your sand, before I grow impatient.”
Even as she uttered her edict, Vel Vala stood upon her toes to peer over Rega’s shoulder and observe her drafting. Some plain thing of sketchy outline had taken shape on the page. It was the sort of thing Vel Vala expected folk thought suitable for carrying water—or passing it, more like. She snorted at the thought, enjoying her wit. “If that’s what folk accept as beauty, you’ve already lost.”
“Wait and see,” said Rega.
Vel Vala was briefly relieved that Rega was so absorbed in her drawing. It meant Rega could not see how she clenched her fists impotently at her sides.
Noon dawdled into afternoon, and Vel Vala grew bored of watching Rega sketch, and crumple, and sketch once more, as the hours passed on and on. So she busied herself examining the novels crowding Rega’s bookshelves. “What are these?”
The dull clatter of charcoal heralded Rega’s surprise. In all the excitement of the morning, it seemed she’d forgotten entirely about the… overfull larder of embarrassment that perched above her bed. “Only books!” she let out, the words strangled by her haste.
“Of course they’re books.” With a cant of her head, Vel Vala blinked, unsure how to gauge this abrupt reaction. “What do they say?”
Rega blinked in turn. “You can’t read them?”
“What does a god gain from knowing the scripts of folk?” Vel Vala tipped one of the books flat and ran a finger along its edge, enjoying the slight scrape of its pages against her fingertip. “Tell me the name of this one, now.”
“It would be unfair of a god,” replied Rega, turning back to her drafting table to hide her impertinent smile, “to administer a new ultimatum when I’ve only just begun working on the first.”
Vel Vala’s eyes mutely interrogated the back of Rega’s head as the glasser retrieved her charcoal from the floor and returned to her work.
This Rega proved herself near immune to distraction, even in the face of some of Vel Vala’s lesser cantrips of light and sound, and so Vel Vala spent the remainder of the afternoon sitting by the hearth, staring into the cracking fire, and thinking on godly things. The short winter day surrendered to the long winter night, and it became far too dark in the cottage for any proper work to be done. Rega leaned back from her table with a sigh and wriggled out her aching shoulders. “It’s grown late.”
Vel Vala lazily lifted her head from her hand. “What’s that to mean?”
“Only…” Rega rubbed the pads of her soot-stained fingers together. “I’ve no accommodations suitable for a god.”
“That much is obvious.” Vel Vala plucked a loose thread from the worn arm of her chair. “Do most folk live in such ill surroundings?”
Though, with some resignation, she’d acknowledged—internally, and only to herself, of course—that it was a rather comfortable chair… for a folk’s cottage, anyway.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen how any folk live but those that live here.”
Vel Vala rose from her seat and made a show of taking in the modest confines of the cottage. “Well, there’s nothing to be done for it one way or the other. I’ve decided to maintain your company.”
“You have?” asked Rega.
Vel Vala worked to discourage the impudent blush that scrawled along her haughty features, not knowing that Rega had no real acumen for perceiving such things. “For tonight, at least.”
Nor was Rega wise to the ways of gods—tricksters or no. If she were, she might’ve known that gods of tomfoolery, such as Vel Vala, could only come or go by slinking into a sun-cast shadow. In a place of long nights, like that sleepy hamlet swaddled in that mountain valley, sunset trapped her like a mouse in a cage—which Rega certainly would’ve known, had she spent more time listening to fireside stories instead of frittering it away on those suspicious books of hers.
“If I didn’t,” Vel Vala said, “you might find some way to cheat, perhaps even going so far to enlist another god’s aid.”
“But I’ve only met one god,” said Rega, with a shy smile. Regardless of the contest hanging over her head, or the ornery attitude of this woman, a part of Rega was happy, to have someone other than the village children and village nans to spend her time with. “And it took a pair of long decades for even that.”
“Nevertheless, I expect a fair contest.” Vel Vala continued, as stalwart as she could muster. “I shall stay the night, and thus determine if you can be trusted.”
“Do gods eat?” Rega asked.
Vel Vala tilted her gaze up to the rafters. “I suppose we do.”
“Then there’s some recent bread in that pantry, and cheese and salted fish down in the larder, if that suits your palate.”
To her surprise, Vel Vala discovered it rather did.
On the second day, they went to the lake.
“That one,” said Rega.
“I’m not, that one’s mine.”
While Rega prepared for the trek, Vel Vala entertained herself by drawing replicas of Rega’s work out of the dirt and having the glasser identify the originals from the fakes. Whatever the object—be it gaudy flowerpot, sturdy wine bottle, or practical inkwell—she could create a copy impervious to difference… or it seemed to her eyes. Rega had yet to choose incorrectly. Thus, it must be that…
“If you’re not guessing, you’re cheating.”
“How could I cheat? It’s your game.”
Vel Vala compared Rega’s original inkwell to her simulacrum, turning each over and searching for some blemish or imperfection she had missed. “A hidden mark or other facile trick. If it were anything else, I’d know.”
“Perhaps you’ve just no sense of aesthetics.” If she’d taken a moment to think about it, Rega’s forwardness would’ve been stunned her mute. “There’s more to it than looks you know.”
Vel Vala ground her teeth.
“The morning’s warmed up nicely,” Rega said, putting the wheelbarrow in front of her.
As they walked, Vel Vala would stride ahead, braids whipping the air with impatient momentum, only to wait for Rega’s plodding gait to catch up, as she did not know the way.
“If you’ve energy to spare, push the barrow,” Rega said.
“That’s hardly work for gods to do,” Vel Vala replied.
At the frozen lake, in the shadow of some sparse trees, Rega knelt by the shore and dug deep with pick and trowel into the frozen mud to find the blue-green sand beneath. Sometimes, Vel Vala would place her hand upon the pile of sand in the barrow and, drawing up that essential power from the earth, produce a vase or vessel of such exceeding quality that, polished and put upon display, would surely drive even the most rational folk to tears. Each time she did, she would ask, “Will it be as beautiful as this?”
Each time, Rega would answer, “Wait and see.”
Never satisfied, Vel Vala would obliterate these precious creations of hers, crushing them back to sand and grit as casually as one snuffs a candle. With time, she tired of watching and waiting, and went over to kneel in the cold mud and dig beside Rega.
When the barrow was full they took a rest, and passed a small skin of honey mead back and forth, which Rega carried to ease the trek back home. It had a flowery taste Rega enjoyed, and it’d been some years since she’d had someone to share it with.
“You’ve made this trip often?” Vel Vala asked.
“More times than I can count.”
Rega shook her head. Even as the sweat ran down her face, and her muscles ached from digging, she hardly thought it was so.
They shared a modest lunch, watching the sun glint off the frozen lake and talking carelessly about the these-and-those of the world around them, and it was ages before either of them thought to stand and shake the grit from their clothes. True cold blanketed their return to the cottage. Another night crept over the hamlet, and Vel Vala, lightheaded from strong mead and the tingle that Rega’s shy laughter brought to her ears, had entirely forgotten she’d intended to leave.
“Hoooh!” groaned Vel Vala, after they’d dumped their load in Rega’s store and retreated to the warmth of the hearth. She swung out her arms and stretched them. “But do I ache. That’s rigorous labor, you glassers do; I wouldn’t like to get used to it.”
“Say that after you’ve ate. Nothing’s finer than sating an appetite after a hard day’s work.”
“After you take responsibility for the perilous soreness you caused in me.”
Then, as if it were a thing one simply did, Vel Vala undid the tie around her nape and let her silks fall to her waist, baring her breasts and the lithe muscles of her back. “Come,” she said, taking a seat on Rega’s bed. “It’ll be good training for when you lose the contest and become my servant.”
Rega’s eyes went glassy. It was all she could do to force each word out, one after another—and she could only manage that by locking eyes to the opposite corner of the room. “I thought I was meant to proselytize for you, not rub your back.”
“Careful now. I’m a god, you know.” Vel Vala tilted her head and carefully gathered her long braids to her side. She lay down upon the bed, and the pale blanket contrasted dizzyingly with her skin—or so it did to Rega’s eyes and Rega’s heart. “Might be I’ve the power to make you obey with a mere thought.”
“Do you?” asked Rega.
Vel Vala pillowed her cheek against her arms. “Come here already before I deign to show you.”
It seemed plausible that gods would have such abilities, but Rega could think of no way she’d be able to discern whether she were bewitched or not, in this particular situation. When next she broke for air, Rega found herself straddling a god’s rump, digging thumbs firmly into Vel Vala’s shoulder blades.
“Folk’s hands are rough.” With an undulation of her shoulders, Vel Vala encouraged Rega’s hands to keep to their task, before they could slink away. “But strong. Where’d you learn to rub at gods so well?”
Rega swallowed, painfully aware of Vel Vala’s supple muscles beneath her touch. “I had a mentor. She put me up here, taught me the trade, and… things like this too, I suppose.”
Vel Vala made a show of squirming her hips, drunk on relaxation as much as the lingering effects of the mead. “Your parent? Bring her ‘round, and I’ll thank her properly for providing my new retainer such valuable instruction.”
“No, not parents. I lost them, when I was young.”
“A runt then, like me.” Did that slip out? Her eyes were listing shut, and with a pleasant sigh, Vel Vala decided she hardly cared if it did. “Jockeying at the table for scraps, clamoring for your place. How do your parents sort you, anyway? Do folk have rites of prowess too, or proofs of merit?”
“What?” asked Rega. “We don’t… I’ve never heard of anything of the sort.”
“Then how do you fight your way into a family? No bloody banquets, no festivals of gales?
This was all rather beyond poor Rega, who’d only heard such florid names in books. “You’re born into one.”
“That seems odd,” said Vel Vala, struggling to free an arm from beneath her so she could scratch at her ear.
“Is that not the way with gods?”
“For some gods it must be, I suppose, but not those of my kin.” Vel Vala let out a sigh as long and winding as a mountain pass. The tension in her unraveled bit by tender bit, until she was certain she’d fairly melt away. Feeling aimless, she bent her legs and traipsed her toes along Rega’s back. “How’d you possibly survive? Young folk can’t forage or hunt, can’t even clean themselves. I know that much.”
“Well, the village became my family.”
Rega was able to endure it, the shiver building inside of her, until the playful beginnings of Vel Vala’s touch grew into graceful strokes of exploration. When it seemed as if Vel Vala’s toes were determined to learn every contour of every aching muscle upon Rega’s back, she froze, feeling as if she’d been thrown right into the middle of a long and hazy dream.
“No rites, no proofs, no banquets, no gales, and the neighbors happy to wipe your bum on top of all that. Such easy lives, folk have; I could almost be envious, if they weren’t such a ridiculous—” Then, noticing Rega had paused in her ministration, Vel Vala summoned her attention with an instructive wriggle of her hips beneath Rega’s weight. “Don’t stop, I’ll grow lonely.”
And Rega wondered if she even could.
On the third day, they stoked the furnace.
“I’ve no need for gloves,” said Vel Vala.
“Don’t curse me then, if you burn your godly fingers.”
“How could I, when it’s you that’s to do the work?”
To that, Rega dipped her head, and shyly said, “Wait and see.”
Glassblowing happens in fits. It occurs in flashes and spats, flurries of brilliant, precise, dangerous activity, followed by cooling, resting, impatience, rolling, and waiting for precisely the right temperature, and then another flurry of precision and cleverness.
It was terrible work, for a god like Vel Vala, who was still so young, the youngest of all her kin, and for whom maintaining attention often felt like a daggered sort of punishment.
But it was fascinating too, watching this woman she at first thought homely and slower than a stunned cow leap into action, moving with agility to place every piece in its proper alignment. Vel Vala was entranced by this precision; it was a different kind of grace than that she knew. The alacrity of Rega’s hands, as she poured sand into the crucible. The endurance of her body, as she pumped the bellows to manipulate white-hot fires that made sand molten.
Then, there was the blowing. Rega’s cheeks ballooned with effort, and the bubble of glass blossomed with molten color in the cold air. Before Rega’s astonishing struggle of breath and motion, the bubble grew slower than Vel Vala expected, given she’d never needed to spend more than a thought or two on her own creations. To her, this seemed almost like a trick. It was sleight of hand. A molten blob of no particular form, substance, or interest to anyone; it was a foolish way to make a thing from start to end.
A boundless curiosity overcame Vel Vala, watching the shudder of Rega’s shoulders as she took her mouth away from the pipe, heaving for breath, her fearless use of a thick cloth to smooth the thing into its nascent shape, and by how, lightly as a jaybird, she’d dip the seething bubble into the ceramic molds at her feet, pulling new ramifications and vertices out of its form. Then, tilting, after that turning, and always back to the blowing…
“Get a pipe!” said Rega urgently, through her wheezes.
It took Vel Vala a breath to wrench back to her senses. “Excuse me? I’ve not the—”
Vel Vala sifted urgently through Rega’s tools and found a pipe like the one Rega held. At Rega’s instruction, she heated it in the furnace. Then, gently, Rega took the heated pipe with a pair of clamps and sealed it to the bottom of the cooling, storming blister of glass.
Rega began the precise work of removing the bottle from her own pipe and shaping the neck. “Take it, take it, take it.” Rega’s thick voice was soft as peachfur. Vel Vala tightened her grip, and the pipe seemed to vibrate in her hands, or perhaps her body was shaking. The air was filled with an odd, clean scent.
“Here, here, here.” Rega’s firm hands took Vel Vala by the shoulders, driving her like some mute livestock. Together, they brought the immature vessel to the open clay kiln. Vel Vala shivered as Rega’s hands took her tenderly around the wrists. Rega’s shape folded against her back, walking step by step with her. At that moment, it was as if they shared one mind, and separating the vessel from the pipe was as natural as if Vel Vala had done it a thousand times—well, of course it should be; she was a god, after all.
Distracted by these thoughts, Vel Vala hardly had any time to think about the heavy, slick sensation of Rega’s touch around her wrists, the tender, passive weight of Rega’s chest upon her back, and the smooth, proper whisper of Rega’s breath over her neck.
They broke off from one another a moment later, coughing and panting their chagrin to the sky above.
“It looks bad,” said Rega.
“What?” The molten beauty of the formless bubble was still visible to Vel Vala. When she closed her eyes, she felt its heat burn across her face. “It’s secreted away in that clay box, how can you know?”
“Not that.” Rega tipped her nose upwards. “Storm’s coming sooner than I thought. It was bell’s luck we finished when we did.”
At the sound of ‘finished,’ Vel Vala touched her arm, seeking the fading imprint of Rega’s fingers upon her.
“Wash off with some snow,” Rega said, stumbling over her words when Vel Vala looked up and noticed her notice of her. “You’ll smell like an absolute hound if you don’t.”
After that, Vel Vala stayed outside for longer than she strictly intended.
“Your work is done, then,” said Vel Vala. They sat by the hearth, having eaten, and now not doing much of anything but listening to the fire crackle and watching it glow. “Tomorrow you’ll show me your failure, and I’ll be free of this unsavory place.”
“But I can’t show you tomorrow. We’ve only just put it in the kiln,” said Rega innocent as a jay.
Though in truth, she had waited for this moment.
Vel Vala sharpened her gaze and set her lips in suspicion. “This is some mockery of me, or else you’re lying to postpone your fate.”
“Neither mockery nor lie.” Sweat pricked on Rega’s brow, a nervous smile tugged its way out of her. “As we folk do glass, without the abilities of a god, it requires days to cool; if we took it out before then, in this open air it would burst.”
“Then…” Vel Vala touched thoughtfully at the large hoops of her earrings. She looked to the dresser by the door, where the petals of the Telly’s Dell had grown crinkled and limp. “Then I suppose you should hope that flower stays intact.”
Rega had never wished for anything more in her life.
Vel Vala sighed, resting her ear against her shoulder and watching the burgeoning storm spit its powder against the windows. “Oh, but I wish we had something better to do than sit and wait till morning.”
“I’ve some cherry wine in the pantry,” Rega offered. “If it would please Vel Vala’s palette.”
“It would help to pass the time.”
As they traded the bottle of sweet cherry wine between each other, the warmth in their bellies soothed their weary bodies just as it smoothed their conversation. Vel Vala’s many stories of intrigue among the courts and councils of the gods fascinated Rega to no end; inexperienced as she was, she had no way of knowing that only half of them were true.
“A core-speckled dragon!” piped Vel Vala. “I rode it, sure as day comes after night!” A slosh of her wine saucer emphasized her claim. “And its sister too.”
“Dragons.” Rega whispered, eyes wide. “Are there truly such things?”
“There are.” But then, she paused, and the self-serious aspect dissolved from her face. With a purse of her lips from side to side, quietly, she said, “Only not really… there’s been no dragons for a long while, I’m sad to say.”
“Well, it’s a fine story either way,” said Rega. That it was false hardly disappointed her. Books were false, and she loved them more than anything. “The only thing I’ve ever ridden was a goat.”
“A goat? Folk can ride those?”
“Only for about a breath, in my case.” Ordinarily, she’d never mention it, but cherry wine had a way of freeing her tongue. ” It bucked me off and broke my bum.”
Vel Vala’s cackle shook the rafters.
As the night went on, they laughed so often, and for so long, that it was a wonder they had any time to breathe. As Vel Vala gripped her aching stomach with one hand and barely held on to her wine with the other, the soft dimples that laughter brought to her severe cheeks drew Rega like a baited snare. When Vel Vala noticed this attention, however, she quickly looked away.
The storm lulled and the cottage was silent, but for the exploratory hooting of the owls somewhere not near, but not far away.
“Have you been many places?” Rega asked.
“Nearly all.” And although this was a fib, she didn’t consider it an especially large one.
“Are there ones better than this?”
Vel Vala cocked her head, scrutinizing her companion’s shirking posture. “Some, I suppose.”
“It would have to be that way, wouldn’t it?” Rega ran her thumbs along the smooth rim of her saucer. “Then where will you go, after this is done?”
“I’m completely worn,” Vel Vala stodgily declared, and stood so abruptly from her seat that it careened backwards and crashed upon the floor. Apparently unconcerned by such trivial things, she observed the raging snow that returned to rattle the windows. “This storm’s too cold for gods to bear. Stay in bed with me and keep me warm until I fall asleep.”
And who was Rega, to deny the will of a god?
Huddled side-by-side under the thick blankets, they spoke for a while longer, about the these-and-thoses of who they were and what they’d done. With each lazy breath, Vel Vala’s stomach would brush terrifyingly close to Rega’s, and her eyes glinted like gemstones in the darkness.
“I’ve meant to ask,” said Vel Vala, voice thick, encumbered by drink and sleep. She snuck a hand from out between their bodies, and drafted the feather-lightness of her touch along Rega’s cheek. “What do you call these?”
Rega felt an ache flower inside her. Querulously, she offered, “Freckles, you mean?”
“Well,” continued Vel Vala. “I don’t know if there were core-freckled dragons, but core-speckled ones were a frightfully intrepid type. Thus, what marks you must be a precious gift—it writes your boldness plain upon your face.”
Their lips were so close that they could’ve touched on a whim.
With a groan of effort Vel Vala turned onto her side, and the sound declared a summary end to the conversation, at least in Rega’s mind. She fidgeted and fussed a bit with her position before pulling one of Rega’s strong arms around her stomach and sliding herself easily into Rega’s stilted embrace.
As the god of tomfoolery imbued Rega with her fearsome warmth, Rega, heated all the way to her freckles, thought if she were truly bold, she would’ve done something out of those books she read. She would’ve made some play or found some trick, beyond sealing that unfinished vessel up in that kiln and wagering against hope that curiosity would tie Vel Vala to her for just a little longer.
Gods smell wondrous fine, Rega thought, as she drifted off to sleep.
On the fourth day, hardly minutes after sun broke sky, a pair of voices shattered the silence.
“Rega,” they called, “Come out, come out, our Rega!
“Who’s that,” Vel Vala groaned. A leisurely series of clatters shook the walls, as she flung whatever was in arms reach towards the door.
Deep beneath the blankets, and face-down on her pillow, Rega mumbled, “It’s only Umb and Pel.”
“Come out, come out, our Rega,” the girls sing-songed. “We’ve missed you ‘round the village, and brought our mum’s breakfast!”
Vel Vala dragged herself up from out the covers and butted her foot against Rega’s cocooned shape. “Neh, get roused. They’ve brought you an offering.”
“It’s a trick,” grumbled Rega. “Accept that food and we’ll care for them all morning.”
Vel Vala blinked up at the ceiling joists, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, and examining the miniscule beauty in the motes of dust flitting through the shafts of dawn light. Her tongue felt drier than a desert, and there was a ponderous ache that throbbed her temples. When the cajoling did not cease, and when Rega showed no signs of stirring, the Noble Vel Vala took it upon herself to throw open the door and glare upon the heavily dressed, suddenly stock-still forms of Curious Umb and Fragile Pel.
Vel Vala loomed silently over the visiting children like a Baloe guardian, Umb stoically hugged an enormous mince pie in her small arms, and Pel shirked quietly behind her older sister, a mittened finger crammed up her nose
Rega, who’d finally undergone the colossal effort of rousing herself, cut around Vel Vala and relieved Umb of her tasty burden. She set it on the table and went to find some clean cutlery, calling to Vel Vala over her shoulder. “Bring them in before they freeze, if you would.”
The silence finally broken, Umb, in dauntless insouciance, asked, “Who’re you, auntie?”
“I’m no auntie,” Vel Vala said—though in truth, she wasn’t sure entirely what an ‘auntie’ was. “I am—”
“She looks strong,” Pel said.
“Not stronger than our Rega,” Umb contested, appraising this god with pinched lips and furrowed brow. “Our Rega can lift us both.”
“Are you strong, auntie?” Pel asked. “Can you lift us both?”
“Lift you?” Standing with shoulders wide, and inclining her chin, she spoke. “I am Vel Vala, she of—”
“Belbala, belbala!” the girls chimed in eager mimicry, surging forward in a swarm of grubby fingers to pinch and pull at the bangles, beads, and ornaments of Vel Vala’s ornate silks.
Vel Val flinched as Umb and Pel wriggled their stubby fingers in the direction of her face. “Show courtesy! You’re in the presence of a Noble Sie!”
But such proclamations are lost on the children of folk, and Curious Umb and Fragile Pel chanted in unison, “Lift us, auntie, lift us!”
“I’ll do no such thing, you wretched little gremlins!” Unable to dissuade the girls from excitedly toying with her fine silks, Vel Vala turned to Rega. “Come, remove these barnacles from me.”
With a chuckle, Rega shook her head. She was already pulling on her gloves. “I’ve work to do before breakfast. I’d hate to leave any orders unfinished, if I’m to soon begin my migrant life.”
“They smell absolutely fetid. And is there a reason they should be so small?”
Rega looked as if she’d been asked why water is wet. “So… they can grow into themselves, I suppose?”
Vel Vala wrinkled her nose. “What manner of foolishness is that?”
But she lifted the girls, each under an arm, and spun them ‘round just the same. And, as Rega went to work, she seemed not to notice how the Telly’s Dell’s petals had not withered or fallen. Indeed, on that sunny after-storm morning, the flower was as vibrant as if it’d never been plucked at all.
The day went on and the heat from the furnace never faltered. Vel Vala worked her tomfoolery to the children’s delight, entrancing them with spectral trickery and leading them on thrilling chases. She would vanish away into the shadow of the cottage eaves at the last moment before her capture only to reappear from the cover of a nearby tree to bodily pounce Umb, or Pel, or both, down into the ground in an explosion of fluffy snow and raucous shrieks. Spared the attentions of Vel Vala for the morning, Rega could commit herself to her work—though much time was lost to her daydreams, as she listened to the trilling of god and children playing together throughout the copse.
“Clear away from that, you louses!” Rega’s brusque order would’ve rattled the leaves from off the trees, if they’d had any to spare, as one of the girls sprinted dangerously close to the furnace. Curious Umb froze dead in her tracks at the shout and Fragile Pel, who hadn’t dared encroach upon the furnace in the first place, lived up to her name by bursting into a chorus of wracking sobs.
“Look what you’ve done,” said Vel Vala, panting as she caught up to the group. She bent forward, resting her hands on her knees. “You’ve made this one all…” She paused, unsure if the folkish emotions she understood read the same on the faces of these smaller versions. “Upset?”
“She ought be!” said Rega. “It’s not a fraction of how her poor parents would feel, if I sent their daughter home with singed stumps in lieu of hands!”
But long before Rega finished her dread proclamation, the girls were already gone, tumbling through the snow in pursuit of the flashing white fur of a twin-tailed fox.
Dusk fell and Rega was off getting supper from the larder when Vel Vala said, “You there, Pel.”
“I’m Umb, auntie!” said Umb. “Pel’s who’s sitting in your lap!”
Pel was rather too fast asleep, cuddled up against Vel Vala’s bosom, to make any serious ado over the slight.
“Whichever you are. Do you read?”
“Absolutely!” Umb gave a prideful brush of her finger beneath her sticky nose. “I know all my letters and half my numbers besides.”
“Then will you read to me what it says on the spines of those books above your auntie Rega’s bed?”
If it were Fragile Pel that Vel Vala had asked, it might’ve been a different matter, but Curious Umb was nothing if not a pleaser of aunties. So the girl clambered atop the bed, and stripped each book from the shelf in turn, announcing the titles boldly as a royal decree before discarding them into piles on either side of her. “This one’s ‘In Her Wyrm’s Embrace,’ and this one’s ‘The Girl Who Fell From The Moon’—and so on and so on until—”and this one’s ‘A Lost Lady’s Lovely…’ At this, Umb briefly blushed, and sunk on her haunches into the sea of books surrounding her. “I suppose it’s a word I shouldn’t say, on accounting of its rudeness.”
“Hooooo, isn’t that interesting?” With a ruffle of Pel’s hair, Vel Vala leaned forward and set her chin upon her knuckles. “Why don’t you open that one, and tell me what lies inside?”
Regrettably, the opportunity was lost beneath the crash of crockware, as the returning Rega dropped everyone’s supper straight to the floor.
That night, while topping off her saucer by the hearth, Vel Vala asked, “Have you ever craved one of those things?”
“A child, I suppose.”
A yelp of a laugh tumbled out of Rega. “Children aren’t things. They’re children.”
“How should I know? I’ve met none, before today.”
“Don’t gods have children?”
“My progenitor drew me out of rock and earth, and sculpted my face with clay and flint.” Vel Vala scoffed and turned her look to the fire. “I’ve no idea how your lot is made, excepting it has to do with filth, I’m sure.”
“I could show you,” murmured Rega.
“What was that you said?” Vel Vala shook out her head and sat up a little straighter, to distract from how she’d lost herself in admiring the choppy fringe of hair that fell across Rega’s eyes.
“Nothing.” Rega ducked her head and touched her knees together. A shiver ran through her, but when she thought to pull her seat closer to the fire, she realized she had no need; it’d been an age since the room felt this warm.
On the fifth day, a pair of busybodies came to visit.
Honestly, it was surprising it took as long as it did. Any good hamlet has its busybodies, and Old Sal and Precious Arva were two truly spectacular practitioners of the form. Purposeful as daybreak, they strode down the snowy path. Rega was off washing her tools with well water, and so it fell to Vel Vala, who’d been rather aimlessly plucking the longest strands from the scrubby grass that peeked from out the snow, to greet them.
Old Sal—who was known as such long before she was such—was a hobbler, but no less quick for it. Supported by a walking stick as gnarled as her hands, she moved with the elegance of a perpetual fall. “So you’re the cattlesnap that’s been mousing around our Rega.”
“Excuse me?” Folk had too many words; Vel Vala had no idea what a cattlesnap was, nor how it “moused,” but she knew she didn’t prefer the sound of either.
“She’s a handsome one, I’ll give her that.” Precious Arva, whose dark hair was streaked with lines of fine silver, scratched a finger against her chin. “As far as out-folk go, anyway.”
Taken off guard by the confidence with which Precious Arva deployed this compliment, Vel Vala could only clasp her hands in front of her. She was bent halfway forward before she realized that gods have no need for bowing, when accepting their rightful praise.
Old Sal’s cheeks wrinkled in smile. “You’ve plans with her for Penult?”
“She doesn’t know Penult!” Old Sal sputtered. “This is the issue with the young, they’ve—”
“Now, now,” said Precious Arva. “She doesn’t know tradition, but that doesn’t mean she can’t learn.”
“I suppose that’s so,” said Old Sal through pinched lips. Then, she turned the burden of her gaze upon Vel Vala. “You treat her nicely, Vel Vala, or whatever your name might be.” The wrinkles now gave her face an ominous cast, perhaps one stern enough to shake even a god. “That’s our Rega, and if you do anything untoward, you’ll have a whole village to contend with.”
With a nod from Old Sal, Precious Arva hoisted her pack from off her shoulder and produced from within a simple glass bottle that she handed to Vel Vala. Its texture worn smooth with age, it was plugged with old cork, and its green-blue in color lent a strange tint to the thickened liquid that sloshed inside.
“It’s heavy,” Vel Vala complained.
“Old things have a weight to them,” Precious Arva said. “It’s how you reckon their history.”
“History? Of folk?” Vel Vala snorted. “Besides, it’s ugly. It’s no compare to what I’ve seen your Rega make.”
“It’s our Rega who made that, you cattlesnap!” Old Sal declared.
Fixing Vel Vala with her gaze, Precious Arva said, “There’s no good Penult without an offering.” Her tone was mild, but laced with an insinuation so vague, yet so dense, that it brought a tingle to Vel Vala’s nape. “Knowing that you’re not from ‘round, and also knowing that our Rega’s never made a self-interested request in the long of her short life, we brought the offering to spare you and her the embarrassment of not having one.”
“Offering?” Vel Vala asked. Unconsciously, she found herself cradling the bottle in her hands, and running fingers along the timeworn surface of the glass. “Then it’s for worship.”
Old Sal offered Precious Arva a sly look, and a smile too small for gods to reckon was Precious Arva’s reply.
“…of a sort…” was all they said.
Before Vel Vala could inquire further, the three were interrupted by a clattering sound—Rega heaving her load upon the worktable. Clapping the dust from her hands, she asked, “Oh, aunties, what brings you?”
“Just to collect that pie plate Umb and Pel had left,” Old Sal trilled.
“Auntie! It’s cold as dunleals this morning, and like to snow besides. If it was just the plate you needed, I could’ve brought it ‘round.”
“But if you had, we’d not have seen the news.”
“Oh honestly…” Brusque embarrassment, and the bristling of fine hairs on her neck, cut the curtness of Rega’s reply, as she took the old hobbler by the arm and led her into the cottage.
With the plate retrieved and their niceties exchanged, Old Sal and Precious Arva left before mid-morning. They were halfway down the path before Vel Vala thought to hold out a hand and call after.
“Oh, but wait! You never said what Penult was!”
At the sound of that word, Rega jolted into the best posture she’d shown in several years.
With her arm around the Old Sal who brayed like a child, or a donkey, or both, Precious Arva called back, “Our Rega can tell you that!”
But, staring up into the bright mid-morning sun until purple blotches filled her vision, Rega was in no position to do any such thing.
It took Rega the better part of the evening to recover from her shock, and so the moon was approaching its apex before they set out.
“Why are you wearing that thing?” asked Vel Vala.
“It’s only… because…” Rega had done naught but fidget as they walked, fussing her hands against one another, and always lifting fingers to adjust the small slipbird broach she’d used to pin the hair out of her eyes. “It’s for Penult!”
“What’s that have to do with it?” Vel Vala was exhausted. She hadn’t liked trudging out to the lake, but she despised this. Climbing hills was a fretful pain. Her legs were sore, the pack was heavy, and even gods have limits to their insulation from the cold.
“W-wait and see,” was all Rega could muster.
A very long time ago, somewhere up in those hills above the hamlet, the folk had found a hot spring secluded from all else. It was a good place for privacy, a wonderful place for baths, and an immaculate place for Penult.
Vel Vala’s mood soared at the sight of the gurgling water. Her toes curled for friction against the dampness of the smooth black stone that bordered the spring and her skin tingled with anticipation. “You could’ve told me this was waiting for us! I would’ve have complained half as much if I’d known.”
She shed her clothes as she strode towards it, letting her precious silks and shimmering bracelets fall where they might. A spray of warm water assaulted Rega, as Vel Vala leapt into a pool with a fevered splash.
“Careful!” said Rega. “I don’t fancy going back in wet clothes—”
There is a certain type of rock, that once surfaced in places like this, which, in the water of a sulfurous spring, produces a nightly glow mild as lamplight through a fog. It was surrounded by this peaceful radiance that Rega first observed the whole of a god’s body, and just the first glimpse of it was ten times what’s necessary to stop a folk’s heart.
She was still frozen when Vel Vala quit her sloshing about, and treaded back to the edge, to rest her elbows upon the lip of the spring and ask, “Aren’t you coming in?”
Rega, for her part, appeared to have forgotten how to untie her clothing.
Her shivering fingers did, eventually, recall the basics of knots and such. And, though it required some godly goading, she managed to slink her sheepish way into the water, to sit beside Vel Vala.
After a bit of Old Sal’s mead, Rega reclaimed a measure of her wits, and soon they were splashing and fooling about, as folk will often do, enjoying each other’s company and the tickle of the effervescent bubbles along their skin.
All drink has ways of easing things, but Old Sal’s was especially good for unshackling folk—and gods too, it seemed—from the specific sorts of outsized inhibitions that inexperience makes seem inescapable. So it was, after half a bottle split between them, that Vel Vala grew daring enough to brush a hand against the thick leg beside her, and rove her eyes along Rega’s strong, firm body—taking in her these many, hidden places—the birthmarks, and the scars, and all the precious markers of her beauty, highlighted by the moonlight above and the glow of the spring beneath.
“It’s the first I’ve seen you like this,” she said, as a touch of greedy desire buoyed her smile.
Reminded of her exposure, Rega hunched forward in the shallow water. “Don’t look like that, I’m horrendous.”
“I’ve no sense for aesthetic, isn’t that right?” Vel Vala’s teeth were showing, her smile had grown that wide. “So I suppose I’ve no way of knowing you’re not beautiful.”
“Hush,” said Rega, looking out at the trees.
“Anyway, all that’s horrendous is this.” She touched at Rega’s brooch. “Ones like these are meant to pin clothing, not hair. Don’t folk know even that much? Besides that, it’s ugly.”
These protests were choked as Vel Vala straddled Rega’s lap. Easy as drafting a cloud, she plucked away the brooch from Rega’s hair and set it beside her on the rocks. “Let’s be done with this gaudy thing.”
A nervous tremor broke inside Rega, and it was all she could do not to shout. She was grateful to her hair, since it now curtained her eyes. Somehow, this slight distance, and the mellow warmth of the mead in her stomach, that made the pounding in her heart easier to bear.
Vel Vala’s fingers filtered through Rega’s damp hair, adjusting its style to her liking. “There.” Her graceful touch tickled over sensitive flesh as she tucked the last bit of it behind Rega’s ears. Draping her arms over Rega’s shoulders, and leaning in just a scarce bit closer, she said, “That’s how you look the finest.”
Though there’s no truer shame than wasting a god’s compliment, entranced as Rega was by the light hold of hands on her shoulders, she hardly heard a word of it. The water dappled Vel Vala’s face like raindrops, and the glimmer of amber eyes were like a spell, and the proximity of her heartbeat a shackle, and all were as ruinous and wonderful as anything she’d ever imagined.
The brush of Rega’s nose against Vel Vala’s was the only warning the god would get, before Rega planted that urgent kiss upon her lips.
And Vel Vala, eyes quite wide with shock, ably bit down like a pit snake upon Rega’s bottom lip.
“Ah!” Rega cried out, jerking back in full retreat. Pain shattered her moonlit thrall, and she slapped a hand over her bruised lip. “That hurt!”
“You surprised me!” retorted Vel Vala. “You ought to give warning before…” Her nose flared in mortified gulps of breath and, looking rather cross, she spat out the last few words before her opinion had fully formed inside her head. “Before such things!”
“Such things?” Rega asked. “But you’re sitting in my lap, you’ve hands over my shoulders, and you took the brooch from out my hair, and… and…” said Rega, “You’d asked to come, so I thought.” Her hands groping the air as if there were some bodily way to explain something she’d known, but never truly accepted. “I’d only assumed.” How badly it stirred a yearning in her. “And it’s Penult, after all…”
“It’s painfully circular, this riddle I’m meant to suss!” A splash of water accompanied the frustrated sweep of Vel Vala’s arm. “It’d be a fine thing, if any folk would deign to tell me what this “Penult” entailed!”
“It entails that the end of a year is when you… it’s a time to remind those you love that… and I’ve affection for you and you’ve—”
Sitting up with a start, Vel Vala belted a cackle into the steamy air. Squaring her shoulders, she assumed a prideful stance to distract from her awkwardness. “Oh, is that all it is? Such queer customs you provincial folk have!”
Seeing how Rega slunk beneath the water, as if compressed by the weight of her embarrassment and Vel Vala’s haughtiness both, brought a twinge to Vel Vala’s stomach. Quite despite herself, she imagined a certain mask falling from her face as easily as she had shed her clothing. “You ought’ve done it the other night, under the covers,” she quietly said. “Then, I was ready for it.”
“Only…” Rega looked her side. “I wasn’t. I’d never done one, so—”
Vel Vala dipped her head, looking contrite, perhaps for the first time in a life short by the standards of the gods, but long by any folk’s reckoning. With a touch of two fingers beneath that strong chin, Vel Vala lifted Rega’s gaze to hers. “Take heed,” she said.
Then, with Rega’s full attention on her, she continued in conspiratorial whisper, “Gods prefer not to be surprised. At least…” She looked away, and her chest was tight with painful shyness—one quite unbecoming a god, she thought, even as she decided she didn’t mind it. “Not when it’s their first one as well.”
Rega had so much more to say, and so many more questions to ask, but those would have to wait. Vel Vala returned to her Rega and quieted her with a kiss.
The warmth of the spring could hardly compare to the warmth of their bodies, nestled up close to one another, and spilling with hungry heat.
They rested together for quite a long time, savoring the oversweet taste of the mead, listening to the crooning of wind through bare tree branches, and watching the starlight spread into auroras in the sky, as it sometimes did, in parts like these. It spread into a gossamer curtain, a wave frozen in time.
“It’s beautiful,” Vel Vala said.
“It truly is,” said Rega, despite having seen it before, more times than she could possibly count.
Vel Vala was surprised at the airy sensation that claimed her head. Perhaps it was the drink, or the smell of sulfur in the air. Either way, she thought nothing of it, as she cozied into Rega’s side and slunk a bit deeper into the water. The steam rising from the spring was cold as winter air upon the burning faces of god and folk alike. Beneath the bubbling surface of the water, Rega squeezed Vel Vala’s hand in hers.
Not even a god could become used to Old Sal’s mead in just one night. By the time the moon had hidden itself down behind the mountains, and their first Penult had well and truly passed, Vel Vala was so lost to her labyrinth of drink that it was questionable she’d ever find her way out—that is to say: Rega suspected she was absolutely, irredeemably glazed and Vel Vala knew enough boisterous songs to confirm it.
And so, Rega trotted down the path, with her glazed god hoisted up upon her back, and her arms hooked tightly under Vel Vala’s legs. Listening to Vel Vala stridently screeching the ballads of her celestial kin, long-forgotten by simple folk, Rega thought that “glazed” was a wonderful thing for a god to be.
It was after she’d laid Vel Vala into bed, and was taking off her boots by the door, that Rega noticed the Telly’s Dell on the dresser had lost all but one of its petals. Struck silent, she touched fingers gently against her chest, where a subtle ache had found its way in.
“Oh, come to bed already!” said Vel Vala, voice brassy with command. But, following Rega’s gaze to the flower, Vel Vala regained a brief moment of lucidity. She lifted herself up on one elbow, and cleared her loose brains from out her face with a sluggish hand. “Tomorrow’s the morning, then. Will I be satisfied?”
Rega, who could not bear to turn and look, had no way of seeing the rakish smile that accompanied Vel Vala’s words. “Wait and see,” was all she managed to say.
On the sixth day, which was also the eve of a new year, Vel Vala cast wide the curtains.
“Arise, my Rega!” she proclaimed. “Dawn has come!”
The feeble orange of a winter sunrise bloomed within the small cottage. Though she was certain she was being stirred from an exceedingly pleasant dream, Rega was happy just the same. “Already awake?”
But, rubbing out her eyes and shaking the anchors of sleep, realization claimed her. An apocalyptic sadness overtook poor Rega. Eyes downcast, and never wishing before as she did in this moment that she herself could be a god—if she were, perhaps could banish the light, even if just another hour. “You’re eager to check the kiln, I’m sure.”
At that, Vel Vala drew Rega up from the covers, a wry grin perked her lips. “You’ve got slow wits, my Rega, even as folk go, if you’ve yet to realize you’ve already won.”
“We haven’t opened the kiln.” Rega’s heart thundered within her. Her body transmuted from stone to air. She was weightless. “How’ll you know if I’ve made something that gives you joy every dawn—”
“It’s impertinent to ask a god to explain herself.” Vel Vala held a fierce gaze, and set-firm brow, the faux-sternness she had practiced in the mirror all morning while Rega snored and tossed. Even so, she couldn’t hold it for a moment before opening into a smile warm enough to melt a glacier. “Silly girl,” she said, with soft hands around freckled cheeks. “I’m already looking at her.”
And whatever happened afterwards… well, some things you shouldn’t say, on accounting of their rudeness.
With a wholly proper lack of urgency, they did eventually check the kiln. The end of a year is meant to be approached slowly, especially after one’s first Penult, and the bed was so very cozy, after all.
It was simple, as far as craftswork goes, with no vertiginous whorls of color, nor any intricate limbs. A vase, and just that, suitable for holding wild flowers, perhaps, but nothing you’d gift upon a trussing, even in a meager hamlet like Rega’s. Its body was umber in tint, yet clear, and, if you turned it at just the right angle, you’d see the dotted speckles peppered all along its frame. Despite that, when taken in sum, any seasoned critic would likely declare it a completely unremarkable work.
Holding it between them, their fingers lightly touched. The strident shrieking of Curious Umb and Fragile Pel broke the morning silence; the eve of a new year was dawning, and there were parties to attend.
And that is the origin of we folk, whose freckled faces and umber skin reflect the love they drew from sand and flesh, furnace and cottage, in that small hamlet, over those long nights, so many years ago.
Hey, you read to the end! Again, you can pick up the story here if you feel like floating me a couple bucks or, if you really, want to do me a solid, you can write a review, leave a comment, or share this with other people who might like it–which would be the best of all! Any which way way, thanks for reading!
Thanks again to @yuricanes for providing the art for this story, and to S, K, and G for all their hard work editing it (and tolerating me).