Still, Shu-fang had had them show up at random times so often in her life that she always expected one to show up. It was how she ended up talking to herself on many occasions. And then also not speaking out loud to herself on others. It depended on what she was okay with another person perhaps eavesdropping on her hearing.
Offending the gods was one thing though. Getting away from them was another.
Now, in the library, Shu-fang began her research. There were all of the things she knew, but that had the problem with specifics being buried under the mountain of things she knew. Then there were the many things she did not know. Searching her memory for those things would not help. Searching the records here would give her a starting point.
She made a chart of every place every god was ever mentioned in. It was a lot of places to go through, places that in many ways no longer existed. At least not in name or in shape. Shu-fang had to determine where those places were now. She pulled out a map in order to figure it out.
Many sticky notes later, she finally found a selection of places that didn’t show up in any of her memories, any of the stories. Places that the gods were not known for.
It was time to go.
The glimmer of fascination that the gods had held over her once had long since disappeared behind that veil and flashlight. The gods were just as petty and dumb as mortals were. Maybe even more so. Because they lived forever and Shu-fang expected them to know better.
After years of fighting for one god, then being snatched up into the services of another, it had all become the same. Shu-fang was more likely to serve the god that gave her the most to do, or the most interesting thing to do. Sometimes that was the underdog. Sometimes it was the morally reprehensible one.
It was thinking about this yesterday, with her bottle of Dynasty Wine, that she had come up with the idea of retirement. She was tired. Tired of doing dumb things for dumb people. Of having lost her morals, her morale, and all of those other important things that started with the letter ‘m’.
“I don’t care if I offend them anymore,” she said to the empty room, waiting for a god to pop out and ask what she was talking about.
They didn’t do that. Often, anyway.
It was Shu-fang’s fault the gods were so interested in her. She remembered it as though it were hidden behind a veil, where someone was shining a flashlight through the other side and into your eyes and you would tell them that wasn’t how it worked, that they needed to give you the flashlight so you could at least make out shadows, but the other person was insistent this was how it worked.
Meaning to say, Shu-fang didn’t remember the details, it had been a while. Plus, a whole lot of it blended together, like the weave of said veil.
The battles of mortals had all been the same. Fighting them had seemed important at the time, before she realized something important.
Mortal battles were sort of dumb.
There was a time she had thought they mattered. A cause that she believed in, a belief she shared. Maybe Shu-fang would have done better creating her own kingdom and fighting for herself, but the thought had never crossed her mind. Shu-fang didn’t think an immortal would make great choices for the rest of mankind. The gods were immortal and they sure didn’t. And despite everything, Shu-fang still considered herself human.
“I am retiring.”
The room was completely empty, but for Shu-fang. She still put forth those words without hesitation, loud enough for every corner to capture her words. Because there might be someone listening. Shu-fang had long since been used to anyone being able to hear her.
Today though, she did not want to be misconstrued. The seemingly young woman rolled back her sleeves, tying them out of the way. She had bought a large paintbrush for this occasion, with candy apple red paint. Viewing the white walls of her canvas, Shu-fang dipped her brush into the canister, then drew it back out to write it on the wall.
Shu-fang covered the walls with her message. It was a simple one. I’m done. I’m retired. Don’t come for me. She wrote it in her mother tongues – it had been so long she did not remember which was actually her first language, but she was native enough in many of them it didn’t matter. She added in languages that she did not use as often, but was close to fluent enough in to write it casually as well. She found her tape recorder, her computer, her phone, and recorded the message on all of those as well.
There were many different ways to say it, but Shu-fang kept it simple. She would no longer do the gods’ will.
Kya and Temperance were not quiet people. To remain silent in this place of worship was uncomfortable, but Temperance knew how much more uncomfortable she would feel if she broke that silence. Kya’s usually impassive expression now included the occasional twitch of her lip. Temperance feared that she might actually speak. Kya’s religious practices included a lot more sound than Salimah’s did.
However, Kya remained respectful. Even when the air chilled from Salimah’s musicless dance. The shaking of her layered dress, made specifically for the winter, for the north, for her worship, shone like water droplets under the sun.
It froze Temperance’s emotions, little by little, into a state of calm she barely ever attained. Even Kya’s near smile finally faded into her regular expression, though with eyes that saw more in this ritual than Temperance could understand.
Beads of sweat appeared on Salimah’s cheeks, from the limited amount of her that ever could be seen from under her dressage. Her exertion outweighed her prayer. For the moment.
Then Temperance realized why she felt uncomfortable. It was not staying silent here, it was the fact this place was silent despite Salimah’s dance. No sound of breath, no sound of footfall. Her exertion was the prayer, the fact it showed rather than not was more impressive than if the appearance was of ease.
Kya placed a hand on Temperance’s elbow. She looked over at her friend. Kya made a motion that Temperance didn’t understand. She would have to ask. After.
Salimah continued to pray.
Zale struggled against the current, which had shifted out of nowhere. The signs he had looked for within the water had not warned him of this surprising change until it was too late. It had been years since the waters had surprised him in such a way. His boat stayed upright in the tumultuous waves, but barely. Only through the expert craft of its creation and every single drop of knowledge he had learned in managing it did they so survive the ocean.
Yet Zale knew better. No matter how much talent, skill, or luck anyone could have, sometimes it was never enough to combat the wrath of the Sea Gods. And this time it felt as though multiple had been angered, a comparison he never would have made before.
There was no moment when Zale consciously realized they were going down. The gradual knowledge that his situation was unavoidable gave him time to mentally give his boat the farewell it deserved as he continued the struggle.
By the whims of the Gods, Zale and his boat disappeared into the sea’s foam.
There was something about how Salimah had completely given herself over to a higher power that Temperance wished to understand. Not that she was religious or wanted to be. She knew which gods existed and appreciated that, but to be a part of a temple closed off so many other options she had always wanted to keep open.
“Did you always want this?” she asked her friend, sitting down at the table across from her. They were alone in this common room, their companions not here.
“Want… this?” The soft smile, the complete patience and compassion that Temperance lacked. It made her wonder.
“Yeah. What you have now.”
“Part of it was always my duty. However… yes. I wanted to take this task on from my mother. I wanted to be able to sooth the hurts of others. For that, I was lucky.”
Salimah said it so matter-of-factly. “Giving yourself to a single god?” Temperance asked.
“It is nice to know that my faith for one thing will always be rewarded.” Salimah smiled. “That’s what you’re looking for, isn’t it? My selfish reasons?”
That made her flush. “I-I didn’t mean it like that.”
“No, it’s fine. I understand. We all have those reasons. And what I said is true. Having one thing in life I can never doubt is reassuring. But not for everyone. One doesn’t need something so all-encompassing to be devoted. Don’t doubt yourself, Temperance.”
She sighed, feeling so see through. “Thanks.”
“Of course, Temperance. Of course.”