Atsushi, newly made god of mercy, set aside the book he was reading, gazed out over the Heavenly City, and sighed. It was a truly beautiful afternoon. The sunlight glittered on the golden roofs of the houses below the Palace of the Gods and flashed off the waves of the eternal ocean. Even from this height, on the balcony of his palace suite, he could see the colors of flowers in the City's many gardens. Overhead, the sky glittered with stars and planets, casting an ever-changing light over the world. Atsushi had been living in the Palace of the Gods for almost two weeks now, and the view still took his breath away.
"Is something wrong?" asked a voice nearby. Atsushi turned and smiled at his companion. He and Kinshiro were sitting on the balcony, reading companionably together while they enjoyed the city's eternally perfect weather. Between them was a small table, which held a pot of tea and two cups, along with a plate of assorted snacks. A game board, evidence of earlier amusement, occupied the rest of the table space. The two of them were still enjoying their honeymoon, and that meant they had time to be lazy all afternoon if they felt like it. Atsushi had a feeling that this was not something Kinshiro did very often, and he hated to be the one to bring down the mood.
"It's nothing," he said. "Don't worry about it."
Kinshiro's frown deepened. "Are you sure? You sounded... wistful. Is something bothering you?"
Atsushi wanted to say that no, of course not, he couldn't be happier. It wouldn't have been entirely untrue - he was happy here. Just a few days ago, he had been nothing more than a simple innkeeper, living in a small town few people ever visited, and hoping for little more than to make enough profit to keep him going for another year. Now everything was different. He lived in a literal palace where anything he could ask for could be his in an instant, a paradise where he was free to gratify every desire to the limit of his capacity. If he wanted intellectual stimulation, there were vast libraries where he could wander contentedly for days without seeing the same book twice, concert halls where the greatest performers of the ages acted or sang or played music every night, sprawling galleries of art and gardens full of sculpture. If he craved more material pleasures, he had a new set of rooms perfectly tailored to his comfort, a wardrobe full of clothing fit for an emperor, and anything he could possibly want to eat or drink would be delivered to him with no more than a thought. If companionship was what he wanted, he knew he was more than welcome here. He had plenty of new friends among the other gods who were only too happy to explain things to him, to offer advice, to show him around his new home, or just to keep him company. Best of all, he had Kinshiro, the love of his life. Even now, seeing him there at his side, with the lights of the celestial sky making his silver hair and piercing eyes shimmer, gave Atsushi a feeling of warmth and gratitude.
"Nothing's bothering me," said Atsushi. "It's just, well... I know it's silly, but I guess I'm a little homesick."
Emotions flickered across Kinshiro's face - sympathy, concern, anxiety. Atsushi thought he could guess a little of what he was thinking. It had amused and charmed him to know that beneath the great god Aurite's calm, unruffled exterior was a seething mass of insecurities. Kinshiro panicked so easily when the world stopped behaving according to his rules. Just now, Kinshiro was worried that Atsushi was having second thoughts about this whole business, that he was hoping to find a way out of it all and leave him, perhaps even ask to be reincarnated and sent back to a simple human life.
"It's not silly," said Kinshiro. "I can... understand, just a little, how you must feel. Even I miss the inn sometimes."
Atsushi smiled a little. "Even the part about washing dishes and sweeping floors?"
"Even that," Kinshiro agreed. "In some ways, it was simpler."
"That is part of it," Atsushi agreed. "It's such a big responsibility, being a god. I still don't know if I'm going to be up to it."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Kinshiro asked.
"I don't know," Atsushi admitted. He thought about it for a while. He knew he could never really go back home, not with the way things had changed, but still...
A thought occurred to him.
"My sister," he said. "Does she know that I'm... I'm..."
"Dead? A god?" Kinshiro suggested. Then, after a pause, "Married?"
"Any of those."
Kinshiro shook his head. "I don't think so. It would take time for word to get to her."
"Can I tell her?" Atsushi asked. It had hurt, leaving without being able to say goodbye to the only living family he had.
"I don't see why not," said Kinshiro, after giving the matter due deliberation. "Akoya went and told everything to his maid, and I imagine a sister has a lot more right to know these things than a mere maid does."
Atsushi had to smile a little at that. He had actually met Akemi a few times by now: the woman who had once been Akoya's maid, then his high priestess, and now served as chief among his attendants, and who waited on him with a mixture of amused tolerance and genuine fondness. Describing her as a mere maid was hardly doing her justice.
"Can we go now?" Atsushi asked eagerly.
Kinshiro shrugged. "I don't see why not. We have some free time."
"You're the best!" Atsushi bounded up from his chair to embrace his husband tightly. "I love you so much."
Kinshiro blushed, looking extremely pleased. "Whenever you're ready."
"Then let's go!" said Atsushi.
He seized on Kinshiro's hand and pulled him to his feet. In a blink of green light, the two of them were gone.
The house where they arrived was a handsome one, the largest of several town houses crammed together in one of the older parts of town, a bit old-fashioned but still well-maintained and dignified. It was a house that signified old money, plus a desire to stay in town where the action was rather than retreat to somewhere less crowded and noisy. In short, it was the home of a well-to-do merchant from a long line of merchants. Atsushi had only visited it once before, around the time of his sister's wedding, when he'd stayed there a few nights to help her prepare for the festivities and then with the cleanup afterwards. Now he and Kinshiro rematerialized in the alley between it and its nearest neighbor and considered how to make his approach.
"I don't think we had better spring this on her all at once," he mused. His sister was a practical, down-to-earth woman who would take almost anything in stride, but he wasn't sure she was ready for a situation quite this strange.
Kinshiro nodded. "I will follow your lead on this."
Atsushi had to smile. Kinshiro was approaching this with the same solemnity he used when approaching the judge's bench. Of course, that was probably what this was, from his perspective. He was about to meet his husband's family face to face for the first time, and he didn't know if they were going to like him. As a god, he could make them obey him, possibly even make them respect him, but he couldn't be sure they'd like him.
"Don't be nervous," Atsushi said, patting him on the shoulder. "She's going to love you almost as much as I do."
Kinshiro gave him a weak smile.
The two of them walked around to the front of the house and climbed the short set of steps to the front door. Atsushi knocked, feeling the first butterflies building inside him. So much had changed in such a short span of time, he had no idea yet how he was going to explain it all, but...
The door was opened by a pretty woman with the same dark hair and warm brown eyes as Atsushi's. She beamed as she caught sight of her guests.
"Atsushi!" she exclaimed, sweeping him into a hug. "What in the world are you doing here?"
Atsushi laughed and returned the embrace. "Visiting you, what else? Can we come in?"
"Are you kidding? Get in here, you little brat," she said affectionately, hauling him inside. "I haven't heard from you in months! You've got to tell me everything you've been doing." She cast a quick look over Atsushi's shoulder. "You come in, too. Any friend of my brother's is a friend of mine."
She hauled the two of them into a pleasant little sitting room. Atsushi remembered it from his previous visit, but it had been new then. Now it had been inhabited for a few years, and had picked up the personal touches and threadbare patches that came from being lived in. Atsushi allowed himself to be placed on the sofa and watched with some amusement as his sister more or less shoved Kinshiro into place next to him.
"So, Atsushi, aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?" she asked, settling into the chair across from them.
Atsushi felt his face warming, but he rose to the occasion, saying, "Kinshiro, this is my sister, Suzume. Suzume, this is... well, this is going to be kind of a surprise, but... this is Kinshiro, my new husband."
There followed several seconds of the sort of high-pitched exclamations of the sort only sisters were capable of. Atsushi bore the noise and accompanying hugs stolidly until she settled down again. At last, Suzume stood back to turn her attention to Kinshiro. He squirmed a little under her evaluating gaze.
"Well," she said at last, "you certainly did well in the looks department. And it looks like he's taking good care of you."
She reached out to touch the material of Atsushi's sleeve, and he felt himself blushing slightly. He was wearing the divine equivalent of "hanging around the house" clothes, modest to the point of being drab compared to some of the things he had in his new wardrobe. Some of those he found slightly embarrassing in their opulence, and he wouldn't have worn them at all if he hadn't felt the need to impress people into remembering that he was really a god now. He needed all the moral support he could get in that area. Even so, the shirt he was wearing now was of the finest linen, beautifully embroidered at the hem and cuffs with delicate designs of oak trees and leaves, and was far beyond anything he could have afforded in his old life.
"You could say he's pretty well off," Atsushi admitted.
Suzume smirked. "Married for money, did you?"
"What? No!" Atsushi yelped.
Suzume laughed. "I'm teasing! Honestly, you're so sensitive, Atsushi."
"Well, I didn't," Atsushi mumbled. "I didn't even know he was important until just before he asked me to marry him."
"And you did it without even inviting me?" Suzume asked, raising an eyebrow. "What, you just couldn't wait?"
"It was kind of a spur of the moment thing," Atsushi admitted. "Anyway, we had already been talking about getting married, and the actual high priest of Aurite was staying at the inn, so we figured as long as we had him handy..."
"You don't have to make excuses to me," said Suzume, smiling. "I'm just happy you finally met someone who suits you. I want to hear all about it..."
She chattered on, but Atsushi had stopped listening. Kinshiro had just nudged him and glanced towards the front door. Even with it closed, Atsushi could sense a small disturbance coming their way. He wouldn't have noticed it without Kinshiro pointing it out to him, but apparently being a god came with a few extra senses, and he could definitely tell that there was someone out there with legal matters on his mind. He began to grow uneasy.
Seconds later, there was a knock on the door.
"If anyone asks, I'm not here," Atsushi whispered.
His sister looked at him quizzically.
"Are you in some kind of trouble?" she asked.
"I can't explain just now," Atsushi hissed back. "Just answer the door!"
The knocking came again, louder this time. Suzume shot him a quizzical look, but she stood and went to answer the door. The moment her back was turned, Atsushi and Kinshiro went invisible and trailed silently after her.
"May I help you?" Suzume was asking the officious little man at the door.
"I'm looking for a..." He consulted a paper. "Miss Suzume Kinugawa?"
"That's my maiden name," she said. "I'm married now. What can I do for you?"
"I have a message for you," he said, passing her a folded paper sealed with red wax. His sour face softened into something a little more compassionate. "And may I just say that I'm deeply sorry for your loss."
"Ah... thank you," she said mechanically, and slipped back into the house.
She looked around, apparently confused by her disappearing guests. She took a few uncertain steps into the room.
"Hey, guys? Where did you go?" she called.
Atsushi quickly stepped behind her and phased back into view. "Over here."
She jumped and whirled around. "Atsushi, you startled me! What's the idea, sneaking up on me like that?"
"Sorry," he said. "So, what's in the letter?"
She gave him a suspicious look, but she pried off the wax seal.
"It's from the town clerk back home," she said. "It says... it says..."
But Atsushi could see clearly what it said. He began to think that he may not have planned this trip quite as much as he should have. Suzume scanned the letter quickly, then looked back at her brother with an accusing expression.
"This says you're dead," she said.
"I guess it does," he agreed.
"Did you fake your death?" she demanded.
"No!" he said, holding up his hands in protest. "It wasn't fake!"
"Then why..." she began, brandishing the letter, and stopped. She blinked at him. "Wait. What do you mean, wasn't faked?"
Atsushi felt himself blushing. "That was one of the things I came to explain to you."
"So, what? Are you a ghost? No, you can't be," she corrected herself. "I touched you - you're solid. You're warm. How can you be dead and still up and moving around like always?"
Atsushi cast a helpless look at Kinshiro. "I don't know how to explain."
But Kinshiro specialized in sorting out disordered things, and this situation was no different. He stepped calmly forward.
"Ma'am," he said politely, "do you remember the story of Pearlite - how he was a mortal man until he was lucky enough to find favor with the gods, and became one of them? Well, I am a god, and I've chosen to favor your brother."
"You're a god," she repeated. "You can't be a god. I mean, you're not. You're in my living room."
"I assure you," he answered calmly, "that does not preclude me being a god."
"This is Aurite," Atsushi explained, as gently as he could. "That's why I couldn't tell you right away. We've been in the Heavenly City for the last couple of weeks, and, well... a lot has been going on."
Suzume blinked at him. "So... you're an attendant?"
"No," said Kinshiro. "He's a god."
Suzume stared at him. Then she turned and stared even harder at Atsushi, who gave her a sheepish grin.
"Surprise," he said.
"I don't believe this," she said. "I mean, no offense, Atsushi - you're a good brother and all that - but really, a god?"
"It surprised me too," said Atsushi. He cast a fond look at Kinshiro. "Apparently it helps to have friends in high places."
Kinshiro smiled back. "It wasn't my doing."
Suzume watched this bit of byplay with a small smile. "Even so, I would like to repeat my statement. Atsushi's a good guy, but I'd really like to know why he ended up as a god. For that matter, I'm still not convinced that either of you are gods. If this is some sort of strange practical joke, I wish you'd let me in on it."
"We can try to explain," said Kinshiro.
So for the next couple of hours, over several pots of tea, the three of them hashed over the events of the previous few weeks. Atsushi did most of the talking - about finding Kinshiro unconscious in an alley, taking him home, giving him a job at the inn. Kinshiro filled in most of the details on the divine angle, but he seemed to understand that this was Atsushi's explanation and was willing to stand aside and let him give it. Atsushi carried most of the narration, all the way up to an account of his wedding - his sister was very interested in that part - and of his daily life in the Heavenly City.
It was surprisingly difficult to talk about that part. He could tell her about having lunch with En every day - well, what he called lunch, and what En considered breakfast. He could talk about seeing Io, Ryuu, and Akoya teasing each other as they relaxed in the city gardens. He could talk about the palace's immense maze of a library, about the many pools and fountains of its public bath, about his own cozy new rooms, but at the same time, there were things he realized he couldn't begin to explain. There was the exhilarating afternoon when Kinshiro had taught him to shape-shift, and they had spent hours swooping through the air as eagles or racing through forests as deer. There was the evening when the two of them had sat on a rock in the endless ocean and watched a row of softly colored moons rise over the water like immense pearls being drawn across a jeweler's tray. He couldn't even talk about his day-to-day work of watching the human race and occasionally handing out second chances, or of the mornings spent at the judge's bench weighing the crimes of the dead and deciding whether they deserved peace, punishment, or paradise. It was all too strange, too far removed from the human norm to be believable.
It reminded him a little of when his sister had first married and moved to the city. She had written him long letters about her experiences - all the new and wonderful things her new husband had introduced her to. Atsushi had not been able to imagine, say, visiting a theater. He had read the letters anyway, because she was his sister and he loved her, but reading them made him feel she had done more than just travel a few miles away. Now he was realizing that he'd traveled further yet, and he didn't know quite how to bring her with him.
"It's funny," she said during a lull. "These are gods, but you talk about them already like they're old friends, like they're no different from the crowd who used to hang around the Cloverleaf."
"Well, they aren't, really," said Atsushi. "I mean, they are my friends. They're just like anyone else. It's just their jobs are really important. They've all been so kind to me - they make me feel like I belong there."
His sister appeared to mull that over.
"Well, I still don't quite get it," she said, "but as long as you promise to visit once in a while, I guess it's all right."
Atsushi smiled. "Every chance I get."
"Good," said Suzume. "Now, how about some dinner?"
They stayed for dinner. Atsushi honestly didn't see any way to get out of it at this point, and anyway, it had been years since his sister had cooked dinner for him. It was also fun watching Kinshiro trying to navigate his introduction to the rest of Atsushi's family. Suzume's husband came home after another hour or so, and the children came home from school, and the house became very lively as everyone reacted to these unexpected guests. By agreement, Suzume said nothing at all about gods, only that her brother had come to visit and introduce them all to his new husband. Kinshiro was cagey about his background, managing to give the impression that he was some sort of minor political functionary without specifying exactly which court he belonged to. He made a hit with the children by discreetly producing toys from who-knew-where and handing them out. After that, it was plain that Uncle Kin was going to be a welcome guest any time he wanted to show up. They all sat around the big dining room table, making polite conversation, while Atsushi enjoyed the unique sight of his normally abstemious husband drinking beer.
"I can make tea if you'd prefer," Suzume said.
"No, no, this is fine," Kinshiro assured her hastily. "I'm grateful for your hospitality."
Atsushi tried to stifle his amusement at that. Aurite's law discouraged the consumption of alcohol on the grounds that it lowered inhibitions and caused people to behave in an unrestrained and undignified manner. Kinshiro himself rarely drank anything but tea. Even so, Atsushi had seen other gods engaging in recreational drinking, most memorably at his own wedding feast, and he knew full well that Kinshiro or any other god could have drained the barrel dry and shrugged off the effects with no trouble at all. Atsushi hadn't learned that trick yet, but En had promised to teach him one day when Kinshiro wasn't around.
When the meal was over, the group scattered to different parts of the house. Suzume's husband slipped off to his study to unwind for a while. Kinshiro ended up playing with the children, serving as referee over a game of their own devising. Atsushi doubted any of the children had a clear idea of what the rules are, but that didn't seem to stop Kinshiro from intuiting them perfectly anyway. Atsushi smiled, watching his niece and nephews scramble around and sometimes over the stolid Kinshiro.
"He's good with kids," Suzume murmured, coming to stand next to her brother.
"It's nice," Atsushi agreed. "I don't think he's ever really had a family before."
"He's doing a good job so far," Suzume replied. "The kids don't behave nearly this well for me most days."
Atsushi laughed. "He has that way about him."
"I'm still feeling a little weird about all this," said Suzume, "but it seems like you two are happy together, and that's what really matters to me. You're going to come by and visit again, aren't you?"
"As often as I can," Atsushi promised. "And if you ever need me, call. I think I'll be able to hear you."
"I'll take you up on that," she promised. "Now, all we need to do is figure out what's going to happen to the inn."
Atsushi stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"It was mentioned in that letter," Suzume replied. "Something about how I'm the heir to the property now, and I need to come get it sorted out. I can't run it myself, so I suppose I'll have to sell it to someone. I'm not sure to whom, though. It can't just be anybody."
Atsushi shook his head. "No, you're right - we can't just sell the Cloverleaf to any old person. It's too special for that."
"On the other hand," she replied, "I'm not sure how I'd get to Binan to deal with it. I've got a family to think of. I can't just leave my children behind for the weeks it would take to get this sorted out."
"Couldn't you get Kinshiro and me to do it?" Atushi asked.
Suzume fixed him with a look. "Won't that look a little peculiar, you showing up when they think you're dead?"
"Well, I wouldn't have to do it personally," said Atsushi, blushing a little. "Kinshiro could do it. Everyone in Binan just thinks he's a busboy. We could say that after I died, he went through my things and found out where my nearest living relatives were, and that's where he's been all this time - looking for you to tell you what's going on. You can send him back with a letter authorizing him to manage the transfer of rights to whoever we decide should take over the inn."
"That's actually not a half-bad idea," said Suzume thoughtfully. "Let's get your man over here and talk it over with him."
Atsushi nodded and turned towards Kinshiro. "Hey, Kinshiro, could you come here a minute? Suzume wants to ask you something. No, Sachiko, you need to stop pulling your uncle's hair now. You can play more in a little while."
Kinshiro escaped the clutches of his newfound family and went to consult with Atsushi and Suzume. Much to Atsushi's pleasure, Kinshiro actually seemed to think his plan was a good one.
"I should have no problem acting as a go-between," he agreed. "Or, if I prefer to stay behind the scenes, I can have one of my attendants act as your factotum."
"Help me write the letter, then," said Suzume. "I figure if anyone would know the correct legal words, it's you."
It took several drafts, but in the end, they had a letter that Kinshiro declared would stand up to the most strenuous legal test, written out in Suzume's best handwriting, signed and witnessed by a pair of cooperative neighbors. When it was all written up properly, Kinshiro folded the note neatly and tucked it into a pocket that probably hadn't been there before he'd decided he needed it.
"Thank you," he said to Suzume. "Atsushi and I will take care of this right away."
"Don't rush off," she replied. "For one thing, my husband will ask questions if you don't at least stay the night."
"I wouldn't want to impose on your hospitality," Kinshiro murmured.
"It will be all right," Atsushi assured him. "Anyway, we don't want to get back so fast we make the people in Binan wonder how we got there."
"That's true," Kinshiro allowed. He smiled slightly. "And you want to spend more time with your family."
Atsushi smiled back. "They want to spend more time with you, too."
Kinshiro looked surprised at that. "Do you think so?"
"What do you mean?" Suzume asked. "Of course we like you. The kids adore you. Like it or not, you're family now."
"Well, then," he said slowly, "I suppose we could stay a little while longer. Just for tonight."
"Great!" said Atsushi.
He started back to the playroom, where the children were playing with their toys in the slow, distracted way that meant they were really waiting for the grownups to finish what they were doing so they could get back to the important business of playing.
"That took forever!" Sachiko, the youngest, complained.
"I wanna play knights and dragons!" middle child Jiro shouted.
"Okay, but you have to be the dragon," said Hiroto, the eldest. "I'm gonna be the knight."
"So what are we going to be?" Atsushi asked.
Hiroto looked him up and down.
"You can be a wizard," he said magnanimously. "Uncle Kin is the horse."
Kinshiro looked at Atsushi. "Should I be affronted?"
Atsushi laughed. "No way. That's an honor. You should be flattered."
"I thought you might say that," said Kinshiro with a sigh.
Atsushi just laughed. He watched as Kinshiro obligingly got down on all fours so the children could take turns scrambling onto his back and riding him around the playroom. Kinshiro's solemn expression never once wavered, but all the same, Atsushi thought, it looked almost like he was having fun.