Ryuki grew up in Midnight City, poor and hungry. This is his story.
"Ryuki, put your shoes on," my mother nagged for the third time.
"Why?" I grumbled.
"You know why," she scowled at me, then tried to cram my feet into shoes she'd just bought at the market. "It's the most important festival of the year. You need to look nice at Temple."
"Mom, the shoes don't fit. And I didn't have to wear shoes for the festival last year. Why are you being so weird?"
"Well, you weren't undergoing the Inspection last year, were you," she said, angrily kissing my forehead. "You're almost 14 now."
My gut filled with bile- I couldn't go a single day without being reminded of the stupid Inspection.
"I'm not sly, Mom. How is wearing shoes going to change things?"
"No more questions."
She then scurried to her work bench, where unfinished shirts and pants lay in neat piles. Normally she'd be hard at work sewing at this time of day, but today was a holiday. She picked up a pair of scissors and expertly cut out the front end of each shoe, then sewed a bit of fabric onto it.
"They don't look very nice," I crossed my arms, looking at the makeshift work.
"They'll do for the day," she smiled as she forced my foot into the ugly shoe- I could see my toes bulging out from the fabric. "We need you looking nice for everyone. The gods will be watching, and don't you want to look nice for your father?"
I held my mother's arm as we walked down the street; she'd often told me that a lady should always be escorted by a man. We stopped when we came to a bus stop. Traffic whizzed by. I saw taxis with rusted wheels and electric tape that held cardboard over broken windows. The high pitched whine of a hover-bike filled the air- I looked and could see it coming toward me on the next block. Blue lights illuminated from the twin engines that kept the bike floating off the ground. It carried a handsome tourist man with nice, clean clothes; a woman sat on the back. Traffic stopped to allow cars on a perpendicular intersection to pass, but the man revved the bike's engine and floated above the cars, nimbly passing over the traffic. He also passed dangerously close to the low hanging clothes lines, but looked confidant and in control all the while.
I looked at the scene in awe. The man slowed the engines, and touched the bike down to the ground safely. The woman got off the bike and held up a tablet- she took a picture of me, then turned to enter Chen's restaurant. The two sat down, and the woman placed the tablet on the counter. Her photos appeared as holograms hovering above the tablet, one of which was me, staring wide-eyed.
I marveled at what their lives must be like- fancy electronics and hover-bikes. I wondered if I was looking at the happiest people in the whole protectorate. I imagined what it must be like to be happy from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep. To always have a full belly, and hundreds of credits to spend on anything you want. I sank deeper into the daydream when a light pain filled my left ear. I turned to see Rajiana, looking angry, and preparing her fingers to flick me a second time.
"Ow, that hurt," I called back.
"Good," she growled.
I looked at her and still felt the words she'd said a few days earlier. 'I hope you fail the inspection. I hope they take you away.'
"You're getting that back," I said bitterly and felt my lip curl up angrily.
Rajiana wore a yellow dress with only a few visible holes in the material.
"Hey," my mother cried and tugged on my arm. "You better behave today."
"Sorry," I smiled at my mom, and then faced forward, toward the street.
I turned back to glower at Rajiana. She glared at me with a victorious little scowl and then flicked the back of my head.
I tried to turn around and swat at the girl, but my mom grabbed me by the shoulder to make me leave her alone.
"You're so gonna get it," I turned around and muttered at her, stewing in the juices of my rage.
The bus arrived then. It squeaked to a halt- a long, bracing screech as the brakes had trouble bringing the vehicle to a stop. The electric engine hummed and occasionally produced a loud pop, followed by a few sparks that splashed out from under the front, left wheel base.
The bottom stair of the bus had broken off, and was held in place by three wire hangers, twisted around the metal stair to secure its position. As I stepped up to board, the thing dipped under my weight. My mother put ten cred-cents into the large bin by the door. The driver looked to her expectantly, and then glanced to me.
"He's still under ten years old," my mother smiled weakly. "He's very tall for his age."
The driver rolled his eyes, but said nothing. My mom took me to the back of the bus, where there were more seats available.
"I thought we're not supposed to lie," I whispered as she pushed me onto a bench. "Aren't the gods watching today?"
"Do as I say, not as I do," my mother said as she sat down and fixed my hair.
White tufts of foam poked out from where the nylon of my seat had ripped. It made my seat uneven, and as the bus started moving, it did little to insulate my rear from the bumpy road.
Rajiana sat in front of me. I immediately leaned forward and flicked her ear as hard as I could.
"What did I say," my mom growled, and slapped my hand.
"Ow..." I muttered.
Rajiana turned around and looked at me with absolute delight in her face- the sound of my punishment music to her ears. Rajiana's aunt sat beside her, and turned the girl around to face forward. There was no air-conditioner on the bus, but a little fan was placed over each bench to make the ride more bearable. Only a few of the fans worked. The one above me slowly spun, but not quickly enough to push any air.
A large silver bus passed us, its windows tinted, and its paint job glistening in the morning sun. I looked and saw tourist families inside, talking with one another or playing games on their tablets. I locked eyes with a boy, about my own age- dressed in a nice, white t-shirt, with a clean haircut. The two of us stared at each other for a second, and I wanted, so badly, to know what it was like inside that bus, but it was gone, roaring past my local bus.
Our dilapidated bus arrived at its destination six stops later. The passengers all filed out and we were greeted by a small crowd in front of an elegant temple. The temple had a gold roof, with white columns that lined the structure. Out front was a statue of Granadil, god of the sea, wrestling a giant octopus. On the god's left shoulder was Varus, the goddess of lust and greed. On the god's right shoulder was Rinton, the god of truth and hard decisions. Rinton was carved pointing an accusatory finger down at the onlookers; he was crafted with beautiful features, and intricate detail put into every muscle and curve of his body. The goddess, Varus, was mostly featureless, and had not been given a face, or fingers, or muscle tone. She was almost unrecognizable, except for the twin snakes- one coming out of each ear.
I stood, marveling at the five meter creation. I looked at Rinton's judging finger pointing down at me, and wondered if the gods had seen my work with Venir and Itrim, stealing money from those tourists. It left a tightness in my stomach, and the 35 credits they'd given me burned like hot coals in my pocket.
"Mom," I said, pulling gently on her arm. "Is dad with the gods?"
"That's right, Ryuki. Your dad lived a good life and died doing something very brave. He's up with the gods."
I thought hard about my work with Itrim and Venir and pulled on her arm again.
"But what if you live a bad life? What happens when you die?"
"Then you don't get to live with the gods," she smiled.
I felt a large, sweaty hand on my shoulder and looked to see Mr. Demarco.
"It's simple," Mr. Demarco said, with the nose hair jutting out of his face awkwardly. "If you live a good life, when you die, you come back as a man. If you live a great life and serve the gods well, you get to live with the gods forever. And if you live a bad life, then when you die, you come back as a woman."
"Thank you," my mom said with a flat tone and a face that I couldn't read.
"Make sure to live a good life," Mr. Demarco said, walking in ahead of us.
I felt a sudden sting in my ear then, and turned around to see Rajiana beaming with a proud smile. I took a quick look around for my mother, and with her eyes not on me, I reached out and flicked Rajiana in the forehead.
"You flick like a goddess," Rajiana hissed. "Are you Varus? Or maybe you're Yuina? Which pretty lady are you?"
My face flushed red with the insult. I reached out and pinched her in the arm, hard. She punched my shoulder. Her words rang in my ear again 'I hope you fail the inspection. I hope they take you away.'
I dug my fingers deeper into the soft flesh of her arm. Rajiana released a muted squeal of pain, and there came a sharp pain in the side of my head, followed by my mom's voice.
"What is wrong with you today," she cried, slapping me in the same spot on my head, hard enough to make me dizzy for a second.
When my vision returned to normal I saw Rajiana's face, smiling in victory.
"Don't think you're so smart either, Rajiana," my mom said and lashed out, smacking her in the ear.
"Ow..." Rajiana mutterred, her victorious smile now a sullen frown. "Sorry."
"You two better behave. I mean it. This is Jainous, the most important feast of the gods. I don't want to have to tell you again."
"Ok," Rajiana and I said softly.
"Now you kiss wrists- I don't care what this little fight is about, but it's over."
Rajiana and I had had enough fights broken up to react automatically to this command. We both held out our hands, palms down. We each leaned forward, and kissed the back of the other's wrist in a quick peck.
"I'm sorry I said what I said," Rajiana muttered, looking down and fidgeting with the loose cloth of her dress.
"Sorry I didn't help when Itrim and Venir were hurting you."
"It's ok," Rajiana spoke softly.
Neither of us said anything for a few seconds. The crowd began moving into the temple, and Rajiana's aunt spoke up.
"Jainous is the day that Nemar, the god of life and creation, sacrificed himself to create the planet."
"I know," Rajiana mumbled, but her aunt continued with the explanation.
Rajiana smiled at me and then imitated her aunt, speaking with such severity and authority. I had to hold in my laugh.
"Nemar created people, but saw that we had no food, no animals, no homes, no gods to care for us. So he cut his wrists and bled out the world. First the gods, to guide us. Then the plants to feed us. Then the animals to serve us. And finally the goddesses to test us. People would have starved without his bravery. So every time we eat, we must give thanks to Nemar."
"I hate that story," Rajiana whispered to me as her aunt droned on, and we ignored her. "It sounds so scary."
I nodded in agreement.
Rajiana grabbed my wrist and pretended to cut it. I joined in the joke and made a face of faux terror, then pantomimed having blood gush out of me.
We were quick to end the game as my mother looked at us to see what we were playing at. We peered back at her innocently, then quietly giggled to ourselves. The crowd began moving forward, and within a few moments, Rajiana and I had shuffled inside.
We all sat down on hard, metal pews. The temple filled and a man in a yellow gown stood at a large altar in the center.
"Who's that?" Rajiana asked. "What happened to the normal cleric, Qian?"
"He got promoted to a Legate cleric," my mother smiled. "He's working in the king's ministry now."
"Good for him," Rajiana nodded. "I always liked Qian."
"Not me," I interrupted. "You remember when he slapped me in the head because he said I wasn't praying loud enough?"
"Yea," Rajiana grinned, and gently hit my shoulder. "That's why I like him."
"Don't start stuff," I glared at her. "I'll pinch the Detan out of you."
"No you won't. You pinch like a pretty, little goddess."
I opened my mouth to scream some horrible insult, and felt the vitriol boiling up from my gut.
"Shh!" My mom hushed us. "Show some respect."
"Praise be to the gods," the cleric called out.
"May we serve them well," the congregation called back in unison.
"On this joyous day, we celebrate Jainous. The king's brother, the Grand Vizier, will address the planet shortly."
"Why does the Vizier always talk on Jainous, and not the king?" Rajiana asked her aunt. "If it's such an important day shouldn't the most important guy do the talking?"
"The king is the leader of all political activity on the planet. He makes trade deals with Dauntless and all the other planets and moons. But his brother is the leader of all religious activity. He is in charge of every temple."
Just then a hologram appeared above the altar. The king's brother appeared in great detail. Every hair of his beard and every wrinkle by his eyes was visible. He had a large mole on his left nostril that annoyed me. I wanted to reach out to the hologram and pluck it off him.
"Good day, fellow believers," the king's brother began. "I am told that every temple on the planet is packed. I wish I could see such numbers on every other feast day."
A few people in the crowd looked away, guilty of only coming when it really mattered. A man beside me muttered,
"Maybe if you made the other feast days a holiday..."
"The world is in a pitiful state," the Grand Vizier continued. "There is waste. There is sin. There are non-believers. And of course, there is that most vile thing... I scarcely wish to speak of it."
There came a few murmurs of agreement from the congregation. My mother quickly kissed the back of her wrist and pressed it to her forehead. She then shook her head, as if exhausted by the state of things. A few others around her all did the same. Some kissed their wrist and touched it to their forehead nonchalantly, as if only for the sake of doing it. Others did it in a dramatic, deeply felt way. Others did it two or three times in swift, movements.
"You see," the hologram continued. "The gods worked so hard, and sacrificed so much to give us the bounty that we have today. The worst thing we can do, in the gods' eyes, is to waste their sacrifice. We waste time on things that don't matter. We waste resources on art that does not serve the gods. There are those out there who engage in sex, not for the purpose of building a family, but just for pleasure. Don't you understand the insult of this? Pleasure without procreation is a waste. An affront to the gods. And of course there is that most heinous, that most vile thing."
People in the crowd began doing the action of kissing their wrists and holding it to their foreheads again. Rajiana's aunt pressed the girl's hand to her mouth and instructed her to do the procedure. My mother did the same.
"A man who knows the flesh of another man."
A horrible murmur came out of the crowd at hearing this.
"This behavior is the result of a disease, brought by foreigners from unbelieveing planets. Shame on you for tolerating them. Shame on you for taking their money. Shame on you for allowing them into your restaurants and stores. Foreigners invade our lands and change every facet of it. We call our capital city Midnight City, but that is a foreign title. The true name is Granadire, named after the god of the sea, Granadil. The name of our planet is supposed to be Nemaria- named for the god of life, Nemar. But we let the protectorate and those outsiders call it Argyle. It's a disgusting name. We whore ourselves out to these unbelievers, and it is no wonder the gods punish us with crime, drugs, poverty, and sexual obscenity."
The parishioners nodded their heads in agreement, and murmured to the affirmative.
"Someday the gods will take back their gifts. Someday Granadil, mighty god of the sea, will raise his waters and reclaim the gifts that his father, Nemar, bestowed upon us. Ikam, god of the harvest will stop blessing us with good crops. Nodu, god of mountains will tumble the rocks and soil on top of us. Detan, collector of wicked souls, will open the planet and swallow cities whole. Our only hope, our only way to get another year, another month, another breath... is to give thanks for what the gods have done. Give thanks to their sacrifices. Do not waste a single thought on that which is sinful or unnecessary. Praise be the gods," the hologram said. "May we never anger them."
"Praise be," the congregation called back in unison.
The hologram ended, and the temple was quiet.
"Let us have a moment of silence," the cleric at the center of the altar said. "So that we may reflect on the Grand Vizier's wise words. You may join hands with your loved ones, and send your thoughts and prayers up to the gods."
I tried to think about the Grand Vizier's words, and the horrible warning in them, but I felt Rajiana slide her hand across my lap and then take hold of my hand. She squeezed it and offered a gentle smile to me. I gave her a weird face, as if to ask her what she was doing, but didn't pull my hand away.
Instead, I looked around the temple, at the statues of the gods, with their watchful eyes. Rinton, the god of truth and hard decisions, was placed on a large pillar, his finger pointing down at the congregation in accusation. Yuina, goddess of treachery and broken men, was depicted hanging from a wall by two nails that had been hammered into her shoulders. Her guts were sculpted to be pouring out of a wound in her stomach, and the detail of her face was so intricate that one could see the wild eyes bulging out of her skull in agony.
There was an empty pillar beside her, with the words, 'Detan, collector of wicked souls.' God-fearing men and woman were not allowed to create any depiction of Detan. An empty pillar was the only way to show his presence.
I looked at the gods and felt them pressing down upon me, so that I had the sense of being small and powerless. I just wanted to be left alone, without Rinton's finger pointing at me or Yuina's tortured eyes cutting at me. I squeezed Rajiana's hand tighter, and hoped the whole ordeal would be over soon.
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