From the author: The empirate has died and his heir only has a few hours to choose which god she will bond with, which gender she will inhabit, and which course her kingdom will take. Can Cavethen remain a woman when her kingdom's peace depends on her becoming a man?
The three gods of the Adevna Protectorate are fickle and fluid among themselves—male, female, and union all vying for physical and personal space in one godhood, one reality, one body. Only one body can contain them, and that body has just died.
Cavethen, oldest daughter of the late empirate, stands in the Circle of Discovery. She is nineteen. She peers through her red veil, a symbol of neutrality, at the crowds encircling her. Courtiers, nobles, sycophants, merchants, family. She can hardly tell them apart; their faces are also veiled in this crucial moment, meant to neutralize all gender and not sway her Discovery of her gods. Which god she chooses, which gender she chooses, which personality she chooses—and which of the three choose her—will chart the course of the Protectorate for the rest of her life. Or maybe his life. Or theirs.
She is quaking from adrenaline, throat tight and numb with fear. Her fingers curl into the gauze of her gown in a grief she’s barely begun to acknowledge. It hasn’t been more than three hours since the news of her father’s accident, only long enough to rush her from her city house to the palace. But the gods don’t wait for a daughter to grieve her father’s death. The gods are unbound now, released from her father’s gender and personality. No more than bare hours can pass, or the world will start showing the signs of the gods’ chaos, their shifting between stability, passion, and change. Of conflicting stable markets, rising wars, and radical new ideas. A new empirate must be bonded to the gods, a new personality and divine gender established. And it must happen fast.
The Circle of Discovery spirals from Cavethen’s feet in a jagged red and blue mosaic. Priests in marbled black, white, and gray robes dance and chant around her. Behind them, court officials strobe between the ever-increasing speed of the priests. She feels she is the center of everything. A center to a tilting world. Energy hums beneath her feet. Tiny runes etched into the mosaic tiles crack with energy that’s whiter than sun-touched ice in winter.
Cavethen searches desperately for a familiar form in the crowd. A sense of stability.
She’s always known this day would come. But her father was healthy, three hours ago. The Protectorate was at peace. There was every sign the gods would gift her father a long life, and her a long life before she has to force her body and her personality to bond with a living god. It is expected, after her father’s stable rule, and her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s before him, that she will choose the male form and personality of the gods. Continue a legacy of peace.
But she wants to bear children, not father them. She wants that with an intensity that bites her nails through the gauze of her gown and into her palms.
Her heart flutters in counter-rhythm to the feverish priests. Their chants rise to throaty wails, foreshadowing birth of a different sort.
Cavethen spies her mother by the broadness of her shoulders, her sturdy air in a shifting crowd. Her mother is stiff as stone but hardly an anchor. Her mother knows how much Cavethen wants the life she already has. Terror is writ beneath her mother’s red veil and gown. Fear that soon her daughter will be gone and she’ll have a son who never wished to be a son, or the greater fear she’ll still have a daughter and the Protectorate will find renewed vigor and lust for the conquest. It was the last dynasty of female empirates that expanded Adevna from a kingdom to an empire. And cost so many lives. Her mother is ready to mourn for Cavethen as deeply as she’ll mourn for her newly gone husband.
The runes begin to circle Cavethen like a trap, and she tries not to fight it. She looks away from her mother, knowing if she focuses on any one gender, it may influence the gods’ decision. Her own decision. She must be male for the good of the Protectorate. She must. This is her choice. It has to be her choice.
She closes her eyes and holds that choice with all she has as heat uncoils within her, strumming from her mind to her heart, an intersection of herself with the divine.
What Cavethen has never been told, because it has never been spoken aloud by any empirate before her, is that in the moment where her heart and the divines’ intersect, there is a quorum.
The veiled faces around her fade. She is lifted like a kite, pulled from her body into a land of clouds and sun and errant starlight. And there before her are the three.
A man with somber black robes, his face kind. Steady, creative, stubborn. So much like her father it makes her ache.
A woman, whose white robes flash like lightning, her face severe. And yet not uncompassionate. She is passion itself. Insatiable, full of life.
A union, who is neither male nor female, and also both, their lips drawn back in a smirk. Their grey robes shift around them in patterns that slip from the eye as soon as they are seen. They are change. They are transitory. And yet they are a pillar, a union of all that can be.
“Hello,” says the man, his voice rich and melodic. “Cavethen, is it? We weren’t expecting you for some time. I’m so sorry we had to meet this soon.” He tilts his head. “Though I do like your determination, child. You are so steady, and averse to change. That will bode well for a stable reign.” He holds out his hand.
Cavethen, not sure of where she is or what to make of this, if this is in her mind or if these are actually the three gods of Adevna, wraps her arms around herself and shivers.
“Oh, child,” says the woman. “Child, you have not yet tasted life. You have only just become a woman. You have yet to experience the pleasures life can give you, the full breadth of the power of a moment. You have spirit that you try to hide, but I see it in you. You are steady, but you yearn for life. I can give you everything, child. I can give you the world.” She holds out her hand.
“That’s a speech,” says the union, applauding slowly. “What a speech. He can make you steadier than you already are. Give you a peaceful, stagnant kingdom. More of the same. She can give you lust and life, an ecstatic aesthetic of conquest and victory. And I…I can give you nothing. I give nothing that you don’t already have. But I build upon it. I will take your Protectorate and move it forward. Not through stable years or years of war, but through progress. Through smoke and fire, because all is change.” Their hard eyes soften. “But you don’t like change, child. So I understand if you don’t wish to be me. Very few do.” They shrug. “No matter. Your kingdom has done well enough in its cycles of stability and war. It can carry on.”
She has to choose. This has to be the point of her choosing, this vision. Her Discovery. She will become one of these people. A living being melded with a god.
And now, standing before these three, her choice feels less a fact and more a shifting reality.
Cavethen knows who her father was. He was kind and steadfast, averse to anything that upset the balance of his Protectorate. He made this choice before she was born. He became the embodiment of the god who is male. And under his rule, the people were happy, their bounty plentiful, their trade flourishing.
Her father. Oh, her father. She shivers at the thought of him, his body broken, crushed by the horse that rolled over him in just the wrong way.
Cavethen clenches her fists and forces her thoughts onward.
She knows who her mother is. Her mother never had to bond to a living god. But her mother is nothing like this woman of the three gods. Her mother is as steady as her father. And Cavethen has thought…she has hoped…she wants being like her mother to be an option. She wants to experience life as she is, her own self, a woman. But she can barely look at the woman whose eyes are life and death and rebirth. That isn’t her. That could never be her, could it? Not that passion, not that violence. And not that future, however ecstatic and victorious, for her Protectorate. Not after so many years of rebuilding from the last cycle of wars.
Then, the union. She considered for a short time in her childhood being union. Her childhood best friend was a union, and they had always been full of the best adventures. But she has never not felt like a girl, and now a woman.
She has to choose. Pressure builds within her, as if her suspended choice is the only thing holding the world together.
She looks at the man who is her choice, but not a choice at all. Who is a cage she’ll be confined to.
She opens her mouth to say she wants to be him, but the air closes around her. Instead, she says, in a voice thick as dust, “I want to be a woman.” And then she shudders, turning to the woman who is violence and vigor. “But—not you. I’m sorry, I can’t be you.”
The woman of the three gods is unperturbed. She lowers her hand and her offer to become her.
It is done. That door is closed to her.
Cavethen’s stomach clenches. She has let go of her only chance to retain her femininity. But—it is the right choice. This at least has to be the right choice.
The man’s hand is still outstretched. He smiles a knowing smile, not unkind. Maybe he has seen this crisis play out before. Too many times before.
So, will she assume a personality like her father’s? In this moment, watching the god who is male, it feels too entirely personal. She kissed her father’s cheek just the day before. She can still hear his laugh booming through the great hall. See him as he throws his head back in mirth, candlelight on the gray in his black beard, hair clicking softly with gold and turquoise beads.
Her body burns with the fierce knowing that she cannot be that. Not now. Not yet. Not so soon after. And she thought she’d have time to marry and have a family. She’d experience life’s pleasures and pains before giving herself up to this stabilizing gender of a living god.
Or maybe she could never be this person. She can’t think herself into this form. This personality. Yes, she doesn’t like change. And yes, she wants stability. But…she isn’t her father. She isn’t this man any more than she is the woman whose breath is violence.
Cavethen swallows on a sandpaper throat and turns to the union. They are change. Change is a concept feared in a stable Protectorate. Change is an unknown, and something no one is expecting of her. It can hardly be a choice. But it must be ruled out before she consigns herself to her prison.
“If I…if I become you, and you become me…what will happen to my body?” Her throat hammers in her chest as she waits for the answer. In this place of clouds, the air seems to still.
The union waves a magnanimous hand. “Nothing. I give you nothing, remember? Nothing you don’t already have. I build upon it. You will change over time, because all beings change. You grow old. You grow more into yourself. You grow into who you want to be. You can change whatever you want, whenever you want. But from me? I give you nothing.”
Cavethen blinks. “You mean, if I’m you, I can still be myself?” What a horrifyingly tempting notion. She isn’t truly considering bonding with the union, is she?
The union’s smirk broadens into a smile. “Are you change, child? Is that why you fear change? Because you know you yourself are change?”
“But…” Cavethen opens her hands, exasperated flowers. “But…I want stability for my people. And I still want to be a woman.”
“Then be a woman.”
“But you’re union. You’re neither stable nor female.”
The union bows. And as they rise, the forms of the male and female gods drift into the union’s own so they are overlapped and balanced. “I am union, yes. Union. And unity. Some choose to meld with my male characteristics and personality, because that is where they resonate. And that is well. And some choose to meld with my female characteristics and personality, because that is where they resonate, and that is also well. But some—a few, granted, but more than you think—understand that this will only work for any of us if there is a balance. A union. A fluidity of choice.”
Cavethen’s eyes sting with sudden heat. She begins to tremble again, her red robes swishing around her. For a shining moment, Cavethen sees a future ahead of her. A prosperous, stable land. A Protectorate that has perhaps a bit more change than in her father’s rule. More movement towards a better future. And a man or union she could love, and children about her, in her arms, at her breast. Her children. Her own, through her own body, children. “You mean I can have stability, and I can still have myself? Be female? I can be me?”
“Yes, child,” the union says softly. “Yes, you can be me.”
She stiffens as she remembers the priests waiting for her, and the courtiers, and her mother, who are all expecting a concrete resolution when she’s unveiled. If Cavethen looks female, they’ll expect her to act like the female god. They’ll respect her, and they will fear her. And they’ll prepare for conquest. “If I’m female, they’ll expect war.”
“Then change what they expect. You have that capacity. And the will for it.”
The union gives another bow and begins to fade.
“No!” Cavethen snatches the air after them. “No, please, what do I do now? This can’t be how it is. Please!”
But Cavethen is drawn downward, like a fish reeled on a line, toward her body and the circle in which she stands. Toward the priests still whirling about her, waiting for a sign that she is back. Waiting to unveil her—or him, or them, whichever it would be—and the course the Protectorate will take until the new empirate dies and the next heir has their own Discovery.
Toward her mother, who stands in her pillared fear.
Cavethen’s heart clenches, awash in all these emotions. She doesn’t move as she resettles into her body, but inwardly she tests the edges of her skin, her boundaries. Checks that the gods have not played some trick on her and she is male after all—but she is not. And she does not feel the sense of tilted personality she knows she’d have if she’d chosen the female god and become another person.
So she is union. But also not union. She is a woman. She is herself. And she will present herself no other way.
What will they say? All these watching, swaying faces, all these wildly careening priests. How will they react when she won’t give them war, and they don’t feel the godlust and surge toward victory they’d expect with a female empirate? Maybe, in time, they will come to see her as a facet of union, without being union herself. Or maybe not.
Regardless, Cavethen observes this maelstrom around her and already knows where to start with change. Because not talking about the Discovery has to change. She will not let her children know the dread she’s faced, a dread she didn’t have to face. Not unknowing, and not alone.
Divinity stirs within her, and she raises her hand to her heart. The priests, seeing her movement, quiet into a trembling tableu. Those behind their veils wait, breaths caught.
Union. Union hasn’t given her nothing. Union is within her, and she is unity, if not the gender of unity.
She doesn’t feel different. Not in the boundaries of her body or her mind. But she has made her choice and she feels…more. She is more than she has been. More than she’d ever have been alone.
She will continue her father’s legacy, but not as an avatar in an unbroken chain of familiar avatars. And she will forge a legacy of her own. Because she can. Because the man was right—she is steady. And the woman was right—she yearns for life. For the violence of birth. But more than that, the union was right—she’s both stability and life, kindness and vigor, and she’s been change all along.
That is her Discovery.
Her lips tug up in a smile, not unlike the union’s smile.
Cavethen lifts her veil and turns to the priests, the crowd, her waiting mother. “The gods have chosen, and so have I. I am divine.”