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Love, Death, and Other Eternal Matters

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In general, the gods were not great givers of gifts. Oh, they were always ready enough to bestow blessings on their human followers, but among themselves, they tended to be more restrained. It was a matter of practicality. When you tallied up the number of gods there were, those of the Heavenly City and of the Underworld, the various lesser spirits and mortal attendants, it added up to a lot of people. If the gods had been in the habit of regularly exchanging gifts down throughout eternity, they would have eventually ended up with far more possessions than they could ever need or want or even enjoy. Most of the time, when a god wanted to give gifts, they gave something that could be used up, like food or perfume. It was only among very close friends or on very special occasions that they gave each other gifts that were meant to be kept.

Special occasions like the marriage of three gods. That was not a thing that had happened before, and a little celebration was in order.

There were a lot of presents.

Io sat on a heap of packages, leaning against a small hill made up of many more. There were enough of them piled up in his entry hall that if he’d stood on the top of the heap, he could have reached up and touched the ceiling, even though it was a good forty feet overhead. On the carpet nearby, Akoya was happily unwrapping things. He had a lifetime’s experience in being given presents, so he was comfortably in his element. As he unwrapped each present, he rattled off the name of the giver and the contents of the package, and Io dutifully noted the information down in a ledger so they could send thank-you notes later. Akoya had promised that he would take care of that part - his handwriting was, of course, as flawless as the rest of him. Ryuu had assisted for a while, had hung around a while longer being companionable, and had finally had lost interest and wandered off somewhere. That was all right. Io might not have been as savvy about romantic matters as Ryuu was, but even he understood that if the three of them were to make a go of this marriage, they were all going to occasionally want time away from each other.

It’s still a bit hard to believe, Io mused. He looked fondly at his beautiful new husband, who was just now smiling at whatever was in the box he’d just opened, happy as a child with a box of new toys. What did I do to deserve this kind of luck?

Some mortals, considering the strange turns the world sometimes took, speculated that Fate had a sense of humor. Io had only really had a chance to talk to Fate a few times, but he’d formed the impression that Fate was a serious, earnest, rather taciturn man. He hadn’t struck Io as being particularly humorous. Still, how else was he to account for the turn his own life had taken? Here he was, a lord of the underworld, who would have once said he’d be perfectly content to do without any romantic partners at all. He would have been content with his treasures and his people and his friends. How a loner like him had somehow ended up married to what were arguably the two most attractive people in the universe was a mystery he didn’t dare probe too deeply.

Akoya looked up and smiled at him. “You’re looking at me.”

“Just thinking how lucky I am,” said Io. “It almost seems too good to be true, doesn’t it? I’d thought I’d used up my share of good luck when Ryuu asked me to marry him, and now you’ve come along as well. It’s enough to make me wonder what I did to deserve it.”

Akoya got up to sit next to him, slipping an arm around his waist. “I should be asking what I did to deserve the two of you.” He rested his head on Io’s shoulder. “You two always seemed to happy together. I couldn’t imagine why you would ever need me for anything when you already had each other.”

“We were happy,” Io answered, “but we needed you to be complete.”

He wondered about that, even as he said it. The more time went by, the more he’d decided that Ryuu had been right. Ryuu usually was right, where affairs of the heart were involved, and he’d been sure that bringing Akoya into their lives had been the right thing to do. He and Ryuu had always gotten along, but there were a lot of ways that they didn’t have much in common. Akoya was the perfect person to bridge the gap, someone who shared both their interests and gave them a source of common ground. He could have been made just for them. It made Io wonder just how far back Fate had planned all this. Had he known this was how things would turn out when he’d agreed to make Akoya a god? Had he arranged the circumstances that had gotten Aurite’s attention in the first place? Had he been the reason why Ryuu hadn’t been able to halt the ill-fated marriage of Akoya’s parents? Just how detailed had the whole plan been?

Probably better not to ask.

Akoya smiled. “I suppose I shouldn’t question. When I think how close I came to rejecting you both... well, I feel rather foolish for putting you off for so long.”

“Don’t feel too bad,” said Io. “It isn’t as though Ryuu and I didn’t have our troubles.”

“Did you?” Akoya asked, blinking at him. “But you get along so well. I thought you’d always been friends.”

Io smiled wryly. “That was part of the problem. When you’ve been friends with someone so long, you don’t want to do anything that would spoil it, even when there’s a chance that winning the gamble will make you happier in the long run. It’s easier to settle for the small happiness you have than to reach for a greater one and risk losing it all.”

“Ah. Yes, I understand that,” said Akoya softly. “I understand that feeling very well.” He shifted a little, the better to look Io in the eye. “So what changed?”

“It’s a long story,” said Io. “Are you sure you want to hear it?”

“Yes,” said Akoya. “I’m married to you now, but I really don’t know very much about you. I want you to tell me things.”

“Well, I’m not much of a storyteller,” said Io, “but if it will make you happy, I’ll do my best.”

“You’ll do fine,” Akoya said, and Io thought he might be right. Akoya didn’t have complete control over works of art and literature, but his influence tended to help. If he said Io could tell a story, then Io probably could.

Io settled back in his seat, staring off into the distance as he pulled his thoughts together. Sometimes he could almost forget that there had been a time when he and Ryuu hadn’t been together. Their ancient past felt like something out of a dream. Then again, sometimes it felt like only yesterday that he’d been celebrating his first marriage. Putting it all in order in his mind took some concentration.

“I can’t put my finger on exactly when it all started,” he said at last, “but I think I first started realizing what was happening on Ryuu’s festival day, a long time ago...”

Ryuu had been late for breakfast that morning. Io sat at the long table where he and his best friend usually ate together, nibbling disinterestedly at a piece of toast and trying not to dwell on this fact. Normally, Ryuu would already be there, jump-starting the morning with his usual good humor and lively energy, and not having him around was throwing Io slightly off his stride. Even though the table in front of him was spread with every delicacy anyone might have ever wanted to have for breakfast, Io found he had very little appetite.

At last, when the dining hall was beginning to empty and Io was just beginning to contemplate getting up and going back to work, Ryuu came breezing in. The smile on his face was slightly dreamy, and as he slid into his customary seat, Io could smell the scents of perfume and human sweat on his friend’s skin, overlying his customary scent of cherries and roses. Io took a deeper breath. More than one kind of perfume, he decided. His friend had obviously had a successful night.

“Enjoy yourself?” he asked Ryuu dryly.

Ryuu grinned even more widely. “Can’t complain!”

He didn’t offer any details, and Io didn’t press him for them. Ryuu’s festival day was celebrated by mortals in different ways. People who wanted to be married considered it an auspicious day for a wedding. Courting couples celebrated by presenting each other with tokens of their devotion. People who were single and wanted not to be would offer similar tokens to the people they were interested in, or attend services and make offerings at Vesta’s temple so that he might bless them with better luck. Those were daylight activities. By night... by night, it was different. The temples to Vesta would host celebrations full of dancing and revelry, celebrating the more carnal aspect of their god. Ryuu considered it practically his duty to attend some of these revels, disguising himself as a mortal so that he could dance and flirt with the humans who adored him, and responded willingly to his advances. Io knew very well that the reason why Ryuu was late to breakfast was because he had been out until dawn enjoying himself among his devotees. He had probably had a very long night, moving from one party to another all the way across the continent. Io didn’t really feel he could object - it wasn’t his business to go prying into other people’s sex lives, and anyway, this was Ryuu. It was practically his job to fool around.

Actually, something bad would probably happen if someone tried to make him stop. Kinshiro had explained it to Io once. The rule was simple: as above, so below. In more detailed terms, this meant that the behavior of the gods indirectly affected the lives of mortals. The gods had a lot of work to do, and while they did have some leeway in the matter of time, making it lengthen or compress according to their needs, they could not be in two places at once. If they were going to get everything done that needed doing, there had to be a shortcut. To solve the problem, Fate had made it so that instead of doing everything on a case-by-case basis, they worked by indirect influence. As long as Io kept hoarding and cataloguing his wealth, the world’s economy was a little more stable. As long as En spent most of his free time asleep, the global population slept a little easier. And as long as Ryuu spent his time in amorous pursuits, the course of true love ran a little smoother. Trying to force Ryuu to live a life of celibacy wouldn’t just make him unhappy, it would make the whole world a little less happy.

And none of that made Io any more comfortable knowing what Ryuu had been doing all night. Fortunately, Ryuu was gentleman enough not to try to dish out all the intimate details. Instead, he talked about things he knew Io could appreciate: the music, the extravagant decorations, the food, the funny things some of the other attendees had done. By the time Ryuu had finished his own breakfast, Io had almost forgotten what he’d wanted to be annoyed about.

Just about the time the two of them were finishing breakfast, En wandered in. He plopped into a seat across from the two of them, without apparently noticing that the two of them were there. Blindly, he fumbled a hand across the table until it came in contact with a pot of coffee, and he poured himself a large mug. A plate of assorted pastries, familiar with En’s habits, politely relocated itself in front of him, and he began working his way steadily through them with an attitude that suggested he was making sugar stand in as a substitute for sleep.

“Good morning,” said Io. “You’re up early.” Since it was only about two hours until lunchtime, this would have been a ludicrous thing to say to anyone who wasn’t En.

“Mmph,” said En, through a mouthful of chocolate-covered doughnut. He took a gulp of coffee and tried again. “I woke up.”

Ryuu regarded him curiously, head cocked to the side. “What for?”

En shrugged. “Something woke me.”

“En, you could sleep through a brass band practicing in your bedroom,” said Ryuu. “I have personally seen you sleep through an earthquake. What could have woken you up if you didn’t want to wake?”

“Stuff,” said En. He looked thoughtful, apparently debating whether or not he wanted to make the effort of a more complete answer. After a few seconds, he added, “There’s something in the air today.”

Io and Ryuu exchanged looks. En was best known as the god of sleep and dreams, but he was sometimes also known as the god of prophecy. He alone among the gods had the power to grant his followers visions of the future, delivered through the dreams he sent. If he couldn’t sleep because there was “something in the air”...

“What kind of thing?” Io asked.

En shrugged. “I dunno. The world just feels restless today. I think something is going to happen.”

“Something bad?” Ryuu asked. Io thought he saw a flash of guilt cross his friend’s features, as if he were worried that he’d been out enjoying himself all night when something serious was brewing.

En shook his head. “I don’t think so. Just something different. Somebody’s about to shake up the status quo.” Unexpectedly, he laughed. “Aurite will love that.”

Ryuu and Io relaxed and laughed too.

“He certainly will,” said Io, smiling.

“Hey, it’s good for him to have to deal with stuff getting shaken up, once in a while,” said Ryuu. “He’d get bored if there were never any arrangements he needed to make.”

The three of them chatted together for a while longer - or at least, Io and Ryuu chatted, while En mostly listened and nodded while he made his supply of doughnuts and coffee disappear. When he’d finished, he shuffled off again, muttering something about needing to catch up on his sleep, and Io and Ryuu followed him out of the great hall.

“So what do you suppose that was all about?” Io asked his friend.

“Search me,” said Ryuu. “But En’s not exactly what you’d call alarmist. If he says something’s about to happen, it probably is. At least he doesn’t seem to think it’s anything bad.”

“That’s a real relief,” Io agreed. “Still, it makes me curious...”

Ryuu laughed. “You’re thinking about how you might turn a profit off of it.”

“And why shouldn’t I?” Io answered, smiling. “You’ve had your fun; why shouldn’t I have a turn?”

“You should have come with me last night,” said Ryuu.

Io felt his face warming. “I couldn’t.”

“No reason why not,” said Ryuu. “It’s a party for single people. You’re single.”

“And you’re obsessed with pairing people off,” said Io, a little more tartly than he’d meant to.

If Ryuu took offense to the tone, he didn’t let it show.

“Come on, I’m serious,” he said. “You should get out and have fun more often. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t come to a party. There’s nothing in your laws against getting laid once in a while - I know, I checked.”

“Ryuu!” Io was positive he was blushing now.

“Even if you don’t want to do that,” Ryuu continued, “you can still eat and dance and enjoy the music and socialize a little. It would have been fun. I’d have liked having you along.”

“You didn’t say any of this yesterday,” said Io.

To his surprise, Ryuu colored a little and looked away. “Well, I miss you when you’re not around. It’s just you’re usually around, so I don’t think about it.”

“Oh,” said Io. Now he felt a little guilty for snapping at him. “Well, you know, I don’t care for a lot of crowds and commotion. I’m not sure your idea of a good time is my idea of a good time. But I’m not opposed to taking a break once in a while, if you just wanted to do something for the fun of it.”

Ryuu’s face lit up. “Great! We should definitely do that sometime. Right now, though, I want to take a nap before I get back to work. I need to clear my head. See you later!”

Impulsively, he gave Io a quick, friendly hug before darting down the passage that led to his quarters. Io stood where he was, watching him go.

He really should be more careful when he does that, he mused. Io shook himself and began walking towards his own rooms. The problem with Ryuu was that he was essentially desire personified. It was hard to get too close to him without getting caught up in his aura, the one that made pulses race, breath come faster, and minds turn to thoughts that could definitely not be discussed in polite company. Even Io, who had been Ryuu’s closest friend for years, was not immune to the effect. Most of the time he didn’t notice it, but when they were in close physical contact...

He doesn’t mean to do it, Io told himself. He can’t really help himself.

Forcing the matter out of his mind, Io walked briskly back to his rooms.

Being in his own private space put him in a better mood. It was the nature of the Palace of the Gods to give all its residents rooms that would suit their particular needs and desires, and Io’s room was no exception. Where others might have comfortable furniture or wide windows to take in the Palace’s spectacular views, Io’s rooms might as well have been underground. His home was more or less a treasure vault that happened to have a bed in it. There was no furniture as such, only hundreds of coins and jewels that had been pushed and piled into heaps that were reasonably comfortable to sit on. The bed itself was large and soft, surrounded by curtains with golden embroidery worked into them, but it was nearly hidden by the treasures that surrounded it. Io had a vague notion that the floor was carpeted, but if it was, that carpet had long ago disappeared under a paving of pure gold. There were a few pillows scattered around to make sitting more comfortable, but they tended to disappear into corners and get forgotten. They were mostly for the convenience of visitors, anyway. Io was always perfectly at ease among his treasures. Sitting there counting and sorting them, all his concerns slid away from him, and for a little while he was perfectly content.

Well, mostly content. There was a small part of his mind that kept toying with the thought of what it might have been like to go to Ryuu’s party. Well, why not? He might as well daydream a bit while he worked. It wasn’t as if this job needed all his concentration. After all, it was just a silly dream. Nothing, he told himself, would ever really come of it.

There was nothing that could bring down Ryuu’s mood.

He was always very content the day after one of his festivals. He was by nature a people person, and spending the entire night surrounded by the kind of people he got along best with - people who were just looking to have a good time and maybe show someone else a good time as well - always left him energized. He so rarely got the opportunity to give himself full play among the mortals, to dance and flirt and steal kisses as much as he liked. Occasionally, he’d even steal off somewhere private for more private amusements.

The only trouble with humans is that they get tired so fast...

Still, he’d had a good time, and he was reasonably sure all his fellow partygoers had had an equally good time, and that was what was important. And now he had something else to look forward to, as well: he’d talked Io into going somewhere just for the fun of it. That wasn’t an easy thing to do, with someone as work-oriented as Io. Most of the time, Io seemed perfectly happy to simply focus on his job. There were times when Ryuu was almost certain that if he wasn’t there to haul Io out of his room once in a while, he’d just stay in there forever, sorting his coin collection while the world passed him by. In Ryuu’s considered opinion, that couldn’t be good for anybody.

I wonder if I should look into finding someone for him...

He considered that notion, but ultimately, as he always had, he set it aside for another day. It was so infrequent that Io showed romantic interest or even plain old aesthetic appreciation of another person that even Ryuu couldn’t guess what Io’s type actually was. Solving that riddle would take more time and devotion than he usually had at hand.

Maybe someday, he thought. Maybe if I can get him out into the world and doing things, I’ll get a better idea of what’s best for him.

That was an encouraging idea. He would definitely have to plan a good outing for the both of them.

In the meantime, he had a lot to do tonight. A lot of the pairings that had originated in last night’s festivities would be temporary, brief liaisons meant to last only for the evening. Some, though, would become permanent with only a little encouragement, and Ryuu meant to see that as many as possible worked out. That would be enough to keep him busy for a while. First, though, he would have a good dinner and see what Io and the rest of the crowd had been doing all day. That would be a good way to start his evening.

He reached the dining hall at its peak hour and found it buzzing with activity. While the gods didn’t strictly need to eat, having regular meals was good for their morale, and they all enjoyed the chance to socialize. Ryuu spotted the golden flash of Io’s robes and scampered over to join him.

“Hey,” he said, plopping into the seat across from him. “Busy day?”

“Reasonably satisfactory,” Io replied. “And you?”

“I napped,” said Ryuu. “And I made up some plans for everything I need to do for the next few days. I’m gonna be busy for a while.”

Io smiled. “Nice to see you’re making productive use of your time, at least.”

“Hey, I always make good use of my time!” Ryuu retorted.

The two of them bantered a while, as they usually did at times like these. A few friends and acquaintances clustered around them, joining in the jokes. Io himself had never been very good at making friends, but he had Ryuu to do that for him. Everyone liked being around Ryuu, and Io basked in the reflected affection.

Everyone at the table had gotten into a lively gossip session, mostly centered around the scandalous doings of a particular human lord who all the local gods agreed was being amusingly foolish, when Io happened to glance up and catch sight of something unusual. One of the many doors to the dinging hall had swung open, and a young man in short-sleeved red robes came bounding in. He was followed closely by a much taller red-haired man who was dressed as any hardworking woodcutter would be. The axe he carried casually over one shoulder, though, gleamed as brightly golden as any of the trinkets in Io’s hoard. He stared.

“Hey, Io,” said Ryuu, “what are you... Oh!”

Then he, too, fell silent. Ripples of silence ran through the dining hall, as everyone else stopped whatever they were doing to stare at the newcomers. In this swiftly expanding silence, the younger of the two guests could clearly be heard to say, “Oh, wow, everything looks so good! We should eat here more often! Hi, guys! Hope you don’t mind us visiting!”

“Is that who I think it is?” Ryuu whispered to Io.

Io only nodded and continued watching as the pair made their way through the crowded room. Yumoto and Gora, otherwise known as Chance and Fate, rarely visited the Palace of the Gods. They appeared to be quite happy living on earth, pretending to be human and operating a small bathhouse. Io could count on one hand the number of times he’d actually seen Fate come into the palace, and that was usually when there was something of such gravity going on that he had to get all of the gods’ attention. Nothing bad seemed to be going on now, though. At the moment, Yumoto had picked out a place to sit and was busily attacking his food as if his entire purpose in coming to the Palace of the Gods was to eat as many rice cakes as he could in the time allotted. Gora, by contrast, was eating in a leisurely manner, like a man on vacation with all the time in the world. Going by his attitude, he ate his meals in the dining hall every day.

“What do you think is going on?” Ryuu asked the table in general.

En shrugged. “Can’t be anything too bad. They don’t look worried.”

“Maybe they just wanted a chance of pace,” Io remarked. “I mean, this is their palace too.”

“Maybe,” said Ryuu. He looked doubtfully across the room. “Still, I don’t quite think so.”

Privately, Io agreed. It seemed that most of the rest of the city did, as well. Not everyone took their meals in the dining hall under normal circumstances, but gods gossiped constantly. Throughout the meal, more and more people came crowding into the room to get a look at the greatest of the gods. By the time Yumoto was satisfied and Gora had finished his leisurely meal, the hall was packed to capacity. Gora pushed his plate away, drained his mug, and looked around at the crowd as though he had no idea how they’d all gotten there. Then he stood. The hall instantly became silent.

“Well,” he said, “it looks like you’re all here, or at least, enough of you are here that you can tell anyone who isn’t what they missed.”

He walked around from behind his table to pace back and forth at the front of the room. All eyes tracked him as he moved.

“As you already know,” he said, “we’ve always had two underworlds - the Land of the Peaceful Dead for those who have lived good lives, and the Land of the Accursed Dead, for those who were wicked. My brother and I have been talking to the lord and lady of those lands, and we’ve agreed that with the human population growing as it has, it’s time for us to create a third underworld.”

A buzz of interest thrummed through the room. Gora paused a moment to let everyone absorb the surprise.

“That’s right,” he said. “This will be the Land of the Blessed Dead, a special place for those who have lived exemplary lives - heroes, saints, great artists and thinkers. It will be a place of beauty and luxury, to truly reward those who have earned it.”

All right, Io thought, that was interesting. He’d never given a lot of thought to the underworlds. His particular specialty was in the things people couldn’t take with them when the died. This announcement couldn’t have much to do with him, but a development of that magnitude couldn’t help but intrigue him. He wondered what this new world would be like. It sounded like it would be rather wonderful, even by his opulent standards.

“You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all this,” said Gora. “The truth is, this place is going to need someone to run it. I’m asking for volunteers. I want one of you to take on the role of Lord or Lady of the Blessed Dead, and relocate to the underworld. You’ll be allowed to keep your original designation and duties, but you’ll be primarily responsible for this new assignment. I know this is a lot to ask, so I don’t ask any of you to make up your minds right away. Think it over for a while. Yumoto and I will be here for the next week or so. If you feel like you’re the right one for the job, come and talk to either of us. If we approve you, you can start right away.”

Having made his point, he picked up his axe, beckoned to his brother, and started for the exit. Yumoto waved cheerfully to the dumbstruck crowd and caroled out “Bye, guys!” before he vanished into the hallway.

As soon as they were gone, the dining hall erupted into chatter.

“Well, what do you make of that?” said Ryuu. “At least now we know why En was feeling unsettled. Someone was putting in a new piece of the universe.”

“Kind of a funny idea,” said En dreamily. “A whole new infinite space that wasn’t there before...”

Ryuu grinned. “Planning on asking for the job?”

“Not me!” said En. “I have all the work I need already. Why don’t you do it?”

“No way!” said Ryuu. “I don’t care how nice the place is, I can’t be stuffed away in an underworld where no living mortals will ever see me. I like live people. Hey, Io, why don’t you ask for the job? It’ll give you a bigger place to keep your stuff,” he teased.

Io laughed. “Tempting, but I think I’ll stay here. You know I wouldn’t like being that far away from you.”

Ryuu looked pleased at that. “Yeah, that wouldn’t be fun for either of us. You’d better stay put.”

“Somebody will do it,” said En. “Maybe Aurite. He likes running things.”

“That would make sense,” Ryuu agreed. “He judges people anyway. He might as well go with them all the way down.”

“He’s probably already asking about it,” said Io, nodding. It was a tidy solution, and would settle everything quite nicely.

“Even if he’s not, it’s not our problem,” Ryuu concluded. “So, Io, remember when we were talking about hanging out later? Have you got time for that tonight?”

Io started to say that he didn’t, then reconsidered. There was really no reason why he shouldn’t go somewhere, tonight or any other night. His work didn’t really require a lot of personal attention.

“Yes, I think so,” he said.

Ryuu beamed. “Fantastic. Meet me back at my place around six bells. I have made plans.” He made this pronouncement with more gravity than Gora had used when he’d announced his intent to rearrange the universe.

“I’ll be there,” Io promised.

Ryuu grinned. “I’ll be waiting!”

The meal ended with people departing in clusters, all of them chattering about the news of the day. Io let himself get swept up by the crowds and carried down the hallway, out of sight of his other friends. That was all right. Io had, for the moment, had his fill of socializing. Ryuu was the one who socialized; Io just went along with whatever he was doing. That was one of the things Io appreciated about Ryuu: he genuinely liked people - not just as romantic partners, but just to have them around. He had a knack for seeing the best in everybody and enjoyed seeing them happy. Having him around made it easier for Io to feel as though he liked everyone, too.

Thinking pleasantly along these lines made him realize that he was actually looking forward to tonight’s outing. It would be nice, doing something for just the two of them. It had been a while since the two of them had done something like that. He wondered what sort of plans Ryuu had in mind.

Something entertaining, I’m sure. Things are never boring when he’s around.

Just before the City’s bell tower chimed six, Io stood in front of his mirror and contemplated his reflection in the glass. Most of the time, he didn’t worry much about what he looked like unless he was appearing in front of his human worshipers. For them, he made more of an effort to look regal and imposing. For everyday casual wear, he generally made do with the simple robe worn over shirt and loose trousers that most gods favored, usually with a loop of gold chain or gemstones around his waist. Jewelry liked him. Sometimes, in fact, if he wasn’t paying attention, any such ornaments that happened to be lying around would start crawling up his arms like small lonely creatures. Some people found this unsettling, so he tried not to let it happen in public.

Ryuu, though, cared about fashion. When he went about among humans, he always made certain that what he was wearing was absolutely the most stylish thing available. Even among his fellow gods, he enjoyed expressing his own personal style. For him, Io felt he had to try harder. He studied his reflection critically, adjusted the thin golden diadem on his brow, tugged at the sleeves of his gold-embroidered shirt, and settled his jeweled belt. Deciding that he looked as good as he was going to get, he vanished from his room and reappeared on Ryuu’s doorstep exactly at the stroke of six.

As the final chime rang out, Ryuu opened the door and peered outside. He grinned.

“I knew you’d be here,” he said. “When I said sixish, I didn’t mean you had to be here exactly at six.”

Io smiled. “Time is money.”

That made Ryuu laugh too. He opened his door wide and let Io step through it. Io was gratified to see that Ryuu had dressed up for the occasion, too, in an extravagantly embroidered shirt and matching robe. Io had to smile to look at him. He looked so pleased with himself for having the opportunity to show off his haute couture.

“So where are we going tonight?” Io asked.

“I thought we might go see a play,” Ryuu replied. “There’s a good one opening on the Sunlit Isles tonight.”

Io smiled. “That sounds like just the thing.”

The Sunlit Isles were located on the far western edge of the continent, and was well known as the home of many great thinkers, writers, artists, and performers. Judging by the crowds gathered to see this performance, the players Ryuu had brought Io to see lived up to their country’s reputation. Of course, the two gods didn’t bother with getting in line or buying tickets. The show was being held at an outdoor amphitheater, ringed by pillared archways. Ryuu and Io simply picked one out with a good view and sat there side by side, their feet dangling over the edge as they enjoyed the show.

The play ended up being a comedy called Gods Bless You!, centered on the adventures of a wily young man who, coming home drunk and singing one night, was accosted by a somewhat overzealous priest of the goddess of music, and who woke up the next morning having been dragooned into the priesthood. His subsequent adventures - first in trying unsuccessfully to extricate himself from his new role, then in dealing with the naively optimistic new friend who’d gotten him into the whole mess, and with the pompous, overbearing chief priest - had Io and Ryuu doubled over with laughter. By the time the chief priest had been proven corrupt and the genial one installed in his place, Io was swiping away tears of mirth.

“That was amazing,” he said. “I can’t remember when I’ve laughed so much at anything.”

“I knew you’d like it,” said Ryuu.

Io nodded. “It was a lot of fun. Thank you for talking me into it.”

“Hey, if you’re not ready to rush home yet,” siad Ryuu, “I know something else fun we can do.”

Io regarded him thoughtfully, and a trifle warily, knowing what he knew about Ryuu’s idea of fun. “What kind of thing?”

“I know where there’s a warlord type celebrating his son’s engagement with a big bash,” said Ryuu. “We could crash the party and go dancing.”

“I don’t know...” said Io slowly.

“Come on,” Ryuu pleaded. “It’ll be fun. Please?”

Io felt himself weakening. He was not ordinarily much of a dancer. On the other hand, he considered how he’d felt last night, knowing that Ryuu was out dancing and flirting with the humans. If Io accepted this invitation, he’d have Ryuu’s attentions all to himself. That had to be worth something.

“All right, then,” he said, smiling slightly. “You talked me into it.”

Ryuu gave a gleeful whoop. He caught Io’s hand, and Io once again felt the world go warm and blurry. Then his vision cleared, and he found himself at the edge of a village square. It was night over the town, but lanterns had been strung from every roof and fence, and a bonfire burned at the center of it. On a makeshift stage, a rather embarrassed-looking young man in an elaborate green kimono was seated next to a very pretty young woman who kept peering coyly at him from behind her fan. This, Io assumed, was the warlord’s son and his new bride-to-be. Judging by the way the two of them were looking at each other, it was easy to guess how Ryuu had known this celebration was taking place tonight. They seemed a well-matched pair, anyway - the young man looking handsome and kind, the young woman sweet and intelligent.

“You do good work,” Io said to Ryuu, who beamed with pride.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s help these two celebrate.”

Ryuu made a flourish with one hand, conjuring up a human disguise. Io copied his example, giving himself the same sort of “festival day best” clothing, cheap but colorful and festive, that the rest of the crowd was wearing. Once they were suitably attired, Ryuu took Io by the arm and led him into the crowd.

For a moment, Io was slightly overwhelmed. He was not used to being at the center of so much commotion, and the crowds and noise and whirling colors disoriented him. Then Ryuu took him into his arms and began guiding him through a dance, and Io willingly fell into step with him. Io might be a bit stiff when it came to dancing, but Ryuu was light on his feet, and had the gift of leading a partner so skillfully that they seemed to be better than they really were. It wasn’t long before Io was relaxed and enjoying himself. All around him, the music swirled, the lights glimmered, and Ryuu was laughing. His eyes were bright with excitement, his cheeks slightly flushed, and his smile could have lit up the night. Looking at him, Io didn’t feel crowded anymore. He felt as if he and Ryuu were the only people in the world.

It came as a surprise to him when the music suddenly ended with a flourish. Io stumbled a little, falling forward into Ryuu’s arms.

“Easy, there!” said Ryuu, laughing.

“Sorry,” said Io. “My mind was wandering.”

He raised his head, trying to set himself upright, and found himself looking up into Ryuu’s eyes. They were standing so close together, their faces only inches apart, and Io was intensely aware of that magical magnetism that Ryuu exuded that made him almost irresistible. Io stopped breathing.

Then Ryuu stepped back and released his hold on Io. The crowd was breaking up now, the musicians packing up their instruments.

“I guess it’s been a long day,” said Ryuu. “Come on. I’ll see you home.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Io agreed.

The two of them slipped into the shadows and vanished, reappearing in the Palace of the Gods, just outside Io’s door. In a gallant gesture, Ryuu swept it open for him.

“Thank you for inviting me out,” said Io as he stepped inside. “I enjoyed it.”

“It was fun,” Ryuu agreed. “We should do this more often.”

Io gave him a half-smiled. “Well, you know where to find me.”

Ryuu laughed. “Gonna make me do all the work, huh? Well, okay, then. I’ll think of something else fun for us to do next time.”

“I know you will,” said Io. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”

“I’d better not let you down, then,” said Ryuu.

He grinned and leaned closer, and for one dizzying instant, Io thought Ryuu was going to kiss him. Instead, he just ruffled Io’s hair affectionately before vanishing. Io shook his head slowly, trying to clear it. It didn’t help much. With a heavy sigh, Io went into his room and shut the door firmly behind him.

I think I’ve made an error in my calculations.

Io had never been particularly good at feelings. He’d never really needed to be. His job was economics, and all he needed for that was to understand how people moved money around. He could reduce it all to mathematical equations and never drag emotions into it anywhere. If anything, he discouraged them, on the principle that a person under the influence of strong emotion was likely to do something foolish and lose everything on a hunch.

The only exception he’d ever allowed himself was Ryuu. Somehow, Io had never been able to turn him away. Ryuu was like a jewel himself, bright and sparkling, impossible to look away from. When he was around, the world seemed a little kinder, challenges a little more approachable, and everything just a little bit more fun. There were times when Io found the people he had to work with to be hopelessly self-centered, Ryuu’s genuine affection for the whole world was a relief. He had a way of seeing the lovable qualities in everyone - it took a truly vile person indeed to make Ryuu write them off as a loss. Ryuu had been Io’s friend when the other gods had looked at him and seen nothing of worth.

And all this time, Io had been telling himself that friendship was enough. He’d told himself that of course he felt Ryuu’s attraction - everyone did, and that was normal and nothing to be concerned about. He’d told himself that he had enough self-control that it didn’t matter, and he’d pretended that he didn’t mind when he watched Ryuu pursuing everyone in the universe who wasn’t him.

Just goes to show how easy it is to deceive yourself. Io dropped onto one of the heaps of gold coins that served as furniture, and felt them obligingly shift around to make a comfortable hollow for him. He stared up at the ceiling and forced himself to work through some long-overdue calculations.

The really frustrating thing was, he probably could get Ryuu’s attentions, at least for a little while. Io knew the right things to say. He could say that he was nervous about approaching other people when he had so little experience with amorous matters. He could say he wanted his first time to be with someone he knew well and trusted. Ryuu would probably be willing to go along with it, at least up until the point where he felt Io had learned enough, or until someone else caught his eternally shifting attention.

And I don’t want to be a temporary fling. I want him to stay with me.

And that, of course, was impossible. Ryuu wasn’t meant to love only one person. He needed to be free to do his job, and that meant being free to love everyone. Wanting to keep Ryuu for himself was selfish and wrong.

Well, I am selfish. Everyone says so, so I suppose it must be true.

The thought of it made him almost want to laugh. If there was one phrase he hated more than any other, it was the oft-repeated criticism of “Money can’t buy happiness.” Usually when he heard it, it was a not-so-subtle put-down towards his followers, implying that they should serve Aurite or someone with equally lofty values. Well, here was Io, god of prosperity, whose wealth couldn’t be calculated in a mortal lifetime, and none of it could buy him happiness. Or love.

All right, I admit it. I’m in love with him. I suppose I have been for a long time. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes. And there’s nothing I can do about it.