Felicity was nervous throughout the remainder of the workday that some dire consequence would fall upon him, the fulfillment of the warning he was given. By the time he was leaving the office, waving at the gods and Sidereal for whom his workplace was a playground, he almost wished for something to have happened. Until it did, he would worry if it was still coming.
Felicity walked out into the bright daylight of Yu-Shan. Apparently the Unconquered Sun was still in good form with the Games of Divinity.
"Ever feel like a puppet whose strings have been broken?" whispered a husky voice behind Felicity.
The Serenity Caste whirled, easily drawing Keeper of Splendid Hopes and brandishing the Starmetal daiklave in defense. For the second time that day, he had been surprised. He reminded himself that he really needed to get into the habit of using the Prior Warning practice to apprise him of imminent death.
But it was only Eternal Winter, his friend.
"Good day to you, Winter, but promise to stop doing that. It's a strain on my nerves."
"Felicity, you are so jumpy today. You should really learn to lighten up," said the Endings Caste to the Serenity Caste. They both paused for a moment to marvel at the oddity in which one had said that to the other.
"Anyway, you would feel the same way if you had been threatened by one of your own," said Felicity, moving on.
"What happened?" asked Eternal Winter, confused.
"Last night, at the party at Rano-Che's palace, one of the Secrets Caste, Unkempt Design, told me not to come to work today. Or face the consequences."
"Actually, no, but it could have happened."
"I see. He's not still bent out of shape about your training and the fact that you're not imprisoned, is he?"
A dawning realization came to Felicity, "Is he the one that thinks I have an Infernal anima?"
"So I've heard. But our information about the Bronze Faction members isn't always reliable," Eternal Winter reminded Felicity.
"You'd think I'd done something to him personally, given how he speaks of me."
Eternal Winter shrugged, and the two of them boarded a waiting ferry to take them along the magical canals.
Thinking back, Felicity asked, "What did you mean earlier? About broken puppet strings?"
"Oh, I was just trying to creep you out."
"No you weren't," said Felicity, easily seeing past the pretense of the Endings Caste.
Eternal Winter glared meaningfully at the spidery god who piloted the craft with two poles held in its six arm-limbs, and indicated with his eyes that he would talk about it later. They arrived at Felicity's manse not long after, just as the moon suddenly replaced the sun at the pinnacle of the heavenly sky. They had come to Felicity's manse because, although Eternal Winter had a bigger house, they both enjoyed the sensation of breathing pure essence that a manse afforded them.
"It's small," Felicity apologized as they entered.
"You always say that. And you're right, of course. But don't worry, it looks like you're moving up in the world."
"What do you mean?"
Eternal Winter's raspy voice intoned, "Your puppet strings have been severed, Felicity. Or should I say your apron strings?"
"How in all Creation did you hear about that!?" exlaimed Felicity as his one servant took their outer robes.
"I have my sources," he said with a wink.
"It's either one of the Gold Faction or that Goddess of Submission to Pleasure you're always spending time with."
"Or perhaps both," sighed Eternal Winter wistfully.
Felicity chuckled as he poured drinks for the both of them. In those moments of silence, Felicity attempted to gather his thoughts about his upcoming mission. At last he spoke, "I am quite eager to go, I really am. I just can't get past how long overdue this is. I mean, you've been working in Creation for years now, even going solo sometimes. The only way I am even allowed into Creation is by the backdoor, because someone casually bothered to leave it open for me."
The two Sidereals lay reclined in velvet-covered chairs made from flexible wood that comfortably supported their bodies. They sat quietly for a time. After awhile, Eternal Winter cleared his husky voice and responded, "I don't have to remind you of that saying you're always telling me, do I?"
"I know, I know. Serenity is a choice of perspective. Still."
"What do you want me to say? I've heard the elder Gold Faction talking about your predecessor. They are still afraid of him. His reckless abuse of power yet haunts us. He ruined some perfectly good Solar, who will now no longer trust our kind. More than that, though. Everyone's afraid that you might follow in his footsteps."
"You know better than that."
"Yes. But can you truthfully deny the influence that Nuche Keru has had in your life? You live in his Manse, weild his shattered sword. You bear the name he had chosen for his successor. The thing that gives me the most pause is how even the gods never speak of him. Not even to you."
Eternal Winter concluded, "The only reason I'm on your side in all this is that I know you. I know I can trust you because you've been steady and honest with me, always. And... you've never tried to leave Heaven. You disagree with the rules but you follow them anyway, even though they hurt you. That tells me all I need to know."
Felicity did not know how to respond to his friend's praise and consolation. So, he laid his hand on his friend's brow and blessed him with the joy in friendship that Felicity felt himself. Eternal Winter smiled with joy.
"I'd like to help, Felicity. I will cause your doubt to end, if you agree to allow me to amend your destiny."
Felicity quickly nodded his assent. The notion that his friend could betray him never crossed his mind. The Serenity Caste concentrated on the spark of divinity within him and caused it to still. When his anima was relaxed, Felicity released his concentration just enough to nod slightly.
Eternal Winter had, meanwhile, prepared his own Essence. He gestured with an outstretched hand and formed the Lesser Sign of Concluded Angst against Felicity's destiny, and thereafter his misgivings were doomed to end. Fate would find a way for it to come to pass.
Finished with his blessing, Eternal Winter sipped again at his drink, to moisten his dry voice. He changed the subject, "By the way, was Quill at the festivities last night?" And the two of them talked of upcoming parties and the good times the three of them had had before Emerald Script Quill and Eternal Winter had joined opposite Factions. Felicity also listened to his friend's concerns and worries, as the Endings Caste had no one else to complain to about the Gold Faction. The evening grew long in the friends' good company.
"I am so happy for you, Felicity," said Rano-Che. The senior god in charge of prayers stood before his desk in the Repository of Divine Exhortations, shaking the Serenity Caste's hand, "When I heard that you were finally going to Creation, I had hoped to see you before you were off."
"Actually, I was hoping to speak to you on an important matter," Felicity said, looking around at the other gods who were busied about the office but listening to their superior's conversation.
Rano-Che spread his multi-hued wings and the entire room fell deafly silent. Only the Master of Prayers and the Serenity Caste could hear each other, now.
"So speak, young Sidereal," said Rano-Che gravely. He suspected he was about to be asked to commit a crime.
"We've talked about the affairs of Heaven before, Rano-Che," said Felicity to the nodding god, "And how we both find it so sad that the prayers of the people often go unanswered even though the gods benefit from the quintessence."
"Indeed, it is not like the old days, that is certain."
"I would like to help. I would like to answer prayers while I'm in Creation," Felicity boldly stated.
Rano-Che sat heavily on the edge of his desk. He weighed the ramifications, even as he had so many times before. As a god, he was not allowed to directly influence Creation. In the past, the Exalted were the intermediaries in the world, so technically Felicity was acting within the proper channels. The problem was that Felicity was a Sidereal, a keeper of fate, not of prayers. It used to fall to the Waxing Moon Lunar, who would instruct the Terrestrial to carry out these kinds of tasks. However, no Lunar had bent an ear to Rano-Che's requests since the Usurpation when the entire priestly Caste had vanished. By using a Sidereal, it was tantamount to admitting incompetence in directing his subordinates (admittedly the Lunar were difficult to direct). If anyone found out, both the god and the Sidereal would be in trouble. Rano-Che would be shamed and could even be punished for mismanagement. Felicity wouldn't be breaking any rules, but he would be scapegoated for anything that had ever gone wrong with his missions. Any mistake would be attributed to negligence due to attenting to tasks that weren't his job.
Rano-Che considered all this, but then remembered why the mission had been called for to begin with. "Felicity, walk with me," and they left the staff room and proceeded into the prayer library. The room was vast, capable of holding any building currently existing in Creation under its vaulted ceiling. Along the walls and standing separately in islands were trillions of drawers organized by type, region, and other qualifiers. Inside the drawers was a record of every prayer that had been uttered since the last purge was made for space considerations (which had been during the Great Contagion). Felicity looked about interestedly, but had been there before.
"Felicity, I know about your mission. I was consulted about it, in fact. The level of happiness in the Varang City-States has been steadily declining these last few decades. It has been understood that a slave revolt will occur in the next six months that will greatly impact everyone's happiness. Put simply, the Serenity Numbers are set to take a fall. I don't truly understand the methods of your Bureau, but I do understand the prayers I have read. The slaves are miserable. They're bringing the overall Numbers down dramatically. Many families have recently been split apart, sold to new owners, and little effort has been spent to keeping them safe. The Djalan people are being slowly wiped out and the only reason you and Sapphire Tryst are going is to prevent your Division from losing face."
Felicity nodded his understanding.
"In this case, doing the job you were sent to do will answer more prayers than have been met for a long time. I feel strongly for subjected peoples."
"I, too, find slavery abhorent," Felicity said quietly.
"Finding a way to free them would solve your Division's problem, answer prayers.... and would probably be the right thing to do."
Felicity nodded. He considered the monumental task of freeing an entire race of people, and could not begin to wrap his mind around the difficulty. Even as he began to despair, fate began to conspire against his doubts. Fate worked quietly, though, and Felicity did not notice the violet unweaving of his angst.
"You're asking quite a bit from me, Rano-Che."
"I ask because all of us here at the office have been weeping for years about the misfortune of the Djalans. If you could do anything for them at all... perhaps create some safe place they could flee to... I don't know. A solution is for the Exalted to figure out, I suppose. I am ill-equipped."
Felicity smiled, "Not at all, Rano-Che, I truly appreciate your ideas and your perspective. I promise to do what I can at the very least." He was about to turn to go when he noticed that Rano-Che was struggling with a decision whether or not to reveal something. He saw it by something indefinite about the quivering of the god's wingtip. "Do you wish to tell me something else, Honorable Master?"
The god sighed and opened a drawer, and produced a prayer from within. Unlike most prayer transcripts, this one had been enscribed into a thin sheet of Orichalcum.
Please, Father. I know you have already granted me your favor and your strength. Now please give me the courage to topple Shrev Tai's throne and free my people. I give you my word that when my people are no longer enslaved, I will serve any purpose you could ask. We have suffered so, and Shrev Tai continues to make things worse. I need help, please send help. By your grace and light, I am the servant of the Unconquered Sun.
The name, Faka Kun, was enscribed into the gold sheaf with the same care and penmanship as had the prayer itself been transcribed.
Felicity looked up at the solemn-faced god whose expression inspired reverence and awe for the sacred prayer of a Solar to her creator. Rano-Che said only, "You might need help," before turning and launching off the ground to attend to a drawer eighty storeys above that a god was struggling to get closed again.
Felicity stood before the Cerulean Lute of Harmony in the mid-morning and was grateful to not be at work. He had rarely missed a day in the nearly ten years that he had been working there. He had mixed feelings about having spent more than half his brief life under that magnificent, spendid dome. Unbeknownst to him, fate was already conspiring to end his indecisive feelings. He had dismissed Eternal Winter's blessing of the night before, believing there was little the Endings Caste could do for him. He did not know that when they were all still close, Emerald Script Quill had taught him and Eternal Winter a secret means by which the Sidereal immunity to destiny manipulation could be temporarily removed, allowing for direct fate amendments.
All Felicity knew was that he had the sudden urge to visit the Loom of Fate. It had been whispered that his predecessor had once spent a great deal of time there, especially right before entering Creation on some mission or other. Perhaps it was nostalgia of the anima, or respect due a powerful (if somewhat insane) predecessor, Felicity told himself.
Inside, he was confronted by the strands of destiny, subtly shifting and weaving into the very fabric of Creation. He understood its purpose and function, but the Loom truly defied direct comprehension. Only the machine god and the Maidens could be said to fully discern the whole of destiny as it unfolded in the Loom. This did not prevent Felicity from gazing at the web-like meanderings of the currents of fate. He soon found himself lost in thought, what felt like speculation, but was in fact memory.
The young Serenity Caste sat cross-legged before the ancient, wisened Serenity Caste who had borne witness to the defeat of the Primordials eons before. He had stayed after class to ask the burning question that filled his heart. He had spent days in its precise formulation.
"Master, how does one guide destiny in the face of adversity? How can I accomplish Serenity despite conflicitng goals?" asked the blue-eyed youth.
The decrepit Sidereal comprehended the complexity of the question: how to ensure a goal when destiny was written by other Sidereals and also skewed by their plentiful high-Essence Exalted colleagues. It was the most long-sighted question he had ever been asked by a student.
The Master spoke softly, and with great pleasure, "Mostly, we remain persistent in our efforts," said the wise Sideral. The youth's face fell in disappointment that his question had not merited a response other than the usual instructions. Grinning, the Master finished, "But, one of the most powerful techniques that I have witnessed the Maidens use is to Write The Story. That way, all the characters in it are compelled to bend their considerable powers to further the plot you designed. They will be most fulfilled in furthering your tale, and their struggles merely spice it with conflict. In a good story, the heroes will have what they want, but in the way the writer wants them to have it." The Master sat humbly, in enlightened repose.
The student wrestled with the concept, but ultimately did not grasp the beautiful simplicity. The words would forever haunt him.
Felicity's life seemed to culminate at that moment, all his past experiences had prepared him for this vision of the ancient past. The youth he saw was his predecessor, the ancient Sidereal's name was likely lost to memory. What his predecessor could not fathom, Felicity apprehended. Heaven and Creation, god and mortal, all that has been and all that will be.
This Is A Story About Stories