Conferring with Gods
The first time Leodora spoke to a god, she had climbed to the top of the bridge tower and she was masked.
It was late in her third day on the span called Vijnagar, a broad segment on one of the infinite bridges that uncoil across the oceans of Shadowbridge. She went there to withdraw before her performance as the mysterious puppeteer known as Jax, to be herself awhile, and to answer to no one.
The towers—there were three supporting Vijnagar—were like great flat-topped and frieze-covered behemoths looming above the buildings and creatures on the surface that threaded the distances between them. Leodora climbed up the outside of the western pylon, going up the rungs hand over hand. To either side of her, statues of avatars and demons, monsters and heroes hung out from the corners to stare at one another, so that the climber between them could not help sensing the painted eyes that seemed to watch her hooded figure as it ascended. Most of their identities, along with their stories, were unknown to her. Like any span of Shadowbridge, Vijnagar had its own gods and tales, and she hadn’t been here long enough to collect many of the stories, but she did recognize some of the elements: the talaria that sprouted from one figure’s ankles, the gnarled knobkerrie brandished by another. These things described and adorned gods and heroes she’d heard of, whose tales she knew from elsewhere—some from the three spans she’d traveled before this. Other objects confounded her, and she hung awhile between sky and sea, trying to guess what purpose they served. One of the figures, in a long coat, leaned around from the back edge and held up a disk as if about to hand it to her. It looked like a shell strung on a necklace that, instead of circling his throat, plugged into his ears. What could that possibly be? And what legend could it be from? The next figure above him didn’t help her, either. Painted black, with spiked blue hair, sharp-tipped ears, and red eyes like flames, the figure’s identity eluded her, too.
She climbed on.
At the top she reached up and, finding gouged handholds, curled her fingers into them and pulled herself over the edge. Her blue shadow stretched before her. She lay against the cool stone to catch her breath, staring down the length of the walkway that ran to the far side of tower. Finally she gathered herself up and knelt on one knee.
On both sides of the walkway stood more statues, figures larger than life, two rows of them hedging it all the way to the far side of the span, where presumably there were other rungs down the opposite pylon. The statues were positioned, as gods should be, overlooking the buildings and beings of Vijnagar. She wondered if the gods of enigmatic Edgeworld had cast the statues when they made this span or if it was the inhabitants of Vijnagar who had chiseled them. The nearest ones looked to have been brightly painted once upon a time, long ago. The colors had all but faded away.
Leodora got to her feet. The walkway was deserted. Unlike on the span of Phosphoros, where other people frequented the tops of the supporting towers, she was alone here. She pushed back the hood of her tunic and, reaching behind her, undid the ribbons of the domino mask that covered her head to the nose, then drew the mask away. She sighed as if all of her tension had been bound up in the disguise, as perhaps it had. The thick braid of her red hair unfurled from inside her hood.
Turning about, she beheld the world.
The sun hung like a spectacular gong behind thin clouds on the horizon, not quite ready to relinquish the sky to the two deformed moons of Saphon and Gyjio. They were creeping up into the eastern sky behind her like two furtive eyes while the sun’s dusking light spread molten gold across the sea and painted every spire and minaret with its fire.
This was the hour when sacrifices were performed and spells cast and oracles consulted; the time when light and darkness split the world down below, and one could seek for glimpses of each in the other.
The dying evening wind plucked at her loose clothes, the breeze sliding up her sleeves and dancing around her torso, billowing her tunic like a sail. It reminded her of a moment in the story of how Death came into the world.
She leaned over and looked down the way she had climbed.
In the ocean below, the shadowy shapes of large fish clustered around the immense pier at the base of the pylon, there to breed in the warm, buoyant water. On many spans fishing off a pierside was a popular pastime, but not on Vijnagar, where the people held many fish to be sacred, some by decree. No one’s line dangled in among the fish she saw.
The notion of fishing drew forth an unpleasant memory. For most of her life Leodora had viewed Shadowbridge only from below one straight and decrepit span, called Ningle; it was somewhere off to the east, over the horizon, part of another bridge. Almost as an act of defiance now, she climbed the tower heights of spans to look upon the world as though it might be something she could possess. As if she reigned with the lined-up avatars in a sky palace somewhere even higher.
In the sun fire she glowed like a burnished goddess—a goddess of Edgeworld, surveying the whole of Shadowbridge from beyond the moons. She would have climbed through the clouds themselves if there had been a ladder so tall.
She ran a hand over the top of her head, caught the leather strip binding her braid, gave it a tug. Her hair fanned out across her neck and shoulders—hair as copper and shining as the sunlight upon the sea. She shook it, luxuriating in the freedom. Here, on this height, she was unrestrained.
Stepping back, she turned and strolled a ways between the stone figures. There to the right was one that might have been Chilingana, one of whose stories she would be performing tonight. Glancing left, she spied a figure of certain identity—the demigod Shumyzin, recognizable by the tusks protruding from his mouth. He faced west and brandished a shield and short sword to hold off a clawing gorgon whose snarling face promised death. The swollen sun gave color to Shumyzin’s terrible pop-eyed and unpainted features. Almost health. She sauntered over to him and ran her hand along the edge of his shield, then crouched on the balls of her feet and peered from beneath it down upon the span itself.
Far below, hundreds of people milled about in the lanes and crooked byroads. She regarded the onion domes of spires finished in gold filigree, the sloping roofs of simple houses cast in darkness beneath them, and colorful tower cupolas, no two the same shade. In one slender nearby minaret, a servant carried a torch from level to level, lighting candles and oil lamps, kindling globes of fairy light in window after window, creating a steadily rising spiral of candescent jewels.
Open fires lit Kalian Esplanade, one of the two main thoroughfares. The first torchbearers had emerged to look for work—for couples and parties they could escort from place to place. There was good money to be made by a well-spoken and knowledgeable torchbearer. Theirs and other lights coruscated the length of the span, all the way to the northernmost support tower of Vijnagar. The salmon sunlight also bathed the flat-topped heights of that terminus. She espied the edge of the next span beyond it, curving out from behind that tower and dwindling into the darkness of the northern sea.
A goddess’s peace settled upon her as she contemplated her temporary domain. “This is where I belong,” she said. And it was true, and she had always known it. Never again would she live beneath the endless spans of the bridge of life, watching but separate and unwelcome. She was going to be forever of the life, immersed.
The breeze whispered across her face, suddenly cool. She glanced up.
The statue of Shumyzin was staring down at her over the rim of the shield with furious eyes. “Hai,” said the statue as if in agreement.
Leodora skittered back from beneath him.
Shumyzin’s head tracked her over his shoulder. He didn’t look like a statue anymore. His skin was bluish beneath the sun’s glow. His huge eyes glistened white with pinprick pupils. Around his tusks he was smiling. His golden armor gleamed.
“Who are you?” she said, the only question she could think to ask.
“You don’t know? I thought sure you did.” His voice was a growl, as if gravel slid roughly inside his lungs.
“I—” She dared to look away from him. “Statues can’t talk.”
“But gods can.”
“But a statue isn’t—” she began, then gave up. Even she recognized her impertinence.
“—isn’t a god?” he finished. “And I suppose that a traveling storyteller posturing over a city should be? Especially when that city might eject her if it knew she was a woman.” He pointed his bronze sword at her.
She shook her head. Had he somehow read her thoughts? She tried to gauge whether she could get to the end of the tower and reach the rungs before he caught her.
“If you’re so certain of your divinity,” he said, “show me what you do. Tell me my story.”
“That is what you do, isn’t it?” He looked at himself, at his colorless feet where encroaching night had cut off the sunlight. “And you had better be quick, too, or I’ll be stone again and it won’t count for anything.”
She goggled at him, unable to think.
“So, it was just empty talk, then,” Shumyzin derided her. “A child’s whimsy. A true god would know another god’s story. They know all the stories that are.”
Her jaw set defiantly. She didn’t like being taunted, not by anyone. She knew his tale, all right. Soter had taught it to her five years ago, when she was eleven.
“Well?” challenged the demigod.
Leodora drew a deep breath and recited.
Excerpted from Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost. Copyright © 2007 by Gregory Frost. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.