The god Auzh-Aravik spat into her flayed palm and turned the saliva streaked with blood, out onto the earth. Where it struck it sizzled. The god was pleased by how the soil writhed and struggled, enlivened by her fluids; she smiled, skinless lips crawling back from skinless teeth, visible tendons straining.
Before it was stolen, the skin of Auzh-Aravik had been inscribed with all the laws of heaven. Tattooed on her calves were the equations for the orbits of stars; written across her belly was the commandment to increase; her shoulderblades were scalpels of poetry. All rules of obedience and desire made up her right cheek; all commandments of justice and prohibition made up her left. She was the proudest and the most accomplished of the gods. She was envied for her beauty and despised for her rigor; the other gods called her the Ornament of Heaven and did not mean it flatteringly.
Naked to the muscle, she stood at the edge of the world. It was a sheer cliff of uniform slate that encircled both the palaces of heaven and the dwellings on the earth. Before Auzh-Aravik had been flayed, she could have opened the world-outside-the-world with the touch of her left elbow, where all the words ever spoken for opening were recorded in pinpoints of black ink. Skinless, she was without most of her power. She had walked to the world's edge on her feet like a human would, and left footprints of blood behind her.
Nevertheless, she spat again, and again mixed the spittle with her ever-welling blood. This time instead of watching it squirm in the dirt, she drew a door with it on the face of the cliff. She marked the door with the word for door, and told it what it was. It opened.
The world-outside-the-world roiled, clouds of ink lolling in dark water. Only one god dwelled there: Saam-Firuze, twin sister to Auzh-Aravik. It was not a place of names or words or laws. Auzh-Aravik stepped into it and was swallowed. Behind her the door that knew it was a door glowed red for blood and white for spit.
Auzh-Aravik landed on her hands and knees in darkness only made substantial by her landing on it. She called, "Sister-mine! Saam-Firuze! What have you done with my skin?"
The laughter of the god Saam-Firuze is liquid and enveloping. It welled out of the world-outside-the-world and lapped at the abdominal musculature of Auzh-Aravik. "Sister-mine," she said, "have you lost yourself? You are much diminished since I saw you last."
"I have been robbed," said the god Auzh-Aravik. "Diminishment is not my problem."
"Where is my skin, sister-mine? Without my skin the laws of heaven will cease to be immutable."
"Perhaps they should change a little," mused Saam-Firuze. "They have been perfect for so very long. The scansion on your shoulderblades – ah! lovely. But so old-fashioned."
For the third time, Auzh-Aravik asked her twin: "Where is my skin? Where have you hidden it? You were never so acquainted with scansion before now; you must have looked quite closely."
"Oh," said Saam-Firuze, smugly, "it is around here somewhere. But everything is so very dark. I am never sure exactly where I am, or you are, or anything else."
Auzh-Aravik, incensed, stood up on the darkness – insisting with all her diminished power that the darkness was a thing on which to stand – and shouted. "You are a liar, Saam-Firuze!"
"Well, yes," came the reply. "Of course. And – thank you for the door!"
Auzh-Aravik turned around and saw her sister scuttling up the inside wall of the slate cliff like a spider composed of the absence of light. She came to the red and white door and clambered through, folding up all of her many delicate limbs to fit into the mortal world. When she was on the other side, Auzh-Aravik saw the flash of her teeth as she smiled; the shine of the sun on her lips as she pursed them, wetted them with her tongue, and spat.
The door unbecame a door. The god Auzh-Aravik, Ornament of Heaven, keeper of righteousness and order and the orbits of the stars, was surrounded by the unformed dark, skinless, and all alone.
It is not common for gods to be afraid, and Auzh-Aravik was at first too angry to wonder what might become of her, locked outside the world, her door undone by the spit of her sister. She did not consider how Saam-Firuze had come to be a lightless and formless creature; she did not wonder at what the miasma of the world-outside-the-world, pressing up so gently at all of her flayed parts, might do to her. Instead she shouted invective into the void while the afterimage of her door faded from her eyes.
Her voice did not echo or resonate. The surrounding dark muffled it to dullness, a stone dropping onto wool. Auzh-Aravik, unnerved, lifted her hand, calling for illumination by spreading the meat of her fingertips. On the earth above, light had come when she called – even skinless, Auzh-Aravik remained divine – but no light came now.
Without light, she had no hope of finding where her sister had hidden her skin. The outside-the-world was not searchable. Worse, Auzh-Aravik was not sure of the realness of any object past the great slate cliffs save for those which talked and those which had been stolen; and since Saam-Firuze had abandoned her, she was only certain of the realness of herself. She was the Ornament of Heaven. Surely she was still the Ornament of Heaven, even stripped of her decoration. If divinity was innate, and spittle from her flayed mouth would transform the soil of the earth, then the laws of Heaven inscribed onto her skin were still a part of her.
Applied theology was not a discipline with a long history amongst the gods, but Auzh-Aravik thought that it was quite a useful concept to have come up with. Her raw material would be her flesh. She had a great deal of it, and all of it was close to hand.
She opened her mouth as much as the muscles of her cheeks and jaw would allow. The stretch was wider than it would have been if she still had her skin. She could fit her entire fist into the cavity of her mouth and pinch her teeth between her fingers. She tasted the blood that dripped from her raw palm – thought that she would taste more blood soon – and ripped her teeth from their sockets one by one.
For a period of time, blood was all there was. Iron-red strong enough to keep Auzh-Aravik from thinking about the close press of the dark. In her fist her teeth rattled and buzzed, vivified
She took a breath that whistled in the new hollowness of her mouth, and began casting the teeth one by one into the void. Each tooth leapt from her fingers and glowed, white for bone and red for blood, and hung like burgeoning fruit. Auzh-Aravik lifted her hands and her teeth arranged themselves in a corona around her head. Their motion was the same as the motion of the stars written onto her skin, as if she had made a small heaven in echo of the larger one she had come down from.
In the light she could see that Saam-Firuze had not lied entirely (only just enough): the world-outside-the-world was not a place where a person could find anything, even if that person knew that the object they sought was somewhere within it, because the it was not a place at all. There was a small portion of place under Auzh-Aravik's feet, illuminated by her teeth-stars, and that was all the place there was. Two thoughts came to Auzh-Aravik: first, that she had divided the outside-the-world into portions, a portion where the god Auzh-Aravik was and a portion where the god Auzh-Aravik was not; and second, that Saam-Firuze had spent a very long time placeless, in the dark. If her sister had not then stolen her skin, Auzh-Aravik could have been sympathetic.
But her mouth hurt where her teeth had been, and blood was still welling from the sockets.
In order to find her skin, she would need to make the portion of the outside-the-world where she was not into the portion of the outside-the-world where she was. There was still flesh remaining to her. The god Auzh-Aravik set to work.
From the muscles of her hips and thighs she peeled away the fibers that made her up, and cast them to her right and to her left. Where they fell they became a flat red plain. From her belly she unlooped her entrails, and they slipped from her fingertips onto the new-made ground and became rivers, glistening silver and grey. Lastly from her skull she tore the long strands of her hair, pulling them free from the root and plaiting them into a braid that was sticky and red in patches. Between her fingers the plait grew longer than any one strand could be. She cast it out in front of her, a curving rope, and where it fell it became a path.
The god Auzh-Aravik, hollow-bellied and skeletonized, weeping bloodstreaked tears from loss, knelt and spat onto the dirt of the path she had made. Where the spittle fell and the enlivened earth squirmed, she wrote with the tip of one finger all of the words she could remember for order and all the words she had ever known for deliberate action. Order, the direction of things, forward into the future; deliberate action, the world-outside-the-world subject to her will. The second and third laws of heaven, after the motion of the stars.
Then she began to walk, and the path winding through what she had made out of the world-outside-the-world led her to where her sister Saam-Firuze had left her skin. It was not hidden. Saam-Firuze had stashed it in the formless dark – along with, Auzh-Aravik suspected, countless other treasures. Now that the dark was not formless, but rather was made up of places where the god Auzh-Aravik (or portions thereof) was, her skin was in plain view at the end of the path.
Saam-Firuze had laid it out on an armature, a shadow-sketch of a many-limbed person. Auzh-Aravik's skin hung around it like a robe waiting to be put on. It was whole but it was not undisturbed. Where all the laws of heaven had once been inscribed, there was only an unmarked husk. Auzh-Aravik made a wounded noise, inarticulate in her toothless mouth. As she came closer she saw the last ink-traces of the laws run down the soles of the skin's feet and into the red earth that had once been her flesh. All the words and equations that had made her the Ornament of Heaven bled away, called by spit and invocation to animate what the god Auzh-Aravik had carved out of the void.
She had not intended for the applied theology to apply to her. It had been somewhat of a critical oversight.
The skin was still shaped to fit her body when it had been enfleshed. When Auzh-Aravik came near and touched it, it was supple and took the smear of her bleeding fingers like a brand; for a moment she thought she might be able to write new laws on it and return to her former glory. Then the blood beaded up and rolled off, falling onto the ground and becoming more red earth.
Laws were laws, after all. She had ordered the place which she had made and it was extremely obedient.
Auzh-Aravik took her skin from the armature her sister had hung it on and wrapped it around her shoulders, huddling into it like a too-large coat. Its elbow would not open any doors. Nevertheless she folded it around her arms and inserted her fingers into its fingers, sealing them around herself. She left the armature where it was – it was Saam-Firuze's work, and it could take care of itself for all she cared – turned around, and began to follow the path she had made back to where she had begun it. Her skin trailed behind her, skimming the earth where she hadn't attached it properly to her ankles.
"Where are you going?"asked the armature.
Auzh-Aravik spun on her heel and regarded it with suspicion. It shuddered, gathering its sketch-limbs to its chest, and opened a multitude of transparent holes within itself to serve as eyes. It looked quite like a shadow Saam-Firuze might throw, if Saam-Firuze was ever in a place with enough light to throw shadows by – which, Auzh-Aravik realized, had in fact come to pass. Saam-Firuze was in the world, where there was more than enough light for anyone's purposes.
"Away," said Auzh-Aravik, which was a word that could be said with only lips and tongue and no teeth.
"Where to?" the armature inquired. "There's so much more there to go to than before. How did you make it all?"
Auzh-Aravik spread her arms and spun in an indicatory circle, showing herself to the armature and to Saam-Firuze beyond it. Her skin swirled around her calves.
The armature contemplated Auzh-Aravik, and then it said, as if quite puzzled: "Does it hurt?"
Auzh-Aravik considered whether or not she hurt. Having reclaimed her skin, she was no longer either diminished nor robbed, and she had proved her divinity to be innate. Her mouth was full of blood and spit and the language she could speak was changed from what it had been before, becoming all lip-plosives and tongue-affricates, and she was no longer in any respect the Ornament of Heaven, being neither ornamented nor in heaven. There had been pain, but she was a god; it would not undo her.
"No," she said to the shadow of her sister. "Not so much as to matter. How is the sunlight?"
"Off by several degrees of arc since I locked you outside the world. Orbits develop eccentricities, did you know?"
"I did know. There are laws that describe even orbital degradation, Saam-Firuze. Though up until now they were theoretical."
The armature sighed and folded in on itself, pouting, sketch-shadow arms covering up some of its eyeholes. "You have laws for everything! I should have expected you'd organize even the world-outside-the-world."
Auzh-Aravik looked around her at the flat red plain and the precise tracks of white starlight across the vault of the sky; at the fascia-grey glitter of the rivers and how the path of hair was developing great slate paving stones, straight and even. There was a precise sort of beauty to what had become of her flesh. She felt slightly embarrassed, as if she had been observed committing some bodily function in public. "Well," she said, "yes. You should have expected it."
"Hush, I'm enjoying being surprised. It's like a caesura or a dropped foot."
"Without me there will be dreadful innovations in poetry, won't there," said the god Auzh-Aravik, and in saying so realized that she was not planning, after all, to carve a new door of spit and blood in the slate wall that separated her world from the world Saam-Firuze had escaped into.
"There's a chance," said the armature of Saam-Firuze. "Which is more than I could say before."
Auzh-Aravik laughed. The laughter of Auzh-Aravik is bells in sequential harmonics, sharp like being struck. "Don't get too comfortable," she said, reaching out to fold the armature's shadow-limbs up into a ball small enough to hold between cupped hands. "Or else I will have to steal your skin." She closed the armature inside the circle of her palms. "I will hang it out in the center of a desert of light and you'll burn all away getting it back."
"Maybe," said Saam-Firuze, tinny and distant.
The world-outside-the-world stretched before her, wide and remade. The god Auzh-Aravik slapped her palms together and dusted them clean of shadows.