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Two Offerings in the Halls of Undying

The primary solar sail of Yeshte's ship refuses to shift position, some ten trillion miles out from his destination.
Yeshte hauls on the lever to shift the sail manually, the muscles of his back straining to meet in the middle, sinews and tendons standing stark in his hands. The sail groans, and yields, turning to meet the light of ancient suns. This was easier, when there were two sets of hands for it. He misses Basto most in small moments, but the big ones are hard too.
"It's all right," he tells Zo, when he returns to the main capsule. "We'll arrive tomorrow." His dog doesn't stand, but his tail beats an eager tap-tap-tap against the deck.
The Nebula of Ages unfurls around the ship as they approach: an embrace of violet gas, caresses of rose and scarlet and blue. At the nebula's center lies a secret that Yeshte has spent his past few years pursuing, trading for scraps until he could piece together a map. Here waits the Halls of Undying. Behind its priestess-guarded gates, mere heartbeats pass while the rest of the universe sees a hundred years. When the laws of entropy come to collect their final toll, they'll knock on this door last of all.
The priestesses don't ask how Yeshte got here. They comm him docking instructions. His ship crawls in between two Gilisst pleasure yachts and disappears against the bulk of an Akountong principality-frigate.
Zo drags himself up to follow when Yeshte navigates the umbilicus into the Halls' antechamber. A brief zero-G stint must feel good on the dog's old bones; he moves a little lighter when they alight at the far end and look around.
An amphora of holy wine waits beside the umbilicus port: probably a generous offering from a previous petitioner. Yeshte washes his hands in its basin and moves deeper into the antechamber. There are no other aging mercanters to be seen. The room is swaddled in draped curtains that swallow noise; priestesses stroll alongside golden princelings and merchants of more than secondhand parts, murmuring to one another. Bargaining? What do the Undying Priestesses value? No short-lived currency, surely. Art, say the rumors--the songs and stories of cultures vanished in an eyeblink.
While Yeshte waits, a few visitors depart, denied entrance to time's sanctuary. The great door at the back of the antechamber opens twice to admit priestesses--but never guests. Yeshte wads up a length of curtain and sits beside Zo, scratching the balding patch on the dog's belly.
They both fall asleep, warm, comfortable. Only Yeshte wakens at a priestess's polite cough. He scrambles to his feet, stumbling over honorifics. Zo's legs paddle as he chases something in his sleep--not rabbits, he's never seen one. Shooting stars, perhaps.
"Greetings, far-traveler." Two priestesses stand before him: one young, one old. The older has served a long time here; her stole of office nearly drags on the ground, even looped twice around her neck as it is. "What offering do you bring to the Halls of Undying?"
Yeshte's hands shake. He squeezes them together to hide it. "All I have is--" He chokes down abnegation and tries again. "I have a song for you, if you'll hear it."
Both priestesses nod. Yeshte wets his lips. The song was his husband's before it was his. It's an old one, about the sandy beaches of a world Yeshte's never seen. He tries to sing it with Basto's voice; to see the beach with Basto's eyes.
The priestesses listen until he is done. "Thank you," says the elder, giving him a shallow bow. Has he pleased them, then? "We love that song well."
Yeshte's heart creases in on itself. "You've heard it before."
"Yes." Her serious face softens. "But there's still joy in the retelling. Please: tell us your case. Why should you among all peoples be spared time's whetstone?"
"Oh--no." Yeshte shuffles his feet. "Not me. I'm here about my dog."
The priestesses blink. "What?" says the elder, politely.
"I'd like to see him again, a few times. Don't want to be an old man alone out there, nothing to look forward to." He pauses to recapture his breath, which has fled him. "He's a real good dog."
Their eyes fall on Zo, awake now. His tail stutters uncertainly against the floor: tap, tap-tap? The younger priestess kneels to stroke his threadbare head. She looks up at the other, questioning.
The elder priestess straightens her shoulders. Yeshte braces. "We are unaccustomed," she begins, "to accepting two offerings from one petitioner. You have already given us a song. To offer such a fine animal as well more than redoubles your gift." She removes her stole, passing it to her sister, who takes it, through tears, with her arm still around Zo's neck. "Is a stranger's company fair recompense, far-traveler? I've walked many worlds before, but--"
Yeshte finishes with her, through a vise-clamped throat. "But there's still joy in the retelling."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 17th, 2020
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