The Kingdom of Gods
By Jemisin, N. K.
Orbit Copyright © 2012 Jemisin, N. K.
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316043946
Four Legs in the Morning
SHE LOOKS SO MUCH LIKE ENEFA, I think, the first time I see her.
Not this moment, as she stands trembling in the lift alcove, her heartbeat so loud that it drums against my ears. This is not really the first time I’ve seen her. I have checked in on our investment now and again over the years, sneaking out of the palace on moonless nights. (Nahadoth is the one our masters fear most during those hours, not me.) I first met her when she was an infant. I crept in through the nursery window and perched on the railing of her crib to watch her. She watched me back, unusually quiet and solemn even then. Where other infants were fascinated by the world around them, she was constantly preoccupied by the second soul nestled against her own. I waited for her to go mad, and felt pity, but nothing more.
I next visited when she was two, toddling after her mother with great determination. Not mad yet. Again when she was five; I watched her sit at her father’s knee, listening raptly to his tales of the gods. Still not mad. When she was nine, I watched her mourn her father. By that point, it had become clear that she was not, and would never go, insane. Yet there was no doubt that Enefa’s soul affected her. Aside from her looks, there was the way she killed. I watched her climb out from beneath the corpse of her first man, panting and covered in filth, with a bloody stone knife in her hand. Though she was only thirteen years old, I felt no horror from her—which I should have, her heart’s fluctuations amplified by her double souls. There was only satisfaction in her face, and a very familiar coldness at her core. The warriors’ council women, who had expected to see her suffer, looked at each other in unease. Beyond the circle of older women, in the shadows, her watching mother smiled.
I fell in love with her then, just a little.
So now I drag her through my dead spaces, which I have never shown to another mortal, and it is to the corporeal core of my soul that I take her. (I would take her to my realm, show her my true soul, if I could.) I love her wonder as she walks among my little toy worlds. She tells me they are beautiful. I will cry when she dies for us.
Then Naha finds her. Pathetic, isn’t it? We two gods, the oldest and most powerful beings in the mortal realm, both besotted by a sweaty, angry little mortal girl. It is more than her looks. More than her ferocity, her instant maternal devotion, the speed with which she lunges to strike. She is more than Enefa, for Enefa never loved me so much, nor was Enefa so passionate in life and death. The old soul has been improved, somehow, by the new.
She chooses Nahadoth. I do not mind so much. She loves me, too, in her way. I am grateful.
And when it all ends and the miracle has occurred and she is a goddess (again), I weep. I am happy. But still so very alone.
Stole the sun for a prank
Will you really ride it?
Where will you hide it?
Down by the riverbank!
THERE WILL BE NO TRICKS in this tale. I tell you this so that you can relax. You’ll listen more closely if you aren’t flinching every other instant, waiting for the pratfall. You will not reach the end and suddenly learn I have been talking to my other soul or making a lullaby of my life for someone’s unborn brat. I find such things disingenuous, so I will simply tell the tale as I lived it.
But wait, that’s not a real beginning. Time is an irritation, but it provides structure. Should I tell this in the mortal fashion? All right, then, linear. Slooooow. You require context.
Beginnings. They are not always what they seem. Nature is cycles, patterns, repetition—but of what we believe, of the beginning I understand, there was once only Maelstrom, the unknowable. Over a span of uncountable aeons, as none of us were here yet to count, It churned forth endless substances and concepts and creatures. Some of those must have been glorious, because even today the Maelstrom spins forth new life with regular randomness, and many of those creations are indeed beautiful and wondrous. But most of them last only an eyeblink or two before the Maelstrom rips them apart again, or they die of instant old age, or they collapse in on themselves and become tiny Maelstroms in turn. These are absorbed back into the greater cacophony.
But one day the Maelstrom made something that did not die. Indeed, this thing was remarkably like Itself—wild, churning, eternal, ever changing. Yet this new thing was ordered enough to think, and feel, and dedicate itself to its own survival. In token of which, the first thing it did was get the hells away from the Maelstrom.
But this new creature faced a terrible dilemma, because away from the Maelstrom there was nothing. No people, no places, no spaces, no darkness, no dimension, no EXISTENCE.
A bit much for even a god to endure. So this being—whom we shall call Nahadoth because that is a pretty name, and whom we shall label male for the sake of convenience if not completeness—promptly set out to create an existence, which he did by going mad and tearing himself apart.
This was remarkably effective. And thus Nahadoth found himself accompanied by a formless immensity of separate substance. Purpose and structure began to cohere around it simply as a side effect of the mass’s presence, but only so much of that could occur spontaneously. Much like the Maelstrom, it churned and howled and thundered; unlike the Maelstrom, it was not in any way alive.
It was, however, the earliest form of the universe and the gods’ realm that envelops it. This was a wonder—but Nahadoth likely did not notice, because he was a gibbering lunatic. So let us return to the Maelstrom.
I like to believe that It is aware. Eventually It must have noticed Its child’s loneliness and distress. So presently, It spat out another entity that was aware and that also managed to escape the havoc of its birth. This new one—who has always and only been male—named himself Bright Itempas, because he was an arrogant, self-absorbed son of a demon even then. And because Itempas is also a gigantic screaming twit, he attacked Nahadoth, who… well. Naha very likely did not make a good conversation partner at the time. Not that they talked at all, in those days before speech.
So they fought, and fought, and fought times a few million jillion nillion, until suddenly one or the other of them got tired of the whole thing and proposed a truce. Both of them claim to have done this, so I cannot tell which one is joking. And then, because they had to do something if they weren’t fighting and because they were the only living beings in the universe after all, they became lovers. Somewhere between all this—the fighting or the lovemaking, not so very different for those two—they had a powerful effect on the shapeless mass of substance that Nahadoth had given birth to. It gained more function, more structure. And all was well for another Really Long Time.
Then along came the Third, a she-creature named Enefa, who should have settled things because usually three of anything is better, more stable, than two. For a while this was the case. In fact, EXISTENCE became the universe, and the beings soon became a family, because it was Enefa’s nature to give meaning to anything she touched. I was the first of their many, many children.
So there we were: a universe, a father and a mother and a Naha, and a few hundred children. And our grandparent, I suppose—the Maelstrom, if one can count It as such given that It would destroy us all if we did not take care. And the mortals, when Enefa finally created them. I suppose those were like pets—part of the family and yet not really—to be indulged and disciplined and loved and kept safe in the finest of cages, on the gentlest of leashes. We only killed them when we had to.
Things went wrong for a while, but at the time that this all began, there had been some improvement. My mother was dead, but she got better. My father and I had been imprisoned, but we’d won our way free. My other father was still a murdering, betraying bastard, though, and nothing would ever change that, no matter how much penance he served—which meant that the Three could never be whole again, no matter that all three of them lived and were for the most part sane. This left a grating, aching void in our family, which was only tolerable because we had already endured far worse.
That is when my mother decided to take things into her own hands.
I followed Yeine one day, when she went to the mortal realm and shaped herself into flesh and appeared in the musty inn room that Itempas had rented. They spoke there, exchanging inanities and warnings while I lurked incorporeal in a pocket of silence, spying. Yeine might have noticed me; my tricks rarely worked on her. If so, she did not care that I watched. I wish I knew what that meant.
Because there came the dreaded moment in which she looked at him, really looked at him, and said, “You’ve changed.”
And he said, “Not enough.”
And she said, “What do you fear?” To which he said nothing, of course, because it is not his nature to admit such things.
So she said, “You’re stronger now. She must have been good for you.”
The room filled with his anger, though his expression did not change. “Yes. She was.”
There was a moment of tension between them, in which I hoped. Yeine is the best of us, full of good, solid mortal common sense and her own generous measure of pride. Surely she would not succumb! But then the moment passed and she sighed and looked ashamed and said, “It was… wrong of us. To take her from you.”
That was all it took, that acknowledgment. In the eternity of silence that followed, he forgave her. I knew it as a mortal creature knows the sun has risen. And then he forgave himself—for what, I cannot be sure and dare not guess. Yet that, too, was a palpable change. He suddenly stood a little taller, grew calmer, let down the guard of arrogance he’d kept up since she arrived. She saw the walls fall—and behind them, the him that used to be. The Itempas who’d once won over her resentful predecessor, tamed wild Nahadoth, disciplined a fractious litter of child-gods, and crafted from whole cloth time and gravity and all the other amazing things that made life possible and so interesting. It isn’t hard to love that version of him. I know.
So I do not blame her, not really. For betraying me.
But it hurt so much to watch as she went to him and touched his lips with her fingers. There was a look of dazzlement on her face as she beheld the brilliance of his true self. (She yielded so easily. When had she become so weak? Damn her. Damn her to her own misty hells.)
She frowned a little and said, “I don’t know why I came here.”
“One lover has never been enough for any of us,” said Itempas, smiling a sad little smile, as if he knew how unworthy he was of her desire. Despite this, he took her shoulders and pulled her close and their lips touched and their essences blended and I hated them, I hated them, I despised them both, how dare he take her from me, how dare she love him when I had not forgiven him, how dare they both leave Naha alone when he’d suffered so much, how could they? I hated them and I loved them and gods how I wanted to be with them, why couldn’t I just be one of them, it wasn’t fair—
—no. No. Whining was pointless. It didn’t even make me feel better. Because the Three could never be Four, and even when the Three were reduced to two, a godling could never replace a god, and any heartbreak that I felt in that moment was purely my own damned fault for wanting what I could not have.
When I could bear their happiness no more, I fled. To a place that matched the Maelstrom in my heart. To the only place within the mortal realm I have ever called home. To my own personal hell… called Sky.
I was sitting corporeal at the top of the Nowhere Stair, sulking, when the children found me. Total chance, that. Mortals think we plan everything.
They were a matched set. Six years old—I am good at gauging ages in mortals—bright-eyed, quick-minded, like children who have had good food and space to run and pleasures to stimulate the soul. The boy was dark-haired and -eyed and -skinned, tall for his age, solemn. The girl was blonde and green-eyed and pale, intent. Pretty, both of them. Richly dressed. And little tyrants, as Arameri tended to be at that age.
“You will assist us,” said the girl in a haughty tone.
Inadvertently I glanced at their foreheads, my belly clenched for the jerk of the chains, the painful slap of the magic they’d once used to control us. Then I remembered the chains were gone, though the habit of straining against them apparently remained. Galling. The marks on their heads were circular, denoting fullbloods, but the circles themselves were mere outlines, not filled in. Just a few looping, overlapping rings of command, aimed not at us but at reality in general. Protection, tracking, all the usual spells of safety. Nothing to force obedience, theirs or anyone else’s.
I stared at the girl, torn between amazement and amusement. She had no idea who—or what—I was, that much was clear. The boy, who looked less certain, looked from her to me and said nothing.
“Arameri brats on the loose,” I drawled. My smile seemed to reassure the boy, infuriate the girl. “Someone’s going to get in trouble for letting you two run into me down here.”
At this they both looked apprehensive, and I realized the problem: they were lost. We were in the underpalace, those levels beneath Sky’s bulk that sat in perpetual shadow and had once been the demesne of the palace’s lowblood servants—though clearly that was no longer the case. A thick layer of dust coated the floors and decorative moldings all around us, and aside from the two in front of me, there was no scent of mortals anywhere nearby. How long had they been wandering down here alone? They looked tired and frazzled and depleted by despair.
Which they covered with belligerence. “You will instruct us in how we might reach the overpalace,” said the girl, “or guide us there.” She thought a moment, then lifted her chin and added, “Do this now, or it will not go well with you!”
I couldn’t help it: I laughed. It was just too perfect, her fumbling attempt at hauteur, their extremely poor luck in meeting me, all of it. Once upon a time, little girls like her had made my life a hell, ordering me about and giggling when I contorted myself to obey. I had lived in terror of Arameri tantrums. Now I was free to see this one as she truly was: just a frightened creature parroting the mannerisms of her parents, with no more notion of how to ask for what she wanted than how to fly.
And sure enough, when I laughed, she scowled and put her hands on her hips and poked out her bottom lip in a way that I have always adored—in children. (In adults it is infuriating, and I kill them for it.) Her brother, who had seemed sweeter-natured, was beginning to glower, too. Delightful. I have always been partial to brats.
“You have to do what we say!” said the girl, stamping her foot. “You will help us!”
I wiped away a tear and sat back against the stair wall, exhaling as the laughter finally passed. “You will find your own damn way home,” I said, still grinning, “and count yourselves lucky that you’re too cute to kill.”
That shut them up, and they stared at me with more curiosity than fear. Then the boy, who I had already begun to suspect was the smarter if not the stronger of the two, narrowed his eyes at me.
“You don’t have a mark,” he said, pointing at my forehead. The girl started in surprise.
“Why, no, I don’t,” I said. “Imagine that.”
“You aren’t… Arameri, then?” His face screwed up, as if he had found himself speaking gibberish. You curtain apple jump, then?
“No, I’m not.”
“Are you a new servant?” asked the girl, seduced out of anger by her own curiosity. “Just come to Sky from outside?”
I put my arms behind my head, stretching my feet out in front of me. “I’m not a servant at all, actually.”
“You’re dressed like one,” said the boy, pointing.
I looked at myself in surprise and realized I had manifested the same clothing I’d usually worn during my imprisonment: loose pants (good for running), shoes with a hole in one toe, and a plain loose shirt, all white. Ah, yes—in Sky, servants wore white every day. Highbloods wore it only for special occasions, preferring brighter colors otherwise. The two in front of me had both been dressed in deep emerald green, which matched the girl’s eyes and complemented the boy’s nicely.
“Oh,” I said, annoyed that I’d inadvertently fallen prey to old habit. “Well, I’m not a servant. Take my word for it.”
“You aren’t with the Teman delegation,” said the boy, speaking slowly while his eyes belied his racing thoughts. “Datennay was the only child with them, and they left three days ago, anyway. And they dressed like Temans. Metal bits and twisty hair.”
“I’m not Teman, either.” I grinned again, waiting to see how they handled that one.
“You look Teman,” said the girl, clearly not believing me. She pointed at my head. “Your hair barely has any curl, and your eyes are sharp and flat at the corners, and your skin is browner than Deka’s.”
I glanced at the boy, who looked uncomfortable at this comparison. I could see why. Though he bore a fullblood’s circle on his brow, it was painfully obvious that someone had brought non-Amn delicacies to the banquet of his recent heritage. If I hadn’t known it was impossible, I would have guessed he was some variety of High Norther. He had Amn features, with their long-stretched facial lines, but his hair was blacker than Nahadoth’s void and as straight as windblown grass, and he was indeed a rich all-over brown that had nothing to do with a suntan. I had seen infants like him drowned or head-staved or tossed off the Pier, or marked as lowbloods and given over to servants to raise. Never had one been given a fullblood mark.
The girl had no hint of the foreign about her—no, wait. It was there, just subtle. A fullness to her lips, the angle of her cheekbones, and her hair was a more brassy than sunlit gold. To Amn eyes, these would just be interesting idiosyncracies, a touch of the exotic without all the unpleasant political baggage. If not for her brother’s existence, no one would have ever guessed that she was not pure-blooded, either.
I glanced at the boy again and saw the warning-sign wariness in his eyes. Yes, of course. They would have already begun to make his life hell.
While I pondered this, the children fell to whispering, debating whether I looked more of this or that or some other mortal race. I could hear every word of it, but out of politeness I pretended not to. Finally the boy stage-whispered, “I don’t think he’s Teman at all,” in a tone that let me know he suspected what I really was.
With eerie unity they faced me again.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a servant or not, or Teman or not,” said the girl. “We’re fullbloods, and that means you have to do what we say.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I said.
“Yes, it does!”
I yawned and closed my eyes. “Make me.”
They fell silent again, and I felt their consternation. I could have pitied them, but I was having too much fun. Finally, I felt a stir of air and warmth nearby, and I opened my eyes to find that the boy had sat down beside me.
“Why won’t you help us?” he asked, his voice soft with honest concern, and I nearly flinched beneath the onslaught of his big dark eyes. “We’ve been down here all day, and we ate our sandwiches already, and we don’t know the way back.”
Damnation. I’m partial to cuteness, too. “All right,” I said, relenting. “Where are you trying to go?”
The boy brightened. “To the World Tree’s heart!” Then his excitement flagged. “Or at least, that was where we were trying to go. Now we just want to go back to our rooms.”
“A sad end to a grand adventure,” I said, “but you wouldn’t have found what you were looking for anyhow. The World Tree was created by Yeine, the Mother of Life; its heart is her heart. Even if you found the chunk of wood that exists at the Tree’s core, it would mean nothing.”
“Oh,” said the boy, slumping more. “We don’t know how to find her.”
“I do,” I said, and then it was my turn to sag, as I remembered what had driven me to Sky. Were they still together, she and Itempas? He was mortal, with merely mortal endurance, but she could renew his strength again and again for as long as she liked. How I hated her. (Not really. Yes, really. Not really.)
“I do,” I said again, “but that wouldn’t help you. She’s busy with other matters these days. Not much time for me or any of her children.”
“Oh, is she your mother?” The boy looked surprised. “That sounds like our mother. She never has time for us. Is your mother the family head, too?”
“Yes, in a way. Though she’s also new to the family, which makes for a certain awkwardness.” I sighed again, and the sound echoed within the Nowhere Stair, which descended into shadows at our feet. Back when I and the other Enefadeh had built this version of Sky, we had created this spiral staircase that led to nothing, twenty feet down to dead-end against a wall. It had been a long day spent listening to bickering architects. We’d gotten bored.
“It’s a bit like having a stepmother,” I said. “Do you know what that is?”
The boy looked thoughtful. The girl sat down beside him. “Like Lady Meull, of Agru,” she said to the boy. “Remember our genealogy lessons? She’s married to the duke now, but the duke’s children came from his first wife. His first wife is the mother. Lady Meull is the stepmother.” She looked at me for confirmation. “Like that, right?”
“Yes, yes, like that,” I said, though I neither knew nor cared who Lady Meull was. “Yeine is our queen, sort of, as well as our mother.”
“And you don’t like her?” Too much knowing in both the children’s eyes as they asked that question. The usual Arameri pattern, then, parents raising children who would grow up to plot their painful deaths. The signs were all there.
“No,” I said softly. “I love her.” Because I did, even when I hated her. “More than light and darkness and life. She is the mother of my soul.”
“So, then…” The girl was frowning. “Why are you sad?”
“Because love is not enough.” I fell silent for an instant, stunned as realization moved through me. Yes, here was truth, which they had helped me find. Mortal children are very wise, though it takes a careful listener or a god to understand this. “My mother loves me, and at least one of my fathers loves me, and I love them, but that just isn’t enough, not anymore. I need something more.” I groaned and drew up my knees, pressing my forehead against them. Comforting flesh and bone, as familiar as a security blanket. “But what? What? I don’t understand why everything feels so wrong. Something is changing in me.”
I must have seemed mad to them, and perhaps I was. All children are a little mad. I felt them look at each other. “Um,” said the girl. “You said one of your fathers?”
I sighed. “Yes. I have two. One of them has always been there when I needed him. I have cried for him and killed for him.” Where was he now, while his siblings turned to each other? He was not like Itempas—he accepted change—but that did not make him immune to pain. Was he unhappy? If I went to him, would he confide in me? Need me?
It troubled me that I wondered this.
“The other father…” I drew a deep breath and raised my head, propping my folded arms on my knees instead. “Well, he and I never had the best relationship. Too different, you see. He’s the firm disciplinarian type, and I am a brat.” I glanced at them and smiled. “Rather like you two, actually.”
They grinned back, accepting the title with honor. “We don’t have any fathers,” said the girl.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Someone had to make you.” Mortals had not yet mastered the art of making little mortals by themselves.
“Nobody important,” said the boy, waving a hand dismissively. I guessed he had seen a similar gesture from his mother. “Mother needed heirs and didn’t want to marry, so she chose someone she deemed suitable and had us.”
“Huh.” Not entirely surprising; the Arameri had never lacked for pragmatism. “Well, you can have mine, the second one. I don’t want him.”
The girl giggled. “He’s your father! He can’t be ours.”
She probably prayed to the Father of All every night. “Of course he can be. Though I don’t know if you’d like him any more than I do. He’s a bit of a bastard. We had a falling-out some time ago, and he disowned me, even though he was in the wrong. Good riddance.”
The girl frowned. “But don’t you miss him?”
I opened my mouth to say of course I don’t and then realized that I did. “Demonshit,” I muttered.
They gasped and giggled appropriately at this gutter talk. “Maybe you should go see him,” said the boy.
“I don’t think so.”
His small face screwed up into an affronted frown. “That’s silly. Of course you should. He probably misses you.”
I frowned, too taken aback by this idea to reject it out of hand. “What?”
“Well, isn’t that what fathers do?” He had no idea what fathers did. “Love you, even if you don’t love them? Miss you when you go away?”
I sat there silent, more troubled than I should have been. Seeing this, the boy reached out, hesitating, and touched my hand. I looked down at him in surprise.
“Maybe you should be happy,” he said. “When things are bad, change is good, right? Change means things will get better.”
I stared at him, this Arameri child who did not at all look Arameri and would probably die before his majority because of it, and I felt the knot of frustration within me ease.
“An Arameri optimist,” I said. “Where did you come from?”
To my surprise, both of them bristled. I realized at once that I had struck a nerve, and then realized which nerve when the girl lifted her chin. “He comes from right here in Sky, just like me.”
The boy lowered his eyes, and I heard the whisper of taunts around him, some in childish lilt and some deepened by adult malice: where did you come from did a barbarian leave you here by mistake maybe a demon dropped you off on its way to the hells because gods know you don’t belong here.
I saw how the words had scored his soul. He had made me feel better; he deserved something in recompense for that. I touched his shoulder and sent my blessing into him, making the words just words and making him stronger against them and putting a few choice retorts at the tip of his tongue for the next time. He blinked in surprise and smiled shyly. I smiled back.
The girl relaxed once it became clear that I meant her brother no harm. I willed a blessing to her, too, though she hardly needed it.
“I’m Shahar,” she said, and then she sighed and unleashed her last and greatest weapon: politeness. “Will you please tell us how to get home?”
Ugh, what a name! The poor girl. But I had to admit, it suited her. “Fine, fine. Here.” I looked into her eyes and made her know the palace’s layout as well as I had learned it over the generations that I had lived within its walls. (Not the dead spaces, though. Those were mine.)
The girl flinched, her eyes narrowing suddenly at mine. I had probably slipped into my cat shape a little. Mortals tended to notice the eyes, though that was never the only thing that changed about me. I put them back to nice round mortal pupils, and she relaxed. Then gasped as she realized she knew the way home.
“That’s a nice trick,” she said. “But what the scriveners do is prettier.”
A scrivener would have broken your head open if they’d tried what I just did, I almost retorted, but didn’t because she was mortal and mortals have always liked flash over substance and because it didn’t matter, anyway. Then the girl surprised me further, drawing herself up and bowing from the waist. “I thank you, sir,” she said. And while I stared at her, marveling at the novelty of Arameri thanks, she adopted that haughty tone she’d tried to use before. It really didn’t suit her; hopefully she would figure that out soon. “May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”
“I am Sieh.” No hint of recognition in either of them. I stifled a sigh.
She nodded and gestured to her brother. “This is Dekarta.”
Just as bad. I shook my head and got to my feet. “Well, I’ve wasted enough time,” I said, “and you two should be getting back.” Outside the palace, I could feel the sun setting. For a moment I closed my eyes, waiting for the familiar, delicious vibration of my father’s return to the world, but of course there was nothing. I felt fleeting disappointment.
The children jumped up in unison. “Do you come here to play often?” asked the boy, just a shade too eagerly.
“Such lonely little cubs,” I said, and laughed. “Has no one taught you not to talk to strangers?”
Of course no one had. They looked at each other in that freakish speaking-without-words-or-magic thing that twins do, and the boy swallowed and said to me, “You should come back. If you do, we’ll play with you.”
“Will you, now?” It had been a long time since I’d played. Too long. I was forgetting who I was amid all this worrying. Better to leave the worry behind, stop caring about what mattered, and do what felt good. Like all children, I was easy to seduce.
“All right, then,” I said. “Assuming, of course, that your mother doesn’t forbid it”—which guaranteed that they would never tell her—“I’ll come back to this place on the same day, at the same time, next year.”
They looked horrified and exclaimed in unison, “Next year?”
“The time will pass before you know it,” I said, stretching to my toes. “Like a breeze through a meadow on a light spring day.”
It would be interesting to see them again, I told myself, because they were still young and would not become as foul as the rest of the Arameri for some while. And, because I had already grown to love them a little, I mourned, for the day they became true Arameri would most likely be the day I killed them. But until then, I would enjoy their innocence while it lasted.
I stepped between worlds and away.
The next year I stretched and climbed out of my nest and stepped across space again, and appeared at the top of the Nowhere Stair. It was early yet, so I amused myself conjuring little moons and chasing them up and down the steps. I was winded and sweaty when the children arrived and spied me.
“We know what you are,” blurted Deka, who had grown an inch.
“Do you, now? Whoops—” The moon I’d been playing with made a bid to escape, shooting toward the children because they stood between it and the corridor. I sent it home before it could put a hole in either of them. Then I grinned and flopped onto the floor, my legs splayed so as to take up as much space as possible, and caught my breath.
Deka crouched beside me. “Why are you out of breath?”
“Mortal realm, mortal rules,” I said, waving a hand in a vague circle. “I have lungs, I breathe, the universe is satisfied, hee-ho.”
“But you don’t sleep, do you? I read that godlings don’t sleep. Or eat.”
“I can if I want to. Sleeping and eating aren’t that interesting, so I generally don’t. But it looks a bit odd to forgo breathing—makes mortals very anxious. So I do that much.”
He poked me in the shoulder. I stared at him.
“I was seeing if you were real,” he said. “The book said you could look like anything.”
“Well, yes, but all of those things are real,” I replied.
“The book said you could be fire.”
I laughed. “Which would also be real.”
He poked me again, a shy grin spreading across his face. I liked his smile. “But I couldn’t do this to fire.” He poked me a third time.
“Watch it,” I said, giving him A Look. But it wasn’t serious, and he could tell, so he poked me again. With that I leapt on him, tickling, because I cannot resist an invitation to play. So we wrestled and he squealed and struggled to get free and complained that he would pee if I kept it up, and then he got a hand free and started tickling me back, and it actually did tickle awfully, so I curled up to escape him. It was like being drunk, like being in one of Yeine’s newborn heavens, so sweet and so perfect and so much delicious fun. I love being a god!
But a hint of sour washed across my tongue. When I lifted my head, I saw that Deka’s sister stood where he had left her, shifting from foot to foot and trying not to look like she yearned to join us. Ah, yes—someone had already told her that girls had to be dignified while boys could be rowdy, and she had foolishly listened to that advice. (One of many reasons I’d settled on a male form myself. Mortals said fewer stupid things to boys.)
“I think your sister’s feeling left out, Dekarta,” I said, and she blushed and fidgeted more. “What shall we do about it?”
“Tickle her, too!” Dekarta cried. Shahar threw him a glare, but he only giggled, too giddy with play-pleasure to be repressed so easily. I had a fleeting urge to lick his hair, but it passed.
“I’m not feeling left out,” she said.
I petted Dekarta to settle him and to satisfy my grooming urge, and considered what to do about Shahar. “I don’t think tickling would suit her,” I said at last. “Let’s find a game we can all play. What about, hmm… jumping on clouds?”
Shahar’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Jumping on clouds. Like jumping on a bed but better. I can show you. It’s fun, as long as you don’t fall through a hole. I’ll catch you if you do—don’t worry.”
Deka sat up. “You can’t do that. I’ve been reading books about magic and gods. You’re the god of childhood. You can only do things children do.”
I laughed, pulling him into a headlock, which he squealed and struggled to get free of, though he didn’t struggle all that hard. “Almost anything can be done for play,” I said. “If it’s play, I have power over it.”
He looked surprised, going still in my arms. I knew then that he had read the family records, because during my captivity, I had never once explained to the Arameri the full implications of my nature. They had thought I was the weakest of the Enefadeh. In truth, with Naha swallowed into mortal flesh every morning, I had been the strongest. Keeping the Arameri from realizing this had been one of my best tricks ever.
“Then let’s go cloud jumping!” Deka said.
Shahar looked eager, too, as I offered her my hand. But just as she reached for my hand, she hesitated. A familiar wariness came into her eyes.
“L-Lord Sieh,” she said, and grimaced. I did, too. I hated titles, so pretentious. “The book about you—”
“They wrote a book about me?” I was delighted.
“Yes. It said…” She lowered her eyes, then remembered that she was Arameri and looked up, visibly steeling herself. “It said you liked to kill people, back when you lived here. You would do tricks on them, sometimes funny tricks… but sometimes people would die.”
Still funny, I thought, but perhaps this was not the time to say such things aloud. “It’s true,” I said, guessing her question. “I must’ve killed, oh, a few dozen Arameri over the years.” Oh, but there had been that incident with the puppies. A few hundred, then.
She stiffened, and Deka did, too, so much that I let him go. Headlocks are no fun when they’re real. “Why?” asked Shahar.
I shrugged. “Sometimes they were in the way. Sometimes to prove a point. Sometimes just because I felt like it.”
Shahar scowled. I had seen that look on a thousand of her ancestors’ faces, and it always annoyed me. “Those are bad reasons to kill people.”
I laughed—but I had to force it. “Of course they’re bad reasons,” I said. “But how better to remind mortals that keeping a god as a slave is a bad idea?”
Her frown faltered a little, then returned in force. “The book said you killed babies. Babies didn’t do anything bad to you!”
I had forgotten the babies. And now my good mood was broken, so I sat up and glared at her. Deka drew back, looking from one to the other of us anxiously. “No,” I snapped at Shahar, “but I am the god of all children, little girl, and if I deem it fitting to take the lives of some of my chosen, then who the hells are you to question that?”
“I’m a child, too,” she said, jutting her chin forward. “But you’re not my god—Bright Itempas is.”
I rolled my eyes. “Bright Itempas is a coward.”
She inhaled, her face turning red. “He is not! That’s—”
“He is! He murdered my mother and abused my father—and killed more than a few of his own children, I’ll thank you to know! Do you think the blood is any thicker on my hands than on his? Or for that matter, on your own?”
She flinched, darting a look at her brother for support. “I’ve never killed anyone.”
“Yet. But it doesn’t matter, because everything you do is stained with blood.” I rose to a crouch, leaning forward until my face was inches from hers. To her credit, she did not shrink away, glaring back at me—but frowning. Listening. So I told her. “All your family’s power, all your riches, do you think they come from nowhere? Do you think you deserve them, because you’re smarter or holier or whatever they teach this family’s spawn these days? Yes, I killed babies. Because their mothers and fathers had no problem killing the babies of other mortals, who were heretics or who dared to protest stupid laws or who just didn’t breathe the way you Arameri liked!”
Appropriately, I ran out of breath at that point and had to stop, panting for air. Lungs were useful for putting mortals at ease but still inconvenient. Just as well, though. Both children had fallen silent, staring at me in a kind of horrified awe, and belatedly I realized I had been ranting. Sulking, I sat down on a step and turned my back on them, hoping that my anger would pass soon. I liked them—even Shahar, irritating as she was. I didn’t want to kill them yet.
“You… you think we’re bad,” she said after a long moment. There were tears in her voice. “You think I’m bad.”
I sighed. “I think your family’s bad, and I think they’re going to raise you to be just like them.” Or else they would kill her or drive her out of the family. I’d seen it happen too many times before.
“I’m not going to be bad.” She sniffed behind me. Deka, who was still within the range of my eyesight, looked up and inhaled, so I guessed that she was full-out crying now.
“You won’t be able to help it,” I said, resting my chin on my drawn-up knees. “It’s your nature.”
“It isn’t!” She stamped a foot on the floor. “My tutors say mortals aren’t like gods! We don’t have natures. We can all be what we want to be.”
“Right, right.” And I could be one of the Three.
Sudden agony shot through me, firing upward from the small of my back, and I yelped and jumped and rolled halfway down the steps before I regained control of myself. Sitting up, I clutched my back, willing the pain to stop and marveling that it did so only reluctantly.
“You kicked me,” I said in wonder, looking up the steps at her.
Deka had covered his mouth with both hands, his eyes wide; of the two of them, only he seemed to have realized that they were about to die. Shahar, fists clenched and legs braced and hair wild and eyes blazing, did not care. She looked ready to march down the steps and kick me again.
“I will be what I want to be,” she declared. “I’m going to be head of the family one day! What I say I’ll do, I’ll do. I am going to be good!”
I got to my feet. I wasn’t angry, in truth. It is the nature of children to squabble. Indeed, I was glad to see that Shahar was still herself under all the airs and silks; she was beautiful that way, furious and half mad, and for a fleeting instant I understood what Itempas had seen in her foremother.
But I did not believe her words. And that put me in an altogether darker mood as I went back up the steps, my jaw set and tight.
“Let’s play a game, then,” I said, and smiled.
Deka got to his feet, looking torn between fear and a desire to defend his sister; he hovered where he was, uncertain. There was no fear in Shahar’s eyes, though some of her anger faded into wariness. She wasn’t stupid. Mortals always knew to be careful when I smiled a certain way.
I stopped in front of her and held out a hand. In it, a knife appeared. Because I was Yeine’s son, I made it a Darre knife, the kind they gave to their daughters when they first learned to take lives in the hunt. Six inches straight and silvery, with a handle of filigreed bone.
“What is this?” she asked, frowning at it.
“What’s it look like? Take it.”
After a moment she did, holding it awkwardly and with visible distaste. Too barbaric for her Amn sensibilities. I nodded my approval, then beckoned to Dekarta, who was studying me with those lovely dark eyes of his. Remembering one of my other names, no doubt: Trickster. He did not come at my gesture.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said to him, making my smile more innocent, less frightening. “It’s your sister who kicked me, not you, right?”
Reason worked where charm had not. He came to me, and I took him by the shoulders. He was not as tall as I, so I hunkered down to peer into his face. “You’re really very pretty,” I said, and he blinked in surprise, the tension going out of him. Utterly disarmed by a compliment. He probably didn’t get them often, poor thing. “In the north, you know, you’d be ideal. Darre mothers would already be haggling for the chance to marry you to their daughters. It’s only here among the Amn that your looks are something to be ashamed of. I wish they could see you grown up; you would have broken hearts.”
“What do you mean, ‘would have’?” asked Shahar, but I ignored her.
Deka was staring at me, entranced in the way of any hunter’s prey. I could have eaten him up.
I cupped his face in my hands and kissed him. He shivered, though it had been only a fleeting press of lips. I’d held back the force of myself because he was only a child, after all. Still, when I pulled back, I saw his eyes had glazed over; blotches of color warmed his cheeks. He didn’t move even when I slid my hands down and wrapped them around his throat.
Shahar went very still, her eyes wide and, finally, frightened. I glanced over at her and smiled again.
“I think you’re just like any other Arameri,” I said softly. “I think you’ll want to kill me rather than let me murder your brother, because that’s the good and decent thing to do. But I’m a god, and you know a knife can’t stop me. It’ll just piss me off. Then I’ll kill him and you.” She twitched, her eyes darting from mine to Deka’s throat and back. I smiled and found my teeth had grown sharp. I never did this deliberately. “So I think you’ll let him die rather than risk yourself. What do you think?”
I almost pitied her as she stood there breathing hard, her face still damp from her earlier tears. Deka’s throat worked beneath my fingers; he had finally realized the danger. Wisely, though, he held still. Some predators are excited by movement.
“Don’t hurt him,” she blurted. “Please. Please, I don’t—”
I hissed at her, and she shut up, going pale. “Don’t beg,” I snapped. “It’s beneath you. Are you Arameri or not?”
She fell silent, hitching once, and then—slowly—I saw the change come over her. The hardening of her eyes and will. She lowered the knife to her side, but I saw her hand tighten on its hilt.
“What will you give me?” she asked. “If I choose?”
I stared at her, incredulous. Then I burst out laughing. “That’s my girl! Bargaining for your brother’s life! Perfect. But you seem to have forgotten, Shahar, that that’s not one of your options. The choice is very simple: your life or his—”
“No,” she said. “That’s not what you’re making me choose. You’re making me choose between being bad and, and being myself. You’re trying to make me bad. That’s not fair!”
I froze, my fingers loosening on Dekarta’s throat. In the Maelstrom’s unknowable name. I could feel it now, the subtle lessening of my power, the greasy nausea at the pit of my belly. Across all the facets of existence that I spanned, I diminished. It was worse now that she had pointed it out, because the very fact that she understood what I had done made the harm greater. Knowledge was power.
“Demonshit,” I muttered, and grimaced ruefully. “You’re right. Forcing a child to choose between death and murder—there’s no way innocence can survive something like that intact.” I thought a moment, then scowled and shook my head. “But innocence never lasts long, especially for Arameri children. Perhaps I’m doing you a favor by making you face the choice early.”
She shook her head, resolute. “You’re not doing me a favor; you’re cheating. Either I let Deka die, or I try to save him and die, too? It’s not fair. I can’t win this game, no matter what I do. You better do something to make up for it.” She did not look at her brother. He was the prize in this game, and she knew it. I would have to revise my opinion of her intelligence. “So… I want you to give me something.”
Deka blurted, “Just let him kill me, Shar; then at least you’ll live—”
“Shut up!” She snapped it before I would have. But she closed her eyes in the process. Couldn’t look at him and keep herself cold. When she looked back at me, her face was hard again. “And you don’t have to kill Deka, if I… if I take that knife and use it on you. Just kill me. That’ll make it fair, too. Him or me, like you said. Either he lives or I do.”
I considered this, wondering if there was some trick in it. I could see nothing untoward, so finally I nodded. “Very well. But you must choose, Shahar. Stand by while I kill him, or attack me, save him, and die yourself. And what would you have of me, as compensation for your innocence?”
At this she faltered, uncertain.
“A wish,” said Dekarta.
I blinked at him, too surprised to chastise him for talking. “What?”
He swallowed, his throat flexing in my hands. “You grant one wish, anything in your power, for… for whichever one of us survives.” He took a shaky breath. “In compensation for taking our innocence.”
I leaned close to glare into his eyes, and he swallowed again. “If you dare wish that I become your family’s slave again—”
“No, we wouldn’t,” blurted Shahar. “You can still kill me—or… or Deka—if you don’t like the wish. Okay?”
It made sense. “Very well,” I said. “The bargain is made. Now choose, damn you. I don’t feel like being—”
She lunged forward and shoved the knife into my back so fast that she almost blurred. It hurt, as all damage to the body does, for Enefa in her wisdom had long ago established that flesh and pain went hand in hand. While I froze, gasping, Shahar let go of the knife and grabbed Dekarta instead, yanking him out of my grasp. “Run!” she cried, pushing him away from the Nowhere Stair toward the corridors.
He stumbled a step away and then, stupidly, turned back to her, his face slack with shock. “I thought you would pick… you should have…”
She made a sound of utter frustration while I sagged to my knees and struggled to breathe around the hole in my lung. “I said I would be good,” she said fiercely, and I would have laughed in pure admiration if I’d been able. “You’re my brother! Now go! Hurry, before he—”
“Wait,” I croaked. There was blood in my mouth and throat. I coughed and fumbled behind me with one hand, trying to reach the knife. She’d put it high in my back, partially through my heart. Amazing girl.
“Shahar, come with me!” Deka grabbed her hands. “We’ll go to the scriveners—”
“Don’t be stupid. They can’t fight a god! You have to—”
“Wait,” I said again, having finally coughed out enough blood to clear my throat. I spat more into the puddle between my hands and still couldn’t reach the knife. But I could talk, softly and with effort. “I won’t hurt either of you.”
“You’re lying,” said Shahar. “You’re a trickster.”
“No trick.” Very carefully I took a breath. Needed it to talk. “Changed my mind. Not going to kill… either of you.”
Silence. My lung was trying to heal, but the knife was in the way. It would work its way free in a few minutes if I couldn’t reach it, but those minutes would be messy and uncomfortable.
“Why?” asked Dekarta finally. “Why did you change your mind?”
“Pull this… mortalfucking knife, and I’ll tell you.”
“It’s a trick—” Shahar began, but Dekarta stepped forward. Bracing a hand on my shoulder, he took hold of the knife hilt and yanked it free. I exhaled in relief, though that almost started me coughing again.
“Thank you,” I said pointedly to Dekarta. When I glared at Shahar, she tensed and took a step back, then stopped and inhaled, her lips pressed tightly together. Ready for me to kill her.
“Oh, enough with the martyrdom,” I said wearily. “It’s lovely, just lovely, that you two are all ready to die for each other, but it’s also pretty sickening, and I’d rather not throw up more than blood right now.”
Dekarta had not taken his hand from my shoulder, and I realized why when he leaned to the side to peer at my face. His eyes widened. “You weakened yourself,” he said. “Making Shahar choose… It hurt you, too.”
Far more than the knife had done, though I had no intention of telling them that. I could have willed the knife out of my flesh or transported myself away from it, if I had been at my best. Shaking off his hand, I got to my feet, but I had to cough one or two times more before I felt back to normal. As an afterthought, I sent away the blood from my clothing and the floor.
“I destroyed some of her childhood,” I said, sighing as I turned to her. “Stupid of me, really. Never wise to play adult games with children. But, well, you pissed me off.”
Shahar said nothing, her face hollow with relief, and my stomach did an extra turn at this proof of the harm I’d done her. But I felt better when Dekarta moved to her side, and his hand snaked out to take hers. She looked at him, and he gazed back. Unconditional love: childhood’s greatest magic.
With this to strengthen her, Shahar faced me again. “Why did you change your mind?”
There had been no reason. I was a creature of impulse. “I think because you were willing to die for him,” I said. “I’ve seen Arameri sacrifice themselves many times—but rarely by choice. It intrigued me.”
They frowned, not really understanding, and I shrugged. I didn’t understand it, either.
“So, then, I owe you a wish,” I said.
They looked at each other again, their expressions mirrors of consternation, and I groaned. “You have no idea what you want to wish for, do you?”
“No,” said Shahar, ducking her eyes.
“Come back in another year,” said Dekarta, quickly. “That’s more than enough time for us to decide. You can do that, can’t you? We’ll…” He hesitated. “We’ll even play with you again. But no more games like this one.”
I laughed, shaking my head. “No, they’re not much fun, are they? Fine, then. I’ll be back in a year. You’d better be ready.”
As they nodded, I took myself away to lick my wounds and recover my strength. And to wonder, with dawning surprise, what I’d gotten myself into.
Run away, run away
Or I’ll catch you in a day
I can make you scream and play
’Til my father goes away
(Which one? Which one?
That one! That one!)
Just run, just run, just run.
AS ALWAYS WHEN I WAS TROUBLED, I sought out my father, Nahadoth.
He was not difficult to find. Amid the vastness of the gods’ realm, he was like a massive, drifting storm, terrifying for those in his path and cathartic in his wake. From any direction, one could look into the distance and there he was, defying logic as a matter of course. Almost as noticeable were the lesser presences that drifted nearby, drawn toward all that heavy, dark glory even though it might destroy them. I beheld my siblings in all their variety and sparkling beauty, elontid and mnasat and even a few of my fellow niwwah. Many lay prostrate before our dark father or strained toward the black unlight that was his core, their souls open for the most fleeting droplets of his approval. He played favorites, though, and many of them had served Itempas. They would be waiting a long time.
For me, however, there was welcome on the wind as I traveled through the storm’s outermost currents. The layered walls of his presence shifted aside, each in a different direction, to admit me. I caught the looks of envy from my less-favored siblings and gave them glares of contempt in return, staring down the stronger ones until they turned away. Craven, useless creatures. Where had they been when Naha needed them? Let them beg his forgiveness for another two thousand years.
As I passed through the last shiver, I found myself taking corporeal form. A good sign, that; when he was in a foul mood, he abandoned form altogether and forced any visitors to do the same. Better still, there was light: a night sky overhead, dominated by a dozen pale moons all drifting in different orbits and waxing and waning and shifting from red through gold through blue. Beneath it, a stark landscape, deceptively flat and still, broken here and there by line-sketched trees and curving shapes too attenuated to qualify as hills. My feet touched ground made of tiny mirrored pebbles that jumped and rattled and vibrated like frenzied living things. They sent a delicious buzz through my soles. The trees and hills were made of the glittering pebbles, too—and the sky and moons, for all I knew. Nahadoth was fond of playing with expectations.
And beneath the sky’s cool kaleidoscope, shaping himself in an aimless sort of way, my father. I went to him and knelt, watching and worshipping, as his shape blurred through several forms and his limbs twisted in ways that had nothing to do with grace, though occasionally he grew graceful by accident. He did not acknowledge my presence, though of course he knew I was there. Finally he finished, and fell, purposefully, onto a couchlike throne that formed itself as I watched. At this, I rose and went to stand beside him. He did not look at me, his face turned toward the moons and shifting only slightly now, mostly just reacting to the colors of the sky. His eyes were shut, only the long dark lashes remaining the same as the flesh around them changed.
“My loyal one,” he said. The pebbles hummed with the low reverberations of his voice. “Have you come to comfort me?”
I opened my mouth to say yes—and then paused, startled, as I realized this was not true. Nahadoth glanced at me, laughed softly and not without cruelty, and widened his couch. He knew me too well. Shamed, I climbed up beside him, nestling into the drifting curve of his body. He petted my hair and back, though I was not in the cat’s shape. I enjoyed the caresses anyhow.
“I hate them,” I said. “And I don’t.”
“Because you know, as I do, that some things are inevitable.”
I groaned and flung an arm over my eyes dramatically, though this only served to press the image into my thoughts: Yeine and Itempas straining together, gazing at each other in mutual surprise and delight. What would be next? Naha and Itempas? All three of them together, which existence had not seen since the demons’ time? I lowered my arm and looked at Nahadoth and saw the same sober contemplation on his face. Inevitable. I bared my teeth and let them grow cat-sharp and sat up to glare at him.
“You want that selfish, thickheaded bastard! Don’t you?”
“I have always wanted him, Sieh. Hatred does not exclude desire.”
He meant the time before Enefa’s birth, when he and Itempas had gone from enemies to lovers. But I chose to interpret his words more immediately, manifesting claws and digging them into the drifting expanse of him.
“Think of what he did to you,” I said, flexing and sheathing. I could not hurt him—would not even if I could—but there were many ways to communicate frustration. “To us! Naha, I know you will change, must change, but you need not change this way! Why go back to what was before?”
“Which before?” That made me pause in confusion, and he sighed and rolled onto his back, adopting a face that sent its own wordless message: white-skinned and black-eyed and emotionless, like a mask. The mask he had worn for the Arameri during our incarceration.
“The past is gone,” he said. “Mortality made me cling to it, though that is not my nature, and it damaged me. To return to myself, I must reject it. I have had Itempas as an enemy; that holds no more appeal for me. And there is an undeniable truth here, Sieh: we have no one but each other, he and I and Yeine.”
At this I slumped on him in misery. He was right, of course; I had no right to ask him to endure again the hells of loneliness he had suffered in the time before Itempas. And he would not, because he had Yeine and their love was a powerful, special thing—but so had been his love with Itempas, once. And when all Three had been together… How could I, who had never known such fulfillment, begrudge him?
He would not be alone, whispered a small, furious voice in my most secret heart. He would have me!
But I knew all too well how little a godling had to offer a god.
Cold white fingers touched my cheek, my chin, my chest. “You are more troubled by this than you should be,” said Nahadoth. “What is wrong?”
I burst into frustrated tears. “I don’t know.”
“Shhhh. Shhhh.” She—Nahadoth had changed already, adapting to me because she knew I preferred women for some things—sat up, pulling me into her lap, and held me against her shoulder while I wept and hitched fitfully. This made me stronger, as she had known it would, and when the squall passed and nature had been served, I drew a deep breath.
“I don’t know,” I said again, calm now. “Nothing is right anymore. I don’t understand the feeling, but it’s troubled me for some while now. It makes no sense.”
She frowned. “This is not about Itempas.”
“No.” Reluctantly I lifted my head from her soft breast and reached up to touch her more rounded face. “Something is changing in me, Naha. I feel it like a vise gripping my soul, tightening slowly, but I don’t know who holds it or turns it, nor how to wriggle free. Soon I might break.”
Naha frowned and began to shift back toward male. It was a warning; she was not as quick to anger as he was. He was male most of the time these days. “Something has caused this.” His eyes glinted with sudden suspicion. “You went back to the mortal realm. To Sky.”
Damnation. We were all, we Enefadeh, still sensitive to the stench of that place. No doubt I would have Zhakkarn on my doorstep soon, demanding to know what madness had afflicted me.
“That had nothing to do with it, either,” I said, scowling at his overprotectiveness. “I just played with some mortal children.”
“Arameri children.” Oh, gods, the moons were going dark, one by one, and the mirror-pebbles had begun to rattle ominously. The air smelled of ice and the acrid sting of dark matter. Where was Yeine when I needed her? She could always calm his temper.
“Yes, Naha, and they had no power to harm me or even to command me as they once did. And I felt the wrongness before I went there.” It had been why I’d followed Yeine, feeling restless and angry and in search of excuses for both. “They were just children!”
His eyes turned to black pits, and suddenly I was truly afraid. “You love them.”
I went very still, wondering which was the greater blasphemy: Yeine loving Itempas, or me loving our slavemasters?
He had never hurt me in all the aeons of my life, I reminded myself. Not intentionally.
“Just children, Naha,” I said again, speaking softly. But I couldn’t deny his words. I loved them. Was that why I had decided not to kill Shahar, breaking the rules of my own game? I hung my head in shame. “I’m sorry.”
After a long, frightening moment, he sighed. “Some things are inevitable.”
He sounded so disappointed that my heart broke. “I—” I hitched again, and for a moment hated myself for being the child I was.
“Hush now. No more crying.” With a soft sigh, he rose, holding me against his shoulder effortlessly. “I want to know something.”
The couch dissolved back into the shivering bits of mirror, and the landscape vanished with it. Darkness enclosed us, cold and moving, and when it resolved, I gasped and clutched at him, for we had traveled via his will into the blistering chasm at the edge of the gods’ realm, which contained—insofar as the unknowable could be contained—the Maelstrom. The monster Itself lay below, far below, a swirling miasma of light and sound and matter and concept and emotion and moment. I could hear Its thought-numbing roar echoing off the wall of torn stars that kept the rest of reality relatively safe from Its ravenings. I felt my form tear as well, unable to maintain coherence under the onslaught of image-thought-music. I abandoned it quickly. Flesh was a liability in this place.
“Naha…” He still held me against him, yet I had to shout to be heard. “What are we doing here?”
Nahadoth had become something like the Maelstrom, churning and raw and formless, singing a simpler echo of Its toneless songs. He did not answer at first, but he had no sense of time in this state. I schooled myself to patience; he would remember me eventually.
After a time he said, “I have felt something different here, too.”
I frowned in confusion. “What, in the Maelstrom?” How he could comprehend anything of this morass was beyond me—quite literally. In my younger, stupider days, I had dared to play in this chasm, risking everything to see how deeply I could dive, how close I could get to the source of all things. I could go deeper than all my siblings, but the Three could go deeper still.
“Yes,” Nahadoth said at length. “I wonder…”
He began to move downward, toward the chasm. Too stunned to protest at first, I finally realized he was actually taking me in. “Naha!” I struggled, but his grip was steel and gravity. “Naha, damn you, do you want me dead? Just kill me yourself, if so!”
He stopped, and I kept shouting at him, hoping reason would somehow penetrate his strange thoughts. Eventually it did, and to my immense relief, he began to ascend.
“I could have kept you safe,” he said with a hint of reproof.
Yes, until you lost yourself in the madness and forgot I was there. But I was not a complete fool. I said instead, “Why were you taking me there anyhow?”
“There is a resonance.”
The chasm and the roar vanished. I blinked. We stood in the mortal realm, on a branch of the World Tree, facing the unearthly white glow of Sky. It was nighttime, of course, with a full moon, and the stars had shifted fractionally. A year had passed. It was the night before I was to meet the twins a third time.
“There is a resonance,” Nahadoth said again. He was a darker blotch against the Tree’s bark. “You, and the Maelstrom. The future or the past, I cannot tell which.”
I frowned. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Has it ever happened before?”
“Naha…” I swallowed my frustration. He did not think as lesser beings did. It was necessary to move in spirals and leaps to follow him. “Will it hurt me? I suppose that’s all that matters.”
He shrugged as if he did not care, though his brows had furrowed. He wore his Sky face again. This close to the palace where we had both endured so many hells, I did not like it as much.
“I will speak to Yeine,” he said.
I shoved my hands into my pockets and hunched my shoulders, kicking at a spot of moss on the bark beneath my feet. “And Itempas?”
To my relief, Nahadoth uttered a dry, malicious laugh. “Inevitable is not the same as immediate, Sieh—and love does not mandate forgiveness.” With that he turned away, his shadows already blending with those of the Tree and the night horizon. “Remember that, with your Arameri pets.”
Then he was gone. The clouds above the world wavered for an instant with his passing, and then reality became still.
Troubled beyond words, I became a cat and climbed the branch to a knot the size of a building, around which clustered several smaller branches that were dotted with the Tree’s triangle-shaped leaves and silvery flowers. There I curled up, surrounded by Yeine’s comforting scent, to await the next day. And I wondered—with no surcease since I no longer had to sleep—why my insides felt hollow and shaky with dread.
With time to kill before the meeting, I amused myself—if one can call it amusing—by wandering the palace in the hours before dawn. I started in the underpalace, which had so often been a haven for me in the old days, and discovered that it had indeed been entirely abandoned. Not just the lowest levels, which had always been empty (save the apartments I and the other Enefadeh had inhabited), but all of it: the servants’ kitchens and dining halls, the nurseries and schoolrooms, the sewing salons and haircutters’. All the parts of Sky dedicated to the lowbloods who made up the bulk of its population. By the look of things, no one had been in the underpalace to do more than sweep in years. No wonder Shahar and Dekarta had been so frightened that first day.
On the overpalace levels, at least, there were servants about. None of them saw me as they went about their duties, and I didn’t even bother to shape myself an Amn form or hide in a pocket of silence. This was because even though there were servants, there weren’t many of them—not nearly as many as there had been in my slave days. It was a simple matter to step around a curve of corridor when I heard one walking toward me, or spring up to cling to the ceiling if I was caught between two. (Useful fact: mortals rarely look up.) Only once was I forced to use magic, and that not even my own; faced with an inescapable convergence of servants who would surely spot me otherwise, I stepped into one of the lift alcoves, where some long-dead scrivener’s activation bounced me up to another level. Criminally easy.
It should not have been so easy for me to stroll about, I mused as I continued to do so. I had reached the highblood levels by this point, where I did have to be a bit more careful. There were fewer servants here, but more guards, wearing the ugliest white livery I’d ever seen—and swords, and crossbows, and hidden daggers, if my fleshly eyes did not deceive me. There had always been guards in Sky, a small army of them, but they had taken pains to remain unobtrusive in the days when I’d lived here. They had dressed the same as the servants and had never worn weapons that could be seen. The Arameri preferred to believe that guards were unnecessary, and they hadn’t been, in truth, back then. Any significant threat to the palace’s highbloods would have forced us Enefadeh to transport ourselves to the site of danger, and that would’ve been the end of it.
So, I considered as I stepped through a wall to avoid an unusually attentive guard, it seemed the Arameri had been forced to protect themselves more conventionally. Understandable—but how did that account for the diminished number of servants?
A mystery. I resolved to find out, if I could.
Stepping through another wall, I found myself in a room that held a familiar scent. Following it—and tiptoeing past the nurse dozing on the sitting room couch—I found Shahar, asleep in a good-sized four-poster bed. Her perfect blonde curls spread prettily over half a dozen pillows, though I stifled a laugh at her face: mouth open, cheek mashed on one folded arm, and a line of drool down that arm forming a puddle on the pillow. She was snoring quite loudly and did not stir when I went over to examine her toy shelf.
One could learn a great deal about a child from her play. Naturally I ignored the toys on the highest shelves; she would want her favorites within easy reach. On the lower shelves, someone had been cleaning the things and keeping them in good order, so it was hard to spot the most worn of the items. Scents revealed much, however, and three things in particular drew me closer. The first was a large stuffed bird of some sort. I touched my tongue to it and tasted a toddler’s love, fading now. The second was a spyglass, light but solidly made so as to withstand being dropped by clumsy hands. Perhaps she used it to look down at the city or up at the stars. It had an air of wonder that made me smile.
The third item, which made me stop short, was a scepter.
It was beautiful, intricate, a graceful, twisting rod marbled with bright jewel tones down its length. A work of art. Not made of glass, though it appeared to be; glass would have been too fragile to give to a child. No, this was tinted daystone, the same substance as the palace’s walls—very difficult to shatter, among its other unique properties. (I knew that very well, since I and my siblings had created it.) Which was why, centuries ago, a family head had commissioned this and other such scepters from his First Scrivener, and had given it to the Arameri heir as a toy. To learn the feel of power, he had said. And since then, many little Arameri boys and girls had been given a scepter on their third birthday, which most of them promptly used to whack pets, other children, and servants into painful obedience.
The last time I had seen one of these scepters, it had been a modified, adult version of the thing on Shahar’s shelf. Fitted with a knife blade, the better to cut my skin to ribbons. The perversion of a child’s toy had made each slice burn like acid.
I glanced back at Shahar—fair Shahar, heir Shahar, someday Lady Shahar Arameri. A very few Arameri children would not have used the scepter, but Shahar, I felt certain, was not so gentle. She would have wielded it with glee at least once. Deka had probably been her first victim. Had her brother’s cry of pain cured her of the taste for sadism? So many Arameri learned to treasure the suffering of their loved ones.
I contemplated killing her.
I thought about it for a long time.
Then I turned and stepped through the wall into the adjoining room.
A suite, yes; that, too, was traditional for Arameri twins. Side-by-side apartments, connected by a door in the bedroom, ostensibly so that the children could sleep together or apart as they desired. More than one set of Arameri twins had been reduced to a singlet thanks to such doors. So easy for the stronger twin to creep into the weaker one’s room unnoticed, in the dark of the night while the nurses slept.
Deka’s room was darker than Shahar’s, as it was positioned on the side of the palace that did not get moonlight. It would get less sunlight, too, I realized, for through the window-wall I could see one of the massive, curling limbs of the World Tree stretching into the distance against the night horizon. Its spars and branches and million, million leaves did not completely obscure the view, but any sunlight that came in would be dappled, unsteady. Tainted, by Itempan standards.
There were other indicators of Deka’s less-favored status: fewer toys on the shelves, not as many pillows on the bed. I went to the bed and gazed down at him, thoughtful. He was curled on his side, neat and quiet even in rest. His nurse had done his long black hair in several plaits, perhaps in an awkward bid to give it some curl. I bent and ran my finger along one plait’s smooth, rippling length.
“Shall I make you heir?” I whispered. He did not wake, and I got no answer.
Moving away, I was surprised to realize none of the toys on his shelves tasted of love. Then I understood when I came to the small bookcase, which practically reeked of it. Over a dozen books and scrolls bore the stamp of childish delight. I ran my fingers along their spines, absorbing their mortal magic. Maps of faraway lands, tales of adventure and discovery. Mysteries of the natural world—of which Deka probably experienced little, stuck here in Sky. Myths and fancies.
I closed my eyes and lifted my fingers to my lips, breathing the scent and sighing. I could not make a child with such a soul heir. It would be the same as destroying him myself.
I moved on.
Through the walls, underneath a closet, over a jutting spar of the World Tree that had nearly filled one of the dead spaces, and I found myself in the chambers of the Arameri head.
The bedroom alone was as big as both the children’s apartments combined. Large, square bed at the center, positioned atop a wide circular rug made from the skin of some white-furred animal I could not recall ever having hunted. Austere, by the standards of the heads I had known: no pearls sewn into the coverlet, no Darren blackwood or Kenti hand carving or Shuti-Narekh cloudcloth. What little other furniture there was had been positioned about the edges of the vast room, out of the way. A woman who did not like impediments in any part of her life.
The Lady Arameri herself was austere. She lay curled on her side, much like her son, though that was as far as the similarity went. Blonde hair, surprisingly cut short. The style framed her angular face well, I decided, but it was not at all the usual Amn thing. Beautiful, icy-pale face, though severe even in sleep. Younger than I’d expected: late thirties at a guess. Young enough that Shahar would come of age long before she was elderly. Did she intend for Shahar’s children to be the true heirs, then? Perhaps this contest was not as foregone as it seemed.
I looked around, thoughtful. No father, the children had said, which meant the lady had no husband in the formal sense. Did she deny herself lovers, too, then? I bent to inhale her scent, opening my mouth slightly for a better taste, and there it was, oh, yes. The scent of another was embedded deep in her hair and skin, and even into the mattress. A single lover of some duration—months, perhaps years. Love, then? It was not unheard of. I would hunt amid the palace denizens to see if I could find the match to that lilting scent.
The lady’s apartment told me nothing about her as I visited its other chambers: a substantial library (containing nothing interesting), a private chapel complete with Itempan altar, a personal garden (too manicured to have been cared for by anything but a professional gardener), a public parlor and a private one. The bath alone showed signs of extravagance: no mere tub here but a pool wide and deep enough to swim, with separate adjoining chambers for washing and dressing. I found her toilet in another chamber, behind a crystal panel, and laughed. The seat had been inscribed with sigils for warmth and softness. I could not resist; I changed them to ice-cold hardness. Hopefully I could arrange to be around to hear her shout when she discovered them.
By the time I finished exploring, the eastern sky was growing light with the coming dawn. So with a sigh I left Lady Arameri’s chambers, returned to the Nowhere Stair, and lay down at the bottom to wait.
It seemed an age before the children arrived, their small feet striking a determined cadence as they came through the silent corridors. They did not see me at first, and exclaimed in dismay—then, of course, they came down the steps and found me. “You were hiding!” Shahar accused.
I had arranged myself on the floor, with my legs propped up against the wall. Smiling at her upside down, I said, “Talking to strangers again. Will you two never learn?”
Dekarta came over to crouch beside me. “Are you a stranger to us, Sieh? Even still?” He reached out and poked my shoulder again, as he had done before he learned I was dangerous. He smiled shyly and blushed as he did it. Had he forgiven me, then? Mortals were so fickle. I poked him back and he giggled.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but you lot are the ones who worship propriety. The way I see it, a stranger feels like a stranger; a friend feels like a friend. Simple.”
To my surprise, Shahar crouched as well, her small face solemn. “Would you mind, then?” she asked with a peculiar sort of intent that made me frown at her. “Being our friend?”
I understood all at once. The wish they’d earned from me. I’d expected them to choose something simple, like toys that never broke or baubles from another realm or wings to fly. But they were clever, my little Arameri pets. They would not be bribed by paltry material treasures or fleeting frivolities. They wanted something of real worth.
Greedy, presumptuous, insolent, arrogant brats.
I flipped myself off the wall with an awkward, ugly movement that no mortal could have easily replicated. It startled the children and they fell back with wide eyes, sensing my anger. On my hands and toes, I glared at them. “You want what?”
“Your friendship,” said Deka. His voice was firm, but his eyes looked uncertain; he kept glancing at his sister. “We want you to be our friend. And we’ll be yours.”
“For how long?”
They looked surprised. “For as long as friendship lasts,” said Shahar. “Life, I guess, or until one of us does something to break it. We can swear a blood oath to make it official.”
“Swear a—” The words came out as a bestial growl. I could feel my hair turning black, my toes curling under. “How dare you?”
Shahar, damn her and all her forbears, looked innocently confused. I wanted to tear her throat out for not understanding. “What? It’s just friendship.”
“The friendship of a god.” If I’d had a tail, it would have lashed. “If I did this, I would be obligated to play with you and enjoy your company. After you grow up, I’d have to look you up every once in a while to see how you’re doing. I’d have to care about the inanities of your life. At least try to help you when you’re in trouble. My gods, do you realize I don’t even offer my worshippers that much? I should kill you both for this!”
But to my surprise, before I could, Deka sat forward and put his hand on mine. He flinched as he did it, because my hand was no longer fully human; the fingers had shortened, and the nails were in the process of becoming retractable. I kept the fur off by an effort of will. But Deka kept his hand there and looked at me with more compassion than I’d ever dreamt of seeing on an Arameri’s face. All the swirling magic inside me went still.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We’re sorry.”
Now two Arameri had apologized to me. Had that ever happened when I’d been a slave? Not even Yeine had said those words, and she had hurt me terribly once during her mortal years. But Deka continued, compounding the miracle. “I didn’t think. You were a prisoner here once—we read about it. They made you act like a friend then, didn’t they?” He looked over at Shahar, whose expression showed the same dawning understanding. “Some of the old Arameri would punish him if he wasn’t nice enough. We can’t be like them.”
My desire to kill them flicked away, like a snuffed candle.
“You… didn’t know,” I said. I spoke slowly, reluctantly, forcing my voice back into the boyish higher registers where it belonged. “It’s obvious you don’t mean… what I think you meant by it.” A backhanded route to servitude. Unearned blessings. I moved my nails back into place and sat up, smoothing my hair.
“We thought you would like it,” Deka said, looking so crestfallen that I abruptly felt guilty for my anger. “I thought… we thought…”
Yes, of course, it would have been his idea; he was the dreamer of the two.
“We thought we were almost friends anyway, right? And you didn’t seem to mind coming to see us. So we thought, if we asked to be friends, you would see we weren’t the bad Arameri you think we are. You would see we weren’t selfish or mean, and maybe”—he faltered, lowering his eyes—“maybe then you would keep coming back.”
Children could not lie to me. It was an aspect of my nature; they could lie, but I would know. Neither Deka nor his sister were lying. I didn’t believe them anyway—didn’t want to believe them, didn’t trust the part of my own soul that tried to believe them. It was never safe to trust Arameri, even small ones.
Yet they meant it. They wanted my friendship, not out of greed but out of loneliness. They truly wanted me for myself. How long had it been since anyone had wanted me? Even my own parents?
In the end, I am as easy to seduce as any child.
I lowered my head, trembling a little, folding my arms across my chest so they would not notice. “Um. Well. If you really want to… to be friends, then… I guess I could do that.”
They brightened at once, scooching closer on their knees. “You mean it?” asked Deka.
I shrugged, pretending nonchalance, and flashed my famous grin. “Can’t hurt, can it? You’re just mortals.” Blood-brother to mortals. I shook my head and laughed, wondering why I’d been so frightened by something so trivial. “Did you bring a knife?”
Shahar rolled her eyes with queenly exasperation. “You can make one, can’t you?”
“I was just asking, gods.” I raised a hand and made a knife, just like the one she’d used to stab me the previous year. Her smile faded and she drew back a little at the sight of it, and I realized that was not the best choice. Closing my hand about the knife, I changed it. When I opened my hand again, the knife was curved and graceful, with a handle of lacquered steel. Shahar would not know, but it was a replica of the knife Zhakkarn had made for Yeine during her time in Sky.
She relaxed when she saw the change, and I felt better at the grateful look on her face. I had not been fair to her; I would try harder to be so in the future.
“Friendships can transcend childhood,” I said softly when Shahar took the knife. She paused, looking at me in surprise. “They can. If the friends continue to trust each other as they grow older and change.”
“That’s easy,” said Deka, giggling.
“No,” I said. “It isn’t.”
His grin faded. Shahar, though—yes, here was something she understood innately. She had already begun to realize what it meant to be Arameri. I would not have her for much longer.
I reached up to touch her cheek for a moment, and she blinked. But then I smiled, and she smiled back, as shy as Deka for an instant.
Sighing, I held out my hands, palms up. “Do it, then.”
Shahar took my nearer hand, raising the knife, and then frowned. “Do I cut the finger? Or across the palm?”
“The finger,” said Deka. “That was how Datennay said you do blood oaths.”
“Datennay is an idiot,” Shahar said with the reflexiveness of an old argument.
“The palm,” I said, more to shut them up than to take any real stance.
“Won’t that bleed a lot? And hurt?”
“That’s the idea. What good is an oath if it doesn’t cost you something to make?” Continues...
Excerpted from The Kingdom of Gods by Jemisin, N. K. Copyright © 2012 by Jemisin, N. K.. Excerpted by permission.
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