Snippets 2: The Gods’ Realm

(Snippets 1 is here.)

One of the things I had to spend a lot of time on, in creating the Inheritance Trilogy, was figuring out what went on in the gods’ lives when mortals weren’t around to see them. This was something that I knew might never actually show up in the story — the gods are the focus of the trilogy, but it’s their interactions with mortals that matter most — but I still needed to understand it. I’ve heard other writers compare worldbuilding to an iceberg, and I think that analogy fits perfectly: readers see only ten percent, but writers still have to imagine the other ninety. So even though the story wouldn’t spend much time there, I had to imagine the unimaginable: the gods’ realm.

The first snippet comes from an alternate version of The Broken Kingdoms — one that would’ve focused on Shinda, Itempas’ half-mortal son, whose murder helped drive Itempas over the edge, and whose blood poisoned Enefa. In this version I experimented for awhile with the idea that Itempas — being Itempas — would naturally lay claim to any son of his and take the boy away from his mortal mother (who might, after all, be a less-than-perfect parent) in order to raise him in the gods’ realm. Itempas would’ve justified this as an experiment to see whether demons and gods could somehow coexist, long after the demons’ holocaust. But it would’ve eventually become clear that demons do not belong in the gods’ realm, so a familiar figure appears to guide Shinda to the next stage of his life.

The realm of the gods is impossible for mortals to perceive completely, even if their eyes manage to take it all in. Eyes are nothing; there are things that the mind cannot grasp. So when I go to the place that my father has sent me, I find myself upon a vast plain of silver, like a mirror. There are trees and boulders and whatnot, but they sprout from the gleaming surface rather than soil or stone. I stand upon this mirrored surface. Above and around me the sky flows sideways. On my left, blue sky and clouds arc upward from the horizon-line of the mirror into the indistinguishable distance. This gradually shades towards twilight, at the sky’s zenith, then arcs downward again through darkness and stars on my right. It is vast, limitless, and yet somehow feels enclosed. A temple whose walls and roof are sky, and whose floor reflects infinity.

Before me, rising from the plain, stands an immense palace — or half of one. I have lived in this palace, but this is my first time seeing it from the outside. To describe it fully would require the disconnection of all my reason, because the palace lies on its side, the graceful curving symmetry of its structure cruelly cut in half by the mirror. Yet below my feet I can see a reflection of this half-palace which is shadowed and dark. Not the same palace at all. The sky above it, in the mirror, is different too: night on the left, day on the right. Not a reflection at all.

I have been to that other palace, too, on a handful of occasions. My father calls on the Nightlord often, and sometimes he brings me — though I must remain in a single tiresome room throughout the visit, because too much of the Nightlord’s palace is inimical to form and I, being mortal, cannot change the way a godling might. Yet I have found the mirror of this room in my father’s palace: a single space within which darkness reigns and shape loses all meaning. This is how the twin lords of Night and Day have built their realms, each as a linked reflection that defies all logic, each making some concession toward the other’s presence. Each requiring the other to be complete.

Enefa of the Twilight keeps her realm elsewhere, scorning her brothers’ penchant for dramatic architecture and dualistic imagery. I have visited there too, and found her world just as magnificent in its understated, vibrant, verdant way. But that is not where I need to go now.

I walk along the mirrorplain, listening to the utter silence of my own footfalls. That silence comforts me now, as it has for the past ten years. Nurturing is not in Itempas’ nature, but he permits me to seek what I need from him. He has held me for long hours when I crave affection, though this has become less necessary as I’ve grown older. He teaches me when my mind grows hungry, explaining everything from the simple to the secrets of the universe. He has endless patience with my questions. I do not know if he loves me — I would never presume to know his heart — but there is a subtle sort of kindness to him. I have decided that I love him. It is enough for both of us.

But in my heart there is now unease, because my father has told me that soon I will have to leave.

One does not question the Bright Lord’s decrees. But underneath my acceptance, I feel… turmoil. Abandonment. Once again, I will lose the only person I have ever been close to. It hurts, even if I have always known it would happen.

I am deep in thought when I pass a rocky outcropping, which is perhaps why I do not notice at first that it is inhabited.

“Hey!” snaps the other, when I walk past him. I start and turn back, staring at another child my age, or so he seems. But even with my mortal eyes I can see: the soul that glimmers at the core of this creature is far, far older than my own. The oldest I have ever seen, short of my father or his two siblings.

The boy smiles brightly at me, belying this sense of age. “Something on your mind?” he asks. He is sitting crosslegged on a ledge. “I know I’m small, but I didn’t think I was that easy to miss.”

I incline my head to him, as my father has taught me to be courteous to my siblings. “My apologies, brother. I’ll be more attentive next time.” I turn to move on.

“Oh, my,” he says. “You sound just like him. Poor thing.”

I stop in surprise. “What?”

“Itempas. It’s remarkable, really. He’s turned you into a little copy of himself.”

I scowl, irritated by this creature’s presumption, sibling or no. “That’s ridiculous. He is the Dayfather; I’m merely a child. I may have picked up a few of his mannerisms, but that certainly doesn’t make me a copy.”

“And you’re just as testy as him, too!” The boy uncurls, hopping off the rock and coming over. He is shorter than me, slim and thin-limbed, though of course that is only the shape he has chosen to show me. Right now what concerns me is the combative gleam in his eye. I have met some my siblings before now, but never any who behaved like this. What is the appropriate protocol for such interactions?

I draw myself up, and only belatedly realize that I am imitating my father at his most offended. Flustered, I try to relax instead, and fail. “I am not testy. I simply don’t like being insulted by strangers.”

“Stranger? Don’t you know family when you see it?”

“Of course. But you aren’t acting like family, are you?”

“How would you know?” The boy suddenly grins at me, all sadism and whimsy, and at once I realize that he is not even a half-sibling, not in the physical sense. It is the Nightlord’s blood which runs in this one, and oh how it shows.

“Our fathers fought like caged beasts for longer than this universe has existed,” he says. “So what’s wrong with me picking a fight with you? It’s practically a family tradition.”

I brace myself. I have learned the rudiments of power from Father, but I still have much to learn, and this creature is so much older. Is there any hope that I might reason with him? I decide to attempt it. “I’ve done nothing to you. I don’t even know you!”

“Ah, that’s true,” the boy says, suddenly looking remiss. I blink, thrown by his shift from belligerence, and then I am thrown even more when he smiles. “I’m Sieh. And you are…?”

I stare at him for a moment. “Shinda.”

“Lovely to meet you, brother. Good, now we know each other, see? Are you really half mortal? You feel as strong as one of us.”

I do not answer, because he grabs my hand and examines it, perhaps looking for something I cannot perceive, or perhaps just playing with my hand. I am so confused by his bizarre behavior that I permit this without protest. Some of our kind are born mad; the essences of our parents do not always mingle in a wholesome way. Could this Sieh be one of the mad ones? The Nightlord tolerates all, but I do not understand why neither Father nor Lady Enefa have eliminated such a defective creature.

But as I stare at his bent head, he cocks it and rolls one eye up at me. “It’s time for you to learn about the other half of yourself, Shinda-brother. Are you ready?”

I stiffen.

“You are half mortal, after all,” he continues, letting my hand go. In lieu of this, he sidles close before I can move away, and puts a companionable arm around my shoulders. “What tribe does your mother hail from? Do you have any relatives left alive? You’re growing up fast, like mortals do. What are their rites, for when you become a man?”

Helpless beneath the barrage of questions — to which I have not the slightest answer — I let out a long breath. His point is obvious; I am not wholly of divine lineage, and it will eventually become necessary for me to understand my mortal heritage. Father has said the same more than once.

But I don’t want to learn about my mortal heritage —

I pull sharply away from Sieh and resume walking, my hands still tight at my sides. To my non-surprise, I hear him chuckle and start skipping along beside me. He moves into my peripheral vision and catches my eye by doing cartwheels, despite my dogged efforts to ignore him.

“You don’t knoooow,” he says, in a singsong tone. “You don’t know at aallll.”

“I know enough,” I snap, not stopping. “There’s no point in learning about mortals. They’re flighty, fragile, fickle creatures. They grow and change and die in an eyeblink; you can’t rely on them for anything. Why would I want to know more about them?”

“Oh, my, you’re not even trying to hide it.” Sieh laughs, not unkindly. “You poor fool. Do you miss your mother so much?”

I stop walking. I contemplate protocol. I also contemplate summoning my fire and blasting this Sieh to a cinder. It won’t kill him, but it will make me feel better.

No, that would be unworthy of me. Whatever else I am, I am still Shinda, and I will not lose control. My father expects better. So I draw a deep breath, focus my thoughts as Father has taught me, then turn back to Sieh. “I fail to see what my mother has to do with anything.”

“Well, that’s a silly thing to say,” Sieh says. He is standing on his hands while he says it, which I choose to ignore. “If not for Tempa being an ass, she would have raised you — as best she could, anyhow, you being so powerful. That’s been our way for centuries, after all: mortals to mortals and immortals to immortals. We are best raised by those who share our fate.”

I did not know this. Perhaps my surprise shows, because abruptly Sieh rights himself and exhales as if the effort has winded him. “We were all surprised when Tempa took you. He’s usually such a stickler for tradition. Then again, you’re also the only mortal child he’s ever created. Naha and Nefa have made many demons, but Tempa? Since the dawning of life, he’s fathered no others but you.” He shrugs, apparently oblivious to my growing astonishment. “He has broken his own laws to create you, defied his own nature to raise you. Your presence must be a constant torment to him — yet he’s kept you at his side, protected you, despite all that. I suppose he must care for you a great deal.”

I am too stunned to think or move. Before I can muster a reaction, he grabs my hand. “Race you to the palace!”

I open my mouth to protest, but he is off — and he drags me with him, clamping his hand and his power around me like a vice, forcing me to either run or be dragged. Dignity forbids the latter, so I run. From the beginning he is fast, his slim legs churning like a whirlwind. I am so hard-pressed to keep up that it snaps me out of my stupor; I must commit myself wholeheartedly to the race, or fail and be humiliated. This pricks my pride — as, some part of me realizes, he knew it would — and suddenly I am no longer thinking. I am racing with teeth bared. I am pouring all my strength, all the fire within me, into the muscles and bones of the flesh-and-blood body that is my mother’s gift to me. I am thrilling in that body’s response as its heart pumps faster, its limbs churn harder, its breath comes hard and fast and rhythmic. Gradually as we run the palace looms larger; we have traversed miles in seconds. We are running like the sound of the wind. And gradually, amazingly, I pull ahead. Sieh is never far behind, because he draws strength from the race itself; this is his nature, in the way of immortals. But pride is my nature, and though it grants me no extra magic, it helps.

We run across the glass path into the sideways shadow, and stop only when the world twists and we pass through the wall — there are no doors here — into my father’s shining white halls.

Here I collapse, my strength spent. My limbs ache and lungs burn in a way that has never happened before. It should be frightening, proof of the frailty of my mortal body. But strangely, I am anything but afraid. Instead I lie where I have fallen, gasping for air but laughing in between each gasp, exhilarated. I have never felt so alive.

Is this what it means to be mortal?

Sieh falls too, even though his flesh is more durable and malleable than mine, and even though he gained as much as he lost in the effort. But he has kept to the unspoken rules of our contest and used only what strength his physical form can manifest, so now he must rest to replenish it, same as I. We lie there sprawled on the white floor, two boys panting and laughing hysterically, and only as the weariness fades do I understand the lesson this ancient sibling of mine has come to teach.

He looks over at me, grinning, as I push myself to sit up. (My every movement makes sounds that echo in faint musical tones from the walls. Everything has purpose in the palace of the Bright.) “Enough,” I say to him, though I am smiling too. “I’ll go with you.”

He pretends innocence. “What? Go with me? Where?”

“To the mortal world. That’s where Father asked you to take me, isn’t it? I’ll learn about my mother’s people.”

Sieh grins. “And it only took you running me into the ground to figure it out. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or insulted.”

“Be flattered,” I say, getting to my feet as I recover. “I almost chose to fight you to the death instead.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, good.” He rolls over onto his belly, kicking his feet up in the air. “Do you want to go now, before you change your mind?”

I look around at the curving, dizzying complex of structures within the palace, and for a moment a pang of loneliness sweeps over me. This is the only home I have ever known, and Father is my only true family. More than family — he is my creator, my god, the center of my universe. To leave this place, to leave him, means leaving a part of myself behind.

But is it true, what Sieh said? Does Father really love me? On the heels of this comes a darker thought — one that has been there all along, though I have not allowed myself to contemplate it for long because it is irrational. Yet it is the thought that has kept me resistant, afraid, all this time. If I leave, will he still love me when I return?

As I stand there, torn, a light breeze wafts through the palace’s cavernous walls, and with it comes a tingle of warmth that makes me inhale in surprise and pleasure. My throat tightens as I understand. The palace of the Bright is my father; whether he takes shape or not, he knows all that occurs within its shining borders. He is not a god given to sentiment, as Sieh has noted — but he is not emotionless, either. Far from it. And it is not his nature to change. If he loves me now, he will love me forever. Even after I am long dead, he will remember who I was.

Who I am: the Lord of Light’s only mortal son. I am unique, and strong, and as perfect as any mortal being can be. I vow now and forevermore to do him proud.

“Let’s go,” I say to Sieh, when the breeze has blown past and I have composed myself. He says nothing, no doubt noticing my mood. He merely takes my hand. It is I who takes us into the space between realms, and down through all the layers of existence. With the instincts built into my mortal flesh, I close my eyes, leap blind, and let my heart lead me toward home.

I decided not to continue that one because I decided against writing Broken Kingdoms as a prequel, remember. Still, I think about Shinda a lot. I’ll probably recycle him into another story, somehow, eventually.

This next snippet is shorter, written from the point of view of one — well, two — of the characters in The Kingdom of Gods. I cut this segment because it wasn’t necessary — didn’t move the plot forward — and because I was trying hard not to succumb to “epic fantasy series bloat” syndrome. KoG is the longest book of the trilogy, but it’s a heck of a lot leaner than it could’ve been. You’ll know who the “we” is later, but again you’ll see some familiar faces appear among the gods.

We are not gods, but for the time being we see as such. We observe all. We know.

We travel as light through a hundred thousand memories. Too much to comprehend fully. A shrieking passage along a river of red-hot air, terrifying and thrilling. Planets spin out of this and wink like baubles amid darkness; some fade and fail, but new ones arise in turn. A woman’s face: cold-eyed, beautiful if one finds strength beautiful, accompanied by feelings of mingled love and fear. She fades from view, replaced by a nest of sorts in a wild garden, though we have never seen plants like these and the nest is built of something like black diamonds and silver spidersilk. At the heart of this nest curls another woman: naked but for a shivering cloud of dark hair nearly as long as her body, with skin as pale and barely-substantial as the moon in daylight. She lies on her side, proprietarily stroking a smaller, browner body which curls against hers. We cannot see her face clearly, though we think she is very, very beautiful. We wish she would look at us, though we fear what will happen if she does.

The smaller figure looks up at her with the same hunger and awe we feel. It is a child, we see — very young, only two or three years old, with tousled hair and great green eyes. The eyes throw us for a moment, because they are far more aware and knowledgeable than they should be. Then we remember that nothing we see here is real. It is a veneer, laid over the incomprehensible truth so that we can understand. We do not care; we are fascinated.

“He is incomplete,” says a voice, whose owner we cannot see. The cold-eyed woman, somewhere. “Unique, but weak. He will grow stronger, but not quickly. He will be nothing to what we are.”

“I don’t care,” says the black-haired woman. She strokes the child’s hair; the child smiles shyly and ducks his head for the touch. “He’s beautiful.”

There is amusement, and affection, in the disembodied voice. “You have always been easily-seduced.”

“And you have always been too quick to judge.” The black-haired woman does not move, not that we can see, but suddenly she is sitting up, lifting the child before her as if to admire his miniature perfection. The child gazes back, unblinking, with the intent focus of a stalking animal. The woman laughs, drawing him close for a kiss; the child blinks in surprise.

“He’s clever,” she says, setting him down in her lap, “and fierce. And strong, albeit in a different way from our own strength. What does it matter if he’s like us or not, Sister? We are nothing like our creator, after all, yet we have found value and purpose in existence. We have done great things. He will, too, in time.”

Then the garden spins away, and we spin away, and the memories are left far behind.

And last but not least, another scene I cut as unnecessary. This one is set in some time between the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the beginning of The Kingdom of Gods. More of a vignette, really, though there’s dialogue. The same “we” as before.

A meadow, stretching into the distance. On it, a woman lies in a bed of flowers. There is a forest on the horizon.

(The woman is not a woman and the flowers are not flowers and the meadow is not a meadow. We see what we need to see, to understand.)

There is no delicacy to this woman. She is small enough to be dainty, but muscle limns the bare arms she has spread across the grass, and the angles of her face are blunt, severe. Her hair does not so much curl as tangle about her face; it is unattractively short. Her attire lacks any sort of fashion or decoration: it’s simply utilitarian. She lies with no concern for grace, only her own comfort.

We envy her. We find beauty in her carelessness. We wonder who she is.

She opens eyes greener than the grass and seems to gaze directly at us for a moment. She is clearly unconcerned for our presence. Then she turns her head, and a boy appears beside her, on his knees.

We know him. Sieh.

“Mother,” he says. Now we know her, too.

“Come,” she says, and Sieh stretches out against her side, wrapping arms around her and resting his head on her breast. He lets out a sigh.

“I will kill them, if you ask it,” he says.

“No.” The woman lifts a hand and strokes Sieh’s hair. Her expression is as unconcerned as before. “My bloodthirsty little boy. A child should have a gentler spirit.”

“Why? Children aren’t gentle.” Sieh sighs and closes his eyes in contentment at her caress. “They should love you. I hate them.”

“They’re your brothers and sisters.”

“They fought for him.”

“Not all of them.”

“Enough! And the ones who didn’t did nothing when he threw us into chains and gave us to the mortals as toys.” The woman glances down at him; he sighs. “I have forgiven them, because you commanded it. But I will never, ever forget.”

The woman shifts onto her side, curling ’round him. She is tiny, yet somehow she seems much, much larger than him. (This is something that can only be felt, not seen, or explained.) She strokes his cheek and with this, the angry tension flows out of Sieh’s body. It is clear that he adores her.

“I don’t care if they love me,” she says. “I have you, and your father. That’s all I need.” Abruptly she tickles his belly. “Frankly, you’re more than enough as it is.”

Sieh giggles, wriggling closer in delight. This is infectious; we want to wriggle with him. The woman smiles too. But then Sieh sobers, catching her hand to stop the tickling.

“You should make them fear you, though,” he says. “Some will never accept you as their mother, fine, I understand that. But you must demand acceptance as their goddess. If they do not obey you, kill them. You cannot be lax on this; they have had a taste of rebellion now.”

The woman smiles. We see that she understands this. We also notice, now that she has turned, that the grass and flowers that had been beneath her body are all dead.

(They are not flowers. But the death that follows in her wake is very real.)

“Fear was Itempas’ way,” she says. “He was content with nothing more than that. I want more.”

Sieh frowns in surprise. “What?”

But before we can hear her answer, we spin away, and the meadow shivers and becomes something else, and the moment is gone.

1 Responses »

  1. Oooh! LOVE. I’m so glad you shared these snippets – although they’re making my yearning for The Kingdom of Gods so acute that it’s almost painful.

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