Author’s note: this is from a next-to-final version, pre-copyediting. Any errors are mine, with apologies.
BOOK ONE: 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 met her first 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 rapt 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 kill. 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 yet 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 — which 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 which 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 which was aware, and which 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 after all they were the only living beings in the universe, 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 awhile 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 awhile, 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 acknowledgement. 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 which sit in perpetual shadow, and which 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, only 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 complimented 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 thoughts raced in his eyes. “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 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 — wait, no. It was there, just subtle. A fullness to her lips, the angle of the 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 pureblooded 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 sat up and drew up my knees, pressing my forehead against them. Comforting flesh and bone, 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 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, even when it cost them a conscience. “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 him 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 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 towards 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 on 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 forego 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 drunk 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 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 helpless 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 was 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 faithful, 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, 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. Useful for putting mortals at ease, lungs were, 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. 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 upwards 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; only he, of the two of them, 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 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 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 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 here all — ”
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 chest, 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 still 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 tight 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, though 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. But — “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.