The Kingdom of Gods, Sample Chapter 2

Author’s note: this is from a next-to-final version, pre-copyediting. Any errors are mine, with apologies.

CHAPTER TWO

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.

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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 towards 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, which existence had not seen since the demons’ time? I lowered my arm and looked at Nahadoth and saw the same sober contemplation in his face. Inevitable. I bared my teeth and let them grow cat-sharp and sat up to glare at him.

“You want that selfish, thick-headed 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. I manifested 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 these were not words and there are 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 often 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, frustrated 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 having 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 new, 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, because of anger. “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 what was the greater blasphemy: Yeine loving Itempas? Or I, 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, 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.”

“What?”

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 night-time, of course. 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?”

“No.”

“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 which 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.

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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 into the underpalace to do more than sweep in twenty years, maybe more. No wonder Shahar and Dekarta had been so frightened that first day.

On the overpalace levels, at least, there were servants. 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 towards me, or spring up to cling to the ceiling if I were 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 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 couch, in the sitting room — I found Shahar, asleep in a goodly-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 toyshelf.

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 in 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, some scrivener had used daystone to craft this and other such scepters, and given it to the first of many Arameri heirs 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 fact that a child’s toy had been perverted in the process made each slice burn like acid, and prevented healing.

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’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, 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 the 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 pets 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 before I could stop them. 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 awhile 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 in 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 ever 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? Against your will.” 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 blown 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 now. 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 were not lying. They wanted my friendship, not out of greed, but 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-sibling 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 it again, it 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 do so in the future. For as long as I could.

“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 — ah, 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?”

She grimaced, but then nodded and set the blade against my skin. The cut she made was so shallow that it tickled, and did not cut me at all. I laughed. “Harder. I’m not a mortal, you know.”

She threw me an annoyed look, then sliced once across the palm, swift and hard. I ignored the flash of pain. Refreshing. The wound tried to close immediately, but a little concentration kept the blood welling.

“You do me, I do you,” Shahar said, giving the knife to Dekarta.

He took the knife and her hands, and was not at all hesitant or shy about cutting his sister. Her jaw flexed, but she did not cry out. Nor did he, when she made the cuts for him.

I inhaled the scent of their blood, familiar despite three generations’ remove from the last Arameri I had known. “Friends,” I said.

Shahar looked at her brother, and he gazed back at her, and then they both looked at me. “Friends,” they said together. They took each other’s hands first, then mine.

Then —

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Wait. What?

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They held my hands, tight, it hurt, and why were both children crying out, their hair whipping in the wind? Where had the wind —

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I didn’t hear you. Speak louder.

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This made no sense, our hands were sealed, sealed together, I could not let them go —

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Yes, I am the Trickster. Who calls…?

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They were screaming, the children were screaming, both of them had risen off the floor, only I held them down and why was there a grin on my face? Why —

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Silence.

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Sample chapter 3 is here.

Dreamblood Book One:

The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon

Read Sample Chapter 1


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