Author’s note: this is from a next-to-final version, pre-copyediting. Any errors are mine, with apologies.
I slept, and while I did, I dreamt. I did not remember some of these dreams for a long time. I was aware of very little, in fact, aside from
and perhaps a little bit of
Vague awareness, in other words. A most unpleasant state for any god. None of us is all knowing, all seeing, that is mortal nonsense — but we know a lot and see quite a bit. We are used to a near-constant infusion of information by means of senses no mortal possesses, but for a time there was nothing. Instead, I slept.
Suddenly, though, in the depths of the silence and vagueness, I heard a voice. It called my name, my soul, with a fullness and strength that I had not heard in several mortal lifetimes. Familiar pulling sensation. Unpleasant. I was comfortable so I rolled over and tried to ignore it at first, but it pricked me awake, slapped me in the back to prod me forward, then shoved. I slid through an aperture in a wall of matter, like birth, or like entering the mortal realm, which was pretty much the same thing. I emerged naked and slippery with magic, my form reflexively solidifying itself for protection against the soul-devouring aethers which were once Nahadoth’s digestive fluids, in the time before time. My mind dragged itself out of stupor at last.
Someone had called my name.
“What do you want?” I said — or tried to say, though the words emerged from my lips as an unintelligible growl. Long before mortals had achieved a form worthy of imitation, I had taken the shape of a creature that loved mischief and cruelty in equal measure, as quintessential an encapsulation of my nature as my child-shape. I still tended to default to it, though I preferred the child-shape these days. More fine control and nuance. But I had not been not fully conscious when I took form in the mortal realm, and so I had become the cat.
Yet that shape was clumsy when I tried to rise, and something about it… felt wrong. I wasted no time trying to understand it, simply shifted to the boy instead — or tried to. The change did not go as it should have. It took real effort, and my flesh remoulded itself with molasses-slow reluctance. By the time I had clothed myself in human skin I was exhausted. I flopped where I had materialized, panting and shaking and wondering what in the infinite hells was wrong with me.
The voice that had summoned me from the vague place. Female. Familiar and yet not. Puzzled, I tried to lift my head and turn to face the voice’s owner, and found to my amazement that I could not. I had no strength.
“It is you. My gods, I never imagined…” Soft hands touched my shoulders, pulled at me. I groaned softly as she rolled me onto my side. Something pulled at my head, painful. Why the hells was I cold? I was never cold.
“By the endless Bright! This is — ” She touched my face. I turned toward her hand instinctively, nuzzling, and she gasped, jerking away. Then she stroked me again, and did not pull away when I pressed against her this time.
“Sh-Shahar,” I said. My voice was too loud and sounded wrong. I opened my eyes as wide as I could and stared at her, buglike. “Shahar?”
She was Shahar. I was certain of it. But something had happened to her. Her face was longer, the bones finer, the nose-bridge higher. Her gold hair, which had been shoulder-length when I’d last seen her — a moment ago? the day before? — now tumbled around her body, disheveled as if she’d just woken from sleep. Waist-length at least, maybe longer.
Mortal hair did not grow so quickly, and not even Arameri would waste magic on something so trivial. Not these days, anyhow. Yet when I tried to find the nearby stars to know how much time had passed, what came back to me was only a blank, unintelligble rumble, like the jabbering of memory-worms.
“Cold,” I murmured. Shahar got up and went away. An instant later something covered me, warm and thick with the scents of her body and bird feathers. A duvet. It should not have warmed me, any more than my body should have been cold to begin with, but I felt better. By this point I could move a little, so I curled up under it gratefully.
“Sieh…” She sounded like she was regaining her composure after a deep shock. Her hand fell on my shoulder again, comforting. “Not that I’m not glad to see you — ” She did not sound glad. Not at all. ” — but if you were ever going to come back, why now? Why here, like this? This… gods. Unbelievable.”
Why now? I had no idea, since I had no idea what “now” meant. Of “then”, I remembered less thoughts than impressions: holding her hand, holding Deka’s hand. Light, wind, something out of control. Shahar’s face, wide-eyed with panic, mouth open and —
Screaming. She had been screaming.
Some of my strength had returned. I used it to reach for her knee, which was a few inches from my face. My fingers slid over smooth hot skin to reach thin fine cloth — a sleep-shift. She gasped and jerked away. “You’re freezing!”
“I’m cold.” So cold that I could feel the room’s moisture beginning to cling to my skin, wherever the blanket didn’t cover it. I pulled my head under the blanket, or tried to. That pulling sensation again. It held my head in place, though I could move somewhat against its tension. “Demonshit! What is that?”
“Your hair,” said Shahar. I froze, staring up at her.
She pushed at my arm, then pulled up a lock of hair for me to see. Loose-waved, dark brown, thick, and longer than her arm. Feet long. I couldn’t move because I was half tangled in it.
“I didn’t tell my hair to get that long,” I said. It was a whisper.
“Well, tell it to get short again. Or quit flopping about, so I can get you loose.” She flipped up the blanket and started gathering my hair, tugging and finger-combing. When she turned me onto my side, my head was freed. I’d been lying on the bulk of it.
My hair should not have grown. Her hair should not have grown. “Tell me what’s happened,” I said, as she shifted me about like an oversized doll. “How much time has passed since we took the oath?”
“Took the oath?” She stared down at me, an incredulous look on her face. “Is that all you remember? My gods, Sieh, you broke the oath almost the instant you made it — ”
I cursed in three mortal languages, loudly, to cut her off. “Just tell me how much time has passed!”
Fury reddened her cheeks, though the pale light around us — Sky’s glowing walls — made this difficult to see. “Eight years.”
Impossible. “I would have remembered eight years.”
I should have understood the anger in her voice as she snapped, “Well, that’s how long it’s been. Not my fault if you don’t remember it. I suppose you must have so many important things to do, you gods, that mortal years pass like breaths for you.”
They did, but we were aware of the breaths. I wanted to know more, like why she sounded so angry and hurt. Those things called to me like the sting of broken innocence, and they felt important. But they also felt like the sorts of things that needed to be softened with silence before they were brought forth sharp, so I pushed them aside and asked, “Why am I so weak?”
“How should I know?”
“Where was I? While I was gone?”
“Sieh — ” She let out a hard exhalation. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen you once since the day eight years ago when you and I and and Deka agreed to become friends. You tried to kill us and disappeared.”
“Tried — I didn’t try to kill you.” Her face hardened further, full of hate. That meant I had tried to kill her, or at least she believed I had. “I didn’t mean to. Shahar — ” I reached for her again, instinctive this time. I could pull strength from mortal children if I had to… but when I touched her knee again, there was only a trickle of what I needed. Of course; eight years. She would be sixteen now — not yet a woman, but close. I whimpered in frustration and pulled away.
“I remember nothing from that moment until now,” I said, to take my mind off fear. “I took your hands and then I was here. Something is wrong.”
“Obviously.” She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers and let out a heavy sigh. “Hopefully your arrival didn’t trip the boundary scripts in the walls, or there will be a dozen guards breaking down the door in a minute. I’m going to have to think of some way to explain your presence — ” She paused, frowning at me hopefully. “Or can you leave? That would really be the easiest solution.”
Yes, good for me and for her. It was obvious she didn’t want me here. I didn’t want to be here, either, weak and heavy and wrong-feeling like this. I wanted to be with, with, wait, was that, oh no.
“No,” I whispered, and when she sighed in exasperation I realized she thought I’d been responding to her question. I made a heroic effort and grabbed her hand as tight as I could, startling her. “No. Shahar, how did you bring me here? Did you use scrivening, or — or did you command it somehow?”
“I didn’t bring you here. You just showed up.”
“No, you made me come, I felt it, you pulled me out of him — ” And oh demons, oh hells, I could feel him coming. His fury made the whole mortal realm throb like an open wound. How could she not feel it? I shook her hand in lieu of shouting at her. “You pulled me out of him and he’s going to kill you if you don’t tell me right now what you did!”
“Who — ” she began. And then she froze, her eyes going wide, because even she could feel it now. Of course she could, because he was in the room with us, taking shape as the glowing walls went suddenly dark and the air trembled and hushed in reverence.
“Sieh,” said the Lord of Night.
I closed my eyes and prayed Shahar would stay silent.
“Here,” I said. An instant later he was beside me, the drifting dark of his cloak settling around him as he knelt. Chilly fingers touched my face, and I fought the urge to laugh at my own obtuseness. I should have realized at once what it meant that I was so cold.
He turned my face from side to side, examining me with more than eyes. I permitted this, because he was my father and it was his right to be concerned, but then I caught his hand. It solidified beneath my touch, and strength flowed into me from the limitless furnace of his soul. I exhaled in relief. “Naha. Tell me.”
“We found you adrift, like a soul with no home. Damaged. Yeine attempted to heal you and could not. I took you into myself to do the same.”
And Nahadoth’s womb was a cold, dark place. “I don’t feel healed.”
“You aren’t. I could not find a cure for your condition. Nor could I preserve you.” His voice, usually inflectionless, turned bitter. It was Itempas’ gift to halt the progression of processes that depended on time; Nahadoth lacked this power entirely. “The best I could do was keep you safe while Yeine sought a cure. But you were taken from me. I had no idea where you had gone… at first.”
And his dark, dark eyes lifted to settle on Shahar. She flinched, quite reasonably.
I had no reason to want to save her, other than my own childish sense of honor. I had taken her innocence; I owed her. And, however wrong it seemed to have gone, I had taken an oath to be her friend. So I sat up carefully — not into his line of sight, because that was never safe, but enough to get his attention. “Naha, whatever she did, she didn’t do it intentionally.”
“Her intentions do not matter,” he said, very softly. He did not look away from her. “When you were pulled from me, it felt much like the days of our incarceration. A summons that could be neither ignored nor denied.”
Shahar made a soft sound, not quite a whimper, and Nahadoth’s expression turned sharp and hungry. I did not blame him for his anger, but Shahar was not like the Arameri of old; she had not been raised to know the ways of gods. She did not realize that her fear could spur him to attack, because night was the time of predators and she was acting too much like prey.
Before I could think of some way to distract him, the worst occurred: she spoke.
“L-Lord Nahadoth,” she said. Her voice shook and he leaned closer to her, his breath quickening and the room growing darker. Demonshit. But then, to my surprise, she drew a deep breath and her fear receded. “Lord Nahadoth,” she said again. “I assure you, I did nothing to, to summon Lord Sieh here. I was thinking of him, yes…” She glanced at me, her expression suddenly bleak, which confused me. “I spoke his name. But not because I wanted him here; quite the opposite. I was angry. It was a curse.”
I stared at her. A curse? But her shift of mood had done what I could not; Naha exhaled and sat back.
“A curse is much like a prayer,” he said, thoughtful. “If you knew his nature well enough…”
“A prayer would not have snatched me from your void,” I said, looking down at myself. The length of my limbs was obscene. My palms were half again as large as they had been! I was meant to have small, clever child-fingers, not these monstrous paws. “And it couldn’t have done this to me. Nothing should have done this.” Now that Naha had renewed my strength, I could correct the error. I willed myself back to normal.
“Stop.” Nahadoth’s will clamped down on mine like a vise before I could begin the shaping. I froze, startled. “It is no longer safe for you to alter your form.”
“No longer safe?”
He sighed. “You do not understand.” So he looked into my eyes and made me know what he and Yeine had come to realize in the eight years since everything had gone wrong.
There is a line between god and mortal that has nothing to do with immortality. It is material: a matter of substance, composition, flexibility. This was what ultimately made the demons weaker than us, though some of them had all our power: they could cross this line, become godstuff, but it took great effort, and they could not do it for long. It was not their natural state. Other mortals could not cross the line at all. They were locked to their flesh, aging as it aged, drawing strength from its strength and growing weak with its failure. They could not shape it or the world around them, save with the crude power of their hands and wits.
The problem, Nahadoth willed me to know, was that I was no longer quite like a god. The substance of me was somewhere between godstuff and mortality — but becoming more mortal as time passed. I could still shape myself if I wished, as I had done when I arrived as the cat. But it would not go easily. There might be pain, damage to my flesh, permanent distortion. And there would come a day, perhaps today, perhaps another, when I would no longer be able to shape myself at all. If I tried then, I would die.
I stared at him and felt truly afraid.
“What are you saying?” I whispered, though he had said nothing. Mortal figure of speech. “Naha, what are you saying?”
“You are becoming mortal.”
I was breathing harder. I had not willed myself to breathe harder. Or tremble, or sweat, or grow larger, or mature into manhood. My body was doing all that on its own. My body: alien, tainted, out of control.
“I’m going to die,” I said. My mouth was dry. “Naha, growing older defies my nature. If I stay like this, if I keep aging, if I trip and fall hard enough, I’ll die the way mortals do.”
“We will find a way to heal you — ”
My fists clenched. “Don’t lie to me!”
Naha’s mask cracked, replaced by sorrow. I remembered ten million nights in his lap, begging him for stories. His beautiful lies, I had called them. He had held me and told me of wonders real and imagined, and I had been so happy to never grow up. So that he could keep lying to me forever.
“You will grow older,” he said. “As you leave childhood behind, you will grow weaker. You will begin to require sustenance and rest as mortals do, and your awareness of things beyond mortal senses will fade. You will become… fragile. And yes, if nothing is done, you will die.”
I could not bear the softness of his voice, no matter how hard the words. He was always so soft, always yielding, always tolerant of change. I did not want him to tolerate this.
I threw off the blanket and got to my feet — awkwardly, as my limbs were longer than I was used to and I had too much hair — and stumbled over to Shahar’s windows. I put my hands on the glass and leaned on it with all my weight. Mortals rarely did this, I had observed during my centuries in Sky. Even though they knew that Sky’s glass was reinforced by magic and inhumanly precise engineering, they could not rid themselves of the fear that just once, the glass might break or the pane come loose. I braced my feet and shoved. I needed something in my presence to be unmoving and strong.
Something touched my shoulder and I turned fast, irrationally aching for hard sunset eyes and harder brown arms and brick-wall flexibility. But it was only the mortal, Shahar. I glared at her, furious that she wasn’t who I wanted, and thought of batting her aside. It was her fault this had happened to me, somehow. Maybe killing her would free me.
If she had looked at me with compassion or pity, I would have done it. There was none of that in her face, though — just resentment and reluctance, nothing at all comforting, because she was Arameri and that wasn’t something they did.
Itempas had failed me, but Itempas’ chosen had been magnificently predictable for two thousand years. I yanked her closer and locked my arms around her, so tight that it couldn’t have been comfortable for her. She was shorter than me now and her cheek pressed against my collarbone. She did not bend, though — didn’t speak, didn’t return my embrace. So I held her and trembled and ground my teeth together so that I would not simply start screaming. I glared at Nahadoth through the screen of her curls.
He gazed back at me, still and rueful. He knew full well why I had turned away from him, and he forgave me for it. I hated him for that, just as I’d hated Yeine for loving Itempas, and just as I hated Itempas for going mad and not being here when I needed him. And I hated all three of them for squandering each other’s love when I would give anything, anything, to have that for myself.
“Go away,” I whispered through Shahar’s hair. “Please.”
“It isn’t safe for you here.”
I laughed bitterly, guessing his intent. “If I’m to have only a few more decades of life, Naha, I won’t spend them asleep inside you. Thanks.”
His expression tightened. He was not immune to pain, and I supposed I was driving the knives in deeper than usual. “You have enemies.”
I sighed. “I can take care of myself.”
“I will not lose you, Sieh. Not to death, and not to despair.”
“Get out!” I clutched Shahar like a teddy bear and shut my eyes, shouting. “Get out, demons take you, go away and leave me the hells alone!”
There was an instant of silence. Then I felt him go. The walls resumed their glow; the room felt suddenly looser, airy. Shahar relaxed, minutely, against me. But not all the way.
I kept her against me anyway because I was feeling selfish and I did not want to care what she wanted. But I was older now, more mature whether I wanted to be or not, so after a moment I stopped thinking solely about myself. She stepped back when I let her go, and there was a distinctly wary look in her eyes.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
I laughed, leaning back against the glass. “I don’t know.”
“Do you want to stay here?”
I groaned and put my hands on my head, tangling fingers in all my unwanted hair. “I don’t know, Shahar. I can’t think right now. This is a bit much, all right?”
She sighed. I felt her come to stand beside me at the window, radiating thought. “You can sleep in Deka’s room for tonight. In the morning I’ll speak with Mother.”
I was so soul-numb that this did not bother me nearly as much as it should have. “Fine,” I said. “Whatever. I’ll try not to wake him as I pace the floors and cry.”
There was a moment’s silence. That did not catch my attention so much as the ripple of hurt that rode in the silence’s wake. “Deka isn’t here. You’ll have the room to yourself.”
I looked at her, frowning. “Where is he?” Then it occurred to me: Arameri. “Dead?”
“No.” She didn’t look at me and her expression didn’t change, but her voice went sharp and contemptuous of my assumption. “He’s at the Litaria. The scriveners’ college? In training.”
I raised both eyebrows. “I didn’t know he wanted to become a scrivener.”
Then I understood. Arameri, yes. When there was more than one potential heir, the family head did not have to pit them against one another in a battle to the death. She could keep both alive if she put one in a clearly subordinate position. “He’s meant to be your First Scrivener, then.”
She shrugged. “If he’s good enough. There’s no guarantee. He’ll prove himself if he can, when he comes back. If he comes back.”
There was something more here, I realized. It intrigued me enough to forget my own troubles for a moment, so I turned to her, frowning. “Scrivener training lasts years,” I said. “Ten or fifteen, usually.”
She turned to face me, and I flinched at the look in her eyes. “Yes. Deka has been in training for the past eight years.”
Oh, no. “Eight years ago…”
“Eight years ago,” she said, in that same clipped, edged tone, “you and I and Deka took an oath of friendship. Immediately upon which you unleashed a flare of magic so powerful that it destroyed the Nowhere Stair and much of the underpalace — and then you vanished, leaving Deka and me buried in the rubble with more bones broken than whole.”
I stared at her, horrified. She narrowed her eyes, searching my face, and a flicker of consternation diluted her anger. “You didn’t know.”
“How could you not know?”
I shook my head. “I don’t remember anything after we joined hands, Shahar. But… you and Deka were wise to ask for my friendship; it should have made you safe from me for all time. I don’t understand what happened.”
She nodded slowly. “They pulled us out of the debris and patched us up, good as new. But I had to tell Mother about you. She was furious that we’d concealed something so important. And the heir’s life had been threatened, which meant someone had to be held accountable.” She folded her arms, holding her shoulders ever-so-slightly stiff. “Deka had fewer injuries than me. Our fullblood relatives started to hint that Deka — only Deka, never me — might have done something to antagonize you. They didn’t come right out and accuse him of plotting to use a godling as a murder weapon, but…”
I closed my eyes, understanding at last why she had cursed my name. I had stolen her innocence first, and then her brother. She would never trust me again.
“I’m sorry,” I said, knowing it was wholly inadequate.
She shrugged again. “Not your fault. I see now that what happened was an accident.”
She turned away then, pacing across her room to the door that adjoined her suite to the one that had been Dekarta’s. Opening it, she turned back to look at me, expectant.
I stayed by the window, seeing the signs clearly now. Her face was impassive, cool, but she had not completely mastered herself yet. Fury smoldered in her, banked for now, but slow-burning. She was patient. Focused. I would have thought this a good thing, if I hadn’t seen it before.
“You don’t blame me,” I said, “though I’ll wager you did, until tonight. But you still blame someone. Who?”
I expected her to dissemble. “My mother,” she said.
“You said she was pressured into sending Deka away.”
Shahar shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.” She said nothing for a moment more, then lowered her eyes. “Deka… I haven’t heard from him, since he left. He returns my letters unopened.”
Even with my senses as muddled as they were, I could feel the raw wound in her soul where a twin brother had been. A wound like that demanded redress.
She sighed. “Come on.”
I took a step toward her and stopped, startled as I realized something. Arameri heads and heirs had loathed one another since the Bright’s dawning. Unavoidable, given circumstances: two souls with the strength to rule the world were rarely good at sharing, or even cohabitating for that matter. That was why the family’s heads had been as ruthless about controlling their heirs as they were about controlling the world.
My eyes flicked to Shahar’s odd, incomplete blood-sigil. None of the controlling words were there. She was free to act against her mother, even plot to kill her, if she wanted.
She saw my look and smiled. “My old friend,” she said. “You were right about me, you know, all those years ago. Some things are my nature. Inescapable.”
I crossed the room to stand beside her on the threshold. I was surprised to find myself uncertain as I considered her. I should have felt vindicated to hear her plans of matricide. I should have said, and meant it: You’ll do worse before you’re done.
But I had tasted her childish soul, and there had been something in it that did not fit the vengeful murderess she seemed to have become. She had loved her brother, enough to sacrifice herself for him. She had sincerely yearned to be a good person.
“No,” I said. She blinked. “You’re different from the rest of them. I don’t know why. You shouldn’t be. But you are.”
Her jaw flexed. “Your influence, maybe. As gods go, you’ve had a greater impact on my life than Bright Itempas ever could.”
“That should’ve made you worse, actually.” I smiled a little, though I did not feel like it. “I’m selfish and cruel and capricious, Shahar. I’ve never been a good boy.”
She lifted an eyebrow, and her eyes flicked down. I wore nothing but my ridiculously long hair, which fell to my ankles now that I was standing. (My nails, however, had kept to my preferred length. Partial mortality, partial growth? I would live in dread of my first manicure.) I thought Shahar was looking at my waist, but my body was longer now, taller. Belatedly I realized her gaze had settled lower.
“You’re not a boy at all, anymore,” she said.
My face went hot, though I did not know why. Bodies were just bodies, penises were just penises, yet she had somehow made me feel keenly uncomfortable with mine. I could think of nothing to say in reply.
After a moment, she sighed. “Do you want food?”
“No — ” I began, but then my belly churned in that odd, clenching way that I had not felt in several mortal generations. I had not forgotten what it meant; I sighed. “But I will by morning.”
“I’ll have a double tray brought up. Will you sleep?”
I shook my head. “Too much on my mind, even if I were exhausted. Which I’m not.” Yet.
She sighed. “I see.”
Belatedly I realized she was exhausted, her face lined and paler than usual. My time-sense was returning — murky, sluggish, but functional — so I understood it had been well past midnight when she’d summoned me. Cursed me. Had she been pacing the floor herself, her mind cluttered with troubles? What had caused her to remember me, however hatefully, after all this time? Did I want to know?
“Does our oath stand, Shahar?” I asked softly. “I didn’t mean to harm you.”
She frowned. “Do you want it to stand? I seem to recall you were less than thrilled by the idea of two mortal friends.”
I licked my lips, wondering why I was so uneasy. Nervous. She made me nervous. “I think perhaps… I could use friends, under the circumstances.”
She blinked, then smiled with one side of her mouth. Unlike her earlier smiles, this one was genuine, and free of bitterness. It made me see how lonely she was without her brother — and how young. Not so far removed, after all, from the child she had been.
Then she stepped forward, putting her hands on my chest, and kissed me. It was light, friendly, just a warm press of her lips for an instant — but it rang through me like a crystal bell. She stepped back and I stared at her. I couldn’t help it.
“Friends, then,” she said. “Good night.”
I nodded mutely, then went into Deka’s room. She shut the door behind me and I slumped back against it, feeling alone and very strange.