The Kingdom of Gods was hard to write! It was the first time I’ve ever started a book without a clearly-established plan in mind — I knew where I wanted to go, but not how to get there — and under deadline pressure. So I wrote several starter versions of the book before I found the right voice and direction for it. Some of these got quite long; I probably wrote an entire novel’s worth of material in order to find the right way of telling this story. But that’s OK, because I did find the right way eventually, and that means none of these words, which helped me get there, were wasted. Still, there’s some nice bits in the trimmings.
This first scene is from an alternate version of The Kingdom of Gods that would’ve been narrated by Shahar. I thought at first that it would be best to stick to the series pattern of a female PoV character, if not protagonist (the story still would’ve been about Sieh) — but the problem with a female Arameri protagonist was that it would’ve been hard not to tread much of the same ground that I did in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Mortal politics with a side of godly shenanigans, that is — when what I really wanted to do was something drastically different. I wanted something that would not focus on the Arameri, though they’d still be important to the tale, of course. Something that would put the gods front and center, instead of those mortals caught up in the gods’ business. For that, I needed the protagonist to be a god — so although I really, really liked Shahar’s PoV, I couldn’t do enough with her. I reluctantly gave it up and started over with Sieh.
Here’s a taste of what could’ve been. An alternate take on the twins meeting Sieh, though it starts the same: with the two of them lost in the underpalace. Some of this obviously got recycled into the final version, as you might note in the sample chapters. This version would’ve been narrated by an aged Shahar to an unknown chronicler, years after the story’s events took place.
So it was that we discovered the Oubliette, where once the Stone of Earth killed the living and gave life to the dead; and the Chamber of Blades, where one of our ancestors imprisoned his firstborn son for twenty years; and the Factory, whose purpose we did not understand at the time, it being rather more sexually perverse than even precocious six-year-olds could comprehend. The swings and balls were still sound despite years of neglect, so we treated it as a gymnasium and thought it great fun.
We had nursemaids, if you wonder — a whole phalanx of them. They worked in shifts to tend us, rotating constantly so that we grew no more attached to them than any other of our servants. It was understood, however, that highblood Arameri children were granted unique license to learn the world’s limits and dangers for ourselves, provided that we did so within the relatively safe confines of Sky. No one cared, therefore, if we got into the Library and caused half a shelf of books to fall, even if we inadvertently buried ourselves in the resultant pile. Or if we played hide-and-seek on the kitchen level, once causing a chef to drop a tureen of hot soup that scalded everyone in a ten-foot radius. We counted these bruises and burns as proud battle-scars, and did not know or care if servants were executed for our mischief.
(We could have been killed, true. But if we proved ourselves too stupid to survive, the family could hardly regard it as a tragedy. This has ever been the Arameri way.)
On this particular day, however, something unusual occurred: we got lost. Like most children born to Sky, we had an uncanny ability to navigate its endlessly curving corridors; there was a logic to the place, though not the sort outsiders could usually parse. We used a map only because it had names for the most interesting of the places we found. This time, however, a junction that should have had three exits had only two, and stairwell that should have gone down went up, and we found ourselves on a level that was not on the map.
We knew we had found something strange because of this, and because it was dim, and cold. Most of Sky’s hundred or so floors had been constructed of daystone, a rare material which shone with its own warm radiance in the presence of darkness. The underlevels glowed constantly because of this, being shadowed by the rest of the palace’s bulk and short on windows — yet this one level was perhaps half as radiant as the rest. The effect was eerie as we explored the level’s corridors; light surrounded us as usual, yet it was thin and weak, gloomy and faintly bluish on our skin and fine clothes. The air felt thinner too, and palpably cooler, to the point that I began to shiver as we walked. This was not wholly due to the cold, however.
There were only a few doors on this level, which ordinarily we would have had no interest in; they were beveled at the top, which marked doors leading into living quarters. We had explored too many of these already to find them interesting, as few of them contained personal effects nicer than our own.
Yet something compelled me to open the first door that I found, and here we stared in awe, because the chamber beyond was full of weapons. I do not exaggerate the full; knives dangled from hooks along the ceiling, shields were racked upon the walls, a stand in the middle of the room held a variety of spears, and small round metal objects — cannon-shot, we would later learn — pebbled the floor, set into the very stone. Delving further, we found a peculiar network of straps and cords in one corner, and gradually realized it was a hammock formed of whips and slings. Very comfortable, once we worked out how to climb into it.
The next chamber was more spartan, though no less strange. It contained the usual furnishings of a lowblood chamber — dresser, bed, table, chairs — but pearls and coins had been scattered over the surface of every item, with a few on the floor as well. The pearls varied in size and hue, and the coins were of every metal conceivable: pewter, bronze and nickel swirled, silver, red and yellow gold, platinum with copper rims. We even found one coin that seemed to be made of hollow glass and contained a sloshing silvery liquid, which my brother said must be mercury.
The third chamber was pitch dark when we opened it; the walls in there did not glow at all. We had never seen true darkness before and it frightened us, though we pretended that we found it boring and closed that one unexplored.
And then there was the fourth chamber.
You are aware, I assume, of history? Not merely the common knowledge, but the esoterica? That my family came to power through the use of four gods — our servants, our weapons — is something any schoolchild would know. It is the nature of those gods, their relationship to one another and to us, that matters here. I ask because you show such ignorance in every other respect.
The fourth chamber was starkly bare, much to our disappointment. A rickety, unvarnished table stood in one corner, looking as ancient as it probably was. One leg had been repaired with string and glue; it still looked uncertain. On its surface sat a few odd, pathetic objects: a shiny key, a dessicated lizard carcass, two seashells, and a blue marble.
There was one other item in the room, which at first we took for a pile of rubbish. It was — countless bits of rag and string and frayed blankets and old clothing sat in the far corner, piled high enough to reach our shoulders. It stank of dry-rot and dust and other unpleasant things we could not name, sheltered as we were at that age.
Yet something drew us to this pile, so we went over to peer at it. There we discovered that this room too held a treasure, for at the center of this peculiar nest sprawled a naked, sleeping boy.
You have guessed his identity, I see. I did not, at first. This is in part because we were children, and gods were something encountered only in lessons and bedtime tales. It is also in part because, as I gazed down at that boy, I felt something very strange which distracted me. It was not desire, though I do not subscribe to the notion that children are immune to that. The boy was not beautiful, for one thing, being rather skinny and bony-limbed, with a head that seemed a bit too large for his body. He was foreign, too, or he had made himself look that way for some reason — Teman, I guessed, given the brownness of his skin and something about the shape of his face. He had rather pretty eyelashes, and I clearly remember liking the way his dark hair scattered across his cheek, half-obscuring his face where it turned to the side. Aside from this, however, I found him unremarkable. I thought at once that my brother Deka was more handsome.
Yet he fascinated me. It was his expression, perhaps, or the careless way his body had draped itself over the humps and dips of the ragpile, or the fact that he could not have cared whether anyone found him in that unguarded state. There was something about him that seemed… innocent. Yes, innocent I tell you, even though I know he had not been truly innocent since before the gods spun this world out of dust and fire. Do you think of innocence as a good thing, a blessed state? Ah, good, then you are not so much a fool as I thought. Predators are innocent, after all; they think nothing of the suffering of their prey as they tear it apart or devour it alive. That sort of innocence in an intelligent being has always been dangerous.
He would have made a good Arameri, now that I think of it.
We stared down at the boy, wondering what to make of him.
Finally Deka reached out and brushed one of the boy’s arms. His fingertips came away thickly coated with dust, which he showed to me in wonder. Yet the boy moved, breathing slowly as he slept; there was a bit less dust on his chest. Beneath their lids, his eyes moved rapidly back and forth, chasing dreams.
There are no words to describe the fascination that we felt in those moments. The yearning to keep staring at him, to get closer, to touch him, was as keen as thirst. Without speaking — for in those days Deka and I had little need of words to communicate — we climbed into the nest to inspect the boy more closely, trying to move carefully so as not to wake him. This effort went badly, as a pair of wadded pants slipped under my hand and I bumped the boy’s side with my elbow — not hard, but enough to wake most folk. We froze in alarm, but the boy did not stir.
Deka touched his foot, grazing his knuckles just beneath the toes, where both of us had always been extremely ticklish. The boy slept on.
Up close, the boy’s scent was even more intriguing. It was not the sort of smell that a child should have had, of sweat and sunlight and sugary things. Perhaps he’d smelled that way once. After this long, however — months to judge by the dust, if not years — those scents had worn away, leaving only whatever aroma gods naturally exude. I lay down beside the boy, putting my head on his outstretched arm, and was reminded of the acrid aftermath of lightning, which struck Sky’s towers now and again, and snow, which sometimes glazed the forecourt on winter mornings. And there was something else, which I would not recognize until years later when I saw the ocean for the first time: salt air. All of it together combined in some odd way that drove all reason from my head. By this point, of course, it had occurred to me that the boy might be a god, since no mortal could sleep for years without stirring or, well, dying — but I did not care. I wanted only to know more of him. I licked his arm, trying to taste his strangeness. I pressed closer, touching his belly, and moved my head to his chest so that I could breathe at his throat. If I could have, I would have climbed inside his skin. Along his other side, my brother hugged one bony leg as if it were a stuffed animal; I saw him nibble the boy’s hip, his eyes closed and brow furrowed with concentration.
But whatever it was we sought from the boy, we could not get it that way. His flesh, after all, was only a disposable shell; what we craved was hidden away inside it, unreachable.
Yet there was something unbelievably comforting about being with him, so it did not seem strange at all for us to relax there and match his stillness. And inevitably, as happens with children, we fell asleep.
Then I tried a version of The Kingdom of Gods in which Sieh was the narrator, but spoke with a rather different tone:
It shouldn’t have happened. We are not made for this, we godlings. We are creatures of whisper and bliss, our flesh formed from the particles of POSSIBILITY and the incontrovertible demands of dream. Our mother conceived each of us in the blistering madness of our fathers’ desire. She stroked us silent when we cried out at the shock of coming into being, then soothed us with songs of ending and beginning — and then she threw us away to grow or falter as we pleased. (We worshipped her. She did not care.) We were what she made of us: limited glory, inferior magnificence. Not great, like she or her brothers. But good.
I was meant to be more. So how did I end up as less?
I decided against this voice for a simple reason: Sieh is the god of childhood. Despite his vast age and experience, he cannot think like an old man; it’s not his nature. Introspection is an adult thing. Occasional navel-gazing on Sieh’s part was OK, but not a whole book in that mode.
Eventually I did find the voice I wanted, and proceeded apace. But that introspective voice kept trying to shove its way into the story. I ended up writing some scenes anyway — particularly those drawn from Sieh’s memories of the past — but cutting them in the first draft edit. This is one I was especially reluctant to cut:
He kneels before me, which is the first warning because it is not his nature to kneel. He does not bend; he stands proud and arrogant regardless of circumstances; that has always been his strength. (In secret I imitate him. Nahadoth would laugh if he knew.) Yet he is kneeling now, and there is something in his hands that I cannot see.
“Tempa?” I ask. My own voice sounds uncertain. It echoes weakly from the walls of the mortal place where I have found him: a small, simple temple, little more than a hut with a stone slab for an altar. We are alone, though from the scent I can tell a mortal has been here recently. I will come to know this scent in time, all too well. Arameri.
He rises. Slow, slow, and as he moves I think I hear a sound, like grinding stones. No, higher-pitched. Grinding glass. Glass is very strong. Properly made, it does not break easily, but when it does, the sound is almost obscene. Something beautiful tearing itself apart. How fortunate that I am only imagining it.
“Sieh,” he says. He doesn’t lift his head. His voice is soft and that is the second warning. Normally he speaks in commandments. “My son.”
I go to him, touch his shoulder, try to understand why he seems so strange. I smell blood. I try to see the thing in his hands, but he is bent over it. “Always,” I say, “but what are you doing back here? I thought you’d decided to stay in our realm. Nefa, Naha — they’re worried about you.”
“No, they aren’t,” he says. I expect emotion in his voice because this is the thing that angered him before. He left for a while. Things have been tense since Enefa and Nahadoth brought him back; a new and complicated dance of reconciliation. But they are trying. I had begun to feel hope.
Now Itempas speaks without heat or cold. There is nothing in his voice or his manner but that grinding, obscene slowness.
“Of course they’re worried!” I say. “Just because — ” There’s no tactful way to say it; I abandon that effort. “They still love you. They will always love you.”
“I love them,” he says, in that toneless voice. “And you, Sieh. My son.”
He looks up at last, and I recoil. His eyes are usually the color of suns, all suns, hot suns: white and blue and gold and red. This time, for the first time I have ever seen, they are brown. This is not the brown of mortal eyes, however — they are the brown of a sun that has fizzled, or never mustered the strength to be born. The irises are crazed and cracked like old porcelain glaze. Wavering plates of brown deadness, floating on a sea of incandescence.
“Do you love me?” he asks.
The urge to laugh strikes me, as it so often does when I am afraid. With a great effort I confine it to only an uneven smile. “Of course I do, Tempa. We may not always get along, but I will always love you, you know that.”
His terrible eyes close, to my relief. Then he stands, lifting the thing in his hands: a wide, deep bowl, made of clay etched with designs and painted white. Mortal-made. An offering? The bowl is full of blood. There are a few of my siblings, those with more violent natures, who take blood now and again, but the Three have never liked such crude gifts. I’m amazed Itempas has accepted this as he has a particular loathing for it. I also hope the bowl contains the blood of several mortals, because no individual could survive giving so much.
Before I can identify the scent, the bowl becomes a knife, big and straight and white-hilted, in one of his hands. I stare because the blade is wrong. He has always made weapons with white blades, but this is a dark, vital red. Like the blood from the bowl.
I look up at him and become acutely aware that he is gazing at me with those dead, cracked eyes. There is nothing else in his face: none of the affection or tolerant amusement or exasperation I have come to expect from him. I’m not even sure he recognizes me.
But he strokes my hair in the way that I have always loved, leans down to kiss my forehead, and then vanishes. I do not know where he has gone, but… oh gods, oh Maelstrom, this is an evil thought and I will hate myself for it even more when I later learn what he has done with that knife, but…
I exhale in relief, and am glad when he’s gone.
I cut the above because it didn’t add anything to Sieh’s story. It’s interesting, yes; it’s the moment when Itempas snaps and starts the Gods’ War. But “it’s interesting” isn’t enough of a reason to keep a scene in a novel, I believe. Every bit of text should advance the narrative in some way, even if only by revealing important traits of a given character. And ultimately, this scene revealed nothing new. We know Itempas cracked when his son was murdered. We know Sieh hates him for this. So into the snips bin it went.
But it’s still good stuff, IMO, so now you get to see it here!
More KoG snips later, after the third sample chapter goes up.