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THE KINGDOM OF GODS

 

1

Trickster, trickster

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, 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—whom we shall call Nahadoth because that is a pretty name, and whomwe 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 that 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 that was aware and that 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-absorbedson 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 atall, 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 because they were the only living beings in the universe after all, 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 a while 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 a while, 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 notchange. “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 acknowledgment. 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 thinkwe 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 introuble 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 that sat in perpetual shadow and 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, 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 complemented 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 his eyes belied his racing thoughts. “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-stretchedfacial lines, but his hair was blacker than Nahadoth’s void and as 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—no, wait. It was there, just subtle. A fullness to her lips, the angle of her 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 pure-blooded, either.

I glanced at the boy again and saw the warning-sign wariness in his eyes. Yes, of course. They would have already begun tomake 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 drew up my knees, pressing my forehead against them. Comforting flesh and bone, as 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 my 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. “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 the Father of All 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 then 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.