TKA Serials: N.K. Jemisin Part Two
Next on TKA Serials -- Maria Geraci, author of THE BOYFRIEND OF THE MONTH CLUB (11/29)
THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, Sample Chapter 2 (missed Chap 1? Click here.)
The capital of my land is called Arrebaia. It is a place of ancient stone, its walls overgrown by vines and guarded by beasts that do not exist. We have forgotten when it was founded, but it has been the capital for at least two thousand years. People there walk slowly and speak softly, out of respect for the generations that have trodden those streets before, or perhaps just because they do not feel like being loud.
Sky — the city, I mean — is only five hundred years old, built when some disaster befell the previous Arameri seat. This makes it an adolescent as cities go — and a rude, uncouth one at that. As my carriage rode through the city’s center, other carriages went past in a clatter of wheels and horseshoes. People covered every sidewalk, bumping and milling and bustling, not talking. They all seemed in a hurry. The air was thick with familiar smells like horses and stagnant water amid indefinable scents, some acrid and some sickly-sweet. There was nothing green in sight.
What was I — ?
Oh, yes. The gods.
Not the gods that remain in the heavens, who are loyal to Bright Itempas. There are others who were not loyal. Perhaps I should not call them gods, since no one worships them anymore. (How does one define “god”?) There must be a better name for what they are. Prisoners of war? Slaves? What did I call them before, weapons?
They are said to be somewhere in Sky, four of them, trapped in tangible vessels and kept under lock and key and magic chain. Perhaps they sleep in crystal cases and are awakened on occasion to be polished and oiled. Perhaps they are shown off to honored guests.
But sometimes, sometimes, their masters call them forth. And sometimes there are strange new plagues. Sometimes the population of an entire city will vanish overnight. Sometimes jagged, steaming pits appear where once there were mountains.
It is not safe to hate the Arameri. Instead we hate their weapons, because weapons do not care.
My courtier companion was T’vril, who introduced himself as the palace steward. The name told me at least part of his heritage at once, but he went on to explain: he was a halfbreed like me, part Amn and part Ken. The Ken inhabit an island far to the east; they are famous for their seacraft. His strange red-colored hair came from them.
“Dekarta’s beloved wife, the Lady Ygreth, died tragically young more than forty years ago,” T’vril explained. He spoke briskly as we walked through Sky’s white halls, not sounding particularly broken up about the tragedy of the dead lady. “Kinneth was just a child at the time, but it was already clear she would grow up to be a more than suitable heir, so I suppose Dekarta felt no pressing need to remarry. When Kinneth, er, left the family fold, he turned to the children of his late brother. There were four of them originally; Relad and Scimina were the youngest. Twins — runs in the family. Alas, their elder sister met with an unfortunate accident, or so the official story goes.”
I just listened. It was a useful, if appalling, education about my new kin, which was probably why T’vril had decided to tell me. He had also informed me of my new title, duties, and privileges, at least in brief. I was Yeine Arameri now, no longer Yeine Darr. I would have new lands to oversee and wealth beyond imagining. I would be expected to attend Consortium sessions regularly now, and sit in the Arameri private box when I did so. I would be permitted to dwell permanently in Sky in the welcoming bosom of my maternal relatives, and I would never see my homeland again.
It was hard not to dwell on that last bit, as T’vril continued.
“Their elder brother was my father — also dead, thanks to his own efforts. He was fond of young women. Very young women.” He made a face, though I had the sense he’d told the story often enough that it didn’t really trouble him. “Unfortunately for him, my mother was just old enough to get with child. Dekarta executed him when her family took exception.” He sighed and shrugged. “We highbloods can get away with a great many things, but… well, there are rules. We were the ones to establish a worldwide age of consent, after all. To ignore our own laws would be an offense to the Skyfather.”
I wanted to ask why that mattered when Bright Itempas didn’t seem to care what else the Arameri did, but I held my tongue. There had been a note of dry irony in T’vril’s voice in any case; no comment was necessary.
With a brisk efficiency that would have made my no-nonsense grandmother jealous, T’vril had me measured for new clothing, scheduled for a visit to a stylist, and assigned quarters all in the span of an hour. Then came a brief tour, during which T’vril chattered endlessly as we walked through corridors lined with white mica or mother-of-pearl or whatever shining stuff the palace was made of.
I stopped listening to him at about this point. If I had paid attention, I probably could have gleaned valuable information about important players in the palace hierarchy, power struggles, juicy rumors, and more. But my mind was still in shock, trying to absorb too many new things at once. He was the least important of them, so I shut him out.
He must have noticed, though he didn’t seem to mind. Finally we reached my new apartment. Floor-to-ceiling windows ran along one wall, which afforded me a stunning view of the city and countryside below — far, far below. I stared, my mouth hanging open in a way that would’ve earned me a scold from my mother, had she still been alive. We were so high that I couldn’t even make out people on the streets below.
T’vril said something then that I simply did not digest, so he said it again. This time I looked at him. “This,” he said, pointing to his forehead. The half-moon mark.
He repeated himself a third time, showing no sign of the exasperation he should have felt. “We must see Viraine, so that he can apply the blood sigil to your brow. He should be free from court duty by now. Then you can rest for the evening.”
He stared at me for a moment. “Your mother did not tell you?
“Tell me what?”
“Of the Enefadeh.”
The look that crossed T’vril’s face was somewhere between pity and dismay. “Lady Kinneth didn’t prepare you for this at all, did she?” Before I could think of a response to that, he moved on. “The Enefadeh are the reason we wear the blood-sigils, Lady Yeine. No one may pass the night in Sky without one. It isn’t safe.”
I pulled my thoughts away from the strangeness of my new title. “Why isn’t it safe, Lord T’vril?”
He winced. “Just T’vril, please. Lord Dekarta has decreed that you are to receive a fullblood mark. You are of the Central Family. I am a mere halfblood.”
I could not tell if I had missed important information, or if something had been left unsaid. Probably several somethings. “T’vril. You must realize nothing you’re saying makes any sense to me.”
“Perhaps not.” He ran a hand over his hair; this was the first sign of discomfort he’d shown. “But an explanation would take too long. There’s less than an hour ’til sunset.”
I supposed that this too was one of those rules the Arameri insisted on being such sticklers for, though I could not imagine why. “All right, but…” I frowned. “What of my coachman? He’s waiting for me in the forecourt.
“I didn’t think I’d be staying.”
T’vril’s jaw flexed, containing whatever honest reply he might have made. Instead he said, “I’ll have someone send him away and give him a bonus for his trouble. He won’t be needed; we have plenty of servants here.”
I had seen them throughout our tour — silent, efficient figures bustling about Sky’s halls, clad all in white. An impractical color for people whose job it was to clean, I thought, but I didn’t run the place.
“That coachman traveled across this continent with me,” I said. I was irked and trying not to show it. “He’s tired and his horses are too. Can he not be given a room for the night? Give him one of those marks too, and then let him leave in the morning. That’s only courteous.”
“Only Arameri may wear the blood sigil, my lady. It’s permanent.”
“Only — ” Understanding leapt in my head. “The servants here are family?”
The look he threw me was not bitter, though perhaps it should have been. He had given me the clues already, after all: his roaming father, his own status as the steward. A high-ranking servant, but still a servant. He was as Arameri as I, but his parents had not been married; strict Itempans frowned on illegitimacy. And his father had never been Dekarta’s favorite.
As if reading my thoughts, T’vril said, “As Lord Dekarta said, Lady Yeine — all descendants of Shahar Arameri must serve. One way or another.”
There were so many untold tales in his words. How many of our relatives had been forced to leave their homelands and whatever futures they might’ve had, to come here and mop floors or peel vegetables? How many had been born here, and never left? What happened to those who tried to escape?
Would I become one of them, like T’vril?
No. T’vril was unimportant, no threat to those who stood to inherit the family’s power. I would not be so lucky.
He touched my hand with what I hoped was compassion. “It’s not far.”
On its upper levels, Sky seemed to have windows everywhere. Some corridors even had ceilings of clear glass or crystal, though the view was only of the sky and the palace’s many rounded spires. The sun had not yet set — its lower curve had only touched the horizon in the past few minutes — but T’vril set a more brisk pace than before. I paid closer attention to the servants as we walked, seeking the small commonalities of our shared lineage. There were a few: many sets of green eyes, a certain structure of the face (which I lacked completely, having taken after my father). A certain cynicism, though that might’ve been my imagination. Beyond that, they were all as disparate as T’vril and I, though most seemed to be Amn or some Senmite race. And each of them bore a forehead-marking; I had noticed that before, but dismissed it as some local fashion. A few had triangles or diamond-shapes, but most wore a simple black bar.
I did not like the way they looked at me, eyes flicking near and then away.
“Lady Yeine.” T’vril stopped a few paces ahead, noticing that I had fallen behind. He had inherited the long legs of his Amn heritage; I had not, and it had been a very trying day. “Please, we have little time.”
“All right, all right,” I said, too tired to be strictly polite anymore. But he did not resume walking, and after a moment I saw that he had gone stiff, staring down the corridor in the direction we were to go.
A man stood above us.
I call him a man, in retrospect, because that is what he seemed at the time. He stood on a balcony overlooking our corridor, framed perfectly by the ceiling’s arch. I gathered he had been traveling along a perpendicular corridor up there; his body still faced that direction, frozen in mid-pace. Only his head had turned toward us. By some trick of the shadows, I could not see his face, yet I felt the weight of his eyes.
He put a hand on the balcony railing with slow, palpable deliberation.
“What is it, Naha?” said a woman’s voice, echoing faintly along the corridor. A moment later she appeared. Unlike the man, she was clearly visible to me: a reedy Amn beauty of sable hair, patrician features, and regal grace. I recognized her by that hair as the woman who’d sat beside Dekarta, at the Salon. She wore the kind of dress that only an Amn woman could do justice — a long straight tube the color of deep, bloody garnets.
“What do you see?” she asked, looking at me although her words were for the man. She lifted her hands, twirling something in her fingers, and I saw then that she held a delicate silver chain. It dangled from her hand and curved back up; I realized that the chain was connected to the man.
“Aunt,” T’vril said, pitching his voice with a care that let me know at once who she was. The lady Scimina — my cousin and rival heir. “You look lovely this evening.”
“Thank you, T’vril,” she replied, though her eyes never left my face. “And who is this?”
There was the faintest pause. By the taut look on T’vril’s face, I gathered he was trying to think of a safe answer. Some quirk of my own nature — in my land, only weak women allowed men to protect them — made me step forward and incline my head. “I am Yeine Darr.”
Her smile said that she’d already guessed it. There could not have been many Darre in the palace. “Ah, yes. Someone spoke of you after Uncle’s audience today. Kinneth’s daughter, are you?”
“I am.” In Darr, I would have drawn a knife at the malice in her sweet, falsely-polite tone. But this was Sky, blessed palace of Bright Itempas, the lord of order and peace. Such things were not done here. I looked to T’vril for an introduction.
“The lady Scimina Arameri,” he said. He did not swallow or fidget, to his credit, but I saw how his eyes flicked back and forth between my cousin and the motionless man. I waited for T’vril to introduce the man, but he did not.
“Ah, yes.” I did not try to mimic Scimina’s tone. My mother had tried, on multiple occasions, to teach me how to sound friendly when I did not feel friendly, but I was too Darre for that. “Greetings, Cousin.”
“If you’ll excuse us,” T’vril said to Scimina almost the instant I closed my mouth, “I’m showing Lady Yeine around the palace — ”
The man beside Scimina chose that moment to catch his breath in a shuddering gasp. His hair, long and black and thick enough to make any Darre man jealous, fell forward to obscure his face; his hand on the railing tightened.
“A moment, T’vril.” Scimina examined the man thoughtfully, then lifted her hand as if to cup his cheek under the curtain of hair. There was a click, and she pulled away a delicate, cleverly jointed silver collar.
“I’m sorry, Aunt,” T’vril said, and now he was no longer bothering to hide his fear; he caught my hand in his own, tight. “Viraine’s expecting us, you know how he hates — ”
“You will wait,” Scimina said, cold in an instant. “Or I may forget that you have made yourself so useful, T’vril. A good little servant…”She glanced at the black-haired man and smiled indulgently. “So many good servants, here in Sky. Don’t you think, Nahadoth?”
Nahadoth was the black-haired man’s name, then. Something about the name stirred a feeling of recognition in me, but I could not recall where I’d heard it before.
“Don’t do this,” T’vril said. “Scimina."
“She has no mark,” Scimina replied. “You know the rules.”
“This has nothing to do with the rules and you know it!” T’vril said with some heat. But she ignored him.
I felt it then. I think I had felt it since the man’s gasp — a shiver of the atmosphere. A vase rattled nearby. There was no visible cause for this, but somehow I knew: somewhere, on an unseen plane, a part of reality was shifting aside. Making room for something new.
The black-haired man lifted his head to look at me. He was smiling. I could see his face now, and his mad, mad eyes, and I suddenly knew who he was. What he was.
“Listen to me.” T’vril, his voice tight in my ear. I could not look away from the black-haired creature’s eyes. “You must get to Viraine. Only a fullblood can command him off now, and Viraine is the only one — oh for demons’ sake, look at me!”
He moved into my line-of-sight, blocking my view of those eyes. I could hear a soft murmur, Scimina speaking in a low voice. It sounded like she was giving instructions, which made a peculiar parallel with T’vril in front of me doing the same. I barely heard them both. I felt so cold.
“Viraine’s study is two levels above us. There are lifting-chambers at every third corridor-juncture; look for an alcove between vases of flowers. Just — just get to one of those, and then think up. The door will be straight ahead. While there’s still light in the sky you have a chance. Go. Run!”
He pushed me, and I stumbled off. Behind me rose an inhuman howl, like the voices of a hundred wolves and a hundred jaguars and a hundred winter winds, all of them hungry for my flesh. Then there was silence, and that was most frightening of all.
I ran. I ran. I ran.
To read Chapter 3, visit NKJemisin.com.