Shades in Shadow, p.1N. K. Jemisin
Table of Contents
THE WILD BOY
THE GOD WITHOUT A NAME
THE THIRD WHY
Meet the Author
Also by N. K. Jemisin
Table of Contents
Shades in Shadow
An Inheritance Triptych
N. K. Jemisin
Meet the Author
About Orbit Short Fiction
Table of Contents
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THE WILD BOY
“When I am free,” he said, “I will choose who shapes me.”
“But…” I frowned. “That isn’t freedom.”
“At the dawn of reality I was myself. There was nothing and no one else to influence me—only the Maelstrom that had given birth to me, and it did not care. I tore open my flesh and spilled out the substance of what became your realm: matter and energy and cold black blood. I devoured my own mind and reveled in the novelty of pain.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. I swallowed hard and tried to will them away, but abruptly the hands returned, lifting my chin. Fingers stroked my eyes shut, brushing the tears away.
“When I am free, I will choose,” he said again, whispering, very close.
—The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, chapter 22: “Such Rage”
* * *
Want is a thing. Nahadoth has never lost the habit of attempting to classify things, because things were once so difficult to understand. At the beginning. Time is a thing, too; Nahadoth knows this now, has accepted the conceptualization of beginningness and endingness and whereness and whoness because these are all things that make life more interesting, though it is also interesting to discard them. Whatness, however, is always hard. Nahadoth is everything, after all.
No. Nahadoth—he? He, per Itempas’s decree, how predictable—he is not everything. There was a beforetime in which Nahadoth encompassed all that could be perceived, except that which was Maelstrom. But that time is long past, and he does not miss it, because now there is another he and for a time there was a her and after that, many. Among and apart from them all, he has become the whatness that is called Nahadoth.
He savors his name again for the several quintillionth time, marveling again at its whole round syllables, its perfect appropriateness. He has loved this name, this thing, since Itempas first bestowed it upon him. His name is a good thing, and he likes it.
Itempas was a good thing, too, once.
Nahadoth wants and does not know what or why.
* * *
The boy is not lost the first time he comes. Many mortals stumble upon Nahadoth’s chamber and just as quickly flee. This one sought him out. That is a new thing, though not interesting in and of itself. Simply different.
Nahadoth’s chamber is a room in a place. The body into which Itempas has chained Nahadoth resides here, anchoring him in the mortal realm, so it is fitting that the room is at the bottom of a building. And within the room is a chamber—a pit, really, into which the mortals have thrown him. How poetic. Perhaps it is better called a well. It has a wall. And he wells at the bottom of it, a living spring gushing forth everything that they hate—even though if he did not do so, they would cease to exist. By keeping him here, they hope to contain the curling, liquid eddies of substance that appear on those occasions when the world spins into shadow, and the body leaks some fraction of his darkness. (The body sleeps at the bottom of the dark well by day. He has no power over it, other than that, but he is too jealous of what he has to give even that up.) He stays where they have put him because he does not care. One place in the mortal realm is as bad as another. But he is also out, about, roaming, because that is what he is, and all wheres are everywhere to him. He is Nahadoth, and that is everywhere and everything, except wherever and whatever the Maelstrom is and wherever and whatever his siblings are.
Sibling. Just one now. That is a thing, a familiar one, but not a good one.
He is contemplating this loss when the boy comes, and perhaps because of this Nahadoth does not notice at first. Another mortal, another day. This one says something, or maybe whispers, or maybe laughs. Nahadoth pays no attention until suddenly the boy thrusts his face into him.
A trivial distinction. The room is dim. The boy was already within him. But the boy breaches the surface of the well’s blackness, and that is different. Different is interesting, so Nahadoth does not remove the boy’s face. Yet.
“So it isn’t true.” The boy, who has bent to plunge his head into what resembles a pool of relentless black, laughs a little. (This tickles.) “They said…Well, they say a lot of things about you.” He straightens, wiping his face without thinking, then looks surprised to find his hand dry. Then he chuckles again.
There is something in the boy’s laugh that Nahadoth understands. That unsteadiness, with a core of emptiness. That little waver, as if the laugh teeters between humor and hysteria and utter falseness. There is a black hole in this one’s soul.
“Haangratsajim,” the boy says, bowing with a flourish. “That’s my name, if you’re wondering. No one here can pronounce it—it’s Ostei—so I’m just Haan now. It’s on the papers they gave me. Haan Arameri, bought and paid for, all proper.”
Ostei no longer exists. The gods’ warring destroyed it and its inhabitants, save for a handful of survivors. Nahadoth remembers seducing a princess there once, before Itempas’s madness. That princess had been a wild creature, irresponsible and full of joy, who had drawn Nahadoth’s attention by standing on a cliff and shouting at the moon. For no particular reason, she’d said, when Nahadoth manifested and drew her close and kissed more shouts out of her. Because life. Ostei had been full of wild ones like her.
This one is different, Nahadoth senses—a cold wildness, rather than hot.
“Bought and paid for,” the boy whispers, and then his face changes. He turns as this happens, so that his back is to the well and his face is out of sight. Or he would be, if the room’s shadows were not also Nahadoth, and if Nahadoth actually needed eyes to see. So Nahadoth sees the sudden bloom of teeth in the shadows and understands that the boy is smiling a hunter’s smile.
“I am a thing,” the boy says softly. “That’s what they’ve decided I am, and so that is what I will be. A thing need not bother with human niceties, yes? So now they will see.”
This is more interesting than Nahadoth had assumed. He settles in to watch, glad of a respite from the boredom.
* * *
The boy goes away eventually. Nahadoth chooses not to think for a time.
But he roams, because he cannot help himself. Everywhere there is darkness, Nahadoth exists. (In the language that Itempas has created, Nahadoth is the word for things that cannot be perceived, cannot be comprehended, can only be unleashed.) He does not pay attention to most of what he detects via the dark that is his ears and skin and teeth and guts. Most of it is routine, and supremely boring. Stars—sparkle flare sparkle. Planets—spin shatter spin. Life—chatter chitter chatter.
(But it is more interesting than the universe before Itempas, so he does not complain.)
Nahadoth supposes he should pay attention to the locality that encompasses his flesh more often, since most of him will be confined here for the foreseeable future. He is aware of this whereness, peripherally, because the body occasionally demands his attention. It hungers; it itches; someone has poked it. It sleeps and tries to dream, though his presence within it sucks the dreams away into a dark place. Remarkably irritating, these interruptions, as much by their constancy as their banality. Perhaps Itempas means to annoy him into submission.
Anger. That is a thing, too.
He reverberates with anger, then snarls and makes himself stop when he inadvertently harmonizes with the vibration of the universe. The universe is an angry place these days, but he does not want harmony of any kind. Itempas can force him into a kind of union, into the shape of this flesh, but Nahadoth will not join with Itempas again willingly, which is what Itempas wants. (Nahadoth also means “that which cannot be controlled.”)
Yet as the resonance of anger fades, he becomes aware of an echo nearby, so close that he almost failed to notice it. For a moment, it felt like part of himself. Pounding anger, hand-shaking anger, anger that fires the blood and embitters the mouth and screams and screams and screams…
* * *
Someone commands him to stop screaming, and the chains drag him into silence.
* * *
The boy again.
“I did it,” he murmurs in the darkness of the well chamber. His voice is deeper now; time has passed and he is older. “It’s done.”
Nahadoth has no idea what he means and does not care, though the boy’s satisfaction is like a small star radiant within the darkened chamber. A lovely addition to this private universe. Then the boy says:
“How do you stand it? Knowing that no one wants you?”
The words cause Nahadoth unexpected pain. Also, he’s not sure how to answer because he can’t stand it.
The boy—Haan, a name too small to encompass the whole of him—shakes his head, long sleek hair shimmering like a curtain. The tips of that hair brush the surface of Nahadoth’s substance, gold vanishing into blackness. “My father sent me here, you know. Because he was afraid of me. I never did anything to earn that fear, not there. Propriety, and all. Never shit where you sleep. But I think he knew what I was capable of, and I think that’s why he sold me to our illustrious cousins when they came around and ‘suggested’ that all Arameri should live here. He would not give up his life to come, but he offered his only begotten son.”
Haan puts a hand to his face beneath the curtain of gold hair and utters another of those soft, wavering, empty laughs. “Such a sacrifice! How noble it made him seem, and how it raised him in the esteem of the Central Family. He’s a wealthy man now. All his prestige has been bought and paid for with the flesh of his heir.”
Not all parents love their children, Nahadoth thinks. And this child, plainly, loves no one.
“Now I am heir to nothing. A menial servant. I am assigned to Lady Sessara’s chambers. I clean up her messes and I pour her drinks and I fetch her documents when she has visitors. And when the visitors are done, she tells me to go make sure the bed is warm.” Another laugh. “That’s fun, at least. She makes the sweetest little sounds. Then when she’s done, her husband comes. I like his sounds, too. But both of them command me to be silent. I may give pleasure, but I am permitted none of my own.”
Nahadoth is beginning to lose interest. He was the one who gave suffering to mortalkind, after all, and this boy is just another suffering creature. The mortals amaze him sometimes with the creativity of their cruelty. Yet…it is interesting, how little the suffering seems to affect Haan. This boy does not feel pain, or humiliation, or regret—just anger. And glee? Something like.
Still boring. Nahadoth drifts awhile, spinning within a magma bubble somewhere far below while the boy keeps talking. Something about Lady Sessara’s new heir, who of course looks like the boy, because the boy is pretty and breeding is important. That is probably why they brought him here. It’s only been a hundred years since Tempa gave the power of gods to mortals for safekeeping, and Shahar’s descendants number only in the dozens. Not safe, should there ever be a need for them to wield the Stone of Earth; they’d burn through all the unimportant family members in moments and be forced too quickly to kill people who matter. There is no reason for them to need Enefa’s power, no possible reason, but they have it and the possibility intrigues them. They want to be ready—just in case. Eventually they’ll find excuses to attempt it, and they’ll need experimental fodder when the time comes.
“But this thing that I am, it is not harmless,” the boy says, whispering now. The whites of his eyes almost have a glow in the dimness. “That’s all I am to them, a thing. And when they do not need me, I am free to wander as I please. I wandered into the library one day and researched the herbs I needed. So easy, while they were each using me, to push a little needle in here and there. So sad, when they were later found on top of each other, both dead, that they expired in such a humiliating way.”
Oh. This is interesting suddenly. Do the Arameri have any idea what sort of wolf they’ve let into their fold? Probably not.
The boy has fallen silent now. Nahadoth waits, hoping he will say something else interesting. But then the boy says, soft and a bit desperate, “Will you ever speak to me?”
“What shall I say?” Nahadoth replies.
The boy gasps and stumbles back, his expression sick with horror. Because no one—not even the boy—ever expects a thing to talk back.
He flees, and Nahadoth drifts again.
* * *
Eventually something pulls him back to this where and when. The boy, the boy, always the boy. How irritating. Why does he interest Nahadoth at all? He’s just another mortal, only marginally more vicious than the rest. His murderousness isn’t even novel, because all mortals kill in one way or another. It is their nature, as Enefa bade them.
The boy stands on the parapet of a tower, which is the last remaining mortal-built structure in the body of the whereness called palace. He is holding by the wrist another mortal, who cries and pisses and kicks feebly, above a drop of several hundred feet. The imperiled mortal is as pretty as Haan is, younger and also a servant to judge by his plain garb, and with only that glance it is easy for Nahadoth to intuit what’s happening. Haan is older now, not a boy at all anymore, and the power he once held by being beautiful and desirable is fading. He must compete harder for the favor of his masters, and he has taken that competition very seriously. More seriously than his younger rival, in any case. So easy to weave the illusion of suicide. And because the person who has died is only a servant, it’s unlikely anyone will look closer to find the truth.
The rival drops, screaming. The boy watches until a red crumple is all that remains of his erstwhile competition. Nahadoth feels his vague dissatisfaction and is unsurprised. Killing Lady Sessara and her noble husband was much more challenging. His boy is nothing if not a craftsman.
His boy? Oh, yes. Nahadoth smiles to himself, deep in the shadowed well. Even though he is supposed to have no worshippers, is permitted to answer no prayers, he still knows his own.
Nahadoth relaxes and lets himself drift again—but not far this time. He keeps his consciousness relatively near this realm, because it is only a matter of time before his boy does something else fun.
* * *
They use him again, or try to. One of them speaks, the chains tighten and grind, and Nahadoth is dragged from the well to do a mortal’s bidding. They grimace at the sight of him because his form is only rudimentary; Itempas laid the rules that his flesh must follow, but Itempas can no longer shape him beyond that. (Nahadoth retains that much power over himself.) But for what they want, a rudimentary god will do. Make darkness, they tell him, and they point at a place. He does what they co
They send Nahadoth back to his well.
* * *
A gift. Nsana sends it quietly, from afar. Not all of the children who love Nahadoth are imprisoned with him, because not all of them offended Itempas enough to merit punishment. Tempa is nothing if not fair in his cruelty. Nsana is the first to reach out to Nahadoth, and the instant he feels it, he knows Nsana has endangered himself, because Itempas watches. (No, Itempas does not watch their children. He watches Nahadoth, always, with a close and jealous eye.) But even Tempa cannot punish a dream, can he? Tempa cannot want Naha to go mad again. He cannot. He cannot. Not even if Tempa has gone mad himself.
This dream is a memory, because Nsana knows better than to let Nahadoth’s mind roam where it will. (Memory of a face in ivory damask, eyes shut and lashes dewed, openmouthed in pleasure and abandon. Nahadoth was careful, careful, because dreams are fragile, but Nsana was stronger than he seemed.) Nsana understands him better than even Sieh does. This dream consists of a single sense: taste. Nahadoth closes his eyes and opens his body’s mouth and for a moment there is musk on his tongue, slightly bitter, not entirely pleasant. Aromatic. The taste of it radiates up through the body’s sinus cavity, offering an impression of itself to other senses: the redolence of old leather and dried leaves, the warmth of an afternoon sun. The last time he tasted this was long ago, but he remembers it because it was a beautiful day on a beautiful world, which he spent entirely absorbed in the sensations and pleasurable constrictions of mortal flesh. His own and that of two others. Smooth muscled arms clothed in black skin, holding him close from behind. A narrow burnished torso leaning close so that he can nuzzle tiny breasts; long strong fingers threading into his hair with no fear of being swallowed into the dark place that it contains. Hardness and heat, liquid and friction, bone and softness, teeth and tongue. A soft male voice in his ear
Shades in Shadow by N. K. Jemisin / Fantasy have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes