You are a young god. You are sweet volcanic soil and the rumbling voice of the stone and banners that snap in the wind. You are the best and deepest desires of your people. You are, in the body that is only somewise yourself, pleasing to mortal eyes, easier to petition than the mountain, and as they forget the form that they speak to is not precisely yourself, you forget a little, too.
You are on the road to war.
Peace should follow prosperity. If the folk from the hills and the grasslands raid your villages, you reason, it is because they lack for what your fertile farms and seething seas can offer. The proposition is self-evident, but even your most devoted priests fight smiles they can’t quite hide when you say so.
You are what mortals need from you, but also what mortals believe of you, and they tend not to believe in their own worst selves.
It will be a short war. Your soldiers are better fed and outfitted than theirs. Your soldiers are second- or third-born and leave their homes and hearths in good hands, unafraid for their elders and children. Your soldiers march with their god at their backs.
Your soldiers win.
The first battle is a whirlwind of broken bodies and filth. You learn the taste of blood and are inconsolable for days as iron and salt seeps into the soil that is you. The soldiers who are you and who died trusting you calcify within your vast, awful heart.
Their families will be cared for. The priests seem unsure of how best to effect your declaration, so you acquire secretaries. No one has ever heard of a god with secretaries, but as each petitioner cries out to you, and you reach out to answer with all your power, you are distracted, depleted. A small, dedicated corps of scribes to record names and orders allows you to funnel fury and favor where they belong.
The second battle does not happen. Rumor of your victory has reached this ragged band, and the flat eyes and sharp cheekbones on every soldier make more effective pleas for mercy than all their general’s eloquence.
You grant it. You feel the anger of your troops and this time you understand greed, like you understand blood. One of your soldiers demands the meager purse of a yielding enemy, and is struck with three days of painful blisters. You know wrath, now, learned as you tested the sinews of mercy.
Two priests and one secretary return with the surrendered army to their own city. You are warned by your generals that they’ll be slain within the hour. But then your banners fly over the walls, and their prayers come to you.
Until now, your blessings have been the blessings of the mountain. The walled city is too far for the soil to grow rich and dark with your ash. In the villages where you first walked, they bow to their fellows a little differently, they wear different sorts of hats in the sun, they carve their dice from driftwood and not bone. When your new people call to you, your answers ring discordant.
But the walled city has no harbor and extensive ironworks. They raise sheep with handsome wool, not the goats you’re used to. Priests and secretaries and god together, you craft a blessing of ink and parchment, and soon you understand a shallow bow with clasped hands as well as a deep one, fingers-to-forehead.
Most of your enemies surrender. The army of quills grows to rival the army of spears. From each village and camp and fortress, what can be spared. To each, what is needed.
You meet another god, older but smaller than yourself. It is a god of rivers and of silence, a god who gave council in days long past when the people here dwelt in villages built of skins and wandered with the seasons.
You could kill the river god, devour it, unmake it, or make it an extension of yourself. You aren’t sure how you know this, and you, born in the heart of a sleeping volcano, are as unlike a river as a god may be. But you could. It is easy, you suspect, to become a god of devouring.
A young priest liaises on your behalf with its old priests. It shares its small tributes with you, and you hardly notice, but to refuse seems impolite.
Then comes a legion, legions upon legions, an army that will not surrender. Most of the soldiers would. You hear their unconscious petitions, feel their longing, but they hold their position. Their families are neither safe nor satiated. Their backs bear the scars of the lash. They fear their leader, and their leader fears you.
From him you learn what fear is, and you learn that the cries of mortals reach you whether they are born in hope or hate. You learn that there are wars of hunger and desperation and wars for the same petty greed you once answered with blisters. You try that trick again, but if it works, he doesn’t retreat or even give you the satisfaction of a reaction.
You stand before his army on feet that look like mortal feet, seeing through eyes that look like mortal eyes. You stand before his army as the volcano’s roar, the fire that gives life to the soil and extracts its price in ruin when the eruption comes at last. You stand before his army and above it and you whisper in the heart of every soldier that if they come to you, you will give them a place in the shadow of the mountain.
You believe they will come. The river god, the walled city, the secretaries, they taught you the rules of mortal games. Safety, mercy, gratitude, self-interest.
They do not come. They stand, and you feel them tense with wanting and fearing.
And, finally, one breaks rank.
You open your arms, expecting a wave.
The soldier falls with an arrow between her shoulder blades.
You thought you knew the taste of wrath. You did not. You knew anger, yes. But you are a god, and wrath is something entirely else.
The sky goes all at once and impossibly black. The petty lord and his army are gone. Smoke and ash dance in the wind, but the wind is cold as only death is cold. Bones and blood, leathers and spears, all is lifeless grit, burned in a heartbeat to nothing but memory. When the mountain quiets, only stone is left behind.
One body lies intact in a bed of soft, gray ash, the soldier who tried to reach you. She is young, and there is no pride in that youth, no proof that the old are at ease and there are strong bodies to spare from the harvest. Too young. Too thin. But perfect, not a hair disturbed by the cold wind.
Even your priests don’t meet your eyes for a few days.
You wouldn’t either, in their place. You’d avoid your own company if you could, but you are yourself above yourself, every godly boot you plant in the thin soil a greeting between one facet of the same crystal and another. A god requires a certain serenity for the world’s sake, and you find it. Wrath will not steal you from your better judgment again. The mountain sleeps.
You conduct the soldier’s body home personally. You elevate her widowed mother to the priesthood, where she lives out her days in the greatest comfort grief allows. You make her younger brother lord in place of the one you destroyed. He doesn’t take to it particularly well, but he marries a sensible woman. His son is brought up to the trade of ruling, and his granddaughter becomes one of your first provincial governors.
The solitary defector gets one statue in her home village, grown into a trading hub when the river developed a new tributary overnight. One statue in the mansion her grandniece builds. And one in your campaign tent, small enough to carry with you always, and to remind you of your first, great failure.
You are a god and an emperor. The latter was an accident, but you did seem to be head of state despite your best efforts. What once were the people of many nations call to you now.
An old friend walks at your side. Her great-great-grandaunt trusted you, and with her death sealed the fate of a tyrant and made all his victims yours. The governor is a great-grandmother herself, and her line and her retinue are alike impressive. A grandson walks at her side, lending his arm. A captain of her guard and his two lieutenants, a cousin’s child reared in her household. A secretary, for gods and emperors both set fashions. Two servants, one bearing the train of her robe, the other juggling a fan and parasol. And, for reasons you are not permitted to know, four more retainers with no apparent duties.
(No one tries to surprise a god. You’re charmed by the novelty.)
You—the body that mortals think of as you—look as young as the grandson. You wonder, sometimes, what gave you this shape. Did you choose it yourself in the half-remembered time you crystallized into being like granite? Were you a vague amalgam of what human eyes value, and youth and a certain aloof elegance were the result? Are you precisely to the taste of some scholar-priest, long dead and pivotal to your rising?
Behind you are four secretaries, six priests, a handful of courtiers, and a body servant you have no need for but whose company you enjoy.
You have every intention of chatting with your old friend, companionable despite the crowd. You manage two steps past the garden gate before you cut her off mid-sentence. The head of a trading outpost in the far south petitions you with a mountain of incense and a nest of eggs. The great, shaggy beasts whose migrations they depend on have passed in reduced numbers.
Mortals are supposed to try the local gods first. Your treaties with them are more complex even than the ones your bureaucrats write up for human nations. You keep none of their worshipers from them. You ban no rites, seize no treasures. Your laws are only what they ever were. From each, what can be spared. To each, what is needed.
Not a drop of blood without necessity, and every year, there is less necessity.
You are lenient. There may be no relevant god of great, tusk-bearing things that wander the distant grasslands. You instruct the secretary farthest to your left to dispatch appropriate missives.
Unperturbed, the governor continues her story, some adventure of her son’s with the trading clans of the archipelagos. She nearly finishes the tale before you have to turn to the next secretary down the line to arrange rice shipments to a storm-lashed shore, and to one of the priests to summon the appropriate god of the sea to speak with you.
After that she only points out pretty views and works of art in her pleasure grounds, more conducive to constant interruptions. You’ve been attentive for several complete thoughts together when you fall to your knees, or you drop to the earth that is yourself with your smaller, more convenient self. A small band of soldiers meets with death. They ask only to be seen as they cover their comrades’ retreat. You warm them where blood loss leaves them cold, draw the pain of their wounds into yourself, entwine their last moments with their dearest memories. You spit something that looks like blood and smells like sulfur as you gasp the names to a third secretary. Families to tend to, memorials to build.
The servants react no more than their mistress to the sight of their god and their emperor collapsed and gasping. At a nod from the governor, they light carefully placed fuses in perfect time, setting off a chain reaction that fills the gardens below in a blazing white that hurts even your eyes. The afterimage is your own mountain, the mouth of fire where you were born. It’s a sweet gesture, a pretty one.
You instruct the fourth secretary to find the price of the display and send its equivalent to the west, where the rains have been scanty and there are rumors of plague. The grandson gives you a look that should earn him a few days of blisters, but you haven’t the heart, not for your favorites.
You are an emperor and a god. The mountain smolders in silence, very far away. It is still (you are still) rich soil and blistering springs, an earthbound star that grounds you on the coast of a continent entire that looks to you. But more than ever before, you live your days in this body, in this palace, in this capital city chosen for its ports and defenses and not what lies beneath. All the multitudes of your people echo inside you. Inside your head, you think now, not in your magma chambers, not in the air that rushes over your smoking peak. Not even in the drums and incense and banners.
And, oh, they need you. Even the small things, a young mother apologizing for a scanty offering, an apprentice potter staying awake enough to mind the kiln, a nervous poet in need of resolve—there are a thousand mothers, a thousand apprentices, a thousand poets, every day of always. Even to touch each one for a moment eats at you. You are never weak; the worship of so many ensures strength, but you are stone-weary.
When disaster strikes, and there are as many disasters as poets, you feel trapped. You could fly to the aid of a town leveled by earthquakes, talk the god of that place into your service like the others, bear the children to safety in your own hands and bestow gifts and blessings and positions of honor on those who strike you as deserving.
Instead, you speak a few words, and the wheels of bureaucracy turn. Messages fly on swift wings, wink between signal towers in colored tongues of flame, race on foot and hoof and current. Grain is dispatched. Healers, masons, and metallurgists set out from their respective guilds. A half-legion from the civic labor pool breaks off from a road repair.
You do more good to the world seated on a throne, letting their need flow through you. Days, weeks at a time pass this way. You hold audiences and attend ceremonies, but the appearances are scattered and brief, time lost that your people, your thousands of thousands, cannot be asked to spare.
A god who was once as tangible as the earth and sky is legend now. Those who dwell far from the capital will never see you. Those who live at the very gates of the palace may catch a few glimpses in all their short lives. To them, you are not a god of heat and fertile fields and the risk that sleeps beneath prosperity, not a war leader, not even royalty. You are a simple promise, winnowed to your smoldering core. The empire will protect you. The emperor is with you.
It is enough. It must be enough.
But something is wrong. It takes too long for you to catch the absence. Time has grown slippery for you after outliving too many human generations.
You never hear the bureaucrats themselves.
Not quite never. There is no such thing as never when you serve millions. Some undersecretary calls out to you for time or patience or a good night’s sleep. An aged civil servant, life lived in your good graces, begs your leave to put down the quill and the abacus as their eyes fail and their fingers stiffen. But as a body, your scribes and administrators are a vast silence within you.
Learning to listen for silences, you realize you rarely hear the priests, either. Oh, there are formal prayers, the old rituals, the borrowed and patchwork ceremonies that bind your godly allies to you and to the empire. But when you were new and the mountain burned bright, the priests were loud. Every thought was for you, however little you could do for them. Without your first priests, you would never have learned to think on more than fire and fury.
You are cautious. You were a war god once, and strategy comes as naturally as smoke. You have always chosen odd mortals to patronize, and you choose one now without exciting comment. She cries out to you in anguish over her scribal exam, all her years of study freezing within her at as she stands before the committee. You bless her as you have rarely blessed in centuries, neglect all your other petitions for her hour’s trial, set her heart afire and scorch away all fear. She places higher than anyone from her little district ever has, and she and her family burn incense they can ill afford through the night in thanks.
And so you summon her to the capital. You also summon two young scions of your old favorite family, descendants of second cousins and half-siblings and third marriages who nonetheless carry the name of the soldier who fled to you and died. They are just old enough for court, and you name one a priest and one a secretary. You task them with conveying your orders while you confer with your new assistant, that the people not lose all your attention in those hours.
The clever girl from the edge of a desert you have never seen is terrified to become the chosen of the eternal emperor, the soul of the mountain, the voice beneath the earth. When she discovers god simply wants to learn accounting, though, she rises to the occasion.
She teaches you the language you have never needed, beholden to the very adherents who have made your reign anything other than protecting a few villages of farmers and fisherfolk from other, hungrier villages. You cannot even say you trusted them. Trust is not a choice for you. You are your people as much as you are rivers of stone.
Numbers have their own magic. Scratches on ledgers dance across columns, and the spark of an empire catches, and burns bright, and consumes itself.
Betrayal is a new sensation, and so few things are new after a thousand years that at first you almost enjoy it. You almost enjoyed blood and ash, too, and you know better. The numbers tell of sorghum diverted from hungry children, of dam repairs rejected and road constructions approved without regard to need, of coffers bursting with gold while miners’ rations are cut and guilds dispatching masters only to favored villages.
Wrath is an old sensation, but you tamp it down, refusing to fall again to wanton destruction. There is no enemy to burn, or you would reduce them to ash in an instant, taste it on the wind forever, and welcome the shame. There are thousands of enemies, scattered through a priesthood and a civil service that secure the lives and livelihoods of half the world.
There is a dagger blooming from the back of your clever accountant, and blood on the hands of your soldier’s heir, and you haven’t the heart to even meet his eyes.
You are an old god, and you are inconvenient.
You have not felt the solid earth beneath you in … time. Some time. The mountain remains, or you would not. Maybe. Above you is glass and beneath you is steel, and they are both earth of a sort, but not earth that knows you. You have sought the aid of gods better suited, mining gods, desert gods, gods of ingenuity and solidity. Those that remain themselves unbound will sometimes dare to speak with you, but they shy from offering aid. They fear mortal notice, the small ones. And there is nothing very big anymore, nothing but you, bound and silenced.
There is an emperor still, one of a dozen (how many dozen?) successors, risen from the great bureaucracy born at your heels. She is appointed by a board whose protocols you find unspeakably baroque. She gives orders not so much unlike your own.
Protect us, cried the mortals. Chase war from our doors. Keep our children fed. Let the fish be plentiful and the crops grow strong. You were born in those simple needs, you and the smoke. And now you smolder away to nothing, locked away from your fire. Now what can be spared enters the civic treasury and does not depart, while what is needed languishes in a column of numbers somewhere.
Protect us, cries something closer, something true. You have not opened your eyes in a very long time. You were not sure, before this moment, that having eyes was something you bothered to do anymore.
A human stands outside your glass cell. She is too thin, and too young, and has not come from peace and plenty. You imagine she might be a descendant of your soldier, imagine a true heir free from the taint of greed. Or she might hail instead from the line of the faithful accountant.
But you’ve learned better than to trust to anything so ephemeral as blood or name. Humans are only themselves, as you wish you’d realized sooner.
The world is not the world you know, but there are still frightened children old before their time, willing to risk everything for a flimsy hope of fairness. This one, you will not fail.
She meets your eyes and brings her elbow down on the glass. As she bleeds, as it cracks, a mountain far away and long quiescent begins to smoke.
Editor: Hebe Stanton
First Reader: Hebe Stanton
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors