The Killing Moon (Dreamblood #1)


by N.K. Jemisin

1

In the dark of dreams, a soul can die. The fears we confront in shadows are as reflections in glass. It is natural to strike a reflection that offends, but then the glass cuts; the soul bleeds. The Gatherer’s task is to save the soul, at any cost.

(Wisdom)

In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive.

The Reaper’s task is not to save.

*   *   *

The barbarians of the north taught their children to fear the Dreaming Moon, claiming that it brought madness. This was a forgivable blasphemy. On some nights, the moon’s strange light bathed all Gujaareh in oily swirls of amethyst and aquamarine. It could make lowcaste hovels seem sturdy and fine; pathways of plain clay brick gleamed as if silvered. Within the moonlight’s strange shadows, a man might crouch on the shadowed ledge of a building and be only a faint etching against the marbled gray.

In this land, such a man would be a priest, intent upon the most sacred of his duties.

More than shadows aided this priest’s stealth. Long training softened his footfalls against the stone; his feet were bare in any case. He wore little altogether, trusting the darkness of his skin for camouflage as he crept along, guided by the sounds of the city. An infant’s cry from a tenement across the street; he took a step. Laughter from several floors below his ledge; he straightened as he reached the window that was his goal. A muffled cry and the sounds of a scuffle from an alley a block away; he paused, listening and frowning. But the disturbance ended as sandals pattered on the cobblestones, fading into the distance, and he relaxed. When the love-cries of the young couple next door floated past on a breeze, he slipped through the curtains into the room beyond.

The bedchamber: a study in worn elegance. The priest’s eyes made out graceful chairs upholstered in fraying fabrics, and wood furnishings gone dull for lack of polish. Reaching the bed, he took care to avoid shadowing the face of the person who slept there—but the old man’s eyes opened anyhow, blinking rheumily in the thin light.

“As I thought,” said the old man, whose name was Yeyezu. His hoarse voice grated against the silence. “Which one are you?”

“Ehiru,” said the priest. His voice was as soft and deep as the bedchamber’s shadows. “Named Nsha, in dreams.”

The old man’s eyes widened in surprise and pleasure. “So that is the rose’s soulname. To whom do I owe this honor?”

Ehiru let out a slow breath. It was always more difficult to bestow peace once a tithebearer had been awakened and frightened; that was why the law commanded Gatherers to enter dwellings in stealth. But Yeyezu was not afraid, Ehiru saw at once, so he chose to answer the old man’s question, though he preferred to do his work without conversation.

“Your eldest son submitted the commission on your behalf,” he said. From the hipstrap of his loinskirt he plucked free the jungissa: a thumb-long polished stone like dark glass, which had been carved into the likeness of a cicada. Yeyezu’s eyes tracked the jungissa as Ehiru raised it. The stones were legend for their rarity as well as their power, and few of Hananja’s faithful ever saw one. “It was considered and accepted by the Council of Paths, then given to me to carry out.”

The old man nodded, lifting a trembling hand toward the jungissa. Ehiru lowered the stone so that Yeyezu could run fingers over its slick, fine-carved wings, though he kept a good grip on its body. Jungissa were too sacred for carelessness. Yeyezu’s wonder made him look much younger; Ehiru could not help smiling at this.

“She has tasted many of your dreams, Yeyezu-Elder,” he said, very gently drawing the jungissa out of the old man’s reach so he would hear Ehiru’s words. Yeyezu sighed, but lowered his hand. “She has drunk deeply of your hopes and fears. Now She bids you join Her in Ina-Karekh. Will you grant Her this final offering?”

“Gladly,” Yeyezu said, and closed his eyes.

So Ehiru bent and kissed the old man’s forehead. Fevered skin, delicate as papyrus, smoothed under his lips. When he pulled away and set the jungissa in place of his kiss, the stone quivered at a flick of his fingernail and then settled into a barely-visible vibration. Yeyezu sagged into sleep, and Ehiru laid his fingertips on the old man’s eyelids to begin.

In the relative quiet of the city’s evening, the room sounded only of breath: first Ehiru’s and Yeyezu’s, then Ehiru’s alone. Amid the new silence—for the jungissa had stopped vibrating with the dream’s end—Ehiru stood for a few moments, letting the languor of the newly collected dreamblood spread within him. When he judged the moment right, he drew another ornament from his hip—this one a small hemisphere of obsidian whose flat face had been embossed with an oasis rose, the crevices tamped full of powdered ink. He pressed the carving carefully into the skin of Yeyezu’s bony, still chest, setting his signature upon the artwork of flesh. The smile that lingered on the elder’s cooling lips was even more beautiful.