The Broken Kingdoms, p.1N. K. Jemisin
Table of Contents
I am, you see, a woman plagued by gods.
It was worse once. Sometimes it felt as if they were everywhere: underfoot, overhead, peering around corners, and lurking under bushes. They left glowing footprints on the sidewalks. (I could see that they had their own favorite paths for sightseeing.) They urinated on the white walls. They didn’t have to do that, urinate I mean; they just found it amusing to imitate us. I found their names written in splattery light, usually in sacred places. I learned to read in this way.
Sometimes they followed me home and made me breakfast. Sometimes they tried to kill me. Occasionally they bought my trinkets and statues, though for what purpose I can’t fathom. And, yes, sometimes I loved them.
I even found one in a muckbin once. Sounds mad, doesn’t it? But it’s true. If I had known this would become my life when I left home for this beautiful, ridiculous city, I would have thought twice. Though I would still have done it.
I REMEMBER THAT IT WAS MIDMORNING.
Gardening was my favorite task of the day. I’d had to fight for it, because my mother’s terraces were famous throughout the territory, and she didn’t quite trust me with them. I couldn’t really blame her; my father still laughed over whatever I’d done to the laundry that one time I tried.
“Oree,” she would say whenever I sought to prove my independence, “it’s all right to need help. All of us have things we can’t do alone.”
Gardening, however, was not one of those things. It was the weeding that my mother feared, because many of the weeds that grew in Nimaro were similar in form to her most prized herbs. Fakefern had a fan-shaped frond just like sweet ire; running may was spiky and stung the fingers, same as ocherine. But the weeds and the herbs didn’t smell anything alike, so I never understood why she had such trouble with them. On the rare occasions that both scent and feel stumped me, all I had to do was touch a leaf edge to my lips or brush my hand through the leaves to hear the way they settled into place, and I would know. Eventually, Mama had to admit that I hadn’t tossed out a single good plant all season. I was planning to ask for my own terrace the following year.
I usually lost myself in the gardens for hours, but one morning something was different. I noticed it almost the moment I left the house: a strange, tinny flatness to the air. A pent-breath tension. By the time the storms began, I had forgotten the weeds and sat up, instinctively orienting on the sky.
And I could see.
What I saw, in what I would later learn to call the distance, were vast, shapeless blotches of darkness limned in power. As I gaped, great spearing shapes—so bright they hurt my eyes, something that had never happened before—jutted forth to shatter the blotches. But the remnants of the dark blotches became something else, darting liquid tendrils that wrapped about the spears and swallowed them. The light changed, too, becoming spinning disks, razor-sharp, that cut the tendrils. And so on, back and forth, dark against light, neither winning for more than an instant. Through it all, I heard sounds like thunder, though there was no scent of rain.
Others saw it, too. I heard them coming out of their houses and shops to murmur and exclaim. No one was really afraid, though. The strangeness was all up in the sky, too far above our very earthly lives to matter.
So no one else noticed what I did as I knelt there with my fingers still sunk in the dirt. A tremor in the earth. No, not quite a tremor; it was that tension I’d felt before, that pent feeling. It hadn’t been in the sky at all.
I sprang to my feet and grabbed my walking stick, hurrying for the house. My father was out at the market, but my mother was home, and if some sort of earthquake was in the offing, I needed to warn her. I ran up the porch steps and yanked open the rickety old door, shouting for her to come out, and hurry.
Then I heard it coming, no longer confined to the earth, rolling across the land from the northwest—the direction of Sky, the Arameri city. Someone’s singing, I thought at first. Not one someone but many—a thousand voices, a million, all vibrating and echoing together. The song itself was barely intelligible, its lyrics a single word—yet so powerful was that word that the whole world shook with its imminent force.
The word that it sang was grow.
You must understand. I have always been able to see magic, but Nimaro had been mostly dark to me until then. It was a placid land of sleepy little towns and villages, of which mine was no exception. Magic was a thing of the cities. I got to see it only every once in a while, and then always in secret.
But now there was light and color. It burst across the ground and the street, traced up every leaf and blade of grass and paving stone and wooden slat around the front yard. So much! I had never realized there was so much to the world, right there around me. The magic washed the walls with texture and lines so that for the first time in my life, I could see the house where I’d been born. It outlined the trees around me and the old horse cart around the side of the house—I couldn’t figure out what that was at first—and the people who stood in the street with mouths hanging open. I saw it all—truly saw, as others did. Maybe more than they did, I don’t know. It is a moment I will hold in my heart forever: the return of something glorious. The reforging of something long broken. The rebirth of life itself.
That evening, I learned my father was dead.
One month after that, I set out for the city of Sky to start my own new life.
And ten years passed.
“Discarded Treasure” (encaustic on canvas)
PLEASE HELP ME,” said the woman. I recognized her voice immediately. She, her husband, and two children had looked over—but not bought—a wall hanging at my table perhaps an hour before. She had been annoyed then. The hanging was expensive, and her children were pushy. Now she was afraid, her voice calm on the surface but tremolo with fear underneath.
“What is it?” I asked.
“My family. I can’t find them.”
I put on my best “friendly local” smile. “Maybe they wandered off. It’s easy to get lost this close to the trunk. Where did you last see them?”
“There.” I heard her move. Pointing, probably. She seemed to realize her error after a moment, with the usual sudden awkwardness. “Ah… sorry, I’ll ask someone else—”
“Up to you,” I said lightly, “but if you’re talking about a nice clean alley over near the White Hall, then I think I know what happened.”
Her gasp told me I’d guessed right. “How did you…”
I heard a soft snort from Ohn, the nearest of the other art sellers along this side of the park. This made me smile, which I hoped the woman would interpret as friendliness and not amusement at her expense.
“Did they go in the alley?” I asked.
“Oh… well…” The woman fidgeted; I heard her hands rub together. I knew the problem already, but I let her muddle through. No one likes to have their errors pointed out. “It’s just that… my son needed a toilet. None of the businesses around here would let him use theirs unless we bought something. We don’t have a lot of money….”
She’d given that same excuse to avoid buying my wall hanging. That didn’t bother me—I’d have been the first to say no one needed anything I sold—but I was annoyed to hear that she’d taken it so far. Too cheap to buy a wall hanging was one thing, but too cheap to buy a snack or a trinket? That was all we businesspeople asked in exchange for letting out-of-towners gawk at us, crowd out regular customers, and then complain about how unfriendly city dwellers were.
I decided not to point out that her family could have used the facilities at the White Hall for free.
“That particular alley has a unique
“Oh, thank the Lady,” the woman said. (That phrase has always sounded strange to my ears.) “Thank you. I’d heard things about this city. I didn’t want to come, but my husband—he’s a High Norther, wanted to see the Lady’s Tree…” She let out a deep breath. “How do I get to this market?”
Finally. “Well, it’s in West Shadow; this is East Shadow. Wesha, Easha.”
“Those are the names people use, if you stop to ask directions.”
“Oh. But… Shadow? I’ve heard people use that word, but the city’s name is—”
I shook my head. “Like I said, that’s not what it’s called by the people who live here.” I gestured overhead, where I could dimly perceive the ghostly green ripples of the World Tree’s ever-rustling leaf canopy. The roots and trunk were dark to me, the Tree’s living magic hidden behind foot-thick outer bark, but its tender leaves danced and glimmered at the very limit of my sight. Sometimes I watched them for hours.
“We don’t get a lot of sky here,” I said. “You see?”
“Oh. I… I see.”
I nodded. “You’ll need to take a coach to the rootwall at Sixth Street, then either ride the ferry or walk the elevated path through the tunnel. This time of day, they’ll have the lanterns at full wick for out-of-towners, so that’s good. Nothing worse than walking the root in the dark—not that it makes much difference to me.” I grinned to put her at ease. “But you wouldn’t believe how many people go crazy over a little darkness. Anyway, once you get to the other side, you’ll be in Wesha. There are always palanquins around, so you can either catch one or walk to the Sun Market. It’s not far, just keep the Tree on your right, and—”
There was a familiar horror in her voice when she interrupted me. “This city… how am I supposed to… I’ll get lost. Oh, demons, and my husband’s even worse. He gets lost all the time. He’ll try to find his way back here, and I have the purse, and—”
“It’s all right,” I said with practiced compassion. I leaned across my table, careful not to dislodge the carved-wood sculptures, and pointed toward the far end of Art Row. “If you want, I can recommend a good guide. He’ll get you there fast.”
She would be too cheap for that, I suspected. Her family could’ve been assaulted in that alley, robbed, transformed into rocks. Was the risk really worth whatever money they’d saved? Pilgrims never made sense to me.
“How much?” she asked, already sounding dubious.
“You’ll have to ask the guide. Want me to call him over?”
“I…” She shifted from foot to foot, practically reeking of reluctance.
“Or you could buy this,” I suggested, turning smoothly in my chair to pick up a small scroll. “It’s a map. Includes all the god spots—places magicked-up by godlings, I mean, like that alley.”
“Magicked—You mean, some godling did this?”
“Probably. I can’t see scriveners bothering, can you?”
She sighed. “Will this map help me reach this market?”
“Oh, of course.” I unrolled it to give her a look. She took a long time staring at it, probably hoping to memorize the route to the Market without buying it. I didn’t mind her trying. If she could learn Shadow’s convoluted streets that easily, interrupted on the map by Tree roots and occasional notes about this or that god spot, then she deserved a free peek.
“How much?” she asked at last, and reached for her purse.
After the woman left, her anxious footsteps fading into the general mill of the Promenade, Ohn ambled over. “You’re so nice, Oree,” he said.
I grinned. “Aren’t I? I could have told her to just go into the alley and lift her skirts a bit, which would’ve sent her to her family in a heartbeat. But I had to look out for her dignity, didn’t I?”
Ohn shrugged. “If they don’t think of it on their own, that’s their fault, not yours.” He sighed after the woman. “Shame to come all the way here on a pilgrimage and spend half of it wandering around lost, though.”
“Someday she’ll savor the memory.” I got up, stretching. I’d been sitting all morning and my back was sore. “Keep an eye on my table for me, will you? I’m going for a walk.”
I grinned at the coarse, growly voice of Vuroy, another of the Row’s sellers, as he ambled over. He stood close to Ohn; I imagined Vuroy hooking an affectionate arm around Ohn. They and Ru, another of the Row’s sellers, were a triple, and Vuroy was possessive. “You just want to look in that alley, see if her dumb-as-demons man and brat dropped anything before the magic got ’em.”
“Why would I do that?” I asked as sweetly as I could, though I couldn’t help laughing. Ohn was barely holding in a snicker himself.
“If you find something, be sure to share,” he said.
I blew a kiss in his direction. “Finders keepers. Unless you want to share Vuroy in return?”
“Finders keepers,” he retorted, and I heard Vuroy laugh and pull him into an embrace. I walked away, concentrating on the tap-tap of my stick so that I wouldn’t hear them kiss. I’d been joking about the sharing, of course, but there were still some things a single girl didn’t enjoy being around when she couldn’t have a little of it herself.
The alley, across the wide Promenade from Art Row, was easy to find, because its walls and floor shimmered pale against the ambient green glow of the World Tree. Nothing too bright; by godling standards, this was minor magic, something even a mortal could’ve done with a few chiseled sigils and a fortune in activating ink. Ordinarily, I would’ve seen little more than a scrim of light along the mortar between the bricks, but this god spot had been activated recently and would take time to fade back to its usual quiescence.
I stopped at the mouth of the alley, listening carefully. The Promenade was a wide circle at the city’s relative heart, where foot traffic met the carriageways and came together to encircle a broad plaza of flower beds, shade trees, and walkways. Pilgrims liked to gather there, because the plaza offered the city’s best view of the World Tree—which was the same reason we artists liked it. The pilgrims were always in a good mood to buy our wares after they’d had a chance to pray to their strange new god. Still, we were always mindful of the White Hall perched nearby, its shining walls and statue of Bright Itempas seeming to loom disapprovingly over the plaza’s heretical goings-on. The Order-Keepers weren’t as strict these days as they had once been; there were too many gods now who might take exception to their followers being persecuted. Too much wild magic altogether in the city for them to police it all. That still didn’t make it smart to do certain things right under their noses.
So I entered the alley only after I’d made sure there were no priests in the immediate vicinity. (It was still a gamble—the street was so noisy that I couldn’t hear everything. I was prepared to say I was lost, just in case.)
As I moved into the relative silence of the alley, tapping my stick back and forth in case I happened across a wallet or other valuables, I noticed the smell of blood at once. I dismissed it just as quickly, because it didn’t make sense; the alley had been magicked to keep itself clean of detritus. Any inanimate object dropped in it disappeared after half an hour or so—the better to lure in unwary pilgrims. (The godling who’d set this particular trap had a wicked mind for detail, I had decided.) Yet the deeper I moved into the alley, the more clearly the scent came to me—and the more uneasy I grew, because I recognized it. Metal and salt, cloying in that way blood becomes after it has grown cold and clotted. But this was not the heavy, iron scent of mortal blood; there was a lighter, sharper tang to it. Metals that had no name in any mortal tongue, salts of entirely different seas.
Godsblood. Had someone dropped a vial of the stuff here? An expensive mistake, if so. Yet the godsblood smelled… flat somehow. Wrong. And there was far, far too much of it.
Then my stick hit something heavy and soft, and I stopped, dread drying my mouth.
I crouched to examine my find. Cloth, very soft and fine. Flesh beneath the cloth—a leg. Cooler than it should have been, but not cold. I felt upward, my hand trembling, and found a curved hip, a woman’s slightly poochy belly—and then my fingers stilled as the cloth suddenly became sodden and tacky.
I snatched my hand back and asked, “A-are you… all right?” That was a foolish question, because obviously she wasn’t.
I could see her now, a very faint person-shaped blur occluding the alley floor’s shimmer, but that was all. She should have glowed bright with magic of her own; I should have spotted her the moment I entered the alley. She should not have been motionless, since godlings had no need for sleep.
I knew what this meant. All my instincts cried it. But I did not want to believe.
Then I felt a familiar presence appear nearby. No footsteps to forewarn me, but that was all right. I was glad he’d come this time.
“I don’t understand,” Madding whispered. That was when I had to believe, because the surprise and horror in Madding’s voice were undeniable.
I had found a godling. A dead one.
I stood, too fast, and stumbled a little as I backed away. “I don’t, either,” I said. I gripped my stick tightly with both hands. “She was like this when I found her. But—” I shook my head, at a loss for words.
There was the faint sound of chimes. No one else ever seemed to hear them, I had noticed long ago. Then Madding manifested from the shimmer of the alley: a stocky, well-built man of vaguely Senmite ethnicity, swarthy and weathered of face, with tangled dark hair caught in a tail at the nape of his neck. He did not glow, precisely—not in this form—but I could see him, contrasting solidly against the walls’ shimmer. And I had never seen the stricken look that was on his face as he stared down at the body.
The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin / Fantasy / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes