The Broken Kingdoms
Page 15

 N.K. Jemisin

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“I don’t know.” Madding cupped my face in his hands, thumbs grazing my underlids to brush away the tears. I allowed this at first, but abruptly his touch was too intimate, triggering memories more painful than the light had been. I pulled away, probably more quickly than I should have. He sighed a little but let me go.
There was a faint stir on either side of me, and I heard a light patter, as of feet touching the ground. Madding’s tone shifted to something more authoritative, as it always did when he spoke to his underlings. “Tell me that wasn’t who I thought it was.”
“It was,” said one voice, which I thought of as pale and androgynous even though I had seen its owner once, and she was the exact opposite, brown and voluptuous. She was also one of the godlings who didn’t like it when I saw her, so I had never glimpsed her since.
“Demons and darkness,” Mad said, sounding annoyed. “I thought the Arameri were keeping him.”
“Not anymore, apparently,” said the other voice. This one was definitively male. I had seen him, too, and he was a strange creature with long, wild hair that smelled like copper. His skin was Amn-white but with irregular darker patches here and there; I gathered the patches were his idea of decoration. I certainly found them pretty, whenever I managed to see him undisguised. This was business, though, so now he was just part of the darkness.
“Lil has come,” said the woman, and Madding groaned. “There are bodies. The Order-Keepers.”
“The—” Madding suddenly pulled back and looked hard at me. “Oree, please don’t tell me this is your new boyfriend.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend, Mad, not that it’s any of your business.” I frowned, suddenly understanding. “Wait. Are you talking about Shiny?”
“Shiny? Who the—” Madding cursed, then stooped swiftly to collect my walking stick and press it into my hands. “Enough. Let’s go.”
His underlings vanished, and Madding began to pull me along toward wherever that white-hot power had come from.
South Root—Where Sows Root, went the local joke—was the worst neighborhood in Shadow. One of the Tree’s main roots had forked off a side branch nearby, which meant the area was bracketed on three sides rather than the usual two. On rare days, South Root could be beautiful. It had been a respectable crafters’ neighborhood before the Tree, so the white-painted walls were inlaid here and there with mica and smooth agate, and the streets were cobbled in patterns of large and small bricks, with gates of iron wrought in magnificent shapes. If not for the three roots, it would have gotten more sunlight than parts of Shadow closer to the Tree’s trunk. I’d been told that it still did, on windy days in late autumn, for an hour or two a day. Any other time, South Root was perpetually dark.
No one lived there anymore but desperate, angry poor people. This made it one of the few places in the city where Order-Keepers might feel comfortable beating a man to death in the street.
Their consciences must’ve bothered them more than usual, however, because the space into which Madding finally dragged me did not feel open. I smelled garbage and mildew, and there was the bitter acridity of stale urine on my tongue. Another alley? One that had no magic to keep it clean.
And there were other smells here, stronger and even less pleasant. Smoke. Charcoal. Burned meat and hair. I could hear something still sizzling faintly.
Near this sound stood a tall, languid female figure, the only thing I could see aside from Madding. Her back was to me, so at first I noticed only her long, ragged hair, straight like a High Norther’s but an odd mottled gold in color. This was not the gold of Amn hair; it was somehow not pretty at all. She was also thin—disturbingly, unhealthily so. She wore an incongruously elegant gown with a low back, and the shoulder blades that I could see on either side of her hair were sharp-angled, like knife edges.
Then the woman turned, and I clapped both hands over my mouth to keep from crying out. Above the nose, her face was normal. Below, her mouth became a distorted, impossible monstrosity, her lower jaw hanging all the way to her knees, the too-long expanse of her gums lined with several rows of tiny, needlelike teeth. Moving teeth, each row marching along her jaw like a restless trail of ants. I could hear them whirring faintly. She drooled.
And when she saw my reaction, she smiled. That was the most hideous sight I had ever seen.
Then she shimmered and became an ordinary-looking woman, nondescriptly Amn, with a nondescriptly human mouth. She was still smiling, though, and there was still something disturbingly hungry in her expression.