The Broken Kingdoms
Page 16

 N.K. Jemisin

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“My gods,” Madding murmured. (Godlings said this sort of thing all the time.) “It is you.”
His words confused me because of their direction; he was not speaking to the blonde woman. Then I jumped at the response, because it came from another unexpected direction—above.
“Oh, yes,” said this new, soft voice. “It’s him.”
Madding suddenly went still in a way that I knew meant trouble. His two lieutenants suddenly flickered into view, equally tense. “I see,” Madding said, speaking low and carefully. “It’s been a while, Sieh. Have you come to gloat?”
“A little.” The voice was that of a young, prepubescent boy. I looked up, trying to gauge where he was—a rooftop, maybe, or a window on the second or third floor. I could not see him. A mortal? Or another godling who was feeling shy?
There was a sudden feel of movement before me, and abruptly the boy spoke from the ground only a few feet away. Godling, then.
“You look worn out, old man,” the boy said, and belatedly I realized he, too, was addressing someone other than me, Madding, or the blonde woman. Finally I noticed that off to the side of the alley, near the wall, there was someone low to the ground. sitting or kneeling, maybe. Panting for some reason. Something about those weary breaths was familiar.
“Mortal flesh is bound by physical laws,” the boy continued, speaking to the panting person. “If you don’t use sigils to channel the power, you get more, it’s true—but then the magic drains your strength. Use enough and it can even kill you—for a while, anyhow. Just one of a thousand new things you’ll have to learn, I’m afraid. Sorry, old man.”
The blonde woman uttered a laugh like pebbles grinding underfoot. “You’re not sorry.”
She was right. The voice of the boy—Sieh, Madding had called him—was utterly devoid of compassion. He sounded pleased, in fact, in the way that most people would be pleased to see an enemy brought low. I cocked my head, listening close and trying to understand.
Sieh chuckled. “Of course I’m sorry, Lil. Do I look like the kind of person who would hold a grudge? That would be petty of me.”
“Petty,” agreed the blonde woman, “and childish and cruel. Does his suffering please you?”
“Oh, yes, Lil. It pleases me very much.”
Not even the pretense of friendliness this time. There was nothing in that boyish voice but sadistic relish. I shivered, even more afraid for Shiny. I had never seen a godling child before, but I had an inkling they were not all that different from human children. Human children could be merciless, especially when they had power.
I stepped away from Madding, intending to go to the panting man. Madding pulled me sharply back, his hand like a vise on my arm. I stumbled, protesting, “But—”
“Not now, Oree,” Madding said. He didn’t use that tone with me often, but I had learned long ago that it meant danger when he did.
If this had been any other situation, I would have happily stepped behind him and tried to make myself as unnoticeable as possible. I was in a dark alley in the back end of beyond, surrounded by dead men and gods whose tempers were up. For all I knew, there wasn’t another mortal anywhere in shouting distance. Even if there had been, what in the infinite hells could they have done to help?
“What’s happened to the Keepers?” I whispered to Madding. It was an unnecessary question; they had finally stopped sizzling. “How did Shiny kill them?”
To my great dismay, it was Sieh’s voice. I hadn’t wanted to draw his attention or that of the blonde woman. Yet Sieh seemed honestly delighted. “Shiny? Is that what you call him? Really?”
I swallowed, tried to speak, then tried again when the first try failed. “He won’t give me his name, so… I had to call him something.”
“Did you, now?” The boy, sounding amused, came closer. I was a good deal taller than him, I guessed by the direction of his voice, but that was not as comforting as it should have been. I could still see nothing of him, not even an outline or a shadow, which meant that he was better than most godlings at concealing himself. I couldn’t even smell him. I could feel him, though; his presence filled the whole alley in a way that none of the other godlings’ did.
“Shiny,” the boy said again, contemplative. “And he answers to that name?”
“Not exactly.” I licked my lips and decided to take a chance. “Is he all right?”
The boy abruptly turned away. “Oh, he’ll be fine. He has no choice but to be fine, doesn’t he?” He was angrier now, I realized, my heart sinking into my stomach. I had made things worse. “No matter what happens to his mortal body, no matter how many times he abuses it—and, yes, oh yes, I know about that, did you think I didn’t?” He was speaking to Shiny again, and his voice practically trembled with fury. “Did you think I wouldn’t laugh at you, so proud, so arrogant, dying over and over because you can’t be bothered to take the most basic care?”