The Broken Kingdoms
Page 22

 N.K. Jemisin

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“Tell me about Sieh, then, and that woman. Yeine, you called her? You were afraid of them.”
Madding groaned, setting all his facets ashiver. “You’re like a magpie, dropping one subject to jump after a prettier one.”
I shrugged. “I’m mortal. I don’t have all the time in the world. Tell me.” I wasn’t angry anymore. Neither was he, really. I knew he still loved me, and he knew that I knew. We were just taking a hard day out on each other. It was easy to fall into old habits.
Madding sighed and leaned back against the bed’s headboard, resuming his human form. “It wasn’t fear.”
“Looked like fear to me. All of you were afraid, except that one with the mouth. Lil.”
He made a face. “Lil isn’t capable of fear. And it wasn’t fear. It was just…” He shrugged, frowning. “It’s hard to explain.”
“Everything is with you.”
He rolled his eyes. “Yeine is… Well, she’s very young, as our kind goes. I don’t know what to think of her yet. And Sieh, despite how he looks, is the oldest of us.”
“Ah,” I said, though I didn’t really understand. That child had been older than Madding? And why had Sieh called the woman his mother if she was younger? “The respect due a big brother—”
“No, no, that doesn’t matter to us.”
I frowned in confusion. “What, then? Is he stronger than you?”
“Yes.” Madding grimaced in consternation. I had a momentary impression of aquamarine shading to sapphire, though he did not change; just my imagination.
“Because he’s older?”
“Partly, yes. But also…” He trailed off.
I groaned in frustration. “I want to sleep tonight, Mad.”
“I’m trying to say it.” Madding sighed. “Mortal languages don’t have words for this. He… lives true. He is what he is. You’ve heard that saying, haven’t you? It’s more than just words for us.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. He saw that in my face and tried again. “Imagine you’re older than this planet, yet you have to act like a child. Could you do it?”
Impossible to even imagine. “I… don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Madding nodded. “Sieh does it. He does it every day, all day; he never stops. That makes him strong.”
I was beginning to understand, a little. “Is that why you’re a usurer?”
Madding chuckled. “I prefer the term investor. And my rates are perfectly fair, thank you.”
“Drug dealer, then.”
“I prefer the term independent apothecary—”
“Hush.” I reached out, wistful, to touch the back of his hand where it rested on the sheets. “It must have been hard for you during the Interdiction.” That was what he and the other godlings called the time before their coming—the time when they hadn’t been permitted to visit our world or interact with mortals. Why they’d been forbidden to come, or who had forbidden them, they would not say. “I can’t see gods having many obligations.”
“Not true,” he said. He watched me for a moment, then turned his hand over to grasp mine. “The most powerful obligations aren’t material, Oree.”
I looked at his hand clasped around the nothingness of my own, understanding and wishing that I didn’t. I wished he had just fallen out of love with me. It would have made things easier.
His grip loosened; I had let him see more in my expression than I’d meant to. He sighed and lifted my hand, kissing the back of it. “I should go,” he said. “If you need anything—”
On impulse, I sat up, though it made my back ache something awful. “Stay,” I said.
He looked away, uneasy. “I shouldn’t.”
“No obligation, Mad. Just friendship. Stay.”
He reached up to brush my hair back from my cheek. His expression, in that one unguarded moment, was the softest I ever saw it outside of his liquid form.
“I wish you were a goddess,” he said. “Sometimes it feels as if you are one. But then something like this happens…” He brushed my robe back and grazed a bruise with his fingertip. “And I remember how fragile you are. I remember that I’ll lose you one day.” His jaw flexed. “I can’t bear it, Oree.”
“Goddesses can die, too.” I realized my error belatedly. I’d been thinking of the Gods’ War, millennia before. I had forgotten Madding’s sister.