The Broken Kingdoms
Page 24

 N.K. Jemisin

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Thieves, probably. Rapists and killers didn’t much care for the cold. I had little money on me, and I did not look wealthy by any stretch, but most likely it was enough that I looked alone and lost and blind. That made me easy pickings on a day when the pickings would be slim.
I did not walk faster, though of course I was afraid. Some thieves didn’t like leaving witnesses. But to hurry would let this thief know that he had been spotted, and worse, I might still break my neck. Better to let him come, give him what he wanted, and hope that would be enough.
Except… he wasn’t coming. I walked a block, two blocks, three. I heard few other people on the street, and those few were moving quickly, some of them muttering about the cold and paying no attention to anything but their misery. For long stretches, there was only me and my pursuer. Now he will come, I thought several times. But there was no attack.
As I turned my head for a better listen, something glinted at the corner of my vision. Startled—in those days I was not quite used to magic—I forgot wisdom, stopped, and turned to see.
My pursuer was a young woman. She was plump, short, with curly pale green hair and skin of a nearly similar shade. That alone would have alerted me as to her nature, though it was obvious in the fact that I could see her.
She stopped when I did. I noticed that her expression was very sad. She said nothing, so I ventured, “Hello.”
Her eyebrows rose. “You can see me?”
I frowned a bit. “Yes. You’re standing right there.”
“How interesting.” She resumed walking, though she stopped when I took a step back.
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” I said cautiously, “I’ve never been mugged by a godling.”
If anything, her expression grew even more mournful. “I mean you no harm.”
“You’ve been following me since that street back there. The one with the clogged sewer.”
“Because you might die,” she said.
I stumbled back, but only one step, because my heel slipped on a bit of ice alarmingly. “What?”
“You will very likely die in the next few moments. It may be difficult… painful. I’ve come to be with you.” She sighed gently. “My nature is mercy. Do you understand?”
I had not met many godlings at that point, but anyone who dwelled for long in Shadow learned this much: they drew their strength from a particular thing—a concept, a state of being, an emotion. The priests and scriveners called it affinity, though I had never heard any godling use the term. When they encountered their affinity, it drew them like a beacon, and some of them could not quite help responding to it.
I swallowed and nodded. “You… You’re here to watch me die. Or”—I shivered as I realized—“or to kill me, if something only does the job halfway. Is that right?”
She nodded. “I’m sorry.” And she really did seem sorry, her eyes heavy-lidded, her brow furrowed with the beginnings of grief. She wore only a thin, shapeless shift—more proof of her nature, since any mortal would have frozen to death in that. It made her look younger than me, vulnerable. Like someone you’d want to stop and help.
I shuddered and said, “Well, ah, maybe you could tell me what’s going to kill me, and I can, ah, walk away from it, and then you won’t have to waste time on me. Would that be all right?”
“There are many pathways to any future. But when I am drawn to a mortal, it means most paths have exhausted themselves.”
My heart, already beating fast, gave an unpleasant little lurch. “You’re saying it’s inevitable?”
“Not inevitable. But likely.”
I needed to sit down. The buildings on either side of me were not residential; I thought they might be storehouses. Nowhere to sit but the cold, hard ground. And for all I knew, doing that might kill me.
That was when I became aware of how utterly quiet it was.
There had been three other people on the street two blocks back. Only the green woman’s steps had stood out to me, for obvious reasons, but now there were no other footfalls at all. The street was completely empty.
Yet I could hear… something. No—it was not a sound so much as a feeling. A pressure to the air. A lingering whiff of scent, teasingly unidentifiable. And it was…
Behind me. I turned, stumbling again, my heart leaping into my throat as I saw another godling standing across the street from me.
This one was paying no attention to me, however. She looked middle-aged, islander or Amn, black-haired, ordinary enough except that I could see her, too. She stood with legs apart and hands fisted at her sides, body taut, an expression of pure fury on her face. When I followed her gaze to see who this fury was directed at, I spied a third person, equally tense and still but on my side of the street, closer by. A man. Madding, though I didn’t know this at the time.