The Broken Kingdoms
Page 29

 N.K. Jemisin

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As I entered the south promenade, I heard a few other sellers at work, calling out to passersby to hawk their wares. Not a good sign, that—it meant potential cutomers were sparse enough that the sellers had to compete over them. There would be none of the companionable looking out for one another that I was used to at the Row; this would be every seller for herself. I could hear three—no, four—other sellers in the vicinity: one with decorative headscarves, another selling “Tree pies” (whatever those were; they did smell nice), and two people apparently selling books and souvenirs. I felt the glares of the latter two as I began setting up, and I worried that I might have to deal with unpleasantness. As often happened once they got a good look at me, however, no one bothered me. There are times—rare, I’ll admit—when blindness comes in handy.
So I set up and waited. And waited. I didn’t know the area and hadn’t had a chance to fully explore. Although I could hear foot traffic passing relatively nearby (pilgrims remarking over how dark the city had become and how beautiful the Tree-entangled palace Sky still was), it was possible I’d managed to set myself up in a bad area. I had no doubt the other sellers had already laid claim to the best spots, so I resolved to do the best I could with what I had.
By midafternoon, however, I knew I was in trouble. My wares had lured over a few pilgrims—working folk mostly, Amn from less-prosperous towns and lands near Shadow. That was part of the problem, I realized; High Northers and island folk had always been my best customers. The faith of Itempas had always been precarious in those lands, so they bought my miniature Trees and statues of godlings eagerly. But Senmites were mostly Amn, and Amn were mostly Itempan. They were less easily impressed by the Tree and Shadow’s other heretical wonders.
Which was fine. I never begrudged people their beliefs, but I needed to eat. My stomach had begun to rumble in a vocal reminder of this fact—my own fault for letting Lil’s presence deter me from breakfast.
Then an idea came to me. I rummaged among my bags and was relieved to find I’d brought the sidewalk chalk. I moved around to the front of my tables, crouched, and considered what to sketch.
The idea that came to me was so fiercely powerful that I rocked back on my toes for a moment, startled. Usually my creative urges came in the morning, when I painted in my basement. I’d meant to sketch only a few silly doodles to draw eyes toward my trinkets and goods. But the image in my head… I licked my lips and considered whether it was safe.
It was dangerous, I decided. No doubt about it. I was blind, for the gods’ sake; I shouldn’t have been able to visualize anything, much less depict it recognizably. Most people in the city wouldn’t notice the paradox, or care, but to Order-Keepers and others whose job it was to watch for unauthorized magic, it would be suspect. I had survived all these years by being careful.
But… I picked up a piece of chalk, rubbing its smooth, fat length between my fingers. Colors meant little to me except as a detail of substance, but I had picked up the habit of naming my paints and chalks nevertheless. There is more to color than what can be seen, after all. The chalk smelled faintly bitter—not the bitterness of food, but the bitterness of air too rarefied to breathe, like when one climbed a high hill. I decided it was white, and perfect for the image in my head.
“I paint a picture,” I whispered, and began.
I sketched the bowl of a sky. Not Sky, or any part of it—not even the sky that existed somewhere above the Tree, which I had never seen. This would be a thin, nearly empty firmament, wheeling above in layers of rising color. I laid down a thick base of white chalk, using both of my available sticks until there was just a sliver remaining. Lucky. Then I grazed in blue—not much of it, though. It felt wrong for the sky in my head—too vibrant, thick, almost greasy between my fingers. I used my hands to thin out the blue, then added another color that made a good yellow. Yes, that was right. I thickened the yellow, rolling it on, feeling its growing intensity and warmth and following it until at last it coalesced into light at the center of my composition. Two suns, one great and one smaller, spinning about each other in an eternal dance. Perhaps I could—
“Just a minute,” I murmured. The clouds in this sky would be powerful things, thick and dark with impending rain. I reached for something that smelled silver and drew one, wishing I had more blue, or black.
Now birds. Of course there would be birds flying in this bright, empty sky. But they would not have feathers—
“Hey!” Something touched me and I started, dropping the chalk and blinking out of my daze.