The Broken Kingdoms
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As I moved into the relative silence of the alley, tapping my stick back and forth in case I happened across a wallet or other valuables, I noticed the smell of blood at once. I dismissed it just as quickly, because it didn’t make sense; the alley had been magicked to keep itself clean of detritus. Any inanimate object dropped in it disappeared after half an hour or so—the better to lure in unwary pilgrims. (The godling who’d set this particular trap had a wicked mind for detail, I had decided.) Yet the deeper I moved into the alley, the more clearly the scent came to me—and the more uneasy I grew, because I recognized it. Metal and salt, cloying in that way blood becomes after it has grown cold and clotted. But this was not the heavy, iron scent of mortal blood; there was a lighter, sharper tang to it. Metals that had no name in any mortal tongue, salts of entirely different seas.
Godsblood. Had someone dropped a vial of the stuff here? An expensive mistake, if so. Yet the godsblood smelled… flat somehow. Wrong. And there was far, far too much of it.
Then my stick hit something heavy and soft, and I stopped, dread drying my mouth.
I crouched to examine my find. Cloth, very soft and fine. Flesh beneath the cloth—a leg. Cooler than it should have been, but not cold. I felt upward, my hand trembling, and found a curved hip, a woman’s slightly poochy belly—and then my fingers stilled as the cloth suddenly became sodden and tacky.
I snatched my hand back and asked, “A-are you… all right?” That was a foolish question, because obviously she wasn’t.
I could see her now, a very faint person-shaped blur occluding the alley floor’s shimmer, but that was all. She should have glowed bright with magic of her own; I should have spotted her the moment I entered the alley. She should not have been motionless, since godlings had no need for sleep.
I knew what this meant. All my instincts cried it. But I did not want to believe.
Then I felt a familiar presence appear nearby. No footsteps to forewarn me, but that was all right. I was glad he’d come this time.
“I don’t understand,” Madding whispered. That was when I had to believe, because the surprise and horror in Madding’s voice were undeniable.
I had found a godling. A dead one.
I stood, too fast, and stumbled a little as I backed away. “I don’t, either,” I said. I gripped my stick tightly with both hands. “She was like this when I found her. But—” I shook my head, at a loss for words.
There was the faint sound of chimes. No one else ever seemed to hear them, I had noticed long ago. Then Madding manifested from the shimmer of the alley: a stocky, well-built man of vaguely Senmite ethnicity, swarthy and weathered of face, with tangled dark hair caught in a tail at the nape of his neck. He did not glow, precisely—not in this form—but I could see him, contrasting solidly against the walls’ shimmer. And I had never seen the stricken look that was on his face as he stared down at the body.
“Role,” he said. Two syllables, the faintest of emphasis on the first. “Oh, Sister. Who did this to you?”
And how? I almost asked, but Madding’s obvious grief kept me silent.
He went to her, this impossibly dead godling, and reached out to touch some part of her body. I could not see what; his fingers seemed to fade as they pressed against her skin. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, very softly. That was more proof of how troubled he was; usually he tried to act like the tough, rough-mannered mortal he appeared to be. Before this, I had seen him show softness only in private, with me.
“What could kill a godling?” I asked. I did not stammer this time.
“Nothing. Another godling, I mean, but that takes more raw magic than you can imagine. All of us would have sensed that and come to see. But Role had no enemies. Why would anyone hurt her? Unless…” He frowned. As his concentration slipped, so did his image; his human frame blurred into something that was a shining, liquid green, like the smell of fresh Tree leaves. “No, why would either of them have done it? It doesn’t make sense.”
I went to him and put a hand on his glimmering shoulder. After a moment, he touched my hand in silent thanks, but I could tell the gesture had given him no comfort.
“I’m sorry, Mad. I’m so sorry.”
He nodded slowly, becoming human again as he got a hold of himself. “I have to go. Our parents… They’ll need to be told. If they don’t know already.” He sighed and shook his head as he got to his feet.