The Broken Kingdoms
Page 6

 N.K. Jemisin

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Yet, as I stood there, transfixed by those eyes, I saw something else: pain. So much sorrow and grief and anger and guilt, and other emotions I could not name because when all was said and done, my life up to then had been relatively happy. There are some things one can understand only by experience, and there are some experiences no one wants to share.
Hmm. Perhaps I should tell you something about me before I go on.
I’m something of an artist, as I’ve mentioned. I make, or made, my living selling trinkets and souvenirs to out-of-towners. I also paint, though my paintings are not meant for the eyes of others. Aside from this, I’m no one special. I see magic and gods, but so does everyone; I told you, they’re everywhere. I probably just notice them more because I can’t see anything else.
My parents named me Oree. Like the cry of the southeastern weeper-bird. Have you heard it? It seems to sob as it calls, oree, gasp, oree, gasp. Most Maroneh girls are named for such sorrowful things. It could be worse; the boys are named for vengeance. Depressing, isn’t it? That sort of thing is why I left.
Then again, I have never forgotten my mother’s words: it’s all right to need help. All of us have things we can’t do alone.
So the man in the muck? I took him in, cleaned him up, fed him a good meal. And because I had space, I let him stay. It was the right thing to do. The human thing. I suppose I was also lonely, after the whole Madding business. Anyhow, I told myself, it did no harm.
But I was wrong about that part.
He was dead again when I got home that day. His corpse was in the kitchen, near the counter, where it appeared he’d been chopping vegetables when the urge to stab himself through the wrist had struck. I slipped on the blood coming in, which annoyed me because that meant it was all over the kitchen floor. The smell was so thick and cloying that I could not localize it—this wall or that one? The whole floor or just near the table? I was certain he dripped on the carpet, too, while I dragged him to the bathroom. He was a big man, so that took a while. I wrestled him into the tub as best I could and then filled it with water from the cold cistern, partly so that the blood on his clothes wouldn’t set and partly to let him know how angry I was.
I’d calmed down somewhat—cleaning the kitchen helped me vent—by the time I heard a sudden, violent slosh of water from the bathroom. He was often disoriented when he first returned to life, so I waited in the doorway until the sounds of sloshing stilled and his attention fixed on me. He had a strong personality. I could always feel the pressure of his gaze.
“It’s not fair,” I said, “for you to make my life harder. Do you understand?”
Silence. But he heard me.
“I’ve cleaned up the worst of the kitchen, but I think there might be some blood on the living-room rugs. The smell’s so thick that I can’t find the small patches. You’ll have to do those. I’ll leave a bucket and brush in the kitchen.”
More silence. A scintillating conversationalist, he was.
I sighed. My back hurt from scrubbing the floor. “Thanks for making dinner.” I didn’t mention that I hadn’t eaten any. No way to tell—without tasting—if he’d gotten blood on the food, too. “I’m going to bed; it’s been a long day.”
A faint taste of shame wafted on the air. I felt his gaze move away and was satisfied. In the three months he’d been living with me, I’d come to know him as a man of almost compulsive fairness, as predictable as the tolling of a White Hall bell. He did not like it when the scales between us were unbalanced.
I crossed the bathroom, bent over the tub, and felt for his face. I got the crown of his head at first and marveled, as always, at the feel of hair like my own—soft-curled, dense but yielding, thick enough to lose my fingers in. The first time I’d touched him, I’d thought he was one of my people, because only Maroneh had such hair. Since then I’d realized he was something else entirely, something not human, but that early surge of fellow-feeling had never quite faded. So I leaned down and kissed his brow, savoring the feel of soft smooth heat beneath my lips. He was always hot to the touch. Assuming we could come to some agreement on the sleeping arrangements, next winter I could save a fortune on firewood.
“Good night,” I murmured. He said nothing in return as I headed off to bed.
Here’s what you need to understand. My houseguest was not suicidal, not precisely. He never went out of his way to kill himself. He simply never bothered to avoid danger—including the danger of his own impulses. An ordinary person took care while walking along the roof to do repairs; my houseguest did not. He didn’t look both ways before crossing the street, either. Where most people might fleetingly imagine tossing a lighted candle onto their own beds and just as fleetingly discard that idea as mad, my houseguest simply did it. (Though, to his credit, he had never done anything that might endanger me, too. Yet.)