Author’s note: this is from a next-to-final version, pre-copyediting. Any errors are mine, with apologies.
CHAPTER THREE: “Gods and Corpses” (oil on canvas)
The instant Madding and I appeared in South Root, a blast of power staggered us both.
I perceived it as a wave of brightness so intense that I cried out as it washed past, dropping my stick to clap both hands over my eyes. Mad gasped as well, as if something had stricken him a blow. He recovered faster than me and took my hands, trying to pull them away from my face. “Oree? Let me see.”
I let him push my hands aside. “I’m fine,” I said. “Fine. Just — too bright. Gods. I didn’t know these things could hurt like that.” I kept blinking and tearing up, which made him peer closely into each eye.
“They’re not ‘things’, they’re eyes. Is the pain fading?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine, I told you. What in the infinite hells was that?” Already the brightness had vanished, subsumed into the dark that was all I usually saw. The pain was fading more slowly, but it was fading.
“I don’t know.” Madding cupped my face in his hands, thumbs grazing my underlids to brush away the tears. I allowed this at first, but abruptly his touch was too intimate, triggering memories more painful than the light had been. I pulled away, probably more quickly than I should have. He sighed a little, but let me go.
There was a faint stir on either side of me, and I heard a light patter as of feet touching the ground. Madding’s tone shifted to something more authoritative, as it always did when he spoke to his underlings. “Tell me that wasn’t who I thought it was.”
“It was,” said one voice, which I thought of as pale and androgynous even though I had seen its owner once and she was the exact opposite, brown and voluptuous. She was also one of the godlings who didn’t like it when I saw them, so I had never glimpsed her since.
“Demons and darkness,” Mad said, sounding annoyed. “I thought the Arameri were keeping him.”
“Not anymore, apparently,” said the other voice. This one was definitively male. I had seen him too, and he was a strange creature with long, wild hair that smelled like copper. His skin was Amn-white but with irregular darker patches here and there; I gathered the patches were his idea of decoration. I certainly found them pretty, whenever I managed to see him undisguised. This was business, though, so now he was just part of the darkness.
“Lil has come,” said the woman, and Madding groaned. “There are bodies. The Orderkeepers.”
“The — ” Madding suddenly pulled back and looked hard at me. “Oree, please don’t tell me this is your new boyfriend.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend, Mad, not that it’s any of your business.” I frowned, suddenly understanding. “Wait. Are you talking about Shiny?”
“Shiny? Who the — ” Madding cursed, then stooped swiftly to collect my walking stick and press it into my hands. “Enough. Let’s go.”
His underlings vanished, and Madding began to pull me along toward wherever that white-hot power had come from.
South Root — Where Sows Root, went the local joke — was the worst neighborhood in Shadow. One of the Tree’s main roots had forked off a side-branch nearby, which meant the area was bracketed on three sides rather than the usual two. On rare days, South Root could be beautiful. It had been a respectable crafters’ neighborhood before the Tree, so the white-painted walls were inlaid here and there with mica and smooth agate, and the streets were cobbled in patterns of large and small bricks, with gates of iron wrought in magnificent shapes. If not for the three roots, it would have gotten more sunlight than parts of Shadow closer to the Tree’s trunk. I’d been told that it still did, on windy days in late autumn, for an hour or two a day. Any other time, South Root was perpetually dark.
No one lived there anymore but desperate, angry poor people. This made it one of the few places in the city where Orderkeepers might feel comfortable beating a man to death in the street.
Their consciences must’ve bothered them more than usual, however, because the space into which Madding finally dragged me did not feel open. I smelled garbage and mildew, and there was the bitter acridity of stale urine on my tongue. Another alley? One that had no magic to keep it clean.
And there were other smells here, stronger and even less pleasant. Smoke. Charcoal. Burned meat and hair. I could hear something still sizzling faintly.
Near this sound stood a tall, languid female figure, the only thing I could see aside from Madding. Her back was to me, so that at first I only noticed her long, ragged hair, straight like a High Norther’s but an odd mottled gold in color. This was not the gold of Amn hair; it was somehow not pretty at all. She was also thin — disturbingly, unhealthily so. She wore an incongruously elegant gown with a low back, and the shoulderblades that I could see on either side of her hair were sharp-angled, like knife edges.
Then the woman turned, and I clapped both hands over my mouth to keep from crying out. Above the nose her face was normal. Below, her mouth became a distorted, impossible monstrosity, her lower jaw hanging all the way to her knees, the too-long expanse of her gums lined with several rows of tiny needlelike teeth. Moving teeth, each row marching along her jaw like a restless trail of ants. I could hear them whirring faintly. She drooled.
And when she saw my reaction, she smiled. That was the most hideous sight I had ever seen.
Then she shimmered and became an ordinary-looking woman, nondescriptly Amn, with a nondescriptly human mouth. She was still smiling, though, and there was still something disturbingly hungry in her expression.
“My gods,” Madding murmured. (Godlings said this sort of thing all the time.) “It is you.”
His words confused me because of their direction; he was not speaking to the blonde woman. Then I jumped at the response because it came from another unexpected direction — above.
“Oh yes,” said this new, soft voice. “It’s him.”
Madding suddenly went still in a way that I knew meant trouble. His two lieutenants suddenly flickered into view, equally tense. “I see,” Madding said, speaking low and carefully. “It’s been awhile, Sieh. Have you come to gloat?”
“A little.” The voice was that of a young boy, somewhere before puberty. I looked up, trying to gauge where he was — a rooftop, maybe, or a window on the second or third floor. I could not see him. A mortal? Or another godling who was feeling shy?
There was a sudden feel of movement before me, and abruptly the boy spoke from the ground, only a few feet away. Godling, then.
“You look worn out, old man,” the boy said, and belatedly I realized he too was addressing someone other than me, Madding, or the blonde woman. Finally I realized that off to the side of the alley, near the wall, there was someone low to the ground, sitting or kneeling maybe. Panting for some reason. Something about those weary breaths was familiar.
“Mortal flesh is bound by physical laws,” the boy continued, speaking to the panting person. “If you don’t use sigils to channel the power, you get more, it’s true — but then the magic drains your strength. Use enough and it can even kill you — for awhile, anyhow. Just one of a thousand new things you’ll have to learn, I’m afraid. Sorry, old man.”
The blonde woman uttered a laugh like pebbles grinding underfoot. “You’re not sorry.”
She was right. The voice of the boy — Sieh, Madding had called him — was utterly devoid of compassion. He sounded pleased, in fact, in the way that most people would be pleased to see an enemy brought low. I cocked my head, listening close and trying to understand.
Sieh chuckled. “Of course I’m sorry, Lil. Do I look like the kind of person who would hold a grudge? That would be petty of me.”
“Petty,” agreed the blonde woman, “and childish, and cruel. Does his suffering please you?”
“Oh yes, Lil. It pleases me very much.”
Not even the pretense of friendliness this time. There was nothing in that boyish voice but sadistic relish. I shivered, even more afraid for Shiny. I had never seen a godling child before, but I had an inkling they were not all that different from human children. Human children could be merciless, especially when they had power.
I stepped away from Madding, intending to go to the panting man. Madding pulled me sharply back, his hand like a vise on my arm. I stumbled, protested, “But — ”
“Not now, Oree,” Madding said. He didn’t use that tone with me often, but I had learned long ago that it meant danger when he did.
If this had been any other situation, I would have happily stepped behind him and tried to make myself as unnoticeable as possible. I was in a dark alley in the back end of beyond, surrounded by dead men and gods whose tempers were up. For all I knew, there wasn’t another mortal anywhere in shouting distance. Even if there had been, what in the infinite hells could they have done to help?
“What’s happened to the ‘Keepers?” I whispered to Madding. It was an unnecessary question; they had finally stopped sizzling. “How did Shiny kill them?”
To my great dismay, it was Sieh’s voice. I hadn’t wanted to draw his attention or that of the blonde woman. Yet Sieh seemed honestly delighted. “Shiny? Is that what you call him? Really?”
I swallowed, tried to speak, then tried again when the first try failed. “He won’t give me his name, so… I had to call him something.”
“Did you, now?” The boy, sounding amused, came closer. I was a good deal taller than him, I guessed by the direction of his voice, but that was not as comforting as it should have been. I could still see nothing of him, not even an outline or shadow, which meant that he was better than most godlings at concealing himself. I couldn’t even smell him. I could feel him, though. His presence filled the whole alley in a way that none of the other godlings’ did.
“Shiny,” the boy said again, contemplative. “And he answers to that name?”
“Not exactly.” I licked my lips and decided to take a chance. “Is he all right?”
The boy abruptly turned away. “Oh, he’ll be fine. He has no choice but to be fine, doesn’t he?” He was angrier now, I realized, my heart sinking into my stomach. I had made things worse. “No matter what happens to his mortal body, no matter how many times he abuses it — and yes, oh yes, I know about that, did you think I didn’t?” He was speaking to Shiny again, and his voice practically trembled with fury. “Did you think I wouldn’t laugh at you, so proud, so arrogant, dying over and over because you can’t be bothered to take the most basic care?”
There was a sudden jostling sound, and a grunt from Shiny. And another sound, unmistakable: a blow. The boy had hit or kicked him. Madding’s hand tightened on my arm, inadvertently I think. A reaction to whatever he was seeing. Sieh was barely coherent, snarling out his words. “Did you think — ” Another kick, this one harder. Godlings were far stronger than they seemed. ” — I wouldn’t — ” Kick. ” — love to help you along?” Kick.
And an echo: the wet snap of bone. Shiny cried out, and at this I could not help myself; I opened my mouth to protest.
But before I could, another voice spoke, so softly that I almost missed it. “Sieh.”
All at once Sieh became visible. He was a boy, small and spindly-looking, almost Maroneh-colored though with an unkempt flop of straight hair. Not at all threatening to look at. As he appeared, he stood frozen, his eyes wide with surprise, but all at once he turned.
In the space that he faced, another godling appeared. This one was also a tiny thing, a full head shorter than me and barely larger than Sieh, yet there was something about her that hinted at strength. Possibly her attire, which was strange: a long gray sleeveless vest that bared her slim, tight brown arms, and leggings that stopped at mid-calf. Below them she was barefoot. She looked, I thought at first, the way I’d heard High Northers described, but her hair was wrong — curled and wild instead of straight, and chopped boyishly short. And her eyes were wrong too, though I could not quite fathom how. What color was that? Green? Gray? Something else entirely?
At the corner of my vision, I saw Madding stiffen, his eyes going wide and round. One of his lieutenants uttered a swift soft curse.
“Sieh,” the quiet woman said again, her tone disapproving.
Sieh scowled, in that moment looking like nothing more than a sulky little boy caught doing something wrong. “What? It’s not like he’s really mortal.”
Off to the side, the blonde goddess — Lil — looked at Shiny with interest. “He smells mortal enough. Sweat and pain and blood and fear, so nice.”
The new goddess glanced at her, which didn’t seem to bother Lil at all, then focused on Sieh again. “This wasn’t what we had in mind.”
“Why shouldn’t I kick him to death now and again? He’s not even trying to fulfill the terms you set. He might as well entertain me.”
The goddess shook her head, sighing, and went to him. To my surprise, Sieh did not resist as she pulled him into an embrace, cupping one hand at the back of his head. He held stiff against her, not reciprocating, but even I could see that he did not mind being held.
“This serves no purpose,” she said in his ear, and so tender was her tone that I could not help thinking of my own mother, miles away in Nimaro Territory. “It doesn’t help. It doesn’t even hurt him, not in any way that matters. Why do you bother?”
Sieh turned his face away, his hands clenching at his sides. “You know why!”
“Yes, I know. Do you?”
When Sieh spoke again, I could hear the strain in his voice. “No! I hate him! I want to kill him forever!”
But then the dam broke, and he sagged against her, dissolving into tears. The quiet goddess sighed and pulled him closer, seemingly content to comfort him for however long it took.
I marveled at this for a moment, torn between awe and pity, then remembered Shiny on the ground nearby, his breathing labored now.
Surreptitiously I edged away from Madding — who was watching the tableau with the oddest look on his face, something I could not interpret. Sorrow, maybe. Chagrin. It didn’t matter. While he and the others were preoccupied, I went over to Shiny. It was definitely him; I recognized his peculiar spice-and-metal scent. When I crouched to examine him, I found his back hot as a fever and drenched in what I hoped was only sweat. He had bent in on himself in a huddle, his fists clenched tight, in obvious agony.
His condition enraged me. I lifted my eyes to glare at Sieh and the quiet goddess — and with a deep chill, I found her watching me over Sieh’s bony shoulder.
(Hadn’t her eyes been gray-green before? They were yellowish green now, and not at all warm.)
“Interesting,” she said. Beside her, Sieh turned to peer at me too, rubbing one eye with the back of his hand. She kept a hand on his shoulder with absent affection and said to me, “Are you his lover?”
“She’s not,” said Madding.
The woman threw him the mildest of looks, and Madding’s jaw flexed. It was as close to fear as I had ever seen him come.
“I’m not,” I blurted. I didn’t know what was going on, why Madding seemed so wary of this woman and the child-god, but I knew I didn’t want Madding getting in trouble for my folly. “Shiny lives with me. We — He’s — ” What should I say? Never lie to a godling, Mad had warned me long ago. Some of them had spent millennia studying humankind. They could not read minds, but the language of our bodies was an open book. “I’m his friend,” I said at last.
The boy exchanged a look with the goddess, and then both of them turned unnerving, enigmatic gazes on me. I noticed only then that Sieh’s eyes were slit-pupilled, like those of a snake or cat.
“His friend,” said Sieh. His face was expressionless now, his eyes dry, his voice without inflection. I didn’t know if that was good or bad.
It sounded so weak. “Yes,” I said. “It’s… how I… think of myself, anyway.” Another silence fell, and in it, I grew ashamed. I didn’t even know Shiny’s real name. “Please just stop hurting him.” It was a whisper this time.
Sieh sighed, and so did the woman. The feeling that I was walking a narrow bridge over a very deep chasm began to fade.
“You call yourself his friend,” the woman said. There was compassion in her voice, to my surprise. And her eyes were darker green now, shading toward hazel. “Does he call you the same?”
So they had noticed. “I don’t know,” I said, hating her for asking that question. I did not look at Shiny, who was still beside me. “He doesn’t talk to me.”
“Ask yourself why,” drawled the boy.
I licked my lips. “There are many reasons why a man would hesitate to speak about his past.”
“Few of those reasons are good. His certainly aren’t.” With a last contemptuous look, Sieh turned and walked away.
He paused, however, a look of surprise crossing his face, when the quiet woman suddenly moved forward, coming over to Shiny and I. When she crouched, balancing easily on her bare toes, I caught a fleeting sense of the real her, the goddess underneath her unimposing shell, and it staggered me. Where Sieh had filled the alley, she filled — what? It was too vast to grasp, too detailed. The ground beneath my knees. Every brick and speck of mortar, every struggling weed and smear of mildew. The air. The muckbins at the back of the alley. Everything.
And then it was gone, just as fast, and she was just a small High Norther woman with eyes that made me think of a dark, wet forest.
“You’re very lucky,” she said. I was confused at first, then I realized she was speaking to Shiny. “Friends are precious, powerful things — hard to earn, harder still to keep. You should thank this one for taking a chance on you.”
Shiny twitched, beside me. I could not see what he did, but the woman’s expression changed to one of annoyance; she shook her head and got to her feet.
“Be careful of him,” she said. To me this time. “Be his friend if you like; if he lets you. He needs you more than he realizes. But for your own sake, don’t love him. He’s not ready for that.”
I could only stare at her, mute with awe. She turned away, then paused as she walked past Madding.
“Role,” she said.
He nodded, as if he’d been expecting her attention. “We’re doing everything we can.” He threw me a quick uneasy glance. “Even the mortals are looking into it. Everyone wants to know how this happened.”
She nodded, slowly and solemnly. For an instant too long she was silent; gods did that sometimes, contemplating the unfathomable, though they usually tried not to do it when mortals were around. Perhaps this one wasn’t used to mortals yet.
“You have thirty days,” she said suddenly.
Madding went stiff. “To find Role’s killer? But you promised — ”
“I said we wouldn’t interfere in mortal affairs,” she said sharply; Madding fell silent at once. “This is family.”
After a moment, Madding nodded, though he still looked uncomfortable. “Yes. Yes, of course. And, ah — ”
“He is angry,” said the woman, and for the first time she looked troubled herself. “Role didn’t take sides in the war. But even if she had… you’re still his children. He still loves you.” She paused and glanced at Madding, but Madding looked away. I guessed that she spoke of Bright Itempas, who was said to be the father of all the godlings. Naturally He would take exception to the death of His child.
The woman continued, “So, thirty days. I’ve convinced him to stay out of it for that long. After that — ” She paused, then shrugged. “You know his temper better than I do.”
Madding went very pale.
With that, the woman turned to join the boy, both of them clearly intending to leave. From the corner of my eye I saw one of Madding’s lieutenants exhale in relief. I should have been relieved too. I should have stayed quiet. But as I watched the woman and boy walk away, I could think of only one thing: they knew Shiny. Hated him, perhaps, but knew him.
I groped for my walking-stick. “Wait!”
Madding looked at me like I had lost my mind, but I ignored him. The woman stopped, not turning back, but the child did, looking at me in surprise. “Who is he?” I asked, pointing at Shiny. “Will you tell me his name?”
“Oree, gods damn it — ” Madding stepped forward, but the woman held up a graceful hand and he went still.
Sieh only shook his head. “The rules are that he live among mortals as a mortal,” he said, glancing beyond me at Shiny. “None of you comes into this world with a name, so neither does he. He gets nothing unless he earns it himself. Since he’s not trying very hard, that means he’ll never have much. Except a friend, apparently.” He eyed me briefly and looked sour. “Well — like Mother said, even he gets lucky sometimes.”
Mother, I noted, with the part of my mind that remained fascinated by such things even after years of living in Shadow. Godlings did mate amongst themselves sometimes. Was Shiny Sieh’s father, then?
“Mortals don’t come into the world with nothing,” I said, carefully. “We have history. A home. Family.”
Sieh’s lip curled. “Only the fortunate ones among you. He doesn’t deserve to be that lucky.”
I shuddered and inadvertently thought of how I’d found Shiny, light and beauty discarded like trash. All this time I had assumed misfortune on his part; that he suffered from some godly disease, or an accident which had stripped all but a vestige of his power. Now I knew his condition had been deliberately imposed. Someone — these very gods, perhaps — had done this to him, as a punishment.
“What in the infinite hells did he do?” I murmured without thinking.
I didn’t understand the boy’s reaction at first. I would never be as good at perceiving things with my eyes as I was with my other senses, and the look on Sieh’s face alone was not enough for me to interpret. But when he spoke, I knew: whatever Shiny had done, it had been truly terrible, because Sieh’s hate had once been love. Love betrayed has an entirely different sound from hatred outright.
“Maybe he’ll tell you himself one day,” he said. “I hope so. He doesn’t deserve a friend, either.”
Then he and the woman vanished, leaving me alone among gods and corpses.
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