Home > The Other Side of the Sky

The Other Side of the Sky
Author: Amie Kaufman

ONE

NIMH

The floating market takes shape amid a flutter of torches and spellfire, each pinprick of light tailed by its glittering reflection in the river beneath. The sun is still below the horizon, though hints of peach and copper streak the underside of the cloudlands, hanging far above the clutter of our market. Monstrous shadows slip from the predawn gloom, gliding with the current toward the growing city upon the water, only to reveal themselves as houses and workshops, food stalls and vendors’ platforms.

I used to watch the floating market arrive every month. Riverfolk from leagues away converge upon the floodplains below the temple, steering their homes by sail and oar and pole across the broad, slow river as it spills over its banks into the forest-sea. In mere hours, the gentle curve of the river becomes a bustling city, each solitary barge of reeds joining together in a single teeming, intricate whole. It has always thrilled me, watching the transformation of my world—but every time, the thrill pales a little more against the torture of not being able to enjoy the market with the rest of my people.

This is the first time I’ve been on the river during the mooring in years. The view from the temple sanctum is quiet and remote—from there I cannot smell the charcoal and peat as the cooks and bakers heat their ovens, cannot hear the laughter of the children still too young to help their parents with the ropes, cannot feel the pulsing syncopation of feet and currents shifting the floating market streets underfoot.

My memories before the temple are dim at best, but once I was one of those children. The smell of grilling meat and spice bread meant I would get a treat if I was well behaved; the laughter was the sound of my friends calling me to join them at play; and the footsteps that pounded up and down the thick reed streets were mine. Some years back, I tried sneaking into the market in a handmaiden’s borrowed clothing. But whatever ease and safety I’d felt as a child in this place had long since bled away—I barely made it down one street before the crowds pressed in so close that I had to flee, straight into the panicked protection of the guards searching for me.

Now, I’m alone.

I’m not so foolish these days as to try to disguise myself, for it would be far too easy for someone to brush against me or take my arm in an attempt to sell me a bauble. Even the tiniest children know what the deep red of my robe and the kohl rimming my eyes signify—they know it before they can walk.

But even after all the time I’ve spent watching the riverfolk bustling to and fro, the crowds draw out a deep, quiet unease that throbs like the ache of an old injury. Despite the fact that I wear my red robes and gold circlet, the traditional garments of divinity that warn against coming too close, someone could still accidentally touch me. Being here is so risky it borders on reckless—but the politicians and priests who govern my life have left me no choice.

My eyes flick upward, as they often do, to rest upon the mass of darkened cloud overhead. The gods have not been heard of since they fled there a thousand years ago, leaving only one—the first of my divine line—to guide the people they left behind. Do they live there still? Do they care that their representative in this land has been pushed to such desperate measures to help her people?

Eluding my guards wasn’t difficult, for the simple reason that I never try, not anymore. I am no prisoner, and they are all but ceremonial despite having been trained from birth to die fighting for me. But to come to the market flanked by a dozen men and women in the grim black and gold of divine guardians would be to announce my activities to the entire temple, and the city as well. Word will undoubtedly float back to High Priest Daoman’s ears, but it will take time. By then, I will have secured safe passage for my journey, and can claim I only wanted to see the mooring.

The house I’m looking for is distinctive, with a roof that sprouts patchwork scaffolding like spindly arms reaching toward the sky. Quenti’s house is one of the fastest on all the rivers and forest-seas, but when he’s moored, he replaces his sails with skins and vines and reeds to dry in the sun, above the humidity of the river. Clutching my spearstaff, I scan the market for the trader’s base.

Spellfire flickers to life above a one-room livestock hut, and in its steady blue-green glow I spot what I’m looking for. My heart sinks as I realize there’s no quick route to reach Quenti—I’ll have to join the thronging masses of people.

A sturdy warmth butts up against my calf, that single touch enough to give me courage. I don’t need to look to know it’s the bindle cat—his familiar burbling, insistent trill floats up to my ears, and I chirp back. His wide, furry face turns up to me and then, purring like an angry stormcloud, he butts against my leg again as I set out.

Though I keep to the edges of the market, avoiding the thickest crowds, riverfolk are still busy lashing their homes to others. I pause only long enough to reach for my chatelaine and draw out a pinch of fireseed.

I cup it in my palm, whispering the invocation against the powder. My breath sends a puff of it floating from my hand, each little grain beginning to glow like a nascent star as it showers to the ground. I raise my cupped hand and anoint the blade of my spearstaff so that it casts its gentle light in a watery pool around my ankles.

Now that I’m illuminated, my people scatter and fall back from me.

All I see are bowed heads and the backs of their colorful market garb as they kneel and touch their heads to the reeds until I’ve passed.

Lady, they whisper respectfully. Beautiful Goddess. Divine One. Blessed Divinity.

I murmur a blessing whenever I see a face lift, wishing just once that I could walk through a crowd without its many eyes following me, hungry for some sign that I am the salvation it desperately needs. Sometimes I think I see doubt there, behind the worship—sometimes I know I do.

All the living gods throughout history, my predecessors, embodied a particular aspect of the divine in answer to the needs of the land. There have been gods of poetry, gods of war, gods of the celestial heavens, and gods of green growing things. Before me, the temple was home to a goddess of healing.

These aspects have always manifested themselves within the living god a year or two after their calling. They say that Satheon, who led our people during my grandparents’ time, was called to the temple as a boy of sixteen and manifested his aspect of farming just a week later.

I have been a goddess for nearly ten years—and still, my people are waiting to see what solace I will bring them.

If I ever do.

Sensing my emotion, the bindle cat gently and carefully dips his head, opens his mouth, and bites me on the ankle. Focusing on that sharp pain, I take a breath, grateful for my one companion.

I found him as a kitten in a sodden bindle sack, wet and half-drowned on the bank of the river, one afternoon a few months after I was first brought to the temple. Scrawny and pathetic as a kitten, he’s a massive, muscled, fire-orange beast as a grown cat.

The bindle cat gives his own blessings in echo of mine—though they sound more like curses—as he trots along beside me, tail upright and round eyes alert. While everyone in my life knows I ought to have manifested my aspect years ago, and has hopes and expectations for me, he has none beyond his next snack. The bindle cat is just a cat. And unlike my servants and guards, he’s allowed to touch me—and I him. Having a solid warmth to stroke and curl up with when I’m lonely makes the rest of it bearable.

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