The Other Side of the Sky – Amie Kaufman, Meagan Spooner

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. I stop to avoid disrupting a procession of food sellers making their way down the reed street in front of me, mobbed by children hoping for a clumsy moment, for a hurried trader to drop some sticky rolls or a pouch of sweets. Another trader trails along in their wake, bearing trays full of charms to ward off pestilence and ill fortune.

Such trinkets are often sold and resold without ever receiving a touch of real magic, but I can feel the faint tingle about them that tells me these are genuine, crafted by some local hedge-witch. Perhaps the trader himself, for he also carries a little spellfire lantern with a trail of curious, light-seeking insects buzzing after it. The bindle cat sits at my feet, regarding the chaos with vigilant disapproval. As I wait for the vendors to pass, I cast my eyes back toward the buildings crowding the narrow, winding streets that cling to the perimeter of the temple, above the flood line of the river. More than one roof flutters with pennants, those of red and gold gleaming even in the twilight. But as the morning grows lighter, I see the outline of the other banners, and my blood chills. These flags are gray, as if camouflaged against the dim sky, and there are many of them. Many more than I knew were there. From my rooms back in the temple, my audience chamber, the terrace where I address my people, only two of these gray flags are visible to me. The rest are hidden by draped textiles and trailing vines, by the architecture of the temple itself.

So many are hidden from my usual view that I can’t believe it’s a coincidence. Was it someone among my priests, the high priest himself, perhaps, who ordered the placement of those decorations, wishing to shield me from the increasing threat against me? Or was it the Graycloaks, deciding in their leaderless, faceless way to conceal from me as long as possible the momentum their movement has gained? Either way, the decision was made, and no one consulted me. “Out of the way!” a voice snaps just behind me, making me whirl around, my heart in my throat. An older man stands there, a scowl creasing his leathery brown face where there ought to be shocked recognition at the sight of my crown and crimson robe. He wears the tattered, undyed wool of a villager from the western mountains, although a necklace of beads and bird’s bones claims him for one of the riverstrider clans. The bindle cat, back arched and body rigid against my calf, hisses a warning at the man. I raise my staff between us, stepping back. I open my mouth, but I’ve never had to identify myself to anyone, and the words Do you know who I am? stick in my throat. Then the man’s eyebrows rise, his eyes lighting. “You!” But where I would expect sudden shame and a scramble to repair his gruff manner, instead the man begins to croon, “Little fish, little fish, where have you gone … ?” A shiver trembles through my shoulders, understanding dawning as I peer harder at the man’s quivering features, into eyes wreathed by puffy skin.

They don’t focus, those eyes, not the way a normal person’s do—their clouded depths look past me. Through me. Mist-touched. He must be harmless, or he wouldn’t be permitted to roam the market, but a flicker of fear follows that shiver down my spine. He might not intend harm, but if he were to stumble forward, or leap for me … The ravages of the mist-storms are unpredictable at best, decimating crops, transforming solid stone, ripping away by the roots trees old enough to have known a time when I was not the only god to walk upon the ground. But far worse is what a mist-storm does to an unprotected mind. The man is still chuckling to himself, gazing through me and continuing to sing in his cracked voice. “Tell me truly, little fish, are you the only one?” “Let me help you, Grandfather.” The endearment, even from a stranger, seems to soften him, ground him a little. I swallow my fear, one hand already dipping into a few different pouches, gathering up spell reagents.

“Let me bless you and see you back to your clan.” The riverstriders are known for taking in the mist-touched, even those exiled from their own villages for being too hard to care for. Life on the water, they claim, is a balm for the wounds left by the mist. “The lastest and loneliest littlest fish left …” He blinks, breaking off mid-song to look at me. But when I lift my hand and open my mouth to begin the spell I hope will help soothe his inflamed mind, he interrupts with a loud guffaw. “And so used to swimming with the hungry river-snakes, she doesn’t even know she’s alone.” He wipes at his eyes, chortling, and then fixes me with a grave look. “It is an honor to meet the last of anything, Lady.” A tingle of warning makes the fear at his proximity flare. The mist is not malicious—it is a force of nature, the magic left behind by the world’s creation.

It only becomes dangerous when it gathers into storms, and even then, its effects are never twice the same. But sometimes, very, very rarely, its touch brings along with madness a thread of future-sight … If the Graycloaks have their way and remove me from power, then I may well be the last. The last living goddess to walk the land. I bend down to stroke the bindle cat, whose muscles are bunching in preparation to pounce. When I look up, the mist-touched man is gone. The market is busy now, and I can see very little past the denser ring of people trying to avoid me. As I turn to search for the old man, the ring undulates away as if pushed by some invisible force. There is no way with the mist-touched to tell addled ramblings from prophecy until the thing they speak of comes to pass. Even if I could find him again, he likely wouldn’t remember what he said. I straighten, trying not to let the nearby onlookers see me rattled.

The riverstriders make up most of the floating market, and they’re among the most devout and devoted—but I see flashes of gray nonetheless. What began as a series of whispers years ago, deep underground, is now an open movement. The Graycloaks. I will not let them see my fear. I stride forward, the ring of onlookers stretching and then snapping away, children and adults alike scattering before me. Quenti’s houseboat has a cluttered, ramshackle look to it, as though it began as a one-room shack on a barge and other floors and chambers were added here and there as needed. Knowing Quenti, that might actually be the case. I ease the door open a fraction and clear my throat. “Blessings upon this house,” I call tentatively— like most riverstriders, Quenti’s never been terribly formal, but he also houses half a dozen river children at any given time, and I err on the side of caution when it comes to announcing my presence. A flurry of feet precedes a series of hushed exclamations.

I look up to see a trio of round faces peering down at me from the second-floor landing. When they see the woven crown upon my head, two of the faces jolt and vanish again. The third—a girl, I think, although it’s difficult to tell in the gloom—watches me with open curiosity. “World’s end, it’s true.” The voice is not Quenti’s cracked and kindly one. I squint in the low lighting at the young woman who arrives on the heels of one of the little riverstriders. She bends to whisper something in the child’s ear, sending him off again before descending the stairs. “Welcome, Divine One. Our thanks for the light you bring this day.” Her voice is taut and cautious where Quenti’s would have been warm.

In the tension of her voice is an unspoken question, one she dares not ask. “I come to see Quenti,” I tell her in answer, once she’s reached the bottom of the rickety stairs. “I must speak with him privately.” She hesitates, giving me the time to examine her more closely. She looks a few years older than I am, and wears the braids of a married riverstrider, black hair woven through with the iridescent blueand-copper plumage of the crested flame-tail. Those feathers, and the bright bangles at wrist and ankle, identify her as a member of the same clan as Quenti. Olive skin at the neckline of her tunic darkens at her shoulders, telling of hours spent on the water under the sun, and muscle along the arm against the railing tells me she is more accustomed to river work than market politics. The silence stretches, and I see that strong arm twitch. Realization hits me: she doesn’t know how to be around me. She is frozen between a desire to avoid offense and a fear of disappointing me.

I draw a breath, trying to ignore the abrupt sting of self-consciousness that needles at the back of my mind, whispering: Did you expect her to snap to attention? You’ve been too long in the shelter of guards and priests… . “What is your name?” I ask her, letting go of the air of command that took me years to cultivate. “Hiret, Lady.” She swallows. “I am Quenti’s niece. That is my sister, Didyet.” She tilts her head without looking—the girl who’d remained at the top of the stairs to watch is still there, but now that I look more closely, she is not as young as I’d first thought. Younger than me, but not by much. “Really?” I don’t have to feign friendly delight. “I knew your mother when I lived among the riverfolk.

I remember when ‘Auntie’ traveled with Quenti for a season. She made pirrackas.” My memory of the woman is hazy—most of them are, before the temple—but the smell of fried dough and the dangerous lavalike ooze of hot honey, I remember with crystal clarity. Hiret’s eyes widen. Her right cheek bears a cluster of beauty marks just under the eye, and her quick smile makes them dance. “That would have been years ago—the last season she was here, I was still learning to walk the river. It would have been before …” She halts, the smile vanishing, her uncertainty returning. “Before I was called to divinity,” I finish for her, more used to speaking of those dark years between my time and that of the previous vessel of the divine. “Your uncle was kind to me then, when I was no one—as he has always been since. I am sorry if I frightened you, Hiret—but I really must speak to him.

I must ask him about the use of a boat, and the loan of a few of your people. I must go on a pilgrimage, and soon.” Hiret glances past me, picking up on my urgency at the same time as she realizes I am not accompanied by the half-dozen guards that usually follow me. A flicker of recognition passes between us then, a hint of the girl in her recognizing the one in me, who I keep hidden beneath the crown and the robes. “My uncle is ill,” she whispers. “Ill?” My chest tightens, for her lowered voice tells me it is not a passing cough. “What—” “Mist.” Hiret looks away, up at the stairs and past her silent sister, as if she might stretch and bend her gaze along the cramped corridor and into the room her uncle occupies. The movement very nearly conceals the grief in her sharp, expressive features. “His ankles swell these days, and he was soothing them in the river mud when a storm rose quickly from the forest-sea.

” “Is he … ?” In my mind’s eye, I’m staring at the mist-touched man singing songs of fishes, and trying to imagine my old friend in his place. “His mind is quick as ever. But … come.” Hiret turns and leads the way up the rickety stairs, shooing irritably at Didyet as she reaches the top. I would know her even if Hiret had not made the introduction, for Didyet’s face is a softer, rounder copy of her sister’s, though she has no constellation of beauty marks on her cheek and her unbraided hair stands thick and defiant in a half halo about her head. The girl returns my gaze with a stare of her own, showing me another way she is not like her sister —the set of her mouth is sullen and tight. Angry. “What can she do about it?” Didyet mutters, as if in confidence to Hiret, though plenty loud enough for me to hear. She does not move from her spot, barring my way, since I can’t brush past her. “She can’t stop the mist-storms.

She can’t heal the mist-touched. She isn’t even really the—” “Didyet!” her older sister snaps, cutting her off with such vehemence and horror that the younger girl stops mid-word, a flicker of fear showing through her bravado.

.

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