Home > The Hollow Heart (Forgotten Gods #2)

The Hollow Heart (Forgotten Gods #2)
Author: Marie Rutkoski

 


THE GOD

 


YOU HAVE MY HEART. You know you do.

I have heard this said, from one of you to another. Mortals say it as though they can feel the hand of the beloved inside their ribs, palm supporting the heart, fingers curled lightly around the trembling muscle. Pain could come so easily. All it would take is a good, hard squeeze.

Once there was a girl who traded her heart to a god for knowledge. It seemed, at the time, a fair bargain. One should never bargain with a god, let alone this god, yet Nirrim had been raised to think more of others than of herself, and as such people often do—the orphans, the underlings, the lesser-thans—she soon tired of being trod upon. She sought power. Eventually, she would seize it with a vengeance. A heart seemed a small price to pay. Anyway, it was broken.

Yet she hesitated. I can’t live without a heart, she told the god, who said, Not that lump of muscle beating in your chest. I mean what makes you you.

If you take my heart, what will I become?

Who can say? said the god.

Nirrim made her bargain. She plotted to make a palace fit for the new person she was, and looked out at the sea, which glinted like beaten tin. She placed a palm against her breast, and her heart knocked back. I am here, it said. But was it truly? Something was gone. Nirrim, self-crowned ruler of Ethin, our lost city, Queen of the Hollow Heart, discovered that her bargain had not taken away her longing as she had hoped. No, she was not done with wanting. Now she wanted all the world.

And me?

I warn you now: do not think well of me. I have murdered your kind before. Nirrim’s black-eyed lover, Sid of the Herrani, will know this when she meets my gaze. Fear will shiver through her.

How does a story end? For you mortals, it always ends with your life.

 

 

NIRRIM

 


MY PEOPLE COME TO SEE me in my triumph. The words I have just spoken ring in my mind: I am a god, and I am your queen. Half Kith fill the agora, curious, their souls surely sweetened with the knowledge that I have given them: that they, who for generations were scorned by the rest of Ethin, are the children of gods.

At least, some of them are.

“Bring all the Half Kith to me.” I pitch my voice so that it rings against the white walls of the agora. “Even the smallest child.”

“Why? What will you do, Nirrim?”

I can’t see who calls, but I would know that voice anywhere: Annin, whom I once considered my little sister, despite any lack of blood between us. A new tone of suspicion infects her voice.

I lift a hand to my shoulder for the Elysium bird, as soft and red as a rose, to shift its perch onto my fist. It obeys, trilling, and rubs its head against my cheek. It loves me, just as I deserve. I remember feeling grateful, like a beggar, for any scrap of love tossed my way. I yearned so badly for a mother that when Raven, the woman who took me in, hurt me I invented reasons to explain her behavior. My only other choice was to face the truth that she cared nothing for me. I was weak. Desperate. Never again. I look into the crowd of Half Kith. They will love me, too, just like my bird, and I will reward them by returning to us the power that was stolen long ago. I will raise the Half Kith on high. We have been ignored for too long. Treated cruelly. My people surely believe this as I do.

If they don’t, they must be made to believe it, for their own good. I will need their loyalty, and for that I need their trust. “I am here to protect you,” I say gently. “This is the gods’ bird, whose ancestor, hundreds of years ago, drank the blood of the god of discovery. My Elysium will know which of you has magic running in your veins. Don’t you wonder what you could do?” I smile at the crowd. For the first time in my life, I am aware of my beauty and relish it. The crowd’s mesmerized faces relax as they regard me. My black hair must be wild, wind-torn: a dark crown. My eyes: green as jade. Skin pure, sun-warmed. A sweet, quiet face. For now, let them think I am as sweet as I look. “The bird is harmless. All it will do is sing—if, that is, you are gifted. Aden, step forward. Show them.”

Aden knows full well that he is god-touched. He glows. A golden smirk curls his lips. He looks as though he has lifted the goblet of the sky to his mouth and swallowed the sun. Once he was my lover, and believes he knows me well, yet when our eyes meet he hesitates, appraising me. He must wonder who I am now, and can’t help but see how I have changed. I am no longer the shy, easily controlled girl he knew. “Aden, surely you are not afraid. It is but a bird.”

With a squint to his eyes that says he thinks my challenge to his courage is a cheap trick, yet that he will indulge me for his own reasons, Aden steps close. His light runs over my skin. It feels nice enough. I remember how he was with me when all the Ward knew I was his sweetheart, how his love, like this honeyed light, felt like a too-warm blanket, like something that wouldn’t let me breathe and made me long for cool water.

For a moment, I remember Sid’s skin on mine. Her weight. Need pours into my belly, dizzying me, dazzling my flesh. A sharp breath escapes my lips. I thought I was past this desire, that whatever I gave to the god when he demanded my heart would make it impossible for me to feel anything for Sid. What did he take, exactly, from me?

There is no time to wonder. Sid is gone. She will never return. I am here, and nowhere else. This is my city. My moment.

Mine, the bird sings, staring into Aden’s face, stirring its crimson-and-pink wings.

“Why don’t you show them,” I whisper to Aden, “what you can do?”

“I am not your toy.”

“No.” My voice is still low enough for this to be a conversation only between us. “You are a child of the gods, yet your entire life you have been trapped within this Ward, walled off from the rest of the world, told by the Council that you were not worthy. You didn’t even know what power you had until I returned the memory of Ethin’s past to everyone in this city. Don’t you want everyone to recognize your skill, your strength? Won’t that feel good?”

His eyes still narrowed, he lifts one hand for the crowd to see. Flame erupts from his palm, and an excited murmur rises like the sound of cicadas. Surprise at what he has done leaps across Aden’s face, but he hides it quickly. I imagine that before today, he had probably noticed that he could see into the twilight a little longer than other people after the sunset, or that he stayed warmer than everyone else during the chilling spell of an ice wind. But he would not have thought this was anything different than being taller than most people, or having keener eyesight. And now, to create flame? How incredible that such a change could come simply from knowledge, from knowing something today that he did not know yesterday. Yet is that so strange? Once I saw, in the center of a High-Kith agora, an acrobat flip and spin her body as though it were a toy. I could not conceive of even trying to do what she did. Yet how it would be if I were filled with the knowledge that I could tumble through space, that the gods were my ancestors, that the skill lurked in my limbs? If I knew this truth, knew it in my bones, how could I not try? How could I not succeed? When I think about all that the High Kith took from us, what angers me most is that they tricked us into not seeing our own skills. They dulled us. They stole our knowledge of our own selves. This, I will never forgive.

My people push their way toward me. But others, like Annin and our friend Morah, slip away. Sirah, an old woman I once cared for, though it is now hard to conceive why, disappears into an alleyway. A few people trickle away from the crowd and vanish. Let them. I do not need these weaklings.

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