Malachite, carrying her ailing father on her back, walked towards the city of Amsterdam over the ancient ringway. It had been ten years since she and Father had fled the ruins of their old life over this very road. She couldn’t remember anything about that journey.
“It’s easier to get into Amsterdam than out,” her father quoted the old adage in her ear, brandishing his stick in front of her eyes to underline the wisdom in his words.
The raised highway was blocked-in by ruined, overgrown edifices on both sides, so it was impossible to see where they were going. The old road was surprisingly passable for travelers on foot, but in spite of that few people were using it. Which suited Father, because he said the business of revenge flourished better without advertisement.
Malachite would have liked to speak to the other travelers, to get a feel for the city of their destination, but Father wanted speed and silence. She’d promised him she’d get him back to Amsterdam and to help him avenge her mother and her sisters. Malachite shifted Father’s fragile bones around to a more comfortable position on her back.
At the end of a day’s walking, there was seldom any comfort left. But at least she was seeing something of the world.
“We got out back then,” Malachite said, trying to fathom what the ruined castles lining the broken highway had once been used for. Forts, she guessed, to protect and oversee the great road. She had heard people could shoot from that far away those days, even without special divine powers.
“We did,” her father said. His hand clawed into her shoulder in a way that said, I don’t want to talk about it.
And he didn’t need to. Malachite had been ten years old when they’d left, wise enough to understand her mother and her sisters had died and that they had to flee from the god who had broken its promise. A guilty god was deadlier than an angry god.
Still, it felt uncomfortable to be out of the demesnes of Otte en Liet, the powerful gods of Rotterdam, after ten years of safety. She and her father carried small vials of river water for protection, in brittle but intact plastic bottles that had once been her sisters’, but in the end they’d be on their own. It would be just their wits to go up against Aterscha, the god that had betrayed them and caused their family to die.
The destruction of the known world hadn’t stopped Amsterdam being a home to many gods besides Aterscha, gods of all kinds, big and small, friendly and unfriendly. No other city was as god-rich, no other gods worked so hard to keep their promises and keep their many followers happy. No other cities had a god of fashion, a god of good hair and several gods of great shopping. Said Father.
“Are we going to get there before nightfall?” Malachite asked as she looked at the western sky. She didn’t want to be outside city walls at night, prey to the wild godlets that roamed the open countryside.
“It’s a big town, Mal. Bigger than what’s left of Rotterdam. Older and stronger and with more magic.”
Malachite shivered. She didn’t like magic, never had. She worked in the harbor with her strong back and her big hands. If she never had business with any god but friendly Otte it would be fine with her. Except for this: she still burned with anger for the god that had killed her family and forced them to leave their hometown. For revenge, she would follow her father’s crazy plans.
Father picked the off-ramps he wanted to use. They’d have to walk inwards on the spokes of the imaginary wheel that was Amsterdam.
“Otte and Liet gave us specific instructions,” Father said. “We’d better stick to them. Promises go both ways.”
Malachite knew. One of her best friends when she was little hadn’t delivered the pink hair ribbon she’d promised to the god Oopgoot in exchange for curing her sick bunny, and the girl had ended up hairy, pink-eyed and dead by Christmas.
Here the ancient road descended from the elevated highway and segued into a bridge across the river Amstel.
Two steps on the bridge, Malachite halted. “Shouldn’t we pay homage to the river god?”
She walked over to the parapet to offer some spit, but Father pulled her ear to stop her. “No. Feel it. This is a dead river. Some other god killed Amstel a long time ago, and no one’s managed to claim her territory yet.”
Malachite pushed forward through the muffled, dead air on the bridge. So different from the sparkling exhalations over Otte and Liet. “I’ve never heard of a dead god before.”
“She probably reneged on a promise and all her adorers left her,” Father said.
Malachite shrugged. She couldn’t feel pity for a god. With great power came a great sense of entitlement and whimsy.
At the end of the bridge, she slammed her nose against an invisible barrier. “Ow!”
“I should have looked up the bridge god,” Father said. “Sorry.”
“What tribute does it want?” Malachite said, rubbing her nose.
Father flipped through his precious notebook. He could read and write, something Malachite had never taken to. “Here it is. Mstel bridge, a few drops of blood.”
Guess who was going to offer them? Malachite wiped her bleeding nose and flipped a few drops on the crumbling tarmac. Then she offered a few more for Father.
“Mstel Bridge, can we cross?” Father asked loudly.
No answer came.
Father shrugged. “I guess we’re good.” A little gingerly they crossed the spot where Malachite had hit her nose, but nothing happened this time.
Father relaxed and ruffled her hair, which she hated. “See? We can do this.”