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Excerpt: The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear

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Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear returns to her critically acclaimed epic fantasy world of the Eternal Sky with a brand new trilogy.

The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from a the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort.

They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered bits of a once great Empire.

The Stone in the Skull will become available October 10th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER ONE

The mountain wore a mirrored mask. Ice sheathed the sheer face rising above both a steep river valley and the melancholy man in the red coat below. That ice reflected a pale sun that blazed light without heat. The glacier shimmered against a sky like glass, so limpid and still that it seemed each of the encircling peaks held its breaths against some whispered promise.

The ice-gilt mountains were themselves reflected, and bent toward a vanishing point in the polished egg-shape of another mirrored mask, this one much smaller. This mirror made up the face—the entire head—of a brass man who toiled mechanically up the slope of the notch below and between the snow-bright peaks. A wrap of cowl had fallen back from his featureless metal skull. His heavy hands gleamed as if they wore brass gauntlets. His brass feet were strapped into iron-thorned crampons without benefit of boots.

He climbed without urgency.

The crampon spikes bit into the ice of a river made into stone by the cold. A hawser thick as a woman’s wrist draped over the brass man’s shoulder. It stretched behind him on a weighty arc, reaching back to the curved prow of a strange ship: square-rigged, boasting a lofty reptilian figurehead gallantly painted in red and gold—but resting on two curved, ice-encased runners that bore it over the surface of the stone-hard river as if glass slid oiled on glass. A pilot stood on the little platform at the back of the bowsprit, peering up at the slopes above through a glass. Though it was early in the winter for avalanches, it was never too early for care.

Behind that ship was another, its dragon head limned in azure with copper gilt, drawn by four of the shaggy nimble oxen common to the region, as well as seven people with their own iron cleats strapped over their fleece-and-fur-lined boots. Behind that was a third, in shades of orange and crimson, likewise being dragged by its erstwhile passengers and a pair of the hairy yaks. And at the back of the line was the fourth and final ice-ship, painted wood mimicking carven jade and beryl, with its complement of laborers and cattle, and behind that walked several people considered unsuited to heavy hauling by dint of size, rank, age, status as paying customers, or infirmity.

The man in the red coat followed them all. He was last in line because he chose to be last in line. And because he was watching behind and below, as befitted a caravan guard—which was what he was. At least, it was what he was today, though the caution of the guardian was not the only anxiety gnawing in his breast.

He was a Dead Man, or he had been, and he wore the name of his former profession still. He and the other walkers stayed to the edge of the river for two reasons. First, they did not have cleats—those were reserved for the people hauling the becalmed ice-ships—and so they sensibly kept to the rougher ice and better traction along the bank. Second, the four ice-ships dragged and groaned in their heavy traces.

The pilots made a profession of bringing people safely through the mountains called the Steles of the Sky, it was true. And it was true also that it was mere superstition to cling to the riverbanks, when if by some mishap the ice-ships were to break loose they were unlikely to meekly follow the course of the river back down again.

Even knowing this, the Dead Man still edged off to the left whenever he could. It made him feel a tiny bit safer, even if they were walking from a place where he had never belonged to another one where he expected to feel restless and alone once more.

He had learned young that it was fruitless to worry about things he could not control. And there was very little here that he could have any effect on, but he could not seem to find his calm, or—as his long-lost beloved Zillah would have said with a smile, his resigned soldier’s center—and let events take what course they would.

It wasn’t the caravan duty that still had him so agitated, when they had left Asmaracanda months before, and unless you counted the Lizard-Folk brigands and the wildfire in the grasslands, those months had been mostly uneventful. No, what he was worrying about—still—was that it had been months.

He and the Gage carried a message, and that duty was the real motivation for their travel. Because they had been entrusted with it by the so-called Eyeless One: the most powerful Wizard in the world’s greatest city, which was the teeming market center called Messaline.

The mere existence of that message, and his charge to deliver it, left the Dead Man jittering. Wizards generally had terrible, selfish reasons for what they did, but the Eyeless One was different. This duty came from a being who had preserved Messaline in its time against plague and invasion. And while the Dead Man had no idea what catastrophe might result from a failure, he was confident that it would be far worse than a mere destroyed caravan and a few dozen souls perished in the snow.

As if to give the lie to his thoughts, the wreckage of other caravans were heaped here and there, abandoned under a halfhearted cover of drifted snow, providing no additional reassurance. Since breaking camp that morning, the caravan had passed at least a half-dozen shattered wagons and staved ice-ships, eyeless and picked-over as scavenged carcasses. In summer, there was the danger of avalanche. In winter, there was…well, there was the winter.

Like the brass-fitted Gage at the top of the column, the Dead Man had no public name in particular. Unlike the Gage, he hadn’t neglected his cowl, and wore a veil drawn up to conceal (and warm) his face, leaving revealed only a set of eyes that few dared meet. He wore the red, felted, skirted coat that marked him as a Dead Man, one of the elite royal guards of a caliphate that no longer exactly existed. He had not set the livery of his fallen empire aside, even though it was tattered, much-patched, and faded to a turmeric color in places, and though he wore another and bulkier overcoat on top. And although there were, per se, no Dead Men anymore. Not the proper sort, with capital letters, in any case, though the Dead Man assumed that the other, improper sort would always be leaving the world.

He was cold in the felted coat, despite the layers of other garments beneath and over it. And he was anxious to the bone. Anxious because the caravan was a fortnight behind schedule. Anxious because he had promised someone to complete a task he was given to understand was critical, and critically timed. And that anxiety, that need to be moving, would not leave him alone.

He knew it helped nothing when he invented scenarios of disaster and cast himself, his partner, and their cargo of dire importance in the leading roles. When he wrote tragedies that began with the loss of a note and ended with the loss of a kingdom. And yet, the worm of urgency gnawed behind his breastbone anyway, spoiling his frozen and dried and rewarmed-with-boiled-tea dinners, making even exhausted sleep ragged. If he didn’t know better, if he didn’t trust the Eyeless One nearly as he trusted his own Scholar-God, he’d swear he had been cast under a geis.

Every inevitable and perfectly routine delay along the way—storms, and illness, and difficulties in obtaining supplies—added to his burden of anxiety. He wanted the job done, his boots off, and a well-earned cup of wine. And yet there were still the mountains to get past, and beyond them a half-dozen warring princedoms.

And yet, this mail must go through.

He sweated from the steepness of the pass, and feared the sweat freezing in his clothing. He was lean as sinew, and that was part of his misery of chill. The mountains were another element: it was colder here than he had ever known it could be, and even the yak-felt stuffing his boots and his heavy mittens could not keep him from feeling it, though the good clothes kept his fingers and toes from freezing solid.ĵ

The Dead Man acknowledged that these factors had some bearing on the shiver in his aching joints and rising up his spine. But as he scanned the sky above and the slopes to either side, he could not help but slide a mittened hand under the flap of his overcoat and touch the hilt of his curved sword. This chill he felt was no mere artifact of the mountain winter, but something inner, and he knew that because it was also no novelty. He’d felt the like before, and knew it for a premonition.

His lips moved in silent prayer to the Scholar-God: Count on Your beaded necklaces blessings and forgivenesses for this unfortunate one, Most Holy. Dip Your sacred nibs in ink of jewel colors and scribe in the book of Luck good fortune for this unworthy. Then he wondered what she could do for him, so far from his home and her power, here under the strange sky of strange gods whose names he did not know.

The Dead Man paused for a moment, huffing as he watched the caravan creep incrementally away. Far ahead, the Gage trudged up, implacably. Technically, they were guards—well, they’d signed on as guards because they were traveling to the Lotus Kingdoms with that private message anyway, and they might as well get paid twice for the same trip if they were going—and not draft animals, but the Dead Man had never known the Gage to turn down any task that needed doing.

Maybe invulnerable immortality got boring. The Dead Man, being neither, could not have said.

He pulled into place the slitted wooden mask that protected his eyes, somewhat, from glare, trying to seat it where its inadequate padding would gouge neither chilblains nor pressure sores. He’d catch up in a moment. That feeling of anxiety, of looming threat, was not subsiding. Was worsening into an apprehension of immediate danger, and the Dead Man trusted his instincts too much to shrug it off. Especially now, especially here. He let his attention wander from the Gage and the ice-ships and the teamsters to the passengers who trudged on ahead. Perhaps the threat would come from one of them?

The majority of the gaggle of fur-swaddled, brightly dressed walkers seemed to make less of the slope than the Dead Man did. He supposed that was because they were mostly rather a lot younger, but there was also the matter of the circus.

The Dead Man was an accomplished swordsman—raised to it, and trained in dealing death since he was old enough to pull himself upright with the assistance of a sword and babble at his nursemaids. That was what it meant to be a Dead Man. And he had thought himself fit.

That was before he’d spent two months with three dozen or so youthful acrobats from Song. They were tireless, limber, and prone to breaking into uphill sprints through the snow just for high spirits, like so many colts. Then they inevitably had the energy for an hour or two of vaulting, juggling practice, and choreography in camp each night, when all the Dead Man wanted to do was shovel in a bowl of food—the hotter and richer the better—and tumble into sleep while the Gage took the night watch.

The mountains were glorious under the stars. The Dead Man was well and thoroughly sick of them. He wanted a hot bath and a warm bed and a cup of tea that hadn’t been brewed off the same stewed leaves two or three times. Or a pot of coffee, sweet and rich with cream. Even better.

There were some additional travelers beyond the circus, and by and large the Dead Man noticed them less because they didn’t annoy him. He’d been raised immune to the peculiarities of nobility and the wealthy, and the rest of his charges comprised two merchants, a man who claimed to be a merchant and was probably a smuggler, a minor Song prince and his entourage, a minor Uthman bey and his entourage, and a noblewoman from Ctesifon traveling to be married in the Lotus Kingdoms—or, as the locals called them, Sarath-Sahal or Sahal-Sarat, depending on which of the two major local dialects you were dealing with.

The noblewoman had only a maid and two guards and largely kept to herself, as was proper. The bey was walking; the Song prince was being carried, for the nonce, in a small collapsible sedan chair. It looked less comfortable than walking, given how his attendants lurched and struggled with the ice and snow.

Well, these people were the Dead Man’s responsibility, all. No matter how he felt about them.

He would get them to the Lotus Kingdoms hale and hearty, as was proper. He’d only failed a charge of protection once in all his life, so he allowed himself a brief moment of acknowledgment as to how he might be good at it. Then he commenced again to climb.

He wasn’t alone in that chain of thought. Above, roustabouts called encouragement to the trudging passengers, and what passed for rough reassurances: “We’ve climbed this pass every year since the Rasan revolution! We haven’t killed a whole caravan yet!”

They were having a little fun at the passengers’ expense. The Dead Man was sure that that was all.

The Dead Man turned his head once more, scanning the bright peaks and the knife-cut, shadowed canyons. Earning his pay, even though he didn’t expect to be needed. There was that prickly premonition, sure. But it didn’t always mean anything. And it didn’t always come when it could be useful, either.

There was nothing in this life that you could count on. Not even the intervention of the devoutly worshipped divine.

The Dead Man didn’t expect bandits. This would be a damned fine place to starve in the winter, if you were a bandit. Once snow closed the pass, nothing would be getting through for months. No caravans to rob would mean no source of food, with predictable results. But there were other dangers.

He saw the plume of snow burst into the air from the slope above before anyone else except for possibly—possibly—the Gage. He saw the sinuous shape slide into flight from the cover of the drifts above and he saw the frozen veils thrown wide as wings snapped out, particles turning, turning, glittering in the painful light. His eye took in the long neck, the fluted tail stretched rigid to counterbalance as the ice-wyrm took wing.

As a swordsman of decades of experience, his professional opinion rapidly concluded that a saber wasn’t worth a damned thing under these circumstances.

The Dead Man reached for his gun.

Bright sun shining through translucent wings picked out the colors of snow, silver, ivory, palest dove in twining patterns like intermingled veins, like the reaching branches of bare trees. Light glazed the swift form, stark against a transparent welkin. Then the shadow fell over the caravan, and the sound reached them—not the roar or shriek the Dead Man had anticipated, but just an echoing hiss.

Heads turned. People and livestock froze as if they were mice in the shadow of a hawk. The Dead Man heard one teamster curse, low and fluently, just loud enough to carry in the still air, over the echoing ice.

The wyrm turned, an impossible writhing, a flick of its wings and a reversal within its own length as eloquent as any darting trout within its stream. The wyrm passed over them, low and contemplative, so close the Dead Man felt the wind of its wings and saw the glacial, crystalline eye. The thing was as long from nose to tail as a seagoing vessel, though not as big as a dragon. Its perusal minded him of a sultan idly considering a banquet, wondering with which sweetmeat he should begin.

Because the Dead Man was looking, he saw the moment when the Gage resettled the hawser over his shoulder and dug in—hauling harder, and unbelievably, speeding up as he approached the crest of the notch. It wasn’t a bad idea: they were pathetically exposed where they were, and the Gage couldn’t exactly let go of the rope.

But—below the Gage and above the Dead Man—cattle lowed and struggled, their hooves thrashing on the ice as they fought against their yokes to run. People pushed and shouted, scattering in singles and small clumps, skidding and falling in ice and snow.

The wyrm reversed itself once more, making a sweeping pass over the valley behind them and coming in on a sharp, swooping glide. This, the Dead Man thought. This was a strike, a raptor’s stoop to the prey. The predator’s trajectory was designed, he realized, to herd them higher in the pass, where the crest would offer them up to the wyrm’s talons with a minimum of risk to the beast.

The Dead Man stood between the wyrm and the caravan.

He pulled the ivory pin from the smaller nozzle in his copper-chased powder horn between his teeth. The wyrm came on, pale wings sculling with deceptive languor. With a practiced twist, the Dead Man primed the snaplock’s pan, then replaced the pin. Sparks near an open powder horn stood a good chance of simply managing the wyrm’s dirty work for it. He dropped the horn on its strap, cocked the pistol with a grunt of effort, and in a matter of moments had it leveled.

The wyrm was nearly on him. He raised the pistol as the wyrm swept over, and when the scales of its belly were in sight—seemingly so close he could just reach up and stroke them—he squeezed the trigger.

The pistol slammed his palm. He held on to it, turning to see if the wyrm was hit. He didn’t imagine he could have missed. Not so close, at something so large. How hard were those scales, anyway? The thing looked clinker-built, with its overlapping rows of them; could they turn a pistol ball?

If he had hurt it, it did not seem to have been badly. It struck like a seabird fishing, reaching down with hooked talons on its powerful hindlimbs and backwinging to attempt to pluck the more flashily jeweled of the two noblemen (the one in the sedan chair) from the ice.

It would have succeeded, too, if one of the prince’s loyal retainers hadn’t thrown himself under the talons, overturning the Song prince and his chair.

The bearers staggered under the dual blow. The foremost went to his knees; the rearmost was knocked sprawling. The loyal retainer shrieked once as a fish-hook talon long and curved as a scimitar emerged from his chest, showering red on his lord’s silks and jewels and all the snow surrounding. The retainer clutched at the talon with both hands. Another shriek was cut off as the wyrm lofted on the updraft out of the notch, its great wing membranes bellying taut.

If there were any blood from a—strictly hypothetical—bullet wound, it was lost in the crimson spray.

The prince leapt to his feet and shrieked after the wyrm. Or after the retainer, the Dead Man realized, when a few words of the shrieking carried. He was promising retribution on the poor retainer’s family, for the sin of having laid hands on the prince.

Fortunately for him, the retainer was too dead by now to regret his self-sacrifice. The prince hopped in the snow, shaking his jeweled fist so facets flashed in the sun. Probably, the Dead Man considered, a poor idea given the existing body of evidence on what provoked ice-wyrm attacks.

Blood rained down on the caravan as the wyrm ascended, banked, and turned its head to snap the now-limp retainer in two. It spiraled up, dining, shedding horrible bits as it rose.

Now the cattle shrilled in panic, surging and falling, as blood and shreds of meat rained down. “Set the brakes,” someone yelled from the nearest ice-ship, but it didn’t carry.

The unfortunate retainer’s robes fluttered empty from the wan, white sky, trailing like a defeated banner.

“Clear the ice,” someone else cried—a woman’s voice, clarion-carrying. “Climb, you idiots! Climb!”

That seemed like good advice. The Dead Man floundered uphill, toward the steep slope along the side of the notch. He tried to keep facing the wyrm as he struggled through unpacked, waist-deep drifts, and with his teeth he yanked the larger, bone pin from his horn. In a lack of foresight, his premeasured loads were tucked into their usual pocket, on the inside hem of his once-red coat, tucked safely away and far out of reach. He would not make that mistake again, if he lived long enough to amend it.

He had to stop climbing to measure the powder. His ammunition case was on the same baldric, and he dragged it out of his open coat-front, not even really feeling the chill. He’d dropped his mittens somewhere and his fingers were numb and clumsy, but he got the case open. The balls were already wadded in oiled patches, and he shook one loose.

A huge voice boomed, resonating as if through a speaking horn. “SET THE BRAKES!”

It was the voice of the Gage, might the Scholar-God bless him, infidel though he was.

The Dead Man fell on ice then, and dropped the ball. But he managed to hold the pistol up, and the pan stayed dry, and the barrel too. He hoped, he hoped. He didn’t stand, but balanced on one knee and fumbled for another ball.

Oiled flannel left its grease on his fingers, and the ball slid down the barrel. He pressed the flint back against its spring and primed the pan, not daring to look up until the pistol was loaded and cocked, despite the echoes of screams.

Profoundly, the Dead Man hoped the tales of avalanches provoked by careless whispers were oversold. He did not merely hope; being a religious man he also prayed.

Banks of snow blocked his view on every side around where he crouched. In cold so sharp, the snow was light, powdery. He forced himself to lift his head. He lifted, also, the pistol. His hand shook.

The rearmost ice-ship was in trouble. The laborers had deserted their lines, which tangled the hooves of the yaks. The oxen fought the yoke and one another, and whether the spring-loaded spikes that served the ships as brakes were set or not, it had begun a ponderous, inexorable diagonal slide. Acrobats hustled less-agile nobles and retainers out of the way as the thing skidded and began to grind downward, dragging the bawling cattle with it. The spikes had fired. He could tell by the plumes of ice they scraped up on either side of the bow and stern as the thing’s plunge accelerated.

Despite the slitted goggles, he’d lost the wyrm in the glare of the sky.

Seasoned warrior, he thought. Misplacing a whole God-forsaken ice-wyrm.

He shaded his eyes with cold-blued fingers and searched again. He hoped he lived long enough to continue missing his mittens. It would serve him right to die here, in the snow and the mountains, miserable and cold—

There! A shimmer off scales like sun off ice, a thousand shades of gray and white and ivory all rimmed with silver at the edge. It had circled the peak, and now it fanned like a waiting hawk and hovered on still wings, having found some sufficient updraft. He lifted his pistol as it hung in the sky as if magicked there.

The sharp tang of powder brushed past him as an eddy of wind swept the primer from the pan.

The Dead Man didn’t curse. He was not a blasphemer. But he grabbed and released one deep breath between his teeth as he fumbled, again, for the horn.

The skidding ice-boat crashed to a halt in a drift just below the Dead Man. It stuck there, canted among rocks, cargo spilling from the staved hull. The oxen cried piteously, battling the snow to a pinkened mire.

The wyrm’s head turned from side to side as it considered its next target. One plump retainer wasn’t much of a snack for a creature forty cubits long. Though he pitied the struggling cattle, the Dead Man hoped its attention would be drawn by them rather than the running people, though that idiot prince deserved whatever evil might befall.

The cattle were closer to the Dead Man and tethered to the wrecked ice-ship. Too big to carry off, he hoped. And he had the snaplock loaded and primed again, finally. If the damned wyrm would just settle down and take a few bites, he might be able to get off a shot from close enough range to make a difference. He’d glimpsed the vast, blue, faceted eyes.

They’d make a good target.

The wyrm swooped past again, the herding, flushing behavior rather than the stoop to kill. The Dead Man crouched, head barely above the level of his snowdrift, and tracked the beast with his pistol sight. Too fast, too high. He could take another shot, see the bullet deflected, and spend another long minute fumbling his reload with ever-colder fingers.

But he thought the wyrm was focused on the broken ice-ship, and somebody had gotten the Song prince to put his head down and start moving again. Now he was largely anonymous among the figures floundering upward through the snow.

If the thing settles down on the wrecked ship, the Dead Man thought, maybe we can get everybody else moving and escape up the pass while it eats. Two yaks ought to be a big enough supper…

Since he wasn’t sure he could kill it with one shot, maybe he ought to hold his fire if it settled in to dine. Rather than getting it riled up again.

It circled back, and the shadow of its wings fell over him. Terror welled inside the Dead Man like water from an icy spring. He flinched, huddling lower in the snow, though in his time he’d faced down wild beasts, murderous necromancers, and the odd cavalry charge. He saw the great wyrm tip side to side between the steady cantilever of its wings, then furl them slightly and begin to settle.

The hairy oxen cried out in fear and outrage as their death descended. The Dead Man wished he had a bullet for each of them, to end their terror and pain. There was nothing else he could have done from this distance, under these circumstances.

He braced his pistol in both hands, consciously relaxing the muscles of his arms and fingers to still his shaking. It worked, somewhat.

He drew a bead on the ice-wyrm’s nearer eye. The angle was still bad, as it was above him and the eye was protected by the bony shelf of cheek below. The best shot would come when it descended past him, into the bottom of the valley. After that, he’d be aiming at the top of its head.

He forced himself to breathe as smoothly as possible, though the cold made his lungs wheeze and whistle. He rested a finger on the trigger. Another moment, while the ice-wyrm cupped air and calculated its descent. Hard sunlight shattered off its back as if the thing were faceted from crystal.

He was sure it hadn’t seen him. He prayed to the Scholar-God and all her mercies that it hadn’t seen him.

Now, he thought—as a glittering figure, brilliant as the wyrm but warmer-colored, launched itself into the air on a long, improbable arc and struck the ice-wyrm hard.

The Dead Man managed not to yank the trigger as the Gage wrapped both arms around the ice-wyrm’s long neck and began to squeeze. The ball probably wouldn’t have hurt his old friend—in fact, he was morally certain that it wouldn’t do more than dent the Gage’s hide—but he’d hate to miss a second shot. And now the Gage’s enormous weight was dragging the wyrm’s head down, pulling it off course as the wyrm beat its wings frantically to try to reclaim flight.

It flapped and staggered in the air, tail and head thrashing, flurrying out of control. The wyrm screamed; the cattle screamed; the Gage was deathly silent except for the clashing of strained gears.

The wyrm and the Gage crashed into the slope below in a tumble of wings and metal. The next the Dead Man knew, he was running—or sliding—or plowing—through the drifts, trying to keep the snaplock upright so the primer didn’t spill from the pan again, trying not to simply catapult head over heels the length of the slope and wind up sprawled under the hooves of the panicked, injured cattle. Or, better yet, slide right down into reach of the ice-wyrm.

The beast had shaken the Gage from its neck, though the Dead Man could see long smears of blood where escaping had cost it tissue and scales. Now it reared back, wings beating, as if it had thought better of its dinner and wished only to escape. Predators generally were willing to risk less than their prey in any confrontation—representing the difference between a meal, and a life.

But the Gage had the thing by the ankle, as if he were a heavy brass shackle binding it to earth, and had hunched over to bend its talon up and back. The wyrm’s head whipped around and it blunted its teeth on the Gage’s glinting armor with a hair-raising scrape.

The ice-wyrm beat heavily against the thin, cold air. It lifted, a little, and suddenly the Dead Man’s inner eye filled with the image of the Gage tumbling, sparkling, from a tremendous height.

The Dead Man’s breath hurt him. The Gage could not get crushed by a dragon. If everyone else got eaten up here, the brass man still had to get his package to the queen.

The eye. The eye. It shimmered like a watery aquamarine as the Dead Man sighted along his barrel. He braced himself and—just as there was a tremendous snapping sound—he squeezed the trigger. The incense of powder smoke, whipped back on the strong wind up the valley, stung.

The thing didn’t shriek, but it exhaled explosively with a hiss like a punctured lung. It kicked out, hard, and the Gage was thrown loose and thumped into snow just a handful of cubits downslope from the Dead Man. The earth shook with the impact, but he kept his footing and offered a quick prayer of thanks that the Gage hadn’t landed a little higher, where the Dead Man would have been crushed.

The Dead Man snatched up his powder horn and began to reload.

The wyrm’s head snaked around. It took a hopping, hobbling step upslope, one of its killing talons flopping broken. It made a horrible, breathy hiss and spread its wings, raising them for a downstroke. Its eyes, both unharmed, fastened on the sprawled Gage and the huddled Dead Man.

The Dead Man dropped the pistol into his overcoat pocket, grasped the hilt of his saber, and drew it out without ever lowering his eyes from the wyrm. A white-edged gouge furrowed the tendriled, toothy face just below the eye he’d been aiming for, streaming red blood like a weeping queen’s kohl. A bad wound, but as the beast lunged upward, patently not an incapacitating one.

The Gage was creaking slowly to his feet. The Dead Man saw dents and scrapes, the marks of impact and enormous teeth, in the hard brass shell. He took two hops downward through the snow to stand beside his friend.

“You ought to run,” the Gage said conversationally. “I’ll hold it as long as I can.”

“Ehn,” the Dead Man replied. “For what other reason do I live?”

He couldn’t leave. The Gage had the message. He raised his saber as the thing’s head darted forward, teeth snapping a cubit or two shy. One more wing-bating hop would do it, though, and as the creature launched itself he extended his saber in a crude stop-thrust unsuited to the curve of the blade and stood ready to at least stab it up the nose while it swallowed him.

The shock on his extended saber never came. He hadn’t flinched, but he was focused. So he found himself whipping his head up in surprise as someone cried out behind him and the Gage.

The wyrm twisted in midair, made its pounce a leap into flight, and skimmed over them with terrible clawed wing-tips brushing the snow to either side. The Dead Man turned in his tracks. The Gage, who had no eyes, didn’t bother. Pillars of snow swirled in the breeze and settled over them. The Dead Man stared up the slope, lifting his eyes from the blue shadows that lay in the furrowed drifts as the wyrm passed hard and low. The Gage stood expectantly beside him.

A human figure stood above them. The tattered sleeves of black woolen robes belled from upraised wrists in the wind of the ice-wyrm’s passage. The hair was a wiry twist of curls and the skin as black as any Aezin noble’s, but with an olive tone underlying the darkness rather than burnished red. The figure was a slash of midnight on the burning snow, a pen-stroke authoritative on bleached paper. Something metallic glittered in the socket of the left eye.

There was a whistle of mighty wings, and a spatter of red melted into the snow as the wyrm made another low pass. The Dead Man ducked away, raising his saber to fend, but the figure in black stood unmoving. It held its hands higher, and cried out in that Lotus tongue called Saratahi: “In the name of the Good Daughter, reaver, leave us in peace and be gone with thee!”

The voice was deep and, despite the figure’s Southern complexion, carried the inflections of the northern Lotus Kingdoms. Despite the frailness of the robed outline, the wyrm sheered off again, shaking blood from its muzzle. It climbed, wings thundering, and vanished up the slope toward the peak from whence it had first fallen on them.

The Sarathai priest—if that was what the figure was—watched it go, and then for long moments watched also the place where it had vanished to. Satisfied at last, the figure sighed, lowered bare hands, and dusted them together.

The priest stepped forward. Feet rested barefoot on the waist-deep snow, barely denting it, so the figure towered over the floundering Gage and Dead Man.

“That damned thing,” the priest said. Gaunt features arranged themselves in a smile. They were elegant, and on another day the Dead Man might have paused to appreciate them, and the priest’s thin tall frame like a willow swaying. But what he noticed now was not the high ledges of cheekbones under drawn skin, but the smooth, burnished, golden orb that rested in what should have been the socket of the left eye.

Still, that deep voice was warm as their rescuer continued, “How badly are your people hurt?”

“I don’t know yet,” said the Gage. “One dead at least.”

The priest might have nodded, or perhaps a slight incline of the head simply caused light to flash off the gilded eye.

The Dead Man caught his breath. His cold fingers numb on the hilt of his sword, he fumbled for the scabbard with his other hand. He couldn’t feel it. He needed his mittens.

He turned to the Gage and gasped, “Is it safe? Do you have it?”

Lightly, the Gage touched his chest where scratched brass showed under torn rough-spun.

Other travelers were stepping out, calling to one another. “Is it gone?” “Roiieh, where are you?” Some approached the stricken yaks. Some approached the three figures on the hill.

“I’m Nizhvashiti,” the enigma said. One bare hand indicated the Dead Man’s. “You’re going to have frostbite if you don’t get warm.”

“I know it,” he replied.

Nizhvashiti cupped the Dead Man’s hands, crouching and stooping to do so. Warmth flooded him, and well-being. All the little aches and pains and stiffnesses of his hard life on the road seemed to lift away, as they might with the first soothing flush of wine. He gasped, and with a little laugh the priest let his fingers drop.

“That should take care of you until you find your mittens.”

People had come up the hillside. The Dead Man heard the whispers behind him over the creaks of the Gage shifting his weight in the cold: Saint. Godmade.

No saint of his, he decided, looking at the scarred, hard, elegant visage. No sainted follower of the Scholar-God. Instead, some heathen creature. Absently, he rubbed his hands together. They tingled. Nizhvashiti could talk to the wyrm. Make it follow commands. What if the priest could do more?

What if the priest had sent it?

The caravan master, a small sturdy Sarathai by the name of Druja, came up, stomping his feet in his boots for warmth. “Prince Mi Ren is furious,” he said to the Dead Man, in the sort of tone that indicated he thought it was the Dead Man’s job to do something about it.

It was the Gage who answered. “At least he’s alive to be furious.”

“Who’s this?” the caravan master said.

“Priest,” the Gage answered.

Nizhvashiti stepped forward and again made an introduction. Having determined that the person speaking was, in fact, the caravan master, Nizhvashiti added, “I’ve been waiting for a caravan. I made a nest in one of the old wrecked ice-ships and have been meditating to conserve my resources. I’ve only three days of food left. I’m so glad you came when you did. I need to get to Sarathai-tia, to the kingdom of Mrithuri Rajni.”

Eyelashes lowered over that expressionless gilded orb, and the Dead Man shuddered behind his trained, impassive exterior as every speculation that this might be a coincidence deserted him.

Usually, making people shudder was his job.

He glanced at the Gage, who was not—of course—glancing back. Still, the Dead Man felt he was understood: this priest was bound where they were bound. On a similar errand, or a contrary one?

“We won’t turn you out to die,” the caravan master said. “But this is a business, your divinity.”

“Oh.” The tall figure’s lips curved to reveal teeth ranked as white as the peaks surrounding. “I have plenty of gold.

* * *

They collected the caravan and their scattered people, and redistributed what they could salvage from the shattered ice-ship among the other three, which meant that more passengers were left to shank’s mare for their transportation. There was some grumbling at that, though the much-cloistered noblewoman seemed actually happy to get out and walk.

She wasn’t fast, but she didn’t complain.

One of the injured yaks had to be sacrificed. The other was limping, but the Godmade declared that it could be helped, and so it was given into Nizhvashiti’s charge. The Dead Man concealed his misgivings.

For certain, the Godmade’s appearance was convenient. But that didn’t absolutely mean the whole thing had been planned. He tried to be charitable: if it hadn’t been planned, Nizhvashiti had saved his life and the Gage’s shiny hide. And if it had been planned, the priest might represent an allied power. Or even be another friend of the Eyeless One.

You never knew, with Wizards, what they might be plotting. And what information they might choose to withhold, for purposes of their own. The profession attracted people of such a temperament as to treat knowledge as a precious thing, and they would either bore your head sore showing off how much they had hoarded, or they would lock it away and hide it from everyone.

What the Dead Man couldn’t determine was what staging the whole thing could have accomplished better than just showing up with a bag of gold and purchasing passage.

You’re too suspicious, the Dead Man told himself. You’ve been a sell-sword too long, and you were never cut out for it. You’re much too old for this.

He wondered if there was a noble family somewhere in the Lotus Kingdoms who might hire a retainer of impeccable loyalty and training. He’d be willing to pledge both to the nearest reasonable liege that didn’t demand baby-strangling or kitten-stomping, and who was also willing to make all the complicated decisions without too much input from his or her minions.

They did not stop that night at the edge of the spring atop the pass that sourced their river, as they had intended. They pushed on several more miles, finding less comfortable shelter in the lee of a sharp overhang that might discourage nighttime predators.

At least there was a good meal of fresh, roasted yak to look forward to. For everybody except the Gage, who didn’t eat. Though he did do something mysterious with red wine on a fairly regular basis.

Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Bear

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