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Excerpt: Fortress of Magi by Mirah Bolender

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Mirah Bolender follows The Monstrous Citadel with Fortress of Magi—the pulse-pounding conclusion to her debut fantasy trilogy in which a bomb squad defuses the magic weapons of a long forgotten war.

The Hive Mind has done the impossible—left its island prison. It’s a matter of time before Amicae falls, and Laura Kramer has very few resources left to prevent it.

The council has tied her hands, and the gangs want her dead. Her only real choice is to walk away and leave the city to its fate.

Please enjoy this excerpt of Fortress of Magi, on sale 04/20/2021.


1

Debt Repaid

“Gaudium’s quiet today,” said Laura Kramer.

She leaned close enough to the cable car window to make a mark on it with her nose. Currently she was descending from Amicae’s Fifth Quarter to the Sixth, and the cable line jutted out just enough that she could glimpse the speck of Gaudium in the southwest.

“Is it?” said Okane Sinclair, her coworker and the only other current passenger.

“Do you think something’s wrong?” said Laura.

Okane hummed. He moved to the same window, sat on the uncomfortable metal bench to angle himself the way she did, so he could look out with his unnaturally silver eyes. Honestly it was impossible to tell anything about Gaudium at this distance, but he always humored Laura’s moods like this. She glanced up to give him a grateful smile.

“Do you sense anything?” she asked.

“No, but Gaudium’s far away,” said Okane. “I’m not able to sense anything across the bay.”

“You were able to sense something happening way underneath Amicae, back during the Falling Infestation,” said Laura.

“I was standing on top of it. – – -’d notice a hornets’ nest if – – – stepped on it, too,” said Okane.

“I get it,” said Laura, turning back to the window. “I’m just worried, is all.” They were supposed to have infestations around every corner, with the size of Rex’s crusade. The further an infestation was from its hive mind the longer it seemed to take for the hive’s anger to reach it, but they’d had more than enough time to roll their way northward. “We should be in the middle of a catastrophe right now.”

“I’m glad we’re not. We have too few people to handle a catastrophe,” said Okane.

He and Laura were the only officially active Sweepers in all of Amicae. Sure, there were mob Sweepers in organizations like the Mad Dogs and the Silver Kings, but they were loose cannons at best, and the Mad Dogs had actually initiated one of the worst monster swarms in the city’s history; it was a wonder they’d made it out of the Falling Infestation alive. They weren’t equipped for a catastrophe in the least.

Laura picked at the seal on the cable car window, brow furrowed, before saying, “It’s kind of selfish, but I keep hoping Gaudium reports something. They’re south. Whatever comes up will hit them first. If we can get any kind of forewarning . . .”

“And you’re worried about Ellie.”

“Wh—But—Of course I’m worried about Ellie! But it’s not like I’m playing favorites!” said Laura.

Okane raised his brows, as if to say, Oh, really?

“Maybe I’ve got a little favoritism,” Laura admitted. “But you saw that letter, didn’t you? She signed it at the end herself! She used about twenty exclamation points to postscript how much she admired us!” When she’d first opened the letter, she’d hardly dared believe it. She was used to Amicae’s newspapers publishing trash about her, and their ongoing attempts to link her to the mobs. And to hear such praise coming from a Sweeper, even an apprentice, was precious validation. She’d kept checking it all through the day yesterday and come away giddy every time. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to get something like that?” Okane eyed her a little more closely, and she said quickly, “Don’t answer that honestly.”

“A long time, anyway,” said Okane. “I understand being acknowledged can be good for figuring out where you are yourself. I’ll admit, though, I’m not fond of attention from strangers.”

He turned to look out the window again, and one of the markers of his discomfort was made more obvious as a result. Two months ago, Rexian forces had tried to attack Amicae through the mines, and Laura and Okane had been the first on the scene to hold them back. Laura had emerged with branching discoloration up the length of her arms, but Okane’s injury was more obvious. A kin-infused gauntlet had missed his eye but left five welted burn lines where those fingers had been. The old money-shaped scars on his arms he could at least hide under his sleeves, but the new one on his face pulled attention everywhere they went. Okane still tended to associate attention with future pain. It wasn’t a good combination.

“You don’t have to be, right now,” said Laura. “It’s probably for the better, here in Amicae. If you did want the Council here to praise you, you’d be disappointed at every turn.”

Okane snorted. Outside, the roofs of the Sixth Quarter eclipsed what little of Gaudium they could see.

Amicae’s Sixth Quarter held no residences but the outer barracks of the military, the emptied Ranger district, warehouses of the fields, and, of course, the trains. The cable car station was wider and cleaner than most, considering the traffic—even First Quarter citizens had to use this landing if they went traveling—and when the cable car drew even with the dock, an attendant on the outside not only opened the door, but offered his white-gloved hand to help them disembark.

“I’m good,” said Laura, and hopped out of the car with Okane quick behind her.

The attendant accepted this with grace, and simply said, “Good day, miss.”

The Union Depot rose high before them with many spires, a clock face above its massive doors reading 9:10 a.m. They were running late. Laura hurried her pace, and Okane fell into step beside her with his head down to hide his face from the passersby. There wasn’t anywhere else to hide; with so many restricted operations in this Quarter, walls had been built to funnel everyone straight from cable car to depot to keep anyone from wandering. By contrast, the inside of the depot was wide and loud and open. Travelers and peddlers crowded around the pillars, the ticket stalls rattled, and the steam of arriving trains mixed with the smells from wheeled food stalls. Voices echoed high overhead among the arches and the hanging clocks. Simply put, it was chaos.

“More people than usual today,” said Okane.

“There are some big film stars coming in about now,” said Laura.

“Which ones?”

“Barnaby Gilda and Monica Reeves.”

Okane gave a low whistle. “The biggest film stars there are these days.”

“Exactly. That’ll give us plenty of cover to meet Byron,” said Laura.

“Platform six?”

“Exactly.”

Perfectly timed, the doors of the train on platform three opened. The crowd that had been milling before now surged toward it, and the shouting increased tenfold.

“Mr. Gilda! Mr. Gilda! Please look over here!”

“Miss Reeves, you’ve been nominated for the Golden Bough! Do you have anything to say to your fans?”

Camera flashes popped amid the clamor. Laura thought of her last visit to the depot, thought of Juliana MacDanel pointing a gun at her face, and practically ran to avoid the influx of attention. Unluckily for her, the uninformed people on surrounding platforms were hurrying in for a look at the commotion too. She fought her way upstream, and by the time she found some calm behind the pillars of platform six, she was panting from the effort.

“Okay. So. I may have underestimated the sheer amount of fans,” she said.

One of the actors must’ve said something, because the crowd shrieked with delight. Okane winced at the noise.

“Do – – – think Byron can even find us in all of this?” he asked.

“Are you doubting my skills already?”

They leaned around the pillar to find PI Byron Rhodes leaning against the opposite side. He wore his usual bowler hat, with the ever-present pipe stuck between his teeth. He didn’t look very threatening, but he had once been part of the police’s MARU task force, and Laura had seen for herself just how good his information gathering could be. He gave them his usual tired smile and said, “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

“You’ve never called us out like this before. We knew it had to be important,” said Laura. “If you called us directly, it must be Sweeper business, right? But it can’t actually be Sweeper business if police haven’t roped this place off. There’s no infestation here, is there?”

Would one finally be here, come in on the trains? Laura automatically fell into a wider stance, looking around for hiding places and emergency exits for the crowd. Okane did the same, but his brow was furrowed in confusion.

“I haven’t sensed anything,” he said. “Has a hibernating one been delivered to Amicae?”

“There’s no infestations involved, so I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly a Sweeper problem. It’s more of a . . . Sinclair-Kramer problem,” said Byron.

“A Sinclair-Kramer—” The only thing related to them personally that Byron would be involved with . . . Laura’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t mean there’s a mob connection here, do you? Have you finally found a lead on the Falling Infestation?”

That would be worse. Laura could take on a monster easily, but she wasn’t so keen on being shot at by actual people. She was also sure she’d be a terrible detective.

Byron shook his head in amusement. “Do you really think the Mad Dogs are going to slip and expose their ties to that this late in the game?”

“Everyone says they’re cocky, and they’ve got most of the northern Fifth Quarter on lockdown,” said Laura.

“They didn’t lock down that area on luck or brute force alone. They’re clever. We’re a long way from proving anything on the Falling Infestation.”

“Then is there another mobster plan in the works we should know about?” said Laura.

“The situation here has nothing to do with mobsters, and it’s not an infestation.”

Laura and Okane shared an uneasy look. “Really? Then I’ve got no idea what you’d need us for.”

“It’s a bit complicated, but rest assured, you are exactly the professionals I need right now,” Byron replied. “Come with me this way. I’ll show you.”

He led them still farther from the cameras, almost to the end of the depot itself.

A small, square building stood between platforms eleven and twelve, bearing a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. Presumably it housed a break room or office for station workers. Byron knocked twice. After a moment it opened a crack. A woman in the depot’s red uniform peeked out. She took in Byron and the two Sweepers behind him with suspicion.

“We’re expected,” said Byron.

“If you’re looking for the timetables, you’re in the wrong place. Go back to the ticket booths,” said the worker.

“You don’t recognize the detective you personally called?” said Byron.

You’re the ex-policeman?” The worker deliberated a moment, then opened the door further so they could enter. “Fine. I trust you can pick your company well. Come in, but do it fast.”

They entered without further ado. As she passed, Laura noticed that the worker held a rifle under her arm, and her eyes flicked back and forth in such a nervous way that one would expect a cavalry to appear in pursuit of her. She closed the door and bolted it once they were all inside. Another depot worker stood deeper in with a matching firearm; luckily the muzzle wasn’t pointed at them, but at three people who sat around a small break table. The three seated people all had ash smeared across their cheeks; not the by-product of mining, but more as if they’d swiped the remnants of a campfire to mask something on their faces. Likewise, their clothes weren’t anything like a miner’s, or even the depot workers’. Two of them wore heavy uniforms with the shadow of a ripped-off crest, laden further with straps, buckles, and bags of supplies, and most importantly, long sheaths at the belts to hold familiar magical blades. The last member of the group was probably the roughest-looking—where the others had obviously prepared for a long trek, she wore regular civilian clothes, tattered and dusty from a journey that had certainly not been by train. Despite her shabby appearance, this last member clapped her hands in delight at the sight of them. Laura recognized her immediately.

“Zelda?” she gasped.

“How sweet!” Zelda cooed. “The dream team remembers me!”

How could Laura forget? Zelda had led them through Rex on their ill-planned rescue. They’d parted outside the city limits, and despite the mention of a reward, Zelda said she had another task to attend to. Laura hadn’t expected to see her again. Come to think of it, she’d seen the man sitting beside Zelda too: Ivo had aided them in Rex’s Sweeper headquarters. The third member, slight and blond with painfully green eyes, was a total mystery.

“They said they knew you,” said the worker at the door. “Mr. Rhodes, they mentioned you by name.”

“Yes, you mentioned that much over the telephone,” said Byron, striding closer. He stood in the very middle of the room to eye them all. “This fits into the situation as I understand it already. It appears they’re also familiar with the Sinclair family.”

Laura shot a glance at the station workers, but they didn’t seem at all intrigued by the mention.

Zelda grinned. “Isn’t that Sinclair a shining example of manhood? I gave him a glowing review.”

“It was crystal clear,” Byron said dryly, and Laura groaned at the awful joke.

“But why are – – – here?” said Okane. “Why would – – – come all the way to Amicae and then let – – -rselves get caught?”

Because they had. Zelda was a Magi, but while most Magi could temporarily boost their speed, strength, balance, or sensing, she could erase herself. Anyone not specifically looking for her or the people beside her wouldn’t pick up on their presence at all. She could’ve walked to the Cynder Block and knocked directly on Laura’s door, but no; here she sat in a train office, mashed between a pair of possible invaders and the depot switchboard, with guns pointed at her and an investigator watching every move. She looked quite pleased with herself.

“I’m here for my reward,” she said.

“Is it true that she assisted you in retrieving Amicae’s magic supply?” said Byron.

“We never would’ve escaped if Zelda hadn’t led us in and out,” said Laura. “I already told you about this.”

“You did, but it would be remiss of me not to double-check. It’s one thing to know someone helped you, and another to make sure we’re talking about the same person.”

“Well, it is. She risked her life. She’s our friend,” said Laura, with all the conviction she could muster.

“It’s good to see – – – again,” Okane said quietly. “When – – – stayed behind, I wasn’t sure – – -’d escape Rex’s notice.”

“I’m an expert,” Zelda replied. “Really, I’m more impressed that – – – two made it. I guess the Fatum station really helped?”

“It’s a long story,” said Laura.

“Let’s focus on the here and now,” said Byron. “You’re all Rexians, and you want something from Amicae.”

“That makes it sound so calculating,” Zelda grumbled.

“It very well could be,” said Byron. “What are your demands?”

Zelda spread her arms. “Sanctuary.”

For a moment silence filled the small room.

Byron slowly took the pipe from his mouth, as if he needed all his teeth to deal with this. He certainly sounded clearer that way, and it gave him something to gesture at Zelda with when he said, finally, “Sanctuary? You’re telling me that you came all the way from Rex, cut through the wilds on foot, to ask Amicae for sanctuary?”

“Exactly.” Zelda piously folded her hands but wore a too-smug smile. “As an informant, having secured Amicae’s interests, I’m a traitor to Rex and would be killed on sight. In keeping with the act of 1186, I seek asylum in Amicae with my family.”

The two other Rexians looked absolutely nothing like her. Neither of them had her dark skin or curls; Ivo looked Wasureijin, and the other woman—whoever she was—shockingly Zyran. This last addition unnerved Laura the most: she sat with her back ramrod-straight and ready to spring, eyes menacingly focused on the train attendant. She looked like Rex’s ideal walked off an assembly line. Only her Magi-bright eyes belied the image.

“Allow me to introduce them,” Zelda continued. “Ivo should be familiar already—he pointed us to Amicae’s magic in the first place—but this is Bea. She’s a stick-in-the-mud.”

Ivo inclined his head. Bea didn’t move.

“And you’re all here for . . . asylum,” Byron said slowly.

“We don’t wish to be a drain on – – -r resources,” said Ivo. “We’ve already supported Amicae, and will continue doing so. Bea and I are Sweepers. We can lend our strength and experience to Amicae.”

Dread filled Laura’s stomach. Amicae’s last attempt to bring “expertise” to the Sweeper department landed them with a pair of violent traitors; ex–head Sweeper Juliana MacDanel had been deported to Puer awaiting punishment, and her brother Lester had been kidnapped and killed by Rex. Zelda had proved her mettle, but the other two?

“As if we’d trust our city to you!” The second station worker hadn’t spoken until now, but spat her words as if she had a personal grudge. “Your people are the ones who attacked us. Rex tags all over in November, and the mine invasion in January? You’re just here to spy on more weaknesses! We don’t want you here!”

“We’re not the ones who attacked Amicae,” Zelda huffed. “At least aim that bravado at the right—”

“You’re Rexian!”

“Wait a moment,” said Byron.

“They’re invaders,” she snapped.

“They’re informants,” Byron corrected. “Spies. We need to know what Rex is thinking if we want to stay a step ahead of them.”

“Well, they’re not useful to us if they aren’t back there getting the damn information!”

That isn’t our call,” said Byron. “We’ll turn them over to the city guard. The Council can decide what to do with them.”

“We had a deal,” Zelda insisted.

“A deal in no way authorized by the city,” said Byron.

“So they should get the hell out,” said the depot worker.

“You can’t just throw them into the wilds!” said Laura.

The depot worker sent her a scathing look. “Of course you’d defend a threat, you Mad Dogs trash.”

“Excuse me?” Laura hissed.

“This is above us,” Byron said firmly. “I wanted the Sweepers here to verify their story. There’s no guarantee of anything—whether they’ll stay, whether they’ll work—and this should be determined by our highest authority. The Council will hear their story. The Council will pass judgment.”

“They’re Rexians,” the depot worker said again.

“Refugees.”

For a tense moment they stared each other down. Finally the depot worker averted her gaze and grumbled, “I’ll trust the MARU.”

MARU? For a moment Laura hesitated. The Mob Action Resolution Unit had been disbanded years ago, and the “enlightenment” had dispelled any notion that Sweepers were their heirs. There was no MARU left to trust, but then again, hadn’t Byron once been a member?

“Thank you,” Byron said anyway. “Laura, Okane, are you armed?”

“As armed as Sweepers can be,” Laura replied.

“Splendid. You’ll assist me in escorting them to police headquarters. They’ll need to be under observation until the Council can make a decision.”

Laura suspected there should be phone calls first—to alert the Council, at the very least to arrange a cell—but no one made any move toward the telephone.

Instead they ushered the Rexians up and out the door.

Outside the crowd hadn’t dissipated. If anything it had grown. The film stars held court somewhere near the main entrance, so Byron made for the depot’s side doors. Laura followed along, feeling on edge and foolish. The Rexians followed easily, heads down but strides sure, and Zelda glowered as she mashed an ugly hat on her head.

“I did everything – – – told me to,” she grumbled. “I contacted Byron. I pulled – – – in for backup. I thought I was supposed to be welcomed!”

Laura winced. “You have no idea how much I wish it were that simple.”

“Isn’t it?”

“My first plan had you coming in with a massive bargaining chip. They wouldn’t have turned you away if you showed up with us and all the magic in tow.”

“So just making sure – – – didn’t die in the first place isn’t good enough?”

“No,” Okane said miserably. “We may be the only Sweepers left, but the Council hates us. We seem to undermine everything they do. Overthrow the wall policy, ruin their MacDanel publicity stunt, ask for funding—”

“They keep looking like the villain,” said Laura. “It makes sense, because they’ve lied through their teeth for years, but politicians don’t really like it when you confront them with their own bullshit.”

“Who knew,” said Okane.

“Hell, it might even be worse for you if we’re brought in,” said Laura. “If they think we’re on your side, they might just reject you out of spite.”

They emerged into sunlight. Byron sighed at the straightaway—there were no such things as side entrances or secrecy in the area between depot and cable cars—but the stars had bottlenecked almost everyone else at the depot doors, so Byron gestured for the six of them to walk tall and strode toward the landing. The celebrity arrival was so interesting, the car attendant didn’t fully notice them; he held out his hand mechanically as if to help them inside the nearest empty car, but his eyes were fixed on the crowd. You could’ve sent a parade in front of him and he wouldn’t have noticed. Only Zelda took the offered hand, and seemed thoroughly displeased that she was being ignored against her will this time.

“Good day,” the attendant said distantly, so late that the door was already clattering shut and autolocking. The gears above them ground into motion, and they left the dock. Now well away from prying eyes, Byron stuck his pipe back between his teeth and set to work lighting it. He looked like he’d aged a year in seconds.

“You do know if I turn you in to the Council, it’ll be a mock trial and execution waiting for you?”

“Execution?” Laura was horrified. “If it weren’t for Zelda we’d never have gotten the Sinclairs or our Gin back. They helped us—helped Amicae—at risk to their lives!”

“They’re still Rexian. They can be paraded as prisoners, so the Council can pretend they’re doing something about the attack.”

Laura rubbed at her temples. “We can’t just let them die! Can’t we sneak them out to a satellite town?”

“I don’t want a satellite town!” said Zelda, affronted. “They’ve got no defense against infestations! Besides, I didn’t risk life and limb just to live in some shithole with the Rangers and farmers.”

“Satellite towns are more on edge about Rex than the cities proper,” Ivo agreed. “We avoided them as much as we could on the way here, and were still almost shot near Avis.”

“Can’t we just vanish into the rabble Quarter?” said Zelda. “The extra Quarter is what Amicae’s famous for! If the Council never knows—”

“- – -’d still never survive without city-issued identification,” said Okane.

While they spoke Byron finally got his pipe lit and took a pull of sweet-smelling smoke. He held this for a moment, then said, “I’d rather not send you all to your deaths.”

“Thank you,” said Laura.

“But if you want to stay in Amicae, we’ll have to do this through at least semi-legal means. Heather is our highest authority who’d understand the risk you took and what it means to our city. We’ll appeal to her.”


Heather Albright, Amicae’s chief of police, was waist-deep in the latest mobster-related catastrophe but made time for them anyway. They crowded into her office and Byron related the entire situation. Albright looked over the Rexians with a critical eye, attention lingering on their ash-smeared faces.

“Sweepers,” she said slowly.

“They are, anyway,” said Zelda, gesturing lamely at her companions. “I’m nothing of the sort.”

Albright drummed her fingers on the desk. Every tap of nails to wood was slow, loud, and sharp, like the ring of individual gavels. Everyone was silent under the sound. Laura, the subject of her judge’s scowl, began to squirm. After almost a minute of collective discomfort, Albright brought all her fingers down at once and stood.

“Laura, step outside with me for a moment.”

Laura winced but did as she was told. Everyone left behind looked anxiously at Byron for answers, but the door closed before the investigator could do any more than shake his head. Albright led her directly into a neighboring meeting room.

While Laura gravitated to the table, Albright leaned against the closed door, peering through the window to ensure the hallway outside was clear. Once she’d confirmed it, she turned to give Laura a downright acidic look.

“You know, I used to hope that you’d learn from your old boss’s mistakes, but you seem determined to outshine him in every way.”

Oh, ouch.

“I’m sorry,” said Laura. “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, but we can’t just abandon them to the wilds or even to the Council—”

“They’re Rexians,” said Albright. “You have brought Rexians into my office today.”

“Good Rexians!”

“Whether they’re good or not is irrelevant! How did they get into the city?” said Albright.

Laura honestly didn’t know, but admitting that wouldn’t be good. “I . . . well . . . I suppose they must’ve gotten in the way Okane and I got out, on our way to Rex?”

“Which was?”

“Hobo style.”

Albright inhaled deeply. She took off her glasses and pinched her nose. “So they’ve already presented a security risk.”

“What? No! They turned themselves in!” said Laura.

“They’ve thwarted our border guards, which have been significantly bolstered after the last attempt to attack Amicae—a Rexian attack, need I remind you,” Albright said icily.

“Would the border guards have let them through if they tried entering normally?” Laura challenged. “People have tried to shoot them on sight! It wasn’t an option for them!”

“And what else will they think isn’t an option?” said Albright.

“Nothing, if we can treat them decently,” said Laura.

Albright pinched her nose even tighter. She dropped into one of the chairs and kept her eyes squeezed shut, as if telling herself this was all just a bad dream could make it go away. Laura gripped the back of another chair and leaned over it to continue, “If these people wanted to hurt us, they would’ve done it already. Zelda had every chance in Rex to turn us in and didn’t. They had all of Amicae’s Sweepers in one spot down in the depot today, and all the way here, and they didn’t do anything.”

“You’re not all of Amicae’s Sweepers, though,” said Albright.

“We’re the only ones the public or the Council acknowledges!”

“Rex’s purpose isn’t silly little smear campaigns. They want to take out entire cities. You alone are too small a target for them. If manipulating your kindness will bring them to a bigger target—”

Laura huffed with annoyance. She dropped into the chair so she faced Albright properly across the table. “I’m not claiming that they don’t have ulterior motives. The thing is, Zelda’s motive is sanctuary. Remember, I’m the only one who’s been to Rex, and I have—” She hesitated. “I’ve got insight you don’t. Not just on the city, but these people, too. Zelda and the others, they’ll do anything it takes to escape Rex. They know how bad it is. They wouldn’t come all this way otherwise.”

As much as she hated to admit it, Albright’s doubt came with good reason; Rexian Sweepers didn’t value themselves. In their city she’d almost been killed by a Sweeper ready to put herself over the Quarter wall in the process; another Sweeper had killed himself without hesitation to fulfill some obscure rule; in Amicae’s mining tunnels, they’d fallen and been crushed by their own fellow Sweepers. It was a hallmark of Rex to not care about their own well-being, beyond completion of a mission. But because she’d seen those self-destructive Sweepers, she could see the clear differences between them and Zelda. Zelda was too much of a person to let Rex manipulate her, and Ivo had been desperate enough to escape it to assist traitors to the city.

“I find it hard to believe they came all this way alone,” said Albright.

“Okane and I made it to Rex alone,” said Laura.

Albright’s fingers moved to rub at her temple. Her brow remained furrowed, but it was less out of annoyance and more from weariness.

“I understand that you trust them—”

“With my life.”

“But I wanted to trust Juliana MacDanel, too, and she had all the recommendations we could hope for,” said Albright. “Your word is all I have to go on right now.”

“Is that not good enough?” Laura grumbled.

“It’s idiotic to place so much trust in something with only one source,” Albright retorted. “You Sweepers might have the luxury of following instincts over facts, but my job is to keep the civilians of Amicae safe. I can’t afford to buy into a single girl’s impulses.”

Laura leaned back sharply. Albright could be terse at times, and had shown clear irritation with Clae once upon a time, but she’d never been outright insulting.

Albright took another deep, slow breath. “That was unprofessional. I know that you’re just as invested in Amicae’s safety as I am. Instinct and magic go hand in hand. It’s part of your job. I have no right to nitpick. I’m still used to working with other police, and even Clae Sinclair. We’ve all had to examine the big picture, rather than have the freedom to focus on a specific issue. We have too many people to please before we can work on anything, and none of the people I need to please would be happy with this. You have to admit, it doesn’t look good to anyone outside your Sweeper department.”

Laura deflated some, but kept her hands fisted in her lap. “I’m aware.”

“The Council has placed a lot of time, effort, and publicity into the reinforcement of our gates and guard stations,” said Albright. “If it becomes known that a trio of outsiders thwarted all those measures, and thwarted them so easily that they got all the way here into the Third Quarter and were only discovered because they arranged it—that would be a catastrophe even if it were a trio from proven allies, like Gaudium or Terrae. The public’s peace of mind would be utterly shattered. If word got out that we were infiltrated by Rexians again . . . that makes three times in the past year. Confidence would erode on every level.”

“They tried to come here as legally as possible,” said Laura.

“And even if they had followed every legal measure, we would still end up with Rexians here in the Third Quarter. We’d be promoted as fools and traitors for allowing them so deep into the city that they could stage another attempt on Amicae’s structure,” said Albright.

Laura threw up her hands. “But that’s not why they’re here!”

“Frankly, Laura, the truth doesn’t matter,” said Albright.

Laura brought her fists back down on the table and seethed, “Then what does matter? What’s the point in anything if we’re going to reject the truth?”

Only now did Albright open her eyes, and Laura realized just how dark the bags under her eyes were.

“The Council’s been trying to remove you ever since the MacDanel incident,” said Albright. “I’ve been trying to downplay your recklessness so they’ll keep you on even after they get a new head Sweeper . . . but this is spitting in the face of everything they’re doing. It would be the final straw. If you propose having Rexians on board, you will cross a line. I can’t bring you back from this.”

“What’s the Council going to do, fire their head Sweeper?” Laura scoffed.

“They fired MacDanel.”

“And I was there to take her place. They don’t have another me around to pick up the slack. They’ve got a hard enough time trying to hire regular Sweepers right now, let alone a boss. Where are they going to get anyone with any experience? I guarantee Okane would quit as soon as I’m fired, and you can’t think anyone can tempt the mobster Sweepers into going straight, so there’s no one left here in Amicae. What other city is going to send us any extra Sweepers in a spike like this?”

“A spike with no monsters,” Albright said dryly.

“For now,” said Laura. “But no other city is stupid enough to risk it. The Council has no other options than me.”

“You can’t hide behind the numbers forever,” said Albright.

“I know, but I’ll use it as long as I can, if it helps me do what’s right.”

For a moment they were silent, simply glaring at each other over the table. Laura understood Albright’s point—of course she did—but this wasn’t something she could compromise on. She knew Zelda and the others were here to escape Rex, and as far as she was concerned, they’d earned their safety. Laura took a deep breath of her own, folded her hands to look a little more proper, and schooled her tone back to evenness.

“Look at it this way,” she said. “We’ve been trying to hire new Sweepers. Today, three professionals have come to us: at least two fully fledged Sweepers, and one expert in what happens behind the scenes. It would normally take months of negotiations with other cities to get someone with even an iota of their experience transferred over from another city. You want competence? Rex has the strongest Sweepers in existence. Low budget? They’re not asking for much. A lasting investment? There’s nowhere else for them to go. Loyalty? They’ve already proved that, and saved our city once. They wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Accepting them is the best choice for Amicae.”

Albright shook her head slowly. “You really think these people are a benefit?”

“Yes.”

Albright pursed her lips. “I don’t approve of this. I can’t. It would be the end of my career.”

For a moment Laura didn’t believe her ears. Albright had been the Sweepers’ supporter through a number of incidents already—she’d kept Clae’s secret, of all things—and she hadn’t really thought she’d be turned away this time. What would happen to Zelda and the others now? She swallowed thickly, opened her mouth—

“But.” Albright slowly slipped her glasses back on. “The reason I took this job in the first place was to help as best I could. You’re the expert on Sweeping. If you say this could help us, I trust you. I’ll trust these people based on your trust.”

“Thank you,” said Laura, the relief making her sag. “Thank you, thank you—”

“This goes no higher than me,” Albright said sharply. “The Council will not know, and neither will most of the police force. You’ll tell no one the truth of this. These Rexians . . . they’ll need a cover. You were familiar with Rangers recently, weren’t you?”

“Y-yes,” said Laura.

“Then that will be our cover. Rangers aren’t citizens of the cities, and have no records to be researched. While you were in the wilds—or perhaps while repelling the previous Rexian invasion of the mines—you met them and recruited them. Rangers handle beasts and danger on a regular basis. It’s not a big jump for them to switch jobs like this.”

“Right!” said Laura. “Although, the, um . . . the tattoos? What should we say about that?”

“There’s a division of Spiritualism that puts their teachings into numbers,” Albright replied without pause. “The tattoos will correspond to a weave. I’d visit a church to confirm what their particular numbers equate to and come up with a story for them all to defend why they were tattooed with that sequence.”

“You thought that up quick.”

“I can’t afford to be slow on the uptake.” Albright stood again. “Are you sure this is the path you want to follow? You can’t turn back after this.”

“Absolutely,” said Laura.

“On your own head be it,” said Albright, and left the meeting room.

Copyright © Mirah Bolender 2021

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