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Excerpt: The Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood

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The sequel to A. K. Larkwood’s stunning debut fantasy, The Unspoken NameThe Thousand Eyes continues The Serpent Gates series—perfect for fans of Jenn Lyons, Joe Abercrombie, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Two years ago, Csorwe and Shuthmili risked the anger of the wizard Belthandros Sethennai to gain their freedom. Now, they make their living exploring relic worlds of the ancient serpent empire of Echentyr. They think they’re prepared for anything—but when one of their expeditions releases an Echentyri soldier who has slept undisturbed since the fall of her homeland, they are thrown back into a conflict that has lain dormant for thousands of years. Shuthmili will give anything to protect the woman and the life that she loves, but as events spiral out of control, she is torn between clinging to her humanity and embracing her eldritch power.

Meanwhile, Tal Charossa returns to Tlaanthothe to find that Sethennai has gone missing. Tal wants nothing to do with his old boss and former lover, so when a magical catastrophe befalls the city, Tal tries to run rather than face his past—but he soon learns that something even worse may lurk in the future. Throughout the worlds of the Echo Maze, fragments of an undead goddess begin to awaken, and not all confrontations can be put off forever . .

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood, on sale 02/15/2022.


I

The Hatchery

In ancient days, all this world was veiled by a green wood. Now tree trunks scatter the land like bones and dead cities fall to ruin beneath a dull unseeing sky.

Someday even they will be gone. But dust is not the only thing that lingers here. Along a certain mountain ridge, the stumps of forgotten beacons trace a path for ships to follow, up to the belly of a volcanic crater which rests among the mountains like a kettle among coals. Resting in that crater is the last bright thing that remains in this world, a shining mineral eye among the debris: the great tiled dome of an Echentyri hatchery complex.

The serpent conquerors built this place long ago, to incubate their successors. Now, amid the desolation of their empire, the hatchery tiles still gleam, scattering the sun’s glare into a thousand dancing points.

The hatchery is still and quiet but not altogether empty. The past sleeps soundly in these halls, and may yet wake.


The first person to set eyes upon the hatchery in three thousand years was one Qanwa Shuthmili, sitting in the cockpit of a little hired ship as it soared above the ridge.

The corpse of a world should have been a sad and terrible thing to see, but Shuthmili clung to the rail of the cutter and laughed in triumph. Her unbraided hair streamed behind her like a black pennant, and she bared her teeth against the wind as if she might take a bite of it.

She hugged her knees in triumph and turned to Csorwe, beside her in the pilot’s seat.

“There!” she said. “My goodness, it’s really all still there, the dome and everything, the whole complex!”

“You’ve got a whole complex,” said Tal, who had his feet propped up on the back of Csorwe’s seat despite her regular objections. Even he sounded pleased, and so he should, because their business depended on success, and even if you didn’t care about ancient history, the fact that the hatchery complex really was here meant they were probably going to get paid.

Csorwe took them in, landing the cutter with a bump. The crater was every bit as deserted as it seemed, a shallow bowl of dull stone sheltering the complex. The hatchery was even bigger than it had looked from the air, a cathedral of white marble and blue tile. The blue dome looked more like the sky than the actual sky overhead, which was a streaky yellow-grey.

The people of lost Echentyr had been giant serpents, and their buildings were all on a scale to match. The arch in the wall of the complex was fifty feet high. Beyond its cool shadow, sunlight pooled in a courtyard just as enormous.

“Even the Survey Office didn’t know this place existed,” said Shuthmili. “We might be the first people to walk here since the fall of Echentyr.”

“That never gets old for you, does it?” said Csorwe with affection, as she shouldered her backpack.

“I can’t believe nobody’s looted this place,” said Tal, running his fingertips over the tiled wall. The tiles were a brilliant sea-blue, minutely patterned with a design of interlocking spirals. “Even these would sell,” he added, tapping one. “People would love it. Do up your dining room with some genuine snake rubbish.”

Tal was Csorwe’s oldest friend and oldest enemy. Next to each other they made a perfect contrast: Csorwe was only just taller than Shuthmili, square and compact; Tal was a tall, stringy Tlaanthothei with twitchy petal-shaped ears.

“We aren’t looters, we’re surveyors,” said Shuthmili. She had shed a lot of scruples, but some of them really stuck. “We sell maps.”

“To looters,” said Tal. “It’s not our fault looting is all we know.”

“It’s not—they’re scholars—oh, put a lid on it, Talasseres,” she said, seeing that Tal was grinning at her. “It’s not my fault you have a lack of transferrable skills.”

She consoled herself that the ruined Echentyri colony worlds were famously sparse pickings for looters anyway: acres of dust and damage, with usually nothing to show for it but a few clay cylinders and a scattering of serpent bones.

“People don’t like stealing from Echentyri worlds, anyway,” said Csorwe, flicking Tal in the shoulder as she passed him. “You heard them back on Cricket Station. We’re courting a horrible snake curse just visiting here.”

“Don’t let the professor hear you,” said Tal.

“I am fairly certain Professor Tvelujan would think a horrible snake curse was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her,” said Shuthmili.

“Speak of the devil,” muttered Tal, as Professor Tvelujan’s minuscule cutter landed beside theirs. The engine puttered out, engulfed by the immense, encompassing silence of the dead world.

Tvelujan was their client, an elderly historian from a university in distant Tarasen. She wore a hat with a translucent veil to shield her bone-white hair and skin from the sun. As she approached them, she walked with the slow swimming gait of one enchanted, and the veil billowed behind her like the mantle of a jellyfish.

“All right, Professor? Need a hand?” said Csorwe, who generally treated Tvelujan with the patient, resigned cheerfulness one might use on a fragile relative.

“No assistance needed,” said Tvelujan, in her small quiet voice. It was odd for a client to want to join them—their job was to chart the place and squash any obvious threats, to make way for the researchers who would follow—but Tvelujan’s devotion to her subject came before all else. “The most wonderful. An intact hatchery. Never have I imagined it.” Her Tarasene accent became more marked when she was emotional, though she still spoke in little more than a whisper.

Shuthmili checked through her notebooks, while Tal and Csorwe counted off their provisions. They always carried more than they needed, since there was nothing growing and no running water in the dead world.

Tvelujan, meanwhile, had her own rituals to conduct. Before they entered the hatchery proper, she knelt on the stones of the courtyard and poured out an offering of scented oil, murmuring prayers in the sibilant language of Echentyr.

Shuthmili knew the serpent language well enough to understand most of it: Blessed Lady Iriskavaal, forgive us our boldness, we come to you as supplicants.

“Wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to suck up to our old friend the snake goddess,” muttered Tal.

They were all somewhat superstitious about saying the name of Iriskavaal out loud. By now they had visited countless Echentyri relic worlds. They had even found their way back to the homeworld, where the dry bones of innumerable serpents lay curled in dust. They had searched in the dead city, in the Royal Library and the ancient palaces. All the same, you never forgot who had ruled in these places, and who had laid them waste.

Three thousand years ago, the serpent goddess had destroyed her own territories in vengeance for a grand betrayal, and died. It was her curse which had blighted this world and dozens of others.

For most of her life, Shuthmili had believed that was the whole story. Iriskavaal was an extinct goddess. Her throne had been shattered, and she had faded from history along with the whole empire of Echentyr.

Two years ago, all three of them had learned better. Iriskavaal had cheated death, and taken a mortal vessel. Belthandros Sethennai still ruled over his city, far from here. As far as they had heard, he was still perfectly contented playing at being Chancellor of Tlaanthothe. If any of the Tlaanthothei had figured out what he really was, nobody was talking about it.

Shuthmili put it out of her mind. In every way that mattered, he had no part in their lives now. It had been two years since the others had left his employment. The past—Csorwe’s and Tal’s lives as Belthandros’ sword-hands, Shuthmili’s service to the Church of Qarsazh—felt less real day by day.

Tvelujan finished her prayers and drifted on across the courtyard to the door of the main hatchery building. It was circular, almost as big as a mazegate, and composed of many interlocking metal plates, shining like a second sun. It was almost hard to look at directly, not that that stopped Tvelujan, who gazed up at it with dizzy reverence in her large grey eyes.

Shuthmili rolled up her sleeves. She could almost see the power that flowed within the door, the great sigils and countersigils which formed its mechanism. She had taught herself to read the Echentyri language as well as almost anyone, but their magic was still alien, always more of a challenge than it needed to be. Working on their devices made her feel like an ant exploring the interior of a clock. The trouble was that there were no Echentyri mages left—except Sethennai, maybe, and she could hardly ask him.

She retrieved her gauntlets from inside her jacket and pulled them on, reflecting, not for the first time, that they fit her better than ever. Csorwe had taken the gauntlets from Belthandros Sethennai, as a layer of protection to shield her from magic’s corrosive effects. When she had first put them on, they had been too big, uncomfortably reminiscent of the man who made them. Now, two years later, they were a second skin.

She positioned herself opposite the door, too careful to actually touch the surface. It was never the obvious trap that got you, after all. By now they had encountered s doors which belched fire or seeped poison that it would be tremendously embarrassing to be caught out in front of Tal.

She closed her eyes and let her perception sink into the mechanism of the door. She floated through it, watching how one part of the great lock fit with the next.

People are like locks, her aunt had used to say. But locks were also like people. Sometimes they just needed a little coaxing.

As she rummaged around looking for the control sigil, she felt the familiar creeping shadow, and her goddess spoke to her.

THERE YOU ARE, SHUTHMILI, said the lady Zinandour. Her voice was as soft and intrusive as someone lightly touching the back of Shuthmili’s head.

Not now, said Shuthmili, swallowing her unease, I’m busy. Now was not the time. This was going to be a good day. There was a moment of reluctance, then Shuthmili gathered her focus and Zinandour’s presence dispersed like petals on the wind.

There was the sigil she’d been looking for, the axle holding the rest together. She erased it, and the echoes of its dissolution rippled out through the rest of the mechanism. The door opened as sweetly as if it were welcoming them inside, without even a wisp of smoke.

“All good?” said Csorwe, unable to hide the faint shadow of concern. Csorwe knew the risks of magic almost as well as Shuthmili did herself. Channelling the power of a divinity damaged the mortal mind and body in infinite small ways—usually minor, but occasionally not—and Shuthmili’s goddess was not a gentle one.

“I think I’ll live,” said Shuthmili. “And it worked, didn’t it?”

The metal plates of the door had slid away into the frame, revealing an immense chamber beyond. Much of it was occupied by a tiled pool the size of a small lake, now dry, with raw pitted stone at the bottom. The apex of the dome overhead had been glass-paned once, and now it was a lattice open to the sky, casting a fishnet shadow across the empty pool. Colonnades ran along the edges of the chamber, with more corridors branching off from them. It all reminded Shuthmili a little of a bathhouse.

“Extraordinary,” breathed Tvelujan, clasping her pale hands in front of her. “Never was there another empire like it. Not even your people.”

Shuthmili slightly resented this—she was no part of Qarsazh’s imperial ambitions these days—but it would have been unkind to squash Tvelujan in her state of rapture.

The four of them approached the edge of the pool. Tvelujan moved slowly, as though this was a sacred place. Tal slouched along behind them, although Shuthmili knew him well enough by now to recognise that all that indifference was to cover up the fact he was watching their backs. Tal had run into Csorwe and Shuthmili the year before last, when all three of them were on Cricket Station looking for work. The decision to go into business together had been an idea born of one too many algae beers in the canteen, and Shuthmili was amazed that the partnership had held together as well as it did.

“A hot spring, here,” said Tvelujan, gesturing at the bottom of the pool. “To keep eggs warm. Before rank allocation.”

Csorwe raised an eyebrow.

“The Echentyri sorted their eggs by caste and rank before they hatched. They would have loved it back in Qarsazh,” said Shuthmili, feeling she should apologise either for Echentyr or for her homeland. How would it have been, to hatch from an egg and have your whole destiny unroll before you, written out before you ever opened your eyes? Actually, Shuthmili thought she could imagine it very well.

“Very efficient system,” said Tvelujan softly. “Never were their warriors matched in all the Maze of Echoes. In seven days only, the Lady of the Thousand Eyes subdued Oshaar. Some things in this world you have to respect.”

Csorwe, clearly marked as Oshaaru by her grey skin and her tusks, rolled her eyes.

“I thought that was a myth,” said Tal, all innocence. “I mean, how would a big snake even hold a sword? Makes you think.”

Tvelujan did not deign to answer, but Csorwe grinned behind her back. It was one of the continued marvels of Shuthmili’s life that Csorwe and Tal got along all right these days, at least when they were out on a job. When they got back to the apartment, it would be right back to whether it was Tal’s turn to wash the dishes and whether Csorwe had been poaching from Tal’s liquor cabinet, but when they were working, a fragile ceasefire held.

They left the main chamber and began charting the smaller corridors. The place was a labyrinth, coiled in on itself. The sunlight lay like bolts of white silk across the tiles, and a soft breeze blew in through open windows. Tvelujan was in her element, drifting from one inscription to another and occasionally murmuring about old Echentyri victories.

Most of the furniture and equipment in the hatchery had long ago turned to dust, and what was left didn’t mean much: metal and ceramic vessels, inscribed tablets and cylinders which would take several days to decipher. Shuthmili glanced over them, trying to figure out which might be worth translating. Later on, Tvelujan’s team would return to gather up any that looked promising, but Shuthmili suspected they would just be accounts and inventories.

The only unexpected thing was the decoration. Most of the Echentyri ruins Shuthmili had seen were covered with friezes, ancient triumphs and ceremonies in fresco or bas-relief. The hatchery was no different, except in its subject matter. Instead of serpent queens and heroes, the walls of the hatchery were blazoned with curious hybrids: women with the heads or tails of snakes, crowned snakes with five-fingered hands grasping weapons. Which answered Tal’s question, but raised several in its place.

“Have you seen anything like this before? Do you know who they are?” said Shuthmili to Tvelujan. It struck her as odd, eerie even. Back in the day, the Echentyri had not really believed in other worlds or foreign peoples—there were only Echentyri worlds which had not yet been conquered and vassals awaiting subjugation. Most of the friezes depicted the serpents’ two-legged vassals as tiny stick figures, anonymous background swarms at work on the latest royal mausoleum. The halfway creatures in the friezes would surely have been a strange blasphemy—and yet some of them wore the mantles and garlands of Echentyri nobility.

Tvelujan frowned. “The Thousand Eyes, perhaps.”

“You mean—er, Iriskavaal?” said Shuthmili, not wanting to wound Tvelujan’s religious sensibilities but unsure how else to put it. She had always assumed Iriskavaal’s title was just a reference to the way she was always sculpted, with eyes running down her body like gems.

“No,” said Tvelujan, brushing her fingertips over one of the friezes, “though they were named for her, I believe. The splendid honour guard of the Lady of the Thousand Eyes. But this is strange, to show them like this. Yes, certainly it is curious.”

“You know what else is strange?” said Tal, kicking at a heap of potsherds in a way that made Shuthmili’s archaeological training cry out for justice. “The weird lack of skeletons in here. Normally you can’t move for old snake bones.”

“Maybe this place was out of commission,” said Csorwe.

“We’re pretty far from Echentyr and the central worlds,” said Shuthmili, putting aside the friezes for the moment. “The curse spread outwards from the capitol world. If they had some warning here, they could have evacuated.”

She could imagine the scene. Hundreds of Echentyri rushing for their ships, trying to outrun the end of their world. Surely they would have made sure the eggs were loaded first. And how would it have felt, to know that their goddess had turned on them? She almost preferred to think they had been vaporised without realising it.

At the end of one corridor, they found a small staircase descending, which was unusual, both because the Echentyri had favoured smooth inclines and because it was so narrow that the three of them had to go in single file. The corridor at the bottom was similarly small, and lined with small doors.

“What is this, some kind of maintenance duct?” said Csorwe.

“Ah . . .” said Shuthmili. “No. I don’t think so.” She peered round the nearest door, confirming her suspicions. The room beyond was long and low-ceilinged, windowless, with walls of bare stone. Most of the furniture had collapsed, but they could make out the rough outline of what was probably a line of cots.

“The servants’ quarters,” said Tvelujan, with undiminished excitement. “Many hatchlings. Many servants.”

Not much light filtered down from above, so it was hard to see detail, but there were curled shadows on some of the cots.

“If they evacuated, I guess they didn’t take the staff,” said Tal, with a grimace.

Shuthmili shivered and drew back. The Echentyri had conquered countless worlds in their ascendancy, and made vassals of their people. And now these crescents of pale residue were all that was left of them. Her earlier buoyant mood faded, and she reminded herself why she did this work: not only to know the past but to memorialise it. Nobody else had borne witness to these dead.

Csorwe was very quiet. Head down, shoulders squared.

“Tvelujan?” Shuthmili said, hanging back with her.

Csorwe laughed, trying to play it off. “Always gives me a look when she talks about the conquest of Oshaar. I haven’t lived in Oshaar since I was fourteen. It’s weird.”

Shuthmili reached for her hand and squeezed it, knowing how rare it was that Csorwe would admit to anything upsetting her.

“There are people like that in Qarsazh,” said Shuthmili. “Glorious Precursor heritage and so on. All the kind of people who make me glad that you and Tal have taught me the useful vocabulary word shitlord.”

“Tvelujan’s not that bad. It’s just . . . some things in this world you have to respect?” said Csorwe, curling her lip.

“Yes, well, I can tell you about some of them later, if you like,” said Shuthmili, raising an eyebrow. It suddenly felt imperative to make Csorwe laugh, and flirting usually worked.

“Wow,” said Csorwe, but she grinned.

“Do you not respect me, Csorwe?” said Shuthmili, lifting her chin and schooling her features. “That’s very disappointing—”

Csorwe was clearly trying hard not to laugh. “Shh, you are asking for a horrible snake curse—”

Csorwe broke off as Tal came up the stairs. Shuthmili wondered whether Tvelujan had been getting to him too, although Tal was practically immune to insult. He certainly looked tense, but it was a vigilant tension. His ears had pricked up like those of a cat that hears something behind the wainscot.

“You hear that?” he said—to Csorwe, not to Shuthmili, one of those occasional reminders that these two had been working together, or at least in proximity, for years before Shuthmili had ever come onto the scene.

Csorwe nodded, looking past Shuthmili to a round archway that opened onto another corridor. She had gone tense in a different way, tightly coiled as the spring of a bolt-thrower.

Now Shuthmili heard it too. In the distance was the sound of water. A pleasant gurgling sound, like a stream or a spring, rippling through the halls. It took Shuthmili a moment to realise what was worrying about that. There shouldn’t have been running water left anywhere on the surface of this world.

They fetched Tvelujan, who listened with her head cocked for half a minute, frowning.

“Perhaps the oracle pool,” she said suddenly. Her eyes widened, and she strode briskly off toward the direction of the sound.

Csorwe made a choked noise and ran after her. Tal and Shuthmili followed.

The archway that led to the chapel was ornately carved with a pattern of interlocking coils. The room beyond was immense but windowless, as dim as the rest of the hatchery was airy and bright. As they stepped inside, there was a moment when Shuthmili was convinced there was someone else inside, as though she felt the breath of some huge creature on her bare skin—and then there was a kind of release, and the room lit up.

Wardlights gleamed into life, like rivers seen from the air on a clear night, silvery-pale and meandering. They coiled around columns which reached from floor to high ceiling up and down the length of the chapel. On the wall was a frieze of Iriskavaal herself, depicted in light: a hooded snake with many eyes, crowned in stars. Even here the goddess was surrounded by the strange snake-tailed people. They were carved with the same delicacy as the goddess herself, plaited hair and finely muscled shoulders, smooth scales and forked tongues all as one.

Tal muttered uneasily. The misty light turned his dark skin to a ghostly opal as he stalked into the room, hand on the hilt of his sword.

Shuthmili tried to get Tvelujan’s attention to ask her about the friezes, but she—along with Csorwe—was staring at the platform in the centre of the chapel.

It was surrounded by a deep channel. The channel ran with clear water that glowed from within, illuminated by wardlights set into its base. On the platform itself was a great pale coiled object, white and translucent as fine parchment.

Even if Shuthmili hadn’t been to the ruins of Echentyr, she would have known what she was seeing: the shed skin of a snake the size of a cart-horse.

Lying among the coils of dry skin was a naked woman.

“I was right. One of the Thousand Eyes,” said Tvelujan, breaking their silence. She took off her sun hat and clasped it respectfully before her. Shuthmili could have laughed if not for the strangeness of the moment.

The woman in the circle was sparely muscled and tall, curled into a tight crescent, with long pale hair hiding her face. She was covered in a layer of dust that made her look as though she might have been carved from stone. She must have been here for years. Hundreds of years, perhaps.

Despite all this, Shuthmili could see her ribs rise and fall slightly. She was alive.

Shuthmili reached out with her magic, trying to figure out how this had happened.

There was a binding circle in the water, wrought with the usual complicated Echentyri logic. It was maddeningly readable, like a page of text seen through steamed glass. It itched at her. She wanted to wipe it clean, to properly understand how it worked.

She channelled a spark of power, and there was Zinandour, as usual—

SHUTHMILI, LISTEN TO ME—

Not now, she thought, in irritation more than alarm.

The circle described an area of stillness. A holding place. It was astonishing that it had lasted so long. It was feather-light, no more substantial than a ring of dust on a window ledge.

Careful, she told herself, and then Tal’s voice shattered the silence:

“What the fuck, Professor!”

Tvelujan had stepped onto the platform. She knelt beside the sleeping woman and touched her shoulder.

“Wait, no!” said Shuthmili, understanding too late. The binding circle trembled and collapsed, dispersing in the water with a fading glimmer of light.

The strange woman was awake and on her feet before any of them could blink. In another instant, she had Tvelujan by the throat.

“Wait—” said Shuthmili, but there was a horrible crack of bone snapping and Tvelujan slid limply to the ground.

Csorwe and Tal drew their swords.

The stranger stood up very straight, trembling and wild-eyed. Her skin was a faded gold, a shade lighter than Shuthmili’s own olive-brown complexion. Her eyes were pale grey, and a red spark burnt within them, like an ember half buried in ash.

Her hands clawed, clenched, loosened in front of her face, and she looked down at them with her head on one side as if they were alien things. When she spoke, it was in a voice like the hiss of wind on sand.

“Prey-servants,” she said. “You are not of the hatchery. What are you doing here? Where are your uniforms? Is the evacuation complete? I must make contact with my superiors.”

Shuthmili’s breath caught. She must be imagining it. It couldn’t be—but then, Csorwe had once met a serpent who said she had come from Echentyr. Perhaps it was possible. Echentyr had possessed many strange magics which had been forgotten. If another living Echentyri citizen had been preserved, somehow—

Shuthmili had sometimes wondered what she might say if it ever happened that she encountered some ancient being from the former world. She had not imagined that it would be “Pardon me?”

“You killed Tvelujan,” said Csorwe, who understood what was happening just as quickly, albeit from a different angle. “Why shouldn’t we kill you?”

The stranger’s jaw worked. “I believed she meant to attack me.”

The softness of her voice was willed, not natural. “I require assistance. One of you, go now and fetch your master. Whose servants are you?”

“Nobody’s,” Tal started to say.

“By the grace of the Empress, if none of you can talk sense, where is the nearest of my own kind?”

“What are you talking about?” said Tal.

But Shuthmili thought she was starting to understand. “Those friezes . . .” she said. Tal and Csorwe didn’t take their eyes off the stranger, but she could sense Tal rolling his eyes. “They must have been meant to show some kind of transformation . . .”

The stranger blinked and blinked again, her mouth opening and closing as if in unconscious imitation of a serpent’s flickering tongue. “You,” she said. “Practitioner. Of what school are you?”

Oh, Mother of Cities, she thought. Of course. If she is from Echentyr, she doesn’t know what’s happened.

“Ma’am, I am an Adept of Qarsazh,” said Shuthmili, and stalled. This would mean nothing to an Echentyri, and it wasn’t even true anymore.

The serpent-stranger shook her head, as if she should have known this was a futile line of enquiry. “Very well. I am Cherenthisse of the Thousand Eyes. I require your immediate assistance, in the name of the blessed GodEmpress.”

Cherenthisse stepped down from the platform, a little unsteady on her feet. Csorwe and Tal moved to block her path.

“Wait—” said Shuthmili. “We should talk to her.”

“Don’t see why,” said Tal, very indignant for someone who hadn’t liked Tvelujan all that much.

Cherenthisse looked down at the crumpled body on the platform. Tvelujan’s veiled sun hat had fallen into the channel, and the water turned the light straw the colour of earth.

“A mistake,” said Cherenthisse. “She ought not to have touched me.”

“Does she look like she’s about to attack us?” said Shuthmili. Csorwe lowered her sword a fraction, and after a pause, Tal did the same.

Cherenthisse nodded and strode past them before Shuthmili could stop her.

She emerged from the chamber into the huge empty corridor, where cracked pottery lay in pieces and a vacant window looked out on the wounded sky.

Cherenthisse stopped abruptly, staring at the ruin of the hatchery. “Explain,” she said.

In the silence they could hear the wind blowing outside. Despite the bright sunlight, it was a desolate sound.

“Answer me!” said Cherenthisse. “What became of the evacuation ship? How long was I held in the circle?”

Shuthmili swallowed, and said:

“More than three thousand years.”

Cherenthisse bore Shuthmili’s explanation in unbending silence. When Shuthmili finished speaking, she bowed her head, and the silence went on for several excruciating seconds.

“I see,” said Cherenthisse at last. “All is lost, then. We have been punished for our ingratitude.” Her voice was strained, crackling and snapping like burning twigs. She fell to her knees, as if she had reached the limit of her endurance, and then listed to one side and lay on the floor, curled up like a weeping child.

“I suppose we should give her a moment,” said Shuthmili, drawing Csorwe and Tal aside into an alcove.

“I don’t like this,” said Csorwe. Which was an understatement if you asked Shuthmili, but coming from Csorwe it meant I think this is dangerous and we should get out of here.

“What, you mean just leave her?” said Shuthmili. “We can’t!”

“I don’t think she’s a friend,” said Csorwe.

“I’m pretty sure she’s one of them—an Echentyri, I mean—” said Shuthmili. “Some kind of shape-changer. I didn’t know that was even possible.”

“Oh, great, that makes me feel a lot better,” said Tal. “You know, I was worried about how she just snapped Tvelujan’s neck like it was nothing, but if she’s an ancient shape-changing serpent, let’s let bygones be bygones—”

“Hate to say it, but I think I’m with Tal on this one,” said Csorwe.

“I thought Atharaisse was friendly to you, back in Psamag’s fortress,” said Shuthmili.

“Yeah, but—” said Csorwe.

“I was there too, you know, and she definitely also ate people,” said Tal. His expression twisted. Shuthmili still didn’t know exactly what had happened to either of them in the fortress. They didn’t talk about it; it seemed to be one of the few topics that was considered off-limits.

“But think of what she could tell us! Time does nothing but take from us,” said Shuthmili, struggling to explain how it had been, working on endless Precursor ruins, how ancient things flowed through your hands like water. “I thought it was all lost—so much of it is lost—and it’s never going to come again, but if one of the Echentyri has survived all this time—it is a gift.”

If this Cherenthisse had lived out the dust of her world and the ruin of her cities, it would be more than a gift. It would be an instant of unmerited and unimagined grace.

“What about the university?” said Tal. “Could we just send her back instead of Tvelujan?”

“What, you think they won’t notice?” said Csorwe, her lip curling.

“No, you dolt, I was thinking they might be into it,” said Tal. “If they’re big snake fans like Tvelujan was.”

“I’ll think of something to do with her,” said Shuthmili. She really didn’t look forward to telling the university department what had happened to their professor, right under Shuthmili’s nose. She would be lucky if all it did was wreck her professional reputation. If she was really unlucky, they might tip off the Qarsazhi Inquisitorate that their rogue Adept was apparently out and about in company with an ancient shape-changing serpent. “Maybe there’s a way to help her.”

“You want to just . . . take her back to Cricket Station?” said Csorwe.

“I tell you what, she’s not staying in my room—” said Tal.

“I don’t see what else we can do,” said Shuthmili. “If we leave her here, she’ll die. She’s completely alone. I think we have a responsibility.”

This swayed Csorwe as nothing else had. She nodded.

“Well, shit,” said Tal. “I guess this means we’re not going to get paid.”

Copyright © 2022 by A. K. Larkwood

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