Nathan Treeves is dead, murdered by the Master of Mordew, his remains used to create the powerful occult weapon known as the Tinderbox.
His companions are scattered, making for Malarkoi, the city of the Mistress, the Master’s enemy. They are hoping to find welcome there, or at least safety. They find neither – and instead become embroiled in a life and death struggle against assassins, demi-gods, and the cunning plans of the Mistress.
Only Sirius, Nathan’s faithful magical dog, has not forgotten the boy. Bent on revenge, he returns to the shattered remains of Mordew – only to find the city morphed into an impossible mountain, swarming with monsters.
The stage is set for battle, sacrifice, magic and treachery in the stunning sequel to Mordew. Welcome to Malarkoi.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Malarkoi by Alex Pheby, on sale 10/24/23
The assassins employed by Mr Padge were sitting at a table outside The Commodious Hour, his restaurant, shaded by a green and red striped parasol, sipping at pipes of opium and wetting their dried throats with wines of rare vintage. The atmosphere was heavy with late summer pollen and the drowsy humidity of an endless afternoon. They sat, seven of them, a little slouched, long of limb, alert – though secretly so.
White, poppy-tinged, milky smoke trailed past their parasol up into the thin air, defying the pull of the Earth and drawing the eyes of wealthy diners. These good folk scowled to see reprobates of this type – unwholesome-looking, exquisitely dressed, and possessing none of the deference they ought to have for their supposed betters. The assassins pursed their lips and let their cheekbones cut, and rather than speak circumspectly of their business, they did it loudly, advertising being a necessity in their line of work, and épater les bourgeois, as the old words went, has long been their motto.
One of the assassins, whose name was Anatole, and who was dressed in a suit so tight that every contour of his lithe and sinuous body was clearly and obscenely visible, said to the others, ‘The only thing the contract killer must respect is the contract. What are we without it?’ and while there are no gatherings of assassins that possess absolute accord on any subject, this one came close. In the silence that dominated the aftermath of Anatole’s utterance, more opium gathered in every lung, and some of the seven reached for their smelling salts to bring the semblance of liveliness back to their minds.
Next to Anatole was a pretty-looking person, all ringlets and almond eyes and glistening lips, quiet, shrinking into her chair. On each finger she had rings, and every one had been taken from someone she had killed, all at the direction of Mr Padge, who had recently sequestered himself in his once, having delivered a lunchtime peroration to the gathered that had now concluded.
He had given them the contract to sign, and they would sign it in blood, as was customary. The quiet, pretty assassin was called Sharli – on that day at least – and she cleared her throat to reply to Anatole: ‘We must honour our pledges since our livelihoods depend on them.’
A waiter came with more wine, the tab going to the house, and in turn he filled Anatole’s, Sharli’s, the Druze’s, Montalban’s, Deaf Sam’s, Simon’s, and Mick the Greek’s glasses, each of them nodding to him before the Greek pushed a generous tip across the table from them all. Assassins live or die at the whims of blind contingency, and this makes them both superstitious of mind and very free with any small sums of money that might influence the vagaries of fate, the reciprocal play of which might somehow come to influence matters where luck is involved. Which is to say that they are generous tippers and hope that the world will reward them for it.
Some of the assassins reached for their drinks, jitters to be calmed, others watched the ripples on the surface of their wine, transfixed by the patterns the opium renders so significantseeming, others still licked their teeth and wondered at the time.
Padge, earlier, had hired them all for insurance.
He had paid the assassins, with promises, to kill, when necessary, whoever it was that should kill him, and the terms of this arrangement were outlined in the contract that rested between the seven of them, curling back into a scroll between the small plates and empty bottles of the long, but dwindling, lunch.
Padge had come and he had said, smiling over a three-storey platter of iced seafood that had since been eaten and cleared away, that he wanted them, for a share of a sum he would outline, to promise him that if he were ever done away with, that they would make it their business to return the favour to his murderer or murderers.
In other company there would have been a polite outcry at the unlikeliness of this eventuality and wishes given for many more years of safe passage about the city – empty flatteries – but assassins are of a different breed, and instead signs were made against the Evil Eye and solemn nods were nodded. White-haired Montalban, seven feet tall, rubbed a tattoo on his elbow and thereby opened and closed the pink beak of the albino falcon that was the emblem of his ancestors’ house in a faraway city he was now unable to name. He said, ‘Consider it done, Mr Padge,’ and though the others might have haggled regarding remuneration, this set the tone of the group’s replies.
Next to the contract, where it then was, lay seven blank pieces of paper. To the other patrons, picking at their quail bones and squaring away their napkins, these might have been seven separate bills, or perhaps copies of a list of specials, turned over so the unwritten-on sides were visible, but an assassin knows magic objects when they are put down in front of them.
This had all taken place, this meal, back before the city had fallen into revolution, before Nathan Treeves’s treachery, before the exodus, before the rising of the Mount, and Padge had said: ‘When I die, these papers will magically provide each of you with the name of my killer, or killers, and there will be a map to where they are. This map will change if they move, and the name will change if they call themselves something new. Your job – your last job for me – will be to locate the people or person on this list and kill them. When that is done, a new message will be written, and it will give you directions to my hidden wealth, which is, as I’m sure you can imagine, considerable.’
An assassin takes on new information with a studied neutrality – there is nothing to be gained from raising an eyebrow or throwing up one’s hands when others speak – but a group of assassins together know from the very smallest reactions what their fellows are thinking. It is a kind of language, this hypersensitivity to posture and flow and nuance, and though no one not fluent in body-speech would have known it, Padge’s words were shocking to the seven.
As custom dictated, it was decided that the group should all visit the Mother of Mordew, and that they would allow her to hold the contract, since all such important trade documents were deposited with her by preference, she being the patron deity of their union.
Copyright © 2023 from Alex Pheby
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