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How many syllables was that again, or, “Can I buy a vowel?”

Placeholder of  -76Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues with a guest post on the difficulty of names (and names, and names) in a fantasy novel like Crown of Vengeance. Blade of Empire, the next book in the Dragon Prophecy trilogy, will be available October 24th.

Written by Melissa Ann Singer, Senior Editor

At this point, Mercedes Lackey, James Mallory, and I have worked on seven books together. They’ve all been fascinating and fun but there were a couple of times on this last book, Crown of Vengeance, where I thought my head was going to explode.

Because of spelling.

The world that Lackey and Mallory have created is populated by many wonderful creatures . . . and a whole lot of elves. Not the “Shoemaker and the Elves” kind—the tall, beautiful, magical, warrior/artist kind. And they (and the places they live, and their horses) all have names. Long names. Multi-syllable names. Names that go on and on and on (Galathornthadan, Runacarendalur, Peldalathiriel, Aralhathumindrion) . . . .

As I was working on the final edits, I began to worry about the copyeditor who was going to have to cope with all those names—and would not have the advantage I’d had of reading the book several times. So I decided to put together a style sheet—a list of character names, place names, frequently-used words in Elvish, a list of the “books” mentioned in the novel, etc. And I decided to annotate that list a little bit so that the writers and I could use it as quick reference to make sure we had all the family connections right . . . and, as war and battle became the order of the day, to keep track of who died, and when, and where, and how.

Making up that style sheet just about drove me around the bend! But it was a useful thing. Because in a book of this size—Crown of Vengeance is around 200,000 words long (and all of them entertaining, even “a” and “of” and “the”)—a character might appear in chapter four and then not be seen again until chapter ten, and sometimes there was a slight change in the spelling of the character’s name between the two scenes . . . at one point, a married couple swapped names . . . and once or twice, the name of a character or a location added or dropped a syllable or two along the way . . . .

Emails flew as we worked out what was correct, because Elvish has rules about how things are spelled and what certain suffixes and prefixes indicate, so it wasn’t like we flipped a coin and said, “this should be an ‘a,’ not an ‘e’.”

I wound up with three separate style sheets. One for elves, demons, and horses (there are 16 named horses in the book), one for locations of various kinds (countries, places of worship, forests), and one for things like military ranks, job titles, noble ranks, numbers, and the names of months. About 16 pages in all.
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Turned it all over to production and heaved a sigh of relief that I would no longer have to remember the difference between Denarcheliel and Dendinirchiel, or where the “u” belonged in Hamphuliadiel.

And then, weeks later, there was . . .

The Map.

A lovely map, created by Jon Lansberg, showing many of the countries and places through which the High King’s army travels as it attempts to conquer the world. And when I looked at it for the very first time, a tiny voice in the back of my mind said, “Isn’t that spelled Jaeglenhend, not Jaeglenheld?”

I can’t wait for book two . . . .

Order Your Copy

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Find Mercedes Lackey on Twitter at @mercedeslackey, Facebook, and on her website. Find James Mallory on his website and blog.

(This is a rerun of a post that originally ran on November 12, 2012.)

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Seriously Wicked: Chapters 1-5

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Place holder  of - 44Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from Seriously Wicked by Tina Connolly, about a reluctant young witch named Camellia whose mother is – well – seriously wicked. Cam’s adventures continue in Seriously Shifted, available now, and Seriously Hexed, available November 14th.

Camellia’s adopted mother wants Cam to grow up to be just like her. Problem is, Mom’s a seriously wicked witch.

Savvy Cam has tons of practice thwarting the witch’s crazy schemes. But when the witch summons a demon to control the city, he gets loose—and into the cute new boy in Tenth Grade. Now Cam’s determined to stop the demon before he destroys the new boy’s soul. Which means she might have to try a spell of her own. But if she’s willing to work spells like the witch. . .will it mean she’s wicked too? With the demon squashing pixies, girls becoming zombies, and the school one spell away from exploding in phoenix flame, Cam has to realize that wicked doesn’t lie in your abilities, but in your choices.

1

True Witchery

I was mucking out the dragon’s garage when the witch’s text popped up on my phone.

BRING ME A BIRD

“Ugh,” I said to Moonfire. “What is—I can’t even … Ugh.” I shoved the phone in my jeans and went back to my broom. The witch’s ring tone cackled in my pocket as I swept.

Moonfire looked longingly at the scrub brush as I finished. “Just a few skritches,” I told her. “You know what the witch is like.” I grabbed the old yellow bristle brush and rubbed her scaly blue back. My phone cackled insistently and I pulled it out again.

HANG SNAKESKINS OUT TO DRY

FEED AND WALK WEREWOLF PUP

MUCK OUT DRAGON’S QUARTERS

DEFROST SHEEP

Done all those, I texted back. Been up since 5AM. Out loud I added, “Get with the program,” but I did not text that.

The phone cackled back immediately.

DONT BE SNARKY

THESE ARE CHORES BY WHICH ONE MUST UNDERSTAND TRUE WITCHERY

NOW BRING ME A BIRD

“Sorry, Moonfire,” I said. “The witch is in a mood.” At least she hadn’t asked me about the spell I was supposed to be learning. I stowed the brush on a shelf and hurried out the detached RV garage and back into the house. Thirteen minutes to get to the bus stop, to get to school on time. I threw my backpack on as I crossed to the witch’s old wire birdcage sitting in the living room window. Our newly acquired goldfinch was hopping around inside. The witch had lured him in with thistle seeds. “C’mon, little guy,” I said, and carried the cage up the steps of the split-level to the witch’s bedroom.

The witch was sitting up in bed as I knocked and entered. Sarmine Scarabouche is sour and pointed and old. Nothing ever lives up to her expectations. She is always immaculate, with a perfect silver bob that doesn’t dare get out of place. Right now she was all in white. The bed is white, too, and the sheets, and the walls—everything. She spritzes her whole room with unicorn hair sanitizer every morning so it stays spotless. It’s deranged.

“Put the bird on the table, Camellia,” she said. “Did you finish this morning’s worksheet?”

I plopped down on a white wicker stool, fished out three sheets of folded paper from my back pocket, and passed the top one to her. “The Dietary Habits of Baby Rocs—regurgitation, mostly.”

Her sharp eyes scanned the page. “Passable. And the Spell for Self-Defense? Have you made any progress?”

The question I had been dreading. I unfolded the second sheet from my pocket while the witch studied me.

Because here’s the thing: trying to learn spells is The Worst.

In the first place, spells look like the most insane math problems you’ve ever seen. Witches are notoriously paranoid, so every spell starts with a list of ingredients (some of which aren’t even used) and then has directions like this:

Step 1: Combine the 3rd and 4th ingredients at a 2:3 ratio so the amount is double the size of the ingredient that contains a human sensory organ.

In this case, the ingredient that contained a human sensory organ was pear. P-ear.

Har de har har.

That was the only part I’d managed to figure out, and I’ve been carrying around this study sheet for four months now.

The witch looks at these horrible things and just understands them, but then again, she’s a witch. Which brings me to reason two why I hate this.

I’m not a witch.

Maybe I have to live with her, but I’m never going to be like her. There was no way I could actually work this spell, so Sarmine’s trying to make me solve it was basically a new way to drive me nuts.

“Well, it’s progressing,” I said finally. “Say, what are you going to do with that bird? You aren’t going to hurt him, are you?”

The witch looked contemptuously down her sharp nose at me. “Of course not. This is merely another anti-arthritis spell, which will probably work just as well as the last forty-seven I’ve tried.” She drew out a tiny down feather from the white leather fanny pack she wore even in bed, clipped a paperclip on the end, and held it out to me. “Please place this feather in the cage.” She picked up her brushed-aluminum wand from the bedside table.

“Isn’t this a phoenix feather?” I asked as I obeyed. “I thought you couldn’t work magic on those.”

“But I can on a paperclip,” she said. She touched her wand to a pinch of cayenne pepper from her fanny pack, flicked it at the cage, and the paperclipped feather rose in the air. It stayed there, hovering.

I tried to remember what some long-ago study sheet had said about phoenix feathers. Very potent, I thought. Had a habit of doing something unexpected, like—

The feather burst into flame.

The goldfinch shot to the ceiling of the cage, startled.

“Watch out!” I said.

The paperclipped feather levitated and began chasing the finch. The finch cheeped and darted. The flaming feather maneuvered until it was chasing the bird in tight clockwise circles.

“You said you weren’t going to hurt it,” I shouted, moving toward the cage.

“Back away,” said the witch, leveling her wand at me. “I need sixty-three rotations of finch flight to work my spell.”

I knew what damage the wand could do. The witch was fond of casting punishments on me whenever I didn’t live up to her bizarre standards of True Witchery. Like once I refused to hold the neighbor’s cat so she could permanently mute its meow, and she turned me into fifteen hundred worms and made me compost the garden.

But the finch was frightened. A fluff of feather fell and was ashed by the fire. Another step toward the cage …

The witch pulled a pinch of something from her pack and dipped her wand in it. “Pins and needles,” she said.

“Pardon?”

“If at any time you start to disobey me today, random body parts will fall asleep.”

“Oh, really?” I said politely. “How will the spell know?” One foot sneaked closer to the cage, down where the witch couldn’t see.

“Trust me, it’ll know,” Sarmine said, and she flicked the wand at me, just as I took another step.

My foot went completely numb and I stumbled. “Gah!” I said, shaking it to get the blood flowing again. “Why are you so awf—?” I started to say, but then I saw her reach for her pouch and I instead finished, “er, so awesome at True Witchery? It’s really amazing. It’s taken me all this time to figure out just one ingredient in the self-defense spell.”

The wand lowered. Sarmine eyed me. “Which one did you figure out?”

“Pear.” I didn’t say it very confidently, but I said it.

She considered me. I thought a smile flickered over her angular face. But the next moment it was gone.

Still, she did not raise the wand again.

I breathed and shook my foot some more. I might get to school on time.

“Camellia,” she said, considering. Her manicured fingers tapped the white sheets as she studied me. Even in bed her silver chin-length bob was immaculately in place. “I am going to take over the city.”

“Really,” I said, with maybe too much sarcasm. I was still on edge about the poor finch, who was cheeping like a frightened metronome. But seriously, the witch was always coming up with new plans to take over the city. The last one involved placing a tank of sharks in the courthouse.

Her fingers tapped the wand but it did not lift toward me. She merely said, “Impertinence. Turn off your selective listening and hear me out. It’s time we witches reclaimed the world and came out of hiding at last. I have the most magnificent plan yet to control the city. But first, I need a demon.”

“A demon?” That was serious. “Don’t you think you should go back to sharks?”

“A demon,” said the witch firmly. “I shall put his spirit into the plastic mannequin in the basement. The scheme is perfect. I’m summoning him this very afternoon, so I need you to bring me two ounces of goat’s blood to lock him into the mannequin.”

She eyed me like I was going to complain about where to find goat’s blood, but goat’s blood is sooo old news. I’ve got a supplier. I was more concerned about this demon nonsense. “Anything else?” I said. The pins-and-needles feeling was finally wearing off and I could stand on two feet again.

“Three fresh roses, a dried pig’s ear, and two spears of rhubarb. Recite for me the properties of rhubarb, please.”

Um. That was just on a study sheet a week ago. “Used for stiffening, sharpening, etching. So frequently used in blinding spells that it was once declared contraband by the Geneva Coven. Also good in pies,” I said.

A fractional nod that meant approval. “And goat’s blood?”

Hells. “Also good in pies?” I said.

An odd line of disappointment crossed her brow. “Camellia, you really have to learn this,” she said. “All witches must be able to protect themselves.”

I gritted my teeth against this ridiculous statement. No matter how often I reminded her I was never going to be a witch, it didn’t make a dent. I was not going to waste another morning arguing. Especially not when the third sheet of paper in my pocket was my study sheet for today’s algebra test, and I had had zero time to study it due to snakeskin-hanging and sheep-defrosting and everything else.

The witch took out two crisp twenties from her fanny pack and handed them to me. “Very well, you may go.”

I took one step to the door, then turned. “Do you promise you’ll release the finch as soon as he’s flown far enough?”

A flicker of the eyelid that was the equivalent of a major eye-roll. “Yes, Camellia. What use would I have for a goldfinch? It would have to be fed, and it wouldn’t provide me with anything useful, like dragon tears or werewolf hairs.”

“Or free labor,” I muttered under my breath as I left the room.

 

I hurried out the front door and down the street toward the city bus stop. I’m usually the only one catching this particular bus, but today I noticed a boy in blue jeans standing there, scribbling in a notebook.

I slowed to a walk, trying to remember what I had read about demons. A tank of rabid sharks was one thing, but real demons were a nightmare. I knew that from the WitchNet.

You wouldn’t think it, but witches were very early adopters of the Internet. Like I mean by 1990, every single one of them was on, so there’s a huge network of information with everyone putting up their How I Made Some Dude Fall in Love With Me spells and so on. It’s not the same as the regular Internet, though. Witches are paranoid, and so just like their spellbooks, their sites have warding spells, attack spells, spell programs that change the spell recipe to be wrong if the site decides not to share with you—fun things like that. Digging for information on sensitive topics can be dangerous if you get far off the beaten path.

The witch won’t get me a normal-person cell phone—mine only connects to other witches and the WitchNet so I can learn more about True Witchery, blah blah. I would have to spend some time looking up demons today to figure out how to stop the witch this time. It seemed like I’d read something on Witchipedia about demon-stopping once.… All I could remember about demons was that, A) they were fire elementals, and B) they didn’t like being fire elementals. Their entire goal in life was to take over a human and warp them to their wicked will so they could stay on earth, and yes, I learned all that from the witch’s favorite show about demon hunters.

The boy at the bus stop did not look up as I approached. I still didn’t recognize him—perhaps he was a junior or senior I’d somehow missed. He had earbuds in and was muttering something, then scribbling furiously. It sounded vaguely like “cool stick of butter,” which seemed unlikely, unless he was trying to remember his grocery list. I got all the way to the stop before he glanced up—and right through me. He hummed as he looked back down.

I’m not super-vain, but I have to admit I felt a little miffed at that. I mean, he was tall and all—probably taller than me, which was nice, and somewhat rare. And okay, he was cute. But he wasn’t my kind of cute. He looked like he belonged in a boy band, with floppy blond hair and a sweet face. I like them dark and brooding, like Zolak the demon hunter, who wears leather pants with zippers all over them.

The bus was coming up the street. If I pulled out my algebra study sheet, I could get ten minutes of cramming in on the bus.

And then I saw a small yellow thing zip down the sidewalk and go right past my head. The finch.

Behind it was the flaming feather.

The witch had let the finch go, as promised. But she hadn’t bothered to catch the feather.

The finch zoomed around us, going right past the boy-band-boy’s face, and the boy even looked up at that. He pulled out his earbuds, searching for the dive-bombing bird.

I had to catch that feather. The bird streaked past us again, diving and dodging. I swung and missed.

“Is that your pet bird?” he said. “Can I help you catch it?

“Not exactly,” I said, grabbing at the feather again.

“What—wait, is there something chasing it?”

I lunged again, and this time I caught the feather. Turning so my back was to the boy, I blew on the feather until the flame went out. Smother it, I thought, and shoved it into my back pocket. I whirled around to find the boy looking at me with a puzzled expression.

“That looked like a flaming feather,” he said.

“No, it wasn’t,” I said. “It was a bumblebee. I didn’t want it to sting the bird. I’m against that sort of thing.” When you’re enslaved to a wicked witch, you end up thinking fast to keep all the weird witchy things a secret. Not always good fast, but fast. “Look, isn’t that our bus?”

I hurried past the blond boy to where Oliver the bus driver was opening the door for us. Oliver waved at me as I put my foot on the stair. He’s a good guy. He waits for me if he sees me running, and I bring him the witch’s secret windshield-washing formula when it’s sleeting. (Vinegar with three drops of dragon milk; he always says it’s just like magic, but he doesn’t know the half of it.) I like Oliver, and also I feel you should be extra-pleasant to someone if you plan to bring goat’s blood and turtle shells and live roosters onto their nice bus.

“Hi, Oliver,” I said, waving back.

“Behind you, Cam,” he said. “I think that boy’s trying to get your attention.”

I turned around to find the boy-band boy making wild fanning gestures at my rear end. “Excuse me?” And then I realized that my butt was really quite warm. A thin trail of smoke was coming from my back pocket.

The feather.

Oh hells. I fanned my rear end desperately, but the smoke only thickened.

“Sorry about this,” the boy-band boy muttered. He uncapped his water bottle and doused the rear of my jeans. Water soaked me down to my ankles. I gasped.

He looked both hopeful and apologetic, the same expression Wulfie the werewolf cub gets when he tries to bring in the newspaper and chews it to bits.

It is not often that my wits completely desert me, but they did then. There is no appropriate thing to say to someone who has just emptied his water bottle on your rear end to save you from going up in magical flames. Well, “thank you,” I suppose. A very squeaky sort of “thank you” came out as I tottered past the wide-eyed gaze of Oliver and sat down on the next-to-last seat left on the bus. Humiliation and anger at the witch warred inside me. How could I keep people from finding out about my weird home life if the witch insisted on sending flying flaming feathers to my bus stop?

Unfortunately, the very last seat on the bus was right next to me. That’s where boy-band boy sat. He looked down at me cautiously, like he wasn’t sure if I was pleased or upset with him.

Inanely I said, “Very hot bumblebees they have this time of year. Liable to burst into flame at any moment.”

He looked at me, and I honestly could not tell if he was as stumped for words as I was, or if he just thought I was the craziest person he had ever met. I mean, really, what do you say to that?

Slowly, he reached up and put his earbuds in.

Embarrassment flooded me and I stared out the window all the way to school. I didn’t even remember to look at my soaking-wet study sheet for algebra.

 

Jenah found me in the girls’ locker room, drying my butt under a hand dryer and flipping like crazy through my algebra textbook with the other hand. “Oh, honey,” she said, beelining to me. Jenah is my best friend and lockermate, and she would be my confidante if I dared have one of those. She’s tiny and trim and Chinese, third-generation. Her parents fancy themselves rebellious punk-rocker types, and they encourage her to express herself, whether that means changing the colored streaks she clips into her hair or obsessing about the auras she claims to see around everybody. She says the auras help her tune into the universe—sure, whatever. When you’ve got a dragon in your garage, you’re in no position to judge.

Today Jenah was all in black and pink and bracelets, and her black asymmetric partlyshaved bob-thing had a clipped-in pink streak. She is so chic, so herself, it hurts. My hair is kind of nutmeg, my eyes are kind of blue, my nose is kind of shapeless. Whereas Jenah looks like the epitome of Jenah, someone so perfectly who she is that she’s untouchable. One of those girls whom everybody already knows, even if we’re only in tenth. Jenah would never end up with crispy jeans, witch or no. She commandeered a mini–hair dryer from a freshman on the swim team and turned up the heat on my butt.

“Back to your blush brush,” she ordered the freshman. “I’ve got news,” she said to me, over the dryer.

“Well? Spill.”

“You know I can’t do that to our auras,” said Jenah. “The harmonic bridge that links us would be out of equilibrium if you acquired knowledge and I didn’t. We can’t risk that happening to our best friendship.” She flicked back her pink lock of hair. “What color is Aunt Sarmine’s bedspread?”

Seven years of best friendship and Jenah had never once seen the inside of my house or met the witch. I told everyone I lived with my aunt, because it was easier than explaining the truth about how the witch tricked me out of my loving parents’ arms before I was even born. Once when I was eight I looked up all the Hendrixes in the phone book (there were four) and spent the next month of Saturdays taking the bus to each house to ask politely if a witch had stolen a daughter from them—an adorable baby girl with nutmeg hair and a smudge of a nose.

Three of them laughed and one sicced his Chihuahua on me.

Anyway, it was one of Jenah’s goals in life to see inside my house and meet Aunt Sarmine. I told her she needed better goals, but she went on about keeping our friendship aura tuned by understanding my living space. Or something.

“Her bedspread is white with embroidered golden bumblebees,” I said. That was true. For a megalomaniac witch who made spells with goat’s blood, Sarmine could be pretty particular. “Now spill.”

Jenah clicked off the hair dryer. “Here you go, frosh,” she said, and tossed it back to the ninth grader, who dropped her blush brush to the dingy tiles with a clatter. “New boy in our grade,” Jenah said to me. “Quiet. Has potential. I think you could nab him if you move fast.”

“Not interested,” I said. “Too busy. I’m over the whole boy thing. I only date college men. I only date hot-dog vendors. I only date aliens from Neptune.” Jenah laughed appreciatively.

The freshman girl peered dubiously at her dirty blush brush. If I could casually walk her way, I could put some sanitizer on it. (Russian vodka with one unicorn hair steeped in it; the best cleanser of all time.)

I shouldered my backpack and palmed the small vial from the side pocket. One drop, on my finger. “Do you know if Kelvin’s back from his bout with the pig flu?” Kelvin was a total 4-H nerd—and an excellent goat’s blood supplier. I flicked the drop at the ninth grade girl and watched the air around her shimmer. That sink would be the cleanest thing in school for a week.

“Ew, I do not keep tabs on mustard-aura Kelvin,” said Jenah.

“You have him in drama! He gets up and recites monologues about milking cows or whatever. How can you not know?”

“Mustard-aura,” repeated Jenah. We left the shimmery-clean girl and sink, and strolled down the hall to First Hour Algebra II. Except we were running late, so it was a fast stroll. School had been back in session long enough for the walls to be well papered—fliers for clubs, posters for some school play, and the ubiquitous school-spirit banners in our stunning colors of orange and forest green. Outside the algebra room, a flier for Blogging Club was papered over with one for Vlogging Club, and over that, one for the Halloween Dance. “So you’ll be okay with going solo to that on Friday?” said Jenah.

“Yuck,” I said. “Why do we have a Halloween dance anyway? Who wants to celebrate that?”

“Halloween is super-important,” said Jenah. She flicked back her hair as we neared the classroom. “It’s a time when you can commune with spirits. Ghosts. Demons.”

I shuddered. “You wouldn’t be so fond of demons if you thought they actually existed,” I said. “Just like it’s real easy to think witches are cool if you haven’t actually met them.”

“Witches?” she said, with an eyebrow.

“Or whatever. You know.”

I pushed open the scarred wooden door and Jenah hissed behind me, “There he is. Go get him, tiger!”

’Course, you all know what happened next.

Sitting in the desk next to mine was a sweet-faced boy-band boy who, at the sight of me and my dry jeans, blushed red-hot pink to the tips of his perfectly shaped ears.

 

2

In a Pig’s Ear

It wasn’t the fault of the red-eared boy-band boy sitting next to me during Algebra II. I flunked the algebra test all on my own merits.

Okay, maybe I didn’t flunk, but there’s no way I did better than a 70, which was practically as bad. As long as I maintained my A’s, teachers didn’t get too upset when the witch didn’t come in for parent conferences. But a C-minus? If I went downhill in algebra, then good old Rourke would be calling Sarmine Scarabouche on the phone, and wouldn’t that just go over well. The witch had never come to a single thing at school my entire life and I planned to make sure it stayed that way.

The others streamed out the door as I pushed my way to Rourke’s desk in the back corner. “Mr. Rourke?” I said. He wore way-too-thin button-down shirts that’d been washed too many times. Jenah called him Mr. Visible Undershirt, sometimes too loudly.

“What is it, Camellia?”

“Mr. Rourke,” I said again. Here’s where Jenah would study his aura and see how to butter him up, but for good or bad, I was a straight shooter. “I know I sucked on that test. Can I do some extra credit to make up?”

“I don’t give out extra credit willy-nilly,” said Rourke, nudging the tests into a perfect stack. His four red pens were horizontal at the top of his laminated desk. A full two-liter of off-brand root beer stood capped on the corner, and an empty one fizzed off a faint sarsaparilla smell from the plastic wastebasket. I thought he must be lonely.

“Okay, what else could I do?” I said. “Could I study more and retake it? I know I’m not hopeless at math. I had A’s in Algebra One and Geometry. Algebra Two is just kinda … mysterious.”

Rourke scratched his whiskery chin. “You could come after school and work with our tutor. If I see improvement, I might consider some extra credit.”

“Awesome,” I said. “I’ll be in tomorrow.”

“Today,” said Rourke. “He only comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“I can’t today,” I said.

Rourke flipped through the tests till he found mine. Without even needing an answer sheet, he went through, x-ing out my work with a thick red felt tip.

“Er. I thought we got credit for showing our work?”

Rourke drew another set of red X’s. “If it’s good work,” he said. He flipped back to the front, capped his first red pen and chose a different one from the lineup. This one was a lurid red-orange and smelled like rubbing alcohol. In slow motion it wrote a very decisive “61%” next to my name. “You know, I have been looking forward to meeting your aunt,” Rourke said. “I hear she is a very striking woman.”

Cold dread iced my spine. “I’ll see you after school,” I said.

 

With Mr. Visible Undershirt commandeering my after-school hour, I was going to have to sneak out at lunch to get the witch’s errands done.

That is, if I should do her errands.

I spent all of Second Hour French considering that conundrum. Usually when the witch ordered items, I jumped. For example, once I failed to find elf toenails for her (I still haven’t found anybody who supplies them, for that matter. The witch refuses to admit that certain ingredients might be mythical.) For punishment the witch turned me into a solar panel salesman and made me go around to every house in a half-mile radius and lecture about alternative forms of energy.

Now I considered my foot. Losing one foot for a few moments this morning wasn’t the end of the world. I had stumbled, but I was still here. But what was going to come after that? Both legs? My body? My heart? I shuddered.

Despite what the witch had said, I didn’t think her spell could read my thoughts. It definitely knew when I acted against her—the step toward the birdcage had proved that. But thinking?

I clenched my fist and thought hard, I am not going to help the witch summon a demon.

Nothing happened. Well, there were some pins and needles in my fist, but only because I was clenching it so hard. Slowly I relaxed.

Okay, then. A plan blossomed. I would gather her ingredients, and then, at the very last possible second, I would destroy them. As long as I didn’t chicken out.

My phone vibrated in my backpack and I sneaked it out under cover of my desk.

PLANETS PERFECT @3:45

WILL SUMMON GREAT & NEFARIOUS ESTAHOTH >:-(

DON’T FORGET GOATS BLOOD

OR ELSE

Or else. Or else. I sighed. Everything falling asleep would still come, but later. The witch would come up with some worse punishment on top of that. Really, all I was doing was delaying my misery from right now until the end of the school day.

“Mademoiselle Hendrix? Comment dit-on dilemma en français?”

“Un dilemme,” I said. “Un dilemme.”

 

The school gave us an entire eighteen minutes to eat lunch, which was just enough time to get to one location: across the street to the specialty grocery, Celestial Foods. Which meant I couldn’t eat lunch with Jenah or track down Kelvin for the goat’s blood. I stuck a note on her half of the locker that said, “please please PLEASE find Kelvin during A Lunch and tell him I’ll pay double for two ounces of the usual, today, I owe you BIG TIME,” grabbed my emergency jar of peanut butter, and dashed down the hall to the side exit.

In theory it’s a closed campus, but in practice the security guys are always busy busting up smokers in the parking lot on the other side of the school, so as long as you’re subtle, you can sneak out the side door, through the overgrown elms.

I ate my peanut butter lunch while I headed to the store. It was a lovely October day, full of blue skies and red rustling maple leaves. My mind started to clear. I was going to get the witch’s ingredients, and then destroy them at the last possible second. Spill her tea on them—whoops! Explode them in the microwave. Something.

But that might not be enough to stop the witch.

Her taking-over-the-world plans tended to be pretty determined. I mean, surely the planets would align again tomorrow or Friday or something, right? She was theoretically capable of purchasing her own ingredients for the spell, even if I’d never seen her set foot in anything so common as a grocery store.

I needed to know how to stop the demon in case she got one summoned.

I pulled up Witchipedia on my phone. I had been about to look up demons this morning when I’d seen that new boy at my bus stop. My face got warm, thinking about it. I had been rude and awkward, and I did not like to think of myself as a rude, awkward person. I would find him and apologize. Maybe, too, I could ask him what he was listening to, and if the humming and scribbling meant he truly was a boy-band boy, because that would be kind of cool …

Ahem.

Demons. Witchipedia. Right.

I found:

Demon (disambiguation). Demon may refer to:

> Chad Demon, an embodied demon and WitchNet personality best known for a series of spoofs of American (nonwitch) TV shows

> Demons! The Musical, at three years, two months the longest-running witch show without the cast simultaneously exploding into paranoia and quitting

> Elemental obsessed with finding embodiment (aka a human soul and body to keep). Neutrality of this article is disputed.

It continued on from there, but I clicked on the “Elemental” article. A summoned demon had to have a living form to inhabit in order to spend time on earth. Once inside a body, demons became very tricky. Using a variety of techniques (see techniques), they could steal most humans’ souls in less than a week. A demon who obtained a soul could not be sent home, even when its contract was completed. It would keep the body for the rest of the body’s mortal life span. Witches untrained in demon summoning were advised to reconsider, as demons on the loose could cause chaos, plague, destruction, blah blah …

I bookmarked that section of the page to read later. Witches predicting terrible results tend to get wordy and melodramatic. The witch had said she was putting this demon in a mannequin, so I didn’t need to worry about demons eating souls.

I just needed to know how to stop the demon from fulfilling the witch’s latest city-taking-over plan.

The stoplight turned green just as I reached the crossing to the shopping center and I hurried across, skimming for the section on how to stop demons. Ah, here. The best way to stop a demon, it said, is—

And that’s when a tall girl burst out of nowhere, jostling my elbow and knocking my peanut butter to the sidewalk. I grabbed for it and my phone went flying. The plastic peanut butter jar cracked as it hit the curb. The phone hit the sidewalk and skittered across the cement.

The screen went blank. “Oh, hells!” I growled at it.

The girl whirled, clutching a paper bag. “Watch where you’re going.”

“Me? It was you! Oh. Sparkle.”

Sparkle was a junior, the sort that trailed even seniors in her wake. Half Japanese/half white, nearly as tall as me, and pretty even before the nose job. She was in a long shimmery skirt and beaded jersey top; as usual she looked too glamorous for school. It wasn’t a look any other girl could’ve carried off, though a few of her clueless followers tried, with predictably hilarious results.

“Camellia,” she said with equal distaste. “Didn’t grow into your nose over the summer, I see.”

“At least it’s my own nose,” I said.

Sparkle pounced on that, paranoia sharp in her voice. “I never—What have you heard?” Her fingers felt along her newly straightened nose. “Are people talking about it? It’s all lies. It just … happened.”

“Oh, please,” I said. “At least get a better cover story.” I picked up my broken peanut butter and cell phone. The display was scratched. I pressed the “power” button, hoping it would turn on without the coaxing of dragon milk.

Sparkle’s lips tightened and she clutched the coral cameo she always wore. “Do you still want to be a magic witchy-poo when you grow up?”

For the record, there’s nothing worse than having a dead friendship with the top girl in school. A girl who’s so top that if she wants to wear sequins and go by the name of Sparkle, girls go cross-eyed with jealousy and think it’s cool. We were best friends when I was five and she was six and I didn’t know better. I just remember a time when I thought she was the most awesome girl in the world and we spent every single second together.

Told each other all our secrets.

Sneaked down to the basement to watch the witch work a secret, nasty spell …

I shuddered at the memory. My stupid innocence back then meant this skinny, black-haired, glittery girl knew way too much.

Sparkle watched me cringe at her words. Her mouth softened, opened to say something.

“I think there’s an ant in my peanut butter,” I said.

Sparkle stopped whatever she’d been going to say. She looked down her straightened nose at me and the sneer returned. “Don’t let me keep you from your shopping, Cash.” My old nickname on her lips cut me to the quick.

“I won’t, Miss Smells-to-the-Left.” The childish insult rolled delightfully off my tongue.

As she stalked off I wondered exactly what she was doing over here. Her paper bag looked like it had Celestial Foods’ logo. I leapt to a range of improbable ideas, but then I shook my head. The only reason I was suspicious about other people’s doings was because I was always hiding things.

Normal people didn’t have to learn about the properties of rhubarb and where to source juniper berries and grapeseed oil.

Normal people got normal food at the grocery store.

I hurried into Celestial Foods, snagging three pinky-white roses from a galvanized watering can by the front door. They dripped on my shoe as I wound brown paper around their bottoms. First ingredient—check.

Next, the fresh produce section, where Alphonse, the son of the owner, was stacking pyramids of squash. Alphonse was a college boy, but not the kind of college boy that makes you wonder if you should pretend to know how to do a keg stand if suddenly called upon to demonstrate. (I mean, he’s cute and all, but he doesn’t leer, and I’ve never once heard him say “woooooooo.”) He had black dreads to his butt and vegan sandals and he was majoring in environmental engineering because Celeste thought that was a positive career path, but really he just wanted to be one of those people who sneaks into labs and sets all the rabbits and monkeys free.

“Heya, Cam,” he said. “What are you trying to track down this time?”

“A weird one today,” I said. “One pig’s ear.” The moment it came out of my mouth I remembered to whom I was talking and my stomach fell. A pig’s ear! Alphonse would never forgive me.

Except he nodded and said, “Good timing. We just got a batch in.” He hollered over his shoulder to the back of the store, “Hey, Mom, can you bring Cam a pig’s ear?” He turned back to me and my open mouth and said, “Right time of year for them. Anything else?”

“Well, um. Rhubarb?” I said. I wondered how you could have a wrong time of year for pig’s ears. I turned around, looking for where the rhubarb had been before. Except … it wasn’t. “Oh, man. Is rhubarb out of season now?”

“Trying to stick to locally grown, when we can,” said Alphonse. “Flying out-of-season veg around the world is just not good for—”

“I know, I know,” I said. Alphonse took everything so personally. “I’m not criticizing. My aunt needs some.”

He dragged me down the crammed produce aisle, and I nearly took out a pyramid of spotted apples with my hip. “We have some really nice local pears in. If she’s making a pie—”

“Not a pie. She really just wants some rhubarb. Sorry.”

“She should’ve come in September. That was the last of it,” he said.

“I got some in September,” I said. I tapped an acorn squash thoughtfully. “Does it come any other way?”

“Frozen,” he said.

“Yes?”

“But we don’t carry that anymore. Our last supplier was caught doing business with people who do business with people who don’t compost.”

“Did you say your mom was here?” I said.

“Oh, I just remembered we have it canned.”

“Thank you.” I took the can from Alphonse and trailed him up to the register. I had seven minutes left and it only took six to walk back to school. “How’s the eco-work?” I whispered. “Eco-work” for Alphonse covered everything from protesting fracking to sneaking into people’s homes to turn off their lights. As long as there was a potentially dangerous situation involved, he was in.

“Not good,” he whispered back. “We’re trying to liberate some lab animals at the campus, but we can’t get an inside man or woman on the job.” He considered. “Or a gender-neutral person. Or multiplegendered. I wouldn’t want you to think I was being exclusionary.”

“I didn’t think that,” I assured him. “I’m in complete agreement with liberating testing animals. Um, speaking of, do you think your mom was able to find the pig’s ear?”

Alphonse moved spaghettied piles of register tape and recycled paper bags as he squeezed behind the register. “Hey, Mom!” he shouted.

Celeste hurried down the cereal aisle, wooden necklaces clacking. Celeste is black and somewhat rounded, and unlike her son, has just a hint of some sort of British in her voice, even though she’s lived here since she was like twelve. I’d come to associate Brits with extreme helpfulness and a listening ear over the years, which will probably not be useful if I ever go to England. Celeste pushed her plastic glasses up her nose. “Alphonse, love, we have an intercom.”

“Uses electricity,” said Alphonse.

“Camellia, darling, it’s lovely to see you.” Celeste enveloped me in a warm, wool-cardigan hug. Then produced something from her apron pocket. “Here’s your pig’s ear.”

The “pig’s ear” was pinky-brown. It had a ruffled, twisty cap and a spongy stem with a bit of dirt on the bottom.

Oh. “Is that a mushroom?”

“Pig’s ear mushrooms,” she said. “Autumn only, get them while you can. Such a sweet name. I assure you, I’d rather sell mushrooms than real pig’s ears.” She set the mushroom on my rhubarb can.

“We wouldn’t sell real pig’s ears,” growled Alphonse as he rang me up. “Barbaric, mutilating…”

The worst part of that was, I realized then that I didn’t like the idea of a real pig’s ear either. I’d just been thinking of it as an item to keep the witch off my back and not something that once belonged to a real live animal.

You know how you grow up with something day after day and you’re so used to it that you don’t realize you don’t agree with it till all of a sudden?

Yeah.

I didn’t have the nerve to say I was supposed to find a real one, so I paid for the mushroom along with everything else.

“What is your aunt going to do with just one mushroom?” Celeste said.

“Um. Make One-Mushroom Soup?”

Celeste patted my shoulder. “Always good to see you, love. Bring your aunt in here sometime, will you? From the sound of her recipes over the years, I’ve always thought we must have a lot in common.”

“Right. Definitely. Any day now. Just as soon as she gets back from her trip to Nepal. And gets over the chicken pox. And her fear of grocery stores. And learns how to speak English. Very soon now,” I said, and flat-out ran back to Fourth Hour American History.

 

3

Goat’s Blood

American History I is the worst class to have after lunch, because if there’s anything I’m going to fall asleep over, it’s Mrs. Taylor’s teaching method of playing ancient VHS tapes where actors explain the Bill of Rights using hip slang. Not that I was going to fall asleep today. I drummed my fingers and worried over whether Kelvin would be able to bike all the way home to his farm and back with the goat’s blood in time for the great planetary alignment. Usually the witch gave me a couple days’ notice for the weirder stuff, and Kelvin and I did a cooler handoff. I drummed harder.

My worries were interrupted by the appearance of two notes. First was the best message. A knock on the door and a student brought me a terse printout from Rourke that said: Tutor sick. Come tomorrow.

I breathed a sigh of relief and immediately received a second note. This one was on purple paper and was passed across the aisle to me while a tall permed actor said, “Yo, you mean I don’t have to give these grody Redcoat soldiers room and board?” The note had been sent by Jenah to Dean to Kyndra (who hissed, “Get a phone!”), and it said:K says too weak from pig flu to bike. Ugh! Will phone his Mom to bring yr request at 3 PM. Meet under T-Bird. 2bl UGH.

The T-Bird was the gigantic metal Thunderbird statue, our mascot, perched at the old front entrance to the school. It was up on a big cement block, and its claws extended to grasp a tiny mouse sculpture hidden in the grass. Since the new addition a decade ago, the old statue had gotten overgrown with ivy and shrouded in elms, so the “double-ugh” was in reference to the Thunderbird’s reputation as a place for hookups. But I doubted Kelvin paid any attention to things like that, so the super-sexy implications of the T-Bird were not the thing that made my blood run cold.

It was the phoning of the mom.

And the asking her to bring goat’s blood.

Now, I didn’t know Kelvin’s mom up close and personal. But even though she lived on a farm, she was still a mom. What mom wouldn’t be weirded out by knowing that her son was marketing goat’s blood to some girl at school? Come to that, how did Kelvin have goat’s blood around, anyway? I’d never really wanted to know—and now, the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me, like the pig’s ear.

At three, I grabbed my stuff from my locker and headed for the Thunderbird statue. The shaded area around the T-Bird was full of boys macking on girls and vice versa. (Boys macking on boys hung out in the theater, and girls macking on girls met in the park.)

Kelvin is tall, white, and wide, and he stands all stifflike. Like a bowling pin. He was shifting from one foot to the other, carefully not looking at a couple sucking face in the ivy near his knees. His deadpan face was moon-pale in the green shadow of the elms. He held a red-and-white mini-cooler.

Behind him, Kelvin’s mom waved from the car. She was wide like Kelvin, sporting a baggy red T-shirt, frizzy blond-gray ringlets, and a smear of sunblock down her nose.

She did not look suspicious.

I relaxed and waved back. “Thanks, Kelvin. I owe you big-time.” I parked my butt on the concrete base of the T-Bird and pulled out the last of my cash. “I don’t have all I promised you but I’ll bring the rest tomorrow. You know I’m good for it.”

Kelvin took the folded bills and nodded. “Kel-vin is a-ware,” he said in the robot voice he used sometimes. He did a lot of things that clearly he found funny, even if nobody else thought so. I was used to it. He set the cooler down on the concrete with a skritch.

“Did your mom wonder what was up?” I said.

“I told her you needed it for important witch rituals,” said Kelvin, his wide face dead serious.

I nearly fell off the statue base. Then I reminded myself that was Kelvin’s sense of humor acting up again. Deadpan didn’t even begin to describe it.

“Ha ha,” I said. “What did you really say?”

“I told her you needed it for a science project,” he said. “Testing it to see what hormones showed up.” Robot voice. “Now she thinks you’re sma-art.”

Another joke, but this one I could handle. “Excellent news. I aim to fool everybody,” I joked back. Then I steeled my nerve and asked, “By the way … How do you, um, get the goat’s blood?”

“Fangs,” he said.

I raised eyebrows.

“A syringe, of course. Don’t worry, I told Mom your witch rituals needed it to be fresh.”

“You’re such a kidder,” I said weakly.

“Good trade. Robot Kelvin bring you blood, you go to Halloween Dance with him. Together, dance like robots.” He improvised a few steps.

Which kind of looked like fun, but my thoughts were elsewhere, jumping ahead to catching the bus with my treasure trove of ingredients. “Smart and easily bought by goat’s blood,” I said. “My reputation is improving every second I stand here.” I jumped to the ground, narrowly missing some dude’s hand. “Look, I gotta run or I’ll miss my bus. But thanks again.” I punched his shoulder in a friendly fashion and hurried through clinging couples.

The bus was already loading, so I ran the last twenty feet, cooler banging. The door stayed open and I swung aboard just as it pulled off.

Despite the sweaty-boys-on-bus stink, I breathed a little easier. I had everything but the pig’s ear, and my only homework I hadn’t finished in class was reading the first two acts of something called The Crucible. I could get that done after my evening chores. Maybe I’d read it to Moonfire during her dinner. She liked being read to, even though I was never sure how much was lost in translation.

The bus was packed, as usual, but there was one seat left.

A seat saved by a backpack belonging to a tall boy with floppy blond hair.

“I saw you running, and I thought I owed you one for soaking you this morning.” He grinned and a teasing expression crossed his kind face. “I almost had to fight that football player for you, so say you forgive me.”

“Of course I do,” I said, and wondered if it was my turn to have pink ears. After all, it’s not every day a boy says he’s willing to fight a football player to secure you a bus seat, even if it’s just a joke. “And—forgive me, too. I was rude, and I’m sorry.” I started to sit down in the space he made, then stopped. “I’m not on fire again, am I?”

His eyes flickered down to my jeans and back up. “All clear.”

I plopped my backpack and rose bouquet on my lap and set the mini-cooler between my feet, where I could keep track of its whereabouts. The orange and yellow trees whisked by outside as the bus lurched toward home. I was going to make it.

Except … the pig’s ear.

The pig’s ear that I didn’t want. The pig’s ear that I had to get … or else.

I sighed.

“What’s up?”

“I had a shopping list of stuff my aunt needed today … never mind.” I drummed my fingers on my jeans, thoughts churning over what to do. If I didn’t bring the witch all the ingredients, there would be punishments … but I couldn’t let her summon the demon … “Gah, I give up,” I said. “I’m just not going to get the last thing. I’m not.”

My earlobe fell asleep. Then a whole patch of my head. I shook my head, trying to get feeling to return.

One thigh went out. A shin down to the ankle. Then all my toes snuffed out, pop pop pop

“Gah, I mean I am going to get the stuff, I am,” I said, desperately drumming my feet on the bus floor until sensation returned. I snuck a glance at boy-band boy, who seemed tempted to put his earbuds in again. “Sorry. My aunt … is kind of demanding. She needs a lot of specific things for her … job.”

Boy-band boy lowered his earbuds and looked thoughtful. “Does she work for herself?”

“In a manner of speaking. Yeah.” I massaged my ear as the pins and needles died away.

He nodded. “My parents ran a no-kill animal shelter in my old town,” he said. “My dad ran the place and my mom donated time as a vet. I had to pitch in. You can’t blow things off like everyone else can, you know? Not if your parents have a family business. There are dogs to walk. Cats to rub with disgusting flea medicine. Cages to scrub after the cats have scraped all the flea medicine off.”

“Up at five every day?” I said.

“Rain or shine.”

“Study with one hand, muck out kennels with the other?”

“Sounds like you know the drill.”

“Why did you move here?”

He shrugged. “Couldn’t ever get enough donations. We finally had to transfer all the animals to the local county shelter and shut down. That was rough … well. Mom and Dad wanted a change, and Mom found a new clinic up here.” He wound down, looking a little embarrassed about having shared so much. But he had done it out of kindness, trying to empathize with his animal shelter story. It made me warm to him.

Maybe giving him one piece of information was worth the risk. “Do you know where I could get a pig’s ear?”

“Like for a dog?”

“Oh!” Why hadn’t I thought of that? “Yes,” I said.

“There’s a pet store in biking distance from our bus stop,” he said.

“Right!” I had gotten emergency dog food there once for Wulfie when the witch was in D.C. trying to transform the vice president into a grain elevator.

“But don’t bother. I got a whole bag for Bingo the other day after he ate my sneakers. I’ll give you one.” He cocked his head, the boy-band-boy hair flopping, and it suddenly made him look devilish instead of sweet. “It’s the least I can do for soaking you.”

Another nice gesture. I could get used to this. “I don’t even know you and already I dub you ‘The Best,’” I said. “My name’s Camellia, but my friends call me Cam.”

“Devon.”

“So, Devon. Are you in a band?”

He looked startled. “How did you know?”

“You were humming and writing in a notebook this morning,” I said. I didn’t mention the part about him looking like a boy-band boy. “Songs?”

His eyes lit up. “They just grab you when you’re walking along. Bits of melody, lyrics.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I mean, they’re not all equally good…”

“Sing one?”

“On the bus?”

“Sure,” I said. “Don’t musicians like to show off?”

His ears went a little pink, but he closed his eyes and sang in a velvety sort of voice, “She’s a cool stick of butter with a warm warm heart…”

“So there was a stick of butter in it,” I said when he stopped.

“What?”

“Is that all there is to the song?”

“So far,” he said. “Dad always says the first phrase comes free, but then you have to work on the rest. I used to take my guitar to my old school and sit outside during lunch and work out chording.”

“I like it,” I said. “So what do you play in your boy band?”

Regular band,” he said.

“Regular band. Backup vocals, some guitar?”

“They want me to sing lead but … er…” He trailed off. “Stage fright.”

“Ooh,” I said sympathetically. The bus stopped on my street and we got off, heading down the sidewalk toward the witch’s house. “Have you tried imagining the audience in their underwear?”

“Oddly enough, that doesn’t help.” He fiddled with his backpack. “During practice it’s great. I mean, we’re singing the stuff I wrote, right? It’s awesome. It’s a rush. And then we get to a concert … My voice shakes when I solo and that’s all you can hear on the mic. Embarrassing. We’re not even famous, you know? Have you heard of Blue Crush?”

I shook my head.

“See? I’m talking backyards, church concerts, talent shows. That’s what we’ve played. Maybe now that I’m an hour away I should let them find someone new, so they’re not stuck with me…” He tugged a lock of his floppy blond hair and trailed off. “Well, look. I’ll run home and get you that pig’s ear, okay? I’m just a block over.”

“You’re awesome,” I said. We stopped in front of my driveway. It’s surprising how normal the witch’s house looks from the outside: an ugly old split-level in browns and tans, landscaped with thorny bushes that she prunes with a ruler. I didn’t know what to say about the stage fright, so I just slugged his shoulder sympathetically. “Oh hey, I know this sounds weird, but don’t ring the doorbell, okay?” I made the crazy sign around my temple. “My aunt hates being interrupted. I’ll meet you in the driveway in, what, ten minutes?”

Devon nodded. “All right. See you soon, Camellia … Cam.”

I hummed to myself as I set the roses and cooler on the front porch and dug around for my keys. There was something pretty awesome about a boy singing a song to you, even just one line of a song. I had never particularly thought about boy-band boys before, but perhaps they were beginning to grow on me.

I unlocked the door and Wulfie came tearing out of the house, jumping on me and licking my face. “Down, boy,” I said, laughing. He tore off around the yard in joyful circles, going, “arf arf arf,” while I hummed. It really was a spectacular fall day. Had the sky ever been this blue? Surely it wasn’t just the chat with the boy-band boy making those fall leaves so glorious? I pulled out my phone to take a picture of happy Wulfie plowing through piles of red leaves, and the sight of the scratches all over the phone’s surface brought everything flooding right back. Sparkle. Witchipedia.

Demons.

I just needed to know the end of that sentence The best way to stop a demon is …

I hit the “power” button a whole bunch, but all that happened was the screen blinked greenly at me through its sidewalk scratches.

Stupid Sparkle.

Luckily, like I said, witches were big on the Internet. We had a kitchen laptop that Sarmine used for recipes, since she cooked dinner. I looked down at the werewolf pup, who was busy looking for a spot to do his business. “Don’t go anywhere,” I told him sternly, and ran inside. I thunked the laptop down on the yellow laminate counter and flipped it open. Pulled up Witchipedia. Demons, demons …

The witch swept into the kitchen, a wave of lavender and lemon cleaner billowing behind her. Hard to tell if that was cleaning or spells. “The planets are aligning gracefully,” Sarmine said. “Soon it will be time to summon Estahoth. Are you baking something?”

“Er,” I said. I scrolled down the page, scanning.

“Cooking is a waste of your precious time,” Sarmine said. “If you have extra time in the afternoons you should apply yourself to learning the spells I set you. A good self-defense spell is every witch’s best friend.”

This is the point where usually I say, “not a witch,” but I didn’t want to get sidetracked down that conversation. “Just curious about demons,” I said. “You never had me learn about them.”

“Camellia,” said the witch in her most aggrieved tone, “There are so many things that you have not learned about that we cannot possibly encompass them all in the short time I get with you each day. Now, if you would just apply yourself, or give up going to that useless human school—” She brushed a bit of lint off my shoulder, and I tweaked the laptop so she wouldn’t see what I was looking for.

“I love that school; you can’t stop me,” I said automatically. This was familiar territory and I’d just reached “The best way to stop a demon is …

“… not to summon it.”

Hells.

“Of course, today you will watch a most ingenious exhibition of demon summoning,” said the witch, sailing past me to close the open front door. “Perhaps that will finally be the magic to inspire you. This will be an excellent lesson for you to view. I expect this is the goat’s blood?”

The ingredients. I had to destroy the ingredients.

I lunged for the front door. We reached the cooler at the same time and she scooped it up.

“Repeat after me,” said the witch, cradling the cooler and rose bouquet as she returned to the kitchen. “Goat’s blood is used for binding, winding, and minding, in processes with tin, and as a substitute for Irish whiskey.”

“Um, what about the weather? Have you checked the forecast?”

“The forecast?” Sarmine peered out the kitchen window at the bright blue sky.

I lunged for the cooler, trying to tug it from her arms. “Giant thunderstorms predicted,” I panted, even as my ribs fell asleep and then my nose. “Electric interference. Everyone knows … don’t summon demons … in storms…”

She was strong, but I was younger and stronger. Her feet skidded, she staggered, her hands slipped off. I stumbled backward on the linoleum, clutching the cooler.

The witch’s silver eyebrows drew to a point.

She took a pinch of red powder and a spoonful of bread crumbs from one of the pockets of her fanny pack, spat on her hand, and touched her palm with her wand.

My mind raced, but this time there was no escape. My eyes were frozen, and clever words and maneuvers deserted me. I clutched that cooler tighter.

She flicked the wand at me and my hands turned into cooked noodles.

Seriously. Cooked noodles. Limp and soggy and rippled around the edges, like lasagna. Wobbly orange-painted fingernails marked their edges. My noodle hands slid right off the cooler handle and the cooler crashed to the linoleum floor.

I squeaked.

“A good self-defense spell would have been your best friend just now,” lectured the witch, picking up the cooler. Her heels clicked on the linoleum as she retrieved the fallen rose bouquet and set the roses carefully in a crystal vase full of water. “Why, I remember when I was eight, and a rogue wizard loosed the last orc on earth into our basement…” She patted her fanny pack. “But I had my ingredients and my wand! Oh, I was in top form.”

I lunged for the roses to destroy that possible ingredient instead, but my wobbly noodle hands missed the roses and smacked the crystal vase. The vase toppled over, rolling toward the floor. Self-preservation surged again. What would the witch do to me if I broke her crystal vase? Instinct made me launch my whole body underneath the vase as it fell.

Water soaked me for the second time that day. Rose thorns smacked my face.

But my body broke the vase’s fall. I lay on the cool linoleum floor, shaky, my limp noodle hands flopping back and forth.

“Impressive,” said the witch, as she grabbed the three roses between thumb and forefinger. Her skin was so dry and dessicated that the thorns didn’t even draw blood. “Did you remember the rhubarb?”

“Yes,” I said from the floor. It smelled like lemon cleaner.

“Very well.” Wand flick. “You may have your hands back.” The witch turned to the basement steps. “Oh, and Camellia? Bring the pig’s ear down with you. Nasty thing. I don’t want to touch it.”

Pig’s ear. Pig’s ear! Stupid witch and her stupid, stupid, evil things. I was so mad that I forgot all about the werewolf pup in the front yard, and my appointment to meet Devon in the driveway. I ran soaking wet after her and down the cement steps to the basement. “You can’t treat me like that!” I shouted. “I’m a person, too, you know!”

Sarmine raised a silver eyebrow.

“And pigs! You can’t treat pigs as things to just chop up for your stupid summoning. Pigs are living beings! They have rights, too!”

“Don’t drip on my pentagram.”

Angry as I was, I did step back at that. If the witch was going to summon a demon, I sure didn’t want him to escape his pentagram prison. I shoved my wet hair back and glared at the witch, who ignored me. Prickles went up and down my ribs as feeling returned.

The pentagram was a blue chalk outline on the cement floor. It was big enough for several people to stand inside. It had one of our banged-up card table chairs in it, and on the chair was the old mannequin on which the witch usually kept a pointy hat. The mannequin was wearing a faded red T-shirt that said, VOTE HEXAR/SCARABOUCHE 1982. It stared blankly at the wall, its body tilting to the left.

I felt a kinship with the mannequin. It didn’t have any idea what was about to be done to it. “I’m a person, too,” I muttered as I scratched my shins.

The witch knelt on the stone floor in her skirt and support hose and ruffled salmon blouse. “Isn’t my pentagram lovely?” she said reverently. “I haven’t drawn one in ages. Since before you were born.” She tapped it with her wand and blew on it gently, but the chalk dust did not budge.

“Why break a winning streak?” I said.

“Last time I summoned a very minor demon. Nikorzeth. He barely had enough power to heal the dragon’s broken wing.”

No wonder Moonfire kept one wing shuttered closed when the weather turned chill. Maybe if the witch would heat that damn garage for her … “Broken wing?”

“That’s when I found her,” the witch said absently. “She was at the end of a long flight and a storm moved in. She got tangled in a power line. And only another elemental can use magic on a dragon.” Sarmine’s eyes gleamed as she warmed to her lecture. Gods, that woman loves to lecture. “You know how powerful Moonfire’s milk is, and that’s just her milk. Why, the list of elementals is one of the first things I taught you. ‘Dragon, phoenix, and demon fell; these three a witch cannot bespell.’”

It was cool in the basement, in my damp shirt. I wrapped my arms around my waist. “Why do we call it milk?” I said. “She’s a reptile, not a mammal.”

“To be precise, she’s neither. Elementals are not part of the animal kingdom, as none of the three are mortals which feed on organic matter, as humans and elephants and werewolves do. Moonfire is of the class Draconis, which is another thing entirely,” said the witch. “But to answer your question more fully, I suppose we call her tear secretions milk because we always have.” Sarmine rocked back on her heels and studied her gold bracelet watch. “Three forty-one. We’d better get a move on.”

The witch crushed the petals from the three roses with a mini–food processor. She scraped the mixture into a porous stone bowl that usually holds bus tickets. Then she added one drop of dragon milk. The sweet scent of roses mingled with a fiery, coppery, dragony smell.

The witch walked around the pentagram three times widdershins and added a chiffonade of basil. Three times back and a pinch of dried salamander from her fanny pack. The salamander dissolved in a gunshot bang and shot up a purple cloud of smoke. My stomach was cold and knotted, and my wet hair hung in chill coils against my neck.

Watching the witch work a spell this dark and complex made me feel sick inside, and a long-ago memory of sneaking downstairs with Sparkle beat against my brain. I swallowed the memory, closed my mind against its darkness. Put my shirtsleeve up to my mouth, trying to clear my breath of the taste of salamander smoke.

“I love the purple smoke part!” shouted the witch. “I hope you’re watching, Camellia. Someday I’ll teach you all this.”

“Not a chance,” I said, thinking of all the animals that had to snuff it to make this spell of Sarmine’s. “I wouldn’t summon a demon for anything. You can’t make me into a witch. You can’t make me be like you.”

The witch’s exaltation dissipated and her spine stiffened. “Recipe done,” she said shortly, not looking at me. “Now the words.”

“Except for the pig’s ear, right?” I said. My voice hardly wobbled.

“The what?”

“Except for the pig’s ear. I didn’t get you the pig’s ear. So you can’t summon the demon, because you’re missing an ingredient.”

The witch laughed from deep in her gut, her salmon ruffles shaking. With effort she composed herself. “I shouldn’t laugh—it’s too ignorant to be funny,” she said. She wiped her eyes with a bit of lace and explained, “The pig’s ear is for Wulfie to chew on. So he’ll stop chewing my good shoes.”

A dog toy. A stinking dog toy. “And the rhubarb?”

She shook her head. “‘Stiffening, straightening, sharpening,’ Camellia. You claim to do so well in that school. Don’t they teach critical thinking? The rhubarb was just a red herring.”

That was it. That was my last chance, and the witch was starting her incantation. “AH-beela AH-beelu, aBEElu, aBEElu…” she repeated. Blue smoke gathered in the pentagram. It coalesced from the chalk dust, rose up in the air, and filled an invisible pentagonal column with thick blue gas.

The scent of sulfur and rose petals filled the air. It grew very hot and my damp shirt clung to me. I sweated buckets, though the witch stayed dry as dust, her silver hair as crisp as ever. “Is this how it’s supposed to go?”

“Progressing nicely!” shouted the witch. “Now watch this!”

She flicked her wand at the pentagram and a prism of glass shimmered into view, enclosing the pentagram and the blue gas. One more flick and the blue gas shot upward as if sucked into the ceiling by a vacuum cleaner.

When the gas cleared, there was the demon.

 

4

Boy-Band Boy

The demon was nine feet high. He had orange horns circled by a brush of thick red hair. No, wait. They were green horns circled by a brush of thick blue hair. His skin was yellow, then it was turquoise, then it was baby blue. His size and shape didn’t change, but all his colors did. It was like watching a living rainbow.

“Estahoth Elemental, Demon of the Fourth Layer, Second Earl of Kinetic Energy, do you agree that this is your correct and full address?” said the witch in a resonant voice.

“I do,” said the demon in a voice like thunder.

“Then I propose to you the binding by which you may spend a short time on earth. One, I need a hundred pixies in Hal Headley High School on Friday, dead or alive. Two, I need precisely what this spell is asking for when it says, and I quote, ‘the hopes and dreams of five.’ Three…”

There was a taut silence, and then Sarmine continued. “You are no doubt familiar with the air elemental known as the phoenix, though you spend your time in the Earth’s fiery core. As phoenix keep to the mountaintops, they have not been destroyed by humans as so many of the dragons were. Still, they live where we cannot reach them. Witches have named and numbered them over the centuries, tracking their hundred-year cycles. There were very few that lived at the altitude of this city.”

“I am familiar with phoenix, yes,” said Estahoth. “Do not presume that you are the first witch to summon me. I am no virgin.”

He leered at us, and despite the danger, the expression reminded me of someone imitating Elvis Presley. I clapped my hand to my mouth, choking down a burst of hysteria.

“Quite,” said Sarmine. “Then you know how much power is contained in the phoenix’s hundred-year death and birth.”

“Atomic,” the demon said simply.

“There is a phoenix known as R-AB1 which is due for its hundred-year explosion on this Halloween. This Friday evening at eight-forty. Indeed, Camellia and I settled in this town fifteen years ago to keep an eye on it. But fourteen years ago this phoenix disappeared.”

“It could be anywhere in the world,” scoffed the demon. “That’s a needle in a haystack.”

Sarmine raised a finger. “I have recently learned that when the phoenix disappeared, it was transfigured and hidden somewhere on the grounds of Hal Headley High School. You will find it by Friday, and then funnel the force of its magical explosion into my spell at my command.”

“Pixies, hopes, and Phoenix Rabby,” said the demon. “Check, check, check. Anything else?”

“Hold up,” I said. “Just what do you mean by this ‘hopes and dreams of five’ stuff? And a what, a frikkin’ atomic phoenix explosion at my school? What exactly is your plan here?”

The witch ignored me. Of course. I get no say in anything.

“Anything else?” repeated Estahoth.

“Well, since you asked so nicely—Moonfire’s chest has been bothering her,” I said. The witch glared at me, but I glared right back. “He’s here, isn’t he? And you said only an elemental could work magic on another elemental.”

“I’m not glaring; this is my happy face. I’m pleased you’re taking an interest,” said the witch. Which of course made me bonkers because she knows perfectly well the only thing of her world I love is that dragon. “Estahoth, would you mind taking a look at the dragon’s lungs?”

“Dragons, phoenix … nothing I’d rather do than play vet all day,” said the demon. “Still, as long as I get my chance at embodiment I’ll shake on it. Oh, I have such plans to rule your funny little world.”

“I imagine,” said the witch dryly. “Just don’t think you’ll get to fulfill any of those plans.”

“Out of curiosity, why didn’t you call the demon you called last time?” said Estahoth. “Nikorzeth’s biggest hope in embodiment is to be another WitchNet star like Chadzeth.”

“Because I need someone who can control a phoenix explosion,” said Sarmine. “Such an opportunity comes rarely. I intend to combine one phoenix explosion plus the pixies plus the hopes plus many other secret ingredients to work the most powerful spell ever seen in this town. And to control this explosion will take not just an elemental, but a powerful elemental.” The witch did not flatter or butter up, so I expected all this was nothing but the truth. “It takes someone more clever and powerful than Nikorzeth, poor fellow.”

“Nikorzeth wouldn’t know his own rear end if it were transformed into his elbow,” Estahoth said. He smirked and it seemed like the demon and the witch shared a moment together, amused at the weakness of poor Nikorzeth. “Is that all?” Estahoth said.

“With one clause,” said the witch. “Whether or not you complete my tasks, you will leave the instant the explosion of R-AB1 finishes. I’m aware that demons are bound by their own natural laws to complete contracts. But even if you fail at my tasks, you don’t get to stick around.” She drummed her fingers on her arm, considering. “That is all.”

The demon puffed up, chest out, rainbows rippling. “Fantastic,” he said. “Now do you want to hear my plan? My plan is to set up shop in the nice new body you give me and eat its soul.” He pointed a sunshine-yellow claw at me. “That one looks young and healthy. Good choice. Once I achieve embodiment, I’ll take over the world. Demon power here on earth, with no restrictions? I’ll be unstoppable.” He mwa-ha-ha’ed very impressively. “I’ll outlaw all the witches so no demons can follow me. I’ll control everything. How do you like my plan?”

“Hmph,” I said. “I may not agree with her methods, but the witch will make you do as she says. I wouldn’t mwa-ha-ha so fast if I were you. Right, Sarmine? Right?”

The demon smirked.

Sarmine shook her head. “No, Camellia. I cannot compel an elemental to do my bidding. What I can do is create an agreement we both bind ourselves to. If he wishes to spend time on earth, he will accept the obligation I wish him to fulfill. As demons think, quite incorrectly, that they are smarter than mortals, they always accept these agreements in hopes of stretching their contract long enough to achieve embodiment.”

“Your souls are puny,” growled Estahoth. “To let me roam around, you have to give me a body. Once I have a body, I can seduce that body’s soul and then I am free. Free to live on Earth!” He roared the last line.

“Which is why I have procured you a mannequin,” said the witch. Her heels clicked as she crossed to the pentagram. Her finger stabbed at the red-shirted figure slumped in the card table chair. “I have fed that mannequin one drop of dragon milk each day for the last twenty years,” she said. “It has enough elemental magic to mimic a human body for three and a half days. That will be exactly enough time for you to complete the work I expect of you.”

“This?” Estahoth peered down at the wide-eyed mannequin in the T-shirt. He poked her plastic shoulder. She tilted on the chair. “Are you as mad as a hatter? No. Can’t be done.”

The witch’s dry lips cracked a thin smile. “I’ve done my research,” she said. “In 1211, a demon named Hebroth was able to live on earth in an elemental-infused golem for one week. In that case, the golem was stuffed with phoenix feathers.”

“Really?” said Estahoth.

“The demon might have been able to stay longer,” said the witch, “except that, unfortunately, the mixture was not pure. There was a match mixed in with the phoenix feathers. As it jostled around, the feathers burst into flame and destroyed the golem. And, regrettably, the demon.”

Estahoth’s chest rippled red, purple red. He circled his pentagram prison, shimmering red hot. “Your kind does not call us so often anymore. I have been waiting to be released from the tormenting fire of the eEarth’s core. Waiting for my chance to live.” His voice rose. He had great vocal support for someone with no diaphragm. “And now, you offer me this thing with no soul? Bah.” He backhanded the mannequin and it smacked to the floor, bounced against the glass wall of the pentagram. “That is not playing the game fairly. I am deeply offended, Sarmine.”

“Your offense bores me,” said the witch. “You are contained in my pentagram, so you only have two choices. Accept my offer and have the mannequin for your earthly body. The goat’s blood will bind you to it so you cannot leave it for a human body. Or, go home. Which is it, Estahoth?”

Estahoth put his arms out, as if testing the glass walls of the pentagram. Then the rainbow colors shimmered and his body dissolved. The rainbow lit up the glass like a prism for one gorgeous moment. Then with a swoosh, all the rainbow light went into the mannequin. It levered to its feet, awkwardly. Seemed to sniff the air. Sniff its fingers, like it was examining the spell that bound it. It pressed its stiff fingers against the glass.

“I accept,” Estahoth said. The mannequin’s lips did not move.

“Well chosen,” said the witch. She touched her wand to the glass and inscribed a door.

The glass melted away and Estahoth stepped into our world. The rose/dragon/salamander smell dampened, replaced by a wet, moldy scent I last smelled when our basement flooded. Mold. Mold plus the sharp scent of firecrackers; that was the scent of this demon.

The demon-mannequin creaked around the basement, testing his limbs. The mannequin’s cheekbones were chipped where she’d struck the floor, spots of white against the pink. Her painted eyelashes made her eyes seem wide with fear.

I swallowed. “Doesn’t look very real,” I said. “How do you think he’s going to get around town looking like that?”

The mannequin swung around to look at me. It fixed me with painted black eyes.

Then it collapsed to the cement floor in a clattering pile.

The rainbow light rushed out of it and against me.

It was like standing in a tornado. The light had a force that beat against me like thunderous wind, battering me down with firecrackers and mold. I staggered, my back hit the wall, and then there was nowhere to go. “I thought … you said … goat’s blood would contain him!” Instinctively I pushed against the rainbow light as hard as I could. The witch’s demon was no way taking me over.

My eyes watered from the strain. My bones felt like they were being both squeezed and ripped apart at the same time. I pushed and pushed and pushed—

and then suddenly, I tumbled forward onto the dusty basement floor as the demon withdrew, my hands smacking the cement. The rainbow light compressed, gathering force. “That wasn’t goat’s blood,” he said in a pitch like struck crystal.

Then he rushed the witch.

This shows you how strong the witch is. She beat that tornado-force elemental back with the kind of glare she gives me for breaking the dried snakeskins.

The rainbow light filled the mannequin and it stood up. It wobbled on its jointed high-heeled feet, unsteady. If a mannequin needed to breathe, it would be breathing hard.

“Oh, please,” said the witch. “You think we’re not both well shielded? I’d just like to see a demon get into anybody with witch blood. Now tell me, Estahoth. What kind of blood was it?”

Stony silence.

“What kind?”

“Cow’s,” the demon said, and laughed sharply. “Not even strengthened with werewolf dung. I thought you knew bovines weren’t good for anything but love potions and lucky charms.”

The witch didn’t spare the energy to look at me, but my jittery heart sunk to my tennis shoes regardless. Cow’s blood! Had Kelvin always been giving me the wrong stuff, or was that his mom’s doing?

The mannequin rocked back and forth. “You can’t keep me away from humans forever.”

“Yes, I can,” said the witch calmly. “I have plenty of control over that plastic carapace.” She pointed her wand at the demon. “Back in the pentagram you go. We will try this again tomorrow with real goat’s blood.”

The mannequin rocked toward the pentagram. I could tell that the witch, despite her calm words, was under a tremendous strain. Her left hand, hidden behind her back, was clenched and knotted as she tried to drive the demon back into the pentagram through sheer force of will. And so forceful was Sarmine’s will that it seemed, almost, she was winning.

I held my breath, not daring to disturb even the air in the basement as Sarmine pushed the mannequin toward the pentagram.

And then the werewolf cub burst through the basement door and skidded down the steps, an entire bag of barbecued pig’s ears swinging from his jaws. A blond boy thumped down after him. “Not all of them,” he shouted. “I need those for Bingo! Heel, boy, heel!”

Wulfie ran smack under the mannequin’s legs, jolting the demon out from what little control the witch had on him. Over they went in a pile, and the pig’s ears flung from the bag, skittered across the cement floor.

Devon skidded to a halt and looked around in amazement at the scene in the basement. His eyes met mine. “Oh man,” he said. “I didn’t mean to come in, I mean, I was just chasing … I mean, your dog nearly took my thumb off grabbing that bag and—”

The rainbow light surged from the mannequin, bigger, wider, flashier. It grew and grew toward Devon.

“Devon! Run!” I shouted.

He tried to obey, but his foot slipped on the pile of pig’s ears and he windmilled. Wulfie ran around his legs, howling.

The witch grabbed powders from her fanny pack, shouting the first part of a spell—

But we were all too late.

In a stream of rainbow light, the demon rushed out of the mannequin and into the boy collapsing in a pile of pig’s ears.

 

5

Devon on the Loose

Devon stood up slowly. He looked around at us and then he grinned.

It was not any kind of bashful, blushing, boy-band-boy grin.

It was pure malice.

It was very strange to see that ferocious look on Devon’s kind face, and I have to admit that for a weird moment it made me realize how good-looking he was. He looked sure of himself, a boy that could do anything. Then I shook myself. This was no longer Devon.

This was Estahoth the demon in Devon’s body.

And he was very. very powerful.

“Now Estahoth,” said the witch crisply. “You get right back in that mannequin.” She walked past me, wand out, and as she did she whispered fiercely, “See if he’s still in there.”

“Ha!” said Estahoth. “I like this body.” He flipped up the collar on Devon’s polo shirt like dorks do to look cool. Except, with the sneer in place … he almost did look cool. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Into the nice mannequin and we’ll say no more about it,” said the witch. “You don’t want any trouble, do you?”

The witch sought my eyes and jerked her head at Devon’s body. I swallowed. “Devon?” I said. “Devon, are you in there?”

“Hiding like a scared sprite,” said Estahoth.

That made me mad. Devon might be a sweet boy with stage fright, but any boy willing to dump water on a strange girl’s fiery butt is a boy with strong character. I knew he wasn’t cowering. He simply hadn’t been invaded by a malevolent elemental before. He didn’t know his options.

I imitated the witch’s commanding tone. “Devon, come on out right now,” I said. “The demon doesn’t run your life. You can push your way out.”

Devon’s body kind of sagged. The arms jerked and the evil look on his face flickered on and off. Then it faded completely and the boy-band boy returned. “Cam?” he said. “Wh-what do I do?”

“We’ll get him out,” I said. “Won’t we, Sarmine?”

“Of course,” said Sarmine. “But you’ll need to be brave for a while. Can you walk back to the pentagram?” If she could get Devon in the pentagram, she could seal it off. Of course, I didn’t know what that would do to Devon, to be stuck in the pentagram with an angry demon. It sounded like a dangerous plan to me.

Devon took a ragged step, then another. It looked like he had invisible weights around his ankles.

Then the demon surged back up and ran with Devon in the other direction.

“Throw your shoe,” shouted Sarmine.

“What?” But it’s best to obey the witch, no matter how crazy she sounds. I yanked it off, not even untying the laces.

“At the demon! Do it!”

I beaned Devon in the head with my tennis shoe. He yelped and spun, feeling the back of his head. “Werewolf dung,” the demon said slowly. “Strengthening the cow’s blood, locking me into this body.”

“It was a long shot,” agreed the witch.

The demon sneered. “Never you mind. I like this body. It’ll be mine by Friday.” He clattered through pig’s ears and up the basement steps. “Suck it, witches!” he shouted, and then he was gone.

The basement was silent, except for the keening of Wulfie, who knew he’d effed up. The witch’s shoulders slumped. My chest still hurt from the demon’s attack.

“This is all your fault,” I said to the witch. “What are you going to do?”

Nasty silence, and then the witch drew herself to a ramrod-straight position and glared down her nose at me. “I am not the one who supplied cow’s blood,” she said. “As punishment, you may start by cleaning up the basement.”

“But—”

“As more punishment, mosquito bites,” she said. She flicked her wand and itchy spots splattered my forearms like water droplets.

I shrieked and covered my arms. “But Devon!” I shouted, before she could think of more punishments. “You can’t leave him like that. The demon will eat his soul.”

The witch shrugged. “Not if Devon’s strong enough. I once heard of a woman who lasted eight days. Estahoth is contractually bound to fulfill my agreements. When he’s done, he has to go home. He can’t break those rules.”

Eight days could work. Devon only had to last three. “But what’s typical?”

“One.”

I scratched my arms. “I can’t believe you,” I said. “Causing all this chaos to find one lousy phoenix. Heck knows what you’re going to do with it.”

“It’s a brilliant spell,” said the witch. “Everyone will remember having elected me as mayor last November. Manipulating minds takes a lot of power when you’re talking one person. But when you’re talking an entire city and a year’s worth of history? That takes more juice than the dragon could cry in a hundred years. They won’t vote me in; very well, I’ll vote myself in.”

“That’s not how democracy works,” I said. I couldn’t believe the whole reason the witch moved us here was because there was a phoenix at my high school. So much for choosing your town for a good school system. “Look, why would an air elemental want to live here when he could go home to his mountaintop? The dragon would be off in a minute if there were any others like her.”

“The phoenix R-AB1 has always lived in this area, long before this city was built,” said the witch. “It stayed here even after the roads went in and the buildings went up. Ninety years ago there was an enormous city fire. Those deluded humans said it was started by a cigarette, but we know the pattern, and it was phoenix fire. Several of us moved here in the last two decades. It was a good place to source phoenix feathers; you could always find a dropped one here or there if you knew how to look. I’ve been storing them.

“But ten years ago the phoenix disappeared. The witch community broke up somewhat after that; a lot of us moved on. It’s been a bad century for witches. We keep to our tract houses, try to look normal. Witches all around the world are waiting for a rallying cry like mine, ready to bring us out of hiding.” Sarmine’s teeth bared. “Because I would do great things with this phoenix. Not like Kari.”

“Kari?”

“She’s the one who summoned a demon fourteen years ago and transfigured this phoenix so no one could find it. I had my suspicions, but recently my fears have been confirmed. She hopes to use the phoenix flame to her own disgusting ends, that I believe involve making herself very, very rich. This, I will not let her do. A phoenix flame is a powerful force, not to be used for something as déclassé as money.”

“That’s all well and good,” I said. I picked up my shoe, which looked clean enough. I tried not to think about the werewolf poo molecules that were apparently lurking in its treads. “But you’ve now ruined this innocent boy. You have to help Devon.”

The witch brushed dust and petal bits off her skirt. “If you wish to help your trespassing friend, then I suggest you help Estahoth carry out my demands,” she said. “The quicker he’s done here, the more chance your boy has.” Her gaze raked the basement. “And don’t skimp on the bleach.”

 

The blue chalk pentagram had adhered to the cement. It took three hours to scrub it clean, and then I still had to take dinner to the dragon. Moonfire ate an entire sheep twice a week, and the process consisted of hefting one from the big basement freezers and setting it out to defrost, taking the already defrosted one and slow-roasting it in the basement oven for twelve hours while I was at school. (Sure, lots of apex predators eat their meat raw. Not dragons.)

But I loved Moonfire. I hefted the sheep in its battered roasting pan up the basement steps and out the back door to the RV garage. Moonfire rumbled inquisitively at me as I backed through the door with my pan full of sheep.

Moonfire is hard to see. Like all female dragons, she’s part blue, part translucent, and part invisible. Trying to see her is a little like looking at one of those old-timey Magic Eye pictures. If you figure out how to focus, then suddenly the little blue bits and the translucent bits and the way that things are slightly warped when viewed through the invisible bits combine to make a dragon. I had painted the garage sky blue long ago to give her extra protection in case someone ever peered in to see why the garage had a smoking chimney. I’m used to her, though, and when you’re used to something it’s more obvious.

I plopped the warm sheep in front of her. Moonfire nuzzled my hand in thanks and I skritched her scales. She was definitely my favorite member of the household. I sunk to the painted concrete, leaned back against her warm side, and stretched out my legs till they met the garage wall. My still-damp tennis shoes were tufted with straw and dust bunnies, and they wafted bleach back to my nose.

I’d forgotten The Crucible to read to her, so I told her a story I’d told her over and over since I was little.

“Once upon a time,” I said, “there were a mommy and daddy who were very excited to have a baby. An innocent little baby, who would soon have blue eyes and a smooshed nose that everyone says someday she’ll grow into, though she’s wondering how much someday is left, since she’s already fifteen.

“Anyway. There was one thing the mommy wanted, and that was chocolate pickles. So the daddy went out to find them. He tried the corner mart, he tried the twenty-four-hour drugstore. And just when he was about to buy pickles from the deli and dip them in melted candy bars, a long-nosed old woman appeared out of nowhere and offered him a whole container of chocolate-covered pickles in exchange for cash. Proud of himself, he ran home to his wife. Beamed with fatherly pride and said: ‘You know, it was the strangest thing. She said she’d take cash, but she said she’d come for it later.’”

I rubbed Moonfire’s scales hard with the scale brush she likes. She coughed bits of roasted sheep at me, then purred.

“Four months later the mommy had a baby girl, with nutmeg hair and blue eyes. And in the tired haze she named it Camellia after her mother and Anna after his mother and Stella because she wanted her little girl to be a star.

“And when an ugly old woman picked Camellia Anna Stella Hendrix out of the baby room and took her away forever and ever? Well, nobody lived happily ever after. The end.”

The dragon purred some more and rolled so I could reach her belly. Dragons don’t talk, but they’re not animals. They’re elementals, and all three elementals are smart, even if the dragons don’t communicate in the same way humans do. If you get close to dragons you can pick up their emotional vibrations, and sometimes even pictures. It’s usually nostalgia for the old days mixed with I miss my dragon sisters, but when I’m there, she sends me extra thrums of comfort, almost like I’m her kit.

I stroked the dragon’s neck, then flicked messy bits of sheep back into the roasting pan. “Think to me of the old days,” I said, warm against her hide. “Think to me what you miss.”

The dragon’s pictures are like dreams. The more you try to focus in on them, the quicker they fade. This story was the one she’d told me the most, so I’d pieced it together over all our years together. I saw it more clearly because I could practically tell it to myself.

She showed me an old world, a world with no paved roads, no buildings, no radar to mark the passage of unidentified flying dragons. Hills and hills of rolling green and gold, and here and there the passage of people, the smoke of campfires. She soared high, with a daughter behind her, and their sky-blue bellies reflected light. Their translucent limbs disappeared in the atmosphere. From below, they looked like bits of glittering sky, invisible unless you knew how to look. They landed in the plains and ate buffalo; they landed in the mountains and ate nuggets of gold. Male dragons were uncamouflaged. They were bright: reds and oranges. They fought each other, and then there was flame, and forest fires.

“Why can’t female dragons spit fire?” I said. “Doesn’t that make you mad?”

She thought of a male dragon, searing a female who would not mate. She thought of herself and her sisters, surrounding him, tearing him to bits. She thought of more and more male dragons dying in their own wars, until they had all gone. She thought of her sisters, caught and destroyed one by one by men in green and brown, all over the world. She used to think she caught a wavelength, a rumble of Draconis late at night … but even this had faded in recent years. Hard to know if they were all truly gone, or merely impossible to hear in the modern crush of sound and radio waves.

Dragon milk welled in her eyes and dripped into the glass jam jars that hung around her head to catch the excretions. Her neck sagged and she coughed, her wheeze shaking the jam jars against her side with clink-clinks. “We’ll get your chest looked at, I promise,” I said. I leaned my head into her rough scales and sent back images of one of my plane trips. I’d been sent to Brazil at thirteen to courier ingredients home for the witch. I showed her our plane flying through gold-lit clouds, I showed her tops of textured green trees, and I felt her warm rumble of enjoyment beneath me.

Spending time with her almost made up for the fact that when I finally made it inside, I found that the werewolf pup had been so upset with himself for his part in the demon disaster that he’d chewed up my feather pillow and my left toe-loop sandal. Then hid under the bed, his tail wagging the dust ruffle like mad. Short tufts of werewolf hair floated out, silver in the lamplight.

“Come on out, Wulfie,” I said. “It wasn’t really your fault.” He whined and licked my fingers, but he couldn’t talk in this state. (I dunno about all werewolves, but ours is only human on the full moon. He’s three years old, so once a month is plenty, believe me.) “Tomorrow’s another day,” I said. I dumped my jeans on the floor and my cell phone fell to the carpet.

I stuffed my featherless pillow with an old sweatshirt and tossed it and the phone on the bed. The phone landed on a printout the witch had left for me. After punishments, she frequently left directions for an antidote spell in my room. Of course, since I couldn’t work the darn things, it was basically further punishment just to see them.

The anti-itching spell on the printout started, “Take pi slices of blueberry pie…”

I flicked it to the floor, scratching my arms. “I don’t do spells,” I muttered.

I put the makeshift pillow behind me and picked up my phone. The phone was still black and cold, and I hadn’t brought up any dragon milk.

I swallowed. “I don’t do spells,” I repeated. The window cleaner I spritz on for the bus driver, the disinfectant I’d flicked on the ninth grader—that magic came from the original animal or elemental. It worked regardless of who did the sprinkling.

Not so with real spells.

They required thought, patience. Intention.

Witch blood.

“And I am not a witch, no matter what she says.” Wulfie licked my foot.

Still, elementals were powerful, even if I wasn’t a witch myself. Perhaps the dragon on my skin would be enough to boost my phone up again. I rubbed my dragon-smelling fingers around the keypad. “Up we go,” I said, like the phone was Wulfie. “Up we go.” Then I pressed the “power” button one more time.

This time it came up.

“Maybe it wasn’t really dead,” I told Wulfie. He settled in on my feet and draped his head across my ankles.

Back to my demon bookmark. Ah, there it was: “The best way to stop a demon is not to summon it.”

Too late for that.

“Demons are bound by their contracts,” it continued. “Even the smartest witches have difficulty demonproofing the terms of their contracts. Demons are on the alert for any loopholes. A demon bound to a contract is obligated to continue working on it, and the only way to banish a demon is to fulfill the contract. Even this can lead to difficulties, such as in the case of Jim Hexar in 1982, when such a contract effectively prevented any chance of him winning his Head Warlock bid.”

Hexar, I thought. Was that the same Hexar as the Hexar/Scarabouche shirt the mannequin wore? I had no idea the witch had had real political aspirations once. All the attempts at city-running I’d seen involved spells and schemes, not rallies and debates. I suppose I’d thought the shirt was a joke. It was hard to imagine Sarmine as a T-shirted young rebel in 1982, knowing her as the ancient-looking support-hosed witch I knew now.

Though if she still acted like a twenty-year old, it would be a lot easier to imagine it—because she’d look like it.

See, witches live a long time, often three times as long as humans. But the interesting thing about witches is that they look whatever age they feel like inside. I don’t mean they can choose, exactly, though they sort of do. Basically they look the age they feel … and most of them feel old, which is why one of the things regular humans get right is imagining that all witches are ancient humpbacked crones.

Because … yeah. I think all that paranoia gets to you, that and feeling a million times smarter than all the humans around you. Witches aren’t as a rule any smarter, as any trip around the WitchNet will show you, but they know magic, and they know they’re going to live a long time. If you know you’re going to be around to see it, you look at the fate of the world differently.

Not that that gave Sarmine Scarabouche the right to wreak havoc on my high school.

I clicked on “Jim Hexar,” but the biography was terse: “Vanished near the beginning of the twenty-first century,” it said, and then there was a smoky-smelling sign that said the article had been flagged for having virus spells attached to it. I shut off my phone before one could sneak through.

Fulfill the contract, I thought. I turned off the light and smooshed my sweatshirt pillow into a better position. So Estahoth/Devon was going to be busy working on Sarmine’s contractual list of world-taking-over duties. If Witchipedia was right, there was no way to send a demon back to the Earth’s core until its contract was up. But what about getting a demon out of a particular human? Did such a demon-getting-out spell even exist?

Well, even if it did, the witch wasn’t going to work it for me. I dismissed that option from my mind. It seemed like my best bet to save Devon’s soul was to help him complete the contract so the demon would leave.

Which apparently included destroying five people and maybe making the school burn down.

Un dilemme, indeed.

Copyright © 2015 by Tina Connolly

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The Way of Kings: Chapters 1-5

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Placeholder of  -72Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from The Way of Kings, the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s sweeping epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. The third book in the series, Oathbringerwill be available November 14th – if you’re already caught up, you can start reading the first chapters here!

Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.

It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.

One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.

Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Like his brother, the late king, he is fascinated by an ancient text called The Way of Kings. Troubled by over-powering visions of ancient times and the Knights Radiant, he has begun to doubt his own sanity.

Across the ocean, an untried young woman named Shallan seeks to train under an eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar’s niece, Jasnah. Though she genuinely loves learning, Shallan’s motives are less than pure. As she plans a daring theft, her research for Jasnah hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war.

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“You’ve killed me. Bastards, you’ve killed me! While the sun is still hot, I die!”

Collected on the fifth day of the week Chach of the month Betab of the year 1171, ten seconds before death. Subject was a darkeyed soldier thirty-one years of age. Sample is considered questionable.

FIVE YEARS LATER

I’m going to die, aren’t I?” Cenn asked.

The weathered veteran beside Cenn turned and inspected him. The veteran wore a full beard, cut short. At the sides, the black hairs were starting to give way to grey.

I’m going to die, Cenn thought, clutching his spear—the shaft slick with sweat. I’m going to die. Oh, Stormfather. I’m going to die. …

“How old are you, son?” the veteran asked. Cenn didn’t remember the man’s name. It was hard to recall anything while watching that other army form lines across the rocky battlefield. That lining up seemed so civil. Neat, organized. Shortspears in the front ranks, longspears and javelins next, archers at the sides. The darkeyed spearmen wore equipment like Cenn’s: leather jerkin and knee-length skirt with a simple steel cap and a matching breastplate.

Many of the lighteyes had full suits of armor. They sat astride horses, their honor guards clustering around them with breastplates that gleamed burgundy and deep forest green. Were there Shardbearers among them? Brightlord Amaram wasn’t a Shardbearer. Were any of his men? What if Cenn had to fight one? Ordinary men didn’t kill Shardbearers. It had happened so infrequently that each occurrence was now legendary.

It’s really happening, he thought with mounting terror. This wasn’t a drill in the camp. This wasn’t training out in the fields, swinging sticks. This was real. Facing that fact—his heart pounding like a frightened animal in his chest, his legs unsteady—Cenn suddenly realized that he was a coward. He shouldn’t have left the herds! He should never have—

“Son?” the veteran said, voice firm. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen, sir.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Cenn, sir.”

The mountainous, bearded man nodded. “I’m Dallet.”

“Dallet,” Cenn repeated, still staring out at the other army. There were so many of them! Thousands. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

“No.” Dallet had a gruff voice, but somehow that was comforting. “You’re going to be just fine. Keep your head on straight. Stay with the squad.”

“But I’ve barely had three months’ training!” He swore he could hear faint clangs from the enemy’s armor or shields. “I can barely hold this spear! Stormfather, I’m dead. I can’t—”

“Son,” Dallet interrupted, soft but firm. He raised a hand and placed it on Cenn’s shoulder. The rim of Dallet’s large round shield reflected the light from where it hung on his back. “You are going to be fine.”

“How can you know?” It came out as a plea.

“Because, lad. You’re in Kaladin Stormblessed’s squad.” The other soldiers nearby nodded in agreement.

Behind them, waves and waves of soldiers were lining up—thousands of them. Cenn was right at the front, with Kaladin’s squad of about thirty other men. Why had Cenn been moved to a new squad at the last moment? It had something to do with camp politics.

Why was this squad at the very front, where casualties were bound to be the greatest? Small fearspren—like globs of purplish goo—began to climb up out of the ground and gather around his feet. In a moment of sheer panic, he nearly dropped his spear and scrambled away. Dallet’s hand tightened on his shoulder. Looking up into Dallet’s confident black eyes, Cenn hesitated.

“Did you piss before we formed ranks?” Dallet asked.

“I didn’t have time to—”

“Go now.”

“Here?”

“If you don’t, you’ll end up with it running down your leg in battle, distracting you, maybe killing you. Do it.”

Embarrassed, Cenn handed Dallet his spear and relieved himself onto the stones. When he finished, he shot glances at those next to him. None of Kaladin’s soldiers smirked. They stood steady, spears to their sides, shields on their backs.

The enemy army was almost finished. The field between the two forces was bare, flat slickrock, remarkably even and smooth, broken only by occasional rockbuds. It would have made a good pasture. The warm wind blew in Cenn’s face, thick with the watery scents of last night’s highstorm.

“Dallet!” a voice said.

A man walked up through the ranks, carrying a shortspear that had two leather knife sheaths strapped to the haft. The newcomer was a young man—perhaps four years older than Cenn’s fifteen—but he was taller by several fingers than even Dallet. He wore the common leathers of a spearman, but under them was a pair of dark trousers. That wasn’t supposed to be allowed.

His black Alethi hair was shoulder-length and wavy, his eyes a dark brown. He also had knots of white cord on the shoulders of his jerkin, marking him as a squadleader.

The thirty men around Cenn snapped to attention, raising their spears in salute. This is Kaladin Stormblessed? Cenn thought incredulously. This youth?

“Dallet, we’re soon going to have a new recruit,” Kaladin said. He had a strong voice. “I need you to …” He trailed off as he noticed Cenn.

“He found his way here just a few minutes ago, sir,” Dallet said with a smile. “I’ve been gettin’ him ready.”

“Well done,” Kaladin said. “I paid good money to get that boy away from Gare. That man’s so incompetent he might as well be fighting for the other side.”

What? Cenn thought. Why would anyone pay to get me?

“What do you think about the field?” Kaladin asked. Several of the other spearmen nearby raised hands to shade from the sun, scanning the rocks.

“That dip next to the two boulders on the far right?” Dallet asked.

Kaladin shook his head. “Footing’s too rough.”

“Aye. Perhaps it is. What about the short hill over there? Far enough to avoid the first fall, close enough to not get too far ahead.”

Kaladin nodded, though Cenn couldn’t see what they were looking at. “Looks good.”

“The rest of you louts hear that?” Dallet shouted.

The men raised their spears high.

“Keep an eye on the new boy, Dallet,” Kaladin said. “He won’t know the signs.”

“Of course,” Dallet said, smiling. Smiling! How could the man smile? The enemy army was blowing horns. Did that mean they were ready? Even though Cenn had just relieved himself, he felt a trickle of urine run down his leg.

“Stay firm,” Kaladin said, then trotted down the front line to talk to the next squadleader over. Behind Cenn and the others, the dozens of ranks were still growing. The archers on the sides prepared to fire.

“Don’t worry, son,” Dallet said. “We’ll be fine. Squadleader Kaladin is lucky.”

The soldier on the other side of Cenn nodded. He was a lanky, red-haired Veden, with darker tan skin than the Alethi. Why was he fighting in an Alethi army? “That’s right. Kaladin, he’s stormblessed, right sure he is. We only lost … what, one man last battle?”

“But someone did die,” Cenn said.

Dallet shrugged. “People always die. Our squad loses the fewest. You’ll see.”

Kaladin finished conferring with the other squadleader, then jogged back to his team. Though he carried a shortspear—meant to be wielded one-handed with a shield in the other hand—his was a hand longer than those held by the other men.

“At the ready, men!” Dallet called. Unlike the other squad leaders, Kaladin didn’t fall into rank, but stood out in front of his squad.

The men around Cenn shuffled, excited. The sounds were repeated through the vast army, the stillness giving way before eagerness. Hundreds of feet shuffling, shields slapping, clasps clanking. Kaladin remained motionless, staring down the other army. “Steady, men,” he said without turning.

Behind, a lighteyed officer passed on horseback. “Be ready to fight! I want their blood, men. Fight and kill!”

“Steady,” Kaladin said again, after the man passed.

“Be ready to run,” Dallet said to Cenn.

“Run? But we’ve been trained to march in formation! To stay in our line!”

“Sure,” Dallet said. “But most of the men don’t have much more training than you. Those who can fight well end up getting sent to the Shattered Plains to battle the Parshendi. Kaladin’s trying to get us into shape to go there, to fight for the king.” Dallet nodded down the line. “Most of these here will break and charge; the lighteyes aren’t good enough commanders to keep them in formation. So stay with us and run.”

“Should I have my shield out?” Around Kaladin’s team, the other ranks were unhooking their shields. But Kaladin’s squad left their shields on their backs.

Before Dallet could answer, a horn blew from behind.

“Go!” Dallet said.

Cenn didn’t have much choice. The entire army started moving in a clamor of marching boots. As Dallet had predicted, the steady march didn’t last long. Some men began yelling, the roar taken up by others. Lighteyes called for them to go, run, fight. The line disintegrated.

As soon as that happened, Kaladin’s squad broke into a dash, running out into the front at full speed. Cenn scrambled to keep up, panicked and terrified. The ground wasn’t as smooth as it had seemed, and he nearly tripped on a hidden rockbud, vines withdrawn into its shell.

He righted himself and kept going, holding his spear in one hand, his shield clapping against his back. The distant army was in motion as well, their soldiers charging down the field. There was no semblance of a battle formation or a careful line. This wasn’t anything like the training had claimed it would be.

Cenn didn’t even know who the enemy was. A landlord was encroaching on Brightlord Amaram’s territory—the land owned, ultimately, by Highprince Sadeas. It was a border skirmish, and Cenn thought it was with another Alethi princedom. Why were they fighting each other? Perhaps the king would have put a stop to it, but he was on the Shattered Plains, seeking vengeance for the murder of King Gavilar five years before.

The enemy had a lot of archers. Cenn’s panic climbed to a peak as the first wave of arrows flew into the air. He stumbled again, itching to take out his shield. But Dallet grabbed his arm and yanked him forward.

Hundreds of arrows split the sky, dimming the sun. They arced and fell, dropping like skyeels upon their prey. Amaram’s soldiers raised shields. But not Kaladin’s squad. No shields for them.

Cenn screamed.

And the arrows slammed into the middle ranks of Amaram’s army, behind him. Cenn glanced over his shoulder, still running. The arrows fell behind him. Soldiers screamed, arrows broke against shields; only a few straggling arrows landed anywhere near the front ranks.

“Why?” he yelled at Dallet. “How did you know?”

“They want the arrows to hit where the men are most crowded,” the large man replied. “Where they’ll have the greatest chance of finding a body.”

Several other groups in the van left their shields lowered, but most ran awkwardly with their shields angled up to the sky, worried about arrows that wouldn’t hit them. That slowed them, and they risked getting trampled by the men behind who were getting hit. Cenn itched to raise his shield anyway; it felt so wrong to run without it.

The second volley hit, and men screamed in pain. Kaladin’s squad barreled toward the enemy soldiers, some of whom were dying to arrows from Amaram’s archers. Cenn could hear the enemy soldiers bellowing war cries, could make out individual faces. Suddenly, Kaladin’s squad pulled to a halt, forming a tight group. They’d reached the small incline that Kaladin and Dallet had chosen earlier.

Dallet grabbed Cenn and shoved him to the very center of the formation. Kaladin’s men lowered spears, pulling out shields as the enemy bore down on them. The charging foe used no careful formation; they didn’t keep the ranks of longspears in back and shortspears in front. They all just ran forward, yelling in a frenzy.

Cenn scrambled to get his shield unlatched from his back. Clashing spears rang in the air as squads engaged one another. A group of enemy spearmen rushed up to Kaladin’s squad, perhaps coveting the higher ground. The three dozen attackers had some cohesion, though they weren’t in as tight a formation as Kaladin’s squad was.

The enemy seemed determined to make up for it in passion; they bellowed and screamed in fury, rushing Kaladin’s line. Kaladin’s team held rank, defending Cenn as if he were some lighteyes and they were his honor guard. The two forces met with a crash of metal on wood, shields slamming together. Cenn cringed back.

It was over in a few eyeblinks. The enemy squad pulled back, leaving two dead on the stone. Kaladin’s team hadn’t lost anyone. They held their bristling V formation, though one man stepped back and pulled out a bandage to wrap a thigh wound. The rest of the men closed in to fill the spot. The wounded man was hulking and thick-armed; he cursed, but the wound didn’t look bad. He was on his feet in a moment, but didn’t return to the place where he’d been. Instead, he moved down to one end of the V formation, a more protected spot.

The battlefield was chaos. The two armies mingled indistinguishably; sounds of clanging, crunching, and screaming churned in the air. Many of the squads broke apart, members rushing from one encounter to another. They moved like hunters, groups of three or four seeking lone individuals, then brutally falling on them.

Kaladin’s team held its ground, engaging only enemy squads that got too close. Was this what a battle really was? Cenn’s practice had trained him for long ranks of men, shoulder to shoulder. Not this frenzied intermixing, this brutal pandemonium. Why didn’t more hold formation?

The real soldiers are all gone, Cenn thought. Off fighting in a real battle at the Shattered Plains. No wonder Kaladin wants to get his squad there.

Spears flashed on all sides; it was difficult to tell friend from foe, despite the emblems on breastplates and colored paint on shields. The battlefield broke down into hundreds of small groups, like a thousand different wars happening at the same time.

After the first few exchanges, Dallet took Cenn by the shoulder and placed him in the rank at the very bottom of the V pattern. Cenn, however, was worthless. When Kaladin’s team engaged enemy squads, all of his training fled him. It took everything he had to just remain there, holding his spear outward and trying to look threatening.

For the better part of an hour, Kaladin’s squad held their small hill, working as a team, shoulder to shoulder. Kaladin often left his position at the front, rushing this way and that, banging his spear on his shield in a strange rhythm.

Those are signals, Cenn realized as Kaladin’s squad moved from the V shape into a ring. With the screams of the dying and the thousands of men calling to others, it was nearly impossible to hear a single person’s voice. But the sharp clang of the spear against the metal plate on Kaladin’s shield was clear. Each time they changed formations, Dallet grabbed Cenn by the shoulder and steered him.

Kaladin’s team didn’t chase down stragglers. They remained on the defensive. And, while several of the men in Kaladin’s team took wounds, none of them fell. Their squad was too intimidating for the smaller groups, and larger enemy units retreated after a few exchanges, seeking easier foes.

Eventually something changed. Kaladin turned, watching the tides of the battle with discerning brown eyes. He raised his spear and smacked his shield in a quick rhythm he hadn’t used before. Dallet grabbed Cenn by the arm and pulled him away from the small hill. Why abandon it now?

Just then, the larger body of Amaram’s force broke, the men scattering. Cenn hadn’t realized how poorly the battle in this quarter had been going for his side. As Kaladin’s team retreated, they passed many wounded and dying, and Cenn grew nauseated. Soldiers were sliced open, their insides spilling out.

He didn’t have time for horror; the retreat quickly turned into a rout. Dallet cursed, and Kaladin beat his shield again. The squad changed direction, heading eastward. There, Cenn saw, a larger group of Amaram’s soldiers was holding.

But the enemy had seen the ranks break, and that made them bold. They rushed forward in clusters, like wild axehounds hunting stray hogs. Before Kaladin’s team was halfway across the field of dead and dying, a large group of enemy soldiers intercepted them. Kaladin reluctantly banged his shield; his squad slowed.

Cenn felt his heart begin to thump faster and faster. Nearby, a squad of Amaram’s soldiers was consumed; men stumbled and fell, screaming, trying to get away. The enemies used their spears like skewers, killing men on the ground like cremlings.

Kaladin’s men met the enemy in a crash of spears and shields. Bodies shoved on all sides, and Cenn was spun about. In the jumble of friend and foe, dying and killing, Cenn grew overwhelmed. So many men running in so many directions!

He panicked, scrambling for safety. A group of soldiers nearby wore Alethi uniforms. Kaladin’s squad. Cenn ran for them, but when some turned toward him, Cenn was terrified to realize he didn’t recognize them. This wasn’t Kaladin’s squad, but a small group of unfamiliar soldiers holding an uneven, broken line. Wounded and terrified, they scattered as soon as an enemy squad got close.

Cenn froze, holding his spear in a sweaty hand. The enemy soldiers charged right for him. His instincts urged him to flee, yet he had seen so many men picked off one at a time. He had to stand! He had to face them! He couldn’t run, he couldn’t—

He yelled, stabbing his spear at the lead soldier. The man casually knocked the weapon aside with his shield, then drove his shortspear into Cenn’s thigh. The pain was hot, so hot that the blood squirting out on his leg felt cold by comparison. Cenn gasped.

The soldier yanked the weapon free. Cenn stumbled backward, dropping his spear and shield. He fell to the rocky ground, splashing in someone else’s blood. His foe raised a spear high, a looming silhouette against the stark blue sky, ready to ram it into Cenn’s heart.

And then he was there.

Squadleader. Stormblessed. Kaladin’s spear came as if out of nowhere, narrowly deflecting the blow that was to have killed Cenn. Kaladin set himself in front of Cenn, alone, facing down six spearmen. He didn’t flinch. He charged.

It happened so quickly. Kaladin swept the feet from beneath the man who had stabbed Cenn. Even as that man fell, Kaladin reached up and flipped a knife from one of the sheaths tied about his spear. His hand snapped, knife flashing and hitting the thigh of a second foe. That man fell to one knee, screaming.

A third man froze, looking at his fallen allies. Kaladin shoved past a wounded enemy and slammed his spear into the gut of the third man. A fourth man fell with a knife to the eye. When had Kaladin grabbed that knife? He spun between the last two, his spear a blur, wielding it like a quarterstaff. For a moment, Cenn thought he could see something surrounding the squadleader. A warping of the air, like the wind itself become visible.

I’ve lost a lot of blood. It’s flowing out so quickly. …

Kaladin spun, knocking aside attacks, and the last two spearmen fell with gurgles that Cenn thought sounded surprised. Foes all down, Kaladin turned and knelt beside Cenn. The squadleader set aside his spear and whipped a white strip of cloth from his pocket, then efficiently wrapped it tight around Cenn’s leg. Kaladin worked with the ease of one who had bound wounds dozens of times before.

“Kaladin, sir!” Cenn said, pointing at one of the soldiers Kaladin had wounded. The enemy man held his leg as he stumbled to his feet. In a second, however, mountainous Dallet was there, shoving the foe with his shield. Dallet didn’t kill the wounded man, but let him stumble away, unarmed.

The rest of the squad arrived and formed a ring around Kaladin, Dallet, and Cenn. Kaladin stood up, raising his spear to his shoulder; Dallet handed him back his knives, retrieved from the fallen foes.

“Had me worried there, sir,” Dallet said. “Running off like that.”

“I knew you’d follow,” Kaladin said. “Raise the red banner. Cyn, Korater, you’re going back with the boy. Dallet, hold here. Amaram’s line is bulging in this direction. We should be safe soon.”

“And you, sir?” Dallet asked.

Kaladin looked across the field. A pocket had opened in the enemy forces, and a man rode there on a white horse, swinging about him with a wicked mace. He wore full plate armor, polished and gleaming silver.

“A Shardbearer,” Cenn said.

Dallet snorted. “No, thank the Stormfather. Just a lighteyed officer. Shardbearers are far too valuable to waste on a minor border dispute.”

Kaladin watched the lighteyes with a seething hatred. It was the same hatred Cenn’s father had shown when he’d spoken of chull rustlers, or the hatred Cenn’s mother would display when someone mentioned Kusiri, who had run off with the cobbler’s son.

“Sir?” Dallet said hesitantly.

“Subsquads Two and Three, pincer pattern,” Kaladin said, his voice hard. “We’re taking a brightlord off his throne.”

“You sure that’s wise, sir? We’ve got wounded.”

Kaladin turned toward Dallet. “That’s one of Hallaw’s officers. He might be the one.”

“You don’t know that, sir.”

“Regardless, he’s a battalionlord. If we kill an officer that high, we’re all but guaranteed to be in the next group sent to the Shattered Plains. We’re taking him.” His eyes grew distant. “Imagine it, Dallet. Real soldiers. A warcamp with discipline and lighteyes with integrity. A place where our fighting will mean something.”

Dallet sighed, but nodded. Kaladin waved to a group of his soldiers; then they raced across the field. A smaller group of soldiers, including Dallet, waited behind with the wounded. One of those—a thin man with black Alethi hair speckled with a handful of blond hairs, marking some foreign blood—pulled a long red ribbon from his pocket and attached it to his spear. He held the spear aloft, letting the ribbon flap in the wind.

“It’s a call for runners to carry our wounded off the field,” Dallet said to Cenn. “We’ll have you out of here soon. You were brave, standing against those six.”

“Fleeing seemed stupid,” Cenn said, trying to take his mind off his throbbing leg. “With so many wounded on the field, how can we think that the runners’ll come for us?”

“Squadleader Kaladin bribes them,” Dallet said. “They usually only carry off lighteyes, but there are more runners than there are wounded lighteyes. The squadleader puts most of his pay into the bribes.”

“This squad is different,” Cenn said, feeling light-headed.

“Told you.”

“Not because of luck. Because of training.”

“That’s part of it. Part of it is because we know if we get hurt, Kaladin will get us off the battlefield.” He paused, looking over his shoulder. As Kaladin had predicted, Amaram’s line was surging back, recovering.

The mounted enemy lighteyes from before was energetically laying about with his mace. A group of his honor guard moved to one side, engaging Kaladin’s subsquads. The lighteyes turned his horse. He wore an open-fronted helm that had sloping sides and a large set of plumes on the top. Cenn couldn’t make out his eye color, but he knew it would be blue or green, maybe yellow or light grey. He was a brightlord, chosen at birth by the Heralds, marked for rule.

He impassively regarded those who fought nearby. Then one of Kaladin’s knives took him in the right eye.

The brightlord screamed, falling back off the saddle as Kaladin somehow slipped through the lines and leaped upon him, spear raised.

“Aye, it’s part training,” Dallet said, shaking his head. “But it’s mostly him. He fights like a storm, that one, and thinks twice as fast as other men. The way he moves sometimes …”

“He bound my leg,” Cenn said, realizing he was beginning to speak nonsense due to the blood loss. Why point out the bound leg? It was a simple thing.

Dallet just nodded. “He knows a lot about wounds. He can read glyphs too. He’s a strange man, for a lowly darkeyed spearman, our squadleader is.” He turned to Cenn. “But you should save your strength, son. The squadleader won’t be pleased if we lose you, not after what he paid to get you.”

“Why?” Cenn asked. The battlefield was growing quieter, as if many of the dying men had already yelled themselves hoarse. Almost everyone around them was an ally, but Dallet still watched to make sure no enemy soldiers tried to strike at Kaladin’s wounded.

“Why, Dallet?” Cenn repeated, feeling urgent. “Why bring me into his squad? Why me?”

Dallet shook his head. “It’s just how he is. Hates the thought of young kids like you, barely trained, going to battle. Every now and again, he grabs one and brings him into his squad. A good half dozen of our men were once like you.” Dallet’s eyes got a far-off look. “I think you all remind him of someone.”

Cenn glanced at his leg. Painspren—like small orange hands with overly long fingers—were crawling around him, reacting to his agony. They began turning away, scurrying in other directions, seeking other wounded. His pain was fading, his leg—his whole body—feeling numb.

He leaned back, staring up at the sky. He could hear faint thunder. That was odd. The sky was cloudless.

Dallet cursed.

Cenn turned, shocked out of his stupor. Galloping directly toward them was a massive black horse bearing a rider in gleaming armor that seemed to radiate light. That armor was seamless—no chain underneath, just smaller plates, incredibly intricate. The figure wore an unornamented full helm, and the plate was gilded. He carried a massive sword in one hand, fully as long as a man was tall. It wasn’t a simple, straight sword—it was curved, and the side that wasn’t sharp was ridged, like flowing waves. Etchings covered its length.

It was beautiful. Like a work of art. Cenn had never seen a Shardbearer, but he knew immediately what this was. How could he ever have mistaken a simple armored lighteyes for one of these majestic creatures?

Hadn’t Dallet claimed there would be no Shardbearers on this battlefield? Dallet scrambled to his feet, calling for the subsquad to form up. Cenn just sat where he was. He couldn’t have stood, not with that leg wound.

He felt so light-headed. How much blood had he lost? He could barely think.

Either way, he couldn’t fight. You didn’t fight something like this. Sun gleamed against that plate armor. And that gorgeous, intricate, sinuous sword. It was like … like the Almighty himself had taken form to walk the battlefield.

And why would you want to fight the Almighty?

Cenn closed his eyes.

 

image-32267

“Ten orders. We were loved, once. Why have you forsaken us, Almighty! Shard of my soul, where have you gone?”

Collected on the second day of Kakash, year 1171, five seconds before death. Subject was a lighteyed woman in her third decade.

EIGHT MONTHS LATER

Kaladin’s stomach growled as he reached through the bars and accepted the bowl of slop. He pulled the small bowl—more a cup—between the bars, sniffed it, then grimaced as the caged wagon began to roll again. The sludgy grey slop was made from overcooked tallow grain, and this batch was flecked with crusted bits of yesterday’s meal.

Revolting though it was, it was all he would get. He began to eat, legs hanging out between the bars, watching the scenery pass. The other slaves in his cage clutched their bowls protectively, afraid that someone might steal from them. One of them tried to steal Kaladin’s food on the first day. He’d nearly broken the man’s arm. Now everyone left him alone.

Suited him just fine.

He ate with his fingers, careless of the dirt. He’d stopped noticing dirt months ago. He hated that he felt some of that same paranoia that the others showed. How could he not, after eight months of beatings, deprivation, and brutality?

He fought down the paranoia. He wouldn’t become like them. Even if he’d given up everything else—even if all had been taken from him, even if there was no longer hope of escape. This one thing he would retain. He was a slave. But he didn’t need to think like one.

He finished the slop quickly. Nearby, one of the other slaves began to cough weakly. There were ten slaves in the wagon, all men, scraggly-bearded and dirty. It was one of three wagons in their caravan through the Unclaimed Hills.

The sun blazed reddish white on the horizon, like the hottest part of a smith’s fire. It lit the framing clouds with a spray of color, paint thrown carelessly on a canvas. Covered in tall, monotonously green grass, the hills seemed endless. On a nearby mound, a small figure flitted around the plants, dancing like a fluttering insect. The figure was amorphous, vaguely translucent. Windspren were devious spirits who had a penchant for staying where they weren’t wanted. He’d hoped that this one had gotten bored and left, but as Kaladin tried to toss his wooden bowl aside, he found that it stuck to his fingers.

The windspren laughed, zipping by, nothing more than a ribbon of light without form. He cursed, tugging on the bowl. Windspren often played pranks like that. He pried at the bowl, and it eventually came free. Grumbling, he tossed it to one of the other slaves. The man quickly began to lick at the remnants of the slop.

“Hey,” a voice whispered.

Kaladin looked to the side. A slave with dark skin and matted hair was crawling up to him, timid, as if expecting Kaladin to be angry. “You’re not like the others.” The slave’s black eyes glanced upward, toward Kaladin’s forehead, which bore three brands. The first two made a glyphpair, given to him eight months ago, on his last day in Amaram’s army. The third was fresh, given to him by his most recent master. Shash, the last glyph read. Dangerous.

The slave had his hand hidden behind his rags. A knife? No, that was ridiculous. None of these slaves could have hidden a weapon; the leaves hidden in Kaladin’s belt were as close as one could get. But old instincts could not be banished easily, so Kaladin watched that hand.

“I heard the guards talking,” the slave continued, shuffling a little closer. He had a twitch that made him blink too frequently. “You’ve tried to escape before, they said. You have escaped before.”

Kaladin made no reply.

“Look,” the slave said, moving his hand out from behind his rags and revealing his bowl of slop. It was half full. “Take me with you next time,” he whispered. “I’ll give you this. Half my food from now until we get away. Please.” As he spoke, he attracted a few hungerspren. They looked like brown flies that flitted around the man’s head, almost too small to see.

Kaladin turned away, looking out at the endless hills and their shifting, moving grasses. He rested one arm across the bars and placed his head against it, legs still hanging out.

“Well?” the slave asked.

“You’re an idiot. If you gave me half your food, you’d be too weak to escape if I were to flee. Which I won’t. It doesn’t work.”

“But—”

“Ten times,” Kaladin whispered. “Ten escape attempts in eight months, fleeing from five different masters. And how many of them worked?”

“Well … I mean … you’re still here. …”

Eight months. Eight months as a slave, eight months of slop and beatings. It might as well have been an eternity. He barely remembered the army anymore. “You can’t hide as a slave,” Kaladin said. “Not with that brand on your forehead. Oh, I got away a few times. But they always found me. And then back I went.”

Once, men had called him lucky. Stormblessed. Those had been lies—if anything, Kaladin had bad luck. Soldiers were a superstitious sort, and though he’d initially resisted that way of thinking, it was growing harder and harder. Every person he had ever tried to protect had ended up dead. Time and time again. And now, here he was, in an even worse situation than where he’d begun. It was better not to resist. This was his lot, and he was resigned to it.

There was a certain power in that, a freedom. The freedom of not having to care.

The slave eventually realized Kaladin wasn’t going to say anything further, and so he retreated, eating his slop. The wagons continued to roll, fields of green extending in all directions. The area around the rattling wagons was bare, however. When they approached, the grass pulled away, each individual stalk withdrawing into a pinprick hole in the stone. After the wagons moved on, the grass timidly poked back out and stretched its blades toward the air. And so, the cages moved along what appeared to be an open rock highway, cleared just for them.

This far into the Unclaimed Hills, the highstorms were incredibly powerful. The plants had learned to survive. That’s what you had to do, learn to survive. Brace yourself, weather the storm.

Kaladin caught a whiff of another sweaty, unwashed body and heard the sound of shuffling feet. He looked suspiciously to the side, expecting that same slave to be back.

It was a different man this time, though. He had a long black beard stuck with bits of food and snarled with dirt. Kaladin kept his own beard shorter, allowing Tvlakv’s mercenaries to hack it down periodically. Like Kaladin, the slave wore the remains of a brown sack tied with a rag, and he was dark-eyed, of course—perhaps a deep dark green, though with darkeyes it was hard to tell. They all looked brown or black unless you caught them in the right light.

The newcomer cringed away, raising his hands. He had a rash on one hand, the skin just faintly discolored. He’d likely approached because he’d seen Kaladin respond to that other man. The slaves had been frightened of him since the first day, but they were also obviously curious.

Kaladin sighed and turned away. The slave hesitantly sat down. “Mind if I ask how you became a slave, friend? Can’t help wondering. We’re all wondering.”

Judging by the accent and the dark hair, the man was Alethi, like Kaladin. Most of the slaves were. Kaladin didn’t reply to the question.

“Me, I stole a herd of chull,” the man said. He had a raspy voice, like sheets of paper rubbing together. “If I’d taken one chull, they might have just beaten me. But a whole herd. Seventeen head …” He chuckled to himself, admiring his own audacity.

In the far corner of the wagon, someone coughed again. They were a sorry lot, even for slaves. Weak, sickly, underfed. Some, like Kaladin, were repeat runaways—though Kaladin was the only one with a shash brand. They were the most worthless of a worthless caste, purchased at a steep discount. They were probably being taken for resale in a remote place where men were desperate for labor. There were plenty of small, independent cities along the coast of the Unclaimed Hills, places where Vorin rules governing the use of slaves were just a distant rumor.

Coming this way was dangerous. These lands were ruled by nobody, and by cutting across open land and staying away from established trade routes, Tvlakv could easily run afoul of unemployed mercenaries. Men who had no honor and no fear of slaughtering a slavemaster and his slaves in order to steal a few chulls and wagons.

Men who had no honor. Were there men who had honor?

No, Kaladin thought. Honor died eight months ago.

“So?” asked the scraggly-bearded man. “What did you do to get made a slave?”

Kaladin raised his arm against the bars again. “How did you get caught?”

“Odd thing, that,” the man said. Kaladin hadn’t answered his question, but he had replied. That seemed enough. “It was a woman, of course. Should have known she’d sell me.”

“Shouldn’t have stolen chulls. Too slow. Horses would have been better.”

The man laughed riotously. “Horses? What do you think me, a madman? If I’d been caught stealing those, I’d have been hanged. Chulls, at least, only earned me a slave’s brand.”

Kaladin glanced to the side. This man’s forehead brand was older than Kaladin’s, the skin around the scar faded to white. What was that glyphpair? “Sas morom,” Kaladin said. It was the highlord’s district where the man had originally been branded.

The man looked up with shock. “Hey! You know glyphs?” Several of the slaves nearby stirred at this oddity. “You must have an even better story than I thought, friend.”

Kaladin stared out over those grasses blowing in the mild breeze. Whenever the wind picked up, the more sensitive of the grass stalks shrank down into their burrows, leaving the landscape patchy, like the coat of a sickly horse. That windspren was still there, moving between patches of grass. How long had it been following him? At least a couple of months now. That was downright odd. Maybe it wasn’t the same one. They were impossible to tell apart.

“Well?” the man prodded. “Why are you here?”

“There are many reasons why I’m here,” Kaladin said. “Failures. Crimes. Betrayals. Probably the same for most every one of us.”

Around him, several of the men grunted in agreement; one of those grunts then degenerated into a hacking cough. Persistent coughing, a part of Kaladin’s mind thought, accompanied by an excess of phlegm and fevered mumbling at night. Sounds like the grindings.

“Well,” the talkative man said, “perhaps I should ask a different question. Be more specific, that’s what my mother always said. Say what you mean and ask for what you want. What’s the story of you getting that first brand of yours?”

Kaladin sat, feeling the wagon thump and roll beneath him. “I killed a lighteyes.”

His unnamed companion whistled again, this time even more appreciative than before. “I’m surprised they let you live.”

“Killing the lighteyes isn’t why I was made a slave,” Kaladin said. “It’s the one I didn’t kill that’s the problem.”

“How’s that?”

Kaladin shook his head, then stopped answering the talkative man’s questions. The man eventually wandered to the front of the wagon’s cage and sat down, staring at his bare feet.

##

Hours later, Kaladin still sat in his place, idly fingering the glyphs on his forehead. This was his life, day in and day out, riding in these cursed wagons.

His first brands had healed long ago, but the skin around the shash brand was red, irritated, and crusted with scabs. It throbbed, almost like a second heart. It hurt even worse than the burn had when he grabbed the heated handle of a cooking pot as a child.

Lessons drilled into Kaladin by his father whispered in the back of his brain, giving the proper way to care for a burn. Apply a salve to prevent infection, wash once daily. Those memories weren’t a comfort; they were an annoyance. He didn’t have fourleaf sap or lister’s oil; he didn’t even have water for the washing.

The parts of the wound that had scabbed over pulled at his skin, making his forehead feel tight. He could barely pass a few minutes without scrunching up his brow and irritating the wound. He’d grown accustomed to reaching up and wiping away the streaks of blood that trickled from the cracks; his right forearm was smeared with it. If he’d had a mirror, he could probably have spotted tiny red rotspren gathering around the wound.

The sun set in the west, but the wagons kept rolling. Violet Salas peeked over the horizon to the east, seeming hesitant at first, as if making sure the sun had vanished. It was a clear night, and the stars shivered high above. Taln’s Scar—a swath of deep red stars that stood out vibrantly from the twinkling white ones—was high in the sky this season.

That slave who’d been coughing earlier was at it again. A ragged, wet cough. Once, Kaladin would have been quick to go help, but something within him had changed. So many people he’d tried to help were now dead. It seemed to him—irrationally—that the man would be better off without his interference. After failing Tien, then Dallet and his team, then ten successive groups of slaves, it was hard to find the will to try again.

Two hours past First Moon, Tvlakv finally called a halt. His two brutish mercenaries climbed from their places atop their wagons, then moved to build a small fire. Lanky Taran—the serving boy—tended the chulls. The large crustaceans were nearly as big as wagons themselves. They settled down, pulling into their shells for the night with clawfuls of grain. Soon they were nothing more than three lumps in the darkness, barely distinguishable from boulders. Finally, Tvlakv began checking on the slaves one at a time, giving each a ladle of water, making certain his investments were healthy. Or, at least, as healthy as could be expected for this poor lot.

Tvlakv started with the first wagon, and Kaladin—still sitting—pushed his fingers into his makeshift belt, checking on the leaves he’d hidden there. They crackled satisfactorily, the stiff, dried husks rough against his skin. He still wasn’t certain what he was going to do with them. He’d grabbed them on a whim during one of the sessions when he’d been allowed out of the wagon to stretch his legs. He doubted anyone else in the caravan knew how to recognize blackbane—narrow leaves on a trefoil prong—so it hadn’t been too much of a risk.

Absently, he took the leaves out and rubbed them between forefinger and palm. They had to dry before reaching their potency. Why did he carry them? Did he mean to give them to Tvlakv and get revenge? Or were they a contingency, to be retained in case things got too bad, too unbearable?

Surely I haven’t fallen that far, he thought. It was just more likely his instinct of securing a weapon when he saw one, no matter how unusual. The landscape was dark. Salas was the smallest and dimmest of the moons, and while her violet coloring had inspired countless poets, she didn’t do much to help you see your hand in front of your face.

“Oh!” a soft, feminine voice said. “What’s that?”

A translucent figure—just a handspan tall—peeked up from over the edge of the floor near Kaladin. She climbed up and into the wagon, as if scaling some high plateau. The windspren had taken the shape of a young woman—larger spren could change shapes and sizes—with an angular face and long, flowing hair that faded into mist behind her head. She—Kaladin couldn’t help but think of the windspren as a she—was formed of pale blues and whites and wore a simple, flowing white dress of a girlish cut that came down to midcalf. Like the hair, it faded to mist at the very bottom. Her feet, hands, and face were crisply distinct, and she had the hips and bust of a slender woman.

Kaladin frowned at the spirit. Spren were all around; you just ignored them most of the time. But this one was an oddity. The windspren walked upward, as if climbing an invisible staircase. She reached a height where she could stare at Kaladin’s hand, so he closed his fingers around the black leaves. She walked around his fist in a circle. Although she glowed like an afterimage from looking at the sun, her form provided no real illumination.

She bent down, looking at his hand from different angles, like a child expecting to find a hidden piece of candy. “What is it?” Her voice was like a whisper. “You can show me. I won’t tell anyone. Is it a treasure? Have you cut off a piece of the night’s cloak and tucked it away? Is it the heart of a beetle, so tiny yet powerful?”

He said nothing, causing the spren to pout. She floated up, hovering though she had no wings, and looked him in the eyes. “Kaladin, why must you ignore me?”

Kaladin started. “What did you say?”

She smiled mischievously, then sprang away, her figure blurring into a long white ribbon of blue-white light. She shot between the bars—twisting and warping in the air, like a strip of cloth caught in the wind—and darted beneath the wagon.

“Storm you!” Kaladin said, leaping to his feet. “Spirit! What did you say? Repeat that!” Spren didn’t use people’s names. Spren weren’t intelligent. The larger ones—like windspren or riverspren—could mimic voices and expressions, but they didn’t actually think. They didn’t …

“Did any of you hear that?” Kaladin asked, turning to the cage’s other occupants. The roof was just high enough to let Kaladin stand. The others were lying back, waiting to get their ladle of water. He got no response beyond a few mutters to be quiet and some coughs from the sick man in the corner. Even Kaladin’s “friend” from earlier ignored him. The man had fallen into a stupor, staring at his feet, wiggling his toes periodically.

Maybe they hadn’t seen the spren. Many of the larger ones were invisible except to the person they were tormenting. Kaladin sat back down on the floor of the wagon, hanging his legs outside. The windspren had said his name, but undoubtedly she’d just repeated what she’d heard before. But … none of the men in the cage knew his name.

Maybe I’m going mad, Kaladin thought. Seeing things that aren’t there. Hearing voices.

He took a deep breath, then opened his hand. His grip had cracked and broken the leaves. He’d need to tuck them away to prevent further—

“Those leaves look interesting,” said that same feminine voice. “You like them a lot, don’t you?”

Kaladin jumped, twisting to the side. The windspren stood in the air just beside his head, white dress rippling in a wind Kaladin couldn’t feel.

“How do you know my name?” he demanded.

The windspren didn’t answer. She walked on air over to the bars, then poked her head out, watching Tvlakv the slaver administer drinks to the last few slaves in the first wagon. She looked back at Kaladin. “Why don’t you fight? You did before. Now you’ve stopped.”

“Why do you care, spirit?”

She cocked her head. “I don’t know,” she said, as if surprised at herself. “But I do. Isn’t that odd?”

It was more than odd. What did he make of a spren that not only used his name, but seemed to remember things he had done weeks ago?

“People don’t eat leaves, you know, Kaladin,” she said, folding translucent arms. Then she cocked her head. “Or do you? I can’t remember. You’re so strange, stuffing some things into your mouths, leaking out other things when you don’t think anyone is looking.”

“How do you know my name?” he whispered.

“How do you know it?”

“I know it because … because it’s mine. My parents told it to me. I don’t know.”

“Well I don’t either,” she said, nodding as if she’d just won some grand argument.

“Fine,” he said. “But why are you using my name?”

“Because it’s polite. And you are impolite.

“Spren don’t know what that means!”

“See, there,” she said, pointing at him. “Impolite.”

Kaladin blinked. Well, he was far from where he’d grown up, walking foreign stone and eating foreign food. Perhaps the spren who lived here were different from those back home.

“So why don’t you fight?” she asked, flitting down to rest on his legs, looking up at his face. She had no weight that he could feel.

“I can’t fight,” he said softly.

“You did before.”

He closed his eyes and rested his head forward against the bars. “I’m so tired.” He didn’t mean the physical fatigue, though eight months eating leftovers had stolen much of the lean strength he’d cultivated while at war. He felt tired. Even when he got enough sleep. Even on those rare days when he wasn’t hungry, cold, or stiff from a beating. So tired …

“You have been tired before.”

“I’ve failed, spirit,” he replied, squeezing his eyes shut. “Must you torment me so?”

They were all dead. Cenn and Dallet, and before that Tukks and the Takers. Before that, Tien. Before that, blood on his hands and the corpse of a young girl with pale skin.

Some of the slaves nearby muttered, likely thinking he was mad. Anyone could end up drawing a spren, but you learned early that talking to one was pointless. Was he mad? Perhaps he should wish for that—madness was an escape from the pain. Instead, it terrified him.

He opened his eyes. Tvlakv was finally waddling up to Kaladin’s wagon with his bucket of water. The portly, brown-eyed man walked with a very faint limp; the result of a broken leg, perhaps. He was Thaylen, and all Thaylen men had the same stark white beards—regardless of their age or the color of the hair on their heads—and white eyebrows. Those eyebrows grew very long, and the Thaylen wore them pushed back over the ears. That made him appear to have two white streaks in his otherwise black hair.

His clothing—striped trousers of black and red with a dark blue sweater that matched the color of his knit cap—had once been fine, but it was now growing ragged. Had he once been something other than a slaver? This life—the casual buying and selling of human flesh—seemed to have an effect on men. It wearied the soul, even if it did fill one’s money pouch.

Tvlakv kept his distance from Kaladin, carrying his oil lantern over to inspect the coughing slave at the front of the cage. Tvlakv called to his mercenaries. Bluth—Kaladin didn’t know why he’d bothered to learn their names—wandered over. Tvlakv spoke quietly, pointing at the slave. Bluth nodded, slab-like face shadowed in the lanternlight, and pulled the cudgel free from his belt.

The windspren took the form of a white ribbon, then zipped over toward the sick man. She spun and twisted a few times before landing on the floor, becoming a girl again. She leaned in to inspect the man. Like a curious child.

Kaladin turned away and closed his eyes, but he could still hear the coughing. Inside his mind, his father’s voice responded. To cure the grinding coughs, said the careful, precise tone, administer two handfuls of bloodivy, crushed to a powder, each day. If you don’t have that, be certain to give the patient plenty of liquids, preferably with sugar stirred in. As long as the patient stays hydrated, he will most likely survive. The disease sounds far worse than it is.

Most likely survive …

Those coughs continued. Someone unlatched the cage door. Would they know how to help the man? Such an easy solution. Give him water, and he would live.

It didn’t matter. Best not to get involved.

Men dying on the battlefield. A youthful face, so familiar and dear, looking to Kaladin for salvation. A sword wound slicing open the side of a neck. A Shardbearer charging through Amaram’s ranks.

Blood. Death. Failure. Pain.

And his father’s voice. Can you really leave him, son? Let him die when you could have helped?

Storm it!

“Stop!” Kaladin yelled, standing.

The other slaves scrambled back. Bluth jumped up, slamming the cage door closed and holding up his cudgel. Tvlakv shied behind the mercenary, using him as cover.

Kaladin took a deep breath, closing his hand around the leaves and then raising the other to his head, wiping away a smear of blood. He crossed the small cage, bare feet thumping on the wood. Bluth glared as Kaladin knelt beside the sick man. The flickering light illuminated a long, drawn face and nearly bloodless lips. The man had coughed up phlegm; it was greenish and solid. Kaladin felt the man’s neck for swelling, then checked his dark brown eyes.

“It’s called the grinding coughs,” Kaladin said. “He will live, if you give him an extra ladle of water every two hours for five days or so. You’ll have to force it down his throat. Mix in sugar, if you have any.”

Bluth scratched at his ample chin, then glanced at the shorter slaver.

“Pull him out,” Tvlakv said.

The wounded slave awoke as Bluth unlocked the cage. The mercenary waved Kaladin back with his cudgel, and Kaladin reluctantly withdrew. After putting away his cudgel, Bluth grabbed the slave under the arms and dragged him out, all the while trying to keep a nervous eye on Kaladin. Kaladin’s last failed escape attempt had involved twenty armed slaves. His master should have executed him for that, but he had claimed Kaladin was “intriguing” and branded him with shash, then sold him for a pittance.

There always seemed to be a reason Kaladin survived when those he’d tried to help died. Some men might have seen that as a blessing, but he saw it as an ironic kind of torment. He’d spent some time under his previous master speaking with a slave from the West, a Selay man who had spoken of the Old Magic from their legends and its ability to curse people. Could that be what was happening to Kaladin?

Don’t be foolish, he told himself.

The cage door snapped back in place, locking. The cages were necessary—Tvlakv had to protect his fragile investment from the highstorms. The cages had wooden sides that could be pulled up and locked into place during the furious gales.

Bluth dragged the slave over to the fire, beside the unpacked water barrel. Kaladin felt himself relax. There, he told himself. Perhaps you can still help. Perhaps there’s a reason to care.

Kaladin opened his hand and looked down at the crumbled black leaves in his palm. He didn’t need these. Sneaking them into Tvlakv’s drink would not only be difficult, but pointless. Did he really want the slaver dead? What would that accomplish?

A low crack rang in the air, followed by a second one, duller, like someone dropping a bag of grain. Kaladin snapped his head up, looking to where Bluth had deposited the sick slave. The mercenary raised his cudgel one more time, then snapped it down, the weapon making a cracking sound as it hit the slave’s skull.

The slave hadn’t uttered a cry of pain or protest. His corpse slumped over in the darkness; Bluth casually picked it up and slung it over his shoulder.

“No!” Kaladin yelled, leaping across the cage and slamming his hands against the bars.

Tvlakv stood warming himself by the fire.

“Storm you!” Kaladin screamed. “He could have lived, you bastard!”

Tvlakv glanced at him. Then, leisurely, the slaver walked over, straightening his deep blue knit cap. “He would have gotten you all sick, you see.” His voice was lightly accented, smashing words together, not giving the proper syllables emphasis. Thaylens always sounded to Kaladin like they were mumbling. “I would not lose an entire wagon for one man.”

“He’s past the spreading stage!” Kaladin said, slamming his hands against the bars again. “If any of us were going to catch it, we’d have done so by now.”

“Hope that you don’t. I think he was past saving.”

“I told you otherwise!”

“And I should believe you, deserter?” Tvlakv said, amused. “A man with eyes that smolder and hate? You would kill me.” He shrugged. “I care not. So long as you are strong when it is time for sales. You should bless me for saving you from that man’s sickness.”

“I’ll bless your cairn when I pile it up myself,” Kaladin replied.

Tvlakv smiled, walking back toward the fire. “Keep that fury, deserter, and that strength. It will pay me well on our arrival.”

Not if you don’t live that long, Kaladin thought. Tvlakv always warmed the last of the water from the bucket he used for the slaves. He’d make himself tea from it, hanging it over the fire. If Kaladin made sure he was watered last, then powdered the leaves and dropped them into the—

Kaladin froze, then looked down at his hands. In his haste, he’d forgotten that he’d been holding the blackbane. He’d dropped the flakes as he slammed his hands against the bars. Only a few bits stuck to his palms, not enough to be potent.

He spun to look backward; the floor of the cage was dirty and covered with grime. If the flakes had fallen there, there was no way to collect them. The wind gathered suddenly, blowing dust, crumbs, and dirt out of the wagon and into the night.

Even in this, Kaladin failed.

He sank down, his back to the bars, and bowed his head. Defeated. That cursed windspren kept darting around him, looking confused.

 

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“A man stood on a cliffside and watched his homeland fall into dust. The waters surged beneath, so far beneath. And he heard a child crying. They were his own tears.”

Collected on the 4th of Tanates, year 1171, thirty seconds before death. Subject was a cobbler of some renown.

Kharbranth, City of Bells, was not a place that Shallan had ever imagined she would visit. Though she’d often dreamed of traveling, she’d expected to spend her early life sequestered in her family’s manor, only escaping through the books of her father’s library. She’d expected to marry one of her father’s allies, then spend the rest of her life sequestered in his manor.

But expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.

She found herself breathless, clutching her leather-bound drawing pad to her chest as longshoremen pulled the ship into the dock. Kharbranth was enormous. Built up the side of a steep incline, the city was wedge-shaped, as if it were built into a wide crack, with the open side toward the ocean. The buildings were blocky, with square windows, and appeared to have been constructed of some kind of mud or daub. Crem, perhaps? They were painted bright colors, reds and oranges most often, but occasional blues and yellows too.

She could hear the bells already, tinkling in the wind, ringing with pure voices. She had to strain her neck to look up toward the city’s loftiest rim; Kharbranth was like a mountain towering over her. How many people lived in a place like this? Thousands? Tens of thousands? She shivered again—daunted yet excited—then blinked pointedly, fixing the image of the city in her memory.

Sailors rushed about. The Wind’s Pleasure was a narrow, single-masted vessel, barely large enough for her, the captain, his wife, and the half-dozen crew. It had seemed so small at first, but Captain Tozbek was a calm and cautious man, an excellent sailor, even if he was a pagan. He’d guided the ship with care along the coast, always finding a sheltered cove to ride out highstorms.

The captain oversaw the work as the men secured the mooring. Tozbek was a short man, even-shouldered with Shallan, and he wore his long white Thaylen eyebrows up in a curious spiked pattern. It was like he had two waving fans above his eyes, a foot long each. He wore a simple knit cap and a silver-buttoned black coat. She’d imagined him getting that scar on his jaw in a furious sea battle with pirates. The day before, she’d been disappointed to hear it had been caused by loose tackle during rough weather.

His wife, Ashlv, was already walking down the gangplank to register their vessel. The captain saw Shallan inspecting him, and so walked over. He was a business connection of her family’s, long trusted by her father. That was good, since the plan she and her brothers had concocted had contained no place for her bringing along a lady-in-waiting or nurse.

That plan made Shallan nervous. Very, very nervous. She hated being duplicitous. But the financial state of her house … They either needed a spectacular infusion of wealth or some other edge in local Veden house politics. Otherwise, they wouldn’t last the year.

First things first, Shallan thought, forcing herself to be calm. Find Jasnah Kholin. Assuming she hasn’t moved off without you again.

“I’ve sent a lad on your behalf, Brightness,” Tozbek said. “If the princess is still here, we shall soon know.”

Shallan nodded gratefully, still clutching her drawing pad. Out in the city, there were people everywhere. Some wore familiar clothing—trousers and shirts that laced up the front for the men, skirts and colorful blouses for the women. Those could have been from her homeland, Jah Keved. But Kharbranth was a free city. A small, politically fragile city-state, it held little territory but had docks open to all ships that passed, and it asked no questions about nationality or status. People flowed to it.

That meant many of the people she saw were exotic. Those single-sheet wraps would mark a man or woman from Tashikk, far to the west. The long coats, enveloping down to the ankles, but open in the front like cloaks … where were those from? She’d rarely seen so many parshmen as she noted working the docks, carrying cargo on their backs. Like the parshmen her father had owned, these were stout and thick of limb, with their odd marbled skin—some parts pale or black, others a deep crimson. The mottled pattern was unique to each individual.

After chasing Jasnah Kholin from town to town for the better part of six months, Shallan was beginning to think she’d never catch the woman. Was the princess avoiding her? No, that didn’t seem likely—Shallan just wasn’t important enough to wait for. Brightness Jasnah Kholin was one of the most powerful women in the world. And one of the most infamous. She was the only member of a faithful royal house who was a professed heretic.

Shallan tried not to grow anxious. Most likely, they’d discover that Jasnah had moved on again. The Wind’s Pleasure would dock for the night, and Shallan would negotiate a price with the captain—steeply discounted, because of her family’s investments in Tozbek’s shipping business—to take her to the next port.

Already, they were months past the time when Tozbek had expected to be rid of her. She’d never sensed resentment from him; his honor and loyalty kept him agreeing to her requests. However, his patience wouldn’t last forever, and neither would her money. She’d already used over half the spheres she’d brought with her. He wouldn’t abandon her in an unfamiliar city, of course, but he might regretfully insist on taking her back to Vedenar.

“Captain!” a sailor said, rushing up the gangplank. He wore only a vest and loose, baggy trousers, and had the darkly tanned skin of one who worked in the sun. “No message, sir. Dock registrar says that Jasnah hasn’t left yet.”

“Ha!” the captain said, turning to Shallan. “The hunt is over!”

“Bless the Heralds,” Shallan said softly.

The captain smiled, flamboyant eyebrows looking like streaks of light coming from his eyes. “It must be your beautiful face that brought us this favorable wind! The windspren themselves were entranced by you, Brightness Shallan, and led us here!”

Shallan blushed, considering a response that wasn’t particularly proper.

“Ah!” the captain said, pointing at her. “I can see you have a reply—I see it in your eyes, young miss! Spit it out. Words aren’t meant to be kept inside, you see. They are free creatures, and if locked away will unsettle the stomach.”

“It’s not polite,” Shallan protested.

Tozbek bellowed a laugh. “Months of travel, and still you claim that! I keep telling you that we’re sailors! We forgot how to be polite the moment we set first foot on a ship; we’re far beyond redemption now.”

She smiled. She’d been trained by stern nurses and tutors to hold her tongue—unfortunately, her brothers had been even more determined in encouraging her to do the opposite. She’d made a habit of entertaining them with witty comments when nobody else was near. She thought fondly of hours spent by the crackling great-room hearth, the younger three of her four brothers huddled around her, listening as she made sport of their father’s newest sycophant or a traveling ardent. She’d often fabricated silly versions of conversations to fill the mouths of people they could see, but not hear.

That had established in her what her nurses had referred to as an “insolent streak.” And the sailors were even more appreciative of a witty comment than her brothers had been.

“Well,” Shallan said to the captain, blushing but still eager to speak, “I was just thinking this: You say that my beauty coaxed the winds to deliver us to Kharbranth with haste. But wouldn’t that imply that on other trips, my lack of beauty was to blame for us arriving late?”

“Well … er …”

“So in reality,” Shallan said, “you’re telling me I’m beautiful precisely one-sixth of the time.”

“Nonsense! Young miss, you’re like a morning sunrise, you are!”

“Like a sunrise? By that you mean entirely too crimson”—she pulled at her long red hair—”and prone to making men grouchy when they see me?”

He laughed, and several of the sailors nearby joined in. “All right then,” Captain Tozbek said, “you’re like a flower.”

She grimaced. “I’m allergic to flowers.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“No, really,” she admitted. “I think they’re quite captivating. But if you were to give me a bouquet, you’d soon find me in a fit so energetic that it would have you searching the walls for stray freckles I might have blown free with the force of my sneezes.”

“Well, be that true, I still say you’re as pretty as a flower.”

“If I am, then young men my age must be afflicted with the same allergy—for they keep their distance from me noticeably.” She winced. “Now, see, I told you this wasn’t polite. Young women should not act in such an irritable way.”

“Ah, young miss,” the captain said, tipping his knit cap toward her. “The lads and I will miss your clever tongue. I’m not sure what we’ll do without you.”

“Sail, likely,” she said. “And eat, and sing, and watch the waves. All the things you do now, only you shall have rather more time to accomplish all of it, as you won’t be stumbling across a youthful girl as she sits on your deck sketching and mumbling to herself. But you have my thanks, Captain, for a trip that was wonderful—if somewhat exaggerated in length.”

He tipped his cap to her in acknowledgment.

Shallan grinned—she hadn’t expected being out on her own to be so liberating. Her brothers had worried that she’d be frightened. They saw her as timid because she didn’t like to argue and remained quiet when large groups were talking. And perhaps she was timid—being away from Jah Keved was daunting. But it was also wonderful. She’d filled three sketchbooks with pictures of the creatures and people she’d seen, and while her worry over her house’s finances was a perpetual cloud, it was balanced by the sheer delight of experience.

Tozbek began making dock arrangements for his ship. He was a good man. As for his praise of her supposed beauty, she took that for what it was. A kind, if overstated, mark of affection. She was pale-skinned in an era when Alethi tan was seen as the mark of true beauty, and though she had light blue eyes, her impure family line was manifest in her auburn-red hair. Not a single lock of proper black. Her freckles had faded as she reached young womanhood—Heralds be blessed—but there were still some visible, dusting her cheeks and nose.

“Young miss,” the captain said to her after conferring with his men, “Your Brightness Jasnah, she’ll undoubtedly be at the Conclave, you see.”

“Oh, where the Palanaeum is?”

“Yes, yes. And the king lives there too. It’s the center of the city, so to speak. Except it’s on the top.” He scratched his chin. “Well, anyway, Brightness Jasnah Kholin is sister to a king; she will stay nowhere else, not in Kharbranth. Yalb here will show you the way. We can deliver your trunk later.”

“Many thanks, Captain,” she said. “Shaylor mkabat nour.” The winds have brought us safely. A phrase of thanks in the Thaylen language.

The captain smiled broadly. “Mkai bade fortenthis!”

She had no idea what that meant. Her Thaylen was quite good when she was reading, but hearing it spoken was something else entirely. She smiled at him, which seemed the proper response, for he laughed, gesturing to one of his sailors.

“We’ll wait here in this dock for two days,” he told her. “There is a highstorm coming tomorrow, you see, so we cannot leave. If the situation with the Brightness Jasnah does not proceed as hoped, we’ll take you back to Jah Keved.”

“Thank you again.”

“ ‘Tis nothing, young miss,” he said. “Nothing but what we’d be doing anyway. We can take on goods here and all. Besides, that’s a right nice likeness of my wife you gave me for my cabin. Right nice.”

He strode over to Yalb, giving him instructions. Shallan waited, putting her drawing pad back into her leather portfolio. Yalb. The name was difficult for her Veden tongue to pronounce. Why were the Thaylens so fond of mashing letters together, without proper vowels?

Yalb waved for her. She moved to follow.

“Be careful with yourself, lass,” the captain warned as she passed. “Even a safe city like Kharbranth hides dangers. Keep your wits about you.”

“I should think I’d prefer my wits inside my skull, Captain,” she replied, carefully stepping onto the gangplank. “If I keep them ‘about me’ instead, then someone has gotten entirely too close to my head with a cudgel.”

The captain laughed, waving her farewell as she made her way down the gangplank, holding the railing with her freehand. Like all Vorin women, she kept her left hand—her safehand—covered, exposing only her freehand. Common darkeyed women would wear a glove, but a woman of her rank was expected to show more modesty than that. In her case, she kept her safehand covered by the oversized cuff of her left sleeve, which was buttoned closed.

The dress was of a traditional Vorin cut, formfitting through the bust, shoulders, and waist, with a flowing skirt below. It was blue silk with chull-shell buttons up the sides, and she carried her satchel by pressing it to her chest with her safehand while holding the railing with her freehand.

She stepped off the gangplank into the furious activity of the docks, messengers running this way and that, women in red coats tracking cargos on ledgers. Kharbranth was a Vorin kingdom, like Alethkar and like Shallan’s own Jah Keved. They weren’t pagans here, and writing was a feminine art; men learned only glyphs, leaving letters and reading to their wives and sisters.

She hadn’t asked, but she was certain Captain Tozbek could read. She’d seen him holding books; it had made her uncomfortable. Reading was an unseemly trait in a man. At least, men who weren’t ardents.

“You wanna ride?” Yalb asked her, his rural Thaylen dialect so thick she could barely make out the words.

“Yes, please.”

He nodded and rushed off, leaving her on the docks, surrounded by a group of parshmen who were laboriously moving wooden crates from one pier to another. Parshmen were thick-witted, but they made excellent workers. Never complaining, always doing as they were told. Her father had preferred them to ordinary slaves.

Were the Alethi really fighting parshmen out on the Shattered Plains? That seemed so odd to Shallan. Parshmen didn’t fight. They were docile and practically mute. Of course, from what she’d heard, the ones out on the Shattered Plains—the Parshendi, they were called—were physically different from normal parshmen. Stronger, taller, keener of mind. Perhaps they weren’t really parshmen at all, but distant relatives of some kind.

To her surprise, she could see signs of animal life all around the docks. A few skyeels undulated through the air, searching for rats or fish. Tiny crabs hid between cracks in the dock’s boards, and a cluster of haspers clung to the dock’s thick logs. In a street inland of the docks, a prowling mink skulked in the shadows, watching for morsels that might be dropped.

She couldn’t resist pulling open her portfolio and beginning a sketch of a pouncing skyeel. Wasn’t it afraid of all the people? She held her sketchpad with her safehand, hidden fingers wrapping around the top as she used a charcoal pencil to draw. Before she was finished, her guide returned with a man pulling a curious contraption with two large wheels and a canopy-covered seat. She hesitantly lowered her sketchpad. She’d expected a palanquin.

The man pulling the machine was short and dark-skinned, with a wide smile and full lips. He gestured for Shallan to sit, and she did so with the modest grace her nurses had drilled into her. The driver asked her a question in a clipped, terse-sounding language she didn’t recognize.

“What was that?” she asked Yalb.

“He wants to know if you’d like to be pulled the long way or the short way.” Yalb scratched his head. “I’m not right sure what the difference is.”

“I suspect one takes longer,” Shallan said.

“Oh, you are a clever one.” Yalb said something to the porter in that same clipped language, and the man responded.

“The long way gives a good view of the city,” Yalb said. “The short way goes straight up to the Conclave. Not many good views, he says. I guess he noticed you were new to the city.”

“Do I stand out that much?” Shallan asked, flushing.

“Eh, no, of course not, Brightness.”

“And by that you mean that I’m as obvious as a wart on a queen’s nose.”

Yalb laughed. “Afraid so. But you can’t go someplace a second time until you been there a first time, I reckon. Everyone has to stand out sometime, so you might as well do it in a pretty way like yourself!”

She’d had to get used to gentle flirtation from the sailors. They were never too forward, and she suspected the captain’s wife had spoken to them sternly when she’d noticed how it made Shallan blush. Back at her father’s manor, servants—even those who had been full citizens—had been afraid to step out of their places.

The porter was still waiting for an answer. “The short way, please,” she told Yalb, though she longed to take the scenic path. She was finally in a real city and she took the direct route? But Brightness Jasnah had proven to be as elusive as a wild songling. Best to be quick.

The main roadway cut up the hillside in switchbacks, and so even the short way gave her time to see much of the city. It proved intoxicatingly rich with strange people, sights, and ringing bells. Shallan sat back and took it all in. Buildings were grouped by color, and that color seemed to indicate purpose. Shops selling the same items would be painted the same shades—violet for clothing, green for foods. Homes had their own pattern, though Shallan couldn’t interpret it. The colors were soft, with a washed-out, subdued tonality.

Yalb walked alongside her cart, and the porter began to talk back toward her. Yalb translated, hands in the pockets of his vest. “He says that the city is special because of the lait here.”

Shallan nodded. Many cities were built in laits—areas protected from the highstorms by nearby rock formations.

“Kharbranth is one of the most sheltered major cities in the world,” Yalb continued, translating, “and the bells are a symbol of that. It’s said they were first erected to warn that a highstorm was blowing, since the winds were so soft that people didn’t always notice.” Yalb hesitated. “He’s just saying things because he wants a big tip, Brightness. I’ve heard that story, but I think it’s blustering ridiculous. If the winds blew strong enough to move bells, then people’d notice. Besides, people didn’t notice it was raining on their blustering heads?”

Shallan smiled. “It’s all right. He can continue.”

The porter chatted on in his clipped voice—what language was that, anyway? Shallan listened to Yalb’s translation, drinking in the sights, sounds, and—unfortunately—scents. She’d grown up accustomed to the crisp smell of freshly dusted furniture and flatbread baking in the kitchens. Her ocean journey had taught her new scents, of brine and clean sea air.

There was nothing clean in what she smelled here. Each passing alleyway had its own unique array of revolting stenches. These alternated with the spicy scents of street vendors and their foods, and the juxtaposition was even more nauseating. Fortunately, her porter moved into the central part of the roadway, and the stenches abated, though it did slow them as they had to contend with thicker traffic. She gawked at those they passed. Those men with gloved hands and faintly bluish skin were from Natanatan. But who were those tall, stately people dressed in robes of black? And the men with their beards bound in cords, making them rodlike?

The sounds put Shallan in mind of the competing choruses of wild songlings near her home, only multiplied in variety and volume. A hundred voices called to one another, mingling with doors slamming, wheels rolling on stone, occasional skyeels crying. The ever-present bells tinkled in the background, louder when the wind blew. They were displayed in the windows of shops, hung from rafters. Each lantern pole along the street had a bell hung under the lamp, and her cart had a small silvery one at the very tip of its canopy. When she was about halfway up the hillside, a rolling wave of loud clock bells rang the hour. The varied, unsynchronized chimes made a clangorous din.

The crowds thinned as they reached the upper quarter of the city, and eventually her porter pulled her to a massive building at the very apex of the city. Painted white, it was carved from the rock face itself, rather than built of bricks or clay. The pillars out front grew seamlessly from the stone, and the back side of the building melded smoothly into the cliff. The outcroppings of roof had squat domes atop them, and were painted in metallic colors. Lighteyed women passed in and out, carrying scribing utensils and wearing dresses like Shallan’s, their left hands properly cuffed. The men entering or leaving the building wore military-style Vorin coats and stiff trousers, buttons up the sides and ending in a stiff collar that wrapped the entire neck. Many carried swords at their waists, the belts wrapping around the knee-length coats.

The porter stopped and made a comment to Yalb. The sailor began arguing with him, hands on hips. Shallan smiled at his stern expression, and she blinked pointedly, affixing the scene in her memory for later sketching.

“He’s offering to split the difference with me if I let him inflate the price of the trip,” Yalb said, shaking his head and offering a hand to help Shallan from the cart. She stepped down, looking at the porter, who shrugged, smiling like a child who had been caught sneaking sweets.

She clutched her satchel with her cuffed arm, searching through it with her freehand for her money pouch. “How much should I actually give him?”

“Two clearchips should be more than enough. I’d have offered one. The thief wanted to ask for five.”

Before this trip, she’d never used money; she’d just admired the spheres for their beauty. Each one was composed of a glass bead a little larger than a person’s thumbnail with a much smaller gemstone set at the center. The gemstones could absorb Stormlight, and that made the spheres glow. When she opened the money pouch, shards of ruby, emerald, diamond, and sapphire shone out on her face. She fished out three diamond chips, the smallest denomination. Emeralds were the most valuable, for they could be used by Soulcasters to create food.

The glass part of most spheres was the same size; the size of the gemstone at the center determined the denomination. The three chips, for instance, each had only a tiny splinter of diamond inside. Even that was enough to glow with Stormlight, far fainter than a lamp, but still visible. A mark—the medium denomination of sphere—was a little less bright than a candle, and it took five chips to make a mark.

She’d brought only infused spheres, as she’d heard that dun ones were considered suspect, and sometimes a moneylender would have to be brought in to judge the authenticity of the gemstone. She kept the most valuable spheres she had in her safepouch, of course, which was buttoned to the inside of her left sleeve.

She handed the three chips to Yalb, who cocked his head. She nodded at the porter, blushing, realizing that she’d reflexively used Yalb like a master-servant intermediary. Would he be offended?

He laughed and stood up stiffly, as if imitating a master-servant, paying the porter with a mock stern expression. The porter laughed, bowed to Shallan, then pulled his cart away.

“This is for you,” Shallan said, taking out a ruby mark and handing it to Yalb.

“Brightness, this is too much!”

“It’s partially out of thanks,” she said, “but is also to pay you to stay here and wait for a few hours, in case I return.”

“Wait a few hours for a firemark? That’s wages for a week’s sailing!”

“Then it should be enough to make certain you don’t wander off.”

“I’ll be right here!” Yalb said, giving her an elaborate bow that was surprisingly well-executed.

Shallan took a deep breath and strode up the steps toward the Conclave’s imposing entrance. The carved rock really was remarkable—the artist in her wanted to linger and study it, but she didn’t dare. Entering the large building was like being swallowed. The hallway inside was lined with Stormlight lamps that shone with white light. Diamond broams were probably set inside them; most buildings of fine construction used Stormlight to provide illumination. A broam—the highest denomination of sphere—glowed with about the same light as several candles.

Their light shone evenly and softly on the many attendants, scribes, and lighteyes moving through the hallway. The building appeared to be constructed as one broad, high, and long tunnel, burrowed into the rock. Grand chambers lined the sides, and subsidiary corridors branched off the central grand promenade. She felt far more comfortable than she had outdoors. This place—with its bustling servants, its lesser brightlords and brightladies—was familiar.

She raised her freehand in a sign of need, and sure enough, a master-servant in a crisp white shirt and black trousers hurried over to her. “Brightness?” he asked, speaking her native Veden, likely because of the color of her hair.

“I seek Jasnah Kholin,” Shallan said. “I have word that she is within these walls.”

The master-servant bowed crisply. Most master-servants prided themselves on their refined service—the very same air that Yalb had been mocking moments ago. “I shall return, Brightness.” He would be of the second nahn, a darkeyed citizen of very high rank. In Vorin belief, one’s Calling—the task to which one dedicated one’s life—was of vital importance. Choosing a good profession and working hard at it was the best way to ensure good placement in the afterlife. The specific devotary that one visited for worship often had to do with the nature of one’s chosen Calling.

Shallan folded her arms, waiting. She had thought long about her own Calling. The obvious choice was her art, and she did so love sketching. But it was more than just the drawing that attracted her—it was the study, the questions raised by observation. Why weren’t the skyeels afraid of people? What did haspers feed on? Why did a rat population thrive in one area, but fail in another? So she’d chosen natural history instead.

She longed to be a true scholar, to receive real instruction, to spend time on deep research and study. Was that part of why she’d suggested this daring plan of seeking out Jasnah and becoming her ward? Perhaps. However, she needed to remain focused. Becoming Jasnah’s ward—and therefore student—was only one step.

She considered this as she idly walked up to a pillar, using her freehand to feel the polished stone. Like much of Roshar—save for certain coastal regions—Kharbranth was built on raw, unbroken stone. The buildings outside had been set directly on the rock, and this one sliced into it. The pillar was granite, she guessed, though her geological knowledge was sketchy.

The floor was covered with long, burnt-orange rugs. The material was dense, designed to look rich but bear heavy traffic. The broad, rectangular hallway had an old feel to it. One book she’d read claimed that Kharbranth had been founded way back into the shadowdays, years before the Last Desolation. That would make it old indeed. Thousands of years old, created before the terrors of the Hierocracy, long before—even—the Recreance. Back when Voidbringers with bodies of stone were said to have stalked the land.

“Brightness?” a voice asked.

Shallan turned to find that the servant had returned.

“This way, Brightness.”

She nodded to the servant, and he led her quickly down the busy hallway. She went over how to present herself to Jasnah. The woman was a legend. Even Shallan—living in the remote estates of Jah Keved—had heard of the Alethi king’s brilliant, heretic sister. Jasnah was only thirty-four years old, yet many felt she would already have obtained the cap of a master scholar if it weren’t for her vocal denunciations of religion. Most specifically, she denounced the devotaries, the various religious congregations that proper Vorin people joined.

Improper quips would not serve Shallan well here. She would have to be proper. Wardship to a woman of great renown was the best way to be schooled in the feminine arts: music, painting, writing, logic, and science. It was much like how a young man would train in the honor guard of a brightlord he respected.

Shallan had originally written to Jasnah requesting a wardship in desperation; she hadn’t actually expected the woman to reply in the affirmative. When she had—via a letter commanding Shallan to attend her in Dumadari in two weeks—Shallan had been shocked. She’d been chasing the woman ever since.

Jasnah was a heretic. Would she demand that Shallan renounce her faith? She doubted she could do such a thing. Vorin teachings regarding one’s Glory and Calling had been one of her few refuges during the difficult days, when her father had been at his worst.

They turned into a narrower hallway, entering corridors increasingly far from the main cavern. Finally, the master-servant stopped at a corner and gestured for Shallan to continue. There were voices coming from the corridor to the right.

Shallan hesitated. Sometimes, she wondered how it had come to this. She was the quiet one, the timid one, the youngest of five siblings and the only girl. Sheltered, protected all her life. And now the hopes of her entire house rested on her shoulders.

Their father was dead. And it was vital that remain a secret.

She didn’t like to think of that day—she all but blocked it from her mind, and trained herself to think of other things. But the effects of his loss could not be ignored. He had made many promises—some business deals, some bribes, some of the latter disguised as the former. House Davar owed great amounts of money to a great number of people, and without her father to keep them all appeased, the creditors would soon begin making demands.

There was nobody to turn to. Her family, mostly because of her father, was loathed even by its allies. Highprince Valam—the brightlord to whom her family gave fealty—was ailing, and no longer offered them the protection he once had. When it became known that her father was dead and her family bankrupt, that would be the end of House Davar. They’d be consumed and subjugated to another house.

They’d be worked to the bone as punishment—in fact, they might even face assassination by disgruntled creditors. Preventing that depended on Shallan, and the first step came with Jasnah Kholin.

Shallan took a deep breath, then strode around the corner.

 

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“I’m dying, aren’t I? Healer, why do you take my blood? Who is that beside you, with his head of lines? I can see a distant sun, dark and cold, shining in a black sky.”

Collected on the 3rd of Jesnan, 1172, 11 seconds pre-death. Subject was a Reshi chull trainer. Sample is of particular note.

Why don’t you cry?” the windspren asked.

Kaladin sat with his back to the corner of the cage, looking down. The floor planks in front of him were splintered, as if someone had dug at them with nothing but his fingernails. The splintered section was stained dark where the dry grey wood had soaked up blood. A futile, delusional attempt at escape.

The wagon continued to roll. The same routine each day. Wake up sore and aching from a fitful night spent without mattress or blanket. One wagon at a time, the slaves were let out and hobbled with leg irons and given time to shuffle around and relieve themselves. Then they were packed away and given morning slop, and the wagons rolled until afternoon slop. More rolling. Evening slop, then a ladle of water before sleep.

Kaladin’s shash brand was still cracked and bleeding. At least the cage’s top gave shade from the sun.

The windspren shifted to mist, floating like a tiny cloud. She moved in close to Kaladin, the motion outlining her face at the front of the cloud, as if blowing back the fog and revealing something more substantial underneath. Vaporous, feminine, and angular. With such curious eyes. Like no other spren he’d seen.

“The others cry at night,” she said. “But you don’t.”

“Why cry?” he said, leaning his head back against the bars. “What would it change?”

“I don’t know. Why do men cry?”

He smiled, closing his eyes. “Ask the Almighty why men cry, little spren. Not me.” His forehead dripped with sweat from the Eastern summer humidity, and it stung as it seeped into his wound. Hopefully, they’d have some weeks of spring again soon. Weather and seasons were unpredictable. You never knew how long they would go on, though typically each would last a few weeks.

The wagon rolled on. After a time, he felt sunlight on his face. He opened his eyes. The sun shone in through the upper side of the cage. Two or three hours past noon, then. What of afternoon slop? Kaladin stood, pulling himself up with one hand on the steel bars. He couldn’t make out Tvlakv driving the wagon up ahead, only flat-faced Bluth behind. The mercenary had on a dirty shirt that laced up the front and wore a wide-brimmed hat against the sun, his spear and cudgel riding on the wagon bench beside him. He didn’t carry a sword—not even Tvlakv did that, not near Alethi land.

The grass continued to part for the wagons, vanishing just in front, then creeping out after the wagons passed. The landscape here was dotted with strange shrubs that Kaladin didn’t recognize. They had thick stalks and stems and spiny green needles. Whenever the wagons grew too close, the needles pulled into the stalks, leaving behind twisted, wormlike trunks with knotted branches. They dotted the hilly landscape, rising from the grass-covered rocks like diminutive sentries.

The wagons just kept on going, well past noon. Why aren’t we stopping for slop?

The lead wagon finally pulled to a stop. The other two lurched to a halt behind it, the red-carapaced chulls fidgeted, their antennae waving back and forth. The box-shaped animals had bulging, stony shells and thick, trunklike red legs. From what Kaladin had heard, their claws could snap a man’s arm. But chulls were docile, particularly domesticated ones, and he’d never known anyone in the army to get more than a halfhearted pinch from one.

Bluth and Tag climbed down from their wagons and walked up to meet Tvlakv. The slavemaster stood on his wagon’s seat, shading his eyes against the white sunlight and holding a sheet of paper in his hand. An argument ensued. Tvlakv kept waving in the direction they had been going, then pointing at his sheet of paper.

“Lost, Tvlakv?” Kaladin called. “Perhaps you should pray to the Almighty for guidance. I hear he has a fondness for slavers. Keeps a special room in Damnation just for you.”

To Kaladin’s left, one of the slaves—the long-bearded man who had talked to him a few days back—sidled away, not wanting to stand close to a person who was provoking the slaver.

Tvlakv hesitated, then waved curtly to his mercenaries, silencing them. The portly man hopped down from his wagon and walked over to Kaladin. “You,” he said. “Deserter. Alethi armies travel these lands for their war. Do you know anything of the area?”

“Let me see the map,” Kaladin said. Tvlakv hesitated, then held it up for Kaladin.

Kaladin reached through the bars and snatched the paper. Then, without reading it, Kaladin ripped it in two. In seconds he’d shredded it into a hundred pieces in front of Tvlakv’s horrified eyes.

Tvlakv called for the mercenaries, but by the time they arrived, Kaladin had a double handful of confetti to toss out at them. “Happy Middlefest, you bastards,” Kaladin said as the flakes of paper fluttered around them. He turned and walked to the other side of the cage and sat down, facing them.

Tvlakv stood, speechless. Then, red-faced, he pointed at Kaladin and hissed something at the mercenaries. Bluth took a step toward the cage, but then thought better of it. He glanced at Tvlakv, then shrugged and walked away. Tvlakv turned to Tag, but the other mercenary just shook his head, saying something soft.

After a few minutes of stewing at the cowardly mercenaries, Tvlakv rounded the cage and approached where Kaladin was sitting. Surprisingly, when he spoke, his voice was calm. “I see you are clever, deserter. You have made yourself invaluable. My other slaves, they aren’t from this area, and I have never come this way. You can bargain. What is it you wish in exchange for leading us? I can promise you an extra meal each day, should you please me.”

“You want me to lead the caravan?”

“Instructions will be acceptable.”

“All right. First, find a cliff.”

“That, it will give you a vantage to see the area?”

“No,” Kaladin said. “It will give me something to throw you off of.”

Tvlakv adjusted his cap in annoyance, brushing back one of his long white eyebrows. “You hate me. That is good. Hatred will keep you strong, make you sell for much. But you will not find vengeance on me unless I have a chance to take you to market. I will not let you escape. But perhaps someone else would. You want to be sold, you see?”

“I don’t want vengeance,” Kaladin said. The windspren came back—she’d darted off for a time to inspect one of the strange shrubs. She landed in the air and began walking around Tvlakv’s face, inspecting him. He didn’t seem to be able to see her.

Tvlakv frowned. “No vengeance?”

“It doesn’t work,” Kaladin said. “I learned that lesson long ago.”

“Long ago? You cannot be older than eighteen years, deserter.”

It was a good guess. He was nineteen. Had it really only been four years since he’d joined Amaram’s army? Kaladin felt as if he’d aged a dozen.

“You are young,” Tvlakv continued. “You could escape this fate of yours. Men have been known to live beyond the slave’s brand—you could pay off your slave price, you see? Or convince one of your masters to give you your freedom. You could become a free man again. It is not so unlikely.”

Kaladin snorted. “I’ll never be free of these brands, Tvlakv. You must know that I’ve tried—and failed—to escape ten times over. It’s more than these glyphs on my head that makes your mercenaries wary.”

“Past failure does not prove that there is not chance in the future, yes?”

“I’m finished. I don’t care.” He eyed the slaver. “Besides, you don’t actually believe what you’re saying. I doubt a man like you would be able to sleep at night if he thought the slaves he sold would be free to seek him out one day.”

Tvlakv laughed. “Perhaps, deserter. Perhaps you are right. Or perhaps I simply think that if you were to get free, you would hunt down the first man who sold you to slavery, you see? Highlord Amaram, was it not? His death would give me warning so I can run.”

How had he known? How had he heard about Amaram? I’ll find him, Kaladin thought. I’ll gut him with my own hands. I’ll twist his head right off his neck, I’ll

“Yes,” Tvlakv said, studying Kaladin’s face, “so you were not so honest when you said you do not thirst for vengeance. I see.”

“How do you know about Amaram?” Kaladin said, scowling. “I’ve changed hands a half-dozen times since then.”

“Men talk. Slavers more than most. We must be friends with one another, you see, for nobody else will stomach us.”

“Then you know that I didn’t get this brand for deserting.”

“Ah, but it is what we must pretend, you see? Men guilty of high crimes, they do not sell so well. With that shash glyph on your head, it will be difficult enough to get a good price for you. If I cannot sell you, then you … well, you will not wish for that status. So we will play a game together. I will say you are a deserter. And you will say nothing. It is an easy game, I think.”

“It’s illegal.”

“We are not in Alethkar,” Tvlakv said, “so there is no law. Besides, desertion was the official reason for your sale. Claim otherwise, and you will gain nothing but a reputation for dishonesty.”

“Nothing besides a headache for you.”

“But you just said you have no desire for vengeance against me.”

“I could learn.”

Tvlakv laughed. “Ah, if you have not learned that already, then you probably never will! Besides, did you not threaten to throw me off a cliff? I think you have learned already. But now, we must discuss how to proceed. My map has met with an untimely demise, you see.”

Kaladin hesitated, then sighed. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I’ve never been this way either.”

Tvlakv frowned. He leaned closer to the cage, inspecting Kaladin, though he still kept his distance. After a moment, Tvlakv shook his head. “I believe you, deserter. A pity. Well, I shall trust my memory. The map was poorly rendered anyway. I am almost glad you ripped it, for I was tempted to do the same myself. If I should happen across any portraits of my former wives, I shall see that they cross your path and take advantage of your unique talents.” He strolled away.

Kaladin watched him go, then cursed to himself.

“What was that for?” the windspren said, walking up to him, head cocked.

“I almost find myself liking him,” Kaladin said, pounding his head back against the cage.

“But … after what he did …”

Kaladin shrugged. “I didn’t say Tvlakv isn’t a bastard. He’s just a likable bastard.” He hesitated, then grimaced. “Those are the worst kind. When you kill them, you end up feeling guilty for it.”

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The wagon leaked during highstorms. That wasn’t surprising; Kaladin suspected that Tvlakv had been driven to slaving by ill fortune. He would rather be trading other goods, but something—lack of funds, a need to leave his previous environs with haste—had forced him to pick up this least reputable of careers.

Men like him couldn’t afford luxury, or even quality. They could barely stay ahead of their debts. In this case, that meant wagons which leaked. The boarded sides were strong enough to withstand highstorm winds, but they weren’t comfortable.

Tvlakv had almost missed getting ready for this highstorm. Apparently, the map Kaladin had torn up had also included a list of highstorm dates purchased from a roving stormwarden. The storms could be predicted mathematically; Kaladin’s father had made a hobby of it. He’d been able to pick the right day eight times out of ten.

The boards rattled against the cage’s bars as wind buffeted the vehicle, shaking it, making it lurch like a clumsy giant’s plaything. The wood groaned and spurts of icy rainwater sprayed through cracks. Flashes of lightning leaked through as well, accompanied by thunder. That was the only light they got.

Occasionally, light would flash without the thunder. The slaves would groan in terror at this, thinking about the Stormfather, the shades of the Lost Radiants, or the Voidbringers—all of which were said to haunt the most violent highstorms. They huddled together on the far side of the wagon, sharing warmth. Kaladin left them to it, sitting alone with his back to the bars.

Kaladin didn’t fear stories of things that walked the storms. In the army, he’d been forced to weather a highstorm or two beneath the lip of a protective stone overhang or other bit of impromptu shelter. Nobody liked to be out during a storm, but sometimes you couldn’t avoid it. The things that walked the storms—perhaps even the Stormfather himself—weren’t nearly so deadly as the rocks and branches cast up into the air. In fact, the storm’s initial tempest of water and wind—the stormwall—was the most dangerous part. The longer one endured after that, the weaker the storm grew, until the trailing edge was nothing more than sprinkling rain.

No, he wasn’t worried about Voidbringers looking for flesh to feast upon. He was worried that something would happen to Tvlakv. The slavemaster waited out the storm in a cramped wooden enclosure built into the bottom of his wagon. That was ostensibly the safest place in the caravan, but an unlucky twist of fate—a tempest-thrown boulder, the collapse of the wagon—could leave him dead. In that case, Kaladin could see Bluth and Tag running off, leaving everyone in their cages, wooden sides locked up. The slaves would die a slow death by starvation and dehydration, baking under the sun in these boxes.

The storm continued to blow, shaking the wagon. Those winds felt like live things at times. And who was to say they weren’t? Were windspren attracted to gusts of wind, or were they the gusts of wind? The souls of the force that now wanted so badly to destroy Kaladin’s wagon?

That force—sentient or not—failed. The wagons were chained to nearby boulders with their wheels locked. The blasts of wind grew more lethargic. Lightning stopped flashing, and the maddening drumming of rain became a quiet tapping instead. Only once during their journey had a wagon toppled during a highstorm. Both it and the slaves inside had survived with a few dents and bruises.

The wooden side to Kaladin’s right shook suddenly, then fell open as Bluth undid its clasps. The mercenary wore his leather coat against the wet, streams of water falling from the brim of his hat as he exposed the bars—and the occupants—to the rain. It was cold, though not as piercingly so as during the height of the storm. It sprayed across Kaladin and the huddled slaves. Tvlakv always ordered the wagons uncovered before the rain stopped; he said it was the only way to wash away the slaves’ stink.

Bluth slid the wooden side into place beneath the wagon, then opened the other two sides. Only the wall at the front of the wagon—just behind the driver’s seat—couldn’t be brought down.

“Little early to be taking down the sides, Bluth,” Kaladin said. It wasn’t quite the riddens yet—the period near the end of a highstorm when the rain sprinkled softly. This rain was still heavy, the wind still gusting on occasion.

“The master wants you plenty clean today.”

“Why?” Kaladin asked, rising, water streaming from his ragged brown clothing.

Bluth ignored him. Perhaps we’re nearing our destination, Kaladin thought as he scanned the landscape.

Over the last few days, the hills had given way to uneven rock formations—places where weathering winds had left behind crumbling cliffs and jagged shapes. Grass grew up the rocky sides that saw the most sun, and other plants were plentiful in the shade. The time right after a highstorm was when the land was most alive. Rockbud polyps split and sent out their vines. Other kinds of vine crept from crevices, licking up water. Leaves unfolded from shrubs and trees. Cremlings of all kinds slithered through puddles, enjoying the banquet. Insects buzzed into the air; larger crustaceans—crabs and leggers—left their hiding places. The very rocks seemed to come to life.

Kaladin noted a half-dozen windspren flitting overhead, their translucent forms chasing after—or perhaps cruising along with—the highstorm’s last gusts. Tiny lights rose around the plants. Lifespren. They looked like motes of glowing green dust or swarms of tiny translucent insects.

A legger—its hairlike spines lifted to the air to give warning of changes in the wind—climbed along the side of the cart, its long body lined with dozens of pairs of legs. That was familiar enough, but he’d never seen a legger with such a deep purple carapace. Where was Tvlakv taking the caravan? Those uncultivated hillsides were perfect for farming. You could spread stumpweight sap on them—mixed with lavis seeds—during seasons of weaker storms following the Weeping. In four months, you’d have polyps larger than a man’s head growing all along the hill, ready to break open for the grain inside.

The chulls lumbered about, feasting on rockbuds, slugs, and smaller crustaceans that had appeared after the storm. Tag and Bluth quietly hitched the beasts to their harnesses as a grumpy-looking Tvlakv crawled out of his waterproof refuge. The slavemaster pulled on a cap and deep black cloak against the rain. He rarely came out until the storm had passed completely; he was very eager to get to their destination. Were they that close to the coast? That was one of the only places where they’d find cities in the Unclaimed Hills.

Within minutes, the wagons were rolling again across the uneven ground. Kaladin settled back as the sky cleared, the highstorm a smudge of blackness on the western horizon. The sun brought welcome warmth, and the slaves basked in the light, streams of water dripping from their clothing and running out the back of the rocking wagon.

Presently, a translucent ribbon of light zipped up to Kaladin. He was coming to take the windspren’s presence for granted. She had gone out during the storm, but she’d come back. As always.

“I saw others of your kind,” Kaladin said idly.

“Others?” she asked, taking the form of a young woman. She began to step around him in the air, spinning occasionally, dancing to some unheard beat.

“Windspren,” Kaladin said. “Chasing after the storm. Are you certain you don’t want to go with them?”

She glanced westward, longingly. “No,” she finally said, continuing her dance. “I like it here.”

Kaladin shrugged. She’d ceased playing as many pranks as she once had, and so he’d stopped letting her presence annoy him.

“There are others near,” she said. “Others like you.”

“Slaves?”

“I don’t know. People. Not the ones here. Other ones.”

“Where?”

She turned a translucent white finger, pointing eastward. “There. Many of them. Lots and lots.”

Kaladin stood up. He couldn’t imagine that a spren had a good handle on how to measure distance and numbers. Yes … Kaladin squinted, studying the horizon. That’s smoke. From chimneys? He caught a gust of it on the wind; if not for the rain, he’d probably have smelled it sooner.

Should he care? It didn’t matter where he was a slave; he’d still be a slave. He’d accepted this life. That was his way now. Don’t care, don’t bother.

Still, he watched with curiosity as his wagon climbed the side of a hill and gave the slaves inside a good vantage of what was ahead. It wasn’t a city. It was something grander, something larger. An enormous army encampment.

“Great Father of Storms …” Kaladin whispered.

Ten masses of troops bivouacked in familiar Alethi patterns—circular, by company rank, with camp followers on the outskirts, mercenaries in a ring just inside them, citizen soldiers near the middle, lighteyed officers at the very center. They were camped in a series of enormous craterlike rock formations, only the sides were more irregular, more jagged. Like broken eggshells.

Kaladin had left an army much like this eight months ago, though Amaram’s force had been much smaller. This one covered miles of stone, stretching far both north and south. A thousand banners bearing a thousand different family glyphpairs flapped proudly in the air. There were some tents—mainly on the outside of the armies—but most of the troops were housed in large stone barracks. That meant Soulcasters.

That encampment directly ahead of them flew a banner Kaladin had seen in books. Deep blue with white glyphs—khokh and linil, stylized and painted as a sword standing before a crown. House Kholin. The king’s house.

Daunted, Kaladin looked beyond the armies. The landscape to the east was as he’d heard it described in a dozen different stories detailing the king’s campaign against the Parshendi betrayers. It was an enormous riven plain of rock—so wide he couldn’t see the other side—that was split and cut by sheer chasms, crevasses twenty or thirty feet wide. They were so deep that they disappeared into darkness and formed a jagged mosaic of uneven plateaus. Some large, others tiny. The expansive plain looked like a platter that had been broken, its pieces then reassembled with small gaps between the fragments.

“The Shattered Plains,” Kaladin whispered.

“What?” the windspren asked. “What’s wrong?”

Kaladin shook his head, bemused. “I spent years trying to get to this place. It’s what Tien wanted, in the end at least. To come here, fight in the king’s army …”

And now Kaladin was here. Finally. Accidentally. He felt like laughing at the absurdity. I should have realized, he thought. I should have known. We weren’t ever heading toward the coast and its cities. We were heading here. To war.

This place would be subject to Alethi law and rules. He’d expected that Tvlakv would want to avoid such things. But here, he’d probably also find the best prices.

“The Shattered Plains?” one of the slaves said. “Really?”

Others crowded around, peering out. In their sudden excitement, they seemed to forget their fear of Kaladin.

“It is the Shattered Plains!” another man said. “That’s the king’s army!”

“Perhaps we’ll find justice here,” another said.

“I hear the king’s household servants live as well as the finest merchants,” said another. “His slaves have to be better off too. We’ll be in Vorin lands; we’ll even make wages!”

That much was true. When worked, slaves had to be paid a small wage—half what a nonslave would be paid, which was already often less than a full citizen would make for the same work. But it was something, and Alethi law required it. Only ardents—who couldn’t own anything anyway—didn’t have to be paid. Well, them and parshmen. But parshmen were more animal than anything else.

A slave could apply his earnings to his slave debt and, after years of labor, earn his freedom. Theoretically. The others continued to chatter as the wagons rolled down the incline, but Kaladin withdrew to the back of the wagon. He suspected that the option to pay off a slave’s price was a sham, intended to keep slaves docile. The debt was enormous, far more than a slave sold for, and virtually impossible to earn out.

Under previous masters, he’d demanded his wages be given to him. They had always found ways to cheat him—charging him for his housing, his food. That’s how lighteyes were. Roshone, Amaram, Katarotam … Each lighteyes Kaladin had known, whether as a slave or a free man, had shown himself to be corrupt to the core, for all his outward poise and beauty. They were like rotting corpses clothed in beautiful silk.

The other slaves kept talking about the king’s army, and about justice. Justice? Kaladin thought, resting back against the bars. I’m not convinced there is such a thing as justice. Still, he found himself wondering. That was the king’s army—the armies of all ten highprinces—come to fulfill the Vengeance Pact.

If there was one thing he still let himself long for, it was the chance to hold a spear. To fight again, to try and find his way back to the man he had been. A man who had cared.

If he would find that anywhere, he’d find it here.

 

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“I have seen the end, and have heard it named. The Night of Sorrows, the True Desolation. The Everstorm.”

Collected on the 1st of Nanes, 1172, 15 seconds pre-death. Subject was a darkeyed youth of unknown origin.

Shallan had not expected Jasnah Kholin to be so beautiful.

It was a stately, mature beauty—as one might find in the portrait of some historical scholar. Shallan realized that she’d naively been expecting Jasnah to be an ugly spinster, like the stern matrons who had tutored her years ago. How else could one picture a heretic well into her mid-thirties and still unmarried?

Jasnah was nothing like that. She was tall and slender, with clear skin, narrow black eyebrows, and thick, deep onyx hair. She wore part of it up, wrapped around a small, scroll-shaped golden ornament with two long hairpins holding it in place. The rest tumbled down behind her neck in small, tight curls. Even twisted and curled as it was, it came down to Jasnah’s shoulders—if left unbound, it would be as long as Shallan’s hair, reaching past the middle of her back.

She had a squarish face and discriminating pale violet eyes. She was listening to a man dressed in robes of burnt orange and white, the Kharbranthian royal colors. Brightness Kholin was several fingers taller than the man—apparently, the Alethi reputation for height was no exaggeration. Jasnah glanced at Shallan, noting her, then returned to her conversation.

Stormfather! This woman was the sister of a king. Reserved, statuesque, dressed immaculately in blue and silver. Like Shallan’s dress, Jasnah’s buttoned up the sides and had a high collar, though Jasnah had a much fuller chest than Shallan. The skirts were loose below the waist, falling generously to the floor. Her sleeves were long and stately, and the left one was buttoned up to hide her safehand.

On her freehand was a distinctive piece of jewelry: two rings and a bracelet connected by several chains, holding a triangular group of gemstones across the back of the hand. A Soulcaster—the word was used for both the people who performed the process and the fabrial that made it possible.

Shallan edged into the room, trying to get a better look at the large, glowing gemstones. Her heart began to beat a little faster. The Soulcaster looked identical to the one she and her brothers had found in the inside pocket of her father’s coat.

Jasnah and the man in robes began walking in Shallan’s direction, still talking. How would Jasnah react, now that her ward had finally caught up to her? Would she be angry because of Shallan’s tardiness? Shallan couldn’t be blamed for that, but people often expect irrational things from their inferiors.

Like the grand cavern outside, this hallway was cut from the rock, but it was more richly furbished, with ornate hanging chandeliers made with Stormlit gemstones. Most were deep violet garnets, which were among the less valuable stones. Even so, the sheer number hanging there glistening with violet light would make the chandelier worth a small fortune. More than that, however, Shallan was impressed with the symmetry of the design and the beauty of the pattern of crystals hanging at the sides of the chandelier.

As Jasnah grew near, Shallan could hear some of what she was saying.

“… realize that this action might prompt an unfavorable reaction from the devotaries?” the woman said, speaking in Alethi. It was very near to Shallan’s native Veden, and she’d been taught to speak it well during her childhood.

“Yes, Brightness,” said the robed man. He was elderly, with a wispy white beard, and had pale grey eyes. His open, kindly face seemed very concerned, and he wore a squat, cylindrical hat that matched the orange and white of his robes. Rich robes. Was this some kind of royal steward, perhaps?

No. Those gemstones on his fingers, the way he carried himself, the way other lighteyed attendants deferred to him … Stormfather! Shallan thought. This has to be the king himself! Not Jasnah’s brother, Elhokar, but the king of Kharbranth. Taravangian.

Shallan hastily performed an appropriate curtsy, which Jasnah noted.

“The ardents have much sway here, Your Majesty,” Jasnah said with a smooth voice.

“As do I,” the king said. “You needn’t worry about me.”

“Very well,” Jasnah said. “Your terms are agreeable. Lead me to the location, and I shall see what can be done. If you will excuse me as we walk, however, I have someone to attend to.” Jasnah made a curt motion toward Shallan, waving her to join them.

“Of course, Brightness,” the king said. He seemed to defer to Jasnah. Kharbranth was a very small kingdom—just a single city—while Alethkar was one of the world’s most powerful. An Alethi princess might well outrank a Kharbranthian king in real terms, however protocol would have it.

Shallan hurried to catch up to Jasnah, who walked a little behind the king as he began to speak to his attendants. “Brightness,” Shallan said. “I am Shallan Davar, whom you asked to meet you. I deeply regret not being able to get to you in Dumadari.”

“The fault was not yours,” Jasnah said with a wave of the fingers. “I didn’t expect that you would make it in time. I wasn’t certain where I would be going after Dumadari when I sent you that note, however.”

Jasnah wasn’t angry; that was a good sign. Shallan felt some of her anxiety recede.

“I am impressed by your tenacity, child,” Jasnah continued. “I honestly didn’t expect you to follow me this far. After Kharbranth, I was going to forgo leaving you notes, as I’d presumed that you’d have given up. Most do so after the first few stops.”

Most? Then it was a test of some sort? And Shallan had passed?

“Yes indeed,” Jasnah continued, voice musing. “Perhaps I will actually allow you to petition me for a place as my ward.”

Shallan almost stumbled in shock. Petition her? Wasn’t that what she’d already done? “Brightness,” Shallan said, “I thought that … Well, your letter …”

Jasnah eyed her. “I gave you leave to meet me, Miss Davar. I did not promise to take you on. The training and care of a ward is a distraction for which I have little tolerance or time at the present. But you have traveled far. I will entertain your request, though understand that my requirements are strict.”

Shallan covered a grimace.

“No tantrum,” Jasnah noted. “That is a good sign.”

“Tantrum, Brightness? From a lighteyed woman?”

“You’d be surprised,” Jasnah said dryly. “But attitude alone will not earn your place. Tell me, how extensive is your education?”

“Extensive in some areas,” Shallan said. Then she hesitantly added, “Extensively lacking in others.”

“Very well,” Jasnah said. Ahead, the king seemed to be in a hurry, but he was old enough that even an urgent walk was still slow. “Then we shall do an evaluation. Answer truthfully and do not exaggerate, as I will soon discover your lies. Feign no false modesty, either. I haven’t the patience for a simperer.”

“Yes, Brightness.”

“We shall begin with music. How would you judge your skill?”

“I have a good ear, Brightness,” Shallan said honestly. “I’m best with voice, though I have been trained on the zither and the pipes. I would be far from the best you’d heard, but I’d also be far from the worst. I know most historical ballads by heart.”

“Give me the refrain from ‘Lilting Adrene.’ ”

“Here?”

“I’m not fond of repeating myself, child.”

Shallan blushed, but began to sing. It wasn’t her finest performance, but her tone was pure and she didn’t stumble over any of the words.

“Good,” Jasnah said as Shallan paused for a breath. “Languages?”

Shallan fumbled for a moment, bringing her attention away from frantically trying to remember the next verse. Languages? “I can speak your native Alethi, obviously,” Shallan said. “I have a passable reading knowledge of Thaylen and good spoken Azish. I can make myself understood in Selay, but not read it.”

Jasnah made no comment either way. Shallan began to grow nervous.

“Writing?” Jasnah asked.

“I know all of the major, minor, and topical glyphs and can paint them calligraphically.”

“So can most children.”

“The glyphwards that I paint are regarded by those who know me as quite impressive.”

“Glyphwards?” Jasnah said. “I had reason to believe you wanted to be a scholar, not a purveyor of superstitious nonsense.”

“I have kept a journal since I was a child,” Shallan continued, “in order to practice my writing skills.”

“Congratulations,” Jasnah said. “Should I need someone to write a treatise on their stuffed pony or give an account of an interesting pebble they discovered, I shall send for you. Is there nothing you can offer that shows you have true skill?”

Shallan blushed. “With all due respect, Brightness, you have a letter from me yourself, and it was persuasive enough to make you grant me this audience.”

“A valid point,” Jasnah said, nodding. “It took you long enough to make it. How is your training in logic and its related arts?”

“I am accomplished in basic mathematics,” Shallan said, still flustered, “and I often helped with minor accounts for my father. I have read through the complete works of Tormas, Nashan, Niali the Just, and—of course—Nohadon.”

“Placini?”

Who? “No.”

“Gabrathin, Yustara, Manaline, Syasikk, Shauka-daughter-Hasweth?”

Shallan cringed and shook her head again. That last name was obviously Shin. Did the Shin people even have logicmasters? Did Jasnah really expect her wards to have studied such obscure texts?

“I see,” Jasnah said. “Well, what of history?”

History. Shallan shrank down even further. “I … This is one of the areas where I’m obviously deficient, Brightness. My father was never able to find a suitable tutor for me. I read the history books he owned. …”

“Which were?”

“The entire set of Barlesha Lhan’s Topics, mostly.”

Jasnah waved her freehand dismissively. “Barely worth the time spent scribing them. A popular survey of historical events at best.”

“I apologize, Brightness.”

“This is an embarrassing hole. History is the most important of the literary subarts. One would think that your parents would have taken specific care in this area, if they’d hoped to submit you to study under a historian like myself.”

“My circumstances are unusual, Brightness.”

“Ignorance is hardly unusual, Miss Davar. The longer I live, the more I come to realize that it is the natural state of the human mind. There are many who will strive to defend its sanctity and then expect you to be impressed with their efforts.”

Shallan blushed again. She’d realized she had some deficiencies, but Jasnah had unreasonable expectations. She said nothing, continuing to walk beside the taller woman. How long was this hallway, anyway? She was so flustered she didn’t even look at the paintings they passed. They turned a corner, walking deeper into the mountainside.

“Well, let us move on to science, then,” Jasnah said, tone displeased. “What can you say of yourself there?”

“I have the reasonable foundation in the sciences you might expect of a young woman my age,” Shallan said, more stiffly than she would have liked.

“Which means?”

“I can speak with skill about geography, geology, physics, and chemistry. I’ve made particular study of biology and botany, as I was able to pursue them with a reasonable level of independence on my father’s estates. But if you expect me to be able to solve Fabrisan’s Conundrum with a wave of my hand, I suspect you shall be disappointed.”

“Have I not a right to make reasonable demands of my potential students, Miss Davar?”

“Reasonable? Your demands are about as reasonable as the ones made of the Ten Heralds on Proving Day! With all due respect, Brightness, you seem to want potential wards to be master scholars already. I may be able to find a pair of eighty-year-old ardents in the city who might fit your requirements. They could interview for the position, though they may have trouble hearing well enough to answer your questions.”

“I see,” Jasnah replied. “And do you speak with such pique to your parents as well?”

Shallan winced. Her time spent with the sailors had loosened her tongue far too much. Had she traveled all this way only to offend Jasnah? She thought of her brothers, destitute, keeping up a tenuous façade back home. Would she have to return to them in defeat, having squandered this opportunity? “I did not speak to them this way, Brightness. Nor should I to you. I apologize.”

“Well, at least you are humble enough to admit fault. Still, I am disappointed. How is it that your mother considered you ready for a wardship?”

“My mother passed away when I was just a child, Brightness.”

“And your father soon remarried. Malise Gevelmar, I believe.”

Shallan started at her knowledge. House Davar was ancient, but only of middling power and importance. The fact that Jasnah knew the name of Shallan’s stepmother said a lot about her. “My stepmother passed away recently. She didn’t send me to be your ward. I took this initiative upon myself.”

“My condolences,” Jasnah said. “Perhaps you should be with your father, seeing to his estates and comforting him, rather than wasting my time.”

The men walking ahead turned down another side passage. Jasnah and Shallan followed, entering a smaller corridor with an ornate red and yellow rug, mirrors hanging on the walls.

Shallan turned to Jasnah. “My father has no need of me.” Well, that was true. “But I have great need of you, as this interview itself has proven. If ignorance galls you so much, can you in good conscience pass up the opportunity to rid me of mine?”

“I’ve done so before, Miss Davar. You are the twelfth young woman to ask me for a wardship this year.”

Twelve? Shallan thought. In one year? And she’d assumed that women would stay away from Jasnah because of her antagonism toward the devotaries.

The group reached the end of the narrow hallway, turning a corner to find—to Shallan’s surprise—a place where a large chunk of rock had fallen from the ceiling. A dozen or so attendants stood here, some looking anxious. What was going on?

Much of the rubble had evidently been cleared away, though the gouge in the ceiling gaped ominously. It didn’t look out on the sky; they had been progressing downward, and were probably far underground. A massive stone, taller than a man, had fallen into a doorway on the left. There was no getting past it into the room beyond. Shallan thought she heard sounds on the other side. The king stepped up to the stone, speaking in a comforting voice. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his aged brow.

“The dangers of living in a building cut directly into the rock,” Jasnah said, striding forward. “When did this happen?” Apparently she hadn’t been summoned to the city specifically for this purpose; the king was simply taking advantage of her presence.

“During the recent highstorm, Brightness,” the king said. He shook his head, making his drooping, thin white mustache tremble. “The palace architects might be able to cut a way into the room, but it would take time, and the next highstorm is scheduled to hit in just a few days. Beyond that, breaking in might bring down more of the ceiling.”

“I thought Kharbranth was protected from the highstorms, Your Majesty,” Shallan said, causing Jasnah to shoot her a glance.

“The city is sheltered, young woman,” the king said. “But the stone mountain behind us is buffeted quite strongly. Sometimes it causes avalanches on that side, and that can cause the entire mountainside to shake.” He glanced at the ceiling. “Cave-ins are very rare, and we thought this area was quite safe, but …”

“But it is rock,” Jasnah said, “and there is no telling if a weak vein lurks just beyond the surface.” She inspected the monolith that had fallen from the ceiling. “This will be difficult. I will probably lose a very valuable focal stone.”

“I—” the king began, wiping his brow again. “If only we had a Shardblade—”

Jasnah cut him off with a wave of the hand. “I was not seeking to renegotiate our bargain, Your Majesty. Access to the Palanaeum is worth the cost. You will want to send someone for wet rags. Have the majority of the servants move down to the other end of the hallway. You may wish to wait there yourself.”

“I will stay here,” the king said, causing his attendants to object, including a large man wearing a black leather cuirass, probably his bodyguard. The king silenced them by raising his wrinkled hand. “I will not hide like a coward when my granddaughter is trapped.”

No wonder he was so anxious. Jasnah didn’t argue further, and Shallan could see from her eyes that it was of no consequence to her if the king risked his life. The same apparently went for Shallan, for Jasnah didn’t order her away. Servants approached with wetted cloths and distributed them. Jasnah refused hers. The king and his bodyguard raised theirs to their faces, covering mouth and nose.

Shallan took hers. What was the point of it? A couple of servants passed some wet cloths through a space between the rock and the wall to those inside. Then all of the servants rushed away down the hallway.

Jasnah picked and prodded at the boulder. “Miss Davar,” she said, “what method would you use to ascertain the mass of this stone?”

Shallan blinked. “Well, I suppose I’d ask His Majesty. His architects probably calculated it.”

Jasnah cocked her head. “An elegant response. Did they do that, Your Majesty?”

“Yes, Brightness Kholin,” the king said. “It’s roughly fifteen thousand kavals.”

Jasnah eyed Shallan. “A point in your favor, Miss Davar. A scholar knows not to waste time rediscovering information already known. It’s a lesson I sometimes forget.”

Shallan felt herself swell at the words. She already had an inkling that Jasnah did not give such praise lightly. Did this mean that the woman was still considering her as a ward?

Jasnah held up her freehand, Soulcaster glistening against the skin. Shallan felt her heartbeat speed up. She’d never seen Soulcasting done in person. The ardents were very secretive in using their fabrials, and she hadn’t even known that her father had one until they’d found it on him. Of course, his no longer worked. That was one of the main reasons she was here.

The gemstones set into Jasnah’s Soulcaster were enormous, some of the largest that Shallan had ever seen, worth many spheres each. One was smokestone, a pure glassy black gemstone. The second was a diamond. The third was a ruby. All three were cut—a cut stone could hold more Stormlight—into glistening, many-faceted oval shapes.

Jasnah closed her eyes, pressing her hand against the fallen boulder. She raised her head, inhaling slowly. The stones on the back of her hand began to glow more fiercely, the smokestone in particular growing so bright it was difficult to look at.

Shallan held her breath. The only thing she dared do was blink, committing the scene to memory. For a long, extended moment, nothing happened.

And then, briefly, Shallan heard a sound. A low thrumming, like a distant group of voices, humming together a single, pure note.

Jasnah’s hand sank into the rock.

The stone vanished.

A burst of dense black smoke exploded into the hallway. Enough to blind Shallan; it seemed the output of a thousand fires, and smelled of burned wood. Shallan hastily raised the wet rag to her face, dropping to her knees. Oddly, her ears felt stopped up, as if she’d climbed down from a great height. She had to swallow to pop them.

She shut her eyes tightly as they began to water, and she held her breath. Her ears filled with a rushing sound.

It passed. She blinked open her eyes to find the king and his bodyguard huddled against the wall beside her. Smoke still pooled at the ceiling; the hallway smelled strongly of it. Jasnah stood, eyes still closed, oblivious of the smoke—though grime now dusted her face and clothing. It had left marks on the walls too.

Shallan had read of this, but she was still in awe. Jasnah had transformed the boulder into smoke, and since smoke was far less dense than stone, the change had pushed the smoke away in an explosive outburst.

It was true; Jasnah really did have a functioning Soulcaster. And a powerful one too. Nine out of ten Soulcasters were capable of a few limited transformations: creating water or grain from stone; forming bland, single roomed rock buildings out of air or cloth. A greater one, like Jasnah’s, could effectuate any transformation. Literally turn any substance into any other one. How it must grate on the ardents that such a powerful, holy relic was in the hands of someone outside the ardentia. And a heretic no less!

Shallan stumbled to her feet, leaving the cloth at her mouth, breathing humid but dust-free air. She swallowed, her ears popping again as the hall’s pressure returned to normal. A moment later, the king rushed into the now-accessible room. A small girl—along with several nursemaids and other palace servants—sat on the other side, coughing. The king pulled the girl into his arms. She was too young to have a modesty sleeve.

Jasnah opened her eyes, blinking, as if momentarily confused by her location. She took a deep breath, and didn’t cough. Indeed, she actually smiled, as if enjoying the scent of the smoke.

Jasnah turned to Shallan, focusing on her. “You are still waiting for a response. I’m afraid you will not like what I say.”

“But you haven’t finished your testing of me yet,” Shallan said, forcing herself to be bold. “Surely you won’t give judgment until you have.”

“I haven’t finished?” Jasnah asked, frowning.

“You didn’t ask me about all of the feminine arts. You left out painting and drawing.”

“I have never had much use for them.”

“But they are of the arts,” Shallan said, feeling desperate. This was where she was most accomplished! “Many consider the visual arts the most refined of them all. I brought my portfolio. I would show you what I can do.”

Jasnah pursed her lips. “The visual arts are frivolity. I have weighed the facts, child, and I cannot accept you. I’m sorry.”

Shallan’s heart sank.

“Your Majesty,” Jasnah said to the king, “I would like to go to the Palanaeum.”

“Now?” the king said, cradling his granddaughter. “But we are going to have a feast—”

“I appreciate the offer,” Jasnah said, “but I find myself with an abundance of everything but time.”

“Of course,” the king said. “I will take you personally. Thank you for what you’ve done. When I heard that you had requested entrance …” He continued to babble at Jasnah, who followed him wordlessly down the hallway, leaving Shallan behind.

She clutched her satchel to her chest, lowering the cloth from her mouth. Six months of chasing, for this. She gripped the rag in frustration, squeezing sooty water between her fingers. She wanted to cry. That was what she probably would have done if she’d been that same child she had been six months ago.

But things had changed. She had changed. If she failed, House Davar would fall. Shallan felt her determination redouble, though she wasn’t able to stop a few tears of frustration from squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. She was not going to give up until Jasnah was forced to truss her up in chains and have the authorities drag her away.

Her step surprisingly firm, she walked in the direction Jasnah had gone. Six months ago, she had explained a desperate plan to her brothers. She would apprentice herself to Jasnah Kholin, scholar, heretic. Not for the education. Not for the prestige. But in order to learn where she kept her Soulcaster.

And then Shallan would steal it.

Copyright © 2010 by Brandon Sanderson

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Cat Waxing 101

Image Placeholder of - 99Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues with a guest post from Elizabeth Bear, author of the Eternal Sky series beginning with Range of Ghosts (and many other works of fantasy and science fiction), about the esoteric practices that make a successful writer. A new book set in the world of the Eternal Sky series, The Stone in the Skullwill be available October 10th.

By Elizabeth Bear

Over the years, I have written a great many articles and blog posts dealing with the nuances of the publishing industry, but there’s one topic I’ve never touched on before.

It’s one of the arcane secrets of the successful writer, jealously guarded. One of the secret handshakes of the clubhouse of publishing success.

Only now, with the cooperation of Tor, can I reveal it to you—and I’m risking my career and perhaps even my very safety to do so. It’s something every writer needs to know, and from time immemorial that secret has been passed down in back rooms and at two a.m. sessions in convention bars.

I speak of “How to wax a cat.”

I can’t count, over the years, the number of times a dewy-eyed young would-be author has looked at me in surprise and horror after overhearing a few casual lines passed between more established writers. “Bear!” they cry. “You are an animal lover! Why would you do something so terribly cruel?

Well, Grasshoppers, I am here now to reveal a great secret. The cat is a metaphor.

Cat-waxing (also known as cat vacuuming to some) is something writers undertake in order to complete important research, to give the brain the time it needs to do the subconscious processing so essential to creative work. There are a number of techniques, but here’s how I handle it.

First, you must determine if you wish to wax your cat for shininess, or for smoothness. Both have advantages—reducing allergens, waterproofing—but if you are going to wax your cat for smoothness I recommend sedating it first—for the comfort of the cat, and the safety of the human.

In either case, before you commence waxing, you must first create a clean and dust-free environment in which to wax. Dust will adhere readily to a freshly waxed cat, and then you’ll just have to start all over again. To create a proper waxing environment, select a space that you can completely control, clean it thoroughly, and drape it in plastic sheeting. You’ll want to wear a freshly laundered white-cotton full-body coverall or perhaps a Nuclear-Biological-Chemical suit as well, to avoid getting fibers from your clothes stuck in the cat wax.

The television show Dexter provides an excellent model of the sort of environment that’s best.

Having prepared your waxing chamber, it’s important to secure a good wax. There are several dedicated brands of cat wax which do an excellent job, and a number of writers use non-proprietary waxes, such as Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax (despite the name, intended for surfboards) or Homer Formby’s furniture wax. You will likely wish to experiment with a variety of waxes before making your final selection.

Once you have secured the cat, the space, the sedative, and the wax, you will also require a source of warm water and some dust-free cloths. First, grasp your cat gently but firmly by the scruff…

…oh, I see we’re out of time.

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(This is a rerun of a post that originally ran on March 5, 2012.)

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The Eterna Files: Prologue and Chapters 1-3

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Image Placeholder of - 18Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from The Eterna Files, a gaslamp fantasy about the quest to find the secret to immortality. The final book in the series, The Eterna Solution, will be available November 14th.

London, 1882: Queen Victoria appoints Harold Spire of the Metropolitan Police to Special Branch Division Omega. Omega is to secretly investigate paranormal and supernatural events and persons. Spire, a skeptic driven to protect the helpless and see justice done, is the perfect man to lead the department, which employs scholars and scientists, assassins and con men, and a traveling circus. Spire’s chief researcher is Rose Everhart, who believes fervently that there is more to the world than can be seen by mortal eyes.

Their first mission: find the Eterna Compound, which grants immortality. Catastrophe destroyed the hidden laboratory in New York City where Eterna was developed, but the Queen is convinced someone escaped—and has a sample of Eterna.

Also searching for Eterna is an American, Clara Templeton, who helped start the project after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln nearly destroyed her nation. Haunted by the ghost of her beloved, she is determined that the Eterna Compound—and the immortality it will convey—will be controlled by the United States, not Great Britain.

PROLOGUE

The White House, April 16, 1865

The sanity of a bloodied nation hung by a precarious thread. Hundreds of thousands of bodies rotted in mass graves. Mountains of arms and legs lay just beneath the earth in countless pits of appendages. Thousands of young men had been torn into wingless birds, stunned, harrowed, and half whole. No one had gone untouched by the war; everyone was haunted.

A gunshot in a theater tipped the straining scales and the nation’s battered, broken heart faltered and stopped.

This was the world in which twelve-year-old Clara Templeton grieved. She wept for her land with the kind of passion only a young, gifted sensitive could offer. When she was called to the side of the first lady, she did not hesitate.

Clad in a black taffeta mourning gown, Clara stood in a dimly candlelit hallway outside the first lady’s rooms, awaiting admittance alongside her guardian, Congressman Rupert Bishop, aged twenty-five—though his prematurely silver hair gave one pause as to his age. He’d been silver-haired as long as she’d known him. When she’d asked about it with a child’s tactlessness, he’d simply responded with a wink and a smile: “It’s the fault of the ghosts.” Soon after, Bishop took her to her first séance and Clara began to understand just how dangerous the thrall of ghosts could be.…

A red-eyed maid opened the door and gestured them in.

Inside the small but well-appointed room, a low fire mitigated a cool draft and cast most of the light in the room. Mary Todd Lincoln sat on a chair in the shadows, staring out a small window, her bell-sleeved, black crepe dress spilling out in all directions. Only the ticking of a fine clock on the mantel and the occasional sniff from the weeping maid broke the silence. The congressman beckoned Clara forward, into the firelight. Her step creaked upon the floorboards as her petite body cast a long shadow behind her.

Finally the first lady spoke in a quiet tremor. “Do you know why I called you here, Miss Templeton?”

“I’ve a supposition,” Clara replied quietly, nervously moving forward another step. “But first, Mrs. Lincoln, my deepest sympathies—”

“When your guardian here first brought you to visit the White House two years ago, you ran up to me, a perfect stranger, and gave me an embrace from my William. My dead William.”

“Yes, Mrs. Lincoln,” Clara murmured, “I remember—”

“I need you now, Miss Templeton,” the first lady began with a slightly wild look in her eyes, “to give me an embrace from my dead husband.”

Alarmed, Clara looked at Bishop, her eyes wide. The tall, elegantly handsome man lifted a calming, gloved hand and Clara attempted to gather herself

“I … well,” she stammered, “I’m unsure my gifts can work on command, Mrs.—”

“Try!” the grieving widow wailed, turning to face the girl, her face drawn and hollowed. Clara rushed over and fell to her knees beside the first lady, removing her kid gloves to take Mary’s shaking, bare hands into hers.

“I know that he is with you,” Clara murmured, tears falling from her bright green-gold eyes. “The president is with all who mourn him—”

“Prove it,” Mary Todd murmured. She snapped her head toward the door. “Rupert. You’re a spiritualist, have you not trained Miss Templeton since she became your ward?”

“Only charlatans cue up the dead precisely when the grieving want them, Mary, you know that,” Bishop said gently. “And this is far too vulnerable a time to try.” He shivered suddenly. “Too many things want in. We risk inviting malevolence, not comfort.”

“No one should ever have to suffer what I have—” the first lady choked out.

“No, they shouldn’t,” Clara replied. “Never.”

“The country can bear no more,” Bishop added quietly, his fine black mourning coat making him almost invisible in the shadows by the door. “We must guard against the basest evils grasping for purchase—”

“What could be more evil than what I have endured?” the first lady exclaimed.

The last two years had taught Clara that Rupert Bishop coddled no one, even the grieving. She spoke before he could offer another example of his oft-sobering perspective. “Such a powerful seat needs protection,” Clara exclaimed, squeezing the widow’s shaking hands with innocent, sure strength. “Such a man should never have fallen. He deserved to have been made immortal!”

“Why … yes, child!” Mary Lincoln exclaimed, a sudden light in her eyes. “Do we not have resources, researchers, scientists, theorists? Should we not have granted a man like the president eternal protection while he bore the nation on his shoulders? My dear Congressman Bishop…”

The small woman rose to her feet and began to pace the room, skirts swishing and sweeping with renewed determination.

“I charge you,” she said, bright gaze fastened on Bishop. “If you’ll not bring my husband back to me in spirit or form, then you must do this. Take Clara’s idea. For this bled-dry country. For the seat cloaked in immense power. Do this, Congressman, so no other wife in this dreadful house might go through such agony again.…”

“Do what, Mary?” he pressed.

She stared at him with steely ferocity. “Find a cure for death.”

 

Seventeen Years Later, New York City, 1882

“It was born of good intentions,” Clara insisted in a choking murmur.

She sat on a bench in Central Park on a mild June day, beneath a willow tree, looking out over the southeastern pond. She could not move. Her breath was shallow against the double stays of corset and buttoned bodice; soft ivory lace and muslin ruffles trembled around her throat. Tendrils of dark blond hair, blown free from braids beneath a fanciful straw feathered hat, tickled around her streaming eyes. Her world was again cracking open.

“Wake up,” she heard a voice calling. “Wake up.” It was not a human voice but that of some ancient, cosmic force.

She had known there was something different about her since the age of nine, since she’d awakened in the middle of the night to see a wild-haired woman in a cloak sitting at the foot of her bed.

“You’re special,” was all the woman said before vanishing.

The next day, Clara’s father, a prominent doctor to Washington lawmakers, died of tuberculosis. Her mother soon followed. They were buried in a Greenwood Cemetery mausoleum in their native Brooklyn. Clara was the marble sepulcher’s most frequent haunt. The Templetons’ will ensured that Clara would be educated at fine institutions and looked after by prominent figures.

Rupert Bishop, then a talented young New York lawyer, frequented the same Washington and spiritualist circles as the Templetons. A beloved family friend, he stepped in to graciously provide for the girl left behind. Bitterly estranged from their Southern families after the war, the Templetons hoped Clara’s manifest spiritual talents would blossom under Bishop’s care and guidance. She indeed flourished, until her gifts turned physically dangerous and had to be carefully monitored.

The visitor returned the night Bishop brought Clara to the White House the first time; Clara saw the creature watching her from the shadows. She had not seen the strange herald since, not even after that fateful second encounter with the first lady, a meeting that had set an unlikely destiny in motion.

Paperwork left on the slain president’s desk established a “Secret Service” to investigate counterfeit currency. A tiny cabal, headed by Bishop, supposed the service might also, in some unnamed office, investigate immortality. Bishop assembled a team of occultists, mystics, and chemists and set them to work in a secret location.

Once Clara completed finishing school, Bishop gave her a key to a nondescript office on Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan. A county clerk’s record office on the first floor served as a front. Clara’s offices—and those of the colleagues she and Bishop hired—took up the top floor. Congressman Bishop became Senator Bishop. A quiet era of investigation and theorizing followed.

In 1880, Eterna theorist Louis Dupris secretly told Clara that he’d made a breakthrough in localized magic. The world had suddenly seemed full of possibility. But now …

The Eterna Compound had been born out of grief. At this moment Clara wondered if it should never have been born at all, for now it bore grief of its own.

“Something’s wrong,” Clara murmured, wanting to cry but feeling wholly paralyzed. “I can feel it.…” All of Clara that had ever been could feel it; a love torn from her like layers of skin.

Before her eyes, in layers of concentric circles stretching out like mirrors reflecting mirrors in dizzying multiplication, she saw lives. Her lives, those she’d had before. She was twenty-nine years old … with a soul a thousand years older.

Pried open in a painful awakening, she knew her life was far more than the boundaries and limitations of her current flesh, but at present she felt the pain of all those centuries all at once, things done and undone. The sheer, heavy press of it all was staggering.

A mockingbird alighted on a branch above Clara’s head. It squawked and stared at her, then made the sounds of a police whistle, a bicycle bell, and some roaring, whooshing thing: the sound of something tearing.

And then there was a woman next to her. The visitor.

Though she couldn’t turn her head, in her peripheral vision Clara saw skirts, gloves, and long hair that was scandalously unbound. The presence of the visitor confirmed what she was feeling; something terrible was happening. Clara tried to move again, to fight the gravity lashing her to the bench, wishing tears, something, anything could be set free.

“What is it this time?” Clara gasped.

“Hello, Clara,” the visitor said quietly. One didn’t mistake an ordinary person for the visitor, for it brought with it the weight of time itself. “It’s been awhile.” The visitor smoothed the skirts of its long, plain, black, uniform-like dress, something a boarding school girl might wear. “Have you been waiting?” the visitor asked.

“I’m not one who likes waiting,” Clara replied.

“That’s why I trust you,” the visitor said, pleasure in its voice. “I last saw you when you impetuously gave the first lady an embrace from her dead son.”

The mockingbird gave a raucous trill from the limb above them. The woman adjusted what Clara thought was a hat—she still couldn’t get a good look. The mockingbird had flown across the path and alighted on a limb at her eye line, trilling accompaniment to their conversation.

“You presage terrible things but I never know what,” Clara growled.

“You’ve always been gifted,” the visitor replied. “Sensitive.”

“And we see what good sensitivity has done me.” Clara choked out her words. “I’m a freak of nature. My ‘fits’ render any hope I might have had for a normal life or a place in society laughable. I curse my gifts for all the misfortune they bring.” Embarrassing, traumatic memories paraded through her mind, her past lives staring on in pity. Clara hated pity. Perhaps it was best, then, that the visitor had none.

“Don’t be ungrateful, child,” the visitor chided. “You’ve two friends in a world of loneliness, you had a lover when many never know such pleasure, you’ve worked when hordes seek pay, you’ve had a guardian who dotes on you when countless orphans have no one, and you’ve money and a fine house in a city that denies both to thousands of its denizens.”

Clara wanted to lash out at the creature. But it was right, which only sharpened her pain.

“Something terrible has happened, hasn’t it? To the Eterna team?” she whispered, her throat raw as if from screaming even though she had loosed no such sound. “To my Louis? My love is among them.…”

An amulet of protection, tucked beneath her corset stays, was a knot against her shaking breaths. The amulet had been given to her by Louis, an item charged and blessed by his mother. Clara never felt she had the right to it, and now, he, who needed protection, lacked it

“I am very sorry for your loss,” the visitor said solemnly.

“I must go,” Clara insisted, trying to fight free but failing. “Maybe I can help the team—”

The visitor held up a hand. “It’s no use. They’re gone.”

“Why can’t you stop terrible things if you’re aware of them?” Clara demanded. “Why can’t I?”

“Not in our skill set,” the visitor replied. “You’ve taken too much ownership of something that is not your responsibility, Templeton. What is your responsibility, is to—”

“‘Wake up?’ Yes, I hear it, on the wind. In my bones. What does it mean?”

The woman gestured before her, to Clara’s iterations. “You see the lives, don’t you?”

“Yes.” Clara swallowed hard. “Do you?”

“Of course I do,” the visitor replied. “I’m here to tell you that a great storm is coming. It will break across two continents; two great cities, the hearts of empires. Your team is gone and storms are coming. Weather them, find special souls and shield them. Second-guess your enemy. Find the missing link between the lives you see. Do this for yourself. And for your country.”

Clara snorted bitterly. “Do I hear patriotism?”

The visitor shook its head. “I owe allegiance to no land.”

“Then what are you here for?” Clara begged.

The visitor’s voice grew warm. “I care about certain people.”

“Why me?”

Show me why you, Templeton,” the visitor proclaimed. “You’re at the center of the storm. Be worthy of the squall.”

The mockingbird made the strange, roaring sound again and the woman was gone.

Clara’s hands shook. The people she had been in her many lives turned and looked at her, male, female, all with certain similar qualities that she recognized as uniquely hers. Curiosity. Hunger. Restlessness. Intensity. Independence. A desperate desire for noble purpose. And lonely.

She was awake. But Eterna had died, taking with it the lover no one knew she had.

 

CHAPTER ONE

London, 1882

Harold Spire had been pacing until first light, crawling out of his skin to close his God-forsaken case. The moment the tentative sun poked over the chimney tops of Lambeth—though it did not successfully permeate London’s sooty haze—he raced out the door to meet his appointed contact.

Conveniently, there was a fine black hansom just outside his door. Spire shouted his destination at the driver as he threw open the door and launched himself into the carriage. He was startled to find that the cab already had an occupant: a short, balding man, immaculately but distinctly dressed; as one might expect of a royal footman.

“Hello, Mr. Spire,” the man said calmly.

Spire’s stomach dropped; his right hand hovered over his left wrist, where he kept a small, sharp knife in a simple cuff. Surely this was one of Tourney’s henchmen; the villain was well connected and would do anything to save his desperate hide.

“Do not be alarmed, sir,” the stranger said. “We are en route to Buckingham Palace on orders of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

“Is there a problem?” Spire asked, maintaining a calm tone, relaxing his hand but offering up a silent prayer to whatever God was decent and good that the queen would not have interceded on the wretch’s behalf.…

“No, sir. You are being considered for an appointment. I can say nothing more.”

“An … appointment.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m afraid I cannot attend to this great honor at present, sir.”

The man arched a preened brow. “Beg your pardon?”

“With all due respect,” Spire continued, not bothering to hide the earnest desperation he felt, “I am a policeman at a critical juncture, awaiting receipt of vital material without which a vicious criminal might walk free—”

“And what shall I tell Her Majesty? That you’re too busy for her?”

Spire set his jaw, looking anxiously out the window, seeing that they were heading in the opposite direction from where he needed to be at precisely seven. “Please tell Her Majesty that I’m about to stop a ring of child murderers and resurrectionists. Burkes and Hares. Body snatchers—”

“That will have to wait. Mere police work does not come before Her Majesty.”

“I think highly enough of Her Majesty to think she’d deem this important.”

“I am under orders to take you to the palace regardless of prevarication—”

“I wouldn’t dare lie about a thing like this!”

“Once Her Majesty has determined your suitability, you’ll be returned to your duties.”

“You’ll have to give the empress my sincere regrets. She may be able to live with one more child dead in her realm but I, sir, cannot.”

With that, Spire opened the door of the moving carriage and cast himself onto flagstones slick with the foul mixture of the London streets. His heel turned slightly under him and he came down painfully; his elbow jarred against stone and his forearm cut against the brace that held his knife sheath. He jumped to his feet and ran—with a slight limp—veering onto a bridge across the busy, teeming, brown Thames and onward to a life-or-death rendezvous.

He’d likely be arrested for his evasion, but his conscience was utterly clear.

#  #  #

Spire’s right hand hovered over his left forearm as he entered the damp brick alley, which was lit sporadically by gas jets whose light was dim behind blackened lantern glass. Even though the world was brightening with the gray of morning, sunlight didn’t penetrate into these drear, winding halls of sooty brick, London having its labyrinthine qualities. He made his tread soundless on the cobblestones, his eyes aware of every shadow and shape, his ears alert, his nostrils flared.

While he doubted his informant was dangerous—it was all bookkeeping, really, he imagined the source was a bank clerk or the like—what the ledgers revealed was something else entirely. The proof itself was dangerous and many men would kill with far less provocation. If “Gazelle” proved trustworthy, Spire would recruit the man for his department.

He palmed the key Gazelle had left in the drop location at Cleopatra’s Needle. If all had gone according to plan, Gazelle would have left enough evidence at this bookstore to prove without a shadow of a doubt that Francis Tourney was bankrupting charitable societies in a speculation racket that would make any betting man blush. That he was also involved in a child-trafficking ring of both living and dead young bodies was harder to prove, but far more damning.

The key opened the rear-alley door of the bookshop. A small lantern was lit somewhere within, casting a wan yellow light over stacks of spines. Spire knocked on the wooden door frame: three taps, a pause, and two more.

A quiet rap in response, from somewhere within the maze of books, confirmed that his informant was waiting. Spire edged his way through boxes and stacks—one stray limb could cause the whole precarious haphazard system to tumble—toward the source of the light.

He turned a corner of books and stopped dead in his tracks. There sat a woman who had gotten him into a good bit of trouble—the prime minister’s best-kept secret, his bookkeeper, one Miss Rose Everhart. Poised as ever, seated at a long wooden table; the lit lantern cast her scowl of concentration into sharp relief as layered bell sleeves spilled over a stack of thin spines. One ledger lay, open, under her hand; she ran ungloved fingertips over the pages.

She wasn’t stunning, but unique; her full mouth, set now in a frown, gave her a gravitas offset by the few loose brown curls around her cheeks, an almost whimsical contrast to her fastidious expression. When she looked up at Spire, the intensity and razor-sharp focus of her large blue eyes made her intriguing, magnetic.

“You’re surprised to see a woman,” she said. It was not a question.

“Yes.” Spire spoke very carefully. “Especially one I recognize.” At this, she smiled, a prim, self-satisfied smile. “You made quite an impression, Miss Everhart. A cloaked female figure glimpsed wandering the halls of Parliament, only to disappear into a wall? I didn’t buy the story that you were a specter.”

“The too-curious Westminster policeman. So we meet again,” she said with an edge. “The eager dog sniffing out a fox. My employers, who were granting me the easiest access to my job while hoping to avoid any national outcry, were not fond of you. And I confess, nor was I. It was bad enough to have to sneak about, then to be thought suspect for it when I am a patriot? Horrible.”

“Yes, I was quite chastised about that by your superior, Lord Black,” Spire muttered, “so you needn’t pile on.” He wondered with sudden fear if that’s why the queen wished to see him: more scolding. Spire’s purview was Westminster and its immediate environs. When he’d stumbled upon Miss Everhart, he’d merely been doing his job. Tourney’s speculation ring involved members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so it was perhaps not surprising that Spire had thought that the prime minister’s bookkeeper had access others did not.

At the mention of Lord Black, Miss Everhart smiled and warmed. She stood suddenly, as if on ceremony, gesturing for Spire to sit at the bench opposite. While she was primly buttoned in dour blues and grays, her skirts and bodice were tailored in unique lines and accented with the occasional bauble that made Spire think a subtle bohemian lived somewhere deep beneath her proper corset laces.

“We have enough on the racketeering for a compelling case,” she said, handing several ledgers across the table.

“Good,” he said, nodding.

“But it’s this that will deliver the decisive blow,” she murmured, and shuddered. She passed him a narrow, thin black book that she didn’t seem eager to touch. The cover said, “Registry.”

“What’s this? Did you collect this from the banks?”

“No. From Tourney’s study.” At Spire’s raised eyebrow, Miss Everhart clarified, “After I showed him the numbers, Lord Black arranged for Sir Tourney to attend some sort of speculators’ gala. Black stamped a warrant and found this.”

“Himself?” Spire asked, incredulous.

“Lord Black had been feted at the Tourney estate, so sending him in was the most efficient. He knew to look for anything out of the ordinary. And this is hardly ordinary.”

Shocked by a lord’s unorthodox method but impressed by the man’s initiative, Spire opened the book. Small, dark marks and round smudges marched down the pages in boxes made up of thin graphite lines. A few letters—initials, Spire guessed—were penciled above each dot.

On one side of the page, the dots were dark red. On the other side, the small marks were black. At the top of each page was a single large letter: “L” above the red marks and “D” above the black.

Horror dawned, slow and sick, as Spire stared at the lines of dots and initials. Dots the size of a child’s fingertip.

“Living.” Spire’s finger hovered over the “L.”

Then he moved to the “D.” “Deceased”

Oh, God. They were children’s fingerprints. Swabbed in their blood. Or, if their bodies had been stolen when dead, their fingers dipped in ink and pressed to the page.

A registry of stolen children.

Used for God knows what.

“I…” Spire stared at Miss Everhart, whose face was unreadable. “I’m sorry you had to see this.”

Her jaw tensed, pursed lips pressed thinner. “I am thirty and unmarried. I doubt I’ll ever have children, so I do whatever I can. I owe it to those poor children not to flinch.”

Spire nodded. He hadn’t thought to place any women assets in his police force. But women could keep secrets, tell lies, deceive, and connive with an aptitude that frightened him. Women made bloody good spies. He knew that well enough.

Spire rose, sliding the ledger, breakdown, and “registry” into his briefcase. “Thank you, Miss Everhart. Please give Lord Black my regards, I was unaware he was involved. I’m not wasting any time on the arrest.”

“I didn’t imagine you would.” Everhart rose and wove expertly through the labyrinth of books. As she disappeared, she called back to him. “Go on. I’ll alert your squadron. I doubt you should go there alone.”

He stared after her a moment, resentful of initiative taken without his orders … but it would save him valuable time.

#  #  #

Spire and his squad descended upon the decadent Tourney estate; a hideous, sprawling mansion faced in ostentatious pink marble, hoarding a generous swath of land in North London.

His best men at his side, Stuart Grange and Gregory Phyfe, Spire stormed Tourney’s front door, blowing past a startled footman.

The despicable creature was having breakfast in a fine parlor. The son of a Marquis, descended of a withering line, seemed quite shocked to see the police; his surprised expression validated Spire’s existence.

Spire was tempted to strike the man across the jaw on principle but became distracted by the thin maid, in a tattered black dress and a besmeared white linen apron, who cowered in the corner of the parlor. Entirely ignored by the rest of the force, she was shaking, unable to look anyone in the eye. Her condition was a stark contrast to her fine surroundings, which valued possessions higher than humanity.…

Shaking his head, Spire instructed his colleagues to secure Tourney in the wagon.

“I’ve all kinds of connections,” the bloated, balding man cried as he was dragged away. “Would you like me to list the names of the powerful who will help me?”

“I think you’re in too deep for anyone but the devil to come to your aid, Mr. Tourney,” Spire called as the door was shut between them. Silence fell and he turned to the woman in the corner.

At his approach, the gaunt, frail maid began murmuring through cracked lips, “Please, please, please.” She lifted a bony arm and the cuff of her uniform slid back, revealing a grisly series of scars on her arm. Burns. Signs of binding and torture.

“Please what, Miss?” Spire asked gently, not touching her.

“S—secret door … Get them … out.…” She pointed at the opposite wall.

A chill went down Spire’s spine. He studied the wall for a long time before noticing the line in the carved wooden paneling. Crossing the room, he ran his hand along the molding, pressing until something gave. The hidden door swung open and a horrific stench met his nostrils.

The maid loosed a wretched noise and sunk to her knees, rocking back and forth. Spire raised his voice, calling to his partner and friend, a stalwart man who played all things carefully and whom Spire trusted implicitly, “Grange, I think there may be a … situation down here.”

Without waiting for a reply, Spire was through the door and descending a brick stairwell, fumbling in his pocket for a box of matches. A lantern hung at the base of the stair; he lit the wick and set it back upon the crook. The flame, magnified by mirrors, cast a wan light over the small, windowless brick room.

It was everything Spire could do to keep from screaming in horror.

Six small tables, three on each side of the room. Each bore the body of a child clothed in a bloodstained tunic. Spire could not determine their genders due to their unkempt hair, pallor, and emaciated bodies. Strange wires seemed to be attached to the children.

Nothing in his investigation, even that dread register, had prepared him for this: these poor, innocent souls, helpless victims of a powerful man who was viciously mad.

He raised his gaze from the children to an even greater horror, if a worse nightmare could be imagined. An auburn-haired woman in a thin chemise and petticoat was lashed to a crosslike apparatus, arms stretched out and sleeves torn away. Streams of dried blood from numerous puncture wounds stained her clothes, the cross, and the walls and floor. Below each of her lashed arms sat large bronze chalices, there was a basin at her feet. Spire knew in a glance that these were to collect the woman’s blood. What horrific sacrifice was this?

Spire turned his head to the side and retched. His mind scrambled to block out the image of who that woman reminded him of, the reason he’d become a police officer. The trauma of his childhood sprang back to haunt him at the sight of that ghastly visage in a blow to the mind, heart, and stomach. How could the world be endured if such a thing as this had come to pass? He’d asked the same question when the victim had been his mother. Nothing answered him, then or now, but sorrow.

“I never believed much in the devil,” came a soft, familiar voice near his ear, “or hell, but if I did, it would be this.” Spire spun to see a cloaked figure at his side, the solitary lantern casting a shallow beam of light upon the face of Rose Everhart.

“Miss Everhart, you should not be here. I don’t know how you got past my men,” Spire murmured, thinking it an additional horror that she should see this. “This is hardly the place—”

“For a lady? Even for the lady who handed you the critical evidence needed to arrest Tourney? Do I not wish to see him marched to the gallows as much as you do?” she replied vehemently. “Don’t I have a right to see my work completed? Don’t try my patience with references to ‘women’s delicate sensibilities.’ I’ve seen more death and tragedy than I care to relate. But, admittedly … never like this. Never like this.” She raised a handkerchief to her nose.

Spire suddenly wondered whether she had heard or seen him retch. It would be embarrassing if so.

“What are those wires?” she asked. “What are they for? Is this some sort of terrible experiment or workshop? Ritualistic, yes, but…”

Spire stepped forward, preparing however reluctantly to examine the bodies, when something lurched out of the darkness behind him with a clatter of chains and an inhuman growl. It grabbed him around the neck, grunted as it tightened its grip, and dragged him backward.

“Grange!” Rose shouted as Spire gasped for air and struggled to reach his knife. “If you’re a victim, we don’t want to hurt you,” she called in a softer tone, lifting her lantern and directing its light toward the scuffle. “Let the officer go, he’s with the police, here to help—”

Officer Grange tore down the stairs, arriving in the hellhole just as Spire managed to grasp his weapon and cut at the arm holding him. There was a wretched sound of pain from his captor and Spire felt a warm liquid trickle over his hand. Released, he staggered away and fell to his knees. Grange fired, the report of the gunshot exploding loudly in the low stone space. Spire’s assailant recoiled with a shriek. Stumbling back against the wall, it shuddered before collapsing.

Grange stood at the base of the stair with his gun raised. Rose stepped forward so the light from her lantern reached the back wall. Still gasping for air, Spire turned to view his attacker: a gaunt, muscular man with chunks of dark hair sprouting in uneven patches upon a scratched pate. The man’s skin was carved with strange markings, his eyes black and oddly reflective. Blood pumped thick and dark from the bullet wound in his shoulder, looking old and half-congealed though the injury was fresh. One arm was shackled to the wall. A guard, then, but not one to be trusted freely.

With a strange gurgling noise, a convulsion, and a wave of foul stench, the creature’s mouth sagged open and the thing expired. It then seemed as though an obscuring shadow rose from the body, then spread across the room as if it were a dark, heavy storm cloud, precipitous with dread terror.

Turning to look after the miasma as it passed, Grange, Spire, and Rose took in a startled breath at the same time. Grange cursed.

The mouths of the dead children, previously shut, were suddenly open.

As if screaming.

Silent, terrible moments passed before Spire, trying not to breathe the fetid air, stepped toward the tables, peering closer at the small, lifeless bodies. “From what I know of the telegraph and those new electric wires,” he stated, clearing his raw throat, “it seems similar. Something to convey a … transmission or charge.”

“But where do the wires lead?” Grange asked, looking at the ceiling, where the wires formed a latticework grid on the low timber-beamed ceiling. Many hung loose in gossamer metallic strands. “It seems they don’t continue on to the upper floors.”

“Go and see,” Spire commanded. Grange nodded and trotted back up the stairs.

Rose was writing upon a small pad of paper. This commonsense act—usually the first thing Spire himself did upon entering a crime scene—recalled him to himself. For an instant he was flushed with shame that this unprecedented discovery had caused him to falter in his work. He forced himself back under control; he would not allow the dead woman across the room—and what she represented—to derail him.

Though the room was cool, perspiration coated Spire and he could smell his own tension. He took out his notepad, replaced the lantern on the hook at the base of the stairs where he’d found it, and set to work. Each child’s wrists had puncture marks. Each arm bore odd carvings. He’d have to get one of the department sketch artists to accurately reproduce the markings. He wished a daguerreotype was possible, not that he wanted to subject more people to these horrors but only for the purpose of detail.

They held the man responsible, but Spire knew Tourney was not operating alone. The sheer gruesome spectacle of this would be enough, the policeman hoped, to indict any of the influential people Tourney worked with in this ghastly enterprise.

Spire turned his attention toward the woman at the back. His head swam. His mind was filled with the sounds and sights of his childhood trauma; the images superimposed over the present moment like a screen lowered before his eyes. He had to steady himself on one of the tables, hand fumbling over a small, cold foot.

A sloppily painted symbol on the woman’s tunic appeared to be a crest: red and gold with dragons. He couldn’t look at her face. He was already haunted enough by the vision of a beautiful, auburn-haired woman being bled before his eyes.

He felt more than saw the movement as Rose folded her cloak back over her head and disappeared upstairs.

Hearing voices calling his name, Spire mounted the stairs and stumbled into the light; his fellows took one look at his face and blanched.

“What’s down there?” a young patrolman asked.

“Hell,” Spire replied. “Don’t anyone move a thing until all details have been recorded. I want more than my notes to refer to. Get Phyfe down there, I want records of everything. Every single terrible detail.”

Spire sat in the fine chair Tourney had been using and continued making notes. The poor maid had been laid out on a nearby sofa; a nervous elder officer stared down at her as if afraid that if he turned his head, she’d stop breathing.

“Is there any other staff?” Spire asked.

“None that we’ve seen,” the officer replied.

He did not know how long he sat there, recording his impressions of the horrors below, before a voice startled him out of his morbid reverie.

“Harold Spire, come with me.” He snapped his head up to behold the same well-heeled footman who had been at his doorstep that morning.

“Ah, yes…” Spire rose and numbly walked to the door. “The queen’s man. Are you here to arrest me?”

“No, sir. While I had a mind to do so, Her Majesty is gracious and commends your commitment to English citizens. But you will come with me now.”

“Ah. Well. Yes. Lead on, sir.”

During the ride, Spire could think of nothing but what he had seen in that hidden cellar and what it reminded him of. He was not surprised to realize that his hands were shaking; his stomach cramped and growled, though the mere thought of food was enough to make him want to retch again.

Buckingham Palace soon loomed ahead, gradually taking up the entire view out his carriage window. The hansom drew up to a rear door and Harold Spire found himself led by the stern footman through a concealed entrance, along a gilded hall, and into a tiny white room that contained only a single item: one fine chair.

The space had no windows, only a door with a panel at eye level. The footman closed the door firmly, leaving Spire alone in the cupboard of a room. “Would someone mind giving me even a partial clue as to what’s going on?” Spire called, glad he had restrained from cursing when answer came, as the voice was a familiar one.

“Hello, Mr. Spire,” was the reply from the other side of the wall.

Lord Black.

Spire wanted to spill all the information about the case, as Black had been critical to its culmination, but would hardly do so across a wall.

“Give me a moment, Mr. Spire, if you please.” Spire then heard two voices beyond the threshold, talking about him. Neither man bothered to lower his voice; obviously they did not care if they were overheard.

#  #  #

“Humble thanks, my dear Lord Denbury,” Lord Black said, bowing his blond head to the handsome young man with eerie blue eyes seated next to him in the lavish palace receiving room. The immaculately dressed gentlemen each held a snifter of the finest brandy. “Firstly, for the use of your Greenwich estate. Her Majesty is most grateful to have a place where her scientists and doctors may be safe and undisturbed as they study the mysteries of life and death.”

“Provided your aim is always the health of humankind rather than personal gain, you shall have my support, milord,” the young man said, bowing his black-haired head in return. “That house has … too many memories,” he added. “I love my New York mansion far more.”

“Ah, yes!” Lord Black leaned forward with great interest. “New York…”

“My wife is a consummate New Yorker, born and raised,” Denbury said with a smile. “I see the city as I see her: bold, opinionated, and beautiful. I love it. You should visit.”

Black nodded. “I plan to. Secondly, I must thank you for coming here on vague bidding.”

“I hate secrets,” the young man said in a cautious tone. “After all I’ve been through.”

“Of course.” Lord Black spoke with quiet gravity. “So let me be direct with you now. I need a chief of security services for those scientists and doctors and I’d like your … expertise in determining character. I understand you … see it like none other.”

Lord Denbury sighed wearily but nodded. Both men rose; Lord Black opened the eye-level panel in the door and bade the other look through.

“His name is Harold Spire,” Black said. “What do you make of him?”

The man in question, seated on the velvet chair in the white room, wore a modest black suit. Scowling, he rested his hands in his lap. His green cravat gave the impression of having been hastily tied; it was rumpled and a bit askew. There were smudges upon his suit as if he’d encountered dust or soot and there was a dark stain on his cuff. At a median British height with light brown hair, Spire’s average appearance might be gamesome, possibly even handsome, if the scowl didn’t make him somewhat of a bulldog.

“What do you see?” Black murmured to his companion.

“Well,” Lord Denbury began matter-of-factly. “He’s had a terrible day by the look of him. He bears a general white aura with hints of blue, which represents that he means well and is at heart a good man, untroubled and unbiased by exterior forces. He will do the right and moral thing. Provided that is what you want, Lord Black, you and he should not be at cross purposes.”

Lord Black smiled as he shut the observation panel. “I assure you, my friend, that I want what is moral, just, and fair.”

“I see the same light about you,” the dark-haired man replied. “But should those colors change, you’ll no longer have my friendship. I’m sorry if that seems harsh, but the trials of the last two years have inured me to niceties.

“Is that all, milord? I’ve left my dear wife anxiously awaiting her surprise: a trip to Paris. She’s impossible when she’s impatient … and she’s never patient,” he added with a smile that spoke of the throes of young love.

Black chuckled. “Indeed, you are released and I cannot thank you enough. Safe travels to you and yours.”

Denbury bowed his head and strode away, escorted by an immaculately clad footman.

Black turned to his aide. “Tell Her Majesty that Mr. Spire passed the test.”

Lord Black hadn’t told Lord Denbury that the scientists and doctors stationed at Rosecrest, the Denbury estate, had recently gone missing, along with the security chief assigned to them. If the cable he’d received from a contact in America was to be believed, the Americans weren’t having a good time of it either. He had to wonder if the incidents were related, somehow. Impossible as that seemed.

He turned as a rustle of skirts heralded the formidable presence coming his way.

“Ah, Your Majesty.” Lord Black bowed low to the diminutive sovereign. Her stern face with its round cheeks was framed in white lace while the rest of her was engulfed in black taffeta, dripping beads of Whitby jet. “Spire has been cleared.”

#  #  #

Spire waited, not entirely patiently, for several minutes before Lord Black opened the door and gestured for him to leave the tiny, plain room. Eager to bring the handsome, slender, fine-featured blonde up to date, Spire began, “Tourney, Lord Black—it’s done. But what I found—”

Black held up a hand. His tense smile flexed the scar that ran from above his right eyebrow down into his cheek. Spire often wondered about the origin of that scar, but never asked. “Good work, Spire. The queen awaits you. But first…”

The sour-faced footman stepped up with a black suit coat in hand. “You look as though you’ve traversed every layer of Dante’s inferno,” the man said.

“Oh, just come right out and say I look like hell,” Spire muttered, staring at Lord Black. “I saw hell. It’s worse than anything you could have imagined.”

The footman grabbed his sooty coat and slid it off his arms, then muscled on the fresh jacket though it in no way fit. Spire feared he’d split the seams with the least shift of his shoulders, which were far too broad for the fine fabric. The too-short sleeves didn’t entirely hide the patch of blood on his shirt cuff. Shuddering at the memory of where he’d acquired the stain, Spire tried to tuck it out of sight. Black nodded Spire toward the receiving room.

He was shown in wordlessly; the door closed quietly behind him.

The surreality of Harold Spire’s day was heightened by the lavish setting of Buckingham Palace, worlds away from his life and laughable when compared to the horror of his morning duties. He’d passed around the outside of the building during parades and once had visited the main foyer, but never before had he gained entrance to one of the receiving rooms. It was full of things; lacquered things, mirrored and crystalline things, tasseled and brocaded things. Strains of music wafted into the tall, bright room, perhaps from a ballroom: a string quartet playing Bach. Spire preferred dark-paneled rooms filled with books. And good whiskey. And Chopin. And a coat that fit.

“Your Highness,” Spire said, paying due deference to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, who stood facing away from him, hand upon the crest of a large armchair, turned toward a tall window with lace curtains partly drawn. Spire stepped forward, noticing that the marble-topped writing desk beside the queen was covered with maps of New York City and schematics for an ocean liner. A telegraph machine sat silent on the desktop, gleaming in the sunlight.

“Mr. Spire,” she began without turning to look at him, speaking in a grand way that left no room for interruption, “I have called you here to give you an appointment. You rose quickly through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police. I’ve been assured you are fair and just, keen to recognize patterns and aberrations that catch criminals, swift and smooth with your decisions. But perhaps too quick to spy.”

Spire felt heat rise in his face; he glanced into the golden-framed mirror on the wall next to him and saw his fair skin had colored all the way up to the roots of his light brown hair.

“I was afraid that’s what this was about. Please, your Highness, I’ve personally apologized to the prime minister and to Miss Everhart. A cloaked female utilizing secret passages within a subsection of Parliament does seem suspicious, surely—” He hoped he didn’t sound whiny.

“As you know, that was to hide the fact that the P.M. had employed a lady as his chief bookkeeper. Imagine the outcry. But this isn’t about the prime minister or his employees. You come highly recommended by Lord Black.” She turned around at last. Her eyes were shrouded by dark lenses connected by a curving filigree bridge. He must have looked quizzical, because she paused and said, “Lenses cut from a scrying glass, in hopes I’ll see the dead.”

When Spire simply nodded, the queen cocked her head. “Not him, necessarily,” she scoffed. “I know what you’re thinking.”

That the queen still dressed in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, many years deceased, and entertained all sorts of ideas of how to contact him—not to mention sleeping beside a picture of him and placing out his fresh clothes each day—had become a quiet joke in the realm.

“What am I thinking, Your Majesty?” Spire asked innocently.

“Oh, come now”—she batted her hand in irritation—“it’s as if you all think I go about dragging his coffin behind me everywhere I go.”

“I thought I saw parallel scratches on the wooden floor,” Spire said, gesturing down the hall. “That explains it.” He smiled.

The queen tried to scowl but instead coughed a laugh. She removed her glasses, piercing him with a stare. The short, plump-cheeked woman was downright disconcerting when she deployed her steely gaze. She was Empress, after all.

“What is wrong with you, Mr. Spire? You look dreadful and you need a better tailor.”

“I came direct from a crime scene, Your Majesty, my apologies. I thought your gentleman explained—”

“Ah, yes, yes, Tourney and the resurrectionist ring. Tell me, how large of an operation do you deem it?”

“Between the financial speculation and the body snatching, I imagine it may be a wide net. The ledger we found will condemn the ring, though there was a…” He trailed off, unsure how much of the dreadful scene to speak of. The Queen simply stared at him expectantly. At last he swallowed back a wave of sour saliva and continued, “A peculiar crest was discovered.… Well, it all had a ring of … ritual to it, Your Majesty.”

The queen snapped her head to the side and it was only then that Spire noticed Black had slipped into the room behind him. “Ascertain that crest,” she snarled. “If it remains from Moriel’s tenure, I want them all to hang.” Lord Black nodded reassuringly. Spire was pleased the queen was taking the matter as seriously as she should.

“Mr. Spire,” the queen said, “I am about to tell you a state secret known only to a few. The Eterna Compound was first sought in America after the assassination of President Lincoln. A bold idea, born of grief. I well understand Mrs. Lincoln’s woes. A small team of theorists made no progress in their research until two years ago. But now there is a fresh impasse. As I have full faith in my realm, I believe we can fix the Americans’ mistakes and make the compound viable.”

“May I ask what the Eterna Compound is, Your Majesty?”

“A cure for death. A drug that confers immortality. I’ve had a team compiling information and studying the idea for years.”

Spire kept his face unreadable, his skepticism hidden. “And do we? Have the cure for death?”

The queen shook her head. “Our plant within the operation has not reported as scheduled. We hope to retrieve information and material from New York; material that you, Mr. Spire, will safeguard. Other Special Branches of investigation and prosecution will counter various political threats. Your division, Omega, will counter the greatest threat of all: a nation that could make its leader immortal. We cannot allow America to gain the upper hand in immortality. I empathize with Mrs. Lincoln but have no desire to confront an utterly impervious American president.”

Lord Black stepped forward and spoke carefully. “The British operation is … paused. Our facility was recently compromised. You will safeguard fresh intelligence and a new team, in offices that are presently being prepared. You must focus on life and death in a whole new way, Mr. Spire. All other matters of mundane police work must be cast off to the fellows you leave behind at the Metropolitan Police.”

Spire reeled. This appointment was a nightmare. The queen had the wrong man. Spire didn’t believe a word of any of this. A cure for death? How could he manage an operation he couldn’t take seriously? He broached the only comfort he could cling to, the resolution of the horror he’d faced.

“But today’s findings were hardly mundane; the work not of mere Burkes and Hares but something even more insidious.…” Panic threatened to overtake him as the images rose in his mind.

Lord Black stepped close and flashed Spire a look of warning as he poured whiskey from a crystal decanter into a pair of matching snifters. “Material and information will arrive from New York,” Black said smoothly as he handed Spire a glass, “and your focus must be upon it, Mr. Spire. I will personally see to it that the Metropolitan follows every Tourney lead.” From the flash of fury in the man’s eyes, Spire knew Black meant what he said and recalled it was Black himself who had obtained the ledger Miss Everhart had given him. More than he’d ever have expected of an aristocrat in the House of Lords.

Spire fought the urge to drain the snifter as the queen delicately lifted a cup and saucer of tea. Then she stung him.

“That you have suffered grave loss and then been betrayed by love, and in such a way as to cost state secrets may be something a man might be ashamed of,” the queen began, “but I look upon it as a gift. Your cautious care, a healthy ability to second-guess, a lack of trust, this will all be very valuable. Trust no one. Not at first.”

Spire swallowed hard. The queen had most certainly read up on him. His mother’s death had been a bit of a media circus at the time, and his father had done nothing to calm the frothing “journalists.” Then, Alice. He’d been too naive to have imagined that an officer like him, assigned at that time around the Houses of Parliament and surrounding neighborhoods, would have been of interest to French agents. He’d never dreamed they’d employ a lady—and Alice Helms, now Madame Lourie, had easily taken advantage of him. He had been a fool and women were a source of woe.

“And so I look at the whole of your history and see the sort of solid man I can depend on, one who has been scarred in all the right places. One must build up scars in war. And we are engaged in a most unusual war here, Mr. Spire. I need you scarred. Sane. And unafraid.”

Spire nodded.

“As we speak, all your belongings are being transferred to rooms in Westminster; Rochester Street, lovely accommodations unregistered and unlisted, a vast improvement from your current subsistence,” the queen continued casually. “Bertram will give you the keys. You will share your address only with the most trusted members of your assigned team, and only once you have ascertained their loyalty.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Spire bristled but managed to keep his tone level. He was a private man. That persons had been in his home and uprooted his possessions made him clench his fists.

“Lord Black will see to your new offices. Tell your Metropolitan fellows nothing save that you’ve been transferred. You’ll liaise further with a contact at the British Museum.”

“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” Spire offered quietly, “I cannot in good faith abandon the Tourney case.”

“I insist that you do,” she replied stridently.

Spire swallowed hard. He would not disobey the queen. Not to her face. Instead he changed the subject.

“Your Majesty, I’m sorry, I have to ask, considering the bent of this commission … Did my father put you up to this?”

The queen arched a brow. She was not amused. “Victor Spire?” She scoffed. “Author of penny dreadfuls, Gothic novels, and sensationalist plays? Have audience with Her Majesty the Queen?”

“Ah, no, of course not. Forgive me for bringing him up,” Spire said, mustering sincerity, biting back the urge to say that he knew firsthand she had secretly attended his father’s latest show; after all, his men had seen to her protection. “But a race for immortality. It sounds like something he’d serialize in Dickens’ magazine.”

The regent stiffened. “Dare you imply, Mr. Spire, that this position is not to be taken seriously?”

“Of course not, Your Majesty, pardon me,” Spire said, bowing his head. “Unlike my father, I have retained appreciation only for the concrete, tactile, apprehendable, and solvable.”

“Apply those very principles going forward, Mr. Spire.” The queen clapped her hands once. Her serious, jowled face grew even more intense. “Tell your father his last novel was dreadful.”

“You read it, Your Majesty?”

“Every word,” she said with exaggerated disdain. “Truly dreadful stuff.”

“Agreed, Your Majesty.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Spire. Good luck and do good work.”

Spire bowed his head as the regent swept away amid the clicking of beads and the swishing of silk. The sour-faced footman showed him out a different door, first retrieving the excellent, though too small, coat and, with a curled lip, handing over Spire’s soot-stained jacket as well as a brass key with a number on the fob.

Stuffing the key to a whole new existence into the pocket of his long, black, velvet-trimmed, fitted coat, Spire couldn’t deny he was curious. He could go examine the place, test the walls, see if they’d granted him hidden compartments and revolving bookcases. Hopefully there was a wine cellar.

To leaven his darkening mood Spire lost himself as he loved to do: in the smoky, sooty, horse-befouled, hustling chaos of London proper, reveling in the onslaught of sensory input that drowned out all concerns, doubts, and anxiety. The crashing, audible waves of London always trumped the drumming of the mind; the roaring aorta churning the very heart of the world won out every time over one’s own racing pulse. He let the chaos of London in like a man might smoke an opium pipe, allowing the high to carry him about the city on a cloud of stimuli.

Spire trailed a nervous man in a brown greatcoat for two miles simply for the sake of proving he could do so unnoticed. He chose his subject after overhearing him lie to a pretty girl leaning out the window of a brougham—narrowing in on one conversation out of the melee, it was as though Spire could hear a single, subtle line of dissonance in a rollicking symphony. The young man sent the blushing, giggling girl off, saying he was going west. Instead he took off east, stuffing his hands in his pockets, a sheen of moisture over his lip.

It wasn’t that Spire assumed everyone was guilty of something, but years of honing perceptions, translating body language, reading movement and expression, ascertaining habits, casting judgments, all made him suspicious of nearly everyone at first glance. Trust no one, the queen had said. Spire had abided by that edict for years, ever since Alice … Since her, he hardly trusted himself.

Now he was being entrusted with state secrets coming from the highest channels. Ridiculous ones at that. Should he have said outright that he didn’t believe in the supernatural? Skepticism had its uses. If the queen needed him to be a believer, she should have asked him.

That the man in the brown coat went into a jewelry shop and came out with an engagement ring—Spire had leaned against the shop window on Farringdon Road to eavesdrop upon the conversation with the clerk—filled him with a certain joy. He loved to be proven wrong. It didn’t happen often enough. And if he didn’t treasure those instances when the brighter side of humanity showed its face, he’d have to throw himself in the Thames.

He doubted the sights of that basement would ever leave his thoughts, and offered something of a prayer upward, toward an entity he regarded with as much skepticism as he did anything outside his own mind and body, hoping something about his new appointment might make for the ability to seek out further answers. For what could drive creatures to do such horrific things if they were not possessed, maddened, by the intrigue of life and death?

Regardless of motive or madness, to the point of risking treason, he’d hardly abandon the case.

 

CHAPTER TWO

New York City, 1882

The tumult of New York harbor was deafening. There was confusion, concern, even panic on the docks at the tip of Manhattan Island. Ahead of Clara, as she looked out past schooners and ferry boats, lay the first tier of the pedestal that would eventually host Bartholdi’s Lady Liberty … if New York could ever pay for her. Clara thought with a profound sadness that perhaps Liberty would never lift her lamp high over the water, not if all those warships meant anything.

A fleet of Britain’s warships, the Union Jack flying high and proud upon every mast: the world’s greatest navy, amassing at the tip of America’s greatest city. A dread chill coursed through Clara’s veins and she clutched her shawl tighter around her neck.

England would make America theirs after all. A colony it simply could not let go.

The act of a monarchy that could never die.

Never die.

“Wake up!”

Clara’s eyes shot open as she bolted upright. The ruffles of her nightdress, which she’d bunched up around her neck during her nightmare, fell back down in a splay of fine layered lace.

Given the words that had roused her, Clara Templeton expected the visitor to be sitting at the foot of the wide bed she had once hoped to share with Louis Dupris. But the visionary young chemist and theorist had died yesterday, and the voice was not the visitor’s but a renewed urging from beyond. More was being asked of her than mere living.

She had returned from the park to the Pearl Street town house she shared with her guardian, Senator Rupert Bishop. Having written a note stating her instinctual certainty that something terrible had happened to the team, Clara slid the sheet of paper under the door of Bishop’s study and locked herself in her room. She’d have ignored his orders that she never visit the laboratory site if she’d thought anything could’ve been done. But the visitor had confirmed her instincts. Whatever the disaster—a fire, an explosion, an unexpected reaction of any kind—she prayed they had not suffered.

The senator kept late hours and traveled often, his schedule changing on a dime, so despite her best efforts to know his calendar, Clara wasn’t sure when he’d see her note. But as the secrecy of the commission couldn’t be broached by sending policemen to the laboratory, she needed him to decide on their next steps.

Sunlight streamed in through the exquisite craftsmanship of the Tiffany glass window of Clara’s bedroom, through glowing, textured milky magnolia petals that cast pale yellowish spots upon her white satin bedclothes. Turning to one side, Clara stared into the mirror of her rosewood vanity, meeting her own terrified gaze. Waves of dark-blond hair framed her oval face in a wild mane. With wide eyes that were more eerily golden than they were green, and her mouth open, she looked like a mad Pre-Raphaelite painting, Ophelia just before the drowning.

In her hand, a saffron-colored strip of fabric.

A fine silk cravat.

Louis Dupris had left it behind after one of their harried tumbles of lips and hands and she’d been too fond of him to return it, instead secreting it away in a compartment of her jewelry box. The amulet he had bequeathed to her and this cravat was all she had of him; she’d fallen restlessly asleep clutching it.

She rose and went to her wardrobe to begin the feminine ritual of donning innumerable layers. She opened her bedroom door for a moment to listen for sounds from elsewhere in the house, but all was silent. That was for the best, lest she spill everything to the senator in one look.

Rupert Bishop gave her everything she needed; he was her mentor and her joy. He’d taught her everything she knew and remained her spiritual counselor. Her relationship with him was complicated and nearly impossible to describe. Once he might have been her Great Love. Epic, sweeping, and all-consuming. But was that this life? She doubted so. Once she’d asked him if he felt whole.

“Frankly, I don’t know,” he’d mused. “This life is full of fragments. We’re all torn apart.”

It was not an answer, but it told her enough: she was not what he was missing. She buried her feelings. “Do you feel whole, then?” he asked her in turn.

She shook her head. But until she understood the exact shape of the puzzle-piece holes within, she did not dare pinpoint exactly what might fill them. With Rupert she had to take immaculate care. When all her school and society friends abandoned her at age thirteen, when her seizures started—none wanted to be seen or associated with such an unfortunate—Rupert was all she had. She dared not do a single thing to jeopardize that. Even calling him Rupert often felt too familiar, an intimacy she relished but one that frightened her. And so, as everyone else called him either Bishop or Senator, so did Clara, pressing love for him so deep into the recesses of her heart that it had fossilized.

Who did the visitor mean by her “missing link?”

Clara had toyed once with channeling some of her overwhelming sentiment into something productive. A novel. A memoir. She still felt with that ardor that, at twelve years of age, had had her blurting impossible things to powerful people. But when she tried to put her thoughts into words, the result was unwieldy and read like the scribblings of a naive schoolgirl. No reader would believe the intensity of her feelings; none would understand that she was a soul with every nerve ending accessible. Perhaps in childhood, all souls were similarly exposed. But grown persons were calloused; keeping a fragile heart was physically and psychically dangerous. The bounds of human flesh were finite. After all, when dead, the heart was mere flesh. Clara’s material world was small, but her spirit was as vast as the sky.

So Clara did not write. Instead, she went to work. Good, honest, busy work; the salve to both emotional deficits and oversensitivities.

In the Pearl Street offices she balanced the books on the Eterna teams’ expenses, ensuring fresh supplies of basic chemicals and minerals, the most modern medical manuals and textbooks of interest, with a budget left over for items of “spiritual” interest.

When it came to matters “paranormal,” she was more directly involved. She interviewed those who reported strange phenomena, then filed the results at the office. She and Senator Bishop kept an eye on theatrical psychics and other spiritualist charlatans, warning them when they went too far in taking advantage of the grieving or bored.

Clara occasionally accompanied the senator on campaigns. She volunteered for New York City’s ASPCA, a cause the Templeton clan had long championed as friends of the organization’s inimitable founder, Henry Bergh. She visited her parents’ mausoleum in gorgeous Greenwood weekly, taking the trolley to the Gothic gates and passing the day in lavishly carved stone shade. What company could be more beautiful than those stone angels? She kept herself occupied. She needed no lovers or close friends.

Until Louis Dupris came along as the capstone to the Eterna research team and upended her entire, prematurely spinsterish, calcified universe.

They had met at a soiree at the infamous Vanderbilt mansion. The details were emblazoned in her memory. She had stepped into a shadowy alcove, deliberately out of Bishop’s line of sight, when suddenly an exceedingly handsome, olive-skinned man in a fitted black suit blocked her path.

Clara took a moment to psychically evaluate him and determined she was in no physical danger. His piercing hazel eyes bored into her with thrilling intensity. “You’re in my way, sir,” she said quietly.

“So I am. I’ve been instructed not to introduce myself,” the man began, in a rich, deep voice. “And while I do value my new job as my life, that life would be forfeit if I did not at least tell you that you are, by far, the most interesting creature in this entire room, if not this entire city. Save, perhaps, your guardian, my employer, who insisted you were quite off-limits. This would make any woman all the more fascinating were you not so utterly time-stopping on your own. I understand now why the senator is so protective of you.”

Clara laughed. “Did my dear Bishop employ you merely for flattery?”

“No, my lady, he employed me for theory and faith. How I might apply spiritual concepts and principles into the quest of immortality as pursued by your department.”

“Ah, you’re one of ours!” she commented brightly. “You’re new. Where do you hail from? Your accent is distinct.”

“New Orleans, my lady, a distinct city indeed.” He bowed. “Louis Dupris, at your service, Miss Templeton. I hope my overtures do not offend. It may be that I never speak with you again, as I value my work and the senator deeply. But there are times when a man must speak or forever regret the chance, and you evoke that prescient timeliness.”

She cocked her head to the side gamesomely, the plumes of her fascinator rustling. “You should come to call, Mr. Dupris.”

“I couldn’t … I can’t.”

“But you should,” she insisted sweetly. He looked uncomfortable. She chuckled. “In secret, then, if you’re so worried about the senator’s wrath.” She batted her silk-gloved hand. “Come stroll with me on Tuesday, through the Greek and Roman relics at our glorious Metropolitan Museum. At two. Tell me about spiritual disciplines I know little of.”

And then she’d had a seizure. Right in middle of the Vanderbilts’ home.

Whenever too many ghostly voices or psychic phenomena pressed in upon her at once, Clara had an “episode.” Generally her body gave her an aura of warning and she would exit a place before any damage was done. Distracted by the party, by Louis, by all the glamour and finery, she’d missed the telltale signs. She hadn’t had a “fit” in years and was more mortified than ever by the condition she’d been fighting since the age of thirteen. While she knew she had nothing to be ashamed of, the world wasn’t so generous. Especially not at a Vanderbilt party.

Bishop had taken her home immediately and Clara had assumed she had seen the last of Louis Dupris. That she had gone to the museum on Tuesday spoke of her essentially optimistic nature—and her fondness for the museum’s marble halls.

To her great surprise, Mr. Dupris was entirely undeterred by her ignominious departure from the Vanderbilts’. He met her at the museum at the appointed time, and at every place and time they could find after that. Happily, the great city abounded with secluded spaces. Cemeteries became their collective haunt as they mused on life and death. Clara sensed that her soul and Louis’s had gone round together at least once in the past. He hadn’t betrayed or brutalized her then, so why not indulge the blossoming bond in this life?

Louis found her seizures, the aura she saw, the way her senses abandoned her and returned in pieces, entirely fascinating. His acceptance won her trust. He taught her how to block out the spiritual press, lessons born from his own studies of spiritual and theological matters. She had, after his tutelage, been fit-free for two years.

He was her visionary, insatiably curious and confidently ambitious. No matter what other matters called to his attention, he remained enthralled with Clara, and she with him. Now he was dead and she had no way to quantify the grief she felt, no way to show it, for she and Louis Dupris had never even met, as far as the outside world was concerned.

She would have to, she realized, live her current life denied of many things. Her heart hardened. It had to. While she knew, as a spiritualist, that the spirit lived on, death had made her cold. She thought of Greenwood’s stone angels and wanted to become one of them.

The Eterna team was dead. Did anyone know, other than Clara?

She tucked the saffron cravat into her corset, against her bosom, and set off to be the center of the presaged storm.

#  #  #

“It was as I feared,” said Louis Dupris as he trailed his brother Andre through downtown Manhattan at the crack of dawn, floating a foot off the ground.

Andre tore down Broadway, surely appearing mad talking to thin air; thin, cold air in the shape of his twin.… He shuddered. He could not begin to process the horror he’d seen.

“Don’t tell me you predicted that hell that took you?” Andre growled at the ghost, a gray-shaded, near-transparent image of his brother. “Your whole team? I can’t begin to understand—”

Something was in that house. We were not alone. But what it was, or why our compounds made it come alive, I can’t understand. Perhaps, in death,” Louis continued excitedly, “I can learn more! Perhaps here I can do more good, in this state—”

“I’d rather you were alive,” Andre said mordantly. “That we’d traded places.”

“Don’t say that, brother,” Louis exclaimed earnestly.

Perhaps Louis would have agreed to the switch if he knew the whole truth; that for many months, Andre had been spying on Eterna on behalf of England.

“Perhaps your partner Malachi’s rabid paranoia was founded,” Andre muttered. “You’re right, you were not alone there. You were certainly being watched, and not only by me.”

In a fit of overwhelming paranoia, one of the researchers had ordered the Eterna theorists to move their laboratory into his eerily empty town house. They humored him to keep a fragile peace. Louis had Andre store his most precious notes and research in another location, trust swiftly eroding between the once-filial team. Disaster struck the very next day.

Andre would never be able to purge the memories of the Eterna researchers falling to the floor, suffocated by strange, creeping tendrils of smoke, by a presence that Andre didn’t wait around to experience for himself. No, Andre did what he’d always done as the black sheep no one spoke about—he ran. But lest he go to his own grave an utter coward, he would do his best to help his brother find peace.

“Today we begin to set things right,” Andre declared, brandishing a small envelope. He moved at a harried clip that was not unusual for New York, though his anxiety trumped the speed of the average pedestrian out at such an early hour. “I’ll turn this over, then return that damned dagger you stole to New Orleans, praying to all your mystères for protection along the way.”

“Don’t mock the mystères, brother,” Louis scolded.

“I’ll believe in them if they protect me against one very angry woman,” Andre retorted. “Of all the people you crossed coming to New York, it had to be a Laveau protégée? Bon dieu! I suppose it’s only fitting penance I be the one to see this through.”

“You’re not the irredeemable sinner you think, Andre—”

“But I am!” Andre insisted in a coarse whisper. “I lied to you, Louis! I wasn’t interested in Eterna because of you, but for my own interests. You gave me secret refuge and I squandered it. Trust me, I’ve a lot to answer for. Slates must be cleaned. Yours and mine. But someone should know what happened to you, Louis,” Andre stated. “Your sweetheart, perhaps? You adored her, that woman deserves answers—”

“Keep Clara out of it,” Louis warned, an icy whisper in Andre’s ear, “with her condition, I shouldn’t—”

“I’ll leave the key. If they’re as clever as you say, they can figure out what it belongs to without incriminating me. And then I’ll be on my way home, none the wiser for my presence.”

Louis’s anxiety was unassuaged. “You hid my papers as I asked, didn’t you?”

“I left what you gave me at the college,” Andre assured. Whether or not he’d be telling his employers about the materials or the disaster, he had yet to decide. He wanted to wash his hands of all of it, be done with spying. But survival first. Strategy second.

Andre stared up at the Romanesque edifice, dark and looming in the early light. Louis’s presence was a cold draft at his neck. The living man shifted the envelope from one hand to the other, considering his task. The door was locked. Andre flipped back the thick cuff of his sleeve to reveal several thin metal implements. In mere moments the lock had been picked and the door swung wide.

“Do I want to know where you learned that?” spectral Louis murmured.

“The bad egg survives,” Andre muttered.

Charging up to the third floor, Andre threw wide a wooden door to reveal a long dark room whose decor looked more a lady’s parlor than an office. Depositing the envelope conspicuously in an empty tray, he sped out again. “Onward toward resolution,” he rallied. “And vanishing from the record.”

He darted out onto Pearl Street, tipped a wide-brimmed hat lower over his brow and turned back to see Louis floating in front of the building, his grayscale form immeasurably eerie in the misty, waterfront dawn. After a moment, he wafted to Andre’s side.

“There’s so much Clara and I should have shared,” Louis murmured.

Andre shifted on his feet. “You never told her about me, did you?”

“No,” Louis insisted. “You came to me in trouble. I never told her I had a twin or betrayed your confidence.”

“And I never deserved a brother so good, loyal, and true,” Andre said bitterly, for the first time feeling tears well up. He wouldn’t tell England another word, he decided.

In the tumultuous, heaving throng, the sheer, maddening bustle that was New York Harbor, Andre made his way through a deep maze of wood and steel, planks, ropes, and sail. One small leather pack slung over his back, a precious ceremonial dagger well-hidden on his person, he wove swiftly to the docks. Louis floating beside him, traveling right through anyone in his way … persons who would think him nothing but a breath of cool breeze.

Despite Andre’s speed and twisting path, he noticed that a particular face was never far from him in the throng. Even crowded onto the ship that should have carried him safely away, his desire to vanish was thwarted. The follower spoke to the captain in a soft, upper-class British accent. And stared right at Andre where he stood among the massed humanity on deck.

“Damn you, Lord Black, and your spies,” Andre muttered. “Damn you all to hell.”

#  #  #

Franklin Fordham lived alone in the stately, Federal-style Brooklyn Heights house the rest of his family had abandoned after his brother’s death in the war, his mother having found it impossible not to be haunted by the place. Franklin bore his own suffering like a pebble in his shoe that he never removed. His brother was dead and Franklin hadn’t been there, fighting at his side, due to a bad leg. Living in the home they had once shared was a form of penance.

At a sharp rap, he opened the town house door to a most lovely, welcome sight.

There, framed by dappled sunlight filtering through the growing trees behind her, beneath a rose lace parasol, was the woman who had once cut through darkness and saved Franklin’s mind, like an angel descending through storm clouds.

Clara Templeton was dressed beguilingly as ever, today all in burgundy; a black-buttoned jacket with fitted sleeves over gathered, doubled skirts, a small black riding hat with a burgundy ribbon set at a jaunty angle on her head. Despite her broad shoulders, she was slight in girth, yet Franklin knew she was capable of great strength. As he looked at a face more suited to a classic painting of an infamous woman from history than to this era’s praised softness, he noted that she seemed unusually drawn. The oft-mischievous slant of her pursed lips seemed strained and her luminous green-gold eyes were hidden behind small, tinted glasses.

Not for the first time, Franklin thought that Clara was a magical creature. It wasn’t that she was beautiful, though an argument could be made for her unusual beauty, it was that she was lit from within by an indomitable fire, both terrifying and wonderful.

“Miss Templeton,” he greeted her with a smile. “To what do I owe this pleasure on a day off?”

“They’re dead, Franklin,” she said quietly, each word like the faraway toll of a bell. “The whole team is dead.”

Franklin stared at her. “What? How? How do you know?”

“I simply know that they are gone,” she continued in a deadened tone. “And this morning I had a dream that in the near future the English would invade.”

“Well then,” Franklin said, turning to the wardrobe by the door to withdraw a lightweight brown frock coat, hat, gloves, and an eagle-topped walking stick. Clara’s dreams and instincts were serious business he’d learned not to trifle with.

When he was properly attired and had exited the house, she took his proffered arm; he noticed she leaned upon it more than usual.

“We must do whatever we can not to embolden them, as their Empire seeks ever to expand,” Clara declared.

“And what would so embolden Her Majesty Queen Victoria as to take on such an ally in trade, finance, goods, and culture?” Franklin asked. “We’ve never had so cordial a relationship.”

“If she thought she could live forever,” Clara muttered.

“Aye.” Franklin sighed. “That’s the crux. Eterna is … eternal.”

“Perhaps,” Clara murmured.

Franklin wished he understood the pain in her voice. Though she undoubtedly would mourn the death of any person, she didn’t know the Eterna researchers personally. Why then, was her grief so apparent?

“I don’t suppose you’ve your office key?” she asked. “I’m a bit … distracted.” Franklin fished in his pocket, making a jingling sound. Clara offered a weak smile. “Always prepared,” she said approvingly. “I adore that about you.”

Franklin contemplated myriad things he could have replied, but said none. They set off down the picturesque, cobblestone street where young trees, planted within the past few years, were flourishing and fine new town houses were being built. The residents proudly loved their separate city of Brooklyn. When they looked across the water at behemoth, monstrous Manhattan, many thanked their stars for their few blocks of haven.

Clara and Franklin strolled toward the Fulton Ferry landing, beside the vast stone trunks of the nearly completed Brooklyn Bridge. Its Gothic arches towered in the sky—it was the tallest man-made structure on this side of the world, its spiderweb of cables catching dreams and hearts and possibilities in its wire-bound frame. The bridge was scheduled to open next year, on Queen Victoria’s birthday, funnily enough—to the chagrin of those countless Irish laborers who built it. The structure would unite two thriving cities with distinctly different identities but perhaps similar obsessions.

The skyline of Manhattan was growing like a brick-and-mortar weed, ever vertically, ever uptown, like a sprawling cobblestone flower over which thousands of ship insects docked and buzzed, dipping into its jagged petals and sailing off again along the choppy harbor currents.

Clara broke the silence. “It’s my fault they died.”

Franklin shook his head. “You can’t think like that.”

“I’ve been trying to convince myself that the government, if it wanted to safeguard its leaders, would have come to this eventually. But Eterna was my idea. I am responsible, at least in part. The child in me wants to hide. But if I do, we may find things stolen out from under us.”

They boarded the steam ferry, jostling for a place near the captain’s cabin so they wouldn’t be pressed shoulder to shoulder. Franklin didn’t like to be by the edge and wasn’t terribly fond of ships. Clara stared down at the churning East River currents while Franklin looked at the masts of passing ships that cluttered one of the world’s busiest harbors.

“Miss Templeton,” he began carefully, about to pose the age-old question she wouldn’t answer. “Will you tell me?”

Her nostrils flared. “Really?” she said through clenched teeth. “Now, Franklin?”

“You promised that when it was truly important, you’d tell me how you found me in that mental ward years ago. The team is dead and I don’t understand,” Franklin insisted. “All the research we’ve compiled and still, little to nothing makes sense, I’m at a breaking point—”

“What I know of you won’t solve life’s confusion,” she countered bitterly, “and the team will still be dead!”

“Maybe it doesn’t matter to you how you found me,” Franklin murmured, tapping his walking stick nervously on the wooden deck, “but it matters to me.”

“Of course it matters how I find the important people in my life!” Clara snapped. She sighed, lowering her voice when ferry passengers in plumes, ribbons, and top hats turned toward her agitated tone. “But often telling them kills something inside me, some mystery I’ve kept alive.”

“You like the mystery,” Franklin argued. “I don’t.”

The haunted look bloomed on her face again; Franklin hated seeing it, for it made her seem a thousand years old. She had an air of gravity far beyond her years, much like her guardian the senator; it unnerved him when displayed so plainly.

“You’ll learn to enjoy mystery one day, Franklin,” Clara murmured. “Treasure it, even. When there’s mystery, you might still be wrong. I’ve been right about too many sad things.”

“Your mysteries changed my life for the better and I yearn to know why,” he pleaded. “Out of all the people who need help in this world, why me?”

“You still feel you don’t deserve it,” Clara said sadly. “Because of your brother.”

Franklin looked away and shrugged. “I doubt Ed would’ve wanted me to feel guilty.”

Clara looked around her with a heavy sigh. “And on a ship, no less,” she muttered, and took a deep breath. “There’s a recurring dream where you’re always in a storm, on a ship, dangling from a rope, and you’re afraid no one can hear you screaming?”

Franklin’s eyes widened. “Yes, how did you—”

“Think for a moment about the ship. Do you remember a flag?”

“Yes. White,” Franklin said excitedly. “With yellow. A crest. Yellow fleur-de-lis?”

“The standard of the King of France.” Clara stared at him and he could feel her piercing gaze even from behind tinted glass. “You were the bosun on that ship and I was your captain. I heard you against the horrid gale; I hoisted you back on deck and you were suitably grateful.”

Franklin stared at her; as always, she spoke in an unflinching way about a previous life. She hadn’t shared many of them, but the ones she had, Franklin didn’t dare question, though he wondered how she could recall details he was unaware of.

“I sometimes visited with Mrs. Lincoln, after Eterna was underway,” Clara continued, “and she would ask for news around the country, of those still grieving their dead, of fellow broken souls. Her soul and mind were so wounded, commiseration made her feel more whole. A servant brought in your picture, with a letter explaining how your mind had been wrecked by the loss of your brother in the war. I recognized your picture, because that recurring dream haunted me, too. When I saw your image, I knew that I had kept that dream so that I’d remember to find you in this life.”

“And again rescue me from a storm,” Franklin murmured mournfully. “This time a storm of my mind. I wish I wasn’t the one who always needed saving.” The ferry docked and passengers began spreading like ink onto the shore and up into the veins of narrow, curving Manhattan streets. They followed the current. “Maybe I can save you someday.”

“Maybe that’s what this life is for!” Clara said with a hollow laugh, hoisting up her skirts and jumping from the deck onto the dock, never letting feminine finery get in the way of an active spirit no matter how much the fashion of the age tried to limit her sex. He stared after her for a moment, then took a few quick strides, limping slightly on his bad leg, to catch up with her.

“If you’ll let anyone,” he said as they turned onto Pearl Street.

“Beg your pardon?” Clara said, climbing the brownstone stoop of their building.

“If you’ll let anyone save you. I’ve never met a more independent soul in all my life, Miss Templeton. It’s like you don’t need family, friends, a lover—” Franklin fell silent as Clara scowled at him, snatching the keys from his hand and opening the door, blowing past the first two floors where the Manhattan County Clerk kept records.

Franklin in her wake, she stormed upstairs and threw wide the double doors to her offices. She froze on the threshold. The wide, long office, which might heretofore have been mistaken for a hoarder’s den or art museum vault, was very clean.

Tall, sturdy wooden file cabinets now stood between her beloved floor lamps of cutting-edge Tiffany studios provenance, their stained-glass domes lighting controversial Pre-Raphaelite-style paintings upon maroon-painted walls above dark mahogany paneling. Metal sorting trays sat upon the three hefty wooden desks in the room, their plain rectangularity a sharp contrast with the curves of the lily pad and peacock-feather desk lamps; more Tiffany.

“Franklin…” Clara began, with a rising pitch to her voice as if panic were barely being held at bay. “An eclectic, lived-in, meaningful office makes me feel safe and protected. How can I find anything with everything put away?”

“I organized,” Franklin assured her. “Nothing’s gone, merely sorted. You know what mess does to me. I assure you everything is safe. Safer than it was when your towers of paperwork leaned perilously close to the flames of your beloved stained-glass gas lamps. The whole place could’ve gone up in a minute.”

“Where are my window talismans?” she said slowly, stepping into the room and gesturing to the clean, empty panes of her curving bay window where pendants, amulets, gems, crystals, dream catchers, and leaded-glass icons had all floated behind her wide leather desk chair. “I told you not to touch them. They are of extreme spiritual importance and are there because of my … condition.”

“They were collecting considerable dust,” he replied gently, as if afraid to wake a dragon. “And several of them fell, all at once. We can put them back up,” he said reassuringly.

“When?” Her voice had grown even more shrill. “When did they fall?”

“Yesterday,” Franklin answered quietly, aware of the significance of his answer.

“When the team died…” she said with a choking hitch in her voice. “Perhaps it’s best, then, that this place is clean.”

Her frown deepened as she went to her desk, a great carved rosewood beast at the center of the office. Behind her was the bay window in which she often curled up to take a nap, or read, or simply stare down at Pearl Street; Franklin wondering all the while what was going on in that uncharted mind of hers.

Fishing in a small beaded reticule hanging from a ribbon at her waist, her gloved fingers plucked out a small silver key. Unlocking her center desk drawer, she withdrew a file and set it on her blotter. Her gaze, still hidden behind the small tinted frames, fell upon something further inside and Franklin had the sudden impression of an arrested engine.

Slowly, she sank into the high-backed, thronelike leather chair. A shaking hand pulled out a small, white bit of paper as her shoulders hunched forward, curving slightly over the open drawer, unable to contract more than her corset would allow. She held the folded paper, hands pressed as if in prayer, brought her steepled fingers to her lips, and bowed her head.

“Pardon me, Miss Templeton,” Franklin murmured in the strained silence, desperate to say something. “What I said before was too bold, about your life, I don’t—”

“Know what’s gotten into the polite, soft-spoken partner I once knew?” she retorted sharply. “I don’t either. Please go find that man and return him to this office.”

“Yes, Miss Templeton. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t mind being told I’m independent,” she continued vehemently. “I am. But when mankind thinks there’s something wrong with that, I chafe.”

“There isn’t anything wrong,” Franklin said, eager to diffuse her anger, but she bowled over him with a mounting fury.

“You say I act as if I don’t need friends or family, are you not my friend? Is the senator not family? And just because I don’t talk about a lover doesn’t mean I haven’t had one.” Her fingers reached up beneath her glasses—was she crying? That would be a first for Franklin to see. “Ugh. Sentiment.” She tossed the mysterious note back into her desk, closed and locked the drawer.

Franklin had never seen her as anything but a composed coworker; compiling literature on any reference to curing death, chatting with extraordinary—if not oft unhinged—persons, scanning communications, sending ears into the field, keeping an eye out for promising discoveries and innovators. He’d not seen anything truly affect her—not visibly. He knew she trusted very few and kept mostly to herself. For a sensitive, Franklin was surprised at how very steeled she seemed. Perhaps there were infinitely more layers to her than he could have imagined; lifetimes of lessons deepening the magnetic nature of her old soul.

“There now. Am I more human to you?” Clara asked with a bitter smile. “Surely my tears make me more a woman. Quick. Go tell all the men who have ever insulted me, they’ll be so pleased.”

“Miss Templeton.” Franklin looked at the floor again. “I’d never delight in your pain.”

He chided himself for pressing her. Clara Templeton liked clever gentlemen with whom she could verbally fence, generally best, and leave staring after her. He’d watched her flirt with countless gentlemen if it suited her cause, and he’d once wondered if she was capable of anything beyond that arch distance. Perhaps that note, whatever it was, proved differently.

“Stop pouting, Franklin,” Clara said with a laugh. Her bite never lasted long, a quality that he appreciated deeply. “I know you want to play the rescuing hero to all the world. In due time, surely.” She squinted at something that suddenly caught her eye. “Franklin, are we not the only ones with keys to this floor?”

“We are,” Franklin replied, following her gaze.

“Then what, pray tell, is that?”

Across the room, jutting from a metal tray that was commonly used for incoming correspondence, was a yellow envelope that she was sure had not been there before.

Clara crossed the room, picked up the envelope, and carried it to Franklin’s desk. Seizing the engraved letter opener from the fine desk set his mother had proudly given him upon his appointment to “government work,” Clara swiftly slit open the envelope, which was bulky at the base.

Glancing inside, in the next instant Clara gasped sharply and dropped both letter opener and envelope. She took a step back as the items clattered onto the wooden surface of the desk. Franklin could now see that the envelope held a key. A dark smear marred the metal surface.

Blood.

Franklin reached for the key.

“Franklin,” Clara cautioned. “Don’t touch it.”

“I’d like to feel useful for a moment,” he declared, just before the soiled, black iron key disappeared into his fist.

He closed his eyes, feeling the metal heat up in his palm and the familiar pain flare at the back of his skull. He saw a plain, redbrick town house with brownstone details. A number: fourteen. He heard screaming. He saw plumes of odd-colored smoke from beneath the garden-level door. A man in a black suit came tearing out, holding a kerchief over his mouth, and ran away. Smoke lifted, curling as a dark substance pooled out from under the door and dribbled down onto the landing.

Franklin opened his eyes. He could see that Clara had already guessed where the key had come from. Franklin nodded. “I know where they died.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

When Spire hopped into the hired hansom that arrived at the designated hour, he was startled to find Miss Everhart already seated inside.

“Don’t be surprised again, Mr. Spire, please, it will grow quite tedious,” she stated. “I’ve a good eye for numbers, research, codes, and ciphers. I’ll be useful to your team—”

“I am aware of your talents, Miss Everhart,” Spire replied cautiously. “Your Parliamentary employers took great pains to ensure you could do your work without bother. I don’t think they’d take kindly to your abandoning it.”

“Who said anything about abandoning it?” she replied sharply. “We’re all doing the work of the British state, Mr. Spire.”

“But not all work is meant to be shared. Especially work as dangerous as this.”

“I survived thus far.” Her tone was steel. “Why else do you think Lord Black put me on as Gazelle but to prove myself to you?”

“Have you been appointed to the Eterna team, then?” Spire asked directly. She nodded. “You’d truly want to work for the man who spied on you?”

She pursed her lips. “At least I know you’d keep track of me.”

Spire loosed a humorless chuckle.

He couldn’t let the memory of Alice cloud everything, everyone—a whole gender. He’d need someone like Everhart; detail oriented, dogged, persistent, loyal, selfless. Fond of work. He hated to think they’d actually have a great deal in common; he’d set himself up to despise her for the trouble her presence at Westminster had caused.

“Today we meet Mr. and Mrs. Blakely at the British Museum,” Miss Everhart said. “They’ve been consulting on the Eterna project for a while now. You’ll inherit some ‘staff,’ as it were, but Lord Black will flesh out your full brigade and provide new researchers.”

Spire narrowed his eyes. “Whatever happened to the previous ones, then?”

Miss Everhart swallowed and looked away, clearly uncomfortable. “No one knows. They disappeared—all four researchers and their security adviser.”

“Lovely,” Spire muttered. “The queen could’ve mentioned that. Any leads?”

Everhart frowned. “None.” There was an uncomfortable silence. “How is Rochester Street?” she asked finally.

“Does it matter?” he replied with a shrug. “I doubt the crown would accommodate me if I complained. I’d have liked a bit of warning, though. And to have taken my piano.”

“They moved me, too,” she offered. “My cousin and I were fond of our old place and haven’t settled in yet. The trick is not to feel like property, or like a pawn, as they shuffle you about.”

“And how is that coming along for you?”

“I demanded they bring me a piano.” She smiled briefly. “And I’m slightly happier.”

At this, Spire chuckled gruffly and the silence that followed was not tense until the museum loomed before them.

#  #  #

The British Museum, large and cluttered with treasures collected—stolen—from around the Empire, was a squat, square, colonnaded edifice that was no gem of architecture. The real beauty, Rose knew, lay inside, in its ever-growing cache of artifacts. Spire helped her out of the carriage, their gloved palms and arms stiff against each other.

“East wing,” she instructed as she crossed the open plaza, passing among strolling tourists and locals. Comparing herself with other ladies who walked about beneath parasols, in floral shawls and frilly hats, she noticed her dark muslin layers trimmed in mauve and black didn’t match the warm, bright day. She always stood out so, never quite in season, never on top of a trend. She could care less.

Spire caught up to her as she reached the building. He opened the door for her and she allowed him the courtesy. “Downstairs. Two levels. Prepare yourself,” she said, and kept a smile to herself. She didn’t have to be psychic to know she would see a few more raised eyebrows from Spire in the following moments.

“For what?” he asked.

“A medium. And her consort.”

Spire set his jaw and followed.

On the lower floor, Rose led the way down a shadowed, chilly hall; she rapped upon an unmarked door in a specific sequence, pressed a lever, and a door opened, revealing a cavernous room filled with wall-to-wall tapestries from all around the globe. She had been there before; it was, in fact, one of her favorite places. Though she’d have added a large bay window where she could sit bathed in light, imagining herself strolling through each woven scene, experiencing the many worlds they represented, from religious icons to court scenes to theatrical presentations.

Art was a poultice that soothed her ache to travel. But unmarried women did not travel unaccompanied. Married women might travel with their husbands, but they most certainly did not work, so years ago she made her choice and shoved other longings into the corners of her steel-trap mind.

A round table took up the center of the room, wooden chairs spaced around its circumference. “Mrs. Blakely” sat there, facing the door, her eyes closed. Dressed in royal blue satin and baring more bosom than was appropriate for the hour of the day, her brown-black curls were up in an artful coiffure, a faint rouge was visible on her cheeks. Though she sat in the basement of the British Museum, the woman seemed ready for a ball. Rose had encountered the Blakeleys only a few times and had never seen them dressed in anything less than high-dramatic style.

Mr. Blakely stood nearby, a short, sharp-featured man in a black-and-white-striped linen suit and a blue cravat with a too-large bow, his fingers fluttering constantly. His ticks were offset by an engaging, near-constant smile.

“Mr. Spire, I presume? Hello, Miss Everhart,” the woman at the table said, without opening her eyes.

“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Blakely,” Spire said, bowing his head even though Mrs. Blakely’s kohl-rimmed eyes remained closed.

“Hello, Miss Knight,” Rose said quietly. At the different name, Spire stared at her.

“Spire,” the striking woman at the table said, “I sense you’re a man who doesn’t like to waste his time, particularly not on pleasantries. Good. So let’s get a few things entirely clear.” Her lined lids snapped open, revealing large, piercing, dark eyes. She almost looked like a doll but her appearance was off-putting, as if the soul of some wizened old regent had been thrust into a young woman’s body and was still getting used to the adjustment.

“I am not legally married to Mr. Blakely,” she began. “Thus I am not Mrs. Tobias Blakely. Not to you. Within our operations, you may call me Miss Knight. However, I prefer just ‘Knight.’”

Spire nodded, taking in the information. “Good then. I go by Spire and prefer this precedent. Keeps us from becoming too familiar.”

“Ah. Then on that count, should you possibly spy upon me like you did Miss Everhart, let me make something quite clear. I prefer the company of women in every way. And while kissing a woman may be part of an operation, it is also how I might spend an evening on my own time and should not be a subject of concern or censure. Establishing one’s predilections when surrounded by spies saves us all from awkward misunderstandings. You may lower your eyebrows now, Mr. Spire.”

Spire did as he was told, donning his characteristic frown. Rose withheld a chuckle. Not a single Victorian soul spoke like Marguerite Knight did in mixed company. At least, no one Rose had ever met or even heard of. Mr. Blakely didn’t bother to hide his grin. It was entertaining, Rose had to admit, to see a bulwark like Spire so thrown off guard. And the surprises were only beginning.

“I appreciate your honesty, Knight,” Spire said without affect. “Am I to assume you’ll be the one giving the orders for our operations?”

Knight waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, no, that’s entirely on your head. I find giving orders terribly boring. I’ll do as I please and assume it corresponds with our mutual directives.” She smiled without showing teeth. “And I’ll never undermine you unless you undermine me. So let’s not cross each other. Because I’ll see it coming.” She tapped her temple.

“Well, be sure to tell me,” Spire retorted, “just what it is I’ll be up to. Free will is so … boring.” While Spire’s tone may have been sharp, there was a certain light in his eyes, the look of a duelist ready for swordplay. Knight laughed and Rose heard delight in the sound.

“I would guess you’re not used to people like us, Mr. Spire, eccentric and scandalous,” Knight began nonchalantly, “you’re used to policemen. And Miss Everhart, you’re used to clerks and officials, and so if we offend you, well—well, I’m not sorry, but I do believe we can all find common ground. It’s not that I think the world should be like me. I’d rather the world not insist I should be like them.”

Spire held up his hands, offering no argument. It was Rose’s turn to take exception.

“You’re talking to a woman, Miss Knight, who managed to gain secret passage into the Palace of Westminster to go to work,” Rose said primly.

“And have I ever toasted your accomplishment? I should. I honestly meant to.” Knight clapped her hands. “Champagne. My house. I’ve calling hours on Tuesdays. And don’t worry, if it’s a concern, I don’t seduce coworkers.” She flashed a winning smile. Rose opened her mouth and closed it again. “Indeed,” Knight added, gesturing. “Often the best thing to do when confronted with someone who says shocking things is to keep silent.”

“In this crowd will I ever again utter a word?” Spire muttered. Knight laughed again. “I will say,” he continued, “I deem scandal relative and find this age too preoccupied with ‘sin’ while having a profoundly hypocritical relationship with vice.…” He trailed off, and Rose noticed how his determined face went haunted, as if some terrible memory took hold of him.

“Agreed!” Mr. Blakely responded enthusiastically.

Looking closely at their new leader, Knight narrowed her eyes suddenly. “You haven’t told your father you’ve moved or that you’ve a new position,” she scolded. “You’ll need to tend to that, lest he write a play about it.” Spire opened his mouth and then closed it again as Rose had done. “I am clairvoyant, Mr. Spire. I pick up on things. There go your eyebrows again.”

“Get out of my mind,” Spire growled, seeming genuinely unsettled. He whirled on Rose. “Did you tell her about my father?”

“You haven’t said a thing to me about your father, what business would that be of mine?” Rose said defensively. Spire scowled.

Miss Knight shifted forward suddenly and said; “Pardon me, friends, duty calls and I must leave you. There’s a mummy requiring my attention on the next floor. His spirit is in the throes of anger.”

In a rustle of shimmering sapphire skirts and trailing bell sleeves she was out the door. Rose wished she could collect on the number of raised eyebrows she’d seen from Spire since the moment they’d met.

She assumed he’d learn to mask his skepticism entirely, as she had, and become unreadable. She’d certainly felt spun round roughly when Black began training her for espionage above bookkeeping. She’d enjoyed being an excellent clerk; thorough paperwork was gratifying in its precise predictability, a comfort so unlike life itself. Being bid to look at life through a scrying-glass darkly, this was hardly comfortable for her. She knew in her heart where her priorities lay, and she hoped her instincts wouldn’t get her into trouble.

There was a cry down the hall in some foreign tongue. Rose managed not to snigger when she saw Spire’s jaw muscles clench as he valiantly tried to restore his blank expression.

Mr. Blakely nodded nonchalantly toward the noise. “That would be Sepulcher B3. Troublesome. The prince rearranges the artifacts. We keep telling the curator the funerary items are arranged in the wrong order, I mean, the prince should know, it’s his grave, but the museum won’t listen. The missus tries to explain to His Majesty that the curators mean no disrespect, but still, it’s very disrespectful,” Mr. Blakely said woefully.

“What was she speaking?” Spire asked.

“Egyptian,” Rose and Mr. Blakely chorused.

“What is she doing out there?” Spire asked Blakely, choosing his words with care. “Does she think she’s setting it to rest? Calming it down?”

Mr. Blakely shook his head. “She is a confidante when it comes to spirits. She doesn’t see them, only senses particularly anxious presences. She can’t set spirits to rest, exorcise, or banish them. I understand that’s a different department. But the missus’s true talents are prediction and reading. She gets a read on people right quick,” Blakely said with simple admiration.

Rose wondered if he had fallen in love with his faux wife, despite her predilections for the female sex. Perhaps if he couldn’t have a real marriage, he’d take a fake one instead. Rose hoped that wasn’t the case, for that story was a bit too tragic for her tastes.

In her mind, unrequited love was a pointless waste. Either love was present or it wasn’t. Her schoolgirl friends had chastised her for practicality, but she’d aced her classes, healthy and safe in a dry bed when they’d failed exams after throwing themselves into rainstorms after being rejected. Hardened differed from practical. The former was full of sorrow but the latter left hope for something to arrive worth wasting time on.

Curious about the “couple,” Rose took an opportunity; “How did you meet?”

A wide grin burst over Blakely’s face like a beam of light. “Marguerite was in Bath, persuading her elderly relatives to leave thousands of pounds to worthy causes such as, well, herself. My … show came into town.” Blakely turned to Spire. “I’m a performer, you see.”

“You don’t say,” Spire replied in a monotone.

“As fate would have it,” Blakely continued, “she had procured the money but was worried about reprisals once her relations awoke from her persuasive spell. She needed a place to hide; I needed another act. She joined my troupe as a psychic and told me to marry her—on the condition that we wouldn’t actually marry. She does love a good show,” he said, grinning again as if he’d lost all the bats in his already questionable belfry. “Eventually Lord Black, who is fond not only of a good act but of the genuinely psychically talented, found us and made us respectable.”

Spire clenched his jaw at the word “respectable.” “I understand you were consultants to the previous, now missing, Omega team,” he stated.

“Yes, but we worked from here,” Blakely stated, “poring over anything of supernatural or immortal interest to add to the Queen’s Vault. Lord Black tells me we’re to have new offices now that you’re with us.”

There was a shriek and a crash from well down the hall and more cries in Egyptian.

“As the museum won’t do at all, really,” Blakely added.

On that note, Spire and Rose departed. At the door of the museum, Rose stopped her director before he walked off into the heart of Bloomsbury.

“Mr. Spire, would you kindly come by Westminster at your leisure later today?” she asked. “We have things to discuss.”

Spire clenched his jaw. “Your parliament office, in the place that ought to have no offices?”

“The very one,” Rose replied with a prim smile. He nodded.

There, in the safety of her tiny, contained universe, she would put her new director to a different sort of test; one of loyalties and personal conviction. She would see if they were indeed two creatures of the same mind or destined to be at odds.

#  #  #

The Majesty—He would always call himself Majesty no matter what the rest called him—shifted on his small, uncomfortable pallet.

He was hidden away in an isolated, dreary, windowless cell within London’s Royal Courts of Justice. Only three people knew the space existed; the guard, who was his ear and mouthpiece to the external world; himself, and Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, who was impressively inscrutable. He harbored hope that she would come to embrace his cause, for surely she could see the damage the rise of the unwashed was doing to his beloved England.

A woman’s voice from beyond the narrow set of bars startled him from his lovely reverie of a fiefdom reclaimed.

“Mr. Moriel,” uttered in a biting, disapproving tone, signaled the arrival of Her Majesty, who swept into the dim light, her elaborate, expensive mourning garb overwhelming the space. “It has come to my attention that a certain Frances Tourney was running a heinous operation fit for hell, one that seemed to bear your crest of devilry. You were granted a stay of execution, Mr. Moriel, not a pardon. You assured me all your society operatives had been turned in.”

“They … were. Tourney was never a member. He’s a dilettante and an ass—pardon me, Your Majesty. Privations such as this do not make for subtle or couth conversation. You’re not telling me he actually did something?”

“I’m not going to tell you what he did because it does not befit a lady’s lips to speak of. You should have been more careful and given me the names of any and all persons who might have had even a passing interest in your little secret society.”

“If I am allowed a writing implement and paper, Your Majesty, I will be happy to set down any and all names that come to mind.”

“I’m not interested in vendettas and personal grudges; you seem to have too many of those. Only those who might be capable of the true, unmitigated horror you were so known for in New York and other cities, such as this newly disrupted resurrectionist ring that despoiled the bodies of dead children. Along with other sundry brutal murders.”

“Tourney?” Moriel said in disbelief.

“Others were involved, surely. But financed, and housed, by Tourney. I want to know the entire chain or else this most gracious stay of execution comes to an end and you will be hung in this dreadful little chamber until you are as dead as everyone in my government already assumes you to be.”

“But then where lies your vital, noble search for immortality, Your Highness?” he asked softly.

“We’ve many resources, Moriel. You’re hardly our only asset in our search for the answers to life and death; you’re merely the most sickening, a disgrace to the noble line you descend from,” the queen said, finality in her voice. She turned without another word and walked away, the sweep of her black crepe gown against the stone covering the sound of her footfalls. Her instructions to the guard echoed in the narrow stone hall. “The prisoner is to have no food for six days.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” the guard replied.

The queen, exiting, didn’t see the guard’s wink to Moriel, who smiled sweetly as he was left alone again.

“My upheaval shall unfold in due time,” Moriel murmured to the stone walls as if they were listening. “For now, I’ve pawns to pit against one another.”

He shifted the small cot he’d been afforded, revealing a checkerboard square beneath that he’d etched into the corner of the dank floor with a rock. The greasy bones of a rat he’d caught in his cell, peeled open and disarticulated, all with his bare hands, sat in a relative chess formation. He slid a claw toward a femur and knocked it aside with a contented sigh.

#  #  #

A small, withered-looking clerk sat inside the door Miss Everhart had instructed Spire to enter. The man narrowed his eyes at Spire while waving him on, as if he didn’t like the fact that anyone without a title had clearance to pass him. Though surely the clerk himself lacked a title, the man’s disapproving expression had Spire instinctively straightening his striped cravat and smoothing his gray vest and deeper gray frock coat.

Spire strode deeper into the wing of the House of Lords where everything was gilded and red fabrics were seen everywhere in the furnishings and hangings—as opposed to the carved but unvarnished stone of the House of Commons, where all was trimmed in green. He passed the enormous statue of Queen Victoria, a loving tribute from Prince Albert that Spire found a bit ostentatious and perhaps indicative of a bit of magisterial insecurity. As he trod the fine red carpeting and traversed narrow passages of dark, polished wood carved in regal Gothic form, Spire wondered what Guy Fawkes would have thought of the splendor of Westminster today.

At the end of the passage, Spire stopped to look at the note that Everhart had slid into his palm as they’d left the museum the day prior:

House of Lords. Before the “not content” lobby reaches the peers’ lobby, there is a small door set within a Gothic arch. Press down on the brass plate that looks like it was meant for a keyhole. Try to do so when no one is looking. The narrow passage beyond will lead you to my tiny fiefdom.

Spire did as instructed. The narrow, nondescript door, which was paneled like the rest of the corridor and almost unnoticeable if one was not looking for it, granted him entry into a stone-floored, undecorated passage that led into a tiny fiefdom indeed. One special room that was no one else’s.

He was soon seated in one of the two chairs in his associate’s small, cramped, but immaculately organized Westminster office. The members of the House of Lords did not have offices, or clerks for that matter, yet this small room was secretly reserved for Miss Everhart. If it could be called a room. It was really more a closet. Supposedly the prime minister had access to this room by some other hidden passage, but Miss Everhart had not illuminated Spire on that point.

This alcove was the origin of the misunderstanding that had gained Spire the attention of the queen. A great deal of fuss over a space barely large enough to hold two people. Spire knew that Lord Black spent a deal of time in Everhart’s office. He wondered how the space managed to contain his Lordship’s expansive presence.

The lower five feet of the walls were paneled in dark mahogany; the upper portions were papered in the red of the House of Lords. In addition to the visitor’s chair, the room was appointed with a tall wooden file cabinet, a fine writing desk, a leather chair, and an ornate gas lamp. A line of trays marched up the wall at one point, all filled with papers. A richly colored Persian rug was laid over the tile floor; fine writing implements lay upon the desk. Was Rose a member of the aristocracy herself? Spire wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

Spire’s first examination of the room provided him with more questions than answers, chief among them, where was she?

Then he noticed the note upon the blotter upon her desk, written on the back of a used envelope.

H. S.—Am out for a delivery—await me. We have several things to discuss. R. E.

In her absence, Spire continued to peruse Rose’s office with the eye of a detective. What little space she had was meticulously organized, but he saw no tea service, which rankled as he wanted a cup of tea. He’d expected no luxuries in the House of Commons but he thought surely the House of Lords might have some amenities.…

One shelf sported dictionaries and countless books about codes. There was a telegraph close to hand—and something upon the tape. Spire rose, intent on examining it. A noise behind had him turning to behold a cloaked figure he assumed was Miss Everhart, arms full of books and files.

Spire kept his expression unreadable while he prayed all those papers were not for him. She set everything on her desk and steadied the stack before she turned to him, gloved hands pulling back her thin cloak. Her hair was done up tightly, her black dress was simple and utilitarian but still elegant, matching the black of the cloak.

“A little light reading, Mr. Spire,” the woman said with a smile. She hung her cloak on an interior hook and gestured to him to be seated. As he lowered himself once again into his chair, he nearly struck his temple on the protruding handle of a card catalogue that took up nearly half the space.

“On what topic?” he asked.

“Immortality. I can give you the highlights, if you like, as they relate to the facts going forward.”

“I would appreciate that, Miss Everhart, because if my studies include Varney the Vampire I might throw the lot through the window, where it would undoubtedly hit some poor pedestrian on the head and the poor sot could pray for immortality himself.” If there was a window, Spire thought.

Rose chuckled as she placed files into drawers of the wooden cabinet that was as tall as she was. “I understand your skepticism, Mr. Spire, truly, but everything in the vault may have its uses for reference.” She took a seat, perching upon the lip of the desk with marvelous skill, somehow managing to shift the trapping of bustle that was increasingly prominent in today’s ladies’ fashion to the side, as if a mere act of sitting were an equestrian event.

“Vault?” Spire furrowed his brow. “What vault?”

“The vault contains our information on all the possible scientific theories on the extension of life,” Rose explained. “The Americans didn’t invent the search for immortality, of course, but it seems they may have come the closest.”

“Did they, though? It sounds like their team may have disappeared like ours did. And who’s to blame?”

“The Americans were on to something. Obviously not the right thing, but further than us. For a long time we thought the Americans were solely interested in research, not development. But our embedded contact alluded to several wild, inventive experiments in New York that have far surpassed attempts by our former team. It appears we British were stymied by the more spiritual aspects. Hence these texts, meant to expand the mind.” She gestured to the cabinets. “I’ll transfer this newly complied material within the week. The vault was moved to the cellar of Kensington Palace after one of our early researchers defected to America.”

“America.” Spire frowned. “You know, it sounds like we are at war.”

“In a way, we never stopped being at war,” Everhart countered with a shrug. “But we’ll never act like it. America and England will always posture against each other. We share more common interests now than ever before, but those interests shall remain peaceable only if our developments in science and industry progress at the same rate.”

“You make a mad quest sound almost sensible,” Spire said with a slight growl. “But in all honesty, Miss Everhart, when there’s more important work to be done, I find this whole commission difficult to swallow.”

His colleague flashed him an intense look as she handed him an envelope and placed a finger to her lips. Spire opened the envelope, curiosity piqued, and his heart leaped.

The interior paper read: Further Tourney contacts for investigation. While the Metropolitan’s investigation had been extensive, this list of places, persons, and information was new to him. Privileged persons that high society wouldn’t want associated with such deeds, whose reputations afforded them more safety and less scrutiny than the average man.

He stared up at her, an excitement matching the particular, engaged light in her prominent eyes. She tapped her ear and glanced behind her toward the wall, gesturing that he keep quiet.

Grabbing the paper and turning it over, he took a long and careful moment to write a question coded in the simplest of ciphers, asking if she would help the case continue in secret. She read, decoded the cipher in her mind, and nodded. The day had improved infinitely and Spire offered Rose the genuine smile that resulted in his turn of providence.

But suddenly the queen’s warning to not trust anyone, and Spire’s past, darkened him immediately.

He added, in the same simple cipher, a question, holding up the paper to her: How can I trust you?

She stared at him and spoke quietly. “You and I have things in common, Mr. Spire. We are passionate about our work. I love what I do here. And I am honored by my new appointment. Why on earth would I ever put that in jeopardy?”

She took the paper and swiftly scribbled an addition: For the right cause I will.

Spire stared at her. A woman. A fairly unparalleled one at that. One he’d have to trust, despite his history and all his discomfort.

He noticed Miss Everhart’s eye fall upon the telegraph machine. She plucked a volume from her shelf of code books, flipped to a page marked by a ribbon, then turned the book upside down. She drew the message tape toward herself. For several minutes the little room was silent save for the sound of a pencil scribbling upon her notepad as she looked between book, message, and paper. At last she finished, lifting her head to gaze at Spire.

“Our overseas agent, Brinkman, is on a riverboat southbound, possibly to New Orleans. Either he found one of the scientists from that Manhattan team or he’s tailing our spy who was embedded directly in the project.”

Spire stood and went to the door. “I’ll go share this news with Lord Black and see what else he can tell me about Brinkman.” He tucked the file Miss Everhart had given him beneath his arm. Spire paused at the door. “Do you know where I might find his Lordship?”

“At his club. Here.” She slid her hand into one of the cubbies of her desk and passed Spire a white card bearing a simple script address. “Give this to Foley at the door. Be persistent.” She handed him the decrypted message to proffer to their superior. “If our embedded contact fails us, Brinkman is our key to the entire next step.”

“I’ll find a safe place for everything,” Spire said carefully, patting the Tourney file.

“Please do, Mr. Spire,” his colleague replied, weight to her words.

They stared at each other a moment, a great responsibility balancing on a perilous line between two relative strangers. He nodded and exited the same way he’d come.

It took all Spire’s willpower not to immediately descend upon every contact the woman had given him. But instead he made his winding way out from Parliament’s shadows, through the heart of London proper, to a post box that only he and his trusted Stuart Grange knew of.

Spire didn’t mind that his newly appointed lodgings on narrow Rochester Street were bare, it was that anything he did or had on the premises could be watched or seized. So he fingered his key in his pocket as he bowed his head to the balding postal clerk who always seemed to be on duty at this spot. Despite the fact that Spire had used this location for years, he and the clerk never exchanged more than a nod. Still, Spire liked to imagine the man knew he was a part of something important.

Spire opened the box, dropped in the envelope, and returned the box to its cubby, thinking about all the evidence, secrets, and items vital to past cases that he’d kept there at times, far from meddling fingers. But nothing so precious to him now as that list, and Spire planned to be grand inquisitor to all.

But first, a bite of lunch at one of his old, cozy pub haunts. Then, onward to a club where he could never afford the food.

#  #  #

Spire had argued heartily for a good several minutes with the dour Foley—through the shuttered club door—before the ancient man admitted him. Spire entered, noting the doorkeeper’s fine coat and tails and his vicious scowl, which Spire coveted for its sheer ferocity. Foley pointed with one crooked finger toward the heart of the building.

“He likes the mezzanine level, Mr. Spire,” Foley said.

“Thank you, Foley.”

“I didn’t give you permission to call me Foley,” the man said sharply.

“What would you have me call you?” Spire responded wearily.

“‘Sir.’ Foley comes with time and privilege.”

“Yes, sir,” Spire said through clenched teeth, striving to project respect for the little Napoleon of his club kingdom.

The rich red carpets beneath Spire’s feet stood in stark contrast to the building’s entirely white walls. Spire headed up a grand staircase that led into a small, private mezzanine-level chamber filled with aromatic smoke from the sort of fine cigars Spire had only read of. As he walked, Spire tried to shed his irritation in regards to his commission, capped by Foley’s initial denial of admittance. It seemed “unclassified business” didn’t open doors. Couldn’t he have a badge or something that deemed him important?

“Spire! Hello, good sir.” Lord Black looked up but did not rise from a large leather armchair in what was clearly his section of the exclusive setting; the area around him was strewn with paper, tea leaves, and tobacco droppings.

To his Lordship’s right, a deep green frock coat and matching top hat hung from gilded hooks. He sported a black waistcoat with green buttons, billowing cream silk shirt cuffs matched a generous cravat of the same lush fabric pinned with a House of Lords insignia, gemstones glittering faintly in the soft gaslight issuing from cut-crystal wall sconces. The green pinstripe of Lord Black’s perfectly tailored trousers indicated a large wardrobe rich in color and pattern.

The average man, Spire thought, had to consider practicality in clothing. Lord Black did not. Spire was well aware of his own modest, dark wardrobe in far heartier fabrics than nobility’s silks or satins.

Spire tried to mitigate his biases, as Lord Black seemed to be genuinely interested in his line of work, which was unusual for a member of the aristocracy. He wanted to like the man. After all, to have a friend in the House of Lords was hardly a bad thing, whether Lord Spiritual or Temporal.

Given Spire’s new appointment, he wondered if those labels would take on whole new meanings. The spiritual and the temporal: for Spire, these had always been at odds. A desperate desire to believe in the spiritual had led to temporal disappointment too many times for him not to declare empirical evidence weighted against the spiritual. But somehow, Lord Black seemed to manage the two with a certain amount of baffling joy.

The lord’s fair hair looked even more blond in the yellowish light, almost angelic, and his bright eyes pinned Spire upon his approach. “To what do I owe this pleasure, Mr. Spire?”

“After a valiant fight with the vulture at the door—”

“Ah, good Foley.” Black smiled, revealing one angled tooth. “We’d be lost without our gatekeeper.”

“I am here, Lord Black, to ascertain what you believe to be my foremost objective within the scope of my operations, and to deliver a message.”

“The queen wants England to have immortality before the Americans do,” Lord Black stated. “I thought that was very obvious. America’s Eterna Compound is incomplete. Whatever they missed, we must find it first. They were barking up every odd tree. Where they’ve sniffed, so must we. I am currently vetting new researchers. But our investigators and security services had best be well versed in the realms of the inexplicable. It’s why we have our vault. There are many types of science, Spire.”

“Only mystics say that. You’re a lord. Sir.”

“A mystical lord…” Black said dreamily, gazing toward the mezzanine’s arched beveled window bedecked with stained-glass royal crests.

Spire ignored this. “I need more information about your American operative. Will he return? How embedded is he?” Black shrugged. “Does the man even receive orders,” Spire pressed, “much less obey them?” Black shrugged again. Spire cleared his throat, managing to keep his tone level. “You do realize, Lord Black, this vagary makes me uneasy.”

“I’m sure it does.” The lord smiled. “You’re a man who hates uncertainty. But I, my good man, thrive on it!” he exclaimed, lifting one hand in a flourish. “I love losing myself in everything I don’t know. Curiosity, Spire! That’s what will keep us alive; immortal. Curiosity!

Spire remained unmoved by Black’s enthusiasm and handed over the decrypted message. “Miss Everhart is excellent with codes,” he blurted, unable to hide how impressed he’d been.

“Our veritable wizard with ciphers. Blakely is too, in his way.” Black smiled mysteriously. “I’ll soon prove the full talents of your team to you.” Unsettled, Spire opened his mouth. Black continued with a scoff; “I can read you like a book, Spire. You don’t discount Miss Everhart because her intelligence is so obvious. You deem the others lunatics.” Black finally read the message and frowned. “Oh. One of America’s team survived after all and is being trailed.”

The nobleman looked up at Spire. “With this news, I don’t know when our man will resurface again. He’s slippery, with a mind of his own. He gets us what we need, so he’s worth the headache.”

“Known aliases?” Spire asked.

“He sports variants of what may be his actual name, Gabriel Brinkman, though can we really ever be sure?” Lord Black smiled again, fondly, as if taken up by the romance of a spy’s life. “Ask Miss Knight if her gifts offer us a sense of where he’s gone off to.”

“If my job is security services, sir, with all due respect, I truly doubt a medium is my foremost weapon. A weapon, rather, would be my foremost weapon.”

Black laughed, though Spire had not intended to be amusing. “Mr. Spire, let me make something quite clear to you. The nature of your job is multifold. Sometimes you’ll have to be a policeman. Sometimes a spy. Sometimes a diplomat. Sometimes a liar and cheat in the name of England. Sometimes a soldier. And sometimes you’ll have to be a believer. You’re an extremely capable and talented man, but it is becoming increasingly clear that believing is the one thing you cannot do. And that’s a task worth working on.”

“I will do my job, sir,” Spire said, careful to keep a level tone. “Please give me details, names, operatives, everything about Eterna on all clearance levels and precisely what you expect of me. I can do nothing with phantoms, whether I believe in them or not. Good day, milord.”

Without a further word, he turned on his heel and strode away. “Try to enjoy your appointment, Mr. Spire,” Black called after him amiably.

Spire nodded without turning around. For Spire, there was nothing enjoyable about work at cross purposes with logic, but Black’s enthusiasm was something to marvel at.

As Spire stepped out from under the arches of the club, leaving Foley’s scowl behind, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man in a somewhat theatrical cloak approach quickly on the cobblestones. He had a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his face and his suit was too tight, revealing lines of a muscular body. Spire shifted to evade him but the stranger seemed determined to collide with him.

Spire moved quickly to his right, but not before something landed over his head—a hood, something made of fabric anyway, dark and full of smoke. Spire struck out and felt a satisfying punch land somewhere in the central body mass of the caped man, but someone else dragged him back against the Parliament bricks. He gasped involuntarily and whatever acrid scent was in the hood overwhelmed him and he sank to his knees as everything faded to black.

Copyright © 2015 by Leanna Renee Hieber

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Fantasy Firsts Sweepstakes

Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re offering the chance to win these fantastic titles on Goodreads! For details on how to enter, please click on the cover image of the book you are interested in.

The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee Hieber

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London, 1882: Queen Victoria appoints Harold Spire of the Metropolitan Police to Special Branch Division Omega. Omega is to secretly investigate paranormal and supernatural events and persons. Spire, a skeptic driven to protect the helpless and see justice done, is the perfect man to lead the department, which employs scholars and scientists, assassins and con men, and a traveling circus. Spire’s chief researcher is Rose Everhart, who believes fervently that there is more to the world than can be seen by mortal eyes.

Their first mission: find the Eterna Compound, which grants immortality. Catastrophe destroyed the hidden laboratory in New York City where Eterna was developed, but the Queen is convinced someone escaped—and has a sample of Eterna.

Seriously Wicked by Tiny Connolly

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Camellia’s adopted mother wants Cam to grow up to be just like her. Problem is, Mom’s a seriously wicked witch.

Savvy Cam has tons of practice thwarting the witch’s crazy schemes. But when the witch summons a demon to control the city, he gets loose—and into the cute new boy in Tenth Grade. Now Cam’s determined to stop the demon before he destroys the new boy’s soul. Which means she might have to try a spell of her own. But if she’s willing to work spells like the witch. . .will it mean she’s wicked too? With the demon squashing pixies, girls becoming zombies, and the school one spell away from exploding in phoenix flame, Cam has to realize that wicked doesn’t lie in your abilities, but in your choices.

The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston

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Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated on the senate floor, and the glory that is Rome has been torn in two. Octavian, Caesar’s ambitious great-nephew and adopted son, vies with Marc Antony and Cleopatra for control of Caesar’s legacy. As civil war rages from Rome to Alexandria, and vast armies and navies battle for supremacy, a secret conflict may shape the course of history.

Juba, Numidian prince and adopted brother of Octavian, has embarked on a ruthless quest for the Shards of Heaven, lost treasures said to possess the very power of the gods—or the one God. Driven by vengeance, Juba has already attained the fabled Trident of Poseidon, which may also be the staff once wielded by Moses. Now he will stop at nothing to obtain the other Shards, even if it means burning the entire world to the ground.

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Truthwitch by Susan DennardOn a continent ruled by three empires, everyone is born with a “witchery,” a magical skill that sets them apart from others. Now, as the Twenty Year Truce in a centuries long war is about to end, the balance of power-and the failing health of all magic-will fall on the shoulders of a mythical pair called the Cahr Awen.

 

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings by Brandon SandersonIn The Way of Kings, #1 New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson introduces readers to the fascinating world of Roshar, a world of stone and storms.

It has been centuries since the fall of the Knights Radiant, but their mystical swords and armor remain, transforming ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for them. Wars are fought for them and won by them.

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Excerpt: The Shards of Heaven

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Place holder  of - 75Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an excerpt from The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston, a historical fantasy set at the birth of the Roman Empire. Civil war rages in Rome, but it is a secret war for the lost treasures of the gods that will shape the first century BC. The Realms of God, the conclusion of the trilogy, will be available November 7th.

Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated on the senate floor, and the glory that is Rome has been torn in two. Octavian, Caesar’s ambitious great-nephew and adopted son, vies with Marc Antony and Cleopatra for control of Caesar’s legacy. As civil war rages from Rome to Alexandria, and vast armies and navies battle for supremacy, a secret conflict may shape the course of history.

Juba, Numidian prince and adopted brother of Octavian, has embarked on a ruthless quest for the Shards of Heaven, lost treasures said to possess the very power of the gods—or the one God. Driven by vengeance, Juba has already attained the fabled Trident of Poseidon, which may also be the staff once wielded by Moses. Now he will stop at nothing to obtain the other Shards, even if it means burning the entire world to the ground.

Caught up in these cataclysmic events, and the hunt for the Shards, are a pair of exiled Roman legionnaires, a Greek librarian of uncertain loyalties, assassins, spies, slaves…and the ten-year-old daughter of Cleopatra herself.

PROLOGUE

THE BOY WHO WOULD RULE THE WORLD

OUTSKIRTS OF ROME, 44 BCE

Hidden amid the shadows outside Caesar’s marble-columned villa, the assassin Valerius gazed back across the valley to Rome. Coiled around and upon her seven hills, the Eternal City often seemed like a living thing, her old streets pulsing with life. But now, on this fading day, the city was quiet and still. Her ancient stones, alight with the reds of a setting sun, appeared to be weeping blood. Valerius saw in the image a sign of favor.

The dictator was dead. And the gods approved.

Caesar’s blood, he did not doubt, still stained the tiled floor of the east Forum. Pushing his way through the astonished throngs of onlookers after the deed, Valerius had seen for himself the mangled corpse, wrapped in the tattered remains of Caesar’s purple robes, and in his mind’s eye the thick crimson pooled there was the perfect mirror to the strong light before him now.

Valerius’ knife, which he absently turned over in his hands as he watched Rome’s red walls slowly fade to gray, had not been among those that drank of Caesar, and he thought it a pity. The rich senators who’d done the killing were emotional men, ineffective at murder. Even with so many cuts to his body, Caesar had taken some minutes to die. The sprawled trail of blood on the tiles had told the tale. And though Valerius felt no particular love for the would-be emperor, he nevertheless thought it shameful that any man should shake out his last breaths under the eyes of dishonorable men.

Shameful, but little for it: Valerius was under no employ for that killing, and the man who had arranged to hire him only hours afterward would never have wished Caesar dead. Octavian still called the dictator “Uncle Julius” despite all the titles and glories that Caesar had won over his great-nephew’s nineteen years. In the streets some citizens were even saying that Caesar had adopted the young man, that Octavian might well be his heir. That was certainly what Octavian seemed to think.

Valerius spit into the vines that gathered about the foot of the villa wall at his back. He knew little of politics himself: he cared for them only insofar as they affected his own movements. Heir or not, adopted son or not, Octavian was his employer now. So Valerius cared only that his employer’s beloved uncle was dead and that he had been hired to see that Caesarion, the son of Caesar and Cleopatra, the only blood child of the now-dead dictator, would follow his father to the grave.

As he stopped to think about it, it seemed for a moment odd to Valerius that Octavian should wish the child of Julius such harm. The assassin had never seen the boy, but it was said that, aside from his slightly darker tone of skin and more delicate Egyptian features, Caesarion had every part the striking resemblance to his father. Then again, as heir of Egypt and the only surviving child of Julius Caesar himself, Caesarion did stand in line to inherit the world. And if Octavian thought himself rightful heir to at least part of that world … well, no price would be too high to see the boy dead.

Not that it really mattered. Octavian’s reasons were immaterial in the end. Not like the hundred weight of gold Valerius had been promised for the killing. That was material indeed.

Up the hard-packed dirt road from the bridge over the Tiber came the sound of hooves, a punishing gallop of men in fury. Valerius took a deep breath to clear his mind of reasons in order to focus on the simple facts of the task at hand: to get into the villa and end the child’s life. With practiced speed he pocketed his blade, fearful of any glint it might give off despite the deep shadows and brush in which he crouched.

The staff emblem rattling above the lead rider showed the markings of Caesar’s famed Sixth Legion, and even before they were close enough for the assassin to see the details of the faces of the riders themselves, he knew the man at their center to be Mark Antony: the general was broad-shouldered and handsome in his signet robes, with thick curls of red hair bouncing at every downbeat, and he exuded arrogance and assumptive power with every movement. Even the strong and impassioned way he drove his steed, completely heedless of consequence to the beast, seemed emblematic of the man. If the citizens of Rome knew but one thing about Antony it was that he was full of fire, his eyes never alight on anything but his goal. He’d been Julius Caesar’s finest general, perhaps his best friend, and for some reason—Valerius couldn’t fathom why—his life had been spared by the conspiratorial senators.

Valerius slowly and methodically stretched some of his tense muscles, grateful for Antony’s appearance. He’d counted on an emissary coming to call on the distraught queen of Egypt, but none could be more ideal than Antony. Chaos followed the man like the wake of a passing ship, and his arrival would be sure to send the household into even greater confusion than that which it already labored under, making it far easier for the assassin to complete his work.

Tucked behind the drapes of a momentarily calm foyer, his lungs moving shallow and silent, Valerius listened to the sounds of the villa: servants’ feet rushing between rooms, pots and dishes being moved about in the kitchens, the muted sobs of a woman crying, and, very close, the quiet breathing of someone waiting in a nearby doorway. A male someone, by the sound of the breathing. Octavian’s contact, he hoped.

Valerius lifted himself to the balls of his feet, floating out from his hiding place. A long wide swath of torchlight cut across the darkened floor of the foyer, spilling out from the doorway where the man waited, effectively blinding whoever it was to anything moving in the shadows. The assassin glided carefully around the periphery of the room until he stood beside the doorway. Then he took a small rock from his pocket and tossed it lightly out into the open.

The man in the doorway started at the sound of the pebble clattering across the floor, and he took a few hesitant steps into the open. “Hello?” he whispered. His voice cracked. “Is someone—”

The man’s quaking voice was frozen by the dull back of the assassin’s blade against his throat. Valerius guided him with it, pulling him into the darkness away from the doorway. “Yes,” the assassin breathed in his ear. “Someone is here.”

“I’m … I’m…”

“That’s not the code word,” Valerius said, pressing the steel against his skin.

The man’s body shook in fright, and his neck spasmed before he finally controlled himself enough to remember the arranged sign. “Tiber,” he croaked. “Tiber.”

Immediately Valerius released and spun Octavian’s contact around to get a good look at him. The man was younger than he’d anticipated, perhaps not even twenty. He had the smooth skin of someone unaccustomed to manual labor and the outdoors, and the tone of his complexion showed he was not Italian stock, though it was also more olive than the deeper tan of Cleopatra and her Egyptian court. A Greek, probably. Or a Cretan.

“I’m Didymus,” the man said. “I didn’t—”

“Where’s the boy?”

“The boy?”

“Little Caesar,” Valerius hissed.

A new fear crossed Didymus’ face. “Varro said you wanted Cleo—”

The assassin’s voice turned low and dangerous. “Octavian will pay you, yes?”

Didymus nodded, his expression numb.

“Pay you well?”

“Yes,” Didymus managed.

“Then don’t waste my time,” Valerius whispered, raising the knife for emphasis. “Where?”

Didymus swallowed carefully, his eyes dark. After a moment he lifted his arm in the direction of the lighted, open doorway. “Through my room, left beyond the curtains. Two rooms down there. Caesarion’s is the first.”

“Guards?”

“One inside. Abeden. An Alexandrian.”

“And the Egyptian whore?” Octavian hadn’t ordered it, but Valerius was certain there’d be a substantial bonus if both mother and child died tonight. No one in Rome had approved of Caesar’s dalliance with the foreign queen.

The fear in Didymus’ face was replaced with something more focused and harsh. Something more like the jealousy of a jilted lover. “Her room’s beside his. You’ll know it for the moaning.”

Valerius nodded, lowered his blade, and padded into Didymus’ room. The furnishings were simple enough, but the walls were lined with tables, each stacked tall with scrolls in various states of binding. The traitor was a tutor, he surmised. Probably the boy’s. It would explain his hesitation.

The household was still busy at the front of the villa. He could hear Antony bellowing commands, sending the servants scurrying to tend to his horse and to bring wine for his own dust-dried throat. Soon, the assassin imagined, Antony would dispatch one of his legionnaires to fetch Cleopatra.

The assassin doubled his speed as he made his way through the curtained rooms and hallways, keeping to the shadows as much as he could, closing in on the sound of the sobbing woman he now knew for certain to be the queen of Egypt. He encountered no one before he reached Caesarion’s door, where he paused to listen for sounds of movement within.

Valerius smiled once more. If the bloodred light of the sunset and the ease of his passage were not surety enough of the gods’ blessing on his task, the few noises inside the room would have passed all doubt from his mind. The boy was playing quietly, and from the sound of it Didymus was right about the single guard.

The assassin knocked lightly on the door, then right-palmed his knife. The door cracked, filled with an Egyptian face.

Valerius bowed slightly, kept his voice low and his posture submissive, like a servant’s. “The queen requests your presence, Abeden. There’s talk of moving the boy.” He stood to one side, so as to let the guard pass into the hallway. “I’m instructed to stand at the door in your absence.”

The guard glanced back at the room, then stepped out into the hall, pulling the door shut behind him. He turned in the direction of Cleopatra’s room. As he did so, Valerius came forward at his back, knife moving in a rapid strike up and into the center of his throat, puncturing his voice box. Then, in a smooth and practiced motion, he pulled the blade back and up and out, severing the vital arteries on the right side of the guard’s neck even as his free hand gripped the man’s weapon arm and used it as a lever to turn his body and send the bright red spray against the wall, out of sight of the boy’s doorway. He pinned the man there for a moment as he shook and gurgled, then he stabbed him once more, this time in the left center of his chest.

The guard sagged, only twitching now, and Valerius let him down to the floor quietly before checking his own body for blood. As he expected, only his knife hand had met with the stain, and this he was quick to wipe clean on the dead guard’s tunic. Pocketing the weapon, Valerius dragged the man into a slumped position with his back against the wall. From a distance, he’d look like he was sleeping. Valerius would have liked to hide the body completely, but then he’d need to clean up the blood. And, besides, he planned to be finished with his tasks and fleeing through one window or another in a matter of minutes.

Shaking out his own shoulders and straightening his back, the assassin approached the door, knocked once, opened it, and stepped inside.

The room was modest but not small: perhaps fifteen feet square, with only a single wood-shuttered and curtained window above a well-cushioned bed. Caesarion, the boy who might inherit the world, the three-year-old child he had been sent to kill, was kneeling in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a small toy army: chariots, horses, and warriors. The assassin hadn’t been sure what to expect, but he was surprised nonetheless to find the little prince dressed in a simple belted Roman tunic and thong sandals, no different than any three-year-old one might find in a market in the city. Even more surprising, though, was how much he resembled his father: he had dark hair cut round and flat against a strong brow, the prominent nose of the Julians, and, when Caesarion looked up, his dead father’s piercing dark brown eyes.

“I’m one of Antony’s men,” Valerius said, smiling as he did to all children. “We’re going to go see your father.” Behind his back the assassin carefully pushed the door’s bolt into position, locking the room.

Caesarion nodded, and his voice was quiet and even. “See Father,” the little boy said.

Valerius took a step forward in the room, nodding solemnly. “That’s right. I’m sorry for your loss, my lord.”

Little Caesar blinked, then looked down to the wooden figures gathered around him on the floor. His hands moved a Roman chariot forward, knocked over an Egyptian warrior.

Two steps closer. “Your father was a great man. He often won victory over unspeakable odds.”

The boy nodded more strongly this time. He picked up the fallen Egyptian warrior, stood it on its feet and then stared, his face blank, at the pieces before him. “I know,” he said.

Valerius took another step to stand behind Caesarion, his hand moving stealthily to his pocket to retrieve the warm knife. Slowly, deliberately, he bent at the knees, crouching behind the child and gauging his neck. “I am sorry,” he said, and he started to reach forward.

An alarmed shout rang out in the hallway, the hard voice of a man. It froze the assassin’s hand as his head turned instinctively toward the locked door and his mind recalled the possible escape routes he’d mapped out beyond the window.

Caesar’s son, his own head turning at the shout, saw the assassin’s weapon and pushed himself away, scattering toys. He backed into the wall, brandished a wooden play knife in his shaky hands.

Valerius, still crouched with his own knife in hand, was mildly surprised when he looked back to the boy. “You’re fast, little one.”

“Don’t hurt me,” Caesarion whimpered.

The assassin stood. In another context, with a man before him instead of a boy, he would have smiled. But not here. No smiles, but no lies either. “I have to.”

Caesarion shook his head, swallowed hard. His eyes were dampening, but he didn’t cry.

There were answering shouts from within the villa. A sudden crash jolted the locked door, but it held. Valerius found it ironic that Caesar’s slaves had kept the house in such good working order that he’d be able to murder the man’s son in peace. By the time they breached the door he’d be out the window and on the run, the child dead. Alas that he’d not get the chance at the queen, too. The bonus would have been nice.

“No,” Caesarion stammered. “Please … no.”

Valerius settled his knees a little for balance, eyes taking stock of the child’s fake knife. The boy couldn’t do him any real harm with it, but the assassin didn’t intend to take home even a scratch from this assignment.

There was a crash from Cleopatra’s room next door, like the toppling of a great table, and the queen’s lament turned to sudden screaming. Not seconds later there was another crash, and Cleopatra’s voice grew even louder.

Caesarion’s wooden weapon trembled more violently in response to his mother’s terrified wails, and Valerius took a single step backward, giving himself room for a blade-dodging feint as he charged. He took a breath. Tensed.

Before Valerius could engage, heavy, running footfalls sounded beyond the shuttered window, and he had chance enough only to turn in the direction of the sounds before the wood slats separating the room from the growing night exploded inward as a massive legionnaire came through, tumbling over the bed and into his side.

The two men flailed to the floor together, grunting as splintered wood fell like rain in the little room. Valerius hit the ground first, but he was able to kick his lower body up in continuation of the legionnaire’s momentum, sending the far bigger man hurtling against the barred door. The assassin then rolled quickly, recovering his balance even as the dazed legionnaire scrambled to get his feet under him and began pawing for the gladius at his side.

Valerius came forward at him, knife ready in his grip, but before he could strike he screamed and buckled to one knee as Caesarion jammed his little wooden blade into the soft flesh at the back of his right leg. The assassin swung his arm back at the boy instinctively, catching him above the eye with the butt of his knife, sending him sprawling.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Valerius turned back around in time to see the big legionnaire draw an arm back and forward, pushing a gladius into his belly, just below his rib cage. Gasping against the cold steel in his gut, the assassin still tried to swing his knife, but the legionnaire held fast to his sword with strong hands, and his thick arms flexed as he twisted it in his grip, scratching the blade into bone. Valerius groaned, strained, then dropped his weapon and sank against the killing stroke, watching, helpless and gasping in broken breaths, as the legionnaire stood, wincing from wounds of his own, and pushed forward until the assassin collapsed to his back.

For a few short gasps, Valerius could see nothing but the ceiling, and then the legionnaire returned into his view. The assassin stared in paralyzed shock as the bigger man painfully lifted a foot and planted it on his chest. Valerius heard a crunch that he strangely could not feel as the foot pressed down and the gladius was pulled free with a jerk of the legionnaire’s burly arms. Thick warmth washed over the assassin’s chest. Then the legionnaire was gone, limping over him and out of view.

“Caesarion,” Valerius heard the man say somewhere over his head. “You hurt?”

The child was crying now, and he heard the flex of leather and a grunt.

“There, there,” the legionnaire was saying. “All’s well, my boy. All’s well. You’re a brave lad.”

Valerius was having a hard time focusing now, but he saw the legionnaire come back into view. With an effort, Valerius turned his head to follow the man as he made his way toward the heavy door, holding the sobbing boy in one massive arm. Someone was pounding on the door—the assassin absently wondered how long that had been going on—and the legionnaire shifted the boy to his hip so he could unbolt it.

The door swung open to a crowded hall. There was a second legionnaire, smaller than the first, who must have been doing the pounding. Mark Antony was beside him, holding back a weeping, panic-stricken Cleopatra. And among the faces gathered behind them he saw Didymus, his Greek complexion gone pale with terror.

“Caesarion!” Cleopatra shouted, rushing forward to take the boy from the bigger legionnaire’s arms. By the gods, Valerius suddenly thought, she truly was beautiful. He’d heard talk of the queen’s beauty, and certainly from afar she had been remarkable enough for him to half-believe the talk that she was part-goddess herself, but seeing her up close he saw the honest truth: she was a woman of flesh and blood, a mother with fears and hopes. And also perhaps the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.

The smaller legionnaire came forward, too, offering a shoulder to his injured comrade after he handed over the boy, but Antony pushed past them all to kneel before Valerius, filling his fading world with a flushed face and the scents of stale wine. “Who hired you?” the general demanded. His thick fingers rooted in the assassin’s tunic, causing the room to shift and bringing Antony’s face even closer. “Who let you in?”

Valerius looked to the Greek tutor, but when he tried to speak it came out as a wet cough. He felt an odd satisfaction to see flecks of red appear on Antony’s face. He tried to smile but wasn’t sure if the muscles of his face obeyed his mind’s command.

“Bah!” Antony said, releasing his grip. The assassin’s world unfocused, shook, then came back into clarity. He saw that Antony was standing now, surveying the room. “How’d you get to the window so quickly, Pullo?”

“Broke through the room next door, sir.” The battered legionnaire flicked his eyes to Cleopatra in her shift, and he bowed slightly. “Apologies, my lady.”

Cleopatra, looking up from stroking her boy’s head, seemed to have gathered control of herself. “No apologies, legionnaire,” she replied. “I owe you thanks.”

Valerius was aware of their voices receding, as if they were moving farther and farther away. It occurred to him that he was dying, a sudden, strange, and fearful thought. He felt his mind bucking and straining against the realization, clamoring to fight on, but his body did little more than tremble in an awkward breath. Even as that part of his mind screamed, another part of him observed his life passing with disinterest. He’d seen this kind of death before, where the blade cut the spine. Less common than the quivering horrors. Strange to experience it now.

“This is the second time I find myself in your debt, Titus Pullo,” Cleopatra was saying. Her eyes moved to take in the smaller legionnaire, on whose shoulder the big man now leaned. “And you, Lucius Vorenus.”

Through a growing fog of shadow the assassin watched as Antony looked to the two men for explanation. Pullo seemed to blush, and Vorenus in turn gave a shy smile before he spoke: “We brought the lady back to Alexandria before the siege, sir. Before she met Caesar. Was nothing.”

“I see,” Antony said gruffly. The room was almost gone now, and the general’s words were only a distant whisper as he advised the queen to return to Alexandria.

But Valerius was no longer listening. He was thinking instead of the faces of the dead, of the many shades that would greet him upon the other side. He thought of their anger, of their unslakable thirst for vengeance.

And then the voices in the room faded at last into a still silence, and Valerius saw light—clean, white light—before his eyes. He heard a gentle wind, the sound of water upon a sand-lined shore. The sun shone. Children sang. All times became one time. Valerius reached for his mother’s hand. He sat crying in an empty room. He lived. He died. He stood before the throne. And then darkness, an impenetrable and unquenchable black, rose up like a wave and overwhelmed all.

 

1

A WEAPON OF MANY GODS

NUMIDIA, 32 BCE

Standing at the craggy edge of a ridge that stabbed out into the stormy Mediterranean like a finger pointing north out of Africa—toward Europe, toward Rome—Juba frowned. The last thing the sixteen-year-old wanted to do was to resort to torture.

Sure, he’d read enough about the dark arts of physical pain to be reasonably certain how to go about them. One privilege of being an adopted son of Julius Caesar, after all, had been the possibility of an education bounded only by his own thirsty mind. By the time he’d left Rome a year ago, a tutor had proudly proclaimed him one of the most widely read men in the city—and that was before the old scrolls and tomes Juba had encountered during these many months across the sea in Africa.

Still, the idea of using violence to attain what he wanted didn’t appeal to him. He doubted that information wrought from torture could really be of much use. It would be too conflicted. And even more than that, it didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem, well, Roman.

A hard wind kicked up the cliff-side, bringing with it the smell of brine from the churning waters far below. Gazing down at his arms after the stinging mist had passed over him, Juba noted the little pale droplets clinging to his dark skin. The irony of it further clouded his brooding mind. I’m no Roman, he thought. I’m a Numidian.

Juba heard the sound of someone moving hesitantly down along the narrow, broken path behind him. Even without turning, he could tell it was Quintus. The slave disliked heights. Always had. And now that the years had brought gray to his temples and long lines to his face, loyal Quintus truly hated them. “Yes?” Juba asked.

“It’s Laenas, sir. I think he’s … well, growing impatient with the priest. I fear something rash.”

Juba nodded. He’d expected as much when he’d left them alone in the old temple. Scar-faced Laenas had proven, time and time again during this past year, that he could be counted on for only two things: to desire coin and to despise those who stood in the way of his getting it. Since Juba had promised him thirty silver denarii if they got the information they were seeking from the Numidian priest, he was bound to be impatient.

Juba turned back from the salty, whipping wind, saw that Quintus was huddled as close to a nearby boulder as he could manage. Despite his own gloomy thoughts, Juba couldn’t help but smile at the old slave. Assigned to care for him when he was still just a child living in Caesar’s villa, Quintus had grown to be more a father to him than Julius had ever been.

“Very well,” Juba said, stepping forward to help his slave back up the path toward the temple. “Let’s hope he’s willing to talk now.”

 

Cut back into the earth, the old temple dedicated to the pagan goddess Astarte appeared from the outside to be little more than a weather-beaten cluster of stones clinging to the cliffs just below the crest of the bare ridgeline. Quiet. Isolated. Just the sort of place to hide the secrets of ancient gods.

Juba ducked through the clanking wooden door, grateful to be out of the wind and into the relative warmth of the dark, windowless interior. Quintus was quick to follow, the release of his breath signaling his additional relief at being off the precipices outside. “They’re still in the back,” the slave whispered.

Juba moved quickly through the small, bare antechamber and then through a thick drape into the lamp-lit altar room beyond, its air filled with the heavy scents of spiced incense and moist loam. At its head sat a low stone firepit filled with ash and bones. Behind it, atop a rough-hewn wooden pillar blackened by the fire, sat a small clay statue of a woman, only a little taller than his forearm, perched on a throne and holding a bowl beneath her more than ample breasts. Juba had read of such figurines in his books. It was said that the power of the fertility goddess—and her associated priest, of course—could be seen in the miraculous leaking of milk from the statue, flowing down from her breasts into the bowl.

Juba had studied this particular statue carefully earlier in the day, while they waited for the priest to return from the well in the village. He’d had no trouble finding the small holes bored through the clay nipples into the hollow of her body. He’d even found some flecks of the soft wax plugs that the priest had used to keep her breasts from leaking until the sacrifice burning in the altar below her had melted them.

So much for this god, he’d thought.

Juba walked past her now, up the three worn steps of the altar’s stone dais, and then down another set of steeper, more roughly hewn steps that led to a low doorway against the back wall. Pushing through the drape there, he entered the last chamber.

The old priest of Astarte, still bound to his simple stool, had fallen over to the damp earthen floor. His nose was running with blood that glistened wetly in the flickering lamplight, and the short but stout Laenas was straddling him, hunched over at the waist, his fist raised for another strike.

“That’s enough,” Juba said, trying to sound strong, and glad to hear that his voice didn’t crack.

Laenas grunted his assent and stood. Juba noticed now that his other hand had been holding a knife, which he quickly slipped back into the folds of his clothing. Its edge did not yet appear wet. “We was just talking,” Laenas said over his shoulder.

The priest coughed loudly, a half-retching sound from his gut, and then spat into the dark dirt. Juba had always found it difficult to judge the age of those men older than him, a problem compounded here by the leather-tanned skin of a native Numidian: though it was, Juba could never forget, the tone of his own flesh, it nevertheless appeared foreign to his sight. Still, from the man’s wrinkled face, his sparse, white hair, and his thick beard, Juba had guessed him to be in perhaps his seventies, even if his ability to withstand threat—and to manage the long hike to the village for water and supplies—spoke of a younger man, at least in spirit. Looking at him, Juba felt a pang of pity, but not remorse. “Help him up,” he said.

Laenas grunted again—the typical depth of his speech—and then stepped around to lift the priest and his stool back into position. It seemed no more difficult for the stout little man than hoisting a sack of wheat. As the old man was lifted upright, Juba saw again the strange symbol on the pendant hanging around his neck: a triangle inscribed, point down, upon a perfect circle. He had seen similar pendants around the necks of some of the men whose information had led him here.

“I’m sorry for that,” Juba said, measuring out his words, concentrating on keeping his back straight, his chin high. “We’re all just very anxious to hear what you have to say. Laenas here most of all.”

The priest sputtered, his mouth moving, but he said nothing.

Juba sighed and walked over to one of the priest’s rickety tables. It had been unceremoniously swept clean, the plates and parchment tumbled to the floor. In their place sat a bundle of bound canvas—substantially bigger, Juba noted with some amusement, than the statue of Astarte in the hall. Juba walked to it and raised his hand to touch the rough cloth, feeling the outline of the broken wooden staff beneath. Where the staff met the wider metal head, the cloth felt warm, and he snatched his fingers away with a start. He swallowed hard, glad his back was turned to the other men in the little room. “Let’s start simple,” he said, trying to calm his heartbeat. “This staff. This … trident. How did it come to be here? The priests who pointed me here say it’s the Trident of Neptune—or Poseidon, if you prefer. Is that true?”

When the priest said nothing, Juba turned around and saw that he was shaking his head weakly. Standing behind him, Laenas’ face appeared to flush, the wide scar across his right cheek a darkening purple in the gloom.

“It’s strange, you know,” Juba continued, looking back toward the bundle and resisting the urge to touch it this time. “An artifact of the old Greek and Roman gods, here in this place, in the possession of a priest of Astarte. I wonder … is there something to the idea that Astarte is the same goddess as the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus?”

“I’ll not help Rome,” the old man croaked.

Juba heard only the briefest rush of movement before the priest gasped, a sound that reminded the young man of a cook tenderizing meat. Juba spun around and saw the old man slumped sideways, grimacing. “Laenas!” he cried out, his voice cracking with the sudden start.

The rugged Roman straightened, his fist coming back from the priest’s side and something like a smirk momentarily passing over his face. “Wasn’t having him spitting about Rome,” he said.

As if in reply, the priest did, in fact, cough and spit. The blood ran dark streaks into his matted beard.

Whatever else Juba might have expected the priest to utter then—that the Trident wasn’t real, that the gods weren’t real, maybe that he had money hidden away under a rock somewhere—it wasn’t what the old man finally managed to say. “You’ve your father’s eyes.”

Juba stared at him, unblinking, his mind and heart racing. The old man held his gaze for a long moment before shutting his own eyes in a grimace of pain. Juba still stared at him, feeling the attention of Quintus and Laenas upon him even as he dared not look at them.

“Lord Juba—” Quintus started.

“Leave us,” Juba commanded, cutting off the slave. He flicked his gaze at Laenas just long enough to note the familiar look of disdain on the rough man’s face, the same twist of jealousy and disgust he’d seen so often while growing up in Rome as the foreign-born adopted son of Caesar. “Both of you.”

“My lord, I—” Quintus said.

Juba silenced him with a wave of his hand. “I said go. Now.”

“Very well,” Quintus said, bowing deep as he backed toward the doorway. Laenas followed with a predictably dissatisfied grunt.

In seconds, Juba stood alone in the little room with the sagging priest. He took long, deep breaths to steady himself. “You speak the language of Rome well for a Numidian,” he said when the sounds of Laenas and Quintus had grown faint.

The old priest licked his lips and swallowed before responding. “I was a slave to Rome, too, once.”

“What’s your name?”

“Syphax,” the old priest said.

“So you knew my father.”

Syphax nodded slowly. “I knew the king, yes.”

The king, Juba thought. Could it truly be that the old priest, hidden away out here on this lonesome spit of land, was a loyalist to the royal family of Numidia? The lineage of which he alone remained?

“I saw him die,” Syphax said.

“What?”

The old priest coughed twice painfully before he regained his composure. “Saw him die on the blade of my master, Marcus Petreius.”

Juba staggered backward into the ragged table behind him as if physically struck by the sheer weight of memory and history that flooded into his mind. He’d read the books, sought out every shred of detail he could find on his real father’s inglorious end. After Caesar had defeated the Numidian army at Thapsus, Juba’s father had fled with the general Petreius, only to be trapped. The histories spoke of how the two men dueled to the death, opting for an honorable end rather than the wrath of Caesar and the horrible, dishonorable Triumph that he would have put them through back in Rome—the Triumph that had thus fallen to his infant son, Prince Juba, first seized and then later adopted by the very man who’d driven his royal father to such a doom.

“No,” Juba managed to say. It had only been two months since Juba had knelt, at last, beside the unmarked grave of the true father Caesar had never let him know. His hands gripped the rough wood of the table at his back. “You cannot have.”

“I watched them fight at the end,” Syphax said. There was no pride in his voice. No power. Only old sorrow. “Petreius was still alive when it was done. As my duty, I ran a blade into his heart.”

Juba closed his eyes, tried to imagine the scene as he had so many times in his young life. As ever, his father’s face was a blur. Only the darkness of his skin was familiar. But he could picture a younger Syphax there, too, waiting, with a shined and sharpened sword, for either of them to fall. “Yet here you live,” Juba said, opening his eyelids to glare fiercely at the priest. “A slave … you killed your master but didn’t follow him.”

The priest’s jaw quivered, his eyes red and sunk deep into tired sockets. “You’re right. I didn’t. I promised to fall upon my own sword after it was done. Promised them both. But I didn’t.”

Juba was just Roman enough to know the depth of Syphax’s dishonor on principle. He was just Numidian enough to think the offense against his true father’s memory worthy of death. And he was just young enough to act on the impulse of rage that washed over him.

He opened his mouth to call for Laenas.

“But for good reason, Juba!” Syphax cried out in a ragged voice. “I couldn’t let them get it. I couldn’t!”

The old priest’s eyes had a trance-like glaze now, riveted on the bundle of cloth on the table. Juba, despite his rage, decided not to call Laenas just yet. “Tell me of it,” he said. “Tell me everything.”

 

Juba stepped around the altar to Astarte, canvas bundle under his arm, and found Quintus and Laenas in the temple’s main room, sitting on one of the primitive stone benches. The old slave looked anxious. Laenas just looked sullen. Juba ignored them both for now, walking past them and through the antechamber out into the wind and the smells of the sea, his head too full of thoughts to speak just yet.

Syphax had indeed told him all that he knew. Juba was certain of that. The old man’s despair was too great to hold back to the son and heir of Numidia, especially once he knew the secret Juba had kept from everyone but Quintus: that he hated Rome, that he hated his adopted father. He hated them for his real father’s death. For the disgrace of the Triumph that was his earliest memory. For everything that Rome had done to his country.

Syphax had told him everything then. He’d told him far more than he could ever have imagined.

The Trident in his hands was indeed the weapon of gods. Poseidon. Neptune. But more than that, it was a weapon of the Jews, whose strange religion Juba knew little about—a fact he intended to remedy as soon as possible with the help of every book he could get his hands on.

And still more: there was an even greater weapon of the gods out there to be found, a weapon of the Jews that might give him the power to accomplish the revenge he’d long hoped to achieve. An ark.

The wooden door to the temple squeaked open and shut. Quintus tentatively shuffled up behind him. “Juba?”

The sixteen-year-old focused his eyes on the distant horizon, where the darkening sea met the darkening sky. Lightning flashed there, silent but threatening.

Syphax didn’t have all the answers, but the old priest knew who did. “Thoth knows,” he’d said, again and again. The source of the Trident’s power, the nature of its strange black stone, the whereabouts of the wondrous ark … Thoth knows.

At first, Juba had thought it was no answer at all. Thoth was an Egyptian god, like the Roman Mercury, a figure that moved between the world of gods and the world of men. A deity of so many faces he seemed to be everything and nothing all at once: god of magic and medicine, god of the dead, god of the moon, god of writing and wisdom, even the founder of civilization itself.

Thoth would naturally know the answers to questions. Yet Syphax had spoken with a pragmatic earnestness, as if Juba could easily get information from Thoth.

“So where is Thoth?” Juba had asked the priest of Astarte.

And, after some final persuasion, Syphax had answered: “Thoth was in Sais.”

Sais, Juba knew, was the cult center for the goddess Neith, the Egyptian counterpart of Astarte, which explained the priest’s knowledge. Perhaps it even explained how he’d come to have the Trident. Then he’d caught the nuance in the priest’s words. “Was?”

The old priest had smiled grimly, his pale teeth smeared with red. “The Scrolls are in Alexandria.”

The truth at last. It wasn’t Thoth himself who had the answers, but the legendary Scrolls of Thoth, in which all knowledge, it was said, could be found. And the Scrolls were in Egypt, in the Great Library. Find them and he’d have the power, and the vengeance, that he sought.

“Juba?”

The lightning pulsed again, and beyond the wind and the breaking of waves Juba heard a quiet rumble. Was it from the earlier flashes? Or was it the deep of the sea, calling out for its master? Juba swallowed hard, resisting the temptation to touch the metal head of the Trident in its canvas bundle, to see if it was warmer now. Instead he took a deep breath to clear his mind, to focus on the tasks immediately at hand. He needed to do more research. More than that, he needed money. Getting the Scrolls of Thoth from the Great Library and destroying Rome wasn’t going to come cheap, after all, with or without a weapon of the gods. And there was surely no better time to strike than now, with war between Rome and Alexandria threatening to turn the world to chaos.

“We’re returning to Rome,” he said over his shoulder. “As soon as possible. There are things I need to do there.”

“Of course,” Quintus said, his voice uncertain. “Laenas wants to know, sir, what about the priest?”

Juba blinked away the beads of salty water that were starting to cling to his eyelashes. What to do about the priest? He was a loyal Numidian, after all, one of the very people Juba was going to save from Rome. Yet he’d abandoned the promise made to Juba’s father, no matter his reasons. And, truth be told, he knew far too many things that were best kept secret, even if Juba didn’t yet know the fullness of his course. Viewed through the lens of logic, the decision was easy, even if saying it was hard. Juba wondered if his Numidian father had ever felt the same. No doubt his adopted Roman one never had. “Tell Laenas to kill him,” he finally managed to say. As the words escaped his lips Juba knew for certain that he would not sleep well this night. He wondered how he would ever sleep soundly again. “Tell him he’ll get his thirty coins if he does it quickly.”

Quintus hesitated for a moment, a slight stammer his only response. Then Juba heard the sound of the temple door opening and closing again, leaving him alone.

Well, perhaps not alone, Juba corrected himself, watching the approaching storm and wondering whether the gods were real.

Copyright © 2015 by Michael Livingston

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$2.99 eBook Sale: Crown of Vengeance by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

Image Place holder  of - 98Our Fantasy Firsts program continues today with an ebook sale of Crown of Vengeance by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, on sale now for only $2.99!* A darkness is rising – and the daughter of disgraced royalty may be the land’s salvation – or its ruin.

About Crown of VengeanceThe child Vielle is the daughter of a mad king and queen, her lands lost before her birth, her family erased from history. Born on a night of storm and terror, raised in hiding, then banished from the only home she has ever known—the final stroke of a war begun centuries before.

Vieliessar, grown into the long adulthood that is Elven life, secretly studies hidden lore to discover the prophecy that heralded her birth, secretly studies the use of magic everyone assumes she does not have. Dark dreams teach lessons of war and duty, of strategy and magecraft, that she could not learn in a thousand lifetimes.

She does not have a thousand lifetimes. She has just one—and her time is running out. For the prophecy speaks not just of her, but of a great Darkness that will destroy the Elven kingdoms. A Darkness that is soon to rise, now that Vieliessar has embarked on her quest for the High Kingship. Vieliessar is both the trigger for her people’s destruction–and their only hope of survival.

In this sweeping epic fantasy of magic, battle, and the twists and turns of war, Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory journey into the past of the Fortunate Lands, bringing to vivid, heart-pounding life people who will soon pass into legend.

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This sale ends September 29th.

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$2.99 eBook Sale: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Place holder  of - 51Our Fantasy Firsts program continues today with an ebook sale of Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear, on sale now for only $2.99!* The Eternal Sky series follows an exiled warrior and a princess-turned-sorceress, standing against a mysterious cult pulling the strings of empires. Elizabeth Bear will return to the world of the Eternal Sky in The Stone in the Skullavailable October 10th.

About Range of GhostsTemur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.

Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards.

These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.

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This sale ends September 29th.

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Who are the American Craftsmen?

Image Placeholder of - 34Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues with a guest post from Tom Doyle about the crypto-historical past behind the heroes of American Craftsmen. The final book in the alternate-history series, War and Craft, will be available September 26th.

Written by Tom Doyle

In my new contemporary fantasy novel, American Craftsmen, a craftsman or craftswoman is a soldier or spy magician, usually descended from a family of such practitioners. Though my thriller plot doesn’t assume any particular literary or historical knowledge, I hope you’ll enjoy finding some Easter eggs of this nation’s past in this thoroughly modern story. One of the reasons I wrote it is that too often when we search for an interesting angle on the fantastic, we neglect the weird mythos waiting for us in our own backyard.

The magical rules of my special ops world are partially drawn from early American fiction, which, let’s face it, is awfully creepy. The founders of our independent fictional canon aren’t known for stage comedies filled with wordplay or for novels centered on the marriage plot. Nor did they master the simple pragmatic optimism that on the surface seemed to be the national zeitgeist. Rather, in tales filled with occult obsessions and morbid fascinations, writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne explored the shadowy underside of the New World’s psyche.

For my novel, I’ve imagined that these authors had written thinly veiled fictional accounts which, woven together, formed a cryptohistorical backstory. The family of my main protagonist, Captain Dale Morton, is full of homages to writers and stories from America’s past. I’ve modeled two of Dale’s evil, inbred ancestorson the twins from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” With a power inspired by Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the atheistic Dale can see the sins of others as glowing letters radiating from their bodies.

I created other abilities for my soldier-mages based on uncanny occurrences in military history. The primary power of the Mortons, the thing that makes Dale the most valuable solider-mage in the world, is the ability to change the local weather, for better or worse. Early in American Craftsmen, Dale uses this power to pursue a hostile sorcerer through a sandstorm. This magic was inspired by the number of times that weather completely altered the outcome of American battles. For instance, bad weather saved George Washington’s army at Brooklyn Heights, while an improvement in otherwise terrible weather allowed for the success of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

But the most dangerous and readily available power that a craftsman has is over his opponent’s mind. I drew this power from those instances in war where confusion scatters an army or, as in the killing of Stonewall Jackson, causes death by friendly fire. My present-day craftspeople carry precautions against such psychic warfare, but these don’t save Dale Morton from an opponent’s curse, a curse that will by twists and turns lead him to the demonic horrors corrupting the heart of American magic.

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Find Tom Doyle on Twitter at @tmdoyle2, on Facebook, and on his blog.

(This is a rerun of a post that originally ran on May 5th, 2014.)

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