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Sneak Peek: Shy Knives by Sam Sykes

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Shy Knives by Sam SykesShaia “Shy” Ratani is a clever rogue who makes her living outside of strictly legal methods. While hiding out in the frontier city of Yanmass, she accepts a job solving a nobleman’s murder, only to find herself sucked into a plot involving an invading centaur army that could see the whole city burned to the ground. Shy could stop that from happening, but doing so would involve revealing herself to the former friends who now want her dead. Add in an aristocratic partner with the literal blood of angels in her veins, and Shy quickly remembers why she swore off doing good deeds in the first place.

Shy Knives will become available October 18th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

Sociality and Shackles

“Shaia Ratani.”

This wasn’t how I wanted to be introduced.

“Approach.”

My chains rattled as I shuffled slowly across the floor on bare feet. Despite the multitudes of burning candelabras stretching down the hall on either side of me, the tattered rags I wore failed to ward off a chill. Even if I hadn’t been walking the length of a hall so grand and drenched in opulence, I would have felt small.

“That’s close enough, thief.”

I stopped. The shackles around my wrists seemed heavy enough to pull my eyes to the ground. In the reflection of tile so polished you’d pay to eat off it, I could make out someone looking back at me, black hair hanging in greasy strands before a face covered in grime.

My face.

“Shaia Ratani,” a deep, elegant voice said. “You are accused of a thousand crimes against the aristocracy of Taldor, the most heinous of which include larceny, fraud, extortion, assault, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with intent to murder, unsanctioned use of poison, trespassing, public indecency…”

I was hard pressed to think of any legends that began like this.

“… and consorting with deviant powers.”

Hell, I couldn’t even think of a good tavern story that began like this.

But it was bards who were concerned with how stories began. In my line of work, you learned early on that it’s only the ending that matters.

“You may look up, thief.”

Bold, commanding words from a bold, commanding voice. You’d think, upon looking up, that they’d belong to a bold, commanding man.

Those were not the first words you’d think upon seeing Lord Herevard Helsen. They might have been the thirty-second and thirty-third ones, if you were generous.

Tall and thin as a stalk of corn and with ears to match, the aristocrat who stood upon a raised dais at the end of the hall seemed an ill fit for his fancy clothes. Hell, he seemed a poor fit for his own home.

While his hall was bedecked with tapestries and servants standing at attention and portraits of strong men and women with strong, noble features, Herevard, with his weak chin and shrewd eyes, shifted uncomfortably. Like he could sense his ancestors’ disapproval emanating from the portraits and was already imagining what they’d say if they could see him now.

I never knew them, but I imagined they probably wouldn’t be pleased to see a filthy Katapeshi girl in shackles dirtying up their halls.

“Understand this, Miss Ratani.” Lord Helsen spoke down an overlarge nose at me, as though the dais he stood upon wasn’t high enough to separate us. “I have had you brought from my private dungeons at the behest of another. A mission of mercy that relies entirely on your ability to be civil. Do you understand?”

That would have sounded significantly more authoritative if his face weren’t beaded with sweat. I chose not to call attention to that, though. I merely nodded and received a nod in exchange.

Lord Helsen glanced to his side.

“She was captured not two months ago. My guards found her robbing my study. She’s been serving penance in my dungeons ever since, my lady.”

“Penance?” another voice chimed in. A lyrical birdsong to his squawk: soft, feminine, gentle.

I wasn’t sure how I hadn’t noticed the woman standing beside him before, but the moment she spoke, I couldn’t see anything else in the room.

Had Lord Helsen not addressed her as “lady,” I might never have guessed her to be a noble. She certainly wasn’t what you’d think of when someone mentioned the word, let alone what I’d think of. Her dress was a simple thing of white and blue linens, easy to move in and functional—words that make aristocratic tailors cringe. Her brown hair was clean and washed, but not styled with any particular elegance. She didn’t look especially rich.

Pretty, though.

Or at least, she might have been. It was hard to tell, what with the massive spectacles resting upon the bridge of her nose.

“Penance, my lady.” Lord Helsen nodded to the woman. “As you know, Yanmass’s laws are rather … archaic when it comes to crimes against the gentler class.” He chuckled. “Why, I’m told that Lady Stelvan, upon finding a vagrant in her wine cellar, appealed to the courts to have him walled up inside and—”

“Please!” The woman held up a hand. “Er, that is, Lord Helsen, I do not need to be privy to the details.”

“Of … of course, Lady Sidara.” Lord Helsen made a hasty, apologetic bow. “Regardless, I couldn’t let her walk away freely. Time to reflect upon her misdeeds in the dungeons seemed adequate.” He glanced back toward me. “I suspect that she will be ideal for your purposes.”

“Purposes?”

I hadn’t intended to sound quite so alarmed when I spoke. I hadn’t intended to speak at all.

Lord Helsen hadn’t intended me to either, judging from the annoyed glare he shot me. “Yes, thief. Purposes.”

I bowed my head.

“The Lady Sidara has need of someone with particular … talents,” he continued.

I nodded, head still lowered. Somehow, I figured it was going to be about this.

The three things nobles hate most, in order, are losing money, bad wine, and being reminded they have the same needs as anyone else. No matter how big your house is or who you pay to wipe your ass, eventually everyone needs a treasure stolen, a throat cut, or something set on fire.

They might have used words like “talents,” but nobody needed dirty work done more than a noble.

And they didn’t come nobler than they did in Taldor.

“She is firmly bound, my lady, and no danger at all.” Herevard gestured to me with one white-gloved hand. “You may inspect her at your leisure.”

Lady Sidara cast him a nervous look before glancing back at me. I was, at that moment, keenly aware of every inch of grime on my skin, every ounce of weight in my chains, every tear in the raggedy shirt and trousers I wore. Something about this woman, with her drab dress and giant spectacles, made me feel naked. Vulnerable.

Unworthy.

Still, she wasn’t the first person to do that to me. Certainly not the worst person, either. I kept my head respectfully low, my body reassuringly still as she approached me.

One dainty hand reached out as if to touch me, but she seemed to think better of it and drew it away. I averted my gaze as she studied me from behind those big round spectacles.

“You’re not Taldan,” she said. “From the south, maybe?”

Lord Helsen spoke from the dais. “She’s Qadiran, my lady.”

I stiffened at that. My hands tightened into fists, only relaxing when Lady Sidara spoke again.

“Not Qadiran, Herevard. Her features are a little too fine.” She hummed a moment before her face lit up. “Ah! Of course. You’re from Katapesh.”

Herevard yawned. “Same thing.”

Still, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. Not a lot of people from Taldor appreciated the difference between us southern nations, let alone a noble.

“You poor dear,” she said, eyeing the sorry state of my dress and hygiene. “Listen. I know this might seem … unorthodox. It certainly wasn’t my first choice. But I have … an issue.” She glanced around, as though wary of who might be listening. “An issue that Herevard said you might be able to help with.”

I cast her a sidelong look but said nothing. As if embarrassed, she turned away and readjusted her spectacles.

“I can’t give you the details here,” she said. “Nor can I promise it will be easy. But I can promise you’ll be adequately rewarded. I’ll see you safely exonerated of your crimes and granted a handsome sum besides, in exchange for your assistance.” She drew herself up, fixed me with a hard look. “Of this, you have my word, Miss Ratani.”

Funny how words, common as they are, seem to mean an awful lot to some people. Nobles and their heritages, wizards and their spells, paladins and their oaths—words mean a lot to the kind of person who woke up one day and heard a higher calling.

I once heard that calling.

Then I put the pillow over my head and went back to sleep.

People like me, we don’t put much stock in words. We know how cheap they are. We know how quickly they spin on glib tongues and how swiftly they scatter on the floor. People like me, we needed firmer stuff.

“I know this must sound odd,” Lady Sidara said. “Is there … is there anything I can get you? To help you make up your mind?”

I took a breath and spoke softly.

“A drink.”

Lady Sidara nodded and made a gesture to Herevard. Herevard, in turn, gestured to a nearby servant. The servant ran to a table set up against one of the hall’s walls and, in a few moments, came rushing up to me with a goblet upon a tray. I took it, nodded my gratitude, first to him and then to her. I closed my eyes and took a long, slow sip of cold, refreshing liquid.

And immediately spat it out.

“What the hell is this?” I snapped at the servant.

“W-water!” he replied, holding up his tray like a shield.

“Well, did I ask for water, Cecim, or did I ask for a gods-damned drink?”

“S-sorry, Shy!” he cried out, cowering. “Sorry, Mistress!”

“‘Shy’? ‘Mistress’?”

It wasn’t until I looked and saw Lady Sidara, her mouth wide open in puzzlement, that I realized I might have just ruined things.

“What did you call her?” The noblewoman glanced from Cecim to me, and the puzzlement turned to irritation. It was a full-blown scowl when she whirled upon Lord Helsen and saw the thin nobleman quaking upon the dais, the sweat on his face having gone from beads to big as moons.

“What did he call her?” she demanded. “What’s going on here, Herevard?”

“Uh, well … that is…” Lord Helsen’s tongue seemed two sizes too large for him at that moment, and he fumbled over his words. “You see, Lady Sidara, when … when we make mistakes and … and things are said … and we try to make them right, and…”

“Ah, give it up, Herevard,” I said. “Whatever excuse you’re choking on, it’s obvious she’s not going to buy it.”

Lady Sidara turned to me, shock wrestling with outrage on her features as she watched me unfasten the shackles around my wrists and drop them to the floor.

I looked up at her, blinking. “What?”

“You … you’re not a prisoner at all!” She pointed a finger at me that would have been accusing had it not been so dainty. “You lied to me!”

“If you’ll recall, good lady,” I replied, holding up my liberated hands in defense, “I didn’t say ten words to you. Any lying came specifically from that man.”

Lord Helsen squirmed under my finger, flailing as though he could pull an excuse from thin air. But instead, all he did was thrust a finger right back at me and let out a rather unlordly screech.

“She was blackmailing me!”

“I was not!” I shouted back. “I asked you specifically what the information was worth to you! You’re the one that came up with the number!”

“Oh, don’t you turn this on me, you lying Qadiran—”

Katapeshi!

ENOUGH!

To look at her, you wouldn’t have thought such a little lady could come up with such a bellowing voice. But it seemed Lady Sidara, breathing heavily, holding her hands up in a demand for silence, was a woman of more than a few surprises.

“No more lies.” She split her scowl between me and Lord Helsen. “And no more blaming. The truth. Now.”

The nobleman and I exchanged glances for moment—or rather, I exchanged a glance and he gave me a look that suggested he might soil himself. At that, I just rolled my eyes and sighed.

“All right, fine. What I did might, in some countries, be construed as blackmail.” I waved absently toward the dais. “I got some information on Herev—” I caught myself; didn’t want to rub salt in the wound. “—on Lord Helsen and asked him what it was worth to him to keep it quiet.”

“And what was it worth?” Lady Sidara asked.

“Two months in a nice bedroom at his manor,” I replied. “Waited on hand and foot by Cecim here.” I shot a glare at the servant. “Who should damn well know by now what I mean when I say I want a drink!”

Cecim squealed and scurried off, still holding his tray up. I sighed and looked back to Lady Sidara.

“Anyway, when he said you had a job that needed doing, we made up this bit about the private dungeon.” I gestured to my clothes and grime. “Though had I known it would turn out like this, I wouldn’t have bothered painting so much dirt on myself.”

Lady Sidara frowned.

“And what information did you have to make…” She gestured over me. “This seem intelligent?”

“Well, I—”

“You swore you wouldn’t tell!” Lord Helsen piped up, his face a red-hot contortion of embarrassment.

“Herevard, what good do you think not telling her would do?” I looked back to the noblewoman and sighed. “I found out about his mistress. A lovely little halfling woman who visits his chambers every other night.” I shot her a wink. “Herry likes his short women.”

Lord Helsen’s mouth hung open. His eyes looked like they were about to roll out of their sockets. I had no doubt that, if I could have read his thoughts, they’d be mostly my name attached to variations of the word “strangle.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. I always thought they looked cute together.

Lady Sidara, for her part, didn’t seem particularly upset, either. She slowly turned a sweet, sad smile on Lord Helsen.

“Oh, Herevard,” she said. “We’ve all known about Numa for years now.”

“W-what?” Lord Helsen said. “Everyone? All of Yanmass?”

She nodded gently. He made a soft whimpering sound.

“Even Lady Stelvan?”

“She was the first to know, Herry.”

“Well, then.” I kicked off my ankle shackles and sent them skidding across the hallway. “I guess we’ve all learned an important lesson about honesty today.” I began wiping the painted-on grime from my skin. “And it seems my time with Herry is at an end. Give me a couple of hours to have a bath and I’m all yours, my lady.”

“What?” Lady Sidara looked at me, anger flashing across her features. “You assume I’d still hire you now, after … after…”

“Oh, what? You were happy to have me when you thought I was a thief, but now that I’m an extortionist, you’re too good for me?” I rolled my eyes. “A touch hypocritical, don’t you think?”

“It’s not that! It’s just…” She rubbed the back of her neck, helpless. “This … this is a delicate operation, one that I am intent on seeing carried through. I need people I can trust.”

“Liar.”

She looked at me like I had just slapped her. “What?”

“If you needed people you could trust, you would have found a knight or a brave warrior or some lovesick noble. What you need is someone who can get the job done, and the fact that you’re here tells me that the people you can trust simply can’t do that.”

She fixed me with a long, methodical stare. And though it made me feel every bit as naked as it had the first time, I held my ground and my smile like a sword and shield.

“And can you get the job done?” she asked.

“Are you still going to pay?”

“I will.”

“Then I can.” I turned to walk away toward the hall’s exit. “But, as I said, let me get a bath first. I’m not going to talk business covered in filth.”

“Yes, fine, whatever.” Lady Sidara stalked behind me. “Glad to be doing business then, Miss…” She paused. “Is your name even Shaia?”

“Of course it is.” I glanced over my shoulder, spared her a wink. “But my friends call me Shy.”

Copyright © 2016 by Paizo Inc.

Buy Shy Knives here:

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Sneak Peek: Starspawn by Wendy N. Wagner

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Starspawn by Wendy N. WagnerOnce a notorious viking and pirate, Jendara has at last returned to the cold northern isles of her home, ready to settle down and raise her young son. Yet when a mysterious tsunami wracks her island’s shore, she and her fearless crew must sail out to explore the strange island that’s risen from the sea floor. No sooner have they arrived in the lost island’s alien structures, however, than they find themselves competing with a monstrous cult eager to complete a dark ritual in those dripping halls. For something beyond all mortal comprehension has been dreaming on the sea floor. And it’s begun to wake up…

Starspawn, the sequel to Hugo Award Winner Wendy N. Wagner’s Skinwalkers, is available now. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

HARBOR WAVE

Jendara put down the file and checked the edge of her blade. She’d worked out the last of the nicks, but the sword could use a touch of the whetstone to bring out the edge. She reached for the bottle of oil at her elbow and paused. It was the kind of autumn morning in the Ironbound Archipelago that she loved. The smoke of her village’s fires rose up in straight blue streaks, and the sound of children at play resounded in the crisp air.

“Ho, Jendara!”

She turned from her makeshift workbench, a split length of driftwood balanced on two fat stumps, already smiling. “Good morning, Boruc.”

“No sign of the Milady yet?” The big man tucked his thumbs into his belt—nearly hidden under the bulge of his belly—and glanced out at the harbor.

“Not yet, but the tide only turned a few hours ago. The boatyards at Halgrim aren’t that close.”

“That captain husband of yours ought to hurry.” Boruc grinned, and his teeth showed brightly against the red of his beard. A native islander like Jendara, he’d become one of her closest friends in the time since she’d returned to the archipelago. “Doesn’t he know it’s your birthday?”

“You remembered?” She laughed and got to her feet.

The ground moved beneath her in a sickening shudder.

She grabbed onto the workbench to steady herself. The earth jolted and jumped, and from the cottage behind her came the smashing of glass. A heavy yelm of thatch crashed down off the roof.

Her mind leaped to her son. “Kran!” She stumbled as the ground gave a last shake, then found her footing again. She sheathed the sword and broke into a run. “He went to the beach with Oric and that damn dog.”

“You ain’t got much time,” Boruc warned.

Jendara knew it. She’d grown up on an island not that different from this one, and she’d spent her life on the sea—she’d seen what could happen after an earthquake. She scanned the horizon. It was probably too early for the ocean to rise up, but given the power of the shaking, the tsunami wouldn’t be long.

A woman raced out into the street. “Fire! My house is on fire!”

Any other time, the rest of the village would have rushed to help her, but not now. People stumbled out of their houses, running uphill. Jendara could already see the tide turning in the harbor, the water pulling itself away from the shore like a blanket whipped back from a muddy bed.

“Kran!” she bellowed. The boy had brains. He knew he had to get away from the shore.

A man shoved her aside.

“Hey!”

“Gotta get uphill!” he shouted over his shoulder, and she saw the chicken clutched under his arm and the blue beads strung in his beard. The baker, Norg.

His wife ran behind him. “Get out of here, Jendara!”

“Kran!” Jendara shouted again. The boats at the piers were already high and dry.

“Jendara!” A tall man with sandy hair and beard—Morul—caught her by the arm. “Tell me the boys are already headed up to Boruc’s house.”

“I haven’t found them yet.” She caught the look of panic in his eyes. “I’ll get the boys. You get Leyla to high ground!”

“She can’t walk yet—the fever’s got her knocked out.”

“Then you better hurry!”

She broke away from him, her own fear climbing in her throat. Kran was a smart lad and levelheaded for a twelve-year-old. He should have made it up from the beach by now.

The crowds pressed against her and she found herself shoving aside old men, children—anyone that stood between her and her son. She could already see the ridge of water forming on the horizon. It didn’t look like much right now, but she knew these waves to be deceptive. When it hit the island, it could be devastating.

Her boots slid on the mud of the beach. Were they down by the boats or over by the caves? The beach itself was empty, dotted with abandoned clam shovels and buckets.

“Kran!”

He couldn’t answer, of course. That only made it all the worse. Her boy, her precious boy, was mute.

“Help!”

But Oric wasn’t. Kran’s best friend shrieked like a stuck pig, his voice bouncing off the rocks by the caves. Anger lit Jendara’s blood on fire. Even on a good day, the caves were dangerous.

She raced toward the rocks.

And then skidded to a stop.

“Oh, shit.”

She stared at the two boys on the nearest outcropping of rocks, unable to quite make sense of what was happening. Her son had Oric by the arm, but the other lad was clearly stuck between the two great rocks—a space she herself had passed through a dozen times collecting mussels.

“Help!” Oric screamed again. Kran looked over his shoulder, his eyes black circles in a too-white face. His little dog burst out of the gap between the rocks, whimpering. She was caught in something as well—some kind of thick, sparkly rope had wound itself around her chest, binding her to the stones.

Jendara scrambled up beside Kran. The ocean began to growl softly, the sound of all the rocks and debris it had sucked up now grinding along at the bottom of the sea bed. She could feel sweat prickling in her armpits.
The same tough rope had snared Oric, she saw.

Jendara drew her sword. She’d never seen rope like this. It clung to the tow-headed boy with the stickiness of tar, and it shimmered with a pale purple-blue light. It reminded her of a spider’s web—if the spider were the size of a small cottage.

She hacked through it, glad she’d sharpened her blade. The roaring was getting louder.

Kran jumped down beside the dog, pulling on its front legs.

“Cut the dog free,” Jendara snapped at him.

He shook his head wildly and held up an empty hand.

“Where’s your damned belt knife?”

“He must have left it at my house.” Oric was nearly babbling. He wriggled and twitched as the words bubbled out.

“We were whittling and then we needed mussels for your birthday dinner and—” He broke off at the fury in her eyes.

She seized the boy by the armpits and yanked him free of the rocks. A strip of skin ripped free of the back of her hand, stuck fast to the strange silk, and she hissed.

“Now run!” She slashed the binding on the dog and then sheathed her sword. “Get running, both of you!”
They slipped and slid on the mud. The dog raced past them. It might have been a half-sized, ugly thing, but it wasn’t stupid.

Jendara risked a glance over her shoulder. The wave had picked up speed. It towered over the bay, a wall of mud and debris ready to crash down and swallow the island. They were never going to make it to the safety of the hilltop.

She put on a burst of speed to pass the boys. “To the meeting hall!” She stretched her hand behind her and caught Kran’s sleeve.

The meeting hall was the largest and sturdiest building in the village, and stood on a knoll of rock above the main street. Decorative finials stuck up from each end of the high ridgeline of its shingled roof, while colorfully painted columns outlined a covered porch. She ran her hands over the green-and-blue surface of the nearest column. Kran wouldn’t have any problem shinnying up it.

“On the roof,” she ordered. He was up the column in a flash, and then immediately put out his hand to help his friend. Oric leaped onto the column but slid down again. He was bigger than Kran and less agile.

Jendara gave him a shove and let him scramble up onto her shoulders. His boot knocked into her head as he struggled up onto the roof.

The dog whimpered.

Jendara risked a look over her shoulder and felt her stomach twist. The sea had arrived in the harbor. It raised itself above the beach, hoisting longships and sailboats up into its muddy mass with a nasty crashing crunch.
There was no time for shinnying up the column. Jendara grabbed the dog by its collar and flung it onto the porch roof. Then she jammed her belt knife into the column and pulled herself up. Her hand closed on the edge of the roof as the great wave hit the first row of houses.

Walls boomed and crumpled, wooden joints screeching as they ground together. Jendara hung for a second, and then Kran grabbed the back of her jacket. She came up onto the roof.

It wasn’t high enough here. They had to get to the top of the building, the ridgeline with its finials—they could hang onto those.

“Up!” she shouted.

Kran was already moving. The next section of roof was much higher and steeper, and for a second she thought he wouldn’t be able to get a grip on it, but he did. Oric was right behind him. He caught a shingle and dangled for second. Then the shingle broke free.

The boy hit the roof of the porch and slid down. Jendara lunged for him. Her fingers closed on his wrist and his weight hit the end of his arm with a crack. He screamed in pain and grabbed her with his other hand just as the wave smashed into the side of the meeting hall.

The water slammed down on Jendara, driving out light and air and all sense of up or down. An incredible crackling and ripping resounded around her. For a second, she couldn’t breathe.

Then with a powerful crunching, the porch roof ripped free of the meeting hall. Jendara gasped for air as she popped to the surface of the water.

The roof slid along the side of the meeting hall, riding the muddy mass of the wave. Oric clung to her, and she clung to the edge of the porch. If the roof broke apart or sank, the debris caught in the floodwater would crush them.

The wave drove them into the side of the next house. The walls had cracked and buckled against the power of the water. Wood groaned and snapped all around them. Over the powerful stink of mud and brine, the smell of smoke was choking. The earthquake had caused its own damage via fireplaces and woodstoves.

She looked around, desperate for her boy. She made out his silhouette on the still-intact ridgeline of the meeting hall and felt herself relax a little. If he was still all right, she could focus on saving herself and Oric.

“Jendara!” Oric’s voice cracked with fear.

Jendara whipped her head around. A wall of debris was headed right for them: wood and rubble and a still-recognizable door, jutting out of the swirling water like a giant knife.

Jendara shoved against the broken house. She wasn’t going to die pinned to a cottage, stabbed to death and buried in muck. She’d killed a giant and a troll and faced down a horde of barbarian shapeshifters. She had a family, a business, friends. Damn it, she wasn’t going to drown!

The porch roof popped free of the broken house. The figurehead of a longship smashed into the wall where they’d been trapped, and with a groan, the house began to collapse on itself. The porch roof bobbed into the middle of the street. The water had carried them uphill, but it was still up to the bottoms of the windows, at least four feet high, and it would only get higher until the floodwaters withdrew.

Jendara searched for safety. They couldn’t stay on this makeshift raft. Another wave would rip it apart or smash it into bits. Her eye caught the building on the far side of the street—the blacksmith’s. The only stone building in the village. Its porch wasn’t much, but it was the best shelter she could see.

She grabbed a length of board floating beside her and poled hard. The road beneath her climbed the hill, and the current was fighting her now as the water pulled back for its next pounding wave. The raft shuddered as it moved slowly through the churning water.

She drove her pole between the slats of someone’s garden fence. The support column for the blacksmith’s overhanging roof was just a few feet away. Someplace nearby someone screamed for help, and her heart gave a squeeze.

But she couldn’t help anyone if she didn’t help herself first.

She jerked her chin at the porch, arms trembling to hold the roof-raft in place. “Get over there!”

Oric grabbed onto the fence with his good hand and jumped off the raft. The water was shoulder deep on him, but he didn’t complain. He might not have Kran’s stoicism, but he was still an islander through and through.

Jendara jumped off the raft. The water tugged the raft away in an instant, smashing it into a floating log. It sank immediately.

Here on the other side of the sturdy garden fence, there was a little less floating debris. A plow sluiced past, grinding against Jendara’s side and bumping up against the fence with a heavy thud. She hoped the fence would hold a little longer.

Wading was hard. The water pulled her back with every step, and rocks and broken tree branches slammed against her chest and legs. Oric slipped and slid, then made it up onto the porch. Though the difference in height was slight, she thanked the ancestors as she followed him up onto the porch. There was less wreckage moving in the water, and the current wasn’t as strong. She took hold of the porch column, then frowned.

Oric gripped the column with one arm, but the other hung uselessly at his side. He must have dislocated it when she’d grabbed him on the roof. If another big wave hit, he’d be gone.

She felt for her belt, the leather stiff in the saltwater. Cursing, she got it off and around the column. “Grab onto that,” she ordered.

Then the next wave hit, and all she could do was cling to the column and the boy and try to protect her head as mud and smashed stonework and broken bits of everything battered them. She coughed and spluttered.

The next wave seemed a little smaller—or perhaps she was simply used to it. She lost count of them as they came, driving flotsam into the corners of the porch and dragging it back out into the street. A dead duck washed up against the pillar and floated in the eddy, its yellow feet sticking up in the air as the water spun it in a slow circle. Then it sank beneath the muck.

Between the waves, she stared at the roof of the meeting hall and watched Kran and the dog huddle in silent misery as the water slowly withdrew. He had never felt so far away, and she had never been so powerless to help him. She had thrown away her old life—a dangerous life, to be sure, spent serving bloodthirsty Besmara, the pirate goddess—to find someplace safe to finish bringing up her boy. Leave it to nature to prove her wrong.

Oric shivered beside her, and she risked letting go of the column to grip his shoulder. If only he hadn’t gotten caught in that stuff down by the rocks, that strange silky rope like spider webbing. They would all be up at Boruc’s house waiting for the water to recede, warm and dry and safe.

It was just bad luck, she supposed. As the Varisians might say, it was just a bad alignment of the stars, bringing misfortune down upon their entire village. She shivered and tightened her grip on the column.

The breeze strengthened, pushing aside a few clouds and inviting the sun to play on the surface of the floodwaters.

They were receding, she realized. The houses on this stretch of the street were badly battered, and the ones closer to the beach were smashed and ruined, but at least the worst was over.

“I’ve got to get Kran,” she told Oric. “You stay here.”

“Don’t leave me!”

“You’ll be fine. The water’s going down. And Kran’s been alone this whole time.”

“We would have all been out of here if he hadn’t wanted to make you that stupid present,” Oric grumbled.

Jendara shot him a stern look. “You’ll be fine,” she repeated. She took a careful step down from the porch. Something shifted beneath her feet and she gritted her teeth. There was no way to see what lay beneath the surface of the water—the stuff was as opaque as milk and as dark as garden soil. The worst might be over, but that didn’t mean it was safe.

It was like capturing a rival pirate ship, she thought, setting her foot carefully before taking the next cautious step. They fought hard on the deck and you felt your blood boil as you cut your way forward, knowing every hand was set to kill you. But that was only the obvious danger. Down below was where the real nasty stuff waited: the injured happy to take someone to Pharasma’s Boneyard when they went, the vicious cook devoted to his captain, the booby traps some loyal mate had set when all seemed lost.

Back in her pirate days, she’d seen plenty of her crewmates killed after the battle was ostensibly won, and she’d learned a thing or two. She kept her focus on the ground and the debris floating around her knees, and she moved slowly, even if every bit of her wanted to race back to the meeting hall and make sure Kran was all right.

Then she was there. The porch columns were slick with mud, and some stood at odd angles. She didn’t trust them. She looked around for an alternate route.

To her left, Kran’s dog barked.

She turned. The dog stood on the canted roof of the house beside the hall. At some point, a massive fir tree had toppled down on the broken house, and now lay at an angle, its top driven into the colorful wall of the meeting hall and its roots tangled in the wreckage below. The dog must have climbed down the tree.

“Smarter than you look,” she grumbled. The yellow-and-white mutt wasn’t the companion she would have picked for her boy. It wasn’t a sturdy herding dog or a fine hound bred for hunting, just some stray he’d found by the docks, good for nothing but eating Jendara’s venison. “Come here…” She tried to remember its name. “Fylga. Come.”

The dog scrambled onto the tree trunk and began climbing back up to the roof of the meeting hall.

“Or maybe not.” Jendara picked her way toward the base of the tree and gave it a shove. It felt solid.
In the distance, wood groaned and crumpled. Someone called for help again, the voice thin and tired. She had to get moving; people needed her.

“Kran!”

The boy peered over the roofline at her. He pointed at the tree and spread his hands questioningly.

“It’s safe, I think. But hurry!”

He came down the tree cautiously, clinging to it like a bear cub. Jendara found herself reaching for him before he even made it to the halfway point. Her lip hurt from biting into it. The meeting hall could collapse, the tree could shift, the house could crumple more—

And then she had a hold of him and he was on the ground and she was squeezing him tight, tighter than she’d hugged him in years. He was twelve, after all. And he’d never been a cuddly boy, even when he’d been little.

He kissed her cheek and hugged her back. Then he pulled away, a smile spreading over his face. With his black hair hanging in wet clumps, that smile looked even whiter and broader than usual.

He pointed at the demolished house beside them, and it took Jendara a minute to make out what he saw in the midst of the broken beams and the sludge of mud. There was only the hint of colorful paint to remind her of the meeting hall’s porch columns, one of which had been driven through the ruins of the house next door.
And there, jutting out of what had probably been a blue-and-green painted sea star, was the belt knife she’d stabbed into the wood as a handhold just before the wave had hit. Kran wrenched it free with a grunt, and handed it to her, beaming.

Maybe her stars weren’t so badly aligned after all.

Copyright © 2016 by Paizo Inc.

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Sneak Peek: Liar’s Bargain by Tim Pratt

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Liar's Bargain by Tim PrattFor charming con man Rodrick and his talking sword Hrym, life is all about taking what you can and getting away clean. But when the pair are arrested in the crusader nation of Lastwall, Rodrick faces immediate execution, with Hrym spending the rest of eternity trapped in an enchanted scabbard. Their only hope lies in a secret government program in which captured career criminals are teamed up and sent on suicide missions too sensitive for ordinary soldiers. Trapped between almost certain death and actual certain death, the two join forces with a team of rogues and scoundrels, ready to serve their year-long tenure as best they can. Yet not everyone in their party is what they seem, and a death sentence may only be the start of the friends’ problems.

Liar’s Bargain, the latest in the Pathfinder Tales series, will become available June 7th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

A RIVER CROSSING

“What I don’t understand is why you believed her,” Hrym said.

Rodrick shifted around, trying to find a more comfortable position on his belly under the bush, which was difficult, given all the roots and rocks beneath him and the scratching branches pressing down from above. “We’ve been over this. She said she forgave me. I thought she was doing me a good turn.”

“‘Go to Lake Encarthan,’ she said. ‘Nirmathas,’ she said. ‘The shores are thronged with wealthy idiots!’ And you believed her.”

Rodrick squinted. Were those feet over there? If they were feet, were they the feet of mere passing foresters of no consequence, or the feet of people who wanted to beat him to death with sticks—or whatever people in Nirmathas beat dishonest gamblers to death with? He shouldn’t assume it was sticks. That was probably his city-dweller’s prejudice talking. Maybe they used barrel staves, or threw clods of dirt. “I admit my trust in her was misplaced. What can I say? I never took her for the vengeful type.”

Hrym chortled. “I am a talking sword, barely capable of telling humans apart, and even I knew she was the vengeful type.”

“Fair enough. I didn’t think she was the subtly vengeful type. I thought she might stab me in my sleep, not smile sweetly and send me into the wilderness. You must admit, her argument was plausible.”

“It’s not my job to judge plausibility.”

“What is your job, exactly?”

“Dazzling the rubes, and saving your life from rubes who are insufficiently dazzled.”

“She said there was gold here. New mines discovered every day, people striking it rich with picks and shovels—she said Nirmathas was full of the new rich, who are so much less suspicious and more poorly guarded than the old rich. Of course I believed her. Gold must come from somewhere. Why not the shores of Lake Encarthan?”

“I did like the parts about gold,” Hrym said. “How long are we going to hide under this bush?”

“Until I believe the threat has passed.”

“Rodrick. I am a wondrous talking sword of magical living ice, and you are a half-competent swordsman. A few months ago we bested a rakshasa in battle. Half a dozen sawmill workers—”

“And a foreman.”

“—and a foreman aren’t likely to pose any great difficulty.”

“I don’t want to kill them, Hrym. They aren’t demonic monsters. They’re just people. Killing them would be murder.”

“They want to kill you. I think they call it self-defense in that case.”

“I doubt the magistrates would see it that way. Besides, if I killed everyone who wanted to kill me, the world would be a far less populous place.”

“We could freeze them in place, then. My magic isn’t inherently lethal.”

“If we froze them out here in the dark, they’d be eaten by … forest monsters. Wolves. Bears. Whatever they have here.”

“So? Doesn’t the moral burden fall on the forest monsters in that case? You baffle me.”

“We’ll make it through the night, Hrym, and then head out in search of better prospects. We’re not so far from Cheliax, really. That place is full of rich people.”

“Not naive people, as a rule, though.”

“True. But at least many of them are evil. We were going to focus on stealing from the evil, whenever possible.”

“That was your idea, not mine,” the sword said. “I don’t much care where the gold comes from. I don’t suffer from guilt. I’m a sword.”

“There’s a pragmatic aspect to preying on the villainous, though. The evil are more likely to have lots of money, since they aren’t scrupulous about how they get it, and once they have it, they don’t go around giving any of it to charity, and so forth. They keep it.”

“Excellent. So the current plan is, we hide under this bush until you, a person with demonstrably terrible judgment, decide it’s safe to leave, and then we start hiking in the general direction of Cheliax?”

“We’ll probably steal a horse, rather than hike,” Rodrick said. “Since our old horse is in the hands of an angry mob.”

Hrym went hrmm. “Seven gamblers don’t count as a mob. The horse is probably worth more than you cheated them out of dicing tonight anyway. Why are they still chasing us? They should be glad of their good fortune. A free horse! Why bring violence into it at all? Wait, don’t tell me. Morals again, right?”

“Something like that. Or setting a bad precedent. Or beating a stranger to death with sticks counts as an unusually good night’s entertainment in this gods-blighted wilderness.”

“Wait, you want to steal a horse? Isn’t that evil? Or is it an evil horse? Or an evil owner?”

“I am prepared to be flexible regarding the horse’s moral alignment, so long as it’s fast. Or even slow. Just as long as it’s faster than walking, honestly.”

“Honesty is very important—”

“Over there!” someone shouted, which was how you could tell they were workers in a sawmill and not hunters, because hunters knew better than to startle their quarry with shouts.

Rodrick rolled out from under the bush, Hrym in his scabbard digging painfully into his thigh in the process, then leapt to his feet and set off running in a direction that seemed to lead away from the voice.

He was so busy concentrating on not tripping over roots or rocks, and avoiding all the tree branches that hung inconveniently just at head height, that he was quite surprised when he fell into the river.

“I could freeze the river, if it would make you feel better,” Hrym said. “In a retaliatory way. Unless you think that would be immoral. I’m not sure if it’s an evil river or not.” The sword was unsheathed, stuck point-first in the earth, helping keep watch.

Rodrick sat under a tree, which would have been an improvement over hiding under a bush, if only he hadn’t been soaking wet. He kept his hand on Hrym’s hilt, and the sword’s magic kept him from suffering the effects of the chill night air, so at least he wouldn’t die of exposure. He still squished every time he shifted, and didn’t dare try to light a fire to dry himself out, lest the flames give away his position. “Yes, yes, you’re hilarious. Do you think they’ll keep hunting me, or am I safe now?”

“That depends on whether their desire to kill you is greater than their reluctance to ford a river in the dark. Or on whether there’s a nearby bridge we don’t know about. With luck they’re still searching the other side of the bank for you. Your blundering into the river and floundering some ways downstream could be construed as a clever way to evade pursuit—it’s hard to track someone after they’ve gone into the water, and difficult to guess where they might emerge.”

Rodrick opened up his pack and poked through it gloomily, looking for something dry to eat. The people of Nirmathas favored jerkies with the consistency of tree bark, and he probably had some stashed away against emergencies. Chewing it would distract him from his other miseries, the same way slamming your fingers in a door could distract you from a stubbed toe.

His hand touched his cloak of the devilfish, one of the magical items he’d acquired—which is to say, “stolen”—during his adventures to date. “Hmm. I could transform into a devilfish and jump back into the river, and swim through the night. We could get a long way away from here.”

“A marvelous plan. It’s a nice, deep, fast river, too. Shame about all the fishing boats and nets strung along its length. When a lucky fisherman hauls an immense, seven-tentacled monster out of nightmare onto his boat, I’m sure you’ll have time to explain your secret humanity before he stabs you to death.”

Rodrick found a piece of only moderately damp jerky and began to gnaw on it. He might as well have been chewing on his own belt. “Mmm. You make a good point. Walking might be more sensible. I think I’ll wait until daylight, though, as blundering around in the dark hasn’t proven very effective.”

“Fair enough. Or we could investigate the campfires to the west.”

Rodrick squinted into the night. “I don’t see anything.”

“The fact that you’re looking east might account for that.”

He grunted and swiveled his head, and in the depthless dark of the forest he did detect a few distant flickers. “Hmm. People. Probably not the ones who were hunting me, either.”

“Which means they could offer hospitality.”

“Or they could have horses to steal.”

“Or that, yes,” Hrym agreed.

Rodrick prided himself on his stealth, though for maximum effect he had to keep Hrym sheathed on his belt so his hands remained free for occasional periods of crawling on all fours. He looked like a dashing swordsman (or else a dangerous thug, depending on whether you asked Rodrick himself or someone else) but moved like a sneak thief. He circled around the source of the light, keeping an eye out for sentries, and as he drew closer, counted no fewer than three fires, spaced some tens of yards apart. That configuration suggested a party of some size—which, on the one hand, was a bit daunting, but on the other hand meant they might have lots of horses, and might not notice one little mount missing from the crowd.

He only had one close call, when he went still with his back against a tree while a sentry in a bucketlike helmet walked past less than a dozen feet away, muttering to himself and poking at the underbrush with a pike. Rodrick moved fast after that, hoping to complete his work before the man made his next circuit of the camp.

There were two groups of horses, tethered separately, and Rodrick wondered if they were sorted by disposition. He chose to approach the horses situated farthest from the fires to avoid detection, and since he was no particular judge of horseflesh anyway, selected the one on the outside without much internal debate. The beast was gray or black or brown or who knew what color—impossible to say in the darkness—and looked like more of a pack animal than a racing mount, which suited Rodrick fine. Spirited women had their attractions, but he didn’t feel the same about spirited mounts. The animal was sleeping, but Rodrick touched its side gently and murmured reassuring sounds as it woke up, and the horse blinked at him and then waited with every appearance of patience as he untied the tether from a tree branch and slowly led the horse deeper into the forest. The animal wasn’t saddled, of course, and riding bareback was even more horrific than ordinary riding, but needs must.

Rodrick wasn’t about to ride a horse in the forest at night and risk breaking the animal’s legs and his own neck, but the trees thinned out closer to the riverbank, so if he could lead the horse in that direction he should be able to ride safely—

“Thief!” someone shouted, and as usual, it was the second most unpleasant thing he’d ever heard anyone shout. (The first most unpleasant was “My husband’s home early!”) Rodrick attempted to climb up on the horse’s back, because caution was suddenly less important than escape, but the horse failed to cooperate, skittering away—Could horses skitter? He wouldn’t have thought so, but this one managed it—in alarm as the camp was roused. Rodrick slid along the horse’s side, lost his footing, and sat down hard on a tree root, at which point he decided his feet were the only form of locomotion he needed. The camp was roused now, full of shouting voices, and Hrym was complaining, too, demanding to be let out of his sheath so he could see what was going on, and Rodrick hissed, “Shut up shut up shut up” at the world in general as he did his best to run away from the noise.

He tripped on some abominable forest-related bit of the landscape, banged his chin on the ground hard enough to make his teeth snap together, and watched the night become even darker as black stars filled his vision. He pushed himself up on his elbows, lifted his head, and nearly put his own eye out on a spear point. The spearhead was shortly joined by two sword points, all pointed at his face, which was really more weaponry than anyone should require to kill someone like him.

Copyright © 2016 by Paizo Inc.

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Sneak Peek: Hellknight by Liane Merciel

Hellknight by Liane MercielThe Hellknights are a brutal organization of warriors dedicated to maintaining law and order at any cost. For devil-blooded Jheraal, even the harshest methods are justified if it means building a better world for her daughter. Yet when a serial killer starts targeting hellspawn like Jheraal and her child, Jheraal has no choice but to use all her cunning and ruthlessness in order to defeat an ancient enemy to whom even death is no deterrent.

Enjoy this sneak peek of Hellknight by Liane Merciel!

1

THE SCHOLAR’S MURDER

JHERAAL

Birds cared nothing for murder.

Sweetly they sang from the branches of the fig and lemon trees that wreathed the grounds of Vaneo Celverian, the city manor of proud, ancient House Celverian. Under the elegant tile roofs and gilded balustrades, all might be in panic, but nothing disturbed the birds among their sun-dappled leaves. They sang and sang, bright as joy, while down below, mortal men and women struggled to grasp the enormity of loss.

They’d suffered a staggering one, Jheraal knew. Master Othando Celverian, second and favored son of Lord Abello Celverian, heir to his house and hope of his family’s future, had been murdered in the night. Others had been killed, too, but in Cheliax, only one of those deaths really mattered.

Out on the grand lawn, a semicircle of maids, grooms, cooks, and washerwomen in white and gold-slashed blue stood where they’d been turned out for her inspection. Every one of House Celverian’s servants was a picture of shock and grief. The younger maids held handkerchiefs to their tear-puffed eyes, while the older servants muttered about what they’d do when they found their master’s killer.

Both the sobbing and the plotting died abruptly when Jheraal rode into the servants’ view. One did not cry before Hellknights, and one certainly did not conspire to commit crimes. A sullen hush fell over the Celverian household as Jheraal’s chestnut destrier trotted across the graveled path, coming to a halt before the chief steward.

He was a tall man, spare and elegant and silver-haired, and although Jheraal was framed against the sun, he looked up into its full glare without blinking. “Sir?”

“I’m here to investigate the murders.” Jheraal removed her fearsome, devil-visaged helm, allowing the servants to see her face.

It caused a stir, as she had known it would. House Celverian’s people were well trained, and other than a gasp from one of the youngest grooms and a few tightened mouths and half-steps backward, none showed an overt reaction to her appearance. But Jheraal read their shock all the same.

The hellspawn taint ran strong in her. Jheraal’s skin was white as snow and covered with fine, soft scales, each one edged with a faint shimmer of copper. A pair of four-inch horns, curved and sharp as a goat’s, poked through her bronze-streaked black hair. They fitted into the hollows of the horns in her helm, and had indirectly served as inspiration for the same.

It was not unheard of for the devil-blooded to serve among the Hellknights, but neither was it common. In Cheliax, hellspawn were widely considered to be no part of proper society, and few of them received the training in arms or spellcraft needed to gain acceptance into the Hellknight orders’ ranks. Yet here she was, armored in the scarred breastplate and horned helm that marked her as a full Hellknight sworn to the Order of the Scourge.

The chief steward, a consummate professional, tipped his head downward in an extremely correct nod, affording Jheraal precisely the degree of courtesy that her status warranted. “It is our honor. Should we be expecting any of your associates?”

As he spoke, his eyes flicked to the star of bleeding lashes painted on Jheraal’s shield. That was the Scourge’s sigil, and the steward’s unspoken query was clear: Will the Order of the Rack be coming?

It was a delicate question. The Hellknight Order of the Rack, based in Citadel Rivad near Westcrown, was the primary order of Hellknights in the city. Jheraal’s order, the Scourge, was less well known and much less strongly represented, which was both advantage and disadvantage: it gave her greater independence, but fewer resources to call upon.

Less currency with the common people, too. As Westcrown had long been troubled by rumblings of dissent, Her Imperial Majestrix, Queen Abrogail Thrune II, had granted the Order of the Rack wide-sweeping authority to detain, question, and even execute suspected rebels in the city.

And although the Order of the Rack held the preservation of peace to be its highest duty, the methods it chose to achieve that duty were not always peaceful. In much of Westcrown, the order had a fearsome reputation. Few Wiscrani were glad to see them coming.

House Celverian, Jheraal recalled, might have more reason than most to be wary where the Order of the Rack was concerned. There had been some trouble with the eldest son, who’d gotten caught up in the idealistic fervor of the young. He hadn’t been accused of any serious wrongdoing, and his father’s influence had hushed any whiff of scandal, but nevertheless the boy had been sent packing to a crusader’s exile in Mendev.

That had been years ago. Well over a decade, in fact. But fear could take a long time dying, and Jheraal couldn’t blame the servants of House Celverian for being cautious.

“The Order of the Rack has no part in this investigation,” she said. Some of the servants relaxed visibly at her words. Out of long habit, Jheraal noted their faces, as well as those of the servants who didn’t blink at all. “The dottari will assist in whatever capacity they can, but they will not send a separate investigator. In this matter, I serve both the throne and my order. All of us wish to see your master’s killer brought to justice. You have my condolences for your loss.”

“We are grateful for your kindness. I have the honor of being Belvadio, chief steward of this house. Lord Abello Celverian should be arriving late tonight or early tomorrow. In the meantime, the household staff is at your disposal.” The chief steward clapped his hands, signaling the end of the assembly. In a flurry of curtseys and bows, the maids, cooks, and house servants dispersed. Jheraal dismounted, and one of the grooms led her horse away. Two servants, a pair of boys who looked no older than fourteen, remained behind at the steward’s signal.

“Achio and Tirol were the first to discover the … the … what had been done,” Belvadio said, clearing his throat. “They found Nappandi, one of our guards, lying in the hedges and came together to wake me a little after midnight. I hastened to wake the young master, and that is when we found him. Master Othando had been murdered in his study, where he was accustomed to read nearly until dawn. There are still two servants unaccounted for. We have not found their bodies, but I fear the worst.” The chief steward took a breath, quavering only slightly. “Where would you like to begin?”

“Show it to me as you found it.” Jheraal had no reason to doubt the steward’s honesty, but if there were any gaps in his story, she expected that it would be easiest to find them by walking alongside Belvadio and seeing whether the evidence matched his words.

“Of course. Please, this way.” With a courtly bow, Belvadio led his armored guest through the gardens’ fragrant shade toward the honeysuckle-threaded hedges that encircled the vaneo. Overhead, the birds continued their merry, oblivious song.

Although House Celverian’s main seat lay in the hinterlands, and its manor in Westcrown was not as grand or expansive as the sprawling estates called vira, it took several minutes for them to reach the bloodstained spot by the walls where Nappandi’s body had been found.

There wasn’t much blood. Only a few brownish drops, already mostly soaked into the earth, and a patch of crushed clover near the base of the hedges where the body had lain. In the darkness, screened by the dense thorned shrubs, it might have been a long time before anyone noticed a body at night.

Jheraal crouched and looked for tracks that might have been left by the killer, but found none. Either Nappandi’s assailant had known how to hide them, or the servants had already trampled out those traces.

She straightened with a clanking of steel and leather. “Your guard kept a regular patrol?”

“Yes. Every hour on the hour. Nappandi was extremely diligent. He would never have missed a round, nor been a minute late on his circuit.”

Predictable, then. Easily evaded. The lack of struggle suggested that the killer had never been seen. He could have slipped by if he’d wanted, but instead he’d chosen to kill the guard.

“Was anything taken from his body?” Jheraal asked.

“Yes. A ring of keys. Nappandi had keys to most of the vaneo, other than the master’s private rooms and the wine cellar. That was the only thing I could see that was stolen. Do you wish to examine the body?”

“Later. Show me where you went and what you did after you found him.”

Belvadio glanced at the two boys behind him. They hung back nervously while Jheraal examined the blood-speckled grass. “After Achio and Tirol told me what they’d found, and I had confirmed with my own eyes that this was no prank, we went together to inform the master. I also sent word to the captain of our household guard that there was a murderer at large in the vaneo.”

“How many guards do you have?”

“Four.” The steward grimaced, shaking his head. “Three, with Nappandi dead. But none of the others saw whoever did this.”

Jheraal nodded. Three household guards were unlikely, in her estimation, to present much difficulty for someone who could kill one of their number so easily and silently. That they had seen nothing meant little. There was no need to insult their honor by saying so, however. “Show me to Master Celverian’s study.”

“At once.” With another neat bow, Belvadio strode toward the manor, the two younger servants trailing him like puppies. A few steps from the servants’ door, he hesitated. “Do you wish to follow precisely the same path we took? These halls are … not grand enough for guests, I fear. I would not wish to cause any insult.”

He is worried about offending the Hellknights. Belvadio’s concern about ushering her through the servants’ door might have been reasonable if he’d been dealing with the touchiest of high Chelish lords, but she had no illusions that a steward who’d spent his entire life in service to a great house really believed that her rank was so exalted, or her skin so thin. This was caution and nothing but.

Jheraal snorted. “I’m not a duchess, Belvadio. I won’t be insulted by walking through the service door. Just show me where you went.”

“Forgive my presumption.” Producing a ring of keys from some unseen pocket inside his blue coat, Belvadio unlocked the door and stepped aside to hold it open. “The young master’s library will be up the stairs and to the right.”

“Lead on.”

He took her past the larder and buttery, through the kitchens, and up a flight of well-worn wooden stairs. No footprints stood out here, either.

At the top of the stairs, they reached the discreet little door that separated the servants’ quarters from the nobles’ halls. Quilted padding covered the servants’ side of the door, insulating their superiors from any unwanted noise or smell that might drift up from the kitchens. The other side of the door, Jheraal noted, was painted white and adorned with gilded scrollwork. All the unsightliness—and all the function—was on the servants’ side.

Although the servants’ halls had been lit only by the daylight that streamed through their small, cloudy windows, enchanted lights shone serenely along the ceiling and upper walls of this corridor. Wide picture windows overlooked the manor’s gardens, while carpets in faded blue and white sank under Jheraal’s booted feet. The carpets were lush at the periphery but worn in the centers. That they hadn’t been replaced suggested that House Celverian wasn’t as rich as it had been in years past. No surprise. Failing fortunes were common among the old nobility that had declined to align strongly enough with House Thrune.

Nevertheless, it was lovely. The airy beauty of the upper hall was marred only by the faint whiff of blood that grew stronger as they approached an open door on the right.

“In there,” Belvadio whispered. The color had drained from his face.

They hadn’t moved the body. The mortal remains of Othando Celverian remained in the overstuffed armchair where he had presumably died. A linen sheet covered his slumped form imperfectly, trailing over part of the desk in front of him. A carafe and half-full wineglass rested on a silver tray near his elbow. Papers spilled across the floor by his side, along with a fallen candle stub trailing a comet’s tail of wax spatters.

Jheraal stepped forward to examine him, taking care not to disturb the papers. “This is all as you found it?”

“Almost. There was … a cleric came before you. Udeno of Abadar. He looked over the master and said there was nothing he could do. Other than his examination, and the sheet I placed over the master, nothing has been touched.”

The Hellknight nodded without looking up. With as much delicacy as she could muster, she lifted the sheet that covered Othando Celverian.

He had been a young man. Twenty-five, she guessed. Maybe a year or two to either side. Slim, handsome, with the soft hands and pale skin of a scholar who spent little time outdoors. Drying blood spilled from a single deep puncture wound on the side of his neck and darkened his sleeping robe in a crooked fan that widened as it stretched toward the floor. More blood painted the carpet behind him and to the side, and a single brownish-red fingerprint smudged his right arm near the elbow.

Othando’s own hands were clean. That bloody fingerprint had come from someone else.

His face was buried in the pages of the book he’d been reading. When Jheraal lifted Othando’s head, she saw that his eyes were wide and his lips slightly parted. The breeze from an open window fluttered dark blond hair across his brow. She couldn’t tell if he had been talking, trying to cry out, or just gasping for breath in his last extremity, but it seemed that he’d been looking at someone when he died. The spill of blood from his wound suggested that he had turned toward, and then away from, something or someone at his back.

The killer? It was tempting to conclude that Othando must have seen his assassin. If he had, his shade might answer a cleric’s prayer and identify his attacker.

Jheraal had been an investigator long enough to know that such hopes almost always proved futile. Something as simple as a mask or hood sufficed to prevent recognition, as every professional killer knew, and the dead were blessed with no more knowledge than they’d had in life. The Hellknight had worked on dozens of murders in the twelve years of her investigative career, all across Cheliax and its vassal states, and never once had she seen the spirit of an assassin’s victim able to identify his killer. Amateurs might be named by the dead. Professionals never were.

That didn’t mean she had no use for magic. Only that its use had to be less easily anticipated by her target.

She glanced at the open book. Drying blood gummed its pages and darkened the illustrations, but the lettering remained clear. It looked to be a collection of Taldan heroic stories—disgraced knights winning back the honor of tarnished houses, second sons and valiant daughters carving names for themselves in savage lands, heroes who vanquished monsters and won the love of their people. Tales to stir excitement into a quiet life.

The letters that had blown onto the floor appeared to be correspondence: invitations to various social events from other Wiscrani nobility, orders from his lord father at the family estate, and an unfinished letter from Othando himself to his exiled brother in Mendev.

Drawing the sheet back over the body, Jheraal stepped sideways to examine the desk. Two of the drawers were partly opened. One held signets in gold and bronze, sticks of sealing wax, unsharpened quills, a paring knife, and a wrinkled paper sachet of sugar-rolled mints. The other was empty save for a few faded stains at the bottom. The remaining drawers were locked.

She motioned to the desk. “Was anything taken from here? Or from Master Celverian himself?”

“I cannot be certain,” Belvadio admitted. “The master’s study was private. I did not notice anything stolen, but some small theft might have escaped my notice.”

“How busy would the household have been at that hour?”

The steward took a moment to think it over. “We had no guests at the vaneo, and no entertaining planned for the next few days. Other than one or two of the under-cooks in the kitchen and the guards making their rounds, everyone should have been sleeping. Achio and Tirol were out only because they were making mischief.”

“Was it Master Celverian’s custom to leave that window open?” Jheraal gestured to the skylight, although she already knew the answer. That window was too high to be opened without the aid of a ladder, and she had seen none in the study.

Belvadio frowned, confirming her guess. “Pleasant as the weather is, no. The master was concerned that nothing should damage his books—not rain or sun or snow. The window was only to admit light to assist his reading. He never opened it.”

“You said there were two other servants missing?”

“Chiella and Nodero.” The steward fidgeted with a button, then caught himself and stopped, smoothing his coat. “Chiella was here when I sounded the alarm. I saw her with my own eyes. No one recalls seeing Nodero after he retired to his room last night. Both were gone by the time I found the master, or soon after.”

“Do you believe they might have played some role in this?”

Belvadio shook his head vehemently. “Impossible. No one loved House Celverian more than Nodero and Chiella. Their loyalty is beyond question.”

“You’re sure of that? How?”

The silver-haired man exhaled. With a quick, uncomfortable glance at Jheraal, he said: “House Celverian has always been adamant that everyone in its service is to be dealt with fairly, as fits each person’s talents and disposition, and that no one is to be slighted on account of their ancestry.” Belvadio’s eyes flickered to the carpet, avoiding her, on the word “ancestry.”

The missing servants were hellspawn, then. No other reason for that discomfort. And not everyone on the staff was as accepting as their master had been, judging from the reception she’d gotten on the lawn.

“Those who offend this policy are dismissed without references, which is a death sentence for employment among the great houses. The young master, like his father, was an uncommonly enlightened man, and he was fiercely beloved by all who had the good fortune to serve him. It is inconceivable that either Chiella or Nodero would ever have done anything to hurt him, or to damage the honor of his house.”

“As you say.” It sounded like burnishing the virtues of the dead to her, but perhaps Othando Celverian really had been a saint among men. “I’ll visit the church of Abadar to speak with the cleric who examined Master Celverian, and then return to the Order of the Rack’s garrison. Please send word when his father, Lord Celverian, arrives in Westcrown.”

“Of course.” He followed her back out of the manor, keeping always two paces behind and a half-step to the side, like the most discreet of ghosts. As they reached the servants’ door, however, the steward took a small step forward.

“Truly,” he said, dropping his reserve for a moment and letting her see the real anguish beneath, “I don’t believe Chiella or Nodero could have had any part in this horror, let alone both of them together. Never. In my bones, I know they are innocent. But I do believe someone might try to use them to discredit their kind. Not everyone approved of the master’s views on hellspawn, and some of the servants I was forced to dismiss might seek revenge for their disgrace.”

No servant could afford to hire an assassin with that much skill. They might have aided in the killer’s plots, but they couldn’t have been the driving force. “Did he have enemies among the nobility?”

“The young master? No. He was being courted by some of the lesser houses with marriageable daughters, but as yet he had chosen none, so no one had reason to be insulted by his refusal. He had no position at court and no place in political schemes, and his hobbies were harmless. Master Celverian was a dreamer and a scholar. He was no threat to anyone.”

“What about the rest of his house?”

Belvadio opened the door. Outside, the sun was a glory and the birds were singing, and Westcrown’s life went on. Even within the vaneo’s walls, the rhythms of the day were returning. A washerwoman pinned damp sheets to her lines. Across the yard, a stocky, freckle-faced boy carted muck from the stables. Already, the night was beginning to recede in their memories.

“Their mistakes are in the past,” the steward said, returning Jheraal to the city.

The cleric of Abadar had little to tell her. Yes, he had gone to the vaneo that morning. Yes, he had seen Master Celverian’s corpse. No, he had no suspicions regarding how the murder might have been carried out, nor about who would have had a motive to strike at House Celverian’s younger son.

“It’s what they do, isn’t it?” Udeno shrugged. “The courts are snake pits. No surprise when one gets bitten by a viper.”

Jheraal hadn’t argued, but as she walked down the temple’s steps back into the canal-lined streets of Westcrown’s Rego Sacero, she’d thought, Not like this.

It was true that the Chelish nobility spent an inordinate amount of time plotting against each other, and that espionage and assassination were well-used weapons in their arsenals. But it was also true that blatant, barefaced murder was considered extremely bad form.

Cheliax prided itself on being a nation governed by law. Its killers might disguise their doings as hunting accidents, food poisoning, or highway robberies gone wrong. The more cunning and ambitious might even go so far as to trump up criminal charges and let the royal executioners take their enemies’ heads.

But they did disguise their murders, because otherwise they invited the full wrath that Cheliax visited upon all those who broke its laws.

The assassination of a well-born scholar in his study was precisely the sort of crime that offended Her Imperial Majestrix and insulted her rule. That it had happened in Westcrown, which chafed at its loss of prominence under House Thrune and needed little provocation to stoke its smoldering discontents into new flame, made the investigation more urgent. And that the victim had been an eligible young bachelor who was actively courted by several Wiscrani houses added an edge of intrigue. Jheraal guessed that there were several furious dowagers who were eager to learn which of their rivals might have destroyed their daughters’ prospects.

For all these reasons, it was exceedingly important that she find the killer.

No one had said this, of course. Not explicitly. The mere fact of her assignment made it clear enough. Jheraal was of the Order of the Scourge, and she had been chosen to investigate a crime in a city where the Order of the Rack held sway. There were any number of messages bound up in that, but the key one was that Her Imperial Majestrix expected results. Failure was not to be countenanced. That was why Jheraal, of all the investigators available to the Hellknights, had been singled out and sent to serve. The Queen wanted answers, and Jheraal was meant to find them.

The obvious course was to question Lord Celverian. But the lord hadn’t yet arrived in Westcrown, so Jheraal returned to Taranik House, the Order of the Rack’s base of operations in the city, to see whether any messages had come.

There was one. The courier, a towheaded halfling boy, was standing in the foyer and filling his satchel with new missives when Jheraal arrived. He dropped the packet he was holding and waved excitedly when he saw her. “Jheraal! Hellknight Jheraal!”

Jheraal raised a hand to calm him. “What?”

“I have a message of utmost urgency. Utmost! From Durotas Tuornos. His rundottari found bodies in Rego Cader. Two from House Celverian. The durotas said you’d want to know immediately. Here—he wrote this for you, but it only says the same thing.” The boy held out a folded slip. It had been hastily written. The ink soaked through the cheap paper.

“He was correct.” The Hellknight took the letter, gave it a cursory look, and put her horned helm back on. Rego Cader, the long-abandoned Dead Sector of the city, was infamously perilous, full of thieves and murderers and worse. Even the dottari, Westcrown’s city guard, didn’t like to linger in those blighted ruins. Rego Cader was so dangerous that it had its own division of the guard—the rundottari, or “ruin wardens”—dedicated exclusively to holding back the threats that proliferated in that sector. “Bodies, you said. Where, exactly? Are they still there?”

“I don’t know.” The halfling said, fumbling to pick up the packet he’d dropped, “but Durotas Tuornos is on the Obrigan Gate. He hoped that you would hurry. He hoped, also, that you would send word to the capital. For a wizard.”

“Why? Aren’t there enough wizards in Westcrown?”

“I don’t know.” The boy shook his head in helpless confusion. He closed his overstuffed bag and went to the door. “The durotas didn’t tell me, not really. All he said was that there was magic in this. Deviltry. And …” he swallowed, “and that the dead might not be dead.”

Copyright © 2016 by Liane Merciel

Hellknight comes out April 5th. Pre-order it today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell’s

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Sneak Peek: Pirate’s Prophecy by Chris A. Jackson

PiratesProphecyCaptain Torius Vin and the crew of the Stargazer have given up the pirate life, instead becoming abolitionist privateers bent on capturing slave ships and setting their prisoners free. But when rumors surface of a new secret weapon in devil-ruled Cheliax, are the Stargazers willing to go up against a navy backed by Hell itself?

Please enjoy this excerpt of Pirate’s Prophecy by Chris A. Jackson.

Chapter 1

New Places, New Faces

Captain Abidi Ben Akhiri’s boots brushed the thick planks of the Ostenso wharves a step behind the heavier tread of his half-orc bosun. The Akhiri disguise felt natural now, long-practiced in the five months they’d been spying on the Chelish fleet stationed here.

Spying for Andoran had taught them all caution, and the tension between the devil-worshiping nation of Cheliax and the abolitionist republic of Andoran bred espionage like filth bred the plague. Consequently, though the pair wasn’t exactly trying to be stealthy, they kept to the narrower streets and alleys, shying away from the few flickering streetlamps that dotted the wharf district. For the most part, their passage went unnoticed—this late in the evening, most of the populace was already at home and asleep—but the tread of heavy boots and the clatter of armor told the sailors they were not without company.

(more…)

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Sneak Peek: Bloodbound by F. Wesley Schneider

pathfinderLarsa, a dhampir-half vampire and half human, is an agent for the royal spymaster in Bloodbound by Pathfinder co-creator F. Wesley Schneider. Yet when a noblewoman’s house is massacred by vampiric invaders, Larsa is drawn into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that will reveal more about her own heritage than she ever wanted to know. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter 1: Deserving Victims

LARSA

Both were victims.

She ground against him, forcing hips away from the soot-smeared stone of the alley wall, hands grasping, mouth gnawing.

His breath came as a gasp but left as a growl. Hands struggled with her dress’s collar. Hairy fingers dug in her skin.

Had I been a passerby, glimpsing them sidelong from the street, I might have been envious. Even knowing what they were, some voyeuristic urge stopped me on the slick shingle overlook. The appeal of hard and soft flesh aside, I wondered which of the pair was more the monster.

(more…)

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Sneak Peek: Beyond the Pool of Stars by Howard Andrew Jones

Beyond the Pool of Stars by Howard Andrew JonesFrom critically acclaimed author Howard Andrew Jones comes a fantastical adventure of deep-water danger and unlikely alliances in Pathfinder Tales: Beyond the Pool of Stars, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder RPG. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter 1: Homecoming

Mirian

Every day, dozens of transport ships plied the waters between Sargava’s southern port and its capital, Eleder. Stacks of square-cut logs, crates of ivory, and packets of dried medicinal plants came north. Baskets of luxury goods and bright bales of Mulaa cloth went south.

These goods were shepherded by folk who sailed the route several times each week, so accustomed to the trip they scarcely came out from under the sun-bleached awnings or looked up from their deck benches. Although the occasional wanderer, pilgrim, or explorer might admire the rocky surf or the lush coastline, it was rare for the regulars to give much heed to either, and unheard of for them to crowd the rails.

But then, it wasn’t every day they saw a pirate ship. When the Red Leopard’s lookout cried warning, the passengers surged for a view of the doom to come.

(more…)

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Sneak Peek: Liar’s Island by Tim Pratt

Pathfinder Tales: Liar's Island by Tim PrattFrom Hugo Award winner Tim Pratt comes a tale of magic, assassination, monsters, and cheerful larceny, in Liar’s Island, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter One: Cornered

Kresley was head of the little lord’s household guard, a position that seldom required more than standing around looking good in a polished breastplate at interminable balls and occasionally kicking priests, beggars, or solicitors who somehow made it past the lord’s gates back out into the streets of Absalom. Today, unfortunately, he’d been sent on an errand that was really more the province of the city guards … but the little lord wanted it handled personally, because the city guards were interested more in the law than in allowing the lord to exact a terrible revenge.

(more…)

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