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Excerpt: Stealing Worlds by Karl Schroeder

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Place holder  of - 62From Karl Schroeder, author of Lockstep, comes the near-future, science fiction, hacker’s heist, Stealing Worlds.

Sura Neelin is on the run from her creditors, from her past, and her father’s murderers. She can’t get a job, she can’t get a place to live, she can’t even walk down the street: the total surveillance society that is mid-21st century America means that every camera and every pair of smart glasses is her enemy.

But Sura might have a chance in the alternate reality of the games. People can disappear in the LARP game worlds, into the alternate economy of Notchcoin and blockchains. The people who build the games also program the surveillance networks—she just needs an introduction, and the skills to play.

Turns out, she has very valuable skills, and some very surprising friends.

Stealing Worlds by Karl Schroeder is on sale June 18th.

1

On a warm night in June, Sura Neelin walks past the homes where her friends once lived, past her old high school and the corner store where she used to buy Popsicles. She turns down a gravel-surfaced alley canopied by black trees, and before she’s ready she’s standing in the backyard of her old house. She hesitates under its shadow, flashlight in one gloved hand, screwdriver in the other.

The cicadas are winding down, the sounds of traffic and police drones not so frequent this far from the main roads. She enters the backyard through the same old rickety fence that she used to use as a chalkboard. What light there is comes from neighbors’ windows peeking from behind silhouetted branches. She can smell but not see the grass, yet this yard is where she learned to walk, and her steps are sure as she makes her way to the back porch.

The screen door didn’t have a lock on it when she lived here, and it doesn’t now. It eases open and she pokes her head around the doorjamb. Right over there is where Nick McAllister kissed her, when they were scrunched hip to hip in Grandma’s orange beanbag chair. It had been hot weather like this. Dad used to keep cartons of beer stacked next to the window; Mom didn’t want the stuff cluttering up the kitchen.

There’s an Ikea shelving unit where the beanbag once sprawled. Sura straightens up, realizing she’s still got her feet on the porch steps. Afraid to commit. With a muttered curse she forces herself on; she knows where the boards creak on this floor, so she zigzags to the brick-framed kitchen door and puts out her hand to feel for its lock.

It’s been changed. But that’s what the screwdriver is for.

She jams it into the keyhole and bumps it with a practiced hand. The knob turns, she eases the back door open, and steps inside.

It smells like home.

And just like that she’s hit with a wave of memories from the first months after Mom died. Dad flew home, and they spent whole days cooking just to keep each other company. Those images lead to others, of birthday parties, late-night snacks, and that day the water sprayed out of the faucet and she couldn’t stop it, had to phone Dad and he’d told her, annoyed, about the cut-off valve under the sink.

She has no excuse for being here. She’s here on a rumor. Like as not she’ll get caught and things will get infinitely worse for her; but how much worse? They’re bad, sure, but bad like everybody’s life is bad. Debt bad. No future bad. Broken promises and bitterness bad. She can put up with that. She doesn’t know for certain that she’ll die if she walks away right now.

Sura takes a ragged breath, looks around herself, and sees that the kitchen’s been repainted. Even in the dark she can tell that the shade of sky blue is relentless. Mom would have hated it.

One more deep breath, measured now, and she moves to the dining room.

 

Everything was fine this morning.—Fine, that is, in the sense of only being fucked up in the usual ways. At ten o’clock Sura was out riding her bike, because jittery nerves and annoyance at being let go from yet another short-term contract had her pacing the kitchen. She was trying not to look at the bills—those made of paper that are piled on the table, and the many imminent cancellation notices piled up in her inbox.

She reassured herself that everybody is in this position. It’s even true, at least for those of her old friends who’ll still talk to her. The economy is roaring ahead, growth is up, and the GDP has never been higher; it’s just that nobody’s getting by.

The white slab of warehouse which was Sura’s last shit job is a couple of miles southwest of her apartment. “Forward warehousing” has finally come to Dayton: all round the city dozens of cars have rented out their trunks, which contain cigars and scotch and stuff. Every now and then one of these trunks will pop open, seemingly at random and often while the car is driving, and a drone carrying a bottle of Talisker’s or Oban will zip off at right angles, delivering the package to a waiting customer and justifying the company promise: Five minutes or it’s free.

Of course, the trunks need to be restocked, from slower drones that originate here. And while the public face of the operation is relentlessly high-tech, the warehouse is staffed with minimum-wage humans, mostly immigrants and kids fresh out of college, who are run off their feet. Sura wore a tracker badge because the fetchers’ movements are optimized to the second, like the drones’. If she stopped walking for a minute, they docked her pay. Longer than a minute and, well … here she was.

The bike took her through Hillcrest, a neighborhood she’s known since she was a kid. Everything looked fine on the surface, though with the city’s aggressive deroading program in full swing, half the streets are blocked off. Their asphalt has been torn up and grass and trees planted in its place. Still, the houses she passed seemed well-kept and delivery drones came and went. There’s money somewhere, for somebody.

She glided along winding paths past the beautiful homes, peeking through living room windows while calculating how far that last paycheck would get her and wondering what came next. The last of Mom’s savings have run out; her buffer is gone. Nobody who knows her will let her couch surf. Time to go online and hunt for some stranger who needs a roommate.

It’s six years since Mom died. The echoes of that still chase her, in the form of crushing debt and memories of Mom’s long slow decline. Toward the end Sura’s whole waking life was consumed with taking care of her. The trauma’s still with her but she’d go back to that time in a heartbeat because, despite the awfulness and the sense of them being abandoned both by the world and by Dad, her life had meaning. The tightly structured days, the narrow focus, the complete impossibility of going out; it all hurt. So many movies missed. Yet she’d kept Mom’s music playing for her right up until the last day.

She still listens to the old tunes, but the life behind them is gone.

The warehouse job felt like her last chance at a lot of things—income, purpose, some kind of dignity; with it blown sky-high, a long, dull period in her life seems to be ending. She’d put her head down and peddled harder but the anxieties built and built, chasing her like leaves in her wake. She wasn’t going to make it. In desperation, for the first time since Mom died Sura gave herself permission to reach back to a coping mechanism from before that time. She’d had a trick for dealing with shit once, an effective one. It’s been years since she used it because in the old days, it usually ended with her doing a B&E. Mom never knew, and in her last days, Sura had promised never to disappoint her. Still …

She calls this maneuver the fuck-you.

The bills, the dead-end jobs, the nervous exhaustion of living in a country that’s in a state of perpetual, low-grade civil war—all of these things nag and peck at her, all day, every day. Really, there was only one thing to say to all of it.

Fuck you.

She smiled. Yes, this is exactly what she needed.

Money problems: fuck you.

Nobody likes you: well, fuck you.

Dad’s an asshole, and Mom is dead: then, fuck you.

The rush of anger was exhilarating—but it’s just the primer. Now some old neglected engine caught, a power she’d built for herself as a kid in those many evenings spent in her room listening to Mom and Dad fight. Cycling down these familiar streets, canopied by green and awash in the roar of the cicadas, Sura shouted screw you to all the baggage of her life and kicked it overboard.

Her imagination broke free at last. Lifted by fantasy, she pictured herself rising to visit the treetops. She felt the tentative touch of millions of leaves as she turned and gyred above the maze. She looked down upon herself and from here it was plain she was being observed, but not by the neighborhood-watch drones. The cicadas were taking note of her, and the squirrels, skunks nesting under the porches, raccoons in the garages. Even the trees must feel her presence, as they breathed her exhalations. None were spies for some dark extractive power. Rather, she moved in the embrace of her neighbors and friends, a family she’d been born into.

She glimpsed it then, the web of exchanges holding this family together. True, the flowers traded their nectar, there were markets in the bushes, but there were also gifts being bestowed, such as the oxygen sighing from the leaves, the flows of nutrients in the ground as older trees gave of themselves to nurture the younger. Light flooding everything, heat making the air tremble, and everywhere little leaf factories banging on incoming molecules with their trip hammers, infinitesimal welders on microscopic scaffolds throwing sparks as mitochondrial cranes lofted newly minted proteins to tiny workers assembling new cells. All these trillions of projects ran independently yet were somehow nested in harmonious circles, invisible to the old man mowing his lawn, to the worried drivers, the delivery guy hauling boxes out of the back of his van. A secret known only to her.

On the bike path, at the eye of this hurricane of motion and industry, a small woman, earbuds in, sped along to a soundtrack of digital beats and pygmy chants.

For a few minutes, she was actually and miraculously herself. She could do anything, and maybe she should … And then her phone rang.

She had her smart glasses on, so she replied in hands-free mode. “Hello?”

“Sura, thank God I got through. Listen, it’s me, Marjorie.”

Marj. The fuck-you collapsed. The bike wobbled. “What do you want?” She’d spoken to Dad’s new piece exactly twice since he and Mom split up. Why the hell was she calling now?

“Sura, I know you’ve got—I don’t know how to say—Listen. Have you received any packages lately? From your dad?”

“What? No, what?”

“Okay. Um. Sura.” She heard Marj take a sharp, half-caught breath. “He’s dead, Sura.

“Your father’s been murdered. And the people who did it may be after you, too.”

 

Jim said if something like this happened, to look in that spot you signed, Marjorie had told her. He said you’ll know what he means.

Now, she crosses her old dining room in three quick steps. She’s all focus and knows exactly where she’s going. Whatever furniture these new homeowners may have put in the way, she can push it aside, she can even smash things if she has to because looting this place is literally only going to take a second.

She was eleven when they renovated the house. Dad brought her in one day, and she was fascinated to see how the interior walls had turned skeletal. The living room’s outer wall was now exposed brick.

As she traced its roughness with a finger, Dad grinned and pulled a Sharpie out of his pocket. “Why don’t you sign it?” he said. “They’ll be putting new drywall up tomorrow. Nobody’ll ever know it’s there. Nobody but you and me.”

SURA NEELIN she wrote on the brick. The rest of the gutted interior barely registered on her. She had signed her house!

She has her phone out and ready, the NFC reader app glowing on its face. Dad used to tease her by asking if she remembered where her signature was. She was always proud to show him: just step into the living room and turn right, go to the wall and slide the phone along it at the height of her solar plexus …

She steps in and turns—and there are bookshelves on the wall.

Sura just stares at them. Dad had been so clever, after all: how could he hide a file storage chip so nobody can ever find it no matter how many drawers they rip out or light fixtures they unscrew, yet have the information literally at your fingertips? Simply slap an NFC sticker on the back of the drywall, right where his daughter had signed the bricks it would rest against. Snap snap snap said the nailgun, and then the new wall was up. The NFC tag was Dad’s secret stash, so secret that she was nineteen before he told her about it—and by that time, the house was sold.

The new owners haven’t gutted the place the way the Neelins did. And why shouldn’t they screw two sets of bookshelves into the studs? They don’t know that this was the wall the couch was against, the one Mom spent her last weeks on as the cancer killed her. The shelves are about three feet tall and start about three and a half feet up from the floor. Hipshot in a slab of streetlight that leans in from the front window, Sura contemplates the steps she’s going to have to take to get through the one that’s covering her signature.

She pushes back on the memories of kneeling by the couch, mashing Mom’s food for her; Think, think. With luck, the shelves are just open frames with the drywall exposed behind them … She pulls out some Nora Roberts hardcovers and puts her hand out to find faux-wood particleboard where there should be wall. The shelf’s got a back. Hopefully that’s not too thick, you can only read an NFC from an inch or two away, and the drywall drastically thins the signal. She slides the phone around for a while, but the backing of the shelf must be blocking it entirely. She can’t be sure she’s even swiping the phone over the right spot.

Shoulders hunched, feeling the ghosts now and the presence of sleepers in the master bedroom directly overhead, she begins pulling books with trembling fingers. She stacks them carefully but quickly until the shelving unit is empty, then feels for the heavy screws that must hold it up. There they are. Lucky she still has her screwdriver.

The first screw doesn’t pretend to budge. “Damn fuck shit motherfucker cunt shit…” She lacerates her palms twisting, but it’s no use. The whole plan’s gone south, she should bolt out the back, find some alternative, except she can’t because Dad’s sins are being visited upon her, and if it were just the cops coming after her (and her sitting calmly on her couch, arms held up for the handcuffs) then that would be okay. It won’t be the police or the FBI, though. The FBI care, but they don’t care, not to the point of murder. According to Marj, the people who do care aren’t going to be nice about asking for whatever it is Dad put behind this wall.

For the very first time she knows that if somebody comes down the stairs, bleary-eyed and demanding to know what’s going on, she’s going to have to hurt them. She can’t leave this spot, is trapped to run as long as it takes in a tight circle around this one damned screw—

Leaning in, teeth grinding and her whole body a ramrod, she finally feels it give. She keeps folding herself around it, as with a series of groans and creaks the thing loosens and comes out.

That was the top left one. A little clear voice in her head comments that she should have begun at the bottom.

Fine fine, whatever, she goes for those screws. The lower right one is easy, and that leaves the lower left. As she starts on it, she hears footsteps on the stairs.

It really, really doesn’t matter at this point. She keeps cricking her hands around the screwdriver.

“Who are you?”

It’s a little girl’s voice.

Sura glances back. There’s a silhouette on the stairs.

“I’m just fixing the bookshelf,” she whispers. “Go back to bed.”

“Oh. Okay.” The figure turns and starts back up.

Cindy-Lou Who, thinks Sura and she nearly laughs out loud. The third screw pops out and the shelf becomes a pendulum. She grabs her phone off The Cambridge History of China and slides it along the wall, swinging the shelf this way and that to get at the smooth white surface behind.

Ping.

Now it’s ballet time but with no soundtrack she can imagine; somehow Sura’s turning on her toes as she threads the stacks of books, then she pads through the dining room, the unfamiliar kitchen and porch. She’s unreeling her whole life, bye-bye Momma, bye-bye Dad and grief-cooking, bye-bye Nick and your kiss, and she’s on the lawn pocketing an unknown legacy, and walking raccoon roads under the darkest trees and burnt-out streetlights, out of a neighborhood that’s no longer hers.

Copyright © 2019 by Karl Schroeder

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Excerpt: The Midnight Front by David Mack

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Poster Placeholder of - 96 Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues today with an excerpt from The Midnight Front, a visionary World War II-era adventure from David Mack.

As World War Two rages, a secret army of sorcerers battle Nazis and demons.

On the eve of World War Two, Nazi sorcerers come gunning for Cade but kill his family instead. His one path of vengeance is to become an apprentice of The Midnight Front—the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program—and become a sorcerer himself.

Unsure who will kill him first—his allies, his enemies, or the demons he has to use to wield magick—Cade fights his way through occupied Europe and enemy lines. But he learns too late the true price of revenge will be more terrible than just the loss of his soul—and there’s no task harder than doing good with a power born of ultimate evil.

The Midnight Front will be available January 30th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1: August

The night reeked of demons.

Their stench haunted every direction as Nando Cabral fled through wooded hills south of Lemberg, Germany, less than five miles from the French border. He lurched like a drunkard, one hand clamped over the gunshot wound in his left flank. Shafts of moonlight pierced the trees’ canopy. Blood pulsed against his palm with each step he took.

He glanced at his pursuers. Blurs of motion, twenty yards away and getting closer.

It was too dark to see their faces, but the young Spaniard knew who they were. He didn’t know how they’d found him, but it didn’t matter now. Only a handful of spirits were yoked to his bidding, just enough to afflict him with a constant headache. He didn’t have the minor legion he’d need to fight one fellow karcist, never mind two. All he could do now was run.

A spectral whip cracked, spitting green fire as it ripped bark from the trees to his left. The enemy was upon him. All hope of reaching France abandoned, Nando turned and steeled himself for battle. His foes moved like wraiths, over a dozen meters apart.

To split my focus, Nando reasoned. With a thought he dispatched two demons normally tasked with divination to be his sentries. Then he used another spirit’s gifts to make himself invisible—a delaying tactic at best, but every second mattered in magickal warfare.

His enemies were nowhere to be found—whispers lurking in the dark.

He silenced his steps with the talent of Aris, one of the Descending Hierarchy’s patrons of thievery. Though the ground was littered with dry twigs and debris, he skulked across it without leaving a trace or making a sound.

They must have seen me trailing their courier. Other than one moment on the streets of Stuttgart, he had been careful to stay out of sight and under the concealment of warding glyphs. Breaking cover to track the Thule Society’s messenger to his final destination had been a calculated risk—one that had earned Nando a bullet in his gut and the attention of the two enemies his master Adair had warned him to avoid at all costs.

He searched the night as he flanked his foes. They had caught him less than prepared for battle, but he wasn’t defenseless. The strongest spirit he held in yoke was Beleth, a king of Hell renowned for its love of destruction. Nando felt the fallen angel’s wings as if they were his own. He beat them twice, unleashing strokes of thunder that rent tree trunks into splinters. Shock waves coursed through the broken forest, churning up dust—

Twin bolts of violet lightning arced through the haze and struck Nando’s chest. They hit like a charging bull, launched him backward. He tumbled over roots and sharp rocks.

A sharp freezing pain in his chest stripped away his invisibility as he lost his mental hold on Glasya, which returned to the Abyss, the letter of its duty discharged. Nando pawed at the maggot-covered wound in his torso and realized he had been felled by the spear of Savnok, a marquis of Hell that delighted in spreading pestilence.

Movement, on his right. He lashed out with a demonic blade against which no armor could stand, only to see it deflected.

A darting form on his left. Nando made the trees his soldiers. Their limbs lashed out to seize a red-haired young woman. Within seconds she was snared, an oaken branch coiled around her throat and clamped over her mouth. Nando commanded the trees, Tear her—

A fireball swallowed him whole.

It was a strike from a demon’s firebrand. Nando filled the air with screams, but he couldn’t hear them over the roaring of hellfire.

When the last lick of flame died, he lay supine before his enemies. The woman, now free of the trees, stood tall. She radiated contempt, her copper mane so tousled as to look almost feral. If not for the malice in her blue eyes, Nando would have found her beautiful beyond compare.

Equally striking was her companion, a fair-haired man with chiseled features. Even after waging a duel in the forest, he looked immaculate. His shoes betrayed not a scuff, his tailored suit admitted not one wrinkle. If the warnings Nando had heard from his master Adair were true, the man before him had to be the Nazis’ top sorcerer, Kein Engel.

Kein regarded Nando with weary regret. “So much potential. What a waste.”

The woman made a fist of her right hand. “Let me finish him.”

“No, Briet. It needs to be me.” From beneath his black trench coat, which bore a swastika on its lapel, Kein drew an athamé, a black-handled knife used in ceremonial magick. He kneeled over Nando, whose ravaged body was racked with tremors. Leaning close, Kein dropped his voice to a confidential volume and spoke in perfect Spanish. “Training you and the other nikraim as karcists was clever. Your master Adair never used to exhibit such foresight.”

Nando wanted to spit in the dark magician’s face, but his mouth was as dry as cinders, and it took all his strength to speak. “You won’t beat us all.”

“I have already killed Adair’s other five like you. And when I find the last of your kind, the one that was hidden, this war will be over”—he stabbed the blade into Nando’s heart with a savage twist—“and a better future can begin.”

Copyright © 2018 by David Mack

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Excerpt: The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

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Place holder  of - 4 Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues today with an excerpt from The Tiger’s Daughterthe first book in a new fantasy series about a pair of young women whose bond may be the only hope for a world embattled by demons – and the price they pay for their bravery.

The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach—but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.

Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.

This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.

The Tiger’s Daughter will be available October 3rd. Please enjoy this excerpt.

One

The Empress

Empress Yui wrestles with her broken zither. She’d rather deal with the tiger again. Or the demons. Or her uncle. Anything short of going north, anything short of war. But a snapped string? One cannot reason with a snapped string, nor can one chop it in half and be rid of the problem.

When she stops to think on it—chopping things in half is part of why she’s alone with the stupid instrument to begin with. Did she not say she’d stop dueling? What was she thinking, accepting Rayama-tun’s challenge? He is only a boy.

And now he will be the boy who dueled One-Stroke Shizuka, the boy whose sword she cut in half before he managed to draw it. That story will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, the Light of Hokkaro, Celestial Flame—no, she is alone, let her wear her own name—O-Shizuka pinches her scarred nose. When was the last day she behaved the way an Empress should?

Shizuka—can she truly be Shizuka, for an hour?—twists the silk between her first two fingers and threads it through the offending peg. Honestly. The nerve! Sitting in her rooms, taking up her valuable space. Taunting her. She can hear her father’s voice now: Shizuka, it will only be an hour, won’t you play me something?

But O-Itsuki, Imperial Poet, brother to the Emperor, heard music wherever he heard words. Scholars say that the Hokkaran language itself was not really born until O-Itsuki began to write in it. What use did he have for his daughter’s haphazard playing? Shizuka, your mother is so tired and upset; surely your music will lift her spirits and calm her!

But it was never the music that cheered her mother. It was merely seeing Shizuka play. The sight of her daughter doing something other than swinging a sword. O-Shizuru did little else with her time, given her position as Imperial Executioner. Wherever she went, the Crows followed in her footsteps. Already thirty-six by the time she gave birth to her only child, O-Shizuru wore her world-weariness like a crown.

And who could blame her, with the things she had done?

Ah—but Shizuka hadn’t understood, back then, why her mother was always so exhausted. Why she bickered with the Emperor whenever she saw him. Why it was so important to her that her daughter was more than a duelist, more than a fighter, more like her father, and less like…

The Empress frowns. She runs the string along the length of the zither, toward the other peg. Thanks to her modest height, it takes a bit of doing. She manages. She always does.

Perhaps she will be a musician yet. She will play the music Handa wrote for View from Rolling Hills, she thinks.

The melody is simple enough that she’s memorized it already, soothing enough that she can lose herself in its gentle rise and fall.

Funny how you can hate a poem until the day you relate to it. Then it becomes your favorite.

She strikes the first notes—and that is when the footfalls meet her ears.

Footfalls meet her ears, and her frown only grows deeper.

No visitors, she said. No treating with courtiers, no inane trade meetings, no audiences with the public, nothing. Just her and the zither for an hour. One hour! Was that so difficult to understand?

She shakes her head. Beneath her breath she mutters an apology to her father.

One of the newer pages scurries to the threshold. He’s wearing black and silver robes emblazoned with Dao Doan Province’s seal. Is this Jiro-tul’s latest son? He has so many, she can’t keep track anymore. Eventually she’s going to have to make an effort to remember the servants’ names.

The new boy prostrates himself. He offers her a package wrapped in dark cloth and tied together with twine. It’s so bulky the boy’s hands quiver just holding it.

Some idiot suitor’s latest gift. Only one thing makes a person foolhardy enough to contradict the Empress’s will, and that is infatuation. Not love. Love has the decency to send up a note, not whatever this was.

“You may speak,” she says.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, “this package was, we think, addressed to you—”

“You think?” She crooks a brow. “Rise.”

The boy rises to his knees. She beckons him closer, and he scrambles forward, dropping the package in the process. It’s a book. It must be. That sort of heavy thwack can come only from a book.

“Doan-tun,” she says, “you are not in trouble, but tell me: Why are you bringing me something you can’t be certain is mine?”

He’s close enough now that she can see the wisps of black hair clinging to his upper lip. Good. From a distance, it looked like he’d taken a punch to the face.

“Your Imperial Majesty, Most Serene Empress Phoenix—”

“ ‘Your Imperial Majesty’ suffices in private conversation.”

He swallows. “Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, “the handwriting is, if you will forgive my bluntness, atrocious. When I received it, I had a great deal of difficulty deciphering it.”

O-Shizuka turns toward the zither as the boy speaks. For not the first time in recent years, she considers trimming her nails. But she likes the look of them, likes the glittering dust left behind by the crushed gems she dipped them in each morning. “Continue.”

As he speaks she runs her fingertips along the strings of her zither. If she closes her eyes she can still hear View from Rolling Hills.

“I sought out the aid of the elder servants,” he says. “One of them pointed out that this is in the horse script.”

O-Shizuka stops mid-motion.

No one writes to her in Qorin. No Hokkaran courtiers bother learning it. Horselords are beneath them, and thus there is no reason to learn their tongue. It’s the same reason only Xianese lords learn to read and write that language, the same reason Jeon is a cipher more than a tongue, the same reason one only ever reads of Doanese Kings in faded, musty scrolls.

The saying goes that to survive is Qorin—but the same can be said of the Hokkaran Empire, scavenging parts from the nations it swallows up, swearing that these borrowed clothes have been Imperial Finery all along. How did that drivel go? Hokkaro is a mother to unruly young nations, ever watchful, ever present. Shizuka always hated it.

So the letter cannot be from a Hokkaran, for what Hokkaran would deign to debase themselves in such a way? Burqila’s calligraphy is serviceable, if not perfect; the servants would have no trouble with anything she sent. Which leaves only one Qorin who might write to her in the rough horse-tongue.

It’s been eight years, she thinks, eight years since…

“I asked one of your older handmaidens, Keiko-lao, and she said your old friend Oshiro-sun couldn’t write Hokkaran at all, so I thought—”

Sun. There are thirty-two different honorifics in Hokkaran— eight sets of four. Each set is used only in specific circumstances. Using the wrong one is akin to walking up to someone and spitting into their mouth.

So why was it that, to this day, Shefali remained Oshiro-sun? The boy should know better. Sun is for outsiders, and Shefali was…

“Give it to me,” O-Shizuka snaps.

He offers it to her again, and when she takes it, her hands brush against his. That fleeting contact with the Empress is more than any other boy his age could dream of.

Naturally, he will tell all the others about it the moment he has a chance. His stories will be a bit more salacious, as he is a young man, and she is the Virgin Empress, and they are alone together save the guards standing outside.

O-Shizuka’s hands tremble as she reaches for the paper attached to the package. Yes, she who is known as the Lady of Ink, the finest calligrapher in the Empire: her hands tremble like an old woman’s.

The Hokkaran calligraphy is closer to a pig’s muddy footprints than to anything legible, but the bold Qorin characters are unmistakable.

For O-Shizuka of Hokkaro, from Barsalyya Shefali Alshar.

That name!

Nothing could make her smile like this, not even hearing the Sister’s secret song itself.

“Doan-tun,” she says, her voice little more than a whisper. “Cancel all my appointments for the next two days.”

“What?” he says. “Your Imperial Majesty, the Merchant Prince of Sur-Shar arrives tomorrow!”

“And he can make himself quite comfortable in whichever brothel he chooses until I am prepared to speak to him,” O-Shizuka says. “Unless my uncle has finally done me the favor of dying, I am not to be bothered. You are dismissed.”

“But, Your Imperial Majesty—”

“Dismissed,” repeats Shizuka, this time sharp as the nails of her right hand. The boy leaves.

And she is alone.

Alone as she has been for eight years. Alone with her crown, her zither, her paper, her ink, her Imperial bed.

Alone.

 

The Colors of Flowers

Shizuka, my Shizuka. If Grandmother Sky is good, then this finds you sitting on your throne, eating far too many sweets, and complaining about all the meetings you must attend.

My apologies for the awful calligraphy. I know you are shaking your head even as you read this, saying something about my brushstrokes not being decisive enough.

I have so many questions for you, and I’m certain you have just as many for me. Here in the East, I hear rumors of what you’ve been up to. Is it true you returned to Shiseiki Province and slew a Demon General? You must tell me the story. And do not brush off the details, Shizuka. I can almost hear your voice.

“It really was nothing.…”

The day will come when we share stories over kumaq and rice wine. I know it will. But until then, paper and ink are all we have. They are old friends of yours, and have kindly agreed to keep you company in my absence.

Do you remember the first time we met, Shizuka, or has that long faded from your memory? It is my favorite story in all the world to tell. Oh, you know it well. But let me tell it all the same. Let me have my comfort. Without you, I am in the dark. It has been so long, Shizuka, that I might mistake a candle for the sun. Our births—that is where I should start, though I doubt there exists a soul who has not heard about yours. Hokkarans rely on numbers and superstition more than they rely on sense, so when you popped out of your mother’s womb on the Eighth of Ji-Dao, the whole Empire boomed with joy. Your existence alone was cause for celebration. Your uncle, the Emperor, had let fourteen

years go by without producing an heir.

And there was the matter of your parents, as well. The most well-loved poet of his time and the national hero who slew a Demon General with nothing but her fabled sword and my mother’s assistance, those were your father and mother. When you were born, both were nearing forty.

I cannot imagine the elation the Empire felt after holding its breath for so long. Fourteen years without an heir, fourteen years spent tiptoeing on eggshells. All it would take was one errant arrow to bring your entire dynasty to its knees.

So you saved them. From the first moment of your life, Shizuka, you have been saving people. But you have never been subtle, never been modest, and so you chose the eighth of Ji-Dao to be born.

The eighth day of the eighth month, in the year dedicated to the Daughter—the eighth member of the Heavenly Family. Legend has it, you were born eight minutes into Last Bell, as well, though no one can really know for certain. I cannot say it would surprise me. You do not do anything halfway.

But there was another thing about your birth—something we shared.

The moment my mother put you in your mother’s hands, two pine needles fell on your forehead, right between your eyes.

One month later, on the first of Qurukai, I was born beneath the Eternal Sky. Like all Qorin, I was born with a patch of blue on my bottom; unlike the others, mine was so pale, it was nearly white. I was not screaming, and I did not cry until my mother slapped me. The sanvaartains present told her that this was a bad sign—that a baby who did not cry at birth would make up for it when she died in agony.

I can imagine you shaking your head. It’s true—Qorin portents are never pleasant.

But my mother scoffed, just as your mother scoffed, and presented me to the sanvaartain for blessings anyway. Just as the sanvaartain held the bowl of milk above my head, just as the first drops splashed onto my brow, she saw them.

Two pine needles stuck together between my eyes. There are no pine trees in that part of the steppes.

When my mother told yours about what had happened, our fates were decided. The pine needles were an omen—we would always be friends, you and I, always together. To celebrate our good fortune, your father wrote a poem on the subject. Don’t you find it amusing, Shizuka? Everyone thinks that poem was about your parents, but it was about us the whole time.

When we were three, our mothers introduced us. Shizuru and Alshara wrote to each other for months about it. For all your mother’s incredible abilities, for all her skills and talents, conceiving was almost impossible for her. Your mother, the youngest of five bamboo mat salespeople, worried you’d grow up lonely. Burqila Alshara wasn’t having that. She offered to take you in for a summer on the steppes, so that we might share our earliest memories together.

But the moment you laid eyes on me, something within you snapped. I cannot know what it was—I have no way of seeing into your thoughts—but I can only imagine the intensity of it.

All I know is that the first thing I can remember seeing, the first sight to embed itself like an arrow in the trunk of my mind, is your face contorted with rage.

And when I say rage, you must understand the sort of anger I am discussing. Normal children get upset when they lose a toy or when their parents leave the room. They weep, they beat their little fists against the ground, they scream.

But it was not so with you. Your lips were drawn back like a cat’s, your teeth flashing in the light. Your whole face was taut with fury. Your scream was wordless and dark, sharp as a knife.

You moved so fast, they could not stop you. A rush of red, yes—the color of your robes. Flickering golden ornaments in your hair. Dragons, or phoenixes, it matters not. Snarling, you wrapped your hands around my throat. Spittle dripped onto my forehead. When you shook me, my head knocked against the floor.

I struggled, but I could not throw you off. You’d latched on. Whatever hate drove you made you ten times as vicious as any child has a right to be. In desperation I tried rolling away from you.

On the third roll, we knocked into a brazier. Burning oil spilled out and seared your shoulder. Only that immense pain was enough to distract you. By the time your mother pulled you off me, I had bruises along my throat, and you had a scar on your shoulder.

O-Shizuru apologized, or maybe O-Itsuki. I think it must have been both of them. Your mother chided you for what you’d done, while your father swore to Alshara that you’d never done anything like this before.

Before that day, before you tried to kill me, no one ever said no to you.

You did not come to stay with us that summer.

Soon, Shizuru scheduled your first appointment with your music tutor. The problem, in her mind, was that you were too much like her. If only you fell in love with poetry, like your father; or music or calligraphy; cooking or engineering or the medical arts; even acting! Anything.

Anything but warfare.

And as for my mother’s reaction? As far as my mother was concerned, O-Shizuru’s only sin in life was not learning how to speak Qorin after all their years as friends. That attitude extended to you, as well, though you had not earned it. O-Shizuru and Burqila Alshara spent eight days being tortured together, and years after that rescuing one another. When the Emperor insisted that O-Shizuru tour the Empire with an honor guard at her back, your mother scoffed in his face.

“Dearest Brother-in-Law,” she said, “I’ll run around the border like a show horse, if that’s what you want me to do, but I’m not taking the whole stable with me. Burqila and I lived, so Burqila and I will travel, and let the Mother carry to sleep any idiot who says otherwise. Your honored self included.”

Legend has it that O-Shizuru did not wait for an answer, or even bow on the way out of the palace. She left for the stables, saddled her horse, and rode out to Oshiro as soon as she could. Thus began our mothers’ long journey through the Empire, with your father doing his best to try to keep up.

So—no, there was nothing your mother could do wrong. And when you stand in so great a shadow as O-Shizuru’s, well—my mother was bound to overlook your failings.

But my mother did insist on one thing—taking a clipping of your hair, and braiding it into mine. She gave your mother a clipping of my hair and instruction, for the same reason. Old Qorin tradition, you see—part of your soul stays in your hair when the wind blows through it. By braiding ours together, she hoped to end our bickering.

I can’t say that she was right or wrong—only that as a child, I liked touching your hair. It’s so much thicker than mine, Shizuka, and so much glossier. I wish I still had that lock of hair—I treasure all my remnants of you, but to have your hair in a place so far from home…

Let me tell you another story, the ending of which you know, but let us take our time arriving there. May you hear this in my voice, and not the careful accent of a gossiping courtier. May you hear the story itself, and not the rumors the rest may have whispered to you.

When I was five, my mother took my brother and me back to the steppes. We spent too long in the palace at Oshiro, she said; our minds sprouted roots. She did not actually say that out loud, of course—my brother spoke for her. In those days, he was the one who read her signing. My mother uses a form of signing employed by deaf Qorin, passed down from one to another through the years. Kenshiro did not spend much time traveling with the clan, due to my father’s objections, but my brother has always been too studious for his own good. If he could only see our mother once every eight years, then he wanted to be able to impress her.

Thus, he taught himself to sign.

Was my mother impressed? This is a difficult question. As commendable as it was that my brother went to such lengths, he was Not Qorin. He could never be, when he wore a face so like my father’s, when he wore his Hokkaran name with such pride.

But he was my brother, and I loved him dearly, and when he told me this was going to be the best year of our lives, I believed him. On our first night on the whistling Silver Steppes, I almost froze to death. The temperature there drops faster than—well, you’ve been there, Shizuka, you know. It’s customary for mothers to rub their children down with urine just to keep them warm. No one sleeps alone; ten to fifteen of us all huddle together beneath our white felt gers. Even then the nights are frozen. Until I was eight and returned to Hokkaro, I slept in my brother’s bed-

roll, and huddled against him to keep the cold away. On one such night, he spoke to me of our names.

“Shefali,” he said, “when you are out here, you are not Oshirosun. You know that, right?”

I stared at him. I was five. That is what five-year-olds do. He mussed my hair as he spoke again.

“Well, you know now,” he said. “Our mother’s the Kharsa, sort of. That means she’s like the Emperor, but for Qorin people.”

“No throne,” I said.

“She doesn’t need one,” said Kenshiro. “She has her mare and the respect of her people.”

Ah. Your uncle was a ruler, and so was my mother. They must be the same.

I did not know much about your family back then. Oh, everyone knew your uncle was the Son of Heaven, and his will in all things was absolute. And everyone knew your mother and my mother, together, killed one of the four Demon Generals and lived to tell the tale.

But I didn’t much care about any of that. It didn’t affect me as much as you did, as much as the memory of you did. For you were never far from my mother’s mind, and she was always quick to say that the two of us must be like two pine needles.

Yes, she said “pine needles”—the woman who lived for plains and open sky. I always thought it strange, and when I learned it was a line of your father’s poetry, I thought it stranger.

But still, I grew to think of you as…

Not the way I thought of Kenshiro. He was my brother. He taught me things, and spoke to me, and helped me hunt. But you? I did not know how to express it, but when I touched the clipping of your hair braided into mine, I knew we were going to be together again. That we were always going to be together. As

Moon chases Sun, so would I chase you.

But during my first journey around the steppes, I learned how different our two nations were.

Kenshiro was teaching me how to shoot. The day before this, Grandmother Sky blessed us with rain, and I hadn’t thought to pack my bow away in its case. The second I tried to draw it back, it came apart in my hands; the string sliced me across the cheek and ear.

As I was a child, I broke out crying. Kenshiro did his best to calm me.

Two men who were watching us cackled.

“Look at that filthy mongrel!” called the taller one. He was thin and bowlegged, and he wore a warm wool hat with drooping earflaps. When he spoke, I caught sight of his teeth. What few he had left were brown. His deel was green and decorated with circles. Two braids hung in front of his right earflap, with bright beads at the end. “I tell you, it is because she was born indoors. Burqila is a fool for keeping her.”

My brother was eleven then. For a Qorin boy, he was short. For a Hokkaran, he was tall and gangly, all elbows and knees. He stood in front of me, and I thought he was big as a tree.

“She was born outside,” he said. “Everyone knows that, Boorchu. And if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t make her any less Qorin.”

“And why should I listen to a boy with roots for feet?” said Boorchu. “If she had a real teacher—”

“Her bow was wet,” he said. “Of course it broke. It could’ve happened to you, too.”

“No, boy,” said the tall man. “I know better. Because I was born on the steppes, and I grew beneath the sky, without a roof to suffocate me. You and your sister are pale-faced rice-eaters, and that is the plain truth.”

The shorter one—who was squat and had only one braid—only snorted. I don’t know why. “Rice-eater” is not a piercing insult. “Ricetongue” is far worse. And on top of that, they called both Kenshiro and me pale-faced, when only Kenshiro is pale. I’m dark as a bay. Anyone can see that.

“Boorchu,” said the shorter one then, grabbing his friend’s arm. “Boorchu, you should—”

“I’m not going to stop,” said the tall one. “Burqila never should’ve married that inkdrinker. A good Qorin man, that is what she needs. One who’ll give her strong sons and stubborn daughters, who don’t snap their strings like fat little—”

All at once Boorchu grew quiet. Shock dawned on him, and soon he was the pale-faced one.

Someone touched my head. When I turned, my mother had emerged from the ger. A silent snarl curled her lips. She snapped to get Kenshiro’s attention, and then her fingers spoke for her, flying into shapes I could not read.

“My mother says you are to repeat what you just said,” Kenshiro translated. His voice shook. He squeezed me a bit tighter, and when he next spoke, he did so in Hokkaran. “Mother, if you’re going to hurt him—”

She cut him off with more gestures. Her horsewhip hung from her belt, opposite her sword; to a child, both were frightening.

Kenshiro made a soft, sad sound.

Boorchu stammered. “I said that, I said, er, that your daughter…”

“A good Qorin man?” Kenshiro said, reading my mother’s signs. “I don’t see any here. Come forward, Boorchu.” Then he broke into Hokkaran again. “Mother, please. She’s only five.”

What were they talking about? Why was Boorchu sweating so much, why had his friend run away, why was my brother trembling?

Boorchu dragged his feet. “Burqila,” he said, “I just want them to be strong. If you never let them hear what people think of them, they’ll weep at everything. You don’t want them to be spoiled, do you?”

My mother clapped her hands. One of the guards—a woman with short hair and a scar across her face, with more braids than loose hair—snapped to attention.

“Bring the felt,” Kenshiro translated.

And the guard ran to get it. In a minute, no more, she returned. She bound Boorchu’s hands together with rope and wrapped him in the felt blanket. He kept screaming. The sound, Shizuka! Though it was soon muffled, it reverberated in my ears, my chest. It was getting harder to breathe.

“Ken,” I said, “Ken, what’s happening?”

“You should turn away,” he replied. “You don’t have to watch this.”

But I couldn’t. The sight and sound fixed me in place. My eyes watered, not from sadness, but from fear; my brain rattled in my skull.

“Shefali,” he said, “look away.”

My mother drew her sword. She didn’t bother signing anymore. No, she walked up to the man in the felt binding and ran him through. Just like that. I remember how red spread out from the hilt of her sword like a flower blossoming. I remember the wet crunch of bones giving way, the slurp as she pulled her sword back.

Kenshiro ran his hands through my hair. “Shefali,” he said, “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have… I’m sorry.”

I wasn’t paying attention.

I couldn’t look away from the bundle of white-turning-red. I saw something coming out of it, glimmering in the air, swirling like smoke. As I watched, it scattered to the winds.

This was unspoken horror. This was water falling from the ground into the sky. This was a river of stone, this was a bird with fur, this was wet fire. I felt deep in my body that I was seeing something I was never meant to see.

I pointed out the flickering lights to Kenshiro with a trembling hand. “What’s that?”

He glanced over, then turned his attention back to me. He stroked my cheeks. “The sky, Shefali,” he said. “The Endless Sky, who sees all.”

But that wasn’t what I saw. I knew the sky. I was born with a patch of it on my lower back, and though the birthmark faded, the memory remained. Grandmother Sky never made me feel like this. I felt like an arrow, trembling against a bowstring. Like the last drop of dew clinging to a leaf. Like a warhorn being sounded for

the first time.

“Ken-ken,” I said, “do you see the sparkles?”

And, ah—the moment I spoke, I knew something within me had changed. I felt the strangest urge to look North, toward the Wall of Flowers. At the time, I’d heard only the barest stories about it. I knew that it was beautiful, and I knew that it was full of the Daughter’s magic.

How could I have known that the Wall was where blackbloods went to die?

How was I to know?

Kenshiro furrowed his brow. “You’re just stressed, Shefali,” he whispered. “You saw something you shouldn’t have. But you’ll be all right, I promise.”

I bit my lip, hard. Kenshiro couldn’t see it.

Maybe he was right. Kenshiro was right about a lot of things. He always knew where the sun was going to rise in the morning, and he knew the names for all the constellations.

But that didn’t change the awful feeling in my stomach, or the rumbling I now heard in the distance, or the whisper telling me “go north.” I looked around the camp for an oncoming horde, but I saw none. Yet there was the sound rolling between my ears; there was the clatter of a thousand horses.

It wasn’t there, I told myself, it wasn’t there, and I was safe with my mother and Kenshiro.

But for the rest of that day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something awful had happened.

Kenshiro told me Tumenbayar stories to pass the time. Tumenbayar is something like your ancestor Minami Shiori—there are hundreds of stories about her. All of them are true, of course, especially the ones that contradict each other.

It was one week later that I received your first letter. When the messenger first brought it out of his bag, I knew it was yours by sight alone. You sent it sealed in a bright red envelope, emblazoned with golden ink. I snatched it out of his hands in a way that made Kenshiro apologize for my rudeness, and I pressed it to my nose so I could smell you.

You might find it strange that I was so excited for a letter from a girl who tried to kill me. The truth is, I never bore you any ill will for what you did. When you first saw me, you were struck with unspeakable rage.

But when I saw you, I…

Imagine you are a rider, Shizuka, a Qorin rider. You have been out in the forests to the north for some time, trying to find something to feed your clanmates. Two days you’ve been hunting. Hunger twists your stomach into knots. You can hardly will yourself to move. Behind you, you hear something in the trees. You turn, you fire, and you slow down enough to see your catch: two fat marmots, speared together by your arrow.

Seeing you was like seeing those marmots. I knew everything would be all right, so long as I had you near me.

So your letter understandably excited me, and getting to smell it thrilled me even more so. A person’s soul is in their scent. For the first time since Boorchu died, when I took a breath of your perfumed paper, I felt safe.

Until I tried to read the letter. Then I only felt frustrated. I stared at the characters and pretended I could read them. I traced them with one finger, and imagined what you might say to me.

Kenshiro caught me at it. “Is that—?”

He tried to take the letter from me. Only Grandmother Sky could’ve pried it away from my grubby little hands. After some coaxing, he convinced me to hold it out so he could read it.

His bushy brows rose halfway up his forehead. “Shefali,” he said, “is this from the Peacock Princess?”

I nodded.

He let out a whistle. “You’ve made an important friend! Can you read this?” When I shook my head, he sat down next to me. “Then it’s time for some tutoring. Follow along with my finger.”

To be honest, I couldn’t follow any of the writing at all. Your calligraphy was beautiful even then, but I could never make sense of it.

You can read Qorin letters, Shizuka. Imagine if every time you blinked, everything changed. Where the letters were. What they looked like. Imagine if they went from right side up to upside down and backwards. That is what happens to me when I read Hokkaran.

I made Kenshiro read it to me so many times that I remember it still.

Oshiro Shefali,

My parents are making me write this because they think I need to apologize to you. I think that’s silly. You know that I am sorry, so why do I have to tell you again? But my mother wants us to be friends, so I have to write to you.

Big lumpy Qorin horses don’t interest me, and neither does archery. I don’t know what we can talk about. Do you like flowers? I don’t know if they have flowers on the Silver Steppes. Peonies and chrysanthemums are my favorites.

Most of the time I can guess what everyone else’s favorite is, but whenever I try to think of yours, I can’t do it. If you don’t like chrysanthemums at least, then you’re wrong, and I’ ll have to show you all of mine when I see you next.

I’m going to see you again. You’re not getting out of that. My uncle is the Son of Heaven, you know. I don’t really like him but that means people have to do what I tell them.

Respectfully,

O-Shizuka

After horse riding, reading your letter was my favorite way to spend my time. Kenshiro had other things to take care of, though. My mother insisted he learn how to wrestle and shoot and ride in the traditional way.

The trouble was, I didn’t have any friends while my brother was away.

While Hokkarans hate me because I am dark and flaxen haired and remind them of a horse, the Qorin dislike me because they think I am too pampered. When I was a child, it was worse.

My nose didn’t help.

I have my mother’s round cheeks, which you always seemed to have an unending fascination for. I have her wavy hair, her skin, her height, her bowleggedness, her large hands, her grass green eyes.

But of all the features on my wide, flat face, my nose stands out. It is narrow, pinched, and begging for a fist to reshape it. My father’s stamp on me.

Qorin children are not known for being well behaved. One day I was out riding on a borrowed colt, and when I returned, I found a half circle of my cousins waiting for me. At their head stood a pudgy ten-year-old whose face was round as a soup bowl and flecked with freckles.

“You’re Burqila’s daughter!” she said. “The one with the stupid nose!”

I frowned and covered my face. I tried to nudge my horse forward, but my cousins did not move.

“Needlenose,” called my cousin. “Come off your horse, Needlenose! We’ve got to wrestle!”

Wrestling is my least favorite of the three manly arts. Riding? I can, and have, ridden a horse all day. Archery is more a passion than a chore. But wrestling? I’m still a lean little thing, Shizuka; my cousins have always been able to throw me clean across the ring.

“What?” sneered my cousin. She slapped her broad chest, smacked her belly. “Are you afraid?”

I touched my horse’s shoulder. Horseflesh is always solid and firm and warm.

“No.”

“Then you’d better get down off that horse!” she said. “Don’t make us get you!”

I raised a brow. I was on a horse. The entire purpose of riding was to be able to get away from things fast.

But maybe I was a bit too cocky about that, seeing as I was sur rounded by people who spend their whole lives around horses. Who own horses. And, as fate would have it, the colt I was riding belonged to one of my bully cousins. My mother thought I should learn how to handle a stranger’s mount as well as I could my own. I thought that was silly—as if I was ever going to ride anything but my grey. Still, she plopped me down on this colt and set me off for the day. My cousin couldn’t have been happier. He whistled and pulled out a treat from his deel pocket, and the horse trotted right up to him.

Which meant I was now close enough for my half dozen cousins to pull me off my horse and slam me to the ground.

What followed was a beating that I shall not waste any words on. You know how savage children can be. Qorin traditions forbid us from shedding one another’s blood, but that has never stopped us from beating the tar out of each other. Kicking, punching, hair pulling—none of these draw blood. So it was.

I limped back to the ger in tears. The moment my mother laid eyes on me, she sprang to her feet and wrapped me in an embrace. Through sign language and interpreters, she told me she’d take care of things.

It wasn’t hard for her to find out who put me in such a state, given how few Qorin are left. Within two hours, my mother corraled a half dozen of my cousins near her ger. Mother paced in front of them. Her fingers spoke in sharp, punctuated gestures.

“I understand the lot of you beat my daughter,” Kenshiro translated.

My cousins shifted on the balls of their feet. A boy toward the end of the line cried. I stood behind my mother and sniffled.

“You are children,” Kenshiro continued. “My sisters’ children, at that. If you were anyone else’s brats, I’d have the beating returned two times over. But my sisters have always supported me, even if they have spawned lawless brutes.”

She came to a stop and pointed to the tallest cousin, the chubby girl who wanted to wrestle me. As she stepped forward, I wrapped my arms around my mother’s leg.

“Otgar,” said Kenshiro, “Zurgaanqar Bayaar is the meekest of my sisters. When she was young, she was quiet as Shefali, and half her size. Tell me, would you have pulled her from her horse and beaten her senseless?”

Otgar crossed her arms. “Mom doesn’t have a stupid nose,” she said.

What was it with her and noses? Hers was dumb-looking, too! Her whole face was dumb!

“Otgar Bayasaaq,” said Kenshiro, “you speak Hokkaran, don’t you?”

Otgar nodded. “Who doesn’t?”

“A lot of children your age don’t,” Kenshiro said. Ironic. My mother chuckled at her joke, making my brother speak those words. “And you can read it?”

“Yes,” Otgar said. “My father is a merchant, Aunt Burqila, you know this!”

My mother nodded.

“Very well,” she said through Kenshiro. “Since you have such a fascination with my daughter, you are now assigned to be her companion. For your first task, you will help her learn to read and write the Ricetongue. She’s received a letter from Naisuran’s daughter. Start with that.”

“What?” Otgar and I shouted at once.

“She’s scrawny and dumb-looking!” Otgar protested. “She hates me!” I said.

But my mother shook her head.

“My word is final,” Kenshiro spoke. “Get into the ger now, or I will throw you in it.”

We trudged into the ger, all right, but it was some time before either of us spoke to each other. Two hours in, I decided that even if she was uncouth, if she could read Hokkaran, she could help me.

So I handed her your letter.

She yanked it from me and read it with a frown. “Grandmother’s tits,” she said with all the grace of a ten-year-old. “It really is Naisuran’s daughter. Guess I shouldn’t expect any less from a spoiled tree-baby like you.”

“Don’t like trees,” I said. “Too tall.”

“Yeah, well, they don’t move around either,” said Otgar. “And neither do you.” She sighed. “Fine. Let’s take a look, I guess. Can you write?”

I shook my head. “Can you read this?”

Again, I shook my head.

She tilted her head back and groaned. “I didn’t think Burqila hated me this much,” she said. “But I guess we’ve got work to do.” I can’t remember how long it took us to write back. I knew what

I wanted to say to you, of course. Otgar wrote it down for me and walked me through each character ten, twenty times. She’d write them in the soot and ash of the campfire.

The trouble came when I tried to write them myself. Invariably I’d write a different character from the one I was instructed, and it would be flipped or upside down. Missing strokes, superfluous strokes; it was a mess, Shizuka. And after weeks of trying, I hadn’t learned a single one.

Otgar was at her wits’ end over it. “You speak Ricetongue like a native.”

Pointing out my Hokkaran blood upset people, and she was beginning to think of me as more Qorin than Hokkaran. I kept quiet.

“It’s the writing,” she said. She cracked her knuckles. “Needlenose, you don’t plan on going back there, do you?”

I shook my head. From the way my mother kept talking about things, I’d be spending more time with her on the steppes in the future. According to her marriage contract, she was not allowed to style herself Grand Kharsa of the Qorin, but her children were not bound by such rules. My father wanted Kenshiro to succeed him as Lord of Oshiro. That left me to take up her lost title.

I didn’t know what any of that meant, except for two things: One day I’d be as terrifying as my mother, and the steppes were home now.

Otgar nodded. She reached for one of the precious few pieces of vellum we had. It was a rough thing, jagged at the edges, that reeked of old skin. She grabbed an old ink block and sat down in front of me.

“Repeat what you wanted to write,” she said. “I’ll do it for you. If you do go back to Hokkaro, you’ll have servants to write things down for you anyway.”

Then, as if she realized what she was saying, she grunted. “But I’m not a servant,” she said. “Don’t you ever forget that,

Needlenose. I’m your cousin. I’m helping you because we’re family, and because Burqila asked—”

“—told—”

She pursed her lips. “Asked me to,” she finished. “Now, let’s hear it one more time.”

So I spoke, and so Otgar wrote.

O-Shizuka,

Thank you for saying sorry, even though you didn’t have to. I’ve never seen a peony, or a chrysanthemum. There aren’t many flowers here. Mostly it’s grass and wolves, andsometimes marmots. Every now and again, we will see one or two flowers. Of the ones I’ve seen, I like mountain lilies the most. They grow only on the great mountain GurkhanKhalsar. Gurkhan Khalsar is the closest place there is to the Endless Sky, so those flowers are very sacred.

If you teach me more about flowers, I can teach you how to wrestle, but I’m not very good.

My cousin is helping me write to you. Hokkaran is hard.

Shefali Alsharyya

I sent that off and waited every day for your reply. Our messengers all hated me. Whenever I saw one, I’d tug their deel and ask if there was anything for me.

We take some pride in our messengers. Before we began acting as couriers, it was almost impossible to get a message from the Empire to Sur-Shar. My mother saw how foolish that was. After she’d traveled the steppes to unite us, she established one messenger’s post every one week’s ride. With the help of the Surians she recruited into the clan, each post was given a unique lockbox that only the messengers could open. Anyone could drop any letters they needed mailed inside the lockboxes. For a higher fee, you could have one of the messengers come personally pick up whatever it was.

Everyone used our couriers—Surians, Ikhthians, Xianese, and even your people. Oh, the nobles would never admit to it, and we had to employ Ricetongues in the Empire itself—but they used us all the same.

Which meant they paid us.

People seem to think my mother is wealthy because of the plunder from breaking open the Wall. In fact, she is wealthy because of the couriers. That and the trading. You’d be surprised how canny a trader Burqila Alshara can be.

But the fact remains that I pestered our messengers so much that they came to hate visiting us. Every single day, I’d ask for news.

For months, there wasn’t any.

But one day there was. Another bright red envelope dipped in priceless perfume. Once I read it, it joined its sibling in my bedroll, so that I could smell it as I went to sleep.

Alsharyya Shefali,

Your calligraphy is terrible. Father says I shouldn’t be mad at you, because it is very strange that I can write as well as I do. I’m mad at you anyway. You are going to kill blackbloods with me someday. You should have better handwriting! Don’t worry, I’ll teach you. If I write you a new letter every day, and you reply to all of them, then you’ll be better in no time.

Where are you now? Mother says you’re traveling. Qorin do that a lot. I don’t understand it. Why take a tent with you, when you have a warm bed at home? Do you have a bed? Do you have a room, or do you have to stay in your mother’s tent? Do you have your own big lumpy horse already? My father says I can’t have a proper one until I can take care of it, which is silly, because I’m the Imperial Niece and there will always be someone to take care of my horse for me.

Maybe you can do it. Mostly I just want to go into the Imperial Forest. Father says there are tigers.

My tutors tell me that I should be afraid of you and your mother. They say that Burqila Alshara blew a hole in the Wall of Stone and burned down Oshiro, and it took years before it was back to normal. They tell me that if your mother hadn’t married your father, then we’d all be dead.

I don’t want us all to be dead, but if your mother could talk to my uncle—he keeps arguing with my father and making everyone upset. Do you think your mother could scare him?

Are you afraid of your mother? I’m not afraid of mine, and people keep whispering about how dangerous she is. No one tells me not to talk to my mother, but everyone tells me not to talk to you. I think it’s because you’re Qorin.

My tutors won’t tell me why they don’t like Qorin, but I’ve heard the way they talk about your people. I’m five years old. I’m not stupid. They don’t like Xianese people, either, but they’ll wear Xianese clothes and play Xianese music all the time.

It doesn’t matter. I like you in spite of your awful handwriting, so they have to like you too.

I hope you’re doing well.

O-Shizuka

So began our correspondence. You’d write to me; Otgar would read the letter out loud, and I’d say what I wanted them to write in return. I’ll have you know Otgar was indignant when you insulted her calligraphy. She was a ten-year-old, and she was trying hard! Not everyone is born with brush and sword in hand, Shizuka. There are scholars who write little better than Otgar did at the time.

(She’s improved. You’ll be happy to know that, I think. The last time I had her write to you was when we were thirteen, and you commented on the marked improvement. She pretended not to take it to heart, but she made a copy of that letter before giving me the original.)

Through the letters our friendship grew. You wrote to me of your endless lessons, of your mother’s insistence that you take up the zither despite your hatred of it. You’d tell me about the courtiers you met over the course of your day. Soon the letters grew several pages long.

When I was seven, my mother announced we’d be returning to Oshiro for the summer. I told you all about it.

“We will be sure to meet you at the gates,” you wrote. “I will have a surprise for you. Do not be late.”

I cannot tell you how much that simple statement vexed me. A surprise. A surprise for me, from the Emperor’s niece. Kenshiro said it must be a pretty set of robes—something you’d like, that I would hate. Otgar said it would be something foolish like a mountain of rice.

I remember when I came riding back to Oshiro. I didn’t see you at the gates, as you promised. Rage filled my young heart; doubt wrung it dry. What if we were late? I’d pestered my mother into moving faster than she’d planned, and I was riding ahead of the caravan by a few hours. What if that wasn’t enough?

I took my first steps up the stairs into my father’s palace. Servants greeted me with bows and hushed whispers of “Oshiro-sur, welcome home.” My bare feet touched the floors.

And that was when I saw it. The first pink peony, laid out with utmost care at the threshold. I picked it up. It smelled just like your letters. I smiled so hard, it hurt my face, and looked around. Yes, there was another, and another!

I ran along the trail of flowers as fast as I could. Soon I was standing before our gardens, where I came to an abrupt stop.

For there you were, standing in the doorway in your shining golden robes, your hair dark as night, your ornaments like stars. There you were, smiling like dawn itself. Behind you were hundreds of flowers, more than I’d ever seen in my entire life, in colors I could not name. There was the angry red of our first meeting, next to the deep scarlet of our last; there was day’s first yellow, swaying in the wind next to a gloaming violet.

But it is you I remember most, Shizuka. Your face. Your happiness upon seeing me. And all the flowers somehow staring right at you, as if you were teaching them how to be so bright and cheerful.

“There you are,” you said. “How do you like your flowers?” To this day, I do not know how you got them all to Oshiro.

Whoever heard of transporting an entire Imperial Garden? Who would believe me, if I told them? The future Empress of Hokkaro and all her Children, doing such a thing to impress a Qorin girl? Oh, the servants believe it, and I’m sure they’re talking about it to this day.

It is just like you, I think, to casually do the impossible.

Copyright © 2017 by K Arsenault Rivera

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Excerpt: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

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Bob Howard’s career in the Laundry, the secret British government agency dedicated to protecting the world from unspeakable horrors from beyond spacetime, has entailed high combat, brilliant hacking, ancient magic, and combat with indescribably repellent creatures of pure evil. It has also involved a wearying amount of paperwork and office politics, and his expense reports are still a mess.

Now, following the invasion of Yorkshire by the Host of Air and Darkness, the Laundry’s existence has become public, and Bob is being trotted out on TV to answer pointed questions about elven asylum seekers. What neither Bob nor his managers have foreseen is that their organization has earned the attention of a horror far more terrifying than any demon: a British government looking for public services to privatize.

Inch by inch, Bob Howard and his managers are forced to consider the truly unthinkable: a coup against the British government itself.

The Delirium Brief will become available July 11th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter One: The Prodigal’s Return

It’s twenty past ten at night and I’m being escorted through the glass-fronted atrium of a certain office building in central London. I’m surrounded by a knot of soberly dressed civil servants who are marching shoulder-to-shoulder in lockstep to keep me from being recognized, or maybe to prevent me making a run for it if I lose my nerve. We are waved past nodding receptionists and security guards who hold the turnstiles open for me as if I am expected—because I am indeed expected. Unfortunately.

This afternoon my minders took me to a barber. They said I was overdue for a trim; protests about my male pattern baldness fell on deaf but determined ears. (I still think closing the shop, kicking everyone else out, and stationing guards inside the door was a bit excessive, though: who ever heard of a top secret haircut?) I’m wearing my funeral suit and tie, and my shoes are dazzlingly polished. (Just pretend you’re acting a role, she said, straightening my collar; concentrate and remember your talking points.) I look twenty years older than I feel, and I feel ten years older than usual—mostly due to jet lag. They emailed me a set of talking points just before I caught my flight home, and I did my best to memorize them on the plane from Kansai. But right now I feel like it’s seven in the morning, and I’m yawning because I’m waking up, not going to sleep.

Minder number three—Boris, a tech-side middle management guy I used to do the odd job for: until today I hadn’t seen him in years—hits the button for the sixth floor. The glass-walled lift slides silently up into the lofty heights of Broadcasting House, rising past open plan offices full of serious-faced journalists and program managers peering into computer screens. As we pass a coat of arms saying “Nation shall speak Peace unto Nation,” I go over points seventeen to twenty-two again, mumbling under my breath. Then I rub my sweaty palms on my woolen suit jacket.

I have got the Fear. Why the fuck couldn’t they find somebody else to do this?

I imagine Lockhart or the SA or some other drop-in authority figure explaining it to me calmly. “You know why it’s got to be you, Bob: it’s because of the scaling laws.” The threats the agency exists to deal with grow exponentially, doubling in scale on an eighteen-month cycle, like a nightmarish version of Moore’s Law. But our cohort of qualified senior staff only grows linearly. The clusterfuck at the New Annex a year ago killed a bunch of senior officers, and the disaster in Leeds has put so many others on paid leave pending hearings that everyone in the field is currently operating above their pay grade. We’re all taking on tasks we’re not trained for, often without backup or oversight.

As for this job, we’re a secret government agency: we don’t even have a public relations department. Which is why we’re scrambling to improvise tonight. When the order came down from on high that someone was to come here and do this thing, it ended up on my desk simply because I was senior enough, and available. (At least that’s the official explanation. Part of me can’t help thinking that a more rational explanation is that God or Management hates me and wants me to suffer.)

My handler clears her throat just behind my left shoulder, and I jump. “Try not to sweat so much, Bob, the makeup guy will want to redo everything.” I hate it when Mhari sneaks up on me like that. She makes me really uncomfortable: about ten percent of it is knowing that she’s actually a vampire, and the rest of it is down to our uncomfortable personal history. The only consolation is knowing that having to work with me makes her even more uncomfortable, and only about ten percent of it is because I’m a necromancer. At least we’re both trying to be professional about it, and we’re mostly succeeding. She reaches out briskly and brushes lint from my lapel, and I try not to flinch again.

When they went looking for someone to represent the agency in public and picked me, they weren’t just scraping the bottom of the barrel: they were fracking for oil in the basement. My biggest qualification for this job is that I haven’t stepped in any operational dog turds lately. I’m Mr. Clean: nobody’s going to blame me for the disaster in Leeds, I was out of the country at the time. So they briefed me and gave me talking points to memorize, and sent me videos of the Great Man toying with his prey, to watch as in-flight entertainment on the way home. Which, in hindsight, was probably a bad idea: I’m so keyed up I need the toilet again and I’m due on-air in about ten minutes.

“Remember, he only really takes the gloves off when he’s interviewing policy makers,” Mhari reassures me. “You’re a line manager, not an executive, so by sending you out like a sacrificial goat with a sign taped to your arse saying KICK ME we’re calling his bluff. He can’t crucify you on-air for setting policy without looking like a bully, so he’ll have to settle for asking you lots of hard questions to which you are expected to plead ignorance or pass the buck. He can’t even badger you until you change your story—remember the Iraqi WMD scandal and the way Dr. Kelly committed suicide when the press turned on him? So you’ll be fine. Just remember it’s not personal: he’s not interviewing you, he’s interviewing the organization.” She bares one delicately curved canine, ivory outlined against crimson lip-gloss while I boggle at her appalling mixed metaphor. “I’m buying the drinks afterwards. Everyone okay? Boris?”

Boris nods lugubriously. “Am understanding there are good club late license around corner,” he slurs. (Boris has permanent damage to his speech center from one too many run-ins with the brain parasites that cause K syndrome.)

A couple of harried technicians glare at us for blocking the lift doors until Mhari smiles at them and sharply knuckles my spine to get me moving again. “Where are we going?” I ask. The level we’re on features lots of floor-to-ceiling beech and invisible recessed handles on doors that curve to match the walls. The carpet is eerily sound-deadening, but I can sense the murmur of many minds all around us, whispering and intensely focused.

“Studio A. Which is right…here…”

Boris and the other guy (a blue-suiter in civvies, fooling no one: he stinks of cop) wait outside while Mhari pushes me through the door into the production suite and follows me inside to stop me escaping. I turn and frown at her. She’s far better at looking professional than I am. With her mercilessly coiffured blonde hair, tailored black suit, watered silk blouse, and sky-high heels, she looks like Taylor Swift in boardroom drag—a version of TayTay that runs on type O negative and has a severe sunlight allergy. “Can’t you do this?” I ask plaintively, one last time: “Take one for the team?”

She spares me a brazenly unapologetic grin as she points a finger at the ceiling: “See the bright lights, sweetie? I’d go up in flames.”

I’m about to tell her that they use LED spotlights these days and they’re not powerful enough to set fire to her PHANG-sensitive skin when I spot the producer. He’s half-risen from his seat, clearly fascinated by this exchange. He leans forward and peers at our ID badges. “Ah, you must be Mr. Howard and Ms. Murphy from the, er, Ministry of Magic?”

That makes even Mhari twitch. “Special Operations Executive, Ministry of Defense,” she says sharply. “There is no ‘Ministry of Magic.’” She holds out her hand for him to shake. Her nails are the same color as her lips: they look dipped in fresh blood.

“Can we take any questions arising from this interview to the Defense Secretary?” he asks hopefully.

Mhari looks at me. I look at her: “No comment,” we chorus in unison. Then I add, “We’re just the performing monkeys: if you want a policy statement you’ll need to send the organ grinder a memo.” Mhari manages to keep a straight face. Drinks on me indeed.

“Well then, assuming you’re not going to offer me a last minute substitution I’ve got you down to go live six minutes into the program, off at twenty—the Big Man’s in the studio already, running through the warmup highlights.” Just the biggest news interviewer in the country, the chief presenter on Newsnight, waiting for me. “You haven’t done this before, have you?” He shows me all the kindly concern of a hangman sizing up a client. “Really, it’ll all be over before you know it and it won’t hurt at all. Let’s get you hooked up…”

There’s a glass door fronting a surprisingly cramped office with a plain gray backdrop, brilliantly illuminated by camera fill-in LEDs. Through the door I see a famous silhouette: the barely tamed hair and fiercely hooked nose. He was scheduled to retire last month but I gather he decided to stay in the saddle a bit longer just for us. I may be the Eater of Souls, but this guy is the Consumer of Cabinet Ministers. And now he’s beckoning to me! “Go on in and take the chair to his left,” says the producer; “when it’s time to go live the camera will give you a red light, and when the red light goes off I’ll cue you to slide the chair back and leave. Just try not to run the next guest over.”

The green light over the door begins blinking. The producer starts making urgent shooing motions at me, and Mhari mouths break a leg. So I go through the door and I sit down in the hot seat, wishing it was electrified so I could get this over with faster. I wipe my fingers carefully along the underside of the seat frame, then peel back a tab of adhesive film, leaving a coin-sized self-adhesive disc behind. My pulse spikes. The chair is wheeled, rolling on a track: “Move eighty centimeters to your left—perfect!” The producer’s voice comes in through the bud in my right ear. It’s not the only wire I’m wearing: there’s a lapel mike too, and I half-suspect it doubles as a polygraph so they can tell when I’m lying. “You’re going to be on camera three. Jeremy will lead in to your item in about ten seconds. Okay, I’m shutting up now.”

Then the red light comes on above the camera, and I’m live on a Monday evening special crisis edition of Newsnight.

Hi. My name is Bob Howard, and I do secret work for the government.

This is my workplace diary. People in my line—anyone with “active duty” flagged on their personnel file—are required to keep one. It’s a precaution against loss of institutional knowledge. If you’re reading this, either you’re in an Oversight position (probably an Auditor or a magistrate of the Black Assizes tasked with investigating my activities) or, more likely, I’m dead and the powers that be want you up to speed on my job toot sweet.

Side-splitting stuff, eh?

Let me tell you a bit about myself. As I said, I’m Bob Howard, age 39, position: DSS Grade 1, that’s short for Detached Senior Scientist or Deeply Scary Sorcerer or something, nobody really cares (in the Laundry they’re more or less the same thing), and my life sucks right now.

I got into this gig because when I was working on my master’s thesis in image processing in the late nineties I almost summoned up a manifestation of outer chaos by accident. This led to the Laundry making me a job offer I wasn’t allowed to refuse. (Apparently you’re only allowed to demolish Wolverhampton if you’re a property developer like Donald Trump. Crawling eldritch horrors don’t get planning permission unless they’re Trump’s hairpiece.) That was about fifteen years ago, in more innocent, less embattled days. So I spent a couple of years in tech support hell before getting bored, stupidly volunteering for operational duties, and ending up as Dr. Angleton’s understudy. Dr. Angleton really was a Deeply Scary Sorcerer, and when he got himself lethally entangled with a monstrously powerful vampire elder I inherited all of his duties, some of his powers (I’m still learning how much), and very little of his seventy-plus years of wisdom and experience…

Although I’ve been learning. Boy, have I been learning! I’ve spent most of the past year scurrying around clearing up the messes he left behind. He clearly wasn’t planning on dying any time soon, so not only did I have to pick up the slack on his more recondite duties, I also had to check the padlocks he’d left on a lot of metaphorical closets with skeletons in them. Angleton did not keep one of these diaries, oh no: he kept his notes on a magically warded electromechanical data store built during the late 1940s, and a lot of those notes said things like, demon bound under rear quadrant of supermarket car park with level six ward, half-life eighteen years, check back early next century. So I’ve spent the past nine months trotting around the globe, pacifying the unquiet dead with extreme prejudice, and inadvertently being out of the country when all hell cut loose in Yorkshire.

But I digress. Nearly a decade ago I married a fellow employee, Dr. Dominique O’Brien.1 You might have heard of her. Mo used to be a troubleshooter: whenever the organization had a spot of trouble she shot it until it stopped twitching. When that got too much for her they reassigned her to the Home Office for a while. Now she’s back in-house as a freshly minted Auditor, which means she holds people like me accountable for our work with the power of life or death. For many years Mo carried an occult instrument, the White Violin, as her main operational tool. The trouble with occult instruments is that they sometimes have their own agendas; it wasn’t too keen on sharing her, so eventually it tried to eat me. She managed to get rid of it somehow, but now she’s afraid that as Angleton’s heir I might absent-mindedly eat her in my sleep. As we keep undergoing the kind of personal growth experiences that involve new and exciting magical abilities—like an interesting tendency to absent-mindedly mumble death spells while waking up—I have to concede that she’s got a point. This has been a time of changes for both of us and we have about a decade of unexamined marital baggage to rethink, and consequently we’re currently living apart.

Did I mention that my life sucks?

Speaking of which: let’s have a round of applause for management responsibility! Because, after years of dodging it at every opportunity, I have had management responsibility forced upon me, whether I want it or not. And if I find the joker who nominated me for the role of Departmental Public Relations Officer I will–

No, I won’t eat them. That would be unprofessional.

(I won’t even put the frighteners on them. I might remonstrate with them politely. I could explain the errors of their ways and suggest, more in sorrow than in anger, that although I have been promoted into a very senior dead man’s shoes I don’t look good in a suit, I don’t suffer fools gladly, and if they really want a spokesman they ought to hire someone who’s trained for it, rather than being better qualified for fighting off a zombie invasion or fixing a broken firewall.)

Because I’m management now, I have to face facts. Hiring a real PR person would involve approving a budget, going through the HR recruitment and candidate selection cycle, managing the new employee’s enhanced security background check and in-processing, then bringing them up to speed on what exactly we do in the agency. (Which involves working around people with titles like Senior Staff Necromancer, Applied Computational Demonologist, or Combat Poet. Lots of newbies flee screaming at that point: our first month attrition rate is sky-high.)

So let me sum up the ways in which my life sucks right now: I’ve had a bunch of extra responsibilities dumped on me for no extra pay, I’ve had to move out of my home because my wife’s violin tried to murder me, morale is in the shitter because of the disaster in Leeds, and for the pièce de résistance, they made me wear a suit and sent me out to be grilled live on TV, because we don’t have the budget for a public relations fixer!

Yeah, it all sucks, but I suppose it could be worse. At least this time my line manager isn’t trying to sacrifice me to an elder god. But it’s still only May, so I suppose there’s time for that to change…

Jeremy smiles his trademark smile at me, simultaneously sympathetic and pitying, like a headmaster carpeting an unruly schoolboy. “Some would say that the truth is out there: well, tonight we’re going to see about that. My next interviewee is Mr. Howard, from the Ministry of Defense’s hitherto extremely secret agency for dealing with the sort of thing you expect to meet in an episode of The X-Files—alien abductions, supervillains, UFOs, and”—he pauses momentarily, as if he’s just tasted something lip-wrinklingly bitter—“magic.” Skepticism boils off him in waves so thick it makes the air around his head shimmer.

I smile, nod, and avert my eyes from my own image in the screen on the opposite wall. Jesus, I look like a life insurance salesman. “Yes, Jeremy,” I hear myself saying, “although we prefer to call it applied computational thaumaturgy. There’s a lot of mathematics involved.”

“So rather than smoke and mirrors you use clouds and servers?” The grizzled eyebrow creaks upwards towards the receding hairline. That’s a good pun: obviously scripted in advance. I nod again.

“Yes. It turns out that mathematics has side effects in the real world. This agency, SOE, has been investigating this effect ever since Alan Turing did pioneering work on it in the 1940s at Bletchley Park. Computers are tools that do much more than share cute cat photos, and they can be lethally dangerous in the wrong hands.”

So far so good. I’m on the approved message track, regurgitating talking points acknowledging stuff that’s already out there in public. My brief is to make the Laundry sound boring; encryption bad, hacking bad, misusing computers bad, Home Office rah, National Security rah, War on Tentacular Terror, rah. But in the back of my head I am uncomfortably aware of all the tasty minds crowded around me in this building, fuzzy shadows of warmth and sustenance in the studio control room and the offices beyond. I can taste the focus of the producer, feel the chilly (and inedible) ramparts of Mhari’s vampire shell, the armored fortress of solitude sitting across the table from me–

What?

Paxo smiles at me like a kindly uncle, or maybe a crocodile with a gold tooth, as he says: “It has been alleged—” oh shit, I think—“that the disaster in Leeds was the result of an SOE operation that went wrong, that your people invited the attack that killed over nine thousand innocent people and shot down three airliners and two fighter jets. Is that true, Mr. Howard?”

Fuck! The fucker’s wearing a heavy duty ward! Which means I can’t read him or trivially control him—the small leather bag he’s wearing on a cord around his neck, under his shirt, is the thaumaturgic equivalent of a bulletproof vest.

I wipe the smile and do my best impersonation of a granite cliff. “Absolutely not.” I take a breath. “SOE does not recklessly endanger national security or put lives at risk.” I think I can see where this line of questioning is going, and it’s nowhere good. “We were invaded without warning by a hitherto theoretical threat. We responded immediately and alerted the Police and the Army in accordance with our standing orders. The handling and outcome of the conflict are a matter for the Commons Select Committee to investigate and the Public Enquiry to report on, and I can’t comment further.” Phew.

The Crocodile nods and he’s dropped his smile, which is a bad sign: the gloves are coming off and I wonder, horrified, how the fuck did the BBC get their hands on a level six defensive ward?—as I realize this is a setup and meanwhile he’s leaning forward, closing in for the kill–

“Perhaps you could explain to the viewers why the surviving invaders are being treated as asylum seekers, Mr. Howard? Wouldn’t terrorism charges be more appropriate? Or a war crimes investigation?”

Shit! That’s not supposed to be public knowledge. Which means there is a leak somewhere. As the scriptwriters on Yes, Minister observed, the ship of state is unique in that it’s the only vessel that leaks from the top down. Our oath of office should prevent anyone inside the tent from pissing out…which means someone in the government is briefing against us, probably at cabinet level. We are totally off the talking points now: nobody briefed me for this. Fuck! Time to pass the blame.

“The…survivors…of the attacking force include a number of slaves and other victims who were there unwillingly. The Home Office has conceded that in some cases there is a case for them to claim refuge from persecution.” Pass the blame. “I’d like to remind you that the enemy military made extensive use of human sacrifice and other forms of necromancy to power their attack.” All of which is entirely true, but–

“I’m not talking about the slaves, Mr. Howard. Why is the All-Highest, their leader, claiming asylum? Can you explain?”

Fuck. Fuck fuckityfuck fucksticks really bad swear words.

“Let me emphasize this: what came through the gate in Malham Cove was the last surviving military force of a nation that had just lost the magical equivalent of a nuclear war. Also their dependents. And slaves. They can’t go back: sending them back means sending them to their certain deaths. The enemy All-Highest who ordered the attack is dead. The current All-Highest was not in charge of the attack, and on inheriting the position immediately ordered the unconditional surrender of the, ah, attacking force.” That is, the Host of Air and Darkness: the surviving armored cavalry forces of the Morningstar Empire. Don’t say elves, there’s nothing terribly Tolkienesque about this bunch and the good PR would just make them harder to handle. “Accommodating their unwilling victims was a precondition of the surrender. In return, the current All-Highest is actively cooperating with us in restraining their military forces. None of them are able to, ah, go back. The world they came from is—it’s been overrun by alien horrors.”

Not to mention that sending them back would risk drawing the attention of the undead nightmares they were fleeing, who might well pick up the trail in our direction and decide not to stop at eating just one civilization—but I can’t say that on live TV news, people might complain to Ofcom about the nightmare fuel.

“But—asylum, Mr. Howard?” The eyebrow is at full extension. Time to shut this down.

“I’m sorry, it’s not my job to set policy. That question is better directed to the minister responsible.”

Paxo is indignant. “A minister responsible for a department that didn’t officially exist until the week before last? That’s simply not good enough, Mr. Howard!” Bastard. “I’m sure we’ll get some better answers when we have a cabinet minister in charge. But one final question for you: can you explain to the viewers why you are reportedly known to other members of your agency as the ‘Eater of Souls’?”

For a moment I see red: blood splattered all up and down the blue-screen back wall of the studio. But no, that would be bad, and worse, it would be unprofessional. Also, the ward he’s wearing under his shirt collar is powerful enough that I could break it, but I’d probably set fire to his hair in the process. It would look bad on camera. And also-also—I suddenly realize this is the wrap-up question: I get the last word in so I can select what to give him.

I summon up a sheepish smirk: “When I was junior, I used to put my foot in my mouth rather a lot. The nickname stuck.”

And the light on the camera goes out.

The government’s occult secret service goes back further than most people realize.

Our oldest handwritten records were left behind by Dr. John Dee, the noted mathematician, alchemist, and astrologer who worked for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth the First’s spymaster. Back in his day, everything ran on a nod-and-a-wink basis. It was part of the Crown Service and established by Royal Prerogative, which basically means Lizzie Tudor wrote a letter saying “make it so” and appointed Frankie the Fixer to run it. The Invisible College (as it later became known) operated as an informal gentleman-dabbler’s club until the Second World War. Then wartime expansion and the systematization provided by the Turing Theorems led to the incorporation of the Laundry as a division inside the Special Operations Executive, when Winston Churchill wrote an “action this day” memo using the authority vested in him by His Kingliness George the Umpty…

(You get the picture.)

Now, back in the day the Invisible College ran entirely on ritual magic. But ritual magic doesn’t work reliably, because ritual magicians tend to succumb to Krantzberg syndrome, a very nasty spongiform dementia caused by microscopic extradimensional feeders (parasites attracted by magical manifestations of information processing). Over time they nibble the practitioner’s cerebral cortex into lace, which tends to bring the practitioner’s career staggering to a palsied conclusion. And that’s assuming they don’t inadvertently succumb to the greater feeders, such as feeders in the night: predators which make themselves at home in neural networks like, oh, the human cerebral cortex, and take over the body to go in search of more brains to chow down on. (Thereby leading to myths, legends, and Shaun of the Dead.)

There are a handful of cognitive infections that grant ritual practitioners a degree of immunity to eaters—PHANG syndrome (vampirism) is one of them, and the for-want-of-a-better-word elven invaders seem to have come up with some kind of occult vaccine. And then there’s little old me. (I’m…let’s say “unique” and tiptoe away from the subject.) But all these mitigating techniques have severe drawbacks, and as a result there are old ritual magicians, and there are bold ritual magicians, but there are no old, bold magicians. They don’t survive, and they tend to have unique skill sets, thereby defeating the first principle of bureaucracy: that nobody is indispensable.

In contrast, computational magic does work reliably, for pretty much anyone who can punch a keyboard and follow a checklist, because eaters don’t seem to have a taste for silicon or germanium: which is why it’s the go-to discipline for organizations.

Mahogany Row, the successor to the Invisible College, continues to this day to keep track of and provide a framework for the high-level unique practitioners. However, the rest of the Laundry is an ant farm full of computational demonologists and IT managers. Indeed most staff, to the extent that they’re aware of Mahogany Row, think it’s just a senior management stratum—even though the organization as a whole exists to support it. Because a big chunk of the Laundry’s postwar mission was to keep the lid on the mere existence of algorithmic thaumaturgy, we ended up with a bloated head count—we’d spent decades giving everybody who stumbled on the truth a job where we could keep an eye on them. (Or, more accurately, where they could keep an eye on each other.) The iron law of bureaucracy doesn’t help: everybody working to ensure that the organization continues to pay them a salary, rather than necessarily achieving its objectives. So it has become progressively harder to keep the ball rolling, with the result that we finally and unambiguously lost the plot in Leeds.

You can hush up a massacre in an office park or a hideous manifestation at the Albert Hall with DA-Notices and dark muttering about terrorist attacks and hallucinogenic gas. But it’s impossible to cover up airliners being shot down, an invading army rampaging through the suburbs of a major city, and a traffic jam of main battle tanks on the nation’s motorways. Once the situation escalated to COBRA, the Cabinet Office emergency committee, and the government invoked Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty (calling for support from NATO forces following an attack on a member nation), the mess in Leeds became the number one global rolling news headline and still hasn’t died down. It even beat out an eighty-meter-tall daikaiju that invaded the Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise theme park and duked it out with the Japanese Self-Defense Agency, as a result of the incursion at Puroland that I was sent to help deal with–

Nope, the events in Leeds aren’t going back in the closet any time soon.

Nor has the aftermath gone unnoticed. There are smoking craters all over Yorkshire, an animé convention full of collateral damage in pointy ears, and the remains of a heavy cavalry brigade mounted on unicorns (shudder) corralled behind razor wire on Dartmoor, eating their heads off under the guns of half the Army’s remaining Challenger MBTs. (And don’t ask me about the, ahem, “dragons.”) They’re arranging a snap summit meeting of all the heads of NATO member states later this month, and that’s something that simply does not happen. A large segment of the press and public are baying for blood, calling on the government to nuke the bastards, convene a war crimes tribunal, or arrest them for terrorism. Only the inconvenient fact that the current All-Highest is pleading for asylum from something even worse is giving anybody pause for concern.

I come out of the Newsnight studio feeling like SpongeBob SquarePants after a trip through the dishwasher: wrung-out but still somewhat moist. Mhari and Boris are waiting for me. “Am being impressed,” Boris rumbles once we’re out of the glass doors and into the passage leading to the lifts. “Jeremy are not eated despite copious provocation.”

“This way,” Mhari says tensely. Her heels click as she walks into the lift and holds the door for us. “That could have gone worse.”

I lean against the wall and close my eyes as the floor sinks beneath me. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“No! I mean it.” I open my eyes as she shrugs. Her jacket shoulder pads rise and fall stiffly. “You spend time in the piranha tank, you’ve got to expect to get bitten.”

“Piranhas am not biting fishes: reputation undeserved,” Boris says pedantically.

“Doesn’t matter.” Mhari raises a finger: “But I’m calling it a qualified success. For starters, Bob managed to avoid looking rumpled for almost fifteen minutes. I think that’s a personal best.” My hand unconsciously moves to loosen the knot of my tie and she bats it away: we’re still in Broadcasting House, there must be a dress code or something. Another finger rises: “Two, he went five rounds with the Newsnight rottweiler without wetting himself, babbling state secrets, or losing his temper and eating Paxo’s soul.”

I frown. “I wouldn’t have done that: it’s far too stringy and bitter.”

Mhari raises a third finger. “Three: now we know for sure that someone’s briefing against us. Which means—”

“Wait,” I interrupt, “you thought someone was briefing against us earlier? And didn’t warn me?”

Mhari gives me a look. “In the current clusterfuck, who the hell knows?” she asks. I have to admit she’s got a point: in the past four weeks there have been three ministerial resignations, a vote of confidence in the Commons that the government barely won by the skin of its teeth, there’s been one mini-cabinet reshuffle already (with rumors of more to come), and the Scottish Independence referendum has been postponed until next year. In other words, politics has gone nonlinear and nobody seems to know what’s happening any more. “But now the Auditors have reasonable cause to start investigating,” she concludes. “So that’s something.”

Her expression wavers somewhere between uncertainty and fear: nobody likes being carpeted by the Auditors, even if they’re not under suspicion themselves. But before she can continue the lift hits bottom, and she stops talking because there’s no telling who might overhear us in the BBC headquarters’ lobby.

“Drinks am on you,” Boris reminds her as we head towards the doors at the front of the atrium. I don’t dignify this with a reply and neither does Mhari. We’re both gloomily silent. I can’t speak for her, but I’m keeping my thoughts to myself because I’m brooding and irritable. I’m coming down from the adrenalin high of being grilled live on the nation’s flagship TV news program, and the crash is something special.

It’s spitting with rain, so Boris valiantly steps forward to flag down a taxi while we wait on the plaza out front. Finally, I glance at Mhari. “Babbling state secrets?”

She stares into the nighttime London traffic, eyebrows lowered in a minute frown, as if trying to decipher messages encoded in the flicker of passing headlights. “There’s a ten-second delay on the live broadcast loop. That’s why I was there: to hit the red button if you fucked up, and cover for you if they spotted you planting the bug.”

“Thank you for that vote of confidence.”

“You didn’t need me.” She hugs herself against the after-dark chill: she seems to be shaking. In front of us, in the rain, Boris has lowered his head and is speaking through a cab’s open side-window. Mhari’s cheek twitches slightly as an ivory fang’s sharp point pushes against her plumped lower lip. “Eater of soles. Heh. Well done!” After a moment I realize she’s laughing silently.

“I’m never going to live that down, am I?”

It’s close to midnight when the taxi drops us off at the Hilton Olympia. Hiltons are reliable and terminally un-hip, so the bar is blessedly free of the hipster crowd who swarm the lobbies of boutique hotels from Hoxton to Hampstead these days. In fact it’s empty except for us, and a couple of international men of mystery busy downloading internet porn on their phones as they try to medicate their jet lag with vodka martinis.

(Welcome to my life these days.)

Boris grabs us a booth at one end of the bar. A waitress materializes as Mhari slithers onto the bench seat opposite us. We order: a whisky soda for Boris, a Bud (the Czech kind) for me, and a Bloody Mary for Mhari, because she’s not totally humorless about her condition. My beer evaporates slowly as Mhari and Boris dissect my interview in painstaking detail. I wave for another just as Mhari gets around to asking the question I’ve been avoiding for the past hour. “Do you suppose it’s on iPlayer yet, Bob? Do you want to watch it? Your very own fifteen minutes of fame?”

“How about we don’t go there?” I raise my new beer. Glug. “I’d like to sleep tonight, thanks. Watching me make an arse of myself on TV will not help. Beer will help.”

“You didn’t make an arse of yourself—” Mhari cocks her head to one side and looks pitying, which irritates the hell out of me. “That’s not a good place to go, Bob.”

“Yes, well: I don’t normally go places where I get laughed at by four million people, do I?” I shrug, then put my bottle down, loosen my strangulation device, and unbutton my collar. This time she doesn’t try to stop me: okay, so apparently I’m off duty at last. “It was a total clusterfuck, he was wearing a class six ward. Who ordered that?

Mhari looks at me sharply. “You’re sure? Class six?”

“Yeah. Someone got to him, in addition to briefing against us. Can you—”

She jerks her chin sideways. “Boris?”

“Am on it,” he says without looking up as he thumb-types away. “Am emailing the SA nows.”

“Any other surprises?” she asks me, and I shake my head: “No, but that one was bad enough as it is. It threw me badly.” I scan our surroundings again. You can never be too sure, but nobody seems to be paying any attention to us. “What was the sticky about, anyway?” The gizmo they wanted me to plant on the underside of the interviewee’s chair.

Boris is inspecting his glass in obsessive detail.

“Nobody briefed me on why, just on what,” Mhari says calmly. “You did your job, I did mine, that’s all.”

“But it’s a really bad idea to play that kind of game,” I complain. “What if it was—”

She looks at me impatiently. “You did just fine. What you don’t know they can’t get out of you if they put you under oath and start asking questions. Anyway, they had three victims in that chair yesterday and another scheduled to go on fifteen minutes after you left. If you did it right it’s sterile.”

“Who do I raise it with? Through proper channels?” I add sarcastic emphasis. I’m not a goddamn errand boy these days and if they want someone to do a plumbing job we’ve got an entire department for that. Burning your shiny new PR guy’s cover by handing him a gray task on his first time out is really not how we’re supposed to operate, unless you’re planning on firing him the very next day. Although on second thoughts, we’re so short-handed right now–

“Send a memo up-stream: am will forward it,” Boris offers. I stare at him. Okay, so that’s why they sent you along, is it? I nod.

“Beer,” I say grumpily, and take a long pull from my bottle. “If I’m going to make a fool of myself in public, at least I deserve a beer afterwards.”

“You didn’t make a fool of yourself: I think you did quite well,” Mhari says. “Now can we please change the subject?

“Make that two beers, and I’ll just stand in the corner in my jester’s cap.” I really hope she’s trying to keep my morale up: the last thing I want is a permanent public relations assignment.

“You should talk to Mo,” Mhari suggests unexpectedly.

Stung, my mouth runs ahead of my brain: “I don’t need your that’s a good idea actually…” I get as far as pulling out my phone before a glance at the screen tells me it’s a bad idea: it’s six minutes past midnight already. I might be living in Beer Standard Time, but Mo has just spent last week off-grid in a cottage down at the Village, getting away from it all. She’s back at work this week, and I’m certain she’ll be burning the candle at both ends catching up with the backlog. She won’t thank me for waking her up in the middle of the night for a drunken chat. “Tomorrow, maybe.”

Definitely tomorrow.” To my surprise Mhari reaches across the table and grabs onto my fingertips. “This isn’t good for either of you. You should talk to her.”

I pull back, but her grip tightens. After a moment I stop. “Why the sudden concern?”

She hesitates momentarily. “I like Mo and I have to work with you. She’s been in a bad place recently and you weren’t there for her, and now you’re heading for a bad place too, and—” She lets go of my hand and shrugs again, her shoulder pads miming a vampire princess’s bat-wings—“I’m just concerned.”

I can’t hold back a slightly bitter smile. “So, no hidden agenda.”

“No, Bob, no hidden agenda.” Her answering smile is full of history. Hers, and mine (we were an item for a while, back before I met my wife). “As I get older I find friendship gets ever more precious.” She’s my age, but she could pass for late twenties. She used to be pretty but when she got PHANG syndrome she turned supermodel glamorous: it’s as if she’s aging backwards, living along some sort of femme fatale eigenvector that’s iteratively converging on Big Sleep-era Lauren Bacall. “I can see where we’re going more clearly these days. I don’t want to hit eighty on my own.”

“To friends.” I raise my drink to cover my confusion. The beer’s running low so I wave my hand for a third (and final) bottle. Mhari has always been better than me at people skills. It’s taken me this long to appreciate her for what she is, now that we’re not going at each other like a pair of cats with their tails tied together.

“Absent friends,” grunts Boris, surfacing from his whisky. He waves for another.

“Friends dead, alive, and undead.” Her eyes glance sidelong around the bar, scanning. When she’s sure it’s safe, she continues: “You realize this isn’t over, don’t you?”

I put the empty bottle down. Can’t get away from it, can I? “Yes.” The waitress is on her way: either it’s a quiet night or my Obtain Bar Service feat just leveled up alarmingly. When she departs I continue. “Someone in the Cabinet Office will have seen it for sure. Questions will be asked, it’ll be on the PM’s morning briefing, and I’ll be up before the beak, won’t I?” Boris chuckles and Mhari giggles. “So I assume we’ll be debriefing first…” Then, right on cue, Mhari’s phone buzzes.

“Yup: looks like we have a meeting scheduled for nine hundred hours, Room 406, chaired by the Senior Auditor.” Mhari frowns. I wince slightly at the specter of the SA. He’s not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. I must look aghast because she adds: “Mo is on the invite list, so I’m pretty sure this is not about you.”

“What?”

“Trust me, if the Auditors were planning a Bob roast they wouldn’t invite your wife to the barbecue.” Then Mhari glances up from her smartphone screen, and despite the reassuring words she looks troubled: “He’s booked half the Audit Committee, plus Vik Choudhury and a couple of heavy hitters from the Executive Committee. It’s all very Mahogany Row: I can’t figure it out. But they wouldn’t roll the Senior Auditor out to chair it if this was anything less than critical, don’t you think?”

“Well fuck.” I pick up my third (and, I remind myself, final) beer. “You know what this means.”

Boris looks at me, then Mhari looks at me, and we chorus: “The reward for a job not fucked up is another job.”

I finish my beer and dutifully stagger off to my hotel room, while Mhari returns to the office—she works the night shift these days—and Boris heads home. I assume he has a home. Right now, I don’t. I live out of a suitcase pretty much constantly. I’m traveling so much that Accounts don’t even blink at my subsistence claims any more. I’m in London so little that it’s cheaper to pay for the odd hotel night using loyalty points than to find a permanent room somewhere, and I’m still hoping to patch things up enough to go home.

But in the here and now, I am coming to hate liminal spaces like airport terminals and hotel rooms.

Sleep takes a while to arrive. I can dimly sense the minds and dreams of the other hotel guests around me: walls and floor and ceiling are no barrier to souls. It’s kind of soothing. Some insomniacs count sheep. I keep separate tallies of shaggers, porn channel junkies, and insomniacs. Eventually I manage to tune my brain to the slumber channel and drift off for a few hours, untroubled by the usual nightmares.

Morning arrives much too soon in the shape of a bleeping hotel alarm clock and a DJ on Capital Radio yattering excitedly about somebody’s new album, and how the London stock exchange is reopening and Sterling seems to have arrested its slide because the Chancellor is pointing a firehose of Treasury money at the smoking wreckage of West Yorkshire. It is still unclear whether the Secretary of State for Defense is going to fall on his sword; he seems to be trying to hang on, but the Prime Minister has just said that he “has complete confidence” in him, and you know what that means. I turn the radio off and shamble in the direction of the shower cubicle.

This is an office day rather than a public speaking gig, so I throw the suit in the suit carrier, pull on combat pants, tee-shirt, and hoodie, and check my email and calendar schedule over a full cooked hotel breakfast. I’m still yawning as I check out and catch a bus to the office, and I’m nearly there when I realize I’ve forgotten to shave and my shaver is in the bottom of the suitcase left in the left-luggage room back at the hotel. Great.

Our temporary headquarters is the New Annex, which we moved into for six months just over five years ago. It’s still in use even though Facilities have been unable to get the bloodstains out of the walls and its security is terminally compromised. The first HQ redevelopment stalled due to site contamination, then the fallback plan—a new headquarters up the M1 in Leeds—was trashed less than two weeks ago, along with the rest of Leeds city center. London property prices are so nose-bleedingly insane that we can’t even find temporary quarters in the capital, so we’re stuck with the New Annex even though it’s unfit for purpose and should be demolished.

But the past weeks have brought changes, some of them externally visible. We didn’t have armed police standing by the entrance before, making it obvious that we are something more important than a fly-by-night call center operation. Now we’ve got two of them, and they’re not your regular SO19 bods, either: they’re wearing matte black Imperial Stormtrooper gear with Metropolitan Police badges, full face helmets, and really scary-looking guns instead of the usual assault rifles. They check me for tentacles and I show them my warrant card, then they let me in. Security, we haz it: rah. Only I fumble and drop my card, bend to pick it up, and realize I showed them my driving license by mistake.

The main staircase is closed off above the ground floor so I have to take the indoors fire escape up to the fourth floor to get to the designated meeting room. It’s a steep climb so when I reach the second-floor landing I pause to dump my suit carrier and messenger bag in my office, then grab a mug of what passes for coffee from the kitchenette next door to the number three briefing room.

“Hey, Mr. Howard! Have you got a minute?”

I manage not to spill my coffee. It’s one of the new guys, from Facilities: young (was I ever that young?), eager (was I ever that enthusiastic?), and unaware that it is a really bad idea to startle a DSS before he’s had his morning coffee. “Yes?” I demand, my pulse slowing, quite proud of myself for neither grunting nor snarling.

“Um, hi, I’m Jon, and I’m supposed to be auditing the network cable runs for the Ops offices in this wing because there’s this overdue requirement for a structured cabling refresh, and I need to get access to your office so I can inspect the junction box and make sure it’s properly terminated?”

Jon has a hipster beard and wears thick-rimmed glasses and a check shirt with a button-down collar that doesn’t quite conceal his tattoos, but in every other respect it’s eerily like looking at myself in a time-shifted mirror set to fifteen years ago. I find it oddly depressing. He seems eager to please, and killing him would result in altogether too much paperwork of an excruciatingly dull variety, so I just shake my head. “I’ve got a meeting in five minutes, but I can fit you in afterwards—knock on my office door around eleven thirty?”

“Sure!” He nods happily.

A thought strikes me. “By the way, if I’m not in my office you mustn’t try to gain entry without me. I keep hazardous materials there. Stuff that might scramble your mind if you get too close.” Actually it’s all in a secure document safe full of catatonia-inducing memos, protected by wards that will set fire to the contents if anyone meddles with them, causing the badly maintained sprinklers to go off, but there’s no need to tell him that. “Also, if you need to gain access to Mr. Angleton’s room—down J Corridor and along, it’s at the bottom of the stairwell next to the chained-up fire exit—fetch me. Same warning applies, except he used nukes while I make do with hand grenades.”

It’s not until I’m back on the fire escape, trudging upstairs to my meeting with the SA and other members of the Mahogany Row Oversight board, that I realize the kid’s got my old job.

Mahogany Row refers both to the furnishings on the executive floor of our original HQ building2 and to the folks who use those offices: senior management, Auditors, external assets, Deeply Scary Sorcerers, and other questionable types. I’m technically one of them these days, although I’m fucked if I know why. The main qualifications seem to be exhibiting an aptitude for ritual magic or executive leadership, and not dying on the job. At least that’s how the organization got started, back when it was the Invisible College and nobody really knew how this stuff worked. The Laundry as it now exists sprang up during a wartime emergency and was subsequently re-purposed to provide backup for the Deeply Scary Sorcerers. Anyway, I have never felt at ease in the thick-pile carpeted corridors and offices full of antique furniture and paintings from the Government Art Collection. It feels like a very exclusive gentlemen’s club, and I’m the kind of oik who would be blackballed if he wasn’t useful to have around.

I make it to Room 406 on the spot of nine. Dr. Armstrong is already sitting at the front, calmly sipping tea from a fine china cup. There’s a big TV screen and DVD player on a stand in one corner, presumably so we can all have a good laugh at me making a fool of myself. As I hunt for a seat that doesn’t make me feel uneasily exposed the door opens again. This time it’s Persephone’s turn to do a double-take, which doesn’t give me any kind of happy fun feeling. Persephone Hazard likes to dress like a mafia heiress from Marseilles, living la dolce vita with a Beretta in her handbag—which just goes to show that appearances are deceptive: she’s the most powerful witch in London. (Also, I happen to know that she carries an FN Five-seveN with an AAC sound suppressor and a 20-round magazine full of microengraved banishment rounds. Berettas are for amateurs.) She nods in my direction, then engages Dr. Armstrong directly. “Did you see the news this morning?”

The SA smiles his saintly smile—the one he rolls out just before he brains you with a sledgehammer—and says, “I must confess I never turn on the television before the sun’s over the yard arm.”

“It wasn’t me!” I protest, before I realize that given a twenty-four-hour news cycle it might very well have been me.

But I’m in luck. “No, it wasn’t,” ’Seph agrees. “Your performance on Newsnight would have been a vast improvement over this morning’s headlines.” Her fine nostrils flare. “What is the world coming to?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Dr. Armstrong says placidly. “Help yourself to tea and biscuits, dear. We may be some time.”

I force myself to sit down. ’Seph is really rattled, but it’s not my fault. She’s one of our heavy hitters, a deniable external asset who generally tackles the kind of assignment that on old reruns of Mission: Impossible is tagged with “the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”

“I thought this was the post-mortem for the media outreach event,” I say as the door opens again and Vik Choudhury slides in. “That’s what’s down in my calendar.”

’Seph rolls her eyes as Dr. Armstrong shakes his head, more in sorrow than in anger. “Oh dear, no! I’m afraid we’ve been pre-empted by events.”

That does not sound good. “Was it something I did?”

“Your drop went just fine,” Vikram assures me. To ’Seph, and the other attendees: “Mhari delivered her payload to the edit suite and Bob successfully bugged the underside of the studio’s number two visitor chair. And now we’ve got six SPIN DIAMOND grids transmitting from the newsroom, thanks to your masterful distraction.”

“I don’t see why you couldn’t just substitute the contract cleaners—”

“It’s a newsroom, Bob,” Persephone sniffs. “They weren’t born yesterday. Security vetting the cleaners goes with the territory.”

“Well. I hope it was worth it. That kind of op usually ends in tears, in my experience—too much chance of blowback—”

“Too late to worry about spilt milk, Mr. Howard.” Dr. Armstrong stares at the ceiling, steepling his fingertips. “This meeting is starting late,” he adds, “so we are not yet on the official record. But can I request a change of subject?”

Gulp. Even ’Seph has the decency to look bashful. “Sure,” I say.

The door opens again, this time to admit a stranger. “Bob, this is Chris Womack from Administration and Policy.” She’s a tall woman, mid-fifties at a guess, a no-nonsense senior civil service type. I stand, and we shake hands. “Chris, Bob is Dr. Angleton’s replacement. You can trust him implicitly, subject to keyword clearance.” Which tells me in turn that the Senior Auditor trusts her implicitly.

“I saw you on Newsnight last night,” she says, smiling guardedly, which makes me feel so much better.

“What can I say?” I shrug. “Opportunities to make a fool of myself in front of such a large audience only come along once in a lifetime.”

“Bob enjoys playing the departmental jester,” says Persephone. She smiles. “Don’t worry, Bob, you get to do this again.” Ouch.

“Absolutely.” Ms. Womack’s smile widens. “You did quite well,” she adds, “for a first-timer. Let me know if you ever feel the urge to go into public relations full-time.”

“I’ll be sure to do that.” Shortly after a squadron of pigs are observed taking off from Heathrow Airport.

The door opens again and this time my brain freezes as eyes meet across a crowded conference room. The late arrival also freezes as the SA smoothly takes over: “Chris, this is Dr. O’Brien, Dominique, this is Chris Womack, our Chief Counsel. Mo is the newest member of the Audit Board—” My wife raises an eyebrow at me and I nod, then pull the seat beside me back from the table to make room for her. My pulse is running too fast. Mhari was right, I realize. But there’s too much to say, it’s forming a pile-up behind my tongue, and anyway Dr. Armstrong is still speaking—“time to call this meeting to order now we’re all here—”

She sits down next to me and leans sideways to whisper in my ear. “Your office, after we’re finished here?”

I nod. The SA is continuing: “Crisis containment and management in the wake of this month’s events have broken down. The usual mass observation protocol simply doesn’t work for an incursion on this scale. Also, the activation of PLAN RED RABBIT and the subsequent need to brief the Cabinet Office emergency committee and bring the full civil contingencies apparatus up to speed means that awareness of the agency’s existence is now widespread.” That’s an understatement and a half: the crisis hasn’t been out of the headlines for weeks. “Pointed questions are being raised in the House of Commons, there have been ministerial resignations and a vote of confidence that narrowly failed to bring down the government, another reshuffle is planned, and it doesn’t stop there. Maneuvering by various factions in the cabinet suggests that a leadership coup within the leading party in the coalition is likely if the Prime Minister isn’t seen to clean house rapidly. Chris is here to brief us on the past week’s political developments, our position in terms to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act—which is anomalous—and the likely implications for the organization.”

Ms. Womack stands up. “Thank you, Mike.” (Mike? I boggle at the familiarity.) “Well, folks, this is what we’ve been afraid would happen all along: an intrusion on such a large scale that local assets were unable to contain it, resulting in widespread loss of civilian life, exposure of the agency to public scrutiny, and extreme pressure on the government to be seen to be doing something about the crisis.” She actually smiles, a slightly embarrassed expression, and it’s at this point that I know for a fact that we’re screwed. Mo takes my hand under the table and squeezes it; I squeeze right back. At least we’re in this together.

Chris continues: “It’s been glaringly obvious that this day would come, sooner or later—hopefully later—for the past half century, so we have a backgrounder on the likely course of events to hand, regularly updated, and a fallback plan to execute. Here it is, if you’d all care to sign for it.” She slides a clipboard onto the table. It’s one of those briefings you have to sign in at. As the clipboard circulates, she continues: “In the immediate future, there’ll be a lot of media interest and a whiff of scandal and prurient curiosity over a hitherto-secret security agency coming to light. Expect digging and doxxing of any identifiable faces associated with the organization. I’m afraid that means Mr. Howard is particularly exposed, although that masterful display on Newsnight might just convince the uglier elements of the press that he’s not worth bothering with. But the personal attention should—we hope—die down within another week or so, at least until the Defense Select Committee starts holding hearings.”

A murmur runs around the table. Then the clipboard gets to me. I sign with numb fingers then slide it in front of Mo.

“That’s not the real problem I’m here to talk about today. The big short-term issue is what the government is going to do with us—about the Laundry, I mean. Historically we were founded under the Royal Prerogative, as was the rest of the Civil Service or Crown Service, as variously defined. CRAG(2010), the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, put most of the Civil Service on a sound constitutional footing and defined their obligations to uphold the law, and more importantly, laid out the exceptional circumstances under which civil servants might be licensed to take extrajudicial actions—for example the armed forces and our sister agencies, MI5, SIS, and GCHQ. As a rather peculiar unadmitted Crown entity, the Laundry exists in something of a gray area.

“The historic lack of oversight has given us a degree of autonomy unavailable to our sister agencies, but all that’s about to come to an abrupt end. At a minimum, we can expect the Committee to recommend that we be brought under the oversight of the Joint Intelligence Committee with defined limitations like the other security services. We can also expect primary legislation to regulate computational thaumaturgy and related fields and bring in criminal penalties for misuse. The Consumer Protection Regulations that superseded the Fraudulent Mediums Act and the Witchcraft Act (1735) in 2008 don’t really cover us, I’m afraid. But if the Cabinet are paying attention—and unfortunately we know for a fact that the Cabinet is paying attention—we’re about to become a political football.”

The clipboard makes its way back to Ms. Womack and she briefly checks that we’ve all signed the form. Then she opens up her briefcase and pulls out a stack of document wallets. “One copy each, please. Read and return to this room no later than five o’clock this afternoon; you’ll need to sign them back in. They’re warded, eyes-only.” Which is to say that really bad things will happen to any eyeballs that belong to people who haven’t signed on that clipboard and who even glance at the table of contents.

“What exactly is this?” Persephone asks, tapping her secure document wallet suspiciously.

“It’s a legal analysis of our organizational position, going forward.” Chris frowns at her. “In it you’ll find our worst-case analyses of how the government can fuck us over. The bad news is, one likely outcome of the current situation—if they try to cram us into the existing CRAG framework—is that our core mission becomes irrecoverably compromised. But the good news is, we have a contingency plan. It’s called PLAN TITANIC. And you’ll find a synopsis at the end of this file.”

“What’s the elevator pitch?” ’Seph pushes.

Chris counters with another question. “What’s the most important part of the organization, from an operational standpoint?”

“It would be—” Persephone’s eyes widen. “Mahogany Row?”

Mo sits up. “You’re talking about a lifeboat, aren’t you,” she says. Chris is silent, but her face speaks for her.

’Seph fans herself with the TOP SECRET file. “You’re talking about abandoning the sinking ship…”

It’s a busy morning at the general aviation terminal at Stansted airport, and another Falcon 7X executive jet arriving from Denver draws no unusual attention. Neither does the small convoy of vehicles waiting for it on the apron. There’s a stretched black BMW limo with darkened windows for the VIPs, a pair of black BMW SUVs with equally blacked-out rear windows for security, and a car in airport service livery for the immigration and customs concierge service that the jet’s owner is paying for.

The immigration officer is waiting alongside as the air stairs drop. She spends less than a minute scanning passports. The visitor holds a diplomatic visa and you don’t want to keep people like that waiting: they generally have friends in high places who will make your boss yell at you if you hold them up. Her counterpart from Customs is equally efficient: entry forms are collected, “Are you carrying anything illegal? Any drugs, endangered species, or plant material?” is asked, and the all-clear is given immediately. The officers are long gone by the time the Reverend Raymond Schiller sets foot on English soil again for the first time in nearly two years, and leads his staff in offering up a pro-forma prayer of thanksgiving.

Outwardly, Schiller is the very image of a successful televangelist. He’s tall but trim, early sixties but spry, his silver hair immaculately coiffed. He wears a conservatively cut charcoal suit and a navy blue tie, a small lapel-pin cross the only obvious adornment. His smile is kindly; his blue eyes twinkle so brightly that it is almost impossible to imagine the damned soul screaming behind them.

As Schiller slides into the back seat of the limousine and straps himself in, his personal assistant Anneka takes her position opposite. A prim ice-blonde in a gray skirt-suit and white silk blouse, she sits with her knees clamped as tightly as her lips. She could pass for a lawyer or a corporate marketing director on the way up, but in the curious parlance of Schiller’s sect she is a handmaid, chosen by God to be Schiller’s helpmeet and cellphone carrier. Schiller has certain requirements that his handmaids must meet, and Anneka is a paragon. The personal protection officers and other staff—accountant, paralegal, personal chef, and poison taster—take their seats in the SUVs behind. Schiller watches as the jet’s other passenger, a representative of the government agency he subcontracts for, nods affably, then walks away towards the embassy car that’s waiting for him. Finally, satisfied that all is well, Anneka locks the heavy armored door and secures the briefcase.

There’s a brief crackle of static from the intercom, then the driver says, “We’re ready to move when you are, sir.”

Anneka glances at Schiller: he nods minutely, and she touches the intercom button. “Proceed in convoy as planned. Please notify us when we are fifteen minutes out from the apartment, or in event of unforeseen delays.” As the heavy bulletproof limousine begins to move she pushes a switch beside the intercom button, disconnecting the microphone. A faint, jaw-tensing buzz of white noise begins to leak from the windows all around, and Schiller relaxes infinitesimally.

“Sweep please.”

“Yes, Father.”

She raises her briefcase and opens it. Its contents would be of considerable interest to the customs officer, if performing his official duties was not actively discouraged when admitting a certain class of visitor. It’s not just the Glock 17 clipped inside the lid—civilian possession of which carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence in the UK—but the MilSpec electronics in the lower half. Anneka plugs the case into the cigarette lighter socket, then conducts a thorough and exhaustive scan of the limousine’s interior for wireless surveillance devices as the convoy queues up at the exit gate from the General Aviation area. This takes some time, and they are on the approach road to the M11 motorway by the time she unplugs the case, closes it, and ducks her head at Schiller. “We are alone, Father.”

Schiller smiles almost wryly. “We are never alone, Daughter.” It’s his little joke and she delivers an appreciative smile on cue. “Are there any new messages?”

Anneka’s Blackberry chimes and she raises it to eye level. “No high-priority messages in the past hour,” she recites. The bizjet carries a satellite picocell to keep its passengers in touch over the ocean, but even Schiller’s wealth can’t insulate him from the leasing company’s tiresome requirement to shut down all passenger electronics during final approach and landing. “The Secretary of State sends his very general best wishes, of course, but nothing confidential. There’s an update from Alison: she’s working to confirm that all designated attendees will be present at your briefings tomorrow. Bernadette McGuigan would like to bring you up to speed on the current state of targeted operations at your earliest convenience. And there is a personal greeting from Mr. Michaels’s secretary.” She pauses momentarily, pupils dilating slightly. “Requesting the pleasure of your company at a garden party on Saturday, RSVP. At an address somewhere in Buckinghamshire.” She lowers the smartphone, looks quizzical. “Father?”

Schiller nods thoughtfully. “Let the Prime Minister know I’d be delighted to attend. Reschedule any conflicting engagements.”

Anneka nods dutifully and begins to thumb-type rapidly. She doesn’t notice Schiller’s smile sharpen slightly, sliding briefly into a predatory mask. Jeremy Michaels is a very astute player: he does not issue social invitations to just anyone. If he has realized what is going on and decided to acquiesce to Schiller’s plan, then that is very good indeed, and the acquisition Schiller has come to the UK to facilitate will run much more smoothly. Takeovers are always easier if the people at the top of the target establishment are willing collaborators.

Some invasions barely warrant the name.

1 `‘0“Her being a fellow employee is arguably my fault, but as there were tentacle monsters and terrorists involved she chose not to hold it against me.

2 Now a hole in the ground, soon to be a shiny new investment opportunity for offshore property speculators.

Copyright © 2017 by Charles Stross

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Excerpt: Graveyard Shift by Michael F. Haspil

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Alex Menkaure, former pharaoh and mummy, and his vampire partner, Marcus, born in ancient Rome, are vice cops in a special Miami police unit. They fight to keep the streets safe from criminal vampires, shape-shifters, bootleg blood-dealers, and anti-vampire vigilantes.

When poisoned artificial blood drives vampires to murder, the city threatens to tear itself apart. Only an unlikely alliance with former opponents can give Alex and Marcus a fighting chance against an ancient vampire conspiracy.

If they succeed, they’ll be pariahs, hunted by everyone. If they fail, the result will be a race-war bloodier than any the world has ever seen.

Graveyard Shift will become available July 18th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter 1

No sign of forced entry.

Detective Alex Romer took in that detail as an afterthought. He pulled on the sky-blue Tyvek booties and crossed into the air-conditioned crime scene, his footsteps making muffled sounds on the Florida Tile flooring. People here had dollars, which meant they had influence, which meant scrutiny and associated headaches. Which told Alex he was making a start on ruining the new day.

This was Coral Gables, an affluent suburb of Miami, and it was too early to be investigating a murder. The house was just big enough that it might garner envy from most people, but it didn’t stand out in this neighborhood. A large central stairway dominated the foyer and wound its way upward. Alex thought there should have been skylights and massive picture windows framed by tall palms to offer a carefully calculated peep show of privacy. Hidden conspicuous wealth was an oxymoron.

The entire entrance should have been drowning in sunlight. Most vampires didn’t like that.

The place smelled pungent.

Garlic. Concentrated. Way beyond what anyone would use for cooking. And something else. Vinegar with a hint of baking soda.

Bright artificial light streamed from the next room, where people murmured in concerned voices. The forensic services unit had brought in portable lights and set up before they’d thought to call him. That was odd. They were moving very quickly, which complicated things. Now he’d have to explain everything to these kids like it was Day One.

With a grimace, he set off for the lighted room. As he stepped toward it, an impressive oil painting came into view. It was the ninth trump of the Major Arcana of the Tarot, The Hermit, holding his lantern aloft as a beacon encircled by encroaching gloom. The painting depicted the scene as if the lantern’s powerful beams were actively battling the darkness—not simply traversing it, but piercing it, lancing it . . . laying waste to it.

It was more than just a masterly rendition; it was a symbol. It was the sigil of the Lightbearer Society. Since the Reveal, the Lightbearer Society had purportedly been helping both established vampires and the newly turned integrate into mundane society. “The Reveal,” that’s what everyone called it. The global event when vampires had flung aside their cloaks of secrecy and darkness to brave the scrutiny of the proverbial light. It was just the Reveal. The Lightbearers were dirty as hell and had money and influence to spare. Headaches free of charge.

Shit.

Well, now he knew why everyone was Johnny-on-the-spot this morning. That’s why they hadn’t waited for him to arrive.

A voice interrupted his thoughts. “When you’re done admiring the art, we could use your help with the vic. You know, anytime that’s convenient for you.”

Alex took in the man who’d spoken. Detective. Wearing a cheap suit off the rack. The suit implied professionalism, but Alex knew better. Still, it was more professional than the loose khakis and light green camp shirt he wore.

“You’re Nocturn Affairs, right?” The man barely hid the scorn in his voice.

Alex raised his eyebrows as if to say, “What do you think?” He held up his badge and ID.

“Nocturn.” There was that word. Since the vampires weren’t going away anytime soon, the politically correct folks wanted the V-word to become a no-no now. They’d come up with “nocturn.” A lazy truncation of Homo nocturnus. Alex didn’t like it. The word sanitized the reality. It was a kind of lie. He supposed that in some people’s eyes that made him a bigot. But he’d been in the business far too long to change his ways now, and despite all the Lightbearer Society’s propaganda, he knew vampires for what they were—ruthless and bloodthirsty.

“What’ve we got?” Alex asked.

“Female. Apparent age mid-thirties. She’s one of yours. Got herself decapitated.”

That was all the city needed right now. Tensions ready to bubble over and a high-profile vampire murder. Everyone would go ballistic.

There was a bit too much activity in the house right now. Alex needed to clear it out.

“Think I can get some time alone?” Alex asked.

One of the forensic techs, who was prepping a doorjamb to lift prints, addressed the cheap-suited detective. “Perez. Your scene. Your call.”

Perez hesitated.

“Ten minutes,” Alex said.

“Take five, guys,” Perez said.

The tech nodded and walked outside, sweeping up the rest of his team in his wake.

Alex looked at the doorjamb the tech had been working. They’d find nothing here. He formed a theory of events and knelt down. He felt the edge of a rug that led into the room. It was still damp.

He sniffed. Garlic and vinegar. Bingo, here was the source of that scent.

“You think you might take a look for yourself?” Perez prodded. “After all, you came all the way down here.”

Alex allowed himself a small laugh, answering sarcasm with sarcasm. “Yeah, what could it hurt, right?”

He stood and walked into the room, stepping over and around dried blood splatter. The pattern spoke volumes. There wasn’t nearly as much blood as one would presume from a decapitation, but Alex had been expecting that. Vampire physiology released blood rather reluctantly.

The room itself was more of a pass-through with a doorway at the other end leading farther into the house. A glorified short hallway. Choke point. There were two small tables against each wall at the midpoint. One still held a fancy white vase. Blue filigree swirled around it. Its partner hadn’t been so lucky, and shards of no doubt rare porcelain littered the tiles and the rug.

An investigator from the county coroner’s office leaned over a woman’s headless body. The woman had been fit. She was a vampire, after all. She was wearing a red power–suit jacket-and-skirt combination with designer boots to match.

“Cause of death?”

“Don’t be a wise-ass. It’s too early for your bullshit,” the investigator answered without looking up.

“Rivera, always a pleasure. Where’s her head?”

Rivera tilted his head in the direction of a covered mound a few feet away.

“Mind if I have a look?”

“Well, that’s why we got your happy ass down here, isn’t it?”

Alex stepped over the body, crouched down, and lifted the covering from the head.

He looked into the face of an until recently attractive redhead, her skin already turning waxy.

“Does she look familiar to you?” Alex asked.

“Yeah. Can’t quite place it though.”

“Maybe Lelith? She’s kind of dead ringer, right? Pun intended,” Alex said.

Lelith was the spokesperson for and figurehead of the Lightbearer Society. Very smart, very hot, and Alex bet she landed somewhere near the evil end of the whole good-bad scale.

“Now that you mention it, yeah,” Rivera agreed.

This woman wasn’t Lelith, but she sure looked like her. Alex was betting that was why they’d killed her, and more importantly, he guessed that was why she’d been here in the first place. Decoy.

He looked at the severing cut. Two strikes, three at most. Whatever had done it had been razor sharp.

“Machete?” Alex guessed.

“Yeah, or something like it. What makes you think that?” Rivera answered.

“It’s what I would have used. Common enough. Doesn’t mess around. They were scared. Couldn’t take chances. Had to do it quick.”

“They?” Perez asked from the doorway. “Multiple people did this. If I were to guess, I’d say three or four. You smelled that stink coming in, right? You think anyone cooks with garlic that concentrated? Especially her?”

“Hard to smell anything over your aftershave,” Rivera said.

Alex let the covering drop back over the severed head, stood, and gestured toward the far door.

“All bullshit aside, Rivera, you were in here before me. Let me run through it for you. They let her walk in and get far into the house. House like this is sure to have an alarm. So they disabled it and reset it so she could turn it off. Make her think nothing’s wrong. That tells us it was planned. But they killed the wrong lady, so that tells us it was a target of opportunity.”

“Wait. What? How is she the wrong lady?” Perez asked.

“They were going after Lelith. When we check, we’ll find this house belongs to the Lightbearer Society. That’s what the painting out there tells us. Lelith’s their grand pooh-bah. You know, from all the PSAs about ‘Truth Not Myth.’ ”

“Yeah, yeah, the whole superhelpful, ‘I’m a nocturn and I do blah blah blah’ people,” Perez said. The Lightbearers ran commercials day and night to improve the overall vampire image. Not that they really needed to; the last several decades of pop culture had done enough of that while vampires were still in the myth category.

“You got it. Technically, we probably need to inform Lelith her life is in danger. Make it all official-like. But she knows, that’s why she sent this youngblood. Hmm . . .”

Alex drifted off, caught up in his own speculations. That didn’t quite add up. If Lelith knew it was a trap, why not send enforcers in her place or a strike team? It didn’t make sense to let the double get killed. He was missing something.

Alex continued, “they let her walk in. Past here. She should have seen it coming, smelled them or heard them, but she didn’t. So we know she was a youngblood. An oldblood like Lelith would never have fallen for it. So, she sees something through there, scares her enough to try and run for it. Again, an oldblood wouldn’t have run and even a youngblood wouldn’t run from just one or two people. So we know there were more than that.” Alex stopped to see if the two other men were following his reasoning. They showed no sign either way. He continued to run through his idea of the crime.

“So she runs through here. Perfect choke point. One way in, but no way out. Because someone is standing right over there.” Alex pointed to where Perez stood framed in the doorway.

“They hit her with some O.C.-that garlic Mace. That’s what you’ll find when you get the carpet analyzed. Homemade, but industrial strength, is my bet. Anyway, they hit her with the Mace. But they can’t take any chances. If it really is Lelith, she can still tear them apart and be none the worse for wear. That’s when he hit her from behind.”

“Who?” Rivera asked.

“Whoever cut off her head. Strong too. He came up behind, grabbed her by the hair. And then . . .” Alex pantomimed the action. “One. Two. Quick. Room’s not quite wide enough for someone that big to fully swing a sword at speed. But with a machete, not all that hard.”

“Sounds like you could have done it yourself,” Perez said.

Alex ignored him. The man didn’t know how right he was. Alex had done it hundreds of times. For nearly three-quarters of a century he had been part of a secret program. The code names changed more often than he bothered to track. The operators all called it UMBRA, the original name from the aftermath of World War II, when it had begun. Project UMBRA. The name stuck. Alex had been part of a deadly hunter-killer squad the OSS, the CIA, and finally the National Security Agency employed to “neutralize” vampires. Once, that would have sounded crazy to civilians, but that was before Hemo-Synth, before the Reveal. That was before the Supreme Court had given thousands of vampires sanctuary and citizenship and the NSA suddenly had a genocidal embarrassment on their hands they wanted to erase. UMBRA went away in a hurry. So now, Alex worked vice, and occasionally, homicide.

Rivera interrupted. “That’s not how it went down. Blood-spatter is all wrong.” He pointed at the severed neck. “This wound was postmortem.”

“That’s ’cause you’re expecting arterial blood flow. Vampires don’t have that.”

“Shit.” Rivera leaned back from the body and nodded in acknowledgment. “You guys really need your own ME.”

“Yeah, I know. We need a lot. Let’s hope the whole bureau thing comes through, huh?”

Rivera ignored him. Instead, the man went over his notes, scratched out whole portions, and began making corrections.

“Not your fault, Rivera. How many of these have you worked?” Alex said.

“First one.” Rivera continued scrawling down notes.

It had only been two years since the Reveal. Alex could only think of three other local cases during that time where a vampire had been the victim. And one of those was all the way up in Osceola, so it hardly counted as local.

Perez stepped over the body and squeezed past Alex. “There’s something you need to see.”

Alex followed him deeper into the house. A crime-scene investigator took a series of pictures in the next room. Another bank of portable lights glared at a wall.

“We’ll be out of your hair in a sec,” Rivera told the man.

Alex looked at the subject of the photographs, a grouping of straight lines spray-painted in red across the bone-colored wall.

Two parallel vertical lines bisected by a single horizontal. Superimposed upon them were two Vs, one upright and one inverted—like a rudimentary Masonic symbol.

It was the calling card of Abraham, a notorious serial killer who’d left a bloody swath of vampire victims across Europe and three American cities.

Complications aplenty.

Shitstorms galore.

Day ruined.

No one had figured out how Abraham overcame the vampires. Now Alex had a pretty good idea. Abraham wasn’t just one guy.

“So, the Nocturn Killer has come to Miami?” Perez used the name the press had given the murderer.

Alex’s phone rang, the ring tone way too upbeat for the circumstances.

He didn’t need to deal with this today. The Lightbearers would have their people on it. Alex had problems of his own.

“No. See the false start on the paint line there?” Alex pointed to the top of one of the lines, where it was clear the painter had started again. “Who called this in? Money says it was an anonymous tip. Probably the killers themselves. They throw this up to muddy the waters and stir everyone up. I’m pretty sure it’s a copycat.”

He was pretty sure it wasn’t a copycat.

“Was this symbol ever released to the public?” Perez asked.

Alex’s phone, oblivious to the situation, continued jauntily whistling the main melody of the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Instead of answering Perez’s question, Alex answered his phone. The voice on the other end sounded panicked. Alex took the information and hung up.

“What gives?” Perez asked.

“Looks like this one is all yours. Nocturn Affairs will try and get another liaison officer down here. Between you and me, I wouldn’t hold your breath,” Alex said.

“So where are you headed?”

“Brownsville. Possible vampire in a blood frenzy.”

“Another one? Better you than me,” Perez said.

“It isn’t likely. Sun’s up. But, you know how it is,” Alex said.

“Yeah. Well, hope it’s a BS call for your sake.”

It wasn’t.

Alex manhandled the dark blue Explorer into a parking lot on the western end of the shopping plaza. In front of him, half a dozen cruisers formed a makeshift cordon, roughly twenty-five yards from the entrance of a small market and its shattered front window.

A gaggle of uniforms took cover behind their cars—a jumble of green-and-white Miami-Dade Police cruisers mixed in with the City of Miami Police’s blue-and-white livery. They pointed trunk guns—AR-15s and Mini-14s—and pistols at the doors. Off to the side, several cops held the press and other looky-loos at bay.

It was the standard goat rope whenever a vampire might be involved. The odds were low that there really was a bloodsucker around, since the sun was already beating down with full late-summer fury and it wasn’t even midmorning. While it was true that sunlight wasn’t as deadly to vampires as the myths implied, at the very least it made most of them severely uncomfortable, and some suffered third-degree burns with only slight exposure.

Alex parked the SUV and killed the cherry lights. He stepped out into what felt like an impossible hundred-and-fifty-percent humidity with heat to match. It wasn’t as oppressive as Kemet at this time of year, but Kemet’s was a blistering, drier heat.

Egypt, he reminded himself again. That was what they called it now. It had been more than two thousand years since the Greeks had renamed his homeland after a mispronunciation of a misunderstanding, and it felt almost as long since he’d been there. Re beamed overhead, charging Menkaure’s body with His invigorating light. The power coursed through him, raw and unchecked. As long as Re held vigil overhead, Menkaure was nearly invincible. It was darkness that held weakness for him.

Alex ran a hand over his dark, bald, cool head, wiping away a thin sheen of moisture, due solely to humidity, since he didn’t sweat. He wasn’t a vampire, but but his body, like a vampire’s matched the ambient temperature, in this case that of the air-conditioned interior of his SUV. He suppressed the urge to slam its door. Charged up as he was now, if he did, it might never open again.

“Who’s the primary?” He projected his voice, and with it, his authority, but it took an effort to keep the annoyance out of it.

One of the Dade cops muttered, “Guess the nocturn squad finally decided to show up. Took your sweet-ass time.”

Alex ignored the man and walked nearer to the line of police cars.

Ah, irony.

Once, Menkaure had been the Morning and the Evening Star, He of the Sedge and the Bee, Pharaoh of the Two Lands. Few men would have dared to speak to him without awe in their voices. Now, he walked the Path of Asar as penance, and though all of humanity owed him innumerable debts, he found naught but scorn in their tone.

Alex asked his question again, louder this time. “Who’s the primary?”

A middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair stepped forward. He wore the taupe uniform of the Miami-Dade Police and had a paunch that pushed his gun belt low.

“Right here,” he said. “I’ve got men watching the back of the store. It’s not coming out of there.”

“It?” Alex asked.

“Yeah, the vampire. I mean, the um, nocturn.”

“I’m fine with ‘vampire.’ Are you sure? Seems a bit early.” Alex pointed at the sun.

“Yeah, we’re sure,” the cop answered. “We’ve got four officers down on account of going in there and trying to deal with it—him. Couldn’t make an ID. He’s probably an undocumented nocturn. We think he’s in a blood frenzy. I’d just as soon not take chances.”

“What’s the deal with Miami PD responding?”

“New rules. Overwhelming force, plus they were close enough to augment. The way things are going, orders are we’re supposed to show the city no one’s sitting anything out.”

Alex shook his head in disagreement. This was all wrong. The leaders were making things worse. They should have been doing business as usual, telling everyone there was nothing to get worked up over. Instead, they were ignoring the storm surge that preceded the hurricane.

A younger cop spoke up. Alex made him for a boot—a rookie—instantly.

“He threw two officers right out the front window. At least twenty yards. The other guys barely made it out.”

Twenty yards? More like twenty feet. Maybe. With a running start and if the wind was right.

“Did they get bitten?” There would be some extra complications if they had. Mountains of paperwork. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would have to get involved. After the Reveal, ICE had caught the responsibility of keeping track of the newly turned. It was yet another impossible law to enforce, but looked good on paper, and politicians could jabber about it as if it would make a difference.

“No,” the senior officer answered. “We had a squad take them over to Hialeah to get checked out.”

“So they got lucky,” Alex said. “The guy in there is probably a good guy. Solid.” He didn’t keep the admiration from his tone.

“Wait, what? He almost killed them,” the rookie said.

“No, you’ve got it wrong. He saved their lives. He had enough control left to get them away from him.” Alex made the decision that killing this vampire wasn’t going to be an option.

“What do you have going for response?” Alex asked. “SRT on the way?”

“Just Nocturn Affairs—you guys catch all these calls now. Director’s orders,” the primary answered.

Alex sighed. One Nocturn Affairs cop instead of a Special Response Team. In his case, that certainly measured up, but they had no way of knowing that.

“Is he armed?”

“He’s a vampire,” the rookie said.

Alex let his annoyance show through. “Does. He. Have. Any. Weapons?”

“Not that we know of,” the primary answered.

Alex considered the men taking cover behind the police cars. The sun was doing more for them than those cars ever would if a blood-frenzied vampire decided to have a taste.

He looked around. Press trucks with long-distance mics listening to every word. That was a problem.

“So it’s my scene, right?” Alex made a show of surveying the area. “See you guys later.”

Alex walked back to the SUV.

“Whoa, you’re not going to deal with this?” the rookie shouted after him.

“In about eight or nine hours. Sun’s up. Even in a blood-frenzied state, he’s not going anywhere. That’s probably the only thing his brain can even understand right now.”

Let the press weigh that. Was it really worth sitting around all day to get some B roll of cops waiting out a vampire?

The younger man trotted after Alex. “Um, he might not be alone.”

Alex whirled back to the senior officer. “You didn’t evacuate the area?”

“The surrounding buildings, but not—”

“The store itself.” Alex shook his head in disbelief. “CCTV?”

“Nothing we can tap.”

Alex looked over at the press. They weren’t going anywhere. Time to get a bit fascist.

Alex raised his voice so everyone on the line could hear him. “Does anyone know if there are still civilians in the building?”

The response was a bevy of shaking heads and shrugging shoulders.

Alex clapped his hands over his face and rubbed his eyes.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered through his hands.

Menkaure could easily take a metaphysical look, but that took time, and there were too many eyes on him right now.

He remembered Salbatore, the man who had named him Alejandro and taken him in after he’d reawoken. Salbatore’s advice sounded as clearly in Menkaure’s mind now as it had one hundred seventy-odd years before.

Do what they do, talk like they do, think like they do. Or they will destroy you out of ignorance and fear. Salbatore had been right, and the locals in Cartagena had nearly gotten Menkaure because of his carelessness.

A duality flowed within him like the Asian concept of yin and yang. Alex was modern, a skilled operative who could kick ass and take names against the best wetwork teams the world had to offer. But he was also Menkaure, son of Khafre, son of Khufu. An ancient pharaoh who’d taken it upon himself to stand between humanity and the most terrible evil he’d encountered in all his long years. A king who’d made a pact with incalculable powers from far beyond the mortal realm for a chance to walk in Asar’s footsteps and wield immortality as a weapon.

He was Alex, a man shaped over nearly eighteen decades—vintner, explorer, scholar, soldier, spy, enforcer, assassin, and cop. He was the oncetime pharaoh Menkaure, a has-been deity. Now intimately bound to his direst foe, reliant on his brother god Re and the Path of Asar until his ultimate task was complete.

“Shit.” He pressed his hand against his forehead in frustration.

He was burning daylight. The sooner he was done with this, the faster he could get back to his own business.

“Okay, first things first. Get the press out of here. I don’t care how. We can’t have our TTPs showing up on the evening news. Next, get me a blanket out of one of the cruisers.”

“What? TTPs?” The younger cop looked perplexed.

“Don’t they teach you anything anymore? Tactics, techniques, procedures. Now, get them out of here.” Alex pointed at the press trucks and the civilian spectators.

“Um, they’re not going to want to go,” the young cop answered.

“If they’re not out of here in the next few minutes, you’d better be. Got it? Now, one of you get me a damn blanket.”

Alex stalked back to his SUV and opened the rear door. A blood-frenzying vampire was going to be a hardcase. No way to reason with it. Alex needed to take him down a notch.

Nocturn physiology precluded the use of a direct sedative. However, there was a loophole. The same traits that made a vampire immune to diseases and drugs also made the creature incredibly efficient at processing blood. And extremely fast at it, too. While the loophole wasn’t effective with diseases, blood collected from a human under the influence of some substances might have a similar effect on any vampire ingesting that blood. Bottom line, while a vampire couldn’t dope up on its own, a vampire drinking blood from a doped-up human would feel the effects of the drug. That fact alone had given rise to all the illegal blood clubs that dotted the city. With the help of vampiric sources within UMBRA, it hadn’t taken operatives long to use this trait to their advantage.

It wasn’t exactly on the up-and-up within the eyes of the law, post-Reveal, but then again, Nocturn Affairs, which was full of ex-UMBRA operatives, tended to fall on the shady, gray side of Legal Street in almost everything it did.

Alex opened a refrigerated case in the back of the SUV and pulled out a small vial. Its blood product had been extracted from a human who’d nearly OD’d. Alex slid the vial into a small handheld syringe gun, the same type used to administer vaccines to cattle, and loaded it with a CO2cartridge.

He walked back toward the barricade and the primary.

“Do you have my blanket?”

“Sure do. Much good it will do you.” The cop handed him the blanket.

Alex started walking toward the grocery store.

The older cop put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re not going in there, are you?”

“Sure am.”

“What exactly do you think you’re going to do with a blanket? Against . . . a monster?”

“Use his survival instinct against him. If he’s truly frenzying, there’s no talking to him. His cognitive mind is gone. It’s something they teach us over in Nocturn Affairs. It’s like bullfighting.” Alex nearly laughed. It was complete horseshit.

“You’re crazy.”

“Crazy is a requirement for Nocturn Affairs. Well, crazies and vampires. You ought to put in. Strikes me, you might be qualified.”

The older cop scowled and waddled back to the cover of his squad car.

Alex stopped at the entrance. The trumpets from a Celia Cruz salsa version of “Guantanamera” blasted their way through the otherwise silent store. The savory smell of fresh pastelitos mixed with the coppery scent of Hemo-Synth greeted him. If it weren’t for the Hemo-Synth, there’d have been no Reveal, and vampires would still be wetwork, covert ops, instead of a law-enforcement problem. If this blood frenzy was anything like the other two recent cases, it was likely this vampire had consumed some tainted blood product. If that was true, it wasn’t just a theory anymore. Someone was poisoning the artificial blood. If the vampires couldn’t trust the Hemo-Synth, then . . .

He stomped his way in, kicking around the broken glass and generally making his movements as loud as possible. He crossed the first aisle and knocked some cans onto the ground. There were no civilians. It looked like the store had emptied out the moment the vampire started to frenzy. Lucky.

Suddenly, streams of water burst from the ceiling, and the fire alarm began blaring.

Alex stopped and tightened his hand on the vaccine gun. Flashes of memory assaulted him. Cartagena. He really didn’t need a fire right now.

Forget flames. The vampire was overhead, crawling along the ceiling.

Alex pretended he didn’t know where it was. He moved halfway down the aisle, then bent over to examine the broken bottles of Sangri and Hemotopia that littered the ground. Both were popular Hemo-Synth products, and they came from different distributors. The contents formed a large pool of artificial blood. The combination of the store’s fluorescent light and the sprinkler water bouncing off the pool of Hemo-Synth made it look like it was raining blood.

Alex splashed down the aisle, continuing to make as much noise as he could. The forensics team would be hard-pressed to get much of anything from the mess on the tiled floor, especially now that it was watered down.

A slight rush of wind whispered next to him, as he’d expected. He turned, in time to catch one of the vampire’s arms as the creature pounced on him. The vampire reacted as Alex thought it would, lunging for his throat, piercing him with its fangs. It suddenly recoiled and gagged.

“Too bad, amigo. No lunch for you. I’m already dead.”

The vampire hissed and pushed at him in an effort to escape. Alex slammed the vaccine gun into the vampire’s neck and squeezed the trigger. There was a sharp pop-hiss as the device delivered its payload. The vampire reeled in surprise, but didn’t go down. Alex dropped the vaccine gun and grunted as he held the vampire with one hand and tried to maneuver the blanket into position with the other. The cops outside had been right. This guy was strong.

Alex flapped the blanket out onto the ground and switched his grip on the vampire. He pinned it to the floor with one hand and used the other to wrap the blanket crudely around it. It wasn’t pretty or neat, but it was good enough.

He grabbed the bundle of struggling vampire in a bear hug and shuffled to the front of the store. In the short time it had been on the ground, the blanket had absorbed a surprising amount of the Hemo-Synth, which was now seeping into Alex’s clothes.

Day ruined, shirt ruined. That was never going to come out.

Swearing under his breath, Alex reached the front of the store and tossed his burden out into the sunlight.

Immediately, the vampire freed himself from the blanket and stood transfixed, caught in the sun’s rays. It took some time for the pain to penetrate the fog of the blood frenzy and sedative. The creature screamed and darted back toward the front of the store.

Alex blocked his path and pushed him back into the sunlight. The vampire whirled, looking for any escape from the pain. Then he noticed the blanket.

“That’s right, buddy, there’s shade under there.”

The vampire snatched the blanket and wrapped himself in it. Before the nocturn could move again, Alex knocked it back to the ground.

“Get me some ties!” he shouted at the police line. None of them moved. Slack jaws gaped at him.

“Hurry up!”

Two of the braver officers responded, tossing him the plastic zip-ties they used to restrain problem suspects.

Alex linked some together and tied the straps around the blanket while the officers kept their distance. He could feel the vampire weakening, as the sedative finally kicked in.

“I’d have never believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” one of the officers said.

Alex affixed another strap. “Yeah, well, don’t try this at home, kiddies.”

“What now?” the same officer asked.

“I’m taking this big boy to holding so he can sleep it off and we can ask him some questions.”

Copyright © 2017 by Michael F. Haspil

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Excerpt: Tomorrow’s Kin by Nancy Kress

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Tomorrow’s Kin is the first volume in an all new hard science fiction trilogy by Nancy Kress based on the Nebula Award-winning Yesterday’s Kin.

The aliens have arrived… they’ve landed their Embassy ship on a platform in New York Harbor, and will only speak with the United Nations. They say that their world is so different from Earth, in terms of gravity and atmosphere, that they cannot leave their ship. The population of Earth has erupted in fear and speculation.

One day Dr. Marianne Jenner, an obscure scientist working with the human genome, receives an invitation that she cannot refuse. The Secret Service arrives at her college to escort her to New York, for she has been invited, along with the Secretary General of the UN and a few other ambassadors, to visit the alien Embassy.

The truth is about to be revealed. Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.

Tomorrow’s Kin will become available July 11th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER 1

The publication party was held in the dean’s office, which was supposed to be an honor. Oak-paneled room, sherry in little glasses, small-paned windows facing the quad—the room was trying hard to be a Commons someplace like Oxford or Cambridge, a task for which it was several centuries too late. The party was trying hard to look festive. Marianne’s colleagues, except for Evan and the dean, were trying hard not to look too envious, or at their watches.

“Stop it,” Evan said at her from behind the cover of his raised glass.

“Stop what?”

“Pretending you hate this.”

“I hate this,” Marianne said.

“You don’t.”

He was half right. She didn’t like parties but she was proud of her paper, which had been achieved despite two years of gene sequencers that kept breaking down, inept graduate students who contaminated samples with their own DNA, murmurs of “Lucky find” from Baskell, with whom she’d never gotten along. Baskell, an old-guard physicist, saw her as a bitch who refused to defer to rank or to back down gracefully in an argument. Many people, Marianne knew, saw her as some variant of this. The list included two of her three grown children.

Outside the open casements, students lounged on the grass in the mellow October sunshine. Three girls in cut-off jeans played Frisbee, leaping at the blue flying saucer and checking to see if the boys sitting on the stone wall were watching. Feinberg and Davidson, from Physics, walked by, arguing amiably. Marianne wished she were with them instead of at her own party.

“Oh God,” she said to Evan, “Curtis just walked in.”

The president of the university made his ponderous way across the room. Once he had been an historian, which might be why he reminded Marianne of Henry VIII. Now he was a campus politician, as power-mad as Henry but stuck at a second-rate university where there wasn’t much power to be had. Marianne held against him not his personality but his mind; unlike Henry, he was not all that bright. And he spoke in clichés.

“Dr. Jenner,” he said, “congratulations. A feather in your cap, and a credit to us all.”

“Thank you, Dr. Curtis,” Marianne said.

“Oh, ‘Ed,’ please.”

“Ed.” She didn’t offer her own first name, curious to see if he remembered it. He didn’t. Marianne sipped her sherry.

Evan jumped into the awkward silence. “I’m Dr. Blanford, visiting post-doc,” he said in his plummy British accent. “We’re all so proud of Marianne’s work.”

“Yes! And I’d love for you to explain to me your innovative process—ah, Marianne.”

He didn’t have a clue. His secretary had probably reminded him that he had to put in an appearance at the party: Dean of Science’s office, 4:30 Friday, in honor of that publication by Dr. Jenner in—quick look at e-mail—in Nature, very prestigious, none of our scientists has published there before. . . .

“Oh,” Marianne said as Evan poked her discreetly in the side: Play nice! “It wasn’t so much an innovation in process as unexpected results from known procedures. My assistants and I discovered a new haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA. Previously it was thought that the genome of Homo sapiens consisted of thirty haplogroups, and we found a thirty-first.”

“By sequencing a sample of contemporary genes, you know,” Evan said helpfully. “Sequencing and verifying.”

Anything said in upper-crust British automatically sounded intelligent, and Dr. Curtis looked suitably impressed. “Of course, of course. Splendid results. A star in your crown.”

“It’s yet another haplogroup descended,” Evan said with malicious helpfulness, “from humanity’s common female ancestor a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. ‘Mitochondrial Eve.’”

Dr. Curtis brightened. There had been a TV program about Mitochondrial Eve, Marianne remembered, featuring a buxom actress in a leopard-skin sarong. “Oh, yes! Wasn’t that—”

“I’m sorry, you can’t go in there!” someone shrilled in the corridor outside the room. All conversation ceased. Heads swiveled toward three men in dark suits pushing their way past the knot of graduate students by the door. The three men wore guns.

Another school shooting, Marianne thought, where can I—

“Dr. Marianne Jenner?” the tallest of the three men said, flashing a badge. “I’m Special Agent Douglas Katz of the FBI. We’d like you to come with us.”

Marianne said, “Am I under arrest?”

“No, no, nothing like that. We are acting under direct order of the president of the United States. We’re here to escort you to New York.”

Evan had taken Marianne’s hand—she wasn’t sure just when. There was nothing romantic in the handclasp, nor anything sexual. Evan, twenty-five years her junior and discreetly gay, was a friend, an ally, the only other evolutionary biologist in the department and the only one who shared Marianne’s cynical sense of humor. “Or so we thought,” they said to each other whenever any hypothesis proved wrong. Or so we thought . . . His fingers felt warm and reassuring around her suddenly icy ones.

“Why am I going to New York?”

“I’m afraid we can’t tell you that. But it is a matter of national security.”

Me? What possible reason—”

Special Agent Katz almost, but not quite, hid his impatience at her questions. “I wouldn’t know, ma’am. My orders are to escort you to UN Special Mission Headquarters in Manhattan.”

Marianne looked at her gaping colleagues, at the wide-eyed grad students, at Dr. Curtis, who was already figuring how this could be turned to the advantage of the university. She freed her hand from Evan’s and managed to keep her voice steady.

“Please excuse me, Dr. Curtis, Dean. It seems I’m needed for something connected with . . . with the aliens.”

One more time, Noah Jenner rattled the doorknob to the apartment. It felt greasy from too many unwashed palms, and it was still locked. But he knew that Emily was in there. That was the kind of thing he was always, somehow, right about. He was right about things that didn’t do him any good.

“Emily,” he said softly through the door, “please open up.”

Nothing.

“Emily, I have nowhere else to go.”

Nothing.

“I’ll stop, I promise. I won’t do sugarcane ever again.”

The door opened a crack, chain still in place, and Emily’s despairing face appeared. She wasn’t the kind of girl given to dramatic fury, but her quiet despair was even harder to bear. Not that Noah didn’t deserve it. He knew he did. Her fair hair hung limply on either side of her long, sad face. She wore the green bathrobe he liked, with the butterfly embroidered on the left shoulder.

“You won’t stop,” Emily said. “You can’t. You’re an addict.”

“It’s not an addictive drug. You know that.”

“Not physically, maybe. But it is for you. You won’t give it up. I’ll never know who you really are.”

“I—”

“I’m sorry, Noah. But—Go away.” She closed and relocked the door.

Noah stood slumped against the dingy wall, waiting to see if anything else would happen. Nothing did. Eventually, as soon as he mustered the energy, he would have to go away.

Was she right? Would he never give up sugarcane? It wasn’t that it delivered a high: it didn’t. No rush of dopamine, no psychedelic illusions, no out-of-body experiences, no lowering of inhibitions. It was just that on sugarcane, Noah felt like he was the person he was supposed to be. The problem was that it was never the same person twice. Sometimes he felt like a warrior, able to face and ruthlessly defeat anything. Sometimes he felt like a philosopher, deeply content to sit and ponder the universe. Sometimes he felt like a little child, dazzled by the newness of a fresh morning. Sometimes he felt like a father (he wasn’t), protective of the entire world. Theories said that sugarcane released memories of past lives, or stimulated the collective unconscious, or made temporarily solid the images of dreams. One hypothesis was that it created a sort of temporary, self-induced Korsakoff’s syndrome, the neurological disorder in which invented selves seem completely true. No one knew how sugarcane really acted on the brain. For some people, it did nothing at all. For Noah, who had never felt he fit in anywhere, it gave what he had never had: a sense of solid identity, if only for the hours that the drug stayed in his system.

The problem was, it was difficult to hold a job when one day you were nebbishy, sweet-natured Noah Jenner, the next day you were Attila the Hun, and two days later you were far too intellectual to wash dishes or make change at a convenience store. Emily had wanted Noah to hold a job. To contribute to the rent, to scrub the floor, to help take the sheets to the laundromat. To be an adult, and the same adult every day. She was right to want that. Only—

He might be able to give up sugarcane and be the same adult, if only he had the vaguest idea who that adult was. Which brought him back to the same problem—he didn’t fit anywhere. And never had.

Noah picked up the backpack in which Emily had put his few belongings. She couldn’t have left it in the hallway for very long or the backpack would have already been stolen. He made his way down the three flights from Emily’s walk-up and out onto the streets. The October sun shone warmly on his shoulders, on the blocks of shabby buildings, on the trash skirling across the dingy streets of New York’s Lower East Side. Walking, Noah reflected bitterly, was one thing he could do without fitting in. He walked the blocks to Battery Park, that green oasis on the tip of Manhattan’s steel canyons, leaned on a railing, and looked south.

He could just make out the Embassy, floating in New York Harbor. Well, no, not the Embassy itself, but the shimmer of light off its energy shield. Everybody wanted that energy shield, including his sister Elizabeth. It kept everything out, short of a nuclear missile. Maybe that, too: so far nobody had tried, although in the two months since the Embassy had floated there, three different terrorist groups had tried other weapons. Nothing got through the shield, although maybe air and light did. They must, right? Even aliens needed to breathe.

When the sun dropped below the horizon, the glint off the floating embassy disappeared. Dusk was gathering. He would have to make the call if he wanted a place to sleep tonight. Elizabeth or Ryan? His brother wouldn’t yell at him as much, but Ryan lived Upstate, in the same little Hudson River town as their mother’s college, and Noah would have to hitchhike there. Also, Ryan was often away, doing fieldwork for his wildlife agency. Noah didn’t think he could cope with Ryan’s talkative, sticky-sweet wife right now. So it would have to be Elizabeth.

He called his sister’s number on his cheap cell. “Hello?” she snapped. Born angry, their mother always said of Elizabeth. Well, Elizabeth was in the right job, then.

“Lizzie, it’s Noah.”

“Noah.”

“Yes. I need help. Can I stay with you tonight?” He held the cell away from his ear, bracing for her onslaught. Shiftless, lazy, directionless . . . When it was over, he said, “Just for tonight.”

They both knew he was lying, but Elizabeth said, “Come on then,” and clicked off without saying good-bye.

If he’d had more than a few dollars in his pocket, Noah would have looked for a sugarcane dealer. Since he didn’t, he left the park, the wind pricking at him now with tiny needles, and descended to the subway that would take him to Elizabeth’s apartment on the Upper West Side.

Copyright © 2017 by Nancy Kress

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Paperback Spotlight: HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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Placeholder of  -12The trade paperback edition of HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, will be published April 4th! In honor of the book that Stephen King called “totally, brilliantly original,” we wanted to share this Paperback Spotlight.

Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children’s bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened or the consequences will be too terrible to bear.

The town’s teenagers decide to go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the quarantined town spiraling into dark, medieval practices of the distant past.

ONE

STEVE GRANT ROUNDED the corner of the parking lot behind Black Spring Market & Deli just in time to see Katherine van Wyler get run over by an antique Dutch barrel organ. For a minute he thought it was optical illusion, because instead of being thrown back onto the street the woman melted into the wooden curlicues, feathered angel wings, and chrome-colored organ pipes. It was Marty Keller who pushed the organ backward by its trailer hitch and, following Lucy Everett’s instructions, brought it to a halt. Although there wasn’t a bump to be heard or a trickle of blood to be seen when Katherine was struck, people began rushing in from all sides with the urgency that townsfolk always seem to exhibit when an accident occurs. Yet no one dropped their shopping bag to help her up … for if there was one thing the residents of Black Spring valued more highly than urgency, it was a cautious insistence on never getting too involved in Katherine’s affairs.

“Not too close,” Marty shouted, stretching out his hand toward a little girl who had been approaching with faltering steps, drawn not by the bizarre accident but by the magnificence of the colossal machine. At once Steve realized that it hadn’t been an accident at all. In the shadow beneath the barrel organ he saw two grubby feet and the mud-stained hem of Katherine’s dress. He smiled indulgently: So it was an illusion. Two seconds later, the strains of the “Radetzky March” blared across the parking lot.

(more…)

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Excerpt: Deadmen Walking by Sherrilyn Kenyon

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Image Placeholder of - 71 Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues today with a sneak peek from Deadmen Walking, the start of a new epic fantasy series from bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon—available May 9th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Deadmen tell their tales…

To catch evil, it takes evil. Enter Devyl Bane—an ancient dark warlord returned to the human realm as one of the most notorious pirates in the New World. A man of many secrets, Bane makes a pact with Thorn—an immortal charged with securing the worst creations the ancient gods ever released into our world. Those powers have been imprisoned for eons behind enchanted gates..gates that are beginning to buckle. At Thorn’s behest, Bane takes command of a crew of Deadmen and, together, they are humanity’s last hope to restore the gates and return the damned to their hell realms.

But things are never so simple. And one of Bane’s biggest problems is the ship they sail upon. For the Sea Witch isn’t just a vessel, she’s also a woman born of an ancient people he wronged and who in turn wronged him during a centuries long war between their two races—a woman who is also sister to their primary target. Now Marcelina, the Sea Witch, must choose. Either she remains loyal to her evil sister and almost extinct race against Bane and his cause, and watches humanity fall, or she puts faith in an enemy who has already betrayed her. Her people over the totality of humanity—let’s hope Bane can sway her favor.

Chapter One

In the Year of Our Lord 1716
Jamaica

“Way I hear tell it, that one’s so bad, he whups his own arse thrice a week.”

Eyes wide, Cameron Amelia Maire Jack burst out laughing at the unexpected, dry comment she overheard above the raucous tavern voices and music. Until she caught sight of the man it was directed toward. That sobered her quick enough.

Holy mother of God …

There was no way to miss that giant mass of human male as he swept into the crowded room like the living embodiment of some ancient hero.

Nay, not a hero.

A pagan god.

At least six and a half feet tall, he towered over every one else there, and had a shoulder width so great he was forced to turn to the side to come through the doorway, and stoop down lest he decapitate himself with the thick, low- hanging beam. A feat he accomplished with a masculine grace and swagger that said he’d done it enough that it was habit from years of experience.

Which made her wonder how many times as a boy he must have whacked his head afore he learned to instinctively duck like that.

With a quick swipe of his massive hand, he removed his black tricorne hat and tucked it beneath his muscled arm, exposing a thick mane of unbound, wavy sable hair that gleamed in the dull candlelight. He held a set of rugged features that appeared chiseled from stone—in perfect masculine proportions.

Never in her life had she beheld his equal in form, strength, or grace, but it wasn’t just the unexpected sight of him. He possessed that raw, commanding presence that was unrivaled by king or commander. An air of noble refinement that was offset by an aura of bloodthirsty intolerance, cool indifference, and utter ennui.

He was lethal, no doubts there. Beguiling. More than that, he was an enigmatic study of warring contradictions that quickened her heart a lot more than she wanted to admit to anyone, especially
herself.

In a festering den of inhospitable inequity and evil, this man reigned as its supreme emperor. And while his two companions were dressed in brightly colored brocades— like the other vain occupants of the room— this one, in stark contradiction, wore a somber black wool coat, breeches with plain brass buttons, and an unremarkable
dark brown waistcoat. Even his cotton shirt and neckerchief were as black as his hair and boots. Like a Quaker…and yet his demeanor and weaponry said he didn’t partake of their religion or peaceful ways.

The only color on his body was the blood-red hilt of a barbarian-styled cutlass. And a flashing ruby signet ring on his pinky that caught the light.

But for his fierce stance, deadly demeanor, and the firm hand that stayed planted on the hilt of that sword, he could easily pass for a respectable man. Nobleman even.

Until one met that cold, dark, intelligent gaze that saw everything around him to the most microscopic detail.

She could literally feel him tallying the strengths of every one in the tavern and sizing them up for their every weakness of character
and physical flaw…

As well as their caskets.

He was exactly the kind of unnerving male that caused her and Lettice to draw straws on his entrance back home in the Black Swan to see which of them would be stuck for the night waiting on his
table.

And Cameron always cheated to make sure she wasn’t the one left with it. Something that would bother her conscience a lot more but for the fact that it was Lettice’s father who owned the Swan,
and while Nathaniel Harrison would guard his daughter’s reputation and well-being, he wasn’t nearly as circumspect when it came to hers. Especially when placed against his need for profit. He’d sell all but his daughter for that.

Even his own mother, and probably his wife to boot.

Not wanting to think about that, Cameron scowled at the men flanking the newcomer. His companions were much more the typical pirate or privateer fare one would expect to find in such a sordid place. The one to his right had a mane of long brown hair he wore tied back in an impeccable queue, along with a well- trimmed
beard, and eyes so light and merry a blue they glowed in the dim light. Each of that man’s fingers held an ornate ring—no doubt plunder from some unwary ship he’d raided—if not some unfortunate corpse. Still, he seemed amicable enough.

While many Caribbean pirates had a tendency to pierce their earlobes, this one had chosen to place a small gold hoop in his left eyebrow, just off its arch. His elaborate burgundy and black coat was widely cut at the waist—in the latest fashion craze. And where the beguiling and dangerous captain had chosen a plain black neckerchief to wear, this pirate’s cravat was stark white silk, and trimmed in layers of decadent lace.

The man on the left was dressed in a peacock blue silk coat that covered an insanely ornate gold waistcoat. One so fine a silk that it shimmered in the light like water. He wore a small white wig
that concealed his hair color, but judging from his skin tone, dark eyebrows, and the careless whiskers that dusted his well-sculpted cheeks and jawline, she assumed his hair was as dark as his captain’s. Yet where the captain had a set of coal black eyes, his were a deep shade of hazel blue.

While his mood and countenance weren’t as dark and sinister as his captain’s, he was nowhere near as jovial as their companion, either. She’d guess him as the quartermaster.

Or a hangman.

The three of them swept past her without so much as a glance in her general direction, letting her know they saw her as no threat whatsoever— which was fine by her. Last thing she wanted was to
be crossed up with such terrifying and deadly men.

They made their way to the back of the tavern to an empty table. The large, burly guard who’d been keeping it reserved for them inclined his head, then went to fetch their drinks.

Something he returned with so quickly that it no doubt set a speed record for the inn. From her years of working in such an establishment, she knew it said much about his fear of angering the
three newcomers, and even more about their temperaments and personalities. These men did not like to be kept waiting, nor did they want to be interrupted once settled.

For the first time, Cameron’s courage faltered as she watched the men begin a private and intense whispered conversation.

What are you doing, Cam?

This was what she’d come for—to speak to Captain Devyl Bane and enlist his aid.

Maybe it’s not him.

She knew better. He was just as he’d been described. Darker than sin and more dangerous than dancing with the devil’s favored handmaiden. There was no one else it could be. The witch- woman
had told her to look for a captain who’d take her breath and leave no doubt in her mind that he was the bane of the devil himself.

That definitely described the man in the center of the other two. No one could be deadlier or more sinister.

“Greetings, governor. You be wanting some company, like?”

Cameron winced as an attractive prostitute plunked herself down on her lap. Because Cameron was dressed as a man and passing herself off as one so that she could travel unmolested and with ease, the prostitute had no idea she was wasting her time there.

Grinding her teeth, Cameron caught the woman’s hand before it drifted to a part of her body that would scandalize them both. Cameron shook her head sharply.

“What? You mute?” She reached to touch Cameron’s face and smiled wide. “That’s all right, love. Don’t be needing no words for what I do best, no ways. Fact is you be getting more your money’s
worth if’n we don’t be speaking no how.”

Cameron caught the woman’s wrist again and reminded herself to toughen her voice and lower it an octave. “Not interested, me sweet. You’re not me type.” She cast her gaze meaningfully toward
the three men.

The prostitute laughed. “Ah…can’t says I blame you there. They each be so fine you can’t help but crave a bite of those backsides and pray for lockjaw.” With another winsome smile, she
sighed. “Best of luck to you, mate. Way I hear tell it, though, you don’t got a chance with none of them.”

And with that, she left Cameron’s lap to pursue another, more probable client.

Taking a deep breath, Cameron debated the sanity of seeing this mission through. It was obvious that the three men had no desire to be approached by a stranger.

In fact, they appeared to be arguing.

Heatedly.

This is all kinds of insanity…

But Cameron Jack was not a coward.

Maybe a little?

She shushed the voice of reason in her head that told her to run for the door before they gutted her. Jacks aren’t craven. Now get in there, me girl.

Scared and breathless, she forced herself to her feet and crossed the room, trying to exude a confidence she definitely didn’t feel. Her legs trembled as sweat beaded on her forehead and upper lip.

For a moment, she feared she’d faint.

You can do this. Don’t you dare back out now. Patrick needs you. You’re all he has in this world…

The moment she neared them, they fell silent and all three pairs of eyes pierced her with a malevolent glare she was sure had turned lesser beings into stone.

Or, at the very least, caused them to soil their breeches. Captain Bane took a drink of his ale before he spoke in a voice so deep, it rolled out like thunder over a dark, stormy cove. “May I help you?”

She took a nervous step forward.

The brown-haired man pulled his sword and angled it at her neck. “That be close enough, lad. Declare yourself.”

She cleared her throat and met the captain’s gaze levelly. “I was told that you’re Captain Bane?”

Without confirming it, the one she was sure was he brushed his thumb over his bottom lip. “Why do you seek the good captain?”

“I was told that he…or you, rather, were part of the salvage for the Plate Fleet that went down?”

His mate stood and, with his sword, forced her to step back. “We know nothing of what you speak.”

Too late, she realized that they probably mistook her for one of the king’s pirate hunters who’d been tasked with going after the raiders of the sunken ships and their cargos. “It’s not what you’re
thinking. Me brother was on one of the ships.”

Bane reached out to touch the man’s hand and force the point of his companion’s sword toward the floor. “And?”

“I was told he went down with his ship.” She choked on her tears that threatened to overwhelm her. Ever since she’d heard about her brother’s fate, she’d been unable to cope. Unable to breathe. Not after all the two of them had been through together. “Please. I have to know the truth.”

The wigged man spoke with a degree of sympathy in his voice. “Only one ship made it out.”

“Aye,” she whispered. “The Griffon. He wasn’t on that one. His ship was the San Miguel. He was the captain of it…Patrick Jack.”

Bane’s gaze softened. “Sorry. The captain didn’t make it out.”

As they began to ignore her, it angered her to be dismissed so casually, and Cameron stepped forward again. “If what you say is true, then can you explain this to me.” She tossed the bit of salvage
that had been delivered to her door with a note from her brother.

It skidded across the table to land beneath the candle in front of Bane.

He and his companions froze for a full minute as she held her breath, waiting.

It was a worthless trinket that made no sense whatsoever. A strange bit of a charm designed in the shape of an ornate cup, with a pair of wings rising over the rim and a stake with ribbons that fell from the bottom of it. And marked with a fleur-de-lis in the center of its bowl. While it was pretty enough, she had no idea why her brother would have sent such to her. Why he would even bother.

Never mind anyone else. It would be all kinds of cruel were it a hoax.

The captain scowled at the necklace charm, but made no move to touch it. “Is this supposed to mean something to me?”

She shrugged. “No idea.” Slowly, she approached the table and held out the note that had been wrapped and sealed around the item. “This was what he used to hold it and send it to me.”

Bane took the crumpled parchment from her hand and read it. The letter was simple and heartbreaking. One she’d committed to memory.

Cam,

Forgive me for leaving you as I have. Know that me loyalty is with you. Always. Listen not to anyone. Keep your weather eye to the horizon and this to your bosom. Tell no one that you have it. Not even Lettice. Trust none at your back.

Ever yours,
P.J.

With a gruff countenance, Bane returned it to her. Again without touching her or the necklace charm. “And so what’s the first thing you do with this?” he mocked.

He was right. She’d done exactly what her brother had instructed her not to do— she’d handed it over to someone she didn’t know. “True, but I have to fi nd me brother, sir.” She turned the letter
around and pointed to the top of it. “Note the date. It’s months after they went down, and he supposedly drowned by all accounts. Yet if he drowned, how did he send it to me?”

A peculiar light flickered in Bane’s dark eyes. One that made them appear almost red in the candlelight. Surely an optical illusion of some kind. “Who told you to come here?”

“A witch-woman named Menyara. She said that you’d be able to help me find me brother.”

He let out a fetid curse under his breath. It was so foul and guttural that it caused the man on his left to snap to his feet and step away from him, as if fearing an imminent attack of some sort from
his captain.

“Who’s Menyara?” the man asked.

A tic started in Bane’s jaw. “ Don’t ask questions you don’t want answered, Will. And pray to your God that you never meet that bitch.” With a dark, deadly grimace, he finally took her trinket into
his hand to examine it more closely.

His expression unreadable, Bane met her gaze. “Did she see this?”

“Nay. Only the letter.”

“Why did you show it to me, then?”

“I…I’m not sure.”

He flipped the trinket through his fingers several times while Will slowly returned to his seat.

“What are you thinking, Captain?” the one in the wig asked.

“All kinds of folly.” He paused to meet the man’s curious gaze. “I commend her to you, Mr. Meers. Take her to the ship.”

“Beg pardon?” He scowled fiercely. “What she be this?”

The captain screwed his face up at him. “Are you dafter than a doornail, son? Our little Cameron Jack here be a lass as sure as I be your devil’s bastard seed.”

Both of his companions gaped at him, then her. And she returned their slack-jawed stares without blinking or flinching. “How did you know that?” No one could ever tell she was female whenever she disguised herself as a lad. It was a ploy she’d been using ever since her parents had orphaned them when she was a small girl. A ruse Patrick had insisted on to keep her safe from harm, and under his nose so that he could watch after her.

Bane scoffed as he reached for his ale. “Never try to fool the devil, love. I can see right through you. Besides, no man has an ass that fine. If he did, he’d serve to be changing my religion on certain
things.” He took a deep drink, then inclined his head to his companion.

“See her to the ship, Bart.”

Bart hesitated. “Are you sure about that?”

“Aye, and settle her in private quarters for now. Make sure the others know to leave her in peace or face my full wrath.”

Bart saluted him. “Aye, sir.”

“And Mr. Meers?”

He paused to look back with an arched brow.

“I expect on my arrival to the ship to find the lass as virginal after parting your company as she is on leaving mine right now.”

Bart let out an irritated growl. “I hate you, Bane. You live only to suck all the joy out of me death, don’t you?”

He snorted. “Pray that joy is the only thing I ever strive to divest from you, my friend. The day I seek greater entertainment than that is the day you should live in absolute terror of.”

“Duly noted, and me testicles have adequately shriveled back into me body so as to pose positively no threat whatsoever to the fair maiden in boy’s clothing.”

“Good man.”

“Eunuch, you mean.”

“And well you should remain, lest I make that condition a permanent one.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Terrified by the thought of being alone with them and their crew, but too desperate to let her fear interfere with her need to find her brother, Cameron reached for her letter and medallion, praying with every thing she had that this wasn’t a mistake.

Please God, protect me.

Swallowing in nervous apprehension, she nodded, tucked away her possessions, then followed the captain’s mate.

Devyl sat back to watch them leave. He cut his gaze toward his quartermaster. “What?” he snapped at Will.

“As I value me own testicles…not saying a single word, Captain. Just sitting here, nursing me rum.” He held it up pointedly before he took a swig.

Devyl snorted at him. “Hope you find more courage than that for the task we have ahead of us.”

“No fear there. Have more than me fair share. But you forget that I’ve seen you in a fi ght. And I’m neither fool nor drunk enough to think I can take you. Besides, you cheat and bite.”

Those words pulled a rare laugh from Devyl. It was one of the reasons why he’d chosen Will as his quartermaster. Unlike the rest of his crew, Will was unflappable and bolder than he should be. He maintained his composure, good nature, and calm rationale under even the most harrowing of events. And he did so with a biting sense of sarcasm and gallows humor.

More than that, Will was as courageous as stated. Courage mitigated only by a sound ability to reason and measure the merits of confrontation.

Aye, William Death was one of the best men Devyl had ever fought with. It would be an honor to die by his side instead of the way Devyl had been gutted before…

“Permission to speak freely, Captain?”

Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned back to pin a sinister glare on Will. “If you’ve the backbone for it. Go on…”

“Just wondering what mind you have to be bringing a human on board our bewitched ship.”

“Did you get a look at what her brother sent her?”

“The meaningless bauble?”

Devyl scoffed. “And you’re the one who claims to be the faithful religious man between us.”

“Meaning?”

“That bauble, as you claim it, Mr. Death—”

“Deeth,” Will corrected under his breath. It was ever his pet peeve that they didn’t pronounce his name with a long e as opposed to the way it was spelled. Though why his ancestor had chosen to be so antagonistic with either the spelling or pronunciation was anyone’s guess.

“Death,” Devyl repeated incorrectly, as he was ever a cantankerous bastard, “is from the sword of St. Michael.”

“Which one?”

He reached to flip at the silver medallion that hung off a leather cord Will had wound about his left wrist. “That winged bastard creature you believe protects and watches over you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. But until I do, I thought it prudent to put her under our guard lest something foul decide to make her its next supper.”

“And if that something foul proves to be a member of our crew?”

Devyl allowed his eyes to fl ash to their natural red state. “They would have a bad day, indeed… My mood, however, would be vastly improved by their act of blatant stupidity that would result in my natural retaliatory act of extreme and unholy violence.”

And speaking of…

The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he felt the hand of unsavory evil prowling toward the tavern.

Scowling, Will glanced about. “Do you feel that?”

“Aye. It’s come ashore as I said it would.” And headed for the largest gathering of victims…just as Devyl had also predicted.

Meanwhile, the humans in the tavern went on, oblivious to the malignant force that was headed for them.

Devyl rose, intending to keep them in their ignorance. But he only made it halfway to the door before it opened and three plateyes came in, wearing the skin of regular sailors.

Will pulled up short behind him. “Sailors from the downed fleet?” he whispered in Devyl’s ear.

Devyl gave a subtle nod as he debated how best to deal with the unholy bastards who’d come to feast on the innocent and take their souls back to feed their mistress. Part of being a bound Hellchaser was to let no one know that neither he nor Will had come to battle these demons.

Unfortunately, the plat-eyes didn’t have a Code they were tied to. They passed an evil grin to one another, then went on a vicious attack that resulted in the three humans closest to them being ripped to shreds.

Utter chaos exploded as the humans sought cover and escape.

Devyl cursed as he was forced against the wall by the tidal wave of terrified humans who were hysterical over being trapped inside by inhuman predators. With their preternatural abilities, the plateyes had sealed the door so that no one could flee them.

They thought to feast to night.

Groaning and shoving at a drunken male who was trying to reach a window, Will made it back to his side. “What do we do, sir? I can’t get near them for the crowd.”

Devyl pulled his coat off with a flourish, then handed it to his quartermaster. “Have I ever said how much I detest the sound of screaming humanity?”

“Really? Rumor has it, it was once your most cherished melody.”

Hitting the release for his sling bow, Devyl passed an annoyed grimace to him. “Nay, the sweetest music to my ears has always been the death gurgle of an enemy slain at my feet as he gasps his last breath.” Completely calm, he loaded the small bolt and released it straight into the skull of the nearest plat- eye.

The beast fell back and exploded into a black cloud.

Stunned, the other two turned to gape at Devyl. Then they must have realized who and what they faced.

Their eyes widened in unison before they shifted into wolf form and ran for the door.

But Devyl’s power was greater than theirs and he held them inside.

Will grinned. “That got their attention, Captain.”

As soon as the plateyes realized they couldn’t escape, they shifted into their true hideous demonic bodies. Then they each split into three more beasts to attack.

Will cursed. “Vulnerable spot?”

“Between the eyes. Decapitation.” Devyl caught the first one to reach him and twisted his head off. “But it won’t kill them.”

“ Pardon?” Will visibly paled.

He took out two more before he turned to face the man. “Creatures of vengeance and lapdogs. These are shadow manifestations.” He caught a fourth one with his knife and drove it straight through its skull. “To kill them for good, we have to find the bodies they assumed when they entered this realm and destroy them.”

Will growled before he drew his sword and dispatched the one that came at his back. “I hate me job, Captain.”

Devyl finished off the last, then quickly spread a compound of yew, salt, and ground jasper over the door-frame. That would keep more plateyes from coming inside to prey here again.

Will retrieved Devyl’s coat and rushed to join him as the crowd began to realize the danger had passed. Now, they wanted answers neither of them was at liberty to give. And before the crowd could compose themselves further, Devyl and Will made a fast exit.

Outside the tavern, the moon had turned an eerie blood-red, and clouds hung thick in the sky, making it even darker.

Handing the coat to Devyl, Will grimaced. “So those are not the beasts we seek either?”

Devyl shook his head as he shrugged his coat on. “ They’re merely servants.”

Will winced. “In our last few months together, I have seen unbelievable things that appear to have been spat out of hell itself. And I can’t help but wonder just what exactly does the Carian Gate hold back from this world, if we haven’t seen it yet?”

Fastening his cuff, Devyl met his worried stare with a knowing smirk. “The most corrupt, horrifying evil that ever gurgled up from the farting arse of the cosmos.”

“Lucifer?”

He snorted and clapped Will on the back. “We should be so lucky. Nay, Mr. Death . . . what’s coming up from the sea makes Lucifer look like a petulant, harmless child.”

Will crossed himself. “What exactly is it, then?”

Devyl sobered at the memory as a wave of bitterness and fury washed over him and burned him to the core of his blackened and withered soul. “In short, Mr. Death…my ex- wife.”

Copyright © 2017 by Sherrilyn Kenyon

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Excerpt: A Conjuring of Light

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Londons fall and kingdoms rise while darkness sweeps the Maresh Empire, and the fraught balance of magic blossoms into dangerous territory while heroes struggle. The direct sequel to A Gathering of Shadows, and the final book in the Shades of Magic epic fantasy series, A Conjuring of Light sees the newly minted New York Times bestselling author V. E. Schwab reach a thrilling conclusion concerning the fate of beloved protagonists—and old foes.

A Conjuring of Light is available now. Please enjoy this excerpt.

O N E

WORLD IN RUIN

I

Delilah Bard—always a thief, recently a magician, and one day, hopefully, a pirate—was running as fast as she could.

Hold on, Kell, she thought as she sprinted through the streets of Red London, still clutching the shard of stone that had once been part of Astrid Dane’s mouth. A token stolen in another life, when magic and the idea of multiple worlds were new to her. When she had only just discovered that people could be possessed, or bound like rope, or turned to stone.

Fireworks thundered in the distance, met by cheers and chants and music, all the sounds of a city celebrating the end of the Essen Tasch, the tournament of magic. A city oblivious to the horror happening at its heart. And back at the palace, the prince of Arnes—Rhy—was dying, which meant that somewhere, a world away, so was Kell.

Kell. The name rang through her with all the force of an order, a plea.

Lila reached the road she was looking for and staggered to a stop, knife already out, blade pressing to the flesh of her hand. Her heart pounded as she turned her back on the chaos and pressed her bleeding palm—and the stone still curled within it—to the nearest wall.

Twice before Lila had made this journey, but always as a passenger.

Always using Kell’s magic.

Never her own.

And never alone.

But there was no time to think, no time to be afraid, and certainly no time to wait.

Chest heaving and pulse high, Lila swallowed and said the words, as boldly as she could. Words that belonged only on the lips of a blood magician. An Antari. Like Holland. Like Kell.

“As Travars.”

The magic sang up her arm, and through her chest, and then the city lurched around her, gravity twisting as the world gave way.

Lila thought it would be easy or, at least, simple.

Something you either survived, or did not.

She was wrong.

II

A world away, Holland was drowning.

He fought to the surface of his own mind, only to be forced back down, into the dark water by a will as strong as iron. He fought, and clawed, and gasped for air, strength leaching out with every violent thrash, every desperate struggle. It was worse than dying, because dying gave way to death, and this did not.

There was no light. No air. No strength.It had all been taken, severed, leaving only darkness, and, somewhere beyond the crush, a voice shouting his name.

Kell’s voice––

Too far away.

Holland’s grip faltered, slipped, and he was sinking again.

All he had ever wanted was to bring the magic back—to see his world spared from its slow, inexorable death—a death caused first by the fear of another London, and then the fear of his own.

All Holland wanted was to see his world restored.

Revived.

He knew the legends—the dreams—of a magician powerful enough to do it. Strong enough to breathe air back into its starved lungs, to quicken its dying heart.

For as long as Holland could remember, that was all he’d wanted.

And for as long as Holland could remember, he had wanted the magician to be him.

Even before the darkness bloomed across his eye, branding him with the mark of power, he’d wanted it to be him. He’d stood on the banks of the Sijlt as a child, skating stones across the frozen surface, imagining that he would be the one to crack the ice. Stood in the Silver Wood as a grown man, praying for the strength to protect his home. He’d never wanted to be king, though in the stories the magician always was. He didn’t want to rule the world. He only wanted to save it.

Athos Dane had called this arrogance, that first night, when Holland was dragged, bleeding and half conscious, into the new king’s chambers. Arrogance and pride, he’d chided, as he carved his curse into Holland’s skin.

Things to be broken.

And Athos had. He’d broken Holland one bone, one day, one order at a time. Until all Holland wanted, more than the ability to save his world, more than the strength to bring the magic back, more than anything, was for it to end.

It was cowardice, he knew, but cowardice came so much easier than hope.

And in that moment by the bridge, when Holland lowered his guard, and let the spoiled princeling Kell drive the metal bar through his chest, the first thing he felt—the first and last and only thing he felt—was relief.

It was finally over.

Only it wasn’t.

It is a hard thing, to kill an Antari.

When Holland woke, lying in a dead garden, in a dead city, in a dead world, the first thing he felt then was pain. The second thing was freedom. Athos Dane’s hold was gone, and Holland was alive—broken but alive.

And stranded.

Trapped in a wounded body in a world with no door at the mercy of another king. But this time, he had a choice.

A chance to set things right.

He’d stood, half dead, before the onyx throne, and spoken to the king carved in stone, and traded freedom for a chance to save his London, to see it bloom again. Holland made the deal, paid with his own body and soul. And with the shadow king’s power, he had finally brought the magic back, seen his world bloom into color, his people’s hope revived, his city restored.

He’d done everything he could, given up everything he had, to keep it safe.

But it still was not enough.

Not for the shadow king, who always wanted more, who grew stronger every day, and craved chaos, magic in its truest form, power without control.

Holland was losing hold of the monster in his skin.

And so he’d done the only thing he could.

He’d offered Osaron another vessel.

Very well . . .” said the king, the demon, the god. “But if they cannot be persuaded, I will keep your body as my own.

And Holland agreed—how could he not?

Anything for London.

And Kell—spoiled, childish, headstrong Kell, broken and powerless and snared by that damned collar—had still refused.

Of course he had refused.

Of course—

The shadow king had smiled then, with Holland’s own mouth, and he had fought, with everything he could summon, but a deal was a deal and the deal was done and he felt Osaron surge up—that single, violent motion—and Holland was shoved down, into the dark depths of his own mind, forced under by the current of the shadow king’s will.

Helpless, trapped within a body, within a deal, unable to do anything but watch, and feel, and drown.

“Holland!”

Kell’s voice cracked as he strained his broken body against the frame, the way Holland had once, when Athos Dane first bound him. Broke him. The cage leeched away most of Kell’s power; the collar around his throat cut off the rest. There was a terror in Kell’s eyes, a desperation that surprised him.

“Holland, you bastard, fight back!”

He tried, but his body was no longer his, and his mind, his tired mind, was sinking down, down––

Give in, said the shadow king.

“Show me you’re not weak!” Kell’s voice pushed through. “Prove you’re not still a slave to someone else’s will!”

You cannot fight me.

“Did you really come all the way back to lose like this?”

I’ve already won.

“Holland!”

Holland hated Kell, and in that moment, the hatred was almost enough to drive him up, but even if he wanted to rise to the other Antari’s bait, Osaron was unyielding.

Holland heard his own voice, then, but of course it wasn’t his. A twisted imitation by the monster wearing his skin. In Holland’s hand, a crimson coin, a token to another London, Kell’s London, and Kell was swearing and throwing himself against his bonds until his chest heaved and his wrists were bloody.

Useless.

It was all useless.

Once again a prisoner in his own body. Kell’s voice echoed through the dark.

You’ve just traded one master for another.

They were moving now, Osaron guiding Holland’s body. The door closed behind them, but Kell’s screams still hurled themselves against the wood, shattering into broken syllables and strangled cries.

Ojka stood in the hall, sharpening her knives. She looked up, revealing the crescent scar on one cheek, and her two-toned eyes, one yellow, the other black. An Antari forged by their hands—by their mercy.

“Your Majesty,” she said, straightening.

Holland tried to rise up, tried to force his voice across their—his—lips, but when speech came, the words were Osaron’s.

“Guard the door. Let no one pass.”

A flicker of a smile across the red slash of Ojka’s mouth. “As you wish.”

The palace passed in a blur, and then they were outside, passing the statues of the Dane twins at the base of the stairs, moving swiftly beneath a bruised sky through a garden now flanked by trees instead of bodies.

What would become of it, without Osaron, without him? Would the city continue to flourish? Or would it collapse, like a body stripped of life?

Please, he begged silently. This world needs me.

There is no point,” said Osaron aloud, and Holland felt sick to be the thought in their head instead of the word. “It is already dead,” continued the king. “We will start over. We will find a world worthy of our strength.

They reached the garden wall and Osaron drew a dagger from the sheath at their waist. The bite of steel on flesh was nothing, as if Holland had been cut off from his very senses, buried too deep to feel anything but Osaron’s grip. But as the shadow king’s fingers streaked through the blood, and lifted Kell’s coin to the wall, Holland struggled up one last time.

He couldn’t win back his body—not yet—not all of it—but perhaps he didn’t need everything.

One hand. Five fingers.

He threw every ounce of strength, every shred of will, into that one limb, and halfway to the wall, it stopped, hovering in the air.

Blood trickled down his wrist. Holland knew the words to break a body, to turn it to ice, or ash, or stone.

All he had to do was guide his hand to his own chest.

All he had to do was shape the magic—

Holland could feel the annoyance ripple through Osaron. Annoyance, but not rage, as if this last stand, this great protest, was nothing but an itch.

How tedious.

Holland kept fighting, even managed to guide his hand an inch, two.

Let go, Holland, warned the creature in his head.

Holland forced the last of his will into his hand, dragging it another inch.

Osaron sighed.

It did not have to be this way.

Osaron’s will hit him like a wall. His body didn’t move, but his mind slammed backward, pinned beneath a crushing pain. Not the pain he’d felt a hundred times, the kind he’d learned to exist beyond, outside, the kind he might escape. This pain was rooted in his very core. It lit him up, sudden and bright, every nerve burning with such searing heat that he screamed and screamed and screamed inside his head, until the darkness finally—mercifully—closed over him, forcing him under and down.

And this time, Holland didn’t try to surface.

This time, he let himself drown.

III

Kell kept throwing himself against the metal cage long after the door slammed shut and the bolt slid home. His voice still echoed against the pale stone walls. He had screamed himself hoarse. But still, no one came. Fear pounded through him, but what scared Kell most was the loosening in his chest—the unhinging of a vital link, the spreading sense of loss.

He could hardly feel his brother’s pulse.

Could hardly feel anything but the pain in his wrists and a horrible numbing cold. He twisted against the metal frame, fighting the restraints, but they held fast. Spell work was scrawled down the sides of the contraption, and despite the quantity of Kell’s blood smeared on the steel, there was the collar circling his throat, cutting off everything he needed. Everything he had. Everything he was. The collar cast a shadow over his mind, an icy film over his thoughts, cold dread and sorrow and, through it all, an absence of hope. Of strength. Give up, it whispered through his blood. You have nothing. You are nothing. Powerless.

He’d never been powerless.

He didn’t know how to be powerless.

Panic rose in place of magic.

He had to get out.

Out of this cage.

Out of this collar.

Out of this world.

Rhy had carved a word into his own skin to bring Kell home, and he’d turned around and left again. Abandoned the prince, the crown, the city. Followed a woman in white through a door in the world because she told him he was needed, told him he could help, told him it was his fault, that he had to make it right.

Kell’s heart faltered in his chest.

No—not his heart. Rhy’s. A life bound to his with magic he no longer had. The panic flared again, a breath of heat against the numbing cold, and Kell clung to it, pushing back against the collar’s hollow dread. He straightened in the frame, clenched his teeth and pulled against his cuffs until he felt the crack of bone inside his wrist, the tear of flesh. Blood fell in thick red drops to the stone floor, vibrant but useless. He bit back a scream as metal dragged over—and into—skin. Pain knifed up his arm, but he kept pulling, metal scraping muscle and then bone before his right hand finally came free.

Kell slumped back with a gasp and tried to wrap his bloody, limp fingers around the collar, but the moment they touched the metal, a horrible pins-and-needles cold seared up his arm, swam in his head.

As Steno,” he pleaded. Break.

Nothing happened.

No power rose to meet the word.

Kell let out a sob and sagged against the frame. The room tilted and tunneled, and he felt his mind sliding toward darkness, but he forced his body to stay upright, forced himself to swallow the bile rising in his throat. He curled his skinned and splintered hand around his still-trapped arm, and began to pull.

It was minutes—but it felt like hours, years—before Kell finally tore himself free.

He stumbled forward out of the frame, and swayed on his feet. The metal cuffs had cut deep into his wrists—too deep—and the pale stone beneath his feet was slick with red.

Is this yours? whispered a voice.

A memory of Rhy’s young face twisted in horror at the sight of Kell’s ruined forearms, the blood streaked across the prince’s chest. Is this all yours?

Now the collar dripped red as Kell frantically pulled on the metal. His fingers ached with cold as he found the clasp, and clawed at it, but still it held. His focus blurred. He slipped in his own blood, and went down, catching himself with broken hands. Kell cried out, curling in on himself even as he screamed at his body to rise.

He had to get up.

He had to get back to Red London.

He had to stop Holland—stop Osaron.

He had to save Rhy.

He had to, he had to, he had to—but in that moment, all Kell could do was lie on the cold marble, warmth spreading in a thin red pool around him.

Copyright © 2017 by Victoria Schwab

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