For you, Dear Reader, who stayed with Buc until the end
Rage is a winter’s gale so cold it burns, filling your veins with a liquid hotter than the sun. Not living fire, but something far deeper. Harder. Brighter. I discovered that when I lost Eld and everything within me burned away in the frost that froze my chest and lungs. Now it burns within me so brightly that I wonder any can look upon me and not be struck blind. Once, I was Sambuciña “Buc” Alhurra, now I am become Incandescence, Goddess of Rage.
Eight months ago, I left Servenza, bent on revenge and convinced I knew what rage was. Then I lost Chan Sha, nearly lost my mind, and discovered what rage truly was, a freezing fire that seared away the fog and let me see clearly for perhaps the first time since I’d taken Sin into my mind in a ritual on a deserted island to defeat a horde of Shambles and the Ghost Captain who commanded them. Only, that wasn’t the truth. Leastwise, not all of it. The full measure was I’d done it to save Eld and in so doing brought an enemy between us. An enemy buried deep within my once-brilliant mind. Sin hadn’t meant to betray me. It was in his nature to want to reunite with his Goddess. To convince me to complete the Rite of Possession. A rite that would have turned me from demi-Goddess in my own right to little more than one of the slaves the Burnt were said to keep in their sandblasted lands. I’d thought I was winning when in truth I was being played, and it took falling out with Eld, defeating Sicarii who was but Chan Sha in disguise, and finally, fatally, losing Eld to realize how badly I’d been beaten.
Chan Sha giving me the slip had been the final olive pit cracked in the press that truly broke me, but with that breaking came insight. When I was ten and six, I sought the power to challenge the Gods and their hidden forever war, to break the chains they wrapped around the throats of the world and give people a chance to breathe on our own. When I was ten and seven, having found that power, I discovered what so many did before me: power is a conniving bitch.
Now I’m ten and eight and wiser for all my failures.
Alone, as I was at the start, after Sister passed and before Eld found me. Everything burned away save the knowledge that Gods can be bested. If they can be bested, they can be killed.
Aye, but it will take a special flame to consume both the Dead Gods and Ciris. I used to fear fire, but now I’m frozen and can’t be fucked to care. Incandescent. Rage. Me.
“You upset with me, amirah?”
I glanced down at the little girl, who was barely more than eight. A faded, pink rag was tied through her hair, which had been blond once and was now brown from dirt. I felt the heat of the sun’s harsh rays, though Sin’s magic kept me from sweating. It wasn’t the heat that made me move deeper into the alcove provided by the door, shifting my weight away from the child.
“No, little one,” I answered in Cordoban, shaking my head and setting the bangles threaded through my loose braid into motion. The words were strange on my tongue—another of Sin’s gifts. “You pulled me out of my thoughts, is all. They like to wander, same as you,” I added. You could have stopped me.
“I’d like nothing less,” Sin whispered in response to my thought, his voice echoing in my mind. “You muse on little else but anger and machinations these days, and the last time I tried to intervene, you locked me in a dark corner of your mind for a month.”
“It was a week,” I replied mentally.
“We were on Southeast Island one moment and when I came back, we were in Colgna!”
“Maybe it was a fortnight,” I admitted.
“So, little one,” I said out loud, forcing myself back to the moment. Sin wasn’t wrong; given half a chance my mind focused on either the rage fueling me or all the delicious paths I aimed to trod while spelling the ruin of the Gods. “You’ve word for me, Denga?”
“Aye,” Denga said, picking at a thread that had pulled loose of her brown dress. If she pulled many more, there wouldn’t be enough fabric left to earn the name, but she’d refused my offer of better clothes. After seeing a lad wearing silks above his station get jumped by half a dozen others and left with little more than his torn undergarments, I thought I understood. “I spotted another limper this morn.”
“Oh?” I started to lean forward, but my right arm—stretched behind me—protested. I held myself still. “Was it like the man with the sleeveless vest you saw last week, Denga?”
“I’m not dumb,” Denga said, pouting in a way that displayed her cracked lip.
My eyes burned with Sin’s magic, zooming in on her skin, but there was no bruise there. From the sun, then. Denga had decent parents whose only crime was being too poor to have a child. I guess that meant the father’s crime was being too slow to pull out, but isn’t that every man’s sin?
“And how would you know?” Sin asked with a grin I could feel in my mind.
“Why did I let you out again?” I felt his amusement turn to a sulk and I chuckled soundlessly.
“You said the stranger you wanted was a woman and this limper is a woman,” the girl continued.
“An old woman?”
“Older than you, amirah Buc,” she agreed.
“Aye, but as old as your ma’s ma or your ma?”
“Cordoban’s lousy with strangers, little fish,” I reminded her. “And the sun’s baked the bricks so badly they’ve cracked … limpers aplenty with streets like that.”
“You said this one would have her hair in braids down to her arse?”
“I did that.”
“And she’d probably hide her face beneath a hat?”
“To hide her missing eye,” Denga said, this time not making her sentence a question.
“Now that…,” I said, straightening up so quickly that I felt something twist in the wrist I still held behind. It began to burn as Sin’s magic fixed the sprain I’d just given myself. “… is interesting. Very interesti—wait!” When Sin’s magic kicked in, my hearing went, and I’d missed a few of Denga’s words. “What’d you say?”
“You didn’t say that she’d speak Cordoban,” Denga repeated. Her sunburnt cheeks dimpled when she saw my expression. “Did I do good, amirah?”
“You did.” The cold maelstrom inside me was rising to tempest levels but I held the breakers at bay. The second sighting? In as many days? I couldn’t allow for hope, but this was worth further investigation. I tossed a coin to the girl; she whooped when she saw silver flash in the sun instead of copper. “Where did you sight said stranger?”
“Watching the harbor,” Denga said. “Lots of ships come in—Ma says on account of fighting twixt Servenza and some other place? Whatsoever ship she wanted, she didn’t find it because her face was…”
“Long?” I suggested.
“You’ve nothing to fear from that one,” I told Denga. “What’d she look like?” The child’s description matched the one I’d gotten yesterday—a divided riding dress in a shade of brown that nearly matched the woman’s skin and hid her limp from all but the most studious types: children. “You did good,” I repeated. “How’re you coming along in your studies?”
“The m’utadi says if I can find a word that I don’t mangle I will be able to read before next season’s rains.”
“She just sighs and says a word Ma said would earn me a lashing.”
I laughed. “But she does teach you.”
“Every other day,” Denga confirmed. “Ma doesn’t understand why one of the apprentices to the”—she said a word that even Sin couldn’t fully translate, rendering it as “Most Esteemed Knowledge Bearers”—“would bother teaching one such as me.”
“But she does teach,” I repeated. If Denga’s ma knew what leverage I had over said apprentice, she’d understand just fine—the Cordoban Confederacy understood blackmail even if they didn’t have a word for it. “And if you pay attention, you’ll be able to sit for the exams come summer’s end.
“Then I’ll be a m’utadi?”
“You will,” I promised her. “I’m going to stop by tomorrow, Denga, and you can read to me. Then I’ll tell you if your apprentice is right or not, aye?”
“As you say, amirah,” the girl said, her cheeks showing the first color other than dirt. Denga was impossibly proud of being able to read, however poorly, but embarrassed as well. Her parents were still trying to decipher my angle, but could see no harm in learning to read—which showed their ignorance. If Eld hadn’t taught me to read, I’d have never realized how fucked we were by the Gods and never set out to balance the scales. There were dozens who’d let slip their mortal coil who could tell Denga’s parents the dangers of my reading, but the dead can’t talk. Not without a Dead Walker, anyway.
“Call me Buc,” I told Denga. “Now, run off before you melt into the bricks. Oh”—my voice stopped her midturn—“if you ever want to skip out on your m’utadi, or wonder why you chose such a path when the maestros are beating the soles of your feet for mistranscribing a tome, just remember, Denga … that coin I gave you? Anyone with quick fingers or a blade can steal that.” I tapped my head. “But knowledge? That’s a wealth that can never be stolen, only squandered. Savvy?”
“I don’t ken that word?” Denga said, her accent suddenly heavy to my ears. “But I won’t let you down. I promise.”
“Don’t,” I told her. She bowed slightly and turned to leave. “And while you’re at it,” I shouted at her back, “don’t let yourself down either, girl!”
I waited until I saw her pink scarf, waving like a banner, disappear around the alley corner, then pivoted and caught the body I’d been using one arm to hold up out of her sight. The Sin Eater’s head lolled against my shoulder. A trickle of dried blood ran from her lips down to her chin like a faint scar against her mahogany skin, but elsewise she could have been sleeping. I eased her down in the alcove, setting her back against the brick with her feet blocking the door, her azure robes unwrinkled despite the abuse. Over the last six months, I’d learned, with Sin playing my own reluctant m’utadi, that one has to be careful when murdering Sin Eaters—take too long in the murdering and they’ll call others of their kind to them or, Gods forbid, Ciris herself.
“Ciris wouldn’t come in physical form,” Sin said. “For you, though, she might possess the Sin Eater.”
“Wouldn’t that be the same thing?”
“It would be semantical,” he confirmed.
I leaned the woman forward and her black, shoulder-length hair shifted, exposing the hilt of the short blade I’d driven through the back of her neck. It’s hard to call anyone, let alone a Goddess, when your brain stem’s been severed. The blade caught on a vertebra, and I had to twist it a bit to get it out, the woman’s head jerking back and forth and the sound of steel on bone loud in the silence cast over the alley by the oppressive heat. Give it up, woman. The blade pulled free and the Sin Eater fell back against the door with a dull thud, her sightless eyes slipping closed as I wiped the blade clean on her robes.
Ciris would realize one of her own was missing eventually, if the other Sin Eaters in Cordoba didn’t first, and one way or the other they’d trace her to this stoop. I was counting on it. After slipping the blade into its sheath beneath the thin jacket I wore, I tucked a scrap of paper into the fold of the dead woman’s collar, arranging it so the edge of a blade drawn in red ink that could have been blood was just visible. Sicarii’s calling card. Servenza thought Sicarii dead, but the Gods—both sides—knew she was still out there. For the past six months, Sicarii had been murdering their mages and … most deliciously of all, each side thought Sicarii was working for the other.
I straightened and inspected my green sleeves, bright as spring, but I’d put the blade where I wanted and there was no blood to give me the lie.
I couldn’t keep the grin from my lips as I stepped away. It’d taken me murdering my way through two enclaves of Sin Eaters and burning the Cathedral of Colgna down around a dozen mages of the Dead Gods—destroying some of the Dead Gods’ bones worked into their altar in the process—for actual war to break out between the Gods. Once it had, the clergy on both sides had set to with a motherfucking will, taking the world as their battleground.
As for Sicarii? She had been Chan Sha. Now she was a hollowed-out husk, on the run from me.
I’d lost her in that blur of the first month after Eld died, but at last I had her. She’d finally returned to the place I’d least expected, her old stomping grounds: the Cordoban Confederacy. Oh, I’d moved on, redoubling my efforts to destroy the Gods. I owed that to Eld, who’d died so that I might live. I owed it to Sister, who’d done the same many years before. And I owed it to the little street rat I’d once been, a girl who read a few books and dared to dream. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t spare a moment for Chan Sha if she’d gone to all this trouble to pay me a visit.
I rounded the same corner Denga had a few moments before and felt the sun pale before my black skin, bursting with rage. I was incandescent.
I stepped out of the alley, and the port of Cordoban spread out before me like a giant’s beating heart, pumping its lifeblood from the great, yawning bay into the wide river that ran through the city and then down south and east for hundreds of leagues, across the entire breadth of the country. The city was built upon three hills that shadowed the port, which was usually packed with ships of every size and description; the confluence of port, hills, and river created a seemingly never-ending bazaar that bustled both night and day with trade, food, drink, and entertainment of every kind, plus a few expected and unexpected pleasures. Al-kasrs, with their resplendent gilded domes, rose from sunburnt brick buildings, adding pops of color to the landscape of vermillion and terra-cotta.
Even here, on the smallest of the rii—what the locals called the hills and a bastardization of the Cordoban word for “blade”—the wind carried the sound and scent of the bazaar. The thrilling blend of spice was somewhat tempered by the pungent, sweetly sick smell of refuse baking in the gutters running down either side of the winding cobblestoned streets. I breathed deeply, feeling a pang of homesickness. I never thought I’d miss Servenza—and this wasn’t Servenza; the spices and language were wrong and the air was too dry. But I guess even a street rat misses their hole every now and again. Not that my palazzo was a hole—it was as nice as many of the al-kasrs here in Cordoba—but the principle stood.
I eschewed the bazaar’s center, which was reserved for Cordoban’s banks, or qarsi, and their money exchangers. All around were stands of every size and shape, offering a dazzling array of goods for any with coin. Here and there the rainbow sea of cloth that enclosed most stands was parted by crumbling walls that offered a view of the port. Likely Chan Sha was lurking around one of these, trying to see the ships below. If she’d gone down to the hodgepodge of brick, mud, and wood that formed the docks, she wouldn’t have been able to see a damned thing.
I stepped up onto one of these minor promontories. The sea wind kissed me, its salty licks once again reminding me of Servenza. Two nearby stall owners were complaining about the confederation—why were the princes and princesses who oversaw the city-states that made up the Confederacy allowing unrest in the streets and murders at night?—but neither trader seemed to realize these were skirmishes in a larger war being fought by the Gods and their followers, bleeding their lives out in the name of a holy war we’d no part in. I scanned the water and a thousand scraps of sail. Some ships were anchored between immensely tall, brightly colored staves driven into the seafloor, while others were hauled into—or out of—place by teams of rowers. The pilots’ guild oversaw all ingress and egress of the bay.
I shifted my boots on the wall, sending bits of ancient mortar tumbling. Two centuries ago this wall had stood twenty spans high and encircled the capital. Servenza, then a budding empire, and Normain had briefly allied in a bid to bring the Confederacy to heel after Cordoban’s privateers took too much wool from the other nations’ merchant flocks.
One night, Servenza and Normain’s combined forces had come over the walls and poured into the city like rats in a grain shed, not realizing the entire civilian population had disappeared into the rocky dunes that led to the interior of the country. With their enemies inside the city, the Confederacy sprung their trap, flooding the street with whale oil that was then set alight. Both Servenzan and Normain had burned like human torches.
A fraction of the great host survived to limp back to their countries, their alliance shattered irrevocably, and Cordoban never bothered with walls again. The bay soon gained a massive set of chains that could be drawn across its mouth to prevent fleets from entering, but otherwise, the Confederacy trusted in that for which the hills that ringed their capital were named: the blade.
“Sin,” I said under my breath, trying and failing to keep the need from my voice, “let’s see if she’s still here.” I swept my gaze back from the port and over the bazaar sprawling before me. “Start with limpers and we’ll narrow it down from there.”
“Limpers, aye,” Sin said, and my vision burned, the stallholders’ grousing suddenly fading as my hearing went, but with its loss, I gained an eagle-eyed view of a hundred paces around me. I stopped turning at Sin’s nudge and focused on an uneven movement within the crowd. A scrap of cloth resolved into a bent old man with a shambling gait; he bumped into one of the tents and got cuffed by a broad-chested woman twice his height. I saw her lips forming a variety of insults … and the gilded cup he’d slipped into his other hand. I shook my head and my vision leapt back, wider, Sin resuming his search.
We went like that for a good half bell and I was beginning to believe Chan Sha’d called it a day, if she’d even been the limper Denga had seen, when Sin focused on a shadow that turned into a woman. She was striding down the narrow divide between the backs of the rows of stalls, her brown skirts swishing back and forth. She hitched one leg, catching her weight with a cane of plain brown wood. On another step, her braids fell away from her cheeks, and I saw the one-eyed face that I’d been dreaming of for more than half a year. Chan Sha.
I was moving before I knew it, peripherally aware of one of the stand owners finally realizing I was there and cursing me out as only a fishmonger could for darkening her bench without the decency to haggle over her catch, whether I wanted fish or no. Another time I might have paused to listen, profanity being a poetry all of its own, but I could just make out the back of Chan Sha’s brown dress as she slipped through the ranks of stalls farther down the hill. You gave me the slip before. Not again. I took a right and paralleled her, dodging a towheaded teenage boy shouting about the cockles he was selling and feeling too clever with himself by half for the dick jokes he slipped in amongst his cries. A flurry of movement farther uphill drew my eye—and half my blade from beneath my thin coat—before I realized it was just a dagger fight over rights to beg on that particular corner. I shifted direction, cutting the distance between us. Never again.
* * *
“The amirah is wise!” the reedy-thin man practically shouted at me. I was too dark to be from Cordoba, which apparently meant I was deaf. He gestured at the lamp in my hands. “It contains the soul of a Dejen, amirah.”
“A magical construct that takes the form of whatever I desire?” I asked him in my flawless, properly accented, Sin-assisted Cordoban.
“It’s a Dejen,” he said by way of agreeing. “Look. There! The script says…”
I held the lamp up as if studying the swirling bullshit the man had likely carved himself, but my eyes were on the woman, who’d pulled her wide-brimmed, floppy hat down low—protection from the sun that also served to hide her features. Everything in me froze solid, setting my insides aflame. It’d taken me another half bell, and drawing a blade on a would-be pickpocket, to cut the distance between us to a mere slingshot’s reach. My fingers itched to pull my slingshot from the slim, leather pouch that hung crosswise acrost my body and let fly. Or else to call Sin’s magics to me and put a blade between her shoulder blades. The Buc of eight months ago would have done just that, but then I hadn’t appreciated the frost that rage required, the utterly cool delivery it entailed. I did now.
So I didn’t out steel and draw a bloody smile across Chan Sha’s throat. Yet. Instead I tossed the lamp back to the thin man, who caught it and switched instantly from selling me on the brilliance of the Dejen within the lamp to telling me where I could stuff it. In some ways, the cursing, more than anything else, made me miss Servenza. With me not far behind her, Chan Sha made for the edge of the bazaar that led toward the inns and houses of the tallest hill, or rii, that was filled with outlanders. It was right about here that one of my other little fishes had caught sight of her yesterday. He’d trailed her into the city, where she’d hung around the section that played host to the Sin Eaters’ conclave—the official one, at any rate—then followed her back to a small alley in the poorest hovel of this rii.
Drive low into her back when she passes an alleyway. Kick out her bad leg. Pin her left shoulder to the ground with a blade when she tries to rise. Mind the punch she’ll throw, likely with a fistful of blade. Break the bad leg and then … tear her apart. I could see it all in my mind’s eye, variation upon variation, all ending with her torn and bloody as my frozen rage consumed her. My breath was ragged in my ears and my expression must have been more than a little unsettling because as two women passed me, one recoiled so hard she knocked her companion into a table full of tin cups of all shapes and varieties. The resulting cacophony drew Chan Sha’s attention and forced me to turn into a doorway to avoid her gaze.
There were only two inns on the corner the little fish had followed her to, but not even a mouse trusts itself to one hole, and for all her faults, Chan Sha was no mouse.
“Sin Eaters never are,” Sin said. “Not even former ones.”
The woman was barely two score paces in front of me. It could be that Chan Sha’d laid me a trap to find and step into—it’d be like the wench to do so and have me thinking it all my own idea. I didn’t believe that was probable, but possible? Sure. More than that, I hesitated because killing her now wouldn’t get me what I needed: answers. First, to what the fuck Chan Sha’s endgame had been with her Sicarii front, but secondly and far more importantly: was anything still lingering in her mind from her days as a Sin Eater that might help me kill the Gods? A former Sin Eater was dangerous, aye, but also capable of giving me what Eld and I had been working so hard for.
His name stole my breath away like a blade between my ribs.
“Let her go,” Sin suggested. “She seems to be following the same route today she did yesterday, and we know she can’t have been here many days before our little fish found her. You’ve a meeting with the Artificer you’re overdue for. Chan Sha will keep.”
“Aye,” I said, letting go of the hilt I’d been gripping along with the breath I’d been holding. I watched the tall woman, bent slightly over her cane, hobble around the corner. I felt like someone had picked a scab off my heart, but as sharp as the pain was, I couldn’t let it consume me as it’d done before.
“She will. And the Artificer may have word. Finally.”
I found the Artificer on the second-floor balcony of A Sharp Word, one of the taverns perched midway up the middle rii, known as the Ra as it was where the nobility lived and did their business. The hills were blades, and the name of every tavern, bar, and drinking hole seemed to contain some corresponding pun. As taverns went, the Sharp Word was fairly tame, perhaps owing to its proximity to the Royal Academy. Gearwork ceiling fans provided some semblance of a breeze to cool the patrons, many of whom eschewed alcohol for stimulants. In Cordoban they liked to drink their kan mixed with cocoa, piping hot despite the blazing summer heat. Half the population drank watered wine chilled in cellars deep in the rii, but the scholars wouldn’t dare muddle their wits, not when words so easily led to actual steel and certainly not when many of them had access to both words and blades aplenty.
I wove my way around tables that were packed with wealthier m’utadi—third or fourth children of the nobility—in brown and cream robes with their cowls thrown back. Farther back, away from the sun’s searching rays and closer to the largest of the fans were the futuwwa—maestros of the Academy—resplendent in their bloodred robes sewn with thread o’ gold. They argued just as fervently as the m’utadi about matters of history, law, trade, politics, and a dozen other disciplines. Strangely, it was the astronomers who were the loudest, one woman standing up to spit obscenities: a disconcerting metaphor about a comet and another’s arsehole. Ignoring them, I made for where the Artificer sat, beneath an awning on the cream-marbled balcony. He lifted a hand when he saw me coming.
“Cocoa?” the man asked, indicating the steaming mug in front of the empty seat. His own drink was half-gone, despite the sweat pouring down his pallid features. He adjusted his thick wired spectacles—only three rows of lenses lined up in front of his eyes today—and smiled.
“No kan, aye?”
“Of course not,” he said, sweat dripping from the tip of his long nose. “I only made that mistake once and that was in Colgna, Buc. You’re not very trusting, and so forth,” he added, taking a careful sip of his kan-laced cocoa and smacking his red lips together despite the obvious distaste he had for the brew.
“You can’t trust him,” Sin whispered. “He’s weak, willing to turn that straitjacket of a coat to whoever’s twisting his arm. He worked for Sicarii!”
“Trust is the sound of death,” I told both of them. He’s strong enough, in his own way. And he turned on Sicarii before I was in a position to twist anything of his. Not even his nose. Sin was quiet in my mind, as close as he ever came to owning that I was right.
“You play your part well,” I admitted, dropping into the seat opposite the Artificer. “Even if you hate kan and the heat. You know, if you ever get the futuwwa to grant you scholar access to the Academy, they’ll let you wear robes instead of that ridiculous jacket.”
“My jacket’s not ridiculous,” the man said, running his hands along the plum-colored, tight-fitting jacket he wore buttoned to his neck. “It’s their tawdry dress that’s ridiculous,” he added half under his breath, glancing at me and then away as his cheeks blushed to match his red lips.
“You Normain,” I said, kicking my feet up on the edge of the balcony and letting the darker-green, close-fit, divided skirts I wore fall back, exposing the barest edge of my calves where my tanned leather boots ended, “are the world’s most fucking prudes, I swear. It’s hot enough to boil water, man!”
“That would require a temperature precisely double the current air temperature,” the Artificer said, looking away. “Ah—you jest,” he added after a moment. His spectacles clacked together as the lenses shifted, putting a different pair in front of his eyes. “I’ve news, Buc. Things you may be interested in hearing and so forth.”
“I’ve news of my own,” I told him, reaching for the red lacquered mug. “Go on, you first. Brains before beauty and brains.”
“You laugh at my appearance,” the Artificer said, “but I may be wearing a robe soon enough.”
“They let you in?” I hissed, pausing with the mug halfway to my lips. “Finally?”
“Into the Halqove,” he said with a nod, unable to hide his grin as he ran a hand through his close-cropped, corn-silk hair. “I know it’s but the first step, Buc. Give me a few more months and so forth and they’ll let me past the outer ring and into the Marlqive proper.”
“You did well,” I said, following his gaze past our balcony and to the resplendent al-kasr that rose up like a flower across the street from us. A white plaster wall ten spans high ran in a graceful, curving perimeter around open courtyards that were dotted between the three large towers that rose up into gilded balls, like glasswork half-blown on the tube. They were connected by massive, white corridors covered in indigo-and-gilt scrollwork with arrow slits designed to admit light. The Academy was huge, dwarfing even the Confederacy’s al-kasr, but we both knew looks were deceiving. While its library was famed throughout the world, the Halqove was mostly filled with tables of m’utadi who were transcribing older works and attending lectures.
There were library stacks, aye, but not many. The true trove lay within the Marlqive and within something known only to the futuwwa—and to the Artificer and myself—the Mamnuan Xuna. The Forbidden Library. It was practically impossible for outsiders to be granted admission to the Marlqive; the Artificer’s vigorous efforts had only gotten him into the Halqove—the Academy—and that had taken more than a fortnight.
“I’d given them up ever letting you pass—comes of Normain keeping too tight a lid on your genius.”
“Comes of scholars not appreciating engineering,” the Artificer said with a shake of his head, his voice as close as it came to anything resembling anger. “You’re … not impressed?”
“It’s not that,” I told him. “It’s just I can’t afford to give you a few more months to maybe cajole these old arseholes into letting you have a red robe.” I tapped the mug against my lip. “I can feel time slipping through my fingers like sand, Arti.”
The war, and you could pick whichever you wanted: the mortal one between the Servenzan Empire—still Doga-less and, according to Salina’s last letter, the nobility increasingly unhappy at the Empress’s delay in appointing a new leader—and Normain. Or the deific one between Ciris and the Dead Gods. Regardless, the war was the best opportunity I was likely to get to take them all down, but until I knew exactly how to kill them I was struck blind. Which had led me to the Forbidden Library.
I said as much and added one of my new favorite lines. “‘When the time for action arrives, the blade that strikes first, strikes deepest.’” 451. Amirzchu had been one of Cordoban’s most famous princesses, fighting three feuds at the same time and melding the city-states into a single bloc over the span of five years. She’d also somehow found the time to write a memoir, a fascinating blend of philosophy and military stratagem, that, being Cordoban, prized speed, surprise, and aggression above all else. It’d worked for her and, two generations on, her family was still a powerful force in the Confederacy.
“Didn’t she die of poisoning?” Sin asked.
“Aye, her eldest daughter didn’t want to wait for the Confederate Seat,” I admitted. “But I don’t have any daughters to watch out for.”
“No, just every deity and their followers in the world,” he murmured dryly.
“You mean to trust this—” The Artificer leaned forward, dropping his voice. “—this dog you’ve brought to heel?”
“You know,” I said after a moment, “I always thought it a mark against them that they give their apprentices the same name as a mutt, but in hindsight they do train them well and quickly.”
“You’re dodging the question,” the Artificer said. He gestured with one of his ink-stained hands. “And so forth.”
“I entrusted her with something small,” I reminded him. “And Denga says she’s still doing her job.”
“How well is the question.”
“Something I’ll find out tomorrow,” I said. I took a sip of the cocoa, the bitterness twisting my tongue, and suppressed a sigh. I’ll add sugar to the order next time. “Or you will. I promised Denga I’d listen to her read, but that may not be practicable any longer.”
The Artificer frowned. “Why’s that?”
“Because on my way to see you, I ran into an old friend … Chan Sha.”
“Chan Sha!” he hissed, fumbling his mug and nearly dumping it in his lap. “Here?”
“What I said.” I nodded toward his shaking hands. “Might want to set that mug down before you ruin that jacket.” My needling him worked; I saw his hands steady even as he followed my advice. “So you see, events race on whether we will it or no and I need the information in that secret library.”
“That we don’t know for sure exists.”
“The whole reason this m’utadi is staying blackmailed is because she let slip in her cups that it does exist,” I reminded him. After I noticed her smuggling a book out to study. That offense alone was enough for her to lose a hand or an eye depending on her sponsor’s mood, but then I’d gotten our frightened m’utadi drunk and she’d spilled all the cocoa beans she had in her.
“The child truly has no luck at all,” Sin muttered.
“Child? She’s barely a year younger than me,” I whispered mentally.
“Look, Arti, the proof is right there before you,” I continued. “Would she have offered to tutor a street rat for free? To give me the exact dyes used in the futuwwa’s robes?” I snorted. “She’s so scared we’ll let it slip that she’s been teaching Denga mathematics as well, to keep me happy.”
“Even if this library is real,” the man hurried on, speaking in clipped tones before I could interrupt him, “we’ve no way of knowing if said library holds the information you seek.”
“Ergo, our need to do some hands-on research,” I said. “The only reason our poor m’utadi knows it exists at all is because the Dead Gods’ priests came here two years ago, a whole coterie of scholars seeking knowledge that their ancient archives don’t have.”
I left unsaid that the timing suggested they’d left with an idea on how to destroy Ciris, setting the Ghost Captain and Chan Sha on paths that eventually intersected with my own. Everything was coming full circle, but then I’d read that the stars above ran in infinite loops, and Jerden—a northern mystic writing two centuries before who also apparently had a fondness for a hallucinogenic found in a particular mollusk—claimed that time ran in a loop as well and everything had, or would eventually, repeat itself. I wasn’t sure about any of that; the man’s prose was beautiful but he seemed to be living in a fantasy contained within his mind.
Either way, it was clear the library contained something important. The Royal Academy didn’t collect only dissidents—like the Artificer—but also dissident books and forbidden knowledge. Knowledge dangerous enough that my m’utadi’s sponsor had nearly cut his own throat when he realized what she’d witnessed.
“You can’t trust a Cordoban,” the Artificer said, cutting through my thoughts as he dropped his voice to a bare whisper. “Gods, Buc, they don’t even trust themselves! Entering the outer ring without the proper pass is enough to earn a laming. Entering the Marlqive without a robe or pass will see you blinded and run out of port on a plank and so forth. Can you imagine what they’d do if you found this Forbidden Library?”
“Only too well,” I admitted. “That’s why you’re going to hear Denga read tomorrow. If the girl does credibly, we’ll have the measure of the m’utadi.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“Then our apprentice won’t have to imagine what will happen to her if she’s found out,” I said grimly.
“I don’t like it,” he said, dry-washing his hands.
“Where will you be?”
“Cutting through Chan Sha,” I said, unable to keep the growl buried in my throat.
“We must be careful, Buc,” he said, hesitantly reaching out a hand and then, when I didn’t move away, putting it atop my own. “She was a Sin Eater once, a pirate queen, Sicarii … we don’t know what she is now.”
“A dead woman walking.”
“Buc!” He squeezed my hand. “She nearly overthrew the most powerful city-state in the world and came within a hair of besting the most powerful woman I know.” I smiled, despite myself, at that and he grinned, too. “She didn’t come here by accident,” he added, his smile fading. “Not when she could have lost herself in the Shattered Coast if she’d given up whatever demented dreams she sees behind her eyelids.”
“Lid.” I tapped my eye with my free hand.
He snorted, his lips turned down. “We’ve got to assume she has a plan and that plan may include you.”
“Or you,” I reminded him.
“Fine, us, then.”
“What are you so afraid of?” I asked him. I leaned forward and let the winter-deep rage within me trickle out. “I as good as took her eye and her magic from her. I destroyed her plans and sent her fleeing like a rat before a dog. She’s a bare husk of what she was before. When I take her—and Arti, I am going to lay hold of her with both hands and give her a steely kiss—she’ll be naught but a memory!” I didn’t realize I was nearly shouting until one of the nearby apprentices raised their mug and yelled approval while the rest of her compatriots asked her to translate what I’d said.
“That,” the Artificer said, watching the other table in disapproval, “is precisely what I am afraid of. You were calmer than this when we faced her on Southeast Island, and when she slipped your grasp it was … unpleasant. Face her like this, Buc, and she may slip away again, and I worry what would come of that.” He cleared his throat. “I—I just—worry.”
“Worry.” I sat back in my seat, blinking back scalding tears as my chest ached as if I’d run the length of Servenza. “Eld used to worry,” I said after a moment. I glanced at the Artificer’s hand, pale atop my own, which was the color of the ebony table, and smiled. “I’d forgotten what that was like, I think.”
“I’ve been … concerned,” Sin chimed in. “It’s not in my nature to worry.”
“Save about what a failure you are at convincing me to pledge my heart and soul to Ciris?”
“Save that,” he admitted.
“What do you do, Arti, when you’re unsure of an outcome? When you’re running experiments?” I asked the man.
“Ah, well, experiments are by their nature the first of their kind, so I’m never exactly sure what will come of them. I have theories, of course, supporting documentation, research—” he began.
“Sure,” I said, cutting him off before he really got going. It was always a risk asking the man about his methods; he could talk for hours. Days, even. “But in the moment, when you were making Serpent’s Flame, what’d you do?”
“I used a control,” he said, unfazed at my interruption. “Several, actually. The first was simply gunpowder, which I knew to be explosive. I measured its effects in order to set a baseline against which I could compare the explosions from that which would eventually become Serpent’s Flame. I started with one ingredient and as I added more, I kept each previous concoction so I could compare them across a range of ingredients. It gave me, well, control over how I proceeded.”
“Control,” I mused. Right now I was in control, but a moment before, I’d lost all semblance of it. That’s what I needed, some mechanism to control my reaction such that no matter what Chan Sha stirred within me, I’d be able to hold my rage steady.
“I am your control,” Sin whispered.
“You were, once,” I admitted.
“I could be again. If you—”
“If that happens it will mean I’ve decided we’re both done for,” I told him.
Once, I thought I’d had control of Sin, but it’d been the other way around. I hadn’t known that not only could he respond to my commands, he could direct the feelings and sensations running beneath my consciousness. Similar to the way the body remembers to breathe without being told. Sin had made me forget my love of food because enjoyment beyond nourishment wasn’t necessary. He’d made me forget how I’d fucked up and let power blind me, how I’d destroyed some of the very ones I’d set out to protect: children and the poor and downtrodden.
When Eld and I had torn apart, I’d realized the extent of Sin’s control. Pain had given me the ability to wall Sin away from me. I still did that from time to time, when he was truly aggravating, but mostly I kept him so close within my consciousness that he could do nothing I didn’t allow. Letting him influence my emotions would give him a gap in my armor that I knew he would plunge through. I needed to find another way.
Time is a circle that spins out before us so quickly we imagine it to be a line, or at the end, a wall. I snorted mentally. Jerden had been off his rocker—apparently, smearing mollusk toxins over your body will do that. Jerden. Hmm. I stood up suddenly and the Artificer, who’d been silently waiting, stood up with me.
“Returning to the al-kasr with me?”
“No, you go ahead,” I told him. “I know you want to get that automated piston running more than one in a dozen throws.”
“I had thrice in a dozen yesterday, then it stripped a gear,” he said with a smile. He reached up and twisted his spectacles, putting yet another set of lenses before his eyes. “And where will you be, Buc?”
“Finding control, Arti.” I squeezed his shoulder as I passed him. “Finding control.”
“Blood from the liver of a sand hind combined with this one, dearie,” the apothecary said, touching a tin whose label bore a word even Sin couldn’t translate, written in a spidery hand, “heals all sorts of maladies of the blood.
“If it’s an issue of the mind,” she continued, pushing her broad body upright and moving slowly back behind the polished hardwood countertop, “it’s desiccated magefish brain, ground into a paste and mixed in with…”
I let the older woman natter on as she pulled various jars and tins from the built-in shelves along the back wall. Her clothing was plain, a large grey dress that looked dark against her faded tan, cinched tight below the fold of her stomach, the skirts cinched tighter still so that they almost looked like trousers. I miss trousers. Her hair, gathered over one shoulder and threaded through with bangles and silks that could be drawn across the face like a veil to provide shade if she ever left her shop, was of a color with her dress. I’d tried three other shops, but I’d known as soon as I stepped across the threshold of this one that I’d come to the right place. There was a feel about it, the organized clutter and the rotating gearwork chandelier that cast faint light across the entire floor, but it was her eyes, angled and black and piercing, that convinced me.
“Pardon, saydechu,” I said, letting Sin give the words to my tongue. “My dear da has a toothache that wine nor sahju won’t touch. He’s tried. More than usual.”
“How much sahju?” the woman asked, bending to look at the drawers beneath the counter.
“No. Bottles,” I said. Sahju was a Cordoban alcohol made from some heinous combination of fermented rice and seaweed. Two drams would have you feeling on top of the world. Two bottles should put you out for life.
“Bottles?” The woman stood up so fast her arthritic knees cracked. She leaned against the counter, her brow furrowing to add more wrinkles to the ones already there. “And he is still in pain?”
“He is. We can’t afford a physiker, saydechu,” I added. “I hoped you had something that could lessen his pain. And his anger.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I’ve a tincture put by that comes from the splintered rainbow mollusk,” she said as she sifted through a drawer. “Gets its name from the beautiful colored pattern on its shell. Beautiful to us, a warning to any would-be predators.” The woman pulled out a small bottle and set it on the counter. Reaching for a pair of thick gloves, she added, “The slug inside exudes a deadly toxin that seeps into its shell, giving it the pattern. The older ones have half a dozen rainbows in their shells and are so deadly that picking up even an abandoned one that washes ashore can still put you to sleep for a brace of days or more.”
She carefully used a dropper to transfer half a dozen drops of the liquid in the vial to a small brown glass, speaking as she did so. “You’ll want to mix a drop of this into a full mug of water or wine—not sahju. That’ll put him to sleep for half the day or better and there’s enough here to last a week or so. Perhaps the tooth may mend on its own.”
“Are you sure, saydechu? My dear da really needs sleep.”
The older woman snorted. “Any more than that, child, and your da may never wake up.”
“That would be a shame,” I said, touching the faint bruise on my face, made with brushes and powders. “But he really does need his sleep. The deepest sleep.” I met her eyes, Sin making them tear up. “I was told you helped women in need, saydechu. I’ve not much, but…” I dug into the ragged pouch I’d purchased from a begging woman and pulled out two silver coins. “Can you help me?”
“Oh, my dear child.” The older woman sighed. She rested her thick forearms on the counter and took one coin, pressing the other back into my hand. “I’ll help. The Gods send I shouldn’t have to, but then the Gods all seem to have lost their minds these past few months.” She slipped the thick leather gloves back on and tripled the amount of drops in the small brown bottle. “Put the lot in his next dram of sahju and your da will sleep well.”
“Thank you, thank you,” I whispered, faking a tremble as I took the bottle from her.
“Just mind you don’t let any touch your skin when you pour it,” she said, her thick lips twisting in a humorless smile. “A drop absorbed through the skin will make you see all manner of things that aren’t really there. If you’ve a cut and it gets into your blood it’ll put you down for a bell or two, if it doesn’t stop your heart.
“And see that you throw that bottle in the gutter when you’re done, in case there’s someone that does actually find your da dear,” she called as I left the shop.
* * *
I slipped out of the rough overcoat I’d worn to the apothecary’s, tossing it to a different beggar on the corner before taking the nearby alleyway that led through a warren of shops and stalls. Sure, I could have gotten what I’d needed for less coin in the Grand Bazaar, but I’d no need for anyone to remember a short woman a shade darker than most Cordobans frequenting apothecary stalls … and even less to risk another run-in with Chan Sha. The next I saw her, it would be on my terms, dancing to a tune of my choosing.
The alleys darkened as the sun sank below the horizon; lamps strung across the thoroughfares gave light where needed. With Sin, I didn’t need much light at all, which was just as well, as the path I took back toward the small al-kasr the Company had purchased a few years ago as a safe house avoided all of the larger streets. The Company’s actual place of business was a magnificent al-kasr that lay a stone’s throw from the Confederacy’s, and I didn’t want to attract their attention. Not when the Company still has me on the books as missing, presumed dead after the clock tower in Servenza blew up. Salina, who knew otherwise, had made sure the house was at my disposal before I’d even arrived. Palaces, small with but one gilded dome or none at all, replaced the bricked buildings on either side of me as I moved farther up the rii.
“Show me it again, Sin.”
“Buc—is it wise to torture yourself like this?”
Sin sighed and shifted in my mind and suddenly, I was in two places at once. I still walked along the chipped and broken cobble of the increasingly narrow alleyway, sidestepping dross that had been tossed over a wall here and there, but I also stood in a blackened room with no walls, floor, or ceiling. I wasn’t alone.
Eld was there.
“Buc … if you’re seeing this or hearing this?” Eld shook his head, his blond hair drawn back in a loose ponytail, both hair and skin bright in the darkness, his blue jacket immaculate, brass buttons shining with a light of their own. He ran a hand back along the side of his hair and shrugged. “I don’t know what this Sin can do, but if you received this message, it means something happened to me. Yesterday a pickpocket tried to knife me when I caught her reaching for my coin and another joined in. It happened again today and a rusted blade can kill just as easily as a polished one, so I don’t want to take any chances. Not with you … asleep.”
Eld looked directly at me for a long moment and sighed. “Two days ago I pulled you out of a warehouse as it burned around you, Buc. You were bleeding from your head and half a dozen other places and when you woke yesterday you were half-crazed. Your Sin calmed you down and revealed himself to me.” He swallowed, his sapphire eyes bright with tears. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, Buc, and I’m torn up inside that I haven’t spoken to you sooner. Told you the truth.”
He took a deep breath, his broad chest straining the vest beneath his jacket. “The truth is that I realized a while ago that I feel something stronger than friendship for you. I—I held back because I didn’t want to betray your trust in that friendship and I’m terrified it will ruin what we have. I can’t let that happen. You’re my best friend, Buc.”
“You’re mine, too, Eld,” I whispered, seeing both the wall a few score paces ahead where I’d need to angle up the hill to the al-kasr and Eld before me.
“I know things have been … awkward since the Shattered Coast. I’ve been a fool, Buc. I hate magic and you know that and I know you only did what you did to save me and … Gods,” he said in one long breath. He shook his head and looked away. “I should have told you all of this and let you decide what you wanted. I’ve kept that from you, but I promise if you wake up from—when,” he amended, “when you wake up from this and your mind heals, I’ll tell you everything and you can decide where we go from here. But, Buc?” He smiled. “No matter what you decide, friends or something more, or nothing at all. I’ll always be there.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh, Eld.” I bit back a cry. Half of me hated listening to this, knowing that soon after, Sin had convinced Eld that telling me the truth of what happened at the warehouse would drive me insane, forcing a wedge of lies between us. The other half? The other half couldn’t stop listening to his voice. It’d been so lonely and strange the last eight months with only the Artificer and Sin for company.
“You’re bloody fucking welcome,” Sin hissed, and I felt his pain at my remark.
“Eld taught me to read; you just taught me you’re only loyal to your Goddess,” I snapped.
“I helped you defeat the Ghost Captain and save Eld’s life,” he rejoined. “You always judge me over the one thing I have no control over! I can’t help my nature.”
“Let it go,” I told him. “All of it.”
Eld disappeared, fading into inky darkness, transforming from bright and alive before me to dead and pale in my memory. I’m not going anywhere. I blinked back tears, looked up toward the dim stars popping into the night sky overhead, and bit my lip. Godsdamned emotions.
I turned the corner toward the al-kasr that passed for home these days, trying to swallow my thoughts with a deep breath that physically hurt. My head full of Eld and past mistakes, I didn’t see the ambush coming until I was in the center of it.
Emotions: they’ll get you every time.
I realized something was wrong as soon as my boots scraped on the gritty cobbled alley that ran, crooked, up the hill before me. I drew a stiletto from the sheath that hung beneath my armpit, inside my jacket.
“Easy, Sambuciña,” the woman said, pushing herself upright from the crouch she’d landed in when she’d dropped from above. Two other hooded figures landed behind her, making the ten-span jump from the top of a darkened al-kasr look like a leap from a few stairs. She brushed a few errant strands of red hair back from her pale cheeks and smiled. “Wouldn’t want us to think you had reason to fear us.”
“Save,” a man’s deep voice said from behind me, back in the alley I’d just turned off from, “you lied to us and then tried to disappear. Not the actions of an innocent.”
“Did Ciris go and create some legal system while I wasn’t paying attention?” I asked, sliding to the right so that the al-kasr’s wall would offer me some protection. Unless the bastards are going to jump from there, too. My ears burned with Sin’s magic for a fraction of a heartbeat, but I didn’t hear any noise above. So: at least one opponent behind me and three in front. Not great odds when we were all playing with the same magic. “I’ve nothing to fear,” I continued, “and nothing to be guilty of and, last I checked, no reason to lie to you.”
“Keep Her name from your tongue,” the woman snapped. One of the black-hooded figures stepped up beside her with a growl. “You’ve lied to us for the last time, girl.”
“Can you at least tell me which lie it is I told you?” I asked, showing my teeth. “There’s been so many, you know.”
“Bitch,” the man beside her snarled.
“Efram,” she said, and he visibly reined himself in. “You told Katal and Jesmin about Chan Sha’s final showdown with the Ghost Captain in Servenza this winter. Recall?”
“Eh, that tea was pretty weak,” I said. “Stronger now, though, aye?”
“What?” Efram asked.
“Ignore her,” the woman said, “she’s obfuscating. We’ve been to the Shattered Coast, girl.”
“You, personally?” I knew that was unlikely; she was right, I was stalling.
“Sin Eaters,” she said, her eyes locked on mine. “We’re all one. With Her. In the Shattered Coast we found the Arawaíno and the island. We know the truth. Chan Sha never made it off those shores and neither did the Ghost Captain, but whatever it was that was buried on that island isn’t there any longer.”
“You have it,” Efram growled. So much for his patience.
“And you’ve come to Cordoban to confirm its authenticity before selling it to the Dead Gods.”
“Seems you’ve got everything all figured out,” I said slowly.
“Don’t try anything stupid,” the Sin Eater said. She smiled, baring white teeth behind her red lips. “You’ve another blade or two on you, I wager, but you’re no match for me, let alone the rest of us. Ever see a Sin Eater in action, girl?”
“A time or two,” I muttered dryly.
“Careful, Buc,” Sin whispered.
“If they wanted me dead,” I whispered back, “they’d have rushed me straight off, but they think I have something hidden away, which means they need me alive.” Ciris didn’t tell them what was on that island … interesting. “’Sides, Sin, we’ve an advantage they don’t.”
“What’s that? You?” he snorted.
“Me … and you.” I felt him freeze within my mind before he grudgingly nodded. I felt the blade in the palm of my hand. Not balanced for a long throw, but within a dozen paces? It’d do. Stiletto overhand, edgeless blade up left sleeve, crossbow, or slingshot? Decisions, decisions.
“As I said, you’ve got all the sums totaled,” I told the Sin Eater in front of me. “But I am curious. After all these months, why here? Why now?”
“You hid yourself well,” the woman admitted. She shrugged. “But you should know better than to trust a Cordoban, especially a scholar.”
“Oh, M’utadi,” I muttered. “You double-crossing bastard.”
“You fucked up, Buc,” the Sin Eater said.
“Maybe,” I admitted. Sin? Now. “But so did you.”
I whipped my hand forward at an impossible speed, eyes and arm burning with Sin’s magic as my hearing and other senses shrank to make room for what I was about to do. The stiletto I’d drawn scythed through the air so fast none but a Sin Eater could see it. Unfortunately, everyone in the alley, present company included, was a Sin Eater. The woman snapped her head to the right and the blade passed her by. Fortunately, I’d accounted for that—and as fast as Sin Eaters are, they can’t stop what they don’t see coming.
The hooded figure who hadn’t stepped up with Efram collapsed in a heap, my blade jutting from where their forehead likely would be. Efram shouted and the woman cursed, both drawing short swords and pistoles.
“Forget about me?” a deep voice behind me rasped.
“Not—” I twisted my wrist, pirouetted, and drove my edgeless blade through the bottom of a large man’s chin, driving it up and back, where throat met chin. His momentum slammed us both into the wall, but I didn’t stop. Sin’s magic made my hand burn like it was on fire as I rammed my fingers up through the bloody hole created by the steel. I thrust the cord-wrapped hilt of the short blade through blood and tissue and fat until my fist drove the blade home.
Into his brain.
“—even for a moment,” I gasped, spinning to put the large corpse between me and the two remaining Sin Eaters.
His body jerked and the boom of pistoles eviscerated the night, reverberating down the length of the narrow alley. Shoving the dead man toward the Sin Eaters in front of me, I assessed the shorter, thinner figure who stood half a dozen paces behind the man I’d just killed. They’d thought to take me alive, but they’d been planning on a human, not a fellow Sin Eater. Slingshot? Too fast. I drew my jacket back, exposing the narrow crossbow that hung from a string beneath my arm, and flipped it up, catching it in my hands and firing from the waist.
Bolts zipped through the air and the figure jerked—a woman, by her scream—as I rocked my index and middle fingers against the trigger, sending half a dozen bolts into her. I let the momentum of the gearworked crossbow—the Artificer’s invention—carry them up the length of her body. An alley piece like this one didn’t have much range, but up close it was as deadly as any gun. The cylinder clicked empty as she fell in a heap. I released the crossbow and threw myself into a roll just as another cacophony of gunfire riddled the alleyway, blazes of light erupting from where the two Sin Eaters fired rotating pistoles.
“Sin!” Time slowed as we spoke literally at the speed of thought. “Grenado?”
“Left inner pouch. You’re going to come up against the wall of the other al-kasr in two more rolls.”
“Rebound and toss?” I asked.
“Rebound and roll.”
“Aye,” I agreed.
The world came back in a blur as I somersaulted toward the wall. One hand supported my body weight as I vaulted back across the alley; the other found the smooth sphere in my jacket. Thankfully, it hadn’t broken. The Sin Eaters had unloaded a dozen rounds between them in the blink of an eye, but I knew, none better, that they had used their magic to do so, and that meant they had to pay a price. To move that fast, they had to sacrifice either their vision or their hearing. Being deaf in a fight is one thing, but being blind was a death sentence.
Which is why they might have seen me roll the grenado across the cobble toward them but wouldn’t have heard the glass break when it hit the hilt of the sword belonging to the large, dead Sin Eater lying in the alley. For a blink of an eye nothing happened. Then the powder inside the sphere came into contact with the still-wet blood the man had coughed up while dying, and the entire alleyway was illuminated by a sheet of flame that drowned out the shrieks of the Sin Eaters.
I took my time coming to my feet and drew my slingshot from the satchel slung crosswise around my shoulder. I wasn’t quite deaf, but I’d chosen to keep my night vision in the dark, and as the flames coalesced around two figures dancing in writhing pain, it was but the work of a moment to put a lead ball through each head. They dropped to the ground, still burning.
For a moment all I heard was the rasping breath in my ears, muted against the buzzing from all the gunfire, and then my limbs began to tremble. I let go of the slingshot, which clunked to the ground, and dropped my arms to my sides.
“D-damn,” I wheezed. “Serpent’s Flame certainly lives up to its moniker.”
“You could say that again,” Sin muttered. “I—I can’t believe we just killed five Sin Eaters.”
“They were overconfident … didn’t expect an ordinary-looking woman to be able to do what I just did. What we just did,” I amended.
A scuffling sound made my head whip back around just in time to see a flash of skirt disappear around the corner. I leapt after her and rounded the corner in time to see the Sin Eater I’d shot up with the crossbow sprinting away supernaturally fast with skirts gathered high in one hand. Damn it. There was an awkward lurch to her gait—she was badly injured and running on pure magic—but there was no way I could catch her. I whipped my jacket back and drew up the crossbow again, holding my aim well over her head to account for the distance.
Cursing, I squeezed the trigger without his magic. Click. The cylinder gave a faint puff as it tried to cycle, and I realized I hadn’t reloaded. I glanced back at my slingshot, lying on the cobblestones a dozen paces away, and cursed again. The Sin Eater cut into an alleyway and disappeared from view. Shaking my head, I moved to collect my slingshot. Looks like the m’utadi showed me her worth tonight. Nearly pulled off her betrayal, too. It was the work of a moment to retrieve my blades, and then I trotted off toward my own al-kasr. It was past time to be gone. Once the local militias realized mages were involved, they’d take an interest in what had happened here. With luck, they’ll think the Sin Eaters were killed by the Dead Gods’ priests and dismiss it as just another skirmish of the war.
“Fuck me.” I stopped so fast I nearly fell over. I’d still been half in shock from the sudden violence of it all that I didn’t realize what I’d done. I’d killed five Sin Eaters in as many breaths, and the one who had gotten away had seen it all. Seen that I hadn’t turned into a Veneficus to do it, either. Which meant she knew I wasn’t human, and I didn’t belong to the Dead Gods. And if she knew it, soon Ciris would as well. Only Ciris knows what was on that island.
“Me,” Sin whispered.
“You.” I cursed again. “Fuck me.”
“Fuck both of us,” he said.
“An old friend,” I whispered, striking a sulfur match, putting it to the end of the wick, and swinging the small window closed. Light flooded from the gear-wrought globe I held, revealing a young woman with large, owlish eyes that were still full of sleep, a nose that dominated her face, and full lips that might distract the right lover from that nose. “Good morning, M’utadi.”
The m’utadi’s eyes grew even larger and she opened her mouth to scream, but I’d been anticipating that. I leapt across the bed, dropping the globe onto the sheets and clamping her mouth shut with my hand. She fought me, ramming her body into mine and slapping at me with the arm I hadn’t pinned down. I dodged her hand and palmed a blade, halting it a fraction from her left eye.
“Eh-uh, woman,” I whispered. “I lied just a moment ago. It’s not morning, nor is this likely to end well. You see, I didn’t come here to have a toss in your sheets. I came here to have a little chat, just you and I. You scream and you’ll never scream again because I’ll cut you from ear to ear and it’s damned near impossible to scream when choking on your own blood and it is impossible when your vocal cords have been cut in twain like a piece of string. So you’re not going to scream. Savvy?”
She made a throaty sob beneath the palm of my hand, tears pouring down her cheeks, then nodded slowly.
“All right then.” I rolled off of her and stood up, then picked up the lighted globe—one of the Artificer’s inventions kept the outer glass from growing more than warm—and pointed to the small table in the center of the room. “Let’s have a palaver, just the pair of us.”
The woman sat up slowly, trembling, her tanned skin dark beneath the thin, sky-blue nightgown. She ran a hand across her nose and took a ragged breath. “I—I pissed myself,” she whispered.
“Terror will do that,” I told her. “Say, what’s the Cordoban word for ‘friend’?” I asked, switching to Imperial.
“There isn’t one,” the m’utadi said after a moment, answering me in the same tongue.
“That’s right,” I said, gesturing toward the table. “So I don’t give a fuck that your undergarments are soaked through. Move. Now.”
She flinched, shrinking back against the headboard, then stood up slowly, walking with her head down, black shoulder-length hair covering her face like a veil. I followed, giving the m’utadi a push in the direction of the chair in the corner so she wouldn’t get any ideas about trying to bolt out the door. She was a full head taller than me and there’s plenty that think height equates to strength.
The corner was close to the window I’d used to climb in, but she’d have to be a Sin Eater or a Veneficus who could grow wings to make use of it, so I wasn’t worried. I slid into the other chair, setting the lantern down on the table, and plucked a handful of dates from the plain ceramic bowl that lay beside a pitcher and a cup. I’d eaten enough for two back at the al-kasr, but I had a long night ahead of me and I was going to need all the magic Sin could conjure up, which meant he needed all the food I could stuff down my gullet. A long night, thanks to this one. I slammed the slightly curved blade into the table, my hand tingling from the power Sin gave me to put it a full finger through the wood, making the m’utadi jump, and popped a date into my mouth.
“You betrayed me, M’utadi, sold me out to the Sin Eaters in hopes I’d take your secrets with me to the grave.” I spat out the pit, hitting her on the nose, and she flinched. “That doesn’t bother me, not really,” I lied. “What bothers me is: does this betrayal mean all you told me was but half truth and half fabrication, meant to trip me up if I went through with my plans?”
“I—I didn’t lie,” she pleaded, her low voice thick in her throat. “I swear upon the Gods, old and new, I didn’t!”
“What’s your name, M’utadi?”
“Kanina,” she muttered, her voice hoarse. “Kanina Kyomi.”
“How’s that translate?” I asked her. “‘Possibilities,’ ‘Opportunities’?”
“Close enough,” she answered in Imperial, clearing her throat.
“Take a drink, Kanina,” I told her, nodding toward the pitcher and cup and popping another date into my mouth. “You’ve got a lot of talking to do.”
* * *
“I was being punished for mistranscribing one of the works of Futuwwa Senxrit, made to put away the entire day’s returns of books in addition to my usual chores, and it was well past midmoon before I finished,” Kanina said. “I had two tomes left and I was the only soul in the library. Or so I thought,” she said, pausing for a gulp of water, and muttering something about the Gods and their humor beneath her breath. “I was returning a volume to its shelf and when I turned the corner of the stacks, I saw a futuwwa and two of the Dead Gods’ priestesses in their bone-white robes disappearing into the floor.”
Kanina’s lips curved in a grin, which, taken with her tousled hair, made her look almost a child. “I was young and foolish. I thought I was seeing magic, but when they’d sunk beneath the floor and I worked up the nerve to move forward I saw that it wasn’t magic, but a set of stairs carved beneath the walkway between the stacks. The wood slid back to reveal a hidden passage.” She swallowed hard. “I wish I’d never taken that step.”
“B-because,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself, “when I looked down, I saw the three of them walking with a pair of the Almaush—the Death Dealers.”
“Death Dealers?” I bit back a curse. The Almaush were a secretive warrior sect that supposedly had sworn a blood oath to the great winged dragon that had united Cordoban into a confederation centuries earlier. Pledged to train from birth to defend their chosen Federate, they were said to be the greatest hand-to-hand warriors in the world. Cordobans being Cordobans, who believed the best defense was an attack, they were famed to be the deadliest assassins as well.
“It gets better,” Sin said. “They mix kan with other stimulants and build up their tolerance until they can take megadoses that allow them to move faster than any but a Sin Eater. It makes them stronger than normal, too.”
“Wouldn’t that kill them?” I asked in my mind.
“Eventually, sure, but only if they take too large a dose. There’s a saying about a grey-haired Almaush having a small mouth,” he said. “Because it’s the only reason they haven’t swallowed enough to die by that point,” he added, answering my unasked question.
“That’s … a saying,” I muttered after a moment. I pulled myself out of my head and glanced at Kanina. “I thought they only served the princes or princesses of the Confederacy?”
“What they guard is far more valuable than a single Federate.” Kanina snorted. “When the Dead Gods’ priestesses moved past the Almaush I saw what they were guarding … the Mamnuan Xuna.”
“The Forbidden Library,” I repeated. “If it’s forbidden and hidden and secret … how does everyone know its name?”
“They don’t,” she said. “You know it because I told you.”
“And because I read the right books,” I reminded her.
“And that,” she admitted. “Although the heretical texts are not allowed outside the Forbidden Library … were you caught with them in your possession they’d execute you on the spot,” she said slowly, as if just realizing what she’d said.
“Beginning to regret going to the Sin Eaters when you could have just gone to the futuwwa?” I asked her. “Don’t get any ideas in your head.” I touched the hilt of the blade I’d stuck through the table and added, “I’ve taken steps to ensure you don’t betray me again.”
“B-but I told you the truth! All of it,” she said, beginning to tear up.
“You told the same story as the first time,” I agreed. “Save you didn’t mention the Almaush then.”
“You don’t understand,” she pleaded. “It takes a decade to be allowed into the futuwwa and who knows how long after to be told of the Mamnuan Xuna’s existence and allowed entry. My sponsor’s been a futuwwa for a dozen years and even he didn’t know of its location until I told him what I’d seen.”
“And then he tried to kill himself?” I asked.
“He only considered it,” she said. “After he saw his own blood he dropped the knife from his wrist.”
“Probably fainted,” I muttered.
“Learning of the Forbidden Library isn’t punishable by merely death.” Kanina yawned, despite her angled eyes being wide with fright. “My sponsor said that we would long for death for seasons before they granted it to us.”
“Don’t get caught,” I said. “Good to know.”
“You’re actually going to try to sneak in?”
“No, you are,” I told her. She sat back hard against her chair, mouth working soundlessly, and I let her hang on that hook for a few moments before releasing her. “Gods, no.” I laughed. “You’d never make it past the Almaush. But, Kanina?” I asked, leaning forward. “Cut the shit and tell me all. Now.”
“You did not,” I growled. “You’re terrified. I get that. But if I don’t believe you, you’re not going to have to worry about the futuwwa torturing you, because I will. And if I don’t make it out of that secret library alive, you won’t survive the night. Savvy?”
“That’s not an actual word, you know,” she whispered after a moment.
“You’ve sand, woman,” I said, “I’ll grant you that. And it is a word, just not in your spiny-arsed tongue. Now,” I snapped, “what haven’t you told me? I already have to figure out how to slip into the inner passage with just a pass to the outer ring. I don’t need any other surprises.”
“It’s not in the Marlqive,” Kanina said.
“I was too young to be allowed past the Marlqive unsupervised, even to return books,” she said slowly, her tongue fumbling at some of the words. “The Forbidden Library is in the outer ring, just past the first set of stacks. Take a left and…”
“Genius,” I whispered when she finished. “No one would think to look in a place so many can access.”
Kanina fought back another yawn. “They’ve been right so far,” she said slowly.
“Hmm, there’s still a lot to steer by feel on this one,” I mused. “I’d have liked another few days, but thanks to you forcing my hand, I need that information now, before—” I cut off. Before Ciris finds out everything and puts a watch on the Royal Academy and comes hunting for me personally. I’d realized, once I got back to the al-kasr and had a moment to catch my breath, that I had to take Ciris out first. The Dead Gods had shown little interest in the machinations of nations before Ciris awoke. All the histories I’d read about the time before that sounded as if the Dead Gods had been content to be the only soul merchants in town. So if I eliminated Ciris, that should calm them down, let them feel they’d won, and buy me enough time to slit their undead throats when they weren’t looking.
“You really think this library has that kind of knowledge and Ciris didn’t know about it?” Sin asked.
“I think the Dead Gods and the Ghost Captain thought so. ’Sides, the Cordoban Confederacy has been welcoming dissidents and heretics for centuries … if any place would have that knowledge, it’d be here. Mayhap there’s a reason why they’ve never invited any Sin Eaters, eh?”
“Maybe,” Sin said after a moment, discomforted at the thought of a blind spot in his deified vision.
“I—I d-don’t feel well—right,” Kanina said, slurring her words. Her eyes weren’t wide any longer, mere slits as she fought to speak.
“Ah, well, you wouldn’t,” I told her. I flashed her the brown bottle the apothecary had given me and grinned. “Turn and turnabout, woman.”
“Wh-what you do?”
“Are you familiar with the splintered rainbow mollusk?” Kanina tried to say something, but all that came out was a moan. “Me either,” I admitted. “I’m told it’s incredibly deadly, but I wasn’t sure how fast it would hit you. I poisoned your cup,” I said. The woman’s eyes flickered and she collapsed, smacking her cheek on the table before rolling onto the floor. “Pretty fast for the dose,” I added.
“You could have caught her,” Sin said.
“Let her feel it,” I told him. “She nearly got us both killed a couple of hours ago and you’re feeling chivalrous?”
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to fill that void, lately.”
That void. Eld.
“C’mon,” I said, standing up and ripping the blade out of Kanina’s table so hard that I tore a fist-sized hole out of the wood. I threw open the window and whistled like one of the thrushes that flocked about the rooftops of the city. A moment later a figure crossed the street and leveled something large at me. With a dull crack, a projectile flew toward me. Sin’s magic let me snatch the grappling hook out of the air with ease. I quickly hauled up the rest of the rope and tied it into a makeshift sling. With Sin burning in me it was but the work of a few moments to slip the sling around Kanina’s still form before hauling her over to the window ledge.
Bracing myself, I rolled her out the window and, hand over hand, lowered her down to the street. When the rope went slack, I glanced around the room, but—hole in the table aside—there was no sign anyone other than m’utadi had been here. I caught up the globe the Artificer had loaned me and stowed it beneath my coat before levering myself out, hanging on by the fingertips of one hand and pulling the window closed with the other, then climbed down along the drainpipe that ran down the side of the brick building.
“Whew,” I muttered, landing beside the Artificer, who was still untying Kanina. “That was more work than I’d have liked, given what’s left for me to do.”
“And what’s that?” the man asked, glancing up through his spectacles.
“Oh, you know,” I said lightly. “Same old, same old. Find a hidden library, face deadly assassins, discover the secret to killing the Gods, and escape with life and limb still intact.”
“Ah, that old fig,” he said lightly.
“Exactly.” I frowned. “Say, did you just make a joke?”
“I’m learning,” the Artificer said with a grin, his eyes magnified behind his spectacles. “So now what?”
“You got the robes?” I asked.
“And the pass,” he said, pointing toward the handcart hidden in the shadows of the alley across the street.
“Then we make a trade. I get the robes and the pass and a chance to die horribly for the second time tonight and you get the woman who is responsible in no small part for both of those.” I helped him lift Kanina, picking her up beneath the arms, and we walked her limp body to the cart, the Artificer huffing and puffing from the effort.
“If I’m not back by first light,” I said, pulling the blanket over Kanina’s face and tucking it in around her so that the cart looked like any other, “go straight to the Company’s headquarters with that letter I left on my nightstand and they’ll smuggle you back to Salina. She’ll know what to do.” I hope.
“What about the girl?” the Artificer asked, taking a moment to buff his spectacles. He blinked at me. “What do I do with her?”
“I haven’t decided,” I lied. I’d already let one loose end dangle: the escaped Sin Eater. I couldn’t leave the m’utadi to pull another thread loose. “Let’s see if she’s still breathing, come morn. Then we’ll figure that bit out.” I shrugged out of my jacket, tucked two stilettos into my belt, and pulled the crimson robes on over my head. Once my arms were through I wiggled around to get a feel for the fit. “How do I look?”
“Like one of the futuwwa,” he said, handing me the pass he’d been given earlier that day. “Should I bow to you?”
“Only if you want to be a m’utadi,” I told him.
“We’re all m’utadi, if we’re doing it right,” the Artificer said.
I snorted. “That’s something the futuwwa seem to have forgotten,” I said, shaking his extended hand, “but maybe I’ll have time for a lesson or two.”
The guard returned my pass with a slight nod of his head, no full bow for a visiting scholar who required a pass because they didn’t have proper scholar’s robes—I’d removed the robes as I wouldn’t need them until after I was inside—and was back to jacket and dress. I thanked him in broken Cordoban—sans Sin—to keep up the false persona I’d created, then marched into the outer courtyard. It was dimly lit by globes suspended from wires above; gearwork plates set within the cobblestone triggered their movement so that faint light followed me as I walked past fountains that were still in the humid, midnight air. Topiaries made for hulking shapes in the shadows, the mournful cooing of a nightwing and the faint buzzing of insects the only sounds at this hour. I reached the edge of the courtyard and, rather than following the wall around, kept walking straight through the corridor that led into the library proper.
The corridor before me looked tattooed by the indigo lines that traced intricate shapes across its white walls. The wide archway, which disappeared into darkness above me, held massive doors in its maw. The doors were resplendent with images of books and gilt lettering proclaiming this place the “House of the Most Esteemed Knowledge Bearers” or perhaps the “Citadel of the Highest Learned,” or two or three other translations. The Cordoban were a complex people and their language equally so.
I realized I was stalling and forced myself to stride forward as if I expected the doors—slightly ajar—to open fully before me. As I neared and realized just how massive they were, I saw that there was just enough of a gap between them to walk through. There was no one else in sight. According to Kanina, the Halqove was usually empty at this hour, save for an unfortunate m’utadi who was performing some form of manual labor as punishment. There were guards at the entrance to the inner Marlqive, but thankfully I’d no need to go there. I stepped through the doorway and felt my breath leave me.
The stacks were few, lining the walls on either side for the first dozen paces and filled with ragged covers that had seen much use. Kanina had told me the Hall of Learning—or as she’d put it, “the Hall of Discovery, Thought, and Intent”—held only primers and introductory text for the lecture halls. Most of the space beyond the wide hall I now found myself in was closed off at the opposite end by another archway and doors that lead into the inner library reserved for futuwwa. I glanced into several open rooms—empty at this hour save for a woman scrubbing at what looked like a bloodstain on the floor by one of the lecterns—as I walked past. Many were filled with rows of seats arrayed around lecterns; at least one was clearly a waiting area—perhaps its far door led to audience chambers.
The smell of parchment and ink hung thick in the air, filling me with longing. I’d been a voracious reader since Eld taught me my letters, but here was a place where that love was formalized. Where I wouldn’t be a freak because I looked as if I belonged in the gutter but always had a book to hand. Here I’d be amongst compatriots thirsting for knowledge, debating what scholars long dead had meant their writings to convey, defending theorems and theories, reciting histories. Servenza had her own academies and Colgna her university, but I’d never had the occasion to go to either. I thought books themselves were all I needed, but setting foot in this place, I knew I’d been wrong. Books were blades for the mind, and here was the whetstone.
“You could wait until morning and sit in on a class,” Sin whispered in my mind. “I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it … right up until two score Sin Eaters show up with Ciris possessing one, if not all of them.”
“She can do that?” I hissed.
“She’s a Goddess. The only living deity in this world, Buc. When will you grasp the import of that?”
“Likely not until long after I’ve slit her throat and seen her tossed in the waves,” I muttered.
“If you understood what I’ve been trying to tell you, you’d understand how ridiculous a thought that is,” Sin said.
“Hey, take it easy. I’ve never been to school, remember?”
Before he could frame a rejoinder, I moved away from the classrooms and turned to the right at the intersection before the closed archway of the futuwwas’ hallowed library. Immediately the hall opened into a labyrinth of bookshelves that rose from floor to halfway to the ceiling, laid out before me in even rows that ended—sometimes abruptly—only by other shelves that ran perpendicular to the rest. Here and there, flickering lantern light indicated where a visiting scholar—such as I claimed to be—or a m’utadi or servant was moving about. A wealth of knowledge lay in front of me, even in these “lesser” stacks, but I had no idea how they were organized … and tonight, no time to figure that out.
It was but the work of a moment to find the stack Kanina had described, built into the outer wall of the inner sanctum, and then the book with red binding that was thrice the width of its companions. I slid it out. Kanina claimed she’d nearly died of fright, but the woman had had the presence of mind to look around, trying to understand what had caused the floor to open up … and had noticed a book out of place. Such a thing was impossible in the stacks, because the m’utadi were in charge of returns and the futuwwa expected each copy to be flush with the next. The mistake had jumped out to her, leading her to the next secret. Lucky me. I held the cover up, but it was scrawled in a language I’d never seen before—Kanina thought it made-up gibberish, although looking at it, I wasn’t so sure.
“It’s definitely a language,” Sin said. “One I’ve not seen either, though, and it would take a fair bit to translate it.”
“That’s fine. We’re not here for that.” I glanced around, but there was no one in this particular stack, which was only dimly lit by the chandeliers overhead. Reaching beneath my jacket, I undid the string that kept the robe tied around my waist. I’d tried the fit earlier because if it didn’t look custom-made then there was no hope of fooling the Almaush. I shrugged into the bloodred robe, pulling it over my clothes. Then I felt along the smooth wooden shelf where the book had been, my fingernails catching the edge of the hidden compartment and prying it up. Within was the lever that would reveal the hidden staircase.
I couldn’t afford to let any get close enough to see my face … I was about two decades too young to be granted access to the Mamnuan Xuna. So I pulled the cowl up over my head, tucking my loose locks back and letting the fabric throw a shadow over my features. Weapons inventory: a stiletto on either hip, a blade on each wrist, and another strung around a cord and hanging down the middle of my back. I’d killed half a dozen Sin Eaters with little more than this, but the Almaush were nearly as capable and just as deadly. If I had to fight, that would mean I’d lost any hope of discovering the means by which I could end the Gods and their chokehold upon the world. No pressure. I snorted and pulled the lever up. For a moment it held, then it shifted, sliding smoothly up into place with a click that echoed behind me as the floor trembled with a steady vibration that hinted at more gearwork beneath my feet.
A section of the wooden floor sank down a bare finger’s breadth, then slid aside, beneath the rest of the floor. Stairs cut into polished grey stone led down to where two figures stood just outside a pool of red lamplight. Both swiveled to stare up at me as I nonchalantly slid the thick red book back into place, knocking the lever down, and stepped onto the first stone, a ticking sound just barely audible as I entered the passageway. Putting my hands together so that they disappeared into the wide-sleeved robe, I descended the stairs processionally, as if I were a queen deigning to give her due to the commoners.
Up close, the Almaush were as intimidating as the rumors said they were. A woman who would have rivaled Eld for wide shoulders stood tall in a thin, mail tunic that covered her tightly from neck to knees. Leaving little to the imagination, it showed her heavily muscled torso off to great effect; the red lantern light cast bloody shadows over her shaved head and thick, gold earrings. She shifted her weight but didn’t reach behind her for a pair of axes, nearly as tall as me, resting in brackets mounted on the wall. Her compatriot was a short man with flowing dark locks and enough muscle to put the woman to shame, his neck as thick as my leg. He didn’t wear armor, just a sleeveless vest over a pair of trousers that ended at calves the size of tree trunks. His hand strayed toward the hilt of the short sword that looked more like a cleaver in his belt, then stopped. His gaze told me he’d weighed me to the barest coin and assessed me no threat. Yet.
Though I’d seen plenty of fighters in my time, these two in particular reminded me of Eld: not fighters but warriors. Sin? He shifted in my mind. If either moves for a weapon, give me everything you’ve got. I want them dead before they realize what we are, aye? I felt him nod assent, but a layer deeper, I felt his hesitancy, and that, more than anything else, sent a chill through me. Sin considered himself next to a God, and if he was nervous, I should be petrified. No one ever won by holding on to the cup. Toss the dice and play your roll. Old Buc made me smile. One lesson she’d taught me is that if you’ve enough nerve, you can accomplish wondrous things.
I didn’t bother to glance at either Almaush until I reached the door, then I gave the slightest fraction of a nod. After an endless pause, the man moved—perhaps at some hidden signal from the woman—sending Sin’s magic coursing through my body in a tingling, burning flame before I realized he was just opening the door. I was being admitted to the most secret library in the world.
I strode boldly through the stone archway and down a row of marble statues that led to a dais in the center of an open circle ringed with tables. A man and woman moved slowly but purposefully between a handful of waiting scholars, all in robes that matched my own, and the dais, where a single figure stood before a long table. Slips of paper were passed, the figure bent, and I realized the table wasn’t a table, but a massive cataloguing system.
Unlike the Kanados Trading Company’s library, the Mamnuan Xuna was reserved for works by dissidents, heretics, and all manner of shadowy figures. There might be untold wonders on its shelves, but I needed to find a specific thing—if it existed—and quickly. I ducked into the outermost aisle before any glanced my way, and began walking quickly down the row. Shelves hewn into sandstone and lined with thin fur were on my right, while proper shelves of dark wood polished with scented oil curved sinuously away on my left. The row wasn’t straight because the rock wasn’t straight: the shelves conformed to the space, not the other way around. In a dozen steps I was out of sight and I paused to pluck a book at random.
“What am I looking at, Sin?” I asked, flipping through the pages slowly enough that I could scan each page, but too quickly for me to take in more than a word or three, even if it had been in a language I recognized.
“It looks like a book of songs on sexual conquests and insults,” Sin said after a moment. “At least three centuries old, by the archaic Cordoban it’s written in, and not fond of the Prince Federate of Umant, considering the three verses dedicated to the diminutive nature of his, um—”
“Block and tackle?”
“Sometimes making it into the history books isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be,” I muttered. Slipping the book back onto the shelf, I moved farther down the row and paused when a gentle current of air tickled my ear. Two stories above, a gap in the ceiling allowed for some sort of ventilation; while the air wasn’t bone-dry, my tongue was beginning to cleave to the roof of my mouth. You’re not here for the architecture. I glanced back at the shelf and plucked out a thinner volume, flipping it open. “This one?”
“Songs on the nature of the Gods,” Sin said. He made a noise. “They seem to be suggesting that the Dead Gods are the Father, Ciris the Mother, and we all her children.”
“And stupid,” he muttered.
“Uh-huh. I won’t argue that one with you.”
I kept moving from stack to stack, periodically removing books from the shelves to see if they were useful, trying to determine where the information I needed might be located. By the time we’d walked down a good two-thirds of four stacks, I was growing wary. I couldn’t walk up and declare myself to the master librarian—that had to have been the figure taking book requests from their assistants who spoke to the other futuwwa—because they would instantly recognize I was too young to be there … or would realize I shouldn’t be there at all. While the Royal Academy had several hundred scholars in residence, those granted access to the Mamnuan Xuna were far fewer and would know one another intimately. I had to rely on Sin deciphering the cataloguing system. Books were numbered, but with single digits, and were shelved by no discernible method save that some appeared to be in alphabetical order by title.
“The longer we’re here, the more the odds increase that we’ll get caught,” I reminded him as we entered another row.
“I’m working as quickly as I can,” Sin said. “There’s only so much I can do with such limited information to work with. The rows seem to be arranged by subject, then further divided into additional subjects within the row, but the numbers don’t make sense and I’m not entirely sure I trust the numbering system.”
“Clearly the futuwwa don’t trust themselves either,” I muttered. “That’s why the need for the master librarian—to control access to the shelves.”
“It’s very Cordoban of them,” he agreed. “Wait … flip back a page?” I flipped back to the title page and Sin chuckled. “Fucking clever arseholes.”
I glanced at the title page, which looked brighter than the rest of the text, flipped to the next page, and cursed. “The title pages are fakes, added in after the fact.”
“To sow further confusion,” he said with a mental nod. “All right … I think I understand now. Take a step back.”
I walked to the beginning of the row and followed where Sin indicated. “The numbers on the ends of the rows are a repeating sequence that equates to the Cordoban alphabet and that allows one, if calculated correctly, to grasp the subject by the numbers carved along each shelf.…” I could see numbers carved into each shelf a dozen paces into the row. “Then,” Sin continued, “the title page has a few numbers that indicate the sub-subject and the actual title page the title. Perhaps the title is the actual book title?”
“You’re losing me,” I told him.
“Your brain losing out to your beauty, Buc?”
“Nothing beautiful about your mouth,” he muttered.
“Oh, I don’t know, there’s a certain poetry to cursing,” I said. “Walk the docks of Servenza when sailors are loading or unloading and you’ll hear it. Probably learn a new word or two in the bargain … so do you know which row we need to be in?”
“Two down,” Sin said, pointing mentally toward the back of the library, farther from the entrance. “We’ll—”
A gong sounded, growing in strength until it reverberated loud enough to shake the shelves for a moment before disappearing.
“What was that?” we asked at the same time.
“I thought you knew,” we both repeated.
“Damn,” I said, and Sin held up before we repeated each other for a third time. The sound of boots scuffling on the floor drew away from us, and I risked a peek around the corner of the next row in time to see a red-hooded figure disappear from view around the final curve before the central opening. A few more steps forward granted me a glimpse of another walking past one of the marble statues, throwing their hands up in the air as they moved toward the dais.
“Some sort of roll call?”
“Looks like,” Sin agreed.
“This is the most secret library in the world … there can’t be that many of us down here,” I muttered. “What are the odds they send one of those assistants out to walk the rows after everyone’s shown up?” I asked. “To make sure there isn’t some demi-Goddess infiltrating their bloody secrets.”
“I wouldn’t take that bet,” he said. “Look!”
A woman in a purple cloak walked past the row we were in, marching toward the stacks nearest the door, followed by a similarly garbed man who likely would take the other half of that outer aisle. Several moments later they both called back, “Clear.” With Sin’s magic burning in my ears, I heard them walk to the end of the first row and start down the second. I’ve no time. There were half a dozen rows between me and them, eight now as I moved to the row Sin indicated. Almost no time. For a moment I hesitated, doing the sums, but this wasn’t a time for thought. This required action. Fast action or violent action in seven rows and counting. Biting back a curse, I sprinted toward the far wall, catching myself there for an instant and nearly upending a shelf full of books before running the last two rows to where Sin had indicated. I began pulling books at random.
“I hope you’ve got your motherfucking reading specs on, Sin,” I growled as I began flipping pages. “We don’t have—”
“Next one,” he interrupted. “The time,” he finished for me. “I know. That book,” he added as I plucked and opened another, “was just on powers of the Gods. Next,” he said after I flipped two pages. “Move a quarter of the way down and switch to the other side.”
“Sin,” I muttered as I plucked books without looking at them, “if you’re playing me, I’ll make that time back at Colgna look a single night’s sleep compared to how long I’ll lock you away.”
“If you’re not going to trust me, Buc, you picked a poor fucking time to do it,” he snarled. “I’m not going to help you actually murder Ciris—I’ll choose Ascension first—but there’s still time for me to change your mind.”
“What’s Ascension?” I asked, aware that he’d capitalized it in the same way he did Possession.”
“I’m not,” he whispered.
“To yourself if no other,” I told him, picking up another book. “Nothing’s going to change my mind about ending Ciris.”
“You’ve a mind like few I’ve encountered,” he said after a moment. “You can’t not respond to new stimuli, incorporate them into your decision-making process.”
“Aye?” I flicked through the pages. “What of it?”
“When you learn the true nature of Ciris,” he said, “you’ll change your mind.”
The certainty in his voice made me pause, but I shrugged it off. Sin had been trying to get me to agree to complete the Rite of Possession I’d accidentally began a year ago, and so far he’d not just been wrong, he’d been badly mistaken about his ability to succeed. This was just more of the same. I hope. I turned the page and made to turn to the next.
“Stop!” Sin hissed.
“This is it. Quick—flip through this one and the ones on either side of it.”
I did as he suggested, nearly dropping the second book when Sin fed the details of the first into my mind. I winced, the sudden shock of knowledge like a pickax to my brain, and I felt my skull begin to tingle with his magic. “S-Sin.” I tried to speak, but couldn’t find a scrap of wind to breathe, let alone talk. Spots flecked my vision and my stomach somersaulted, and for a moment it was all I could do to remain standing, keep turning the pages. I wanted to melt into the floor. The pressure grew, focal points of pain dancing through my skull. “S-Sin.”
“Next book,” he said. “I know it hurts, but we’ve got no time, Buc. Next book.”
Sweat blurred my vision, or maybe it was tears, but somehow I managed to put the book back on the shelf and grab the final volume. It shook in my hands and my sight narrowed to a fleck of light that let me see barely more than one sentence at a time. Knowledge, three books’ worth, catapulted into my mind like iceberg juggernauts smashing into one another. No, that wasn’t quite right—it was more like mountains collapsing into one another, crashing into a hundred thousand pieces, and immediately reforming. Can’t do this. I’d always known the truth: knowledge hurts. It’d just never been physical like this. Much longer. My mind was going to break apart and there’d be no picking up the pieces.
Suddenly the pressure disappeared and the space it left behind was so vast I nearly fainted. A heartbeat later, I became aware that I was leaning against the shelf, panting as if I’d run a marathon, with a dull headache pounding behind my eyes. I began to ask Sin what the actual fuck he’d just done to me, then realized: it was all there, within my mind. All of it. The weaknesses of the Gods. The Ghost Captain had the right idea—I needed to introduce a virus into Ciris and it needed to be delivered by someone who could interface with the Goddess … but that didn’t require the altar, though the Dead Gods thought it would. To kill Ciris required a willing host and a willing Sin. It required the unthinkable: a traitorous Sin Eater. The Ghost Captain was right. He needed me all along, but not the Buc of a year ago.
“He needed the Buc of today,” I whispered.
“Scholar?” a voice asked from the end of the stack.
Shit. Between the pain of absorbing all that knowledge and the breakthrough of understanding, I’d completely forgotten why Sin had force-fed me in the first place.
“What are you doing?” the purple-robed woman asked, walking slowly toward me. “Did you not hear the sound of the gong?”
I’d discovered exactly what I needed, aye, but it was useless if I didn’t make it out of the Forbidden Library alive.
“Buc!” Salina ran into the room and threw her arms around me, crushing me against her purple dress. She pulled back and looked me over in my wrinkled, grey jacket. “You look like you need a week’s sleep and week-long bath at the end of it.”
“I missed you, too,” I growled, then laughed. “We did it, ’Lina.”
“We did,” she agreed. “All of us,” she added, looking past me to where Eld and the Artificer sat at the table. “Why’d you choose this place?” she asked, skirting past me to take a seat opposite Eld.
“The world’s been aflame the past three fortnights and there’s some looking for the ones what struck the match.” I shrugged. “Who’s going to look for anarchists in this flyspeck of a tavern?” I asked. “Besides, don’t you remember coming here?”
“Wait?” She turned in a slow circle. “This isn’t where I gave you back that pistole, is it?”
“The very same.” Eld chuckled. He glanced around, stretching in his crimson jacket before resting his forearms on the table. “They cleaned up the blood pretty well, looks like.”
“Blood?” Salina frowned.
“A story for another time,” I assured her, dropping into the chair opposite hers. “So what have you lot been up to while Eld and I took care of Ciris?”
I listened as Salina told me about the schools she’d started, how the Company was actually capitalizing on the break in world communication caused by the Sin Eaters all falling dead, bleeding from every orifice. The Artificer, looking ill at ease in a thin Servenzan jacket with only a shirt beneath it, despite both being a staid black, kept switching the lenses on his glasses as he told us how he’d tapped into the invisible airwaves left by Ciris. He dug out a sketch from one of his pockets, smoothing out the wrinkles to show us a drawing of a machine that looked suspiciously like a printing press, one that could reach out to other presses and send and receive printed letters.
“Salina’s set up a dozen other workshops and begun paying other creators to come fill them. We’ve a score of other inventions just like this about to roll out. We’ll change the world and so forth!”
I listened with one ear, taking it all in, but I couldn’t stop grinning at the people they’d become and who they were on their way to becoming.
“The one thing I took from the Gods,” I said when they finished, “is that they never tried to conquer outright. Leastwise not until the end. They conquered through need, through giving the world services we craved: healing, communication, and systems that were exploitative but gave us all a warped sense of safety. All for their own ends, of course,” I added, waving my hand. “We need to fulfill those same needs, but our motivation will be for the people themselves.”
“That sounds too altruistic to be true,” the Artificer said, polishing his spectacles. “There will be those who want to conquer … who know no other way.”
“Some might say,” Eld said, tapping his chin, “that the Empire became an Empire through war, not need.”
“They’d be wrong,” I told him. “The first empire began with need, a small island nation needing friends … only later did it turn to war.”
“And yet Normain and the Empire are killing each other despite the unrest in their streets,” Salina said, drumming the table with lacquered nails.
“We should trial some of what we’ve done in Servenza in my home country. That may help,” the Artificer mused.
“Do it,” I told him. “But don’t do it half-arsed. Give them everything we have. We’re in this together,” I added. “Perhaps the Empress needs reminding of that. We freed our world, but its fate still hangs in the balance.
“I know that’s a crushing weight, the sheer enormity of it all, but we’ve felled Gods together. There’s no one else I’d trust with this more than you lot.”
I smiled and turned to leave, and Eld’s voice caught me.
“Where are you going, Buc?”
“I’d hoped to read a book,” I said, glancing at the obsidian glass screen that I’d found outside the spire the morning after Sin killed Ciris. 476. A parting gift from a friend. I ran my thumb over the inscription and smiled. “And mayhap other things,” I said, winking at him.
Arti chuckled and Salina snorted and Eld’s face matched his scarlet coat. I swept my black cloak back over my grey jacket and shrugged to feel my blades, a number in the usual places and a few in ones that weren’t.
“But there will be time for books—and other things—later. Right now, I think it’s time for the last Sin Eater to speak with the Empress.”
The Annotated Library of Sambuciña Alhurra
Numbered and listed in order read, with notes by the reader. At the time of the events detailed in this volume, by her own count, Buc had read 476 books and an uncounted number of pamphlets.
Nasau Calculations of Force
A Cordoban scholar, Nasau wrote in a plain, crisp text accompanied by diagrams that may make a new scholar at first dismissive about the depth of her series on mass and acceleration and force, but her works remain a mainstay amongst the newest branch of learning in Colgna and Normain: engineering.
Buc’s notes: I’m not sure it takes much learning to realize that something small moving fast hits harder than something moving slow? Gutter rats figure that out as soon as their fists are large enough to hold a stone.
Fulcrums, Levers, and Other Applications of Force
Nasau’s continuation of the exploration of force expands into fulcrums, levers, and several ingenious pulley systems utilized by architects the likes of Roun when crafting the cathedral in Frilituo.
Buc’s notes: Now this is interesting. Utilizing fulcrums and levers to unseat larger objects. Hmm … Nasau says force, but I hear power.
Jens Marten On Religion and Power
If his contemporaries are to be believed, Marten was better at speaking than writing. Still, this is a detailed—too detailed, some might say—accounting of the rise of Ciris and the creation of the new world wrought by rival Gods, told in a straightforward, if somewhat boring, manner.
Buc’s notes: Why does no one speak of this? This accounts for everything I’ve seen on the streets. I always thought it was the hoary old Empress’s fault, aye, and she deserves a measure of the blame, but in part only. These fucking Gods set everything in motion that led to the streets. They’re why Sister died and I’ll—(rest of page torn away).
Fivvonasi The Cornerstone of Nature: Chemical, Engineerical, and Physical Maths
Today’s mathematicians stride upon the shoulders of Fivvonasi. Begun by the Frilituo as a complete primer for her young daughters; even now, students will find the text grows with them, from simple addition and subtraction through some of the most complex proofs of Fivvonasi’s day. Several guilds offered her vast sums to work exclusively for them, but Fivvonasi’s commitment to learning was such that she died in relative poverty before her texts were truly appreciated for the master class they are.
Buc’s notes: I keep intending to start with the basic texts instead of leaping into the pool of knowledge headfirst, but I can’t help myself. Maths are a raging sea for one who doesn’t know how to swim and I’d have drowned without Fivvonasi’s lessons.
Arasmeth Separating Herbs and Their Lore
A Servenzan with little sense of adventure, Arasmeth never left the isle of her birth despite cataloguing every herb known within the world. Utilizing the vibrant trade scene to obtain both stories and samples of herbs, her encyclopedic work is vast but limited—Arasmeth never believed an herb truly existed until she saw the plant (often dried) in her hand. The years subsequent to her death have confirmed much of her lore is, in fact, based in truth.
Buc’s notes: I really thought there would have been more about poisons in here and less about tea. Even the poison teas sound a bit boring.…
Eint Volker Where the Gods Fear to Step
Eint Volker, one of the few northmen who cared more for spilling ink than spilling blood, married an elder daughter of a Cordoban lady and soon thereafter stumbled upon the origin of the family’s fortunes: as agents of Sin Eaters. Even in his simple hand, the tale pulls the reader in … agents of Ciris risking all on rickety vessels to brave the hurricanes of the Shattered Coast and ignite chains of volcanoes in worship to their Goddess. Is it fact as Volker claimed, or mere fiction, as Ciris’s followers would have one believe? The reader must judge.
Buc’s notes: Half the world starved, if everything else I’ve read about that time is true. The sun blotted out behind an unending cloud of ash. Funny how when it cleared, the Empire grew and the Kanados Trading Company with it. And the Sin Eaters with them both. Hmm … what did the Sin Eaters want in the Shattered Coast that the hurricanes hid?
Royale Aislin Black Flag’s Shadow
Privateer turned savior of Southeast Island, Aislin died a century ago, but not before she wrote out the unbelievable story of her life—which ended in an Imperial jail, both legs replaced with pegs. She was fond of joking that she didn’t need her legs to swing, and swing she did, but not before completing the autobiography that every would-be leftenant reads before joining the Academy.
Buc’s notes: A hard woman, and now I understand the stories about her insanity. But it’s only insanity if you don’t win, and she won every fight, save the last.
Errol Gatina A Captain’s Mast
Gatina became Maestro of the Servenzan Naval Academy, reckoned just below the Imperial Naval Academy, after two decades before the mast. An average sailor, he proved a better teacher, proving that those who can’t do, teach.
Buc’s notes: If I wanted a field manual on how to run a ship, I’d have bought one. Aislin led me to believe all salts were salty, but now I wonder. Frobisher’s coming up in the pile, but is she another slog?
Joann Frobisher The Silence of Black on Blue
Frobisher rose from lowly cabin girl to High Admiral of the Imperial Navy. A lifetime insomniac, she worked the deck by day and wrote her memoirs by candlelight, thrice seeking healing from the Dead Gods for her ruined sight. Amongst her numerous victories were the Battle of the Channel, where she single-handedly rewrote the rules of engagement for ships of the line, and the Fortnight War, where she shattered the Free Cities’ navy for decades after.
Buc’s notes: I don’t trust writers—everyone lies and writers doubly so—but I think I may trust Frobisher. I wonder how it feels to throw the ship over and deliver a broadside such that it propels the entire floating monstrosity back around for a broadside from the other cannons? Talk about a one-two punch.…
Cisorca Kingdoms and Fiefdoms of the Deep
The Southeast Islander was a fine diver and an even better scholar. He devised a diving bell that let him sit on the ocean floor for hours, observing all manner of life about him. It is from Cisorca that the world learned of the terrifying kraken-killer, the crimson fyre dragon shark, and how reefs were vast worlds unto themselves. Had Cisorca stuck more to reefs than sharks they might have found more of him than an arm when he died.
Buc’s notes: It’s fascinating how the various worlds Cisorca discovered exist all around us, from the canals of Servenza to the cliffs of Normain and everywhere in between. The commonalities of power dynamics, balance, and predator versus prey make me wonder.
Zadaya Desert Folly
A true accounting of the fated Imperial campaign against the Burnt as told by a regimental commander under one of the Servenzan battalions. Zadaya’s scything criticism of the expedition—from ill-trained troops to haphazard battlefield deployments—could almost be seen as a political hatchet job, as she targets some of the highest commanders in the field, save she saw no profit from her work. Few sales came from a nation that wanted to forget its bitterest defeat in half a century. Zadaya was last seen fighting in a mercenary company on the continent in the endless skirmish battles between Colgna and the Burnt.
Buc’s notes: Eld never had a chance with that fuckwit of a commander, I can see that now. I see a lot of him in Zadaya. He left those burning sands but they never left him. It seems like they never left her either, if the rumors of her selling her sword are to be believed.
Amirzchu A Life of Sand and Blood
One of Cordoban’s most famous princesses, Amirzchu inherited a blood feud on the assassination of her father. She added two more families to the mix, drawing them in so that she could play all three whilst preparing the final thrust of her own army, which would result in their city-states being folded into her own. Philosopher, military strategist, mother, and daughter, Amizrchu’s memoir is as much an enigma as the woman herself. She sought to forge a dynasty from the sands from which she came and did so, though her poisoning by her second daughter, on the morrow of the murder of her first, prevented her from seeing it to fruition.
Buc’s notes: A wench after my own heart, this one. Speed, surprise, and aggression are all things I’ve found work best for driving steel through flesh. Political or otherwise. Perhaps a bit too mercurial, though … glad I don’t have any daughters.
Jerden Skydances and Circles: On the Nature of Time
A northern mystic, Jerden likely never fancied himself philosopher or scholar, but proved to be both in this treatise on the interrelationship of time, space, and activity. A believer in something known as the Wheel, Jerden spoke of time and experience as a never-ending feedback loop. He attracted a large following, including many who also used his writings to locate and utilize a particular mollusk toxin that alters the mind.
Buc’s notes: I’d have likely skipped this book once I realized it was a northerner with a new name for kan fiend, save the prose is inviting. More than inviting. I don’t believe a damned word Jerden wrote while under the influence of the toxin, but I could almost wish his thoughts on time were true. It’d be comforting to know someone like me traversed this path once or thrice before.
Lauxnu Lamin An Education of a Wandering Mind
Lauxnu Lamin lived quite the unscholarly life, first working as a day laborer before stealing aboard a ship. The stowaway talked themself into being taken on as a cabin runner, rising to mate on a merchant ship before becoming an apprentice with half a dozen different guilds in Servenza. Later, they briefly returned to the seas as a privateer in a venture that saw them shipwrecked on one of the many uncharted islands in the Shattered Coast. Marooned for a season with a locker full of books, Lamin returned to Cordoban and went from m’utadi to futuwwa faster than any pupil in recorded history. Their famous work, part memoir, part framework for self-education, is an unofficial part of the syllabus of every major learning center.
Buc’s notes: It’s rare a life makes me feel lazy, but Lamin lived a dozen before they saw two score years … seems a waste they retired to the Academy life before they saw half a dozen more.
Filipa Roun Bones of the Old City
Filipa Roun has made the study of the Dead Gods’ bones her life’s work, finding inspiration in their twisting grotesqueries the same way an artist looks upon a pond of lilies before addressing their blank canvas. Not content with just studying their form, Roun delves into the earliest writings on the bones’ formation in an effort to uncover what unnerving physiology could have prompted the Dead Gods’ anatomy.
Buc’s notes: It’s almost as if the actual Dead Gods had multiple limbs, heads, and hearts … unless they were close kin to an octopus and the head and mandible were lost in the devastation of their fall? I’m not sure this is going to help me kill their twisted, human servitors, but to end them, I must needs first understand them. Unless I can gain access to this Forbidden Library I’ve heard less than a whisper of. Fuck it, maybe I don’t need to, after all.
Chinshu Feng Gunpyders and Their Arts
A frustratingly incomplete text, Feng’s deep dive into the mechanics of gunpower and their explosive properties has been emulated by a number of pupils, most of whom have ended up immolated, the same as Feng was upon her last experiment, which took her workshop and half the quarter with her.
Buc’s notes: If Feng’s to be believed, gunpowder must needs be calculated down to the grain, but if she was actually that careful, wouldn’t she still be in one piece instead of plural?
unknown author, Dead Gods’ tongue Whispers and Weaknesses of the Enemy
A heretical tome thought destroyed in the conflagration of Sin two decades after the reemergence of the New Goddess, Whispers is little more than a series of thought experiments on the methodologies that might result in the death of said Goddess. The author’s name is a mystery lost to time, but a rough translation of the tongue suggests something about a subenemy or nemesis? The translation is broken and multivariate.
Buc’s notes: My brain aches, reverberates with this knowledge. I could wish the words didn’t swim before my mind, but what I can see without slipping beneath the waves suggests Ciris can be killed by what is hers. Sin. Only, my Sin would never touch her with a thought, let alone a blade. Yet I control him.…
Akzbphifknut, Dead Gods’ tongue The Felling Chant and Other Incantations
A tome of morbid morbidity with too many consonants and few enough vowels despite the translation, on healing properties of the blood of the Dead Gods.
Buc’s notes: The author? Authors? Whoever wrote this seems to believe that intention of healing or harming matters more than the ratios of blood, bone, and sacrifice described … but then why is half the book nothing but detailed ratio tables that make my head spin?
Sin Read and Find Out
Buc’s notes: Damn it, Sin.
I’ve written over a dozen books since I first put fingers to keys, but The Memory in the Blood was my first grand finale, wrapping up an entire trilogy. Dear Reader, I was not prepared for the feels. You know that feeling you get when you’re deep into a series and something comes up that hearkens back to a scene in book one? Or when the character has been chasing something across a thousand pages and finally manages to catch it? When the payoff hits you in the gut and you pause mid-sentence? As readers, those are the moments we live for on the page. Turns out, it’s not that different for writers. I wrote this novel during the lockdown of that first summer of the pandemic, when the world seemed to teeter upon the precipice. Closer to home, this was the summer when you all were introduced to Buc and Eld in The Sin in the Steel. It was not an easy time, but perversely, writing a story about characters who dream big and sacrifice everything to overturn their corrupt society and the unimaginably powerful Gods who rule it? That helped me navigate those tempest seas. Later that fall, we were able to get away to an isolated beach house whose coastal waters once played host to real buccaneers, and I was able to sit with Buc and Eld and the story I tried to tell. I think I told it true, and if it gave me a respite from the omnipresent hurricane of modern events, I hope it will do the same for you.
A quick note, before we get into who made all of this possible … I know some of you will wonder if the pandemic inspired the plague in the book. It did not. I wrote the first sketch of this series in 2016 and refined it in 2018. I put together the final, scene-by-scene outline for The Memory in the Blood in the fall of 2019 and worked out the minutiae of the plague with my agent. I’ve always been fascinated and terrified by plagues, and it fit perfectly within the magic system of the Dead Gods. It’s a tragic twist of fate that a real pandemic hit at the same time. Netflix had something similar happen, when they released their documentary Pandemic the month before the first case of what would eventually become COVID-19. Truth really is stranger than fiction.
A big thank-you to DongWon, my agent, who read this from cover to cover and plucked out some key themes that let me refine some of the best moments of the book. Publishing often feels like for every pull of the oar the headwinds send you two pulls back; having someone in your corner to fill your sails is invaluable, and I’m forever grateful for DW’s support and guidance. Without DongWon, no one would have ever heard of Buc or Eld (or Chan Sha!).
Melissa, my editor, is another to thank for having this story appear on shelves everywhere. Her editorial skills are amongst the best in the industry and every book has been the stronger for her wisdom and eye.
My beta readers, Arnaud Akoebel and Kristine Nelson, who have been reading my work for years and came through on a tight turnaround in pandemic times to assure me when I needed to hold steady and point out where I veered off course. Forever indebted to you!
Eternal thanks to TeamDongWon and Drowwzoo, my aunties and uncles who are incredibly talented, busy, and successful authors in their own right … I appreciate your wisdom more with each turn of the page.
I dedicated this book to you, Dear Reader. Thank you for coming back one more time. I said last time that this is what careers are built upon, and I mean it more than ever. I hope you forgave me for Eld. A secret about me … I’m a bit of a closet sap and I just couldn’t let him go. I believe that none of us is an island. We all need someone. Buc was fortunate to find an entire crew to rely upon, but she couldn’t have done what was needed without her partner in crime-solving, and I hope you enjoyed their reunion as much as I did. I think Buc and Eld have earned their rest on the page, but I’ve more stories (many, many more!) in mind, and I hope you’ll pick up the next when it hits the shelves. You can find out more about my next series on my website (sign up for my newsletter if you’re interested in behind the scenes stories and sneak peeks). I hope to get out to conventions and bookstores if the pandemic cooperates and meet more of you, but until then we’ll always have the page.
I dedicated The Sin in the Steel to Rachel. In many ways, every book is dedicated to her. She’s my true partner in all of this, the bedrock who gives me the strength to weather the storms of publishing and trying to make a career in this fickle industry.
The shipwrights at Tor continue to astound, and there are so many to thank, I’ll inevitably miss a few, but know that everyone there is the reason why this book is in your hands. Thank you to: Rachel Bass, associate editor, who keeps everything on track and ensures I know what I need to do at every step along the production process. Jim Kapp, production manager, who interacts with the printers, among other things. Dakota Griffin, production editor, who handles the different stages of production. MaryAnn Johanson, copy editor, who returned for this book (yay!) and kept me honest … anything you find in the lines that doesn’t make sense I probably STETTED. Greg Collins, designer. Peter Lutjen, art director and jacket designer, has done an exemplary job in capturing Buc from book to book.
Thanks to Rachel Taylor, marketing manager, who wields the keys to Tor’s social media castles as well as handling marketing duties, and to Caro Perny, publicity manager, who handles all of my appearances and gives me the same attention bestsellers receive despite me being a newb … and who is as big a WoT fan as I am while acknowledging there’s room for criticism (rare in hardcore fandom circles). It’s always a pleasure to work with pros who are also fans.
Copyright © 2022 by Ryan Van Loan