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Tara Abernathy’s first job as in-house counsel for the Church of Kos was to hide a body.
A Blacksuit led her down a winding stair to a windowless stone room, empty save for a sturdy table, a counter, a sink, and Alexander Denovo’s corpse.
Her old teacher and tormentor looked much as she’d last seen him—at least, physically. Even in death, his lips kept their self-satisfied smirk. The eyes had lost their triumphant gleam, though, the conqueror peering from behind the bumpkin professor’s. He wore off-the-rack approximations of his usual wardrobe: tweed jacket with elbow patches, red suspenders, brown shoes. Of course they hadn’t let him keep his own clothes in jail. A Craftsman’s jacket might hide anything.
He was dead.
“Did you kill him?” she asked the Blacksuit. “Did Justice?”
The burnished silver statue answered: No. Familiarity bred neither contempt for nor comfort with Blacksuit voices, which did not carry through the air so much as manifest in the mind, built from screams, skewed cello notes, and breaking glass. He died in his cell, of a heart attack.
Blacksuits did not lie, at least not in their official capacity as representatives of Justice. Nor did they murder. They preferred to execute.
Tara walked a slow circle around the body. The signs were right. They would be, no matter Denovo’s true cause of death. No one who went to the trouble of breaking into the cell where the Blacksuits held the man, killing him, and escaping without detection would leave signs he’d perished of anything but natural causes.
“He’s a Craftsman,” Tara said, to remind herself as much as the Suit. “He murdered gods. He bound the wills of hundreds to his service. He almost destroyed this city. Hells, he almost became a god himself. He wouldn’t die like this.”
“I won’t bring him back for you,” she said.
We did not expect you to. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“You want me to make sure he stays dead.”
The Blacksuit nodded.
Tara cracked her neck, then her knuckles. “All right. Let’s get started.”
The problem was simple, insofar as the necromantic logic of the Craft was concerned. A hundred fifty years before, as the first Deathless Kings formed a society free of divine meddling—and, incidentally, of mortality—they’d faced a practical concern: How does one discourage antisocial behavior among formerly human beings for whom life imprisonment is a brief inconvenience, if not an undefined term, and the death penalty a slap on the wrist? How do you keep a necromancer bound to the world by thousands of debts from climbing back out of her grave?
The answers ranged from grotesque to merely inhumane, but all shared a theoretical foundation: you don’t let the dead go free.
Tara set her purse on the counter and produced from within a retort, a bit of silver chalk, three gas burners, several large pieces of glassware, and two silver bracelets. She shucked her jacket, rolled up her sleeves, donned the bracelets, and struck them against each other. They sparked, and slick black oil rolled from them to cover her hands. The glyphs machine-tooled into her forearms glowed silver against her dark skin. She drew her work knife from the glyph above her heart, and its moon-lightning blade cast queer light into the corners of the stone room.
Denovo lay before her.
She took a deeper breath than she cared to admit she needed, and touched the cold dry skin of his temple.
“Hi there,” the corpse said.
“It’s all right,” Tara told the Blacksuit. She forced her heart back to a slow and proper rhythm. “He’s dead, but there’s still power inside his body. That power can”—she groped for terms the Blacksuit would understand—“push on my memories of him, like organ keys. The gloves keep most of it out, but he was strong. I’ll be fine.” She made her knife sharp, took hold of his collar, and carved off his clothes.
“Fine,” the corpse said in a wry voice. “Will you be fine, Tara, really? Fine, in this benighted city, slaving for a mad goddess and an equivocating god not fit to kiss a Craftsman’s boot?”
Answering a phantom’s taunt was bad form, but she was not being graded here. “Kos Everburning is a good God. He stayed out of the Wars. He’s needed an in-house Craftswoman for a long time. And Seril isn’t mad anymore.”
“You can wait outside,” she told the Blacksuit, “if you’d rather. This will take a while, and you’ll make me nervous if you just stand there.”
The statue flowed out the door and shut it after, leaving her alone with the body.
She removed his shoes one at a time, and cut his trousers off. He lay nude on the slab, paunchy and pale.
“Such service,” the corpse said. “I should come here more often.”
“You’re an asshole,” she told him, without rancor. What rancor could there be in a statement of fact? She donned a surgical mask and returned to the table with a glass jar, a rubber tube, and a silver needle. The needle she slid into his arm, and the glass jar began to draw his blood—eight pints. Fortunately, the jar, like her purse, was larger than it looked from outside. “You always were.”
“I helped you, Tara, as I helped all my students. I made you part of something bigger: a community dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, the advancement of Craft, the salvation and elevation of the race.”
“You stole minds. You tried to break me, and when I fought free you tried to destroy my career.” The exsanguination vessel worked fast; his skin tightened as his veins collapsed. “When that didn’t work, you followed me to Alt Coulumb, and now you’re dead and I’m not.” She pressed the skin taut below his collarbone’s V, sliced a straight line down to his groin, and peeled back his chest. Slabs of muscle and fat glistened, and she cut into these until she bared the bone. “I guess that settles the question of whose methods work better.”
Spectral familiar laughter answered her. “Please. You had two gods, Elayne Kevarian, and a host of gargoyles and Blacksuits on your side. You didn’t beat me so much as outnumber me. But you can’t outnumber what’s coming.”
She pressed her lips together, and flensed his legs. Silver glyph-lines sparked around tibia and femur; his patella sported a star with six, no, seven, no, six points. As she cleaned his bones, she carved through Craftwork sigils, hidden mechanisms and machines. In his left thigh she found a bullet wrapped with scar tissue.
“I wanted to kill Alt Coulumb’s god and take his place,” he said. “It was a long shot, but if I’d won, imagine the rewards.”
“I’d rather not.” Corpse meat squelched beneath her gloved hands. Blood did not stick to her shadowy gloves.
“But now—do you have any idea of the weakness of your position? Your moon goddess Seril has returned, in secret of course, since half the city still hates her. They’ve hated her for decades, since she abandoned them to fight in the Wars and died. That she’s back, concealed, changes nothing. Kos will defend her to the death—so she’s a weak spot, pure leverage for your enemies to exploit. Hundreds of Craftsmen find the very existence of a godly city in the New World an affront. You’ve given them an opening. When they learn Seril’s back, girl, they will come for you. They’re not as smart as me, nor half so ambitious. They won’t pussyfoot like I did. They will kill your gods, and your friends. They’ll carve them to pieces. They will occupy this city and remake it into a gleaming citadel of Craft and commerce. No more Criers—newspapers on every corner and zombies in the market. You’ll weep if you live to see it. You’ll wish you’d never clawed your way out of that fleaspeck town where Elayne found you.”
She scooped out his organs, one at a time, weighed them piece by piece, and burned them to ash.
“You have my job for the moment, sure. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
“This wasn’t your job,” she said. Meathooks of Craft raised and turned the body. She tore off his back in a single sheet.
“I was the Cardinal’s advisor for forty years.”
“And you used him to kill his own God.”
“If you don’t use people, they use you. The whole world’s chains, Tara—Gerhardt said it, and the God Wars proved him right. When I worked with the church, I made sure I wrapped a chain firmly around its neck. You’ve fused one around yours and handed them the dangling end. You can’t command these people from within—and command’s the only way you’ll beat what’s coming.”
The slab lay empty save for the bones. To a laywoman all skeletons looked more or less alike. Experts could read differences: healed fractures, specific ratios of limb length to torso. Tara had never seen Alexander Denovo’s bones before. She would not have recognized him had she not carved him apart with her own hands.
“This city will stand,” she said.
“What city? It’s a mess of gargoyles and priests, Craftsmen and common folk, gods hidden and revealed. When trouble comes, they’ll tear out one another’s throats. You can’t stop them. Either you’ll be chained to them—one piece of a breaking machine—or you’ll be alone, a girl naked against a flood. They won’t trust you. They won’t follow you. They won’t work with you unless you kneel to them, and if you kneel, they lose anyway.”
“You’re lying.” She made her knife thick and sharp and heavy, a cleaver built of light.
“I’m in your head. I’m your worst memories of me, your greatest fears. And the greatest fear of all—the one that still makes you sweat at two in the morning when the world’s quiet—is that I was right all along. That I was right, and you are—”
Her blade parted skull from spine.
The voice stopped.
“Come back,” she told the Blacksuit. “I’m ready.”
* * *
She nestled the skull in a lead-lined box filled with packing immaterial and followed the Blacksuit to the lowest levels of the Temple of Justice’s evidence locker, past impounded drugs and weapons and grails and tools and artifacts too strange to describe with a single word. She placed the skull box beside his personal effects and warded them thrice with shadow and silver to prevent Craft from leaking in or out. When she closed the door, the light above clicked from red to green.
She woke that night, on her bed in her coffin-sized bedroom, to moonlight through the window. A goddess sang.
Tara’s heart beat fast. She lay in her own sweat and waited for dawn.
* * *
The day after Tara moved into her new office, once she unpacked her books, installed the nightmare telegraph, set up the astrolabe, and routed out the spy in the lobby, she laid a piece of cream-white paper on her desk and wrote, in large ruby letters at the top: “In Case the Survival of the Moon Goddess Seril or the Presence of Her Gargoyles in Alt Coulumb Should Become Public Knowledge Before She Regains Sufficient Power to Defend Herself.”
This did not leave much room on the paper. Fortunately or, rather, unfortunately, she did not know what to write next.
She stared at the paper. She clutched the pen barrel between her teeth. She threw a tennis ball against the wall and caught it until her neighboring tenant asked her to stop. That consumed roughly two hours, during which no further words appeared on the paper. She walked Alt Coulumb’s streets. She immersed herself in its libraries. She consulted the stars and the scholars of Craft, though in the latter case she kept the details of her query general. She spoke with gibbering horrors from beyond the edges of time, and erected elaborate palaces of possibility, networked and interlaced contingencies, none of which satisfied.
After all this, she returned the paper to her desk and wrote, in small letters beneath the overlong heading: “We are probably screwed.”
Then she burned the paper, because it was a stupid document to leave lying around, even in an office secured by the finest geases and traps she, a graduate of the Hidden Schools, could Craft.
Tara scattered the ashes in Alt Coulumb’s harbor on three separate days. Then she devoted herself to Establishing a Sufficient Worshipper Base for Seril, and to the other, more public duties of the in-house counsel for Alt Coulumb’s other, more public God—and in this manner she passed a nervous year, until Gabby Jones spoiled everything.
Copyright © 2016 by Max Gladstone