MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
My purpose is to set it all down right
And let not fear nor anguish stay my hand
For one day when my bones have turned to ash
I do not want my soul to roam this land
So though I be a poor historian
Pray let my words be writ stentorian
—THE BOOK OF UNVEILING
Two and a Half Weeks Before the Fall of the Mantle
“I-I’m sure we can come to some kind of understanding.”
The man before Kyara ul-Lagrimar scrambled backward, slamming his back against the wall, shaking the tapestry hanging next to him. The scent of his fear was rancid, filling the room. The stench overpowered the savory aroma of the freshly roasted goat laid out on the table behind her. His whimpers drowned out the weeping of the woman cowering across the room.
Kyara judged the distance between them and determined the wife was far enough away to remain safe but only if Kyara stood very close to her target. Close enough to feel his sour breath on her skin.
Her stomach clenched at the thought; however, she forced herself forward, erasing the few paces between them. The finely woven rug swallowed the sound of her boots. Now added to the room’s collection of odors: the scent of piss. The dark stain spreading across the front of his trousers was proof enough that the fellow knew who she was and why she was here.
“W-we can negotiate. I’m sure there must be something you want.” Beads of sweat punctured his forehead, and the thick vein at his neck jumped with his rapid pulse. “I have money, enough grams to make you a wealthy woman. And jewels, trunks full of them. The finest s-silks.” He spread a shaking hand, pointing to the wealth on display in his home.
Delicate crystal and china graced the polished table, ornate tapestries hung from the walls, and electric lamps brightened the space. Kyara had noticed it all in one sweep of the room when she’d first burst in the front door, brushing past the weary maid. The house: three levels of sandstone within view of the glass castle, spoke for itself. This man—a payroller most would call him—had been very useful to the True Father for some time. And had been paid well for his trouble. But now his usefulness, and his trouble, were at an end.
“I am not here to negotiate with you.” Kyara’s voice was paper thin.
The man’s eyes widened. He spread his arms, attempting to press himself into the wall. Kyara didn’t move from her position a hairbreadth away. She didn’t need to touch him, but he didn’t know that.
“Whatever transgression His Majesty believes I’ve made, I will redress, threefold. I am but a simple man. A husband and father.” He waved a pudgy hand at the shaking woman in the corner. “I give tribute for all I collect, I pay on time and…” His pleas became a drone in her ears, mingling with those of a hundred other men who had begged for their lives over the years. Other men in other homes like this, flaunting their wealth while so many starved.
Rugs and tapestries and real glass in the windows. The enticing fragrance of meat, fresh vegetables, and butter tickled her nose. Some unidentifiable spice hung in the air. All this, while most of the city found ways to make their meager rations last far longer and feed more mouths than intended. And those in the Midcountry scraped by with even less.
Kyara’s mouth watered at the dinner she’d interrupted, but she never ate the food of the dead.
The heat in the room became oppressive. She wasn’t sure if it was the fear or the piss or the meal, but nausea overwhelmed her. If she didn’t end this quickly and get out, she would be sick, right here on this beautiful rug.
Her warped Song prowled inside her, restless. It wanted to launch itself into the maelstrom of source energy, to ride the brutal currents of the force like a kite in a violent wind. She shuddered and reined in her power. Instead of giving in to the despised urge, she opened her mind’s eye. The world fell away, leaving only a field of black. She spread her senses, shutting out the energies of the overcrowded city and focused on this home, this room. Moving arcs of white light burst across her vision, like the undulating waves of brightness produced by a fire dancer swinging a torch.
This was Nethersong. Her gift and her curse.
Just as all life carried energy—Earthsong—so did death. And while an Earthsinger may grow crops from seeds or feel the pulse of life moving in the plants and animals around them, Kyara did the opposite.
In her vision, the light of the man before her pulsed brightly. His death energy was a cyclone spinning out of control. Judging by the strength of Nethersong within him, he had not been kind to his body—a feat much easier when you were on the True Father’s payroll and could afford an abundance of rich food and drink. If the immortal king were a patient man, Kyara wouldn’t be needed at all. This payroller would die from his dissipation sooner rather than later.
In the corner of the room, the wife’s light was dimmer. She was younger and healthier than her husband. A barely there glow several paces away from the wife indicated a faint trace of Nethersong, which surprised Kyara. There was a child hiding under the table. She had been careless not to notice.
“You two. Out.” She didn’t turn from the payroller, merely pointed behind her, ignoring the shuffling and desperate whispering that ensued. There were others in the house as well, but all were far enough away to be safe.
The mangled skin on her chest began to ache. She must act soon or the pain would intensify. Her orders were clear, and she would have no peace until they were carried out.
She shuttered her extra sight, bringing the man’s jowly face back into focus. A silent apology cramped her heart. Yes, this payroller had sinned, had contributed to his people’s poverty and strife, but no judge or jury had convicted him. He had merely chosen to align himself with a mad, immortal king who was as capricious as he was powerful. And the payroller’s time had run out.
The executioner had been sent for him.
She released the tight hold she kept on her Song. The beast leapt forward eagerly, darting into the deluge of primordial energy that was Nethersong.
Ydaris had once told her that pulling from Earthsong was like turning on a water spigot. Weaker Singers could use a trickle. Stronger Singers a gushing torrent. Nethersong was nothing like that. There was only one setting: flood. Opening her Song to the energy was like walking through a raging sandstorm. Howling gales of power assaulted her, batting her to and fro like a wildcat with its prey.
She steeled herself against the forces pummeling her and wrangled her Song back under control. Then she flooded the man before her, turning his light from bright to blinding.
He clutched a hand to his chest and gasped. The Nethersong within him grew, rapidly increasing the damage to his body, accelerating whatever ailments or diseases he already harbored. What would have taken months on its own, Kyara forced to occur within seconds.
She pulled back from the tumult of Nethersong, once again caging her Song, ignoring its protests. The pain in her chest faded, and she nimbly stepped out of the way as the man slid to the floor in a flaccid heap. He died with his eyes open, the whites swiftly darkening to black. Black eyes and black gums were the signature all her victims bore.
A movement to her left caught her attention. The wife. She’d made it only to the doorway. Now the poor thing was on her knees, emptying the contents of her stomach onto the polished floor.
She had been far enough away to avoid suffering any lasting damage but had not been left unscathed. That pulse of Nethersong would leave her feeling queasy for several hours. Kyara bent to peer under the table and found a pair of dark brown eyes, one lighter than the other, trained on her. Caught between wonder and terror. At least the young girl’s lack of Nether left her virtually immune.
But another wave of loathing rolled through Kyara’s belly. Control of her ability had always been tenuous at best, and she could never manage to stop the wild expression of the energy. Even her most focused pulse would radiate, affecting those it wasn’t meant for.
When the wife finished retching, her panicked gaze locked onto her husband’s killer.
“Come, child,” the woman hissed, but the girl did not move from her hiding spot.
Kyara crouched, bringing herself down to the child’s level. Fear shone in the girl’s bright gaze. The eyes of another young girl came to mind. Fierce and fearless and kind. But gone now.
She pushed away the old memory and tore her attention from the girl to look at the mother. “The True Father has no qualm against you and your child.” While no child was ever truly safe in Lagrimar, Kyara had never been ordered to kill one. A small mercy.
“Sh-she’s not mine,” the woman whispered, almost inaudibly.
Kyara looked back at the girl, who bore no resemblance to the woman. She shrugged. “Regardless, you should get far away from here. Everything your husband owned is forfeit to the king, and the sackers will likely arrive before the Collectors do. Have you a family? Anywhere to go?”
The woman nodded. Light glinted off the silver pendant she wore at the base of her throat.
Kyara squinted. “The House of Serpents?”
The woman’s hand flew to her necklace and fingered the metal nervously. She nodded again. The family sigil was tarnished but the image of a tangled snake biting its own tail was still clear.
Kyara sighed, a trickle of envy running through her. She tried to put the woman at ease. “I am ul-nedrim,” she said, referring to her status as harem-born. “But I always wished to be of the House of Serpents. It is a noble lineage.”
“As are they all,” the woman whispered.
“You follow the old ways?”
“I honor the ancestors.”
Kyara had met many in her travels who kept to the tradition of revering the original nine Earthsingers from whom all Lagrimari were descended. As it was not truly a religion, and no ancestor had ever intervened when called upon, the True Father had no laws against it. Still, it was considered out of fashion, especially among the elite, and she was surprised to see a young woman—she appeared in her late twenties—keeping up the practice.
A two-way radio crackled to life in the opposite corner of the room, breaking the quiet. Kyara stood and walked over to it. Static-filled chatter crossed the airwaves between lackeys of the True Father. She detached the large battery from the radio, and the machine went silent.
Above the table holding the radio, shelves had been built into an alcove settled into the wall. More of the payroller’s finery was on display: a gold-trimmed clock, a dagger with a jewel-encrusted handle, and several rather ancient books.
Almost without her bidding, her fingers rose to run along the spines of the bound volumes. One in particular caught her attention. It was slim, its leather cracked and worn, but burned onto the front was another family symbol—two birds curled around one another—the House of Eagles. The pages inside were somewhat brittle, covered in fading, handwritten script. She flipped to the first page.
The Book of Unveiling
Keep the secrets, spread the lies, remember the truths.
Alarmed, she closed the book with a snap. “Is this yours?”
The wife shook her head with a wry look that suggested very little in this house had been hers.
“Just another trophy then,” Kyara said. Books were rare and precious commodities, further evidence of the payroller’s status and not an indication of scholarly pursuits. It would be a shame for the sackers to get their grubby hands on it. Kyara tucked the volume into her tunic so it lay against the bandages covering her upper chest and ignored the twinge of pain.
She turned to regard the dead man on the floor. His wife shouldn’t have to stare at her husband’s bloated face one moment longer.
A tapestry hung askew on the wall depicting the True Father constructing the glass castle when the capital city had first been founded. Though the workmanship of the art was fine, she felt no qualms about pulling it down to cover the body.
“May you find serenity in the World After,” she mumbled, then turned to leave.
“Is it true?”
The girl’s voice was so small that Kyara almost hadn’t heard her. She paused and looked back, one eyebrow raised.
The wife had almost folded in on herself, shaking with fear, but the little girl was lionhearted. “You’re the Poison Flame?”
A lump lodged in Kyara’s throat. She considered the child, who peered at her with such piercing, oddly colored eyes. Kyara had been not too much older than her the first time she remembered killing. Now, at twenty-one, she felt ancient. Life spent in service to a madman would age anyone.
“I am. And if you aren’t naughty, you’ll never see me again.”
The girl took a step back.
As quickly as she’d arrived, the deadliest assassin in Lagrimar left the payroller’s home. The book shifted, pressing against her breasts, grazing the bandages covering the tender flesh of her breastbone.
The Mistress of Eagles, head of that ancient house, was the bearer of prophetic knowledge and a messenger to the other houses. Something about the little book had called to Kyara, waking a hope that had lain dormant for so long.
Though she could not say why, the writer’s mention of secrets, lies, and truths had sparked the old craving for the impossible, a longing she had pushed away as year bled into year with no change. But somewhere out in the world there had to be some way to rid herself of the burden of her deadly Song.
Copyright © 2019 by L. Penelope