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Before I learned how to read, I thought knowledge was finite, dead and decaying inside old men’s skulls. Now I know the truth, that knowledge is living gold threaded through layers of dead parchment, just waiting to be mined. But while the world may be driven by knowledge, it runs on gold. The hard kind. And if my plans were to succeed, that was the kind of leverage I needed. I saw my chance, placed my wager, and took my seat at the table.
For that I was being shoved at bayonet point down a marbled hall lined with frescoes and landscapes of a hundred ports that shared a similar theme: palaces and outposts of the mighty Kanados Trading Company. The Imperial Guard pushed us forward at a breakneck pace; it was a wonder I didn’t trip over my blood-soaked dress. I must confess, the bayonet at my back was wonderful motivation. Eld stumbled beside me, weak from the knife he’d taken in one shoulder.
A knife meant for me.
I’d tossed what I thought were loaded die, only to see them come up pips, and unless the odds changed fast, we were likely to swing for it. The Imperial Guard wouldn’t look the other way like the Constabulary, and even the Constabulary wouldn’t look away from a room full of dead guards and a mage whose God would be missing their magics soon enough. Not when I’d been caught holding the still-smoking pistole. Maybe with enough lire? Unfortunately, I’d need as much gold as it cost to buy the palace they’d brought us to and even then, the Imperial Guard doesn’t bribe easily. I’ve tried.
No one gets off with just a bribe when you’ve murdered a mage. Not that we had. Murdered a mage, that is, but perception was reality and reality saw us swinging before the day’s sun had fully risen.
A pair of heavy wooden doors that rose from floor to ceiling swung open of their own accord as we approached. I saw the hint of a muddy footprint and filed it away before the guard behind me hit me low in the back. I went down, caught up in my bloody skirts. Eld tried to catch me, then cried out when I hit his bad shoulder, and we both sprawled across the marble floor, sliding to a stop in front of a gilded table built over turnstile cabinets. I picked myself up, making it to my knees before the hard octagonal iron of a musket barrel pressed against the base of my skull and sent a chill running down my spine.
“Eyes down or your brains will decorate the floor,” the guard growled.
“I’ve read blood leaves a bitch of a stain on marble,” I said, before I could think. Eld groaned beside me. Number eighty-eight, Alyce’s On Sculpting. The guard growled again. I heard a pair of heels click on the floor. Lavender skirts pinned back and sewn with thread o’ gold swished around the table in front of us. I risked a glance up through a few errant strands that had pulled free from my loosely braided dark curls and saw a pale woman with blond locks piled down the left shoulder of her gown—which had sleeves that covered her to the wrist, as was the latest fashion.
She met my gaze with a smile that made her appear younger than she was, thin lips or no. An older woman in dark Imperial armor, with crimson plumes of rank swaying atop her helm, walked past us to stand beside the blonde. She moved with the loose, stalking saunter that I associated with enforcers the street gangs employed. She held up—making sure we could see it—an all-too-familiar pistole, then set it down on the table, out of view. Once that was done, she crossed her gauntleted arms, staring at us from eyes darker than her sun-darkened face, as if sizing us up.
“You’ve a need for friends,” the woman in the lavender gown said.
I looked up at that, expecting to see a dark room awash with lantern light glittering off the blades and saws and pincers meant to pry the truth from our lips whether we willed it or no.
“Do we now?” Whatever else I meant to say caught on my tongue as my eyes finally took in the room they’d brought us to. Gods. Guard forgotten, I looked past the woman and felt my mouth slacken. No torture table here, but something far more dangerous.
They’d brought us to a library—at least that is the only word our tongue has for it—but “a library” meted it poor justice. It was labyrinth-like in its shelves that rose from floor to ceiling and wall to wall, with the far wall a dim specter in the distance, barely illuminated by a score or more of chandeliers. It wasn’t the size of the space but the sheer quantity of what it held that made my throat clench as if in want of water. Books … no, tomes, packed side by side on every shelf, sometimes stacked double in height. Everywhere my eyes turned there was another cover in mismatched bindings and sizes and colors staring back at me, another voice to be discovered, another bit of information to banish my ignorance, another morsel of magic to be consumed.
Three hundred and sixty-seven. Even Eld hasn’t read as many books as I have, and he’s old. I’d thought myself well-read, versed in the subjects of enlightenment, but here was a treasure to beggar my meager achievements. Here was a sun to my mere pinprick in the darkness. I could spend a dozen years here and not finish. I inhaled deeply, absorbing the dusty incense into my bones; a shiver covered me in gooseflesh. A dozen years.
The musket barrel pressed harder against my neck, bringing me back to the reality of my situation—on my knees with a gun to my head and enough evidence painting Eld and me as murderers to see us executed on the spot.
“You’ve a need for friends.”
“I have friends,” I said, trying and failing to keep my gaze from wandering across the shelves behind her. One. Anyway. “But I’m not sure I follow you.”
“Oh, I think you do, Sambuciña,” the woman said. Her light cheeks dimpled when she saw my astonishment, and she smiled again. I never know why people do that. Smile. Are they amused? Happy? Trying to disarm? Almost certainly the last, even if some of the other emotions play into it, but it’s hard for me to discern.
The eyes, on the other hand, rarely lie. Hers were bright and hard, and searching. For what?
“You were on your way to the gallows, to be hung for disturbing the Empress’s peace, for larceny, and for half a dozen counts of murder, but as a friend, I interceded on your behalf.” She made a motion with her hand and the barrel against my neck disappeared.
“That’s pleasant of you,” I muttered. The guard growled yet again.
“Buc!” Eld hissed. He’s polite like that. He looked pale in the lamplight. I hoped that was from the shock of the arrest and not blood loss. He was the muscle and I the brain, and weak muscle was no muscle at all. Besides, he was the only soul that would call me friend. I can’t lay claim to many years, but I’ve learned it doesn’t pay to toss that away.
Not with these stakes.
“Is there a name we should use, to thank you?” Eld asked.
I tried not to roll my eyes.
“Salina,” the woman said after a moment. She arched an eyebrow. “I can save you from the noose, but only if you’re useful.”
“Very noble,” I said.
“We’re not noble, Sambuciña; we’re a trading company. Omnia cum pretio.”
“‘Everything has its price,’” I repeated. It was the one phrase in the New Goddess’s tongue that didn’t twist in my mouth.
“Precisely,” Salina said, favoring me with another of her false smiles.
“We’ve rights to a judge’s ear before we swing,” I reminded her. “And last I checked, self-defense wasn’t a hanging offense.”
“Self-defense?” Salina snorted. “You were caught surrounded by dead bodies, pistole in hand. That hardly seems like self-defense.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” I said.
“They can indeed,” said a new voice. A man in a powdered wig marched out of the stacks behind Salina; his naturally tanned skin, somewhat pale from lack of direct sunlight, looked paler still beneath the bloodred robes he wore.
“That’s why,” he said as he settled himself into the gild-backed chair behind the cataloging table, “it requires the judiciary to sift through the evidence, to sort”—he gestured toward the stacks with a flick of his hand—“fact from fiction, as it were.”
“You did say you wanted a judge’s ear,” Salina said, that small, insipid smile catching the edge of her lips. “Do you know why Servenza hangs criminals, Buc?”
“Because rotting bodies send a message,” I said.
“That’s part of it,” the female Imperial officer beside Salina said. Given that she’d brought the murder weapon in, she was likely the one giving the orders when we were captured. Damn her. Her plumed helm turned her into some anonymous grim defender of justice, the executioner to the judge’s judicial pronouncements.
“The other part is that it’s cheaper to hang them than it is to shoot them,” the judge added.
“But the Kanados Trading Company isn’t so cheap,” Salina said.
“You can’t hold a trial in here,” Eld protested.
“Oh, but we can,” Salina said.
“Court is in session,” the judge pronounced, his lips thinning in the vaguest suggestion of a smile. He produced a gavel from his robes and rapped the table thrice. “The honorable Judge Cokren presiding.”
The sound of the guard cocking his musket was loud in the silence.
Eld began arguing with the judge, protesting the venue, the domain, and anything else under the sun he could think of, but his arguments were as weak as he was, given the massacre we’d come from. A massacre of—Gods damn it—my doing. But there were odds to be had, if I could see the angles in time, only my head was spinning still and I could taste iron in my mouth. That blow didn’t help things. I’d been sloppy, to let the woman catch me with her fist, however glancing, but we’d been outnumbered three to one and us unarmed. Enough time to analyze what went wrong later. If there is a later. I waited a breath to let the men build themselves up, until Judge Cokren’s face began to take on some color of its own.
“Your Honor!” My shout cut off the two men’s voices. “W-would it please the court to hear our version of events? So that you may ascertain the truth?”
“It would,” Judge Cokren said, smirking at my stammer.
Let a man think you weak, let him think you vulnerable, and he’ll never see the blade until it’s planted in his ribs. This time the blades were of the verbal kind. There’d been enough blood spilt, and most of it on my dress.
“It was self-defense, Your Honor…” I began.
“Oh?” Salina crossed her thin arms, drawing her gown tighter about herself. “Do tell.”
I ignored her, shooting a questioning look at Cokren, who nodded fractionally in approval.
Copyright © 2020 by Ryan Van Loan