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I once saw a condemned woman try to escape her fate by swimming for a ship setting sail in the Crescent. It was full winter; high tide and storms turned the waters into roiling waves that broke again and again as they swept through the harbor. The drowning waves, they were called. Before long the waves had earned their name and the hangman had no need for his noose.
Half a year ago, my life had been a sea I knew well and navigated like an old salt. Now I swam in a sea of boardroom intrigue and backdoor politics that continually took me by surprise: the drowning waves. I’d no intention of slipping under, but isn’t that what everyone believes?
Philosophers say war makes for strange bedfellows, but in the streets it’s said that necessity makes whores of us all. I had thought them liars, but a living shard of a Goddess in your head has a way of changing your perspective. That’s why I’d come to the Cathedral of the Dead Gods and put myself in the heart of their power even though they suspected much about my involvement with the disappearance of their precious Ghost Captain. Rightly so, given I’d killed him. That the bastard had nearly killed both Eld and me likely wouldn’t have dissuaded them from parting our limbs from our bodies. I’d risked it anyway. Necessity.
“You’re no demi-God.”
“Demi-Goddess, then,” I whispered mentally to Sin. “Hush, I want to hear if that Veneficus decides we’re easy meat and comes running, changed into some monstrous creature or other.”
I fingered the gilded lace that crept out from beneath my green—of a shade almost light enough to be blue—jacket, then pulled the garment tight around me, the bottom flaring at the waist to show off my pants. Eld led the way out of the side oratory, an arching cavern of stone shipped in from Normain centuries ago. The cathedral was modeled on one of the Dead Gods, I’d forgotten which, and the stone was a not-quite white, not-quite grey color, supposedly the hue of the Dead Gods’ bones. The supporting ridges in the arched ceiling of the oratory jutted out like the short ribs they were supposed to mimic. As with everything with the Dead Gods, it was meant to give life to creatures that had been dead for millennia. Yet they still manage to fuck the world up.
Sunlight swept across my face. My eyes burned with Sin’s magic as he kept my vision sharp despite the contrast with the dark halls we’d just left. Eld didn’t have Sin’s magic and he grunted at the light, putting his back against the stone wall. As I moved past him, he used his powder-blue coat to hide his hand gripping the hilt of his sword. Now that we were outside, the chanting of the worshippers within sounded like a hive of bees.
“They weren’t happy,” Eld said, still blinking against the harsh light of late morning. He brushed a stray, blond strand of hair back beneath his tricorne. “I thought that younger one … Ulfren? Thought he was going to transform into some nightmarish beast right then and there when you told them to fuck off.”
“I told them they’d best keep their distance if they wanted a profitable future,” I reminded him.
“I think there was a ‘fuck off’ in there, too.”
“Implied only,” I assured him. He snorted and I shrugged in my jacket, feeling my blades dig into my sides at the movement—blackened blades just a shade darker than my hands so that most would miss the heartbeat when I drew them. A razor-thin lead, but with Sin’s magic that was all I needed.
“They’re on edge.”
“Losing a war will do that,” he agreed, his eyes on the door we’d just used.
“The New Goddess doesn’t take prisoners. With Ciris’s mages now offering healing…” I watched a woman in a dress too thin for the weather—but likely her finest—ushering two children into the cathedral. Both were bent with wracking coughs. Likely her purse was nearly empty.
“With Sin Eaters offering that,” I continued, “and without the price of coin or service to Gods dead millennia ago, they’ve lost the last big lever they had.”
“Aye, and losing the Ghost Captain cost them their best shot at Ciris’s throat,” Eld said.
“Which is why they’re so desperate.” Desperate enough to poison our tea. “We can use that.”
“If we can get the Godsdamned Board to listen to us.”
“Big if, that.” Sin’s voice was low in my ears. “Were you to allow the ritual of Possession to be complete, perhaps—”
“I’d be a mindless automaton in service to your Goddess,” I told him mentally.
“That’s not how it works.”
“Says you. I didn’t let you talk me into it this past summer when Eld was dying on the sands. I’m damn sure not going to let you do it now,” I whispered in my mind.
“Do you believe them?” Eld asked, pulling me out of my head.
“The Sin Eaters?”
“No.” He gave me a strange look, his blue eyes troubled. “The Dead Gods.”
I shivered, remembering the heat in that Veneficus’s voice when he asked to taste our blood. He wanted to discern the truth of our words in return for giving us the name of whoever murdered my spy. The boy wasn’t the first of my little fish—children I paid to deliver messages or just to keep their eyes and ears open—to turn up with this throat slit.
Govanti, the biggest of my little fish, had convinced me to bring the lad on less than a fortnight ago, in part because he thought the lad would be safe, since he lived with his parents. Their hovel was close to the finer Quartos; rare for a murder to take place there and rarer still for a child to die by the blade within sight of the Doga’s Palacio. Out farther, in the Painted Rock where I’d grown up and toward the Tip, life was cheap, but the rich preferred to keep their illusions. The Constabulary had been called out to investigate—procedures had to be observed—but his parents had no money and they’d stopped before they scarcely started.
I remembered the boy’s shock of dark hair poking out beneath his cap, his lifeless eyes—not the first I’d seen staring back at me since returning to Servenza—and clenched my teeth to keep from snarling. Govanti had been distraught, but I paid him an extra coin as if that would ease his mind. And I? I’d pay the weregild for all. What hope do I have to save the world when I can’t even save my own? That, more than anything else, had brought me to the Dead Gods today, but their promises were as false as their deities.
“‘Show me the truth and I’ll show you a shadow cast by the sun. Both are blinding, both unknowable save for the shade they provide,’” I quoted after a pause. I’d read Gillibrand after Ballwik and always wished I’d read her first because then I’d’ve had no need for the latter.
“Never trust a mage,” I added.
A shadow passed over Eld’s pale face and I felt a flash of guilt, but he just touched the edge of his tricorne and nodded. “Now that, I do believe.”
The steps to the main entrance to the cathedral, two dozen paces away, began to teem with a flood of worshippers. All to the good. Servenza took a dim view of magic in the streets, and if the Doga was in attendance—for today was the start of the increasingly elaborate celebrations that would culminate in a fortnight with the Feast of Masks on Midwinter’s Day—she wouldn’t tolerate a Veneficus attacking citizens. I hope. As if my thoughts were a command, the woman appeared at the head of the steps with half a dozen guards, bright in their crimson-and-gold ceremonial uniforms.
Eld straightened his coat so it aligned with the red vest beneath and looked at me. “How’d you know they poisoned the tea?”
I’m quick on my feet and even quicker in thought. I used to have to smoke kan to keep my thoughts from tumbling into one another and driving me half-mad, but with Sin I was able to harness those thoughts and keep them pulling evenly in their traces. Save when it came to talking about magic. Eld and I had had one almost-but-not-quite-open conversation about what I’d done back on that island, and Eld hadn’t spoken to me for a fortnight after, until I invited him to see my plan for taking over the Company. That plan had gone up in flames and by the time the ashes settled, the opportunity to discuss my magic was little more than ash itself. Eld hated all magic; he’d hate mine, too, despite our friendship. I searched my mind for an answer to his question, but none came, and Sin didn’t help either, the bastard.
“You told me to stay clear of this,” Sin reminded me.
Eld was still looking at me expectantly, his eyes a brilliant blue in the sunshine. For a moment I considered not answering, just staring, but he deserved a reply. I couldn’t give him the truth.…
“I, uh, let’s just say a little voice told me?” I said finally. “And it turned out to be right.”
“Oh,” Eld said, then realization bloomed in his eyes. “Oh.” He looked away, his cheeks turning a red that had nothing to do with the sun.
I bit back a curse and turned to look toward the stairs. An unending stream of people parted around the Doga, who seemed to have taken up residence at the top of the steps, her dark hair and skin nearly a match for my own, though I guessed much of her color came from the sun. I had to give it to the woman, she had presence, her gold crown placed within her ochre locks so that it looked a part of her. Thread o’ gold braided in as well made her hair shimmer in the light, and while she eschewed the latest fashion—a flaring jacket over tight trousers—her dress was still in style. The fabric, in a purple soft enough to be lavender, spilled down to her heels and was sewn up at one side to reveal gilded lace.
The crowd, some carrying crutches or heaps of bloody bandages they no longer needed after receiving healing by the Dead Gods, bowed as they passed. Judging from the Doga’s smile, their obeisances were deeper than the ones they’d given to their Gods.
Beyond the Doga, a man and woman were working their way against the crowd, perhaps heading for the next healing service. They were fools to not wait until the cathedral had cleared out. The man was jostled by another and nearly fell, his dark jacket billowing behind him, drawing a few curses from those around him. He pulled his jacket back around him and I saw a short-barreled pistole in his hand. Past him, a score of paces away, strode a woman in a similarly dark jacket, gaze fixated on … the Doga.
“They’re going to assassinate her.”
“What?” Eld turned away from the canal; he’d been watching for our gondola to arrive.
“The Doga.” I pointed. “Those two in the brown rags are trying to kill her. Sin, let’s go,” I said, the last spoken only in my mind.
I leapt into the crowd, letting Sin guide me deeper into the swirling maelstrom of humanity. I kept my eyes on the man. He was past middle age with an unkempt look; bristling hints of a white beard and greasy grey hair jutted out from his ill-fitting tricorne. Even with Sin’s help, it was difficult to move against the crowd. Two steps forward, one up, one back, and another two steps forward wasn’t going to get us there fast enough. Right hand inside left jacket pocket, left hand down to pouch sewn in the belt. Eight paces. The great thing about being able to wear a jacket and pants was that the pockets gave me so many options that I didn’t need to carry a purse unless I needed extra ammunition. Or makeup. Today I needed neither. “Ready?” I felt Sin’s nod and smiled. “Then let’s do this.”
I dropped my left hand inside my jacket and found the smooth handle of my new slingshot, its dark wood reinforced with bands of steel so it could handle the stronger rubber draw I could pull with my Sin-enhanced strength. My other hand went to the small lump hidden on the side of my belt and twisted the pistole ball free. I kept marching forward, Sin guiding my heeled boots. The assassin had no clue I was coming for him—his attention was focused on the Doga—and I couldn’t keep the laughter from my lips as I drew the slingshot up in line with his head.
“Easy,” Sin said as I drew back on the band. “That far and you’ll take his head off and hit another beyond him.” I let slacken the rubber and Sin grunted, “Better.”
My eyes burned with his magic, the rest of my senses disappeared, and everything slowed for a single, crystalizing, perfect moment. The man had the pistole half-raised, preparing his shot. I released the ball and heard its angry whine, followed a breath later by the sound of the assassin’s skull cracking. A spray of blood and bone paired with a plume of smoke and flame as the pistole boomed against the stairs. A woman screamed, followed by a chorus of other voices. People decided bolting was the better part of valor, and suddenly I found myself fighting to remain close to the woman in the brown jacket, who had broken into an awkward run, still trying to reach the Doga.
“Again, Sin,” I muttered, drawing another ball. I felt my eyes burn and movement still, but a lad with a shock of red hair blocked my shot. “Let it go.” Time and sound returned with a fury and everyone began running again. “Now.” This time it was a woman in a ridiculously tall, heavily feathered hat who saved the would-be assassin. “Let it go,” I growled. “We’re going to have to push through the crowd.”
“Can’t,” Sin said.
“Because, the strength required would mean you’d seriously injure, perhaps even kill, at least half a dozen people in getting to the woman. And she’s going to reach the Doga in a dozen paces while you’ve more than thrice that to cover. Wait for the shot, it will come.”
“Aye, or it won’t,” I muttered. I shifted my vision, let myself take in the full scene, and grinned. Of course.
He was standing above me, near one of the columns that formed the entryway to the cathedral. Where I’d leapt right in, Eld had worked his way to the top of the stairs by moving along the edge. Sin growled and I laughed.
“Eld!” I shouted again, gesturing toward the gilded cistern that stood between him and the Doga’s guard. This was where worshippers cleansed their hands, mouths, eyes, and ears before entering. But it’d do for a distraction as well. Eld leapt over a woman who’d tripped and fallen, and bellowed as he lifted the monstrosity overhead.
The Doga’s guards had drawn blades and circled her protectively. Oblivious to the real threat, they took note of Eld, who jumped down a pair of steps with the cistern held overhead. He teetered on the landing, then heaved the massive vessel. Water sluiced out in an arc and the cistern crashed down the steps. I cursed when I realized it would land short.
Most of the water crashed against the guard, but a bit of spray carried on past, hitting the assassin full in the face. She was running toward the Doga, hands reaching for something in her belt. She cried out in surprise when the water hit her, drawing the attention of the Doga’s guards.
A moment later the woman’s cry turned to one of pain and something shimmered through the air around her. Smoke? The woman ignited in a hissing, sputtering ball of flame that surged into the air and sent the Doga’s guards scurrying back with cries of their own. The woman fell, collapsing in on herself as she turned into a ball of pure fire. Eld caught up the cistern from where it had come to rest and, with another roar, tossed the remaining water onto the woman. She went out with a smoldering hiss. A breeze carried the perverse scent of spiced meat toward me.
Eld’s grunt was loud in the crackling silence that followed. “Well, that’s new.”
Copyright © 2021 by Ryan Van Loan