Black Bottle (Excerpt)

Check out this excerpt from Anthony Huso’s Black Bottle, out on August 21:

Tabloids sold in the Duchy of Stonehold claim that the High King, Caliph Howl, has been raised from the dead. His consort, Sena Iilool, both blamed and celebrated for this act, finds that a macabre cult has sprung up around her.

As this news spreads, Stonehold—long considered unimportant—comes to the attention of the emperors in the southern countries. They have learned that the seed of Sena’s immense power lies in an occult book, and they are eager to claim it for their own.

Desparate to protect his people from the southern threat, Caliph is drawn into a summit of the world’s leaders despite the knowledge that it is a trap. As Sena’s bizarre actions threaten to unravel the summit, Caliph watches her slip through his fingers into madness.

But is it really madness? Sena is playing a dangerous game of strategy and deceit as she attempts to outwit a force that has spent millennia preparing for this day. Caliph is the only connection left to her former life, but it’s his blood that Sena needs to see her plans through to their explosive finish.

Chapter 1

 

Love and warmth and family portraits were gone. Taelin had said good-bye to all of her friends. She walked resolutely, powered on disdain and a small cold brightness between her breasts.

Her journey stretched out behind her like a continental seam. She had struggled to get here, clawing out of the south, away from her father, across Eh’Muhrûk Muht¹ and up through the raw drizzle of the Country of Mirayhr. Her most recent complication had been the bone-jarring twenty-one miles between Clefthollow and the spot where her chemiostatic car had whined to a halt in deep mud. She had left her driver two miles back with half-fare, opting to slog alone with her only suitcase through freezing rain. Now, at last, she stood within eyeshot of this dismal country’s heart: the capital of the Duchy of Stonehold. Huge walls appeared from the weather, hammer and tongs, strung with vapor and steam, like pig iron pulled from its first bath.

1 P: Great Cloud Rift.

Glaring at the towers, Taelin lifted her crimson-lensed goggles back from her eyes and let them snap into brunette shadow. So this is the top of the world? she thought. This is the barbaric Naneman stronghold no one dares touch?

Stonehold had been founded by criminals. In 700 S.K. Felldin Barâk had pardoned several thousand Naneman murderers on condition they explore and settle the north. The ruffians’ progeny had sunk deep into the mountains, turned their backs on the south and—eight hundred years ago, give or take—declared their independence. This cold, rugged land subsisted on fisheries and metholinate gas and a modest export of caviar and other luxury goods. She would have struggled to find it on a map until last year.

Now, being here, wrapped in winter, awash in the legendary ferocity of this place, a chill deeper than weather sank into Taelin. This was what she was up against.

She remembered the day, the place she had been sitting, and the cool
prickle that had traveled across her forearms when she had heard that the diplomatic vessel Baasha One had been shot down over the Valley of Nifol. That was the summer before last, when the world had changed and the whole south had erupted into a hive of buzzing opinions. It was the day that had brought the Duchy of Stonehold to her attention.

The short, horrible story was that the victims of the crash had been picked over by northerners. Everyone in Pandragor was appalled. Taelin had shared a national sense of disgust.

Then it had leaked that solvitriol blueprints had been in Baasha One’s wreckage. Solvitriol secrets had fallen into the barbarians’ hands!

The papers had kept the drama going, an entire summer of real-life cloak and dagger. Taelin had to admit that despite her fear over Stonehold’s solvitriol program, the daily news had offered a kind of terrible entertainment. Shame had followed her to the newsstand every day where she indulged in Pandragonian accounts of her country’s diplomats: arrested in the far north. The saga of accusations, interrogations and executions had lasted for several weeks. Everyone had assumed that Pandragor would get involved.

Her father had told her that was precisely the articles’ purpose: to whip up public sentiment. Pandragor was going to throw the gauntlet down right in the middle of Stonehold’s brewing civil war.

And it had almost happened.

But one day, all the propaganda, all the support drummed up by the press had fallen flat when a Pandragonian airship full of diplomats had gone down under Stonehavian guns. Not the guns of Caliph Howl, the High King that Pandragor opposed, but the guns of Saergaeth Brindlestr4m the provincial leader Pandragor had been backing.

When the very arm that the emperor had been sponsoring stabbed him in the back, what else could Pandragor do? Emperor Jünn1 had backed down. He had said in an address that the south would, “let the North sort out the North.”

 

Taelin looked hard at the walls of Isca City.

Despite her objectives, she had never really trained with a velvet gun or a compression sling. But not all assaults required weapons. Taelin wasn’t going up against the government. She wasn’t going to be a spy like her father wanted her to be. Not exactly. She was here on a mission of famicide, tearing down a reputation rather than a body.

What had driven her here, alone, was not what anyone would have guessed. Her reason for undertaking this crazy personal quest was not related to the diplomats who had died or the possibility that solvitriol weapons were being made in the north.

She didn’t count herself smarter than Emperor Jünn1 but she did believe that her reasons for being here were above politics.

Weary to the bone, she stumped along, steam escaping her lips with every step.

She imagined Isca City at the center of the deepening cold, the stronghold of the ice-blue eyes that had mocked her from glossy magazines. She had never met Sena Iilool, but lithos and rumors described her well enough.

Taelin reached for the demonifuge² beneath her jabot. It moved between her breasts like a living thing. The heartbeat of a mouse. Its cool smoothness reassured her.

2 Pandragonian charm against evil spirits.

The demonifuge had not always been a necklace. Discovered in her grandfather’s trunk along with a menagerie of other heirlooms, she had taken it to a jeweler to have the chain affixed. The jeweler had been nonplussed. A perfect ring formed the pendant portion. On the backside, a disc of gold turned beneath her fingers, riding a bearing-lined groove. The disc was engraved with a deep glyph:

Taelin tugged it from her cleavage. The front of it blazed with an exquisite golden mote. As she rubbed it, it moved like a stirring chrysalis, almost too bright to look at, which was curious since it produced no visible light, failing even to illuminate her fingers. No one had been able to tell her what it was. Not even her father. But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it bore Nenuln’s mark, that it was beautiful and that it calmed her.

Nenuln’s sacred light could free this land; bleach the journalists’ profane ink from north-south periodicals. Taelin tried to focus on this bright thought as she passed deep ditches that crepitated in the wind, stirring fitfully with the zombies of summer bog hemp.

Nenuln would keep her safe.

Rain sprinkled her shoulders and cheeks. As she trudged, she thought about her aunt and uncle. Years since the last family reunion, all she knew about them was that they had little love for the Stonehavian government. Tonight they were leaving the light on for her.

Their letter had mentioned that seeking an audience tomorrow on the Funeral of the Leaves—fitting holiday for such a dank, dripping land—would be her best chance at a face-to-face with Sena Iilool. Neither of them had expressed much optimism in her chances, but Taelin felt differently. Sena would not be able to ignore her. Taelin held political status in the south. Sooner or later, the government of Stonehold would have to acknowledge her.

The caramel mud of the road reared up before the vast dark walls of the city, crowned with ancient cobbles now and patched with snow and modern cement. The pooling ditches gave way to gushing culverts. Stone and metal supplanted dusk and fog-draped fields. Streetlamps buzzed. Gargoyles threatened. Dogs clucked in the shadows.

She entered the tenebrous bulk of West Gate with its acres of bricks arching overhead. Her fingers were cold. Her hands and arms throbbed from the burden of her suitcase. She smelled greasy food and heard laughter, saw that there were pubs and restaurants inside the gate. Her stomach growled but she would wait until she reached her destination. It took her only moments to secure a cabbie. The vehicle’s windows glittered with purple lights amid the chaos of the gate.

She got in.

The cabbie took her into the city, along a street labeled Sedge Way into the borough of Three Cats. Even after she smeared it with her sleeve, the window fogged quickly thanks to a bulky black heater that cramped her feet. She couldn’t see out. Inside the lantern-shaped cab, it was warm at least, but the leather seats were sticky and exuded a cocktail of sour odors.

Her driver remained silent.

She glanced at the address on a slip of paper.

She had told him to drop her at Heath Street.

“I’m starting a church here,” she said.

For a moment, he glared over his shoulder. Then his face returned to the windshield, lit wildly by a glowing purple cat that swung from his mirror.

“If you’re wondering why you go to the same job, the same bar or tavern every day. If you feel like you want to talk about . . . anything. Well, we don’t have a chapel yet. But we will soon. In the meantime, you can reach me by air.”

She pushed a card over his shoulder. He took it and glanced at it.

Church of Nenuln
Lady Taelin Rae

Taelin looked proudly at the small gem, affixed in the center of the card with a dollop of rubber cement.

She saw him raise his eyebrows in the rearview, probably thinking of the huge cost and risk of handing cruestones out to strangers.

“Ticky,” he said. Then he tossed the card on the dashboard amid sandwich wrappers and mini Pink Nymph Whisky bottles—all of them empty.

Taelin didn’t sulk. He wasn’t ready for her message. That was all. After several more minutes of silence and bouncing on the ice-crusted roads, they arrived.

She handed him the fare and watched politely as he counted the coins and logged the trip on a clipboard. When he jumped out, freezing fresh air rushed into the cab. He dragged her suitcase from the trunk and set it in the snow.

Taelin climbed out into the foreign cityscape and maintained her smile until he and his bad-smelling contraption had coughed into the night. She opened her pocket watch. The skeleton gears flickered with ghostly, pastel lights.

Nearly midnight. And still a mile from her destination. But her aunt and uncle had warned against taking the cab all the way to their address. “The High King is watching us. Make sure you come on foot . . .”

There were other instructions as well. It felt vaguely criminal, but Taelin understood precautions had to be taken. This was a dispiriting town with a violent government—unlike Pandragor.

She followed the leprous masonry of Heath Street south, out of Os Sacrum’s foggy desertion and toward the upscale twinkle of Lampfire Hills. At the corner of Knife Street she thought she saw something gaunt and exaggerated standing under a streetlamp but when she looked at it directly, there was nothing there. An old man perhaps. That had been her impression. Stooped and dark.

She stood for a moment with her heart pounding. She pulled her goggles down to double-check. Nothing stirred across the street. She imagined spies and worse but after half a minute, she adjusted her grip on the suitcase and trudged on.

The streets of Heath and Mark met in a sullen quadrangle where Taelin found the beginning of a lane that ascended a hill lined with barren trees. She climbed to a point that gave her a broad view of the sea and the alleys between what looked like thin brown tenements brooding beyond an empty field to the south. Across the field, small golden windows flared in some of the floors but mostly they were dark. A shout caused the air to quaver spontaneously, as if someone had dropped a street sign off a distant roof.

“Keep me and protect me,” she whispered and made Nenuln’s sign in the air.

Isca scintillated; some of the humidity was turning to snow. Even the slush above the sewer grates was beginning to crunch underfoot when abruptly, glowing in the icy haze, Taelin met the High King’s witch in the gloom.

Sena Iilool’s eyes burnt up at her from a billboard that topped a clutch of buildings below the hill. So blue. They were wicked, sultry eyes, lined with black. Golden curls splashed together with white downy fur. A Niloran cocktail. Liqueur splashing into cream. The mix cascaded over her naked shoulders. Jesuexe Furrier! 1319 S. Octul Box. The letters wavered in reflective gold.

Magazines as far south as Iycestoke and Waythloo had printed articles about this carpetbagging beauty. Her history had thickened like something delicious that periodicals then whipped with sweetened words and ambiguity into a theosophic meringue that sold faster than it could be printed. All stories shouted the same cock-and-bull fabrication: there is a demigod in Stonehold!

No one really believed it. But when lithos snapped by dressmakers hit the papers, black-and-whites revealed the woman was a peri: shivering demonian eyes and an ecdysiast’s smile. Iycestoke the political entity, with its gruesome history of witch executions, officially snubbed her but the populous roared for more. Especially the gentlemen’s periodicals. Pandragor was equally guilty. The whole of the south couldn’t get enough of Sena Iilool.

Taelin had bought papers and magazines. She had heard the street preachers shouting, decrying the sins of Stonehold, indistinguishable at first from political propaganda.

They claimed that High King Caliph Howl’s enemies had been crushed at the end of his civil war by the most outlandish phenomenon ever reported, some kind of holomorphic weather system. The event had been so widespread and so devastating that it had obliterated entire towns. Caliph Howl himself had wound up a casualty, which should have allowed Emperor Jünn1 and the rest of Pandragor to finally exhale.

Except for one thing.

Like an evil gift to the browbeaten citizenry of the Duchy of Stonehold, a fable was slapped together that the infamous witch queen, Sena Iilool, had somehow managed to raise Caliph Howl from the dead. With fearless leader restored, rehearsed cheering had no doubt been queued. The tyrant lived on.

What had really happened, Taelin found impossible to tell. Details trickled rather than flowed from this reclusive northern country. But portraying the High King as a resurrected being and his witch as some kind of demiurge? Taelin understood this was the oldest and simplest kind of control: presentment of government as god. And that was why she was here. That was why she had come north. She remembered one magazine article in particular that had startled her into action:

There are those who worship Miss Iilool. In fact, the temple of what some term to be a fad-religion with partisan³ popularity has sprung up on Incense Street at the corner of . . .

3 Not everyone would have wanted High King Caliph Howl raised from the dead.

Well, that had sealed it. Something had to be done to stop this kind of blasphemous lunacy: people worshiping people.

Despite the cancellation of Taelin’s wedding and the very private transgression that had caused it—a mistake which still echoed painfully in her heart—her family’s temple had, in the end, not taken her back. But her sins didn’t make her any less of a believer, so she had formed a new church, her own church, and begun down a different road. She had focused her ire on the god-myth in Isca and tracked Sena Iilool’s inexplicable ten-month circuit of the Atlath Continent through the papers. Taelin had planned her arrival in Stonehold to coincide with Sena’s return.

Taelin lifted her eyes from the billboard and found her goal in the darkness, an impressive and ornate house on the edge of the hill. It stood in black counterpoint to the fog. The silhouette of the House of Mywr’Din was tall and grim, much different than styles found in Pandragor. This was her uncle’s house. Taelin trudged the final thirty yards through the swirling snow, lifted the door’s heavy knocker and let it fall.

It bounced loudly against the brass plate. A few moments later the mascaron swung back, a young man’s face appeared in its place and bid her welcome to Isca City.


Chapter 2

 

High King Caliph Howl tapped his fingers on a sheaf of paper. It was one hundred twenty-three pages of fresh print that had nothing to do with the parlor full of cigars and music that twittered just the other side of a twelve-foot cherry wood door. The evening of entertainment was not for him. It was for Nuj Ig’nos and the other diplomats.

The papers puffed slightly at the edges every time Caliph’s fingers struck them; the desk lamp imposed a sharp, ice-bright rink of light onto sentences filled with names and commerce and promises and threats. He was supposed to be thinking up enigmatic calculations that would transform the stack of Pandragonian demands into something that would serve the Duchy of Stonehold rather than undermine it. But after an hour he felt the hot itch of pressure at the back of his neck. Despite the coolness of the room, heat coursed over his shoulders, under his arms, up into his face.

He pawed at his chin. The cup of warm milk and honey on his desk— gone cold—had failed to help.

Finally, he opened a drawer and raked through staplers and gadgetry for a bottle of artificially flavored tablets. After eating two, he tossed the bottle back into the drawer and kicked it shut. The gurgling pain in his stomach subsided.

Maybe there was no way to satisfy the Pandragonian demands. Apart from turning over the throne and making Stonehold an unincorporated, organized territory of the empire, something like the tragedy that had befallen Bablemum, nothing was going to make Nuj Ig’nos happy.

You fuckers, he thought. Out there eating Iscan caviar, drinking comets, staring at the ensemble of violinists wearing bare-backed dresses in the middle of Oak just for you! And you hand me this—koan. And you already know how it’s going to end.

A soft, persistent knocking resonated from the room’s official entrance.

Caliph picked up the stack of papers, tapped its edge on the leather surface of his desk and took it across the room to the trash. The trash consisted of a black envelope. It would bear the document’s name and date until it merited resurrection. Caliph sealed it and placed it in a wire basket.

He smiled wanly as the knocking persisted. Only one man knocked in such a fashion. Caliph strode from the bookshelves, over the patterned carpet and cracked the door. A volcanic glow immediately widened and burst across the threshold.

A thin figure bowed from the waist, shadow streaming into the room. Alani’s head, as always, was shorn and his powder-white goatee was diplomat-perfect. Slender liver-spotted hands folded reverently across his black vest. Stuffing the vest, pleats of white silk had been stamped with an asymmetrical brooch of featureless silver.

Caliph stepped back and made a theatrical gesture with his arm. The spymaster straightened and walked in.

As the door shut, Caliph started talking. “The accord is a sham.”

Alani’s voice, like whisky, came with a warm ripple of corrosion, “Of course it is.”

“And this conference in Sandren we’re supposed to go to . . . is starting to feel like a trap,” continued Caliph. He returned slowly to the cold oasis of light on his desk.

“This came for you.” Alani handed him an envelope.

“You’ve read it?”

“Yes.”

Caliph unsheathed the note and snapped it open.

“‘King Howl,’” he read aloud, “‘We feel compelled to make it abundantly clear that your speech on the fifteenth is of critical importance. Do not deviate from the clear and narrow dialogue that will lead to warm relations with the Six Kingdoms.’”

It was not signed. Caliph snarled at the page. The Pandragonians were far from subtle.

“Do you still plan to go?” asked Alani.

“Of course.”

Alani reached into his vest. “Good.” He drew out a pipe. “Understanding their motives, you can’t fault them for being unhappy over the reunification. They’d rather you were dead . . . and all of Stonehold splintered.”

“Well I’m not dead,” said Caliph. But the assertion forced him to reflect. At least not anymore.

It had been what? Twenty months since his failure in the skies over Burt? He wouldn’t allow himself to relive the full tragedy of the war in front of Alani, but he felt it. Enough sour, cold regret to pucker his insides.

Alani waited quietly, patiently. He had once waited for two days for a man’s head to cross in front of a three-foot pane of glass. Caliph pondered this little-known fact as he watched the emotionless lines in his spymaster’s face.

Finally Caliph said, “Metholinate has to be a factor.” He moved around behind his desk and leaned against a windowsill that supported enormous slabs of glass.

Alani made a grunt. “They don’t want gas for Iycestoke, or Pandragor . . .”

“No,” said Caliph. “They have solvitriol power and bariothermic. They just want to own us outright. They’ll keep our trade agreements intact but they’ll be inside the government then. They’ll be here, in the north. For the first time. And you know what that means?

“They’ll control how we use or don’t use solvitriol tech.”

Alani snicked his tongue against his teeth several times, “Are you sure? Are you sure that’s what this is about?”

The way Alani asked, Caliph felt as though a drop of melt water had fallen from the great casement behind him and trickled down his neck. “You think it’s something different? Why?”

The spymaster had not lit his pipe. He folded his arms and relaxed against the desk. “It’s a long way, reaching across the Cloud Rift, through the Healean Range, to this patch of mud and ice; especially when they have enemies grinding at them from next door. Even if we opened the floodgates on solvitriol development, we’re ten years behind them. They don’t need to be pushing so hard. Not now. By all accounts, as the saying goes, they have bigger fish . . .”

Caliph pulled his lip. It was true. Why were the Pandragonians willing to extend themselves all the way to the top of the world—to the Glacier Rise? Preventing solvitriol secrets from leaving Stonehold was in the south’s interest. But could they really stop that with broad political maneuvers? No. Alani was right. That sort of thing fell to espionage.

Why was Pandragor pushing so hard?

Neither of them spoke.

Finally Caliph broke the silence. “Maybe the conference on the fifteenth will turn up some answers. I want you to come with me.”

“I was planning on it,” said Alani. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone? They’re going to try and end this whole thing while you’re there. And I mean end it.”

The conviction in Alani’s voice gave Caliph pause. “Well, that’s why you’re coming with. If I don’t scratch out some allies while we’re there, it’s not going to matter. Maybe the Stargazers—”

Alani touched his beard and seemed to wince.

“What?” asked Caliph. “You don’t think we can win them over?”

“It’s not that. I’m sure they’re the best chance we have of finding an ally south of the Rift but—”

“But what?”

“They don’t have much to offer. Bablemum is a better representation of how the south feels about us, your majesty.”

Caliph scowled, “Those priests in Gas End demonstrating again?”

“Yes.” Alani rolled his pipe in his fingers. “They don’t like Sena.”

“Well I don’t like the south.” Caliph felt his face flush. What right was it of theirs to have a say in who he slept with?

“Along those lines,” Alani shifted gears ever so slightly, “the House of Mywr’Din has a visitor.”

“From the south, I take it?” Caliph lifted his eyes from the desk lamp. He read the information in Alani’s expression, “Pandragor? Are you serious?”

“Indeed. She arrived at West Gate and took a cab, which let her off early. She walked the rest of the distance to Salmalin’s house via back streets.”

“Reeeeally.”

Alani held up a tiny black gem in his fingers, “What I don’t understand is, if she’s a spy, why is she handing out these . . . to strangers?”

“A cruestone?”

Alani placed it in Caliph’s hand along with something small and white. “Yes, and here’s her card.”

“‘Church of Nenuln’?” Caliph read.

Alani smiled for the first time. “She’s the daughter of Pandragor’s attorney general.” His smile broadened. “We can use this.”

 

After the spymaster had left, Caliph turned down the gas lamp. The resulting ineffectual ringlet of blue flame allowed moonlight to resurface the room; it rolled from the window over the desk and down the Greymoorian carpet. He noticed patterns moving across the floor and turned to discover that it had started snowing.

He flipped open the brass latches and pulled the windows in. Icy air gushed over his body. It smelled of smoke and pine: urban and rural mixing here at the edge of the city.

Sena’s arrival had been delayed by weather. Her airship would dock tomorrow rather than today, a homecoming that carved his internal calendar up with anxiety.

Theirs had not been a warm intimate coupling, sharing breakfast and mutual goals on the balcony. Rather, Caliph found it discomfiting that scandal sheets like the Varlet’s Pike had mostly gotten it right, painting their relationship as a hot and cold bodice-ripper headed for emotional destitution.

Maybe it was his fault. He wanted daily rituals with her that somehow fit his impossible schedule. That might have been feasible if she had been a bauble, content with parties and shopping and interior design.

But Sena showed up for parties only as a favor to him, seldom went shopping, and left the look of Isca Castle to designers who marketed their taste as hers and thenceforth made a killing. Sena had her own schedule. And it was rigorous. When it did mesh with his, the outcome was never predictable.

After a long time Caliph closed the windows and snapped the latches. The Pandragonians had gone to bed.

He left the room, head floating down the endless cavernous hallways, past the banks of palladian glass and countless twelve-foot doors to other rooms. His tether to his exhausted body felt tenuous. His skin itched. But he knew he wasn’t going to sleep.

Insomnia had vexed him ever since the wake.

In the grand scope, his life had remained unchanged by the events of Thay second, Day of Charms. He could remember the taste of the metal sticking through his chest. So strange that he could taste it. The fire. The crash. All slowed to the speed of a parachute seed drifting over Thilwicket Fen. That was the strange part. The part that had changed.

He could remember, back at college, standing on North Oast Road west of the cemetery, looking out across Thilwicket as dawn hit the trees; standing there, watching the swarm of gossamer seeds float above the fen like a million illuminated insects. For some reason he connected that moment to the moment of his death: that was the subtle way Thay second had changed him. That morning on North Oast Road was important. Had become important. And he didn’t know why.

Caliph sorted through a ring of keys and tried several before finding the right one. He hadn’t been to the library since Sena had locked it ten months ago and boarded the Odalisque for her trip.

It felt like trespassing even though she hadn’t explicitly forbidden him from coming here. In fact, she had used only three words to describe her desires concerning the place where she kept all her precious notes and books: “Keep it locked.”

The key scraped hollowly inside the metal aperture, a sound that traveled through Caliph’s bones. He pushed the door open and paused at the threshold, looking in. It had stopped snowing and a thin, watery band of moonlight ghosted the blackness, streaming from a small upper window. It touched nothing. As if the pillars and bookcases shrouded in midnight were being given deferential treatment. As if the southern moon had decided it was better to leave this dark socket undisturbed.

Why am I here? He supposed it was prologue to her return, a way of reacquainting himself by standing in the place that very nearly defined her.

Except that it didn’t feel like Sena.

His hand nearly trembled. A presence resonated from the blackness. It beat his cheeks as if the darkness itself were trying to push him back. A drapery charged with static. Galvanic waves throbbed against his skin.

He took a step into the room and stopped: the animal part of him was afraid. Had some tendril drifted? Some shroudlike form? Maybe a cloud brushing the moon?

Caliph groped for the switch like a child. His pulse fluttered, puerile and timid. While his body cooled, terror gelling around him, his face clenched defiantly. He stared hard into the darkness.

There was a snap followed by a hiss as the gas lamp bubbled to life and spread rheumy light through the chamber’s wood and leather angles. His heart caught as if a cog had been spinning, out of gear. Now re-engaged, it slowed.

The room’s fireplace emitted strangled sighs; breathed on a blackboard smeared with formulae. There was an empty lectern nearby. A stray draft disturbed the powder and a specter of dust spiraled off the chalk rail as Caliph, very slowly, crossed the room.

Before him, a table with mammoth legs supported a sprawl of books, maps and loose pages. The table’s vast leather surface was further arrayed with colored notes stuck to manuscripts, pages, even the table itself. Gnawed pencils in the lair of an academic fiend seemed to be the only things not in meaningful locations.

Caliph circled the enormous table, looking at Sena’s meticulous research. Her lanthorn hung above the middle of the sprawl, too far for him to reach, its lenses gray and dark. There was a single chair with comfortable-looking leather upholstery that Caliph tapped thoughtfully. What is the harm, he thought, in seeing what she’s been working on?

Back in the house on Isca Hill, his uncle had taught him a small obscure word that required no blood. A curiosity that had earned fear-based opprobrium from several college professors. He spoke it now to ignite Sena’s lanthorn, which smoldered into absinthe-colored light, immediately soothing his tired eyes. A warm woody smell of spice and flowers flowed out from it and pushed Caliph down into the chair. The light picked words from the pages more clearly, it seemed, than direct sun.

Soon, he was following arrows in the notes, reading bracketed paragraphs, flipping to cross-references and devouring a terrifying set of journal entries that fed him ceaselessly into the brilliant ache of a morning unbacked by sleep.

Black Bottle © Anthony Huso 2012

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