Four Roads Cross (Chapters 6 and 7)

We’re excited to bring you four days of Four Roads Cross, the fifth book in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence! Read chapters 6 and 7 below, or head back to the beginning with chapter 1!. Four Roads Cross publishes July 26th from Tor Books.

The great city of Alt Coulumb is in crisis. The moon goddess Seril, long thought dead, is back—and the people of Alt Coulumb aren’t happy. Protests rock the city, and Kos Everburning’s creditors attempt a hostile takeover of the fire god’s church. Tara Abernathy, the god’s in-house Craftswoman, must defend the church against the world’s fiercest necromantic firm—and against her old classmate, a rising star in the Craftwork world.

As if that weren’t enough, Cat and Raz, supporting characters from Three Parts Dead, are back too, fighting monster pirates; skeleton kings drink frozen cocktails, defying several principles of anatomy; jails, hospitals, and temples are broken into and out of; choirs of flame sing over Alt Coulumb; demons pose significant problems; a farmers’ market proves more important to world affairs than seems likely; doctors of theology strike back; Monk-Technician Abelard performs several miracles; The Rats! play Walsh’s Place; and dragons give almost-helpful counsel.

 

 

6

Catherine Elle and Raz Pelham sat in a dirty white golem truck in a parking lot across the street from a two-story building that was trying very hard to be nondescript.

She peered through a narrow gap in the curtains over the windows. “For smugglers and slavers, they’re not so good at this.”

“These guys just make the dreamglass,” Raz said. “The trafficking’s Maura’s job.”

“Still. Our den of villainy’s first floor is a sleepy little pizza place with a guy reading at the counter. One cook. They’re barely trying. I doubt they even have pizza. They’d get the biggest shock of their lives if I walked in and ordered a slice.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Watch me.”

“In or out of costume?”

“It’s not a costume.”

“I’m not up on the preferred nomenclature. What am I supposed to call your creepy addictive hive mind symbiont?”

“It’s less addictive now,” she said. “And it works by grace of Goddess. Goddesses aren’t creepy, by definition.”

“How many goddesses have you met?”

“Shut up.”

“We have a few back home in Dhisthra might change your mind is all I’m saying.”

“The one I do know’s more than enough for me. Maybe too much.”

“Fair enough.” He returned his attention to his book. “The goddesses I’m talking about might find you tasty, anyway.”

Her badge chilled. She reached beneath her shirt collar and touched the icon of Justice hanging there. Moonsilver flowed over her mind like a high wave on a north shore beach, and receded, leaving the world darker until it dried. She listened to the hum of distant voices. “Pursuit team just checked in,” she said, interpreting for his benefit. “Maura Varg’s in transit with the funds. You identify her, we go in, take them all at once.”

“I know the plan.”

For a few minutes, neither of them spoke. Raz turned pages.

“Speaking of creepy,” she said.

“What?”

“Every few seconds I realize I’m the only one here who’s breathing.”

“Lifer sentiment doesn’t become you, Cat. Watch out or I’ll report you to the Association for the Advancement of Undead Peoples.”

“Stuff it.”

He raised one eyebrow and grinned, baring the tips of fangs.

Cat checked the window again. A driverless carriage rolled to the curb and a woman stepped out: tall and weathered, with a thick neck and a sailor’s broad gait, as if she expected the land to betray her at any moment. She wore canvas slacks, leather boots, a shirt patched and repaired with sailcloth, and bore a curved blade through the red sash around her midsection. The only part of the ensemble that did not fit the pirate queen image was the immaculate brown leather briefcase, which cost, Cat ventured, around six hundred thaums. She wondered if the case’s ornaments were gold, decided they were, and ratcheted the value up to an even thousand.

“She’s not even trying to make this hard,” she said. “That’s Varg?” She slid forward on the seat so Raz could check out the window. His body didn’t heat the surrounding air; the long, lean muscles of his flank pressed cold against her back.

He peeked through the shade. He hissed as light struck him—dropped the curtain and rolled back into his seat, digging the heels of his hands into his eyelids. “Godsdamn. Why don’t you people do business at night like normal?”

“Is that her?”

“Yeah. That’s Maura.”

Cat returned to the window. “Looks like a tough customer. How did you two meet, again?”

“Business, way back. She tried to kill me once; I ate her partner.”

“Really?”

“I was young, and we were both sailing for someone I’d rather forget. She was only a privateer in those days. She’s always been vicious, but I never thought she’d stoop to the indenture trade.”

“We’ll stop that.”

“You’d better. There are people in her hold.”

Maura Varg entered the shop and traded salutes with the man behind the register. He released something he was holding beneath the counter—tension in his shoulder and biceps was right for a blade, though maybe a shocklance or blasting rod or crossbow—stepped out front, walked past Varg, and flipped the open sign in the window to closed.

Varg drummed her fingers on the briefcase. Not a woman who liked waiting, Cat thought. Not a woman who liked much of anything on land. Such prejudice tended to go with the piratical territory.

The cashier took a skeleton key from his pocket, slid it into a crack in the drywall, and turned. A door opened where a door hadn’t been seconds before.

One could quibble with mystery plays on many points. Cat’s fellow Suits scorned them for a host of small inaccuracies: steel doesn’t break that way, no one holds a crossbow like that, how did they reload so fast, no officer in their right mind would go into that house alone. Small details of procedure and weaponry didn’t bother Cat much, but the plays got hidden doors wrong every single time. The young bride in “Reynardine” opens the secret passage to find a luxurious staircase, warning inscription in gold on the arch above, rich, plush, and above all clean.

Real hidden passages, now, were by definition places people didn’t look, where you never had to entertain company. You entered them only when you needed something from the space beyond, and you didn’t linger. Real hidden passages, in Cat’s experience, looked more like disused dry-goods cellars.

So she wasn’t surprised when the new door opened onto a shabby stairwell made from warped unfinished wood. Black smears marred the plaster wall.

Maura Varg jutted her chin out and up by way of a nod, and climbed the hidden stairs. The cashier closed the door behind her, removed and pocketed the key, and patted the drywall where the door had been.

Cat clutched her badge again and spoke through it to Blacksuits in and out of uniform. “Varg is upstairs. The key’s in the cashier’s left apron pocket.”

Roger, they responded, and though Cat knew the voice, and used it herself sometimes, still she shivered. It was the voice of wireglass things in nightmares, which never lived and so could never die. A year ago, the voice was simply terrifying, which hadn’t bothered her. These days there was a song beneath the scream, a face to the silver. A goddess was part of her workday now. That was harder to accept. Awaiting your signal.

“It’s time,” she told Raz.

He took his hands from his face. His cheeks were wet with blood tears. “Give them hells.”

She cracked the door and slipped out into the damp, oppressive heat of early afternoon in summer. Alt Coulumb’s founders in their infinite wisdom built their city on a marsh—that was one reason, said the city’s oldest myths, their land came so cheap. Rivers still ran beneath the pavement and underground, but pave a swamp and you’re left with a paved swamp. Two steps out into the sun, and she sweated through her shirt. The city smelled of stone and fish and flesh and thick nose-burning spices. Not every restaurant on this street was a smuggling front, Cat thought. Probably.

She slid a pack of cigarettes from her jacket pocket and tapped them against her palm, spun the box, tapped them again. Fewer people smoked than used to, here in the fire-god’s city. Cat herself never started—reaction to her dad, a shrink would probably say, if she went to one. But stepping out for a cigarette was a good cover.

She faked a cough, pressed her fist against the badge through her shirt. The badge’s corners bit her skin. Okay, she told them. Let’s go.
Silver shadows rose from the surrounding rooftops, and leapt. Soundlessly they flew and soundless fell. Cat remembered a cruise she’d taken once to see whales. When the leviathan breached, the spray rose twice the height of her boat’s mast, and sunlight rainbowed through.

The Blacksuits—not quite black anymore, though the name stuck—landed lighter on the restaurant roof than the spray had on the ship’s deck. Cat barely heard them, and her ears were sharper than most humans’. Three Suits geckoed down the building’s walls, spread.eagled above windows, slick silver skin adhering to the brick.

Metal flashed from the alley behind the restaurant.

That was her cue.

She looked both ways, crossed the street, stepped into the pizza place. The bell above the door jangled. The walls looked as dirty from inside as they had through the window. A devotional calendar hung on the wall. Two months had passed since the last page was turned.

“Hey,” she said, letting her accent thicken to its old richness. A girl can leave Slaughter’s Fell, but the fell never quite leaves her. “Gimme two slices of pepperoni and a cup of coffee to go.”

Apron looked up from the book he was reading behind the cash register. In the rear, the cook—Cat’s uptown-bred coworkers liked to say, “Where they find these guys I’ll never know,” but Cat did know, when she was a kid back in the fell she knew ten guys and their fathers who all looked like this, fake tan, gym, and dank cologne, bad haircuts and bad tattoos and not enough sense to leave a business that grew more dangerous as it grew richer—the cook, call him Sideburns, who Cat figured might actually be able to make a grilled cheese sandwich if you presented him with bread, cheese, butter, a frying pan, a burning stove, and a map, Sideburns whom no one had hired for his culinary acumen approached with a slow, dangerous gait. He wore heavy rings on his right hand and didn’t look sweaty so much as bronzed. In a different age, guys like Sideburns would have followed guys like Apron as they in turn followed purple-robed emperors to glory.

So much for history.

“Oven’s broken,” Apron said.

She tapped her cigarettes. “Just a slice? Don’t need it hot, just my buddy’s hungry, you know. And coffee.”

“No coffee,” Apron said. “No slices. Go to Farrell’s down the road. And there’s no smoking here.”

The restaurant was very quiet. Cat, who knew how to listen, heard a soft metallic click. A drop of sweat rolled down Sideburns’s jaw.

“Look, man, I’m in a hurry, are you sure you don’t have—”

“Listen.” Apron slammed shut his book and loomed over the counter. “We don’t have nothing. Take a hike.”

“Sure,” she said. Raised her hands. Apron wore a sharp expressive scent, which Cat could have identified if she wore her Suit. The Suit knew more than she did. Operating plainclothes, she always felt as if someone had chopped off her extra arm. “I don’t want trouble.”

“This ain’t trouble,” he said. She wished he had not sounded almost human there. It made the next bit harder. “So long as you get—”

She struck him in the neck with her cigarette packet. An alchemical switch snapped within the paper, metal prongs struck him, lightning flashed. He slumped twitching onto the counter. Sideburns rushed forward, but Cat heard a poured-water sound and when she looked up she saw Sideburns struggling against a quicksilver-skinned woman who held him in a sleeper hold, pinching off the blood flow to his brain. Sideburns was smarter, or better trained, than Cat gave him credit: when he couldn’t pull the Suit’s arm down, he thrust his hips into her. When that didn’t work, he tried to claw her face. Fingernails skidded over silver. Thumbs found eye sockets and gouged, but the Suit didn’t notice. Score another point for mind-bonding—some responses you couldn’t train out of human bodies, no matter how damage-resistant they might be, but the Suit knew better than to let its host get scared.

Cat caught Apron by the collar, dragged him up onto the counter, pulled the key from his pocket, and ran to the wall. The door opened, and revealed the stairs.

Behind her, in his last flailing seconds of consciousness, Sideburns made his smartest move. He couldn’t break the Suit’s grip, couldn’t save himself, but he could kick over the kitchen rack. It fell, struck the sink, rained bowls and platters and tongs and boxes onto tile.

From up the stairs she heard a voice. “Stevie?”

Two Suits had followed the first through the rear window. They ran past her now, a blur of silver and steel, rapid footsteps. Upstairs she heard a crossbow twang, a scream. Moonlight called her, the hungry pit at the back of her mind yawning deep as voices issued from it in ecstatic chorus—

Breaching window—

Blast rods at the door—

Kitchen secure—

She has a rod—

A fist the size of a carriage struck the ceiling over Cat’s head. Roof timbers strained, cracks spiderwebbed across plaster, dust fell. She knew the layout of the dealers’ second-floor apartment: large kitchen in back where they packed the product, living room–turned–guard post in front, sitting room in between, locked bedroom door. Targets swarming, five in the kitchen lit red in her mind’s vision, four in the front, two in the middle, and one asleep or tripping in the bedroom. Maura Varg stood in the sitting room, smoking blast rod in her hand, charge expelled. Varg’s skin flushed as systems inside her spun up, gave her strength and speed. She struck the locked door with the palm of her hand so hard its wood split up the center—

Cat swore. The Suit in the kitchen was busy, binding Apron and Sideburns amid the mess of fallen pots and pans.

If Cat donned her Suit, she could be outside in a second, bursting through the plate glass window to the street. Instead she ran out the front door, turned the corner so tight her shoes slipped on concrete and she almost fell, caught herself on the ground with one hand—

Glass shattered above as Maura Varg dove out the bedroom window, shard-misted, forearms crossed to shield her face, farther than a running jump should have taken her, and arced headfirst toward the pavement.

Cat sprinted across the street toward her, arms pistoning. If she could catch Varg before she came upright—

A cry from her left, and too late she heard the triple-beat of a horse at gallop. Should have closed the street—she looked left and saw wide black equine eyes and rearing hooves and a rider’s moon-shaped face beneath an absurd tricornered hat as the hooves came down. She dodged through molasses, the horse eighteen hands at least and plunging, and she knew what those hooves could do to human flesh—

She fell into the silver void, into the ice-melt lake that waited at her brain stem’s root, and leapt clear of the hooves, which could not hurt her anymore, because she wasn’t human anymore exactly.

Nor was she, exactly, Cat.

But she didn’t want to hurt the horse.

Hooves fell, slow as a ballerina’s lofted leg descending. Somewhere a butterfly’s wing beat. On North Shore, a wave rolled onto the beach and did not roll back.

She stood in the road, a statue of fluid silver. Behind her, other Blacksuits secured the apartment safe house, which she saw in fl ashes: dreamglass piled on the kitchen counter, broken bones and windows, captives splayed on the floor. Safe. In front of her, Maura Varg fl ed into an alley. Cat followed her. She closed with Varg, not fast enough—the woman’s glyphwork must be pushing her to the edge of sanity, to outrun a Suit. Alley shadows fell slick on Cat’s skin, and far below the world she heard the sunken moon’s song.

A carriage pulled up at the far end of the alley, door open. She saw it, and through silver the other Suits saw it, too, and Justice activated plainclothes officers nearby for pursuit. Varg would make the carriage before Cat could catch her. Normal horses couldn’t outrun a Black-suit, but not all horses were normal.

A black, burning blur fell on Varg from the rooftops. She struck pavement and then the alley wall, skidded, found her feet in a tussle with a smoking human figure. Not a Blacksuit—and really burning, skin licked by flame, charcoal flakes falling as he moved. Fangs flashed bone white within the fire.

Raz.

Varg jumped on him. He hit her three times; the fourth time she caught his wrist. Glyphs shone noon bright on her arms. She spun him around and caught his neck in the crook of her arm. Her blade steadied against his throat.

Cat stopped.

They stood opposed in the alley.

“That’s right,” Varg said. “Don’t move.”

Varg backed toward the carriage. Cat took two steps forward.

Raz’s fires died, leaving scales of char like a snake’s dried skin about to shed.

“I’ll kill him.”

Cat had seen Raz survive a broken neck. But she didn’t know his limits, and did not want to test them now.

Seize her, the silver sang. Hold her. Bring her to Justice.

She forced the Suit aside, and fell from heaven’s gates. Silver seeped away and she was only Cat again.

The knife pressed into his skin.

She held out her hand—pink, weak, shaking with aftershocks of ecstasy. Varg could break her now, if she wanted. “Let him go. You can’t run.”

“I can run forever,” Maura Varg said.

Her glyphs guttered like 3:00 a.m. coals.

Raz smiled, though maybe he was just gritting his teeth.

Then he hit Varg hard in the face with the back of his head.

Varg’s nose shattered. Her knife tore into his neck. He fell, limp. Varg staggered, and in that second Cat leapt on her, threw her into the wall, hit her in the face, the jaw, doubled her over her knee. Varg crumpled and lay still, though breathing.

Cat ran to Raz.

Blood poured down his collar, a red scarf over his bleach-white shirt. His hand rose, trembling, to his neck, but could not reach.

She knelt beside him, took his wrist, felt the direction he wanted it to go, and pressed his hand against his wound. His teeth were white and sharp.

She shed her jacket, unbuttoned her shirt cuff, and pushed it up. Scars marked on her forearm, paired pinpricks, long gashes, faded, yes, but there was only so much a year could heal. If she was younger, they might have healed completely.

She raised her wrist to his mouth. His nostrils flared. There was a need in her—gods, such a need—hunger for the fullness she’d abandoned a year ago, but she found herself here anyway, in the alley, so weak.

His fangs bared.

She shivered in anticipation.

He pressed his lips together, shook his head.

She slumped beside him. “You really.” She was breathing hard, and not from the run. “You really should let me know what can kill you.”

“I’m.” His first try was wet and windy at once. He spit blood onto the pavement. “I’m not exactly sure. Extended sunlight, probably. Decapitation. It’s not like there’s a manual. And only dumb kids go around trying to off themselves.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s an existentialist thing.”

“Never did trust philosophy.” A pause, in which she failed again to find her breath. “You didn’t know you’d survive that?”

“I’ve had my throat slit before. I don’t experiment, but other people always seem happy to oblige.”

“Pirate.”

“Cop.”

She shrugged. “Thanks.”

“Hells. Now we have her, you have an excuse to take her ship. That’s the real prize. Rescue the people she’s smuggling, save the day. And I needed to work on my tan.”

She punched him in the arm. He winced.

Inside her, the pit still yawned, and beneath that pit, another, deeper.

 

7

The goddess addressed Cat in the shower, in her mother’s voice.

Catherine, why do you turn from me?

Oh, I don’t know if I turn from you as such, she replied as she shampooed. We have a close working relationship.

You live inside my body, yet we don’t talk like I do with my children.

I barely had my life figured out working with Justice. Then you came along.

You visited back alley bloodsucker dens for the thrill of being drunk. Does that constitute having your life figured out?

I didn’t say I had it figured well. Just figured. She soaped down, rinsed off, turned into the shower spray. I was raised to think you were dead, and a traitor. Your children were my childhood ghosts.

That isn’t my fault.

She shut off the water, reached blind for her towel, and rubbed herself dry.

I can help you. We can be closer than the structure of Justice allows. You are a priestess. You have made a vow. You could perform miracles.

Miracles aren’t my job.

The voice did not answer. Somewhere beneath her feet, the moon smiled.

She had a fresh change of clothes in her locker, and as she put it on she convinced herself she felt clean.

* * *

She was halfway through the paperwork on the morning’s raid when a duty officer—Cramden, she thought, beneath the Suit—came to tell her Tara Abernathy was looking for her. “Send her back,” Cat said, and watched him go, smooth and assured, rippling silver.

She hadn’t made progress on the paperwork when the door opened again. She looked up from the form, exasperated. “How do you spell ‘ceiling’?”

Tara wrote the glyphs in air with her fingertip and shut the door behind her. “Long day?”

“Two long days,” she said, “and it’s only one thirty. It’ll be four long days before I’m done.”

“I need you at a meeting tonight.”

“Can’t. I have an operation. And this.” She fanned the forms.

“Paperwork,” Tara said, skeptical. She paced the confines of Cat’s office, and “confines” was the right word: a cubbyhole of the Temple of Justice intended for solitary monastics meditating on their Lady. A bas-relief of a robed woman occupied one wall, its eyes notched out with a clean chisel strike. What light there was shafted through high slit windows; there had been more direct sun before they built the bank next door. “Why do you need after-action reports? Justice is in your head.”

“Paperwork makes us more than just another gang. In the year since Seril came back, it’s grown more important than ever. She has opinions—Justice didn’t.”

“Justice claimed she didn’t. Study her arrest record and you’ll see patterns emerge. Not nice patterns, either.”

“At least she was fair.”

“She arrested me for treason. You’ll excuse me if I don’t share your estimation of her impartiality.”

“Slow down, college girl. You broke a lot of laws, even if you stopped bad people from doing worse.”

“You, and your Blacksuits, almost got us all killed. Or enslaved.”

“You hypnotized me and sent me into a vampire’s sickroom, knowing I’d shove my arm in his mouth. I’m only here at all because he has more self-control than either of us.”

“You—” Tara’s voice went sharp and hot, and she wheeled on Cat with one hand raised. But she stopped herself, and closed her mouth, and sat at last in the chair across from Cat’s desk. “You were telling me about the paperwork.”

Cat assembled the sheets into a pile. “Seril’s bound by the same rules as Justice—but she’s conscious, and her perspective warps things. We’ve stepped up the plainclothes officer program as a result. Used to be intelligence gathering only, moles and vice, but now it’s expanded to a double role, intelligence and oversight. The guys with families don’t like it—if they show their faces, they’re exposed to revenge and old-fashioned blackmail. Those of us who don’t have as much to lose, step up.” She dropped the papers into a wire tray. “So, much as I miss our pleasant chats, I’ll pass on the meeting.”

“The gargoyles are exposed,” Tara said.

“I heard. You talked to Gabby Jones down at the guild?”

“She won’t pull the story. She’s right not to. It is the truth, even if it’s the wrong truth.” Tara scraped one fingernail down her chair’s leather armrest. “We need to regulate the damage, which means keeping Seril and Aev’s people under wraps. I got most of them to promise to cut out the vigilantism, but Shale won’t, and Aev won’t let me stop him. So Alt Coulumb has to be the safest city in the world, starting to night.”

“I’m beginning to get the impression this isn’t just about me coming to your meeting,” Cat said.

“You have a lot of Blacksuits booked for an operation tonight. Cancel the op. Put them on the street instead.”

“No.”

“This is a big deal, Cat. We need the city safe tonight.”

“This morning Raz helped us catch an indenture-trader in a drug bust. That gives us grounds to seize and search her ship, to save those people. If we don’t take them tonight, her crew has standing orders to sail out of reach. You want that on your conscience?”

Cat wasn’t good at reading people, but even she could see the yes in the set of Tara’s shoulders, in the angle of her head and the tension at the corners of her mouth. And even she could see the woman recoil from that yes. “No,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” Tara told Cat, and herself.

Neither of them spoke for a while.

“Tara,” she said at last, “is it normal to hear gods in your head?”

“I’m not a person of faith,” Tara replied. “Sort of the opposite.”

“You know how these things work, though.”

“From the outside. But no, it’s not usual.”

“Seril talks to me, sometimes.”

“The gods.” Tara steepled her fingers, and in that gesture she re.called Ms. Kevarian, Tara’s teacher, mentor—and Denovo, too, the monster whose student Tara had been. “They aren’t part of time and space like we are. They’re second-order effects of humanity. We feel them. When we pray, or take the field against them, we… bind them into time. But they don’t do small talk. In general, only saints can hear their voices.”

“So I’m talking to myself.”

“I doubt it. We’ve changed. Take you, for example: you were a bit rudderless a year ago.”

“Hey,” she said, but didn’t mean it.

“And now you’re tied to a being who’s nothing but direction. Maybe that makes the difference. And Seril’s a smaller god, not spread between as many worshippers. So each one means more to her. Or maybe she thinks you’re a saint.” Tara shrugged. “I kill gods and guard them, and raise them from the dead when they die. I don’t pray.”

“But you’re hearing voices, too,” Cat said.

Tara drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. The wall clock ticked. She nodded, once.

“At least I’m not going mad alone.”

Tara stood. “Meeting’s at seven, at the Temple of Kos. Can you come? Please?”

“We sail at eight.”

“It won’t take long.”

“Why do you want me? This whole thing’s above my pay grade.”

“We saved the city,” Tara said. “We’re responsible for it now.”

“I wish someone had told me before I decided to save it.”

Tara laughed without sound. Then she shook Cat’s hand and left.

Excerpted from Four Roads Cross © Max Gladstone, 2016

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