Jun 8 2012 5:00pm
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.
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.