Wed
May 22 2013 4:00pm

A Discourse in Steel (Excerpt)

Paul S Kemp

A Discourse in Steel cover, Paul S. KempTake a peek at Paul S. Kemp’s A Discourse in Steel, out June 25 from Angry Robot Books:

Egil and Nix have retired, as they always said they would. No, really – they have! No more sword and hammer-play for them!

But when two recent acquaintances come calling for help, our hapless heroes find themselves up against the might of the entire Thieves Guild.

And when kidnapping the leader of the most powerful guild in the land seems like the best course of action, you know you’re in over your head...

 

Chapter One

 

Ool’s clock rang two bells, the deep gongs of the mad mage’s spire filling the quiet of the small hours. The streets were empty and the city felt like a tomb, haunted by memories of vice and violence. A cold rain fell, the heavy drops thudding like sling bullets against Nix’s drawn hood. The wind screamed through the narrow night-shrouded streets, drove the rain into horizontal sheets. Nix drew his cloak tighter about him. As always when he walked the Warrens, he dropped a copper common or silver tern every now and again, leaving them in the road for anyone to find, little seeds of hope and relief for the stricken.

He had his falchion drawn, and Egil had a hammer in each fist, though the precaution appeared unnecessary. Only fools walked the streets of Dur Follin on this night, at this hour, and the denizens of the Warrens were desperate, but not fools.

When the clock of Ool rings three bells,
And Minnear glows full and dire.
Walk not the streets, but fear the Hells,
Or lose your life entire.
’Ware the alley that comes in black.
For souls once lost, ne’er come back.

Nix recalled the rhyme from childhood, probably everyone in Dur Follin did. He thought he’d actually seen Blackalley once, as a boy. It had been just after the third hour, deep in the night, and he’d marked a fat teamster for a purse lift. The man had staggered through the dark streets singing a mournful, drink-slurred dirge. Nix had followed, waiting for the right moment, and then… he’d felt something, a deepening in the air is how he thought about it in hindsight, and a wash of profound sadness. The teamster’s song had died and Nix had seen the man standing before the mouth of a narrow alley, an alley so dark Nix could not see even a step into it. The teamster mumbled something – Nix thought he might have been crying – and stepped into the alley. Nix had blinked, just once, and the deepening of the air, the sadness, the teamster, and the darkness were gone. He’d run back to Mamabird’s home after that and had never ventured into the streets at that hour again.

Until tonight.

He shook his head and put the memory from his mind.

“We should look in on Mamabird,” Egil said.

Mamabird, obese, ancient, and lovely, had been taking in groups of urchins for decades, feeding them, housing them, loving them. She’d saved Nix from a short, brutal life on the street, and he loved her as if she were his mother. Egil did, too. Everyone did.

“Tomorrow,” Nix said, and left unsaid what he knew both of them were thinking.

If we have a tomorrow.

The rain and damp raised the stink of the Warrens and the blowing wind did nothing to clear it. The cool air carried the foul reek of decay from the Deadmire, the vast swamp to the south, carried too, the pungent, wretched smell of mold and garbage and shite and hopelessness that permeated the Warrens. Nix was well acquainted with the odiferous air from a youth spent scrounging in the Warrens.

“Smells like wet dog,” Nix said, just to say something.

“Bah,” Egil said, and raised his hammers as if he could smite the offending stink with them. “It smells like a diseased dog that bathed in the Deadmire and then rolled in its own shite. I’d breathe deep the smell of a merely wet dog.”

“No doubt,” Nix said, unable to resist. “Your people are said to have a… well, let’s call it a fondness for their herd dogs.”

Egil stomped his boot in the muck, splashing Nix with mud.

“These are new trousers!” Nix protested.

“My people are likewise said to be impatient with sharp words from small men with dull minds.”

“A dull mind?” Nix said, his pride pricked. “Me?”

Egil shrugged under a wet cloak that hugged his mountainous form. “If it’s apt. And by small, I spoke of girth, of course.”

What?” Nix stopped in the street and turned to face his friend, pointing at Egil’s broad nosed face, barely visible under the cloak hood. “Small you say? Me?”

“Lacking in girth, I said. And I made only a general observation.” The priest waved a hammer noncommittally and started walking again, the mud of the street audibly sucking at his boots. Over his shoulder he said, “But again, if you think it apt…”

Nix ran after him, further splashing his trousers with mud. “I don’t.”

“Ah,” Egil said insincerely. “Well enough, then.”

“Well enough what?”

“It’s inapt. So you say.”

So I say? There’s not a woman in Dur Follin who’d attest to your claim of small girth. Kiir only the most recent. And as for the rest, I was enrolled in the Conclave before I’d seen twenty winters. No one of dull mind could have done so. And, I’ll add, only a hillman of infinitesimally small mind would think otherwise.”

“Infinitesimally,” Egil said, his tone carrying a smile. “Nice. But you quit the Conclave, Nix.”

“Now I know you’re just trying to be irritating. You know well that I was expelled.”

“So you say.”

“So I say?” Nix stomped his own boot in the muck, trying to splash Egil, but instead spattering himself with mud. He cursed and the priest ignored him.

“So I say? That’s what you say?”

“So. You. Say. That’s what I say.”

They both stopped, turned, and stared at one another a long moment. The rain beat down. Thunder rumbled. Each broke into a grin at the same moment.

“You did call my people fakkers of dogs,” Egil said.

“I meant nothing,” Nix said with a tilt of his head. “Trying to distract myself. And it warranted a rebuttal, I concede. But small of prick and dull of mind? One or the other would be fair, but both? That’s bringing a blade to a fist fight.”

Egil nodded. “A fair point. Apologies. I meant neither, of course.”

“Apologies likewise,” Nix said. He checked the sky, their surroundings. “Let’s just get this over with.”

He walked on and Egil fell in beside him.

“Aye,” the priest said. “What is it that we’re looking for?”

“A good spot.”

“There’s under an hour remaining.”

“I know.”

Nix ticked away the moments in his mind as he sought a likely intersection, searching for promising alleys. Egil hung one of his hammers from a loop on his belt, took out a pair of dice from a beltpouch, and shook them as he walked, the sound barely audible above the beat of the rain.

Kulven’s light was visible low on the horizon, though the cloud cover turned it into a shapeless silver smear. Minnear, the smaller, green moon of mages, would rise within the hour. Nix had to have everything prepared before that.

“Fakking rain,” Egil said from the depths of his cloak. “This is a night for Gadd’s ale and fish stew.”

“It is,” Nix agreed absently, eyeing the surroundings. “I blame you for my lack of drunkenness and the empty belly.”

“Me?”

“Of course you,” Nix said. “You’ve never been able to say no to a lady.”

Egil stopped and turned to face him. “Wait a moment, now…”

“Here,” Nix said, looking past Egil. “Right here.”

They stood on a narrow, muddy road in the Warrens, at the intersection of two streets. Nix could see the dark rise of the Heap above the sagging roofs of the nearby buildings. Beyond that, backlit by Kulven’s dim light, rose the great spire of Ool’s clock.

Dilapidated buildings lined the street, creaking in the wind, leaning against one another for support like drunks. A shutter banged now and again in the wind. Alleys opened in the narrow gaps between the buildings, four of them. Just what Nix had been seeking.

Egil threw back his hood, blinking against the rain, and looked around. He ran his hand over the tattoo that covered his bald pate – the eye of Ebenor the Momentary God, aflame in a sunburst, a divinity that had lived and died in the span of a moment. To Nix’s knowledge, Egil was Ebenor’s only worshipper. And worship perhaps stretched the word into unrecognizable form.

“Nervous?” Nix asked.

Egil shook his head slowly, the way he did when thoughtful. “No, but this feels different than our usual.”

“Agreed. Not too late to turn back,” Nix offered, knowing what his friend’s response would be.

“We gave our word,” Egil said.

Nix nodded, threw back his hood, and unslung his satchel of needful things, both magical and mundane.

You gave it, at least,” Egil continued, “You wouldn’t even take payment.” Egil pocketed his dice and retrieved his second hammer from its thong.

“Sometimes you have to do the right thing, Nix.”

“No harm in getting paid for doing it, though,” Nix said. He glanced over at Egil and winked. “You were charmed by the lovely professor, yeah?”

Egil would not look him in the face. “Bah! I simply think one of us has to bring a conscience to this partnership.”

Nix smiled and pressed no further. “Best that be you, I suppose.”

“Best indeed,” Egil said with a harrumph, and shifted on his boots. “She was lovely, though.”

 

An old instructor of Nix’s from the Conclave, Professor Enora Fenstin, had sought out Nix at the Slick Tunnel. Professor Fenstin – tall and shapely, her long dark hair marked with a single, striking band of gray – drew the eyes of all in the Tunnel the moment she walked in, including Egil’s. In hindsight, Nix realized that the priest had been smitten from the moment he’d seen her.

Enora, obviously uncomfortable amidst the smoke and drink and bawdiness of the Slick Tunnel, had explained that her colleague, Professor Reen Drugal, had disappeared while doing research on the mysterious phenomenon everyone called Blackalley.

Nix and Egil had cursed as one.

“I thought the High Magister banned further research on Blackalley.” Nix said.

Enora did not make eye contact, studied the table as if it were interesting. “He did.”

Nix understood. “Drugal’s work was unsanctioned by the Conclave, then?”

Enora nodded once, brushed the waves of her hair out of her face. “The Magister refused him an exception. But Reen went ahead anyway.”

Nix shook his head. Drugal had taught Portals and Translocation and Nix had liked him immensely. “That’s ill news. I was fond of Drugal. He was good to me during my tuition at the Conclave. Many others were not.”

Enora licked her lips and leaned forward. “That’s why I’m here, Nix. No one knows I’ve come. No one even knows that Drugal is missing.”

“Yet,” Nix said. “That can’t hold.”

“Yet,” Enora acknowledged. She sighed and leaned back in her chair.

Nix saw the shape of things. “You helped him, I take it? And you stand to lose your appointment to the Conclave if this becomes a scandal?”

She didn’t bother to deny it or protest. “Yes.”

Nix took a draw of his ale. “You could just stay quiet. People disappear all the time in Dur Follin. There’s no call for a scandal. Perhaps Drugal took a lover, wandered off.”

“Nix…” Egil said, but Nix held up a hand. He needed to get at Enora’s motivation.

“I can’t leave him in Blackalley,” she said, and looked started by her own earnestness. “He’s a friend, Nix. I can’t just leave him there.”

Nix accepted that. “There may not be a ‘there’. No one knows what Blackalley is. And no one comes out, once in.”

She swallowed, for a moment looking entirely lost. “I know. But Reen spoke of you often, followed your… adventures. Both of you. He thought highly of you. And with your reputation, I thought perhaps…”

She trailed off and let the silence ask the question.

“You thought we could find Blackalley, go in, get Professor Drugal, and come back out?”

She nodded, visibly tensed in anticipation of a refusal.

Nix put his face in his ale cup, chuckling and shaking his head. He tried out the words to a polite rejection but Egil jumped in before he could offer it.

“We’ll do it,” the priest said. “We’ll get him out.”

Nix dropped his ale cup on the table. “What? I mean, what my friend means…”

Egil gave Nix a hard look. “I meant exactly as I said. We’ll find it and get him out.”

“We will?” Nix asked.

“We will,” Egil said with a firm nod, Ebenor’s eye on his bald head, like a wink.

“How much have you had to drink?”

“We can do it,” Egil said.

“Really? How?”

A long moment passed before Egil shrugged and said, “We’ll figure something out.”

“This is Blackalley, Egil.”

The priest spoke slowly, meaningfully, his eyes on Enora. “We’ll figure something out.”

Nix swallowed, licked his lips, shook his head, and called for another round of Gadd’s ale. He sat back in his chair and looked across the table at Enora. “It appears we’ll get him back.”

Relief softened her face. Her eyes welled with gratitude, making her look lovelier still. She leaned forward and reached across the table and touched Egil’s hand.

“My gratitude to you, to both of you. I will owe you much.”

“Speaking of that,” Nix said. “I presume the payment for this…”

Egil held up his hand and shook his bucket head. “No payment is necessary.”

Nix tried not to look appalled, probably failed. “It’s not?”

“It’s not,” Egil affirmed. He placed his huge hand over Enora’s. She colored.

“You are drunk, aren’t you?” Nix asked him.

Egil smiled. “No. You’ve spoken often about assaying Blackalley, Nix. Now we’ve got a good reason.”

“Gods, man, you said ‘assay’.”

Egil just stared at him.

Nix knew from the priest’s expression and tone of voice that an argument would be fruitless. He surrendered to the moment and raised his beer in a half-hearted toast.

“To good reasons, then.” He tapped his temple. “Though I fear we’ve lost our reason. I’ll need something of Drugal’s.”

“I can give you one of his journals,” Enora said.

“That’d be perfect,” Nix said unenthusiastically.

Egil thumped him on the shoulder, nearly dislodging him from his chair. “All will be well, Nix. You’ll see.”

Nix put his face in his ale, his thoughts already turning to the problem. He’d been intrigued by Blackalley for years. It was legend in Dur Follin, a dark doorway to a netherworld that appeared at random around the city, but always around the same hour. On a dark night a person might not even see it before it was too late, and everyone said they knew someone who knew someone who had a distant relation who’d disappeared forever into Blackalley while making their way home after a night of revelry.

Some thought it the open mouth of some incomprehensible otherworldly being. But Nix had trained for a year at the Conclave, where he’d been taught that Black-alley was most likely a wandering portal, probably some sorcerous flotsam left behind by the civilization that had built the Archbridge.

“We think it’s a portal,” Enora had said, as if reading his thoughts.

“Maybe,” Nix said, sipping his ale.

Many had sought it over the decades: explorers hired by a city desperate to be rid of it, wizards of the Conclave in search of fame ere the High Magister’s ban, adventurers with an itch to solve the mystery and whatever treasure Blackalley might yield. Most gave up without ever seeing it. Some presumably did see it, but no one could be certain, for they disappeared and were not seen again.

“Why your interest in Blackalley?” Enora asked Nix.

Interest overstates things,” Nix said. “I saw it once, as a boy.”

“It’s terrible,” Enora said.

“Aye.” Nix looked up and smiled. “I have some thoughts on it, that’s all. Besides, no one has ever gone in and come back out.”

“And that’s the draw,” Egil said, nodding.

She looked from one to the other, a question in her delicately furrowed brow. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, gentlemen.”

“Ha!” Egil said. “Gentlemen overstates things, too.”

She smiled at Egil and now it was the priest’s turn to color.

Nix tried to explain what Egil meant. “Milady, some men were put on Ellerth to write poetry, or discover lost lands, or start new religions, or do whatever it is that their gift impels. Egil and me, we were made more simply than that. We were put here to get in and out of places and situations people say can’t be gotten in and out of.”

Egil nodded again as the two friends tapped mugs, put back a slug.

“And that’s your gift? Your purpose?” She smiled. “I admit I like that.”

“Gift, purpose, both seem a bit much, don’t they? All I know is that we’ve managed to keeps things lively.”

“I should think,” she said. “May I have one of those ales, also?”

While Nix called for an ale, Egil cleared his throat nervously and eyed Enora. “May I ask after your relationship with Drugal? You said a dear friend and I wondered…?”

“And speaking of getting into interesting places,” Nix murmured, but the priest and professor ignored him.

Enora smiled at Egil without shyness. “Just a friend and a colleague. Nothing more.”

Egil exhaled and leaned back in his chair, the wood groaning under his bulk. His eyes never left Enora’s face.

“In that case, I’d be pleased to have your company for the evening.”

“Listen to you,” Nix said. “So polite.”

“That sounds delightful, Egil,” Enora answered.

Nix had slammed back his ale, excused himself, and left them to it.

 

The rain fell so hard it felt as if it would drive Nix into the mud. He crouched down, shielded his satchel with his body, and rifled through it. The sky rumbled, a hungry thunder.

“For souls once lost, ne’er come back,” he said.

“What’s that, now?” Egil asked.

“Just saying I hope we don’t get lost,” Nix answered.

“Aye.”

“Take a look around, would you? Just make sure things are clear. I don’t want anyone else getting caught up in this by accident.”

“All know your spells never go awry,” Egil teased.

“Fak you,” Nix answered, smiling.

While Nix took the few things he needed from his satchel and ran through the steps of his plan, Egil stalked around the intersection, poking into alleys to ensure there were no drunks passed out nearby.

“No one about,” Egil said when he returned.

The rain, having spent itself, abated to a stubborn drizzle. The wind, too, died, and sudden calm felt ominous. A thin mist rose from the muddy earth. The stink, of course, remained. Minnear had risen.

Nix took six of the finger-length sticks of magically-treated tallow and pitch from the satchel and handed three to Egil.

“Candles?” the priest asked.

“Not candles. And don’t smell them.”

Of course the priest sniffed one and immediately recoiled. “Gods! What’s in these?”

“Didn’t I say not to sniff them? They’re made from something awful. You don’t want to know.”

“If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t have asked.”

“Fine, then. They’re made from pitch, a binding agent, and the rendered fat from the corpse of a man who died in regret.”

Egil stared at Nix for a long moment, his eyes heavy, his expression unreadable. “Regrets?”

Nix nodded and said nothing, knowing “regret” cut close to the bone for Egil.

The priest spit into the mud. “Fakkin’ gewgaws.”

“Aye, and speaking of,” Nix said, and pulled from the satchel an ivory wand and a fist-sized egg of polished black volcanic glass etched with a single closed eye. The latent magic in both caused the hairs on his arms to tingle. He rummaged for the special matchsticks he’d need, and soon found them.

“Dying with regrets seems a bad way to go out of the world,” Egil said, his tone thoughtful.

“They’re all bad,” Nix said. He closed his satchel, looped it over his shoulder as he stood. “So let’s avoid it for a while yet, yeah?”

Egil’s gaze fell on the items Nix had in hand: the shining eye, the matchsticks, the shafts of tallow, the wand, which had a bestial mouth meticulously carved into one end. A boom of thunder rattled the Warrens.

“No more rain,” Nix said to the sky.

“Let’s get on with this,” Egil said.

“Aye.”

Egil followed Nix to the mouth of one of the intersection’s alleys.

“Use those tallow sticks and scribe a line down the sides of the buildings on either side of the alley mouth,” Nix said. “Like this.”

He dragged the tallow stick vertically down the corner of the building, starting at about the height of a door. It left a thick, black line caked on the wood.

“Just lines? They need to be straight or…?”

“Just lines. They don’t need to be perfect, just continuous from about door height to the ground. And make them thick. We need them to burn for a while. We’ll need sigils, too, but that’s what the scribing wand’s for.”

“Wait, we’re going to burn the lines?”

“Aye.”

“You’ll burn down the Warrens, Nix.”

“It’s all right.” He held up the matchsticks. “They don’t burn with normal flames. They’ll consume only the lines. Couldn’t burn wood if I wanted them to.”

Egil looked at the matchsticks, the lines, back to Nix. “And you think this will summon it? Blackalley?”

“We’ll see,” Nix said.

They moved from alley to alley, lining the sides of the alley mouths with borders of corpse fat and pitch. Nix followed up with the scribing wand. He spoke a word in the Language of Creation to activate its power, and felt it grow warm in his hand. He stood in the center of the first alley, aimed it at the wet earth, and spoke another word of power.

A tongue of green flame formed in the wand’s carved mouth. With it, Nix wrote glowing green sigils that hovered in the air, the magical script stretching across the alley mouth between the tallow lines he and Egil had drawn. He scribed one set of summoning sigils across the alley at the top of the lines, and one set at the bottom, just off the ground. When he was done, the lines and the sigils formed a rectangle, a doorway. He stepped back regarded his handiwork.

“None too bad, I’d say.”

Egil grunted.

“You still stuck on regrets and death?” Nix asked his friend, trying to make light of it, but Egil made no answer.

Nix checked the sky. He could no longer see Kulven’s light through the clouds, but Minnear put a faint, viridian blotch on the clouds. Had to be getting close to third hour.

“We fire the lines now?” Egil asked.

“Not yet,” Nix said, putting the wand and remaining shafts of tallow back in his satchel. “Now we wait.”

“For what?”

“For Ool’s clock to ring three bells. Then we light them.”

“Three bells,” Egil said absently. “Walk not the streets but fear the Hells.”

“Aye,” Nix said. He held his blade in one hand, the matchsticks and smooth oval of the shining eye in the other. He handed a few of the matchsticks to Egil.

After a moment Egil cleared his throat and asked, “How do you know he died in regret?”

Nix was focused on the hour and at first didn’t take Egil’s meaning. “Who?”

Egil held up the stub of the tallow stick. “The man whose fat is in this. How do you know he died in regret?”

“Hells, Egil,” Nix said. “Who doesn’t die in regret?”

“Truth,” Egil said softly. “Some more than others, I suppose.”

Nix could imagine the line of Egil’s thoughts – his wife and daughter and their death – but he said nothing. Speaking of it only picked at the scab of his friend’s pain, so he just stood beside him in silence.

The summoning sigils cast an eerie light on the intersection. Time seemed to slow. Nix pushed his wet hair off his brow and moved to the nearest of the alley mouths.

“When the clock sounds, we light them. The smoke should help draw it, as should the sigils.” He thought back on the night he’d seen Blackalley, thought of the sudden, inexplicable sorrow he’d felt, thought of the way the mournful teamster had wept. “I think it’s attracted in some way to sorrow or hopelessness.”

“Ergo, the tallow sticks of regret,” Egil said.

“Aye. And that’s why I think it shows up in the Warrens more than anywhere else.”

Egil glanced around. “Hopelessness and regret aplenty. Nasty bit of business, this Blackalley.”

“That it is.”

Egil tested the weight of his hammers in each hand. “Any idea what we’ll find inside?”

“None. But when has that ever stopped us?”

Egil ran his hand over the tattoo of Ebenor. “Never.”

“Right. Besides, my concern isn’t getting in or what we’ll find inside, but getting out.”

“You said you had a theory about that, though.”

“I do.” Nix shrugged. “But it’s just a theory.”

“A theory’s more than we usually have.”

“Truth.” Nix looked askance at the sky. “The threat of rain bothers, though. The lines, once lit, are to show our way back. I don’t want the rain putting them out.”

Egil looked up at the sky. “I think the worst of it’s already fallen.”

“So you say,” Nix said. “We could wait a night, I suppose.”

“We could, but how long can the professor survive in there?”

Nix shrugged. “No one has ever come out. He could already be dead. We don’t even know that there’s a there there. We could just… die the moment we cross.”

“But you don’t think so.”

“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a portal.”

“Then so do I.

Nix hoped his friend’s faith was not misplaced. “You light those two alleys and I’ll light those. Light the left line at its top, the right line at its bottom. Got it?”

“Got it.”

Nix shifted on his feet. “You know, the more we talk about this, the more ill-advised it seems.”

“Aye,” Egil said.

Ool’s clock started to chime three bells, the gong of the great timepiece booming over the city.

“Remember,” Nix said. “Left line at the top. Right line at the bottom. And don’t hit the sigils with your body.”

“Fakkin’ gewgaws!” Egil called over his shoulder, as he stalked toward the nearest alley.

Nix did the same, and struck his matchstick with his thumb, and it flared to life, a green flame dancing on its end. He put the magical flame to the lines in the manner he’d described. The line did not catch fire all at once. Instead only a small flame burned on the end of each line, emitting a steady column of stinking black smoke that trailed back down the alley.

As Nix watched, the flame moved incrementally down the left line and up the right, just a blade width, as if the lines were a pyrotechnic fuse. Satisfied, he ran to the next alleyway and repeated the process. Soon all eight lines were lit and the chime of Ool’s clock was nothing more than an echo in the heavy air.

The two comrades retreated to the center of the intersection.

“Those lines will burn for about an hour at that rate,” Egil said.

“Aye,” Nix agreed.

They’d have to be in and out of Blackalley by then.

Nix ran his forefinger over the etching on the shining eye he held in his hand. He took out Drugal’s small journal, given him by Enora, and sprinkled a compound of enspelled pyrite on it. He spoke a word of power and the powder flared and was consumed. He tucked the book back into his tunic, close to his chest.

“Nothing to do now but watch and wait.”

The two men stood back to back in the eldritch glow of green magefire and sorcerous sigils and the mage’s moon, eyeing the alleys, waiting to walk through a sorcerous door that everyone else tried to avoid.

Nix watched the green flames move along the tallow lines, not sure if he was relieved or disappointed that Blackalley hadn’t yet appeared.

The rain picked up. The magefire sizzled and danced in the drops as it burned its way through the tallow.

“Fakking rain,” Nix said.

“Nix,” Egil said.

“What?”

“Look.”

Egil’s tone pulled him around and there it was: Blackalley. It looked much as Nix remembered it. Darkness as thick as spilled ink filled one of the alleys, a black wall that stretched between the lines they’d drawn. Nix’s sigils floated in the air before it, their light illuminating nothing. The journal in his tunic warmed, meaning they were closer to Drugal.

Nix felt as if he was looking into a hole that went on forever, and he felt a disconcerting lurch, as if he were sinking, falling into the hole, into the dark, lost forever. His thoughts took an abrupt turn. He flashed on himself as a boy, knifing an old man as they fought over bread. The shame of that murder reared up in him, overwhelmed him. He realized he was weeping, just like the teamster. Just like the teamster. The teamster.

“Shite.”

He shook his head, came back to himself, grabbed Egil by the shoulder and shook him.

“Egil!”

Egil stared into Blackalley, his expression pained, haunted.

Nix grabbed him by the face and pulled him around.

“Egil! Keep yourself! Egil!”

The priest’s eyes cleared. He shook his head, focused on Nix.

“Fak. That’s… disconcerting.”

“Aye.” Nix stared into Egil’s blunt-featured face. “We still going?”

“Nix, if he’s still alive in there…”

Nix nodded, patted the journal through his cloak. “We can’t leave him to that. Fine. Good. Well enough.”

Nix spoke a word of power to activate the shining eye in his palm. Sparkles of light formed in its depths. He tapped the etched eye on its surface.

“Wake up. And go bright.”

The eye opened and emitted a beam of white light. For the nonce, Nix aimed it at the ground.

“Ready?” Nix asked Egil.

Egil nodded. “Aye.”

“Isn’t this one of the moments you’re always talking about?” Nix said to him. “Shouldn’t you pray or chant or something?”

“My whole life’s a prayer. Let’s do it.”

“Well enough,” Nix said, as they turned in unison to face Blackalley.

The black wall shimmered. Nix aimed the light from his crystal and the beam illuminated nothing, was merely swallowed by the dark.

“Shite,” Nix said. “It’ll weigh down on you. Don’t let it.”

“Aye,” Egil said. “Link up.”

They locked arms as they walked toward Blackalley.

 

The clamor of the Low Bazaar leaked through the tent’s dyed canvas: the beat of drums, the ring of a distant gong, the thrum of conversation, raucous laughter, an occasional shout, the music of buskers, and the occasional outbreak of applause.

Merelda smiled. She’d spent the first twenty two years of her life imprisoned by her own brother, her life made artificially tiny, her experience of the world trivial. She loved the Low Bazaar so much because it felt so wild, big, and unpredictable. In that regard she supposed it reminded her of Egil. He, too, made her smile, though she sensed the sadness in him.

She and Rose had adapted to their new lives quickly. Egil and Nix had been helpful, even solicitous – allowing them to room in the Slick Tunnel for as long as they needed, providing them with coin when necessary – but Rusilla insisted they not come to rely on the two adventurers.

“We make our own way,” Rusilla always said.

And they were. They’d rented a stall on the outer fringe of the Low Bazaar, a smokeleaf stall on one side, and a seller of wool to the other. They dressed themselves in ornate but cheap jewelry, robes, and headwear, and told fortunes for silver terns.

Patrons came in for a reading and a shallow read of their minds told Rusilla and Merelda what they wanted to hear. The patron left pleased and Rose and Mere dropped another tern or three into the small coffer that held what they earned.

“For a home, in time,” Rose always said when she deposited the coins.

At first, in order to get paying patrons, they’d had to busk the customers of the smoke leaf and wool stalls. But their reputation had grown quickly – quickly enough that they soon had a score or more customers per day, and many regulars who returned weekly. In fact, the “seeing sisters” had gotten well-known enough that they’d cut into the custom of the four Narascene readers elsewhere in the Bazaar, the oldest and wrinkliest of whom gave Merelda and Rose the Witch’s Eye whenever they crossed paths. So far things hadn’t gone any further than that, but Merelda worried they might.

She pushed back her chair and stood back from the cloth covered table, wincing at the headache that had rooted in her temples. She rolled her head from side to side, dabbed her nose to check for blood.

None, thankfully.

She stretched, her movements constrained by the gauzy, layered robe she wore. She bumped her headdress on a candelabrum and cursed. She spent most of each day covered in beads and cheap crystals and grease make-up and heavy cloth and she was well and truly tired of it. She imagined she felt a bit – just a bit – like the girls who worked for Tesha in the Tunnel. They, too, layered on clothes and makeup and false emotions and pretended to be someone else while they worked.

She reached out for her sister’s mind. Have you talked anymore with Tesha about us buying half her interest in the Tunnel?

The mental projection deepened her headache.

Rose’s mental voice carried from behind the wooden screen that separated a third of the tent from the rest. They kept a moth-eaten divan and table back there, as well as their coin coffer, and they used the tent’s back flap to come and go unobserved. Merelda imagined Rose lying on the divan, resting.

Don’t use the mindmagic casually, Mere, Rusilla projected, then said aloud, “You know better. And I’m trying to rest.”

Merelda massaged her temples. “Did you, though?”

“Not in a while. We don’t have the coin right now and I’m not sure she wants to sell a part interest. I can’t push her, Mere. And I’m not sure it’s right for us.”

Merelda nodded. Tesha was not one to be pushed around. “I think it is and I’d wager we could buy from the boys.”

A long silence. “Let’s see how things go, Mere.”

“Let’s see how things go usually means no.”

“Let’s just see, all right? I don’t like owing them anything more than we already do.”

Merelda stayed on her side of the screen. She didn’t want to see Rose’s impatient expression.

“They’re nice to us, Rose. And they don’t expect anything.”

In fact, both Egil and Nix seemed so solicitous of the sisters that Merelda sometimes teasingly reminded them that she and Rose weren’t made of glass.

“Not yet,” Rose said. “But they will. That’s how men think.”

“That’s how our brother thought,” Merelda said. “But he wasn’t all men.”

She could imagine the roll of Rose’s eyes.

“We’ll see, Mere,” Rose said.

Mere rolled her own eyes and pulled off the headdress she wore. She set it down beside the incense burners, small gong, and various crystals that decorated the table they used for readings. The smell of cooking meat cut through the smell of incense that always lingered in the tent. Merelda realized she was hungry.

She poked her head around the screen and found Rose just as she expected – reclined on the divan, her long red hair spilling over the arm, her pale skin made even paler by the makeup they wore.

“I have a headache,” Merelda said. “You take the next one, all right?”

“A headache?” Rose asked, concern in her pale face. She sat up. “Are you all right?”

“Just fatigue, I think,” Merelda said.

Rose stood, came to her side, and put her hand on Merelda’s brow.

“I’m not sick, Rose,” Merelda said. “Just tired.”

Rose dropped her hand and hugged Merelda. “I know. The readings are taxing, even the shallow ones. But it’s worked and the coin is coming in steady now.” She held Merelda at arm’s length. “We’re not going to do this forever. Just till we save enough to start something real.”

“Talk to Tesha again,” Merelda said. “And if she’s not interested, then talk to the boys. Owning part of the Tunnel would be a good thing.” She laughed. “Pits, we could even rename it.”

“It is a tasteless name,” Rose said. “Fine, I’ll talk with them. And I’ll take the next few readings, too, but you fetch some lunch, then, yeah? Maybe some of Orgul’s sweetbreads? I can smell them all the way in here.”

“Me, too.”

As Rose donned her costume, Merelda shed hers, removing the outer robes and the gaudy jewelry. Mere took five commons from the coffer they kept hidden under the divan and winked at Rose.

“Be back shortly.”

Before she hurried out the back flap of the tent, the small bells that lined the front flap chimed as someone entered. Rose smiled her crooked smile, fell into character, and stepped out from behind the screen.

“You’ve come for a reading on a matter of trust,” Rose said to the patron. “Sit here, across from me…”

Smiling, Merelda ducked out and into the narrow way between their tent and the thin, slatboard walls of Veraal’s smoke leaf stall beside them. She stepped out into the din and press of the Low Bazaar, turned for Orgul’s stall, and ran headlong into a thin, balding man wrapped in a brown cloak.

“Sorry, milady, sorry,” the man mumbled, not making eye contact. He sounded drunk.

Merelda grabbed the man by the cloak and with her other hand checked her pocket to ensure the copper commons were still there. They were, so she released the man.

“No harm done,” she said, and let the man go.

A crowd thronged the wool stall, everyone jostling and barking bids for bales of wool. A smaller crowd lingered before Veraal’s smoke leaf stall, examining bunches of his leaf. Veraal, his thin gray hair crowning a face that looked made from old leather, pulled the pipe from his smoke-stained teeth, blew out a cloud of smoke, and smiled at Merelda.

“I’ll bring you a bite!” she called to him, and he saluted her with his pipe.

She swam through the sea of colors, sounds, and smells, following her nose to Orgul’s stall one row over, where four braziers sizzled with small cuts of organ meat.

 

A Discourse in Steel © Paul S. Kemp 2013

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