Jul 7 2014 8:00am
Read the First Five Chapters of Full Fathom Five (Excerpt)
On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods—perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World.
When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she’s grievously injured—then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear—which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.
Full Fathom Five, the third novel set in Max Gladstone’s addictive and compelling fantasy world of Three Parts Dead, is available July 15th from Tor Books. Read the first five chapters below!
The idol would drown that night.
“Death projected for half past one a.m.,” ran the memo Ka read at lunchtime on the volcano’s break room bulletin board. “Direct all inquiries to Mara Ceyla.” Another business update among many, pinned between a recruitment ad for the office ullamal league and a pink poster for a lunch-and-learn on soul trading in the Southern Gleb. Few noticed the memo, and fewer read it. Kai did both, and took the news back to her office with her sandwich. Ham and cheese and lettuce on white bread digested easy. The news didn’t.
Kai ruminated through the afternoon, and dinner, and the night. By 1:00 a.m. her work was done: three chickens sacrificed, one each on altars of silver, iron, and stone; a stack of profit and loss statements dispatched by nightmare telegraph; a prayer litany chanted balancing on one foot; a proposal drafted, suggesting an Iskari family shift their faith from the high-risk personal resurrection market to dependable grain-focused fertility. She scrubbed down the altars, washed her hands, brushed her hair, tied it back in a ponytail, and glanced again at the clock. One twenty.
Her office windows faced into the caldera. Two human figures waited on the shore of the dark pool far below, in the pit’s center. Kai recognized their outlines, though rendered doll-sized by distance. Gavin, tall, round, peered into the deep. Mara beside him was a straight line with a slight bend at the shoulders; she paced in tight circles, nervous, desperate, already mourning.
Kai had long passed quitting time. The Order owed her a carriage ride home. In thirty minutes she could be brushing her teeth, and in five more abed and asleep, safe from everything but dreams.
Mara turned. Stopped. Twisted the toe of her shoe into broken lava. Stuffed her hands in her pockets, pulled them out again, crossed her arms, uncrossed them. She walked to the edge of the pool, glanced in, shuddered, retreated.
“Not my problem,” Kai said, and realized she’d spoken out loud to her empty office—empty, at least, of people. The altars and prayer wheels and rosaries and fetishes and sacrificial knives kept their own counsel, as always. “Damn.”
She walked the long lonely hallway to the break room and descended a winding stair to the caldera floor, to join the death watch. She paused at the foot of the stairs. She could still go. They hadn’t seen her yet.
Leaving from her office would have been understandable. Leaving now was cowardice.
And anyway, Mara needed a friend.
Kai stepped out into the night, into view.
Cliffs above circumscribed a sky swirled with alien stars. Kai approached over lava five hundred years cool.
Mara’s feet ground gravel as she turned. “You came.” Her voice was at once relieved and bitter. “I didn’t expect you.”
“How are you holding up?” Kai asked.
“I’m fine.” Mara sipped coffee from a white mug marked with the Order’s black mountain sigil. Her free hand trembled. She turned the hand palm in, then out, spread her fingers, and watched them shake. She laughed a laugh of dry leaves. “I wish it would be over soon. Sooner.”
Kai wanted to touch the other woman’s shoulder, but hooked her thumbs through her belt loops instead.
Wind whistled over the crater’s jagged lip. Gavin seemed not to have noticed Kai’s arrival or overheard their conversation. Bent by the pool’s edge, he watched the idol dying within.
“Waiting is the worst part,” Mara said. “Knowing I’m helpless.”
“There has to be something you can do.”
Her laugh was short. “I wish.”
“Your idol just needs a loan. A few hundred souls on credit, to keep her alive until the market recovers.”
“No one knows when the market will recover, or if. Makes it hard to price a loan.”
“Sacrifice to her, then. We can afford the soulstuff to get her through the next few days.”
“Shame I’m all out of virgins and aurochs. What the hell’s the plural of ‘aurochs’ anyway?”
“Use the Order’s funds. You’re a priest. You’re allowed.”
“Jace says no.”
“Did he say why?”
“Does it matter?” She paced again, in circles. “He said no.”
“Blaming yourself won’t help.”
“Who do you think my clients will blame when their idol dies: The market? Or their hired priestess?” She jabbed her thumb against her sternum. “The guilt’s mine sooner or later. I might as well accept that.”
“Your clients signed off on the trade. They knew the risks.”
“I wonder what it feels like,” Mara said after a long silence. “Losing half of your soul at once.”
“Idols don’t feel like we do.” Kai knew as she spoke that it was the wrong thing to say.
Stars glinted in black sky and black pool—different stars above and below, not reflections. The shattered ground was a thin shell separating darkness from darkness.
Gavin turned from the pool and shuffled toward them over lava pebbles. “Won’t be long now.”
Kai replaced him on the shore, leaned over the not-water’s edge, and watched the idol drown.
She was a wire-frame sculpture of light, flailing in the depths like a fish caught on a line: female in figure, almost human. Wings flared. Goat legs bent against themselves. The suggestion of a mouth gaped in a not-quite-face. Her heart had faded, and the fade was spreading.
Other idols swam and shifted around her in the pool. Bright outlines of men, women, animals, and angels danced through invisible currents, tied each to each by silver threads. No threads bound the dying idol. Mara had severed her ties to the rest already, to keep her from dragging them down when she died.
“It’s beautiful,” Gavin said. He shifted from side to side, and his shadow swayed, long and broad, broken by the ground. “And sad. It looks beautiful and sad.”
The idol stared up into Kai and through her, desperate, drowning, and scared.
Idols don’t feel like we do.
Kai turned from the pool.
Human silhouettes watched from office windows above. Curious enough to observe, callous enough to keep their distance. Kai was being unfair. No. She was tired. The situation, that was unfair. The idol was about to die, and take Mara’s career with it.
“What’s her name?” Kai asked.
“The file code’s forty digits long. I’ve called her Seven Alpha.” Mara sat on a rock and stared down into her coffee. “Jace’s secretary already sent me the paperwork. Paperwork, can you believe it? I should have expected, but still. They die, and we fill out forms.”
Kai shouldn’t have come. Should have left early, or lingered over her altars and prayers until the worst was over. One more silhouette watching Mara pace, using distance to shield herself from pain.
Mara’s despair hurt, as did the fear in the idol’s eyes. In Seven Alpha’s eyes. Kai ought to be home, swaddled in sheets. She felt swaddled, here. Arms bound to her sides. Helpless. Her own words mocked her: there has to be something you can do.
“You think they’ll fire me tomorrow,” Mara said, “or let me stay long enough to pack my things?”
Kai stepped out of her shoes. Sharp stone scraped her soles. She unbuttoned her blouse. Gavin and Mara would stop her if they saw. Especially Gavin.
But Gavin wasn’t looking. Maybe the silhouettes were, above. Maybe someone was running down the winding stair even now to catch her. She unbuttoned faster. “You’ll be fine,” Gavin said, behind, to Mara. “This could have happened to anyone. Shining Empire debt always goes up in price. Everyone knows that. Knew that.”
“You’re not helping, Gavin.”
“One of Magnus’s idols failed six months ago, and he was promoted. It’s good experience. That’s what Jace said. A leader has to know how it feels to lose.”
Kai heard a rustle of stiff cotton as Gavin reached for Mara’s shoulder, and an answering whisper as Mara brushed his hand away. Last button free. The hook on her skirt followed, and the zipper.
The idol in the water screamed.
All at once, Kai thought. Do not wait, or question. If they see, they’ll try to stop you.
Do it, or don’t.
She shucked shirt and skirt, stepped out of the fabric’s warding circle, swept her hands above her head, ran three steps to the world’s edge, and dove.
Mara must have noticed in the last second, too late to do anything but shout: “Kai, what the hells are you—”
Black water opened before her, and closed behind her.
There are many worlds, and one. A shadow cast is real, and so’s the caster, though each is of a different order. Cast a shadow complex enough, and one day it will look up. One day it will tear free from the wall to seek the one who gave it form.
What might such a freed shadow feel, tumbling through spaces of greater dimension than its own?
Kai fell through the realm of gods and idols, on which rock and light and living flesh float like a raft on a cave lake. Diving, she kicked. Bubbles of reality jellyfished up to the distant surface. She swam deeper.
Idols drifted immense around her, sphinxes and chimeras, animals and men and women in lightning outline, planet-sized though they’d seemed small from shore. Every one was beautiful, and each terrifying. In their center, Seven Alpha flailed limbs of silver and samite. Sharp teeth glimmered in her open mouth.
Down Kai swam, down, the drowning idol nearer now, body large as a mainlander cathedral. One sweep of a hand nearly sliced Kai in half; Seven Alpha was desperate and almost dead, scared as a lamb on the butchering floor, but still, here , strong as a god.
The next time the idol clawed in her direction, Kai caught one of the lightning-wires that formed her wrist.
Her shoulders jerked in their sockets as the idol’s arm dragged her along. She rushed through empty space, and its hidden edges tore her flesh and mind. Around her in the black, paper-thin mouths peeled back lips to bare white fangs. Hungry ghosts, ready to descend. The idol’s death called scavengers to whom a soul wrapped in flesh was a chocolate wrapped in foil.
Kai could not get Seven Alpha’s attention this way. She was a gnat, a flitting nuisance. She needed perspective.
She held a piece of the idol’s wrist, but that piece moved with the rest of the wrist, and so by holding it she held the wrist itself, and if she held the wrist her hand had to be large enough to hold it, and if her hand was large, then, since the rest of her felt proportional to her hand, the rest of her was also large. Mountainous in fact, and strong, but still struggling against the whirlwind of Seven Alpha’s death.
Never, ever (Kai’s mother’d told her when she was four and emerged dripping from the water with a half-drowned boy in tow) grab a drowning man. Death’s approach lends strength even to the weak. A drowner, crazed, will pull you with him. Hold back, find a rope or plank or life preserver, and let the poor bastard save himself. Herself. Itself.
Seven Alpha kicked Kai in the side and she felt her rib break. The idol cut her, and burned her, as she pulled her into an embrace. Up so close, the idol’s face was all geometry, perfect planes and curves. She spasmed in Kai’s grip, transformed to fire, to thorn, to stinging jellyfish, to billion-armed insect, and back to woman, final form no less painful than the rest. Goat legs sliced Kai’s calves and thighs to the bone. Blood seeped into the water.
The idol buried her teeth in Kai’s left shoulder. A scream bubbled from Kai’s mouth and bloomed, rising. The god-realm’s darkness rushed into her lungs. She gagged and felt her body start to die.
The idol withdrew her teeth and pressed Kai in flaying embrace as they fell. Worlds’ weight crushed them together.
No time to waste. Kai kissed Seven Alpha on the mouth.
Cold tangled her tongue. Hunger caught her. Desperation pulled at her soul. She let it. She gave, and gave, and sank. Her soul surged into the idol’s mouth, torn from her by need, an insignificant scrap against Seven Alpha’s vast hunger.
The idol took Kai’s soul, and pulled for more, but there was no more to give. They fell, dying, bound by flesh and spirit. The idol sagged. Anger gave way to loss.
Kai crafted a contract in her mind, and offered it to the idol. A simple trade: a seven million thaum line of credit, enough to save them both for a while, provided Seven Alpha return as collateral her only asset, Kai’s stolen soul. Jace may have forbidden Mara from using the Order’s funds to save this idol, but he’d said no such thing to Kai.
Seven Alpha was about to die. She had no choice but to accept, and save them both. Simple self-preservation.
Any minute now.
Thought came slow to Kai at such depth, weighed down by dream and deep time. They’d fallen so far even acceptance might not save them. Too late, too deep. Stupid. Her spinning mind shuddered, slowed, and soon would stop.
Her spinning mind shuddered, slowed, and soon
Her spinning mind shuddered,
Her spinning mind
A key turned in the lock of the world.
Kai’s eyes snapped open. Power flooded from her, and her soul flowed back along the contract that now bound her to the idol. Light broke through her skin. Seven Alpha spread her wings, pulled from their kiss, smiled a spring morning. The idol’s tarnished heart began to heal, to shine.
Kai shook with joy.
Then everything went wrong.
Arms seized Kai from behind: human arms, fleshy, strong. They pried her from the idol, pulled her back and up. Seven Alpha tried to follow, but slow, too weak to resist the not-water’s weight. Kai fought, but the arms did not give. She knew her betrayers by their grip. Mara, slender and corded with muscle, fingernails biting Kai’s wrists. Gavin, an immense weight of skin and meat. Jace, too, their master. He was the one who held her neck.
“Get off!” She yanked at their fingers. “Let me go!” They did not.
Seven Alpha fell as Kai rose. The contract that bound them stretched, frayed. Star eyes beneath curling horns stared up at Kai in dumb hope. The idol did not begin to scream until the cord snapped, and water closed in to crush her.
Fighting and clawing and biting and bleeding, Kai heard sense inside that shriek. There were words amid the fury and the fear, senseless and mad, impossible words, but words nonetheless.
Howl, bound world, Kai heard as the idol fell, as she died.
Kai cried out in answer, in frustration, in rage. Still they pulled her up, as Seven Alpha dwindled to a distant ship on fire, a cinder, a spark, a star, then gone.
Kai’s friends dragged her to shore. She screamed them back and lay curled on sharp stone, bleeding, coughing, vomiting dreams. Warmth returned, the shadow bound once again to its wall. Traitor hands wrapped her in a sheet and lifted. Jace held her. His chest pressed through the sheet against the wound the idol’s teeth left in her shoulder. Bloody fabric rasped over her wrecked skin.
She tried to tear free, but lacked the strength. They carried her from the pool: glass-flat, undisturbed by the idol’s death.
“It’s okay.” Jace’s voice, strong, level, sad, so unlike her father’s. “It’s okay. You’re safe.”
“No,” was all she said.
Izza went to the Godsdistrikt to buy incense for the funeral. She found the shopkeep snoring.
The old man slept with bare warty feet propped up on the glass counter of his coffin-sized store. His head lolled back against his chair. One long wiry arm swung loose from his shoulder, and at the bottom of each swing the tip of his middle finger grazed the ground.
He wasn’t losing customers. The distrikt dreamed through the day around him. Foreign sailors and dockworkers stayed away ’til sunset, and no Kavekana native would risk trafficking with gods in broad daylight. Still not prudent, though, to nap.
Izza slipped through the shop’s front door without ringing the bell. The man’s mouth slacked open as the door shut. His snort covered the hinge’s creak. Izza waited, awash in smoke and scent. Her fingers itched. She could steal half his stock and leave before he noticed. Could swipe the dreams right out of his head.
She could. She didn’t.
That was the point.
She walked to the counter and rang the bell. The old man snarled awake and staggered to his feet, machete suddenly in one hand. Izza strangled her urge to flee. Her reflection stared back from the machete blade, and from the glass incense cases. Ripped and dirty clothes, lean and hungry face.
Neither of them spoke. The old man’s chest heaved. Heavy gray brows cast shadows across his bloodshot eyes. Incense smoke weighed on the sweltering air of a Kavekana afternoon.
“I’m here to buy,” she said.
“Get out, kid. Your kind don’t buy.”
She wondered whether he meant street kids, or Gleblanders, or refugees, or poor people in general. All of the above, most likely.
She reached for her pocket.
“I’ll cut your hand off and call the watch.” The machete trembled. “You want to test me?”
“I’m here to buy incense.” She pronounced the words with care, suppressing her accent as much as she could. “I want to show you my coin.”
He neither moved nor spoke.
She took from her pocket a thin beaten disk of silver, with an Iskari squid god stamped on one face and a two-spired tower on the other. She sank a piece of her soul into the coin, twenty thaums and some change, and tried to stop herself from swaying as the shop grayed out. Running low. Running dangerous.
The old man’s eyes glittered. He set the machete down. “What do you want?”
“Something nice,” she said. Forming words took effort. She didn’t like spending soul, not straight like this. She didn’t have much to go around.
“Twenty thaums gets you nice.” His head bobbed. His neck was freakishly long, and spotted like a giraffe’s. “What kind of nice? We have Dhisthran sandalwood here all the way from the other side of the Tablelands, send men into rutting elephants’ heat.” Her face must have twisted, because he laughed, creaking like a rusty dock chain. “Smells for all occasions. Murder, sacrifice, passion, betrayal.”
“I need incense,” she said, “to mourn a god.”
He lowered his chin and watched her through the bushes of his eyebrows. This was why Izza’d come herself, rather than sending one of the other kids: enough refugees had flowed through from the Gleb at one point or another that the request might not seem strange.
“Old festival coming up?” he asked. “Some god dead in your wars?”
“Give me the stuff.” She didn’t want her voice to shake. It shook all the same.
“Which one are you mourning? Or would I know its name?”
“A god that doesn’t talk much.”
He shrugged, and stepped into the back room, taking the machete with him. Thin trails of smoke rose from smoldering joss sticks, twisting in and out of light. Izza’s head hurt from the soul loss. She hoped that was the reason. Maybe the old man had drugged her with smoke. He might be out the back door now, running to call for the watch, for the Penitents. She had done nothing wrong, but that didn’t matter much.
She stayed. She needed this.
The man returned, machete in one hand and a slender black wood box in the other. He set the box on the counter and slid it across to her.
She reached for the box, but he placed the machete edge against the lid. His eyes were a lighter brown than Izza’s own.
She laid her coin on the glass beside. He snatched the coin, walked it down spidery fingers, up again, kissed the milled edge, then dropped it into one of his four shirt pockets.
She grabbed the box, but he pressed down with the machete and the blade bit into the wooden lid.
“How old are you?” he said.
“Old for a street kid.”
“Old enough to take what I pay for.”
“You should be careful,” he said. “The Penitents start grabbing kids about your age.”
“I know.” If she could have burned him with her gaze, he would have been dust already.
He lifted the machete. She tucked the box into her belt, and ran into the street, trailing doorbell’s jingle and wafting incense and the old man’s laughter.
Soul-loss visions haunted her down the block. Recessed windows stared from plaster walls, the eye sockets of sun-blanched skulls. Bright sun glinted off broken glass in gutters. The alley stank of rotting mangoes, stale water, and sour wine. Her headache wouldn’t leave. She’d almost died of thirst once, in the desert, after her home burned, before she jumped ship for the Archipelago. Soul loss felt the same, only you couldn’t cure it by drinking.
She was so far gone that her shaking hands woke the man whose purse she slit minutes later, an Alt Coulumbite sailor drowsing on a couch outside a Godsdistrikt gambling den, long pipe propped on his stomach. He caught for her wrist, but she ducked, faster strung out than most sober, grabbed a handful of coins, and ran down the alley. Stumbling to his feet he called for the watch, for the Penitents, for his god’s curse upon her. Fortunately, neither watch nor Penitents were near, and foreign gods weren’t allowed on Kavekana Island.
She ran until she collapsed, beside a fountain in a palm-shaded courtyard, and drank the dregs of soul from the sailor’s coins. White returned to the walls of surrounding buildings, red to their tile roofs, joy to the fountain’s babble, heat to the air, and life to her body.
A single dull gray pearl hung from a worn leather string around her neck. She clutched it tight and waited for the pain to pass.
She wasn’t whole. She did not remember what whole felt like anymore. But she felt better, at least.
Izza met Nick at the corner of Epiphyte and Southern an hour and a half before sunset. He crouched by a lamppost, thin, bent, eyes downcast, scribbling in dust. He looked up when he heard her coming, and did not wave, or smile, or even speak. She often forgot he was younger than her. Keeping quiet made him seem smart.
Together they turned north, and walked up Southern toward the mountain.
They soon climbed out of the city. The bay emerged behind them, peeking over red roofs, and before long they could see the two Claws, East and West, curved peninsulas stretching south to shelter the harbor. They walked fast in the shade of overhanging palms, past large green lawns and sprawling houses. The mountain slopes weren’t priests’ sole property anymore, but real estate was expensive here, and the watch quick to sweep up loiterers.
When houses gave way to jungle, Izza and Nick left the road. Izza stepped lightly through the undergrowth, and only where she could see soil. Trapvines and poison ferns, ghosts and death’s head centipedes lived in these woods. Nick moved slowly through the foliage, and made more sound than Izza liked. Any sound was more sound than Izza liked. She walked softly until the trees gave way to solid rock, and the mountain’s roots rose from the earth.
She scampered up the stone, and held out a hand to help Nick after.
“I wish,” he said, breathing hard, as they climbed, “we could do this back at the docks.”
“The mountain’s holy,” she said. “There were gods here once, even if the priests build idols now. Where else should we hold the Lady’s funeral?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t know what they were doing. Neither did she. No one had ever taught them how to pray made most of it up as they went along.
They cleared the trees and spidered up the scree, exposed to sky and sun. Izza fought her urge to hide. The mountain, Kavekana’ai, was a holy place, but it wasn’t hers. For all she knew the Order’s priests could feel them crawling flealike on the cliff face. Or a Penitent might see them exposed against the stone: their jeweled eyes were sharp as eagles’, and hungrier.
They climbed. Izza helped Nick, and he helped her. A dragonfly watched them both from its stone perch, then buzzed off, wings scattering light to rainbows.
By the time they reached the funeral ledge, the sun had just kissed the western horizon, and the mountain’s shadow lay long upon the ocean to the east. The other kids were here already, ten of them, representatives of the rest. They’d built the pyre, and crouched back against the rock. Izza felt their eyes, eyes of every hue in faces of every color, all hungry, all watching her. She’d heard them whispering before she reached the ledge. They fell silent now.
A row of ash smears lined the cliff, one for each funeral past, and in their center stood the pyre, a small pile of twigs and palm thatch. On the pyre lay a jade-breasted bird with folded blue wings.
Ivy had found the bird outside a hotel, neck broken. At least, she claimed she found it dead. The girl had a crooked sense of humor, and an even stranger sense of worship. She hugged herself and smiled grimly at Izza. Breath whistled through the gap between her front teeth.
Izza crouched beside the dead bird. Nick took his place with the others, and waited with them.
Izza felt her age. At fifteen, she was the oldest, had been since Sophie was taken for a Penitent after the Green Man died. So the story was hers to tell.
The others waited. Little Ellen curled her legs up under her chin. Jet ground his teeth, and picked at the side of his sandal where a strip of rubber had come loose.
Izza licked her lips. She’d seen Sophie do this before, for other gods. Her turn, now. That was all.
“The Blue Lady,” she said, “is gone.”
The others nodded. “Yes,” a few whispered. There was no ritual beyond what felt right, and nothing did.
She told the story as she’d thought it through. “She died helping us. The way she lived. Tired of waiting for his dead boys to do his work for him, Smiling Jack himself came down the mountain to hunt her children through the streets. When he caught them, he threw them into his sack, and shut the sack, and when it opened again there was nothing inside.” This had never happened. She’d made the story up days before, a patchwork of invention and theft and half-remembered dreams. None of these kids had been caught, and none had seen Smiling Jack. Still, they listened. “He caught me in a dead end, with stolen gold in my pocket. I offered him the gold, and he said he didn’t want gold. I offered him my next night’s take, and he said he didn’t want that, either. I asked him to spare me, and he refused. He came at me, with the sack open—it looks like burlap outside but inside is all needles.” Heads bobbed. They knew, though they’d never seen. The sack, the needles, both felt true. “The Lady fell on him from above, tearing and pecking at his eyes. I ran, but as I ran I felt her die.”
More nods, emphatic. They’d all felt the death, and heard her scream.
“She saved me. I didn’t deserve that. I didn’t deserve her.” The backs of Izza’s eyes burned. She tried to breathe, and realized she was gulping air. She looked down at the bird, and saw everything it wasn’t, everything it should have been. This small feathery stand-in never sheltered her in sickness, never whispered promises to her at sunset, never caught her when she fell. Her heart beat double-time in her ears, loud and distant at once. The whistle of breath through Ivy’s teeth sounded like a scream.
“We didn’t.” Nick, again. She hated the confidence in his voice. As if he believed this made-up ceremony would help. “None of us.” Izza’s heart kept up its strange double-beat—physical, an echo as if she stood too close to a loud drum. A familiar feeling. Her blood chilled. “When I first met the Blue Lady, I—”
Izza lunged for Nick. He hit the cliff face hard, and swore, but she clapped a hand over his mouth, and raised one finger to hers. He understood then, and froze.
The others did, too. Jet stopped picking at his sandal.
Izza’s heart beat in her chest, but the echo she felt was not a heartbeat. And that high keening was not the whistle of breath through Ivy’s teeth.
She released Nick, and uncurled herself on the ledge. Spread flat, she edged out her head so she could see.
A hundred meters to their left, a Penitent climbed the slope.
The Penitent was built on the model of men, but larger: a statue three meters tall and almost as broad, features carved of planes and angles, two massive three-fingered hands, two feet like slabs of rock. It did not climb like Izza and Nick had climbed, feeling for handholds, testing and trusting. It marched up the mountain as if stairs had been carved into the eighty-degree slope. Joints ground rock against rock. Dust drifted down behind it. Jewel eyes in its stern stone face scanned the mountainside.
With every step, the Penitent screamed.
Izza wondered who was trapped inside. Some dockside tough too smart or drunk or angry for his own good. Dope peddler, or murderer, or a kid old enough to be tried like an adult. Maybe that was Sophie. You couldn’t tell from looking which Penitents held men and which women. You could only guess from the sound of their cries.
Penitents made you better. That was the line. You went in broken, and came out whole.
They just had to break you more first.
Izza did not shake. She’d given up shaking when her mother died, when her village burned. She did not make a sign to ward off bad luck or evil spirits. She’d tried all those signs, one after another, and none had worked for her before. Staying still, though, had.
So she stayed still, and watched the Penitent climb.
It drew level with their ledge.
She stopped breathing. Its steps slowed—or else her terror< slowed time.
The Penitent climbed on.
Ivy shifted, dislodging gravel. A whisper of a sound, but Izza glared at her nonetheless, and the girl’s pale skin paled more.
Footsteps receded. Faded. Vanished up the mountain.
Wind blew soft and cool over shaded slopes. The sun set, and the first stars pierced the sky.
The dead bird lay on the pyre. The kids watched her. Scared, and waiting for direction. For their leader to tell them what happened next.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said.
No one spoke.
“Let’s go,” she said. “We don’t need gods who die and leave us afraid. We don’t have to be the ones who survive.”
Their eyes glistened in the light of new-risen stars.
“Okay,” she said. “Fine. But this is the last. Care for the gods yourselves from now on. I’m done.”
She fished a coin from her pocket and handed it around. Each of them sank a piece of their soul into the metal, and by the time Nick passed it back to Izza, the coin pulsed with heat and life.
She took all their soul scraps, and held them, and touched them to the thatch. The dry grass caught at once, and burned, and the bird burned, too. A thread of sickly smoke rose to the sky. Izza removed two incense sticks from the black box, and lit them in the pyre. They smelled of the desert after rain, of blood shed on cold stone, of empty temples pierced by shafts of light through ruined roofs. Beneath all that, she smelled burning feathers.
Nice, the old man had said. She wasn’t sure.
One by one the others left. Ivy stayed longer than the rest, curled into a ball against the ledge, chin propped on her knees as reflected fire and burning bird made a hell in her pinprick pupils. At last even she climbed down, and only Nick remained.
Izza could barely breathe. She told herself it was the smoke.
They climbed down together, and through the woods, and strolled along Southern past rich folk’s houses until plaster walls closed in again and streetlamps put the stars to flight and they could walk easy, camouflaged by drunks and madding crowds.
“What did you mean,” he said, “that you can’t do this anymore?”
“What I said. I won’t wait around to be locked in one of those things, just for one of you to take up as storyteller after me and get locked up in turn. I won’t be Sophie for you. For them. I have to go.”
“They need this. They need you.”
“They shouldn’t,” she said, and walked away down Southern toward the beach. He didn’t follow. She told herself she didn’t care.
Kai met the Craftswoman a week later in a nightmare of glass. She sat in a glass chair in front of a glass table and her fingers trailed over the slick armrests without leaving a trace of oil or sweat. In one corner a glass fern stood in a glass pot, glass roots winding through glass soil. Other identical rooms stretched above, below, and to all sides, beyond transparent walls, ceiling, and floor, and in those rooms sat identical Kais and Craftswomen. As Kai crossed her legs beneath the table her infinite other selves crossed their legs, too, a susurrus of stockings breaking the silence of the dream.
In the distant waking world, she lay bandaged on a bed. Here, no injuries bound her except the ones she earned herself.
She’d set her hand on the table’s edge as she sliced her palm to the pink, a long deep wound that healed at once. The blood on the table stayed, though. Millions of red streaks surrounded her on millions of tables, catching the nightmare’s sourceless light.
“Before we discuss the idol’s death,” said Ms. Kevarian, “please explain the services your firm provides.”
“Our Order, you mean.”
Myriad reflections offered Kai a choice of perspectives on her interviewer: a severe Craftswoman in a gray pinstriped suit, with black eyes, short white hair, and a thin wide mouth. Ms. Kevarian sat statue still. Her eyes held neither pity nor humor, only a curiosity like Kai had seen in birds’ eyes, alien, evaluative, and predatory.
Behind Ms. Kevarian sat her client, a shadow in a white suit, a smudge of gray with a broad and gleaming grin. Fingers like wisps of smoke never seemed to rest. They laced together and unlaced, and trailed down his lapels and along the chair’s arm without seeming to care whether the glass edge cut. He hadn’t spoken since they shook hands; nor had the Craftsman Jace sent into the dream to protect and advise Kai, a round-chested skeleton who bore down so heavily on his note-taking pad that Kai wondered if he might be writing with rips instead of ink.
“I thought your clients would have told you,” Kai said, and the Craftsman shot her a sharp look. Don’t get cute, Jace had cautioned her. So much for that.
Kai wished she looked nearly so cool or collected as Ms. Kevarian. She had a choice of perspectives on herself, too, and didn’t like what she saw: tan suit rumpled, a few strands loose from her tied-back hair, her round face strained. Gray circles lingered under her eyes, and a haunted look within them. Her mouth was dry. A glass of water stood on the table before her, but she feared its sharp edges and didn’t drink.
“I am asking you,” Ms. Kevarian said. “For the record.”
She felt small in front of this woman, and hated the feeling. When she remade her body she should have made herself taller. “I’ve never worked with your clients directly.”
“In general terms, then. What do priests do here on Kavekana Island?”
“We build and sustain idols—constructs of faith—for worshippers.”
“Would you say that you build gods?”
“No,” she said. “Gods are complex. Conscious. Sentient. The best idols look like gods, but they’re simpler. Like comparing a person to a statue: the resemblance is there, but the function’s different.”
“And what, precisely, is the… function of your idols?”
“Depends on the idol and the client. Some people want to worship fire, or fertility, or the ocean, or the moon. Changes from client to client.”
“What benefits would a worshipper derive from such a thing?”
Even such a simple question might be a trap. “The same as from a god. A fire idol might confer passion. Strength. Return on investment in various heat-related portfolios.”
“Why would someone work with one of your idols, and pay your commission, rather than deal with gods directly?”
“Each pilgrim has her own reason. Why don’t you ask your clients theirs?”
“I am asking you.”
“The mainland’s a dangerous place,” she said. “If you live and work in the Old World, gods demand sacrifices to support themselves. If you’re in the New World, the Deathless Kings and their councils charge heavy fees to fund police forces, utilities, public works. If you travel from place to place, a horde of gods and goddesses and Craftsmen chase after pieces of your soul. You can give them what they want—or you can build an idol with us, on Kavekana, and keep your soulstuff safe here. The idol remains, administered by our priests, and you receive the benefits of its grace wherever you go, no more subject to gods or Deathless Kings than any other worshipper of a foreign deity.”
“So, you believe your idols’ main function is sacrifice avoidance.”
The water glass tempted, despite its sharp edges. “I didn’t say that. We offer our pilgrims freedom to work and worship as they choose.”
“And part of that freedom is the assurance you will care for the idols you create. That you will protect the souls with which your clients trust you.”
“Is that why you jumped into the pool?”
“I thought I could save your clients’ idol,” Kai said. “She was drowning.”
“By ’she’ you mean the construct designated Seven Alpha.”
“Were you familiar with Seven Alpha’s case history?”
“I was not.”
“Would you say your High Priest Mister Jason Kol is a competent judge of an idol’s health?”
“Jace? Yes. He trained me.”
“And Mara Ceyla?”
“Of course.” She’d said that too fast, she knew, when Ms. Kevarian made a note of it. Or else she hadn’t, and Ms. Kevarian was making notes at random to confuse her. “Our Applied Theologians are the best anywhere.”
“What made you second-guess your coworkers?”
“I didn’t.” She bristled at the implicit scorn. Jace had cautioned her, and their Craftsman, too: keep your answers short, within the limits of the question. As if she was a child to be led. She swallowed her anger, and it cut her stomach. “I thought I could do more.”
The Craftswoman’s client produced a full moon from his sleeve, walked it along his fingers, and vanished it again. His fingers left black trails in the air. Ms. Kevarian nodded. “What could you do that they could not?”
“First, I was willing to run a big risk to save Seven Alpha—I needed to let her take my soul so she would have collateral for the contract. That’s more than Jace could expect or ask of Mara. Second, I believed I could survive in the pool long enough to save the idol. There wasn’t time to contact your clients, but if I approached Seven Alpha just before she died, she might have accepted the deal out of sheer animal self-preservation.” She stopped talking. Wait for the questions, they’d said, even if you chafe at silence.
“Why could you survive longer than the others?”
“Because I’m better in the pool than most of them.”
“Better than your teacher?”
That cool doubt was bait, but bait Kai happily swallowed. “I remade my body there, completely—Jace didn’t. Not many people do, these days. As a result, I’m more comfortable in the pool than most. It’s in my marrow.” The Craftsman beside her tensed. Let him. “I thought I could last long enough to save her.”
“By ‘her,’ you are again referring to the construct. The idol.”
“You imply that it has gender and personhood.”
“Language is weird like that,” Kai said. One corner of Ms. Kevarian’s mouth tweaked up, acknowledging, rather than agreeing. “Archipelagese has a fine set of gender-neutral pronouns, but mainlanders don’t like them for some reason.”
“What about personhood? Are the idols conscious, or self-aware?”
“No. Complex behavior doesn’t emerge from a simple system, any more than lumps of iron can speak. The idols we build have a few believers at most; however much soulstuff they store, their behavior only gets so complex. About the level of a dumb rat.”
And yet, and yet. What about that scream, and the words within it, the memory denied: howl, Seven Alpha said there at the end, howl, bound world. Words hidden within the death cry, steganography of fear between two beings that recently shared a soul. No, keep to the question. Don’t hesitate. Don’t hint. Ms. Kevarian did not ask about the words, because Kai had not written them into her report, and no one else had heard them. This was not the time, not the place, to raise the subject.
Anyway, Ms. Kevarian had already proceeded to her next question. “But you have affection for these constructs.”
Kai let the words go. Breathed them out, with her memories of the dark. “We build them by hand. We’re paid to worship them, to love them. We tell their stories. It’s easy to get attached.”
Another note, another nod. “You said you were stronger in the pool because you’d remade yourself completely. What did you mean?”
The Order’s Craftsman cleared his throat, a sound like gravel being stirred. “That’s a personal question,” he said. “I don’t see how it’s relevant.”
“I want to understand Ms. Pohala’s decision-making process.” Ms. Kevarian’s smile lacked the warmth Kai typically associated with that expression.
Kai met those black, unblinking eyes. “Back before the God Wars,” she said, “priests entered the pool during initiation—they met gods there, learned secrets, changed. Inside, spirit and matter flow more easily from shape to shape. Now the gods are gone, but we still go down. The first time priests dive, we change—we fix the broken bodies we inhabit. These days most changes are small: one priest I know corrected her eyesight; another cleaned up a port wine stain on her cheek. In the past more priests went further, like I did. That’s where the tradition came from, after all. These days full initiates aren’t as common, but there are a few of us.”
“How did you remake yourself?”
“I was born in a body that didn’t fit.”
“Didn’t fit in what way?”
“It was a man’s,” she said. Defiant, she watched Ms. Kevarian’s face for a reaction: a raised eyebrow, a subdermal twitch, a turnedup lip. The Craftswoman seemed impassive as calm ocean—and Kai knew how much, and how little, one could tell from an ocean’s surface.
“Ms. Kevarian,” she said, “I tried to save your client’s idol. I failed. Why are we here? Why not let this go?”
“You are bound to answer my questions,” Ms. Kevarian said. “I am not bound to answer yours. But I will, out of good faith. My clients, the Grimwald family”—a forked tongue twitched out from between the gray man’s jagged teeth—“suffered operational inconvenience due to their idol’s death. We’re investigating whether this inconvenience was avoidable. Your actions intrigue us. You believed the idol could be saved. Mister Kol did not. Do you think your judgment was wrong, or his?”
Kai stood so fast the chair toppled behind her; its edge sliced the back of her legs and blood seeped into her stockings. She didn’t need to be a Craftswoman to see the threat in that question: if Kai was right, then Jace was wrong, and the Order liable for Seven Alpha’s death. And if Kai was wrong, why did the Order employ priests so incompetent as to risk their lives on a lost cause? “I tried to help your people. So did Mara. And you want to use that against us.”
“Kai,” the Craftsman beside her said. “Sit down.”
Kai did not. Nor did Ms. Kevarian seem at all perturbed. “Many have sat, or stood, across this table, and claimed they only wanted to help. They rarely specify whether they wanted to help my clients, or themselves.”
“If you want to accuse me of something, say it.”
“I am not accusing you or anyone.” The Craftswoman ran her pen down the margin of her notes, nodding slightly at each point. “I am simply asking questions.”
Kai reached for the water glass. Its edges pressed against her palm, the blade of its lip against hers; she drank the pain, and when she set the glass down only a drop of blood remained at the corner of her mouth. She licked it, and tasted salt and metal.
“There’s no question here,” she said. “Jace and Mara were right. I was wrong. I made a mistake, and put myself in danger.” Strange that she could keep her voice level as she said the words. Humiliation was like ripping off a bandage: easier to endure if you took it all at once.
“And yet you have not suffered a formal reprimand. You still hold your position in Kavekana’s priesthood.”
“That’s not a question.”
“Based on your actions, do you think you deserve disciplinary action?”
“I’m still in the hospital,” she said. “It’s early. Do you have any more questions?”
“There are always more questions, Ms. Pohala.”
“Get on with it, then.”
Ms. Kevarian lowered her pen.
Time broke after that, and she tumbled from moment to moment through the dream. Questions flowed on, in that same round-voweled alto voice. Light pierced her from all sides at once. She drank, and was not sated; turned from Ms. Kevarian but found herself staring into another Ms. Kevarian’s eyes. She sat not in one room reflected to infinity, but in infinite rooms, asked in each a different question, her answers blending to a howl.
She woke in her sickbed in Kavekana’ai, panting, tangled in sheets. Ghostlights glimmered from panels and instruments on the walls. A metronome ticked the beats of her heart. The ticks slowed as she breathed. In the polished ceiling she saw her own reflection, a sepia blur swathed in hospital linen.
Paper rustled. She was not alone.
Jace sat in a chromed chair by the wall. He folded his issue of the Journal so Kai couldn’t see the date. He looked worse than she remembered, thin and sunken, clad all in black. He set the paper down, poured her a glass of water, and lifted it to her lips. She tried to take the cup from him, but bandages wrapped her hands. She drank, though the taste of glass shivered her.
“How’d I do?” she said when he pulled the water away. Her voice sounded flat and dull, an instrument left too-long idle.
“You were great,” he said. “Rest, now. If you can.”
She lay back, and knew no more.
Izza dangled her legs over the edge of an East Claw warehouse rooftop, and drank her stolen beer. Kavekana’s city lights reflected in the black bay below, long false trails to freedom. A few years and forever ago, the two illuminated peninsulas cradling the harbor had welcomed her like her lost mother’s embrace. They’d turned, since, to teeth, and the black water to the fanged mouth’s inside. Clocks chimed two in the morning; Izza had spent the last hour deciding how to leave.
She was no stranger to moving on. Life was movement. She’d lied to herself thinking otherwise. The kids would miss her, fine, but the kids could find their own way, like she had. They didn’t need her.
So she sat, and thought, and hated herself, and drank. She didn’t drink as a rule, but there was a time for breaking every rule. She’d stolen this beer from a fat woman who ran a stall five blocks inland in the Godsdistrikt, selling cigarettes and cheap booze. The woman, caught up in a red-faced hands-flailing argument with a Kosite over the price of cigarettes, hadn’t noticed the bottle’s disappearance. She did notice Izza’s sudden retreat from the stand, and shouted, “Thief!” after her, but Godsdistrikt crowds ran mudslide thick and fast. Izza vanished down a side alley before anyone could hear the woman’s cry, not that anyone would have helped.
The beer needed a bottle opener. Fortunately the slums around the Godsdistrikt were well supplied with drunks. Izza stole a church key from the belt of a broad-backed sailor girl distracted by a clapboard prophet preaching doomsday, and found a rooftop where she could drink in peace.
She ran a finger along the frayed leather of her necklace, and wondered how to leave.
In the last four years she’d grown too big to sneak shipboard. As for work, well, sailors sang old pre-Wars songs about signing on with whalers and the like, but after singing they complained how the bad old days were gone. Shipmasters wanted papers, résumés, union cards. Stealing enough to buy herself a berth—that might work, but so much theft would attract attention. She could talk the kids into helping her, but she didn’t want to, not for this. Pawning everything she owned wouldn’t make up a ticket price. She didn’t own much.
So she paced the passages of her mind, in the small hours of the morning, until she heard the fight.
Fights were common in East Claw. Sailors brawled, and local toughs, and sometimes if the scuffles spread to riot the Watch came, with Penitents to reinforce them. But solitude and alcohol had gone to her head, and this fight was loud and near. Stone footsteps thundered down dockside streets, multiplied by echoes: Penitents, running. Two, maybe more. The Penitents terrified, but they put on a good show.
So she rambled along the roof and, after checking her balance and relative level of intoxication, sprinted and sprang across the narrow alley between this warehouse and the next. She ran to the building’s edge, and lay flat with her head jutting over the drop.
At first she did not understand the scene below.
The Penitents were familiar at least: two immense stone figures, broad and thick as battlements, blunt features formed from planes of rock. The Penitent on Kavekana’ai had marched up the slope with grim determination, but these moved so fast the word “movement” didn’t seem enough. The prisoners within cried and cursed from the inhuman speeds their statue shells forced on them: one man, and, Izza judged from the voice, one woman. Their howls scraped the back of her skull, tightened her limbs, and locked her joints.
This much she’d seen before. But the thing—the woman—the Penitents fought was new.
She was quicksilver and smoke and swift water. Green eyes burned in the mask of her face, and great razor-pinioned wings flared from her back. She flowed as she thought: a Penitent swung at her with a granite blur of arm, and she ducked beneath the blow and rose off the ground with a knee-kick that struck the Penitent’s bare rock torso and sent it staggering, chest spiderwebbed by cracks. The woman turned to run, but the second Penitent blocked her way. She tried to dodge around, a mistake: the Penitents were faster than they looked, their arms broad. A stone hand swept out, and she jumped back. Wings flared to catch her in the air and send her spinning down again to earth.
Izza had fought before, wild, bloody backstreet brawls, gouging eyes, biting wrists, bashing stones into skulls and vice versa, combatants a haze of limbs and fear. The winged woman fought different, fast and fierce but tight, too, as if every movement served a higher purpose.
And still she was losing. As she fell, the first Penitent’s stone fist pistoned out and caught her by the arm. With her free hand the woman grabbed the Penitent’s elbow. Wings flared and beat and at the same time she pulled sideways. Stone broke, the joint bent backward, and the Penitent’s scream—the man’s—shivered the night. It released her, and falling she kicked viciously at its knee. The Penitent stumbled, and collapsed. The woman landed, but one arm hung limp from her shoulder. The second Penitent struck; she dodged, too slow, and the fist clipped her side. Izza heard a crunch of breaking bone.
The woman struggled to rise. With eyes of green fire she glared into and through the Penitent above her. A granite arm rose, and fell; the woman caught the Penitent’s wrist. Stone ground and creaked. Inside the Penitent someone sobbed.
Izza’d never seen anyone last this long against one Penitent, let alone two: she had thought the stone watchmen invulnerable to everything but Craft. This winged figure was no Craftswoman, though. She did not drink the light around her, or wrong the ground on which she stood, or crackle with eldritch sorcery. She was brilliant, and she was doomed. The Penitent bore down, and she bent under its sheer strength.
Izza should have run. In a few days she’d be gone from Kavekana anyway. But when she stood, instead of slipping away across the rooftops, she slid onto a fire escape, and clanged down five stories to drop from ladder to cobblestone street, shouting the whole way, “Stop! Thief!” She ran across the street behind the fight, still shouting, to the shelter of the alley opposite and inland. If she had to run, she might be able to lose the Penitents in the warrens. Might. “Stop!”
The Penitent’s head swiveled round to Izza. Gem eyes gleamed, and Izza felt herself seen: five six and skinny and scared, standing in the open on flat ground before monsters. She stopped breathing.
A silver streak struck the Penitent in the side of the head, and again. One jewel eye went dark. Stone crunched. The statue swayed, stumbled, and fell. It lay twitching across from its brother with the broken leg.
The silver woman stood over them both, cradling her useless arm. One wing hung from her shoulder at a bad angle. She limped around the fallen Penitents and away, up Izza’s alley.
As the woman left the street, her silver tarnished and broke. Black cotton shirt and denim pants showed through widening gaps in her mirrored carapace, and pale skin too, bruised and dirt smeared. One human eye, also green, paired with the eye of emerald fire. Blond hair, cut short. Muscle and sharp lines. The wings melted last, and the silver woman was silver no more. She lurched down the alley, clutching her injured arm, favoring the side where the Penitent hit her. She swore to herself, words too low for Izza to catch. Their eyes met as the woman passed, black into green and back again.
That should have been the end of it. The woman limped half the alley’s length, gait weaving and uneven, then stopped, slumped against a red brick wall, and bent her head to breathe.
This was not Izza’s problem. She’d helped enough already. Time to run.
The Penitents’ cries rose to an impassive sky. More would come soon to aid their comrades.
Izza knelt before the woman. Green eyes stared through strings of golden hair, not at Izza but around her, refusing to focus. Sweat slicked the woman’s face, and she breathed so heavily Izza thought she might throw up. Izza snapped her fingers twice in front of those green eyes. “Hey,” she said. “Hey. We need to get you out of here.”
“Who?” The voice was cloudy and unfocused as her gaze. Izza’d heard that vagueness before, from sailors rising out of opium dreams or divine rapture. Great. Whatever this woman was, she was in withdrawal. The Penitents must have smelled the god on her, and come hunting. No foreign gods allowed on Kavekana.
“The Penitents won’t stay down long.” Izza risked a glance back: the stone around the fallen statues paled and lost color as they drained its essence into themselves. Healing, fast. A few minutes before they recovered, no more. “Do you have a place to hide?”
She shook her head. “Not yet.”
“Shit.” Leave her. Or dump her in the Godsdistrikt with the other grace addicts. Hard-luck cases aplenty on this island. But none of them could fight off a Penitent, let alone two. “Follow me.”
Izza offered her hand, but the woman slapped it away. She closed her eyes, and drew a shuddering breath. When she opened them again, she took a step, and this time did not fall. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Izza led her through twisting Godsdistrikt alleys, to mask their trail with the stench of trash and foreign joss. The woman followed, around Dumpsters, over unconscious sailors, beneath the red lights of hothouse windows, and through puddles of foul water. At last, trail good and lost, Izza turned them back west toward the bay.
“I don’t know your name,” the woman said.
“Cat,” she replied in answer to Izza’s unasked question.
Cat passed out across the street from the collapsed warehouse. Izza heard her slam into a trash can, and caught her before she fell farther. The woman weighed more than she looked, as if her skeleton were not made of bone. Izza crouched beside her in the stink of garbage and stale water, and waited for the road to clear. When Dockside Boulevard was empty of Penitents and freight traffic all the way south into East Claw, and north until it the Palm, she draped Cat’s arms over her shoulders, hoisted her up, and stumbled across the road. She ducked through a hole in the wall next to the warehouse’s padlocked gate, and in.
Rats and beetles scrabbled away over the slab floor. Rotten crates and dust, muck and fallen beams and tangles of rusty wire crowded them round. Decay and wisps of incense hung on the heavy air, and stars shone through gaps in the half-fallen ceiling. This warehouse had stood abandoned as long as Izza’d known or anyone else could remember. Its roof fell in one hurricane season, wrecking whatever cargo it contained and ruining the owners; nobody had fixed up the place in the years since. Piled debris cut the warehouse in half, and as far as most knew, the shoreside half was the only one open enough for folk to walk or sit.
She laid Cat in a patch of moonlight, left her there, and went to clear a space for her to sleep near the debris wall.
When Izza turned back, she saw a thin figure standing over Cat’s body. She forced herself to relax. “Nick. Hi.” She recognized him by the way he held his shoulders: hunched forward, as if pushing against an unseen wind.
“I found her,” she said. “She’s hurt. Give me a hand.”
She walked back to the moonlight and lifted Cat by her armpits. Nick did not move to help.
“Fine.” She dragged the woman across the floor, into the space she’d cleared. Her heels left trails in the dust. Cat groaned, and Izza shifted her grip to put less pressure on the injured shoulder.
“I thought you were going.”
“I am,” she said. “But she needed help. What do you want from me?”
“Stay,” he said.
“I can’t.” She looked down at Cat. “I’ll take care of her, for a while. I’ll stay that long.”
“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you’re breaking up the gang, and then bring someone here to put us all in danger.”
“We were never a gang, and I am leaving. Just. She knocked out two Penitents. She deserves our help. My help.” Izza searched the warehouse, but they were alone. “And what’s this ’all,’ anyway? I don’t see anyone here.”
“Except for you.”
“The kids are hiding,” he said.
“No. We’re not.”
“I need to leave, Nick,” she said. “Nothing’s safe here. Not gods. Not us.”
“Change your mind.”
Cat groaned, and Izza returned to her side. The woman’s eyes rolled behind closed lids, and her lips twitched. If they formed words, Izza couldn’t read them.
When she looked up, the warehouse was empty.
She waited for Nick to speak again, from hiding. But he was gone, like her family, like her gods.
Izza left Cat unconscious on the warehouse floor, and went to look for water.
Kai didn’t hear from Mara for two weeks. When the other woman finally made it up the steep cliff steps to the balcony where Kai lay convalescing, she waited out of sight by the stairs, presumably working up the will to speak.
At first Kai—pillow propped in bed, white sheets pooled around her waist, wearing a hospital gown and reading the Journal—ignored her. Mara didn’t like pain, physical or emotional, always last to shed her blood on an altar stone. Kai’d mocked her reluctance, but fourteen days into recovery, she was coming to understand the woman’s caution.
So she read the business section, waited, and pretended not to notice Mara. She ran out of patience halfway through the stock columns. “You should short Shining Empire bonds,” she said then, loud so her voice carried. “Hard and fast. Today. Exchanges don’t close in Alt Coulumb until eight. Plenty of time to arrange the trade.”
“You knew I was here.”
“Saw you climbing the stairs.”
“Glad you’re in good spirits.” Kai didn’t need to look to know the shape of Mara’s smile: slantwise and sarcastic.
“The nurses won’t let me anywhere near spirits.” Kai turned the page, and scanned an editorial by some bleeding heart in Iskar, suggesting that all the other bleeding hearts in Iskar join a crusade to stop the civil war in the Northern Gleb. No plan, just hand wringing and noble rhetoric. Fortunately: Iskar didn’t have a good history with crusades. “Alt Coulumb’s index funds are up, and the Shining Empire debt market’s rebounded. Turns out the rumors of open trade on their soul exchange were wrong after all.”
“Does that matter now?”
“False panics make for overcorrections. Shining Empire soulbonds are trading twenty points higher than a month ago. The price will normalize in a week. Short-sell. Borrow against our AC index holdings to finance the trade. Act fast, and you’ll make back everything the Grimwalds lost when Seven Alpha died. A peace offering. I’d do it myself, but nobody’ll let me near the trading office. I had to take a nurse hostage to get them to give me a goddamn newspaper.”
Mara strode past Kai to the balcony’s edge. Slope wind whipped the hem of her dress like a luffing sail. “It’s too late for peace offerings. They want a sacrifice.”
“You mean the Grimwalds. And their Craftswoman.”
“That’s what it sounded like in my deposition, too,” Kai said. “How’d yours go, by the way?”
Mara shuddered, and stared out over the rail, down the volcano.
Kai did not bother to look. She’d grown accustomed to the view.
Kavekana, beautiful as always: stark black stone slopes, colonized even at this violent height by lichen, moss, and adventurous ferns. Farther down, grasses grew, and farther still palms, coconut, and imported date. Epiphytes flourished beneath the trees. Past those Mara would see signs of humankind, the fiercest invasive species, asserting presence with rooftop and stone arch, temple and bar and gold-ribbon road, traces thicker as the eye proceeded south until slope gave way to city and beach and the paired peninsulas of the Claws. In their grip the glittering harbor thronged with tall-mast clippers, schooners, the iron-hulled hulks of container ships anchored near East Claw’s point where the water was deep enough to serve them. Other islands swelled, purple ghosts, on the horizon. Craftsmen’s spires hovered out there, too, crystal shards almost as tall as the volcano, flashing in the sun.
Kai had tired of it all in her first week of bed rest with nothing to do but watch the sea beat again and again on Kavekana’s sand. Boring, and worse, a reminder of her own atrophy. No doubt the nurses thought the physical therapy they guided her through each day would help, but to Kai it felt like a joke. Raise this arm, lower it, raise it again. No weights, no failure sets, no rage, no fight, no victory. If it hurts, tell me and we’ll stop. The first time she tried not to tell them, they threatened to give her even easier exercises unless she cooperated. Not that she could imagine easier exercises. Perhaps they would devise a system to help raise her arm, some elaborate contraption of counterweights and pulleys.
She set her newspaper aside and watched Mara’s back. Her dress was the kind of blue desert folk said skies were: dry and pale and distant. A curve of calf peeked out beneath her skirt’s drifting hem. Whatever bravery brought Mara here had given out, or else the scenery had crushed her into silence.
“If my mother saw you like this,” Kai said, “she’d have you lacquered and mounted on a ship’s prow.”
“Do they do that? Living ships?”
“I think someone made real ones back in the God Wars, for the siege of Alt Selene. Forget whose side it was, or whether they kept the spirit’s source body on ice for later. Probably not. It was a rough war. So I hear.”
“I feel like that, sometimes. Don’t you?”
“Mounted? Only on a good day.”
She laughed, without sound. Kai could tell by her shoulders’ shake. “No. Like those bowsprit figures, I mean.” When Mara turned from the view, Kai saw she wore a blush of makeup. Interesting. She’d come armored. “Other people trim the sails and turn the wheel and the ships go where they want. The bowsprit woman’s stuck. She’s the ship’s point. Whatever danger they meet, she meets it first. She can’t even mutiny, or leave.”
“Maybe she does,” Kai said. “Maybe she bails, and takes the ship with her. Breaks it on rocks. Dashes it to pieces in a storm.”
“Hell of a choice. Live imprisoned or kill everyone you know breaking free.”
“Is it life if you’re trapped inside it?”
“As long as you’re breathing, that’s life.”
Kai touched her chest through the stiff scratchy gown. “I’m breathing now. I don’t know if I’m alive. Don’t feel alive wearing this thing, anyway.”
“It looks good on you.”
“There hasn’t been a person made that a hospital gown looks good on. They say I’ll have my own clothes back next week, Seconday probably.”
“Jace doesn’t want me to leave before I’m healed, and he knows he won’t be able to stop me once I can put on my own pants.” Using her arms as a prop, she sat up, twisted sideways, and rested her feet on the stone floor. Mara stepped forward to help, but Kai waved her back, groped for, and found, her bamboo cane. She leaned into the cane, testing its strength and hers. Satisfied, she stood, though slower than she liked. “So, why did you come?”
“There has to be some secret motive?” Mara’s face betrayed no pity, only the fear Kai had seen in her few visitors’ eyes already, the fear of the healthy in the presence of the hurt. “I miss you. Gavin does, too, but he’s afraid if he visited you’d get the wrong idea. You can’t imagine the turnings in that boy’s mind. He asked me how much I knew about your family, because he wants to come visit, but he wants to bring orchids because his mother always told him to bring orchids to convalescent women, but he wants to know if you were raised traditional enough to get the reference, because he doesn’t want you to think that he’s bringing you flowers because he likes you, not that he doesn’t like you, but. You see. He thinks of conversations like a chess game, and I don’t mean that in a good way.”
Mara paced as she spoke, addressing cliff face and ocean and empty bed and her own hands, everything but Kai herself. “I’m glad you miss me,” Kai said, “but that’s not why you’re here, especially not in that dress.”
Mara stopped midstride. “I like this dress.”
“So do I, but you dress fancy when you’re scared. What of? Kevarian? The Grimwalds?”
“Of you, I guess. A bit.”
“I got hurt. It happens sometimes.”
“Hurt. People pull a muscle dancing, or break their arm rock climbing, or if they’re having a bad year they tear a tendon. That’s what hurt means. You, though. Do you even know what happened to you?”
“They read me the list. I recognized most of the words.”
“You almost died.”
“I almost a lot of things.”
“I saw Jace’s eyes when he looked into the pool as you were drowning. I didn’t think he could feel fear. Or pain. You scared him down there. I’ve only seen him look that way in prayer: awed. By you, and what you’d done.”
“Awe,” she said, tasting the word. “Awful, maybe. I tried to help, and it didn’t work. That’s all this is. If I’m lucky Jace won’t fire me.”
“I wouldn’t have done what you did.”
“That’s obvious.” Kai saw Mara flinch, and regretted her choice of words.
“That idol was my charge, and I didn’t try to save her. And don’t say it’s because I’m smarter than you.” She held up a hand. “Don’t say it. You talk tough, but you jumped into the water. I keep wondering why.”
“The Craftswoman asked the same thing.”
“She scares me.”
“I read your deposition,” Mara said.
“I didn’t think they were showing those around.”
“Do you really think you were wrong to jump in?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes. Because if you lied, that’s twice you’ve thrown yourself on a sword for my sake. By the pool, and in the deposition.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. We’re all at risk here. Jace. Me. The priesthood. The island. It’s easier if I was wrong.”
“Why did you jump?”
I jumped because she screamed. Because her eyes were open. Because she was alone. Because you were frightened. Because no one else would. “You and Gavin were boring the twelve hells out of me.”
Softness in Mara’s eyes, and in the declination of her head. “Don’t be cute. Please. I want to know.”
Kai felt naked on that balcony save for bandages and scars, in front of Mara in her makeup and her dress. She ground the tip of her cane into the floor. Her left shoulder ached where Seven Alpha’s teeth had torn her. “Haven’t you ever felt sorry for a hooked fish on the line?”
Mara smiled slantwise once more, not sarcastic this time. Some weight kept her from smiling in full. She approached, heels on stone, and stood warm and near. Before Kai could pull away— cane, injury, two weeks’ rest slowing her down—Mara grabbed her arms, then hugged her, pressing against Kai’s bandages. Her touch was light, but Kai still bit down a gasp of pain. Mara withdrew. “I do now.” Another step back, and a third. “I didn’t come here to thank you. You took the worst moment of my professional life and added the guilt of almost killing a friend. And even if Jace fires you he never will look at me the way he looked at you drowning. I came here planning to cuss you out, but I don’t have it in me. I’m glad you’re alive, is all.”
“Thanks,” Kai said. And, because there was no other way to ask it: “Mara. Did your idol… did you ever hear anything in the pool? A voice? Words?”
“No,” she said. “Nothing like that.”
Howl, bound world, Kai heard again, on the mountain wind.
“Did you?” Mara asked.
Kai did not meet her gaze. “Will you make the trade?”
“Short the Shining Empire bonds, you mean.”
“You’re no good at letting things go.”
“So folks have said.”
Mara stood still as a shoreside Penitent or a bowsprit maid. Then she shook her head, smile softer now and wistful sad, and walked away.
Kai sagged into her cane, but tensed again when Mara spoke behind her. “Get better. And be careful.”
“I’ll try.” She listened to the wind and to Mara’s receding footsteps. When only wind remained, she walked three-legged to the balcony’s edge. The cable car descended the slopes below. Through its window she saw a flash of blue dress.
Full Fathom Five © Max Gladstone, 2014