The Sovereign Hand (Excerpt)

Thorn, the gilded capital: bedecked in steam and the dust of convoys bearing riches from all across the earth. From here, wise and ruling hands have ensnared all Aurawn in a great story, a Primacy of Peace. A land where every person—human, gobelin, or drake—can dream, toil hard and succeed.

Of course, not everyone sees things that way. But when Alexa Temperen stands above Crucible Square and denounces the First and all his government for their injustices, the last thing she imagines is that she’ll soon be working for them, as a champion: one of the Sovereign Hand.

Because prophecy has spoken. Evil is stirring, and Alexa is just one of five unlikely heroes chosen to face it. They each have their doubts, and in her darkest moment Alexa still must decide: put pride aside and fight for a government she despises, or turn her back on her calling, leaving millions at the mercy of an unimaginable terror…

The Sovereign Hand is the debut novel from Paul Gilbert, available in August from New Zealand publisher Steam Press.

 

 

Tanner sat opposite his hooded guide, both of them silent as the trolley rattled towards the end of its line.

Looking out the window, a strained part of him longed for home. Sure, everything Wayfar was coal, or slate, or mud; no hills or monuments towered across their low, broken roofscape. Their landmarks were known places, not noteworthy. Like Yorkers with its big cheap feeds on Castle and High, or the March Yard, the senseless slab of bitumen smack in the middle of town, the milling point for everyone with less than nothing to do. But there was a rip, a natural pull through Wayfar that made orientation less about eyes and ears and more like submerging. Enduring.

Thorn defied such surrender. The hordes of traffic, the mirrors of buildings and streets, a thousand sundry details Tanner’s head could not contain. The entertainment strips of Raggenthorn and Comedine were lit with rainbow fountains and coloured alchemical bulbs, the night a siren-call of baroque tunes and flesh luring the punters in from the drizzling wet. Oh, the bacchae had made fine company, even yesterday. Now though, Tanner tasted poison in the chalice. He would rather destroy than drink it again.

They got off at Bentkettle, a mist of rain and dark pressing them into a couplet as they peeled up Farsee, away from the other passengers, but still resisting any obligation to speak. Not for the first time, Tanner peered at the sharp, sparrow-brown face that talked so much older than it looked—booksmart, not streetsmart, which always made Tanner’s lip curl. He still couldn’t cage words around exactly why he’d picked this kid over the other touts perforating Thorn’s underbelly like rats through overripe cheese, only to wonder at the choice as he waited. Scant chance of him knowing Skulpel, he’d reasoned in hindsight, although that made Ortez almost as unlikely a find.

Ortez… Just the name, that symbol conjured up memories of the blaze of white hair, the scything jaw; the long, down-covered arms that would stoop for him as the house filled with leather-armoured bodies and crude play. Endless nights spent close to that emblem, enveloped in strange tales that crept and flamed like tar over hot coals. In a way, pricked by the fear that something was coming to swallow him, that old orc was the last person Tanner could trust.

Tanner glanced at the boy again. Maybe second last.

“How’d you get into this gig?” he asked. “I mean, you don’t seem the type,” he added, but the boy didn’t answer, just walked ahead, casually scanning street signs. Tanner was still debating whether to push the issue when the clip of hooves and weapons and armour rang from ahead.

“Hold on,” he muttered, pulling the boy’s sleeve across into a wall’s shadow and turning his back on the street as shelter for lighting a smoke. Now it was the tout’s turn to inspect Tanner’s face curiously, but he played along, following Tanner’s lead in turning only once the patrol was well past.

“Know anything about that?” Tanner asked, eyeing the rifles strapped like warning stripes across their backs.

“The Second’s Garda. Thorn’s soldiery, only deployed for state emergencies. There was a big meeting up at the Aubartizan today. Probably something to do with that.”

“How the—” Tanner stopped. He didn’t want to know. The kid just waited, cool and brief, like he could do anything. Tanner didn’t even know his name.

After the greater city’s nocturnal trumpets, the parish of Mettabra was like one string, plucked to a discordant wail. Its gravel roads ran like an afterthought, narrow and potted with puddles and dripping arches as the street curled in seamless red brick, castle-like, up the hill. The flat frontages obscured any lawns or open spaces, broken only by signage from the occasional tailor or general store. The Mettabrans were metalsmiths, and the rooftops jutted with smelter chimneys. The smoke blew off, but the smell hung in the air, mingling with the brine and the fishy waste in the gutters. Tanner saw only one other person as he climbed, and between the head-cloth and concealing black dress, all he found was a pale-faced glare.

Coming to a wind-swept cul-de-sac near the top of the hill, the boy advanced and flitted like a wraith from one darkened porch to the next. There were no gas lamps, just a half circle of low brick buildings sharing the cliff’s edge and the harbour view. Weak beams escaped the wooden window shutters, and the city lights were myriad but faint, a poor impersonation of the half-shrouded stars.

Finally the boy stopped and waved Tanner over. A waft of fresh bread reached out from the house. The kid, though, was still playing burglar. Avoiding the front door, he slunk around the west corner of the house. A concreted path led to another door sunk into the basement. After the day he’d had, Tanner also moved slowly, peering into the one narrow window, but it was foggy with cobwebs and dust. There was no appealing aroma from this door.

He looked at the boy, as patient as a sentry. Tanner was struck by the strange impulse to ask him to stay.

“You’re sure?” he asked instead.

“Yes.”

A slow nod, and Tanner looked back at the door. Of a sudden, he grabbed the boy’s wrist, pulling and twisting until the lad gasped and his face was inches from Tanner’s own.

“This is it. Don’t talk about me. And don’t look for me. Or I will get you. Got it?”

“All right.”

Tanner searched the tout’s eyes, which at last were gratifyingly wide: the sort of wide he knew how to trust.

Tanner nodded again. Then he let go. Even released, the boy’s gaze didn’t waver; he just backed away, slowly fading into the black, a sort of dignity that made Tanner shake his head with regret.

He turned back to the door. Wooden slats, with an iron ring handle. Locked, but easily busted—but definitely noisy. In the quiet, Tanner thought he caught the piping of a few high, musical notes from inside.

Or it could have come from upstairs. Tanner stood back, caution resettling like a shawl. There was no sign of an army, or ambush, thank it bloody All. He didn’t know what to expect. Ortez had been his father’s man and a rock of Tanner’s childhood, but that was all so long ago. Just being there suddenly felt like walking in Madden’s wake.

With a deep breath, he went back to the window and ran a finger along its length. It wasn’t that high, but high enough, and at least as wide as his shoulders, hinged at the top.

Perfect.

Drawing his sword, Tanner wedged the coffin-shaped blade under the bottom frame, and pushed. Slowly, woodwork groaned. He fed more sword in and pushed harder—not how he’d imagined his new blade’s first workout. The latch gave with a sudden crack.

The hilt snapped back against the wall, but the bruised knuckles were worth it. While that hand wrung itself out, the other swung the window experiment­ally and found it inclined to jam open at its fullest. Which was, again, perfect.

The room inside was truly black and still, and musty, a cloying confirmation of disuse. Listening hard, he could still hear those sparse, lingering notes, but judged them at least a closed door or two away.

Yet he still could not see a thing. Hesitant, Tanner found a stone in the gutter, held it inside and dropped it, resulting in a soft thump. A box? A couch? The floor?

With a shrug, Tanner gripped the frame and swung one leg up. Misjudging everything, he was soon in a bind—one foot jammed on the outside of the window frame while the other waggled freely inside. Grunting, he twisted awkwardly, cocking his hip enough to get a foot up and his buttocks inside; from there physics took hold, head and torso following the bulk of him uncontrollably into the dark.

It was a short fall. The initial hit felt like a box, cardboard crushing before momentum rolled him away. The contents could have been crockery, but their rattle was lost in a flurry of thuds: hard-backed books, stacks of them, falling like stunned angels after Tanner’s full-body strike.

At risk of entombment, Tanner rolled blindly back on to the box. It crunched under his weight. He kicked out for the floor, but in a tangle of sheets found only cold wood and linen, chairs and tables teetering towards a crash while he lay like a turtle on his shell, coughing from the dust in his throat and secrecy utterly blown.

It could only have gone worse if he’d fallen on his sword.

Recovering from his fit, Tanner realised the pipe playing had stopped. It was replaced by barking, growing louder. He struggled to right himself, but gave up as the door banged open. Then the beast was upon him, a deeper shadow bounding the furnishings to snarl, slavering, barely an inch from his face.

“Vexxx,” someone called. “Vex!”

They were sounds dredged from the back of the throat. Vex… Tanner dropped his head with an absurd sense of relief. The hound was still snapping, hard and hot and loud, but its full anger was allayed.

“Ortez!” he called over the dog. “Ortez, it’s Tex!”

Blackness upon black, the piles of furniture parted and a new mountain-shape rose between them. Its head twitched, as if favouring an ear.

“Who goes it?”

“Tex! You know—Tanner!” The dog was winding up hysterically and he couldn’t go on.

Ortez remained stock-still. “Tex? Ahhhh… ” The sigh seemed to reach back centuries. “Then you’re Madden’s whelp.”

“Yeah.” He shifted, watching the spittle spray from the clashing teeth inches from his face. “Look, could you…?” The orc merely cocked his head again. Tanner wanted to grab that thick neck with frustration. “The dog! Please?”

“Ahh, yes. Vex—door.”

Vex turned, vanishing as swiftly and neatly as he had appeared. For Tanner there was an awkward clambering as he stood and tripped unaided through the mess to where the shadowed orc stood.

“I’m not much help these days,” Ortez said.

“You don’t say?” Tanner brushed at the dust that had collected in his damp wool. “I guess you’re not used to guests.”

“Not for a long time.”

Tanner tensed. “But you’re still knee-capping?”

“Not likely. I have… disadvantages.”

Something about the pause made Tanner look up—then recoil. Darkness strips the essence from many things, but eyes will prevail in the bleakest of nights. And Ortez’s eyes: they gleamed, wet and pale, ribbed in ghastly scarlet scars but were otherwise totally, shockingly white.

The blind orc chuckled as if he saw everything.

“Come, whelp!” He steadied a hand on the human’s shoulder, set a full head lower than his own. “See yourself in. Some talk would be good.” An odd note crept in as he added, “Especially ’bout old times.”

 

Of the small basement suite, only Ortez’s hearth-room was set up without decorations or obtrusions. Too large for the orc’s store-room, a table, an ornate armoire, and a dusty bookcase were pressed against the brick walls, leaving his armchair in awkward isolation. A squat block of teak and rose-and-cherry brocade, it sat with rounded toes on the feet of a matted, bear-headed rug sidelong to the fire, which was a fitful source of light, flecking the adjoining rooms and gleaming gold off the book spines that were the room’s only fiction of comfort.

Ortez picked through the pantry with eerie precision while Tanner retrieved the best of the remaining chairs from storage and dragged it into a share of the warmth. Dropping his sword belt to the floor, no sooner was his jersey over his head than a familiar snout appeared from behind Ortez’s chair: staring with shiny black eyes, ears flattened sleekly and jaw dropped in a familiar snarl. Tanner froze there, half in, half out, again like a turtle.

“Bloody hell… ”

“Vex! Snack.”

The jaws shut and Vex trotted obediently to the pantry door. He was a whip of a dog, long-legged and lean, his strong chest tapering sharply to the caved belly, all silken black and gold, shot through with the silver of age. Leaping for the bloody morsel, he didn’t scoff it immediately but dropped and curled around it protectively. Tanner didn’t know the breed exactly; and it seemed Vex felt the same way about him. Heads low, they both watched each other very carefully indeed.

“Not sure you should reward it,” Tanner muttered, spreading his jersey to dry.

Ortez’s hearing was fine. “That’s his job. You startled him. If you’d used the door—”

“Thought you might have had company.” Tanner settled into his chair. “Wasn’t that sure what I was walking into.”

“True enough. True enough.”

Tanner watched the orc navigate back with the plate, one hand out, the toes of one bare hairy foot touching the heel of the other, then pour them both a tumbler of whiskey purely by sound. The drink burnt like battery acid, the bread hard and the shanks rare and cold, but they worked. Ortez didn’t eat, just lit a great horn of a pipe. For a while both men quieted, intent on their primitive pleasures.

“So, what’s that?” Tanner asked eventually.

The room was spartan enough for Ortez to know what he meant. With thick mustard fingers he brought the object beside his chair gently into his lap.

“A clarinet. B-flat soprano. Quite common, but with the narrower bores of Albert.”

“Right.” Tanner was glad he’d finished his mouthful—he couldn’t believe his ears. “And what are you doing with it?”

“It’s a gift. From the family upstairs.”

“So they do know they’ve a gangster living in their basement.”

“They help. Keep me fed. I pay. These are difficult times, even for misers. The Mettabrans engineered the ships that carried your lot to these shores. Now steam and stacks and hundreds work to manufacture what a master once crafted. In hope, journeymen ride for the out-country townships; in despair, they descend to the factory floor. Unwanted apprentices are doomed to other trades. Even some masters are bending knee in the markets and fairs.”

The orc’s voice was fainter than Tanner remembered, but it still had that storyteller timbre—and the pauses, as if choosing from a selection of coarse crayons. Perfect for drawing tales of brothers and mountains and battles with giant earth-swallowing birds, full of vengeance and justice.

“And so… they gave you a flute,” Tanner said.

“Clarinet,” and Tanner grinned as the orc’s voice shed some of its lethargy. “It is a distraction. And a focus. I cannot see, so feel no pressure to read. Without black holes and staves, I am free. I own my music. I live it. Some days shift through the streaming colours without end. Other days, one note holds me for hours. I follow it, and hold it, illuminating everything… in the hollows of my mind.”

Ortez was still again, straight backed with his face to the fire, sightless eyes wide. The light played up his colour, but deepened the lines, and Tanner guessed pallor in the face that had used to flex like bright, fresh clay. Now it was creviced and crumbling, and although still white, the once-proud mane hung in wisps around the back of that great skull. From the pinched jowls, he suspected an emaciated frame, albeit disguised by the layers of robes, fraying and coarse with hints of recycled drapery. No armour, no infernal badge… Tanner just wasn’t sure what he was seeing. Was this how old villains came to die?

“Shit,” he said, slapping his thigh. “Stories, always, yes. But now you’re a fucking poet?”

Ortez chuckled. “Very unintended.”

“Well, I dunno—play something.”

Ortez dropped his blind eyes to the instrument, which was rotating under a light and reverential touch. Grip firming, there seemed an instant where it might be raised to the lips, but was only hoisted up and out of sight and laid gently on the other side of the orc’s chair. “It is a good solo instrument.”

Tanner shook his head. “You’ve really changed.”

“Hah.” Ortez straightened. “Well, maybe I haven’t held a club for a while. Not since this.” He stabbed a finger at his eyes.

“How did that happen?”

“Alchemy,” he hissed, alarming the dog. “Or sourcery, maybe. Some unholy feat of the Golden Circle.”

“You were after gold?”

“Who the hell isn’t? There was a spring on their Meister Street vaults. When I catch the whore-begotten splatter-swine that set me up—”

“You’d what? Toot them to death?”

“Insolence! I still have my talons.”

“Very handy for the narrower bungholes of Albert.”

Ortez tossed his head. “By choice, by my choice… I… I live quieter now.” He leant over to stroke Vex into a mutual calm. Tanner laughed, still holding his shank.

“Shit, I should have come here first,” he said. “This is too much fun.”

“Yesss, about you,” the orc turned his blind head. “What are you doing here?”

Tanner threw his bone down. “I am sick of people asking me that.”

Now it was the orc chuckling, stroking his chin thoughtfully between forefinger and thumb. “Maybe they have reason.”

“I’m here on business,” Tanner said, leaning back. “I got big plans.”

Not just a talker, Ortez always had a ravenous ear. Tanner started with Chirk, unveiled the whole plan they’d worked up after a chance meeting in Wayfar over an onslaught of drinks. Unexpectedly, the old orc began to shake his head.

“So, your own smuggling run,” Ortez summarised. “And fence.”

“Yeah. Chirk works at a shipping office—he’s the channel. We grab from one city, sell in the other.”

“That’s it? That’s why you came.”

“Whaddaya mean? It’s a choice plan.” Tanner scowled. “I’ll be my own boss, Ortez, raking it in. Or would’ve been, if dickless had his shit together at this end. I’ve been sitting around while he sorts things for more than a week.”

“And now?”

“Something’s happened.” Tanner stared into his glass. “I did some shit, Ortez. I gave the one-fingered salute all around Farrie and now everything’s fallen through. Someone’s got Chirk.”

“Hmm.”

“Hey—you don’t know any green woman, do you?”

“Green woman? Not by ear.”

“Eh. Luck’s with you.” Tanner frowned into the fire.

Ortez also faced the fire, stroking Vex’s muzzle with a drop of his long arm. “Have you heard,” he said, “of the Drugolech pit?”

“Shit, Ortez. This is no time for stories.”

“History. All of ours history. You should have heard of it. Wayfar’s raised on Drugolech’s bones.”

Tanner reached for his smokes pouch. “You know I never really bothered with school.”

“And you know you would have if I’d been there.”

“C’mon, Ortez. You taught me the best of everything I know.”

“So listen good now!”

Tanner sighed, but just nodded and lit up, folding one foot onto a knee. When Ortez spoke again his words were still slow, but building, like an avalanche.

“It was before the Primacy, of course. Just after Thorn’s death at the Thousand Moors. Your General Brackett had pushed back to our capital again and was laying siege. Thorn’s grand defeat had cost us, allowing other legions to raze villages unfettered. For miles around, the bodies were heaped ten high either side of the road. Human and gobelkin. Refugees poured into the walled city. Already rationing, Drugolech’s supply lines were cut. We had to surrender. Thousands and thousands would starve.

“Our kobold leaders thought otherwise.” Ortez ground his jaw hard, as if he’d been there. “They said ‘no surrender’—they said ‘dig’. All the armies of Sederia surrounded us. Drakkon clans. Elven levies. We had no weapons or food to fight on. And our masters said ‘dig’.

“We fell in line. Literally. Gob. Hobgobber. Orc. Trog. From the very old to the barely weaned. Our own milk and blood stood in the gendarmerie, herding us into the centre of the city to attack the earth with spades and forks, even talons. Dig!

“Every day the human captains came to the gates to parlay, and every day the Kobolden sent them back. Riding the shoulders of pet ogres, our masters would inspect our work. After ten days, the guards grew brutal. The weakest were whipped to death before exhaustion could take them. Still the pit grew deeper and more fetid with blood and disease. After twenty days, the bodies were being left to rot where they fell, where hundreds then thousands were driven to shit and bleed and bawl.

“Were there deserters? Of course. Most of them died, too. But, by the blackest ghouls of Malefice, we obeyed. We obeyed to the last. Because despite the horror, the armies, the hunger, and the despair, the Kobolden gave us something. Something we all wanted—hope. The hope of a miracle. Another way out.”

Ortez stared away with his mind’s eye, and Tanner followed him there. It wasn’t hard, like collecting all the waste and rot he’d seen into a hole in the ground. “Imagine those last little diggers,” Ortez said with a chuckle, “looking up from their cadavers and carrion and seeing a Sederian soldier throwing them a line.”

Tanner inspected his smoke. “And the point is?”

“Ahh, boy.” Ortez whispered, like all the doors their talk had opened were suddenly breezing down Tanner back. “Why didn’t Tira tell you? Thorn, Tex. Thorn is your pit.”

 


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