The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.
Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.
An atmospheric and intrigue-filled novel of dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city—Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is available now in the US from Crown Publishing in the UK from Jo Fletcher Books.
CHAPTER 2: We Must Civilize Them
“Even today, after we have attempted so much research and recovered so many artifacts, we still have no visual concept of what they looked like. All the sculptures, paintings, murals, bas-reliefs, and carvings render the figures either indistinct or incoherently. For in one depiction Kolkan appears as a smooth stone beneath a tree; and in another, a dark mountain against the bright sun; and in yet another, a man made of clay seated on a mountain. And these inconsistent portrayals are still a great improvement over others, which render their subjects as a vague pattern or color hanging in the air, no more than the stroke of a brush: for example, if we are to take the Continent’s ancient art at its word, the Divinity Jukov mostly appeared as a storm of starlings.
As in so many of these studies, it is difficult to conclude anything from such disparate scraps. One must wonder if the subjects of these works of art actually chose to present themselves this way. Or, perhaps, the subjects were experienced in a manner that was impossible to translate in conventional art.
Perhaps no one on the Continent ever quite knew what they were seeing. And now that the Divinities are gone, we might never know.
Time renders all people and all things silent. And gods, it seems, are no exception.”
—“THE NATURE OF CONTINENTAL ART,”
DR. EFREM PANGYUI
She watches the crumbling arches, the leaning, bulky vaults, the tattered spires and the winding streets. She watches the faded tracery on the building facades, the patchwork of tiles on the sagging domes, the soot-stained lunettes, and the warped, cracked windows. She watches the people—short, rag-wrapped, malnourished—stumbling through oblong portals and porticoes, beggars in a city of spectral wonders. She sees everything she expected to see, yet all these dreary ruins set her mind alight, wondering what they could have been like seventy, eighty, ninety years ago.
Bulikov. City of Walls. Most Holy Mount. Seat of the World. The City of Stairs.
She’d never figured that last one out. Walls and mounts and seats of the world—that’s something to brag about. But stairs? Why stairs?
Yet now Ashara—or just Shara, usually—finally sees. The stairs lead everywhere, nowhere: there are huge mountains of stairs, suddenly rising out of the curb to slash up the hillsides; then there will be sets of uneven stairs that wind down the slope like trickling creeks; and sometimes the stairs materialize before you like falls on whitewater rapids, and you see a huge vista crack open mere yards ahead.…
The name must be a new one. This could have only happened after the War. When everything… broke.
So this is what the Blink looks like, she thinks. Or, rather, this is what it did.…
She wonders where the stairs went before the War. Not to where they go now, that’s for sure. She struggles with the reality of where she is, of how she came here, of how this could possibly really be happening.…
Bulikov. The Divine City.
She stares out the car window. Once the greatest city in the world, yet now one of the most ravaged places known to man. Yet still the population clings to it: it remains the third or fourth most populated city in the world, though once it was much, much larger. Why do they stay here? What keeps these people in this half-city, vivisected and shadowy and cold?
“Do your eyes hurt?” asks Pitry.
“Pardon?” says Shara.
“Your eyes. Mine would swim sometimes, when I first came here. When you look at the city, in certain places, things aren’t quite… right. They make you sick. It used to happen a lot more, I’m told, and it happens less and less these days.”
“What is it like, Pitry?” asks Shara, though she knows the answer: she has read and heard about this phenomenon for years.
“It’s like… I don’t know. Like looking into glass.”
“Well, no, not glass. Like a window. But the window looks out on a place that isn’t there anymore. It’s hard to explain. You’ll know it when you see it.”
The historian in her fights with her operative’s instincts: Look at the arched doorways, the street names, the ripples and dents in the city walls! says one. Look at the people, watch where they walk, see how they look over their shoulders, says the other. There are only a few people on the streets: it is, after all, well past midnight. The buildings all seem very small to her: when the car crests a hill, she looks out and sees fields of low, flat structures, all the way across to the other side of the city walls. She is not used to such a barren skyline.
They did have greater things, she reminds herself, before the War. But the curious emptiness of the skyline makes her wonder, Could so much have suddenly vanished, in a matter of minutes?
“You probably know this,” says Pitry. “But it’s good to have a car in the neighborhoods around the embassy. It’s not quite in… a reputable part of town. When we established the embassy, they say, a lot of the good sorts moved out. Didn’t want to be near the shallies.”
“Ah, yes,” says Shara. “I’d forgotten they call us that here.” Shally, she remembers, inspired by the quantity of shallots Saypuris use in their food. Which is incorrect, as any sensible Saypuri prefers garlic.
She glances at Sigrud. He stares straight ahead—maybe. It is always difficult to tell what Sigrud is paying attention to. He sits so still, and seems so blithely indifferent to all around him, that you almost treat him like a statue. Either way, he seems neither impressed nor interested in the city: it is simply another event, neither threatening violence nor requiring it, and thus not worth attention.
She tries to save her thoughts for what is sure to be a difficult and tricky next few hours. And she tries to avoid the one thought that has been eating into her since yesterday, when the telegraph in Ahanashtan unspooled into her hands. But she cannot.
Oh, poor Efrem. How could this happen to you?
CD Troonyi’s office is a perfect re-creation of a stately office in Saypur, albeit a gaudy one: the dark wooden blinds, the red floral carpet, the soft blue walls, the copper lamps with beaded chimneys above the desk. An elephant’s ear fern, indigenous to Saypur, blooms off of one wall, its fragile, undulating leaves unfurling from its base of moss in a green-gray wave; below it, a small pot of water bubbles on a tiny candle; a trickle of steam rises up, allowing the fern the humidity it needs to survive. None of this is at all, Shara notes, a melding of cultures, a show of learning and communication and postregionalism unity, as all the ministerial committees claim back in Saypur.
But the décor does not even come close to the level of transgression of what hangs on the wall behind the desk chair.
Shara stares at it, incensed and morbidly fascinated. How could he be such a fool?
Troonyi bursts into his office with a face so theatrically grave it’s like he’s died rather than Efrem. “Cultural Ambassador Thivani,” he says. He plants his left heel forward, hitches up his right shoulder, and assumes the courtliest of courtly bows. “It is an honor to have you here, even if it is under such sad circumstances.”
Immediately Shara wonders which preparatory school he attended in Saypur. She read his file before she came, of course, and it reinforced her conviction that the chaff of powerful families is all too often dumped into Saypur’s embassies across the world. And he thinks me to be from exactly such a family, she reminds herself, hence the show. “It is an honor to be here.”
“And for us, we…” Troonyi looks up and sees Sigrud slouched in a chair in the corner, idly stuffing his pipe. “Ehm. Wh-who is that?”
“That is Sigrud,” says Shara. “My secretary.”
“Must you have him here?”
“Sigrud assists me on all matters, confidential or otherwise.”
Troonyi peers at him. “Is he deaf, or dumb?”
Sigrud’s one eye flicks up for a moment before returning to his pipe.
“Neither,” says Shara.
“Well,” says Troonyi. He mops his brow with a handkerchief and recovers. “Well, it is a testament to the good professor’s memory,” he says as he sits behind his desk, “that Minister Komayd sent someone so quickly to oversee the care of his remains. Have you traveled all night?”
“My goodness gracious. How horrible. Tea!” he shouts suddenly, for no apparent reason. “Tea!” He grabs a bell on his desk and begins violently shaking it, then repeatedly slams it on the desk when it does not get the response he desires. A girl no more than fifteen swivels into the room, bearing a battleship of a tea tray. “What took you so long?” he snaps. “I have a guest.” The girl averts her eyes and pours. Troonyi turns back to Shara as if they are alone: “I understand you were nearby in Ahanashtan? An awful polis, or so I think it. The seagulls, they are trained thieves, and the people have learned from the seagulls.” With a twitch of two fingers, he waves the girl away, who bows low before exiting. “We must civilize them, however—the people, I mean, not the birds.” He laughs. “Would you care for a cup? It’s our best sirlang.…”
Shara shakes her head with the slightest of smiles. In truth Shara, a thorough caffeine addict, is in desperate need of a cup, but she’ll be damned if she takes one thing from CD Troonyi.
“Suit yourself. But Bulikov, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is quite different. It has structures that remain in place, inflexible to our influence. And I don’t just mean the walls. Why, just three months ago the polis governor had to stop them from hanging a woman for taking up with another man—I am sorry to discuss such a thing before a young woman, but—for taking up with another man after her husband died. And the man had died years ago! The City Fathers would not listen to me, of course, but Mulaghesh…” He trails off. “How odd it is that the city most decimated by the past is the also the city most dead-set against reform, don’t you think?”
Shara smiles and nods. “I agree entirely.” She tries very hard to avoid looking at the painting hanging over his shoulder. “So you do possess Dr. Pangyui’s remains?”
“What? Oh, yes,” he says around a mouthful of biscuit. “I apologize—yes, yes, we do have the body. Terrible thing. Tragedy.”
“Might I examine it before its transport?”
“You wish to see his remains? They are not… I am so sorry, but the man is not in a presentable state.”
“I am aware of how he died.”
“Are you? He died violently. Violently. It is abominable, my girl.”
My girl, thinks Shara. “That has been communicated to me. But I must still ask to see them.”
“Are you so sure?”
“Well… Hm.” He smears on his nicest smile. “Let me give you a bit of advice, my girl. I once was in your shoes—a young CA, patriotic, going through the motions, all the dog-and-pony shows. You know, anything to make a bit of a name for myself. But, trust me, you can send all the messages you want, but there’s no one on the other line. No one’s listening. The Ministry simply doesn’t pay attention to cultural ambassadors. It’s like hazing, my dear—you do your time until you can get out. But don’t work up a sweat. Enjoy yourself. I’m sure they’ll send someone serious on to handle it soon enough.”
Shara is not angry: her irritation has long since ebbed away into bemusement. As she thinks of a way to answer him, her eye wanders back up to the painting on the wall.
Troonyi catches her looking. “Ah. I see you’re taken with my beauty.” He gestures to the painting. “The Night of the Red Sands, by Rishna. One of the great patriotic works. It’s not an original, I’m sad to say, but a very old copy of the original. But it’s close enough.”
Even though Shara has seen it many times before—it’s quite popular in schools and city halls in Saypur—it still strikes her as a curious, disturbing painting. It depicts a battle taking place in a vast, sandy desert at night: on the closest wave of dunes stands a small, threadbare army of Saypuris, staring across the desert at an immense opposing force of armored swordsmen. The armor they wear is huge and thick and gleaming, protecting every inch of their bodies; their helmets depict the glinting visages of shrieking demons; their swords are utterly immense, nearly six feet in length, and flicker with a cold fire. The painting makes it plain that these terrifying men of steel and blade will cleave the poor, ragged Saypuris in two. Yet the swordsmen are standing in a state of some shock: they stare at one Saypuri, who stands on the top of one tall dune at the back of his army, brave and resplendent in a fluttering coat—the general of this tattered force, surely. He is manipulating a strange weapon: a long, thin cannon, delicate as a dragonfly, which is firing a flaming wad up over his army, over the heads of the opposing force, where it strikes…
Something. Perhaps a person: a huge person, rendered in shadow. It is difficult to see, or perhaps the painter was not quite sure what this figure looked like.
Shara stares at the Saypuri general. She knows that the painting is historically inaccurate: the Kaj was actually stationed at the front of his army during the Night of the Red Sands, and did not personally fire the fatal shot, nor was he near the weaponry at all. Some historians, she recalls, claim this was due to his bravery as a leader; others contend that the Kaj, who after all had never used his experimental weaponry on this scale and had no idea if it would be a success or a disaster, chose to be far away if it proved to be the latter. But regardless of where he stood, that fatal shot was the exact moment when everything started.
“Do you meet with the City Fathers of Bulikov in this office, Ambassador?” asks Shara.
“Hm? Oh, yes. Of course.”
“And have they never… commented upon that painting?”
“Not that I can recall. They are sometimes struck quiet at the sight of it. A magnificent work, if I do say so myself.”
She smiles. “Chief Diplomat Troonyi, you are aware of what the professor’s purpose was in this city?”
“Mm? Of course I am. It kicked up quite a fuss. Digging through all their old museums, looking at all their old writings.… I got a lot of letters about it. I have some of them here.” He shoves around some papers in a drawer.
“And you are aware that it was Minister of Foreign Affairs Vinya Komayd who approved his mission?”
“So you must be aware that the jurisdiction of his death falls under neither the embassy, nor the polis governor, nor the regional governor, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself?”
Troonyi’s birdshit-colored eyes dance as he thinks through the tiers. “I believe… that makes sense.…”
“Then perhaps what you do not know,” says Shara, “is that I am given the title of cultural ambassador mostly as a formality.”
His mustache twitches. His eyes flick to Sigrud as if to confirm this, but Sigrud simply sits with his fingers threaded together in his lap. “A formality?”
“Yes. Because while I do think you believe my appearance in Bulikov to also be a formality, you should be aware that I am here for other reasons.” She reaches into her satchel, produces a small leather shield, and slides it across the table for him to see the small, dry, neat insignia of Saypur in its center, and, written just below it, the small words: ministry of foreign affairs.
It takes a while for this to fall into place within Troonyi’s head. He manages a, “Wha… Hm.”
“So yes,” says Shara. “You are no longer the most senior official at this embassy.” She reaches forward, grabs the bell on his desk, and rings it. The tea girl enters, and is a little confused when Shara addresses her: “Please fetch the maintenance staff to take down that painting.” Troonyi practically begins to froth. “What! What do you mean by—?”
“What I mean to do,” says Shara, “is to make this office look like a responsible representative of Saypur works here. And a good way to start is to take down that painting, which romanticizes the exact moment when this Continent’s history started to take a very, very bloody turn.”
“I say! It is a great moment for our people, Miss—”
“Yes, for our people. Not for theirs. I will hazard a guess, Mr. Troonyi, and say that the reason the City Fathers of Bulikov do not listen to you and do not respect you, and the reason your career has not been upwardly mobile for the past five years, is that you are willing to hang a painting on your office wall that must insult and incense the very people you were sent here to work with! Sigrud!” The giant man stands. “Since the maintenance staff responds so slowly to voices other than CD Troonyi’s, please remove that painting and break it over your knee. And Troonyi—please sit down. We need to discuss the conditions of your retirement.”
Afterward, when Troonyi is bustled away and gone, Shara returns to the desk, pours herself a generous cup of tea, and downs it. She is happy to see the painting gone, unpatriotic as these feelings may be: more and more in her service for the Ministry, such displays of jingoism put a bad taste in her mouth.
She looks over to Sigrud, who sits in the corner with his feet up on the desk, holding a scrap of the now-demolished canvas. “Well?” she says. “Too much?”
He looks up at her: What do you think?
“Good,” says Shara. “I’m pleased to hear it. It was quite enjoyable, I admit.”
Sigrud clears his throat, and says in a voice made of smoke and mud, and an accent thicker than roofing tar, “Who is Shara Thivani?”
“A mildly unimportant CA stationed in Jukoshtan about six years ago. She died in a boating accident, but she was rather surreally good at filing paperwork—everyone had records of her, and what she’d done. When it came time for her clearance to expire, and to purge her from the rolls, I opted to suspend her, and held on to her myself.”
“Because you share the same first name?”
“Perhaps. But we have other similarities—do I not look the part of a drab, unimpressive little bureaucrat?”
Sigrud smirks. “No one will believe you are just a CA, though. Not after firing Troonyi.”
“No, and I don’t want them to. I want them worried. I want them to wonder if I am what I actually am.” She goes to the window and stares out at the smoke-smeared night sky. “If you stir up a hornet’s nest, all the hornets might come out and chase you, that’s true—but at least then you can get a good, proper look at them.”
“If you really wanted to stir them up,” he says, “you could just use your real name.”
“I want to stir them up, yes, but I don’t want to die.”
Sigrud smiles wickedly and returns to the scrap of canvas in his hands.
“What are you looking at?” she asks.
He turns the scrap of canvas around for her to see. It is the piece of the painting with the Kaj on it, standing in profile, his stern, patrician face lit by the burst of light from his weaponry.
Sigrud turns it back around and holds it up so that Shara’s face and the tiny painted face of the Kaj appear side by side from his perspective.
Sigrud says, “I can definitely see the family resemblance.”
“Oh, be quiet,” snaps Shara. “And put that away!”
Sigrud smiles, wads up the canvas, and tosses it in a trash can.
“All right,” Shara says. She drinks the second cup of tea, and her body rejoices. “I suppose we ought to move along, then. Please fetch Pitry for me.” Then, softer: “We have a body to examine.”
The room is small, hot, bare, and unventilated. Decay has not yet set in, so the tiny room is mercifully bereft of scent. Shara stares at the thing sitting on the cot, one of its small, slender legs dangling over the side. It’s as if he simply lay down for a nap.
She does not see her hero. Not the gentle little man she met. She sees only curled and crusted flesh with the barest hint of a human visage. It is connected, of course, to something quite familiar: the birdy little neck, the linen suit, the long, elegant arms and fingers, and, yes, his ridiculous colored socks.… But it is not Efrem Pangyui. It cannot be.
She touches the lapels of his coat. They have been shredded like ribbons. “What happened to his clothes?”
Pitry, Sigrud, and the vault guard lean in to look. “Sorry?” asks the vault guard. Since the embassy has no funerary facilities, the mortal coil of Dr. Efrem Pangyui has been stored in the embassy vault on a cot, like a precious heirloom waiting for the red tape to clear so it can return home. Which it is, a bit, thinks Shara.
“Look at his clothes,” she says. “All the seams and cuffs have been slit. Even the pant cuffs. Everything.”
“Did you receive the body in this state?”
The guard favors the body with a leery eye. “Well, we didn’t do that.”
“So would you say it was the Bulikov police?”
“I guess? I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t quite know.”
Shara is still. She has seen this before, of course, and even performed this procedure herself, once or twice—the more clothing one wears, with more pockets and linings and cuffs, the more places to hide highly sensitive material.
Which begs the question, she thinks, why would anyone think a historian on a diplomatic mission would have something to hide?
“You can go,” she says.
“You can leave us.”
“Well… You’re in the vault, ma’am. I can’t just leave you in the—”
Shara looks up at him. Perhaps it is the fatigue from the trip or the grief now trickling into her face, or perhaps it is the generations of command reverberating through her bloodline, but the guard coughs, scratches his head, and finds something to busy himself with in the hall.
Pitry moves to follow, but she says, “No, Pitry—not you. Please stay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’d like to have some embassy input, however limited.” She looks to Sigrud. “What do you think?”
Sigrud bends over the tiny body. He examines the skull quite carefully, like a painter trying to identify a forgery. To Pitry’s evident disgust, he lifts one flap of skin and examines the indentations on the bone underneath. “Tool,” he says. “Wrench, probably. Something with teeth.”
“So nothing useful there?”
He shrugs. Maybe—maybe not. “Was first hit on the front.” He points to just above what was once the professor’s left eyebrow. “The marks are deep there. Others… not so deep.”
Any tool, thinks Shara. Any weapon. Anybody could have done this.
Shara keeps looking at the body. She tells herself for the second time this night, Ignore the ornamentations. But it is the ruined visage of her hero, his hands and neck and shirt and tie—can she dismiss all these familiar sights as mere ornamentation?
Wait a minute. A tie?
“Pitry—did you see the professor much during his time here?” she asks.
“I saw him, yes, but we weren’t friends.”
“Then you don’t remember,” she asks softly, “if he developed the habit of wearing a tie?”
“A tie? I don’t know, ma’am.”
Shara reaches over and plucks up the tie. It is striped, red and creamy white, made of exquisite silk. A northern affectation, and a recent one. “The Efrem Pangyui I knew,” she says, “always preferred scarves. It’s a very academic look, I understand—scarves, usually orange or pink or red. School colors. But one thing I don’t ever recall him wearing is a tie. Do you know much about ties, Pitry?”
“A little, I suppose. They’re common here.”
“Yes. And not at all at home. And wouldn’t you say that this tie is of an unusually fine make?” She turns it over to show him. “Very fine, and very… thin?”
Without taking her eyes off the tie, she holds an open hand out to Sigrud. “Knife, please.”
Instantly there is a tiny fragment of glittering metal—a scalpel of some kind—in the big man’s hand. He hands it to Shara. She pushes her glasses up on her nose and leans in low over his body. The faint smell of putrefaction comes leaking up out of his shirt. She tries to ignore it—another unpleasant ornamentation.
She looks closely at the white silk. No, he wouldn’t do it with white, she thinks. It’d be too noticeable.…
She spots a line of incredibly fine red threads going against the grain. She nicks each one with the scalpel. The threads form a little window to the inside of the tie, which she sees is like a pocket.
There is a strip of white cloth inside. Not the cloth of the tie—something else. She slides it out and holds it up to the light.
There are writings on one side of the white cloth done in charcoal—a code of some kind.
“They would have never thought to look in the tie,” she says softly. “Not if it was an especially nice tie. They wouldn’t have expected that from a Saypuri, would they? And he would have known that.”
Pitry stares at the gutted tie. “Wherever did he learn a trick like that?”
Shara hands the scalpel back to Sigrud. “That,” she says, “is a very good question.”
Dawn light crawls through her office window, creeping across the bare desk and the rug, which is riddled with indentations from the furniture she had them remove. She goes to the window. It is so strange: the city walls should prevent any light from entering the city unless the sun is directly above, yet she can see the sun cresting the horizon, though it is rendered somewhat foggy by the strange transparency of the walls…
What was the man’s name, Shara thinks, who wrote about this? She snaps her fingers, trying to remember. “Vochek,” she says. “Anton Vochek. That’s right.” A professor at Bulikov University. He’d theorized, however many dozens of years ago, that the fact that the Miracle of the Walls still functioned—one of Bulikov’s oldest and most famous miraculous characteristics—was proof that one or several of the original Divinities still existed in some manner. Such an open violation of the WR meant he had to go into hiding immediately, but regardless the Continental populace did not much appreciate his theory: for if any of the Divinities still existed, where were they, and why did they not help their people?
This is the problem with the miraculous, she recalls Efrem saying. It is so matter-of-fact. What it says it does, it does.
It seems like only yesterday when she last spoke to him, when actually it was just over a year ago. When he first arrived on the Continent, Shara trained Efrem Pangyui in very basic tradecraft: simple things like exfiltration, evasion, how to work the various labyrinthine offices of authorities, and, though she thought it’d be unlikely he’d ever use it, the creation and maintenance of dead drop sites. Mostly just safety precautions, for no place on the Continent is completely safe for Saypuris. As the most experienced active Continental operative, Shara was ridiculously overqualified for what any operative would normally consider baby-sitting duty, but she fought for the job, because there was no Saypuri she revered and respected more than Efrem Pangyui, reformist, lecturer, and vaunted historian. He was the man who had single-handedly changed Saypur’s concept of the past, the man who had resurrected the entire Saypuri judicial system, the man who had pried Saypuri schools from the hands of the wealthy and brought education to the slums.… It had been so strange to have this great man sitting across the table from her in Ahanashtan, nodding patiently as she explained (hoping she did not sound too awed) that when a Bulikovian border agent asks for your papers, what they’re really asking for are twenty-drekel notes. A surreal experience, to be sure, but one of Shara’s most treasured memories.
She sent him off, wondering whether they’d ever meet again. And just yesterday she caught a telegram floating across her desk reporting he’d been found dead—no, not just dead, murdered. That was shock enough for Shara, but now to find secret messages sewed into his clothing, tradecraft she certainly didn’t teach him…
I suddenly doubt, she thinks, if his mission was truly one of historical understanding after all.
She rubs her eyes. Her back is stiff from the train ride. But she looks at the time, and thinks.
Nearly eight in the morning in Saypur.
Shara does not wish to do this—she is too tired, too weak—but if she doesn’t do it now, she’ll pay for it later. So many simple oversights, like failing to communicate a jaunt to Bulikov, can be mistaken for treachery.
She opens the door to her new office and confirms there is no one outside. She shuts the door, locks it. She goes to the window and closes the shutters on the outside (which is a relief—she is tired of the queer, murky sight of the sun). Then she slides the window shut.
She sniffs, wriggles her fingers. Then she licks the tip of her index and begins writing on the top pane of glass in the window.
Shara often does illegal things in her trade. But it’s one thing to violate a country’s law when you’re actively working against that country, and it’s another to do what Shara is doing right now, which is so horrendously dreaded in Saypur and so fervently outlawed and regulated and monitored on the Continent, the birthplace of this particular act.
Because right now, in CD Troonyi’s office, Shara is about to perform a miracle.
As always, the change is quite imperceptible: there is a shift in the air, a coolness on the skin, as if someone has cracked a door somewhere; as she writes, the tip of her finger begins to feel that the glass’s surface is softer and softer, until it is like she is writing on water.
The glass changes: it mists over, frost creeping across the pane; then the frost recedes, but the window no longer shows the shutter on the outside, as it should. Instead, it is like it’s a hole in a wall, and on the other side is an office with a big teak desk, at which is a tall, handsome woman reading a thick file.
How odd it feels, thinks Shara, to literally change the world.…
Shara likes to think she is above such sentiments, though it does irk her that Saypur’s considerable technological advances still have yet to catch up to most of the Divine tricks. The Divinity Olvos originally created this little miracle hundreds of years ago, specifically so she could look into one frozen lake and see and communicate out of a different frozen lake of her choosing miles away. Shara has never been quite sure why the miracle works on glass: the generally accepted theory is that the original Continental term for “glass” was very similar to “ice,” so the miracle unintentionally overlaps—though the Divine were fond of using glass for many strange purposes, storing items and even people within a hair’s breadth of glass like a sunbeam caught in a crystal.
The woman in the glass looks up. The perspective is a little peculiar: it is like peering through a porthole. But what is really on the other side of the glass, Shara knows, is the shutter on the embassy window, and after that a one-hundred-foot drop. It is all a play of images and sound: somewhere in Ghaladesh, across the South Seas in Saypur, a single pane of glass in this woman’s office is showing Shara herself, staring out from Troonyi’s rooms.
The woman appears quite startled, and her mouth moves. A voice accompanies the movement of her lips, yet it is soft and tinny like it is echoing up a drainpipe: “Oh! Oh.”
“You look like you expected someone else,” says Shara.
“No. I wondered if you’d call, but I didn’t expect the emergency line.” Despite the distortion, her voice is quite low and husky, the voice of a chain-smoker.
“You’d prefer I didn’t use the emergency line?”
“You so rarely use the tools I give you,” says the woman, and she stands and walks over, “for the purposes for which they are intended.”
“It is true that this is not… quite an emergency,” says Shara. “I wanted to let you know that I have… I have picked up an operation in Bulikov.”
The woman in the glass smiles. Despite her mature age, she is quite striking: her coal-black hair falls in thick locks about her shoulders, the front forelock shot through with a streak of gray, and though she is at an age when most women begin to abandon any attempt at a fetching figure, she still retains nearly every curve, many more than Shara could ever aspire to. But Auntie Vinya’s allure, Shara feels, has always gone beyond her beauty: it is something in her eyes, which are both wide and widely set, and deep brown. It is like Auntie Vinya is always half remembering a long life most people would have killed to lead.
“Not an operation,” says Vinya. “An outright diplomatic mission.”
Shara sighs inwardly. “What tipped you off?”
“The Thivani identity,” says Vinya. “You’ve been sitting on it for years. I tend to notice things like that. When someone, how shall I say, walks by the buffet and tucks a biscuit or two in their sleeve. Then suddenly the name gets activated the very night we hear about poor Efrem.… There’s only one thing you could be doing, couldn’t you?”
This was a mistake, thinks Shara. I should not have done this when I’m so tired.
“Shara, what are you doing?” says Vinya gently. “You know I never would have approved this.”
“Why not? I was the closest agent, and the most qualified.”
“You are not the most qualified, because you were personally connected to Efrem. You are better used elsewhere. And you should have sent in a request first.”
“You might wish to check your mail,” says Shara.
A shadow of irritation crosses Vinya’s face. She walks to the mail slot in her door, flips through the waiting bundle, and takes out a small slip of paper. “Four hours ago,” she says. “Very timely.”
“Quite. So,” says Shara, “I’ve made all the official overtures. I have violated no rules. I am the highest-ranking agent. And I am an expert in this field. No one knows more about Bulikov’s history than me.”
“Oh yes,” says Vinya. She walks back to look into the glass. “You are our most experienced agent in Continental history. I doubt if anyone in the world knows more about their dead gods than you, now that Efrem’s gone.”
Shara looks away.
“I’m… sorry,” says Vinya. “That was insensitive of me. You must understand.… It’s often a little hard for me to keep a common compassion, even in this case.”
“I know,” says Shara. It has been a little over seven years since Auntie Vinya assumed the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs. She was always the powerhouse of the Ministry, the officer whom all the decisions wound up going through one way or another; eventually it just became a matter of making it formal. In the time since her elevation, the boundaries of the Ministry have both grown, and grown permeable: it spills over into commerce, into industry, into political parties and environmental management. And now whenever Shara gets close to Saypur—which is very rare—she hears whispers that Vinya Komayd, matriarch of the eminent Komayd family and one of the most high muck-a-mucks in Ghaladesh, is eyeing the next-highest seat, that of prime minister. It is an idea that both unnerves and thrills Shara: perhaps if her aunt occupied the highest office in Saypur, in the world, she could finally come home.… But what sort of home would she return to?
“If it had not been you who trained Efrem,” says Vinya, “if you had not been the one to volunteer to put him through his paces, to spend so much time with him… you know I’d use you in a second, my love. But case officers are never allowed to react to the death of one of their operatives; you know that.”
“I was not his case operative. I only trained him.”
“True, but you have to admit, you do have a history of reckless conviction, especially with personal matters.”
Shara sighs. “I honestly can’t even believe we’re still talking about that.”
“I am, even if you’re not here to listen to it. It gets brought up in all the political circles whenever I try for funding.”
“It was seventeen years ago!”
“Sixteen, actually. I know. Voters might have short memories. Politicians do not.”
“Have I ever in my history abroad caused even a whisper of a scandal? You know me, Auntie. I am quite good at what I do.”
“I will not deny that you’ve been a blessing to my work, darling, no.” Then Vinya sighs, and thinks.
Shara keeps her face still and closed as she rapidly reviews the last five minutes. This conversation has not gone at all as she anticipated: she expected a harsh rebuke from her aunt, because it certainly seems to Shara that she has stumbled across some deeper, much more dangerous operation, one in which Pangyui was apparently involved. But so far Auntie Vinya has reacted as if Pangyui was just a simple historian on a diplomatic mission.… Which means she either doesn’t know, thinks Shara, or she doesn’t want me to know that she knows.
So Shara waits. If you wait and watch, she’s found, things so often reveal themselves, despite your adversary’s best efforts. And though Vinya may be her aunt, there never was a relationship between a commander and their operative that wasn’t somewhat adversarial.
“Well, then,” says Vinya. “I suppose you ought to brief me. What’s the situation there?”
Interesting, thinks Shara. “Poor. Mutinous. It would be an understatement to say CD Troonyi did not maintain the embassy to the best of his abilities.”
“Troonyi… My God, I’d forgotten they’d stuck him there. Are there any young girls about?”
Shara thinks of the tea girl. “One.”
“Was she pregnant?”
“Not that I could see.”
“Well. Thank the seas for small gifts.”
“What about Mulaghesh, the polis governor? She’s been very… hands-off with Bulikov. Still a keeper to the policies, in essence. Can I rely on her?”
“Probably. She’s old military, fought in the rebellions. The brass is in her bones. You always do quite well with her sort. Now—what about the professor?”
“I’m collecting information as we speak,” says Shara—glib, trite, serviceable.
“And once you know who killed him, and why, what will you do?” asks Vinya.
“Take stock of the situation and see what threat it poses to Saypur.”
“So vengeance doesn’t cross your mind?”
“One has no room for vengeance,” says Shara, “when the eyes of the world are watching. We must be judicious, and bloodless. I am to be, as always, a simple tool in the hands of my nation.”
“Enough with the rhetoric,” says Vinya. “I’ve no idea who it actually works on anymore.” She looks away to think. “I’ll tell you what, Shara. I will be generous with you. I’ll give you a deadline on this—one week.”
Shara stares at her, incensed. “One week!”
“Yes. One week to see if there’s something of importance to Saypur. The entire populace of Bulikov wished the poor man dead, darling! It could have been a janitor, for all you know. I will give you one week to show me there is some larger reason justifying your presence there, and then, if not, I’m pulling you out and I’ll have someone else oversee the proceedings. This is not a good use of you, dear—there are much more important tasks the Ministry needs you to oversee.”
“One week…” Shara momentarily debates telling Vinya about the message, then decides the potential bad consequences heartily outweigh the good.
“Oh, is this the girl who just told me she was the highest-ranking agent nearby? You made it sound like it’d only take a puff from your lips, and the house of cards would tumble.” Vinya waggles her fingers, imitating the snowfall spin of falling cards. “If you are so well prepared, my darling, surely it’ll take mere hours.”
Shara adjusts her glasses, frustrated. “Fine.”
“Good. Keep me informed. And I would appreciate it if you would keep your man from murdering anyone for at least a few days.”
“I can’t promise that.”
“I know. But I thought I’d ask.”
“And if I defuse this situation in one week,” says Shara, “if I do actually work the impossible this time, is there any chance that—”
“That I could be transferred.”
“Yes. Back to Ghaladesh.” Then, when Vinya stares blankly at her: “We talked about this. Last time.”
“Ah. Ah, yes,” says Vinya. “That’s right, we did, didn’t we.…”
You know that, Shara thinks. And we talked about it the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that.…
“I must confess,” says Vinya, “you are the only operative I know of who genuinely wants a desk job back at the home office. I thought you would love the Continent, it’s all you ever studied in training.”
“I have been abroad,” says Shara softly, “for sixteen years.”
“Shara…” Vinya smiles uncomfortably. “You know you are my foremost Continental operative. No one knows more about the Divine than you… and more so, almost no one in Ghaladesh knows that traces of the Divine still exist on the Continent, to some degree.”
How many times, Shara thinks, I have heard this speech.
“It’s the policy of the Ministry to never disclose the continued existence of the Divine, however slight. Saypuris prefer to believe all that is history—dead, and gone. They cannot know that some miracles still work on the Continent… and they certainly cannot know that some Divine creatures still exist, though you and your man are very good at cleaning those up.”
Shara is silent as she reflects that her aunt has no idea what such a thing means.
“So long as the Divinities themselves remain gone—and we are so happy that that is the continued situation—we have no reason to tell people what they don’t wish to know,” Vinya says.
Shara opts to state the obvious: “So, because I have seen so much that we cannot admit exists,” she says, “I cannot come home.”
“And because of who you are, if you were to come home, you would be questioned extensively. And since you know so much no one else should ever know…”
Shara closes her eyes.
“Give me time, my love,” says Vinya. “I am doing what I can. The powers that be listen to me more than ever before. Soon they can’t help but be persuaded.”
“The problem is,” Shara says quietly, “we operatives fight to protect our home… but we must return home occasionally, to remember the home we fight for.”
Vinya scoffs. “Don’t be so softhearted! You are a Komayd, my child. You are your parents’ child, and my child—you are a patriot. Saypur runs in your blood.”
I have seen dozens of people die, Shara wishes to say, and signed the death warrants of many. I am nothing like my parents. Not anymore.
Vinya smiles, eyes glittering. “Please stay safe, my love. History weighs a little heavier in Bulikov. Were I you, I’d step carefully—especially since you’re a direct descendant of the man who brought the whole Continent crashing down.” Then she reaches out with two fingers, wipes the glass, and is gone.
Excerpted from CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett, on-sale September 9, 2014.
Available everywhere books are sold. Copyright Robert Jackson Bennett @ 2014. Visit him online.