Been meaning to check out this Brandon Sanderson guy? Now’s your chance!
On November 22, Arcanum Unbounded arrives on shelves, collecting short stories from the many worlds of epic fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. What is a “mistborn”? And why do your friends light up with excitement at the thought of another glimpse into the Stormlight Archive? And…what are these secretive whispers that it’s all connected?
The ARCANUM can tell you. Just open its pages. Every story functions as an introduction to that world, with no need to study up beforehand.
You can begin right now with THE EMPEROR’S SOUL, Brandon Sanderson’s Hugo Award-winning novella. On the world of Sel, Shai is given an impossible task: create—Forge—a new soul for the emperor in less than one hundred days….
Gaotona ran his fingers across the thick canvas, inspecting one of the greatest works of art he had ever seen. Unfortunately, it was a lie.
“The woman is a danger.” Hissed voices came from behind him. “What she does is an abomination.”
Gaotona tipped the canvas toward the hearth’s orange-red light, squinting. In his old age, his eyes weren’t what they had once been. Such precision, he thought, inspecting the brush strokes, feeling the layers of thick oils. Exactly like those in the original.
He would never have spotted the mistakes on his own. A blossom slightly out of position. A moon that was just a sliver too low in the sky. It had taken their experts days of detailed inspection to find the errors.
“She is one of the best Forgers alive.” The voices belonged to Gaotona’s fellow arbiters, the empire’s most important bureaucrats. “She has a reputation as wide as the empire. We need to execute her as an example.”
“No.” Frava, leader of the arbiters, had a sharp, nasal voice. “She is a valuable tool. This woman can save us. We must use her.”
Why?Gaotona thought again. Why would someone capable of this artistry, this majesty, turn to forgery? Why not create original paintings? Why not be a true artist?
I must understand.
“Yes,” Frava continued, “the woman is a thief, and she practices a horrid art. But I can control her, and with her talents we can fix this mess we have found ourselves in.”
The others murmured worried objections. The woman they spoke of, Wan ShaiLu, was more than a simple con artist. So much more. She could change the nature of reality itself. That raised another question. Why would she bother learning to paint? Wasn’t ordinary art mundane compared to her mystical talents?
So many questions. Gaotona looked up from his seat beside the hearth. The others stood in a conspiratorial clump around Frava’s desk, their long, colorful robes shimmering in the firelight. “I agree with Frava,” Gaotona said.
The others glanced at him. Their scowls indicated they cared little for what he said, but their postures told a different tale. Their respect for him was buried deep, but it was remembered.
“Send for the Forger,” Gaotona said, rising. “I would hear what she has to say. I suspect she will be more difficult to control than Frava claims, but we have no choice. We either use this woman’s skill, or we give up control of the empire.”
The murmurs ceased. How many years had it been since Frava and Gaotona had agreed on anything at all, let alone on something so divisive as making use of the Forger?
One by one, the other three arbiters nodded.
“Let it be done,” Frava said softly.
Shai pressed her fingernail into one of the stone blocks of her prison cell. The rock gave way slightly. She rubbed the dust between her fingers. Limestone. An odd material for use in a prison wall, but the whole wall wasn’t of limestone, merely that single vein within the block.
She smiled. Limestone. That little vein had been easy to miss, but if she was right about it, she had finally identified all forty-four types of rock in the wall of her circular pit of a prison cell. Shai knelt down beside her bunk, using a fork—she’d bent back all of the tines but one—to carve notes into the wood of one bed leg. Without her spectacles, she had to squint as she wrote.
To Forge something, you had to know its past, its nature. She was almost ready. Her pleasure quickly slipped away, however, as she noticed another set of markings on the bed leg, lit by her flickering candle. Those kept track of her days of imprisonment.
So little time, she thought. If her count was right, only a day remained before the date set for her public execution.
Deep inside, her nerves were drawn as tight as strings on an instrument. One day. One day remaining to create a soulstamp and escape. But she had no soulstone, only a crude piece of wood, and her only tool for carving was a fork.
It would be incredibly difficult. That was the point. This cell was meant for one of her kind, built of stones with many different veins of rock in them to make them difficult to Forge. They would come from different quarries and each have unique histories. Knowing as little as she did, Forging them would be nearly impossible. And even if she did transform the rock, there was probably some other failsafe to stop her.
Nights! What a mess she’d gotten herself into.
Notes finished, she found herself looking at her bent fork. She’d begun carving the wooden handle, after prying off the metal portion, as a crude soulstamp. You’re not going to get out this way, Shai, she told herself. You need another method.
She’d waited six days, searching for another way out. Guards to exploit, someone to bribe, a hint about the nature of her cell. So far, nothing had—
Far above, the door to the dungeons opened.
Shai leaped to her feet, tucking the fork handle into her waistband at the small of her back. Had they moved up her execution?
Heavy boots sounded on the steps leading into the dungeon, and she squinted at the newcomers who appeared above her cell. Four were guards, accompanying a man with long features and fingers. A Grand, the race who led the empire. That robe of blue and green indicated a minor functionary who had passed the tests for government service, but not risen high in its ranks.
Shai waited, tense.
The Grand leaned down to look at her through the grate. He paused for just a moment, then waved for the guards to unlock it. “The arbiters wish to interrogate you, Forger.”
Shai stood back as they opened her cell’s ceiling, then lowered a ladder. She climbed, wary. If she were going to take someone to an early execution, she’d have let the prisoner think something else was happening, so she wouldn’t resist. However, they didn’t lock Shai in manacles as they marched her out of the dungeons.
Judging by their route, they did indeed seem to be taking her toward the arbiters’ study. Shai composed herself. A new challenge, then. Dared she hope for an opportunity? She shouldn’t have been caught, but she could do nothing about that now. She had been bested, betrayed by the Imperial Fool when she’d assumed she could trust him. He had taken her copy of the Moon Scepter and swapped it for the original, then run off.
Shai’s Uncle Won had taught her that being bested was a rule of life. No matter how good you were, someone was better. Live by that knowledge, and you would never grow so confident that you became sloppy.
Last time she had lost. This time she would win. She abandoned all sense of frustration at being captured and became the person who could deal with this new chance, whatever it was. She would seize it and thrive.
This time, she played not for riches, but for her life.
The guards were Strikers—or, well, that was the Grand name for them. They had once called themselves Mulla’dil, but their nation had been folded into the empire so long ago that few used the name. Strikers were a tall people with a lean musculature and pale skin. They had hair almost as dark as Shai’s, though theirs curled while hers lay straight and long. She tried with some success not to feel dwarfed by them. Her people, the MaiPon, were not known for their stature.
“You,” she said to the lead Striker as she walked at the front of the group. “I remember you.” Judging by that styled hair, the youthful captain did not often wear a helmet. Strikers were well regarded by the Grands, and their Elevation was not unheard of. This one had a look of eagerness to him. That polished armor, that crisp air. Yes, he fancied himself bound for important things in the future.
“The horse,” Shai said. “You threw me over the back of your horse after I was captured. Tall animal, Gurish descent, pure white. Good animal. You know your horseflesh.”
The Striker kept his eyes forward, but whispered under his breath, “I’m going to enjoy killing you, woman.”
Lovely, Shai thought as they entered the Imperial Wing of the palace. The stonework here was marvelous, after the ancient Lamio style, with tall pillars of marble inlaid with reliefs. Those large urns between the pillars had been created to mimic Lamio pottery from long ago.
Actually, she reminded herself, the Heritage Faction still rules, so…
The emperor would be from that faction, as would the council of five arbiters who did much of the actual ruling. Their faction lauded the glory and learning of past cultures, even going so far as to rebuild their wing of the palace as an imitation of an ancient building. Shai suspected that on the bottoms of those “ancient” urns would be soulstamps that had transformed them into perfect imitations of famous pieces.
Yes, the Grands called Shai’s powers an abomination, but the only aspect of it that was technically illegal was creating a Forgery to change a person. Quiet Forgery of objects was allowed, even exploited, in the empire so long as the Forger was carefully controlled. If someone were to turn over one of those urns and remove the stamp on the bottom, the piece would become simple unornamented pottery.
The Strikers led her to a door with gold inlay. As it opened, she managed to catch a glimpse of the red soulstamp on the bottom inside edge, transforming the door into an imitation of some work from the past. The guards ushered her into a homey room with a crackling hearth, deep rugs, and stained wood furnishings. Fifth century hunting lodge, she guessed.
All five arbiters of the Heritage Faction waited inside. Three—two women, one man—sat in tall-backed chairs at the hearth. One other woman occupied the desk just inside the doors: Frava, senior among the arbiters of the Heritage Faction, was probably the most powerful person in the empire other than Emperor Ashravan himself. Her greying hair was woven into a long braid with gold and red ribbons; it draped a robe of matching gold. Shai had long pondered how to rob this woman, as—among her duties—Frava oversaw the Imperial Gallery and had offices adjacent to it.
Frava had obviously been arguing with Gaotona, the elderly male Grand standing beside the desk. He stood up straight and clasped his hands behind his back in a thoughtful pose. Gaotona was eldest of the ruling arbiters. He was said to be the least influential among them, out of favor with the emperor.
Both fell silent as Shai entered. They eyed her as if she were a cat that had just knocked over a fine vase. Shai missed her spectacles, but took care not to squint as she stepped up to face these people; she needed to look as strong as possible.
“Wan ShaiLu,” Frava said, reaching to pick up a sheet of paper from the desk. “You have quite the list of crimes credited to your name.”
The way you say that… What game was this woman playing? She wants something of me, Shai decided. That is the only reason to bring me in like this.
The opportunity began to unfold.
“Impersonating a noblewoman of rank,” Frava continued, “breaking into the palace’s Imperial Gallery, reForging your soul, and of course the attempted theft of the Moon Scepter. Did you really assume that we would fail to recognize a simple forgery of such an important imperial possession?”
Apparently, Shai thought, you have done just that, assuming that the Fool escaped with the original. It gave Shai a little thrill of satisfaction to know that her forgery now occupied the Moon Scepter’s position of honor in the Imperial Gallery.
“And what of this?” Frava said, waving long fingers for one of the Strikers to bring something from the side of the room. A painting, which the guard placed on the desk. Han ShuXen’s masterpiece Lily of the Spring Pond.
“We found this in your room at the inn,” Frava said, tapping her fingers on the painting. “It is a copy of a painting I myself own, one of the most famous in the empire. We gave it to our assessors, and they judge that your forgery was amateur at best.”
Shai met the woman’s eyes.
“Tell me why you have created this forgery,” Frava said, leaning forward. “You were obviously planning to swap this for the painting in my office by the Imperial Gallery. And yet, you were striving for the Moon Scepter itself. Why plan to steal the painting too? Greed?”
“My uncle Won,” Shai said, “told me to always have a backup plan. I couldn’t be certain the scepter would even be on display.”
“Ah…” Frava said. She adopted an almost maternal expression, though it was laden with loathing—hidden poorly—and condescension. “You requested arbiter intervention in your execution, as most prisoners do. I decided on a whim to agree to your request because I was curious why you had created this painting.” She shook her head. “But child, you can’t honestly believe we’d let you free. With sins like this? You are in a monumentally bad predicament, and our mercy can only be extended so far…”
Shai glanced toward the other arbiters. The ones seated near the fireplace seemed to be paying no heed, but they did not speak to one another. They were listening. Something is wrong, Shai thought. They’re worried.
Gaotona still stood just to the side. He inspected Shai with eyes that betrayed no emotion.
Frava’s manner had the air of one scolding a small child. The lingering end of her comment was intended to make Shai hope for release. Together, that was meant to make her pliable, willing to agree to anything in the hope that she’d be freed.
An opportunity indeed…
It was time to take control of this conversation.
“You want something from me,” Shai said. “I’m ready to discuss my payment.”
“Your payment?” Frava asked. “Girl, you are to be executed on the morrow! If we did wish something of you, the payment would be your life.”
“My life is my own,” Shai said. “And it has been for days now.”
“Please,” Frava said. “You were locked in the Forger’s cell, with thirty different kinds of stone in the wall.”
“Forty-four kinds, actually.”
Gaotona raised an appreciative eyebrow.
Nights! I’m glad I got that right…
Shai glanced at Gaotona. “You thought I wouldn’t recognize the grindstone, didn’t you? Please. I’m a Forger. I learned stone classification during my first year of training. That block was obviously from the Laio quarry.”
Frava opened her mouth to speak, a slight smile to her lips.
“Yes, I know about the plates of ralkalest, the unForgeable metal, hidden behind the rock wall of my cell,” Shai guessed. “The wall was a puzzle, meant to distract me. You wouldn’t actually make a cell out of rocks like limestone, just in case a prisoner gave up on Forgery and tried to chip their way free. You built the wall, but secured it with a plate of ralkalest at the back to cut off escape.”
Frava snapped her mouth shut.
“The problem with ralkalest,” Shai said, “is that it’s not a very strong metal. Oh, the grate at the top of my cell was solid enough, and I couldn’t have gotten through that. But a thin plate? Really. Have you heard of anthracite?”
“It is a rock that burns,” Gaotona said.
“You gave me a candle,” Shai said, reaching into the small of her back. She tossed her makeshift wooden soulstamp onto the desk. “All I had to do was Forge the wall and persuade the stones that they’re anthracite—not a difficult task, once I knew the forty-four types of rock. I could burn them, and they’d melt that plate behind the wall.”
Shai pulled over a chair, seating herself before the desk. She leaned back. Behind her, the captain of the Strikers growled softly, but Frava drew her lips to a line and said nothing. Shai let her muscles relax, and she breathed a quiet prayer to the Unknown God.
Nights! It looked like they’d actually bought it. She’d worried they’d know enough of Forgery to see through her lie.
“I was going to escape tonight,” Shai said, “but whatever it is you want me to do must be important, as you’re willing to involve a miscreant like myself. And so we come to my payment.”
“I could still have you executed,” Frava said. “Right now. Here.”
“But you won’t, will you?”
Frava set her jaw.
“I warned you that she would be difficult to manipulate,” Gaotona said to Frava. Shai could tell she’d impressed him, but at the same time, his eyes seemed… sorrowful? Was that the right emotion? She found this aged man as difficult to read as a book in Svordish.
Frava raised a finger, then swiped it to the side. A servant approached with a small, cloth-wrapped box. Shai’s heart leaped upon seeing it.
The man clicked the latches open on the front and raised the top. The case was lined with soft cloth and inset with five depressions made to hold soulstamps. Each cylindrical stone stamp was as long as a finger and as wide as a large man’s thumb. The leather-bound notebook set in the case atop them was worn by long use; Shai breathed in a hint of its familiar scent.
They were called Essence Marks, the most powerful kind of soulstamp. Each Essence Mark had to be attuned to a specific individual, and was intended to rewrite their history, personality, and soul for a short time. These five were attuned to Shai.
“Five stamps to rewrite a soul,” Frava said. “Each is an abomination, illegal to possess. These Essence Marks were to be destroyed this afternoon. Even if you had escaped, you’d have lost these. How long does it take to create one?”
“Years,” Shai whispered.
There were no other copies. Notes and diagrams were too dangerous to leave, even in secret, as such things gave others too much insight to one’s soul. She never let these Essence Marks out of her sight, except on the rare occasion they were taken from her.
“You will accept these as payment?” Frava asked, lips turned down, as if discussing a meal of slime and rotted meat.
Frava nodded, and the servant snapped the case closed. “Then let me show you what you are to do.”
Shai had never met an emperor before, let alone poked one in the face.
Emperor Ashravan of the Eighty Suns—forty-ninth ruler of the Rose Empire—did not respond as Shai prodded him. He stared ahead blankly, his round cheeks rosy and hale, but his expression completely lifeless.
“What happened?” Shai asked, straightening from beside the emperor’s bed. It was in the style of the ancient Lamio people, with a headboard shaped like a phoenix rising toward heaven. She’d seen a sketch of such a headboard in a book; likely the Forgery had been drawn from that source.
“Assassins,” Arbiter Gaotona said. He stood on the other side of the bed, alongside two surgeons. Of the Strikers, only their captain—Zu—had been allowed to enter. “The murderers broke in two nights ago, attacking the emperor and his wife. She was slain. The emperor received a crossbow bolt to the head.”
“That considered,” Shai noted, “he’s looking remarkable.”
“You are familiar with resealing?” Gaotona asked.
“Vaguely,” Shai said. Her people called it Flesh Forgery. Using it, a surgeon of great skill could Forge a body to remove its wounds and scars. It required great specialization. The Forger had to know each and every sinew, each vein and muscle, in order to accurately heal.
Resealing was one of the few branches of Forgery that Shai hadn’t studied in depth. Get an ordinary forgery wrong, and you created a work of poor artistic merit. Get a Flesh Forgery wrong, and people died.
“Our resealers are the best in the world,” Frava said, walking around the foot of the bed, hands behind her back. “The emperor was attended to quickly following the assassination attempt. The wound to his head was healed, but…”
“But his mind was not?” Shai asked, waving her hand in front of the man’s face again. “It doesn’t sound like they did a very good job at all.”
One of the surgeons cleared his throat. The diminutive man had ears like window shutters that had been thrown open wide on a sunny day. “Resealing repairs a body and makes it anew. That, however, is much like rebinding a book with fresh paper following a fire. Yes, it may look exactly the same, and it may be whole all the way through. The words, though… the words are gone. We have given the emperor a new brain. It is merely empty.”
“Huh,” Shai said. “Did you find out who tried to kill him?”
The five arbiters exchanged glances. Yes, they knew.
“We are not certain,” Gaotona said.
“Meaning,” Shai added, “you know, but you couldn’t prove it well enough to make an accusation. One of the other factions in court, then?”
Gaotona sighed. “The Glory Faction.”
Shai whistled softly, but it did make sense. If the emperor died, there was a good chance that the Glory Faction would win a bid to elevate his successor. At forty, Emperor Ashravan was young still, by Grand standards. He had been expected to rule another fifty years.
If he were replaced, the five arbiters in this room would lose their positions—which, by imperial politics, would be a huge blow to their status. They’d drop from being the most powerful people in the world to being among the lowest of the empire’s eighty factions.
“The assassins did not survive their attack,” Frava said. “The Glory Faction does not yet know whether their ploy succeeded. You are going to replace the emperor’s soul with…” She took a deep breath. “With a Forgery.”
They’re crazy, Shai thought. Forging one’s own soul was difficult enough, and you didn’t have to rebuild it from the ground up.
The arbiters had no idea what they were asking. But of course they didn’t. They hated Forgery, or so they claimed. They walked on imitation floor tiles past copies of ancient vases, they let their surgeons repair a body, but they didn’t call any of these things “Forgery” in their own tongue.
The Forgery of the soul, that was what they considered an abomination. Which meant Shai really was their only choice. No one in their own government would be capable of this. She probably wasn’t either.
“Can you do it?” Gaotona asked.
I have no idea, Shai thought. “Yes,” she said.
“It will need to be an exact Forgery,” Frava said sternly. “If the Glory Faction has any inkling of what we’ve done, they will pounce. The emperor must not act erratically.”
“I said I could do it,” Shai replied. “But it will be difficult. I will need information about Ashravan and his life, everything we can get. Official histories will be a start, but they’ll be too sterile. I will need extensive interviews and writings about him from those who knew him best. Servants, friends, family members. Did he have a journal?”
“Yes,” Gaotona said.
“Those documents are sealed,” said one of the other arbiters. “He wanted them destroyed…”
Everyone in the room looked toward the man. He swallowed, then looked down.
“You shall have everything you request,” Frava said.
“I’ll need a test subject as well,” Shai said. “Someone to test my Forgeries on. A Grand, male, someone who was around the emperor a lot and who knew him. That will let me see if I have the personality right.” Nights! Getting the personality right would be secondary. Getting a stamp that actually took… that would be the first step. She wasn’t certain she could manage even that much. “And I’ll need soulstone, of course.”
Frava regarded Shai, arms folded.
“You can’t possibly expect me to do this without soulstone,” Shai said drily. “I could carve a stamp out of wood, if I had to, but your goal will be difficult enough as it is. Soulstone. Lots of it.”
“Fine,” Frava said. “But you will be watched these three months. Closely.”
“Three months?” Shai said. “I’m planning for this to take at least two years.”
“You have a hundred days,” Frava said. “Actually, ninety-eight, now.”
“The official explanation for why the emperor hasn’t been seen these last two days,” said one of the other arbiters, “is that he’s been in mourning for the death of his wife. The Glory Faction will assume we are scrambling to buy time following the emperor’s death. Once the hundred days of isolation are finished, they will demand that Ashravan present himself to the court. If he does not, we are finished.”
And so are you, the woman’s tone implied.
“I will need gold for this,” Shai said. “Take what you’re thinking I’ll demand and double it. I will walk out of this country rich.”
“Done,” Frava said.
Too easy, Shai thought. Delightful. They were planning to kill her once this was done.
Well, that gave her ninety-eight days to find a way out. “Get me those records,” she said. “I’ll need a place to work, plenty of supplies, and my things back.” She held up a finger before they could complain. “Not my Essence Marks, but everything else. I’m not going to work for three months in the same clothing I’ve been wearing while in prison. And, as I consider it, have someone draw me a bath immediately.”
The next day—bathed, well fed, and well rested for the first time since her capture—Shai received a knock at her door. They’d given her a room. It was tiny, probably the most drab in the entire palace, and it smelled faintly of mildew. They had still posted guards to watch her all night, of course, and—from her memory of the layout of the vast palace—she was in one of the least frequented wings, one used mostly for storage.
Still, it was better than a cell. Barely.
At the knock, Shai looked up from her inspection of the room’s old cedar table. It probably hadn’t seen an oiling cloth in longer than Shaihad been alive. One of her guards opened the door, letting in the elderly Arbiter Gaotona. He carried a box two handspans wide and a couple of inches deep.
Shai rushed over, drawing a glare from Captain Zu, who stood beside the arbiter. “Keep your distance from His Grace,” Zu growled.
“Or what?” Shai asked, taking the box. “You’ll stab me?”
“Someday, I will enjoy—”
“Yes, yes,” Shai said, walking back to her table and flipping open the box’s lid. Inside were eighteen soulstamps, their heads smooth and
unetched. She felt a thrill and picked one up, holding it out and inspecting it.
She had her spectacles back now, so no more squinting. She also wore clothing far more fitting than that dingy dress. A flat, red, calf-length skirt and buttoned blouse. Th e Grands would consider it unfashionable, as among them, ancient-looking robes or wraps were the current style. Shai found those dreary. Under the blouse she wore a tight cotton shirt, and under the skirt she wore leggings. A lady never knew when she might need to ditch her outer layer of clothing to effect a disguise.
“This is good stone,” Shai said of the stamp in her fingers. She took out one of her chisels, which had a tip almost as fine as a pinhead, and began to scrape at the rock. It was good soulstone. The rock came away easily and precisely. Soulstone was almost as soft as chalk, but did not chip when scraped. You could carve it with high precision, and then set it with a flame and a mark on the top, which would harden it to a strength closer to quartz. The only way to get a better stamp was to carve one from crystal itself, which was incredibly difficult.
For ink, they had provided bright red squid’s ink, mixed with a small percentage of wax. Any fresh organic ink would work, though inks from animals were better than inks from plants.
“Did you… steal a vase from the hallway outside?” Gaotona asked,frowning toward an object sitting at the side of her small room. She’d snatched one of the vases on the way back from the bath. One of her guards had tried to interfere, but Shai had talked her way past the objection. That guard was now blushing.
“I was curious about the skills of your Forgers,” Shai said, setting down her tools and hauling the vase up onto the table. She turned it on its side, showing the bottom and the red seal imprinted into the clay there.
A Forger’s seal was easy to spot. It didn’t just imprint onto the object’s surface, it actually sank into the material, creating a depressed pattern of red troughs. The rim of the round seal was red as well, but raised, like an embossing.
You could tell a lot about a person from the way they designed their seals. This one, for example, had a sterile feel to it. No real art, which was a contrast to the minutely detailed and delicate beauty of the vase itself. Shai had heard that the Heritage Faction kept lines of half-trained Forgers working by rote, creating these pieces like rows of men making shoes in a factory.
“Our workers are not Forgers,” Gaotona said. “We don’t use that word. They are Rememberers.”
“It’s the same thing.”
“They don’t touch souls,” Gaotona said sternly. “Beyond that, what we do is in appreciation of the past, rather than with the aim of fooling or scamming people. Our reminders bring people to a greater understanding of their heritage.”
Shai raised an eyebrow. She took her mallet and chisel, then brought them down at an angle on the embossed rim of the vase’s seal. The seal resisted— there was a force to it, trying to stay in place—but the blow broke through. The rest of the seal popped up, troughs vanishing, the seal becoming simple ink and losing its powers.
The colors of the vase faded immediately, bleeding to plain grey, and its shape warped. A soulstamp didn’t just make visual changes, but rewrote an object’s history. Without the stamp, the vase was a horrid piece. Whoever had thrown it hadn’t cared about the end product. Perhaps they’d known it would be part of a Forgery. Shai shook her head and turned back to her work on the unfinished soulstamp. Th is wasn’t for the emperor—she wasn’t nearly ready for that yet—but carving helped her think.
Gaotona gestured for the guards to leave, all but Zu, who remained by his side. “You present a puzzle, Forger,” Gaotona said once the other two guards were gone, the door closed. He settled down in one of the two rickety wooden chairs. They—along with the splintery bed, the ancient table, and the trunk with her things—made up the room’s entire array of furniture. The single window had a warped frame that let in the breeze, and even the walls had cracks in them.
“A puzzle?” Shai asked, holding up the stamp before her, peering closely at her work. “What kind of puzzle?”
“You are a Forger. Therefore, you cannot be trusted without supervision. You will try to run the moment you think of a practicable escape.”
“So leave guards with me,” Shai said, carving some more.
“Pardon,” Gaotona said, “but I doubt it would take you long to bully, bribe, or blackmail them.”
Nearby, Zu stiffened.
“I meant no offense, Captain,” Gaotona said. “I have great confidence in your people, but what we have before us is a master trickster, liar, and thief. Your best guards would eventually become clay in her hands.”
“Thank you,” Shai said.
“It was not a compliment. What your type touches, it corrupts. I worried about leaving you alone even for one day under the supervision of mortal eyes. From what I know of you, you could nearly charm the gods themselves.”
She continued working.
“I cannot trust in manacles to hold you,” Gaotona said softly, “as we are required to give you soulstone so that you can work on our… problem. You would turn your manacles to soap, then escape in the night laughing.”
That statement, of course, betrayed a complete lack of understanding in how Forgery worked. A Forgery had to be likely—believable—otherwise it wouldn’t take. Who would make a chain out of soap? It would be ridiculous.
What she could do, however, was discover the chain’s origins and composition, then rewrite one or the other. She could Forge the chain’s past so that one of the links had been cast incorrectly, which would give her a flaw to exploit. Even if she could not find the chain’s exact history, she might be able to escape—an imperfect stamp would not take for long, but she’d only need a few moments to shatter the link with a mallet.
They could make a chain out of ralkalest, the unForgeable metal, but that would only delay her escape. With enough time, and soulstone, she would find a solution. Forging the wall to have a weak crack in it, so she could pull the chain free. Forging the ceiling to have a loose block,which she could let drop and shatter the weak ralkalest links.
She didn’t want to do something so extreme if she didn’t have to. “I don’t see that you need to worry about me,” Shai said, still working. “I am intrigued by what we are doing, and I’ve been promised wealth. Th at is enough to keep me here. Don’t forget, I could have escaped my previous cell at any time.”
“Ah yes,” Gaotona said. “The cell in which you would have used Forgery to get through the wall. Tell me, out of curiosity, have you studied anthracite? That rock you said you’d turn the wall into? I seem to recall that it is very difficult to make burn.”
This one is more clever than people give him credit for being.
A candle’s flame would have trouble igniting anthracite—on paper, the rock burned at the correct temperature, but getting an entire sample hot enough was very difficult. “I was fully capable of creating a proper kindling environment with some wood from my bunk and a few rocks turned into coal.”
“Without a kiln?” Gaotona said, sounding faintly amused. “With no bellows? But that is beside the point. Tell me, how were you planning to survive inside a cell where the wall was aflame at over two thousand degrees? Would not that kind of fire suck away all of the breathable air?Ah, but of course. You could have used your bed linens and transformed them into a poor conductor, perhaps glass, and made a shell for yourself to hide in.”
Shai continued her carving, uncomfortable. The way he said that… Yes, he knew that she could not have done what he described. Most Grands were ignorant about the ways of Forgery, and this man certainly still was, but he did know enough to realize she couldn’t have escaped as she said. No more than bed linens could become glass.
Beyond that, making the entire wall into another type of rock would have been difficult. She would have had to change too many things—rewritten history so that the quarries for each type of stone were near deposits of anthracite, and so that in each case, a block of the burnable rock was quarried by mistake. That was a huge stretch, an almost impossible one, particularly without specific knowledge of the quarries in question.
Plausibility was key to any forgery, magical or not. People whispered of Forgers turning lead into gold, never realizing that the reverse was far, far easier. Inventing a history for a bar of gold where somewhere along the line, someone had adulterated it with lead… well, that was a plausible lie. The reverse would be so unlikely that a stamp to make that transformation would not take for long.
“You impress me, Your Grace,” Shai finally said. “You think like a Forger.”
Gaotona’s expression soured.
“That,” she noted, “was meant as a compliment.”
“I value truth, young woman. Not Forgery.” He regarded her with the expression of a disappointed grand father. “I have seen the work of your hands. That copied painting you did… it was remarkable. Yet it was accomplished in the name of lies. What great works could you create if you focused on industry and beauty instead of wealth and deception?”
“What I do is great art.”
“No. You copy other people’s great art. What you do is technically marvelous, yet completely lacking in spirit.”
She almost slipped in her carving, hands growing tense. How dare he? Threatening to execute her was one thing, but insulting her art? He made her sound like… like one of those assembly-line Forgers, churning out vase after vase!
She calmed herself with difficulty, then plastered on a smile. Her aunt Sol had once told Shai to smile at the worst insults and snap at the minor ones. That way, no man would know your heart.
“So how am I to be kept in line?” she asked. “We have established that I am among the most vile wretches to slither through the halls of this palace. You cannot bind me and you cannot trust your own soldiers to guard me.”
“Well,” Gaotona said, “whenever possible, I personally will observe your work.”
She would have preferred Frava— that one seemed as if she’d be easier to manipulate—but this was workable. “If you wish,” Shai said. “Much of it will be boring to one who does not understand Forgery.”
“I am not interested in being entertained,” Gaotona said, waving one hand to Captain Zu. “Whenever I am here, Captain Zu will guard me. He is the only one of our Strikers to know the extent of the emperor’s injury, and only he knows of our plan with you. Other guards will watch you during the rest of the day, and you are not to speak to them of your task. Th ere will be no rumors of what we do.”
“You don’t need to worry about me talking,” Shai said, truthfully for once. “The more people who know of a Forgery, the more likely it is to fail.” Besides, she thought, if I told the guards, you’d undoubtedly execute them to preserve your secrets. She didn’t like Strikers, but she liked the empire less, and the guards were really just another kind of slave. Shai wasn’t in the business of getting people killed for no reason.
“Excellent,” Gaotona said. “The second method of insuring your… attention to your project waits outside. If you would, good Captain?”
Zu opened the door. A cloaked figure stood with the guards. Th e figure stepped into the room; his walk was lithe, but somehow unnatural. After Zu closed the door, the figure removed his hood, revealing a face with milky white skin and red eyes.
Shai hissed softly through her teeth. “And you call what I do an abomination?”
Gaotona ignored her, standing up from his chair to regard the newcomer. “Tell her.”
The newcomer rested long white fingers on her door, inspecting it. “I will place the rune here,” he said in an accented voice. “If she leaves this room for any reason, or if she alters the rune or the door, I will know. My pets will come for her.”
Shai shivered. She glared at Gaotona. “A Bloodsealer. You invited a Bloodsealer into your palace?”
“This one has proven himself an asset recently,” Gaotona said. “He is loyal and he is discreet. He is also very effective. There are… times when one must accept the aid of darkness in order to contain a greater darkness.”
Shai hissed softly again as the Bloodsealer removed something from within his robes. A crude soulstamp created from a bone. His “pets” would also be bone, Forgeries of human life crafted from the skeletons of the dead.
The Bloodsealer looked to her.
Shai backed away. “Surely you don’t expect—”
Zu took her by the arms. Nights, but he was strong. She panicked. Her Essence Marks! She needed her Essence Marks! With those, she could fight, escape, run…
Zu cut her along the back of her arm. She barely felt the shallow wound, but she struggled anyway. The Bloodsealer stepped up and inked his horrid tool in Shai’s blood. He then turned and pressed the stamp against the center of her door.
When he withdrew his hand, he left a glowing red seal in the wood. It was shaped like an eye. The moment he marked the seal, Shai felt a sharp pain in her arm, where she’d been cut.
Shai gasped, eyes wide. Never had any person dared do such a thing to her. Almost better that she had been executed! Almost better that—
Control yourself, she told herself forcibly. Become someone who can deal with this.
She took a deep breath and let herself become someone else. An imitation of herself who was calm, even in a situation like this. It was a crude forgery, just a trick of the mind, but it worked.
She shook herself free from Zu, then accepted the kerchief Gaotona handed her. She glared at the Bloodsealer as the pain in her arm faded. He smiled at her with lips that were white and faintly translucent, like the skin of a maggot. He nodded to Gaotona before replacing his hood and stepping out of the room, closing the door after.
Shai forced herself to breathe evenly, calming herself. There was no subtlety to what the Bloodsealer did; they didn’t traffic in subtlety. Instead of skill or artistry, they used tricks and blood. However, their craft was effective. The man would know if Shai left the room, and he had her fresh blood on his stamp, which was attuned to her. With that, his undead pets would be able to hunt her no matter where she ran.
Gaotona settled back down in his chair. “You know what will happen if you flee?”
Shai glared at Gaotona.
“You now realize how desperate we are,” he said softly, lacing his fingers before him. “If you do run, we will give you to the Bloodsealer. Your bones will become his next pet. This promise was all he requested in payment. You may begin your work, Forger. Do it well, and you will escape this fate.”
Work she did.
Shai began digging through accounts of the emperor’s life. Few people understood how much Forgery was about study and research. It was an art any man or woman could learn; it required only a steady hand and an eye for detail.
That and a willingness to spend weeks, months, even years preparing the ideal soulstamp.
Shai didn’t have years. She felt rushed as she read biography after biography, often staying up well into the night taking notes. She did not believe that she could do what they asked of her. Creating a believable Forgery of another man’s soul, particularly in such a short time, just wasn’t possible. Unfortunately, she had to make a good show of it while she planned her escape.
They didn’t let her leave the room. She used a chamber pot when nature called, and for baths she was allowed a tub of warm water and cloths. She was under supervision at all times, even when bathing.
That Bloodsealer came each morning to renew his mark on the door. Each time, the act required a little blood from Shai. Her arms were soon laced with shallow cuts.
All the while, Gaotona visited. The ancient arbiter studied her as she read, watching with those eyes that judged… but also did not hate.
As she formulated her plans, she decided one thing: Getting free would probably require manipulating this man in some way.