Pyrre Lakatur is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer—she is a priestess. At least, she will be once she passes her final trial.
The problem isn’t the killing. The problem, rather, is love. For to complete her trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the seven people enumerated in an ancient song, including “the one who made your mind and body sing with love / who will not come again.”
Pyrre isn’t sure she’s ever been in love. And if she fails to find someone who can draw such passion from her, or fails to kill that someone, her order will give her to their god, the God of Death. Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to fail, and so, as her trial is set to begin, she returns to the city of her birth in the hope of finding love … and ending it on the edge of her sword.
Brian Staveley’s new standalone novel, Skullsworn, returns to the critically acclaimed Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne universe, following a priestess-assassin for the God of Death—publishing April 25th from Tor Books. Read Chapter 2 below, or click here to start with the Prologue.
I consider the whole episode a blessing,” Ela announced as we made our way south through the chaos on the causeway.
Kossal nodded. “The god’s ways are strange.”
“I’m not talking about the god,” Ela replied, then glanced over at me slyly. “I’m talking about Pyrre’s fashion sense.”
“In that case, leave me out,” the priest said, not breaking stride despite the press of human bodies churning around us.
Some people were shoving frantically toward the site of the disaster, shouting the names of loved ones over and over. Others were just as eager to get away, to get off the causeway entirely. Kossal moved through the throng as though he were alone, sliding through the gaps, moving aside troublesome bodies with the occasional well-placed blow to the knee or rib. Faced with one particularly vexing scrum, he toppled a man over the railing, ignored the scream, then moved smoothly through the newly vacated space. We were gone, dissolved into the crowd, before anyone understood what had happened.
“Don’t be coy,” Ela said, narrowing her eyes at the priest. “You’re just as eager for her to find love as I am.”
“What I am eager for,” Kossal replied, dropping a screaming woman with a quick blow of his wooden flute, then stepping over her body, “is a quiet room and a strong drink. Panic gives me a headache.”
Ela shook her head, turned back to me. “He’s hopeless,” she confided. “Wouldn’t know romance if it slipped a warm finger up his ass. But you can trust me when I tell you that this”—she gestured the length of my body as though showing me off to the crowd—“is a massive improvement on those baggy trousers you were wearing earlier.”
“I’m pantsless,” I replied, “and covered in mud.”
Not that anyone seemed to have noticed. Half a mile behind us, hundreds of people were dying in the delta. Dying or already dead. On another day, the sight of a mud-smeared woman striding down the causeway in her drawers, knives strapped to her arms and thighs, would have caused people to stop and gawk. Today I was a sideshow at best; one of the disaster’s least interesting casualties.
“I’ll take muddy and pantsless over soggy and betrousered,” Ela replied. “No one was going to look at you twice in what you were wearing earlier.”
“I thought we weren’t supposed to be noticed.”
Ela tsked. “You’ve been listening to Kossal too much. Just because he’s old doesn’t mean he knows everything.”
Three men in chain mail and green tabards shouldered past us, cursing loudly at the crowd to make way as they forced their way north, toward the site of the collapse. Each wore a short sword at his hip, but for the moment they’d left them sheathed, using heavy truncheons to bull a path through the throng.
“Greenshirts,” I murmured. “Arriving too late, as usual.”
Ela narrowed her eyes. “The city constables?”
“I thought the uniforms looked familiar,” she said. “I gave two of them to the god the last time I was here.”
A dozen more soldiers trailed behind the vanguard, sweating and cursing in the noonday heat—the Greenshirts maintained way stations every ten miles along the causeway and patrolled the entire length. They were hardly a formidable force—the order had been all but gutted after the Annurian invasion two hundred years earlier—but the sight of them made my stomach clench all the same. We tell children they will grow into adults one day, but that’s not quite true. The child never goes away, not fully. The girl I had been, the filthy-faced Weir-rat who grew up prowling Dombâng’s more stagnant channels, cringed at the sight of these grown men, men I could now have given to the god in a hundred different ways. I found myself walking faster, averting my eyes, feeling acutely my almost-nakedness as they passed.
“Perhaps I should have a word with them,” Ela mused. “I don’t like to be critical, but someone really ought to check on the causeway from time to time. Make sure it’s not going to fall over.”
“They do,” I said. “There’s a whole division of Greenshirts tasked with checking the pilings.”
Kossal glanced over. “Not very good at it.”
“They don’t have enough men to patrol the full length.”
“How many men do you need to watch wood rot?”
I shook my head. “Not rot. Sabotage.”
Ela raised an eyebrow. “Sabotage? How delightful! I was having trouble getting excited about rot.”
“How do you feel about sedition?”
She shrugged. “More interested.”
“They’re still at it?” Kossal asked, frowning. “Annur conquered the city, what, two hundred years ago?”
“A little more.”
“Seems like enough time for the local religious zealots to realize they’ve lost.”
I glanced over at the old priest. “How much time would it take you?”
“Give up on your god?”
He met my gaze. “I’ll give up on Ananshael when creatures stop dying.”
Before I could respond, a cry sliced through the noise behind us. We’d finally managed to break free from the densest part of the press, and when I looked over my shoulder, I could see that half a dozen Greenshirts had doubled back, sweaty faces grim as they scanned the crowd. They’d put away their truncheons and drawn swords instead, which didn’t seem like a promising development. A pace ahead of them, fingers leveled directly at me, strode the man and woman whom I’d helped climb up onto the broken causeway, the friends of Bin and Vo.
“Her!” they screamed in unison. Through some musical fluke, their voices were a perfect octave apart. The man broke into a run. “She’s the murderer.”
“Murderer,” Ela said, shaking her head. “Such a distasteful word.”
Kossal blew out an irritated breath. “Should have tossed them to the crocs along with their friends.”
“I didn’t think they noticed,” I replied, my stomach turning over inside of me.
It sounded ludicrous when I put the thought into words, but the two of them hadn’t been looking at me when I threw the knives. They’d been panicked, screaming. The scene below was a maelstrom of blood, and mud, and violence. The open jaws of a croc are a lot more obvious than the hilt of a knife tucked discreetly against a chest, and neither of the two survivors had so much as glanced over at me as their friends fell. They had seemed thoroughly lost in their own grief and disbelief.
Kossal, Ela, and I had left them to their unquiet vigil. We’d managed to follow the railing the length of the downed span, leaping the smashed-open gaps, balancing carefully where there was only one rail, mindful that a misstep would drop us back into the mud and rushes below, where people were still fighting for their lives. Fighting and losing, mostly. When we reached the point where our section had torn away, we found hundreds clustered at the jagged lip of the causeway above. Most were just shouting and gesturing uselessly, but a few had contrived to lower a rope. Kossal went up first, then me, then Ela, folded parasol swinging gaily from the strap of her pack. Of the man and woman we’d left on the fallen causeway, there was no sign.
Evidently, they’d caught up.
The man’s face was twisted with rage and grief, but something about the sight of us made him pause, shrink back into the knot of Greenshirts that surged up around him. I couldn’t believe that we appeared all that intimidating. I had a lot of knives, sure, but I looked like I’d just escaped from a whorehouse through the privy. Ela was twirling her folded parasol around one finger while Kossal grimaced, tapping his flute against his palm.
“The god is greedy today,” he muttered.
I shook my head, smoothed my sweating palms down the front of my filthy shirt. “We can’t kill them.”
“Six constables and two traumatized idiots?” the priest asked, raising a bushy eyebrow. “Even Ela ought to be able to manage that.”
“What about six constables, two traumatized idiots, and a worn-out old priest?” she asked, stabbing at his side with the point of her parasol. He parried the attack casually without taking his eyes from the Greenshirts, who were advancing down the causeway more slowly now, twenty paces distant. The leader, a short, square man, was eyeing us warily. His hand flexed on the grip of his sword.
“I’ve already begun my Trial,” I reminded him. “I can’t kill anyone not described in the song.”
“You’ve had a busy morning,” Kossal replied. “We’ll take care of it.”
“There are a hundred people on this bridge,” I hissed, “watching us right now. If you give them to the god, the Greenshirts will be hunting us the whole time we’re in Dombâng. We’ll spend the entire time hiding in attics.”
Kossal shrugged. “Attics are quiet.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head furiously. “I need the Greenshirts.”
I’d spent well over a month with Kossal and Ela since leaving Rassambur. We’d talked about everything from blackberry jam to garrotes, but I had avoided any mention of my plans for Dombâng or the Trial. Partly, that was because I was still working through the details. More importantly, though, I was afraid to say the words aloud, afraid that translating thought into speech would destroy it, that my hopes, buoyed up like jellyfish in my mind’s depths, would wither and collapse if I dragged them out into the air. Which meant I’d never mentioned the fact that the Greenshirts were crucial to all my plans.
Kossal raised a questioning eyebrow, but there was no time to explain. Fortunately, Ela came to my rescue.
“No attics,” she said, shaking her head. “I came for the wine and the dancing.”
“You’re welcome to start dancing,” Kossal said, gesturing toward the approaching men.
“Just let me handle it,” I said, shoving more confidence into my voice than I felt.
It was a strange and unsettling feeling, not to be able to rely on my knives. Since leaving Dombâng as a child, I had moved through the world comforted by the knowledge that my god was always behind me, silent and invisible, but infinitely patient, always just over my shoulder, waiting to unmake anyone I marked with one of my knives. The day’s slaughter on the causeway provided ample proof that he had not disappeared—he was all around us, going about his inscrutable work—but suddenly, due to the strictures of my Trial, he was utterly beyond my call. Despite the crowd, despite Kossal and Ela at my back, I felt alone.
As I moved down the causeway toward the Greenshirts, I tried to emulate Ela’s nonchalant grace. It didn’t come easily. For as long as I could remember, I’d found a confidence in fighting, in the feel of my knives in my hands, in the knowledge of my own mastery. Denied those knives, I felt lumbering and awkward. It didn’t help that instead of a silk ki-pan, I was wearing a pair of muddy drawers and a torn shirt.
You’re a victim, I told myself, just like everyone else. You’re terrified and confused.
That role, too, was something I thought I’d left behind when I quit Dombâng. I did not relish stepping into it once more.
“Stop there,” said the leader of the Greenshirts, leveling his sword at me when I was still two paces away. “No closer.”
I ignored him, turning to my accusers instead, opening my arms as I stepped closer. “You survived!”
The mud-covered man was ready for a fight or a chase; he had no idea what to do with my sudden embrace.
“Thank Intarra!” I exclaimed, burying my face in his shoulder. I could feel his hands on me, trying to push me away as I pulled him closer. “You survived,” I murmured again, surprised to find tears in my eyes.
“Get off of me,” he insisted, finally managing to shove me away.
The Greenshirts stood in a loose cordon around us. They held their swords as though unsure whether to swing or sheathe them.
“What the fuck’s going on?” their leader demanded, stepping forward, lowering his weapon at last.
“It was horrible,” I said, turning to him, trying to pitch my voice somewhere between harried and imploring. “Horrible. We tried to fight, but the crocs, they were too strong.”
“She killed them,” the man said, staring at me.
“I tried,” I moaned, turning back to him. “I had one of those beasts by the jaws. I left two knives in his back, but it didn’t matter.…”
“Not the croc,” he spat. “Bin and Vo! You fucking murdered them.”
I tested out a baffled stare. “What? Why…”
“What’s with the knives?” the Greenshirt demanded, studying the sheaths warily.
“We are traveling performers,” Ela said, stepping brightly into the conversation, laying a placating hand on the Greenshirt’s wrist. She was wearing doeskin gloves, I realized, although in the moment I didn’t understand why.
The soldier yanked away, and Ela let him go, shaking her head sadly, turning to the next man. “We were walking just a few paces behind these two when the causeway collapsed.” She managed a shudder that looked entirely real, began to faint, and crumpled into the arms of one of the other Greenshirts, who caught her awkwardly, dropping his sword in the process. A second soldier came to his aid. I glanced down the causeway to find Kossal sitting on the railing a dozen paces distant, looking half bored, half irritated.
I turned back to the leader of the Greenshirts.
“They saved us,” I said. “The two who died. The woman—I think her name was Bin—she held off the crocs with a stick. They saved us.…”
“Then why did you kill them?” the woman wailed. She looked even worse than I did, her flimsy clothes soaked, shredded. Blood washed half her face, carving runnels through the drying mud.
I shook my head, spread my hands. “I don’t know why you keep saying that.”
Ela draped a comforting arm around the woman’s shoulders. “Sometimes there is no one to blame,” she murmured, stroking her hair. “Sometimes people just die. Sanni,” she said, nodding toward me, “did everything she could. We all did.”
The woman stared, eyes blank as the sky.
The man stepped toward me, lips drawn back in a rictus.
“I know what I saw.”
The Greenshirt looked from the man to me, then back again. “What did you see?”
“She threw her knives! She murdered Bin and Vo.”
I turned to confront the soldier myself. “I did throw the knives, but not at his friends. I was in the mud, fighting for my life. Why would I kill the woman who was helping to hold back the crocs?”
“She threw her knives at the croc,” Ela confirmed.
The Greenshirt grimaced, obviously searching for a way out of the situation. “Maybe you missed? Hit his friends by accident?”
I shook my head. “I’ve been throwing knives since I was five. The croc was the size of a boat and three paces away. I didn’t miss.”
The mud-smeared man leveled a finger at my face. “You’re a murderer.”
He kept saying that, as though all other thoughts had escaped him.
Ela interposed herself, laid a comforting hand on his chest. He knocked it away, but suddenly I understood.
I turned back to the Greenshirt. “Look. It’s madness out here. There are still people stuck in the delta who need help.”
“She’s trying to get away,” the woman insisted.
I shook my head again. “We’ll wait right here. Leave someone to watch us, but for the love of Intarra, send the rest of your men north. This tragedy isn’t finished.”
The soldier studied me for a moment, jaw tight, then nodded abruptly. “Von, Thun, Quon. Keep them here. I don’t want anyone moving until I’m back. If they move, kill them. When I get back, we’ll bring them to the Shipwreck and figure it out there.”
“What did we do?” demanded the mud-spattered man. “They’re the fucking killers!”
“And if they are,” the Greenshirt snapped, “then they’ll face Annur’s justice when this is all finished.”
Ela raised a conciliatory hand. “I, for one, am happy to wait.” She settled on the railing, oblivious to the drop at her back. “Kossal,” she said, motioning toward him imperiously. “Get over here.” As the old priest stomped down the causeway toward us, she stripped the gloves from her hands, laid them carefully on the railing. “So much death,” she said, shaking her head regretfully. “So much senseless death.”
The sun had barely budged in the sky before Thun collapsed. The soldier, who had been watching us fastidiously, suddenly lowered his sword, put a hand to his chest, winced, then fell over. Von knelt beside him, gave him a confused shove, then, when the man didn’t respond, put down his sword, tried to revive him with increasingly desperate entreaties, then slumped to the boards himself, pained puzzlement traced across his features. The rest were dead within a hundred heartbeats.
“Well,” Ela said brightly, getting to her feet. “I guess that settles that.”
“Itiriol?” I asked, studying the corpses.
She smiled. “And here everyone in Rassambur told me you were only good with your blades.”
I glanced over at the calfskin gloves. “The powder doesn’t soak through the leather?”
“Eventually.” She shrugged. “It’s not a good idea to dawdle.”
Kossal straightened up irritably. “There were faster ways to do that.”
“More obvious ways,” Ela countered. “Ways that would be remembered.” She nodded toward the people swarming over the causeway. A few glanced in our direction, but by this point the wooden bridge was packed with the bleeding and terrified, the exhausted and distraught. A few people lying down by the railing were hardly worth noticing. “This way we can still stay in a nice inn,” she added, “instead of holed up in an attic with the bats.” She looked at me appraisingly for a moment, rummaged in her pack, then tossed me a tightly rolled ki-pan. “As much as I appreciate the legs-and-knives look, maybe you should wear something a little less conspicuous, at least until we get into the city.”
We reached Mad Trent’s Mountain after dark. Like the causeway itself, the massive elevated platform was a legacy of the Annurian invasion. A quarter mile from Dombâng’s northwestern edge, the wooden road, which had run spear-straight and dead flat for so many miles, began to climb gradually, the pilings growing longer, the scaffolding more complex as the delta dropped away below. The huge structure is comprehensively misnamed: a wooden scaffold (many times repaired and replaced over the decades) is hardly a mountain, and General Trent hadn’t been remotely mad. Two hundred years earlier, Annurian trebuchets had pounded the northern quarter of the city into flaming oblivion from that manufactured height.
Dombâng was still burning, although the flames had been long since contained, tamed, caged in ten thousand stoves, torches, lanterns, the fire a servant once more. From atop the mountain, the whole labyrinthine expanse sprawled before us like a muddier, nearer echo of the stars. I found myself dizzy looking down at it, dizzy in a way I’d never been atop Rassambur’s vertiginous cliffs. It felt as though I wasn’t just looking down, but also looking back across the abyss of years into my own past.
Hidden City, Goc My’s Marvel, Labyrinth of Lanterns—the city bore a dozen names, each one true in the right light, each one a lie. The maze of canals, barges, and floating markets had, indeed, remained hidden for centuries, millennia, but it was hidden no longer, the bonds of causeway and channel shackling her to the world. Goc My had, in fact, worked a marvel centuries earlier, starting the transformation of a small fishing hamlet into the greatest city of the south. On the other hand, Goc My was long dead, and his city had fallen to a greater, less miraculous power two hundred years earlier. The truest name was the last: Dombâng was still a labyrinth—a place of canals and causeways, bridges and barges, passing ropes strung between the tops of buildings, ladders everywhere, ten thousand alleys and backwaters where a woman could get lost, where she could lose herself.
“Ahh,” Ela purred, pausing to take in the sight, “I could fall in love here.” She wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “Truly a city of romance.”
Kossal grunted. “If you think a whole town built on an open sewer and peopled by angry political schismatics is romantic.”
“Look at those lanterns,” Ela protested. “There weren’t so many the last time I was here.”
Red and amber lanterns hung from the bows of ships, candles flickered in open windows, open flames blazed at the base of wooden statues hewn in the postures of the gods—the Annurian gods, Intarra foremost among them. Even at this distance, I could hear hints of music, both the bawdy banging of drinking songs and the softer thread of wooden flutes laid across the night’s hot breath.
“What’ve lanterns got to do with anything?” Kossal demanded.
Ela ignored him, turning to me instead and raising a playful eyebrow. “Good choice, Pyrre. How could you not fall in love with so many lanterns?”
“They’re fish,” I said, shaking my head. “All those lanterns are made of fish skin. Red snapper or ploutfish. They gut them, stretch the skin over a frame, then slide the wick and the whale oil inside.”
“I take it from your tone,” Ela said, cocking her head to the side as she studied me, “that something about the fishiness dims the romance for you.”
“The smell, for starters,” Kossal replied.
I shook my head slowly. “They don’t smell. Not if they’re made properly.”
The memory filled me, dredged from the silt of my childhood. I was squatting on a narrow dock between piles of snapper. The fish were still, dead, cool in the morning heat, stupid eyes fixed on the sky. It was my job to gut and clean them, to salt, then hang the filets, then to scrape the skins until they were paper thin, ready to be sold to the old lantern-maker down the street. The fish were fresh enough that they never reeked. It was only later, at night, when people started to light those ruddy lanterns, that I smelled the thick stench soaked into my skin, no matter how much I scrubbed.
“Your problem, Kossal,” Ela said, turning to face the older priest, “is that you don’t understand romance.”
“I’ll cut a creature open,” he replied. “I’ll take out what’s inside. I’ll hang the carcass up to dry. All part of our devotion. Just don’t see where the romance comes into it.”
Ela shook her head, then turned to me and rolled her eyes. “Hopeless,” she said, lowering her voice, as though in confidence. “He’s hopeless. Always has been.” Then, turning back to him, extending her arm and unfolding a hand, as though the whole city were a web of jewels and hers to offer up, she said, “Forget the romance. Can’t you just admit that it looks beautiful?”
“In the dark. From a distance.” He shook his head. “Stand half a mile off and a pile of steaming shit looks pretty in the moonlight.”
“Kossal,” Ela demanded, “is there any place in this wide world that you actually like?”
“Rassambur.” He raised a finger as though prepared to enumerate further possibilities, seemed to consider his options, then put the hand down. “Just Rassambur. Quiet. Not so ’Kent-kissing humid.”
“If you love Rassambur so much,” I asked him, “then why are you here?”
He didn’t bother looking at me. Instead he scowled at the marvel of light and water that was Dombâng. “Because I love my god more.”
I shook my head. “The god is everywhere. Someone else could have taken your place as my Witness.”
“There may be other work than witnessing to be done here.”
Ela raised her brows, surprised for the first time. “Let a lady in on the secret.”
For a while he didn’t respond, glaring down silently at the city. Finally, he looked over at us.
“Something that needs killing.”
“And so you had to come all this way?” Ela swatted him. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it would have died on its own.”
“Maybe,” Kossal replied. “Maybe not.”
Well before we reached the city proper, we began to pass clusters of flat-bottomed barges tethered together on either side of the final stretch of causeway, ranks of lean, long delta skiffs tied rail to rail. Each had a small tent thrown up in the center—just a scrap of canvas to keep off the worst of the mosquitoes, really—but no one seemed to be asleep. Red lanterns hung from the stern of each boat, pushing back the night, bloodying the water’s black. On each makeshift, tenuously tethered island, the boats’ owners tended to congregate on a single deck, where they could spend the hot evening drinking with their neighbors. The thick smell of smoke and grilling fish and reedfruit hung in the air. Despite the hour, even the children were up, clambering between the hulls, laughing and screaming. Every so often one of them tumbled into the water with a splash. The rest would jeer and shout and then haul their companion from the current and the game would resume.
The ease with which those children climbed free of the water reminded me of the woman earlier in the day who hadn’t, of the way she’d screamed as she tried to escape the mud, as the qirna closed in to feast on her legs. Most of the delta’s most dangerous creatures wouldn’t venture this close to the city; the water was too filthy, the air too loud. The children were safe enough, as safe as children anywhere. I’d spent countless days in Dombâng’s waters myself, and yet it was impossible not to look at that slick, black surface without imagining some unseen menace lurking beneath, razor-toothed and patient.
The music distracted from the water’s implacable silence. In Dombâng there was always music. That, too, I remembered from my childhood, flutes and drums, mostly, the former made from the thick-walled spear rushes of the delta. Those flutes were built for slow, haunting melodies, but the measures of Dombâng were anything but—raucous tunes for rowing or dancing, quick, heavy drums always urging the song on and on, louder and larger.
“I plan to dance,” Ela said, pausing to listen to one particularly lively tune, tapping her folded parasol against her heel, “until my feet bleed.”
For just a moment, I heard the music through her ears, clear and unsullied. For just a moment, and then, all over again, it was impossible not to hear that music as I’d heard it years ago, not the night’s carefree focus, but a mask, a racket drowning the quieter, more intimate sounds of violence. More movement, and darker than dancing, had always waited on that music.
For all the laughter and lanterns, Kossal was right. As we moved into the city proper, I remembered the truth: Dombâng was uglier close up. Lanterns and lights hung from the carved teak of the high-peaked roofs, blousy women leaned from the balconies, men in their bright evening finery—vests over bare chests, long sashes at the waist—called out greetings to one another, but below, in the shadows where the light never reached, rot gnawed constantly at the pitch-soaked pilings. The gutted carcasses of fish, flensed of their soft flesh until only the spines, fins, and heads remained, clogged the backwaters. Where the current was strong, the water ran clear and fast and dark, but in the thousands of eddies where the wide weirs trapped the flow, strange shapes rose slow, awful, dreamlike from the dark, revolved lazily a moment in the light, then disappeared. Rassambur had taught me much about death, but this wasn’t death. It was dying. Even as a child I had sensed this. Especially as a child.
I was so lost remembering the rhythms of the city that I almost walked directly into Ela when she stopped.
“Lady and gentleman,” she announced theatrically, “I give you Anho’s Dance.”
With a flourish of her arm, she indicated a tall, wide-windowed building to our left. A narrow canal separated it from the causeway itself, and a small but elegantly carved bridge spanned the water, arcing from the causeway to a broad deck fronting the structure, a deck packed with tables and patrons.
Kossal grimaced. “Why am I not surprised?”
“You are not surprised,” Ela proclaimed, “because I promised when we left Rassambur to bring us to the liveliest inn in the city, the establishment with the best music, finest wine, and the most shapely patrons. Which I have, in fact, done.”
I wasn’t in a position to judge Dombâng’s finest establishments—I’d passed most of my childhood in the warren of toppling stilt shacks at the east end of the city, where the water was foulest—but I’d spent enough time in other cities later to see that Ela’s claim was more than plausible. A six-person band—two drummers, two flautists, and a pair of singers, the man in an open vest, the woman in ki-pan slit on both sides all the way to the hip—dominated the center of the deck. Their music was better than anything we’d heard on the long walk in: loud and excited, full of overflowing life, but still intricate, tight. A score of finely attired dancers moved through the quick steps of one of Dombâng’s classics in the open space before them, while to either side the rest of the patrons kept time by clapping.
Bare-chested servingmen—hired, obviously, on the twin strengths of their grace and beauty—threaded their way through the crowd with wide trays held above their heads. Women in flowing, low-cut tops worked the bars at either end, spinning glasses in the torchlight, catching them behind their backs, pouring glittering liquor in graceful streams from tall bottles.
“When we left Rassambur,” Kossal said, “did you not hear me say that I’d prefer somewhere small, quiet, and dark?”
Ela pursed her lips, looked up into the star-studded night speculatively, then shook her head. “No. I didn’t hear you say that.”
“You understand,” Kossal ground out, “that I could give you to the god at any point. You would make a great offering.”
“That kind of certainty gets people killed.”
“I won’t be as pretty dead.”
“Quite the contrary. You will make a gorgeous corpse.”
“If you’re going to come for me,” Ela said, “you’d best do it soon. You’re not getting any faster as you get older.”
“I thought you said, just before we left Rassambur, that I was still young.” Ela slid a hand around his waist, snugging him close for a moment. He didn’t resist as she leaned over to purr in his ear. “That was before we left Rassambur.”
Kossal glared at her hard, then pulled free. “I’m getting a room, then going to sleep.” He turned to me. “I suggest you do the same.”
“It’s not even midnight,” Ela exclaimed.
“You might be here on a whim,” he said to the priestess grimly, “but the girl has work to do tomorrow. Her Trial has already begun. It began the moment she put a knife through that miserable woman’s neck. Which means she has fourteen days to finish. A little less, now. Doesn’t leave many evenings for drinking and dancing.”
“I don’t know,” Ela replied, letting him go, twining her slender arm around my waist instead, “I’ve always found drinking and dancing have a way of clarifying the mind.”
Then, before I could object, she led me over a narrow bridge onto the deck of the inn, then to one of the tables nearest the music.
“So,” Ela said, leaning back in her chair, arching her back as she stretched her arms above her head. “Are you ever planning to tell me?”
A carafe of blown glass filled with plum wine sat on the table between us, the third of the night, this one still almost full. The priestess reached out, poured a measure into my glass, set it down, then licked the vessel’s beaded sweat from her fingers. She reminded me of a cat, deliberate and indifferent all at once.
“Tell you what?”
With a finger, she drew a slow circle in the air around us, as though to indicate the entire city. “Why we are here.”
I took a deep breath, started to talk, thought better of it, and took a sip from my wine instead.
“I understand,” Ela continued after a pause, “that you grew up here.”
I nodded carefully. The wine brimmed bright and hot inside me. The world seemed wide and tight all at the same time.
“And this is where,” she went on after a pause, “you made your first offerings to the god.”
I took another sip of the wine, felt the pink on my tongue, in my throat, then nodded again. “If you could call them offerings.”
“Every death is an offering.”
Over Ela’s shoulder, in the center of the emptying dance floor, a man and woman twined around each other. Her hands were everywhere, like something flowering from his body.
“It seemed like I’d have a better chance,” I said finally, “if I came back to somewhere I knew.”
“You mean to someone you knew,” she said, leaning in over the table as she spoke. Torchlight shifted over her brown skin until it seemed to glow.
“Everyone I knew from Dombâng is dead,” I said. “I killed them before I left.”
Ela laughed. “Thorough girl. You’ll have to tell me the story sometime.”
I shook my head, surprised by the sudden iron in my voice when I replied. “No, I won’t.”
Our gazes snagged for a moment. Then I looked away.
“Maybe we should go to sleep.”
“Oh, undoubtedly!” Ela replied. “We should have gone to sleep hours ago, like Kossal.” She raised a finger, as though to forestall my response. “But we didn’t, and now we have an obligation.”
I blinked. “To?”
“To the wine, Pyrre! To the wine!” She laughed as she gestured to the carafe, the pink liquid so bright with refracted torchlight it might have been a lamp itself. I imagined that wine glowing inside me like a tiny moon.
“You keep pouring me wine because you think I’ll tell you a secret.”
The words came out slow and stupid. Ela smiled.
“Of course I do. I’ll confess—I love secrets almost as much as I love dresses.”
“What if I told you there was no reason that I chose Dombâng? Or that I just wanted to see it one more time before you slide a knife into me?”
Ela kept her eyes locked on mine as she refilled her own glass. “Then I’d know that you were lying.”
Her dark eyes were wine bright. “A lady doesn’t tell her secrets.”
“And yet you want me to tell mine.”
“You’re too young to be a lady.”
I narrowed my eyes. “And what about you? Can you be a lady if you’re already a priestess?”
“You wouldn’t believe how often I ask myself that very question.”
“And what,” I replied, “do you answer yourself?”
“Oh, I hardly think it’s for me to decide. According to Kossal I’m nothing more than a thorn in his side.”
I stared into my glass, trying to shove my thoughts into some kind of shape I might recognize. The singers had fallen silent, and the flautists, while the two drummers hammered out a brutal rhythm against the night.
“Do you really think he’d kill you?” I asked finally.
Ela pursed her lips reflectively. “He wouldn’t be much of a priest if he wouldn’t.”
“But he loves you.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. It doesn’t change the fact that we worship Ananshael, not Eira.”
Directly above us a pair of wooden shutters slammed open. High, wide laughter spilled out into the night. I caught a glimpse of a pair of hands, a pair of bare arms pulling the shutters closed, and the laughter was gone.
“But you don’t love him,” I said.
Ela studied me for a while, then shook her head. “It’s not something you can figure out by watching others, Pyrre. You can’t be me, you can’t be Kossal, any more than we could be you. I could tell you everything about my life, every kiss, every woman’s hips, every laugh, every sob, every stiff cock, and it wouldn’t mean anything. Language is a useful tool, but it’s only a tool. The truth is too large for it. If you’re going to survive this, you need to find your own way.”
I took a deep breath, then lifted the wine to my lips again. The glass was shadow-cool against my skin. I tipped it back, closed my eyes, and drank. I kept my eyes closed for what felt like a long time, listened to the insistent thudding of the drums, to the dozens of voices rising and falling around me, to the hushed susurrus of the Shirvian’s split waters running under the deck, threading the pilings, surging blindly toward the salt sea. When I finally opened them again, Ela was still there, still watching me with those wide, dark eyes.
“His name,” I said finally, “is Ruc Lan Lac.”
Ela repeated the name, “Ruc Lan Lac,” then ran her tongue delicately over her lips, as though the syllables had left a salty residue. “Tell me about Ruc Lan Lac.”
I hesitated. My own history felt like the drop at a cliff’s edge; once I stepped clear of the present, there would be no way to stop falling. “He’s here,” I said finally, teetering. “At least, he should be. He was a year ago.”
Ela arched an eyebrow. “And how did you learn that?”
Heat flushed my cheeks. “Tremiel was in Dombâng last year, for a contract. I asked her about Ruc when she returned to Rassambur.”
“You’ve been stalking him,” Ela exclaimed, clapping her hands together in delight. “And here, the whole dull march to this city you’ve been lamenting the hard state of your cold, unbeating heart!” She narrowed her eyes. “But there are four hundred thousand people in Dombâng. How did Tremiel know about Ruc Lan Lac?”
I grimaced. “He’s not just a person.”
“We’re all just people, Pyrre. That’s one of Ananshael’s oldest lessons.”
“Fine. What I mean is, he’s famous here.”
Ela tsked. “Don’t love famous people. I loved one of the Vested in Freeport years ago. It didn’t work out.”
“I’m not in love with him.”
“But you’re planning to be.”
I blew out a long, frustrated breath. “Planning might be a bit of a stretch.”
Ela swirled her wine, eyeing me speculatively over the top of her glass. “I’ll be disappointed if, during this last month of travel, you didn’t come up with at least the faintest glimmer of an idea regarding how you might approach him. People use the phrase falling in love as though love is a mud puddle that you just tumble into when you’re not paying attention. I find the opposite: love requires a deliberate act of attention.”
“I know how to get his attention.”
Ela sipped her wine, waiting. I glanced behind me, gauging the distance to the next table, then leaned in, wrapped my hand around the carafe beaded with sweat, then pressed my palm on the wooden table. When I pulled my hand away, the print remained, soaked into the thirsty wood. I left it there for just a heartbeat, then scrubbed it out.
“Do you know what that is?”
“A squat, headless, five-legged beast?”
I lowered my voice. “It’s a symbol.”
I hesitated, uncertain how to go on. Ela waited a while, then rolled her eyes as she dipped her own finger directly into her wine and drew two semicircles, linked in the center. “Here’s a symbol,” she murmured in a conspiratorial faux-whisper. “I can never decide if it looks more like an ass or a pair of nicely proportioned breasts.” She dropped her voice even lower. “Maybe you could send it in a note to Ruc Lan Lac and ask him which he prefers.”
“I know which he prefers.”
Ela made an O with her mouth. “Makes the seduction easier.”
“I’m not planning to seduce him.”
The priestess’s excitement crumpled into a false frown. “How disappointing. One of my jobs as your Witness is, after all, to witness…” She shook her head. “No seduction. No ass or breasts. So?”
I leaned over the table. “Insurrection.”
Ela blinked. “Is that a sexual position?”
“It is the cliff on the edge of which Dombâng has been teetering for decades.”
“Teetering. How tedious.”
“It will be a lot less tedious after we give it a shove.”
“We?” Ela cocked her head to the side. “I came for the dresses and the dancing, remember?”
“You can wear a nice dress to the revolution.”
“Any excuse for a party.” She frowned. “But what does this have to do with…” She gave me an exaggerated series of winks, then nodded to the scribble of water left on the table.
“That,” I said quietly, “was a bloody hand.”
“I’ve seen blood,” Ela replied. “It’s redder.”
“It will be when I do it for real.”
“Are you going to tell me what it is, or do I have to guess?”
The nearest other people on the deck were a dozen paces away, and the music was loud enough to talk without being overheard. I kept my voice low, all the same.
“Did you hear the name Chong Mi the last time you were here?”
“Does she run that brothel on the west end of the city? I only spent one night there, but sweet Ananshael’s touch, those beauties…” She trailed off, closing her eyes to savor the memory.
“Chong Mi was a prophet, not a prostitute.”
Ela frowned, opened her eyes. “Significantly less interesting.”
“Interesting enough to see you executed, if you’re caught reciting one of her prophecies in Dombâng.”
“More interesting,” Ela conceded, leaning in once more, her eyes bright with the wine and the candlelight. “Recite one.”
“Did you not hear the part about the execution?”
She waved away the protest. “You’re planning to give seven citizens of this city to the god—five, since you started early—and you’re worried about repeating a few lines of some madwoman’s poetry?” She lowered her voice. “You can whisper, if you really need to.”
I checked over my shoulder once again, then leaned in toward Ela. We might have been two women gossiping about married life or trading surreptitious opinions on the few attractive dancers still left at the center of the deck, just a couple of normal people talking about love, not religious insurrection.
Although, in truth, I hoped I might find my way to one from the other.
“Woe to you, Dombâng,” I began, my voice just a murmur, “for I have seen the day of our salvation.
A snake with the face of a man came to me,
A snake red as blood with eyes of fire,
And the snake spoke to me, saying, “Woe to the faithless.
“Woe to the fickle. Woe to those who forsake their gods.”
Three times it spoke, saying, “Woe, woe, woe,”
Then sank its poisoned teeth into my arm. And I saw:
I saw hands of blood, ten thousand bloody hands
Reach up from the waters to tear the city down.
I saw those who worshipped fire burned in their own flame,
Their fickle tongues turned, even in their pleading, to flame.
I saw vipers in a nest of vipers, black snakes driving out the green,
Three thousand coils curling tighter and tighter.
I saw the vipers of the waters rise up to feed,
Saw them gorge on the hearts of foreign soldiers.
I saw a thousand skulls, a thousand eyeless skulls,
Meat of their minds made mud for the delta flowers.
I saw men and women gorging on foreign coin, choking on it,
I heard them cry out in horror, gold dripping from their lips.
In the place of priests, I have seen the beasts of the waters,
Their jaws agape, howling, “Woe, woe, woe.”
Woe to you, Dombâng, for I have seen the day of our salvation,
I have seen the day and the hour of our gods’ return.
Woe, woe, woe to you Dombâng, for I have seen it,
And it is blood and fire and storm. And it is soon.
“That’s a lot of woe,” Ela observed when I’d finished. “Prophecy is so exceedingly dour. Just once, before I go to the god, I’d enjoy hearing a happy prophecy.” She dropped her voice to a portentous register: “And you shall lick honey from honeyed lips. Yea, and it will be very, very delicious.”
“Happy people don’t make prophecy.”
“People aren’t supposed to make prophecy at all. They’re speaking for the gods. That’s the point of prophecy.”
I nodded. “But the gods of Dombâng have been gone a very long time.”
“They’re coming back,” Ela countered cheerfully. “Soon! According to Chong Mi.”
“Chong Mi died a hundred and fifty years ago,” I observed pointedly.
Ela spread her hands. “Who can say what time means to a god? Ten thousand years could be the blink of an eye. A whole age could be soon.”
“I don’t have a whole age,” I said grimly. “Or ten thousand years. I have fourteen days.”
Ela narrowed her eyes. “Surely you can fall in love without the help of Dombâng’s missing deities.”
I let out a long, weary breath. “Actually, I don’t think I can.”
“We’re back to the teetering insurrection.”
I nodded. “Dombâng has never fully accepted Annurian rule. Five years ago, the city was on the edge of open revolution.”
“And then what happened?”
“Ruc Lan Lac happened.”
Ela pursed her lips. “Your boyfriend singlehandedly put down an insurrection?”
“He and the four Annurian legions placed temporarily under his control.”
“A soldier,” Ela purred. “I like soldiers.”
“Ex-soldier. When things started to heat up here, Annur sent him back to command the Greenshirts.”
“Constabulary,” Ela said, grimacing. “I like constables less.”
“Most people in Dombâng would agree with you, especially after Ruc got done ripping the throat out of the local insurgency.”
“He should have ripped more thoroughly. For a creature with no throat, the insurgency did a pretty good job knocking down the causeway.”
I nodded. “Annur’s been trying to root out the old worship for two hundred years, ever since conquering the city. The best they’ve managed is to force it underground.”
Ela swirled the wine in her glass. “And what,” she asked, “does all this have to do with the warming of your calcified heart?”
I hesitated. Suddenly my whole plan seemed insane. “I thought… if I helped him fight the insurgency, we might have a chance to…” I shook my head, unsure how to go on.
“To snuggle up close,” Ela said, smiling. “I understand. So when do you go find him?”
“Not yet. First, I need to drag the insurgency fully into the open.”
“Knocking down causeways isn’t open enough?”
I shook my head. “I want to help Ruc fight a war. That means there needs to be a war.”
After a moment of silence, the priestess exploded in delighted laughter.
“And where are you going to get one of those?”
I pressed my hand against the carafe again, made another print on the table. “‘I saw hands of blood,’” I recited quietly, “‘ten thousand bloody hands reach up from the waters to tear the city down.’ ”
“You know,” Ela murmured, “that it’s supposed to be the work of the gods, fulfilling prophecies.”
I shook my head. “I told you. I need a way to get close to Ruc, and the gods of Dombâng have been gone for a very long time.”
Excerpted from Skullsworn, copyright © 2017 by Brian Staveley.