From authors Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell comes The Tangled Lands, a fantasy novel told in four interlocking parts about a land crippled by the use of magic, and a tyrant who is trying to rebuild an empire—unless the people find a way to resist.
Khaim, The Blue City, is the last remaining city in a crumbled empire that overly relied upon magic until it became toxic. It is run by a tyrant known as The Jolly Mayor and his devious right hand, the last archmage in the world. Together they try to collect all the magic for themselves so they can control the citizens of the city. But when their decadence reaches new heights and begins to destroy the environment, the people stage an uprising to stop them.
Available February 27th from Saga Press, The Tangled Lands is an evocative and epic story of resistance and heroic sacrifice—it is a fantasy suited for our times.
The Children of Khaim
Mop knelt in the ash of bramble burn, seeking bramble pods and seeds. Smoking dirt sieved between his gloved fingers. Sweat stung his eyes. Ash leaves swirled through the air, black crows’ wings, tumbling and swooping, coming to rest on the scorched land.
All along the bramble wall, fires blazed.
Burnmasters sprayed flaming paste from bladder sacks while assistants worked their bellows. Poisonous tangling vines ignited and writhed. Thorny, woody trunks collapsed, crackling, hissing, and spitting sap.
The stink of dying magic washed over Mop, rancid yellow smoke, obscuring his sight. He coughed and checked again for Rain. Once again, she was lagging, a crouched form trailing behind the rest of the pickers. Leather-stitch shadow of a girl, all alone.
Mop sidled back to her. “Keep up,” he whispered. “You have to keep up or they’ll find someone else.”
Rain peered up at him through the sewn holes of her leather cowl. Her eyes were dull and shadowed. “I’m tired,” she whispered.
“You think we all aren’t?” Mop motioned at the other seed pickers, women and children kneeling in still-smoking ash, humped figures laboring, working the dirt like drab curling beetles. Trains and clots and clods of them. Women with rakes. Children crawling about their mothers’ skirts. All of them sifting blackened ground for bramble seeds and sprouts.
“Don’t stand straight or pause,” he said. “Cojzia will find others.”
“How much longer until we’re through?” Rain asked.
Never, Mop thought. Never and never and never. Not until Borzai comes and gathers us into his arms for judgment.
The burn had been going all day, and yet it seemed that their work had taken but the barest bite out of the leading edge of the bramble forest. A day’s tilling cleared, perhaps, along with some peasant’s stone hut that they were now fighting to disinter—a hovel of chinkstone and boulders, built generations ago, and then swallowed by bramble’s encroach.
Children clambered up the hut’s stone walls, lighting ancient roof beams and thatch on fire. Flame licked about the base of the hut as well, blackening stone. Just clearing the hut would take hours. Tomorrow they would be back again, doing the same work, hacking away at the encroaching bramble.
Duke Malabaz said he wanted land cleared east all the way to the old village of Kem.
“If we’re lucky, we won’t be done for weeks,” Mop said. “Malabaz is paying, and we’ve got work, and that’s all that matters.”
He said the words, and they were true in a way, but even as he said them the forest wall of poisonous vines seemed to mock him with its loom. The bramble would never be banished. They might slash and hack and torch the thorny woods, but in the end, they sought to shove back an ocean.
No matter how much they labored, the waves of bramble would always be there, threatening to crash down upon them. Bramble reached north to green ice, and south to blue seas, and smothered all the East in thorns. It choked valleys and blanketed mountains all the way to the fabled city of Jhandpara, and yet here they pretended as if they could turn the tide.
Orange flames scrambled up spiky trunks, licking at seedpods and charring pale thready spines. Vines writhed and twisted in the heat. Bark crackled. Sores of sap spat and oozed, bubbles hissing, flaring like oil.
Leather-stitch shadows emerged and disappeared from the scabrous yellow smoke, misshapen in clothing that covered head and hair, face and limbs. Frightening dolls, stalking the bramble line, all stitched together like the legendary dog armies of Majister Calal.
When will we be done?
Never and never and never.
Beside him, Rain reached for another seedpod.
Mop smacked her hand. “Not like that!”
Rain jerked away. “What did I do now?”
“Scoop it up from under,” he said. “And don’t pinch it.” He gently cradled the bramble pod, letting ash and clodded dirt sift through his gloved fingers. “See?”
He opened his hemp sack and held the pod over its mouth. He looked at Rain significantly, then squeezed. The pod burst like popcorn. Seeds sprayed into the bag. Dozens of obsidian orbs rattling and falling like poppy seeds.
“Don’t break pods. Don’t scatter seeds. If you can’t learn that, we’ll both be off the burn and some other Alacaner will take our places—yours for stupidity, and mine for vouching you.” He glanced back to where Duke Malabaz’s linemaster stood, overseeing their work. “Cojzia doesn’t tolerate incompetence.”
Rain shook her head tiredly and bent again to her task. “I wouldn’t have squeezed like that.”
“That’s right, because you’ll lift them from beneath.”
Rain stayed stubbornly silent. Mop pressed. “You want us to starve, sister? You want us to clear the same dirt tomorrow? We’re nothing, here, you understand? We have no friends. The people of Khaim despise us, and Alacaners, too, hate our name. We are alone, here.”
Rain didn’t reply, but Mop was contented to see that when she scooped her next bramble pod, she did it with care.
She’d break a few anyway, because she was young and she had once been very much loved by their parents and their servants and spoiled the way young, pretty, smiling girls were often spoiled. She would chafe against his warnings, but she could not say that he hadn’t warned her. He’d done what he could, and if Rain wanted to work the bramble line, she would learn its strictures.
He only prayed that her mistakes wouldn’t cost his livelihood as well, if Cojzia noticed her incompetence.
The sun began its slow hunt for the horizon. Bramble burned. The peasant’s home was finally freed of bramble, standing lonely in the blackened earth. Seeds and new green bramble sprouts filled pickers’ sacks to bulging, were piled high in mounds and burned again. Burnmasters cradled their sloshing pig-bladder sacks, working their way down the line, squirting flaming mash from the fat bladders’ brass snouts.
It splashed over vines and spines and stubborn stumps. Their assistants followed, working their bellows, encouraging the flames. Bramble sap whistled as it boiled up from deep within the wood. Seedpods burst wide in the heat. The work continued. Sweat soaked the interior of Mop’s hood and slicked his hands inside his leather gloves. His face itched with sweat. His eyelids dripped water, blurring his vision. He straightened, back aching, and started to reach into his hood to dry his brow.
He froze on the verge of touching skin.
Upon his glove, a cluster of pale bramble threads clung, thin and pale. Death on his fingertips. It was a shock to see them clinging there, infinitely skinny little worms, all of them eager to kiss him down to sleep.
Mop cursed himself for old habits. It was the sort of easy, thoughtless motion that Rain might make, this touching of his skin, and here he was, about to do it. Picking seeds and bramble pods might pay better than catching rats, but there was danger, and it was too easy to let exhaustion fog him into complacency.
He carefully plucked the pale threads from his gloves and let them fall to earth.
“Malabaz don’t pay you to stand straight, boy, and our friend Cojzia is watching.”
Mop bent again, trying to look busy. The owner of the voice came up beside him: a woman, sooty and stoop-backed, her face shrouded by the bramble worker’s leather cowl. Recognizable more by her crabbed searching movements than any physical feature.
She had worked the bramble all her life, and now she never stood straight. Always working, always crouching, always running her gloved hands through dirt. Mop thought she must stand like that in her hovel as well. Plucking and seeking along the flagstone edges, fingers never at rest as she sought signs of bramble’s sprout.
“Don’t let the battle tire you,” Lizli said. “This is one we win.”
“Not my battle,” Mop said, waving off toward where the duke’s manor stood in the far distance. “This will be Malabaz’s land, not mine.”
She snorted. “If you’re so concerned over what is yours and what is not, you should go back to Alacan. I hear it is a lovely city.”
Mop didn’t take the bait. It was what Khaim people always said when Alacaners complained. He knew the pattern, how it would go.
Lizli pressed. “What? You don’t want your manicured grounds and hunting forests? You don’t enjoy the view from Alacan’s rose granite walls?”
“Don’t mock our land,” Rain piped up. “It was a lovely place. Alacan was the Spring City, warm all year round, and beautiful.”
“And Jhandpara’s hanging gardens reached all the way up to the roof of the sky.” Lizli laughed. “It’s all bramble tangle, now, girl.” She scooped seed pods from the ashy ground, and dropped them in her bag.
“Why do you mock us?” Mop asked.
“Mock you?” Lizli shook her head. “I wouldn’t dare mock the finest of the fine.”
“Who says that we are fine?”
“Your tongue has the roll. That little courtly trill. You mask it better than some, but I’ve seen so very many of your kind.” She snorted. “But really, even if your accent didn’t give you away, it’s only the fine ones who complain that the land they work is not their own.”
She leaned close. “I’ll give you a free bit of advice, Alacaner. I don’t know who you once were in that dead city of yours, but here, you are less than pig shit between a farmer’s toes. Alacaner beggars. Alacaners selling their last pots and necklaces. Alacaner men in the market squares with the holes in their shoes and their mustaches cut off because they’ve lost their children. Alacaner women trying to sell themselves as if anyone would want their sort. All of you distilling jhalka root and smoking poppy sap and telling one another that Alacan was the Spring City, warm all year round and beautiful. Talking so big and wishing so long, and none of you worth a chicken’s claw, because all you truly want to do is start your spelling again and drag another city down to ruin.”
“We aren’t that sort,” Mop said.
“Not that sort?” Lizli glanced sidewise at him, skeptical. “It was someone else who choked your city down with bramble?”
“It wasn’t us,” Mop insisted.
Lizli hooted laughter. “Every Alacaner I have ever met tells me he cast no spell and dabbled not in the majister’s trade. And every one of you speaks with great sincerity. Not a liar amongst you, I’m certain. And yet here you all are, living in Khaim, instead of Alacan. And there Alacan lies, choked dead by bramble. The greatest victim of no one since Jhandpara.”
“We don’t lie.” Mop yanked up a new green shoot of bramble where the hateful plant was already taking root in the burned earth.
“Of course not!” Lizli held up her ash-coated gloves in mocking defense. “I meant no disrespect. I’m sure you’re both as honorable as the very best of Alacan.”
Mop gave her a sour look. “Malabaz gets this fief because he handed up his family for spelling. You call that honorable?”
“What do I care about those velvet intrigues? We have work and Malabaz pays, and we’ve pushed bramble farther back from Khaim’s walls than any time in living memory. If the rich see their heads rolling the same as the poor, what care I? This is Duke Malabaz’s land today. And then his head will bob in the river Sulong and Duke Halabaz will take his place, and then Balabaz, and Salabaz, all the way down the line until a pig called Palabaz roots this land for truffles. It makes no difference to me. The land is the land, and it’s not covered with bramble, and I call that a gift from all the gods combined.”
“I heard Malabaz even handed up his wife,” Mop said.
“Oh yes.” Lizli smiled eagerly. Her knotted teeth showed in the shadows of her leather hood. “He did her for land and favor and power and revenge. The velvet ones aren’t people like you and I. They have no human feelings.”
They bent again to their work, leaving Mop to think on Lizli’s words.
The velvet ones: people with servants and courtyard homes and glass blown from Turis. People with copper bramble wards from lost Kesh. People with all the cash strings they could ever wish for.
People just the same as Mop and Rain had been.
But here, the velvet ones jostled for power in ways that Mop had never known in Alacan. Khaim’s Mayor and the Majister Scacz had a genius for setting velvet ones upon one another. In the spice market, everyone talked about how Duke Malabaz had handed up his own blood.
Teoz, who gave Mop and Rain a place to sleep in his warehouse and who dealt more spices than any merchant in the city, heard all the gossip, and shared it happily.
As Teoz dipped his scales into red chili powder and yellow turmeric, his hands garish with flavor, he’d said, “Of course they were guilty. Small magics, but all of them guilty. Love potions for the uncle so he could mount a dozen girls and roar like a tiger. A whisper from crystal for the sister to clear her clouding eyes. Small spellings. Pockmarks erased from a shapely daughter, to make her marriage better.”
He’d looked up toward Malvia Hill where the wealthy of Khaim all lived in cool marbled halls with fresh bright breezes while everyone else sweated through the summer.
“They all do it, of course. All of them in their halls behind their walls where Majister Scacz can’t see. Send their servants out so no one knows how blue they show.”
But the duke’s family had showed blue all right, all of them dragged out under torchlight in their nightclothes, screaming as the soldiers pulled them forth. Their house guards all standing by, watching coolly as masters and mistresses went before Majister Scacz.
“They burned as blue as casis flies mating,” Teoz said. “Saw them, I did. Heads rolling, blood on the cobbles right in front of Mayor’s House, and all of them still afire with magic.”
They’d been dumped into the river Sulong, high-born heads floating one way, high-born bodies floating the other, without last rites or a gift to Borzai or even a second glance. And the newly minted Duke Malabaz strode across puddles of blood, velvet and lace trailing red, to kneel before the Mayor and Majister Scacz and pledge his loyalty.
And now, thanks to Malabaz’s betrayals, Mop and Rain had work.
Malabaz had been given the right to clear the land. If he succeeded, Majister Scacz and the Mayor would defend it from new bramble intrusions, and it would belong to Malabaz so long as he swore loyalty and refrained from dabbling in the majister’s arts.
A good bargain, all around: Malabaz had new land. Khaim had new taxes. Bramble fell back. Majister Scacz stamped out a few more competitors in the majister’s art. And Mop and Rain had money to eat for another day.
Mop bent once again to his task, scooping up bramble pods, plucking seeds and sprouts. Joining all the other laborers in the clearing of land for Malabaz.
Beside him, Rain toppled over.
Mop leaped to his sister and tore open her leather cowl. She stared up at Mop, eyes puzzled. A pale bramble tendril clung to her sooty cheek. Other threads tangled in her hair. Clung to her throat. Her hood wasn’t closed properly. From the look of it, hadn’t been for some time.
Rain tried to get up, her arms flailing drunkenly, then fell back.
Other workers began to gather round. First one. Then more, increasing to a dozen, all pressing close. None of them said anything.
They all watched as the girl’s eyes closed.
“She’s gone,” Lizli said.
“She’s not!” Mop insisted. “She’s my sister.”
“Sister or no, she’s gone. Didn’t you tell her to stop working if she caught the kiss?”
“I told her! I told her straight.” He shook her. “Rain? Razica?”
He shook her again, looked desperately to the others. All of them watched, but none of them spoke. Their faces were blank, without judgment or anger. No pleasure or fear. They simply watched. They’d seen this collapse before. There was nothing for it, and little point in weeping or wailing to Borzai for some other judgment.
“If you told her, then it weren’t your fault.” Lizli turned away and motioned for the others to do the same. “Off with you. Give the boy his time. Seeds don’t pick themselves.”
As quickly as they had gathered, the laborers disbursed, leaving Mop crouched beside his sister. He could guess how it happened. She’d gotten a few threads on her skin, and then kept working anyway, despite the poison. And each bramble kiss had made her weaker and more stupid so that the next kiss was more likely. And all the while, he’d been urging her on. Mop felt nauseous with guilt.
It was easy to misjudge that first bramble kiss, to think it possible to press on. It was natural to fear starvation more than bramble sleep. And so people labored on through the welt and the burn, even as more and more poison coursed through their veins, and even as they brushed their sweating faces with bramble-laced hands and added to the kiss.
“You!” Cojzia, the linemaster, waved at Mop. “Get that body moved!”
Mop ignored him. Rain wasn’t a body. She was his sister. Rain. Razica. Razica d’Almedai. A merchant’s daughter out of Alacan. Famous for their exclusive contracts to distribute Mpais glasswares. They’d been rich. The d’Almedai had been a name respected, and Razica had been a girl with prospects. But they never told anyone here. Not here. Not in the city of Khaim.
Mop and Rain never named themselves here. It did no good and made no friends to brag that their courtyard had been surrounded by thirty-three arches, or that they had paid to build a temple to Kemaz out of their own pocket, and given the orphans of Alacan a place to shelter. Razica was Rain. Mapeoz was Mop. And they were safe and anonymous and no more despised than any other Alacaner who had fled to Khaim.
“Put the body over there!” Cojzia said again. “I don’t want to smell it roasting when the burnmasters light these stumps.”
Mop struggled to lift his sister. Limp and paralyzed, she seemed smaller. Less significant than when she’d demanded to join his work and earn. And yet now, paralyzed by bramble, she felt heavier than she’d ever been.
She’d said she was old enough, that they were past this silliness of what a man could earn and a woman could not. The d’Almedai had built themselves up from nothing, and would again, with work, she said. But only if they both labored and let go of silly illusions that she was some sort of iridescent lora flower, waiting to be opened. Those myths were for a time when they’d had courtyards and servants and marbled halls and scent gardens, and they were all gone.
Mop dragged Rain’s body through the ash drifts, his feet whispering in the blackness. His arms weakened and he dropped her. He fell to his knees beside her, exhausted.
Kissed and gone. Just like Mother and Father. Just like all the rest of the d’Almedai.
“How you could you be so stupid?” he panted. “I told you.”
As if in response, Rain’s eyes fluttered. Mop leaned close, heart thudding wildly. “Rain?” He pinched her cheeks, trying to stir her. “Wake up!”
She’d taken less poison than he’d first thought.
Her eyes closed again. Her body let out a soft sigh. She sagged, falling into deeper slumber as the bramble kiss took her completely.
Some people said it was possible to wake from bramble’s deep slumber, but Mop had never seen it. It was just a lie people told themselves as they stored their family members on ornate marble slabs. They told themselves that eventually the poison would retreat and friends and family would rise again.
They said it had happened to a woman in Mpais. That a cousin’s cousin-brother kissed in Kesh had wakened all in a start. They said it over and over again. Even as young boy, Mop had known it for a lie, but still they told the stories, holding on to hope the way a child holds a bit of patchwork quilt for comfort.
He remembered a dinner party his family had attended when d’Almedai was still a name that received invitations. The Falizi family, giving them honor. Mop remembered the patriarch presiding, artfully tied to his chair so the old man didn’t flop face first into each course as it was set before him.
Topaz-jeweled straps had circled the patriarch’s forehead. More clasped his wrists. Another strap, barely glimpsed, around his chest and under his arms, threaded through carefully tailored holes in the back of his dinner jacket where the servants could secure him to the chair. And all around him, Falizi guests ate and drank and toasted the patriarch, everyone pretending that he was one of the living.
Mop remembered the family’s embarrassment when a butterfly emerged, fluttering, from his ear.
“What are they supposed to do?” Mop’s father had asked on the coach ride home.
“Accept that he is no more,” Mother replied. “Accept that he is gone, even if his body slumbers here. Let him go to Borzai.”
“Stick him like a pig and bleed him out?” his father asked. “Who would hold the knife?”
His mother had shrugged, as stymied as the Falizi.
The simple course was obvious, and yet the Falizi had kept their patriarch for years, kissed by bramble, asleep and gone, servants dressing him like a doll every day, plucking flies and blood beetles from nose and ears, all of them pretending that he would someday wake because no one could muster the callousness to kill him true.
Mistress Falizi conducted business in the Master’s name and everyone bowed to the sleeping man and murmured to one another that he looked well.
Of course it was a failed effort. Eventually nature found its way into every bramble body’s guts, Kpala’s many children burrowing into defenseless flesh. Moths and maggots, centipedes and beetles eventually burst from mouth and ears and soft, soft stomach. But still, the denial ran strong. After all, the flesh was warm, even if the spirit had gone missing.
And now, Mop faced the same conundrum—but with none of the wealth or servants or security that the Falizi had enjoyed.
She’s gone, Mop told himself. It’s not sleep. It’s death.
It didn’t matter that Rain’s body would last another dozen years. She was dead. You can’t care for her, he thought. It can’t be done. Best to finish it now, before dogs or men come sniffing for her.
His eyes blurred with tears as he fumbled for his knife. Clumsy leather-glove fingers. He opened her protective hood wide, revealing her dark smooth skin. Her peaceful face. He set his blade against her throat. Gleaming steel against perfect skin. Her flesh gave under the edge. He tried to press.
Do it fast. Don’t think about it.
And yet he found himself imagining the blood welling out, her throat gaping open, a new grinning mouth wet and wide, her windpipe a sucking hole in red…
“You do yourself no favors by drawing it out.”
Mop startled. Lizli had come across the ash-drifted fields to watch. “Make the mercy cut and be done,” she said. “You just make it worse by waiting.”
“Then you do it,” Mop snapped.
Lizli laughed and shook her head. “Not me. I won’t have a body strung round my neck when I go to Borzai.”
“Then don’t call it a mercy cut.”
“Dead is dead. Mercy is mercy. Borzai judges as he will. Now hurry up and cut, and get yourself back to work. Or else go find a soft-eyed man, and profit from the girl’s warmth. See if Borzai judges you any better that way. The girl’s pretty enough without the soot. You’d find a buyer for a young body like that.”
Mop gave her a look of disgust. “I would never do such a thing!”
“Too honorable to sell the sleeping, and too stupid to get back to work. No wonder you Alacaners are refugees. You can’t see the thorns even when they’re all around you.”
“Mara counsels mercy,” Mop said.
He put his knife away and stooped to slide his hands beneath his sister’s still form. With a groan, he hefted her up and slung her over his shoulders. He staggered under the weight but managed to stand tall. “She’s not dead.”
A bark of surprised laughter escaped Lizli’s lips. “What’s this? You think to keep her? You think to keep the rats from her toes and the moths from her nose?”
Mop ignored the taunt. He started across the fields, stumbling under the weight.
Lizli called after him. “Shall I tell Cojzia and the burnmasters that you no longer need their coppers?”
“Tell them whatever you like.”
Behind him, he heard footsteps. Lizli pursuing, catching up.
“Are you addle-brained?” she asked. “You’re acting like the velvet ones. You have no servants to clean and protect her through the days. You have no way to save her. She’s nothing but feed for Kpala’s children. Send her on to Borzai. She’s but a child. He will pass her innocence on to Kemaz’s halls, and there she will play and be happy with the dog-headed one.”
Mop didn’t answer. He kept on, grimly trudging over the blackened fields. When he stumbled in a furrow, Lizli hooted laughter. “You’ll break an ankle before you reach Khaim’s gates,” she said. “I’m sure your sister will thank you for that.”
“She’s my sister,” he grunted as he resettled her over his shoulders.
“She’s a body!”
Unexpectedly, Lizli reached up and yanked Rain from his shoulders. Mop spun, crying out, but it was too late. Rain hit the ground with a thump, her limbs spilling loose and awkward. Ash puffed gray around her.
“What are you doing?” He lunged at Lizli, but the crabbed woman slipped out of reach, no laughter or taunt in her face.
“I’m helping you think sense, boy.”
Mop glared at the old woman. He crouched beside his sister, trying to see if she’d been wounded in her fall. She lay strangely, her face plowed deep into bramble ash. A doll discarded, blackened and sooty.
A living person would have fought to clear her mouth and nose. Rain did nothing.
Mop dug the ash away from her face and made to lift her again. Lizli put a staying hand on his shoulder. Her voice was gentle. “At least keep your place with the burnmasters, boy. Don’t give Cojzia a reason to cut you from the work. He hates Alacaners enough as it is. Wait until the sun falls, then find a cart or barrow for the dragging, if you’re so determined.”
She looked down at Rain. “The girl won’t mind the waiting. Of that you can be sure.”
The people of Khaim called their home the Blue City. They said it with pride, but Mop thought it was half a curse, no matter how they smiled and bragged about their city’s wonders.
The pride was true enough, of course: Khaim stood tall and flourished while other cities fell beneath crashing waves of bramble. Khaim’s city walls still stood strong. Her people didn’t spend their every waking hour burning bramble off the granite of their wharves, or prying it from between their cobbles and roof beams the way other cities did.
So, pride. Of course. For survival.
And, of a certainty, the Blue City was beautiful.
It wasn’t just the wonder of a castle floating in the air, high above the highest villas on Malvia Hill. It was the copper braziers burning as blue as casis flies where they lined the thoroughfares and marked the city gates and stood sentinel on the river Sulong’s docks. It was the scent of neem smoke, sweet and spicy, issuing from those braziers and winding through the city.
Khaim was arches and fountains and public squares and alleys and lanes, all of it sweating and bursting with summer trade while up on Malvia Hill, Khaim’s great marble villas looked down on the clatter and roil of the city, enjoying cool breezes.
It was the majestic flow of the river Sulong running rich and wide and full of fish, connecting Khaim to the sea trade south and the land trade north. It was the bustle of markets. Mop’s family had done business in the glass market, but there was so much more: spice lanes and copper squares, diamond merchants tugging at their long mustaches and muttering deals between sips of thick-leafed tea from blown-glass bargaining bulbs from fallen Turis.
In Khaim, the Mayor commissioned fountains recalling Jhandpara, and the Majister launched fireworks from the ramparts of his floating castle on Planting Day as an offering to Mara and her Three Faces: Woman, Man, and Child.
Khaim was alive, and beautiful.
But the Blue City was other things as well.
Even as its inhabitants bragged about their city’s splendors, they had the look of dogs well beaten. They sniffed the air for the scent of neem smoke that would tell them danger was approaching. People cowered from black-robed men who stalked the lanes, lazily swinging their censors.
“The smoke likes magics,” Teoz had told Rain and Mop when he first took them in. “Clings to them like a lover. Lights them up like casis flies in the summer. Turns them blue and bright as a torch.”
He’d pressed his finger to each of their foreheads in turn, admonishing. “You might have been able to make some small secret spellings in Alacan, but don’t think you can do that sort of thing here. Majister Scacz and his censori will sniff you out, and he will chop off your heads and you’ll be food for cuttle fish. Scacz has the sniff for spelling, and he has a mind as dark and sharp as Takaz the Demon King, so don’t think that he can be fooled.”
Mop and Rain had both nodded obediently, but whatever Teoz saw in their expressions wasn’t sufficient, for he seized them and dragged them close.
“Scacz will take my family too,” he whispered fiercely. “If the stink of your magic clings to us in any way, we’re all bobbing in the river Sulong by nightfall. So I say again, if you spell, you will be caught. Your father did me a good favor years ago, but I will not have my family die for your foolishness, and if I catch you glowing blue, I swear by Takaz and Mara both I’ll take your severed heads to Scacz myself.”
After that they’d nodded more vigorously, and Teoz had been satisfied.
Wherever a visitor went in the city, whether up to the villas on Malvia Hill, or down and across the river Sulong to the sometimes raided slums of Lesser Khaim, the brazier smoke of neem and mint followed. A hungry smoke. A determined smoke. A sneaking, suspicious smoke, always sniffing for signs of magics, turning the air blue when it found the residue of spells cast, announcing it for all the world to see.
The people of Khaim stood tall with pride, and crouched in terror all in the same instant. Every inhabitant sniffed the air for neem smoke and every inhabitant lived in fear of the day when he or she would be forced to fumble at the crumbled pages of some long-dead majister’s tome and attempt a spelling of their own, knowing that they baited the executioner’s axe, and their chances of survival were slim.
Majister Scacz was a jealous lord. The many markets of Khaim might be open to all, but its magics were a monopoly held tight in the fist of the man who lived far above them all. In Alacan, people had been able to cast a simple spell and not fear their head would roll into the river. Trafficking in Jhandpara’s Curse was against the edicts of the city, but still, there were small magics that were justifiable. Mop had been born clubfooted. Without his mother’s spelling, he would never have been able to walk. Mercy dictated that sometimes spelling was needed. But in Khaim, people begged Majister Scacz for mercy, and he flipped coins like a drunken Borzai, choosing at random those he would save with his magics and those he would leave to suffering.
Mop passed under the great burning sentinel braziers and the watchful eyes of black-robed censori at the city gates. He was exhausted from the bramble work and dead with grief at the loss of Rain, but he strode with determination. If he could convince Teoz to loan him the handcart the spice man used for deliveries up to Malvia Hill, he could return to Rain and bring her back to the city, install her safely in Teoz’s warehouse. It was possible.
Down Copper Lane and through the Crooked Square. It was late. The vegetable sellers were packing up the last of their day’s produce. Dogs roamed the cobbles, alert to kicks and opportunities as they darted to steal rotten carrots and bits of cauliflower, slinking around fountains depicting children protected by the alertness of the Mayor.
On the far side of the Crooked Square, Mop’s path wound down to the river Sulong and cut north toward Malvia Hill, slipping along the waterway that split the city into Khaim and Lesser.
Ahead, the blue arc of the Mayor’s Bridge glowed bright, leaping the river like a tiger, an impossible arc of gossamer and blazing color, glowing brighter than the moon at its fullest. Magic there. Vast magics that the city’s Majister had worked upon the bridge to build it, and hold it aloft, and make it last. So much magic there.
The Mayor claimed it was so that he could defend Lesser Khaim from raiding clans who came across the rolling hills to the west, but the Alacaner refugees who sheltered in Lesser Khaim all agreed that it was so he could move his soldiers and censori among them, sniffing out their needful small magics so that he and the Majister could wallow in the luxuries of the large magics.
Ahead, the river turned again, revealing the doors of the spice merchants. Lanterns hung over the doorways, giving view into dark confines where hempen sacks of chilies and turmeric and cloves were piled high.
Teoz stood impatient at this warehouse door.
“I’m sorry,” Mop said.
“Where is Razica?” But Teoz must have seen the answer on Mop’s face for his lips pursed and his hand went to his mustaches, grown long with children, as if he were trying to make a ward against the loss of them at the sight of Mop’s bad luck.
“I’m sorry, Mapeoz.”
Mop shook his head. “I want to use your handcart. I can fetch her and bring her back.”
“Bring her back?” Teoz looked surprised. “She’s bramble kissed, no?”
“You haven’t given her the mercy cut, yet?”
“She’s my sister.”
“She’s bramble kissed,” Teoz insisted. “You can’t be thinking that we’ll keep her here? In the warehouse?”
“She wouldn’t make a sound.”
Teoz gave him a sharp look. “I have enough trouble with pests without a bramble body. What will people say?”
“They don’t have to know.”
“Tongues wag, boy. They have no way of knowing, and yet still they wag. And when the velvet ones up on Malvia Hill hear that Teoz keeps bramble bodies with his spices? What will they do? They’ll tell their house managers to order cardamom from Zalati House or Mistress Charas, and then where am I? A warehouse full of spices and a bramble body that attracts rats, and my own children starving.”
“I’ll keep her clean.”
“Talk sense boy. I let you and your sister live here because d’Almedai did me good turns when Alacan was still a city. I do you good turns, even when my wife tells me to shove you across the river to live with the rest of the Alacaner refugees. I let you stay, and I feed you because I remember what your family once was.
“But I’m not so rich that I can simply make trouble for myself. If you and your sister can keep an eye on my warehouse and ensure that my cinnamon and lora flower don’t whisper out the door, then we all benefit. But bring a bramble body home and invite the wagging tongues that go with that?” Teoz shook his head. “You ask too much.”
“Just for a little while. Until I find a place for her.”
“A place for her? You’ll sell her to a soft-eyed man?”
“There is no place for her, then.” Teoz jerked his head toward the river Sulong. “I cannot endanger my family for a bramble body. Go out and make the mercy cut or leave her for the dogs, or do what you will.” He gripped Mop’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mapeoz. She’s gone. I won’t drag my family down because she was careless in her work.”
“You’d do it for Mila,” Mop protested. “If Rain were your daughter, you’d keep her safe. You wouldn’t talk about mercy cuts. You’d keep her safe!”
But Teoz wouldn’t be moved, and he wouldn’t give the cart, and he wouldn’t let a bramble body near.
“It would destroy me,” he said, and though Mop wanted to blame the man and hate him, he knew Teoz was right.
Mop knew, too, that he would betray him.
Excerpted from The Tangled Lands, copyright © 2018 by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell