Tangled Lands: The Blacksmith’s Daughter

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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.

 

 

PART IV
The Blacksmith’s Daughter

1

The day my family ran out of food my back ached from bending over the bellows. The pain had built from deep within my spine. Over the next hour it started jabbing and slashing at the muscles in my back. My arms, strong on the leather handles, had yet to give out. But oh, my poor back burned.

There was no time to rest. No time to slack. There was only the great suit of armor for the Duke Malabaz.

Or rather, his son, Savar. Who’d leered at me when he’d come in to be measured by me with my marked rope. Who kept hissing my name as I ran the rope around his body. “Sofija, Soooofiiijaaa…”

Only one person had the right to call my name like that, and it was Djoka. His family still saved coppers for the day our two humble houses would join. Then Djoka and I would stand under the Three Faces of Mara and he would offer me three rings and three vows for Woman, Man, and Child, dancing.

A straw dummy stood in the corner of the forge with a melon for a head and broomstick skeleton. We draped the armor as we pieced it together.

It was a bargain with one of Takaz’s demon wives to take on a commission like this. Call on a demon, it was said, and you could maybe bend it to your will. But you always ended up paying a price you didn’t expect, even if you got what you wanted.

Our family got the prestige of making the duke’s armor. But we were struggling to finish it.

“We used to cast a spell at the bellows that made them belch fire for hours,” I complained out loud as I stood and stretched, finally unable to stand the pain any longer. “My back feels like it is being stabbed with one of those spears!” I pointed at two of the longer city guard’s spears hanging from the rafters above me. Unfinished, the tips were only wooden, to remind my father of the size the captain demanded. There wasn’t enough metal, or time, to make them right now.

I pushed hard on my lower back with my thumbs, shoving them deep into the muscle under the skin until my eyes watered. Kneading the knots out. Leaning from side to side.

My mother stopped tapping fine gold inlay into the set of greaves she had on the old wooden bench in front of her. She’d been following a finely laid-out groove my father had carved into the metal with the pattern of the Malabaz house sigil: a tiger with wicked claws grasping a money cord. My father had hammered out the lines with a glowing hot chisel and evenly weighted hammer for the last week, and sworn every time his hand had slipped and touched the lower part of the chisel. “I’ll take a hand.”

“Your neck will hurt more than your back if we ever choose to spell the bellows again,” my father said quietly, moving the breastplate in front of him back over the fire, then picking up the larger hammer.

The sound of metal against metal filled the workshop. My father had a rhythm to his strikes, one that sounded near-musical in its precision.

As a child I’d curled up on cold nights near the fires of the forge, lulled to sleep by that steady, strong clank. Now, dripping sweat and swaying in place, my back offering up thanks to Mara in all her faces for the ability to stand straight, I could feel myself slipping as the steady strikes took me away into meditation.

“I might be taking the bellows!” my mother shouted, breaking me out of my lull. “But you don’t get to just stand there like a statue. Make yourself useful and go fetch wood from the pile.”

I jumped in place. I hadn’t realized my eyes were half closed with exhaustion.

My mother grimaced when I looked at her, and I knew that if my back hurt, hers hurt more. Youth had left her somewhere early in my memories of learning how to walk, with her scolding me away from the fires and slapping my hands away from tools. Where my arms were brown, with veins like ropes when I grabbed the hammer, she had gone to pale and her veins were green, like ink under a spelled parchment.

Still, she had the strength to cuff my head hard enough to make my eyes water if she wanted. Even an old, slowed-down blacksmith was stronger than any other tradeswoman.

I scurried out of the forge with a nod.

Rain so soft it hung in the air like gauzy curtains swept across the cool air of the packed-dirt road. The family forge was on the other side of the Sulong from Khaim, and in between the jeweler’s and ferrier’s huts I could see the brown water of the large river lazily flowing away.

And Khaim, the Blue City, on the other side.

The blue light, even in the late midday, came from the hundreds of alchemical braziers that cast the city in blue smoke. The magical blue clung to anything—and more importantly, anyone—that used magic.

That was why we couldn’t spell the bellows even though I’d complained about it. If we used magic, which only the great Majister Scacz could do, we would lose our heads to the executioner’s blade.

Or worse.

I picked up several pieces of wood, checking them first to make sure there was no bramble that could prick me hidden away in the dark crevices of the pile. Very little survived inside the city walls, but some still crept in here or there. I stepped back into the choking heat of the forge. It was a simple place, a large round house with the main forge at the center. Open, warm, and filled with our tools on benches or hanging from the walls. The shelves held scraps of metal. They used to hold things we’d made for the people of Lesser Khaim, but since accepting the duke’s commission, we’d made nothing but pieces of armor.

We slept in alcoves against the outer wall, though my parents had a thick curtain over their bedding. My mother would cook over the forge fire, using tongs to pull simple cakes out of the coals the same as she would a bar of metal that had been heated to be beaten.

I leaned over, my lower back complaining, and took the handles of the bellows from my mother and started pumping. The fire rose, and my father grunted with approval. He wouldn’t have to leave the metal in as long for it to turn pliable now. We’d finish the basic shaping of the breast plate faster.

When we broke for dinner my linens were soaked through with sweat, my back again in agony, and I drank an entire pitcher of watered wine from the casket by our foodstuff table so fast I dizzied and the room spun around me.

My father and I sat near each other at the roughly hewn table, my father drinking just as heavily and noisily from a pitcher, spilling some of the watered wine down his thick, hairy arms.

“Is it enough?” I asked. Something caught in my throat. “And what will the duke think?”

My father looked away from me toward the forge and stroked his mustaches. “We will see after tonight’s work,” he said. “When we glaze the breastplate and helmet.”

What he left unsaid was… if we glaze it.

I knew we only had enough for one attempt.

My mother sat down, and we split the last loaf of our gritty bread between the three of us. And after that, we seized the head-sized melon that had been the dummy’s head in the forge.

That was how I knew we had run out everything to eat, and that all our family’s money had been tied into the making of Savar’s armor, hoping to impress the duke.

An unfinished suit, no less.

I stabbed my piece of melon angrily, imagining it was Savar’s sneering face. But after that was done, all that was left was hunger. We hadn’t had any meat in days, and there was a pit in my stomach. Bread and melon would not fill it, and every stroke of the bellows made it yawn larger.

I was hungry. And I knew that after that last piece of slightly dried-out, tasteless melon, there was nothing left. If the duke was not happy tomorrow, we would starve.

Or worse.

Lakil, the rag-boy, told me several days back about two brothers he’d known who’d been approached for a well-paying, mysterious job in one of the new estates in northern Khaim, carved out of the bramble in fresh new fields. They’d been blindfolded and taken in a covered cart to the estate, and lived inside for two whole months, their jobs to recite incantations and spells, covered in foul smelling mints and jhordril leaves, until they were blue and stinking with magic.

Then they spent a month hiding in a clearing room with other boys, slowly waiting until the sulphuric smell of magic had dissipated. They were paid, and then blindfolded again, and dumped out in Lesser Khaim.

But the one brother had gone back, sure he could remember the twists and turns of their trip. Hunting for the blue that would let him turn in the velvet lord he was sure he worked magic for, thinking that turning them in would make his fortune.

They found his body in the river Sulong two days later with his throat cut.

That was the way it was for the people of Lesser Khaim. We meant nothing to those who lived across the river.

 

We began the glazing after the sun set, once the last gleaming lines of light faded away from the inside of the forge. The evil red glow of the coals glimmered as we took out five vials.

“Vitreous ndeza,” my mother murmured, putting two of them by my father’s bench.

I took the three containing the yellow iron oxide and set them down as well.

My father used mortar and pestle to carefully mix the ingredients into a sickly yellow paste. Once smoothed, with not a single bit of grit left in the mix, he scooped the ingredients out and transferred them into a larger wooden bowl.

And now we added the other liquids. Translucent fikik tree sap that was normally used to coat cogs and axles, songbird oil, distilled water. The paste built into a slurry, and then a smooth, slightly yellow broth.

“It isn’t glowing,” I said, my voice wavering slightly.

“Won’t until it’s fired,” my mother reassured me, putting a hand on my shoulder. She’d been putting the fire under the kiln, bringing the heat up. There’d been a small blaze glowing under it as we’d eaten the last of our food for dinner, now it burned bright with all the wood I’d brought inside earlier crackling underneath.

We’d had to rent it from a potter, for no small fee, and have it delivered. Test objects in it. Fire small pieces of armor with the vitreous ndeza mixture.

These were not normally things blacksmiths did, but the duke had been quite clear about what he wanted from us.

And my father had agreed.

Though now I knew he regretted it. I could see it in his dark eyes when he thought we were not watching. The moments when he hung his head, or pushed the heel of his hand against his brow.

He continued to whisk the mixture as the kiln heated. The pot-bellied chamber glowed, the air around it rippled, and after what seemed a minor eternity, my mother finally nodded.

My father turned to me with a fine, horsehair brush in his hands, holding it almost like he would a newborn in his massive, calloused palms.

“Here,” he said. And no more.

My mother put a hand on my forearm. “You are good with the brush. Do not doubt yourself.”

Of course, her telling me made me do just that. I took a deep breath. We should have been able to dip the breastplate in a vat of the nasty smelling yellow liquid, then transfer it to the kiln. But we simply didn’t have any more than the bowl in front of us. The ndeza came from a far off mine, via caravans on the old roads, created back when Jhandpara was a vast empire and Khaim nothing more than a sleepy roadside stop on the way to the sea cliffs of Rusajka.

Ndeza was highly prized by the sign makers in Khaim, farther up the hill and close to the Mayor’s Palace. With their various mixtures they could create glowing signs that fetched a premium price. Particularly, my dad said, for signs to places that I shouldn’t know anything about.

As if children didn’t also fear the kiss of bramble, and being sold by families who couldn’t afford to care for their ever-sleeping bodies to the brothels for the men of Khaim to do whatever they wanted to young, unmoving bodies.

“Get the helm ready, Mother,” I said. I grabbed the brush from my father, my hand shaking slightly, and dipped it into the bowl. I bit my lip, swirled the brush around, and then began to paint the breastplate with the light touch I’d been practicing for weeks, using milk-water to delicately paint whitewash onto bone, metal, or any substance I could find to practice the skill that might make or break us. Mara, steady my hand, I prayed. For Mother, Father, Child.

Eyes narrowed, I laid the bare minimum of a yellow glaze down, the brush a feather in my fingers. A breath of yellow on the fine steel my father had spent so much time hammering, smoothing, polishing.

My mother passed the helmet over. A fearsome thing, patterned to resemble the face of Takaz, with many serpent-headed faces thrust forth out of the helm. Fangs jutted out from it, and my father had tapped out fine scales throughout the entire surface.

A more difficult surface to paint, and I had to twist my hand to dab, tap, daub, and pack glaze into the crevices and crooks of the helm.

And then, all too soon, there was nothing left in the tiny bowl.

“Did I do it?” I asked, setting the brush down.

Neither of my parents answered me. They moved as one toward the kiln, holding each object in tongs. The breastplate they lowered in first, canted up on its side. Should it fall over, all this would have been for nothing.

Next to it soon sat the demon-faced helmet, only a hair’s width apart, and then they shut the door as gently as they could.

There was nothing to do but sit and stare at it. To watch over the next hour as the vitreous ndeza and yellow iron oxides burned hot in the furious fires, and a dull yellow gleam began to seep around the edges of the kiln’s door.

My father laughed out loud and clapped his large hands together. “We did it.” He grabbed both me and my mother by the shoulders and pulled us in close. “I told you the extra coin we gave to Assim were worth it.”

He smiled. That coin would have fed us, I thought as my stomach grumbled. But I had gone with him to the Temple of the Merciful and Sly Assim, where the four prophets slept. We had left the coins with a monk by the steps, and my father had said his prayers.

My mother usually fought about my father’s adherence to the monks. Assim had not saved their town or families from the creeping bramble, she would say. But tonight, tonight she said nothing and just smiled.

Hugged together against them both by the fires of our furnace, the searing heat of the kiln playing across our backs, I could close my eyes for a moment and feel safe and happy.

 

When we pulled the two pieces out after they had cooled in the early dark of morning, they still glowed a malevolent yellow. My father set them on the straw dummy. My mother wrapped an old cloth into a ball, and then ran twine around it to create a linen head we could put the helm on.

We sat and looked at our weeks of work.

The breastplate, shiny and muscular, was a new addition to Jhandparan armor. An imitation of the exotic kestrel-made armor the Czandians wore, each piece carved to mirror the human body it fit. Our breastplate sat over the Coat of a Thousand Nails. A hundred years ago, the coat would have been made out of silk so strong and light, men could run easily across a field while wearing a long armored coat. Today we sowed each protective armor plate into a coat of linen.

It was heavy, but Savar did not stand all that much taller than me. I had pulled the coat on myself to test the weight. I could move quickly enough around the forge, and raise my hands over my head with a forge hammer still in hand. And dance in half circles around the fire, the heavy waist of the coat slapping against my legs.

The gloves and steel sleeves, the greaves, and the entire coat remained poignantly dull and unlit. It was almost worse to have glazed what we could, I thought in the gloom. It highlighted what we were not able to glaze. What we couldn’t afford to glaze without more money from the duke.

“Why yellow?” I asked, staring at the three quarters finished armor. I hadn’t dared asked Savar or the duke himself. I’d forgotten to ask until now, staring at it. “Isn’t their house color green?”

My parents turned as one to look at me as if I had turned into a river-gull and burst scrawking through the doors of the forge.

“Girl, what do you think the color of yellow mixed with blue makes?” my father asked slowly.

“Green,” I said.

Obviously.

I stood there and stared at my parents, and they stared back.

Then the flame rushed to my head, and my eyes widened with hot understanding. “Blue,” I said.

“Blue,” my mother repeated.

The blue from the magical sentinel braziers of Khaim, across the great river. Blue that clung to anyone using magic, fingered them for anyone to turn in to the Majister. The same blue that had clung to the corpses of Malabaz’s uncles, cousins, and nephews when he turned them over to the Majister. A color that turned to purple as his robes dragged across the blood of his family’s as he rose to become the head of his own house and lands.

Malabaz was a hungry duke, eager to expand his lands. He jostled with the other velvet families of Khaim. Sometimes they would spill blood in the streets, out in the dark, away from the prying eyes of the Mayor and the ever more powerful Majister Scacz.

If Malabaz wanted to protect his son, why not a suit that would glow with his house’s color when tainted with the mark of blue?

“By the faces of Mara,” I muttered. “If the Majister ever finds out we did this . . .”

For a moment I imagined being thrown out of the half-built floating palace that hung over the highest point of Khaim, its stone bulk held aloft by the clouds beneath it that glowed blue whenever the winds were still and the smoke of the braziers became pillars that rose toward their heights.

“Malabaz is favored by Majister Scacz,” my father said flatly. “There was no way to refuse him.”

“We could have taken what we had and run for the trade roads,” I suggested.

My mother’s face darkened. “And risk raiders?”

“They haven’t had the strength to reach Lesser Khaim in many years, not since the rise of the Executioness,” I snapped.

“Or face roads choked with bramble,” my father added softly.

And just like that, he pulled the winds out of the two storms brewing in the room.

“Do not forget,” my father said, his voice soft like flour and silk. “When you were just a tiny thing we could carry you around, we watched the bramble grow and grow until it choked the town we lived in. People fell into sleep every day. Just a touch, you know just a touch, would leave you bereft of sense. And then another touch, and then another, because it lurks in the corners of your pantry, or under the door latch. Brothers, aunts, uncles—they would all sleep. The curse of Jhandpara lies all over the lands beyond the two Khaims, Daughter. Never forget that. And never forget that the Majister has beaten it back, now. This isn’t like Alacan, where they magicked themselves to death, spreading the bramble around because they couldn’t stop themselves from risking magic’s curse. The Majister and his favored are strong and powerful men, but they have made a great city for us that is safe. Do not forget that.”

I flinched from the steely anger in his voice. “I do not forget.” I could never forget. My parents never let me forget.

“Good.” He relaxed, seeing his words take root in me. “Now go get some sleep. You’ve been working through the night. The duke and his son will be here soon enough. And then we will see where we stand.”

 

I thrashed and kicked when I felt a hand on my brow. My mother pulled back from my bed, hands raised against my fists. “Hush,” she said, “it’s just me. Hush. The duke has arrived.”

Wild-eyed with fear, I took a moment to hug my blankets close to me and looked at her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “My dreams tore at me.”

I rubbed at my crusty eyes. In some ways, just getting a few hours of sleep hurt more than if I’d just stayed up. Maybe that was why such horrors had come to me.

“What did you dream?” my mother asked.

For a moment I didn’t want to tell her. But then I swallowed. “I dreamed about measuring Savar.”

Her face darkened, but she tried to make light of it for a moment. “But your father and I have been talking to Ivica and Anshoula. At your request! If we should be talking to the duke…”

But I was no mood for her false smiles. She’d named Djoka’s parents, the man I’d hoped to join our houses with. Djoka was a large man, larger than my father. Born of a long line of farriers, he was large enough wrestle an unruly horse that objected to being shoed.

Djoka’s family lived at the far end of the street, and just sitting under their roof often made me feel safe. Like I had journeyed to a land of giants. Like the stories of Okenaide, who had hurled boulders at the army of Jhandpara during the conquest of the northern forests.

“Savar leered at me. All I did was dream of it. He didn’t touch me.” I shrugged. “I dreamed that he leered at me, and then cut my throat and threw me into the Sulong. I dreamed I was lying there, drifting under the great bridge and the blue smoke. Bleeding into the dark, cold water. My head bobbing along just like the head of Malabaz’s wife. You know he betrayed her to Majister Scacz for magic, right? Even as she stood amongst the rest of her family’s bodies?”

“By all the gods, child. Don’t say such things.” My mother’s smile burned away, replaced with worry. “Get out to the forge with me. We will stand by your father and see what the duke’s word brings.”

I grabbed my heavy leather apron from the hook on my side of the common room and shouldered it on. My mother cracked the thick and heavy door to the forge, and I heard the duke’s word right away.

“You idiot,” he snarled at my father. He pointed at the armor standing in the corner of the forge like a straw man-at-arms. “I don’t care about your coin problems. I gave you gold, Blacksmith. I gave you all the gold you said you needed to make my son a suit of armor.”

“My Duke,” my father said, bowing as far as his protective leather apron would let him. It boiled my blood to see him do it. But what choice did he have?

“My Duke, my Duke,” Savar mocked him by repeating the words. “That won’t bring you mercy, Blacksmith.”

“Please, lords,” my mother said, also bowing as she stepped forward. Malabaz looked at us, seeing us for the first time. His lip curled slightly and my heart beat faster with fear. I felt like a rabbit cornered between a patch of bramble and a dog when he looked at me.

His pale, wrinkled skin sagged under his ratlike eyes as he looked my mother up and down. “What?” he spat.

“We cannot buy vitreous ndeza easily in the city, not in the amounts you need. It’s not about the gold, it’s about how little of the yellow we can make. You know that it is harder and harder to get things from the other cities. Bramble chokes the roads, kills the sources of what we need. The last shipment of ndeza arrived a month ago, the sign makers hoard it. We purchased all we could, but the price rises each week. We need the other half of the promised pay for the armor, and even then, we will not break even, but craft this armor in your honor. Please, my child goes hungry.”

Malabaz sneered. “I don’t care about your brat. Your inability to run your business effectively is not my problem.”

Savar moved to look over at the armor. And leaned in to see the fine engraving and detail. The house sigil’s swoops of gold.

His lust showed clearly in the sickly yellow light.

Ever sensitive to the manner of a sale, my father leaned in. Seeing opportunity, he became a merchant artisan again. My pride bloomed. “Look at the craftmanship your son admires, my Duke. That fine work, you won’t get that anywhere else. I’m a strong blacksmith, and I can tame the heavy metals. But my wife’s family were jewelers who hailed from Paika, and together, no one can make finer, stronger things than our small house. And my daughter’s hand has been trained by both of us.”

“Takaz pisses on your bloodlines,” Malabaz snapped while Savar laughed, turning and watching on. Malabaz simmered, and I struggled to understand his rage. The offer my parents made was fair. He could see for himself that most of the armor stood before him. It was true we feared the velvet folk on Malvia Hill. But now that I saw a human, and a wrinkled old one at that, before me, the awe had fled.

Yet, this flabby-skinned creature could kill us all. There was an evil mind there.

And as I struggled to understand it, that same cruel face pinned me with sudden attention.

“Your daughter, your daughter,” Duke Malabaz whined. “You keep mewling about her. But there’s your solution.”

The anger in his eyes changed to satisfaction as his lips quirked.

“My Duke?” my father asked.

Duke Malabaz pointed at me. “Sell your daughter.”

My mother blurted a wail that she quickly stifled, and my father shook his head. “I don’t understand. You want to buy my daughter?”

“That’s why I’m a duke, and you’re a tradesman,” Malabaz hissed. “You’re slow in the head. Sell your daughter. She’s squat and muscled like stone, you’ll hardly get a good bride price. Sell her to the soft men. Prick her one night with bramble, and she won’t even notice. She’ll fall asleep, and there will be hard men who want a stone troll like that. Like the ones who clear my fields of bramble. No one will blame you when they see her in the bramble sleep.”

Savar snorted and looked at his father.

“It won’t be the first time a family has done this,” Savar said with a knowing smirk, “for the chance to stay alive on this side of the river.”

My father opened his mouth, but I put my hand on his forearm.

Malabaz was pleased with his solution. “I will be back in two sunrises, blacksmith. There is no more gold for you. You will complete the armor. There is a deadline. If you do not, I will have your head decorating a pike. I will ask it of Majister Scacz himself.”

My father shrank back from the invocation of that name.

“Good,” Malabaz said. “I see you know who I mean. Scacz will be here in Lesser Khaim, to oversee the clearing of some land that he will be gifting the Duke Borka for his new hold. If my armor is not ready, you will die at the hands of the Majister himself. I promise you this.”

He slid his way out of the house, and Savar, with one last look at the armor, followed him.

I closed and barred the door behind the trailing edge of Savar’s cloak.

We all looked at anything in the forge but one another, or the armor.

“He spoke pure truth when he said there was no more gold for me. He never intended to pay the other half for the armor,” my father muttered to himself, a realization spilling out of him. “That’s why he was so angered we came so close but could not finish, and why he refuses to give us any more.”

My mother brushed at the tears on her cheeks. “He is a murderous bastard son of a lesser duke who married his way into power. Borzai piss on his bloodlines.”

“I’m a fool,” my father said, sitting on his bench heavily. “I’m a fool.”

“Just to have come even would have been a boon,” my mother reassured him. “How could we ignore it? We never had a choice, he was a duke.”

I watched them, but didn’t join. My own family suddenly didn’t feel like a warm and safe place for me. I could only think of the prick of the bramble brushing against my skin in the late night, for what other choices might my parents have? “I have a thought,” I said.

And they turned as one to look at me, a faint sliver of hope in their eyes.

Excerpted from The Tangled Lands, copyright © 2018 by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

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