The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons

The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons: Chapter 4

Debut author Jenn Lyons has created one of the funniest, most engrossing new epic fantasy novels of the 21st century in The Ruin of Kings. An eyebrow-raising cross between the intricacy of Brandon Sanderson’s worldbuilding and the snark of Patrick Rothfuss.

Which is why Tor.com is releasing one or two chapters per week, leading all the way up to the book’s release on February 5th, 2019!

Not only that, but our resident Wheel of Time expert Leigh Butler will be reading along and reacting with you. So when you’re done with this week’s chapter, head on over to Reading The Ruin of Kings for some fresh commentary.

Our journey continues….

 

 

4: Butterbelly
(Talon’s story)

Pre-dawn light tinged the sky with amethyst, and turned the wisps of Tya’s rainbow veil into half-imagined phantoms. Most shops closed at night, but the pawnshop owner and fence the locals nicknamed Butterbelly paid no heed to the time. Two lanterns lit his cramped shop, while Butterbelly’s most precious possession, an oil lamp filled from the sacred Temple of Light, sat at his right hand. His oil paints were spread over the battered old teak dining table he used for a desk; his canvas and brushes rested on an easel beside that.

When Butterbelly painted, he strayed into a world of beauty and light far from the ugly realities of the Lower Circle. He painted from memory and he painted all night.

His customers came to him at night anyway.

Butterbelly had just put away his paints when the alley gate bell rang. Rook entered, looking as though an army of Watchmen followed close behind. Butterbelly frowned.

He’d never seen the young man so scared.

Rook stepped into the shop, looked behind him, and shuddered as he closed the door. He stopped only long enough to rub the head of Butterbelly’s bronze almost-twin—his Tavris statue, fat god of merchants and profit. The gesture was habitual, done for luck.

“You got the guard chasing you, boy?” Butterbelly called out.

Rook stared at the pawnbroker, shocked, then laughed nervously. “Nooo. No, nothing like that.”

“You sure? You’re awfully pale and acting like you got a hell-hound on your ass.” Butterbelly frowned. “You’re not bringing bad business into my shop, are you, boy?”

Rook glanced around the pawnshop filled with strange tidbits, found artifacts, cases of jewelry, weapons, clothing, and furniture. Seeing it empty of customers, he crossed over to Butterbelly’s desk. Halfway there, his mood changed. Between the old carved mermaid scavenged from a Zheriaso pirate ship and the cabinet of secondhand Khorveshan silver, Rook’s fear turned to anger. By the time he reached the desk, he was livid with it.

“Butterbelly, I swear if you’ve set me up I’ll string you up from the rafters by the ropy guts in that big fat stomach—”

“Woah! Boy! What’s wrong!? I’d never cross you!” Butterbelly raised one hand in a gesture of surrender. He put his other hand on the crossbow he kept under the table to deal with difficult “negotiations,” just in case.

Rook moved his hands, flicked them over his sleeves, and suddenly held twin shivs. “I mean you told someone else about the Kazivar House. Someone was there first.”

Butterbelly eyed the daggers. “Put those away, Rook. We’ve been good business for each other, ain’t we? The Kazivar job was your claim. And my tip came from a good source—”

“What source? Who told you about that house?”

“I can’t tell you that! It’s a good source. A trusted source. Never let me down. Why would I ring you out to someone else anyway? I make no profit that way. ’Sides, I know what the Shadowdancers would do if they even thought I was snitching.”

Rook scowled, but he lowered the knives. “Someone was there when I showed up,” he said.

“Shadowdancers?”

“I…” Rook bit his lip. He pulled his ring of key tiles from his belt, fidgeting with the strips. He counted past cypress, teak, tung wood, and bamboo as the samples clicked against each other. “No. Not one of ours.”

“What then?”

“I don’t know. They were killing someone, but I didn’t get a look at any of them.”

“You sure? You were white as the city walls when you walked in here.” And awfully shaken up for somebody who didn’t see nothing, Butterbelly thought to himself.

Rook shrugged. “The screams were something else. Didn’t want to see what made them.”

The fat man stopped and cocked his head in the teenager’s direction. “If you ain’t seen nothing and you ain’t got nothing, whataya doing here? I ain’t running a charity for orphaned boys, and even if I was, you’ve already found yourself a pa.”

Rook grinned and tucked his key ring away again. “Oh, I didn’t say I found nothing. Mouse trained me better than that.” He pulled a small bag from his belt and jingled it.

“That’s my boy,” the fence said. “Come bring that swag round here and let me feel the weight of its metal.”

Rook walked around the desk, saw the easel and canvas painting, and gave a low whistle. He set the small bag on the table.

Butterbelly grinned at the boy’s reaction. “You like her?”

The pawnshop owner was surprised to see pink color the boy’s cheeks. “Yeah. She’s… umm… she’s great.”

“That one’s going up at the Shattered Veil Club. Not finished yet. I want at least one more sitting with the new girl. What’s her name? Miria? Or something… ?”

“Morea,” Rook said as he stared at the painting.

“That’s it,” Butterbelly said. “Cute girl.”

“Yeah.” Rook continued staring as if he’d never seen a pair of titties before, which was unlikely, considering.

Butterbelly chuckled as he produced a jeweler’s loupe from his stained robes. This was better than Rook’s usual loot, much better. The intaglio-carved ruby ring alone was worth several thousand thrones if he could find the right buyer.

Butterbelly said, “Not bad. I’ll give you four hundred chalices for the lot.”

“Four hundred? Only four hundred?” Rook looked skeptical.

“It’s a good price.” It was a lousy price and Butterbelly knew it, but better and safer than Rook would find anywhere else. “Ain’t I always straight with you?”

Rook raised an eyebrow. “That’s a ruby, Butterbelly.”

Damn, he needed to stop thinking the boy was one those roughs who couldn’t tell the difference between a ruby and a chunk of pink quartz. Rook was a Key. And as Rook’s late teacher Mouse had once explained to Butterbelly, every substance in the world had an aura distinct from every other. A Key could use their sight to tell if a coin was painted lead or real gold, and if gold, what purity. If a certain teenage ragamuffin had been smart enough to keep master samples, he could also use it to identify just what sort of precious gem he’d stolen. Damn the boy for his smarts, they had been no help to Butterbelly’s business. “Not ruby, but spinel.” He corrected. “And warm to the touch, like.”

Rook cursed and half-turned away. “Taja! That matches pure, Butterbelly. Raven has a ruby earring, a real one, so don’t rain me.”

Butterbelly rubbed the corners of his mouth and looked at the boy. Rook was tall, taller than anyone Butterbelly knew and not full-grown. Prettier than anything a local would encounter outside a velvet house too. His whole body was a walking advertisement of foreign ancestry. Sure, Rook dyed his hair black—either because he thought black hair would fit the name “Rook” or because of some fool notion he’d fit in better—but Butterbelly thought it looked stupid. The funny thing was, despite his looks, Rook did have a talent for vanishing on a man if he wasn’t paying attention. Butterbelly never figured out how a boy so out of place could be so damn good at the sneak.

Maybe some people were born to be thieves.

“If you don’t mind me being nosy,” Butterbelly changed the subject, “you been working with me since Mouse went south, what, three years?”

Rook shrugged. “So?”

“So, what gives most kids away is you spend the money too fast. Even the Watchmen are smart enough to know something’s up, when some urchin too young for service burns a path through Velvet Town. But not you. You never spend a coin, so the guards and the witch-hunters ain’t ever come looking. By my count, you have a bundle tucked away somewhere. What does a boy your age need so much money for, anyway? You thinking of getting out?”

Rook crossed his arms over his chest and didn’t answer.

Butterbelly waved his hand in front of his face. “Never mind. None of my business anyhow.”

“It’s not for me.”

Butterbelly stopped and looked at Rook for a long minute. He’d had a good idea it wasn’t for Rook. Folks in the Shadowdancers weren’t supposed to know each other’s real names, but even in a city with one million people during the dry season, the residents of a quarter were bound to run into each other. Since Butterbelly scouted out the models for his paintings from the velvet houses of the quarter, there were few houses he had never visited. He knew Rook’s given name was Kihrin. He knew Rook’s adopted father was a blind musician named Surdyeh who eked out a meager living performing at the Shattered Veil Club. And he knew Rook wanted the money not for himself, but so Surdyeh could retire to a life spared from the toil of nonstop performances on arthritic fingers. It made Butterbelly all maudlin if he thought about it too hard.

Sometimes he was tempted to give the kid a break, but Butterbelly always got over the impulse.

He ducked his head once and nodded. “All right. Yeah, okay. I see it. You’re a good kid, Rook. Don’t let no one tell you different just because your ma weren’t no local girl. You want me to send you the money the normal way?”

“Wait. We haven’t settled on a price yet. There’s something else I want to show you—”

The street bell rang as someone stepped into the pawnshop. Butterbelly saw who it was and groaned.

A voice called from the front of the shop as a teenage boy swaggered forward. “Well hell. If it ain’t my favorite velvet boy. You trading favors for metal, Rook? I got a spear that could use polishing.” He grabbed his crotch just in case Rook missed the innuendo.

Rook didn’t turn his head to acknowledge the newcomer, but Butterbelly saw the boy’s knuckles turn white as he squeezed the edge of the table.

Rook said, “Butterbelly, next time Princess has kittens do you want me to bring you a couple? Your shop seems to have a problem with rats.”

The bell rang again as several more teenagers entered the pawnshop behind the first.

“You boys remember where you are. No fighting.” Butterbelly admonished all of them.

“Oh, I was just having fun. Right, Rook?” The leader of the newcomers was a hardened, creased street tough a few years older than Rook. Butterbelly had seen a hundred like him in the course of his career: bullies and sadists who thought membership of the Shadowdancers was a sure amnesty against all crimes. Sooner or later, most learned their lesson, often in chains. Some never did. The street tough moved his left hand toward Rook’s back.

He had no right hand.

“Touch me, Ferret, and you’ll lose the other hand too,” Rook said. He’d pulled the knives back out of his sleeves.

“How many times do I have to tell you? It’s Faris!” However, Faris draw back his hand.

Rook didn’t smile. “That’s okay. You’ll always be a weasel to me.”

“No fighting.” Butterbelly shouted as both teens readied weapons. “Remember where you are.”

Faris and Rook had history. Worse, they’d once been friends. Although something had soured that friendship, turned it into a seething hate, Butterbelly never knew the specifics. Maybe it was as simple as jealousy: Rook had grown up handsome and singled out for special training as a Key, and Faris had not. There were darker rumors of what had happened, involving Mouse and her death. Rumors that Butterbelly wasn’t sure he wanted to believe.

Faris laughed and held up his good hand and the stump of his other arm. “Yeah, sure. No fighting at all. We just want to do business. Took some great metal off a few merchants one of my boys drugged up over at the Standing Keg.”

Rook glared. “Great for you. Why don’t you finish your business and go?”

Faris smirked. “Ladies first.”

“I’m done.” He looked at Butterbelly. “The usual will be fine.” The boy turned on his heel to leave, but two steps toward the door he stopped with one hand to his belt, his expression angry.

Butterbelly looked over to see Faris dangling Rook’s belt pouch from his fingers, a wicked smile cracking the hard leather of his face.

“Lookie what the velvet boy dropped!”

“Give that back, Rat!”

“NO FIGHTING.”

One of Faris’s boys interposed himself between Rook and Faris, who laughed and opened the small pouch. Rook’s key ring spilled out, along with an uncut green gemstone wrapped in silver.

“Ooo… look what we have here, a pretty necklace. Saving this for your next boyfriend?” Faris taunted as he held the green stone above his head.

Rook kicked Faris’s thug in the groin and pushed him out of the way. Another teenage boy pulled a wicked club from under his sallí cloak and moved in to take the first one’s place.

Butterbelly decided he’d had enough.

“Arrgh!!” The boy with the club screamed as a crossbow bolt sank into his arm.

Everyone stopped what they were doing.

“Bertok’s balls!” Faris screamed at Butterbelly. “You shot him.”

“I SAID NO FIGHTING,” Butterbelly shouted again, waving the crossbow above his head like a flag.

Faris glanced over at Rook. “He started it.”

“I was here watching, you addle-brained fool of a cutthroat. Stealing from Shadowdancers? Are you out of your MIND?”

“I was joking…”

“My arm! My arm!” The boy was moaning on the floor.

“Oh, quit your whining.” Butterbelly scolded. “I ain’t hit nothing important. Now go get yourself to a blue house for healing, before you have to explain how you was injured.”

Faris growled and stabbed a finger at Rook’s chest, as if he was something much more lethal. “You better watch your back, Rook. I’ve made friends. Important friends. Don’t think I’ve forgotten what you’ve done.”

“Likewise, Weasel,” Rook sneered. He beckoned toward Faris with two fingers. “Scabbard isn’t as nice as the city guard. He won’t just take your hand for stealing from the Shadows. Those are mine.”

The tough growled and threw the stone and key ring at the desk. Faris hurled the leather pouch to the floor and stomped on it as he exited with his friends.

Butterbelly didn’t say a word. He reloaded the crossbow and placed it under his desk again. Then he noticed the necklace. He reached for the stone with trembling fingers, hardly daring to breathe, not believing his good fortune.

“Laaka in the sea, Rook—where did you get this?” He held up the green stone and let it sparkle and glimmer in the light.

Rook picked up his belt pouch and recovered his key ring. “You know.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. That was the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Wish the Rat hadn’t seen it. Looks valuable.”

Butterbelly nodded. “Very valuable.”

The teenager chewed on his lower lip. “Is it something you can move?”

Butterbelly grinned. “Can I move it? Oh, can I ever! This, my boy, THIS, is a tsali stone, a special magical vané gem. Only thing worth more’d be if you came back with a star tear, but nobody’s got enough metal in their vaults to buy one if ya did.”

“Yeah? Raven owned a whole necklace of star tears once.”

Butterbelly snorted. “You know better than to listen to Raven’s god-king tales. Raven will have you thinking she’s the long-lost Queen of Kirpis if you give her a chance.” He waved a hand. “Anyway, this is better than a star tear. This is something I can sell.”

“It’s not wrapped in silver. I checked for that,” Rook admitted. “I don’t recognize that metal.”

“Platinum, I’d wager,” Butterbelly said. “You don’t see it much down here. It takes a Red Man to make a fire hot enough to melt the ore. Just like drussian. Expensive stuff, and that’s just the findings—the stone though—”

“It’s not emerald. It’s like the metal—nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

“Boy, if you came in here and told me you could identify what this stone is, I’d have known for sure it was fake. I’ve always had my suspicion that tsali stones just can’t be found outside vané lands, but I’m not a Key like you. Most folks just assume it must be diamond. Hard as diamond, anyway.”

“Diamond? That big?” Rook looked impressed.

“Yes, yes, yes. And there are collectors in the Upper Circle who will not only pay for such a stone, but ain’t gonna question the source.” Butterbelly’s grin faltered for a minute as he realized he was being an idiot. He’d shown the boy how excited he was, shown him that this was no common whore’s bauble. “But they are traceable, distinctive. Each stone’s unique, with its own history. I’d have to be careful.”

“How would you trace it?” The amused smile and raised eyebrow on Rook’s face told Butterbelly he’d ruined his chance to buy the rock for a pittance.

“Well… they say every single one of them stones is magic. Each with their own auras and marks. I’m surprised you didn’t figure that out on your own.”

Rook blinked and seemed to take a step back without moving. “Must have missed that.”

“Anyhow, the vané take objection to us mortals owning their stones, and I sure as hell ain’t going to ask them how they know.” The fat man reached a mental decision. “I’ll give you two thousand for everything. The tsali stone plus the rest.”

Rook seemed to make his own calculations. “I want five thousand… thrones.”

“What? Are you daft?”

“You’ll sell this one to a buyer you’ve already lined up for ten times that.”

“Hmmph. Twenty-five hundred, but only because you’re not going to just blow the money on wine and whores.”

“Three thousand, and I don’t mention this sale to Scabbard.”

Butterbelly chuckled. “You’re learning, you’re learning. All right, we’ve got a deal. I’ll send it through the usual way.” The fence stopped and leaned over toward the boy. “Or… I’ll give you six thousand for the lot if you throw in both of them.”

Rook stared at Butterbelly. “What?”

“Ah, come on, boy. I’ve known you since you were a downy-haired fellow, nothing more than a bit of golden fluff that Raven would parade around like chum for the sharks. You think I wouldn’t notice a little babe like you wearing a vané tsali stone around your throat? I offered to buy it from your Raven. She told me it wasn’t hers to sell. Can you imagine that? Raven passing up the chance to make metal? Well, you’re old enough to make your own decisions now, aincha?”

Rook’s jaw tightened. “I didn’t… it’s not for sale.”

“I see what you’re trying to do for your old man. I’ll give you five thousand for the green diamond, and another five thousand for that blue one wrapped in gold that you’re wearing. That’s enough money to get your father out of here, and be rich besides.”

Rook put his hand to his neck, fingering something under the cloth of his shirt. “Why so much?”

“Them vané stones is rare, and if I’m reading the signs right, that one you’re wearing is old. Fifteen thousand. You won’t get a better offer than that from anyone, anywhere. Come on, some trinket from a momma who ditched you can’t be worth more than getting out of this hellhole, can it?”

The teenager stared at him. Something in that stare made Butterbelly uncomfortable. Something in that stare wasn’t natural, wasn’t healthy. It made him feel small and petty.

He wondered if maybe those rumors were true.

“My necklace isn’t for sale,” Rook repeated. “Five thousand thrones for the rest. I’ll take payment the usual way.” Without another word, he left.

Butterbelly cursed and stared after Rook, irritated with himself for letting the boy take advantage of him like that. Eventually he sighed and started to cover his work before closing shop. Soon he was singing to himself.

He had a vané tsali stone, and he had a buyer. Oh, did he ever have a buyer. He knew a man who’d burned a path through the Capital looking for vané jewelry-craft of all sorts, and money was no object. He would be interested in what Butterbelly offered.

Very interested indeed.

 

Excerpted from The Ruin of Kings, copyright © 2018 by Jenn Lyons.

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