What if you knew how and when you will die?
Csorwe does—she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.
But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.
But Csorwe will soon learn—gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.
A.K. Larkwood’s debut fantasy, The Unspoken Name, is available February 11, 2020 from Tor Books. Read chapter three below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one. Check back here for additional excerpts up until the book’s release.
A letter arrived one day when Sethennai was travelling with the Boars, and Csorwe was suffering once again from the pluperfect subjunctive.
“Must you be so slow?” snapped Parza. “You cannot travel to Qarsazh and talk like this, unless you want them to think you are a barbarian and laugh in your face. Again. We covered this last week. If-only-I-had-travelled-to-the-town,” he chanted, tapping the cover of his lexicon in time with the words. The point of his beard bobbed up and down like a bird pecking at a worm.
“If only you had stayed at home,” she muttered, baring her tusks at him behind his back. Her adult tusks had come in over the last year. Nearly full grown, they still ached at the roots sometimes, and Parza’s lessons seemed to make them worse. She ignored Parza’s hiss of displeasure as one of the maids from the wineshop knocked at the door with the post.
The letter was bulkier than usual, a heavy packet of waxed paper, tied with several loops of string and sealed with a lump of unstamped beeswax. The name Belthandros Sethennai was neatly inscribed on the front.
Csorwe spent as long as she could tipping and thanking the maid. Parza was supposed to leave in a quarter of an hour and she was prepared to scrape every minute of freedom that she could.
“Stop wasting time,” said Parza, from the sitting room. “I will not leave until you can recite it perfectly. I have all day.”
“Wonder why they kicked you out of Qarsazh,” said Csorwe under her breath, and stalked back into the room with the letter in her hands. “I have to deal with this,” she said. “Might be important.”
This wasn’t exactly a lie. She often helped Sethennai with his correspondence. It was good practice in languages for her. If this one was ciphered then she couldn’t actually read it, but opening the packet and filing the contents in Sethennai’s cabinet might save her from Parza’s example sentences for another thirty seconds.
Parza huffed and shuffled his papers, but he wasn’t about to interfere in Sethennai’s business. Csorwe sat down at the desk with the packet and began snipping through the strings.
As she cut the final strand, she realised what she had missed. Sethennai’s letters were always addressed to Pelthari. Nobody here ought to know his real name.
“Oh, shit,” she said.
“Such language,” said Parza, clicking his tongue. “But I suppose if Dr. Pelthari will encourage you to associate with street persons—”
Csorwe barely heard him. Her pulse began to race, beating out a rhythm of dread against her breastbone. She shoved the packet hastily away as the beeswax seal began to peel of its own accord, flaking off in shards and turning to dust.
Behind the wax seal, there was a sigil worked on the paper in some red-brown pigment, a spiral of interlocking curves that squirmed on the page. Looking at it was like biting into a peach and finding several worms wriggling inside.
“What are you—” said Parza, coming up behind her. “Sorcery,” he said, in a low harsh voice she had never heard from him before. “Mother of Cities, this is a house of corruption—”
“It came in the post, Parza,” she said. She shoved back the chair and stood up, not taking her eyes off the packet. She controlled her breathing as she had been taught, making a physical effort to damp down the panic that rose in her. Was the packet going to explode? She knew so little about magic—what should she do?
Parza was praying in Qarsazhi, stumbling over the couch toward the door. She ignored him.
The letter was unwrapping itself. The leaves of paper unfolded with a dry, leathery sound, like scales on sand. There was a strong smell: hot metal, scorched hair, and—something else, something Csorwe hadn’t encountered for years. A whisper of incense, a shadow of lotus.
“By the gods—” said Parza, now flat against the front door of the apartment and wrestling with the handle. “Run, you blind fool, don’t just stare at it—”
Csorwe did not want to see what was inside the packet. But how could she explain herself to Sethennai if she let the apartment burn or explode or whatever was about to happen?
With a calm that startled her, she returned to the table where they’d been studying, and sized up Parza’s lexicon: a slab of leather and parchment as thick and heavy as a paving stone.
The letter was still unleafing itself. Csorwe lifted the book over her head and dropped it on the packet. There was a crunch, and silence.
She fell back into the chair, winded with delayed terror, and sat there for a moment or two, watching. Just in case. Once she was as certain as she could be that the packet wasn’t going to come back to life, she crept out onto the landing and found Parza.
“I dealt with it,” she said.
“You cannot deal with magic,” he said, glaring at her. Parza often glared at her, but this was a different quality of anger. He was still terrified.
“Suppose I should just have run away like you did,” said Csorwe.
“Yes,” said Parza. “If you had been educated in a civilised country you would know that. Run away and inform the Inquisitorate—not that such a thing exists in this godsforsaken world—”
“Well, I dropped the lexicon on it,” she said, knowing he would shriek about it. “My lexicon!” said Parza.
“How—” He broke off. She followed his gaze to see that something was seeping out from under the door to the apartment. Curls of some dark substance, like liquid smoke, were branching and creeping across the floorboards toward them.
“Mother of Cities,” said Parza. “You dealt with it, did you?”
“I—” The smoke was already a few feet from the door, moving much faster than it should. The stuff was billowing up from the floor, rising in puffs and then narrowing into thready black tendrils. It seemed to be reaching out for her. She wished she hadn’t left her sword inside, useless as it was likely to be.
For a second she was frozen with guilt and terror, staring at the escaping smoke as Parza pushed past her to get away from it.
“Magic is an abomination to the gods,” he said. “May the Nine forgive us for—”
She ought to warn them downstairs. This was the wineshop’s busiest time of day. There would be dozens of people in the taproom, innocent of what was going on up here.
Sethennai had done everything he could to keep a low profile. He never used magic here. But they would have no choice but to leave Grey Hook now. Parza had already seen too much, and if dozens of patrons were thrown out of a wineshop—well. This would be the end of their comfortable life.
She’d known it had to end sooner or later, but the idea of cutting it short through her own thoughtless actions was more than she could bear. Why had she accepted the letter? She had ruined everything because she was frustrated with Parza, of all things.
Parza was still gibbering. She opened the door of the nearby linen cupboard and pushed him inside. She’d figure out how to deal with him later, or Sethennai would.
“Stay here,” she said, ignoring his protests. “I will deal with it.”
She shut the door on him and strode back toward the apartment, squaring her shoulders and snapping her tusks, as if faking bravado might help somehow.
She realised now that she should have destroyed the sigil on the envelope. She didn’t know much about magic, but Sethennai had warned her about this kind of device. If you could break the control sigil, the rest of the working was supposed to come apart like a wagon with a busted axle. If she could get to the desk and tear up the paper… well, she had no idea what would happen, but it was the only plan she had.
She opened the door to the apartment and stepped inside. It was as dark as night. The smoke blotted out any light that filtered through the shutters. The air smelled thickly of grave dirt, and mingled with it— again—the scent of burning lotus. Breathing it in, Csorwe felt a familiar sensation—the numbness of body, the dimming of sight, the taste of rust—and for a moment she thought she would drown in it. The rush of unwelcome memories threatened to close over her head and carry her away: the hall of the House of Silence, the insinuating presence of the Unspoken One, the weight of the bowl of blood in her hand.
She clenched her fists and willed the memory away. If she breathed in any more lotus she was going to fall down and start gibbering before she could do anything about the sigil. She held her breath as she struggled toward the desk. It was like fighting through syrup. It took a terrible, infuriating effort to move her legs, as though these three years of training had abandoned her all at once and left her weaker than before. She was less than halfway to the desk when she tripped over a footstool. Her knees gave out altogether and despite her efforts she gasped, sucking in huge gulps of the poisoned air. Her vision clouded and she felt herself falling again, as though the floor had opened up and revealed an abyss.
The crypts beneath the House of Silence never ended, she saw, as her thoughts scattered in panic. She was never going to be free. They were underneath her wherever she went and now they were claiming her.
No. The boards under her hands and knees were real. She was real. She was still here, in Sethennai’s apartment. She was no longer the girl who had climbed to the Shrine, with no idea that there was any world beyond. That was behind her.
Her body was numb, and moving each muscle was an effort. But she managed to get to her knees, and to drag herself from chair to table and up to the desk, where Parza’s lexicon still sat on top of the crushed letter. The smoke was spiralling out from under the book. The smell in the air was much thicker here, and she felt the crushing, obliterating pressure of the lotus on her sight and reason.
She swatted at the book with hands that felt like empty gloves, but she couldn’t muster the strength to lift it. At last she managed to grip the edge of the packet and drag it out some way from under the book. The clouds of lotus-smoke seethed around her, pulling her down into a vision.
It would be so much easier if she would just let herself go. If she would just drink in the fumes, and sleep and dream and float in the darkness and the deep.
No-no! she thought, as her knees slackened again and she slid back to the floor. She hauled on the paper, furious with her weak body and sluggish mind.
It was too late. The years had made her body strong, but they had sapped her tolerance for the lotus. As she blacked out, she heard the sound of paper tearing, but she was too far gone to wonder what it might mean.
Someone lifted and carried her, and she struggled feebly.
“Csorwe,” said a voice. “Be calm.” It was Sethennai.
He put her down on what she now realised was the couch in their apartment. The lotus fog was gone. A brief flash of relief gave way to trepidation. Sethennai did not look happy. He was dressed in his Blue Boars uniform. He must have returned from his assignment to find the apartment trashed and Csorwe half dead. He must be furious.
“What happened?” he said, in a flat voice that she had never heard before.
She was both cold and sweaty, as though she had just run through the rain. She unclenched her clammy fingers, revealing a ripped sheet of waxed paper that had been crushed in her fist.
He took it from her and unfolded it, flattening it out against his knee— and revealing half the sigil, roughly torn across. Like a beetle pierced with a pin, it was no longer wriggling.
Sethennai startled, drawing his hands back from the dead sigil as if it might still bite. “This was part of a curse-ward,” he said. “What made you think you could handle this?”
“I didn’t want to ruin your cover,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
He closed his eyes and breathed out slowly, visibly controlling himself. “I think you’re going to have to explain exactly what happened.”
She did, her face hot with shame. Sethennai relaxed a little when he learned that only Parza had been there to witness it.
“He’s not a chatterer,” said Sethennai. “Perhaps I’ll raise his salary.” He still looked grim enough to worry her. A dull sickness had settled in her belly, rivalling the lotus headache that thundered behind her eyes.
“There was lotus in it,” she said. “You know, from the—you know.”
“I do,” said Sethennai.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, averting her eyes.
He sighed again. “It was an error of judgment,” he said. “I expect better from you. But there is no harm done. I am very glad of that.”
“Do we have to leave the city?” she said. “Was it Olthaaros?”
He went to the desk to retrieve the other half of the paper, unfolded it, and held it up to match the two halves of the control sigil.
“No, I don’t think it was,” said Sethennai. To Csorwe’s immense relief, he sounded intrigued. He never stayed angry when something piqued his interest. “If Olthaaros knew where we were, he would have come for us himself.”
He looked back at the paper. The broken sigil had the quality of an old bloodstain, inert but vivid.
“And I very much doubt that Olthaaros would have primed his curse with ashes of lotus. No. This was a different friend. One who possibly likes me even less.” He smiled to himself. “Still so bitter.”
“I don’t understand,” said Csorwe. She wouldn’t have admitted it if she hadn’t been so exhausted. Her head felt like it was full of slime and pins. With the arrival of relief, all the fight had gone out of her, and she wanted to go to bed. “Are we in danger?”
He was still smiling. It seemed that Csorwe had faded from his list of immediate concerns. “Not imminently. This wasn’t a serious attempt on my life. You were never supposed to open the packet.”
“I know, I shouldn’t have—” she said.
He shook his head. “It was meant for me. You could understand it as part of a game. A little bubble of poison, now lanced. Oranna may want many things, but she doesn’t want me dead.”
“Oranna—you mean that Oranna? The librarian?” said Csorwe.
“She hasn’t ever forgiven me for leaving her in the House of Silence,” he said.
Csorwe still remembered Oranna’s first meeting with Sethennai in the Library, and the look that had passed between them. With a sharp jolt she realised what such a look might have meant.
“You mean—” she started, and couldn’t think how she could possibly phrase it.
It was surprisingly hard to come to terms with the idea of Sethennai having a—having any kind of—well, he wasn’t that old—but maybe she was making a crude assumption and that wasn’t what he’d meant at all?
“Were you… in love?” she said, not meeting his eye. She’d picked the wrong word. Too small and ordinary.
“In love?” said Sethennai. He sounded charmed, as if Csorwe was a parrot that had unexpectedly learned a new word. She shrivelled further into the couch. “Not really, I don’t think,” he said, sounding like he’d never considered it.
She had learned from the Blue Boars about what people might get up to on their own time, and all kinds of words to describe their activities, but even trying to think of Sethennai in the same sentence made a heavy door slam shut in her brain.
She had begun to feel so clever and knowledgeable lately, getting good at swordplay and conjugations, but she had managed to miss this completely. She buried her face in one of the couch cushions to hide her blush. Sethennai, however, had been distracted again by the letter. The matter was evidently closed.
The surface of the desk, around Parza’s lexicon, was grubby with lotus-dust, settled into spirals around the book.
“Hmm,” said Sethennai, poking the book with the end of a pen. “Safety first.”
He retrieved his gauntlets from inside his coat and pulled them on. Csorwe almost never saw him wear them: only when he meant to use magic, it seemed. The gauntlets were made of soft dark leather, and like everything Sethennai owned, they had once been etched with some kind of decoration, now faded with long use and wear.
He removed the lexicon and inspected it, raising his eyebrow. The back cover was scorched and cratered in a deep whorl, and a good chunk of pages were burnt through.
“I’ll have to pay Parza for this,” he said.
“Sorry,” said Csorwe. “It was the nearest thing.”
Sethennai grinned at her. His good mood seemed to be restored, as though Oranna’s letter really had been a fond message from an old friend. “Quick thinking, though. And if you’re going to destroy a book, I’d much rather it be Parza’s than one of mine.”
He returned to the desk. Where the lexicon had been, there was a similar hole burnt into the surface of the desk. Csorwe cringed a little to see it, because the desk had been expensive, but Sethennai was so cheerful that he hardly seemed to notice.
“Now look at this,” he said, scooping up a handful of slender objects from the ruined desk. Csorwe craned her neck to see. Cupped in the palm of his hand was a collection of little bones, most no bigger than a matchstick. They had been imperfectly cleaned, and some were still linked by shreds of dry skin and cartilage. “Oh, we’re lucky that you didn’t completely destroy them. I can use this.”
Csorwe slid farther down on the couch, half listening. She needed a drink of water to wash out the taste of rust, but she couldn’t coax herself into getting up just yet. This news about Oranna had jarred her, and she couldn’t work out why. It wasn’t as though she really thought the House of Silence and all its denizens had ceased to exist the moment she left. But it was not pleasant to learn they were really still so close.
“How did Oranna know our address?” she said, still half buried in the couch.
“I’m afraid that’s because I took the risk of writing to her,” said Sethennai. “She and I spoke long ago about collaborating on our research. I wanted to know whether she was still interested. I suppose this is her answer.”
He was back at his desk, arranging the collection of bones in some kind of order, thimble-sized skull and tiny serrated jawbone and all.
“Guess she said no,” said Csorwe, hoping she was right.
“Hmm,” said Sethennai. “I’m not sure. You see, this is the skeleton of a small bat.”
He sounded bewilderingly pleased. Csorwe muffled a groan in a cushion.
“No such animal is native to northern Oshaar. They like warm places. Oranna has left the House of Silence on her own initiative. This isn’t a denial—it’s an invitation. She must have a lead on the Reliquary.”
Sethennai left the apartment that night after Csorwe finally went to bed, and took the bat skeleton with him. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear overnight. He was usually back by morning, but Csorwe found herself wishing he had stayed behind. She didn’t think Oranna was about to turn up at the wineshop and demand that Csorwe go back to the Shrine, or anything like that—but the apartment felt less secure, like a still-usable cup with a single crack.
She couldn’t help thinking about Sethennai and Oranna, as little as she wanted to. It was unsettling that she’d missed some huge aspect of his character, and hadn’t even known there was anything to miss. It made her wonder what he was like when he was away.
She was woken by a knock on the door. It was still the middle of the night, and Sethennai was back. He tossed her a date pastry and told her to pack a bag.
“The mailship leaves in an hour,” he said, as if surprised she didn’t already know the plan.
“I’m coming with you?” she said, still surfacing from sleep. “Where are we going?” She knew from long experience that it was no use trying to tell him that she was supposed to have sparring practice that morning and lessons that afternoon.
“Echentyr. The Withered City,” he said. This obviously meant nothing to her. “Bring your sword and something warm to wear.”
“I always do,” she said, already out of bed and searching in her drawer of winter clothes. “How long will we be gone?” she said, but Sethennai had left the room.
Although it was the middle of the night, the dockside was crammed with people. The mailship loomed up ahead, a huge, heavy-laden vessel, listing slightly in its mooring cradle. Csorwe and Sethennai ducked around a woman who was arguing with a crewman about shipping a tank of live eels, and past a team of dockers loading barrels of arrack, and then they were up the gangplank and aboard.
Sethennai paid for a private cabin. Csorwe threw her bag onto the top bunk and peered out of the porthole. The ship had already unmoored and was beginning its ascent to the Gate of Grey Hook.
“Where’s Echentyr?” said Csorwe. “I was listening to the others when we got on board. Everyone else seems to think we’re going to Torosad.”
Torosad was the largest city in Oshaar. It was a long, long way from the House of Silence, but it was still closer than Csorwe ever wanted to go.
“They are going to Torosad,” said Sethennai. Perhaps he spotted her scowl, and relented. “Echentyr is in a dead zone. Nobody in their right mind will take us there. When the ship stops to refuel we’ll hire a cutter and take ourselves.”
They were getting close to the Gate by now. Green light came in through the portholes, swirling and flickering as though thousands of wings beat within it. Csorwe peered out and saw the frame of the Gate itself, big enough to swallow a dozen mailships.
This was the first time Csorwe had Gate-travelled since their arrival in the city. It turned out that the experience wasn’t as unpleasant on board a ship as it was on foot. You still had the feeling of dropping out of reality, but at least the solid timbers of the ship didn’t change. This was some comfort: Csorwe felt as though she had dropped out of reality when she opened the cursed letter, and was falling still.
“You think Oranna’s in Echentyr,” she said, picking her words carefully. Sethennai did get annoyed if you asked him too many questions, or if they were foolish. “Because of the bat.”
“Quite right,” he said. “That bat lived many centuries ago, when the jungles of Echentyr were still green and growing. But if you look closely at the deep structure of its bones, you see that it’s been degraded at every level by magic. There’s the original cataclysm that killed everything in Echentyr, of course—hence the dead zone—and then there’s another layer of post-mortem damage. I think she probably reanimated the poor little beast.”
Normally, Csorwe would just nod and look attentive, but she was still struggling for her footing, trying to work out how to place Oranna in the constellation of Sethennai’s concerns.
“And you think she’s got the Reliquary,” she said. “Or she knows where it is. Or something.”
“Hmm,” said Sethennai, settling back on the lower bunk. “I don’t know about that. I’d be surprised if she’s got it outright. I imagine she’s persuaded herself she has a lead.”
Seeing that Sethennai was planning to rest, Csorwe scrambled up into the top bunk and laid her head on her backpack.
“But I do want to see what’s made her think that,” he said. “I’ve been looking for the Reliquary since before you were born. Unless she found something in the library of the House of Silence after all…”
Even after all these years, Csorwe knew little more about the Reliquary of Pentravesse than what she had seen in her original vision. It was an eight-sided rosewood box. It was as ancient as it was valuable. And she thought Pentravesse was a person rather than a place, but that was just a hunch.
Csorwe had never been naturally curious, and the House of Silence had always been pretty clear about what you deserved if you poked your nose into things you didn’t understand. But she couldn’t help wondering what it was he wanted badly enough to swallow his pride and go running after Oranna. Even if he liked her, or had liked her, or at any rate if something close to liking had once existed between them, he wasn’t someone you could summon at will.
She gazed up at the crisscrossed timbers of the cabin ceiling, trying to think up a sidelong way to get round to it. “Who was he, sir?” she said, eventually. “Pentravesse, I mean.”
“Ah,” said Sethennai. She couldn’t see him, but he sounded reassuringly warm and drowsy. He had the knack for making himself comfortable almost immediately, even if he had been running and scheming all night. “Pentravesse. The Master of Devices. Yes.”
Csorwe should have known what she was getting into. She pulled the blanket over herself and listened.
“Pentravesse was born over three thousand years ago, in Ormary, a country which no longer exists. His origins are not recorded. But he went on to become the greatest magician—the greatest inventor—perhaps the greatest genius who has ever lived.
“Before Pentravesse, you understand, magic was nothing more than prayer. Magicians were prophets, bound to their divinities, mad and sick with their power. They could heal and harm and call down visions, channelling the power directly through their own flesh and bone, but they were limited by the strength of their own bodies and minds.
“Pentravesse was the first to learn how to drain off the power of a patron divinity into the physical realm, to ground and trap it in mundane matter, to order one’s workings with control sigils. The development of the mazeship, the alchemical engine, half of modern medicine—all rest on his discoveries. His patron was a goddess of the old order, demanding tribute, fealty, and sacrifice. But I think she too must have had an eye to the future.
“Pentravesse was just like any other mage in one respect, of course. Mortal flesh can only bear so much. Divine power is a wonderful thing, but it is also a poison. When Pentravesse realised he was dying, it’s said, he devised a plan. All his knowledge, his unfinished work, his plans, schemes, predictions, secrets, inspirations—all were preserved and contained within the Reliquary.
“Nobody knows exactly what it contains. Most of the scholarship is rather unimaginative. Blueprints for apocalyptic weapons, the formula for eternal life. I like to think he might have been more thoughtful than that. Whoever discovers it will solve one of the greatest puzzles of history. But more than that. Pentravesse changed his world, and all worlds, forever. Whoever claims the Reliquary will inherit that legacy. Imagine, Csorwe, what I could do with that knowledge.”
Csorwe had to admit to herself that she had always assumed Sethennai knew everything about magic already. A sleepy vision came to her of Sethennai dressed all in gold, accepting back his crown as Chancellor of all the world. If she had been wide awake she would have rejected this as childish and embarrassing, but in her current state, she could luxuriate in it. In this vision, Oranna and Olthaaros Charossa were long defeated, and Sethennai had the Reliquary in his hands. Csorwe was beside him, watching over him, his most reliable agent. He was Pentravesse’s heir, and she was the one person in the world whom he truly trusted.
In time, the soft rumble of Sethennai’s voice mingled with the creaking of the timbers, the muted sound of the wind, the distant chime of Gate-song, and lulled her into a half-sleep.
Despite being woken in the middle of the night, despite her lingering lotus hangover, despite the fact that Sethennai was at his most mysterious—she was beginning to feel contented. Sethennai had forgiven her mistake with the letter. He thought that she was worth bringing along, that she would actually be useful.
She tried to forget that Oranna might be waiting for them at the end of the journey. She might, or she might not. And either way, whatever Oranna meant by all this, Sethennai would be there to take Csorwe’s side. It was ridiculous to worry that Oranna would somehow drag her back to the House of Silence. Sethennai would never let that happen.
Excerpted from The Unspoken Name, copyright © 2019 by A. K. Larkwood.