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 four below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one. Check back here for additional excerpts up until the book’s release.
The Withered City
Csorwe dozed through the rest of the journey, and stumbled through the refuelling station after Sethennai, still half asleep. The next time she really felt awake, she was sitting in the hired cutter, picking at a steamed bun Sethennai had bought her in the station canteen. Sethennai was at the wheel of the cutter, concentrating on navigation. At first they joined the traffic leaving the station, a great river of ships that split and split and thinned out as vessels moved off toward the Gates that would take them closer to Oshaar, Kasmansitr, Qarsazh, Tarasen. Sethennai broke away as soon as he could do so discreetly, wheeling off in a wide arc, down and around beneath the station. They passed through a narrow and flickering Gate, which spat them out in a part of the Maze that was all jagged needle-spires, stabbing upward in unforgiving ridges. There were no other ships to be seen. Csorwe wriggled down in the cutter, drawing her arms up into the sleeves of her winter tunic.
It was impossible to tell the time in the Maze. When fragments of the sky were visible, they shifted constantly from golden false-dawn to blue false-noon to violet false-dusk, and sometimes to shades of crimson or sea-green never seen in the sky of a living world. By Csorwe’s estimation, they travelled for a day and a half, pausing occasionally to eat more steamed buns, which were increasingly unappetising the colder they became.
They were already far from the usual routes. They passed through several Gates, but never saw another ship or another living soul.
By now Csorwe could usually gauge Sethennai’s mood from his posture. As they approached their journey’s end, he started to sit up straighter, not tense but focused.
Csorwe was almost used to Gate-travel by now, but passing from the Maze into Echentyr was more of a shock than usual: from grey jumbled stone and cold clear wind into a dry stillness. It was just warm enough to be uncomfortable, and the air tasted grimy. Below them the landscape stretched away, flat and yellow-grey, blurred and buried in haze. In the distance were structures that could have been towers, wrapped up in clouds of dust.
Something was wrong with the sky. One moment there was a clear expanse of faded grey—the next it bloomed with fresh spikes and promontories of stone. Pillars the size of mountains speared suddenly through the heavens, then flickered away. All this happened in silence, as if they were nothing more than clouds coming and going.
“This is why they call it a dead zone,” said Sethennai, taking the little ship hastily down toward a plateau just below the Gate. “It’s not safe to be in the air. We’ll be all right on the ground if we keep moving.”
They landed and Csorwe hopped out of the cutter, swinging her backpack onto her shoulders. This was the first time Sethennai had ever taken her out on one of his expeditions, and she was determined that he wouldn’t regret it. If they found Oranna, she was going to be completely professional.
They climbed down from the plateau. From horizon to horizon, the plain seemed to be littered with fallen columns or pillars. The dust in the air made it difficult to make out detail, so they were close to the ground before Csorwe realised what she was actually seeing. Not columns, but the corpses of colossal trees. Thousands of them, fallen in ranks as though flicked down by a single blow, fanning out from a point of impact far ahead.
Csorwe feared it would be slow going, clambering over the dead trees, but as they reached the ground she saw how big they really were. Each trunk was wider than she was tall, and the spaces between them were like city streets. The trees and the gaps alike were thick with dust, the colour of old paper. Csorwe reached out to touch the nearest tree and found her hand sinking to the wrist in dust. Their footprints were equally deep.
They moved out from the plateau. At first, Csorwe jumped every time a shadow fell suddenly across her path, but it was only the strange formations moving and disappearing in the sky.
“It looks like the Maze up there,” she said. The newest formation was a vast spiral complex, like an ammonite seen in a broken mirror.
“It is,” he said. “The living world decays and the bones of the Maze come through. The Maze grows out of dead worlds the way mushrooms grow out of tree stumps. In a thousand years or so this place will be entirely eaten up.”
They used to talk about the eaten worlds back at the House of Silence. She hadn’t entirely understood what that had meant. The eaten worlds and the decline of all things… she strode on ahead, shaking her head as if she could physically dislodge the thought.
Up ahead, crossing her path as it wound between two colossal trunks, was a single trail of footsteps, and a row of wheel ruts. Csorwe nudged Sethennai’s arm and pointed.
“Look! Do you think it’s Oranna? Could she have come this way?”
Sethennai nodded, looking down at her with something very much like pride.
“She must be heading towards the city,” he said. “It’s not as though there’s anywhere else to go.”
Csorwe followed Sethennai along the trail, still gloating over his pride like a hot drink on a cold day. She was so busy nursing the feeling that she almost walked straight into the first skeleton.
You might have taken it for another fallen tree. Like them, it was massive, thickly coated in grey-brown dust, lying inert as if discarded where it fell. But then you saw the individual ribs, curving up in an unbroken palisade. You saw the whole helix, looped over and under the wreckage of the forest: the dry bones of a gigantic snake.
Csorwe shrank back against the nearest tree trunk, stricken by the sight of the huge fleshless head. She could have comfortably curled up inside one of its eye sockets. Each one of its teeth was several times larger than her sword.
“Don’t worry,” said Sethennai. “They can’t hurt you.”
“Are there more of them?” said Csorwe.
“Many more,” he said. “All dead.” He sounded almost sorry about it, which was such a rarity that Csorwe forgot her fear immediately. “This won’t be the last one you see. But they’ve been dead for centuries. They’re no harm to you.”
Sethennai was already moving on. Csorwe couldn’t help looking back as they passed the enormous skull, wondering how this creature had looked in life, how it had moved, what kind of prey it must have eaten.
Soon after that they came to a wall. Dust was heaped up against the smooth flanks of the masonry, but above the level of the dust the wall was carved in every direction with friezes: trees and serpents and rivers, wound together as though the stone itself had melted and flowed into shape.
“The city of Echentyr proper,” said Sethennai.
There was a huge round opening in the wall, which must once have held a door. Beyond it, and above the wall, Csorwe spotted the same towers she had seen from the air. They were unlike any building she had seen before. They had a strange undulating quality, tapering in and out, branching like corals. It was eerie to stand before a city as silent as this. There was no sign that anybody had ever entered or left, except for the single trail of Oranna’s footprints winding in through the empty doorway.
“I suspected as much,” said Sethennai, striding into the city.
Beyond the walls, the streets were as wide and deep as river gorges, and they were crisscrossed everywhere Csorwe looked by the bones of serpents. They must have died here in their thousands.
“There were snakes even in the city?” said Csorwe. She had been imagining that the wall existed to keep the serpents out.
“This was their city,” said Sethennai. “They weren’t monsters, Csorwe. The serpents of Echentyr were scholars, philosophers, scientists, poets. In its heyday their city was a beacon.”
He led Csorwe on through the streets. At times, the bones were piled so thickly that they had to climb in between the ribs. Csorwe had once seen a frigate being built in the shipyard of Grey Hook, and some of these ribs were not much smaller than the ship’s timbers.
Eventually the footsteps crossed a sort of round open plaza, heaped with skeletons. They were lucky to have Oranna’s trail or it would have been difficult to chart a course through the labyrinth of ribs.
This must have been a busy part of the city, Csorwe thought. A market square, maybe. All the philosophers and scientists must have sent their servants out for food occasionally. And then they had all died. Had it been slow? Had they known what was coming?
“What happened to them all?” she said. She remembered something he had said about a magical cataclysm, but she had no idea what that might mean. “Who killed them?”
“A goddess,” said Sethennai. He looked pensive, distracted perhaps by the prospect of an encounter with Oranna, but after a moment he gestured to a dais in the middle of the plaza. Csorwe had been focused on finding their way, and hadn’t spotted it. On the dais stood a colossal statue of a hooded snake. The sculptor had picked out every one of its scales, like individual petals. It didn’t look like any snake Csorwe had seen in life. It had three pairs of eyes set into its head like a row of jewels, and another four pairs worked into the hood, and all down the great ornate body were more eyes. Huge dead stone eyes, staring unblinking at nothing for centuries…
“This was how they imagined their goddess to look,” said Sethennai. “Iriskavaal the Thousand-Eyed.”
“They were killed by their own goddess,” said Csorwe. It wasn’t so hard to believe. The Unspoken One chose its own sacrifices, after all.
“Yes,” said Sethennai, “the serpents were loyal to her for many centuries. By all accounts they loved her. They fought and died for her and their mages drew on her power for their workings.” He paused beside a smaller skeleton. The skull only came up to Csorwe’s shoulder.
“Iriskavaal had made enemies, as the powerful always do. In the end some of the Echentyri lost faith, and they betrayed her.”
Csorwe shivered. It seemed like a mistake to talk about these things in front of the statue. It was too easy to imagine those eyes moving.
“Iriskavaal’s throne was shattered into shards,” said Sethennai. “Her earthly mansion was laid waste. Her shrines were desecrated. The gods do not die as we die, Csorwe, but they can be reduced, and they can suffer.”
Looking up at the statue he made a kind of half gesture, raising his hand toward his face. Csorwe did this occasionally when she began to make the Sign of Sealed Lips, forgetting that she no longer owed the Unspoken One any kind of salute.
“Iriskavaal’s suffering was such that she turned from the world,” said Sethennai. “Her last act was to curse Echentyr in its entirety. She destroyed all life in this world with a single word. All their temples. All their universities. All that knowledge gone for nothing.”
He ran a hand over the lower jaw of the small serpent’s skull, brushing away the dust to expose an expanse of bone.
“They paid for their treachery in full,” he said.
Csorwe had never seen him melancholy before. She wasn’t sure whether he was sorry for the Echentyri or their goddess, or just for the universities. The air was thicker and dustier and warmer inside the city, but she began to feel cold.
“Come on, sir,” she said, taking an unspeakable liberty by touching his sleeve. “The trail.”
If there was one thing Csorwe had learned it was that you could eventually get used to anything. After a couple of hours in the ruined city, she was no longer surprised by the dust or the bones or the gigantic scale of the place. Even the statues of Iriskavaal lost their power to shock. Even the growth and decay of mountains in the sky no longer bothered her.
They followed the trail up a spiral walkway toward the doors of an enormous round building. Even through the dust, Csorwe could see that its walls had been decorated with more friezes: serpents in crowns and headdresses, serpents pulling trestles, a ceremonial skin-shedding, battles and triumphs. This world had contained a whole history. She began to understand why Sethennai had been so quiet.
“Some people never change,” he said, leading Csorwe through another empty circular doorway. “Of course she’s here. This was the Royal Library of Echentyr.”
Inside, dozens of crescent galleries rose in tiers over a central concourse that could have swallowed an entire neighbourhood in Grey Hook. The Royal Library was as grand and dead as the rest of the city. There seemed to be no books left on the shelves, and Csorwe assumed they had gone to ash along with everything else in Echentyr.
They crossed the concourse. Occasionally a light rain of dust cascaded from the ceiling, making Csorwe jump. She felt like a mouse crossing a field, always aware that a hawk might be somewhere overhead.
“We’ll be all right,” said Sethennai. To Csorwe’s surprise, he made no effort to keep his voice down, and it echoed in the vaults above. Maybe he wasn’t interested in taking Oranna unawares. “This place has stood long enough.”
They reached the shelves on the far side of the concourse. She saw now that they weren’t all empty: most were crammed with narrow clay cylinders, mounted on spindles. They were closely inscribed with a script she didn’t recognise, so different from Oshaarun or Tlaanthothei or Qarsazhi that she wouldn’t have guessed it was writing if she hadn’t been told this was a library.
The cylinders were nearly as tall as Csorwe herself, and when she reached out to touch them they turned on their spindles as though the mechanism had been lately oiled. The clay was rough and cold, snatching warmth from her fingertips.
“Imagine how it must have been,” said Sethennai. There was a note of longing in his voice, which faded as he went on. “But I don’t know what she’s playing at. I’ve been here already. I combed this place years ago for record of Pentravesse, and I’m certain I didn’t miss anything.”
“Have you never been wrong, Belthandros?” said a voice from a balcony high above.
Csorwe had hoped she would have time to compose herself before this encounter. She hadn’t imagined Oranna would take them by surprise.
The librarian leant on the balustrade, looking down at them. She was wearing the yellow habit of the House of Silence, with the hood down and the sleeves rolled up to the elbow.
She looked exactly as Csorwe remembered her, except that now Csorwe had seen enough people to know how to place her. She had soft features and a rounded figure, and in repose she would have had a floating, unearthly prettiness, like a swan seen from a distance. Up close, when you could see her eyes and the sardonic twist of her mouth, you remembered that a swan could break your arm.
Sethennai, of course, betrayed no sign of shock. He laughed. “I don’t admit to my mistakes any more than you do. Shall we come up to you, or will you come down to us?”
“I’m occupied,” she said. “Come up, if you must.”
“I should have remembered how you feel about sinking to my level,” he said, steering Csorwe toward another walkway that sloped up to the next floor.
Up in the gallery, Oranna had set out her books and papers on a canvas sheet under one of the shelves. To judge from the volume of notes and sketches, she must have been here for some time.
Oranna looked Csorwe up and down. Csorwe was newly grateful for her clothes and her sword and even her embarrassing Blue Boars haircut. There was not even a trace of recognition on Oranna’s face.
“My assistant,” said Sethennai, as if that resolved the matter. “I’m surprised the Prioress let you go,” he went on, leaning against the balustrade. Oranna made no answer. She had returned to the nearest cylinder, and seemed to be reading it by tracing her index finger over the characters. “Unless you’re here without leave,” he added. “A devotress of the Unspoken in the stronghold of its ancient enemy.”
“Sangrai will forgive me when I bring back the Reliquary,” said Oranna without looking up. “And this world is no longer anybody’s stronghold.” She pursed her lips between her tusks and turned the cylinder back as if she’d missed something.
“Risking the wrath of the Unspoken for a myth?” said Sethennai. He knelt over the canvas to inspect her drawings.
“You know as well as I do that it’s real,” she said. “Intact and extant, if you remember.”
“Well, it’s not here,” said Sethennai.
“Because you couldn’t find it?” said Oranna. She was still looking at the cylinder, but Csorwe could tell she had stopped turning it. “I see.”
“You wouldn’t have written to me if you weren’t interested in what I had to say about it,” he said.
Csorwe was suspended between relief that Oranna didn’t really seem to have noticed she was there, and embarrassment that she had to witness whatever was going on here. She had never heard Sethennai talk to anyone like this, or anyone dare to respond in kind.
After a long pause Oranna spoke again. “Why shouldn’t it be here? Iriskavaal was Pentravesse’s patron, was she not? It’s known that he visited Echentyr before its destruction. Some of my sources suggest the Reliquary was created here.”
“Even so,” said Sethennai. “The Reliquary has been stolen and moved and hidden a dozen times in a dozen worlds since its creation.”
“So we’ve heard,” said Oranna. “But what if we were wrong? I’m not too proud to admit it’s possible.”
“That’s absurd. It couldn’t have survived the cataclysm.”
“I don’t see why not,” said Oranna. “It would have been within Iriskavaal’s power to spare it.”
“It was within her power to spare the Echentyri, too,” said Sethennai. “The Echentyri defied her,” said Oranna. “Pentravesse was loyal to his death. In any case, hear me out. The account of the first appropriation of the Reliquary is over twelve centuries old, and it has always been taken for truth. But I have a new, contemporaneous source which suggests it was an invention.”
“Do you really?” said Sethennai. Behind a thin veil of irony, Csorwe could tell he was interested. His ears twitched like a cat’s.
“In The Record of Isjesse,” she said.
Sethennai frowned. “Isjesse is incomplete. I’ve read the fragments and there’s nothing about—”
“You’ve read some of the fragments,” she said. From the pocket of her habit she withdrew a slim leather case, opened the catch, and held it out to
Sethennai, although she wouldn’t actually hand it over to him.
“Oranna… ,” he said.
Csorwe had been keeping her distance, reckoning that she probably wasn’t needed here, but she heard the warning note in Sethennai’s voice. His frown deepened, and his ears were drawn up tight against his skull.
Inside the case was a rag of wrinkled papyrus, about the size of Csorwe’s palm, covered in minute, pale handwriting.
“I’ve seen this,” he said. “I never translated it, but someone tried to sell it to me, years ago. It’s a trick.”
The caution in his voice made the hairs on the back of Csorwe’s neck prickle. She couldn’t understand how, but they were in danger. She slipped away from them, glancing down toward the concourse below. How many other entrances were there? They were connected to the higher galleries by other walkways and bridges, but the only access to their gallery from below was the way they had come.
“More fool you,” said Oranna. “I have translated it. And I have consulted with the Unspoken. It is genuine.”
“I don’t doubt it’s genuine,” said Sethennai. “But it’s a trick. It’s from Olthaaros Charossa’s personal library in Tlaanthothe. I could never work out why he released it. But it’s clear now that he intended to lure me here.”
Oranna’s eyes narrowed momentarily with anger. “Of course it’s about you,” she said.
“Yes,” said Sethennai. “And I can see that’s very irritating for you. Believe me, I’m extremely irritated with myself for paying any attention to your letter in the first place. But there isn’t anything we can do about it now. Olthaaros must have a watch on the Gate. We are not safe here. We may have very little time to prepare ourselves.”
Csorwe couldn’t see any sign of intruders on the other galleries. They hadn’t seen any other footsteps, or heard voices as they entered, but then they hadn’t imagined they would be followed.
She peered over the balustrade. There, at the main entrance of the Royal Library, a cloud of dust was forming, like the mist at the foot of a waterfall.
“Sir,” she said. “Look!”
“Ah. Very little time at all,” said Sethennai. “Olthaaros is here. Or one of his henchmen.”
“May the Unspoken eat your heart while you still live, Belthandros,” said Oranna, sweeping her books and papers into a bag. “Who is Olthaaros?”
“An old friend of mine,” said Sethennai.
“Well,” she said, hoisting the bag onto her shoulders. “Since you’ve thoroughly ruined my work here, I think I’ll leave the two of you to your reunion.”
“I take it you no longer want to collaborate,” said Sethennai.
Oranna laughed, bitterly. “You don’t know the meaning of the word,” she said, and stalked away. Despite everything, Csorwe felt a small measure of relief to see that Oranna was leaving. Whatever her claim on Sethennai had or hadn’t been, it was over.
Oranna leapt with surprising nimbleness onto a higher walkway, and from there to one of the arc-bridges, which crossed the concourse from above. There must be a way out higher up. So it wasn’t too late to escape if they had to.
“Should we go after her?” said Csorwe, as Oranna’s footsteps died away and the hem of her yellow robe vanished in the upper stories. She didn’t say Should we run? because she knew Sethennai would not.
“No,” said Sethennai. “I want to see this. I want to see who this is, and what they have to say.” It wasn’t often that he was so direct about his intentions. He was already pulling on his gauntlets.
Below, in the concourse, the dust cloud rolled toward them, swelling outward and upward. They began to hear the noise of it, a sandpapery hiss. The dust roiled like a mass of leeches around some central moving point, a dark speck at the heart of the storm.
“Csorwe, get down,” he muttered, stretching and clawing his hands.
She crouched obediently, peeping between the balusters. Sethennai knelt beside her.
The dust subsided. At its heart was a man in a black wide-brimmed hat. He walked out to the centre of the concourse, and stopped. He looked around. Csorwe imagined him sniffing the air.
Underneath his hat, he wore a metal visor, and he was dressed all in black, black petals of hide and tarred metal from neck to ankle. They flapped and clinked as he walked.
Csorwe kept low, watching hungrily, as though by seeing she could keep the situation under control. The truth was that she had no idea what might happen. Olthaaros was the only person Sethennai ever admitted had beaten him. She clung to the balustrade, digging her nails into the stone.
“I can help,” she said, pushing away her fear. It was no use to her now. She couldn’t be afraid. “I have my sword.” Never mind that she had only ever used it for practice.
“I know,” said Sethennai. “But you must run, if it comes to it.”
“It won’t come to it,” she said, staring up at him. Knowing that something might happen to him was one thing. Hearing him admit it was another.
“Olthaaros is not a merciful man—”
“I don’t care,” she said. “I won’t run. You know I won’t.”
“Belthandros!” called the man in black, before Sethennai could answer. He was looking up at the gallery. He knew exactly where they were.
Under his breath, Sethennai gave a soft bark of laughter, and seemed to relax.
“Couldn’t even be bothered to turn up yourself,” he muttered. Then he stood up and leant his folded arms on the balustrade.
“Akaro,” he called. “How nice to see you. Are you taking my side at last?”
“Taking your side?” said Akaro. He sounded younger than Sethennai. Perhaps much younger. He scanned the pattern of galleries and seemed to spot the walkway. “Come down and face me.”
“How tiresome,” said Sethennai, loudly, before turning back to Csorwe. “I can handle this one. He’s an idealist. Stay here. He won’t hurt you.”
Sethennai unfolded himself languidly and went down to meet him.
“I suppose Olthaaros has sent you,” said Sethennai, standing at the bottom of the walkway.
Akaro looked away. “Olthaaros is the Chancellor of Tlaanthothe, the leader of my city, my mentor, and my friend. Yes. He sent me to find you.”
“Olthaaros was my friend,” said Sethennai. “My friend, my student, and my colleague. Just like you. He wanted Tlaanthothe, so he betrayed me and sent me into exile. And now he has sent you to murder me. That seems a little vindictive, don’t you think? I am doing my best to live a quiet life. Olthaaros already has what he wants.”
“He knows you’re still looking for the Reliquary,” said Akaro, miserably. “Sethennai, he only let you live because you said you’d given it up.”
“If he believed that then he’s much stupider than I thought he was.”
“It’s dangerous,” said Akaro. “Look where it’s led you. Look what Iriskavaal did to her own people! Echentyr is dust, and Ormary is gone. That knowledge is better lost. She was a monster, and Pentravesse was nothing but her puppet.”
Sethennai laughed. “Wise words from Olthaaros’ most devoted mannequin.” “Don’t do this. Come with me,” said Akaro. “If I tell him you came quietly, and—”
Sethennai laughed again, and Akaro looked more miserable still. “You do know that Olthaaros sent you because he knew it would hurt you?” said Sethennai. “He could have sent any one of his attack dogs. He could have tried sending Psamag, and wouldn’t that have been entertaining. But he knows you were loyal to me. He’s testing you. He wants to know just how low you’ll sink for him.”
Akaro’s shoulders slumped, but Csorwe wasn’t fooled. He was already falling into a fighting stance. He had no weapon she could see, but a wizard didn’t need one. She prayed Sethennai had spotted what he was doing.
“You must know how deeply I regret this,” said Akaro. “No more deeply than I regret your stubbornness,” said Sethennai. “It’s a shame. I thought you were cleverer than the rest of Olthaaros’ circle.”
“I hope I can prove equal to any in courage, at least,” said Akaro thickly, as if on the verge of tears, and he took a step toward Sethennai, and raised his hands. A wave of force threw Sethennai back, but he caught himself in time and landed on his feet, hitting the ground with a twist that threw a wall of dust up in Akaro’s face.
This was nothing like the fights Csorwe had witnessed in Grey Hook. It was the kind of thing she had once imagined: two wizards from the ancient world, meeting in a ruin to fight out their grudges. It should have been a wonderful thing to see. But she found herself frozen in place, with the sweat running down the back of her neck.
They fought in silence, with the occasional hiss or grunt of impact, driving invisible waves and blades of force at one another. They moved like duellists without blades, lunging and parrying, but without once touching each other. Black petals and green brocade flashed as they dodged and struck. From the way they mirrored one another it could be a dance, except that the force of each impact rattled the cylinders on their spindles, yards away.
At first the two seemed evenly matched, but she knew Sethennai hadn’t been expecting this and hadn’t had time to prepare himself for the fight. He seemed to be slowing. She remembered everything Sethennai had ever told her about how magic weakened the body and wearied the mind. She didn’t know how long he could last.
If something happened to him—no. She forced herself to confront it. If he died here, there would be nothing for her, even if Akaro spared her life. She would be nobody—worse than nobody—someone who had betrayed her god and failed her master. Who would have her? What would she do?
Unspoken One, she thought. Give him strength. Let him live, I beg you. She was no mage, but she could still pray. She pushed aside her guilt for calling to the god she had abandoned. For Sethennai, it was worth it.
Sethennai struck as though throwing a punch at Akaro, striking sparks where his feet touched the ground. Akaro parried, and lunged back, and just for a second seemed to throw Sethennai off-balance.
And everything became very clear in Csorwe’s mind. There was nothing in the world that mattered but this. She didn’t need the Unspoken One. She had her own sword, and Akaro didn’t know she was there.
Sethennai had told her to stay where she was, and that Akaro wouldn’t hurt her. But Csorwe didn’t deserve to live if she abandoned him now. This was what it came down to. If Sethennai died here she would avenge him or die with him. This was what she had been shaped for. This was the point of her existence.
She drew her sword, rose silently, and crept down the walkway, staying out of sight.
She saw what happened next as slowly and clearly as if it was a story someone was reading to her. Sethennai drew back, clearly mustering power for an all-out attack. Akaro feinted toward him, gliding past at an angle, and Sethennai fell for it. He struck too soon, and Akaro jabbed him in the chest, summoning a shock wave that shook the galleries and brought another hail of dust from the ceiling.
Sethennai’s foot slipped on a loose stone and he tripped. Akaro did not miss his opportunity. He kicked Sethennai’s feet from under him, bringing him to his knees.
“Surrender,” said Akaro, breathing hard. “Home—I will tell them at home—I will tell them you cooperated.”
Sethennai gazed up at him, and said nothing. Csorwe crept forward. Her heart raced. Every grain of dust seemed to thunder beneath her feet. The hilt of the sword was warm to the touch. She braced it in both hands.
“Sethennai!” she called, and as she did so she struck, plunging the sword into Akaro’s back, at the place where one petal of armour met another. There was a terrible noise. Akaro gave a broken cry and fell, his limbs shaking and twitching in the dust. Csorwe pulled out her sword and stabbed him again, pinning him down until he stopped wriggling.
He was dead. It was strange that it had been easy. As easy as her exercises. She pulled out the sword and wiped the blade clean. Tlaanthothei had bright red blood, but she noticed distantly that where Akaro’s was pooling on the floor of the library it looked as dull and dark as her own.
Sethennai rose to his feet, straining for breath. He looked at Csorwe and laughed with delight. “Brilliant child!” he said. “My god. Excellent Csorwe. It’s a shame, of course. What a shame. Akaro was never so stupid when he was my pupil.”
Csorwe didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure what she should say. Normally she would have wrapped Sethennai’s praise around herself like a fur-lined cloak, but she barely heard what he said. She was vaguely surprised that he was laughing, but perhaps he was glad to be alive.
She had grown up among the dead but she had never killed anyone before. It was hard to make sense of it, to see that this man who had been fighting and talking only a minute before was now nothing more than the skeletal priestesses under the House of Silence. Less, in fact, because he would not rise again.
Csorwe helped Sethennai arrange the dead man on the ground, laying him out on his back as if he were asleep. He was heavy. It must have required such power to move so lightly. Once it was done, she realised she was shivering, and sheathed her sword so she didn’t drop it.
When this was done Sethennai knelt at Akaro’s head and unfastened the visor of his helmet. It came away easily and he laid it on the ground, a bowl of dull metal.
“Foolish boy,” said Sethennai again. Akaro had been young, or young as the Tlaanthothei reckoned it. His eyes had rolled back in his head, and streams of blood ran from his nose and mouth, marring the delicate features. “Idiot boy. Perhaps Olthaaros thought—well. Well. There was no persuading him.”
And now there’s no undoing it, thought Csorwe. I can’t take it back. Akaro was dead. There had been no other way to protect Sethennai. So this was just another thing she was going to have to learn how to manage.
Sethennai folded Akaro’s hands on his chest and covered him with a cloak, and they left him in the library of Echentyr.
For a week or two, Csorwe and Sethennai drifted from one backwater to another. Sethennai picked an obscure route through the Maze, following some design of his own. This was done carelessly, as though it was his personal whim and a great joke to continually double back on themselves and spend a long time laying false trails.
Csorwe was happy to be on the road again. Navigating new places, staying vigilant for new threats, tiring herself out by walking and carrying the bags, all meant she could keep her mind off the subject of Akaro’s death, although he appeared in her dreams sometimes, drenched in blood and still walking.
One night, they took shelter in a ruined chapel, in a lonely world on the borders of Qarsazh. Sethennai was tending the fire. Csorwe lay in her bedroll, looking up at the shattered icons of the Qarsazhi pantheon and thinking distantly of Parza. He had never found out what happened to his lexicon.
“Will we ever go back to Grey Hook?” she said. The Blue Boars would be back from their assignment by now, and she wanted to ask them how it had gone. If they went home, back to their routine, she was sure she would feel normal again.
After a while Sethennai spoke, still prodding at the fire. “I’m not convinced it’s safe for us to go back,” he said. “Would you be very sorry to leave it behind?”
“I miss my own bed, I guess,” she said. She didn’t want to admit to missing the Boars. It was enough for Sethennai to have doubted her loyalty once. “And all our stuff is there.” She knew even as she spoke that it wasn’t going to happen. If Sethennai had meant them to go back, they would have gone back. “But I don’t mind,” she added hastily.
However much she had hoped to stay, it was time to put it aside. Grey Hook was in the past, and her future was with Sethennai.
“I’ve made up my mind,” he said. “Now that Olthaaros has found me once, he’ll find me again, and I don’t wish to repeat that ugly scene with Akaro. And you’ve proven you’re ready. As much as I’ve been enjoying this little holiday, it’s really about time that we returned to Tlaanthothe.”
Excerpted from The Unspoken Name, copyright © 2020 by A. K. Larkwood.