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 five below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one. Check back here for additional excerpts up until the book’s release.
Two Completely Predictable Things
The desert called the Speechless Sea was of black sand, scattered with shards of volcanic glass that sparkled like the stars. A chain of hills emerged from this desert, as though the night sky was punctured by a row of vertebrae. Built on the largest of these was the city of Tlaanthothe.
The city’s perimeter was a hexagonal wall of gleaming black rock, colossal in every dimension and monotonously ugly. Its outer faces were striated with useless columns of lava, frozen in place like an array of icicles. At every corner of the hexagon was a watchtower, and set into the south face, like a carbuncle in a ring, was a fortress of the same blasted stone. Outside the city, near the fortress, a small town had scattered itself across the foothills, looking as though a convoy had crashed and spontaneously generated houses.
Before continuing to the city proper and its Gate, the mailship descended into this flotsam town, and Sethennai disembarked. He had kept the forged paperwork identifying him as Dr. Pelthari, but was now dressed in the cap and gown of a Tlaanthothei lawyer. Csorwe was dressed as his valet, in a formal suit with a stiff collar. She scratched the back of her neck. Sethennai took a harmless, childlike delight in disguises, but her tolerance for the suit was wearing thin.
An official stamped their papers and welcomed Dr. Pelthari to town. Another official looked through their things, but found nothing amiss. They were travelling light, since almost all their possessions were still in Grey Hook.
They took rooms in a shabby boardinghouse across the road, as if this was another ordinary stay in another ordinary town. All shabby boardinghouses had their own unique smell. This one was mostly onions, with a hint of drains. Csorwe cleaned her sword to calm her nerves.
Tlaanthothe and the wall were visible from the windows of the boardinghouse, as present and as inaccessible as a thundercloud.
“So how do we get in?” said Csorwe, peering up at the city. She had to assume there was a plan. Sethennai always gave the impression of having a plan.
Sethennai sat at the table under the window, lacing his fingers across his stomach.
“Well, don’t get any ideas about shinning up the wall itself,” he said. “Plenty have made the attempt and died. There’s only one way into Tlaanthothe, and that’s through the fortress in the wall.”
If it was that easy, Sethennai could have gone home long ago, but he was obviously working up to something.
“I guess Olthaaros has guards there,” said Csorwe.
“More than that, I’m afraid,” said Sethennai. “The fortress is currently occupied by an entire battalion of mercenaries. Olthaaros brought them in to help throw me out of Tlaanthothe in the first place. Nobody enters or leaves the city, through the fortress or the Gate, without passing through their security.” Sethennai leant back in his chair, gazing up at the ceiling, and put his feet up on the table. “All this for me. It’s been years. Olthaaros really must have hated me.”
“Because of the Reliquary,” said Csorwe.
“Among other things,” said Sethennai. “I hope you didn’t listen too hard to everything Akaro said. Olthaaros doesn’t care about whether the Reliquary’s dangerous. He doesn’t want to use it. He just doesn’t want me to find it because he can’t bear the idea of someone else getting something he doesn’t have.” He rolled his eyes. “That’s why he took the city from me. He’s from an old noble family, and he couldn’t stand the idea of someone like me getting the Chancellorship. The Reliquary would just add insult to injury.”
“Someone like you, sir?” said Csorwe. She had never really asked him about his past. Something had always warned her off, a sense that this was a bruise that Sethennai did not want prodded—and after all, he never bothered her about her life before he’d met her.
“Oh, I’m nobody,” said Sethennai with immense satisfaction. “Or at least I was. Sadly, becoming somebody has its downsides. I’d never make it past security into the city.”
“You really think they’d recognise you?” said Csorwe.
“Well, I’m fairly recognisable,” he said. True: he was tall even for a Tlaanthothei, and twice as broad as the average. He could shave his hair and beard if he had to, but it would be hard to hide his stature. “And Olthaaros has sensible reasons for wanting to keep me out, even now.”
He sat up straighter, leaning on the table to get a better view of the city. “I have been gone from Tlaanthothe for longer than I care to think about,” he said. “And I dearly love my city. But it is not just homesickness that calls me back. My patron goddess has her earthly mansion within the city. I have been out of the Siren’s presence for too long. My powers run low, like a stream after long drought. Even little Akaro nearly defeated me, as you saw. But once I get back into the city… Olthaaros knows he cannot face me at full strength. To throw me out in the first place he needed a whole swarm of allies he has since alienated. All I need is to get through the fortress, and then he’s mine.”
“They’ll know we’re coming,” said Csorwe. She gave the blade of her sword one last wipe with the oiled cloth. “Since I—since Akaro won’t have come back. The soldiers will be looking out for you.”
“Quite,” said Sethennai.
“I could do it,” said Csorwe. She hadn’t realised until that moment what Sethennai was getting at. She replaced her sword in its scabbard, trying not to let the sparks of apprehension and excitement show in her face.
“Even if they know you have an assistant,” she said, “I could be anyone. People don’t notice me. I could do it.” She worried at times that Sethennai might think she’d forgotten what she owed him. He never mentioned it, but she owed him her life, and the obligation gnawed on her like a worm in an apple. This was something she could do for him on her own.
Sethennai smiled. “Yes. You could.”
But first, there were preparations to make. Sethennai spent a few days away from the boardinghouse, secretly writing to his contacts and meeting with their agents. Getting into the city was the hardest part, but there would still be barriers to cross once they were inside, and for that he needed more allies than Csorwe.
While he was gone, Csorwe studied climbing and creeping around the boardinghouse, until she could crawl quietly across the ceiling beams and navigate the creaking hallway without making a sound. She also practiced with the sword, for the first time since she had killed Akaro. It felt good to have it properly back in her hands, as though she were a knife that had finally been sharpened after lying dull for weeks.
Sethennai came home to find her rehearsing the forms before the speckled mirror.
“Ah,” he said. “I’m afraid you won’t be taking that into the fortress.”
Csorwe lowered the blade, catching her breath. “—what? Why, sir?”
“Because you’re going to pose as a servant looking for work at the fortress, and they might be a bit surprised if you turn up with a deadly weapon.”
“Oh,” said Csorwe. Her shoulders dropped. “I was thinking I would go as a mercenary recruit.” She had worked hard on her training with the Blue Boars, and she wanted to prove that her time with the mercenary company had made her more useful to him, not less. She still squirmed with guilt whenever she recalled that Sethennai had once suggested she might leave him for the Boars.
“And if they were ordinary mercenaries, I’d be tempted to let you,” he said. “But they are not. They are led by General Psamag.” He glanced at her, possibly expecting a reaction. “Ha! I forget how young you are. Psamag is, or was, a famous Oshaaru warlord. Infamous. Notorious. Long before you were born he commanded armies for the clan-liege of Torosad.”
Csorwe wondered whether it was strange how little she knew about her homeland. She had never visited Torosad or any of the other great cities of Oshaar. Nor did she want to, but it was odd that her tusks marked her to the whole world as Oshaaru, when in fact she had seen less of the country than Sethennai had.
Well, Torosad with its warlords and clan-lieges had never been her place. The area around the House of Silence was nothing more than a coin-sized patch of mountain and forest in the far corner of any proper map of Oshaar, and even that was long behind her.
“Psamag had a lurid reputation,” said Sethennai. “Killing prisoners, massacring civilians, burning villages, heads on stakes—everything rumour can devise, and most of it true—although I do not think it was true that he had an elite force of undead soldiers as his personal bodyguard. Eventually the clan-liege of Torosad found him to be a liability. So he was banished, and finding, as one does, that he had a set of skills for which people were prepared to pay him, he became a mercenary. If you were rich, Psamag became the man you needed for the nasty jobs, the things you didn’t want to admit to your civilised friends. So, of course, he was the man Olthaaros needed to help get rid of me.”
“Still don’t see why I couldn’t pretend to work for him.”
“Because he’s smart,” said Sethennai. “He’s wilier than Olthaaros. And if he caught you it wouldn’t be a clean death.”
“But I’m still going to be sneaking into his fortress,” said Csorwe.
“As a servant you’ll probably never run into him. Everyone will think you’re harmless, and you can explore the fortress as much as you like if you pretend you’re running errands.”
Csorwe sighed. He was right, of course, as much as she would have liked to bring her sword. “Can I take a knife?”
“If you must,” he said. “But do not underestimate Psamag. The only reason he’s still here is that he feels Olthaaros owes him more money. I have to admit it does bring me some joy to know that Olthaaros has found it impossible to get rid of him. Psamag describes it as safeguarding his investment. He’s dangerous, and he has a long memory. The best thing you can do is to stay out of his way as much as you possibly can.”
Three days later, Csorwe made the trek across the Speechless Sea to the walls of Tlaanthothe. When it got dark she slept under the stars in a rock crevice, like a scorpion.
The fortress in the wall was constructed around an enormous door, as heavy, ugly, and impenetrable as the wall itself, though perforated at the base with several doors of more reasonable size. The doors were staffed at all hours by armed guards, who checked the passports and permits of those who hoped to pass through, in wagons or on foot.
The traffic approaching the city was constant and slow. The queue of wagons, carriages, cattle, and small mazeships tailed back into the desert for nearly a mile, and the roadside was dotted with stalls selling ironwort tea and hot skewers to the travellers.
Close up, the fortress itself was a jagged mass of stone protruding from the desert. It looked older, as though the earth had coughed up a clot of crenellated rock that had stuck in its throat. On top was the Great Gate of Tlaanthothe, like an emerald on top of an incredibly ugly jewel box, where the big ships came in.
Csorwe unfolded herself from her crevice and dropped lightly from ledge to slope to the surface of the road. It was early morning, still half dark. She slipped into the queue close to the door, behind a large covered wagon bearing the brandmark of a Qarsazhi weaving company.
She watched as the wagoners exchanged paperwork with the fortress guards. Then there came a painful groan as one of the smaller doors creaked open. The wagon passed inside and the gates slammed shut.
Csorwe greeted the fortress guards with false brightness. It was the first time she had spoken Tlaanthothei to anyone but Sethennai and she was self-conscious about her pronunciation.
They spent a worryingly long time inspecting her passport and letter of reference, but Sethennai had put some effort into forging these, and they must have been convincing enough to pass, because they handed them back to her.
“You need to take your coat off,” said one of the guards.
“What?” said Csorwe, instantly on guard. “Why?”
Under the lamb’s-leather coat she was wearing a plain knee-length tunic and sandals, suitable for her disguise as a servant. But underneath that she had a very serious knife strapped to her leg.
“We’re searching everyone who comes into the fortress,” he said. At least he didn’t sound sleazy about it. Maybe it was too early in the morning.
She took off the coat obediently and handed it over, stony-faced. One of them shook it and turned out the pockets, finding nothing. It was a good thing she had left all her travelling gear hidden up in the hills. Unless they’d find it suspicious that she didn’t have anything on her? How thoroughly were they going to search? Sethennai had been right. It had been a mistake to bring any kind of weapon. What should she say? Could she claim she’d been frightened of bandits on her journey?
She was so glazed that it took her a second to realise the guard was handing her coat back to her.
“You can go,” he said.
They waved her on through the smallest door. Beyond was an enormous wagonyard, full of people, pack animals, and vehicles. Nobody paid any attention to a servant girl. Csorwe’s nerves were frayed from her encounter with the guards, so she was glad not to be bothered.
She kept her head down and her eyes on the ground as she made for the kitchens. This was her own idea, and she was pleased with it. Any place as big as the fortress needed somebody to cook and wash up, and Csorwe had always been good at kitchen chores.
The kitchens were loud and very crowded. Csorwe made herself useful—fetching water or chopping garlic or taking a turn at the roasting spit. It was several hours before anyone realised she was not meant to be there.
“I’m new, sir,” she said, staring up into the folds of a pristine apron, and the thick moustache that loomed above it between a pair of narrow tusks.
The cook raised one eyebrow.
“New today,” she said. “I might have come to the wrong place.”
“Hm,” said the cook. “Maybe.”
“Please, sir,” she said, making her voice soft and plaintive. “They told me I’d find a job here.” She held out her false passport and a letter of recommendation from the alleged Dr. Pelthari.
The cook glanced at the melon that Csorwe had been seeding and slicing. She was handy with a knife, so this was neat work. Each slice was so fine that the flesh of the melon was translucent, like a wafer of ice. He looked around the kitchen, one side of his moustache twisting up as he chewed his lip.
“Well, heaven knows we could use another pair of hands. Fine.” He took her papers away and handed them off to someone, and that was the last she heard of them.
She sliced melons for the rest of the day, and when the sun set, she followed a group of the other girls to their bunkroom.
“New, are you?” one of them said, resigned but not unkind. Most of the kitchen staff here were Tlaanthothei or Oshaaru, but this was a Qarsazhi-looking girl, slight and pretty, with coppery skin and very straight black hair in a long braid. “I’m Taymiri. Guess I’d better show you where to get sheets and things.”
Taymiri showed her to a spare bunk. Csorwe didn’t say much, suddenly fearful. Her plan was flimsy at best. It was only a matter of time before somebody realised she wasn’t who she said she was, and that she wasn’t meant to be there.
“You’re quiet, aren’t you?” said Taymiri. “Homesick, I expect. It’s not so bad here once you get used to it. I’ll show you ’round tomorrow.”
Csorwe lay awake in her bunk. She had got used to the sound of Grey Hook at night. The fortress was different: footsteps, echoes, chains, and the rumblings of great mechanisms.
There were no windows in the bunkroom, and the doors were shut at night. Only a flickering band of torchlight came in at the threshold.
All she needed to do was find a way to get Sethennai past the fortress without being noticed by the soldiers. They had been right to assume there was no use trying a direct approach. There must be another way. The fortress was older than the city itself, Sethennai had told her, and there were strange things under the earth: secret ways, secret rooms, and caves that reached deep beneath the desert.
She would need to use every moment she could to explore the fortress, to learn its ways and routines. There would be some way to sneak Sethennai through. She would do what she always did: she would work, and watch, and listen, and wait.
Once everyone else was asleep she unstrapped the knife from her leg and hid it under her mattress in the bunkroom. Just in case.
By the end of the first week everyone seemed to have accepted Csorwe’s presence. After three years travelling with Sethennai, Csorwe thought she might have forgotten how to deal with girls her own age, but it was just like being back in the House of Silence. She was used to living like this, elbow to elbow. It had its constants. Aggravation, thwarted hope, and gossip: each fed the other like the three-headed snake that had been advertised in Grey Hook’s Market of Curiosities. Most of the others were from poor families out in the sticks. They weren’t very interested in Csorwe, but they were grateful to her for taking on the duties they disliked, mostly carrying barrels up and down the stairs. Even better, they were busy enough not to notice that Csorwe was the first to take on any task that involved visiting restricted or inaccessible parts of the fortress.
Taymiri was the leader of the bunkroom, it turned out, because she had been there longest, and was both calm and ruthless. She liked Csorwe, or at least she liked Csorwe’s efficiency. She had ambitions beyond the kitchen, and saw Csorwe as a useful cat’s-paw, or even an ally.
Csorwe learned that Taymiri’s mother had been cut off by house and Church in Qarsazh for conceiving Taymiri while still unmarried. Taymiri’s ambition was to become rich enough that she could find her grandparents in Qarsazh and throw them out in the streets.
One afternoon, Csorwe was napping in the bunkroom, enjoying her allotted half hour’s rest before preparations for dinner. Taymiri came to Csorwe’s bunk and shook her briskly awake.
“Shh!” said Taymiri. “Come with me. I don’t want the others in on this.”
Csorwe dressed hurriedly and followed Taymiri out of the bunkroom to the winding darkness of the corridor. All the passages were close and narrow and uncomfortably warm. Csorwe wished too late that she had brought her knife, just in case, but there would have been no way to hide it from Taymiri.
“What’s happening?” she said, once they were clear of the bunkroom.
“Some of the General’s table staff are sick,” said Taymiri. “There’s a big dinner on and they need two from the kitchens to fetch and carry plates.”
Csorwe nodded, suppressing her excitement and alarm. Sethennai had told her to stay out of General Psamag’s way. But then… she had never seen the General’s quarters, and she needed more information if she was going to make progress. She had explored the fortress as thoroughly as she could, from the cellars up, but she knew there were regions that were closed to her. There were undercellars, and caves beneath the undercellars, and hollow passages in the walls that seemed to have no openings. It might be risky to cross paths with the General, but it would be idiotic to miss this opportunity to cover new territory. As a waitress she would be virtually invisible, and perfectly safe.
Taymiri was as agitated as Csorwe had ever seen her.
“And I’m not that type of girl, of course, but if I’m going to catch anyone’s eye I don’t see why it shouldn’t be one of the General’s officers,” said Taymiri as they hurried toward the stairs to the upper levels.
“Right,” said Csorwe. Stranger things had certainly happened.
“Maybe we can even find one for you, Soru,” said Taymiri, becoming magnanimous. This was what they all called her, an amendment of her real name, which suited the Tlaanthothei accent. It meant “sparrow.” “What kind would you prefer?”
Csorwe did not know what to say. She considered what Taymiri wanted in a man. “Rich?”
Taymiri slapped a hand over her mouth to stop the sound of her laughter ringing out in the hall. “Obviously. But apart from that!”
“I don’t know,” said Csorwe. After a pause: “Tall?”
For a while, back in Grey Hook, Csorwe had thought it was possible she was interested in one of her tutors, a broad-shouldered ex-mercenary with a pleasant smile. However, after careful observation she concluded that he was interested only in young men from the Pretty Birds Gentleman’s House of Entertainment.
“They’ll all be tall,” said Taymiri, and seemed to give up.
In a back pantry, Csorwe and Taymiri were met by an official, hardly any older than they were, who gave them a change of uniform.
The official was Tlaanthothei, like Sethennai, with dark brown skin, pointed leaf-shaped ears, and close-cropped curly hair. He had the basic shape of a wrought-iron railing and a look of focused, furious anxiety. His ears twitched every half a minute or so.
“General Psamag has certain requirements of his waiting staff,” he said, sounding like he had a cold, and glaring at Csorwe and Taymiri, plainly doubting their ability to meet those requirements. There followed a lecture on the placement of cutlery, delivered in a monotone. “There will be drinks, the General is going to make a speech, and then there will be three courses, like I explained. Any questions?”
“Think you’ll have any luck marrying him, Taymiri?” said Csorwe, once he had gone.
“That was Talasseres Charossa,” said Taymiri. “He is a puckered arsehole. Or, I guess, he’s our liaison from Chancellor Olthaaros. He’s here to try and tell the General what to do, even though everyone knows if General Psamag wanted to, he could throw Olthaaros out on his face, like they did with the old Chancellor.”
It was lucky for Csorwe that she was good at keeping a straight face.
“Did you say Charossa?” she said, after a decent interval. “Isn’t that the Chancellor’s name?”
“Oh, yes,” said Taymiri. “He’s his nephew. Probably why he got the job.”
Csorwe tucked that little piece of knowledge away for later consideration. Maybe it meant she ought to avoid Talasseres Charossa. Or maybe she ought to stay close and try to find out whom he spoke to, in case he gave anything away? Without Sethennai’s guidance she felt adrift. There were endless choices to make, hundreds of possible directions.
She reminded herself that she did have a plan. Tonight she was going to stay in the background and get a sense of the main players at the fortress, their loyalties and alliances. That was a useful place to start, and it would keep her safe and inconspicuous. Sethennai couldn’t object to that.
The upper levels of the fortress were surprisingly beautiful. Here the floors were of polished hardwood, the walls were hung with fine tapestries, and the dust sparkled in beams of sunlight from above. From somewhere close by, Csorwe could hear the sound of a woman singing. It was not at all how she had imagined the General’s personal quarters. It was almost disappointing.
The walls of the dining hall were crammed with hunting trophies. Boars, stags, the frail antelope of the Speechless Sea, lions and tigers, elephant heads and mammoth heads, side by side, philosophical in death: all stared down glassily from a dark expanse of hardwood panelling. The walls bloomed with horns and spines and crests, unfurling themselves across the panels like an exuberant moss of bone. Psamag had skimmed the riches of many worlds, and brought back their heads to be stuffed.
“Stop dawdling!” said Taymiri, who had already memorised everything she might need to know in this situation. She seized Csorwe’s arm and towed her down to the vast dining table, where the others were adjusting place settings. The other waiting staff were not pleased by the appearance of Csorwe and Taymiri, but they had no choice in the matter.
Beyond the table, at the far end of the hall, the floor dropped away into a pit. There was no rail to warn the unwary, just shining boards and then a sheer drop. From the dining table, Csorwe could not see what was in the pit. The others moved around the table with choreographed precision, paying it no mind. Csorwe kept quiet, as usual, and listened.
It seemed that this dinner was given in honour of Captain Tenocwe, the favourite of General Psamag, who had won some kind of victory on Psamag’s behalf out in the desert. If rumour was to be believed, Tenocwe was as handsome as he was fearsome, and he served in all things as the warlord’s right hand.
“Assuming he uses his left hand to… you know,” said one of the servants, and laughed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said another. “Tenocwe is very devoted.”
Csorwe blushed. Obviously she had heard plenty of this kind of thing with the Blue Boars but she never knew how to respond to it.
None of them mentioned the pit in the floor. None of them even looked at it. Csorwe was kept too busy to go and inspect it, but it tugged at the edge of her attention. Before she had a chance to look any closer, they were instructed to file to the back of the hall and wait for the guests to arrive.
“Remember, I get first pick,” Taymiri whispered, bobbing on her toes. Csorwe nodded.
The officers filed in. All of them were Oshaaru, mostly huge and visibly scarred, their tusks chipped and cracked. One was missing a tusk altogether, making his face look oddly lopsided, half formed. Csorwe felt a twinge of sympathy, trying not to imagine how it must have felt to lose one.
Psamag had brought them all with him when he had come to work for Olthaaros. Tenocwe, that evening’s guest of honour, was younger than most, but just as battered. At the end of the line was the only civilian and the only Tlaanthothei among them: Talasseres Charossa, his clothes exquisitely pressed. In this company, he looked younger, unhappier, and more tightly wound than ever. He hadn’t got the ear twitch under control. Csorwe wondered what was bothering him so badly. He had seemed uptight when they’d met him earlier, but he now appeared to be an actual nervous wreck.
Two singers serenaded the guests as they took their seats. Csorwe recognised the voices from earlier, though she had assumed they were women. These appeared to be young men—both Qarsazhi, both ethereally lovely—but their voices were high, sweet, and piping.
“They’ve had their bits cut off so they sing better,” Taymiri hissed. “They do that in Qarsazh, sometimes,” she added, with a hint of national pride.
They waited for almost an hour, and the music gave Csorwe a headache. At last the grand doors opened, admitting, first, a pair of Oshaaru soldiers. They were identical, bald, gigantically muscular, and naked but for their sandals and their beaded loincloths. Their tusks were capped with shining hooks of brass, and they were clearly quite dead. Their flesh was pallid, except where it was veined black, and a smell of embalming fluid wafted along with them as they marched down toward the table. They were followed by two more, just as identical and just as dead, with little clouded eyes staring directly ahead of them.
Csorwe blinked. Of all the rumours about General Psamag, Sethennai had dismissed the revenant bodyguard the most quickly, yet here they were. Their clammy feet slapped on the parquet. Taymiri’s mouth fell open.
Csorwe felt like a spinning top wheeling off course. She hadn’t seen revenants since the House of Silence. This was necromancy out of the old country.
She had taken to thinking of Oshaar as the old country rather than home, though she had been gone for only three years, because she never intended to go back. But sometimes, it seemed, the old country could come to you.
The bodyguards took their positions, exact as automata, and General Psamag entered the room. Despite all the rumours, and all she’d learned, Csorwe was not prepared for the first impression of Psamag. He was white as a ghost, one-eyed, and handsome in the style of a shark. He was dressed in blackened chain mail, and wore his sword strapped to his back. His only ornament was a lump of jet on a chain around his neck. His tusks were sharpened to dagger points and his eye gleamed like cut diamond.
All this was not enough to convey the sheer force of his presence. This man held their lives in the palm of his hand. Taymiri released a barely audible gasp. Csorwe’s fingers tightened nervously on the cords of her apron as she tried to recover her focus.
The officers saluted, and Psamag strode to his place. Discreetly, four more dead bodyguards filed into the room behind Psamag and took their places.
“Well, my friends,” said Psamag. “Here we are. Let’s drink!”
There was a roar of approval from the officers, rattling the cups that Csorwe and the others had set out so neatly. For a while, Csorwe was kept busy going back and forth, filling and refilling drinks. The officers were hard drinkers, especially Tenocwe, who was making the most of his position as guest of honour. Csorwe couldn’t help noticing that Psamag drank no more than one cup, and his eye never lost its chilly gleam. Something was not quite right.
The older officers sitting closest to Psamag also seemed to sense that something was amiss. They laughed and boasted, but there was something hollow about it, something tense with expectation. Csorwe darted from seat to seat refilling glasses, watching them all as if this were a puzzle she could solve before things began to go wrong. As if she had any power at all to affect the course of events in this room.
Psamag’s second-in-command, an enormous old woman with a shaven head, didn’t laugh at all, and nor did Talasseres Charossa. Gradually, apprehension began to settle around the table, like falling ashes, and they all fell silent. Csorwe realised she was holding her breath.
“So,” said Psamag, without raising his voice. Csorwe watched Tenocwe hushing his friends on either side. “You all know why we’re here, but in case some of you are already too drunk to remember—Charossa, would you care to remind us?”
Psamag drew out the syllables of the Tlaanthothei name with open disdain. Talasseres Charossa winced.
“The victory of Captain Tenocwe, sir,” he said, seeming to know as he said it that it wasn’t going to be the right answer.
Psamag smiled, baring a row of sharp teeth between the mighty tusks. Talasseres relaxed for a moment, then jumped almost out of his seat as Psamag slammed one enormous fist into the table. The jet pendant around his neck bounced. “Incorrect! Guess again. Big Morga, you want a turn?”
Big Morga was the second-in-command. She watched the scene from under heavy eyelids, with a kind of world-weary amusement.
“We’re here because you put us here, sir,” she said.
“Now, Morga here has been with me since before most of you lot were tusked. You know why? Any takers? Surely one of you quick lads has got a smart answer for me?”
“Morga’s got a firm head on her shoulders. She knows who put her here. She knows who holds this place. She knows who owns her loyalty. And she’s lived long enough to see fifty. You think maybe there’s what you’d call a correlation there, friends? I suggest you think on it.”
There was a pause, and the table staff came in to refill the cups, Csorwe among them. There had been no need for Sethennai to warn her away from Psamag. He was like a sharp cliff edge. He fixed your attention even as you wanted to back away. And he was not yet finished with his speech.
“Still, Charossa’s got a point, hasn’t he?” he said. “Where’s my man Tenocwe? Stand up, there, son, let the others see the hero of the hour.” Psamag was clearly enjoying himself by now, and that worried Csorwe
more than anything.
Don’t panic, she told herself. He doesn’t see you.
All his attention, in fact, was fixed on Tenocwe, who rose somewhat unsteadily to his feet. He gave an equally unsteady salute and grinned at his mates.
“We’ve all heard the tale, so I won’t bore you all with it now,” Psamag went on. “Tenocwe and his squad destroyed a whole pack of raiders in the Ramskulls, and raided their stockpiles for good measure. They won’t vex us again soon.” He paused, and looked around the table. “Come on! Let’s have a cheer for the man! My right hand, Tenocwe, everyone!”
The cheer rose rather ragged than enthusiastic. By now everyone knew something was wrong. Csorwe bit her lip, inadvertently driving her new adult tusks into her cheeks, hard enough to bruise the skin, and winced.
“They don’t sound too proud of you, Teno,” said the warlord, with terrible conciliation. “Funny, that. I wonder why?”
Tenocwe said nothing. Nobody said anything. In the horrible silence, there was nothing to be heard but a dry slithering sound in the pit. The high colour drained from Tenocwe’s face, and his eyes widened. The game, one way or another, was up.
The nearest servant, a few feet from Csorwe, was watching the scene with a fixed expression of wide-eyed terror. Csorwe’s pulse skittered like a bug trapped under a glass. Every instinct told her to run, or at least to close her eyes before she could see whatever terrible thing was certainly about to happen, but she could hardly move.
There was a shriek of wood on stone as Psamag pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. He strode down the dining table, and Csorwe had a vision of what it must be like to face this man in battle, rising like a dust storm. He stood over Tenocwe, dwarfing the younger man.
“My friends, you want to hear a cautionary tale?” said Psamag, resting a hand on Tenocwe’s shoulder, in a way that might have looked friendly, if Tenocwe had not been shaking like a reed in the wind by now. “Look at this. A promising young man, a fine soldier, a trusted officer, just ready for all the fruits of this world to tumble into his lap. We ought to be celebrating his victory tonight. This ought to be a proud moment for me. You want to know what’s put me out of the celebrating mood? Imagine my disappointment. My right hand, a man I’ve known since he was a boy: scheming against me with the Chancellor’s men.”
This had exactly the effect Psamag was going for. The room reeled, then exploded with disbelieving cries. Tenocwe could hardly speak, shaking his head and mouthing frantic denials. Some of them pushed back their chairs to distance themselves from the traitor. Morga did not look surprised at all. Talasseres Charossa seemed to have been expecting it too. His shoulders were drawn up tight and his face was a mask.
It took Csorwe a few seconds to understand what it all meant. She had half convinced herself that Tenocwe was one of Sethennai’s contacts, that she might be next to be discovered, but it was hard to feel any kind of relief at this revelation.
Psamag produced a sheaf of papers and held them up in his fist, before letting them float one by one to the table. “Letters, to our good friend Captain Tenocwe from the friends of Olthaaros. It’s all here. You can look for yourselves, if you choose.” Psamag’s heavy head swung from side to side like that of a bull about to charge, and he clicked his tongue. “Oh, Teno. Why didn’t you burn them? Didn’t I teach you better than that?”
“Sir, no, sir, this is—” was all Tenocwe could manage. Psamag clapped another hand to his shoulder, and lifted him bodily off the ground.
“Will anyone speak in his defence?” said Psamag, casting his eyes across the assembly. None of Tenocwe’s mates spoke up. None of them would meet his eyes. Again they heard the noise from the pit, softly rattling.
Many of the servants turned their eyes away, and Csorwe realised they had seen this happen before. Taymiri was frozen in place, staring at the luckless Tenocwe. Csorwe had never seen her at a loss like this. If she had been closer Csorwe might have tried to catch her eye, but they were all too far apart, isolated in their own pockets of helplessness.
Every one of Psamag’s footsteps sounded on the boards like a whip-crack as he walked toward the pit. Tenocwe was struggling now, calling out to his friends for help. Many did not even look up from the table: as a show of uncaring, or because they could not face him, or because they could not bear to see what was about to happen.
“Kin betrays us,” said Psamag, still walking. Tenocwe’s wriggling troubled him no more than the empty struggles of a hooked fish. “Friends betray us. What can we rely on in this dark world, my smart captains? There’s only two things that never change. Two completely predictable things.”
Psamag’s ability to hold an audience was uncanny. The officers were rapt, with horror or with admiration or both. Talasseres Charossa was swaying ever so slightly, perhaps wondering if he was next.
“First! No man can escape the death set down for him! Isn’t that right, Teno?”
Tenocwe whimpered and fell still. The warlord held him almost tenderly, without showing any sign of weakening under his weight.
“The second sure thing is the first and most favoured of my wives. She is swift. She is terrible. And she is as loyal in her way as the hunger of the desert. Atharaisse! Sand-wife! Come up!”
The slithering in the pit grew louder and louder, mingled with the rattling of chains. Something was rushing toward them. Csorwe’s limbs twitched with the desire to flee, just to turn and run before she could even see what was coming.
It reared up over the edge of the pit like something breaking from the surface of a pool. Swift as the flash of wings, yet somehow lazy in its unfurling, it rose coil upon coil, surveying the assembled company through eyes as red as raw flesh. Atharaisse was a serpent of monstrous size, white as bone, and appalling in the intelligence that glittered in those unblinking eyes.
The skeletons in Echentyr had been nothing to this. It was the difference between a drawing and the reality. Csorwe could only stare, transfixed. Her mouth had fallen open. You could not run from something like this. You could not hope to fight it. You could only curl up and hide and make yourself small enough to escape notice. She hadn’t felt like this since the last time she had been in the presence of the Unspoken.
The wicked teardrop of Atharaisse’s head was larger than Csorwe’s whole body. Her mouth opened like a red cave, and the pink forked tongue that flickered out was thicker than a man’s arm. Her coils hushed on the stone and she brought her head in to rest on the edge of the pit.
Psamag strode toward her without hesitation, stopping only a few feet from the tip of her snout. Still, he wasn’t quite as brave as he looked. Iron hoops banded Atharaisse’s neck, fixed in place by prongs hammered through her hide and into the flesh. The white scales were stained here with trails of rust. Each hoop was made fast to the wall by heavy chains.
“How do you do, Queen of Serpents?” said Psamag, mock courteous.
Atharaisse did not open her mouth to speak, but they all heard her voice resounding in the chamber, or somehow within the coils of their own ears. The voice was a low, harsh hiss that thrummed like a swarm of bees, but Csorwe could not mistake the desperate misery in it, a yearning barely disguised.
The terror still rang in Csorwe’s ears like the discordant ringing of bells, but she found she could begin to ignore it. Was it possible that Atharaisse was from Echentyr? Were there other serpent kingdoms? Perhaps some of them had escaped the cataclysm. It was hard to imagine Sethennai had been wrong, but perhaps if Atharaisse’s ancestors had been travelling abroad at the time…
“I am hungry, sir,” said the serpent.
“You’re hungry, too?” said Psamag. “I’ve been kept from my dinner. How long has it been since you’ve dined on the meat of traitors, sand-wife?”
“Sixty days, sir,” said Atharaisse. Her eyes flicked from Psamag to Tenocwe, who had gone utterly limp, looking up at the face of his death in abject surrender. There was a wheedling note in the serpent’s voice.
Csorwe remembered the Royal Library of Echentyr, all the friezes showing the serpents as statesmen and warriors. Psamag must have utterly broken Atharaisse’s pride. A cold and unanticipated hatred flooded through her, for the General and for the whole company that sat and looked on. How unfair it was for someone to survive the vengeance of their god and then suffer like this at the hands of someone so mortal, so essentially small.
“I have a morsel here for you,” said Psamag, and without apparent thought or effort he cast Tenocwe into the pit. There was a terrible succession of noises: a shriek, and a rattle of chains, and the rush of scales on stone.
“Ahhh,” said Atharaisse, caressingly, and then there was another scream, swiftly curtailed.
The coils sank away out of sight, and there was silence so absolute that Csorwe could almost hear the pounding drumbeat of her heart.
Talasseres Charossa’s hands were fastened to the edge of the table, as though his fingertips might bore through solid wood. Psamag turned to face him, with a still more terrible smile. It wasn’t over yet. Csorwe’s fists tightened involuntarily.
“Of course,” said Psamag, “our respected Chancellor Olthaaros knew nothing about this incompetent treachery. I spoke to him today. He condemns it, in fact. So, I want no repercussions for our valued liaison. Do you hear?”
As he strode back up to his place at the head of the table, he murmured, in a loud stage whisper, “Better luck next time, Talasseres.”
He stood for a moment, surveying them all. “More wine!” he said, after a moment savouring the silence. “And bring in dinner.”
Csorwe was grateful to be able to leave the room, even briefly. Her legs felt shaky, as if she’d been in bed with a fever. She told herself sharply to keep it together. She’d told Sethennai she could handle this. She’d seen death before. She’d met dangerous people. She was a dangerous person. She willed her knees to stop wobbling, and followed the others to fetch the first course.
The first course, naturally, was rock-snakes, skinned, marinated, and simmered whole in a red wine sauce. Csorwe saw now how Psamag had ended up with his reputation. Taymiri, serving Talasseres Charossa, looked almost as sickly as he did. Psamag ate the snakes with relish, and cleaned the sauce from his plate with a crust of bread.
The rest of the meal went off as expected. The stew of rock-snakes was followed by a more innocuous roast goat, and the mood in the hall relaxed somewhat.
At last, the dishes were cleared, and Csorwe and Taymiri were released. Taymiri had latched onto one of the officers, so Csorwe had to make her way back to the bunkroom alone. She didn’t mind the chance to sort through her thoughts. Really she ought to take the chance to explore the fortress, but she was still trying to make sense of all she had seen that evening and she didn’t trust herself not to get lost.
Halfway back to the bunkroom, she heard a miserable gurgle of suppressed weeping from behind one of the pantry doors. She stopped still to listen. No further sobbing followed, but there was a pause, then a series of thuds and thumps, as of somebody kicking the shit out of a crate of melons.
She opened the door. Inside, Talasseres Charossa was kicking the shit out of a crate of melons. It took him a second to notice her, by which point it was too late to pretend he had been doing anything other than what she had seen.
“Get out!” he said, in a snuffly growl that was perhaps meant to be intimidating. His eyes were red and bloodshot, and his ears drooped.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“That is none of your—this is insubordinate, you know, this is pretty fucking insubordinate, did one of the others put you up to this? Go back and tell Shadran he can eat a dick, I will not be disrespected by a waitress—”
“What’s wrong,” said Csorwe, “sir?”
“Nothing,” said Talasseres. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“I’m not really a waitress,” she said. For a moment she teetered on the brink of telling him everything. The idea of having an ally was very tempting. He must know the fortress, and perhaps he could help her find another way in and out. But Talasseres Charossa was Olthaaros’ nephew. However much he hated his existence here, he was not someone she should trust.
“I know,” he said, “you’re a scullery maid or something. Do you think I’m going to lie awake at night like, oh no, I called that girl a waitress and, oh my god, she’s not a fucking waitress?”
Csorwe remembered his lecture about place settings and struggled against laughter.
“I’m sorry about Tenocwe,” she said, trying at random for an angle. If she wanted his information, she was going to have to find some kind of purchase.
“I don’t give a shit about Tenocwe,” said Talasseres. “Anyone that stupid deserves to be snake food. Anyone that stupid ought to cover themselves in sauce, go out into the desert, lie down on the ground, wait for snakes to come and eat them, and save the rest of us from having to sit and listen to Psamag trying to be funny.”
“Still,” said Csorwe.
“I didn’t have anything to do with Tenocwe,” said Talasseres. “I’m not stupid. It’s not my fault if my fucking uncle Olthaaros decides he’s not really all that bothered about getting me killed.”
“Oh,” said Csorwe. She had learned, from long experience with Sethennai, that sometimes you just needed to provide punctuation until someone had finished saying what they were going to say.
“Yeah,” said Talasseres. “Tlaanthothei liaison, fuck off. I’m a hostage here.” He kicked the box of melons again, stubbed his toe, and made a noise of long-suffering disgust that could have curdled milk.
“Maybe you should leave,” she said.
He laughed very long and bitterly at this. “And how do you think I’m going to do that?” he said. “I could try the door or the Gate if I wanted a quick death, I guess, but I don’t want to give Psamag the satisfaction.”
“There are other ways, aren’t there?” said Csorwe, hoping he was too deep in his sadness to notice she was being very mysterious for a scullery maid.
“Oh, sure, there’s the way through the caves, but I’m doing my best to avoid getting eaten alive by the fucking snake,” said Talasseres. He sniffed, and tried to make it sound like he was clearing his throat. “Who are you, anyway?”
Csorwe was desperate to know what he meant by the caves, but she didn’t push her luck. “My name is Soru, sir,” she said, with a little curtsy.
“Well, Soru,” he said, “piss off.”
At last, Csorwe returned to the bunkroom. She felt as though she had been through several rounds with the Blue Boars’ finest, but she still lay awake for a long time before she could sleep. Could she use Talasseres Charossa? He couldn’t possibly be an ally, but perhaps he was a weak spot that could be exploited. That was Sethennai’s area of expertise rather than her own. But Talasseres knew the layout of the fortress, and he was clearly dying for someone who’d listen to his complaints. She could do worse than talk to him again. Next time she ran into him she’d be ready.
In the days that followed, everyone learned that Tenocwe had been executed for his treachery, but Csorwe and Taymiri never told the rest of their bunkroom about what they had seen.
A few nights later, Csorwe was woken by the sound of someone trying very hard to make no sound at all. She peered out from under her sheet and saw Taymiri dressing hastily by the light that came in under the door.
“What’s happening?” said Csorwe. She was exhausted, but maybe there had been another summons to Psamag’s hall.
Taymiri jumped, and snarled. “Go back to sleep— Oh, Soru, it’s only you. Help me with my hair.”
She had divided her hair into four braids, and directed Csorwe to drape these in artful loops from forehead to nape and fix them at the back with a silver pin. This was difficult to accomplish in half darkness, but Taymiri was more than usually patient with Csorwe’s lack of expertise. The coils of hair were smooth and heavy as woven metal. Csorwe had the sense that she should not take any time longer than necessary to do this, that it would be taking some kind of liberty.
When it was done, Taymiri looked much older, like a grown and rather intimidating woman. This somehow disquieted Csorwe, as if she ought to have recognised sooner that her friend had another side to her.
Taymiri finished tying her shoes and hauled Csorwe out into the hall. “Don’t tell the others. I’m going to meet Shadran. Captain Shadran.”
Csorwe blinked, both startled and rather impressed.
“I mean it. Don’t tell anyone. It’s not a sure thing yet, and I won’t have them crowing over me if it doesn’t come off.”
Csorwe nodded, which made Taymiri laugh for some reason.
“Of course, you never tell anyone anything,” said Taymiri. “You even looked surprised there for a minute. I didn’t think anything could surprise you.”
A moment’s pause. Taymiri smiled to herself, as though considering whether to tell something secret.
“You’re sweet,” said Taymiri, in Qarsazhi. It took Csorwe a second to make sense of the words, so she managed not to give away the fact that she understood.
Then Taymiri stood up on tiptoes and kissed her on the mouth.
Csorwe had never been kissed by anyone before. Total astonishment, like a flash of bright light, dazzled her senses. Then it was over.
“Wish me luck! I’ll see you tomorrow,” said Taymiri, laughing again, and she ran off down the hall.
Csorwe went back inside and sat on the edge of her bunk. She couldn’t have been more dazed if Taymiri had slapped her in the face. At least she would have known what to make of that. After a while she could almost believe she had imagined the whole thing, except for the cool, fading imprint of Taymiri’s lips on hers, no more substantial than dust, but somehow difficult to ignore. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and tried to go back to sleep.
It was embarrassing, in a way, that Taymiri was having so much more success than Csorwe with her secret ambitions. Sethennai was relying on her for this, and things were moving so slowly. She needed to be bolder. She needed to find out what Talasseres Charossa had meant about the caves, and about the snake. Unfortunately, she needed to return to the General’s quarters.
Excerpted from The Unspoken Name, copyright © 2020 by A. K. Larkwood.