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.
There was no moon over Tlaanthothe that night, and the clouds blotted out the stars. The fortress lanterns hung alone, a heavy baleful yellow, in otherwise unbroken darkness. It had been a week since Tenocwe’s execution. Csorwe and the others had been kept hard at work, and she hadn’t been able to get away as quickly as she’d hoped, especially since Taymiri was watching at all times.
Taymiri hadn’t mentioned the kiss, but then, they hadn’t been alone together since. It had made certain things clearer in Csorwe’s mind, but on the whole she was grateful to have her secret schemes keeping her occupied so she didn’t have to think too much about it.
In the end—whatever she had felt, whether or not she would have liked it to happen again—Taymiri had her own aims and her own loyalties, and Csorwe wasn’t going to fool herself into thinking she was a part of them, any more than Taymiri was a part of her own plan.
Earlier that night, Taymiri had sneaked away to meet Shadran again, and Csorwe didn’t think anybody else was observant enough to notice when she too slipped from the bunkroom.
By night, the stuffed heads on the walls of Psamag’s dining hall looked even more dead than before. Csorwe crept along the wall beneath them, keeping to the shadows. Despite what she was about to do, she felt almost exhilarated. For weeks she had been kept sheathed, wrapped in cloth in a dusty drawer. Now, at last, the edge would bite.
Or, just as likely, she would get bitten, and nobody would ever hear from her again. She wondered whether she was the first agent Sethennai had sent into the fortress, or whether there had been failures whose bones lay forgotten somewhere, shaken down to the bottom of the fortress like marbles in a jar. He’d certainly never mentioned any predecessors. She would just have to make sure she didn’t fail.
She made her way softly to the edge of the pit. The floor dropped away to a smooth basin of sand far below, where the serpent Atharaisse lay in coils, draped with chains as though with jewels.
High above, an iron lantern hung on a chain from the ceiling. By this faint illumination Csorwe saw the marks of Atharaisse’s captivity. The walls were battered, and her white scales were stained and scarred, red-brown with blood and rust.
It was no use to stand around and stare at her, anyway. Beyond Atharaisse, set into the very base of the far wall, was the mouth of a tunnel, leading away into darkness. This was the unfortunate conclusion of all Csorwe’s investigation. This tunnel led down to the caves beneath the fortress. If there was any other way to reach them, she hadn’t found it. The caves reached deep, a network spreading between city and desert. This was how she was going to sneak Sethennai back into Tlaanthothe. She had no other choice but the pit.
Nothing in the world has earned the power to frighten you, Sethennai had said, long ago.
“Thanks a lot, sir,” she muttered, and slid down into the pit. She landed with a little puff of sand, and let out a slow breath. The back of her neck prickled. Her hands were damp with sweat.
Atharaisse’s coils rose on all sides, like walls of breathing ivory. No amount of ill treatment and degradation could make her less frightening. Each of her scales was the size of Csorwe’s palm, gleaming in the moonlight. Csorwe flattened herself against the wall of the pit and inched her way crabwise toward the mouth of the tunnel on the other side.
As Csorwe reached the midpoint, she heard a low, whispering sigh. She only had time to freeze as Atharaisse uncoiled like a snapped string. Her eyes met Csorwe’s with terrible swiftness, keen and red.
“Quail,” said the serpent, hissing like water on gravel in Csorwe’s head. Her mouth opened, revealing two fangs, each as long and slender as a shinbone. “For thy doom is upon thee. We are Atharaisse, most ancient and most exalted scion of Echentyr.”
Csorwe bowed, and straightened up to meet her eyes again. Despite the circumstances she couldn’t help feeling a spark of satisfaction that she had been right.
“Good evening, ma’am,” said Csorwe, with only the faintest tremor. As much as she had hoped Atharaisse would stay asleep, she had planned what she was going to say. “I am honoured to stand in your presence.”
A fine membrane twitched over Atharaisse’s eyes, and retracted.
“Our subjects here have lost their manners. They do not regard us as they ought. What manner of thing art thou?”
“I am nothing,” said Csorwe. “The smallest of my master’s creatures.”
“If so, we find it ill mannered in him to send you,” said Atharaisse. “To our grandeur is owed his foremost envoy.”
“Of course,” said Csorwe. “It’s my fault. I wanted to meet you. Ma’am, I have seen Echentyr.”
The great head moved closer, slipping over the sand until the tip of Atharaisse’s snout was less than an arm’s length from Csorwe. The wall was at her back. There was no getting away.
“And what hast thou seen, in the ruin of our world, that made thee so eager to look upon us? To laugh, perhaps, at our reduced estate?”
“No, ma’am,” said Csorwe, with sincerity. “It was—it was—” She searched for the right word, unsure what she could say about the enormous strangeness of Echentyr that wouldn’t get her eaten. “It was impressive. I saw the, uh, the Royal Library. I wanted to see you and learn how it had been before.”
Atharaisse tasted the air with her tongue, the double point almost touching Csorwe’s face.
“No,” said Atharaisse in a low, furious hiss. “We recognise thee. Thou liest.”
“I swear to you, ma’am,” Csorwe whispered, flat against the wall of the pit. “I am telling the truth.”
“Thou servest at the table of a parasite. A flea may believe that he is king, and summon other fleas to dance attendance, and bite the flesh of his betters, but he is less than dust before us! We are the last daughter of our world! We survived the ruin of Iriskavaal! And we will see the craven Psamag suffer!” Her tail thrashed in the sand, stirring up choking clouds.
“I am not Psamag’s servant,” said Csorwe. “My master sent me here. He desires Psamag’s death as you do.”
This might have been an overstatement. She was pretty sure Sethennai wouldn’t shed a tear at Psamag’s funeral, but he had never specifically asked Csorwe to murder him.
“Master! What master? Do not lie to us again. Our people dealt with the Thousand-Eyed One in the morning of all worlds and were granted the true sight. We cannot be deceived.”
“My master is Belthandros Sethennai,” said Csorwe. “The rightful ruler of Tlaanthothe.” This was a shot in the dark, an admission she had hoped not to make, but Atharaisse’s eyes flared with recognition, bloodshot and brilliant.
“Ahaaa,” she said. “That is a recollection that escapes us not. And what has become of the exquisite Belthandros?”
“He’s all right,” said Csorwe.
“Come away from the wall, little mouse, and let us look upon thee properly,” said the snake. She withdrew her head a little way, and Csorwe had no choice but to step out into the middle of the pit, and let Atharaisse circle around her, inquisitive interest shining in every scale.
“There is a familiar smell of wizardry about thee,” said Atharaisse after a while. “And thou desirest the extermination of this false warlord. Very well. Thou comprehendest not the scale of our magnanimity. We would have eaten thee. But as a mark of our favour to Belthandros we will let thee pass. Thou wishest to go down into the tunnel, no doubt, into the narrow places where we cannot go.”
Csorwe had not been conscious of holding in her breath, but now she let out a gasp of relief. This indignity seemed to amuse Atharaisse, at least.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “But… there’s one more thing.” Somehow, between the fear of imminent death and the fear of accidentally saying something insulting, she had come up with a new idea.
“Thou art truly like him,” said Atharaisse, still not unamused. “A bold, presuming, insolent little delicacy. But certainly it refreshes us to be addressed in terms of proper respect by such an impertinent scrap. Ask, then.”
“Ma’am… are your fangs poisonous?”
“Ahh,” said Atharaisse. “The sacred terror. The blessing of Iriskavaal. The kind death, the cold fire, the destroying sweetness… they are venomous, little hatchling.”
So it was that Csorwe found herself climbing the serpent’s flank to reach the vast concavity of her open mouth. She balanced upon the scaled rim, and reached out to touch a hollow fang that could have pierced her through without difficulty.
“Ah, thou askest much, and thou darest much,” said Atharaisse, her voice throbbing in Csorwe’s head though her tongue and her teeth remained perfectly still. “For the hunger of ages tears at us still, and the urge to bite is very strong. Thou art audacious.”
At last Csorwe leapt to the ground, holding in one hand a tightly fastened waterskin, plump with venom. She bowed again. Atharaisse purred.
“Go thy way, little crumb.”
Csorwe resisted the impulse to bolt under the retreating loop of Atharaisse’s tail and run full pelt toward the tunnel in the back wall. She bowed several times as she left, making her way with slow courtesy. Only once she was safely into the tunnel did she stop, and slide down the wall, and rest until her limbs had stopped shaking.
The tunnel led into a maze, which could have been devised by some previous lord of the fortress to torment his captives. Csorwe found her way to a buried stair, curving downward, under the surface of the desert. Perhaps some other ancient lord had intended this way as an escape route in times of siege. For Csorwe, it was a long downward climb, down a channel so narrow that she could not spread her arms to either side. Then the staircase ended, and opened into darkness. She had reached the caves.
Csorwe was about to step out into the dark, but some impulse, some caution, wired deep in the animal part of her brain, made her stop. On the left-hand wall of the passage, above the bottom step, there was a red, fist-sized glob of something like wax, plastered to the rock just below head height. There was a sign stamped into the wax, a quintuple curlicue so unpleasant to look at that it could only have been magical. The whole thing looked not just dangerous but disgusting, as though the wall had sprouted a purulent boil.
Csorwe stepped back very slowly. Shock caught up with her as she realised how close she had come to blithely walking past the thing, and her heart began to race.
“It’s a curse-ward,” said a voice out of the darkness above her. Csorwe had her knife out before her brain could make sense of the words.
It was Talasseres Charossa. “So it’s true,” he said, blandly, as if people drew knives on him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “You really aren’t a waitress.”
Csorwe lowered her weapon. If Talasseres had wanted to attack her, he wouldn’t have announced his presence. Probably, he would have just shoved her down the stairs.
“Why are you here?” she said.
“The same reason as you,” he said, and gestured down past Csorwe to the darkness below. “Looking for another way out.”
“What does it do?” said Csorwe, indicating the curse-ward. It was clearly different from the ward Oranna had sent in her letter to Sethennai. She wasn’t sure whether the sign stamped into the wax was the control sigil, or whether there were more signs buried underneath. Either way, touching it would be a mistake.
Talasseres reached into his bag and pulled out the gnawed bone of an old chicken leg, holding it with some disdain. Shreds of gristle adhered in places. He threw it overhand into the stairwell, and just as it was about to pass the bottom step, the curse-ward flared, and the bone was gone, leaving—perhaps—a smear of black smoke. There was a greasy smell in the air, like burning fat.
“It’s my uncle’s work. He wouldn’t know a light touch if it grabbed his balls. Air and rocks pass through fine,” said Talasseres. “Anything that’s alive, or used to be alive, goes up like that.” He snapped his fingers. “But if your next question is going to be How do I disarm it?, you’re shit out of luck.”
“How many times have you been down here since we talked?” said Csorwe.
Talasseres shrugged, which she took to mean every night.
“You think there’s a way through,” said Csorwe. She wondered whether he had come past Atharaisse, or if there were other ways through the labyrinth of passages.
“If it was easy to get ’round, Olthaaros wouldn’t still be Chancellor, would he?” said Talasseres.
Csorwe watched him. She was sure there was a catch coming. Talasseres seemed so blindly grateful for someone to talk to that she didn’t have to push him even a little bit to keep going.
“You can’t disarm it,” he said. “But there’s an amulet, a protective charm—” He looked at Csorwe doubtfully.
“I know what an amulet is,” said Csorwe, unable to stop herself.
“Oh, do you? Well, bully for you, you’re going to love this next part, because the fucking amulet belongs to General Psamag and he wears it ’round his neck, day and night.”
“The jet pendant,” she said. She had seen it that night in the dining hall. It had seemed then like an odd choice of jewellery for an old soldier.
“You’re observant, aren’t you, Soru?” He sounded less caustic, more interested, and she realised she ought to have kept her mouth shut.
She shrugged. “Just curious.”
“Well,” said Talasseres, his interest glazing over as he looked back at the curse-ward. “It’d be a quick way to go, anyway.”
General Psamag’s private quarters were in the very highest lofts of the fortress. The walls were hung with fine tapestries, oil paintings, ceremonial weapons, the rarest treasures of a dozen worlds. Here, in the deepest watches of the night, Csorwe crept from room to room, scarcely disturbing the air.
It had been a week since she had spoken to Talasseres in the cave. She had known since then what she needed to do, but knowing and doing were very different things.
You frightened of spiders, Csorwe? one of her teachers had asked her. He was a retired cat burglar, one of Sethennai’s many shady old friends. You frightened of ghosts? Whatever it is you’re scared of in the dark, that’s what you become.
I’m not scared of anything, she had said, and he had laughed at her. She was scared now, but she did as Sethennai had taught her: turned the fear into fuel, burnt it to propel herself onward.
She made it past the outer guards. Two of Psamag’s revenants were patrolling in the next corridor, staring ahead with milky eyes, but revenants weren’t any more observant than living men, and she passed by them easily. There were two more in each successive room, and neither of them turned from the furrows they were polishing in the floorboards.
In the antechamber to Psamag’s bedroom she paused to check the dagger strapped to her belt. Within the sheath, the blade was freshly sharpened, and Atharaisse’s venom glistened on the steel. Just in case. This wasn’t going to be an assassination unless it had to be.
The door to Psamag’s bedchamber was ajar, and darkness lay beyond. Inside, someone was sleeping. She heard nothing else. No other footsteps, no breathing. The hinges made no sound as she crept inside.
A soft haze of moonlight came in at the windows, and by this weak illumination she determined the shape of a bed, and someone lying on it. She managed a single step toward it before a cold hand closed over her mouth and nose, and something like an iron bar tightened around her waist, crushing the air from her lungs. There was no use trying to cry out. She bit down, but the revenant’s skin was tough as cured hide, and it made no reaction, simply holding her as she wriggled like a worm pinched from a bait-pot.
“Don’t smother her, Dead Hand,” said a voice, calm but perfectly alert. “We’re going to have a conversation.”
There was the hiss of someone striking a light—a flare of brightness in the dark—and then a lantern was lit. She saw the bed, rich with hangings, and the shape of someone asleep, deep in shadow. Dead Hand’s grip clamped around her face was beginning to darken her vision. Sitting on a chest at the end of the bed, naked from the waist up, was General Psamag.
Somehow he had known. She had slipped.
“You two, disarm and restrain her,” he said, rising and stretching. “No gag. Like I said, we’re going to talk.”
Another revenant came out of the shadows. There was nothing Csorwe could do as they hoisted her to a beam and bound her raised arms to it. They found her dagger easily enough and took it away.
This was the end, then. She calculated, as though from very far away, how soon the pain would become unbearable, stretched in this position. She had not been schooled in interrogation—Not yet, Sethennai had said—but she had heard her tutors talk sometimes, about how breaking people’s fingers was all very well but how much easier to let their own weight do the work for you.
For such a huge man, Psamag moved with graceful economy, and when he spoke his voice was quiet and unemphatic.
“Someone sent you here to me,” he said. He leant on one hand, running his thumb over the knifelike point of one tusk.
She shook her head. She would not betray Sethennai.
“Yes,” he said. “Someone sent you to kill me.”
Belthandros Sethennai had stolen her from the very mouth of death. She had no fear of anything, and no one could compel her. She would say nothing. Let them hurt her. Let them do what they wanted. She would not speak, even if they wrenched the life from her.
“You’ve been stealing away from your bunkroom by night,” he said. “You’ve been plotting. Tell me who sent you, and who you are working with.”
Csorwe said nothing.
“Silence does you no good,” said Psamag. “I know what you’ve been up to.” He turned to the table where the revenants had put down the poisoned dagger, and turned it over in his hands. Then he went to the bed, and drew back the curtains. There was someone lying there. She could see the top of their head on the pillow. “Wake up,” he said, in slightly gentler tones.
It was Talasseres Charossa, naked but for a wrap tied around his middle, making him look skinnier than ever. He blinked hard, his ears drawn up flat and tight against his skull, as though he’d been woken by an alarm bell.
“Sorry, sir?” he said, making a visible effort to relax.
“Why don’t you tell me again what you were saying about our friend Soru’s irregular conduct,” said Psamag.
“There isn’t any more to tell,” said Talasseres, in what was clearly meant to be a flirtatious tone. Then he looked up, and saw the scene set out in the bedroom, and his eyes widened. Csorwe looked back at him without expression, and after a second’s naked shock, his expression hardened.
“You can’t blame me,” he said. “If you’re stupid enough to do something like this.”
Csorwe returned his gaze steadily.
“You really can’t blame me,” said Talasseres. Something almost like disgust flickered in his voice.
Psamag said nothing throughout this exchange. Finally he laid a hand on Talasseres’ bare shoulder. “Leave, if you prefer. This won’t be easy for you to watch.”
Fierce pride warred with unease in Talasseres’ eyes. At last he bobbed his head and scrambled from the room.
Psamag used no instruments but the revenants, utterly dispassionate in their strength and obedience. He asked no questions beyond the first two. Who was she working for? Who was she working with? Silence was answered with pain. Csorwe began to answer with nonsense, drawn from some new well of defiance. Who did she work for? The Pretty Birds Gentleman’s House of Entertainment. Who was she working with? The nine old gods of Qarsazh.
Perhaps an hour passed. It was impossible to tell. Csorwe’s existence stretched and narrowed, drawn into white-hot threads like molten glass.
The General grew tired of this, and sent for a pair of pliers.
“You’re young,” he said, reaching out to touch one of Csorwe’s tusks with a sharp-nailed forefinger. “These are new. Only a coward sends a child to do his work.”
“No,” Csorwe mumbled, too weak even to snap at his hand. She could hardly move her head. Every breath came shallow and tearing.
Psamag laughed. “No? Defending the one who put you here? This isn’t my fault, child. It’s my duty to protect my interests. What’s happening to you is down to the one who sent you to this place.” He fit the teeth of the pliers to her tusk, cold against the feverish heat of her cheek. “You know what you have to do to end this. Just one word, little friend, just the name of the one who sent you to kill me.”
“Go fuck yourself,” said Csorwe, though the words came out slurred, not at all the cry of defiance she had hoped.
“As you please,” said Psamag. “Dead Tooth, pull her right tusk for me. Then we’ll see how much she likes her boss.”
Some unreckonable span of time had passed. Psamag had dismissed the revenants. Csorwe was still hanging from the beam.
“Whoever you’re working for, you’ve failed them,” the General was saying. “There’s no point holding out. I think you know that, at heart. You’re being obstinate, and it’s not achieving anything but more pain for you. You’ve tried hard, and that’s admirable in its way, but you’re clinging to a lost cause.”
Csorwe paid him no attention. She could still hear the tusk’s root breaking, like the creak of a branch as it snapped. There was a raw hollow where the tooth had been, like a bowl full of blood, and a sour taste in her mouth, mingling with the iron. Perhaps she had been sick. It was hard to tell: she drifted in and out of consciousness.
“Your boss is a powerful individual,” said the General. “So it won’t do any harm for you to tell me. We already have a good idea where you came from. And do you think that you really matter to them? This bit of stubbornness won’t do any good, and it won’t be noticed. It’s a shame to sacrifice yourself for no thanks and no reward. Nobody is coming to take you away from here. What happens is in your hands.”
“Kill me, then,” said Csorwe thickly. She felt the blood spill from her lips. In her mind’s eye there was a dark tunnel in a hillside, and a calling voice she could not name. She hoped that this was a premonition of death. She had given nothing away, but she didn’t know how much longer she could resist.
On the edge of her hearing, like a gleaming of white light, came the sound of a silver bell ringing. It hurt, like salt in the wound. Psamag shook his head as though trying to rid himself of a mosquito, then started as he recognised the sound. This was no product of Csorwe’s imagination. A bell was ringing.
Psamag frowned and drew back from her, then turned away entirely. The bell made such a soft sound, like a child’s rattle. He muttered in disbelief under his breath, and strode out of the room.
Csorwe was alone, and the binding on her right wrist had come a little loose. Psamag would kill her when he came back, and she was too weak to escape his apartments without help. But if she could reach the knife she had brought, she could end this on her own terms. The gift of Atharaisse might come good after all. As the seconds passed in silence, she worked her arm free, slowly, slowly, inch by inch, in agony. Her left arm alone could not hold up her weight. She fell with a snap as the bone broke, and passed out before she hit the floor.
The minutes passed, and she did not die. She crawled across the floor, dragging her broken arm, and reached the table where her dagger lay, and lived through every moment of it. She struggled in humiliation to knock down the dagger, and grasp it in her good hand, and shake it loose of the sheath. Atharaisse’s venom still shone on the blade, and she wondered whether Psamag had intended it for her in the end. But she was not dead.
She inched facedown across the floor, nudging the dagger after her. Minute by minute the pain caught up with her, and when it became too much she had to lie still. Every jarring breath steamed on the floorboards. She left a trail of blood, still pouring from the socket of her ruined tusk, and the old verses came back to her, out of the years behind her and The Dream of Fly Agaric: From those that are chosen, blood riseth to their mouths and spilleth from their lips, as nectar from the flower. Such a pretty way of putting it. She coughed and spat—blood and saliva and little shards of tusk enamel—and drew breath, and dragged herself upright, and hid behind the door to the room, propping herself against the wall.
When Psamag came back, he realised at once that something was wrong, and his instinct was to hang back in the doorway. Csorwe meant to spring out from behind the door and cut his throat. Instead, she fell hopelessly against his shoulders, and dragged the blade loosely across his collarbone. The horror of failure made a white-hot pit in her guts. All she could hope was that she had broken the skin, that Atharaisse’s venom might at least slow him down.
If Psamag was a dead man, he hadn’t realised it. He stumbled into the room, roaring, and flung Csorwe at the nearest wall. The hilt of the dagger was slippery with blood and sweat, and it slipped from her hand like a fish as she landed. She jerked out a hand, but shock and terror numbed her reflexes, and the dagger clattered on the tiles before bouncing away across the floor of the General’s bedroom.
Psamag strode toward her, and turned her over with the toe of his boot. His steps seemed slower than before, unless she was imagining it. Please, she prayed. Unspoken and Unspeakable One—please—
Her eyes and mouth were full of blood, but she felt the concussion as Psamag’s body slammed into the floor. By some miracle he fell backward, away from her.
For some time—hours, perhaps—Csorwe just lay there, next to the General’s enormous corpse. She knew she needed to get up. Someone was going to come looking for the General, sooner or later, and then she would be dead. She heard steps and voices, far away and distorted, as the fortress began to wake up. Her mind was fogged and dizzy, and she wanted nothing more than to lie very still and wait for the pain to end or be ended.
At one point, she remembered why she had come here, and managed to get up onto her elbows to search Psamag’s body for the jet pendant. There was no sign of it. She crawled under the bed, and slowly faded into unconsciousness.
When she woke, someone was searching Psamag’s room, discreetly but methodically. Csorwe bit her lip to stop herself calling out for help, but one of her upper teeth sank into the socket of her missing tusk, and she made a noise like a wounded animal. The footsteps stopped.
“Well, well,” said a voice, and a hand worked its way under her shoulder. Someone picked her up and set her on Psamag’s bed.
It was Big Morga, the second-in-command, huge and fearsome as a warship in the closeness of the chamber. Csorwe could only groan.
“Ugly little thing, for one of the boss’s. Young, too.” Morga made a faintly disgusted noise. “You killed him?”
Csorwe was too dazed to process the implications of any of this. She must have made some motion that looked like nodding. Morga’s eyes were bloodshot with exhaustion but she looked delighted to see Csorwe, and Csorwe did not think she had seen a more terrifying expression in her life.
“Well, you’ve made my life a lot easier, so I’m sorry about what I’m going to have to do to you. They’ll be baying for blood downstairs.” Delight gave way to a carnivorous look of satisfaction. “Jawbone, come and bring her down.”
Jawbone was one of Psamag’s revenants. Clearly, he recognised Morga as his new commander. Jawbone hoisted Csorwe over his shoulder, and she bit down on a scream as her broken arm bent at an awkward angle. The pain obliterated all else as the revenant carried her downstairs. When it faded she allowed herself a moment’s surrender to bleak humiliation. Pinioned to the beam in Psamag’s quarters, she had clung to her purpose. She had been able to fight. Now there was nothing she could do to resist.
At last she was dropped with a yelp on some hard surface. Crockery clattered around her, and another white-hot lance of pain drove up through her arm.
With difficulty, Csorwe looked up, and the glassy eyes of a hundred mounted heads stared back at her. She was lying where she had been dropped, on her back like a dying woodlouse, on the table in Psamag’s dining hall. Cutlery and shattered plates all around her. The officers stood around the table looking down at her.
“The traitor, as I promised you,” said Morga. She grabbed Csorwe’s hair, wrenching her head up. Csorwe winced, trying to focus on the faces of the officers who surrounded her. “This is the spy. She killed the General. She’s been here for weeks, and none of you noticed her.”
Csorwe just lay there, looking up at them blearily, too weak to struggle.
“And who do you think was paying her?” said Morga, hauling Csorwe half upright. She held the point of a dagger to Csorwe’s forehead. Pressed it down, puncturing the skin. “Who envied our place?” She dragged the blade. Blood ran in burning streams down Csorwe’s face. “Who is it that’s envied Psamag since we started?” She slashed downward, cutting Csorwe’s face open from cheek to chin. The carelessness was more startling than the pain. Morga looked around at the table with a mirthless grimace. “You notice who’s missing from our table today. Looks like Talasseres has gone back to his uncle.”
Muttering went around the table. Csorwe couldn’t distinguish one looming face from another.
“We’ll hunt Olthaaros down, you hear me?” said Morga. “He’ll die for this. But in the meantime, what do we do with traitors?”
“The snake pit,” said one of the officers, as though it was obvious. “The sand-wife.” The others realised this was the right answer almost at once, and the cries of approbation turned quickly to a chant. Sand-wife, sand-wife, sand-wife, punctuated with the stamping of feet and the pounding of fists on the table.
Morga smiled. “This piece of shit sent our friend Tenocwe to die in her place. It’s time to make it fair.”
Jawbone plucked Csorwe from the table by the scruff of her neck as if she were no more than a stray dog. Vomit rose in the back of her throat and she swallowed hard, futile as it seemed to resist another humiliation among so many. Fear smothered all other suffering as Jawbone strode toward the pit. Atharaisse’s ivory coils were heaped in the dust below. Csorwe had no hope that she would show mercy twice.
The great intricate head rose above the lip of the pit, and Atharaisse’s voice sounded, with a hiss like the wind that scoured the plains. It was some time before the company realised she was laughing.
“This is the sweetness of our longevity,” she said. “Between rust and rot, time devours all enemies. Endurance is all. But we see thou hast a morsel for us.”
Morga nodded and Jawbone strode toward the pit. Csorwe’s fear dissolved. Of all the monsters she had met, Atharaisse was the most honourable, and her weapon the most merciful. No slow death on the rack, no dissolution in the presence of the Unspoken One, but a venom that destroyed with swift kindness.
Jawbone held her out, like a falconer offering his glove, and Atharaisse plucked her free. And then she was raised above the company, dangling, as the glassy eyes of dead things wheeled before her.
“Have no fear, hatchling,” said Atharaisse, soft in the aching interior of Csorwe’s skull. “Thou hast shed the blood of the tyrant. Thy courage is worthy to be honoured, and I honour thee.”
The dirt floor of the pit swooped down to meet her as Atharaisse slid back down into the pit, snapping her jaws in imitation of feeding. Morga made some more remarks, and the company returned to a kind of uneasy merriment, as Csorwe was held safe in a curl of smooth white scales.
There were shallow tunnels woven in the stone around the pit, and here Atharaisse left Csorwe to rest, slumped in the dust by a still pool of water. For days, it seemed, she slept, and drifted in dreams. In these visions she saw Echentyr alive again. Stars wheeled above the great city. All the windows were illuminated, and beneath them a parade of serpents moved, their jewel-bright scales glinting under garlands of flowers. A gaze of understanding fell upon her. She was perceived, and she remained whole.
When she woke she drank from the pool, and washed as best she could, flaking crusts of dried blood from her face. Every part of her body was in agony, as though her limbs were competing to see which could hurt more.
Atharaisse was gone. There was only one way to go now. She picked herself up and stumbled away into the dark.
At the bottom of the stairs, on the step above the curse-ward, lay the amulet, as though it had been thrown up from below. The chain was wound firmly around a roll of paper, only slightly charred at the edges by the action of the curse-ward. Csorwe hunkered down on the steps, unfolded it, and read in disbelief:
No hard feelings.
There were no more curse-wards like the first one, only a silvery blue seal a few feet farther in. She flinched back from it, and it emitted the soft sound of bells, exactly like the ones that had distracted Psamag before. Talasseres Charossa must have passed this way, and inadvertently saved her life.
The stairway opened up on a cavern. In places you could see the cave had once been graciously paved and vaulted, a broad underground boulevard. There were two archways, more or less whole, and beyond the arches two passages branched off from the cavern, pointing in opposite directions. There were waymarkers at the mouth of each passage: CITY and OUTLANDS.
Csorwe had no idea how she made it out of the caves. She emerged from a crack in the outland hillside half a mile from the fortress.
It was midmorning. After weeks in the dimness of the fortress, the sunlight was blinding, and she half wanted to recoil back into the darkness and hide again.
She had found her way through. She could get Sethennai back into his city. But it was hard to feel triumph when her mouth was full of her own blood. She could hardly think in a straight line long enough to tell what success meant.
Morga must have closed all the doors to the fortress, because the traffic tailed back a good two miles into the desert.
Csorwe crept nearer to the queue of wagons. Somehow, there were still people in the world talking and laughing. Somehow, people were still selling food at the stalls. The smell reminded her of the curse-ward—hot fat, burnt meat, charred bone—but she was so hungry she would’ve eaten her own leg if someone had put it on a skewer.
She stumbled toward one of the stalls, trying not to cower any time someone looked at her. She must have been quite a sight, caked in blood and dirt and rags. The stallholder backed away from her, holding out a fan of meat skewers to her as if to ward off the devil. She took them, turned her back on the fortress, and walked away into the desert.
Excerpted from The Unspoken Name, copyright © 2020 by A. K. Larkwood.