What if you knew how and when you will die? Csorwe does…
We’re excited to share an extended excerpt from A.K. Larkwood’s debut fantasy, The Unspoken Name, available February 11th from Tor Books!
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.
The Chosen Bride
By the touch of thy hand shall the black lotus bloom
Thus shall we know thee, handmaid of desolation
By the corruption of the seas
By the fading of all things
Thy name shall be forsaken and thou shalt be my bride
Thus spake the Nameless One upon the plains of dust.
–from The Book of Unmaking
The House of Silence
In the deep wilds of the north, there is a Shrine cut into the mountainside. The forest covers these hills like a shroud. This is a quiet country, but the Shrine of the Unspoken One is quieter still. Birds and insects keep away from the place.
In the valley below the Shrine is a temple known as the House of Silence. Its acolytes leave offerings at the foot of the steps that lead up to the Shrine, but they do not come any closer.
Every fourteen years, in spring, when the streams in the hills began to thaw, a procession leaves the House of Silence. The Prioress rides in a palanquin with six bearers. Despite the cold these bearers are naked from the waist up. Every other day of every other year they are farmers and woodsmen, but on this day they have an ancient purpose to serve. They walk the road of white stones that leads into the hills.
Going before them all is a girl of fourteen, wreathed with flowers and veiled in white. At her side she leads a spotless bull calf on a gilded chain.
The procession halts at the foot of the steps to the Shrine. Here is a stone altar, in which a channel is carved. Here is a vessel set at the lowest point of the channel. Here is a bright, sharp knife.
The girl leads the calf to the altar and they cut its throat. The blood runs black in the dim spring light. It splashes on the frozen stone and flows into the vessel.
She takes the bowl of blood. She climbs the steps to the Shrine. She is never seen again.
One month before the day of Csorwe’s death, a stranger came to the House of Silence. Csorwe did not see him arrive. She was down in the crypt, listening to the dead.
In the underbelly of the House there were many cellars, hollowed out in the grey strata of the sacred mountain. Deepest of all were the crypts, where the eminent dead among the Followers of the Unspoken Name were sealed to strive for rest. Rest was not something that came easily here, so close to the Shrine of the god. The dead scratched at the walls and cooed in sad imitation of living song.
Csorwe was sitting in the antechamber trying to pick out the words, as she did from time to time, when she heard someone coming down the passage. She drew her feet up into the alcove, hoping she might not be noticed. A bubble of candlelight approached and opened. It was Angwennad, one of the lay-sisters.
“Csorwe, dear, come out from there, you’re wanted upstairs,” said Angwennad. The other lay-sisters called Csorwe miss or, unbearably, ma’am, but Angwennad had been Csorwe’s nurse, and there were certain liberties permitted to her.
Csorwe slipped down from her perch. She didn’t think she was late for afternoon prayers, but it was easy to lose your place in time—even, as she knew, when you only had so much time to lose.
“There’s a pilgrim here for you,” said Angwennad. “Very foreign. Shabby looking, although I can’t say I’m surprised about that. They’re saying he came through the hills on foot.”
Pilgrims visited the House of Silence every now and then. Most of them wanted nothing more from Csorwe than a blessing, but Angwennad was looking at her with a soft anxiety that suggested this visitor needed something more demanding.
Upstairs, Angwennad took her place at the back of the hall. The priestesses were already kneeling in rows down either side. Prioress Sangrai took Csorwe aside and explained that the pilgrim required a prophecy, as was his right.
The acolytes set out lacquered trays and tapers, and the Keeper of Black Lotus went from tray to tray, tipping out dried leaves and stems of lotus from her censer.
When it was time, Csorwe set off alone down the centre of the hall, toward the dais at the far end. The hall was lit only by candles, and by the dim glow of the lotus as it began to smoulder. The faces of the others were like pale thumbprints in the haze.
At the dais, the Prioress and the librarian stood to one side with the stranger. Csorwe got a brief look at him as she approached, but she kept her eyes down and her pace stately. On the dais was a high-backed chair. Csorwe took her place here, holding her head high, looking straight ahead. The rows of priestesses and acolytes, the Prioress, the librarian, and the stranger, all blurred and faded at the periphery of her vision. All she could see was the darkness and the empty air occupying the great vault of the hall.
The fumes of the lotus rose among the pillars, sweet and elusive. Once the Keeper of Black Lotus had completed her round, she came to Csorwe with a porcelain cup, in which the seeds and petals of lotus gleamed in resin. It gave off a fine, black, coiling smoke.
The Followers of the Unspoken Name bowed their heads all at once, repeating in one murmuring voice:
“Unspoken and Unspeakable One, Knight of Abyss, Overseer of the Eaten Worlds, praise and reverence unto your Chosen Bride. May she intercede for us.”
Csorwe raised the cup and took a breath. Cedar, pepper, incense, and underneath it all the irresistible perfume of the lotus. Her sight darkened, and a pleasant ache crept up her limbs, followed by a numbness. The lights in the hall were very far away, and they shimmered as though underwater. With each breath, they dimmed a little more.
In waking life, Csorwe had walked every one of the crypts and cellars beneath the House of Silence. She knew them by sight and by experience, by touch and by heart. Under the sway of the lotus, she felt the shape of them as though she had them in her mouth. The whole mountain was riddled with hollows, and at the heart of the mountain was the greater void.
She plummeted through the dark, and felt the eyes of the void upon her.
The presence of the Unspoken One crept in slowly at first, like the first reaching wavelets of the tide, rising gently, prying into the burrows of sand-creeping things. And then all at once it was impossible to ignore: a vast invisible pressure, a single focused curiosity that weighed her with impersonal hunger.
Then, a voice, and a face. Back in the hall of the House of Silence, the stranger was kneeling before her, making the salute of sealed lips in respect. His face rippled and gleamed, swimming as though reflected on the surface of a pool. Although he must have been at least forty years old, he had no tusks at all. He was the only foreigner Csorwe had ever seen, and she wished she could see him more clearly.
“Chosen Bride, I most humbly ask a boon of the Unspoken One,” said the stranger. He spoke Oshaaru with a curious accent.
“What is it that you desire?” It was Csorwe’s own voice, but, of course, she did not feel her lips move. The Unspoken One held her in its grip.
“Knowledge,” said the stranger.
“Knowledge of that which has passed away, or that which is to come?” said the Unspoken One. Its attention flickered over Csorwe’s thoughts, testing. It found no resistance. She had been schooled for this. She was a clean vessel for the voice of the god.
“Knowledge of that which lives in the present moment,” said the stranger.
This was unorthodox. Disrespectful, even. Csorwe braced herself for the anger of the Unspoken One. It seemed to notice her attention, and she felt a kind of reassuring caress, like the chill that rises from an open tomb.
“Speak, then,” it said, still using Csorwe’s voice.
“Unspoken and Unspeakable One, where is the Reliquary of Pentravesse?”
Csorwe had the same familiar feeling of plunging uncontrollably through nothingness. Bright objects flickered and passed out of sight. And then she felt the touch of the Unspoken One again, turning her attention.
She saw a rosewood box. It was eight-sided, inlaid with gold, about the size of a man’s clenched fist. It seemed close enough to touch, but this wasn’t Csorwe’s first time prophesying and even through the fog of lotus she knew it was only a vision.
A close, thick darkness gathered around the box, like a velvet bag drawn tight, and then the box itself disappeared from view. The vision ended, as though deliberately snatched away. She reached for it again, fumbling into the dark, but couldn’t reach it.
“It is hidden from my sight,” said the Unspoken One.
Disgust and disbelief were emotions unbecoming of a god, but the Unspoken was certainly capable of displeasure.
“But it does still exist?” said the stranger. He did his best to keep his voice level. Csorwe did not miss the note of satisfaction.
“It is intact,” said the Unspoken One. That was as much as the stranger was going to get, it seemed. The Unspoken One drew back from her, like a wave falling back down the shore, leaving only a sheen of brightness where it had touched, and then nothing.
She was herself again, on the dais, in the House of Silence, with the bitter aftertaste of lotus in her mouth. Her head swam, the cup fell from her fingers, and she fainted.
Csorwe slept through afternoon prayers, woke in her own cell, and stumbled down to the refectory for dinner. The black lotus was not known for its gentleness after the fact. Her head felt both thick and fragile, like a hard-boiled egg, and her throat burnt as though she had been screaming.
A group of novices—Csorwe’s agemates—were clustered around a single table. Some of them looked round when she entered, but most paid no attention.
Until Csorwe’s thirteenth birthday she had lived and studied with the novices. Still, she had no friends among them. The Chosen Bride of the Unspoken One was set apart by protocol, but also by pragmatism. There was no point cultivating the friendship of a Chosen Bride. Most of the novices came from farming families; they understood that it was no good getting fond of the pig before the season of butchery.
Csorwe took a bowl of cabbage soup and sat at another table. The others were all talking about the stranger. He was a wizard, it seemed, from a far-off city that none of them could pronounce. They got quieter and quieter until the whole group was gathered around Ushmai, who was whispering that she thought the stranger-wizard was good-looking.
Csorwe sat and ate her soup, thinking it through. In thirty days it would be the time. That meant twenty-nine more dinners after this. She tried to pay more attention to the soup, to take her time with each bite and savour it properly, but the lotus made everything taste like rust.
Her thoughts kept wandering back to the stranger. If he was a wizard, why was he so shabby? Where were his servants? What was it he wanted so badly that he had come all this way alone? The box she had seen in her vision must be very valuable, or very sacred, or both.
The novices fell silent in unison, and Csorwe looked round to see what had startled them. The stranger was standing in the door to the refectory. He had to stoop to enter.
Csorwe peeped up at him, pretending to eat her soup. He had dark brown skin, a huge amount of hair bound up in a clasp, long pointed ears, and a full beard. She had never seen anyone like this before. Oshaaru such as Csorwe were grey-skinned and golden-eyed, and the few men she had ever seen were clean-shaven.
He wore a long, ragged, outlandish coat, patched all over so that it was impossible to tell what the original cloth had been. There were traces of embroidery in among the patches, threads of gold and silver that glittered when he moved. It was possible he had been a rich man many years ago, but only if he had been a beggar since then.
Still, he didn’t look like a poor man, at least not like the poor country men who lived near the House of Silence. Stooping was not a habit for him.
He looked around the refectory for a while, and then, to Csorwe’s horror, he sat down opposite her.
“My name is Belthandros Sethennai,” he said. “I believe we’ve met, though I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself at the time.”
She said nothing, looking down at the half-eaten bowl of soup.
“There’s no need to worry. I did check with the Prioress. She finds it theologically permissible for you to speak to me.”
It wasn’t the theology that had been bothering her so much as the watching eyes of the novices, but she looked up at him. It was very odd to see an adult without visible tusks. His face looked so innocent and unguarded without them that it was difficult to gauge his expressions.
“I wanted to thank you for your indulgence of my curiosity, earlier on,” he said.
Csorwe stared at him. It was both absurd and improper to accept thanks for prophecy. She imagined him pouring a glass of wine and thanking the bottle.
“I hope the experience was not too draining for you,” he said. She shook her head. “I wish I could express how much the information means. I spent so many years investigating the history of the Reliquary without even beginning to imagine it might still exist in fragments, let alone intact—but I won’t bore you with ancient history. I always manage to believe people are interested in my research, despite all evidence to the contrary.” He smiled. “If you can spare me a little more of your time, the Prioress tells me you might take me to visit the library?”
In the library of the House of Silence, there was a book bound in the skin of a murdered king, or so it was said. There were books in cipher, books in obsidian, books in whale hide. There were atlases of ruined cities and blighted worlds. There were useless maps to every treasure ever lost to time, and lexicons of every forgotten language. The library of the House of Silence was a monument to entropy.
It was also beautifully warm, because the librarian had bullied Angwennad into bringing her twice the usual allotment of firewood.
The librarian was sitting at her desk when Csorwe came in with Belthandros Sethennai. Her name was Oranna. She was young enough that Csorwe remembered her initiation from acolyte to priestess. Her eyes were the colour of beeswax, and she wore silver caps on her tusks. She didn’t look up as they came in, but knew exactly who was there; she had perfected this trick as an acolyte and it served her well as librarian.
“So,” said Oranna. “The Reliquary of Pentravesse. If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said you’d come to the right place.”
“But today… ?” said Sethennai.
“Today, it transpires, though contrary to all logic, that the Reliquary still exists. That which lives in the present has no place here. Here you will find the truth only about those who are dead, and that which is dust.”
“That’s a pity,” said Sethennai, wandering down a row of shelves. His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his awful coat, as if he had to restrain them from touching the books. “Still, I’d like to see what you have on the Reliquary. Even if it’s nothing but lies.”
Oranna’s brow twisted with suppressed aggravation. “Csorwe,” she said. “Stop hovering by the door, will you, and come and sit by the fire.”
Csorwe did as she was told, and settled down to watch a phalanx of sparks creep up the side of a log. When Csorwe was little, Angwennad had told her about imps who lived in the hearth and warred over the ashes. It was painful to remember that now. She should have put those things behind her.
She sat and half listened to Oranna and Sethennai. The librarian was never eager to take down one of the books, and her distaste for the stranger was palpable, but she had opened a heavy folio and was looking for her place.
“The Reliquary of Pentravesse is said to mark its passage through the world, in the sense that a scythe marks its passage through the grass,” she read. “Seek patiently. Listen for strange accidents, disastrous coincidences, events that slip their reins. You may chart the progress of Pentravesse’s final work through an unsuspecting world. This is the nature of the curse upon the Reliquary.”
“Greed and ambition pursue it,” said Sethennai, as if he too were reading aloud. “Bad luck, ill judgment, and unintended consequences follow in its wake.” He smiled at her. “But the idea is irresistible.”
Csorwe happened to look up just as Oranna did, and saw the look that passed between the librarian and the wizard. Imagine two spies who pass in the street and recognise one another, before each disappears into a dif.erent crowd. Ordinary wariness is replaced with shock, delight, terror—and then the moment passes.
Csorwe saw Belthandros Sethennai only once more in the House of Silence. He stayed in the guest wing, visited the library from time to time, and troubled nobody, as far as Csorwe knew. Her time was taken up with preparations for the day that was to come. There was no ceremonial name for it. Csorwe thought of it as THAT DAY. She prayed and meditated for hours each day. She studied The Book of Unmaking and The Dream of Fly Agaric with the Prioress. She fasted and burnt lotus as the books required.
These preparations were tiring. At first, she slept each night as though she were already dead. Then she began to wake in the small hours, and lie awake, in the grip of a sickly fear, as though just realising what was going to happen to her. As though she hadn’t known since she was old enough to understand it. On her fourteenth birthday she would go up to the Shrine of the Unspoken One and that would be the end of her.
The summer would come. There would be another Chosen Bride. The novices would get their adult tusks and make their vows as acolytes. The world would continue, but she would be gone.
One night she got up from her cot, unable to stand it any longer, and let herself out into the corridor. Here I am, she thought. This is me, in two weeks’ time. Here I am, walking up to the Shrine. This is the end. This is how it will feel at the end. Thy name shall be forsaken and thou shalt be my bride.
The flagstones were ice cold underfoot. There was no light, but she knew the House of Silence too well to trip. She climbed the stairs to the library, at first thinking only of the steps in the mountainside. Then she saw the line of golden light under the double doors of the library, and thought of the warmth of the fire and the comforting smell of pine smoke, the truth about those who are dead and about that which is dust.
She went into the library as quietly as she could, avoiding the door that creaked. Somehow, she hadn’t thought there would be anyone inside. She had imagined the fire wasting all that heat and light in solitude.
She knew at once that she had made a mistake. The librarian and the wizard were there. Sethennai sat by the hearth, as though bathing in the glow of the fire. His ragged coat hung on the back of his chair. Oranna was taking a book down from a high shelf, and froze as Csorwe came in, like a cat surprised in the act of stealing scraps. Csorwe stepped back, let the door swing shut, and scuttled back into the dark.
She knew at once that she had seen something she should not. Whatever the meeting in the library had meant, it was not for her eyes, and the punishments for idle curiosity were severe.
Hasty footsteps followed after her. Incoherent flashes and shadows fluttered over the walls: the light of a lantern carried by someone in a hurry. Oranna caught up to her without much difficulty.
“What are you doing, Csorwe?” she said, in a low voice, careful not to wake anyone else. Csorwe was beginning to realise that she wasn’t the only one here who had broken the rules. “It’s the middle of the night.”
Csorwe couldn’t explain. She shrank back into the darkness. A moment later, Sethennai appeared at Oranna’s shoulder.
“Couldn’t you sleep?” said Oranna, and then her face cleared, as though she understood, and was somehow relieved. “You’re afraid.”
Csorwe nodded. At that moment she couldn’t have said whether she was more afraid of Oranna or the Shrine.
“Ah. The Chosen Bride,” said Sethennai. He hung back behind Oranna, in the dark, and Csorwe couldn’t tell from his tone of voice whether he was suspicious or just curious. “Having doubts?”
Oranna ignored him, still looking down at Csorwe. “Fear is no fault,” she said, quoting the Book. “It is right to fear the Unspoken One. The only fault is to seek out consolation in falsities.”
Csorwe nodded, staring down at her bare feet.
“I knew the Chosen Bride who came before you,” said Oranna. Csorwe startled. This topic was not forbidden, but it was almost unthinkable. Csorwe thought she was the only one who had ever wondered about it. “We were novices together. She was afraid at first, but when the day came she was quite calm. You will find the same peace, I’m certain. Remember your meditations.”
Csorwe assented, and Oranna led her back to her cell. The librarian was not known for such considerate gestures. Csorwe wondered whether Oranna meant it in honour of the Bride she had known. She wished Oranna had said more about her. What was her name? What had she said and done? Perhaps Oranna was the only one who remembered.
By the time she got to sleep, she had almost forgotten about Sethennai.
Another sleepless hour suspended between midnight and dawn, one week before the day of sacrifice. Csorwe wrapped herself in a blanket and went down to the crypts. Her slippers scalloped the dust as she wandered.
The dead were never quiet in their cells, but they were loudest by night, singing their tuneless, wordless song and battering at the doors. Csorwe went on past the smaller cells, toward the grand, central chamber where the Prioresses of ages past were buried, sealed behind a great iron door.
Some of the old Prioresses had been so virtuous they had sewn up their mouths; they died from thirst rather than utter a blasphemous word. The door was marked with the sign of sealed lips, and Csorwe made the salute automatically: three fingers pressed to her lips, between her tusks.
The iron bolt was so cold it ached to touch, as though it drew the living warmth from Csorwe’s bones. Metal shrieked on stone as she drew it back and lifted the latch. At the noise of the door opening, the dead fell silent.
She saw the revenants at the edge of the circle of candlelight, standing among their biers like dinner guests waiting to be seated. Slowly, as though they were shy, they began to approach her. There were dozens of them, wrapped in their shrouds, reaching and watching. She stepped toward them, shutting the door behind her, and walked out into the gathering crowd of the dead. Their bony fingertips ran through her hair and brushed against her bare skin with a kind of desperate gentleness.
Csorwe sat down on the edge of a bier and they gathered around, as though she had brought news from the living world. The Prioresses had lived and died here in the House of Silence, and though the presence of the Unspoken had revived their bodies, their souls had returned to the earth. Their eyes were empty sockets. There was nothing they could tell her.
That day arrived. Csorwe moved like a mannequin from one place to another, not really noting where she was or what was happening. They dressed her in white silk and lace, and crowned her with white dog roses. Angwennad told her that she was a brave girl, that the years had passed so quickly, that she had never really believed the day would come.
She was anointed with resin. The scent of lotus mingled with the animal smell of the sacrificial calf. Everything was set in motion. This was the end. It was almost over.
The procession reached the altar at the foot of the steps. The priestesses came forward to kill the calf, their yellow habits blazing against the mossy stone of the hill. Csorwe stared directly ahead, and saw the knife as a flash of light in her periphery.
The blood of the calf filled the bowl to the brim and spilled over. They held out the bowl to her and she took it, clasping the slippery metal in both hands with difficulty.
Then they drew off to each side, and all—the priestesses, the acolytes, the Prioress and the bearers of her palanquin—bowed, once. The librarian watched as Csorwe turned to face the steps.
The way rose steeply. If she had looked back she would have seen the tops of the priestesses’ heads, and the House of Silence below them, and beyond that the forests, rising and falling like black waves, far into the distance. Perhaps as far as the village where she was born. She did not look back. She looked down at her reflection, as it rippled in the bowl of blood.
She reached the top of the steps. The wind plucked at the hem of her dress, raising goose pimples on her calves. Her shoulders ached. Weeds blew in the wind where they grew between the slabs of stone. There were mosses, and small grasses, and flowers that had survived the frosts.
Nobody had walked here for hundreds of years but those who were chosen as she was chosen.
She tried not to think about the flowers. They were scentless. She had seen them so many times. She had seen as many flowers as she needed to see. She had eaten enough cabbage soup. She had listened to the dead scratching at the walls for long enough. It was time. If she faltered now, she would never go on.
She turned her eyes to the doorway. It yawned in the side of the mountain, raw, open, and lightless. Neither moss nor grass grew close to the rock face. No living thing was permitted to pass through this way but she who had been chosen. She walked toward the door, and stepped through.
She came into a round chamber, whose walls were hollowed with passages that led deeper into the mountain. In the middle of the chamber was a shallow pit, faintly delineated by the light from the doorway.
At the edge of the pit was a notch of smooth stone, wide enough for her to kneel comfortably. It was impossible to tell whether the place had been smoothed as a kindness or simply worn down by centuries of use.
She thought of the girls who had come here before her, and brought with them the offering of blood for the Unspoken One. If they were so chosen, so perfectly selected for this honour, perhaps they had known the same uncertainty, here in the silence of the halls under the hill. Perhaps they had spent the last minutes of their lives like this, lost in apprehension in the dark. But perhaps it had been easy for them. Perhaps they had done what had to be done, and gone straight on into the deeper places, to find what waited for them.
She knelt down by the edge and tipped up the bowl; the blood ran into the pit, gleaming in the darkness. At once the interest of the Unspoken One closed on the room, and again she felt the full force of its regard pressing in on her. It knew her. It recognised her. The room was empty; nothing breathed here but Csorwe herself. The Unspoken One waited farther on, deeper down in the mountain.
Soon she began to feel self-conscious. Her knees and shoulders ached from long kneeling in one position. The pit had been sucked dry of blood. The Unspoken One was there, but it offered no guidance. The chamber was still dark; the passages beyond were even darker.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” she said, out loud. “Where am I supposed to go?”
“An excellent question.”
There was a man in one of the passages. She jumped to her feet, and the empty bowl clattered on the rock with a blasphemous jangle.
“Where do you think you are supposed to go?” said the intruder. It was a voice that suggested power and confidence, but it was not the voice of a god. Her fear gave way swiftly to outrage.
“It’s you—I know you,” she said, bracing her hands on her hips. “You can’t come here. Come out of there. You’ll die.”
Belthandros Sethennai stepped out into the chamber, smiling mildly. He held a lantern in one hand, and he watched her almost as intently as the Unspoken One did.
“So you can speak,” he said. “I did wonder.”
“If you don’t leave here it will kill you,” said Csorwe. The Unspoken One was in the room all around them, in the very weight of the air. “This is blasphemy. You can’t be here. Nothing alive is allowed to leave this place.”
There were laughter lines bracketing the man’s mouth, and they deepened as she spoke.
Csorwe crossed her arms and dug her nails into the soft flesh of her inner elbow. “Don’t laugh at me. How dare you. This is my death. It was marked out for me.”
“Yes, I know,” he said. He strode across the room to get a better look at her, stepping lightly over the pit and raising the lantern. She saw that the sleeves of his coat were rolled up and he was wearing a pair of heavy leather gauntlets. “Death awaits us all, O Handmaid of Desolation. But I don’t have to die here, and nor do you.”
She had hardly dared to dream that something like this might happen, that someone might decide there had been a mistake. It was blasphemous even to imagine it.
“I’m not coming with you,” said Csorwe. “This is a false consolation. You can’t make me leave.”
Sethennai leant back against the wall nearby. “I won’t make you do anything,” he said. “If you want to go down into the cave and see what the Unspoken One makes of its offerings, please yourself.” He took a breath, steadying himself against the wall as though concentrating. “It’s unfair of me, I know, to spoil the crowning purpose of your young life by turning up and making cruel remarks. If you’re certain that this is what you want, I’ll make myself scarce, and leave you to your transcendent experience.”
Csorwe knew when she was being made fun of, and clenched her hands in her skirts. “This was my honour,” she said. Tears of anger prickled in her eyes. “I was chosen for this.”
“Well,” said Sethennai. “Now you have been chosen for another occupation, unless you prefer to die in the dark rather than work for me. Do you imagine you are the first Chosen Bride to doubt the fate assigned to her? Plenty of your predecessors ran away rather than face the Unspoken in its lair. Most of them froze to death in the woods, and their remains still lie where they fell.”
Csorwe turned her back on him. This was a mistake: now she was facing the way back out onto the hillside, back to the weak sunlight and the frozen grasses. The Shrine was too high for her to see even the roof of the House of Silence, but she saw the distant shimmer of mountains, the forest, the hills, the white arcs of birds rising on the wind.
“I can’t,” she said. “Where could I go? I would freeze to death too.”
“It’s very difficult to run alone,” said Sethennai. “You would not be alone. You would be with me.” The laughter was gone from his face; his brows drawn together in concentration. His gauntleted hands were clenched tight at his sides. Deep in the mountain, the Unspoken One was beginning to notice him.
“The Prioress—” said Csorwe.
“She will never know you’re gone,” said Sethennai. “Make your choice, Csorwe. Stay here, or come with me. We are running out of time.”
“But the Unspoken One will know,” said Csorwe. She could feel the beginnings of its outrage already, building and crackling under the earth.
“Yes,” said Sethennai. “It will. The secret of greatness is to know when you should risk the wrath of god.”
He took off his gauntlets and held out a hand, and she took it. His hand was smooth, long-fingered, bearing a gold signet; hers small, blunt, and stained to the wrist with calf ’s blood.
“Come along, Csorwe,” he said, “and let the Unspoken One cry for you in the pit.”
The Maze of Echoes
Csorwe had been sent to die before breakfast. By the evening of that day, she and Sethennai were far from the Shrine, aboard a riverboat. This was a new experience among new experiences. For the first night and day she lay on a coil of rope in the bilges, wishing she was dead, as she deserved.
On the second day, something worse than guilt occurred to her. There was a chapter that Csorwe had always enjoyed in The Book of Unmaking, detailing the proper punishment of a traitor. By the shore of the corrupted sea, in the shadow of the coal-black tower, she forsook the Nameless One. May the abyss consume the breaker of promises! May the maggots eat the flesh of her vessel! May her name be forgotten utterly!
“What would you do,” she said, picking her words with caution, “if the Prioress found out, and came to get me back?”
“How would she ever find out?” said Sethennai. “You went up the mountain and you did not return. If the Prioress was so keen to ensure that you were devoured by the god instead of, for instance, going on the run with a strange man, perhaps she should have kept a closer eye on you.”
“She might notice you’re gone,” said Csorwe, and added, very daring, “The librarian might notice.”
Sethennai laughed. “Oranna might notice long enough to be glad to see the back of me.”
“But what would you do if she came after me?”
“I suppose I’d have to kill her,” said Sethennai. He was very cheerful, sitting up at the prow and watching the murky banks as they passed. “Csorwe, even if it occurs to her that you are alive—even if she makes a spectacular leap of logic and realises you are with me—even then—how would she ever find us? We are long gone.”
They left the river, and at last they came to one of the Lesser Gates of Oshaar, green as a cat’s eye, sunk into a cliff face at the bottom of an overgrown valley.
Csorwe had seen Gates drawn and described before, but never in person. They had seemed easy to picture—a circle of green fire, burning in a frame of stone, large enough for someone to pass through—but the reality was both more solid and more strange than she had imagined.
The Lesser Gate was twice as wide as Sethennai was tall, and the flickering light that it cast turned the earth and the undergrowth greener than grass ever was. Bands and fronds of liquid light swarmed across its surface, swirling like leaves in the wind.
It hummed, like a glass bell, struck once and left to reverberate in eternity.
Csorwe had an uneasy feeling that perhaps it was forbidden for her to leave Oshaar, but dismissed it. Like Sethennai said, they were long gone.
“You just go through?” she said. “Does it burn you?”
Sethennai held out a hand, shimmering in the light of the Gate, and she took it. They stepped through as one, and then they were falling, like two twigs in a waterfall. Csorwe tumbled weightless into nothingness.
When they landed, the first thing she heard was the sound of wind. Her other hand, the one which was not still clenched like a claw in Sethennai’s, opened and closed against the current. For a while she was aware of nothing but the edge of the air against her palm.
“This place is called the Maze of Echoes,” said Sethennai.
Gradually her sight returned, and she gazed out at the Maze, as if by gazing she could make sense of it. They stood on a ledge above the place where a steep valley dropped away, down and down, out of reach of light. Pillars and arches of rock massed in the darkness, like misshapen brides, veiled and wreathed with mist. Fragments of sky like pieces of eggshell were visible in places, though not the places one usually saw the sky.
Sethennai pointed to a track that wound along a cliff face. “This way,” he said. “It’s not so far, really. The Maze is only an interstice. A great celestial entrepôt.”
Csorwe nodded as though she understood a word of this, and followed him. You heard of someone travelling by Maze, as they might travel on horseback or in a wagon. She knew you had to go through the Maze to reach other worlds, alien countries, dangerous places utterly unlike Oshaar—but she hadn’t imagined it anything like this.
As they travelled, Csorwe wondered what Sethennai meant by not so far. The journey soon became the longest she had ever taken. They passed through valleys, under arches, and through narrow passages in the rock. They trailed along the bottom of a gorge, in whose walls maze-gates like great emeralds glittered, high up and far out of reach. The sound of them, singing one to another across the deep, was like a choir far away. Shivers prickled at the back of Csorwe’s neck.
At times they stopped, and Csorwe slept. Once they saw a far-off maze-ship passing through: the hull of polished maze-oak, and the sail canopies belling above the hull like a growth of mushrooms. Up close, it would have been the grandest and brightest thing Csorwe had ever seen, but the mists of the Maze dulled its pennants, and it passed in oblivious silence.
All these wonders meant that it took her a long time to realise that she missed the House of Silence. She missed her cell. She missed the shape of the day: the prayers at every interval, the making of offerings, meals in the refectory, and all the rest. She could never have gone back to that. Even if she had stayed, those days were over. If Sethennai hadn’t come for her she would be dead by now.
These facts drifted along behind her, like huge tethered clouds, though she did her best not to look at them directly: she had betrayed her people. She had betrayed her purpose. She had betrayed her god.
She missed her home. They would have killed her if she had stayed. But still she missed it.
Well, she said to herself, she was away, now, and Sethennai had some other purpose for her.
After a while they left the Maze, coming out through another Gate into another world. Csorwe was tense with anticipation, struggling not to betray to Sethennai the fact that this was entirely new to her and almost entirely terrifying. In her old life, Csorwe had accompanied the Prioress on her annual procession to visit the faithful in their villages, but this had never taken them farther than a few days’ travel from the House of Silence. She couldn’t conceive how far they had come. Not just far from the House of Silence but far from Oshaar, from the whole realm of the Unspoken.
They had emerged from the Maze onto the edge of a still lake. A flight of white birds rose like a scattering of petals on the dark foliage.
“What kind of world is this?” said Csorwe, because it seemed childish to say Where are we? The birds were the first living things they had seen for days.
“An old and quiet one,” said Sethennai. “I’m afraid to say I don’t know its name.”
“Do people live here?” she said.
“No,” he said. “For the moment, I think it’s best that we avoid company.” His eyes were sombre, but when he saw Csorwe was watching he smiled again. “In the colleges of Tlaanthothe, there are dozens of scholars who catalogue the worlds and give an accounting of their peoples. I’m afraid I tend to leave them to it. But when we get there, if you still want to know, we can ask them.”
“Is that your home?” Csorwe didn’t want to try pronouncing Tlaanthothe. With her tusks, she worried it would come out as more spit than word. “Are we going back there?”
“Of course,” said Sethennai. “In good time. Tlaanthothe is the jewel of all cities. You’ll love it.”
He stalked along the lakeshore, inspecting stones. Once or twice he picked up a flat one and skimmed it across the water.
“What’s it like?” said Csorwe, running to catch up to him. In the House of Silence, it was unseemly to ask many questions, but Sethennai seemed to enjoy explaining things.
“Tlaanthothe is a university town,” he said, then frowned, realising the word wasn’t familiar to her. “A place of learning. Or at least, it was. I don’t know what my enemies have done to it.” He grinned at her. “I owe you a confession, Handmaid of Desolation. You’ve put your trust in a vagrant. Tlaanthothe is a long way off, and I am as much an exile as you are. The ways are closed to me. My enemy stole my city and banished me.”
Csorwe watched the ripples spreading in the water and tried to make sense of this. “Is your enemy a wizard, too?”
“Not a particularly skilful one,” said Sethennai.
“So you are a wizard,” said Csorwe, feeling cunning. “Everyone said you were, but I never saw you do any magic.”
Sethennai laughed at that. “I am too far from my patron,” he said. He tilted his head to consider her for a moment. “Magicians among your people call on the Unspoken One. They draw their power from the Shrine. But my goddess is very far away. She might not hear me if I call, and I don’t want to exhaust myself by calling without success.”
“Am I—I mean, are you—do you want me to learn magic?” she said. A twinge of anxiety gripped her. She did not want to call on the Unspoken One for any reason.
“No,” he said. “Magic is not like other trades. It runs in the blood. Of course, a practitioner must study and hone his skills like anybody else with a gift, but the gift itself is something that cannot be earned. Nor can it ever be cast off. I was born into the regard of my goddess and I will never be free of it. The Unspoken One has no such hold on you. It spoke through you, but you never used its power for your own ends.”
He tried another stone, which bounced only once before dropping gracelessly into the lake.
“In some ways it is a mercy for you,” he said. “The use of magic levies a heavy tax on the body.”
“Even for you?” said Csorwe.
He smiled. “The thing with taxes is that one can be clever about when and how one pays. But I do not use magic without need.”
He bent to select another stone from the shore.
“My enemy thinks that if I can’t get into Tlaanthothe, I will be cut off from my patron altogether. He has thrown every possible obstacle in my path. But he underestimates me.”
This stone skipped three times before sinking, and he turned to Csorwe, exultant. “And I very much doubt that he will ever see you coming.”
At the far end of the lake they found their next Gate and travelled back into the Maze. Csorwe soon got used to this. They passed through many maze-gates, across greying deserts and bare hillsides, into other worlds and back again into farther reaches of the Maze, skipping from one to another like a needle looping thread from one side of the cloth to another. Occasionally they saw birds and trees, but never other people. This made sense to Csorwe now that she knew that Sethennai was avoiding some powerful enemy.
And then they came out of the Maze of Echoes, and into the first city Csorwe had ever seen.
Her first impressions of the city were grubby and confused. Dull, punishing heat. The smell of dung and sweat and sawdust. Dust in the air, choking her nose and mouth. Worst of all, everywhere was a senseless jangle of noises and voices, all interrupting and cutting across each other.
Csorwe covered her ears with her hands and buried her face in her clothes. They waited in some kind of stable yard while Sethennai negotiated for a wagon. Once the wagon materialised, Csorwe curled up in the back and subsided into misery.
The boardinghouse was somehow worse. You could hear every cough, every grunt, and every burst of ugly, angry laughter in every room. Night brought no relief. Surrounded by voices, Csorwe couldn’t help feeling she was being watched.
Sethennai woke her the next morning. It was easy to tell when he was excited: his pointed ears fluttered, his eyes twinkled, and every fibre in his body became springy. Arriving in the city had restored something to him. Csorwe pulled the blanket over her head.
“We’re going to the market,” he said.
The market was dirtier and louder and more chaotic than she could have imagined. A many-headed crowd surged around them, shouting, staring, grabbing. Csorwe clenched her fists at her sides. She had heard from the priestesses how terrifying and corrupt the cities were, and she saw now that they were right. She didn’t see how anyone could live in such a place without going mad.
Csorwe prayed for the Unspoken One to open up the earth and devour the city, and tried to keep her balance.
“You do get used to it,” said Sethennai.
She doubted it. The crowds reminded her of the presence of the Unspoken, only more aggressive. It ate mindlessly at her, threatening to sweep her away.
She refused to reach for Sethennai’s hand. If he realised how helpless she was then he would certainly regret saving her from the Shrine.
The crowd swelled and surged and Csorwe tripped over a stranger’s foot. She fell flat on her back and at once the sky was blotted out by the swarm—cages of chickens, three dogs on a chain, a gang of children almost completely naked—but before she could be trampled to death Sethennai was there. He buffeted the chicken-seller out of the way and lifted Csorwe to her feet.
“Keep hold of my arm,” he said. “You’ll learn to find your way. Once you know how it works, it will be easier.”
He cut a path through the crowd for them, leading her toward a flight of steps that wound up the side of a building. She stopped at the bottom of the steps, shaking her head.
“Come on,” he said. “Trust me.”
She followed him, hanging on his arm, and they came to a roof garden, thick with ferns and strange bulbous flowers. There was nobody here, and Csorwe’s panic began to abate. In the centre of the garden, an old bell tower reached toward the sky. Sethennai beckoned her up the steps.
From the top of the bell tower they could see the whole extent of the city. It rose in a haphazard way from the grey hills, sprouting and tumbling over its ancient walls like a patch of lichen growing on a stone. It was monstrous, but at least now she could see the beginning and end of it.
“Are you afraid?” said Sethennai.
She swallowed. She couldn’t bring herself to nod.
“Nothing in this world has earned the power to frighten you, Csorwe,” he said. “You have looked your foretold death in the face and turned from it in defiance. Nothing in this world or any other deserves your fear.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. At that moment she was too sick and stunned to really hear the words, although she returned to them later, many times.
“Do you see the Gate?” said Sethennai.
It hovered above the docks in the far distance. The haze dimmed its co-lour, turning it yellowish, like a sickly moon swimming among the fumes.
“We won’t be here forever,” he said. “We’ll be safe from my enemies for a time, so we can rest and you can learn without having to look over your shoulder. But this isn’t home. Tlaanthothe lies through the Gate, and it’s waiting for us.”
The city was called Grey Hook. Sethennai explained early on that he had chosen it for their shelter because its people spoke Csorwe’s mother tongue as a lingua franca, and because they were very nice, discreet minders of their own business.
Sethennai never explained to her exactly how life was going to work from now on. He seemed to trust that she would figure it out, and for the most part she did.
He still talked to her as though she interested him. She accompanied him on many of his errands around the city, and they ate their meals together. Most of these were lentil curries from the vendor in the square below the boardinghouse, because he couldn’t cook.
It turned out that Sethennai seriously intended to pay her a wage. For what services, she wasn’t sure, and the idea of asking was distantly frightening. What if she asked him why he’d brought her here, and he admitted he’d made a mistake?
After deductions for room and board the wage wasn’t very much, Sethennai said, but it was still money, something Csorwe had hardly seen before, and never owned.
She hated the money, in fact, because it seemed to have been got for nothing. The little stack of copper coins, all for her pains in sitting around in the boardinghouse, terrified of the outside world and everything in it. It could not go on. Sooner or later Sethennai would realise he was paying her to be afraid. By that time she would have to get her act together.
The first time she steeled herself to leave the boardinghouse on her own was to resolve the serious matter of breakfast. Sethennai didn’t like getting up in the morning, and there was nothing to eat in the boardinghouse. It would be so good to get breakfast ready before he woke up. She knew where to buy food. The market in the square started trading at dawn. It really couldn’t be so difficult. They spoke her language here, so she could make herself understood. She was fourteen years old. Most people her age were already working for a living.
Nothing in this world or any other deserved her fear. That was all very well, but there was a great difference between climbing the steps to the Shrine of the Unspoken and going out to buy groceries. Csorwe had spent a lifetime readying herself to die, not to talk to strangers.
The market was full of gorgeous things Csorwe had never eaten and hardly knew the words for—tomatoes, hot peppers, baskets of fruit like huge, soft gems—but eggs, bread, and onions were cheap and easy to recognise.
“Six eggs, please,” she said, stopping at the chicken-man’s stall. She couldn’t face asking how much the eggs cost, so she just held out a fistful of coins and hoped he wouldn’t cheat her.
The chicken-man was Oshaaru, which could have helped a bit, but at the sound of Csorwe’s accent—purest, deepest old country—he squinted down at her, as though she might be mocking him. Then he decided that, no, in fact, he was mocking her.
“How many eggs, milady?”
She repeated herself. The anger bubbled up faster than she expected, taking her by surprise. If he knew what she really was he wouldn’t talk like that.
She suppressed her rage. She wasn’t what she really was, not anymore. She wasn’t the Chosen Bride. Nobody was going to come to her for prophecy. She was just another anonymous customer and the chicken-man would have forgotten all about her by the end of the day. And that was good.
The chicken-man seemed faintly disappointed that she didn’t want to play along, but he didn’t mind taking her money.
“Here without your boss today?” he said, handing over a box of eggs.
“That’s right,” said Csorwe, with an unbidden swell of pride. “I’m picking up breakfast.”
Back at the boardinghouse, she fried the onions in a pan over the fire, and scrambled the eggs in with them. The result was not perfectly beautiful but perfectly delicious: creamy eggs jewelled with golden onion. She ate her portion from the pan. Sethennai appeared as she was mopping up the scraps with a crust.
“I didn’t know you could cook,” he said. He was still in his nightshirt, with a silk scarf wrapped around his head.
“You ought to eat yours or it won’t be good,” she said, holding out his plate.
He blinked at it and rubbed sleep out of one eye, as if unable to comprehend the form the morning had taken.
Csorwe was pleased that he didn’t ask questions. She didn’t want to explain that she had done kitchen duties in the House of Silence. She would rather Sethennai think this was just a natural talent. He ate all of it, anyway, and seemed to like it.
After breakfast, he was much revived, and asked Csorwe all about her conversation with the chicken-man.
“Oshaarun will serve you well here in town,” he said. “But of course when we get home it will be necessary for you to speak the language of my city as a native. I happen to think Tlaanthothei is a beautiful language, so I was thinking I would teach it to you myself. Have you ever learned any other language?”
“Oranna the librarian tried to teach me,” she said, uncertainly. “So I could read the old books.”
“Ah,” said Sethennai. His eyes narrowed in private amusement. Until that moment, Csorwe had all but forgotten that he too had met Oranna, that she’d spied them working on some scheme in the library after hours.
She watched him carefully, wondering whether he’d say anything more. With each day that passed in Grey Hook, the House of Silence felt less substantial, as if the first fourteen years of her life had been a lotus hallucination. She didn’t know how it might feel to talk to Sethennai about everyone she had left behind, whether it would make them real in her head again, whether that might be a good or a bad thing.
“The Unspoken One has been worshipped in many tongues over the centuries,” Sethennai went on. “Although it prefers to see them plucked out. Ironic, really. Did you make progress with your lessons?”
Oranna had not had much patience with her as a pupil. It wasn’t that Csorwe hadn’t tried, but the warmth of the library had made her sleepy, and her mind had wandered.
“I can do verbs in the present tense,” she said. If Sethennai thought it was worth trying to teach her something, she wasn’t about to admit how useless she had been. “The queen sleeps in the castle, the servants bring the message to the master.”
“Oh, good,” said Sethennai. “If you’ve learned to put up with that kind of nonsense, the battle is almost won. Well, come and sit by me. We’ll begin with the Tlaanthothei alphabet and go from there.”
After a time, a letter arrived for Sethennai, written in cipher and containing a note of credit.
“So I do still have friends in the world,” he said, and winked at Csorwe.
They left the boardinghouse and rented rooms above a wineshop. Ciphered letters arrived for Sethennai once or twice a month, as his friends in Tlaanthothe kept him informed of the activities of his enemy.
Csorwe discovered that the enemy’s name was Olthaaros Charossa, though Sethennai almost never spoke it out loud, and even then in a low voice, all six syllables infused with distaste. This was the usurper wizard who had brought about Sethennai’s exile.
While Sethennai schemed, Csorwe studied. Three days a week they spoke nothing but Tlaanthothei at home, and it came to her more easily than she had expected. It was good to be able to speak Sethennai’s own language to him, although she still didn’t understand his jokes.
At Sethennai’s prompting she spent some of her saved wages on clothes. Her existing wardrobe was a pile of mismatched tunics and leggings, acquired secondhand and threadbare from the Grey Hook market. The dress she had worn up the stairs to the Shrine was folded neatly away in a drawer that she never opened.
Sethennai had offered no guidance, so she had to guess. All Sethennai’s clothes were brightly patterned, though ancient and much mended. Csorwe considered dressing to match, and rejected the idea. She would look like a housecat trailing after a tiger.
She had never chosen her own clothes, and didn’t want to make a spectacle of herself. It had been so much easier to be the Chosen Bride and just have Angwennad bring her the right habit for every day of the calendar. In the end, to escape from the tailor’s shop, she chose some plain tunics and a lamb’s-leather coat.
Sethennai was in a good mood when she got back to the apartment. “I’ve bought myself a present, too,” he said, beckoning her inside. “Come and admire yourself.”
The present turned out to be a mirror of real silvered glass, hanging on the wall of their sitting room. Csorwe had never seen such a thing. The Prioress of the House of Silence had strong views about personal vanity, so the novices and acolytes had been confined to small mirrors of polished copper.
She tried not to appear too fascinated by the new mirror, or by the weird spectre of her own clear, true-colour reflection. Grey skin, grey freckles, and yolk-yellow eyes were obscured by an overgrown mop of black hair. It turned out that her nose was slightly hooked, which she liked. The points of her milk-tusks poked out at the corners of her mouth.
With a jolt she realised that she might now live long enough to get her adult tusks. They didn’t come in until you were fifteen or sixteen, so she had never imagined what they might look like. She stared at herself for another second, then folded up the feeling and put it away, like the dress, in a safe place where she didn’t have to look at it.
She had chosen the new clothes well. She looked smart, but more to the point she looked like anyone you might see going about their business in the streets of Grey Hook, any one of a thousand couriers and apprentices. There was no way anyone could detect that she had ever been over the threshold of the House of Silence.
“Well?” said Sethennai. She realised she had been staring, and stepped back, shoving her hands into the pockets of her new coat.
“Think I need a haircut,” she said.
On her fifteenth birthday, to mark the end of the first stolen year, Sethennai gave her a dictionary called The Various Tongues of the Echo Maze, for the Traveller.
Around this time she lost her milk-tusks and gained a Qarsazhi tutor named Parza. He was an exile, full of sorrow for his homeland and even more irritable with Csorwe than Oranna had ever been.
“The Qarsazhi are difficult people,” said Sethennai. Csorwe had grasped this much. Qarsazh was an empire spread across many worlds, ancient and rich and huge enough that they had heard of it even in the House of Silence.
“Parza is particularly difficult,” Sethennai went on. “But don’t worry about him. You need to learn their ways but you don’t need him to like you.”
Csorwe had only ever heard of Qarsazh as a place of cruelty and corruption, but Parza was a sleek, small, affected person, with copper-brown skin, a neatly pointed beard, and very smooth grey hair, which he wore in a single coiled braid. His other traits were coffee drinking, homesickness, a delicate stomach, and religious devotion, although it was hard to tell which of these were the ways of Qarsazh and which the ways of Parza.
Csorwe made slow progress with Qarsazhi. The words were difficult— half-jagged and half-elusive—and Parza was openly disdainful of her clumsy pronunciation. But Sethennai needed her to learn, and she owed him her best efforts.
Alongside Parza there came a whole programme of study, and a whole succession of tutors—most of them eccentric, some certainly criminals. Csorwe had more than languages to learn. She learned to navigate the city. She learned to cook eggs the proper Grey Hook way, with hot pepper and pickled cucumber. She learned to fly a cutter, and to fight: first unarmed, then with knives, and finally with the sword.
Grey Hook was a strange place. One day she saw two people kissing on the Bridge of Flies, in public, where anyone might see them. One afternoon she fell asleep in the courtyard and got a sunburn the colour of basalt. She learned to understand the city at night, its voices, its cries, its distant music. She learned how to eat mealworms, how to speak her mother tongue with the Grey Hook accent, how to run and climb and creep through the battered streets, and how to wrap her hands for a fistfight.
From the old crooks and soldiers who were her tutors, she learned about the hungers that live in the heart of every city, and she was educated in the threat, the promise, and the scientific accomplishment of violence.
There were a few other expatriate Tlaanthothei in Grey Hook, mostly tall and dark as Sethennai was, all with long tapered ears. But their neighbourhood was on the other side of the city, and Sethennai was not interested in associating with his countrymen.
Instead, he had adopted the pseudonym “Dr. Pelthari,” and taken a job as a medic with the Blue Boars, a mercenary company whose barracks were just across the square from the apartment.
Csorwe wondered at times whether he missed Tlaanthothei food and habits, the way she occasionally missed cabbage soup and plainchant, but if he did he never showed any sign of it. He hadn’t explained much to Csorwe, but she understood that he had been thrown out of Tlaanthothe, that his enemies had lied and conspired and whipped up public feeling against him. He still had his friends, who sent him their coded letters from time to time, but any Tlaanthothei stranger could be an informant for Olthaaros Charossa.
When Csorwe turned sixteen, Sethennai gave her a sword of folded Torosadni steel, and requested that she be allowed to join the Blue Boars’ newest recruits for sparring practice.
She had dreaded this. It had been so long since she’d had to deal with a class of her peers. She imagined the Blue Boars would all know each other. They would have their own team jokes and they would not be happy to meet an interloper.
To begin with it was actually worse than this. She wasn’t the only Oshaaru or the only girl, but she was the youngest and smallest, and it was irresistible to the Blue Boars to treat her as a kind of mascot. But they soon learned that she was also the fastest and least merciful, and that she had been training for longer than most. Once she tripped the enormous Corporal Valmine on his face during training, they started to take her more seriously.
The Blue Boars all wore their hair long on one side, and shaven on the other. After a few months they took Csorwe to the company barber to get hers done to match.
She got home that evening to find Sethennai absorbed in one of his ciphered letters. Only when she brought him a glass of wine did he look up at her and notice the change.
“Joining up with the Boars permanently?” he said, after a second. There was an odd expression on his face, veiled as usual by ironic amusement. Csorwe stared back at him, and realised with horror that he might be upset with her—that it might be possible for something she did to wound him.
“No!” she said. “No—they were all getting theirs done—didn’t think you’d mind—”
“Why on earth should I mind?” he said, shifting effortlessly into cheerful bemusement. Csorwe couldn’t tell whether she was imagining a bitter undercurrent. Surely he didn’t think she might leave him to become a mercenary?
Occasionally, yes, she thought it was a shame they couldn’t just stay forever in Grey Hook. It was a shame she couldn’t spend the rest of her life exploring the rooftops and making new omelettes and memorising verb forms with Parza.
Still, she knew they were leaving sooner or later, and she was used to living with a deadline on the horizon. She liked Valmine and the others, but it was only thanks to Sethennai that she had these years at all.
“The Boars are a very respectable company,” he added. “And I suppose if you prefer to run with them—”
“I don’t,” she said, with vehemence, almost angry that he could think her so ungrateful. “I’m not joining up with them. They treat me like a baby anyway.”
This was true, Csorwe reminded herself, recalling now with shame that she had let Valmine carry her around on his shoulders after they’d got their haircuts.
“Well, if the soldiering life calls to you, far be it from me to stop you, although I must warn you it’s quite likely you’ll lose a limb,” he said. “But you do know we aren’t going to be here forever.”
“I know,” she said. There was no future for them in Grey Hook, and it was no good getting settled here. “Tlaanthothe.”
He smiled at last. It was an immediate relief. The tension went out of Csorwe’s body like tea leaves uncurling in water.
Beyond the Gate of Grey Hook, far away across the Maze, Sethennai’s city still waited for him—and for her. This was the purpose for which she had been chosen and trained. One day, maybe soon, they were going home to defeat Olthaaros Charossa.
A letter arrived one day when Sethennai was travelling with the Boars, and Csorwe was suffering once again from the pluperfect subjunctive.
“Must you be so slow?” snapped Parza. “You cannot travel to Qarsazh and talk like this, unless you want them to think you are a barbarian and laugh in your face. Again. We covered this last week. If-only-I-had-travelled-to-the-town,” he chanted, tapping the cover of his lexicon in time with the words. The point of his beard bobbed up and down like a bird pecking at a worm.
“If only you had stayed at home,” she muttered, baring her tusks at him behind his back. Her adult tusks had come in over the last year. Nearly full grown, they still ached at the roots sometimes, and Parza’s lessons seemed to make them worse. She ignored Parza’s hiss of displeasure as one of the maids from the wineshop knocked at the door with the post.
The letter was bulkier than usual, a heavy packet of waxed paper, tied with several loops of string and sealed with a lump of unstamped beeswax. The name Belthandros Sethennai was neatly inscribed on the front.
Csorwe spent as long as she could tipping and thanking the maid. Parza was supposed to leave in a quarter of an hour and she was prepared to scrape every minute of freedom that she could.
“Stop wasting time,” said Parza, from the sitting room. “I will not leave until you can recite it perfectly. I have all day.”
“Wonder why they kicked you out of Qarsazh,” said Csorwe under her breath, and stalked back into the room with the letter in her hands. “I have to deal with this,” she said. “Might be important.”
This wasn’t exactly a lie. She often helped Sethennai with his correspondence. It was good practice in languages for her. If this one was ciphered then she couldn’t actually read it, but opening the packet and filing the contents in Sethennai’s cabinet might save her from Parza’s example sentences for another thirty seconds.
Parza huffed and shuffled his papers, but he wasn’t about to interfere in Sethennai’s business. Csorwe sat down at the desk with the packet and began snipping through the strings.
As she cut the final strand, she realised what she had missed. Sethennai’s letters were always addressed to Pelthari. Nobody here ought to know his real name.
“Oh, shit,” she said.
“Such language,” said Parza, clicking his tongue. “But I suppose if Dr. Pelthari will encourage you to associate with street persons—”
Csorwe barely heard him. Her pulse began to race, beating out a rhythm of dread against her breastbone. She shoved the packet hastily away as the beeswax seal began to peel of its own accord, flaking off in shards and turning to dust.
Behind the wax seal, there was a sigil worked on the paper in some red-brown pigment, a spiral of interlocking curves that squirmed on the page. Looking at it was like biting into a peach and finding several worms wriggling inside.
“What are you—” said Parza, coming up behind her. “Sorcery,” he said, in a low harsh voice she had never heard from him before. “Mother of Cities, this is a house of corruption—”
“It came in the post, Parza,” she said. She shoved back the chair and stood up, not taking her eyes off the packet. She controlled her breathing as she had been taught, making a physical effort to damp down the panic that rose in her. Was the packet going to explode? She knew so little about magic—what should she do?
Parza was praying in Qarsazhi, stumbling over the couch toward the door. She ignored him.
The letter was unwrapping itself. The leaves of paper unfolded with a dry, leathery sound, like scales on sand. There was a strong smell: hot metal, scorched hair, and—something else, something Csorwe hadn’t encountered for years. A whisper of incense, a shadow of lotus.
“By the gods—” said Parza, now flat against the front door of the apartment and wrestling with the handle. “Run, you blind fool, don’t just stare at it—”
Csorwe did not want to see what was inside the packet. But how could she explain herself to Sethennai if she let the apartment burn or explode or whatever was about to happen?
With a calm that startled her, she returned to the table where they’d been studying, and sized up Parza’s lexicon: a slab of leather and parchment as thick and heavy as a paving stone.
The letter was still unleafing itself. Csorwe lifted the book over her head and dropped it on the packet. There was a crunch, and silence.
She fell back into the chair, winded with delayed terror, and sat there for a moment or two, watching. Just in case. Once she was as certain as she could be that the packet wasn’t going to come back to life, she crept out onto the landing and found Parza.
“I dealt with it,” she said.
“You cannot deal with magic,” he said, glaring at her. Parza often glared at her, but this was a different quality of anger. He was still terrified.
“Suppose I should just have run away like you did,” said Csorwe.
“Yes,” said Parza. “If you had been educated in a civilised country you would know that. Run away and inform the Inquisitorate—not that such a thing exists in this godsforsaken world—”
“Well, I dropped the lexicon on it,” she said, knowing he would shriek about it. “My lexicon!” said Parza.
“How—” He broke off. She followed his gaze to see that something was seeping out from under the door to the apartment. Curls of some dark substance, like liquid smoke, were branching and creeping across the floorboards toward them.
“Mother of Cities,” said Parza. “You dealt with it, did you?”
“I—” The smoke was already a few feet from the door, moving much faster than it should. The stuff was billowing up from the floor, rising in puffs and then narrowing into thready black tendrils. It seemed to be reaching out for her. She wished she hadn’t left her sword inside, useless as it was likely to be.
For a second she was frozen with guilt and terror, staring at the escaping smoke as Parza pushed past her to get away from it.
“Magic is an abomination to the gods,” he said. “May the Nine forgive us for—”
She ought to warn them downstairs. This was the wineshop’s busiest time of day. There would be dozens of people in the taproom, innocent of what was going on up here.
Sethennai had done everything he could to keep a low profile. He never used magic here. But they would have no choice but to leave Grey Hook now. Parza had already seen too much, and if dozens of patrons were thrown out of a wineshop—well. This would be the end of their comfortable life.
She’d known it had to end sooner or later, but the idea of cutting it short through her own thoughtless actions was more than she could bear. Why had she accepted the letter? She had ruined everything because she was frustrated with Parza, of all things.
Parza was still gibbering. She opened the door of the nearby linen cupboard and pushed him inside. She’d figure out how to deal with him later, or Sethennai would.
“Stay here,” she said, ignoring his protests. “I will deal with it.”
She shut the door on him and strode back toward the apartment, squaring her shoulders and snapping her tusks, as if faking bravado might help somehow.
She realised now that she should have destroyed the sigil on the envelope. She didn’t know much about magic, but Sethennai had warned her about this kind of device. If you could break the control sigil, the rest of the working was supposed to come apart like a wagon with a busted axle. If she could get to the desk and tear up the paper… well, she had no idea what would happen, but it was the only plan she had.
She opened the door to the apartment and stepped inside. It was as dark as night. The smoke blotted out any light that filtered through the shutters. The air smelled thickly of grave dirt, and mingled with it— again—the scent of burning lotus. Breathing it in, Csorwe felt a familiar sensation—the numbness of body, the dimming of sight, the taste of rust—and for a moment she thought she would drown in it. The rush of unwelcome memories threatened to close over her head and carry her away: the hall of the House of Silence, the insinuating presence of the Unspoken One, the weight of the bowl of blood in her hand.
She clenched her fists and willed the memory away. If she breathed in any more lotus she was going to fall down and start gibbering before she could do anything about the sigil. She held her breath as she struggled toward the desk. It was like fighting through syrup. It took a terrible, infuriating effort to move her legs, as though these three years of training had abandoned her all at once and left her weaker than before. She was less than halfway to the desk when she tripped over a footstool. Her knees gave out altogether and despite her efforts she gasped, sucking in huge gulps of the poisoned air. Her vision clouded and she felt herself falling again, as though the floor had opened up and revealed an abyss.
The crypts beneath the House of Silence never ended, she saw, as her thoughts scattered in panic. She was never going to be free. They were underneath her wherever she went and now they were claiming her.
No. The boards under her hands and knees were real. She was real. She was still here, in Sethennai’s apartment. She was no longer the girl who had climbed to the Shrine, with no idea that there was any world beyond. That was behind her.
Her body was numb, and moving each muscle was an effort. But she managed to get to her knees, and to drag herself from chair to table and up to the desk, where Parza’s lexicon still sat on top of the crushed letter. The smoke was spiralling out from under the book. The smell in the air was much thicker here, and she felt the crushing, obliterating pressure of the lotus on her sight and reason.
She swatted at the book with hands that felt like empty gloves, but she couldn’t muster the strength to lift it. At last she managed to grip the edge of the packet and drag it out some way from under the book. The clouds of lotus-smoke seethed around her, pulling her down into a vision.
It would be so much easier if she would just let herself go. If she would just drink in the fumes, and sleep and dream and float in the darkness and the deep.
No-no! she thought, as her knees slackened again and she slid back to the floor. She hauled on the paper, furious with her weak body and sluggish mind.
It was too late. The years had made her body strong, but they had sapped her tolerance for the lotus. As she blacked out, she heard the sound of paper tearing, but she was too far gone to wonder what it might mean.
Someone lifted and carried her, and she struggled feebly.
“Csorwe,” said a voice. “Be calm.” It was Sethennai.
He put her down on what she now realised was the couch in their apartment. The lotus fog was gone. A brief flash of relief gave way to trepidation. Sethennai did not look happy. He was dressed in his Blue Boars uniform. He must have returned from his assignment to find the apartment trashed and Csorwe half dead. He must be furious.
“What happened?” he said, in a flat voice that she had never heard before.
She was both cold and sweaty, as though she had just run through the rain. She unclenched her clammy fingers, revealing a ripped sheet of waxed paper that had been crushed in her fist.
He took it from her and unfolded it, flattening it out against his knee— and revealing half the sigil, roughly torn across. Like a beetle pierced with a pin, it was no longer wriggling.
Sethennai startled, drawing his hands back from the dead sigil as if it might still bite. “This was part of a curse-ward,” he said. “What made you think you could handle this?”
“I didn’t want to ruin your cover,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
He closed his eyes and breathed out slowly, visibly controlling himself. “I think you’re going to have to explain exactly what happened.”
She did, her face hot with shame. Sethennai relaxed a little when he learned that only Parza had been there to witness it.
“He’s not a chatterer,” said Sethennai. “Perhaps I’ll raise his salary.” He still looked grim enough to worry her. A dull sickness had settled in her belly, rivalling the lotus headache that thundered behind her eyes.
“There was lotus in it,” she said. “You know, from the—you know.”
“I do,” said Sethennai.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, averting her eyes.
He sighed again. “It was an error of judgment,” he said. “I expect better from you. But there is no harm done. I am very glad of that.”
“Do we have to leave the city?” she said. “Was it Olthaaros?”
He went to the desk to retrieve the other half of the paper, unfolded it, and held it up to match the two halves of the control sigil.
“No, I don’t think it was,” said Sethennai. To Csorwe’s immense relief, he sounded intrigued. He never stayed angry when something piqued his interest. “If Olthaaros knew where we were, he would have come for us himself.”
He looked back at the paper. The broken sigil had the quality of an old bloodstain, inert but vivid.
“And I very much doubt that Olthaaros would have primed his curse with ashes of lotus. No. This was a different friend. One who possibly likes me even less.” He smiled to himself. “Still so bitter.”
“I don’t understand,” said Csorwe. She wouldn’t have admitted it if she hadn’t been so exhausted. Her head felt like it was full of slime and pins. With the arrival of relief, all the fight had gone out of her, and she wanted to go to bed. “Are we in danger?”
He was still smiling. It seemed that Csorwe had faded from his list of immediate concerns. “Not imminently. This wasn’t a serious attempt on my life. You were never supposed to open the packet.”
“I know, I shouldn’t have—” she said.
He shook his head. “It was meant for me. You could understand it as part of a game. A little bubble of poison, now lanced. Oranna may want many things, but she doesn’t want me dead.”
“Oranna—you mean that Oranna? The librarian?” said Csorwe.
“She hasn’t ever forgiven me for leaving her in the House of Silence,” he said.
Csorwe still remembered Oranna’s first meeting with Sethennai in the Library, and the look that had passed between them. With a sharp jolt she realised what such a look might have meant.
“You mean—” she started, and couldn’t think how she could possibly phrase it.
It was surprisingly hard to come to terms with the idea of Sethennai having a—having any kind of—well, he wasn’t that old—but maybe she was making a crude assumption and that wasn’t what he’d meant at all?
“Were you… in love?” she said, not meeting his eye. She’d picked the wrong word. Too small and ordinary.
“In love?” said Sethennai. He sounded charmed, as if Csorwe was a parrot that had unexpectedly learned a new word. She shrivelled further into the couch. “Not really, I don’t think,” he said, sounding like he’d never considered it.
She had learned from the Blue Boars about what people might get up to on their own time, and all kinds of words to describe their activities, but even trying to think of Sethennai in the same sentence made a heavy door slam shut in her brain.
She had begun to feel so clever and knowledgeable lately, getting good at swordplay and conjugations, but she had managed to miss this completely. She buried her face in one of the couch cushions to hide her blush. Sethennai, however, had been distracted again by the letter. The matter was evidently closed.
The surface of the desk, around Parza’s lexicon, was grubby with lotus-dust, settled into spirals around the book.
“Hmm,” said Sethennai, poking the book with the end of a pen. “Safety first.”
He retrieved his gauntlets from inside his coat and pulled them on. Csorwe almost never saw him wear them: only when he meant to use magic, it seemed. The gauntlets were made of soft dark leather, and like everything Sethennai owned, they had once been etched with some kind of decoration, now faded with long use and wear.
He removed the lexicon and inspected it, raising his eyebrow. The back cover was scorched and cratered in a deep whorl, and a good chunk of pages were burnt through.
“I’ll have to pay Parza for this,” he said.
“Sorry,” said Csorwe. “It was the nearest thing.”
Sethennai grinned at her. His good mood seemed to be restored, as though Oranna’s letter really had been a fond message from an old friend. “Quick thinking, though. And if you’re going to destroy a book, I’d much rather it be Parza’s than one of mine.”
He returned to the desk. Where the lexicon had been, there was a similar hole burnt into the surface of the desk. Csorwe cringed a little to see it, because the desk had been expensive, but Sethennai was so cheerful that he hardly seemed to notice.
“Now look at this,” he said, scooping up a handful of slender objects from the ruined desk. Csorwe craned her neck to see. Cupped in the palm of his hand was a collection of little bones, most no bigger than a matchstick. They had been imperfectly cleaned, and some were still linked by shreds of dry skin and cartilage. “Oh, we’re lucky that you didn’t completely destroy them. I can use this.”
Csorwe slid farther down on the couch, half listening. She needed a drink of water to wash out the taste of rust, but she couldn’t coax herself into getting up just yet. This news about Oranna had jarred her, and she couldn’t work out why. It wasn’t as though she really thought the House of Silence and all its denizens had ceased to exist the moment she left. But it was not pleasant to learn they were really still so close.
“How did Oranna know our address?” she said, still half buried in the couch.
“I’m afraid that’s because I took the risk of writing to her,” said Sethennai. “She and I spoke long ago about collaborating on our research. I wanted to know whether she was still interested. I suppose this is her answer.”
He was back at his desk, arranging the collection of bones in some kind of order, thimble-sized skull and tiny serrated jawbone and all.
“Guess she said no,” said Csorwe, hoping she was right.
“Hmm,” said Sethennai. “I’m not sure. You see, this is the skeleton of a small bat.”
He sounded bewilderingly pleased. Csorwe muffled a groan in a cushion.
“No such animal is native to northern Oshaar. They like warm places. Oranna has left the House of Silence on her own initiative. This isn’t a denial—it’s an invitation. She must have a lead on the Reliquary.”
Sethennai left the apartment that night after Csorwe finally went to bed, and took the bat skeleton with him. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear overnight. He was usually back by morning, but Csorwe found herself wishing he had stayed behind. She didn’t think Oranna was about to turn up at the wineshop and demand that Csorwe go back to the Shrine, or anything like that—but the apartment felt less secure, like a still-usable cup with a single crack.
She couldn’t help thinking about Sethennai and Oranna, as little as she wanted to. It was unsettling that she’d missed some huge aspect of his character, and hadn’t even known there was anything to miss. It made her wonder what he was like when he was away.
She was woken by a knock on the door. It was still the middle of the night, and Sethennai was back. He tossed her a date pastry and told her to pack a bag.
“The mailship leaves in an hour,” he said, as if surprised she didn’t already know the plan.
“I’m coming with you?” she said, still surfacing from sleep. “Where are we going?” She knew from long experience that it was no use trying to tell him that she was supposed to have sparring practice that morning and lessons that afternoon.
“Echentyr. The Withered City,” he said. This obviously meant nothing to her. “Bring your sword and something warm to wear.”
“I always do,” she said, already out of bed and searching in her drawer of winter clothes. “How long will we be gone?” she said, but Sethennai had left the room.
Although it was the middle of the night, the dockside was crammed with people. The mailship loomed up ahead, a huge, heavy-laden vessel, listing slightly in its mooring cradle. Csorwe and Sethennai ducked around a woman who was arguing with a crewman about shipping a tank of live eels, and past a team of dockers loading barrels of arrack, and then they were up the gangplank and aboard.
Sethennai paid for a private cabin. Csorwe threw her bag onto the top bunk and peered out of the porthole. The ship had already unmoored and was beginning its ascent to the Gate of Grey Hook.
“Where’s Echentyr?” said Csorwe. “I was listening to the others when we got on board. Everyone else seems to think we’re going to Torosad.”
Torosad was the largest city in Oshaar. It was a long, long way from the House of Silence, but it was still closer than Csorwe ever wanted to go.
“They are going to Torosad,” said Sethennai. Perhaps he spotted her scowl, and relented. “Echentyr is in a dead zone. Nobody in their right mind will take us there. When the ship stops to refuel we’ll hire a cutter and take ourselves.”
They were getting close to the Gate by now. Green light came in through the portholes, swirling and flickering as though thousands of wings beat within it. Csorwe peered out and saw the frame of the Gate itself, big enough to swallow a dozen mailships.
This was the first time Csorwe had Gate-travelled since their arrival in the city. It turned out that the experience wasn’t as unpleasant on board a ship as it was on foot. You still had the feeling of dropping out of reality, but at least the solid timbers of the ship didn’t change. This was some comfort: Csorwe felt as though she had dropped out of reality when she opened the cursed letter, and was falling still.
“You think Oranna’s in Echentyr,” she said, picking her words carefully. Sethennai did get annoyed if you asked him too many questions, or if they were foolish. “Because of the bat.”
“Quite right,” he said. “That bat lived many centuries ago, when the jungles of Echentyr were still green and growing. But if you look closely at the deep structure of its bones, you see that it’s been degraded at every level by magic. There’s the original cataclysm that killed everything in Echentyr, of course—hence the dead zone—and then there’s another layer of post-mortem damage. I think she probably reanimated the poor little beast.”
Normally, Csorwe would just nod and look attentive, but she was still struggling for her footing, trying to work out how to place Oranna in the constellation of Sethennai’s concerns.
“And you think she’s got the Reliquary,” she said. “Or she knows where it is. Or something.”
“Hmm,” said Sethennai, settling back on the lower bunk. “I don’t know about that. I’d be surprised if she’s got it outright. I imagine she’s persuaded herself she has a lead.”
Seeing that Sethennai was planning to rest, Csorwe scrambled up into the top bunk and laid her head on her backpack.
“But I do want to see what’s made her think that,” he said. “I’ve been looking for the Reliquary since before you were born. Unless she found something in the library of the House of Silence after all…”
Even after all these years, Csorwe knew little more about the Reliquary of Pentravesse than what she had seen in her original vision. It was an eight-sided rosewood box. It was as ancient as it was valuable. And she thought Pentravesse was a person rather than a place, but that was just a hunch.
Csorwe had never been naturally curious, and the House of Silence had always been pretty clear about what you deserved if you poked your nose into things you didn’t understand. But she couldn’t help wondering what it was he wanted badly enough to swallow his pride and go running after Oranna. Even if he liked her, or had liked her, or at any rate if something close to liking had once existed between them, he wasn’t someone you could summon at will.
She gazed up at the crisscrossed timbers of the cabin ceiling, trying to think up a sidelong way to get round to it. “Who was he, sir?” she said, eventually. “Pentravesse, I mean.”
“Ah,” said Sethennai. She couldn’t see him, but he sounded reassuringly warm and drowsy. He had the knack for making himself comfortable almost immediately, even if he had been running and scheming all night. “Pentravesse. The Master of Devices. Yes.”
Csorwe should have known what she was getting into. She pulled the blanket over herself and listened.
“Pentravesse was born over three thousand years ago, in Ormary, a country which no longer exists. His origins are not recorded. But he went on to become the greatest magician—the greatest inventor—perhaps the greatest genius who has ever lived.
“Before Pentravesse, you understand, magic was nothing more than prayer. Magicians were prophets, bound to their divinities, mad and sick with their power. They could heal and harm and call down visions, channelling the power directly through their own flesh and bone, but they were limited by the strength of their own bodies and minds.
“Pentravesse was the first to learn how to drain off the power of a patron divinity into the physical realm, to ground and trap it in mundane matter, to order one’s workings with control sigils. The development of the mazeship, the alchemical engine, half of modern medicine—all rest on his discoveries. His patron was a goddess of the old order, demanding tribute, fealty, and sacrifice. But I think she too must have had an eye to the future.
“Pentravesse was just like any other mage in one respect, of course. Mortal flesh can only bear so much. Divine power is a wonderful thing, but it is also a poison. When Pentravesse realised he was dying, it’s said, he devised a plan. All his knowledge, his unfinished work, his plans, schemes, predictions, secrets, inspirations—all were preserved and contained within the Reliquary.
“Nobody knows exactly what it contains. Most of the scholarship is rather unimaginative. Blueprints for apocalyptic weapons, the formula for eternal life. I like to think he might have been more thoughtful than that. Whoever discovers it will solve one of the greatest puzzles of history. But more than that. Pentravesse changed his world, and all worlds, forever. Whoever claims the Reliquary will inherit that legacy. Imagine, Csorwe, what I could do with that knowledge.”
Csorwe had to admit to herself that she had always assumed Sethennai knew everything about magic already. A sleepy vision came to her of Sethennai dressed all in gold, accepting back his crown as Chancellor of all the world. If she had been wide awake she would have rejected this as childish and embarrassing, but in her current state, she could luxuriate in it. In this vision, Oranna and Olthaaros Charossa were long defeated, and Sethennai had the Reliquary in his hands. Csorwe was beside him, watching over him, his most reliable agent. He was Pentravesse’s heir, and she was the one person in the world whom he truly trusted.
In time, the soft rumble of Sethennai’s voice mingled with the creaking of the timbers, the muted sound of the wind, the distant chime of Gate-song, and lulled her into a half-sleep.
Despite being woken in the middle of the night, despite her lingering lotus hangover, despite the fact that Sethennai was at his most mysterious—she was beginning to feel contented. Sethennai had forgiven her mistake with the letter. He thought that she was worth bringing along, that she would actually be useful.
She tried to forget that Oranna might be waiting for them at the end of the journey. She might, or she might not. And either way, whatever Oranna meant by all this, Sethennai would be there to take Csorwe’s side. It was ridiculous to worry that Oranna would somehow drag her back to the House of Silence. Sethennai would never let that happen.
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.”
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.
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.