A down-and-out fire witch and a young gentlewoman join forces against a deadly conspiracy…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, a new fantasy novel from C. M. Waggoner—publishing January 12, 2021 with Ace Books.
Dellaria Wells, petty con artist, occasional thief, and partly educated fire witch, is behind on her rent in the city of Leiscourt—again. Then she sees the “wanted” sign, seeking Female Persons, of Martial or Magical ability, to guard a Lady of some Importance, prior to the celebration of her Marriage. Delly fast-talks her way into the job and joins a team of highly peculiar women tasked with protecting their wealthy charge from unknown assassins.
Delly quickly sets her sights on one of her companions, the confident and well-bred Winn Cynallum. The job looks like nothing but romance and easy money until things take a deadly (and undead) turn. With the help of a bird-loving necromancer, a shapeshifting schoolgirl, and an ill-tempered reanimated mouse named Buttons, Delly and Winn are determined to get the best of an adversary who wields a twisted magic and has friends in the highest of places.
Wherein Dellaria Hunts About for a Wayward Relation, Is Not the Recipient of Maternal Warmth, and Is Presented with an Opportunity for Gainful Employment
Dellaria Wells had misplaced her mother.
That maybe wasn’t so accurate, to be very fair to herself, which Delly preferred to be. To be very fair to Dellaria, she didn’t have to do too much to misplace her mam. Her mam had a way of misplacing herself, like a cat who’d dart for freedom if you left the kitchen door open. But it’d been two weeks now, and even as gristly an old cat as Delly’s mam ought to have gotten hungry and come home after a fortnight of roaming. Something had gone wrong, then, and as dreadful as her mam might be, it made Delly’s stomach take disagreeable turns to think that she might be sleeping in a garbage pile somewhere. Delly, curse her eyes, was going to have to do something about it.
If you asked her mam, she’d probably say that her not having a place to stay was all her daughter’s fault. That was the way it was when you paid someone’s way: it went straight from you doing them a favor to them thinking you doling out cash was all part of nature’s plan, like a bee making honey. But Dellaria hadn’t yet discovered how to make a moneycomb, and at the moment she was so damn broke that she couldn’t cover her own rent, let alone the rent of her dreadful brigand of a mother. She’d lost the steady work she’d had as a barmaid two weeks ago, when a regular got a little too insistent about trying to kiss her and she’d used her fire witchery to set his beard on fire. Now she was down a job and forced to live off of her wits alone. Her wits, as it turned out, made for very unsatisfying dining.
She was so presently impoverished, in fact, that she’d been avoiding her landlady for a week by only entering and exiting her room via the back alley. On this particular occasion, though, Mrs. Medlow was lying in wait for her by the kitchen door. “Dellaria,” she said. “You know the rent’s been due for a regular span now, dearie.”
“Oh, might it so, ma’am, might it so,” Delly said, thinking at her fingertips a bit. “I was just going to say when I saw you next, ma’am—and me having found it very right peculiar how I haven’t seen you in some time, ma’am, right peculiar indeed—that I present you with ten sen of interest per day I’ve been late, ma’am, if that might be ensatisficating to your fine self?”
At that her landlady got a considerationary gleam in her eye, which she attempted to cover over with a delicate and motherly twitter. “That’ll do very nicely, dearie,” she said, “if you’ll let me put another very wee hard promise on you.”
Delly drew herself up a bit at that. Her landlady wasn’t all that much of an expert wizard—just a gutterwitch, like Delly herself—but she could cast a hard promise with the best of them. Since the Lord-Mage of Hexos invented the parameters for the damn things ten years ago, half of the ill-intended gutterwitches and debt collectors in Leiscourt had learned to cast a hard promise—there was nothing like them for extracting money out of the recalcitrant—but Mrs. Medlow’s could have been used as examples in a course on the subject. Get your rent to her an hour late and you’d break out in throbbing pustules at best. “That ain’t needful, Mrs. Medlow,” she said. “I’ve always been as good as my word with the rent, you know that.”
“You’ve always been as good as your word because I’ve put hard promises on you when you looked likely to run off to Monsatelle, dearie,” Mrs. Medlow said, to which Delly was forced to concede a trifle. Let your landlady curse you once with an itchy rash on your haunches and you’re unlikely to cross her a second time.
Delly narrowed her eyes at her. “Maybe I ought to take my custom elsewhere, then,” she said. “To some kind personage less likely to set vile curses upon their paying guests.”
“You might,” said Mrs. Medlow, with wonderful placidity. “And pay eleven tocats a month for the privilege. That’s the going rate these days, dearie, and here I am charging you six out of kindness, even in such hard times.”
Delly sighed. Mrs. Medlow, though a dreadful old cat, had an air of plain honesty about her personage. Delly wasn’t new enough to the copper-rubbing life to not know that any new room you moved into would inevitably be more expensive than whatever room you’d just been kicked out of for not being able to pay the rent. Enough of her memories had also survived her attempts to drown them in gin for her to understand that if by some thankful gift of the gods she managed to scrape together a bit of extra money this month, she wouldn’t necessarily make the same the next. If she wanted to save herself from her own damn turnip-brained self, she knew very well what she should do: swallow her clever talk, keep the room, find some way to make some money, and pay as much rent as she could up front before she could waste her last sen on liquor and cards because she didn’t have the self-control of a dog with a lamb chop. Which was what inspired her to open wide her gin-hole and say, “The hard promise, then. I get you your money in three weeks at latest, with interest compounding the whole while, or you hit me with what you like.”
Mrs. Medlow twittered like a lark. “I would find that very agreeable, dear Miss Wells,” she said, and grasped Delly’s hand to force a hot bolt of magic through it.
Delly winced and shook her hand out. “What’s my curse to be, then?”
“Pustules,” Mrs. Medlow said, very cheerful-like. “The seeping kind. On the face, mostly.”
Delly decided not to inquire as to where the type that weren’t on the face would be. Instead she just gave Mrs. Medlow a resignated nod and headed out the door to search for her damn mother.
She knew better than to think that Mam might have managed to pay for another week’s rent on her own. Still, she hoofed it down to Crane Street to check on the old bird’s last known address—she wasn’t there, no surprise—and then took a moment to buy a cup of coffee and a withered sandwich from a dingy coffee shop, sit on a bench in a park that was more a sanitarium for wan crabgrasses, and have a bit of a restful luncheon.
Thus refreshed (or close enough to it), she rose back up onto her trotters and started to look for her mam again. The real key with her mam, she thought, was to think of places where you could sleep for free without getting your head wet or having to listen to any sermons. Delly herself would much rather nod piously along to the sermon, soup, and predawn alarm if it kept her out from under bridges, but her mam had a way of advancing on people with her hand out, spouting off exactly the kind of thing that’d make even the most even-tempered hall officiant’s ears go red, and then striking very radical and antiestablishmentary attitudes after they kicked her out of the meeting hall, by way of indicating that she hadn’t wanted any of their damn soup in the first place.
Not that Delly really had any room to criticize the way her mam chose to live, when she herself had to get herself cursed with seeping mostly-on-the-face pustules before she could be trusted to pay her damn rent.
In any case, her mam did sometimes choose to appear more than once in the same location, which made her not completely impossible to track down. Delly went to a few choice bars on Six-Bend Island first. It took a bit of self-restraint to keep from bellying up and buying herself a drink. Her Elgarite refutation of fleshly wants was rewarded at the third bar, where the girl wiping the glasses said that ol’ Marvie had been in a few times that week. Delly’s dear old mam had been in the company of a fellow named Squint Jok, who had his bolt-for a few blocks away on Maiden Street. Delly could only think that it could be worse: Squint Jok could just as easily be Drunk Jok, or Fleabite Jok, or Worryingly Murderous in His Aspect Jok, any one of which wouldn’t be the type of Jok you’d like to see in close association with your dear old mother.
She went to the house in question and gave it a good squint of her own. The door and windows at the front were all boarded over, which was a good sign in terms of the chance that her mam might be holed up inside. There was a side alley: she went down it and found a fence around what she supposed to be the back garden. At the bottom of the fence there was a hole large enough to admit a medium-sized dog. Delly gave a low groan, got down into the dirt, and endeavored to force her larger-than-medium-dog-sized carcass through the gap. She made it into the yard thoroughly besmeared with dirt and grass stains, with her dress ripped and her arms scratched and her good cheer considerably rumpled.
The house wasn’t any more beguiling from the rear. Though she wouldn’t hold that against it: the same could be said for Delly. Almost all of the windows back here were boarded over, too, except one that had had its boards pried off and the glass smashed out. There was also a trampled-down path in the weeds straight to the door. Delly followed it and tried the door handle. It worked, in that the handle didn’t turn but the door swung open after she gave it a good shove.
Then she was in what had probably been a kitchen once. Delly tried not to look around herself too closely. Her mam had never been much for the domestic arts, but as the years had gone by she seemed to have made strides past simply ignoring the filth and toward actively cultivating it. If Delly’s mam had been born with any gift of magic she would have made a fine necromancer of crumb-eating insects and pernicious creeping molds.
After the kitchen there was a hall, and then what she supposed must be a sitting room, as it had a number of people sitting in it. One of them gathered himself up and said, “Hey,” by way of expressing either surprise or annoyance at discovering an intruder in their midst. Then, exhausted by his efforts, he slumped back against the wall again.
“Mam?” Delly said, giving the murky air about her a good slicing squint. “You in here? It’s me, your daughter. Dellaria Wells,” she added, thinking that her mam might need a bit of brain dusting when it came to clarifying the name and identity of the young fruit o’ the maternal bough.
“Delly?” came a voice from the corner. Her mam rose up in a tide of shawls—she was always a devoted wearer of shawls, Delly’s mother—and then came toddling toward her on the uncertain hooves of the recently indisposed. “That’s you, then?”
“Might it so,” Delly said. “Won’t you come out into the air, Mam?”
Her mother followed her out into the backyard, where they gazed at each other for a moment through a thick fog of familial irritation. “Whaddya want, then, Dellaria?”
Mam’s eyes looked strange. Like scuffed buttons. Delly’s own eyes went grape-shaped. “You ain’t just had a gargle then, Mam.” She didn’t look just drunk.
Her mam scowled. “What’s it to you, Dellaria?”
“Well, I passed through you on my journey into this reliving, for what it’s fucking well worth, Mam,” Dellaria said. “What’re you taking? I thought you hated drip.” Drip was what most people were taking hereabouts to make themselves go button-eyed. Dellaria herself steered clear. Drip was like love, she figured: all good enough fun, but you’d better not let yourself get too used to it or it’d take you apart as sure as knives.
Dellaria’s mam went all dreamy, like her new fella had a job with a steady wage. “But before I hadn’t dripped the red, so.”
Delly made a sound that expressed her feelings a mite. A squawk of sorts. Then she said, “The red’s the killing kind, Mam.”
“Might be you could call it that,” Delly’s mam said.
“It ain’t about what I call it,” Delly said. “It’s what it is, so.”
Delly’s mam looked back at her with her button eyes. “You want something from me, Dellaria?”
It was a fool’s game to want anything from Marvie Wells, but it was a game Delly had been playing since the day she was born. “Nah, Mam,” she said, slipping further into the West Leiscourt alleychat they’d both grown up swimming in. “Only to get mirrors on thee, see if th’art still chewing air, so. If I manage to find the clink to pay for it, will you take a bolt-for I rent for thee, Mam?” Delly thought she’d get her into a boardinghouse for women this time, if she could scrape together the cash. It probably wouldn’t keep whatever miserable drip-dealing Jok Mam was going around with these days away from her, but it might be some kind of start, at least.
“Might it so,” Mam said, with a sly smile that made Delly want to slap her lips off.
She didn’t do that, though. She just said, “Will I be able to find thee here, then, Mam?”
“Might it so,” Mam said again. “Until the cops catch us or the place burns down.” Delly expected that was the best she would get, so she took her leave of the mean old trout and let her inward currents pull her back toward her room, and the gin that lay below it.
Delly lived in a bare little room in a boardinghouse above a bar called the Hangman’s Rest. She’d always figured that the name was meant to be a nod to the culmination of the career paths of some of the regulars, so in that way it suited her fine. It was a good little room. The floor didn’t slant too badly, the ceiling only leaked a little bit in the one corner during heavy rain, and it was right above the bar’s back room. She liked that. It gave her a comforted feeling to sleep above so much gin. If the floors gave out at least she’d have a softish landing.
After a few drinks downstairs she laid out all of her money and trinkets on the bed—she’d never bothered to buy a table—and her gut straightaway started to lurch. As treasure troves went, a beetle might turn up its nose at it. She licked her lips and tried to do the math. She owed Mrs. Medlow six tocats on rent for this month, plus the interest she’d promised her, and the bartender downstairs two more. She had two tocats six sen tied up in the toe of an old stocking she had hidden under a loose floorboard, and about another tocat in scrap metal she’d stripped out of an abandoned house a few days earlier, assuming she’d be able to sell it for half what it was worth. That left her four tocats four sen short with no real time to make up the difference before she’d have to sleep under a bridge with seeping pustules all over her ass. To say nothing of her mam, who’d be dead of either exposure or the red drip at any moment, at this rate.
She was, to put it delicately, fucked up a tall tree without a ladder.
Delly, at this juncture, went to her basin to wash her face and have a ponder. The pondering went nowhere, but the face washing refreshed her to the point that she was emboldened to embark upon her armpits. Once those were taken care of she sat back down on the bed to gather up her courage a bit more. She needed to scrounge up some money, and sharpish. That meant she was going to have to run a game.
She wasn’t looking forward to it.
A game was a delicate thing. Not all that hard to start with, but it’d complicate itself all on its own, like a cat made kittens even when you could’ve sworn it hadn’t gone out the window in months. For one thing, you needed to trust yourself to lose enough money to reel in the marks before you started to earn it. For another, you needed the right marks. You might get five of them in three hours and be in gin and whelks for a week, or you might waste time, entertain the criticisms of the passersby, and then be chased off by the constabulary. For either outcome you needed nerve, and today Delly felt that she lacked it.
It was a sad fact, though, that Delly was too poor to lack nerve. Lacking nerve was a problem for women who had servants to fan their foreheads after they swooned on the chaise. Delly wasn’t disinclined toward swooning on principle, but she didn’t have a chaise to swoon on, to say nothing of the fanning servants. What she did have was a landlady, and it was her mental portrait of her glaring face that got her back up onto her feet and out the door.
She set herself up a few blocks away from her place, on a corner where she liked to work because bankers’ and lawyers’ clerks walked past it. A lawyer would ignore a youngish, plainish, plumpish lass running a game, but a clerk might sympathize or see a chance to flirt and throw her a few sen to play.
There was someone on her corner already when she arrived. Bessa, looking cool and fresh with her black curls peeping out from under her white bonnet. That was all right by Delly. Bessa was an Objectionist heretic, and she also sold meat pies. The heresy was refreshing, which helped wash down the pie. The pie, unfortunately, was stodgy as all of the releft.
Delly bought a pie, just to be neighborly, set herself up on the ground, and then asked for some heresy. “What’s hell like, Bessa?” She assumed that Bessa, being a good businesswoman, would be unlikely to draw any direct comparisons to her pies, but you never really knew until you asked.
“Bright white,” Bessa said right away. “A bright white plain covered in ice and snow. It’s too bright to open your eyes, and the wind burns at your face and steals your breath, and every few steps you slip and fall, and your head pounds from the glare.”
“Sakes,” Delly said, impressed. “Sounds awful.”
“Which is why you ought to change your ways, Dellaria Wells,” Bessa said.
Delly nodded slowly. “Ought to indeed. Might be that I’m too short for it, though.”
Bessa pursed her lips. “How does your height signify?”
“I reckon that sin, being denser than air, tends to settle close to the ground,” Delly said. “That’s why as a rule you’ll find your drunks lying in gutters and your great thickets of pious young ladies up in choir lofts.”
Bessa sighed. “You’ll be going straight up to the white lands, Dellaria,” she said, and then favored a young man who wanted to buy a pie with a smile.
Delly eyed up the other young fella standing around waiting for his friend to pay, then slipped him a wink. “Try your luck with a game while your fella eats his pie?”
“He’s not my fella,” the fella said straight off. “He’s householded to a clanner.”
Delly rumpled up her face, sympathetic-like. “I had a girl who did that. A lady who wore pearls took a liking to her, and she was householded before the year was out.”
“Hard times,” the fella said.
“Hard times,” Delly agreed, though she reckoned that her girl up and leaving her had had more to do with Delly’s own bad behavior than it did with the nation’s economy. Then she said, “Interest you in a game?”
“Might be,” the fella said, and threw down five sen.
Delly ran her game. She let him get pretty far: far enough that a crowd started to gather. Far enough that she started to sweat. If he was a clever fella he’d walk now and take her for a few tocats. He wasn’t, though, and he didn’t, so she ended up a tocat ahead, with her heart pounding and three new marks lining up behind him. It looked like the day might be in Delly’s favor after all.
Delly ran a few more games—let one pretty girl walk away with two tocats, for the sake of winning a smile as much as for the sake of keeping the game running—then took a break to stretch her legs, eat some whelks, and read the bulletins posted on the public board a street over. Sometimes the bulletins had something useful in them: she’d found work from one once before, helping a crew of workmen to strip pipe out of an old building. It’d paid well enough, and she’d fucked a nice burly workman from the northlands out behind the site privy, so it had all around been a bulletin to lift the spirits and incline the soul toward thankful contemplation.
There was nothing of too much interest in the first few ads she looked at. Lots of comfortable sorts looking for sober and upstanding young women to scrub out their underthings. Seeing as how Delly was often drunk, was never upstanding, and was barely prepared to scrub out her own underthings on any kind of regular schedule, most of these postings weren’t of much interest to her. Then one in particular caught her eye.
Female Persons, of Martial or Magical ability, to guard a Lady of some Importance, prior to the celebration of her Marriage, during her period of Matrimonial Seclusion. Inquiries may be made at 332 Barrow Street, Elmsedge, Leiscourt, at the rear entrance. NO MEN to be considered for any positions.
Delly ate another whelk. This was one to engage the organs of ponderation, all right. Elmsedge, that was Clanner Hill, and only real steel-stayed traditionalists still practiced matrimonial seclusions. A good family, then, the type who had the one girl just to scrub out the underthings and another to dust the mantels and a third to make the cream cakes while a sober gent sat down in the cellar and tabulated the expenditures. But what the hell would a girl like that need a whole herd of bodyguards for? You had to be important to have people who wanted to murder you. Or rather, you had to either be important or be related to someone who owed someone else a hell of a lot of money, and if you owed someone that much cash you’d probably be better off setting up a payment plan than you’d be hiring a bunch of lady pugilists to guard you. This, then, was something interesting, and Delly was a long-standing enthusiast of being interested.
She memorized the address, then headed back to her corner. The crowds had thinned out some, but there were still enough folks milling about for her to get a new game going, so that’s what she did.
She was down a few sen and preparing to take a particularly prune-faced old geezer for a tocat or two when a matched set of cops lifted their boots in her direction. “Dellaria Wells?”
Delly looked about herself like she was looking forward to seeing some other silly old creature getting taken away in chains. The officer nearest her leaned in and grabbed her by the wrist. “Dellaria Wells,” he said, “I am arresting you in the name of the First Headman.”
Delly said, “Well, shit.” Then she used a bit of magic and set her own skirt on fire.
The resulting conflagration was large enough to startle, amaze, and generally annoy the arresting officers, but not large enough to facilitate any escaptionary maneuvers. There was some shouting and hopping about, and then some helpful citizen of the fair republic tossed a glass of beer over Dellaria’s person, which served very well to extinguish both the flames and Delly’s hopes of sleeping in her own bed tonight. She gave the cops a smile. “Horribly sorry, fellas, only that just always happens to me when my nerves are on edge. Nervous flaming, is what it is.”
“Right,” said the taller of the two fellows, and gave her a bit more of a shake than Delly thought was really needful before marching her off at a lockupwardly slant.
Excerpted from The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, copyright © 2020 by C.M. Waggoner.