We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Witness for the Dead, a stand-alone sequel to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor—publishing June 22nd with Tor Books!
When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.
Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honestly will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.
Now Celehar’s skills lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.
In the jumbled darkness of the catacombs beneath the city of Amalo, there was a shrine to Ulis in his aspect as god of the moon. It was thousands of years old, and the carving of the four phases of the moon on the plinth had become almost undetectable, worn smooth by generations of reverent fingertips. Whatever the plinth had supported was long gone, but the shrine remained.
The shrine was a landmark that every Ulineise prelate in the city knew, and it was frequently used as a meeting place, since it afforded better privacy than the Ulistheileian where formal audiences were held.
Dach’othala Vernezar, the Ulisothala of Amalo, was an elven man of middle age and great ambition. He had his eye on the Archprelacy, and although the current Archprelate was neither ancient nor infirm, it did not do to forget that Vernezar’s every move was made with political gain in mind. I had thus received his summons with no little dread, for I was a political sore point, directly appointed by the Archprelate to be a Witness for the Dead for the entire city.
Prince Orchenis had gone to the Archprelate and asked that I be assigned to Amalo for an indefinite period of time, for two reasons. One was that the city had no Witness of my type, who could actually speak to the dead. The other was that the religious hierarchy of the city was, as the prince put it, a nest of vipers, and the Ulineisei were the worst of the lot. The Archprelate had not commanded me to accept assignment in Amalo, but I had agreed with Prince Orchenis that my services were needed. I received a small stipend from the Amalomeire to sit in a cramped box of an office and wait for the people of Amalo to come, which they did in a slow, sad, hopeful stream. I disappointed them, for my ability was not the magic it was always shown to be in operas and novels. But even though I could not discover answers in dust—even though the answers I did discover were frequently inconvenient and sometimes disastrous—they continued to petition me, and I could not leave them unheard.
Today had brought three petitioners whom I could not help (one of whom stood and argued with me for three quarters of an hour); the news that two of the cases for which I had witnessed had been judged unfavorably by Lord Judiciar Orshevar; and a lengthy and fruitless search through Ulvanensee, the municipal cemetery of the Airmen’s Quarter, on behalf of a petitioner who believed his sister, and the child with which she had been pregnant, had been murdered by her husband. I had started with the registers, but had ended up walking the rows, reading gravestones, looking for names that the registers did not contain. I was tired and covered in the municipal cemetery’s powdery dirt when Anora Chanavar, the half goblin prelate of Ulvanensee, brought me Vernezar’s message; I did, for a weak moment, consider not going.
Anora came with me, although we argued about that most of the way there. “Thou needst a witness,” he said stubbornly. “I know Vernezar better than thou dost.”
“There’s no need for thee to draw his attention,” I said for the third time.
“He cannot harm me,” Anora said. “If he takes my benefice away, he only makes a greater headache for himself, because then he has to find some other fool to give it to. Do thou watch. He’ll pretend I’m not even there.”
Anora was quickly proven correct. Vernezar made eye-contact with him for a pained moment, then hurriedly turned away. My heart sank as I took in Vernezar’s companion. Othalo Zanarin was the loudest voice in the faction which most objected to my presence in Amalo. She was an elven woman of considerable cold beauty, some inches taller than I was, though not nearly as tall as Anora; she was a member of Vernezar’s staff, and I knew he was afraid of her. She, too, was a person of connections and ambition, and she had the Amal’othala’s ear.
“Good afternoon, dach’othala,” I said.
“Good afternoon, Celehar,” said Vernezar. “I apologize for dragging you down here—not nearly as elegant as what you were used to at the Untheileneise Court, I’m sure—but this really isn’t a matter for the Ulistheileian.”
“No?” I said, my heart sinking further at his use of “I.”
“No need for any formality,” Vernezar said with a smile, and I was grateful to Anora for being so stubborn. He was right: I needed a witness. “I just wanted to see if we could reach an accord.”
“An accord? About what?”
Zanarin said, “Dach’othala Vernezar has a most generous offer.” Zanarin had taken an instant dislike to me, partly because I had been the one—at the behest of the Emperor Edrehasivar VII—to find the Curneisei assassins of the Emperor Varenechibel IV, partly because my appointment came directly from the Archprelate. By one argument, that meant I outranked all the Ulineise prelates in Amalo except Vernezar.
Nobody liked that argument, least of all Vernezar himself.
The other argument was that, as an unbeneficed prelate, I was outranked by everyone except the novices. Zanarin had made that argument first, but others had been quick to back her up. They might have carried the matter, since they were making a much more palatable argument, had it not been for Anora and the other municipal cemetery prelates objecting, for here the relatively trivial question of my rank had crossed a much larger, on-going contention among the Ulineise prelates of Amalo, that being how a prelate’s benefice should be valued. Some prelates argued for wealth; others, prelates like Anora, argued for size. A third faction argued for age. It was a bitterly divisive issue, and I thought the true measure of Vernezar’s worth was his inability to resolve it.
“I wanted,” said Vernezar, “to propose a compromise. It seems clear that, having been appointed directly by the Archprelate, you are of greater rank than the ordinary prelates, but since you are unbeneficed, you are of lesser rank than the prelates of the Ulistheileian. Does that seem fair?”
It seemed guaranteed to make everyone unhappy, possibly even more unhappy than they were right now. Anora murmured, “The prelates of the Ulistheileian are also unbeneficed,” and Vernezar pretended not to hear him.
“You are offering me rank in the Ulistheileian,” I said slowly.
“Yes,” said Vernezar.
Beside him, Zanarin glowered.
“But in turn,” I said, “I would have to concede your authority over me.”
There was a pause, as distinct as if it had been measured by a tape.
“Do you deny my authority over you?” asked Vernezar.
“I was appointed by the Archprelate,” I said. “Not by you.”
“Are you claiming you, a mere Witness for the Dead, are equal with Dach’othala Vernezar?” said Zanarin. “Just because your family married into the imperial house doesn’t—” Vernezar caught her eye, and she did not finish her sentence.
And there was a third reason Zanarin didn’t like me, although what good it did me to be the kinsman of a widowed and childless empress was not at all clear.
“It used to be,” Anora said, deliberately not looking at any one, “that Witnesses for the Dead were honored among the prelates of Ulis.”
That sparked a fight out of a tense discussion, as he must have known it would. Vernezar bristled at the suggestion that I was not being adequately honored in his scenario, and Zanarin objected to the idea that I should be honored at all. There was a deeper theological argument behind Zanarin’s outrage, and that deeper meaning was the reason I did not say, as I longed to, that I did not care about rank. Zanarin, who was not from Amalo, had brought with her some of the south’s skepticism. She doubted that Witnesses for the Dead truly spoke to the dead and thus her belief that we should carry no rank.
I might not care about rank, but I cared passionately about my calling, and I could not let Zanarin’s ideas gain more ground than they already had. I found myself arguing for status I did not want because the alternative was to agree with Zanarin that I should have no status at all. Across us Vernezar and Anora were arguing, no less heatedly, about the traditions of the Ulistheileian.
We ended finally in much the same place as we had begun, nothing resolved, Vernezar’s compromise position neither accepted nor rejected.
I decided to go to the municipal baths. I felt unclean.
It was dusk when I got home.
The lamplighters were finishing their rounds, their long poles bobbing on their shoulders. Merchants were locking the grilles of their shops, apprentices and younger sons assiduously sweeping the pavement. In the courtyard of my building, the women were taking down the laundry that had been hanging on the lines to dry all afternoon. They smiled and bobbed their heads at me shyly; I nodded in return. No one wanted to be too friendly with a Witness for the Dead.
I stopped in the concierge’s office to check the post. I had a letter, cheap paper and cheap sealing wax, and I recognized the hand.
I climbed the stairs to my apartment, the iron bannister sun-warm beneath my palm. One of the local cats was on the landing, his white paws tucked up neatly beneath him, the cream and red tabby swirls on his sides making him look like a glazed marmalade bun.
He said, “mraaao,” to me as I unlocked my door, and stood up to stretch. By the time I came back out, he had been joined by two of his sister-wives and a half-grown tom who wasn’t old enough yet to be chased away. A third sister-wife lurked halfway up the next flight of stairs, too shy to come all the way down to the landing while I was there. Nine bright blue eyes watched me (the deeply sabled queen had suffered some injury that left her right eye cataracted and blind) as I set down the little saucers, each with a fourth of the can of sardines I had just opened.
I sat in my doorway and watched them eat, amused by how each cat guarded its plate so fiercely from the other three—and the third queen, a dark-brown tabby who was probably the biggest of the five of them, watched and waited, one eye seemingly always on me. None of them was entirely tame, but that one had been hurt before.
I had not named them. Names were too much power, given far too easily to animals who wandered the city and returned to my landing only when they felt like it. I did not give them names any more than I let them in.
When the half-blind queen had finished with her sardines, she came over and bumped my shin gently with her head. I rubbed behind her sail-like ears and she began purring, a deep throbbing noise like the engines of an airship. The other cats ignored us and disappeared one by one as they finished their sardines.
Presently, the half-blind queen closed her jaws very gently around my hand to tell me she was done. I watched her go, small and self-possessed, down the stairs, and then went back inside so that the third queen could come down and finish off the remains of the sardines.
I had hung my black coat of office carefully—it was made of silk and probably cost more than the all the rest of my wardrobe combined—and now I put on my favorite of my three frock coats, black with a soft gray embroidery down the placket and around the cuffs. I’d had to re-hem it twice and patch the elbows, but the body of the coat was still sturdy and respectable. When I looked in my palm-sized mirror, I saw that my hair was drying in wild curls; I spent five minutes in combing, braiding, and pinning it back into a sober prelate’s braid, sliding the pearl-headed hairpins in as I had been taught to as a novice, so that none of the metal showed, only the pearls, almost invisible against the whiteness of my hair, and tying the tail with a fresh black ribbon. Then I opened the letter I had received in the post.
It did not bother with salutations, merely said, Meet me in the River-Cat tonight.
I left my apartment again before it had gotten quite dark enough that I had to light a lamp—the municipal utility metered gas and steam with great severity, and I tried to leave the lamps and radiators off as much as I could. The prelacy of Amalo was obliged to pay me, per the Archprelate’s directive, but they did so parsimoniously, grudging every zashan.
The Airmen’s Quarter of Amalo was rich in teahouses. There were five within easy walking distance of my apartment: the Red Dog’s Dream, the Circle of Pearls, the Hanevo Tree, Mendelar’s, and the River-Cat. Six if you counted the manufactory-owned Tea Leaf, which I did not. My favorite was the Hanevo Tree; the River-Cat was less a place for quiet contemplation and more a meeting place for families and courting couples
The River-Cat was one long room divided up into deep booths; I walked past two nervous young couples, a rowdy family of six (seven? the tow-headed children were hard to count), a venerable man and his even more venerable wife, sitting together on the same side of the booth and passing one cup slowly back and forth—a very old courting ritual that my Velveradeise grandmother had told us about when I was a child. Two women, sisters by the look of it, were both reading the same copy of the Herald of Amalo, spread flat on the table between them, one sister reading rightside-up and one sister reading upside-down.
The back-most booths were the least popular; I liked them because I could lean against the warm-veneered wood and know that no one was coming up behind me. It was easy to make enemies as a witness vel ama, and I did not have a conciliatory tongue.
A very young tea-server brought pot and cups and the tiny sand-clock that marked how long the tea had been steeping. I drank for preference the dark, bitter orchor, but it was stiff enough that if I drank it after sunset, I would still be awake at dawn. This evening I had chosen the more delicate isevren, and I indulged myself with a generous spoonful of honey and a dollop of cream.
I put the honey spoon in the second cup (which the staff of the River-Cat could not be trained out of bringing—unlike at the Hanevo Tree, where you had to specify if you wanted more than one) and briefly tormented myself by imagining a companion who would smile across at me and happily lick the spoon clean. Neither of my lovers had had such a sweet tooth—that was the only thing that made my imaginings even remotely safe. A purely made-up lover was foolish; conjuring the dead was something else entirely.
I reminded myself that Zhemena was not dead, merely far away and uninterested. Oddly, it did not make me feel better.
Drink thy tea, Celehar, I said impatiently to myself, and cease repining.
I was halfway through my little pot of isevren, trying to focus on the question of Mer Urmenezh’s dead and missing sister and not on a sweet-toothed imaginary lover, when a shadow fell over the end of the table, and I turned to look.
Subpraeceptor Azhanharad of the Amalo chapter of the Vigilant Brotherhood was a tall, broad man, half-goblin, dark and scowling, his voice thick with the upcountry consonants of the Mervarnen Mountains. He did not like me.
The feeling was mutual. I thought Azhanharad brutal in his methods, preferring force to subtlety—and at that I had a higher opinion of him than of many of his brethren. The Vigilant Brotherhood served a necessary purpose, both in cities like Amalo and in the long stretches of empty fields and copses where they patrolled, but their recruitment efforts did not attract men of either great intelligence or sensitivity. One was only lucky if one’s local chapter had succeeded in attracting men of integrity.
Azhanharad was always uncomfortable when he had to talk to me—still close enough to his Mervarneise roots to be superstitious about my calling rather than incredulous. Little as I liked him, I had to respect the courage that brought him back to me every time he thought I might be able to help. He said, “Good evening, Othala Celehar.”
In the emperor’s court, the honorific “othala” was considered hopelessly provincial and out of date. Here—in the provinces—it was common politeness.
“Good evening, Subpraeceptor,” I said and gestured him to the other bench. “We received your note.”
He sat, eyeing the second cup warily, his ears flicking. “Are you expecting a companion, othala?”
“No. Would you like some tea? It’s isevren—though we regret that you will have to accept the honey.”
“No, thank you.” He folded his hands together on the table—big hands, with big scarred knuckles. “A patrol pulled a body out of the canal this morning. None of us recognized her.”
Which meant very little, but did provide negative evidence. She wasn’t an inhabitant of the Airman’s Quarter—or she merely wasn’t a troublemaker. The Vigilant Brotherhood was very familiar with rowdy drunks and chronic brawlers, with the prostitutes who could not afford the dues to work in a Guild brothel and with the Guild enforcers who chased them off the streets. The prostitutes ended up dead sometimes.
Azhanharad sighed and said bluntly, “Will you come?”
And I said, feeling suddenly less despondent, “Yes, of course.”
The Chapterhouse of the Amaleise Brethren was a very old building, probably as old as the mystery of Anmura the Protector, from which the Brotherhood sprang—and which, in all probability, they still practiced. The Church did not recognize the four Anmureise mysteries; I was careful not to ask. The Chapterhouse was built out of massive blocks of stone, each carved with the name of one of the dead Praeceptors who lay in the Chapterhouse crypt. In the six or seven hundred years since that practice had started—at a time centuries after the Chapterhouse was built—they had filled twenty-nine blocks.
Azhanharad led me to the alleyside door rather than the grand front entrance on General Parzhadar Square. I followed him down the twist in the areaway stairs, waited at the bottom while he threw his weight against the massive, ancient lock on the basement door.
The basement of the Chapterhouse had never been fitted out for gas-light; the brethren kept a rack of lanterns hanging by the door. Azhanharad took one down and lit it, his thick fingers careful and precise as he touched his lighter to the waiting wick. The lantern did not provide very much light, being what they called in Amalo an owl-light, as it was roughly the size of the tiny screeching owls that nested in the city’s eaves. But it was better than candle-light, and far better than no light at all.
We descended another flight of stairs, and then another, down to the floor of the Brotherhood’s vast crypt. The Chapterhouse crypt was the only place in the Airmen’s Quarter where a body could be stored for long. This woman had to be identified before anything could be done with her—without identification, no one was willing to prepare the body for a funeral. Unlike the southern and western communities where I had begun my prelacy, Amalo had three main sets of funerary practices and a dozen others with smaller followings. It might well be more; no one could keep track of the splintering sects and hero-cults and the secretive kindreds that came down out of the mountains. Each tradition required the body to be prepared in a different way, and the wrong preparation would, at best, offend both kin and congregation. I knew of cases where the luckless officiant had had to petition for a change of benefice.
The other reason the Brotherhood might keep a body in their cold room was if it took an unusual amount of time to identify the cause of death—a question which often made the difference between unfortunate happenstance and murder. For this body, if she had been pulled out of the canal, it was less about cause of death than about where she died, and therefore about who she was.
They had laid her out carefully on a clean white sheet. Black was better for sanctity, but black dye that would hold through repeated, frequent washings was expensive, and no one would waste it on mortuary sheets. White was almost as good, signifying that this woman, like all the dead, was under the protection of the emperor.
She was a young elven woman, no more than thirty judging by her hands and face. She showed no signs of childbearing, and her hands were uncallused. Her white hair hung in a tangle over the side of the table and nearly to the floor. She was no kind of cleric, not a liveried servant, not a manufactory worker. She might be the wife of a nobleman or the daughter of a well-off burgher. She might be a prostitute, but if so, she had to come from one of the elegant houses in the Veren’malo, to show no signs of poverty or disease in her face.
Her dress, a ruined mass of dark green velvet, had probably been expensive. The cuffs were stained with dye from the embroidery of flowers that decorated them, but they were silk: second grade probably, although it was hard to tell after the canal had been at them. I investigated and discovered a pocket hidden in the folds of the skirt and inside it, a wad of paper.
“What’s that?” said Azhanharad.
“We do not know,” I said, unfolding it cautiously. There was no need for caution; the ink had run into a purplish gray blot, with no words still legible. “Nothing useful.”
I touched the body on the shoulder—cold, helpless flesh, a house condemned but not yet torn down. Not quite yet. The inhabitant had not entirely fled.
“Can you?” Azhanharad said.
“Yes,” I said. The prayer of compassion for the dead was worn and familiar. The woman no longer knew her name, nor who had wanted her dead, nor why. But she did remember her death. She had been alive when the water slammed the breath from her body. She remembered the fall from the dock, though she had been more pushed than fallen and more thrown than pushed. She remembered the cold dark water, the way her panicked gasps for air had echoed off the bricks.
She hadn’t known how to swim. Despite the lake and the canal and the river, most Amaleisei didn’t.
I felt the memory of her clothes dragging her down, heavy velvet getting heavier very quickly. She tried to scream for help, but got a mouthful of foul-tasting water, and before she even had time to realize she was going to die, there was a sudden crushing agony deep into her head and then nothing.
She had not drowned after all.
I lifted my hand and stepped back, out of range of the sympathy I had created between the corpse and myself. It would take a moment for it to fade enough that I could touch her again without being dragged back into the memory of her death.
“Anything?” Azhanharad said, without much hope.
“No name,” I said, since that was what he most wanted. “But this was definitely murder, not suicide. And not an accident.”
“The poor woman,” Azhanharad said, with a ritual gesture of blessing.
“She was alive when she went into the water,” I said. “But she didn’t drown. Here.” I felt my way gently around to the back of her skull, where there was a deep divot, and tilted her head so that Azhanharad could see.
He almost managed to hide his wince, but his ears flattened and gave him away.
“It was a better death than drowning,” I said.
He said dryly, “We will remember not to tell her family that. If she has one. Since we do not know, and time is precious, we make petition to you on her behalf. Can you witness for her?”
“Yes.” I considered the alien memories in my head. “We think that we can find where she was pushed into the canal.”
Azhanharad nodded. “We will keep her as long as we can.”
Even in the cold of the Brotherhood’s vault, they could not keep her forever.
Excerpted from The Witness for the Dead, copyright 2021 by Katherine Addison.