Set in a world of goblin wars, stag-sized battle ravens, and assassins who kill with deadly tattoos, Christopher Buehlman’s The Blacktongue Thief is the start of a new fantasy adventure—publishing May 25th with Tor Books. Read chapter one here, or dive in with chapter two below!
Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path.
But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark.
Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants.
Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva’s. Common enemies and uncommon dangers force thief and knight on an epic journey where goblins hunger for human flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and honor is a luxury few can afford.
The Bee and Coin
Getting Frella and Pagran back to our camp was no easy matter. I gave Pagran back his glaive to crutch himself along on and had to let Frella lean her weight on me over a mile of uneven ground. Luckily, she was skinny—fit for palisades, as soldiers say, so she was less of a burden than she might have been. My masters at the Low School would have chided me for helping those two. They would have seen that getting trounced on the White Road was the end of our none-too-jolly band and that the archers who ran away, being brother and sister, were loyal only to each other and likely to help themselves to whatever we’d left behind before scampering off to the next adventure.
What I’d left behind was my fiddle, a fine helmet I’d hoped to sell, and a jug of Galtish whiskey. I didn’t really care about the helmet, and there was barely enough burnwater left to wet my lips, but that fiddle meant something to me. I’d like to tell you it had belonged to my da or something, but my da was a sad bastard miner and couldn’t play the arse-horn after a quart of beans and cabbage. I stole that fiddle. Walked off with it while a mate argued with a music student about whether his singing at a tavern had been in key. For the record, it wasn’t, but it was a damned fine fiddle. So much so that, after our con, I paid my mate his half of its worth rather than sell it. And now it was likely off to be sold for next to nothing and the two shytes who will have taken it so far ahead of me I had little chance to catch them.
Cadoth was the first town west of the Forest of Orphans and the last town in Holt proper before you get to the yet gloomier forests and broad highlands of Norholt. You can tell how big a town is by how many gods have temples there and how big those temples are. For example, a village with one mud road, one tavern that’s really just the back of a fat man’s house, and a dying ox everyone shares at plowing time will have an Allgod church. No roof, logs to sit on, an altar with tallow candles and a niche where different gods’ statues will go depending on the holiday. Those statues will be carved from ash or hickory, with generous breasts on the goddesses and unthreatening pillicocks on the gods, except Haros, who will be hung like the stag he is, because everyone knows he screws the moon so hard she has to sink beneath the hills and rest from it.
A slightly bigger town, one with a full-time whore who doesn’t also brew beer or mend shirts, will have an Allgod church with a thatched roof and a bronze disc in a square of lead or iron, plus a proper temple to whichever local deity they feel will defecate least upon their hopeful, upturned faces.
Cadoth was as big as a town gets before someone decides it’s a city. A proper trade town at a proper crossroads, it had an Allgod church crowned with a bronze sun, a huge tower to Haros topped with wooden stag horns, plus temples to a dozen other divinities scattered here and there. Notably absent were Mithrenor, god of the sea—nobody much bothers inland—and the Forbidden God, for obvious reasons.
One thing a town this size will have is a proper Hanger’s House, as the Takers Guild Hall is called, and I would need to head there to discuss my debt to them. My adventures with Pagran and his cutty, stabby, punchy crew had gone well enough that summer, until we got our arses pulped and handed to us by the Spanth and her murder-bird. Now Nervous and Snowcheeks, the sibling archers who’d scampered when the bird joined the fray, had all but cleaned me out. I needed money—fast—and playing a few hands of Towers would be a good way to start.
I knew I’d find a game at the Bee and Coin because a Bee and a Coin were two of the cards in the Towers deck, besides the Towers, the Kings and Queens, Soldiers, Shovels, Archers, Death, the Traitor, and, of course, Thieves, signified in common decks by an illustration of a grasping hand.
Not everyone in the tavern would be a cards player. A few sheepherders and root farmers faithful to the gods of sour frowns held down edgeward tables, talking low about rain and weevils, their never-washed woolens insulated with decades of hand-wiped meat grease. Two younger bravos near the bar had short copper cups at their belts, used in Towers to collect coin. Despite their swords, these fellows seemed leery of a trio of hard-looking older women clink-clinking away at Towers around a worm-bitten table.
I was leery, too, but I wanted a game.
“Do you care for a fourth?” I said, mostly to the bald killer shuffling the deck. She looked at my tattoo. She had every right to slap me for it but didn’t seem keen on it. Neither of the other two playing cards wanted a beer more than they wanted a cordial start to the game, so neither of them claimed the prize either.
Baldy nodded at the empty chair, so I put my arse in it.
“Lamnur deck or Mouray?” I said.
“What’chye fuckin’ think?”
Nobles and such used the Mouray deck. Better art on that one. But folks with permanent dirt on their collars played the Lamnur deck, simpler images, two queens instead of three, no Doctor card to save you if you draw Death. For my part, I prefer the Mouray deck, but I’m partial to second chances.
“Now pay the price,” she said.
I dug sufficient coins out of my purse to ante.
She dealt me in. I won two of the three Tourney rounds and folded the third so not to seem to be cheating, but the War round’s chest was too fat to pass up. The pale blondy woman with the scar like a fishhook bet heavy, thinking herself invincible with the last King in the deck, but I dropped the Traitor on her, archered off the Queen that would have caught the Traitor, took that King, and won. Again. A lot.
“The fuck’r ye doin’ that, ye slipper?” the bald one said, leaving out the how like a good Holtish street thug. Slipper wasn’t such a nice thing to be called, either, but then I had just bankrouted her.
“Just lucky,” I said, not lying.
More about luck later.
She hovered between stabbing me and slapping me, settling finally on exile.
“The fuck out th’table” she said, as in I should get, so I pouched my winnings up in my shirt, slid them into my belt-purse, and walked away smiling, followed after by several comments about my father, none of which I hoped were true. They all wanted to slap me, but were too enthralled by the game; they would stay nailed to the table until two of them were destitute, and then they’d likely fight. Little wonder preachers of so many gods rail against the game—it had killed more folk than the Murder Alphabet. I almost said it killed more than goblins had, but that would be too gross an exaggeration even for me.
I made my way toward the bar, and what should I see leaning on its rough wood, past a large fellow built for eclipse, but the Spanth from the road. We shared an awkward nod. The space at the bar next to her, the one I had been just moving to occupy, was suddenly taken by some rentboy with too much black makeup around the eyes. Those eyes inventoried the birder and found much to approve. She was a very handsome woman in her way, what with her black hair and seawater-blue eyes, but I hadn’t worked out if she would look better if she didn’t seem sleepy or if the heavy-lidded look gave her a certain charm. Men love a woman who doesn’t seem to give a damn, so long as she’s handsome. We also love a happy woman, so long as she’s fair, or a sad pretty one, or an angry girleen with a good face. You see how this works. So, yes, the Spanth was fair. But if she had to summon a smile to put out a fire, half the town would burn. She didn’t seem to notice the keen young pennycock next to her, rather occupying herself with her wine and staring into the middle distance. Troubled girl with good bones. The lads love that.
I found another place to stand.
A Galtish harper of some talent was singing “The Tattered Sea,” a song that had become popular after enough men had died to make calling humanity mankind sound a bit off. The word in vogue these last twenty years was kynd.
Her voice wasn’t half-bad, so nobody threw a bottle at her.
One day upon the Tattered Sea
I waded out upon the waves
A comely young man for to see
Who looked to me more knight than knave
Now swam he toward a maiden brave
Who treaded water in the brine
I should have left, my shame to save
But I swam after, close behind
For I was young and poorly bred
With much to learn of lechery
Beneath the waves I dunked my head
And what there should I hap to see?
I found a tail fin fairly twinned
Where I had sought four legs entwined
Said I, “O, brother, are you kynd?”
Said he, “No kynd, but surely kind
I’m kind enough to send you home
Though kynd above I seem to be
You’ll find no pleasure ’neath the foam
Nor husband in the Tattered Sea”
Then kindly did the mermaid speak
To teach a daughter of the kynd
“Go back to land and loam and seek
A legsome lad more fond than finned”
So turned I from the ocean cool
Much wiser than a maid might wish
For I swam out and found a school
Where lustily I sought a fish
She got a few coins in her hat and too few claps, even counting mine, so she gathered her harp and went on to the next tavern and hopefully a more grateful audience.
I saw that, in one corner, a spellseller of the Magickers Guild— her face powdered white, her thumb and first two fingers of her left hand pinched together to cant her Guild allegiance—had lit a beeswax candle with a braid of hair tied around it to adversise she was open for custom. It wasn’t a moment before a young woman in rough-spun wools slipped her a coin and started whispering her wants in the witch’s ear.
Just after I ordered and got my first taste of the decent red ale they served at the Bee and Coin, a nasty-looking little fellow in waxy, stained leathers came up to my other side at the bar, staring right at my tattoo. It was a tattoo of an open hand with cersain runes on it, and it sat on my right cheek. You could only see it by firelight, and then it showed up as a light reddish-brown, not too prominent, a bit like old henna. You could miss it altogether. Unfortunately, this fellow didn’t.
“That’s the Debtor’s Hand, yae?”
Yae, he said, a northern Holtish affectation. It seemed they were all Norholters here, which figured—we weren’t so far from the provincial border.
I was required to acknowledge the tattoo, but I didn’t have to be sweet about it.
“Yae,” I said, stretching it out just a little so he couldn’t tell if I was mocking him or if I was a fellow rube.
“Ye see that, barkeep?”
“I do,” she said without looking back. She was up on a stool now, fetching the Spanth’s wine from a high shelf.
“Anybody claim the Guild-gift yet?” the rube said.
“Nae,” said the barkeep, yet another Norholter. “Not tonight.” Now Leathers took my measure. I leaned back to give him a look at the blade on my belt, a fine stabber and slasher. A serious knife. A knife-fighter’s knife. I called her Palthra, Galtish for “petal”— the rondel at the back of my belt was Angna, or “nail”—and I had two wee leather roses inlaid on Palthra’s sheath. Not that Leathers would likely see more than the sheath and handle. I’d be unthumbed if I pulled a blade on any who slapped me in the Takers’ name, and should I bleed them, I’d be poked by the Guild wherever I poked them for the slap.
But did this kark know that?
“Then I claim the Guild-gift. Debtor, in the name of the Takers, ye’ll have this.”
Yah, he knew it.
He looked back at the prettier of the two girleens he had been nose-rubbing with, then, never taking his eyes off her, he flashed out his hand and popped my cheek. It stung, of course, especially the ring that cut my lip against my tooth a little, but the slaps never hurt as much as the knowledge that a moron got to paddle my cheeks and I could make no answer. I wasn’t even allowed to speak to him again unless he spoke first.
The barkeep poured the fellow his half pint of beer, on the Guild, putting enough head on it to let him know what she thought of him making Norholters look like cowards for striking those not allowed to return the favor. The rube drank from it, painting his near hairless upper lip with foam, which he then wiped with his sleeve.
“Man ought to pay what he owes,” he said with the conviction of the freshly twenty, as much to himself as to the room generally, but that was all I needed. He wasn’t supposed to speak to me after. Now I could talk.
“Man also ought to have a bit of callus on his hands,” I said. “Yours look borrowed from a high-nut boy.”
He seemed surprised I answered, but covered as well as he could, raising his half pint at me like he got what he wanted and didn’t care what I said, but he cared, all right. Someone had sniggered at what I said, and the laugh cut him, especially in front of his henlets. Oh, I knew his sort. Family had a bit of coin, but he was such an arsehole he’d up and left the inn or the chandlery or whatever business his bunioned mother ran because he couldn’t stand to be told what to do. Might have found his way to a Guild straw farm to get filled up with useless tricks and style himself a thief, but he couldn’t hack even that and got bounced before his debt could sink him. Gone long enough now that his clothes reeked, but he still hadn’t pawned his last good ring. Was one hard week away from turning cunnyboy or sell-sword, but wasn’t sweet or clever enough for the first or strong enough for the second.
I was a half heartbeat away from pitying him, but my face still stung from his bastard hand, so I said, “You can have another slap at me, as far as the Guild’s concerned. Seems a shame you wasted your first one doing so little harm, you fatherless kark.”
A kark is a wet fart, by the way, if you’ve never been to Galtia or Norholt. The kind you think will be one thing but turns out to be the other, to your shame and sorrow. It’s why a Galt says, “Close the whiskey jug,” not cork it. We say cork and kark almost the same, and most of us don’t hate whiskey so much we’d go putting a kark in it.
Several at the tavern hooed at that, shepherds and farm women mostly, not the sort to forgive weakness. He couldn’t let that be the last word, or he’d likely have one or two of them to reckon with as the taps kept flowing. A smart lad would’ve hustled the girls off to whatever hayrick awaited their exchange of crotch-fleas. But he wasn’t smart.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt ye, I just wanted the beer. But I’ll hurt ye if y’like, y’shyte-tongue Galtie knap.”
The Spanth opened the wine with her teeth and poured herself a gurgle, one eyebrow raised in amused curiosity. She likely won’t have known that a knap was a tit, nor will she have known that the word I was about to use meant a particularly cute tuft of pubic hair.
“I doubt that, sprumlet,” I said. “I’ve had a hard piss hurt me worse than you look like to. But if you’d care to try, I’m all face for your knuckles. So why don’t you come and have another throw before your little sisters get the idea they’re at the wrong table.”
I touched my black tongue to the tip of my nose and winked at him.
That did the trick.
He rushed across the tavern and punched at my jaw. I shrugged up and leaned so my shoulder caught most of it. I won’t bore you with a blow by blow, except to tell you that he flailed his little cat paws at me, and soon, we ended up tussling on the floor, me grabbing his head close, now an arm, grabbing his head again. He smelled like week-old sweat and like his leathers had had the mold at some time or another, and they never really come back from that, do they? The barkeep was all “Here, here!” and “Now, now!” until she flubbed us apart with the end of the flail she’d had mounted over the brassheet mirror, probably the very one she’d parted goblin hair with in the Daughters’ War.
I got up holding a hand to my bloodied lip, evidently worse off than Stinkleathers, and he flipped his longish hair back in a move that a cockerel would have been proud of. Since he’d been the first to throw a punch and he was obviously a twat, the bartender gave him a shove toward the door. He collected the girleens on his way out, saying, “Regards to the Guild,” in such a nasty way I was now sure he’d been chewed by the Takers and spat out.
“Sorry you didn’t get to finish your beer,” I said to his retreating back.
I looked up where the Spanth had been standing, but she had slipped out during the fray. A woman who’s got someplace to be. A woman who doesn’t want to be recognized. Intriguing. I saw the fancy man with the made-up eyes looking at me with the same casual disinterest he might have shown a dog who wandered in. I winked at him. He sneered and looked away, which was what I wanted him to do, because I had to palm something from my mouth to my pouch.
It was Stinkleathers’s ring.
Probably the most valuable thing he still owned.
Worth letting him hit me a few glancing blows at bad angles I entirely controlled. I had given his finger a good pinch as I stripped the ring so he would still feel it there, he wouldn’t notice its absence until he hit the bedstraw if I were lucky.
And I was.
Very, very lucky.
In many ways, I’m perfectly ordinary. A bit shorter than most, but Galts run small. Thin as a stray dog. No arse to speak of, so I need a belt to keep my breeches north of Crackmere. I’m a decent fiddler, as I’ve said, and you wouldn’t punch me in the throat for singing near you, but you wouldn’t be like to hire me for your wedding either. Some things I’m shyte at. Not laughing when I find something funny, for example. Adding figures in my head. Farmwork. Lifting heavy weights. But thieving? That I’ve a talent for. And part of that talent is a pure gift for and awareness of luck. Luck is the first of my two great birth-gifts—more about the second later.
Luck is very real, and anyone who tells you differently wants all the credit for their own success. Luck is a river. I can actually feel when I’m in it and when I’m out of it, too. Think about that for a moment. Most people try something difficult or unlikely with very little notion of whether it’ll work or not. Not me. When I feel the inner sunshine of good luck under my breastbone, I know that, yes, I can snatch that woman’s pouch and that it’s got a diamond or three gold lions in it. I know I can make the far jump to the next roof and that my foot will miss the loose tiles. And I know when I sit down to shuffle a Towers deck, the other fellow’s going to drown in Bees and Shovels and probably get a visit or two from our old friend Death.
Playing games of chance wakes luck up in me, and soon, it’s running out of control. You can only win so many hands or dice-throws before the others are ready to cut your throat. Worse, running through my luck at the gaming table means I’ll be well out of it when I need it. When I feel the empty chill of luck running thin, I know a walk on an icy path is like to split my tailbone. I keep my head down, because I’ve good odds to meet a man I ran a confidence game on the year before or some girleen I left things sour with.
It was luck that got me moved from a straw farm to a True School when I joined the Takers Guild. Normally, see, they recruit all the lads and lasses they can get to sign for the Low School, but only three of the nine schools are true. The straw farms teach basic lock-picking, basic climbing, some knife-fighting, but nothing advanced. No spells. No trap-finding or animal-talking, no cozening, no misdirection. Just loads of conditioning. You graduate from a straw farm strong, fast, tough, lightly skilled, and heavily in debt. If you can pay your debt somehow, good on you. When you can’t, you’re indentured. This means the Guild has at its beckon many thousands of leg-breakers, prostitutes, and hard laborers. They can summon a mob to terrorize a town, then disperse and hide them before the baron’s spearmen show up.
Myself, I went to a True School.
Or at least I think I did.
But I am nonetheless very much in debt, as they want us all to be.
Here, read for yourself.
Our Most Esteemed Kinch Na Shannack,
Third Year Physical,
First Year Magus,
It is with great reluctance and no small disappointment that we, the bursars of the Pigdenay Academy of Rare Arts, in fealty to the Takers Guild, inform you that the meat of your debt has outgrown the shell of your willingness to work and is at risk to crack your body.
As your last four seasonal payments to us averaged less than two trounces each, at this laggardly march, you will not clear your debt of eighty-five trounces gold, one gold queening, one silver knight, and three silver knaves (plus interest), for a period of some sixteen years. Our actuaries need not be bothered to tell us this is beyond your likely life span and at the outer limit of your plausibly useful years in the profession. It is only at the argument of one of your former masters that we have measured your remunerative value alive and unmaimed beyond your causionary value harmed for all to see or dead for all to know.
You are therefore commanded, on pain of unthumbing, to deliver yourself to the closest chartered Guildhouse for a look-over and a tongue-wag, the most likely outcome being a deed indenture of the greater sort. Our intelligence places you on the White Road and suggests that Cadoth may be the adversised Guildhouse most near your person. Of course, prompt payment, upon your arrival, in the amount of
- Two lions gold and five owlets silver or
- One trounce gold, two queenings gold, one shilling silver
will render the conversation far more cordial and do much to reassure us as to your good intentions toward your promise. We need not remind you that the skills gifted to you within our walls render most students capable of discovering monies enough to clear their names within seven years leisurely or three years hard and lucky, and that our lenience in only burdening you with the mark of the open hand will not long persist without some laudable action on your part.
Tenderly (for now),
The Humble Bursars
Your Masters in Arts Rare and Coveted
By our hand
This First Lunday of Ashers, 1233 Years Marked
It was now the eighteenth, exactly halfway through Ashers. Lammas month was coming fast, and with it, a new payment due the Guild.
Stinkleathers’s ring had been a good start, but I was going to have to do some stealing in Cadoth.
And I was going to need a buyer.
Excerpted from The Blacktongue Thief, copyright © 2021 by Christopher Buehlman.