Csorwe and Shuthmili have made a new life for themselves, hunting for secrets among the ruins of an ancient snake empire…
We’re thrilled to share the second chapter of The Thousand Eyes, the sequel to A.K. Larkwood’s stunning fantasy debut The Unspoken Name, out on February 15 from Tor Books. Read Chapter One here, and Chapter Two below!
Two years after defying the wizard Belthandros Sethennai and escaping into the great unknown, Csorwe and Shuthmili have made a new life for themselves, hunting for secrets among the ruins of an ancient snake empire.
Along for the ride is Tal Charossa, determined to leave the humiliation and heartbreak of his hometown far behind him, even if it means enduring the company of his old rival and her insufferable girlfriend.
All three of them would be quite happy never to see Sethennai again. But when a routine expedition goes off the rails and a terrifying imperial relic awakens, they find that a common enemy may be all it takes to bring them back into his orbit.
The eve of the Feast of Midsummer was shaping up as one of the worst parties of Tal Charossa’s life, even before the School of Transcendence exploded.
A week had passed since their doomed hatchery trip, and Tal was back in Tlaanthothe for one reason only, which was that Professor Tvelujan’s university had refused to pay them, and they badly needed money.
The enormous roof garden of his mother’s mansion was rammed with crowds of Charossai, cousins and second cousins all talking over one another. You could tell who was a blood relation because all Tal’s family were alike, thin and sharp like an especially self-satisfied box of pencils. The ones who were there by marriage looked bleak and puzzled.
From the garden you could see out over the whole city of Tlaanthothe. All the marble townhouses overflowed with flowers, and between them the wide streets were already crowded with festival stalls. In the squares, the priesthood of the Siren were arranging the city’s offerings for tomorrow’s festivities. On all sides there was no getting away from it.
Before he found his mother, he almost tripped over someone he recognised as the particularly horrible cousin Essanthi.
“Well, well, Talasseres,” said Essanthi, trampling through the awkward silence with relish. “Very rare to see you these days,” they added, with the suggestion that Tal was an unusual infectious disease, a puzzle to medicine.
“Yeah, it’s been a while,” he said. Tal would have had no intention of attending, but his mother had written to invite him to her Midsummer’s Eve party, and his brother Niranthos had followed up with a more strongly worded letter to the effect that Tal had better attend if he ever hoped to draw his allowance from the Charossa treasury again.
“Still working for Chancellor Sethennai?” said Essanthi.
Tal had known someone would ask him at some point, but he hadn’t thought it would come up immediately. Three years ago he had spent the festival working security up at the Chancellor’s Palace, in his former life as Chancellor Sethennai’s bodyguard. Two years ago he’d missed the festival because he’d spent several months dead drunk on a beach after quitting Sethennai’s employment.
“Not so much,” he said.
“That’s the trouble with the city these days,” said Essanthi, who always sounded as though they were about one hundred years old despite being the same age as Tal. “All our promising young people, wasting their talents. So what are you doing with yourself?”
Tal had some ideas of what Essanthi could do with themselves, but he was trying to behave, so he bit his tongue and managed, “Travelling a bit.”
“Ha,” said Essanthi. Their ears gave a brisk little flick of disdain. “Is that what they’re calling it these days? My brothers travelled after university too. A year drinking themselves silly in foreign wineshops, I don’t doubt. But you didn’t go to university, did you?”
“No,” said Tal, with a flare of temper, because of course everyone knew he’d been expelled from school at sixteen and was famously the family dud. “Didn’t bother applying. Prefer wasting my talents.”
Essanthi gave a slow blink, like a tortoise, and turned to their neighbour as if Tal had made an embarrassing scene, although really on his usual scale of embarrassing scenes, this didn’t even register. Tal rolled his eyes and went on to look for his mother.
The skyline of Tlaanthothe skewered all the humiliating events of Tal’s existence like bits of steak awaiting the grill. There were the turrets of the Tlaanthothei Academy for Boys. There, crouching in the wall, was the Gate-fortress where he had spent seven months as a hostage. Here, quite close by, was the spire of the Chancellor’s Palace, of which the less said the better.
In the far distance, beyond the city wall, was the fading expanse of the desert known as the Speechless Sea, black sand bleached to rust under the unforgiving sun of his homeworld. Tal fixed his eyes on that dead margin and reflected that he would soon be out of here.
He supposed he ought to make conversation to show willing, or something, but he could hear the cousins’ talk bubbling away on all sides, and from what he could catch, it sounded like you had a choice between art or politics. Tal would rather jam a cake fork into the back of his hand than try to have an opinion on either, especially in front of his family.
“…heard he might not even appear tomorrow,” someone was saying.
“Well, that’s almost an implied abdication, don’t you think? By de-
Tal slunk along behind them, his ears twitching. Abdication could only refer to one person. But the conversation had moved on, and he found himself trapped between a group of dull uncles and the fountain dais where the Charossa family offering had been made ready.
Tlaanthothe’s tutelary goddess, the Siren of the Speechless Sea, was honoured with honey and salt water. The salt-water fountain was a permanent fixture, large and deep enough for Tal to swim lengths without touching the bottom. For the festival it was garlanded with grapevines, artfully arranged to leave space for golden dishes of honeycomb. Something broke the surface of the water, and Tal glimpsed the pale edge of a fin.
Before he had time to work out what that was about, someone tapped him on the shoulder. Tal swung round, fists clenched and shoulders squared, and realised with a start that he’d been ready to punch someone in the face.
It was his older brother, Niranthos, who was a shipping lawyer, or something else equally depressing. Tal could still picture Niranthos as a schoolboy, smilingly saying something like oh, Talasseres, do you really think the word equilibrium has a K in it? He wasn’t smiling now. Niranthos’ hair was tied back in neat braids and he was wearing shiny white formal robes. He looked afflicted by Tal’s presence, by his clipped curls and the creases in his shitty old party clothes.
“What’s that thing in the fountain?” said Tal, by way of greeting. It wasn’t exactly a fish, despite the fronded tail which occasionally flicked up over the water’s surface. Tal had caught sight of a long horse-like muzzle. Perhaps it was a dolphin.
Niranthos’ expression lapsed from aggravation to disgust. “Someone thought it would be cute to import a real life hippocamp as part of the offering.” The sea-horse was part of the city’s crest, supposedly dating from ancient days when the Speechless Sea was a true ocean. Tal had never seen one before. It explained the strong seaweedy smell rising from the fountain.
“Those things kick like real horses. I assume it must be heavily sedated,” Niranthos added.
“Yeah?” said Tal. “Lucky for some.”
The look on Niranthos’ face didn’t change. Tal thought, Hey, you wanted me here, fucker, now you have to make conversation with me.
“So how’s it going?” said Tal. “How are boats?”
Niranthos only got stonier. He might actually be hating this more than Tal was, which was one bright spot.
“Why am I here, then?” said Tal. “You were pretty clear I didn’t have a choice. Where’s Mother?”
Niranthos gave a kind of snort of displeasure and dragged Tal to one side of the fountain dais, behind a potted lemon tree.
Their mother, Niranthe Charossa, was sitting there under a trellis of flowering jasmine. She too was in full formal dress, and her braids were wound up to support a cup-shaped headdress full of summer flowers. Her deep brown skin had been burnished to a high gloss and her eyes were delicately outlined in gold. She looked—of course—like the model Tlaanthothei hostess, except that she was hiding in a dark corner. Her face had gained new lines of anxiety since Tal had last seen her. Niranthos’, too.
There was something going on here. Some Charossa bullshit manoeuvre. That was the problem with his family. Get enough of them in one room at one time, and someone would start nudging and winking about whether this could be the dynastic moment. Always poised for the main chance, that was the family trait.
It’s fine, he told himself. Calm down. He only had to make it through today, and somehow find a way to bring his mother round to the question of hard cash, and then he was going home to Cricket Station. Whatever it was they were up to, he wasn’t going to get drawn in.
“Ah. You came,” said his mother.
He wouldn’t have said her eyes lit up at the sight of him or anything, but she seemed reasonably pleased to see him at first. Then she fell silent, apparently at a loss what to say to him after that. Tal didn’t know what to say either. He realised with a squirm of shame that she hadn’t at all expected him to turn up. He swallowed, sticking his hands in the pockets of the robe he had dug out for the occasion in a halfhearted attempt to look smart.
“Yeah,” said Tal, inadequately. He and Niranthos sat at the table.
From here, beyond the trellis, the dome of the School of Transcendence was visible—green dome and white marble colonnade, floating above the noise and ornament of the city like a cloud. The Siren’s earthly mansion and most sacred temple was garlanded with olive branches for the Feast of Midsummer. It was empty now, but Sethennai would go there tomorrow for the ceremony and would enter the Inner Chapel alone to receive the goddess’ blessing on the city.
Tal had seen the inside of the Inner Chapel himself, and seen the true form of the Siren: she was a broken stone obelisk, just one of the many scattered pieces of Sethennai’s stupid snake goddess. Presumably that made her just another one of his lackeys.
“When was the last time you heard from the Chancellor?” said Niranthos. For once there was no condescension, no attempt to cloak the fact that Tal might know something Niranthos did not. This was such a surprise that it took Tal a second to understand what he was being asked.
“I don’t know, never?” said Tal. He felt the warning flash, the sense that the ground was unsteady beneath his feet.
“Exalted Sages, Tal,” said Niranthos. “You don’t have to be stupid on purpose.”
“We only wondered—” said his mother. “You’ve really heard nothing from Chancellor Sethennai?”
“Er—no,” said Tal.
“What on earth have you been doing, all this time, anyway?” said Niranthos. He was angry with Tal, still, for some reason, as though Tal had done all this specifically to spite him, and it was drawing him away from the point.
“He’s taking some time to find himself,” said his mother smoothly. Tal wondered how she knew this, since they’d certainly never discussed it. Her letter had been polite, but both she and Niranthos had made it clear how the family felt about his current lifestyle, the fact that Talasseres had given up a position on the Chancellor’s staff for the worst possible company a backwater like Cricket Station had to offer. Tal couldn’t tell if she was defending him or just trying to put a more palatable gloss on his situation.
“No letters? Nothing?” said Niranthos.
“Why would he write to me? I quit,” said Tal.
To be fair to them, there were some facts they didn’t know about Tal’s relationship with his old boss. Tal had done a really good job so far that day of not thinking about the fact that it had been on the Feast of Midsummer that Sethennai had kissed him the first time, five years ago.
A possibility dropped into his hands, sharp and bright as a shard of glass. “What, did he mention me?”
The public festivities had been a struggle, a punishingly hot day with a dust storm threatening beyond the city walls. Sethennai had looked so tired. Tal had ended up in the study after Csorwe and the others had all gone, and the night had been full of almost unbearable possibility, and—
Tal thought again, hard, about stabbing himself with a fork. It was over.
“No,” said Niranthos. If he noticed the break in Tal’s composure, he didn’t say anything. His ears were drawn up close against his skull, and Tal thought he must be making an effort to stop them twitching. “No, he didn’t mention anything, because he hasn’t been seen in public for over a month.”
Tal shook this off. None of his business. “I don’t see what that has to do with me.”
“You knew him better than anyone,” said Niranthos. He managed to put a nasty shine on it that made Tal worry for a second that his brother had figured it out, but on balance it was probably just Niranthos being Niranthos. “And you’re still in contact with that girl.”
“Do you mean Csorwe?” said Tal, who was still coming to terms with the fact that he and Csorwe were apparently stuck with each other, as if she was some kind of disfiguring freckle he’d been born with. She and Shuthmili were still on Cricket Station, looking after Cherenthisse, who was taking things hard. At the point Tal had left, Cherenthisse had divided her time between sleeping, refusing to wear clothes, and demanding that somebody duel her to the death.
“Doubt Csorwe’s heard anything. She… left him, same as me.” Tal couldn’t quite make himself form the word betrayed.
“Yes, and the only reason she isn’t being pursued for theft and treason is that Sethennai declined to open a prosecution,” said Niranthos.
“He’s changed in the past two years, since the two of you left,” said Tal’s mother.
“Oh, and you two know him so well?” said Tal. They had to be wrong. Tal had never even let himself fantasise about the idea that Sethennai might be really sad and different now. Sethennai’s indifference was one of those constants you had to remember, or you could really take a wrong turn.
“Not well,” said his mother. “But I’ve known him for many years, and well enough to see a difference.”
“Changed how?” said Tal.
“Colder. More distant,” said his mother.
“Very distant,” said Niranthos, as if wanting to prove that he also knew the Chancellor quite well. “Doesn’t seem to hear anything you say. I’m on the Logistics Committee now, and he hasn’t attended a meeting for two months. We’ve tried contacting his staff at the Palace, but they’re stonewalling me.”
“Wow,” said Tal in his flattest drawl. “If he’s missing meetings of the Logistics Committee, something really must be wrong. Everyone loves those meetings.”
“My god, Talasseres, you really are incapable of behaving like an adult,” said Niranthos. “Would you listen to what I’m saying? The Chancellor is missing, he’s been behaving strangely for months, his staff won’t admit there’s a problem, but I don’t think they know anything more than we do—”
“Yeah! Great! Sounds bad!” said Tal. “This shit is why I left. I have my own life.”
“On Cricket Station, Tal? With your friends? Do you know what it’s doing to—” Niranthos shut his mouth, lips tightly pressed, and glanced at their mother with a significance so clunky it was almost audible. “Half of Tlaanthothe says you’ve become a drug runner or something,” he added.
Tal snorted. “Hey, tell me the name of one drug you know—”
“This is not the point,” said their mother sharply. “Tal, you are needed here. If something is about to happen—for instance, if Belthandros Sethennai fails to show up for the Feast tomorrow and pay his respects to the Siren—then we need every Charossa.”
Elsewhere in the garden, the conversation simmered on. There was a glop as the hippocamp turned drearily over in the fountain.
“Right,” said Tal, as the whole grim tableau fell into place. “You think someone’s going to challenge for the city. Or—no—you think it’s going to be a big free-for-all.”
“Look, it only takes one idiot,” said Niranthos. “One Lenarai or Kathoira to
decide it’s their chance to make a play for Chancellor before anyone else does.”
“Yeah, it’s almost like duelling is stupid,” said Tal. “As if you want some random dickhead with a sword in charge.”
“Well, actually, in former ages, martial prowess was considered an essential part of—”
“It’s cleaner than civil war,” said their mother, before Tal could tell Niranthos what he thought of his martial prowess. “And in any case, the people
accept it, so it hardly matters whether it’s sensible or not.”
“And I’m not a sword-fighter,” said Niranthos, “and Mother’s duelling days are obviously behind her, so…”
“Oh, my god,” said Tal, suppressing the urge to pour scorn on sword-fighter. “You want me to do it.”
“My concern is that if someone does not take control early on, there will be a bloodbath,” said his mother.
“Ha ha, bullshit,” said Tal. “You two want to get a Charossa in first, that’s all. Sethennai wouldn’t give up the city, I was there when he fought Olthaaros for it. You think he’s just going to let it go? It’s not going to happen.”
“Sometimes one needs to plan for a contingency,” said his mother. “In any case, Sethennai could be unwell, or—”
This tweaked at Tal’s heartstrings for a moment. He’d only ever known Sethennai to catch a mild cold, which meant nothing worse than wearing a dressing gown and sipping ginger tea. Anyway, Tal didn’t think Sethennai could get seriously ill, given that he was immortal, and—
Oh, of course. If they were right that there had been some change in Sethennai, it was nothing to do with Tal. Not even anything to do with Csorwe, except that both of them had been involved in retrieving the Reliquary. Two years ago, Belthandros Sethennai had opened the Reliquary of Pentravesse and learned what he truly was. No wonder he was different now.
Tal hadn’t told anyone about it. He hadn’t known how to express it, and he didn’t have the energy to persuade anyone of something they wouldn’t want to believe. Well, it made things simpler. It was just as he’d always known, really. Sethennai had never cared for him. And he would never get anything from his family without getting himself dragged into some scheme against his will.
He could leave now. Wait for a quiet moment and slip out. He could be on a ship back toward Cricket Station before next morning. He’d just have to tell the others there’d been no luck getting money from his family. They had another month’s rent saved on their apartment, so they wouldn’t be kicked out right away, and maybe the others would come up with something good. There would have to be another way. He wasn’t signing up for this.
Niranthos took his distraction for contempt. “Dear gods, Tal, you could at least think of your duty to Tlaanthothe—”
“Fuck Tlaanthothe, and fuck you,” said Tal. “I’m not getting involved.”
Niranthos began to growl some response. Their mother just looked at Tal, her brow creased. She looked tired and unhappy, not angry.
“Tal—” she said, and then the School of Transcendence blew up.
Or at least, that was how Tal tried to describe it, later on. In fact there was no explosion. An explosion would have left a crater in the centre of Tlaanthothe, flung chunks of ancient marble through the walls of nearby palaces, opened up the dome like a seedpod popping. None of this happened.
What happened was a burst of concussive force centred on the School, a shudder so violent that Tal’s teeth rattled in their sockets. It felt as though someone had ripped the stitches from the fabric of reality.
Tal’s mortal brain didn’t understand it as it happened. All he could do was reconstruct it later. There was a flash of darkness, an annihilation. When his vision returned, he smelled hot metal and a wave of ozone, like the end of a thunderstorm, and tasted blood on the roof of his mouth. Something hot was running down his face.
At first he couldn’t hear anything at all, only a slow, echoing boom. When he remembered he had hands, he reached automatically for his sword—which wasn’t there, because he’d left it with his luggage—and he realised he’d been thrown backward out of his chair and flung into the trellis.
Gradually his vision cleared. His mother was clinging to the lemon tree, upright somehow, mopping at her face with her sleeve. Niranthos was still on the ground. Everyone in view was bleeding from the nose or mouth or both, clinging to each other, wailing.
“The School must have been struck by lightning!” someone was saying, although the sky was a cloudless blue and the School of Transcendence was, somehow, intact, shimmering and whole. Someone else was screaming about how the city was under attack.
“Everyone be careful, there may be aftershocks,” said Niranthos, on his feet and ready for the people to listen to him again. He and some of the other cousins began shepherding people inside. Perhaps it seemed safer under cover, but Tal knew, somehow, that there was no safety from this, that everyone in the city must have felt it, down to the deepest cellars.
“Mother?” he said, picking himself up.
“No bones broken yet,” she said. She began to follow Niranthos and the others toward the stairs. “Tch. My mistake for thinking we had another day.” She rubbed her face, loose petals cascading from her headdress. “It will start now, you understand. You are too young to remember the beginning of Olthaaros’ usurpation—the chaos, the uncertainty, the stupid violence—the wretched scrabbling…”
“What do you mean?” said Tal, then followed her gaze.
Above the School of Transcendence, the blue sky swirled and darkened, writhing with knots and ribbons of cloud. Within the clouds a green light flashed—sometimes like lightning, sometimes like eyes gliding in the deep sea.
“Belthandros has done something he cannot take back,” said Niranthe. “Get downstairs, Talasseres. We need to consider our next move.”
Tal was still collecting his wits, about to say that he wanted no part of the next move, whatever it was, that he hadn’t changed his mind just because Sethennai had done something awful. Then, out of the general noise of Charossai retreating, there came a piercing scream, rising and falling with abject horror. A child, Tal thought. He stumbled in the direction of the noise. It was coming from the fountain dais.
The fountain was now dry, thickly encrusted with white drifts of salt. Lying among the soft, spiky crystals was the dead body of the hippocamp, withered almost to mummification. The creature’s strange skeleton was visible through the dry skin, already sloughing away. One of the little cousins was staring down at it, her mouth open in an unending wail.
“Yeah, you and me both,” Tal muttered.
Dragging his eyes from the grisly corpse of the hippocamp, Tal saw that the wreaths of grapes had withered black. The golden dishes were flecked with patches of grey-green encrustation as though infected. The wedges of honeycomb were dark and crumbling.
His mother seemed not to have noticed. She scooped the little girl up over her shoulder and followed the others inside. Reluctantly, Tal went after her.
Perhaps to Niranthos’ disappointment, there were no aftershocks. Dozens of Charossai gathered in the grand parlour of the mansion and talked loudly at each other, their panic already filming over with theories. Tal loitered at the edge, thinking about how to slip away and get to the docks without being harassed.
For a second his treacherous brain started trying to imagine what Sethennai could have done, but as soon as he caught himself, he banished the thought. Not his problem anymore.
“Some of us ought to go up to the School and find out what we can about what’s happened,” said Tal’s mother. She had a way of making herself heard in a crowded room without raising her voice.
“Agreed,” said Niranthos. “In these circumstances the city looks to the great families to show leadership. Talasseres and I will be happy to go.”
The crowd parted, encircling Tal, and they all peered at him, most only just registering that he was here. Tal saw exactly what Niranthos was doing, and it made him furious. Even an emergency could be made to serve the grand plan. This was just another step toward the ultimate goal of forcing Tal to fight a duel.
If Niranthos had smirked at him, it would almost have been bearable, but his expression was bland. He hadn’t even considered the idea that, when it came to it, Tal might do something other than exactly what he was told.
“Actually, nah,” said Tal.
“Sorry?” said Niranthos. The crowd started up talking again, and Tal raised his voice, making sure they all heard.
“No, thanks,” said Tal. “Sure, you’ll have a great time playing Niranthos Charossa Shows Leadership, maybe they’ll put up a fucking statue of you with your head up your arse, but this is not my problem. Maybe you weren’t listening before. I’m not getting involved.”
He didn’t wait to see his mother’s face or hear his brother’s response. He turned and elbowed his way out of the room as the noise rose around him.
It had been a mistake to come back, Tal thought, throwing his bag over his shoulder. He should have left earlier. God, and if his mother was right and Sethennai was at the School of Transcendence, Tal would rather die. He never wanted to see him again.
He strapped his sword belt back on and strode out of the mansion. The streets were empty, but they hummed with a restless silence, the sudden absence of hundreds of people. Abandoned festival stalls listed, shedding their canopies. The swags of flowers hanging from facade to facade had sagged and given way. A heavy fall of rotten petals had splattered on the paving stones. The plant matter left clinging to the twine was slimy and unrecognisable. The wind dried the sweat on the back of Tal’s neck. He shivered, but pressed on. He didn’t look back at the School of Transcendence, at the angry swirl of cloud massing above the dome.
He kept his head down, not wanting to be recognised. For so long he’d been the knife in the Chancellor’s hand. There were plenty of people who would know his face. He needn’t have worried. All the way down to the docklands, the city was quiet. Those he passed hurried on without looking at him.
Halfway there he passed a priest of the Siren wandering in the opposite direction. The man’s face was buried in his hands, the breeze whipping his robe of office around his ankles. Tal thought he might have been sobbing, but it could have been the wind.
At last he saw the quays from above. Cutters waited like pigeons on a wire, and great ships rested in their mooring cradles. Beyond them, the city wall and the Gate-fortress and the Gate itself, looming like the memory of a bad dream. The fortress in particular was a reminder of what happened to you if you let yourself get drawn into your family’s stupid infighting. Locked away with two hundred mercenaries and General Psamag.
He dragged his eyes away. He’d got himself out of the fortress, and he’d learned his lesson since.
The quays were closed, and so were the city gates. A cluster of soldiers and port administrators were directing a crowd of would-be passengers, and a barrier had been constructed to block their way. Tal could see the great round-bellied ships in their cradles, but nobody was getting on or off. Overhead, beyond the mailship quay and above the bulk of the fortress, the Gate gleamed, bright and still and undisturbed as a green glass coin, and patrolled by a military vessel. Nobody would be leaving Tlaanthothe until they had sorted out the disturbance at the School of Transcendence.
Tal cursed. He couldn’t stay. He had almost no money left—only his return ticket for the mailship. If his mother was right and things were about to go bad, soon everyone would be trying to get out of Tlaanthothe, and Tal intended to be gone before that happened.
There were no good options. Go back into the city and hide, try to get over the wall without being noticed by the soldiers…
The Gate-fortress loomed over his shoulder again, reminding him that there was at least one other way out of Tlaanthothe. Long ago he’d escaped from the Gate-fortress through the tunnels under the city, and he remembered how to find the entrance, hidden in a park at the bottom of Broad Street.
The park had been decorated for the festival, with huge cheaply printed banners depicting the Siren as a shapely mermaid riding a hippocamp. Most people did not know what it was that stood alone in the windowless dark of the Inner Chapel, and the mermaids were a Midsummer tradition. The banners flapped in the breeze, discoloured as though eaten up with mildew. A few trestle tables had blown over, their tablecloths looking just as filthy. Another priest was crouched under a tree, his head buried in his arms. This time Tal was sure of what he heard. The man was openly weeping.
Well, no use wondering about that. Tal made his way down an avenue of cypresses toward the hidden stairway. Csorwe and Sethennai certainly knew about the tunnels, but Tal had never told anyone else. It was his own secret knowledge, won through a series of indignities, to be kept to himself. Inside it was cool and damp, a flight of steps descending through darkness to the catacombs below. Only now it occurred to him that Sethennai might have had the place walled up or filled in, but when he reached the bottom, it was just as it had been, an ancient underground boulevard built through a natural cave system. Maybe it suited Sethennai to have a secret escape route.
He retrieved his alchemical torch from his bag and let out a long breath. He’d done it. He was almost out. The tunnel let out into the desert. Not ideal but better than being trapped in here with Niranthos and Sethennai and thousands of other people he hated, and he might have better luck finding a cutter. He could go north through the desert to Grey Hook, or to one of the lesser Gates in the south. It would be several days’ journey, but each day would at least take him further from Tlaanthothe and everything that lurked inside it.
He turned a corner, and the beam of his torch fell on a cloaked figure, inspecting something on the ground.
It was a woman, wrapped up against the chill of the caves. She leant on her staff as she stood up to face him, and he thought she must be very old. Then she pulled back her hood and Tal recognised her. She couldn’t yet be forty, but her dark hair was shot with grey. There was a malevolent gleam in her pale yellow eyes, and her expression dangled at the exact midpoint between amusement and exasperation.
“You,” he said. “Aren’t you dead yet?”
Oranna’s silver-capped tusks glinted. “The grave calls, but it does not yet demand.”
Oh, fuck off, Tal thought, but all he said was “What are you doing here?”
“The same thing you are, I imagine. Leaving a sinking ship.”
Oranna was the former librarian of the House of Silence. She had been Csorwe’s teacher and Belthandros Sethennai’s lover, and she remained Tal’s least favourite person in the world. She always reminded him of his teachers at the Academy, poised ready to spring when he said something stupid. He ignored her and took a step forward, and she raised a hand.
“I wouldn’t. The path is sealed.”
He couldn’t see what she meant at first. Then he spotted the thin silvery line of marks inscribed from wall to wall across the tiled floor. Tal had stumbled blindly into a curse-ward before, and he didn’t care to repeat the experience.
“For a generally careless man, Belthandros is always so diligent when it’s least convenient,” said Oranna. She knelt again, lowering herself carefully to the ground, and poked at the markings with a small metal pointer. “Nasty piece of work.”
After a couple of years living next door to Shuthmili, Tal knew what someone sounded like when they were doing a bad job hiding their anxiety. Something had Oranna ruffled. Normally Tal would have enjoyed this, but he didn’t want to imagine what it might be.
Oranna picked and scratched at the curse-ward on the ground, and after a few minutes straightened up. The curse-ward fizzled away, and she rubbed out the remnants with her foot. “Right. Time to get going.”
Tal didn’t know what to say to this. Even looking at Oranna filled him with a mute loathing, and the fact that she didn’t seem to hold it against him made it worse. He wanted to come up with something really devastating to say. Tell her to slither back to whatever hole she’d crawled out of.
“God, piss off,” was all he managed.
Oranna raised an eyebrow at him, and set off down the tunnel ahead of him, moving surprisingly fast. “Things in Tlaanthothe are about to get very bad indeed,” she called back to him. “The Siren is dead, and Belthandros is gone, and I do not like the implications of that. But don’t let me stop you if you really want to stay.”
“That’s dumb,” said Tal, catching up to her. “Gods can’t die.” He felt very sure as he said it, and then he remembered the shrivelled hippocamp in the fountain, the priests weeping in the streets. “The Siren was a big rock! What happened, did someone break in with a pickaxe?”
“The obelisk is still in the chamber, an inert chunk of mineral matter,” said Oranna grimly. “But the divinity who dwelt within it is extinguished. As the Unspoken teaches us, all things have their end.”
“Sethennai wouldn’t leave Tlaanthothe,” said Tal.
“There is nothing Belthandros Sethennai would not leave behind if it served him. He has a sentimental attachment to the city, but nothing weighs with him more than his own safety,” said Oranna. For once there was no twist of amusement at the corner of her mouth. Whenever she wasn’t smiling there were lines of pain on her face. Under her cloak, her dress was dusty and much mended, and her hands were rough with exposure. Tal noticed without pity that she was missing the little finger of her left hand. “There was no sign of him at the Chancellor’s palace this morning, nor anywhere else in the city,” she went on.
“What are you doing in Tlaanthothe, anyway?” said Tal.
“Visiting Belthandros for the Midsummer Festival,” said Oranna.
“What, did he invite you?” said Tal. He’d only ever worked security. He’d never been a guest.
“Regardless of who was or was not ‘invited,’ he wasn’t there. I missed him. He’s gone. Probably gone this way, in fact, given the curse-ward here.”
“His own safety? You think he’s in danger?” said Tal, recalling too late that he didn’t care about Sethennai or the Siren or anything that happened in Tlaanthothe. The idea of Sethennai in trouble, suffering somewhere, out of control, was both unpleasant and interesting, like the itch of a bandaged wound.
“I do,” said Oranna. “And anything that can threaten him is a problem for all of us.” She shuffled on down the tunnel, her staff tapping on the ancient tiles. Tal thought she relied on staff more than she would admit.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said.
She grinned at him. “You’re not the first to ask. Where to begin? My old friend Cweren once told me I have an offensively instrumental attitude towards others—”
“Yes, I know perfectly well what you mean, and I must say you take rudeness beyond what is charming. I have the mage-blight, and I am dying of it. I watched my teachers at the House of Silence succumb, one after another. Joint and muscle pain, chills, fatigue, fragile bones, incoherence, and death. Much to look forward to.”
Tal, as usual, recoiled from discussion of mortality. He was twenty-five years old and did not need this. Nor did he know what to say. Even to someone you justifiably loathed, there was probably some way you were supposed to respond to I’m dying that wasn’t good thing you like tombs so much. Luckily for him, Oranna wasn’t finished.
“If one were a weak talent—someone like my old friend Cweren, for instance—perhaps one could tolerate having the power and not using it. One might live most of a normal span. But whatever else might be wrong with me, I am not mediocre. I have perhaps two years left. Three if I restrain myself, but I do not plan to restrain myself. Nor do I plan to get myself killed by whatever is after Belthandros. There is too much to do.”
The passage had begun to curve up, and sunlight was filtering down ahead, picking out the striations in the stone in bands of gold.
“You are still in touch with Qanwa Shuthmili?” said Oranna. “You’d better take me to her.”
“What?” said Tal. He liked Shuthmili, which was odd since she was exactly the kind of wispy supercilious pedant he’d always hated, but he couldn’t imagine she would be pleased to have Oranna turn up on their doorstep. On the other hand, it might be worth it for the look on Csorwe’s face…“Why? Why should I?”
“Why: when I tell her what happened here, she will help me find Belthandros. Why should you: if I am right, and some ancient power has arisen to rampage in Tlaanthothe, then you would do well to find a powerful mage and stand behind her.”
“So you are going to find him?” said Tal, trying to ignore that last part. “To help him?”
He’d meant to sound scornful—Sethennai was beyond helping, and running around after him was pathetic—but it came out plaintive.
Oranna stepped out of the tunnel and into the afternoon sun. “Find him? Yes. I have business with him,” she said. “Help him? That depends.”
Excerpted from The Thousand Eyes, copyright © 2022 by A.K. Larkwood