A remarkable story of power and friendship, of trust and betrayal, and of the families we choose.
We’re thrilled to share an extended excerpt Witch King, the first new fantasy from author Martha Wells in over a decade—available May 30th from Tordotcom Publishing. Read the first three chapters below, or download a sneak peak preview for your preferred ereader here!
After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well.
But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence?
Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.
He’s not going to like the answers.
Waking was floating to the surface of a soft world of water, not what Kai had expected. Reaching out in that darkness, he found a cold, black sea ebbing and flowing, dropping away like a tide rolling out. Something was wrong with his body, everything was impossibly distant. He stretched out a thought and called, Ziede?
She was slow to answer, her voice low and strange. He couldn’t see her. She whispered, I’m sleeping, Kai.
You’re not sleeping, you’re talking to me. He should know where she was, he always knew where she was, she had a drop of his blood hardened into a red pearl buried in her heart.
I told you not to wake… She stopped. Her languid voice turned alert and urgent. Kai. Where am I? I can’t move.
None of this made sense. He reached out as far as he could stretch, searching for something, anything solid. He made his inner voice sound calm, though a sinking sensation told him he wouldn’t like the answers to any of his questions. I’m not sure where I am, either, he told Ziede. Some terrible revelation loomed but he kept it at bay; better to just focus on finding her. He pulled in the parts of himself that drifted in the dark water that perhaps wasn’t water, to concentrate his being back into his own body. Except his body wasn’t there.
Kai squelched a spike of panic. Panic had to be postponed.
Her mental voice astringent, Ziede said, Take your time, Kai. Wherever I am, I can’t see, I can’t move. I’m breathing, but I can’t feel… I can’t feel my chest move. He could hear the suppressed fear as she added, I can’t find Tahren, she doesn’t answer.
Something had cut them off from the outside world. He told her, Don’t try to move. Just wait. If Kai could think, he wasn’t helpless.
He pulled all his focus in until the black sea yielded and resolved into dark stone walls, a large circular chamber, water running down from the upper shadows. Mossy weeds furred the gaps between the stones, light crept in from somewhere behind him. He needed to move, but swimming around in the air as an amorphous cloud was new and deeply disconcerting. He imagined his body around him, pulled his arms in, and spun himself to look down.
At his own body.
It lay on a raised plinth in a glass coffin box. His face was visible, the rest wrapped in dark fabric. His cheeks, the flesh below his eyes, were drawn and sunken but still recognizable. It’s been months… maybe a year? If someone had done this to him, what had they done to Ziede?
Ziede, you said you can’t move, can’t see. In this terrifying, unfamiliar place, there was no other box, nothing large enough to conceal her. The water drained away through diagonal vents in the floor. Water. It must have filled the chamber to keep Kai inside his inert body. When the level dropped he had been able to drift out and wake. Insubstantial, he had no sense of motion, so was the chamber lifting up out of the water? And what did it matter when Ziede might be entombed alive and he had no way to release her. He groped for some way to get more information. What do you smell?
Nothing but fabric… Like old silk? She added, Kai, what is this? Where are we?
I don’t know. She was sealed inside something, possibly a silk-lined casket. He would have closed his eyes in despair if his eyes hadn’t been rotting in the glass coffin below. Ziede, I’m afraid we’re… He hesitated. Something had caused the water to run out of this bizarre burial chamber.
Something was coming.
Soundless, the curved wall across from the plinth split, allowing in a narrow column of muted blue light. Figures spilled through, dim and distant. It was hard to focus in this insubstantial form. Five human shapes, who dragged two bundles—bodies—behind them.
They dumped their burdens on the floor near the curved wall. The smaller body kicked, struggled, was kicked back, and subsided to huddle against the wall. The other lay in a still heap.
Kai scented death on that limp form. He thought of Ziede, trapped and helpless unless he could find her, and the pain of it gave him a spark of power.
The body was empty, the occupant flown, but warmth still radiated from the flesh. Just enough. Kai spun again, concentrated his whole being inward, and fell through the void toward that warmth.
Sound, color, and sensation roared back in a wave, aching joints, the grind of a bone in the wrong place, raw and burning throat, damp fabric clinging to long awkward limbs. But the pain generated a restorative well of power that burst through this new flesh.
Kai pushed himself up on his hands and lifted his head, dragged in a stabbing breath. Dark curls hung past his shoulders, tangled in a heavy veil of metal and fabric. The skin on his hands was a familiar warm brown. He wore a long dark skirt and tunic, a common variation on traditional eastern clothing. But there was nothing under it, and it was stained with blood and worse. He gasped in another lungful of air, damp, stale with mold and rot. He had lost his sense of Ziede, but that should be temporary. He hoped it was temporary, but the way this day was going so far he wouldn’t count on it.
The mortals examined the glass coffin. One prodded at the lid. Kai hadn’t completely settled into his new brain yet and he couldn’t understand their speech.
Four wore clothing like the mariners along the southeastern archipelagoes, wide cotton pants gathered at the ankles, short open jackets, and broad leather belts. Two also wore the long knee-length shirts more common to women of that area. Their skin was pale under the weathering and their light-colored hair was straight and long, pinned or tied back. The fifth person had the same looks but was older, and wore richer garments, a red knee-length coat over a long dark tunic and skirt, the glitter of silver chains and onyx ornaments hanging from his belt. Kai smelled an expositor, and the man’s complacent and predatory demeanor confirmed it.
Words started to make sense again. The person huddled next to Kai was whispering, “You were dead.”
His new body’s memories were patchy and staccato, fading fast, but one whispered, A little girl, too young to be here. With the painful weight of the metal veil tugging at his head, Kai had to crane his neck to see her. She was small, dressed in a ragged filthy shirt and pants cropped at the knee, too light for the dank chill in the room. Tight curls were hacked off close to her head, and her skin was a dark brown. Eastern coast, maybe. She had spoken in Imperial Arike, which as the dominant trade language didn’t narrow it down, and he didn’t recognize her accent.
The temporary power well created by Kai’s own pain restored his new body: bones knit and shifted back into place, a burst organ pulled itself together, the broken nose clicked into alignment, splintered pieces of jawbone grew into new teeth with a jabbing burst of pain that almost collapsed him to the floor. He breathed through it until his blood stopped bubbling, then shoved his jaw back until it clicked and held. He whispered, “Do we know each other?”
She flinched like she would have recoiled, if she wasn’t more afraid of attracting attention. Wide-eyed, she shook her head. “Not… Not really. Your eyes…”
Kai dragged the veil forward, just enough to conceal the top half of his face. “It’s for the best. He’s—She? They? Aren’t here anymore.”
The girl’s breath hitched. She understood, but she didn’t want to. “I thought… but they beat you… him to death.”
From the other side of the room, the expositor said, “Get the girl.”
A mariner turned and strode toward them. He leaned down to grab for the girl, saying, “Guess you get to go first.”
Kai lunged. The man grabbed him instead and dragged him to his feet. Once he was holding Kai up he stared, startled. A woman mariner protested, “No, not that one! The other.”
“I thought he was dead,” someone else said.
They were speaking Imperial Arike, too; the expositor correctly and the mariners with a thick accent and slurred vowels. Kai said, “Oh, please, take me! I want to go first.” He wrenched out of the man’s grip and staggered on unsteady legs toward his coffin. Catching himself on the corner of the plinth, he leaned back against it, facing this very unlucky group of tomb-pillagers. “To bring him back, right?” He jerked his head toward his old body, wincing as the heavy veil yanked at his scalp. “I don’t have a lot of time, so let’s just get this over with.”
Another mariner laughed and drew a long knife. He said, “He’ll be dead enough now.” He had a shallow prettiness that didn’t reach past his tawny skin. A name came to Kai, a fragment of memory engraved into this brain in agony, reluctant to fade. This mariner was Tarrow, who had pretended to be kind at first so his betrayal would hurt more.
Between the shadowy room and the veil, the mortals couldn’t see Kai’s face clearly. But the expositor stared, his gaze sharpening into the edge of horrified realization. He said, “Wait.”
But Tarrow was eager to cause more hurt. He stepped forward and stabbed Kai through the chest. Kai fell back against the plinth. The pain blacked out his vision, the steel cleaving already abused flesh.
As Tarrow moved away, Kai grabbed the blade. The edge cut into his fingers as he pulled it out. He tossed it aside, ignoring the brief gush of blood down his chest as his flesh wove itself back together. The new power well blossoming under his skin pulsed like a second heart. “Now,” Kai said, grinning as he shoved the veil aside. “Which one of you wants to go first?”
No one was laughing now. The chamber was utterly still except for the drip and gurgle of draining water.
“Come here, Tarrow,” Kai said, focusing his will, his smile pulling at tendon and bone that was still tender after its restoration. Caught like a petal in amber, Tarrow took stiff steps toward him, resisting with all his mental strength, which sadly for him was not nearly adequate. Kai brought him close enough that he could easily grip his throat. He said, “Tell me, did you know his name? This one’s name, that you brought here to die?”
Tarrow made a choking noise. The expositor tried to cast an intention, something to bind Kai’s new body. But the pain of being stabbed had filled Kai with terrible power and he caught the intention as it formed. He turned it back, spending most of his temporary strength to trap the expositor and the other mariners where they stood. They struggled uselessly, unable to move their feet or draw weapons. One whimpered, which almost made Kai crush Tarrow’s throat in reflex before he was ready, which would have been a waste. With an edge of panic, another said, “Menlas, you said you could master him—”
“Shut up!” Fighting to move, his voice rough with shock and desperation, the expositor Menlas said, “We brought you offerings! We appeal to—”
“You brought me a child and a youth so close to death he didn’t last a heartbeat past the threshold of this room. Did you think to coax me into a weak, helpless body so I’d be your slave?” Kai laughed, a raspy sound hampered by his still regrowing lung tissue. From the expression on Menlas’ face, Kai knew he was close to the truth. “That isn’t how this works, expositor.” Then he peeled Tarrow’s soul from his body and ate his life.
A heartbeat later Kai let the withered husk drop to the floor.
The others broke like twigs. The screaming and pleading was noisy and irritating, more so from mortals who had not bothered to listen to the screaming and pleading of their own captives. Kai took the first two quickly, to replenish the power he had spent to trap them. Then he let the expositor and the last mariner loose to try to run, just because Kai found himself still surprisingly angry and he wanted to let it all out before he had to be rational again. The heavy veil, still stuck in his hair and torturing his scalp, wasn’t helping.
When the last mariner was a dry heap of desiccated flesh and Kai was sitting on the expositor’s chest, he asked, “Who put me here?”
Menlas shook his head wildly, gasping.
Maybe Kai had phrased the question badly. “Who did this to me? Who put me in this tomb? And how did you know I was here?”
“I can’t—The stories said—I—” And then the idiot’s heart started to seize up.
Exasperated, Kai drained his life before the man expired and wasted it.
He pushed to his feet, briskly shaking out his skirt. “All done,” he told the girl. She was shivering, still huddled against the wall, but she had watched every moment. He kicked the nearest woman’s body over and stripped the long shirt off it. He tossed it to her. “Put that on and get up. I’m not going to eat you, we’re friends.”
She caught the shirt, then dragged it on over her head. She stumbled to her feet, which were bare, dirty, and marked with cuts and mottled bruises. “What… What are you going to—”
“I have to find someone.” Kai leaned over another desiccated body, tore open the laces of its wrap boots and dragged them off, then tossed them to the girl. His sense of Ziede’s presence grew at the edge of his awareness. But it was still hard to tell her direction. “Was there another coffin? Did you see one?”
The girl picked up the boots, trailing after him to the doorway, unsteady and still trembling. She answered, “No. I just saw the stairwell.”
Kai stepped through the opening in the wall. It led to a passage, blue light coming from polished stones set in the rounded ceiling. The powerful web of intentions that had gone into constructing this place was written into every handspan of rock. Someone had taken an already existing structure and modified it for their purpose. The passage curved around a solid column and turned into a set of upward stairs, water still running down over worn white stone. The girl said, “Do you have to do that to people to live?”
“No,” Kai told her. “I did it because I wanted to. And bad people taste better than good ones.” He held out his hand.
She looked up at him, brown eyes wide in the dim light, bruised and sunken from hunger. Then she took his hand. Her skin was cold with shock.
Tugging her along after him, he climbed the spiral of steps up until the well opened into a broad hall, the high ceiling dotted with more of the blue glowstones. At the end was a clear curved bubble of crystal, looking out into dull gray-green water.
From the fish swimming by, this place stood in a large body of water, and now that Kai had a working nose, he could smell salt, as if over years it had seeped into the seals between the stones. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make certain he wouldn’t wake enough to escape his corpse. The other walls were set with large square carvings, like decorative frames around doorways, but the plaques in the center were empty. He led the girl around the central pillar to see the stairs curved up the far side. “What is this place?” he asked.
“An island, but like a tower, all made of stone,” the girl said. She rubbed at her bloody nose and winced. “They brought us in through the top. What are—”
Kai held up a finger for silence. His sense of Ziede was stronger here, on this end of the hall. He focused on the slender thread that tied him to the pearl in her heart. Ziede?
Still here. Her voice was bleak, under tight control.
He let go of the girl’s hand and went methodically along the wall. Each carved panel was part of the intention woven through this place. Nothing lived behind them, but there was a sensation of a cavity or hidden chamber in the stone. Empty cavities, with nothing stored inside, not even decaying bodies. She has to be here.
Then on the far side of the chamber, he felt an occupied void, the weight of something large and heavy filling the space. He could get through the thin layer of polished stone with a heavy tool if he could find one, but first he tried the easy way. He felt along the carvings of shellfish and water snakes for a catch or a seam. Crouching to run his fingers along the lower edge, Kai found a small depression; when he pushed it, a dull thump sounded from inside.
Kai stood and backed away, almost stepping on the girl, who had been hovering close behind him. It said interesting things about her character, or maybe her recent past, that she found him less terrifying than anything else that might be in this place.
The panel cracked and crumbled and the plaster clattered to the floor. Resting inside the cavity was a dark marbled coffin box on a smooth stone bed. Kai grabbed the curved end and pulled. A clanking counterweight caught and the whole slid out of the sepulcher. There was no glass lid, the top was rounded carved stone. Kai found the seam and shoved with almost all his strength. The lid flew off and hit the floor with an ear-shattering crack.
Ziede lay inside.
Her eyes were closed. He put his hand on her forehead. She was alive, warm and alive. She hadn’t aged or altered in any way he could see; she had the same deep brown skin, high forehead, and long straight nose, her dark hair drawn back in dozens of braided rows the way she preferred to wear it. She was dressed for a ceremony or a celebration, in red the color of arterial blood, a draped tunic of close-fitting silk. Kai found the shape of the intention that held her life in suspension; a gentle twist snapped it.
Her chest moved as she drew a sharp breath. He slid his arms under her and lifted her free of the box. Her eyes fluttered open and she grabbed his shoulders, nails digging into his neck. He was almost choking with relief and it made his voice thick. “You’re safe, Ziede.”
She blinked, startled to be looking at an unfamiliar face. As awareness came into her gaze, Kai slowly set her on her feet, keeping hold of her arms to steady her.
They were the same height now. His old body had been shorter, and he was used to tilting his head to look up at her. She touched his cheek. “Is that you in there?” Then she answered her own question. “Yes, that’s you. Did they kill you?”
“Somebody did.” He was still so relieved it was hard to think. He tapped the edge of Ziede’s stone bier. “They put me into one of these.”
Ziede looked at the niche where she had been entombed alive and her shoulders hunched. “I don’t remember how we got here.” She frowned down at herself. “I don’t remember owning these clothes.”
“I don’t remember how we got here either.” Kai rubbed her arms. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” She steadied herself and took a deep breath. “So we have no idea how long… ?”
“I looked like I’d been dead around a year.” He turned to the girl. He and Ziede had been speaking in Saredi, the first mortal tongue Kai had ever learned, and he switched to Imperial Arike so the girl could understand. “Is Bashat bar Calis of Benais-arik still leader of the Rising World?”
“I guess?” she said. She had seated herself on the floor to pull the boots on, biting her lip as she wrapped the leather flaps over bruises and broken toes. “That’s the name on the coins?”
Not helpful. Kai persisted, “Do you know the month in Imperial reckoning?”
Her forehead furrowed in thought. “It was the end of the third solar month. Almost the end. They hadn’t changed the marker on the calendar tower. And it took about five days to get here.”
“Close enough.” Reassured, Kai turned back to Ziede. “Can you get this out of my head?” He pointed to the tangle of fabric and gem-bedecked chains stuck in his hair. Giving her something constructive to do would help ground her, and also he really needed to get rid of the awful thing.
Ziede turned him around and prodded the lump where the veil was wound up. “Is it embedded in your skull?” She had followed his lead, speaking in Imperial Arike.
“It feels like it.” The pull on his scalp made him want to kill at least ten more mariners and expositors together, possibly by skinning them alive, if he couldn’t think of anything worse.
“It’s just a chain veil,” the girl said, pulling at her boot laces to make them fit.
“Who is this?” Ziede asked him, exasperated as her fingernails picked at the tiny tangled chains.
“She’s new.” He wanted to relax into Ziede’s careful touch as she unwound his hair from the decorative torture device, but there was still no time.
“I’m Sanja,” the girl said, getting to her feet. “I don’t want to be here.”
“She’s Sanja,” he explained to Ziede. “They brought her as a sacrifice.” Probably Menlas had meant to kill her to power whatever intention he planned to use to bind Kai. Menlas had apparently known just enough to be dangerous, mostly to himself.
“Hello, Sanja. Do either of us look like we want to be here?” Ziede asked her.
“No.” Sanja lifted her chin defiantly, but there was a little tremble in her voice. “Did you bring me for her? If she needed a new body?”
Ziede’s laugh was harsh. “I can’t step into a new body, alive or dead. That’s Kai’s trick.”
Kai told her, “That’s why we had to find Ziede while she was still breathing.” Sanja still seemed too much in shock to look relieved, she just breathed out a little and fiddled with the sleeve of her new shirt. Kai continued, “You said you couldn’t reach Tahren.”
“I’ve been trying this whole time.” Ziede’s voice sounded calm and sure, unless you knew her well enough to hear the emotion underneath. Tahren had a heart pearl from Ziede, and even if they were too far apart to use them to speak, she should have some sense of her presence.
If Tahren had also been attacked, their situation was even worse than it looked. Kai said, “Tahren’s not here, no one else is here.”
Her hands stilled for a moment, then continued to unwind the chains. “If Tahren was free, she would have come for us. She would tear the world apart to find us. Dahin… Dahin wouldn’t just leave us either.”
Kai’s throat went tight. Dahin might be estranged from Tahren, but he wasn’t from Kai and Ziede. And no matter how much he and Tahren might argue, Dahin would still protect her, and Tahren would still destroy anything that tried to hurt him. But that didn’t mean they were dead. “All we know is that they aren’t here. Something could be obscuring Tahren’s pearl. She could be looking for us, she could be protecting the others at home. We won’t know until we can get some idea of what happened.”
With that false calm, Ziede said, “If they’ve touched one hair on Tahren’s stubborn head, I will slaughter them.” With one more tug, the chain veil came free. Ziede tossed it to the floor and ran her fingers through Kai’s loose curls, shaking the tangles out.
“We’ll slaughter them.” Kai rubbed his aching head, already feeling the tension in his back and neck ease. “Where do you come from, Sanja?”
“The Mouth of the Sea of Flowers. They bought us both.” She hesitated. She was hugging herself, but her trembling had eased. “Why didn’t you ask me my name before?”
“I didn’t want it until you were ready to give it to me.” At least Kai knew where the Sea of Flowers was, just not in relation to where they were now. The Mouth was a free city outside the Rising World’s reach, the last surviving fragment of the lands of the Nehush. It had been resettled by sea raiders after the war had left it nearly deserted, but now it was a well-traveled port again. It was still an ideal place for an expositor to hide. “They came here from the Mouth in a boat?”
“In a shell-whale.” Sanja shrugged thin shoulders. “I’d never seen one close-up before.”
“Huh. So Menlas the expositor must have been a powerful sorcerer.”
“I guess he thought he was,” Sanja said, a trace of dryness in her tone.
Scratching his liberated scalp vigorously, Kai said, “You two wait here. I’m going back to search the bodies. Ziede, I’ll get you some clothes.”
As he started away, Ziede said, “Kai. You should check your heart for a pearl.”
He hesitated and shook his head. “It’s not there, Ziede.”
“Prove that to me, Kai,” she persisted as he walked away. “Prove it.”
The best thing about draining the life from the mariners was that they had all died without soiling their clothes. Kai searched all five, took some of their clothing for Ziede, and set out the weapons and other objects they had carried with them for closer examination. There was no food, so hopefully the crew had brought plenty of supplies on their craft. Kai didn’t need to eat very often but Ziede got cranky when she didn’t and Sanja looked underfed.
Kai’s new body was short on clothing and the tunic was badly stained. He took the skirt and the close-fitting leggings that the expositor Menlas had worn, and the fine long-sleeved tunic that came down to his knees. He cinched it with a mariner’s leather belt and had to bind the overlong sleeves up so they wouldn’t fall over his hands, but otherwise it was comfortable. He took a braided silk cord that probably had some great significance to Menlas’ family or culture and used it to tie back the section of his hair that most wanted to fall forward into his face.
Then he gathered everything useful or pretty out of the pile of belongings and scooped it all into an empty bag one of the women had brought, obviously hoping for loot. He should have taken it and gone back to Ziede and Sanja, but he found himself standing there. Facing his body.
Ziede’s wrong, he thought. There’s no pearl in my heart. I don’t have to look. And they didn’t have time. A tomb so carefully constructed undoubtedly had alarms attached to it. Someone would know they were free.
But he went to the glass box and, with a little tendril of power, broke the design that sealed it. Trapped foul air hissed out as he lifted the lid.
It was strange, and not pleasant, to see himself this way. He hadn’t been born into this body, but he had been in it for a long time, so long he had almost forgotten what it was to be anything else. Like Ziede, he didn’t recognize the clothes he was wearing, the coarse gauzy fabric of the shroud, the plain dark coat beneath. He had been entombed with no jewelry, nothing that should accompany an Arike noble’s grave.
He took the knife that Tarrow had stabbed him with and used it to cut through the shroud and coat, then the skin of his chest, and the rotting flesh beneath.
There, in the center of his heart, was a silver-white pearl.
When Kai returned, Sanja was explaining about Menlas and telling Ziede what had happened in the tomb below. “He said he was going to enslave a great demon, make him a familiar.”
“Yes, that’s what all the idiots think,” Ziede told her.
“I brought clothes.” Kai dropped them on Ziede’s slab and pushed a pile toward Sanja. “Pick out what you want.”
Ziede tugged at the waist of her draped tunic in frustration. “I don’t know how to get out of this thing. I think I’m sewn into it.”
Sanja took a half step toward her, meaning to help, but Kai just handed her the knife. Ziede took it and started methodically hacking the clothing off her body. She clearly needed to hack at something for a while to retain her composure.
Watching her, Kai said, “Ziede, you were right.”
Distracted, she sliced the tunic up the front. “I usually am. What is it this time?”
“I looked. The pearl was there.”
He expected her to say some variation on I knew it was there, I told you it was there. But she went still, staring at him, her gaze troubled. “I thought… I thought you would come back and tell me I was wrong.” Her mouth went thin, holding back emotion, and she took the knife to her tunic again. “I wanted to be wrong.”
Kai looked at the floor, not wanting to see her expression, especially if it was sympathetic. Sanja had pulled on a pair of mariner’s pants under the shirt he had given her earlier. Watching them with wary confusion, she said, “How can you have something in your heart and not die?”
Kai sighed. He felt like an idiot, a betrayed idiot. There was an answering flash of memory from what was left of his body’s previous occupant, and an image of the pretty Tarrow. “That’s a good question. A better one is ‘How could I have a pearl in my heart and not know.’”
“I have one,” Ziede told Sanja. The tunic finally came off and she dropped the remnants to the floor and kicked it away as if it were a vicious snake. “From Kai, for protection. He gave it to me and I swallowed it.”
Kai told her, “Put clothes on, you’ll get chilled.” He pulled out another pair of pants, a tunic, and Menlas’ red coat to hand to her.
“Who put the pearl there?” Sanja asked. She had rolled up the pant legs to fit and looked even more like the child she was.
Ziede was methodically dressing. Her voice was hard. “Someone we thought was a friend.”
There were no lights in the upper part of the curving stone stairwell, so Kai called an imp the size of a dragonfly and they followed its darting glow upward. The higher they climbed, the more the air had the faint scent of fresh salt wind. Behind him, Ziede was interrogating Sanja.
“When we got here it was night, but they waited until morning.” Sanja huffed critically. “I guess they thought it was safer.”
Ziede asked, “How did this Menlas get in? Was there a key of some sort?”
“If there was, I didn’t see.” Sanja took a sharp breath. She had been veering between tough ageless street rat and badly scarred child. Her voice wavered. “They were hitting… him.”
Kai paused and looked down at her. The flitting imp’s white light washed the color out of her face. It would make it impossible to see his expression. “What was his name?”
She bit her lip. “I never knew. They gave us poppy, I think. It made me sick and they got angry because I kept throwing up. They kept taking him away, I guess he was trying to fight them? We never had a chance to say much to each other.”
Kai turned back to the climb. Now that the body’s memories had faded, he would never know anything more about the former occupant. Of all the things he had to be angry about at this moment, it should be a minor consideration. But it wasn’t.
Maybe because he had been in his last body so long. He had taken it from an enemy, not been forced to accept an unwilling sacrifice. He could have taken longer to kill Menlas and his hirelings, but it wasn’t like punishment ever fixed anything. Kai had been punished by eager experts, and it had just made him more determined. “Did the mariners say much about the expositor? Did they know him well?”
“Maybe? We were down in the bottom of the shell, and he never came in there with them, so I didn’t see them talk to each other.” After a moment of consideration, Sanja added, “But I think they didn’t like him much. Maybe they thought they were going to steal whatever he found and then kill him. Maybe he was going to kill them, once he didn’t need them anymore.”
“Probably,” Kai said absently. He thought she was getting away from the facts of what she had seen and heard and into made-up stories about her captors’ motivations; it wouldn’t help to question her further unless she remembered something specific. Even if her stories might be close to the truth, since expositors didn’t get to be powerful without standing atop a large pile of victims and betrayed subordinates.
Still focused on the mechanics of the tomb’s construction, Ziede asked, “How did the water drain from the lower part of the tower?”
Sanja said, “I didn’t see. We were in the stairwell, then Menlas told them to bring us in, and the water was running everywhere.” She hesitated, then asked, “Why was the water there? He was dead in the glass box. Sort of dead?”
“Do you know who I am, Sanja?” Kai asked. From what she had said, Menlas hadn’t been free with his plans, at least not where his victims could hear.
“No… Not… No,” Sanja admitted. “I don’t really know what a demon is. You’re like an expositor?”
“Just tell her, Kai,” Ziede said, then was too impatient to wait. “He’s Kaiisteron, the Witch King.”
There was a scuffle behind him as Sanja missed a step and was caught, steadied, and pushed into motion again by Ziede. “But that’s a story,” Sanja protested. “From the Arike, the Rising World. Like the Hierarchs.”
“The Hierarchs aren’t a story either,” Ziede said grimly. “The murderous shits were hard enough to kill.”
The next turn of the stairwell opened up into bright sunlight and a wash of cool salt-tinged air. Kai ran up the last few steps to the wide top of a cylindrical tower. The mid-morning sky was bright blue, dotted with clouds, though heavier gray bands to the west promised rain. Kai flung out his arms and twirled, taking a deep breath of wind with a hint of storm rain to it. He hadn’t realized how the weight of the surrounding water and the enclosed space had worn on him until now. The only sign of land was far to the south, smudges on the horizon that would be low-lying islands.
He released the light imp with a wave. It sped away so fast it winked out of sight. Imps weren’t keen on water and enclosed spaces either.
Despite the wind, the air was warmer out here, though if that far-off storm came this way, the temperature would drop. After the chill below, Kai wanted to lie down on the paving and soak in the sun.
A deep echoing groan and a slosh of water against the tower’s side sent him to the balustrade. The shell-whale Sanja had promised was docked below, a huge, partially submerged shape washed by the waves lapping against the tower wall. Its skin was a deep dark blue blending into red along its flanks. A brown and ivory striped nautilus shell attached to its back sat high above the water, as large as a substantial house, an indication of Menlas’ power. The curving mouth of it faced upward, the stairs inside spiraling down out of sight.
“The stone’s weathered for years, this place has been here for a long time,” Ziede said behind him. She was examining the top of the tower with a critical eye. “It might be an old sea people’s tomb. It wasn’t built for us.”
Kai agreed. Building something like this would have taken the resources of a minor city-state at least; it was more likely their enemy had spent their time looking for a deserted ruin that could be made to serve their purpose once it was altered with the right designs and intentions. “It still means there was a lot of advance planning, but then, they’d need that to catch us both. Sanja, how did Menlas get you all up here?”
Sanja leaned over the balustrade beside him. “There was a thing, like a block and tackle with a platform for him and the crew. They hauled us up in a net…” She pointed. “There it is!”
A bundle of wood and rope debris floated near the dome of the shell-whale’s head. The net was caught on the barnacles below the tower’s waterline, trailing away under the water. The expositor would have used a minor intention to suspend the structure from the tower’s balustrade; when Kai killed him it had collapsed. “Are we going to haul it back up here?” Sanja asked doubtfully.
“We won’t need it.” Kai glanced at Ziede, who was studying the paving thoughtfully, the wind-devils plucking playfully at her clothes and hair. “Ziede, where are we?”
She lifted a hand, tasting the air currents with her fingertips. “We’re east of the Mouth of Flowers,” she said. She nodded toward the distant smudge of land to the south. “That’s one of the islands in the Eligoes.”
Now Kai knew where they needed to go. “We need to move.”
Ziede scuffed at the paving one last time and then came to the balustrade. She put her hand on Kai’s shoulder to steady herself and stepped up onto the low wall. Kai pulled his skirt out of the way and scrambled up beside her. Ziede reached down and Sanja, eyes wide, took her hand and let herself be pulled up. “Uh.” She looked at Kai, and then at the long way down to the water. “Can you fly?”
“No, but Ziede can,” he said, as Ziede stepped into the wind-devil that opened like a flower for her. Sanja made a choked noise of dismay as Ziede drew her and Kai off the wall into empty space.
The wind-devil dropped like a fallen leaf, swaying and twirling them, until it reached the shell mouth. Ziede pulled them out of the devil’s grip and onto the first steps of the shell. “It’s not flying, it’s entity manipulation,” Ziede corrected in annoyance.
Kai went down the spiral steps into the shell’s pearly interior. The air was close and it smelled dank and fishy; he winced. Close to the water wasn’t the way he preferred to travel but it wasn’t as if they had a choice.
The steps led to the shell’s uppermost chamber, a serpentine space where curves and cavities in the interior had been used to store a set of small decorated chests, like those for writing or medical instruments, and other supplies. One large cubby was lined with heavy quilts and cushions, probably the spot where Men-las had made his bed. Kai took the narrow passage down into the lower part of the shell, finding a smaller chamber holding net bags of fruit and gourds, waterskins, and clay pots. Other chambers held hammocks with rougher blankets where the crew must have slept, cubbies and shelves storing spare weapons, personal possessions. At the bottom, next to the whale’s skin, he found the stinking chamber with its ropes and chains, where Sanja and her dead companion had been held, which had apparently also been the craft’s latrine.
He climbed back up, where Ziede and Sanja waited. Sanja held tightly to Ziede’s hand. Understandable, Kai didn’t like revisiting places where he had been tortured, either. Prowling along the wall, checking all the cubbies more closely, he said, “No one else is aboard. We need to get away from here.”
Ziede lifted her brows in acknowledgment. “Do you know how to make this thing go?”
“No, but if an expositor can do it, how hard could it be?” He found a small nacreous shelf near the front where some ingredients had been set out. Salts and powders in tiny polished cups of shell, a few bits of wood splinter darkened with blood, a diagram etched on a faded scrap of cloth. This… is not it. Menlas hadn’t been working on intentions here, he had been trying to duplicate Witch’s work. From the sparks of intention still clinging to the pieces, whatever it was had been successful. I wonder if this is how he found us?
The expositors originally conscripted and trained for the Hierarchs’ use had survived long enough to pass their knowledge along to apprentices. Whoever had taught Menlas had let him think he was powerful enough to enter a sealed tomb meant as a trap for the immortal Witch King. Possibly it had been meant as an elaborate method of murder.
Kai continued to poke around the shelves, aware of Ziede going below and bringing up a couple of bags and pots. “Is he your husband?” Sanja asked her in a whisper.
“Devils of the Four Winds, no,” Ziede answered in a normal tone. “We’re old friends.”
Kai found an elaborate metal compass, with a piece of something that looked like whalebone mounted in the center. Menlas probably had another way to access the threads of connection embedded in it, but Kai just touched it. He felt the whale’s mind, old and patient and simmering with a slow fury at its captivity. He wove his way inside and told it, I want to ride you even less than you want to carry me. If you take us for a time to the southeast, first to the fire-under-water and then to a mortal port, I’ll break the chains that hold this thing atop you and send you on your way.
The whale considered in a deep silence that seemed to stretch for a long suspended heartbeat. Kai wasn’t impatient, because being impatient with a creature this old and with this much weight to its deliberations was pointless. It was easy and restful to just float in that silence, waiting.
The answer came back on an eddy in the current: Why should I trust?
Always a good question. Kai replied, I wore chains once, too. He sent the whale an image, a memory, of the old Cageling Demon Court in the Summer Halls of the Hierarchs, how he had huddled there with the diamond chains around his throat and wrists, the perpetual rain soaking his ragged clothes, searing his skin.
The whale took in the memory and the song flowed on.
Then the mental current and the physical shell swayed together as the whale turned from the tower. Its tail lifted and dropped to propel it away and across the open sea. Kai came back to himself and realized he had been kneeling on the floor, head down in communion with the whale. His new body still ached in odd places, a side effect of the sudden restoration and the nearness of the smothering water. He pushed to his feet with a groan. The shell rocked in long slow swells with the whale’s motion. Whatever mortal thought this was a good way to travel was a masochist, as well as uncaring of the captive whale’s pain.
Kai had been dimly conscious of Ziede and Sanja in the rear portion of the chamber. They had eaten some fruit and pickled water chestnuts, and what looked like very dry grainy cakes. Then Ziede had stuffed some of the expositor’s bedding into another cubby, where Sanja was now curled up with a blanket pulled over her head. Ziede herself was sitting in the expositor’s bed, leaning back in the nest of cushions against the pearl-coated wall, watching Kai worriedly.
Kai squeezed in next to her so they sat shoulder to shoulder. It was still a relief to feel that she was warm and alive, to be warm and alive next to her. “I told it to take us to the Gad-dazara first.” It was one of the mortal names for the place so many languages called fire-under-water. “It’s close, and there’s a conduit there that will let me talk to Grandmother. She should be able to help me see home, to see if Tahren’s there, and to see if anything happened in Benais-arik that might have ended with both of us dead. Or mostly dead.”
“A good plan,” Ziede said. She took his hand between both of hers and said, “Well, this is all very distressing.”
Kai made a noise of displeasure at this massive understatement and slumped down so he could put his head on her shoulder. They had known it might be unwise to go to court in the year of the Rising World coalition renewal, but it would have been equally unwise not to appear in answer to Bashat’s summons. “And things were going so well.”
“Were they?” Ziede sounded unconvinced, but didn’t press the point. “Do you remember anything of where you were when this happened?”
Kai had been racking his memory. He knew that he and Ziede had been in the old palace at Benais-arik. That Tahren hadn’t been with them. She had been cagey about what she meant to do, though Ziede might know. But the last images from his old body remained confused and elusive. “The summer pavilion. Night. That big pool with the water lilies.”
“In it?” Ziede asked, baffled. “Why?”
“No, beside it,” he said in exasperation. “On a couch. With Bashat.”
Ziede sighed. “And here we are.”
“You don’t know that.” You don’t know it was him who did this to us. He wasn’t going to argue with her now, he was too tired. And too uncertain, whether he wanted to admit it or not. “Where were you?”
“In our rooms in Benais House, I think.” She shook her head, her braids soft against his cheek. “The planning, the time, to do this… Unless they had some way to hold you in suspension, when they struck, they must have been ready…”
Kai couldn’t stop thinking about the lily pond, the pearl in his heart, his last memory. Lounging on the silken cushions under a star-filled sky, the lamplight glittering on the most beautiful court of the most celebrated palace at the new center of the world. Bashat’s smile, as he handed Kai a cup of wine. The night was a glowing memory, warm and soft as the flicker of light on the dark water and the white flowers. It was such a clear image, right up to its suspiciously abrupt end, the moment when everything went still and black.
He could so easily imagine a dark mirror of that scene, like an inverted image in the pool’s shadowed water.
Ziede must have felt his growing tension. She ran a hand through the long curls of his hair, working the tangles out. “What are you thinking, Kai?”
He was thinking that maybe he had been a gullible fool, that maybe he had made an enormous mistake. “There’s a way to place a heart pearl, without asking for consent. I’m not sure it would work on a mortal, but on me… If the pearl was formed and then ground up in water—or wine. If I drank it. It would take a while to form, and it would depend on… a lot of things. But it’s a possibility.”
“And?” He could hear the worried frown in Ziede’s voice.
“If someone did that. If he used it to put me under his will. And if then he drowned me.” His throat had gone tight. “If that is what happened.”
There was too much sympathy in Ziede’s tone now and he forced himself to laugh. It came out more like a sardonic squawk. He said, “I’m starting to think that a mortal Prince-heir who wanted to consort with a demon in human form may not be a completely trustworthy person.”
Ziede sighed again. “You think? The first one we met was.”
Kai’s smile was bitter. “He was an exception.”
Kai flailed back to consciousness to the gentle rocking of the shell-whale. Morning light fell down the entrance hatch. Ziede and Sanja were seated on the floor, sharing the contents of a clay pot. Ziede watched him with a lifted brow and Sanja’s forehead was furrowed in alarm. He realized he had kicked two of the cushions out of the cubby and possibly had a fight with a quilt.
So far the voyage hadn’t been as bad as Kai had feared. But waking up dead and entombed had invited some unpleasant memories into his dreams, mixed with fading nightmares still written into this new body’s flesh. Like so many aspects of mortal life, sleep was overrated. He said, “Do you know where we are?”
Ziede wiped her hands on a rag. The meal was pickled cabbage and strips of something that might have been dried fish. “The compass says southeast. I checked outside at dawn and saw volcanic plumes.”
“Good, that’s good.” Kai had thought they must be getting close. He rubbed his face, climbed out of the cubby, and retrieved the bedding. He found the whale compass on the shelf and went up the steps and outside into bright daylight.
The platform at the top swayed with the whale’s motion and the fresh wind tore at his hair. The sky was a limitless vault of blue, the last remnants of the storm they had outrun a few days ago nothing but gray streaks of cloud. The islands in the distance were jagged dark shapes. He leaned against the inward curve of the nautilus and touched the bone in the center of the compass.
It was easier to ride the song of the whale’s consciousness this time, maybe because it was more alert as it swam. It had a good sense of the arrangement of the Gad-dazara islands ahead, though Kai had trouble interpreting the images it sent him. It thought of the world as large objects that blocked currents, which was hard to translate into anything that could be expressed on a paper map. Fortunately Kai didn’t need to find an active volcano, any seamount would do.
This one, he told it, picking out what looked like the nearest island with the easiest landing, as close as you can safely go.
He drifted with the whale’s internal song until it signaled its agreement. Coming up out of its awareness into the bright day left him calm and pushed the nightmares away, at least for now. He propped his folded arms on the smooth pearl edge of the shell and watched the shapes on the horizon draw closer.
From below, Ziede was giving Sanja a history lesson, because she couldn’t stand ignorance. “This was sixty-seven years ago by Rising World reckoning. Or sixty-eight, I suppose, however long we’ve been in that tomb.” Before the Hierarchs came, Ziede had been a teacher in the Mountain Cloisters of the Khalin Islands, instructing the novices in the history of their craft. After the Hierarchs’ defeat, there had been rumors that the cloisters were being rebuilt, but Ziede had never gone back. Everyone she knew there had been killed. “Before the Rising World alliance, the Hierarchs controlled most of the world, stopped only by the northernmost ice sea.”
“And they really used demons to fight their wars?” Sanja was speaking with her mouth full.
“No, that was another lie. They enslaved demons and Witches as familiars, to give to their expositors, to help them focus their power,” Ziede corrected. “They also used the Well of the Hierarchs to close off passage to and from the underearth, trapping demons in their mortal bodies so they couldn’t escape. This also prevented the Witches who had gone there from returning. And for a time, no one in the mortal world could speak to the underearth.”
Sanja took that in for a moment. Then she said, “The stories say the demons couldn’t cross water. And we’re… crossing water now.”
“We’ve already established that sometimes the stories lie.” There was a dry smile in Ziede’s tone. “But it is true that demons couldn’t use much of their power while crossing water.”
“What about now? Can demons go to the underearth now?” From her tone, Sanja understood perfectly well that this was not just an idle question. “Since the Hierarchs are all dead?”
“It’s still difficult. Even before the Hierarchs were defeated, cracks formed in the seal, that let wisps like imps and other small creatures slip back and forth. But it will never be like it was before. Even to talk to the underearth, you have to find a place with a deep conduit, something with power of its own, that will help you send your spirit there to speak.”
“And that’s what we’re doing now, looking for a conduit?” Sanja asked. “What will he do when we get there?”
“He’s going to try to talk to someone. They may know what happened to our people.” Ziede’s voice turned wry. Possibly at Sanja’s disappointed expression. “No, it won’t be exciting to watch.”
There was a short silence. Then Sanja asked, “Are we going back to the Mouth of Flowers?”
“I don’t know. It depends on what Kai finds out.” Ziede was thoughtful. “Do you want to go back to the Mouth of Flowers?”
“No,” Sanja said immediately. From the little she had told them, she had been a street feral, attached to a loose pack of other children. She was so small, Kai found it unlikely that she had ever been successful as a thief. She looked like she had spent enough time starving to stunt her growth. Sanja added, “Unless you’re going to burn it to the ground.”
Ziede laughed, her first real laugh since waking in the tomb. “You hate every person in the city so much?”
“Most of them,” Sanja said. After a long moment of obviously reluctant consideration, she added, “Not all of them.”
“Something to keep in mind, when hoping for mass destruction.” Ziede added, seriously, “Believe me.”
There was a pause. Kai swayed as the whale crested a wave. Then Sanja said, “Can you kill people like he does?”
“You can call him by his name.”
There was a hesitation. “Can you kill people like Kaiisteron does?”
“Not exactly like. I have my own methods. But I can kill.” Ziede’s pause was more deliberate. “You’re not afraid of us.”
“I was. I am. I’m not stupid. But you’re… you’re not afraid of anything.” Kai touched Ziede’s mind for permission, then used her pearl to extend himself into her consciousness, just enough to see through her eyes. Sanja was looking down, flicking the tie of her boot wrap. Her jaw set and she looked up, lifting her chin. “I’m tired of being afraid.”
“No living creature is immune to fear.” Ziede’s voice was serious now. “You saw what happened to us.”
Sanja’s throat moved as she swallowed, and her gaze dropped again. “That happened, because somebody powerful is afraid of you.”
“You’re not wrong.” Ziede’s tone turned brisk. “Now, do you want to hear more about the Fall of the Hierarchs and the rise of the Arike Prince-heirs, and the Rising World alliance?”
Sanja said, “Yes, please.”
By the time the sun moved into afternoon, the whale reached Gaddazara. Ziede and Sanja came up from below and Kai moved to a perch on the edge of the shell to give them room on the platform.
Peaks rose from the sea, stretching away in either direction in a great curving archipelago. Some were weathered and worn down, others still breathed long furls of smoke into the air. The dark cone of the nearest volcano loomed over them, dominating the sky. Its last eruption had almost destroyed the land mass around it; the sea had crept in between shattered cliffs and ridges and spawned a hundred tiny satellite islands. Seabirds rose in white waves from rocky beaches, clusters of smaller fins fled the whale’s approach.
The whale circled around the broken island and wove its way through what had once been the busy harbor of a fabled city; they passed small rocky remnants of land still supporting ruined columns or walls, even whole tumbled buildings. On the slopes above the broken shoreline, hardened lava and windblown vegetation had taken most of the city, but half-buried obelisks or broken walls were still visible. There had been ports all through this chain of mountain islands, right up until some disaster had broken the power that kept the fire beneath the earth under control.
The muscled stone legs of a giant statue towered over them as the whale drew near the harbor’s ruined breakwater. The remnants of the jumbled stone dike had stretched to protect this side of the port.
The whale seemed content to rest and wait here. Kai made the jump to the dike and climbed to the top. Ziede summoned one of the many wind-devils at play in the air currents and had it fly her and Sanja up, meeting him on the platform near the statue’s weathered big toe. “Will this do?” Ziede asked. She was hiding her impatience well, but Kai could sense it through her pearl. Hopefully he could get her some answers soon.
“It should.” From what the whale had shown Kai, the statue was actually built on an old seamount that had been incorporated into the breakwater. He could already feel the restless stir of heat and power in the earth at its root, it was more than deep enough to let him open a passage. Kai brushed off the warm stone and sat down, folding his legs up under his skirt. “What are you going to do?”
Ziede wrinkled her nose and plucked at her cotton shirt. “We might look for a place where we can bathe.”
“Watch out for pirates,” Kai said, settling himself and closing his eyes. “And if you find any, save some for me.”
“Stop showing off in front of the child,” Ziede retorted, and led Sanja away down the breakwater. “And don’t antagonize the Overlord!”
“I can’t help it,” Kai muttered to himself. His continued existence would be enough.
The faint sounds of their steps on the stone faded away. With nothing in his ears but the wind’s bluster against the rock, the lapping of water, the slow breathing of the whale, Kai separated from his body and sunk through the stone.
The underearth was not actually in the ground somewhere, the way mortals thought, but it was the connection with the rock and the living heat far below the surface that made it reachable now. When Kai had first come to the mortal world, he could step between his borrowed mortal body and his original form in the underearth anywhere. Now the underearth body Kai had been born into was gone and he had to send his spirit down like a Witch. But after what the Hierarchs had done, he was lucky to be able to have even this poor pathway open to him.
Kai found his way through the conduit, a sensation not unlike merging with the whale’s song, until he sensed the underearth form around him, a coalescence of sound and sensation like nothing in the mortal world. He had to pretend his body into existence here, imagine himself with flesh and limbs. If he let go of the illusion for even one instant, his spirit would disunite and drift, and he would have to put himself together again before he could make the trip back to the upper earth.
Kai would never again see the underearth as it was. He couldn’t even take on a shadow version of his original body and was constrained to appear here in a semblance of his current mortal form.
He opened his eyes to see a great canyon in place of the sea, the bottom shaped into mountains and valleys. The sand was pearl white, with swaying fields of red grasses and delicate coral-like trees. Beautiful, but no more real than a mortal dream. These were only shadows of the physical location of his mortal body.
The ruined city loomed over him, but preserved as an echo in the rock of the island, just the way it must have looked the day before its destruction. Columned terraces marched up from the circle of the port to slopes covered with tiled houses and the colorful awnings of market stands, the whole capped by an array of palaces with brilliant blue stacked hip roofs. There was no echo of the original occupants; the flickers of movement on streets and stairways were not mortal or human.
Kai twisted around to see the statue was gone. In its place was a round pavilion with gauzy white fabric hanging from the eaves. The fact that she hadn’t made him walk across half the sea was encouraging. Travel here could be more than difficult without the anchor of a physical form. Kai got to his feet and walked up the steps.
The floor was carpeted by a thick wooly hide, the skin of an animal that hadn’t walked the upper earth in centuries, a vague echo of the ancient Saredi grasslands. Its fangs curved up on either side of the throne, a wide chair made of skulls. They were all relics of the Overlord’s family, kept for sentimental reasons.
Kai bowed formally, an Arike court salute, to the figure curled on the seat. She had pale horns curving back from her head, a muscular scaled body ending in a long powerful tail that spilled off the throne, the tip a narrow spade-shape that flicked impatiently. Her pale wings, the texture of mortal skin, were half-furled. He said, “Overlord.”
“Since you’re still alive, you might call me Mother,” she said, her voice dry. “Sit. Where have you been?”
He sat down on the carpet in an easy sprawl, since apparently this conversation was going to be friendly. Kai was considered a renegade by all the other demon lines and sometimes the Overlord of the Fourth House found it more politic to agree with them. “I’ve been trapped for a while, Mother. Underwater.”
Now that it had become obvious there wasn’t going to be a fight, others crept up to the pavilion, or dropped down from its eaves. They were smaller versions of Mother, with blue or black shading on their wings. Some had tails split into two or more segments, some even had human-like legs, but with heavy dark claws on their feet. Vaiisterite, one of Kai’s siblings, landed beside Mother’s throne and crouched at its foot. Mother tilted her head skeptically and said, “Surely this was not a surprise to find yourself in a trap, considering the mortals you associate with.”
She wanted an argument, which Kai wasn’t going to give her. “I wasn’t surprised, just disappointed.”
Her eyes narrowed, the same solid black, whiteless eyes that Kai wore in every mortal body he had taken. “I assume you’re not coming here to discuss returning to take up your duties and be married. I have two acceptable prospects who may be enticed to accept you in mortal form without too much argument.”
Kai didn’t sigh. For some reason the prospect of marrying into whichever demon line would grudgingly accept him, producing half-mortal children, and then having to fight off his new relatives’ attempts to trap him here had never sounded appealing. He knew the Overlord thought she was doing him a favor, and that made it even worse. “No, thank you, Mother.”
“It was good enough for your grandmother.”
“Grandmother wouldn’t be here if her mortal body hadn’t been murdered, Mother.” Kai had to add, “The next time I’m trapped in a glass box at the bottom of the sea, I’ll consider it.”
Vai, crouched by the throne, did sigh.
Mother bared her fangs. “Stop being overdramatic.”
Kai would have loved to, if dramatic things would stop happening to him. “With your permission, I came to pay my respects to Grandmother.”
There was a flutter of hissing comment among the watching crowd. Mother studied him a moment more, but there were too many pacts written in demon hearts’ blood protecting Grandmother’s place and power here, and he had every right as a survivor of both the mortal and demon direct lines of her issue to speak to her. Mother said, “And do you intend to ask her for favors?”
“No,” Kai said, not quite honestly. Grandmother, still Saredi to the bone, wouldn’t consider it a favor. “I just want to listen to her reminisce.”
Eyeing him suspiciously, Mother leaned back on her throne, tucking her tail in. “Your sister will take you there.”
Kai rolled to his feet and bowed again. Vai rose up on her tails, and he followed her down the steps.
He walked beside her up the long colonnade that had taken the place of the breakwater, as the memory of the city shifted to a dream of some other place. Night was falling over the hipped-roof palaces, dissolving them with shadow.
“You’re different,” Vai said.
“I have a different mortal body,” he told her. “You didn’t notice? I got taller.”
“They all look the same to me.” Vai sniffed. “You smell strange, that’s all.”
The colonnade split off into a stone-paved street with walled houses to either side, their gates broken and flowering brush and lush vines flowing out as if their garden walls had burst like rotten fruit. Kai didn’t recognize this place at all; it was a memory of somewhere he had never been. The darkness settled in like a fog but it sparkled with white flames: a cloud of imps, leading the way like tiny floating torches.
The street opened up into a round court, lush vegetation enclosing it in a flowering green wall. At the back rose a large wooden house built atop tall pillars, a style from the Erathi coast, meant to resist the storm waves common to the low-lying barrier islands. The Saredi clans had often sent traders there in the dry seasons, to exchange goods directly with the sea people ships that came to shore along it. When Kai had gone there, all the coastal towns had already been burned by the Hierarchs.
As Vai led the way across the court, Kai could hear the ocean now, waves crawling up a sandy beach, not the rocky coast of the volcanic island in the mortal world. It had been a statement, at one point, for Grandmother to choose the image of a house meant to survive the ocean storms, here in a place where deep water was the enemy. She had kept it for so long now that possibly she just liked it.
It was made of heavy logs, the roof thatched, and a long flight of steps led up to a wide porch with wooden sliding doors. Vai stopped at the stairs, coiling up to wait. Kai hesitated despite himself and asked, “You won’t come in?”
Vai showed her fangs and said sourly, “You’re her favorite.”
Kai sighed in frustration and climbed the steps. “She can’t make you a favorite when you don’t talk to her.”
Predictably, all that got him was a hiss.
He scratched at the door and a server opened it immediately. Dressed in a light cotton tunic and cropped pants, her dark hair coiled around her head, she was part mortal, as all Grandmother’s servants were. She could have passed as a human woman except for the split pupils of her green eyes and the prominent fangs.
She nodded to Kai and led him down the white-plastered central hall, which was open all the way up to the peaked roof. It went through to the back of the house and a breeze drifted down it, salt-tinged by the invisible, illusory sea somewhere behind the wall of foliage.
The servant stopped and gestured him through the door into a large room, with wooden slatted windows allowing in the scents of the flowering trees outside. Grandmother sat on a low couch, wearing a gray-trimmed black silk coat. She still looked like an entirely human woman, with fine lines at the corners of her eyes, and white streaks in the coils of her dark braids. She said in Saredi, “There you are,” as if she had known he was coming, as if she had been expecting him.
Her sight was of the underearth, so there was no question about her recognizing him even in the shadow of a different mortal body. He saluted her like a Saredi clan captain and she gestured for him to come and kiss her cheek, and then to sit with her on the couch. Kai curled up beside her on the cushions, feeling the tightness around his heart ease for the first time since he had woken in his glass coffin. “Are you well, Grandmother?”
“As can be expected.” Grandmother lifted a hand and two more part-human servants carried in a covered tray. They set it down on a stand within reach of the couch, lifting the lid to reveal the tiny decorated sweets and savory morsels that had been customary for entertaining guests in the great tents of the Saredi. Long before the Hierarchs had conquered the plains, when Grandmother had been a young, fully human captain of scouts, before she had been wooed away from the mortal world. “You’ve lost your body again, I see,” she said.
The servants settled on the floor to listen, two curling up on the floor cushions, one starting to prepare a kettle for the ginger almond drink that always accompanied the sweets.
“This is the first time I’ve lost a body in years and years,” Kai protested. From Grandmother’s expression, she wasn’t impressed. “They tried to get Ziede, too. I came to ask if you could see Avagantrum for me. We’ve been gone from there at least a full round of seasons and we’re worried about the family.”
“Ah, they always did like to do away with the whole line, once they turned against you.” Grandmother picked up a tiny cake, her expression grimly reminiscent. “But that was the Hierarchs, and they’re gone now. They blur together, after you’re conquered.” She gestured to the watching servants. “Lika, go and bring a seeing bowl, we’ll summon some wraithlings.”
Lika stood and left the room. Grandmother pushed the plate toward Kai and he took a savory roll. Here in her own domain, she commanded the underearth to such an extent that the shadow even tasted like Kai’s memory of the real thing. “We were taken from Benais-arik but Tahren Stargard wasn’t with us, and Ziede can’t find her through her heart pearl. Can you think of anywhere that mortals could possibly imprison an Immortal Marshall that would keep her from hearing a pearl’s call?”
She frowned, and pushed the plate toward the servants, who shifted forward to take some of the delicacies. “I never understood why a Witch like Ziede wanted to lie with a Hierarchs’ dog.”
Kai was patient. He knew trying to rush her wouldn’t help. “Tahren betrayed the Hierarchs, that’s why they call her ‘the Fallen.’”
“Hmm.” Grandmother selected another cake. “How is Ziede?”
“Angry, but alive.” Kai added, “She would be better if she knew where her wife was, and if her family is all right.”
Grandmother couldn’t argue with that. “Let me think. She’s Fallen, so the places of the Blessed”—she turned her head to spit on the floor—“curse their shadows, would not admit her. They might put her in one of the old Witch cells.”
Another servant took out a cloth and wiped the spit off the floorboards, frowning repressively at Grandmother, who waved a dismissive hand.
“Witch cells?” Kai asked, before Grandmother could get distracted. “Are they like the Cageling Demon Court?”
“No, not much like.” Grandmother settled back against the pillows. “Water doesn’t do anything to Witches except make them wet. And the Cageling Demon Court was also a show of power, they used to walk every visitor past it. You probably couldn’t see that from where you were inside.”
“No, I remember that. A little.” It had been hard to see anything outside the court, the colonnades around it screened by the perpetual rain. Sometimes he had seen figures moving by, the glint of light off jewels and rich fabrics. It was the feel of the place that was etched into his memory: the cold, the stench of rotting bodies, the helplessness.
Grandmother’s sharp gaze shifted away as she searched her own memory. “Witch cells were meant to hide their occupants from everything, including demon eyes.” She flicked her fingers in the same way that Mother did, though neither of them would have admitted to sharing anything except their blood. “And for a true Immortal Marshall, whoever wanted to hold her prisoner would have needed strong binding cantrips, which are written into the cell walls.”
Kai believed Grandmother that these cells had existed, but all the Hierarchs’ places in this part of the world had been destroyed or taken over by the Rising World, or one of its allies. He had a hard time believing that if a Witch cell still existed, he hadn’t heard about it. Or that someone hadn’t tried to put him in one. “But this sounds like something that would have been in the old Summer Halls.”
“I’m not dim, you little snake, I know that place was destroyed.” Grandmother took another cake. She paused while a servant stood to hand them both cups of the ginger milk. Kai accepted his and the scent was like a breath of childhood. Meeting Grandmother here for the first time, when she had visited in mortal form, in a place dreamed to look like her rooms in the tent of Kentdessa Saredi. She told him and his siblings about their mortal relatives and their demon ancestor, and how she had made her bargain with him in the upper world, and what had come of it. And Mother yelling at her to stop filling their heads with nonsense. Before Kai had been called to the mortal world to his first human body.
Once the servants settled back on the floor to share the rest of the drink among themselves, Grandmother continued, “Witch cells are old, far older than the Hierarchs. But they were no good for holding expositors; no one in the borderlands knew what an expositor was, when the cells were built.” She snorted in derision. “So Hierarchs found them in the borderlands and took the marked walls apart and carried them away. If they did it, so could the Rising World.”
When she put it that way, it was a stronger possibility. But if the cells had been looted from some Hierarch storehouse, they could be anywhere now. “Do you know where they might have taken them?”
Grandmother shook her head. “All the places I remember are rubble or ash. You would have to ask a Hierarchs’ dog.”
Another Immortal Marshall, she meant. One not Fallen like Tahren. That was a terrible idea.
Kai thought he might very well have to try it, if there was no other way.
The servant Lika returned, carrying a clay bowl of water. The others hastened to move the plate and cups from the stand, so Lika could set the bowl down. All the servants gathered around and Kai sat up to see better. Floating just above the surface of the bowl was a wraithling. Lika said, “This wraithling lives above the mass grave along the ruins of the old western trade road in Saleos, up from what used to be the port of Lossnos.”
It looked like wisps of gauzy cloud, wrapped around a narrow body with a lot of spiny legs and arms, its head a diamond shape with tiny green spots for its eyes. The little creatures had an attraction for altars, sanctuaries, tombs, and graves. They were generally harmless unless abused.
Lika had summoned it so she would have to do the questioning. Grandmother motioned for Kai to speak, and he said, “Ask it if it can see Avagantrum.” Now that they were close to answers, his heart was starting to pound from nerves, and he swallowed the tension down. Allowing his agitation to show wouldn’t help Lika concentrate.
Lika’s fangs dug into her lower lip with the effort. Then she said, “It sees the outer walls and gates.”
“Nothing like an attack? No sign of fires, explosions?” Kai tried to think of anything that would indicate a battle to something as disinterested in mortal life as a wraithling. He didn’t want to ask if it saw any recent ghosts; he was too afraid to hear the answer. “Any sense of an expositor’s intentions?”
Lika shook her head slowly, her eyes hooded as she kept her connection with the wraithling. “No, Fourth Prince. It remembers nothing like that. Not recently. If there had been death, it would sense it. It feels life there. Mortal lives, Witch lives.”
The tension in Kai’s chest eased. If the place had been attacked in their absence, there might be mortals there, but there wouldn’t be Witches. “An Immortal Marshall’s life?” he asked, just in case. Even if something had happened to Tahren’s pearl, he didn’t think she would just be sitting there, waiting. She would be off somewhere searching for them.
Lika’s brow furrowed as she concentrated, then she shook her head. “If it can see that, it won’t show me.”
Kai needed to see inside. “Can you get it to go any closer, maybe let us communicate with someone?”
“I’ll try, Fourth Prince. But it’s not much interested in speaking to the living. The only thing it likes is old death.” Lika settled herself again, her gaze turning inward.
Kai considered the problem. Avagantrum was an old Nossian step-fort. It had a heavy outer wall, an interior court, and then an inner wall that turned into a series of interlocking squares, each one carved deeper into the earth. Its water source and living chambers were in the center, underground, and now carefully warded by the Witches who lived there; the wraithling couldn’t get in even if Lika could convince it to want to. But the former inhabitants had died out at some point before the Hierarchs’ arrival, which was why the place had never been attacked. Their graves were still there. “In the outer court, near the gardens, there are old tombs buried in the earth. Can you get it to go there?”
Lika nodded once. “That may work.” She was silent for a long moment, her face set in a frown of effort. Grandmother took a little olive cake, watching with interest. Lika said, slowly, “It sees someone. A mortal person working among the plants in the garden.” Before Kai could ask, she said, “The wraithling sees differently than we do, especially colors, so it’s hard to describe. But this person wears Arike woman’s clothing, their appearance is older than mine, their skin is darker than mine, their hair is dark, with tight curls, tied back.” Lika made a gesture behind her head. “It makes a halo.”
“It sounds like Tanis, Ziede’s oldest daughter.” Kai wanted to jump up and pace but he knew Grandmother would hate that. Relief was heady; he had been more worried than he had allowed himself to realize. “Can we speak to her?”
“She has seen the wraithling. But it can’t make words like we do.” Lika frowned in thought. “I don’t know how—”
“It can move the grave dirt,” Grandmother said, selecting another cake. She had the detached interest of someone watching other people play a forty square game.
“Ah.” Lika’s expression cleared. “In Saredi characters?”
“Old Imperial,” Kai said, trying not to bounce with excitement. “Tell her, ‘Tanis, this is Kai. Is everyone all right?’”
Lika’s hands moved to shape the characters in the air as Kai waited tensely. Then she said, “The person Tanis speaks: ‘Uncle Kai, yes, we’re all well here! But where are you? Is Mother with you? Grand-aunty sent a messenger to the Benais-arik, but they said you left months and months ago! You’re not dead, are you?’”
“Not dead. Ziede is with me.” Kai kept it short, watching Lika form the characters, knowing the wraithling would only stay still so long. But he wanted to make sure he understood Tanis. “Do you know where Tahren or Dahin are?”
Lika translated, “The person speaks: ‘No word, none at all, but Uncle, we thought Tahren was with you. We haven’t heard from her since you left. And nothing from Uncle Dahin since that last message when you were here. Uncle, are you all right?’”
“Tell her we’re fine,” Kai said, even if it wasn’t true, and would be even less true once Ziede heard that Tahren wasn’t safe at home. Though that had always been a far-fetched hope. “We’ll come back when we can.”
Lika wove the message, and added, “I should let the wraith-ling go, Fourth Prince, before it grows tired. If I press it, it might start showing me things it remembers from the war, and that will confuse us.”
Kai sat back on the couch, accepting that reluctantly. “Can you find another wraithling near the Benais-arik Palace?”
Lika waved the first one away, and after a moment of concentration, called up another little creature, this one with a glittering red carapace. “This one is from the tombs outside the palace walls. It sees the mortals on the roads and the canals, the wagons and palanquins that go in and out of the gates, and nothing seems strange.”
If Benais-arik had been a smoking heap of rubble, Kai would have bigger problems to worry about, but at least the attack on him and Ziede would seem less personal. He let out his breath slowly. “I think that’s all, Lika. Thank you for your help.” As Lika dismissed the wraithling, he added, “Grandmother, one more question. Do you remember the cantrips that seal the Witch cells? And how to get past them?”
She tapped her temple. “That knowledge I have engraved on my eyelids, little snake.”
Time was as mutable as the rest of the underearth and night had flowed back into dawn by the time Kai left the house. Vai was curled up on the steps. She rose and stretched when he stopped beside her. He said, “You should have come in, she had the ginger drink you like.”
Vai huffed in exasperation, flowing to her feet, and only said, “You’re going back up there, aren’t you.”
Kai couldn’t live down here, not as the demon prince he no longer was, and not with Grandmother as a part-human, insulated in the perpetual past of a world that he had seen violently destroyed. And Vai had never lived in the upper world, would never understand what having a mortal family was like.
“I left my body there,” Kai said only, starting the walk back through the silent city.
Kai came back to himself in the smoke-tinged wind and warm sun of the Gad-dazara, under the broken statue. The city was a ruin frozen in black rock and overgrown weeds again. He took a deep breath and pushed to his feet, stretching.
In the water below, the shell-whale lifted its massive blue head and blew a plume of spray through its breathing hole. Something about it seemed uneasy. Kai climbed down the rocks to where he could jump back down to the shell’s top platform.
The compass was where he had left it, tucked into a curve of nacre. As soon as he touched it, he felt the whale’s sense of another moving body in the water.
There were a lot of things in the sea big enough and dangerous enough to catch the whale’s attention, but none would come this close to the surface. And this wasn’t something the whale knew as a predator; it was unnatural, like the shell on its back. It had sensed it sometime earlier at a distance, but not close enough to concern it. Now it was too close. Show me, Kai whispered.
The shape was long, with fins and a fish tail and an oddly shaped head, but there was no perspective for Kai to be able to tell its size. Something dangled off it, four narrow shapes that might be tentacles. Kai’s knowledge of most of what lived in the water was limited to things that ended up hung for display in market stalls, but this didn’t look unnatural—then one of the tentacles bent and the end opened into a hand. A human hand.
Kai recoiled, breaking the contact. Shithead expositors, he thought. He had known there would be an alarm set on their tomb prison to alert their captors. He hadn’t been expecting something that would follow them. If it had come near enough for the whale to get this good a look at it, pursuers were likely close by.
Kai turned and leapt back to the rocks. He climbed to the top of the breakwater, feet sliding on the slippery stones, and headed toward Ziede and Sanja.
Close to where the breakwater met the port’s sea wall stood a circle of broken columns with an old basin in the center. High waves had filled it recently and Ziede and Sanja must have used it to bathe. Ziede sat on one of the broad steps tying her sandals back on and Sanja was knee-deep in the water, her tunic and pants dripping. Ziede hadn’t been incautious; the air above the basin flickered with the presence of wind-devils.
Ziede stood as Kai approached, her brow furrowed at his haste and his expression. Kai said, “There’s an expositor’s amalgam in the water.”
Ziede grimaced in annoyance. “I was hoping our enemies were stupidly overconfident.” She lifted her hands. The wind-devils swirled above her, then scattered in all directions. “They could be close.”
“We’ll know soon.” Kai was glad they had come here first, that they hadn’t made straight for Avagantrum or tried to meet with any possible allies. It would be just him and Ziede against whoever pursued them, no interference, no potential hostages to fate. Except one, and he didn’t intend to risk her.
Sanja hurriedly climbed up out of the basin. She was breathing hard, eyes wide. She said, “Are they going to get us?”
Kai brushed a spiral of hair out of her face. “No.” Prediction, not bravado.
Sanja stared up at him, and her throat moved as she swallowed. Then her expression hardened, and she nodded. “No, they won’t.”
Still looking up after the wind-devils, Ziede asked, “Well? Was your grandmother able to help?”
“I spoke to Tanis. Everyone at Avagantrum is fine, there’s been no attack,” he told her, giving the good news first. “But Tahren’s not there and they haven’t heard from her or Dahin since we left. There was no sign of a disturbance or attack at Benais-arik, either.” It was hard not to feel like he had less information now than before he had gone to see Grandmother. The trip had given him some ideas, but that was all he had to work with.
Ziede looked out to sea, her face set in tense lines. She would have been hoping against hope that Tahren was home, even if Tahren was there because she was holding off an attack on their household. Then at least they would have known exactly where to go and what to do. “At least the children are all right.” She let out her breath. “Tahren wanted to look for Dahin, she’d had word he might be traveling the Arike states, visiting archives in the other cities. Wherever they are, they may be together.”
Kai thought that was wishful thinking. Dahin was more than capable of avoiding his sister when he wanted to. And it would have been hard enough for their enemy to take Tahren unawares; if she had been with Dahin, Kai didn’t think it would have been possible at all.
It could be an attempt to interfere with the Rising World coalition renewal. As the first Immortal Marshall who had rebelled against the Hierarchs, Tahren was part of the treaty agreements with the Blessed Lands. And she had significant influence on the Rising World council. There were members who would put her word well above Bashat’s. If she was the target, it was an important piece of the puzzle. “If they wanted Tahren out of the way before the renewal—”
“They would have had to remove us first,” Ziede agreed grimly. “But our underwater tomb wouldn’t have held her.”
Kai wasn’t sure of that, but there was just too much they didn’t know yet. “Grandmother had an idea about how someone might keep an Immortal Marshall prisoner.” He told Ziede about the Witch cells, how likely it was that they would still exist somewhere. “If they did take Tahren, they wouldn’t want to move her very far, whatever they did to her.” If anything, taking on an angry Immortal Marshall, even a Fallen one, was a riskier proposition than attacking a demon. Kai’s mortal body could be killed more easily than Tahren’s. It would take an Immortal Blessed blade to kill her. But she could be hurt, made insensible long enough to move her somewhere.
“We need a way to track her—” A lone wind-devil slipped down through the gusting wind back to Ziede. Kai followed its movement by the odd hardening of the air and the shifting light, as if the sun was reflecting off something that wasn’t there. Ziede listened to the faint high-pitched whisper with a frown. She said, “There’s something to the west. Damn it.”
Kai looked around for a good vantage point. At the end of the breakwater stood the blocky remnants of a four-story tower. “We can see from there.”
Ziede led the way and Kai followed, holding on to Sanja’s hand to help her over the bigger cracks in the breakwater. They had to jump across a large gap to get to the slab where the tower’s foundation stood. A set of broad stairs, broken and half scraped away by the lava, led to the cracked platform on top.
In the distance, past the ruined city and the hardened lava flows that marked the edge of the island, a ship cut through the blue water. It was long and low, a galley with the prow ornamented with a massive scowling face that looked like it was angry at the sea beneath it. The three big masts held sails, still furled, and the oars were shipped. If Kai needed any other clues, the hull gleamed a dull copper and was embossed with sun signs. “Immortal Blessed.” He was bitterly amused. It was somehow the least surprising thing that they were involved in this plot. “They make a religion out of not minding their own business.”
Ziede spared him a glare. “Not Tahren.”
“Of course not Tahren.” Kai snorted. He didn’t think of Tahren as an Immortal Blessed anymore, anyway. “Do I have to say it every time?”
Ziede gave him a shove to the shoulder. “Yes.”
Piqued, he shoved her back. Before she could retaliate, Sanja said, “Stop fighting!”
“We’re not fighting.” Ziede shaded her eyes again. “I don’t think those are Immortal Blessed.”
Kai still wanted to argue. “How can they not be when the ship is clearly—Oh wait, you’re right.” The figures on the upper deck were dressed in dark rich colors, not the whites and light yellows of the Blessed. But there had to be at least one Immortal Marshall onboard or the ship would have to use its sails or oars. “I need to get over there.”
“They’ll be expecting us to come from the air. And before you ask, no, I can’t conjure a storm, the conditions aren’t right.” Ziede dropped to a crouch and began to brush away the broken bits of stone paving on the platform. Quick-witted Sanja hurried to help her, and Ziede sat back on her knees to open her bag and shake out a collection of charcoal sticks and powdered chalks she had gathered from among Menlas’ belongings on the shell-whale. “But I can use all this smoke and ash in the air.” She nodded toward the volcano on the island across the strait, with its steady plume that stretched up to join the low gray clouds.
As Ziede sketched the diagram for her cantrip, Kai tried to see a way he could reach the ship without taking to the water. Whoever was aboard would be looking for a landing, probably heading to the breakwater and the old docks, where the whale was. Kai didn’t want to fight a running battle all over the island. He grimaced to himself; he would have to go through the water. “I’ll need the whale. Anything you left aboard the shell that you want?”
Ziede shook her head absently, lips pursed in thought as she added a carefully curved line to her cantrip. Air spirits were already starting to gather, little drifts that stirred the dust. Sanja looked up and said worriedly, “Will the whale be hurt?”
He shook his head. “No, it’ll be free, sooner than we originally planned.”
Sanja was relieved but dubious. “Then how will we get off the island?”
Kai nodded toward the Immortal Blessed craft. “On our new ship.”
Excerpted from Witch King, copyright © 2023 by Martha Wells