On the day after the summer solstice in the year 403 of the New Calendar, Kyrionik ward-Safroy defe-Safroy admir-Safroy hold-Safroy attended his own funeral.
As a noble family, the Safroys were expected to hold two ceremonies. One would be private, reserved for family, close political allies, those in the High Watch who thought it prudent to show respect to a member of a rival faction currently out of power, and however many of Kyrionik’s former friends his mother felt obligated to invite.
By tradition, it should have already happened. Somber guests would have worn their mourning whites. Servants wearing hoods of muslin gauze would offer each a cup of bitter tea, to represent grief, followed by drams of honeyed brandy, which represented happy memories of the loved one who had passed. After a few moments of silence, polite guests would talk about family, friends, newborn babes, aging parents—anything concerning the way people live their lives—to remind the grieving family that life goes on. Impolite people would try to talk business.
Kyrionik’s mother was a former member of the High Watch, the parsu of the Safroy family, and a rich, influential woman. She was always surrounded by impolite people.
The private ceremony was ordinarily held at home, usually in a garden or courtyard. For the Safroys, that meant everyone would be high enough on the slopes of Salash Hill that the family could mourn in direct sunlight, without the unpleasant tint of the light from Suloh’s bones. Perhaps they’d gather in the east hall, with its floors made from smooth white marble imported from Koh-Gilmiere. Or maybe on the southern deck, with its skywood and commanding view of the sea. Or the gardens, where Kyrionik and his brothers used to—
No. Those memories were from his old self. The one who lived among the wealthy, high-born Salashi. That man was long gone. Kyrionik had a new name now.
Now he was Kyrioc, child of No One, which marked him as lower than a commoner. He was an orphan. Unlike the high-born Kyrionik, poor Kyrioc had no family, no titles, and no inheritance.
But he did have an obligation.
The public funeral for hapless young Kyrionik was being held in High Square, at the southernmost end of the Upgarden deck, and Kyrioc, child of No One, stood in the long, long line of complete strangers waiting to pay their respects.
Kyrioc could not have attended the private ceremony without revealing himself. Without reclaiming his old name. The idea of reuniting with his family, of the joyful tears, the celebrations, the calls that he explain where he’d been and what had happened…
What he’d done…
And they would embrace him. His hands, responsible for so much death, would touch his mother’s small frame. They would feel her warmth and movement. Her breath. Her life.
Just the thought of it made him flinch and close down. He shut his eyes and stopped shuffling forward with the rest of the line. He could hear screaming, as fresh in his memory as if he’d heard them that morning. Then he remembered burning figures running through the jungle at night, then the darkness itself coming to life, and the sound of steel on flesh, and the smell of blood, and—
Kyrioc jumped, hand reaching for a weapon he no longer trusted himself to carry.
The woman who had spoken was a Free-Cities merchant. She’d dressed in an open green linen robe over cream-colored tunic and trousers. They complemented her bronze skin, setting her apart from the dark-brown faces all around her. Instead of a hat, she had pinned a small block of perfumed wax atop her rather ordinary bun. It had barely begun to melt into her hair, but the sharp, flowery smell was overbearing in the still air.
Her right eye was surrounded by a web of scars and was dark brown. Her left eye was hazel. If she could afford to replace her eye, she probably did not spend much time around people like him, but funerals bring together the high and the low.
She was gaping at him. He lowered his hand.
“You stopped walking,” the woman said with more kindness than he deserved. “Are you all right?”
“I’m sorry, good madam. Bad memories.”
“Ah. I thought you were grieving, and that perhaps you knew the deceased personally.”
Kyrioc wasn’t sure how to respond. “I would have been a stranger to him.”
The line was still shuffling forward without them. Kyrioc mumbled another apology and hurried to close the gap.
For the day, Kyrioc had worn simple black trousers with a black cotton tunic and vest. They were the funeral clothes of a poor man—a man with disfiguring scars and shaggy black hair hanging in his face—and they were supposed to let him blend in with the crowd.
High Square, where the Safroys awaited the long queue, was nearly two blocks away. Kyrioc could not let himself fall into a reverie again, not if he was going to hide himself in this long line of stitches.
He wished he could summon his cloak of mirrors, but that was impossible in the midday sun.
Kyrioc looked up and down the street, checking for Safroy guards. There were none this far from the square itself. Instead he saw city constables, private shop security, and the usual flash and bustle of the main street of the Upgarden deck.
Here at the southern end, with High Square and the terminus of The Freightway nearby—and with the gate to The Avenue just behind him—Upgarden was at its most luxurious. Not only were the streets themselves constructed from pale, beautiful skywood, so were many of the stores. This close to High Slope, the shops sold only the finest goods from around the Semprestian: silks from Carrig, spices from the Free Cities, furs from Katr nomads, jewels from Koh-Benjatso, Koh-Gilmiere, and Koh-Kaulma. If there was a piece of finery with the poor taste to have been made right there in Koh-Salash—or anywhere along the shores of the Timmer Sea—it was sold downcity, where the shops were made of ordinary wood and people walked about in the pale orange like of Suloh’s bones.
The deck was little changed from the days when Kyrioc roamed there as a teenager. As the Safroy heir, he had been welcomed into every store, tea shop, and cafe with a broad smile. Silks had been draped over his shoulders, pastries set before him, and rings slid onto his fingers, with the bill to be delivered to his family later, naturally.
But that boy, the one who was gone from the world forever, had not been able to see Upgarden as the orphan Kyrioc did. Local merchants paid such high taxes, and they served such a precious clientele, that a pair of city soldiers—not even constables but soldiers—stood at every intersection. And because the wealthy could never be reassured enough, each shop employed at least one private guard.
To Kyrionik, heir to the Safroy wards, holdings, titles, and treasury, they were friendly figures he could make sport with. To Kyrioc, child of No One, they were a deadly threat.
Standing beside carved decorative panels in the shop doorways, children dressed like little dolls beckoned to anyone who flaunted fine fabrics or jewelry. If the shop lacked customers at the moment—and with this long queue of commoners in the street, business was slower than usual—the owner stood behind them, their thoughts turned inward as they calculated the cost of this intrusion.
Kyrioc looked around. Young Kyrionik had been too pampered to recognize the hunger in their eyes. Smiling or blank-faced, they had always looked at him the way a street cat stares at an injured bird, because no matter how many jewels they wore, or how much gold they earned, it was never enough.
An elderly woman stepped out of a perfumery, followed by a long train of servants bearing packages. She suddenly declared, “What is this parade of scraps and scavengers?”
Kyrioc turned his gaze toward the deck. The bouquet in his hand crumpled as he gripped the stems too tightly. A long, shuddering breath released some of the tension in his chest.
Being recognized wasn’t the only danger. Revisiting these streets and shops was almost like returning home, and in the coming weeks, he might be tempted to return. To haunt the planks and squares like a ghost of his former self. Then, inevitably, he would be recognized, and then—
But that wouldn’t happen. As far as Kyrioc was concerned, his old self—that reckless young noble who had done so much harm—was dead in every way but the one that mattered the least.
Moving with the queue, he came to the end of the street and descended a few steps into High Square. His soft-soled boots were quiet against the skywood. At the far end of the square was the domed roof of the Temple of Suloh. It wasn’t even as large as the smallest of the Upgarden shops, but this was only the very top of the tower. Beside it were stairs and plankways leading down into the lower decks of the city.
Then he moved far enough into the square to see Suloh’s colossal shoulder blade jutting up through the cluster of shops and villas on the next street over, the orange crystal glowing even in midday. No part of the gods’ skeletons stood higher, except for Suloh’s skull, which had been hauled to the top of Salash Hill long, long ago.
At the western end of High Square were a dais and a broad set of stairs leading up to it. Both had been built, extravagantly, from skywood. The Safroys would be standing up there, on display. Constables, bodyguards, friends, and loyal allies would fill the stair between them and the procession, but the family would be at the top.
Kyrionik’s mother would be there.
Kyrioc did not look up.
As the parsu of a noble family with a sizable sail, his mother would stand in the highest place. And every stitch in the family sail—along with the many others who hoped to join the sail—would pass below in a slow, mournful procession, leaving a flower by the marker for her fallen heir.
The Safroys would likely not even look down at the commoners passing below. Kyrioc would not look up.
Live, your virtue, and remember us to your mother.
He flinched at the memory but did not close down. Not this time.
Kyrioc had not come for his mother, or his brothers, or his father. He had not come for the circle of friends and sycophants around them. He had not even come to see his own monument, which was finally right before him, a simple stone pillar with the Safroy bull and the flower of ice carved at the top. It was surrounded by flowers, none of which were joined in a bouquet as his were. The traditional roses, lilies, and daisies were there, of course, but so were numerous other flowers, all meant to show honor to the memory of that lost heir.
He had not come here for that, either. He’d come for one reason. He’d come to repay the terrible debt he owed, because he knew no one else in his family would even acknowledge it.
Kyrioc laid his bouquet of thirty red poppies before his own monument.
* * *
After the third hour spent standing at attention, watching the clouds float lazily above them, Culzatik ward-Safroy defe-Safroy admir-Safroy hold-Safroy’s feet felt swollen. Pain ran up his legs like a pair of stockings.
But this was for Kyrionik. The four of them—Mother, Father, Billen, and him—would stand through the day and the night if it was required. No one would ever say they’d shirked their duty, not for this.
They’d waited nearly eight years for this Mourning Day. The first tears had come when they realized Kyrionik would not return from his First Labor, and there had been more in the years since.
Not here, though. No Safroy would shed a tear in High Square in full view of the common folk, no matter how deep their grief. They were not even supposed to look at the stitches as they shuffled by the monument.
But Culzatik was so bored with looking at the clouds, he did exactly that.
That was when he saw his big brother.
At least, the man looked like Kyrionik, vaguely. He was walking away from the monument. His shaggy black hair was a mess and his black cotton tunic and vest were threadbare, but there was something about the way he moved…
No, it couldn’t be.
“You there!” Culzatik shouted, shocking everyone, including himself. “Constable! Stop that man in the black vest!”
The shaggy-haired man glanced up, and he seemed to change in some subtle way. His features blurred and his clothes momentarily swirled with color, but the effect vanished almost immediately.
That could only have been magic. Failed magic, but magic nonetheless.
The man couldn’t be Kyrionik, not with that monstrous scar, but the line of his jaw on the other side…
Instead of collaring the scarred man, the constable stationed at his brother’s marker stared up at Culzatik as though he’d been slapped awake. One of the Safroy guards strode forward to do it for him, seizing the wrist of a woman in a green robe.
A few stitches cried out in fear and the procession of well-wishers surged away, splitting into three different streams as they fled for the stairs out of High Square. Culzatik, normally as sharp-eyed as a hawk, somehow lost track of the man in the black vest, but he’d been mixed in with the group heading for the exit to the northeast.
A guard with a brush on his helm—one of the family lieutenants—slapped the first guard on the spaulder and he released the woman. “On me,” the lieutenant said, and took off running. Six Safroy guards followed.
On impulse, Culzatik staggered down the stairs, aching legs balking at the sudden movement. He had no real idea what he was doing or why. He only knew that he couldn’t hang back. That shaggy-haired man with the scar wasn’t Kyrionik. It was impossible. Yet he found himself clumsily shoving through the crowd at the bottom of the stairs and running after his guards.
Mother called his name, but he didn’t acknowledge her. If he didn’t know why he was doing this, what explanation could he make to her?
“I want him alive!” he shouted.
Aziatil was right beside him, running with an easy stride while he still labored to work the stiffness from his legs. There was no one he would have trusted more to capture this scarred man than the slender, fair-skinned Free Cities woman beside him, but she was his bodyguard. She didn’t open doors, carry packages, or leave his side to shackle downcity fugitives.
Constables blew whistles, and answering whistles sounded from blocks away. Any moment now, the Undertower lifts would be halted and the ramps and stairs out of Upgarden would be blocked.
Culzatik was not the most athletic young man—especially compared to the family guards, who could not sneak out of Father’s exercise sessions—but he wasn’t wearing steel armor, either. Eventually, he caught up to them. The lieutenant glanced back. “Your virtue,” he said.
The fellow had distinguished himself during Culzatik’s First Labor. Tyenzo, child of Tylinus, was his name, and Culzatik felt a twinge of pride at having remembered it. Beneath Tyenzo’s steel helmet, sweat ran down his face in fat drops. The midsummer heat was awful, and they were suffering.
But that’s what they were paid for.
“I want him taken alive,” Culzatik repeated.
“Yes, your virtue. He’ll probably be collared by the constables. If he’d run directly north, he would be going for the lifts, but the only way down from the eastern edge of the deck is The Freightway, which the constables have already shut down.”
Tyenzo had a commoner’s idea of Upgarden, because he only passed through on his way to the Safroy compound. The people who lived and shopped there knew the south end of the deck had half a dozen ways—
“There!” one of the guards shouted, and they all turned east.
Culzatik followed them up the stairs at the edge of High Square and back into the streets of Upgarden. He felt a jolt when he saw the man they were running toward—shaggy hair, black vest—ducking into an alley, but in the next moment, he knew it wasn’t the fugitive.
At their approach, the man spun around. He was too short, too thick, and had no scar on his face.
“Don’t try to stop me! Don’t you try!”
The far end of the alley held only open space. They’d come to the very edge of the Upgarden deck, and the man intended to jump.
Culzatik didn’t give a damn about some commoner’s suicide. “You. Go away.”
“Yes, your virtue,” he answered. The unscarred man could have simply stepped over the edge, but he shuffled into the street instead. Tyenzo warned him about hitting someone below. Why not go to the hospital, where his death would do some good?
Culzatik moved toward the edge of the deck. There was no wind today, but he still gripped the side of the building.
Koh-Salash was a young city, founded just over four hundred years earlier. Fleeing Lost Selsarim, Culzatik’s ancestors tried to make landfall in many places around the Semprestian Sea, but they had been driven away by archers, fire, and fleets. Only here, at the Timmer Straits, in this forbidden and forbidding place, could they make new homes.
But to live there, they had to build their homes within the skeletons of two dead gods, each three miles long. Living above them on High Slope, it was easy to forget their true scale.
Yth lay beneath, her back to the mud. Suloh lay atop her, ribs on her ribs. Hips on her hips. Just as they were when they were killed.
And the Upgarden deck, constructed around Suloh’s glowing spine, stood nearly four thousand feet above the stony beaches of the Timmer.
The nearest deck was Dawnshine, just two dozen feet below, but it didn’t extend this far east. The fugitive couldn’t have simply dropped down to it.
Culzatik looked south. His view of Yth’s skull below was blocked by buildings. Turning north, he saw the back of a shop that extended beyond the edge of the deck, then underneath it.
It was a private passage down to Dawnshine. The shop owner couldn’t have cut a stairwell through the skywood deck to the level below—it was skywood—but they could go around it.
Culzatik suddenly realized he’d been there. It was a back entrance to a Dawnshine casino that Father had once dragged him to.
The constables were blocking the public stairs and ramps out of Upgarden, but did this shabby fugitive know the deck well enough to…
“Follow me.” Culzatik sprinted up the street, his skin tingling. He found the building easily, although he had not visited in three years. It was a hat shop with high double doors and a sensibly neutral carving of the flower of ice above the door.
As he was about to enter, Aziatil blocked him. Culzatik felt a flare of annoyance, but it passed. Of course he shouldn’t be first through the door.
Tyenzo stamped up the stairs through the doorway, advancing in the stance Father had taught them to intimidate unarmed citizens. His shield was high, his sword held above his head with point forward. The other guards followed, mimicking his stance.
Culzatik went in right behind Aziatil. She did not take her hands from her long knives.
The guards advanced through the empty shop. Culzatik craned his neck to look into the back room, where the passage down to Dawnshine was hidden. The door stood open. The elderly shop owner was visible.
Then the old man moved sideways suddenly as if shoved, and Culzatik caught a glimpse of the fugitive. His shaggy black hair made it impossible to see any part of his face but his mouth, which was fixed in a tight-lipped frown.
Tyenzo shouted, “On your knees! Get on your knees right now!” The guards leaned forward to intimidate him into surrendering, but nothing about him suggested—
Without warning, shadow enveloped the fugitive, swinging around his body from both sides and meeting in the middle like a pair of weighted window cloths falling closed. For the briefest instant, where the man had stood, there was only a slash of darkness.
Despite the summer heat, a chill of fear ran down Culzatik’s back. “Let’s go.”
Darkness billowed from the scarred man like smoke.
Magic again, but this time it did not fail.
A moment later, Culzatik was back out in the street, Aziatil close behind. Another squad of six Safroy guards came jogging up. “In there, your virtue?” asked the armored woman in front. He nodded, but she approached the door without entering.
“What the fuck is that?”
Impenetrable shadow filled the room. The guards looked at it, stepped back, then began looking up and down the street as if they were about to run. Culzatik couldn’t blame them.
“Hold positions,” he ordered. “Tyenzo’s people are inside. Be ready to seize anyone who tries to escape.”
They did. Culzatik would rather have ordered them to join the fight, but Mother had taught him never to give an order that would not be obeyed.
Then the darkness retreated like water draining from a bath. Culzatik followed it inside. “It’s fine,” he said to his bodyguard. “It’s over.”
The fugitive was gone.
In his wake, he’d left the Safroy family guards in disarray. Two were sprawled on the floor, clutching twisted knees. Two more lay unconscious. Shields and swords lay scattered around the room.
By the fallen gods, who was this man?
“I cut him,” a guard said. He was holding a sword with blood on the point. “He caught my arm and stopped me just as I was cutting him.”
Tyenzo, crouching in the corner beside the shop owner, struggled to stand. He removed his hand from his lower back. His palm was covered in blood. “It wasn’t him you were cutting.”
Culzatik knelt beside the shop owner. He was unharmed. Maybe the fugitive had shoved the man aside to protect him. “Do you recognize me?” The old man stared with wide eyes and said nothing. “No? It’s all right. It was a long time ago. Did you recognize him?” The old man shook his head. “Did he take the key?”
To this, the shopkeeper had no answer.
“He cast a spell on us,” Tyenzo said as he slumped to the floor.
Culzatik moved to the center of the room. “No, he didn’t. A spell must be spoken aloud, and his lips weren’t moving.” There. He lifted the hidden latch, but the trap door was bolted from the other side.
Which was probably for the best, considering.
“Your virtue,” Tyenzo said, his face turning pale. “What should we say happened here?”
Culzatik had long considered himself an accomplished prevaricator, but for the moment, his wits failed him. They’d gone in pursuit of a single fugitive, and look at them. The truth would make the family guard look like incompetent clowns.
“Anything you like,” Culzatik said. “I wasn’t here. Just don’t mention that the man used magic. We’d have the whole city in an uproar.” No one would try to capture the scarred man alive if they thought he knew spells, and Culzatik still wanted to talk to him.
He and Aziatil started back toward High Square.
Who was that scarred asshole? And why had Culzatik run after him? It had been pure impulse, and impulsiveness was not a worthy trait for the new Safroy heir.
High Square was empty. The stitches had fled, which meant the service had ended prematurely. Because of him.
Culzatik flushed with shame. So much for never shirking his duty.
The Safroys lingered near the monument, surrounded by their guards, attendants, and a few lingering well-wishers. Mother was talking with a tiny, elderly Carrig wearing the stiff, scarlet bonnet of the Kings’ Tower Apostles. After a brief handclasp, the Carrig glanced at Culzatik, then shuffled away. Two Safroy guards accompanied her.
Why was a Carrig heretic standing for the Safroy heir?
Father noticed him and tapped Mother’s shoulder. She turned, and her expression made everyone else shrink away. “Culza, what have you done?”
“What’s the matter? Were you bored without a book?”
His tone deflected her anger. She laid one strong, slender hand on his arm “Culza,” she said, her voice still tight. “I know you loved him, but—”
“Mother, I idolized him.”
Father came up behind her, and the expression on his face was pitiless.
“He’s been gone more than seven years,” Mother said, “and we must prepare you to take his place.” Of course. She couldn’t let a day pass without implying that she didn’t think he was ready. “What have I told you about the family sail?”
Culzatik knew the answer. If there was one thing he was good at, it was his lessons. “‘The parsu fills the sail and does most of the work. Eighty percent of your time will be spent doing things for the stitches who owe their loyalty to you. But when you ask the sail to make a change, the effect will be powerful.’”
“No,” Mother said. Her tiny, close-set eyes looked as black as the fugitive’s magic. “Never show weakness. Not to your friends. Not to your enemies. Especially not to your fucking underlings.”
This conversation needed to be over. “Yes, Mother.” He turned toward the constables. They looked as though they would have paid good silver to be anywhere else. “Did any of you see the man I wanted captured?”
A constable stepped forward, removing his steel helmet out of respect. He might have been the handsomest man Culzatik had ever seen. “I saw him, your virtue. His hair was black and much too long, and he had a scar on his left cheek as if he’d been savaged by a dog. I saw nothing amiss in his behavior. He laid this at the monument.” He held out a bouquet of red poppies. Culzatik took it.
“He’s still at large,” Culzatik said, “I want him brought to me alive.” It was ludicrous. He had not—had not—seen his older brother running from his own funeral. Beating six of the family guard in a fight, while saving the life of one.
It was impossible. Still, Culzatik would have no rest until he saw the man up close.
Before his mother could speak again, Culzatik bowed to her. “On my honor, I saw a knife in his hand,” he lied. “I feared he would disgrace the funeral with bloodshed.”
She did not believe him for a moment.
“You heard my son,” she called to the constables. “Your duties at the service are done. Bring that man to the south tower for questioning.” The captain of the constables nodded.
Culzatik saw that the Safroy family investigator had come to make a report. She didn’t look happy.
He turned his attention to the bouquet. Why red poppies? Kyrionik wasn’t a soldier. And why… He counted them quickly. Why thirty of them? It didn’t make sense.
By the fallen gods, who was that man?
Two days before:
* * *
A typical Shieldsday evening on the two Apricot decks was like a lodestone for pickpockets, con artists, tar dealers, and even the occasional gang of kidnappers. They were drawn to the crowds of restless young merchants, sailors on leave, and careless teenage nobles the way rats were drawn to larders. Which was why constables were stationed everywhere. The ironshirts of Koh-Salash were not the cleverest humankind in the world, but they didn’t have to be clever to swing a truncheon.
Tonight was not typical. Tomorrow was summer solstice, which marked the end of the year. The day after that would be Mourning Day, a day to honor the friends and loved ones who had passed on since the previous solstice. In short, a time for the Salashi to celebrate their achievements and contemplate their regrets.
Which meant the Apricot decks would see more than the usual high spirits. There would be more of everything, except restraint.
But not for Onderishta, child of Intermala, one of the city’s highest-ranking investigators, and the unofficial operative for the Safroy family. Tonight was a work night, and while Onderishta was part of the bureaucrat class and drew a government salary, it was Lanilit parsu-Safroy defe-Safroy blah blah-Safroy—and, to a lesser extent, her family—who chose her assignments.
Onderishta’s superior had explained everything on the day of her promotion. As one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the city, the Safroys could turn government staff into personal servants—unofficially, of course—when the need arose. As it turned out, the need arose constantly. Safroy errands kept her busy through all her work hours and many of her private ones, too.
Not that Onderishta minded. It was a better job than most, even if it meant she was once again spending a Shieldsday—and holiday—evening sitting in a cafe on the edge of the High Apricot promenade without the company of Zetinna, her wife.
The only thing that could have made her job better would have been if her work actually accomplished something beyond the narrow interests of her noble parsu. Koh-Salash was a fucking sewer, and it really should have been the work of inspector bureaucrats like her to clean out all the shit.
By law, all bureaucrats were required to wear gray while on duty, and Onderishta wore green calf-length trousers and the multi-patterned vest of a reveler, with a discreet gray stripe on the lapel. But down here, an hour past sunset, when the only light came from the parts of Suloh’s ribs not blocked by the Upgarden and Dawnshine decks above, no one could tell.
Drums began to pound in the platform hall across the promenade, and revelers cheered. Behind the slender wooden rail, crowds began to dance and sway as high-pitched flutes joined in. Beautiful shirtless boys walked the edge of the platform, selling watered-down brandy from a tray. Business was brisk despite the early hour.
Not a typical Shieldsday.
Onderishta watched groups of young women—and the young men who trailed behind them—hurry for the entrance. Most of the women had green, red, and black designs painted on their arms, hands, and nails, but few of their male pursuers made the effort. What had been sacred in Lost Selsarim had become mere ornamentation in exile. Not that it mattered. Selsarim was gone. They were all Salashi now.
The roof of the platform hall was nothing but stretched, bone-white canvas, with a few holes to allow light in and body heat out. The parts of the hall far from one of the canvas holes were dimly lit by paper lanterns. It was just bright enough inside to recognize the face of your friends and to see the spatter of brandy stains on the cloth above.
Sailsday’s Regret was only open one night a week, but they made the most of it.
It was owned by Harl Sota List Im, the most important ganglord in Koh-Salash, and according to Onderishta’s employer, this was the likely spot for tonight’s exchange.
What, exactly, was being exchanged had not been shared with her, which was annoying. No, more than annoying, it was infuriating. Unfortunately, as a commoner, it wasn’t her place to show her feelings to the family who doled out her assignments, not if she wanted to keep her job.
Onderishta glanced around the promenade. There were the usual sit-down drinking places like the one she was in—although hers, being built against the eastern edge of the deck, offered a cool sea breeze. That was why they charged triple for their weak tea and cheap brandy. Nearby were body-painters sitting on their mats, shops that sold roasted strips of everything from cow to mouse, privy shops, and of course the alleys that ran between them all. Respectable citizens kept to the promenade. Addicts—stains of white tar on their faces visible in the distance—and kids in street gangs loitering in the alleys, giving the city constables a wide berth. The ironshirts in their gleaming steel did their best to keep the peace, for what it was worth.
She spotted a huge figure leaning against a pillar. The man’s face was not visible, but she could see a maul strapped to his broad back. Presumably, he was a bodyguard for one of the dancers. Mauls were popular weapons for intimidation, and only certain classes were allowed to carry long weapons.
Two ironshirts in full armor appeared at the top of the deck stairs, silhouetted by the glowing bones behind them. Onderishta immediately had a bad feeling about them, and she quickly realized it was well founded. They scanned the promenade and moved toward her as soon as they spotted her.
“If you salute me,” she said as they came near, “I’ll have you both reassigned to latrine duty.”
The nearest soldier, a tall woman with a crooked nose, had already begun to bend her elbow. She froze in place. Onderishta stood and sighed heavily as she fished her token from beneath her tunic.
“We don’t need to see your identification,” the second soldier said. He was a squirrelly-looking little guy. “We know—”
“You’re going to look at this token as though you’re searching for someone.” Onderishta handed it over. “Then you’re going to hand it back, and do the same with three other well-fed middle-aged women on the promenade, preferably ones with a bit of gray on top like me. You’re going to act as though you’re searching for someone specific but can’t find them. After that, you’re going to go into the Sunken Drum, find your captain, and explain how close you came to ruining my surveillance. Now give my token back and stop treating me like your boss.”
The woman with the crooked nose suddenly leaned in close to Onderishta, as though about to threaten her. When she stepped back, she had Onderishta’s tea cup in hand. She gulped the contents and tossed the cup back onto the table with contemptuous carelessness, then strolled away.
Prickles ran down Onderishta’s back. By the fallen gods, she’d told the constables to stop treating her like the boss, and they’d done it. If she wanted to maintain her disguise as a common bystander, she had to take that insult in silence.
As the cafe owner rushed to bring her a fresh cup, all the while clucking his tongue at the rudeness of these young constables, Onderishta watched them harass another older woman with the same sullen disdain.
It had been a good piece of improvisation. She’d have to remember that constable.
Fay Nog Fay, her second-in-command, was standing beside a stall that sold long strips of something that was supposed to be lamb. He pulled a blue scarf from his sleeve and wrapped it around his neck.
That was the signal. Onderishta sat back just in time to see Second Boar push through the crowd.
Ten years ago, there’d been a whole crowd of street kids who chose the “Boar” name, a crowd of cousins, friends, and cousins of friends. Paper Boar, Rainy Boar, Copper Boar…they were quite the sizable young crew. They were led by a gigantic kid with wild hair who called himself Front Boar because he stood in front of all the others when there was danger. Of course, standing in the front—like trying to claim a tough-sounding name the way their cousins Iron Boar and Steel Boar had—was a good way for a kid in a street gang to make a target of himself. He did not last long.
Second Boar was his younger brother but he grew up to be, if anything, even larger than Front. He stood nearly six and a half feet tall, with massive shoulders, arms, and gut. He looked more bull than boar, even with that big bald head, but he was smart and tenacious enough to rise within Harl’s organization, although that meant he’d left the other Boars behind.
In this heat, most people wore trousers that barely passed their knees and vests without tunics, but Second had dressed like a magistrate: long black trousers, white tunic, green vest, untied green sash. Still, no matter how distinguished the clothes, no one could have mistaken him for anything but a criminal, not with that face.
Revelers gave him a wide berth as he strode the promenade. A pair of lithe young women in silk vests edged toward him carefully, smiling as they offered him a taste from the jug they carried. He brushed them off. Our boy Second was not easily distracted from his assigned task.
Rueful grins on their faces, the young women headed toward the Sunken Drum, but not without an apologetic glance at Onderishta first. Selsarim Lost! Who trained these people in undercover work?
As Second turned to survey the growing crowd, Onderishta lifted her cup to her mouth to hide her face. Last year, she’d sicced the ironshirts on him once before, had him dragged to the south tower, and interrogated him about Harl’s business. If he recognized her now, he hid it well.
When she looked up, she saw him touch the left side of his vest to reassure himself something was there. Perfect.
He entered the platform hall with little more than a nod to the gate man—prompting a halfhearted groan from those who had to pay—then plunged into the crowd.
Fay Nog Fay went in right behind him.
Onderishta stood. She was already unhappy. Fay was supposed to signal that the exchange had been made by taking off his scarf again, but Second was late and the crowds early. She couldn’t see Fay or Second Boar amidst the dancing bodies.
* * *
Rulenya, child of Rashila, thrust her hands in the air, feeling the pounding of the drums through her whole body. She loved coming to Sailsday’s Regret, loved the bounce in the wooden platform, but most of all she loved the kettledrums. This was her element. This was what she worked all week for.
“It’s like I’m going to fucking war!” she shouted at whatshisname, the guy who was paying for tonight. Haliyal, that was it. Haliyal did as he was told. Haliyal had brought a jug to her stall before the evening began so she could get her wobble going. Only a fool tried to start a drunk on the overpriced swill at a platform hall.
“Sure, baby!” Haliyal shouted back. A boring answer from a boring guy.
As the years wore on, the guys had become less fun. They had less power and more desperation. The really hot ones barely gave her a second glance. Rulenya was still beautiful, but nobody stayed young forever. She just needed to keep whatshisname from getting what he wanted too early, because then he’d stop buying drinks.
“MORE!” she shouted as another boy circled the rail. Haliyal shoved through a circle of girls and returned with two cups. She took both and downed them, to his clear delight. They were stronger than expected. She cheered. He cheered. She threw the cups toward the outer edge of the canvas roof, knowing they’d fall into the pouch at the rim to be collected, rinsed, and filled again.
None of the idiots here were as drunk as she was. She was drunk enough to jump, drunk enough to dance with wild abandon, drunk enough to cheer at the warlike kettledrum beat. When she collided with other dancers, she was drunk enough to risk relieving them of petty trinkets like combs or bracelets, because these people were nothing but helpless petals. She was even drunk enough to fuck this boring guy with the desperate smile, once he’d bought a few more cups. She was drunk enough to feel sure she could give him what he wanted without coming down with another Long Hangover.
What she wasn’t, though, was drunk enough.
A huge, meaty hand landed on Haliyal’s shoulder and shoved him aside. He turned, fists clenched, until he got a look at the man who shoved him. He was dressed in green and black, wearing sash, vest, and long trousers on the sweaty platform, but his bald head and scarred knuckles marked him as one of Harl Im’s heavies. Haliyal raised both hands in a placating gesture, but the big man didn’t seem to notice.
The big guy’s hand pressed the bottom of his vest against his gut. Rulenya had picked enough pockets to know what that meant. He was carrying something valuable.
“Come on!” she shouted, pulling her useless date—her walking wallet—into the big guy’s wake. Haliyal didn’t like it, but she kept him dancing and moving along. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough for him to buy the drinks. They were listening to war music, and if wanted to have her, he would have to plunder.
“I can’t challenge that guy,” he shouted, and she rolled her eyes.
“Of course not! Look!” She turned and rubbed her ass against his hips, and they both saw the big guy pull a folded leather packet from his vest and pass it to a skinny little guy with three rattail braids on his forehead. The little guy passed back a coin pouch. “Him you can challenge. Let’s go to fucking war!”
The two gangsters turned away from each other. The big guy continued moving away toward the rail, but the little guy pushed his way right toward them. Haliyal did just as he was told. He danced and spun until the gangster with the little braids had just passed him, then he punched him, hard, behind the ear.
The man staggered against Rulenya and she righted him quickly, turning him so his back was to Haliyal, who had already disappeared into the crowd. Rulenya glanced at the big gangster, but his back was to them. As the big man moved away, he revealed a pale, foreign-looking little guy who was flinging his blue scarf into the air in time with the beat. He looked like an idiot, but something about his expression made her wary.
She tucked the folded leather packet into her trousers and vanished into the crowd.
* * *
Onderishta needed stilts.
Her second had vanished in the crowd. She approached the entrance with the captain and a pair of constables, glaring up at the gate men. They glared back. During business hours, the platform hall could deny entry to anyone they pleased, even the city constables. This was one of Harl’s places, and he was the only gangster in the city with a parsu’s protection. If Onderishta ordered her soldiers to push through that gate without cause, she would have to answer to the High Watch.
A third gate man had come to reinforce the usual pair, and all carried hatchets in their belts. Harl’s people were usually smart enough to leave their weapons alone when dealing with ironshirts, but her own people kept their hands on their truncheons, just in case.
Tiptoeing, Onderishta tried to peer through the crowd, but it was pointless. The dance floor was three steps above the promenade. She couldn’t have peered over the heads of those revelers if she’d stood on a chair.
Just then, the tail end of Fay’s blue scarf appeared above the heads of the crowd. It snapped upward as though he was aiming at a fly, then it snapped upward again.
The captain saw it too. She quirked her head at Onderishta. “Is he signaling, do you think?”
“He must have taken it off to fling it into the air, right?”
“So,” the captain said uncertainly, “that’s the signal?”
Onderishta suppressed her irritation. “Let’s move. And there’s our boy.”
She pointed to the hulking figure of Second Boar as he emerged from the crowd. At the same moment, the captain blew her whistle and her ironshirts surged forward.
The gate men were smart. They left their hatchets in their belts, extended their arms and shouted in protest. They wouldn’t fight constables, and they wouldn’t threaten them—no one wanted another Downscale War—but they could stall so the criminals they protected had a chance to get away. If they did anything more than that, the ironshirts could treat them like belligerents and start breaking bones.
The constables formed a wedge and pushed through, slapping the gate men’s hands aside with leather gauntlets. The music faltered and stopped. Dancers spilled over the railing like a flood breaching a seawall, fleeing in a panic. More ironshirts left their stations around the promenade and rushed toward them.
Second Boar walked to the rail and stopped. People were watching, and running away was undignified for such a big man. He had a rep to consider. The dance floor was nearly empty, and Second strolled calmly toward the gathering ironshirts.
The constables lowered their shoulders and tried to knock him down, but Second braced and cast them aside. The screams of the panicked revelers mixed with the shouts of her ironshirts. The ironshirts leaped on him—three, then four, then five—all shouting at him to drop to the ground. Instead, he planted his feet and twisted his body like a wrestler, slamming constables against each other and pitching them to the floor. He did not give a single fuck about being labeled a belligerent.
Enough. Onderishta took two running steps, leaped upward, then brought her considerable weight down on the back of Second Boar’s left knee.
He toppled sideways, bringing the constables with him. They knelt on his arms and ankles, and he finally gave up the struggle.
Onderishta stood over him. “Hello, Second. It’s been a while.”
His only answer was to glower at her. Fine. The pocket on the left side of his vest bulged a bit. A coin purse. She opened it.
There were five golden Harkan regents inside. The diameter of each was longer than her middle finger. One of the ironshirts whistled. This was enough for Onderishta to buy the city block that she lived in.
“Never knew you were a thief,” Second Boar said, “Onderishta, child of Intermala.”
So he knew her full name! She was sure he meant it as a kind of threat, but she wasn’t impressed. “Second Boar”—best to pretend she didn’t know his real name—“you’ll get these back if you come along peacefully and we don’t charge you with a crime.”
“No law against carrying coin, is there?”
“That depends on what you just sold.” The platform was almost completely empty now. The band gathered around the hat they used to collect their tips, muttering over the contents. By now, Fay should have had the courier—and the item Second had been carrying in the left side of his vest—in hand.
She didn’t see him, and that made her nervous.
To the captain, she said, “Take him to the south tower. I’ll want to talk to him there.”
One of the constables hurried toward her. “Your boy says there’s a problem.”
Of course, Fay Nog Fay was no boy. He would turn thirty in less than a month. His small, lithe body, not so different from the tray boys selling cups at the rim of the hall, made people underestimate him. Also, he did not have Salashi blood, so the constables were not inclined to treat him with respect. At least they no longer called him “good sir yellow,” which had been intolerable.
As Onderishta hurried toward him, she could see that he was very angry.
“I lost the courier and the package both,” Fay said, his fists clenched at his side. “I was right there for the exchange, but the big oaf turned suddenly and knocked me into the crowd. By the time they stopped shoving me around, the courier was gone, like a fucking ghost.” He shook his head. “I wrecked the whole operation.”
Although Fay kept his chin up, his cheeks were flushed. His pale Carrig complexion—how was his skin tone supposed to be yellow?—showed embarrassment so easily.
“The fault isn’t yours,” Onderishta told him, and she meant it. The fault was hers. The operation needed more bodies, but who could she have recruited? More young women who shrugged apologetically at her?
Fay was the only one she trusted to perform his duties competently, and soon he would be promoted to lead his own unit. In fact, it would have happened already if he’d been of Salashi heritage. Where he would find qualified people of his own, she had no idea.
“I’d recognize the courier if I saw him again,” Fay insisted. “I saw his face.”
Onderishta moved to the rail. She had a decent view of the promenade, but nothing immediately caught her eye. Some of the revelers who had been driven from the hall lingered nearby, watching. Others moved to other platforms, or food stalls, or privy shops.
But she saw no furtive movements, no little clusters of people excited about what one of them was holding, no crooked grins of contemptuous triumph.
The new Safroy heir had given her this assignment, and he’d stressed its importance multiple times. He’d wanted that package, whatever it was, intercepted.
He wasn’t going to get it. Not tonight.
* * *
Somehow, Haliyal seemed to know where Rulenya would slip out of the platform hall, because he was there, waiting. Or maybe he was just lucky. Fine. It didn’t matter. Rulenya was willing to share the score, whatever it was. She swung both legs over the rail and gestured at the nearest tray boy. Haliyal bought again, but this time he kept one for himself. His hand trembled as he drank.
They moved with the crowd, putting Sailsday’s Regret far behind them. Haliyal clutched at her arm until she showed him that she’d snatched the leather packet.
“Bold,” Rulenya said. If she’d let him finish the sentence with stupid or risky, it would have ruined the mood. They’d faced the enemy and triumphed! They’d robbed a gangland heavy like he was a pretty little petal waiting to be plucked. Shouldn’t they celebrate?
“You have very deft hands,” he said, absentmindedly checking his own purse.
She laughed. “Of course!” Raising one hand, she pretended to hold a slender brush. “How else do you think I paint such intricate designs?”
There was a paper lantern at the entrance to a privy shop, and they strolled toward it. A smart thief would wait until they got home to open the packet, but then Haliyal would want her right then and there, without spending another knot on her wobble, and the Long Hangover would still be sniveling in her bed.
Besides, she was drunk enough to take a risk.
Standing very, very close together, Rulenya opened the leather pouch.
Inside was an ear. It was the most perfect little ear you could imagine, like the ear of a child. Smaller even than her daughter’s, maybe.
But this hadn’t come from a child of humankind. It was not brown, but bluish-white, and the skin reflected the lamplight with dozens of tiny flecks of color.
“Oh, fuck,” Haliyal muttered.
Then she realized what she was holding. It was an ear from one of the glitterkind.
“Selsarim Lost,” Rulenya said. “We’re fucking rich.”
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