Siege of Rage and Ruin is the explosive final adventure in Django Wexler’s The Wells of Sorcery trilogy, an action-packed epic fantasy saga.
Isoka has done the impossible—she’s captured the ghost ship Soliton.
With her crew of mage-bloods, including the love of her life Princess Meroe, Isoka returns to the empire that sent her on her deadly mission. She’s ready to hand over the ghost ship as ransom for her sister Tori’s life, but arrives to find her home city under siege. And Tori at the helm of a rebellion.
Neither Isoka’s mastery of combat magic, nor Tori’s proficiency with mind control, could have prepared them for the feelings their reunion surfaces. But they’re soon drawn back into the rebels’ fight to free the city that almost killed them.
Siege of Rage and Ruin will be available on January 5, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
[dropcap type=”circle”]F[/dropcap]or days after it rains, water drips through the bowels of Soliton, running down cool metal walls and through ragged, rusty gaps. It beads on the surface of the pale shelf mushrooms, catching stray sunlight to gleam like a handful of diamonds, and gathers in muddy pools where algae blooms in a short-lived riot of color. The steady plink plink plink infiltrates its way into silent moments, the kind of sound you’re certain is going to drive you mad but eventually just fades into the background.
I crouch at the junction of two corridors, my breathing as quiet as I can make it, and the dripping grows louder in my ears, like a parade’s worth of kettledrums. The blueshell’s footsteps are silent—soft, springy balls at the ends of its legs absorbing any noise—but segments of its chitinous armor brush against each other with a sound like shuffling paper. I hear it come closer, then stop. It know I’m here. This close, it can hear the heart pounding in my chest.
Time to get loud, then.
I spring to my feet, slapping the wall with one hand to produce a hollow bong. The blueshell comes forward, edging around the corner, eight feet of sky-colored crab with a mass of sharp-edged tentacles for a face. It reaches for me with a foreleg tipped with a big knobbly claw, but I’m already gone, boots ringing against the metal deck as I run down the corridor.
The blueshell gives chase, moving fast and quiet. I turn another corner, out into a wide corridor, and it comes with me, tendrils writhing. This one is hungry, and it thinks it has the scent of easy prey.
Sometimes it’s easy to be wrong about who’s hunting who.
Halfway down the corridor, I turn on my heel, skidding to a stop on the slimy metal. My armor comes up, green Melos energy crackling across me, and my blades ignite—glowing, spitting chunks of pure sorcery, springing from the backs of my wrists like extensions of my arms. A drop of water falls from the ceiling and splashes across them, evaporating with a steamy hiss.
The crab pulls up short as well. Whether it knows what the sight of those blades means, or whether it’s just hesitating at something unfamiliar, I have no idea. Whatever the reason, its hunger quickly overcomes its caution, and it reaches for me with a claw. I duck under the limb, slashing across it with a blade, but energy screeches and leaves only a black scorch mark on the crab’s blue armor. I dance in closer, near the tentacled maw, and it reaches for me. No armor here, and my flashing blades leave several tendrils severed and smoking, twitching on the deck. The crab recoils, backing away.
I first made my name on Soliton killing a blueshell single-handedly, but I’m not such a glutton for pain that I’m eager to repeat the experience. Any rotting time, people.
As though in answer, a figure steps from a doorway behind the crab, outlined in an aura of pale blue light. Lines of Tartak force reach out, expertly grabbing two of the blueshell’s back legs just as it takes a step, lifting its sticky pads from the floor. The magic grabs the limbs and yanks backward, and the crab stumbles.
Shadows flicker, peeling away from the walls and swirling into a tall, lean shape. Jack usually fights with a spear, but for this she carries a short, heavy blade, with enough weight to crack crabshell. She lines up a two-handed swing with one of the pinioned legs and nails the joint expertly, crushing the thin armor and taking the leg off. It crashes to the deck, still twitching, and Jack spins to sever the other. The blueshell reaches for her with a claw, but she’s already gone, vanished with a swirl of shadows and a mocking laugh.
Zarun releases his hold on the broken legs and steps forward, his own Melos armor glowing around him. The crab turns awkwardly, shifting on its remaining limbs, would-be prey forgotten in its effort to get at its tormentors. It tries to reach Zarun with its claws, but he grabs and holds them with Tartak force. It shoves closer, lashing him with its tentacles, their sharpened tips drawing bright green flares from his armor. I know, from painful experience, that each of those flares is matched by a bloom of heat across his skin, slowly increasing from mild to unbearable, but Zarun doesn’t show any strain.
And he’s got the crab’s attention, which is all I need. I shift the flow of Melos power, letting one blade fade away while the other shortens and narrows into a thin, brutal spike. Energy collects in my fist, growing hotter by the moment. When I can barely stand it, I sprint forward, darting past the blueshell’s ruined back legs and slipping underneath it. The armor is thick here, but it still has seams, and I drive the spike in between two plates. It breaks through with a crunch, and I release the energy I’ve gathered, a wave of coruscating fire that rips through the creature’s vulnerable innards. I have to jump back as it collapses, twitching wildly.
Chalk up another one. This is getting almost too easy.
I let my armor fade away, and shake out my hand. Wisps of steam are still rising from between my fingers.
“You’re getting better at that,” Zarun says, hopping over the crab’s outstretched claws. “I still can’t get the hang of it.”
He’s in his hunting gear, ragged trousers and an open vest that shows off a well-muscled torso, his dark hair long enough that it’s starting to curl, skin Jyashtani-copper and eyes a startling blue. For all that he’s toothsome, as the late and unlamented Butcher might have put it, these days I find I can look at him and appreciate without being tempted. I have everything I need waiting for me, back in the Garden.
“Maybe too good,” I say, shaking my hand again. My skin feels tender and raw, though without the muscle-ache of full powerburn. “I think I cooked myself a little.”
“A little “burn is better than not killing the thing first try,” Zarun says. “Nothing like a mortally wounded blueshell thrashing around to ruin your day.”
“Don’t remind me,” I mutter.
“Brave companions! I see we are victorious once again!” Shadows shiver and part to reveal Jack, who bows like a con-
jurer at the end of a trick. She’s half a head taller than me, skinny as a pole, dressed in flowing, colorful silk. Her head is half-shaved, with the remaining hair dyed a brilliant purple. Her features make her look Imperial, but her accent careers wildly across the known world and beyond.
“Another triumph to add to our legend,” she goes on. “Another mighty deed in a life replete with mighty deeds. Truly, no heroes have ever been so valorous as we three, pitting ourselves alone against the monsters of the Deeps, with no thought for our own safety—”
“We’re only out here because you kept saying you were bored,” Zarun says.
“And because you said you were tired of fruit and bread,” I remind him.
“True.” Zarun looks at the blueshell and licks his lips. “That’s going to be some good eating.”
“We have to get it home first,” I say.
“Clever Jack will scout the way!” Jack says immediately, shadows rushing around her like dark water. Her voice fades gradually as she vanishes. “It would be terrible to be ambushed, after all. Many are the perils that haunt the dark places of Soliton ”
Zarun and I exchange a look, and roll our eyes.
In truth, it’s mostly Zarun who carries the dead blueshell, lifting it with his Tartak Well while I assist whenever there’s a tricky doorway. It doesn’t take long to get back to the Garden, the cylindrical hideout near the front of the ship where we’d first taken shelter from the Vile Rot. The great folding door at its base is closed, and I concentrate, reaching out through my Eddica Well into the fabric of the ship. After a moment, the door obediently slides open.
I’m getting better at that, too. I feel a burst of triumph, which is a little ridiculous for what is, after all, only a door. Having spent so long bashing my head against Soliton’s obstinate, inscrutable system, it still feels like a revelation when I can make it do anything like what I intend. In theory, the authority I was granted at the Harbor gives me complete control over the ship. In practice, things are more difficult.
Hagan is better at it than I am. Of course, being dead, he has a lot more time to practice.
Jack is waiting for us, bouncing idly from one foot to another, animated as always by a manic energy that never seems to take a breath. As Zarun hauls the dead crab over the threshold and lays it out on the grassy meadow that occupies the first layer of the Garden, Jack follows close behind, practically drooling.
“Good eating, indeed,” she says. “And none too soon, for Clever Jack has a hunger. And a thirst, come to think of it, if there’s any wine left in that jug. But mostly a hunger.”
“Let’s get it properly butchered first,” Zarun says, igniting his own Melos blades. “Otherwise half of it will go bad before we get the chance to cook it.”
I ignite my blades as well, ignoring a twinge in my singed hand. “Show me where to cut.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Zarun says. “Go upstairs and tend to your princess.”
“Yes, go!” Jack says. “You, at least, should enjoy the voyage.” “But—”
“And by that,” Jack interrupts, “I mean engage in the lustful press of flesh against warm, yielding flesh, skin against skin, tongue against—”
“Jack,” Zarun says.
“Apologies.” Jack bows, panting, her purple hair flopping forward. “Every mile Soliton puts between Lovelorn Jack and dearest Thora is like a thorn in her heart, and every day that passes adds to her . . . frustration.”
“I’m sorry,” I mutter.
“Don’t put that on Isoka,” Zarun says. “You volunteered for this, same as I did. Now go and fetch the pick and the shell-spreader.” “Useful Jack will retrieve the tools of slaughter!” Jack says,
bounding off toward the stairs.
Zarun shook his head. “Don’t mind her.”
“I try not to,” I say. “But I can help with this, if you need me.” “Don’t worry about it,” Zarun said, stretching. “It keeps me busy, at least.”
Keeping busy, I reflect as I ascend to the Garden’s upper floors, really has been the biggest problem we’ve encountered so far. We spent the passage through the straits near the Vile Rot sealed up tight inside the Garden, and since then it’s been a steady run northward, the temperature slowly rising as we parallel the coast of the Southern Kingdoms and make for Imperial shores. With control of the angels, crab attacks aren’t a worry, and the Garden provides more than enough food now that the four of us are the only ones aboard.
Even my worry about Tori has receded a little. Not much, of course, but at least we’re headed in the right direction at the best speed I can manage. When we arrive at Kahnzoka—another two days, according to Meroe’s charts—I’ll start to worry again. Until then, all I can do is wait, while mighty Soliton sweeps the miles under its keel.
Tori will be fine. She has to be. It’s months, yet, until Kuon Naga’s deadline.
And Kuon Naga would never lie to you? a traitor part of my mind whispers.
Meroe and I share a chamber in the highest part of the Garden. It’s not large, but it feels positively luxurious compared to the voyage to the Harbor, when hundreds of us were crammed into these rooms. It’s furnished haphazardly, out of the superstitious offerings of goods that have accumulated over decades all across Soliton. Our bed is a nest of cushions and thick carpets, our fire-pit is a brazen shield carved with a lion’s head, and we eat off gold and silver plate that would be at home in the Imperial palace. When she’s not looking through her telescope or plotting our course on her maps, Meroe makes herself clothes from scavenged fabric, strange hybrids of Imperial kizen and Jyashtani dresses that would draw attention on the street of any city in the world. She always looks beautiful, of course.
When I arrive, she’s busy sketching something, sitting at a small desk we’d made from the remnants of a heavy sea chest, carefully husbanding a stub of a pencil from her small, precious stock. Her brow has a single, adorable furrow of concentration, and her tongue pokes ever so slightly out of the corner of her mouth. Back in Kahnzoka, I’m going to buy her a crate of pencils, and inks in every color she can imagine, and a bigger telescope and—
“Isoka!” She looks up and gives me that smile that makes my stomach wobble. “Everything went all right?”
“Fine,” I say. “Zarun and Jack are butchering a blueshell downstairs.”
I grin and flex my hand. “I may have burned my fingers a little finishing it off.”
“My mighty hunter.” She gets to her feet, all smooth, automatic grace. She’s wearing pale green, setting off her brown skin and the silver of the asymmetric armband that’s her only jewelry. Her hair is tied into an untidy pile at the back of her head. “And you’re not helping?”
“They told me to head upstairs and ‘tend to you,’” I tell her. “Well. Zarun told me that. Jack specifically told me I should go and rut you. Something about the lustful press of flesh against warm, yielding flesh?”
Meroe laughs, covering her mouth with her hand. She steps closer, lively red-brown eyes flashing, one eyebrow quirked.
“Something like that,” she says, “could be arranged.” She halts, and sniffs. “After you wash, though. You smell like crab.”
I sniff, and have to agree with her. I make a great show of an exasperated sigh, and she laughs again.
The Garden, it turns out, has showers. That’s what Zarun calls them, anyway. In Kahnzoka we have baths, but apparently in Jyashtan the rich like to have warm water pumped up into the ceiling and drizzled on them like a kind of private rainstorm. Zarun says this is a recent invention, but the ancients who built Soliton must have had a similar idea, because there are little rooms adjacent to our chambers that produce a spray of hot water on demand. Just another benefit of finally achieving real control over the ship. I still prefer a nice hot soak to relax, but for getting yourself clean the shower beats dumping a bucket over your head.
I strip down and start the water with an Eddica command, leaning against the wall and letting it beat down on my shoulders. After a few moments, the tension goes out of my muscles, and I shiver.
Meroe leans her head around the corner, smiling wickedly. I raise my eyebrows.
“Can I help you?”
“Just watching,” she says. “Pay no mind.”
Frankly, I don’t know what she’s so eager to look at. I’m certainly no beauty, more muscle than curves, with my history written on my skin for all to see. Pale ridged scars on my back and thighs, from the Kahnzoka streets, a dozen overlapping cuts from various blades, healed into puckered lines; and of course the line of cross-hatched blue marks that cover my leg and run up my torso and across my face, legacy of the time Meroe’s Ghul power saved my life in the Deeps.
But if she wants to watch, I’m hardly going to complain. I turn around under the shower, letting the sweat and crab blood sluice off my skin. When I look back, the green dress is puddled at Meroe’s feet, with nothing beneath but smooth, curving brown skin.
“Sorry,” she says. “I got impatient.”
She pulls her hair loose, and it cascades down to her shoulders in a dark, thick mass. I start to object, then wonder why in the Rot I would do that, and by then she’s kicked free of the dress and stepped into the shower with me. I lean down, just a little, and she kisses me.
“Patience,” I murmur, “can be overrated.”
She laughs, and pulls in tighter, her skin slick against mine, her warm, yielding flesh—
Well. What Jack said.
I’ve never been married, obviously.
When I was a girl on the streets of the Sixteenth Ward, the older teens would talk about being “hooked.” This, I understood, meant a couple who were rutting on the regular, and had agreed not to do it with anyone else, at least until their partner got locked away by the Ward Guard or turned up bled white in some alley. There wasn’t a lot of room for romance in the Sixteenth, at least not for kids with nothing to sell except their bodies and whatever they could steal.
Point is, I’d never been hooked, or particularly wanted to be. I’d rutted, when I got old enough to feel the need for it, with boys I’d paid for or taken a fancy to at Breda’s tavern. I’d visited a Ghultouched, an old woman, and suffered her bony fingers to touch me long enough to ward against any unwanted complications, but that was about all the thought I’d given to the consequences. The closest thing I’d had to a long-term relationship had been with Hagan, who’d worked with me as muscle as well as sharing my bed, and that had ended with me killing him to keep him from talking to Kuon Naga’s interrogators. (Not that it made a difference in the end, and don’t think I’m entirely free of guilt on the subject.)
Point is, what I have with Meroe is different. Obviously. But neither she nor I have a lot of experience with being with someone, in the most literal sense of the phrase, and what with the constant threat of being eaten by crabs or torn apart by Prime’s walking corpses we hadn’t gotten much chance to practice. Ever since we came back from the Deeps, the crew has been looking to us for leadership. We’d figured out that we liked kissing and everything that came after, but that was about as far as it went.
But the last few weeks, since we’d left the Harbor, had been . . . different. It’s just her, me, Zarun, and Jack—and Hagan, if dead people count—alone in all the vastness of Soliton. The others have their own ways of amusing themselves—Jack scavenges for interesting tidbits, like a magpie, and Zarun reads the books he finds among the sacrifices—which has left Meroe and me mostly on our own. No one to lead, no one to take care of, just . . . living. Just for a while.
It’s weird. But . . . in a good way. Waking up in the same bed. Eating the same meals. Falling asleep together, and knowing tomorrow will be more of the same.
Until it’s not. And that time is getting closer, which is probably why I can’t sleep.
For my practice sessions, I picked one of the angels that’s not quite so distressing to look at—no screaming baby faces or ranks of grasping hands. This one is tall, six-legged, and vaguely leonine, with a complex pattern of blocky protrusions surrounding its single crystalline eye. That eye, the heart of the angel’s connection to Soliton, glows a brilliant blue, throwing snaky shadows as the huge thing paces around the control room with its complicated interlocking conduits.
“See?” Hagan says. “You can manage.”
I grit my teeth and bite back a sarcastic rejoinder. I hate being patronized, but after everything that’s happened between us, Hagan of all people has earned a little restraint. He hangs in the air beside me, outlined in pale gray Eddica light that would be invisible to anyone without a connection to the Well of Spirits. I can see gray threads linking his form to the conduits throughout the room, and more threads running back up to the angel. All of Soliton is a single system, a complex construct of Eddica energy. Hagan doesn’t control it, precisely; it’s more like he inhabits it—or haunts it, I suppose—and he’s learned to twist the threads to his own ends.
That’s what he tells me, anyway. Honestly I don’t understand half of what he and Silvoa talked about. Which is something of a problem, actually, since as far as anyone knows I’m the only living Eddica adept—the last Eddicant—which puts the fate of Soliton and the Harbor in my hands. Since I overrode the system at the Harbor and it acknowledged me as the highest authority, I theoretically have the power to make Soliton and its angels do whatever I want. Getting the ship to sail in a particular direction turned out to be easy enough, but controlling the angels is not.
“I’ve always been able to do it when I’m concentrating,” I tell Hagan, trying not to lose my focus on the angel. It keeps walking around in circles, six legs moving smoothly, and I wonder if I am finally getting it. “It’s setting the rotting things up so they keep doing what they’re supposed to be doing that’s the problem.”
Hagan shakes his head, brushing back his long hair. His appearance has changed, become more stylized, as though he no longer bothers to re-create every detail of his living self. He’s more like a sketch of what he was in life, a few bold lines roughing in a face, clothes vague and indistinct. I wonder if he’ll eventually give up on a human form entirely, and what will happen to him when he does.
“I told you,” he says, “it’s all about patterns. You impress the pattern of what you want the angel to do into its mind, like it was a wax tablet you were sketching on with a stylus.”
Patterns. I try to think a pattern at the angel, a simple circle. Keep walking round and round. I feel it respond, and slowly withdraw my control. For a moment, it seems to work, and the thing keeps moving at a steady pace. Then it shifts, one foot coming down awkwardly on the uneven floor. With the next step, it topples over, legs churning mindlessly in place as it lies on its side.
Hagan snorts a laugh, ignoring the death glare I shoot at him.
I suppose it’s hard to intimidate a ghost.
“You’re pushing too hard,” he says. “The angels aren’t blank slates. They know how to walk already. You just have to tell them where you want them to go.”
“You just told me to imagine a blank slate!” I protest.
“I didn’t mean—” Hagan looks up. “Never mind. We’ll try again later.”
He disappears, vanishing like a candle flame in a sudden wind. I turn and find Meroe standing in the doorway, watching the fallen angel trying to walk.
“It looks a little bit like a clockwork soldier,” Meroe says. “Do you have those in Kahnzoka? Where you wind the key and it marches around.”
“I’ve seen one,” I say, uncomfortably. There was a time when I’d aspired to be nothing more than a soldier like that, carrying out orders as the boss of the Sixteenth Ward and never thinking about anything but the next job and Tori’s safety. I won’t say I miss that life, but it was . . . easier.
“Something wrong?” Meroe says, coming into the room. “Just a bad memory.”
“Sorry I brought it up,” she says, then cocks her head. “Actually, one of my brothers took our clockwork soldier apart until it was just a pair of legs that walked on their own, and he used it to scare my little sister half to death. They’re creepy things when you think about it.”
“I suppose they are.” I reach out to the angel, and it stills. “So what are you doing up?”
“I woke in the middle of the night and found my partner missing,” Meroe says. “What’s your excuse?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
It’s hard to say more than that, but mercifully I don’t have to. Meroe comes over to me and puts her arm around my shoulders, pulling me close. For a moment we stand in silence, here in the room where I fought the Scholar, where I nearly died and saved Soliton’s crew. The bloodstains are gone. I wonder if one of the angels cleaned them.
“She’ll be all right,” Meroe says.
“You don’t know that,” I say, very quietly. “You can’t.”
“I know she’s related to you,” Meroe says. “That means she can take care of herself.”
“I didn’t teach her to take care of herself,” I say. “I never wanted her to take care of herself. I wanted her to grow up and be happy and not have to worry.”
“We’ll get there,” Meroe says, a whisper in my ear. “We’ll get there,” I repeat. And then what?
And then what? It’s the central question, really.
Kuon Naga sent me to capture Soliton and bring it back for service in the navy of the Blessed Empire, in anticipation of another war against Jyashtan. He gave me a year, with my sister as hostage. I learned, later, that I wasn’t the first agent he’d smuggled aboard the legendary ghost ship. How much he knows about Soliton, if any of his previous spies smuggled any information off, I have no idea.
Unlike any of his other agents, unlike anyone since the time of the ancients, I succeeded. Soliton goes where I want it to. Whether Naga can do anything with it is his problem—I’ve fulfilled my side of the bargain. I ought to be able to sail into Kahnzoka harbor, take Tori, and go.
Go rotting where? Back to my life in the Sixteenth Ward? It’s hard to imagine, now. And hard to believe that Kuon Naga would let us live for long. The head of the Immortals, the Emperor’s guards and secret police, didn’t get to where he is by leaving loose ends. And even if I could return to the streets, would Meroe come with me? Would I want her to? How would she look at me if I spent my days cutting down small-time crooks who hadn’t paid their protection money?
Options, options. We could leave Kahnzoka. Take Tori, take the money I’ve salted away, and go. Rot, we don’t even need my savings—there’s enough gold on Soliton for a hundred fortunes, no one is going to miss a bit. But that still leaves the question of where wide open. And there’s Jack to consider. Her partner, Thora, is back at the Harbor, and Soliton is her only way back. I doubt Kuon Naga will give her a ride for the asking.
If I could make the angels do what I want—if I had the kind of control I ought to have—then I would hold all the cards. There are hundreds of angels aboard Soliton, maybe thousands. They’re absurdly strong and nearly indestructible. No army in the world, not even the Invincible Legions, could stand against them. But I get a headache trying to control two angels at once, let alone thousands. And even if I could, Naga would have Tori as a hostage. If he hurts her, I’ll tear him apart piece by bloody piece, but that would be small comfort.
What’s left, then? Hope. Hope that Naga always figured this was a long-shot bet. He’ll have people watching Tori, but if he hasn’t actually put her under lock and key, the four of us can probably get to her and get away before he knows we’re here. If we can get back to Soliton, we’re safe; the entire Imperial Navy can’t stop the ghost ship from going exactly where it wants to.
—I’m building a boat.
Or the angels are building a boat under Hagan’s control. I’m supervising, Zarun is complaining, and Jack has gotten bored and wandered off.
“It still doesn’t look like much,” Zarun says. “The wood is all cracked and splintered. Are you sure this’ll float?”
“It’ll float,” Hagan says. “I’m caulking it with sap from bluegill mushrooms.”
“Hagan says he’s caulking it with mushroom sap,” I relay to Zarun, who looks uncomfortable at the mention of Hagan’s name, but pretends not to be.
“Was Hagan particularly familiar with boats?” he says. “When he was alive, I mean.”
“Not really,” I say, and glance at Hagan. He shrugs.
“Soliton has memories,” he says. “Embedded in the system. People have done this before.”
“Has it ever worked?” I send this via Eddica, so Zarun won’t hear.
“The boat worked fine,” he says. “Until they tried to leave and the angels wrecked it.”
“Right.” I sigh and raise my voice again. “Besides, the only other thing we have to use is scraps from the hull, and if anyone spots us in a rotting metal rowboat, there are going to be some serious questions.” I still haven’t quite gotten used to the idea that anything made of metal could float.
“If anyone gets a good look at any of this, there are going to be some questions,” Zarun says.
He’s right. What wood there is on Soliton comes from sacrifices, so the boat is being assembled from bits of furniture, chests, and other detritus. I don’t doubt that it’ll float, but it doesn’t look like any another rowboat I’ve seen. Beside it is a small pile of sacks full of easily portable treasure—gold and silver, mostly, and a few gems and pearls. I don’t know what we’re going to find in Kahnzoka, but having full purses certainly won’t hurt.
That night, according to Meroe’s instruments, Soliton slips silently past Kahnzoka. We’re well out to sea, too far to catch sight of the city, but I trust Meroe’s skill, and that means it’s time to put the plan into action. Following my instructions, the ghost ship executes a slow turn to starboard, running east under cover of darkness until the humped shapes of the Dragonback hills start blotting out the stars.
If we’re going to steal Tori out from under Kuon Naga’s nose, we need to make sure he doesn’t know we’re coming, which means keeping Soliton out of sight. The headlands that define the sweep of Kahnzoka’s bay both have Imperial watchposts on them. It’s hard to get past them in a blacked-out skiff, let alone a metal leviathan the size of a small mountain. The smugglers I know from my days as ward boss preferred to land on the coast north of the city, across the Dragonbacks. It means a couple of days on the road to get to the landward gate, but the chance to blend in to the endless civilian traffic makes it a safer bet. I remember directions to a couple of their favorite spots, or at least I’ve convinced myself that I do.
So, with the coast only a dark line in the distance, the same swinging pulley that first lifted me onto Soliton in an iron cage lowers our makeshift boat over the side, with Zarun, Jack, Meroe, and me aboard, plus a king’s ransom in assorted gold and jewels. On a cord under my shirt, smooth against my skin, I carry a segment of the ship’s conduit, charged with Eddica power. As the Scholar and I had discovered, cut fragments retained their connection to the system for quite some time, so until the energy decays I’ll be able to use it to contact Soliton and Hagan.
I hope, anyway. There’s a lot of hope involved in this endeavor. Amazingly, the first part of the plan goes off without a hitch. We take turns pulling on oars carved from an oak tabletop, driving the furniture-boat through a mild surf as the stars wheel slowly above us. Soliton turns away, a rapidly diminishing shadow—I told Hagan to take the ship farther out to sea, to make sure it isn’t spotted by some sharp-eyed lookout. After an hour, back and shoulders burning furiously, I hear the crash of waves, and Jack shouts excited directions to keep us aimed at a broad inlet lined with pebbled beaches. It’s a calm night, and before long I can roll out of the boat and wade through waist-deep water, dragging our little craft in the rest of the way.
I pause for a moment, feet in the surf, as the others start unloading. Kahnzoka. I look out at the moonlight-dappled water and test my feelings. Back to the Empire. Back to my home.
It still doesn’t feel real. The beach could be any beach. Maybe it’s because of the way I left the city, trussed in a cage.
But Tori’s here. She’s close. After so many miles, I’m almost there.
It feels strange to abandon the boat, after spending so much effort putting it together, but it’s served its purpose. We take up our packs full of treasure—more strain on my already screaming shoulders—and hike across the beach and up the low ridge beyond. That takes us to the coast road, a long, rutted dirt track that runs across the point and up to the farming and fishing villages of Kahnzoka’s hinterland. We stop in a copse of trees and wait for the sun to rise. If my memory serves, there’s a small town a few miles farther along, and in the morning we can hike in like any other group of travelers, on our way to the city to sell our wares.
So far, so good. Right?
The town is called Redtree, on account of having an enormous red tree in the square. Country folk are nothing if not rotting imaginative.
I had worried a little that the appearance of our party might attract some comment. In Kahnzoka itself, foreigners are a common sight, and almost any combination of costume and features would probably pass without notice. Out in the country, the fact that we are two Imperials, a Jyashtani, and a southerner in a weird combination of silks and scraps could have been more notable.
As it turns out, though, I needn’t have worried. Redtree is packed far beyond the town’s modest capacity for visitors. There are carts everywhere, pulled by horses, mules, donkeys, oxen, or sweating porters, all of them making as much noise as they’re capable of. Men and women with wheelbarrows make their way along the slow-moving mass of traffic, selling food, drink, and fodder at outrageous prices.
“I have to admit,” Zarun says, “I always thought you Imperials were boasting when you called your capital the greatest city in the world. But even at Horimae you don’t get stuck in traffic before you get to the walls.”
“This is . . . not normal.” I look over the lines of arguing carters and frown. Most of the loads are food, which is common enough, but there are other things, too, barrels and crates with a suspiciously uniform look. “Something’s happening.”
“Thirsty Jack suggests a drink,” Jack says, pointing to the town’s only tavern, creatively called The Redtree Tavern. And perhaps a wagging tongue will clarify matters.”
I glance at Meroe, who gives a little nod. The next step in the plan involves hiring a wagon to take us to the city, and the tavern is as good a place as any to start looking. I clear my throat.
“Okay,” I tell them. “Remember we’re trying to avoid notice, though. Let me do the talking.” I glare at Jack until she meets my gaze. “Understood?”
“Clever Jack will attempt to conceal her natural brilliance, lest we attract undue attention,” Jack says. “But a true diamond can never be hidden for long.”
Zarun snorts, but says nothing. I lead the way to the tavern.
The place is surprisingly crowded for mid-morning. In fact, judging by the spills and vomit on the floor, I doubt they got the chance to close last night. I edge my way around the worst of it and claim a corner table still sticky with wine. I send Zarun to get us drinks and settle in for some eavesdropping.
Most of the tables in the tavern are occupied with chattering traders, and the conversations revolve around goods and prices. I hear some numbers which make me raise an eyebrow—if people in Kahnzoka are paying that much for grain and salt fish, then something must be seriously wrong. Storms, maybe, or a failed harvest? “If this is what you Imperials call wine,” Zarun says when he returns, “I can see why you’re always trying to steal from us. A
Jyashtani dog wouldn’t deign to piss in this stuff.”
“Charming,” I mutter, as he passes wooden mugs across the table. “Now sit down and be quiet.”
“It does have a certain piquancy,” Meroe says, wrinkling her
nose at her cup. Jack drains half of hers in a single swallow. “We’re not exactly in the Imperial Palace here,” I say, feeling
a need to defend my hometown. “And even a backcountry tavern isn’t going to waste the good stuff on this lot.” I push my chair back. “Stay here. I’m going to see if I can get us a ride.”
A couple of tables up from us, a pair of young men have been discussing the day’s plan in loud voices. I’ve gathered that they have a pair of wagons, and that they were loaded with barrels of salt slitfish. Nobody who can afford not to eats slitfish, so they have to be hauling to the lower wards, and probably won’t mind carrying a few paying passengers.
The two of them look at me as I sit down, and it takes me a moment to place their expressions. I’m used to contempt from the rich and fear from the poor, at least if they know my reputation, but this is neither. They’re staring, and I’m abruptly conscious of my mismatched clothes, my ragged hair, and most of all the blue cross-hatching that wanders across my face.
This is going to take some getting used to.
“Morning, sirs,” I say. It takes an effort to speak pure Imperial, instead of the polyglot mess we use on Soliton. “My friends and I were hoping for a ride to the city, down to the Sixteenth.” I open my hand to show the gleam of silver. “We can pay.”
One of the pair, a gangly youth with a patchy beard, gives a derisive snort. The other, his older brother for a guess, looks at me with another strange expression.
“I can give you a ride,” he says, slowly, “but I’m wondering what rock you’ve been hiding under, and if you know what you’ll be riding into.”
I feel a prickle on the back of my neck. “Meaning what?” “Meaning there ain’t no more Sixteenth,” he says. “My uncle
had a little flat there, and a shop, but it’s all smoke and ashes now, and my uncle along with it. The Sixteenth is gone, friend.”
I don’t remember jumping to my feet, but I must have. The next thing I know, everyone in the room is looking at me, and the two traders are frozen in place. I feel Meroe touch me gently on the shoulder.
“Gentlemen,” she says, her Imperial fluent and correct. “Can we buy you a few drinks, and hear the whole story?”