|Cover art by Larry Rostant|
I wear this chaos well
VNV Nation - "Genesis"
Death is a dialogue
Between the spirit and the dust.
1233 Sal Emperaturi
The Çiragan Serai was called a palace, but it was one of the few buildings in Kehribar that had never been one. At the height of the Ataskar Empire every bey and sultan and merchant prince had built a fortress or a manor house, and after its fall they had slowly been repurposed into brothels and hostels and gambling halls. The Çiragan had only ever been a prison.
The dour stone fortress crowned the westernmost of the city's five hills. Once it had faced a courthouse—a hope of justice, or a mockery of it—but over decades of revolution and power shifts the court had been burned, abandoned, and eventually razed, leaving the prison alone in a wide, desolate yard. The closest neighborhoods on Hapishane Hill were poor and mostly empty, populated with squatters and stray dogs and patrolled by the city guard. The Çiragan wasn't isolated as many prisons were, but the guards were known for their brutal efficiency. Thieves in dim wharf taverns told of cunning escapes, of eluding traps and outwitting wardens; all their stories were lies.
Few visitors passed the Çiragan's black gates. Men condemned to its cells were forgotten by their families and friends, mourned for dead. Soldiers came, and inquisitors, and the rare penitent priest, all on strict, well-supervised schedules.
But tonight, as summer rain washed the city and midnight bells tolled the hour, a carriage rattled and juddered up the uneven streets of Hapishane Hill. The driver's pockets were heavy with silver kurush and his thoughts heavy with the shadow of sorcery, dulling his memory of the night. The faces of his passengers had already faded in his mind.
Inside the coach, Isyllt Iskaldur leaned against the window, wincing at every pothole that jarred her spine and watching the night. Rain softened square buildings and spindle-sharp spires, bled orange halos from scattered city lights—the color of the amber for which the city was famed. Watchfires burned on distant walls, golden pinpricks against the dark.
The lights, the streets, the scents embedded in the carriage cushions were all foreign. Even the rain tasted different, the alchemy of wind and water subtly altered as it blew off the Zaratan Sea. By day she could distract herself but at night homesickness stole over her. Even nights like this, when she had work to do.
Another bone-jarring bounce, and Isyllt's companion cursed. Isyllt kept her invective to herself for fear of biting her tongue off mid-jolt.
"Are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" asked the girl when the road smoothed again. She called herself Moth, though it wasn't her name. Neither was she precisely a girl, but it was a convenient façade.
"I've made the arrangements," Isyllt said. "Best to keep this quiet and quick." Wisdom for any jailbreak, even one arranged through bribery and veiled threats instead of swords and black powder bombs. All the same, her tone was chillier than she intended.
"Just because you do stupid things," Moth replied with equal sharpness, "doesn't mean I have to like it."
Isyllt smiled ruefully, tugging the curtain shut against the damp. Walking alone into an Iskari prison was unarguably stupid, though nothing close to the stupidest thing she'd ever done. "I promise to come out again."
Moth's lips pursed, but she let the matter pass. They'd quarreled more than once about Isyllt's recklessness and distraction, but since arriving in Kehribar the girl had found distractions of her own. She went out every night, winding farther and farther through the city. Just as reckless, perhaps, but Moth had grown up a street rat. Six months ago she'd been Dahlia, a whore's androgyne child with a prostitute's life awaiting her. Now she was an apprentice mage and shed more of her old life with every new place they traveled. She was due her freedom.
Six months ago Isyllt had been a Crown Investigator, student to the spymaster of Selafai. Now she was jobless, her master dead, her home abandoned to ghosts and memories. What was she due?
The carriage slowed, knocking Isyllt's shoulder against the bench. She snorted humorlessly—due a cut throat or a knife in the back, if she couldn't shake this maudlin abstraction. She might be no longer employed as a spy, but she wasn't yet out of the game.
The driver tapped on the connecting panel. Wet wood squealed open. "We're here, effendi," the man called. "The Çiragan Serai."
"Thank you." Her Skarrish was atrocious, but money eased translation.
"When do I get to meet this friend of yours?" Moth asked as Isyllt opened the door.
"Give us a few hours." Were they still friends? They hadn't spoken in years; he might have no desire to see her. It didn't matter—she wasn't about to leave him in the Çiragan.
Moth leaned close. Light warmed the curves of her face, still soft with youth. Less so now than mere months ago. "Be careful."
Isyllt couldn't say the same in return—prickly adolescent pride wouldn't allow it. I always am, she nearly said, but they both knew that was a lie. She tugged her scarf higher, hiding her mouth and chin. "Send the carriage back for me."
Her boots splashed in a puddle as she stepped down and the wet summer night settled over her. The rain had slacked into haze. She rapped on the door and the carriage rumbled into the mist and dark, leaving her alone in front of the bulk of the prison.
Her nape prickled; only the attention of the guards on the watchtowers, perhaps, but she thought not. A shadow had haunted her steps for decads, one she'd had no luck shaking. Fifteen years of good service—as spying, theft, and murder were euphemistically called—had won her enemies, and now she was far from home, far from her friends and allies, with no king to protect her. No one to avenge her.
Isyllt touched the diamond ring on her right hand, the briefest indulgence of nerves, but it didn't reassure her. Not long ago the stone had been filled with bound souls, ghosts whom Erisín deemed too dangerous to go free. Trapped in her ring, they had served as a power source to augment her own magic, a resource she relied on all too often. In her desire to sever ties, she had released them before she left Selafai.
Like so many sentimental gestures, it seemed quite stupid now. But hadn't sentiment brought her here? If only doubt were as easy to banish as ghosts. She squared her shoulders and strode toward the black iron gates. She had work to do.
He was dreaming when the guards came for him.
Through the blue shade of fir trees he runs, eyes slitted against the wind, snow crunching underfoot. The scent of pine and winter fills his nose, clean and sharp. He would take joy in running, but for the shadows close on his heels. Beasts that run like men, men that run like beasts, night-shining eyes and snapping teeth, near enough that he feels their laughter and hot breath. Nearer with every step. Does he run on two legs or four? The uncertainty makes him falter, and the hunters have him. Fangs close in his flesh, dragging him down, and the snow melts under a wash of blood.
Booted footsteps banished the nightmare, returning him to the dank filth of his cell, the weight of stone and iron and old earth enclosing him. The sharp pain in his limbs was only cramp, the moisture slicking his skin fevered sweat. Adam was glad to wake; delirium was crueler than any torture his jailors could devise.
At first he thought it was the daily meal that roused him, but the footsteps were too loud and too numerous and only one rat pressed its cold nose against his neck—they came by the dozens when food arrived. The lock clicked, and the door that hadn't opened since his cellmate died scraped inward. The unexpectedness of it stunned him as badly as the onslaught of light and sound. Torchlight wedged glass knives behind his eyes, prizing open the seams of his skull.
He lay still as rough hands seized him, though the touch of skin made his flesh crawl. The iron they closed around his wrists was easier to bear. Vermin scurried through rotten straw as the guards hauled him up. He was glad to be rid of the roaches, but he'd miss the rats.
Was he going to the headsman after all? The thought made him stand straighter, though gummy tears blinded him and he ached from the weight of chains. Had they forgotten him while bureaucrats shuffled paperwork? He chuckled, which became a deep, tearing cough. The guards flinched at the sound. Three of them—one for the torch and two for him. Once he might have tried those odds, but it would be suicide now. Or just pathetic.
They led him past a row of iron doors, a row of tombs. Deep beneath the earth, these cells, the bowels of the Çiragan. A place to bury murderers and violent madmen and unlucky mercenaries like him. Screams and curses rose up as the guards' boots rang on stone, taunts and pleas for attention, protestations of innocence. After the silence of his cell, each shout was another spike driven into his skull. His captors smelled of garlic and paprika, sweat and leather and oiled steel—dizzying after the unchanging stench he'd grown accustomed to.
They didn't speak, and that was a small mercy. It was effort enough to move his legs. To die like this would be a miserable joke—the gods' favorite kind.
Down the hall and up a flight of stairs the guards dragged him. They hauled him up the last few steps when he faltered, bruising his arms and stubbing his toes. The slighter one cursed and Adam nearly laughed—all the weight must have wasted off his bones by now.
He dreaded more stairs, but instead they unlocked a door—bronze-bound wood instead of rusting iron—and shoved him inside. He fell with a rattle of chains, scraping hands and knees on the cold stone floor. The room spun and his empty stomach cramped.
The guards spoke and a woman answered—the timbre of her voice sent prickles of familiarity across his neck. Tall and thin, dressed in dark colors. A veil hid half her face.
"Leave us." Her voice was cold, her Skarrish heavily accented.
"Are you certain, effendi? He is dangerous." The acrid scent of nerves wafted from the man. They couldn't fear him, not like this.
"Does he look like a threat?" Adam wanted to snarl at the dry dismissal in her voice; he wanted to laugh.
"As you wish." The door slammed shut as the guards retreated.
He knelt, head down, letting his eyes adjust to the candlelight. The sight of his hands sickened him: bone-thin and broken-nailed, ragged and embedded with grime. Soft where they had been hard with sword calluses. The manacles hung loose around the knobs of his wrists. Matted plates of hair fell in his face; he was crawling with lice, and glad for once he couldn't grow a beard.
"I know I'm pretty," he said when the silence stretched, "but did you have me brought up here just to stare?" He coughed again and spat thick phlegm. He wanted to stand, or at least square his shoulders, but the shakes didn't allow so much pride.
The woman laughed and stepped closer. Her scent cut through his own stench: clean skin, cool and bittersweet, threaded with poppy oil and cloying myrrh. Recognition quickened his pulse.
"Quietly," she said, in Selafaïn this time. "I'm not using that name here. You look like you crawled through all nine hells, and a sewer besides."
"Or a war and an Iskari prison. What are you doing here?"
The light was unkind when she drew aside her scarf—she'd lost weight where she had none to spare, and bruises darkened her cold grey eyes. With her pale skin she looked like one of the bardi beyaz—the white jackal women who prowled cemeteries and sang for those about to die. Small wonder the guards feared her.
He hadn't seen Isyllt Iskaldur in years—in all his dreams of rescue, freedom had never worn her face. But now she knelt before him and unlocked his shackles.
"I'm not dead, am I?" He could imagine her gaunt, aquiline features on the Lady of Ravens all too easily.
She laughed, but her smile fell away. "Not yet. We'll see how long you survive my company. Saints and shadows," she swore, looking closer. "You're sick."
He tried to shrug—it became a convulsion. "Prison fever. It comes and goes."
"You need a doctor," she said with a scowl.
"I need a bath."
The room blurred as he rose. Isyllt reached to steady him and he flinched from her hand, from the shock of human contact. He shrugged apologetically, leaning against the wall.
She shook her head with wry understanding. "All right. Bath first. You're too filthy to die."
Adam wanted to watch the prison's black walls fall away, but as they passed beneath the gate the red tide of delirium washed over him again. He saw nothing of their route down Hapishane Hill and into another decaying neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Chills and fever rode him in turns, Isyllt's voice a pale thread weaving through them. He clung to it. Monsters circled, hungry and waiting, but the scent of her magic kept them at bay.
After the carriage came a confusion of light and voices and falling, hands clutching him at every turn. An echoing building that smelled of moss and wet stone.
"Are you mad, effendi?" A boy's voice, high with shock. "You've brought plague into the house."
"It's prison fever," Isyllt answered. "Burn his clothes and kill the vermin and you'll be fine."
An argument followed in bad Skarrish and equally broken Assari. Coins rattled. Isyllt must have won, because the next time the darkness rolled back they were still in the damp place. Adam lay on his back on a hard, thin bench. Water rippled nearby. Either he'd get his bath, or she planned to drown him and put him out of his misery.
"Wake up," Isyllt said, her voice close above him. With his eyes shut the pain in his skull was bearable. Cold metal brushed his chest and he flinched so violently he rolled off the bench and onto the tiled floor, bruising hand and hip. Isyllt swore and crouched beside him, a pale and dark blur through a film of tears. Lamplight shattered off the folding knife in her hand.
"Your clothes are coming off one way or another," she said, implacable. "I don't think you're in any condition to do it yourself."
He held up one shaking hand, counted six, seven, eight fingers before his eyes focused again. "Maybe not."
They were in a private bath, low and dim. Intricate tiles covered the room, chipped now and furred with moss. Pieces had fallen from the mosaicked ceiling, leaving robed figures blind and faceless. The water swirling in the pool was clean, though, and that was all the decadence Adam needed.
"Where are we?"
"A safe house. Just to get you cleaned up—I'm not taking you back to my rooms with fleas. A physician will be here soon."
She stripped away rotten cloth as she spoke, and soon Adam crouched naked on the slick tiles. Red fever-rash splotched his chest and stomach beneath caked filth; the sickly sweet smell of pus wafted from infected scrapes. Isyllt didn't recoil, but he read the disgust on her face.
"How did you end up in the Çiragan?" she asked as he lowered himself into the water. Tepid, but it shocked his fevered skin. "Buying you out wasn't cheap."
He ducked his head before answering. The plunge sharpened febrile wits. "A border skirmish between Sarkany and Iskar." He coughed, spat green phlegm. The current carried it away, swirling toward a drain on the far side along with grey ribbons of dirt. "The Sarkens hired me. They lost. Their soldiers were ransomed back—we mercenaries were their blood-price. How long? It was spring when they led us in—"
"Last spring. It's Merkare now."
He felt the words like a blow to the chest. Midsummer, the solstice already passed. A year of his life, gone. "How did you find me?"
"Kiril's agents." The spymaster of Selafai. Isyllt's master, and the man she loved. Their falling-out had haunted her during the mission she and Adam had shared three years ago—from the flatness of her voice, not much had changed. "I'm sorry it took so long."
"Why send you? He must have people in Iskar."
Instead of answering, she nudged a tray across the floor with the toe of her boot: soap and oils, combs and scissors. Attar of roses, sandalwood, cassia—the profusion of scents made him sneeze. He finally found a dented cake of salted mint that didn't make his eyes water.
"Your hair," Isyllt said, crouching beside the pool. "The nits we can kill, but the tangles—" She shook her head.
"Easier to cut it off." Lather stung his eyes as he ground the soap into his skin. A grey skim of suds drifted across the water.
A smile teased the corner of her mouth. "But a pity." Her own hair, black as his but finer, slithered free of its pins to trace the square angle of her jaw.
Adam shrugged. "It'll grow back."
Isyllt flinched, so soft he barely caught it. She picked up the scissors.
The physician arrived soon after, an old Skarrish man with a limp and teeth stained by betel nut juice; the peppery bitterness of the leaves soaked his skin and wafted sour with every breath. If being roused before dawn to treat foreign spies was unusual for him, he gave no sign. He poked and prodded Adam, tested his reflexes and confirmed the diagnosis of prison fever, as well as weakness from long captivity. For the former he prescribed willow bark, blue mold, and garlic, and for the latter wine boiled with iron nails and milk fortified with beef blood.
"But first," he told them both, "rest and clean water, and plenty of both."
Rest was the last thing Adam wanted. From the frown creasing Isyllt's brow, she felt the same way.
"What's wrong?" Adam asked when they were alone again, waiting in a threadbare foyer for their carriage. The lightness of his head unnerved him. The slice over his left ear had already scabbed; he'd only flinched from the blades once.
"Someone's following me," Isyllt said, tugging her veil up to muffle the words. It couldn't disguise the tension in her limbs, the haunted, hollow look around her eyes. "It might be the caliph's people—I've been careful, but they'll find me sooner or later. But someone was watching me in Thesme, too." Her eyes narrowed. "Maybe all the way from Erisín, but I was too distracted to notice."
That wasn't all, but wheels clattered to a stop outside before he could press the matter. He scanned the lamp-pierced darkness as the door shut behind them. A quiet, crumbling neighborhood, cleaner than many, but still layered with smells: animal droppings and human waste; the sour sweetness of rubbish; garlic and spices from nearby kitchens. Overlaying it all was the tang of rain on warm stone—he hadn't realized how much he'd missed that particular smell.
His back itched as he climbed into the carriage. His hand ached for a sword-hilt, never mind the strength to use it. Isyllt's blade was a quiet bulge beneath her coat and he'd seen what her necromancy could do, but he'd hate to let one skinny spy do all the work in a fight.
The driver—befuddled but much richer after his unusual night—delivered them to a narrow house on Mulberry Lane. Two-storied and square-angled like so many in the city, with walls of stained ochre plaster and a yard choked with grass and weeds. The windows were dark. Isyllt stroked a finger across the courtyard gate, and the wrinkle between her brows told Adam she was spellcasting.
They stood in the darkness of the overgrown yard, listening to the rustle of wet mulberry leaves and the steady drip from the eaves. Cats fought and courted in an alley, and somewhere a woman sang to a crying child.
"What's wrong?" Adam asked again, watching Isyllt through swaying leaf shadows. He thought she would put him off once more, but slowly she turned.
He let out a sharp breath. The spymaster had been in poor health, but the tension in her neck didn't speak of sickbeds and the perils of age. Adam had lost many friends and comrades over the years without a chance to say good-bye; it still stung. The old man had been his mentor once, and later an employer and something like a friend. He reached for Isyllt without flinching, offering comfort, but she didn't move save to shiver at his touch.
"When?" He withdrew his hand, frowning. He remembered cool pragmatism, but not the icy brittleness that held her now.
"Six months ago. I...don't work for the Crown anymore." She looked up, her eyes shining in the dark. "Will you stay?"
Flat and casual, but he could guess how much the asking cost her. He was sick and weak, with no money and nowhere to go, not to mention she had saved him from slow death. None of that could touch the hurt buried deep in her voice.
He remembered his dreams of snow in the mountains, the clean pine chill of the high forests. The nightmares of demons chasing him. The demons would chase him anywhere. The mountains would wait no matter how long he stayed away.
She nodded, and he watched her rebuild herself—spine, shoulders, the self-assured tilt of her head he remembered. She scanned the night one last time and led him into the empty house.