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The Necromancer Chronicles

The Drowning City
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The Drowning City

Cover art by Larry Rostant

Chapter 2

Isyllt and Adam crossed onto the mainland north of the Mir early the next morning and rented horses to carry them up the foothills to the Kurun Tam. Mount Haroun loomed above them, its shadow casting a false twilight over the western hills.

The sun burned away the dawn mist, embroidered the mountain's green skirts in gold and amber. Summer heat left leaves curled and drooping, baked the roads cracked and dusty and withered the ferns that grew in the shade.

Ward-posts lined the road, simple charms to keep predators away and something else, a spell to hold the stones steady if the earth shook. Isyllt wasn't sure she understood the intricacies of it, but the implication was unsettling. Far above the canopy, white smoke leaked from Haroun's summit. Liquid fire still bubbled in the mountain, but it hadn't erupted in the hundred and fifty years of Assari occupation. The mages of the Kurun Tam expressed nothing but confidence in their ability to keep the mountain quiet--since they'd be the first to burn if Haroun stirred, Isyllt tried to take comfort in their assurances.

The trail turned sharply and she saw the sluggish waters of the Mir below them, and the broader gentler slope of Mount Ashaya on the far side of the river. The South Bank was home to politicians and merchant moguls, mansions and plantations. Whatever native families had lived there were long gone, driven out or bought off and their lands divided up for gifts to those who pleased the Emperor. The North Bank was poorer, home to Sivahri who couldn't afford to live in the city proper. From the ferry she'd seen clay and brick buildings, thatched roofs and packed-earth roads.

And between the two banks and the bay, Symir shone in the morning light, all colorful roofs and gardens and glittering webs of water.

Isyllt swallowed bitter dust and the smell of horse. This assignment was one others would have vied for, exotic and expensive. And important.

They'd lost three agents in Assar, clever well-trained spies. Two had simply vanished from their posts, and the body of the third was found dumped near the Selafaïn embassy in Ta'ashlan. And in Erisín, Kiril had caught two Assari agents already--one trying to seduce a Selafaïn inventor whose clever designs would make wonderful instruments of war, and the other worming his way into the palace bureaucracy. The latter had fallen on a blade before Kiril could question him, but his presence was story enough--the Emperor was growing bolder.

In the five hundred years since refugees fleeing the al Sund dynasty's armies had crossed the sea and founded Selafai, several Assari emperors had tried to take the younger kingdom. Assar had never established a solid presence on the northern continent, and every other generation some general-prince with dreams of fortune and glory thought to be the first to do so. And now Rahal al Seth sat the Lion Throne, young and greedy and itching to match his grandfather's conquests--and backed by generals canny and greedy enough to give him a chance.

She pressed the tip of her tongue between her teeth and tried not to scowl. What Kiril said was true--she was his best student, his most trusted agent. And what he didn't say was true as well, that given a job as important as this she'd die before she disappointed him. He needed her here. But he'd sent her away, and it gnawed.

She tried to relax, but the jolt of hooves stiffened her back and shoulders. Adam rode more easily beside her, his eyes on the trees. The jungle clamored around them, screeching and chirping and rustling. Jewel-bright lizards and long-tailed monkeys watched them from tree-branches, calmer than the birds that took flight whenever the clatter of hooves grew close. The trees hid all manner of exotic beasts.

And bands of desperate men as well. She just had to find them. Trade gold and weapons for warriors to wield them. To die for them. Thousands of Sivahri lives in exchange for Selafaïn ones.

She looked up and caught Adam watching her, pale eyes narrowed. She schooled her face and smiled at him. Then she shivered as they passed through a tingling web of wards. The trees fell away and they rode into the courtyard of the Kurun Tam.

The Corundum Hall. A long building of crimson granite, pillared and domed in Assari style. Faces watched them from the wall, bound spirits staring through stone eyes. Neat green lawns stretched within the walls, shaded by slender trees and pruned topiaries--all the jungle's wildness tamed.

A young stable-hand appeared to take charge of their horses, and Isyllt dismounted with a wince and brushed at the dust on her clothes. The grey-green linen hid the worst of it, at least. She breathed deep, tasted magic like spiced lightning in the back of her throat. It tingled down her limbs and prickled the nape of her neck.

They climbed broad red steps and entered a columned courtyard. Isyllt sighed as cool air washed over them--a subtle witchery and a welcome one. A fountain played in the center of the yard and she worked her dry tongue against the roof of her mouth. The air smelled of flowers and incense and clean water.

Isyllt washed her face and hands in the basin beside the door, and she and Adam added their boots and socks to the neat row of sandals and slippers. She didn't hear the footsteps approach over the splash of the fountain until Adam spun around. She turned as a shadow fell across the stones at her feet.

"Roshani," the man said, bowing low. Light gleamed on the curve of his shaven head, set mahogany skin aglow. He wore robes of embroidered saffron silk, the hem brushing the tops of his bare feet. "Or should I say good morning?" he asked in Selafaïn. "You must be Lady Iskaldur."

"Yes." She lifted her ring in warning as he offered a hand. "I'm hadath." Unclean. Had she been born in Assar, she would go gloved and veiled and touch no one but the dead.

"Ah. It's not often we see necromancers here." He took her hand and raised it to his lips; his skin was warm, his magic warmer still as it whispered against her. His smile was wry and charming. "I'm not devout. My name is Asheris. Vasilios mentioned that he was expecting you. I'll take you to him."

"Wait for me," she said to Adam, and followed Asheris down a shadowed arcade.

*

Zhirin was late again. The sundial in the Kurun Tam's courtyard told her it was nearly noon--she should have been at lessons an hour ago. But as Jabbor escorted her up the steps, she couldn't bring herself to care.

"You shouldn't come in," she said as they paused on the threshold. It might have been more convincing if she'd taken her hand off his arm.

"Why?" His smile crinkled the corners of his dark eyes. "Will your magic strike me down?"

"Hush." She stepped inside, toeing off her sandals. Two new pairs of boots rested beside the familiar row of shoes. "You'll get me in trouble."

"You'll get yourself in trouble, you mean." Jabbor stepped through the doorway, glancing about curiously. He didn't take off his shoes; Zhirin rolled her eyes, but didn't chide him. It was progress enough that curiosity overcame his distrust of all things Imperial--politeness could come later.

He turned away from a stone face on the wall. "I haven't been struck down yet, and you're not in trouble." His flippancy died as he folded her hand in his broader darker ones. "Zhir, are you sure--"

She shook her head sharply. "Not here. And yes, I'm sure. I'll know by tonight."

He nodded. "Be at the ferry by sunset, then. And thank you." He leaned down to kiss her, then froze.

"Jabbor?"

He spun, one hand falling to the hilt of his kris-knife. Zhirin followed his gaze across the courtyard and jumped. A man sat in the shadows beside the fountain, eyes half closed as if he drowsed. No one she recognized, neither Assari nor Sivahri. Her cheeks stung as she tried to remember what he might have overheard.

The man blinked lazily and brushed black hair away from his face. "Roshani."

If he spoke Assari, perhaps he hadn't understood anything. Not that she'd said anything she shouldn't. She'd done nothing to feel guilty for. Yet.

"Go on," she told Jabbor in Sivahran, shoving him toward the door. "I'll see you tonight."

She turned back to the man and bobbed a shallow bow. "Excuse me." He didn't look or feel like a mage; the cut of his clothes was foreign, as was the line of the sword at his hip. "May I help you?"

"No, shakera." Amusement colored his voice beneath the foreign vowels and she drew herself up straighter. Of course, she was blushing like he'd walked in on a tryst--which was very nearly true. "My mistress is visiting. I'm just waiting for her."

"Visiting whom?" She tried to mask the wariness with polite curiosity; letting strangers in unquestioned would get her in more trouble than tardiness.

"Vasilios Medeion."

"Oh!" Her cheeks flushed hotter as she remembered why her master had asked her to be on time today. "Excuse me." She bobbed a curtsy, then turned and fled down the hall.

*

Power soaked the walls of the Kurun Tam, residual magic seeping the elegant soapstone lattices and frescoes. It reminded Isyllt of the Arcanost in Erisín, though this building was much younger and less austere. That it was primarily a research facility and not a school made its beauty all the more impressive. The corridors around them were silent, and echoed empty to her otherwise senses.

"Many have gone to the mountain today," Asheris said, catching her unspoken question. "They won't return till nightfall." He arched one dark brow. "Have you seen the mountain yet, Lady Iskaldur?"

"No, I only arrived last night."

"You must. I'd be happy to show you, as your time permits. It's a much more pleasant journey before the rains begin."

"Thank you." She caught herself studying his bright amber eyes, the planes and angles of his jaw, and forced her gaze elsewhere; she didn't need a pretty distraction.

He had more than pretty eyes to distract her--his presence lapped over her, warm and rich. A powerful mage, from the diamond he wore on a narrow gold collar. Spices and smoky incense clung to his robes and his magic left the taste of crackling summer storms on her tongue. No doubt she smelled of bones and death to him. The stones chilled underfoot as they left the sunlight behind and entered a corridor lit by golden witchlights. Elaborate arabesque friezes lined the walls, and the tops of the columns were carved in delicate lotus blossoms. Asheris stopped before a brass-studded door and rapped the polished wood lightly. Someone called out a muffled "Come in."

They stepped into a narrow study, lit by lamplight and tall windows. The air was thick with the scent of leather and vellum and wood-polish; books and scroll casings lined the walls. An old man looked up from his book, forehead creasing in curiosity.

"You must be Isyllt," he said, before Asheris could begin introductions. Wrinkles rearranged as he smiled. "It's not every day I see Vallish girls anymore."

Isyllt inclined her head with a smile. "Vasilios of Medea, I take it."

"I am he. Not that I've seen Medea in a good many years." He rose and moved around his cluttered desk to greet her, favoring his left leg. A tall man, but he stooped till he was barely of a height with Isyllt. Gnarled ink-stained hands clasped hers affectionately. A benevolent tutor, his smile said, a kindly grandfather--not a spy.

"Welcome, my dear. Kiril has told me good things about you."

"He speaks fondly of you as well."

"Told you stories of our misspent youth, has he?" Pale eyes glinted under creased olive lids.

Hard to believe this bent old man was only five years Kiril's senior. Even after her master's heart had nearly given out a year ago, he hadn't aged so much. He wants me to see this, to see what age has in store for him. Her smile ached as she held it in place.

"Have you by chance seen my wayward apprentice?" Vasilios asked Asheris.

The dark man cocked his head. "No, but I think I hear her now."

Bare feet slapped the hall outside and an instant later a young woman appeared in the doorway, plump tea-brown cheeks flushed cinnabar. "Forgive me, master," she gasped. "I didn't mean to be gone so long."

Vasilios waved a negligent hand. "I'd be more concerned if you suddenly became punctual. This is our guest, Lady Iskaldur. Isyllt, this is my apprentice, Zhirin Laii."

"Roshani, Lady." The girl bowed low, one narrow braid uncoiling from its twist to bounce over her shoulder.

"Have you had lunch, Isyllt?" Vasilios asked, fetching a cane from beside his chair.

"No," she said, realizing that she'd forgotten breakfast as well.

"Come, let's remedy that, shall we. Asheris, would you care to join us?" And he herded them out the door.

*

It was a pleasant meal, though the presence of Asheris and Vasilios's wide-eyed apprentice left them unable to speak of Isyllt's true reasons for visiting. Not that she would have felt comfortable discussing such things inside the walls of the Kurun Tam--stone had a long memory and clever mages could convince it to repeat what it heard. So they ate and lingered over tea, and Isyllt answered questions about Erisín and Kiril and Selafaïn politics and arranged to visit Vasilios the next day at his house in the city, before letting Asheris escort her through the library and halls and gardens, where he flirted with great charm and little sincerity.

Wheels and hooves rattled into the courtyard as they returned to the fountain. Isyllt glanced through the doorway to see an ox-drawn cart rolling through the gates, flanked by a dozen soldiers in full Imperial livery.

Asheris excused himself and stepped into a pair of sandals before descending the steps to inspect the cart, counting crates and accepting a scroll case from an officer. The driver urged the oxen on, steering the cart to the back of the hall, while a man and woman not in uniform dismounted.

"Shipments from the mines," Asheris said as he returned to Isyllt's side. "We charge the stones here and ship them to Assar." His mouth twisted. "Nowhere as interesting as the mountain, I'm afraid. Though of course I'm happy to have stayed behind, since it meant meeting you."

She smiled at the graceful save, but her attention stayed on the cart as it clattered around the corner. Sapphires and rubies from Sivahri mines were one of the country's greatest assets to the Empire. That cart alone must contain a fortune's worth; after they were charged with energy, their value would more than double. Lesser stones couldn't contain as much power without fracturing and diamonds such as Isyllt's--or the yellow stone around Asheris's neck--were saved for binding ghosts and spirits.

"Are you going to introduce us, Asheris?" the woman called, tethering her horse. She crossed the courtyard, graceful and light on her feet. Young and very fair for an Assari, with striking kohl-rimmed blue eyes. She pulled aside her riding veil and dipped a shallow curtsy. "It's not often we have visitors." Her eyes widened briefly as she saw Isyllt's ring; she didn't offer her hand.

"Of course," Asheris said, straightening his shoulders. "Lady Iskaldur, this is Jodiya al Sarith, one of our apprentices, and her master, Imran al Najid." He gestured to the man who had joined them. "Lady Iskaldur has just arrived from Erisín, to study with Vasilios."

Al Najid bowed, also not offering his hand. As he straightened, a stone gleamed at his neck--a diamond, also yellow-hued. The Kurun Tam didn't lack for powerful magi. She wondered what unlucky spirits lay trapped at their throats.

"Roshani. I trust Asheris has made you welcome." She guessed him near fifty, tall and lean. He should have been handsome, but all the lines carved on his long face were dour, and his greeting was more perfunctory than polite.

"I managed some degree of civility," Asheris drawled.

"Indeed he did," Isyllt said, as Imran's dark eyes narrowed. "The Hall is quite impressive."

"Shakera. Please excuse us, meliket, but we must see to the stones. Enjoy your visit." With a nod, he turned and strode away, Jodiya at his heels.

Isyllt tried to school her face, but couldn't keep an inquisitive brow from rising. Asheris smiled faintly, but the corners of his eyes were tight. "Yes, his company is always so pleasant. We're as close as siblings here. I'm sure it's the same at your Arcanost."

Isyllt chuckled. "Of course."

He pulled on a more convincing smile. "Forgive me, but I too must see to the stones. I hope we'll meet again soon."

"I'd like that." As he bowed over her hand in farewell, she even meant it.

*

The last sonorous dusk-bells echoed across the water as the carriage finally rattled onto the ferry dock, and the sun sank into the sea, trailing veils of violet and carnelian. Zhirin worried the inside of her lip and tried to look unconcerned. She was late--again--but no magic at her disposal could have packed her master's books and instruments any faster.

The dock was empty and for a moment she feared she was too late. But as the dock hands arrived to help unload the coach, she recognized two of them. Not Jabbor, and she swallowed a rush of disappointment, but likely he was already busy. Games and trysts were for drowsy afternoons--by night he and his people worked.

Instead Temel and Kwan came to meet her--silent Temel, whom she might call friend, and sharp-tongued Kwan, whom she wouldn't. She restrained the urge to smile at Temel and instead helped him unstrap a box from the carriage rack.

"Tonight," she whispered, leaning close as she fumbled at a buckle. "The dockside warehouse." Her palms were sweating, fingers slick on the rough leather straps. "Seven crates, three too flawed to use--those are marked."

"Be careful with that," she said, louder, as he lifted the chest free. "Our instruments are fragile." He nodded once as he handed the crate down to Kwan. The woman's lips curled in a sneer.

And as easily as that, she was a rebel. A traitor. She bit back a giggle; whatever would her mother say?

Blood rushed in her ears as she swung down from the carriage and followed her master onto the boat. Not the wide flat-bottomed ferry that crossed to the South Bank, but a sleek-curved skiff to take them into the city. The familiar sway of the craft as they shoved off soothed her nerves. Worry and doubt were no use now--better to let the river take them.

"What's wrong?" Vasilios asked, settling himself beside her on the bench. He moved gingerly, and Zhirin regretted all the haste she'd wished for on the ride down. The steersman kindled the prow lantern and its reflection glittered golden on dark water.

"I was thinking of my family," she said, not untruthfully. "I haven't seen them in a month. May I go home tonight?"

After a moment he nodded. "I don't see why not, as long as you're back in the morning for our guests." Thick eyebrows rose. "And I do mean morning, my dear, not some hour of the afternoon."

Her cheeks warmed and she glanced aside. "Yes, master."

They sat in silence for a while, surrounded by the rhythm of the oars and the drone of insects. Something heavy moved in the water and she brushed the coldly patient awareness of a kheyman. A glimpse of golden eyes and then it was gone, sinking into the silt-thick depths of the river.

The last daylight died before they reached the city, but Symir burned with a thousand lamps, a filigree of light and shadow. The scent of eucalyptus drifted across the water, clean and sharp. She missed the green and the wet when she slept at the Kurun Tam, the river's breath against her skin.

The skiff carried her through the winding canals of Heronmark to the landing at the end of Feathermoon Lane. Her family's boat was moored by the stairs, and another she didn't recognize, its oarsman drowsing at the prow; someone visiting in the neighborhood. She bid her master goodnight and climbed the damp steps.

A quiet street after dark. Someone practiced a flute on an upper story, running through scales. Someone new to the instrument, she guessed with a wince. Her own music lessons had been interrupted when she began talking to spirits, likely to her tutor's relief. If not for her magic, she'd be at the Imperial University in Ta'ashlan.

Lights shone in the front windows, falling like water across the steps and flower boxes. The door, engraved with the Laii heron crest, was unlocked. Zhirin smiled as she slipped off her sandals and glanced around the entryway--the hangings and mats had been changed, gold-patterned green now instead of crimson. Her father must have found a new geomancer, with new opinions on fortuitous colors.

She expected her mother's steward Mau or one of the servants to appear, but no one did. The ground floor was silent and Zhirin climbed the curving staircase, polished stone cool under her feet. They must have company; her mother would never leave so many lights burning otherwise.

Her mother's study door was cracked open, and voices drifted out. "...and hopefully we'll have no more unpleasantness like Zhang's," a man said.

"Of course not," Fei Minh Laii replied, in a softly rebuking tone Zhirin was all too familiar with. "What do you take me for?"

Too late, Zhirin wondered what the answer might be, but her hand was already falling to knock on the door.

"Mira, I'm home--"

The door swung open, and she froze as she recognized the man sitting across from her mother. "Oh!" She dipped a hasty bow. "Your Excellency, excuse me."

Fei Minh rose, setting aside her teacup. "Zhirin!"

Faraj al Ghassan, Viceroy of Symir, stood a heartbeat after his hostess, a chuckle erasing the startlement on his face.

"I'm sorry, Mira," Zhirin said as her mother kissed her stinging cheek. "I didn't realize--"

"Don't worry, Miss Laii," Faraj said. "I should be going anyway. Thank you for the tea, Fei Minh, and for your help."

He inclined his head to Zhirin and it was all she could do to smile and nod. Her face burned as though her crimes were branded there for him to read. Rebel. Traitor. But he only turned away to clasp hands with her mother.

"It's my pleasure," Fei Minh said, following him down the stairs. "You must visit again soon. Bring Shamina and Murai."

"After the festival, perhaps." He stepped into his slippers and bowed again, silk coat whispering. "Good evening, ladies."

"What are you doing home?" Fei Minh asked as she shot the bolt behind him.

"Vasilios is staying in the city for the festival, and I thought I'd visit."

"About time you thought of that." She smiled to take the sting from the words, one cheek dimpling. Delicate lines fanned from her eyes and framed her mouth, but Fei Minh's skin was still soft as almond-milk and honey. "You picked a bad night for it, I'm afraid. Your father and Sungjin are visiting on the South Bank for a few days."

That was no surprise; her father and brother had started spending most of their time at Cay Laii when Fei Minh began her first term on the Khas thirteen years ago. Only propriety and habit kept him coming home at all, Zhirin suspected. And since her mother's last term had ended a year ago, she knew how bored and restless Fei Minh had been.

Zhirin's brow creased as she eyed her mother's hair, unbraided and held up loosely with sandalwood sticks. Absent servants, late visits... "Mother, are you having an affair?"

Fei Minh blinked, then began to laugh. "Oh, darling. With Faraj? Wouldn't that be a scandal?" She wiped delicately at one eye. "No, dear, I'm afraid not."

"What are you helping him with, then?"

"Just business. He's using some our ships for a private investment." She took Zhirin by the elbow and steered her toward the kitchen. Her perfume was still jasmine and citrus; the scent was as much home to Zhirin as the smell of the river. "You missed dinner, but I'll make tea. And since you're here, perhaps you can look at the fountain--it's not flowing properly and your father will rip it out and rearrange the whole garden if I give him half an excuse."

"You paid quite an apprentice-price for me to become a plumber."

Fei Minh snorted softly. "Think of it as part of your repayment--I want to see some return for my investment. Now, sit down and tell me about your lessons."

*

Zhirin woke to midnight bells, the bedside candle a puddle of cold wax in its bowl. She ran a hand over her face, knuckled gritty eyes. She'd only meant to lie down, but featherbeds and the whisper of the canal had lulled her under. Jabbor had promised to meet her, after--

The bells kept ringing and Zhirin's stomach curdled. Not the solemn night bells after all, but brazen clashing chimes.

An alarm.

Let it be a coincidence, she prayed as she groped for her clothes. Her mother met her in the hall, robe hastily tied and night-braids unraveling over her shoulders. "What is it?" they asked on the same heartbeat, and chuckled breathlessly.

A few neighbors stood on their front steps, listening to the clamor. Blessedly distant--not Heronmark's watchtower but one farther west. Merrowgate, perhaps.

"What's happened?" Fei Minh called to the next house.

"We don't know. There've been no criers yet."

Zhirin descended the steps to the canal, stones cool and slick beneath her feet. Water soaked her trousers as she knelt and laid a palm on the surface. One breath, then another, and her heart began to slow as the river's rhythm filled her, deep and inexorable. She raised her hand, scattering ripples.

And the lapping water showed her colors, red and grey, gold and orange, dancing and twisting against the black. It took her a heartbeat to make sense of the distorted reflection.

Fire.

"Something's burning," she said as she rose, scrubbing her wet hand on her trousers.

"Ancestors," her mother whispered. "Not the docks."

The Laiis had been a southern clan once, tenders of marshy rice fields. But these days their money came from the sea, from swift trading ships and goods piled in dockside warehouses.

"I'm going to see what's happened," Zhirin said.

"No--"

"I'll be careful, Mira." She darted up the steps to kiss her mother's cheek. Before Fei Minh could protest more, she unmoored the household skiff and pushed off.

She whispered to the river and soon the current caught her, swifter and more graceful than she could have rowed. But even with the water's help, she didn't want to risk the skiff dockside. She moored at the far edge of Jadewater and ran the rest of the way.

Her side ached by the time she reached Merrowgate's warehouse district and her breath ripped her chest like gravel and broken shells. Her feet throbbed, likely bleeding, and she chided herself for not putting on shoes. A sullen orange glow lined the rooftops, and bells and voices rang loud and raucous.

The crowd led her to the fire and she skirted the edges till she could see. The street was mud-slick and cold despite the waves of heat. Rats and insects scurried for safety; Zhirin shuddered as a finger-long cockroach crawled over her foot. City guards surrounded the building, passing buckets down a line.

It wasn't enough. A canal ran behind the building, and a wide street in front, but only alleys separated it from its neighbors, narrow enough that even she could have jumped them. The wind off the bay was gentle, but enough to blow flames onto the next rooftop; already it began to smoke.

The whole district could be gone by morning.

The bucket lines moved faster, water glowing gold as it splashed the cobbles. Zhirin wanted to join them, but it was no use. She couldn't call a flood. Not even the Mother's temple could, since the river had been dammed. For all her tricks, she was useless against this.

Gongs echoed from the waterfront, warning ships to lift anchor before the docks caught. That would take a while, at least, unless the wind shifted.

Another section of roof collapsed with a groan and roar and a flurry of sparks rode the wind like orange fireflies. Someone screamed as flames burst through the gap. Mirrors dangling from nearby roofs threw back the firelight in angry flashes.

A moment later she realized what the burning building had been. A government warehouse. She pressed a hand over her mouth and swallowed the taste of char. Jabbor--

She should run home, warn her mother since she was no use here, but she could only stare. Guards appeared on the neighboring warehouse's roof, splashing wood and plaster and tiles in a futile bid to keep the flames at bay. A shout rose from the back of the crowd and she scrambled to keep out of the press as the mass of people parted to admit a man.

His face was a mask of flame and shadow, but Zhirin recognized the curve of his bare head. Her stomach tightened. She'd thought Asheris was sleeping at the Kurun Tam tonight; his rumpled clothes looked as though he'd only just woken. But he was here. He waved the guards away and kept walking, so close his skin must be crisping. If the building fell now it would crush him.

Pain spread down Zhirin's arm; she'd bitten her knuckle hard enough to break the skin.

Asheris extended a hand toward the fire, palm up. Flames flickered toward him, though the wind didn't change. Fire lapped his fingers like a curious hound, then twisted up his arm in a glowing spiral.

Her vision blurred, tears welling against the smoke, and she watched through a crystalline glaze as Asheris called the fire into him. The blaze died in the warehouse as the flames ran like water away from wood and stone and into flesh. The last came in a rush, flaring around him like giant wings.

Then it was gone.

The rest of the roof fell in, billowing smoke and ash and sparks. But no more flames. The absence of light blinded her, and her eyes ached as they adjusted. The wind stung her face.

Asheris swayed and fell to his knees, head sagging. Steam rose from his skin. Not even the guards approached him.

Zhirin bit her lip; she might be useless, but she didn't have to be a coward. But before she could move toward the fallen mage, a hand closed on her arm. She started, then recognized the dark fingers.

She turned, his name on her lips, but Jabbor silenced her with a shake of his head and drew her away from the crowd. Down an alley she followed him, biting back questions as she dodged fleeing vermin. They ducked through a back door into a narrow lamplit kitchen. Temel and Kwan followed them in--Zhirin hadn't seen them outside. Soot smeared both their faces and blood dried in a dull crust along Temel's brow.

Kwan vanished into the front of the house, returned a moment later. "It's clear."

Jabbor sank into a chair by the table and Zhirin sat beside him. Her filthy feet smudged clean tiles and she tucked her heels onto a chair-rung like a child. Sweat and tears dried stiff and itchy on her face, and when she scratched her cheek her nails came away dark with grime. Her finger was bruised where she'd bitten it.

"What happened?"

"We slipped in quietly--a few coins, drugged wine and a little distraction. It should have been bloodless. But the Dai Tranh came right behind us."

Zhirin's stomach chilled. Jabbor's group, the Jade Tigers, were known for their peaceful--if not always legal--protests. It was part of what drew her to them. The Dai Tranh, however, were known only for violence.

His full lips tightened, carving lines around his mouth. Sweat glistened oily between the neat rows of his hair. "They outnumbered us. Killed the guards, looted the stones, and set the fire. We tried to put it out, but they left some of the rubies behind for fuel."

No wonder the blaze had been so fierce--Haroun's fire, harnessed into stone. "But how did they know?"

Kwan's eyes narrowed to angry black slits. "Shouldn't we be asking you that question?"

Zhirin's mouth opened, but Jabbor raised a hand before she could snap a retort. "No, Kwan." He caught her eyes and held them. "But I'll ask it anyway. Did you say anything to anyone else?"

She shook her head, cheeks stinging. He couldn't afford to trust blindly, she knew that. Not even her. Maybe especially not her. "I only told you."

"Then they have someone inside us, or a spy of their own in the Kurun Tam." He wiped a sheen of sweat off his face.

Kwan snorted softly, but held her tongue. She found a pitcher of water and a rag on the counter and began to sponge the blood off Temel's face. True cousins, not just clan-kin, and the resemblance showed in the set of their cheekbones and short flat noses. High forest people, the Lhuns, before the Empire had claimed their lands for the Kurun Tam and sent them to live by the river.

"We looked inside one of the crates," Jabbor said, "before everything fell apart. One of the boxes marked for flawed stones. Do you know what we found?"

Zhirin shook her head.

Jabbor pulled something from his pocket and held it out to her. A stone gleamed dully against his palm--the size of her thumbnail, uncut, yellowish-white. A chunk of quartz, she thought, until she reached for it and felt the crystal's sharp pulse.

"Sweet Mother," she whispered, snatching her hand back. "Is that--" She swallowed the foolish question; she knew what it was. A diamond.

She'd never seen one in the rough before, only cut and polished and gleaming on the hand or throat of a mage, and very few of those. Unlucky, the uninitiated called them, or cursed. For the spirits or ghosts who ended up trapped in them, they must be.

And expensive. No question about that. The stone resting on Jabbor's palm was worth a dozen rubies in Assar.

"What's it doing here?" She caught herself leaning back. Foolish superstition--it was just a stone, without a mage to wield it. Her master would chide her for making warding signs against a lump of rock.

"It came from the Kurun Tam, didn't it?" Kwan asked, setting aside the bloody ash-smeared rag.

"No! How could it? We mine rubies, sapphires--"

"We?" the other woman snapped, but Jabbor waved her silent.

Zhirin shook her head, pressing her stinging knuckle against her lips again. Diamonds came from Iseth, or lands far to the north whose names she could never remember. Places where people bound ghosts into slavery, as well as spirits. She couldn't call it abomination--the Empire accepted such practices and her own master wore a diamond--but it still made her skin crawl.

"We need to find out where this came from," Jabbor said, closing his hand over the stone. "I need you to investigate."

Zhirin nodded. All the energy had drained from her, leaving fatigue and aches in its place. She wanted to lean into Jabbor, to breathe in the smell of his skin and let him hold her till the world felt right again. But weakness wasn't what he needed from her. Her eyes stung.

"I should go," she said, wincing as she put weight on her bruised and torn feet. Who would clean up the mess they'd made? Perhaps whoever lived here was used to rebels tracking mud and blood across their floor. "I'll find you when I learn something."

Jabbor rose with her and took her hand, tracing a gentle thumb across her knuckles. "Thank you." And she would have run twice as far barefoot for that smile.

The crowd had thinned when she limped past the ruined warehouse, and guards roped off the shell. She didn't see Asheris. Smoke trailed a grey veil across the city and ashes drifted softly on the breeze.

Chapter 1

Chapter 3

© 2006 - 2014 Amanda Downum. Brushes by Annika von Holdt.