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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Chapter Excerpt: I, EXILE by David M. Samuels

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The night began with us squelching up a covered aqueduct and didn’t improve from there. “I’ll bet my lucky compass that you’re wrong,” I whispered back to my partner. “We’ll nab this scroll without a hitch. The city clerics won’t know what hit them.”

“Sorry to break it to you, Em, but you owe me that compass,” said Niellan. Compared to the eunuch’s high-pitched voice, mine sounded more fitting on a boy than a woman in her thirties.

His steps splashed softly under the weight of his lean frame as he grumbled, “You know what they say about wizards and their contracts.”

Damn right I did. Excellent pay, but always a catch. On one hand, Osmathos offered enough coin to rebuild my family’s manor from the ashes. The other hand, well, there had to be a reason why the storied spellbinder couldn’t get this scroll himself. Part of me hoped he’d used his wizardly whatchamacallit to foresee the Gilded Hands as his answer. Common sense said we were his last resort. It didn’t help that Niel raised objections every step of the way.

“Admit it, Emelith.”

He knew better than to use my full name. Gray water swirled around my boots as I dealt a smirk behind my headwrap. “Just because a fireball singed off your eyebrows on the last job doesn’t mean all magi have it out for you.”

Whereas my Fenlish friend was short enough to stand straight in this hellhole, my thighs burned from bending double for so long. The mound of crushed hauntroot on his palm bloomed bright green upon his round and dusky features. He used it to mark our progress for a quick getaway. Very soon, the city clerics would trigger a pair of floodgates as part of their daily ritual. I shuddered to imagine getting trapped in this maze of pipes when the Daybreak Gong went off. Given the choice, I’d take a nice backstreet stabbing over drowning to death hands down.

Farther along the aqueduct, the upper halfpipe fell back and exposed us to the city.

The thing about Faral-Muzafti is that it’s nestled in the crater of a dormant volcano. The districts rise from the central hotspring like terraced benches to an arena. Their shops, shrines, and dwellings are built with the same rose-and-butter sandstone that girdle the caldera in stratified layers. And on the highest ridge ahead of us sat Muzafti’s crown jewel. The city temple conquered the skyline in case anyone forgot about the priesthood in charge. Or should I say the Oh, alright.

Crouching low, we hurried into the cistern at the end of the aqueduct. It stood dry about thirty feet below the triangular floodgates. Higher up loomed the temple sanctum, its brass dome gleaming bright as a third moon. Columned wings hugged both sides of the ridge as if to embrace the city. That, and to swat at busy bees.

I buzzed over to Niel’s side and gestured in the padspeech of our guild. It’s all in the fingertips, padspeech. Subtract the clickers from castanets and there you have it. “The scroll is on the right wing.”

I’d learned as much thanks to yesterday’s stakeout. From dawn ‘till dusk, theologians in yellow robes bustled past the seashell-engraved doors at the end of that wing.

“Got it,” he padspoke before whipping out his crossbow. His fingers skimmed the bandolier strapped over his jerkin. Twin rows of piercing bodkins and blunted broadheads shone silver by the sickle moons. The lowest bolt to the left ended in a grapnel hook with enough rope to wrangle a tyrannosaur.

Cover those bolts,” I padspoke in his face so he had to stop cranking the crossbow. “Starshine.”

After buttoning his overcoat, twinkletoes pulled his hood over his frown. He hated when I bossed him around like that, but after eight years of teamwork you’d think he’d learn.

What Niel lacked in mindfulness he redeemed himself in marksmanship. Within heartbeats he loaded the hookbolt into its channel, locked onto his target, and squeezed off the shot.

A tail of rope sketched the hook’s flight skyward. The prongs latched onto a low banister along the stone parapet.

In deference to one of his copious superstitions, Niel tugged the rope five times rapidly. Fenlander folklore must’ve been on our side, since he nodded in approval before pulling out a vial of yellow powder from his breast pocket. He sprinkled the contents onto his gloves and then tossed it to me underhand.

The stink of putrid eggs constricted my throat as soon as I caught the glass. Whatever Niel used for traction these days wasn’t worth my pair of doeskins. They went into my knapsack before I powdered my fingers and led the ascent.

The desert breeze blew fiercer with every upward inch. My eyes brimmed with tears but I dared not wipe them, keeping hands steady and feet on the walls at all times.

Once topside, I unbuttoned my headwrap to drag in lungfuls of crisp night air. Then I lowered a chalky hand to Niel and hoisted him next to me.

We reclined against the banister while he coiled the rope and I fished a wool blanket from my knapsack. I’d planned to use the fabric to bundle our mark, but Niel’s shivering body needed it more than the scroll would.

Take this,” I padspoke, resisting the urge to reprimand him again.

He hesitated a moment before accepting the blanket and draping its brown folds across his shoulders. Hopefully next time he’d remember that deserts turn hot and cold in equal measure. Especially out here in the Dryscapes, where scars of the apocalypse remain everywhere.

Remember,” I padspoke, “if you see trouble, drop the birdcall before you shoot.”

Not that I didn’t enjoy brawling sometimes. But when filching scripture from a city full of zealots, I’d sooner hold off my bet than let the knucklebones fly.

The shuffle of steps from the level below sped up my heartbeat. I pressed myself flat on the edge of the roof, one cheek against the night-chilled stone. From my belt I unclipped that lucky compass of mine and—not without cupping the rim from moonlight—tilted it down to reflect the hall of open-air columns.

Patrolling the colonnade was a shirtless monk in the leather kilt of his order. The hydra-headed mace at his hip shone crimson by the torch he clutched for warmth. One wrong move with him and I risked gaining a few extra piercings.

Only after he marched around the bend did I return to Niel. Together we rolled our sleeves back to the matching brands on our forearms. EI: 2148 & EI: 2120. Mementos from our stints in the clink. We pressed them together in our customary handclasp before the tough part of a job.

Leaving Niel to keep watch, I swung from the roof and somersaulted into the colonnade. From there I prowled by rolling my soles heel to toe, heel to toe, more gliding than walking down the hall. At the archive’s double doors I pulled a set of picks from behind my ear and sprang the lock in less time than a round of Jester’s Spades.

I blinked through the gloom to see blocky corners of shelves in most of the chamber. And crammed on these shelves was a shitload of scrolls.

All that wizened parchment smelled like my family’s library from before the fire. I’d spent some of my happiest days of girlhood reading tales of good versus evil. The following years taught me that the line between the two isn’t so distinct. Otherwise how could I live with myself?

Here and there I found a few of those covered things, books they’re called, from the High North. All bound in dyed leather, they’d fly off the stalls at the Jade Emporium. Except only an amateur would consider stealing them. I was a first-rate professional—a Gilded Hand, damnit—and I’d never let a bauble sway me from my contract.

One by one, I angled the wooden tags of the top row up to the moonlight. Mostly religious tracts and Antediluvian schematics, but no sign of the scroll itself. A sigh passed my lips as I glanced at the countless other rows. I could kill a week browsing these shelves without any luck.

Osmathos had claimed in his letter that the priesthood attached a scriptural significance to the scroll in question. If I was a cleric (Foregods forbid) where would I stash it away?

Somewhere safe. Accessible, but safe.

I skulked down the aisles into another, smaller chamber. A row of reading alcoves scalloped the far wall, each with a wicker chair and polished sandstone desk.

The furthest chair must’ve belonged to superiors because of the pillows. Well, they resembled pillows until they rustled around.

The snick of flint on steel preceded a blinding burst of lamplight. I squinted to see a portly graybeard shifting in his seat. Probably a theologian from those saffron-yellow robes. He closed the square lantern’s cage with one hand and used the other to rub the sleep from his eyes.

Soundlessly, I slid Vixen's Tusk from my belt and crept around the edge of light. The old goat didn’t know what hit him until I pressed the dagger to his neck, free hand over his mouth. My voice sliced through the stillness like steel across gauze.

“You speak Merchant’s Cant?”

He nodded vigorously, whiskers bristling against my palm.

“Then listen up. I’m gonna remove my hand. Make a peep and I’ll splatter these scrolls with your blood.”

Only bluffing. In my experience, promising harm succeeds almost as well as actually inflicting it.

The theologian kept quiet as I wiped the saliva off on the mantle of his robes. Vixen's Tusk still kissed his neck so he’d be a fool to turn around.

“Tell me where to find the scripture,” I hissed.

“Sirella passed it in the room behind us.” Traces of his accent harshened most of the consonants.

I shook his shoulder fiercely enough to rattle out a whimper. “Anyone ever tell you that you’d make a lousy gambler? There’s another chamber.” Or had damn well better be. “One hidden from sirellas like yours truly.”

Sweat dripped off his jowls to smudge the letters of an unfurled scroll. “How to say...mosock. Mosock of the waterfall in the archives. Press the golden tile.”

“Much obliged. Now get up. And don’t forget the lantern.”

“I answered sirella’s questions. What more could she want?”

“Well, y’know how the Khazals include poison testers at banquets? Think of yourself as a trap tester.” I yanked his shoulder again. “Upsy-daisy.”

He relented with a weak moan. I steered him to said mosock on the other end of the archive. Chips of blue lapis on the walls represented a waterfall. The gemstones between them made the rapids sparkle as if from the sun. I gestured at the golden tessera that was part of an outcrop near the bottom.

“Go on.” I frowned at him like this was his idea.

He pressed the tessera with trembling hands. The mosaic rolled back to reveal a flight of shallow steps that spiraled into darkness.

“Now we’re talking,” I said over a sigh of relief. “How do you close it?”

“The same tile, sirella.”

Which meant he could lock me inside if I let him slip away. After prying the lantern from his fingers, I snapped a tube off my belt and uncorked it with my thumb. Anger management, brewed and labeled by Niel.

“By the way, does this smell like shuteye to you?”

The fumes worked like a charm and knocked him out cold. I dragged his body behind the mosaic and brought the lantern downstairs.

The steps led to a hallway of bricks intended to protect scrolls from moisture. At the far end stood a cabinet carved from the type of dark-grained timber found in the rainforests south of the Khazalate. Material of that quality must’ve cost the clerics plenty.

To be safe, I removed a throwing blade from my belt and sent it skittering across the floor. No traps yet.

I recovered the blade midway down the hall, tiptoeing along the grooves in case of pressure-plated bricks. Once across, I inched open the cabinet doors, careful not to snap any cords that might set off an alarm.

The upper shelf held more High Northern books with their spines aswirl in silver and gold. A dozen scrolls were slotted in lattice cradles underneath those, some with knobs of ivory and others inside metal canisters. I unrolled a few until finding my mark.

A cartouche framed its title in Latter Diluvian. Though I couldn’t read a word of the blocky letters, the image of hands clasped in prayer matched Osmathos’s description down to the faint red pigment.

The Exegesis of Marthelios.

Shortly before the flood that had wiped out most of humanity, Marthelios the Starsworn had encoded his arcane secrets to read as a religious text to the untrained eye. Perhaps that was how the Exegesis had found its way into a city governed by priests. If only they knew they’d been interpreting it wrong.

No time to dwell on that. I tucked the scroll into my knapsack and turned around… find I had company. Further down the hall, at the foot of the stairs, the monk from earlier came charging in. A toss of my throwing knife nicked his bicep, but it might as well have been a sucklebug by how he kept barreling closer.

The damn torchlight threw off my aim for the next two throws. I was about to fling the last one when the mace whooshed in for my head. The blow whipped air in my face as I leapt backward. Another dodge caused the iron spikes to hit the wall instead, drifting dust down from the ceiling.

I dashed through the haze and up the stairs, emptying a pouch of marbles behind me. On the last riser I stumbled like a fool over the theologian’s body and twisted my toe out of place. I gritted my teeth against the dull throbs of pain as I collapsed onto all fours.

The scroll flew out of my knapsack and rolled across the archive floor, coming to rest at the boots of—Niellan! In his hands was the crossbow, cranked and ready to fire.

“Quick, there’s a monk downstairs.” My words rushed out in a breathless undertone. “Get rid of him.”

But Niel had other ideas. He swept up the scroll and I swear a grin crossed his face moments before the two-timing weasel ran for the balcony.

“Traitor!” I would’ve gone after him if not for the tromp of feet from behind. Still disarmed, the monk lunged up the last steps at a speed I couldn’t outrun. Nor did I have time to press the gold tile. Well, at least he’d give me a face to punch.

I hobbled to my feet and backed into the archives. Then I dropped into a Thricepaw stance taught by the Gilded Hands: right side forward, shoulders squared, Vixen's Tusk flipped in a pommeling position.

Strike after strike we clashed across the archives, my big toe throbbing hot as my hatred toward Niellan. Some say nothing good ever results from anger, and that may be true for them. Me? I thrived on the stuff. It got me up in the morning, drove me to reclaim my family’s wealth, and kept me alive that night in Faral-Muzafti.

Our feet scuffled out of the archives and into the colonnade overlooking the city. Only then did the earthshaking clash of the Daybreak Gong boom throughout the halls.

“No!” My voice was drowned out by the rumble of water underfoot. I could only hope the cascade would flush out Niellan like the vermin he was.

Mist from the floodgates curled everywhere, taking me back to the foggy slums of Port Nithalune. All of my force went into the same trick that gained me an edge over sleazeballs back in those days: I punched the monk smack in the balls.

The sorry bastard went down hard, and I endured a cold curl of pity for lashing out on him instead of Niellan. It didn’t last long—never does—before I dragged myself onto the rails and wound up disappointed by the distinct lack of dead Fenlanders in the shallow cistern. It wasn’t like I could follow him either. From this height, a drop in the cistern could snap my spine on impact. And yet I wasn’t exactly spoilt for choices.

Shouts of alarm yanked my focus down the colonnade, where three more monks swerved around the bend.

“Well,” I muttered, “here goes nothing.”

I dove off the ledge.

The water rushed up in a white-frothed whirl.

And the world went blank.


NOTE: My thanks to Justine, Timy & the Storytellers On Tours for giving us an opportunity to take part in this tour.



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