A sample from COLD FIRE by Kate Elliott
Read the first chapter of Cold Fire by Kate Elliott below.
It was a cursed long and struggling walk hauling two heavy carpetbags stuffed with books across the city of Adurnam. That it was night helped only because the darkness hid us. The bitter cold turned our hands to ice even through gloves. A dusting of new snow crunched beneath our boots. My half brother Rory ranged ahead, on the watch for militia patrols.
The prince’s curfew had emptied the streets. In a normal year every intersection would have been lit with a fire in honor of the winter solstice. Inns and taverns would have remained open all night, awash with ale and free oatcakes. But after the riots that had wracked the city, people and businesses had locked their doors and shuttered their windows. It was so quiet I could hear my cousin Beatrice’s breathing as she trudged along beside me with a bag across her shoulders.
“Cat, are we almost there?” she asked.
“I’ll carry both bags,” I offered, even though the one I carried felt like a bag of bricks.
“It’s not the weight. It’s the dark.”
The night was hardest on her. Clouds covered the sky, and we avoided the few main thoroughfares that had gaslight and kept to side streets where it was darkest. With a curfew in force and people fearful they would run out of oil and candles, few night-watch lanterns burned on porches. Both Rory and I could see abnormally well in the dark. That was one of the reasons my family called me Cat instead of Catherine. We led the way, while Bee had the more difficult task: She had to trust us.
Rory loped back. “Patrol coming.”
We shrank into the shadow of an alcove. I set down my bag and slipped my ghost-sword from its loop on my outer skirt. It looked like a black cane, but at night I could twist its hilt and draw a sword. I waited, poised to strike. Rory tensed like a big cat about to spring. Bee sucked in and held a breath. Ahead, a troop of mounted men clattered toward the nearest intersection.
Rory sniffed, then licked his lips. “I hear other people, too. I smell iron and that nasty stuff you call blackpowder.”
In the house nearest us, a shutter shifted as someone inside peeked out. I closed my eyes, tasting the air and listening with senses far sharper than Bee’s. The wind carried the clop of hooves but also a hiss of men whispering, the click of a boot heel on stone, the lick of flame and the sting of burning.
“Stay here,” I whispered, shoving the heavy bag into Rory’s arms. They obeyed.
In the interstices between our world and the spirit world lie threads of magic that bind the worlds together. I drew the threads as shadow around me to conceal myself from ordinary sight. Staying close alongside the buildings, I skulked forward. In the intersection, no one moved, but I heard the jingle of harness grow louder as the soldiers approached. Movement stirred in an alley to my right. A tiny flame flared, lighting the shape of a mustachioed mouth and the gleaming barrel of a gun. After a hissed whisper, the flame was snuffed out.
I stepped back against the wall of the building at the corner just as the first rank of turbaned mage House soldiers rode into view. Sparks flowered. At least ten sharp gunfire reports echoed down the houses. Horses snorted and shied. Two soldiers crumpled forward. One tumbled from his horse. His boot caught in the stirrup, and the panicked horse dragged him sideways. A volley of crossbow bolts loosed by the mounted soldiers clattered against the buildings on either side of the alley. A glass window shattered, and bolts thunked into wood shutters.
“They’re bad shots!” shouted a man from the alley. “We’ve got them, lads! Fire!”
But instead of loud reports, the only sound was a series of deadened clicks.
The mage troop swept forward as a seam of icy white light ripped across the air as if an unseen blade cut through the night to penetrate to daylight behind. A bright, cold fire bubbled out from the rift. The light moved as if pushed, spheres like lamps probing the alley and the stone faces of the buildings to reveal thirty or more men in hiding. The hiding men desperately tried to shoot, but their shiny new rifles simply failed to fire. The presence of an extremely powerful cold mage had killed their combustion.
With my back pressed against the stone, I willed myself to be nothing more than stone, nothing to see except what anyone would expect to see looking at an old, grubby, smoke-stained wall. Even so I dared not move, though I knew cold mages could not see through my concealing threads of shadow. A man dressed not in armor but in flowing robes rode forward from the back of the troop. His was an imposingly dignified figure with his graying black hair plaited into many tiny braids and his black face drawn down in an angry frown. I knew him: He was the mansa, the most powerful cold mage in Four Moons House and therefore its master.
In that knife’s-edge moment before the men in the alley broke and ran, the mansa lifted a hand as he addressed a comment to his companion, a middle-aged blond Celt dressed in the uniform of the prince’s militia. “They are smuggling in rifles despite the ban on new technology. Just as we suspected.”
The temperature dropped so precipitously that my eyes stung and my ears popped as the pressure changed. With a whispering groan, metal strained. Men screamed as the iron stocks of their rifles twisted and, with a sound more terrifying than that of any musket or rifle shot, shattered as easily as if they were glass. Many writhed on the ground, torn and bloodied by the shrapnel. A few staggered away down the alley, trying to escape.
“Capture them all!” shouted the militia captain in a braying tenor.
“I want any who survive,” said the mansa, studying the scene with a brow smoothed by his easy victory.
“You mean to execute them?”
“No. I mean to bind these rebellious plebeians into clientage. They, and their kinfolk, and their descendants will all be bound to serve Four Moons House. To execute them will merely inflame their kinfolk to further rebellion. But if these discontented men drag their households into servitude with them, that will breed resentment among their own kin for their folly in fighting against the natural order and losing what freedom they have. With your permission, of course. They’re your subjects.”
“A wise course of action. That will make the radical agitators think twice.”
Blessed Tanit! His companion was the prince of Tarrant himself, the very man who ruled the principality centered around the city of Adurnam, on the Solent River, in northwestern Europa.
Really, I could think of no man I wanted to meet less than these two. As the soldiers mopped up the scene and the mansa and the prince sat in perfect amity at the center of the intersection, chatting about some man’s thwarted marriage prospects, I edged backward until I felt it safe to remove myself from the wall and hurry back to the alcove where Bee and Rory waited. I shoved in between them, trembling.
“What happened?” Bee whispered. “I heard shots. And then screams.”
“We have to backtrack. The mansa and the prince are with those soldiers.”
“Are they hunting for us? Does the mansa know we escaped?”
“I don’t think so. He said nothing of it. I still think his people won’t discover we’re gone until morning. Give me a moment.” I shut my eyes, the better to envision the map of Adurnam I carried in my head, with its winding streets, secluded alleys, and dangerous warrens.
“You’re shaking,” said Bee, putting an arm around me.
“Men just died. And it was a shock to see the mansa again. By law Four Moons House owns me. He has a legal right to recapture me. And if he catches us, he will find a way to own you, too.”
“I think we should go now while they’re busy eating the wounded and dying,” said Rory.
Bee stiffened. “You imbecile, we don’t eat people—”
“Hush. Rory’s right.” I stroked his arm, because he liked that, and he gave a rumbling sigh. “We need to go while they’re busy mopping up. I’ve got a better route. We’ll creep back to Old Temple and go along the river. We’ll be hard to follow if we cut through the goblin market.”
I slipped my cane back into its loop and picked up the bag. We crept back down the street as quickly as we could, but no scouts rode our way. If anyone inside the shuttered houses noted our passing, they called no alarm. Eventually we relaxed a little.
“Do you think these lawyers and radicals will really take us in?” Bee asked.
“We have to hope they will, Bee. I don’t know where else we can go otherwise.”
“I’m very cold, Cat,” said Rory. “I just want a warm fire and a nap.”
“Are there fires that aren’t warm?” muttered Bee as she strode along. Clearly, fear and anxiety had wound her tight. Even with our greater height and longer strides, Rory and I had trouble keeping up. “Winters that aren’t cold?”
“Men who don’t fall in love with your magnificent beauty at first sight?” I added, knowing she could not resist the bait.
I felt her grin by the way she struck a counterblow. “Why, dearest, I don’t think I’m the one who got fallen in love with at first sight.”
“I don’t need reminding about that!”
“What? Didn’t you like him a little in the end? Aesthetically, he is very handsome, despite the impressively arrogant personality. And you are the one who kissed him, after all.” Fortunately, the night covered my blush. “I really don’t know what to think about him, Bee. And furthermore, I am not interested in having this conversation right now or possibly ever.”
“Hush! You two are so loud.”
Because Rory was right, we kept walking and stopped talking, but the exchange had restored Bee’s usual bloody-minded cheerfulness. She even dawdled in the long promenade of the goblin market, examining the stalls of knives. By the time the cocks crowed, we had staggered onto Enterprise Road, where all kinds of foreigners, radicals, technologists, and solicitors lived. Unlike in the other districts of Adurnam, every street and even the humblest lanes in this neighbourhood were lit by gas lamps. Their glow illuminated the predawn traffic of men and trolls coming out of and going into coffeehouses and unlocking offices. A few cowled goblins hurried away to burrow into their daylight dens. A woman opening up a shop paused to watch Rory saunter past, for he had the kind of self-satisfied grace that attracted the eye, and he knew it and liked it.
“Stop smiling at people! You’ll draw attention to us!” I muttered.
“I see men looking at Bee, and even at you,” he retorted. “Why shouldn’t I get looks, too?”
Fortunately I spotted Fox Close, a lane tucked away between a tavern and a coffeehouse. By the time we turned down the lane and reached the law offices, dawn had come and the gaslights were being shuttered for the day. We halted on the stoop to look up at a newly painted sign. Pin-perfect orange letters shone against a feathery brown backdrop: GODWIK AND CLUTCH.
Who would ever have thought that two dutiful daughters raised in a quiet Kena’ani merchant household would throw themselves on the mercy of trolls and radicals?
“I hope this works,” Bee muttered as we dropped the bags on the steps.
I plied the knocker. As we waited, I untangled my cane where it had gotten caught in a fold in my skirts.
The door opened. A troll stared at us. It was hard to know whether trolls looked more like birds or lizards. They stood tall and lanky on hind legs in a way that made me think of human-sized upright lizards, yet what looked like scales was a covering of tiny feathers. The way this one cocked his head first to one side and then to the other to get a good look at us with each eye also reminded me of a bird. He wore a jacket in the human style, and its drab brown cloth set off a truly spectacular scarlet-blue-and-black crest of feathers that ran from his upper spine to the crown of his head.
“May the day find you at peace,” I said hastily. “My name is Catherine Hassi Barahal. This is my cousin Beatrice. And my brother Roderic. We’re here to see Chartji. The solicitor.”
“You’re that one. Chartji warned me: ‘Let her in quickly shall she come standing at the door.’” He hopped back, startling Rory and Bee. Seeing the two bags and their brass clasps, he bent forward to look more closely first at the clasps and then at my cane as if he could see the sword hidden beneath the magic that concealed it in daylight. “Oo! Things! Shiny things!”
A male voice came from inside.
“Who’s at the door, Caith?” A strikingly attractive man stepped into view, wiping his hands on a grimy cloth. Seeing us, he grinned most enchantingly, as if his day had just become utterly delightful.
“Catherine! And your charming cousin Beatrice. And another companion, I see.”
“My brother, Roderic.”
“Well met, indeed! Did you tell them to come in, Caith? Please, step inside at once and close the door.” He nodded at Rory as we hustled in. “I’m Brennan.”
As we walked down the main passage, he explained the young troll Caith’s complicated kinship relationship to the solicitor Chartji. He showed us into what had once been the sitting room. There we found Maester Godwik seated at a desk with pen in hand.
The old troll looked up at once, his vivid black-and-green crest raising and spreading as he saw me. “The Hassi Barahal in her mantle! What an exceptionally pleasant surprise. Let me crow on the rocks at sunrise! And this . . . the cousin, I presume. And . . .” He studied Rory, who looked like an ordinary young man with golden, innocent eyes and thick black hair twisted into a single long braid. “Interesting. I’ve not seen one like you before. Well met. Please enter our nest.”
There was one other person in the room, a bespectacled woman sorting among the pieces of a shattered printing press. She looked up, so surprised at Godwik’s words that it was obvious she hadn’t noticed us come in. Yet her smile seemed genuine. “Catherine!”
Brennan set our bags down in the room as the solicitor Chartji walked in behind him. Because Chartji was female, her scale-like feathers were as drab as Caith’s jacket, and the feathers of her crest were only one color, a bright yellow. She was carrying a bowl of water cupped in one ink-stained three-fingered hand. “I thought you might come! Drink first. That’s the proper way. Then we’ll talk.”
Their manner was so very encouraging that I began to allow myself to hope we had made the right decision to come here. As we passed around the bowl, each taking a sip of water in the traditional Mande custom of welcome, a knock rattled the door. Caith pattered away down the hall. I heard the door open.
After a pause, Caith called out, “Brennan! There’s a rat here who says you’re expecting a messenger. He says a rising light marks the dawn of a new world.”
Brennan said sharply, “Get him in fast and shut the door!”
We all spilled into the hallway, me with my hand on my cane. If the others were armed, I could not see their weapons. I nodded to Rory, and he went partway up the stairs to get the advantage of height. Three armed men surged through the open door and into the entryway like soldiers clearing a path for their captain. I recognized them, for I had met them on the road not ten days earlier. All three were foreigners, and one was actually a woman dressed as a man. She stepped back outside, and a moment later a middle-aged man walked up the steps and came in.
He was tall and imposing, with brawny shoulders, black hair streaked with silver, and the features of a person born of mixed Iberian, West African Mande, and Roman ancestry. In other words, he had a prominent hook nose and a face long and broad and bold enough to carry it off. He wore a shabby wool greatcoat and a faded tricornered hat rather the worse for wear. Although he had the bearing of a man accustomed to wielding weapons, he wore none except the expectation that he was in command.
His gaze fastened immediately on the petite, bespectacled woman even though, of all of us standing in the entryway, she certainly looked the least physically imposing. “Professora Kehinde Nayo Kuti, I presume,” he said.
They eyed each other like dogs trying to decide whether they’ll have to fight over a bone.
“I expected you would send an ambassador to open talks between our organizations,” she said.
“I am my own ambassador. As I must be, in these troubled times.”
Blessed Tanit! I had first met this man on the road, where he had been traveling in the guise of a working man named Big Leon. I could not imagine how I had ever thought him merely a retired soldier no different from any other man who has survived an old war.
“You walked into Adurnam alone except for three soldiers?” Brennan was saying. “With all the mage Houses and every prince in northwestern Europa hunting for you? That seems rash!”
“And irrational,” added Kehinde in a calmer voice. “We could turn you over to the prince of Tarrant for a significant reward.”
In disguise as Big Leon the humble carter’s cousin, he had hidden the crackling strength of his gaze and the coiled power of his presence. No longer. “But you won’t. For you see, I am never alone. The hopes and ambitions of too many people are carried on my back.”
“You’re Camjiata,” I said.
The man born Leonnorios Aemilius Keita had earned the name Camjiata, lion of war, by leading armies to victory. Everyone knew the Iberian Monster believed it was his destiny to unite the fractious principalities, dukedoms, city-states, and backward tribes of Europa into one glorious empire. He had tried once, and he had almost succeeded.
“Of course I am Camjiata. Who else would I be? At last, after the patient work of many years and many hands, I am free.”
Chartji stepped forward, offering the bowl of water.
He doffed his hat and drank it all in one gulp. “And now we have business to do and no time to wait.”
“Did you come looking for me?” asked Bee. I could not tell if she was terrified, or exhilarated, or making ready to punch him in the face, but she had her sketchbook open to a page where she had at some point in the last few months drawn a picture of him standing exactly where he was now, in front of the closed door in the entryway of these law offices. “Did she tell you how to find me? Your wife, I mean? The one who walked the dreams of dragons?”
“Yes. It was the final thing Helene said to me before they killed her. She told me that the eldest daughter of the Hassi Barahal clan would learn to walk the dreams of dragons. Find her, she said, because you will need her, as you have needed me.” He lifted a hand in the classic orator’s gesture used by the Romans in their ancient empire. It was simply impossible not to stare at him if he wanted you to do so, as he did now. “Helene said that the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter would lead me to Tara Bell’s child.”
“B-but I’m Tara Bell’s child,” I choked out, for I felt my heart had lodged in my throat.
“Of course you are. You could be no one else but who you are. So must we all be, even Helene, who knew that the gift of dreaming would be the curse that brought death to her.”
I alone heard Bee whisper, “Death?” as she went pale.
He had gone on. “Even at the end, the gift compelled her to speak. Those were the very last words I ever heard her say. She said, ‘Where the hand of fortune branches, Tara Bell’s child must choose, and the road of war will be washed by the tide.’”
I was not too stunned by these portentous words to miss the way Kehinde glanced at Brennan, or the way he gave a shrug in reply as his gaze flicked toward Bee.
“A fanciful turn of phrase,” said Kehinde to the general, “but as I have a pragmatical turn of mind, can you tell me what you think it means?”
A longcase clock standing beside the coat rack ticked with each swing of its pendulum. A carriage rattled past outside. Camjiata watched until we were all looking at him and waiting for him to speak. He smiled softly, as if our compliance amused him.
“Why, the depths of the words are easily sounded. She meant that Tara Bell’s child will choose a path that will change the course of the war.”
The gazes of seven humans and three trolls left his face and fixed on me.
“Which means you, Catherine Bell Barahal. Because that child is you.”