One of the most anticipated fantasy novels of the year, and the start of a groundbreaking epic fantasy trilogy from New York Times bestselling author Daniel Abraham, one half of James S. A. Corey
In the course of a single life, a man can be many things: a beloved child in a brightly embroidered gown, a street tough with a band of knifemen walking at his side, lover to a beautiful girl, husband to an honest woman, father to a child, grain sweeper in a brewery, widower, musician, and mendicant coughing his lungs up outside the city walls. The only thing they have in common is that they are the same man.
These are the mysteries, and there is a beauty in them. In this way, Kithamar is a beautiful city.
All through its streets, Kithamar shows the signs and remnants of the cities that the city has been. Walls that defended the border of a younger town stand a dumbfounded, useless guard between the noble compounds of Green Hill and the fountain square at Stonemarket. The great battlements of Oldgate glower out over the river, its arrow-slits and murder holes used for candle niches now, and the enemy races who stormed or manned it sleep side by side in its armories because the rents are cheap. The six-bridged Khahon was the border between a great Hansch kingdom and savage near-nomad Inlisc to hear it one way, or the first place that the frightened, violent, sharp-faced Hansch had come from the west if you told the story from the other bank. Now the river is the heart of the city, dividing and uniting it.
The ancient races killed one another and swore eternal hatred, only to bury their enmity and pretend to be a single people, citizens of one city. Kithamar has declared itself the subject of the one true god. Or the three. Or the numberless. For three hundred years and longer, it has been a free city, independent and proud and ruled by princes of its own rather than any distant king.
Only today, its prince is dead.
The reign of Byrn a Sal had been brief.
Less than a year before, the streets had filled with revelers and wine, music and joy and more than a little imprudent sex to celebrate the great man’s coronation. The months between then and now were turbulent, marked by ill omens and violence. A winter of troubled sleep.
Now, as the first light of the coming dawn touches the highest reaches of the palace towering at the top of its hill, the red gates open on his funeral procession. Two old women dressed in rags step out and strike drums. Black, blindered horses follow, their steps echoing against the stone. And all along the route, the men and women and children who are Kithamar wait.
They have been there since nightfall, some of them. They love the spectacle of death and the performance of grief. And, though few of them say the words aloud, they hope that the season of darkness will end and something new begin. Only a few of them ask their questions aloud: How did it happen? Was it illness or accident, murder or the vengeance of God?
How did Byrn a Sal die?
The black lacquered cart passes among the gardens and mansions of Green Hill. The heads of the high families stand at their entrances as if ready to make the dead man welcome if he should stand up. Servants and children and ill-dignified cousins gawk from the bushes and corners. Only the burned-out shell of the Daris Brotherhood ignores the funeral. And then the body passes into the city proper, heading first for Stonemarket and then south through the soot-dark streets of the Smoke.
Those lucky enough to have buildings along the route have rented space at their windows and on their roofs. As the death cart shifts and judders across the cobblestones, people jockey to look at the corpse: a little less than six feet of iron-stinking clay that had been a man. Behind the cart follow the highest dignified of the city.
The dead man’s daughter — soon prince herself — Elaine a Sal, rides behind her father in a dark litter. She wears rags, but also a silver torc. Her chin is lifted, and her face is expressionless. The eyes of the city drink her in, trying to find some sign in the angle of her spine or the dryness of her eyes to tell whether she’s a girl hardly old enough to be called woman drowning in shock and despair, or else a murderess and patricide struggling to contain her triumph.
Either way, she will rule the city tomorrow, and all these same people will dance at her coronation.
Behind her, the favored of the old prince walk. Mikah Ell, the palace historian in an ash-streaked robe. Old Karsen’s son, Halev, who had been Byrn a Sal’s confidant and advisor. Samal Kint, the head of the palace guard carrying a blunted sword. Then more, all wearing gray, all with ashes on their hands. When they reach the bridge at the edge of the Smoke — yellow stone and black mortar — they stop. A priest walks out to meet them, chanting and shaking a censer of sweet incense. They perform the rites of protection to keep the river from washing away the dead man’s soul. Everyone knows that water is hungry.
The rite complete, the funeral procession passes through the wider streets of Seepwater, past the brewer’s houses and canals where the flatboats stand bow to stern, so thick that a girl could have walked from one side of the canal to the other and not gotten her hem wet. Midday comes, the early summer sun making its arc more slowly than it did a few weeks before, and the cart is only just turning northeast to make its way along the dividing line between Riverport and Newmarket. Flies as fat as thumbnails buzz around the cart, and the horses slap at them with their tails. Wherever the funeral procession is, the crowd thickens, only to evaporate when it has passed. Once the last of the honor guard rounds the corner, leaving Seepwater behind, the brewers houses reopen, the iron grates on their sides start accepting wagers again. Delivery men spin barrels down the streets on their edges with the practiced skill of jugglers.
It is almost sunset before the funeral procession reaches the temple. The bloody western skyline is interrupted by the black hill of the palace. The colored windows of the temple glow. Full dark takes the streets like spilling ink before the last song echoes in the heights above the great altar and the body of Byrn a Sal, purified by the mourning of his subjects and the prayers of his priesthood, comes out to the pyre. His daughter should light the oil-stinking wood, but she stays still until young Karsen, her father’s friend, comes and takes the torch from her hand.
The term for the night between the funeral of the old prince and the coronation of the new one is gautanna. It is an ancient Inlisc word that means, roughly, the pause at the top of a breath when the lungs are most full. Literally, it translates as the moment of hollowness.
For one night, Kithamar is a city between worlds and between ages. It falls out of its own history, at once the end of something and the beginning of something else. The skeptical among the citizens — and Kithamar has more than its share of the amiably godless — call it tradition and merely a story that says something about the character of the city, its hopes and aspirations, the fears and uncertainties that come in moments of change. That may be true, but there is something profound and eerie about the streets. The rush of the river seems to have words in it. The small magics of Kithamar go as quiet as mice scenting a cat. The clatter of horseshoes against stone echoes differently. The city guard in their blue cloaks make their rounds quietly, or decide that for one night they might as well not make them at all.
Outside the city, the southern track where by daylight teams of oxen haul boats against the current is quiet and deserted apart from one lone, bearded man. He sits at the base of a white birch, his back against the bark. The small glass bead in his hand would be red if there were light enough to see it.
In a thin-walled bedroom above a tailor’s shop in Riverport, a young man lays alone on a mattress. His right hand is bandaged, and the wound beneath the cloth throbs. He watches the moon rise over the rooftops, listening with his heart in his throat for footsteps on the creaking floorboards outside his door.
Under the northernmost of Oldgate’s four bridges, a girl sits, listening to the water. She has a round face, gently curling hair, and a knife held in her fist. She is waiting for a meeting that she dreads as much as she longs for it.
Her name is Alys.
Kithamar is an unforgiving city. The common wisdom states that it was founded on hatred, but this a misunderstanding. In truth, it was founded on hunger, and there are many kinds of hunger at its heart. – From the secret journal of Ulris Kaon, court historian of Prince Daos a Sal
* * *
Years ago, before Prince Byrn a Sal’s rise to the city throne and all that came after, Alys had been a young child and her older and only brother Darro left their mother’s house for the last time and in anger.
Mother had discovered that Darro and some of his friends had been robbing warehouses in Seepwater, hauling whatever they found up to a trader in Riverport, and spending the silver and bronze they got on wine. Alys wasn’t sure whether it was the theft that enraged their mother or that he hadn’t brought a share of the money home. Maybe her mother didn’t know either.
Alys had tried to stay small enough to go unnoticed while they shouted at each other. She remembered Darro screaming I don’t eat anyone’s shit and her mother yelling back They will kill you if you don’t.
In the end, Darro took a satchel and a club and the pair of good boots that he and their mother usually traded off using depending on who’d be walking farthest, and he left. Mother threw herself on the cot, scowling and weeping. When her attention finally wandered to Alys, she shook her head.
“Your brother has a good heart, but he’s drunk on himself. Don’t be like him,” she said and pointed at Alys with crossed fingers like the street corner blessing men did to ward off evil. “Don’t you be like him.”
Alys nodded her little head and swore she wouldn’t. She even meant it for a while.
* * * * * * * * *
The coronation day of Byrn a Sal, the new prince of the city, and the beginning, though no one knew it yet, of his death.
The pull that Alys’s little crew had going was one of the oldest. Usually it took four: a flea, a cutter, a fish, and a walk-away. It could be done without a fish, and even the walk-away wasn’t necessary, though going without raised the risk of being caught. The only ones that couldn’t be done without were the flea and the cutter, and the cutter called the go.
Or usually did.
Orrel was cutter that day because he had a light hand and a sharp knife. Sammish was the walk-away, because she had the kind of face that people forgot as soon as they looked away from her. They didn’t have a fish. Alys was the flea.
The girl Orrel had pointed at was Inlisc in a brightly embroidered blouse, and she was an easy mark. Her smile was drunken, her steps unsteady. The necklace she wore was gold and pearl, and probably worth more than the girl herself. And Alys knew her.
Her name was Kana. She worked for a merchant family in Riverport, and the gold she wore wasn’t hers. If Orrel stole it, the best the girl could hope for was being sent back to Longhill. Whipping was more likely. The bluecloaks of the city guard sewing stones in her skirt and dropping her off a bridge wasn’t out of the question. It was why Orrel chose her. He was the kind that hated anyone who’d done better than himself. Kana was a traitor to Longhill, pretentious and holier-than-thou, lickspittal to the Hansch of Riverport, and he was ready to punish her for her good fortune.
She said No with her fingers, and Orrel, across the road from her, frowned. He called the go again. He’d keep doing it until she agreed.
Alys walked to the girl. If it ended the day’s pull, it did. Kana’s eyes swam when Alys took her arm, confused but not alarmed. Alys grinned and kissed her on the cheek. With her lips near the girl’s ear, she whispered over the noise of the crowd.
“There are thieves here. They have eyes on that necklace. I don’t know what you were thinking to wear that here, but get out. Now.”
She released Kana, laughed as though they were old friends, and walked away. The last she saw Kana, she had a protective fist around the pearls and alarm in her eyes.
Orrel scowled at her but moved on.
The crowd filled the little plaza where six streets converged. The merchants and porters and boat hands of Riverport mixed with the weavers and leatherworkers and shoemakers of Newmarket. Most of the faces were Hansch, but there were enough Inlisc that Alys and Orrel didn’t stand out. Sammish never stood out anywhere. That was her gift.
Voices rose in song, one melody washing over the other until no one seemed quite sure what notes or words were supposed to come next. A red-cheeked old man, plump as a pig, had a cask of wine at the side of one street, and he was filling any mug or skin that was passed to him. Late summer heat thickened the air. Girls in gaudy dresses thrown together for the occasion or borrowed from some other celebration danced and spun and tried to stay out of the arms of the boys. They didn’t always try very hard.
Orrel was tall and not bad to look at. He danced through the streets with his shirt off, his hands waving along with the rhythm of whatever song seemed loudest. His anger wasn’t gone, but it was hidden. His grin was wide and innocent and considerably more drunken than he actually was. Alys was wearing a loose blouse and a skirt with a slit up the sides that looked celebratory, but also left her legs free. She passed through the crowd ahead of Orrel, glancing back every few paces to see if he’d chosen another bird for them to pluck.
The next touch was a Hansch girl who was a little older than Alys with ruddy cheeks that showed how much wine she’d swallowed. She was spinning in a circle with half a dozen others, their legs weaving a dance as they sang. She wore an armband of leather and silver with an amethyst the size of Alys’s thumbnail at its center. The child of some moneyed family, Alys guessed, not noble but wealthy enough to be careless. Orrel called the go and started moving in without giving Alys time to object. They began their own dance with steps no one saw.
The trick was for the flea and the cutter to seem as though they were borne by the tides of the crowd but still reach their target in the same moment. If they moved too quickly or too straight, someone might notice, and there were guards in the streets. Alys slipped and slid through the press, grinning as though she were having the best day ever. It wasn’t a lie. She loved this part. Orrel swirled and circled, and seemed almost to be veering off toward the east until a knot of young men blocked his way. He made an apology to no one in particular and turned back toward the girl. The knife was small enough to hide with his finger, and only sharp along one edge. Alys didn’t even see it glint.
The flea’s job was to distract, the cutter’s job to take, and the walk-away’s to vanish. Alys reached out and playfully rubbed the girl’s right breast. The uninvited and unexpected touch was more immediate than the tug at her arm as Orrel sliced through the armband’s ties. The girl’s lips were caught between confusion and affront. Orrel passed the cut-string armband to the inconspicuous shadow that was Sammish.
The change of hands was smooth and fast and, most important, none of them looked each other while it happened. Alys moved on in her previous path, Orrel in his, and Sammish — head down like she was late for something — in a third. It all took less than a heartbeat. They were that good.
If the girl raised an alarm, Orrel would drop his knife and claim innocence. Her lost band wasn’t with him. Alys had done nothing beyond be too familiar, swept up as she was by the spirit of the day. Sammish was already elsewhere, lost in the city. That was the beauty of the pull.
When it was over, there was a moment when the touch realized something precious was gone. They grabbed at their pockets, feeling for the pouch that had been there, or looked around on the stones in case it had only fallen, thinking that whatever was lost might still be recovered. Sometimes, they would flush with rage. Sometimes their faces would twist in disbelief. A rare few laughed. Whatever they did, it felt honest, and that honesty fascinated Alys.
She looked back, hoping to see the moment, but the girl only stood still in the crowd, her hand lifted protectively to her breast. Alys willed the Hansch girl to know, but she only looked dazed for a moment before turning back to her friends, and Alys felt a snap of disappointment. The bareness of her arm went unnoticed. She might not realize for hours.
Guards shouted, as unmistakable as angry dogs, and for a panicked breath, Alys thought that someone had seen them. They were caught. But the armed men pushing through the crowd wore red cloaks, not the blue and white of the city. The badges of office at their belts were silver and gold, not bronze.
The palace guard was clearing a path through the crowd. The new prince was passing by.
Byrn a Sal was here.
Ausai a Sal – his uncle – had been prince for all of Alys’s life, but now he had been put in the past like a leaf on the river. The new prince wasn’t a young man, but he wasn’t old. It wasn’t outlandish to expect decades under his leadership. If he was wise and lucky, Byrn a Sal might be prince for as long as Alys lived.
The horse he rode was pale and magnificent. Its mane and tail were plaited with silver and gold, and its coat shone like the surface of the river. Prince Byrn a Sal had a square face with a straight nose almost utterly unlike his dead uncle’s. Dark hair rose a little up his forehead and his trim beard had touches of white in it. He was so open and his smile so ready that he could have passed for a much younger man. Alys felt the press of bodies against her as the crowd surged closer, pushing her forward against the palace guard; a little chaos of bodies that churned around her. Byrn a Sal sailed through it and above it.
Another man rode behind him. He seemed to be the same age, more or less, with ash brown, straight hair. Alys had no particular interest in the Hansch nobility, but there was something familiar about this one. If not in his features then in his expression and the way he carried himself.
She turned to a woman that had been thrown beside her: older and in a linen dress that marked her as a servant belonging in the wealthier parts of Riverport. “Who’s that?” she shouted over the voice of crowd as she pointed.
“Young Karsen? He’ll be running half the city by spring, you can count on it. God smiled on that one.”
Alys stared at him, trying to see a man who God had smiled on. She couldn’t make the thought match what she saw. His eyes met hers. A shock flowed through her and sense of being exposed.
Karsen nodded to her as if he recognized her as well, or maybe it was only that he’d met her eyes and was being polite. The prince and his friend moved on and their retinue followed them, men and women and horses. Alys watched them go with her heart slowing. She told herself that was only that being noticed when they were on a pull usually meant disaster. She told herself that was all, and that there was nothing eerie about the prince’s companion.
The last to go were the redcloaks, turning to run forward to the head of the prince’s train and open the way on the next street, moving with a practiced coordination that matched the best thieves of Longhill.
“You done?” Sammish had come unnoticed and was at her elbow, considering her with mild, muddy eyes.
“I was waiting for you, yeah?” Alys said. “Where’s Orrel?”
“South,” Sammish said, and they both turned and started walking, shifting through the crowd like fish swimming through weeds. “Says we make our way toward Seepwater, end it by the theater. University types will all be drunk and happy.”
“They’ve got less money than we do,” Alys said.
“I’m just saying what he said.”
“Fine, then,” Alys said. She’d crossed Orrel once already today. She should probably be grateful he was still working the pull at all.
“Why didn’t you?” Sammish asked, pulling Alys back to herself.
“Why didn’t I what?”
“The necklace girl. Kara. Why’d you sour the pull?”
Alys shrugged as they walked. “There are enough of them we don’t need to pull down our own.”
“She’s not us anymore, though. She’s not Longhill.”
“Longhill’s always Longhill.”
Sammish seemed to weigh the thought for a moment, then nodded. Longhill was always Longhill.
The street traffic thinned as they reached canals of Seepwater. On other days, stevedores and customs men and mule-drawn carts would have filled the street. The singular moment in the city’s life had emptied it, closed the port, and locked the warehouses. Tomorrow, a more familiar Kithamar would come back. It might have been her tiredness that left her longing for that normalcy. It might have been a premonition.
The crowd in Seepwater was different from the ones they’d been hunting. The brewers and bettors and pawnbrokers who made the canals home were rougher than the merchants of Riverport or the artisans of Newmarket. A handful of disreputable students slouched and pushed each other, though they were long blocks away from the city’s southern wall where the lectures were held. A young city guardsman with rosy pimples on his cheeks strutted through the crowd, surveying the people like a warehouseman considering his bales. An old man in a green vest so gaudy that Alys didn’t at first notice the streaks of filth on it played a reed organ.
And Orrel swayed to the music, smiling beatifically among a dozen or more other revelers. Alys moved through his field of vision, not greeting him, but letting him see that she was there. He lifted his hands, but there were no words in his fingers now. This close to Longhill, there would be too many people who knew to look for them. Instead, he shifted his hips and his shoulders, spinning in the little group of dancers. She watched him, waiting for him to choose. His false drunkenness seemed less false to her now.
When the signal came, she thought he was joking.
The strutting, acne-faced guard was moving down the street, smiling at girls. Many of the girls smiled back. It meant something to wear the blue cloak. It meant, among other things, that if he chose to beat someone or steal from them or worse, he wouldn’t be punished. Some girls liked that. They thought being the special one of a man like that would make them safe, and they were wrong. At best, it would mean that they were safe from people besides him.
Orrel started a swooping approach, smiling and tilting his face up toward the sun. His finger curved to hide the knife. Alys frowned and said No with her hands, but he pretended not to notice her. It was punishment for Kana and the necklace.
Alys didn’t know if the tightness in her throat was anger or fear.
For the pull to work, all three had to reach the mark in the same moment. If Alys didn’t start walking now, she’d have to rush at the end. It would call attention to her. If she refused, Orrel might turn aside, or he might not. If he trusted her to be where she was supposed to be and do what she was supposed to do, and she failed him, he’d be caught.
If he were caught, he’d be killed. The guard might take him to the magistrate first, or it might end here. He was forcing her to choose between letting him die or doing what he said.
She stepped forward. The guard paused at a little stand where a boy was selling honey cakes at two for a bronze coin. Orrel shifted his trajectory through the crowd, and Alys matched him. Sammish, her eyes wide and her lips thin, knelt in a doorway and pretended to dig a pebble out of her boot. Alys tried to take comfort that she wasn’t the only one who thought this was a mistake.
Close up, the guard seemed young. His beard was thin fuzz, and his skin had the oily look of an adolescence not quite outgrown. Orrel stepped casually toward the man’s back. Alys had three steps before she reached him. Two. With another man, she might have brushed a hand against his crotch. A gentle squeeze of his sex to confuse and capture his attention. Instead, she yipped and stumbled forward like she’d tripped on her own toe. The guard almost didn’t react quickly enough to catch her, and she had to really take his arm to keep herself from falling. She felt Orrel’s tap only because she knew to expect it. For all his faults, Orrel’s fingers were light.
“Sorry,” she said to the guardsman as they stood back up together. “I’m sorry.”
“Be more careful,” he said, and Orrel was already past. Sammish’s grey-brown back disappeared down the street. Alys nodded and made some stupid attempt at a curtsey the way she thought a guard-smitten girl might before she turned and walked away. She hoped the warmth in her cheeks would seem like a blush. The guard snickered as she went. She put her head down and headed east, into the crowd.
The thing to avoid was looking back.
She looked back.
The guardsman was still standing by the boy with the honey cakes, but his haughtiness had vanished. His tunic hung loose under the cloak because the belt that had held it was gone. His eyes were wide with alarm, his arms out from his sides as if amazed by some miracle. His lips quivered, and his chest worked like a bellows as he gasped.
Suddenly vulnerable, he reminded Alys of a child discovering that a beloved toy was broken. She wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d sobbed. She felt neither triumph nor regret, but he held her attention. If she’d seen him bathing, he wouldn’t have been as naked as he was at that moment. She would have understood him less.
He turned half around as if his belt might be behind him and teasing him like a puppy. He lifted his anguished gaze to the crowd.
When his eyes found hers, she knew she’d made a mistake. His jaw slid forward, and his lips pulled back. By habit, he reached for the whistle at his belt. She turned, walking away more quickly, telling herself he might doubt himself. Then, fast-hearted, she broke to a trot.
“Grab her! In the name of the prince, someone stop that bitch!”
All around her, people shifted in alarm and uncertainty. It would be seconds before they understood who he meant. The shape of her life rested on the edge of the moment.
The slap of boots against paving stones came from behind her. She muttered fuck, scooped up her skirt and, with the guard close at her back, sprinted for Longhill.