The enthralling second novel in the Ascension Cycle – a brilliant epic fantasy with a unique magic system and unforgettable, diverse characters . . .
The Belle and Brine
Market District, New Sarresant
Music drifted through the tavern’s windows and into the street. Would‑be drunks and revelers nodded to her as she approached, a row of red faces eyeing her as she walked through the cold spring air. She did her best to ignore them, pressing on until the signage above the tavern door was clear: a painted girl, half-naked and staring at a single wave meant to stand for the sea. The Belle and Brine, and she’d waited for sundown precisely for the cover of a crowd in case the next few minutes turned to violence.
“Anything?” she asked in a whisper directed toward her collar, though she knew Zi could be anywhere, or nowhere, and hear her all the same.
No, her companion thought back. An ordinary night.
She nodded, and stepped back as the tavern doors swung wide, revealing a man in a soldier’s coat and a woman clearly more sober than he was holding him by the arm. Sarine stepped aside, letting them pass into the street, and wove around them before the doors could shut, admitting herself into the common room.
The music redoubled as she crossed the threshold, five players on an elevated stage and ten times as many nodding heads and drumming on tables in rhythm to the tune. No smells of meat or spices from the kitchens, only pipe smoke, sweat, and the tang of beer, wine, and ale, but those were enough to fill any space left between the music and shouted conversations carried on over top of the players’ work. A few eyes tracked her as she moved through the press, but nothing to suggest they knew her, by sight or by description. She’d have Zi’s warnings if any among them tried Red, the kaas’ gift to move quicker than she might have seen, but she snapped a Life tether in place all the same, feeling green motes drawn into her to sharpen her senses as she moved toward the bar.
Taking an empty seat by herself drew attention from some of the men sitting along the counter, though it took leaning forward and a beckoning gesture to bring the barkeep.
“Wine?” he asked, already reaching for a bottle and glass.
“No,” she said quickly. “Lodgings. For me, and for a few trunks of personal effects.”
“This is a tavern, not a boardinghouse.”
“I have it on good authority you’re lodging an associate of mine.” She lowered her voice, leaning in. “Along with a store of books, scrolls, and the like. Am I mistaken?”
The barkeep’s doubt blossomed into a scowl, and a glance toward her hands. Any number of patrons might have worn the same white gloves, even indoors, but her question would have prodded him toward suspecting the very marques that were present on her skin. Binder’s marques, blue and silver, tattooed over scars to signify her skill working with leylines and the noble blood, or the noble patronage it took to afford them.
“Fuck off, my lady,” the barkeep said.
“Zi?” she said, this time not bothering to direct it to her collar.
Yellow light flashed at the edges of her vision, then green.
Yes, Zi thought to her. Green’s been used here. His thoughts are bound.
Her heart thrummed. “Can you—?”
“Let’s start over, then,” she said. “Lodgings. My friend. And more important—the books and scrolls.”
The barkeep’s scowl had melted, though evidently even Zi’s Green couldn’t entirely erase the man’s look of suspicion and doubt.
“That’s right,” the barkeep said. “Upstairs, behind my offices. He rented the room some weeks past. Made a bloody right sty of it, as I see it. Papers and other such nonsense everywhere.”
So, a he. The first confirmation she’d had that the kaas-mage she was tracking was a man. By now a few of the other patrons at the bar had taken notice of her exchange with the barkeep, though Gods send they thought no more of it than an exchange of business or information.
“Just as well he’s come back,” the barkeep was saying. “Bloody time he clean the place. I’d as soon have my quarters back, praise the Exarch for a little sense.”
“He’s here now?” she asked, feeling a tinge of fear. Even the little Yellow and Green Zi had used would serve as a beacon if the man was close enough to have his kaas give warning.
Blessedly, the barkeep shook his head. “Haven’t seen him tonight, but at least he’s in the city. Bloody well vanished for weeks after he took the room, though. Had half a mind to dump the whole lot of his effects in the sewers and keep the coin. Come to think on it, I’ve not an inkling why I didn’t do it.” He frowned. “Bloody well should have done.”
“I’ll have the key, then,” she said. “If it’s locked.”
“’Course it’s locked,” the barkeep said, fishing on his belt for a ring and producing an iron key. He hesitated for a moment, staring at his hand with a frown before another soft pulse of green light saw him lay the key on the counter.
“Thank you, good master,” she said, snatching up the key as quick as he set it down. “Veil’s blessings on you and your establishment.”
A grunt served for a dismissal, and she scanned the room to be sure no eyes had lingered overlong on the exchange as she headed for the stairs. The gray clouds of Faith beckoned, but too many eyes would have seen her vanish to risk it. Instead she made do with common skulking, trying to appear nonchalant as she bounded up the steps, finally within reach of the tomes and scrolls she’d been tracking since the morning after the battle in the city. Zi appeared coiled around her wrist as soon as she’d climbed to the top, though unless he’d wanted them to see him, so far as she knew he could stay hidden from others even in plain sight. But then, her companion’s oddities were his own. His metallic scales seemed to glint a mix of blue and red in the lamplight, and he’d fixated on the door behind the desk, and on the iron keyhole that stood between them and what had to be on the other side.
She tried the key, felt a click, and the door swung open.
She’d found them.
Piles of books lay stacked above her waist, with some even higher, stacked atop bedstands, tables, and chairs. Even the better part of the bed was covered in scrolls and tomes, leaving only a small corner scarce wide enough to sleep on, and a narrow walkway between the bed frame and the door. The rest was all books, loose papers, and tight-wrapped scrolls, enough to have filled a chamber ten times the size of the barkeep’s bedroom. And so they had, up until she’d come to their former home only to find it empty after their owner vanished.
Reyne d’Agarre’s library.
She ducked back into the office to grab a lantern, careful to be sure the oil was secure in the pan, and kept it raised as she waded through the stacks toward the bed. A thousand years’ knowledge, stored in a chamber half the size of her uncle’s kitchen, and it would have taken a small army to cart the contents out of d’Agarre’s manor in the hours between the battle and the morning after. Yet that was what had been done; in the moment, she’d been afraid the books had somehow ascended with him, but a few inquiries had confirmed that looters and worse had been at the manor almost as soon as the battle commenced. A simple thing to reason that one of d’Agarre’s people must have been charged with moving the books, and with Zi’s help they’d followed the trail of Green here to the Belle and Brine.
She thumbed open a volume left on the bed: Histories of Pre-Essanic Gand, by Jean-Trant Theorain. An inkwell and quill lay beside it, with scrawled marks in the margins suggesting that whoever had rented the barkeep’s room might still be engaged in some manner of research. A chilling thought, given where Reyne d’Agarre’s studies had led him. But a more thorough sweep of the room gave no obvious sign of the books at the heart of d’Agarre’s collection: the ones he’d called the Codex, displayed on plinths at the center of his library. No room for plinths here, and no luck in finding them among the volumes set aside near the space cleared for sleeping. With a sigh she cleared a bedside table and set the lantern down, casting enough light to work by as she settled in cross-legged on the floor to begin scanning through the stacks.
“Too much to hope you can sense d’Agarre’s Codex among the others?” she asked Zi. He’d taken up a spot at the edge of the bed, lolling his head and tail together over the side while the rest of him lay coiled like a snake beside Theorain’s Histories.
No, was all he thought.
It might have earned him a glare, had there been any point. Instead she turned her attention on the books, transferring one stack to the next as she picked up each tome and scanned its contents. Connections to the Grand Betrayal earned a quick discard, as did Principles of Mathematics in Bhakal Herblore. Some were written in the Sarresant tongue, and those she discarded easily, though more than a few required Zi to translate, and those sparked hope in the brief moment before their words became clear. The Codex had been written in a tongue unlike any other, and what little she’d seen of it had been declared pure nonsense by Zi the moment she scanned its pages. But, nonsense or no, d’Agarre had claimed that the book guided his every step; it stood to reason getting her hands on it would help her make sense of exactly what had happened during the battle, and what might be coming next.
Another stack transferred from one pile to another, and the thrill of victory began to ebb.
“They have to be here,” she said to Zi as much as herself. “But if you can’t help find them, this is going to take—”
Once, she might have ignored it, dismissed the word as one of her companion’s quirks. But she’d come to recognize the colors as warnings, announcements of the same powers Zi conferred on her, wielded by other kaas-mages. Green meant one of them nearby, using the gift of soothing emotions, twisting thoughts.
By instinct she snapped her eyes shut, revealing the network of leylines running beneath the tavern. She tethered the red motes of Body first, feeling a rush of strength in her limbs, then ran a line through a gray cloud of Faith, vanishing from view. A flash of panic when she looked at the bed, and the freshly transferred pile of books she’d left obstructing the walkway to the door. No time to reorder them. The kaas-mage would know she’d been here, which meant the books—and d’Agarre’s Codex with them—would be gone if she left. Now that she was here, she couldn’t back down. Whoever d’Agarre’s underling was, she had to face him.
She left the lantern, and Zi, weaving through the piles of books to return to the barkeep’s office, still masked by Faith.
Thumping sounded from below, the rush of stairs taken two or three at a time, and Zi prompted: Yellow, then a heartbeat later, Red.
A man in black leather appeared at the top of the stairs, paying her no mind—hidden as she was—and he rushed past her faster than any man should have been able to move. Even though she was expecting him, he still managed to catch her by surprise, racing to the door, bracing himself against the frame as though he feared the worst lay within.
It took a second look to register his face, and recognize him for who he was.
“Axerian?” she said, letting Faith drop. Zi had appeared on the desk this time, and without knowing how, she knew he’d chosen to make himself visible to her and Axerian both.
The man in black spun around, confirming it was him. The Nameless; a God, or at least he had been, before what had transpired with d’Agarre. His face was haggard, a beard’s growth showing through on his jaw where he’d been clean-shaven before, his eyes carrying only a fraction of the spark of wit she’d come to expect from him during the days leading up to the battle. She hadn’t seen him since.
“Sarine,” he said. “Thank the hidden Emperors it was you, and not one of the others.”
“One of who?” she asked. “And what are you doing here?”
He slowed down, a sign his kaas had rescinded Red, and showed her a half smile, apologetic and knowing at the same time.
“You’re responsible for this,” she said. “You moved the library, after the battle.”
“Xeraxet moved the library,” Axerian replied. “With Green and the help of a few dozen otherwise unoccupied militiamen.” At mention of his name, Axerian’s kaas appeared on the desk next to Zi. Unmistakably the same sort of creature—metallic scales, a narrow snout like a snake, with four short legs and long, looping coils for a body—but unmistakably different, too. Shorter, stockier, with force to his movements, whereas Zi had always moved with delicate grace.
“Why?” she said. This time it was touched with anger. “The books, and d’Agarre’s Codex. You hid them from me?”
“From you? No. I destroyed d’Agarre’s copy, and the others had been taken by their owners by the time I got there, more’s the pity. The book is dangerous in the wrong hands, as you can well attest by now, I think. As for the rest, a revolution is no place for a trove of knowledge. I took precautions to store it all here until I could return.”
“You didn’t think I’d want to read them? To find some answers, something? Or to question you, for that matter.”
He gave a pained look. “I had to go. With d’Agarre’s ascension there are certain matters that had to be seen to. My failure need not count for Paendurion’s, or Ad‑Shi’s. With my help, both their places might still be secured. And even with the Veil in stasis, the block she placed—”
The world lurched.
Vision blurred, and she was in a chamber of stone, but distorted, as though she viewed it through a glass. Two faces looked up at her, faces that pulled on her memory, each connected to her through arcing strands of energy.
Zi’s thought, and she heard it in two places at once.
The barkeep’s office pulsed with blue light, an array of beams seeming to radiate from Zi’s scales. Her companion had drawn himself up to his full height, staring at Axerian, almost trembling, for all he stood rigidly in place.
Her belly ached, and she watched as the lights receded, returning the room to amber lamplight. Bile stung her throat, and her stomach twisted, an afterimage of the stone chamber shimmering over top of the room before it faded.
“Apologies,” Axerian said quietly.
Zi was shaking, his coils quivering as he stood upright on the desk. He was in pain, and Axerian had done something to trigger it.
“Why are you here?” she asked, moving to Zi beside the desk. “Why come back to the city now?”
Axerian’s eyes lingered on Zi as he spoke. “I’m dying now, again, after so many years. I mean to spend my last days as I spent the last ten thousand.”
“You were responsible for d’Agarre,” she said. “You said as much. You manipulated him through your Codex. If you’re planning to loose another monster on this city . . .”
“No,” Axerian said. “My work here is simpler. There are two more ascensions coming. I mean to stop them, and I’d have your blessing, if you’d give it.”
She has never given you her blessing, Zi thought, though his voice sounded weak, giving the impression of frailty for all she heard it directly in her mind. Whatever you do, you do alone.
Axerian glanced to her, as though expecting her to countermand Zi. She’d done as much before, hunting d’Agarre and his fellows while Zi suffered for it. This time she said nothing. If there was a course for her to follow, she could determine it with Zi, in a manner that didn’t leave him quivering in pain.
“Very well,” Axerian said. “Then I expect this will be our last meeting. I remand the library into your keeping. Take what you like; I’ll see what remains stored safely against the worst of whatever comes.”
He hesitated for a moment, as though he meant to say more. Instead his kaas vanished as he turned and headed down the stairs, leaving her and Zi alone.