Sazuma is a serialized story that I publish once every even month to my $3 patrons on Patreon (with my other serial, Gunpowder Magnolia, falling on the odd months). It takes place in my new flintlock fantasy universe, Altima, along with Gunpowder Magnolia, Seven Forsaken, and Blood Over Bright Haven.
The following is a sample chapter for those curious about what I’ve been up to behind the paywall. I hope you enjoy!
Chapter 1: Breath and Blood
The night breathed, as it always did in Sazuma. The sigh of wind through the sky canopy usually brought calm. Tonight, it just made Zahn hyper-aware of his own breathing, his own heartbeat too hard against his ribs. It had been six years since he had killed anyone with his own hands, and he had never killed a woman.
Get it together, Zahn, he willed himself as he slunk along Sazuma’s roots toward his target. It’s just another job. This was one of several mantras he had run through in the past hour, including, ‘You have no choice,’ ‘It’s probably for a good reason,’ and ‘You’ve killed before, idiot. Calm down.’ None had done anything to loosen the knot of dread in his stomach.
Only late-shift workers walked the winding pavebark at this time of night, weary shapes trudging home beneath the glow of street lanterns. Part of Zahn wanted one of the golden-haired tactomancers to spot him and cry out in alarm. Maybe the delay would mean that he had to put the hit off for one more day, give Winnow Han-Madrom one more day to live.
But stalking through this part of Sazuma was tragically easy. Zahn had done most of his training in the city’s upper districts, where tactomages kept every inch of wood carefully manicured, gathering roots into clean edges, wide windows, and broad streets. Here, in the lower districts, residents couldn’t afford to have tactomages in for maintenance more than once a year, so the roots grew as they willed, tangling into uneven rooftops, snarls of shadow, and narrow walkways smoothed only by foot traffic.
A pattering rush from the west made Zahn think of rain. But there was no precipitation out here in the Wilds. Just the wind that periodically swept in from the desert through Sazuma’s canopy, making leaves swarm from her branches and berries drop like rain. The tiny, nut-like fruits pelted onto the pathways between houses, bouncing, rolling, and gathering in corners. A few pinged off Zahn’s left arm and he pulled his cloak over it to muffle the sound. As he neared his destination, he sheathed his climbing daggers and crept onward on his feet and right hand, not wanting to risk the scrape of metal on bark alerting his prey—though the cascade of berries would likely cover the sound, even if he did slip up.
Gray shapes jumped in the night around Zahn—lemurs descending from the rooftops to take advantage of the windfall—and, for once, Zahn didn’t envy their speed. At dawn, Sazuma’s urchins would pick over what the lemurs had left behind, cleaning the streets to the last berry. Before the sun was high, each morsel would be stripped of its unpalatable shell and traded to the merchants in exchange for the sustenance the orphans needed to forage another day. Many of the agents in Zahn’s guild had gotten their start collecting berries or searching out rarer foods for Sazuma’s merchants. He made a note to ask his co-spies if they regretted the promotion now. Because at the moment, he would have given anything to be crawling for berries or climbing for birds’ eggs. How did you go from a thief of food to a thief of human life?
By the time Zahn reached his destination, his heartbeat had grown physically painful, a steel hammer on the inside of his chest that sounded to him like it should wake all Sazuma. His chosen point of ambush was an overgrown rooftop overlooking an alley—the narrowest on his target’s route home. If she had friends with her, the single-file space would allow Zahn to separate them and take them one at a time.
The most difficult thing about hunting women was getting them alone. Men of Sazuma drifted, making them easy to catch alone. But the women, Zahn was learning, were nearly impossible to isolate. He had tailed Winnow han-Madrom for a week and not once had she moved more than a few feet from her fellows. When she wasn’t walking to and from the mines with her friends, she was swinging her pick alongside other workers, cooking with her mother, playing with her nieces and nephews, or sleeping nestled among her sisters.
Zahn shook his head, doing his best not to think about Winnow’s family, about the way her nieces cuddled close to her during storytime and the way she made her baby nephew howl with laughter.
In Daraxes, he had grown up with the idea that men were supposed to protect women… But he wasn’t in Daraxes, he reminded himself, and resisting his superiors would do nothing to save Winnow. If he wasn’t up to the job, the boss would assign it to someone else—possibly someone weaker, who would take a painfully long time in the killing, possibly someone meaner, who wouldn’t mind drawing it out for a laugh. Winnow would die one way or another. At least Zahn had the raw physical power to make it quick.
Sinking back into a shadow, he pulled his spy’s cloak around him to hide the glint off his arm and unfastened the clasps at his shoulders, so that the cloak would drop free when he moved. The dark garment was beautifully effective at masking a spy’s movements through the night, but during combat, it just got in the way. Drawing his dagger, he went still to wait.
Tonight, Winnow was back late. There were only two friends instead of the usual four. Both were women, though that wouldn’t necessarily make Zahn’s job easier.
“I was thinking of a nice dress,” Nelen said as the group plodded within earshot of Zahn’s hiding place. By this time, he had learned the names of all Winnow’s co-workers and come to know their voices. “That’s a classic nameday present.”
“You think we can pool enough for a nice dress?” Korrik said wearily.
“Okay, a nice shirt.”
“She works with us,” Winnow laughed as the three dirt-stained miners turned into the alley. “Where would she wear a nice anything?”
Zahn had stopped breathing. The world narrowed to the three exhausted women as they trudged up the alley, one heavy step at a time.
From his vantage, he could just make out the hue of their skin. Sazuman godmarks took the form of golden freckles, which started appearing in early childhood and then multiplied continuously with age. The miners, being nearly middle-aged, had dense clouds of gold around their eyes, with a sparser scattering across the lower face, neck, and the rest of the body. Those freckles glowed, even in dim light; the richer the gold, the more energy a person was packing. After a day of hard labor, these three were dimmed but not completely spent. There was still enough gold in them for a fight.
“Well, we can’t let her nameday pass again without giving her something,” Nelen said.
They were almost beneath Zahn now, Winnow in the lead, followed by Korrik, followed by Nelen, three golden heads of curls, dulled with dust.
“Hey,” Winnow said, “what about a new lamp? She always—”
Zahn dropped to the alley.
And, blessedly, muscle memory took over. The climbing dagger was buried in Winnow’s side before anyone managed a cry of surprise. She staggered back, lips parted in shock, clutching at the hilt, and Zahn turned to face the other two miners. Had he not followed these women for days, he might have expected them to run, but he knew better than to hope for that. He knew how much they loved each other.
Korrik had already called out to Nelen and reached for her hand. The first thing any Sazuman did when threatened was to reach for her nearest sister, an impulse Zahn had found bizarre before he came to understand tactomancy. If they touched, Nelen would be able to pour her energy into Korrik, giving her twice the strength of a normal woman.
But Zahn was ahead of them, slamming his right elbow into Korrik’s temple before Nelen’s fingers found hers. She crashed into the gnarled alley wall and crumpled, unconscious.
“Korrik!” Nelen gasped and then came at Zahn with her pickaxe.
He ducked the swing and, when the pick stuck in the alley wall, darted into the opening.
“No!” Nelen raised a hand in defense—which was a serious threat in Sazuma. A moment of skin-to-skin contact and she could suck the strength from Zahn’s body. If her tactomancy was powerful enough, she could even kill him.
Of course, Zahn had trained to avoid those touches, and he angled his body as he went for the punch. Nelen’s outstretched fingers brushed his sleeve without ever meeting skin and his right fist crashed hard into her temple. The blow knocked her to the ground where she lay, moaning and barely conscious, too dazed to rise.
“Stop it!” a voice choked and Zahn turned to find Winnow facing him.
God, no, Zahn thought miserably. Please, no.
Horrifyingly, Winnow was back on her feet, still alive—gasping for breath, gushing blood, but still alive. She had pulled the dagger from her ribs and was holding it before her, ready to fight.
“They’re innocent.” Blood dribbled from Winnow’s mouth as she growled, “Don’t touch them!” Barely able to stand with the fatal stab wound in her side, Winnow fell as much as lunged toward Zahn.
On reflex, he spun, extending a leg as he dropped beneath the clumsy swing of the dagger, and knocked Winnow’s feet from under her. She went down hard, pavebark slamming the breath from her body. As she arched, wheezed, and coughed blood, Zahn scrambled onto her and pinned her down, careful to keep his right hand high on her arm where her sleeve prevented skin-to-skin contact.
Even stabbed and winded, Winnow refused to relinquish the knife—which presented a problem. Zahn couldn’t wrest the dagger from her without touching her hand, nor could he let go of her to draw his other knife without giving her an opening to grab for his exposed skin. Either way, he risked death by tactomancy.
All he could do was hold her down until she died.
She had clamped a frantic grip around his left forearm, clearly intent on draining him, but it didn’t work. A tactomancer could only sap a person’s strength through skin-to-skin contact and Zahn’s left arm was metal.
“Fuck…” Winnow’s unfocused eyes blinked rapidly before processing the gleam of steel. “Now, that’s not fair…”
“I’m sorry,” Zahn whispered before he realized the words were on his tongue. “Winnow han-Madrom, I’m so sorry.”
As Winnow struggled for breath, raindrops fell softly onto the front of her shirt. Except that there was no rain in Sazuma. Zahn was crying.
“I won’t…” I won’t hurt your friends, he wanted to say, so she wouldn’t die worrying for them, but the words caught in his throat choking him. He couldn’t even do this small thing for her. You worthless cur, Zahn, how did you mess this up so badly?
Zahn had intended a decisive kill with that first stab, so she would go down without ever looking him in the eye or feeling any pain. But no. He had missed the abdominal aorta by an inch and now he got to watch her die slowly, close enough to feel her breath and count her freckles as they dulled to gray beneath flecks of blood.
“It’s…” Winnow forced the words out, “j-just me… isn’t it? I’m… the only target.”
Still unable to speak, Zahn nodded.
“Ah…” The touch on Zahn’s metal arm changed. Winnow was no longer digging her nails in, trying to drain him. Instead, she caressed the metal with her first two fingers, as if to give comfort—though his arm couldn’t absorb comfort any more than it could be sapped. Winnow’s dark, damnedly-expressive Sazuman eyes had gone soft.
“It’s alright,” she said with her hard-won breath. “I knew this was going to happen sometime.” Drawn muscles in her face relaxed, her eyes glazing as she slipped into the place where pain no longer registered. “You did your job, love… Don’t cry.”
And that was too much for Zahn.
Heedless of the risks, he yanked his metal arm from Winnow’s grasp and punched her in the throat. Sharpened knuckles went through her windpipe and broke her spine, killing her instantly. Zahn often wished for more sensation in his metal arm. This was the first time he found himself wishing for less, wishing the crunch weren’t quite so palpable.
He shook as he straightened up over the bloody ruin that had been a woman. The other two miners were still down, Korrik out cold, Nelen groaning feebly, but their earlier shouts had drawn attention. Lights winked to life in the windows down the street and footsteps pounded up the pavebark toward the alley.
Thank God. Had it not been for the pure practical need, Zahn wasn’t sure he would have been able to move. Snatching his dagger from Winnow’s fingers, he scaled the alley wall, trying not to see the blood his hands left on the roots. A pause to recover his cloak and he was gone before the footsteps turned the corner.
“Someone’s been murdered!” a voice exclaimed from the alley at his back and he moved faster, trying not to hear. But the wind had slowed and the voices cut the night with terrible clarity.
“Goddess, it’s Winnow!”
He wasn’t fast enough to escape the sounds of Winnow’s family as they reached the scene—her sisters, her nieces, her little nephew who thought the world of her. He heard them screaming.
For seven days, he had stalked Winnow, watching her every move for something. It wasn’t until now, staggering in the dark, that Zahn realized that he hadn’t really been waiting to get her alone. He had been waiting for understanding, the telling moment when her behavior turned nefarious and he saw clearly why she had to die.
Some misstep would uncover that she was secretly trafficking slaves, dealing in forbidden magic, plotting against the government, pocketing diamonds on the side, something. But that moment had never come. Winnow had been a normal aunt and sister the whole time he watched her. She had been a normal aunt and sister when he put his fist through her neck.
To the last, she had been a good Sazuman woman, strong, loyal, and kind—even to her killer.
Fuck Sazuma, even in the pits of Krell, Zahn had never killed someone who begged him not to cry. At the very least, in that hell, Zahn had had a thin justification for the blood on his hands: he had killed those other slaves so that they wouldn’t kill him. It had been a threadbare veil between his soul and damning guilt, but at least it had been something. This—murder without any discernible reason—felt like downing poison without the antidote.
“The ‘why’ is mine to worry about,” the boss had said, “and what do you worry about, Zahnaz?”
“The job, Rama.”
“Can you do that?”
“Yes, Rama,” and Zahn had meant it. At least, he had wanted to. He wanted to be an asset, for once in his life, instead of a liability.
“That’s why I’m here,” she had said, ever stable as the deepest roots, “so you and the rest of Sazuma never have to deal with ‘why.’”
Zahn hated himself for not being able to find comfort in those words. Something in him was broken. Something that persistently cried ‘Winnow!’ with the voice of a grieving child.
He didn’t know how far he ran before he finally stopped to lean against a fence, certain he was about to empty the contents of his stomach. He gripped the latticed roots with his right hand. It wasn’t as strong or stabilizing as his left, but he needed the feeling of the bark beneath his human fingers to make him real as he closed his eyes and shoved down his nausea.
There was blood between his fingers.
Had his mind been working properly, he would have paused earlier to clean his hands and daggers before leaving a trail of red fingerprints halfway across the district. Not like it mattered. The scene was supposed to be gruesome and ultimately attributable to one of the Rama’s climbing assassins. No authorities would search out poor Winnow’s killers because Zahn and his guild were the authorities. Winnow’s community would have to accept that their sister had been killed to preserve peace in Sazuma and accept that there was nothing they could do about it, like Zahn had. At least, he was trying to.
The sound of running water ahead reoriented Zahn on his mental map of the city, placing him just east of the local stream leading off the Sazumriver. He stumbled to it, telling himself he was being professional. He was cleaning up evidence. Really, he was hoping that the water would drown out the sobs of ‘Winnow! Winnow!’ that had chased him all this way through the night.
In any other city, rivers became dirty as populations swelled. Not in Sazuma. The sheer volume of fresh spring-water that poured from the center of the Tree down from one tier of the city to the next washed filth away before it ever got the chance to accumulate. Tactomages continuously adjusted root-woven dams to redirect water according to the needs of the inner city, the surrounding fields, and the tree’s farthest-reaching roots. Nowhere else on the continent were waters this clear.
Even this little stream in a teeming slum was restored to crystalline perfection in the night. Falling to his knees by the channel, Zahn plunged both hands into the water said to cure all ills. This claim, Zahn had learned, was what the Krellish would call an ‘oversell.’ Sazuma’s waters protected against disease, but they couldn’t close an open wound, give a man back his arm, or wash a rotten soul.
Zahn scrubbed and scrubbed until he realized that he was bruising his right hand on his left. The abrasion of metal against flesh felt insufficient to get either completely clean, but Zahn did reluctantly pull both hands out—his left numb as always, his right throbbing and raw from the abuse. Fingers still dripping, he detached the sheathed dagger from his right hip and cleaned it.
It took a measure of self-control not to simply let go of the dagger as he held it beneath the running water. What a relief it would have been to see the current swallow the weapon that killed Winnow and whisk it away forever. But daggers like Zahn’s—as good for killing as they were for climbing —were expensive, and they weren’t really his. They belonged to the Guild, as Zahn did. The only difference was that they functioned the way they were supposed to.
Perhaps, Zahn thought ruefully, it would be best for everyone if he simply left his good daggers here for the Spy Guild to recover and threw himself into the water. The rational part of his brain—the part that had kept him alive through poverty, slavery, and mutilation, to the age of twenty-four—should have shut the thought down before it started. But his gaze had turned downstream, suddenly wistful. Two blocks from here, this stream reconnected with the Sazumriver. Thunder of the Wilds. If anything could wash a man clean…
“God help me, are you done sulking yet?” the voice made Zahn jump.
Somewhere in the cool rush of water, his heartrate had gone down, but it came pounding back with a vengeance as he whirled to scan the rooftops. It had been a long time since he had heard that accent, that voice—the silk and rasping slither of steel on a whetstone.
“Do you fall on your knees in the open and cry after every job?”
“Nath…” Zahn wanted to relax when he recognized the man silhouetted on the nearest rooftop. Something kept his muscles drawn in apprehension.
“You know, when I first caught up to you, I was thinking of all these hilarious one-liners about you sniveling like a girl.”
“Of course, you were.”
“Then you just kept going, and going, and going, and the jokes went stale in my head—”
“And you were still crying, so I nodded off for a bit—”
“And when I came to, you were still—”
“I get it!” Zahn snapped, slamming his dagger back into its sheath with unnecessary force. “My condolences on the loss of your one-liners. Did you come all the way to this garbage part of town just to mock me?”
“Nay, love. Not just for that.” Nath spoke Zahn’s native Daraxean fluently, but with a thick mountain accent. The effect was a confusing emotional soup, at once reminiscent of Zahn’s childhood and chillingly foreign. “I’m hunting.”
“Hunting…?” Zahn stuck on whether to ask ‘what’ or ‘who’?
Before he could decide, Nath dropped, catlike, from the rooftop with silence that belied his muscular frame. As he stalked forward on those soundless feet, lantern light fell on godmarks like Zahn’s but thinner, a pair of silver lines dropping from the metalmancer’s hairline, over each sharp cheekbone to the even sharper line of his jaw. In the daylight, they were an unassuming gray; here in the night, they caught the moonlight like tears.
Nath looked rougher than the last time Zahn had seen him, his cloak worn ratty from travel in the Wilds and God only knew what other places he’d been plying his evil trade. He’d picked up a truly stupid hat—broad-brimmed and leather like those worn by Krellish cattle wranglers—which rested on his back over the guard of his massive sword. If the intent was to distract from the oversized blade, it was working. At least, it would have been had Zahn not seen that sword in action.
“I thought you left Sazuma after the Water Gardens.”
“I did.” Nath rolled his shoulders. “Nice thing about being a free agent is that you can come and go… and come again if there’s aught worth comin’ back for.”
“So, what brought you back this time?”
“Funny. That’s actually what I wanted to discuss with you, my little Daraxean.”
“What?” Zahn said warily. “I didn’t steal your mark or anything?” If the Spy Guild wanted Winnow dead, then it was possible someone else did too… someone willing to hire a less savory agent than Zahn.
“Steal my mark, kiddo? No.” Nath chuckled. “Not exactly.” He was mere feet from Zahn now, his face fully illuminated, cut stone in the moonlight, like the mountains around Daraxes. Like home.
Zahn should have pulled away when the mercenary reached up and brushed a strand of hair behind his ear. But he was too spent, too weak, and old magnetism tipped him forward into the touch.
“Nath…” That calloused sword hand trailed down his cheek and Zahn let himself take a fraction of comfort he didn’t deserve in the feel of northern skin on his. “I can’t do this right now.” Still, he failed to pull away. “I have to report back t—Ah!” he cried out as pain lanced through his right shoulder.
In a split second, he had shoved Nath away, but whatever the weapon was—a knife? A dart?—it had already pierced deep. Reaching to his shoulder, Zahn grasped for a hilt, only to find his metal fingers crushing down on something with too much give. A tingle seared through his shoulder and spread like water seeping into fabric.
Tearing the thing from his shoulder, Zahn realized that it wasn’t a weapon at all. It was a bulb syringe. The kind wildermages used to inject medicines into the bloodstream. The moment Zahn’s clumsy metal fingers had closed on the lemur’s bladder bulb, he had injected himself.
“Alright…” Nath had retreated a calculated five paces and was now eyeing Zahn with the cautious intensity of a predator—the lion watching the buffalo stumble, hungry but still wary of the horns. “You made that easier than I could have hoped. You should really learn to control that arm better.”
“What the fuck, Nath?” Zahn spat as the tingle spread and blurred his vision. “What was in that?”
“I told you I was hunting.”
“You…” Zahn swayed, stumbled, and fought to clear his head.
“Easy, kiddo.” Nath held up a hand. “I wouldn’t try to fight if I were you. That syringe was packed with three times the recommended dosage. Sorry, but I know what your constitution’s like. Didn’t wanna take no chances.”
Right. Nath had seen Zahn down enough drinks to drown a man and not even start to slur, but Nath didn’t know that it was more than just a strong constitution. Zahn had a special mechanism for dealing with the substances in his body. He just needed to buy a minute to put it into practice.
“You can’t do this,” he forced out. “I’m part of the Spy Guild.”
“Oh, Zahn,” Nath said pityingly, “I dunno which assumption is dumber. That I only take Guild-approved jobs or that the members of your little spy club ne’er put out hits on each other.”
“God Ascended, Zahn Lissdesa Tamdesa, you can’t still be this naïve,” Nath said, seemingly unbothered by the banter. He was waiting too—whether for Zahn to pass out or foam at the mouth and die, Zahn didn’t know. But he was going to be disappointed.
Zahn was almost there. Breathing deeply, he had gathered the poison to his chest. Now, he just needed to keep Nath talking long enough to close the invading substance into the vault. Well, he called it a vault for lack of a better word. He didn’t know what it was, just that he could use it to store substances and keep them out of his bloodstream. It worked on alcohol, drugs, and the tactomantically-transferred strength the Sazumans were fond of swapping.
“Look, I’m not stupid,” he said, even as his brain swam and crawled in a very stupid manner. “If the Guild wanted me dead, they’d never hire a loose-lipped mercenary. It’d be easier to do from the inside. Who really hired you?”
“You don’t wanna know.” Nath’s tone had grown distracted, his brow furrowed. “And excuse me, but whyare you not passing out?”
Having gathered the tingling poison into the vault, Zahn crammed it back and slammed the door. As the bolt banged home, Zahn’s eyes snapped wide open. He straightened, flesh and steel fingers flexing as he reoriented to the physical world.
Nath took a step back, disconcerted. “You gotta be fucking kidding me… The wildermages told me that dose would take out an ox! Zahn of Daraxes… what are you?”
Zahn drew his right dagger. “Come and find out.”
It was empty bravado. A climbing dagger was not the weapon to bring to a fight with Nath of the Iron Valley. And, while Zahn was a decent fighter, his time in the pits of Krell had given him a brutally realistic gauge of his skill level. Had this been a match in that arena, Zahn would have bet a house on Nath.
“Now, Zahn…” The mercenary’s expression shifted from disbelief into a jagged smile that made Zahn feel woefully defenseless. The pit-honed part of Zahn’s mind that zeroed in on threats had fixed on the sword slung across Nath’s back. It looked deceptively normal—if oversized—in its leather sheath, but Zahn knew better. “You don’t want to do this.”
“But you do.” Zahn stumbled into violence and did his best to endure it; Nath thrived on it. “So, what choice do I have?”
Zahn was spring loaded into his stance, ready to explode forward at the first twitch of Nath’s fingers. It was five paces between them, an easy enough distance to close. But could Zahn close it before the mercenary reached his sword? That was the deciding question. Because, if Nath drew that sword, the fight was over.
“You could always stand down,” Nath suggested.
“And what? Let you drag me to your lair and cut me into little pieces?”
Nath shrugged. “For old times’ sake?”
Zahn’s voice went frigid. “A little late to play that card, don’t you think?”
“Worth a shot.”
“Well, I’m really not in the mood, Nath. If you’re going to cut me, you get to do it with steel in your teeth.”
The wind had dropped off, leaving a palpable stillness between the two men, the world holding her breath on the next move.
Nath’s grin turned feral. “That’s the spirit!” he said and went for his sword.
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