The following is a preview chapter of my ongoing newsletter serial, Seven Forsaken. You can subscribe to my mailing list to get all published chapters + a new chapter every month. Warnings for language, violence, and sexual content.
Isa struck with the force of cannon fire, jaws snapping shut on his victim’s sword arm. The impact alone was enough to stun most prey but Midnas Quinar was a hardened brawler, all muscle and resolve. Impressively, he managed to keep hold of his sword with a hundred teeth in his arm—not that it would do him any good. Isa’s teeth might not be venomous, but they were barbed, inward-facing, and many. Once they pierced flesh, there was no escape, and Quinar’s ferocious attempts to free himself only succeeded in tearing loose a pouch at his hip.
Stolen gold spilled onto the flagstones, vibrating clamorously in Isa’s senses as blood welled hot between his teeth, but Isa was a professional. He didn’t let the cacophony scatter his attention as he secured his twenty-eight feet of coils around his prey. Feeling the constriction begin in earnest, Quinar succumbed to fatal instinct and cried out. Isa tightened around his deflating chest, locked there, and waited.
As Quinar lost the battle for his own breath, his sword clattered to the flagstones amid the ringing rain of shells and Isa released his arm, feeling disappointed. Quinar could no longer expand his lungs. All there was left to do was wait, and the quiet of waiting was Isa’s enemy. The work of tracking and setting an ambush kept his mind engaged. Now that the hard part was over and the ring of shells faded, memories flooded back into the empty space.
No! Isa begged his Spirits. Please, not now.
He tried to focus on the feeling of power that used to come with constriction, but it wasn’t there. There was only his daughter breathing her last, her little heartbeat fading in his arms. It was stupid, Isa thought ruefully, that he could squeeze a life so tightly and yet couldn’t hold it in the world. The tighter he held on, the quicker death came.
Quinar’s breathing had stopped while his heart soldiered on, pumping, pumping against Isa’s coils as if in the hope that more oxygen would come soon. Help will come soon, Isa had lied in between kissing his little girl’s forehead, Help will come soon, in the selfish hope that it would keep her with him a little longer.
Isa pressed his head into the crook of Quinar’s neck in a miserable parody of mammal affection. Osu, fortify me, he prayed with his pit organs crushed to his victim’s mocking pulse. Aer, take this pain from me. Theid… but he stopped himself short of praying to Theid the Hungry. He knew where that prayer led and there was no way back.
Quinar had gone limp in Isa’s coils, unconscious.
The job is done, Isa, said Aer and all his better spirits. Time to return.
But Isa was frozen in that embrace on the edge of death, his whole being a single muscle clenched on the moment little Taniri had shuddered and gone still. Trapped there in the knot of his own coils, Isa couldn’t move backward into the person he had been, or forward into… what exactly? A future without his daughter?
What’s the point? He demanded of Aer. What am I returning to?
To yourself, Aer said, as ze did every time, to your humanity. But zir voice was weak and far away on the misty plain of the Gray.
Isa’s soul had wandered to the great Shadow at the edge of the Gray, where Theid stood, beckoning him into the python’s mind. It was so tempting—the notion of sliding into the dark simplicity of animal instinct, where human beings were just hotspots of sustenance, no more meaningful than cattle. In that darkness, the only emptiness was hunger, and this kind of grief did not exist.
Isa! Aer hadn’t given up the fight for his consciousness, even as his soul teetered at the border between the Gray and the Shadowland. Return!
Theid didn’t speak at all, just beckoned with the comforting arms of oblivion.
Why not? Isa thought, tipping toward the dark. Aer forgive me, why not?
A footfall jerked Isa from the precipice and he lifted his head. Without his jaw to the ground, it was difficult to gauge the size of the approaching human, so he flicked his tongue out, scenting the air. When the taste of fresh mammal landed stronger on the left fork, he turned his head that way and tasted again. He knew that scent…
The newcomer stepped in range of his pit organs, blazing hotter than any human should. The only people who ran those temperatures were those in the throes of plague or tactomancers who had magically absorbed more than their share of energy.
“I tried to find you in Rionde.” The airborne words came in faint and distorted, but Isa could never forget the cadence of that voice—hunter’s pidgin, smoothed like river stones under the tumble of a Sazuman accent. “Didn’t realize you’d gone back to doing dirty jobs in Krell.”
Isa loosened immediately, slipping from his unconscious victim to shift back into his human form. He didn’t want to fight the tactomancer—as a snake or a man—but with all four limbs, he stood a chance of outrunning her.
The transformation itself worked like muscle memory, a tried and true pattern of mental commands he had rehearsed since he could walk. Isa’s soul and his body re-entered the corporeal world simultaneously, his mind slipped into its sheath of flesh and synapses as smoothly as ever, but he had clearly sunk too deep into the dark of the python and his consciousness was slow to catch up to the physical change. He buckled the first time he tried to stand, reeling from the absence of his thermal sensors, his mind scrambling to distribute awareness across four limbs.
The other mercenary thankfully didn’t take advantage of the stumble to attack, just stood there surveying him with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Damo…” Isa croaked when his mind got a handle on his vocal cords. He hadn’t meant to us her pet name; his confused throat muscles just caught on the last syllable, still flexing with the serpentine urge to squeeze and swallow.
“Isa of Azenkar,” she said as his eyes brought her form into focus in the dim light of dusk. “Been a while.”
Damored the Drifter was every inch the stunning terror Isa remembered her, brown forearms corded with muscle, luminous freckles scattered like stars across her skin, her curls gathered into a crown of braids before frizzing into clouds about her shoulders. Her people were known for their formidable stature but even among Sazumans, Damored was a tower, with half a head on Isa. She may have forgone her hunter’s leggings for a dress befitting a lady of the Riverlands, but Isa had seen the thighs under that skirt and knew they could crush a man’s head like a melon.
“You…” Isa stood despite a piercing pain in his temple—like Theid still had a claw in his head, pulling him off balance. “Why are you here?”
“That’s just what I was going to ask you,” Damored shot back. “Last I heard, you’d settled down with that little chatterbox of a priestess. What was her name?”
“Spensa,” Isa said without thinking of the spike of pain that inevitably followed. Her name lived on his lips like a prayer. His bunkmates on previous jobs had complained that he said it in his sleep.
“That’s the one!” Damored grinned. “Whatever happened to—” She cut off as a rust-colored shape loped past her out of the shadows of the alley, scattering a few rats before it. A red lemur. The creature crept over Midnas Quinar’s unconscious form, sniffing and pawing at the man’s shirt with tiny black hands.
“I take it, that’s yours?” Isa said.
“Of course,” Damored smiled. “How’d you think I found you?”
Having sniffed a perimeter around Quinar, the lemur wheeled in a confused circle, and Damored laughed. “Poor thing, she thinks she’s lost you. Here, girl.” She held out an arm and the lemur scampered up it to curl around her shoulders, moon-like eyes wide, brown striped tail flicking in distress. “Don’t fret, sweetheart, you did a bang-up job tracking that snake. The nasty animancer just pulled a trick on you.” Damored dug a nut from her vest pocket and offered it to her pet.
“That’s how you found me?” Isa supposed his predator’s pride should be wounded as the lemur took her prize in little human-like hands and chewed greedily.
“Stealthy, isn’t she?” Damored beamed, scratching her co-spy behind the ears. “Bet you never noticed her tailing you.”
“I could have killed her.”
“Ah, but you’d’a had to catch her first. And nobody gets the drop on Tapia. Isn’t that right, girl?”
“Yeah?” Isa wasn’t convinced. “What happened to your old assistant?” He recalled Damored employing a horrible mongoose-looking fucker she called a fossa.
“Just that. He got old. Thought he deserved a peaceful retirement in Sazuma, so I swapped him for this sharp-nosed girl.”
“Alright. Congratulations on stealing yourself a new pet.” Isa didn’t believe for a second that Damored would pay a fair price for a trained lemur. “Are you going to tell me why you were tracking me?”
Damored might look harmless, scrunching up her freckled nose and cooing to her furry companion, but she had been brought up in the Spy Guild of Sazuma. The woman knew how to look far less dangerous than she was.
“What?” the tactomancer said innocently. “Sometimes I like to catch up with an old flame.”
“One-night stand,” Isa corrected. “You left at dawn with my clothes and weapons.”
“Which you obviously magicked back to you somehow.” Damored gestured impatiently at Isa’s Inkarnai cassock and twin sabers. “So, no harm done.”
“Seriously, Damored. What are you doing here?”
“I think the better question is what are you doing?” Damored’s round black eyes flicked to the man lying unconscious between them. “Not gonna kill this poor guy?”
“The order was dead or alive.”
Isa didn’t answer but it only took Damored a half-second to guess. “Telasus Torrens?” There were only so many tradelords to a neighborhood, after all.
Isa didn’t answer, instead crouching to collect the gold cowries that had scattered during the struggle.
“Come on, Isa. That’s mean.”
“What’s mean?” he asked, keeping a wary eye on the Sazuman as he jiggled a stubborn shell from between two flagstones.
“You know what tradelords do to people who disappoint them. Especially the preachy, smarmy ones like Twatlord Telasus.”
“That’s his business, not mine.”
“So, you go to all this trouble to lovingly, tenderly asphyxiate this guy without breaking any bones just so some sadistic goon can break them all later?”
“That part’s not my problem.” Having gathered all the shells in sight, Isa tucked them into his spare pouch and tied it at his belt above one of his sabers. “I’m just the hired muscle.”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t. It’s just that last time I got you drunk, I distinctly remember you waxing poetic about how hot and tingly you got breaking bones in your coils.”
Isa looked at the ground to hide a cringe. “That was a long time ago… If you don’t have business with me, I should go.” He took Quinar’s arm to hoist the man across his shoulders.
“No, please, let me get that for you.” Damored moved forward and Isa quickly backed off.
If it was his catch she wanted—now that she knew where to collect the bounty—she could have it. But Damored didn’t make off with Quinar. Instead, she lifted the man partway off the ground, gripped him in a practiced hold, and casually broke his neck. The crack was too loud to Isa’s newly-human ears. He tried to cover the reflexive flinch, but Damored saw it.
“There.” She dropped the broken body at his feet.
Isa had no pit organs in human form, but he could swear he felt the heat leaving Midnas Quinar like the wick of a snuffed candle, cooling in the dark. The fighter’s body was a patchwork of scars from a hundred deathmatches. Eight years, this man had survived the horrors of Krell’s fighting pits, earning his way to freedom. He had a will to live that Isa couldn’t fathom. But sometimes, it didn’t matter how badly a person wanted to live—or deserved to. Isa wanted to be numb to that. He had to be if he was going to keep drawing breath.
“Why did you do that?” he asked, only belatedly realizing that he didn’t sound numb at all; he sounded wounded. “You don’t even like killing.”
“But you do.” Damored’s black eyes were intent, searching his face for something she wouldn’t find. She didn’t need to know that last time Isa had killed in his python form, he had slid too far into Shadow and come back to himself with an embezzler halfway down his gullet.
“So, you’ve gotten bored hunting humans,” Damored said when Isa had been quiet a beat too long. “I get it. Don’t we all?” Her face had split into an eager grin, freckles all aglow. “What do you say to hunting a monster?”
“Define monster,” Isa said coolly.
Many people’s definition of the word would include Isa—which was fair, he supposed, given his personal history of killing, and occasionally chomping the limbs off, people. But this definition tended to also rope in shapeshifting Inkarnam and Wildermyn who wouldn’t hurt a house gecko. Isa had been called to hunt several ‘monsters’ in his career and all, upon closer inspection, had turned out to be humans with varying physical deformities and magical abilities.
“I mean an actual monster,” Damored insisted, clearly offended by Isa’s lack of enthusiasm, “heavy as a dozen cattle, tall as a Bone Lord’s tower, eats horses for breakfast.”
“Really?” Isa’s laugh was unfamiliar to his own ears, but it had been a while since anyone had suggested something so ridiculous. “According to who?”
“A reliable source.”
“Hmm.” Isa was skeptical but also not up to arguing.
“Aren’t you going to ask me who?” Damored demanded in mounting annoyance.
“I don’t care.”
“What do you mean you don’t care? You live for this stuff. Remember how excited you were about that three-headed lion?”
“I remember it turning out to be a hoax by a murderer who didn’t want to be blamed for butchering his neighbors’ kids.” The real story was always disappointing in its banality and ugliness.
“But we sure had fun investigating, didn’t we?” Damored pressed. “Come on, Isa! You gotta be a little curious.”
“Of course, you can. The money’s good.”
“I have work to do here.”
“What?” Damored scoffed. “Chasing down embezzlers for slimy tradelords?”
“Telasus isn’t slimy; he’s just a Torrens and a businessman. I’m content here.”
The truth was that Isa had set into a rhythm doing jobs for Telasus and the other tradelords in the neighborhood: assignment, job, pay, assignment, job, pay, never giving himself time to rest in between. There was a simplicity to it. He was balanced here—balanced at the very edge of disaster, maybe, but that was exactly why he couldn’t afford to disturb anything. If he fell out of his routine, he didn’t know how his soul might stumble over the change and what kind of spirit would drag it off for consumption.
“You’re content here?” Damored was looking at him in absolute incredulity. “And… you’re sure you’re not a weird, humorless corporomancer wearing Isa’s skin?”
“That’s not how corporomancy works.”
“Well, he’s still pedantic,” she muttered to the lemur on her shoulder. “Maybe it is him.”
She was trying to bait him into the flirtatious verbal sparring he used to enjoy, but the joke was on her; he didn’t enjoy anything anymore.
“You shouldn’t have come here.”
Damored’s smirk had creased with concern. “Isa…” She reached out to him with an open palm. It was more terrifying than a drawn blade or a cocked fist.
In an instant, Isa’s sabers hissed from their scabbards.
“Whoa!” Damored snatched her hand back to avoid losing a finger. “Okay, okay!” She backed up, both hands raised as the lemur, registering danger, leapt from her shoulder to cower behind her boots. “Easy, Inkarnam!”
Sabers clutched too tightly before him, Isa realized that the jolt of fear hadn’t come from the idea that Damored would drain him of his vital energies. It had come from the memory of the one night he had spent with her, the way her touch had brought all his reckless curiosity and lust boiling to the surface. Tactomancers could do that to a person’s emotions—amplify them like oil on a fire. If she did that to him now…
“Just stay away from me.”
Damored’s expression darkened, all trace of a smile evaporating. “As you wish, esteemed Inkarnam.” She dipped into mocking curtsey. “My deepest apologies for wasting your time.”
As she turned in an indignant flounce of curls, Isa opened his mouth, feeling vaguely like he should say something. But no words came to him. And he was left staring as the dark of the alley swallowed her golden hair like doors closing on a sliver of light.
Focus on the job, Isa, he told himself firmly. That’s the only thing that matters.
Midnas Quinar was a big man, packed with muscle. Five years ago, Isa would have rented a wheelbarrow to transport a catch so much bigger than himself. Now, he slung Quinar across his shoulders like an antelope carcass, thankful for the physical struggle. Standing under the unbalancing weight consumed his focus, forcing the memories back.
Isa could refer anyone who tried to stop him to Pleonexar Telasus but habit still took him through the dark back alleys toward his destination. Krell hadn’t settled after the plague any more than Isa had, and the recent spate of riots and slave uprisings had made the Krellish suspicious of foreigners. Probably best for the pagan in strange clothes to avoid humping a bleeding human-sized sack down the main roads.
When the act of placing one foot in front of the other became monotonous, Isa skirted the neighborhood fighting pits, counting on the stifling atmosphere to drown out his thoughts. The pits did not disappoint. Even outside the walls, the shouts were deafening and the heat of too many people gathered before night had cooled the air was palpable.
“Civilized events” ran in the pits during the daytime, well-planned theatrical matches between big-name fighters, attended by the Krellish elite and their ladies. At night, there were brawls to the death between untrained convicts, with an ever-drunker crowd placing bets on the fighters.
Sand-worn posters were plastered to the walls outside the fighting pits, pointing the way to Isa’s destination.
A few of Telasus’ posters had been vandalized with crude scrawlings of ‘Eat the tradelords’ ‘Death to slavers’ and ‘No blood for shells.’ Graffiti was nothing new to Krell, but several years ago, it had been mostly cocks and curse words—stuff that would get you fined, not fed to wild animals in the arena.
The cheers from the pits themselves had also changed since Isa’s first visits to Krell. There was an undercurrent of self-righteous savagery in the voices of the spectators. The carnage was more than entertainment these days; it had become a way to punish further threats to the order of Krell, for the elite to reassure themselves of their supremacy in these uncertain times. Isa, however, ignored the notes of rage and let the calls for blood be meaningless. Just sound to fill his skull, leaving no room for anything else.
By the time the clamor of the crowd had faded behind him, Telasus’ Church of Infinite Prosperity was rising from the rooftops ahead, its white steeple piercing the dusk. Two men stood guard at the front archway in brass-buttoned uniforms.
“Inkarnam.” The senior of the two tipped his broad-brimmed hat in respect when Isa reached the great doors. “He’s waiting for you inside.”
The younger guard paused with his hand on his pistol, frowning at Isa’s long braid and the tattoos on the backs of his hands.
“Great is the Goddess.” Between Krellish, it was a common greeting. Directed at Isa, it was clearly a challenge: swear by our goddess, pagan.
Isa resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Great indeed.”
“What was that tone non-believer?” Krell really was changing; the kids didn’t use to get this bent out of shape about foreign religions.
“Look, your boss hired this non-believer to do the work of the Goddess, so don’t get a bug in your bonnet, cowboy.” Isa wasn’t usually so short with people with guns but now that he was standing still, Midnas Quinar’s weight was starting to exact a toll. He needed to be walking again quickly if he didn’t want to collapse. “Here.” Shifting Quinar’s weight precariously on his shoulders, he unfastened the buckle of his weapons belt and yanked it free. “Hold onto these, if it makes you feel better.”
He shoved his twin sabers and Quinar’s sword at the guard, who accepted them with a frown. “I don’t trust a man who worships false gods.”
“That’s nice,” Isa snapped, only marginally relieved to be down a few pounds of steel. “Anything else you want to get off your chest on the boss’s time?”
That shut the guard up, and he grudgingly opened the white church doors.
The last stretch of Isa’s walk was the hardest, between rows of empty pews up to the stone altar of Krell’s goddess, Ostia Torrens. Isa always felt uneasy under her carved stone gaze, though he understood that this was the sculptor’s intent. All statues of Ostia wore an expression that was equal measures sultry and disdainful. This artist had done a distressingly good job balancing the two, so the beholder couldn’t help but be drawn to the Goddess while feeling utterly unworthy under her withering gaze.
Isa’s religion had a parallel to Ostia Torrens: Osu, Spirit of the Material. In the Wilds, worshipping Osu to the exclusion of all other spirits was considered a debilitating form of madness. Here in Krell, they called it enlightenment.
Pleonexar Telasus sat behind the altar at the feet of his goddess, immaculate in black and white preacher’s robes. In the morning, this hall was open to anyone who wanted to join him in prayer. During the day, it was a place for him to hear proposals. At night, he dealt with the unsavory necessities that curiously never made it into his morning sermons on the glory of productivity.
“Welcome,” the tradelord’s voice filled the hall with all its Goddess-given power, “Isa Inkarnam of Azenkar.”
Telasus had a lovingly manicured beard and bone-white godmarks that dropped like claw marks from his hairline, over each eye and the bridge of his nose. Though he was twenty years Isa’s senior, he had clearly paid corporomancers to restructure and reskin his face more than once, lending him an eerie, ageless look that hovered somewhere between handsome and unsettling.
A pair of guards stood at his left hand while his wife and accountant sat at a desk to his right, bent over pages of profit and loss reports, one gloved hand scribbling numbers into a notebook while the other clicked beads back and forth on an abacus.
“Telasus Torrens,” Isa greeted the tradelord as he approached the altar and then nodded to Telasus’ wife. “Madam.”
Lady Telasus’ bonneted head bobbed once in acknowledgment, her fingers never pausing in their work.
“It’s done?” Telasus asked.
“Yes, Tradelord.” Isa heaved his load onto the altar where Ostia could behold her sacrifice. “One Midnas Quinar, as ordered.”
“And the money the rat stole from me?”
Isa dropped the pouch of shells on the altar beside the body.
“The sword he carried was also of considerable value, custom-forged—”
“I left it with your guards at the front.”
“Check,” Telasus ordered and two of his men stepped forward. One headed for the church entrance while the other tugged the bag from Quinar’s body to verify his identity. The stolen shells were passed to Lady Telasus for counting.
“You look tired, Inkarnam,” Telasus observed as his wife sorted the shells into piles with lightning fingers. “I hope he didn’t give you too much trouble.”
Isa shook his head. “No one does.”
The affectless honesty seemed to impress Telasus. “No one?”
“At the Temple of Inkarnai, I asphyxiated a buffalo as part of my initiation. Send me after a man stronger than a buffalo and I may have trouble.”
Telasus laughed a full, congenial laugh as his men moved Quinar’s body out of the hall for a discrete and ignominious disposal.
“You know, I really like you, Inkarnam. You’re as consistent as any hired gun in the Wilds. Yet you don’t have an ego or an attitude.”
Isa supposed that was true. Hard to have an attitude when you couldn’t muster—couldn’t bear—any feelings for what was happening around you.
“As you know, I’m a man who respects quality. And quality work like yours should be rewarded with opportunities for advancement. I think I have just the opportunity for you.”
Isa bit back a wry smile. Aer, why couldn’t the Krellish ever just call a shit job a shit job? It always had to be a privilege, a reward, an opportunity.
“I have valuable cargo crossing the South Wilds,” the tradelord continued. “I need fearless men like you to see it through the Shark’s Gauntlet.”
The Shark’s Gauntlet? Isa looked up in surprise. “Why would—”
“It’s all here, hon,” said Lady Telasus.
“Then, what in Ostia’s name are you waiting for, woman? Pay the man.”
Obediently, Lady Telasus moved from behind her desk—though moving was always a production for a lady of her status.
Women, the Krellish believed, were made in the image of the Goddess. The only man with the divine right to view and touch a lady was one who had earned her—or at least paid for her. Thus, all women of Krell covered their hair, faces, and as much skin as possible to “guard their treasures”; the higher their status, the more elaborate their coverings. Lady Telasus’ ostentatious bonnet dripped with teasingly sheer layers of veil clearly designed to make the beholder wonder at the beauty beneath. Isa, having grown up among the unveiled women of Azenkar, just wondered how the lady kept from fainting in the sticky heat of summer. Layers of fine skirts dragged on the stone as she rounded the desk and extended a gloved hand with Isa’s bounty.
“Madam.” He bowed his head as she returned his pouch, now considerably heavier than it had been.
“May it please the Goddess,” she said as Isa opened the pouch and began counting.
He had learned as a younger mercenary that the Krellish considered it a personal insult if you didn’t count. In much the same way the warriors of Trestantia considered it an insult if you turned your back on an armed man.
“Three coppers short, Tradelord.”
Telasus grinned. “Well counted!” He gestured to his wife, who stepped forward and dropped six cowrie-shaped coppers into Isa’s hand. The tip was a tribute to Ostia Torrens, in honor of the enterprising spirit. Isa had learned not to try to return it.
“Now, Inkarnam,” Telasus said as his lady returned to her desk and arranged her excess of skirts about her. “I’d like you to meet your crew.”
“Of course.” Uncrossing his legs, Telasus stood. “Escorting a caravan across the Wilds isn’t a one-man job. Or a one python job, for that matter.” He laughed at his own joke too loudly to hear Isa point out that he had agreed to no such job. “Come with me to the back.”
Before Isa could form a response, Telasus’ arm was around his shoulders and they were walking up white stone steps, past the altar, through a door into the back of the building. Like any tradelord’s church, this one had a spacious hall at the front for sermons and an even bigger warehouse at the back for moving and storing merchandise.
The back was as sacred a space as the hall where Telasus preached. Inviting a foreigner into it was an act of trust that Isa supposed he had earned that without noticing—simply by keeping his head down and completing a dozen consecutive jobs without incident. In Krell, where everyone seemed eager to stab each other in the back, perhaps the bar for trust was low.
“Now, this obviously isn’t my only warehouse,” Telasus said as if worried Isa would think him poor. “I have shops in a few other areas, where the workers make my merchandise and screen for quality. This is just my main storage area.”
The warehouse floor was lit by oil-burning lanterns hanging at intervals from the ceiling. A second statue of Ostia Torrens watched over the rows of crates with imperious eyes, as her counterpart in the main hall oversaw the pews. As Telasus led him down the aisle between two walls of crates, Isa squinted to read the labels on each. It looked like mostly textiles on the right and wine on the left. Isa couldn’t imagine that bolts of fabric required heavy guard in the Wilds. The alcohol maybe, if there was a roving gang of Wildermyn upriver with truly abysmal taste. Isa knew that if he was going to risk his life to get wasted, he’d be sure to raid a transport of Azenkari wine or Sazuman beer, not watery Krellish swill.
“Don’t worry, Inkarnam,” Telasus said when he noticed Isa eyeing the labels. “I wouldn’t waste your skills on cargo like this. The merchandise you’ll be moving is significantly more valuable. Right this way.” He drew Isa to the feet of Ostia Torrens and indicated a row of oversized crates. No, Isa realized. Not crates.
He should have known the moment Telasus had mentioned the Shark’s Gauntlet; only one kind of commodity ever had trouble passing through the Shark’s Gauntlet.
Isa stood looking through iron bars on a dozen half-clothed men, packed into a space barely big enough for them to sit with their legs pulled in close. Several green-spotted Wildermyn sat huddled together, arms wrapped self-consciously around their bodies, which were always covered in their culture. There was gold-freckled Sazuman as fit as Damored, a Daraxean, a Zarkadian, and even three men with brown godmarks that trickled unevenly down the forehead and over each eyelid—Azenkari, like Isa. Not one of them was a Krellish native, which Isa supposed fit with Telasus’ pride in his cost-effective operations and quality merchandise. While a Krellish citizen could enter slavery to pay off a debt, merchants vastly preferred slaves bought or captured outside the state for the simple reason that their masters had no obligation to honor foreign contracts or citizenship. It was an easier sell.
“These impressive specimens are going by water to the fighting pits of Trestantia,” Telasus said. “Not much of an escort needed there. The females and smalls aren’t as high quality,” he gestured to the next cage down, “so they’re going through the Wilds to a buyer in outlying Sazuma. That’s obviously where you come in.”
While the women were packed as tightly as the men, they were at least fully clothed; why let slavery get in the way of good Krellish decency? Their plain cloth bonnets and face coverings left only their eyes exposed and Isa accidentally found himself looking into a pair of them. Sharp and black and far too like Spensa’s… there at the end, when she had been in too much pain to speak to him.
“Everything alright, Inkarnam?”
Isa opened his mouth to say ‘yes’ but instead murmured, “They’re so quiet.”
Telasus beamed as though Isa had just paid him a compliment. “They know they’re not here to make noise, especially when the free men are talking. I don’t deal in low-quality merchandise, Inkarnam. These days especially, you can never be too careful about quality. In goods…” he turned to smile at Isa, “and employees.”
“I’m not sure I understand you, Tradelord.”
“The world is teeming with rats keen to take what they haven’t earned, and as rats do, they’re getting bolder all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard of the rumblings of resistance on the other side of the river. And of course, I recently caught some of my own hired men trying to sneak my human cargo out of the city using my money.”
“Of course… My dear Inkarnam, why did you think Midnas Quinar had to die?”
Isa blinked in shock, though the functioning part of his brain recognized that he shouldn’t be shocked in the least. The evidence was all there. Quinar had been a former slave—a particularly tough one, who wasn’t afraid to get bloody. He had exchanged shells with a boatman as Isa tailed him. Isa had even overheard him asking how many people could be hidden below deck. Younger Isa, more adventurous and inquisitive Isa, would have eagerly put all the pieces together, but Isa no longer asked questions he didn’t need to. The answers were always painful. What was the point?
At the back of the warehouse, men were unloading crates from a wagon and stacking them in a new row before the Goddess. Isa half-listened as Telasus called them over and gave them each an unnecessarily long introduction.
“And Bensidar here was a humble mercenary like yourself before he came to work for me. Now, after just six years in my employ, he’s about to purchase his second home.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Isa repeated for the fourth time. Or was it the fifth? He couldn’t seem to focus on the men in front of him. His mind kept sliding back to the cages.
“Of course, the team is down a fighter since Quinar decided to double-cross me. The bastard may have disgraced himself in the eyes of Ostia but I will confess that it’s hard to find a replacement for strength like his.” Motioning his men back to work, Telasus took Isa’s arm and walked him back toward the statue of Ostia Torrens. “But you, Inkarnam… you would more than make up for his absence on a transport through the Wilds. I can see my way clear to paying you half again what he made in my service.”
“But… Quinar lived here, didn’t he?” Isa said. “He was your full-time employee.”
“Indeed,” Telasus smiled. “Think of it, Inkarnam. True industry. You’ll never be without work, never have that depressing lull between jobs. That is what you asked me for when you came to Krell, wasn’t it? ‘Any job you want done, just keep me working.’ That’s what you said.”
“Yes, but I… I can’t, Tradelord. I—”
“Another job lined up?” Telasus waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll compensate you for it.”
“I mean, I can’t—”
“I dislike that word: can’t, Inkarnam. There is nothing a determined man can’t do in service of the Goddess.”
“Apologies, Tradelord. I don’t deal in slaves.” Treating humans as commodities was one of the surest ways to lose one’s soul to the Shadowland. “My gods wouldn’t allow it.”
This wasn’t precisely true. The Seven Spirits didn’t demand behaviors of their followers the way Ostia Torrens demanded productivity of hers. Each of the Seven aspects of existence was powerful enough to consume the unstable soul; the Inkarnam balanced himself between all Seven, shunning none, surrendering to none.
But ‘balance’ wasn’t a word the Krellish liked or understood very well. Words they did like included, ‘power,’ ‘cost,’ and ‘payback,’ so Isa had found that “my gods would be displeased,” usually made sense to them—as if Isa’s spirits were human masters who would have him perform for them or be punished.
“You’re quite certain your gods couldn’t be persuaded to bend a little bit for the noble pursuit of industry?”
“I’ve checked with them. They said no.”
“May I ask why?”
There was no way to answer delicately. “Human beings aren’t objects to sate the hunger of others. Selling them violates the integrity of the self and the sanctity of the soul.”
Far from taking offense at the conviction in Isa’s tone, Telasus looked intrigued. Then, being the smooth-talking preacher he was, he changed tack like an animancer changing skins. “Tell me then, what do your gods think of you taking money for lives?”
“They don’t love it.” Well, Aer didn’t love it. Raba reviled it. Theid salivated at the thought, bottomless maw open to drag Isa’s soul into Shadow.
“Yet here you are.”
Telasus had him there. If there was only a small step between Theid’s Madness and trading slaves, there was an even smaller step between trading slaves and killing for hire. Either way, people were things, interchangeable with material possessions.
“My spirits wouldn’t want me involved in slave trading.”
The Spirit of Hunger gripped Isa’s shoulder with Telasus’ ringed fingers. “And what about you, Inkarnam? What do you want?”
Isa wanted to be what he had been six years ago… a reckless, ruthless bounty hunter who cared only for himself and didn’t know loss. He wanted not to care. To erase those years of hope that had come in between and left him a ruin.
“The moment you showed up in my church, you had the look of a man trying to outrun is pain.” Telasus’ voice had grown gentle, paternal. “You know the only way to ease that meaningless suffering, don’t you? Give yourself to industry, to Ostia.”
Isa looked up at the voluptuous statue of the Goddess, at her outstretched hand and thought how easy it would be to focus on appeasing her. He had already been doing so, every time he lost himself in a job for Telasus.
“Your religion has a version of Ostia Torrens, does it not?” Telasus said.
Isa nodded. “The Spirit of the Material.”
“And what is she like?”
“Osu isn’t a she, Tradelord. Ze takes the form of whatever the Inkarnam desires in the tangible world. But worshipping zir isn’t a virtue, it’s…”
“It’s what?” Telasus prompted.
“I don’t know if I should be speaking blasphemies in your warehouse,” Isa said carefully.
“Ostia Torrens doesn’t punish curiosity. Only sloth and disloyalty. You may say whatever you like before her, so long as the money keeps coming in.”
“We call it Theid’s Madness.”
“Not Osu’s madness?”
“No. Theid is the spirit of desire and hunger. In moderation, zir influence keeps us alive. But at the dawn of the world, Theid went mad with desire for Osu and slid into the Shadowland.”
“And what is the Shadowland, exactly? Damnation?”
“No, Tradelord. Damnation is pain,” and there was no afterlife in Inkarnam anyway. “The Shadowland is just… the absence of a soul. It’s inhumanity.”
“An interesting take,” Telasus mused. “Naïve, of course.”
“Why?” Isa asked and realized that, for the first time, he actually wanted to hear why a Torrens was right and he was wrong. He wanted Telasus to be right.
“A man’s soul is his drive, Inkarnam. This is why it manifests in riches. This is why Ostia prizes wealth and weighs us all in gold. Worthy souls rise to affluence, while the others…” he tilted his head toward the cages of slaves.
Old Inkarnam tomes depicted Theid as a skeletal demon with grasping claws, a hundred mouths, and infinite teeth. But that wasn’t zir earthly guise at all. Not in this age, anyway. Here, ze walked the world as a man with earnest eyes, who squeezed Isa’s shoulder and said in strong Krellish, “Why do your spirits do this to you, my child? What use is their notion of a ‘soul’ if it only holds you down and makes you suffer?”
“I can make you all the things you want to be,” said Theid. “I can give a world with all the satisfaction of living and none of the pain.”
And it took Isa a moment to realize that the words had come out of Telasus’ mouth.
He looked to the cages at Ostia’s feet and let his vision blur until the people inside were just shapes, until he saw them as the python saw them. Hotspots. Flesh. Food.
Isn’t this easier, child? Theid soothed. Isn’t it freeing?
“Yes…” It would be easier to work full-time for Telasus. Without the lull in between jobs, Isa’s thoughts might not catch up to him. Trapped between grief and the Shadowland, wasn’t the dark preferable? Spirits, wasn’t anything preferable?
But there was a third cage he hadn’t seen back in the shadows of Ostia’s skirts. Had he really not seen it or just refused to notice it? Like he hadn’t processed what Quinar was actually doing behind Telasus’ back. Like he hadn’t realized what Telasus meant by “females and smalls.” Limbs shuffled behind the bars and a smothered sniffle brought the world into terrible focus.
The cage was full of children.
“So, what do you say?” Telasus extended a hand.
Isa looked down at the hand and became acutely aware that, when he took it, one of two things was going to happen. Either his mouth would say ‘yes’ and kill the part of him that cared for the human beings behind those bars. Or he was going pull Telasus straight into an embrace of coils, stretch his jaws wide over that meticulously reskinned head and swallow and swallow until the tradelord was gone from the world. Either way, Isa was lost. A soul didn’t come back from the Shadowland after cannibalism.
“Sorry.” He stepped back, shaking his head. It was no good. Whether he let go or held on hard, Theid prevailed. The shadows closed from all directions
“Are you alright, Inkarnam?” Telasus’ concern seemed genuine but the only sound that was real to Isa was a soft sob inside the cage of children.
Telasus reached out to Isa with benevolent hands—the claws of Theid—and, like prey, Isa ran. Out of the warehouse, into the alley behind it, careening into a brick and plaster wall, pushing off it, and on through the dark, ignoring the shouts of men behind him and the subsequent pounding of boots across the flagstones. Had Isa been running for his life, they would have caught up to him, he was sure; his life wasn’t worth that much. But running for his soul, primal terror drove him on and left them far behind.
Isa didn’t remember deciding where to go or which streets to take there. All he knew was that just as exhaustion threatened to slow his steps, he crashed through the swinging doors of the Bankside Brewery.
Several patrons looked up, startled by the noise.
“Um—sir,” a barmaid stammered beneath her veil, “can I help y—”
“The Sazuman mercenary. Where is she?”
“She’s in the back with another guest but—sir—Master Inkarnam, you can’t—”
Isa pushed past the barmaid into the back room, zeroed in on a crown of golden braids. Aer must have brought him to this place because ze knew that there was one way out of Theid’s narrowing gauntlet of shadows. Isa’s hand was on her shoulder, gripping hard as he turned her around.
The Sazuman’s black eyes blinked in surprise before her lips set into that devious smile that had broken a thousand hearts. “Well, look who decided to—”
“On the job. Tell me about the monster.”