It’s a mistake to focus on where you want the story to go. It’s better to think about what’s going on in the story and tell that as well as possible.

Karesh Ni: Chapter 8

Previous chapters to the right.

Hopefully, this is the final chapter 8.

Chapter 8

Tel Viv made several odd faces. She was wonderfully expressive, and she kept squinting and wrinkling her face, unsquinting and unwrinkling her eyes, and glaring at me like a new and unpleasant bug. I get that a lot, so she unintentionally put me at ease. Maybe it was intentional. I doubt it. She didn’t look someone executing a master plan. She looked like eaten something that upset her stomach.

“You’re a wheat merchant?” she demanded.

“I don’t handle it myself. I connect buyers and sellers,” I said.

She kept squinting. She needed a little more.

I continued. “The winter crop is already gone. I’m sure the Celephians have some in storage, but they’d fleece you. I can–”

Tel Viv interrupted, “You don’t know that!”

“That they have any in storage or that they’d fleece you?”

She squinted again. I could see her deciding if she really wanted to defend the Celephians against overcharging a customer.

“Let’s put that aside,” she said. “You’re not a wheat grower. Who do you know who is?”

“I won’t answer that directly, because you’ll try to go to my supplier and cut me out,” I replied. “But I did just show you a contract from the Truis.”

She sat back and crossed her arms. Her face closed.

I pushed. “The Truis won’t help you much because Citi Kageran observes the Maurite Prohibition. The Celephians don’t, but they’re difficult. They’re not the only exporters in Pallas, though. Who do you want to talk to?”

She exhaled, but I think she thawed a little. I pushed farther.

“What’s your timeline? Are people starving in the streets? The winter crop is growing, so most merchants will have found buyers already. The first summer crop is harvested around midsummer. Is that doable?”

She sighed again but definitely thawed. “By midsummer, you mean solstice?”

“Depends on where, but yeah.”

“I’m not under an executioner’s axe. Solstice would be fine. I could even push to autumn if the price was right.”

My knowledge of the wheat trade wasn’t too deep, but I had picked up a little. “Autumn is good. You can get a commitment cheaper that far out, but it’s risky. Weather, drought, dust-storms, bugs, anything could throw you off, but you save some money if everything works out in your favor, more if you pay up front.”

Tel Viv did a side-to-side nod. She didn’t like the thought but wasn’t reflexively arguing me. I smiled. We had a little connection.

“So you’re looking for something in summer or autumn?” I asked again, trying to get her talking.

She corrected me. “I’m looking for stable trading partners away from the Ashirai. I, we, are looking for bilateral relations.”

“Who did you used to trade with? Can you talk to them?”

“Because the Empire is leaning on its connections to cut our partners. They don’t want anyone to deal with us but them. Your contacts in Kageran won’t help. Citi Kageran is a small place, and once the Ashirai creeped in, they kept creeping. They’re like pythons, throwing one coil at a time over their prey.”

“They’ll deal with you themselves?” I asked. That sounded odd.

“Their terms are unacceptable.”

“What are their terms?”


I thought for a second. “Does it have to be wheat?”

She looked at me like she didn’t understand the question. “What?”

“Down south, away from the Ashirai, there’s a lot of rice.”

“You can’t make bread with rice.”

“They eat it straight.”

And we talked.

She wanted food. The people of Whitefire traditionally ate bread, so while she thought in terms of wheat and medium grains, she was willing to talk about rice. But as much as she wanted food, she wanted food not from Ashirak. The empire galled her. Her jaw clenched, and she scowled when she talked about them. She spoke in terms of deep grievances she wouldn’t clarify, old grudges she wouldn’t explain.

That’s unusual. People love telling me why they’re mad at other people.

She didn’t have as much time as she said. She needed something done, and she couldn’t do it herself. The Hierophant and other eparchs would be involved. But Eparch Tel Viv wanted to present a full plan by herself, and money wasn’t the biggest sticking point.

It was a sticking point. Money always was. But she was willing to pay to get someone talking to her.

She didn’t know it, but she was talking about Celephians. They cared nothing for Ashirai threats or pressure. Threatening Celephias across the seas was such a bad idea they enjoyed it. If the Ashirai threatened Celephias over trading with Karesh Ni, the Crystal City would have emissaries in Karesh Ni before the season turned. But the trade would be expensive.

Still, the Celephians wanted money, Tel Viv had some, they had wheat, Tel Viv wanted some, and things could be arranged. Tel Viv didn’t trust them either, and that put her in a bind.

No one should trust the Celephians, ever, about anything, but these were the players.

I needed time. My immediate contract was to find Kyria, and Tel Viv seemed pretty sure Kyria was dead. That would take some unravelling.

“Wherever you get it from, they’re going to have to bring it up here,” I said later. “And the stairs–” I hesitated.

“Can you find someone who will make the trek?” she asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “I came here through the Hyades lake, and my boat, a little one, has probably floated away. I need a boat back,” I said. “Or I’m not finding anyone.”

Tel Viv went from smug to frowning. “What do you mean it floated away?”

I told her of the rowboat. I left out Alyssa.

Tel Viv looked less and less pleased as I spoke, and my short story was enough to put her in a foul mood. Perhaps it was just late.

She offered, “Why don’t you accept our hospitality for the night, and we can continue in the morning? Or later.”

“Thank you.”

She took me to lodging in the Sunset Basilica, this place, which was a dream come true. It had hot showers, flush toilets, and no bugs. I slept warm, dry, and clean like I hadn’t in years, and when I woke up, I had a horrible, terrible, probably blasphemous idea.


I hadn’t intended to be a spy. I came to Pallas to be a hero, a savior, and a champion of the world, and failed catastrophically. After all that ruin, I worked in a bank because it paid well. I’m okay with numbers but I don’t enjoy them, so I started out as a translator. Then I became a thief. Now I was here.

Remember how I feel about offices, and how no one gets it but me? Another little thing like that is languages. People don’t think you can learn a language in Pallas. If you’re Celephian and want to talk to someone from Ashirak, Celephians don’t believe they can learn. They think vocab, nouns, and verbs, are endowed upon them at birth and forever their domain, and theirs alone.

I don’t really understand what their grammar school is for, because all Celephians send their kids to it. If the language is a sign of their divine gifts, why send your kids to school? Shouldn’t infants be conjugating in the cradle?

Also, translators exist. After I arrived in Celephias years ago and learned their language was close enough to English to be speakable, I’d picked up Demseen, the language of the Ashirai too. It was hard. Demseen has a lot of irregular verbs with irregular tenses. But it’s just a language, so I learned it, got a job, and did soul-sucking translation for angry, overworked bosses. I hated them, they hated me, and I took a job in the goblin city of Invedeletch to get away.

In Invedeletch I ran a bipartite house for Celephians who manage an elvish way-house. It’s the only goblin city where foreigners are allowed. That means not only foreign goblins, but humans and elves. It’s the home of the Thunderblood clan, and Invedeletch- Invedeletch is a weird place.

The city’s under a hurricane, the Gath Mahore. Always. The Gath Mahore doesn’t go away but rotates about the Sevenfold Spires year in and out. The city’s on the Kahserach coast, where the mountains meet the sea. North is the Fhysay, the great water ocean of Pallas. It’s half the size of the Pacific but covers the north pole. The Kahserach isn’t that far north, but the Fhysay brings wind down from the arctic, and the currents that ring the pole bring cold water down year round. Further south, only a few hundred miles, beyond great mountains and deep waters, the rest of goblin territory is warm, often high desert, but the Fhysay coast is brutally cold.

Underneath the hurricane, it’s worse. There is no sunshine, and it only stops raining when the rain freezes. It’s the storm from which Thunderblood makes other thunderstorms, the ones goblins sail across the world. They spin little bits of storm off Gath Mahore.

It has endured since Nilo built the first stormcloud out of poetry, which probably meant a spell, but that was almost a thousand years go, a century after the fall of Whitehall to the army of Dread. Dread shattered the one goblin nation, and they were many small peoples until Nilo built the first storms to tie them together. Goblin traders on stormclouds go everywhere there are goblins, except Death Mountain, and the storms come from Gath Mahore over Invedeletch.

And I got used to it. I lived in Invedeletch for three years, and I got used to it. Goblins sail the high deserts on thunderstorms carrying wheat, fish, seal blubber, and seaweed, and it stopped being weird. Every now and then I’d stop and think, Goblins are on a stormcloud over my head. That is weird. But it was a dry, cognitive thought instead of a visceral one. I felt obligated to think about how weird it was so I didn’t take it for granted.

Humans and elves are allowed in as well as other goblins. We’re definitely second-class people, and our rights are subservient to goblins, but if I went to, say, Thra Koakha, a Tallfoot city on the Shaggeritarch coast, I would have no rights. If some goblin found me in the city, other goblins would have wondered why if he didn’t kill me. In Invedeletch the Thunderblood goblins live on top of the clouds, humans live underground the low with elves, and goblins of other clans liver wherever they can find a place. Those goblins are above us. They can take our places in line, our homes, push us to the side if the hallways are narrow, or kick us out of the way if we stand in doorways talking. If we don’t like it, we can leave. Thunderblood thinks we should be happy to come into Invedeletch at all, the only city of goblins that tolerates lower beings. In the bipartite home, we humans and elves stayed together and made bothering us too much trouble for goblins.

We lived in caves and mines. The fires and magmas of the mountain had receded, but the earth remained warm. Folds in the old mountain were still shot through with lava tubes, and by opening shafts uphill, we could syphon rainwater down into our houses. Used water vented into chosen wadis like sewers. Every house had a little one-story shack above ground, little more than an entryway and door, but ours had nine floors underground, stacked on top of each other. The highest buried floor was for entry and exit, the next two for elvish purposes, then came five for human beings, and finally one for deep storage. The port and volcano shared a slowly expanding web of tunnels and covered walkways, expanded piecemeal as people built homes.

There I learned Klime and Isari, what humans call Low Elvish and High, but elves call Moonlit and Day. They all speak Klime until they’ve gone to the Solange, when they switch to Isari. Imagine making the Hajj, but instead of gaining a honorific, you switch languages. You can understand one from the other, but an elf from the Solange would only speak Klime to a lesser elf. Klime has an ‘I’m better than you’ case.

Elves don’t have a problem teaching other people elvish. Elves are mildly perplexed why we don’t speak elvish already, and they wonder what’s the slow-down. They’re too polite to say anything, but they wonder. Thannius Al Fir once asked me why Celephians speak Celephian at all when Klime exists, and that’s a really weird question to answer. I learned Klime and spoke it for a year without really understanding the difference until in passing I mentioned my ship from Celephias to Invedeletch had made a port-call in the Solange for resupply. It was like they learned I’d visited Heaven. I had to learn Isari straight out, and suddenly I was brunching with elven lords and ladies.

I liked living in Invedeletch but not the city. There was an exciting but tiring element of danger to it, a sense of possessing secret lore. I learned goblin tongues, Whitehall, Throathurter, and Stonefoot, and no goblin I’ve ever met knows any human. I would overhear their conversations because they don’t pay attention to humans, especially not normal-sized ones, and steal away will secrets and rumors. Most I shared with the Celephians who ran the house or the elves who paid them to run it, but one day I heard that four of the ancient relics of Whitehall were being moved. I decided to steal them.

How to say this? I didn’t mind goblins, and I didn’t get upset when they shoved me in the caves or cut in line. But when I had the opportunity to do them harm and take something of theirs they treasured, I did. I didn’t think twice. I’d learned about them. I’d learned they don’t see well in contrast, bright light to dim. Lightning does not harm them, and they describe being struck by lightning as like warm water in a bubbling spring. They live longer than us, for centuries sometimes, and their grudges grow with them. They’ve carried axes against Dread for the sack of Whitehall for more than a thousand years, and they still hold it personally. They don’t like humans because Dread was a human, and so the sack of Whitehall (which happened more than a thousand years ago!) is our living fault. They’ll knock packages out of your hands, kick dirt in your food, and trip you on the stairs in revenge for ancient Dread’s attack. And the relics of Whitehall are great treasures to a past that humans denied them. So when two goblins spoke of relics after taking my spot in line for water, I decided, I’m going to take your stuff.

So I did.

Fabled swords: the Ending, the West Wind, the Blackwing, and the King’s Blade, goblins had forged them from lightning in the forges where the Clockwork Gods had made the world. The blades crackled. At rest, they glittered and shone, but when they were moved, they leaped like lightning. They arced to steel swords and killed the wielders. They burned weapons of wood. Their goblin wielders had thought themselves invincible at Whitehall with blades of lightning.

Dread had used archers. The goblins had gotten a few. Dread had had legions of archers.

To touch a lightning sword was death, so I wrapped them in rubber, wrapped that in fur for silence, and put out the lights in their Temple of Luminance. It is a great cathedral in Invedeletch in the heart-chamber of the ancient volcano. Where once magma bubbled and boiled, Thunderblood goblins have built a church of light. Candles burn in sconces, torches hang on the walls, brazziers burn charcoal, and oil-wicks hang from platters. It is endlessly bright, so I created dark places where no goblin could see.

They just can’t see contrast. They can’t go from dark to light or vice versa, and the Temple of Luminance was supposed to be all light, all the time. I arranged a distraction, put out some lights, ran in, stole the artifacts that make them a people, and ran out. Someone chased me. I kinda stabbed him a little bit. By then they were looking for me, so I couldn’t go back to the home where I’d been staying. I went up.

From the magma tubes and delved corridors under the mountain, where I had lived, I climbed through the high shafts. At the peak of the old volcano seven ring dikes rise in the eye of the storm, tall walls of black stone that curve on themselves. The walls are obsidian and yet impregnated with gems, so to walk on the summit of Invedeletch is to walk among walls of sky, and outside the dikes swirl the Gath Mahore, a seething boil of gray clouds, striking lightning, and endless rain.

High goblins, Thunderblood-clan goblins themselves, built their city on the top of the hurricane. Their towers rise and fall with the seething clouds. Cables and ropes connected them, attached to pulleys and clockwork. When the hurricane draws two castles apart, the storm winds cranks and pumps their water. When the storm drives the houses together, gears harvest the energy to mill their wheat. When lightning strikes a cable, gear, or tower, it leaps to special crystals in their houses to shed light, reflected, refracted, and controlled to be long, low glows instead of sudden bright flashes. The true city of Invedeletch is on those clouds.

But goblins carry stones up here, brass gears, and pallets of food. They do something to the cloud, something they learned from Nilo after the breaking of Whitehall, and the storms are thick enough to walk on. Standing on the hurricane felt like standing on a floating dock in a rough sea, for the floors moved underfoot but I never fell through.

The southernmost goblin city, Bloodharvest, had been Whitehall. Now, then, it was a prison. Once a year, at midsummer, a cloud sailed from Invedeletch to fallen Whitehall in the middle of the Arsae, the tree-ocean of Pallas. It wasn’t where I wanted to go, but the cloud was leaving when I wanted to leave. I stowed away, left at Bloodharvest, and wandered through the woods and the wilds until I returned to human places.

That wasn’t a story. I walked for miles, starved, got bitten by bugs, and chased by coyotes. It was cold, wet, and I nearly died of dysentery. Alone in the woods, that may have been the worst death I’ve come close to. But luck, fate, or whomever saw fit to deliver me to a small village on the south coast of Temerraine. Its name was Holist, and there humans fished the seas near sunken Meom. They put me on a ship to Celephias, and I never saw the place again.

I found out goblins had searched the bipartite house. They’d showed up, kicked down some doors, harassed everyone, and searched the place without saying why. They did that every few years. When I’d never come back, my old housemates had assumed something bad had happened to me, and that happened every few years too. I felt better knowing I hadn’t caused them any unique trouble.

Once in Celephias I started looking for buyers for ancient, priceless, goblin artifacts, and instead, a stranger wearing yellow robes hired me to return to Bloodharvest. He’d paid me in ‘never work again’ money, which with the ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ exchange rates meant I had to work again in a year and a half.

That had been a great year and a half. Then I was broke.

So I’d gone back to the Solange, spoken Isari to the elves, taken a contract payable in wheat options to rescue Prince Aehr from Bloodharvest, and the whole situation had been so strange, the elves so desperate, they’d never asked if I had any idea what I was doing.

I had none.

I was no spy. I didn’t know anything about combat or money laundering, and sooner or later, someone was going to figure out I was faking everything. I just paid attention to goblins when I lived there, and no one else did. I listened to the elves, and they thought that meant something. Even Alyssa thought I knew what I was doing, and sooner or later, she was going to figure it out. They all would. I had never met anyone from Whitefire, so I couldn’t listen. I didn’t know anything.

After a long, deep sleep, I woke to the smell of breakfast. A covered tray had appeared by the door, and I are it while it was hot.

My idea terrible idea percolated. It grew in my head.

After breakfast, I sent word to Tel Viv, and said it was important. She met me after lunch but acted like she’d hurried.

“Yes?” she asked. “You said you had something?”

“Have you considered goblins?” I asked.

Karesh Ni: Chapter 8

Previous chapters on the right.

Chapter 8

Tel Viv made several odd faces. She was wonderfully expressive, and she kept squinting and wrinkling her face, unsquinting and unwrinkling her eyes, and glaring at me like a new and unpleasant bug. I get that a lot, so she unintentionally put me at ease. Maybe it was intentional. I doubt it. She didn’t look someone executing a master plan. She looked like she’d been constipated all week, and things were starting to move unexpectedly.

“You’re a wheat merchant?” she demanded.

“I don’t handle it myself. I connect buyers and sellers,” I said.

She kept squinting. She needed a little more.

I continued. “The winter crop is already gone. I’m sure the Celephians have some in storage, but they’re going to fleece you. They might not,” I admitted.

Tel Viv interrupted, “Might not what? Have wheat in storage or fleece us?”

“Technically either, but let’s be honest. We both know Celephians. They’ll fleece you even if they don’t have any wheat in storage.”

“You don’t know that!” Tel Viv snorted at me.

Which was also technically true. “Okay,” I agreed.

She squinted again. I could see her deciding if she really wanted to defend the Celephians from charges of fleecing a customer.

“Let’s put that aside,” she said. “You’re not a wheat grower. Who do you know who is?”

“I won’t answer that directly, because you’ll try to go to my supplier and cut me out,” I replied. “But I did just show you a contract from the Truis.”
She sat back and crossed her arms. Her face closed.

I pushed. “We need to talk a little bit. I did just show you my last contract, but there are many suppliers in the world. I can talk to people. What do you need?”

She exhaled, but I think she thawed a little. I pushed farther.

“What’s your timeline? Are people starving in the streets? The winter crop is growing, so most merchants will have found buyers already. The first summer crop is harvested around midsummer. Is that doable?”

She sighed again but definitely thawed. “By midsummer, you mean solstice?”

“Depends on where, but yeah.”

“I’m not under an executioner’s axe. Midsummer would be fine. I could push to autumn if the price was right.”

My knowledge of the wheat trade wasn’t too deep, but I had picked up a little. “Autumn is a little far. You can get a commitment cheaper that far out, but it’s risky. Weather, drought, dust-storms, bugs, anything could throw you off. You save some money if everything works out in your favor, more if you pay up front.”

Tel Viv did a side-to-side nod. She didn’t like the thought but wasn’t reflexively arguing me. I smiled. We had a little connection.

“So you’re looking for something in summer or autumn?” I asked again, trying to get her talking.

“I’m looking for stable trading partners away from the Ashirai. I, we, are looking for bilateral relations.”

“Why away from the Ashirai?”

“Because the Empire is leaning on its connections to cut our partners. They don’t want anyone to deal with us but them. Your contacts in Kageran won’t help. Citi Kageran is a small place, and once the Ashirai got in, they just creep. They’re like pythons, throwing a coil at a time over their prey.”

“They’ll deal with you themselves?” I asked. That sounded odd.

“Their terms are unacceptable.”

“Okay. Does it have to be wheat?”

She looked at me like she didn’t understand the question. “What?”

“Down south, away from the Ashirai, there’s a lot of rice.”

“You can’t make bread with rice.”

“No, you eat it straight.”

And we talked.

She wanted food. The people of Whitefire traditionally ate bread, so while she thought in terms of wheat and medium grains, she was willing to talk about rice. More than anything else, she seemed intent on not-from-Ashirak. The empire galled her. Her jaw clenched, and she scowled when she talked about them. She spoke in terms of deep grievances she wouldn’t clarify, old grudges she wouldn’t explain.

She didn’t have as much time as she said. She needed something done, and she couldn’t do it herself. The Hierophant and other eparchs would be involved. But Eparch Tel Viv wanted to present a full plan by herself, and money wasn’t the biggest sticking point.

It was a sticking point. Money always was. But she was willing to pay to get someone talking to her.

She didn’t know it, but she was talking about Celephians. They cared nothing for Ashirai threats or pressure. Threatening Celephias across the seas was a bad, bad idea. The Celephians wanted money, Tel Viv had some, and things could be arranged. But Tel Viv didn’t trust them either, for good reason, and that put her in a bind.

I needed time. My immediate contract was to find Kyria, and Tel Viv pretty firmly told me she was dead. That would take some unravelling.

“So, what are your transport and storage arrangements?” I asked, fishing for a delay.

“We have a port,” she said so idly and flippantly she was bragging.

“From…down there?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Can I see it?”


“And warehouses?” I added.

“Of course.”

“Can I see them too?”

“Will that take some time?” she asked.

“Days, at least.” It would take days, but I could pad a few days of spy work into there. “Maybe weeks.”

She nodded. “I’ll have someone show you around. For your stay, you are invited to take one of the guest rooms in the Sunset Basilica.”

“The Sunset Basilica?”

“This place.” She waved an arm around.

“Oh, I accept.”


“Am I still under arrest?”

“You mean bound and detained?”


Tel Viv thought. “No, but you’ll have an escort. You aren’t detained provided you don’t leave,” she said finally.

I sorta expected that. “Food, drink, a bed?”

“We will provide all.”

“Oh, wonderful. I accept,” I said again.


They took me to a very nice white room that did have bars on the doors, but the guards didn’t lock them. I had a window, but it didn’t open. But I also had a bed, sheeted in silk, and several small cabinets and shelves. Eparch Tel Viv spoke with the hospitallers outside while I looked around and came in when they were done.

“You’re not detained,” she repeated. “But you may be here a while. Tell someone if you need to leave, and if possible, you’ll be escorted.”

Again, what I expected. “The necessary?”

She looked at me blankly.

“Out house? Hanging garret?”

“Oh, the water house. That door.” She pointed at a flat wall.

I looked at her, the wall, and her again.

She walked over, put one finger on several glowing red spots and pushed. A line of yellow lights appeared in the outline of a door, and the wall swung inwards.

“Just press any stars in the shape of the Door.” And then she frowned.

But I wasn’t paying attention. Through the hidden door was a bathroom. It had a sink. It had a toilet. It had a shower.

In awe, I examined the shower tap. Two little chains hung from a white bevel supporting a short, metal rod. I pulled the little rod down, and water fell from the ceiling. I twisted it, and the water steamed. They had hot, running water.

“Do you know how to use a rain closet?” asked Tel Viv condescendingly, but she didn’t bother me at all.

“Oh yes, Eparch. I do.”

And she left.

The guards outside smiled and shut me in. They didn’t lock the door, but I had no intention of leaving.

I took the first hot shower I’d had in years, and it felt like heaven.

Karesh Ni: Chapter 7

Previous Chapters

Chapter 7

The front doors looked like the outside thirds of an oval shoved together. They were round and tall, and came together at a point. On either side hung a lantern on a silver cord, glowing with red, blue, and white light as if many different fires were confined to one small vessel of glass. Inside the floor was polished, and yet my feet could tell where the floor was smooth marble and where it was slicker quartz. But it was warm, and my breath no longer steamed. My hostess had me lead to another office, one with frosted glass walls and a glass roof, two floors up from the entryway to the building. She dismissed the guards at the door.

“Are you sure?” asked one of the guards when she told them they could leave us alone.

“Yes. You hospitallers may go,” she said.

“If she tries to escape?” asked the guard, a hospitaller apparently.

My real captor looked at me, the glass walls, the star-filled sky above, and back to him. “She can try.”

That ended their conversation. The guards left. She sat behind her desk and looked me up and down. Without taking off the ribbon, I couldn’t sit down. She put her knuckles to her lips like she was punched herself in the mouth very gently and sighed.

“Would you mind, please?” I asked. I held my hands out to her.

She stared at my hands, either lost in thought, cold and numb, or something else. I couldn’t tell. Suddenly she reached out and caught the ribbons with one index finger and pulled. The ribbons fell off.

When I was younger and had assumed serial killers would play a much larger part in my life, I’d learned to get out of handcuffs and ropes. I hadn’t started working on these yet, but I’d poked at them. I figured they were doable but tricky. They were not loose pieces of ribbon. They should not come off with a one-finger pull.

She got up, walked around the desk, and pulled the ribbon off my ankles the same way. Taking both, she returned to her seat while I transferred my coats to a hook on one wall. She looked at the binding, looked at me, and her face told me nothing. Her hands shuffled the ribbons back and forth as if she’d forgetten they were there.

“To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” she asked.

“Astrologamage Elegy.”

“Astrologamage?” she repeated in a voice that didn’t imply she wanted a response.

I took off my first three jackets, left the last one on, and hung my various clothing, bags, sacks, and gear against the wall. I sat down. The room was pleasant and warm, brightly lit with more lanterns. They cast the same multi-hued glow. There were no drafts.

Like a frozen ship breaking out of the ice, my brain took a while to get back to that point.

She had lanterns and no drafts.

I looked around the room: no fireplaces, no vents, no holes in the ceiling. The room was warm and dry. There were no smoke trails on the glass, and the clean marble didn’t have soot trails. I stared at a lantern and saw twinkling white lights behind glass.

“You use stars in your lanterns?” I asked.

“Welcome to Whitefire,” said the woman, opening her hands to display her empty white desk and bright office. “The name means starlight, and we’re rather familiar with it. Now Astrologamage, star-sage, drawer of horoscopes, and reader of the future, why have you come to Karesh Ni?”

“I’m here to see Amon Tim,” I said.

“But you have not come to Hierophant Amon Tim, you have come to Eparch Tel Viv. Why do you wish to speak to the Hierophant?”

And that was the real question. I had actually thought about this, but my cold, confused brain wasn’t working. I had that feeling where I knew I knew something and couldn’t say it.

The first thing that came to mind was, “I’m looking for the previous hierophant, Kyria.”

Tel Viv rolled her lips around like she was tasting my words. “Why?”

“I threw her numbers, and she’s at the peak of my ascending fortune. The Treasure Chest favors her.”

“Bad news, girl. She’s dead.”

“My horoscope says she’s not.”

“We fed her to a dragon.”

“I believe.”

She didn’t really shake her head, just cocked it to the side like a half-shake. “Good luck.”

Our weird half-argument ground to a halt.

“Why did you ask for Amon Tim if you’re looking for Kyria?” asked the eparch.

“He is the hierophant. She was. He might be able to help me.”

Tel Viv gave that little half-shake again.

She sounded confident. She also wasn’t overcome with sadness. Alyssa had said Amon Tim and his eparchs, and Tel Viv called herself an eparch, had deposed Kyria. Also, just now, the eparch had said, ‘we fed’ of Kyria’s death.

“Why did you–” I wasn’t quite sure how to finish. I blinked a few times. If I could just start thinking, she was saying things I needed to know!

Tel Viv answered anyway. “Treason. Consorting with dark powers. Murder. If you want specifics, she summoned the dragon, we turned it away, and summoning dragons tends to end with someone getting eaten. Someone happened to be her and she deserved it.”

After a few seconds she continued, “You’re rather openly associating yourself with a dead traitor.”

And she jumped ahead of me. I hate the cold.

“I’m not associated with her yet!” I said quickly and just as quickly added, “Or at all if she’s dead. I can’t associate with her if she’s dead. I had no idea about any of this.”

Tel Viv looked at the ceiling. “Yes, I’m getting that impression. Well, Astrologomage, your astrology seems to be as useful as one would expect. I doubt the dead traitor is going to bring anyone to the Treasure Chest, or ascend through your Treasure Chest, or whatever. As a practical matter, I don’t think you’ll find anything you want here. We are the true followers of starlight, and you’re not impressing me much. There is no fortune here for an astrologer.”


She thought I was too incompetent to be a traitor, which was good, I guess?

No, it was definitely bad. It was bad and better at the same time.

“In fact, unless you happen to be a wheat merchant, I think there’s really nothing for you here at all.”

I stared at her like a dog confronting a doorknob until the logjam of my thoughts cleared. “I just sold a contract of ten cargos of winter wheat to the Truis of Kageran.”

Tel Viv stared at me so blankly I think sheer incomprehension blocked her. She obviously thought I was lying, lying so badly she couldn’t believe it.

I kept going. “The buyer is House Ossaria of Elvenhome. The Celephians cleared the contract. Strike price is confidential. Baroness Alyssa and her consort Satre witnessed it. I have the contract in my bag.”

After several more long seconds Eparch Tel Viv said, “Show me, please.”

Because obviously, obviously I was lying. Obviously!

Except I went into my bag, pulled out the contract, and showed her. I even showed her the deposit receipt the Gesphains gave me when I deposited my loot. Satre had escorted me and insigned the receipt too. I don’t think he really trusted me, and I definitely believed he didn’t like this whole operation. Putting his stamp on the contract probably gave him a feeling of agency. But none the less, I had all the paperwork, and I hadn’t forged any of it.

Tel Viv couldn’t believe it or me. She kept shaking her head and unblinking like she was fighting sleep.

While she was staring at this incomprehensible truth, I scooted forward so I could put my hands on her desk. The chair complained when I dragged it.

“Tell me,” I said. “Do you need wheat?”

Karesh Ni, Chapter 6

Previous Chapters
Chapter 6

As I descended, I thought about Whitefire. After leaving the Baroness’s office I’d asked about them because I’m super curious and definitely not just nosy.

Whitefire followed Starlight, one of several Celestial elements (Alyssa knew another, Lightning). They were lead by a Hierophant and four Eparchs, Kyria having been Hierophant before and Amon Tim being the Hierophant now. Hierophant Mal Set had built this fortress up among the stars, their source of power, after they fled in exile. It was called Karesh Ni, the Silver City.

When asked why the Ashirai empire ordered broad sanction against Whitefire, the Kagerani had generally agreed that nearly a century ago, Ashirai Emperor Thullus had married a young woman, Aryce, who’d already been engaged to Maurius, a Whitefire initiate. Royal Ashirai weddings are three-day affairs where the couple don’t sleep together until the third day, the first day of celibacy representing a sacrifice to their gods and the second a sacrifice for the people. By tradition the groom stays awake partying while the bride gets some sleep so the whole world can attest to their celibacy before heaven. Thullus had caught Aryce and Maurius breaking celibacy during God’s Night.

Before dawn he’d dragged them to the Gold River that runs through Ashirak, and before being cast in, Maurius had cursed him and all his people. Thullus had heaved him into the rapids himself, and within those waters, Maurius had been drowned or beaten to death on rocks. Aryce had begged for mercy, but when Thullus lifted her as he had her lover, she cursed him as well. She followed Maurius.

The romantic ending of the story is the lovers found each other down there. I don’t know.

But that didn’t cause the Maurite Prohibition. That came later. During the somewhat subdued feast of the People’s Night, Thullus had a bit too much to drink and went to the Gold River’s canyon wall to taunt their ghosts. The canyon wall gave way, and Thullus fell to his death.

The Empire left without an emperor, the Baron of Dylath-Leen, the Saffron Prince of Tyr, and Duke Larange, a cousin of Thullus’s, all went to war for the throne. The legions stayed out of it, and the Prince of Tyr won. However the oaths the Red Guard swore were to the ‘Emperors of Ashirak, born sons of Jermaine, Kings of Kings,’ and a matter of bloodlines precluded the Saffron Prince from taking the seat. When he tried, the legions threatened mutiny.

Prince Eigen of Tyr, the Saffron Prince, apparently told the Reds to kick rocks. Two legions marched on Tyr, and on the morning of the battle when the Prince realized that he was going to have to fight the Red Guard, the Swordsmen of Ashirai, he suddenly discovered a willingness to negotiate.

In the play Birthright of Gods the Red legions send their lowliest foot solder, Ve Therrin, to challenge the entire Tyrian military to a series of single combats. After seeing his forces ruined by one man, the Prince sued for peace. Pretty much everyone agrees that didn’t actually happen.

Anyway, without the bloodline to take the throne, the Prince Eigen ordained himself king, demoted everyone else to less-than-kings, a custom which continued to Alyssa’s ‘royal baronacy,’ and the legions declared obedience to the king of Tyr. End of that, right?

Of course not. Perhaps you see the loophole? If not, let me give you a hint. Duke Larange had a daughter, Hnoss, who at this point was eight. The Prince Eigen of Tyr was fifty three and married.

The Emperors of Ashirak were ‘sons of Jermaine’ and drew their birthright from direct descent from one of the gods of old. He couldn’t take the throne of Ashirak, but he could give it to a son, provided the mother of his son was Larange’s daughter.

His wife Tamora did not agree. She murdered him and Hnoss (the eight-year old!), the legions murdered her, and the Baron of Dylath-Leen took the throne, swearing the same oaths to respect the line. The throne was ‘given back to Jermaine’ since no one lived of his lineage to take it.

The Baron blamed the whole thing on Maurius and Aryce, because clearly their curses led to this affair. Rumor escaped that followers of Whitefire were to be rounded up and beheaded, their mouths stuffed up or tongues pulled out, and none of them stayed around to find out if the rumors were true. On pain of death, the followers of Whitefire were exiled from the lands of Asharai for the evil power of their curses.

The killing of Hnoss is the part that really got me. It was a hundred years ago, so I suppose it’s just history, but there was no reason for that! She was eight!

Kageran had joined the Ashirai Empire about twenty years back. Queen Alyssa had become Baroness Alyssa. Citi Kageran had accepted the Maurite Prohibition. Many Whitefire refugees who had lived in Kageran at the time disappeared. The people I’d asked hadn’t known where they’d gone, nor about this place. Alyssa and Satre had but seemed to have kept their mouths closed. The feeling of having secret knowledge, that I was one of the elect, pleased me. In spite of the cold, I hurried down the stairs.

Several hours later, that feeling of being special was really struggling to keep up with the desire to feel my toes.

I decided to give up. At the time, I was several hours into the murderously cold descent and had stopped to huddle on the stairs and eat another flat. I’d been walking in a trance, concentrating on keeping my footing on the wide, flat, and smooth stairs. Since I couldn’t feel my feet, every step had an element of hazard to it. I wouldn’t know I was slipping until too late. A low balustrade ringed the stairway, intricately working in white marble, and I sat by one of the balusters. For a while I looked out at the world, the skies undimmed by clouds, and wondered why I wasn’t overwhelmed.

I was too cold to be overwhelmed.

That was it. If you’re too cold to appreciate the vastness of space, the world laid out like a painting, and mythical architecture, you are too cold for anything. I ate my flat. I gave up. I slouched over to tie my shoes and happened to look down, past the stairway.

The island that hung below was a brown island about a deep cone. From an outer triangle, it rose to a vaguely circular ridge, and inside the ridge a deep pit sank into more white stone. Houses, buildings, roads, and clustered on the ridge like white crows sitting on rooftops, and two greater palaces stood on either side. One of the white stairways descended to each of them. The gold rope sank into the very center of the central pit.

The mountainsides were grim and dull, covered in the naked trunks of brown trees. Yet between them grew a few evergreens, dark enough to look brown or black themselves. At the center of the pit bubbled a white froth, and mist flowed through cracks in the right to fall down the slope. Cloud rivers fell off the sides of the island like smoke rises from a candle yet in reverse, descending smoothly in straight lines until they began to fold and curl up before catching the winds and spreading. They blew east, the direction Pallas passed far below. A wide band of milky white light flowed underneath the island.

I ate another flat.

Okay, fine, I thought, and I un-gave up. It was right there. I had to be almost done. This was one of those darkest-before-the-dawn moments.

It wasn’t. I wasn’t even close. I had to go twice as far as I’d come before. It turned so cold my eyes hurt. My eyelids froze shut, and I couldn’t see. I had to thaw them with my fingers, which made my fingers freeze, and then I had to thaw my fingers with my breath.

I got stubborn, kept going, did an awful lot of whining, said some very, very unfriendly things about Alyssa, Satre, people in general, and used a bunch of language that would not make Prince Aehr swoon with desire.

Did elves swoon?

They’d better. Someone was swooning after all this, and it wasn’t going to be me.

Honestly, I was getting pretty tired and felt like I could go for a swoon.

I couldn’t swoon now. I’d fall over the railing.

I kept walking.


The bottom of the stairs flattened out on a wide landing. On either side, the landing looked like it ended in cliffs, but that was because the landing was perched on one of the high points of that central ring-like ridge. There were paths and lower buildings below on both sides. Forward and behind more buildings rose from the crest, some of them geometric with windows and doors, some botanical like alabaster flowers, and some oddly shaped like spirals or points, all made of that same white marble.

Two stood out. One, a huge white orchid, stood by itself, and the body of the building resembled a closed flower, just in the act of unfurling. Between the petals, a red and gold light escaped. The other resembled a dragon’s skull and was the only animal-looking thing around. It perched on the crest of the ridge some distance behind me. It was a little bigger than a house.

I squinted at the dragon skull when the stairs passed overhead. It could be real. Dragons did get that big, and the skull was grayer than marble. The eyes, nostrils, and mouth had been blocked up with stone, making the difference obvious. But a skull that big would need a body even bigger, and I didn’t see any half-mile dragon carcasses lying on the island.

I didn’t see many people, and those I did see moved quickly. They usually had white cloaks with pointed hoods, ornamented with stars or silver bands. Many of their clothes looked quilted, with plenty of white designs sewn into white jackets, coats, and pants.

I don’t think they had much dye. That catches me by surprise sometimes, even as long as I’ve been here. People generally work with whatever color thread comes off the sheep or plant. Kageran is so unusual in its colors. Here, I spotted embroidery, but it was all the same white thread as the basic garment.

They didn’t look prepared for the cold. Most had little white shoes with turned-down cuffs no higher than the ankles and no gloves. They hustled, outdoors and walking quickly down a street, to return indoors again with a slammed door behind them.

I also spotted stair guards, and they looked miserable.

Sitting in a little hut facing the stairway were three people. Each one wore two or three of those white cloaks, but the same tiny shoes. Two had their arms folded with hands inside their armpits, but one’s sleeves hung floppily empty. I saw little pink fingers poking up through her collar as she breathed on her hands. The man on her left was frowning so hard his wrinkles looked like creases, and another man had his head down against his chest.

I was about two circuits up when one bumped another and pointed at me. They spoke among themselves, and someone ran off. I couldn’t very well turn around now, so I kept going. Before long several more guards arrived with one among them who seemed in charge, a dark-skinned Malician woman with her hair done up like two cacti. They stood informally at the bottom of the stairs, waiting.

Half a circuit up, I paused, tried to shake off the cold, and decided what I wanted to say. I adjusted my clothing and gear into the most comfortable manner. Then I walked down with fingertips on the railing.

The waiting party said nothing as they stood at attention, watching.

On a hunch, I stuck my both hands into my pockets as I stepped down onto the wide marble landing, and the lady in charge said, “On bound law, do not move.”

“Okay.” I did not move my hands out of my pockets.

“I am Eparch Tel Viv. Who are you?”

“Astrologamage Elegy.”

Official people tend to like following their own rhythm, so I let her go.

“Astrologamage Elegy, you have entered Karesh Ni. Do you have a mark of passage?”


“Then you are detained and shall come with me for questioning. Do you have any remarks?”

“I’m here to see Hierophant Amon Tim,” I said.

She gave me side-eye while the guards stared straight ahead or turned their necks to stare at me.

“We’ll see about that. Hospitaller Ain Var, bind her hands and feed.”

The original lady guard, there were three there now not including Tel Viv, said, “Ma’am,” and took some white ribbons from her pocket. She looked like she’d been holding them while she waited.

Detaining seemed much like being arrested. They searched me and found the knives in my sleeves, belts, and boots. They missed two. We didn’t talk. The guards in the hut rotated, and Tel Viv lead the rest away.

We passed rows of sterile white houses with dead lawns out and empty gardens. Frozen watercourses, dry fountains, pristine white pathways swept of old leaves branched off the roads we followed, looking like they’d been carved of ice. The whole city, glorious, elegant, and polished, looked like some abominable dream in crystal. I was so tired.

People had told me about this. I didn’t listen. Mountaineers, Malicians, the incomprehensible people who voluntarily live even further north than Malice: they talk about how the cold wakes you up at first but then puts you to sleep, confuses your brain, and makes you stupid. I’m not stupid, so I’d just ignored them when they said the cold does it. But I was suffering the cold now, and it wasn’t some brutal, anguish of suffering. I wasn’t being cut by blades or burned with irons. I was just cold, miserable, dumb, and I hated it. The only way I could fight back against the cold was not complaining, so I walked along as silent as everyone else, as silent as the ghost-shaped people who watched from the rowhouses, as silent as the houses themselves. We entered the white lotus palace, veined with glittering quartz, and shaped like a blossom opening to the moon. It was, I would learn, the Sunset Basilica, and it had been made by humans imitating elves.

Karesh Ni: Chapter 5

Previous Chapters

Chapter 5

For all that she had me over a barrel, I got something else out of it. I got land. Baronness Alyssa offered me a small manor house within Kageran proper. Manse Plachar filled about a quarter of one of Kageran’s round city blocks, with a shared private well in the center. It needed some work. The roof leaked, and there were mice in the walls. But a complete refurbishment was only a mark or so, even for an eighteen room mansion with a summer kitchen. Manse Plachar came with a title as well, and I would be Lady Elegy of Kageran.

It’s not a high title, but it’s the first step above.

So I sat on a boat in the middle of the lake, waiting for moonrise. The Sun would rise swiftly behind the waning Moon, but for now the sky held nothing but stars. It was bitterly cold. The Baroness’s office had been chilly; this was a compound hell. Wind blowing down the Aph valley carried all the Doon’s chill. There was no snow, but a fine sleet of dust and sand from the uplands stung my face. Waves beat away from the wind, pulling my boat elsewhere.

I was wrapped up in every blanket I could carry. Every few minutes I would unwrap myself enough to pull the oars and row back to the point Alyssa had prescribed west of the dead center of the lake. Then I swam back under my blankets and sulked. No one could see me sulking. The sky was clear. Alyssa should be stilling that wind, not watching me.

But just in case she was watching, I said some mean things about her. This was her fault.

Why don’t powerful sorcerers ever build their temples of evil on beaches? Warm beaches? Beaches where I can drink something in a coconut mug? You’re powerful sorcerers! Do warm things!

The wind gusted, I rowed back to position, and the air was so cold my face hurt. My hands ached where they weren’t numb. People do freeze to death on the water in winter. This could kill me, I realized, and not in the whiny, I-don’t-want-to-be-here way. There’s risking death for a job, but this wasn’t really the job yet. This was sitting in a boat on a nigh-frozen lake in winter, waiting for a sorceress to kill the damn wind.

You know, this just wasn’t worth it. I could cut the contract and be done. Her job was to stop the wind, and I wasn’t going to die because my employer couldn’t stop a wind from breaking up reflections–

The wind died, like a switch was flipped, and the lake-surface flattened into glass.

My boat stopped rocking. I lost all sense of time.

In the east, the trees of the Arsae rose black against a star-speckled sky. Here and there a star would peek through, twinkling as leaves blocked it, but the forest-ocean looked like a low shadow crouching on the horizon. That great thicket by the Three Sisters where ghosthearts rose high above the rest stood unusually dark, unusually tall.

The moon peaked through the thicket. The water lay flat as a mirror and the air dead still. I waited. A thin sliver of moon broke above the treetops, a bit of crescent only, and that meant soon it would be dawn.

In the lake’s surface, the reflection of the moon looked startlingly bright. Prepared as I was for sorcery, it looked mystical. But the night was dark, the trees below the moon blocked the stars, and the water was thick with silt from the mountains. I couldn’t be sure.

The moon kept rising. Its reflection brightened, I tried to discount what I saw as optics and perspective, but the reflection brightened further until the moon in the lake and the moon in the sky hurt my eyes. I blinked and glanced away.

I looked back, and the reflection was rising out of the water. A rash of bubbles set the surface foaming, and a low, white rock with a mooring pin stuck up.

I rowed once, and the boat slid through water. I winced at every wooden creak and the hint of splashing in my wake. Nothing else made a noise.

The prow bumped the rock with a solid, mundane ‘thump.’

I reached out, caught the mooring pin, and stepped from boat to rock. Up close it was white marble, veined with something translucent like quartz. The moonlight hitting the side cast rainbows thought it. I tied off the rowboat.

The moon rose further, and with it rose the platform. My rock rose on a crescent of other stones, all white and crystalline. They reached around a pool of water, the boat at the center. Every new block in the crescent appeared below the one before, and soon the boat was in the center of a small lagoon of white blocks, apparently standing unsupported in the center of the lake. The stones were as still as the water.

But the moon kept rising, and more rocks appeared underwater within the circle. They faded into view down there among the reflections of the stars, a long, spiral stairway that sank into the reflected sky. I looked east. The sickle moon was now fully above the trees, and in the water, the stairway descended up into the sky.

I walked down to the lowest part of the crescent to rise above the Hyades. Underwater the landing at the head of the stairs bridged the gap in the arc. Here the stairway that seemed to descend through the reflection of the sky rose to its highest/lowest point. The first step was right before my feet, underwater.

Do you have any idea how cold that water was going to be?

I’m really not very brave. I thought about dying, freezing to death feet first, if I stepped off the dock and onto the stairway. That’s how Alyssa said I could climb to the Karash Ni, the Silver City. But I didn’t have much time, for the Sun was closely chasing the Moon and would soon wipe the reflections and the stairway from the lake as it wiped the stars from the sky. To get to the Silver City, I had to step onto the stairway, go down into the water, while the Moon reflected. I had to start before dawn.

Back in the office, Satre had come back from his snit and reluctantly agreed with her.

“It’s not that hard,” he’d said. “It’s all downstairs, anyway.”

He’d sounded like my father. On the landing I paused, took out a small honeyed pastry called a ‘flat’, and had a snack.


I was born outside Indianapolis, Indiana and have exactly zero memories of it. Apparently I lived in Columbus, Ohio until I was one. But I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia in a big family, six kids, and remember it well.

I don’t know what small families are like, but big families are wondrously intense and you sort of want to murder someone. Everyone is in your business. For us this was partially because our house was so small that brothers or sisters had to be in your business. They had nowhere else to go! The parents had no money and worked odd hours, so the only thing they spent on us was time. Sometimes I wondered if they should have had such a big family when they struggled financially and realized they just really liked kids.

The parents liked messing with us. My father told outrageous lies, and my mother enjoyed having someone with her. I asked her about it growing up.

She said, “I wanted to matter. I don’t remember who won the Academy Award when I turned eight, and I don’t recall who took the Nobel Prize. I remember the president because I had to memorize him and the VP for class, but they’re just names and pictures on a wall. But I know my mother liked to cook chicken and beans, and she seasoned them with garlic. I remember my father coming home and making me take off his boots in the evening. His fingers had been run over long ago, and the way he wore his laces they ratcheted tight over the day until he couldn’t remove them at night. When I was in school I thought about trying to become a celebrity or a politician, but they only touch people superficially. I wanted to matter to someone so they would never forget me. So we had you.” And she touched my head. I was nine, she was thirty four, and she was always the most beautiful woman on Earth with black hair and a quiet smile.

“Do I have to?” I asked her. “Be a Mom and not a famous person?”

“No, sweetie. You don’t. You can if you want to, but you can be a politician, or scientist, or businesswoman, or anything you want. You can be both. Just be the best person you can be.”

Then I asked my dad why he had kids.

“Tax breaks,” he replied.

Even at nine, the peak of believing everything my father said, I had a feeling that wasn’t true.

“I don’t think you had kids for taxes, Dad!” I told him.

“We haven’t made a profit yet, but next year you’ll be old enough for the salt mines!” He wiggled his bushy eyebrows. “And we may sell your spare kidney on the black market. You have two!”

My father had the worst of all social diseases: he thought he was really funny.

My mother liked to cook with one of us kids at a time. The kitchen was tiny, and she didn’t want fighting around hot stoves and ovens. She liked our questions, she liked answering, and she liked to pat my head or touch my back while I was doing something tricky.

Dad could cook, and Mom once told me that he’d cooked for her when they’d dated, but he enjoyed stirring the pot of a great fighting mass of kids, all of us arguing and yelling, so to him fell the setting of the table with one kid, the clearing of the table with another, washing the dishes with a few more, and innumerable cleaning tasks, limited only by the number of children he could foist them off on.

Dad– I never really got a handle on Dad. Dad was far more entertained by us than Mom was. He had a bit of distance which let him observe us as pawns on a chessboard or maybe more like dogs at a park. He was immensely invested in all of us, and he enjoyed everything that went on regarding us. He liked driving us on errands because he would put someone in the front seat and talk, sometimes about economics, often the back-stabbing politics of tenure, the history of technology, or equally intensely our little struggles. He loved us, loved putting time into us, and equally loved bothering us: deep down, bone deep irritating his children. He once snuck into my room at night and unlaced all of my shoes.

Why would anyone ever do that? I just assumed it was one of the brothers, but maybe my sister because we were fighting at the time, and only years later he’d admitted it was him.

“Why?” I’d asked, astounded beyond words. I truly felt flabbergasted.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just wanted to see what you’d do.”

Coming from Earth to Pallas is a story for another time. I can’t go back. I don’t think about the trip much, but I think about Mom and Dad, the world I lived in, and the differences between them. They don’t have flats on Earth but Pallas doesn’t have sugar like Earth. Nothing here is as sweet. Food-wise, I mean. There’s no food here as sweet.


But eating finishes a pastry quickly, and then I had sticky fingers and was still scared. If I stepped into the water, and that reflection of stairs was just a reflection, I’d splash right through. That would kill me. Even if I climbed out immediately, out here, on the lake, in the cold, I would die. I had blankets in the boat nearby, but I didn’t think they would matter.

But some horrible part of my brain said, You could make it. Those blankets are right over there. Even if you fall into the water, you can jump right out, wrap yourself in blankets, and you’ll be fine.

You could even quit, said my brain. Right then. If those stairs aren’t real and you fall into water, Alyssa hired you under false pretenses, and you could quit the job immediately. Take your money and go. First you just need to take that one step.

And every other part of me said, don’t do it! but that one terrible part of my brain said, just try.

I whined a little and stepped into the lake.

My foot landed on a dry marble stair. I knew where the water level should be, but inside the stone crescent the water was so clear I couldn’t see the lake at all. My foot stayed dry. I stepped off the landing and took the next step. Then I took another. Soon I was grumbling and muttering to myself, walking down a helix of stairs that descended towards stars and clouds. Behind and above, the crescent of white stone hung just like a moon in the star-speckled sky. A few revolutions down, the stone crescent was the sickle moon, hanging in a star-speckled sky, and the night-wrapped expanse of Pallas lay below.

To the east lay the dark Arsae, the great tree ocean between the elven homelands and goblin nations. To the west rose jagged mountains. The Doon, the great mountains on the north of Tenemerrair, looked like rumpled laundry thrown over big dogs. The glaciers looked white and cold, the valleys between them dark and deep, and tiny, ribbons of silver water appeared and disappeared between peaks. North and south, the mountains met the trees in a folding line. I knew that the mountains pushed east to the north and far up there the great goblinmounts rose, but I was making stuff up if I told myself I could see them. To the south, the sharp border cut hard west, and I could see peaks abutting the blackness. Further south, and I might be making up details because I knew they were there, I thought I saw the floodplains of Nar, maybe the dun grasslands of the Horned Lords to the west and the gentler trees of the Solange to the east.

Directly below me hung the Silver City. My helix of stairs danced with its match, another white marble stairway that rose from Karash Ni. That stairway rose to the black part of the moon, the shadow within the crescent. Between them ran a long gold cable, thick as a building, made of braided gold cords, themselves made of twisted gold strands. Throught the middle of it ran something white and red. If I leaned over the inside railing, I saw the stairs spiral together until vanishing at a distant point, the gold cable running through the center. If I looked outside, Pallas spread out like a misty map with dawn rising in the distance.

I stopped to appreciate the view, cold be damned, and stayed still long enough to see the world slide by. The Silver City remained a fixed point, but the ground beneath it slid east. Soon we passed the blotch of the Hyades to hang over ice-capped ripples. The mountains looked so tiny and mild. A long, thin cloud slithered by. The city stayed perfectly still as the world walked past underneath.

I wasn’t on Earth any more and hadn’t been for a long time.

KN Update

You’re occasionally writing along, slapping words on a page, when you come to a scene, and the little voice in your head says ‘this is a big scene.’ There’s no real reason for it to be. It’s A meets B or C gets to D, and the gut response is drive on. Slap the words down.

The kicker, the trick, the really hard bit, is that sometimes the voice is right and sometimes the gut is. Sometimes you should just slap words down and get through it. But sometimes you need to get things just right. Too much shaping means the story never gets written. Not enough means you run into huge problems later that sap all the joy out of it.

I’m at one such problem in KN. About nine chapters ahead of what’s published, I’ve run into a wall. The story doesn’t go anywhere, and I wound up putting it aside for six months or so. The problems are because of this one scene. If I don’t get this exactly right, I have no plot. And if it is exactly right, it won’t look like too much story.

Completely unrelated, I only learned a few months ago that in American English, the punctuation is almost always inside the quotes. Em-dashes are a weird exception. British English puts them inside and outside as situation warrants.

Karesh Ni: Chapter 4

Previous chapters

Chapter 4

The door opened, and Satre appeared. He blocked the entrance completely. The Last Man Standing looked more like a vault door than a human. The page, who had been rocking against the wall while staring at the ceiling, snapped upright. The Baron-Consort regarded us with flared nostrils and a grimace.

He scowled at me. “Astrologamage Elegy.”

Was there a response to that? I waited.

“Never get married,” he said and strode away.

Was there a response to that either? Should I say something? I didn’t want the Baroness to think I was going after her man, but her man was angrily walking away, each booted step coming down heavily on the wooden floor. He rattled. I glanced inside the Baroness’s office.

Alyssa wore a smile so warm and friendly she was downright frightening.

“Come in, please,” she said. “And shut the door.”

Ah, biscuits.


Baroness Alyssa said, “I would like you to go to the Silver City and rescue my sister, Kyria. In return, I will pay you two hundred and fifty marks, Celephian, almost four times the strike value that elves paid you to go to Bloodharvest.”

I wished I had listened at the door. I’m a spy. It would be expected. But should I have door-listened because I’m a spy or not for the same reason? I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t listened, but I wished I had.

I wanted to know if Alyssa-and-Satre’s ostensible argument was real or not. If they were running a blind, Satre leaving meant he had argued the side they didn’t want me to take. Which would be fitting, since I didn’t feel like Satre could hold a deception too well, but maybe that was part of their plan. Alyssa could. I could barely read her at all.

Was I being more clever than wise again? How far should I push the idea an argument that boiled over in front of me had to be fake?

“Why?” I asked the baroness.

“She’s my sister.”

“Didn’t she try to kill you?” Satre had been emphatic on this point.

Alyssa sighed. “Things were muddled. The Disagreement about inheriting the throne nearly split Kageran apart, but we’re done now. I rule. I won’t call myself a savant of history, but I do know rulers who start their reign by settling old scores rarely rule long. Once people believe crossing me is an irreconcilable offense, when they do, they’ll take it to death. I won’t be here long if I make every enemy an enemy for life.

“For the last few years, things have been tense. While we haven’t returned to knife-fighting in the halls, Van has a small army, and if I disband it, we will return to fighting in the halls. But I don’t think they’re on the cusp of attacking. I think they’re being paranoid.

“If settling scores isn’t wise, letting people have standing armies isn’t wise either. I need to do something to show that they’re not in danger, and Kyria is one such a person.

“Neither of the older twins like Kyria, but she is our sister. What’s more, she raised arms against me, as Satre mentioned, which is worse than what they did. The twins undertook a sort of soft coup, while Kyria started throwing meteors.

“Kyria has a gift of rubbing people the wrong way.” Alyssa rolled her eyes at Satre’s empty chair. “And the older twins are a little too sensitive to work with her. But, if she returns, they’ll have no excuse to think I’m going to move against them, and perhaps we can do some measure of healing for the city.”

“That sounds like a long wager on personal biases,” I said.

“All politics are somewhat personal. Family politics are entirely personal.”

She would know, I thought. But I wasn’t going to argue with her either way.

I asked, “How do you know she’s still alive?”

“I saw her from a lightning bolt.”

We smiled at each other. We waited. And I realized something: If they were willing to go through this elaborate scheme, good and bad sides having a fake argument, to get me to agree to this deal, they had to be invested. They had to want me to go. Which meant I had some leverage.

And if they had just had an argument in front of me, she might be willing to share something to get me on her side.

“Please go on, your Highness,” I said.

Baroness Alyssa’s smile lost none of her warmth, but I was struck by the notion she was judging me. Maybe she held that practiced smile too long. Maybe she watched me too carefully through warm eyes. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I didn’t think so.

She said, “For a long time, I thought she was dead. The climax of the Disagreement involved a certain amount of conflict and people being set on fire. She disappeared for years.”

Alyssa rose, went to the sideboard, and sorted quickly through small crystal decanters. One she sniffed, considered, and declined. She found another one with a pale red liquid in it and poured several fingers worth of rosé into her glass. She mixed it one-to-one.

“Another?” she asked, pausing in the act of stoppering the bottle. “Satre prefers strong over smooth. This is a little finer.”

I actually did want another, but I was hesitant. “Perhaps in a bit, thank you.”

She nodded, replaced the bottle, and sat down. She must have wanted a pause for thought.

“Years ago I finally made contact with Amon Tim, Whitefire’s new Hierophant, and gave him assurances I didn’t want him burned at the stake. When we met, I thanked him for a calming resolution to previous hostilities. The way he replied seemed…off. He said Whitefire’s participation in the Disagreement had been Kyria’s doing, but ‘we won’t need to worry about her again.’

“So I started worrying about Kyria again.

“I heard Amon Tim talking in private, and Kyria had promised the Eparchs that when she took this throne, she’d end the Maurite Prohibition. They were-” Alyssa stared at nothing and stroked invisible space, like she was learning the shape of something. “-they are hunted. In Ashirak Whitefire initiates are considered witches, and my father accepted that when he knelt to the emperor. I do not enforce the Prohibition, but it is enforced.”

Alyssa sighed. “Kyria promised to end the hatred. If she took the throne, she’d renounce loyalty to Ashirak. She and the four Eparchs had risen together, and they stood with her.

“However when I took the throne, and her sisters in Whitefire had lost patience. Amon Tim lead a new faction, tired of doing the dying, and they replaced Kyria and the Eparchs. Politics in the Silver City have been turbulent. Are you familiar with it?”

“The Silver City?”

“Karash Ni. It hangs from the Moon’s reflection. Mal Set hung it there after the Ashirai Emperors exiled Whitefire.”

I blinked a few times.

“No, but that’s incredible. How do you…” I trailed off, thinking about it.

“Get there? You wait until the wind is calm and row out to the middle of the Hyades. When the moon rises on a clear, still night, a stairway appears in the lake surface, descending into the reflection. You could do it tonight, if the wind were calm.”

She smiled. “And I have some skill over weather.” She opened her hand as if presenting something.

“You’re a sorceress?” I asked. She’d said something about seeing Kyria through a lightning bolt.

She nodded. “I work weather.”

“And you saw Kyria through a lightning bolt?”

She inhaled, held it, and said, “Yes. She’s on the dark side of the Moon where weather does not go. I can send no storm, wind, or rain up there. However Kyria is a sorceress herself. Two weeks ago she spoke the word of Thunder’s Lovesong, and I happened to be paying attention. I know she’s up there.”

“What is Thunder’s Lovesong?”

“A crude and simple form of power. I am a poet. Kyria writes bad words on bathroom wall.” Alyssa seemed somewhat less fond of her sister when she wasn’t arguing about her.

However, I’d noticed something else. “Two weeks before I arrive. That is the darndest timing.”

Alyssa nodded but said nothing.

I thought of Elvenhome. Two weeks ago Esmerelda cut my deal with Hyrmai Trui. She’d asked him because I’d suggested him, and Trui had been suggested to me by the stranger in yellow. Kyria is a sorceress, but she used a crude power at just the right time to be spotted.

Forget, for a moment, sorcerer’s prison on the dark side of the Moon. I mean, don’t forget that because it sounds horrible. But think about something worse. Alyssa had seen her sister through a lightning bolt within a day of the yellow stranger setting this whole thing in motion.

This was clearly, absolutely, and utterly a bad idea.

“My dear Highness, I must respectfully decline. I am going to someplace warm where I will sit on a beach and drink something with a little umbrella.” I stood up to bow.

Alyssa put her own hands together over her nose like she was praying. She looked over steepled fingers.

“What if I told you where Prince Aehr’s wolves are?”

I stumbled through two breaths like I’d forgotten how to breathe, finishing with, “What?”

“Prince Aehr’s wolves.” She enunciated every word. “I can tell you where they are, and when you return, successful and rich, I can tell you where they will be to within a thunderstorm.”


I skipped my turn to speak, because she’d shoved a stick through the bicycle wheels of my head.

Baroness Alyssa had hard, gray eyes that looked like stormclouds themselves. She spoke with excessive clarity. “Won’t Aehr be grateful? He risked goblins looking for them. He would love someone to find his wolves. Just love them,” she said, staring at me.

I was quiet for a very long time before sitting back down.

Karesh Ni: Chapter 3

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Chapter 3

Black domes of the Agmar Shinoen rose north of the lake, and in the low spots between them lay deep clay soil. The rocky hills stood bare, long since washed clean. The stone was a dark mishmash of crystals, sparkly in the right light, but all of the grains smashing up against each other. The Hyades filled a deep crevice in the rocky ground, looking something like a capital T with the foot pointed south. Across from where the foot hits the crossbar, a double-spur of gray-brown mountains formed the Trough, a wide, fat-bellied hanging valley between two folded ridges. Kageran stands in the mouth of that valley, where the fast, cold river Aph has cut a small canyon, between the two Weeping Women who hold back the mountains.

The Weeping Women are tall figures of the same rock as the Agmar ground, whose upper bodies emerge from the lake with their backs to the mountains, and all the gray earth of those folded ridges piling up behind them. They’re crude, rough sculptures, if sculptures they are. The one on the east, Shanna, has a split butte of stone in front of her, giving the impression of two elbows sticking out like she’s got her face in her hands. A coarse, hanging curtain of stone tumbles around her face. Anna, on the west, is a little more refined. Her left arm is thrown back and out, pointing towards the city, and her right is clearly bent in front of her head with her face in the pocket of her elbow. Shanna requires a little visualization to make her look like a person, but Anna has a clear bust, waist, and hips that meet the black water.

The city fills the valley mouth. The Trough opens up a rocky scarp, maybe two hundred feet tall and leaning back at a quarter angle. There’s a toll road full of switchbacks. Where the Aph falls over the scarp, a great watermill sits at the heart of Gormen Manor. There Baroness Alyssa lives. The road hits the top of the scarp and ceases its switchbacks to run mostly straight up the Trough, and from it spread a hundred lesser roads and streets. On the other side, almost at Anna’s hand, there’s a bit of cliff missing like some giant took a bite out of the edge. Within the Trough, north of the city, the ground is rich and loamy.

Before the Aph falls through the waterwheels, plunging down through a raucous canyon to fill the Hyades and later to plunge into the Arsae, it flows a wiggly line down the Trough. Along it runs a road cut into the canyon wall, and on the road come the Doonish people. They’re a thick-bodied, dark-skinned people with sure feet. Men grow thin facial hair, but both men and women wear their head hair long, often braided intricately. They delight in complex colors on their clothing, wearing hats of braided ribbons. As a group they smile often.

New to the Doon are settlers from Ashirak, come up the great canyon city and spreading through the southern valleys. Those valleys are higher than mountains in other parts of the world. The newcomers are like many of the Ashirai, fair-skinned and tall, but not as tall as their lowland cousins. Nor are they as cheerful as their Doonish neighbors. They don’t wear the colors nor the grins.

Another path to Kageran is the low route, the Emperor’s Gateway that runs from Dylath-Leen on the Begah Bay to here in the shadow of the Doon Escarpment. Along that way lie the domain of a hundred warlords who call their bands ‘consequences’, such as the Consequence of Thalgo or the Consequence of Mayhar. Few of the Ashirai come that way. It is said that the consequent warlords are horned giants, and they’ve found a way to achieve the power of monsters by eating humans. Satre would know better than I, if the rumors are true. There aren’t many of the Ashirai lowlanders, but I saw a few. They look like taller versions of their uplander cousins.

From sunken Meom came the Meomassa, carrying a history of doom and suffering. Two hundred years ago they spoke a blasphemy no one will repeat, and volcanoes erupted across their isles. In fury, they spoke worse blasphemies to condemn the gods who sent the volcanoes. Their islands sank, their home was destroyed, and the survivors washed up on the Ungale Ngalnak beaches, where they were eaten by the horned lords. Some found their way here. Their skins are dark as dried lava. While the old-mountain Doonish wear linens spiced up with ribbons and threads, the Meomassa will make a whole dress out of a bolt of vivid red fabric and accent it with a shawl of yellow or green.

I hear ships can drop anchor at Meom and find bits of old wood in their anchor chains later. Divers can see the dim shapes of huge mountains under a dark and cloudy sea. Sometimes the ocean bubbles. I’ve never been there.

Kageran had Celephians, of course. Wherever there was money were Celephians. They’re a mixed people of their own, having few common features. As I entered the gates of Kageran, I saw them mucking out stables and gutting fish, arguing over prices in the market, and waiting in lines for gate access. I did see a few rich ones. A man on a black stallion wore silk and held scented lace to his nose. He looked at the world like he owned it while his horse shat on a non-rich Celephian groom.

And the people of Kageran seemed like the mixed-grain rock of their city, except where the rocks did their job in silence, the people yelled, argued, fought, and I think I saw someone get stabbed.

I paid the toll on the roadway and gave someone else a copper for directions. The toll road opened in Duncton’s Quarter, and Trui lived in the Baroness’s Quarter. I found my way over and inquired.

Hyrma Trui had had an attack and might die. Apparently his drinking had caught up with him. His brother Lemrai would take my options off my hands for the same price, but he was at Gormen Manor now, doing something or other with the royals.

Remember how I said Kageran has a Baroness? As best I understand it the last king of Kageran, Ozymandias, cut a deal with the Ashirai Emperor for military protection. In exchange Kageran joined the empire and the king took a demotion to baron. The locals think they were robbed. Among them, their rulers are still royal, to the point the third standing house, House Royal, makes no bones about where they stand on the issue.

They also say Ozymandias lived for thousands of years before being assassinated a few years ago, which touched off the Disagreement. I don’t know too much about all that. I know the objective facts that Alyssa is the youngest and she rules the city, her older brother Duncton doesn’t, and the eldest siblings, the twins Van and Mandrake, don’t either. The twins were not born in wedlock, nor were two other siblings, Ducarte and Kyria. Ducarte and Kyria were between the twins and Duncton, and they were missing or dead.

A polite woman met me at the door to Gormen Manor and brought me to Alyssa’s office. Satre introduced himself at the door. He was a big man in mail with an equally polite but bored expression. He had curly black hair, a big aquiline nose, and a wide chin.

“Satre, Baron-Consort of Kageran,” he said, clicking his heels together and nodding in the faintest insinuation of a bow. He spoke Celephian.

“Astrologamage Elegy,” I replied in the same. I’d made the title up because I’d needed something for the elves, but I figured I’d stick to it now. I bowed a little deeper than he had.

“Good,” he said. “And you are?”

Didn’t I just…oh, right.

“I’m here to see Lemrai Trui. I made a deal with his brother for wheat options, so I’m looking for him now.”

“A moment.” He turned in the doorway. “Lemrai, do you know an astrologamage?”

“No,” said a thin, confused voice.

“She says she’s got some wheat options for you.”

“Oh, her! Yes!” Someone jumped up, a chair scraped back, and rapid footsteps approached the boulderish-Satre. He stepped back, opening the door the rest of the way.

Lemrai Trui was a thin, ascetic man of advancing years but quick movements. He had a beak of a nose, and his hair had retreated even from a thin donut of wispy white. Now he had a fuzzy high-water mark around a too-big head. He stared at me around Satre.

“You got ’em? Don’t you lie to me. I want to see them first.”

I blinked.

“Come in, Astrologamage,” said a woman behind the desk, the Baroness Alyssa.

She was much smaller than her overlarge husband, almost normal-sized, with thick brown hair and hazel eyes. Her skin was a little fair to be Doonish, but she wore their style of clothing, a long-sleeved dress that seemed like one thread in four was scarlet, azure, or emerald. On the desk before her lay an abacus, a slate, some chalk, and five little cups of pebbles with another, larger bag of pebbles nearby. Her fingers and wrists were smudged with chalk.

“Your Highness,” I said and walked in.

“Don’t hassle the woman,” said Satre to Lemrai, who had followed me, hunched forward like he was a vulture waiting for me to croak. He had terrible posture.

Satre continued speaking to me, “Show us the documents. You can put them on the desk there.”

I hadn’t even put my stuff somewhere, but with all three watching, I dropped the duffel, rooted around within to find a leather portfolio, and displayed the fruits of my labors. I’d gone through Bloodharvest for these, and I was absolutely sure I wasn’t going to let them out of my sight. The options were ten sheets of vellum, written in silver ink, and embossed with royal seals of Manari, one of nine Immaculate Dynasties of Elvenhome. Those sheets of paper were almost everything I had and meant many things. They meant a fairly horrible job completed. They meant a fortune. They meant I could have not gone through a horrible job if I hadn’t wasted all my money the first time, and they were going to mean I wouldn’t waste a fortune again.

Lemrai snatched one option and read it greedily. Satre shut the door behind us and stood against it, and the Baroness reached for another option. She glanced at me before touching it.

“Go ahead. They’re real.” I beckoned her forward.

She picked it up and took another sheet of paper out of a hidden place behind her desk. She compared the two. That document was thick, bleached-white parchment covered in precise, small script. I’d bet a fortune it had come from a Celephian wind-house.

Actually no, I wouldn’t, because I wasn’t going to waste any more money. Be smart. Smart.

The two of them perused the documents until the baroness put hers down. Then Lemrai compared that one to the rest, but finally he was done too.

Baroness Alyssa said, “They look valid to me. Mons. Trui?”

He grumbled first, before saying, “Yes, I’ll accept. I do want to confirm directly with Gesphain though.”

“Our windcallers,” Satre said behind us.

Alyssa said to Trui, “I think that’s fair, but I doubt she’ll let them out of her sight until you pay her. Would you like us to wait?”

Lemrai didn’t want those options out of his sight, but neither did I. He wasn’t happy about that. Finally he conceded to finish the sale now. His hands twitched every time he put one of the options down.

That was that. Alyssa let me examine her scale before weighed each of Trui’s one hundred and twenty six marks. She was precise, neither quick nor slow. After Trui’s money balanced, he took the documents, Trui and I signed a bill of sale, and Satre sealed the contract with his signet ring and the fire. Alyssa had stacked my coinage beside a wooden box, and perhaps to distract me from Satre’s action, she had me count the coin-stacks, again, and place them in a long wooden box she packed with straw. By then Trui had scuttled out, and she sealed the box with more traditional wax.

“Would you like to carry it out of here?” she asked. “We can have it delivered to the Gesphains for you, if you’d prefer.”

“Is there a fee for that?” I asked.

“No. I quite like to know where this much gold is going inside my city, so I’m happy to help in exchange for a little information.”

“What information?” I asked.

The baroness smiled. “How did you get options for ten shipfuls of winter wheat from the elves? You’re not a wheat merchant.”

“The stars!” I replied. I shoulda given her jazz-hands, but I didn’t think of it in time.

“Please continue,” she answered, and they had me over a barrel.

One hundred and twenty six marks weigh sixty three pounds. We had just weighed them. I wasn’t carrying that little box out of here.

“Can I get something to drink first?” I asked, and that’s how we got to now.