City of Bones
Tor, June 1995.
Tor, June 1996.
Trade paperback and eBook: December 2007.
Cover by Richard Bober.
Charisat is a city at the Fringe of the Waste, a rocky and treacherous area of desolation formed more than a thousand years ago when a mysterious holocaust drained the sea and destroyed the flourishing civilization of the Ancients. It is a city which survives by trade, and its most valuable merchandise is relics, artifacts from the remains of the Ancient city that once occupied Charisat's present location. Relics are priceless, and in a city where living space is at a premium and water is a scarce and valuable commodity, they are dangerous to own.
Khat, a member of a humanoid race created by the Ancients to survive in the Waste, and Sagai, his human partner, are relic dealers working on the edge of society, trying to stay one step ahead of the Trade Inspectors and to support Sagai's family. When Khat is hired to find relics believed to be part of one of the Ancients' arcane engines, they are both reluctant to become involved. But the request comes from the Warders, powerful mages who serve Charisat's Elector. Khat soon discovers that the deadly politics of Charisat's upper tiers aren't the only danger. The relics the Warders want are the key to an Ancient magic of unknown power, and, as all the inhabitants of Charisat know, no one understands the Ancients' magic.
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Audiobook: Tantor Audio, narrated by Kyle McCarley
Somewhere else, in a room shadowed by age and death,
a man readies himself to look into the future for what may
be the last time.
The day was long and Khat was bored with bargaining.
He leaned on one pole of the awning and looked out into
the dusty street, ignoring Arnot's Wife who was examining
their find as if she had never seen the like before and
never wanted to again.
"Two days, no more," Arnot's Wife finally said,
mopping the sweat from her brow with a corner of her scarf
and feigning disinterest.
Khat shook his head, irritated at this display of
deliberate ignorance. His partner Sagai raised an eyebrow
in eloquent comment and said, "The lady has a mischievous
sense of humor, and Arnot is an honorable man. One
Khat smiled to himself and thought, the lady is a
thief and Arnot is a rat's ass. More dust rose in the
narrow street outside as pushcarts trundled by, piled high
with wares destined for markets on the upper tiers. The
sun had started its downward progress into late afternoon,
leaving the high canyon of the street outside Arnot's shop
in shadow. The heat was still stifling under the patched
awning and must be far worse in the shop's cave-like
interior, dug out of the black rock of the city's
backbone, where Arnot himself sat on his money chest and
listened to his wife bargain.
The man in the shadowed room cups the fragments of
bone in one hand. They are only a focus, because the
power to see beyond time is inside his thoughts and his
blood and his living bones, not in the dead matter in his
The woman's laughter was a humorless bark. She said,
"Nothing is worth that."
The article in question lay atop a stool, wrapped in
soft cloth. It was a square piece of glazed terracotta
floor tile, made particularly valuable by the depiction of
a web-footed bird swimming in a pool filled with strange
floating flowers. The colors were soft half-tones, the
purplish-brown of the bird's plumage, the blue-green color
of the pond, the cream and faded yellow of the flowers.
The subject matter, a waterbird that hadn't lived since
the Fringe Cities rose from the dust, and the delicate
colors, impossible even for Charisat's skilled artisans to
duplicate, marked it as Ancient work, a relic of the lost
times more than a thousand years ago.
Piled all around under the awning were the rest of
Arnot's wares: serving tables with faience decoration,
ornamental clocks, alabaster vessels, tiny decorative
boxes of valuable wood, and junk jewelry of beads, lapis,
turquoise and carnelian. There were few Ancient relics
out on display here; the quality would be inside, away
from the untutored eyes of casual buyers.
"We know what these tiles are fetching on the upper
tiers," Sagai said with reproof. "Don't treat us like
fools, and our price will be more reasonable." He folded
his arms, ready to wait all day if necessary.
With an ironic lift of an eyebrow, Khat added, "We
only come to you first because we're such good friends of
There was a choking cough from within the shop's dark
interior; possibly Arnot about to launch into an attack of
apoplexy. Arnot's Wife bit her lip and studied them both.
Sagai was big and dark-skinned, the hair escaping from his
headcloth mostly gone to gray, his blue robe and mantle
somewhat frayed and shabby. He was despised as a
foreigner because he came from Kenniliar Free City, but
all the dealers knew he had been a trained scholar and had
studied the Ancients long before circumstances had forced
him to work in Charisat's relic trade. Sagai's features
were sensitive and right now his brown eyes were liquid
with humor at Arnot's Wife's predicament.
Khat was krismen, and even lower on Charisat's
social scale then Sagai, for he had been born deep in the
Waste. He was tall and leanly muscled, longish brown hair
touched by red, skin browned against the sun, and a
handsome face that he knew from experience was no help
with Arnot's Wife, who was just as much of a professional
as he and Sagai were.
But Khat could tell she was starting to weaken. He
pointed out more gently, "They're buying these on the
upper tiers like cheap water. You could turn it around in
the time it takes us to walk back to the Arcade."
"Or we can take our business elsewhere," Sagai added,
frowning thoughtfully as if he was already considering
which of Arnot's competitors to go to.
Arnot's Wife ran a hand through her stringy white
hair and sighed. "Twenty days."
"Forty," Sagai said immediately.
There was a growl from the shop's interior, a crack
and a sound of the shifting of massive bulk that seemed to
indicate Arnot himself was about to appear. Arnot's Wife
rolled her eyes and folded her arms over her tattered gray
The man closes his hand on the fragments of bone,
thinking of their former owner and how unwillingly he
parted with them.
Arnot appeared in the arched doorway, glared at the
two men under lowered brows, and advanced toward the tile.
As he reached for it, Khat said, "By the edges."
Arnot regarded him a moment in silence. Legend said
krismen eye color changed according to mood. Khat's eyes
had lightened to gray-green. Dangerous. Arnot lifted the
tile gently by the edges, and turned it, so the light
filtering through the red awning caught the colors and
made them glow almost with life. The tiles were one of
the few relics that even the cleverest forgers hadn't the
skill to copy; before the rise of the Waste, that tile had
graced some Ancient's fountain court, and Arnot knew it.
The dealer considered, then set the tile gently down
again. He nodded approval to his wife, and she dug in the
leather pouch at her waist for tokens.
Something made Khat glance out into the street.
Three men watched them from the edge of the awning.
One wore the robes and concealing veil of a Patrician, and
the other two were dressed in the rough shirts and
protective leather leggings of wagon dock laborers. An
upper-tier Patrician down in the market quarters of the
Fifth Tier meant one thing -- Trade Inspector.
Arnot's Wife, caught in the act of passing over the
brass counters, each representing several days of
artisan's labor, froze and stared at the intruders, her
gray brows coming together in consternation. Sagai had
his hand out, Khat and Arnot were obviously giving their
countenance to the deal and the merchandise lay in plain
view on the stool.
It took them all several moments to remember that
there was nothing illegal about what they were doing.
Smiling, the man looks up at his companion across
the table and says, "It's an intriguing game, where one
player sees the board and the other is blindfolded."
"Yes," she replies. "But which player are we?"
Arnot nudged his wife, and she dropped the counters
into Sagai's palm. Sagai tucked them away inside his
robe, and exchanged a look with Khat. Their expressions
betrayed nothing; it would have been a mistake to show any
kind of fear.
Arnot took his wife's elbow and steered her toward
the door of the shop, a protective gesture Khat was
surprised to see from the cutthroat dealer. Arnot
growled, "We close early today."
Khat exchanged a look with Sagai to make sure they
were both thinking along the same lines, then stepped out
from under the awning. One of the dockworkers moved to
intercept him and said, "Are you Khat, the relic dealer
from the Sixth Tier?"
The man was smiling at him unpleasantly. He was big
for a lower-tier city-dweller and blond, his short-cropped
hair greasy with sweat and blown sand. The one who hung
back with the Patrician was short and stocky, wearing a
red headcloth. He carried an air gun slung casually over
one shoulder. The copper ball beneath the stock that was
the gun's air reservoir had been recently polished, and
the skeleton butt had shiny brass fittings.
Khat didn't answer and Sagai shouldered his way
gently past the dockworker before the man could react,
saying, "Excuse us, gentlemen."
Khat followed Sagai up the narrow canyon of the
street. Walls of black rock and mud-brick rose up on
either side of them, with narrow doorways on the lower
levels and shallow balconies and windows on the upper,
some with cheap tin shutters painted with desert flowers
or luck signs. Clothes hung out to air festooned some of
the upper floors, and sewer stink was suspended in the
still, hot air. The three men followed them, though not
fast enough to be actually chasing them, and the rifle-
wielder did nothing overtly threatening. Sagai muttered,
"And the day was going so well, too."
Trade Inspectors would never have let them walk away.
But Khat and Sagai had no Patrician clients and no reason
to expect any, with rifle-wielding guards or without.
"'Was' is right," Khat answered, irritated. Their
pursuers were still too close for them to dodge down any
The street widened into an open court, where a
fountain carved into the shape of an upended tortoise
shell played and the sewer stink was not quite so bad.
There was still no opportunity to bolt. Grim now, Sagai
said, "They know your name, obviously. They may know
where we live. We'll have to talk to them."
Khat couldn't think of a better idea, so he took a
seat on the fountain's wide edge to wait for their
pursuers to catch up, and Sagai rested one sandaled foot
next to him.
Women in light-colored kaftans filled jugs and
buckets at the fountain and lingered to talk, old men sat
on the stone balconies above them and smoked clay pipes, a
shrieking gang of children tore by, scattering a peddler's
collection of baskets and stampeding some stray goats. An
old woman sat on a faded red rug near the fountain,
telling fortunes by burning fragments of bone in a
brazier. The old man who kept the fountain casually
strolled toward them and shook his clay bowl of coins and
tokens suggestively, reminding them to pay before using
The Patrician and the hireling with the rifle stopped
several paces away, the blond man coming nearer to
confront them. Khat lounged at ease on the fountain rim,
and Sagai regarded the man's approach with polite
interest. None of the other inhabitants of the court fled
at the sight of the possible altercation, but the women
who had not been disturbed by Khat and Sagai's presence at
the fountain found reasons to move on, and the water-
keeper retreated across the court.
The rifle's odd, Khat decided. It was an upper-
tier weapon, used by lictors assigned to court officials
or paid vigils. Even bonetakers and cut-throat-thieves
could only afford to carry knives. Presumably the
Patrician could have hired the dockworkers and given them
the weapon to defend him, but it was hard to believe he
would be quite that trusting. It was more likely that the
pair were private vigils as much accustomed to the upper
tier as their master. And who are they protecting him
from? he wondered. The septuagenarian fountain-keeper
maybe, or the beggar woman telling fortunes? This was
only the Fifth Tier, not the Eighth. Still smiling, the
blond man spoke to Khat, "I'm Kythen Seul, and I know who
On the table is an iron bowl half-filled with hot
coals. The bones will be burned there as the man looks
past the slow turning of time. He does not know the
reason for this except that a symbolic death by fire seems
to aid the process.
- His companion watches.
Well, Khat hadn't tried to hide it. He said, "Then
why did you ask?" He felt his theory was confirmed. Seul
spoke Tradetongue too well for a dockworker. Khat looked
over at the Patrician, who seemed to have a slight build
under all that heavy cloth. His inner robes were rough
silk without beadwork or embroidery, the outer mantle of
tougher cotton, and the long gauze veil was wound around
his head and over the lower half of his face. Not
ostentatious, unless you considered how far such materials
had to be ported across the Waste to reach the Charisat
markets. Khat wore a light shirt over tight trousers and
soft leather boots, with his robe folded back and tied off
around his waist, and to anyone accustomed to the robes
and heavy veiling affected by Charisat's upper-tier
nobility, this was practically undressed. The krismen
needed less protection from the sun than he did relief
from the heat; it was cooler out on the Waste than it was
on the black stone of Charisat's streets in the afternoon.
Seul displayed his tolerance of uppity krismen by
ignoring the question. He glanced pointedly at Sagai and
said, "Your friend can go."
"Oh, but we have business still to do together,"
Sagai said, as if he thought it suggestion rather than
command. "I prefer to stay."
Seul's eyes hardened, but the smile didn't disappear.
Khat was beginning to seriously dislike that smile. Seul
inclined his head back toward the Patrician, and said,
"The Honored needs a knowledgeable guide to take him to
the Ancient Remnant on the Tersalten Flat."
Sagai frowned. "The one to the west?"
Khat had done this before, but usually for scholars
from some other city or the Academia, and he didn't feel
accommodating today. "If you already know where it is," he
said patiently, but with the patience usually reserved for
a child. "Why do you need a guide?"
"I don't need a guide." Seul's voice took on a testy
edge. "I prefer one."
"And you want me to suggest someone?" Khat looked
mildly confused. As a way to drive someone wild he had
found this was second to few, especially when what the
person was trying to tell you was as plain as daylight.
"No, I want you."
Khat smiled at back at him for the first time, a
particularly krismen expression that revealed pointed
canines and had an unequivocal meaning. "The whorehouse
is down that way." Out of the corner of his eye he saw
Sagai glance briefly skyward, as if asking the air spirits
to witness what he had to deal with on a daily basis. His
partner had also unobtrusively rested a hand on the knife
hilt concealed by a fold of his robe.
Seul's smile came close to evaporating, but he only
said, "He doesn't ask for free service. He intends to
Before Khat could answer, Sagai interposed, "Might
one ask why?"
"He's curious." The smile was back with renewed
strength. "He's a student of the past."
The man drops the bones into the glowing coals in
the iron bowl, and they yellow then blacken as the heat
takes them, and thin veins of smoke rise into the still
air of the time-darkened room.
"Not the future?" Khat asked, and then wondered why.
The old woman hadn't moved from her rug near the fountain,
where she muttered to herself and burned bone chips to
look into the future. Perhaps he had been thinking of
Amazingly, Seul stopped smiling. "The reason isn't
important. He'll pay ten gold reals."
Khat heard Sagai's snort of disgust. He said, "Is
this a joke?"
The man's eyes shifted from the krismen to Sagai and
back. "It's a fair price."
"It's more than fair," Khat agreed. "But I'm kris.
I can't get a trade license to own Imperial-minted coins."
In Charisat and most of the other Fringe Cities,
citizenship had to be bought, and noncitizens couldn't own
or handle minted coins, unless they bought a special
license to do so, which was almost as expensive as
citizenship itself -- and sometimes not worth the trouble,
since Trade Inspectors paid special notice to sales made
with minted coins. Trade tokens were a holdover from the
old days of barter, and worthless without the authority of
the merchants or institutions who stamped them. If a city
became too crowded and faced a water or grain shortage, it
could always declare all trade tokens void, forcing
noncitizens to leave or starve in the streets.
It was somewhat better than the early days after the
Waste had formed, when the Survivors had struggled for
food and safety on the ruins of the Ancients' cities,
killing any outsiders who tried to encroach on their water
sources, but to Khat's mind not much better. Foreigners,
even foreigners from other Fringe Cities, were still
viewed with suspicion, and if you were poor you stood
little chance of ever amassing enough trade tokens to buy
citizenship. Or if you were krismen, and were simply not
permitted to buy citizenship or special trade licenses.
"I meant the equivalent in trade tokens," Seul said.
Khat glanced at Sagai, who shook his head minutely.
Khat looked back at Seul and said, "All right. I'll guide
Seul nodded, his hard eyes expressionless. Perhaps
he was surprised to come to an agreement so easily. "I
know where you live. One of us will meet you there at
sunrise." He turned back to the Patrician, spoke with him
a moment, then all three retreated up the street.
Watching them go, Sagai sighed. He said, "So you've
gotten yourself hired for some uncertain and suspicious
purpose by an upper-tier relic dilettante. You have some
clever way out of this, I assume?"
As Khat stood, the beggar woman caught the hem of his
robe and said, "Tell your fortune, pretty?" By the cloudy
film over her eyes she was nearly blind. He dug
distractedly in a pocket for a half-bit trade token and
dropped it onto her frayed carpet, and told Sagai, "He
knows who I am, where we live. How can I refuse?"
The woman took more bone fragments from a stained
cloth bag and rubbed them between her palms, preparing to
drop them into her brazier. Some fortune tellers
unscrupulously used rat or lizard bone. Most bought what
were supposed to be the bones of executed murderers or
stillborn babies from the dealers on the Seventh tier, but
those were more often from murder victims, killed by the
dealers' own bonetakers. Purists in the trade believed
that only krismen bones gave a true casting of the future,
and, being one of the few kris in Charisat, Khat
occasionally had difficulty keeping his intact.
Sagai was capable of infinite patience. It was one
of the reasons he and Khat got along together so well.
Finally, Khat met his friend's skeptical eyes and said,
"He wants to go there for a reason. Maybe he knows
something I don't."
"Betrayal," the beggar woman whispered, startling
them both. She was holding her hands in the wisps of
smoke rising from the coals, the burning bones. "Betrayal
of you, betrayal by you."
In the death-shadowed room the coals have already
cooled, and the bones are ash.
* * *
Sagai was still registering disapproval when they
reached their own court down on the Sixth Tier. It was
ramshackle and poor, and its fountain was only a small
basin up against one wall, but the clay-coated tin
shutters on all the second and third story windows glowed
with Sagai's colorfully painted designs, and some of the
neighbors lounging around the court greeted them
Their house, consisting of three rooms set one atop
the other and a fair share of rooftop, had been owned for
a time only by the widow Netta and her two children.
Netta was well able to take care of her own affairs, but a
large family of cap-makers from the next court had taken a
fancy to the house, as well as to Netta's daughter, and
had continually tried to force the widow out. She had
taken in a pair of young street entertainers to help her
hold onto her property, but the struggle to keep the cap-
makers out went on so long they had little time to
practice their own livelihoods. It was not until Khat and
Sagai, and Sagai's wife Miram, had moved in that the cap-
makers had chosen discretion as the better part of valor.
Netta had boasted that all the two relic dealers had had
to do was sit out on the front stoop and all enemies had
fled. Khat and Sagai hadn't told her that they had also
gone to the cap-makers' house late one night and beaten
the libido out of the three eldest brothers.
The other neighbors in the court were mostly street
entertainers or peddlers who worked the fringes of the
garden market, and it was a good arrangement, with no
other relic dealers nearby to generate competition or
"He could still be a Trade Inspector trying to trap
you somehow," Sagai argued as they crossed the court.
"That Seul fellow did offer you coin."
"Then I'll be honest," Khat answered, reaching into
the doorhole to pop the latch. "I'm always honest."
Sagai snorted. "No, you think you're always honest,
and that is not the same thing at all."
This side of the court had been in shadow as the sun
moved behind the bulk of the city, and the room would have
been almost cool except for the press of bodies. The
floor was covered with children of various ages: Netta's
youngest, barely able to walk, Sagai and Miram's three
small daughters, and the baby boy which Sagai had vowed
would be the last child born to them in Charisat. Libra
and Senace, two young men who did a juggling act in the
market, were sprawled on the faded matting, counting the
copper bits they had been tossed that day. Copper could
be weighed and exchanged for Trade Tokens, another way
noncitizens could get around the Coin Laws.
The widow Netta sat on the narrow bench carved out of
the wall, fanning herself and Miram, who was at the low
table separating a tray of colored beads into individual
glass bottles. The two youngest children were helping her
in this task by struggling for possession of her lap.
When Miram and Netta could afford to buy the metal thread
they needed, they made jewelry from the supply of beads
Miram had managed to bring with her from Kenniliar, and
sold the product to one of their neighbors who kept a
Miram looked tired and frazzled from the children,
but still smiled up at them as they came in. "Well, are
we wealthy yet?" Though Miram hadn't made a serious study
of the Ancients, she had picked up an interest in the
subject from Sagai. Her education hadn't been nearly so
extensive, but her ability to read and write Tradetongue
occasionally let her do a lucrative business in reading
legal documents and writing letters for their neighbors.
"No, but we're comfortable, at least for today."
Sagai said, and put the result of their day's trading on
the table for the others to look at. There was a small
box etched with floral designs and made of mythenin, a
hard silvery Ancient metal that made up most of the relics
found intact. There were also some pieces of smooth stone
of a rich blue-green color in round settings of the same
metal, that might have been anything from jewelry to
pieces in some forgotten game. Charisat's metalworkers
and gemstone-cutters were acknowledged as the best across
the Fringe and down to the cities of the Last Sea, but
even they still couldn't manipulate liquid metal like the
Khat settled on the seat next to Netta. Water jugs
filled most of the cubbies and pegs pounded into the clay-
smoothed walls held the few copper cooking implements
Netta owned, and the oil mill and grain grinder every
household needed. The position of honor on the only shelf
was taken by her grandmother's copper tea decanter.
Sagai was telling the others about their adventure.
"That's worrisome," Miram said, with a critical
glance at Khat. "To go into the Waste when you don't know
what this person wants." She was younger than Sagai, and
had come from a well-to-do family in Kenniliar who had not
entirely approved her choice of a learned but poor
husband. When Sagai had decided to come to Charisat, he
had tried to convince her to stay behind until he returned
with his fortune, or at least enough coin to buy himself a
place in the Kenniliar Scholars' Guild. She hadn't taken
the suggestion well at all. She didn't like Charisat, but
she preferred it to living with her disapproving family in
Kenniliar, and wondering every day if her husband was
alive or dead.
"In the Waste, that Patrician is helpless," Khat
pointed out. Miram didn't entirely approve of Sagai
working the relic trade because she thought it was
dangerous. Khat couldn't argue that point with her; she
was perfectly right, it was dangerous. She didn't
entirely approve of Khat sometimes, either, and he had to
agree with her on that score, too. "I can walk out of it
alive and he can't, guards or no guards."
"His guards could shoot you," Netta pointed out
helpfully. "They don't carry a gun for their own
Khat didn't answer. He knew that drawing the
attention of an upper-tier citizen was not a particularly
good thing, but the last thing he wanted to do was tell
them his reason for accepting the commission.
The door flew open suddenly and their neighbor Ris
stood there, panting. The painfully thin, dark-haired boy
had obviously been running. After a moment he managed to
say, "Lushan's looking for you, Khat."
"Since when?" Everyone was listening with interest,
but Khat had given up privacy the day he had left the
Waste for the Fringe Cities.
Ris collapsed on the floor and pulled the crawling
baby into his lap to tickle. "Not long after noon. I
heard it from one of the fire-eaters outside the Odeon."
Netta got up to rescue the squealing child from him.
"Outside the theater? I should tell your aunt."
"She knows," the boy retorted. Ris and his family
lived in the next house over, and his father was a street
entertainer who performed in the Garden Market. Last year
a pair of drunken slummers had smashed his harmonium and
therefore his livelihood. After some time, Khat had been
able to repair the instrument, replacing all the fiddly
bits of metal and wire by trial and error, and Sagai had
polished off the job by painting the case with delicate
scrollwork. Since then, Ris had carried messages and run
errands for them.
"Lushan again?" Sagai said, frowning. "What can that
misbegotten creature want?"
Khat leaned back against the wall and managed to look
unconcerned by the news. "I'll go see him later. He
could have some deals to throw our way."
"And why should he favor us?" Sagai objected, but
the baby was hauling itself up on the hem of his robe,
distracting him. Pulling it into his lap, he still added,
"I don't trust him. But then, you can't trust anyone in
Khat wished his partner hadn't phrased it quite that
* * *
Later Khat strolled down the theater street on the
Fourth Tier, enjoying the retreat of the day's heat and
the long twilight. Colonnades paved with colored tile
sheltered peddlers and gave entrance to the shops, and the
street was crowded with folk in search of an evening's
entertainment. It was growing dark, and lamps enclosed in
perforated bronze pots were being lit above the doors of
the wealthier establishments of the goldsmiths, lapidary,
bakers, ironsmiths, and wineshops. Many of the lamps were
inset with red-tinted glass, making the available light
murky indeed, but hostile ghosts and air spirits were
supposed to avoid red light. Gamblers hawking for games
and especially fortune tellers squatted outside the doors
haloed by the muddy blood lights, for security as much as
for a way to see what they were doing.
Knowing he still had some time to kill, Khat bought a
flower-shaped dumpling from a stall and sat on the steps
of the Odeon, near the prostitutes who were working the
theater crowd. The ebb and flow of the mass of people in
the street held endless fascination.
There were robed and veiled Patrician men, Patrician
women with their faces unveiled but their hair hidden
under flowing silk scarves or close-fitting cloisonne
caps, all with servants trailing them. Litters draped
with silks and lighter gauzes carried Patricians too
exalted to even walk among the throng.
The crowd from the lower tiers was less colorful but
more active, some turning to climb the steps to the
pillared entrance of the vast theater at Khat's back, or
continuing down the street to the wineshops and
foodstalls, and the ghost-callers, fakirs, and clowns
performing in the open air forums. There were wide-eyed
visitors from other Fringe Cities and the ports of the
Last Sea, babbling to each other in the different dialects
of Menian and to everyone else in pidgin Tradetongue.
There was a shout, and one of the foreigners fought
his way out of the crowd, dragging a struggling boy.
Caught a thief, Khat thought. Then a group of men
dressed in the dull red robes of Trade Inspectors poured
out of a nearby shop and surrounded the pair. One of them
held up what looked like a piece of scrap mythenin, and
the boy began to yell denials. No, caught an idiot
trying to bypass the dealers and sell a relic for coin.
Khat sighed and looked away. From the boy's threadbare
robe and bare feet he doubted he was a citizen. Soon to
be a dead idiot.
The boy was a fool to be caught by such a common
trick. Everyone knew that Trade Inspectors disguised
themselves as foreigners and tried to buy illegal relics,
or offered Imperial-minted coins to dealers who did not
possess the right licenses. Sagai's notion that the
Patrician who had approached them was a disguised Trade
Inspector wasn't just an idle suspicion.
As the others hauled their captive off, one of the
Trade Inspectors stayed to scan the crowd on the steps,
searching for possible accomplices or just anyone foolish
enough to look guilty. Khat didn't betray any reaction
besides idle curiosity, and the man turned to follow his
colleagues. You couldn't be too careful, even though at
the moment Khat hadn't anything as incriminating as a
pottery fragment on him. The Trade Inspectors took
special notice of merchants or relic dealers who were not
citizens, and Khat didn't have the option of becoming one,
even if he could raise the fee.
Tradition said the Ancients had made the kris to live
in the Waste because they feared it would spread to the
end of the world. Khat's people were born with immunities
to desert poisons, with the ability to sense the direction
of true north on a landscape where it was death to lose
your way, and pouches to carry babies, when humans were
forced to give birth live in mess and inconvenience. But
the Ancients were dead and their plans hadn't come to
fruition. The Waste had taken much of the world, but it
had stopped before the Last Sea and left the coast
untouched. The kris were forced into the deep Waste, and
the people of the Fringe Cities, especially the Imperial
Seat Charisat, plainly did not want them inside their
More lamps were lit above the Odeon's doors as the
natural light died, and one of the men prostitutes gently
suggested that if Khat wasn't going to buy anybody he
should get the hell out of here. Khat left without
argument; it was dark enough now.
The great hall of the theater was huge and round, the
dome ceiling high overhead a vast mosaic of some past
elector ascending to the throne. The stage was circular
and in the center of the hall, with the audience a noisy
flowing mob around it. Wicker couches and chairs were
scattered about, and the tile floor was littered with
rotting food and broken glass. The air was stifling,
despite the long narrow windows just below the dome that
were supposed to vent the heat. The farce being performed
was an old familiar one, which was just as well because
most of the audience were here to talk and throw things at
As an added distraction a fakir was performing in the
crowd. He was young for the trade, but had managed to
extend a rope nearly twenty feet straight up before
beginning his climb.
Khat fought his way around the edge of the crowd,
then was hailed by a loud group of rival relic dealers.
"We heard about that little trinket you and Sagai sold
Arnot today. Any more where it came from?" Danil asked.
She was a lean, predatory woman who sold relics on the
Fourth Tier. Her eyes were artificially widened with
powders of malachite and galena.
Khat leaned on the back of her chair and said,
"Traded, traded to Arnot. It wouldn't be legal for me to
participate in a sale."
Some of the men wore upper-tier veils, but of much
cheaper gauze than real Patricians. Most were already
drunk and one laughed so hard at this that he rolled off
Danil's seductive smile became strained. She didn't
enjoy the others interrupting her probing. "Why are you
here tonight?" she asked, a little too sharply. "Another
She was too far off the mark for Khat to worry. He
grinned down at her. "Just came to see the show, love."
He left them laughing at one another's jokes and made
his way to the back wall, where an alcove hid a spiral
stair used to reach the private balconies. At the top
there was a service passage inside the wall, which gave
the private servants and those the theater employed access
to the balconies without venturing out on the open gallery
reserved for the wealthy patrons.
The passage was cramped and lit by oil lamps, which
stunk and made it hot. Khat passed a variety of people on
various errands, none of whom paid him any attention.
This corridor was used by many who wanted their business
kept inconspicuous. He found Lushan's balcony without
difficulty, since there were two private vigils armed with
iron-tipped staves standing outside its servants' door.
They let him in without a word.
The round balcony was protected by a high copper-mesh
screen, and the noise of the crowd rose up around it. The
floor was covered by woven matting dyed brilliant colors,
and a clockwork-driven fan moved back and forth on an
ornate metal rack overhead, stirring the sluggish air and
the incense that was thick enough to drown in. Lushan lay
on a low couch, a servant girl wearing a plain undyed
kaftan in kneeling attendance on him. He had thin light
hair, and was dressed in a gold-embroidered mantle of dark
blue that didn't hide his impressive corpulence. One of
his eyes was small, alert, and greedy, the other was
unfocused, staring at nothing in particular. He never
wore a veil around his servants and he never wore it in
meetings with Khat. It was not a good sign.
Watching him thoughtfully, Lushan took a cup of
delicately painted translucent ceramic from the wineset on
a low alabaster table and said, "You came promptly for
once, my boy. I hadn't thought you had much sense of the
passage of time."
"I didn't come for your job. You know I don't do
that anymore." Khat leaned back against the wall beside
the door, because Lushan would go gormless if he touched
anything anyway and, though he liked heights, the place
gave him the unpleasant sensation of hanging in a cage
over a great unfriendly mass of people. "I've got the
coin you think I owe you."
Lushan's mouth set in a thin line. He put the
delicate cup down on the table with an audible click.
Khat winced for its sake. People who had no concern for
beautiful things had no right to have them. "And how did
you manage that?"
"That's not your business, is it?"
The servant refilled the wine carafe and replaced it
on the table, carefully wiping it with a cloth to prevent
any sweat from her fingers being transferred to Lushan.
The upper-tier Patricians of Charisat were insane about
touching anyone in public, as insane as they were about
wearing veils or covering their hair or looking at theater
through a metal screen to prevent the lower-tier crowd
from accidently seeing them. This was particularly alien
to Khat, who had been a child in the kris Enclave on the
Waste where there was even less privacy than in the lower-
tier courts, and you could get a thick ear for refusing to
kiss the most wrinkled granny-matriarch. As if anyone in
their right mind wanted to get within touching distance of
Lushan. Khat had long known that while the wealthy
broker might have as much minted gold as a Patrician, he
hadn't been born one, and was only mimicking their
manners. Lushan was, after all was said and done, only a
thief with clean hands, whose special talent was getting
other people to dirty theirs for him.
"You are my business," Lushan said, his good eye cold
and contemptuous. "While I found the buyers for the
relics you . . . liberated from their current owners, it is
you the Trade Inspectors would be most interested in.
You've been very profitable to me in the past, and if you
think I'll let you go so easily . . ."
"You're good with threats and promises. Don't think
I haven't noticed." Khat let his eyes wander over the
dome's mosaic, the view much better here than on the floor
with the plebs. The border pieces were old, far older
than the center with its not-terribly-inspired rendition
of an elector's ascension, and were probably scavenged
from whatever structure had occupied this site before the
theater. Charisat and the other Fringe Cities were
depicted as islands in shallow freshwater seas, the way
they had been over a thousand years ago before the
Conquest of the Waste over the Land. The artist had
peopled the seas with strange and colorful swimming
creatures and dotted the mild blue skies with large
bladder-like air bags that carried passengers in baskets
slung beneath them. This section of the mosaic was
undoubtedly valuable. The discoloration around the cracks
told him it couldn't be removed from the wall without
destroying it, which was a pity.
"If you think I'll let you go so easily, you're much
mistaken," Lushan was saying. "If you don't continue with
your part of our arrangement, I'll have a conversation
with a certain Trade Inspector I know who will . . ."
"And when he hears about your part of our
arrangement?" Lushan hated to be interrupted, which was
why Khat did it so often.
"Foolish boy, why should he believe you?" Lushan's
smile was malice itself.
"He doesn't have to believe me. But he'll have to
believe the Patrician."
"The one I'm working for now." The lie grew,
blossomed. "He's inherited a collection of Ancient
relics, and I'm valuing it for him." When Khat had been
younger, it had taken some time to get used to the idea
that he could lie to city-dwellers while looking straight
at them, and the shifting color of his eyes would tell
them nothing. Now he didn't have that problem. "I told
him you wanted me to work for you, but he said . . ."
"What?" Lushan's voice grated.
"That I wouldn't have the time. I'd hate to have to
tell him different. You know how they are."
Lushan slammed the cup down on the table, cracking it
and spilling wine onto the matting. The servant girl
winced. "You will tell him nothing, you bastard kris."
There was no point in staying any longer. Khat
stepped over to the flimsy door in the copper screen.
"I'll send someone with the coin. It may be a few days.
I hope you don't need it to pay your bill here." The
second cup in the set came flying at him and he ducked out
A short flight of steps led up to the brass-railed
gallery running above the private balconies. The great
dome curved up overhead and below the milling crowd was
applauding the fakir, who had now climbed to the top of
his magically stiffened rope and was standing on his head,
supporting himself by one finger on the frayed end. Khat
ran along the gallery, ignoring outcries as he was spotted
by wealthy patrons in the other balconies below. He
reached the first vent, which was long and only a few feet
wide, starting about eight feet up the wall and ending
just before the base of the dome. Khat jumped and caught
the bottom of the sill, pulling himself up onto it.
The night air was wonderfully fresh after the heat
inside the theater. The flat roof spread out below him
and the rise of the Third Tier was behind him, blocked by
the height and breadth of the dome. There was a shout
behind him and he scrambled out of the vent and landed
down on the slate-flagged roof.
He crossed the wide expanse, sure-footed on the slick
surface, the warm wind pulling at his clothes and hair.
No one came after him. Lushan would not want to draw
attention to himself by sending his vigils, and the
theater owners would only care about getting the intruder
off the gallery and away from the private balconies; they
wouldn't be much concerned with how he left, as long as he
Khat reached the waist-high wall formed by the
uppermost portion of the theater's pediment and leaned on
it, enjoying a unique view of the street below, and
thought, I'm glad that's done. He had been an idiot to
get involved with Lushan in the first place, which Sagai
and the others would certainly point out to him if they
knew. But not knowing was the only protection for them,
if Khat had ever been caught stealing relics from the
It only remained to see if the mysterious Patrician
lived up to his part of the bargain. Or if I live
through it, Khat thought.
There was an agitated stirring in the massed folk
near the theater's steps, and after a moment Khat spotted
the cause. Three Warders moved up the street below,
cutting a path through the crowd, their brilliant white
robes and veiling reflecting the flickering lamp light and
drawing attention amid the bright colors of the rich and
muted tones of the poor. After Lushan, maybe, with an
Imperial order of execution, Khat thought hopefully, but
the trio passed the steps of the Odeon without pausing.
Warders were the special servants of Charisat's
Elector, protecting him from poisons and assassins and
destroying his enemies in the other Fringe Cities, but
they were anything but ordinary guards or spies. Rumor
said that if someone wanted to kill the Elector, the
Warders could pick the thought right out of his head.
They could cloud an onlooker's eyes to hide themselves
even when in plain sight, and make ordinary people see
things that weren't there. Khat was not entirely sure he
believed everything that was said about them, but he
considered them another one of Charisat's less endearing
Before the three Warders on the street below could
pass out of sight and out of mind, one of them suddenly
broke away from his companions.
Startled, Khat watched the rogue Warder rush wildly
across the street and seize a man out of the crowd. The
Warder shook the unfortunate despite his struggles and
screamed incoherently into his shocked face. The people
in the street milled in confusion, half trying to escape,
half trying to get closer. The Warder dragged his victim
toward the colonnade, slamming him up against a pillar,
his head striking the stone with a sharp crack that made
Khat wince in sympathy.
The other two Warders reached the rogue one and
wrestled him away from his captive, who slid limply to the
pavement. Then the mad Warder tore himself free, sending
one of his companions staggering.
He seemed to hesitate, standing as if paralyzed,
staring down at the man who lay helpless in the street
while the other Warder tried ineffectually to pull him
away and the crowd stirred and muttered in fear. Then a
white light suffused the ground under the limp form and
the unconscious man's clothes were in flames.
Khat felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, as
screams echoed up from the street. The bystanders started
back in panic, and the other Warders managed to seize the
mad one again. They hauled him away despite his struggles
this time, and several figures below leapt forward to
smother the flames with their robes. Finally they were
able to lift the body and carry it out of the street.
For years, Khat had heard rumors of incidents like
this, but this was the first he had actually witnessed.
Everyone knew the Ancients' magic made people as mad as
sun-poisoned beggars, but the Warders practiced it despite
the inherent danger. The street fortune tellers,
ghostcallers, fakirs, and the kris shamen used only
natural magics, simples and healing and divination, and
even they sometimes went too far and ruined themselves;
the older powers that Warders played with were far more
deadly. Khat shook his head grimly and looked toward the
horizon, and the black still sea of the fringe rock in the
distance. And they think the Waste is dangerous.
end of chapter 1
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