City of Lies: New Excerpt
By Sam Hawke
Poison. Treachery. Ancient spirits. Sieges. The Poison Wars begin with City of Lies, a fabulous epic by Sam Hawke.
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me…
Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he’s a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.
But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising … and angry.
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.
He served me the toxin in his signature cheese stew. It gave me waves of stomach cramps and hallucinations of every horror my young mind could conjure, but left no lasting damage. I learned that day to trust nothing on my plate or in my cup, not even something prepared by my beloved uncle Etan, my Tashi, the most honored and trusted person in my world. Especially not him.
By ten, I could identify the ingredients in most dishes set before me, from the spicy baked fish served year-round in Sjona’s farms and estates, to the flat black bread cooked in clay ovens in every kitchen in the city, to the delicate cheese-and-honey pastries favored in the highest circles of society. I could detect any of the eleven greater poisons hidden in those dishes. Most by taste, some by smell, and one by its unique mouthfeel. I could also, should the need arise, use them myself.
Before his own Tashi died and my uncle Etan inherited his seat on the Council, he had trained as a cook—something of an oddity among the six Credol Families, but not unheard of. No one thought it amiss that he should instill in me the same dedication to the craft. Under his tutelage, foreign dishes and imported spices ceased to be an obstacle to my tongue or nose, and I learned all that had ever been written about the natural and crafted poisons of our land.
Over the next ten years, and hundreds of poisonings, Etan gave me many gifts: immunities, scars, an appreciation of our family’s honorable and secret role, and a memory and mind trained in our craft so I could one day protect the ruling family of Sjona as he did.
As he lay dying before me, none of it seemed enough.
* * *
A well-trained memory is a fine thing, an essential skill for learning and of critical importance to a proofer. Today mine, once a source of pride, revealed itself as a useless trick. I could recall the whole day, an unwilling audience to my own play, but what good could I do, reliving a day of mistakes and inaction? I had gone over it again and again, and still I did not see our enemy. Over and over, I did not save my uncle.
We had sailed home only yesterday morning, not knowing it for the last day of our old lives, smuggled like thieves in the back of a fat little transport ship bringing wood from the Talafan Empire south to the capital. Tain Caslavtash Iliri, the Chancellor’s nephew and heir, future ruler of the country and equal parts my dearest friend, solemnest duty, and pain in my rear, nursed a sore head with infuriating good humor. I nursed a bad temper and a dose of relief. Several days earlier than planned, Tain’s retinue abandoned long behind us in the northern border city, we had both hoped to slip back into Silasta without remark.
A month of meetings and social engagements had left me exhausted and irritable, longing for the familiar comfort of routine. In Silasta, I knew everyone who might interact with my charge, highborn or low, and what they stood to gain or lose. Or at least, so I had naively thought. But in Telasa I had been forced to rely on my judgment alone in assessing new threats and challenges. Who might be tempted to dose the Heir’s kavcha with beetle-eye to fuel careless tongues, or bake hazelnode into his bread to cause a stomachache and absence from a key event?
The boat passed under the north river gate and through familiar white walls, breaking the force of the wind and bathing us in the emerging smells and sounds of our city. While the captain handed over weapons and negotiated passage in a confusing jumble of broken Sjon, Talafan, and simple Trade, I nudged my friend from a doze. He came alert and stood without apparent stiffness. No matter how luxurious his ordinary accommodations, Tain could relax in the most awkward of places. “That didn’t take too long,” he said cheerfully.
I rolled my eyes as I gathered the last of our belongings. “Sure, for someone who slept through most of it, and spent the rest drinking with the crew.” He’d loved socializing with men and women who couldn’t read our tattoos and thought us merely wealthy wastrels from the capital. I had to admit I’d also enjoyed the anonymity and the break from worrying about anything untoward in his cups.
He turned his easy grin on me. “Practicing diplomacy, my friend.”
On deck, we leaned over the rail as the boat negotiated the channel through the marshy north end of the Bright Lake, enjoying the sun’s warmth. The fierce breath of the Maiso had kept us mostly belowdecks on the trip, but Sjona’s harsh winds couldn’t penetrate the walls of the city. I felt comfortable for the first time in weeks.
The magnificent arch of Trickster’s Bridge loomed before us, a grand window into Silasta, the Bright City, with its white stone brilliant against the late summer sky. To the east, domed roofs and zigzag streets rose from the bank, a pale honeycomb against the slope of Solemn Peak. On the western shore, a merry jumble of boats, foreign and local, spilled traders and visitors of all descriptions out to the docks of the sprawling, industrious lower city. Yellow-sashed officials from the River Guild weaved through the crowds. Blackwing gulls swooped unwary workers unloading barges, and their shrill squawks mingled with the distant hoot of oku being unloaded from a barge and the lively orchestra of commerce. It felt like waking from an uneasy dream as we passed under Trickster’s and back into our reality.
We paid our host and joined the mixed and colorful soup of merchants, workers, and tourists moving from the docks into the lower city. Silasta’s younger and less cultivated side was three times the size of its older sibling, a hodgepodge of industry, trade, and residences of varying levels of respectability. The smell of a dozen different spices and frying oils assailed us. Tiny canopied stalls were wedged between elegant old teahouses and subtle gambling dens, and hawkers melted in and out of the shadows with cunning spreads of goods ready to fold up and disappear at the first sign of a Guild official. By the nearest canal, a swaying tourist bickered with a preacher kneeling by an earther shrine crafted of rock and bird bones.
I longed for the peace and space of our family apartments, a pot of proper Oromani tea, and the calming presence of my uncle and sister. “I’ll call us a ride.” I caught the prowling gaze of a litter carrier, but Tain interrupted.
“What’s going on there?”
I followed his gesture. The confrontation between the drunk and the street preacher had escalated. The foreigner had a hold on the earther’s wrist and was shaking his arm, shouting, while the smaller man clutched prayer charms around his neck and half-sung, half-moaned some kind of chant. “It’s a bit early for that, isn’t it?” I muttered. Our local merchants should have known better than to sell kori to a tourist at this time of day. Though from the look of him, he’d perhaps been out all night. He wore a crumpled jacket and wide trousers in a fabric too heavy for our climate, and an air of belligerence far stronger than the smell of alcohol and gaming house smokes.
Tain moved closer and I caught his arm. “Leave it to the Order Guards.” I looked through the crowd in vain; no red-and-blue striped uniform in sight. “Or a Guild official.”
The drunkard had taken offense at the preacher’s rantings and his accented Trade tongue grew to a roar. “—eh, eh, I’m talking to you, bloody street scum! Look at me when I talk to you!” He kicked out roughly at the shrine, toppling one of the balanced piles of stone.
The preacher, who until then had been avoiding eye contact and allowing his arm to be shaken like a loose streamer on a festival day, stopped his warbling chant and snapped his gaze to the bigger man. He said something I didn’t catch, but whatever it was enraged the tourist. He reached into his billowing pants and the glint of a weapon flashed in the morning light. Someone shrieked and the surrounding crowd drew back from the altercation.
“Guard!” I yelled, but as I turned to usher the Heir back to safety, Tain lunged for the man’s knife hand. He grabbed the wrist two-handed and pivoted in a half turn back toward me. The drunkard dropped the preacher and fell backward with the pressure on his elbow and shoulder, and the knife clunked to the ground. “Lem—lemme go!” he bellowed, struggling as much with confusion as pain.
I cautiously shuffled in and kicked the blade out of reach. It was illegal to carry weapons in the city, but fools will be fools, and sometimes the confiscation process at the gates wasn’t as rigorous as it could be. Still no sign of an Order Guard. I edged closer to Tain. My duty was to protect him, but from hidden threats, not violent idiots in the streets. Why he had to make everyone’s duties harder was another matter. The crowd looked on in embarrassed fascination, and a few people had recognized Tain. “We should—” I started.
“Are you finished here?” Tain rested his own knee on the man’s bicep.
His arm released, the man rolled onto his side, shaking his wrist and moaning. Tain turned to the preacher, who was hastily restacking stones and muttering. “Are you all right?” He crouched beside him. “Can I help?”
“The spirits are displeased,” the man muttered, scowling without taking his eyes from the shrine. “This city is corrupt and the spirits are angry. We will be punished.” He shrugged Tain’s hand from his shoulder. “We will all be punished.”
“Let the Guilds handle this, please, Honored Heir,” I said. If hearing the title meant anything to the earther, he hid his reaction, continuing to reassemble his shrine and mutter dark warnings and curses. I sighed. Technically the man shouldn’t be bothering people by the harbor but usually earthers were no more than a mild annoyance. He’d probably cursed the foreigner for drunken behavior or otherwise offended him. Where were the Guards, though? On a busy trade morning the place should have been swarming with them as a deterrent. Silasta was a famously nonviolent city but the Order Guards were a necessary precaution to prevent escalation of any heated trade or tariff disputes, especially with an influx of foreign merchants and visitors who did not necessarily share our peaceful outlook.
I took Tain’s arm and pulled him to his feet, trying to steer him away. “Do I really need to tell you not to—” With a whoof the air was punched out of me as the foreigner plowed into us from the side, sending me to the ground and Tain scuttling back from the man’s tackle and crashing into a canopied stall selling fried glintbeetles. Bright beetles and paper cones crashed everywhere and the woman running the stall shouted in annoyance. By the time I’d regained my feet and my breath, Tain had scooped behind one of the man’s knees and with a kind of awkward shuffle-hop he overbalanced his opponent. The drunk fell into the leg of the stall with a loud curse in a language I didn’t recognize, almost toppling it entirely. Tain fell with him and the two scuffled and wrestled in the pile of spilled food.
I cursed under my breath and circled the pair, looking for a way to help. When the bigger man pinned my friend underneath him, I launched in and locked my arms around his neck. “This is not what I call a homecoming,” I panted as I tried to pull him off. Honor-down, it had been a long time since I’d had to do any martial training. Where were the bloody Order Guards?
The man released Tain and struck me in the solar plexus with his elbow. Winded, I loosened my grip and he pulled free, shaking me off like a bug. He roared, his intoxicated rage-presence making him seem at least twice our size, and swung a fist clumsily at Tain, who ducked it and delivered two short hard punches to the man’s stomach before dancing back out of reach. “He’s full of kori,” Tain said. “Hit him in the guts!”
I felt like giving my friend a whack instead when I saw the enjoyment sparkling in his eyes. I didn’t want to get anywhere near the man’s guts. Around us the crowd continued to scamper back out of the way. The spectacle was either making or ruining their morning, but no one seemed inclined to assist. I dodged a stray blow in my direction and as the man launched himself heavily at Tain again, his drunken focus on this new target of his rage, I chopped into his stomach as hard as I could with the side of my hand. “I just want a cup of tea,” I told him bitterly.
Tain actually laughed. He sidestepped the attack and hit the man one final time; with that last blow he folded in half like a deflating waterskin and sat on his backside by the canal with a sickening groan. “Get back,” Tain warned me, and we skittered out of range just in time to avoid the sudden torrent as the man’s overfull body gave up its contents.
And finally—finally—an Order Guard appeared at a run, errant hair springing out of her Warrior-Guild braid and a sheen of sweat on her brow. She pulled up to a stop and her terse expression melted into shock as she took in the participants. “Honored Heir! Credo! I—my apologies, there was an altercation with a herd of oku and some lutra at the south end of the pier, and … Honored Heir, are you all right?” She looked around us, presumably searching for the servants who should have been there preventing this sort of thing, but who were in fact days away down the river.
“We’re fine,” Tain assured her with a broad smile. “This fellow couldn’t handle his kori cups and was disturbing the poor gentleman by the shrine, there.”
“He had a knife,” I said, and gestured to the area where I’d kicked it.
“No weapons in our city,” the Order Guard barked at the man by the canal, but he was still slumped over and heaving, so I doubted he heard. She looked anxiously at Tain again. “Again, my apologies for the delay, Honored Heir. We’ve limited staff at the moment.”
“Not your fault.” Tain, still all smiles, knelt and straightened the bent leg of the stall they’d crashed into, while I helped the merchant pick up her paper cones and sweep up the ruined beetles. Her earlier agitation forgotten now that she realized who we were, she tried to shoo us away.
“We’ll pay for the food,” I told her as I scooped up the last of the mess.
“No, Credo, that isn’t necessary, not necessary at all,” she said, but I pressed my family chit into the wax tablet on her now-wobbling tabletop with a weary glance at Tain.
“It was entirely our fault getting involved,” I said firmly.
Tain helped the Order Guard haul the big drunk to his feet. As if his stomach contents had been the source of his aggression, he slumped meekly on the spot and let the Guard fix his wrists behind his back with the wire-centered cord hanging from her tunic. “I’ll take him to the Guildhall with you,” Tain offered.
“Of course that’s not necessary, Honored Heir,” the Guard said, her tone anxious. “This’s been quite enough bother as it is.”
“Nonsense!” Tain beamed at her. “I wouldn’t mind a word with the Warrior-Guilder in any case.”
Like a room doused in sudden sunlight I finally recognized his idiotic behavior for what it was. It was very bad manners to roll one’s eyes at the second most powerful man in the country, so I settled for a sigh. A month or so downriver and I’d quite put out of my head my friend’s recent obsession with the Warrior Guild and, more importantly, its coarse, disreputable leader, Credola Aven.
He’d spent the better part of summer training with the Guild, much to the bafflement of his peers and the irritation of his uncle the Chancellor. Unlike them, I knew why. Aven was twenty years his senior and the leader of the least honored and respected of the Guilds, disinterested in art, music, or cultured discourse. Tain’s fascination was unfathomable, considering Silasta was full of interesting, talented women and men, beautiful and clever and contributing far more to civilization than someone whose main skill was the effective use of violence.
But the Guard deflated his hopes in any case. “The Warrior-Guilder’s not in the city, Honored Heir. She’s with the army out near Moncasta, fighting Doranites over the mines again. That’s why we’re low on bodies here.” She ducked her head, her discomfort obvious. “Please, allow me to deal with this. My apologies for your involvement.”
After she left, we rinsed our scraped hands and shins in the canal and Tain took my berating with good humor but no apology. “No one else was helping him,” he pointed out.
I frowned. “No, but that doesn’t mean—”
“Would you prefer the old man got stabbed?” He stood, distracted. “We should check on him. I think I offended him somehow.”
But several yellow-sashed Guild officials now moved about the area, directing the cleanup, and the preacher had long since disappeared either voluntarily or at their direction. It wasn’t illegal to preach the old religion, of course, but it was common to see earthers moved along for disturbing trade or obstructing traffic.
I checked the position of the sun. “We’d better head up. The Chancellor will probably hear about this soon enough.”
He gave me a mournful look. “Let’s walk, at least. Enjoy the last of the peace while we can.” I raised an eyebrow, unsure our morning could be described as peaceful anymore, but then he grinned. “We can have that cup of tea at least.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 Sam Hawke.