Riordan Cover Reveal and THREE Book Excerpts, Including the New Snicket!

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Lots of goodies out recently in the book world. We’ve got, count ’em, THREE different book excerpts, including one from Lemony Snicket’s newest book!

First up, Rick Riordan recently revealed the new cover for the next Heroes of Olympus books, The Mark of Athena. 

Riordan wrote about it on his blog, explaining the image to fans: “What is the scene on the cover? Is that who you think it is, about to fight??  Can’t tell you, but yes, that is an actual scene from the book, and the meaning will be clear when you read it. Very soon, Disney will be launching a new site, GreeksvsRomans.com, which will let you choose your side — Camp Half-Blood or Camp Jupiter. More on that soon!”

He also revealed that the first chapter of the book is now available on Disney’s Heroes of Olympus website.

The Mark of Athena is set to release October 2nd, 2012.

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Now, on with the excerpts.

The first chapter for Lemony Snicket’s upcoming novel All the Wrong Questions is an exclusive feature on EW.com. Click here to head on over and check it out.

The other two excerpts are in this post. To make getting to the second one (which is Black Bottle) easier, click on the title below and it will jump you to the excerpt, complete with a summary at the beginning. Enjoy!

Black Bottle by Anthony Huso

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Queen’s Hunt by Beth bernobich is the second book in her Rivers of Souls series, and is set to hit stores on July 17th. We have the first chapter below the description. What’s it about? Here’s the summary on amazon:

Queen’s Hunt is the second title in Beth Bernobich’s River of Souls novels, following her startling debut, Passion Play. Filled with dark magic and sensual images, this is fantasy writing at its best.

Ilse Zhalina has left to start a new life in a garrisoned fort, leagues from her estranged lover, Raul Kosenmark. The violent quarrel that ended Ilse and Raul’s relationship was quite public. And also, quite fake. They hope to mislead Kosenmark’s enemies so that he can continue to influence the politics of the kingdom in an attempt to stave off an ill-advised war, while keeping Ilse safe from royal assassins who would kill anyone Raul is close to. Ilse longs for Raul, but is set on her own quest to find one of the three fabled jewels of Lir. One of the jewels is held by King Dzavek, sworn enemy of Veraene, who has used the jewel’s power to live for centuries. Ilse seeks one of the other stones to counterbalance Dzavek’s efforts to destroy her country.

In her search, she encounters a shipwrecked prisoner from another land, a woman who has a secret of her own…and the second jewel in her keeping. The two women become allies in their quest for the third jewel, because finding and controlling these stones could mean salvation for both of their nations. And their failure the ruin of their peoples.

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CHAPTER ONE

 

Once, when he was a young child, six years old, Gerek Hessler had asked his great-grandmother about her life dreams, those vivid imaginings of past lives that came like nightmares upon a person in their sleep. Though she no longer saw anything but shadows, she swung her head around and stared at him, her milky eyes like pale moons in her dark face. Nothing, she whispered. I dreamed of nothing, little man.

But when he asked again, she sucked in her lower lip. For a moment, her eyes brightened, her gaze turned inward, as if recalling those dreams. Then her mouth twitched in an unhappy smile, and she touched his cheek far more gently than she used to. Live blind and you die blind, she said in swift soft tones. One day, Blind Toc himself makes sure you see the truth about yourself.

She had not answered his question, not directly, but he had not dared to say more. Three weeks later, between midnight and dawn, she died in her sleep. One life ended, her soul winging through the void to its next. Later, after he had studied the old philosophers, Gerek always wondered about his great-grandmother’s words. Had she lived blindly, life upon life, absorbed in the daily dull minutiae? Or had she at last faced the truth with eyes open, unflinchingly?

Gerek passed a hand over his face. Strange, unsettling memories. They had come upon him unexpectedly as he passed through Tiralien’s northern gates. Was it the sight of that aged fresco of Lir and her brother Toc over the gate itself? Or did the memories revive because of Tiralien itself, because of his cousin Dedrick, whose death had brought him so many miles?

Dedrick. Years ago, as children, he and Dedrick had spent a month here, along with their families. A second visit came about when Gerek’s parents decided he might study with an old scholar in the Little University. Now, riding in a freight wagon along a boulevard crowded with morning traffic, Gerek stared around, trying to see if the present city matched anything from his vague recollections. He remembered that bell tower, built of dark red brick and topped with an elaborate openwork crown for the bell itself, which flashed in the thin sunlight. That bridge led over the Gallenz River to the southern highway. And there, on the rising hills above, was the regional governor’s palace—Lord Vieth was the man’s name. He could not see the coast from here, but he could smell its heavy salt tang. He closed his eyes and tried to recall the hushing sound of water against the shore. A foreign sound to someone from the inland hill country.

From the nearby tower came the creak of ropes, the dull thump of the clapper. A pause, like the silence between each breath, then bell and bell and bell rang out over the morning.

The driver shouted to his team of horses. Abruptly the wagon jerked to the left. Gerek, used to this maneuver, braced himself against the nearest crate. His bones ached from sitting too long, his teeth rattled in time with the wheels as they jounced and bounced over the stone-paved streets. Soon they left behind the chaos of mules and carts, fishermen selling their catch, farmers arriving from the surrounding countryside to trade for supplies; it dropped away like an old cloak as they entered a quieter neighborhood where the merchants and richer tradesmen lived.

After the merchant houses came a district of fine shops, then a bleak expanse of counting houses and storage buildings. Just as he wondered how much longer until they arrived, the driver flicked his whip and barked out a command. Once more the wagon lurched, and they turned onto a broad avenue. Oh yes. Here were houses such as Gerek had imagined. Here was a neighborhood where a duke’s son might live. Even without his cousin’s description, Gerek recognized his destination.

The driver reined his horses to a stop. Gerek climbed awkwardly from the wagon. His legs, cramped from the long ride, buckled. He grabbed the wagon to keep from falling. His shin banged against the wheel. He yelped, in spite of himself.

The driver coughed. It sounded suspiciously like a laugh. “Would you like me to unload your trunks here, sir?” he asked.

“N-n-no.” Gerek swallowed and started over. “No. Thank you. Please leave them at the warehouse. I will send for them later.”

“As you wish, sir.” The man spoke politely enough. He clearly regretted that ill-timed laugh. Perhaps he knew of Gerek’s connection to House Maszuryn, itself elevated by the queen’s friendship with Gerek’s cousin Alia. More likely, he simply hoped for a few extra denier from his passenger.

Gerek paid the driver the final installment for his passage, then added five more silver coins. “For the safe delivery of my belongings. And for your kindness during the journey.” The words came out steadily, if not elegantly. It was more than he often hoped for.

The wagon lumbered off, its wheels rattling over the paving stones. Gerek stood alone on the broad and quiet avenue. He sniffed, smelled the scent of freshly turned dirt in the cool, clean morning air. This was one of the richest quarters in the city. A handful of stone mansions were visible through the trees, which were still winter-bare on this early spring day. The one that interested him—Lord Raul Kosenmark’s—stood directly opposite, behind a tall iron gate. In the center of the gate, an artisan-smith had twisted the iron bars into the likeness of a sinuous leopard. The insignia of House Valentain.

Memories, thirteen years old, came to life.

Gerek remembered his cousin Dedrick riding from his father’s estates, breathless with the news. A letter had arrived from Tiralien, delivered by a special courier. Their great-grandfather was to receive an award for his service to the Crown, and from the regional governor’s own hand.

“We shall all attend,” his great-grandfather had declared.

Standing here in Tiralien once more, Gerek recalled distinctly the shimmering summer heat in the governor’s palace. The pervasive stink of ocean tang, overlaid by sweat and too many bodies crushed close together, which even the sweetest herbs could not overcome. He could see clearly with his mind’s eye their greatgrandfather kneeling before Lord Vieth to receive an astonishingly ugly chain, worked of silver and gold and studded with jewels of all sorts. His cousins whispering jokes to each other. Dedrick’s handsome face bending close to his, then retreating just as quickly, but not before he’d made some deliciously sarcastic comment. (Directed at the king? That vulgar chain? At Gerek himself, fat and stuttering and so misplaced among his cousins of all degrees?)

No, Dedrick had never mocked him, not like the others. Dedrick had saved his bitterest comments for his own father and the family’s ambitions. Especially his sister’s.

More recent memories overwhelmed the rest. The terrible news from Duenne—a riding accident, according to the official letter, but everyone knew better. Knew that Dedrick had died by order of the king and the King’s Mage. Then, months later, Gerek’s decision to come here, to the house of the man responsible for leading Dedrick to his death.

Voices chattered inside his brain. Relatives dismissing him, consigning him to a useless life, a romantic with few qualities beyond an attention to history, philosophy, and clever handwriting.

Ignoring the voices, he crossed the avenue. That grand central gate was not for him, but for visitors of quality. And, of course, those clients who frequented the other side of Lord Kosenmark’s business—the pleasure house and its many courtesans. But Dedrick had faithfully described the house to Gerek many times, so Gerek knew to look to one side, to a lane leading between the house and a wall demarcating the property from that of the next elegant mansion.

Guards observed his entrance. He knew that, even if he could not see them. They would, however, view him as no threat; simply a large clumsy man ambling toward a service entrance. Gerek tried not to mind.

The lane brought him past a long blank section of wall, then a bare courtyard with a few equally bare trees and a lonely stone bench. Here windows broke up the expanse of golden stonework, but they were all dark, like eyes without the illumination of the soul. Gerek continued on to the side door his cousin had mentioned. The door itself was ordinary, but the story his cousin had told was not—about a young woman beaten and raped and close to death. She had knocked on the door and Raul Kosenmark had taken her in.

Gerek knocked at the door. His large hand thumped against the painted wooden panels, sending echoes down the lane. He stepped back and waited.

It was quiet here—even quieter than the main avenue. From far away, he heard a horse whickering. Flies buzzed past, fat and hopeful. A breeze tickled his bare neck, lifting away the sweat from his fur-lined collar, reminding him of how he must appear. After six days riding in a wagon, spending the nights in the cheapest hostelries, or camped beside the road, he looked more like a tramp than a scholar. Hurriedly he shook the dust from his clothes and swiped a hand through his stiff, tousled hair. His boots were filthy. He bent to rub them with his sleeve.

The lock rattled. He straightened up.

A young woman stood in the doorway. She wore a plain black skirt and a blue smock with the sleeves rolled up. The pale sunlight cast a shadow across her dusky brown face. Gerek blinked, unexpectedly surprised by her ordinary appearance.

“Yes?” she said at last.

He immediately dug out the letter from inside his coat and offered it to her.

She took it, glanced from the paper back to Gerek’s face. He thought she was smiling, but he couldn’t be sure.

“For the duke’s son,” he said. “My n-n-name is-is Gerek Hessler.”

“Ah. They told me that you would arrive today. You are here to apply for the position of Lord Kosenmark’s secretary.”

He released a breath in relief. “Yes. That.”

If the young woman noticed his stuttering, she gave no hint of it. She stood to one side and politely motioned for him to enter.

 

Her name was Kathe, she told him. Normally she did not attend to admitting visitors—she worked in the kitchens—but so many of the maids were taken sick with colds, and Lord Kosenmark had not wanted to increase the size of his household, even temporarily. Not to worry, she said, they would soon have him settled. He would want to see Mistress Denk, the steward, and after that Lord Kosenmark, but surely he would appreciate a few moments in a private room to recover from his long journey.

Listening to the flow of her chatter, Gerek took away only one detail. She hadnoticed the dust and dirt and sweat. He rubbed in vain at his face and wished he had taken his brother’s advice to stop first at an inn to bathe and dress in fresh clothing. But inns required money, and he had none to spare. Not if today did not produce the position he hoped for.

“I’m sorry,” Kathe said. “I chatter too much, Lord Kosenmark tells me.”

She’d stopped in the middle of a wide corridor. Rooms opened to either side—bright rooms filled with silk-covered couches and chairs, their tiled floors gleaming in the sunlight. The scent of beeswax and fresh herbs hung in the air. There was also the unmistakable scent of expensive perfume, but no other sign of the courtesans Dedrick talked about, nor of Kosenmark himself. Merely the elegant and richly furnished spaces one might expect to find in the household of a wealthy man, the elder son of an influential duke.

“I-I— My apologies,” Gerek said. “What did you s—say?”

She smiled. (A kindly smile, he noticed.) “I can see that you’re tired from your long journey. Would you like a private room where you might bathe your face? You look as though you aren’t used to our southern seasons.”

“N-no,” he said, then felt his cheeks heat. “Yes. Very tired. Could I-I—”

“Right this way,” she said.

Kathe left him in a small sunny room, comfortably furnished with a padded chair and several wooden benches. A high table stood by the single window, which overlooked a lawn and trees beyond. An antique tapestry of Lir and Toc hung from one wall— this one depicting their season of love—and a silk carpet covered the red-tiled floor. There was no fireplace in the room, but the air was pleasantly mild. A brass mirror hung from the opposite wall. Gerek ducked his head to avoid seeing his reflection.

Before he had time to wonder what came next, several maids, some of them red-eyed and sniffling, appeared with towels and robes. He would find the baths in the first basement, they told him, down the stairs located at the end of the hallway.

Gerek muttered something about not keeping the steward waiting, but the girls had already disappeared. Through the half-closed door, he heard them giggling.

Damn them. I’m not a dumb beast. I’m—

Nothing but the second son of a minor branch of an unimportant family. (Never mind the queen’s recognition of Dedrick’s sister, Lady Alia.) Not even that, because to these people, he was an unemployed scholar seeking employment. They were right to laugh at him. Everyone else did.

Everyone except his brother and Dedrick.

Gerek closed and locked the door. Still furious with himself and the maids, he undressed doggedly and put on the robe. The fabric was thick worsted cotton, soft against his skin and warmed by a fire. The warmth and softness irritated him further. He stomped from the room to the stairs, down to the baths. Those, too, drove him to an unreasonable fury. He scrubbed himself clean—hair, nails, and body—from all the grime accumulated in six days of travel. He’d scraped his hands raw from catching the wagon, and bruised his shin against the iron-plated wheels. Good. That felt more believable than this impossibly huge pool, the scented soaps, the surrounding luxury, which, no doubt, he would have to leave behind when Lord Kosenmark refused his service.

Scrubbed and annoyed, he returned to the room to discover the maids had removed all his clothes, even down to his loincloth.

He was about to curse out loud when he remembered Dedrick’s warning: He listens. To friends, to enemies. There is no one he absolutely trusts. Oh, perhaps Maester Hax, or his new love, but no one else.

Hax was dead, however. And Ilse Zhalina had left Kosenmark five months before.

Gerek scanned the ceiling and spotted a vent placed where none would normally be found. It was true, then, what Dedrick had claimed. The man had rebuilt the house to install listening vents and pipes, closets with secret panels, all manner of means to overhear conversations between the courtesans and their clients, between friends and enemies. And strangers most of all.

“Are you well?”

Kathe stood in the doorway, a tray balanced against one hip.

“Why do you s-say that?” Gerek demanded.

“You were staring so. I knocked,” she added. “And you had left the door unlocked.”

“I-I—” Gerek forced himself to speak deliberately. “I am weary from the road. But I do not wish to keep Lord Kosenmark waiting.”

“You will see Mistress Denk first,” Kathe said. “She knows you’ve arrived. But you have time to refresh yourself. I brought you coffee and tea, and some biscuits and cold meats. Would you prefer wine?”

“No wine,” he said shortly. Wine made his tongue even more uncertain.

Kathe said nothing to his abrupt speech. She slipped past him and set to work, laying out the dishes and cups onto the table by the window. In the room’s diffuse light, he could see her features clearly for the first time. Her face was round and pleasant, her eyes a dark and brilliant brown. Her hands, he noticed, were deft, her fingers slender, and the nails clipped short.

When she finished, she glanced up and met his gaze directly, in a way he found both disconcerting and refreshing. “For your comfort and refreshment,” she said. “And please, do not be anxious. Lord Kosenmark told me himself you were not to hurry on his account.”

Over her shoulder, Gerek caught his reflection in the mirror. Plain round face, the chin blurring into folds of skin. Broad shoulders and chest. A study in brown, even to the robe he wore. His mother affectionately called him her favorite ox.

He jerked his glance away. “Thank you,” he said stiffly.

She paused, as though she expected him to say more. Her eyes narrowed. Assessing.

“You are right to be careful here,” she said, and was gone.

 

The maids brought his clothes—brushed and pressed— before he finished his coffee and biscuits. Luckily, none of them offered to help him dress. When he had resumed his clothing, a runner took him through a labyrinth of hallways and galleries, up two flights of stairs, to a wing populated entirely with offices. They were all beautiful and yet utterly businesslike, very unlike the frothy silk-strewn chambers he’d glimpsed below.

Mistress Eva Denk received him with a perfunctory smile. Her office, he noted as he took his seat, was spacious and neat. There were no windows here, but two lamps hung from the ceiling, and a branch of candles sputtered on the table next to her desk. She was exactly like her letters—forthright and competent. He knew her history from his own investigations. She was born in Duenne, had risen from apprentice to senior clerk for one of the leading merchants of the city. After twenty long years with that same merchant, she had given up her position to work for Kosenmark. It spoke of the man’s persuasion.

She offered him wine. He politely refused. That brought another smile. Was she testing him?

“You have an interesting history,” she said.

Gerek shrugged.

Denk frowned slightly and let her gaze fall to the papers on her desk. Among them, Gerek recognized his own résumé, plus several letters that ostensibly came from his previous employers, including the letter of introduction from Maester Aereson, a merchant in Ournes Province. Denk would find no fault with any of them. Gerek had written them himself, modeling his career on that of an old tutor. Informal studies at the University at Duenne, regrettably incomplete. Several years at various posts as tutor, scribe, or general factotum. His latest posting had come to an end when Maester Aereson’s sons grew older, and Gerek thought a warmer climate might suit him. An acquaintance had mentioned that Lord Kosenmark needed a new secretary.

“You understand the terms?” Denk asked.

“I do.” Short sentences were best. He could manage those.

“Your pay? Your duties?”

Again he nodded. He was to handle all correspondence and to keep Lord Kosenmark’s schedule. For that he would receive a monthly sum of ten gold denier, plus his room and board. If his duties required finer clothes, say for a meeting with nobles such as Lord Vieth, Lord Kosenmark would provide them. He would have one rest day every week, plus an afternoon to himself twice a month.

It was all very easy and pleasant. Too easy. Denk asked him fewer questions than he expected, and her apparent lack of interest in his credentials puzzled Gerek. He once tried to expand on his supposed employment with Maester Aereson. Mistress Denk had waved aside his speech with the comment, “Lord Kosenmark will want to know surely. The decision is his, not mine, to make.”

It would be, Gerek thought. If everything Dedrick had hinted at were true, this man wanted more than a secretary, he wanted an accomplice.

An accomplice for treason, Gerek thought. But first I need to find the proof, before I go to the king or any of his people.

And he would find it here—he knew it—in this house.

 

“Maester Hesller.”

Lord Kosenmark studied Gerek over the tips of his fingers.

“My lord.” Gerek bowed.

“Sit,” Kosenmark said. “And let us discuss the possibility of your employment here.”

Gerek sat down, unsettled and nervous and trying not to show it. None of Kosenmark’s letters had promised employment outright, but after his interview with Eva Denk, he had begun to relax. He wondered now if he’d given himself away to her, or to Kathe.

I am Maester Gerek Hessler. Second-rate scholar. Nothing more.

The repetition failed to counteract his anxiety. He had taken several great chances in this endeavor. He had used a name nearly like his own, thinking he would remember it better, and trusting that Dedrick would never have mentioned a poor second cousin to this man. He had involved his brother and old tutor to handle any untoward inquiries. At the time, these had seemed like reasonable risks.

The voices chattered at him, more insistent than before. Fool. Idiot. Useless.

Kosenmark continued to study him in return. He was as handsome as all the reports claimed—golden-eyed and fair, his pale brown skin almost luminescent against his blue-black hair. Sculptors who followed the classicist school might use him as a model for Toc, the brother-god and consort of Lir, except that Toc was blind, and this man’s eyes were whole, unnervingly bright and direct. The one element, which everyone knew about, but which Gerek still found unexpected, was his voice.

He speaks like a woman. A woman with a husky voice, but nevertheless not a man, not even a tenor.

In his latter years, when his mind ran feverishly upon conspiracies, Baerne of Angersee had insisted on a peculiar sacrifice by his nearest councillors. They would be gelded, or they would lose their place, and therefore their influence. Later, when he took the throne, Baerne’s grandson had dismissed these men from Duenne’s Court. Some said it was a way for Armand to establish his own rule, to declare that his famous grandfather would not overshadow his reign. Others said Lord Markus Khandarr had influenced the new king to ensure his own preeminence.

Most of those unwanted councillors hid themselves away. They had sacrificed their manhood and could not bear it when Armand dismissed them. But this man—he lived. More than that. He had fashioned a network of advisers and colleagues and agents throughout Veraene—a shadow court, through which Kosenmark continued to influence Veraene’s politics from afar.

Clever, handsome, determined. And only a year or two older than Gerek himself.

Everything I am not.

“Do I meet with your approval, Maester Hessler?” Kosenmark said drily.

Gerek shook himself into attention. “My apologies, my lord. I-I was merely—”

“Wondering about my sexual habits and how I might satisfy them, in spite of my shortcomings. You need not stutter. The entire world knows.”

Gerek’s cheeks burned with humiliation. For once, anger kept his tongue under control. “What the world knows is not my concern, my lord. My thoughts are my own. Whether or not you’ve guessed their shape correctly, I will not discuss their finer details.”

Kosenmark blinked. Then his lips curved into a slow smile. “Harlaef the Younger. Of the late empire, in his letter to the emperor answering certain unfounded charges. So you are a scholar.”

“Did you doubt me, my lord?”

“Not exactly. But there are degrees of truth, just as there are degrees of scholarship.”

He likes to play with words and double meanings. He likes to provoke people.

“If you doubt me, s-send me away,” Gerek said. “My lord. As you must kn-know from my history, it would not be the first time.”

Those wide eyes settled on him, and Kosenmark’s expression changed subtly. No longer bland, nor edged with bitter humor. Gerek thought he detected a wincing moment of painful memory, chased by sympathy for Gerek himself.

“Very well,” Kosenmark said in that disturbingly high voice. “Let us discuss our true business. You seek employment as a secretary or assistant. I have need of one as you undoubtedly heard.”

Gerek bowed his head. This was the nearest Kosenmark had come to mentioning the woman who had served him as secretary, before she became his lover. Gerek would not make the mistake, however, of betraying how much he knew. Just before their interview ended, Mistress Denk had offered one piece of pointed advice. Whatever you say or do, never mention the name Ilse Zhalina to Lord Kosenmark. He will not forgive that.

“Your credentials are adequate,” Kosenmark said.

Again, Gerek nodded. He had worked over those credentials for precisely that impression.

“I’m curious about your university career. You never formally applied there.”

A nod would not suffice this time. “N-no, my lord. I-I had not enough—”

“Not enough money?” Kosenmark waved a hand. “Forgive me. I should not interrupt. Speak as you must.”

Another double meaning. Gerek drew a long breath and considered his reply. “No money. As well, I could not s-settle on one course of s-study. I wished to explore without cons-straint, my lord.”

That caught the man’s attention. His eyes narrowed—in humor this time. “Go on.”

“History, my lord. It is not complete without the literature of those times. The reverse is also true.”

“What about economics? You studied that as well.”

“For practical reasons, my lord. Money is an essential element of the world, no matter which century you examine.”

He finished the sentence, let his breath trickle out in relief that he had uttered the thing complete. Kosenmark must have noticed that small reaction, however, because he leaned forward and fixed Gerek with his gaze. “You have difficulty speaking, but not when you feel strongly about the matter. Tell me what else moves you.”

Truth, Gerek thought. The bonds of trust and friendship and family.

He’d known little of them in his life. To say that out loud was more than he could bear—not to this cold, clever young man.

“You are thinking hard,” Kosenmark observed.

“The s-subject is n-n-not an easy one, my lord.”

Kosenmark stared at him a longer moment, but when Gerek said nothing more, he leaned back with a disappointed sigh. “You speak several languages, yes?”

So they were back to the formal give-and-take of the interview. “Old Veraenen,” Gerek said. “Erythandran. Enough to read texts from the empire days. And s-some Immatran.”

“Károvín?”

Gerek suppressed a tremor of excitement. “Yes, my lord.”

“Fluently?”

He hesitated. “N-not as well.”

“But enough to puzzle out a letter or essay.”

“Yes, my lord.”

A brief silence followed. Kosenmark tapped his fingers against each other. Gerek waited, trying to keep from shifting nervously on the hard wooden chair. Off to one side stood an enormous hourglass, an extraordinary creation with several globes that worked together to measure minutes and hours. Even as he noticed it, the globes revolved slowly around to begin their measuring anew. Outside, bells rang the hour.

Kosenmark leaned forward again and slapped his hands on the desk, startling Gerek. “You know the salary? Mistress Denk explained that to you, of course. Is that acceptable?”

Gerek nodded dumbly.

“Well, then. Consider yourself hired.”

“M-M—”

“No need to hesitate, Maester Hessler. You are moderately qualified. I have moderate needs. If you agree, we can begin our work at once. What do you say?”

Gerek met Kosenmark’s gaze as directly as he dared. He saw nothing but boredom in the man’s expression. He was not fooled. Dedrick had told him once that you could never trust Raul Kosenmark’s outward appearance. It was only by truly listening—by measuring the silences between words, catching the swift tension in his full mouth, the change of brightness in those golden eyes— that you began to understand the hidden man and his moods.

There was only one means for doing so.

He bowed his head. “Thank you. I will begin my work at once.”

Queen’s Hunt © Beth Bernobich 2012
Click to head back to the top

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Black Bottle by Anthony Huso is set to hit stores on August 2nd. I think the cover of this book is extremely cool, and I can’t wait to see how it ties into the story. The first two chapters are below for your viewing pleasure, after the description.

What’s it about? Here’s what amazon had to say:

Tabloids sold in the Duchy of Stonehold claim that the High King, Caliph Howl, has been raised from the dead. His consort, Sena Iilool, both blamed and celebrated for this act, finds that a macabre cult has sprung up around her.

As this news spreads, Stonehold—long considered unimportant—comes to the attention of the emperors in the southern countries. They have learned that the seed of Sena’s immense power lies in an occult book, and they are eager to claim it for their own.

Desparate to protect his people from the southern threat, Caliph is drawn into a summit of the world’s leaders despite the knowledge that it is a trap. As Sena’s bizarre actions threaten to unravel the summit, Caliph watches her slip through his fingers into madness.

But is it really madness? Sena is playing a dangerous game of strategy and deceit as she attempts to outwit a force that has spent millennia preparing for this day. Caliph is the only connection left to her former life, but it’s his blood that Sena needs to see her plans through to their explosive finish.

Dark and rich, epic in scope, Anthony Huso has crafted a fantasy like no other, teeming with unthinkable horrors and stylish wonders.

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Chapter 1

 

Love and warmth and family portraits were gone. Taelin had said good-bye to all of her friends. She walked resolutely, powered on disdain and a small cold brightness between her breasts.

Her journey stretched out behind her like a continental seam. She had struggledto get here, clawing out of the south, away from her father, across Eh’Muhrûk Muht¹ and up through the raw drizzle of the Country of Mirayhr. Her most recent complication had been the bone-jarring twenty-one miles between Clefthollow and the spot where her chemiostatic car had whined to a halt in deep mud. She had left her driver two miles back with half-fare, opting to slog alone with her only suitcase through freezing rain. Now, at last, she stood within eyeshot of this dismal country’s heart: the capital of the Duchy of Stonehold. Huge walls appeared from the weather, hammer and tongs, strung with vapor and steam, like pig iron pulled from its first bath.

1 P: Great Cloud Rift.

Glaring at the towers, Taelin lifted her crimson-lensed goggles back from her eyes and let them snap into brunette shadow. So this is the top of the world? she thought. This is the barbaric Naneman stronghold no one dares touch?

Stonehold had been founded by criminals. In 700 S.K. Felldin Barâk had pardoned several thousand Naneman murderers on condition they explore and settle the north. The ruffians’ progeny had sunk deep into the mountains, turned their backs on the south and—eight hundred years ago, give or take—declared their independence. This cold, rugged land subsisted on fisheries and metholinate gas and a modest export of caviar and other luxury goods. She would have struggled to find it on a map until last year.

Now, being here, wrapped in winter, awash in the legendary ferocity of this place, a chill deeper than weather sank into Taelin. This was what she was up against.

She remembered the day, the place she had been sitting, and the cool
prickle that had traveled across her forearms when she had heard that the diplomatic vessel Baasha One had been shot down over the Valley of Nifol. That was the summer before last, when the world had changed and the whole south had erupted into a hive of buzzing opinions. It was the day that had brought the Duchy of Stonehold to her attention.

The short, horrible story was that the victims of the crash had been picked over by northerners. Everyone in Pandragor was appalled. Taelin had shared a national sense of disgust.

Then it had leaked that solvitriol blueprints had been in Baasha One’s wreckage. Solvitriol secrets had fallen into the barbarians’ hands!

The papers had kept the drama going, an entire summer of real-life cloak and dagger. Taelin had to admit that despite her fear over Stonehold’s solvitriol program, the daily news had offered a kind of terrible entertainment. Shame had followed her to the newsstand every day where she indulged in Pandragonian accounts of her country’s diplomats: arrested in the far north. The saga of accusations, interrogations and executions had lasted for several weeks. Everyone had assumed that Pandragor would get involved.

Her father had told her that was precisely the articles’ purpose: to whip up public sentiment. Pandragor was going to throw the gauntlet down right in the middle of Stonehold’s brewing civil war.

And it had almost happened.

But one day, all the propaganda, all the support drummed up by the press had fallen flat when a Pandragonian airship full of diplomats had gone down under Stonehavian guns. Not the guns of Caliph Howl, the High King that Pandragor opposed, but the guns of Saergaeth Brindlestr4m the provincial leader Pandragor had been backing.

When the very arm that the emperor had been sponsoring stabbed him in the back, what else could Pandragor do? Emperor Jünn1 had backed down. He had said in an address that the south would, “let the North sort out the North.”

 

Taelin looked hard at the walls of Isca City.

Despite her objectives, she had never really trained with a velvet gun or a compression sling. But not all assaults required weapons. Taelin wasn’t going up against the government. She wasn’t going to be a spy like her father wanted her to be. Not exactly. She was here on a mission of famicide, tearing down a reputation rather than a body.

What had driven her here, alone, was not what anyone would have guessed. Her reason for undertaking this crazy personal quest was not related to the diplomats who had died or the possibility that solvitriol weapons were being made in the north.

She didn’t count herself smarter than Emperor Jünn1 but she did believe that her reasons for being here were above politics.

Weary to the bone, she stumped along, steam escaping her lips with every step.

She imagined Isca City at the center of the deepening cold, the stronghold of the ice-blue eyes that had mocked her from glossy magazines. She had never met Sena Iilool, but lithos and rumors described her well enough.

Taelin reached for the demonifuge² beneath her jabot. It moved between her breasts like a living thing. The heartbeat of a mouse. Its cool smoothness reassured her.

2 Pandragonian charm against evil spirits.

The demonifuge had not always been a necklace. Discovered in her grandfather’s trunk along with a menagerie of other heirlooms, she had taken it to a jeweler to have the chain affixed. The jeweler had been nonplussed. A perfect ring formed the pendant portion. On the backside, a disc of gold turned beneath her fingers, riding a bearing-lined groove. The disc was engraved with a deep glyph:

Taelin tugged it from her cleavage. The front of it blazed with an exquisite golden mote. As she rubbed it, it moved like a stirring chrysalis, almost too bright to look at, which was curious since it produced no visible light, failing even to illuminate her fingers. No one had been able to tell her what it was. Not even her father. But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it bore Nenuln’s mark, that it was beautiful and that it calmed her.

Nenuln’s sacred light could free this land; bleach the journalists’ profane ink from north-south periodicals. Taelin tried to focus on this bright thought as she passed deep ditches that crepitated in the wind, stirring fitfully with the zombies of summer bog hemp.

Nenuln would keep her safe.

Rain sprinkled her shoulders and cheeks. As she trudged, she thought about her aunt and uncle. Years since the last family reunion, all she knew about them was that they had little love for the Stonehavian government. Tonight they were leaving the light on for her.

Their letter had mentioned that seeking an audience tomorrow on the Funeral of the Leaves—fitting holiday for such a dank, dripping land—would be her best chance at a face-to-face with Sena Iilool. Neither of them had expressed much optimism in her chances, but Taelin felt differently. Sena would not be able to ignore her. Taelin held political status in the south. Sooner or later, the government of Stonehold would have to acknowledge her.

The caramel mud of the road reared up before the vast dark walls of the city, crowned with ancient cobbles now and patched with snow and modern cement. The pooling ditches gave way to gushing culverts. Stone and metal supplanted dusk and fog-draped fields. Streetlamps buzzed. Gargoyles threatened. Dogs clucked in the shadows.

She entered the tenebrous bulk of West Gate with its acres of bricks arching overhead. Her fingers were cold. Her hands and arms throbbed from the burden of her suitcase. She smelled greasy food and heard laughter, saw that there were pubs and restaurants inside the gate. Her stomach growled but she would wait until she reached her destination. It took her only moments to secure a cabbie. The vehicle’s windows glittered with purple lights amid the chaos of the gate.

She got in.

The cabbie took her into the city, along a street labeled Sedge Way into the borough of Three Cats. Even after she smeared it with her sleeve, the window fogged quickly thanks to a bulky black heater that cramped her feet. She couldn’t see out. Inside the lantern-shaped cab, it was warm at least, but the leather seats were sticky and exuded a cocktail of sour odors.

Her driver remained silent.

She glanced at the address on a slip of paper.

She had told him to drop her at Heath Street.

“I’m starting a church here,” she said.

For a moment, he glared over his shoulder. Then his face returned to the windshield, lit wildly by a glowing purple cat that swung from his mirror.

“If you’re wondering why you go to the same job, the same bar or tavern every day. If you feel like you want to talk about . . . anything. Well, we don’t have a chapel yet. But we will soon. In the meantime, you can reach me by air.”

She pushed a card over his shoulder. He took it and glanced at it.

Church of Nenuln
Lady Taelin Rae

Taelin looked proudly at the small gem, affixed in the center of the card with a dollop of rubber cement.

She saw him raise his eyebrows in the rearview, probably thinking of the huge cost and risk of handing cruestones out to strangers.

“Ticky,” he said. Then he tossed the card on the dashboard amid sandwich wrappers and mini Pink Nymph Whisky bottles—all of them empty.

Taelin didn’t sulk. He wasn’t ready for her message. That was all. After several more minutes of silence and bouncing on the ice-crusted roads, they arrived.

She handed him the fare and watched politely as he counted the coins and logged the trip on a clipboard. When he jumped out, freezing fresh air rushed into the cab. He dragged her suitcase from the trunk and set it in the snow.

Taelin climbed out into the foreign cityscape and maintained her smile until he and his bad-smelling contraption had coughed into the night. She opened her pocket watch. The skeleton gears flickered with ghostly, pastel lights.

Nearly midnight. And still a mile from her destination. But her aunt and uncle had warned against taking the cab all the way to their address. “The High King is watching us. Make sure you come on foot . . .”

There were other instructions as well. It felt vaguely criminal, but Taelin understood precautions had to be taken. This was a dispiriting town with a violent government—unlike Pandragor.

She followed the leprous masonry of Heath Street south, out of Os Sacrum’s foggy desertion and toward the upscale twinkle of Lampfire Hills. At the corner of Knife Street she thought she saw something gaunt and exaggerated standing under a streetlamp but when she looked at it directly, there was nothing there. An old man perhaps. That had been her impression. Stooped and dark.

She stood for a moment with her heart pounding. She pulled her goggles down to double-check. Nothing stirred across the street. She imagined spies and worse but after half a minute, she adjusted her grip on the suitcase and trudged on.

The streets of Heath and Mark met in a sullen quadrangle where Taelin found the beginning of a lane that ascended a hill lined with barren trees. She climbed to a point that gave her a broad view of the sea and the alleys between what looked like thin brown tenements brooding beyond an empty field to the south. Across the field, small golden windows flared in some of the floors but mostly they were dark. A shout caused the air to quaver spontaneously, as if someone had dropped a street sign off a distant roof.

“Keep me and protect me,” she whispered and made Nenuln’s sign in the air.

Isca scintillated; some of the humidity was turning to snow. Even the slush above the sewer grates was beginning to crunch underfoot when abruptly, glowing in the icy haze, Taelin met the High King’s witch in the gloom.

Sena Iilool’s eyes burnt up at her from a billboard that topped a clutch of buildings below the hill. So blue. They were wicked, sultry eyes, lined with black. Golden curls splashed together with white downy fur. A Niloran cocktail. Liqueur splashing into cream. The mix cascaded over her naked shoulders.Jesuexe Furrier! 1319 S. Octul Box. The letters wavered in reflective gold.

Magazines as far south as Iycestoke and Waythloo had printed articles about this carpetbagging beauty. Her history had thickened like something delicious that periodicals then whipped with sweetened words and ambiguity into a theosophic meringue that sold faster than it could be printed. All stories shouted the same cock-and-bull fabrication: there is a demigod in Stonehold!

No one really believed it. But when lithos snapped by dressmakers hit the papers, black-and-whites revealed the woman was a peri: shivering demonian eyes and an ecdysiast’s smile. Iycestoke the political entity, with its gruesome history of witch executions, officially snubbed her but the populous roared for more. Especially the gentlemen’s periodicals. Pandragor was equally guilty. The whole of the south couldn’t get enough of Sena Iilool.

Taelin had bought papers and magazines. She had heard the street preachers shouting, decrying the sins of Stonehold, indistinguishable at first from political propaganda.

They claimed that High King Caliph Howl’s enemies had been crushed at the end of his civil war by the most outlandish phenomenon ever reported, some kind of holomorphic weather system. The event had been so widespread and so devastating that it had obliterated entire towns. Caliph Howl himself had wound up a casualty, which should have allowed Emperor Jünn1 and the rest of Pandragor to finally exhale.

Except for one thing.

Like an evil gift to the browbeaten citizenry of the Duchy of Stonehold, a fable was slapped together that the infamous witch queen, Sena Iilool, had somehow managed to raise Caliph Howl from the dead. With fearless leader restored, rehearsed cheering had no doubt been queued. The tyrant lived on.

What had really happened, Taelin found impossible to tell. Details trickled rather than flowed from this reclusive northern country. But portraying the High King as a resurrected being and his witch as some kind of demiurge? Taelin understood this was the oldest and simplest kind of control: presentment of government as god. And that was why she was here. That was why she had come north. She remembered one magazine article in particular that had startled her into action:

There are those who worship Miss Iilool. In fact, the temple of what some term to be a fad-religion with partisan³ popularity has sprung up on Incense Street at the corner of . . .

3 Not everyone would have wanted High King Caliph Howl raised from the dead.

Well, that had sealed it. Something had to be done to stop this kind of blasphemous lunacy: people worshiping people.

Despite the cancellation of Taelin’s wedding and the very private transgression that had caused it—a mistake which still echoed painfully in her heart—her family’s temple had, in the end, not taken her back. But her sins didn’t make her any less of a believer, so she had formed a new church, her own church, and begun down a different road. She had focused her ire on the god-myth in Isca and tracked Sena Iilool’s inexplicable ten-month circuit of the Atlath Continent through the papers. Taelin had planned her arrival in Stonehold to coincide with Sena’s return.

Taelin lifted her eyes from the billboard and found her goal in the darkness, an impressive and ornate house on the edge of the hill. It stood in black counterpoint to the fog. The silhouette of the House of Mywr’Din was tall and grim, much different than styles found in Pandragor. This was her uncle’s house. Taelin trudged the final thirty yards through the swirling snow, lifted the door’s heavy knocker and let it fall.

It bounced loudly against the brass plate. A few moments later the mascaron swung back, a young man’s face appeared in its place and bid her welcome to Isca City.

Chapter 2

 

High King Caliph Howl tapped his fingers on a sheaf of paper. It was one hundred twenty-three pages of fresh print that had nothing to do with the parlor full of cigars and music that twittered just the other side of a twelve-foot cherry wood door. The evening of entertainment was not for him. It was for Nuj Ig’nos and the other diplomats.

The papers puffed slightly at the edges every time Caliph’s fingers struck them; the desk lamp imposed a sharp, ice-bright rink of light onto sentences filled with names and commerce and promises and threats. He was supposed to be thinking up enigmatic calculations that would transform the stack of Pandragonian demands into something that would serve the Duchy of Stonehold rather than undermine it. But after an hour he felt the hot itch of pressure at the back of his neck. Despite the coolness of the room, heat coursed over his shoulders, under his arms, up into his face.

He pawed at his chin. The cup of warm milk and honey on his desk— gone cold—had failed to help.

Finally, he opened a drawer and raked through staplers and gadgetry for a bottle of artificially flavored tablets. After eating two, he tossed the bottle back into the drawer and kicked it shut. The gurgling pain in his stomach subsided.

Maybe there was no way to satisfy the Pandragonian demands. Apart from turning over the throne and making Stonehold an unincorporated, organized territory of the empire, something like the tragedy that had befallen Bablemum, nothing was going to make Nuj Ig’nos happy.

You fuckers, he thought. Out there eating Iscan caviar, drinking comets, staring at the ensemble of violinists wearing bare-backed dresses in the middle of Oak just for you! And you hand me this—koan. And you already know how it’s going to end.

A soft, persistent knocking resonated from the room’s official entrance.

Caliph picked up the stack of papers, tapped its edge on the leather surface of his desk and took it across the room to the trash. The trash consisted of a black envelope. It would bear the document’s name and date until it merited resurrection. Caliph sealed it and placed it in a wire basket.

He smiled wanly as the knocking persisted. Only one man knocked in such a fashion. Caliph strode from the bookshelves, over the patterned carpet and cracked the door. A volcanic glow immediately widened and burst across the threshold.

A thin figure bowed from the waist, shadow streaming into the room. Alani’s head, as always, was shorn and his powder-white goatee was diplomat-perfect. Slender liver-spotted hands folded reverently across his black vest. Stuffing the vest, pleats of white silk had been stamped with an asymmetrical brooch of featureless silver.

Caliph stepped back and made a theatrical gesture with his arm. The spymaster straightened and walked in.

As the door shut, Caliph started talking. “The accord is a sham.”

Alani’s voice, like whisky, came with a warm ripple of corrosion, “Of course it is.”

“And this conference in Sandren we’re supposed to go to . . . is starting to feel like a trap,” continued Caliph. He returned slowly to the cold oasis of light on his desk.

“This came for you.” Alani handed him an envelope.

“You’ve read it?”

“Yes.”

Caliph unsheathed the note and snapped it open.

“‘King Howl,’” he read aloud, “‘We feel compelled to make it abundantly clear that your speech on the fifteenth is of critical importance. Do not deviate from the clear and narrow dialogue that will lead to warm relations with the Six Kingdoms.’”

It was not signed. Caliph snarled at the page. The Pandragonians were far from subtle.

“Do you still plan to go?” asked Alani.

“Of course.”

Alani reached into his vest. “Good.” He drew out a pipe. “Understanding their motives, you can’t fault them for being unhappy over the reunification. They’d rather you were dead . . . and all of Stonehold splintered.”

“Well I’m not dead,” said Caliph. But the assertion forced him to reflect. At least not anymore.

It had been what? Twenty months since his failure in the skies over Burt? He wouldn’t allow himself to relive the full tragedy of the war in front of Alani, but he felt it. Enough sour, cold regret to pucker his insides.

Alani waited quietly, patiently. He had once waited for two days for a man’s head to cross in front of a three-foot pane of glass. Caliph pondered this little-known fact as he watched the emotionless lines in his spymaster’s face.

Finally Caliph said, “Metholinate has to be a factor.” He moved around behind his desk and leaned against a windowsill that supported enormous slabs of glass.

Alani made a grunt. “They don’t want gas for Iycestoke, or Pandragor . . .”

“No,” said Caliph. “They have solvitriol power and bariothermic. They just want to own us outright. They’ll keep our trade agreements intact but they’ll be inside the government then. They’ll be here, in the north. For the first time. And you know what that means?

“They’ll control how we use or don’t use solvitriol tech.”

Alani snicked his tongue against his teeth several times, “Are you sure? Are you sure that’s what this is about?”

The way Alani asked, Caliph felt as though a drop of melt water had fallen from the great casement behind him and trickled down his neck. “You think it’s something different? Why?”

The spymaster had not lit his pipe. He folded his arms and relaxed against the desk. “It’s a long way, reaching across the Cloud Rift, through the Healean Range, to this patch of mud and ice; especially when they have enemies grinding at them from next door. Even if we opened the floodgates on solvitriol development, we’re ten years behind them. They don’t need to be pushing so hard. Not now. By all accounts, as the saying goes, they have bigger fish . . .”

Caliph pulled his lip. It was true. Why were the Pandragonians willing to extend themselves all the way to the top of the world—to the Glacier Rise? Preventing solvitriol secrets from leaving Stonehold was in the south’s interest. But could they really stop that with broad political maneuvers? No. Alani was right. That sort of thing fell to espionage.

Why was Pandragor pushing so hard?

Neither of them spoke.

Finally Caliph broke the silence. “Maybe the conference on the fifteenth will turn up some answers. I want you to come with me.”

“I was planning on it,” said Alani. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone? They’re going to try and end this whole thing while you’re there. And I mean end it.”

The conviction in Alani’s voice gave Caliph pause. “Well, that’s why you’re coming with. If I don’t scratch out some allies while we’re there, it’s not going to matter. Maybe the Stargazers—”

Alani touched his beard and seemed to wince.

“What?” asked Caliph. “You don’t think we can win them over?”

“It’s not that. I’m sure they’re the best chance we have of finding an ally south of the Rift but—”

“But what?”

“They don’t have much to offer. Bablemum is a better representation of how the south feels about us, your majesty.”

Caliph scowled, “Those priests in Gas End demonstrating again?”

“Yes.” Alani rolled his pipe in his fingers. “They don’t like Sena.”

“Well I don’t like the south.” Caliph felt his face flush. What right was it of theirs to have a say in who he slept with?

“Along those lines,” Alani shifted gears ever so slightly, “the House of Mywr’Din has a visitor.”

“From the south, I take it?” Caliph lifted his eyes from the desk lamp. He read the information in Alani’s expression, “Pandragor? Are you serious?”

“Indeed. She arrived at West Gate and took a cab, which let her off early. She walked the rest of the distance to Salmalin’s house via back streets.”

“Reeeeally.”

Alani held up a tiny black gem in his fingers, “What I don’t understand is, if she’s a spy, why is she handing out these . . . to strangers?”

“A cruestone?”

Alani placed it in Caliph’s hand along with something small and white. “Yes, and here’s her card.”

“‘Church of Nenuln’?” Caliph read.

Alani smiled for the first time. “She’s the daughter of Pandragor’s attorney general.” His smile broadened. “We can use this.”

 

After the spymaster had left, Caliph turned down the gas lamp. The resulting ineffectual ringlet of blue flame allowed moonlight to resurface the room; it rolled from the window over the desk and down the Greymoorian carpet. He noticed patterns moving across the floor and turned to discover that it had started snowing.

He flipped open the brass latches and pulled the windows in. Icy air gushed over his body. It smelled of smoke and pine: urban and rural mixing here at the edge of the city.

Sena’s arrival had been delayed by weather. Her airship would dock tomorrow rather than today, a homecoming that carved his internal calendar up with anxiety.

Theirs had not been a warm intimate coupling, sharing breakfast and mutual goals on the balcony. Rather, Caliph found it discomfiting that scandal sheets like the Varlet’s Pike had mostly gotten it right, painting their relationship as a hot and cold bodice-ripper headed for emotional destitution.

Maybe it was his fault. He wanted daily rituals with her that somehow fit his impossible schedule. That might have been feasible if she had been a bauble, content with parties and shopping and interior design.

But Sena showed up for parties only as a favor to him, seldom went shopping, and left the look of Isca Castle to designers who marketed their taste as hers and thenceforth made a killing. Sena had her own schedule. And it was rigorous. When it did mesh with his, the outcome was never predictable.

After a long time Caliph closed the windows and snapped the latches. The Pandragonians had gone to bed.

He left the room, head floating down the endless cavernous hallways, past the banks of palladian glass and countless twelve-foot doors to other rooms. His tether to his exhausted body felt tenuous. His skin itched. But he knew he wasn’t going to sleep.

Insomnia had vexed him ever since the wake.

In the grand scope, his life had remained unchanged by the events of Thay second, Day of Charms. He could remember the taste of the metal sticking through his chest. So strange that he could taste it. The fire. The crash. All slowed to the speed of a parachute seed drifting over Thilwicket Fen. That was the strange part. The part that had changed.

He could remember, back at college, standing on North Oast Road west of the cemetery, looking out across Thilwicket as dawn hit the trees; standing there, watching the swarm of gossamer seeds float above the fen like a million illuminated insects. For some reason he connected that moment to the moment of his death: that was the subtle way Thay second had changed him. That morning on North Oast Road was important. Had become important. And he didn’t know why.

Caliph sorted through a ring of keys and tried several before finding the right one. He hadn’t been to the library since Sena had locked it ten months ago and boarded the Odalisque for her trip.

It felt like trespassing even though she hadn’t explicitly forbidden him from coming here. In fact, she had used only three words to describe her desires concerning the place where she kept all her precious notes and books: “Keep it locked.”

The key scraped hollowly inside the metal aperture, a sound that traveled through Caliph’s bones. He pushed the door open and paused at the threshold, looking in. It had stopped snowing and a thin, watery band of moonlight ghosted the blackness, streaming from a small upper window. It touched nothing. As if the pillars and bookcases shrouded in midnight were being given deferential treatment. As if the southern moon had decided it was better to leave this dark socket undisturbed.

Why am I here? He supposed it was prologue to her return, a way of reacquainting himself by standing in the place that very nearly defined her.

Except that it didn’t feel like Sena.

His hand nearly trembled. A presence resonated from the blackness. It beat his cheeks as if the darkness itself were trying to push him back. A drapery charged with static. Galvanic waves throbbed against his skin.

He took a step into the room and stopped: the animal part of him was afraid. Had some tendril drifted? Some shroudlike form? Maybe a cloud brushing the moon?

Caliph groped for the switch like a child. His pulse fluttered, puerile and timid. While his body cooled, terror gelling around him, his face clenched defiantly. He stared hard into the darkness.

There was a snap followed by a hiss as the gas lamp bubbled to life and spread rheumy light through the chamber’s wood and leather angles. His heart caught as if a cog had been spinning, out of gear. Now re-engaged, it slowed.

The room’s fireplace emitted strangled sighs; breathed on a blackboard smeared with formulae. There was an empty lectern nearby. A stray draft disturbed the powder and a specter of dust spiraled off the chalk rail as Caliph, very slowly, crossed the room.

Before him, a table with mammoth legs supported a sprawl of books, maps and loose pages. The table’s vast leather surface was further arrayed with colored notes stuck to manuscripts, pages, even the table itself. Gnawed pencils in the lair of an academic fiend seemed to be the only things not in meaningful locations.

Caliph circled the enormous table, looking at Sena’s meticulous research. Her lanthorn hung above the middle of the sprawl, too far for him to reach, its lenses gray and dark. There was a single chair with comfortable-looking leather upholstery that Caliph tapped thoughtfully. What is the harm, he thought, in seeing what she’s been working on?

Back in the house on Isca Hill, his uncle had taught him a small obscure word that required no blood. A curiosity that had earned fear-based opprobrium from several college professors. He spoke it now to ignite Sena’s lanthorn, which smoldered into absinthe-colored light, immediately soothing his tired eyes. A warm woody smell of spice and flowers flowed out from it and pushed Caliph down into the chair. The light picked words from the pages more clearly, it seemed, than direct sun.

Soon, he was following arrows in the notes, reading bracketed paragraphs, flipping to cross-references and devouring a terrifying set of journal entries that fed him ceaselessly into the brilliant ache of a morning unbacked by sleep.

Black Bottle © Anthony Huso 2012

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