In advance of the publication of The Shadow Men Trilogy box set on February 28, I will be publishing a few excerpts online. What follows is from the first chapter of the novel:
The ship arrived at Hessen not long before daybreak. The pier was already busy with fishermen heading out on their morning runs and another trading vessel in the midst of being loaded. Word went down the dock to the trading company that their vessel had arrived from Craitol, and a work crew began to straggle in to unload the silks that were in the hold. The captain wandered off the ship, leaving the first officer in charge of unloading the cargo and headed into the city for the company house. A Craitolian left with him, which drew a few glances from various onlookers, the more so because he was of Kragian extraction by the shade of his skin. They walked together to the end of the pier and then parted, the Craitolian heading to the Custom House that lay just outside the city walls.
Vyissan was ecstatic to be on land again, his feet firm about him. Sailors, he knew, spoke of being too long at sea in that weary way everyone has speaking of a burden they alone must carry, one they cannot live without, but they were thinking in terms of weeks and months and port after port. For Vyissan, one day was too long at sea—his stomach never steadied, his balance never became sure. This had been the first time aboard a vessel since his journey south to Craitol over four years ago, an experience he had sworn never to repeat. His was not a lot in life where he could make such vows.
Not helping to ease the difficulty of his voyage had been the captain of the vessel, a foul Nrain. He had distrusted Vyissan from the first instant, the peninsulars always suspicious of northerners, especially one with his shade. Two days into their journey from Nrai he had asked, through his second, that Vyissan not eat with the other officers. He was free to eat with the common sailors or on his own. No reason was given him, though the second to his credit had been embarrassed to deliver the message. Vyissan had not made an issue of it, taking his meals in his quarters. In his circumstances he did not need attention drawn to himself.
For all the frigidness of their passage, their parting on the docks of Hessen was a warm one; the captain glad to be rid of this particular burden and Vyissan relieved simply to be back aground. He was not yet free of his own burden, hidden in the satchel he wore across his shoulder, an unremarkable weight though it yoked him as tightly as any beast, and would not be for some time yet. In fact, he would hardly have time to wash the taste of this voyage from his mouth before he would begin another. But he would not think on any of that now, with his equilibrium regained he determined to slake his thirst and find what women were on offer in the city. There was a brothel district not far from the port, far better in quality than the harlots one would find outside the city walls, which the second officer had given him directions to. When the clerks in the Custom House had read over his letters and gone through his belongings to their satisfaction he made his way there, his steps growing more sure as he went.
He took a room at one of the academies and had the first untroubled sleep of his journey. On the vessel his dreams had been shadowed by the task set before him. He carried something with the power to reorder their profane realm, if those who led him were to be believed. Such a thing could not rest easily on the mind, and his nights had been filled again with images that had dominated his childhood night terrors: the Council Adepts scouring Desecrators, alkemya ravaging their minds and souls, leaving them ruined husks of men. Vyissan could remember the Adepts and their Craitolian soldiers going from home to home in the Fegh district where he had grown up looking for those who had stood with Kercubegahedd against the Council. At the time he could not fathom how they could know that his cousin, hidden in the straw of their roof, was there or that he was an insurrectionist. That he had learned later.
When he emerged the next morning he had altered his appearance. His skin was now the olive-green hue of those of the east rather than his normal sallow color. This, combined with his silk and ardeh wool robes, gave him the look of an Enir merchant from any of the city states that lined the desert coast. A man of no real consequence—or so he hoped. He walked out without receiving so much as a glance from the madam or the swords she had keeping an eye on the entrance. Later in the day someone wondered what had become of the Craitolian northerner who had taken a room the night before and one of the servants was dispatched to see what was keeping him, for the girl had not even spent the night and he had not called for another or for food. The room was empty but for the ash from his burned letters, and there were a few comments about how strange it was that a Kragian could leave unnoticed. His room and the girl had been paid for, though, so no one gave him much thought.
He made his way back to the docks to find a ship sailing for Sylaron, the Renian city that lay at the mouth of the Rensnan. From there he planned to find a boat heading up river to Darrhyn. He fervently hoped that river travel agreed with him more than sea or the next few weeks would be an unending misery.
Hessen was a quiet port, its trade mostly with the nearby Republican cities, so there was only one vessel he could find heading to Sylaron, and it was not due to leave for three days. It was a Renian company, as he had expected, which suited him well. An Enir entering Renuih on a Renian vessel would not attract questions, and in his position questions were what he had to avoid. He had heard any number of stories of Craitolian merchants being turned back at the Custom House in Sylaron, or worse, imprisoned or enslaved. Who was to say what the veracity of those tales was, but it seemed wise not to tempt the Gods’ hands. The last thing he could afford was a close search of his satchel, that would truly get him killed. Gods forbid they somehow determined he had knowledge of alkemya, which they might if they searched him—that was punishable by death in these realms.
The second led him aboard the ship for an inspection, sounding its merits as he went. Vyissan nodded politely, thinking that even if the boat were overrun by vermin and all its crew stank of pestilence he would still take his passage.
“You’ll not lack for companionship,” the second told him as he led him below decks to the passenger quarters. “We’ve another passenger with us. He’ll share the quarters with you.
“And perhaps his own quarters too, if tales of their kind be true,” he whispered to Vyissan, adding in a louder voice, “He’s here now. You can meet him and gain the lie of the land, as it were.”
The second ducked in through the doorway of the fore deck quarters and pulled aside a hammock to allow Vyissan an encompassing look. There was a man stretched out in another hammock, and as he levered out of it and came forward with an offered palm Vyissan had to stifle a gasp.
“Hello,” the man said, his Enir heavily accented with his native Kragian tongue. He held Vyissan’s arm a long pause, staring into his eyes, Vyissan praying to the Gods that none of the thoughts flooding his brain were showing on his face.
Of all the cursed luck, to be on a ship with Nesyur Geshlvyr a Fegh. A Kragian, from Fegh. Their families had known each other in passing, though Vyissan doubted Nesyur would remember him. The Geshlvyr were a family of low rank, which passed for something in Fegh, while Vyissan’s family had no rank and only modest means. He had still been a boy when Nesyur had gone into exile. The years had not been kind, but there was no doubt of who it was.
“So you are to be my company, are you?” he said, releasing his hand and smiling again. “My name is Nesyur.”
“Atasem,” Vyissan said, forcing a smile to his face. “I am considering the vessel.”
“It is quality, quality as you can see,” the second said, thrusting his face between them.
“Not much choice either, as I’m sure you’ve found.”
“No,” Vyissan said. Nesyur. It was beyond belief. He had to remind himself that he was still in disguise and that his accent was holding firm. The Gods mocked all, those who pretended to control their destinies especially, but Nesyur. The name was a curse in the right company in Kragi. In Craitol too, for that matter.
During the alkemycal war between the Council Adepts and Kercubegahedd’s rebels, every northerner was forced to swear fealty to someone. There was no standing apart, now or then—enough blood had been spilt on both sides that no one’s hands could remain unstained. It had been a war over the very soul and practice of alkemya and a war for the freedom of Kragi. The Adepts had called the rebels Desecrators of the Balance for their alkemyc engines, and for daring to defy the Council and its proclamations. The rebels had decreed that the slavery of the Council and the Qraul could stand no more.
In a war of true believers, Nesyur Geshlvyr was something else entirely. He had received Council training, though he had not been talented enough to be inducted into the ranks of Adept and Disciple, and when the first stirrings of the insurrection were heard in Usgelt and Asder he had insinuated himself among the rebels, sending regular reports to the Adept in Devew on what was occurring there. When it later emerged that the Adept and his Disciple were using the alkemycal engines of the Desecrators, Nesyur was implicated in turning them from the Council. Even as they were being executed, Nesyur was ensuring the capture of the rebels who had supplied the engines to them. Following that, neither side could say for certain whether he was working for their interests, and so both turned against him. He had fled the province, barely escaping, and had not been seen in over ten years.
And now here he was in Hessen on his way to Sylaron.
“What would take a Kragian to Renuih?” Vyissan said.
Nesyur smiled. “That is a tale in itself, not a happy one at that, so I’ll not burden you with it.”
It was a simple mistake and the second seemed not to notice it. There had been no change to Nesyur’s expression either, but Vyissan was certain he would be aware of it. How could he not? Someone from the Republics would have called him a northerner. That Vyissan had called him by his kind, even in the Enir tongue, could only mean he was from Craitol.
Vyissan smiled in turn, disguising the rising turmoil within, and carried the conversation to safer territory, commenting on how beautiful a city Hessen was.
“It is one of the finer Republics I have seen,” the second said, and Nesyur nodded. “And the academies. I’d a ramp my last time through so beautiful I’d be a brother starling with any man, with a dozen men, for the rest of my time if it were in her nest.”
“What is your town?” Nesyur asked Vyissan. “I cannot tell from your accent.”
“Tuissar.” One of the more populous Republics, and the man who had taught him the Renian tongue and the Enir dialect had been from there. It had seemed the safest choice at the time; he could easily adopt his tutor’s accent and the city was large enough that he could navigate most conversations without exposing the true depths of his knowledge. Nothing was safe just now, though—it was only a matter of time before he made another mistake. Nesyur would be sure to press him, to confirm what he now suspected.
“A marvelous city,” the second declared, his eye still on the coin.
“Grand Republic. I spent two years there.” Of course. Vyissan had to resist shaking his head.
“There is a square there—the name escapes me now. It was between the Hezier’s Palace and the silk market. The gesht would gather there in the evenings and sing, and all the old men. As perfect a square as exists in our earthly realm.”
“A marvelous square,” Vyissan agreed.
“Strange to say it reminded me of home.”
Now, what did that mean? Vyissan raised an eyebrow as if to inquire, feeling his breath go still in his chest.
Nesyur gestured as though the sensation could not be captured by mere words, so feeble and devious, “It was only…I grew up in a town called Fegh, and the old men would all gather at sundown in the squares and play cards and dice and drink. As they do everywhere, of course. When I was a child that was where I would go. And when I was in Tuissar, that was where I would go.”
Vyissan frantically parsed his words for some metaphor, some meaning that he had buried within that only a Craitolian could unearth. If there was any hidden import it was more carefully entombed than a Renian. He allowed a small measure of hope to seep into his body. Perhaps Nesyur hadn’t noticed a thing. It was only a matter of time if he went on this voyage, though. Only a matter of time.
“They also have the best dala in Tuissar,” the second said.
“Extraordinary,” Nesyur said, and Vyissan murmured in agreement. “Although the cups I had here—”
There was an angry shout from above deck, a name sounded as a curse. The second winced hearing it and nodded at both men before going above.
Nesyur continued, “The cups I had here were unlike any I’ve ever had. Have you—”
He did not finish his sentence. Vyissan had been waiting until he heard the second’s footsteps joining the others above them. Once they did he moved, lunging at Nesyur, the dagger in his hand emerging smoothly from his robes to be buried to the hilt in the other’s chest. Nesyur gasped in surprise, raising his hands to ward off the blow too late.
Vyissan did not give him time to say anything further, yanking his blade out and grabbing Nesyur, stepping behind him as he did so, and cutting his throat with a vicious pull of the dagger. He was careful to keep his robes away from the blood that sprang forth as he lowered the Kragian into one of the hammocks.
“That blood is only a small payment on what you owe. The rest you’ll give in Ulternon’s Hall.” Said in Kragian, nothing more. Let him wonder who, in the end, had found him.
Vyissan moved quickly, arranging the body on the hammock as best he could so that someone just passing by the quarters might not see anything amiss, and then wiped his hands clean. Nesyur was still in his death throes as he left, blood filling up his mouth and spilling out as he tried to speak, his eyes blinking furiously and seeing nothing. Vyissan went above deck, finding the second and giving his leave, promising to return tomorrow with his decision on the passage.
The journey from the ship across the wharf and to the city seemed to pass in another sort of time, not the steady trickle of accumulation he was used to, but one where drop after drop fell at uneven intervals, and the moments in between the beads passed with all the realms gone still. At any moment he expected to hear a cry rising from the vessel, the sound of running men coming towards him, the summoning of the authorities. None of which occurred. He passed into the city, unable to resist a glance back, and set about on a winding path towards its center.