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Five Years Ago
The flashes of witchlight began to streak the horizon shortly after midnight and continued through the night, growing closer by the hour. Paet ran through the dappled darkness, ignoring the sky.
The attack had come as no surprise to anyone, but Mab's Army had beaten even the most alarmist estimates in its timing. Back at the Seelie Embassy, the packing and burning of documents, which had begun in an orderly fashion three days earlier, had become a frenzy of activity. Bags were hurriedly packed; valuables were sewn into the linings of garments; empty kerosene barrels were stuffed with dossiers and set aflame.
None of this was of any concern to Paet.
Blood of Arawn was an ancient city. Not as old, perhaps, as one of its Seelie counterparts, but it appeared much older as a result of governmental indifference down the ages. The cobbles in the streets were uneven, some missing, and Paet could hear carts and carriages jouncing across them in the street beyond his darkened alley. He could also hear shouts and occasional shrieks, as certain of the populace considered the reputation of the encroaching conquerors and decided not to take their chances. Paet could hardly blame them; life under the Unseelie was certain to be a disappointment for those who decided to stay.
A group of a dozen Chthonic coenobites clattered past Paet, their faces calm, their legendary indifference suiting them well this night. Their saffron-dyed robes brushed the cobblestones, the bells sewn into their fabric quietly jingling. As the state religion in all but name, the Chthonics would be allowed to continue so long as they acknowledged Mab as a goddess, and superior to their own. This the Chthonics would happily agree to do, praising Mab publicly and ignoring her in private. Their own deities had been subdued eons earlier and could scarcely take offense. Or so the stories went; Paet had no use for religion.
There was a scintillating flash in the sky. A moment later the ground shook and Paet stumbled. He stopped and listened as the low rumble of reitic concussions echoed down the alley. Waves of heat from the battle outside had begun to roll over the walls before Paet had left the embassy, and now the city both felt and smelled like a tavern kitchen: stifling, stinking of sweat and overripe food. Paet felt the prickling of perspiration beneath his heavy linen shirt. He continued running.
The district of Kollws Vymynal covered the smallest of Blood of Arawn's seven hills. The East Gate was set into the wall at the foot of Kollws Vymynal, which put it closest to the fighting outside. Here Paet could just hear the clash of blades and the shrieks of horses and men mixed in with thundering hooves and reitic blasts.
How long had it been since he'd left the embassy? His internal time sense told him it was only about twenty minutes. That gave him just enough time to retrieve Jenien and make it to the Port-Herion Lock before the Masters shut the thing down, stranding them in Annwn. Not the end of the world, but close enough.
The streets of Kollws Vymynal twisted and doubled back upon themselves, and what signs existed were printed in tiny ancient script that beggared deciphering. The district's inhabitants had either bolted themselves inside their homes, drawing the curtains and shutters tight, or had joined the frantic knots of refugees. Most were headed toward the Southwest Gate, which meant that Paet was fighting against their current. From the city they would beg passage to a different world or strike out southward, hoping to disappear into the plains villages.
The clock in a nearby Chthonic temple struck three and Paet whispered a curse. This was taking too long.
Paet finally found the address he was looking for at the end of a small cul-de-sac, a four-story tenement that smelled heavily of burnt cooking oil and pepper and rot. This was the address Jenien had written down in her logbook when she'd left the embassy that morning, long before word of Mab's invasion had reached the city. Just the address and a name: Prae Benesile. All she'd told Paet was that she was going to visit a "person of interest," which could mean just about anything. By nightfall, while Blood of Arawn convulsed in preparation for its imminent surrender, she still hadn't returned. Paet had waited for her until he could wait no longer and had then gone after her.
"We won't hold the lock for you," Ambassador Traet had told him diffidently. Everything about Traet was hesitant and noncommittal; his appointment had been a sinecure, and laughably so. In happier times, Annwn had been a cozy assignment. Now Traet was in over his head, but at least he had the sense to realize it. "If you're not back by sunrise," Traet had said, stuffing a valise haphazardly with documents, "you're on your own."
Paet breathed deeply ten times. He consciously slowed his heart and forced out the remainder of the prickly heat that filled his blood. The fear of the body could be controlled easily, but for the fear of the mind there was no cure. Only action, despite it.
At the end of the street someone smashed the window of a bakery and grabbed a basket of bread amid surprised shouts.
Paet let himself into the tenement building and hurried up the stairs, making no sound that any Fae or Annwni could hear; of course, the things he was most concerned about were neither, and had excellent hearing. Still. The stairway was filled with cooking smells and body odor. When he reached the third floor he stepped carefully out of the stairwell. The narrow hallway was empty; several doors along its length were open, their inhabitants apparently not seeing the point of locking up behind them. Many of the older, poorer residents of Annwn had fought against Mab's Army in the Sixweek War twenty years previously, and had apparently had enough of the Unseelie for a lifetime.
The apartment Paet was searching for was near the end of the hall. Its door was open as well, though light still burned within. Paet took a long, serrated knife from within his cloak, testing the blade with his thumb by force of habit. He pushed the door open gently and waited, listening. His hard-learned caution warred in his mind with his sense of urgency. If ever there was a time to take a risk, this was it. He swore under his breath and stepped into the apartment.
It was small, a single room lit by a lone witchlamp sconce set into the wall. The long-untuned bilious green light cast harsh shadows over the furniture, placing imagined adversaries in every corner. A tattered cot slumped beneath the waxed-paper window. A chipped chamber pot sat in the corner. Books and bits of paper and parchment were everywhere, piled on the floor, leaned in uneven stacks against the wall, scattered across the cot. There was no sign of Jenien.
Stop and think. Breathe. Relax and smooth the edges of consciousness. Paet picked up a book at random and opened it. It was written by Prae Benesile himself, a work of philosophy, something to do with the history of the Chthonic religion. He put it down and picked up another. This one was a collection of Thule religious poetry, prayers to the bound gods, hymns of supplication, prophecies of liberation and doom. A sampling of the rest of the books revealed most of them to be of a kind: works of philosophy, sacred texts-many regarding the Chthonics, but also some Arcadian scrolls, a few codices from the Annwni emperor cult. Some were written in languages that Paet didn't recognize. There was nothing here to indicate that Prae Benesile was anything other than a reclusive scholar.
Paet sniffed. Blood. Blood had been spilled in this room, and recently. He knelt down and examined the dusty floorboards. Too many shadows. Paet glanced toward the window, shrugged, and created a stronger, pure white witchlight that suffused the entire room. The blood on the floor was tacky and brown, smeared in a scuffle. Paet heard the choking cough from beneath the cot just as his eyes followed the trail of drying blood toward it. He tested his grip on the knife and then channeled Motion and drew the cot quickly backward with a twist of his mind.
Jenien lay curled in a fetal position, clutching her abdomen, breathing raggedly. She looked up at him, and her eyes went wide in her pale face. * * *
"Watching," she whispered. "Bel Zheret are here."
Paet's heart leapt forcefully at the name. He stood and whirled, brandishing the knife. Nothing moved.
He turned back to Jenien and knelt before her. "If they were here I either slipped past them, or they're long gone."
"Said they'd be back for me," Jenien wheezed. She was having trouble breathing. Paet gently pulled her hands away from her belly, pulled aside her shredded blouse. Jenien was going to die; there was nothing he could do for her. These were wounds that not even a Shadow could recover from.
Paet found a pillow on the overturned cot and put it under Jenien's head. Her hair was wet with perspiration. She reached for his wrist and grabbed it with weak fingers.
"Mab's coming," Jenien observed. "Thought we'd have a few more days."
"Things at the embassy have become frantic to say the least."
Jenien chuckled softly. "Traet running around like a headless chicken?"
"Is that knife sharp, Paet?" she said after a brief pause.
"I'm getting you out of here," he said. "Just rest a moment longer."
"Remember that night in Sylvan?" she asked. She was starting to slur her speech. Her body trembled. "The little theater with the terrible play?"
"I remember," Paet said, smiling.
"I bet if we were normal we could have fallen in love that night," she said, sighing.
Paet felt his emotions receding as she spoke. The world became flat. Jenien was an object, a bleeding thing with no impact. A problem to be solved. Was this lack of feeling something he'd always had, or something he'd developed? He couldn't remember. Had he become empty like this when he became a Shadow, or was it the emptiness that qualified him for the job? It didn't seem to matter.
"It was the mulled wine," he said, sitting her up. "It was strong. Hard to tell through the cinnamon and cloves."
She winced as he maneuvered himself behind her. "You looked very dashing. You had one of those red cloaks that were so popular back then."
"Just blending in," he said. Then, after a moment, "What was so important about Prae Benesile, Jenien?"
She shook her head sadly and worked to speak clearly. "Someone from the City of Mab had been to see him. Five times in the past year. I was just curious. Bel Zheret showed up when-" She winced.
Paet brought up the knife. "They take him?"
Jenien nodded. "He struggled; they killed him."
"I don't want to die," she said. It was a statement, merely an observation.
"We've been dead for a long time," he whispered in her ear. He drew the knife across her throat in a quick, sure motion, and pulled her neck back to hasten the bleeding. She shook; her chest lurched once, then twice. He waited until he was certain she was dead, checking her eyes. He looked into them until all the life had gone out of them. It took time. Dying always took time.
Paet took a deep breath and braced his knee against her back. He put the serrated blade of the knife to Jenien's throat again, using the original cut as a guide. He buried his other hand in her hair and pulled, hard, as he began to saw.
Ligament popped. Metal ground against bone. With a sickening crunch, vertebrae parted. A few more strokes and the remaining skin tore loose soundlessly. Jenien's head swung obscenely in his grasp.
He laid it gently on the floor and reached into his cloak. Among the few items he'd brought with him from the embassy was a wax-lined canvas bag, for just this purpose. He unfolded the bag and placed Jenien's head, dripping with blood and sweat, gently inside.
That's what you got for being a Shadow.
* * *
He didn't hear them so much as feel the disturbance of the air as they flowed into the room.
Paet turned and saw two tall, dark figures flanking the door. For an instant they looked as surprised as he, but to their credit, they recovered more quickly than Paet did. The first one had his sword out before Paet could begin to react.
Paet stepped back, feeling the position of the corpse behind him and moving easily around it. He stepped into a ready stance, his knife already warm in his hand.
The first swordsman closed on Paet, and Paet got a good look into the man's eyes. Black, empty black, stretching inward to infinity.
Paet was a dangerous man. But going up against two Bel Zheret in a closed space was suicide. He backed up, toward the dingy window of waxed paper.
"You're a Shadow, aren't you?" said the first swordsman. He smiled pleasantly. "My name is Cat. It would be my sincere pleasure to kill you."
"It would be my sincere pleasure for you not to."
"Just so. But I must insist. I have never killed one of you."
"Oh. In that case I'm not going to fight you," said Paet, sheathing the knife.
The Bel Zheret stopped short, flicking his blade in the air. The grin faded, replaced with sincere disappointment. "Why not?"
"If I'm going to die anyway, I'd prefer to give you neither the pleasure nor the experience of engaging me in combat. The next time you come against a Shadow, I'd prefer that you have no personal knowledge of our tactics, our speed, or our reflexes. That way, you can be more easily defeated then by one of my colleagues."
Cat pondered this, never taking his eyes off of Paet. "Well," he said, shrugging, "we can still torture you."
He waved the other Bel Zheret forward. "Restrain him, Asp," he said.
Asp moved with astonishing fluidity and quickness. He didn't seem to tread through the room so much as unfold across it, his limbs elastic, perhaps even multijointed. No matter how many times Paet saw this skill employed, it unnerved him.
Paet took a deep breath and unsheathed his knife again, rearing back for a sudden forward attack against Cat, carefully weighing the cloth bag in his other hand. Cat prepared to block Paet's attack, but no attack came. Paet instead added to his rearward momentum by shoving off with his back foot, launching himself toward and through the window. The third-story window.
Falling backward, unable to see the ground, Paet considered his chances for survival. The descent seemed to go on for eternity. He concentrated and slowed his heart again, deliberately letting his muscles go slack. He even willed his bones to soften and become more flexible, though he had no sense of whether it was a good idea, or whether it would even work.
Finally, he hit the cobblestones on his back, at the angle he'd desired. Jenien's head made a sick, muffled thump as it struck. In his hurry, Paet had forgotten the knife in his left hand, and he felt the snap of his wrist as it was wrenched by the hilt's impact. How many of Paet's wrist bones broke simultaneously he couldn't guess. More than one. There was no pain yet, but that would come in a few seconds.
Excerpted from The Office of Shadow by Matthew Sturges Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Sturges. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 26, 2010
Well to sum it up, this book was boring. The author completely failed to draw me into the story at all which is too bad because it could have been awesome based on the plot line but it's hard to enjoy a book when you don't care one whit about any of the characters. I have read similar reviews on this author so I don't hold out much hope for his other books either. If you want something with a similar storyline but much better writing try Eddings' The Tamuli or Bujold's Curse of Chalion.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 6, 2010
Womanizer Silverdun shocks anyone who knows him when he becomes a priest. However, being a man of the cloth proves tedious as all he hears is whining confessions. When the Seelie leadership asks him to serve as a lead espionage field agent of the newly approved (by Queen Tatiana) top secret department Office of Shadow who will perform functions that go against the kingdom's value system like using psyops techniques including blackmail, extortion, and abduction to cause unrest amongst the enemy or stealing Unseelie secrets; he agrees.
However, he is put off by his new employer's demand he receive training in combat skills; mundane and magical. Ennui settles in until he is teamed up with soldier-magic academic researcher Ironfoot, and deadly almost out of control Sela the empath on a dangerous impossible mission. Their mission is to learn the origin of Einswrath, the weapon of mass destruction that Queen Mab and her Unseelie forces apparently are deploying in what will lead to a second battle in the Seelie-Unseelie war (see Midwinter).
This is a typical espionage thriller and a typical quest fantasy, but brilliantly combined into an atypical enthralling espionage fantasy. The Office of Shadow has selected the right person to lead the charge while his teammates bring diverse but needed skills to the table. Fast-paced and filled with plenty of action , yet clearly character driven by the band of three and their cohorts, readers will relish the second Seelie-Unseelie dispute as both sides approve anything goes tactics.
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Posted May 21, 2010
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Posted May 22, 2010
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