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"Willrich puts the mystery back in magic and the majesty back in dragons. Gaunt and Bone are the Han and Leia of heroic fantasy."
—Howard Tayler, creator of the Hugo award-nominated Schlock Mercenary
“Willrich’s beautifully written debut paints a vivid, richly imagined world populated by delightfully memorable characters. . . . This fantastical quest story contains witty narration, well-drawn characters, and a fast-moving plot.”
"A literary take on classic swords and sorcery, combining the droll tone and the adventure of Fritz Leiber with the lushness and profoundness of Catherynne M. Valente. Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone are just as delightful when pondering poetry or philosophy as when stealing a magic sword."
—Scott H. Andrews, editor of the acclaimed magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“I loved it. A polished blend of action, compelling characters, fantastic world building, and masterful prose.”
—Howard Andrew Jones, author of The Desert of Souls
The six-masted junk that lurched and heaved in the spray of the Starborn Sea was called Passport to Heaven, or something like that. Gaunt's language skills had failed her many months ago and many ports westward, and she now relied on the translations of a well-traveled ship's cook from jungle-shrouded Kpalamaa. "Or perhaps the name translates best to Capital Punishment," the cook added cheerfully, leaning on the bow-rail as she waited for her assistants to heat her oven amidships. "For all their legalism, the people of Qiangguo love ambiguities."
Gaunt grunted. Her calligraphic skills were unimpaired, at least, and when she and Imago Bone had boarded this dubious vessel in Serendip she'd noted the somewhat hasty manner in which the wavy logograms had been painted upon the stern. She suspected at some point the ship had swiftly changed hands. A criminal herself, she spoke nothing of it. They could not be choosy.
By now Eshe of Kpalamaa had learned to expect a certain volubility from Gaunt and Bone. So she cocked an eyebrow at the other woman's grunt, her black hair twisting and coiling in the wind, dark freckles covering Eshe's face like strange shadows of stars. The tall cook, muscled like a fighter, given to grins, seemed at once serious and girlish, like one who has given and taken much hurt, yet refuses to surrender anything, even laughter. It was perhaps for that reason that Gaunt tolerated her company—that, and the experience the older woman had with Gaunt's condition.
"Is the baby tiring you?" Eshe asked.
"Is there tea in Qiangguo?" Gaunt snapped.
Now at eight months' pregnant, Gaunt was grateful for her rugged farm girl's body, honed by years of travel. While the bump of her belly was pronounced, and she grew weary quickly, for short stretches she was almost as sturdy as she'd been before her sojourn in the desert. She refused to stay confined to her cabin. She could imagine running the length of this ship (as she did regularly in search of a place to pee) or swimming off it and scaling the cliffs of this coast.
Well, perhaps she wouldn't go that far. Best to conserve energy. Even standing still, her body was busy. She felt the wriggling life within her kick in response to the lurch and heave of the Passport/Punishment, and felt pride in her unsprung offspring's vitality.
She watched the wind spill droplets from the waves' foamy peaks into the waves' dark troughs—like little cheese shavings tumbling into a baker's bowl. Her stomach groaned. (Hunger was an ongoing annoyance of pregnancy.) But Gaunt smiled a trifle, thinking of the little ocean inside her, the little one bobbing within it.
Someday I will show this to you, she promised, or something like it. This Starborn Sea, or the Sandkiss Sea of our journey, or the Spiral Sea of home. I will teach you to love the roiling jewelscape of the water, the blinding fishnet of the light upon it, the sting of salt in the eyes, the coarse delight of brine on the tongue.
Someday, when we are sure we're safe.
It was as if her lover detected her worries from his perch upon the mainmast, for Eshe reported, "Bone is coming."
Gaunt turned to see him scrambling down the flag-tipped bamboo pinnacle at the heart of the vast junk. In the process Bone clipped his nose upon one of the horizontal battens supporting the thin bamboo sails, slid to a hard landing upon the dark teakwood deck, where he rallied and rolled and danced his way through the crew, hard-looking men who were mostly of Qiangguo origin, though some hailed from spired Mirabad, torrid Serendip, or the mighty city-state of Harimaupura. (All of little relevance now, for their true nationality was the sea, and they now gave Bone looks suggesting he might become an honorary citizen at its bottom.) Bearded sailors, smooth-faced sailors with their hair in ponytails, bald sailors, sailors with peaked hats, sailors with eyepatches and one with a bronze nose, sailors of yellow hue, brown, or black, sailors wearing head scarves and sashed robes, sailors bearing armor and capes, sailors clad only in trousers, with rain-dragons tattooed upon their backs—all glared at the prancing Western rogue who threaded between them as nonchalantly as a sea-wind.
Eshe shot him a somewhat different look, an appraising one that, did Gaunt not know Bone so well, might have raised concern. "Is he always so ... frenetic?" the cook asked.
"Bone's body," Gaunt said (only in private did she call him Imago, and sometimes not even then) "is perhaps best understood as the dogged manservant that trails his spirit."
Bone strode up to the bow, which now lay nearly in the shadow of the three ascending poop decks aft. He leapt into the triangle of ruby light from the setting sun as though it existed solely to accentuate the thief, and alighted beside Gaunt and Eshe.
He seemed to think such acrobatics would amuse Gaunt in her current condition. They did not.
Well, not enough to show, at least.
"Did you see the city?" she demanded. Ahead, across mist and the darkening sea, the land was like a vast green eyebrow, edged with spindly hills like grey hairs. Dark mountain spires rose beyond like tassels hung from the hat of the sky.
"I did not," he conceded. "The mists are thick upon the sea." Cockiness faded to awkwardness. With a stiff bow he returned to Eshe the spyglass he'd borrowed, a Kpalamaa artifact of teak and brass, studded with ivory cheetahs depicted running from objective to focus. He moved nearer Gaunt and rubbed her shoulder. Eshe nodded to the pair and discreetly moved amidships, where the galley puffed chimney smoke.
Bone added, "I, ah, did however glimpse the Heavenwalls."
"I suppose," she said, "you'll tell me they are really little more than cattle walls."
Eagerness lit Bone's eyes. "Far more. They are immense. They run from coast to horizon, and back again, snakily."
"Be wary of adverbs," the poet said, shifting into the circle of his arms.
Bone sighed. "They snake from coast to horizon," he said, "and back again."
"Better. Go on."
"I'd mistaken them for rock formations, until through the spyglass I regarded their regularity, the torchlit windows in their sides, the battlements upon their backs, the carved claws that jut at intervals, big as mansions. The nearer Wall's stone has a reddish hue. Peasants tend rice paddies beneath, little dark dots in shallow, gleaming water. Some miles beyond the nearer Wall, the second Wall, this of a blue-grey stone, peeks occasionally above the first. It veers close to its ruddy comrade, before lashing away to a great distance, as if to assert its independence."
Gaunt closed her eyes. "Thank you."
"I hope I am improving." As time had passed, and Gaunt had grudgingly conceded the limitations imposed by pregnancy, she'd recruited Bone as retrieval dog, handhold, and scout. His descriptions in that last role had been porridge-dull at first, but by slow degrees he'd spiced them. "We'll be around that rocky cape soon," he added, "and according to the crew you'll then see the Walls for yourself, and the capital of Riverclaw besides." The city's name, and indeed the Heavenwalls', were of course quite differently pronounced. (Jiang Zhua and Tianqiang, respectively, as best as she could tell.) But each time Gaunt and Bone tried to speak them, they earned guffaws from the crew.
Gaunt swore she would learn better. Her child might after all be growing up in the Empire of Walls (Qiangguo) and would need every advantage it could get. Bone coughed, and said, "That means we'll be disembarking tomorrow."
"I should hope."
He tapped nervous, clever fingers on the railing. "Um. Ships' captains, back home, sometimes perform weddings. Perhaps here ..."
She studied his lean, scarred face, embroidered with a few recent cuts, testament to their last days in the desert and his determination to keep shaving aboard ship. A hard face. Yet it was a beloved one, one she hoped to see every day for many years. "We do not even know his language, Bone."
"Eshe can translate."
"It is too soon, Bone."
"Of course, of course. It is only the eighth month ..."
He smirked. "I had never expected, Persimmon, to be the wild-eyed romantic of any couple."
In truth, Gaunt had not expected that either. It was not a thing that reduced easily to words, and at times that worried the poet. She trusted sentences the way sailors trusted lines, but on this topic she felt unmoored.
"Imago, it is simply ..."
That particular word hung like a dour-eyed seagull in the wind. Simply was simply said, but was often harbinger for a flock of paragraphs. Be wary of adverbs indeed.
But then events precluded Gaunt giving that speech, and she never learned quite what it would have been.
Without warning the ship lurched hard toward the coast.
* * *
The great vessel dwarfed any Amberhornish dromond or Eldshoren caravel, carrying over a hundred sailors. It had such a boxlike configuration Gaunt still had trouble believing it could sail, yet until now it had commanded the waves more regally than its Western counterparts. Bone had said it recalled the Treasure Fleet of the Eunuch Admiral who visited the West in Bone's youth, so long ago there were two moons in the sky. Perhaps it had been a support ship on that expedition.
Despite its size, Passport/Punishment had rather less rigging than a Western vessel, and from the bow it was easy to get a sense of activity topside.
Or lack of activity, rather. "No battle," Gaunt said. "No other ships in sight—though with these mists, that means little. Everyone still at their posts ..."
"Still is the operative word," Bone said. "Why do they not react?"
He was right. Instead of the usual ripple of banter or laughter or song there came to her ears only the flapping of the mast-flags with their cheery red calligraphy—that, and the scampering and shouting of the dozen nearest sailors, who alone responded to the danger. But the captain in his silks? The navigator with his book? The cargo-master with his scroll? All those from amidships to the triple-tiered poop decks at the stern stood listlessly, as if transfixed by music only they could hear.
As the ship heaved toward the jagged coast these sternward sailors shifted with unconscious grace to keep their balance but otherwise stood oblivious, staring straight ahead through the ocean mists at oncoming cliffs dancing with crashing foam.
"Their minds ..." Bone growled, drawing a dagger.
"Night's Auditors," Gaunt agreed, duplicating his action.
Bone raised his hand to the nearer crewmen, displayed his dagger, jabbed it at the stern. He pretended to draw the blade across his throat. Danger, he meant to say.
Gaunt waved her fingers dramatically while silently mouthing incantations. Magic. The sailors took the hint. They narrowed their eyes, crouched, and drew weapons.
"Where are they, Bone?" Gaunt said, squinting ahead. "Where are those monsters?"
"For that matter," Bone said as the still-lively forward crew cautiously advanced beside them, "how did they reach us? We have seen no ship. Oh ..."
A taloned shadow crossed the deck.
Gaunt jerked her head, saw a dark cloud mass to southeast—and a winged reptilian form flying beside its cover.
"They've suborned a dragon?" Gaunt said. The crewmen beside her, for all the dragon-tattoos upon their bodies, muttered in dismay. This was no kindly, water-aspected dragon of the East. This fire-breather had somehow tracked Gaunt and Bone thousands of miles.
"A big one," Bone said, his greed clearly aroused despite himself. "Watch it glint." Metals glowed upon the dragon's red hide, like deposits of iron, bronze, silver, and gold embedded in a sandstone hill. "An arkendrake, or nearly so. Ready to mate or settle down and begin transmogrifying fully into mineral. The most dangerous, mercurial kind."
"Can even the auditors have such power?" Gaunt said. "And such range, to subdue the crew from there?"
"We've still our wits," Bone said, "so let's assume no to the second. Allow me a deep breath, and a good tremble ... Now: the auditors are two in number. If one is riding the dragon at this moment, that leaves one other. Perhaps he was brought close at hand amidst the sea-mist and sunset's shadows. Swimming aboard, murdering minds from hiding. Perhaps hiding belowdecks, creeping forward ..."
Bone jabbed his dagger toward an air-grill in the teak deck. Unusually bright lantern-light swirled and flickered in the darkness below and aft. The glow was not the natural yellow-orange of flame, but an all-too-familiar, eerie illumination that recalled bright gushes of blood. The shadows crawled, as if recoiling from the sorcerous light.
"I'll have to go down there," Bone said, grimacing. "At least there is darkness."
"Wait," said Gaunt, for steam yet rose from the kitchen, and now she saw Eshe of Kpalamaa stalk from the galley, cleaver in hand, searching for danger all around. The cook was not disappointed. For, quite apart from the dragon, the Passport/Punishment was now aimed at a stone arch curving over the waves like a giant's petrified hand. Erosion had mimicked finger-gaps in the vine-covered, bird-spattered stone, and the ocean splashed and sucked its way through these gaps and the grand tunnel formed by the arch—a tunnel fractionally too small for the ship to pass through. The vessel was doomed, and soon all aboard must become either landlubbers or chum, unless Night's Auditors should find them interesting.
The baby kicked. Yes, little one, Gaunt thought. I must act. She waved Eshe over.
"Eshe, can you ask the crew to guard the hatches?"
"Enemies below?" This was a direction for danger Eshe had not initially considered, and she looked dubiously at the teak decking.
"One enemy," Bone said.
"If a strange Westerner emerges," Gaunt said, "the men should shut their eyes, babble nonsense, and fight."
"Eccentric tactical advice," Eshe noted. "I'll relay it." She bellowed to the men, who growled their assent. They were more eager to follow her lead than the Western rogues'. Eshe echoed their suspicion when she turned back to Gaunt and Bone. "They are after you, aren't they? What are they?"
"The firm of Hackwroth and Lampblack," Bone said. "Known as Night's Auditors. Wizards shunned by most of their ilk, for carving minds like turkeys at harvest time."
"Apparently," Gaunt added, "even magic-workers who commit human sacrifice, annihilate villages, and connive with nameless horrors will balk at having their thoughts so smoothly sifted. So Hackwroth and Lampblack find their employment with rulers. They make exquisite assassins, often leaving the husks of their targets alive."
"I've heard of them," Eshe said quietly, surprising Gaunt. "You make interesting friends. Have you a plan?"
Gaunt nodded at the galley. "Have you hot water?"
Soon poet, thief, and cook crouched around an air-grill, bearing steaming buckets. Armed crew ringed them.
"Now," Bone whispered, "eyes shut." Gaunt did so. Out the corner of her eye she had glimpsed strange flickers of flame belowdecks, writhing like burning worms.
She heard the creaking of a lantern, the tread of footsteps upon planks, a pause, a dry cough that seemed to carry all the dust of a barren life ...
"Pour!" Bone said.
Three buckets of searing water hissed down the grate.
Below, someone screamed. Gaunt opened her eyes.
The peculiar twisting blood-fire of the lantern-light flared below, framing a hulking shadow that spun and shook.
"We—" Gaunt began, but was interrupted by fiery tendrils hissing straight up through the gaps in the grill.
The fire coalesced in mid-air, like a miniature sun gone mad. Its gyrations reminded Gaunt of wasps caught within a water-trap.
The flame spiraled though the air. As it neared Gaunt, she swung her bucket.
There was an impact as of hitting a jellyfish; the metal of the bucket seared her hand. She dropped it with a clang, nursing her palm while glimpsing the deflected fire-ball intersecting the head of a sailor. That man gasped as the blob burned through one ear and roared out the other, a trifle brighter now.
He stood still, his shocked expression frozen forever in place. He toppled backward into the water.
The lantern-fire orbited at a distance, as if uncertain of its next move.
Gaunt was somewhat estranged from the goddess of her native Swanisle, but she nonetheless made the sign of hooked thumbs and flared fingers upon her chest. She noticed Eshe doing the same.
Bone had noticed something else. "Dragon," he said, a bit giddily, just before its shadow clawed out the sun.
The beast was indeed plunging from the sky. Even from a distance it was hard to take in completely: a body like a snake's but also like a rocky ridge, wings like a bat's but also like thunderclouds, claws like an eagle's but also like shards of obsidian, a head apt for an alligator or a volcanic cinder-cone, smile made of rubies, no simile required.
Gaunt waved everyone with a will toward the bow. Eshe joined her. Bone hesitated, knife drawn, eye upon the wandering flame. He cut at a deck line, thus retrieving a length of rope. He pulled out a vial that glittered a little.
"The ur-glue?" Gaunt said, crouching beside him. He nodded, glaring at the oncoming rocks, applying some to the rope tip.
Excerpted from THE SCROLL OF YEARS by Chris Willrich. Copyright © 2013 Chris Willrich. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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