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The Tainted City
Book II of The Shattered Sigil
By Courtney Schafer, Jeremy Lassen
Night Shade BooksCopyright © 2012 Courtney Schafer
All rights reserved.
I wedged my fingers higher in the crack snaking up the boulder's overhanging face. A push of a foot, a twist of my body, and the overhang's lip was nearly within reach. Good thing, since I had to finish this little warm-up climb fast, or risk a whipping if the shift bell rang before I got to the mine. Dawn's light already streaked the gorge rim far above me with gold, though it'd be mid-morning before the sun rose high enough to touch the reedy mudflats here in the gorge's depths. Beyond my boulder, clumps of men in grime-streaked coveralls trudged toward the yawning black mouth at the base of the cliffs. Lights bobbed in jerky rhythms within the tunnel as the night haulers hurried to finish sacking their quota of coal.
"Spend one instant longer crawling up that rock instead of joining your crew, boy, and I'll choke you blind."
The torc around my neck heated in warning as overseer Gedavar spoke. I jerked my fingers free of the crack and dropped to land in the mud at the boulder's base. Sudden sweat laced my palms. What in Shaikar's hells had brought Gedavar sniffing around? With the day shift soon to start, he should be relaying the minemaster's orders to the crew chiefs, not skulking about behind the prisoners' barracks. The thin copper disc of the stolen glowlight charm hidden beneath my sock cuff felt large as a wagon wheel.
"I'm on my way," I muttered, and made to dodge past him.
"Hold." Gedavar barred my path. Easy for him to do, since he dwarfed me not only in height but in bulk. All of it solid muscle, despite the gray salting his close-cropped dark hair and the lines seaming his scowling, olive-skinned face. "I heard tell from Lanedan he saw you sneaking around the quartermaster's yard yesterday. Looking to steal, were you?"
"I wasn't stealing—or sneaking, either. Jathon sent me to tell the quartermaster we only had two pallets of sacks left. I didn't touch a gods-damned thing." That was nothing but truth. The charm in my sock hadn't come from the quartermaster's stores. I'd palmed it off the corpse of a miner who'd suffocated after hitting a pocket of poisoned air. Alathian charms carried little more than glimmers of magic, but I didn't need magic for my plan to ditch this muck-infested pit of a mining camp. I just needed copper.
Gedavar smiled, not pleasantly. "I've a mind to make sure. Spread your arms."
Shit. He didn't truly believe I'd stolen anything from the quartermaster. He knew perfectly well the man kept his supply chests warded as tight as gem vaults. But Gedavar never missed a chance to scrag me. If he searched me thoroughly enough to find the charm, weeks of planning would come to ruin. I had to distract him.
I lifted my arms and sneered, "What, the camp jennies won't have you, so you've turned desperate enough to grope scut-men?"
Gedavar's broad face purpled. He twisted a ward-etched gold ring on one thick finger. The torc tightened around my throat until I choked and doubled over. A shove sent me sprawling face-first into mud black with coal grit. "Don't you mouth off to me, you piece of goat shit!"
The torc cinched tighter. Red hazed my vision. I thrashed, fear rising with the pressure in my lungs. I'd meant to provoke him into punishing me without a search, but not to strangle me outright—
A sucking squelch of footsteps announced a newcomer. "Leave him be, Gedavar. I can't get a proper day's work from him if you throttle him senseless before he so much as touches a coal sack." Jathon's raspy voice lowered to a mutter. "You want that Council mage lurking in the minemaster's office to burn your hide?"
The torc loosened. I sucked in a lungful of air and promptly set about coughing my guts out. Between coughs, I cast a wary glance at Jathon, whose weathered brown face was clean of expression, his thick-muscled arms crossed. Thank Khalmet he'd called Gedavar off—but why had he bothered? He'd never shown anything but cold disdain for me, the lone prisoner assigned to his crew of coal haulers.
Gedavar leaned over me and spat. "That's for Council mages and their gods-cursed orders. Daylight labor's meant for honest Alathians who've earned the right, not foreign lawbreakers. By rights this little weasel should be on scut duty with the other criminals, so deep in the tunnels he withers from lack of light."
"No argument here," Jathon said. "I'd be chewing bile if it was my nephew got shoved off to work the blacklights so a prisoner could take his place."
I froze in the act of swiping away spittle. I'd long since guessed from the muttered asides and resentful glares of Jathon's haulers that some poor bastard had gotten booted from their crew for my sake—but Gedavar's nephew? No wonder Gedavar hated me. Coal hauling might be backbreaking work, but it was as safe as picking wildflowers in a meadow compared to tending finicky, powder-fueled lights in the deeps of the mine.
Jathon shook his head and went on. "Bad enough to lose a good crewman on the orders of some sleek citified bastard of a mage. But after Halden's fuck-up with the oxen last week, we're a hundred sacks down on the quota. If you choke Dev 'til he can't haul, you leave me shorthanded with no hope of catching up before the tally tomorrow. We don't meet tally, me and every decent man on the dayside crew won't see our full pay this month. I don't doubt Dev deserves a little discipline, but for the twin gods' sake, man, do it after his shift."
Ah. Money, I understood as a motive. I kept my eyes down and prayed Gedavar would listen. Like most of the miners here, Jathon was no prisoner. He'd come to Cheltman Gorge some fifteen years ago, lured by the generous pay the Alathian Council offered skilled men willing to leave civilization behind, and he'd been crew chief over the dayside coal haulers for near half that time. Even authority-drunk pricks like Gedavar didn't care to antagonize a miner with such seniority.
"You want him breathing, teach him to rule his tongue." Gedavar aimed a vindictive glare at me that made it plain I'd only delayed further abuse, not escaped it, and stomped off toward the cook shed.
I let out a relieved breath, taking comfort from the press of the glowlight charm against my ankle. If my plan worked, I'd be free of Gedavar right along with the rest of this shithole. If it didn't ... well. Gedavar would be the least of my worries.
Jathon clamped my shoulder in a meaty hand. He steered me over to join the ragged line of men plodding away from the squat wooden cabins of the camp toward the mine.
"Thanks," I told him. "I'm in your debt." Regardless of his reasons, it wouldn't hurt to show my very real gratitude.
He gave a contemptuous snort. "I didn't do it for you. I won't have my crew's pay docked because a scut-man's too dumb to keep his mouth shut. You slack even one instant today and I'll strangle you myself, no matter what that mage thinks about it. Gods only know why the Council cares for the life of a foreign charm smuggler."
Despite his harsh tone, his dark eyes held a glint of curiosity. I shrugged and took care to keep my face blank. The minemaster refused to speak on the matter, but the miners weren't fools. They'd seen me arrive in Cheltman Gorge accompanied by a mage of the Council's Watch—who instead of dumping me off to work the darkest deeps with the rest of the scut-men, had not only insisted I be assigned to the far safer role of daylight laborer, but had stayed.
For two gods-damned months, now. Not the same mage—every two weeks, they switched off. Besides lanky, curly-haired Talmaddis, who'd brought me here and had shown up again last week, I'd seen a middle-aged woman with a scarred cheek, and a short, stocky man with skin near as dark as mine. Not that the identity of the mage mattered. The snapthroat charm I wore was prison enough, but the lurking mage was the sandcat pacing beyond the bars.
The hell of it was, the Council didn't really care about me. I was merely their leverage against Kiran, the Arkennlander blood mage I'd helped sneak into Alathia. Kiran had only wanted a life free from his sadistic viper of a master. He'd meant to renounce his magic entirely rather than cast spells fueled with torture and murder.
The Council hadn't bought a word of that when they caught us. Oh, they let Kiran live, in hopes of picking his brain for knowledge of forbidden magic, but they wanted him leashed tight. And Kiran had shown the Council he'd do anything to help me, out of gratitude for my saving his skinny ass from his master Ruslan.
Which meant the Council would never let me go. I'd be stuck here as combined bait and hostage for the full ten years of my sentence—doubtless longer, if the Council had their way. But back in Arkennland, a child's life depended on me, her time fast running out. I didn't mean to fail in my promise to save her, no matter how many mages the Council sent to sit on me.
Jathon prodded me toward a veritable mountain of bulging burlap sacks beside the mine entrance. Drovers were hitching oxen into traces attached to a set of giant interlocking wheels. From the topmost wheel, a rope thick as a man's leg and studded with metal hooks carried coal sacks up the cliff to a second pullwheel at the gorge rim. There another set of haulers unloaded the sacks to pack into convoy wagons headed for Alathia's cities. Coal sacks removed, the rope snaked back down through a series of smaller guide wheels bolted to ledges on the cliff face.
The harsh clang of the shift bell sent echoes ricocheting between the gorge's sheer sandstone walls. Jathon shoved me over to a barrel-chested Alathian whose skin bore the deep pockmarks left by blacklight powder embers.
"You haul with Nessor today," Jathon told me.
Nessor's mouth curled in a brief, slight grimace. He stared over my head as if I didn't exist. As always, I stepped up as casually as if I hadn't noticed his disdain.
Jathon raised his voice. "Step lively, lads! We've still a chance for our full pay if you put your backs into hauling."
The drovers shouted to their oxen, and the wheels groaned into motion. Nessor and I heaved the first fat burlap sack up within reach of a pair of hookmen perched on a platform beside the rope. My back and arms burned with the sack's weight, though nowhere near as badly as they had when I first came. I'd been a frail shadow of myself then, my body still healing from my use of the deadly blood magic charm that had all too briefly reawakened my childhood Taint.
A bolt of bitter longing skewered me at the memory. If I were still Tainted, I could toss these coal sacks sky-high by will alone. Or better yet, smash my neck torc to gleaming shards and fly straight over the Whitefire Mountains to my home city of Ninavel in Arkennland.
Yeah, right. That charm was locked away in some Council vault now. Assuming the Alathians hadn't destroyed it. And if the Taint lasted past puberty, I wouldn't be in this fix in the first place.
Long weeks of hauling coal had restored much of my strength, though I still looked a scrawny scrap compared to the rest of Jathon's crew. As we lifted an unending stream of sacks, my gaze drifted up the cliff. Beside the second guide wheel station, purply-brown lines of kalumite streaked the craggy sandstone.
Kalumite was innocuous enough on its own, hardly worth a decet per hundredweight in Ninavel. Yet I'd learned in my Tainted days that kalumite flecks added to copper filings in a certain precise ratio, mixed in oil and smeared over a charm's surface, made the charm's magic flare up in a conflagration that burned it out within seconds of the charm triggering.
The copper from the glowlight charm in my sock would provide more than enough filings, and a flask of oil, a file, and a pot of burn salve lay hidden in a crevice on a boulder by the barracks. Better yet, I had a plan to fox the mage to stop him hunting me down once I ran. All I needed now was a fingersweight of kalumite.
The oilmen had lubricated all the guide wheels yesterday, as they did once each month. And two nights ago, I'd sneaked into the storeroom and dumped a bucket of coal grit into the cask of oil marked for the second guide wheel station. Surely it wouldn't be long now before the contaminated oil on the wheels abraded the rope enough to—
A sharp twang and an ear-rending squeal sounded above. The great wheel beside me juddered to a halt, oxen straining against taut traces.
Jathon cursed and squinted up the cliff. "Stand down, lads! A strand's snapped and snarled a guide wheel." His black brows lowered in a scowl, and I knew he was thinking of the minemaster's quota. He whistled to a drover. "Run for the laddermen, and be quick."
Beside me, Nessor thumped down a sack, his brow beetling in a frown. "Laddermen are working the Dragon's Maw today."
"Don't I know it." Jathon's scowl grew more thunderous than ever. The Dragon's Maw was another mine entrance a good mile off. The minemaster had decided a week back to string a secondary supply rope up the gorge wall there. It'd be high noon before the laddermen managed to stow their gear and hurry back, let alone set up to clear the snarled wheel.
The drover dashed off. I wiped sweaty hands on my trousers and straightened.
"You want that wheel cleared without waiting on the laddermen?" I asked Jathon. "I know a way that'll have you hauling again in no time."
Jathon cast a black look my way. "Don't think to try some scam on me, boy. A puny charm smuggler who knows nothing of minework can get us hauling again? I think not."
"I wasn't just a charm smuggler in Arkennland. Outriding was my trade, and I've guided many a convoy across the Whitefires. I've climbed cliffs that'd make your laddermen piss themselves, and I can rig ropes with my eyes closed. Give me a knife and a length of hitch line, and I'll climb up to that wheel, set a bypass, and cut the tangle free."
Jathon swung round. His dark eyes narrowed. "Never seen a scut-man so eager to get back to work."
"I didn't say I'd do it for free. Though seeing as how you pulled Gedavar off me this morning, I wouldn't ask much in return."
Jathon's suspicion shifted into hard appraisal. Plenty of scut-men tried to strike bargains for extra rations or shorter work shifts, though it was a whipping offense for miners to give us coin. Jathon tapped his ward-etched ring, twin to Gedavar's, and looked pointedly at my torc. "I could order you up that cliff."
"You could," I agreed. "But a man does his fastest work for reward, not under threat of punishment."
Jathon grunted and crossed his arms. "What kind of reward are we talking, here?"
Now came the tricky part. Ask for too little, and Jathon would get suspicious again. Ask for too much, and he'd laugh in my face and refuse. He might order me up the cliff anyway, but I didn't care to count on it. Thankfully, the morning's confrontation with Gedavar had sparked an idea.
"Make sure Gedavar stays off me. I don't fancy getting strangled every time I blink, all thanks to an order I had no hand in. But he won't cross a crew chief. He'll back off if you make it plain you'd take any further 'discipline' poorly."
Jathon stood silent, frowning. I kept my stance casual despite the churning of my stomach.
"Send him up, Jathon," Nessor said, to my surprise. "If you don't, we'll never see that coin. We've all seen him crawl up those boulders by the barracks every morning like he's got feet sticky as a blackfly's." He spoke with all the pleading I hadn't dared use. Mutters of agreement came from the hookmen on their platform above.
Jathon fixed Nessor with a disgusted look. "Lost all your pay to Temmin last night, did you?" His gaze settled on me again. "A boulder's one thing. But this cliff ... wouldn't you need iron spikes like the laddermen use?"
I snorted. "Pitons wouldn't do much good without a partner to belay." As his brows lowered, I hurried to assure him, "No need for partners or pitons on something this easy. See all those cracks and ledges? Khalmet's hand, the climb's no harder than scaling a tower stair." That part was true enough. Water seeps and moss slimed the cliff in spots, but the cracks angling up toward the guide wheel station were dry.
Excerpted from The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer, Jeremy Lassen. Copyright © 2012 Courtney Schafer. Excerpted by permission of Night Shade Books.
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