“Complex characters, magic that is tech and vice versa, a world bound by warring trade dynasties: Bennett will leave you in awe once you remember to breathe!”—Tamora Pierce
In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself—the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett.
Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.
But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic—the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience—have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.
Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.
To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
As Sancia Grado lay face down in the mud, stuffed underneath the wooden deck next to the old stone wall, she reflected that this evening was not going at all as she had wanted.
It had started out decently. She’d used her forged identifications to make it onto the Michiel property, and that had gone swimmingly – the guards at the first gates had barely glanced at her.
Then she’d come to the drainage tunnel, and that had gone… less swimmingly. It had worked, she supposed – the drainage tunnel had allowed her to slink below all the interior gates and walls and get close to the Michiel foundry – but her informants had neglected to mention the tunnel’s abundance of centipedes, mud adders, and shit, of both the human and equine variety.
Sancia hadn’t liked it, but she could handle it. That had not been her first time crawling through human waste.
But the problem with crawling through a river of sewage is that, naturally, you tend to gain a powerful odor. Sancia had tried to stay downwind from the security posts as she crept through the foundry yards. But just when she reached the north gate, some distant guard had cried out, “Oh, my God, what is that smell?” and then, to her alarm, dutifully gone looking for the source.
She’d avoided being spotted, but she’d been forced to flee into a dead-end foundry passageway and hide under the crumbling wooden deck, which had likely once been a guard post. But the problem with this hiding place, she’d quickly realized, was it gave her no means of escape: there was nothing in the walled foundry passageway besides the deck, Sancia, and the guard.
Sancia stared out at the guard’s muddy boots as he paced by the deck, sniffing. She waited until he walked past her, then poked her head out.
He was a big man, wearing a shiny steel cap and a leather cuirass embossed with the loggotippo of the Michiel Body Corporate – the candle flame set in the window – along with leather pauldrons and bracers. Most troublingly, he had a rapier sheathed at his side.
Sancia narrowed her eyes at the rapier. She thought she could hear a whispering in her mind as he walked away, a distant chanting. She’d assumed the blade was scrived, but that faint whispering confirmed it – and she knew a scrived blade could cut her in half with almost no effort at all.
This was such a damned stupid way to get cornered, she thought as she withdrew. And I’ve barely even started the job.
She had to get to the carriage fairways, which were probably only about two hundred feet away, behind the far wall. And she needed to get to them sooner rather than later.
She considered her options. She could dart the man, she supposed, for Sancia did have a little bamboo pipe and a set of small but expensive darts that were soaked in the poison of dolorspina fish; a lethal pest found in the deeper parts of the ocean. Diluted enough, the venom should only knock its victim into a deep sleep, with an absolute horror of a hangover a few hours later.
But the guard was sporting pretty decent armor. Sancia would have to make the shot perfect, perhaps aiming for his armpit. The risk of missing was far too high.
She could try to kill him, she supposed. She did have her stiletto, and she was an able sneak, and though she was small, she was strong for her size.
But Sancia was a lot better at thieving than she was killing, and this was a trained merchant house guard. She did not like her chances there.
Moreover, Sancia had not come to the Michiel foundry to slit throats, break faces, or crack skulls. She was here to do a job.
A voice echoed down the passageway: “Ahoy, Nicolo! What are you doing away from your post?”
“I think something died in the drains again. It smells like death down here!”
“Ohh, hang on,” said the voice. There came the sound of footsteps.
Ah, hell, thought Sancia. Now there are two of them…
She needed a way out of this, and fast.
She looked back at the stone wall behind her, thinking. Then she sighed, crawled over to it, and hesitated.
She did not want to spend her strength so soon. But she had no choice.
Sancia pulled off her left glove, pressed her bare palm to the dark stones, shut her eyes, and used her talent.
The wall spoke to her.
The wall told her of foundry smoke, of hot rains, of creeping moss, of the tiny footfalls of the thousands of ants that had traversed its mottled face over the decades. The surface of the wall bloomed in her mind, and she felt every crack and every crevice, every dollop of mortar and every stained stone.
All of this information coursed into Sancia’s thoughts the second she touched the wall. And among this sudden eruption of knowledge was what she had really been hoping for.
Loose stones. Four of them, big ones, just a few feet away from her. And on the other side, some kind of closed, dark space, about four feet wide and tall. She instantly knew where to find it like she’d built the wall herself.
There’s a building on the other side, she thought. An old one. Good.
Sancia took her hand away. To her dismay, the huge scar on the right side of her scalp was starting to hurt.
A bad sign. She’d have to use her talent a lot more than this tonight.
She replaced her glove and crawled over to the loose stones. It looked like there had been a small hatch here once, but it’d been bricked up years ago. She paused and listened – the two guards now seemed to be loudly sniffing the breeze.
“I swear to God, Pietro,” said one, “it was like the devil’s shit!” They began pacing the passageway together.
Sancia gripped the topmost loose stone and carefully, carefully tugged at it.
It gave way, inching out slightly. She looked back at the guards, who were still bickering.
Quickly and quietly, Sancia hauled the heavy stones out and placed them in the mud, one after the other. Then she peered into the musty space.
It was dark within, but she now let in a little light – and she saw many tiny eyes staring at her from the shadows, and piles of tiny turds on the stone floor.
Rats, she thought. Lots of them.
Still, nothing to do about it. Without another thought, she crawled into the tiny, dark space.
The rats panicked and began crawling up the walls, fleeing into cracks and crevices in the stones. Several of them scampered over Sancia, and a few tried to bite her – but Sancia was wearing what she called her “thieving rig,” a homemade, hooded, improvised outfit made of thick, gray woolen cloth and old black leather that covered all of her skin and was quite difficult to tear through.
As she got her shoulders through, she shook the rats off or swatted them away – but then a large rat, easily weighing two pounds, rose up on its hind legs and hissed at her threateningly.
Sancia’s fist flashed out and smashed the big rat, crushing its skull against the stone floor. She paused, listening to see if the guards had heard her – and, satisfied that they had not, she hit the big rat again for good measure. Then she finished crawling inside, and carefully reached out and bricked up the hatch behind her.
There, she thought, shaking off another rat and brushing away the turds. That wasn’t so bad.
She looked around. Though it was terribly dark, her eyes were adjusting. It looked like this space had once been a fireplace where the foundry workers cooked their food, long ago. The fireplace had been boarded up, but the chimney was open above her – though she could see now that someone had tried to board up the very top as well.
She examined it. The space within the chimney was quite small. But then, so was Sancia. And she was good at getting into tight places.
With a grunt, Sancia leapt up, wedged herself in the gap, and began climbing up the chimney, inch by inch. She was about halfway up it when she heard a clanking sound below.
She froze and looked down. There was a bump, and then a crack, and light spilled into the fireplace below her.
The steel cap of a guard poked into the fireplace. The guard looked down at the abandoned rat’s nest and cried, “Ugh! Seems the rats have built themselves a merry tenement here. That must have been the smell.”
Sancia stared down at the guard. If he but glanced up, he’d spy her instantly.
The guard looked at the big rat she’d killed. She tried to will herself not to sweat so no drops would fall on his helmet.
“Filthy things,” muttered the guard. Then his head withdrew.
Sancia waited, still frozen – she could still hear them talking below. Then, slowly, their voices withdrew.
She let out a sigh. This is a lot of risk to get to one damned carriage.
She finished climbing and came to the top of the chimney. The boards there easily gave way to her push. Then she clambered out onto the roof of the building, lay flat, and looked around.
To her surprise, she was right above the carriage fairway – exactly where she needed to be. She watched as one carriage charged down the muddy lane to the loading dock, which was a bright, busy blotch of light in the darkened foundry yards. The foundry proper loomed above the loading dock, a huge, near-windowless brick structure with six fat smokestacks pouring smoke into the night sky.
She crawled to the edge of the roof, took off her glove, and felt the lip of the wall below with a bare hand. The wall blossomed in her mind, every crooked stone and clump of moss – and every good handhold to help her find her way down.
She lowered herself over the edge of the roof and started to descend. Her head was pounding, her hands hurt, and she was covered in all manner of filthy things. I haven’t even done step one yet, and I’ve already nearly got myself killed.
“Twenty thousand,” she whispered to herself as she climbed. “Twenty thousand duvots.”
A king’s ransom, really. Sancia was willing to eat a lot of shit and bleed a decent amount of blood for twenty thousand duvots. More than she had so far, at least.
The soles of her boots touched earth, and she started to run.