If there’s one thing that seems to bind every fantasy universe together, it’s gold. Gold coins are a simple, flexible, generally ill-defined unit of exchange, often found whenever convenient and obeying no known rules of economics. Dragons amass huge piles of them without impacting the wider economy (never mind what would happen if a band of dwarves liberated the horde and the amount […]
When a rich City man comes to her with a young woman’s ghost tethered to his chest, Xhea has no idea that this ghost will change everything. The ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a rare person who generates so much power that the Towers use it to fuel their magic, heedless of the pain such use causes. Shai’s home Tower is desperate to get the ghost back and force her into a bodyany bodyso that it can regain its position, while the Tower’s rivals seek the ghost to use her magic for their own ends. Caught between a multitude of enemies and desperate to save Shai, Xhea thinks herself powerlessuntil a strange magic wakes within her. Magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.
With two extremely strong female protagonists, Radiant is a story of fighting for what you believe in and finding strength that you never thought you had.
Skyhorse Publishing, under our Night Shade and Talos imprints, is proud to publish a broad range of titles for readers interested in science fiction (space opera, time travel, hard SF, alien invasion, near-future dystopia), fantasy (grimdark, sword and sorcery, contemporary urban fantasy, steampunk, alternative history), and horror (zombies, vampires, and the occult and supernatural), and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller, a national bestseller, or a Hugo or Nebula award-winner, we are committed to publishing quality books from a diverse group of authors.
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Towers Trilogy Book One
By Karina Sumner-Smith
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2014 Karina Sumner-Smith
All rights reserved.
Curled in a concrete alcove that had once been a doorway, Xhea watched the City man make his awkward way through the market tents, dragging a ghost behind him. Magic sparkled above his head like an upturned tulip, deflecting the heavy rain and letting it pour to the ground to trace a circle in the puddles at his feet. He was, of course, watching her.
It was not his attention that had caught Xhea's notice, nor his poor attempt to blend into the crowd, but the ghost tethered to him with a line of energy more felt than seen. The dead girl couldn't have been much older than Xhea herself — sixteen, Xhea supposed, perhaps seventeen — and she floated an arm's span above the man's head like a girl-shaped helium balloon.
For fifteen minutes the man had circled, pretending to shop. As if a City man had any use for reclaimed nails, half rusted and pounded straight; for prayer flags, or charms of electrical wire and bone. What was it, Xhea wondered, that made the ghost-afflicted wait for the darkest, rainiest days to seek her out? She snorted softly, a sound without care or pity. They didn't want to be seen with her, that was the truth of it, as if her very presence left a shadow that wouldn't burn away.
As she waited, Xhea tied a coin to the end of a braid of her hair with a bit of tattered ribbon. The coin was an old and dirty thing she'd found in the abandoned shopping corridors that wound beneath the Lower City. Once it would have bought her bread, cigarettes, a warm place to sleep. Now it was nothing but a bit of shiny metal that watched with the pressed eyes of a dead Queen, its only magic a sense of the past that hung about it like the faint scent of something sweet.
She had started braiding another length of dark hair before the man made the decision to approach. He walked toward her with his head down, as if a slumped posture might make him any less conspicuous, as if half the market didn't watch him go. He came to stand before her narrow shelter and stared without speaking, the heavy rain falling between them like a beaded curtain.
Xhea eyed him in silence: his polished shoes, dotted with water; the neat line of his jacket; the monogrammed cuffs that peeked from his jacket sleeves. Only the clean cut of his tailored pants was marred, and that by the slow curl of his fists within the pockets. He straightened, pulling himself upright as if to get every intimidating inch from his average-sized frame.
She held his gaze as she pulled a cigarette from one of her oversized jacket's many pockets and placed it against her lips. From another pocket she drew forth a single match, thankfully dry, which she struck with a practiced flick. Cigarette lit, Xhea leaned back against the concrete.
"Well?" the City man said.
She exhaled. "Well what?"
"Aren't you going to help me? I have a ghost."
"I can see that," Xhea said, and returned the cigarette to her lips. She smoked in contented silence.
"Hey," he said at last, shifting his weight. "I'm talking to you."
"I can see that too."
"I was told," he said, as if she were far younger than her apparent years and dreadfully slow, "that you can help people with ghosts."
Xhea snorted and flicked away a bit of ash. "Try asking nicely. Try saying 'please.' You're the one who needs help here, not me."
The man looked from her braid-tangled hair to her dirt-crusted nails and all the mismatched layers of clothing in between, disbelief plain. "Look, I came here —" he started, then shook himself. "What am I doing?" he muttered. He turned away, running his hand through his thinning hair as he walked. Yet his ghost remained, her tether stretching: a clear indication that the man would return.
Xhea smoked slowly, watching the ghost. She floated, serene, eyes closed and legs folded beneath her, lost in dreams. The ghost's hair was pale, her skin paler still, each appearing in Xhea's black-and-white vision as a faintly luminescent gray. The ghost girl's dress was more vivid, hanging in loose folds that appeared almost to shimmer, the fabric untouched by rain.
Red, Xhea guessed, from the energy it exuded. She rather appreciated the contrast.
What was their story, she wondered. Too young to be his wife, unless his tastes ran to the illegal; too calm to be the victim of a hit and run or the unlucky bystander in a spell gone awry. His daughter, maybe. How touching.
Had illness taken her? But no, these were City folk, through and through. Illness was rare in the City, true disease rarer still, health and long life all but guaranteed by their magic. Suicide, then? Perhaps her father had killed her.
Xhea exhaled a long breath of smoke as the man again approached. Come to my temple, she thought to him mockingly. Three walls of concrete and one of rain; a cloud of tobacco for incense. Come pray for your ghost.
He stood before her for a long moment, staring. "You're too young to be smoking," he said. The words were slow, tired: an admission of defeat.
"And she's too young to be dead." Xhea nodded toward the ghost that once more hovered above his left shoulder. The coins in her hair clinked with the movement. She had to give him this: he didn't flinch as she gestured toward his ghost; didn't look above his head as if her attention might have brought the invisible to light.
"So tell me," Xhea said. "Why do you want my help? Do you want her gone, your pale ghost? Exorcised? Maybe there's something you need to say to her — or something you think she has to say to you?" The man watched her in an angry, uncomfortable silence.
"Ah." Xhea sighed. "Don't know, do you? Just came to see what the freak girl had to offer."
It was only then that she realized how thin his umbrella of magic had become, fading in his exhaustion, or that the circles beneath his eyes were dark as bruises. She squelched what little sympathy she felt. Even if he had lost everything, if everyone he loved had died, he still had magic, a gift of nature and blood. With that power, doors opened to his touch; vendors could sell him food; the City acknowledged he existed. He was, in a word, normal.
Unlike Xhea. There was no brightness in her, no magic, only a dark stillness in the depths of her stomach; an ache, like hunger, that she could only think of as absence.
"I'll tell you what," she said. "I'll take your ghost for a day, maybe two, give you a little break." No more flickers at the edges of his vision, or the feeling he was being watched; no more whispers half-heard — or whatever it was he could sense. Each felt their haunting a little differently. "If that turns out okay, we can discuss something more permanent." Or she could offer him more temporary arrangements, and more, turning his indecision into months of steady business. She suppressed a grin.
"How much," he said brusquely.
"A week's worth of food chits, and five hundred unshaped renai."
"You'd use less to get a taxi across the City."
"But unshaped?" he asked, confused that she didn't want the renai — the magical currency — to be spelled to her own power signature, but raw. "Why?"
"I didn't ask how you got a ghost," Xhea said. "Don't ask what I'll do with the payment."
His umbrella flickered and failed, and the rain poured down on his unprotected head. Xhea watched as, to her eyes, his hair and clothing changed from mottled grays to tones of charcoal and black, the fabric slicking to his shoulders and arms and the slight paunch at his waistband. Water dribbled in his eyes and trickled from his nose as he stared.
"What they say about you is true, then," he said, his voice low. "You are a freak. No magic in you at all."
Xhea ground her cigarette against the wet concrete, watching the ember sizzle and dull to black. A line of smoke rose upward, vanishing.
"You're the one standing in the rain."
A deal was struck. The rest was only negotiation.
Changing the anchor of a ghost's tether wasn't easy, but it was one thing Xhea could do well, a knack honed by years of practice. Ghosts remained in the living world because of unfinished business, something they couldn't leave behind. What few knew was that they were literally bound to that unfinished business.
Unless, of course, you had a really sharp knife. Xhea's knife was silver, with a narrow blade that folded into a handle inlaid with mother of pearl. The handle's sheen had been dulled by the touch of countless hands, but the blade was polished mirror-bright, its maker's mark worn to a mere squiggle in the metal.
The man, soaked to the bone, stood rigidly as Xhea climbed onto an overturned fruit crate, knife extended, and examined the tether above his head.
"Don't cut me," he said.
"Don't complain," she replied.
Carefully, Xhea closed her hand around the near-invisible tether. It felt like little more than a length of slippery air and vibrated at her touch like a plucked guitar string. Holding it steady, she probed with the tip of her knife for weakness. As she shifted, her jacket rattled: the pockets were full to overflowing with a week's worth of chits, small plastic discs imbued with just enough magic to buy a single meal. They were designed for children too young to understand the value of their own magic, more likely to weaken themselves buying candy or be drained by a predator than to buy a balanced meal. Though she appeared younger than her age, Xhea knew she still looked too old to be using chits. She couldn't bring herself to care. With no magic of her own, she had no other way to buy food; it was that, steal, or starve.
The rest of the payment had been spelled to transfer to her upon completion of their transaction. A small sphere of magic — nearly five hundred renai, the man's inclination to bargain being weak at best — now floated above Xhea's head like her own shining ghost, awaiting its time to leap into her body.
There. Her silver knife slid into a weak section of the tether a few hands' length from its anchor in the man's chest, and the line's vibration quickened at the blade's intrusion. She slid her hand down the length until she could touch that weakness with both fingers and knife, feeling for details that even her eyes could not see.
The City man looked from the knife to Xhea's face, then closed his eyes. "Hurry," he said. "Please just ... hurry."
The blade flashed down. The ghost's eyes flew open and she recoiled, springing back to the end of the tether that Xhea refused to release. The ghost opened her mouth as if to scream, her once-perfect calm gone, but no sound emerged. Their eyes met. Locked. The ghost's eyes were pale too, Xhea saw; bright silver to her vision, reduced to but a thin ring by fear-widened pupils. Yet she only watched in silence as Xhea fought the tether, drawing it down and pressing the severed end to her own chest. It sank into her like rain into a storm sewer, vanishing completely.
The City man turned to her, Xhea's position on the crate bringing their eyes to a level. He reached out to grasp the wrist of Xhea's knife hand — and jerked back as if shocked. She acknowledged neither touch nor recoil.
"You want to pay more?"
"Then that's it."
He stared at her, and took a long, shuddering breath. The rain had slowed to little more than a drizzle. He stepped back from her concrete shelter and into the middle of the street. For a moment he stood, watching with an expression that she could not name, then walked away without another word.
"Two days," Xhea called after him. "She'll return to you in two days, unless you come back."
There was no reply, only the sight of his hunched back vanishing into the market crowd.
His absence was a signal. Xhea's payment brightened, then sped forward and slammed into the center of her forehead. She gasped as the magic washed over her, through her; she stumbled back, lost her footing on the crate, and fell. There was a roaring in her ears like floodwaters' rush, and she tasted bile as her stomach attempted to return what little she'd eaten that day.
"Breathe," Xhea whispered. Her head spun. She reached out to grab at the concrete wall as a sudden rush of vertigo seemed to flip the world on its side and tilt it back again. She gagged and clutched at her stomach. "Breathe ... breathe ..."
It was in these moments with raw magic coursing through her body that she always swore she would never ask for renai in payment again — never demand it, never crave it. With no magic of her own, it was a waste, a rush, a surge of power without purpose or end. Helpless to process the renai or make it her own, her body fought the onslaught. Next time, she thought, gagging and shuddering — next time she'd stick to food chits and pity, everything else be blighted.
Then the vertigo began to subside, and the nausea eased; Xhea took one long, slow breath, and another. In the sudden quiet, she heard the rain begin again, a faint patter against the concrete, and the wind as it sighed through the Lower City's corridors of broken glass and twisted steel.
She felt ... she almost had to struggle for the word ... alive. With the bright magic burning within her, she felt no darkness in her center, no stillness. She was light, empty, on fire. This, she thought, is what it must feel like to be normal.
Xhea opened her eyes. Instead of a world of unending grays, she saw color. The brilliance made her breath catch — even now, after so many times. She stared upward, unsure if she wanted to shield her eyes or never close them again.
She saw only glimpses of the floating Towers of the City above — the shadows of the lowest few, the downward points of defensive spires — but even those were jewel bright, gold and green and blue. Closer, the ghost had resumed her meditative pose, legs curled beneath her as she looked down at Xhea's fallen form in no little confusion. The ghost's pale hair was blond, her silver eyes a light and luminous blue, but it was her dress that made Xhea stare. It was not the gray she'd seen, nor the red she'd imagined, but a rich plum like new blossoms.
"That looked like it hurt," the ghost said, her voice tentative.
"A good observation."
Xhea felt that she had but to lift her arms to float beside the ghost, untethered by weight or the world. Reality had other ideas. It took her three tries and the assistance of the wall to gain her feet, and even then she stood swaying, hoping that her trembling legs would hold. Breathe, she reminded herself as another wave of nausea curled and crashed over her.
"First things first." She looked toward the market tents. When her balance had steadied, Xhea stepped cautiously from the alcove. She felt a tugging against her sternum as the tether stretched, then began dragging the ghost in her wake. The ghost girl gave a yelp of surprise, which Xhea ignored, instead tilting her head back so the quickening rain fell upon her upturned face. The clouds were just gray, but aircars wove among them, their shimmering exhaust like fine strands of copper wire strung across the sky.
She found a vendor who knew her and offered no more than a raised eyebrow at her less-than-sober state. With a chit, she purchased a few skewers off the grill — some sort of fatty meat, and a starchy, crunchy thing that might have been a potato, the taste of each buried beneath a thick layer of spice. Xhea hummed happily as she chewed.
"What ..." the ghost said, then faltered into silence. A moment later, she tried again: "Why ... why am I here?"
"That was the deal," Xhea said, turning to look at the ghost over her shoulder. The world spun at the movement. "Nothing personal, I assure you."
She turned down a side street, slipping between low apartments. Their ground levels had been reinforced or disguised to look abandoned: doors bricked or boarded over, windows clouded from untold years of dirt. Higher, the ruse had been abandoned. Warning chimes and fluttering prayer flags hung from balconies, while a line of laundry strung between two buildings was heavy with dripping clothes — all pinned too securely to be dislodged with a thrown rock.
"Deal?" the ghost asked. "I was just sleeping. And now ..." The ghost looked down, apparently just realizing that she inhabited a space without gravity, hovering five feet from the ground and skimming forward without walking.
"Oh," said Xhea. "That. You're dead."
"I can't be," she whispered, peering over her crossed legs and watching the pavement speed by. "No. I'm just asleep."
Great, Xhea thought. A talker. She had seemed so quiet at first, so serene; Xhea had thought that she might dream away her death in silence. It would have made things so much easier. Perhaps this was why the man had wanted to get rid of her — a sense that an unseen presence was doing her best to talk his ear off.
Excerpted from Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith. Copyright © 2014 Karina Sumner-Smith. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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