The God Wars destroyed the city of Alikand. Now, a century and a half and a great many construction contracts later, Agdel Lex rises in its place. Dead deities litter the surrounding desert, streets shift when people aren't looking, a squidlike tower dominates the skyline, and the foreign Iskari Rectification Authority keeps strict order in this once-independent city--while treasure seekers, criminals, combat librarians, nightmare artists, angels, demons, dispossessed knights, grad students, and other fools gather in its ever-changing alleys, hungry for the next big score.
Priestess/investment banker Kai Pohala (last seen in Full Fathom Five) hits town to corner Agdel Lex's burgeoning nightmare startup scene, and to visit her estranged sister Lei. But Kai finds Lei desperate at the center of a shadowy, and rapidly unravelling, business deal. When Lei ends up on the run, wanted for a crime she most definitely committed, Kai races to track her sister down before the Authority finds her first. But Lei has her own plans, involving her ex-girlfriend, a daring heist into the god-haunted desert, and, perhaps, freedom for an occupied city. Because Alikand might not be completely dead--and some people want to finish the job.
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LEY BUILT HER SANDCASTLE below the tide line.
Kai warned her, of course. What else was an older sister for? When Ley chose her spot and planted her flag, Kai said, "It will drown." That last word tugged at her, as if it left a hook in her lip. She almost apologized, but stopped herself. "Drown" was the right word. You couldn't avoid words just because they hurt.
When Ley sculpted the gaptoothed ramparts of her keep, like castles from the kind of Schwarzwald fairy-tale picture books where kids got eaten, Kai said: "You see, that's the tide line up there, where the seaweed's drying." When Ley carved a curtain wall with a bright blue trowel, packing wet sand between her palms, Kai said: "Your wall's too thin to keep the water out."
"It's not to keep the water out," Ley said. "It's to keep out our enemies."
"You don't have enemies."
Ley shrugged, and dug her moat.
Mom wasn't there to help. Today was a mourning day; she'd gone with her sisters to Kai's father's grave, to paint her face with ashes and sit naked, alone, until the tears came. She had grieved with her children, noble and sharp in mourning white, the day the bearers brought her husband home — she stood chin out, brow high, eyes bright and black, impassive as a Penitent on the outside. Each body holds multitudes, the old songs sang. As a mother, she helped her children mourn their shipwrecked father. As a wife, as a woman, as someone who had lost a friend, she needed time alone to break.
She left Kai in charge because Kai was older, and because Kai didn't set things on fire just to see what color they burned. But Ley only had the vaguest grasp of the meaning of the phrase "in charge," and Kai knew better than to test her younger sister on this point. She still had bruises from the last time she tried.
So Kai left Ley to work, and climbed the beach to build her own castle clear of the coming waves. The sand was drier here, and did not pack as well, so she brought a halved coconut shell to the surf, filled it with water, and carried it up the beach to moisten the sand. She built a spreading bay city like Kavekana, with a mountain behind it like Kavekana'ai, and studded the shoreline with pebble statue Penitents watching seaward for the return of long-gone gods. Heroes. Fathers.
Each time she went back to the ocean, her sister's city had grown. Ley excavated alleys with her fingertips, and cut decorations on rooftops with a sliver of bamboo. From above, her city looked intricate as a Craftwork diagram or a work of high theology. Ley, kneeling, brooded in her swimsuit, brows low as if to cut off the half of the world that didn't concern her: the beach, the volcano rising inland, her sister. She bit her lower lip as she worked.
"You have to do something," Kai said. She chose her words carefully. That was the joy of words: you could control them when all else failed. "Or the whole thing will fall down."
Up the beach, bigger kids shouted and screamed. A pale-skinned Iskari tourist girl dove to return a volleyball serve and fountained sand where she fell. The sea lay calm to the horizon, but no one swam. The red flag was up today, gallowglass swarming beneath the water with their long stinging tendrils, though they could not be seen from shore. White sails bellied on the bay. Cutters and dinghies and barques wheeled in defiance of the massive container ships moored near West Claw, at the deepwater port.
"You aren't listening."
Ley didn't look up.
Fine. Let Ley build her doomed city. Kai marched back up the beach. She added houses to her island and dug its bay deep, for the tide, rolling in, to fill. Standing, she judged it good. Then she turned back.
Ley's metropolis sprawled on the shore. She'd worked out in a spiral from that central keep, spread townhouses and factories, extended her lanes as she came round to them again. Kai knew the world she had built from sand — but she knew Ley's world, too, though she had never seen it before. Those broad thoroughfares with divided roads and sidewalks were commercial streets — no, processional boulevards down which ancient emperors once marched in triumph, bookended by arches. There were palaces, there high temples, here a factory; to the north, alleys grew so narrow Ley could not have made them with her fingers, must have dredged them with her bamboo strip. She had found a dream city inside them both, and made it real.
And the tide rolled in.
Ley's hands never stopped. The rest of her knelt rigid beside the districts she shaped, while her thin fingers carved and built and stroked sand smooth.
Kai grabbed her coconut shell, ran below Ley's city, and started to build a wall.
She built artlessly, because art was not the point. She did not know why Ley ignored her, why she made this weird familiar city. She did not know why Ley left glittering traces of her soul in the ramparts beneath her fingers. But she suspected. She could have asked Ley, taken her by the shoulders and shaken her and screamed until she stopped and tried to explain. But Ley's face reminded Kai of Mom's in mourning white, and the words she might say if Kai forced her to speak were words Kai knew she could not bear to hear.
So she built the wall. With her hands, she built it, with her own surging shoulders and legs, with Mom's thick fingers and Dad's fierce grit. She gutted the sand with her coconut shell. The sun burned her eyes and warmed her skin and covered her with sweat.
"Boy!" a voice called to her in Iskari from up the beach: the volleyball girl, drunk, in a white bathing suit. "Boy, you can't stop the tide."
Kai ignored the girl, whose friends shushed her and tried to explain. Kai's wall was more of a hill really, with a moat behind it as deep as Kai was tall. She judged the wall's height against the tide line, and started to curve upslope, to guard the outer edges of Ley's city. She sweat and trembled.
There wasn't time. She could not close the eastern wall before the tide rolled in. She knew this, and did not let herself know, because if she knew she would have stopped trying. An audience gathered up the beach, tourists and other monsters drawn by the two girls striving in the sand. A skeleton in a flower-print shirt watched them, rolling a newspaper into a tighter and tighter cylinder between his fingerbones. Kai ignored them, and kept fighting.
The water rose as she built the east wall. Every wash of surf bore more sand from the wall back out into the deep. Kai wasn't patting her sand down, now, just digging it, tossing it up, hoping. Behind her, a wave splashed into the moat. Wet sand stuck to Kai's feet. She sank. The wall cracked. Salt rivers poured in and soaked Kai to her waist. The north wall sloughed into the water. Kai scrambled to shore it up, but the next rushing wave tore her feet out from under her. She went down in a tangle of limbs and foam.
Waves and crosscurrents tossed her, tumbled her, and she spilled from the moat onto the beach. She spat out salt water and sand, and when she recovered she looked back, expecting disaster.
But Ley's city stood.
The waves covered it, and drained away through carved alleys that should have collapsed like Kai's wall. Ley stared down through the water and the wash, and her city did not die.
Ley's soul shimmered in the sand. She had built herself into this city, mixing soulstuff into the sand with water, and now she stood above this world she'd made and willed it real, against the waves. The sand held its shape. The city sank, but stayed. It would not break while she had breath.
Ley rose like a goddess over her creation as the tide rolled in. She stretched out her hands as if to calm the waves, and for a moment Kai believed they might obey.
Then Ley fell, screaming, into the dirty water. She gasped surf, gagged, choked — disappeared in the wash and foam.
Kai ran into the water, caught her flailing sister around the shoulders, and dragged her to dry sand. Ley coughed up fluid, screamed again though she had no breath. A white phosphorescent thread wound around her leg, menacing and tiny: a gallowglass tendril, torn free and set drifting on the tide in search of a victim. Probably not fatal. Kai gloved her hands in a gob of seaweed and peeled the tendril free. Snot ran from Ley's nose, and her eyes rolled white behind slitted lids. She breathed deep and fast. Venom leaked through Kai's makeshift glove and burned her palm.
With the tendril gone, Ley stopped screaming, but didn't open her eyes. Kai slung her sister's arm over her shoulder, and pushed up with her legs. She took three steps, and stumbled into water. Building the wall had exhausted her: she could not take Ley's weight. She ground her teeth and tried to will herself upright.
She stood, too fast — someone else held Ley's other side. The Iskari girl in the white suit, the one who'd called her — "Boy," she said again, in Iskari. "What was she doing?"
Kai had not expected that question. She didn't think the Iskari expected it either — she was scared of screams, that was all. She didn't know why Ley fell. Easy to see she'd never suffered a gallowglass sting before — a gallowglass would leave a bright red scar on that sharp pale skin. The girl was embarrassed, like tourists sometimes felt when they helped or even noticed locals, and talking to cover her nerves.
"Playing," Kai replied, in the girl's language, and didn't correct her about the other part. The girl helped her carry Ley upslope. The crowd drew back as they approached, clearing space on the boardwalk. They set Ley down carefully, beside a discarded resort brochure. The skeleton watched them both from behind ruby spectacles, newspaper still clutched in his hand. He could have done something, Kai thought — a Craftsman like that, all the power in the world at his beck and call, lightings danced when he crooked his finger, he could have stopped the pain at once.
He adjusted his spectacles instead.
A lifeguard shouldered through the crowd.
The girl asked, "Why did she stay, when the tide rolled in?" Kai didn't answer. The lifeguard bent low, took a charm from his neck, and applied it to the sting. Blood seeped through torn skin, but at the charm's touch flesh calmed, blood stilled. Ley stopped shaking. She drew her first even breath.
"She wanted to save it," Kai said. Her voice hooked after "save" — speaking Iskari forced her to gender the pronoun, and she was not sure whether she chose right. She remembered Ley's expression, so like Mom's, unwavering and fierce as pallbearers approached their gate. She could have said, save him.
Behind her the sun set and the tide rolled up, the ocean at ease as if it had never killed a man. The parapets and pinnacles of Ley's city melted, its arches seeped out into the deep. Salt water filled Kai's model bay, and her tiny Penitents stared out over the flat, poison sea.
"Save what?" the girl asked.
But Kai wasn't sure, and if she knew, she would not say.
WHO WOULD BREAK INTO a bank to leave something?
The practice is more common than one might think, though practitioners' motives tend to involve eventually removing more than they originally left. You might duck the bank's wards, dodge its construct and revenant and demonic and even, sometimes, living human guards, evade its detection magics, dance across its pressure-plate floor, answer ye its riddles three, and leave a beacon glyph to guide tunnelers, or a mechanism that would disable all that security during a later, more forceful raid. A simple listening device in the right place could yield the intelligence to corner or crash a market, or make a small, substantial killing — literal or metaphorical. But few people would break into a bank solely to leave something, and fewer still would break in to leave a letter.
So while the mailroom of Iskari First Imperial in Agdel Lex noticed that the vellum envelope that appeared in their priority delivery box one workday morning, sealed with blood-colored wax and the impression of a wolfsbane flower, lacked the customary sender's marks, the demon on duty believed this merely an administrative assistant's oversight.
If the letter needed shipping to the Shining Empire, or west across the sea to Alt Coulumb, or even north to Telomere, the demon would have wasted precious minutes hunting down the relevant admin so as to bill the postage properly — but an envelope for internal delivery needed no postage. Even so, the demon hissed, and pondered taking bloody, demonstrative action. She'd warned the admin pool against using priority flags for internal mail — in-building post went round hourly, and while some market developments did need immediate response, once you let people flag intraoffice mail, even inane check-ins mysteriously ended up marked TRIPLE URGENT. A little bloodshed ought to clarify the situation.
The mail demon consulted the building register and found — odd — the recipient unlisted. Perhaps it was meant for outside delivery after all? With no address, or postage. She closed her many eyes, and replayed in her mind, as her therapist had suggested, a comforting series of human screams, starting with a ten on the pain scale, counting down. That relaxed her enough for work. Then she checked the guest list, and realized her mistake.
Kai Pohala, whoever she was, was only visiting the office for one day; this message's sender could not meet her in person, and wanted to be sure the letter arrived before she left. Sensible. Saved postage, even. No one need die today.
Though you never could tell when a bleak morning at the office might look up.
Agdel Lex had a shattered beauty from the air, but Kai was too busy trying not to vomit to pay attention. Turbulence got to her — though the flight attendants claimed the dragon had said not to worry, entirely customary for the Agdel Lex route this time of year, well within their gondola's stress tolerance. Doubtless they would repeat that "nothing to worry about" line until they all went down in flames. No incentive telling anyone to panic. Blood and hells and all the gods, she hated flying.
Not to mention that her godsdamn silver bowl wouldn't hold still on the godsdamn seat-back tray table — there was a depression, yes, a little courtesy carving in the teak inlay meant to hold the tiny cups of horrible coffee the charming attendants served, but it was too far forward and to the right, and much too small, to hold her brand new "fits-anywhere!" folding sacrificial vessel. If she placed the bowl in the tray table's center, it pressed against the back of the seat in front of her, the inhabitant of which seat had, naturally, reclined, and if she moved the bowl toward her, its lip dug into her chest, and either way, given Kai's luck, a sharp bump would spill blood all over everything. She hesitated, frowned, then tapped the four-armed sculpture of knives and glass sitting ahead of her in 14F on one of its shoulders, after she found a spot she felt reasonably sure wouldn't carve her open when she touched it. "Excuse me." Sir, or ma'am? Godsdamn mainlander languages and their godsdamn gender-dependent forms of respectful address. Put it aside. Focus. The sculpture rotated its head independent of the rest of its body, and glared at her with ruby eyes. "Could you raise your seat?"
It answered in a language she didn't understand, that sounded like the death of something beautiful. But it turned back ahead as smoothly as it had turned to face her, and did not raise the seat.
Fine. She wedged the bowl on the wobbly tray. The cabin lurched and swooped and steadied, and for a stomach-churning moment she saw only ocean and wing beyond her window, no sky at all, before the dragon reared and corrected itself, tossing Kai's insides through another loop. No percentage in being sick. Get this over with. She took a sacrificial pipette from her inside jacket pocket, peeled open the paper to reveal the glass, and, in a reprieve between lurches, stabbed herself in the forefinger. Blood filled the thin glass tube through the magic of capillary action. The cabin shook again — you'd think they'd find some halfway competent ageless lizards to fly these runs — and the pipette waggled in the meat of her finger. She plucked it out when their course eased; the pipette was small, and her professional wards closed the wound instantly. Still stung, though.
Excerpted from "The Ruin of Angels"
Copyright © 2017 Max Gladstone.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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