With Ruthers dead and the Library Accord signed by Recoletta, its neighbours, and its farming communes, Inspector Malone and laundress Jane Lin are in limbo as the city leaders around them vie for power.
A desperate attempt to save Arnault from execution leads to Malone’s arrest and Jane’s escape. They must pursue each other across the sea to discover a civilization that has held together over the centuries. There they will finally learn the truths about the Catastrophe that drove their own civilization underground.
File Under: Fantasy [ Day of Execution | Sky High | We are the Dead | Nature of the Catastrophe ]
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The Song of the Dead
By Carrie Patel
Angry RobotCopyright © 2017 Carrie Patel
All rights reserved.
Liesl Malone marched through Recoletta's surface streets toward Dominari Hall, surrounded by an escort of twenty guards. It was a flattering number, though Malone suspected they had come not to keep her from escaping, but rather to keep the angry onlookers from getting to her before the hangman.
From the volume of the shouting and the glimpses Malone caught between the guards, she guessed half the city had shown up to enjoy the spectacle of her death.
She turned her eyes instead to the sky above.
It was midday, and the blue sky was laced with thick clouds. It was odd to think that she'd used to avoid looking up at it – as a city-dweller, one got used to having something over one's head. On the surface streets, people didn't think much about it, but they did nothing to remind themselves that they'd left the protection of layers of stone. One of the many polite fictions of civilization.
It was a breathtaking spectacle, though, once one got past the vertigo. Yet all of these people were staring at her, hair matted and clothes rumpled from four days' imprisonment. She wished she could tell them to gaze up, where the view was much better.
"The hell's so funny?" said someone next to her. One of her guards.
She didn't realize she'd been laughing. She thought about trying to explain it, but the man's skin was filmed with the sticky sweat of fear. He was probably expecting a riot to break out any minute now.
So Malone just shrugged and shook her head.
The first time she'd really been out under the sky it had terrified her. Left her with the sense of something impossibly vast, waiting to swallow her. It had been on her way to the Library, where she'd first met Sato. She hadn't previously realized the difference that Recoletta's stone outline made on the wide expanse above.
As they approached Dominari Hall now, it was a gallows that marked the city's skyline.
It was taller than she would have expected, with a platform that was almost comically wide and an L-shaped beam that reached higher than some verandas. Everyone needed a view, she supposed.
And just when she thought the damn thing couldn't be any larger, it grew bigger and bigger the closer they got.
She looked past it and focused on the sky instead.
Malone had never given much thought to what happened after death, probably because she'd never expected to die before. She'd faced plenty of dangerous and violent situations, but death to her had always been a thing that either would or wouldn't happen, which wasn't the same thing as thinking that it might. She'd never been in the habit of pondering the inevitable, anyway.
But now, she felt her own impending death like a cold hand on the back of the neck. No longer in the realm of wouldn't or might, it simply was.
Which was strange, because if she ever had given thought to how she would die, she never would have guessed it would happen like this.
She fell forward, and a hand grabbed her arm. She hung suspended, her nose a few inches from wooden steps, before her escort hoisted her back on her feet. Steps. She'd reached the gallows already.
She climbed the stairs to the platform, not moving especially quickly or slowly. They'd certainly built the thing high – maybe that's why they'd burned three days on her trial, to get the damn thing finished.
She idly wondered if a jump from the platform would kill her, and if that would deny anyone the satisfaction of a proper execution.
It seemed like an admirable sort of defiance, but it would also be a messy one, and Malone had always hated mess.
She reached the platform. It was fifteen feet on each side, big enough to hang her as well as the Qadi, Lachesse, and the rest of their inner circle.
Perhaps there was something to hope for, after all.
"Are you all right?"
It was probably the dumbest question Malone had ever heard, and she'd worked with her share of rookies. She looked at the young man who had asked. He seemed familiar, like he might have been someone she'd known in the Municipal Police. He wore a guardsman's uniform and a solicitous frown. She wondered if he really minded what was about to happen to her or if he was just anxious about watching someone die.
She fought a brief but powerful urge to sink to her knees and beg for mercy. But if she fell now, she knew she'd never get up again.
Instead, she licked the sweat from her lip and said, "Fine," in a voice that almost fooled her.
Skies above, this platform was huge, and she felt tiny on it. Perhaps that was the point.
Something swatted at her nose, and she flinched. The rope thudded onto her chest, then drew up around her neck as someone tightened the noose. She wiggled her fingers, just to be able to move something.
Lady Lachesse stood next to her and was saying something to the crowd, but over the blood rushing through Malone's ears, her voice was nothing more than a long hum with no pauses and no consonants. Hundreds had packed into the plaza surrounding Dominari Hall, their faces too distant to be anything more than blank. Malone wanted to warn them not to trample the garden, but then she remembered it had withered months ago.
There was a moment of relative quiet in which Lachesse turned to regard Malone. Malone realized that this was the part where she was supposed to say something.
But if nothing she'd said over the last four days had made a difference, nothing more would now.
"Get it over with," she finally said.
She looked up at her city and then beyond it. That was what she regretted most, really. Not that her death was a farce, but that it would leave the city she'd loved in the hands of Lachesse and her cabal – people she wouldn't have trusted with pocket change. She'd done all she could, but it hadn't been enough. Not for Johanssen, not for Sundar, and not for Recoletta.
Pressure tightened around her neck. She was hoisted off her feet.
In agony, she realized this was going to be a slow way to die.
Her eyes rolled skyward, away from the crushing pressure on her neck. Every muscle in her fought for air, even as her thrashing, kicking body burned through its reserves. She knew struggling would only make it worse, but her spasming muscles were beyond all control.
The sky was a blue blur smeared with white. And her view of it was fading, narrowing.
Malone thought it might have been a specter of her failing vision, maybe a burst blood vessel in her eye. But no, something was passing through the sky, darker and heavier than rainclouds, and it was coming toward them.
Malone tried to shout, but she didn't have the air. She tried to jerk and gesture, but her body was already flopping and shaking, her hands tied behind her back. She hopelessly willed the crowd with everything she had to stop looking at her and just look up.
Her head fell forward, and she found herself eye-to-eye with the sympathetic young guard. But before she could try to blink or roll her eyes at him, he shuddered and turned away.
And then he looked up.
Everything on the platform stopped, and then everything moved very fast.
Malone felt the shouts and screams more than she heard them. Out of the corner of her dimming vision she saw people clearing the plaza, fleeing for shelter in the city below. Some of the guards were guiding them, others were joining them.
They had all forgotten about her.
The world grew darker. It could have been the shadow descending from the sky, or it could have been the light leaving her eyes.CHAPTER 2
A VERY SMALL ROOM
Jane Lin sat on a wooden crate, hugging a scratchy blanket around her raw and tender shoulders. She knew she was supposed to feel scared, but she just felt sick.
The man staring back at her was sitting on a larger crate, which she supposed was meant to make him appear more important.
To her, he just looked uncomfortable.
She'd been sitting in that room for what felt like a long time. Long enough to get hungry, lose her appetite to nausea, and then start to feel hungry again.
But company had shown up a few minutes ago, and he hadn't brought any food, so Jane expected it would be a while yet.
And not before this guy got whatever answers he'd come for.
He had bronzed skin that was sallow in the lamplight and dark, kinky hair that grayed around his temples. The two of them were crammed together in what she assumed was a storage room – given all of the stacked crates – close enough that their knees were almost touching. Close enough that she could smell his sticky odors of salt and sweat.
"Perhaps you could just tell me what you want," Jane suggested.
The man stiffened. She wasn't sure if she'd offended him or if that was just the way someone used to sitting on crates moved. "You passed at us. Conossed where to be, no?"
She was still getting used to the strange dialect. It was just familiar enough that she could usually get the meaning, but foreign enough that it took her a little longer.
"Well, sort of," she said.
He took a familiar purse and emptied a handful of coins – gold, with square holes punched through their middles – onto the floorboards between them.
"So you conossed o no? Which ess?"
Jane sighed. "Yeah, I 'conossed.'"
He grunted, as if this proved some vast theory. "Then who sent? Ee what for?"
"No one sent me. That's what I'm trying to –"
The man leaned forward, boring into her with his squinty stare. "Then how'd you pass here?"
She'd had more productive conversations with dirty laundry. "I came from Recoletta. My city. You know the cities?"
He grunted again, which could have meant anything.
"You certainly know about the Library," she said.
He narrowed his eyes to slits. Jane imagined that he'd had a lifetime of practice with that look, squinting at all sorts of bright glares that a citizen of Recoletta – or one of the other underground cities – rarely experienced. He was very good at it.
"So what for they send you? You spy for them?"
"No! I was running from them. Fleeing." That anxious feeling – the one she thought she'd just escaped – was uncoiling in her gut once more.
He sat back and nodded to himself. "Then a criminal."
"I'm not," Jane said.
He searched her with those flinty eyes. "But you got the culpa."
Guilt. Yes, she had plenty of that.
"It's not that simple," she said, ignoring the tightness in her stomach.
"Never ess." He leaned forward again, propping his elbows on his thighs. "So deemay how you come to pass here."
A story. It always came down to telling a good story that highlighted the right detail and omitted the inconvenient ones.
Fortunately, Jane knew a thing or two about that.
This story started in Recoletta, in another small room.
After she'd killed Augustus Ruthers, Jane had spent eighteen hours locked in an office in Dominari Hall while the Qadi's soldiers waited to see how she would be punished. Those hours had given Jane plenty of time to contemplate the blood that had been shed over Recoletta – Freddie's, Ruthers's, and that of the thousands who had died in the two takeovers.
She fully expected hers would be next.
After eighteen hours, the door finally opened.
"Miss Lin," the guard on the other side said. "Time to go."
She must have stood there, frozen in place, because the guard finally cleared his throat and blinked at her.
"We've got to get this office set up for the new deputy treasurer. If you could please clear out, we'd be much obliged."
And like that, Jane went from prisoner to free woman.
No one stopped her as she walked through the same corridors where she'd hidden and crept less than a day ago. The guards who had chased and shot at her were clearing offices, moving furniture, and bustling with orders, paying her no mind. If she'd dared return to the room where she'd shot Ruthers – or the hall where the guards had killed Freddie – she all but knew she'd find the bodies cleared and the bloodstains cleaned up, and she didn't think she could stand it.
Her cheeks were hot and wet, and she couldn't tell if it was relief, fury, or something else.
She wandered before she knew where she was going. After several minutes, she found herself in front of the room where she'd last seen Roman Arnault, locked up and awaiting whatever fate the Qadi's forces had in store for him.
Jane tried the handle. The door swung open.
Roman was gone. An exhausted guard stood alone in the room, scrawling in the margins of a roughly used notebook.
"Where is he?" Jane asked.
"Down at the Barracks. Being held for trial." The guard squinted. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
But Jane turned and ran. No one gave chase.
Jane had found the Qadi holed up in a small office away from the main hall and its bustling foot traffic. Four Madinan guards watched over the office, their faces still but their eyes squinting and roving as if expecting the halls themselves waited to swallow them up. They'd stopped Jane at the door until the Qadi herself called for them to let her through.
As she moved past them, Jane felt their eyes on her back.
The Qadi sat behind an oversized desk, fortified by stacks of papers and a massive kettle of tea. She poured two cups as Jane sat down.
"I'd thought you'd have gotten yourself far from this place by now," the Qadi said.
"Is that why you let me go? So I could run?"
Consternation flickered behind the Qadi's veil. The look wasn't quite as satisfying on her as it was on Lady Lachesse, but it was close.
"Why have you come here, Miss Lin?" the Qadi asked, placing one shallow cup of tea in front of Jane.
She felt a sharp reply on her lips, but she bit it back. She needed the Qadi's help, after all.
"I'm here about Roman."
"His trial is in five days." The Qadi raised her teacup behind her veil, sipped, and grimaced as the wide brim caught in the fabric. "If you really want to attend, I suppose I could reserve a gallery seat for you, though I wouldn't recommend it."
"But what is he being tried for?"
The Qadi scraped at the bottom of the sugar bowl and found two meager lumps. "Treason. Conspiracy to murder. All his work bringing Sato to power, all those murdered whitenails? Someone must pay."
Jane's hands felt numb. "You're going to execute him."
"That depends," the Qadi said in a firm, too-measured tone.
"No. This is a sham, and you know it." Anger washed over her and filled in all the spaces that grief, exhaustion, and hunger had left empty. "And why? Sato's the man you're after."
"Sato's dead," the Qadi said, and Jane found that she wasn't surprised.
She was furious. "Then why kill an–"
The Qadi set her sugar spoon down with a clatter. "Because, Miss Lin, your personal affections aside, Roman Arnault is guilty of the crimes with which he's charged. He helped Sato come to power, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life and the near-destruction of this city's infrastructure. And as part of that undertaking, he furnished Sato with the information and resources to assassinate certain members of Recoletta's political structure."
"Never mind that a few days ago, you were planning an armed invasion of Recoletta."
The Qadi's smile was an infuriating twitch behind her veil. "And now I am an honored guest. Roman, however, is still a traitor."
She was right, of course. And yet there was more to it. Roman had done what he could to curb Sato's extremes, but he'd been caught between his conviction that the corrupt Council was on its last legs and his premonition that a revolt like Sato's was, for better or worse, inevitable. He'd hardly been the blood-soaked renegade that the Qadi seemed to imagine. If he was trapped now, he'd been no less so then.
Not that Jane expected the Qadi to find any of this especially convincing.
"If you were to try and execute every crooked or desperate person who ever helped Sato, you'd have an awful lot of blood on your hands," Jane said, thinking suddenly of Ruthers. She suppressed a shiver.
"That is exactly what I'm trying to avoid."
Jane opened her mouth but found that the words had dried up on her tongue.
The Qadi stirred her tea until a smooth vortex sucked at the liquid. "I know this is mob justice, Jane Lin. But it is the only kind of justice fit for Recoletta now. People need to see someone – someone living – held accountable. And if one man's blood will cool their anger and paranoia, I am happy to spill it."
Jane was caught between horror at what the Qadi was saying and envy at the woman's clarity.
The Qadi tapped her spoon against the rim of her cup and set it aside. "I see judgment in your eyes, Miss Lin. But you were in Madina long enough to understand why I wear the veil. People like us – Father Isse, Chancellor O'Brien, your long-dead councilors, and I – we've never had the luxury of your moral high ground. We've been charged with mankind's survival. And we've had the Catastrophe at our heels for hundreds of years."
She thought of Roman, the trapped and defeated man he'd been when she'd spied him on her way to Ruthers. He'd been wrong to support Sato, but he didn't deserve this. She'd seen goodness in Roman, and she'd always hoped it would have the chance to come out.
Excerpted from The Song of the Dead by Carrie Patel. Copyright © 2017 Carrie Patel. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot.
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