City of Blades (The Divine Cities)

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9780553419719: City of Blades (The Divine Cities)
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A triumphant return to the world of City of Stairs.
 
A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions.
 
Now, the city’s god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.
 
So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh— foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister—has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten.  
 
At least, it makes the perfect cover story.
 
The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world--or destroy it.
 
The trouble is that this old soldier isn't sure she's still got what it takes to be the hero. 

— Amazon 2016 Best Books of the Year: Mystery & Thrillers

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About the Author:

ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT is the author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, Mr. Shivers and City of Stairs. He lives in Austin with his wife and son.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2016 Robert Jackson Bennett

He said to them:

“Life is death and death is life.

To shed blood is to behold this holiest of transitions, the interwoven mesh of the world,

The flow from shrieking life to rot and ash.

For those who wage Her wars, who become Her swords, She will deem you shriven and holiest of holies.

And you shall forever reside beside Her in the City of Blades.” And he sang:

“Come across the waters, children, To whitest shores and quiet pilgrims, Long dark awaits

In Voortya’s shadow.”

 

— EXCERPT FROM “OF THE GREAT MOTHER VOORTYA ATOP THE TEETH OF THE WORLD,” CA . 556

 

1.

 

MAKE IT MATTER

 

Somewhere around mile three on the trek up the hill Pitry Suturashni decides he would not describe the Javrati sun as “warm and relaxing,” as all the travel advertisements say. Nor would he opt to call the breezes here “a cool caress upon the neck.” And he certainly would not call the forests “fragrant and exotic.” In fact, as Pitry uselessly mops his brow for the twentieth time, he decides he would rather describe the sun as “a hellish inferno,” the breezes as “absolutely nonexistent,” and the forests as “full of things with far too many teeth and a great desire to apply them to the human body.”

He almost cries with relief when he sees the little tavern at the top of the hill. He hitches up his satchel and totters over to the shoddy building. He’s not surprised to see it is almost deserted, save for the owner and two of the man’s friends, because life is quiet and slow here on the resort island of Javrat.

Pitry begs them for a glass of water, and the owner, exuding con- tempt, slowly complies. Pitry gives him a few drekels, which some- how makes the man even more contemptuous.

“I was wondering,” Pitry says, “if you could help me.”

“I’ve already helped you,” the owner says. He gestures to the water.

“Well, yes, you did do that, and I thank you for it. But I am trying to find someone. A friend.”

The owner and his two comrades watch him, their expressions stony and inscrutable.

“I am looking for my aunt,” says Pitry. “She moved here after an accident in Ghaladesh, and I am here to give her the dispensation from the settlement, which took some time.”

One of the owner’s friends—a young man with a formidable unibrow—casts his eye over Pitry’s satchel. “You’re here carrying money?”

“Ah, well, no,” says Pitry, trying wildly to think up more of his improvised cover story. Of all the things Shara taught me, he wonders, why did she never teach me to lie? “Only the checking account and instructions for the dispensation.”

“So a way to get money,” says the other friend, whose mouth is lost in an abundance of ill-kept beard.

“Anyway, my aunt,” says Pitry, “is about so high”—he holds out a hand—“about fifty or so, and is very . . . how shall I put this . . . solid.”

“Fat?” suggests the owner.

“No, no! No, no, no, not really. She is”—he curls his arm, suggesting a formidable bicep that is, in his case, absent—“solid. She, ah, is also one-handed.”

All three of them say, “Aaah,” and glance at one another, as if to say—Ugh. Her.

“I take it you are familiar with her,” says Pitry.

The mood among the three men blackens so much that the air almost grows opaque.

“I understand she might have purchased property around here,” Pitry says.

“She bought the beach cottage on the other side of the hill,” says the owner.

“Oh, how lovely,” says Pitry.

“And now she won’t let us hunt on her property anymore,” says the bearded man.

“Oh, how sad,” says Pitry.

“She won’t let us look for seagull eggs on the cliffs there anymore. She won’t let us shoot the wild pigs. She acts as if she owns the place.” “But it sounds, a bit, like she does,” Pitry says. “If she bought it

and everything, I mean.”

“That’s beside the point,” says the man with the beard. “It was my uncle Ramesh’s before it was ever hers.”

“Well, I . . . I will have to have a talk with her about that,” Pitry says. “I’ll do that now, I think. Right now. I believe you said she was on the other side of the hill, ah, that way . . . ?” He points in a westerly direction. The men do not nod, but he feels a flicker in their surliness that makes him think he’s right.

“Thank you,” says Pitry. “Thank you again.” He shuffles back- ward, smiling nervously. The men keep glaring at him, though he notices the unibrow is staring at his satchel. “Th-Thank you,” he mutters as he slips out the door.

 

***

 

Pitry regrets not defining the phrase “other side of the hill” more precisely. As he marches along the wandering paths, it increasingly feels like this hill keeps producing other sides out of nowhere for him, none of which bear any sign of civilization.

At last he hears the dull roar of the ocean, and he spies a small, crumbling white cottage nestled up against the rocks along the beach. “Finally,” he sighs, and he trots off toward it.

The forest pushes him down, down, until he’s wandering a narrow thread of path with the forest brooding over his left shoulder and a rambling, intimidating drop-off on his right. He wanders along this stretch of road for a few yards before he hears something over the waves: a rustling in the forest.

The man with the unibrow from the tavern steps out of the forest and onto the path, about twenty yards in front of him. He’s holding a pitchfork, which he keeps pointed directly at Pitry.

“Oh, ah . . . Hello again,” says Pitry.

More rustling behind him. Pitry turns and sees the man with the beard has stepped out of the forest and onto the path about twenty yards behind him, brandishing an axe.

“Oh . . . well,” says Pitry. He glances down the ravine on his right, which ends in what looks like a very angry patch of sea. “Well. Here we all are again. Um.”

“The money,” says the unibrow. “The what?”

“The money!” barks the unibrow. “Give us the money!”

“Right.” Pitry nods, pulls out his wallet, and takes out about seventy drekels. “Right. I know how this goes. H-Here you go.” He holds out the handful of money.

“No!” says the unibrow. “No?”

“No! Give us the real money!”

“The bag,” says the bearded man. “The bag!” “Give us the bag!”

“Give us the bag of money!” shouts the bearded man.

Pitry looks back and forth between the two of them, feeling as if he’s in an echo chamber. “B-b-but it doesn’t have any money,” he says, smiling madly. “Look! Look!” He fumbles to open it and shows them it is full of files.

“But you know how to get it,” says the unibrow.

“I do?”

“You have a bank account,” says the unibrow. “You have an ac- count number. That account is full of money.”

“Full of it!” shouts the bearded man.

Pitry now deeply regrets the flimsy cover story he made up on the spot. “Well . . . You . . . I don’t . . . I don’t . . .”

“You know how to—”

But then the man with the unibrow stops speaking and instead makes a very high-pitched, ear-rattling sound, a sound so strange Pitry almost wonders if it’s a bird call of some kind.

“I know how to what?” says Pitry.

The unibrow collapses, still making that odd sound, and Pitry sees that there is something shining redly just above his knee that was definitely not there before: the tip of a bolt. The man then rolls over, and Pitry sees the rest of a bolt protruding from the back of his leg.

A woman stands on the path a few dozen feet beyond the shrieking man with the unibrow. Pitry sees one dark, thin eye glaring at him along the sights of an absolutely massive bolt-shot, which is pointed directly at his chest. Her hair is dark gray, silver at the temples, and her brown, scarred shoulders gleam in the sun. The hand she uses to steady the bolt-shot—her left—is a prosthetic, dark oak wood from mid-forearm down.

“Pitry,” she says, “get the fuck down.”

“Right, right,” Pitry says mildly, and he stoops to lie down on the path.

“It hurts!” cries the man with the unibrow. “Oh, by the seas, it hurts!”

“Pain’s a good sign, really,” she says. “It means you still have a brain to feel it with. Count your blessings, Ranjesha.”

The unibrow shrieks again in response. The man with the beard is now shining with sweat. He stares at the woman, then at Pitry, and glances at the forest to his left.

“No,” says the woman. “Drop the axe, Gurudas.”

The axe falls to the ground with a thud. The woman takes a few steps forward, the point of the loaded bolt hardly moving one inch.

“This is kind of a sticky situation, isn’t it, Gurudas?” she says. “I told you two that if I caught either of you on my property again I’d expose a goodly amount of your innards to the fresh sea air. And I hate breaking promises. That’s what the whole of civilized society is founded upon, isn’t it—promises?”

The bearded man says, “I . . . I—”

“But I’ve also heard rumors, Gurudas,” she says, taking another step forward, “that you and your friend there used to lure tourists out here and rob them blind. Being as you have such a fluid interpretation of property, I’m not surprised you thought you could keep pulling your trick on land that I now own. But I just don’t have it in me to tolerate that kind of bullshit. So. Am I going to have to put a few inches of bolt in you, Gurudas? Will that communicate the message that you need to hear?”

The bearded man just stares.

“I asked you a damn question,” snaps the woman. “Where do I need to shoot you to free up your tongue, son?”

“N-No!” says the bearded man. “No, I don’t . . . I don’t want to get shot.”

“Well, you do have a funny way of following that dream,” says the woman, “since the second your foot falls on my property, the opposite is most likely to happen.”

There’s a pause. The man with the unibrow whimpers again. “Pitry,” says the woman.

“Yes?” says Pitry. As he’s still facedown on the path, the word generates a lot of dust.

“Do you think you can get up and step over that idiot bleeding all over my road?”

Pitry stands, dusts himself off, and gingerly steps over the man with the unibrow, pausing to whisper, “Excuse me.”

“Gurudas?” asks the woman.

“Y-yes?” says the bearded man.

“Are you competent enough to come down here and pick up your friend and get his dumb ass back to your brother’s shitshack of a tavern?”

The bearded man thinks about it. “Yes.”

“Good. Do it. Now. And if I ever see either of you again, I won’t be so generous with where I stick you.”

The bearded man, careful to keep his hands visible, slowly walks down the path and gathers up his friend. The two of them hobble back down the path, though once they’re about fifty yards away the man with the unibrow turns his head and bellows, “Fuck you, Mula- ghesh! Fuck you and your mone—”

He shrieks as a bolt goes skittering across the rocks inches beside his feet, making him jump, which must be very painful considering the first bolt is still lodged above his knee. She reloads and keeps the sights on them until the bearded man has dragged his screaming friend out of sight.

Pitry says, “Gener—” “Shut up,” she says.

She waits a little longer, not moving. After two minutes she relaxes, checks her bolt-shot, and sighs. She turns and looks him up and down.

“Damn it all, Pitry . . .” says General Turyin Mulaghesh. “What in the hells are you doing here?”

 

***

 

Pitry was not sure what to expect of Turyin Mulaghesh’s living quarters, but he hardly anticipated the graveyard of wine bottles and filthy plates he meets when he steps through the door. There is also an abundance of threatening things: bolts, bolt-shots, swords, knives, and in one corner, a massive rifling—a firearm with a rifled barrel. It’s a new innovation that’s only just become commercially affordable, thanks to the recent increased production of gunpowder. The mili- tary, Pitry knows, possesses far more superior versions.

The worst of it all, though, is the smell: it seems General Turyin Mulaghesh has taken up fishing, but has yet to work out how to adequately dispose of the bones.

“Yeah, the smell,” says Mulaghesh. “I know about the smell. I just get used to it. Between the ocean and the house, it all smells alike.”

Pitry fervently disagrees, but is smart enough to not say so. “Thank you for rescuing me.”

“Don’t mention it. It’s a symbiotic relationship: those two excel at being idiots, and I excel at shooting idiots. Everyone gets what they want.”

“How did you know to be there?”

“I heard a rumor some Ghaladeshi was walking around the beaches asking for me, claiming he had a lot of money to hand off. One vendor at the market likes me, so he let me know.” She shakes her head as she sets a bottle of wine on the kitchen counter. “Money, Pitry. You should have just hung a ‘Please rob my stupid ass’ sign on your forehead.”

“Yes, I realize now it was not . . . wise.”

“I thought I’d keep a lookout, and saw you walking up the hill to Haque’s bar. Then I saw you leave, and Gurudas and his friend follow. It didn’t take me long to work out what was about to happen. You are welcome, though. That was the most fun I’ve had in a while.” She produces a bottle of tea and a bottle of weak wine, and, to Pitry’s amusement, goes about arranging a drink tray, a traditional gesture of welcome in Saypur with its own subtle messages: taking the tea would be an indication of business and social distance, and taking the wine would be an indication of intimacy and relaxation. Pitry watches her motions: she’s become quite used to doing everything more or less one-handed.

She places the tray in front of Pitry. He bows slightly and selects the open bottle of tea. “My apologies,” he says. “Though I would be most grateful for the wine, General, I’m afraid I am here on business from the prime minister.”

“Yes,” says Mulaghesh, who opts for the wine. “I figured as much. There’s only one thing could possibly put Pitry Suturashni in my backyard, and that’s Shara Komayd’s say-so. So what’s the prime minister want? Does she want to drag me back into the mili- tary council? I quit about as loud as anyone could ever quit. I thought it was pretty final.”

“This is true,” Pitry says. “The sound of your resignation still echoes through Ghaladesh.”

“Shit, Pitry. That was downright poetic.” “Thank you. I stole the line from Shara.” “Of course you did.”

“I am, actually, not here to convince you to return to the military council. They found a substitute for your position.”

“Mm,” says Mulaghesh. “Gawali?” Pitry nods.

“I thought as much. By the seas, that woman kisses so much ass it’s a miracle she can find the breath to talk. How the hells she made general in the first place, I’ll never know.”

“A solid point,” says Pitry. “But th...

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