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City of Bones

City of Bones Cover Hardback: Tor, June 1995.
Paperback: Tor, June 1996.
Trade paperback and eBook: December 2007.
Cover by Richard Bober.

Charisat is a city at the Fringe of the Waste, a rocky and treacherous area of desolation formed more than a thousand years ago when a mysterious holocaust drained the sea and destroyed the flourishing civilization of the Ancients. It is a city which survives by trade, and its most valuable merchandise is relics, artifacts from the remains of the Ancient city that once occupied Charisat's present location. Relics are priceless, and in a city where living space is at a premium and water is a scarce and valuable commodity, they are dangerous to own.

Khat, a member of a humanoid race created by the Ancients to survive in the Waste, and Sagai, his human partner, are relic dealers working on the edge of society, trying to stay one step ahead of the Trade Inspectors and to support Sagai's family. When Khat is hired to find relics believed to be part of one of the Ancients' arcane engines, they are both reluctant to become involved. But the request comes from the Warders, powerful mages who serve Charisat's Elector. Khat soon discovers that the deadly politics of Charisat's upper tiers aren't the only danger. The relics the Warders want are the key to an Ancient magic of unknown power, and, as all the inhabitants of Charisat know, no one understands the Ancients' magic.

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Audiobook: Narrated by Kyle McCarley. Tantor Audio, Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

Chapter One

Somewhere else, in a room shadowed by age and death, a man readies himself to look into the future for what may be the last time.

The day was long and Khat was bored with bargaining. He leaned on one pole of the awning and looked out into the dusty street, ignoring Arnot's Wife who was examining their find as if she had never seen the like before and never wanted to again.

"Two days, no more," Arnot's Wife finally said, mopping the sweat from her brow with a corner of her scarf and feigning disinterest.

Khat shook his head, irritated at this display of deliberate ignorance. His partner Sagai raised an eyebrow in eloquent comment and said, "The lady has a mischievous sense of humor, and Arnot is an honorable man. One hundred days."

Khat smiled to himself and thought, the lady is a thief and Arnot is a rat's ass. More dust rose in the narrow street outside as pushcarts trundled by, piled high with wares destined for markets on the upper tiers. The sun had started its downward progress into late afternoon, leaving the high canyon of the street outside Arnot's shop in shadow. The heat was still stifling under the patched awning and must be far worse in the shop's cave-like interior, dug out of the black rock of the city's backbone, where Arnot himself sat on his money chest and listened to his wife bargain.

The man in the shadowed room cups the fragments of bone in one hand. They are only a focus, because the power to see beyond time is inside his thoughts and his blood and his living bones, not in the dead matter in his hand.

The woman's laughter was a humorless bark. She said, "Nothing is worth that."

The article in question lay atop a stool, wrapped in soft cloth. It was a square piece of glazed terracotta floor tile, made particularly valuable by the depiction of a web-footed bird swimming in a pool filled with strange floating flowers. The colors were soft half-tones, the purplish-brown of the bird's plumage, the blue-green color of the pond, the cream and faded yellow of the flowers. The subject matter, a waterbird that hadn't lived since the Fringe Cities rose from the dust, and the delicate colors, impossible even for Charisat's skilled artisans to duplicate, marked it as Ancient work, a relic of the lost times more than a thousand years ago.

Piled all around under the awning were the rest of Arnot's wares: serving tables with faience decoration, ornamental clocks, alabaster vessels, tiny decorative boxes of valuable wood, and junk jewelry of beads, lapis, turquoise and carnelian. There were few Ancient relics out on display here; the quality would be inside, away from the untutored eyes of casual buyers.

"We know what these tiles are fetching on the upper tiers," Sagai said with reproof. "Don't treat us like fools, and our price will be more reasonable." He folded his arms, ready to wait all day if necessary.

With an ironic lift of an eyebrow, Khat added, "We only come to you first because we're such good friends of your husband."

There was a choking cough from within the shop's dark interior; possibly Arnot about to launch into an attack of apoplexy. Arnot's Wife bit her lip and studied them both. Sagai was big and dark-skinned, the hair escaping from his headcloth mostly gone to gray, his blue robe and mantle somewhat frayed and shabby. He was despised as a foreigner because he came from Kenniliar Free City, but all the dealers knew he had been a trained scholar and had studied the Ancients long before circumstances had forced him to work in Charisat's relic trade. Sagai's features were sensitive and right now his brown eyes were liquid with humor at Arnot's Wife's predicament.

Khat was krismen, and even lower on Charisat's social scale then Sagai, for he had been born deep in the Waste. He was tall and leanly muscled, longish brown hair touched by red, skin browned against the sun, and a handsome face that he knew from experience was no help with Arnot's Wife, who was just as much of a professional as he and Sagai were.

But Khat could tell she was starting to weaken. He pointed out more gently, "They're buying these on the upper tiers like cheap water. You could turn it around in the time it takes us to walk back to the Arcade."

"Or we can take our business elsewhere," Sagai added, frowning thoughtfully as if he was already considering which of Arnot's competitors to go to.

Arnot's Wife ran a hand through her stringy white hair and sighed. "Twenty days."

"Forty," Sagai said immediately.

There was a growl from the shop's interior, a crack and a sound of the shifting of massive bulk that seemed to indicate Arnot himself was about to appear. Arnot's Wife rolled her eyes and folded her arms over her tattered gray kaftan.

The man closes his hand on the fragments of bone, thinking of their former owner and how unwillingly he parted with them.

Arnot appeared in the arched doorway, glared at the two men under lowered brows, and advanced toward the tile. As he reached for it, Khat said, "By the edges."

Arnot regarded him a moment in silence. Legend said krismen eye color changed according to mood. Khat's eyes had lightened to gray-green. Dangerous. Arnot lifted the tile gently by the edges, and turned it, so the light filtering through the red awning caught the colors and made them glow almost with life. The tiles were one of the few relics that even the cleverest forgers hadn't the skill to copy; before the rise of the Waste, that tile had graced some Ancient's fountain court, and Arnot knew it.

The dealer considered, then set the tile gently down again. He nodded approval to his wife, and she dug in the leather pouch at her waist for tokens.

Something made Khat glance out into the street.

Three men watched them from the edge of the awning. One wore the robes and concealing veil of a Patrician, and the other two were dressed in the rough shirts and protective leather leggings of wagon dock laborers. An upper-tier Patrician down in the market quarters of the Fifth Tier meant one thing -- Trade Inspector.

Arnot's Wife, caught in the act of passing over the brass counters, each representing several days of artisan's labor, froze and stared at the intruders, her gray brows coming together in consternation. Sagai had his hand out, Khat and Arnot were obviously giving their countenance to the deal and the merchandise lay in plain view on the stool.

It took them all several moments to remember that there was nothing illegal about what they were doing.

Smiling, the man looks up at his companion across the table and says, "It's an intriguing game, where one player sees the board and the other is blindfolded."

"Yes," she replies. "But which player are we?"

Arnot nudged his wife, and she dropped the counters into Sagai's palm. Sagai tucked them away inside his robe, and exchanged a look with Khat. Their expressions betrayed nothing; it would have been a mistake to show any kind of fear.

Arnot took his wife's elbow and steered her toward the door of the shop, a protective gesture Khat was surprised to see from the cutthroat dealer. Arnot growled, "We close early today."

Khat exchanged a look with Sagai to make sure they were both thinking along the same lines, then stepped out from under the awning. One of the dockworkers moved to intercept him and said, "Are you Khat, the relic dealer from the Sixth Tier?"

The man was smiling at him unpleasantly. He was big for a lower-tier city-dweller and blond, his short-cropped hair greasy with sweat and blown sand. The one who hung back with the Patrician was short and stocky, wearing a red headcloth. He carried an air gun slung casually over one shoulder. The copper ball beneath the stock that was the gun's air reservoir had been recently polished, and the skeleton butt had shiny brass fittings.

Khat didn't answer and Sagai shouldered his way gently past the dockworker before the man could react, saying, "Excuse us, gentlemen."

Khat followed Sagai up the narrow canyon of the street. Walls of black rock and mud-brick rose up on either side of them, with narrow doorways on the lower levels and shallow balconies and windows on the upper, some with cheap tin shutters painted with desert flowers or luck signs. Clothes hung out to air festooned some of the upper floors, and sewer stink was suspended in the still, hot air. The three men followed them, though not fast enough to be actually chasing them, and the rifle- wielder did nothing overtly threatening. Sagai muttered, "And the day was going so well, too."

Trade Inspectors would never have let them walk away. But Khat and Sagai had no Patrician clients and no reason to expect any, with rifle-wielding guards or without. "'Was' is right," Khat answered, irritated. Their pursuers were still too close for them to dodge down any connecting alleys.

The street widened into an open court, where a fountain carved into the shape of an upended tortoise shell played and the sewer stink was not quite so bad. There was still no opportunity to bolt. Grim now, Sagai said, "They know your name, obviously. They may know where we live. We'll have to talk to them."

Khat couldn't think of a better idea, so he took a seat on the fountain's wide edge to wait for their pursuers to catch up, and Sagai rested one sandaled foot next to him.

Women in light-colored kaftans filled jugs and buckets at the fountain and lingered to talk, old men sat on the stone balconies above them and smoked clay pipes, a shrieking gang of children tore by, scattering a peddler's collection of baskets and stampeding some stray goats. An old woman sat on a faded red rug near the fountain, telling fortunes by burning fragments of bone in a brazier. The old man who kept the fountain casually strolled toward them and shook his clay bowl of coins and tokens suggestively, reminding them to pay before using the water.

The Patrician and the hireling with the rifle stopped several paces away, the blond man coming nearer to confront them. Khat lounged at ease on the fountain rim, and Sagai regarded the man's approach with polite interest. None of the other inhabitants of the court fled at the sight of the possible altercation, but the women who had not been disturbed by Khat and Sagai's presence at the fountain found reasons to move on, and the water- keeper retreated across the court.

The rifle's odd, Khat decided. It was an upper- tier weapon, used by lictors assigned to court officials or paid vigils. Even bonetakers and cut-throat-thieves could only afford to carry knives. Presumably the Patrician could have hired the dockworkers and given them the weapon to defend him, but it was hard to believe he would be quite that trusting. It was more likely that the pair were private vigils as much accustomed to the upper tier as their master. And who are they protecting him from? he wondered. The septuagenarian fountain-keeper maybe, or the beggar woman telling fortunes? This was only the Fifth Tier, not the Eighth. Still smiling, the blond man spoke to Khat, "I'm Kythen Seul, and I know who you are."

On the table is an iron bowl half-filled with hot coals. The bones will be burned there as the man looks past the slow turning of time. He does not know the reason for this except that a symbolic death by fire seems to aid the process.

His companion watches.

Well, Khat hadn't tried to hide it. He said, "Then why did you ask?" He felt his theory was confirmed. Seul spoke Tradetongue too well for a dockworker. Khat looked over at the Patrician, who seemed to have a slight build under all that heavy cloth. His inner robes were rough silk without beadwork or embroidery, the outer mantle of tougher cotton, and the long gauze veil was wound around his head and over the lower half of his face. Not ostentatious, unless you considered how far such materials had to be ported across the Waste to reach the Charisat markets. Khat wore a light shirt over tight trousers and soft leather boots, with his robe folded back and tied off around his waist, and to anyone accustomed to the robes and heavy veiling affected by Charisat's upper-tier nobility, this was practically undressed. The krismen needed less protection from the sun than he did relief from the heat; it was cooler out on the Waste than it was on the black stone of Charisat's streets in the afternoon.

Seul displayed his tolerance of uppity krismen by ignoring the question. He glanced pointedly at Sagai and said, "Your friend can go."

"Oh, but we have business still to do together," Sagai said, as if he thought it suggestion rather than command. "I prefer to stay."

Seul's eyes hardened, but the smile didn't disappear. Khat was beginning to seriously dislike that smile. Seul inclined his head back toward the Patrician, and said, "The Honored needs a knowledgeable guide to take him to the Ancient Remnant on the Tersalten Flat."

Sagai frowned. "The one to the west?"


Khat had done this before, but usually for scholars from some other city or the Academia, and he didn't feel accommodating today. "If you already know where it is," he said patiently, but with the patience usually reserved for a child. "Why do you need a guide?"

"I don't need a guide." Seul's voice took on a testy edge. "I prefer one."

"And you want me to suggest someone?" Khat looked mildly confused. As a way to drive someone wild he had found this was second to few, especially when what the person was trying to tell you was as plain as daylight.

"No, I want you."

Khat smiled at back at him for the first time, a particularly krismen expression that revealed pointed canines and had an unequivocal meaning. "The whorehouse is down that way." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sagai glance briefly skyward, as if asking the air spirits to witness what he had to deal with on a daily basis. His partner had also unobtrusively rested a hand on the knife hilt concealed by a fold of his robe.

Seul's smile came close to evaporating, but he only said, "He doesn't ask for free service. He intends to pay."

Before Khat could answer, Sagai interposed, "Might one ask why?"

"He's curious." The smile was back with renewed strength. "He's a student of the past."

The man drops the bones into the glowing coals in the iron bowl, and they yellow then blacken as the heat takes them, and thin veins of smoke rise into the still air of the time-darkened room.

"Not the future?" Khat asked, and then wondered why. The old woman hadn't moved from her rug near the fountain, where she muttered to herself and burned bone chips to look into the future. Perhaps he had been thinking of her.

Amazingly, Seul stopped smiling. "The reason isn't important. He'll pay ten gold reals."

Khat heard Sagai's snort of disgust. He said, "Is this a joke?"

The man's eyes shifted from the krismen to Sagai and back. "It's a fair price."

"It's more than fair," Khat agreed. "But I'm kris. I can't get a trade license to own Imperial-minted coins." In Charisat and most of the other Fringe Cities, citizenship had to be bought, and noncitizens couldn't own or handle minted coins, unless they bought a special license to do so, which was almost as expensive as citizenship itself -- and sometimes not worth the trouble, since Trade Inspectors paid special notice to sales made with minted coins. Trade tokens were a holdover from the old days of barter, and worthless without the authority of the merchants or institutions who stamped them. If a city became too crowded and faced a water or grain shortage, it could always declare all trade tokens void, forcing noncitizens to leave or starve in the streets.

It was somewhat better than the early days after the Waste had formed, when the Survivors had struggled for food and safety on the ruins of the Ancients' cities, killing any outsiders who tried to encroach on their water sources, but to Khat's mind not much better. Foreigners, even foreigners from other Fringe Cities, were still viewed with suspicion, and if you were poor you stood little chance of ever amassing enough trade tokens to buy citizenship. Or if you were krismen, and were simply not permitted to buy citizenship or special trade licenses.

"I meant the equivalent in trade tokens," Seul said.

Khat glanced at Sagai, who shook his head minutely. Khat looked back at Seul and said, "All right. I'll guide him."

Seul nodded, his hard eyes expressionless. Perhaps he was surprised to come to an agreement so easily. "I know where you live. One of us will meet you there at sunrise." He turned back to the Patrician, spoke with him a moment, then all three retreated up the street.

Watching them go, Sagai sighed. He said, "So you've gotten yourself hired for some uncertain and suspicious purpose by an upper-tier relic dilettante. You have some clever way out of this, I assume?"

As Khat stood, the beggar woman caught the hem of his robe and said, "Tell your fortune, pretty?" By the cloudy film over her eyes she was nearly blind. He dug distractedly in a pocket for a half-bit trade token and dropped it onto her frayed carpet, and told Sagai, "He knows who I am, where we live. How can I refuse?"

The woman took more bone fragments from a stained cloth bag and rubbed them between her palms, preparing to drop them into her brazier. Some fortune tellers unscrupulously used rat or lizard bone. Most bought what were supposed to be the bones of executed murderers or stillborn babies from the dealers on the Seventh tier, but those were more often from murder victims, killed by the dealers' own bonetakers. Purists in the trade believed that only krismen bones gave a true casting of the future, and, being one of the few kris in Charisat, Khat occasionally had difficulty keeping his intact.

Sagai was capable of infinite patience. It was one of the reasons he and Khat got along together so well. Finally, Khat met his friend's skeptical eyes and said, "He wants to go there for a reason. Maybe he knows something I don't."

"Betrayal," the beggar woman whispered, startling them both. She was holding her hands in the wisps of smoke rising from the coals, the burning bones. "Betrayal of you, betrayal by you."

In the death-shadowed room the coals have already cooled, and the bones are ash.

                                       *   *   *

Sagai was still registering disapproval when they reached their own court down on the Sixth Tier. It was ramshackle and poor, and its fountain was only a small basin up against one wall, but the clay-coated tin shutters on all the second and third story windows glowed with Sagai's colorfully painted designs, and some of the neighbors lounging around the court greeted them cheerfully.

Their house, consisting of three rooms set one atop the other and a fair share of rooftop, had been owned for a time only by the widow Netta and her two children. Netta was well able to take care of her own affairs, but a large family of cap-makers from the next court had taken a fancy to the house, as well as to Netta's daughter, and had continually tried to force the widow out. She had taken in a pair of young street entertainers to help her hold onto her property, but the struggle to keep the cap- makers out went on so long they had little time to practice their own livelihoods. It was not until Khat and Sagai, and Sagai's wife Miram, had moved in that the cap- makers had chosen discretion as the better part of valor. Netta had boasted that all the two relic dealers had had to do was sit out on the front stoop and all enemies had fled. Khat and Sagai hadn't told her that they had also gone to the cap-makers' house late one night and beaten the libido out of the three eldest brothers.

The other neighbors in the court were mostly street entertainers or peddlers who worked the fringes of the garden market, and it was a good arrangement, with no other relic dealers nearby to generate competition or theft.

"He could still be a Trade Inspector trying to trap you somehow," Sagai argued as they crossed the court. "That Seul fellow did offer you coin."

"Then I'll be honest," Khat answered, reaching into the doorhole to pop the latch. "I'm always honest."

Sagai snorted. "No, you think you're always honest, and that is not the same thing at all."

This side of the court had been in shadow as the sun moved behind the bulk of the city, and the room would have been almost cool except for the press of bodies. The floor was covered with children of various ages: Netta's youngest, barely able to walk, Sagai and Miram's three small daughters, and the baby boy which Sagai had vowed would be the last child born to them in Charisat. Libra and Senace, two young men who did a juggling act in the market, were sprawled on the faded matting, counting the copper bits they had been tossed that day. Copper could be weighed and exchanged for Trade Tokens, another way noncitizens could get around the Coin Laws.

The widow Netta sat on the narrow bench carved out of the wall, fanning herself and Miram, who was at the low table separating a tray of colored beads into individual glass bottles. The two youngest children were helping her in this task by struggling for possession of her lap. When Miram and Netta could afford to buy the metal thread they needed, they made jewelry from the supply of beads Miram had managed to bring with her from Kenniliar, and sold the product to one of their neighbors who kept a market stall.

Miram looked tired and frazzled from the children, but still smiled up at them as they came in. "Well, are we wealthy yet?" Though Miram hadn't made a serious study of the Ancients, she had picked up an interest in the subject from Sagai. Her education hadn't been nearly so extensive, but her ability to read and write Tradetongue occasionally let her do a lucrative business in reading legal documents and writing letters for their neighbors.

"No, but we're comfortable, at least for today." Sagai said, and put the result of their day's trading on the table for the others to look at. There was a small box etched with floral designs and made of mythenin, a hard silvery Ancient metal that made up most of the relics found intact. There were also some pieces of smooth stone of a rich blue-green color in round settings of the same metal, that might have been anything from jewelry to pieces in some forgotten game. Charisat's metalworkers and gemstone-cutters were acknowledged as the best across the Fringe and down to the cities of the Last Sea, but even they still couldn't manipulate liquid metal like the Ancients.

Khat settled on the seat next to Netta. Water jugs filled most of the cubbies and pegs pounded into the clay- smoothed walls held the few copper cooking implements Netta owned, and the oil mill and grain grinder every household needed. The position of honor on the only shelf was taken by her grandmother's copper tea decanter.

Sagai was telling the others about their adventure.

"That's worrisome," Miram said, with a critical glance at Khat. "To go into the Waste when you don't know what this person wants." She was younger than Sagai, and had come from a well-to-do family in Kenniliar who had not entirely approved her choice of a learned but poor husband. When Sagai had decided to come to Charisat, he had tried to convince her to stay behind until he returned with his fortune, or at least enough coin to buy himself a place in the Kenniliar Scholars' Guild. She hadn't taken the suggestion well at all. She didn't like Charisat, but she preferred it to living with her disapproving family in Kenniliar, and wondering every day if her husband was alive or dead.

"In the Waste, that Patrician is helpless," Khat pointed out. Miram didn't entirely approve of Sagai working the relic trade because she thought it was dangerous. Khat couldn't argue that point with her; she was perfectly right, it was dangerous. She didn't entirely approve of Khat sometimes, either, and he had to agree with her on that score, too. "I can walk out of it alive and he can't, guards or no guards."

"His guards could shoot you," Netta pointed out helpfully. "They don't carry a gun for their own amusement."

Khat didn't answer. He knew that drawing the attention of an upper-tier citizen was not a particularly good thing, but the last thing he wanted to do was tell them his reason for accepting the commission.

The door flew open suddenly and their neighbor Ris stood there, panting. The painfully thin, dark-haired boy had obviously been running. After a moment he managed to say, "Lushan's looking for you, Khat."

"Since when?" Everyone was listening with interest, but Khat had given up privacy the day he had left the Waste for the Fringe Cities.

Ris collapsed on the floor and pulled the crawling baby into his lap to tickle. "Not long after noon. I heard it from one of the fire-eaters outside the Odeon."

Netta got up to rescue the squealing child from him. "Outside the theater? I should tell your aunt."

"She knows," the boy retorted. Ris and his family lived in the next house over, and his father was a street entertainer who performed in the Garden Market. Last year a pair of drunken slummers had smashed his harmonium and therefore his livelihood. After some time, Khat had been able to repair the instrument, replacing all the fiddly bits of metal and wire by trial and error, and Sagai had polished off the job by painting the case with delicate scrollwork. Since then, Ris had carried messages and run errands for them.

"Lushan again?" Sagai said, frowning. "What can that misbegotten creature want?"

Khat leaned back against the wall and managed to look unconcerned by the news. "I'll go see him later. He could have some deals to throw our way."

"And why should he favor us?" Sagai objected, but the baby was hauling itself up on the hem of his robe, distracting him. Pulling it into his lap, he still added, "I don't trust him. But then, you can't trust anyone in our business."

Khat wished his partner hadn't phrased it quite that way.

                                       *   *   *

Later Khat strolled down the theater street on the Fourth Tier, enjoying the retreat of the day's heat and the long twilight. Colonnades paved with colored tile sheltered peddlers and gave entrance to the shops, and the street was crowded with folk in search of an evening's entertainment. It was growing dark, and lamps enclosed in perforated bronze pots were being lit above the doors of the wealthier establishments of the goldsmiths, lapidary, bakers, ironsmiths, and wineshops. Many of the lamps were inset with red-tinted glass, making the available light murky indeed, but hostile ghosts and air spirits were supposed to avoid red light. Gamblers hawking for games and especially fortune tellers squatted outside the doors haloed by the muddy blood lights, for security as much as for a way to see what they were doing.

Knowing he still had some time to kill, Khat bought a flower-shaped dumpling from a stall and sat on the steps of the Odeon, near the prostitutes who were working the theater crowd. The ebb and flow of the mass of people in the street held endless fascination.

There were robed and veiled Patrician men, Patrician women with their faces unveiled but their hair hidden under flowing silk scarves or close-fitting cloisonne caps, all with servants trailing them. Litters draped with silks and lighter gauzes carried Patricians too exalted to even walk among the throng.

The crowd from the lower tiers was less colorful but more active, some turning to climb the steps to the pillared entrance of the vast theater at Khat's back, or continuing down the street to the wineshops and foodstalls, and the ghost-callers, fakirs, and clowns performing in the open air forums. There were wide-eyed visitors from other Fringe Cities and the ports of the Last Sea, babbling to each other in the different dialects of Menian and to everyone else in pidgin Tradetongue.

There was a shout, and one of the foreigners fought his way out of the crowd, dragging a struggling boy. Caught a thief, Khat thought. Then a group of men dressed in the dull red robes of Trade Inspectors poured out of a nearby shop and surrounded the pair. One of them held up what looked like a piece of scrap mythenin, and the boy began to yell denials. No, caught an idiot trying to bypass the dealers and sell a relic for coin. Khat sighed and looked away. From the boy's threadbare robe and bare feet he doubted he was a citizen. Soon to be a dead idiot.

The boy was a fool to be caught by such a common trick. Everyone knew that Trade Inspectors disguised themselves as foreigners and tried to buy illegal relics, or offered Imperial-minted coins to dealers who did not possess the right licenses. Sagai's notion that the Patrician who had approached them was a disguised Trade Inspector wasn't just an idle suspicion.

As the others hauled their captive off, one of the Trade Inspectors stayed to scan the crowd on the steps, searching for possible accomplices or just anyone foolish enough to look guilty. Khat didn't betray any reaction besides idle curiosity, and the man turned to follow his colleagues. You couldn't be too careful, even though at the moment Khat hadn't anything as incriminating as a pottery fragment on him. The Trade Inspectors took special notice of merchants or relic dealers who were not citizens, and Khat didn't have the option of becoming one, even if he could raise the fee.

Tradition said the Ancients had made the kris to live in the Waste because they feared it would spread to the end of the world. Khat's people were born with immunities to desert poisons, with the ability to sense the direction of true north on a landscape where it was death to lose your way, and pouches to carry babies, when humans were forced to give birth live in mess and inconvenience. But the Ancients were dead and their plans hadn't come to fruition. The Waste had taken much of the world, but it had stopped before the Last Sea and left the coast untouched. The kris were forced into the deep Waste, and the people of the Fringe Cities, especially the Imperial Seat Charisat, plainly did not want them inside their walls.

More lamps were lit above the Odeon's doors as the natural light died, and one of the men prostitutes gently suggested that if Khat wasn't going to buy anybody he should get the hell out of here. Khat left without argument; it was dark enough now.

The great hall of the theater was huge and round, the dome ceiling high overhead a vast mosaic of some past elector ascending to the throne. The stage was circular and in the center of the hall, with the audience a noisy flowing mob around it. Wicker couches and chairs were scattered about, and the tile floor was littered with rotting food and broken glass. The air was stifling, despite the long narrow windows just below the dome that were supposed to vent the heat. The farce being performed was an old familiar one, which was just as well because most of the audience were here to talk and throw things at the stage.

As an added distraction a fakir was performing in the crowd. He was young for the trade, but had managed to extend a rope nearly twenty feet straight up before beginning his climb.

Khat fought his way around the edge of the crowd, then was hailed by a loud group of rival relic dealers. "We heard about that little trinket you and Sagai sold Arnot today. Any more where it came from?" Danil asked. She was a lean, predatory woman who sold relics on the Fourth Tier. Her eyes were artificially widened with powders of malachite and galena.

Khat leaned on the back of her chair and said, "Traded, traded to Arnot. It wouldn't be legal for me to participate in a sale."

Some of the men wore upper-tier veils, but of much cheaper gauze than real Patricians. Most were already drunk and one laughed so hard at this that he rolled off his couch.

Danil's seductive smile became strained. She didn't enjoy the others interrupting her probing. "Why are you here tonight?" she asked, a little too sharply. "Another buyer?"

She was too far off the mark for Khat to worry. He grinned down at her. "Just came to see the show, love."

He left them laughing at one another's jokes and made his way to the back wall, where an alcove hid a spiral stair used to reach the private balconies. At the top there was a service passage inside the wall, which gave the private servants and those the theater employed access to the balconies without venturing out on the open gallery reserved for the wealthy patrons.

The passage was cramped and lit by oil lamps, which stunk and made it hot. Khat passed a variety of people on various errands, none of whom paid him any attention. This corridor was used by many who wanted their business kept inconspicuous. He found Lushan's balcony without difficulty, since there were two private vigils armed with iron-tipped staves standing outside its servants' door. They let him in without a word.

The round balcony was protected by a high copper-mesh screen, and the noise of the crowd rose up around it. The floor was covered by woven matting dyed brilliant colors, and a clockwork-driven fan moved back and forth on an ornate metal rack overhead, stirring the sluggish air and the incense that was thick enough to drown in. Lushan lay on a low couch, a servant girl wearing a plain undyed kaftan in kneeling attendance on him. He had thin light hair, and was dressed in a gold-embroidered mantle of dark blue that didn't hide his impressive corpulence. One of his eyes was small, alert, and greedy, the other was unfocused, staring at nothing in particular. He never wore a veil around his servants and he never wore it in meetings with Khat. It was not a good sign.

Watching him thoughtfully, Lushan took a cup of delicately painted translucent ceramic from the wineset on a low alabaster table and said, "You came promptly for once, my boy. I hadn't thought you had much sense of the passage of time."

"I didn't come for your job. You know I don't do that anymore." Khat leaned back against the wall beside the door, because Lushan would go gormless if he touched anything anyway and, though he liked heights, the place gave him the unpleasant sensation of hanging in a cage over a great unfriendly mass of people. "I've got the coin you think I owe you."

Lushan's mouth set in a thin line. He put the delicate cup down on the table with an audible click. Khat winced for its sake. People who had no concern for beautiful things had no right to have them. "And how did you manage that?"

"That's not your business, is it?"

The servant refilled the wine carafe and replaced it on the table, carefully wiping it with a cloth to prevent any sweat from her fingers being transferred to Lushan. The upper-tier Patricians of Charisat were insane about touching anyone in public, as insane as they were about wearing veils or covering their hair or looking at theater through a metal screen to prevent the lower-tier crowd from accidently seeing them. This was particularly alien to Khat, who had been a child in the kris Enclave on the Waste where there was even less privacy than in the lower- tier courts, and you could get a thick ear for refusing to kiss the most wrinkled granny-matriarch. As if anyone in their right mind wanted to get within touching distance of Lushan. Khat had long known that while the wealthy broker might have as much minted gold as a Patrician, he hadn't been born one, and was only mimicking their manners. Lushan was, after all was said and done, only a thief with clean hands, whose special talent was getting other people to dirty theirs for him.

"You are my business," Lushan said, his good eye cold and contemptuous. "While I found the buyers for the relics you . . . liberated from their current owners, it is you the Trade Inspectors would be most interested in. You've been very profitable to me in the past, and if you think I'll let you go so easily . . ."

"You're good with threats and promises. Don't think I haven't noticed." Khat let his eyes wander over the dome's mosaic, the view much better here than on the floor with the plebs. The border pieces were old, far older than the center with its not-terribly-inspired rendition of an elector's ascension, and were probably scavenged from whatever structure had occupied this site before the theater. Charisat and the other Fringe Cities were depicted as islands in shallow freshwater seas, the way they had been over a thousand years ago before the Conquest of the Waste over the Land. The artist had peopled the seas with strange and colorful swimming creatures and dotted the mild blue skies with large bladder-like air bags that carried passengers in baskets slung beneath them. This section of the mosaic was undoubtedly valuable. The discoloration around the cracks told him it couldn't be removed from the wall without destroying it, which was a pity.

"If you think I'll let you go so easily, you're much mistaken," Lushan was saying. "If you don't continue with your part of our arrangement, I'll have a conversation with a certain Trade Inspector I know who will . . ."

"And when he hears about your part of our arrangement?" Lushan hated to be interrupted, which was why Khat did it so often.

"Foolish boy, why should he believe you?" Lushan's smile was malice itself.

"He doesn't have to believe me. But he'll have to believe the Patrician."


"The one I'm working for now." The lie grew, blossomed. "He's inherited a collection of Ancient relics, and I'm valuing it for him." When Khat had been younger, it had taken some time to get used to the idea that he could lie to city-dwellers while looking straight at them, and the shifting color of his eyes would tell them nothing. Now he didn't have that problem. "I told him you wanted me to work for you, but he said . . ."

"What?" Lushan's voice grated. "That I wouldn't have the time. I'd hate to have to tell him different. You know how they are."

Lushan slammed the cup down on the table, cracking it and spilling wine onto the matting. The servant girl winced. "You will tell him nothing, you bastard kris."

There was no point in staying any longer. Khat stepped over to the flimsy door in the copper screen. "I'll send someone with the coin. It may be a few days. I hope you don't need it to pay your bill here." The second cup in the set came flying at him and he ducked out the door.

A short flight of steps led up to the brass-railed gallery running above the private balconies. The great dome curved up overhead and below the milling crowd was applauding the fakir, who had now climbed to the top of his magically stiffened rope and was standing on his head, supporting himself by one finger on the frayed end. Khat ran along the gallery, ignoring outcries as he was spotted by wealthy patrons in the other balconies below. He reached the first vent, which was long and only a few feet wide, starting about eight feet up the wall and ending just before the base of the dome. Khat jumped and caught the bottom of the sill, pulling himself up onto it.

The night air was wonderfully fresh after the heat inside the theater. The flat roof spread out below him and the rise of the Third Tier was behind him, blocked by the height and breadth of the dome. There was a shout behind him and he scrambled out of the vent and landed down on the slate-flagged roof.

He crossed the wide expanse, sure-footed on the slick surface, the warm wind pulling at his clothes and hair. No one came after him. Lushan would not want to draw attention to himself by sending his vigils, and the theater owners would only care about getting the intruder off the gallery and away from the private balconies; they wouldn't be much concerned with how he left, as long as he did.

Khat reached the waist-high wall formed by the uppermost portion of the theater's pediment and leaned on it, enjoying a unique view of the street below, and thought, I'm glad that's done. He had been an idiot to get involved with Lushan in the first place, which Sagai and the others would certainly point out to him if they knew. But not knowing was the only protection for them, if Khat had ever been caught stealing relics from the upper tiers.

It only remained to see if the mysterious Patrician lived up to his part of the bargain. Or if I live through it, Khat thought.

There was an agitated stirring in the massed folk near the theater's steps, and after a moment Khat spotted the cause. Three Warders moved up the street below, cutting a path through the crowd, their brilliant white robes and veiling reflecting the flickering lamp light and drawing attention amid the bright colors of the rich and muted tones of the poor. After Lushan, maybe, with an Imperial order of execution, Khat thought hopefully, but the trio passed the steps of the Odeon without pausing.

Warders were the special servants of Charisat's Elector, protecting him from poisons and assassins and destroying his enemies in the other Fringe Cities, but they were anything but ordinary guards or spies. Rumor said that if someone wanted to kill the Elector, the Warders could pick the thought right out of his head. They could cloud an onlooker's eyes to hide themselves even when in plain sight, and make ordinary people see things that weren't there. Khat was not entirely sure he believed everything that was said about them, but he considered them another one of Charisat's less endearing oddities.

Before the three Warders on the street below could pass out of sight and out of mind, one of them suddenly broke away from his companions.

Startled, Khat watched the rogue Warder rush wildly across the street and seize a man out of the crowd. The Warder shook the unfortunate despite his struggles and screamed incoherently into his shocked face. The people in the street milled in confusion, half trying to escape, half trying to get closer. The Warder dragged his victim toward the colonnade, slamming him up against a pillar, his head striking the stone with a sharp crack that made Khat wince in sympathy.

The other two Warders reached the rogue one and wrestled him away from his captive, who slid limply to the pavement. Then the mad Warder tore himself free, sending one of his companions staggering.

He seemed to hesitate, standing as if paralyzed, staring down at the man who lay helpless in the street while the other Warder tried ineffectually to pull him away and the crowd stirred and muttered in fear. Then a white light suffused the ground under the limp form and the unconscious man's clothes were in flames.

Khat felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, as screams echoed up from the street. The bystanders started back in panic, and the other Warders managed to seize the mad one again. They hauled him away despite his struggles this time, and several figures below leapt forward to smother the flames with their robes. Finally they were able to lift the body and carry it out of the street.

For years, Khat had heard rumors of incidents like this, but this was the first he had actually witnessed. Everyone knew the Ancients' magic made people as mad as sun-poisoned beggars, but the Warders practiced it despite the inherent danger. The street fortune tellers, ghostcallers, fakirs, and the kris shamen used only natural magics, simples and healing and divination, and even they sometimes went too far and ruined themselves; the older powers that Warders played with were far more deadly. Khat shook his head grimly and looked toward the horizon, and the black still sea of the fringe rock in the distance. And they think the Waste is dangerous.

end of chapter 1

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