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Blood Engines

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Blood Engines

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Author: Tim Pratt
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2007
Series: Marla Mason: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Meet Marla Mason--smart, saucy, slightly wicked witch of the East Coast....

Sorcerer Marla Mason, small-time guardian of the city of Felport, has a big problem. A rival is preparing a powerful spell that could end Marla's life--and, even worse, wreck her city. Marla's only chance of survival is to boost her powers with the Cornerstone, a magical artifact hidden somewhere in San Francisco. But when she arrives there, Marla finds that the quest isn't going to be quite as cut-and-dried as she expected...and that some of the people she needs to talk to are dead. It seems that San Francisco's top sorcerers are having troubles of their own--a mysterious assailant has the city's magical community in a panic, and the local talent is being (gruesomely) picked off one by one.

With her partner-in-crime, Rondeau, Marla is soon racing against time through San Francisco's alien streets, dodging poisonous frogs, murderous hummingbirds, cannibals, and a nasty vibe from the local witchery, who suspect that Marla herself may be behind the recent murders. And if Marla doesn't figure out who is killing the city's finest in time, she'll be in danger of becoming a magical statistic herself....


Marla Mason crouched in the alley beside the City Lights bookstore and threw her runes. The square of royal-purple velvet spread before her on the ground was covered by a scattering of objects–a garlic clove, a withered cigarette butt, a two-headed novelty quarter, fingernail clippings, and the stone from the head of a toad. She studied the pattern the objects made for a long time, then sighed.

"It's no good. This alley isn't any better than the other two places I tried. I don't know where all the lines of force are in this city, so I can't interpret the scatter worth a damn. I thought I could triangulate, but even then it's too vague. There's something or someone of power over there"–she gestured vaguely eastward–"but I don't know if it's the guy we're looking for. I'll have to do a wet divination." The air smelled faintly of piss and coffee, but not even those familiar urban smells set Marla at ease.

Her companion, Rondeau, stood slurping rice noodles from a waxed-paper box. "I guess guts never lie," he said, prodding the noodles with his chopstick and plucking out a morsel of chicken. "What are you planning to eviscerate?"

Marla wrapped up her velvet cloth and divining tools and stowed them in a leather shoulder bag. She stretched her arms overhead until she felt her joints pop, then sighed. She'd missed her morning workout,
then spent several hours cramped in cattle class during a cross-country flight, and her body was feeling uncooperative.

"If I didn't have such high moral standards, I'd do a human, just because it's more accurate. Then again, this isn't my city, so it's not like I have a responsibility to protect these people." She was kidding, of course. Murder for mystical purposes incurred a nasty karmic debt, and it was wasteful besides. There were better uses for people. "I don't know. A cat, maybe. Or a chicken. Nothing too advanced. I doubt Lao Tsung is trying to hide from me."

"Why do we have to look for him anyway? Why didn't you let him know we were coming?" Rondeau wiggled his fingers around his left ear. "Ever hear of a telephone?"

Marla snorted. "He's not the kind of person who has a phone number. There are ways to get messages to him, but it would take a few days, and there wasn't time for that. I'm in a hurry."

"I gathered that," Rondeau said, wiping his mouth with a wad of napkins. "I think my first clue was when you busted into my place, told me to pack a bag, hauled ass to the airport, and hustled me onto a plane. You didn't even let me sit by the window." His tone
was aggrieved. "My first time on a plane, and you stick me in the middle beside a fat guy with sweat stains. He was smelly."

"Oh, you noticed that, too? I think it's your keen powers of observation I value most."

"You know, I kept hoping you'd volunteer the information, but since you aren't–what are we doing in San Francisco? What's so important that you have to see this guy Lao Tsung right now? And why did you
need me to come?"

Marla considered. She and Rondeau had saved each other's lives far more often than they'd threatened them. Keeping secrets was a useful habit, and deeply ingrained, but it paid to remember she did have
a few allies she could count on. "It's Susan Wellstone, she said, and found herself reaching almost superstitiously for the comfort of the daggers up her sleeves.

Rondeau's eyes widened. "Really? Her? Of all the movers and shakers in Felport, I never thought she'd be the one to move on you. Gregor, maybe, or Viscarro..." He tossed his empty noodle carton in a
garbage can.

Marla shook her head. "Gregor would stab me in the back if I ever gave him the chance, and Viscarro will be there to steal the jewels and gold fillings off whatever corpse falls first, but Susan's the only one willing to make an opportunity, instead of just waiting for one. She knows that if she loses, I'll destroy her. But she's a perfectionist. She doesn't intend to lose. She means to overthrow me."

Rondeau frowned. "So why isn't she hanging upside down in a vat of acid right now? What are we doing on the other side of the continent? You can't be running away."

"I better not have heard a little upward lilt at the end of that last sentence, Rondeau," Marla said, crossing her arms. "I know you weren't asking if I'm running away."

Rondeau held up his hands. "I know better. I've seen you duck from the occasional social obligation, but never a fight."

"Yeah, well." Marla ran her hand through her short hair, bits of scalp flaking away. She'd never had dandruff in her twenties. Getting older had its advantages, but dandruff wasn't one of them. "This isn't a fight I can win, not head-on. Susan's planning to cast a spell to get rid of me, but she hasn't thought through all the implications, and her spell's going to wind up wrecking my city, too. I can respect her desire to kill me–she wants my position, and she knows I'm not about to retire anytime soon–but I can't forgive her for risking Felport."

"So Lao Tsung can help you stop Susan's spell?"

"Lao Tsung knows where to find something that can help me. The Cornerstone. But don't go throwing that around to the local sorcerers."

"Ah," Rondeau said. "An artifact? I hate artifacts.

Things shouldn't look at you, and that old weird stuff always seems to be paying attention."

"I thought you liked attention."

Rondeau rolled his eyes. "We're under a time limit here?"

"One that gets shorter every minute we stand here talking. Have I satisfied your curiosity? Can I get on with saving my city and my life now?"

"You never told me why I'm here. You could've left me behind with Hamil to, like, muster the defenses or something. You might be the first one up against the wall when the revolution comes, but Hamil and I won't be far behind."

"It's... not like that," Marla said. Explaining the nature of Susan's spell would be too complicated, and it wasn't something she was comfortable thinking about, beyond taking the measures necessary to thwart it. "Besides, I need you here to lift heavy things, guard doorways, and deal with any other shit I'm too busy to bother with."

Rondeau grinned. "A man likes to feel useful. Lead on."

"Do you think we can find a live chicken around here?"

"Maybe if we search high and low." They set off toward the hanging paper lanterns, pagoda storefronts, and crowded afternoon sidewalks of Chinatown.

"I don't know why Lao Tsung decided to live in this shithole quakemeat city," Marla said. "He came here to find the Cornerstone, but then he stayed." Rondeau grunted. "We've only been in San Francisco for an hour. You hate it already?"

Marla spat on the street. "Pretty white city by the bay, my ass."

"Don't forget 'cool, gray city of love.' "

"Yeah, I feel the love," Marla said, stepping over a pile of dirty stuffed animals someone had left on the sidewalk.

"I think it's nice. You're just jealous because we don't have cable cars back home." He glanced up a side street. "Not that I've seen a cable car yet."

"It's January," Marla said. "There should be snow in January. A little fog is no substitute. I feel out of place. Far from my center."

"Well, yeah. It was, what, your second time on an airplane? I thought you were going to strangle random strangers during the layover in Denver. Haven't you ever taken a vacation?"

Marla laughed, and Rondeau nodded. "Me neither. This is my first one."

"This isn't a vacation. It's a matter–"

"Of life, death, and destruction, I know. That doesn't mean I can't take in the sights, right? What's the point of staying alive if you don't live a little?" They entered the closely packed streets of Chinatown, where off-season tourists wandered among the food stalls and the stores, picking through wares spilling out onto the sidewalks. There were tanks full of tightly packed wriggling fish, and wooden crates filled with strange fruit. The street signs had both English names and Chinese characters, and there were lots of fanciful architectural touches–faux pagodas made of wood on top of buildings, gold-painted facades, bamboo fences. "I love this place," Rondeau said. "There's nothing like this back home."

"Because our city never had a ghetto for underpaid, persecuted immigrant Chinese laborers in the 19th century," Marla said.

"I suspect San Francisco won't be offering you a position as a tour guide anytime soon."

"I distrust, on principle, any city that encourages me to leave my heart behind when I go." Marla abruptly stopped walking, and Rondeau almost bumped into her. "Hmm, there it is again."


She waved her hands. "Whatever the divination was indicating. A field, a hum, a vibration. Something. Not far from here."

Copyright © 2007 by Tim Pratt


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