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The Ruin of Angels
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The Ruin of Angels

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Author: Max Gladstone
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing, 2017
Series: The Craft Sequence: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

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.


Excerpt

Chapter Two

Who would break into a bank to leave something?

The practice is more common than one might think, though practitioners' motives tend to involve someday 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, only to leave, for example, a beacon glyph that would guide tunnelers, or a mechanism to disable all that security during a later and 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 which 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 no more than an administrative assistant's oversight.

Mortals. Honestly.

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 the most inane check-ins mysteriously ended up marked TRIPLE URGENT. A little bloodshed would clarify the situation.

The postage demon consulted the building register and found--odd--the recipient unlisted. 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 the moment 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, 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 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 only saw 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.

Kai bent over the bowl, pursed her lips over the pipette, and blew. Blood spattered and ran down the silver's non-stick coating, following intricate spidery trails she interpreted, in the back of her mind, using a dozen augural disciplines from six continents. A bloodreader of the Sanguine Host would warn of a troubled morning--no surprises there. Aizu humourists would say, hm, family problems? Unlikely. Maybe she was reading it wrong. She hadn't been asked to build an Aizu idol in a while. She flagged that particular theology for review.

Kai returned the pipette to its wrapper. The man in the seat next to her coughed into his fist, shifted his weight, and said nothing in a way that said quite a lot.

She slipped the pipette back into her jacket pocket. "Everybody has to pray sometime."

He tried to look as if he had not heard.

"Hey," she said, "do I go to your altar and slap the knife out of your hand?"

He turned the page of his copy of The Thaumaturgist, and said nothing, in a way that screamed "Camlaander." Kai liked this about Camlaanders: if you pretended not to notice their radiant discomfort, they'd never clarify, just shut up and wait for a later opportunity to describe your revolting behavior to friends who would agree with them.

Kai's blood pooled in the bowl. She looked into her reflection, but they hit another bump, and the reflection shattered. As good as she could expect, under the circumstances.

She breathed out above the water.

Lady. I'm listening.

There, in the sky, approaching a foreign city beneath the belly of an ancient beast, tossed by winds, stuck in coach because the Priesthood didn't think this side trip rated business class, she felt the touch of a cool blue hand upon her brow.

The touch melted against her forehead and rolled down her skin like honey tears, hot and sweet and deep, to bead and tremble on her lips, then slip within. She tasted salt and sand and volcanic rock. Root musk rolled down her tongue into her throat. She burned all over at once, and exhaled the beauty that wormed through her veins.

Across an ocean, on an island far away, a girl--a young woman now, gods, Izza was sixteen--looked up from her work, and let her gaze unfix, and said, silently, through the goddess that bound them both--Aren't you landing in an hour?

There's been a change of plans, Kai prayed. I have to stay abroad a few more days. Everything will keep at home.

For better or worse.

Trouble?

No more than usual. Fixing Penitents is slow, tricky work. If we just change the settings, we don't help their victims. They forced people to be good by one metric--if we force them to be good by another, we're no better. The problem's the force, not the good.

Changing a culture takes time.

You've only had the Penitents for sixty years. You didn't have them for three thousand.

Time's like an ocean, she prayed back. People only swim in the top bit.

You said there was a change of plans. What changed?

Kai wished she'd pressed the matter at once. Now she felt like she had been hiding something. Management approved the venture offering, she prayed. We arranged meetings while I was finishing up in Telomere. I have an overnight in Agdel Lex.

No answer returned through the ecstasy channel.

It's just a quick stopover, she explained. The city has a good startup community--nightmare telegraphics mostly, dreamshaping and fearcraft, high-energy Craftwork. Nightmare Quarterly called it "thriving." That kind of investment is risky, but that means more upside--one or two big bets will give us breathing room to divest from Grimwald holdings in the southern Gleb, and get out of necromantic earths entirely.

Still, silence.

She continued: I fought for budget, I pulled every favor I could, and I got permission to extend a feeler a few months back--but, no dice. Total silence. But, while I was in Telomere for the Martillo thing, I got a letter from Twilling, you remember, in sales? Turns out Iskari First Interfaith has two modes: slow and fast. They want to make a deal, they've put together a day of meetings, and they need me there today. I don't have permission from the board, but I've given myself a speculative budget of a couple million thaums; I'll make the deals we need, go home, present the investments as a done deal. They'll go along. Everything will be fine.

More silence, warier.

She knew she was praying too fast, but she couldn't help herself: It's a peaceful city these days. The fighting's further south, past the Wastes. I'm just going to meet with a bunch of artists, who will probably be glad-- the airship shook. No, not the airship. Her shoulder. Her eyes snapped open. Her veins throbbed with the attenuation of pleasure, and she struggled to focus on soft weak reality. The Camlaander sitting beside her was studiously reading his magazine. Who--

A flight attendant stood in the aisle, frowning. "We're landing soon. Please raise your tray and refrain from excessive prayer."

Fine, Kai said, then remembered she had to use her mouth. "Fine." And she closed her eyes again.

Look, I have to go. Trust me. If we want to change Kavekana, to fix the Penitents and everything else without armed revolt, the priesthood needs a surplus--something to wean us off investments in bone oil and necromantic earths. This will help the Blue Lady, and Kavekana, and it will net me a nice bonus check, so we can buy more kids out of debt. Again, her shoulder shook. She ignored the flight attendant, and prayed faster: It's fine. My sister's been sending me postcards from here for the last, like, five years. She's having a disgustingly bohemian time.

You didn't think to ask me.

Because I knew what you'd say.

And your sister? Did you ask her?

Ley? No.

She felt the shame of that answer like an underground tremor, unseen, easily denied to everyone but herself. Venture thaumaturgics weren't Ley's area, and anyway if Kai reached out, she'd have to visit Ley while she was in town, and there wasn't enough time on a short business trip to dig through everything that had piled up between them. All of which stood to reason, but Izza's question still reminded Kai of that accumulated mess and time, and of the postcards she rarely answered, featureless and glib, each containing some charming anecdote about poetry readings or fruit-related confusion in street markets, best wishes to Mom, utterly sealed, bloodless. Strange how much you could write without communicating. And that distance was Kai's fault, somehow--at least, Ley probably thought it was.

"Ma'am," the flight attendant repeated, harsher this time. "We're starting our final descent. Please."

"Did it ever occur to you," Kai said, "how overblown that sounds? Final descent. Poets take a final descent into the hells. Emperors have a final descent from the throne before someone chops their heads off. We're about to land, which we will presumably survive, to descend again."

"Prayers interfere with navigation."

"Exactly how many navigational instruments does your enormous, basically immortal lizard need to tell which way is down?"

"Agdel Lex airspace presents navigational challenges--"

"For the love of all your blasted gods," the Camlaander said, and Kai noticed for the first time the white-knuckled grip with which he held his magazine, the sweat beaded on his forehead, the earthy smell of his fear, "won't you please wait to make your call until we're safely on the ground?"

She prayed again. Have to go. I don't know why you're so hung up on this.

Five years ago, Izza replied, in Agdel Lex, I saw the Rectification Authority burn out the Gavreaux Junction hunger strikers. Six hundred people. The leaders went into lock-up, and if they ever came out, I didn't hear about it.

That's horrible. But I'm not coming to reinforce the colonial authority, just--

The connection failed. The Blue Lady's honeyed finger slid out from between her lips, and vines of joy unwound from her thorn by thorn. Kai opened her eyes, red, furious. The flight attendant had closed her bowl; the last remnants of blood smoked within, dried to flakes, and Kai smelled acid and copper and burnt iron. She shoved the flight attendant's hand away, and folded the rest of the bowl herself. "You didn't have to do that. I was almost through."

"We're past the cutoff, ma'am."

Gods save us from petty tyrants. "Down is down. Does your dragon have eyes, or not?"

"We're landing in Agdel Lex, ma'am. Down isn't always where you left it, and you can't ever trust your eyes."

Copyright © 2017 by Max Gladstone


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