It’s April, and therefore time for another monthly snippet from my next Egil and Nix novel, A Discourse in Steel, which is the sequel to The Hammer and the Blade. As always, there are no spoilers and the purpose here is to give you a sense of the characters, their dynamic, and the tone of the novel overall. I hope you enjoy.
Nix and Egil pelted off down Shoddy Way, pushing through a few late night tavern-goers who’d wandered near to see what was the tumult. As they rounded the alley, Nix saw nothing. He cursed, but motion drew his eye up. He saw the man clamber over the top of the roof of a two story building.
“Fakker’s using the Highway,” Nix said.
Egil had a hammer in each hand and an angry furrow connecting his eyes via the bridge of his nose. “I got the ground.”
“Aye,” Nix said. “Going up then. Been too long since I ran the Highway anyway.”
Nix put his hands to the wall of the nearest building, found purchase, and scrambled up. Fingers, toes, grip, weight on the legs. He’d done it hundreds of times and the wall presented him no challenge. He was up on the roof in moments.
Before him stretched the Thieves’ Highway: the irregular lines and rise and fall of pitched eaves, flat roofs, and alleys and streets narrow and wide. It was like another world. A gibbous Minnear painted the way in greens and grays. The spire of Ool’s clock to his right jutted skyward, rising like a giant’s finger from the sea of Dur Follin’s buildings. In the distance rose the Archbridge, its soaring arc and twin support pillars ghostly in the moonlight.
“See him?” Egil called from down below.
Nix caught movement in Minnear’s light: the man scrambling over the roof two buildings away.
Nix darted across the roof, leaped a gap to the next roof and sprinted after the man. As he ran he whistled every now and again so Egil could track him. Clutching eaves and leaping alleys, with roof tiles crunching underfoot, he dashed across Dur Follin’s skyline. He lost sight of the man from time to time, but kept moving and eventually spotted him again. The man knew he was being trailed from Nix’s whistles. Nix tried to use the cover of dormers and spires and the occasional rain cistern as he ran, concerned the man might have a crossbow or sling.
The man moved slowly – he might have been wounded when Egil knocked the door into him – and Nix gained ground quickly. He caught sight of him ahead, leaped a gap and for the first time was on the same roof. The man was at the peak and Nix at the eave. The man threw something down. Nix couldn’t dodge but it was only a roof tile. It nicked his shoulder but did little damage.
Nix gave a whistle and scrambled up as the man disappeared over the peak. On the other side, the roof flattened a bit between two dormers overlooking a narrow street. The man was gathering his nerve and strength to leap it. He looked back and saw Nix. Nix slid down the roof and ran after just as the man sprinted into motion.
The man leaped across the gap and Nix leaped after him. They collided in mid-air and the impact ruined both their leaps. They slammed into the side of a shop, cracking shutters, falling earthward in a spinning tangle. The muddy road spared Nix a broken back but slamming into even soft ground drove the breath from this lungs, caused him to see sparks, and sent a shooting pain along one arm.
The man recovered first, rolled away and lifted himself on wobbly legs. Nix rolled over and lunged after him, hooking a few fingers on his mud-soaked cloak. The man whirled, swinging wildly with a dagger he’d produced from somewhere. Nix caught it on the forearm, cursed as it opened a gash. He lurched back awkwardly and reached for his handaxe, but it was gone. He’d thrown it. Turned out to be just as well as the man wanted no part of a street fight. He staggered off down the street. Nix cursed, stood, and stumbled after him, whistling for Egil as best he could.
From around the corner he heard a shout of alarm and a deep, fierce exclamation that could only be from the priest. He put his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath.
“You got him?” he called.
Egil came around the corner, a hammer in one hand, the limp form of the man held aloft in the other like a neck-wrung goose. “I got him. You all right?”
“Mud covered and blooded, but all right.” He stood up straight and grinned. “Still pretty though, yeah?”
“It’s dark, so I’m going to say yes. But don’t hold me to it.”
“Fak you, priest,” Nix said, cradling his wounded arm.
“You’d like that, I know. Let’s get this bunghole back to the Tunnel.”
“Gadd’s cellar,” Nix said.
“Aye, that,” Egil said, giving the unconscious man an ominous shake. Nix stripped the man of a dagger, purse, and a boot knife. He hefted the coin pouch.
“Eight commons and six terns, or within one of each. Wager?”
Nix dumped the contents into his palm. “Nine commons, six terns, and the single shiny disc of a gold royal.
“Shite. A slubber like this with a royal. This is a night for surprises.”
He tossed the purse to Egil, who caught it, pocketed it, then heaved the man over his shoulder and carried him as he might a bag of grain.
By the time they returned to the Tunnel, many of the workers had drifted back to their rooms. Someone had carried the charred tables and chairs outside the building and piled them near Shoddy Way. They would eventually find their way to the Heap. The charred body was gone and Nix saw no sign of any Watchmen. Gadd, in a nicely cut shirt and pants embroidered with images of dragons, was trying to prop the broken front door in front of the open doorway.
“When did he get back here?” Nix asked.
“Did he leave?” Egil asked.
Gadd saw them approaching and removed the door to allow them passage. As they passed, he showed his pointed teeth and barked something in his elaborate native tongue.
“Seconded,” Nix said to him, nodding. “Whatever it was.”
“What happened to the body?” Egil asked Gadd, nodding to the area on the porch.
“Pigs,” Gadd said.
“Pigs?” Egil asked.
“Pigs,” Gadd said with a nod. He grinned and returned to work on the door. Egil and Nix shared a look and sneaked through the dark common room. The floorboards in one corner, and the wall near the window on Shoddy Way, were charred and the whole of it smelled like smoke and spilled beer. Tesha would be airing out the inn for days.
“Stinks,” Egil said.
“Stink gives character,” Nix said. “Or so I tell everyone about you.”