I’ve received permission to post an excerpt from the next Tale of Egil and Nix, A Conversation in Blood, which will release on January 24, 2017. You can, of course, preorder the book, and those who do earn my deep and abiding affection. 🙂
This is from early on in the novel and there are no spoilers. Feel free to share far and wide. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy.
Nix ate the apples while he walked the crowds and searched. He soon found what he sought. Ahead, a tall, hooded figure moved methodically through the crowd. It acknowledged no one and eyed no wares. Nix cut through the vegetable stalls to his right so that he could intercept the agent. When he stepped in front of it, it stopped and regarded him with a tilted head.
The agent, an automaton of Kerfallen’s creation, stood a hand taller than even Egil and Nix felt as small as a boy standing before it. Presumably Kerfallen had made the agent tall so as to stand out in the crowd and be easily spotted in the bazaar, but Nix figured there was at least some overcompensation to their stature – Kerfallen himself stood no taller than a dwarf, though he had pride enough for a giant.
The slack, androgynous, otherwise expressionless face of the agent looked out from its hood at some point above and behind Nix. Nix found the wizard’s agent unnerving. It was like talking to a corpse
“Do I actually have to say it?” Nix said, knowing that what he said was somehow communicated through the automaton’s ears to Kerfallen. “Doesn’t our longstanding relationship move us past these silly rituals, wizard?”
The automaton looked down so that its unblinking eyes, brown and as empty as those of a fish, met Nix’s. It said nothing, just stared and waited. After a few moments, it lifted up its head and started to turn away.
“Fine,” Nix said irritably. “The magery of Kerfallen is without peer in the Seven Cities of the Meander. I offer coin for his boon and counsel.”
The automaton turned back and extended its right hand, palm up. The flesh looked as dull and old as wax. Nix pulled a small bag of royals and terns from his belt pouch and laid it on the automaton’s palm.
“Terns and royals in equal measure,” Nix said.
The creature secreted the bag within the folds of its cloak and looked at Nix, waiting.
“I don’t want an item,” Nix explained. “I have some objects and I need to know what they are or where they come from originally or anything at all that you can tell me about them. If you don’t know anything, you indicate as much, yeah? I don’t want a bunch of cryptic riddles and talking in circles. If I wanted that, I’d spend a copper common on a Narascene seer. Done?”
The automaton stared down at him a long moment then slowly nodded.
“Good,” Nix said. “Let’s move out of the thoroughfare, though.”
Trailed by the automaton – Nix did not like having the thing at his back – Nix picked his way through the crowd and tents and moved off to the side, to stand near the wooden fence that bordered the bazaar. As ever, there were passersby around, but far fewer, and none paid them heed that Nix could see. It was as private as they were going to get outside. Nix put a copper common in the palms of three boys idling near the fence and told them to be off. They thanked him, asked no questions, and sped off instantly to spend their windfall.
After they’d gone, Nix reached into his satchel, found by touch the cloth-wrapped plates, took them out, and unwrapped them. He used his body and the wrap to shield them from any onlookers, but that meant getting close to the automaton, which he disliked. The construct smelled of leather and metal and didn’t breathe that Nix could tell, and the lack discomfited him.
The sun glinted on the plates as he showed them to the automaton. The construct stared at them for a long moment, entirely focused.
“The script on them is unknown to me,” Nix said. “But I was hoping—“
With a suddenness that startled Nix, the creature lurched forward a half step and bent low to study the plates more closely. Nix’s innate caution caused him to back up a step, but the automaton just leaned further forward, its gaze never leaving the plates.
“You can stop right there,” Nix said, and the creature did. “I like my space, is what.”
Nix held the plates forth and let the creature study them for a long while. Passersby looked at him queerly and he felt ridiculous standing near the fence making inquiry of a magical construct that looked about ready to fall over onto its own face while the activity of the Low Bazaar went on around him.
“I think that’s enough,” he said finally. He took another step back and shoved the plates back into his satchel without wrapping them in the enchanted cloth.
The automaton watched them disappear into the satchel, then stood upright and looked him in the face.
“Well?” Nix asked, not knowing entirely what to expect. After all, he’d never heard the automaton speak, though he knew Kerfallen heard everything said to the construct and that the wizard was capable of responding through its mouth. The automaton looked at Nix, at the satchel, back at Nix.
“Can you help or not, wizard?” Nix asked, impatient.
The automaton’s eyes went from dead to entirely vacant. Whatever force had enlivened the construct left its glassy eye. Its posture slackened, like a pavilion tent that had lost a pole.
“What the—?” Nix said, leaning toward it, but he might as well have been looking upon a statue. He eased a bit closer. “Hello? You there? I paid in good coin, wizard, and if you don’t have an answer, just say as much, but don’t—“
The automaton’s head snapped up and its eyes fixed on Nix. Its mouth opened and Kerfallen’s deep voice emerged from it, the sound hollow, as if he were speaking in a vast, empty room.
“You must give me the plates, Nix,” the automaton said, holding out a hand and taking a step toward Nix.
Nix instinctively stepped back, a hand on the hilt of his blade. “No, I don’t think I’ll be doing that. You stand there or I’ll take the head off your agent, wizard.”
The automaton stopped, slack face fixed on Nix.
“What are they?” Nix asked. “Tell me that. Then we can talk about their disposition.”
A long pause before, “They’re beyond you. For your own good, give them to me.”
Nix took another step back and the automaton did not keep pace. Nix breathed easier with a little more space between them.
“I’ll look elsewhere for the information I need,” Nix said.
“You won’t find it. And you’re not leaving.”
Nix did not like the sound of that. He glanced around briefly and caught sight of another automaton – noticeable for its height and voluminous cloak – striding briskly through the crowd toward him. Another burst through the line of tents, its face fixed on Nix. He had long suspected there might be more than one of Kerfallen’s agents in the bazaar, but now he had confirmation.
“So,” Nix said, drawing his falchion. “You’re not just a wizard but also a thief?”
The two additional automatons closed. It didn’t appear they could run, but their long strides approximated one and they ate up the distance. They plowed through passersby, knocked a wagon aside. One of them reached out a hand as it came, as if it could reach him from twenty paces. The first automaton advanced on him, too, a hand outstretched.
“Give me the plates, Nix,” it said. “This instant. Now.”
He’d faced Kerfallen’s automatons once before, when he and Egil had run into the wizard’s manse, thinking him in danger. Then, Nix and Egil had easily dispatched several of them. He crosscut with his blade, taking off the extended hand of the automaton near him.
“That’s a no,” he said, and followed up with a quick slash at the automaton’s throat. The construct responded much faster than Nix would have thought possible, raised its remaining hand, and caught Nix’s blade. The edge scraped against the metal under the automaton’s flesh. The creature wrenched the weapon out of Nix’s grasp, tossed it aside, and grabbed Nix’s shirt, trying to pull him close, hold him maybe until the other two could assist.
Nix jerked back, the shirt tore, and several buttons went flying. He stumbled but kept his footing, drawing his dagger as he backed up against the fence. People had caught sight of the fight. A few pointed.
“I liked this shirt,” Nix said, and flung his dagger at the creature’s face. It sank half its length into the creature’s eye but the automaton showed no response at all and instead lunged for him, hands grasping. Nix sidestepped its outstretched arms and kicked it in the knee – hurting his foot and doing nothing at all to the automaton.
The creature got hold of a fistful of Nix’s cloak and used it to pull him clear off the ground. The other two were closing. The one holding him pawed at his satchel with the stump of its other arm. Kerfallen’s voice cursed through the agent’s mouth.
“Forgot that lost hand, yeah?” Nix said, and squirmed out of the cloak.
“Stop!” the automaton said.
Nix hit the ground, rolled to his feet, bounded over the fence, and ran.
“Nix!” Kerfallen called through the mouth of his creature, which cast his cloak aside. “Don’t be a fool!”
“Stop!” shouted one of the other automatons, speeding toward Nix, its movement herky-jerky and awkward, but fast. It crashed through the fence. So too did the other. They tried to cut him off.
Behind him, the one armed automaton gave chase, too, likewise smashing through the fence and slowing only slightly as it snapped the wood.
Passersby shouted and pointed at the sight of the three towering creatures trying to close on Nix, one of them with a dagger protruding from its eye. Someone shouted for the Watch.
Nix ran through a gaggle of carts, a donkey, an acrobat who almost flipping into him, and a score or more passersby. He had remaining only small blades secreted about his person, so he kept running, wondering in passing where in the Pits he was supposed to buy his gewgaws now.
“Out of the way, out of the way!” Nix called, knifing through the crowd.
People scrambled aside, surprise or anger on their faces, their gazes not so much on him as on his pursuers. He ran a block, two, trying to open some space and thinking the automatons would not go far outside the bazaar. But he was wrong, and from the rising shouts and screams behind him, Nix assumed the automatons were simply plowing through the street traffic as they kept up the chase. Nix spotted an idle horse hitched to a wagon loaded with barrels and swatted it hard on the rump as he ran past.
“Hyah!” he shouted, and the startled horse jerked, whinnied, and started down the street at a gallop, taking the wagon with it, bleeding barrels as it went.
“Whoa! Whoa!” shouted a middle aged man on the sidewalk, cursing as he chased after the wagon.
Nix hoped it would cause enough commotion to at least slow the automatons. He leaped over a fruit vendor’s cart, snatching an peach as he went, and darted down an alley.
“Hey!” shouted the vendor.
Nix heard a crash from behind and turned to see one of the automatons shoving the cart out of its way, spilling peaches and summoning curses from the vendor.
“You are stubborn creatures,” Nix muttered.
Ahead, the alley split left and right. Nix started to head right out to Tanner’s Street, but the towering form of another automaton filled the far end of the alley mouth. He spun and looked left, and the third automaton stood there. He was hemmed in. He cursed, checked the wall.
The automatons saw what he was doing and hurried after him, closing from three sides.
He put the peach in his mouth and ran his hands over the face of the rough bricks, found purchase for his hands and feet, and started up. He’d gotten halfway up the wall by the time the first of the automatons, the one he’d maimed and stabbed in the eye, reached him. The construct did not bother to try and climb – Nix presumed it must be very heavy and it looked nowhere near agile enough to manage a vertical surface – but instead reached for his foot and barely missed. Nix almost laughed but the thing jumped as best as it was able and got a hold of his boot heel.
Nix spit out the peach and cursed, grabbing a protruding wood joist with both hands as the creature yanked on his heel. The other two were almost upon him, too.
“Just give me the plates,” one of the other automatons called in Kerfallen’s voice.
“You should’ve asked more nicely, bunghole!” Nix said. He shook his foot, trying to loose the creature’s grip. He kicked down with his free foot and caught the hilt of the knife he’d thrown earlier, driving it deeper into the creature’s face. It did not so much as ease its grip, even as Nix’s grasp on the joist started to slip. His hands and forearms ached with the strain. He kicked down with his free foot again, again, his hold on the joist slipping as another of the automatons reached him, stepped beside its twin, and snatched for his free foot.
Desperate, Nix wriggled his foot in his boot, loosened it just enough, and slipped free of it just as the other automaton snatched at him, its fingertips grazing his free foot. He used the joist to pull himself up out of their reach.
“A shirt, my cloak, and now a fakking boot? You slubbers are hard on attire!”
“You don’t know what you’re doing, Nix. Give me those plates!”
Figures appeared at the end of the alley mouths, curious pedestrians trying to figure out what had happened. The Watch would be coming soon. The automatons looked up at him, dead eyes fixed on his satchel.
“Tell me what they are,” Nix demanded. He burped and winced – Gadd’s fakkin’ stew was a ghost that would haunt him forever.
“I can’t,” said Kerfallen through the mouth of the maimed automaton. “And you wouldn’t understand anyway.”
“Then I’ll keep them and you owe me a boot and a shirt,” Nix said, and started climbing. “And a cloak. And whatever else I decide to extract in payment for the damned inconvenience of running down the street! Where am I supposed to buy my enchanted items now?”
The automatons watched him ascend for a moment then spread out in either direction, perhaps hoping to cut him off or perhaps returning to their master’s manse or the bazaar. Nix had no idea how Kerfallen could control all three of them simultaneously. It had to be taxing the wizard’s abilities. In any event Nix knew he was free of them for the moment. They couldn’t climb and he knew the Thieves’ Highway as well as anyone in Dur Follin.
And now he knew another thing: The plates were valuable and a wizard wanted them.
He and Egil had their adventure.