It’s June, and therefore time for the final monthly snippet from the next tale of Egil and Nix, A Discourse in Steel (the follow-up 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.
Previous monthly excerpts are here and here. In addition, Tor.com posted the entirety of Chapter One, which you can read here. A Discourse in Steel releases in three weeks. I sincerely hope that these excerpts have piqued your interest enough that you’ll check out the tales of the boys from Dur Follin.
Meanwhile, here we go.
Nix tapped his fingers on the bar, agitated. Gadd’s smoke agitated him. The stink of the Tunnel agitated him, being, as it was, all sweat and sex and smoke. Everything agitated him.
Behind them a few laborers and merchants sat at the tables, talking and laughing. The men and women who sold their bodies in the Tunnel lingered on the staircase – their tight, revealing clothing an open invitation.
“So,” Nix said, turning his back to the bar and drumming his fingers.
“So,” Egil agreed.
Egil stared up at the picture that hung behind Gadd’s bar, a portrait of Lord Mayor Hyram Mung. “I haven’t said anything.
“It’s your silence that shows your irritability.”
Egil glanced over at him. “Bah. You make no sense.”
“See!” Nix said and pointed a finger at his friend. “Irritable.”
Egil shook his head and took the virginity of his ale.
“Didn’t I tell Gadd to take down that thrice-damned picture of Mung?” Nix said. “He looks like a sow. And his beady eyes annoy me.”
Nix drew one of the many throwing daggers he kept secreted on his person and threw. The blade pierced Mung’s eye.
“Better,” Nix muttered.
“Who’s irritable again, now?” Egil asked.
Nix glared at the priest. “You’re just trying to irk me, aren’t you?”
Egil shrugged. “You seem irked already.”
“Me? No! If I were irked I’d…” He trailed off, took a drink of his own ale, set the tankard back down hard enough to slosh some over the edge. “All right, aye. I’m irked.”
“It’s Blackalley,” Egil said.
“It is!” Nix said, raising his arms and nearly leaping from his seat. “What was that? Regrets and sorrow and…”
Egil shook his head and took another pull of ale. “A fakkin’ horror is what it was. Bleak.”
The words Nix had been holding back came rushing out of him. “Making us see everything we’ve done and didn’t do and should’ve done? No one should have to face that. I been running from that my whole life. Everyone does. The past is the past. I don’t want to live inside my own head.”
“None’d blame you for that,” Egil said. “Empty place, likely.”
“Now you’re funny?”
“No. Apologies. But the past isn’t the past, Nix. The past is us. It’s the series of moments that led up to who we are right now.” He jabbed a finger on the bar. “Everything that went before led up to this moment.”
“Gods, man! Getting all priestly, now, are we? Why would you do that?” He shook his head. “Fak.”
Egil ran his palm over the Eye of Ebenor.
Nix couldn’t let it go. He picked up his ale, put it back down, fiddling with the handle. “You telling me we can’t leave the past behind us? “Cause there are some moments I’d rather forget. Lots of them, really.”
“You can forget them, but they’re still you. Everything you’ve done and seen and felt, it all sums to you, it adds up to this moment. It doesn’t matter if you can remember the individual moments that lead up to it. Because they’re all in you right now.”
“Stop that,” Nix said.
“I don’t know, saying profound things. They irritate. They irk.”
Egil sighed. “Well enough.”
Nix sighed, too. “I say we get drunk and forget Blackalley.”
Egil started to speak, probably to once more say something about how it wouldn’t matter if they forgot it because it was in them now.
Nix held up a hand. “Don’t you say it!”
Egil stared at Nix. “Right, then. Drunk it is.”
Having said the words, Egil set to making them true. He slammed his ale in one long pull. Nix matched him and they sat there for a time in silence, empty tankards before them.
“Everything we’ve done, Egil. All those… moments. Fakking moments. And what do we have to show for it? This place and some coin. That’s it.”
“This is what you wanted. When we left the tomb of Abn Thuset, you said you wanted this.”
“I did. I do. But there’s gotta be something else, something more.”
Egil smiled but it was half-hearted. “Now who’s saying profound things? And you’re right. They do irritate. Irk, too.”
“I don’t know what I want. It’s always the next thing, something I don’t have. What do you want, Egil?”
Egil’s expression fell. He stared into his empty tankard. “I want to forget, Nix. That’s what I want.”
Nix flashed on Egil’s weeping face in Blackalley, his teary apologies to his daughter and wife. There was nothing Nix could say so he put his hand on his friend’s shoulder, just for a moment.
“So, drunk, then,” Nix said, trying to lighten the mood. “Where’s Gadd? Gadd!”
Egil sat up straight and exhaled, as though exorcising a ghost. He thumped his fist on the bar and called into the taproom in the back. “Return to your altar, priest Gadd. Bring forth libations.”
“Libations?” Nix said, and tapped Egil’s tankard with his own. “Nice.”
Gadd hurried out of the taproom, his eyes wide, white, and alarmed in his narrow, hawkish face.
Egil and Nix were on their feet at once.
“What is it?” Nix asked.
Gadd rushed forward and grabbed them by their wrists. “Come! Rose hurt!”
At first the words didn’t register with Nix. “Rose? Our Rose?”
“Where’s Merelda?” Egil said, and grabbed Gadd by his thin, tattooed arm. “Speak, man.”
“She’s with Rose,” Gadd said, and shook himself loose.
Egil and Nix both leaped over the bar. Nix grabbed his dagger out of Hyram Mung’s eye as he ran by. They hurried through the taproom, the storeroom, and out into the fenced area in the back of Tunnel, littered with old barrels, a bucket, an old door, and the weekly rubbish pile. The wooden gate was open to the street, where sat a rickety, open topped, straw-filled wagon. Rose lay in the straw propped against a bale, still dressed in the elaborate green robes and costume jewelry she wore when performing readings in the Low Bazaar. Her eyes were closed and her head drooped and she looked to Nix like a broken flower. The sight of her so vulnerable hurt his heart.
Mere sat on her knees beside her sister, cradling Rose’s hand between her own. Mere looked over at them, her eyes swollen and red.
“Help us, Egil,” she said.
Nix, Egil, and Gadd rushed to the wagon, leaped in it
“Rose,” Nix said, touching her cheek. It was warm, thankfully. “Rose.”
She opened her eyes but they drifted in her sockets, unable to focus. They closed again and her head lolled. He bounded into the wagon, took her face in his palms.
“What happened?” Egil said.
“Rose?” Nix said, his heart in his throat. “Rose?”
He flashed on how she’d looked months earlier when her brother had kept her drugged. He lifted her arms, checked her for wounds, saw none.
“She smells like smoke,” Nix said to Mere.
“What happened?” Egil asked again.
“At the Low Bazaar,” Mere said. “She was reading and…”
Her eyes welled again. Egil drew her close, covering her in his embrace.
“It’s going to be all right,” the priest said to her.
“Let’s get her inside,” Nix said. He tossed a silver to Gadd. “Pay the driver, Gadd. No, wait. I’ll pay the driver. You go clear the bar. Tell Tesha what happened.”
But Tesha was already there. She must have seen Egil and Nix leap the bar and come out to investigate. In her embroidered green dress, she stood with her hand on her hip near the gate, her dark eyes concerned.
“I’ll handle the bar. Is she going to be all right?”
Nix looked at Rose, at Mere, back at Tesha. “I don’t know.”
“She’s been in and out, Nix,” Mere said. “She’s been talking the whole ride back. Sometimes she seems herself, others times not.”
Nix tossed a silver tern to the old, grizzled man who drove the wagon.
Nix put his arms under Rose and lifted her from the wagon. Egil offered his aid, but Nix shook it off.
“I’ve got her.”
“Aye,” Egil said.
Nix stepped down out of the wagon, grunting with exertion. He looked down at Rose and her green eyes were open and focused, looking up at him. She looked wan, her eyes pained, furrows in her brow.
Nix swallowed, said softly, “How do you feel?”
“Bad,” Rose said. “My head is just…”
Mere was at their side, brushing her sister’s hair from her brow. “You need to rest, Rose.”
Rose nodded, but winced at the pain even that small motion caused her.
Together, they took her inside, carried her through a now empty bar while Tesha looked on.
“I’ll bring up some warm broth,” Tesha said.
“Thank you, Tesha,” Mere said.
Tesha’s men and women had retreated to their rooms – presumably at her orders – and Nix carried Rose to the small bedroom on the second floor that she and Mere shared. After laying her down on the bed, Nix kissed her on the brow. She seemed asleep, so he covered her in a blanket, closed the door behind him, and gathered in the hallway with Mere and Egil.
“So what happened?” Nix asked her.
“She was reading someone as he died,” Mere said, as though that were an explanation.
Nix looked first at Egil, then back at her, not understanding. “And?”
Heads poked out of doors down the long hallway, Tesha’s workers giving in to curiosity. Nix waved them back into the rooms.
Mere said, “And that’s why she’s like that. It’s dangerous to be in the mind of someone as they die.”
“Dangerous how?” Egil asked.
Mere shook her head. Her short, dark hair was mussed and the makeup she wore to tell fortunes was smeared by tears. She looked lost. Nix wondered how she’d fare in the world if she lost her sister. Probably much as Nix would fare if he lost Egil.
“I don’t know for sure,” she said. “I’ve never had it happen before. Neither of us have. We’ve just heard that it’s… bad.”
Egil stood behind her and placed his hands gently on her shoulders. His touch seemed to calm her. She took a deep breath.
“Sorry,” she said.
Nix waved it off. “In theory, then, dangerous how?”
She put her hand on Egil’s. “A dying person’s mind… explodes. Things can get jumbled.”
Nix had some experience with the sisters’ mindmagic. “Jumbled? Thoughts get mixed up?”
She nodded. “Thoughts, memories, feelings. Everything. It can overwhelm because it all comes at once. You can become… not yourself.”
Nix flashed on Egil’s words earlier about the sum of past moments making people who they were in the present. Rose had just inherited moments that weren’t her own. What would that do to her? To Mere, he said,
“Maybe you could use your mindmagic to help her? Remove what’s not hers?”
Mere shook her head and looked back at the door to Rose’s room. “I can’t. It would take a real mindmage. I can do what I can do because of… lineage.”
“The only real mindmages are in Oremal,” Egil said. “And we’re a long way from there.”
“We are,” Nix agreed. He knew of another mindmage, though, or at least the rumor of one. But he had no desire to walk that path unless absolutely necessary.
“It could fix itself,” Mere said, a flash of hope in her eyes. “I think we just need to let her rest.”
“Aye,” Nix said, nodding slowly as his thoughts turned. “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
She turned to go back into the room and tend Rusilla but Egil first asked her, “How’d he die? The man she was reading.”
“He was shot. Veraal–”
“Veraal was shot?” Nix said, thinking of their old friend.
“No,” she said.
“Veraal shot someone?”
“No,” she said. “Let e finish, Nix! Veraal said the dead man was shot through the throat. A professional job, he said.”
“Uncle Veraal,” Nix said, shaking his head and smiling. He hadn’t had dealings with Veraal in years. “What’s he doing there? In the Bazaar.”
“He sells smoke leaf. Next to our tent. He said he knew you two, but he didn’t say he was your uncle.”
“He’s not,” Egil said. “An uncle is… He was our fence for a long time.”
“Oh.” She looked surprised, her lips pursing. “Well, he was nice.”
“He’s all right,” Nix said.
“Selling leaf?” Egil said, and looked to Nix and both of them said at the same time, “Cover for his coin.”
Mere looked confused. “What?”
“The leaf stall is just cover for his fencing operation,” Nix said. “It covers his coin, should the Lord Mayor’s taxman come knocking.”
“She doesn’t need to know all this,” Egil said.
“I’m not a child, Egil,” she said, hands on her hips.
Egil’s ears colored under her reprimand. He ran his palm over his head. “That’s not what I meant, Mere.”
“Yes it is.”
Nix changed the subject. “Tell me more about the dead man. If Veraal said it was a pro click, then it was a pro click. Maybe someone we knew.”
“I didn’t see. I wasn’t in the tent and don’t know any more about him. Rose was babbling in the wagon on the way from the Bazaar. She was talking about coin and clicks and naming places. A committee. And eight of something? And she said something about a tattoo, blades and a circle.”
Nix looked sharply at Egil. “Committee? That’s what she said?”
“Describe the tattoo in detail,” Egil said.
“Was it on the back of his hand?” Nix asked.
“Doesn’t have to be there,” Egil said. “They move around, I hear.”
Mere looked from one to the other, trying to follow their conversation. When they stopped, she said. “Rose said it was an eight-pointed figure. Like a compass rose you’d see on a map. That’s what she said. Like a rose, like her name.”
“Shite,” Nix said, disbelieving. “You’re sure she said that? Eight points?”
Mere nodded, a question in her eyes.
“And it had a circle in the center?” Nix pressed. “Like a coin.”
“She just said a circle and I didn’t see it so–”
“Shite,” Egil said, and ran his hand over Ebenor’s eye. “Gotta be.”
Merelda’s expression was growing alarmed. She looked very much like the young girl she denied being. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Maybe a little, maybe a lot,” Nix said.
“What’s the tattoo mean?” she asked.
“It’s a badge of office,” Egil said.
“And it’s more magical sigil than tattoo,” Nix added. “It shows membership in the Committee.”
“And that is?” she asked.
Nix remembered that Mere wouldn’t know the power groups in the city. She’d been imprisoned in a manse outside Dur Follin most of her life.
“The Committee is the group of eight Archthieves who run the Dur Follin Thieves’ Guild.”
“Nasty slubbers, all,” Egil said.
Merelda blinked. “So the man who was killed was a member of this Committee?”
Egil chuckled, but there was no mirth in it.
“No,” Nix said. “Each member of the Committee has a different sigil that shows their rank. The lowest ranking has one blade pointing up from the central coin. The highest has eight.”
“The Upright Man,” Egil said. “Eight blades means the head of the guild.”
Merelda’s mouth hung open for a moment. “The head of the thieves’ guild was murdered in our tent?”
“So it seems,” Nix said.
“Shite,” Merelda said.
“That’s well spoken,” Egil said.